James huffed for breath as he rounded the corner. He was starting to feel the weight of the near-constant physical exertion, and it turned out that a few months of gym time wasn’t enough to turn him into a terminator-like supersoldier. Which would have annoyed him, if he’d had the time to think about it.
Twelve hours. They’d somehow managed to scrounge up enough food for everyone, though calling it ‘food’ gave them a lot of credit. Most of it was, as was tradition at this point, random candy. James had won the bet of weirdest name with a bar wrapped in flexible gold foil, labeled simply with block letters that read ‘Healthy Chunks’. When they’d laid out their food and let people grab something to eat, that one had gone last. Actually, that one had gone to *James*, once he’d rolled his eyes at everyone’s squeamishness and decided to take a bite himself. That, of course, was a mistake. The dungeon might not poison food, but it sure as hell didn’t have the taste buds needed to make flavor winners every time. And some kind of nutrient paste with nodules of aloe gel in it was… well, at best unpleasant.
Still, he’d won a yellow orb off of Sarah. Apparently, using these things as an almost joking kind of inter-group currency was just a thing that they all thought of at some point. She was kind of miffed that hers had lost, since she’d found one that was actually just called ‘Candy’. James had tried that one too.
“What’s it taste like?” Alanna had asked with a massive grin.
After a moment to think, James responded in a jokingly reverent voice, “The platonic ideal…”
“Does this mean we’re not having sex?”
He snorted a surprised laugh. “Not that kind of platonic, you goof.” It had been a small moment of quiet smiles amid the rising tension.
That was getting off topic, though. The point was, it had taken them time to get the food. Time to get everyone organized. Time to get people moving. Time, time, time. They were running out of it, even if they had well over a full twenty four hours left, James was getting nervous.
And now they had to actually deal with moving a large number of people over a large distance.
The biggest issue was that moving as a group the first time, they’d lost people. At some point, someone in the back half of the group had taken a wrong turn. Everyone following them had kept following. And then, before anyone realized what was happening, they’d ended up split. Now, granted, it wasn’t that much of a problem at first. A huge mob of confused people was actually kind of easy to find in this place, even with the overhead arching walls and banner-vines of printer paper, especially with Ganesh still somehow alert and up for running their entire scout division. The bigger problem was the number of stapler wounds and burns from the taser-mouse things that they refused to call Pikachu’s but still hadn’t found a name for. The wildlife of the dungeon was still dangerous; something James had almost forgotten with his practiced movements to gut a strider and pocket the orb, and armor plating covering anything vital. And now, that wildlife was being disturbed en masse by dozens of untrained humans.
It was a recipe for disaster waiting to happen, especially if they lost people in ones or twos. They really didn’t have any way to communicate over distances with everyone. They’d only packed four radios, phones didn’t work in here, no one could figure out how to properly send messages using the dungeon’s wifi, and James sure as hell wasn’t letting anyone use the flare gun when it was explicitly there for signaling their exit team.
So, the strategy they’d ended up with was the exhausting plan of moving small groups from safe spot to safe spot. A handful of people at a time, with only one or two of the experienced delvers escorting them and then jogging back to where they started to bring the next batch. It was now the third run of this James had done, and he was starting to feel like a cowboy, where the cows were shaped like humans and just curious enough to be dangerous.
The real unavoidable problem was, these were people. And people, once they’d had a nap and some food and knew they weren’t going to be trapped in a hostile hive mind using them to take over an extradimensional realm anymore, tended to get curious about stuff. Which meant that James and Alanna and even Sarah had to start fielding questions about things. And when they weren’t around to tell people about the wildlife, the orbs, the candy, the insanely high ceiling, the warped landscape, the existence of things like Secret or Karen, and why they were wearing half a copier held together with wire, well, then people started touching things. And so even though these were people who had survived only through the sheer luck of having James and Alanna making a last minute call to go back for them, there were already beginning to go from “rescued humans” to “annoying problems” in the minds of the delvers.
Well, not all of them. And even then, it was more of a vaguely sarcastic thought that flashed through James’ mind, and not any real disdain for these people. And… well…
It was fun.
He had to admit it, it was *fun* to talk to them about this stuff. To answer those weird questions, to be the guy who everyone turned to for answers. To find that, even though he felt like he had no *clue* what the bigger picture of the office was, even though he was totally in the dark about the nature of the place and the purpose of this twisted workspace, that he *knew things*. He found it so easy to snap off answers about how different creatures acted, or how he knew stuff was safe to eat, or what sort of traps to watch out for.
He felt like a goddamn veteran. And he knew Alanna was feeling the same way, even if she was a little more scowly about it. It made sense, though. She’d gotten even less sleep than he had, and Alanna had also spent an extra day or so assuming he was trapped forever in an endless loop of failing to open a door. That could stress a person out.
“Fuck, ‘that could stress a person out’ could be our group motto.” James muttered to himself.
“What’s that?” Alanna queried him as he walked into their almost empty base camp. She was the last of their party here, left as the rearguard with the last batch of rescuees. Theo and Sarah were ahead with everyone else, wranging some of the more alert and able survivors into clearing out one of those more open air, low-walled areas, while Daniel and his mental map were keeping them all on track.
James took Alanna’s offered hand and helped haul her to her feet. “Oh, just that this place gets really stressful when we’re stuck here.”
“Like it isn’t otherwise?” She asked him.
James thought about it. “Nnnno. No?” He shrugged at her as the last group of survivors assembled before them. “Okay guys, you know how this goes. We’re gonna be moving through mostly clear territory, but keep an eye open for anything moving. According to Sarah, whatever your network was doing was keeping the office wildlife suppressed, and with everything starting to wake up more aggressive, we aren’t taking chances. Stay close, let us know if you need us to slow down. Don’t touch anything.” A series of nods and affirmations came back to him. They’d heard this before with every other group.
“Okay.” Alanna spoke privately to James as they waited for the last straggler to take a short trip to the designated privy. “What do you mean it’s not stressful?”
“I mean… fuck, I mean, did you even know me before we started this?” James’ voice cracked as he sighed out his answer. “Alanna, I was a wreck. I worked full time, but still stressed about money *all the time*. The only fun I ever had was playing D&D with the group, and even that was more of a distraction than anything else. And more than that…” He paused. “More than that, I was just dead inside. I didn’t see anything beyond getting home to replay the same old games, and maybe ordering pizza when I had extra cash. That was it. *It*.”
“And now?” She asked him as they took point on their small squad, rolling out of the camp and starting a fast walk to their now familiar waypoint.
“And now I do this.” James said. “We sorta talked about it the other day, right? We fight, we’re rewarded directly for our accomplishments, and we go home to lives that get better every day. That’s it.” He bluntly finished.
“That’s not it.” Alanna insisted firmly.
“It’s enough.” James told her. “Can you imagine how bad things would get if we got greedy? I don’t want to… I don’t wanna rule the world, Alanna.”
“You’re not qualified for that yet.” She told him. “But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re more qualified for other things than most people.”
James frowned lightly as they took a corner. The path they were on was supposed to be clear, and he’d already run it several times, but it didn’t hurt to be careful. “You’re talking about how there might be..” A quick check, this time to make sure none of their followers were listening in. “..other dungeons.”
“The thing on the phone called this place its brother.” She said. It was a statement, and an open question. Alanna left the words hanging there as they split up to escort everyone through a series of twists.
It was, James decided, really annoying to have someone who knew you well enough to make you want to talk to them. Alanna’s statement hovered in the back of his head for a few minutes, and by the time they reconnected for a long hallway of cubicles, he had a response. “Okay.” James started flatly. “I’ve got conditions to this.” Alanna nodded, the facade of a serious expression on her face as she kept her eyes forward, looking over James’ head. “First of all, I’m kinda worried that we’re vastly underqualified compared to, like, a military or police force.” He cut Alanna off before she could respond. “No, think about it. If a military unit came through here, they could have killed this place and gone home in a day. *And then been just as upgraded as us.*”
“But they didn’t.” Alanna told him. “We did. And now we are, quite literally, becoming something beyond human.”
“Right.” James admitted to that. “We did. We’re the big damn heroes mostly just because we’re on hand, not because we’re qualified. Yes, yes. ‘Yet’. And I get it, that’s good enough. And I *don’t* want to give this up. And I also don’t want to go to whatever kind of wizard jail the government has set up in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. So…!”
“So?” Alanna couldn’t keep hiding a smile.
“So, yeah. When we get out of here, we go find the other one. Other *ones*. There’s gotta be more. And we can’t just keep farming the office and pretending that there isn’t a bigger world out there. So shut up, stop being so smug about it, and let’s pretend I agreed with you from the start.”
“Not exactly how I would have phrased it,” Alanna replied, “but I more or less agree. Even if we aren’t killing whole worlds, which I’m still not sure we can actually do, they can still clearly produce threats to the real world. Also, I hate being in the dark about stuff. Like, you say ‘secret wizard jail’, and I actually have to do a sanity check on if that’s something we know about or not.”
James laughed. “Yeah, I did my time in wizard jail.” He put on a voice that was his bad interpretation of what crime-Gandalf would sound like. “Ten winters I spent on the inside for selling black market newt anus!”
“Jesus Christ” Alanna snorted out an unexpected bark of laughter. “You can’t just say things like that. We’re supposed to be noble rescuers, and now all these people have heard you say ‘newt anus’.”
“You too, now.” He patted her on the shoulder. “But don’t worry, I promise not to make that our motto.”
“I still think we should be trying to find ways to use our new upgrades in the real world, too.” Alanna said. “I know it’s not what you guys want to do, but..”
James cut her off. “Okay, hang on. I know we haven’t really talked about this in a little while, but I wanna be clear on something. I *absolutely* want to make the world a better place and all that. The problem is I don’t know where to apply the abilities I have. It’s a matter of scale and use, not of desire. I may not be as philosophically well read as you, and have a handle on exactly how I want to impact humanity, but I’m not some sociopath that just wants to fight and get stronger so I can support my own fight-based exponential growth.”
“I never thought you were.” Alanna said, almost hurt that James would think that, but still understanding what his worry was. “Hell, I wouldn’t be dating you if I thought that.” Alanna waved him around a corner, and the two of them watched a shellaxy meander across the hallway before moving on, signaling for their group to follow. “Oh, shit, you know what I just thought of?” She asked, eyebrows raised.
“What?” James glanced over at her before returning his gaze to sweeping the cubicles around them.
“That stupid briefcase! The one the sibling spawned with the note to answer the phone! We got so caught up in everything that we didn’t check it!” Alanna swept her arm over the ridge of cubicle walls ahead of them. “I can even see the spire we were camped in from here. I’m gonna go check for it when we pass by.”
“What could possibly be worth it in a dungeon briefcase?”
Alanna shrugged at him, then realized James was ahead of her and facing away, so she put the shrug into her words instead. “Iunno. But Frank had a lot of them, remember, so, probably money? You *did* just say you spent the last decade stressed about money. And also I don’t have a job anymore, so now *I’m* stressed about money, and it’s kind of your fault in a roundabout way, so you get to come help me retrieve it.” She declared.
It had already occurred to James to offer to tag along, and he was curious anyway, so he just laughed at her overacted claim. “Well, it’s good to have a plan. Anyway, backing up a step, the hard part is going to be convincing Anesh that…” Before James could finish, he was interrupted by a yell from behind them. Both of them spun in an instant, guards already up
One of their escorted civilians had fallen on his ass as he flailed backward. Another ran past James and Alanna in blind panic, while a tiny girl with tattered jeans and a leather waistcoat taken from a cubicle somewhere tried to kick the shit out of the camraconda that had sunk its teeth into the leg of one of the last stragglers.
It was blind luck that someone had looked behind them. The man was frozen in mid step, about a hundred paces back. He hadn’t even made a whimper as the three hundred pounds of snake had driven its finger length bronze fangs into his leg. He couldn’t. Couldn’t scream, couldn’t twitch, certainly couldn’t get away. And James was a bit worried to see that as it jerked its maw free with a red spray to sweep its camera eye to the girl trying to kick it, that the survivor *still didn’t move*.
Alanna slapped an open palm on his shoulder, and James started advancing with long strides, adjusting his grip on the good old trusty crowbar. This was something they’d actually had time to practice. The camraconda was, hands down, the most dangerous thing here. Tumblefeeds were bad, but could be pretty easily outrun. 2.0s were also dangerous, as were plants if they caught you in an ambush, but they could be fought more directly. But the snakes? Literally the only defense against them was having a friend and a flanking maneuver. Once you *knew* that, you were fine, but until that game of red-light-green-light got solved, James was well aware of how easy it would be for one of them to kill a person, and he’d made the whole group train on counter-snake tactics. So he didn’t hesitate to start stepping up to the snake that was currently bearing down on the girl that had been kicking it, not stopping when it rose up with half its body to show a form that was a *lot* taller than normal. It actually towered over the young woman, but when James let out a wordless shout, it swiveled its head over to him, letting its prey jerk back into motion like the pause button had been hit again.
He froze in place, in an awkward half-moving position with his arm just starting to come up with his weapon. The camraconda slithered over to him in a few sharp twists of its body, boxy security camera face seeming almost curious as to what the hell he thought he was accomplishing screaming at it. Its mouth opened wide, right next to his face, and James got a front row showing of those fangs, that looked quite a bit larger up close.
Then Alanna punched it through a wall.
James hadn’t actually expected that to do much. And as he glanced over at the shocked look on Alanna’s face, it looked like she hadn’t either. She’d told him about the effect of the purple that’d made her stronger, and she’d been having fun picking things, and people, up at random after that. But now, with one flashing motion of a closed fist in front of James’ face, she’d just turned a potentially deadly encounter with a hostile snake monster into one of the episodes of Star Trek where Worf gets the shit kicked out of him.
Then the camraconda burst out of the crumpled cubicle wall that Alanna had roundhoused it into, and instantly lunged for her. Alanna froze up with her arms halfway to her face, almost into a boxer’s stance before the effect of that eye took hold. And then it was James’ turn to come to the rescue, whipping the crowbar forward on an impulsive reaction that took it in the curve of its body. He experienced a brief jolt of paralysis as it jerked backward and scanned its eye over him, and then he had a moment of freedom to pivot to the side. Keeping himself and Alanna on opposite sides of it as it recovered and tried to lunge at either of them.
The two of them took it apart. It saw James coming out in its peripheral, and turned to him, which opened Alanna up to spike it into the floor. It still had a view of James’ feet, but he’d already planted himself for the swing, and it wasn’t too awkward for him to windmill his arms around like a golfer and spread the top half of its camera head across the hallway.
And that was that.
“Okay! Everyone regroup!” James called out. “You! Um… Alllley?”
“Alex.” The girl, Alex apparently, replied.
“Good killer instinct there, but… no, you know what? No but. Good job. You’re on guard duty from now on. Grab someone else and grab Justin here.” James motioned at the stiffened man caught mid-step. He turned back to Alanna who had just stuffed the green orb into her duffel. “Fuck, do we have any anti-venom? Looks like those things are venomous.”
“Thank you so much for not saying poisonous.” She said.
“No dice on the antivenom, though. We didn’t pack any, and that’s not how antivenom works.”
“How do you know that? Orb about snakes?”
“No, I just remember learning it for a D&D thing to… annoy Dave.” She trailed off, a moment of pain showing on her face.
“Ah.” James said simply. “Okay. Well.” He cleared his throat, not knowing how to help. “We’ve gotta keep moving.”
Alanna nodded, and helped him get the others back into a semblance of formation, two of their party now carrying the paralyzed man in the middle of the group, slowing them down significantly. “I just keep expecting to see him.” She confided in James. “This place has a thousand ways that he could come back from whatever the hell happened to him, I just find it hard to believe he’s actually gone.”
“Yeah, I get you.” James said. “I tried using the last charge of the blue that gave me the power to ‘refill’ to refill our team, but it didn’t do anything except make me have to pee.”
“Fuck, that was you!” Alanna gasped in mock horror, punching James in the shoulder.
“Fuck, careful with that!” He gasped himself in surprise. “You’re gonna break my arm if you hit that hard!”
Any actual anger James had went out the window when he saw her face. Alanna had been kind of cagey about a couple of her purple’s effects, but James was pretty sure one of them made her awful at poker by making it super easy to read her emotions. And right now, she looked so obviously sheepish that he knew he wasn’t going to be mad about an honest mistake. “Right! Right, sorry!” She took a minute, and then pointed ahead. “Is that the camp?”
Thankfully, it was. And so, after too many trips down this stretch of hall, James could finally take a short break. He flopped into a chair that Daniel wordlessly vacated for him, setting the crowbar onto the floor with a thump. Rubbing at his sore hands revealed a stinging pain, and James was annoyed to again see that he’d torn the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. He really, really needed to find some gloves if he couldn’t get a real weapon. Or, if nothing else, pack extra gloves next time.
Maybe he should start carrying a sledgehammer, like Alanna originally had. He leaned back in the chair, taking out a small yellow orb from his pocket and rolling it on the desk. It was an idle motion, and he just sat for a bit as everyone hurried around him, feeling the ache in his feet more than ever now that he wasn't standing, letting his eyes unfocus as he looked into the still color of the orb. Thinking of sledgehammers, James wondered what would happen if they broke an orb. They'd activated them personally, absorbed them, knew they could be turned into what he internally called totems, and also made into magic items, but they'd never actually just smashed one open.
He was halfway to raising the crowbar over the desk in curiosity when Theo planted her hands on the makeshift table across from him. “Okay, everyone’s accounted for.” She said in a tired voice. “Daniel has the next waypoint marked for us. Alanna says we’ll rest there while you two go take care of something. Seems kinda risky to fool around here, but who am I to judge. We also still need more real food, and medical supplies. I'd like permission to set some of the survivors to breaking things to get blues. Alanna says they solve problems.”
“I… no, not that kind of…”. James shook the thought off. “Nevermind, whatever. Also, why are you asking me permission? Wait, why are you reporting to me in the first place? You're more suited to be in charge.”
Theo gave him a blank stare. “Uh huh.” She said, sarcasm dripping so thick it pooled on the floor at her feet.
“Okay, fine. Permission granted. Don't bother trying to control who uses the orbs, just make sure everyone knows we’re in this together. Time is critical here.”
“Yes *sah*.” Theo snapped off a salute and sauntered away.
“Alanna!” James called out, tilting backward over the chair. “I don't want a military command! You take it!”
“Kay!” She yelled back, ignoring him.
Command position abdicated, James closed his eyes for a minute. He’d had a hard day passing up the opportunity for a dictatorship. Time to relax for a bit.
There was a clatter from one of the doorways into this zone. There were almost fifty people in here, leaving it crowded, but it was still relatively quiet. Everyone was too tired to really talk much, and for some reason that James hadn’t figured out yet, everyone would rather crowd together to give him a bubble of space than sit near him. So it caught his attention when one of the groups of three that Theo had sent out to scout around burst back in.
One of them was smoking.
Not a cigarette, either, which would have also confused James. But actually smoking like he’d been on fire until recently; wisps of thin grey air pouring off his shoulders and back. That guy took a seat next to the supply pile while his teammate made sure he was okay. James kept an eye on them as they found him a new coat from the massive supply that seemed to pile up in this place. Too many coats, not enough food, James thought to himself, and then looked up as the third of the team headed over to him.
It was the kind of girl that James would uniquely use the word ‘chick’ for. *Her* coat absolutely didn’t come from the office, as it was covered in square metal studs, which almost perfectly matched the worn and torn leather. All of it topped by a neon green mohawk.
“Yo boss.” She said. “Theo told us to tell you if we found anything weird.”
“Oh my god I’m going to kill her.” James moaned. “Don’t call me boss.” He settled on, with a tone that was neither firm nor believable. The smile didn’t help his case either. “What’s up? Everyone okay?”
“That’s why we’re gonna call you boss.” She replied pointedly. “Anyway, we found one of those cable snakes, and James wanted to ambush it, so…”
“Sorry, James?” James questioned.
“Yeah, the guy who looks like he’s anime right now.” She gestured to the still-smoking man.
“Right. Also, didn’t *someone* tell you not to engage the camracondas?” James suddenly realized this must have been how his dad felt, *all the time*.
“Camraconda is a *way* better name!” The girl perked up. James made a mental note to ask her name at some point. “And yes, but we ignored that, because we’ve all tried the yellow orbs, but I wanted to see what a green felt like. Anyway. We decided to ambush it, and…”
“Stop interrupting!” She chastised him. “Anyway, we were *going to*, but then there was a fight and it almost bit Simon’s arm off, and then James shoved one of the yellows into a computer screen, and then this dog thing made of glow came out, and it ate the snake I think? Er, camraconda. And it kinda set James on fire.” Her words came out at a breakneck clip.
James processed what she’d said at a rate of about two words a minute. Eventually, his brain caught up to at least one point. “The James thing is really throwing me off.” He said. Followed by, “Where's the mongauss now?”
“It has four legs, it eats snakes, and it's made of monitor light. It's getting called a mongauss.”
“So you guys name everything like Pokémon?”
“Except the electric mouse. Can't think of a good one for that. Now where's the mongauss?”
“Um...we booked it out of there?” She looked at him like he was crazy.
“Go find it.” James ordered her. “It's your kid now. Treat it well.”
She threw him a mocking open palmed salute, and jogged back to where her teammates sat.
“God dammit.” James muttered. “I'm in charge.” He tipped his head back again, looking at the world upside down. “Alanna! I'm in charge anyway!”
“We know!” She called back.
James closed his eyes. He figured he had five minutes before the next problem.
He was asleep in two.
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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!