“I am almost positive we took a wrong turn somewhere.” Anesh commented, sounding a lot less worried than someone should be when they were potentially trapped in a dungeon. “James, do you have the map we were drawing?”
‘Drawing’, in James opinion, was absolutely the wrong word for how they kept maps when they were first exploring. It wasn’t anything so impressive as a sketch of hallway and room dimensions with marked points of interest. Instead, they kept a written list of turns taken, rough distances traveled between each direction change, and small notes about things to look for to orient around. He’d actually had an argument with Anesh about it, and gotten perhaps a little too angry over the terminology.
There’d been an apology afterward, and they’d both blamed it on being slightly damn, and slightly covered in cuts and bruises. But Anesh hadn’t stopped calling the thing a map.
“Ah, I think I see it.” James said, discussing with the others what path they’d taken. “We never took that turn that would take us back by the second break room area on the way back. We just kept going straight. Thaaaat’s probably my bad.”
“What do we do *now*?” Alex asked. She’d been getting a lot better at reacting in danger situations, but when it came to strategic planning, she seemed almost terrified of the dungeon. It was behavior strangely at odds with James’ initial impression of the young woman who’d tried to kick the head off a camraconda.
“We… make a small turn that way?” James said, pointing down past the vending machine that Momo and Alanna were eagerly using to turn non-standard bills into weird sodas. “It’s not a big deal. Space in here gets weird sometimes, but this isn’t Hogwarts. The hallways are *mostly* a grid, and we know that if we go that direction long enough, we can hit the outside wall and find our way back from there.”
As James got them rounded up and moving again, Anesh decided to take a moment to complain. “Okay, do you think the dungeon would consider it rude if I took my shoes off?” He asked curiously.
“Why…”. James and Alanna said simultaneously, causing small grins on each other's faces.
Anesh rocked on one of his feet, producing an audible squelching sound over the low hum of the dungeon’s air conditioners in the distance. “Because my socks feel like a swamp and I hate it.” He said. “The bathrooms were a terrible idea, and I’m trying to figure out why we were ever excited to go there.”
James laughed. “Okay, okay, I get it. I’m gonna tell you to keep your shoes on, though. We’ve still gotta head back, and if we have to run, I don’t wanna lose you to a misplaced thumbtack.”
“Aaaww, it’s sweet that you think of that for him.” Momo butted in.
“Don’t read too far into it.” James waved a finger at her. “This isn’t a relationship thing, this is tactical. I’m gonna tell you to leave your shoes on, too.”
“Fiiiine.” Momo whined, getting a shared chuckle from James and Anesh.
“Okay, enough of this.” James grabbed his bag off the floor, closing the booklet of directions and tossing it to Anesh who shoved it back into a pocket. Throwing the backpack over his shoulder, James took a deep breath of recycled air as he slowly turned his eyes to look around them. “That way!” He authoritatively declared. “Alanna, radio in to the others, just to check in. We’ll have them send up a flare when we get closer to the door.”
Alanna saluted him, only mostly kidding. “Yes, sir!” She drawled out with a cheeky smile.
“Everyone else good? Wet socks don’t count right now.” James looked at the other members of the team, and got a series of nervous nods or casual shrugs. “Alright, let’s hit the road.”
“Aw, come on, react a *little*.” Alanna groused. “You’re not supposed to actually like getting saluted!” She reminded James. But while he shot her a knowing smirk, he also had a solid feeling in his chest at the thought. James *was* falling into a leadership role; only this time, it was more or less on purpose. He may have extra responsibility, but he also had the skills to rise to that challenge. So, for once in his life, he looked at the part of the mostly ironic salute that was genuine, and realized that it felt good to be able to trust Alanna fully to do what was needed.
Saddled with damp clothes and armor, heavy backpacks, and dragging a cart now laden with a decent weight of loot, six delvers chose a direction. They tore down the curtain of printer paper obscuring the hallway, gave a few hostile eyes to the striders that perched on the edges of cubicles safely out of reach, and double checked their weapons and armor straps. Then, in spread out pairs, they began their trek.
They lacked the bold confidence that they’d had when they were on the way in, but they weren’t afraid. They were armed, alert, and together. And they were ready for anything.
“I have a question.” Dave said, breaking the long silence that he and JP had been sharing.
The two of them were perched on top of a desk which had been cleared of all random office debris; a statement which made JP realize how quickly he started thinking of pencils and documents as ‘debris’ once he was exposed to this place. The wall in front of them was one of the lower cubicles, not so deep in that it was jagged or broken, but instead a smooth line parallel to the floor. “Lower”, of course, meaning simply that they could peak over it from a half-crouch when they were standing on a desk; the walls got tall in a hurry these days, without much of the normal office landscape that JP remembered from the first time his friends had dragged him into this madness.
They had been waiting here, in companionable quiet, for fifteen minutes now. Across the intersection, keeping watch over a different angle, Sarah and Tyrone had also been tasked into spontaneous sentry duty with them.
“No,” JP replied to his friend, “I still don’t know why Ganesh wanted us here, I don’t speak drone.” He thought for a second about the nature of the place they were in, and remembered the trio of stored yellow orbs in his pocket. “Yet.” He appended.
“It’s not that.” Dave reassured him, which was strangely not reassuring. JP had noticed that Dave had been more than a little transformed by the dungeon, and by his own near death experience. Not even six months ago, Dave had been JP’s best friend. Still was, really. He was kinda whiny sometimes, he didn’t really think too much about other people, and he had a bad tendency to assume that someone else was going to fix his problems for him. *This* version of Dave complained about things that were literally trying to eat him, which was always fair; had a near-suicidal tendency to put others safety over his own, and trusted that James would fix not just his problems, but *every* problem. This, JP realized, was how cults started.
“Alright, what’s the question?” JP prompted.
“Do we have an etiquette?” Dave asked, earnestly.
JP tilted his head to the side curiously. “As Americans? Sort of, though it depends on exactly who you’re dealing with. A lot of it is wearing the right suit, having a good handshake and first impression, that sorta thing. American etiquette emphasizes remembering how you’re introduced to someone over, say, constant adherence to honorable behavior, like some…”
“No, I mean, us, as dungeon explorers. Though this is all interesting and I do want to get back to it later.” Dave cut him off.
“Oh. Then no. You’ve met James, he wouldn’t know etiquette if it… ooooh, you mean like our own set of traditions and stuff, yeah?” JP tapped a finger to his lips as he came to the realization, and Dave nodded at him. “Now that’s a good question. Is this because of the whole ‘loot shares or corporation’ thing going on?”
“Mostly, yes.” Dave answered while his eyes tracked the movements of a flock of paper in the sky overhead.
JP thought on it for a few minutes. This, more than anything, was what had made it so easy for him to make friends with Dave in the first place. Dave was really, really good at being quiet. Which doesn’t sound like a skill at all, and probably didn’t have an orb for it, but it was something that JP valued a lot. It gave him these quiet moments to actually think his answer through before he said anything.
“Okay.” He started. “I think I’ve got some thoughts.” Dave turned his eyes away from the paper birds to focus on JP. “So, the major one, especially with all the new people, is that we prioritize each other.”
“Don’t people normally do… okay, no, nevermind.” Dave could be oblivious to other humans sometimes, but he cut himself off here. He wasn’t *stupid*.
“Right. If there was a choice between loot and playing it safe, or saving someone, I think our little growing subculture will always, *always*, say ditch the loot.” JP nodded. “And I like that. Also, kind of hand in hand with that point, we treat the loot mostly like a joke?”
Dave hummed in a low tone. “I like the loot.” He said. “I miss my gameboy.”
“Sure. So. What else?” JP pondered for a second, taking a minute to peek over the edge again just in case. “Okay. Hero worship. That’s a thing we sorta do, and I don’t think it’s a great one.”
“You don’t.” Dave retorted.
“I’ve known you all for a long time. I know you’re not… well, actually, no! You guys are literally heroes, to a lot of people. But I know that you aren’t *mythical*. Have you seen how people like Simon or Harvey or even fucking Ethan look at James? They treat him like he’s a conquering king.”
“I treat him like he’s a paladin.” Dave said with a shrug. “It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, does it? We’re basically creating a caste of knights, aren’t we?” He paused as JP stared at him, head tilted and eyes questioning. “Oh. Oooooh.”
“Yeah, caste systems aren’t good.” JP responded. “Though, that said, even Karen respects James’ authority here. But it’s authority that’s at least earned. The problem is that cultures like this one are almost doomed to lead to top-heavy power structures. That’s not answering your question, though.” JP cleared his throat awkwardly. “What… what was the question again?”
Dave answered bluntly, neither annoyed nor amused; just providing information. “I just wanted to know if there was anything specifically I should be doing with the other delvers.”
“For the culture we have? Answer questions, resolve disputes. Actually be the knight that they think you are.” JP answered.
JP chopped a hand through the air. “Liar. But for the culture we should maybe really be thinking about shaping, I don’t know. I think… I think we should get into the habit of treating our teams like second families. We are, obviously, going to bring in more people in the future; we want to have a foundation down *now*. We’ll just have to keep an eye on what language and behavior emerges, and make sure to emphasize the stuff that’s healthy.”
“You thought about this a lot more than I thought you would.” Dave offhandedly commented. It was the sort of blunt, Dave-ism that annoyed a lot of people, but JP found refreshing.
“Yes, well, I think this is why James keeps me around. I mean, I’m maybe two ranks above Hellen Keller in the world of dungeoneering.” JP shrugged. “Hey, you keep watch. I need to go check in with the others. Don’t eat all the candy while I’m gone.” He said, hopping down off the desk and shaking the stiffness out of his legs.
He slipped out the door, heading over to double check, again, that they were in the right place, mind now abuzz with ideas on artificial traditions.
“You know what I’m surprised about?” James said as he and Anesh stepped into a misshapen hexagonal cubicle while the others took a short break. The two of them had hit a second wind at some point, possibly because they weren’t the ones in charge of hauling the cart. Anesh raised eyebrows at him as he casually grabbed the shirt still in the dry cleaning wrapper and tossed it over the lamp currently in the process of exploding, prompting James to continue. “That you’re here today. Not that I’m not super happy about it, but, like, I was certain you’d be spending all night trying to get the ritual that copies stuff to work.”
Anesh fished through the drawer on his side of the desk, idly tossing a jewel case with an unknown band’s logo on it and a roll of dimes onto the surface as he searched through the cluttered space. “It’s good that you know me so well, but bad that I think you weren’t paying attention when I mentioned that I’d figured it out.”
“What, really?” James looked surprised as he shook the beads of molten glass off the shirt before it could catch fire, the scent of melting plastic hot in the air.
“I mean, I’d thought so. Alright, so, maybe I didn’t. Look, there’s a lot going on tonight.” Anesh got defensive, until James patted him on the shoulder and gave him a quiet smile that said a lot about how little he needed a justification from his friend. “Right. Right. Anyway, the bloody thing needs coffee to work.”
“Who doesn’t.” James rhetorically asked as he shoved aside the rolling chair at the desk and started trying out passwords.
Anesh nodded. “Well, this sure sodding does. Those bags of coffee grounds have ‘recipes’ for the ritual on them, it’s apparently very easy to make happen, but it takes a ton of coffee. And we haven’t found *any* of it, except in the tower.”
James hit upon the right password after a minute of typing (‘hamlunch’, written on a sticky note on the back of the monitor), and turned to face Anesh. “Okay, so, we need to find another tower.”
“Yup. And as near as I can tell, we can use this to start doubling xenotech…” He broke under James’ glare. “Er… magic items… without any trouble.” Anesh cleared his throat as James nodded at the term correction and turned back to start sorting through the laptop’s file system for anything fun. “Any suggestions if we can get enough to fire it up?”
“Honestly, unless it can just duplicate literal orbs, I feel like we might be better off using it to counterfeit a *lot* of cash.” James shrugged. “Like, aside from the mapper, and maaaaybe the pen, what do we even have that has a lot of utility?”
“That seems *really* unethical.” Anesh commented, before thinking on what they routinely did. “Okay, so, the dungeon money isn’t exactly ethical either. You know what? I’m just gonna drop this and nod. Anything good on there?”
“Just a screensaver file, which won’t load anything but a preview, and I don’t wanna wait five minutes for it to start normally.” James hit the delete key, and was mildly concerned when a red orb manifested in front of the screen. “Okay, that’s new.” He said, showing Anesh before pocketing the drop.
Anesh sighed. “Oh good. More things to worry about. Do you ever get the feeling this place is more trouble than it’s worth?” He asked.
“Never.” James didn’t hesitate.
“Of course. Well, let’s get moving. I hear Alanna being annoyed, so we should be good to start again. Only a half mile to home.” Anesh patted James on the shoulder as he walked out, and James followed after throwing an alert eye around the room.
The group reassembled without too much comment. Simon and Momo were having a quiet conversation that quickly trailed off as James and Anesh reemerged into the wide hallway, and Alex was standing some distance ahead of them, leaning on a corner of a cubicle as she took a look at their upcoming path. Anesh silently dropped what they’d found into the cart; it was getting heavy, but still had room for some more mass without going over the lip. Most of them had gotten into the habit of keeping relatively quiet, even when they were looting or taking a break, and they had time and mental energy to devote to being snarky, or to planning, they kept their voices low. It also helped that James had picked up a pack of earplugs from the local gun store, just in case, and most of them were keeping the things in; useful if they had to start shooting, but not great for low pitched chats. Now, after hours spent together scouring wealth from this place, and more than a few legitimate fights, they had little to talk about.
Oh, James could always find something to talk about. Running his mouth wasn’t the hard part. But right now, he just slung his rifle back onto his chest, checked the safety, and tapped Alex’s shoulder as the two of them took their turn moving on point.
Two sets of feet moved forward, leading the way for the rest of them.
James let Alex sort of guide them. They already knew what direction they were going, and it wasn’t a problem to keep their heading straight, unless the dungeon was oranging them. But the whole point of bringing the new kids on this run was to help them get acquainted with the dungeon personally. So he didn’t prompt anything, didn’t give orders. Just let Alex apply what she’d been seeing them do this whole time.
And she wasn’t bad at it, either. She stopped James a couple of times to point out a mask overhead, waiting for the things to pass before moving on. Avoiding attracting attention from the floating creatures. When they reached a point with a potted plant and a water cooler, James had been surprised when she’d suggested they jump it, and quite happy with how that battle had gone. The plants were often the most flexible in terms of how strong they could be, and this one hadn’t been a pushover, but the two of them had dispatched it without issue, and James had given her both the yellow orbs that dropped from it, much to her delight.
After refilling their canteens from the cooler, they moved on, the other four trailing behind them in their now familiar caravan formation.
They didn’t stop very often; the usual flow of taking the time to raid random cubicles was somewhat interrupted by their semi-lost nature, and the desire to change into dry socks. So their course continued at a fairly steady pace for a quarter mile or so.
Along the way, they did get attacked on a couple of occasions. Once, by a single very pissed off shellaxy that burled out of the cubicle it was in upon hearing the sounds made by the passing adventurers. That one nearly got Alanna in the leg, and it was only quick reacting from Anesh that toppled the thing over and let them dismantle it. They saved the orb for later. The other time wasn’t so much an attack, as it was a natural disaster. In a place where the ceiling curved lower to the ground, a flock of paper passing overhead chose to skip flying through the hanging light platforms and instead flap its way across the tops of the cubicles they were passing through. James had known, on an intellectual level, that the paper was sharp; a piece of it had once sliced Alanna’s skin, and however light that cut had been it had still been to someone who could stop bullets. But it was another thing altogether to *feel* the burning sting as a few loose parts of the flock were pushed down into their hallway, and no one had expected it in time to get to cover.
It was a white storm. They hadn’t known how *large* the flocks really were; thousands of loose sheets all flailing wildly through the artificial sky. The noise was thunderous, even through the ear protection, and even just the slim fraction that ended up in the hallway was enough to have the group constantly catching crumpled edges on their faces.
Afterward, when they’d salved cuts and duct taped the hole in the side of the cloth cart back together, after they’d restacked the overturned gear and loot, and listened to Alanna swear an oath to bring a flamethrower in next time, James found a straggler.
It was a single sheet of white paper. Maybe a half dozen random creases in it, lines of grey that marked up its otherwise pristine surface. A slight tear marred one of the shorter edges, and perhaps that was why it had been dumped here on the ground, left behind by its brethren.
“I think it’s young.” Anesh said, curious, as James held up the still twitching page. “They flutter around all day, they should have a lot more folds and wrinkles. This one is new.”
James had nodded, and tried smoothing out the paper. And as he did, he realized his hands moved with a more practiced motion than he’d ever really learned.
One of his first orbs. Origami.
It was such a small thought, but it made him smile. Without really thinking about it, he’d pressed the folds flat, started shaping something new out of the barely-resisting white sheet. A fold here, a bend there, a couple small turns of the page to cover up the rip. Press this, pull this, and then…
A frog. Just a little origami frog. Nothing worth writing home about. Except this one moved. Slowly at first, and then experimentally. It kicked the leg that hid the torn part of itself, and it turned paper eyes that held a tiny spark of life up to James.
“Oh, this seems like a horrible idea.” Alanna said cheerfully, as James lowered his palm to slide the frog onto the top of the pile of stuff in their cart. “But hey, good on you for making friends.”
The laugh from that had carried them a long ways.
“Alright, I think I recognize that.” Momo had pointed out a weirdly shaped spire of wall maybe three blocks to their left as they walked. “Got no idea where we saw it, but I *know* I did.”
“Good. Means we’re getting close.” James nodded. “We’ll press on a bit more, and then find a place to sit and radio in. Get them to send up a flare for us to follow. I’d say do it here, but I’m suspicious of it.”
“Is it the vending machines?” Alanna asked, playfully elbowing him. “It’s the vending machines, isn’t it?” They’d been encountering them at literally every intersection of hallways, far more frequently than normal. They still hadn’t come to life and tried to eat anyone, but it was a deviation, which made James nervous.
He shot a look at the closest one as they passed, trying not to let his eyes linger too long on the four-mile-long list of buttons on its face. “Yeah, I’m suspicious.” He wasn’t really that suspicious of the machines themselves, just of what they represented. A dungeon that was now changing on them, day to day. It wasn’t a comforting thought, even if it *was* an exciting one.
They kept moving in silence for another five minutes, making steady progress and adamantly refusing to do any bonus looting, or to engage the sleeping shellaxies and striders they spotted in the cubes around them. Until, eventually, they reached something that really was different.
Alex and Simon, who had been put on point together, stepped out into the open area first, and James made a mental note to remind them to always scan for danger first before being awestruck. Still, they recovered quickly, and stepped to either side of the mouth of the hall, taking a few seconds to look for anything hostile before waving the others forward with thrilled looks on their faces.
Anesh and the others dragged the cart forward while James followed their pathfinders out of the slightly too narrow hallway.
When he stepped out of it, it reminded him a lot of the first time he’d encountered a break room, or a decision tree. Suddenly, the enclosing walls fell away, the tall structures of cubicles no longer looming overhead, just forming a wide enclosing ring. There was nothing to obstruct the overhead lights from shining down here, making it seem brighter than the rest of the dungeon atmosphere and the mild gloom they’d been going through.
There was a chest high wall running in a line through the middle of it, slightly off center so as to presumably annoy James’ sense of symmetry. There were a couple of desks with low fabric walls around them, though the walls seemed more for show than real cubicles. A couple of whiteboards stood mounted on rolling frames, though those were mercifully blank. The whole place had this kind of vibe to it that this was where higher level people did their work; where HR reps and building managers stopped in during windows in their busy schedule to have power lunch and check emails. There was a water cooler here, of a different style than they normally saw, all smooth lines and shiny black plastic. And a lone copier sat against that low wall, next to a counter with a minifridge underneath and a diner style coffee pot with a thick black brew percolating in it on top.
The copier caught James’ attention almost right away, even if it did look different than the one that he and Anesh had so much trouble with early on. But what got his attention even more, especially since the mechanical horror seemed either asleep or not alive, was the small black cat curled up on the glass of the open device.
Momo turned to James with a look on her face that just screamed ‘look at it. Look at how cute that thing is. How can you not be excited.’ And as the others stepped up, he heard a joint noise from Anesh and Alex that basically mimicked that sentiment. But James wasn't fooled.
“Ssh.” He hushed everyone except Alanna who wasn't a cat person anyway and had her shotgun loosely pointed downrange toward the new potential threat from the start. “I know it looks cute, but…”
He trailed off as the cat - kitten, really - stirred. Raising its head and letting out a ferocious yawn, it eyed their group with that kind of arrogance that only cats can have. Of *course* it wasn't surprised to see them; that would be undignified. Uncatlike.
It casually arced its back, before it did that cat thing where it sort of oozed down to the floor with a loud thunk as it hit, and started slowly moving toward them with slinking movements.
“It seems friendly enough.” Simon half-whispered, flicking his eyes over to James, as if looking for approval. “We don’t just shoot it, do we?”
James let out a low hum as Momo stepped forward and knelt down to reach out a welcoming hand to the cat as it approached and stopped a yard or two away. “It seems okay.” He said, still suspicious as all hell. “But we should maybe not…” He trailed off as the cat sat itself down, still a couple feet away, and casually raised a paw to its mouth to run its tongue through its fur. James winced at the noise of it. “Is this cat too loud to anyone else…?” He started to ask.
Then, the cat made a fast swatting motion with its paw, swishing its limb through the empty air in front of itself. And Momo, kneeling on the floor a yard away, buckled as something heavy and forceful slammed into her shoulder, sending her head smashing into the floor before she tumbled across the open space and into the cube wall to the group’s right.
“Fuck! Everyone down!” James yelled as he and Alanna brought their guns up.
Explosive noise filled the air as the *ptang* of James’ rifle joined the thunderous blasts of Alanna’s Mossberg shotgun. Two shots from her and seven from him, launched downrange at the cat that was now casually bathing itself again, lead in the air over the crouching heads of Simon and Alex as the two of them crawled over to pull Momo back. Behind them, Anesh clapped his hands over his ears, covering against noise that was still powerful even through the plugs they were wearing.
They stopped firing, and looked down sights at their handiwork. To where the sleek black form of the cat was… still sitting there. Unperturbed by the sudden violence against it. Then it turned toward James, ears flattening against its head, raised its hackles, and *hissed*.
“Uh oh.” James said, barrel of his gun dipping slightly. Next to him, Alanna swore a lot more vigorously than him as the cat rose to its feet and bolted toward them.
The little black furball launched itself through the air toward James’ chest, and he reflexively ducked under it. But even though the cat itself didn’t touch him, a massive weight still landed on his back, slamming him face first into the floor. The hard plastic shell of his armor kept the impact from hurting, and if his head hadn’t been spinning from the hit, he’d count himself wise for wearing the rifle strap and keeping his gun from skidding across the floor as he lost his grip.
Alanna took a swing at the cat as it passed by, her fist shooting out in a jab that contained a ferocious amount of power behind it. But just like the bullets, her punch passed right through the body of the feline assailant, leaving just a few shimmering ripples where she would have impacted its ribs.
Then it landed, tail lashing, and Alanna felt something heavy and thick smash into her torso, driving her back a few steps. And without a sound aside from a satisfied *meow* that echoed loudly even in the aftermath of gunfire, the cat started pacing a lazy half circle around their group.
Four seconds and half of them were hit without knowing what the hell was going on.
James dragged himself up to his elbows, and struggled to stand. “Get Momo on the cart!” He shouted to their two interns. “Dave!” James clicked the radio on his belt active, holding down the button as hard as he could. “Dave, now is a good time for that flare!” He looked over to where the cat had reached the side wall, and turned to start pacing back as it kept cunning and hateful eyes on them. The wall rattled with its passing, even without it so much as brushing it. Then, Anesh was hauling him to his feet, pulling James away from the cat’s path with one arm while in the other he held an unlit thermite lance.
“What’s the plan?” His boyfriend calmly asked him.
“You’re cute when you’re calm in fights.” James told him with slurred words.
Anesh narrowed his eyes. “You have a concussion.” He stated, pushing James behind him, next to their cart where an unconscious Momo had been heavily laid on top of their collective loot and gear. “We need to get out of here, we can’t fight something like this.” Anesh needlessly spoke to anyone listening.
“There.” James pointed a shaking hand overhead. In the distance, but not *too far* distant, the red streamer of a survival flare blazed overhead. “Dave’s there.”
“Got it.” Anesh said. “Alanna! Keep shooting! We’re heading toward the others!”
Alanna didn’t respond except to fire off another two shells at the cat, neither of them bothering it at all. But it did catch the thing’s attention, and as it prowled over her direction, letting out another sharp toothed yawn, it gave a window for Anesh to slap Simon on the shoulder, give a curt order, and send him and Alex with the overweight cart on their way to the far exit of this space, and hopefully closer to safety.
As the cat neared Alanna, she backpedaled, keeping distance between herself and the monster. Her gun was certainly *working*, it was tearing holes out of cube walls, splintering wooden desks, shattering coffee mugs. It just wasn’t doing a damn thing to the fuzzy form that was now encroaching on her rapidly. That left two options. Either the cat wasn’t *real*, and this was just an elaborate trap, or the cat wasn’t *correct*, and this was something more difficult.
She didn’t have time to mull it over as she felt her back hit the wall, and the cat in front of her shifted to its rear legs, showing off a white furred belly and batting at the air in front of itself with its front two paws.
Alanna brought her arms up, instinct pushing her into a blocking stance even though she had no idea *what* she was blocking. But then, her crossed forearms caught something thick, coming down toward her head with the force of a bus. She could feel something like hair, or perhaps long fur, brush against the exposed parts of her skin, for just a second, before a second strike clipped her shoulder and sent her wavering to the side.
There was a gash in her armor, and long marks on the wall next to her where a third hit had apparently missed, but she wasn’t seriously hurt. And now, rolling along the wall and out of the cat’s range, she eyed it with a grin.
She had its number now. The thing wasn’t a cat at all; it was just the light on the end of an angler fish.
Alanna shifted her gaze upward, locking eyes with a random patch of air just over the cat. No, that didn’t feel right. She tilted her eyes up a bit, and more to the left. Yeah, that was right. Something stirred there, something that wasn’t used to being looked at.
“Alanna!” Anesh’s voice reached her from the hallway entrance that they were heading down. “Come on!” He’d lit off that piece of thermite, holding it in front of himself like a knight, and he and James stood ready to provide covering fire for her while the other three bought distance on this thing.
The distraction almost cost her an arm as the cat thing lunged in, and she threw up a block to catch scything claws on her bracer. But then she flung it to the side, and it clearly wasn’t expecting prey as muscled as she was, because she could *feel* the space open up. Ducking through the opening, Alanna ignored the illusory cat as she stepped through it, and booked it for her partners.
“Aim high!” She yelled at them as she slid between the two of them, clearing the space for James to start shooting.
Anesh flung the thermite brand in a spinning arc as James unloaded the rest of his ammo. James’ head was still spinning, and his aim was off, but they could all see the brand clip *something*, and a small puff of flames that rippled in midair before vanishing. Similarly, some of James’ bullets hit that same something, leaving splatters of blood that painted the floor and walls, even as the dripping sources became invisible to them. The splats of blood and the sprays of sparks briefly outlined a shape before them, before they seemed to slough to the ground.
The visible form of a cat twitched a few times, and then yowled, a cry that was ten times louder than it should have been, as it took damage. Then, it composed itself, opened its mouth, and *roared*.
“Run.” James suggested. “Fucking *run*!”
“Hey guys.” JP ducked his head into the other cubicle, getting a slight jump out of Tyrone, and a smooth wave from Sarah that indicated that nothing in either world was ever going to surprise her again. “Just checking in. How’s it going?
“Dude!” Tyrone stretched the word out to its limits. “You scared the shit outta me!”
“We’re fine.” Sarah said, “Still don’t know why we’re here though.”
JP nodded at her. He’d always liked Sarah, in the way that he liked anyone who was honest enough that he didn’t need to put effort into understanding them. “Yeah, about that. Are we sure this is the right place at all?”
“Ganesh seemed pretty clear about it, though I wish he could have explained why in the first place. We need pokemon that can actually talk.” Sarah got the closest she ever did to complaining about things. “Oh, and he actually left a few minutes ago; deeper in, too.”
“Yeah dude. Also this is where Path said we were supposed to be.” Tyrone chimed in.
JP sighed in a deep breath before asking the question he’d been meaning to voice since about five minutes into their stakeout. “Okay, so, I get that Daniel is probably the best person to ask about this, but what exactly can Path *do*?”
The kind of person JP was in the dungeon was, in his own opinion, kind of just a shitty reflection of how he behaved in the tabletop RPGs their group played. He was a plotter, by nature. He gathered information, processed it, and alloyed it into a *plan* that maximized their profit and also usually Anesh’s frustration. And here, in this place, that was exactly the sort of thing he felt like he could bring to the table, when he wasn’t being pushed into the position of group diplomat. But that sort of operational masterminding wasn’t easy when he didn’t know what everyone could actually do. Hell, he barely knew what he could do; JP wasn’t a slouch, he jogged daily and he’d been on the track team when he was in high school. But that didn’t translate at *all* to combat capability, and out of everyone, he’d been the only one to get hurt every single time they came in. Even Dave did better than that, much to his frustration.
So he’d been asking. Sometimes about orb powers, sometimes about general skill sets, and sometimes about what infomorphs were capable of. It was how he knew that no one could tell him what Secret could do, because the nature of Secret kind of forbid that.
“Path? Oh, dude, he’s pretty cool. He can do lots of stuff! He’s like a chill dude who’s also a map.” Tyrone answered. The guy kind of annoyed JP sometimes; he was always upbeat, which didn’t seem quite right for someone who had almost died here.
“I’m looking for specifics, dude.” JP replied, accidentally slipping into similar mannerisms. “Like, how’d we get here, if Ganesh was the one that told us where to go?”
“Oh! Path can pull maps freely given from the minds of those he’s near. Dude’s cool like that. Also he’s growing some kind of metaphysical compass that sheers toward stated desires instead of magnetic north.” Tyrone said, in exactly the same tone, with no hint of irony.
There was a pause as JP absorbed the words, ignoring the smirk Sarah was trying to hide. “...Okay.” He said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m gonna have more questions later.”
“No worries dude.” The younger man threw him a thumbs up.
As JP dealt with the whiplash between the open book that was Sarah and the apparently labyrinthian mess that Tyrone was apparently hiding, he shelved his confusion and opened his mouth again. He had a lot of questions he wanted to ask either of them, now. Not just about the meme that Tyrone was hosting in his head, either, though *yes* that was a curiosity, but also about how they felt about the dungeon.
Dave had done something really annoying, and gotten JP thinking. James had kick started building a society here, and then left it unattended. And JP, for all that he might not actually want to be an adventurer in real life, really did trust his friend. And if James couldn’t do it, then maybe he could shape something useful and good here.
Before he could say anything, though, the two-way radios he and Sarah were wearing on their belts crackled to life.
“Dave!” Static laced James’ voice on the other end of the device, but they could clearly tell he was yelling. “Dave, now would be a good time for that flare!” The words came through. Then a thud. Then nothing else.
“What…” Behind him, JP heard the fiery hiss and thump of the flare gun igniting. Dave hadn’t even hesitated for a second before following orders. “Guys, what’s that noise?” JP asked, his ears just barely picking up a cracking on the edge of his hearing.
Around them, noises stirred in the dead air of the office. Clinks and scratches leaping to life, rippling down the hallway they were watching in a restless wave toward them. JP turned and stepped out of the cube, one hand on the wall holding himself up as he watched down the corridor. Behind him, Sarah hopped off her perch on the desk and joined him, and the two of them stood and watched as clusters of striders and shellaxies emerged from the cubicles.
In the distance, another series of explosive cracks sounded, accompanied by a flare of white as a flock of paper took to the air.
“Gunshots.” Sarah said. Her voice was calm, but when JP threw a glance at her, he saw her fingers twitching against her thigh. “That’s them.”
As if to accentuate that point, the green vaguely bat-shaped form of Ganesh buzzed into view. He took the corner almost totally sideways, spinning through the air to stabilize himself before launching forward at full speed toward where they were standing. Out of the other cubicle, a small projectile whipped out of Dave’s hand and down the hallway, clipping a strider off the wall of a cubicle just as Ganesh flew underneath and cutting short the strider’s planned ambush.
In a flurry of buzzing wings, Ganesh alighted on Sarah’s shoulder, gesturing frantically down the hallway. “I don’t understand!” She frantically told him, a thin layer of panic in her voice as she tried to interpret the claw movements of the tiny drone.
“Tyrone! See if Path can translate!” JP commanded, bringing the other guy out of the cubicle.
It didn’t take him long to go from confused by the sentence, to a look of understanding. He reached out and tapped Ganesh, the drone reciprocating the gesture with one of his wing arms. A second later, there was the feeling in the air of an old map unrolling, which on any other day would have been fascinating to JP, but right now, was just a distraction he ignored. While that was going on, he stole the chance to duck back into the other cube he and Dave had set up in, and grab the sledgehammer that he had been hauling around all night.
JP had, on his first night here, shown up with a sword. That had proven to be utterly useless, but he still insisted on wearing what he saw as the symbol of a real adventurer on his belt, and it wasn’t heavy or in the way or anything, so no one told him to stop. But Alanna *had* passed off the hammer to him and told him that being actually armed was important. That, and two blue orbs he couldn’t figure out how to absorb, were the weapons he had to work with to deal with this whole crowd of enemies.
By the time he got back, Tyrone was speaking to Sarah. “...about a minute and forty seconds. Dudes are running from something.”
“What is it?” She asked, a stern look on her face that JP hadn’t seen there before.
“Map doesn’t say. Just vectors. Sorry dude.” Tyrone shrugged sadly. “What do we do?”
Sarah looked down the hall, and everyone looked to her. Even JP. He wasn’t a leader, not in the way that James was. Or, apparently, Sarah was. No one asked him how to win a fight, and that was just fine with him. Now was the time to book it, in his opinion; to get clear and not be in the way when the actual fighter types came through.
“We clear the way.” Sarah said. “There’s a swarm waking up. If they’re running, we make sure they don’t get stopped here. Why are there so many hermit comps here?” She mused the last bit to herself, concerned.
“How are we supposed to do that?” JP asked, sweaty hands wringing the haft of the hammer he held. He tried to remember one of the lessons Alanna had tried to drill into him. How did you kill a shellaxy? Don’t aim for the faceplate, he muttered under his breath, it doesn’t hurt them; go for the corners. He repeated it a couple times, like it was a mantra.
Sarah looked back, worrying her lip. “We’ve got a minute left. Let’s get to work.” She stated. And it was almost with enough conviction that JP felt reassured.
Momo was still down for the count, and James was starting to get worried about it. Well, worried was a strong term; worry implied that he had time to really think about it, get a good concern going, and then turn that into a week-long fret. That wasn’t happening.
What *was* happening was that he had run out of bullets, Alanna had run out of bullets, the cat was starting to suspect it didn’t have to waste time sneaking after them, and they’d caught up to Alex and Simon trying to haul the heavy cart along so they were now really losing ground.
Anesh, trying his best, lit the magnesium strip on another one of the thermite bars, and hurled it down the corridor behind them as they kept running, but James knew that wouldn’t stall the creature for long. It was tenacious, and also kind of stupid, which was just the worst combination.
In panted words during their sprint, Alanna had told James what she suspected about it; that the creature had a body tethered to the illusion of a cat, and that they could kill it if only they could pin it down. But that was a big if, right now. Still, it was nice to see their mornings of jogging together paying off. That would be a happy thought to hold onto while being mauled by an invisible monster.
His leg hurt. Those holes from the weird silverfish things burned, not from poison or anything, just because they were holes in his flesh, and he’d been sprinting for five minutes straight. His arm hurt. His lungs hurt. His head was throbbing. Death snapped at his heels, and safety was an eternity away.
James almost laughed, he was so excited.
And then, they rounded one more corner, the kids ahead of him shouldering the wheels of the cart onto the right track before shoving it with all their might to get their unconscious friend moving. And James turned, and saw…
A lot of dead striders. And more than a few gutted shellaxies. And only a few feet away from him, JP, eyes wide, plucking the orb out of the side of the tipped over shellaxy with a sledgehammer buried through it like Thor had been in town recently.
James tried to gasp out that they needed to run, but JP got the message right away, and had already dropped the hammer back into the computer case when the cat rounded the corner after them.
It paused, when it saw the wreckage that the other group had made of the hallway here. Dave and JP, standing this close to it, both noticed the cubicle walls rattle as the tiny black cat came bounding into view, but neither of them understood why.
“Oh hey, a cat!” Dave said, perking up, as Alex and Simon and Anesh, all totally out of breath and unable to say anything, tried to pull him along with them.
JP wasn’t fooled for a second. But he didn’t make any hostile moves. And the cat, assessing the new situation, paused for a second and let out a thin meow.
Then it ran forward, under Dave’s legs, and something JP couldn’t see crashed into Dave hard enough to fling him into the air and over the wall of one of the cubes. There was a rough crunch as he landed on the desk on the other side, and JP yelled something that even he didn’t really catch.
The cat was going straight for Alanna, JP realized, and assumed that she’d pissed it off somehow. As he started to react, and with horror realized that his legs had decided to take him *toward* the monster, he saw Tyrone step out to swing a crowbar at a low level through the small black form, only to overcommit to a blow that never landed and get slapped into the ground by an unseen force as the cat raced by.
Then, Sarah stepped out of a cubicle, rolling her arm in a smooth arc. Around her, chunks of material from shattered shellaxies and even a few bits from the dead striders made whistling sounds as they catapulted through the air. JP was terrified that she’d just mowed down the rest of his friends when he saw her aim upward, until he saw the splotches of blood pooling out of wounds in thin air. Even as the injuries vanished and the cat turned, roaring far louder than it should have been able to, Sarah was moving to another patch of floor to reload and fire a second barrage at it.
Until something yanked her arm forward, blood now showing on her pale skin, and smashed her twice against the nearest wall with ruthless efficiency.
As her suspended arm dropped from its position in the air, and the cat on the floor in front of Sarah’s prone form licked at a paw, JP’s brain made all the connections it needed to.
The fake cat turned, just in time to see an angry, terrified human rip a sword off his belt. And then, with almost pinpoint accuracy, jam it straight into the cat’s eye.
The real one.
JP felt something gooey and sticky part under his two handed thrust, and he put all his weight being the strike before planting his feet and screaming wordlessly as he yanked the blade upward. He could feel the rough vibration as it ground against the bone of an eye socket, hear from close up the tearing of flesh and the sloshing of aqueous humor as he tore the invisible cat’s eye in half. And then he could see, as the illusion failed with a yowling scream, the ruined mess that he’d made of the beast’s face.
Then Alanna was there next to him, catching a paw in an open palm and uppercutting the cat that was slowly losing its invisibility. Her fist staggered it, for all that it was the size of a car, and she didn’t let up. When it tried to stand, James and Dave smashed its rear legs out from under it. And then Tyrone and a wobbling Momo piled on as well, using knife and crowbar to lay wounds down its back as they pinned it to the floor.
The thing died, screaming in pain and soaking the floor red.
And afterward, as they stood there, many of them hurt pretty badly, most of them painted with blood, and all of them in some way disgusted by the ragged pile of meat they’d turned the creature into, it was James who spoke.
“Teach you to play with your food, you fucker.” He said, turning on his heel to stalk away from the corpse
Then he ruined it by stumbling over a shellaxy husk and swearing profusely. Which was, JP realized as he joined in the groups nervous laughter, exactly what they’d all needed.
Anesh rolled over in the empty king sized bed he normally shared with two other partners and one other himself. He shuffled through the blankets he’d shaped into a shell around him, and pulled the stuffed bear that he’d acquired from James close to his chest. He was, mostly, asleep.
But not quite asleep enough to miss the ding from his phone that alerted him to a text. It was a special ding, because it was the one that he used for himself.
*Nine injuries. Momo going to ER to get checked out. No deaths. New cat thing. Bathrooms dangerous. Expense covered. 258y 16b 5g 5o 18r.*
He looked at it for a few minutes before his brain processed the ‘no deaths’ part, and he felt a bit of himself that he hadn’t realized was tense relax. Then his phone dinged again.
*Getting pancakes. Go back to sleep. Sync when home.*
It was exactly how he liked messages to himself. Anesh thought about how he felt about pancakes right now, and realized he wasn’t that hungry. But his other self was, and the experience of food and friends and the diner atmosphere sounded nice right now.
He rolled over and went back to sleep. It would be nice when he got to remember that.
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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!