The car rolled through an arid, dusty desert. James was fuming while Alanna was rocking out to whatever James had playing through the radio. It was, all things considered, exactly what their last few weeks had been leading to all along.
“I just hate... how much of a waste... of time this has... been.” James hashed out his sentence between Alanna belting out the lyrics to Starlight Brigade. “I know Anesh felt like he’d found a bunch of leads, but with the exception of that actual literal serial killer, not a single one of those was a dungeon.”
Alanna cut herself off mid-chorus, clearing her throat and slipping back into conversational tone. “Ah, come on. I mean, at least we stopped some murders. And we got to eat at that ridiculously good burger place back on the border of Texas. That’s not nothing!”
Sighing as he shifted lanes to pass around a fuel tanker, James kept grumbling. “I just wanted to find another dungeon.” He griped. “We fucking know they’re out there now, and it’s possible that most of them aren’t nearly as friendly as ours.”
“Friendly?” Alanna choked on the water bottle she was sipping at, keeping hydrated under the October sun. “James, do you remember when it sent an army of the largest, and also sharpest, things it had to murder all of us?”
“Yeah, but it didn’t leave the borders.” James responded, explaining his logic. “Karen did. Monster-Karen. We need a better name for that. But anyway, *that* kidnapped people, but the Office just kind of… was a dangerous place?”
“Are you coming around on my point of view?” Alanna asked, not having to put in much effort to hide her smile with how surprised she was. “I remember we had this conversation back when we were considering if we’d have to kill the dungeon.”
James shrugged, glancing over at her briefly before looking back to the road. “I mean, evidence sort of holds your theory up, right? The dungeons are the Grand Canyon’s of mystical bullshit. They’re dangerous, obviously, but not hostile. Or! Or. The one we know of is.”
“We *know* of one other one. Just not… where it is. Or anything important about it.” Alanna matched James’ shrug as she turned up the AC. “What’s actually bothering you?” She questioned her partner.
The question wasn’t out of nowhere. The level of annoyance that James had been radiating for the last thirty miles was way above what he normally projected, especially around his friends. Alanna knew James well enough to know more or less how he operated; at any given moment, James would have one thing that he was worrying about, and as time went by, he would either remove that worry by fixing a problem, or he would go slowly insane. And all that worry and anxiety and annoyance would spill over into other related conversations. Like this one. Until James had rolled the problem over in his mind long enough, and found an opportunity to discuss it.
So, the question. “What’s really bothering you?” It wasn’t out of nowhere. It was Alanna’s way of providing a crack in the dam for James to make use of.
The silence stretched on for a while, sudden and oppressive in its appearance. Even the music seemed to join in, James’ eclectic playlist opting for now as a good time to introduce some quiet saxophone jazz. But eventually, he had to respond. “What if we can’t go back.”
It wasn’t a question, not really. It was a statement, a lot of thought in a small number of words. What if those colossal beasts were the norm now, what if their entrance into the place was guarded, what if it was too dangerous, or too angry, or simply too aware of them to make it possible to go in and live. What if, what if, what if.
What if this was it. Their lives had held some magic, and now they didn’t anymore. What if eventually, Rufus and Ganesh would leave, or worse. Pendragon would starve slowly, the magic items would lose their charge, the skulljacks would become normal. And they’d be left with a few random skills that they never trained in, but didn’t make them stand out at all. And Alanna would be basically superhuman, but what else was new.
And the magic would fade out.
“Not gonna happen.” Alanna promised him.
James snatched the flare of annoyance in his heart and slammed it down before it could make him say something he’d regret. “But how do you *know*?” He asked.
She just shrugged, a gesture that he caught out of the corner of his eye. “I don’t know anything.” She admitted, shifting in her chair to try to find any position comfortable for her long legs. “But worst case scenario, we can always sell it and get jobs as guides to people with tanks.” She let the humor out of her voice and stuck a hand on James’ arm. “But we’re not done. Not even close, got it?”
James tried to smile as he replied. “Yeah, I got it. It’s just…”
Alanna nodded back. “It’s just... there’s a lot of risks, and not many chances, yeah? But don’t worry. We’ll get through this. You’re not one guy fighting staplers anymore, man.”
And just like that, James felt the tension that he'd been holding in for weeks seep out. Because his partner was right. He wasn’t alone. Not anymore. He had friends and companions and a roommate in his own head, and all of them cared.
And right now, as he drove through tan and red rocks and endless dirt, as the music played and Alanna reclined in her chair to fiddle on her phone, that was enough.
“I feel like every time there’s a Reddit argument about…” Alanna started in, before James groaned and cut her off.
“You need to stop reading the comments.” He thunked his head back onto the headrest behind him, briefly pressing his eyes closed on the empty stretch of highway.
Alanna looked over at him with a frown. “If I stop reading the comments, I won’t be forearmed against idiots like this in real life.” She said.
“But it makes you so angry!” He countered. “You’re just pissed off, and it spills over into being angry at not just the problem, but, like, at me too, for not being as angry as you.” James winced as he said it, and hoped it wasn’t too mean.
If it was, Alanna didn’t take it that way. “I appreciate that you can still stay calm in this modern hellscape of an era.” She said with a shrug. “But personally, I *am* angry all the time. Like, look at the - and I use the term loosely - ‘discussion’ about transgender persons using bathrooms. Half these people are arguing in bad faith, and the other half are outright Disney villains!”
James didn’t look over at her phone. “I choose to believe you.” He said instead, keeping his eyes more or less on the road. “And… yeah, okay, I’m pissed about it too. But what can I do about it?”
“Well, I mean, *vote*, to start with.”
“I do vote. It feels petty and ineffective, even if it does make me part of a long-term aggregate solution.” James eyed the sign for an upcoming rest stop with mild consideration.
“You made half those words up.” Alanna accused him “Okay, fine. Talk to people about it. Don’t be your weirdly shy self, actually call out harassment and shit when you see it. And *don’t* tell me you don’t notice it, because I know you do.”
“...Yeah, I do.” James said quietly. “It just still doesn’t feel like a *solution* to people being… assholes.” He trailed off, mouth half open, head tilted in thought.
“Also,” Alanna picked up when he stopped talking, not noticing his state, “I may not be the person to talk to about this. Maybe ask… Mia? Is Mia trans? I cannot remember.” Alanna looked over at him, tilting her phone down. “Uh… are you okay?” She said, raising her eyebrows at James’ expression.
He nodded, rubbing at his chin. “What about the dungeon?”
“...The *dungeon*, James, is not a gend… well, actually, I don’t fucking know what gender the dungeon is. Sure, fuck it, why not. The dungeon is trans.” She rolled her eyes, fluttering a hand in the air.
“No, you dork. Be serious.” James paused for a second, then cracked a warm smile. “Okay, no, don’t be serious. But this is a real thought; we should keep an eye out in the dungeon for something that could help with this kind of situation.”
“I’m not sure how okay I am with you calling being trans a ‘situation’.” Alanna poked at him playfully.
James flinched, still smiling though. “Stop that! And I’m just saying; D&D has an cringingly proud history of magic items that change genders. I’m not expecting to find a perfect fit, but if we could find something like that… well fuck, we’re already trying to give people skulljacks, right? We’re not pretending that the status quo is the best possible option. We should just, you know, do that thing you always talk about. Use our power to shape the world into something better.”
“Fuck, I didn’t think you were listening.” Alanna grinned wolfishly.
“I always listen to you.” James said with perfect sincerity. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alanna’s eyes widen as his words connected. “Okay, less sappy. What other massive social issues should we be on the lookout for easy fixes to? Global warming?”
“I feel like we should ask Anesh about this for some reason. I feel like he’s going to yell at us for something if we overcommit to *another* sweeping worldwide magical
improvement project.” Alanna mused, getting a laugh out of James.
The car rolled on into the Arizona afternoon, air conditioning and good company the only thing keeping the inhabitants alive. And even as the desert around them baked in the sun, the two of them jokingly hashed out the future of humanity, only half joking.
“Hey. I miss you guys.” Anesh opened with, in defiance of normal conversation order.
James gave a quiet smile to the face on the other end of the video chat, his mouth moving in accordance with his wiseass instinct rather than the spark of love he felt in his chest. “Ah, you just miss having sex now that you’re used to it.” Alanna snorted out a choked laugh next to him, holding up the back of her hand to cover her mouth.
“Oh hey James!” Anesh spoke loudly, tipping his eyes up to stare at the ceiling. “Yeah, good to see you too! What’s that? Who’s in the room with me? Oh yeah, say hi to your sister, you arse!” On James’ end, he saw Anesh tilt the camera of his phone down to show Kayle sitting on the couch, spoonful of cereal halfway to her open mouth.
“Oh, whatever,” she yipped back, putting too much emphasis on the ‘ever’ for James to not think of his sister as a dumb teenager. “It’s not like I don’t know you guys are fucking. All the time. Besides, James pays me to not tell dad.”
Alanna raised an eyebrow at him, and when Anesh got the phone back into place, he did too. “What?” James defended himself. “My dad is, as Alanna has mentioned before, kinda sorta super homophobic.”
“That’s really sad.” Anesh said with a frown. “I was hoping to meet your parents at some point.”
“First? Ow, too real. Second, I’ve *told you* about my parents. Why would you want to meet them?” James questioned.
Anesh shrugged, still a little down. “It’s just something that’s important to me in a relationship.”
“Oof.” Alanna said from the passenger seat. “We’ll have to figure that one out later. My mom is… Oof.”
“Big oof, indeed.” James nodded. “Anyway, Arizona is both hot and normal, as far as we can tell, and we’re probably going to fly back in the next week or so.” He delivered the report to Anesh, who was currently acting as command and control for the various projects that their new team had going on.
It was, James mused to himself, basically exactly what he'd always wanted. A real life guild of adventurers. Only, secret, which was kind of annoying, since he had to not tell the whole internet how cool his life had gotten. And also just a *lot* of work, which was exhausting.
Exhausting in a good way, though. And he had not one, but two Aneshs (Aneshi?) to help him out. In theory, they had a nearly unlimited number of Anesh-based life forms to help out, actually. In the aftermath of the great escape, it had taken James almost two days to finally get around to actually *asking* Anesh why there was a backup of him running around. As it turned out, it was pretty simple, in the kind of way that ‘dungeon nonsense’ was ever simple.
Anesh had, over the week while the were in the dungeon, managed to figure out how to absorb an orange orb. The one single one that he’d kept in reserve for almost a month. According to him, the secret was understanding the concept of them. Just like yellows were time, and blues were tools, oranges were the dungeon’s avatar of complexity. And after absorbing it, he’d gotten himself a… well, calling it a power would’ve been kind of off, in a few ways.
A job, maybe? A task, perhaps. Or, to the mind of someone like James who played a lot of card games, a triggered ability.
Point was, Anesh now had his own personal sidequest. Once a week, all he had to do was remove six license plates from separate white four-door sedans that had functioning radios, and boom. Reward granted, ability activated. In this case, the outcome was pretty simple. An extra Anesh.
As he was the first and only person to absorb an orange, they were unclear on whether or not this would be a similar effect for anyone else. Would the quest change? The reward? Both? Probably both, hopefully both. Did it work like the blues where you could only absorb so many at a time? What did it mean to be two copies of the same person? How did the *copy* feel? Could they even tell anymore which was which? The philosophical and moral questions this posed were absolutely mind boggling, and could have astounded humanity for *decades*. Hell, those questions *had* astounded humanity for almost as long as we’d had stories about magic and the future; this just took those hypotheticals and made them very real, pertinent issues. So of course, Anesh used it to double up on his university classes.
The skulljack technology that James and the other survivors smuggled out of the dungeon was critical for this whole process, allowing the two Aneshi to resync with each other every few days, to keep themselves as the same person and not diverge too far. But even without it, they were both just… Anesh. Maybe an Anesh who sometimes didn’t remember a conversation or a plan, but Anesh nonetheless.
They alternated duties these days. One of them always available to report in to, or request assistance from. They had a roster of volunteers to keep exploring the dungeon when the time came to check if it was safe, they had people keeping in touch with the survivors that didn’t want anything to do with the dungeon ever again, they had a few people making contact with possible assets to the guild, including trying to find reputable doctors and researchers to help publicize the skulljack technology in a safe way. There was even a couple people whos job was specifically to stress test the orbs, and try to find applications for them. Last James had heard from them, they had determined that the orbs weren’t real, and that was when he’d gotten a headache and stopped listening. They had a lot going on, was the point.
And all that information flowed through Anesh.
The money flowed through him, too. And he was careful to manage what they had, because even though James and Alanna had pulled out what felt like a small fortune to them, a huge chunk of that had gone to repairing the lives of the survivors, especially in the immediate aftermath of the escape. Which is why James and Alanna found themselves driving cross country in an old rental car, instead of flying to all their stops.
At least James had convinced him to let them fly first class on the way home. Small victories.
James pulled his mind back on track as Alanna said something to Anesh, and he realized he’d zoned out of the conversation.
“Damn.” Anesh was saying. “I didn’t put high odds on Arizona, but I was almost certain about the mall.” He rubbed at his nose on the other end of the video. “You’re sure?”
“Yeah, we..” Alanna started to say before James jumped back in.
“I’m not sure.” He cut her off, weathering a sharp glance. “I know, we didn’t find anything. But we’re not exactly the best detectives around. Even so, I’m almost certain that at least one person was hiding something.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, mimicking Anesh. “Look, we just don’t have the time or goonpower to search a whole shopping mall. We don’t have the ability to search *anything*, honestly.”
Alanna let out a long groan and shifted in her seat, kneeing the dash in front of her. “It’s the fucking time compression.” She griped. “We don’t even know if that’s a requirement, either! Every one of these fuckers could be different. Maybe it just opens on a full moon, or maybe you need more than two people. Who knows?! Every day’s an adventure!”
James snorted. “Alanna’s whining aside,” she bonked him on the forehead with her first two fingers. “Alanna’s legitimate concerns aside, if we assume a door is open for a few minutes a week, we… we cannot find that. We will not find that on purpose. We *need* to find the people who’ve already stumbled across it.”
That got a nod of understanding from Anesh. “Well, we can always send more people down to check it out later.” He paused. “It’s weird, saying that, huh?” The young man shook his head, video compression turning his face into a blur for a second on James and Alanna’s end. “Okay. Call it. Come home I’m getting lonely here anyway.”
From the background, a shouted “I *bet* you are!” Rang out.
“God dammit, Kayle.” James sighed at his sister’s words and Anesh’s blush, while Alanna burst out laughing.
“Please come back and kick your sister out.” Anesh begged, cheeks copper-red even through his darker skin. Clearing his throat, trying to recover some composure, he settled on repeating himself to his friends on the other end of the conversation. “But yeah, even if you didn’t recover any fancy new magical toys, come back. Need me to book your tickets?”
“Nah, we got it. Also, we may not have found dangerous magic, but we *did* find a place that sells awesome pie.” James perked up as he started talking about lunch, seeing a small nod from Alanna next to him as she fiddled with her own phone. “The diners down here are insane. They put cheese on apple pie, and it’s kinda good? And the filling was, like, crisp and gooey at the same time, and it was delicious.”
“Pie is the best desert.” Alanna added. “It’s sugar and fruit, which is more sugar, but it *feels* like you’re eating something mildly healthy.”
Anesh blinked slowly a couple of times, face caught in a look of puzzled curiosity. Eventually, he caught his train of thought, and replied, “Well, if nothing else, you figured out how to make me want pie from across the country. That’s *like* dangerous magic. Some kind of memetic weapon. Oh, how’s Secret doing?”
“Sleeping.” James shrugged. “He’s enjoying being more physical, but he needs to sleeps a lot. Also, we’re in Arizona. *Hardly* across the country.”
“Alright, we can catch up when we get home.” Alanna chimed in. “We gotta get going.” She held up her phone to show something on the screen to James.
He nodded back at her. “Right,” James spoke to Anesh. “We love you. Enjoy your pie!”
“What…” Anesh paused as there was a knock at the door. His head snapped around to look over at it, before turning back to the phone as he stood up. “Did you guys really-”
James hung up, cackling. “Oh, that was good timing!” He congratulated his partner in pie.
“Fuckin’ perfect.” Alanna said through her own laughter. “I’m tipping the delivery driver like a… a…” They both paused. “Yeah, that sentence had a lot more potential when I started it.” Alanna smiled, and James let out a small sigh again, still caught up in the great mood. “Whatever, he’s getting a tip.”
“Unquestionably!” Came the agreement from James. “Alright. I’m done with this fucking desert and it’s hateful sun. Ready to go home?”
It didn’t even take Alanna more than a heartbeat to decide. “Please.” She declared, tired conviction in her voice.
Three weeks of flying and driving to a half-dozen potential dungeon hotspots. Pretending to be FBI or DEA agents, or in one case, *lawyers*. Talking to tens or maybe hundreds of people who lived and worked in areas where an Anesh and his statistics team had found things that just didn’t add up. Missing people, missing time, missing *buildings* in one case. That last one, it turned out, was actually just an unlicensed and illegal demolition; James had wanted to take the bribe, Alanna talked him out of it.
Three weeks away from their new cabal of those who were in on the secret of the dungeons. Those places outside of space where impossible creatures and even more unlikely treasures waited, along with danger to match. And those people, almost fifty of them, that James and his friends had pulled out of their prison in the middle of one. Many had simply wanted to rebuild their almost forgotten lives, but more than James had expected had asked to join them. Maybe for revenge, maybe for curiosity, maybe because a lot of them were like him, and really did believe in the idea of using whatever weird technology they could find to advance humanity. James was looked to as a savior, and a leader, by those people, and for all that he didn’t think he was worth it, it hadn’t taken him long to find his footing, and find himself looking forward to being back at the “home office”.
Three weeks away from his boyfriend. That was something new for James, honestly. He'd never really had a relationship, except for one girlfriend that lasted a week before she got annoyed with him back in high school. James had always sort of assumed he was bisexual, it was just something unique for him to actually experience it. At least their girlfriend was here with him, stuck in the same overheated car. That was *also* something new, but somehow not that much of a speedbump for any of the trio. They were, if nothing else, open minded millennials. James had a suspicion that if they weren't, they never would have made it out of the office alive.
Three weeks of a series of moments of “wait, why didn't I think of this before”, from both himself and Alanna. And Anesh, and Dave, and Sarah, and everyone, really. Texts sent in cryptic wording just in case anyone was listening in, hinting at possible things to check at some future date. They didn't dare get a Slack, that would just be too easy of a target if the Wizard Police *were* real, as James was increasingly suspecting. And so those ideas built up, buzzing in the back of everyone’s heads until the moment they could have one big meeting and figure out their next plan of action.
Three weeks of anticipation. Of waiting for the next move. Of fearing that life was slowly sliding back to “normal”. Of fast food and motel rooms, of not having the energy to do anything but fall into bed at night, of growing more and more bored of the road. James was, he’d learned, not a road trip kind of person. He wanted to be. Maybe he needed less of a goal. Less of that ember of hope that they’d find something *weird*, that little ember constantly crushed out with every failure.
Three weeks of letting the one dungeon they *knew* was real sit and stew and wait for them to return.
Well. Three weeks ended today. Time to head back now.
They shouldn’t keep their friends waiting.
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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!