“Got it.” James slipped his phone back into his pocket, thumbing the button to end the call. He looked up at Sarah who was staring at him with raised eyebrows. “I’ve gotta go.” He told her, confidently. And then, repeating it as if to convince himself, in a much shakier voice, “Oh shit, I’ve gotta *go*.”
She arched eyebrows at him. “What’s up? Family thing?” Sarah asked him with concern. The two of them had been talking about some fairly personal stuff before the members of her support group were due to show up, but Sarah well understood that the nature of their new lives made them… mildly prone to chaos, shall we say.
James gave a single shake of his head. “No, it was Daniel.” He made eye contact, determination and worry warring in his gaze. “Two suits just left the dungeon. And the building. I’ve gotta write down their license plate before I forget.” He stole around for a piece of scrap paper.
“Wait, what?” Sarah was shocked. She had more experience with the dungeon than James, in theory, but almost everything that happened these days seemed totally fresh to her. “They can do that?”
“Apparently!” He threw his arms up in a frustrated shrug. “Alanna. Where’s Alanna?” James demanded of no one in particular.
As if on cue, the elevator doors dinged open, and Alanna and a grinning Momo stepped out into the lobby. “Sup nerds!” Momo called over to them. “Boy have I got something…”
“I’m gonna stop you there.” James said, his serious face faltering Momo’s energy mid-word. “Gear up.” He told the two women. “Meet me at my car as soon as you can. We’ve got a problem.” He filled them in on the suits in as few words as he could while striding toward the back area. “Sarah, can you see if anyone’s in the gym that we can pull in? And are you coming, or… no, you should stay here for the group. Okay, it’ll be fine.” James reassured himself without waiting for input.
“Now hang on!” Sarah started to object, before James was through the door and grabbing a long knife from their armory. “Alright, you boob, fine.” She muttered to herself more than anything else as Alanna and Momo were already rushing to grab anything useful.
A quick check showed there was no one in the back; the place tended to be more or less empty during the afternoons. They’d set up their space well for practicing the kind of brutal melees that ended up happening in the dungeon, but also just generally had a solid little workout area here with plenty of natural light, and no one who would would look at you funny for having weird scars or the occasional emotional breakdown. Sarah didn’t bother peeking into the kitchen; this place used to be some kind of restaurant that got used for a lot of kids birthdays, and it *had* a commercial kitchen. Operative word being ‘had’. Those things, it turned out, cost way more than a single delve was gonna make them, and refurbishing it wasn’t high on their priority list compared to more useful tools like armor, wireless cameras, and medical supplies.
Sarah got back to the main room just in time to see Momo jogging out to James’ car in their little parking lot, carrying a cardboard box with a fire extinguisher poking out of it. James and Alanna followed shortly thereafter, and Sarah was treated to a view of Alanna’s perfect midriff as the other girl buckled on the one kevlar vest that one of their new delvers had picked up but not gotten into the office yet. “Alright, you two have fun. Be safe, okay?” Sarah told them with her trademark smile. Of course, she was worried. Of course, it wouldn’t be safe. But they were, memories or not, her *friends*, and she would literally always find the energy to be happy for her friends.
“Thanks.” James said with an appreciative exhale. “Okay. We know what direction they went, Daniel got us the license plate, and he says Path thinks they’re going south. We’re technically ahead of where they should be, so we’re gonna see if we can spot their car, and then aggressively stalk them if that works.”
“Big if.” Alanna pointed out. “There’s a few roads, I’m told.”
“I’ll call Anesh, get him to wake Secret up.” Sarah volunteered. “If the car’s blanked, then Secret might be able to help you spot it.”
“Good plan.” James said. “Alright, we’re in a rush. Let’s…” He broke off, his sentence stopping abruptly as a car pulled into their parking lot. “Okay, looks like your group is getting here. Have fun. See you later.”
“Oh, that’s not one of mine.” Sarah mused as she peered out the window. “Maybe they’re lost? Looks like an older guy. Dad old, not grandpa old.” Indeed, as she watched, the driver’s side door popped open, and a nervous looking gentleman stepped out. He checked something in his hands multiple times against the front of the building. Eventually, he seemed to work up the courage to make his way to one of the two front doors, and push his way inside.
Mousey, was how James would describe him. He was short. Five-two, five-four at the most. A balding head with a high sloped forehead. But not so bald he’d given up on hair altogether. He didn’t wear anything as foolish as a bowl cut, but the hair he did have was kept clean and combed. The sign of a man who knew what he was working with. He had *wide* eyes, big eyes decorated with dark circles under them; the kind James knew from experience came from a life of too little sleep and too much time at a computer monitor. Around those eyes were glasses. No, not just glasses. Spectacles. Wide rings of glass to match the dark rings behind them, taking up half his face. He wore a tan coat - a jacket really - the kind of coat James would have worn in high school to look cool.
It was the kind of coat James would wear *now* to look cool, if he was dressing like a private eye.
The man had a flat nose, a wide face, a chubby build. He wasn’t fat, he was just shaped in a series of curves. And the ears, oh, the *ears*. James didn’t usually look at faces; he didn’t know what it meant for someone to have high cheekbones or a strong chin, those details weren’t how he knew people. But here? At first glance, any human could see those ears. They were huge, the size of the man’s palms, each one of them perpendicular to his head as its own little satellite dish.
If JP reminded James of nothing more than a weasel, with his mischievous face and smooth voice, and Alanna was reminiscent of a falcon with her sharp nose and keen eyes, and Dave, maybe just a little, was the derpiest golden retriever ever made, then *this man* looked for all the world like someone had taken a lab rat and stuck it in a trenchcoat.
“Ah, um… excuse me.” The man said, his voice a nervous squeak. “I… ah… I ah, was looking for some… um… help with something?” His tentative tone made it clear he wasn’t sure this was allowed.
“Well.” James told him, “We are kind of in a hurry, and are leaving. We also, you know, aren’t open to the public. Sorry, what are you looking for?” He looked over the man’s shoulder and through the plate glass window at Momo standing by his car, waving frantically at him.
“Well, I… well you see.” The stranger let out a nervous chuckle. “I was, I was, ah, I was talking to a friend of mine. Well, an old friend. Well, someone I knew from college. He contacted me, you see, said he was trying to get in touch, in touch with old friends. I, ah… I assumed it was an alcoholics anonymous thing, you know? Of course, you know. But then he said he wanted to get a beer…” The man didn’t notice everyone’s frustrated looks as he rambled on. “Harvey, that was his name, Harvey. Yes. Well, Harvey asked me how my life had been going, and I said.. I said…” His voice broke a bit, and he cleared his throat before recovering. He scratched at his nose with small hands cupped into claws.
“You said?” James prompted, curious, even as he was inching toward the door.
“Ah, yes. Yes…” The other man started speaking again, not noticing the raised eyebrows. “I told him, you see, I told him that I had the strangest problem. The strangest problem. And I told him, I told him, oh yes. And he said to me, ‘that’s very weird!’, and I said, ‘I know it’s weird, and no one believes me, and you don’t believe me either’. And he said, ‘no’. He said, ‘it’s weird because I *do* believe you.” The man ran out of breath, gasping from the exertion of his rapid fire words. “And then, he… he… he told me that maybe he knew some people that could help me.” He looked around the room. “But you seem busy. So I’ll… just go?”
At this point, mercifully, Sarah stepped in. “Hey!” She said with that special bubbly grin of hers, “They're going, but I'm still here. Come on, let's get you a cup of coffee and you can tell me what's up.” At a glance from James, she rolled her eyes and reassured him, “Regular coffee, not the weird stuff.”
“What, ah, if you don't mind my asking, what is the weird coffee?” The man wrung his hands in front of his chest.
Sarah paused briefly before snapping her fingers and shooting him a smile. “I'm not gonna answer that!” Her voice held laughter. “Come on, let's get you coffee. *Decaf* coffee. James, go, I'll see you later.”
It took James maybe four seconds to come to the conclusion that Sarah probably had this handled. “Got it.” He gave a sharp nod. “Alanna. Let’s roll.”
Three car doors slammed, three seatbelts clicked into place, and one late nineties Subaru rolled out into the light traffic, intent on intercepting incredibly dangerous prey.
“This is,” Momo told them as James followed directions from Alanna to the intersection she wanted to be dropped off at, “the coolest thing we’ve done. I mean, sure, the dungeon is cool. But we get to be on a stakeout!” She said it like she’d spent her whole life watching spy movies, and this was the pinnacle of her childhood dream. “Can we buy doughnuts?” She asked from the backseat as James took a corner at a speed he normally wouldn’t dare.
“This isn’t a stakeout.” James filled her in. “I’m gonna drop each of you at a different intersection, and we’re gonna try to cast a net to spot this one single car.”
“What kinda car?” Alanna asked, all calm business.
“White Toyota Prius, older model, license plate…” James started replying in the same tone as he stopped them at a red light.
Momo cut him off abruptly. “Like that one?” She said, leaning through the gap between the two front seats to point across the intersection.
“Yes, like that one, now sit down and buckle up. The license plate is…”
This time Alanna interrupted him. “No, James.” She said, stabbing a finger toward the other car. “Like *that one*.” She insisted as the light for oncoming traffic changed, and the car rolled past them.
James looked out his driver’s side window, and caught a flash of a face that was far too unreal to be human in the other car. “Fuck.” He said. Then, a second later, he exploded into motion as his brain caught up. “Oh, fuck!” He yanked the wheel to the left in a move that looked haphazard to his passengers, but was secretly a precise act, his skill points in driving firing on all cylinders as he slammed the gas down and slotted them into the oncoming lane of traffic with a laser-guided U-turn.
The two girls shouted conflicting instructions at him to either take it easy or floor it, but James wasn’t listening. His world tunneled down into the road, the wheel, the obstacles around him, and his *prey*.
The car ahead of him took a left, leaving James with a red light looming in his way. They were too far behind; any farther and he’d lose the target. So, he flicked his turn signal just long enough that it wasn’t technically illegal for him to skip the car through a barely-large-enough gap in oncoming traffic, and into a corner gas station. Then, before the attendant could even get up to come help them, James was out the other end, taking another perfectly timed left turn. Back on the tail of their opposition, without the precious seconds of delay.
“James! What the fuck!” Alanna was shouting at him, while Momo cheered raucously and threw one hand up as horns in the back seat. He noticed all of this, but it wasn’t important right now.
James felt the wheel, felt the pedals, felt the tension of the engine and tires and road. And everything else, wasn’t important right now. He let his mind fall back into the comfortable embrace of those three points in car.
He kept the car on their tail, employing every ounce of control he had to make his driving seem as normal as possible. It wasn’t as if the skill flooded his brain with facts; there were just a few things that he was now much more consciously aware of. Like how he didn’t need to be right on their tail; eventually there’d be only one or two vehicles between himself and the target, and at that point, you were kind of the perfect distance from them. Other drivers would turn off, peel away, while you kept yourself to your quarry; you’d catch up sooner or later. No need to rush. Play it cool, his brain told him, just relax and let the reflex take over. Drive natural.
So he did. The tension left his hands as he settled back into his seat. As casually as possible, James turned his head slightly toward Alanna, who still had a white-knuckled grip on the passenger handhold. “Sorry, what were you saying? I missed it.”
In the back seat, Momo exploded into laughter.
“Are you *sure* they don’t know we’re following them?” Momo asked for the fourth time. It had only been ten minutes, but the stuffed shirts were taking a path that sometimes crossed over itself, winding through much less populated roads.
“Can’t be sure at this point.” James said. “But they aren’t directly reacting to us, and we’ve been out of sight a few times, so I don’t think they’re making an effort to lose us.” He frowned. “Not much we can do except keep driving. If they do notice us, we’ll probably just have to have a fight, and hope the dungeon doesn’t mind losing a couple agents.”
“We don’t have coffee and they’re full strength; you think we can take them?” Alanna asked. She clad her voice in professional analysis, but inside, she was nervous. Every time they’d killed one of those things, it had been with bullshit. They’d caught them off guard, or starving, or with bullets. They’d had magic coffee, or Secret, or a *plasma gun*. Now? Now they had a car, a knife, a crowbar, and…. “Momo, what did you bring?”
“That fire extinguisher that restarts and/or amplifies fires, and a bag full of used matches.” The other girl answered. “Also a sword!”
James winced. “Why… why the sword.” He whispered to himself. “I'm gonna kill JP. Now everyone’s gonna want swords.”
“Swords are cool.” Momo said, having overheard him.
“We’ll call the sword ‘plan C’.” Alanna told her. “The fire is a good call. James, how’re we looking?”
They were currently two cars back from their pursuit quarry, on a somewhat winding road surrounded by thick evergreen trees. The winter light cast everything around them in the same shade of bluish grey; no pleasant yellow beams filtering through the branches at *this* time of year. Alanna checked their position against her mental map, making use of one of her few legitimately powerful skills, and tagged them as being somewhere about six miles from where they’d started.
“We’re doing good.” James said. “I wanna back off a bit here, maybe pull over for a turn so they don’t think we’re the same car the whole way.” He told them. “Anyone have any distractions while we wait? Help keep me from freaking the hell out about this?” James asked while he turned the wheel and pivoted the car into an open spot on the side of the street
“I’ve got one.” Alanna said. “But it’s gonna take you longer than thirty seconds to answer.”
“Okay, Momo?” James tried catching her eyes in the rear view mirror, but she was watching the other vehicle as it took a right at the stop sign ahead of them.
“I figured out what that aux cable I got last week did.” She said aimlessly as she tried to turn her head as if it would help her see around the corner ahead of them, past the brick facade that announced the name of the neighborhood as ‘Summerlake Ridge’.
“Cool, cool.” James agreed, suppressing the panicked desire to start the car again and get right back on the ass of their targets. “I hate how hard IDing magic items is. What’s it do?”
“Turns audio files piped through it into metal. My James says it’s nineties power metal, and offered me a hundred bucks for it.”
“Your James is wise beyond his years.” James agreed. “I’ll give you two hundred.”
“What.” Alanna barked from the front seat. “No. Momo, I’ll give you three if you don’t give that to James.”
“Four.” James countered. “And I promise to use it only on Joe Rogan podcasts.”
“Um… shouldn’t we go?” Momo asked, nervously.
James nodded. The short bit of banter enough to clear his mild panic. “Yeah. Let’s get back to it.” He took the same turn as the other car, and they were just in time to see it taking a right two intersections down. Now properly far enough away, James followed at distance as the masked dungeon entities drove through the residential streets.
There were people here. Not that many; it was getting colder these days, after all. But they passed people - normal humans! - out walking dogs, or unloading groceries from cars. At one point, they crossed an intersection near a park with a children’s playground over a carpet of bark chips, and James silently went a little insane at the thought of having kids in the line of fire if it did come to a fight.
But the car in front of them didn’t deviate, didn’t start shooting at them. Just kept rolling, until, after going down a huge hill where the sidewalks were a grassy slope with a walking trail, and around a bend that had another one of those brick signs announcing the name of the neighborhood, it stopped.
More specifically, it pulled up into the driveway of a house. A normal, almost stereotypically normal, white picket fenced home in a suburban expanse.
“Why.” James asked, quietly. Alanna just shrugged, watching through a pocket scope she’d brought along, as James drove past, and then turned when out of sight and parked the car curbside a couple blocks away.
“What a weird place.” Momo said, looking around at all the three story homes in the area, manicured gardens and new-model cars.
James snorted a laugh. “Don’t try to tell me that you’re confused by suburbia. I know you stayed with Karen’s family for a while.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Momo made a farting noise with her lips. “And this place still weirds me out. How fucked is that?”
Shrugging a little as he adjusted his coat on his shoulders, James replied with, “I mean, weirds me out too, and I grew up somewhere like this. I think it’s because I’ll never be able to afford living here.”
Both Momo and Alanna gave him incredulous looks. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Alanna asked him. “Did you forget what it is we’re doing?”
“I… yes.” James confirmed. “Yes I did. Shut up. Oh look, activity, please ignore me and watch them.”
In the driveway of the home, the two suits had gotten out of the car. One of them carried a briefcase, the other was unarmed, but both of them calmly walked around the house to the gate to the backyard. As if they owned the place, James thought.
“Do we follow them? What if they attack the people in the house?” Momo asked, starting to open her door.
With an outstretched hand, Alanna stopped her. “No.” She said, and James shook his head likewise. “Look how they’re moving. They’re here on purpose; like they belong. The one that came after us didn’t move like that, it was hostile. These guys don’t… they don’t…”
She didn’t want to say it, so James did. “They don’t feel like they’re here for a fight.” He said. “Dumb as that sounds.”
So they watched the house. A few minutes passed in silence, then a few more. At one point, Momo stepped out for a smoke, while Alanna chastised her for it and James silently did the same in his head. They waited, and waited a bit more.
“You shoulda let me buy those doughnuts.” Momo told James. “I knew this would be a stakeout.”
He huffed at her. “If I’d done that, we’d have missed them entirely. And then… wait.” James trailed off as the two suits came out of the house. They looked exactly like they had going in; no signs of a fight, not even a ruffled haircut. The briefcase was missing, though.
Without a word, they got in their car, and started driving away.
“Do we follow them?” Momo asked. “Or try to take em out?” She put on a mobster voice for that last part; or at least what she thought of as one.
“No.” Alanna and James said in unison, as they popped their doors open and stood up. James finished the thought, “Let’s go check out the house. Fuck, we shoulda brought more cars. And where the hell is Secret? He should be here by now.”
“How?” Alanna asked. “I thought he needed an open secret to teleport and manifest at.”
“Maybe?” James said. “Sometimes. I honestly don’t know how he works, and I think he does that on purpose. We could try the open secret thing, though. But I can’t… think of any of those right now.”
They crossed the street, weapons tucked into wastebands behind their backs and under their coats. Except Momo, who couldn’t fit the sword on her five-foot frame, and who certainly couldn’t conceal a fire extinguisher. She got an ‘I told you so’ for that one.
The cold air was only getting chillier as the sun started to set, and so it was with half-frozen fingers that James undid the latch on the back gate, and led them through to the backyard.
It was normal. Mowed lawn, stone birdbath, neat rows of flowers and what looked like a few tomato plants that refused to die in the cold like everything else. A raised wooden deck led to a sliding glass patio door, behind which closed curtains concealed the interior. The house had no lights on behind its windows, only curtains, but the yard looked cared for.
“Maybe we should knock on the front?” Alanna asked, questioningly.
James casually tried the back door. “Locked.” He said. “But no key. It’s a latch; this opens from the inside only.”
“How’d they get in? Window?” Momo asked, glancing around. “You know, I got a skill point in hide-and-seek last week, and I really feel like this should be a situation for it…” She told them
“Skills are finicky. No bleedover, usually.” Alanna told the younger woman with a sigh. “It sucks. It’s why I can’t fly any helicopter I want.”
James looked around the yard, ignoring their banter. “Something is wrong here.” He muttered.
He looked again. Tried to see with eyes unclouded. What was *here*, he wondered? His brain told him there was something out of place, but he couldn’t figure it out.
The deck. A glass table and three patio chairs sitting on it, next to a box that contained a garden hose. James checked that box; yes, hose. Under the porch, maybe? He walked down the three steps and checked beneath the wood slats; nothing, at all. That itself was suspicious, but it did confirm in part that no one lived here. It was literally impossible to not put *something* under a deck if you lived in a house like this.
He looked around the garden as Momo and Alanna continued their own search and conversation. A row of trees separated the yard from the wild forested area behind this row of houses. A shovel and rake leaned against the fence to the side. Rows of planted shrubbery sat in trimmed lines. A garden waste collection bin sat around the corner. There were a few knotholes in the fence. There was…
James looked again, and smiled a vicious grin. “Got it.” He said.
Fresh soil. Now, normally, a garden should have fresh soil. That was part of how you grew plants. James had both common sense and a skill point letting him know that was true. But he also had a skill point letting him know that the soil around the one tenacious tomato plant was basically a waste of dirt this late in the fall.
He walked over, and prodded at the mound of dirt with his foot. After a minute of considering the shovel, he remembered the suits walking out essentially spotless, so instead he decided to try something else first. Reaching out, he yanked the tomato stalk up, and was rewarded with the creaking of hinges and a scattering of dirt around his shoes.
“Got ya.” He said again. “Hey!” He called over to the girls. “Got something here!” James knelt down and out of the hole pulled up a briefcase, with a manilla envelope taped to the outside.
The three of them used the glass table as a space to spread out the contents of the envelope, and as they did so, the mood went from excited, to furious, to grim, all in a big hurry.
Three photographs of a young man. No, a kid; teenager, obviously. One of the photos was from a middle school graduation yearbook, the other two were almost surveillance photographs. Six pages of neatly typed text, two of them describing the kid’s routines, one of common hangout spots, two of known family and friends, and one that was… well, for lack of a better term, an invoice. Though James recognized it more as a quest notice, something familiar to him from the one briefcase they’d managed to open in the dungeon, mostly by accident.
“This briefcase,” Alanna said, in a softy furious tone, after they’d looked over the material provided, “contains six hundred thousand dollars.” She quietly clenched a hand into a fist so hard her knuckles cracked. “On the provision that Javier Lopez is dead before the fourteenth of November.”
“It’s November eight.” James informed Momo, who was starting to pull out her phone.
“I knew that.” She said, but there wasn’t much comedy in her voice.
“Okay.” James said. “Pack it up. We’re taking this with us.”
Alanna frowned like a thundercloud. “We can use this to trap whoever is supposed to do the job. This is obviously a dead drop, and the dungeon has otherwise perfect payment security with the quests. We can stop an assassination with this.”
“No, we could stop one or two hit men with this.” James said. “To stop the dungeon, we need to get the Guardsmen turned into an actual response force, so it can never hire hit men again. Right now, we cannot, and I *will not*, play games with this kid’s life. I don’t care why he’s a target; pack it up.” He did not, in any way, phrase that like a question.
Momo shrunk down a little. “Is this gonna be a fight?” She asked, more timid than either of them had ever seen her. “I...don’t wanna.. be around if it is.”
Alanna and James glared at each other for a few hard seconds before Alanna sighed and tilted her head sideways. “No, no.” She said, voice warm again. “James is right this time.”
“I won’t let it go to my head.” James informed her.
“Pack up the briefcase.” Alanna said. “Momo, burn the house down.”
“What!” Momo looked shocked.
“No, yeah, okay, I get it.” James nodded. “It’s a dead drop; no one lives here. But if we torch it, it covers for why the job isn’t done. It also disrupts the now-apparently-existent *local assassin culture*. What the *fuck* you guys, this is a thing now!” He threw his arms up in the air. “Anyway, Momo, burn the building down.”
Ten minutes and one briefcase thrown in the backseat later, and Momo was on the phone with emergency dispatch.
“Yeah, hi? I just wanted to say I see a lot of smoke coming up near me, and I was wondering if you guys should send the, like, fire department?” She played up a sort of clueless sounding voice. “Yeah, I was just driving past, and, like, it’s *really* smoky. I wanted to, you know, like, be a good ameritan.”
“Samaritan.” James whisper-corrected in the front seat, earning a grinning slap on the arm from Alanna.
“Alright, yeah, thanks.” Momo said. “Sure, I can hold. I’m just driving now, but, like, with a handsfree, duh.”
“Okay.” James said to Alanna while Momo carried on answering dispatch questions in the back seat. “Let’s get back to the compound and figure out a plan to meet this kid. I wanna know why the dungeon targeted him.”
“Also that one guy Harvey sent our way.” Alanna reminded him.
“Fuck, of course. I wonder how Sarah’s doing with him?” James mused. “I feel bad leaving her. Do you think the support group is going well?”
Alanna clicked her tongue in disbelief. “We dumped a random stranger on her, you were in the middle of telling her about your personal emotional turmoil, and she’s running a support group for people who are coping better with her own trauma than she is. No, James, she’s not okay.” Alanna sighed. “But fuck, I get why I used to be friends with her, you know? She reminds me of you, a *lot*. I don’t think she’s okay, but I think she’s exactly as strong as she needs to be to get through.”
They drove on in quiet for a while, until James passed by two screaming fire trucks going the opposite direction.
“Hey, do you ever wonder if we create more problems than we solve with the dungeon thing?” James asked.
Alanna nodded. “It’s an investment in the future.”
From the back seat, stifling a laugh, Momo asked, “Hey, do you guys know where you’re going?”
“No.” “Yes.” James and Alanna glanced at each other. “Okay, yes.” James conceded. “Please tell me where to turn, I wasn’t paying attention the first time.
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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!