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A note from argusthecat

If you want to read ahead, Patreon is now up to the Christmas special.  I am aware that it's *May*, but don't question me; I'm in charge here!

Anyway.  Time for something *different*.

“Alright, we’re here. What’s the sitch?” James asked as he and Anesh strode down the stone ramp toward Alanna and Anesh.

“First off, just because we’re in a high school doesn’t mean you get to revert to slang.” Alanna started, ticking off the point on her fingers like she had a whole presentation prepared about how James wasn’t allowed to say ‘sitch’.

She didn’t get to go that far; Anesh cut her off. “The kid went in earlier, we assume. Didn’t catch up in time, so we’ve been waiting here for you. The breach is open, we don’t know how long for, but if he’s in there, we can always follow him out. Or just ask.”

“So you want to go in? Now?” James asked, eyebrows raised. He turned to the Anesh at his side, who was currently pulling a coiled ethernet cable out of his pocket and tossing one end to the other Anesh. “I know I was saying we should up the tempo, but this is a bit much.”

“The breach seems to be open at pretty random times.” Alanna said. “We haven’t been able to catch it when it’s convenient to us, and I’m starting to suspect that’s the problem.”

The four of them shut up as a couple of students in band uniforms rounded the corner behind them, and walked past chatting. One of them did a double take at the two Aneshs, but neither of them said anything about the four adults hanging out in front of a high school boiler room. Quite the opposite, really; their eyes just seemed to slide over the group, or maybe just the space around the door.

James set his mouth in a thin line. There was definitely an antimeme here. He wanted to say he could feel it, but the problem really came down to the fact that he *couldn’t*. None of them could, except Secret. That’s what made them so damn dangerous.

“Secret, you feel that?” He asked the open air.

“Hmmm.” Came back the low humming noise from his ethereal passenger. Secret was a strange thing to James sometimes; only loosely associated with the act of having a body. James had actually assumed that the infomorph had locked himself into a physical form, but when he’d asked Secret to come along on this one, the half-asleep serpent had simply shed his physical form and looped a ghostly tail across James’ chest. “I feel nothing. It is hiding.”

“So there is something.” James prompted.

“There is nothing, which is hiding from me.” Secret said cryptically. Perhaps as punishment for being woken up. “I cannot find it. I know it is there. It is bad at hiding. It is not hiding itself; I do not think it understands that it is not alone.”

“Antimeme.” Alanna half-spat the word out, and the others nodded. Anesh nodded in time with himself, as the two bodies synced up their minds. “I’m getting sick of these.” Alanna admitted. “No offense Secret. But it seems like we keep running into ‘don’t look at me’ fields.”

“Dungeons gotta dungeon somehow.” James shrugged. “Can’t do that if literally everyone stumbles in. I guess? No, that actually doesn’t make any sense, unless they’re all actively aware of the threat of, like, military intervention. Okay, put that on the list.”

“Which list?” Anesh asked in unison.

“The list of worrying thoughts. Are we going in, or not?” James asked. “I brought a bag full of machetes if we are.” He hoisted aloft the duffel bag in his left hand.

It didn’t just have machetes in it, but that statement wasn’t too far from pure truth. They’d had a bit of fun making up what James called ‘starter packs’ of dungeoning equipment for all the new people they’d hired, and so there’d been a whole lineup of duffel bags just sitting there at their secret lair. Perfect for an improvised trip to a new hell-dimension.

“We absolutely should go in.” Alanna said. “We don’t know what schedule this thing is on, we can’t reliably find the kid who apparently does know, but is now in there, and also, have you guys noticed the number of broken phones and backpacks strewn around here? These things are covered in dust or water damage; people aren’t coming back to pick them up.” She flicked her eyes at the rift in space before them. “That means it's eating people. And that makes it our problem.”

“We absolutely should *not* go in.” Anesh spoke simultaneously with himself. “For exactly that reason. Grade schoolers aren’t exactly what I’d call ‘ready for a fight’, but some of these people must have been in athletics. Track or American football or something, right? That marks this place as dangerous. Clearly more obviously lethal than the office.”

“Also, what happened to these kids?” James asked quietly. “There isn’t some massive missing persons case or serial killer manhunt. Which means this place just totally blocked everyone out of being remembered. Maybe being recorded, too. I hate that.”

“Exactly why we should scope it out.” Alanna insisted. “Look, we’re probably the people in the best position to do this, and I include calling the police in that list this time. We’ve got more enhancements than ever. We’ve got Secret with us. We can do this.”

“What could possibly go wrong.” James dryly stated.

Anesh and Alanna both grimaced, while Secret simply flatly replied with a “Do not say that. It is a curse.”

There was a pause. “What, really?” James asked.

“No, but do not say it regardless. It makes me nervous.” Secret replied.

James sighed theatrically. “Fine, fine. Okay, so, one vote for, one vote against.”

“Two.” Both Aneshs chimed in.

“Oh, that’s not fair. Well, I vote for. I want to explore this place, and Alanna’s right. We don’t know what schedule the breach is on, scouting the place is a good preliminary goal, and we absolutely need to find out if anyone is still alive in there.”

“Oh shit, I hadn’t even thought of that.” Alanna said. “I just assumed they’d already be dead.”

Anesh begrudging shook his head. “We’ve seen a few times now that dungeon spaces seem to have a habit of taking prisoners, in one way or another.” He said with a sigh as he ran a hand through his wiry black hair. “Okay, fine. I change my vote.”

On James’ shoulders, Secret bobbed his head. “That is good, as I would have voted for regardless.” He admitted. “And so we are united in purpose.”

“I forgot he got a vote.” Anesh admitted sheepishly in a quiet voice when Alanna shot him a smug look.

“Alright, sanity check.” James said, cracking the door to the boiler room open and leading the group of them in. The air was hot, dry, and warped in that strange way that the breach here caused. This was no subtle door that displaced the real door, or a staircase that led farther than it should have. This was simply a hole cut in space, hostile and angry. “Secret, any outside influence on us?”

“No.” The memetic life replied. “We are, as you say, in the clear.”

“I don’t say that. Alanna, Anesh, gear?” James knelt among the scattered backpacks and unzipped the duffel bag, pulling out the thick blades of machetes and passing them around, along with gloves. “I don’t have armor with me, but I did get something for you.” He handed Alanna a pair of gloves made of a thicker black cloth. They had a raised rectangle on the back of each hand, which was filled with lead shot. “Riot gloves, for when you inevitably need to punch something.”

“Aw, I love you too.” She said, pulling them onto her hands with a strangely soft smile. “What else?”

“Blue’s slotted?” Anesh asked. Alanna and James answered at the same time. They both still had charges on making asphalt or breaking delicate electronic devices. “Okay, good. I’ve got three shots left of ‘melt copper’, so maybe.” Anesh eyed the metal of the piping around them.

“How *do* blues absorbed work with you?” James thought to ask, suddenly.

“They sync up when we do, just like the rest of the orbs. But the charges are consistent. I haven’t tried it, but I suspect that if we let ourselves drift too long, one of us would just lose it. Or maybe not, maybe it copies. It’s a mystery.”

“I need to figure out how to absorb an orange.” James grumbled. “I want more of me.”

“One of you is plenty.” Alanna tapped him on the head. “Anything else?”

There was one more thing. James tossed a controller adaptor to Anesh, who slotted it into his skulljack, and quickly assumed control of a small camera drone that buzzed into the air next to them. And *then* they were ready.

James rose to his feet, hoisting his own weapon; a heavy metal baseball bat. “Are we sure we want to do this?” He asked.

He wasn’t really asking. It was more of… seeking consent. Seeking affirmation. Not so much making sure that his partners were in this with him, but that they were ready for it. Willing to take the plunge, yes, but also assured that they were in it together.

Two Anesh nodded, Alanna gave him a “Absolutely.”, and Secret tightened in assent around James’ torso.

“Alright.” He said, hoisting the duffel in one hand and the bat in the other.. “Let’s fuck it up.”

Four hands and one translucent blue snout reached out for a gap in reality, together. They made contact at roughly the same time, and there was a flash of non-light as they vanished from the face of the Earth.

_____

“I figured out how to soak up the yellows today.” Momo casually dropped into the conversation she was having with Sarah.

The two women - well, one woman and one girl, if you asked Sarah - were sitting at one of the cafeteria tables, eating expertly made shoyu chicken from their new resident chef, and watching that same chef along with three other guildies get their asses handed to them in unarmed combat by Simon and James. The two friends were linked up wirelessly, and had expanded their martial arts training from fighting each other, to challenging everyone in the building to bouts. At once, if possible.

When Nate had seen it, he’d handed off keeping an eye on tonight’s soup to Harvey, and gone over to try to instill some leadership into the losing trio.

“You! Neil! You’re huge! Don’t scowl at me, you pussy, *use it*! Keep on their sides, go for grabs and pins. Make them *work* for it if they want to hit anyone! And you, Debby?”

“Deb.” The now-licensed nurse replied. “Just Deb.”

“Great. Stop trying to kick them. You’re over extending! Go in when they’re pinned, and keep them down, or focus on being a problem they can’t take their eyes off!” The tattooed man had plucked his glasses off, tossed them onto the table where Sarah and Momo were sitting, and rolled up his sleeves like getting in a fight with internet-enabled black belts was just another day for him. “They can read each other's minds, but who cares? Marines can do that too! And you can still punch marines!” He’d thrown the first punch, and Simon and James had suddenly had a hell of a lot harder time.

They seemed to be having fun though.

“Good job on the yellows. Have you slept at all?” Sarah asked Momo as the two of them watched the devolving brawl in front of their table.

“Pssssshaw.” Momo tilted her head back before whipping it back down as she ended the drawn out dismissal. “Sleep is for people who didn’t collect a whole strider nest worth of minis!”

“That’s not true at all.” Sarah tried to play it off, but she was a bit worried. “When they run out, you’ll crash. Sleep is good for you, spookypants!”

Momo spoke around a mouthful of chicken. “Bah. I need more time. I’m close to figuring out limiters on the totems, I think. Also I want to absorb the orange Simon gave me, but I don’t know how yet, and I need time. *Also* I still haven’t seen El do magic! And I wanna do magic! I wanna be a war witch!”

There was a turn of phrase that made Sarah giggle. “Oh, please. You’re much more of a science witch.” She told the younger girl. “War is for boys.” Sarah casually gestured to the scene of their head chef getting his knees kicked out from under him by two perfectly timed strikes from each side, courtesy of a localized hive mind.

“That’s weird to hear you say.” Momo quirked an eyebrow. “Also, Deb is there too! Look, she just hit Simon!”

“Holy shit, she hit him with a chair.” Sarah almost choked on her drink. “Is that allowed?” She looked around, like she was waiting for a ref or something to step in and inform Deb that yelling at someone you’d just given a concussion to with a piece of furniture to ‘stay down’ was unsportsmanlike. “That shouldn’t be allowed.”

“The *point* is that I want to do magic.” Momo pouted.

“The point, young lady, is that El is… not sharing much.” Sarah sighed. It was a tired sigh. The kind that crept out when you were trying really hard to not be mad at someone who was trying your patience. It was a sigh Sarah made a lot these days. “We know what three spells she has; indexing, speed boost, and ‘repair’. We know, if we can believe her, that her mana pool is based off velocity. But we don’t know how she learned them, and they don’t seem to have rituals attached that we can replicate.” Sarah called out a sudden “boo” toward the gym mats, cupping her hands around her mouth as Deb stood triumphant, holding her chair over her head like a broadsword. “She likes you, maybe you can get more from her. But you’ve been busy, and she’s been sleeping or ‘out’. And we *aren’t* keeping her prisoner.”

“I’m pretty sure she just goes out to remind us that she can leave if she wants to.” Momo said timidly, a bit put off by Sarah’s tone.

Sarah rubbed her face with one open hand, realizing how harsh she sounded. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I don’t *want* to keep her here, either. It’s not that I don’t like her, it’s just that she seems so angry all the time, especially at James, and over something that was an accident.”

“I’ll talk to her about it.” Momo promised. “We’re supposed to go bowling tonight!”

“Wait, seriously?” Sarah questioned. No one had asked her if *she* wanted to go bowling.

Momo read Sarah’s face, narrowing her eyes as she sent out her empathic feelers. “Do… do yoooou want to come…”

“Nah, I’m good.” Sarah grinned. “You have fun. Really! Be a normal teenager for a while.”

Momo glanced around at the walls and high windows of the back area of their literal secret lair; a building that had two basements occupying the same space, where she lived with her dog made out of a magnetic field, and did half-research-half-arcane-guesswork on condensed balls of information and power. But only the red ones. Nearby, her teammates, who were plugged into each other's brains, were being pulled off of the gym mats by a nurse, a drone enthusiast, and a chef, and that last guy was someone who’d literally been hired not even a week ago and somehow had adapted to this like it wasn’t a bizarre fever dream.

“Yeah, too late.” She settled on. “So hey, what are you up to with the rest of the night?” Momo asked of Sarah, casually turning their conversation back to normal things.

“Eh. Waiting for James to drop by, mostly. We’re gonna go visit Pendragon.”

“Where’d he go, anyway? He was here earlier, grabbing a bag or something.” Momo asked, curious, as she collected their empty plates to go pile in the kitchen.

“Hardware store, I think?” Sarah tapped her chin. “Hm. I actually don’t remember what he said. Maybe ask JP?”

“Nah, it’s fine, I was just curious. I’m sure he’s alright. He’s an adult.” Momo casually mocked her guild leader and personal - secret - hero.

The two made eye contact as they thought about it for a second, and then both stood up at the same time.

“We should really go ask JP.” Sarah stated.

“Yeah. Because he’s fine, but…”

“Yeah.”

_____

James hit the ground on his hands and knees, coughing up a sour liquid. It took him a second to realize he was vomiting, spilling orange stomach acid onto the pitted and marked concrete floor below him. The sudden transition had left his stomach reeling, his brain feeling like he’d been struck repeatedly in the head, and when he’d dropped out in midair, left to fall to the floor with no warning, his lunch had come back the way it had gone.

Next to him, there was a tooth-grinding *crunch* as an Anesh slammed shoulder first into the sharp concrete of the wall. The walls here were that awkward jagged texture that schools used to love so much, crystal spires of unpolished rock jutting out, just waiting for a student to trip into it. Or be thrown there by sudden, violent teleportation.

Alanna landed mostly upright, and half-caught the other Anesh, but that Anesh was in a similar state to James; spilling the contents of his stomach across the floor.

Secret was fine. Already alert, perched protectively above his father’s prone form. A blue guardian mantle, ready to snap at anything that approached. He had no stomach to empty, no lunch to lose.

There was a vile smell in the air, and not just from two people puking in the last minute. It was sour, and wet. The kind of wet you get when you leave a leak dripping for far too long and the mold and mildew build up until it’s just not worth it to clean it with anything except a flamethrower. And under all that, the iron bite of old spilled blood. Not fresh, but not dried. How could anything dry down here, in the damp and heat?

The four humans blinked as their eyes adjusted to the gloom. It wasn’t dark here, not at all. But it wasn’t well lit, either. The light didn’t come from anywhere in particular; it was more like everything had been rendered just so that no one would trip on anything.

A concrete floor surrounded them, with drainage grates at a handful of seemingly random spots around the room. The room they were in was broad, and mostly empty, maybe twenty five feet across or so. Mostly featureless, except for the set of rusted showerheads sticking out of the wall at odd intervals.

Well, that, and the graffiti. And the body.

As soon as James was on his feet and looking around, he spotted the huddled human form by the back wall, and rushed over as best he could on wobbly feet. His motion drew the attention of Anesh and Alanna, who were still looking around, gazing at the stacked rows of piping overhead that made up the low ceiling. They came to join him, with one Anesh keeping his eyes on the only door that led out of the room.

As soon as James knelt over the still form, he knew he wasn’t looking at someone alive. Something in his gut told him so. But he still checked for a pulse, and jerked his hand back as several long, flat beetles crawled out of the coat of the deceased. With an angry snarl, he flattened the three of them with his gloved hand, watching a few strange red sparks jump out of the squashed carapaces, before going back to verify that this person was, in fact, dead.

With sad eyes and a pang in his heart that had nothing to do with the disorientation of their arrival, James turned the kid over. He couldn’t stop himself from needing to know.

He had been maybe fourteen, tops. On his head, there was still a cloth wrap; askew but still clearly in the Sikh style. His eyes were wide open, though one of them had been gnawed out by something vile, the other one showed a terrified kid who didn’t understand what was happening to him. In one hand, he was clutching a notebook, torn in half and soaked in some brown liquid.

James pried the text out of his hands like it was a sacred object, and flipped it open as best he could. Most of it was empty, but on a random page in the middle, written in red ink, was the line “Tell my dad I’m sorry. I will die before I…”

James closed the book, and pressed his hand over the boy’s eye, closing it for the last time.

Then he stood up, and turned to his companions. “Okay.” He started to say, before looking down at his hands. “Where the fuck is my bat?”

“Our machetes are gone too.” Alanna noted. “So’s the bag.” She checked her pockets. “Swiss army knife’s gone. Wallet’s still here, but phone is gone too.”

“In retrospect, we really should have just piled our phones up by the entrance. I hope they didn’t break when they dropped.” Anesh said. “Drone is gone too.” He said, rubbing the controller still plugged into his head.

“Yeah, that’s not what I’m worried about right now.” James growled out.

He was angry. He was beyond angry. He’d known, in the abstract, that this place was dangerous. But here, right here, in the *entry hall*, was a dead human *child*. Covered in bugs, on a stained floor, surrounded by rusted metal and concrete and graffiti. He had died alone and afraid and James had already thought of six different things to try to see how much structural damage a dungeon could take before it *fucking died*.

But he didn’t let that show right now. Instead, he took as deep a breath as he could right now, given the damp and disgusting air, rose to his feet, and swept his eyes around the room.

“The graffiti is human.” Alanna muttered.

“Hey!” James tried to muster up some of a humorous mood despite his simmering rage. “You don’t get to make cryptic statements about reality! That’s *Secret’s* job.”

Secret decided to ruin James’ fun, chiming in with “I am not the authority on humans. That is your job. I am here to safeguard your identities. And perhaps to make a different category of crypticism.”

“Thanks.” James dryly huffed. “Okay, what’s up with the graffiti?”

It was all over the walls, disorganized and drawn in scratches of rust and concrete. Messages left by those who had come before.

“No one is going to help.” “First right leads to…” “Was here” “This room isn’t safe.” “Don’t run.”

“Huh.” James said as he scanned it, running his gloved fingers over the space in front of the words ‘was here’. “This one feels weird.”

“Something is there.” Secret said, snapping several of his eyes onto it. “A worm. I shall simply…” His coils rippled, and he darted forward through a direction that hurt James’ eyes to watch. A second later, there was the impression of a pair of leviathan jaws closing around an unsuspecting minnow. And then…

Just like that, there were more words.

“Mike Yager was here.” Anesh read the name that had been there the whole time. “I wonder who that was.” He softly asked, as one of him pulled out a pocket notebook and made a note of the persona. “Um…” He held the paper up a second later by two worried fingers, as the very name he’d written was concealed again. On the wall, similarly, the graffiti was once again partially hidden.

There was a deep growl from Secret, who's myriad eyes darted around the room, seeing things kept unknown from the others. “They cluster like grubs. So many of them here, waiting for a name to feed upon. This place is disgusting.”

No one had ever heard Secret call something disgusting before.

“Okay. No names. Super.” James spat onto the floor, clearing the taste of bile from his tongue. “Let’s get the hell out of this place.” He said. “Who’s on point?”

Alanna took point, followed by Anesh, then James and Anesh bringing up the rear. Secret didn’t stick to any singular one of them, instead looping his ghostly coils around their feet intermittently. Occasionally, he would lash out to snap with one of his many rows of teeth at something none of them could see, but was presumably one of the small buggish antimemes here.

The only exit from this room was a hallway. Though calling it a hallway was generous at best and a flagrant lie at worst. It was a tube leading into the blackness, concrete floor occasionally broken up underfoot by random encroachments of pipes replacing the stable ground. The pipes were made of a dozen different substances, some metal, some ceramic, some plastic, there was no order to it.

The piping also surrounded them on all sides. The rock of the walls was barely visible through small gaps in the tubes that covered it, and overhead, the ceiling was completely concealed by those same liquid routes. They could all hear fluids moving through the spaces from time to time; water, or worse, flowing around them in random intervals.

The strange, pervasive light that had let them see in the room they’d dropped into was absent here. Instead, there was just the light from behind them, the pitch black of the hallway and its tripping hazards ahead, and the pale unreal glow of Secret as he drifted in and out of actual space.

“I hate this.” James caught Anesh muttering to himself as they steeled themselves as a group and began to slowly walk down into the abyss.

“No phones, so no easy flashlights. No bag, so no flashlights.” Alanna griped. “I don’t suppose anyone has a flare in their pants?”

“No, I’m just happy to see you.” James responded, almost by reflex.

Alanna made a face like she’d just eaten an entire lemon in one go. Not that the boys appreciated it, in the darkness. “Stay close, then.” She said, “No getting separated here.”

No one had any arguments about that.

They trudged on, shuffling footsteps probing uncertain ground as they walked. Every now and then, James felt a draft from one side of their group, what he was pretty sure were side passages. But they weren’t ready to start taking twists and turns yet; not until they had a little more of a picture of the place.

Time started to lose meaning as they walked. They were going slow, so everyone knew that they hadn’t gone that far, but it was so easy to forget that. To feel like they’d descended into the bottomless pit, and had been falling for years and years.

Then Alanna broke the spell by letting out some kind of startled barbarian yawp ahead of them, sending electric adrenaline coursing through the veins of Anesh and James. The two of them heard bellowed swears, and the sound of boots smashing into concrete and chitin with equal vigor. In the off-color light of Secret’s passing, they caught glimpses of Alanna pulverizing the fist-sized beetle that had made the fatal mistake of skittering across her foot, the creature’s death accompanied by a small spray of red sparks that lit up the darkness far more than the serpent form of Secret did. Briefly.

“Jesus Christ, are you okay? Don’t fucking scare me like that!” James didn’t wait for a response to the question before chastising Alanna, holding one hand to his suddenly aching chest while he clapped the other on her shoulder.

“I hate bugs.” She explained, in a way that wasn’t an explanation at all, crushing another fleeing insect underfoot and generating another burst of red light that briefly lit up the corridor.

“Why do they keep sparking when they die?” Anesh asked as one of him caught his breath, trying to distract from the shock of the moment.

James made an annoyed face that continued to go unseen, but his tone conveyed how he felt just as well. “Probably the dungeon giving us some kind of radiation poisoning for breaking its toys.” He guessed. “Also, stomp on another one of those.” He directed Alanna.

“I don’t want to find more of them.” She grumbled, but started sweeping her eyes across the floor. Secret hovered nearby, a gloomy spotlight on the stone and pipes poking up underfoot, his light only extended a foot or two around him in the dark. A second later, she spotted another of the palm-sized bugs, and brought the heel of her boot down on it.

In the flash of light that followed its death, James didn’t watch the sparks, but instead the walls around them. And in that moment of light, something stood out to him.

“There’s a door here.” He said, holding out his hands and running them across the pipes on the wall. There it was; a small rectangle of space where the pipes sunk into the wall at ninety degree angles, before emerging again a short distance later. No doorknob, but the lines around it were clear. This was a point of entry. To *somewhere*. “Someone give me a hand here. Secret, can you light this up?”

“Barely.” Secret said. “But I shall try.”

“Would it help if someone shared some deep secret with you?” James asked. “I could tell you I don’t like Star Trek. Would that help?”

Secret rippled with a blue gleam as he brought his serpentine body up against the pipes surrounding the strange door. “No, as that is not exactly a well kept gem of information. But I appreciate the thought.”

In the thin glow he put off, they clustered close and looked at the door frame. It was set back in the wall, but it was clearly meant to open; the rectangle of lines cut into the concrete and the texture of smooth metal gave that away.

“I don’t get it. What opens this?” James asked, reaching out a hand to feel around where the doorknob should have been.

As his hand got close to making contact, there was a fiery shock to his skin, even through the glove. And in the space where he’d reached, light bloomed; a red slash of illumination, clearly shaped like the number “ten”. It sat there in midair for a brief second, before fading back again.

“Ten *what*?” Anesh asked. “Key number ten? Ten minutes of waiting? Ten…”

“It’s the same color.” Alanna said. “As the sparks.”

“Oh fuck no.” James looked around, meeting the other’s eyes under the glow of Secret. All of them pressed so close like this almost made him feel a false sense of safety. “It means ten kills.” He said, “Ten sparks. Are we supposed to be collecting them?” He looked down at his hand, where some of them had landed earlier when he’d smashed the small bugs crawling on the kid’s corpse. “Can we see how many we have?”

As soon as he said the words, there was a brief flare of light and heat; a red “three” scarred into the air above the back of his hand. He felt his blood cool, noticeably; as if all the energy it took to ask that was pulled out of him with a brisk force.

“I’ll find more bugs.” Alanna said, resigned.

Five minutes of crushing the slimy shells and stinking insides of the beetles that crawled between the floor pipes later, Alanna had amassed ten of whatever this place ‘awarded’ them from their kills. After doing her best to wipe the worst of the rapidly solidifying goop off her boots, she stepped over to the door where James and an Anesh were standing to keep track of it, and pressed her hand toward the doorknob.

It was a feeling like something being yanked out of her. Like her veins or muscles being pulled out, through the palm of her hand; though it wasn’t physical. Instead, a string of red light lit up the surrounding space as it streamed forward, coalescing into darkness, and the form of a door handle.

Alanna grabbed it, impetuously, and yanked the door open on rusted hinges.

The inside was a bathroom stall in absurd proportions. It was lit, though, and she and James stepped in, while Anesh waited by the door, his back to the two of them as he and Secret kept an eye out for anything coming for them.

There was one toilet, though if anything in the *world* could remove the urge to take a piss, it was this one. Chunks of it were broken away, leaving jagged plastic covered in rotten damp toilet paper, mold, and scuttling insects. It sat, strangely isolated, on the opposite side of the room from where the broken toilet paper holder was mounted on the wall. The walls were blue tile, with a host of thin black sharpie lines or dusty white gouges leaving messages that, this time, were absolutely not left by passing humans. The floor clung to their boots, and every step felt like walking through hot asphalt; a sticky suction feeling that pulled them down. Steam rose from where the sink ran against the wall to their left; boiling hot water splashing down into a broken ceramic basin, flooding down to the floor and the drainage grate there, a host of green and black growths feeding off the moisture.

The whole room smelled like someone had pissed on it. James nearly gagged on the stench, but Alanna just cupped a sleeve against her mouth and stepped farther in.

They each analyzed the space in a different way, but both of them came to the conclusion that unless the toilet was a mimic - something they would *never* rule out, or ever test either - then there was nothing here that was going to try to kill them right away. Instead, at roughly the same time, they started looking around at the writing on the walls.

A lot of it was banal: names inside hearts, though the hearts were accurate human anatomy; phone numbers, with the wrong number of digits or wrong characters to actually work; random symbols that might have been gang tags, or maybe extradimensional hate symbology. But some of the things written were weirdly composed sentences, and those ones stood out to them both.

“Alright, here’s a weird one.” James said. “Two trains are a hundred miles apart, traveling at fifty miles an hour. How long until everyone on board dies?” He shook his head. “Kinda grim. This one, too, actually. It’s asking what the original fourth horseman that killed people was. That’s a biblical question.”

Alanna suspiciously poked a finger against the ink on the tile wall where she stood. “This one says ‘two idiot children die to poison and impatience.’ What the hell does that mean?”

“Oh, that’s easy. Romeo and Juliet.” James answered. “It’s like a rough overview of the plot of the most annoying romance ever.”

As soon as he finished speaking, the words began to burn with a sickly green fire. Alanna yelped and shuffled backward, falling into a smooth combat posture in case this was something hostile. But it wasn't, and instead, a couple seconds later, the writing was scoured from the wall and replaced by a scorch mark. And a burst of green sparks, that fell from the scarred tile, and onto James’ arm. He jerked back, shaking his coat, but the small flare of light had already vanished; drawn in just like the red sparks.

“Fuck. I hate that.” He said.

Anesh, watching from the door, added his own opinion to the mix. “It doesn’t help that the colors look poisonous. Did you guys notice that? The red ones look like an infection, and now this green looks like toxic waste.”

“This place is intentionally gross.” Alanna said, glaring at the nest of scuttling clicking bugs around the toilet bowl. “And it took our weapons away, so we have to interact with our hands.”

“At least we have gloves.” James said, turning his attention back to the other writing. “We should solve all of these. If answering the questions get us sparks, we will absolutely need them later. May as well stock up.”

“That’s RPG thinking.” Alanna shook her head. “This isn’t a game.”

James agreed, in the abstract, but… “Tell that to the place that charges us in souls to open doors.” He said. “This one is one hour. This one is sulfuric acid. This one is, I think, the word ‘conquest’.” Three flares of green sparks accompanied his answering of questions, and a sweep of the surroundings showed no more of the graffiti quiz show to play. “Alright. Let’s go. If I get radiation poisoning, someone make sure that my casket is solid lead.” He joked without a smile.

Alanna followed him out of the room, scowling in perfectly rational concern. “Don’t do that! We don’t know if that’s dangerous!”

“Yes we do.” James said. “Nothing here has shown us that this place doesn’t have the same base rules as the other dungeons we’ve seen. The prizes can’t kill us. They might hurt, like the ‘connection’ thing you two have, but they never kill us. El and Sarah both agreed with that. I’d bet that if we find food here, it’ll be gross as fuck, but still edible.”

“I will never eat anything in this place.” Alanna grumbled as they stood in the thin line of light, preparing to head back down the dark tunnel.

Secret coiled himself around the group’s legs once again. “I wish that I could state the same.” He sadly said, spitting *something* slightly to the side.

“Please don’t actually eat the antimeme bug things.” James pled with the infomorph as they started walking into the darkness again. “I know that they’re trying to feed on names and things, and that’s great, but, like… don’t chew them?” He dropped the volume of his voice unconsciously as they stepped farther and farther from the source of light they’d discovered.

Secret declined to answer, and once again, they were moving in silence again. Shuffling along to keep their feet from catching on any loose pieces of pipe or rock, a steady but quite cautious pace.

It was when there was a scratching noise from the pipes near their head that they all froze. Even Secret, who snapped dozens of eyes up to look into the dark, stopped his rotation around their feet.

The noise wasn’t like the sloshing of liquids that they’d been intermittently hearing; though those noise too would often stop them for a minute or two at a time as they waited to make sure they weren’t a threat. This was more like something sharp scraping against the stone and plastic of the pipes overhead.

They all waited, eyes pointed into the dark overhead, before they moved on again. But it wasn’t more than thirty seconds before the noise came again; from slightly behind them but getting closer. Catching up. But there was nothing they could do, except be on their guard, and keep moving as best they could.

Five minutes of that, of suffering under the unknown, before James had a thought. “Hey, I just realized something.” He said softly. “I’ve got a light source, though only a brief one. Want to see what’s tailing us?”

“What… Oh.” Anesh made the connection. “Okay. I’m ready if you are. Alanna?”

“Do it.” She said, tensing up, her gloved hands balled into fists.

“How much green do I have?” James whispered aloud.

And in a flash, a number spiked into existence over the back of his right hand. He was surprised to see it was twenty, and not four like he’d expected, but he was more surprised to see the thing that had been stalking them perched in a gap in the pipes just overhead to their right.

It had a snout like a cone, tapered to a blunted point. Fur that was dull metal wire, eyes that were nothing more than hateful black beads. It had two mouths, one stacked on top of the other, two parallel rows of teeth that dripped with a grim liquid. James had never had a problem with the fact that Secret had more than one maw, but now, in this moment, he realized that was mostly because Secret had never screamed at him in a hissing voice and tried to eat him.

The thing was like a rat, if someone had taken a rat’s general shape, scaled it up as far as they could, and replaced every part of it with something painful and disgusting. Exposed muscles through patches where it had no fur or skin, places where the bones poked out through its hide, and a glossy sheen where it oozed some kind of substance as it moved; a trail that glimmered across the pipe it had been stalking them on.

The burst of light didn’t leave any of them with much time to adjust their eyes. But it startled the rat thing even more, and in a fight-or-flight moment, it decided to commit to an assault.

Lurching out from where it was wedged between the piping, it screamed in a horrifyingly human voice as it dove downward. It was a high pitched wail, feminine and young, and it absolutely did not stop James from slamming his fist into the right side of its snout as it fell through the air toward him.

Momentum warred with itself for a brief moment as James’ acceleration enhanced fist and the monstrous rat’s fall met. And then, a tipping point, and James felt his arm move like there was no resistance at all, sending the rat thing into the wall at high velocity.

It left a gooey spat mark against the pipe it hit, a blast of that secreted liquid that also splattered droplets onto the exposed skin of the four delvers. As it rolled to the floor, it was already landing on its feet, trying to regain control, trying to snap out with either set of fangs to dig into soft flesh and hard bone. It didn’t hesitate at all to continue its violence.

Then Anesh jumped on it, with both feet. And it kind of exploded.

“Oh god.” He muttered with a low noise from his throat as the blood and viscera of the creature coated the wall and floor and his pant legs. “I didn’t expect that. Oh, I’m gonna be sick.” He didn’t notice it, but his counterpart did, as did James and Alanna, that the fountain of red light coming off of this thing was far stronger than that from the bugs they’d been running into.

“That seems to be the theme of this place.” Alanna said, slowly lowering her guard as the sparks faded from their vision. “Was that the only one?”

“Only one I saw.” James said, his blood still cold from calling up his score. “We should move faster. I want to find a way out of this fucking place.” He tried to sigh, but it turned into a cough instead as the smell of the hallway and the steaming blood of the ‘rat’ caught in his throat instead. “Let’s go.” He took the lead, this time, wiping his hand on one of the stone pipes as he walked, trying to get as much of the slime from the thing off him as possible. Anesh didn’t even have that option; the legs of his pants were thoroughly soaked by the blood from his aggressive maneuver, and while he didn’t complain, it quickly became clear that this was a place that no one was going to be enjoying themselves tonight.

As if they hadn’t known that already.

“Should we try one of these side passages?” Alanna asked, ten minutes and a few dozen beetles later. The bugs were a near-constant irritant. And while they probably weren’t dangerous, they kept trying to crawl on the delvers, and they actually probably *were* quite dangerous if they dropped their guard.

“I don’t want to lose track of where we are.” James replied. “If we need to turn back, we know exactly how to do it. That said, if we see any light down any of them, we should take it.”

“I’ll keep an eye out.” Anesh said. James wasn’t really surprised; Anesh had been on high alert for the last two hours. If he didn’t know better, James would have assumed that Anesh hadn’t even blinked.

Time once again started to blur together as they walked. They found another door, but this one demanded a hundred red sparks, which none of them had, even with the constant trickle of beetles onto their legs. They heard more sounds from farther in; the noises of steam screaming and some beast letting out a feral roar, but nothing that approached where they were. And with the tunnels so tight and echoing, it was impossible to know how far away something might be, except that it wasn’t close.

But eventually…

“Light up ahead.” Anesh had the best low light vision out of all of them, Secret included. Even James’ purple upgraded eyesight didn’t let him see in the dark. “Fan out?”

James and Alanna moved without speaking, stepping to either side, letting Anesh take a forward facing position between them while another Anesh stood at an angle to their left, watching their backs. Secret formed up into a cowl around James as they approached, ceasing his constant looping motions as his light became less needed.

The noise started to trickle in as they got closer to the arched shape of light at the end of the hallway. It was a rhythmic clacking, something beating on the floor in poorly timed unison. Every few seconds, a wave of noise washed over them, getting louder and louder as they approached. By the time they were maybe twenty feet from the glow of the room they were nearing, James could make it out much more clearly; it was the sound of plastic on stone, or stone on stone. A series of claps as objects were slammed together every ten seconds of so.

He shot a glance at Anesh. “Ready?” He asked his boyfriend. Anesh just narrowed his eyes, not wasting words on it. More than the other two, he’d been getting thirsty, and with all their supplies in the bag that hadn’t come with them, a few hours of marching wasn’t his idea of a good time. “Alright.” James tilted his head up at Alanna. “Let’s do this.” He said as he stepped forward.

The room resolved in their vision as they walked into it, the barrier of sharp light in the darkness pushed aside as their eyes adjusted rapidly. The floor and walls were much like the room they’d fallen into originally, but it was wider around, and more of a circular shape. Across the walls, protrusions of stone and brass extended, looking like stadium seating that was designed to trip and slice at the ankles. The floor was splattered with dark stains, angry wet patches that stank of old iron and blood. At the base of those jutting spaces around the walls, off-balance school lockers sat. They were in a variety of styles, but they all had gleaming padlocks holding shut rusted doors and bent metal grating.

The first thing Anesh saw was the breach on the far side of the room. That angry offense against mathematics that cut a hole in the air, and most likely their one exit from this nightmare of pipes and concrete. The first thing that *James* saw was the gate built across the thing. More of a portcullis, really. It was made of splintered pipes, jagged metal welded together to form something that looked like a tetanus shot waiting to happen. There were no chains or pulleys attached to it, no obvious way of opening it. It just sat there, showing them the way out, but barring the way.

The first thing Alanna noticed were the creatures here. To be fair, James and Anesh saw them too, just a half-second after her.

They were bipedal, four feet tall, five at the max, and many of them carried clubs or crude spears made out of the piping material. Maybe two dozen of them in total; they lined those jutting sets of seating around the walls, looking down on the floor of the rounded room. Every few seconds, they would clumsily bang the butts of their weapons into the floor, letting out a rattling din that echoed through across the pipes and down the halls.

They had fur. Fur that looked mangy and unkempt, but real fur. It jutted from their skin in patchwork patterns, multiple colors adorning each of the creatures. Brown, black, some even a pale cream, though all of their colorations were tainted with mold growths and a red sticky substance that no one assumed was paint.

Where they did not have fur, they had chitin. Brown beetle shell like a cockroach that covered most of their bodies, especially their joints. It glistened in the light, dripping secretions running down it and matting their fur where the two met. They would frequently itch at the lines between their materials, as if they were sewn together and uncomfortable with the divides. They scratched themselves with three-fingered clawed hands, and every one of them had three arms. Though they always had at least one arm per side, where the third one sat seemed random for each of their monstrous shapes.

Their faces were wide triangles. Antenna jutted out of the back of their skulls, and sunken mammalian eyes betrayed insectile compounding. Five eyes per face, every time, though again not always in the same places.

Some of them wore scraps of clothing. Things recognizable as jeans, or blazers in the faded colors of the school above.

One of them stood in the center of what was now clearly an arena, and waited patiently for the five delvers to advance to its position.

“Welllllcome.” It hissed out, voice like a leaking faucet. It bubbled its words around a thick tongue; or perhaps it was some other body part. None of them looked closely into its mouth. “Yooou..”

It didn’t get to finish the sentence before James interrupted it. “We have questions.” He bluntly stated, cutting off the thing before them. “What are you doing here?” James opened with, not giving the thing time to deny that questions would be happening.

It answered anyway. Waving two of its three hands to silence the crowd around them that had begun jeering as James interrupted. “Weee were borrrrn here.” It spat out, droplets of liquid falling from its mouth as it spoke. “Weee serrrrve, withh deliiiight.” It grinned then, a horrifyingly happy look on the face of something so obviously built to be ugly. “And weee guard thhhe passssage to your hooom.” It told them.

“You’re going to stop us from leaving?” Alanna asked, a dangerous glint in her eye. Next to her, both Aneshs tensed up, his hands clenching into fists as he felt his breathing speed up.

“Neeeevar!” The creature protested. “Thhhe doooor requires sssparks.” It told them, grin still plastered to its face. “Hunnndereds of themm.” It spread the two arms that were in front of it in a placating gesture, as if to explain that this wasn’t its fault. The third arm, the one that jutted out of its back, swept into view then, and tossed something at their feet. “Dooo nhat worry, though.” Its grin growing even wider, showing off more and more teeth as its drool dripped down onto the floor. “Onnne of yoou sshhould be more than ennough to passs.”

All five delvers glanced down, to see a polished and wickedly sharp knife, casually tossed at their feet.

“Sssparks demand killssss.” The cockroach-rat hybrid said in a sarcastic apology as it began stepping backward. “Noowwww… choooooose.”

____

“Hey, do you know where James and Anesh went? They were here earlier but they just vanished, and they aren’t answering their phones.” Sarah poked her head into the office where JP was sitting.

He looked up at her like a deer caught in the headlights, one hand midway through the process of running through his gleamingly gelled hair. “What? Nothing! Wait, what?” He slammed the laptop screen shut

“I asked… hang on, what’s going on?” Sarah gave him a mischievous smile. “I smell a story here.” She probed.

JP tried to relax, but it looked almost mechanical the way he did it, lowering his arm with surgical precision and growing a clearly fake smile across his face just a little too slowly. “No.” He settled on, clasping both hands together in front of him on the desk.

“Did you do something horribly illegal?” Sarah poked at him verbally.

“Yes. Absolutely. What was the original question? Can we go back to that?” He floundered in the conversation, his usual charm fled with his brain caught off guard.

Sarah came in and plopped into one of the chairs on the other side of the desk. “Wow, you’re really flustered! This is different. I feel like I should take advantage of it, but now I feel bad seeing you this way. It’s like a puppy that’s been told it doesn’t get treats.” She kicked her feet up on the desk, draping herself across as many pieces of furniture as possible. “I’m just looking for James.”

“Oh, he and Anesh went to the school. Alanna said something was going on. Didn’t they tell you?” JP raised an eyebrow. “Also, hey, did you have a blue a while back that destroyed suspicion?”

“It moved it around, didn’t destroy it.” Sarah said. “And I used a lot of that on the police, what with the active missing persons case about me. Why?” Her brain caught up to what he’d said earlier. “Wait, did they just skip out on me and go on *another* new dungeon delve without me? Those slogs!”

“I think that’s the closest I’ve ever heard you to actually swearing. *And* actually angry!” JP commented. “Anyway, yeah, a while back James pointed out that the investment account that I’d set up was going to look suspicious if my Skill actually let me pick winners consistently, because investment portfolios really didn’t ever do that. So I was just checking on it and planning to make some mildly bad short term investments to offset the theoretically good long term ones.”

“And?” Sarah took the distraction.

“And the long term good ones turned into short term good ones, and it *really absolutely does* look like I’m abusing insider information. But, like, a *lot* of it.” JP leaned forward on the desk, pressing his fingertips into his forehead and then back over his skull. “Fuck, if I worked for the SEC and I saw this? I’d arrest me.”

“Are they going to see it?”

“Probably not.” He admitted. “I’m not using millions of dollars or anything. But I’m also not using nothing, and… you know what? It’s fine. I can fix this. The Skill’s already kicking in my brain showing me a few fixes. It’s not a huge deal. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. You were mad at James?”

Was she? That was a good question. Sarah leaned her head back to look up at the ceiling fan. The question muddled through her brain for a bit, before she settled on an answer.

“Nah, I’m just worried about them. From what I understand these days, the Office is, like, ‘medium well done’ in terms of lethality? So I’m kinda just concerned they’ll get hurt. He’s my best friend, you know?”

JP nodded. “I get that. But I think they’ll be fine. He’s got Anesh and Alanna with him, right? They always take care of each other.”

That was reassuring. “Yeah!” Sarah kicked her feet back onto the ground and hopped up, a little of her enthusiasm restored. “Yeah, they do! I mean, I’m still worried; that kid didn’t give me enough details to assuage my fear of the unknown, but yeah. You’re right. They’ll be *fine*.” She said as she strode out of the office. “Thanks JP!” She called back.

JP leaned back in the chair with a sigh, gnawing on his lip before he opened up the laptop again and settled in to compose an incredibly apologetic email. “Okay.” He muttered to himself. “Let’s fix this before Sarah realizes how full of shit I am.” He started typing, and got about two sentences in before he sighed, and spoke again in the quiet air. “They do take care of each other, huh?”

____

The knife sat on the bloody concrete. Four sets of human eyes, one cavalcade of infomorph stares, and a whole host of strange compound gazes cast down upon it.

One of them would be enough. That’s what the thing had said. And then it gave them a knife. A weapon, when all other weapons were taken away. Enough to get through the gate, to the breach. Enough sparks; those bits of bloody light that came from *kills*.

Ah. This was why Sarah got a bad feeling from the kid. This was why there were so many backpacks and phones left unclaimed. So many blank spots on the walls for names.

In the silent air that followed, Anesh took a half step forward, and started to clear his throat. “Ah. I… can…”

He didn’t get any farther than that.

Anesh *was* the logical choice, yes. He could make more of himself. One Anesh would be, not *easy*, but *simple* to pay as the toll to pass. But this was a conversation that James and Alanna had gone over before.

They’d put together a few key things they needed to know. A sort of living will. What to do if one of them was on life support, what to do if one of them was unconscious and a decision needed to be made, that sorta thing. What to do if they were under duress, or threatened. And their answer on that last one had been mutually agreeable, and simple.

No negotiation with terrorists.

So while Anesh was stumbling over the words that it would take to offer himself up as a noble sacrifice, James’ mind was already firing on combat mode. He flexed muscles that weren’t real, and felt the purple orbs tethered to his soul latch onto his physical form. His perception spiked into sharp, almost painful focus. His every motion started faster and ended cleaner. And beside him, he could practically feel Alanna doing the same.

And his brain had already made a few connections. How much blood would it take to stain concrete like this, this much? This probably wasn’t even the only exit. How many children had died here, scared and alone, pitted against each other? How *well fed* were these monsters? They were wearing scraps of human clothing, they were baiting people into *murder*.

But that was the thing, wasn’t it? Sure, Anesh might be worth a few hundred sparks. But so far, every kill here had given them something.

And James had to imagine that a ratroach would give him a hell of a pile. And oh look. There were a convenient thirty or so of them *right there*.

Anesh was four words into his explanation when James began moving. He burst forward in a spike of sudden momentum, Alanna already rushing in just behind him. The creature clearly hadn’t expected it, and James slipped around its side without it showing more resistance than trying to slap him away with one of its claws.

That was a stupid idea. He caught the wrist as he stepped past it, pivoting at a hard angle to position himself directly behind the monster; he yanked *hard* on its arm, his other hand going up to wrap gloved fingers around the third arm that stuck out of its shoulder and angled backward. With a twist, he got that arm around the thing’s neck, and began to tighten it into a chokehold.

This took all of two seconds. And in that time, Alanna had closed the distance, evaluated her vulnerable and pinned opponent, and drew back one riot glove covered fist for the hardest punch she could throw.

The strike drilled the thing in the middle of its chest, and James felt the impact from behind the creature’s mass. He also felt, more than heard, the wet popping as Alanna’s punch, which she had fully committed to, went through its skin and bones, and sunk her fist into its chest.

Then she grabbed whatever it thought counted as a heart, and *ripped*.

A gory fountain of red sparks lashed at her forearm, and in the moments that followed, silence reigned in the arena.

Anesh, reading the room, stopped offering to sacrifice himself. One of his bodies picked up the knife, the other one moved to flank James as best he could as his boyfriend dropped the lifeless corpse of a ratroach onto the concrete.

“One of us will do?” James bellowed into the still, damp air, turning around to point a threatening finger at the crowd of ratroaches around them in the stands. “Just kill one of us, and we can leave?” He shouted, clenching his hand into a raised fist. “How many of *you* would it take?” His challenge echoed off the walls, and a second later, screams and warcries assailed the humans and Secret from all sides as the motley ratroaches began pouring over the edges of the platforms like a tide to get to them, rattling weapons on the stone and metal floors.

“Let’s find out.” James heard Secret hiss out from his shoulder. “I look forward to this secret knowledge.”

Then the first row of the things reached them.

If Anesh had been willing to sacrifice himself, it was only because he didn’t see another way out. Perhaps he hadn’t really thought that they could fight this whole horde. But now that it was happening, he had no reason to be sheepish or recalcitrant. Instead, the first thing that got near him, he let Alanna grab the throat of and lift off the ground, before slipping in and jamming his new knife into its stomach, pulling as hard as he could upward until he hit ribs. He repeated the process again, shoving the blade in with both hands until the sparks flew and Alanna dropped the thing like so much trash. Anesh grabbed the spear out of its hand as it fell, and tossed it to his other body, who quickly twirled it once to get used to the weight, and then used it to slap aside a ratroach’s attack and impale it through the eye.

James slugged one of the four things that fell toward him, screaming their defiance. One of the others, Secret solidified just long enough to *bite off its arm*, a trick that he was becoming fond of, it seemed. James caught the club on the way down, a piece of ceramic pipe that was shaped, for all the world, like a crowbar. He grinned at the familiar heft, and jammed it into the eye of one of the other ratroaches. The last one lunged forward, weaponless but snapping its dripping fangs, and James caught it on his arm. He could feel the teeth sawing into him as the saliva *melted through his jacket*, but then, before he could reach, an Anesh body checked it to the ground, leaving torn and bloody teeth behind in the sleeve of James’ coat, before putting a spear into it with multiple two-handed thrusts.

“Fuck you!” Alanna screamed her bloody defiance of their would-be killers as she punched one so hard that its neck snapped on the spot. She almost slipped on the slickening concrete under her feet as blood, or something like it, had begun to pool. He purple orbs giving her all the might she needed to be a one-woman force of destruction, breaking bones and plating with every hit she threw out, her skin stubbornly refusing to breach when spears and blades made their way to her. She could afford to be a little reckless, a little aggressive. But she wasn’t. Instead, she carefully calculated each punch, each positional step. They never hit her on their terms; she let them commit to feeble thrusts with their off-placed arms that would never hurt her, but always leave them ready to be ground down to nothing. But they were quickly going to be overwhelmed at this rate. Her perception skill gave her a mental layout of the battlefield, and while they’d already killed maybe a third of the monsters, the rest were all going to hit them at once, and James and Secret weren’t in any position to assist.

So, she dove down into her mind, and triggered the blue orb she had embedded in her palm.

With a sweep of her hand that was utterly unneeded, a three foot high wall of asphalt sprang up like grass in spring. It cut across the right side of their battlefield where the oncoming crowd was thickest, forcing the rats to either climb over, or go around. And either way, it stalled them long enough for Alanna to grab the one that had just tried to *stab her*, and slam it by the throat into her new wall a few times until it went limp.

James had turned into a furious whirlwind of righteous anger. Every one of these things, he knew now, deserved to die. This wasn’t like the office, he thought as his ‘crowbar’ caved in a skull. There were no friendly staplers or ways to make their own kind life. These were *monsters*, and with a splatter of green and black ichor, he broke one’s arm, tripped it with the backswing, and then slammed a boot into its chest and put all his weight on it as he turned his attention to another charging *thing* with a copper spear.

Apparently, Anesh had decided he’d had enough of that, and a with a dusting of blue light, a half second before it encountered James, the thing was screaming as its spear melted around its hands, all three of its claws sizzling as the red-hot metal took too long to cool.

James didn’t bother putting it out of its misery. He simply waited for the spray of red from the thing crunched under his boot, and then slammed his club into the side of another one, sending it sideways.

The melee didn’t last nearly as long as he’d expected. It felt like only seconds later that James found himself with nothing left to kill, a final flood of red sparks pouring into him as he stalked over to the ratroach still screaming in pain as its hands burned under their metal coating, and jammed the broken haft of his shattered club into its eyes. Repeatedly.

He stood, panting, Secret draped around him with several mouths splattered with black blood and scraps of fur like a violent cloak. Alanna and Anesh, similarly, both whipped their heads around like they were on the lookout for their next target, *anything* else to kill, stolen weapons clasped tight in their hands.

But there were no more.

Every one of these things was dead. James took a second to breathe, and then nodded, spat on the nearest corpse, and walked over to his friends.

“I’m going to check the lockers. Then we should go.” He said. Or tried to say. His voice came out as a shaken, adrenaline pumped squeak, and he was pretty sure the words hadn’t made it out right. From the looks they were giving him, that seemed about right. Instead of trying again, he just pointed a now-jittering finger at the portcullis, gesturing for someone, anyone, to get the damn thing open, before he himself walked off to the side.

James didn’t have much left in his stomach to throw up. Which was good, because the smell of rot and blood and offal spilled across the floor in wild streaks and bubbling pools was more than enough to turn his stomach. Instead, he staggered over to the back wall, where that modern art display of lockers jutted from the ground. There were five, no, six of them. All different shapes and sizes. And while each one was damaged, they were all still locked. He reached for one of the padlocks, and found to no surprise that its dial did not turn, but instead, lit up with a bright green ‘twelve’.

He nodded. Ten for this one, then. He scanned the prices on the others, finding another that came in at six, and settled on that.

The feeling of the green light leaving him was exactly the same as the red was for Alanna, though he wouldn’t know that until later. It was a gravitic pull on his system, like something was sucking his blood out of him, but no blood would spill. The sparks from his earlier answers dripped into the locks, and dials spun and tumblers clicked until the lock itself simply *burned away*, dissolving in an acid flare of green and silver.

The locker door swung open. There was a composition notebook inside, a little bit browned around the edges of the paper. James grabbed it, then did the same with his other choice of container, and pulled a battered copy of a paperback novel out of it. The beaten and half torn cover simply had it labeled as “INHERITORS” in all caps, with much of the art having been torn off, showing only the top half of a man with absurdly good abs.

“I’m underwhelmed by this reward.” James muttered to himself, or tried to, as he shifted his grip around on the two books like they were closer to garbage than fought-for texts. “Which has traditionally been standard for first delves, actually.” He was starting to find his voice again. His snark. The adrenaline was fading, along with the fury; it had died down to embers of hate that still sat in his chest, but weren’t fanned overly much when he looked at the room full of corpses.

Every one of them had deserved this. He knew that. No ethical questions this time.

“The door says three hundred!” Anesh called over to him as he approached. “Neither of me has that, and apparently you don’t share it within your own hive mind. Which seems unfair.” He griped, trying to insert what levity he could.

“I’ve got it.” Alanna said, stepping *through* a body with a wet splash, her boots really pulling their weight with the waterproofing. She strode up to the gate like she was ready to just start punching it apart if it didn’t comply, but when she laid her hand against it, a river of red light flowed out of her and into the jagged, rusty iron.

And then it swung upward, with a sound straight out of a horror movie.

“Let’s not come back here without demolitions grade explosives.” James said with dark conviction, as he stepped forward into the cut through the air, and vanished back to reality.

No one argued as they followed him.

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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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