“Alright, before we go in there, does anyone new have any questions?” James asked the group. Naturally, Anesh raised a hand. “No, man, I mean the actual new people. Unless… are you the original Anesh or the copy Anesh?”
“That’s kind of a rude question.” Alanna slyly inserted. She was crouched on the ground, reshuffling her backpack after having pulled out a rolled bandage earlier for Momo’s sprained wrist.
Both Anesh and James turned slightly amused glowers on her, before turning back to each other. “If I say I’m the copy, can I ask my question?” Anesh asked.
“Well, you already asked something, so now that the entire conceit of this pause has broken down, go ahead.” James made a magnanimous ‘at your leisure’ kind of gesture with an open hand.
Anesh nodded in acknowledgement of James, fully ignoring the newer three members of their party staring at them like they’d gone mad, before saying, “Has anyone else noticed that all the doors in the dungeon are pretty normal?”
“Is now really the time for this?” James asked back, before then realizing that sometimes details like this *were* super important, and turning to examine the bathroom door.
He started running through details in his head, trying his best to put aside real-world bias and look at things objectively. Alanna stepped up beside him and matched his gaze; she was really better at this kind of thinking, looking at things with clean eyes. They’d flipped a coin to decide which one they went in through, and ended up choosing the men’s door. The dungeon was many things, but apparently it hadn’t caught up to gender neutral facilities. The door was a sort of paneled wood, with a pane of metal where people would want to push it open; James had always assumed that was there to be easily cleaned. Little blue plastic triangle on the front telling them it was the guy’s restroom. Nothing weird there. It wasn’t trying to mind control him, assumedly; Secret would have manifested if that were the case. James started running his eyes around the doorframe, the floor, everything in the area around the door. Eventually, he and Alanna looked at each other puzzled.
“Nope. It’s a normal ass door.” James finally said. He turned and raised his eyebrows at the younger delvers following them. “Anyone else got anything before Anesh makes me look like an idiot?”
“It’s a door.” Momo said. “To the bathroom. Which is six miles tall and fits in a forty foot ceiling space.”
Waving a hand casually, James dismissed that. “You get used to that. Any other insights?”
It was Alex who tentatively started talking next. The girl had been nervous as all hell to come in here, and James had some reservations about bringing someone this far in on their first actual non-life-or-death run, but it should be fine with everyone here to give her pointers and keep her more or less safe. “Um… is it because it’s a normal door?”
“No, that…” James started, before Anesh cut him off with an excited “Exactly!” James looked at his boyfriend in exasperation before sighing and resigning himself to the upcoming explanation. “Alright, fuck it. Hit me. Why is the normal door weird?”
“Okay, so, think of the cubicle doors in here. The dungeon clearly iterates on them; they start out as normal rectangle holes in the walls, and then get progressively weirder shaped from there. But all the actual door-doors we’ve seen have been just normal doors.”
James rubbed the bridge of his nose with a gloved hand. The phrase ‘door-doors’ was when he felt the headache start. “Okay, look, this is fascinating, but we’re on a time budget. Can we… can we just field questions from the interns and then talk about the doors when we’re eating pancakes at four AM later?”
Anesh flushed, the blush showing coppery on his darker skin. “Ah, right. Sorry, I forgot.”
“No worries. Now, does anyone *else* have a question?” James asked with what he hoped was a welcoming smile.
Simon remained silent, which James had come to expect from the younger guy. His streak of nervousness was really starting to show around the other delvers, and James was concerned, but so far, he’d never faltered in a crisis, so he said nothing. Alex also shook her head; she really was more of the observe-and-think kind of person. If she had a question, she’d keep it to herself until she knew exactly what she wanted to ask.
The last party member, Momo, though. Well, she never hesitated to speak up. “I’ve got a question! Isn’t this insane?”
“Correct!” James answered with a smile.
“But we’re doing it anyway.” She half-stated, half-asked.
“Well, here’s the thing.” It took James a second to find the words he wanted to use, as he made a balancing gesture with his hands. “We could go home now, but we’ve never seen this place before. So it’ll probably have some danger in it, but it’ll also probably be really cool, and might have something amazing for us. Like, remember the decision trees? We don’t find stuff like that by not pushing out our map of this place.”
Momo saluted him, almost unironically. “Got it, boss!” She stepped back, slapping Simon on the shoulder with a grin, as if to say ‘told you so’. James shook his head with a smile at the little moment between them; this was clearly something they’d argued about when he’d been not paying attention.
“Alright.” James finally said. They’d tucked their loot cart along the wall, shucked their backpacks next to it, unsheathed weapons and tools, and were as ready as they were gonna be. “Alanna; hit it.”
The door opened smoothly on silent hinges.
“Okay, now move in a bit.”
Theo stopped as she heard the voice while passing by the main dungeon door. Sarah was standing there, Ganesh on her shoulder and with a clipboard in hand, as Secret obliged the request that she’d made of the snake… fish… thing. She wasn’t doing anything in particular at the moment, so she stopped to try to puzzle out what the hell was happening.
“How’s it feel?” Sarah asked, as Secret parked half his fang-and-eye studded form outside the breach back to reality.
Theo shuddered slightly as the nightmarish informorph replied. “I am… uncomfortable.” It said. “Though I believe I may be the wrong person for these tests of yours. As I am not entirely on good terms with corporality, I do not believe that the differences in time zones is as pronounced.”
“Yes.” Sarah said, slowly drawing out the word while she made a note on the clipboard. “That’s why we’re starting with you, to make sure it’s safe.” She paused briefly, before following up with, “Not that I’m trying to get you killed.”
“I am aware.” Secret said, sagely.
“Okay, I’ve gotta know.” Theo butted in. “What the hell is happening here?”
“Oh, hey Theo.” Sarah said, looking over. “We’re testing the time dilation of the door. I always meant to, and Anesh did some looking into it, but now I’ve got a chance and I want to make sure before I go back in, ya know?”
“Why?” Theo bluntly shrugged. “We already know how long the door is open, why bother?”
Sarah tapped her pen to her lips. “Well, first of all… um.” She paused, then rubbed her lips. “Cherry? Wait, what?” She casually snapped the pen in half with a gesture that seemed far too practiced to Theo, and a second later the whole thing collapsed to dust, leaving behind a glimmering blue orb. “Ganesh! New pen!” She rolled her shoulder and launched the drone onto his fetch quest.
“I never get used to how those look.” Theo frowned at the orb.”
“Ah, right. James mentioned you were colorblind, right?” Sarah tapped the orb in her hand. “Makes me wonder if we could sense these in other ways that humans don’t normally have. Like, could we tell how hot they are without functioning nerves? It’s cool. But also I’m sorry you don’t like it.” She gave a sad look to Theo that made the other woman want to simultaneously reassure her and scowl.
Theo chose scowl, but not a very harsh one. “I don’t need your pity on it, it’s not a big deal. Tell me about the door.”
“Oh! I just wanted to have exact numbers. Also I want to know where the line is, so we can work out if there’s any danger to it. I don’t want to be the one who discovers the hard way that it cuts people in it in half when the timer runs out or something.”
Now *that*, Theo could get behind. “Good point.” She conceded. “Need any help?”
“Oh, I’m fine, thanks though! Don’t you have something else to do tonight? I know it’s your first time back too.” Sarah queried, holding back her normally bubbling curiosity.
Theo just shrugged again; a gesture she used a lot in here. It felt awkward to her to go from being in charge to being out of place again. “I’m mostly just filling in for Daniel. He and Tyrone have been keeping an eye on the door, in case anything tries to get out, and I can get behind that. I *could* do it from outside, but... “
“But this place is really cool and you wanted to see more of it?” Sarah asked hopefully.
The reply was a sarcastic sniff. “Ha. No. But if I’m going to fight the stuff in here, I’m gonna need to be ready for it. And since James has decided to throw support at us bouncers, it seemed like the best bet. Everyone wins. Except the fucking dungeon.”
“Aw, it’s not so bad.” Sarah said quietly.
“How can you, of all people, say that?” Theo hissed, angrily. “How many pounds did you have to put back on after we hauled you out of the prison? How many people *died*? It wasn’t just those two that didn’t make it past the first day, you know. Four more people committed suicide since then.” Theo swept her hand at the horizon, at the endless overlapping geometric patterns that grew like beige crystals out of the eternal floor. “This place looks pretty, but it’s here to *kill humans*, and I’m not okay with that.”
Sarah reeled back. “Wait, four people? James never said anything about..”
“James doesn’t know.” Theo snapped. “And he doesn’t need to. I may be pissed at him, but at the end of the day, he’s the best option I know of if there’s more problems with this place. So don’t tell him. I’ve seen him depressed, and I know I haven’t seen the worst of it. We don’t need that right now.”
“No. Don’t.” Theo’s tone did not brook argument. She looked over her shoulder, casually sweeping her lingering glare across the scenery. “Alright, I’m going back to patrol. You have fun with your tests.” The words came out a bit more acidic than she may have meant. “Just remember that this place isn’t a goddamn game.” She shot as she stomped away.
It wasn’t until Ganesh flew back with a fresh, non-magic, pen that Sarah wiped away the tear on her cheek. “Don’t you think I know that?” She muttered. The drone, sensing her distress, leaned in and settled a clawed wing on Sarah’s shaking hand.
Rising up to full height next to her, and coming up to just over her waist, Secret spoke. “I do not like her.” He said bluntly. “She speaks truths, but she misunderstands them. Also she hurt you. And she keeps secrets.”
Sarah laughed sadly. “Shouldn’t you like that?” She asked the thing named Secret that fed on secrets.
“Do you remember James’ attempts at cooking, before he began to truly learn?” Secret asked.
“Of course. Wait, do *you* remember those?”
“I have heard stories.” Secret nodded.
“He literally burned water once.” Sarah said.
“So I am told.” Secret rippled with amusement.
“But it’s… oh. I get it! She’s… bad food.” Sarah looked after where Theo had gone. “Bad secrets.”
Secret nodded in assent. “You do not need to tell my father.” He said. “After all, you were told not to. Fortunately, that woman does not believe I am a person, and forgets that I have ears.” He noticed Sarah’s raised eyebrows and small smile. “Of a sort, yes.” He preemptively answered. “Now. If you are suitably cheered up, let us return to testing the skein of time.”
It was enough, truly, to get Sarah moving again. She had been, and still was, apprehensive about being back in this place. After all, Theo wasn’t *wrong*. The dungeon killed people. But then, so did *cars*, and Sarah still got in James’ vehicle every time they went for 2 AM Taco Bell. Hell, Taco Bell probably also killed people, if you thought about it too much. But both cars and burritos when you were slightly drunk were worth it, overall. Worth the risk, worth the cost, and also worth paying attention to; just in case.
And for her, it was worth it to have Secret around. Sarah had been talking to him a lot, lately. He’d actually stayed with her last week instead of coming in here physically. He was… a lot of things that James was, really. But something new. Someone new. He reminded Sarah why she liked James so much to begin with; almost like a remix of the original person. But without the still sadly upsetting problem of having no memory of their twenty years of life together.
And without the dungeon, Officium Mundi as she called it, Secret wouldn’t exist at all. And James would never have…wait a second.
Sarah paused briefly, and looked over at Secret where he was moving with her back toward the door. “Sorry,” she asked, “tell your *what*?”
There was a sharp snapping noise as Momo fired off a ball bearing out of her wrist rocket. The rubber straps of the well braced slingshot flailing wildly in the brief second after they delivered their payload.
Thirty feet away, the pellet tore through the intercepting form of a fist sized insect. The creature was made of white tile, with a multi-segmented body and four triangular legs that tapered to a needle point. Lines of grout traced along its back and face, and on that face sat a single recessed black motion sensor dot, occasionally flickering with a dim red light from within. A fluidly organic tail with a wide edge flicked back and forth behind it as it thrashed its death. Altogether, it gave off the impression of a silverfish, if someone had designed it from the ground up to be somehow worse.
There were approximately a hundred of these on this platform. And every second, more of them poured out of the scratched and graffitied bathroom mirror set stationary at head level in the air only a few yards away from the group.
The first action taken was for Alanna to raise her shotgun, but the bugs were too close, and more than one of them lept from the nearby wall to stab too-sharp legs through Alanna’s wrist, as well as the gun’s breach. When she pulled the trigger, the now-crushed bug had jammed the works, and nothing had happened.
Momo had noticed, and raced for the cart, and her stashed slingshot, as soon as it had become clear that wading through the horde to get to the mirror was suicide. Anesh had done the same, for a different reason, the two of them leaving James and Simon, and a screaming, panicking Alex, to fend off the forerunners of the swarm. James had been initially both satisfied and then grossed out as his heavy boot had smashed the first one underfoot, a spray of foul smelling sludge oozing out of the cracks in the shell. But then, they’d started arriving in greater numbers, moving in fluid bursts along the ground and walls, and things had gotten bad.
By the time Anesh came sprinting back, James was bleeding from multiple puncture wounds down his left leg, and one on his fucking elbow of all places. As his boyfriend came running back in, working to trigger the magnesium ignitor on the thermite lances that he was holding, Anesh had slipped on the slick wet tile underfoot. James’ heart stopped for a brief second as Anesh fumbled the now missing metal rod, before in a smooth split second, Anesh caught the thermite, caught himself, slid across the floor in a crouch, and flicked both of the four foot long thermite sticks out onto the tile to form a blazing barrier of heat and molten metal. The smell of burning sludge filled the air as two dozen of the little creatures died in an instant, but the rest of them didn’t hesitate. More and more of them filtered around the wall and the small gap between the thermite, pouring in.
Then, hot on Anesh’s heels, fumbling with shaking hands at the slingshot, Momo had stepped in and fired over their backs. Her first shot went wide, winging out into the open space that waited beyond the edge of the platform. Her second had come close to the mirror, but one of the bugs had lunged in front of it, taking the hit. After a few more tries, her aim getting better as her frustration increased, she’d slammed one of the pellets through the defending bug, into the scratched glass, and shattered it.
Every single one of the porcelain-fish dropped like puppets with their wires cut.
James frantically slapped at his arms and legs, shaking off the last stragglers and fragments still pinned into his armor. He winced as he hit one of the holes in his leg where the needle leg of the bug had gone straight through the softer cloth part of the armor.
“Sound off!” He called over the still popping sparks of the thermite that was quickly working its way through the floor.
“I’m good!” Anesh called from the floor where he’d ended up.
“Fine.” Simon said curtly.
“I’m covered in bug shit.” Alanna called back, followed by, “And also bleeding. Oh, that’s great. Oh…” James glanced over and saw her covering her neck as she turned and moved carefully back to the cart and their bandages.
“I… what the fuck was that?” Alex said, shakey. “I wasn’t… what?!”
“Are you hurt?” James prompted.
“No, I…” She started to say before trailing off.
James nodded. “Good. Get out there and help Alanna. Double check your legs, while you’re there. Momo?”
“I’m good, I’m okay.” She gasped. “Whooo. That was fucking wild.” The punk girl whistled out.
James spat onto the floor, trying to clear the foul taste in the air from his mouth. His arm and leg burned from where they bled, sticking his skin to the inside of the armor he wore. As the thermite finally burned a hole through the floor and dropped down into nothingness, he started making his way toward the mirror, kicking aside clumps of dead or disabled porclainfish, skin crawling as he did so. “Okay, so, I wanna start this with the phrase ‘I’m not mad’.” He said to Momo, who instantly tensed up.
“Wait, what did I do wrong?” She asked, worried.
“Not much, which is the point. Good instinct, good tactical awareness. We should probably teach a class on that at some point. But... “ He looked back at her. “I just gotta know; did you have to move aside the bullpup to get to the slingshot?” James asked, worrying his lower lip.
“Yeah, I…” Momo trailed off. “Oh. Right, guns. Guns!” She punched a fist into her forehead, perhaps a little too hard. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t even think about it!” She called over to James who was now approaching the still floating mirror shards.
“It’s fine. I think you get seven years bad luck for this anyway. And it’s kinda my own fault for not thinking to bring my gun in with me. I figured Alanna could cover that.” James stepped up to what remained of the mirror, still sitting in midair, and tapped at it. It was one of those untrusting bathroom mirrors that a lot of restaurants used; basically an unbreakable piece of shiny glass that still got worn down, scratched, and vandalized. One of the shards of it in the lower left had what looked like half a phone number on it, which James promptly pledged to never call.
In the middle of it, between all the broken glass, was a green orb. A very large one, too, with a smaller orange orbiting it in lazy loops. James reached a gloved hand in, still being careful to avoid getting sliced open by surprised, and plucked them out. The rest of the mirror dropped to the ground with a series of chimes as it hit the tile floor. He started to sigh, but coughed as the long breath he was sucking in brought the thick scent of decay with it.
Before he turned back to get his injuries bandaged and added to his growing list of scars, James stopped and looked, really looked without worrying about his impending death, at the area around them.
He stood on the edge of a slick platform. Underfoot was linoleum, slick with black sludge blood and a thin layer of what he hoped was water. To the left of the door, as they’d come in, was a blue tile wall with strangely rippling grout filling the spaces between the small panels. It rose up overhead, turning eventually into a ceiling. But that ceiling only made it a few feet away from the wall before it ceased. It was like some massive creature had taken a bite out of a room; the ceiling, the right hand and back walls, even parts of the floor, were all just missing. Carved away.
And beyond them, a scene from a fever dream.
Shapes that were vaguely recognizable as twisted versions of bathroom fixtures floated in the sky. There were outer walls, maybe five hundred feet away in all directions, that held within them an expanse of open air. Despite having entered at ground level, James peered over the lip of the edge he stood on to see that this place went down as well as up. Maybe thirty feet below, there was another platform just like this one; a small sliver of an office bathroom made manifest and stabilized to float gently within the open space. It was hard to make out in the gloom; oh, there *were* lights, but they were often tethered by cable threads to the islands in the air, and it left a lot of the area dark.
But through those occasional sources of blazing white light, James could see the air also held flowing rivers of water, some of them falling, or perhaps rising, in vertical columns. But others moved with serpentine casualness, wrapping in loops around or sometimes through islands. Sometimes moving alongside them, flocks of paper birds filled the air with flashes of white as their skins caught in the lights.
And there were other things out there, too. Over the noise of rushing water and fluttering paper, James could *feel* it in the air. Something lurking in the wet spaces. He just didn’t know what it was yet.
When Anesh stepped up beside him, careful not to slide on the floor, he looked over at James after a minute. “Well this is a hell of a thing.” He commented as Alex and Momo also came to observe it.
“Yeah, fuck this place.” James said, turning around. “I feel like I’m gonna be damp for a week.”
James’d had his back turned for less than a second when Anesh slipped on a puddle and almost went over the edge. Alex had caught him by the wrist, while Momo lunged to wrap her arms under Anesh’s shoulder and haul him back up. By the time James, startled by the yelling behind him, had turned around, they’d already yanked a panting Anesh back over the lip, and he was sprawled on his back on the floor.
“Okay.” Anesh said. “I’m coming around to your way of thinking.”
“We’re buying kitchen crew shoes before we come in here again.” James stated, hand against his chest as he calmed his breathing. He reached out a hand to help haul Anesh to his feet while Momo and Alex threw worried glances at the drop off the edge. “Also maybe some grappling hooks. Climbing gear in general. Anyway! Someone tell Alanna to come look at this if she wants to. I need to get some bandaids, and then I think it’s time to turn back for the day.”
Turned out, being soggy was an almost universal sign that the fun for the day was over.
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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!