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A note from argusthecat

So... some of the upcoming chapters might be a little short.  That has a *little bit* to do with the lenght of this chapter.

Have fun!

Also, a reminder that if you put $5 in on Patreon, you get seven chapters ahead.

“Team three, get in here and get your loadout!” James called from the base of the tower that had become their fortress.

Team two, composed of Sarah, Deb, and Alex, was already rolling out. There was no such thing as a standard delver’s loadout, yet, but JP and James were acting as quartermasters in the hectic rush to get everyone moving and make sure everyone had the tools they needed.

Armor : Their now-standard plastic shell plate, with domed helmets on top for the people who picked one. Helmets were nice, but not much was shooting at their heads, so a lot of people skipped the extra weight. Boots were one of those things they didn’t provide, so people were expected to bring their own footwear, but after the experience having damp feet for two hours a couple weeks ago, they’d settled for a stash of backup boots, just in case anyone needed it. So far, none of the relics they’d retrieved from the dungeon had defensive properties, so there was no magic waiting for anyone here.

Weapons : A lot of the delvers had favorites by this point. Sledgehammers and crowbars, for all that they hurt the hands, *got the job done*, so people took them. But every team, thanks to JP’s fight with the cat, had at least one sword strapped to a belt somewhere. James made sure every team also got a fire axe, too, and Alanna similarly was picking out each team’s best shooter from the field trips she’d been making to the shooting range, and making sure that person walked off with a shotgun and a small bandolier of shells.

Safety : The mercifully growing list of safeguards often did mean that people had to get used to carrying a lot of kit. But basically everyone thought it was worth it. One person per team, no matter what, was loaded down with a backpack that contained survival tools. Clean water, a laden medical kit, a couple knives and a pair of bolt cutters for getting through tangled cords, snares, webs, or tumblefeeds, rope, markers for keeping a trail clear, and anything else they thought was useful. Radios, too; and they were starting to be able to afford the good stuff, the kind with miles-long ranges. Also in this list was, one per group, one of the copied xenotech notepads. Each one, rewritten on the first page, had exact specifications for the location of their home base tower. The second floor, specifically, in a specially cleared area with a very specific pattern to it. And if anyone needed to get back here, in a hurry, all it would take would be ripping that page off. From there, using the same notepad to return with help would be easy.

Weird : Every team had one vision enhancer, and they had more than enough of those now. Every team had at least one or two favorite trinkets that had helped them in the past, or that they wanted to find a use for. Everyone was loaded with USB sticks to save anything weird they found. Drones wired for skulljack connectivity, thermoses of enhanced coffee, thermite lances, iLipede nets, everyone had something to try out.

Except the new guys, of course.

“Team four, loadout!” James shouted out the door as he turned to JP and gave a sigh. This was, of course, a required part of the logistics of managing what had turned into an over twenty person operation. But it was still taking up valuable time. “I think this is the last one, then Alanna and I are gonna grab our stuff and head out. We’re looking for the other tower someone spotted last time, to bring back more coffee for Anesh’s machinations.”

“Good plan.” JP told him as the fourth group marched in. Though marched wasn’t a good word for it. Team four was the new guys, including Neil, and also Dave. Dave didn’t hesitate to step up and start grabbing what he needed off of the tables, but it took prompting from James and JP to get the other four to accept the standard kit duffel bags, and one of their pull carts to carry it all out. “Neil, the signal adaptor you wanted is in the box down there, it should work with any of the drones we have here, though we only tested it on the MX-4, because we didn’t have time.” JP instructed the tall young man loitering in front of him. “Also the duffel labeled for you has armor that we fitted to you better. Nate, sorry, we didn’t have time to shape any plate to you, and you are…” JP eyed the ex-sailor, “...stocky?”

“Try again.”

“Muscular?”

“I’m *wide* you jackass.” Nate informed him bluntly.

James interceded. “Alright, well, either way, we don’t have body plate for you. So you’ve got a choice from one of these selection of surprisingly durable leather jackets, or just the arm and leg plates for the armor.”

The newest arrival, Lance, looked down at the boiled leather pads that he already had on his own arms and legs. “Man, I told you I had vambraces, and you didn’t tell me I could get cooler ones from you.”

“I didn’t want to spoil your fun.” James admitted. “Besides, we don’t actually have enough tonight anyway, so yours are handy. Here, have an axe, though.”

He and JP moved the group through the rest of the selection process, before sending them out with a wary looking Dave following. “Alright, what do you and our amazon princess need tonight?” JP asked James, when it was just the two of them left in the armory.

“Light load for experienced duo.” James said. “Alanna’s got her armor on already. I just need to grab actual backpacks, and our handguns. Alanna says you’re welcome to the Mossberg tonight, if you want it.” JP raised an eyebrow at that; Alanna’s shotgun was her almost constant companion on longer delves. “Yeah, I know.” James said, shrugging. “But we wanna move fast. Oh, I’ll need a fire axe, too. Do you have one left under the desk?”

“Yeah, Anesh actually bought, like, fifteen of these fucking things. And then made me carry them up here.” JP griped.

“It builds character.” James told him. “Also arm muscles. You can’t be our delicate flower forever.”

JP blew a raspberry at his friend. There were a lot of things he could say, about having stabbed a ghost cat or fought a hoard of striders, but he opted for quiet confidence instead. And a little less quiet childishness. “Anyway.” He continued. “You still get the standard survival package.”

“Yes, yes.” James told him, rolling his eyes. “Gimmie the backpack. I’ve got places to be.”

JP complied. And a moment later, James was heading out the door, mostly ready to rock, but with still a few tasks left to do before he could join Alanna and start tonight’s adventure.

The first thing he did was to stop by Team New Guys.

“So?” He asked, looking with an unapologetic smile at the different expressions they all wore. Lance and Virgil were gazing off into the artificial horizon with clear and unhidden wonder on their faces, while Nate was more looking around at the group of assembled delvers and their eclectic gear and personalities. Neil was trying his hardest to not look just as excited as the others, and absolutely failing to put on a front of confidence and experience. “What do you think?” James asked them.

“Feels like an LSD flashback.” Nate muttered.

“This place is amazing!” Lance burst out. “This is like a whole office turned into a dungeon crawl!”

“Yes.” James said, nodding slowly. “That is rather why we call it a dungeon.” He looked around at the three of them, even Virgil who was doing his best at keeping his mouth from hanging open and sort of failing. “Alright, so, you guys are under no obligations tonight, just as a reminder. You’re here to learn about the reason we exist as a group, to get a feel for this place, and maybe some context. I’ve paired you all up with Dave, who is probably the third most experienced person in this whole place, and he’ll be showing you around.” James pointed over at his friend, who nodded silently. “Nate, I know you have actual military experience, so your input is welcome, but just remember that this place is, and I cannot stress this enough, *fucking weird, man*. So if Dave tells you to do something, then just believe him first and sort it out after, kay?”

A series of affirmatives greeted him, even Virgil tearing his eyes away from the ceiling to agree with James’ directive. They all had questions, too, but James just deflected by telling them he had somewhere to be, and once more pointed out that Dave could help them. Dave, of course, didn’t really have the best grasp on the guild etiquette or the metaphysics of the dungeon, but he did know a lot of the more practical stuff, and soon he and Neil were fielding questions about using drones to scout potted plants and how to avoid shellaxy ambushes.

James smiled and shook his head as he kept walking, before finding himself somewhere in the middle of where everyone was idly milling around. He really needed to come up with a better solution than this; people needed a bit more urgency in this opening window of time. They had eight hours a week, and it felt like the larger their group got, the more of it they wasted with everyone waiting for permission from him to start acting.

“Team leads, on me!” James called. “Dave, you’re good to head out.” He said to his friend, getting a confident nod in return.

A cluster of people soon surrounded him. They had *real teams* this time; groups who were comfortable together, or learning to work that way. And now James had objectives to hand to them. Simon was the first to reach him, followed by Deb, then Daniel, and then Secret of all people. The infomorph had been elected by popular vote, and he’d already been given James’ blessing to do his own thing tonight.

“Alright.” James started with. “Let’s make this quick. Goals tonight. Anyone got requests?”

“Is there anything you need found?” Daniel opened by asking.

“A tower would be nice.” James said. “Or decision trees. Why?”

“Pathfinder needs to explore, so I volunteer us for that.”

James nodded. It made sense, and solved two problems at once. “Alright.” He said. “Find us towers. But we still need door guards, so you’re on second rotation, okay?” Daniel nodded in acceptance. “Simon. Your team is on hunter duty tonight. Bring us back some greens, first rotation.” James had, almost, begun to accept the way that some of the rescued delvers looked at him and Alanna. Almost. But he still worded the command to Simon less like a question and more like an order, knowing that the younger man wouldn’t be comfortable making it a conversation anyway. “Secret, who’s in your team anyway?”

“Myself, Sarah, one part Anesh, and Theodora.” Secret replied, stressing that last name.

James grunted. “Ugh. I need to talk to Theo, I didn’t actually realize she’d be here today. But yeah, if she’s actually with you that’s fine. Explore and loot for you; prioritize briefcases, and coordinate with Pathfinder when you come back by here to see if we can actually find any of the locations for them.” Secret bobbed in acknowledgment. “And Deb, you guys also on explore and loot. You take third rotation, Secret you take first. Make sure there’s always a few people around here, okay?” James looked around at the four people who represented a small army of people at this point. “Anyone not actively on rotation, feel free to explore up to, say, forty cubes away from the tower, okay? So far, we haven’t seen any real danger here, but Anesh and Momo are gonna be doing wizardry up on the top floor, and I don’t want them getting ambushed. And you *know* they would be, if we aren’t careful.”

The group laughed. Not because James was joking, but because he wasn’t. They committed their assignments to memory, and headed out. Secret gave James a loving headbutt before slithering to his group, and James tried to ignore the awkward conversation he was going to have to have with Theo at some point.

Finally, no one was looking at him, or looking to him for orders or advice. Anesh was in his tower, the delvers were on their way, and the defenses were being set up with what was now practiced ease. James took a deep breath, enjoyed the feeling of the abnormally pure dungeon air for a few seconds, and then put on a grin. A single nod to himself, to remind himself that this was where he wanted to be, and he turned to stride over to where Alanna was waiting.

It would have been dramatically appropriate if the two of them could have fallen into step and stomped out into the modern wilderness like they were ready for anything. But James still had to stop and put on his armor, while Alanna leaned on the outside of the cubicle he’d chosen and made idle conversation.

“I think you should know,” She said, “that not a single thing has tried to kill me since we got here.”

“That’s… good?” James asked as he tugged on one of the leg guards, trying not to tip over the swivel chair he was in as he did so. “It doesn’t sound like you think that’s good. Is that bad?”

Alanna laughed. She did have a point with this, but the way that James reacted to some things was just so dorky, it was hard not to be amused and let the small things slide. “I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but either the population of the dungeon is dropping in general, or things like striders and sticky masks are avoiding the entrance. They might have finally caught on, as a population, that we are not prey.”

It took a second, partially because his brain was distracted trying to make velcro work, but James did get it eventually. “Ah.” He said as he connected the dots. “And that means less easy yellow orbs. And with a twenty way split, that means it’s gonna be harder to keep everyone motivated and moving forward.”

“More than twenty, for sure.” Alanna reminded him. “We still give them out to the support staff, if they want them. And to, like, Rufus and Lily and Ganesh. And Auberdeen.”

“Sorry, what was that last one?”

“Ganesh?”

James hopped out of the cubicle, tugging on the heel of his boot as he slipped his foot back into it. “Oh hell no. You’re giving the dog skill points? That cannot be a good idea.”

“I checked. It’s ethically okay.” Alanna said, with such certainty in her voice that James *almost* believed her and didn’t question it. As it was, though, while he gave her a little smirk and secretly had some reservations about uplifting even such a good doggo as their Auberdeen, he did decide not to push too hard. “Anyway,” Alanna continued, unaware of the thoughts in James’ head, “what are we looking for today? A tower? A tumblefeed? More oranges?”

“Better.” James said, as the cubicles started to grow around them, beige architecture beginning to warp and drip into archways and protrusions. “We’re after another coffee machine.”

_____

Daniel leaned forward, pressing his fingertips into the carpet. He was settled on his knees, legs straight out behind him, and the motion of reaching down made him look like a penitent priest more than an armed adventurer. He settled there, and sat with his eyes closed, just feeling the texture of the material beneath him.

It was, in his own way, a form of meditation. This far into Officium Mundi - and they weren’t really that far in - he had a lot of paranoia about things going wrong. This small activity helped keep him grounded, and connected to his less physical partner.

It didn’t help that his *more* physical teammates were standing around like the extra workers that showed up on every construction site; watching him and making quite unappreciated comments.

“He looks like he’s praying.” JP remarked. Not maliciously, just to have something to say. He was facing down the left side of the intersection they were in, Alanna’s shotgun held a little too tightly in his hands. This also put him in good position to cover the rear, and a lot of the higher arches overhead.

Next to him, Tyrone kept an eye down the other hallway, while tapping dirt off his shoes and rolling the yellow orb from the potted plant they’d just felled in his hand. “Dude’s cool and collected. Like a Buddhist monk.” He offhandedly matched JP’s tone.

“I wonder what a prayer to this place would look like?” JP idly asked.

“Ooh, we should totally find out, dude. We could probably get some kind of pseudo-spiritual enhancement out of it.”

“Noooo, no. That was not really what I was getting at.” JP shook his head, ignoring that no one was looking at him. “I was more just curious if the building acts like a god inside here. Also I think a prayer here is mostly just asking for coffee. Which is literally what he’s doing, now that I think about it.”

“Like a fictional god.” Tyrone corrected him. “Not, like, one of the ones any world religion goes for, but like, how fantasy stories always think gods work?”

“Yes. That.”

“Then we should test that.”

JP sighed. “That seems like a remarkably bad idea. I’m really sorry I brought it up now.”

On the floor, Daniel repressed a sigh of his own. His mind wasn’t lined up the way he needed it to be for this, and even exploring the dungeon wasn’t enough to tip him over the edge. He took a steadying breath, and doubled his efforts at ignoring the people with him.

It took a little while, but eventually, he tuned out their conversation. Possible, but it was an extra barrier between him and his partner, and Daniel didn’t really appreciate the hurdle. It wasn’t engaging anyway, so it wasn’t too hard to let his mind drift to that state of thinking nothing, just feeling threads of ideas and following what showed up. Trying to match his feelings to something very specific.

What showed up was a golden-orange thread of an idea that drifted through his thoughts. The concept that he should see a sunset, somewhere he’d never been before. For a brief moment, it eclipsed every other piece of software running on the mainframe that was his mind; the overwhelming urge to pick up his feet, and *go*. Not to move, but to *leave*. To see new places, to always move forward, to reach out and fill the uncharted parts of the map, and to never, ever be pinned down.

“Hello beautiful.” He whispered, as Pathfinder receded back from overwhelming his consciousness. In any other moment, he would have hoped that the other two guys hadn’t overheard that, but right now, he was living in a singular moment that didn’t include them.

He stood up, rubbing at his knees as if he could feel anything through the black plastic shell of the armor’s kneepads, or as if that same armor hadn’t made it more than comfortable to be down on the floor for any length of time. “Alright.” He said out loud, and both JP and Ty looked over at him.

Daniel wasn’t really familiar with JP. He was aware that the other man was, in fact, a friend of James. But it was hard not to see the thin face and constantly analyzing eyes and think of him as anything other than a particularly effective used car salesman. Or a weasel. Tyrone on the other hand was someone Daniel had an amount of rapport with. They’d worked together for a while, and the blase attitude he had covered up someone who knew a little about a whole lot, and who had hit the ground running with the whole dungeon thing. Not that Daniel had a leg to stand on there; he was only just now coming around on his thoughts about his life being upended here.

“You wired in, my dude?” Tyrone asked him, cocking a single eyebrow.

Daniel nodded, before doing a trick that he’d only ever been able to master thanks to a chance yellow orb, and splitting his attention between two separate things. One part of him kept track of Pathfinder, talking to her and seeking her guidance, while the other stayed in reality. A quick check with Path showed that she’d already started seeking out a hint of guidance about their shared goal. Both of them listened when James asked for things; there was a mutual respect there. “Yeah,” He said out loud, trying not to go too far into his inner thoughts, “we take the right. Path says we’ve got one misadventure between us and where we need to be. About three miles”

“God that’s a powerful skill.” JP commented. “Does it only work on landmarks, or can you find anything? Like people?” He asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It has to be somewhere to go.” Daniel answered. “Sometimes that can mean a person, but usually not. Also, Path isn’t as strong as Secret is yet; she can’t just spam the map. It’s maybe one every few days. Fine for the dungeon, but not really as abusable as you seem to be thinking.”

JP affected a shocked look. “And why would you think that I…”

He was cut off as Tyrone patted him reassuringly on the shoulder. “It’s okay, dude. I, too, wondered if we could use it to find buried pirate gold.”

“No, that’s not… you know what? Sure. That’s basically what I was getting at.” JP rolled his eyes with a shrug. “Are we ready to go?

They nodded, and set out, after taking a minute to decide what their marching order was. By virtue of being their most reliable map out of there, Daniel got to be in the center of their formation, flanked by JP in the rear, ready to shoot anything that flinched funny, and Tyrone in front, ready to be a more steady hand on their forward progress.

“So, does anyone else find it weird that Pathfinder can apparently see the future?” JP asked as they slowly walked through the halls. They weren’t looting unless they saw anything outstandingly impressive, so they weren’t disturbing any of the nests of low-risk monsters. But they were being careful nonetheless. This far in, pencil darts and sharpener smokescreens were a risk they had to be on guard for.

Daniel stifled a sigh. Showing frustration around people asking dumb questions hadn’t been helping him so far in his role as head of security; he figured it wouldn’t be any better here. “Explain, for those of us that aren’t in your head?”

“Well, you said…” There was a short diversion as JP tensed up his grip on the gun, locking his feet in place as he watched a wayward shellaxy cross the intersection they’d just passed. He picked up after it dragged itself away, like he hadn’t been on edge at all. “...said that we were going to have one misadventure. Now, aside from the fact that saying that is *hugely* stressful…”

“Yeah dude, not cool. It’s like telling someone the way they die, but not when.” Tyrone jumped in.

“Oddly specific, but yes, thanks.” JP acknowledged. They were having to talk in low tones to avoid waking anything up, but he still projected his voice to reach the other side of their little formation. “Anyway, my main thing is that *how does Path know that*. How can she know that we’ll have a single misadventure? Actually, what…”

“What’s a misadventure, yeah?” Tyrone finished the sentence, tilting his head back from where he was half leaned around the corner ahead of them. He had them holding up for a second, waiting for a flock of paper to take off again before they moved on. “Also, dude, why do you keep calling a genderless entity ‘she’?” He shot the question back at JP.

JP’s mouth twitched upward in the hint of a smile, for just a second. He was, all things considered, not the most aware person in the world when it came to being ‘socially progressive’, or whatever Alanna would call it. But he’d spent a lot of time around people who were; his friends were mostly intellectual hippy types, even if they were a party of violent adventurers. And they’d rubbed off on him, mostly for the better. “Easy answer.” He threw back, projecting his voice so he wouldn’t have to take his eyes off the corridor behind them. “Because she asked. Well, she asked Daniel anyway, and I have no reason not to trust him. Dave might, but then, Dave’s not here.”

“Dave and I are working on it.” Daniel added.

“Great.” JP tried to project actual empathy, and probably failed. He could lie to people like a fucking champion, but actually being empathic was a challenge when he was watching for rats and masks. “Anyway. Misadventure. What is?”

Daniel rolled his eyes, and decided to make his answer with more than words. The group started moving again as the rustle of paper signaled the clearing of their path. Daniel pointed them forward, taking them through a low tunnel ringed with small paper scraps that moved like blades of grass as they crawled through. Then around another corner, this one just an L-bend in the hallway, taking them around the outside of an oversized cubicle, before pointing a finger forward. “There.” He said. “Somewhere around there is misadventure.”

“But what *is* it?” Tyrone asked, more suspicious than ever.

“Also the time travel thing. We have concerns about the time travel thing.” JP reminded him.

Daniel ignored them both and stalked forward.

There was a twinge of anxiety and fear in his chest that he never really got past, no matter how many times he came in here. He watched James sometimes, and had realized that a lot of the other delvers had somehow *gotten past that*. Either the thrill of the treasure and the wins had made them immune, or else they’d just… become used to being hurt? And Daniel didn’t think he’d ever get there.

But there was something to be said for the power of frustration, and spite, as motivating factors.

And right now, as he dropped into a slight crouch as he moved forward, passing Tyrone who shot him a ‘hey, what?’ as he walked, he found those feelings pushed aside the fear for a moment. Daniel kept one hand running along the cubicle to his left, fingers that never felt right in gloves running along the rough fuzz of the carpeted wall. His other hand held out at a downward angle, pointing the heavy metal baseball bat he’d brought with him toward the floor. It was hard for him to not feel invincible; armed and wrapped in a full body shield, even here with all the dangers the dungeon represented. And as he stepped up to intersection that Pathfinder had lit up like a beacon, he took a deep breath and repeated one thought to himself.

Misadventure. What a word. It could mean so many things, and some of them, he’d learned out in the real world, could be super dangerous. But so far, it had never meant *lethal*. A misadventure was something a little stupid, a little reckless, and absolutely something you’d be able to spin into a great story when you were seventy years old and telling drunken stories of your youth. But it wouldn’t kill you.

As for how Pathfinder knew they’d find one, when it relied on someone doing something a little dumb? Well. JP and Tyrone were here to question it. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either they would, or they’d push Daniel into it. Like now!

Daniel stood there, posed like an anime protagonist, waiting for whatever it was that was going to bite him in the ass. But then, nothing happened. The misadventure failed to manifest.

“Huh.” He said out loud, looking around, choking up his grip on the bat a bit. He turned and threw a shrug back at the two guys following him. “Guess it’s not a perfectly predictive ability after all?” He offered.

JP rolled his eyes, and resumed his rear guard stance, while he and Tyrone moved to catch up to Daniel. And then, while they had dropped their guard at the small joke of Daniel trying to be serious, they crossed between two cubicle doors that were lined up perfectly with each other.

Maybe Daniel had just been lucky, or maybe something about how he’d been walking had done the trick, but either way, he’d avoided triggering any traps. The other two were not nearly so fortunate.

As soon as the two of them, who had closed ranks to be closer together, crossed past those last doors, the electric pencil sharpeners on the desks fired to life with a grinding whir. A split second later, while Daniel was still in the process of turning around in reaction, a dense cloud of black ‘smoke’ kicked out of the cubicles like dragon’s breath. It wrapped around JP and Tyrone in a split second, and then started to fill the hallway, roiling down toward where Daniel stood and hitting him in a wave at about chest height.

It was heavier than normal smoke, because it wasn’t hot, exactly. It was just a cloud of graphite shavings, really. But it didn’t quite act like it; it clung to the air like it didn’t want to let go, and it got into eyes and lungs in a way that was hard to push through.

And while that was happening, and his cohorts were coughing and shouting, Daniel heard the sound of wheels squeaking as they rolled at high speed.

A glance to his left and a flailing hop backward was all it took for him to narrowly avoid being rammed by the rogue mail cart - maul carts, James called them, which was very much his style - as it plowed through the hallway. Lashing out with a weak and misplaced strike from his bat, Danile caught the thing on the rear wheel-leg, sending it tilting just a bit as it rolled past, plowing into the smoke. And then, a crash of metal on metal.

There was a scream from JP, and a matching shout of challenge from Tyrone, while Daniel rushed back into the smoke to try to help. He hesitated only for the time it took to yank the neckline of his shirt up to cover his mouth, before dashing in, small orange licks of Pathfinder’s flames trailing behind his shoulders. He ran into Ty, first, placing a hand on his shoulder to confirm where they were, and then started hauling him out of the cloud.

As soon as they breached the outside, Daniel pulled his shirt down. “Where’s JP?!” He asked, frantic, while Tyrone leaned one hand against a wall and coughed like he was hacking up his internal organs. The guard pointed backward, and started wheezing anew. When Daniel tried to run back into the cloud, though, Tyrone grabbed his wrist, trying to say something through the gasping.

It took Daniel a few seconds and Tyrone clearing his throat a bit more for him to realize that the man was *laughing*. The smoke, magical as it was, couldn’t stay up forever. And as it started to clear, the ambush spoiled, the reason for the joke became apparent.

There had been one maul cart that Daniel had seen blaze past him, but what he hadn’t seen was the identical creature from the other side of the smoke. The crash that he’d heard had been the two carts, both of them gunning for JP, slamming into each other. And now, JP found himself pinned against the wall of a cube, the tan board pushed back at a weird angle from the impact, JP himself pushed against it with his shotgun filled hands uselessly trapped at about hip height. The two maul carts tangled in each other, where they had bent organic metal and chitin into shapes that latched together, and left the creatures straining to pull apart from each other, but unable to.

“For fucks sake, *help*!” JP was yelling through his coughs, trying to kick away the carts that were still putting a considerable amount of force into their crashing around. It wasn’t working; they were too heavy to tip over from his position, and too entangled to break away. “Anytime now!”

It took Daniel and Tyrone about ten minutes, after they finished sharing a long glance, a sigh, and a giggle, to detach the two carts. They went slowly, because in the couple minutes of examining the situation before they started, Tyrone said something incredibly stupid and incredibly brilliant all at once.

“You know.” The idiocy started. “We’ve still got miles to go.”

Still trapped against the wall, JP cut him off. “Please, be Jack Kerouac later; get me out now.” He let out an oof as the carts once again jerked against him, slamming into his ribcage.

“It’s just… well, I don’t want to *kill* them, yeh?” Tyrone continued.

“They literally just tried to murder JP.” Daniel pointed out. “And also the rest of us. I’m still shaking, look.” He held up a hand.

“But it’s not self defense now.”

“They’re dungeon monsters.” JP said. “Please don’t just leave me here, this is super uncomfortable.”

“Just because they’re dungeon monsters dude doesn’t mean they aren’t alive. Look at Rufus! All I’m saying is, maybe, *maybe*, we could… ask for a ride?” Tyrone waggled his eyebrows hopefully.

Daniel looked at him, then back at the carts still locked together like stags with tangled horns, then back at Tyrone. He even mixed in sharing an incredulous glance with JP, except… well, JP was sitting there, crushed against a cubicle wall, looking more speculative than dumbfounded. “No.” Daniel said. “Hell no. No way. No. No! We will die! We’ll die, and our last words will just be the word ‘shit’ repeated louder and louder until we get thrown off a cliff!” He pointed at Tyrone with a stiff index finger. “No.” He said firmly. Turning, he repeated the gesture to JP. “No.” He said again.

In his head, even Pathfinder gave him a nudge toward the absurd idea, and while Daniel was trying to form a more coherent argument beyond just saying ‘no’ over and over, Tyrone leaned in, and started muttering to one of the carts, laying a hand on it to steady the twitching creature like it was a horse. “Hey there.” He murmured. “It’s fine, we’re not gonna hurt you. Hey, you wanna deliver some packages? Human shaped packages? We can get you untangled, here. Let’s see about this…”

Daniel sighed, blowing a long stream of air out his nose as he tried to figure out how he felt about this. He was ramping up to pull rank on the two maniacs, both of whom were now trying to befriend ambulatory mail carts, when Pathfinder whispered a reminder in his ear.

“Oh.” He mumbled to himself. “I get it. *This* is the misadventure.”

Through all the fear, though, Daniel found something strange going on in his roiling emotions. Yes, he was a ball of nerves. Yes, he still wasn’t sure how he felt about actually being in this building. And yes, he didn’t get how James and the others smiled so much. But.

But there was a part of him - and it wasn’t just Pathfinder pushing him forward - shouted with barely repressed excitement as he watched Tyrone actually start to succeed at calming down one of the carts. And that part of him really, really wanted to be the first one to see how well these things could take a corner.

Daniel shook his head, and stepped forward, an unnoticed grin on his face. Misadventure awaited.

_____

“Alright, I think I’m prepared to just break these.” James said, pulling the headphones out of his ears. “They’re creepy, and I think useless.”

“What are they doing?” Alanna asked, looking up from where she was pulling apart the case of a dead shellaxy to get the orb out. The two of them had gotten into a mild scrap when a strider had surprised Alanna, and then set off a small swarm of the angry staplers, and then James had flung one of them into a shellaxy, which had triggered a couple of flashbulbs, and…

This place was weird to describe, Alanna realized.

James didn’t have access to this internal monologue, though, and was mostly preoccupied trying to crush the earbuds of the pair of headphones he’d found that they had both gotten a weird feeling about. “They whisper!” James informed Alanna. “Like, they just whisper random names. I don’t like it. Not one bit.”

“What if they’re, say, the names of those who fell in honorable combat in the dunge… and you broke them. Okay.” Alanna nodded as she wiped dust and coolant blood off her hands and onto her increasingly distressed jeans. She considered adding the yellow orb to their stockpile, but the two of them had agreed that taking a *few* of them was probably fine, especially considering how quickly they stacked up these days.

[+2 Skill Ranks : Repair - Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine - Spaceman 6210]

“Get anything good?” James asked, offering her a hand up as he used his other to shove the blue orb he’d gotten into one of the pockets of the coat he was wearing over the body armor.

“No!” Alanna replied cheerily. “Unless you count ‘most specific skill ever’ as something.”

James winced. “Don’t you already have one for, like, a specific model of helicopter?”

“I do. And now I have one for a brand of ice cream machine. Yay. Though, that said, don’t you have a drive skill that only applies to a hyper-specific model of car? That’s almost as bad.

“Actually, the ranks in driving are just for ‘car’, which you may have noticed is super open-ended. Though I do have a mechanic skill that only works on the Jetta, which I… actually don’t remember the last time I *saw* a Jetta. So, there’s that.”

The two of them sighed together. “Well. At least some of these things are broken as hell to make up for it.” Alanna said. “Did you ever check your basketball progress, by the way?” She struck up conversation as they shoved what they’d found into backpacks, and started to move again. They had a long way to go tonight, and they weren’t inclined to waste time.

James gave a short nod to the collected pile of strider corpses as they left; he wasn’t religious, but he felt he owed something to the defeated enemy. They’d been vicious little buggers, and while the armor mitigated some of the danger, they actually were still a threat in larger numbers. “Yeah, I did.” He replied to Alanna as he joined her in the hallway, and the two of them started progressing again. They moved at a fast clip; not a jog, but just before it. A power walk, with a little less arm swinging. “I was at twenty five last time I checked. It turns out, you *can* teach other people off of orb skills, and also Anesh has some good teaching chops anyway. I think all the math tutoring has made him a lot more patient.”

“God dammit. I’m at *one*.” Alanna griped. “And I know I’ve been communicating a lot more than you’ve been basketballing.” She said as the two of them cleared a corner. One more left turn and they’d be heading back toward the door, which they didn’t want at all. She pointed it out to James, and they started looking for place to loop back to being on track.

As he ducked into a cubicle briefly to grab a wallet sitting out on the desk, and stripped it of the fifty-odd bucks in it, James called back to her. “I think it’s that you actually have to learn stuff.” He said. “I didn’t know how to check when we were practicing, but I think that the point was that Anesh was teaching me things. And it’s sorta unfair, because I know fuckall about basketball, and you know probably quite a lot about communication. So I get to learn faster.”

Alanna stopped James with an outstretched arm as they approached an intersection of cubicle walls. The walls here were over their heads, but there wasn’t much obstructing the false sky, so they had good light, and it wasn’t too hard to spot the twitching leaves from the potted plant that kept twitching behind the vending machine. “Wanna take this one?” She asked, and got a nod from James in reply. “Also, it’s unfair if that’s the case. What the fuck am I supposed to even learn? Like, do I have to learn a new language? Or different techniques for talking? What?”

“Can we finish this after the plant?” James asked, mildly annoyed at staggering out of a half step, his chipped hatchet already in hand. He shot Alanna a look, and she pursed her lips and looked at his face closely.

“So, you’re not annoyed that I’m talking about this, you’re annoyed about being interrupted. Got it.” She said. Then, as James took a deep rumbling breath, Alanna muttered “Syllabus” under her breath, and saw, cleary, [Lesson - Communications : 2/100]. “Excellent.” She said to James. “I’m also learning on a personal level that maybe you get hard to talk to before fights. Wanna go kill the plant now?” She asked with a reassuring smile.

“Can you just ask next time you want to test that?” James asked, still kinda annoyed, as he circled around the plant, giving it a clear view of himself.

Alanna didn’t answer. It was time to see what kind of plant this was, and the next few seconds would determine if their strategy was going to be a quick kill or a bruising brawl. She kept herself in the shadow of the vending machine, out of sight of the plant, watching James more than the twitching leaves. And then, when six different fern fronds shot out toward her boyfriend like green bullets, Alanna made a decision.

James caught one of the fronds, let a few others go off his armor, and yelped when one caught him on the throat and opened up a small gash. But the plant had overcommitted to him, thinking he was alone, and Alanna only had to take two steps, plant her feet, and give one almost inhumanly powerful swing with her fire axe to cleave through half the base of the plant. It started to topple almost immediately, a process that James helped along by adjusting his grip on the bladed ferns, and yanking, pulling the plant down flat so Alanna could give it an overhead chop with the axe and finish slicing it in two.

“I think this was a younger one.” James said, holding a hand over his bleeding throat while Alanna fished out their pouch of hemostatic powder and a disinfectant. They’d never actually found out if wounds from anything in here were particularly infectious, and they weren’t prepared to push their luck on it. “Look, only one orb. Also I’m not dead!” He said.

“Don’t get stabbed in the neck, you idiot!” Alanna snapped back, a worried look in her eyes.

James wanted to laugh, but instead, just smiled at her and didn’t aggravate his injury any more than he needed to. “It’s fine. I was being careless; we need a better plan for these things. Maybe we could go back to that old plan of bringing a woodchipper to life and setting it loose in here.”

“Putting aside the ethics of making life, which I’m still iffy on, wasn’t the woodchipper a thing we were explicitly trying to *avoid*?”

“I dunno, so far all the life we’ve made has been friendly. I’ve actually been thinking that when teams become more permanent, it should be a kind of rite of passage for them to make their last teammate.” James shrugged, doing his best to not itch at his neck. Alanna tossed him the yellow out of the plant pot, and he caught it one handed. “What’s this for?”

“You got hurt, you get this one. Also, that still feels like we’re treating life like a toy, and that’s weeeeird. It just doesn’t feel ethical.” She helped James up as he cracked the orb.

[+1 Skill Rank : Templating - Business Cards]

“Ugh. Back to this again. You know, I really do love the skill orbs. I would never give this place up, and free knowledge is free knowledge, but when am I *ever* going to need to make a business card?” James idly wondered.

“Are you kidding?” Alanna asked as they started to push on again. “We are literally running a… god, I know that you don’t wanna call it a guild, but there is just no good name for this. Clan sounds stupid, and we sure as fuck aren’t a corporation.” She stopped at a cubicle door, and James tapped her on the shoulder to indicate he was covering her while she ducked inside. “Bulb!” She called a split second later, and James froze outside the cube while Alanna rolled under the desk before the *pop* of superheated glass went off. “Also, don’t think I’m dropping the ‘we make life’ thing!” James heard her say from inside the boxy walls.

“I don’t think it’s really that big of a deal, honestly.” James admitted as the two of them passed through the cubicle. This one had two doors, which was a trait that had been showing up more often lately, and it made for good shortcutting through the hallways when they needed to change directions to keep on course. “Like, okay, Ganesh is the perfect example here. He’s happy, right? Or so he tells us, in his way. And we do give him choices, he just always chooses us.”

“That’s hardly fair.” Alanna pointed out. “His choices are ‘die in the dungeon’ or ‘die in the real world’. Those aren’t choices any more than it’s a choice between working for an abusive company, or starving.”

James winced; he’d agreed with her on that previously, but now that he was actually free of the situation of being forced to work somewhere awful, it felt hypocritical to change his mind. “I dunno if that’s fair, though. Ganesh isn’t, like, ‘put to work’ or anything. Even the mongausse-”

“Oh god, that name. Who let’s you get away with this?”

“You do. Anyway, it’s not like anyone *makes* these guys do anything. Even Rufus! And he was technically born here!” James retaliated. “Like, if Pendragon wanted to just lounge around all day and eat poorly worded legal documents, we’d make that happen.”

Alanna started to nod before realize James couldn’t see her from the angle they were moving at. “Okay, so, do you feel like we have a duty to them?”

“A responsibility, at least.” James agreed. “Ethically, you know? It’s basically the same rules as being a parent; it’s your tacitly implied oath to take care of them until they can take care of themselves. And we can totally do that. We have the technology!”

The two of them halted as Alanna abruptly froze, and they both watched as across the hallway they were just about to cross into, a small swarm of ten or twenty striders tapped their way by single file up on the lip of the opposite walls. A couple of the black and red creatures glanced over at the duo, but they didn’t end their march, and James and Alanna didn’t so much as twitch to give them a reason to.

After they’d passed, both delvers let out a held breath. “Jesus Christ, this place is so creepy sometimes.”

“I hear more movement down that way.” James whispered. “We should stay quiet for a bit while we pass.” Alanna nodded in response, and started moving, suddenly aware of just how many things in her backpack rattled, and how the armor and boots were in no way built for stealth.

She and James moved on without talking for a while, postponing their conversation.

Cubicles. James had this weird fascination with the material of this place. In an actual office, it would have been mindlessly boring, but as with almost everything in life, context had a huge role to play. Beige and tan and taupe and every other color that meant the same shade of light brown were colors in only the loosest sense. But here, mixed with the pallet of grey and off-white of the walls and floors, it looked like a riot of shapes and colors. When the walls stretched and twisted overhead, with holes formed for windows and protrusions that made strider-sized steps up the sides of the cubicles, it stopped looking like just another office, and started looking like something surreal.

Of course, it had always looked surreal, James mused as Alanna pointed out another shortcut cubicle that they could cut through to a hallway that would put them back on the right track. The fact that the horizon actually looked like the ground just curved up out of sight was the first clue, but there were so many things here that weren’t what they seemed. Like the pen on the desk that was just straight up glowing. James paused for a second behind Alanna, blinked slowly at what his eyes were looking at, and then just shrugged and pocketed the piece of magic before catching up; he didn’t want to fall too far behind and leave her without instant support.

James kept his eyes up as Alanna took point. She was a good forward, for obvious reasons. Alanna had always cut a powerful figure, and being enhanced over and over by the dungeon and decked out in body armor had done exactly *nothing* to make her look less like the definition of a fighter. She was also pretty sharp, and between her and James, they took cautious steps over a couple lines in the carpet that had that EM hum that signaled pencil darts. James’ job here was mostly to be ready to retaliate overwhelmingly against anything that jumped her that they didn’t see coming, and to also be a less directed set of eyes for anything that looked interesting, valuable, weird, dangerous, or any combination of those words.

They crossed a few miles of dungeon at a fairly fast pace that way. It wasn’t exactly safe, but with only two of them moving quietly and not picking fights, they made pretty good time. It never really failed to put a smile on James’ face to push aside dot matrix paper draped like vines, to crouch-crawl through low tunnels of overhanging cubicle material dotted with the glittering eyes of iLipedes, to every now and then catch glimpses in the distance of towers of cubicles, or of blue and white tile, or to hear the hiss of a tumblefeed in the distance.

When they crawled out of the latest tunnel, James turned his eyes upward to the sudden glare of light. When his pupils adjusted to the bright, he felt a smile touch his lips as he watched a flock of paper birds fly through the air. As they started to disappear from sight, he frowned slightly, before realizing that they were landing on one of the suspended light platforms. “It’s so weird to think that we’ve been on the ceiling, and it doesn’t look at all the same from down here.” He said to Alanna.

She also shot a quick glance up, catching sight of the flock as the last of it settled into their roost. “Hm. Remember the spider things?”

“Fuck, yeah, I remember they had *faces*. Hey, you know what’s weird? The dungeon clearly likes bug-forms for stuff, and we’ve seen two spider-esque things. How come no giant spiders?” James asked, tempting fate like a narratively blind idiot.

Alanna actually full stopped to turn around and give him a dumbfounded stare. “Seriously? You wanna just hand the place the keys to the nightmare kingdom?”

“I mean, the ones upstairs are kiiiinda giant.” James continued unabated. “But I’m really just looking for a *really big* stapler.” He made a vaguely oval shape with his hands, like he was bragging about once catching a fish ‘this big’. “Anyway, are we ever gonna explore up there again?” He asked. “Or at least exploit it a little bit. I bet there’s a free energy hack in there somewhere.”

“The height difference?” Alanna asked, and James nodded in response. “I don’t think we could fit anything big enough in here to make it matter. Though, if we ever get a Lesson for hang gliding, it’d be a great launch point.”

“We could bring a hang glider to life…” James started to say with a note of laughter in his voice.

“Noooope.” He got cut off as Alanna snorted out a laugh, and turned back to the trail they were blazing. “Alright, let’s keep moving. Hopefully we can make it to the other break room within an hour.”

And they were off again.

The thing about the duo of James and Alanna, compared to when James was with Anesh, was that neither of them were particularly goal-oriented people. They weren’t lazy, and certainly both of them thought a lot about the bigger picture of things. But when it came to roaming the halls of the office, both of them were incredibly easily sidetracked by anything that caught their eye. Whether that was strange terrain in a side passage, the twitch of a new form of hostile life, or a strange object that stood out, it didn’t really matter. The point was, they lost a lot of time to what could, at best, be called ‘side quests’.

“Check that out.” Alanna whispered, nudging James. The two of them were peeking over a cubicle wall. They’d taken a short break, after another fifteen minutes of walking and having nothing more exciting than sidestepping a sleepy shellaxy happen. And after their light breather and a few sips of water, James had cleared off a space on the heavy office desk to climb up, and peer over the edge of the cubicle wall to see if he could spot anything. Alanna had joined him a few seconds later, and the two of them had looked out over a bizarre view of boxes and halls, looking like someone had just taken a slice out of an anthill. An anthill that filed paperwork and could do tech support.

A couple rows of halls and cubicles over, past a curved arc of hallway that they could see the top of a water cooler backed by a demotivational poster in, there was a change in the geography of the scenery. Instead of halls and more-or-less uniform boxes, there was a spot where the light made it down a little less obstructed, where the walls were a little more open. There was, in the middle of this little clear area, a small cross shaped wall that formed the hint of the outline of cubes, and even had desks in those marked spaces, but they weren’t enclosed. What Alanna had pointed out was the small half-counter off to the side, enclosed by a water cooler of its own on one side, and a slightly fidgeting copier on the other, in the shade of a broad-leafed plant. On the counter, next to an inhumanly clean coffee pot, was a blue insulated lunch sack, sitting just askew of a silver sink.

“The copier? We could get a green out of that, yeah.” James agreed.

“No, the lunch box.” Alanna flicked a finger against his shoulder. “We should grab that.” She told him.

James glanced over at her, and raised an eyebrow, before looking back at what they could see of the area past the block of the walls. Before he said anything, he really took in the scene, and tried to focus on the lunch sack in particular. And then, in an instant, he realized there was something weird with it. Tilting his head in confusion, James took a deep breath, and tried to block out everything around him. He closed his eyes, the last thing he saw that little speck of blue sixty-ish feet off in the distance.

A small swirl of intent whispered through him. It left an itching on his palms, and the taste of salt in his mouth.

That was weird.

James opened his eyes, and nodded. “Yeah, okay. Let’s see what’s up with that.” He said, and lobbed his pack over the wall, before hauling himself up and following shortly after. Alanna just grinned at the agreement, and did the same, though without taking off her own pack first. They had to repeat the process several more times, crossing out of the cubicle they landed in, and then through the next one on the other side of the hall before they could jump another wall. James paused to rip open a pack of orb-shaped candies called GCUs, which seemed to be mostly cherry, while Alanna paused to casually intercept and break open the strider that lunged for James’ throat from out of one of the hanging cupboards.

[+1 Skill Rank : Music - Symphonies] read the thought she got as she cracked that orb.

There weren’t any further interruptions, even for their easily distracted eyes. They *could* have come up with some; every cubicle in this place was its own mini adventure, but they stuck to their route, and while James’ arms ached from pulling himself over walls by the time they got there, they were both excited and energized.

They didn’t jump the wall here. As much as it was great for forging a direct A to B route when they knew where they were going, there were two big problems with the method of travel. One was that it actually was fucking tiring. And the other was that if they *did* land on something hostile, they’d prefer it be, at most, a strider or a tapir. Even landing on a shellaxy could get someone’s leg bitten off; for all that the things were slow and easy to manage if you knew what you were doing, they *could* still hurt you, and it was important to not make stupid slip ups.

So they went around, taking a few minutes to find the corridor that led into the open office space. To James, these spaces seemed kind of like the sort of area you’d expect for low-level management. People who had jobs that were supposedly important, but still lacked the grandeur of a real office, or much of a better paycheck. Just a fancy artisanal cubicle and your own coffee pot, which… well, that wasn’t nothing, really.

James and Alanna surveyed the area between them and their lunchbox carefully. The last time they’d found a place like this, it had almost killed six people in one go. And sure enough, it only took ten seconds for James to see the problem.

“It’s not the copier we need to worry about.” He whispered to Alanna. “Look.” He didn’t move too quickly, and kept the gesture as small as possible, but he pointed her attention to the far wall. It was a real wall, this one, with a door to what looked like an actual office in it. But it also had a row of several filing cabinets up against it. And on one of them, in a beam of strangely focused fluorescent light from overhead, a small furry black shape was curled up in a snoring ball.

“Cat.” She hissed the word like a death curse. “Think we can…”

James cut her off early. “No way.” He said. They had two handguns and two axes, one of which was far less impressive than the other, for all that James had a fondness for it. James still had a full barrage of ‘destroy technology’ as his loaded blue power, and Alanna had one or two asphalt summonings, but neither of those would actually be much of a problem for one of the few fully organic monsters here. Also, even though they’d already pocketed a few blues (and a handful of pens that did weird things), none of those were sure bets in a real fight.

Which led to a pretty boring outcome.

“We’re gonna have to come back later.” Alanna concluded.

James hated to agree, but it was true. “I mean, maybe I could just grab it and run? I *can* accelerate. And we still have coffee.” He pointed out. They considered it together, watching the cat breathing, almost forgetting that the cute ball of fur they saw was just an illusion. “I think I can do it. Unless the copier has a net gun or something.”

“Or makes net guns. Or something.” Alanna clicked her tongue. “No. I’m vetoing it. Even with the coffee, it’s a huge risk. Don’t care that this thing is a magic item we can *feel*, let’s just back away and we can-“

*Meow*

The noise was drawn out, a tired little cat exclamation that was half meow and half yawn. And it didn’t come from where they’d last seen the cat; it came from just around the other side of the wall they were up against.

Alanna froze up instantly, and James lashed out a hand to pull her back around the corner they were hiding behind, jolting her into motion as quietly as possible. The two of them stood as still as possible, barely breathing except in silent exhales. In the silence, even with his heart thudding in his ears, James could hear the soft illusory padding of the small cat as it slowly meandered through the slightly fancier office area. Behind that, also, there was the suppressed sound of heavy thudding impacts, as the *real* cat took its own lumbering steps.

The duo started creeping back, bit by bit, trying to put distance between themselves and the mouth of the hallway that opened into the more spacious area that the cat was roaming. And while the cat seemed perfectly content to casually bat pencils off of desks in its little habitat, that didn’t mean that either of them wanted to stick around to find out if it had some kind of patrol boundary.

They got about two cubicle lengths down the hallway, smooth wall on the right marking the boundary of the cat’s domain, with a row of ordinary cubes opposite it, before something went wrong.

The rattling hiss, like the sound of rain on metal, hit their ears suddenly, like it had been hiding until they’d gotten too close. The tumblefeed, hostile ball of tangled cables brought to life, was currently crawling its way across the upper edges of the cubicles. Dragging its bulk across the thin lines of wall, the remnants of its cords that didn’t balance or grip properly just dangling on either side of whatever makeshift sidewalk it was currently on.

James didn’t even hesitate as the sound hit them, already redirecting them into a nearby cubicle with a low door and an excess of ceiling; the perfect hiding place for something like this, assuming nothing was currently already using it as such.

There was. And in the gloom of the mostly covered workspace, the blue gleam of the eye of the shellaxy that had made its nest here was sharp and ominous. This was one too many unexpected development, and James finally felt his ability to improvise lock up as he froze in the doorway, only moving when Alanna rammed into him from behind. The shellaxy started to hiss as them in its error-tone language, and James clamped a hand over its CD tray as if it were a mouth, hissing out a ‘ssshh’ at it, and hoping that the urgency and the need for silence would accomplish the goal of keeping it quiet. Sliding in next to him, Alanna wrapped an arm around the shellaxy from the other side, like she could somehow armbar it into submission if needed.

But by some miracle, it actually worked. Though the shellaxy may have been more terrified of the dangling ethernet cables that started trailing through the gaps in its nest’s ceiling as the tumblefeed passed overhead, the rattling hiss snaking its way through to the ears of all three of the people cowering inside. James fell backward onto his ass, pulling the non-resistant computer he was holding with him as he pushed himself against the floor, putting as much space as he could between himself and the dangling cords.

A lifetime passed in the span of heartbeats, he and Alanna, mostly unprepared to fight something like this, and just hoping like hell their hiding place held. And then, they heard something they would both remember forever.

*Meow?*

If a cat had ever sounded curious, this was it. The follow up meow had an echo behind it; a much deeper and more hostile creature that couldn’t quite totally mask its anger.

“Do you think” James asked in the quietest voice he could manage “that dungeon cats are… um… they like cat toys?”

Alanna never had a chance to answer. Scant seconds after James had spoke, there was another hiss from the tumblefeed perched overhead, followed by a much more violent hiss from the cat. And then, without warning, the roof panels overhead bowed inward violently along with a feline yowl and a heavy set of paw thuds.

Feet scrambled against greyish green carpet, James awkwardly knocked over the rolling chair and Alanna hooked her foot behind a filing cabinet to leverage herself up, and the two of them bolted out the door before the cat slammed the tumblefeed through the ceiling and into the cubicle where they’d just been sitting. They had, almost without thinking about it, brought the shellaxy with them, the poor creature screaming in 56k modem as they roughly cradled it between them while they took a right, and fucking booked it.

They retraced their steps back to where the hallway breached into the open zone, not wanting to run back toward where the tumblefeed and the cat were now brawling, rolling out of the debris of the cubicle they’d crushed as the two of them took aggressive swipes at each other. James assumed the tumblefeed would eventually win, draining the cat by inches while being functionally unkillable in this duel, but he wasn’t particularly interested in sticking around to find out. He and Alanna almost skidded as they took the sharp left turn into the classier cubicles, aiming for the other side and a shot at getting away from this before either of the monsters turned on them. James was leading now, with Alanna smoothly plucking the shellaxy from their shared grip and storing it under one armored arm; her other arm still brandishing the fire axe which could *not* be safe as she pumped it in her sprint.

They started to round the set of four open air cubicles in the center of the zone, just as the cat toppled the middle section of the wall to their left, slamming the tumblefeed to the ground and pinning down as many of its twitching cables as it could. They couldn’t see the cat of course, aside from the tiny black illusion, but they could clearly spot where clumps of cord were smashed flat. Neither delver paused in their dash or froze up this time; they were committed. There was one way forward, and it was fucking *out of here*.

Of course, when they were just past the water cooler, almost to the other hallway, the copier seemed to take the opportunity to remember that it could just really ruin their plans.

Four tentacles of congealed ink, worthy of the most exaggerated hentai, lashed out from the copier’s slightly ajar trays. One weakly slammed into Alanna’s shoulder; she was too busy, and too sturdy, for it to have much of an impact on her. One missed, ducked under by James operating on reflexes boosted by his most powerful purple upgrade. Two of them, though, latched around Alanna’s ankles, and *pulled*.

She hit the floor hard, turning slightly so she didn’t pulp the shellaxy she still carried under her. The poor little computer was still wailing pings and error tones. Alanna still landed with enough force to knock the wind out of her lungs, her grip on the long handled axe in her other hand going totally slack, sending the weapon skidding across the floor.

James, still operating at maximum unfiltered perception, felt a lot of what happened in excruciating detail. The rush of air, the clatter of metal and plastic against the carpet, Alanna’s ‘off’ as she impacted, all of it processed by his brain in a flash of instinct. So, he had ample time to react to the spinning weapon as it pirouetted past him. He turned in a low slide, one leg pressed against the ground and bleeding off speed. With his free foot, he casually tapped the toe of his boot down on the axe, stopping it dead. It was the work of only a second to swoop down, scoop up the axe by its handle, pulled himself into a braced stance, levered the axe so the shaft was parallel to his back, then brought his arms forward to fling the axe overhand at the copier.

The thing about James was, when he cut loose and opened up the floodgates on how much his purples were allowed out, he could move absurdly fast. Being able to accelerate fifty to a hundred percent faster than a human should be able to let him put a kind of ridiculous amount of energy into the throw. So, it was a good thing that the axe, whistling as it split the air, passed just over Alanna’s head, and slammed into the copier blade-first.

The copy machine didn’t seem to really understand what had happened to it. Its tendrils just sort of went slack, one of them dissolving back into a puddle of incoherent ink. The front of it, the reader screen and keypad, were totally smashed in, small sparks jolting out of it along with a little bit of blackish smoke.

Alanna knew what to do, though. She kicked herself back to her feet in a low crouch, grabbed the haft of the axe, and yanked it out even as she pulled herself fully up.

“Fucking run!” James yelled, well aware of how that line was quickly becoming his catchphrase. Alanna listened, though, and the two of them booked it away from the stunned copier, rounded the corner, and started dashing for the door to this space that would hopefully lead them away from the plus-sized fight that they could still hear going on.

As if on cue, the tumblefeed rolled slightly into view, blood that was dripping from half its biting cables turning invisible before it hit the floor. It wasn’t interested in them, though, and James and Alanna had no interest in giving it a reason to be. They just kept running.

James tried to keep count of how many cubes they passed. He stopped trying after he was pretty sure he went past forty for the third time. His heartbeat and footfalls were all he could hear, and his lungs were burning. All those early morning jogs with Alanna had prepared him for this far more than sitting on the couch watching anime and eating ice cream would have, but even with months of delving, exercise, and body enchantments, he still wasn’t actually able to keep up this pace forever.

“Oh… okay.” He panted out, stooping over the corner of the latest intersection they’d crossed. “Let’s… stop… here” He got the words out between gasping breaths of air.

Alanna didn’t say anything; even for her, that was a hell of an exerting experience. She just planted her back against the corner of wall opposite James, and let herself slide down into a sitting position. As the shellaxy still under her arm gently touched the ground, she let go of it, and was mildly surprised to see it just curl up and press back against her armored torso instead of running off.

They took a little while to catch their breath, James fishing out a half full bottle of water and splitting the remnants of it with his partner. Eventually, though, Alanna asked the question that she found most important here. “What the fuck is that, James?”

James looked down, then held up his hand, clutching a small blue insulated lunch sack. “Oh. I grabbed the thing.” He said. “It seemed reasonable since we were there anyway. Want to see what’s in it?” He asked

“Yes, but also, I want to know when you got an orb for axe throwing.” Alanna replied, scooting across the floor and getting an annoyed chime from the shellaxy next to her.

“Never.” James replied cheerfully. “That was alllll me.”

“No.”

“Yes! Did you know there’s a place downtown that has a *throwing axe range*?”

“This fucking city.” Alanna muttered. “Okay. Open the bag, and if it’s just lunch, I’m gonna be really pissed that we’re lost over it.”

“We’re not lost, we just have to orient toward the bathrooms now that the cloaking meme for them is dead.” James reminded her as he ripped open the velcro and pulled out a sandwich. “Which is good, because this is lunch. Um…” He reached in again, and pulled out another sandwich. And another, and another. “Huh.”

“Infinite sandwiches?” Alanna asked, perking up.

“No, there’s only a couple things left. But there is a bag of grapes, and a tupperware container of pasta in here.” James said, raising his eyebrows. “Wow, this is a huge bag.”

“James. James!” Alanna’s voice was excited enough that the shellaxy next to her started whirring in sympathetic excitement as well. “It’s a bag of holding! Finally! We made it! We’re a real D&D party now!”

“Nope.” James said, crushing her hopes before they could get too high. “Look.” He was trying to fit the medical kit from his backpack into the lunch bag, and it… wouldn’t fit. It was actually only slightly larger, and should have easily fit through the mouth, but there wasn’t *any* room for it, somehow. “I have a sinking suspicion that this is a bag of holding lunch.” He said. “Or maybe just food in general.”

Alanna stuck out her tongue at him, and grabbed the bag out of his hands. “Don’t care, that’s still awesome. Now get up. We’ve still got a ways to go.”

James groaned, but followed her as she rose, only sort of raising an eyebrow at the shellaxy that was now placidly following after them. A delver’s work was never done.

_____

“So, the general idea is that we’re looking for money, and magic items.” Dave explained to the group following him. Some of them were listening. Some of them were clearly not, but he didn’t feel like taking the extra time to get their attention; if they didn’t care, they’d just have to deal with not knowing. “Early on, we used to grab stuff that was easy to sell, too. Computer monitors, suits, that sorta thing. But it turns out, the time it takes to sell off a suit on craigslist isn’t actually worth the money from doing it, when you could have just saved the bag space for extra supplies, spent ten minutes going through another cubicle, and gotten the same in cash anyway.” Dave told them, delving a little into their own weird group history. “Also be on the lookout for briefcases. Those are quests.”

“This place is so fucked up.” Nate bluntly stated in a voice that was a little too loud for the office.

At the same time, Lance was making an almost perfectly mirrored statement of “This place is so fucking cool.”

Dave sighed. “Okay, yes to both of those. Those weren’t questions, but you’re both right.”

Currently, Dave was situated roughly at the head of their ‘formation’, though with five people in a group and four of them untrained, formation was a strong word to use. He wanted to be near enough to anyone who did something stupid to try to fix the problem before anyone died. Currently, they were walking down a hallway that led to nowhere in particular, just generally scouting out the corridors to the ‘east’ of the door. And so far, it had been…

“This place is actually kind of boring.” Virgil added, his mouth a flat line.

Dave wanted to say something to him, but at the moment, it was hard to disagree. With a dramatic breath of air, he pulled himself out of his tense ‘ready for a fight’ stance, and into a normal resting position. “Yeah, this is actually kind of weird.” He admitted.

They’d been going for a little while now, and while it hadn’t been totally devoid of things, there was honestly kind of a lot of empty nothingness over here. They’d run into one strider nest, and Dave had taken the opportunity to let them see exactly why the little staplers were still something to keep an eye on firsthand. After that fight, letting everyone have a yellow orb to get used to the sensation, and prying the staple out of Nate’s burly arm, they’d moved on. And it had been another five minutes before Dave had needed to explain that coffee cups exploded and they should stay clear of them.

A few cubicles had stuff in them, and he actually got help from Virgil explaining the process of uncovering passwords for the more ‘normal’ computers. But there’d been only a couple files that came close to interesting, and one of them was a screensaver that might have brainwashed people, so they’d deleted that for a blue orb and moved on.

And that was kind of it. Which was… worrying.

The office, in Dave’s experience as he explained it to the training team, was a lot of things. But ‘dull’ had never been one of them. It also never really seemed to matter how ‘deep in’ they were; there were different creatures and things in different regions, but there was always something small and weirdly fierce, something trapped, and something large and dangerous, in every biome. But here they were, wandering for a while with literally nothing going on, and Dave was starting to feel like they were going to stop believing him when he said that camracondas were *very real* and also *very lethal*.

Even the drops weren’t coming up like normal. Less money, less candy, less general office supplies too. Not a single identified magic item, except for one pencil that Dave had a funny feeling about. No idea what it did though, if anything.

“So, when do we get to fight, like, a potted plant or something?” Lance asked, a little too excited. “James said something about how those drop bigger orbs?”

Nate cut in. “Guys, I can’t lie to you. I’m snickering every time someone talks about orbs. I just need you all to know.”

“We all know.” Dave told him in a resigned monotone. “We all do. Anyway, normally, I’d say we shouldn’t go looking for a fight, but… there isn’t anything else to *do*, which is not how this place is. I don’t know what to tell you; maybe it put on kid gloves for the new guys, but this is weird, even by our standards. So, yeah, Neil? Can you plug into your drones and find us something green to fight?” Dave asked.

“On it, boss!” Neil was the kind of kid who was just really excited to be included, excited to be useful. Certainly excited to have a role that involved playing with his favorite sort of toy. Though, really, the heavy duty scout drones he was using were pretty far removed from toys. With the amplifier that he set up, courtesy of JP’s wildly suspicious Amazon purchase, he had a range of something like a half a mile on the things easily. Multiple high definition cameras on each one giving him a bird’s eye view of any space he set them over. And so far, he hadn’t lost any to random attacks by paper airplanes, either!

He also never actually unplugged his controller system from his skulljack, which Dave found a little unusual. Sometimes, Dave felt like Neil walked a little weird because he was trying to abdicate seeing through his own eyes at all, in favor of the technological scopes of the drones.

It took Neil about ten minutes of sitting cross legged in a kind of drone-trance to actually dredge up any results. And in that time, before everyone got bored, Dave assigned everyone one of the cubicles in the segment of hallway around them, just to give everyone something to do.

There was actually a kind of magic in watching people who were new to the place go through the same things he had. Admittedly, there was a bizarre lack of real danger here this time, but the experience of getting to just rifle through wallets and desk drawers and *take stuff* was actually kind of… liberating? And for these new hires, Dave took a special sense of amusement in seeing them come back and having even the rather serious-faced Nate join in on joking about the names of the candy.

“Baby Things sounds like some kind of bondage thing.” Nate offhandedly said as he tore open the wrapper and very aggressively snapped off a bite. “Huh. Weird. This tastes… normal.”

“They’re all just candy, even if it is weird candy.” Dave told him. “Also just so everyone else who didn’t wait to check wanted to know, all the food in here is safe.”

Virgil pushed his glasses up his nose and cleared his throat. “The coffee cups…”

Trap sprung. Dave struck with words in such a flat tone that it sounded like he’d robotically rehearsed it. “We’ve determined that the office operates under the ruling of the 1994 lawsuit against McDonald’s which states that coffee above a certain temperature is no longer classified as ‘food’, leaving the detonating coffee cups as something that is, from a legal perspective, either disinfectant, or heavy ordnance.”

Three people and one drone stared at him with the closest analogue to being dumbfounded they could manage. “You made that up.” Lance accused him.

“Which part?”

“The… lawsuit?” Neil ventured, newly returned from his recon.

“Nope, that part was true. Actually, all of it was. Do you have something for us?” Dave cut to the chase.

Neil stood up with a wheeze and a small cough as he cleared out his throat. “Um, yeah. There’s a plant and a vending machine if we go that way, take a left, and then just go down to the intersection. Also there’s something on fire, like, a half mile away?”

“Is it a ball of screaming ethernet cables?”

“How would I know that? How would *you* know that?” Neil asked.

Dave shrugged. “It’s a tumblefeed. Simon and his team were going to go hunting for them. We kill them with thermite. They drop green orbs.” He explained.

Nate cracked his knuckles. “Okay, here’s the thing. I’m fine with the hands on experience, that’s cool. But can you please just fucking explain the monsters here while we go off to *kill a goddamn potted plant*?”

“I love the stuff this place is making people say.” Lance muttered to Virgil.

“Yeah, of course, that makes sense.” Dave nodded. “I didn’t really have a lesson plan prepared. We should really have a bestiary that we can hand to new people. Okay! Let’s get moving, someone get the cart, and we’ll start with the things that can kill you fastest…”

Stuffed shirts and strider swarms. Camracondas and maimframes. There was so much in here, so many things that even the original members had only seen once or twice. And Dave didn’t know everything, so he tried as best he could to answer questions.

What’s up with the masks? “No idea. Sometimes they’re faces for the employees, but sometimes they just float around and scream.”

Why were the employees so dangerous if they were just full of dust and shredded paper? “I feel like I have to keep explaining that some of the things here are literal magic, and that while I don’t know *why*, it’s still worth keeping in mind that the stronger ones can snap bones if they grab you.”

Why are we in here at all if that’s the threat level of the place? “It has good candy. And other colors of orb. And yes, before you ask, I can tell you what they do. It’s not a secret.”

Did leveling up change you? “It’s not leveling up, it’s… okay, it is. But not like in D&D. More like in GURPS, where a single skill point is usually useless on its own.” Dave shrugged as he led the group through a patch of paperclip webbing. “It changes you, yeah. You get better at stuff, and you get sharper at feeling some things, and sometimes you just get straight up superpowers. Alanna’s bulletproof. James can do that ninja dash thing. But they’re still who they *are*. The orbs can’t make you someone else.”

Sorry, what? That question came from a lot of people all at once, in a lot of different forms, and was mostly about the bulletproof comment. “Yeah, it’s the purple orbs. They change your body in different ways. Anyway. We’re here. So. I’m going to do what JP calls my best David Attenborough impression, and teach you guys about the wild northwest trapdoor fern.”

While everyone had bombarded him with questions while they’d walked, and they’d had some time for it since they were still being cautious even if this place was kinda quiet today, it was here that Dave got the first question that he felt actually made him think, all night.

“How did you get used to this place?” Nate asked.

It was said in the same gruff-but-cheerful tone that he used on everything, but it had a steel hint of concern running through it. And Dave, already stopped a safe distance from the plant, cast his eyes downward while he turned the question over in his head. Eventually, though, he felt like he had the answer he wanted. Just as Nate was about to repeat himself, in case the younger man hadn’t heard him, Dave spoke.

“I never did.” He said. “I’ve made friends here. Literally and figuratively. I’ve learned so much. Not just how to do a pneumonectomy, either, but things about leadership and friendship and *myself*.” Dave smiled, and realized that even the way he smiled had changed in the last few months. His smiles used to be masks, now they were expressions of real things beyond wry amusement. “And every time I think we’ve seen the last of this place, we run into something new. Like a tapir, or the hallway that turns you upside down by the time you’re halfway through it. And it’s…” He looked around, at all of them, at the ceiling lights where blackhawks and masks had dogfights, at the grey horizon and the upward curve of the cubicles in the far, far, *far* distance. At the beige walls around them, and the plant just thirty feet ahead in plain view. “It’s *magic*, man.”

Nate nodded. They all nodded. Maybe they didn’t fully understand yet, but they would. And right now, they knew, *Dave* understood.

“Now. Let’s go learn about *vines*.” Dave told them with a suddenly upbeat tone, clapping his hands together.

Questions, he decided, could wait until after the really exciting bit.

______

“Ow. Ow. Ow.” James repeated himself one more time for good measure. “Ow.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure how this hasn’t happened before.” Alanna said as she turned James’ hand over, examining the black mark along the palm. “You’ve hit things that should use electricity with, like, crowbars before. And those things are just bars of conductive metal.”

“Ow.” James agreed, nodding.

“Seriously, though. I don’t really know how to treat this?” Alanna poked at the blackened flesh where the current had fried bits of James. “Like, do we have to cut your hand open and remove it so it doesn’t necrotize? There’s no external injury to patch up, and that’s honestly the extent of my training for this place.”

James bit his lip and suppressed a hiss as he pulled his hand back and flexed his fingers. “I just don’t get why this is a problem *now*. It never electrocuted anyone when we cracked open shellaxies.” On the floor next to him, Alanna’s new best friend dinged out a protest. “Oh, not you.” James said. “Just the ones that tried to eat me first.”

“Maybe it was because it was specifically one of the shock mice, and they’re made of electricity.” Alanna retorted as she ripped open a packet of mild painkillers to hand to James. “Also be nice to Shellby.”

“We cannot name her that.” James said as he stood back up, still trying to flex his aching hand.

It wasn’t that he was against the shellaxy following them like a lost puppy, which it had been doing for a good hour now. That part was actually super cute. It wasn’t that it wouldn’t be a useful helper, either. Currently, it was carrying around the fancy-ass coffee machine that they’d pulled out of the break room when they’d finally found it, the heavy piece of hardware securely tied to the top of the other, more mobile, heavy piece of hardware. It looked like a caffeine-based hat, and that was *also* super cute. It was more that Shellby seemed like too obvious a name for James, love of puns or no.

“Don’t gender my new best friend.” Alanna scolded him. “What about Shelldon?”

“Same reason. Too easy.”

Alanna scowled. “You don’t need to artificially make names complicated. Maybe they’d just like a simple name. Not every piece of dungeon life needs to be named after a god or a king, James.” She told him.

“Rufus isn’t.” James protested as he cracked the yellow orb from the mouse he’d hacked into just a few minute ago.

[+2 Skill Ranks : Melee - Improvised Weapon - Backpack]

“I always assumed Rufus was some kind of in-joke. Also, anything good?”

“I think I could take you out with my duffel bag now.” James half-explained, before filling Alanna in on the actual text. She snorted a laugh, before admitting that it could be something sneakily useful, especially with two whole ranks. The two of them discussed skills that had good corner-case uses while they finished cleaning out the cubicle.

Alanna didn’t find anything in the filing cabinet that wasn’t just manilla folders, so while James went through drawers, she sat herself down at the computer, shifting a few times to get her armored ass to sit comfortably in the office chair. It hadn’t been clear to her, until James had explained, that it wasn't the *armor* that made the chairs uncomfortable. It was a design choice for a lot of office equipment to keep people ‘alert’, whatever that meant.

Going through pictures on the desk to look for pet names to use as passwords, Alanna quirked an eyebrow at how this desk had four photos of dogs, and all of them had the same name tag. As she tilted the last one to see if there was anything behind it, a small silver tube caught her eye, and she scooped it up and tossed it to James. “Yo. Here, laser pointer! See if it cuts through vinyl or slows down entropy or something.” She said, before turning back to trying different words on sticky notes as passwords.

It was after the fifth failed password that she finally got in, leaning back with a sigh as she felt the tension in her shoulders ease up. And in that moment of relaxation, the creature hiding just behind the monitor darted out and through her eye.

It was a fish, and Alanna had mistaken it for just part of the background until it moved. The glittering tube with one massive glowing eye on its front scything through the short span of air toward Alanna before she could really process that it had begun moving at all.

She yelped, and James echoed the sound as the glittering silver and gold fish burst out the back of her head. Alanna didn’t feel hurt, but there was a strange pulling as the creature left her.

It left trailing a thin piece of what looked like cloth behind it, a string of numbers written out on it.

James, for his part, reacted with the one thing he had at hand, and just leveled the laser pointer already in his hand at it. And the fish… froze. It twitched its eye around like it was suddenly unsure what it was doing, and in that moment, Alanna pulled a sharp turn in the office chair, kicking it back into the desk as she leapt up. Her arm shot out and clasped around the fish thing, and as her hand intercepted the beam of James’ fancy new laser pointer, she felt a brief moment of confused shock. Then, the fish shattered under her grip, and James clicked the laser off, pointing the device skyward.

A pair of orbs clattered to the ground among the electric confetti that used to be a creature, one red and one yellow, along with the fluttering piece of paper. James snagged the paper out of the air, and turned it over to look at it.

“This looks like a SSN.” He commented. “Hey, is this yours? Did it just attempt identity theft?” He asked Alanna.

“I don’t have one.” She replied instantly, before following up with, “What the hell’s up with the pointer, though? Did it freeze the fish? It felt weird when it went over me.”

James’ mouth hung open as he looked back in disbelief. “Bullshit you don’t have one. Also, I have no idea. Mind if I try it again? It didn’t hurt, did it?”

Alanna shook her head, and held out an arm at a safe distance for James to zap, just in case it caught fire or something. He pointed and flicked the beam on, and Alanna felt herself refusing to believe that it was doing anything. Incredulous, and also a little curious, she rolled her eyes at the laser. “Well, that’s… hang on.” She dropped her arm, and the feelings that had felt so *real* and innate to her just a second ago were gone. “James, what are you feeling right now?”

“Um… curious, I guess?” He asked. “Also I still refuse to believe that you don’t have a social security number. You’ve had normal jobs before.”

“It projects your emotions.” Alanna intuited. “The fish froze up because you were startled, and I felt it too, even though I handled it differently. I can feel the curious, and the skepticism, though it’s directed at things *I’m* thinking about, so it doesn’t transmit actual information.” She glanced down at the paper James was still holding. “So… is that *my* social security number then? Did the computer fish literally steal my personal data?”

James gnawed at his upper lip. “Hm. How do we…” He reached over, and tried poking Alanna with the paper. “Get this…” He ran the paper over her armor, and then her head. “Back into…” He started rolling it up, like he was preparing to try something even more irritating, when Alanna snatched it out of his hand.

“Give me thaaaa…” The paper dissolved into nothing in her grip. “Oh. Okay. Welp. That was it then. Yeah, that was mine.” She nodded. “Thanks.”

“No problem. So, anything else that we should grab out of here before we go? I know we’re supposed to be taking a break, but this place is kinda hostile, and I’d like to head back before the walls try to eat us or something.” James asked.

Alanna looked around the cubicle one last time. “Want either of the orbs? I kind of want to try another red.” She asked. “Also, I wanna bring this keyboard. I think it’s magic.” Alanna tapped the mechanical keyboard currently plugged into the computer.

“Sure, go for it. The orb that is. Don’t you dare bring that monstrosity into our house.” James replied, grabbing the yellow for himself.

[+1 Emotional Resonance Rank : Defiance]

[+1 Skill Rank : Athletics - Acrobatics - Balance]

“The keyboard is magic, I’m sure of it. The way it sounds is soothing, I think it’s the underlying effect of it.”

“Alanna, the keyboard sounds like someone forgot to oil a revolving door. It’s not soothing, or magic, it’s just a mechanical keyboard. Which I do not like, to be clear.” James said as he crouched down on his knees, peering under the desk. “Oh score, a briefcase!”

“Mechanical keyboards, *James*, are the only keyboards worth using. They are durable, and precise, and perfect for… oh, briefcase?” Alanna dropped the petty argument - that she was absolutely prepared to win, by the way - in favor of looking over the grey leather case that James plopped on the desk between them. She ripped off the work order taped to the side, and read over it. “Delivery order, office supplies, fifty pencils, number two, yadda yadda…” She muttered to herself while James checked just to make sure this one wasn’t already unlatched. “Oh hey, wait a sec. This one lists a *place*, not a cubicle number. It just says ‘shoreline’.”

“Like… the ink ocean shoreline?” James asked, excited. “Like the place we *know how to get to*, and could go to right now?”

“Well, not right now right now.” Alanna reminded him. “But yeah, I mean, we’ve got the bikes back at the base. We could swing by, get those, and go try it out?” The unspoken assumption that there was probably already a bundle of fifty number two pencils just ready to go at their home tower for some reason went unremarked.

“Sounds good to me. We can drop off the coffee maker, and also introduce Shellia to everyone.”

“Sparky, you fuckin’ *said* that we couldn’t do a name that was too easy.” She protested as they both stood, loaded everything back into the bags, and checked the corners of the door to make sure it was safe out in the hall.

“I’m workshopping.”

“We could just ask, you know. Would you like that?” Alanna adopted a singsong voice as she gave the shellaxy’s case some gloved pets. “Would you like to just have a monitor so you can *tell us things*? Yes you would!”

“Would that even work?” James asked, curious.

Alanna smirked a response. “I’m workshopping.” She said, before stepping out. “Come on. Looks like we’re about half a mile from home. Let’s get moving, and we’ll have a few hours left to hit the beach.”

_____

“So, what’cha up to?” Momo asked Anesh, leaning forward to peer at the concoction he was stirring together.

Anesh glanced up from his work briefly, quirking an eyebrow as Momo got close enough that the red totem she wore as an earring overlapped him and he had a sudden and intimate knowledge of how close the nearest lethal weapon was. It was not that far. “I’m blending the coffee mix that’s so far been most efficient duplicating mundane objects.”

“I thought we were waiting on Danny to find another tower with more coffee in it?” Momo asked innocently.

Anesh shrugged. “I still had some left over, and if we get more before the day is over, I can just repeat the ritual. But I think I can run it about three times at this ratio. Especially if I’m really sharp with the lines.”

“What exactly is up with this ritual, anyway? I honestly just wanted to see it.” Momo asked, turning over an empty paper bag that used to contain coffee grounds and reading the ‘instructions’ on the back. She held it up and compared it to the whiteboards that Anesh had weaseled people into hauling up here, seeing where he’d made changes or notes. “It looks like a totem.” She concluded.

“How so?” Anesh asked, curious. He set aside what he was working on and looked up, giving her his full attention as he walked over to join her standing in front of his research notes. “I’ve seen some of what you’ve been working on. Totems are always three dimensional, this one decidedly isn’t.”

“Well, it kind of is. Coffee is physical, it’s not just a flat line.” Momo argued. “But I mean, the shape of it. It’s like someone flattened a toten down, and replaced the orb with… that thing.” She waved a hand behind her. “An overhead projector. For some reason.”

“I do wonder if the object itself matters.” Anesh mused. “Could you have made this same ritual focus with, say, a chair? Or is the nature of the focus important?”

Momo drummed her fingers across the whiteboard to an invisible tune. “Wasn’t there something about making magic items with reds instead of blues?”

“Yes.” Anesh said. “That’s one theory now. And we have *several*.” He unlocked the wheels of one whiteboard and spun it around, revealing the other side covered in grid charts and note paper pinned up with magnets. “The one that I think makes the most sense now is that every orb color can, in its own way, make life, make a reward, and make an enhancement. And we are only just now starting to scratch the surface of those different uses.”

“What about the totems?” Momo asked. “They don’t fit that.”

“Unless they’re… rewards?” Anesh hummed, idly chewing on the end of a pen as he looked over the board again. “Or somewhere between reward and enhancement. Unless they’re a little alive, too.”

“Backing off on that;” Momo interrupted, “what would orange life look like? I’ve only seen one disrupted space, and it was fucked *up*. Would something alive be… that, but mobile?”

“No, I don’t think so. After all, most of the yellow life isn’t a manifestation of a skill. Secret is purple life, in case you didn’t know, and we *know* that, but the purples don’t give us enhancements at all in line with infomorphic traits.” Anesh got a glimmer in his eyes, and leaned over the conference table that the ritual zone was built around to start scribbling something on his notepad. “Ah, no. That doesn’t work.” He muttered. “Chorn’s theorem, maybe?” He crossed out a line, then replaced it with something else. Momo looked over his shoulder as he did so, bobbing on her feet and occasionally giving Anesh flashes of knowledge that the pencil he held was sharp enough to kill.

“Does human math work here?” Momo asked him.

“It’s more about rates of occurrence than divining meaning.” Anesh said. “But in this case, it’s just a moment of inspiration about… this.” He held up the sheet, staring at it like he could see into the universe itself. Furiously, he wiped away an obsolete part of the notes on his board, and started penning in a formula. Momo didn’t distract him, instead spending a few minutes roaming around the room, poking at the red and white cooler on the table, peering out the windows at the basecamp so far below, just distracting herself for a bit. Momo’s mind wandered easily enough these days to be distracted without too much trouble. “Yes! This!” Anesh yelled. “Where’s my laptop?” He demanded.

“We don’t bring laptops in here?” Momo told him. “I was told that was a terrible idea, anyway.”

“Ah, yes.” Anesh agreed, clearing his throat. “Sorry, got caught up there. Um. I think I can build a red *item*.” He said, as if that wasn’t the closest thing anyone had gotten to pure wizardry so far. “See? Here. You said that the ritual looked like a flattened totem?”

He pointed, and Momo looked at the string of variables and functions he’d written on the board. Her eyes glazed over as she tried to parse it, and it took maybe five seconds for her to give up entirely. “No.” She told him. “I see gibbrish. This makes sense to you?”

“It’s… yes?” Anesh looked sheepish. “It’s an expression of what something would look like. That’s all. Vector calculations and angle totals and stuff. I think, anyway. I might be fucking nuts, but it just clicked in my head. I think I can make this happen.” He nodded. “Yeah, definitely. I just need some extra reds to test on. Oh, though, I might not actually know what I’m making. Hm.” He rubbed at his chin. “That might be a problem?”

Momo laughed. “Yeah, I had that same issue. *That* I can help with. It’s art!”

The two of them looked at each other, and then burst out laughing together. “Holy shit, James is gonna be so pissed that *two* people beat him to the job title of ‘sorcerer’.”

“Is that a thing he wanted?” Momo asked. “I thought he was… like, Dave calls him a paladin?”

“We need to write a slang book for all the people who aren’t huge nerds.” Anesh admitted. “But yeah, James wanted real magic. I think this counts.”

Momo raised a hand in the air, and after a few moments and eyebrow waggles, Anesh finally got it, and accepted the high five. “So, what’re you doing with the coffee ritual, anyway? Or are you still doing that?”

“Well, thing is, it costs so much coffee to duplicate orbs, that we figured we could have a higher impact on the world’s supply of ‘good’ if we used it on scarce mundane things that could help people.” Anesh told her, tearing his eyes off his work on the board and back to Momo. “So, we’re duplicating hearts.”

“...Um.” The answer was not exactly what she’d been expecting.

Anesh rolled on anyway. He’d gotten used to people adapting to their weird conversation topics, and he mostly just assumed Momo would keep up. “The exponential growth should let us get up to eight, assuming we can fit them all in the projector zone. Which is a net of seven, which is then proof of concept to the hospital we got it from in the first place.”

“*How* did you convince them to give you heart?!” Momo demanded, unbelieving. Yes, it was true, she had a marginal amount of hero worship for James and especially Alanna, and the others of the core team as well to a lesser degree. But she knew damn well that was just *her*. Random people who kept transplant organs safely locked up *weren’t going to hand those over*.

“Alanna stole it. Something about rigging a fire alarm? I didn’t ask.” Anesh said. “We’re basically going to bargain the extras for amnesty for, you know, stealing the first one.”

“So this is illegal.” Momo confirmed to herself.

“Incredibly so. Dodgy as fuck.” Anesh made it sound so casual. They *stole a heart*, and he was just… well, they were going to give it back, Momo supposed, so maybe it wasn’t that bad?

No, it was that bad.

“Do you know anything about how to keep human hearts preserved?” She asked, suspicious.

“Yes. You can’t.” Anesh said sadly. “Which is actually the biggest barrier to making this work. We may need to tip our hand about the magic stuff, because we’re having to use up Sarah’s supply of blue power to keep them basically in stasis.”

“Wouldn’t that make them not useful as, you know, hearts? Oh! That reminds me! Didn’t Sarah say something about how all magic items come from blue totems?” Momo’s brain jumped tracks as she was more or less reassured that the particulars were taken care of, and a separate debate opened up before her.

“Sarah is wrong.” Anesh snorted. “Honestly, I think the blue totem thing was a cultural myth, not anything they ever proved. An extraurban legend.”

“You made that word up.”

Anesh ignored the quip; James had trained him perfectly for this style of conversation. “I think Sarah’s old team had gained and lost members before her. I think that one of them, at some point, had a theory about it, and then they died or got captured or whatever. And as more members rotated through, what used to be a theory became word-of-mouth truth. So by the time Sarah’s there, they’re telling her that blues make xenotech and are the basis for quests and she buys it because… I mean, look at this place. Dave could literally tell the new guys anything, and they’d have to take it at face value, right?”

“He wouldn’t do that.” Momo protested firmly, jumping instantly to the defense of her hero.

“Course not. Dave’s staunch.” Anesh assuaged her. “But how would anyone know? Tumblefeeds sound fake, right? So do half the orbs. *Secret* sounds fake, and that holds true even if you’re actively talking to him.” He shrugged. “I don’t want to confront Sarah about it; I feel like that would open some old wounds she doesn’t need right now. But I do, fundamentally, think she’s wrong. There’s no evidence otherwise.”

Momo stopped pacing and scowled at the whiteboard nearest her. “There’s also no evidence that your nonsense math can predict my artisanally crafted totems.” She said, defiantly.

“*Yet!*” Anesh cheerfully reminded her. “Now! Want to help me set up to make some *hearts*? We have to wait for Sarah to get back to fire it off, but I can show you the ritual markings, and you can tell me how I’m doing it wrong. Deal?”

“Deal.” Momo agreed.

_____

James and Alanna strode up to the tower like they owned the place. Which, they kind of did, all things considered. Theo sat outside on a makeshift bench made of the least wheeled office chairs she could find, reclining in the shade of the tower and not acknowledging either of the delvers, or the shellaxy following them, as they walked up.

“Keeping guard, eh?” James asked, a bit annoyed. There was supposed to be a team on rotation here, but he didn’t really see anyone. “Where is everyone?”

“Deb’s team is patrolling around. Everyone else is upstairs being nerds and arguing about stupid shit.” She shrugged as best she could while lounging, not really paying attention to anything except the small pamphlet she was reading.

James scowled down at her, an expression she either ignored or didn’t pay much attention to. “And you?” He asked, a little maliciously. He wasn’t furious or anything; nothing was on fire and no one was dead. But it struck him as supremely hypocritical that Theo, who wouldn’t shut up about the need to fight the Office, to control it, to guard the entrances, was sitting here reading some random document instead of actually safeguarding the people who were doing the most to understand and exploit the dungeon.

“I’m reading.” She said. “Why, what do you care?” Theo asked, shooting back a glare of her own.

James took a deep breath, brought his emotions back under control before he spoke. He shot a glance at Alanna, and she returned it, quirking an eyebrow in reply and getting a small head shake from James. When he finally spoke, it was in a voice that was less calm, and more apathetic. “I don’t really care, Theo.” He said. “I just expected better.”

Nothing more than that. He didn’t need any more. James and Alanna walked into the floor of the tower without looking back.

It wasn’t until they got to the third floor that Alanna gushed out a howling laugh. “Hooooohoho! Holy shit, that was hostile! What skill orb… no, wait, let me guess.” She leveled an accusatory finger at James. “Just you?”

“Just me.” He said. “Man, I remember when Theo was cool.”

“I think you’re making the mistake of thinking that Theo was ever cool.” Alanna grumbled. “Even when she was your boss, her hallmark was casual abuse of power. Sometimes they were *funny*, but there was for real a time that she bribed and or coerced you to answer her emails while she took a vacation without telling upper management.”

“We still can’t prove my company actually has management.” James reminded her, and Alanna actually *growled* a little at that. “I mean, they do. Somewhere. People have meetings with them, they run the company. It’s not like they’re dungeon constructs or not real or something.” He looked back at her as they ascended the ramp to the fifth floor. “Probably?” He finished lamely.

“James, we’re conquering your company when we get out of here.”

“Tonight? Noooo. I wanted to go get pancakes! It’s a tradition!”

“We go to that damn diner every night after leaving Officium Mundi, and I have never once seen you order pancakes.”

“Usually I’m in the mood for fish.” James agreed. “I just say pancakes because it’s ‘morning’, and everyone understands what I mean. It’s *language*, Alanna. If you say something dumb that perfectly passes on what you mean, then it wasn’t dumb.”

Alanna grinned. “I feel like if I internalize that, I’ll either be halfway to done with the ‘lesson’, or I’ll go insane.”

“Or both.” James paused to catch his breath on the ninth floor, really starting to feel all the bruises, scrapes, cuts, and char-blackened strips of flesh on his body. “Okay. We need to move Anesh’s wizard tower.” He said between gulps of air. “To the ground floor.” He clarified, as Alanna looked at him funny. “Move it to the ground floor, because this sucks.”

“Oh, suck it up, you big baby.” Alanna told him. “Come on, I hear Momo and Sarah arguing. Let’s break up a fight.” She said, leading the way to the last ramp up.

James looked down at the shellaxy, still with a coffee machine balanced on its case, that had followed them all the way up here without breaking a sweat. “How the hell…” He started to ask it, and then shook his head. It was enough to just decided that he wouldn’t be beating in a footrace by something without feet.

When they got to the top of the ramp, the muffled yelling came into focus as something James could understand. Momo and Sarah both stood on opposite sides of a white board, each individually pointing at different parts of what looked like the kind of equation that James usually saw as a prop in sci-fi shows.

“Blue!” Sarah was yelling, tapping her part of the board.

“Red!” Momo retaliated, rapping knuckles on her side.

“*Blue*!” Sarah had a bit of a laugh in her voice

“*RED*!” Momo wore a wide grin.

“Purple?” James interjected, walking up and leaning on Anesh’s shoulder, his boyfriend standing a safe distance away from what was going on.

Anesh sighed and looked up from where he’d buried his face in his hands. “They can’t agree on what orb causes xenotech.” He said. “And now they’re just trying to interpret math that they don’t understand as arcana, pointing at things, and insisting I back them up. James, help me.”

With a soft chuckle, James leaned down and gave Anesh a small kiss, before leaning back. “Alright wizard nerds.” He announced. “Alanna and I are here literally just to check in, grab bikes, and hit the beach. Someone give me a status update on anything I need to know, and also, let Anesh do math in peace.”

Sarah broke down in giggles at that, and even Momo backed off on the insistent look on her face. “Hey!” Sarah greeted him properly. “We made hearts!” She gestured to a stack of four red and white coolers over on the floor by one of the window gaps.

“Only four today?” Alanna inquired as politely as possible.

“We couldn’t fit all the boxes. There’s eight hearts total.” Sarah reassured her. “Also, Daniel’s on the way back with more coffee for us. We still have a few hours left, and I have plenty of preservation charges, so I’m waiting here for them. And… you made a friend!” She clapped her hands in excitement as she noticed the shellaxy cresting the top of the ramp.

“We also got another coffee machine.” James agreed. “Can you name the shellaxy? Alanna keeps shooting down my ideas.”

“Raspberry Jam.” Sarah said, without an inch of hesitation.

Everyone did a double take, as if they’d misheard her somehow. But they hadn’t, and they all knew it. “Alright.” James just decided to agree. “Raspberry, you okay with that?” He addressed the shellaxy, which gave him a bootup noise in response. “Guess so. Alright! So, anything else we need to know about before we go? We got a briefcase.”

“Oh! Is the beach where the other decision tree is?” Sarah asked him, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Secret is down a few floors organizing our loot, can you pick up a bunch of yellows and turn them into purples for me?”

“Sure.” James agreed, silently wondering if Secret would just be curled up on top of a pile of stuff like a dragon. “Alright. We’re heading out then, before my legs realize how tired they are and I just sit down and don’t get back up. Hey, is anyone on security here?” He asked, suddenly remembering a worry.

Anesh shrugged. “Theo’s outside, she didn’t want to deal with us I guess, which is fine. And Deb and Alex are around nearby.” He looked at James, concerned. “Why? Is something wrong?”

“No, no. I just feel like if we’re going to use this place as a base, we should be prepared for things like swarms or wandering greens.” James told him. “I realized while we were out that I actually spent a lot of time being worried about you guys, you know?”

It was actually a very touching though, Anesh felt. Still, it was important James knew he wasn’t totally defenseless. Walking around the table, Anesh pushed one of the chairs half-covered by the conference table back, revealing the black plastic case sitting on it. “I *am* armed, you know.” He told James. “If anything happens, we can deal with it.” James raised a questioning finger and started to open his mouth, but Anesh preempted him. “Yes, I made more ammo out of our last magazine. It’s *fine*, James.” He said. “Go to the damn beach already.”

“Fine!” James conceded, as Alanna patted him on the back and the rest of the room laughed. “But I’m leaving this laser pointer with you, as a last resort!” He told Anesh.

“Oh, neat. What does it do?” His partner asked.

“Makes people feel stupid.” James told him, before he started the climb back down.

_____

El stood back a good thirty feet, and watched in mildly frightened awe as two boys and a thing that was absolutely not a dog no matter what anyone told her just ripped apart a monster made of internet cables.

Simon and Other James, who really needed a new nickname, were, according to *themselves*, somewhere toward the lower end of the spectrum of combat ability that the members of this bizarre organization had. And El was sitting here watching while they used a glimmering rainbow distortion field to lure in a creature they called a tumblefeed, before hitting it with a blazing, sparking, mess of a device they insisted on referring to as a ‘grenade’.

*Then*, when that didn’t kill the thing, they approached it, from opposite sides, in perfect unison. Braids of technology danging out the back of their heads, held in place by leather collars they’d picked up at a fucking pet store of all places. They held in their hands weapons that were essentially just secured hilts with a lance of thermite on the end, blazing as they took it in turn to lash out at the hissing mass until it eventually relented and died.

Mostly. They’d then had to step into it and take apart its core with a pair of garden shears.

“Clear””Clear” They spoke in unison to El, still linked together from the fight. One of them - it didn’t really *matter* which at this point - knelt to pluck the green orb out of the smouldering remains of the tumblefeed, while the other gave their pet mongausse insubstantial belly rubs and a piece of magnet as a treat.

El didn’t really know how to handle this.

This was the deal; she knew about dungeons. One dungeon, anyway. She had, for a long time, thought she was special. That her induction into the world of highways strange beasts and stranger rewards was the *way* that someone was special. Like she’d been chosen for a life of magic, and this was just how magic happened to people. Maybe it always was, maybe it was a new phenomena, didn’t matter to her really.

Now she’d been brought into a *team*, that just… added people to their group whenever they wanted to? They’d just *hired* people. And brought them into a life-or-death battle as a way to amass power so they could change the world. They weren’t just a chosen one and an accident, they weren’t even just a group of friends. They were an ideal, preparing for the task of expressing itself onto the world.

And the people who thought they were at the bottom of the power ranking were more or less single handedly tearing through the more difficult threats that the dungeon deployed. At least in this part of itself.

This was the third tumblefeed they’d killed today.

“The connection is really strong here.” Simon mentioned offhandedly as she rejoined them. El was more or less just an observer on this hunting trip. Observer and packmule. She’d been offended by that for about fifteen minutes, until one of them had intercepted a strider leap aimed at her head, and her annoyance had dropped steadily since then.

She knew Simon was only talking because she was here. He and Other James were so interlinked at this point, they were almost just a single person. They didn’t need to say anything. And that was creepy as fuck, as well as vaguely homoerotic, both of which were aesthetics that El could appreciate. “Strong how? She asked, politely.

“I mean, the wifi.” Other James said. “It’s actually ridiculously good. Maybe it’s just because no one else is using it.” They both shrugged together.

Their idea of smalltalk was so weird, El decided.

They trekked a little farther, and El came to the very real conclusion that she hated walking. Not that this was ‘walking’, exactly. It was really more like the kind of hiking she’d expect out of a safari. You had to carry heavy things, including things you found along the way. You couldn’t stop for too long or dangerous wildlife might kill you. And you also couldn’t drop your guard, space out, and listen to the rad tunes you took a lot of time to put into a playlist. Because, again, the dangerous wildlife might kill you.

She really, really, really wanted to poke around. To get lost going through these cubicles. Each one of them was, from the brief glimpses she was getting of them, its own special work of art. Maybe the boys just didn’t see it, but she did. These were beautiful *lies*. Photos that didn’t make sense, documents that talked about practices that never happened, computers with operating systems that shouldn’t work; this was a set, they were the actors, but no one had told them it was fake.

Also she wanted to see if the wallets really did have cash in them.

But her guides set a frenetic pace, and she didn’t feel like her first time in here was really the time to play the stupid tourist.

The other weird thing, though, was that she could have maybe gotten away with it if she’d asked. Everyone here had been accommodating to her, to an almost idiotic degree. They answered questions with straight answers and not cryptic bullshit, they gave her hands on examples of things when she needed a reference for something, they let her *take notes*. Though, to be fair, she didn’t like taking notes. But they also let her make art. And not for any ulterior motive, that she could find, either. Sarah had just swept in one day, dropped a duffel bag full of spray paint on the bench next to her, and told her to go nuts. Momo had offered her a skulljack if she’d wanted one, and instantly and diplomatically backed off when she hadn’t. Even Nate, the new guy, who’d never seen the dungeon before at the time and had known the group for a few days at most, had offered to push his van up to 120 MPH on the drive over, just to top off her Velocity.

They didn’t act like a shadowy cabal, they acted like a more or less smoothly oiled artist anarchy collective. No one even blamed her for *trying to shoot their leader*! They just accepted that it had been an overreaction, and that she’d been under a lot of pressure. No harm done, right?

They also laughed at her jokes. And had their own jokes. Everyone here was *smart*. Smart enough to find stuff funny, which El knew, was not actually that common. They’d gathered a lot of unique traits together in their little blender. The other day, James had made a comment about making an account on some food delivery app, just so he could know that every time he wanted a burger, out there somewhere, a driver was going to go into a restaurant and say “I have a pickup for Rothgar Duskblade, Killer Of The Worldspine?” and El was actually still laughing about it. Though mostly on the inside, where no one would ask why she kept disguising random giggles as coughs.

El found time passed quickly when they walked while she was in her thoughts. And before she knew it, they’d made their way to the mouth of what looked like a cave. It was made of cubicle wall panels, of course, but they rose well above the rest of the space around them, and were at shallow angles to each other, forming a domed arch that led into a darkened space untouched by the fluorescent lights overhead. Lines of folded dot-matrix printer paper dangled from the lip of the mouth, half-concealing the entryway with a white curtain. From within, in the quiet air of the Office, they could hear a steady dripping sound.

“This is weird.” El commented, looking up at it. It was her catchphrase for the night.

“We’ve seen weirder.” The other two replied. It wasn’t exactly their catchphrase, but El had this sinking suspicion that they weren’t just making a joke, and that maybe a lopsided octahedral cave that sloped down into the depths of the dungeon really *wasn’t* that weird to them anymore.

She was never making it out of this with her worldview intact.

They took the ramp down, careful to not slip on the floor as the carpet underfoot grew damp and slightly squishy to the touch. Simon pointed out movement on the walls, and El had to suppress a desire to screech as she saw what looked like smartphones turned into millipedes crawling along the walls. She was even more put out when it was suggested that she see if any of them were friendly, and interested in coming along. Though, after having it explained to her that iLipedes were actually more like microchips in design than they were bugs, it was a little easier to stomach holding up a handful of yellow orbs, and letting one of them eat out of her hand. Petting it felt an awful lot like just touching a phone screen, complete with mild vibrational feedback, and by the time El let it perch on her backpack, she was only about thirty percent worried it was going to crawl into her hair.

At the base of the cave, the sound of dripping intensified. El had thought she’d gotten past being shocked at anything around here, but stepping into an underground cavern got past her defenses. Again. The beams of their flashlights mingled with the glimmering light of a thousand tiny flying creatures, and the refracted beams that came through cracks in the ceiling and hit the water cooler tanks that grew like deformed crystal nodes out of the walls and ceiling. Many of those tanks dripped water at a steady rate, fat droplets that plummeted twenty or thirty feet to splash into the surface of an otherwise still lake that took up the majority of the middle of the cavern.

“Good place to rest for a while.” James said, claiming a protruding growth of crystalline water tank on the floor as a chair.

They sat for a while, the two boys decoupling their minds and taking a mental breather, while El tried to will her legs and feet to stop aching. The magnetic dog thing looked more excited than ever, though, running circles around them as it got its playtime in, taking diving leaps off of sloped crystals in the floor to try to snap ethereal jaws at the pinpricks floating in the air.

With a laugh and some closer inspection, El realized that pinprick was exactly the right term; those things were buzzing, flying thumbtacks. How they were glowing, she didn’t know. Nor did she *need* to, either.

“Hey, what do you guys think this is?” Simon called over to them. He was against one of the cave walls, running his hand across something embedded in it.

El and Other James made their way over, and she noticed that the two boys looked almost uncomfortable actually having to talk to each other when they weren’t wired together. The stuff Simon was looking at was a strange geometric pattern of metal, inlaid in the damp fuzz of the cubicle walls that still formed the foundation of this place. Mixed in with spurs of concrete rising out of the ground and the grey felt, there was this series of boxy silvery plates, slightly jutting out of the otherwise smooth surface.

“Silver?” El asked, interest ramping up at the idea of a precious metal just sitting here.

“I don’t think so.” Simon said. “Feels kind of electric. Hang on, can you grab that side of this one?” He motioned, and gripped his fingers under the thin ridge of the material.

El shrugged, and stepped forward, elbowing her pack into a less awkward place while she got a grip on the thing and started to pull along with Simon. For not the first time tonight, she was grateful that she wasn’t one those girls who painted their nails; she’d seen Sarah putting a lot of time into some really neat glitter swirl designs, and if El’s own adventures so far were anything to go by, those patterns and those fingernails weren’t going to be anywhere near intact by the end of the delve.

“Guys.” Other James’ voice reached them, but they were making progress and ignored him. Both of them felt the metal under their hands start to give, pulling away from the wall millimeter by millimeter. “Guys!” He said again, louder this time.

Simon looked up to see what was happening, and El felt his grip leave the piece of metal, even as she herself felt the last resistance falter. With a triumphant yank, she pulled the whole thing free, and held it up to examine with a grin.

It was a circuit. Or rather, it was… like the material of a motherboard, maybe? Dotting it on the reverse of the smooth metal plate were a handful, no, *dozens* of small chips. They glittered in the cave’s light, like they were made of emeralds. Each of them sparking with an internal lightning.

“El!” Simon yelled, and she looked up from her treasure.

Overhead, a thousand pinpricks of light stirred violently. A swarm of pissed off fireflies, amassing and looping in increasingly large group patterns. Standing on one of the nearby crystal tanks, the dog thing howled crackling static up at them until a handful of them lanced down and stabbed into his snout, changing defiance into pained yips. And then, first in ones and twos, and then in larger and larger clusters, the pinpricks started coming for the humans.

They ran. Oh, man, did they run. El didn’t realize exactly just how much energy she had left for a jog until her heart flooded with adrenaline and her legs felt like they were made of lasers and steel. And even then, she started to fall behind until Simon grabbed her hand and started hauling her forward.

The four delvers burst out of the mouth of the cave, the magnetic hound leading the way. And the dog didn’t slow down at *all*. He just tore into the cubicle wall across from the mouth of the cavern, his body turning into incoherent triangular panels of colored light for a second before the wall ripped away in a jagged hole that the three bipeds following him were all to happy to hop through, hot on the reforming dog’s heels.

They barreled through the cubicle and the next one opposite it, knocking over filing cabinets, chairs, and a lamp in the process, before they realized that the swarm wasn’t after them. The furious buzzing had died down, and the glittering collection of pins and tacks had stopped, just hovering like wasps over the mouth of the cave. Their little luminescent lights not really shining through much under the brighter overhead lighting. Then they started to trickle back in, a few at first, and then the rest of them.

El started laughing. Even after she had to pluck a pair of dead pins that she hadn’t even noticed out of her upper arm, she laughed. They’d survived! They’d made it! And she even still had this strange metal and gem piece of hardware that they’d confiscated.

And then, the clicking started.

Other James heard it first, along with his good dog. Then Simon’s head snapped up. The two of them didn’t wait this time; they plugged their braids back in and in a moment they were one again. When El heard it, though, her laugh turned a little manic.

“Quiet, please.” The boys said, in a hushed whisper. But it was far too late. They’d made too much noise, knocked over too many things. Metal and plastic clatters, echoing in the still air. And something - several somethings - had heard them.

The first strider came over the wall. It probably didn’t even know this was the cubicle they were in, but James ripped it apart all the same, and cracked the orb in the same motion. El briefly wondered how the skills worked between them if they were connected at the time, but then, the next strider came in. And the next. And the next.

And the rest.

They flowed over the back and left walls like a waterfall, and the group ran again. Out the door, down the hallway. They approached an intersection, and saw striders moving like they were the carpet ahead of them. So, with the somewhat rough help of the linked boys, El took the sharp right and ducked under the swinging branch of a plant as they just kept running. But the clicking didn’t abate; it surrounded them, drowned them. The little stapler crabs were *everywhere*, climbing over walls, down from the archways, out of nooks and crannies. They kept running, but they weren’t gaining ground.

And then they took a curving turn at the end of a hallway, and found themselves cut off. One, two, five hundred of the monsters, all of them with vicious hunger in their eyes. Waiting, approaching. No hesitation or remorse. They turned to run back the way they’d come, but already there were more and more of them closing in. So many.

One hit El in the head, propelled from the wall behind them, and she dropped to the ground, listless. Her eyes lost focus, and she felt like she was floating for a second. From the floor, she saw Simon and Other James, lashing out with repeated strikes and kicks, intercepting stapler after stapler, occasionally flickering back to mirrored martial arts stances. Corpses and ichor and orbs splattered to the ground around her head, and El struggled to stand. But she couldn’t get her legs to move.

They were so dead.

There was one thought that wouldn’t leave El’s head, though. Not so much a thought, really. More of a feeling. A directive. A truth.

She wasn’t going to die here.

They weren’t going to die here. Unacceptable. Not while she could still do something. And she could always do something; she was, after all, a Goddamn Wizard. Since long before James Actual’s boyfriend had started doing math at the mystical, since before they’d eaten their first blue. She didn’t have the same scope of magic, and maybe didn’t even have the same power, but she had an intimate familiarity with hers, and she could bend it to her whims.

And now her whim was life.

“Tha…” She spat out blood, a red glob staining the floor in front of her as she tried to get control of her tongue. “Tha rhad… The road…” El dragged air through her nose, watching from her prone position as a carpet of staplers closed in, tiny sharp death approaching. “The… the…” She could do this. It was so easy. The words were right there.

“[The Road Leads Ever Onward]”

Reality rewrote itself around her. Within her gut, the feeling of Velocity draining away to nothing overtook her, and almost made her lose concentration entirely. But she held on. And causality stretched to the breaking point, until, all at once, the new real snapped into place.

Twenty six seconds ago, Simon had stumbled slightly as his connection with Other James stuttered. Because of this, a leaping strider had caught his backpack, left a small tear, and then shoved down the zipper with its foot as it tried to climb up before being smashed away. Out of the perfectly sized opening, a single object had tumbled; an uncomfortably thin yellow legal pad with something oddly specific written on it.

El didn’t know *why* she had to grab it, but it had landed right next to her. And her spellweave held, even still. The road led forward. All she had to do was take the step.

One hand reached out, and grabbed Simon’s ankle. It only took the smallest flicker of his eyes to see what she had, and he clapped hands with James who already knew what was going on. Together, they scooped the dog up into their arms. Somehow.

El tore the page.

Three humans, one furious magnetic distortion, and sixteen soon-dead striders that were still clinging on slammed into the second floor of the Door Tower, inside the specially marked off circle of neon orange duct tape that absolutely *no one* was *ever* supposed to step inside.

The last thing El did before she passed out was to grab the strider on her arm with a shaking hand, and slam it, over and over and over, into the ground. Until all the was left was crumbling chitin pulp.

Then she closed her eyes.

She opened them briefly to make sure she got to crack the orb, though.

[+1 Skill Rank : History - Alchemy - Egyptian]

Neat.

_____

“This is nice.” James said with a relaxed sigh.

He was sitting, legs splayed in front of him, on a beach of plastic pebbles and ground cardboard. A few dozen meters away, an inky black sea lapped lazy, sticky waves against the shore. James watched it with a casual smile and a languid gaze. Off in the distance of the ocean of printer ink, some nightmare creature breached the surface for a few seconds before slamming back under with a spray of black liquid, but James paid it no mind. It was a variety of tumblefeed; they’d seen it a few times. Like a great squid - and James insisted it was a tumblesquid, because of the slang term for a power strip - it prowled the ink sea, occasionally popping up above the surface just to remind them that the depths were full of nightmares. But it never came to the beach.

The beach was pleasant. Even with the wreck of the shellaxy that had tried to ambush them from its spot buried under the ‘sand’ sitting nearby.

“James please, I’m gonna lose count again.” Alanna said. Alanna was not relaxing. While James had jammed a broken chunk of cubicle wall into the beach and was using it as something to lean against, Alanna didn’t really feel like leaving herself vulnerable. She rested on a single knee, ready to spring up at a moment’s notice. Sharp contrast to James, who really was just enjoying the chance to take a load off.

Alanna was also laying out orbs on the ground. Groups of three to six yellow orbs, not really sorted, just arranged so they were all roughly the same total size, lined up in rows in the sand. She was trying to establish a pattern of trade with the denizens of the decision tree they’d run across, especially since they’d found a second one farther down the beach, and that opened up the chance for *negotiations*. Purples were soon to become a little less scarce for the delvers, if this kept up.

Right now, though, one of the monitor lizards was insisting she add another orb to one of the piles, and she had legitimately no clue what made it think that was okay.

“Why.” Alanna flatly growled at it. “*Why?!* What makes *these* orbs worth less than *these* orbs?!” She demanded of the little creature made of shards of digital screen. It scampered away at her raised voice, burying itself in the sand while she calmed down. Alanna was curious now, though, and she picked one orb from each pile.

[+1 Skill Rank : Programming - SQL - Indexes]

Well, that was one that it had left alone in a pile of only three. So, what was in the pile that it demanded she keep adding more and more to?

[+1 Skill Rank : Bureaucracy - Government - Australia - Local Council Minutes]

Hm.

Could these little lizards sense how granular skills got? Alanna stilled her face into a mask of neutrality; it wouldn’t do for them to know that they had a valuable skill; the damn things had clearly inherited a good chunk of the abstract supply of ‘Capitalism’ that the dungeon grew out of and if they knew that the delvers appreciated the appraisal of the yellows, they’d charge through the nose for it.

Still, though, that wasn’t why she was here at all. With a grimace, Alanna combined the two lessened piles into one slightly larger one, which the monitor lizard eagerly accepted. “Alright.” She told it. “All this, for sixteen purples. Is your tree amicable to this deal?” The little lizard flashed small loops of color along its plates, its camouflage shattering in the closest thing Alanna had seen to an agreement so far. “Alright. Good talk.” Alanna told it, stepping back.

She went over and knelt next to James while a chain of motivated lizards passed orbs one by one back to their home tree; yellows flowing one way and purples the other. “Got a good rate?” James asked her, abandoning his efforts to fold a sombrero out of stray pieces of paper.

“Not even close.” Alanna snorted. “But we’ll have something at least. I feel like it’s about time to start really spreading the power from these around. One per person, but we don’t quite have enough.”

“We can skip the new guys.” James shrugged, struggling to rise back to his feet in the shifting sand. “Not that I have anything against them, just that we should prioritize the people who we trust first. Also so far these are the ones with the most limited numbers, so, keeping them rationed only seems reasonable.”

“Maybe we can cultivate a decision tree?” Alanna suggested. “It feels kinda shitty to keep the most powerful stuff just to ourselves. Like, not just shitty, but directly against the ideology we’re trying to create.”

James dusted chunks of paper off his legs, flicking a half of a pen cap that had stuck to the hip of his armor away. “You’re not wrong. That said, maybe we just offer people options, instead. Like, not all power is equal, right? So if we’re interested in building everyone up into a force of functionally immortal experts, is there really much difference if an individual has a double jump or three extra masters degrees in political science?” He rolled his tongue across his teeth, before sputtering a bit and pulling a ribbon of shredded paper from his mouth. “Ugh. Okay, this is less relaxing.” James admitted. “Anyway, yeah. This actually makes me think that doing the loot distribution by just ‘everyone make sure that we’re all growing and happy’ is kind of the best idea. Course, that requires ultimate faith in everyone to not be jerks.”

“I’m not gonna be a jerk.” Alanna said. “I refuse.”

“Well yeah, obviously *you* aren’t. I’m more worried about, honestly, JP. Theo. Maybe some of the new guys; haven’t had much to do with them yet. Except Nate. I dunno how into this totally-not-communism he’d be, but he seems cool.”

“What about Dave?”

“I fully expect Dave to give up almost everything. Do you have any idea how few orbs he’s actually used? It’s not a lot, and honestly, I’m kind of annoyed at him. Of all of us, I think he deserves a few more personal perks.”

They walked while they talked, after Alanna scooped up the purples exchanged for her amassed wealth, picking their way over the rocky crags that marked the line between the rows and halls of cubicles. James still carried the briefcase they’d found a few hours ago, and they turned their minds to trying to figure out how to crack open this particular nut.

“Do we just leave the pencils, like, on the beach?” James wondered aloud.

Alanna shook her head. “I mean, we can try. I feel like there’s some trick to this, though. It feels almost too easy, compared to all the other ones.”

“We really need to start having people keep address records for cubicles, just so we can make some mild progress on the two other cases we have back at the tower.” He griped in response.

“Whine later.” Alanna told him with a tap on the shoulder. “Though, good idea. Anyway, why don’t we just… stick them where the ink waves stop? Is that what a shoreline is?”

“Technically, yeah.” James answered. “But do we have to hand them off to someone?”

“Eh. Let’s try it. Maybe we get lucky and it really is that easy.”

Both of them were, legitimately, shocked to discover that jamming the bundle of pencils they’d brought along into the sand was actually all they had to do. It really was that easy.

The briefcase had let out an almost gunshot-level click as it unlocked, and a hermetic hiss followed afterward. Both of them traded raised eyebrows; so far, not a single briefcase had ever had something so *easy* as its goal. Though, that said, if they’d not stumbled across this place already, they could have gone months without ever realizing that it was the work of a couple hours to bike out here and back.

“Well shit.” James said, voice cracking a little bit as they popped the briefcase open.

Ever since the dungeon had opened up James’ world to the prospect of not worrying about making rent every month, he’d been just a little less interested in money in general. Once his life had become secure, it just wasn’t that important. The budget was a number now that defined how well they could take care of the people they’d rescued, how well they could equip themselves, and assured him that he could order chinese food as often as he wanted. And that was kind of it. He could have made a killing if he’d actually organized everyone into stripping and selling off parts of computers or whatever, but that had taken a back seat to exploration and orb acquisition. Because really, what was the value of a few hundred bucks compared to a single skill rank? Nothing.

It still blew his mind to see a hundred and eighty thousand dollars packed into a briefcase in neatly divided piles.

“Alright, well, guess that’s our bullshit funded for another few months.” Alanna confirmed his thoughts. She snapped the case shut again, feeling slightly nervous about that even though they’d already confirmed that once they’d been opened once, they were unlocked forever. “So! Ready to head back now? This place smells like a chemical spill. Wave goodbye to the tumblesquid.”

James was going to make some kind of snarky comment about the beauty of the sea air, but as he raised his arms and took a deep breath, a particularly strong whiff of ink caught him, and he gagged a little. “Ugh. Yeah, okay. Maybe we can find another beach in the other direction that has an ocean of…”

“Of?”

“I was hoping I’d think of something before I got to the end of the sentence. There really aren’t any good liquids in an office.”

“Coffee.”

“Coffee!”

They high fived, and went to retrieve their bikes, a little richer for their trouble.

_____

“I’m not trying to be the whiny guy, but can we stop for a bit?” Lance asked Dave after their group had tackled another potted plant. Both he and Neil were panting in exertion, sweat staining their shirts, though the younger man had opted to try to tough it out and Dave, being Dave, had noticed exactly nothing.

“What? Oh, of course.” Dave said, like it was obvious. “Let’s clear these two cubes and sit for a bit.” He said. Dave was actually kind of frustrated with how many breaks they’d taken, but then, he was far more frustrated with just how empty the entire place seemed today. They’d gone well past the boundary that James had suggested for them, into territory that was more or less uncharted, and still there wasn’t a lot of wildlife. Or any magic items, that they’d found so far. A pair of glasses that let you see about a minute into the past were cool, but not exactly a tactical weapon, and that was basically it.

Their group had been going basically nonstop, compared to the other groups that were rotating back in for hour long breaks. Dave felt like they made up for it by stopping every twenty minutes or so, and it did feel like they weren’t making any particular progress at all. But they really had gone a long way, and it was about time for them to turn around anyway.

“We’ll rest here for a bit, and then head back. Anyone have any questions now that you’ve experienced some of this place?” Dave addressed the other four guys.

“Yeah, I’ve got one.” Nate kind of snapped out. “Where’d you get the arm guards?” He asked Lance. “Because I’m sick of this shit.” He tapped at the half dozen bandages on his arms where striders had sunk their fangs into the meat of his limbs.

“Oh, I made these.” Lance said, sheepish.

“No shit?” Nate made a full body nod of appreciation. “I’ll owe you one if you can make me a pair.” The offer was so direct and… not friendly, exactly. Nate wasn’t friendly in the same way Sarah was. He was blunt, but essentially one hundred percent earnest. And Lance, a guy who clearly hadn’t had a lot of social skill training, didn’t really know how to handle it.

“I guess?” He settled on. On the whole, he was more used to having his hobby made fun of rather than praised. Had he said this out loud, everyone would have pointed out that he was clearly just hanging around the wrong people. Though, the ‘right people’ being ‘people who need body armor’ was kind of a weird category to fall into.

“If you’re going to make more, do it at the secret lair.” Dave told him. “You can make it faster.”

“Yeah, Anesh was saying something about that a couple weeks ago, and I never got a chance to ask about it.” Neil said, gasping as he drained half a water bottle in one go. “Is the lair magic?”

“Of course it is.” Dave said. “Did you not notice that we have two basements?”

“Um actually, lots of places have two basements?” Virgil scratched at his nose. “That’s not magic, even if you did build them with it.”

Nate looked like he wanted to slap the kid on the back of the head. “The basements are the same distance down, you fuckwit.” He said instead, which was more like a verbal slap. “Am I the only one who noticed that?”

“Apparently.” Dave told him. Dave liked Nate; he could trust the chef to tell him straight up if anything went wrong. It was refreshing; not even James did that properly.

They sat for another five minutes or so, Dave declining the rest to go through the desk drawers and add a bag of M&M-lookalikes to his bag. Eventually, the less athletic members felt like they were ready to start the trek back, even if Neil did gripe about it.

And for all that they hadn’t been ambushed constantly, or had to deal with any larger green monsters, they *had* seen some cool stuff today. A nest of striders that had been cautious, but not hostile at all and had let Lance get close enough to snap some pictures on his phone. A pen that wrote in french. A cubicle with stuffed dragons hidden in random places; not magical ones, it was just kinda cute and cool. An intersection where the potted plants had just kept growing, and four of them had twined together overhead to form a kind of canopy - they’d avoided that one entirely, but it sure had looked neat.

For all that, though, it felt kind of underwhelming to Dave, and everyone else sensed it. Even though to *them*, this was all insane and bizarre and new and wild as hell.

Now, though, as they stepped out into the open ceiling hallway and prepared to backtrack, Dave got that feeling. That electric sensation that something was *happening*, and that he was about to be dropped back into the weirder part of this world.

“Uh, what the shit is that?” Neil asked the question everyone was already thinking.

‘That’ was a cubicle tower. But it was behind them, or at least, in the direction they’d come from. There was no way they could have missed it, the thing was twenty stories tall if it was real. But somehow, they’d walked right past it, because they were only just now seeing it as they turned to retrace their steps.

“That… is different.” Dave admitted, a toothy smile on his face despite the circumstance. A subtle transformation rippled through Dave; shoulders raised a fraction, back straightened, voice a little more projected. And in an eyeblink, he was someone else. “Neil. Drone. Get me eyes on it. Everyone else, weapons ready. Nate, take rearguard please. Virgil, get the coffee and flare gun out of the cart.” No one questioned him, though Nate did cock an eyebrow at the sudden shift from tour guide to command presence.

As Neil scrambled the drone, Dave watched it buzz off into the sky, arms crossed and posture eager for something. He didn’t know *what* he was excited for, but he knew it was something.

When the drone froze in midair, the buzzing abruptly halted, Dave hummed to himself. When he realized that *Neil was also locked in place*, things got serious. He didn’t hesitate, reaching slightly down to where the annoyingly tall kid was seated on the ground and popping the radio transmitter cable out of the back of his skull.

“aaaAAAAHHHhhhhh… oh.” Neil’s scream built rapidly then tapered off. In the distance, the drone tumbled to the ground with a plastic crash. “Oh no!” He yelled, more concerned with the machine than his own safety.

Dave interrupted him as he tried to stumble to his feet. “Snakes?” He asked.

“Uh, yeah. How’d you know?” Neil asked.

“Okay. I’m gonna explain camracondas to you guys. But first.” Dave unclipped the radio from his belt and turned it to the wide channel. “This is team three to everyone available. We could use non-emergency assistance. Anyone in range? Over” He repeated himself once or twice before a response came in.

“-*--lp us to th--****--*-oon upon**--you ** Dave.” Came the crackling static.

“James?” Dave inquired. “You have to say over after you talk. Also I didn’t hear any of that properly. Over.”

“I said that Alanna and I are just heading back. Where are you guys?” James said. And then, a slightly sarcastic, “Over.”

“Sending up a flare now. See you soon. Over.” Dave nodded at Virgil, who dramatically pointed the flare gun into the air, and then ruined his moment by wincing, holding his eyes closed, and facing away from the device like it was going to explode.

Once the red ball of light was in the air overhead, the radio clicked back to life. “Got ya. We’re pretty close, actually. Be there in five. Over.” Alanna’s voice came through to Dave, and he nodded. Now, the only thing to do was wait.

And also explain to everyone the camracondas. No, they didn’t paralyze you. Unless they bit you; their venom *was* paralytic. They *froze* you. No movement, no body function. You could still think and see and stuff, but you couldn’t move your eyes, or breathe. Though you didn’t seem to need to breathe. It was mostly unexplained, and they’d never been able to test it, because the camracondas absolutely wanted to eat you.

James and Alanna showed up right on time, biking in and skidding to a halt a dozen feet away from their group. James pulled off the sunglasses he was wearing with a relieved hiss, and addressed Dave. “Alright, what’s up?”

Dave pointed.

“Uh… what the shit is that?” Alanna said, jolting in her seat as she looked up at the tower

“That’s what I said.” Nate told her, nodding.

“What… so, we can only see it from one direction? Or is it only accessible from this direction?” James asked. “Either way, that’s cool. Did you guys want help exploring it?”

“Kind of.” Dave said. “It’s full of camracondas.”

“Full of, as in…” James trailed off as Dave passed him a pair of binoculars. “You didn’t find these in here, right?” He asked, already raising them to his eyes.

Full of, as in, there were dozens of them. A camera face on top of a coiled cable body poking out of every window that James could see. At least, on the first several floors. There was even one just sitting in the door, coiled up and...

“Are they watching us?” James asked, concerned.

“It sure looks that way.” Dave told him. The two of them were standing at the front while Alanna double checked Nate’s bandaging, and gave an impromptu lesson in first aid to the other three. Dave smirked as she got a lot more insistent than he had been that yes, they absolutely *would* need this. “What do you think?” He asked.

James looked over. Dave had been deferring to him a lot more lately, in a way that felt… not awkward, but like there was more weight to it than there should have been. But now wasn’t really the time to tell his friend that he wasn’t actually looking for a squire. Instead, James just clicked his tongue and lowered the binoculars. “I think we shouldn’t be able to move.” He said. “We’ve had one of these things lock someone down from a few hundred feet away before. So I think that if they can all see us, and they’re *watching us*, that there’s a reason we’re still moving.”

“Oh. Shit.” Dave muttered, flushing red in the face. “I didn’t mean to… I brought you guys into a trap.” He stuttered.

“No, I don’t think it’s a trap.” James said, pursing his lips and handing the binoculars back. “I think… I mean, we could just leave, right? We don’t actually need to go past the tower.” He raised his eyebrows at Dave, making it a question, and Dave gave a sideways nod in acknowledgement. They could just loop around it, though it would be through unexplored territory. Still, it wasn’t a dangerous region, so it could be done. “Then I think this is something else.” James said, slipping off his backpack.

“Are you doing something stupid again?” Alanna asked, coming up with the rest of the group to interrupt his conversation with Dave. “James. We talked about this.”

James believed her, but he didn’t remember it. He didn’t say that, though. Instead, he went with, “I’m sure we talked about me not sacrificing myself. But that’s not this. Here, hold my axe and gun.” He said, handing off his belt with the holster and hatchet hooked on it.

“Why?!”

“I don’t want to seem threatening.” He said, and started walking toward the tower. Behind him, he heard Alanna swear under he breath, but she didn’t try to stop him. Both of them, today especially were learning to trust when they had gut instincts.

The walk was actually a little longer than he’d thought, and James had ample time to ponder the fact that he might actually be making a huge and fatal mistake. But nothing froze him up as he approached, and when he reached the foot of the tower, he found himself looking up a short set of steps that ended at a small doorway, and a single camraconda looking down at him. But he could still move.

That moment stretched out for enough time that it started to let James’ nerves cool down a bit. “Um. Hi.” He said, feeling like an idiot. “I come in peace?”

It just stared at him, head inching forward like James was under a microscope. It didn’t move, though. Just watched. And it didn’t, James noticed, move even a single inch over the line of the doorway.

James didn’t comment on that. Instead, he relaxed a bit, and leaned on the base of the steps. “So, you saw my friends and I.” He said, just kind of building up to a rambling monologue. “And we saw you, which is why I’m here. Honestly, I’m not sure what I’m doing, you know?” He admitted to the snake. “I’m sort of just hoping that I’m not a complete idiot, and that there’s something going on here. Something weird, you know? Or maybe you don’t know. Weird is kind of a highly subjective term. Anyway. I guess I’m asking… what’s up? How’s it going? You guys seem cool, want to be friends?”

The camraconda froze in place, like it had been locked down by one of its own. But it wasn’t immobile, just not moving. And James could see it swaying minutely as it examined him with its singular camera eye.

Then it nodded, bobbing its whole body in a strangely human way, and turned to slither into the tower.

“Um.. wait, am I suppose to follow you?” James called after it, confused. He looked back at the group of humans, Alanna in particular, then gave a shrug. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, then you come rescue my ass!” He yelled to them. And then, turning, he clomped his boots up the steps and into the darkness.

The inside was actually not that dark, though it was quite dim. And the first thing James noticed was that it wasn’t… standard. It wasn’t an office. All the interior walls here had been rearranged into open rows that left line of sight perfectly open. All the desks and chairs and everything were just… not here. Instead, there were snakes. A whole host of camracondas peered at him from around the walls as he followed after his guide, and he could almost feel the emotions radiating off of them. Curiosity, wariness, anger maybe? A strange blend of feelings in the air.

James followed the one he was walking after, trying not to panic about being this deep in the lion’s den. They ascended the ramp to the next level, and he was surprise to see this floor too had been cleared out, rearranged.

“I should warn you, I actually really hate climbing these things.” He told the camraconda leading him. It looked back on him, briefly, with contemptuous pity in its eye, and James sighed a lung-stretching breath. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.”

A few floors up, James started to see the remnants of the missing furniture. They came to a level where the walls had been positioned to create rooms, for lack of a better term. Not cubicles, exactly. More like portioned spaces designed for the serpents below. And in them… nests, maybe?

Torn up padding from the chairs, shredded paper nests. But also, other things. Wooden panels from desks that had been attached to walls and carved into strange patterns. Pieces of splintered wood with holes drilled in them hung up with string or paperclips; windchimes in a windless building. A pair of camracondas manipulating metal chair legs into a grid shape on the ground; playing a game, perhaps.

Art.

They’d made art, James realized with a sharp breath.

He didn’t complain for the rest of the climb up.

Twenty one floors above the ground, the guide stopped. They hadn’t seen another snake for a couple floors now, and it looked like these upper floors were mostly used to store stuff. But here, at the base of the last ramp, they had to pass through two serpent bodies that flanked the ascent like an honor guard. They nodded to the guide, but kept their eyes on James the whole time he was in sight.

At the top of the ramp, James lost any inkling of the words he was trying to form in his head. Here, in front of him, were three things that all defied understanding.

First, there was a corpse. In the center of the room was a conference table, as they’d come to expect from the towers. But on it, in repose, was a human body. Arms folded across her chest, eyes closed, her suit jacket torn and bloodied, but with a final defiant snarl on her face. She could have died yesterday. She could have died a hundred years ago. James would never know, because a camracond sat in constant vigil of the body. This one had strings of makeshift jewelry and lines of highlighter and sharpie drawn across its body, and it didn’t move as James entered behind the other camraconda. It just watched the corpse, unmoving.

Second, there was a green orb. It hovered in the air, suspended by an unseen force a half-inch above the claws of red liquid that flowed around it in sharp patterns. As soon as James saw it, knowledge of its function made itself known to him; this structure was protected. None who bore it ill will could observe it directly. Though, there was a hint of something else there unsaid. A direction, a restriction maybe? Something in James wanted to ask about how often that could work, and why it had shut out Dave’s group until they’d passed it.

Third, there was a creation. The walls were covered, all but the windows letting in light, with the largest pieces of salvaged wood. And upon these, someone, presumably the denizens of this place, had carved a story. His guide saw him looking, and pointed with its snout to the first panel to James’ left, the first in the story.

James reached out a hand to touch the first one as he stared at it, and found for the first time that he could not move. To his side, his guide gently released him from the paralyzing gaze, and he dropped his arm back down politely, content to merely look. It showed, in rough lines and difficult imagery, a single human running from a pack of snakes.

The next one in sequence around the room showed a tower, one human entering from the bottom. And then, the snakes, climbing the tower, swarming it, following. The next was combat; a snake and a human facing each other down with deep lines of anger painted on the wood; and he saw they’d shown her with bared fangs in place of any weapon. After that, a human standing over a corpse, holding a ball. The green orb? Probably. And then, the tower again from the outside. But cracked in half. Was the crack in the wood on purpose? It must have been; everything here was too careful otherwise. Something had *Broken* here, and that woman had been at its center.

The last three panels were carved with less amateurish lines; more shadowing, more colors. These had been made afterward. The first of them showed the entire brood of serpents surrounding the orb, and the body under it, from overhead like a mandala of cords. The next was three parts; some tried to leave, dragging the others with them, and they were struck down. The last was of three snakes baring their necks, being fed upon by the lined up host of the others. James couldn’t tell if it was punishment, or..

“Sacrifice?” He asked, looking at the others in the room. His guide nodded to him. “Oh.” James realized something. They lived here. They never left the tower. The tower couldn’t be observed; it was safe. Here, and only here, the kind of monsters that were made with the green orbs could truly be free. “You’ve been here a long time, haven’t you?” He asked softly, and got another nod in reply. “And you’re starving. Or you were. But you can’t last forever.” A sad nod.

He didn’t hesitate for a second to pull out the handful of yellow orbs he kept in his pocket. “I know they’re not greens, but I know that Secret can eat these too. Will they help you keep going?” James asked. “We have more, outside. I can go get some. How many of you are left?”

The camraconda looked away from him, turning its body to stare out the window. James heard a hissing noise, and almost jumped, but then realized that it was coming from something sizzling on the lip of the window, a small whiff of smoke coming off the windowsill. When the snake turned back, he saw a glimmer of liquid sheen on its camera eye; it was *crying*.

“Not as many as there should be, huh?” It wasn’t really a question. “Okay.” James said. “I don’t know why you showed my friends your home, or why you let me in.” He started, but held out a reassuring hand as the guide tensed in anticipation. “But. Your people need help. And we can give that.” He thought for a second. “Second but; I have no idea how to get started with that.” He admitted, and saw both the camracondas in the room droop in disappointment. “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” James spoke like he would to a scared dog, voice low and reassuring. “I’ve got people a lot smarter than me on my team.” He sighed, and walked over to the one at the window, tentatively reaching out to lay a hand on its head. “We can figure this out. Okay?”

Okay, it seemed to say, staring up at him with one eye, dripping acid tears.

“Alright. I’m gonna go now. We’ve got a long way to go tonight. But I swear to you, we *will* be back.” James promised. “Also I’ll get you all the yellows we have on us. We’ll be gone a week, is that… hm. I don’t know how you guys do time. Do you have any clocks here?”

The camraconda shook its head like it was either scared or insulted or both at once, and James just decided to let that one lie.

The trip back down the tower was in a different light than the one up. Now, instead of a potential ambush, he saw refugees. These weren’t monsters. Not anymore. With the dungeon unable to find them, they’d been freed. But unlike when it had been suppressed into sleep by the monstrous board room thing, there was nothing else around to pull their strings. Karen’s mind hadn’t found them, hidden as they were. Neither had anything else like her. So they’d hidden here, rearranged the furniture, freed in mind but trapped in the building.

Scared children.

“We need to talk to Anesh.” James told the group when he came out, the camraconds around the entrance letting them drop back to unfrozen positions from where they’d been preparing to storm the building in search of him. He didn’t bother to acknowledge that. “Also, Dave, if you have any extra yellows, please share them. They’re hungry.”

“Hungry for… the blood of the living?” Lance asked, suspiciously clutching his fire axe in sweaty hands.

“No. Just starving.” James said sadly. “Sorry guys, this one’s just a tragedy. Let’s get back to the door. I’ll fill you in on the way. And no breaks this time; we’re low on time, and we gotta get moving.” He turned back to the steps of the tower, and paused. With all the sincerity he could muster, he placed a hand over his heart. “I promise.” He said. “We’ll be back.”

He meant it.

_____

They made it back to the door, which they still needed a good name for as a basecamp, with minimal problems. Nothing worth really mentioning, except for James almost accidentally falling on an orb and picking up arguably the most useful skill of the night.

[+1 Skill Rank : Fabrication - Sewing]

People were around the tower now, not just Theo screwing around and being useless. Teams had started trickling back in, or had ended their adventures an hour or two ago, and there was a bustle of activity going on. Delvers stripped off equipment to check back into the armory, a couple people sat still while Sarah checked over their bandages and checked for unnoticed wounds, some people had plates of hot food, and and everywhere, people bragged about narrow escapes, showed off xenotech, and traded orbs like gold.

“I could *feel* the magic.” Simon was telling Secret in a quiet voice as James walked by, his party scattering behind him to accomplish their own tasks before they all headed out. “She altered reality. She changed time, Secret.”

James would have to look into that one later. Right now, though, while Nate went to pack up the serving trays he’d brought in, and Alanna went to trade away the purple orbs to everyone who wanted one, James looked up at the tower.

He shook his head. No fucking way was he climbing *another* of these things tonight.

“*ANESH*!” He hollered, making the people around him jump in shock.

A second later, his boyfriend poked his head out of the window. “What?!” He yelled back down the tower.

“Come down here! I’ve got something to tell you about, and it’s almost time to go!” James called back.

“He has a radio, you know.” Daniel pointed out as he walked past out of the tower, carrying two of the storage containers full of human hearts to the cart they were going to wheel out with them.

James rolled his eyes, and pretended he knew that the whole time.

“I’m making breakthroughs in theory, James!” Anesh yelled back. “The reds and yellows are of the mind, the oranges and greens of the *place*, and the blues and purples are the body! It all makes sense!”

“Shouldn’t the reds make infomorphs then?” James yelled upward, noting a few people around him chuckling.

There was silence for a second, and he could have sworn he heard muffled swearing from ten stories up. And then; “I’ll be down in a minute.” Anesh shouted.

He stood there, watching with no small amount of pride as everyone started to focus on making sure everything useful was piled in the tower, everything that was trash was stored safely in the trash cans around the cubicles which would be purified over the course of the week, and everyone started to collect in groups while they waited for something.

It took him a little to realize they were waiting for him.

When Anesh came down, and after he’d dropped of the last of the hearts, James pulled him aside. “We have a problem I need you to put your mind to.” He said, and filled him in on the camracondas. “Also, we’re rich now. So, dinner’s on me. You feel like pancakes?”

“I would love pancakes.” Anesh admitted. “Though I’m not going to actually get pancakes. Your country thinks that desert is real food.”

“I wasn’t gonna get pancakes either.” James confided in him with as much of a smile as he could muster. He was *tired*, after all of this. Especially the trapped camracondas. That had hurt more than he’d been prepared for. “Anyway. I’m gonna go address everyone. I think they’re waiting for me to tell them to go home.”

“Have fun.” Anesh said, giving him a soft kiss on the neck, and then blushing furiously about it.

James gave him a smile; it was cute, seeing him get used to this. And even cuter when he still got so sheepish. He tried to keep that feeling swirling inside him as he got up to move to over by the door, to the front of the crowd. He saw the wrap up of the night happening around him; piles and piles of the guild’s orbs being loaded into duffel bags to be counted, sorted, and distributed back at the lair over the next week. Some magic items carefully secured in cardboard boxes or metal cases. That last double check for anything too illegal that they couldn’t take back out.

“Hey everyone.” He said, and there was a hush. James looked out over the crowd. Some new faces, some old. Some his friends, some people he’d saved, some people who’d saved him. All of them here, standing with him. Even Theo, though he made a mental note to probably omit her.

“It’s been a long night.” He said. “And from what I hear, you’ve all had some adventures.” Cheers back at him.

“Found a window!” Alex shouted from the back.

“We rode maul carts!” A black-eyed Daniel laughed, orange fire flickering off his hair.

“Strider swarm.” Simon muttered, and got a few pats on the back from those near him.

“And we’re all alive.” James said. “One more time, we all made it out. And we’ve got a mountain of treasure, too.” He looked at them and grinned. “I wanted to let you all know, that this is the first night where we’ve really started to do something with this place. I told you all, when we started, that we were going to change the world. To do something important, to make it better. Well, here’s a toe hold. Upstairs, at the top of that tower, is an overhead projector that can copy stuff. And today, while we were out exploring, Anesh used it to make thirty one copies of a functioning human heart. That, mixed with a blue power from Sarah, has just solved the demand for heart transplants for a year. For the country.” He looked at them, back straight, arms clasped behind him. “We never would have had the time, or the resources, to do that without everyone supporting us. Without all of you.” James smiled at them, and they gave him ferocious grins back. “We’re not done. This is the start; this is where we break into reality and show them what we can do. We’re going to do so much more. And we have to be ready. Ready to live up to who we can be, ready for anyone who tries to stop us. Ready to fix the world and fight the monsters.” James rolled a large yellow orb in his hand, pulled out of a coat pocket he’d forgotten about. “We can do so much. And every ounce of power, to any of us, just keeps pushing us forward. He clapped his hands once, turning the orb into a skill. “Good job today. Let’s get out of here before I talk us into getting trapped for a week.”

[+3 Skill Ranks : Architecture - Structural - Arcology]

They laughed. But more than that. They believed.

That night, James got actual pancakes. A dozen people, a dog made of a magnetic field, and one infomorph, some new friends and some old, ate like champions in the whole wing of the restaurant the staff set aside for them. The staff didn’t ask questions, but whenever anyone saw a puzzled look, they gave answers anyway. They tipped them enough to go home and not worry about anything for a long time.

Two hours of real time later, Alanna got in a fistfight with three hospital guards, one police officer, and an ER nurse. After they were disabled, she slammed several crates of heart on the counter, yelled instructions at them, capped it off by saying “It’s fucking magic, don’t question me”, and left.

And then, finally, when they got Anesh to stop fiddling with the new coffee machine, the three of them crashed into bed together, and slept the sleep of the just.

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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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