James stepped into work the next day, humming a song only one other person on the planet had ever heard.
It was an idea that he'd shared with Secret the other day during the too-few hours of sleep he'd managed to grab. Secret, maybe wanting to show off, maybe just lonely, had pulled James' dreaming mind into his cityscape project. Normally, James would have been fine with this; he actually quite liked talking to Secret. But he also realized that this wasn't actually 'dreaming'. Not REM sleep, not actually relaxing his brain. And sure enough, when he woke up the next day, he was still pretty exhausted.
Still, he'd gotten to see Secret's improvements to his city, which had been kind of a delight. Secret wasn't actually very creative. He was vigilant, clever, and vicious, but he lacked a certain spark, that something that made personal work... personal. Or at least, he *had*, until recently. It wasn't like Secret had transformed into Picasso overnight, but there was a more intimate touch to the creations that he'd shaped in the dream city in James' mind. Small things, like patterning the streets in a way that no one would ever see unless they got an aerial view, but formed a very real shape that James could feel as he walked them.
That wasn't relevant to the humming, though. That was one of the things that Secret had discussed with James during their dreamwalk.
As it turned out, Secret's name was more than just a name. He didn't exactly live in James' mind, so much as James' mind was where he was anchored. Secret was an idea; a living one, sure, but fundamentally an idea. And that name, that James so casually gave him, did more than just give the group something to reference him by. It was, more or less, his body. His structure. He was Secret, and Secret was who and what he was.
So, as time went by and he grew into what he was becoming, his name was part of what gave meaning and pattern to how he influenced the world. And it was through the medium of secrets that he was more and more able to reach out.
When James hummed that song that he'd found in the office, he was expressing a secret onto the world around him. He wasn't sharing it, he was publically showing off something that only he knew, and that no one else could experience properly. It was highly symbolic, while somehow not meaning anything very important. And that was exactly what Secret needed as a bridge, to speak with James more openly during the day.
"This structure is insulated with hostile ideas." Secret muttered in James' ear as James walked through the front door.
"What, like, other memes like you?" James asked, a spike of worry carving its way through his chest. "How long have they been here?! Is this some kind of extradimensional invasion staging ground?!"
Secret, which James could just barely see as a ghostly blue outline of some kind of sea serpent covered in too many teeth, coiled around his legs and torso, responded in a condescending murmur. "Of course they lack my motivation. They are alive, in the way that ideas are in this world, but they no not live. The walls here hold Despair and Hopelessness and Ennui and Surrender. My friend and uplifter, you may wish to consider finding a better job."
James held his tongue as he walked by the front desk, not wanting to look like he was talking to himself, since he was sure that the security person wasn't able to see Secret. Frank wasn't in today, for whatever reason, and there was a new kid at the desk. Pretty young guy, a bit overweight, but professional looking; dark skin contrasted on the white polo shirt, a perfectly clean, poofy haircut. Gabe, his nametag identified him as.
The new guy gave James a nod, and asked, "Signing in or need directions, sir?"
"Um... no thank you, I work here." James said. "Also, that's a good reason not to call me sir. I think the only people I outrank are the interns, and since The Harvest, we haven't had any of those."
To his credit the new guy didn't stammer or give him a blank confused look. It wasn't like James intentionally tested new coworkers, but he did have a pretty impulsive sense of humor, and often times the first salvo of jokes would go unappreciated or unnoticed. James was pretty used to being disappointed by new employees just giving him an uncomprehending, laughless gaze. And so he was pleasantly surprised when Gabe just raised an eyebrow and gave him a chuckle.
"Alright man. Have a good one." The security guard said, waving James on and bending his head back down to his new hire paperwork.
After the elevator doors closed on him, James reopened his conversation with Secret. "I like my job." He said, picking up where they left off.
"You enjoy the access your status here gives you. Beyond that, you are surrounded by hostility. Seize your own destiny; invest in a crowbar and change your life." Secret hissed in James' ear in a voice that sounded like an amused serpent.
"I own a crowbar." James said calmly, leaning against the rear of the elevator and staring straight ahead.
Secret huffed in exasperation, the ghostly leviathan twisting around James; neck to look him in the eye. "You are so comfortable here, you do not notice the things that are warped and twisted here. This entire structure screams with the weight of its wrongness. And I speak as a living idea, stolen from an enemy world."
Giving his own snort as the elevator doors opened, James got one last muttered line in before he stepped out to the call center floor. "I know exactly what's wrong here. It's..." He paused and broke off as he walked toward his desk, and saw a cluster of employees standing around the copier station. "Hang on." He tapped Secret's fanged snout with his palm as he walked over.
A man in a beige jacket and matching slacks was talking. Maybe forty or so years old, the kind of scratchy facial hair that let you know that he thought he was distinguished, without putting too much effort in. "So," he was saying, "I expect that you should be able to keep up with the job fairly well, since you've been doing it already the past several months. That's all, everyone return to their desks. As for our new arrival, I'll talk to you in my office."
He had apparently just been wrapping up. James raised an eyebrow at the stern voice, like he was chastising the assembled techs. "Hey, what's up?" He whispered to one of the coworkers he was on decent terms with.
"New manager, man. Guy seems alright, might have a stick up his ass though. Have fun." The other tech sauntered off to return to work after delivering his warning. Or, more likely, to sit and take a few minutes before reentering the call queue.
"New manager?" James spoke under his breath to himself. Unable to keep a look of concern off his face, eyes narrowed with a small frown, he followed after the man.
The man stepped through the door of Theo's office. Leaving the door open for James and not looking back, he strode in like he owned the place and settled himself into the padded chair on the other side of the desk, starting to rearrange stacks of papers on the desk. "T. Kowalski" read the brass nameplate on the door, which confused James when he saw it. Theo didn't... have one of those. Moving past the door, James was further confused by the cardboard banker's box on the desk, still being unloaded. A different laptop, framed pictures of family on the desk, other random trinkets that were clearly the trappings of a different sort of person than Theodora adorned the small office space. Not waiting for James to think, the man motioned for him to sit down.
"James, yes?" He said in the tone of a disappointed teacher. Again, he didn't wait for James to respond, and only gave the briefest of pauses for him to sit down at all. The chair that James sat into on this side of the desk felt purposefully designed to put him more ill at ease. "You may call me sir, or Mr. Kowalski. You're late today." He said. James instantly dropped into a glare, before smoothing out his face and calming himself. The other man still didn't wait, or even seem to acknowledge the frustration, still rolling on with his own words. "Now, it is understandable that you wouldn't be used to firm leadership; no one else on this floor seems to be either. After all, it's been months since you've had a proper manager. But while I will allow you a warning this time, I expect you here promptly from now on." The man broke his hostile eye contact with James, and went back to flipping through what looked like resumes. Glancing back up again, he saw James was still there, and gave a small wave of his hand. "You may *go*, now."
Trying his best to process this, James took a small breath, and started where hos racing thoughts put him. "Okay, so, first of all, I'm not late. My shift starts a half-hour offset from normal."
"Ah. Some special consideration you were previously given. Well, I will change that in the next shift change." The man cut him off dismissively.
James was getting pissed off, now. He half-snarled, and was about to snap out something quite rude, when Secret whispered in his ear. "Friend... something is wrong."
He wanted to yell that of course something was wrong. There was some random jackass in a suit here telling him that his whole work experience was going to be fucked up, and... and...
"Pardon me," James said, suddenly struck with a grim clarity of mind, "if you don't mind, what happened to Theo?" He asked, already dreading the answer.
Kowalski - James refused to even think of him with a 'sir' or a 'mister' in his name - didn't bother to look up. "There have been several layoffs recently. Your friend was most likely among the dead weight."
Rolling his eyes, confident that the fool who thought himself a manager wouldn't notice, James clarified. "No, the manager who was here previously. Her name was Theodora?"
"Boy, there hasn't been a manager here for months. That's why the board has seen fit to send me here. To fix, this... problem." The man spoke with a level of condescension that made James' blood boil. Calling him 'boy' didn't help much either. This was every bad boss cliche that James knew of slammed into a single person, and wrapped in a corporate slogan and a bad suit.
But all of that anger was secondary to the fear regarding what he'd said about Theo.
James got up, didn't say anything and wasn't spoken to, as he walked out of the office. No one had been here for months? That meant one of two things. Well, one of three things, but the third option was just that this guy was the kind of callous asshole who would refer to someone he didn't respect as 'no one'. Which wasn't out of the question. But there was a lingering sense of something otherworldly in the air that made James jump to a different conclusion.
Either Theo had been an agent of the dungeon the whole time, or maybe just a figment of everyone's collective imagination, or, perhaps worse, Theo had been exactly who she said she was, and the dungeon had taken her. Just like it had Sarah.
"Stay calm, my friend." Secret muttered to James as they walked onto the call floor. "You help no one by panicking." Secret's coat of teeth rustled as he spoke softly.
James gave a tiny nod, and kept walking toward his desk. On the way, he decided to do a couple quick checks on something, to make sure that his fears weren't just the ravings of an unsettled mind. "Hey, El." He popped his head into a pod of cubicles to talk to one of the techs sitting there and currently off a call. "What's up with the new boss?"
The younger girl at the desk, maybe twenty, with a curvy figure and round cheeks to match her constant wide smile, looked up at James as he asked. "Oh! Yeah! Kind of a douche, huh?" She said as she rolled her head back dramatically. "I miss not having a manager."
"Right, right. So... what about Theo?" James prompted, already realizing the answer.
"Who?" Elly asked in response, still cheerful but now tinted with confusion.
James nodded and sighed to himself. "Nevermind. You've got a call, have fun." He pointed her back to her monitor as he turned and walked away. He got a fair distance away from anyone who might overhear, and then quietly asked out of the corner of his mouth, "why doesn't anyone remember? No, don't answer that. It's a dungeon thing, I understand. But why do I remember her? She was real, right, Secret?"
"She was real." The pale glowing serpent rattled back at him. "You remember because I have been keeping watch. Nomeme else has tried its luck at breaching your mind while I have been here."
"Well, thanks. I think." James said. "Wait, what about that whole thing where we'd had the location of the bathrooms in the dungeon blocked out of our minds?"
If James didn't know better, he'd say Secret looked almost sheepish; turning his twin-mawed snout away and huffing slightly as he gazed out the wide window that held a view of the sunset over a highway. "Well, none overt enough to do damage, then." He corrected himself. "And I tracked down that invader regardless."
James did a lap of the building before returning to his desk, trying to organize his thoughts. Theo was gone, that much was obvious. But how, and why? Was this just what happened when someone left here? The dungeon just cut them out of everyone's memory? That didn't sound right, since he remembered people who had quit. Everyone here knew at least one person who'd just stopped showing up, like... like...
There weren't ever enough employees here. People were constantly getting hired. So obviously, people were just leaving, right? But then, why couldn't he picture any of their faces?
That actually made some sense, then. It might not even be the dungeon actively striking out, just a passive effect. A twisting of human memory away from itself, a natural defense mechanism. After all, James couldn't think of any other times that he'd had someone come up to him and casually mention the dungeon delve that they'd been on in the stockroom at Walmart. So, if he ever 'quit', or maybe didn't show up here for a long enough period of time, he'd just fade out of everyone else's memory? Was that how it worked? Or would he himself forget, and everyone else was just collateral damage?
Either of those were bad. One probably worse than the other, sure, but James was already feeling some frustration at not really being able to quit his job without losing his access to the dungeon. The idea that he might lose access to his own memories too was infuriating.
The other option - one of them, anyway - was that the dungeon was literally eating people. Sarah was his first thought; she hadn't been an innocent bystander who'd just quit from the hardest place to get a reference from. She'd been a diver, like them. If she'd fallen victim to the dungeon while inside it, that made sense, but didn't mesh with everyone else being forgotten too.
Unless it was something simpler. James wanted to quit, dungeon or no; and he was confident that he could find a way to sneak back in once a week for a delve. 'Sneak', mostly meaning 'bribe Frank'. What if Sarah had felt the same way? But then, she'd lost the job, and everyone had forgotten her. Or maybe it was even simpler; they'd had a few close calls, and only James' lack of regard for his own well being kept him from feeling too horrified by that. Maybe Sarah had been a little more prudent, and chosen the better part of valor.
Or maybe she'd gone in one day, and not come out. And maybe those people weren't forgotten, but taken. Maybe, maybe, maybe. So many questions, no certainty.
James snarled and lashed out to punch the wall of the hallway he was walking down as he paced around the corridors of the building. His fist connected with a painful, but slightly mollifying thump. He was consumed by a feeling of powerlessness. He didn't know what the problem was, or how to start fixing it, but he felt like he was responsible for everything here. How would he even go about telling the police about this? No one would ever bother to check. They'd just put him in one of the hospital's mental health observation rooms again.
And if he took to long to find the answers, to figure out what was happening to these people and how to help them, then he knew in his heart it was going to be too late. The dungeon had started as a game to him, really. One that had catapulted his life forward, but still just a toy to play with. And now, the whiplash of it turning into something far darker and meaner left James feeling lost.
He was nursing his hand as he walked back to his desk and sat down. He picked up his headset, but didn't put it on. Just limply staring at the piece of hardware in his hand. James wanted to scream, wanted to start grabbing people and telling them this wasn't right, that there was something *wrong* going on here. But he couldn't. He felt trapped in his own head, a pressure in his chest that he couldn't cope with.
Setting the headset back down, he rolled his chair back, and stared up at the ceiling tiles above him. One of them still marked with a small X of tape. Around his vision, Secret's pale blue frame tilted its eyes upward as well, then back to James with a strangely readable expression of concern.
"Friend..." Secret started to say.
"That's it." James spoke out loud, getting a strange glance from the other person in the cubicle pod. "That's the next step."
Secret hissed at him. "It would be a risk. We may never come out."
The meme sounded scared. James turned his head to look Secret in the eyes, not caring how strange it made him look when he whispered back. "If we don't, then neither will Theo. That's right, isn't it?"
Secret didn't reply, and James knew that Secret knew the truth, just like he did. There were no more excuses, no more reasons to doubt that they needed to take action. And for one moment, there was clarity. No doubt at all.
No. There was the answer. Right in front of him.
James pulled out his phone, ignoring his coworker's confused questioning. Opening up the chat with the party, he tried to bring everyone up to speed as fast as possible. People were being forgotten, not just Sarah. Theo was missing. The dungeon was hostile. They had to do something, and they had to do it quickly.
And there was a backdoor in, that opened for maybe ten minutes tomorrow night.
They weren't going to have long to prepare.
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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!