Level One [1/2]
It was the sound of Ariadne’s voice asking if everyone was okay that roused Arthur to full lucidity and brought the world around him into sudden clarity. He found himself sitting on a grassy road; the ground soft and spongy beneath his pressing fingers as he pushed himself carefully to his feet. Straightening his suit, Arthur scanned his immediate surroundings, checking first on his companions and then for anything that might be an immediate threat to them.
The first thing he noticed was that there were only six of them. Fischer was nowhere in sight.
“Has anyone seen Fischer?” Cobb asked, having noticed his absence almost immediately too.
Arthur felt a prickling of unease as everyone replied in the negative. No one had seen Fischer. He shared a quick look with Cobb before turning to take in the world around them. Everything appeared to be fairly tame at first glance. The level they found themselves in resembled an open countryside with an overgrown pathway stretching out before them; a long, rickety fence lined the pathway, its edges and the sprawling fields beyond were choked thick with shrubbery and wild flowers.
The sun above them hung hot and heavy in a nearly-clear blue sky. It looked quintessentially English, he thought, rolling his shoulders beneath a suit jacket that suddenly felt a lot thicker and heavier than it actually was.
Arthur stepped up towards the fence, touching the flaking wood and testing the authenticity. He felt a slight humming beneath his fingertips as he dragged them across the pickets and resistance when he tried to push his hand past them, out towards the sprawling countryside on the other side of it.
‘Only one way to go, then,’ he thought, turning back to his teammates.
He swept his gaze over his companions, watching as they gathered themselves- standing, inspecting- and his eyes searched out Eames, who appeared to be having an animated conversation about the architecture with Ariadne, their hands flying around with exaggerated motions as they competed to make their points.
“It doesn’t look too sinister,” Cobb commented, stepping up to his elbow and drawing his attention; Arthur felt himself frowning at Cobb’s words.
“These things never do to begin with,” he muttered darkly. It didn’t matter that that had been one of his first thoughts too. Cobb shot him a wry smile of agreement before, silently, they started walking in the only direction the road seemed inclined to lead them. The rest of the team fell instinctively into step around them.
Aside from Ariadne and Eames, no one else seemed inclined to speak for the first twenty minutes or so. Arthur thought that maybe they should be discussing tactics, or maybe just asking themselves where Fischer was, or how on earth he’d managed not only to find out about the Inception in the first place (and so quickly at that), but also how he’d managed to find them, kidnap them, and then set them up in such an elaborate revenge attempt.
It was terrifying to think just how easily he, himself, had been snatched up. Especially considering that there were rules. After a job - after any job - they knew to split up and lie low, change identities and skip the country if need be. Successful or not they could never really be sure of the repercussions of a job until the backlash hit. It didn’t always happen. But when it did, it usually hit big, and it was always better to be a million miles away than slap-bang in the crossfire.
Before the Inception job, when it was just Arthur and Cobb and whoever else they pulled in to fill in the blanks, they’d had very few backlashes. Arthur’s meticulousness coupled with Cobb’s unwavering determination and ruthlessness nearly always saw them walk away from a job with nary a consequence. That wasn’t to say that they’d never had a mishap or two, of course they had, (just look at the Cobol job), but they had their contingency plans and once a job was done they split, changed their identities, and ran if they had to.
It was exactly what had been done after the Inception job. Whilst Cobb had stayed in LA, Arthur knew that almost every single one of them had about-turned and boarded new flights under different aliases. It occurred to him to wonder if in the aftermath, once the high of their success had settled into a thrum of nervousness, they hadn’t been too predictable in their run.
Ariadne had returned to France, Yusuf to Kenya, Saito to Japan, and Eames had spontaneously decided a trip to England had been order. Arthur had stayed in LA for several weeks himself, checked in on Cobb and the kids, sorted out his own affairs in the city, and then taken the long and winding route to meet up with Eames in England.
Except when he’d gotten there there’d been no Eames. Just a taser to the back of his neck when he’d let himself into the flat.
They’d all, more or less, gone back to their homes. To the one place they should never have returned right off a job. No wonder they’d been so easy to track and abduct.
“You’re thinking too hard,” Saito’s voice came as a surprise and Arthur found himself jerking just a little at the sound of it. He looked up, noting that the older man had fallen into step beside him. He said nothing.
“What are you thinking about, Arthur?” Cobb asked, still walking at his side.
“I’m thinking,” he replied after a moment, “that we didn’t try nearly as hard to lie low after the Inception job.”
Cobb nodded; his face scrunched slightly in agreement and regret, and Arthur felt a lurch in his stomach as he considered just where Cobb must’ve been when he was taken.
“They’ll be fine,” he assured him, though he couldn’t possibly know whether that was true.
“We can’t be sure of that though, can we?” Cobb pressed, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket and staring straight ahead.
Sometime during Arthur’s musings, Eames, Ariadne and Yusuf had skipped ahead of them. The three of them looked to be enjoying themselves. Arthur felt a spike of irrational irritation as he watched them running along the path.
“I did not spend as much time with Fischer as our Mr Eames,” Saito offered, “but I would like to believe he is a man of his word. He may well surprise us.”
“A kidnapping isn’t surprising enough?” Cobb muttered.
“We should regroup.” Arthur commented, sparing Cobb a briefly concerned look before turning his gaze ahead to where their fellow team members had stopped by what looked to be a grove of trees.
“Of course,” Saito agreed. Cobb nodded wordlessly, and they pressed forward to catch up with the others.
- - -
The grove of trees turned out not to be trees at all, but rather gigantic mushrooms. Arthur found himself staring in utter disbelief, not just at the sheer size and ridiculousness of them, but at the fact that Eames and Yusuf had somehow managed to pull themselves atop one of them and were currently in the process of treating it like some kind of trampoline.
“I feel a headache coming on,” Arthur muttered. Cobb snorted, then laughed as he caught sight of Ariadne trying to jump up onto one of the mushrooms; her fingertips found fleeting purchase on the springy head before she slipped off again with a soft cry of annoyance. Cobb stepped forward, offering her his hands as a make-shift step, allowing her to finally scrabble up onto the mushroom.
“Thanks, Dom!” she called down, standing cautiously before giving an experimental jump and laughing in delight as she bounced high into the air.
“Really?” Arthur commented dryly, just looking at Cobb.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked with a shrug. Arthur all but refrained from smacking him upside the head as Ariadne suddenly cried out in pain.
A cube materialised out of nowhere, a good few inches above Ariadne, and if the way she was rubbing her head was anything to go by, Arthur thought it safe to assume that she’d hit it on one of her bounces. The box shimmered momentarily before spitting out a brightly coloured object. It flew up into the air before falling down, bouncing off Ariadne’s mushroom and launching itself with another bounce towards the one Eames and Yusuf were currently sharing.
“It’s a star! Grab it!” Ariadne yelled out with a delighted laugh, watching as both Eames and Yusuf launched themselves towards the object. Eames proved the victor of the two, lifting it in his hand with a triumphant cry just moments before the star-like shape flickered and spewed itself all over him. Shocked at the sudden reaction, Eames ended up tripping over his own feet and stumbling right off the edge of the mushroom.
“Eames!” more than one of them shouted out. They watched, horrified, as Eames started to fall. Except things suddenly seemed to happen in slow motion, with Eames able to twist himself around and land in an almost graceful crouch by the time he finally reached the ground.
“Nice,” Yusuf commented, peeking over the side of his mushroom.
“That was… interesting,” Eames said, standing up and looking himself over. His hands were sparkling with whatever residue the star had showered him with. He tried to wipe them on his suit jacket to no avail. Arthur noted that his face was sparkling, too.
“Are you okay?” Arthur asked instead, moving towards him. Eames looked up, his mouth twitching a smile before he reached out and swiped one of his hands down Arthur’s chest. Or rather, and more importantly, down his rather expensive and ridiculously well tailored suit.
Arthur smacked at Eames’ hands, checking his jacket for any traces or stains. He found neither but glared at Eames for good measure anyway, seeing that the sparkle was already starting to trickle away from his skin.
“Hey,” Yusuf called down to them, “do you think that fall was a result of the gravity here or just because of whatever that star thing was?”
“Why don’t you jump off and see?” Eames coaxed, throwing him a grin. Yusuf actually paused to consider it before pushing to his knees.
“Yusuf, I don’t think—” Cobb tried to warn, but either Yusuf didn’t hear or he chose not to, because in the next instant he was leaping off the mushroom, his face scrunched in a manner that suggested to Arthur he suspected himself that this was not such a good idea.
Thankfully the gravity theory proved right, and they watched as Yusuf moved his legs in a cycling manner, leisurely making his way down to ground level. Eames clapped him on the back in congratulations. Though whether for a job well done or to commend him on the sheer stupidity of trying it out in the first place, Arthur wasn’t entirely sure.
Above them, Ariadne clapped her hands in delight. “I want to try it,” she exclaimed, moving towards the end of the mushroom with careful steps. Cobb moved instinctively forward. Instead of leaping off the mushroom like Yusuf had, however, Ariadne gave a somewhat delicate hop instead, her body floating down inch by inch. She grinned jubilantly at them once her feet touched ground and normal gravity took hold once more.
“Let’s do that again!” she grinned.
“We should probably discuss—” Arthur started but Ariadne waved him off.
“Just one more jump, Arthur! Then we can get down to business!” she said before turning back to the mushroom she’d been standing on. Cobb moved forward to help her up again. Arthur pursed his lips as he watched as Cobb then levered himself up after her. And then Eames and Yusuf were clambering back up one of the stems with Saito not far behind them, though he at least refrained from clambering up on any of the mushrooms himself.
In the next instant Eames was somersaulting his way off the top of one of the mushrooms, his body spinning once, twice, three times before he finally reached the ground with a wide grin. Arthur rolled his eyes and turned away, half-watching as Cobb leapt his way from one mushroom to the next with large, embellished bounces.
“You shouldn’t be afraid to have a little fun, darling,” Eames teased, coming up behind him; his breath came in exhilarated little puffs against his ear.
Arthur made a soft noise at the back of his throat and tried not to shiver at the proximity. Eames stepped a little closer.
“Bet you can’t beat that jump,” he ribbed.
“I am not rising to the bait, Mr Eames.” Arthur said, smiling despite himself. He felt Eames’ arm as it snaked its way around his waist and he hurriedly stepped forward, twisting to look pointedly at Eames.
“Arthur!” Ariadne’s call saved Eames from whatever comment Arthur’d been about to lash him with.
“Come on, Arthur,” she begged, smiling so sweetly that Arthur felt himself wavering.
“Yes, come on, Arthur,” Eames goaded. Usually he wouldn’t be so easily manipulated, but… it did look sort of fun.
Eames laughed, seeing the look on his face. “Come on,” he repeated, moving back towards one of the mushrooms, “I’ll give you a leg up.”
Arthur stared at him a long moment before giving in. He let Eames boost him up, taking extra care to step on the other man’s head as he went.
“Oh, how careless of me!” Arthur called down over the sound Eames’ spluttering.
“Piss off!” Eames shouted up to him, but he was grinning.
Arthur moved towards the edge, and heaved a put-upon sigh as he noticed the others watching him carefully.
He turned around, bending his knees slightly before pushing off in a back-flip that saw him spinning four times in the air before he released his legs and landed in a controlled crouch, his arms extended out for balance.
Ariadne was clapping again, and Eames let out a slow whistle as Arthur straightened both his body and then his suit.
“I guess you showed me,” he said, smiling widely.
Arthur raised his chin haughtily, “I guess I did.”
Eames laughed and slung an arm around Arthur’s shoulders, his fingers brushing Arthur’s neck before Arthur shook him off.
“Are we done now?” he asked.
“You’re such a spoilsport, Arthur,” Eames said, sighing dramatically as they watched the others jumping from their mushrooms to the ground. Cobb reached up towards Ariadne, who had chosen to slip off hers this time rather than jump, though there wasn’t really any need.
“We should really press on—” Arthur tried as soon as they were all down, only to be interrupted by an excited squeak from Ariadne.
“Eames!” she cried out, pointing towards another shimmering cube floating just past the last of the mushrooms. The pair of them rushed forward, Yusuf hurrying after them.
“Oh, what now,” Arthur huffed.
Saito shot him a look of amusement. “You give in very easily.”
He was the only one of them who hadn’t tried his hand at the mushrooms.
Arthur smiled, fleetingly, as Saito walked past him towards the new cube, and with a shake of his head, he followed.
“Gentleman, if you’ll allow me?” Saito said, moving to stand between Cobb and Yusuf. Arthur was surprised that they hadn’t yet smashed the box open. The two men moved and the others took a few precautionary steps back as Saito moved himself into a crouched position seconds before he leapt into the air, one leg extended outwards in a high kick that connected soundly with the cube. He landed with as much grace and dignity as he’d had before the jump.
Saito cleared his throat, “I am not just an old man,” he commented with a slight smile before gesturing towards the cube which shimmered and spat out what looked to be a green mushroom. Yusuf picked it up and eyed it curiously.
“Not one I’m familiar with,” he noted dryly, looking to Eames who chuckled as though sharing some private joke.
“Yeah, but, you know what the green ones do, right?” Ariadne pressed as though already knowing the answer.
“If we go with your theory, then yes,” Yusuf agreed. “There’s not any safe way to test it, though.”
Eames laughed. “About as safe as jumping off the mushrooms, I’d say.”
Arthur frowned, but it was Cobb who asked them what they were talking about.
Yusuf launched into a speech about mushroom types and how this one didn’t fit into any of the classifications of fungi he’d come across back in the waking world, which was, of course, to be expected, seeing as they were in somebody else’s dream, and if the dream was following the same sort of rules they (they being Eames, Ariadne and himself) expected, then the green mushroom should have healing properties and—
Arthur’s frown deepened. “Just where do you think we are?” he asked as Yusuf paused for breath.
“Oh, right, well—” but before he could finish he let loose a yelp and collapsed to the ground, grabbing at his left leg as if in pain. Beside him something the size of Arthur’s head was hissing at Yusuf with sharp looking fangs - fangs, which had quite plainly just taken a bite at Yusuf’s leg. The little creature was a mottled brown colour with short, stumpy legs and no arms. It hissed and leapt again at Yusuf.
Yusuf yelled, kicking out with his good leg as the rest of them scattered themselves in an endeavour to get away from the little creature. Eames grabbed Yusuf by his underarms and dragged him several paces back. The creature hissed, staring around at them with large, dark eyes before bouncing a few times on the spot and launching itself towards Yusuf once more.
Eames was yelling for someone to get the creature- apparently named a Goomba, if his shouts were anything to go by- away from them as he tried to drag Yusuf further from it. Cobb stepped forward and launched a kick at the Goomba - a move that may have been effective on any other occasion but this one. The second his boot came into proximity of the creature it turned on Cobb, its sinister looking teeth sinking into the tip of his boot and stopping Cobb in his tracks.
The creature let go a moment later, making more spitting and hissing noises before turning back to its intended target: Yusuf.
Arthur stepped in before anyone else could think to try and use the Goomba as a football. It turned instantly to him, baring its fangs in a threatening display. Arthur gave it a pointed look before quite calmly whipping his glock out of the hidden shoulder holster beneath his suit jacket and shooting it right between its baleful eyes.
It exploded in a mess of brown and pink gunk, splattering at his shoes and the hem of his trousers. Arthur sighed, re-holstering his gun and shaking at his pant leg ineffectually. He sighed again. He had a feeling his suit wasn’t going to survive the entirety of this dream intact.
“Thanks,” Yusuf said after a moment of simply staring at Arthur. Everyone else was still staring.
“How’s the leg?” Arthur asked, and suddenly everyone was turning to Yusuf, and checking to make sure he was alright.
“Its bite seems to have some kind of paralytic effect,” Yusuf announced, bitterly. “I cannot feel my leg up to my knee. It doesn’t seem to be spreading any higher, thankfully.”
“Cobb, your foot?” Arthur asked.
“Fine,” he said, staring at the marks where the creature’s teeth had punctured through the leather of his boot. “It missed me, just.”
“Well, that decides it,” Eames announced then, standing from his position beside Yusuf. “I think—”
“We,” Ariadne interrupted, with a conspiring grin. Eames grinned back.
“We,” he amended, “think we know where we are.”
The three of them- Eames, Ariadne, and Yusuf from his position on the ground- looked extraordinarily pleased with themselves.
“You’ve been here before?” Saito asked, looking around with renewed curiosity, as if in an endeavour to recognise something – anything - about the world they’d found themselves in.
“In a manner of speaking,” Eames hedged, still grinning.
Arthur choked back a huff of frustration, his restraint only partially successful if the delighted look Eames shot him was anything to go by.
“Well?” Cobb asked, just as impatient.
“We’re in a level of Super Mario,” Yusuf answered, to glares from Eames and Ariadne, his own grin just as wide and excited as theirs had been.
“The Super Mario Brothers?” Saito queried, eyebrows rising.
“Like the game?” Cobb asked, face creased in question.
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, praying for strength as he forced himself to ask, “You expect us to believe we’re in some kind of—what? A video game?”
Eames waved one arm dismissively. “What’s not to believe? We have giant mushrooms—”
Ariadne jumped in, “—and boxes hanging in mid-air with stuff inside—”
“—and don’t forget that devilled mushroom man!” Yusuf finished with a glare towards the slicked patch of grass and the splattered remains of said creature.
Arthur wanted to say that it was impossible, that no Architect in their right mind would construct a level based on a game, that in doing so they would alert the dreamers to the fact they were in a dream and inevitably destabilise the world they’d created and bring the whole thing crashing down, but—
“Does that still hold true if the dreamers are already aware that they’re dreaming?” Ariadne questioned, and Arthur realised he must’ve spoken aloud.
“Knowing it was,” Arthur began before correcting himself, “is a dream, I suppose we’re all too used to dreaming. We’ve instinctively kept calm, accepted that we’re dreaming and have been playing along with the physics of this world as they’ve been presented to us.”
“And the dream level has remained stable and unaffected.” Cobb agreed.
“Could we change the dream then?” Ariadne asked. “If it’s just us, would it be like the training exercises we did? I could change—”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Arthur said quickly. “We haven’t come across any projections yet,” he spared a look at the creature’s remains, “but changing anything could bring them to us en force.”
“Do you think that thing was a projection?” Eames asked with curiosity.
“I have no idea,” Arthur admitted. “If this were simply a game I’d say no, but knowing we’re dreaming?”
“I could always attempt to forge it,” Eames offered, only partially serious.
“Don’t even think about it.” Arthur warned. Then, when it seemed Eames would rise to the challenge, threatened, “I will shoot you. And if what Fischer said was true, if we die in this dream we’re not going to wake up.”
Eames folded his arms across his chest, unfazed. “You’d totally fetch me from Limbo.”
Saito spoke before Arthur had to think of a suitable response for Eames.
“Was it true?” Saito questioned, clarified, “His information about the sedative?”
Yusuf nodded, looking up from where he’d been prodding at his leg. “I’m afraid so. I, er…” he drifted off, looking pained.
“Okay?” Eames asked, immediately dropping the smirk he’d been directing at Arthur as he stepped closer to Yusuf, clapping at his shoulder.
“Oh, yes. It’s just… well, I think I may have sold him the sedative he’s using to keep us under.” He cleared his throat, smiling awkwardly.
“You what?” Cobb was glowering.
“Well it’s not as if I knew it was for him, specifically. But I did recently finish a batch much in likeness to the one we used for the Inception job and, well…” he drifted off.
“I can’t believe this,” Cobb hissed.
“Hey, I’m a chemist. This is what I do. Generally my clients don’t try to dose me with my own product.” The last bit was a resentful mumble.
Cobb pursed his lips but said nothing.
“After I’d sold them it, they gassed me. Chloroform, I think. Who even uses that anymore?” he asked with evident disgust. “I woke up just before they brought me into the warehouse,” he finished, looking down and prodding at his leg again. It was more for something to do than any real attempt to get the feeling back.
No one said anything for a good few minutes.
Eames squeezed at Yusuf’s shoulder. “Think you’re good to walk?” he asked a long moment later.
“Um, yeah. Help me up.”
“Right, so where does this leave us now?” Cobb asked as Eames pulled Yusuf to his feet.
“We can’t change anything in the dream,” Ariadne offered, “and we can’t kill ourselves. I guess our only option is to play the game?”
“We can’t just go along with this,” Arthur said, frowning.
“I don’t see any other options?” Ariadne’s words came out as a question.
“It doesn’t seem too sinister,” Cobb agreed, repeating his words to Arthur earlier. Arthur cringed, wishing he wouldn’t say things like that. “There may not be any harm in playing along.”
“But there’s no danger here,” Arthur pressed, ignoring Yusuf’s pointed look. “We should stay put and wait for the sedative to wear off. Why endanger ourselves by sinking into deeper levels?”
“I’m with Arthur on this one,” Eames agreed.
“We have no idea how long we’ll be under, though,” Yusuf added, his arm slung around Eames’ shoulders for support. “It amounted to about a week in the first level for the Inception job. Could we survive for so long - or longer - here without food and water?”
“It isn’t just about whether we could survive in this level. Fischer is somewhere in this dream,” Saito added, “and he was very clear about us completing this task before releasing us. Let us not forget we’re all still at his mercy once we awaken.”
“What about this thing we’re supposed to retrieve on the third level?” Eames asked, almost as an afterthought after everyone had taken a moment to think over Saito’s words. “What was it Fischer said? That it’s something—” he waggled his fingers as if looking for the word.
“—dear?” Arthur offered.
“Yes?” Eames answered, smiling sweetly.
Arthur tried very hard not to roll his eyes, he really did, but it was a battle he found himself losing with astounding frequency.
“He said that something very dear to us would be waiting in the third level,” Arthur finished.
“That’s the ticket!” Eames agreed, smiling.
“What could be dear to all of us?” Saito questioned.
They looked at each other blankly.
As if on cue, the world around them began to dim. Almost as one they turned their gazes up towards the sky, noting the sudden invasion of clouds, their dark grey bodies quickly multiplying across the sky and blocking out the sun. An ominous rumbling could be heard in the distance, the sound of it getting steadily louder and louder and closer.
“Rain, d’you think?” Eames asked, shifting Yusuf’s weight. He looked vaguely uncomfortable, and Arthur remembered with fond sympathy of Eames’ extreme dislike of storms. He said dislike, because Eames refused to acknowledge it as a fear, even if the sight and sound of one sent him scurrying for his duvet more times than not.
“Should we head back to the mushrooms?” Ariadne enquired nervously. “They’d at least offer us some sort of shelter if it does rain.”
“This doesn’t feel right,” Saito said then, ignoring the question. He crouched down, pressing his fingertips to the ground and feeling a faint vibration. “Something is coming.”
He looked up, brow furrowed. Arthur felt a shiver of unease creep its way up his spine. He widened his stance, one hand on his gun holster, his eyes sweeping the world around them. Beside him Eames set Yusuf down and stepped in front of him, pulling a semi-automatic from beneath his own jacket. Cobb too was similarly armed, but neither Saito nor Ariadne had anything with which to arm themselves.
Not that it mattered much in the end, Arthur thought to himself. One minute they’d formed themselves into a rough circle, eyes sharp, ears tuned for the slightest hint of danger, and the next there was a scream from Ariadne - they’d all twisted on the spot to see something hovering just overhead on what looked like a goddamned cloud of all things. The creature was scaled in green and yellow, its reptilian face looking worryingly deadly after facing down what Yusuf referred to as the ‘mushroom man’.
Arthur raised his gun at the same time as Eames and Cobb did, the three of them firing simultaneously at the creature only to find that it blinked out of sight before anything could hit.
“What the fuck?” Eames cursed, gun still pointed skywards.
“That’s nothing like the Lakitu in the games,” Yusuf muttered, pushing himself up. Though he didn’t put too much pressure on his injured leg, the knowledge that he was standing on his own at all was something of a relief to them.
“No,” Eames agreed, understanding, before frowning and looking skywards again.
“Cobb, behind you!” Yusuf called suddenly and they spun around see the reptilian creature zooming towards them; it stopped just out of range this time, hovering.
“What’s it waiting for?” Saito spoke, his voice pitched low as he slowly stepped back, putting himself in front of Yusuf and Ariadne and allowing Cobb, Eames and Arthur to form a semi-circle in front of him.
“Um, guys…” Ariadne started suddenly. “Guys, I think that’s the least of our worries.”
The world, if possible, seemed to darken further. Cobb hurriedly signalled for Arthur to keep his eyes trained on the reptilian creature before turning to look at Ariadne… and the creature standing right in front of her.
“Well, shit,” Eames commented, having turned as well.
“Eames?” Arthur hissed, though his gun was still raised, his attention was half on whatever was happening behind him.
“Now, darling, I don’t want you to worry, but we seem to have had some kind of gargantuan dinosaur sneak up on us.”
“What?” It took all of Arthur’s willpower not to twist around and take a look for himself. The reptile on the cloud started floating back and forth in a teasing motion. Arthur gritted his teeth. It seemed to be inching closer with every sway but never moving quite close enough.
“Eames,” Arthur hissed again. “Do I shoot?”
“I’d rather you didn’t just yet,” he answered with a mumble. Arthur felt him brush up against his back and experienced a momentary relief at the touch. “Cobb?”
“Yusuf?” Cobb called instead.
“I can’t run, if that’s what you’re asking,” Yusuf replied.
Arthur heard someone other than Eames curse this time.
“But, you know, if you promise to pick me up in Limbo on the way out…” he drifted off, going for carefree but sounding more than a little terrified at the mere mention of Limbo.
“Eames?” Cobb’s voice, the question instinctively understood.
“Maybe one magazine left,” Eames said by way of answering, “and don’t even ask me about the grenade launcher.”
“Arthur?” Cobb again.
“Enough maybe to get this guy if he comes close enough,” he said, taking his cue from Eames’ answer, “but that’s about it.”
“Why isn’t it doing anything?” Yusuf asked.
“It’s like it’s waiting for something,” Eames muttered.
“Same with mine,” Arthur muttered back, his entire body felt tight and on edge.
“Ariadne, I want you to slowly step backwards. You too, Yusuf, Saito. We’re going to try and get in front.” Arthur felt a brief touch at his hip before Eames stepped away from him. “As soon as we start firing I want you guys to make a break for it.”
They’d hardly started moving before there was a loud roaring from the creature behind Arthur. He only just heard Cobb’s yell of ‘Get down!’ before the ground beneath them shook and Arthur was thrown off his feet. Barely seconds after he’d rolled away, a ball of fire slammed into the ground just paces from where his head had been.
He scrambled quickly to his knees, twisting to look behind him, his mouth dropping open in horror at the site of the creature behind them. Bowser, his mind supplied unhelpfully, unearthing the knowledge from long ago days spent smashing buttons on the little grey controller. Though, the sight of its rippling scale-like armour, the spiked shell on its back and the fangs dripping with gloops of saliva did nothing to correlate the creature before him with the one from the actual game.
Before any of them could raise their guns, the creature let loose another roar, spitting balls of fire as it stomped forward and raked one clawed hand towards their collective group. Arthur dived to the side before one of the fire balls could hit him, coming up on his back just as he heard gunshots.
“Stop shooting!” Cobb’s voice again. Ariadne screamed, the creature’s roar all but drowning out the sound. Eames cursed again. Arthur rolled up onto his knees, gun already pointed ahead of him and, well, damn. The creature had lifted Ariadne, its clawed hand, almost the same size as her, curling tightly around her squirming body, her small fists battering ineffectually at its grip.
“I will have taken something very dear to you all,” Fischer’s disembodied voice sounded suddenly, booming across the world. “I will hide it in the third level. If you want it back, you will play the game.”
Before the words had properly processed the creature was turning and galloping away from them with heavy footfalls.
“DOM!” Ariadne’s scream rang loud and terrified, spurring them into action. Cobb was on his feet in seconds, chasing after a creature he had no hopes of ever catching up to, Saito and Eames hot on his heels.
Arthur twisted away, his eyes scanning the skies for the reptilian creature he was meant to be keeping an eye on, but there was nothing there. He turned back, reaching towards Yusuf and wordlessly offering him a shoulder in support as he made to follow the rest of his teammates.
Above them the clouds dispersed almost as quickly as they’d appeared.
“It’s funny,” Yusuf said almost ten minutes after they’d started after the others, leaning heavily on Arthur.
“What is?” Arthur asked, teeth gritted.
“This,” he waved his free hand as if to encompass their surroundings. “It’s very much like the game now. Ariadne is our princess, and like Mario we must save her from the monster that has kidnapped her.”
“I don’t know about you, Yusuf, but nothing about this situation makes me want to laugh.”
“No,” Yusuf agreed. “Though I meant funny-peculiar, in that none of us knew what was dear to us all before now.”
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