The Proverbial Tavern – Chapter Three: Determine Initiative

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 – Interlude: The Book)

The arrow streaked unerringly toward the barely visible bit of fur on the branch of a distant tree. The group could barely hear a remote thump and squeak, but the sight of the squirrel dropping to the forest floor, arrow and all, was clear to everyone.

The fact that the entire group was silent for a good thirty seconds afterward was nearly as impressive as Jamie’s shot. It was ordinarily a challenge for them to limit conversations to one speaker at a time, which only reliably occurred when some of the players were eating or gone to the restroom.

Finally, Jamie broke the silence. “Well. That was interesting.” All eyes drifted reluctantly to Casey.

Casey said nothing, but his look of smug satisfaction was quite loud enough.

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A short while before, once the party had regrouped in the clearing, they’d temporarily tabled the awkward question of sanity. Instead, they focused on the easier topic of fashion trends for the style-savvy adventurer.

“So…plate armor, huh?” Rob said to Matt. “Awesome; you look ready to grab the nearest squire and make coconut noises all the way to Castle Anthrax.”

“I was aiming more toward Skyrim than Monty Python, but thanks,” Matt replied dryly. “Although games generally fail to mention the fact that it weighs a metric fuckton.” With a glance at Jamie, he added, “And it sucks to fall down in, unless you’re cool with having your limbs bent in new and exciting directions.”

He nodded at Rob, “Your…ah, outfit…definitely seems…” He cleared his throat, reddening slightly, and finished, “…less constrictive.” He immediately ducked away from Jamie, laughing, but failed to evade her automatic swat.

“I know you are not flirting with Rob, who you are very well aware is normally much taller, burlier, and only slightly less hairy,” teased Jamie, raising an eyebrow. “And who, I assume, is normally equipped with different parts…though thankfully I wouldn’t know.”

“Jamie, you wound me,” said Rob, in mock disappointment. “But you can’t blame him. I designed a character that would be smokin’ hot, and I seem to have done a damn good job, if these are anything to judge by.” He proudly grabbed his bosom and presented it like a waiter displaying a dessert tray.

“Oh, Lord,” groaned John. “Not this again.”

Raven eyed her brother critically. “Sure, the body may be straight off the required measurements page for Playboy, but that outfit…” She shared an amused glance with Jamie. “Nothing but some random leather straps, and you’re supposed to run and jump in it, with a rack like that? Yeah, you’re gonna be hating life by the end of the day.”

“Huh?” said Rob, and Raven and Jamie both laughed with a hint of evil glee.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Jamie. “I’m sure you’ll be just fine. Besides, you should probably focus on practicing how to duck and weave, because the only thing ‘armor’ like that is going to protect you from is any appearance of modesty.”

Most of the group laughed, but then Casey quietly asked, “Do you think we’ll really have to fight?” The mood sobered as the questionable reality of the situation returned to the front of everyone’s thoughts.

“I know you guys are convinced this isn’t a dream,” said Raven, holding up a hand to stave off John and Casey’s objections. “But what else can it be?”

“I told you,” Casey said, “we were setting a scene, and then…something happened…and it transported us into the place we were creating.”

“Dude. Are you hearing yourself?” asked Rob. “I love me some fantasy and sci-fi, but we’re talking about the real world, where we pay the water bill, get put on hold with customer service, and buy the box of cereal on the left because it has a ‘50 cents off’ coupon stuck to it. Shit like this does not actually happen in real life.”

“Apparently it does,” Casey muttered stubbornly, “since here we are.”

“Well,” John began slowly, “let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that it’s not a dream. I don’t think it is, because I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve never had a dream this coherent and vivid. So, what are other possible explanations?”

“Gas leak?” said Matt. “Maybe there’s some kind of fumes in the building, making us all hallucinate?”

“But the exact same hallucination, shared between all of us?” asked Jamie.

John shook his head. “I have a master’s in psych, and I’ve spent ten years now counseling kids from all kinds of messed-up families with more drug experiences than I care to think about…and never, in all of that, have I heard of any situation where a group of otherwise sane people instantly and spontaneously had a shared hallucination that fully replaced the entire surrounding environment to all five senses.”

He chuckled weakly. “If we are hallucinating, I am so writing a psych study on us when it’s over.”

“Oh, and for the record,” John added, “given what I know of you all, I don’t think it’s likely that anyone had a sudden psychotic break, either, unless somebody has taken up an LSD habit they’ve failed to mention.”

“So if we’re not dreaming, and we’re not hallucinating, and we’re not crazy, what’s left?” said Raven. “I mean, assuming all of you really are here, and not figments of my imagination telling me they’re not figments.”

“I told you…” Casey started, but Jamie cut him off.

“Hold on,” she said. “We’re not thinking about this scientifically. First, start with what can be proven. We were in a room, talking. Then, we all saw the lights go out, correct?” Everyone nodded, and she continued. “After that, we all perceived that we were in a forest location, wearing different clothing, and with vastly different, and in some cases non-standard, physical features. To our knowledge, no significant time passed between those intervals.” Nods again.

“So, some possible hypotheses. A. We could have been knocked out, brought here, and costumed, but that would have taken a lot of time and there is no reason anyone would do that. Not to mention it could be easily disproven by wiping off makeup or tugging on prosthetic body parts.” Rob cradled his chest protectively, and Jamie rolled her eyes and continued.

“B. One or more of us could be having a hallucination or loss of sanity. As our psychology expert said,” she inclined her head toward John, who nodded back, “this is very unlikely, but can’t really be disproven without time, psychiatric help, or medication.”

“C. One or all of us could individually be dreaming, and the other people we perceive are imaginary. Other than the vividness of the experience, there is no clear way to disprove this option either.” Casey looked rebellious, but stayed silent.

“Finally, D. Some sort of field, portal, something, existed at that moment in the store, causing us all to travel physically or mentally to this place. There’s no documented evidence of such a thing happening that we know of. However, places like the Bermuda Triangle have a lot of anomalous events that science hasn’t explained yet…so I’d have to say there’s no clear way to disprove that one either.”

“So how do we know what’s up, if we can’t prove anything one way or another?” asked Matt.

Jamie surprised them all by saying, “Does it matter?”

“Huh?” said Rob.

“Think about it,” said Jamie. “If we’re crazy or hallucinating, we clearly can’t snap out of it on our own, or we’d have done so. All we can do is proceed, taking whatever actions we deem best, until something changes. If it’s a dream, same deal. And if we are actually here…still, same deal. We can’t prove the nature of our reality, so there’s no point getting wound up about it.”

Silence fell as the group pondered this. After a moment, John said, “There is one more possibility you didn’t mention. We could have been…sent…here. For a purpose. By a higher power.”

Jamie’s expression went carefully blank, the way it did whenever religion came up. “Anything is possible,” she said, in a neutral tone.

“’There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’” Raven quoted.

“Hold up a second, there, Al,” Rob said to John. “What are you saying, that we just Quantum Leaped in here, had our ‘oh boy’ moment, and now Ziggy’s gonna help us save the squirrel next door?”

Raven and John laughed, but Rob sighed when there was no reaction from Matt, Jamie, or Casey. “Man, I hate when I waste good material on kids too young to get the reference. But the point still stands; you think we’re here to fix something, and then we go back?”

“Who knows?” said John. “Makes as much sense as anything else.”

“But why would we come here to fix anything?” asked Raven. “I mean, this place isn’t even real!”

John thought a moment. “Maybe what we’re here to fix…is us.”

The introspective silence lasted until, predictably, Rob ended it with, “Gee, thanks, Dr. Phil.”

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The group finished rummaging around in their packs for enough rations to eat a sketchy breakfast, which brought them to the next major concern.

“Saying we should ‘proceed as we deem best’ is fine and all,” said Raven, “and pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but we are in the middle of nowhere with pretty much zero aptitude for survival.”

“That’s not true,” said Casey, firmly ignoring Rob’s attempt to add “that’s impossible,” complete with tortured Luke Skywalker impression. “We just do what we normally do.”

“What we normally do?” Raven said incredulously. “In what way would that possibly help? Jamie’s a chemist, John’s a counselor…admirable professions, but they don’t focus much on wilderness survival. Matt works a desk job, and you take college classes. I run a store that is currently in another freaking dimension. The only one who could probably manage is Rob, provided he could remember how to build buildings without bulldozers and power tools…but somehow I don’t see Whiskers McBoobsalot getting a lot of carpentry jobs.”

“No, no,” said Casey, shaking his head impatiently. “I meant, what we normally do here. Like, what our characters normally do.”

“Please tell me you are not suggesting that all will be well because I can just cast magic missile at the darkness,” Raven said dryly.

“Yep, I totally am,” replied Casey, undaunted.

Raven turned to John. “I don’t mean to doubt you, but I think you may have missed the mark on that whole ‘none of us are crazy’ thing.”

“I’m serious,” said Casey, cutting through the laughter. “Okay, so, in our world, magic probably isn’t real, and Raven can’t throw fireballs. But we’re not in our world, and in this world, magic is real, and Kassyndra the drakari mage definitely can throw fireballs. Faeranduil the elven bard has seen her do it.”

“He has?” asked Matt, skeptically. “And you know this because…?”

“Because I remember it,” said Casey.

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Another confused jumble of everyone talking at once followed, after which Raven was compelled to relate how Casey cured her headache with a song, despite her reluctance to sound, as she put it, “like a total nutcup.”

Casey explained how he’d been playing the lute without thinking about it, leading him to notice he was in possession of memories not his own. “Obviously, I’m Casey, and I remember being Casey. But if I relax and think, I can remember being Faeran too. In my backstory, I wrote about a riverbank in his homeland where he used to practice…and I remember being there. I wrote about the first time he came to a human city, and I remember how overwhelming it felt.” Touching the shortsword at his belt, he added, “I wrote about his first battle, and I remember the first time this blade was used on another person.” Judging by his expression, the words were no less than the truth.

“The real kicker is when I think about our games. I, Casey, remember the session when we went to see the Oracle, and using my battle song power when we were fighting those constructs. But I, Faeran, remember standing in the room with them and playing the song.”

Most of the group was still looking skeptical, but Jamie wore an introspective expression. “You remember, don’t you, Phaera?” Casey asked.

Jamie jumped as if bitten at being called by her character’s name, but nodded slowly. “I…think so.”

Casey rose abruptly, grabbed the longbow that leaned against a tree beside Jamie, and handed it to her. “Then prove it,” he said.

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After Jamie established that, despite never having fired a bow in the real world, she could be a scourge to all squirrelkind, the rest of the party gave in to the bard’s pervasive charisma and set to accessing their memories. Matt and Rob came up empty at first, until Casey coached them to think about specific powers and abilities they used in battle, and situations where they’d used them. At that, they both caught the threads of their memories with a nearly audible snap.

Shortly thereafter, as Rob made his way around the camp, filching personal items from other party members and then presenting them with a flourish, his success was received with somewhat less enthusiasm.

For Raven, though, the process was not so smooth.

“Sure,” Raven said, after an hour of trying in vain to ‘remember’ some spell-casting ability , “it’s easy enough for Jamie, Casey, and John…all playing characters over a hundred years old, with so much backstory it’s like they kept a daily diary. Even Rob and Matt have seven levels of adventuring to lock into. But this character was an NPC!” she wailed.

“So?” said Rob.

“So, her whole backstory is pretty much, ‘Went to Mage School, decided to go check out this Oracle guy, became an acolyte, the end.’ She has been in one, count ‘em, one real fight…the goblins, with you guys, yesterday.”

“Then how did she get to be level seven?” asked Matt.

“Because I’m the DM and I said so!” Raven snapped. Matt held his hands up in defense, and she sighed. “I needed an NPC to send with you guys; it would be stupid to send an NPC that would be insta-killed by anything you fought, so I made one your level. Period. I figured if she needed more backstory, I’d think of something when it came up.”

“Well, you have spellbooks,” said Rob, handing over the tomes he’d just purloined from Raven’s pack. “Maybe reading those would help.”

Raven glared at her brother, then shrugged. “I suppose it’s worth a shot.”

“Hmm,” said Jamie. “Fantasy books always talk about how magic is about training your will, and believing in your powers. Gonna to be pretty tough for you to believe you can do magic spells, if you can’t remember doing it before.” Raven sighed in frustration.

“Wait, maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way,” said Matt. “We keep talking about battles and fireballs and stuff, but it sounds like this character’s memories would be mainly about studying. So…what’s something a mage can do, that they would do when studying?”

“Make light,” said Raven, Casey, and Jamie all at once.

Instantly Raven’s expression changed. She got a faraway look on her face, and stared for a moment at her open palm as her lips moved soundlessly. An orb of brilliant light burst into being, floating above her hand, and making all of them see spots even as they clapped and cheered.

“How do you feel?” asked Casey.

“I feel…like…like I’ve always had an invisible third arm, and I just now noticed it.” Raven still stared in wonder at the magelight, oblivious to the dazzle-tears streaming from her eyes.

“Maybe you should put the light out for now, sis…or you’re going to gain an arm and lose your eyesight,” said Rob, laughing gently.

“Oh, right,” she said sheepishly, putting out the light and opening the spellbooks much more eagerly than before.

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Through all of the discussion about powers and abilities, John had remained silent, seated against a tree on the far side of the clearing. Lost in his thoughts, he gazed unseeing at Matt and Jamie clumsily attempting to spar, with Jamie just a step ahead, as usual. He jumped when Casey sat down beside him.

“You’ve been pretty quiet over here,” said Casey.

“Just trying to wrap my brain around this,” John replied, then added wryly, “You realize it’s a matter of time before Rob starts calling us Legolas and Gimli.”

Casey laughed. “No doubt. He wandered off a while ago, mumbling something about a call of nature, but given how he was acting and how long he’s been gone, I’m guessing he wanted to fully inspect his goods. And I’m trying not to think about that.”

“Thanks, thanks for that image,” said John.

“Hey, no problem,” grinned Casey. “So how are you doing otherwise? Are you having trouble with finding your character’s memories?”

John sighed. “Not at all. Like Raven said, playing a century-old character with a decent backstory helped; my memories started popping up as soon as I stopped to think about it.”

“Cool, so you’re all set with using your powers, then?”

“That’s where it gets complicated, said John, ruefully. “My character’s a cleric of Aerynia, right? So, all his powers come from belief and devotion to his goddess. As Magnus the dwarf, I can clearly remember studying at her temples, feeling her power flow through me as I healed Ralof or removed a curse from Phaera.”

“But as John, the real-life human, I know that Aerynia is not real. She’s a paragraph on page 35 of the Player’s Guide, made up by a writer who took a name with extra vowels and attached a collection of nouns to it. It could just as easily be ‘Ealowyr, god of shoes, unicorns, and pastry.’ The gods in this realm are basically just concepts related to adventuring, so players can fill in a blank on a character sheet.”

Casey nodded in understanding, as John continued. “Besides…as John, the real-life human that believes in God, capital G…part of the gig is not worshiping any other gods. So even if I could get past the knowledge that Aerynia is totally fictional, to try to make myself believe in her as a goddess to serve…I wouldn’t do it.”

Casey had no answer. Their mother had been very involved in church when John was young. Like most things from that part of her life (including John himself), she put that behind her once she met and married Casey’s dad. But teenaged John had continued to attend, and had told Casey years later that his faith was what allowed him to forgive his mother for sidelining him, adjust to a new stepfather, and see his new baby brother as family rather than a usurper.

John’s integrity and convictions were at the core of who he was, and he could no more set aside his beliefs than he could set aside an arm or a leg.

Quietly, Casey asked, “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” said John, shaking his head. “I really don’t. Matt doesn’t seem to be having an issue as a paladin of…whichever god he serves. But he and Jamie both think the real-world God belongs in a mythology class. And as Ralof, he always seemed more interested in bashing people with his Divine Shield of Skull Cracking +1, than on the Meaning of It All.”

“True,” Casey chuckled.

“Eh, who knows? For now, I guess I’ll just keep my mace handy and hope nobody on our side gets in the way of a dagger.”

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By the end of the day, everyone else had managed to at least approximate some combat abilities. Rob had returned looking suspiciously contented, a fact which everyone pointedly ignored. Matt suggested Jamie hunt some dinner; Jamie asked if he was volunteering to clean and cook her kills, and the idea was dropped. Nonetheless, the party was feeling slightly less vulnerable as they sat around the rebuilt campfire gnawing on more of the tasteless trail rations.

“So,” asked Rob, “what’s our plan? Do we continue on, toward the big bad’s fortress?”

“No!” said Raven, with such vehemence that everyone jumped. She cleared her throat self-consciously and started again. “We know we were headed for a fight, and it was going to be tough. I don’t think one day of fighting practice would be enough to beat a guy who’s been wreaking havoc across a whole kingdom.”

Rob said, “Hey, if the DM says ‘you don’t wanna go that way,’ that’s good enough for me.” The rest of the group nodded agreement. “Weren’t we just a day or two outside of… what was that town called…not gingerbread….Sunnymead?”

“What would we do there?” asked Jamie sarcastically. “Knock on the mayor’s door and ask if they’ve had any holes in the space-time continuum lately?”

“I don’t hear you taking the initiative to make a better plan, Madam Grouchy-Bow,” Rob said irritably. “We have gold; maybe we could rent some rooms and buy some edible food while we get this sorted out.”

Even Jamie conceded that was the best option, and after resolving to head out in the morning, they all shifted uncomfortably on their bedrolls until finally drifting off to sleep.

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Next Chapter (The Proverbial Tavern – Chapter Four: Diplomacy Fail)

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