Darwin made his way to the back of the dungeon after the celebration and festivities died down. He didn’t consciously choose to, but before he even realized where his feet were taking him, he was halfway down the stairs that Stephanie had said led to the portal room. They were a flight of spiraling stairs, and oddly for this particular dungeon, there was an actual walled room with a door at the end. He opened the door to discover Stephanie sitting in a nice, red leather computer chair and playing a Game Boy next to a giant sheet of what looked like moving obsidian, rippling up and down and even popping in some places.
“Hey, where did you get the–”
“Shh–” Stephanie cut him off before he could finish the sentence. Just from the music alone, he recognized what game it was: one of his favorite 2D, plumber-oriented platformers.
Darwin sat there, waiting a few minutes, knowing better than to bother a gamer until she was finished.
“Okay, I’m finished,” she said, turning it off and throwing it into her pocket. As she stood up, he couldn’t help but notice that her outfit had changed. She had gone from the bubbly cheerleader look to just a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt. “Are you finished?”
“Huh? I wasn’t the one playing,” Darwin replied, slightly confused, but then he understood her question. “Yeah. Yeah, we finished up. It went pretty well. We lost some good men, but overall it was a resounding triumph.”
“Great! Well, the portal is all set up. All we have to do now to get home is walk through it. I actually finished a bit ago, but you guys sounded like you were having fun when I went to get you, so I just figured I’d play some games and wait,” Stephanie said cheerfully. “That was totally hard by the way . . . The waiting, I mean. Not you.”
“Well, should we do something first? Go get the others so we can all head out at once? Grab a big stockpile of Gold? Or do we just walk through? Wait, is there a ritual or some sort of fancy item we need to get through?”
“Oh, yeah!” Stephanie looked down, fumbled around her pockets for a minute as if she were looking for a key, then grabbed Darwin’s hand and yanked him with her through the portal.
It felt odd at first, like he had just submerged himself in water, but the water was denser. In fact, if anything, it was a mix between slowly sliding into a pool of water and running into a sheet of cold tinfoil. He instinctively closed his eyes as it happened, but when he got around to opening them he knew at once it was a success. He found himself inside a room so big that to call it an airport hangar would be an understatement. The room was large enough to house every dungeon and town he had been to and then have room for more. It was empty and bare with what appeared to be metal plate sides that one might expect on an airport hangar and an overly-reinforced black metal roof that was littered with white squares that seemed to provide the lighting for the room. The portal had worked. The only problem was the sinking feeling in Darwin’s stomach that he had gone from out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Inside the nearly-empty room was a series of tables adorned with white tablecloths and silver trays containing a rather diverse offering of different kinds delicious foods from cheesecakes and steaks to cereals and omelets. The edibles were all lined out around one medium-sized, circular mahogany table with four place settings. At the head, sitting at the place facing the portal, there was a tall, blonde-haired man in a pin-striped suit drinking tea.
As he saw Darwin walk through the portal, he put down the tea, stood up, brushed off his legs and walked around the table to greet Darwin.
“My apologies,” he said, extending a hand for Darwin. “I totally forgot my manners and started without the guest of honor. My name is Charles. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ll be your host for as long as you see fit.”
“I’m . . . I’m Darwin,” Darwin answered hesitantly. It wasn’t that he was nervous, which he knew he probably should be, but it was that the entire experience had left him at a loss for words. That, and the fact that he had no idea what was going on.
“Well, Darwin, I must say that given the experiences I’m sure you’ve just had, I can only imagine what you’re feeling right now, but, for the moment, would you like to sit down for a bite to eat? A cup of tea perhaps?” Charles offered, walking back to his place at the table, but waiting for his guests before sitting.
“Yes,” Darwin answered, finding himself incredibly conflicted. He wanted to seem professional in front of this obviously very powerful stranger, but on the other hand, he desperately wanted to change out the cup of tea for his favorite soda. “Yes, a cup of tea sounds great. Earl Grey, please.”
“Psh, forget you two classy farts,” Stephanie laughed, walking over to an empty chair and sitting in it with deliberate nonchalance. “Give me a few cans of the nearest soft drink, and someone fetch me something with cheese, sugar, grease or all of the above. I’ve been eating nothing but barbecued meat for what feels like forever. I demand sugar!”
Charles and Darwin both found themselves chuckling as they took their seats. “Actually, double what she’s having for me, and give the same to Darwin,” Charles said to a waiter who seemed to slip out of nowhere. “Let’s make this as casual a first meeting as possible.” Charles smiled as he held his tie to his chest and sat down. “Now, before the food gets here and our final guest arrives, there are some important things I think I need to fill you in on.”
Darwin cracked open the soda the waiter brought him as he watched the other men arranging food from the buffet onto plates for them. Then, exchanging a glance with Stephanie, he found himself wondering, Wait, I’m missing something. Why is it that everyone is looking at Stephanie, but no one is turning to stone? What have I walked into?