A note from argusthecat


Life is almost impossibly hard sometimes.  I'm sorry it's taken so long to get this done.  I don't really have an update schedule for the future, but I'm not giving up until at least what I'd call "book one" of the story is done.
For those of you who are interested, I've also started a second story out of some kind of sense of masochism or something.  It's called Draw Of The Unknown, and it's a story about a magic card game.  Origianally, I was going to call it Card Games On Motorcycles, but that seemed a bit on the nose, and the protagonist doesn't have a bike.  Check it out, if you're into that sorta thing!

“Alright, everyone ready to go?” Alanna asked the assembled group.


Bags had been reorganized, gear distributed between five people, three duffles, and an indeterminate-but-large number of pockets. What loot there was had been safely stored, with the exception of the blue orb that Alanna kept close at hand. Weapons had been handed out, which had been a task to decide who got the guns; they ended up in the hands of Alanna, for the shotgun, James for their pistol, and Daniel for the potato gun, which he helpfully pointed out was more of an improvised rail rifle than anything else, and refused to call it anything involving potatoes. James and Theo also had the crowbars they’d packed, and Dave had a slightly-less-dollar-store machete in a faux leather sheath at his side. It was James and Theo who got the mildly effective hockey pads, though the latter of the two complained about wearing someone else’s sweat.


In short, the group looked like they’d just stepped out of a Fallout game. All that was missing was a mohawk or two.


Well, almost the whole group. “Okay, let’s… where the hell is James?” Alanna sighed. “Fucks sake, we’re on a clock here, guys.”


“Don’t blame us, we’re not James.” Daniel muttered defensively, and Alanna resisted the urge to thwack him in the back of the head. He was a decent kid, really, and if it were any other circumstance he was probably the kind of person they’d introduce here, but the more comfortable he grew with them, the more belligerent he seemed. But, on the other hand, he’d only slept for a handful of hours on a hard carpet floor in the last two days, he’d been bitten by hostile hardware, and he was probably just generally put out about being fed to a sentient dimension. So she cut him some slack this time.


Alanna took a deep breath, and tried to think up how to respond to that, but Dave came to her rescue as she massaged away a headache. “Okay, but where’s James? We need to go, and he was literally here a second ago.”


“Oh, he said he was going to the roof.” Theo informed them.


Blank looks shared between Dave and Alanna. “...why?” Dave asked first.


“Something about putting up a flag?” Theo shrugged. “I figured it was tradition for you guys.”


“We didn’t fucking conquer this place.” Alanna threw her free hand in the air, careful to keep her firearm pointed down at the ground. “It was basically empty anyway! No! No flag! James!” She projected her voice on that last word, making his name carry through their cubicle tower.


“Jeeze, calm down.” James himself said as he dropped down from the floor above them, choosing to ignore the offsize sloped steps. “Just because this place is clear doesn’t mean you get to yelllllLLLL!” His voice spiked into fear as a previously missed taser-mouse dropped off the lip of the ceiling and started roll-crawling across his shirt.


While he slammed his arm into the wall, and then delivered several stomps to the stunned creature which punctuated the air with a series of wet, crinkling pops. By the time he stopped, all that was left was a crushed pile of plastic-chitin plates, and a spray of blue goo spread across the floor, with a small yellow orb sitting in it.


“That’s fucking gross.” Alanna pulled a face at the pile of exoskeleton shards and goop. “Also, what the hell were you doing upstairs? We’re trying to get ready to leave, here.”


James grinned back at the group, and tossed Alanna a small object. It tumbled through the air before she caught it with her off hand, and looked down to see a small silver laser pointer. “Meeting up with Santa.” James said with barely held back joy.


Alanna raised an eyebrow, and pointed the small device down at the floor, triggering it to reveal not a single spot, but what looked like a series of boxes broken up by small curves, covering maybe thirty square feet of floor. “Oh shit, this is our mapper! How’d you get this? Wait…”


Sensing his cue, Ganesh scrambled up off the back of James’ head and leapt into the air, buzzing toward Alanna who greeted him with a laugh and a raised palm. The drone, looking more and more like an organic thing every day, looped through the air as he came to alight on her hand, rotor wings buzzing as three of them folded up into curved, batlike wings. One of his forward wing claws stayed in position, though, and Alanna saw that he had a sleek looking pen carefully attached with folded paper clips, the slightly smoking tip making it look like a horrifying lance in his grip. One of his other claws, though folded, also still clutched another laser pointer, though this one looked like it’d been hacked out of something else, with the nubs of cut wires still trailing out its end. He also bore a new scar; a hairline crack across the plate that housed his softly shimmering eyes. But despite being heavily armed, and injured, Alanna still felt a surge of happiness to see him here.


Daniel, naturally, fell on his ass as soon as the drone took off, and Theo looked like she was about to try to crowbar it out of the air, before James casually stepped between them. “Before you ask, yes, this is another friend of ours. I called him.”


“Oh, this is Ganesh?” Daniel asked with relief. “I mean, that makes sense, I was just surprised.”


“Wait, how did he get here?” Alanna asked, letting the little drone crawl up her arm and perch on her shoulder, a personal and dangerous guardian angel. “How did he even find us? I refuse to believe you putting a flag up was enough. How far in are we anyway?”


“What? No.” James replied, confused. “I called him. Well, okay, used the wireless camera app to contact him, but still. Remember? I told you.”


She glared at him. “I promise you that you did not.”


“Huh. Well. I told Daniel!” James said, inexplicably thinking that would help his case somehow.


Daniel nodded. “Yeah, he was telling me about your friends back at the entrance.” He turned to address James, “And then you got weirdly excited about a power strip? Like you hadn’t realized that there were outlets here. I mean, I’ve only been here for a little while, but I’ve been charging my phone and I didn’t need magic to do it.”


“We call it xenotech.” Alanna informed him, running a hand across Ganesh’s back and feeling the drone push into her fingers.


“Noooo we do not.” James countered. “Also, look, I didn’t really make the connection that the outlets actually worked. And my phone was dead, and I got really excited, and… oh, fuck it, go ahead and laugh.” He waved casually in Alanna’s direction where she was desperately trying to hold back a smirk.


She opened her mouth, as if to start a good chuckle, then closed it again and settled on a peaceful smile. “Nah, it’s fine. We make mistakes. Hasn’t killed us yet.”


“Oh, hey, did you want to taunt karma more before we step outside?” James asked, ruffling her hair as he walked past to the gap in the outside wall that led to the stairs.


“Sure!” She said too cheerfully. “What could possibly go…” She got out before everyone else drowned her out in a chorus of protests.


Theo shuddered as she did some warm up stretches. “Even I know that’s a stupid one to say.” She muttered as she took a couple crowbar practice swings.


“Alright. So. Here’s the plan.” James said, facing the other four as he stood by the door. “We’ve got… eighty hours, yeah. Eighty hours to do this. I bet we can make the front door in two days, if Ganesh can fly here that fast. So, the goal today is to follow Dave’s head map, find the people that are supposedly there, get them back to here, and not fall into any obvious traps.”


“Question.” Theo raised a hand.


“You don’t need… this isn’t class.” James pursed his lips at her and took a deep breath. “But go ahead, what’s up?”


“What if it’s an obvious trap?”


“Then we fight our way out and go straight for the exit. Then camp there for the rest of the time until the door opens. Either way, we need to check.”


Alanna put her own hand in the air. “Question!”


Pinching the bridge of his nose, James sighed. “Yes, you in the back, the student who can’t follow directions.”


“Do we have a plan, vis a vis ‘how to kill a dimension’?” She tried to phrase it lightly, to avoid reopening the argument between herself and James, but the weight was still there.


James didn’t get offended, though. “No. Not yet. If this works out, and we can evac everyone, then maybe it won’t be something we need to do. If the voice on the phone actually *is* telling the truth, and that’s a big if, then it’s possible that we can maybe rope the place off and remove the threat. But, well…”


“But then there’s another dungeon somewhere.” Dave finished, grimly.


“Yeah. Anyway. I love this place, really, but I’m not putting it ahead of human lives if it really is kidnapping and murdering people.” James held up a hand to forestall Alanna’s protest. “But! We’ll see how it turns out. I’m not gonna set everything on fire just because it might be a threat. Now then, can… oh, fucks sake. Yes, what’s the question?” He pointed with resignation at Daniel’s raised hand.


“Can I play with the laser pointer?” He asked timidly.


“Which one?” Alanna said cheerfully. “The one that Ganesh has that probably kills people, or the one that I have that makes maps?”


“That second one.”


“Sure, yes. You’re on double map duty. Now can we *please* get moving?” Alanna grumbled as she handed over the tool. Daniel nodded as he started fiddling with it, pointing it in various directions to start to get a feel for how it worked.


James nodded, and looked over at Dave, who’d been mostly quiet. The other man met his eyes, and James would have sworn he saw Dave dip his head like he almost reflexively bowed. “Okay.” He said calmly. “Theo, up front with me. Daniel, guide and fire support, Dave, keep an eye on him. Alanna, bring up the rear. Don’t shoot…”


“Dude, don’t lecture *me* on trigger discipline.” She shot back before he could finish.


“You put, like, six holes in my floor.”


“I plead the fifth.”


“That isn’t…! Look, just conserve ammo, okay? How many shells did you bring anyway?”




“...What? Fucking how?”


“They’re not that big, I just brought two boxes.” She shrugged. “Anyway. I like your plan. Nice leadership. Go. Out the door. Shoo.” Alanna flapped a hand in his direction, and heard Ganesh make a buzzing laugh on her shoulder.


With a sigh, James turned his back on his friends, stepped back out into the unknown, and started making his way down the ramps and steps around the outside of the tower.




It was slow going at first. Even with firsthand knowledge that the creatures of this place weren’t *all* rampaging murder machines, and that those that were could be fought and beaten, Theo and Daniel weren’t comfortable enough to keep up a steady pace. James and Alanna were a bit annoyed at how slow they were going, but did their best to hide it. Dave understood, though. Hell, he’d only been in here two or three times now, and he didn’t understand how Alanna had adapted so quickly.


Seriously, he didn’t understand how *James* had adapted so quickly, and that guy had been here way more often. Sometimes *alone*, which was insane. For his part, Dave tried to keep up, and as he learned the patterns of this place, he felt like he could tackle it without breaking. But he knew how Daniel and Theo felt. They’d just had their world turned upside down, and they were normal people. They didn’t have a buffer of nerdy game nights and escapist fantasies to ease the transition.


Well, probably. He’d have to talk to Daniel sometime.


“Is that a trap?” They pulled up to a stop as Theo spoke, Alanna briefly glancing over her non-Ganesh’d shoulder to check before crouching down to a kneeling pose and watching behind them. “No, really. Is this bad?” Theo repeated with her voice uncertain.


“No.” James said. “This is paperclips. Stop freaking out over everything. Daniel! Bolt cutters!”


Daniel felt a bit like he’d been relegated to a sort of pack mule, but then, they’d also given him a homemade rail rifle that fired rebar, so he didn’t complain as he slung the bag off his shoulder and unzipped it.


“Not a trap?” Theo confirmed, quietly.


“Nah, these things are just around. They’re like spikier cobwebs.” James said as he started clipping through the outside edges of the metal net that covered the hall in front of them. “Keep an eye out for anything, though.” He told Theo, who instantly stood to attention and started flicking her eyes around at any spot a threat might come from. James rolled his eyes when she wasn’t looking; it was good to be alert, but doing that was a good way to exhaust yourself. He didn’t think Theo would listen to him right now, though, so he held off saying anything. She’d learn soon enough, or Alanna would tell her in that way that Alanna did that made people actually listen.


While James did his job, Alanna moved back to the last intersection they’d passed about five cubicle lengths back, and crouched at the corner of it, checking down each aisle. Dave, meanwhile, took the time to talk to Daniel.


“Okay, you see that?” He pointed into the cubicle to their left.


Daniel looked up nervously. “No? Wait, the potted plant? Oh fuck, is that going to kill us?”


“Why does everyone think everything here is going to kill them?” James softly called back from the front, which made Dave smile a bit before going back to talking to Daniel.


“No, it’s not one of the live ones. Though there are live ones, and you should keep an eye out. But they’re always bigger. Like, fake trees, you know?” Daniel nodded at his words, and Dave got back to his original point. “Look, the point is, those are often nest points for striders. So when we go over there in a second, that’s one of the things you want to keep an eye on while we steal stuff.”


Daniel made a small noise in the back of his throat. “Wait, why don’t we just stay here and keep moving?”


“Because sometimes we find things that could save our lives.” Dave said. “And if we do have to fight, then we get orbs out of it. Also, it’ll be good practice for you if we get into a threat situation later, so you don’t freeze up, and get us killed.” He said it in his normal, even tone, but it was blunt and clear that Daniel didn’t appreciate it much.


The probably-ex security guard almost snapped at Dave, but held it back and instead just stood up and hoisted the too-heavy homemade rifle. “Fine. Whatever. Anything else I should know?”


“Pencil sharpeners are always traps. Desk lamps are *almost* always traps. Don’t touch a computer until you can verify it’s not a shellaxy, but after that, try to find the password. Some of the files are magic, and some of them are just weird media that James collects. If you see anything moving, talk to it first, and if it doesn’t meaningfully respond, kill it.”


“That seems harsh.”


“Things that aren’t hostile make it clear pretty quick.” Dave shrugged. “Now, usually cubes are safe. So you go first, I’ll follow, and we’ll get you used to this.” Daniel felt like this was a hunting trip with his asshole dad all over again. Too many instructions he wasn’t going to remember, and too much pressure to perform well. Fortunately, without really realizing he was soothing an angry fear, Dave said one last thing. “Don’t worry about getting it all at once. We’re here to keep you guys alive until we get out. It’s why we came in, right?”


It was. Daniel felt all his anger at Dave drain away in a flash. It was why they came in. These three dropped into what was, minimum, a week long trek through enemy territory, for *him*. And also Theo, but still.


He got up and walked confidently into the cubicle, with Dave behind him.


Back out in the hallway, James was trying to get Theo to be a little less jittery as he cut through the last of the right side of the net. “I’m just saying, you can ease off. Humans notice things; you’ll be fine. But if you’re hurting your damn eyes looking at literally everything at once, then you’ll have a headache in two minutes.”


“I’m fine.” Theo snapped back. “You should take this more seriously.”


“I really shouldn’t.” James snorted. “I’ve got a big enough paladin complex already, I don’t need to pile more on it. Besides, we…”


He never got to finish that, as Theo tapped him furiously on the shoulder, and pointed up at one of the sloped chunks of wall over their heads. “There!” She barked out, raising her crowbar in a sweaty hand. “Did you see that?”


“No, because *you’re* on watch.” James replied smoothly, dropping the bolt cutters and hoisting his own metal bar. He missed his axe already; they’d gone back to the classic improvised weapon for this kind of smashing work, but it didn’t feel good in his hands at *all*. James was still annoyed they couldn’t find anything better, but they were on short notice, so he’d live with it. “What did you see?”


Theo let out a long “uhhhh..” as she kept her eyes up, while James stood up and positioned himself at her right at arm’s length with his crowbar held loosely to his side. “It looked like a bunch of paper?”


“Paper like printer paper, or paper like sticky notes?” James asked, keeping his cool as best he could.


“Oh! Definitely like sticky notes. Why, is that…”


“Budgettttt cuttttttts!” Screamed the face-shaped collection of layered post it notes as it came flying down from between the bars of beige that made up the canopy overhead.


“Fuck offffff!” James shouted back at it as it howled down, tendrils of coiled purple sticky notes trailing behind it like fluttering hair. He tried to get his weapon up to knock it out of the air, but wasn’t in position to hit it solidly, and the mask just warped around the metal bar before launching itself off and past them; some of the flapping scraps of paper that dragged behind it lashing at James’ arm as it went past, leaving shallow cuts and welts on the patches of exposed skin as it did so.


Theo whipped herself around as the thing flew behind them and made a sharp U-turn just past the cut down net. “What the fuck is that?”


“Screaming mask made of post it notes. Duh.” James told her. “Eyes up, I think there’s more. You got that one?”




“Good. I’ll take these.” He pushed her back toward the first mask with his left hand while watching upward as three more of the strange creatures perched above them on a beam like paper vultures. These ones were more contorted forward to look down on James, and he could see them clinging to the carpeted material that made up the ceiling with the bone spurs that came out their back. Almost like bats, really.


“Coffffeeeee” “Overrrrworrrrkeeeeddd” “Trippliicaaaattteeee!”


Really annoying bats.


“Dave! Get out here!” He called out to the cubicle that he had taken Daniel into. “Alanna! Help!” No response from her, still positioned at the intersection, and James didn’t have time to wait. The first of the masks dropped down, and he brought a big, wasteful overhand swing down on it, pinning the fucker to the ground with raw force and weight.


James stomped on it, finding it very uneven footing, but still kept it underfoot as he wobbled a bit on the rounded shapes of the bones in it. Before he could get his crowbar back up, though, the other one slammed into his shoulder and started trying to flay away the side of his face with the razor sharp edges of its hair, using the bone spikes to gouge into the low quality plastic of his ‘body armor’. As the third one came swooping down as well, James abandoned subtlety and just flung the crowbar at it, smashing it up into the ceiling with a loud thud and a scream from the mask as it tried to recover in midair from the hit.


Without wasting time worrying about how stupid it was to throw away his main weapon, James grabbed the mask off his shoulder and flung it to the ground. Or, tried to. It caught itself somehow and swooped away like a rogue paper airplane, curving around behind him. Pivoting, James saw it going for Theo’s back, and lunged to stop it.


But Theo had just dealt with hers, and when she turned, the first thing she saw was another monster bearing down on her. So, she did what she’d been advised, and hit it. Hard. The fact that the crowbar swing also caught James in the forearm was kind of a problem, but the mask broke before his arm did.


“Fucking ow!” He screamed, like a big baby. “Careful!”


Theo wanted to yell something at him about how she was fighting for her life, and being careful was for people who didn’t survive that experience. But she was too busy trying to catch her breath and figure out how to swallow when her mouth tasted and felt like cotton.


“Contraaaccct terrrmiiinnn…” James brought his heel down on the last mask in a brutal stomp that stung his ankle, even as it splintered the bone and tore the paper of the false face. Then reached down to grab the yellow orb and crack it just out of spite.


[+2 Skill Ranks - Marketing]


“Fuck these things.” He muttered. “Dave! You guys alive? Alanna?” He called down the hall. Grabbing his crowbar, he turned to Theo who recoiled back as she saw the blood dripping down the side of his face from a score of cuts against his cheek and forehead. “Go check on Alanna.” He said, then realized she was shaking, and probably not in the condition to check on anyone. “No, wait. Wait here, keep watch.”


Dave was on his own for a second. James scampered down the hallway, keeping low, and that was lucky as over his head the corpse of another mask got nailed to the wall by a piece of rebar with a low *thoomp* noise from the potato gun. It wouldn’t have hit him, probably, but he felt better that it didn’t hit him *more*.


Okay, Dave was doing fine. Or at least Daniel was. But Alanna and Ganesh weren’t reacting at all, and James had a gnawing feeling in his gut as his worst case scenarios flashed through his mind. Sliding up to the corner, he tapped Alanna on the shoulder. “Hey, what’s…”


She wasn’t moving. Not that she was dead, but she literally wasn’t moving. At all. Eyes open, frozen, Ganesh on her shoulder the same way. Her shotgun gripped in both hands, half raised.


“Theo!” He nearly screamed. “Someone! Help!”


It was Dave who got to him first, as Theo got caught up with a straggler mask that screeched about break times as it tried to slip past her batter’s stance. His friend ducked out of the cubicle where he left Daniel, and slid into a crouch next to James. “What do you need?”


“Cross the hall.” James told him, setting his crowbar down and unclipping the pistol from its holster.


It said a lot about Dave’s trust in James that he didn’t really hesitate. He took a look at the handgun that James had in a practiced two-handed grip as his friend popped the safety off, then nodded once, stood up, and sprinted across the intersection.


Halfway across, he saw the camraconda that was staring down Alanna and Ganesh. Then he saw the second one that was slithering down the middle of the dead-end aisle that they’d ignored earlier, long copper fangs dripping some kind of black fluid as it closed in. He skidded to a halt mid sprint, hefted his now-nicked machete, and charged them. “Two! Two!” He yelled, hoping James got it.


He knew he was never going to make it. But that was okay. Dave trusted his companions.


When James saw Dave freeze in mid step, he moved. Popping out from around the corner, reflexes that he’d only ever felt in the abstract from a skill orb kicked into action. An explosive cracking sound drowned out everything else for a second as he unloaded on the boxy security camera face of the far left camraconda. The basilisk never had a chance; while James wasn’t a crack shot, at least half his bullets were on target, and the creature had chunks of hard plastic blown away piecemeal until it just collapsed, dead.


Just under James, Alanna jerked back into motion, long barrel of the Mossberg coming up to bear on the head of the snake just in front of her. But before she could pull the trigger, or James could retarget, it snapped its head back around to look at them, and they all shocked into motionless statues.


But James was grinning down at it, and the camraconda couldn’t even turn to retreat as Dave circled around to its side, machete held at the ready as he closed on its flank.


“You shouldn’t have fucked with us.” Dave told it in a deadpan voice as he stood over it and drove the blade down at its head.


At the very last second, it turned, and he froze, and the shotgun slug shredded a rough hole in it where it used to have a face.


Contrary to what movies show you, or how it's normally spelled out, shotguns don’t really make ‘a’ noise. They don’t have a sound effect, they have a wall of ear-static that feels like listening to the concept of being hit by a hammer. And in the aftermath of the deafening sound, the three of them took a moment to recover.


But only a moment, as they’d just alerted everything in a two mile radius that they weren’t supposed to be here.


“Dave, orbs! Alanna, get Daniel, we’re moving!” James shouted to hear himself talk as he policed his brass, scooping up the discarded shell along with the casings for his own bullets. No need to give the dungeon literal ammo. He didn’t waste time either, reholstering the pistol, grabbing the crowbar, and moving to the front. “Theo, you alive?” He clapped her on the shoulder where she was looking down at her empty hand.


“How do the balls do that?” She asked.


“Magic.” James said. “Look, we gotta go. This time, we *really* made too much noise. Focus on how you know kung fu later, we’re moving.” He said as he turned to take stock of the rest of the team.


Alanna was shaken, but unhurt. Ganesh looked like he was still dizzy from the noise of the gunfire, but also operational. Daniel had a couple cuts on him, and was currently sans-weapon. And Dave… Dave looked like he was absolutely confident.


“Where’s the potato gun?” James asked with a raised eyebrow.


“One of the masks cut the fuel tank on it, so I took the lighter and told him to leave it.” Dave said. “I didn’t want it to explode.”


“Yeah, that only needs to happen once.” James nodded. “Also, we need to get more durable guns. Or, more durable guns.” He changed the emphasis, the first time saying weapons that were durable, then switching to saying more weapons, after he remembered the pistol at his side and the smell of gunpowder on his hands. “Okay, let’s go. Daniel! Which way?”


It took a second for the kid to figure it out, the fighting having maybe scrambled his brain. They didn’t wait, instead pushing forward ahead of the telltale clicking of at least a small horde of striders in their wake. But after he got his bearings, the directions started flowing, and their speed picked up.


“Right here, then a hundred feet, then a left. Then there’s something weird in the walls?” He called forward as they jogged, trying to parse the laser pointer map, compared to the map in his head, as they ran. It wasn’t easy, but he was keeping up, and since Dave and Alanna were swatting down the few striders that tried to lunge for them off the walls, he wasn’t being interrupted by head trauma nearly as much as he might have otherwise been. “Here! Left here!” He called, and James and Theo took the corner ahead of them.


James realized ‘something about the walls’ meant traps almost as soon as they turned the corner and he felt that low EM hum that the tripwires for the pencil darts put out. James put on speed, and made a clear show of leaping over the line in the carpet for Theo, who mimicked him and cleared the trigger. “Darts!” He yelled back, which was enough to get Dave and Alanna over the line safe, but Daniel tripped, and had to be caught by Alanna before he face planted into the trigger.


There were advantages to being Alanna’s size, and physically lifting people up before they could touch the thing that killed you was one of them.


“Where now?” She prompted as she shoved Daniel back into motion, reconfiguring their line as James and Theo waited at the end of the hallway. “Actually, break, my throat’s burning.” She rasped out as she fished out a bottle of water.


“Yeah, I think we’re clear.” James said. “Take five. But let’s keep putting distance between us. If we can find a place to rest before we get to the ‘prisoners’, that’s great, but I don’t want to linger anywhere here.” He said as he accepted the bottle from Alanna and poured a gulp of warm water into his mouth. “Eugh. We should have brought ice.”


“Whiner.” She poked him and took the bottle back.


“But seriously. None of us want to be around when a swarm shows up.”


Dave, panting and leaning on a wall to stay upright, gasped out a rebuttal. “Yeah, but we need to be careful where we can, or we’ll make stupid mistakes.” He met James’ eyes, then flicked his own gaze back to Daniel, who was poking at the bandage on his leg and complaining about it itching.


“Yeah, okay.” James said after a second, realizing that he’d never really seen Dave stand up for his own opinion before. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. We’ll slow down. Daniel, you see anything on the map that looks like a rest spot?” James conceded the point, in his head knowing it was the right call. He’d gotten too wrapped up in everything; too excited. He actually needed Dave here to keep him grounded in the more basic stuff. Alanna would see things from a different perspective than him, and important questions, but she was just like James when it came to getting caught up in the mood of adventure.


Daniel pointed the laser map at the floor, before remembering that it didn’t work that way, and turned it up to a wall to see what was ahead of them. “Well, there’s this big open space up ahead. I dunno what that is, but it’s… actually huge?” He sounded puzzled as he pulled the pointer back farther and farther to reveal a larger circular gap in the map. “We have to go through there anyway, I think. Um… does anyone else feel like that... no, nevermind.”


“No, you can say it. It looks like a boss fight, doesn’t it? Like, if I saw that on a map in a game, I’d be pretty paranoid.” James sighed. “No helping it, though. Hey, move the pointer closer to the ground, let’s see if there’s anything stalking around in there.”


“Actually, wait, point it *at* the ground again.” Alanna said.


“Why? It shows a cross section.” James said.


She nodded. “That’s my point. Look. Look!” Alanna pointed at the floor as Daniel casually tilted it down, looking like he didn’t know what the big deal was. Alanna clicked her tongue in disappointment as she realized James didn't get it either. “Okay, if it shows a slice of what’s it’s looking at, then…” She spread her hands.


“...Then why isn’t the floor a solid block.” James said, looking at the pattern of lines on the floor. “Ah.” There was a moment of silence, before the experienced trio let out a collective sigh-and-shrug. “There’s no way we can do anything about that now. But if we find an elevator, how about we just ignore it?”




They wrapped up their break, taking the moment to rub the ache out of tired legs and arms, and for Alanna to clean out and tape a flat bandage to the cuts on the side of James’ face. It felt like all the pain of the injuries was only just catching up with him, including the blood loss. It couldn’t have been that *much*, but he felt lightheaded enough that he took Alanna up on her offer when she handed him a candy bar labeled Caramel Opinions without a second thought.


And after that, there were only a few hundred feet and a couple corners before that huge room that separated them from the final stretch to their goal. Be it a trap, a graveyard, or a prison, they were going to have to go through here to find out.


“Okay.” James said as they moved down the final hallway, brushing aside a vine of dot matrix paper. “Everyone be on guard.” Words that were totally unneeded; the tension was thick around them.


At the end of the hall, a curtain of plastic file folders blocked their view. Looking back and getting nods from the rest of the group, James reached forward and pushed one aside to reveal the cavern beyond.


It was dark. The walls rose up thirty or forty feet here, and there weren’t many lights overhead. Those that were didn’t filter down much through the high curved ceiling. But what light did come through was… beautiful. It sparkled as it danced across the surface of the lake in front of them. The whole place was peaceful, placid. Nothing moved, no enemies in sight.


James stepped through and gazed around, lowering his weapon. He almost jumped out of his skin when something fell from the ceiling near him; but after a second and third repeat of the motion, he realized that it was drops of water. Falling from above and… into a water cooler tank?


Everyone else filtered in behind him, staring around. “What the hell…” Theo spoke aloud, and for once, James didn’t think she was overreacting.


As his eyes adjusted, he could see around them. From the floor, dozens, maybe a hundred, blue solid plastic tanks appeared to be *growing*. Or maybe they were formed and shaped like stone stalagmites were in real cave systems. Either way, they sat there as if melded into the floor by an ancient hand, many of them half full of sloshing water that always seemed to be in slight motion even as the room itself felt still.


And all around, glittering drops of liquid caught beams of light as they fell from above. From where wasn’t clear, but every single drop always impacted perfectly on one of the tanks. And around those drops danced tiny glowing dots of light that glinted off thin metal bodies, barely visible from the ground.


In the middle of the room, taking up about two thirds of the whole space, was a single massive body of water. It dipped down, perfectly clear and visible, for maybe a hundred feet. Edges smoothed and vertical. And all of it could be seen with clarity, through the floor and walls of the interior of this cavern that were all shaped from that same clear, blue, water cooler plastic.


“What in the hell…” Someone echoed with quiet reverence. James realized in the silence afterward that it had been him. Even Ganesh’s casual wing vibrations had gone still.


Every time. Every time he thought they’d gotten a handle on the dungeon, and seen it all, it threw them another curveball. There were always more patterns of cubicle, sure, and there were always new creatures and different formations of attack. But this was qualitatively different; this may as well have been a different world.


A quiet, peaceful dungeon, that made nothing but fireflies and waterfalls, would have made this the most romantic place that James or Alanna could have brought the other to today.


Without too many words, the six of them sat to rest in earnest before they went to war again.

A note from argusthecat
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There is no terminus to the relationship between our three primary characters.

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About the author


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!

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