James lurched forward, landing hands-first on the oddly smooth concrete sidewalk. Jerking himself upward, he staggered backward, vision suddenly clear and unobscured by panicked tears. Whipping his head around, he saw only grey. Grey buildings, grey roads, grey street signs and fences and vending machines and sky. He felt like his heart should be racing, his breathing should be labored, but instead, even his own body felt grey. Bland. Normal to the extreme.
"It's not that bad, you know." A voice came floating through the grey air to him.
James turned, and saw Secret standing at the end of the street. He looked different than normal; instead of his own customized copy of James' own face, it was more like he was wearing that body as a shirt. The rest of him, the parts that James didn't normally talk to, drifted behind the human shape. Scales and fins and teeth, wearing a James-shaped mask.
"What do you mean?" He asked calmly. He tried to scream it, tried to demand answers. But his voice came out placid. "What's going on here?" He inquired, curious. His curiosity hadn't taken a hit at all.
Secret shrugged, and the motion rippled down the body extending behind his visage. "I am keeping you calm." He said. "You were panicking. I didn't want you to injure yourself."
"This is a dream." James said, suddenly realizing. "This is the city you were building." He looked about a bit more, at the buildings without definition or color.
There was a pause that lasted a lifetime before the response came. "This is not a dream." Secret said. "You are not, exactly, asleep. A human would have blacked out. You, though, have come here. I was not expecting company." He gestured with a hand and a fin, displaying his current state, as if to apologize.
James sighed and sat down on a bus stop bench. "Damn. I'm sorry. Thanks for taking over my heart rate, though." He said. "What do you mean it's not that bad?"
Secret took a seat next to him, somehow fitting eight thousand pounds of deep-sea monster comfortably on the seat in a way that confused James brain. If he'd been awake, it would have been an optical illusion or an orange orb. If he'd been truly asleep, dream logic would have kept him from worrying. But now, his only real defense against the twisted physics here was to just look away. He figured it was only polite; he'd caught Secret half-dressed, after all.
"You are concerned about the lives in the orbs." Secret said. "You think you've been eating your fellows."
"More or less." James said. "Well, that, and the fact that the large orbs only drop from the ones that look human. Guess I know what happened to all those coworkers, huh? That's the part that really bothers me. I know the creatures in the office aren't stupid, but these ones used to be *people*." He folded his hands on his lap, resisting the anxious urge to pull on his own fingers. "I don't want to be a killer."
Secret nodded. "I understand. The brothers that I have killed while with you have been unenlightened. I mourn the need for it, but they were not like you or me. You do not wish to think you have taken a higher life."
His words cut through to the core of James' worry and fear. "Yeah." He said simply, not knowing how to respond, and caught off guard by the strangely elegant words from his internal companion.
"You are, I have decided, a good person." Secret said abruptly. It shocked James a bit. He wasn't used to thinking of himself as a good person. He tried to do the right thing whenever he could, tried to be kind and caring, tried to be the sort of person that his dad would be proud of. But he never felt like a *good person*. In saying that, Secret cut straight into the core of his fear; that he had done something inexcusable. For some reason, the approval of the memetic life form pretending to be sitting next to him mattered to James. A lot.
He looked up, making eye contact with his friend. Actual eye contact, not just with the shell. "Thank you." James said, quietly but with real weight behind the words. "But it doesn't change the fact that those are people."
"Ah." Secret pronounced the word strangely. Of all the things he'd acquired from James lately, understanding of that particular word was not one of them, and he said it letter by letter. James didn't have time to find it weird, though, as he launched into an explanation. "Those things were not once persons. Like every other life within the expanse, they are awoken with power. Much more power than would be used, for example, to awaken one like my maker. But power nonetheless."
"Your... oh, Rufus. Right." James remembered where Secret had come from. "So, they're just creations?"
"Just?" Secret turned one of his real eyes to James. "Every living thing is just a creation. Even you." He said. "We grow up, eventually." If there was a hint of anger in his voice, it faded as he continued. "Yes, though. They are newly minted. No hint of a ghost or a person within them."
James would have flushed red with embarrassment at accidentally degrading Secret, if he wasn't still being held in forced calm. "Sorry." He said simply, but honestly. "Also, sorry that I told the others about the blue orb you helped with. I didn't realize until after that you were feeding on that."
Secret smiled with both mouths and shrugged. "It is of no concern. There is food aplenty in your heart. I have found a secret that you insist on keeping even from yourself. It keeps me fed and strong."
Well that was something James wasn't expecting to hear. "What..." He started to ask, and then stopped himself. He didn't need to know, probably. If it was actually dangerous, Secret would just tell him. So he decided to trust him for now. "Nevermind. I'm glad you're staying healthy." He settled on saying. "What about the orbs, though? Why did Lily identify it as a person's name? And someone I used to work with, too."
"He may still have been lost to the expanse." Secret said sadly. "Or perhaps it is simply a copy of the idea of that person. I am still young, and have only seen as much as you have. But we may yet find out together, if you can handle future truths with more grace."
Again, James was glad he couldn't blush. Despite being orders of magnitude older than Secret, he felt like he was in the principal's office. And, appropriately enough, he was getting schooled on how to drop casual burns on people.
Feeling a small tug from somewhere outside himself, James looked up at the sky. It was still grey, but with a small splotch of blue and green near the horizon. "I think that's my cue to wake up." He said, standing off the bench. He looked over at Secret. "Hey, thanks. Again. Really." He took a breath, and felt his chest move, inside and out. "I had a question though, before I go. You're clearly learning more about talking; why are you talking like a character from a high fantasy book?"
This got a wide, fanged smile from Secret. "Because this is how you wish you spoke, all the time." He said, as James opened his eyes.
"Fuck, that makes too much sense." Was the first thing James said when he woke up. He was in his bed, and it was pretty comfortable. He considered just going back to sleep, but decided he needed to talk to Anesh first before doing so. Just to apologize to his friend for freaking the hell out on him.
Rolling out of bed, he noticed that Lily was back in her pen, but the orb was gone. He also noticed that he'd been undressed at some point, which was either more or less concerning. James didn't have time to decide right now.
Throwing on some sweatpants, he walked out into the hall and peeked into Anesh's room. His friend was currently awake and doing something on his laptop. From the look on his face, it could have been either math that would make James question his place in the universe, or losing at Starcraft to someone half his age. They had very similar facial cues.
"Hey." He announced himself. "I'm up."
Anesh turned to him, leaning back in his plush desk chair. "You weren't out long. Are you okay?" He asked, worry lacing his voice. The ease with which he broke his focus on the monitor made James think that either it was homework after all, or that he was more important to Anesh than a game of Starcraft, which was pretty flattering.
"Yeah, I'm doing better. Secret talked to me a bit about it. He's growing into a pretty zen guy in here." James tapped his forehead. "Not sure where he gets it from."
His roommate raised a single eyebrow. "I see. So, you're not going to freak out? Even though we've been stealing memories from other humans?"
James slumped against the doorframe. "That's where my mind went too, though apparently I reacted a bit stronger than you. I blame the fact that I was tired." He justified it weakly. "But no. I don't really know how to explain it the way Secret did, but they're not exactly parts of other people. I'm not sure exactly what they *are*, and neither is he, I don't think, but we're both interested in finding out."
"Okay," Anesh said, "as long as you're doing alright. I don't want to have you retching all over the bathroom again every time we have to fight a suit."
"One time thing, I promise." James said, raising his hand in an oathtakers gesture. "Oh, on that note, thank you for cleaning up. I'm sorry I was out. Although... did you take my pants off?"
James had never seen someone with skin as dark as Anesh's blush quite that shade of red. It made him look almost copper as he looked up at the ceiling to avoid eye contact. "I had to wash your clothes too, since you ruined them! I wasn't trying to be weird about it or anything!" He stammered.
It was hard for James not to laugh at that. "Jesus, man. That's the most sitcom thing I've ever seen you do. Relax, I'm not mad." He stifled a yawn. "Anyway, I need to go sleep for real. Goodnight. And... thanks again. Really."
"Of course." Anesh said with a small smile. "Sleep well."
James ducked out, and then poked his head back in for one last thought. "Oh, vaguely related to that. Apparently, Secret literally feeds off secrets. So, now that I've ruined the one about the blue orb absorby thing for him, can you think of anything that we could have as a replacement secret? I want to do something nice for him."
Anesh blinked, trying to process the rapid fire sentence James had just said that included the word 'secret' too many times. "Um... how about we keep it between us what his food source is, and promise not to tell JP or Alanna? Would that work?"
"I... think so?" James said. He looked to the side, half opening his mouth to say something and then closing it as he thought. "If nothing else, maybe he can snack on the abstract concept of irony that's going to produce. Okay. Thanks! G'night friend." And with that, he headed back to his own bed to collapse.
Anesh sighed. "Well, that was productive." He muttered to himself. While he cared about James quite a lot, he was a bit frustrated with how his friend could so easily jump to the worst possible conclusion for everything in his life. This wasn't the first time, though it was the most dramatic so far. Every missed call from an unknown number could have been a family member dying, every time he was ten minutes late to work he was going to get fired, that sort of thing. Anesh knew that James had pretty bad depression, so he tried to be as understanding as possible, but it made it hard to talk to him about stuff like this sometimes. Still, though, it was good to know that Secret was being a good influence. If James continued to stubbornly refused to get on any kind of antidepressant, maybe the living meme in his brain could tweak some of his biological processes instead.
Anesh shook his head as he tried to figure out how to have a one-on-one chat with an entity that lived literally inside someone else. He gave up on that after about ten seconds, and with an exasperated huff, went back to his game of Starcraft. Which he was now losing.
Over the next several days, a lot of stuff piled up in their living room. Boxes arrived for various things purchased off the internet. A few new suits of body armor, one of them properly sized for Alanna. Several individual packages with different helmets in the sizes and formats of everyone's preference. A pair of heavy steel cases with flare guns in them at one point materialized on their table, along with a more modern looking box of flares. James and JP kept working on and testing (outdoors) the new potato gun, until it was both complete, and a little more protected against spontaneous explosions, and that got added to the pile.
Alanna became a more permanent presence at their apartment, too. She was there when James woke up and there when he came back from work. She was also there when her warhammer was delivered, and spent a good deal of time out in the field near the apartment practicing with it. The hammer, about a meter of weapon, topped with a head that was half studded hammer, half curved spike for those things that required a bit more piercing power, fit her hands almost perfectly, and she quickly started to develop solid aim with it. James was concerned that she was a bit too filled with restless energy, what with her sudden onset of joblessness; he was also amused that it seemed like her primary motivation was more that she just wanted to mooch off his food.
And he was finding it was a lot of fun to cook for his friends. Of all the skills he'd acquired, the ability to make food, to find his way around the kitchen and understand recipes and know flavor profiles, that was the most valuable to him so far.
Well, that or the martial arts. He was really starting to enjoy the kinetic feeling of motion in his own body.
Other stuff started showing up as well, further cluttering their living room. Alanna acquired a set of folding bikes for them to bring in; lightweight, compact, and stacked against a wall in a way that was still adding to the growing amount of things they'd have to take in. Someone (James assumed it was Anesh, but couldn't be sure) also got them a flat platform cart that they could use to transport all this in. Bonus use, it could also be used to vastly increase their effective load in the dungeon. James had a feeling he was going to need to pay Frank again to get that into the elevator at work, though.
About a dozen new backpacks showed up too, in varying sizes. Along with proper canteens, and harnesses for the armor that had about a thousand clips and slots to hold things. Dave also brought them lunch boxes that they could use to have... lunches. Eight hours was a long time to go with only snacking on randomized candy.
James sighed as he looked at his kitchen table. There were currently two spools of copper wire on it that he had *no* idea where they came from, next to a counting machine for dollar bills and the lunchboxes. Piled next to that was about thirty small USB drives that James had picked up for cheap; opting to keep any weird files they found quarantined to their own devices. In the back corner sat a compact electric pressure washer that had been purchased with the last of the group funds, along with two full carboys of water, ready to go. Everything was coming together, everyone was preparing themselves, and he felt really bad that the only thing he could think was that his apartment had never looked messier.
He'd talk to Anesh about getting an actual office space of their own to base their operations out of later.
They'd given up on building a shield for any of themselves after the one they were trying to make for Alanna just... didn't hold up. It was weirdly demoralizing to have one part of their whole operation fail, when everything else was going as planned, but Anesh just shrugged, made a note to allocate some funds to going shopping at the next Renaissance Faire that was around the area, and kicked everyone back out of their moping.
And then they had a special box. It only had a few things in it, but it was the heaviest on James' mind. A pair of shades, a nerf gun, a pen, nothing too important to look at, but it was duct taped shut and meant to not be tampered with or lost in any way until they were back in the dungeon, and ready to use what it contained. They'd tested the Nerf gun with regular darts, and been disappointed to find that it didn't work. But they still had five more shots with it, and any one of them could save their lives.
That box sat on the flat cart, on top of a longer, flatter, plastic case, which contained Alanna's final contribution to their operation. Her Mossberg 590 shotgun, the sleek, black metal weapon sitting comfortably in its foam padded case. A couple boxes of twelve gauge slugs next to it declaring its intent to be the final line of defense for Fort Door in the event that they ran into too many stuffed shirts to handle. Or, worst case scenario, something bigger.
And finally, one collapsible metal rod. The eponymous ten foot pole that every good dungeon delving group needed.
James finished making his sandwich on the kitchen counter, and made his way back to his room. It was a rare moment of quiet compared to the last week, and he was planning to sit down, eat his food, watch some random stuff on YouTube, and relax. Deep breaths and inner peace were his plan for the night.
Because tomorrow was Monday. And after the end of his shift at work, it was going to be Tuesday.
And then they were going in.
"Ready or not, dungeon." James thought. "Here we come."
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