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There were, of course, *again*, things to take care of. It wasn’t like delves into the Office had gotten less dangerous somehow, just because they’d managed to find a place that was more open about wanting to kill them all. So they had plans to make, things to buy, and a roster to draw up.

“We really should have scheduled this two weeks out.” James griped as he waited on a half dozen people to reply to his texts. “I’m pretty sure it’s the law now in this state.”

“I’m pretty sure we don’t qualify as a ‘company’ in the traditional sense.” Anesh reminded him. “We’re more of a wandering band of condottiere. So even if we hit the thirty-person threshold that would require us to actually plan ahead, I think you get some kind of exemption for operating outside of state lines. And reality.”

James eyed his friend, and was wondering whether or not he should call his bluff on that being a real word, when his phone buzzed, and he was dragged back to rearranging their team lineup for the next night.

They had some other stuff to do, too. Buying bikes was one thing; there was a scheduled trip to the beach, and the printer ink ocean, for the purposes of further exploration and purple orb acquisition, and that miles-long trip would be eased dramatically if they could just pedal through it. Sarah had gone out to pick that up earlier in the day, waking up in her trademark chipper way and rustling the hair of anyone within reach before grabbing an absolutely suspicious roll of bills from the home stash and heading out. James shook his head, and gave a small prayer for the patience of whatever bike shop she ended up in.

Alanna followed Sarah out the door a half hour later, throwing a peace sign as she went on her own errand. And then both Anesh took off to do delver supply maintenance. One of them going after bottled water, real food for the eight hour shift, more hemostatic powder and disinfectant for their first aid kits that drained far more rapidly than expected, and a large supply of heavy duty work gloves. You know, the usual things someone bought from a grocery store.

Other Anesh had a much harder job for the day. Fortunately it was a weekend, and most of the time there being two of him made getting homework done trivially easy, because he didn’t have classes to contend with. But his job was to put a slight upgrade on their arsenal.

As they’d progressed, first him and James, then with more people as a team, then as a strategic unit, gear upgrades had been critical to keeping them alive. Better armor, easier weapons, more survival tools, all of them contributed to keeping everyone kicking. But now, they were running into a bit of a wall.

There was, it turned out, an upper limit to how dangerous of equipment a civilian could just buy.

You could, in theory, equip two dozen people like a SWAT team, yes. But actually buying that much armor, even piece by piece, got you noticed. The stuff they’d been using up until now was great, but it had limitations, and when one of those limitations was ‘the maimframes can shoot through it without resistance’... well, you looked for options.

Their weaponry, similarly, had hit a bit of a wall. This was, sadly, not the Forgotten Realms. Anesh really couldn’t just take their growing income stream and turn it into higher and higher bonuses on James’ favorite hand axe. Instead, he had to look at getting more durable materials, better balance and edge on weapons, and other things that gave only marginal advantages to most people.

And again, sure, he could buy more guns. But the guy that he’d bought their two current mainstay weapons off of had vanished, Anesh actually *wasn’t* the right person to contact the black market, and again, handguns and civilian shotguns could only carry them so far. That said, they were training more people with handguns; James especially made a good teacher, with the Skill he had. But the more people they had, the more friendly fire became a concern.

So, since those concerns would only be worn away with time, patience, training, and eventually just giving up and taking the plunge, Anesh had instead chosen to get *weird* with his budget for the week.

Garden shears to deal with tumblefeeds. Short range and really kind of cheap drones rigged up with explosives - mostly thermite. Gloves that were wired to deliver powerful electrical currents. A battery pack and an electromagnet, to see if shellaxies actually need working hard drives to function. Stuff that would be either wasteful or stupid in a real combat situation against other people. But against the dungeon? They had the leeway now, and the cash, to try some different stuff. Stuff like buying bushels of iphone charge cables to try to bait iLepeds into net traps.

Okay, he’d also bought a ten count of fire axes, but aside from that.

The point was mostly that him being out for the day kept the apartment once again mostly empty.

And at a certain point, James found himself with nothing left to do, no one left to wait on hearing from; and even if he’d needed to know anything, his phone worked anywhere anyway. So, he’d simply stood with a stretch and a sigh, abandoning the arcanely enhanced comfort of the couch, and headed out to the lair.

_____

“Momo! Just the girl I wanted to see!” James greeted the younger woman as he shoved the door open with his foot, stepping in and swinging the heavy duffel bag in his hand through after him in a fluid move. He’d gotten so good at that method of going through the door that he didn’t need to rest the bag on the shrub to the left of it anymore while he did so; something the smushed bush probably appreciated.

Momo ran a hand across the shaved side of her head as she paused for James’ greeting. “Oh?” Her voice was groggy. “Good. I think. Whazzup?”

James eyed her, suspicious. “You seem tired. Do you need a nap? I can bother someone else, I was really just wondering who was in the lair today.”

He’d been told by Alanna about the experiments with the red orbs, which were increasingly less and less experiments, and more and more Momo descending into sleepless madness, and he’d also been told by Sarah to take it easy on the girl who appeared to have had most of her life carved away by the Office’s antimeme complex. So when confronted by someone who looked like she got all the sleep she needed during particularly long blinks, James had this feeling that maybe he could just poke around himself, and leave her to do what she needed without him bothering her.

“Mmrph.” Momo muttered. Or at least, that’s what it sounded like.

James nodded at her. “Got it.” He said. “I’ll go find El or something.”

Momo gave him a sleepy thumbs up, and turned to head back to whatever she was doing. Which looked mostly like filling her comically large thermos with coffee from the…

“Um.. you know it’s not super healthy to drink too much of that, right?” James asked her. He had to hold him his hands in a defensive move to ward off her almost instant glare. “Just asking! Not judging! Just be careful! There may be other side effects, but at the very least, drinking too much’ll knock you out for a solid eight hours.” He looked at her again, and then shrugged, slinging the bag back over his shoulder as he did so. “Which actually might not be so bad. Just sit down first, okay?”

“Fine.” Momo huffed at him. But she wasn’t glaring when she did it, which James considered a win. Getting anything out of someone who was exhausted and traumatized that wasn’t a scowl or a yell was hard enough.

James walked past her, giving Momo plenty of space, and considered his first stop. After a couple seconds, he turned toward the elevator, and decided to hit the basement.

Which basement? Whichever one he hit the button for. He still couldn’t keep track, and honestly, it felt a little silly considering this was his own damn fault. If it was the wrong one, he’d get the other later.

When the doors opened on the familiar scene of tables of random stuff surrounded by whiteboards, notebooks, a few PC screens, and… was that a spectrograph? James shook his head as he looked at the main lobby of the more functional basement. The layout on this side was mostly just two really big rooms, separated by a concrete wall that had paths through at each end where it met the outer walls. There were a couple smaller closets, too, which was where most of the stuff that had been down here went when they cleaned up initially. But now, they’d turned this whole section into a place away from the eyes of anyone who might wander in upstairs to run tests on anything they hauled back into reality.

James saw one table that had a half dozen pairs of eyewear on it, each one positioned just in front of a small box of a webcam, and all of those plugged into the computer running nearby. He recognized the shades Anesh used to peer into infrared, and also the reading glasses Alanna used to spot time sinks, both of them having handed their toys off temporarily to whoever was looking into that particular question. On another table, a whole shipping box sat popped open, and full of assorted pencils and pens. Next to that, one of those industrial strength garbage cans hosted about half of a box full of snapped writing implements. There was even the corpse of a Shellaxy down here, dismantled in a strange machine version of an autopsy.

Only one person, though. A young man surrounded by coffee cups, with an ethernet cable plugged into the back of his neck that led back to the computer he was furiously typing at.

“Virgil!” James greeted him, stopping in front of the desk and looking down at what was, honestly, just a mess. “Why are you here?” James asked after a couple minutes. “Actually, why the hell are *any* of the people I hired here? I specifically told all of you *Monday*, but you’re here now, and Nate’s been making food for us for, like, a fucking week.” A second later, the scene caught up to him, and James added a more direct question of, “Also why do you have a skulljack.”

Virgil Thomasi looked up at his nominal boss from his seat in the secret basement in the secret lair that he hadn’t really formally been shown around. “Neil gave me one, since I asked about it. I figured it’d be required for the project? Also, these things are wild. How’d you get them to do the self-replication thing?”

“I didn’t. Virgil, Vir?”

“Virgil.”

“Verge.”

“...Virgil.”

“Fine.” James huffed disappointment. “Virgil, these things are literal magic. I don’t even know how *Neil* has one, I don’t remember authorizing that. *Or this*. I haven’t even given you project goals yet, but one of the main points is that we need security *before* we spread these to a million people.” He tried to explain that this was, in fact, exactly what he was afraid of.

Virgil just waved it off. “It’s fine, I’ve already put together a project timeline. Who’s my direct superior? I’ll email it to them.”

“It’s… me. I am in charge here.” James asserted, becoming increasingly unsure of that statement. “Just tell me what you’re working on, please. You can email the thing to Anesh later. Actually, all the computers down here should be set up on our slack, so, there’s that too.”

“It’s security first, like you said.” The other man agreed, pushing his glasses up his nose idly as he spoke. He leaned back in his chair, his fingers finally stopping their dance across the keys. “We need something like a firewall that we can load as firmware. Failing that, I’ll have to request the hardware department build something that locks into place around it that can hold software, so that we can ensure no unwanted intrusions. The whole brain-to-brain bridge is a problem, because these are obviously for internet use, and too many people merging into a hive mind would be bad.”

“Would it?” James asked, mulling over the philosophy of the question.

“If they didn’t want to, yes.” Virgil answered, going a different direction with the statement. “After that, we need some kind of monitoring software for whatever oversight agency ends up on this.”

“No.” James informed him. “We don’t. That’s actually not the point. I agree with you on security, but I’m mostly hoping you can find a way to load the software into the human mind directly. Also, have you spoken to the Support Group at all? They have months of experience with these things, and I feel like you could learn a lot from them.”

“Are they programmers or engineers?” Virgil asked, starting to turn back to the screen.

“Neither.” James said. And before he lost Virgil’s interest, added, “But they don’t need to use keyboards.”

Virgil paused, looked down at his fingers, then ran a hand back to the cord at the base of his neck. “Huh.” He said. “Didn’t think of that.”

“Talk to the support group. We need security, then safety measures for forming hives. No surveillance. In fact, if possible, make it impossible.” James looked down, looming over the desk. “We are not a shadowy government agency. We are not a tech corp. We are a small group of people who are planning to make ripples. Please remember that.” James turned to walk away as Virgil called an affirmative after him. Then he remembered something, and turned to yell back. “Also please remember that we are using *literal magic*, and be fucking careful!”

Shaking his head, James got back in the elevator and went back up, before going back down.

The other basement, which was technically in the same space as the first one, and was very worrying, was where they’d put in the lair’s housing. There were a lot of partitioned rooms here, maybe a dozen of them. And this side had a bathroom, too, which was mercifully affected by the green orbs that made their bathrooms marvelous. A few of the rooms still contained boxes of junk and spiders that had been moved there when the basements first spawned, but the others had been outfitted with beds, desks, proper lighting, and carpet.

The stuff that had spawned down here really did bother James. No one was sure where the hell it had come from; there’d been absolutely no identifying marks or addresses on anything. Most of it was culturally North American, but that was the only constant pattern. It had shown up as suddenly as the basements themselves, and James was pretty firmly on the side of the bet that said it was just generated. But Sarah and a few others had this weird belief that it had been stolen from basements around the country; forgotten or lost things plucked from where they rested to fill a room.

It really made James wonder if this was how dungeons got started.

Probably not, though, since the spiders had all been the normal type, and not the Sheolb kind.

“Anyone home?” He yelled out into the hallway that led away from the elevator doors. Normally, Momo would be down here, and probably pissed that James interrupted her delicate work. But he knew she was still upstairs, so he was safe now.

Well, safe-ish. There was a thump and swearing from down the hall, and a few seconds later one of the doors was kicked open with enough force that it left a small chip in the rock wall where the handle slammed against it.

“What?!” Eleanor yelled out, red faced and looking like she’d been more than a little startled by James’ cry.

“Oh, sorry!” James started with. “Were you in the middle of something?” He asked innocently.

“Yes!” She yelled back. “What the hell do you want?”

“I actually was looking for you.” He said, trying to placate her. “But everyone’s been unhelpful here today. I just had some dungeon questions, if you were in the mood for it. I dunno if you heard, but we found a pretty dark place yesterday, and I wanted to compare magic. Oh! Also, are you up for tomorrow? I know you don’t have a phone, so I figured I’d ask while I was here. Also…” James looked at her incredulous face, poked out from around the corner of the door at a right angle, hair falling down across her face as she refuse to step out into the hallway. “You’re naked right now, huh?” He asked her.

“I absolutely am.” El replied.

“I will wait in the cafe.” James said, politically.

“You do that.” El told him.

The elevator took way longer than James was comfortable with to get back down and give him his escape route.

Behind him, El shut her door again. Her room, this last week, had started feeling more like her own space and less like a prison, especially once she was given a box of spray paint and permission to go nuts on the stone walls. Now, though, she was reminded of the biggest downside of communal living, the reason she’d abandoned the dorms in college.

Other people.

She slumped herself back onto the bed and briefly considered being pissed at James. It had been so easy when she’d gotten her; he’d basically destroyed her life by playing at being a secret agent. Hell, she’d tried to shoot him. But every encounter with the guy just left her wanting to be friends with him. He wasn’t an artist - far from it, he was a comedian - but he lightened up every room he walked into most of the time. And it didn’t take El long to learn that there was a reason that all the people here treated him like a hero.

It was hard to stay mad for too long at anyone who actually was literally a hero.

El took a minute to scream frustration into her pillow, and then got up to find pants and go have a conversation.

_____

Alanna hit ‘send’ on her phone. James would get the text sooner or later, which was how she viewed texting in general. It was, in her mind, about as reliable as actual mail. Eventually, sure, the person would get it. But you did not use it for important things. You used actual calls for important things. Or just face to face conversations. Alanna knew that James and Anesh both loved text messages in all their forms, for the convenience of never having to deal with the anxiety of an actual chat. But for her, spoken words were queen.

So you used texts for informing your boyfriend, who had a similar superpower to you, that you’d figured out a particular activation word. But only when it wasn’t important.

Alanna looked down at her phone and sighed as she processed that line of thought. Maybe this did warrant a call. But really, what were the odds James had learned one hundred points of basketball in the last eighteen hours?

The text was simple, and to the point, and what it was was a direction. {say ‘syllabus’ and focus on your book-thing}, she had sent him. It was the culmination of the second half of her day’s work.

A lot of what Alanna had been doing today involved driving around. For someone who worked on cars, it was weird that Alanna had never actually owned one of her own, and the casual mention from James a month or so ago of “oh yeah, we can afford that” had caught her off guard. So she was still getting used to the practice of driving, and the cultural impact of owning her own vehicle. It was mildly irritating that all of her transit-based skills were for things like helicopters or boats, and not actual cars; but then, learning the old fashioned way did feel rewarding, and they couldn’t all be James with his stupidly high drive ability.

The point was, she was in the car. And between yowling along to Dragonforce lyrics, she had been doing a lot of thinking.

The books they’d recovered had given them something different. Alanna herself was now in possession of reward-esque modifications from no less than three different dungeons, and they only sort of had a handle on how the first one worked. So now, they had this new and potentially dangerous thing to contend with.

Lesson Begun, it had said. Alanna had turned those words over in her head a hundred times. It made sense, in one sense; the dungeon was under a high school, after all. Lessons were thematically linked to that. The information fit comfortably in her head, and also gave a little more weight to the theory bouncing around the group that the dungeons were just physically projected *ideas* manifesting in the world. But in another way, it was worrying. If it was going to be teaching her about the field of communications, then that sounded like just what the orbs did; but Alanna knew from what Sarah had dug up that it was more like she had to perform the act of communication before being rewarded for it. Still… ‘lesson’ was a specific word. And Alanna *had* communicated today, and nothing had happened!

Or at least, so she assumed. This had brought her to a period of her highway drive when she’d killed the music, and started trying to interrogate the part of her brain that the thought had shot through when she’d read the book.

It was tricky, but she didn’t have nothing to go on. When they were in the dungeon, after all, they’d been able to get accurate reminders of how many sparks they’d collected just by asking. So, Alanna just set out to replicate that. And eight random terms for school schedules later, including repeating through a few while actually focusing on the magic she was reaching for, she’d hit upon one that worked.

[Lesson - Communications : 1/100] was the thought that flashed across her mind. She couldn’t actually see it, but the notification even had the taste of folded paper and a new school year.

One out of a hundred was something, she thought to herself. Alanna was still pretty tired from everything that had happened last night, and while unlike James and one Anesh, she had gone to sleep instead of going out to play basketball, she *was* starting to reach the limits of her brainpower. So in the short time before she made it to her destination, she dropped trying to puzzle out what had made that single point go up, and just went back to the music.

Of course, when she parked, and checked her return text from James, the comment of {27/100. You?} was infuriating.

But at least they could now legitimately tell JP that Anesh was no longer squandering basketball.

_____

“Okay, that’s our side of things.” James said, wrapping up the cliff notes version of their magic systems for El. “Orbs, connections, and books that give us lessons. Full disclosure, all questions open.” He waved his fork like a conductor’s baton, inviting her to ask whatever she liked.

The two of them sat at one of the cafeteria tables set up outside the kitchens, and next to the gym area. Nate was, unsurprisingly, *here*, and had supplied them with plates of enchiladas and Spanish rice on remarkably short notice. He’d also been in and out of the kitchen for various reasons as James had talked to El, and eventually just gave up trying to be surreptitious about his eavesdropping, and sat down with them.

The entire encounter was pretty much exactly what James loved; seeing people’s faces when he told them they could get better at scuba diving in the blink of an eye was a really rewarding experience. Though, he *was* starting to get sick of the hard plastic benches here. They’d really only gotten these tables because it seemed appropriate for a lunchroom next to a gym, but James had never been one for obeying aesthetic rules, and was currently plotting to bring in beanbag chairs and chabudai.

El raised her hand to ask a question; Nate didn’t bother, and just said his, cutting past her. “Is that why you have a sea monster that shouldn’t be able to physically fit through doors living here?” He asked.

“Secret actually lives in a closet in my apartment.” James corrected him, reveling in every second of this. “And yes. One of the variant orbs we’ve found is purple, and there’s a way of using it to make infomorphic life.”

Nate rapped a fistful of knuckles on the table. “What the fuck is *that*?”

“Secret isn’t actually a body with thoughts inside of it. He’s a series of thoughts, that can manifest a body. But the thoughts are self-perpetuating. So everyone who gets to know him, starts to have part of their brain thinking about him, which makes him more real, and the thoughts they think reinforce that. Though only a few people know him personally and deeply, and you can think of that as sort of like a human’s heart or lungs. The really important core bits.”

“Nope.” Nate shook his head. “That makes no fuckin sense.”

“It makes some sense.” El protested, mouth full of food. “He’s literally real because you believe he’s real.” She simplified it for the chef.

James wobbled a hand. “Kinda. Except once you start believing he’s real, the belief that he’s real sustains itself, whether you want it to or not. Which sounds worse than it is, really.”

“I feel like we’re getting off topic.” El said. “And I had another question. Actually, I have a million questions, and now a few more questions about whether or not there’s other types of life you can make. But those aren’t the big one.” James nodded in anticipation. He knew what the big one was. “Where” El asked, “do you *find* these things?”

“The same kind of place that you did.” James told her, meeting her eyes. He half-watched Nate’s reaction as he talked, because that was most of the fun; El already knew, but this moment was one for her. Where he could finally just sit down, and reassure her that the two of them were kindred. “Through a hole in reality, where logic doesn’t apply so much. In a place where there’s bizarre dangers, and stranger rewards, and wonders beyond belief.” He grinned, a wild and happy grin. “Oh, and it’s an office.”

“What.” Nate asked from the side. “The. Fuck.”

“There’s a door that’s only sometimes open, and it goes to a billion billion cubicles. And it’s fucked up, and there’s monsters, and there’s also stuff like *this*.” James pulled two of the spare yellow orbs out of his coat pocket, and rolled them toward the two. “Crack it.” He told them.

A few seconds later, and both of them wore expressions on their face of mild to moderate disbelief.

“Rhino husbandry?” Nate asked, scratching at his bald head with a tattooed hand. “What the… why?”

“No idea.” James shrugged. “They’re random. El probably also got something weird. It’s not impolite to ask, either; we do try to keep a database, though if you wanna keep it to yourself, that’s fine.” He offered. “Honestly, I was planning to tell all the new people about this tomorrow, when we went in. That was the thing I meant when I hired you, by the way; which, I distinctly remember telling you that your first day was *monday*.” James tried to glare at their stocky chef, and utterly failed.

Nate just shrugged under the scrutiny. “A kitchen takes time to set up. I didn’t want to let someone else fuck it up before I could.”

“Well, anyway.” James sighed. “It kinda works out. We’ve got nineteen people, including you, going in tomorrow night. And yeah, you’re not expected to pull any heroic nonsense or whatever; I just want everyone to see at least once what we’re up against. I’m mostly telling you this because it would be a huge help if you could have food for everyone.”

“You want me,” Nate slowly stated, “to cater, to a combat op?”

“Yes.”

He clearly wasn’t expecting that answer. His head tilted back and he sucked his lips in as he considered James. Then, without anything else, he stood up and said, “You’re getting chicken.” Before he turned and stalked back into the kitchen.

“He says that like I don’t know that chicken is the only meat that Sysco delivered.” James muttered. “Like he thinks I don’t know how inventory works. Bah!”

El eyed him cautiously. “So, what did you actually want, when you asked if I could talk?” She jutted a thumb at the direction Nate had left in. “Now that you got rid of him.”

“First off, I actually was gonna have to have that conversation with him eventually. I’m not *that* manipulative.” He said, getting a nonplussed look in response. It faltered his smile a bit, but only a bit. “But yes. I figured I’d set him on his task before I asked this next part to you.” James pointed an index finger at her chest. “Eleanor Chase, you are a *wizard*, and I would like to know what you can do.”

She glared at him for that, a brief moment of fury that quickly settled to base resentment. “You know, you talk like him sometimes.” She said. “Secret. You talk like Secret. Like you forget that you’re not in some trash fantasy paperback.”

“Okay, hey now…” James tried to protest, his gravitas slipping back into a soft huff of amusement.

“The place I found. The ‘hole in reality’. It’s a road. Maybe I’ll sell you the location sometime, if… well. We’ll see. And it’s dangerous, just like you said. But it gave me a few tricks.” El started talking more comfortably as James leaned back and just let her speak. It took her a minute to find her voice, but this was something she’d been wondering about telling someone for a long time. “First off, I store velocity. I can feel it; I dunno if you can feel your orbs… nope, never saying that again… but I can sense how much I have. I’ve found seven or eight things that raise my limit; can’t remember if one was real, since I had a concussion at the time. Anyway.” El waved a hand and brushed aside a story about a high speed chase, a flock of motorbats, a treasure map, and a really, truly rad artifact in the form of a car air freshener, which she’d had to leave behind. James would have loved the story. He didn’t ask. “I can do three spells.” She said instead. “It never told me they were spells, that’s just what I call them. Eye of Steel and Glass, which lets me see everything in an area as an index of items. It’s temporary, eats up a ton of velocity, and is great for blackma… reconnaissance and intelligence… things.” She didn’t bother to meet James’ gaze for that one, instead staring at the ceiling vents. “Then I’ve also got An Engine Hums Eternal, which just boosts the speed of a vehicle that I’m controlling. Has to be a vehicle; I tried it on rollerblades, didn’t work. And yes, that does count for refilling velocity, I think that’s the point of it. Last one is The Road Leads Ever Forward. It takes basically every scrap of velocity I can hold, I’ve only used it twice, and it warps reality so that there’s a path to where I want to go. Or, like, there was always a path. But I remember both versions.” She took a breath as she paused, now eying James and making patterns in her cooling plate of food. “So… any questions? I guess it’s only fair I let you ask too.” She finished.

James absorbed what she said, and then asked the one question that was most pressing, most important. To him, anyway.

“So, when you say the names of the spells, how do you do the thing where you pronounce the capital letters?”

____

At two thirty AM on an innocuous Tuesday morning, a certain office building began routine maintenance of its security system.

If you had asked a security expert what that maintenance actually was, they would have given you a raised eyebrow and the question of *what*, exactly, you thought needed to be maintained. But if you asked any of the fifty or sixty different mid-level managers that worked within the building, you would have gotten instead a shrug, and the implication that of *course* they needed to do maintenance, and it wasn’t their department, but they were sure that Tuesday morning was a good enough time for it. It wasn’t like anyone was stealing from the company, after all.

Depending on how you defined ‘the company’, and whether or not the whispers of conspiracy and dark management secrets were true, those people may have been totally right in saying that nothing was being stolen.

Within five minutes, the front doors had been propped open by the two guards at the front desk, one of whom was acting as head of security and doing a pretty good job of it. The two of them nodded at each other, their part in this done with smug satisfaction.

Within ten minutes of the security system going into maintenance mode, a small fleet of vehicles had parked themselves in the front lot. Mostly passenger vehicles, out of which people disgorged in ones and twos, heading for the doors hauling boxes or empty bags waiting to be filled. One pickup truck, which had been rented for the day, and contained a four count of mountain bikes in the back that Sarah enlisted help wheeling into the elevator as fast as possible. One Pendragon, who took off as soon as Dave slid off her back and gave her a pat; she was content to orbit overhead, enjoying her gift of flight. And one van, which apparently was just what Nate drove, and which he couldn’t get anyone to help him unload a series of silvery metal pans out of. At least, not until he announced that this was actual food, and everyone got lunch, *if* this shit got where it was going within ten minutes. That got people moving.

Two people, whom had hitched a ride with James, stood with mouths slightly agape, watching the rush of motion around them. To say that the guild was a well oiled machine at this point would be a flagrant lie; but it was more than Virgil and Lance had expected.

Lance was the big ol’ softie of a nerd that James had hired on a whim at the end of his interview day. James had, stupidly, not gotten his name at the time, and he also was the only one of the three new hires who hadn’t just shown up at the lair over the course of the week. He was here now, though, and it seemed like he expected something different from ‘adventuring party’ than ‘fifteen people scrambling to get a bag of shotguns upstairs’. Too bad for him, though. This was what he got.

Neil of all people was the one that snapped them out of their daze. Perhaps the kid was just eager to not be the newest person in the group anymore; finally, there was someone he could teach the lessons to, the cycle continuing. “Hey!” The two other men jumped slightly in unison as Neil announced himself behind them. “No time for dwadling! Find someone who needs help and give it. And take this!” He offered one of them a box full of static bags before ducking his head back into the back seat of his car, and coming out with his own backpack. “Let’s go! You’re on team New Guy with me today. I’m not the tour guide, but I *do* get first dibbs on being the drone operator.” He said, as if that explained anything.

By three ten AM, the elevator had taken about two dozen trips up and down. Around twenty people and one infomorph, who was still technically a person, were lined up in a hallway in front of an elevator landing, waiting for the moment that the door to the stairs didn’t go to the stairs anymore. Sarah and JP patrolled up and down the line, which James and Anesh stood at the front of. Two columns of people, some of them holding bikes off to their sides; replacements for the ones that Officium Mundi had consumed weeks ago. Everyone was herded into place, and the countdown was on. Nervous hands checked phones every couple minutes, while the more experienced delvers made idle conversation.

“You know, I’m gonna be glad to get back to a place that isn’t, like, trying to murder us.” Alanna told Anesh as she went through a routine of warmup stretches.

He looked at her askance. “I’m sorry, have you met the same office I have?” Anesh asked, surprise dragging out the thickest part of his accent. “This place is a bloody nightmare of lethal office supplies.”

“Yah, sure.” Alanna conceded. “But it’s not *trying* that hard.” She said.

Up front, James and Anesh were having a very different conversation. “So, what are you going for tonight?” James asked.

Anesh looked down at the red and white container in his hands, then back up at his friend. “Really?” He asked.

“Oh, bah. I mean, after that.” James said. “Yellows? Blues? Maybe join the hunting team and go for a tumblefeed? More lair upgrades!” He tried to entice his boyfriend.

“I’m getting Momo to help me look at the projector pattern.” Anesh said. “I told you guys before; the linear power of the orbs should go to you and Alanna.”

“Bulllllshiiiiiit.” James echoed the word like a ghost. “You *know* that you want more yellows for those delicious math points! Also, we could find you another orange! You could make more of you!”

“I can already do that.” Anesh said. “And I am pretty sure that’s not how the oranges work, but okay.” He laughed. “I just figured I’d do the projector thing today, and other me could focus on wanting orbs.”

“Bah.” James said. “No sense of adventure.”

“But some sense of priorities!” Anesh smiled.

“Everyone shut up!” Sarah called down the line. It was mostly pointless; everyone had already shut up to listen in on the four people at the front. No matter what they did, James and Alanna, and also Anesh to a lesser degree, stood out as legends to most of the people in the guild. Foundational individuals who were indistinguishable from the act of delving itself. When they talked, bantered like this, everyone found they were already calmed down. Nerves settled. Except Sarah, who hadn’t been paying attention and had been watching the clock. “Five seconds!” She shouted. “James, hit the door. Showtime, everyone.”

James grinned. There were new people here today. And as he threw the door open, and strode through like he owned the place, he couldn’t help but feel that spark in his chest. Of sharing something amazing, of letting someone new in on a secret, of pulling back the veil.

He loved this part.

Officium Mundi welcomed them all with open beige arms.

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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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