The Proverbial Tavern – Chapter Four: Diplomacy Fail

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 Three: Determine Initiative)

“Raven, you’re my sister and I love you, but I swear if you do not quit bitching I will pull over and turn this imaginary car around.”

It was the morning of their second day of hiking toward Sunnymead, and Rob had reached his limit. He stood with his furry fists on his scantily-clad hips, looking sternly down at his burgundy-skinned sister, who fidgeted guiltily with the tip of her pointed tail. The rest of the party burst out laughing.

“What?!” asked Rob, glaring at them indignantly.

“Oh nothing,” said John mildly. “I think our surrealism meters just redlined there for a second.”

“A fair point,” Rob replied after a moment, raising a delicate eyebrow. “Still…as soon as we left camp yesterday, it was nothing but ‘my pack’s too heavy, you’re going too fast, how am I supposed to pee in the bushes in this robe.’ And then she stayed up sniffling in her bedroll an hour after she thought everybody else was asleep. If I have to put up with another day of that, I am going to lose whatever sanity I have left.”

“I know, I know,” said Raven, sighing guiltily. “And I’m sorry. I’m just…completely out of my depth here, you know? I mean, I know we all are, but my usual relationship with the outdoors is to see as little of it as possible while traveling between climate-controlled areas. I don’t spontaneously wander in the woods…or anywhere for that matter! I research! I plan! I make lists!!” Raven took a breath, aware her voice had risen in near-panic. “I’ve been studying the spells, but since I didn’t want to risk setting the whole woods on fire, the only one I’m sure will work is that totally harmless ball of light. And…and I am worried about Ben getting home and not knowing what happened…” She trailed off, blinking away the first hints of tears.

“I know, sis…I know,” Rob said, relenting. “It’s ok. I’m not mad. We’re all just trying to get through this as best as we can.” He pulled his sister in for a hug, patting her hair comfortingly.

After a few moments of being smothered against her brother’s prominent bosom, Raven said, in a muffled voice, “Okay, this is weird.” He released her, as everyone giggled.

As it happened, this exchange left the whole group facing Raven, so she was the only one who saw the ugly mottled head of the goblin scout poking up out of the weeds some distance down the road, watching them. Without stopping to think, she spoke a set of the glittering words emblazoned in her mind, and coruscating bolts of light flew from her fingertips straight at the evil creature’s bulging eyes. It shrieked as the energy burst onto its skin, twitched for a moment, and then fell into the road and was still.

After a long stunned silence, Raven said shakily, “Well, I guess that one works.” And then she sat quietly down in the middle of the road and passed out.

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By the time Raven came to in a small clearing by the side of the road, Rob and Matt had already checked the goblin’s corpse and decided from its gear that it was most likely a remnant of the larger force their characters had defeated in the previous game session. “It’s a good thing you saw it,” Matt said, as John was helping Raven to sit up against a tree stump. “Otherwise it might have gone off for reinforcements.”

Raven nodded numbly, and Casey asked, “Are you ok?”

“I…I guess so?” she answered. “I haven’t ever killed anything bigger than a spider before, so that’s…weird. Though, part of me feels like goblins aren’t real, so it doesn’t count, if that makes any sense? But also…”

Her eyes widened. “Did you guys see that?!? I did actual magic! I said some gibberish and these bolts of…energy, I guess?…just shot out of my fingertips, and then BAM. I felt it; I saw it, not just some description on a page, but for real! How crazy is that?!?

“On a scale of 1 to Arkham Asylum, I’d give it an eleven,” Matt quipped dryly, while Casey just grinned.

“Yeah, it’s real great. So, uh, you’re not going to, like, have a nightmare and fry us all in your sleep or anything, right?” asked Rob. Jamie swatted him.

“Considering she has to focus to make it work,” said John, “not in our top ten concerns at the moment.”

“Fair enough,” Rob shrugged. “Well, shall we get on our way before our little dead friend draws attention? We shoved him under some bushes, but he’s too smelly to stay hidden forever.”

Raven nodded and shakily got to her feet with a hand from John, and the group continued on their way.

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By early afternoon, the party finally left the forest behind. The dirt road widened and began to look more traveled as the walls of a town appeared in the distance, and everyone hurried their steps at the thought of real food and beds.

The town of Sunnymead was the largest bastion of civilization in this part of the kingdom, with about two hundred families calling it home. They provided lumber and crops to the much larger capitol city of Riverhame, a week or two farther toward the coast. And of course, they were also famed for producing the honey and mead that gave the town its name. As they drew nearer, the party chatted eagerly about what they’d do in the proverbial cheerful fantasy town, complete with feather beds and rosy-cheeked serving wenches.

But when they reached the gate, they found it closed.

A trio of young human men in leather armor looked down on them with interest from a lookout post set just behind the walls. Their eyes got progressively larger as they took in each member of the party…though the drakari, the drow, and especially the panthrin got the biggest reactions.

After a moment, the self-appointed leader of the three swaggered forward to lean on the watchtower railing. “Well, wutchye want?” With a look over his shoulder at his fellows, he added, “Or’s the cat gotcher tongue?” The three men sniggered.

The party shared a quick look to decide who would speak for them, and Casey stepped forward. “Good day, gentlemen. My companions and I hoped to enter your fair city to purchase supplies and—“

“Weren’t talkin’ at you, tree fairy,” said the leader, hocking a gob of spittle over the railing. Casey flushed self-consciously and took an involuntary step backward, to the men’s amusement.

The speaker fixed his eyes on Matt. “T’ain’t very knight-like to let some tree lover do yer talkin’ fer ye…less’n mebbe these freaks be yer slaves, like?”

Matt was completely taken by surprise by the whole exchange. “What? No! Of course not!” he said indignantly. “Look, we’re just…uh…adventurers, and we’re trying to buy supplies, just like my friend said. That’s all. I mean, you do have shops and stuff, maybe an inn, right?”

“Oh aye, we got a fine inn, but t’ain’t for the likes o’ you, and ye’ll nivver be seein’ it.” The young man was clearly enjoying his power over the group, and the admiration of his friends as he spoke thus to an armored and powerful-looking fighter. The fact that he was safely in a tower on the other side of a stout wall did not seem to diminish his boldness in their eyes.

“Why not?” Matt asked angrily.

“Because Sunnymead is a good quiet town, fer men. Not fer demons an’ fairies an’ Skylady knows what all kind o’ weird creatures. We don’ need no freaks an’ troublemakers here, so you an’ yer trav’lin’ circus kin jest be on yer way.”

Matt’s gauntleted hands were balled into fists as he turned back to the group, amid more of the trio’s raucous laughter. “What do we want to do?” he asked, through gritted teeth.

Rob’s claws were out as his fingers twitched near his daggers’ hilts. “You mean, before or after we grab that obnoxious little asshat and show him his liver?” His tail lashed back and forth, and his fur was standing on end, which might have seemed funny if he weren’t so clearly ready to tear someone in half.

Before anyone could respond, the man in the lookout post called out again. “Oi Master Knight…might be we could make a deal with ye…”

Jamie, seeing the malicious glee in the man’s eyes, tried to stop Matt from responding, but the paladin turned back and said, “What kind of deal?”

“I find meself feelin’ a mort sorry fer ye, stuck out in the wild with nothin’ but a pack o’ freaks fer comp’ny. I’d be willin’ t’let you come in alone an’ git wut ye need…” He trailed off, as his cronies grinned nastily,

“In return for what?” said Matt grimly.

“Well, ain’t nobody hard up enough fer wimmen t’ dip ‘is wick in a cursed demon or a lyin’ drow bitch…but yer pet kitty cat there looks like a fine way fer me an’ the boys t’ pass an evenin’.” He grinned broadly, ogling the panthrin. “An’ bein’ as she keeps all the goods out fer show, belike she ain’t no stranger to it neither. Less’n yer afraid she might not git back on yer leash oncet she’s had some real men.”

John had already been moving to restrain Rob, but he wasn’t quite quick enough to prevent the throwing dagger from leaving Rob’s hand and thunking into the wood of the watchtower next to the speaker’s head. The man paled, but hid his reaction from his awestruck friends by responding, “Oh-ho, the kitten’s got claws! Looks like she needs t’be tamed,” he added, grabbing the front of his trousers suggestively.

While Jamie took Matt’s arm, reminding him the idiots weren’t worth the effort, and John and Casey held a low-voiced, urgent conversation with Rob, Raven stepped forward. “So sorry to have troubled you, but now that I see what sort of town this is, we couldn’t possibly enter your gates after all, because…well, it’s not important…” She trailed off.

The man predictably took the bait. “Because why, she-demon? Think yer too good fer us?”

“Oh, not at all,” Raven smiled sweetly. “It’s just that we are clearly a band of powerful adventurers…” She snapped her fingers, summoning the ball of light to her hand, and pretending to examine it with a bored expression, then continued, “So the amount of stupidity it would take to speak to us like this clearly can’t be natural. If your little village has been cursed with idiocy, we’d rather get our supplies elsewhere. Good day.” She snapped her fingers again, cancelling the light, then turned on her heel and walked back onto the main road. The goons sputtered angrily once they’d worked out that they’d been insulted, but by then, the party had gotten moving again (some more reluctantly than others) and were headed on down the road toward the capitol.

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After they’d passed beyond sight of the village, Rob turned on John. “Why didn’t you let me hit that bastard? Didn’t you care at all how they were talking to us, how they were treating us?”

John sighed. “Of course I did. They were douchebags, and I would really have liked to punch that guy’s smug face through the back of his empty head. But it wouldn’t have changed anything for the better.

Matt looked troubled. “But we didn’t do anything to them. We were just there for supplies. Why would they act like that without knowing anything about us?”

“Right?” said Rob angrily. “Some ‘fantasy’ land this is…”

He was interrupted by Jamie’s unexpected harsh laughter. John snorted, and Raven and even Casey smirked and exchanged glances.

“What?” Rob asked, bewildered by their reaction.

“You’re right,” Jamie said, in a witheringly dry tone. “Somebody judging you or excluding you just because of how you look is definitely out of the realm of possibility. People in our normal world would never do such a thing.”

Matt flushed awkwardly, but Rob still looked angry. “She’s right,” said John. “I’m sure I don’t see nearly as much of it as a female black chemist,” he nodded at Jamie, “But being the only brown kid in the family of blonds brings out its share of jackasses.”

“There are always going to be pathetic jerks who want to find reasons to be obnoxious to people, and are too lazy to look for a reason beyond obvious appearances,” said Raven, with a shrug. “Here is no different. You guys just don’t usually get slapped in the face with it.”

“Not true,” said Matt, with a look at Jamie. “We get stares and whispers now and then when we go out, and some complete tools take it farther than that. I guess I just didn’t expect to find it here…and so…I dunno, in our faces, I guess.”

“Which brings me back to the previous point; why didn’t you let me hit them?” asked Rob.

“Because it doesn’t help,” said Jamie. “If they say you’re a lesser being, and you respond by attacking them like an animal, they win. Even if you beat the shit out of them. The only way you win is to be better than them. To be so much better, that when they try to cut you down, everyone can plainly see their insults are all lies, and they’re useless wastes of space.” She smiled grimly. “Not nearly as satisfying as a throat-punch, but a lot more effective in the long run.” Matt reached out and took her hand.

“Besides,” Casey pointed out, “just because there were only three of them we could see, it doesn’t mean there were only three of them total. Even if the rest of the town wasn’t on their side, beating up their gate guards isn’t likely to make them want to let us in.”

“One other thing,” said John. “You and I got into our share of brawls in our misspent youth, right?” Rob nodded. “So I know exactly how hard I need to hit somebody to get his attention, or to knock him down. But I know that as John, the human, fighting other normal dudes. How hard can Magnus the dwarf, or Tawny the panthrin for that matter, hit a regular human NPC before they turn into splattered paste? I don’t know. And I know you well enough to know that no matter how mad you were in the moment, you wouldn’t want to kill somebody just for mouthing off.”

Rob took a deep breath and unclenched his neck and shoulders. “No. I guess not. But God, I wanted to kick that guy’s ass. Talking about me like I was just a thing to be used to make a deal?! Staring down at me like he and his buddies just had the right to take whatever they wanted, and I had no say in it?! It’s bullshit!!” He ran his hand through his hair in agitation, then tried to get it untangled from the unfamiliar blonde curls.

“Rob,” Raven said gently. “I know you aren’t this way, because I knocked sense into you early. But…you’re a construction worker. Can you honestly say you’ve never been on a scaffolding with a bunch of dudes, and heard them talk like that to some chick passing by?”

Rob froze, and looked at his sister, appalled. “I would never—“

She hugged him. “I know, kiddo; I know you wouldn’t. But some do, don’t they?” He nodded. “So now you know. It’s not a compliment.”

“So what do we do?” he asked in a small voice.

“To fix the world? Heh,” she smiled ruefully. “Keep not being assholes, and pray it catches on? But if you mean what do we do right now…I guess head onward toward the capitol. It’s a bigger city, and our group has spent time there before, so maybe that’ll be better.”

Thus agreed, the group proceeded down the road until sunset, lost in their thoughts.

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When the group found a suitable place to stop for the night, they laid out their meager camp, such as it was. Matt and Jamie, after revisiting the idea of trying to hunt some dinner, decided to see if they could make anything edible out of trail rations and water first. Casey pulled out his lute to practice. Raven, as usual, had her nose in her books as soon as she found a stump to sit on.

Rob sat at his sister’s feet with his head on her knee. She petted his hair absently as she read. Most people assumed he was just the brash jokester he appeared to be, but she knew he had a soft and caring heart behind all that. After getting thrown for a loop the way he had this afternoon, she knew her little brother needed comforting.

But she couldn’t help startling him when she finally puzzled out the latest paragraph in her book and leapt up with a gasp.

“What? What’s wrong?” said Jamie, looking around in alarm.

“Oh, sorry,” said Raven, “Everything’s fine. I just…I think I can do something awesome!”

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John, after laying out his bedroll, had gone for a walk a short distance into the forest. The events of the afternoon had shaken him too, but not the same way they’d affected Rob. No, John just kept seeing that throwing dagger make its high trajectory into the lookout post, and thinking, “What if Rob had missed?”

John pulled off the holy symbol of Aerynia around his neck, and stared at it lying in his hand. His memories as Magnus were haunting him in sharp detail, reminding him of all the times one of his friends had been at death’s door, brought back only through his cleric’s skill and the favor of the goddess Aerynia.

Who was not real. Except she was. Ish.

He gripped the talisman until it cut into his palm, and knocked his forehead against the nearest tree, trying to pound an answer into his brain.

The real God could come to his aid if something happened. He’d seen prayer in the regular world do amazing things…miracles, even (though using that word always made him feel like somebody was going to run up and call him a religious nutjob). Though his skeptical mind had a hard time closing the gap between those events and himself, he certainly believed they occurred. God being omnipresent, He was certainly here as much as anywhere else.

Unfortunately, the only way to test it was to wait until one of his friends got injured and see what happened.

Magnus the dwarven cleric never had that problem, of course. Here, faith meant walking down to the temple, and waiting patiently for a couple hours until a deity showed up with a magic weapon, a quest, and a list of various healing abilities starting on page 203. There was no actual faith in his dwarven memories, at least not the way John would define it. The closest Magnus ever got to faith was the equivalent of believing that when you swung a hammer and hit a nail, the nail would be affected as usual.

Magnus didn’t have to pray for healing; he said a phrase and made a gesture and it happened, just like every other time. And he could heal whomever he chose, regardless of what deity that person believed in. Because of course, the power was only nominally from the deity; it was really just what it meant to be a cleric. When John created Magnus, Aerynia was just a label that got slapped on at the end; it didn’t change much of anything but the flavor text.

With the real God, the faith was part of him; it infused everything he did. There were no parallels. Nothing matched up.

Which brought John right back to where he started…“What if Rob had missed?”

But before he could make another circuit of his rutted train of thought, he felt a sharp blow to the back of his head, and then nothing more.

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The rest of the group, back at the campsite and unaware anything was wrong, was bemusedly watching Raven mutter to herself and dig random objects out of her backpack. Setting them down in what seemed to be a specific pattern, she laid the book in front of her and took a deep breath.

“What are you doing?” asked Rob.

“Shush,” said Raven. “Just leave me alone for ten minutes and make sure nobody breaks my concentration. Oh, and stay toward this side of the clearing. I am not exactly sure how this will work, so you probably shouldn’t stand in the way.”

Realizing he’d get no more out of her, he backed off as indicated and sat with the others, waiting for…something.

After an extremely long ten minutes, they discovered what the something was.

“Dude!” said Rob, inhaling appreciatively over the bubbling stewpot that had appeared in the midst of the magical campsite. “How did you do that?!?”

Raven grinned broadly, emerging from a cozy tent where she’d finally been able to wash up and change into blessedly clean clothing. “It’s a ritual,” she said. “I didn’t pay attention to the ritual book at first because I’ve never been in a game where we really used them, you know? When you’re playing, you just say, ‘and then we made camp;’ you never spend that much time figuring out whether the bedrolls will be soft enough.”

“I will never scoff at a soft bedroll again,” said Jamie fervently, stretching by the fire and enjoying the feeling of being at least somewhat clean for the first time in days.

“How long until the food is ready?” asked Matt, eyeing the stew hungrily.

“It was ready as soon as the ritual ended,” said Raven. “So we can all dig in—wait…where’s John?”

“I haven’t seen him since we set up camp,” said Casey. “He said he needed to be by himself for a bit, but that he wouldn’t go far…” The realization that some time had passed and it was nearly full dark hit them all at the same time, and they shared nervous looks.

“Jamie, Rob…check it out?” said Raven, knowing the ranger and thief both had tracking abilities and could see clearly in the gathering darkness. They nodded and headed off in the direction Casey indicated.

They didn’t have long to wait. Within minutes, Rob and Jamie returned, looking grim. “We didn’t find John,” said Rob, his voice filled with tension, “but we followed his trail, and found tracks. Four humans, by the look of it. A little further off, the tracks of their horses. And where John’s tracks stop and theirs start…we found this.”

The holy symbol of Aerynia dangled from his hand, one edge red with blood.

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Next Chapter (The Proverbial Tavern – Interlude: Missing Content)

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