Eleanor Elias Chase sat in the passenger seat of a semi truck cab, and wondered how the fuck her life had gotten to this point.
She was tired. Exhausted. So sleepy at this point that the dark highway outside and the rocking of the vehicle as it powered through the cool night was making her eyes heavy. She’d been tired for a couple weeks now.
That’s how long it had been since she’d deduced that the wizard police were real.
El really needed a better name for them, she decided. But not now.
Two weeks of shitty motels, of glances over her shoulder, of shaking fear as she went into her bank in a makeshift disguise to close out her account and get the last of her money. Almost two weeks of crappy road food, hitchhiking with whoever didn’t look like an axe murderer, and not ever enough sleep.
Two weeks since they’d come to her work, innocuously looking for ‘anything out of the ordinary’. Fuckers.
Eleanor couldn’t take the risk that they were after her, though. Because she really did have a secret, and really did have a reason to distrust the wizard police.
It had been six months since she’d found the Gate. Since she’d slipped into a world she wasn’t supposed to see, and started dredging it for personal gain. Since she’d begun exploring those endless roads where day and night were arbitrary, delving those towering spires of parking structures where no one ever came to collect their cars, but the security cameras were always watching, and running for her life from the nightmarish things that lived in gas stations and rest stops.
But oh, how she’d thought it was worth it. It was her own private secret. Just her, and her car, and an eternal road that she had a whole twelve hours on, every week. And the magic she’d dragged out had let her blackmail her way into college, helped her take her art to levels she never would have dreamed of before, and shown her a side of the world that was wondrous and broken all at once. And she’d ignored the risks, that the government might be watching, that The Man didn’t take kindly to citizen wizards, that someday, someone would show up at her door and she’d disappear forever.
And then they had, and she’d run like hell, and never looked back. Well, never turned back. She’d miss her mom, even if the woman was overbearing as fuck. And her absolutely-not-girlfriend Izzy. Fuck, poor Izzy. El would have to find a way to rob a bank and send the money back for her. She’d miss her car. El hadn’t ever *gotten* why anyone was that into project cars and the minutiae of engine specs and tire contact points, until her car had turned into her personal sword and shield against the small patch of paradise she scavenged in.
Well, that, and when she’d found a fourteen cylinder engine that you had to count by rolling your hand across the top, since half the gaskets weren’t there unless you scrolled to them across the surface. *That* thing was weird and wonderful and more than enough to kickstart her interest in the mechanical mindset.
And that car was gone now, ditched at her apartment parking lot, just in case the license plate could be tracked. One more casualty of her life.
The truck rocked as it went over a small hill, and she let herself float just on the edge of sleep. There was so much to do tomorrow. She needed to get to a town, find short term work, or get back into pickpocketing. Buy food, maybe steal some fruit from a grocer. Find a place to sleep. Just thinking about finding a place to sleep made her… so… tired.
El’s eyes closed as she let her mind run, and she never noticed when she drifted off.
Someone else noticed, though.
“Interesting.” The driver next to her intoned, his voice deep and rumbling. “This is not what I was expecting.”
Eleanor, halfway between asleep and awake, cracked her dream-eyes open and glanced over at the man. He was best described as ‘burly’, in a way that made her almost laugh. Thick arms, a scruffy patch of facial hair that showed he only shaved once a week or so. Flannel shirt, of course.
Outside the truck, there was nothing. No road, no stars in the sky. Not even darkness. Just an empty abyss.
“I’m dreaming.” Eleanor muttered.
“Yes. So am I.” The driver nodded without moving. “I have never had a dream before.” He blinked without closing his eyes. “Have we met before?” The driver asked her.
El glanced over at him again, and tried to focus through the fog of dream logic. She’d always been good at dreams; kept a journal and everything, one of her favorite journals, now left behind with all the others. There was something wrong with the driver. Something off about his voice.
She answered as honestly as she could. “I’ve never met a dream that talked to me.” El told him.
“Oh, you mistake me. I am no dream. Leastwise, not in the manner that you mean.” He spoke like a poet, like someone who was absolutely unselfconscious about using ten dollar words. And it was then that Eleanor placed the voice, the sound and tone and speech.
She’d only heard it once, but it had been two weeks ago, and it had been kind of a big deal for her.
Outside, heat and sharp rocks rippled across the reality of the dream as fear started to settle into her heart. “You… you’re…I know what you… you...” She tried to speak, but lost her words in that sleeping feeling of running forever, and never gaining a step.
The trucker turned to her, and the disguise sloughed off him like water. There was no flannel, only endless scales. No scruffy beard, only a thousand eyes. And a persistent sense of the color blue, and something hidden, hanging haunting in the dream with her. “I would ask you not to be afraid, but I worry we are past that.” The monster said. It pondered her for what felt like weeks, before tilting its massive head and musing, “You must have seen me at some point, for us to meet here. I wonder…”
“Get away!” Eleanor screamed, voice catching in her throat before bursting forth.
And just like that, the monster was gone. Her eyes snapped open, again, and for real this time. She was pressed back against the door of the cab, back painfully wedged into the handle. No blue eternal leviathan in sight. There was only an old trucker, worriedly looking at her out of the corner of his eye as they rolled down the empty road.
“You alright girly?” He asked her, voice rough from a lifetime of cigarettes, and oh so perfectly human. “You wer screaming a storm in your sleep.”
“I’m fine.” El told him, short of breath. “Just… just a nightmare.”
He nodded. He’d seen enough runaways to know about nightmares. “Aight. Well, I’m stoppin’ for coffee in the next town, if anywhere has the lights on. You want anything?”
Eleanor wanted anything with caffeine, yes. She didn’t plan to sleep for a long time.
“You’re back!” A surprised Daniel greeted James as he strolled into the lobby of work. He was seated behind the security desk by himself, leg propped up on the chair of whoever was probably out on patrol right now.
It was weird, to James, to see someone actually in a normal context, who he'd previously only seen running for their life. Daniel was no longer covered in scratches and stains, his uniform wasn’t torn and was actually clean, and his leg… well, he still looked like he was healing, but he wasn’t in danger of bleeding out. Also, he was a lot more energetic, which was both a blessing and a curse.
“I am back.” James agreed with a solemn nod, politely not mentioning that he’d been back for days and Daniel just hadn’t noticed. “Is that surprising?” He asked, grinning.
Daniel shrugged. “No? I dunno, maybe you just wanted to get as far away as possible. I did.” He waved his hand around the lobby, the same place that Secret had once defined as “imbued with cynical suffering”, as if to indicate his will to escape.
“Wait, dude, you of all people had a pretty traumatic experience. Like, you almost got eaten, twice. Why *are* you here? Everyone else didn’t wanna come back to work at this building.” James asked, curious and concerned in equal measure.
“I still have to pay rent.” Daniel explained with a sad shrug. “And I missed almost a whole week of work. Is it weird that I got more sleep on our adventure than I did the week before in the real world?”
“Yes.” James didn’t have to think before answering.
“Yeah, well. Are you going back in?” Daniel almost looked… excited? Was this the same person who’d almost snapped from exhaustion and fear in the Office?
James raised an eyebrow. “I’m here for my shift, man. My vacation is over. Also, maybe, but there were monsters, remember? Why are you so… eager?” He inquired.
That got a sheepish look from Daniel, the kid glancing down at the security desk in embarrassment before answering tentatively. “I.. I wasn’t kidding about not having time to sleep. I was hoping I could take a nap in there if you were going in.”
“Are you kidding me.” James flatly non-asked. “No.” He crushed Daniel’s attempt at dreams, before thinking on it for a second. “Not tonight, at least. Honestly, that’s not a bad idea. We should maybe try to capitalize on the time dilation more, actually, now that you mention it.”
Deflating slightly at James running off with his idea, Daniel nodded in resignation. “I get it.” He said with a sigh. James was about to bid him goodnight and walk off, but Daniel cut him short. “Anyway, before you go up, we’ve got a new policy. Gotta check your bag.” He gestured toward the duffle that James was carrying.
“Um… why?” James asked, adjusting the bag to be slightly farther from Daniel.
“New policy, like I said. Dunno why. But I need to check. It’s on camera.” Daniel motioned upward to where several black domes dotted the ceiling like ever-watching warts.
This put James in an awkward spot. On the one hand, he didn’t want to cost Daniel his job, and he was pretty sure that his laissez faire attitude with Frank had led to this policy in the first place. On the other hand, the duffel bag really wasn’t filled with gym clothes.
“How… um… what’s the resolution on those cameras?” James took a second to figure out how to phrase it.
“Not perfect, but I can see, like, face details.” Daniel checked the monitors on the other side of his desk, before looking back to James. “Why?”
James plopped the bag up on the desk for Daniel to check. “Look, just, um… don’t dig too deep in the main bag, okay?”
“Wh…” Daniel started to ask, before realizing that his question was kinda silly, and stopping. “Yeah, sure.” He unzipped the bag carefully, before shuffling around some of the notebooks that James had in there for cover. His eyes briefly widened as he spotted the matte black hard plastic case filling the bottom of the bag, this one much larger than the handgun case that James had purchased what felt like a lifetime ago. “Um…”
“Please don’t look up at the cameras.” James said in a friendly tone, stopping Daniel’s worried motion. “I’m just borrowing it from Anesh. You know, to check.”
“Right.” Daniel said, swallowing hard. “Yeah, of course.” He zipped the bag back up and slid it across the counter to James. “Alright. Well, I’m here all night. If you need anything…”
James nodded to him. “I know.” He said. “But…” He hesitated to say the next part, but ultimately settled on being upfront with the younger man in front of him. “Look, I know you did your best. But I dunno if it’s safe to bring you in as backup, you know?” There was one person James had in mind as backup for tonight, and it really, *really* was not Daniel.
For a split second, Daniel looked like a kicked puppy, and James’ heart wrenched. Maybe it was the wrong choice, maybe he shoulda just lied and run with it, and dealt with the problem later. Maybe, maybe…
But then Daniel’s expression squared up, and he shrugged, a little dejected. “Ah, you’re right. I ain't the right person for that.” He sighed and looked like he was really trying to be tough and not quite succeeding. “Well, if you have teams with a slot for a new guy with a good map, let me know, okay?” He smiled weakly at James, like he was giving him an out to just ditch Daniel altogether.
That, of course, wasn’t what James meant either. “Dude, the magic map is huge. And you’re not *bad* at this, you just aren’t the person I want for backup if I’m going to fight a dragon. Of course there’ll be a spot on a team later. Just.. not one with Theo or Alanna. Or probably Dave either. I actually haven’t asked if he’s mad about anything, if you’d believe that? Anyway, I gotta go. I’m gonna be ‘late’, whatever that means these days.” James slung the bag into his grip, and waved over his shoulder as he walked off toward the elevator bank.
“Thanks…” Daniel said softly, smile a little more solid.
“This is just a stupid idea.” Theo said bluntly.
She was not, in her defense, *wrong*.
James, in *his* defense, had actually worked most of his shift tonight, and he felt like that more than earned him the right to having backup that didn’t sass him.
“Come on,” He said dryly, a little anxiety in his veins, “it’s almost time, get ready.”
Theo still worked here, which James had been aware of when he’d come back. It was important to his plan. She’d not been in the clutches of the dungeon, or Evil-Karen, long enough for the antimemes that kept information about the place secure to really dig their claws into her. And so getting her old job back had been pretty easy. She wasn’t too happy about the revelation that the only reason she’d been *able* to take the job was that the person who’d had it before had already been carved out of history, but after a small bout of existential dread, she was back at work and more than willing to screen for James while he did his thing.
She was also bucking to get James his own management position, so he could start ignoring or making up rules like she did. Something down in production, maybe.
It had been a bit of a revelation to James to learn that the building had basement floors that were actual production of some of the specialty connectors that the company sold. So, as far as he was aware, this place was every tier of a company, from design to manufacture to marketing to tech support. And some of those departments also rented services to other companies. And no one could accurately tell him where the business made its money. It was deeply unsettling, and now that he knew that the dungeon was rooted here like some ancient and kind of unpleasant tree, he was more than ever suspicious of why he got amazing dental insurance and a $300 voucher to classes at the local parks and rec department.
“What exactly is this building *worth*? James had asked her. “Because at this point, I could probably scrounge up the money to buy the company outright, and we could just take this place over. If nothing else, we could move manufacturing into the dungeon, and really save on carbon emissions.”
Theo had only shrugged. That was above her pay grade, and she wasn’t gonna send emails around to upper management snooping around.
She was totally willing to back James up on revisiting the dungeon, though. Well, “back up” in the specific way he asked. And “willing” was also a bit of a stretch.
“This is insane and suicidal.” She reminded him as they stood outside the door, her holding her phone out and counting down the minutes.
“Working here was always those things. I’m seriously concerned about the whole building at this point.” James covered up his own nerves with irreverent banter; despite their near death experience together last month, Theo still didn’t know him so well that she could see through his emotional smokescreens yet. “Has anyone ever actually met upper management? Is this place just another layer of the dungeon? The more I learn, the less *real* it seems.”
“Shut up and get ready, you have two minutes.” Theo scowled.
James was already ready. Or, as ready as he could be without unneeded risk. He was wearing his old heavy leather coat, crouched on the floor next to the duffle bag. Inside the gun case was popped open to reveal one of the alarmingly legal PS90 bullpup rifles that Anesh had purchased, somehow, without being arrested, from a legal vendor, who was apparently allowed to sell these things.
It was absolutely illegally modified for fully automatic fire.
He was just waiting for the door to open.
“I’m serious, here.” James said, clearly not serious here. “*I’ve* never seen the CEO. Or any management above you, actually…. Theo, are you a conspiracy?”
“One minute.” She ignored his rambling. “James, are you sure about this?”
James snapped into serious in a heartbeat. “Yes.” He said. “We need to know. And we need to know if it’s not just calm at the entrance, and then a death trap thirty feet in. And I… am not going to risk Anesh or Alanna on this. Ever.” He looked at Theo, and she met his eyes with a hard frown. “You remember what we agreed?”
“Yeah. Ten seconds. Ready?”
“Ready.” James said, and slung the gun up to a firing grip, rising to a low stance, prepared to move.
They’d agreed, with only minor coercion on James’ part, that if the door was guarded, Theo would close the door. If the door was clear, and James got a little ways in, Theo would give him time to get back, but if it looked like a threat to everyone in the building, Theo would close the door. And if James went in, and five minutes passed, and he didn’t come out…
Theo would close the door.
Of everyone James knew, Theo was literally the only person he trusted to not do something stupid. To prioritize keeping everyone else safe over his stupid ass.
But right now, Theo was here to open the door in the first place.
And among the endless cubicles, the beige and gray eternal landscape, the smell of printer ink and the glow of fluorescent lights… James didn’t see a thing moving.
So he swept forward, gun up, checking his corners, and for the first time in a while, set foot on the ground where he belonged.
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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!