The Proverbial Tavern – Chapter Two: Perception Check

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.

 Who knew?

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Previous Chapter (The Proverbial Tavern – Chapter One: Flavor Text)

 

A shiver went down Jamie’s spine. Instead of the exclamations and muttered curses she would have expected, the room seemed eerily silent, and even the air felt strange. Her eyes itched, and she rubbed them reflexively…and when she opened them again, though her brain knew it was still dark, her eyes saw as clearly as if it were noon on a cloudless day.

The very first thing she noticed was that her laptop was gone. Her laptop, her beautiful, beloved, really expensive gaming rig…had just…vanished into thin air.

It almost – but not quite – seemed a lesser consideration a moment later when she realized that the whole table, in fact, the whole room was gone…along with all the people in it. She was sitting on a tree stump in a forest she’d never seen in her life.

Jamie leapt to her feet in a panic and spun around, looking for anything familiar.  She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sight of a full suit of medieval plate armor standing incongruously amid the trees nearby, and let out an undignified squeak.

“Jamie? Is that you? I can’t see a damn thing. What the hell is going on?” Matt’s voice inside the helmet sounded tinny and hollow.

“Matt!” she exclaimed in relief.

At the sound of her voice, Matt gropingly tried to move toward her…and promptly crashed into a giant clattering heap.

“Ow,” he said.

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John reacted calmly to the power outage. Probably just blew a circuit breaker, he thought. It made sense that there would be some bugs to be worked out in Raven’s new setup, with all the tech she crammed in the place. No big deal.

Or at least, that was his reaction until the first ray of sunlight peeked over the horizon, and gilded the figure of the woman in front of him.

She had a body that was clearly distilled from the primordial ethers of pure male fantasy, to slink past every firing neuron in the brain and wrap itself right around the primitive caveman sector at the back. The finest hourglass would smash itself in envy of her luscious curves. The minimal attire she wore, little more than artfully placed leather straps, did nothing to disguise her supple limbs and ample charms. And her wide, slit-pupiled jade green eyes and the delicate cat ears that peeked enticingly through her sun-streaked curls just added a hint of the exotic as the perfect garnish, the way a glossy red cherry adorns a decadent dessert. Short, tawny fur covered her body like rich velvet, and shone in dawn’s adoring light, practically demanding to be stroked.

John, who normally considered himself to be a pretty decent and non-sexist type of guy, was chagrined to feel himself instantly react to her presence. His face flushed, and his pulse sped, and if not for the minor detail that she seemed at least ten feet tall, he might have propositioned her on the spot.

And then the gargantuan goddess looked upon him. She opened her full, perfect lips, and in a husky (and somehow oddly familiar) voice, she spake thus:

“John! What the hell is going on, man? If I didn’t know my sister better, I’d swear she must have drugged those sodas. I mean, one second you guys are ripping on my note taking, and the next, we’re in some random forest, you’re midget-sized, and everybody else is nowhere to be found? If I’m not hallucinating, then I have no idea what the fuck is happening.  Hey…are you okay? You look kinda sick…”

Upon the sudden realization that the sex kitten he’d been so powerfully lusting after was, in fact, the current form of his very good (and very male) friend Rob, John choked, and promptly lost his lunch at the foot of the nearest tree.

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Mini-John was inexplicably heaving in the underbrush. I’m dreaming, Rob thought. All those hours of overtime have finally caught up with me, and I dozed off when the power went out; that must be it.

Thus reassured on the most pressing questions, it occurred to Rob that something about his previous speech had been…off. He cleared his throat. Maybe his voice had cracked, and that’s why it sounded high and weird. He started to wet his dry lips…and his tongue encountered delicately pointed incisors. When he raised a hand to his suddenly altered teeth, he yelped to see an arm that was not his own…an arm, he noted, that was decidedly feminine.

It was then, in the growing half-light that seemed bright as day, that Rob looked down.

A beam of light and the song of angels did not, in fact, issue forth from the heavens…but he really felt they should have.

Boobs. Tits. Knockers. Headlights. By any name, he adored them, and had been a funbag fanatic since the moment he hit puberty. But of all the breasts he’d ogled in all his life, none surpassed the magnificent melons that now graced his chest. They were pleasantly firm but touchably soft, and jiggled invitingly with his slightest breath.

And they were his, and he could grope them as much as he wanted, and nobody could stop him. Starting immediately.

“This is the best dream ever,” he said fervently.

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Raven was mortified. After all her big speeches, of course the power would have to go out just as they started to play. Naturally it would.

She reached for her phone where she’d left it on the table, to turn on its flashlight, but her hand encountered only air where table should have been. She started to squint in the darkness, but almost immediately the lights came back on.

Except they didn’t, because there weren’t any lights. There also wasn’t a room, or a building, or a street. There were a few weak rays of early sunlight, which should not have been enough to see by, but Raven could clearly observe the slightest detail of the forest clearing where she and Casey sat on a fallen log, and…

Casey was…not Casey. Normally, she thought of him as pretty average for a 21 year old nerd…a good kid, skinny, kind of shy, a bit of a try-hard, and that was about it. The not-Casey at the other end of the fallen log (I’ll come back to you in a second, weird surprise forest, she thought) was simply…more. He radiated personality, just sitting still. His very aura proclaimed that he was a charming and clever sort of person who should be heeded and trusted.

And it wasn’t just due to the change in his appearance. Admittedly, it didn’t hurt that his last vestiges of teenage acne had vanished, leaving creamy skin that would’ve been the envy of any Gerber baby. Not to mention the way his long, lank, dishwater blond hair had lightened to palest gold, and draped with casual elegance around the tips of his pointy ears…

…his…pointy ears…

Raven blinked.

I really spend too much time on this game, she thought. I must have…tripped on something when the power went out, maybe…and I’m…unconscious, and I’m hallucinating about the game because that’s what I was doing before I hit my head. Right. Okay, that makes sense. Good.

She was calmly confident that she’d grasped all the pertinent details for about three seconds, until she shifted on the log and pinched her long red tail.

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Matt tried not to panic. It was just a power outage, nothing more. He was not trapped in stone; it was just his imagination. It had to be. He tried to focus on a narrow slit of gray in his vision, the only thing he could see that wasn’t pitch dark.

He saw the outline of someone moving, and a moment later heard Jamie’s startled yelp. “Jamie? Is that you? I can’t see a damn thing. What the hell is going on?” he asked irritably, trying not to betray his unease. She sounded relieved at the sound of his voice, and, momentarily forgetting the leaden feeling of his limbs, he instinctively took a step toward her.

Or tried to, anyway.

The resulting cacophony, as if an angry chef had thrown his entire cookware collection down a flight of stairs, clarified a number of truths for Matt. First, he was not encased in stone, but (for some totally inexplicable reason) in metal armor. Second, metal armor is heavy, especially when you don’t know you’re wearing it. Third, and this one was an understatement, metal armor is not terribly concerned with the way your body would prefer to move when falling down.

“Ow,” said Matt.

By the time Jamie helped convert him from a scrap pile back into human form, the sun had risen enough that he could see more than shadows through the helmet slit. And then Jamie removed his helmet and stood before him in the light, and he was finally able to really look at her. Whatever he’d been about to say was utterly forgotten.

For starters…Jamie’s normal rich mahogany skin tone had deepened to a dusky gray, as if someone had taken a black-and-white photo of her and brought it to life. The odd effect was complemented by her hair and eyebrows, now a deep shade of violet-blue…a hue which exactly matched her wide, pupil-less, and softly glowing eyes.

As for the rest of her…well.

Matt had thought Jamie was pretty from the moment he first saw her, but this was not the cute little slightly-rounded gamer nerd he knew. This woman, while unmistakably still Jamie, stood before him clad head to toe in black leather armor, a longbow slung on her back and daggers at her sides, and exuded quiet menace like some primal death goddess.

It was really, really hot.

“James,” he said, after a false start and clearing his throat, “I have no clue what is going on here, but you look fucking amazing.”

“You’re not too shabby yourself, Tin Man…or, looking like that, maybe I should call you Thor,” she replied with a shaky grin. “I don’t know if we’ve gone crazy, if this is a weird dream, or we’re hallucinating…but who cares? Whatever it is, we’re here, and we might as well make the most of it, don’t you think?” Before he could reply, she was kissing him, and they both started fumbling with unfamiliar buckles and straps.

They had just started to get to the good parts when Casey’s blood-curdling yell of horror echoed through the trees.

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“Dude. Seriously. Will you stop doing that?” John’s stomach had settled after his attack of sudden acute revulsion, and he sat on a nearby rock, eyeing the cat-girl with distaste.

“Not a chance,” Rob replied blissfully. “It’s not every day you get to have a dream like this. Until I wake up, these babies are mine, all mine, and I’m going to seize the moment.”

“Seizing the moment isn’t the problem,” muttered John, trying to look at anything other than his best friend grabbing, massaging, and occasionally pinching his….her…boobs, with every indication of enjoyment.

“Hey, pretend-John…don’t get bent out of shape just because I got this bodacious bod and you got downsized,” Rob said lazily. “If it makes you feel any better, you look like you could probably bench-press a Buick.” He paused a moment, and snickered, “You could even fill in as a jack-stand afterward.”

“Ugh, if that’s the kind of lousy jokes you tell in your dreams, I’m glad this isn’t one of them. Which it’s not,” John asserted. “Because I’m having it too, and unless I need a lot more therapy than I’ve ever guessed, I would not be dreaming this. Plus, I just finished tossing my cookies, and I can assure you I experienced it in full real-life detail.”

“So what are you saying? That we got caught up in a cyclone and whisked away to Oz, and all I have to do is rub my ruby nips together three times and say there’s no place like home?”

“I’d rather you didn’t, thanks,” John responded dryly. “And I have no idea what’s going on here. But right before the lights went out, we said our characters were splitting off to go to that field where we fought the goblins. And here we are in a field, and there you are, clearly changed into your thief-girl.”

“And there you are, half the man you used to be,” Rob quipped, but looked at John thoughtfully. His friend hadn’t changed that much, to tell the truth; he had the same dark eyes and wavy black hair as always. His goatee had become a full beard, on the longish side, but he’d worn it that way in the past. And his skin was the same permanent bronze that you’d expect in a guy with the last name of Fuentes.

What was not the same was that he’d lost about two feet of height.  His broad shoulders, muscled arms, and barrel chest seemed out of place on somebody short enough to qualify for admittance to the McDonald’s Playland…but in a way that suggested only somebody really stupid would point that out.

“So that makes you a dwarf, huh? Like, a ‘hi-ho, hi-ho’ dwarf, not a ‘reality show on TLC’ dwarf?” Rob asked.

“I’d prefer a comparison to Tolkien over Disney, but yeah, seems that way.”

“I dunno,” said Rob, pretending to mull it over, but with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “I mean, there are Thorins and Gimlis, but I’ve never heard of any Juans or Pedros. Do you think the rest of your kind are going to be down with a Mexican migrant dwarf?”

John smirked at their familiar running joke, even though they both knew John had never been further south than Indiana. “We’ll see,” said John, “but if they won’t let me bring my burro and my floppy hat into Moria, that’s a deal-breaker.”

They both laughed, and John added, “If one of us has cause to be concerned about running into more of their race though, I’d say it’s you, Fluffy. How are you going to figure out whether to use the male or female litter box?”

Rob was about to retort when they were interrupted by a loud yell from somewhere in the forest.  “That sounded like Casey!” said John, and they both rushed toward the sound.

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Casey was not dismayed when the power went out; he figured it was something minor, and waiting for it to come back on gave him time to picture what his character was doing, so when they got back to playing, he’d be ready.

He closed his eyes to focus his thoughts better, a habit that used to draw ridicule in high school…though that could’ve been said of nearly everything he did. At least in college, he was mostly left alone now. Choosing to play a bard had been a no-brainer; the idea of being someone suave and admired by all had definite appeal.

He shook his head to refocus, and chided himself for getting distracted. Okay, he thought. I’m in a clearing. There’d be a spot in the middle scraped down to dirt or rock, where the campfire would have been, and the smell of smoke would still be in the air a little. There’d be some flattened spots in the grass where people slept…and maybe some spots where the grass was pulled up to use as padding under the bedrolls, or kindling for the fire.

It almost seemed as if he could smell the green scent of forest and hints of wood smoke.

The trees, let’s see…Raven said the trees were huge and old, and one had fallen across the clearing, he thought. So, I’m sitting on the fallen log, with my lute on my lap, working on a song about the goblin battle…

Casey’s thoughts broke off abruptly, because he heard (with his actual ears and not his imagination) music being played softly. And he was playing it. His fingers were idly strumming the instrument that sat in his lap. Though he had no basis for comparison, given that he’d never been able to play an instrument in his life, it certainly had a feeling of lute about it.

He opened his eyes and looked down, and the object in his hands undoubtedly resembled the picture in the Player Handbook. Even stranger, a heretofore unknown part of his brain recognized this lute, and knew every inch of its surface in loving detail. This was the part of him that was playing music as easily as breathing…until he thought about it too hard, and his fingers faltered to a stop with a discordant twang.

Wait…what the heck?

On the ground (not floor, he noted) just in front of his feet was a bare patch of earth with the remnants of a fire, just as he’d imagined. The grasses were trampled. He felt the fallen tree under his backside.

He reached up to his ears, and felt their pointed tips with glee. He was really here, he was an elven bard; somehow it was all real!

And that’s when he looked to his right, and saw a demon sitting on the log, looking at him.

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Raven was analyzing what neuroses were causing her subconscious to give her concussion-dream form a pointed red tail and horns, when she heard music. The elf-y not-Casey was playing a lute, which she supposed made sense since he was a bard. What didn’t make sense was him turning to her, and then letting out a deafening scream for no apparent reason whatsoever.

When a bard wants to shout, they don’t mess around, Raven thought. Good grief…people will be hearing that a good twenty miles away from…wherever here is. Or maybe kilometers, she mused. Are dreams measured in standard or metric?

She regarded him indignantly, her hands clapped over her ears in pure self-defense. When he finally subsided with an awkward cough, she lowered her hands and said snappishly, “What was that for?”

“Well, you’re…a, um….a demon,” Casey said apologetically. “I mean…aren’t you?”

“I most certainly am no such thing,” she replied. “Bad enough that I’m having some kind of dream hallucination; is it really necessary to have an imaginary elf yell in my face?”

The light came on for Casey. “Ohhh, Raven! Drakari mage, right, now I get it. Sorry. I just didn’t picture you quite so…well, anyway, sorry. Oh, and you’re not dreaming. Isn’t it cool?”

“What do you mean, I’m not dreaming? Um, hello. Forest. Elf. Tail,” she said, gesturing to the surroundings, Casey, and herself respectively, with exaggerated patience.

“Right, because we were setting a scene, and then something happened and we got transported into it, and here we are,” replied Casey, sounding positively chipper.

Raven blinked at him. “I want you to know that when I wake up, the real Casey is getting a 50 XP deduction just because you are really adding to my rotten headache.” She attempted to rub her temples and was thwarted by the delicate horns, causing her to growl in frustration.

“Oh hey, I can fix that. I think,” said Casey. “If I can just…not think about it.” Before she could ask what he meant, his eyes unfocused slightly, and he started playing the lute again, falteringly at first, but gaining confidence as he began to sing. The song was very brief, and she could not have said what the words were, but it was beautiful, and for a moment she forgot everything but the music.

And then the elf’s beautiful green-gold gaze sharpened again and he looked at her searchingly. “Feel better?”

She was about to retort cuttingly, but paused, and then looked at him in wonder. “My headache…is gone. I don’t…how did you do that?”

“It’s one of my bard skills,” he replied, with pardonable pride. “It’s supposed to heal 1d4+4 damage, but since I don’t think we have actual hit points here, I figured it would work on a headache.”

Raven’s response was interrupted by the sound of running footfalls, and a moment later a man and a woman burst into the clearing, looking around wildly.

“John!” Casey exclaimed happily. “You’re here too; that’s awesome! You look so cool, like, straight out of Lord of the Rings!”

John stared at Casey, nonplussed at finding his little brother in such cheer after thinking him in mortal peril. “Casey…? You OK? Good,” he panted, and then sat heavily on the log. “Gimme a second, gotta catch my breath after sprinting through the woods behind Cheetara and her 9-mile-long legs.”

Casey glanced at the woman who had rushed in with John, and his eyes widened. “Wow,” he started, and his voice broke. He blushed, as much as an elf could blush, cleared his throat, and started again. “Wow, you look…just, wow, Rob.”

“Oh, nuh-uh,” said Raven. “You have got to be kidding me. My dream was weird enough without my brother turning up as a transvestite housecat with a thing for bondage gear.”

Your dream?” asked Rob, and at the same time, Casey and John said, “It’s not a dream!” in stereo, then looked at each other sharply.

Before they could sort it out, however, the sound of irregular metallic clanking approached from the opposite side of the clearing, punctuated by oaths. A moment later, Matt and Jamie surged into the campsite with weapons drawn, looking disheveled, with some buckles fastened wrong and holding a few stray pieces of armor.

“Are you ok, Cas-…..um, Casey?” Jamie blinked, taking in Casey’s changed appearance.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry for freaking everybody out; I was just, um, startled a little when I saw Raven,” Casey replied with embarrassment. “Hi Jamie; hi Matt. Cool armor! Jamie, you look super badass.”

“Hi,” Jamie said weakly.

Matt looked at Raven. “Okay, I can see why that might be startling.” He ignored Raven’s sarcastic mutter of thanks. “And who’s this hottie over h-…oh, no way.” The rapid progression of emotions across Matt’s face showed that he’d tallied up the visible party members and deduced who the “hottie” must be.

“Wouldn’t you like to know, big boy,” Rob said, making an atrocious attempt at a flirty pose.

Matt jokingly winked and made a kissy face back. Transformed into his human paladin, Matt had gained about a foot of height, a wall of muscle, and an aura of heroism so thick, it was like he’d marinated in Knight in Shining Armor cologne…so the effect was impressive even in jest. Casey snickered, John and Raven groaned and rolled their eyes, and Jamie blushed as much as one could with dark gray skin.

With another glance around the clearing, and a shake of his golden head, Matt said, “Well kids, I can really only come up with one response to all this…and I think I speak for all of us on this…” He paused, and added feelingly, “What. The. Fuck.”

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Next Chapter (The Proverbial Tavern – Interlude: The Book)

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