Worlds Collide is an eclectic shop that sells things like fantasy novels, many-sided dice, model spaceships, and other cool nerd loot. It also houses special gaming rooms, each decorated with a different theme, where friends can meet and play the games they love.
Turns out it’s also located at a weak point in the fabric of the universe, and people occasionally tumble through.
“Okay, is everybody ready for the grand unveiling?” The excitement in Raven’s voice was contagious, spreading through the rest of the gaming group. She flicked her long brown ponytail over her shoulder, tucked her cell phone and tablet under one arm, and fidgeted with the edge of the drop cloth covering the outer wall.
“Yep, the suspense is killing us, sis,” laughed Raven’s brother Rob. “Well, the suspense, and standing here holding all our gear while you fuss with that sheet.” She stuck her tongue out at him.
Raven’s friend Jamie looked doubtful, twisting one ebony curl around her fingertip. “Are you sure your hubby won’t mind missing the big reveal?” she asked. “I know this has been part of the dream you two have been working toward all this time. If you’d rather wait until Ben gets back, we can do that.”
“Nah, he’s consulting on an IT job for a client, and he isn’t sure how long their network setup is going to take, so he said to go ahead,” Raven replied. “Besides, he’s not big on Dungeons & Dragons anyway. If it were the sci-fi room, it might have been different.”
“Oh good. Hooray. I’m so reassured,” said Rob, in mock relief. “Now that we’ve got that settled, will you open the damn curtain? My arms are breaking here. Some of us don’t have fancy-schmancy one pound laptops, and we do this thing the old fashioned way…with enough rulebooks to break both a bank and an average table.”
Jamie and the rest of the group laughed, and Raven smirked up at Rob. Her sibling was younger, but could certainly never be called her little brother, at 6’3” and with a build resulting from ten years of construction work. “Oh, poor wittle Robin,” she said mockingly, reaching way up to pat his close-cropped brown hair, “…is the big mean book-bag heavy?”
It was Rob’s turn to stick his tongue out at his sister, and she giggled. “Hey, it’s not my fault you like to resort to pen and paper, like it’s the actual medieval era. But I’ll take pity on you.”
“Without further ado,” she announced, “Worlds Collide, the Midwest’s finest up-and-coming gaming emporium, is pleased to present our newest attraction. Allow yourself to be transported through a gateway of imagination and fantasy, and travel through the pages of ancient lore to our very first themed gaming room…the Proverbial Tavern.”
She whisked back the curtain, and stood aside proudly as the group exclaimed at the room’s outer wall, painted to resemble a giant-sized shelf of ornate books, each taller than a man. Some of the titles were written in runes or strange languages, but the ones that could be read proclaimed themselves to be spellbooks, histories of lost lands, or catalogs of fantastic creatures. Some were piled flat, and the huge skull of a strange beast perched atop them, next to an inkpot and a quill. Most of the giant tomes had molded decorations attached to their spines, to resemble gilding and embossing and give the design added depth. A vertical book toward one end had a huge golden key hanging down its spine.
“And you thought your books were heavy,” said Rob’s friend John, and Rob chuckled.
With a flourish, Raven grabbed the key, which proved to be a door handle. The whole spine of that book swung outward, and the group eagerly filed into the room. “Whoa,” said Jamie’s boyfriend Matt, brushing the blond hair out of his eyes in unconscious habit. “It’s like a whole different world in here.”
It was as if they’d stepped back in time, into a prosperous village tavern in the distant past…or at least, the past as shown in most fantasy settings (Medieval Light: all the rustic, 80% less stench). The floors were rough-hewn pine, worn smooth with age…or at least, they appeared to be, in the same way that the walls appeared to be cobbled stone, broken by small windows of thick, wavy glass. The weak flickering candlelight from the fixture above their heads was augmented by sunlight streaming in cheerfully from outdoors…which was interesting, since it was dark outside.
But strangest of all… “Okay,” said John. “Rooms can’t be bigger on the inside than the outside. ‘Fess up; you’re secretly Dr. Who, aren’t you?”
Raven laughed. “Sadly no, but I am glad that degree I got in theatre finally got me something besides student loans. The wood floor is just high-traffic flooring with an especially convincing pattern, but the rest is due to some clever set design tricks. The ‘stone’ walls are plaster, in this case covered with a heavy protective resin, and those two walls are actually closer than they look…the floor pattern is continued partway up the wall, but it’s disguised by the lighting angles. Putting the door in a corner means everybody sees it first from the same point of view, so the illusion is set as soon as they walk in.”
“Nice!” John said, his dark eyebrows raised in appreciation, as everyone looked at their surroundings with growing looks of understanding. “How did you block out the street noise? I can’t hear any traffic at all.”
“The walls and ceiling are packed with sound-deadening foam, to keep outside noise out, and so people in adjacent rooms don’t bother each other. And there are actually narrow service areas around the outer walls, so that helps too.”
“Clever,” Rob noted, “…but I know you mentioned putting outlets and stuff in here, and I don’t see anything like that.”
She grinned archly. “That’s because you’re not meant to see it, oh brother-mine. This room is filled with all the technological amenities a gamer nerd could desire,” she said grandly. “There are five outlets, three overhead speakers, a projector, a projector screen, and a plate with both VGA and HDMI ports to connect to said projector…as well controls for the screen, the sound system, and both the overhead and window lights. And a security camera, which I didn’t really want to add, but it would’ve been stupid not to protect all this work.”
“Wha-aa-at? No way,” said Matt, dropping Jamie’s hand to walk around the room, looking skeptically at the walls.
“Scout’s honor,” said Raven. “In fact, tell you what…as your fearless leader and dungeon master for this evening, I will award 50 experience points for each of those items you manage to find.”
John’s step-brother Casey, the youngest and newest member of the group, quickly spotted the projector port and four of the five outlets beneath the rim of a large serving tray attached to the heavy oaken round table. After a bit more searching, the rest of the group found the fifth outlet under the edge of the bar near the far wall, the speakers and camera disguised by clever paint details, and the projector and screen peeking out above what looked like loose boards in the ceiling.
But no one could find the lighting, music, and screen controls. “Ta-daa,” Raven said with a smirk, brandishing the tablet she’d been holding.
“Thank you, Vanna,” quipped Rob, “Is that our lovely parting gift for failing to find the other stuff?”
In response, Raven touched a few spots on the tablet’s screen. The projector screen lowered, the ‘sunlight’ faded, the ‘candles’ overhead brightened, and bawdy tavern music began to play. “Oh, nuh-uh,” said Matt, his hazel eyes widening. “Dude! That is badass!”
“It is pretty badass, isn’t it?” Raven beamed. “It comes with the room. It even has a card reader, in case anybody wants to buy a snack without interrupting their game.”
“How will that work? Are you going to hire, like, serving staff?” Jamie asked.
“Nope. Check that cupboard behind the bar.”
Matt did as directed, to find six sodas. “It’s a dumbwaiter,” Raven said. “Orders come down, and we load the cupboard and send them up. I would have liked to do mugs that matched the theme, but that would technically have made it food service, and we didn’t want to get into that. I’m probably going to sell mugs and plates separately though.”
“Wow, Rae…this…is really amazing,” said Rob, taking a seat on one of the heavy wooden chairs (and finding to his surprise that rough-cut pieces of burlap on the back and seat were hiding thick, comfortable padding). “I gotta say, when you talked about this, I couldn’t imagine how it would possibly work. Charging people, even a small amount, for a room to sit around and game in? When they could do it at home for free? I thought a few people might use it at first for the novelty, but that was it. But now that I see it…”
“It could still flop. I hope not, but there’s not exactly a huge body of market research on the subject.” Raven shrugged. “And if nothing else, it gets people into the store. But I feel like a lot of people will find it worthwhile to chip in a few bucks, for a climate-controlled, clean, available space, where they don’t have to hunt for extension cords, or wait in the driveway for somebody to get home, or change the plans last minute because somebody is sick, or cancel because their mom or girlfriend doesn’t want a bunch of nerds like us getting crumbs on the couch.”
“Or, you know, breathing up their air,” Rob muttered, scowling at the memory of his ex-wife’s reaction the one time he’d tried to host game night.
“Exactly,” Raven nodded sympathetically. “Now, why don’t we all get set up, and give the place its first story?”
“So, does everybody remember where we left off last time?” Raven asked.
Around the table, everyone glanced over their preferred form of notes, ranging from Jamie’s pristine Word document, bullet points glowing brightly on the screen of her high-end gaming laptop, to Rob’s hastily scrawled chicken-scratch finally found amid the papers sticking haphazardly out of his prized Darth Vader Trapper Keeper. “I’d know where we were, if I could read my own writing,” he said. “Looks like we either killed goblins near Sunnymead, or filled golf balls with gingerbread. I’m guessing it’s the first one, though.”
“Mmm, gingerbread,” said John.
Jamie rolled her eyes in (mostly) mock-disgust. “How you ever find anything in that mess is beyond me.”
“Hey,” said Rob, “I have a system. Just because it’s too sophisticated for the outside observer…”
“…or for you yourself, most of the time…” interjected John, his dark eyes lit with mischief.
“Quiet, you. I didn’t ask for comments from the peanut gallery.”
“I’m there for you like that,” John smirked.
“Anyway,” Rob continued, in tones of injured dignity, “as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, we had just offed a pack of goblins that had been set on us by the mysterious big-bad. We had gotten the location of the big-bad’s fortress from that weird Oracle guy, and were headed toward it. Right?”
“Sounds more or less right to me,” said John, “though I might have said ‘the shadowy sorcerer behind the nefarious plot to kidnap key nobles and civilians all across the kingdom, then escape without a trace’…rather than ‘the mysterious big-bad.’ But that’s just me.”
“Po-tay-to, po-tah-to,” said Rob.
Raven laughed. “So, you made camp in the forest for the night after killing the goblins. Early the next morning, just before sunrise, you wake up, strike camp in the pre-dawn shadows, and then…?”
“Search for the landmark that the Oracle told us about, that marks the path to the fortress,” said Jamie, while elbowing Matt to put his phone away and pay attention. She checked her notes. “A round clearing filled with wildflowers, with a blackened, hollow, lightning-struck tree in the center.”
“Okay,” said Raven. “How are you searching? Just following a path, hoping for the best, or…?”
“My character has tracking skills,” said Rob. “Plus, being a panthrin, she has heightened senses, as well as just being a dead sexy cat-girl. I can head back to where we fought the goblins and try to track what direction they came from.”
“Makes sense…well, except for the part about ogling your own character’s hotness, which is either arrogant or creepy; I haven’t decided,” said Jamie. “I have wilderness survival and tracking too, so while you’re doing that, Matt and I can follow the trail a bit in the other direction and see if we can find a vantage point to look for a break in the tree line.”
“But…out-of-character…I thought we weren’t supposed to split the party?” said Casey, who took the roleplaying aspect of the game very seriously. He’d been thrilled when his step-brother had invited him to join in his hobby, and his obvious determination to make John proud was the only thing that kept the others from mocking him mercilessly for it.
“Eh,” said Jamie, “not usually, but we just fought the goblins last night, so there shouldn’t be much of anything stirring yet. I’ll take the tin man with me in case anything minor comes up,” she added, smirking at Matt. “All his rattling should scare off any woodland critters anyway.”
“It’s quality plate armor, not tin, and I didn’t hear you complaining when my paladin was saving your squishy little archer from getting curb-stomped by goblins,” said Matt, putting his phone away and raising an eyebrow.
“Hah. My dark elf is a badass. She doesn’t need saving. Just because you keep confusing D&D with a tank-and-spank boss fight in World of Warcraft, doesn’t mean I do, oh mighty paladin.”
“Okay,” Raven interrupted, before the couple could get caught up in their familiar argument, “so Matt and Jamie are following the path and looking for high ground. Rob is going back toward the goblin battle site to try tracking them. John and Casey?”
“I’ll go with Rob,” said John. “Since the goblins were creatures of evil, my cleric might have something that can either sense the evil or ward it off…plus I might need to heal the kitty if she breaks a nail,” he joked, and Rob made a face.
“I guess you can tag along, if your dwarf’s stubby little legs can keep up,” Rob returned. “Casey, you may want to just stay at camp so that both parties have a place to regroup…and to keep an eye on that drakari mage we picked up at the Oracle’s place. I’m not sure I trust her, and I don’t want her sneaking off to give warning if it turns out she’s working for the DM…er, I mean, the bad guy.” He grinned at Raven. As the Dungeon Master, she didn’t have her own character, per se, but she often created and role-played various Non-Player Characters for the group to interact with. The drakari mage was an NPC who had just joined the party during the previous game session.
“Lady mage,” said Casey to Raven, “I am but a simple bard, but I would be remiss if I failed to compose a song to capture our victory over the evil goblins. Might you stay at the camp with me, lest I get distracted in the midst of composition and get caught unawares?”
“Certainly, sir elf,” replied Raven, in an oddly accented voice she used for playing the drakari. “And we will both pretend we are not watching each other for signs of betrayal, no?”
“Why, madam, I trust you with my very life. Did you not fight alongside us against the goblin menace? In fact, perhaps you can tell me more of your view of the battle, so I may have a better perspective for my song,” said Casey, who frequently rattled off that kind of speech as his bard, but couldn’t have spoken that glibly in normal conversation if his life depended on it.
Raven inclined her head graciously in acknowledgement, and then snapped back to her normal voice. “So, you all head off in your various directions, except for Casey and the mage?” The group nodded. “Okay, in that case…”
But they didn’t get to hear what would’ve happened in that case, because the power went out.
Next Chapter (The Proverbial Tavern – Chapter Two: Perception Check)