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A note from argusthecat

You can read up to chapter one fucking hundred on Patreon.  That number astounds me.  A hundred chapters.  How have I even made it this far?

Oh right.  It's you guys.  Your comments, your contributions.  Even the hostile ones light a fire under me.  Thanks, everyone.  You make me make this happen.

“Okay, so, I didn’t make a powerpoint for this.” James said, standing in front of a truck-sized whiteboard. “For obvious reasons. But I just wanted everyone to know that I thought about it, and chose not to, so you’re welcome.”

“Boo!” Alanna called from the back of the crowd.

Crowd was increasingly becoming an applicable term to what James had thought would be a pretty quick briefing and strategy meeting. The parking lot in front of the base had filled up rapidly as everyone from all four teams, as well as a number of the non-delver members, filtered in. Even Karen was here; her decision made when she’d walked in, taken a steadying breath, and nodded once to James.

Dave had showed up early, which had caught them all off guard, because they’d been looking for *cars*, and not a drake-shaped object dropping out of the sky and onto the building’s roof. Momo was here of course - it’d be hard for her to get out of it since she was living in the basement- along with her two teammates. Alanna and one Anesh sat at the corners of a cleared desk off to the side of where James stood, ready to help field any extra questions. Sarah wasn’t in the room right now; she was out front talking to Lua who had taken up a role as the guild’s full-time therapist, but they’d both be back shortly. Daniel hadn’t been able to weasel out of work like James had, so the Guard had sent Tyrone as a representative, and James was pretty sure that Pathfinder was watching through him. Theo was also there, leaning back in a rolling chair, feet up on a table, because she made the rules, apparently, and if she was letting James take a two hour lunch for this, then you could bet she’d take one too. And Karen’s team were all here too, though they were split around the room. Karen was right up front, either to better pay attention, or to try to hold James accountable for small mistakes; it was yet to be seen. Deb was sitting over with JP, who was himself off to the side on a couch that he’d dragged in here from the front room. Alex was… around. James had seen her, he knew she was here. Even the survivors who Anesh had been outsourcing a variety of orb-based experiments to were here, Ryan and Reed, a pair of brothers who had been mostly coincidentally taken by the office at separate times.

Good grief, *everyone* was here, he realized. There were all these people now, delvers and support team and fucking Pendragon occupying a bus-sized empty corner of the room. Hell, there were so many faces in the crowd he didn’t recognize all of them. And all of them, except maybe Pendragon, were here to listen in on what would have been, over the past few months, a private conversation between him and Anesh, or him and Alanna, with maybe one or two other people joining them at the coffee shop to shoot around ideas.

Things changed, James thought to himself.

“Okay, I’m gonna run over some points as fast as I can, and then we’ll discuss long term plans.” James told the crowd. It wasn’t like he didn’t know what he was doing; he’d even made *notes*, which his high-school self surely would have scoffed at if that older version of him could see him now. Well, okay, no, that version would have questioned the reality of the situation. But the attitude would be the same.

“First off, we’ve got two known dungeons now.” James started with. “Now, one of them is just an attic, that is normal attic sized. But we’re going to be doing regular checkups there, and we’re going to start accumulating the cash to make Freddy a rather handsome offer on the house, because we’d like to keep it secure.”

“Fredrick!” Sarah and Harvey called from the middle of the crowd.

James rolled his eyes. “Yes, him. Okay, okay, I know better than to make fun of names. Fredrick. Any other interruptions?”

“What part of the budget will the money be drawn from?” Karen asked from the front. There wasn’t any hostility in her voice, and it was a legitimate question, but it was basically the same point she always harped on, and it was starting to bug James.

Fortunately, *this* time, he’d come prepared. With spreadsheets.

“I’m glad you asked.” He told her with an unnervingly smug smile. “We’ve got budget printouts here for anyone who wants them. Just take a folder and pass it on. There isn’t enough for everyone, but that’s why we liberated multiple printers out of the dungeon anyway.”

“I thought that was to see if they were magic?” Dave asked, like he didn’t already know.

“No, that… okay, yes. And we’re pretty sure they’re normal. But if you get hypnotized by spreadsheets, please let an expert know so we can break that printer.” James pointed to where his partners sat. “It’s Alanna. Alanna is the expert on breaking printers.”

Anesh held a hand to his chest and gasped theatrically. “Not me?!”

“We are getting off track.” James rubbed his eyes in frustration. “Again. Karen, we have a budget, and we’ll talk more about that in a second. Now, second point! We’re not using enough blues! The powers from absorbing blues are often incredibly situational, inflexible, and absolutely broken. So, everyone, especially anyone on the active roster, should have at least one slotted all the time. We still don’t know why some people can’t, so no pressure if that’s you, but if you can, there’s no reason not to have one. And we *do* have a stockpile of blues on hand for that. Though I think Anesh used a bunch of them to get this place set up?”

“They basically replace contractors if you get lucky, yeah.” Anesh acknowledged, looking wistfully around at the warehouse space as if that explained anything.

James nodded in appreciation. “Great. So yeah, see Anesh or JP afterward to requisition your blue. Moving on, third point… Anesh did you change my notes?”

“We just finished getting one to work, and wanted it brought up.”

“Why not at the *end*, then? Why… oh fuck it. Okay. Third point, our tech team has gotten a functioning wi-fi adaptor to work with the skulljacks. Anesh, wanna take this one?” James waved Anesh to his feet.

The younger man showed signs of apprehension as he was called to speak in front of even this small collection of friends. “Alright, ahem. Yes. So, we’ve figured out how to make a sort of series of adaptors, bluetooth devices, and a cobbled together network card that has what we’re calling full hive functionality.” He stepped up to the table in front of the presentation area, and laid a series of five braids of cable down. They had a lanyard on one end, with a strap to pull it tight against the back of the neck. A small plastic box held a microcontroller, with the different cables wrapped tightly and ziptied to each other each as they connected to the tools the device made use of to send and receive data. They were wrapped in black electrical tape to keep them as tightly put together as possible, but still had that cobbled together feeling. “One of them has some connectivity issues over bluetooth, which is annoying, but they all work.”

Hands went up *instantly*. Anesh sighed at the number of people waiting to ask questions. Resigned, he pointed over at Momo first, who was frantically waving her hand in the air.

“Can I have one!? Or three?! Right now?” She asked, excitement bubbling out of her.

“No.” Anesh replied. Then sighed again when her face turned into a comical display of disappointment. “Okay, wait, no. Maybe. We’ve got five of them, like I said, so until we can make more that’s our supply, and the microcontrollers that hold the whole mess together are still on order. It’s up to James who they go to, but over the next week, we want everyone to take a turn training with them in small groups in at least basic fighting situations.”

Hands went down. Only a few people had anything to ask beyond that. Anesh called on James next, mildly exasperated and wanting to get it out of the way.

“Who came up with the term full hive functionality? Because I have a complaint.” James stated, projecting his voice to the audience and earning a few grins.

“No.” Anesh replied. “Next question. Karen?”

“How do we know these are safe? Also, is it possible for the skulljacks to spread through them if someone is intentionally broadcasting to one?” Karen went straight for the question that everyone should have probably started with.

Anesh took a deep breath before replying. “Yeah, we’ve done some testing on that front, actually. No, they can’t infect, and no, *James*, I’m not changing that term, it’s accurate even if it is creepy!” He shot an accusatory finger at his boyfriend, before turning back to the still serious-faced Karen. “Sorry. As near as we can tell, the biggest risk is that we still can't figure out a hardware or software solution to the loss of self problem. If one person in a link is acting in bad faith, it may be possible for them to just arbitrarily force a hive mind situation on the others, and we can't really stop that. So yeah, that's a huge problem, but not one that *should* be an issue with those assembled, yes?” Anesh glared at the audience, as if daring anyone to cross that line. “Good. Any further inquiries?” He looked around and spotted the one hand still up. “Yes, Nei… *Neil*?! What the hell are you doing here?”

“Wait, what?!” James and Alanna exclaimed simultaneously from the desk they sat at to the side of the presentation zone, both of them scrambling slightly to turn and spot the uninvited guest. “Neil, what the hell are you doing here?” James yelled over at him.

“I don’t know!” Neil kept his hand up as he yelled back, voice cracking into a slightly squeaky tone. “I was just here to drop off a bunch of drones Anesh bought, and then it looked like you guys were doing a game thing, and then the dragon showed up and I didn’t want to move!”

James lurched to his feet, slamming a hand into the desk as he leaned forward. The different delvers around Neil scooted away from the formerly unaffiliated kid, trying to put some distance between him and James’ yelling. “Why didn’t you say something?! Also, who even let you back here?!”

“Why didn’t *you* say something?” Neil confusedly yelled, slinking down into his seat. “What are you guys even doing here?! And why didn’t you invite me?!”

There was a tap on James’ shoulder, and he turned to see Alanna giving him a resigned expression, mouth in a flat line. “I mean, we coulda told him. No harm now, right?” She asked.

James sighed. “Neil, there’s weird shit going on, and you’re just gonna have to catch up. Fortunately you snuck into the one meeting where that can probably happen. Sit down, shut up, and don’t reveal our secrets to any government agencies or I’ll have Pendragon eat you.”

“She doesn’t…” Dave started to say, before JP calmly clapped a hand over his friend’s mouth at the prompting of a glare from their irate leader.

“Got it?” James asked, face set in an exasperated glare.

“Got it! Yes sir!” Neil saluted, in a way that a lot of the other delvers around saw as a little too mocking. Especially since a lot of them had been doing that and actually meaning it.

“Good. Anesh, sit down.” James waved a grateful boyfriend back to his seat as he himself stood up again. “Okay, we’ve got weirdly a lot to cover, so I’m gonna try to make a few things quick. First off, two new job appointments. Harvey, you’re now in charge of operational security. Not for the dungeons, just for the mundane stuff. So what that *means* is,” James threw a meaningful look around the room, lingering on Dave specifically, “if you have a dumb idea that might compromise us entirely, run it by Harvey first. Harvey, what this means for you specifically is that we need you to keep Dave from flying Pendragon past news cameras, and also it’s now your job to make sure that we don’t get another Neil Incident.”

“Hey!”

“Neil, shut up, you are not in good enough standing with me right now to object to that.” James sighed. “The other one is Karen, who is now in charge of survivor services.” He nodded to the older woman, who looked legitimately shocked to be acknowledged. “We’ve disagreed about a lot of stuff, but you honestly care, so you’re in charge of it officially now. See JP after this, he’ll hand over the contact information we have on everyone, and also our budget. We’ve got a business account set aside for it, and it’s absolutely not enough, but we’re working on it.” He addressed the room as a whole, looking up from meeting Karen’s eyes. He’d talk to Karen in private afterward and let her know that it was probably safer if she didn’t go actively delving with them, given how she wasn’t very good at it. “She’s also gonna be in charge of coordination of things like the support group, and scheduling for private conversations. I think Anesh actually made printouts of the update, which makes me feel weird. Why is this weird?” He quietly asked Alanna.

“It’s too real.” She told him, bluntly.

“Yeah, that.” James sighed. “Okay. Now, for less real business. Anesh mentioned training with the links, and that’s great, but we also need training in general. The orbs aren’t reliable, and even then, practicing with those skills that help us in a fight is important. So, we’re repurposing one of the basements into a place where we can work on moving and fighting together. Karen is going to be surprised to learn that she’s going to be scheduling groups of people to spend a few hours there a week, to get us all… well, better.”

There were nods from the crowd at that. Momo piped up, “Yeah, we don’t get stronger, and I don’t wanna get blindsided by a cat again.”

A few people looked more confused by that sentence than they should have. “By a what?” Deb asked.

“No, impossible. We hung out after that one. Did no one tell you about the cat?” JP asked her. “Oh man, that’s a problem.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” James mused. “Okay, we need to stop relying on word of mouth. Who wants to be in charge of, fuck, I dunno, keeping a private wiki updated?” A few hands went up, more than he actually expected. “Wow, really? Okay, how about… Tyrone, I guess? Okay. So, that covers the links, the training, the jobs…” James muttered to himself as he looked down at his notes. “Alright, last thing I’ve got to mention is that we need to start looking for the theoretical dungeon that Officium Mundi is putting assassination orders out on, and oh god what a sentence that was.”

Hands went up again, with a few murmured conversations starting up. “I have a really important question.” Dave said.

Alanna replied without waiting for anyone to actually get to ask anything. “We tailed a couple suits that Daniel tagged leaving the dungeon, found a dead drop with a briefcase full of cash and a request to murder some kid, tracked down the kid, and learned about the existence of something underneath the high school.” Hands went down as she spoke, mostly to be replaced by shocked silence.

“Which one?” Simon asked. “Which high school, that is. There’s a few around here. Was it the one we went to?”

“We’re pretty sure it’s Beaverton, yes, or Aloha.” Alanna told him. “Regardless, Sarah’s person intuition says something is kinda fishy about it. *I* think we should place one of our younger members in the school to poke around and try to figure out if this is an open secret thing or not.” She raised her eyebrows at Simon, other James, and Momo.

Momo held her arms out in front of her body in an X shape, frantically shaking her head and letting her neon green hairstyle dance around wildly. “Oh hell no.” She said. “If you try to make me go back to high school, I will burn this entire place, the Office, and half of the city to the ground. Then, I will use my magic to bring it all back, and do it again, just to prove how serious I am.”

“Momo did not like high school.” James made a dry joke out of explaining to the rest of the crowd.

“Yup!” Momo verified once the laughs died down.

“This is so fucked up!” Theo yelled from the back. “And exactly what I warned you about!”

Alanna fired back before James could respond. “This happened when we weren’t even there, to someone who we don’t know! Think, you idiot! The Office is clearly capable of acting without our permission!”

“Okay, what else.” James tapped his upper lip as he thought out loud, speaking firmly over the potential argument that was brewing, before nodding and rattling off the remaining points. “Alright, so, work on totemizing reds continues. I’m told that there’s progress. The grand list of skills gained has been updated, thanks to everyone for helping track that. *Apparently* our delivery of drones has come in, so everyone who wants to take one home to practice piloting should do so. Anesh, am I forgetting anything?”

“I think that’s all that’s relevant?” Anesh told him, and James nodded with satisfaction.

Now addressing everyone with a small smile on his face, James got their attention again. “Alright, alright. So, that’s basically all the big updates. I now, against my better judgement, open the floor to discussion and questions. Just so everyone is aware, we do have a door open tomorrow night, and we will be going in. This whiteboard here... “ James took the time to dramatically flip the whiteboard around to its opposite side. “...Is for team assignments, and also our intentional objectives. Don’t just write your name or other stuff here, but do come up and ask things. I’ll be up here, but really, take some time and just talk amongst yourselves.” He nodded at everyone. “I feel like we should do this more often. Information makes it a lot easier for us to stay alive, and also, I dunno about you guys, but I find this rad. Anyway.” James cleared his throat, suddenly awkward about the number of eyes on him as he spoke. “Presentation over. Thanks for coming.”

He stepped away from the front of the room, drifting over to where Alanna and Anesh sat, watching as the assembled group started to pick up their own conversations. The noise of a room full of people each having their own discussion, even a large room like this, began to pick up.

“Well that went well.” Alanna said. “And you didn’t snap under pressure!” She slapped James on the back, turning the almost aggressive gesture into a pleasant pressure of a friendly hand on the shoulder. “But really, good job. This is a good idea.”

“Yeah, mostly.” James said. “Except for this part, though.” He raised a hand in greeting as someone approached their table. “Hey Neil.”

Neil was, as James had observed before, a big kid. And he meant both of those words in a generally friendly way. He stood at about seven feet tall, wide shoulders and a soft face. One of those people that loved their hobbies in a way that was almost too devotional, but still had this weird effect of making normal people stop and think to themselves ‘Do I have anything I care about that much?’ He had been one of the people that James and Anesh had gone to when they’d first needed some stuff for the dungeon, because he was *really* into the whole drone thing, and so it was from him that Ganesh’s body had come. James briefly wondered how that meeting would go, if Ganesh was introduced to Neil, and then realized that Ganesh was here today, so it wasn’t like it was some outlandish hypothetical. Especially since they’d already just shattered the veil.

At the end of the day, they’d decided not to add Neil to their original small group because he was… well, he was a kid. And not in the way that the rest of them absolutely were, when they saw the amazing sights that the Office had to offer. More that he was just a little bit unreliable, and kind of a derp, as Sarah always described him. And now that they were building an organization, it hadn’t really occurred to any of them to invite him onboard, just because he never really felt like someone who belonged on an adventuring team.

James felt mild guilt over that. Guilt that was assuaged by the fact that Neil had just accidentally snuck into a secret meeting.

“So, uh… what the hell?” Neil opened the conversation with. “Dude! I know we haven’t talked in a while, but what, uh, happened?”

“Well, I found a hole in reality, and started my career as a professional adventurer.” James said. “Then things got weird. Look, I don’t really want to explain this all to you. Maybe go ask around or something?”

Neil frowned. “Wow, rude.” He said. “Is this why you wanted all the drones?”

“Yeah. Actually, one of them is alive, if you wanna meet him?” James said, realizing that Neil didn’t deserve this current level of dickishness, and trying to be a little friendly.

“Oh, hell yeah!” Neil exclaimed. “So, what’s it take?”

A cocked eyebrow from James. That was a skill he was developing all on his own. “Take to what?” He asked, like he didn’t know.

“To join up.” Neil asked.

James pinched the bridge of his nose while Alanna and Anesh expectantly watched behind him. “Okay. Okay! Fine!” He eventually bit the words off. “Look, we’re trying to actually keep the weird shit secret, so if you wouldn’t mind just keeping that trust? Actually, that’s a good test, yeah.” He glanced over at Anesh. “You’re with Secret right now. Can you ask him if he can do that?”

“Sure.” Anesh said. “I think I see where you’re going with this.”

“Yeah, me too.” James turned back to Neil. “Okay, that’s the deal. Keep this a secret for a week, and you’re in. Can’t promise that you won’t die if you try your hand at the adventuring part, but, well… we’ve got some rad toys.”

Neil looked at him with narrowed eyes. Tilting his head back like he could somehow get a better angle on James. It was strange that even though he was the taller person in the room, James seemed to tower over the proceedings. “What’s the catch?”

“I’d tell you, but you wouldn’t remember anyway.” James said. “Anyway. If you want a detailed explanation of what’s going on, go talk to Dave. He’ll get you up to speed, and probably won’t be rolling his eyes as he has to explain it again.” James made a ‘move aside’ motion with a flat hand. “Now, someone else has a question for me. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”

Neil checked behind him, and was kind of startled to see a few people just waiting there. “Wait, are you *in charge*? You hate being in charge of things!”

“Times change. Move yer ass.” James snorted out. “Alright, JP, what’s up.”

“There’s a problem with the bathrooms, and I think it’s your fault.”

James opened his mouth, then closed it, thought about what JP had just said, and then erupted in laughter. “Okay, explain.” He said, once he’d composed himself and Alanna had more or less stopped her own fit of giggles.

“So, you used a green orb on the bathroom, yeah?”

“Not on purpose, but that did come up, yes.” James turned and scanned the arrayed whiteboards before tapping one of them. “Right there. Bathroom value plus $46k. Why, what’s gone wrong with it? Toilets too complex for us to understand?”

“No, though that’s going on the list of potential problems.” JP actually pulled out a small notebook and wrote that down. “What’s actually gone wrong is that a lot of that value actually was tied up in this wall plant thing. According to someone who had the luck to get a botany skill orb, it’s this weird-ass fern that’s mostly extinct now. So, we *wanted* to pass it off to someone who could actually use it, but when we tried to take it out of the bathroom, it just turned to dust.”

“Well that sucks. So the ‘value’ is specific to the bathroom?” James asked with a disappointed click of his tongue.

JP held up a raised finger. “Ah, that would be bad, yes. But as soon as that happened, the bathroom got new silver plated fixtures and a water feature.”

“What.”

“Yeah, I did some googling, and some math that I really should have passed off to Anesh, and I’m pretty sure that *specifically* that forty six thousand of value is localized to the bathroom. As in, it has a permanent minimum value of forty six thousand dollars, and we can only remove any value that was outside of that.”

“*Do people have value.*” James immediately asked.

JP gave James a look that clearly indicated that James had fallen for a verbal trap. “All life has value, *James*. But in this case, no, it doesn’t count people. I think because people aren’t ‘part of a bathroom’, if that makes sense. Anyway, no one has disintegrated or anything.”

Anesh sighed from behind James. “I told you using all the greens here was a bad idea.”

“You did not! Also, we have two basements. That’s worth it.” James retorted.

“Worth possible disintegration? No.” Alanna countered. “Just… buddy, no. Have some perspective.”

James thought about it for a few seconds before agreeing. “Yeah, okay. I admit, perspective is hard to come by these days. Anything else?” He asked JP.

“Not really. It wasn't even a question, honestly, just keeping you apprised. “

James grinned. “You know, that's the first time someone's said that. I appreciate it.” He stretched himself out, arching his back over the desk he was still leaning against. “I'm gonna go wander around and talk to people. You guys need anything?” He asked Anesh and Alanna.

“A mini fridge.” Alanna said. “We don't have any drinks here, and I can't believe I only just noticed.”

“I'll put it on the list.” Anesh acquiesced solemnly, intoning the words like they were an oath.

_____

James wandered. He meandered, strolled, or perhaps even prowled. He had no real goal in mind, he just wanted to see what people were discussing, and make himself available for anyone who had specific questions.

Okay, scratch that, he thought as he noticed something. His first goal was to go check in on Pendragon.

Pendragon, when James had first seen her, had been a pen, a few of those plastic alligator clips, and a manilla folder that had a few strategic tears and folds in it. Pendragon, when James had next seen her, had been a cobbled creation roughly the size of a VW bus; a composite mass of paper and office supplies formed into a drake-shaped creature. Pendragon now was very similar to that, though she’d undergone some grooming.

Her wings were made up of paper, with folders for the pinions, and if Dave was to believed then the laminated coating on them was something done recently. Her talons were larger than before, made up of a pair of what looked like the bases of rolling chairs. Ribs made of bands of pencils and pens curved around her torso, and paperclips adorned her papery hide like decorative armor.

She was kind of magnificent, and was currently curled up into a corner, warily eyeing the group of people who were equally uncomfortable with the massive dragon in the room.

Normally, Dave was the only person who really approached their resident tank. And that really was kind of the role that Pendragon was meant to fill; not much else could match her for durability, for all that she was literally made of paper. For not the first time, James pondered that it really was kind of weird how the act of turning something into a dungeon lifeform really warped it in a strange way. He couldn’t swear beyond all doubt that the striders hadn’t started out as weird bug things, but he knew that Ganesh hadn’t had chitin before being brought to life. And Pendragon’s leathery wings were a testament to how seemingly common materials could take on an organic texture all too easily.

“Hey there big girl.” James said as he approached Pendragon, who gazed at him suspiciously through glittering ballpoint eyes. “Has Dave been treating you nice? Oh yes he has! Look at how shiny you are!” James tentatively reached out to run a hand along the side of Pendragon’s folded wing, and was only mildly surprised when she started purring like a garbage disposal that was doing its best impression of a cat. “I wanted to say thank you.” James told the world’s biggest softie. “For saving my life. For saving Alanna and Dave, too. For… all of it. You really came through for us. So, thank you. I’ll get you some really fancy-ass calligraphy paper as a real thanks as soon as I have time.”

He wasn’t sure if she’d really understood him, but she did roll back a bit, and expose the underside of her textured papery wing skin to more pets. And James took that as an acceptance.

After that, he just went off to eavesdrop on the rest of his growing guild.

Theo and Karen were arguing over whether the dungeon should be exploited, or bricked over, and James wasn’t actually sure who was on which side. Either way, the debate was turning heated, and people nearby were scooting their chairs away, or finding places to talk farther away from the disturbance.

Neil was getting a crash course in dungeoneering, courtesy of Dave. Additional input, mostly contradictory, was being provided by JP, who it seemed was mostly trying to scare the new guy off. A side comment JP muttered to James as he went by was that if they were going to be this casual about recruiting, then he knew an actual network engineer that would be happy to be part of their anachro-utopian vision for the future. James filed that away under ‘maybe’.

Sarah was busy trying to fill Momo in on her theory that each orb had four uses, which were shared across all orbs, while one of the two brothers in the research department tried to convince her that each orb only had *three* uses, chosen from a list of five. To James, it looked like nothing so much as like an angel and a devil sitting on someone’s shoulders, except in this case, he couldn’t tell which was which and Momo was desperately trying to pawn the entire conversation off onto Other James.

Other James was having none of it, and was currently testing the new links out with Simon, the two of them having gotten permission from Anesh to give it a try. They looked like they were having fun; the two of them running through a martial arts routine in literally perfect sync. Well, maybe not quite perfect. It looked like small missteps every now and then, and James suspected it was because they were of different heights and not used to being each other. Which was both terrifying, and super rad.

On another pass, the conversation between Neil and Dave had expanded out, with a half dozen people now giving input on what seemed to be a debate over whether or not either of the two of them should take up a skulljack. Neil seemed one million percent on board, but JP was holding back, and James absolutely wasn’t interested in being part of *that* debate.

He fielded a dozen small questions as he walked, too. How had he found the dungeon in the first place anyway? What was the best way to deal with the flashbulbs? How did you make friends with a strider? Or with anything, really? What was the dollar value of a yellow orb? What was their *goal*?

What *was* their goal?

James had to think about that one pretty hard.

Halfway through his second loop around the room, Alanna caught James’ attention and he slid up next to her at the desk. “Sup?” He asked as he knelt down to conversation level.

“Okay, so, that whole thing JP mentioned is something a lot of people were talking about.” She started, and James nodded in acknowledgement. “So, Harvey came up to us, and asked me a really weird question that I wanted to know if you had some deeper answer to.”

“That’s worrying. You guys tend to be the ones who have the good answers.” James pointed back at Alanna and Anesh. “What is it?”

“What do the green orbs do?”

James blinked. “Oh, that’s easy. They upgrade spaces. I’m not sure exactly what that *means*, but they give, like, buffs. Better internet, more closets, sometimes really weird shit like making certain activities easier or something.”

This time, it was Anesh who replied. He nodded at James, and said, “Right, okay, the more closets is the problem. So, question part two; what do the *orange orbs* do?”

“Well, they... “ James closed his mouth, and blinked. “Huh. Okay, weird. They both do space things.”

“I mean, I’d find it hard to argue that Penrose Steps would be an *upgrade* to a house. Especially if you actually want to go downstairs.” Anesh shrugged. “Still, is it weird that they have overlap? I kind of thought they were… discrete.”

James let out a long breath. “Some of them are pretty obvious. I wouldn’t call Secret ‘discrete’, no matter what his name is.”

“Not that… oh, you know what I meant.” Anesh sighed

James gave him a little huff of a laugh, to let him know that it was all in good fun. “But yeah, that’s weird. Maybe ask Sarah about it?”

“I shall.” Anesh said. “How’s the crowd?” He asked.

“Not bad. We should have gotten pizza or something for this.” James shrugged. “Now we know for next time. Anyway. I think we’re about ready to wrap up the official part of this. I want to talk to everyone one last time, though. Do you mind doing that thing where you get people’s attention?” Alanna shot him a thumbs up, and then stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled so loud it echoed through James’ skull. “Ow.” He murmured to himself as he stood up and faced the room again.

Everyone quieted down quickly when they realized that James was standing there, waiting for them. It was probably never going to really click with him that he had earned authority here. It just didn’t feel right. All he’d done was save their lives, he wasn’t a leader. But now, he felt like he had to step into that role anyway.

And Secret wasn’t even here this time to tell him he was doing alright. That was a bummer. But if he was going to be standing here speaking, he’d at least give it his best.

“What are we doing here?” He opened with, projecting his voice across the warehouse floor. James stood at parade rest, his hands clasped behind his back as he looked over everyone who had showed up today just to be part of this. “What’s our goal? More than one person asked me that tonight.” He took a deep breath. “We’re all aware now of something that’s so much bigger than we are. Not just Officium Mundi, but also more. More places, more phenomena. And more danger, as well. There’s all these hints of a war being fought out there between things that are, as far as we know, immortal. So what are we doing?” James met their eyes as they stared back at him. “Well, we know we’re not going to stop. Now that we know, how could we? So that’s the first point of our charter. We are going to explore. We are going to steal fire and take these weird little shards of power when they are offered.” There were smiles now, and James smiled back at them. But his smile wasn’t quite a happy one. “Second, we’re going to protect people. I don’t think anyone will have a problem with that. But there’s a lot of people out there to protect, and that’s kind of a broad mandate. So we’ll start with what we’re getting good at. We’re going to shut down any of these assassination attempts. We’re going to, if needed, beat the dungeons back into their own territory. And we’re going to rescue any victims we can, and take care of them as long as they need us.” Nods from the crowd. If anyone could understand the need for that, it was these people. Now for the part James was unsure of. “And then, we’re going to use that power we’re stockpiling. Unused power, a friend of mine once said, is a travesty. So our third point is going to be changing the world.” There were frowns from a couple people at that. Mostly Karen and Theo. “It is almost inevitable that we’re going to stumble across solutions to some problems in there. Major ones. The kind that I don’t think anyone will miss if we kill them; things like diseases or famines. And I refuse to let those solutions sit idle.” James punched one hand into his open palm. “We are, almost certainly, going to piss some people off. Make enemies, even. And at some point, at least one dungeon is going to try to kill us all.” He clenched his fists. “And we are going to win. Got it?”

They got it. James nodded at them all, and he felt pride and approval radiating off of Anesh and Alanna behind him.

“I’ll have a draft of our charter available for anyone over the next week. If anyone has any specific points they want to add, or suggestions on language use, let me know. If anyone doesn’t want to sign, maybe because they don’t agree with the long term goals, well, let me know anyway and we’ll talk. Oh, and if anyone has any suggestions for pun names for our organization, *please* let me know, I’m stuck on ‘Official Channels’.”

The tension shattered as James did what he did best. Turned the start of a new age for the world into a joke.

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argusthecat

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!

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