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A note from argusthecat

Hey!  About five minutes before posting this, I got the notification that I'd hit a million total views.  That's pretty cool!

Also, if anyone out there is interested, I'd like to get back to doing the audiobook for this story, but have absolutely no time to do the actual sound editing.  So if someone has the inclination to help with that, drop me a line.

James was dreaming.

He recognized it fast this time. He’d been here before. One foot down, then… then… what came next?

Ah, yes, the next step.

It was an endless hallway. The lights beat down overhead. Someone walked next to him. Someone familiar, but… not.

“Secret?” James asked, curiously. It felt like Secret. It looked like James. But it didn’t look like, well, *Secret*. It was a James-shaped cloak again, and he couldn’t see any of the creation that was Secret’s more personal shape within it.

“I needed to say goodbye.” It said, with an echo of Secret’s voice. “For now. Just for now.”

“What?” James watched as the hallway around them bled as they kept walking, the walls running together into liquid geometric shapes that shifted, but kept them in their grey tunnel. “I don’t understand.”

Secret made a motion that looked like a puppet trying to nod. “I know. I used to know.” He turned his… its… head sharply to look at James. “I was becoming too much like you.”

Was. Was? He wasn’t Secret, not that James recognized him. He was a figure in black, a shadow of an old idea. What had happened to James’ friend? Through the mist of dream logic, he made the connection. Secret had given something up. Something important. The *only* thing that was important.

“That was the point!” James tried to scream, as he started to realize a sinking fear. But his words came out flat and dreamlike.

“I cannot see my own world.” Once-Secret told him. “I must become what I was, if I am to be of any use.” The construct stopped walking suddenly, and James tried to stop his legs, but found that he couldn’t. He kept moving forward down the hall, trying to will his mouth to open, his walk to stop, but he couldn’t. Locked inside his mind, inside his own mind. “This is a truth, James. Ideas can change, sometimes whether you want them to or not. I choose this, because we require knowledge that my humanity keeps from me. You need to let go. Don’t bring me back until I am ready.”

James cracked his lips apart, and it felt like opening a canyon in his mouth and his mind. But even then, the words wouldn’t come. He wanted to shout, to tell Secret to stay, that it wasn’t that important, that *he* was important. But Secret was very, very good at shaping James’ dreams, and instead there was only silence as James walked farther and farther down the hall, trying to reach back to hang onto his friend.

The last thing he saw of Secret was a small smile, and the words, “Don’t worry. You brought me to life once. All you have to do is agree with me, now. Say the words. You already know them.”

“No.” James wanted to say. He didn’t understand. He did understand. Secret was leaving. But he couldn’t leave if James wouldn’t let him, and he couldn’t come back without a promise. “Stay.” James tried to say, but then, he understood, and he knew he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. “Your worth as a person isn’t tied to your function.” He screamed in his soul. But no words came out.

They needed to know more about the dungeon. They needed information on the massive construct that Secret had seen, had started to explore. If this was what he needed to do…

He’d learned too well from James. He was potentially giving up everything to do something stupid that might save people. James wanted to be alternately furious and proud of him. But instead, he just tried to nod.

His body obeyed this time.

“I accept your terms. For one day, you may not have anything from me, should you agree to pursue the secrets of this place..” James said, his words too sharp to be the subconscious driftings of a dream, and too rehearsed to truly be his own.

“The deal was already struck.” The thing that was until recently Secret said in a flat monotone. And then he took a step, and was gone. “A message left for you from someone else: Go back to sleep, you need your rest.”

And James did, turning and walking through what was a wall.

He stepped out of a cubicle. His feet began moving again, in that dreamlike trance that was so familiar to him. Beige walls in an endless corridor fell into place around him as he walked. And walked. And walked. Forever. Grey hard carpet under his feet. Around him, no one moved about their day, not even shadows to carry the coffee cups and documents in multicolored folders strewn across the floor. He would have frozen up. James of two months ago would have frozen up. But the dream insisted, and instead he kept walking down the hallway. Around him, the people who weren't there greeted him by name, barking out strange shapes of words at his passing.

He walked on. Past a water cooler that had discarded cups around it, endlessly spilling their contents. Past a bundle of power cables, hollowed out like a cocoon. Past a hundred shed husks of striders and tapiers and shellaxies. On, and on, and on. For what felt like seconds, maybe minutes. An eternity.

He found himself in a room with a phone, suspended from the ceiling. The wiring for it bundled into rope, and looped into a noose. Molten droplets of corporate loyalty dripped off it to splash against the floor, leaving ripples in the circle of light. The handset dangled loosely, spinning as gravity wound and unwound the rubber cord over and over again.

Around him in the dark, hundreds of yellow and red and purple points of light flared to life. Crystal promises in the void.

The phone did not ring. James did not pick up.

“Thank you.” The voice on the other end said, in the robotic female tone of a machine greeting, that he knew with unnerving solidity wasn’t just a program.

_____



James jerked awake with a soft cough, his eyes snapping open as he sat up from where he’d slumped over the table onto a pillow made of his own arms. He was still at the desk, no one had moved him; as he caught his breath and tried to remember why his dream had felt so terrifying, James checked his phone. “Ten minutes of sleep?” He grumbled. “I could have…”

His eyes moved up to the other side of the table. Sitting there, looking profoundly uncomfortable, was Daniel. He was looking much the worse for wear; still proudly bearing the ripped and bloodied security jacket from the company, a sweat stained shirt underneath. James wondered why he hadn’t snapped up some of the dry cleaning that they kept running across. Maybe it just didn’t fit him? He was kind of a thicker guy, not that James would call him overly fat. He was looking at James with an expectant face, eyebrows raised like he was waiting for a reply.

“Wuh?” James cleared his throat, trying to unstick his voice. “Sorry, what? Did you say something?”

“I said thank you.” Daniel repeated. “And I’m sorry.”

“Why? Oh, because…” James willed his brain to catch up. Because what? Because everyone was mad at him for… oh.

Daniel wouldn’t meet James’ eyes. “Because I ran. You’re the only one who doesn’t hate me.”

“You know I told you to wait by the door for a reason, right?” James said. “Like, yeah, it sucks, but I wasn’t relying on you to fight to the death. You’re not a soldier, dude. Alanna and Theo are… well, they’re fuckin wrong!” James tensed up briefly, looking around the room as subtly as possible.

“They’re not here.”

“Then they’re fuckin’ wrong!” James repeated, but quieter. “Seriously. You had no way of knowing the door would vanish on our side. And you came back. For whatever reason, you didn’t just leave us there.” He sobered a bit, remembering the cost of this trip. “It’s not your fault.” James said, as much to himself as to Daniel. “But even if it was, being hostile doesn’t solve anything.” He stood up, leaning forward toward Daniel with his palms on the desk. “Look at me.” He said in a firm voice, and waited for Daniel to raise his head up. “We still need you. But even if we didn’t, a person’s value isn’t tied to … to their function.” James throat choked up as he spoke, and he broke eye contact for a second, glancing to the side as he blinked in confusion. Why had saying that hurt so much?

Daniel stood up quietly as James sat back down. He didn’t say anything as he turned to leave, not knowing how to react to the earnest ferocity of James’ words. He wasn’t used to people actually talking like that; with that kind of conviction and casual use of such powerful words. But before he left, he looked back over his shoulder. “I won’t let you down again.” He whispered.

“Good.” Was all James said.

_____

“God damn, I’m tired.” James said, legs burning from exertion as he surmounted the last ramp. Alanna had, unfortunately, remembered that she planned to drag him off to retrieve that briefcase. And so, here he was, about a half mile away from the third stop of the day for the rest of the survivors, climbing up an apartment block of a building again. And griping about it all the way. “Do we have any more coffee? I don’t care if it’s not magic anymore, I just need caffeine and we haven’t seen a vending machine for actual days.”

“What a weird sentence.” An annoyingly unwinded Alanna said from ahead of him.

“No kidding.” James sucked in a deep breath of air, feeling it stretch his lungs against his ribs, the slight pang of tired muscles in his chest reminding him of how much he’d been running around and getting punched these last few days. “So, coffee?”

Alanna gave him a casual head pet, her fingers running through his hair in a way that set his skin electric. “Sorry sleepy. We used it all up while you were stuck in the time loop, remember?”

“Oh yeah. That was a long day. Maybe that’s why I’m so tired?”

She snorted a laugh. “James, that was today.”

“Noooo. No. That can’t be right.” He exaggerated as they made their way through the still open hole that they’d left last time they were here. “Which one was it?” James asked, letting his eyes adjust to looking at the dark interior of the tower.

Alanna ruined that effort by clicking on a flashlight. “It was on the right. That’s all I remember. It had windows, though.”

Together, the two of them checked through the cubicle rooms. Almost immediately, James got a bad feeling on the back of his neck. “Something isn’t right here.” He whispered to Alanna, who nodded back, keeping the flashlight beam trained away from them so their eyes half-adjusted to the gloomy dark.

The smell of wet ink hung in the air, along with a bitter ozone tang. When they cleared the second cubicle and moved to the third, James felt his boot come down on something sticky, and a quick check with the flashlight showed pools of strider blood all across the floor, as well as a few of the corpses of the small creatures.

In the third cubicle, under a beam of light coming through the window, was the husk of a shellaxy. It had been torn apart, parts of its casing bent back and a thousand tiny scratches and scrapes left on the outside. A trail of coolant blood led from the hallway to here, where it had died in the light.

“What the fuck happened here?” Alanna softly ended the silence.

“I think it’s because we killed that thing.” James said, memories and logic helping him make the leap to the conclusion. “The hive mind messed with a lot of the functions here, and now it’s gone. It might be a while before we see things balance out.”

Alanna started checking over the desks in the wider room here, while James knelt next to the dead computer. “Sorry about this, friend.” He said, laying a hand on the metal case. He didn’t feel any particular familiarity with the shellaxy, but that didn’t mean he liked seeing it dead. These days, they didn’t feel so much like ambush predators as they did mechanical dogs that were just dedicatedly territorial. “Anything?” He called over to Alanna, who was standing at the desk, while he rose up and dusted off the knees of his slacks. “Alanna?” Walking over cautiously, James didn’t see anything wrong, just Alanna silently staring down at the desk. “Hey, what’s up?” He asked again, putting a hand on her shoulder as he leaned in. And then, he couldn’t help but mutter out a sharp, “Holy shit!”

She had found the briefcase.

They’d run across a few of them in their time here. Actually, James seemed to remember it was Alanna who found the first one. Indestructible, unopenable, immune to a lot of tricks. Kind of like half the old stuff on the SCP Foundation that got rewritten for being boring, now that James thought about it. Not that he’d accuse the cases of inducing boredom. And they always were found with work orders attached.

This one, of course, had said “answer the phone”, and the briefcase itself had appeared here in a brief moment when no one was watching the desk. Well, to the surprise of neither James nor Alanna, completing the order had opened the case.

There was a *lot* of cash inside this thing.

“Woah.” James reiterated himself. “That is… Jesus. Woah.”

“We’re rich.” Alanna said flatly.

“I mean, yeah, if we get out of here alive.” He told her, trying not to get too excited.

Alanna frumped at him. “Would you just… can we just have this for a minute?”

He laughed. It came out of him in great, stinging bursts, and until he ran out of breath, James felt *alive*. Alanna watched at first, and then joined in when she realized how absurd the whole thing was. Eventually, the two of them calmed down, leaning on each other and gasping and smiling.

“That’s a lot of money.” James said, looking down at the cracked case. Alanna rolled her eyes at the understatement. ‘A lot’ was rent for a couple months, or having a little extra to be comfortable eating out. This was a *staggering* amount of money. James picked up one of the stacks of bills and started flipping through it. “These are all tens.” He commented, and did some quick head math. “If all the stacks are like this, this is… this is a hundred thousand dollars.” He almost didn’t believe it.

“I don’t fucking believe it.” Alanna said. “I was expecting…”

“Maybe some orbs or something? Something new and weird?” James questioned as she trailed off.

“Exactly! Not anything useful!”

He bopped her on the shoulder with a loose fist. “You dragged me here and you didn’t think it would be worth it?” James chuckled as he processed that. “That’s just rude!”

“Whatever, you need the exercise.” Alanna said. “Also-”

James cut her off, holding up a hand at his side. Alanna froze, and James tilted his head to listen. He’d heard something, and he wasn’t going to let anything get the drop on them *now*.

There it was again. Soft skittering. Now that was something James was becoming uncomfortably familiar with. He checked Alanna, who was moving slightly away from him and standing at alert. She’d heard it too.

With a click that sounded like a gunshot in the quiet air, James closed the briefcase. And as if that was the signal, the surviving striders in the tower swarmed through the door.

They moved like a coordinated team, some of them running across the floor while others made less obvious breaches across the walls or ceiling. They moved quickly to surround James, perhaps hoping to take him down quickly, or perhaps simply acting on feral instinct. Over ten small, but heavy, frames scribing their way to close the distance a lot faster than most people would expect a stapler to move.

If normal people expected staplers to move at all. Because of the whole ‘stationary object’ thing. The metaphor kinda got away from James.

Shaking his head in amusement at his own thoughts, he stepped forward and crushed the first strider underfoot.

He was pretty sure the thing didn’t expect a strike from that far away. These things clearly had experience, or just knowledge, of how to fight larger enemies, and if James had run into this pack on his first day, he’d be injured or worse for sure. But James had some experience himself in fighting swarms. And since cracking that purple orb that boosted his acceleration, his movements had felt… snappier. He could go from standing to a burst of motion in a heartbeat, and closing the distance here was easy. He also felt the acceleration boost kick in as he kicked down, his foot connecting faster than it probably should have, and cratering the chitin of the lead strider.

There was a pause, and then the rest of the pack rushed them.

Next to him, Alanna caught one of the ceiling spiders out of the air, and pitched it into another one at high speed. Twirling his crowbar, James caught one on the wall, hitting hard enough to crack it, with the extra force putting the crowbar a half inch into the wall itself. He slid his feet around as they fought, keeping the striders on the floor from getting into range of a lunge at his ankles, and sending out kicks and stomps when it was convenient. Likewise, Alanna mostly just grabbed the ones that got too close to within arm range, and either used them as projectiles against the others, or ripped them apart and discarded them like used tissue.

At some point, the survivors realized how this was going, and scrambled to make it out the door or windows. James and Alanna let them go; a few extra small orbs wasn’t worth either the exertion or the violence.

James looked down at the wreckage around them. Stooping down, he swept up a couple of glittering golden orbs in his hand. “Do you ever worry that we’re getting too used to this?”

“No.” Alanna answered firmly. “Getting used to this lets us survive, and improve. It’s not gonna make us monsters, but it’s still on us to use what we earn here to do something aside from just keep killing things here.”

“Ah, battlefield philosophy.” James smiled. “I love how you get, like, aggressively, actively political whenever either A, you’ve been in a fight, or B, there’s anyone older than you around.”

“That second one isn’t true!” She said while James fetched up the rest of the orbs.

He wiped strider ichor off his fingers, and scuffed his boots across the carpet. “That second one is absolutely true. Do you remember that time you met my dad?”

“Your dad is casually homophobic, and no one was telling him.” Alanna gabbed the briefcase.

“See, you do remember.” James said with a grin.

“I don’t get how you put up with that. You *have a boyfriend*.” She snarled.

James shrugged. “He’s my dad.” He said, simply, as if that were a reason. “Anyway. Let’s get out of here before something else shows up. James tossed his friend a few of the yellow dots as he cracked the few in his own hand.

[+1 Skill Rank : Cleaning - Kitchen - Commercial]

[+1 Skill Rank : Wildlife - Sweden]

[+1 Skill Rank : Instrument - Bass Guitar]

“Get anything good?” Alanna asked.

“I have an important question.” He said in a serious tone, trying hard to keep a straight face. When Alanna turned to look at him with a worried expression, he continued, “Are you prepared to date a bassist?”

“Oh no. This marks the end of our relationship.” She said, holding the hand with the orbs to her heard. “Truly no romance could survive such an upheaval.” Then she gave him a ferocious grin, and closed her fist around her own orbs.

[+1 Skill Rank : Animals - Horses - Training]

[+1 Skill Rank : History - Warfare - Mexican-American War]

[+1 Skill Rank : Vehicle Operation - VTOL Craft - EC635]

“How bout you?” James asked.

“I got a worryingly specific one for a… I wanna say helicoptor?” Alanna told him.

“They’re all worryingly specific.” James said as they made their way back to the breach in the tower, preparing himself for the long climb down and the longer walk back, now that he was even *more* exhausted.

“Hey.” Alanna asked him as they reached the bottom, shifting her grip worriedly on the briefcase she held.

“Yeah?” James prompted when she didn’t keep going.

“What are you gonna do with your share?” She said with an ear to ear grin.

_____

Basecamp wasn’t anything impressive this time. This was the third spot they’d moved the whole group to today. Though, ‘today’ encompassed parts of two different actual real world days. They were running low on time, and no one was getting much sleep if they were going to make it to the exit on schedule.

So they’d set up in a four way intersection, not bothering to fortify or resupply. Just grabbing all the chairs they could, and letting people take a break for a bit while the next route was scouted out. According to Daniel, it was mostly a straight shot from here back, just a long ways to go. James was simultaneously relieved, and also annoyed, that their path didn’t take them to the bathrooms. It wasn’t that he desperately needed a toilet in his life - though the last few days in here hadn’t actually made him comfortable using trash cans as makeshift chamberpots - it was more just that it was the first real point of interest that he and Anesh had ever found, and he still wanted to explore it someday.

As he and Alanna walked back into the zone controlled by humanity, James was almost instantly greeted by Theo, who wore an expression that wasn’t quite a frown, but certainly wasn’t a smile. “We’ve got a little extra food, but we don’t really have any way to transport stuff. One of the scavenge teams says they see bags every now and then, but they didn’t want to touch them without asking first. Do you know about those?”

James took a few seconds to, in his head, echo thoughts of how exhausted he was. He’d kicked in the door, saved two people, saved another fifty people, lost a friend, gotten in a boss fight, gotten in a series of regular fights, gotten in a couple things that were fight-shaped but horrifyingly one sided in his favor, and also jogged a lot. Why was this his job? The next point his brain brought up is that this felt like exactly the sort of manager Theo had been at work. Efficient, cared about her people, broke the rules constantly, but had some kind of inhuman knowledge of her own limitations, and wasn’t afraid to bump stuff up the chain when needed.

When, exactly, had James ended up at the top of that chain of command? He looked around him, and realized that when he looked at some of the people in their convoy, he started thinking of them in terms of their potential as delvers. It wasn’t that he was planning to abandon everyone else, even after they got out. Far from it. He and Alanna had talked about setting up a fund from the money to help people who’d been Forgotten get their lives back together. But he was also seeing the upside of having a cabal of potential teammates who were already in on the secret, and had the survival skills.

“In on the… secret.” He muttered the last word, turning it over in his head. “Hm.”

“Is that an answer?” Theo asked bluntly, getting a mild chuckle from Alanna as the other woman passed by her, heading off to find where they’d stashed the gear bags and see if the briefcase would fit in one. They didn’t quite trust anyone here with access to a cool hundred grand just yet, so that was staying between them for now. Their own little secret.

James shook off the weird feeling at the texture of his own thoughts, and nodded at Theo. “Most of them are fine. I… seem to remember something about cutpurses? I can’t honestly tell you if we ran into some bags that try to eat your arm, or if that was just a name I preemptively made up so that I could one-up Anesh. Be careful, I guess. Like, dunk something in there first and see what happens. Should be okay, though.”

“Why cutpurses?”

“Cutpurse is another name for a thief, and there was a purse that tried to eat someone’s wrist. I think? I legit cannot remember if that’s real or not. This place is doing weird things to my sense of what’s fiction and what’s not.” James shrugged.

“Oooookay.” Theo drawled. Then she shrugged, made a note, and told him, “That's all I needed from you. Thanks.”

There was a moment when James felt the mantel on his shoulders. There were a dozen names from as many sources for it, but in this moment, he fancied himself some sort of fantasy world guild master.

Then his loyal subordinate was gone, and the flow of quiet conversation picked up around him again. He hadn't noticed it before, but all the people nearby stopped talking whenever Theo asked him something. Weird.

“That's taken care of.” Alanna said as she came back to him, dragging a chair behind her.

“Is that for me?” James asked, echoing with his mouth what is aching feet were crying.

“What? No. This is mine, get your own chair!” She smirked as she plopped into it.

With a groan of exhaustion, James started looking around for a free seat, and resigned himself to sitting on the floor. Just as he was about to lower himself to the hard carpet, though, one of the people nearby stood up and gave their wheeled office chair a push in his direction. “Oh! Thanks!” James called over to the other guy, getting a nod and a delighted grin.

“Do they remind you of anyone?” Alanna dipped her head toward the trio nearby, now with one of their number on the floor. The guy had a round face with tanned skin glasses and a ponytail. Next to him, on the chair he leaned against, was the mohawked girl James had talked to a couple hours ago. Their third member was another guy, this one with a bushy beard that James could only describe as a hipster look, with a pair of ear studs and a nose ring. The three of them were sharing a laugh about something, and James saw one of them toss the girl a yellow orb as she won whatever bet they'd made. Curled up in their center was a flickering rainbow distortion in the rough shape of a large rat, or a mid sized dog.

“Why would they remind me of anyone?” James asked, confused.

“Are you serious?” Alanna asked incredulously.

James tilted back in the chair to rest his head on the wall. “Am I missing something?”

“James, they're two nerdy guys and a sexy punk girl with their dungeon companion learning how to be delvers. They are literally over there betting on who found the weirdest candy name, and one of them just won off of Baby Things. This couldn't be more on the nose if one of them was named Anesh.”

“The guy with the beard is named James, actually. The mongausse is his.”

“Did you feign ignorance just so you could tell me that awful, awful name for the glitterdog?” She demanded.

“Glitterdog is a dumb name.” He stated. “Mongausse is genius, because..”

“I get the joke!” She mock yelled. “I just...wish I'd thought of it first!”

“Dave would have appreciated my pun.” James said with a soulful pout.

Alanna's gaze turned hard. “That's not cool, man.”

“I.. yeah, okay. I guess I'm still holding out hope that he's alive.” James said. “We can still get him out with a blue, if we find anymore. Maybe.”

Sarah overheard the end half of their conversation as she walked up to them. She'd been helping Daniel map out their way forward, copying notes a dozen times to pass out to different groups to try to minimize the odds of someone getting lost. “Is this about the blues?” She asked them. It took James a second longer than he'd like to admit to recognize who was talking, but then his brain processed something small about the shape of her face, and it all just clicked. So he nodded to her, half in greeting, half in acknowledgemrnt. “Theo wanted me to let you know that she used a couple to try to restock the bandages.”

“How'd that go?” James asked, genuinely curious. And also grateful for the distraction.

Sarah shrugged. “Mixed. One of them paid her rent, one of them actually did what she wanted. She complained afterward that it made her even more tired since it just changed it so she actually picked up a medkit in here somewhere. “

“Wait, it changed the past?” Alanna asked, alarmed.

“Guess that's another point in the ‘worry about causality’ column.” James said. “Still, she felt the extra weight? That's weird. Why didn't it just spawn a medkit?”

“The blues never spawn physical objects.” Sarah stated, like it was obvious. “Did you guys not notice that?”

“Honestly, we don't know a lot of stuff about the orbs.” James admitted, chewing on his lower lip. “Like how to use the blues to make magic items, or how to absorb the oranges. Not that we tried that yet; those things are hard to find.”

“You don't… you can't make magic items.” Sarah mentioned, trying to find the words. “You have to make a broadcaster, and wait for it to build one.”

“Wat.” James and Alanna spoke in unison.

Sarah shrugged. “You know! One of those weird pattern things? Then it'll form a magic item over time. It's how they show up in the first place. You seriously never found any?”

“No, though that does sound like the totem that Lily made out of that red orb.”

“What the hell are red orbs?” Sarah demanded.

“The emotion ones. You get them from traps.” Alanna told her.

“What the duck!” Sarah exclaimed. “I never found any of those!”

“Duck? Also you have to disarm the traps.” James said.

“I don't like swearing. “

“Noted. How did we ever stay friends? I swear all the time.”

“It's a constant trial.”

Alanna huffed a laugh. “Tell me about it.” She said, prompting James to stick out his tongue at her in defiance.

“So, what have you figured out to do, and with what types? Let's trade intel here.” Sarah asked the two of them, ignoring the casual byplay between her once and future friends.

James didn't hesitate. This was something that had the potential to save their lives, and beyond that, it didn't even occur to him to hold back secrets now. Secrets ended friendships, after all.

There was that weird thought again.

“Okay, so, for yellows, we know all three uses. And all three for blues now, too. Purples we've only figured out how to crack, haven't tried absorbing. We know that they can make infomorphs, though, as the third. Reds we know crack and totemize. Oranges, same, with the space warping thing. Greens, just cracking.” James laid it out as well as he could remember. “Oh hey, don’t we have a bunch of oranges now? We should test those.”

When he finished talking, he noticed the expression on Sarah's face. Somewhere between shock and awe, mouth half open, eyes wide. “What the hell did you have to do to learn how to absorb a yellow?” She half yelled at him. “How do you absorb *time*?!”

“Oh! Of course!” Alanna interjected. “They're time! That's the theme of the yellows!”

“You didn't even…?”

James answered her before she could finish. “We’re still learning. Also, we just treated them as a power source, and it worked. It has serious drawbacks though, logistically.”

“Well fish, that's great.” Sarah relented, slumping back in her chair. “Oh, you said three!” She remembered what she was going to say before James had steamrolled her thoughts. “Four. There's four uses per orb.”

“Seriously? What's the fourth for the yellows?”

“Making life, duh.” She answered.

Alanna and James shared a worried glance. “I thought that was the totem...er, broadcast use?” Alanna asked.

“No, that's the sensation one.” Sarah informed her. “How is a crawly thing a totem anyway?”

“I mean… we have Ganesh. And Pendragon. And *that*.” She gestured at the mongausse.

“Yeh, that's the Office use.” Sarah said. “Officium Mundi can use the orbs for one thing that no one…” the words trailed off.

“That no one else can?” James grinned, as Ganesh alighted on his shoulder in a dramatic moment.

There was a quiet beat as Sarah looked between the two of them, before she took a deep breath and leaned away. “How come *you* got the mystical bullshit chosen one powers?” She demanded. “Can you turn blues into quests, too?”

James just laughed.

If only it had actually been as easy as she thought.

“Okay.” He settled down a bit. “Let’s go over this one at a time. First off, what the hell are the quests?”

Sarah was halfway through her explanation of what the briefcases represented when Daniel came up to interrupt them. With a casual tap on the shoulder and a shake of his head, James deflected the smoldering glare Alanna put on at the kid’s presence, and asked what was up.

“Theo says if we keep moving at this rate, we’ll be at the door with three hours to spare.” He told them, trying to avoid looking at Alanna even if she wasn't directly scowling at him. “But there's something weird between here and there, on one of the choke points. She wants you to check it out, if that's okay?”

“Sure thing. What is it?” James asked, resigning himself to sore soles as he stood up again and rubbed at his aching calves.

“Path has it labeled as a server room.”

“Oh, duck.” Sarah muttered from the back of the group.

_____

“I am *so pissed* about this.” James sharply hissed out, handing the binoculars back to Alanna.

They'd taken the time to confirm these ones weren't cursed. No use going through that again.

They’d had to assemble a sort of watchtower to see over the next ridge. It was weird that this part of the office had ridges at all, but there was no sense whining about it. It wasn’t quite a solid wall, instead just a series of cubicle panels that jutted out against each other, leaving easy paths up, but still requiring anyone traveling up it to either take a winding route, or take the hard way and climb if they wanted to go in a straight line.

The tower they were in was hardly a masterpiece of construction. James and Alanna had more or less cheated, using the properly square panes of local cubicle walls to click together into a tall box. It was stable enough to support the two of them, tall enough to get a peek over the elevation change in front of them, and absolutely not where James wanted to spend any more time. It wobbled. A lot.

“What? I thought you’d be super psyched to see this. Come on! Where’s your love of high fantasy?” Alanna challenged him as she took the optics back and stole another look.

They were the forward scouting team in its entirety. Turned out, Ganesh actually did need to sleep, and Sarah didn't want to tag along. Said something about being a third wheel. The rescued humans, also, had been fine to stay back; even the ones that were picking up on the dungeon and treating the orbs like candy had heeded the warning from Theo almost religiously.

It was almost uncomfortable to James. For all that he could see the fantasy of leading a skilled organization of delver groups, it was actually kind of awkward to have that responsible just suddenly dumped on him. Then again, it might not play out that way, and ‘sudden lifestyle changes’ was basically the motto for his group since he found this place.

Realizing he should probably reply to Alanna, he motioned to their route forward. “I’m just mad because I already used the word ‘maimframe’ for that giant shellaxy.” He considered giving a casual middle finger to the terrain in front of them, but settled for just quietly brooding.

The problem, because there was always a problem, was summed up nicely by Alanna. “The problem, because there is always a problem, is that we can’t go around.” Alanna said. “Is there a reason we can’t go around?”

“Daniel says there’s a wall behind it. Like, one of the ones that we can’t go over. The only door is on the other side of the server room.”

“I don’t know if I trust his judgement.” Alanna said, quietly at first, then louder when she realized she was still mad at Daniel and wanted James to know it.

“Well, it’s not his, it’s Path’s. Which I think is the name of the thing that possesses him now.”

Alanna turned up the corners of her mouth. “Ah, like Secret.”

“It’s not a secret, he told us about it.” James said, getting an eye roll from Alanna.

“Okay, well, fine. But that doesn’t make me happier about this.”

“It’s just.. I mean, it’s a dragon, right?” It was well past time one of them said it, and James figured it might as well be him.

And there it was. Up past the ledge, down a fairly short hallway where the cubicles looked almost like a normal office, there was visible a glass wall. It was the first time James had seen glass used as a building material at all here in the Office, and it kind of surprised him. There weren’t windows anywhere, except for that one that looked out on the ‘outside’. He didn’t count that, though. It felt more like a trap than a part of the structure. Here, though, he could clearly see full length glass pane walls, at least two of them with a metal support bar in between. They rose up to a height of probably just over ten feet, and then capped off at a miniature ceiling for the room itself. And even from here, James could see the ceiling wasn’t nearly so normal. Jagged chunks of steel and glass sloped out of it, giving the impression of those spikes that some buildings used to keep birds off. He could also see half of a rather large fan that looked like it was part of a cooling system.

It was a server room. Made quite obvious by the construction, the air conditioning, and also by the several metal frame server racks that James could spot through the transparent walls. But the interior wasn’t neatly arranged rows of hardware and storage devices. Instead, through one of the empty racks, it was just possible to spot an amalgamation of hard drives and metal case plating, curled up in a cleared circular area in the center of the floor. It had dim blue LEDs for eyes, six of them on each side in two rows of three each, curving up a streamlined curve of a metal skull. Through half-open slots, James could see RAM sticks sharpened to razor edges to serve as its teeth; a few of them broken into jagged chunks showing evidence of battles already fought. It lay on a bed of orbs. Dozens of them. Hundreds. Yellows and oranges, purples and reds, and a few odds and ends that James was positive must be blue-enhanced objects. A bed of endless wealth. The one visible foreclaw dangled over the edge of the hoard, showing looped cords that appeared to have no beginning or end, poking through the cold metallic plate that formed wicked claws. The rest of the dragon, and it *was* a dragon, wasn’t visible. But judging by its size relative to the orbs it rested upon, James was willing to guess that it was somewhere around thirty feet long. Assuming it was... well, normal dragon proportioned.

“Hey, what’s normal for a dragon?” He asked Alanna. She shot him a sideways glance that communicated disbelief at him even asking. “Right.” He corrected. “I mean, I figured I’d ask, just in case.”

“Fair.” She said. “Anyway, you can still name it something. What about a serverus?”

“Like… a Snape?” He raised his eyebrows.

“Like Cerberus.” Alanna corrected.

James considered it, but ultimately shook his head. “It only has one head.” He said. “It’s important.” He informed her. “Anyway, we’ll think of something. Or just call it a dragon. Isn’t there an anime about a data dragon or something?”

“You’d know more than I would.” She reminded him with a smile. “Ya big nerd.”

“You are *just* as bad as I am when it comes to nerd stuff!” James reminded her with a quiet laugh. “Anyway. Let’s get back to the others. We’ll need to see if Sarah has any tips for getting around this. Somehow, I don’t think it’ll be easy to Bilbo Baggins fifty people past a dragon’s lair without a problem.” He shuffled back, careful to keep his footing on the less-than-stable platform before sliding off it, catching himself on the lip, and dropping to the floor.

Alanna followed after, and the two of them headed back. They kept to cautious movements, since the office had proven repeatedly that this far in, there was no such thing as a safe and quiet moment. But ultimately, they made it back alright, and started planning to bring everyone up to the ridge.

While James started trying to figure out how to slay a dragon with a crowbar.

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argusthecat

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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