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A note from argusthecat

I am moving.  It is so stressful, and expensive, and I hate it.  This may be the last update for a week or so, as I need to restock the patreon advanced chapters, but I'm hoping that I'll have a little more energy for writing after I finish transporting six thousand pounds of *stuff*.

There were hurdles to clear, of course, before any good dungeon delve could begin. It wouldn’t be daily life on Earth if there wasn’t a whole host of petty injustices between an objective and the righteous. Or, in this case, the easily amused.

As it turned out, though, when James and Alanna tried to offer to help, many of those hurdles had already been bulldozed by their teammates back home while they were on the road. It had really taken the gusto out of them both for about ten seconds, until they both came to the unified realization that they now had less work to do, more of the fun adventure ahead, and that James personally wouldn’t be pressed to act as some kind of guild leader for at least another week.

Gear had been purchased and prepared for transport. Neatly packed and perfectly weighted duffle bags containing survival gear, armor padding, and usable weapons, set up near flawlessly thanks to an old skill Anesh had acquired on one of their prior delves. They were back to being on a budget again; the costs stacking up as they burned money taking care of those who had been cored out of reality by the dungeon’s memetic defenses. So, the armor wasn’t full body riot gear, but instead sports padding and military surplus helmets. And the weapons were mostly smaller sledgehammers and the old standby crowbar.

There wasn’t much in terms of Object weaponry on offer, sadly. Their experiments trying to totemize their supply of blue orbs hadn’t borne fruit yet, so they’d mostly been finding people who could absorb them, and searching for powers that were exploitable. That had led to James picking up about eighty charges of “Schedule Meeting”, which was useful, but annoying. As it turned out, you couldn’t replace an absorbed power. Nor could you just burn all the charges; they tired you out, and after a certain point, it just wouldn’t work. A long time ago, Dave had told James that his ‘remove half of’ ability could have cut the abstract concept of suffering in half, but that he’d probably die from it. Now, James wasn’t sure Dave could have gotten that far before he’d just found himself unable to make it work.

Which sucked, because it made it harder to constantly search for new opportunities with the blues.

All this boiled down to an amount of firepower that was, sadly, kinda lacking. That said, there were, this time, going to be no fewer than thirteen humans and at least one or two Life making the delve. And even though emergency firearms were already boxed up and ready for combat, those were distinctly *emergency* guns.

James had learned in his expeditionary romp that the noise curfew was back on, and gunfire absolutely attracted the wrong kind of attention.

But thirteen crowbars solved a lot of problems that one or two would fold under. And James and Anesh alone had survived some pretty nasty situations. So he wasn’t too worried about it. And on top of that, they had a few other offensive options to try out as well. Someone had put a set of wrist rockets into the pile, and James remembered from a high school misadventure that those things could pack a hell of a punch. Whether it would be enough to hurt anything in the dungeon was up in the air, but it was worth trying, even if only as a distraction. Also, another someone - James suspected it was JP - had put one of those oversized Super Soaker water guns that only seemed to have existed for a brief period in the nineties into the gear collection. James hadn’t asked what it was filled with, but it was apparently finally time to figure out if the stuffed shirts were waterproof.

What had really surprised James was that the money had gone this far. There was a *lot* of gear in those bags. And even given that Anesh had bought as much at the military surplus store as possible, trying to keep his Amazon account from being *too* suspicious, that kinda cost added up. What had surprised James more was when he’d been informed by JP, their now-official guild treasurer, that money was actually coming *in*.

Not everyone they’d pulled out had been erased. And many of the ones who’d gotten their families, their jobs, their *lives* back, were more than a little thankful. It wasn’t much, and James would never *ask* for it to be much. But fifty or a hundred bucks poured into the hat, from twenty or thirty people? It added up to something. And that something came in the form of bribing a chemistry grad to look the other way - and maybe lend a hand - with putting together some thermite weaponry that were a little more shelf stable than grenades with a single button as the trigger. In retrospect, James was actually astonished that he hadn’t killed himself with one of those things.

The other thing the last bits of the money had gone toward was a pair of fire extinguishers, one class A, one class C. “Just in case.” Anesh had said. He hadn’t specified in case of *what*, but it was pretty clear from the size of the locked metal box that he loaded into the trunk that the amount of fire he intended to bring to the party was significant.

“I feel like we may be violating our own rule about not burning the dungeon down.” James bit his upper lip in an expression of concern. “I mean, I’ve had to tell both other teams now that molotovs aren’t acceptable, but here we are, letting you bring… this much… thermite in?” He held his hands out to gesture roughly the size of the box Anesh had packed. “I mean, that’s a lotta fire. We’re honestly kinda lucky we haven’t torched the place down already, isn’t this just a bit overkill?”

It was JP who chimed in as he walked by checking things off on a clipboard. “As far as I know, setting things on fire has only ever worked out for you guys.” He calmly told them as he triple checked the date tags on the bright red fire extinguisher cylinders.

“Please don’t encourage us.” James monotoned. “We’re dangerous enough as is.”

He was only half joking.

The rest of the week passed in a blur for James. His weekend came and went with minimal impact; he still spent all his time rushing around and running errands. Picking up last minute ideas for equipment, giving rides to people who were still rebuilding their lives, going to his cooking class that he’d stubbornly continued taking, and trying to figure out how to induce a power outage.

That last one he actually did a lot at work. Wikipedia was sorta helpful on that front, but it was idle speculation, and James was pretty sure they could come up with a better plan. The second to last thing was because, even after dozens of orbs, he *still* hadn’t really gotten a level in cooking. He knew precise recipes for some foods, he could use a knife blindfolded, but he didn’t have the whole *pattern* of it down. He was learning it, slowly; that casual and ingrained way of moving and thinking in a kitchen that divided someone who cooked dinner from a Chef. But it annoyed him that sometimes, the orbs gave components, without the links between them.

The power outage was so the newly installed security cameras would be off so they could sneak in. Ever since Frank had been arrested, and had apparantly also been stealing a *fuck ton* from the company, there’d been heightened security. Daniel still worked the front desk on Monday nights, so James had an easy in there. Maybe one or two other people could slip by, too, without too much suspicion.

But they didn’t plan to slip one or two people by. They were bringing twelve. Thirteen, depending on how you counted. And some bags. And boxes. And a hand cart. And some bicycles. And a gurney, just in case.

Anesh and JP had collated a lot of ideas into their group loadout. Drained their bank account to do it, but they’d *planned*. No matter what caught them off guard, they had the foundation to recover from it.

Of course, it made it a pain the ass to carry it all in. And they may have to rebuild Fort Door in its entirety.

So James ran errands. He went to work, pretended everything was normal, and shared knowing nods with Theo and Daniel. He listened to Anesh share increasingly convoluted theories on the locations of potential dungeons. He went on walks with Alanna, the two of them both kinda hoping something dangerous would happen out in reality that they could burn their nervous energy on.

They were chomping at the bit. They were ready. He’d been ready for months. His little trip in last week was nothing, compared to what he really wanted.

There was just one more thing for James to sort out.

_____

On Sunday, he found time to talk to Theo.

“I need the security cameras off tomorrow.” He opened with, before pretending to attempt diplomacy. “Also, hey, how’s it going? Nice skirt.”

Theo looked up from the emails she was answering at her desk to where her coworker and/or underling had barged into her office. “Thanks, my gran and I went shopping. I dig it.” She kicked her leg out and plopped her foot up on a low filing cabinet to show off the black and red long skirt, rose patterning with thin gold lines looking equal parts majestic and casual. “Also no?”

“It’s so we can bring people into the Office. Like, the other Office. The one I pronounce with a capital letter.” James explained.

“Still no.” Theo deadpanned. “Also, Secret was way better at that than you. The capital letter thing.”

James cracked his knuckles idly. “He’s literally talking inside your head, partly. So of course he’s good at it. Also, would it help if I bribed you, or said please or something?”

“Bribe might help.” Theo conceded. “But dude, you can’t go back in there. That place is lethal, and I’m not gonna let you get yourself killed. You almost died saving me.” She reminded him. “Your friend practically *did* die, until he magically didn’t. No *way* I’m giving you an easy way into that shithole again.”

It had never seemed to James that Theo was a particularly protective person. She was aggressive, like a particularly irate badger. She played rugby, she went skydiving on her vacations, she had taken to combat situations in the dungeon better than any of the other survivors. She was, frankly, the *last* person James had expected to want the place off-limits.

Of course, James had wanted the place *killed* for a bit there, if such a thing was even possible. So who was he to judge?

Regardless, Theo just didn’t seem like the kind of person who would cross her arms and say “no, too risky” to anything. Even if it was fighting monsters for candy.

“I’ll be honest, I kind of expected you to want to come in with us.” James admitted. “We got you a crowbar and everything.” That was not, strictly speaking, true. They did have a number of crowbars, but it wasn’t like James had earmarked one for Theo’s personal use. She didn’t need to know that, though.

His boss glared at him, turning in her chair to slap the palms of her hands against the desk. “It *eats people*, James!” She yelled at him, ignoring that the door behind him was open. “Do you know how many employees have wandered in there and *not* been jerked out by you and your pals?” She demanded the information of him, and when he didn’t have an immediate answer, she gave him one. “More than zero.” Theo quietly said. “We’ve had staffing issues for so long, we kinda take it for granted, but there’s a reason, and it’s that we’re working on top of a big fucking monster. And it’s killing people. And I’m not letting you go back in there.” Her voice almost broke as she finished saying her piece, though she held it together until the end.

James could see real concern in her eyes. And also real fear. She was wary of the dungeon as a whole, afraid that they’d die, or that they’d aggravate it and maybe send a wave of tumblefeeds sprawling out into the building to paint the carpets with blood. And maybe that was something to be worth being afraid of; maybe it was something that they should address before they started poking around in there again.

But…

“Just because you’re keeping us out doesn’t mean that people aren’t falling in.” James said softly. He made eye contact, and it was Theo who eventually looked away. “There’s more than one door. We know that, for sure. And there might be more people like Frank; combination high priest and hit man, dragging people in and selling them to the highest bidding Karen.” He was reaching, but he wasn’t *wrong*. Now it was James’ turn to put his hands on the desk and lean in, Theo raising an eyebrow at this transformed version of the previously socially timid employee she knew. “There’s a chance we can help people. And failing that, there’s a chance we can pull wonders and miracles out of that place.” James stood up, and smoothed off his work shirt like he was brushing off dust. When he spoke again, it wasn’t a question. “We need the security cameras off tomorrow. Three to four AM. Maybe some kind of maintenance routine, I dunno.”

It was strange, Theo thought, to go from being someone’s boss, to being part of their team. Or, maybe that was the wrong word. She should get into the habit of thinking of it like they did.

Being part of a guild.

There was a silent, tense minute where Theo had the urge to go back to answering emails from other managers and shift leads, to read memos and tactically ignore James and make her will known, that the dungeon was *off limits*.

And then she nodded at him. “I’ll talk to the… well, you don’t need to know. It’ll happen.” She said.

“Thanks.” James told her. He didn’t smile; it didn’t feel like a friendly conversation. He just nodded, let her know he appreciated it.

As he was walking out, about to close the door, he heard Theo mutter from inside, just loud enough for him to hear, “I better get that fucking bribe...”

*That* was worth a smile.

_____

At three AM, Tuesday morning, James Lyle put his call log on hold, set his headset down on his desk, and stood up with a silent arch of his back. He stood over his work station, one of six in this little cluster of half-cubicles, none of the others of which were occupied, and unbuttoned the dress shirt that had been confining his throat all night. A quick look around showed approximately three overworked techs on the floor, none of them paying attention to him as they tried to explain through low quality connections that the company that had contracted them as tech support didn’t have a responsibility for the warranties the customers had assuredly already voided anyway.

Thirty seconds ago, James’ boss had walked by and given him a conspiratorial nod. Her part was done; the security camera maintenance cycle was running, and she now washed her hands of this endeavor.

James walked with long steps to the elevator, waited patiently with his arms folded behind his back for it to arrive, and stood in much the same position as it took him down to the lobby. The two security guards on duty at the front desk looked up as he walked over to the door, the eyes of Daniel and Tyrone, the previous night guard who Daniel had replaced after he was fed to the dungeon by Frank, following James as he swung the double doors open and locked them in place.

He stood at the top of the concrete steps that led down into the parking lot. To either side of him, manicured lawns and flower beds gave off a wet earthy scent in the rapidly chilling night air. And at the bottom of the steps, in an otherwise mostly empty parking lot, a cluster of a half dozen parked cars killed their engines.

As doors opened, trunks were popped, and people launched into motion to start unloading, it was JP who walked up to James. He stood at the bottom of the steps, his leather jacket a more stylish mirror to the one that James used to use as armor, and made a gesture that was almost a salute before he turned it into a casual brush of his already immaculate hair.

“Reporting for adventure, sir!” He grinned up at James. “Permission to come inside?”

James grinned back. From either side of him, the two kids working the front desk hustled down the steps to assist in unloading heavily laden backpacks. He watched for a second as with an almost mechanical precision, everything came together. The people, the *team*, assembled in front of him holding their bags, extra stashes of survival gear, a hand truck stacked with bankers boxes that hid gun cases, and their own good luck charms and personal touches. They all stopped at the bottom of the stairs first, though.

Anesh and Alanna moved to flank JP, each of them with either Rufus or Ganesh on their shoulders and smiles on their faces. Fanned out to the left, Other James stood with his own partners close at hand, their group clearly loaned some of Momo’s extra studded leather, and with a rainbow magnetic distortion crouched patiently in front of them. On the right, Karen and those who had flocked to her pragmatic and calculated logic stood almost military-ready, dressed like they were going to just another day at the office. Karen herself stood with one hand on a hip, the mother turned adventurer representing the oldest member of their group, and wearing a stoic, determined expression on her face. Even Dave, who normally didn’t go for theatrics, stopped where he was helping Daniel pull one of the carts forward, and looked up at James; time and near death had not done much to diminish the fervor now found in his eyes.

James looked down at all of them, and felt his chest burn. There was a riot inside of him; the accomplishment to get this far, the curiosity at what lay ahead, and the pride at everyone assembled here. There were a host of larger purposes alight in the people before him, but all of them were looking up at *him*. And in that moment, he could feel all of them.

The drive of adventure, the promise of a prize, the need to safeguard humanity, the opportunity to advance the world. All of it resonated in his heart.

His smile grew a bit wider, and he saw the lips of everyone in front of him tug upward as well.

“Permission granted.” He finally replied to JP. And then, to the larger crowd, “Stop standing around! We’re wasting time! Let’s get this stuff ready to move!”

There was a brief moment where everyone started moving at once, and almost tripped over each other in the rush to move up the stairs. It was, to James’ almost-surprise, JP of all people who started casually tapping shoulders and directing people in an ordered way. Funneling the small crowd toward the elevators while he wheeled the bike he was carrying into position to be on the second trip up.

When James stepped into an elevator, flanked by Alanna and Anesh, everyone else gave them space, and the quiet ride up gave James a little time to think on something that had been bothering him.

After a month or so away, and a lot of conversations with Alanna, James had come to the conclusion that he had grown an amount of resentment for JP. He didn't want to, really. But that desire didn’t have much of an impact on the bitter voice in the back of his head that told him that JP was kind of… something unpleasant. Not untrustworthy, certainly. He’d proven that he could keep the dungeon secret well enough, just like the rest of them. He hadn’t broken and run at the first sign of danger. And it wasn’t unreliable, either. James could quite honestly say that he could rely on JP to be JP, one hundred percent of the time. It was never a question of him backstabbing or lying. It was just that, when James had called his friends to action, two of them had said yes with no strings attached, and two of them had said no. And of the people who’d said no, Anesh had admitted that he was *afraid*, and asked for James to forgive him for it. Either in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, James hadn’t felt like forgiveness was even needed; Anesh was being *reasonable*. No matter how things had turned out, they hadn’t walked into it as superheroes, and being afraid was totally justified. But JP? Well, he just sort of declared “nope” and didn’t participate.

And maybe he had been afraid. Maybe he had been judging the risks and chosen a pragmatic path. Maybe he had simply not trusted James, in a cruel plot twist. But that wasn’t how JP explained himself.

In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, there’s a moment where the senate calls Caesar before them. And, for whatever reason, Caesar simply says “no”. He does not provide them a reason, he says, “The cause is in my will. I will not come.” It was one of James’ favorite scenes from the play, and he knew it was one of JP’s as well, given that JP was a drama nerd who had been the one who’d dragged James to see the amateur production of it that he’d played good old Julius in. More than simply play the part, though, JP had taken that line to heart, in a serious way. It was something over the years that James had found admirable about the man; that he was firm and determined in how he stated what he wanted, and then chased it.

But when he’d said “No, I don’t want to die on a fool’s errand.”, it had set a seed of annoyance in James’ heart. This little thought that maybe their goals didn’t line up enough to even be friends anymore.

And now here JP was. Back again for casual adventure. Because he willed it so. And James knew that if it turned to a situation where their lives were in danger, JP would be the first one to want to leave. To pack it up and quit the group for good. Because he would will it so. But right now, his friend was making sure that everyone was standing in good order while James counted down the seconds on his phone.

3:43 AM. Tuesday. One minute to go. The people around him suddenly and without prompting ceased their whispered conversations, voices kept low to keep the few people left on the call center floor from hearing them. It was in this moment that James remembered that his life was still grounded in some kind of reality. There was a normal, beyond the dungeon, and it existed down thirty feet of eggshell white hallway that wasn’t going to try to kill him for walking down it. He had a choice, ultimately, to just cut his losses at any time and walk away.

He could also choose, as he did now, to step forward toward the double doors of the stairwell, and turn to address everyone behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Theo standing, arms crossed off to the side of the elevator landing. Watching them, seeing them off. He gave her a small nod.

“Alright guys, we’ve talked this over a million times, more or less. The first part’s the hardest. We’re in first, to make sure it’s not a trap. If we don’t come out in ten seconds or so, everyone else follow on our heels. Pile the gear up, we’ll start setting up, and then figure out what our short term goals are.” He looked around at the faces, some eager, some determined. “We aren’t all here for the same things,” James told them, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not a team, got it? Take care of each other, no matter what happens.”

Then he turned, brushed his jacket out behind him and adjusted the collar, and yanked the door open. And with a grin that only Anesh and Alanna were privy to, he led his friends into elsewhere.

The grey and beige of the Office welcomed him home like an old friend, albeit an old friend who sometimes tried to murder him. The small area around the door that James had checked out last week remained unchanged, but it was a far sight from what it had been before.

Fort Door was gone. The dungeon had paved their little fort, and in its place rebuilt cubicles and carpet. There was no sign of the final stand at the exit from the great escape, nothing left to show where humans had bled and almost died to save themselves from creatures that defied basic biology. But what there was wasn’t simply the same flat slope of cube walls that James had encountered in his first adventures here.

Near the door itself there was that small open gap that there always was near structural walls in this place, about fifteen feet of hard carpet floor space with almost nothing breaking up the monotony. Then, the cubicles started. Many of them were now structured like the pods in the office outside; clusters of six or eight desks with minimal privacy, all with their backs facing each other in geometric boredom. Beyond that, though, it began to get more familiar, with the walls getting higher, the geometry warping, and trappings like paper vines and creeping cables providing the atmosphere of an ancient temple.

Except for one major variation this time.

A few hundred feet in, past dozens of the desk pods, some of the cubicle walls jutted out of the ground at harsh angles. They rose taller than the rest, and just when it would look like they couldn’t sustain any more weight, another wall would be there to brace it. It looked a whole lot like what James and Alanna had dubbed an apartment tower during their deep dive; fully enclosed cubicles layered on top of each other, the walls bowing out or forming jagged ledges on the outside, with only a few windows or potential points of entry. Unlike the one they’d found, though, this tower rose up well over two hundred feet into the air; a commanding tower that dwarfed the area around it and gave off an ominous shadow in the light of the fluorescent lights.

“That’s new.” Aneshs muttered. “Wait, James. It’s doing the vending machine thing.” He gestured up the spine of the building, his hand moving to indicate distance but crossing no visible space. “The ceiling isn’t that tall here, where’s it *going*?” Ganesh launched off his shoulder, taking to the air in low circles and keeping his head tilted toward the tower, curious and alert in equal measure.

“Up.” Alanna cracked her neck as she peered up at the heights of the tower in front of them. “Same place we are, I bet.” Rufus clacked in acknowledgement on her shoulder. The place felt like a challenge, even to his small frame.

James smiled at them. “I believe,” he addressed his friends and lovers, “that we’ve been provided with a replacement fort.” He cleared his throat as he caught sight of a tumblefeed perched on a ledge ten stories above the ground. “Provided we prove we earned it, that is.”

Anesh looked around, the two of him scanning the area before moving off to the side and dropping the duffle bags somewhere out of the way of the impending crowd from the door. “Alright mates.” He said with an excited vibration in his voice. “It’s not a trap, or it as a trap and it’s big and obvious and just our thing. So let’s get everyone in here, and get this show rolling.”

“Fuck yes.” James said quietly. “Let’s see what wonders lie waiting for us.”

In the still dead air, the three of them shared a moment of intimate anticipation, before their backup caught up to them.

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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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