Eleanor sat in a booth at a fast food joint that hadn’t been cleaned in a week. She looked down at the burger in her hands, and tried to find the words to describe it. As a whole, El thought to herself, she was an artist; she didn’t deal with words that often. When she spoke, she liked to use dumb slang, rambling and uncouth sentences, and not a whole lot of words like ‘rambling’ or ‘uncouth’. Which made the task of describing the uniquely awful burger quite a challenge.
The thing of it was, it wasn’t *inedible*. It was just the worst burger she’d ever had, that was still clearly food. The lowest quality meat, the most over-microwaved bread, soggy warm lettuce and inexplicably frozen tomato slices. It had some kind of yellowish substance melted on top, which the image on the menu insisted was cheese, but Eleanor knew must certainly be something from a place like the endless road; what she called ‘Outside Influence’.
It was so bad. She took another bite.
She felt like she needed to make friends with a poet or something, just to have them craft a sonnet about how little she was enjoying this meal.
All of this was a distraction, and she knew it. Eleanor sighed, and half tossed the barely-food object back onto her tray as she leaned back and looked out the window at the overcast day and the litter-filled drive thru. It wasn’t, she mused, like she had anywhere in particular to be. But still, somehow, against all reason, she felt like she was wasting time here.
She didn’t actually *want* to leave. This small California town was basically perfect for her at the moment. She had an old clunker of a car to work on and sleep in, she had a few hundred bucks from a few odd jobs she’d done on the road, and she had constantly eighty degree heat, even on days like this where a thin drizzle threatened everyone. She even had a bag of spray paint cans ‘liberated’ from a bunch of high schoolers, and some cool panels of old ceiling tiles to make some rad art on. Nothing that sold, but that wasn't really why she was doing it anyway.
And yet and yet and yet.
Eleanor wanted to leave. Partly because a month of nomadic lifestyle had grown on her, but also because she *knew* this wasn't where she belonged. In a way that was totally internalized and absolutely not her own thought, El was certain that she had to go. She had somewhere to be, somewhere in the direction she'd eventually learned was north.
It annoyed her. She crushed the feeling down by jamming some onion rings into her mouth. They were paradoxically fine, compared to the burger, and did nothing to alleviate her need to leave.
It didn't really help that her magic didn't refill just sitting around here. And wasn't that just her most precious secret?
The know-how in the back of her head that she never learned honestly told her that it was referenced as Velocity, which made sense. Most of the time, she refilled it while on the highway, albeit slowly. Eleanor had only three spells, and each of them cost her a lot of time to really build to. And each of them was precious to her in a different way; each one representing a different adventure survived and triumph won. On top of being literal magic, of course.
El missed the adventures. She missed the open road, danger and the monsters and all. Especially, she missed her car. Also her phone. Her parents probably thought she was dead by now; and her mom at least would take that super hard. But El couldn’t contact them, couldn’t turn back until she got to the end of this road.
A month ago, two people and one *thing* had walked into her workplace, and made El realize how insanely narrow minded she’d been. Of course there were wizard police and their pet monsters out in the world; of *course*. But it had kicked off this journey for her, and now at least, she could find some measure of truth before either her return home, or her death. Whichever seemed most appropriate.
Ugh. The terrible burger was making her maudlin. *That* was a word she’d stolen from a writer friend back in college, that one she knew how to use.
El shoved herself up and tossed her trash. A few more days, she decided. She had this image she was trying to get just right with the spray paint; a highway that went on forever into a sunset. But spray paint was a fickle mistress, and also El owed the guy who’d given her the car some help around his place. Also she owed that car an oil change.
Yeah. Just a few more days, and then she’d hit the road. North, and the end of the road it offered.
“Okay, you know what I hate?” James said as he held the back end of the piece of machinery, applying leverage to try to help Alanna roll the wheeled cart they’d set it on over the lip of their building’s loading dock. Alanna grunted wordlessly as she pulled the cart up and over the small bump. She didn’t answer James, instead focusing on balancing the hundred pound and thousand dollar equipment on the wheeled frame they were using to move it. He kept going anyway. “The absolute lack of bags of holding.” James told her.
Alanna didn’t answer him until after they’d pulled the thing off the cart, recklessly kicked the cart away and into a desk, and then much less recklessly set it down in the space Anesh had taped off on the floor. “Okay,” she said, “now that we’re done trying to not break our investment, go ahead.”
“The lack of…”
“You know,” Alanna cut him off, “I’m actually really annoyed that I know exactly what you mean?”
James paused briefly, before recompsing his point. “Yeah, I just feel like it’s a bit unfair that we haven’t…”
“No infinite bags, no storage rings, no ability to warp space. We’re being cheated!” Alanna kept rolling over James. He stared at her for a second, waiting briefly before opening his mouth to say something. “At least a magic lunchbox!” Alanna instantly interjected.
“Am I being punished for something?” James glanced around the warehouse space with a puzzled look on his face. “Sarah. Sarah!” He called over to his friend as she brought in a box of plastic sheets and dropped them on a nearby table. “Am I being punished for something?! Cosmically or otherwise?”
“Probably!” The other girl called back, smile and cheer infectiously upbeat, even through the bad news. Without sticking around to figure out what was going on, she was already back out to unload another box from the truck they’d rented.
“Okay.” James addressed Alanna. “Clearly you’ve got opinions on this. Is there…”
Alanna swatted her hand onto the top of the table. “An extradimensional mail cart!” She exclaimed. Then, in a more normal tone, “Okay, that’s the last one I’ve got. I’m just messing with you, but really, I’m on your side. It’s kinda weird that we haven’t found anything like that. I mean, we’ve got a lot of literal magic kicking for us now, right? Skill levels and things akin to spells, so why not the classic inventory?”
Nodding along, James agreed. “It is weird.” He said. “But then, we’re also in here on my day off to try to turn polyethylene and sheet metal into workable armor, so what the fuck do I know about weirdness anyway.”
“Also so I can show you a thing!” Momo’s appearance wasn’t surprising; they’d both see her wandering in from the front of the building where Sarah was currently setting up for the support group meeting today. “Hey guys. How’s it going?”
“Not bad.” Alanna answered. “There’s a lack of *bags*.” She intoned, sagely.
“Right.” Momo nodded like she understood. “So… actually, what’s the machine?” She said the word like it was a sacred idol and not just a table-sized tool still in its shrink wrap.
James patted it affectionately. “A compromise. Anesh wouldn’t let me spend thirty grand on an injection molding station, so we have this thermal one instead. Basically, it shapes plastic to our specifications.’
“Why? Like, fuckin’ rad, but why?” Momo bounced on the balls of her feet as she peered at the case on top of the contraption.
“Because we’re taking too many injuries, football armor isn’t cutting it anymore, and we can’t afford to keep replacing the riot armor that we use.” Alanna explained. “So, we got this thing to do part replacements, and eventually work up to being able to make our own whole suits.”
“With any luck, we’ll be able to put together the money to start getting into really bonkers material science stuff, like the injected polycarbonates and such.” James said. “Until then, we’re going with making moulds for arm, leg, and chest pieces that have mounting points for steel plate. That should be *incredibly excessive* for the dungeon, but then, I’ve been shot by at least two things that would disagree.” He rubbed at the point on his side where a rogue pencil had once threatened to end if not his life, than at least that of his kidney.
“Also we want to see if the green orb that makes it easier to make clothing works on armor plate.” Alanna added.
James wavered a hand in front of him. “Faster, not easier.” He said. “But if we need to mass produce, that’ll be huge. And we need to use more greens. Find those little exploits.”
Momo shot them a double thumbs up. “Yeah, that’ll be cool. Though it didn’t do much against the cat.” She said.
“Yeah, how’s your head?” James asked, concerned.
“I’m fine, I’m just sore.” She replied.
Alanna and James shared raised eyebrows. “Really?” James asked. “Because you had a pretty bad concussion. I feel like you shouldn’t even be here, you should be resting.”
“Oh! No worries on that. I’ve got a nest set up in one of the basements. Anyway, I’ve been getting a lot of work done, and by ‘work’, I mean ‘fucking with the red ones until something clicks’, and I got something to click.” Momo rattled off the words in a blur, before turning on her heel and walking toward the door that led out of the back workspace and planning zone they’d set up.
Alanna leaned down to James and muttered in his ear. “Did we move the coffee machine here? Or is this normal?”
“Did she imply that she’s been sleeping here?” James hummed back at the same tone. “I’m worried about that girl.”
“We should go see what she has for us before she combusts. And also before the support group tonight.” Alanna sighed.
“Is this what being parents is like? Also, give me an excuse to skip the meeting. Sarah keeps asking me to show up and test out the skulljack, but I… can’t.”
“Tell her that.”
“It’s not that simple. I feel like I’m letting her down, and that I’m making her feel like she’s ignored because I’m not using the tool that could instantly repair our friendship. It feels selfish, even though I’m legitimately afraid of it.”
“Tell *her* that.”
“But I don’t want her to be mad at me. And I’m not sure I’m ready to connect to another human yet, especially one that I ‘don’t know’, you know? I’m still getting used to using it for drone practice. Which is rad, yes, but absolutely not the same.”
“OH MY GOD.” Alanna bellowed as they reached the door and she threw it open to reveal the front half of the building. Among the comfortable chairs and the table of snacks, near where someone had showed up one day and left a pool table, Sarah stood setting up a router in the middle of a ring of chairs. Alanna thrust out a hand toward the other girl, grabbed James by the back of the neck with the other, and ordered him, “TELL HER THAT.”
Then she stomped over to where Momo was holding open the elevator doors, stepped inside, and hit the button for the basement.
The last thing she saw was James giving a sheepish, “So… uh…” before the doors closed.
Alanna took a deep breath as she stared at the doors, hands clasped behind her back.
“Um…” From the corner of her eye, Momo looked bizarrely out of place. Alanna quirked a bit of a smile at the juxtaposition of the short girl with a neon green mohawk, too many piercings, and a tee-shirt with a skull on it, standing next to her towering form. “So, what was all that about?” Momo asked.
“Ah, don’t worry about it.” Alanna let out a tense breath she’d been holding. “I feel like I might be… well, nevermind. It’s a personal problem, nothing to worry about. Hey, so, what are we going to see?”
“Well, we’ll need to go back up first.” Momo said sheepishly. “You, um, hit the wrong button.”
“For the basement?”
“Yeah, we need to go to the left basement, not the right basement.”
The doors opened, and in front of them was a pitch black square of nothing. There were no lights on in this basement.
“Fuck’s sake, this is the kind of problem that only James could manifest. And that *cannot* be OSHA compliant.” Alanna rubbed at her face with one hand while she sent the elevator back up with the other. “Anyway. What’ve you got?”
“Well, I’ve been messing with the red orbs ever since you brought that one here that Lily made. The thing that tells you the temperature?” Momo fiddled with the studs on the front of her belt, looking like she was under review more than just having a conversation.
It wasn’t lost on Alanna. “Hey, calm down.” She said, before acknowledging that, “I know that literally never works, but I’m not gonna fire you if you don’t ‘get results’, okay? We literally didn’t ask you to do this, so it’s just a cool extra thing, okay?” She reassured the younger woman.
“Right. Sure.” Momo nodded as the doors to the elevator opened again, this time showing a totally different basement space. Albeit one with lights on, unlike the dark zone that was the other basement. The basement that occupied this same space. Alanna felt a headache coming on again. If Momo noticed, though, she didn’t let it bother her as she led them out and over to one of the three walled off rooms that covered the far side of the basement opposite the stairs. “So, I’ve been trying to figure out how to make one.”
“Did it work?” Alanna asked, mildly surprised.
“Yup! Well, I mean, I can replicate the one Lily made, and it does the same thing. So it’s not magic to *make* them.” She opened the door to one of the rooms, and Alanna instantly knew how outside it was a chilly sixty two degrees, while just inside the door of the office it was a balmy seventy four. It was also drizzling. “Mine stops at doors, though?” Momo explained, as if that explained anything. “I don’t know why. Lily’s didn’t, but that one got… um… broken?”
“Don't worry about it.” Alanna said, as she followed Momo inside, looking around the room. The space contained a couple folded card tables, one of which had the red orb totem sitting on it, next to another totem-esque object that lacked a red orb in the middle and seemed to be made out of pipe cleaners and tape. There were also dozens of pages of paper taped to the walls, with different patterns drawn on them and scrawled notes next to them. A Jolly Roger flag, black and white skull grinning down at them, sat above the van-sized pile of blankets and pillows that dominated the corner of the room. Scattered on the floor were shirts, socks, and a pair of bright orange panties that Alanna discretely nudged out of the way with her foot. “Okay, so, I hate to ask, but have you been living here?”
Momo laughed, nervously. “Um… yeah. Kind of. I sleep here a lot. The dungeon money means I can eat out all the time, so I don’t worry about food. I didn’t really ask, but I figured we weren’t using the basement, and…” She looked away, and Alanna heard her sniff quietly in the otherwise silent air of the place. “Ah, it’s nothing.”
“No it isn’t.” Alanna said firmly. “Your welfare matters to me. And if you need a place to stay, we’re getting you some furniture. Like a dresser.”
And just like that, Alanna crushed all the worries Momo had. No discussion of *why* she was here, no more panic that she’d get kicked out. No more feeling like she was wasting Alanna’s time. Just an unquestioning offer of help, and a quiet assurance that everything was fine.
Momo liked Alanna. A lot.
“Ah. Well.” The goth wiped her eyes on the sleeves of her shirt, absolutely not crying in the slightest. “We can talk about that later. I wanted to show you this!” Her energy spiked back up as she turned to show Alanna the totem. “This is attempt number.. oh, fuck, I dunno, three hundred? The lines don’t actually seem to correspond to anything, as far as I can tell, *yet*.” Momo plucked the red orb out of the other totem, and the knowledge of the local weather patterns was gone instantly. “But check this out.” She inserted it into the bizarre dream catcher shape she’d built, and all of a sudden, Alanna knew.
There was a hospital thirteen miles away. The wait time for emergency care was sixteen minutes. There was a veterinary clinic eight miles away. The wait time for emergency care was eight minutes, but the chance for survival for major trauma was reduced by sixty eight percent. There was a private physician two miles away. The wait time for emergency care was under a minute.
Momo popped the orb out as Alanna’s head started to hurt.
“Fucking *ow*.” Alanna muttered, dabbing at something wet under her nose and finding that she was bleeding. “What the hell was that?”
Momo tossed her a roll of paper towels, which she caught and started using to mop up the bloody nose; Momo herself seemed unaffected. “It lists sites for emergency trauma care by distance.” She explained. “But I can’t figure out how to get the limiter on it, so it just keeps going if you let it.” She suddenly looked so sad. “I know it’s not that useful, I just wanted to show…”
“Are you insane?” Alanna cut Momo off mid sorrow. “This is an actual *tool*. Can you make more of these?”
“I mean… yeah?” Momo said, confused. “But why?”
“Well, if you can figure out the limiter, keep it from hurting people,” Alanna tapped a finger on the table as she thought, “let’s list uses here. Us, for one thing. Where’s the most efficient treatment for dungeon injuries? That could save lives. But more than that, these things should come standard in every ambulance in the world. This bypasses radio, skips over bureaucracy. Sure, it ignores some context; I bet that private physician would charge through the nose. But this? This could help so many people, on a daily basis. This is amazing.” Alanna wiped away the last of her blood, and looked down at the dyed red towel. “Okay, so, it needs some work.” She admitted. “But damn, girl.”
Momo flushed bright red with pride. “I didn’t think…” She started, before trying to find the words. “It’s just a trick, though. It’s not like I’m making armor or giving anyone superpowers.” Her words tried to deflect how much weight Alanna was putting on her little project.
“Pff.” Alanna’s snort and waved hand dismissed that deflection without a single word. “We have a stockpile of reds. It’s yours now. Pull anyone you want from the non-combat team. And I’ll get JP to issue you a budget for this.” Alanna looked at her, seriously. “This isn’t responsibility, to be clear. Don’t think I don’t see that look in your eye; James gets that way whenever he things he owes someone something. This is your reward, for making something *useful*. Alanna ran her hand over the top of the unassuming totem, feeling the fuzz of the pipe cleaners against her skin. “Now. Make more.”
Daniel groaned to himself, tapping his pen against the desk in a staccato rhythm that matched only the music in his head. He’d gotten a skill point in drumming, and while he was nowhere near the drummer from Def Leppard, he was having fun being able to keep a beat as a time wasting distraction while alone at the front desk at work.
His job was security. His calling was Security. Those two things did not correlate as much as the average person might assume.
It had been kind of a point of pride when James had named his ideology the Guardsmen. He and Jerome, the other survivor who was still his coworker, had taken to it with shared grins and fist bumps. Theo hadn’t, but whatever. Theo was kind of a jackass, anyway, and Daniel didn’t answer to her.
Technically, Daniel answered to Frank. But Frank, as far as he knew, was in prison. And he *did* know, because he made regular Freedom of Information requests about exactly that fact.
With Frank gone, there wasn’t actually anyone in charge of the security department. So Daniel had taken to scheduling shifts, filing the reports, that sort of thing. But a couple people had quit, and he needed more bodies, so he was trying to figure out how to actually hire someone without losing his own job. Oh, he’d also made sure they’d actually quit, and not been eaten. He took his calling seriously, even if he treated his job more like a distraction these days.
Currently, his best friend was the voice in his head. Pathfinder - Path for short, which was a joke Daniel always grinned at - was pretty new to the idea of being alive. She was supposed to have withered and died after they left the dungeon, but Daniel wasn’t the kind of person to just let that happen. He fed stray cats near his place, he bought the good seed for his bird feeder, he’d be damned if he let some critter inside his own head starve. Also, it wasn’t like he had many close friends anyway. None, to be precise, and his short time in Officium Mundi had wiped him from the minds of his casual acquaintances. No loss there, really.
So Pathfinder had become his pet. And then, his friend. They went on walks a lot, and talked while he explored new parts of the city, new food carts and parks. It was *like* being in a relationship, only… well, he didn’t really know what came after the only. But they agreed they liked it.
He let his thoughts stray back to being a Guardsman. It was a cool title, yeah, and he knew that it was critical to have experience dealing with the dungeon so that he could help keep it contained. But the more he got to know Path, the more he felt like maybe the place couldn’t be that bad. It felt more *wild* than hostile. And when they were there, she itched in his eyes and his feet to be out there, seeing what it had to offer. So even though he served his time keeping watch around the door, making sure nothing left, he still made sure to make time to poke around a bit. For her sake, of course.
If the door was secured, there was less chance the dungeon or its residents could hire someone like Frank again. That was important. Also less chance someone might fall in and vanish. Equally important.
Daniel also made regular checkups of the vent over James’ desk. There was a strider nest there, though they were those cute little mini-staplers, and he didn’t want to disturb them. Still, didn’t hurt to be safe. He had a webcam there too, wired into the monitors with the rest of the security system. He *knew* there were more doors, but couldn’t find them so far. But between himself and Path, it was only a matter of time before any secret way was opened to them.
Right now though, he was bored. He groaned again and stretched his legs under the seat, wishing that someone else were here so he could go ‘patrol the building’ or something. He idly flicked through the camera feeds, watching nothing in particular.
“Dammit, I can’t believe I’m actually wishing it were dungeon night.” He muttered. In his head, Pathfinder sang derisively at his hesitation. She could believe it; she knew his heart.
He was about to reply with a bad joke when he froze, eyes on the screen. He flicked back to the previous camera feed, and his eyes went wide.
They were wearing masks, which gave them the appearance of human faces. They were dressed in suit coats and slacks, so no one gave them a second glance. Maybe the employees they passed were just oblivious, or not looking up to avoid sparking work conversations, or just being affected by something like Pathfinder. But Daniel recognized the inhumanity of the two things on his screen instantly.
As he watched the pair of paper pushers make their way down the back stairwell, he fumbled his phone out of his pocket. He didn’t care if the cameras saw him on his phone at work; he was basically in charge anyway. Watching for a minute, heart hammering, he tried to figure out what they were doing so he knew who to call right now.
His finger hovered over Theo’s name, but as the two of them turned and opened the back door, striding with confident, almost human motions out into the parking lot, he flicked the screen down and settled on James instead.
As he watched the two of them get into a car that he would have sworn he’d never seen in the lot, James picked up.
“I think I’ve got a new problem for us.” Daniel told him.
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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!