Home was the smell of clean dust and the crispness of air conditioning. The cloying, muggy warmth of the early morning, still not quite having faded away in the dark, pushed its way through the door along with three exhausted warriors.
Anesh stumbled in first, bone tired, but still taking the time to bend down and untie his shoes. James and Alanna came in behind him as he rushed to get out of their way, the two leaning on each other, both secretly and wordlessly enjoying the physical contact. James showed none of the respect for his footwear that Anesh did, just kicking off his boots before pushing himself as upright as he could, and letting out a jaw-aching yawn.
He looked around like he was planning to say something, but then just gave a small shake of his head. No need to ruin the quiet moment.
Especially not when Anesh was willing to do it for him. "Okay, I'm for bed. You two don't stay up too late." The words came out of his mouth heavy with exhaustion, but still with a playful hint to them. "G'night." He said, heading down the hall to his bedroom, one hand out to the wall to steady his tired feet. He didn't wait for James or Alanna to reply.
"Hey, weird question." Alanna asked James as she removed her own boots.
"Weird is pretty subjective these days. What's up?" He replied.
She gave a short snort of a laugh. "Yeah, fair. I was going to ask if I could use your shower, or if that was too awkward."
James tried to think of something witty to say, but his tired brain failed him. "I'm trying," he told her, "to think of something witty to say here. Something vaguely flirty, but also obviously comical. But I've got nothing. Also, you've showered here before without asking, just take it."
"Yeah, well, Anesh is using the hall bathroom, and the other bathroom is attached to your bedroom." Alanna told him.
James perked his ears up to hear the sound of running water, and Anesh loudly and proudly singing 'Danger Zone' from the hall bathroom. "Well shit. Okay, yeah, sure. No worries." He gave a shrug that wasn't as casual as he would have liked.
It didn't go unnoticed by Alanna as they headed down the hall, passing by the bathroom door and Anesh's yodeling. "Oh, relax. You've seen me naked before."
"I have not!" James protested abruptly. "I mean, I wouldn't object, but I think you're getting your timelines mixed up."
"Hah! I knew it. You lust after me." Alanna stuck out her tongue at him as she stole in front of him to occupy his bathroom. She did close the door, though.
From outside the now shut door, James called through the wood panels to his friend. "Not right now! You smell awful!" Smiling at her verbal middle-finger back through the door at him, he whumped down on the edge of his bed. James groaned out loud as he leaned down to peel off his socks. The delightful sensation of cool air rushing over his skin after a full day trapped in shoes was offset a bit by the twinging of bruises across his torso.
It turned out, the maul carts packed a hell of a punch, and the angry purple-black blotch across his right flank really showed it off. He poked at it a couple times, not really feeling any pain, but as soon as he twisted a bit to lob his socks into his laundry hamper, a dull throbbing echoed through his nerves. It wasn't that bad, but it was certainly unavoidable.
James moved around his room a bit, just killing time. It was strangely uncomfortable to him to have someone else using his bathroom; he'd gotten pretty used to having his own space, and even though it was Alanna, it still threw him off, and he didn't want to make *her* uncomfortable by doing anything awkward. So, he threw his keys and wallet on his desk, spent some time petting Lily, took a bunch of his leftover fast food wrappers to the actual garbage can out in the kitchen, got some water, and then still hadn't wasted more than five minutes of time.
Eventually, the knot of anxiety in his chest at having someone else in his personal space started to unwind, as he sat at his desk and idly flipped through Youtube videos. Never really focusing too much on anything, just letting his mind drift while he rolled the orbs he'd brought home around the desk.
He was midway through a video essay on the nature of choice in video games when Lily crawled up the side of his desk. The little iLipede had been given mostly free reign of his room, and James was more or less okay treating it like a bit of a cat. When it wanted attention, Lily would unashamedly climb up onto James' desk, dresser, bed, or sometimes just right onto his feet if he stalled too long getting ready for work, and demand that attention.
James smiled as he put a hand down to keep Lily away from the orbs, feeling the small pokes of her tiny copper legs on his skin as she maneuvered around the barrier. "Alright, alright. Here, play with this one." He said, offering her the solitary red orb he'd gotten from their little bidding war back in the dungeon.
To his surprise, the iLipede perked right up at that, wrapping herself around the red orb in a cute little ball, and rolling back to the edge of his desk. James almost panicked as the little phone bug reached the precipice, but he got some relief as Lily unfurled, tossed the orb down into her pen, and started crawling down after it safely. "Okay, you're welcome. Enjoy your meal, Lils."
He was broken out of his sleepy watching of the iLipede playing with her new toy by Alanna cracking open the bathroom door. "Hey! You got a towel?"
"No, we abolished those by apartment treaty a month ago." James told her on reflex, throwing a clean towel through the gap in the door.
"Thanks, asshole." She replied with a smile in her voice.
After a minute or two of drying off, Alanna strode out into James' room, and threw herself onto his bed, towel wrapped around her waist. "Gah!" James barked out. "Don't get my bed soggy! Also, I know you're comfortable with it, but it's super weird having you half-naked in my room." He told her as he navigated the obstacle course that was his furniture to get to the bathroom himself.
"Ah, fine." She said, all energy to argue lost to exhaustion. "I'll move when you're out of the room, so as to spare your virgin eyes."
James snorted. "My eyes are... nevermind. I'm gonna shower, then pass out. You sleep well, yeah?" In truth, he hadn't even had a joke to tell; he'd been hoping to come up with one by the time he got done speaking the words, but it hadn't worked out.
Standing in his shower a few minutes later, hot water pouring down on his back, James took a deep breath, and started thinking over the events of the day. Quiet time like this, physically comfortable and sealed away from everyone else, was a rarity for him these days. And he took advantage of it by looking back on the sometimes-frantic events of the last day, looking for anything that he needed to remember tomorrow, or anything important that got missed.
It was a form of meditation, really. The simple routine of cleaning off sweat, dirt, and sometimes blood, made it easy for his mind to just slip back into self-reflection. This was also one of the times during his day when he could feel Secret, the young meme living and growing in the back of his mind.
So he played back the day in his head, trying to do it without staggering or forgetting. He'd woken up, gone to work, powered through the day, had lunch at one of the food carts, and then... well, then it got interesting. They'd gone into the dungeon, hauling a cartload of new gear to work with. They'd split up, James had taken Dave to the Decision Tree, and the two of them had a fairly spirited adventure. Also he'd been hit by a hostile mail cart; he remembered that one as he felt the large splotch of a bruise on his side. Then they'd gone back, and he and Alanna had gone out to try to find a way to the bathrooms, and...
When did they forget how to get to the bathrooms?
*How* did they forget how to get to the bathrooms? It was a giant blue and white tile spire; it wasn't like it was inconspicuous. All they had to do was keep heading toward it. They'd done it before.
"Secret." He said out loud, drawing up the idea to the forefront of his mind. "Why can't I remember this?" James asked out loud, in a voice quiet enough to be drowned out by the sound of the shower.
For once, Secret actually responded. An alien thought flicked through James' perception, not unlike when they popped one of the skill orbs. "Can't remember what?"
"The way to the bathroom." James clarified.
"You are in the bathroom, friend." Secret told him.
Was that... was Secret developing a sense of humor? James blinked a few times; the idea that he could even do that was kind of impressive, considering where Secret had started from, but it was also a bit worrying to think that at some point, he may be hosting an entity that was just as much of a wiseass as he was in his mind.
James sighed and replied, "No, the bathrooms in the office. Anesh and I got there once, and for some reason, I think that we can't find our way back. Why?"
Now it was Secret's turn to blink slowly. That was a weird sensation; James felt a swell of confusion, and then indignation, that he was absolutely sure was not his own. And then, a second later, words that felt less like speech and more like a brisque communique. "There is a piece of an intruder here. I shall deal with it." And Secret disappeared from his awareness.
"Oh, that's fucking reassuring." James said to himself, fear and anger temporarily winning out over the need for sleep. But as minutes passed by, and his fingers started to wrinkle under the steaming water, nothing happened. Secret didn't say anything again, perhaps because James was now a little too awake. But he also didn't spontaneously drop dead, which was also a good sign.
After coming to terms with the fact that he really didn't have anything to do to help in this situation, James just let out a huff of breath, and resigned himself to waiting. And also being forced out of the shower, before the air turned into a sauna and he totally lost the ability to breath at all. Killing the water, James dried himself off while brushing his teeth, not really paying attention to any of the little tasks he did to wrap up his day.
As he came out into his room, the first thing he saw was that Alanna was now curled up under the blankets on his bed, fast asleep.
"Dammit, this is not what I meant when I said to sleep well." James muttered. "I meant the couch. Sleep well on the couch." But he muttered it under his breath, and he walked softly to throw on a pair of sweatpants and turn off his computer. And his mild discomfort at the situation was offset by the fact that he really was fond of Alanna, not to mention the fact that he really was just too sleepy to process this right now.
So, James climbed into bed gently, on the other side of the big queen sized mattress he'd Tetris'd into his room next to his desk, stole back a couple of his blankets, and was asleep within a minute of his head hitting the pillow. His soft smile cast in the glow of the handful of small shimmering orbs on his desk, and the glimmering red jewel that Lily continued to toy with in her bedding.
He was dreaming of towering red spires. Skyscraper sized monsters that reached up to rake at the clouds. They had windows, and doors, and ledges, dotted across their exteriors, but they weren't buildings.
They surrounded him as he ran through the streets, fleeing from hounds he could not see, but whose howls echoed in his heart. He knew he had to run, and running was all he could do. But his feet moved like they were stuck in mud, like he was a puppet that couldn't find a puppeteer.
Above, the buildings danced and swayed, bleeding away into fragments of nothing as they drifted into the sky. He could feel them laughing at him as he fled from his eternal pursuers.
And then, ahead of him, James stepped into his path, casually walking through an intersection like there was nothing wrong.
Anesh couldn't stop running, but James didn't seem to mind. His friend glanced up at him as he kept fleeing through the eternal city that was not a city, and then somehow kept pace, staying at his side as they moved through the red terrain.
"Are you in a hurry to find somewhere?" James asked him, his voice strangely deep and reverberant.
Anesh couldn't answer. He never spoke in his dreams, and he was vaguely aware of the fact that he was dreaming. He just kept running, taking twists and turns. Down an alley that was a perfect copy of one from the city he lived in, right down to the color of the light. As soon as he burst out the other end, the crimson atmosphere reapplied itself, painting the world red once again.
He passed by the mouth of a tunnel under a bridge that grew to encompass the whole sky, and found himself stuck staring at the gate over the sidewalk. His unwanted focus was shattered as James stepped up next to him again. "Such a strange place. This one is real, is it not?"
Anesh didn't say anything. His feet took him forward once more, down street after street, constantly running, constantly chased, never seeing what was behind him. But he knew. His heart pounded in his dreamer's chest, and his eyes were glued to the road ahead. He knew he couldn't look behind him. If he looked, if he looked...
There was something there.
"Ah, thank you." James said. "There it is."
Anesh was frozen. The thing was a giant, a monster. It was one of the buildings, one of those massive, hooked, blood red *things* that flooded up to the sky, and beyond it. It was going to kill him. It was *real*, it wasn't a dream, it was never a dream. Anesh was going to die here, and he didn't know what to...
James stepped up and tore it in half.
"What the fuck." Anesh said.
James glanced back over his shoulder, and Anesh felt the fear burn out of his chest. He could look around, he could stop running, he could breathe. And he knew this was a dream, but he also wasn't waking up.
"Terribly sorry." James told him, adjusting the circular gold-rimmed glasses on his nose. "I may have used you as bait. I do hope you can forgive me. I fear I have been caught up in the hunt."
Anesh took a step forward, his first deliberate dream-step. "You're not James." He said.
"Hm?" The person in his dream said. "Oh, no. I'm simply borrowing this." They said, motioning down to their body. "Don't you concern yourself, however. I promise I'm a friend."
That caught Anesh's attention. "Ah, you're Secret." He said, not as a question. "What are you doing..."
Before he could finish, both he, and the infomorph wearing his friend's face, tilted their heads as a sound filtered through the dream. It came from outside, and a second later, Anesh found himself blinking his eyes as sleep and memory fell away, and shouting filled his ears.
James and Alanna woke up at the same time, confused and yelling. Part of the confusion was because they both, at the same time while they were sleeping, suddenly knew exactly what the weather was, and what the local temperature was both inside, and just outside James' window. Actually, that was pretty much all of the confusion for Alanna.
When Alanna had woken up, she'd done so with a jolt of surprise as the sudden knowledge had flooded her brain, and *may* have flailed just a bit. When James woke up, he'd done so with a similar bit of shock at the instant access to the weather channel, but also a lot more shock as Alanna had elbowed him in the back of the head.
This had caused some chaos, which was mostly settled down by the time Anesh, still blinking sleep out of his eyes, stumbled into the doorway in his bathrobe. "What's wrong?! I heard... um." He cut himself off as he saw the two of them in James' bed. "Oh damn, sorry." Anesh flushed, his darker skin turning a shade of gold in embarrassment. "Didn't mean to, uh... why is it 22 degrees outside?" The awkward feeling dying away rapidly in the face of the fact that he felt a burst of data pushed to the front of his awareness.
"That's actually what we're yelling about." James said, as Alanna rolled to her feet and threw one of the thick comforters on James' bed around her shoulders as a makeshift robe.
She shuffled around the foot of the bed to James' dresser, and stole the first one of his tee-shirts with a dinosaur on it that she could find. Anesh kept his gaze firmly aimed down the hall and away from his friend as she rearranged her blanket to a skirt, and pulled the shirt on. "Why the fuck do I know how sunny it is?" She demanded in a thick voice. "Also, Anesh, I don't care if you see my tits, why are the two of you both such prudes?"
"*James* is a prude?" Anesh asked with an incredulous laugh.
"James slept with pants on." Alanna scowled. "How am I supposed to grab his butt when he's wearing pants?"
James was absolutely uninterested in the two of them talking about him while he was right there. "Okay, come on you asses. What's going on? Why is this happening?"
Alanna folded herself back onto the bed, letting her legs dangle out into the afternoon sunlight pouring through the window. "You're no fun. But I dunno. Did we bring home anything magic?"
"We brought home a *lot* of random stuff." James said as he grabbed a shirt off the floor for himself. He intentionally didn't pay attention to either Anesh or Alanna watching him, trying his hardest to not feel self-conscious as he moved. "Do you guys mind?"
Anesh didn't mind, and he turned away with a soft cough. Alanna, though, did mind. "I didn't notice last night, but you've lost a lot of weight. Looking good, man." She told him with a thumbs up, which just made James turn bright red.
"Yeah, well, three months of actually keeping to a gym routine, with regular bursts of combat, will do that. Also... what the fuck is this?" James ended the conversation about his torso and deflected his embarrassment away. The thing that he wanted to know the fuck about, which he quickly drew his friend's attention to, was in fact something in Lily's pen.
It looked like a bike wheel, with only half the outside rim intact. Spokes of pens or pencils that looked like they were scavenged off of James' desk stuck outward, creating the impression of a totemic sigil. Strips of cloth and paper that seemed like they were torn from her bedding filled out an inner ring, and served to both bind the sticks together, and highlight the centerpiece; a single small red sphere. The same red orb that James had given her last night.
Lily herself seemed to be snoozing, curled up like a cat at the foot of her little totem, which was somehow balanced on the tip of a single ballpoint pen.
"Okay, that's fucking weird." Alanna said, rolling over James' legs to perch on the edge of the bed, unconcerned with the casual contact. "What the hell is that?"
"Ask Lily, I guess." James shrugged. "But, I mean, I bet you ten bucks it's what's causing this latest weirdness."
Alanna rolled sideways to face James. "I thought we were wagering shares now?"
"It's morning, I'm not keeping track." James snarked back.
Butting in, Anesh reminded him, "It's 2 PM. This whole dungeon thing..."
"Is throwing off your sleep." Alanna and James chorused in unison.
"Yeah, we know." James followed up with a smile. "Anyway." James carried on. "It looks like she built... a totem? A ward? Something? Hang on, let's test this." Gently, he picked up the assembly, careful not to break it, and then carried it out of the room, slipping past Anesh on the way out. "Let me know if you guys lose the connection, okay?"
He walked down the hallway backward, pausing every few feet to see if anything changed. As soon as he hit the living room, Alanna called out, "Lost it!" James nodded, and kept going, and three steps later, Anesh informed him that he, too, no longer had absolute knowledge about the current cloud formations overhead.
"Okay, so, it's totally this thing. Ooooooorrr it's my newfound abs. But probably this thing. Because I feel like if exercise gave people perfect information, I'd see more people in lab coats at the gym." James nodded to himself. "Now! Why."
"Why what?" Anesh asked, walking into the kitchen and starting up the coffee maker. "Why does it do that, or why did Lily make it?"
"I didn't think that far ahead." James admitted. "I'm still waking up. How about both?" He set the strangely haphazard intricate design down on their living room table, shoving aside a couple math textbooks to make room for it as a centerpiece.
Anesh narrowed his eyes at James over his cup of coffee. "Don't put that there! It's going to confuse people." He said as he settled into his armchair. "Also... okay, well, let's start with why it does what it does. Does it kind of remind you of something?"
The question got a nod out of James. "Literally any of the logos from Warhammer 40K."
"Oh, sod off. I mean, it reminds me a lot of the things we've found the orange orbs in, inside the office." Anesh told him as he leaned back into the padding of his seat. The table in front of him was covered in binders and notes, both for his classes, and also for their delving operation, but he had no desire to crack open any of them just yet. For now, he was content to sit here, in the afternoon air, and enjoy some time just talking. "It just seems a lot like those general... designs, I guess? I don't know if you saw one in that cupboard, but I know the copier definitely had its orange orb in a... hm, I'm going to call it a contraption, that looked a lot like this."
"Yeah, yeah." James nodded in agreement. "And that 'turn right forever' hallway had that pyramid assembly thing growing out of the desks around the orange at its center. Okay, I can see it. So, what does that mean, big picture?"
"It means there's another way to use the orbs, duh." Alanna said, coming out to join them in the living room.
James looked up from the couch as she entered. "Are those my shorts, too? You can't just occupy my entire wardrobe."
"Can, and have." Came the reply. "But yeah, you wanted to know what it means? It means that we don't know how to use the orbs all the way. Think about it, what do we do with them?" Alanna prompted the two boys.
Anesh shrugged and answered easily. "Crack them, or absorb them. That second one only works on yellows, since James has forbidden us from killing ourselves trying to absorb blues. Though, that said, we should try the other colors. Maybe get Dave to try them."
A quick frown took up James' mouth for a second. "Hey, I know Dave is kind of annoying sometimes, but he's not expendable."
"I know, I know, I'm sorry." Anesh waved a hand. "We should try absorbing other colors, though. Maybe that green of yours?"
"Not happening." James said. "I'm looking forward to using that one; I just wanted to do it here, and after we were awake, since I know you like checking these outcomes. Anyway, Alanna, you were saying?"
Alanna came over with her own cup of coffee, and a piece of fruit from their fridge, causing James to make an indignant gesture and a noise in his throat. "Oh, hush. It's a fifty cent orange, I'll comp you for it. Anyway, the *point* is that there's obviously a third way. Making... what, wards? Wards. That sounds enough like magic to irritate Anesh."
Anesh took that opportunity to cut her off. "Nodes." He said simply, imposing his own naming convention on their new table decoration.
"So these wards," Alanna carried on with a grin shared with James, "they take the orb, and make it do something else, and they do it in an area. The oranges, they twist space and change areas. Not sure how that ties into what happens when we crack them, but whatever. The red ones, it seems, do something related to the weather."
"Isn't it more likely that they broadcast information?" Anesh asked politely.
"Fuck off, you've had coffee, I haven't yet. I can't be right about everything." Alanna bit back.
James tapped at the table. "So, how does that relate to what the reds do normally? I mean, when they're in traps, they're... traps. And when we crack them, they give us emotional points. Doesn't it seem more likely that the different uses are all just kind of random?"
That got a quick denial from Anesh. "Mmh." He cut in, setting down his drink and swallowing a mouthful of coffee. "Arbitrary, sure, but I don't think it's random. They all do *something*. If it was truly random, we'd be seeing orbs that exclusively... oh, I don't know, did specific pieces of laundry, or... or... spawned hyper-specific pieces of space shuttles."
"Tan orbs! All they do is order you packages of glitter off eBay!" Alanna chimed in.
"No, no. We're not doing this." James cut in. "We're not making up orb types." He hauled himself up off the couch, groaning as his sore muscles and bruises protested. "Well, since I'm awake, I'm going to enjoy my afternoon by keeping my workout routine intact. Anesh, did you want to get the record for the orbs before I go? I won't be back until after work tonight, so now seems like a good time."
His roommate nodded. "Yeah, let's do that. I'm excited to see how the green makes our lives stranger." Anesh said in a dry voice, getting a snicker from Alanna.
James strolled back down the hallway to his room, smiling a bit at the scavenged dungeon motivational poster hanging at the end of it. The phrase 'work hard and also work hard' hadn't failed to make him laugh so far, except for when he'd just gotten home from work; though he imagined if this was in his actual job environment, he would have set it on fire a long time ago. Ducking into his room, he grabbed the orbs off his desk, leaving one small yellow as a meal for Lily.
"Alright, got 'em." He said as he came back out. Anesh was still sitting calmly, but Alanna was peeking over the back of the couch, like an excited puppy. "Sheesh, calm down, it's not... hm."
She grinned widely at him. "Were you about to say it's not that big of a deal?"
"I forgot, okay? I think I'm getting too used to the fact that we're a fantasy novel adventuring party." James bit his lip. "That might actually be a real problem. We should go do, like, normal person things sometime. Make sure we stay at least partly grounded in reality." He came around the other side of their table and set the four orbs down on it. "Anyway. One green, two small yellows, and one pretty big yellow? I don't know if we'd call this size two or three. I'll save the blue, for obvious reasons."
Anesh nodded at him, and Alanna gave him a quick "good luck!" as he broke the orbs in his palm, one by one, saving the green for last.
[+1 Skill Rank : History - Salt]
[+1 Skill Rank : Card Counting]
[+3 Skill Ranks : Construction - Electrical Wiring]
[Local Area Shift : +1 Friendly Dog/Day]
[+4 Skill Ranks : Law - Constitutional - US]
"Holy shit, I'm gonna go be a gambling lawyer." James laughed out after relaying his earnings to his friends.
Anesh nodded for a second, then stopped. "Right, that's cute and all, but go back to the thing about dogs?"
"The skill ranks I've gotten all seem to be pretty huge, on their own." Alanna said. "One rank in card counting might actually let you go rake in a bucket of money at a casino."
"No, no, don't do this to me. Tell me about the dogs, James." Anesh demanded.
James clapped his hands and pointed at Alanna in excitement. "Yes! Actually, that sounds like a great way to spend my weekend, and share of our loot! Do you guys want to go up to that one place this weekend?"
"I've got nothing going on, sure!" Alanna said, catching his excitement.
Anesh wanted to strangle James for a brief moment. "I have class, also, *dogs*."
"Oh, relax. How am I supposed to know anything about how it works? You know damn well these things don't actually tell us much. It probably just means that there's going to be someone walking their dog through the parking lot or something." James said. "Now! I'm going out to the gym, then work after. I'll see you two later, maybe I'll make something for dinner."
James got a couple of "later"s from his friends after he got ready, exchanging his sweat pants for actual pants, and packing his stuff into a gym bag. "Alright, I'll see y'all tonight." He said, opening the front door. "I'll... um..."
There, on his doorstep, was a dog. It looked like some kind of husky mix, blueish-grey and white fur, big tongue lolling out of its mouth as it looked up at James from where it sat on the welcome mat. It didn't move as he stared down at it.
"What's up?" Alanna asked, able to see that he'd stopped, but not at an angle to spot the dog.
James reached down to pet the adorable looking beast in front of him, and it pressed its snout into his palm. After a couple of scritches of its ears, it let out a happy bark, and then bounded away down the stairs to their landing.
"Well. I think I found out what the orb did." James said.
Support "The Daily Grind"
Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!