“I bet you ten bucks that it’s just a raccoon.” Alanna said as James followed behind Fredrick’s car. She hadn’t really paid attention to this before their mild chase scene earlier today, but now that she knew, she couldn’t help but notice that almost every move he made on the wheel was precise. No wobble in the car, no sudden starts or stops, it was just kind of casually expert. The value of skill orbs, it would seem.
From the back seat, Anesh barked out a laugh. “Okay, I know he’s an almost stereotypical coward, but who jumps from a raccoon to trying to hire.. James, what did you call us?”
“Ghostbusters.” The driving boyfriend replied. “Like from the movie, Ghostbusters.”
“Thanks for clarifying.” Alanna said in a dry tone. “Anyway. Wanna bet on the raccoon thing, Anesh? No? How bout you James?”
James shook his head. He was staying out of this one. No matter how much of a wuss Fredrick seemed like, it would take at minimum a whole family of trash pandas to cause the amount of distress he’d seemed to be in.
“No bet.” Anesh said from the backseat. “But it does make me curious what you both think we’re walking into.” He glanced down and eyed the duffel bag carrying their extra set of armor and a bushel of crowbars. “You guys think this is something like the office?”
“How could it not be?” Alanna asked, vaguely annoyed at the question.
James interjected mildly. “Well, hang on now. We had this talk a while back, right before we found out about Sarah. Just because all *we’ve* encountered is a dungeon doesn’t mean that the world *doesn’t* have, like, wizards and dragons and things.”
“Wait, don’t you have a resume drawn up that lists your job title as ‘sorcerer’? Are you projecting here?” Anesh asked with a smile.
“Shaddup.” James threw back at him.
Alanna sighed. “It’s a good point, I guess. I mean, we know magic is a thing, to an extent. Maybe his attic literally is haunted by an actually ghost.”
“That’d be problematic.” James said with a wince.
“Because of what it would mean for a world to suddenly have verifiable proof of an afterlife and a mystical reality beyond what we’ve so far discovered?” The words fountained out of Alanna like she’d rehearsed it.
“No,” James told her, “because we don’t know how to fight a ghost.”
There was a moment of quiet, but for the radio lightly playing classic rock, before James rolled them up to a red light, and Anesh picked up the conversation. “Okay, so, I like to think I’ve been pretty good about rolling with the punches for the last several months.” Nods from his partners in acknowledgement. “But is it maybe about time we questioned what the dungeon *is*?”
“Aw, no. Not now.” James grumbled, thumping his forehead on the steering wheel. “Ask me something easy, like how the hell I shower with the skulljack in my head.”
Alanna raised her eyebrows over at James. “I’d never thought of that. How *do* you guys do it? Are they waterproof?”
James gave a nod back in response, ignoring Anesh trying to get their attention again. “Yeah, it’s weirdly organic. Kinda feels like a belly button, if you know what I mean? Like, it’s not perfect, but I can wash it out and it doesn’t short circuit my brainmeats. That’s a plus. Also I think the little clip that holds the cable in is some kind of keratin, because it grew back when I accidentally… nevermind.” He dropped the sentence and poured his focus into the road, avoiding eye contact with the incredulous look that Alanna was giving him.
“Wait, wait, hear me out.” Anesh leaned through the gap between the front two seats slightly. “So, we’re thinking of the office as a set place, but maybe that’s not what these things always have to be. We don’t have any good data on it! It’s possible that all the weird stuff throughout human history has just been… one of these things.”
“Doesn’t hold up.” Alanna shook her head. “No records of them. Closest thing we get is the labyrinth of the Minotaur, and that… I mean, sure, yeah. But that’s kinda it. I’ve checked.”
“Also…” James started.
But Anesh cut him off. “Now hang the bloody hell on!” He threw an accusatory finger at Alanna. “You can’t just discount literally every other human myth on the planet! Everything from gods to monsters is explainable if there was a dungeon in the background, regardless of the fact that it *could* have been an outside effect!”
“Also.” James tried again. It didn’t work.
“Maybe I just don’t like the idea of explaining Jesus away as ‘some guy who had a few blue orbs’, Anesh!” Alanna retorted. “Besides that, it still doesn’t tell us where the powers came from, so it’s useless for the purpose of this conversation, *and* it’s more likely that any dungeons present throughout history just wiped records of themselves from human minds and documents. Have you *seen* our Slack lately? About a fourth of the old messages that directly talk about the dungeon are gone. I assume. I can’t do the math without the record.”
“That’s scary.” Anesh raised eyebrows. “And also a good point. Though the myths may just be knock-on effects of the dungeons themselves.” His voice stilled back to intellectually interested, but not upset. Anesh’s ability to toggle between mild curiosity and passionate defense of a thought at will was his trump card for keeping conversations civil.
“*Also.*” James said. “You just said we can’t know. I totally want to learn more of the dungeon’s secrets, but holy shit is it hard. So while I know it would be cool for us to derive the nature of the dungeon on this car ride, I also am not holding out hope that we’ll suddenly come to the realization that it’s some ancient alien power core machine intelligence gone mad. And then be right.”
Alanna stuck her tongue out in derision. “Can it please not be aliens? Just once?”
“*Just once*?” Anesh exclaimed, voice rebounding through the car. “How often are aliens a problem for you?”
“On reflection, never.” Alanna said, tapping her chin and pretending to be deep in thought. “I’m more or less in favor of immigration, as long as the immigrants aren’t building elaborate deathtraps.”
“Is that a blanket statement?” James asked her, trying not to laugh.
She nodded sagely. “It would have to be.”
“Are you posing that the dungeon should be a citizen, then?” He asked.
Alanna shrugged. “Why not? The law already says that corporations are people, for some idiot reason.”
James cleared his throat, and quickly rattled out, “I would like to point out that the dungeon has done a monumental number of crimes, including a staggering amount of counterfeiting, so maybe giving it legal status as a citizen wouldn’t actually help us at all.”
From the backseat, Anesh sighed deeply. “We’re getting off track, and I am intensely interested in what we all think the dungeon is, now! I didn’t realize it before, but we basically never talk about the metaphysics of it.” He leaned his elbows on his hands and watched the scenery through the front windshield. “Is it a living thing? A natural process? Is it a god, or what people used to call gods? Have things like this always been around? Can we *kill it*? Why does it work the way it does? Is it feeding off us being in it, or trying to kill us, or what? Why the monsters, why the *orbs*, and why do we never talk about this!”
“We talk about this *all the time!*” James reminded him loudly. “We stopped doing it because we never get anywhere! It’s always just guesses and circles.”
Alanna nodded and shot an acknowledging gesture at James. “Yeah, what he said. Remember how for a while it seemed like the skill orbs were all made up of dead people, but then we found the guy that the one orb was supposedly from?” She shrugged. “Every time we start to build a foundation for answers, it turns out its wrong. Or… or…” She trailed off, now thinking for real.
“Or a smokescreen?” James picked up. “You think the dungeon is intentionally screwing with us?”
“Why not?” Alanna asked. “Like, why not? Everything we’ve seen feels like layers of defense, right? Monsters get harder as we go in, environments get more hazardous. Standard fortification stuff, right?”
Anesh snorted. “You know we have no frame of reference for military fortifications.”
“But what would be an even better defense is if we don’t even know what’s being defended!” Alanna finished. “If we can’t identity the target, we sure as shit can’t hit it. For all we know, the entity in charge is up in the ceiling, with all those armor plated spiders. Somewhere we’d literally never see if we go through ‘normally’, right?”
“Well that hardly seems fair.” James said, dejected.
“Who said it has to play fair?” Alanna shrugged. “And that’s sorta the point. It should have tried to murder us, full power from day one. But it didn’t. It doesn’t even have full control over its own monsters, unless Rufus is also part of the elaborate lie.”
James shot her a look, pleading and worried, before turning his eyes quickly back to the road. “Please don’t make me mistrust Secret.”
“Sorry, buddy, but we literally *cannot know*. Secret’s whole thing is keeping secrets, after all.”
“Okay, okay.” Anesh piped up again. “So, Alanna raises good points and they’re all bollocks. You’re saying it’s using us?”
“Using, toying with, maybe just feeding off of. Some kind of symbiosis without trust. I dunno, but I think we should acknowledge that the office isn’t playing fair because it has to. An *so*,” she got to her original point, “if Freddy’s attic is another dungeon, we can’t trust *it* to play fair either.”
They mulled that over as the roads around them changed from commercial to residential, and they found themselves in a suburb near downtown. Cramped roads with lines of cars parked on both sides so tight that James assumed they’d parked their decades ago and never moved, for fear of losing their spots. Yes, even the twenty nineteen models.
He followed Fredrick’s car closely through the leaf-strewn streets; the other man had insisted that he could guide them and didn’t give up an address. This would have been suspicious in the extreme, but a word from Harvey assured them that Fred was just prideful and eccentric.
“I hope it’s not a dungeon.” James said, quietly, as he pulled them up in front of the curb at the house Fredrick parked in the driveway of.
“What?” Anesh asked, not having heard.
It had been hard for James to find his voice for this part, but now, having said it once, it was easier the second time. “I said, I hope it’s not a dungeon.” He met their eyes as he parked the car. “The office is special to me. To us. It… I don’t think you guys really appreciate how much it changed my life. If nothing else, it really brought us together, and you two are *so* important.” He took a slow breath. “I just don’t want to lose that sense of it being something special. Something personal.”
They sat in the car for a few minutes, looking down the driveway toward the house, as Fredrick peered at them curiously from his front doorstep, waiting for them to come out of the vehicle. It was quiet, and warm, and they were together and happy and loved.
“Everything has to change.” Alanna said, sadly. “But hey. If it is a dungeon, maybe it’ll give us actual superpowers.”
“Bagsy on heat vision.” Anesh exclaimed.
“What?” Both of the others said at once.
“Heat vision. Like, shooting lasers out of my eyes. You’ve read the comics.”
“No the… you know what, screw it. I’m assuming this is you being British all over us.” James sighed, and popped his door open.
As they stepped out into the darkening November night, it was no longer warm or quiet. But they were still grinning as they stalked up the walkway to the house.
“I don’t get how you can just… talk to them.” Simon told Momo as he and James pulled on their street clothing at her request. “They aren’t… approachable?” He looked to James for guidance, who nodded.
Momo rolled her eyes and flipped her teammate off, making a rude noise all the while. “It’s not hard, you just have a giant stick up your ass about it because Alanna saved your life, like, three times.”
“Twice for him, counting the thing on the bridge. Once for me, though their James did also probably keep me alive at least one extra time.” James said. He was short of breath, still catching his breath from his workout with Simon.
Workout was a mild term. Each of them had at least one martial art skill orb, gained through the chaff of two dozen mildly useless yellow orbs, and Alanna’s idea for a training regimine for delvers included learning to fight under the effects of speed coffee. So when the two of them tore into each other, it was with blurring blows that would have been right at home in wushu movie special effects. It was also exhausting.
So when Momo had run back and told them to put coats on and come with her, they were simultaneously energized and drained.
“They’re just people, guys.” Momo told them as the trio walked down the short hall past the bathrooms to the front area where Sarah was waiting for them. As Sarah tossed the shorter girl’s phone back to her. “Sarah, they’re idolizing the boss! Tell them they’re wrong! Alanna and James are just people!” Momo tattled to the woman she idolized.
Sarah shook her head, that big goofy grin on her face. “Sorry, no can do kids! I’m pretty sure at this point that James and Alanna are treading the path to divinity. Also Dave is, like, turning into *the* silent hero type. It’s kinda hot, and if you tell anyone I said that, no one will ever believe you.”
“Wat.” Momo gasped out.
“Sorry, what? Oh, I spaced out for a second.” Sarah’s grin was brilliantly mischievous. “Yeah, of course they’re just people! Alanna’s a cool lady, and James is…” her voice faltered for such a small moment that no one noticed, “James is my best friend. You guys can relax around them a little bit.”
Simon and James shared a look. “You’ll forgive us if we take some time to do that.” Simon said, diplomatically.
A shrug was Sarah’s response. “S’your call. Anyway, you three ready? Did Momo tell you what we’re doing?” Sarah threw open the front door, letting cold wind rustle her skirt around her legs.
“Something about high school football?” Simon tenuously asked.
“Something like that. I’ll explain in the car.”
The wooden stepladder creaked under James boot as he tested his weight on it.
It was narrow, just barely enough for one of them wearing the makeshift armor that they’d come to call their own, with steps that were far too thin for anyone to be comfortable with. Not for the first time, James wondered how often Freddy was going up into his attic at all for this to be a problem that he’d noticed, and been traumatized by. If James had an attic like this, he’d probably just stash stuff in it and never go back for it, artificially generating a nightmare for himself when he had to move next.
“Well, it’s not collapsing.” Alanna pointed out.
The three of them stood at the base of the stairs. Fredrick had been insistent that he show them to it, and pull the ceiling panel down himself. He’d also insisted that they all remove their shoes while they walked through the house and up to the second floor, which didn’t really surprise anyone in the slightest. They’d brought their crowbars out, and Alanna had her pistol worn openly on her belt. Anesh had slung his emergency bag over his shoulder, trading bulkier armor for carrying capacity. They were ready.
Ready, yes. But.
None of them were really eager to go up. It was more than just the mild trepidation that James had felt in the car; that was *more* than balanced out by the excitement of finding more magic, more worlds to explore. Even if it would mean more work, and, gods help him, more spreadsheets. No, it was more like a gnawing unease that had taken root almost as soon as they’d hit the second floor. None of them talked about it, but they felt it mirrored in each other, getting stronger as Fredrick had pulled down the steps and then fled to his kitchen with a muttered note asking them not to break anything.
“So… we should go up.” Anesh said it like it was a question, almost.
Up did not feel like a good place to go, and James said as much. But then he followed it up with, “I’m getting the feeling that we’re not wanted here. This is like when I was a kid, looking down the stairs into the basement, and *knowing* it wasn’t full of snakes, but the lights were out, so how could I be sure?” He scowled at the hole that led to the attic. “Fuck you, attic. I’m twenty eight years old, you can’t fucking scare me.”
A long moment passed, before Alanna cleared her throat. “Hrm. Are you.. going to go up?”
James, left foot still planted on the steps, sighed with annoyance. “Give me a second. I’m psyching myself up.”
They all looked up the stairs, occasionally glancing around at the paisley wallpaper and awkward looking family photos on the walls. Alanna wrinkled her nose at the faint scent of old shoes that permeated the air, while Anesh just looked awkward, like he didn’t know what to do with his hands. James took a couple of deep breaths, and shifted his weight around, though still leaving his boot planted firmly on the bottom rung.
“So…” Anesh started, trailing off as he saw James scowl and clenched fist.
James was escalating from annoyed, right past irritated, angry, and pissed, straight up to *furious*. He had faced endless hallways all by himself, he had fought down inhuman monsters, outsmarted traps and ambushes alike; he had stolen fire from a god, and laughed about it. He had, alone or with his partners, taken to the depths of an infinite hostile labyrinth, and they had *won*, time and time again.
And now these fucking stairs thought they could scare him?
“Like hell.” He hissed out between clenched teeth.
Moving felt like pulling against wet cement. But after his second foot left the floor, and his hand grabbed onto the lip of the hole in the ceiling, suddenly James had momentum. It was like someone had dumped four shots of espresso into his veins; all the fog and fear and wariness cleared away in an instant, and the clarity of reality snapped back into focus around him. And around him, he could have sworn he saw actual cracks in the air as he took that first step and ascended into the attic.
Behind him, Anesh and Alanna felt a noticeable outside shift as the unease and fear blew away. “Okay.” Anesh said. “That’s not normal.” He glanced to Alanna for confirmation, and she nodded back at him. “Should we follow him?” Anesh pointed up the stairs at James’ ascending ass, and got a much more vigorous nod in response. No reason not to, really. If all the stairs could do was scare them, and James had ripped through that little enchantment, then what was the worst they could run into in the actual attic?
As soon as Anesh thought that, he shook his head. They knew of one other dungeon in the world - two if his counterpart’s trip south was successful, but that didn’t count yet - and it had exactly no defenses on the door. In fact, it didn’t have any active defenses at all, not really. Not like this. This was the kind of thing that Anesh would expect as a home defense system for a wizard, it wasn’t what he’d come to understand about how the Office worked.
It left him incredibly nervous as he followed Alanna up the steps, right up until they both stepped up behind James, who was standing there, looking at a perfectly normal-ass attic.
Unvarnished slats of wood made up the floor, a steep roof made the space incredibly claustrophobic even though there was ample room for all of them to stand, and a single circular window at the other end let in the last vestiges of light from the outside. Furniture with moving sheets draped over it lined the walls, along with decaying cardboard boxes stuffed with rusted tools, old wall hangings, plastic bags of bedding, all the things that an attic in an old house like this accumulated as people refused to give anything away or throw their junk out. It might, of course, be useful one day.
James was standing there with one hand cocked on his hip, head tilted to the side in that way he did when he was thinking. Alanna and Anesh stepped up to either side of him, flanking their partner just a half step behind him. Almost at the same time, without signaling each other, they both reached into their jacket pockets and pulled out a pair of glasses to stick on their face. That got a double take from James when he turned to talk to them. “Anesh, why are you wearing shades?” He asked.
“They’re the infrared ones from the dungeon. I’m getting better at wearing them.” He said by way of explanation as he swept his view across the room. “Clear. Alanna, anything?”
Alanna’s glasses weren’t shades at all; they were a thick pair of reading glasses that someone - probably Deb, if she remembered right - had grabbed off a desk in the Office last week, and she’d picked up from them in trade for an orb. They were, according to probably-Deb, not super useful. And according to Alanna, insanely valuable for dungeon delving. Maybe.
Basically their function was that they let her see, as if it were a color gradient, how much time would be wasted in different spots in her vision. It was, much like the infrared shades that had just finished giving Anesh a headache, very painful, until she got used to it. Mostly. It was also one of those weird things that totally changed the game on spotting traps or weird effects, because having an extra sense that wasn't common made it kinda hard to trick.
Right now, it was showing the attic, in shades of sticky grey. The window lit up in a weird fluxing purple, which she was pretty sure meant that they could stand there and look out for a long time, maybe. Boxes and old shelves had similar tones to them, the potential time spent digging through them only to find old boxes of nails or moth-eaten shirts.
But off to the left…
“Got something.” She said, pointing over to where a rectangular shape was covered in a white cloth tarp. She pulled the glasses off her face as her vision started to sting. “Trap or something interesting, not sure.”
“Do your new glasses let you see danger, potential weirdness, secrets, or something else I didn't think of?” James asked, already accepting that he'd lost track of the party’s magic items by this point.
“Something else.” Alanna confirmed. “Doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, specifically, just complicated. Do we check it out?”
James looked around again. “Someone find the light switch. I'll go take a look.” He took a few steps forward, small and cautious steps, but not fearful ones. The attic was too normal, now, to really be afraid of it, and James had this sinking suspicion that the only actually weirdness here was the fear aura at the entrance.
There was no spatial warping, no ‘bigger on the inside’, no monsters, no loot drops, no… anything that he’d come to assume was the norm for dungeon environments. Granted, his opinion of how these places should work came from *literally one example*, but, well, it was a pretty big one. Maybe they’d just hit the motherload in the first go, and the Office was the Grand Mal of dungeons compared to everything else on Earth. It would go a long way to explaining why they hadn’t run into anyone else who had anything even remotely close to even the marginal powers they’d acquired.
At the same time, it left James feeling both disappointed, and wary. He’d been looking forward to diving into something totally new, forging another path through a hostile realm; not just poking around an attic. But then, ‘a normal attic’ didn’t have a barrier that terrified tempered adventurers into a standstill, even if it didn’t last forever. So he kept on guard as he advanced.
Anesh hit the lights as James approached, giving him a better view of the thing Alanna had pointed out. It was a dresser, that much was now clear through the sheet covering it; the knobs on the drawers left their imprint after god knew how much time sitting up here untouched. He shuffled closer, giving small steps around it to change the angle of his viewing. Alanna stood a safe distance to the side, watching as backup, while Anesh poked his way through a shelf of jars with curiosity.
After a couple of tentative pokes that gave no reaction, James finally took the plunge and whipped the sheet off of… the perfectly normal dresser. Dark brown stained wood, a few scratches that looked deep and old, wrought iron knobs to pull the drawers out. “Yup.” James said, looking over at Alanna with a nod. “Sure is furniture.”
“Glasses said it would take time to interact with.” Alanna said. “Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the specs are useless? Like, by seeing this, it makes us take it slow, and so it uses time?”
“I’m starting to think this isn’t a dungeon at all.” Anesh told them. “This feels like just a wandering random effect. I’m honestly kinda sad.” He set the jar of tacks back on the shelf and sighed. “Well, it’s still better than literally every other attempt, right? At least we know that there’s other weird stuff out in the world.”
James gave a head tilted nod at that. “Yeah, yeah, that’s true. And opens the door to me getting to use my wizard resume. Still, you two should back up; I’m gonna try to open this thing up and see what happens. If it’s nothing, well, I guess this is still a place worth keeping an eye on, but…” James reached out and placed his hand on the handle of the top drawer.
The world went black.
The football coach was a wide man. Not fat, just big. Over six feet tall, bald head, broad shoulders. He held a clipboard with some laminated papers that casually ignored the sporadic light drizzles the night was giving. His face was unhappy, not because he was unhappy with anything in particular, but because he himself was an unhappy man. Or, if not that, then a man who did not express anything beyond smug satisfaction at what he saw as a job well done. In other words, to Sarah’s eyes, he was kind of a goober, and not someone she wanted to interact with.
Currently, Sarah was interacting with him. She, along with her backup of Team Two, were standing on the sidelines of the local high school’s football field as they got ready for tonight’s home game. And the coach was not being helpful.
“Why?” He demanded, bruskly. “Be fast about it.”
Sarah almost wanted to be insufferably slow about it just to be a donk. But, instead, she followed the flow of enthusiasm that flowed through her veins. “Oh! We’re just friends of his.” She said. There had been a number of potential lies that she could have used, but had settled on this one because it was, really, not *that* much of a lie. After all, what was a friend if not someone who would warn you about potential assassination attempts? *Much* easier to get the details straight compared to telling the coach she was from the student newspaper or something.
“Hrmph.” The football coach scowled at them. “Well, you’re too late. Idiot quit the team last week.” His face looked like the words were made of something sour. “Some friends.” He commented venomously.
Sarah put a look of flustered surprise on her face. “Quit the team? He didn’t say! Why would he do something like that?” Behind her, she could almost feel Momo rolling her eyes as Sarah placed a hand on her chest like she was some nineteen thirties debutante.
The coach didn’t stop frowning at her, and for a moment she had that sinking feeling that she got sometimes when adults were monsters, before remembering that *she too was an adult*, and that being sassy would usually work out with no repercussions.
Fortunately, the man was on a timeline, and before the kids behind her could crumple into scowled-upon piles of anxiety, the coach just snorted and turned away. “He spends all his time in the library now. Thinks he’s better than his teammates.” The man said by way of parting words before stomping off. In his world, Sarah and the others had already ceased to exist; there was a game after all.
Sarah bit her lip and gave a little sigh before turning around, only to catch sight of Momo and Other James giving the finger to the retreating back of the coach. “Alright, alright, cut that out.” She laughed at them. “Well, we could walk over to the library. It’s only…” she checked her phone, “...seven PM. They’re still open, and it’s, like, two blocks away.”
“How do you know that?” Momo asked her, incredulously.
“I’ve lived in this area for a while. Before James and Anesh and I moved into the other place, we actually lived right down the street. Also I know where all the libraries are, because I am great.” Sarah stuck her tongue out at Momo. “We can drop in there, at least check.”
“He could have meant the school library.” Simon suggested in a low voice.
A snap of her fingers and a grin was Sarah’s response to that. “Yes! Good thought! Okay gang, let’s split up!”
“No.” “No.” “Please no.” All three of them said in a chorus.
Apparently, Sarah mused, they’d all seen episodes of Scooby Doo at some point. No matter. “Great!” She told them. “Simon and James, you take the school, Momo, you’re with me!”
“We said no!” Momo protested as Sarah took her hand and started dragging her off through the small groups of actual students making their way into the stadium stands, displaying a surprising disregard for physics as she pulled Momo along against the other girl’s resistance. “Sarah! Saraaaaahhh!”
Her voice trailed off as she was pulled away, leaving Simon and Other James standing there. The two of them looked at each other, and shrugged. “School library?” Simon asked.
“Yup.” James replied. He had to make a real effort these days to not think of himself as Other James; the nickname was weirdly catchy, but he refused to be pushed to sidekick status. Even if it was looking more like Momo was the ‘leader’ of their fireteam.
Ah well. Library it was. He and Simon turned away from the gathering of normal high schoolers, each nostalgic for a different part of that world, and headed off to try to find a potential murder victim.
James floated in a black void.
This was, as he thought about it, less than ideal.
There was a universe, he decided, where this had gone as expected, and nothing had gone wrong. That universe, along with all the other ones where his life was if not ‘easy’ then at least ‘normal’, perhaps even ‘mundane’, was somewhere so far distant that James knew he’d never find his way back there again. Not that he really wanted to. But it was good to keep it in perspective that his life choices had led him here.
Just as he’d run over a list of his victories to surmount the stairs, he now had a clear picture of all the things he’d deliberately *chosen* that had brought him and his hubris to this point. He’d decided to open the door again. To go exploring. To *keep* exploring. To befriend Rufus, to drag Anesh into it, to tell Alanna, to enperson Secret, to fight monsters and save innocents, to do *all that shit*. And yes, that was all very cool, but at the end of the day, it may have left him feeling a little too cocky, such that he felt comfortable touching the one object in the “oh it’s probably not a dungeon I guess” that showed up as a point of interest on a scan.
And now he was here. Floating, in a black void. Not even black, really, just nothing at all. Just empty.
He tried to take a deep breath, but it didn’t quite work. He couldn’t breathe. He wasn’t here, really, was he? His hand, he knew, hadn’t moved, but he couldn’t feel the dresser knob in his grip.
Don’t panic. Think this through. If this was a physical trap, he was in trouble, but if he was only here in his mind, then Anesh and Alanna would get him away in case of trouble. So what kind of trap was it?
James took a *mental* deep breath, and tried to focus. There was something here, just under the surface of the void, that he felt like he could almost recognize. It was like… the smell, from outside. Was that it? The smell of rain? He lost his train of thought for a second, and had to shake himself to stay on track.
Rain. What kind of rain. A drizzle? No. A downpour? No, no. It smelled like… like…ah! Spring rain! Not this winter stuff that was happening outside at all.
The instant James thought it, he could *smell* it. For real, as if he were standing in a grassy field while a warm shower fell down on the wet grass around him. The scents took off from there as his mind made connections. The smell of water, of mud, of blooming flowers. With each thought he called to mind, he felt the physical smells burst to life.
So now he was floating in an empty void, smelling wet dirt. Great. That’s an improvement?
James turned the thoughts over in his mind. The scents weren’t going away, so… why? Why any of this? What was so important about the smells?
He tried to close his eyes, before giving a mental sigh as he realized he couldn’t tell either way. Still, he was making progress, and it was helping him keep the panic at bay for now; though the inability to move was starting to trigger James’ anxiety. So, holding that back for a minute, he turned to think about the rain.
James had been in a spring thunderstorm before, which was why he sort of faintly recognized the feeling of the smell before it had really kicked in. But maybe it wasn’t just the smell itself. He tried to picture how it had looked, when he was staring up at the sky watching the rain fall. Grey, yes, clouds, but also bright bars where the sun punched through.
Yes, that was the ticket. He could almost *feel* the texture of the thought as it came close to something. A little less grey, a little more blue, no cloud *there*... and then James could see.
Well, he could see the sky. He could see the rain falling, the explosion of grey clouds overhead, the blue sky behind them promising the summer. But it still wasn’t enough; that feeling James had barely grasped at the start told him there was more here.
He rotated his vision around it, peering from different conceptual angles. His head started to hurt as his thoughts overran each other, and he constantly lost his attention on any single path that he tried to go down. Over and over, his headache would creep in, and he’d have to try to do the mental equivalent of taking deep breaths until he could make another attempt. At this point, he’d been here for what felt like an hour, and it was clear that the others wouldn’t be able to get him out alone.
If only he had somewhere to stand, that would at least give him a frame of reference. Why *couldn’t* he feel the rain, anyway? He’d felt rain before. *This* rain, even. This warm spring shower that brought life, and soggy pants. He’d felt that moment when a few drops clustered together on a bare arm and started rolling down, he’d felt drips off his glasses onto his lips, he’d felt…
And just like that, he could feel. The texture of the rain had always been there, and now it was kinetic; drumming against bare skin, matting his hair.
From there, the nature of the puzzle revealed itself to him in a flash of inspiration.
The feel of mud underfoot. The tickle of grass on bare feet. The sight of that grass; the sound of water splashing into puddles; the view of flowers blooming; the noise of a single duck’s quack, a permanent note that sat in the still image of the scene; and finally, the taste of a single drop of clear rainwater as it splashed across open lips.
It was exactly the impression that he’d gotten at the very start, but now made manifest. Each individual part, James had pulled from his memories, or created from whole cloth, carefully matching the mental puzzle pieces to where they *belonged* in the tableau. A single slice of a beautiful rainy spring day, brought to life and kept in perfect preservation, just waiting to be uncovered inch by inch.
As soon as it was done, James felt a lock open.
He opened the drawer on the dresser.
Intellectually, Sarah knew that this wasn't what books smelled like, really.
Libraries were more than just a collection of books. This was the smell of summer camps and public computers, of free DVDs and community theater. And also books, yes, but it wasn't exclusive.
But that was still how she described the scent of a library when she thought about it. Like books, old and new, all mixed together and shared around.
There were six people in the library, including two librarians at the front desk who seemed to be gossiping away the end of their day, and Sarah and Momo themselves. One other person was plugging away at one of the public PCs, rocking out to whatever was in their headphones; he wasn’t important, though, since he was roughly fifty years old and looked like he had been to every single Burning Man that happened in that period of time.
The last person was Javier Lopez. He was seventeen years old, a senior in high school, formerly a member of the football team, tanned skin and those wiry muscles that only high schoolers seemed to ever have. The kind of guy who could, if his football career fell through, probably get a job with a moving company, spend eight hours every day hoisting couches, and then fuel this work by annihilating roughly three feet of sandwiches.
Of course, his football career had fallen through, it seemed. Because he was here, instead of at the game, sitting on the second floor and reading a book on gardening. Next to him, on the table, Sarah counted six other books stacked up in no particular order, along with a couple comics. Fiction, biography, how-to, didn’t seem to matter to him. He just had… books.
Sarah pulled out one of the wooden chairs with the thick cushions that she’d literally only ever seen in libraries, and plopped down across the table from him. He didn’t look up, at first, but as she sat there, hands peaked in front of her face, leaning back like she lived here, watching him, he eventually noticed. It probably helped that Momo was standing behind her, like some kind of punk rock bodyguard.
“Did… uh… you need the table?” He asked, a little aggressively, before sweeping his vision across the empty tables around them. “Or…?” The kid left the question open, probably because the whole thing was unexpected.
“Oh, don’t mind me.” Sarah said, gazing at him carefully. “I’m trying to figure something out.” She played up being a little flippant, but really, she was actually watching his reactions.
He was wearing a school sweatshirt and jeans. Nothing weird on his person, but he did have a duffel bag next to him. Course, he used to be a football player, so that wasn’t weird on its own, but it could be hiding any number of things. And yet… here he was, defying that stereotype, sitting in a public library, reading his books and sometimes glancing up at Sarah with a nervous expression.
Eventually, he set the book down and started with, “Hey, I dunno why you’re here, kay? But…”
“I’m trying to figure out why someone would want you dead.” Sarah said, the words sounding incredibly out of place coming out in her happy voice. “It’s puzzling me. But then, I should know that a lot of powers don’t show on the skin, right?”
“To be clear, I’m not here to kill you.” Sarah informed him, still smiling. “But someone totally tried to.” She glanced back at Momo, who shrugged back at her, not really sure what Sarah was doing but willing to trust her on this. “I spent about half the ride over here, when I wasn’t trying to get Momo to tell me what kind of hair dye she uses, thinking up all the ways this could go. How I could lie to you to get information, that sorta thing. But then I remembered a friend of mine.” Sarah let out a small sigh. “He’s big on the whole ‘blunt honesty’ thing. So, I’m just telling you. Something wants you dead, we intercepted one attempt but there might be more, and I’d like to know why.”
There was a long pause. The silence of the library hanging heavy in the air, like a physical presence, stifling and thick. Sarah and Momo could practically *see* the gears turning in the head of the kid across the table as he flicked his eyes between them, then over to the stairs, then to the picture windows that overlooked the parking lot behind the library, before coming back to land on Sarah again. There was a feeling rolling off him, like silent contemplation, that Sarah couldn’t remember ever seeing on anyone that young before.
Eventually, he closed the book, leaned back in his chair with a slouch, and asked, “You’re not here to arrest me? And you know about… the thing? Is it yours?”
“No.” Sarah said, noting that Javier kept his eyes locked on her face as she answered. “Yes, and no. In that order.”
He nodded, and then leaned forward, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I got trapped in it under the school. All those tunnels and pipes and, well, you know, right? I know there’s other ways in, but the only other person I met down there… died.” He swallowed hard, but didn’t flinch or look away. “When I got out, I could see this… I guess it’s like a feeling that tells me how good I’m doing, you know? Do you have one like that?” Sarah shook her head. “Well, whatever. Mine tells me how I’m doing at reading.” Now, Javier did glance to his side, and reached out a toned arm to tap the books next to him. “I thought it was kinda stupid, like… like this was just some crazy way to get people to do homework or some shit, right?”
“But it wasn’t?” Sarah prompted.
“I used to joke that reading was kinda gay.” He told them, and gave a slight nod at Momo when she tensed up at the words. “I know, right? Fucking shitty of me, I get that now. But that’s the thing. I had to read for class, right? And that progress feeling was always there. And one day, I figured, fuck it, why not? Right? So I really dove down on what I was doing, and it ticked over. And it asked me what I wanted.”
“What you wanted?” Sarah was rapt now.
“Understanding, memorization, or, like, resistance or something? I don’t remember the third one. I picked understanding, cause I didn’t really get it, and I needed it to go away before the teacher noticed I was spacing out.” Javier grabbed a book off the stack and pulled it open in front of him. “And then… I *got it*. It wasn’t some big change or anything, I’m still me, but… I dunno, I feel like when I start reading, it actually matters. Have you ever wanted to know more about vikings?” He asked them suddenly. His pattern of speech was getting smoother, like he was thinking less about what he was saying; maybe relaxing just a bit because he finally got to talk to someone about this.
“All the *time*.” Momo answered before Sarah could say anything, making the other girl huff out a quiet laugh.
Sarah caught her breath, and then shrugged. “Yeah, okay, what about vikings? I’ll bite.”
“Well, I didn’t. I didn’t care. But then that was what our history teacher was talking about, and I just… It’s... But now, it’s like… yo, it’s like I was starving, and didn’t know, and then someone cooked a steak and I smelled it and then *all I could think about* was how hungry I was.” He stared at them like he was trying to pull information out of their minds just by watching. “My coach doesn’t get it. He thinks books are for nerds, and doesn’t get why I’d rather be here. But… man, every day I’m here, I get a few points closer to that progress bar on reading filling up again.” He closed his eyes. “No one gets it. But how the shit could I explain it, yeah?”
Sarah leaned back, taking it in. After a couple of deep breaths, she turned to Momo. “Okay. Okay. Momes, get in touch with the others, pass it on. Tell Anesh to look for missing persons rates among high school students. Hey,” She turned back to the kid, “who was the other guy you ran into? The one who… didn’t make it.”
“He was like, my age. But I didn’t recognize him. I don’t think he was from my school.” The young man replied, confused at how well Sarah was taking this.
“Okay. Check the school, check the records, you!” She pointed a finger at Javier, who jumped. “Give me your phone number. Are you okay on your own? We’ll be keeping an eye on the thing that tried to kill you, but I can’t promise we’ll always be around if you need protecting.”
“Who *are* you?” Javier asked, puzzled expression painted on his face and in his words.
Sarah grinned. “Imagine you could go back into the tunnels, and get another, I guess skill, that you could get perks for improving. Would you?”
His face hardened into something angry in an instant. “No, and you can’t make me.” He practically growled. If Sarah hadn’t been tempered by actual combat, the overly aggressive teenager might have actually felt threatening to her, but sadly for him, no such luck.
She waved a hand at him. “Oh, don’t worry about that. We’re not some weird conspiracy like from one of the young adult dystopia books I’m really hoping you haven’t read yet. I’m just trying to tell you that we’re the people who keep going back.” Sarah pushed her chair back and stood up, accepting the piece of paper from Momo that Javier had written his phone number on. “We’ll be in touch. Probably to introduce you to Secret so you have a last line of defense against any out of context problems.”
Javier gave her a horrified expression. “I got that reference.” He said. “I don’t like that reference!”
“Yeah, the world is really cool, and possibly lethal.” Sarah told him as she and Momo started walking away.
“No, wait!” He called after them, ignoring the quiet of the library. “Yo, I got questions!”
“We’ll talk later!” Sarah replied, before whispering to Momo, “Hey, hustle. Don’t let him catch up to us.” She nodded at one of the librarians with an apologetic smile as they rushed out the side door, jogging across the darkening parking lot in a blatant disregard of pedestrian safety.
“Why are we running?!” Momo whispered to Sarah when they were across the street and ducking through the parking lot of a church. “Why aren’t we talking to him? He was telling us stuff!”
Sarah held out a hand, stopping Momo as she peered around the corner, making sure they weren’t being effectively followed. “Okay, two reasons. One, I didn’t actually expect him to just tell us everything like that, and he was giving me a really weird feeling. The whole thing felt like it was kind of a trap?” Sarah glanced over her shoulder again. “Also, my original plan was to try to entice him or something, and then have the second meeting be on ground we could control, if it turned out he was kind of problematic.”
“That’s weirdly manipulative of you.” Momo sounded kind of sad that her image of Sarah as a sparky cinnamon roll was being shattered.
“Yeah, well, I got a weird feeling from him, and not just because he’s a decade younger than me.” Sarah told her friend. “If he’s being honest, like, I think we should help him. But flip’s sake, I’m not gonna just invite him to our secret base.”
“It was the dead guy, wasn’t it?” Momo asked.
“He didn’t seem like he cared, and not just in a tough guy sorta way.” Sarah agreed. “That’s weird. I don’t think a single person in our guild doesn’t care about the people we’ve lost.”
Momo pouted a bit. “Okay, I get it, it’s a safety thing. Boy, if only we’d brought two strapping young men with us to be bodyguards or something.” She cleared her throat, pivoting her head to gaze at Sarah. “Oh wait.”
“Hey, I know you’re armed. You coulda taken him.”
“If he wasn’t lying about his power. Also, holy shit, that power.” Momo bounced on the balls of her feet while Sarah kept peeking out around the corner, keeping watch. “Think I could get one for Smash Bros?”
“Think we could get one for… oh, for any of the skill orbs?” Sarah asked.
Momo let out a long ‘oooooooooh’ as her brain caught up to it. “Oh man, that’s gonna be broken!”
“Yeah, it… oh yeah, it would.” Sarah rapped her knuckles into her palm. “Um… hey, so, Momo. If you were a dungeon, and there was a different dungeon, and your superpowers and its superpowers synergized really well…”
Momo got it right away. “Oh, so that’s why he’s marked for death.” She frowned. “Does that mean the other one is gonna try to have us killed? Or even more we don’t know about? Also, hey, does this mean that there’s *two* dungeons in *this town*?”
“Oh dear.” Sarah said in her best Mary Poppins voice. “Okay, now I *really* need you to call the others.”
“I’ve been trying. They’re not answering.” Momo said.
James was currently being berated. “You’ve been out for *four hours*!” Alanna shouted. “We couldn’t move you, we couldn’t wake you up, we thought you died!”
It was hard to not notice that her eyes were a little red. Anesh’s too, now that James thought about it. The two of them were knelt next to him on the rough wood floor, ignoring the risk of sharing the splinters that were currently digging into the back of his coat. He was laying flat on his back, his legs having suddenly spiked in pain after four hours frozen shock-still in the same position. If Anesh hadn’t caught him, he might have cracked his head on the dresser he’d just popped open.
The two of them had given him water and a snack from the survival bag that Anesh had brought, and James had been shocked at how thirsty he’d been. After all, he’d just spent about four hours experiencing rain.
“This is the second time this has happened.” James croaked out. “I’m starting to feel like I should stop touching knobs that don’t belong to Anesh.”
The off-color joke caught Alanna so off guard that she stopped her panicked yelling in shock, a look on her face like she was unsure if she should punch him or crack up. Anesh solved the problem by flinging the bag at James’ face, flushing so red it was visible even on his coppery skin. James flailed back, sputtering, and then there was another round of him picking himself off the floor and the others making worried comments.
“What happened?” Anesh asked after everyone had composed themselves. “Did you just freeze?”
“No, no.” James told him, taking a deep breath of the dusty attic air. “It was a puzzle lock. I had to get a mental image just right to open it. I dunno what those glasses of yours actually see, Alanna, but it was weird.”
“God, I shoulda just told you. It’s potential time wasted. Or spent, maybe.” She pressed a hand against her eyes in shame. “Fuck, we need to stop being cute about this. That could have killed you.”
“Probably. But I’m not mad.” James told her. “We know now, yeah?” He shook his arms, trying to clear away the lingering feeling of raindrops. “But yeah, it was intense. If you ever get in one, try to find the background feeling, of what it really wants to be. You need almost everything, too. How it looks, smells, sounds, feels, even the pressure and texture of the ground.”
“How’d you get it all?” Anesh asked, curious.
“I think it’s like an actual lock, where if you get close enough, you can force it. And I just got a lot of it right because I had actual memories of scenes like that. Well, one good one, I guess, from when I was a kid.” James shrugged. “What’s in the dresser?”
“This.” Alanna handed him a stick.
“You are shitting me.” James looked at it. “No magical loot? Just.. a stick?” To be fair, it wasn’t exactly a stick. It was a flattened piece of wood, with a thin groove in the middle of it, and whorl patterns on each end. Shaped like a popsicle stick, but maybe a foot long and rather thin.
“Sorry. Just a weird stick.” Alanna said.
“Okay, hang on.” Anesh stopped her as she went to toss the stick away. “That’s irresponsible, given that we know how stuff like this works at least a little bit. Alanna, let me see that.” She handed it over with a shrug, and went back to making sure James wasn’t about to have a heart attack or anything.
Anesh fussed with the stick for a couple minutes, turning it over in his hands, looking at the markings, and eventually did the obvious and tried to break it in half. James and Alanna watched on with amused expressions as he tried to snap it, and it failed to even budge. His face transformed briefly into a frown, and then he pressed down again with a lot more power, making as if to leverage the small piece of wood against his knee and shatter it.
It didn’t even warp a little bit.
After that, James had to contain his laughter as Anesh went through a series of motions to try to twist, stomp, crush, and at one point *gnaw* the stick in half.
“Okay.” Anesh panted out. “This is frustrating.”
“Give it here.” Alanna said, reaching out a hand.
As soon as Anesh passed it to her, she took a grip on her end, and broke it cleanly in half.
“Huh.” James said, curious. “That’s weird. How’d you do that?”
But neither of them heard him. Both of them were listening to the message in their heads.
<| Connection Open : Anesh Patel - Alanna Byrne : One Corridor Established : One Corridor Empty |>
“AAAAH!” “FUCK, OW!” James scrambled to his feet as the two of them dropped back to their knees, clutching their hands as a burning hiss filled the otherwise quiet air. He raced over to them, grabbing at the hands they were clutching just in time to see the completion of the burn that left a lightly glowing green circle inscribed on the back of each of their hands. It sat just below the index finger, above the thumb.
“What the shit?!” James yelled, as the other two caught their composure.
“Ah… ah…” Anesh panted for breath, holding up a hand to wait while he clutched at his chest with his other arm.
Alanna, meanwhile, took one shaky breath, and let it out slowly, trying to let the memory of the sudden pain go. “We’re connected.” She said. “Give me a paper or something. I gotta write that down.” Rustling through the emergency bag, James passed her a notepad, and the three of them took a minute to make sure that it was recorded, with Anesh verifying the notice he’d seen pop through his head.
“So… what does it do? Are you two connected somehow now? I mean, obviously, yes, but in what way?” James asked.
“Well, we’re dating now.” Alanna told him.
James blinked and almost tripped as he repacked the bag. “Are you… are you just messing with me, or is this a time travel thing I should be worried about?”
“She’s messing with you. I can’t feel anything different.” Anesh said. “Hang on.” He closed his eyes, and tried to feel for the link. He could certainly feel the mark on his hand, and he could… he could almost feel that it *went* to someone. But there was nothing else there. No extra information, or location data, or feelings. Just that it was connected. “I got nothing.” He said, looking at Alanna, who pursed her lips and nodded agreement.
“Okay. We need to get out of here for now.” James said, and they agreed. “I wanna come back, though. We should talk to Fredrick about it.” He looked over at Alanna, rolling her eyes sarcastically. “Okay, you guys go to the car, *I’ll* talk to Fredrick about it, and you don’t have to put up with him, okay?”
“He annoys me.” Alanna bluntly informed Anesh, who was watching the byplay with interest.
The instant their feet hit the bottom of the stairs, and alighted the hallway, two things happened. The first was that Fredrick was instantly there, stuttering his way through asking James if they had solved the problem. The other was that Anesh’s phone blew up.
“Hang on, I’ve got about eighteen missed calls.” He said. “And about fifty texts from Momo and Sarah. And… hm. We should go.” Anesh tapped Alanna on the shoulder and motioned them outside while James negotiated terms of access with Fredrick. “Hey, look.” He showed her his phone.
“That’s a lot of messages.” She agreed.
“No, the time. Look. We were in there for about five hours, all told. It’s been maybe one out here. The attic is time compressed, but not like the office. Unless that entrance sometimes closes, and we might get trapped there. We’re going to need to seriously test it before we risk more exploration.”
“What was there to explore?” Alanna asked. “We checked, there were no hallways or corners or anything.”
“I don’t… know…” Anesh admitted. “But I have a worrying feeling from these texts that we’re going to want to double check basically everything within a hundred mile radius from now until the sun goes out.” He threw the bag into the back seat of the car, while Alanna stored their crowbars and unbuckled her unused armor.
“Why?” She asked him, turning to look for James and tapping her foot on the curb in impatience as he stood in the doorway, talking to the balding man who owned the house and their latest source of problems. He showed her the phone, and the string of increasingly worried texts. “Ah, fuck. Another one?” Alanna thought for a second. “We need to actually have a defense force. Like, for real. We need better training, bigger guns, and more resources.”
“I was thinking the same thing.” Anesh said as James joined them, and casually slid into the driver’s seat.
“Aw, that’s cute.” He said, only having heard the back half of their conversation. “Is that part of the link you guys have now?”
“No,” Alanna told him, “it’s because we’re both not idiots. And by the time we tell you what’s up, you’ll agree.”
“...We’re gonna have to cancel anime night, huh?” James asked, morosely.
They nodded. “Oh yeah.”
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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!