“Wellll fuck.” James was the first one to speak after the group made its way through the door. Slightly different people than last week, but the composition was roughly the same.
Daniel wasn’t here, but the other member of the Guardsman faction, Tyrone, was. And apparently, Pathfinder had tagged along with him. He and Daniel were friends outside of work, or had *become* friends outside of work, or some permutation of friendship that made them close enough that they could pass complex infomorphs between them. Alanna had pointed out that it was mildly ironic that the people most interested in guarding the door were the people who had among their number a creature that fed on exploration, and James had felt kinda weird about it. Like, Path wasn’t on the same level of sapience as Secret was; he was kind of like a mental doggo. And James didn’t want to have to add “memetic animal rights enforcer” to his growing list of responsibilities.
Weirdly, *Theo* had come in with them. After last week, and her vehemence about this place being evil, James was more or less convinced that she’d leave it alone forever. But apparently, she was another person converted to the Guardsmen by Daniel while James wasn’t paying attention. Or was just at home.
Sarah had joined them, feeling like she’d gotten her feet under her. Other James was absent for family reasons. One Anesh was out sleeping before he hit the road tomorrow. Deb, the nurse who had stuck with Karen, was around here somewhere, though James hadn’t seen her yet. Alex had filled the gap, though it seemed more likely that she’d fit in with Momo’s team than Karen’s.
It wasn’t too much of a shakeup, but it was enough to be noticed. James had still been excited to set foot in the dungeon again. As was becoming tradition, he, Alanna, and Anesh had taken point, striding through the doors together in a V formation, leading the charge into uncharted territory.
And then James had started swearing, when they’d seen the office in front of them.
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. Clusters of six or eight desks with low walls and their backs facing each other in geometric boredom. Beyond that, the walls got higher, the geometry warped, and trappings like paper vines and creeping cables providing the atmosphere of an ancient temple. All of this entryway circled around the base of the non-Euclidean tower that raised its ten-floor hulking form overhead, occupying far more space than should be possible between them and the high ceiling above.
Except for one major variation this time.
“Fuck. Fuck!” James swore, sweeping an arm out to encompass the scene in front of them. “Fuck!” He reiterated.
“Okay, this is bad.” Alanna agreed as the others started coming through the door behind them.
The nature of the bad was pretty obvious to the group that had spent the better part of an hour last week clearing a clear line of sight, building some basic barricades and fortifications, and making a nice little meeting area out of repurposed furniture. While previously, they’d always been comfortable leaving Fort Door to stand as their entryway to the dungeon; this time, it had apparently taken offense to their redecorating.
The whole space was exactly as they’d found it last week when they first walked in.
No braced walls, no choke points, no twenty feet of open lines of fire for oncoming tumblefeeds. Just cubicles, reset like the humans had never come through here.
“Shit, our gear.” Alanna muttered. A spike of fear went through James’ heart; they’d traveled light this time, mostly because all of the stuff they needed was already *here*.
Karen had brought an old wood axe for dealing with plants, and Alex was wearing a turnout suit that she’d inherited from an uncle who used to be a firefighter, but aside from that and a box of glow sticks that Anesh had bought on James’ urging, and a swarm of surveillance drones, they were basically unarmed. All their stuff had been stored here.
The crowbars; the armor, both improvised sports padding and police body armor; the *guns*; all their emergency food; James’ favorite hatchet, as beat up as it was; even the bikes they’d brought to move rapidly through the longer corridors of the office. Was it all gone?
“We stored a lot of stuff in the tower. Let’s check there.” Anesh suggested.
James nodded, and turned it into a directive for the group. “Everyone spread out! Be careful, don’t wander off alone, but see if you can find anything that we left here. We’re gonna go check the tower. If the buildings are back, the critters might be too, so eyes open!”
James and Alanna took point while Anesh gave Ganesh an upward toss to launch off of and carefully checked the drone’s line of sight on his phone, scanning for anything moving near them. Around them, the different groups moved cautiously, and in chunks of people that were probably a little too crowded. James made a note to talk to them about spreading out *more* at a later time; a teammate who could reach you and save you quickly was a lot more useful than a teammate that was in your way.
When they got to the base of the tower, James reached for the now familiar flashlight attached to his armor’s plate, only to remember with a wince that his armor was currently missing in action. “This,” he said to Alanna slowly, “is probably the worst way the dungeon could hit us without killing anyone.”
She nodded sourly at him. They had put a lot of time and effort into accumulating the collection of weapons, armor, survival gear, ammunition, food, and other assorted tools here. If the whole floor had reset, this was actually a massive financial hit, that they would have real trouble fixing without the ability to find and open another briefcase. Not to mention that some of the things here had their own personal significance. The gun she’d inherited from her father had been here. So had a lot of the legacy gear from the first time James and Anesh had come into this place.
They wouldn’t just lose stuff; they’d lose a chunk of their history.
So it got a massive sigh of relief when they ducked into the first floor of the tower, and through the few dim shafts of light in the darkness, saw the bikes that they’d brought in neatly leaned against the outside wall. A little more rooting around found a flashlight on a stack of boxes, which when illuminated, turned out to be the food supplies that James had wheeled in here on the hand truck just before they’d left last week.
“Everything’s the same…” Alanna said, cautiously optimistic.
Two minutes later, they came back out through the tight entrance, Alanna having to duck a bit more than James did to clear the low lip of the only door to the tower. As they exited, they were met by Karen and Dave.
“It’s not safe to do this if we aren’t armed.” Karen flatly stated, interrupting what Dave was about to say.
James gave her a cold look, before turning deliberately to Dave. “Sorry, Dave, what were you saying?”
Karen clamped her mouth shut and ground her teeth as James ignored her, but Dave, blessed Dave, didn’t even notice the anger in the air from the older woman.
“We’ve got the groups set up for tonight. Everyone agreed to not go too far in, if we’re out of gear again, but Anesh said we’d need the money to resupply, so I got them organized.” Dave reported to James.
James glanced over his squire’s shoulder to see groups of the other delvers, lined up like they were anticipating his words. He shuddered slightly; more responsibility.
“Okay.” James shook his head before speaking to Karen. “Well, good news, most of our stuff is still here. The stuff around the tower resets, but not the tower itself, so it actually really does make a perfect base if that holds true. Hey, Alanna,” James turned to his partner who was currently looking pointedly up at the ceiling and not snickering at how James had shut down Karen, “can you get everyone geared up? Make sure the kids are ready. The plan still holds.”
The plan was, James felt, sheer elegance in its simplicity. They’d discussed it with everyone else, and come to the conclusion that the way they were splitting loot was just… not great. So, he’d made an announcement to everyone, which was probably part of why Karen was so pissy today.
From now on, this operation was going to run like an actual operation. Not a bunch of disparate people coming in and vaguely working together. Everyone could have a voice and even a vote, but they were going to have a goddamn command structure. They were going to have objectives, assignments to those objectives, and they were going to get stuff done. Loot would be distributed via quartermaster; an unenviable job that James and immediately stuck JP with.
And if anyone didn’t like it? Well, James wasn’t the kind of monster to tell people they couldn’t come into the dungeon. That would just be rude. But you wouldn’t get to work with their guild.
“Alright nerds!” Alanna called out, stepping past them and clapping her hands loudly. “Come get yer shit together!” She started directing people into the tower, barking out orders to grab more lights, open up holes in the walls, and get everyone ready to go.
James looked harshly back at Karen, who was still glaring at him. “Look.” He said flatly. “You wanted to be part of this. And sometimes, that means not being so goddamn rigid about risks.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed.” Karen found her voice and spoke through a clenched jaw. “This is reckless. It is *stupid*. And it is *dangerous*. Both to you, and to everyone who thinks you can lead them.”
“Well, if I don’t do reckless stupid dangerous things in the pursuit of wealth and magic, then how will I end up in Space Valhalla?” James asked before he could remember that this was supposed to be serious.
Karen scowled. “That’s what you do. You treat all of this like it’s a joke.”
“No.” James said flatly. “I treat this like exactly what it is. It’s weird, unique, kind of magic, and just *life*. This is my daily life now, Karen. This is all I do. When I’m not here, I’m planning, or equipping, or dealing with interpersonal issues between delvers, or training. I am always here, even when the door is closed.” He sighed, and broke eye contact, looking off into the grey horizon. “And sometimes, my life is jokes.” James turned back to the woman in front of him. “Look. We’re going to run this like an actual organization from now on. When we started this, you said you wanted to make sure the victims were taken care of, and I told you you could have the job if you wanted it. Well, I’m telling you that again, now. If you want to work with us, there’s a role for you. But enough of this ‘everyone's mom’ thing you’re doing.”
“I’m trying to keep people alive.” Karen said, almost sadly.
“I know.” James told her. “That’s why I’m not mad. But it’s not helping. Now, we’re burning time here, and I’m not interested in arguing today. If you want to participate, you can. If not, go home. If you’re really interested in keeping people alive, I’ll put you on the reserve team for when there’s emergencies.”
Karen was about to say something else, but James was done. Alanna had caught his eye; she’d found his hatchet, and was waving him over, giving him the perfect excuse.
“You can take your time to decide.” James said, cutting Karen off. “But before next week. And now, I need to go. Time limits are no joke.” And with that, he turned and simply left.
It took James a minute to recompose himself. Taking the weapon from Alanna and affixing it to his belt was a good simple task that helped him refocus.
“You good?” She asked him, eyebrows raised in outwardly mild concern that James knew was secretly a pretty deep ocean of caring.
“I’m good.” He said. “It’s a weird part of being an adult, that I sometimes find myself the equal of those older than me.”
“Equal my ass.” Alanna snorted.
James couldn’t help a small snort of a laugh, even through the stress. “Alright. Enough of that. Is everyone ready?”
Alanna nodded. “All set. You sure about bringing Other James and company along? It’ll be confusing, *and* it’s going to demystify us.”
James stuck out his tongue at her and made a farting noise. “If I wanted to seem mysterious I’d be a priest, not a tech support guy. Also Other James isn't here tonight, so it'll just be the other two. Sarah said something about experiments, so she's staying back I think.”
“Touché.” Alanna grinned.
James grinned back. “Okay, let’s go. I’m still angry and I want to hit something that’s trying to eat me.”
The strider made a satisfying organic pop as James tore it in half. A second later, he dropped the corpse to the floor, and snagged the manifested yellow orb out of the air before it could fall. He didn’t even hesitate to pop it with his fingers before turning to check the state of the skirmish happening.
[+1 Skill Rank : Scrimshaw - Basket Weaving]
James watched as Momo and her magnetic distortion of a dog pinned down and systematically dismantled a nearby shellaxy; part of the swarm that had leapt to the defense of this particular little patch of cubicle ground. A quick check around showed that everyone had made short work of the handful of striders and pair of ambulatory PCs, with Alanna having battered the other shellaxy into submission, and the rest of the team tearing into striders in ones and twos, avoiding getting swarmed and bit.
The ground their opponents were defending wasn’t exactly special, as far as James could see. A little patch of clear floor in a weird offset square pattern, in the middle of a few rising walls. There wasn’t much in the way of distortion to the walls here, just height. They rose up tall and proud, with the doors being equally tall columns of space cut out of them. The whole thing felt like being a child in a corn maze again; unable to see over the tops and uncertain about what was around the next corner. If it weren’t for the upward curve of the dungeon, James wouldn’t have been able to see the horizon at all; but at least this area wasn’t ‘roofed over’ and kept in the dark.
After Momo crowbarred in the front of the last shellaxy, the fight abruptly fell silent. There was a brief pause as everyone did a quick check around themselves for more enemies, and then made sure they weren’t hurt or secretly carrying a strider on their back. You only had to make that mistake once before it became habit to check each other’s backs, literally.
“Alright, good job. Let’s clear this up and move on.” James spoke in a low tone. They’d also learned, this deep in, that fights attracted more suicidally hostile dungeon life. The strider swarm James saw early on in his delving career hadn’t been replicated again, but it was easy to see how it might have. A few minutes after the din of combat, they’d be having a few more striders show up to investigate, maybe some masks as well. Every now and then, a maul cart, which actually was still a challenge to deal with. Speed, and efficiency, had become the game. If a fight did happen, they cleared the area, even if they still hadn’t looted everything thoroughly.
“Good doggo! Who’s a good doggo? It’s you!” Momo praised her team’s mascot, tossing the gauss hound a small yellow orb as a treat.
Today, James had decided to mix things up a bit, and get their newest team experience deeper into the dungeon, so he’d trust them more on their own in the future. To that end, their party was made up of the original trio of James, Anesh, and Alanna, along with the new ‘kids’ of Alex, Simon, and Momo.
James still wasn’t sure how to feel about Alex. The girl felt kinda like she wasn’t paying attention sometimes, but then she’d surprise them all by catching onto things weirdly fast. She wasn’t stupid, just easily distracted, but she made up for it with an almost instinctive aggression in combat. Alanna, unsurprisingly, had taken to Momo like the ready-made mentor she was, but Simon hadn’t gotten close to anyone in their time together. He kept a polite emotional distance, and James was starting to suspect that it was because he still harbored some amount of hero worship over the rescue.
“Alright, portion of the orbs bagged. Crack the rest.” Alanna announced. That had been their operational plan so far; using the yellows and blues they found fairly openly, just in case. The rest, the ones they were hanging onto, they’d pay out to the others when they got back. “And good job, Momo. Nice teamwork with the dog.”
“Magneto is a goooood doooog.” Momo reasserted, running her hands through the rainbow distortion in the air where the lifeform’s head probably was.
“Yeah, hey, Anesh?” James commented idly as he glanced down one of the corner hallways. “Remind me to ask Dave why we don’t bring Pendragon in here. Having something stomp on our foes sounds pretty nice right now.” He cracked his last yellow orb that hadn’t been stored for later as he spoke.
[+1 Skill Rank : Etiquette - Cell Phone]
“Pendragon is the size of a bus, and currently molting, so, that’s why. Don’t you read our Slack?” Anesh replied as he tightened the straps on his armor, shouldering the backpack in preparation to move again.
“I could have sworn we weren’t doing online communication.” James grunted in frustration.
“There’s a new encryption plugin for it.” Anesh said, like that explained anything. “I’ll add you to it later.”
“Will you explain how a whatever-Pendraon-is molts later, too?” James said with a small amount of sarcasm.
Anesh perked up and gave a small ‘Ah!, raising his index finger. “She’s being laminated!”
Both James and Momo stared at Anesh for a few seconds, before collectively shaking their heads. “Nope, didn’t help. I think the coffee is wearing off.”
“Alright, shut up you goons.” Alanna stole up behind them and gave James a light thwap on the back of his helmet. “We’ve gotta move before something shows up. Keep it down.”
They obliged, letting the banter drop back to a sort of rustling quiet as six people moved in a tight line down the hallways. Every now and then, they’d leave a marker up to help themselves get back, and as a backup plan, James had brought along a GoPro, currently mounted to the shoulder of his armor. It was the kind of small thing that he'd wanted to do for a while, but never really found the extra money for, or had always gotten distracted by other things. If they did end up getting lost, the recording would let them retrace their steps fairly easily. Between that and their other trump card, they were safe from being trapped in here; James just had to make sure to leave the camera here before going out. No sense taking dungeon footage anywhere it might accidentally get uploaded to Youtube.
It had been JP’s idea to stream a delve. No one had risen to the bait, no matter how many hits it was sure to get. Though James was seriously considering leveraging this place for internet fame.
On they soldiered, sometimes stopping to grab low hanging fruit from cubicles. They found a briefcase, which got added to the small cart they pulled behind their group every time they moved up to an intersection, but no one could make sense of where it wanted them to deliver eighteen hundred number two pencils, so that one went on the back burner. They really needed a full map of this place.
They passed, at some point, into the area that James and Anesh had first struggled to get through on their way to the spire that marked the Office’s bathrooms. Here, walls warped to form overhanging arches, sometimes bridges between cubicles. Those little ramps were usually only suitable to striders or tapiers, or whatever other small dungeon life hung out around here, but every now and then they’d see one that was wider, and bore dozens of small holes in it; telltale marks of passing tumblefeeds.
Here, the dungeon got darker as the lights were covered up by the warped pseudo-ceilings. Shafts of light caught on the bright white of vines of dot-matrix paper, or the shimmer of strider carapace as the small creatures moved in the shadows. Staying quiet, Alanna and James pulled flares out of their stockpile of equipment and lit them off, giving a harsh red glare to their procession as they moved on. They had a few run-ins with flashbulbs here, but after showing Simon how to dismantle them, the kid took to the dangerous task with an almost inhuman dexterity, and before they’d gotten past a hundred cubicles, they’d started to pile up red orbs. James even cracked one, on a dare from his partners. Well, a couple raised eyebrows; an implied dare.
He didn’t want to seem unappreciative.
[+1 Emotional Resonance Rank : Satisfaction]
It was an almost explosive release of tension when someone finally got hurt. They’d been going for so long, everyone was a little on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When one of the little computer mice rolled its way down the side of the wall on its adherent trackball, and dropped Momo with a precision strike to the neck before being smashed *through* the wall and into an orb, it was like things had finally started going wrong, right. At least now, they knew that this wasn’t just a dream or an episode of the Twilight Zone where things always went their way. Momo laughed it off, too, though she did spend more time rubbing the blackened skin patch than she wanted to.
They weren’t empty handed by this point; not by a long shot. The cart was filling up with stacks of bills and rolls of coins, a couple really nice coats, an actual functioning laptop, and a handful of candy. Of course, the candy. “Get Choc’d” was the flavor of the region, it seemed, though James finally found one that would never get sold in real life in the form of a bar of caramel filled with strawberry jam. The flavor was pretty good, but the name was “Fuck Off This Is Art”, which he was almost positive wouldn’t sell in the States.
And best of all, a few magic items. A pen that wrote things that were easy to believe. A pair of headphones that were plugged into your phone. A hair tie that braided your hair and then put itself in your pocket. A binder that Anesh ‘had a good feeling about’, but they couldn’t find a function of. And then, a big pile of blue orbs. James had snagged one for personal use, but they’d saved a good chunk of them. It was so hard to actually *find* magic items; not that there weren’t any, there were a *ton*. But figuring out what even was magic was hard when they weren’t glowing and didn’t have obvious uses most of the time.
[+2 Skill Ranks : Engineering - Mechanical - Oscilloscope]
[Problem Solved : Room Cleaned]
“What room…” James had asked, mostly to himself, before they’d moved on to another cube and another exploding lamp diffusal.
When they came to a corner that was a little too sharp, the hallways arcing around back the way they came and the line of sight blocked off by a vending machine and a water cooler sitting at the end of the T-intersection, Anesh held up a hand to stop them. While Ganesh may have been back by the door with other Anesh, they still had one really, really cool option for scouting in situations like this, and James had been kind of excited to see them use it all night. Both Anesh and most of the other crew had been practicing this way more than he had because of his aversion to the tech, so it was Simon and Anesh that pulled wires up out of the back of their armor where they ran down to the drone controllers at their waists, and plugged those wires into their skulljacks.
Two teammates closed their eyes while the others kept watch, and two quadcoptors took off from the cart behind them. One wobbled, one didn’t, and James and Alanna took quiet bets on which one of their pilots hadn’t been putting in flight time. But both of the flying cameras took the corner roughly at the same time, each one going a different direction and feeding information back to the minds of the two people plugged into them.
“Left looks like a dead end.” Anesh said softly. “Unless… no, wait. There’s a gap here that leads to a break room. Yeah. We’ve got a break room. Coffee time?”
The left one had been the one that wobbled. “Pay up.” James nudged Alanna.
“Bah. I should have known. He’s been too busy lately, of course.” She muttered, dropping one of her saved yellow orbs into James’ hand.
[+1 Skill Rank : Rollerblading]
“Right seems fine. Just a long hall. Potted plant at the end of it; *absolutely* alive.” Simon said a little too loudly. “Heading back.” He announced.
A few seconds later, the two drones came around the corner. Anesh landed his almost flawlessly in his own hand; even though they’d learned that their shell upgrades didn’t actually apply to drones they were flying, they still could attain a remarkable degree of finesse with the things.
When Simon’s drone came back, though, it did so almost completely upside down. Then rapidly lurched sideways and slammed into the vending machine, before Simon opened his eyes with a “hurk” noise and pitched sharply to his left as well.
“Ow.” He softly gasped from the floor.
“What the hell?! Are you okay?” Momo was instantly at his side, demanding. “What happened?” She spoke before James could ask the same question
Simon rose to his feet shaky. “Ugh. The direction changed when I turned around. I don’t know what happened; it was like I was just suddenly upside down.”
“Orange.” Alanna and James spoke in unison, like they were old hands at this. Both of them looked at Anesh, who already knew the decision had been made. The two of them had been interested in trying to absorb an orange ever since Anesh had duplicated himself.
He rolled his eyes at them. “Alright, alright. We’ll get more coffee later.”
“I’m not hauling a coffee maker back again anyway.” James said. “We have a perfectly good one at home and oh god I’ve become my mother.”
“We also have a cart this time.” Anesh pointed out. “And interns to do the hauling. That’s an American tradition right there!”
James laughed. “Don’t try to tell me England doesn’t have interns. I *know* that’s not true.”
“It’s different. We pay ours.” Anesh asserted.
“You pay us?” Alex half-asked, wringing her hands in front of her chest.
The two looked at her, feeling the wind go out of their banter. It wasn’t as funny when someone was actually confused instead of just hamming it up. “Yeah, we do. Speaking of, let’s go check out the hallway that flips people upside down. Sounds great.” James patted the other guy on the shoulder, before moving past him.
It took three tries, a sprained wrist, and a half dozen bruises, before they figured out that the hallway gradually changed the orientation of the horizon for those walking down it in one direction, but not the other. Hence why turning around kept throwing them into the floor. It didn’t help that it was almost imperceptible to people who were watching from *outside* the hallway, so they had to form a kind of human chain to see how far up the walls or ceiling those in front of them were walking. From there, though, it wasn’t too hard to figure out the limits of the effect, and start scouring the nearby cubes until they found the hourglass shaped totem holding the bright orange orb in it.
Breaking it on the spot may have been a bit dumb, and James had taken a door panel with him as he’d fallen ‘down’ about fifteen feet onto his back. The cubicle behind him had cushioned his fall, though the shellaxy he’d fallen on hadn’t been happy.
And then, they’d pushed on, again. They had an hour left before they had to turn around and head back, or risk getting trapped here. But they were almost there. James could *feel* it.
When they’d rounded the corner, after killing their way through a potted plant that refused polite negotiation, he’d felt so insufferably smug to see the blue and white tile spire, reaching up a mile into the artificial sky overhead. As Simon’s machete cut through the last of the paper vines obscuring their path forward, James felt the stirring in his chest that he lived for these days.
Here was somewhere new. Somewhere dangerous. Somewhere that was an *adventure*.
“Everyone ready?” He asked, look at the faces around him.
Alex nodded, Momo gave him a thumbs up, Simon silently tipped his head in assent, and Anesh cracked his knuckles with an intense glare forward. And Alanna was the only one who spoke up.
“Just who the hell do you think you’re asking?” She smirked.
James mimicked the expression. Oh yeah; he thought as he stepped forward at the head of their wedge formation heading into a hostile dimension’s idea of bathrooms. We’re all insane.
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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!