Thursday, August 23, 2007

Episode 17: Desiring Dragons

What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a failing coffee shop trades the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans'. After dumping coffee made by the beans into a potted bonsai tree, a massive ash tree mysteriously grows overnight inside the shop. Following a miraculous weekend which saves the coffee shop, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman. When he does not return for several days, Lara and Blackout attempt to find out what has happened to him. A dark presence attacks Lara as she attempts to enter Andrew's apartment, wounding her badly. Blackout takes Lara to the Fates, servants of the Tree, who heal her with the Tree's life-giving magic...

Have to believe we are magic
Nothing can stand in our way...

The lyrics to an Olivia Newton Song from a really terrible early 80's film kept running through Blackout's mind as he listened to Lara tell her story - the truth this time, nothing kept secret. How she'd come in for her first day of work to find the Tree fully grown, Andrew asleep in its branches. How she'd met the three women...three fates he reminded himself, and found out that she was apparently one of them, to which Terry had added, "nothing apparent about it. It just is."

Come take my hand
You should know me...

He'd figured Lara was special, but finding out the girl you're interested in is a Fate...whatever the hell that meant...wasn't that like finding out she was a Nun or something? Were Fates allowed to date?

I've always been in your mind
You know I will be kind
I'll be guiding you

Guiding me where? Blackout wondered. He was having a lot of trouble taking it all in. It was one thing entirely to desire dragons when polyhedron dice were involved. It was another thing entirely to desire them on your street. Or in your coffee shop. But it wasn't a dragon they were dealing with. Just a sex demon. He chuckled to himself.

"Something funny?" Terry asked.

"Well, earlier this evening I was imagining a world where magic was possible...and thinking how great that would be." Blackout took a drink of the incredibly strong coffee Hatima had brewed once Lara had come around to consciousness. "Now that it's really actually possible...I'm wondering if it's really so great."

"That's because your first introduction to the magic was demonic...diabolical magic," Ima said. "Imagine if the first thing you'd seen--really seen, for what it truly is, had been the Tree."

"The Tree's pretty damn scary if you ask me," Blackout said, looking up at the dark green canopy above him. "I mean, what's the point? Why is it here?"

"Like asking why the sky is blue," Ima replied.

"I'm sorry, but that cryptic bullshit's not going to cut it much longer," Lara said. "I nearly got myself killed tonight, and I think what's going on with Andrew is somehow connected to the Tree being here. If I'm really part of your little sisterhood, then I want some straight answers."

Building your dream
Has to start now
There's no other road to take
You won't make a mistake
I'll be guiding you

Blackout realized he was tapping his toe in time to the music in his head. Hatima was looking at his foot as though she might hack it off. He stopped tapping.

"You're right," Ima said. "We've not told you enough to know how to handle things. The Tree likely attracted the succubus' attention--for what reason I can't yet say, though I have my theories. All magical creatures can sense the Tree...they are drawn to it."

"But why?" Lara asked.

"It's a gateway," Ima said. "A gateway between the worlds you call reality and the ones called magic. And magical creatures can travel between the world using the Tree."

"So the succubus used the Tree to get here?"

"No," Terry interjected. "The day she came in and left with Andrew was the first time we sensed her power. She came into this world via another doorway. Likely a closet."

"A closet?" Blackout said.

"Monsters travel through closets," Terry replied. "Everyone knows that."

"And I suppose Leprechauns travel on rainbows," Blackout said.

"Actually, they do," Terry said matter-of-factly.

"But why would the succubus choose Andrew as her prey?" Lara asked. "I mean, with all the men in the world, why Andrew?"

"He's the guardian of the Tree," Ima said. "Many dark powers will want to control Andrew, and by controlling him control access to the Tree." She saw the look of confusion on Lara and Blackout's faces. "No one can travel the Tree without the permission of the guardian in the world they are traveling from."

Blackout looked over at the Tree and wondered how exactly one went about this 'traveling'. Were there magic words to be spoken? A little dance to do? A virgin to be sacrificed? He supposed the latter was unlikely...tough to find a lot of those in this day and age.

"Well, this is all fascinating," he said, "but it currently isn't doing Andrew any good, guardian or no if that thing is sucking the life out of him while we sit here discussing it all."

"Yeah," Lara said. "We need to know how to kill this thing. Do you know how we can do that?" She looked at the three fates pleadingly.

"We're in charge of tending the Tree," Terry said. "Our lore is of the Tree, not all the creatures that roam in its branches. We know some of their names, like this lilitu, but we've never had to face one ourselves."

"I might know," Blackout said. Lara looked at him with surprise and hope through those striking eyes and he felt a little nervous butterfly in his stomach.

And if all your hopes survive
Destiny will arrive
I'll bring all your dreams alive
For you
I'll bring all your dreams alive
For you

"I might say how to kill one in my gaming books."

"Gaming books?" Lara asked, incredulous. The hope had drained out of her eyes. "This isn't a game Mark! It's the real world!" She stopped short after saying that and wrinkled her nose. "Or a reasonable facsimile thereof."

"The guys who write those books research their stuff in folklore and legend. It's as good a resource as any we're going to have." He felt like some poor man's version of Giles off Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "It's better than nothing. Rutherford library won't be open until morning."

Lara shrugged her shoulders.

"It's worth a try I suppose."

Blackout nodded and got up from his chair, quaffing the last of his coffee in one hearty gulp. It felt good to be doing something. Sitting here and thinking about all this craziness was starting to get to him.

"I'll come and let you know as soon as I find something," he said, walking to the door and throwing his coat on. He stepped out into the night air, it's brisk chill hitting him with its harsh reality. For a moment, it all seemed absolutely mad. Perhaps it was.

But there was the blood on the back seat of his car. And the three women standing in the shop with Lara. And Andrew was still missing.

You've always desired dragons, he thought. And you might not have wanted them on your street, but now they're here, and the question you have before you is simply...what are you going to do about it?

It was like having Ian McKellen running around in his head.

He flipped open his cell phone and hit the speed dial. Three rings...

"Hello?" Riptide said.

"I'm glad you're still up," Blackout said. "I need you to meet me at the shop, right away."

Monday, August 20, 2007

Episode 16: A Virtual Stranger

What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a failing coffee shop on the University of Alberta campus trades what he believes to be the final Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans' from a homeless man. After dumping the coffee made by the magic beans into a potted bonsai tree, a massive ash tree mysteriously grows overnight inside the shop. Following a miraculous weekend which saves the coffee shop, Andrew suddenly and inexplicably leaves work in the company of a mysterious and fatally attractive woman...

Her sign in name would have been some warning, if Andrew had only known that the arrival of the Tree meant an arrival of many magical things. He'd been on the dating site, chatting with people in one of the many rooms, when Suck-u-bi had signed in. Nothing really all that shocking there. Sign in names at the singles sites were rife with all sorts of lewd innuendos, some subtle, others not. What was rare in Andrew's experience was to have one of the overt types send him a private message.

Suck-u-bi (18 f): Hey, I see you're in Edmonton. Me too.

Coffee-in-Edmonton (26 m): Hi. What brings you by the chat tonight?

Suck-u-bi (18f): Bored, I guess.

The most common reason anyone gave for being at an online chat. Which was bullshit for most people. They could as easily and more honestly have written horny, desperate, or lonely, but they almost always wrote bored. But that would have been disclosure, and caution was wise, even in the digital world. It never ceased to amaze Andrew how much it stung being shut down by someone who was in every way the word could mean, a virtual stranger. He'd had a few online romances, but they never seemed to go anywhere; he was always hooking up with girls from the UK or Australia, or halfway across Canada or the United States, but never from just down the street.

But since he'd started the shop there really hadn't been time for nightlife, for the dating scene. There were lots of girls who passed through the shop, some who might even have been interested, but Andrew couldn't cold-call a date. He just didn't have the testicular fortitude.

The chat was a safe way to meet people. Keep them at a very safe distance. Sometimes too distant, but that was still safe. And there was connection without commitment, which Andrew had never been any good at. The shop had been one of the first commitments he could recall that he'd really stuck with, and now that he pondered it (he'd had a lot of time to ponder since She had left him alone to regain his long had he been lying here? The room smelled awful...), he realized that his poor management of the shop hadn't just been outside influences--he'd wanted it to fail, one more commitment he was self-sabotaging, until the Tree had grown up and he'd hired Lara.

Lara--he thought he'd heard her voice calling to him through the sleepy, dreamy haze that enveloped him.

Coffee-in-Edmonton: I guess I'm sort of in a celebratory mood. Had a great weekend at work. Looking for someone to celebrate with I suppose.

Suck-u-bi: What sort of celebration did you have in mind?

Coffee-in-Edmonton: Nothing particular in mind. Maybe just going to a show?

Which lead into a discussion of movies; Suck-u-bi (18 f) liked the same movies Andrew did. Like she could read his mind (or his online profile - he had listed some of those movies on the site profile). And that lead into discussions of favorite books. And literature. And music. And she and Andrew clicked. He'd chatted with her long into the night, until she finally typed,

I want to meet you.

He'd agreed right away; suggested the coffee shop, because it was a sort of neutral ground. A place to meet that was familiar enough for him. And because they hadn't exchanged photos, it gave him the option to excuse himself from further dating based on being busy. Of course, there was always the complication that if she was the stalker type he'd never be able to get rid of her...but he didn't get that feeling from their interaction. Inasmuch as anyone can get a feel for someone reading their typed words on a computer screen at four in the morning.

When she'd arrived at the shop he'd been blown away. It was simply too good to be true. She was a dead ringer for Justine Juliette...and dressed like her too. And when he'd come over to say hello, she'd leaned in and whispered into his ear: "I'm not wearing any there somewhere else you'd like to go?"

It seemed odd to him as he stepped out of the shop. He never acted impulsively like this. First the beans, now this girl. He didn't even know her name. But when they got outside and she kissed him deeply and passionately, he felt even more of his reason melt away. He thought it odd the way she wouldn't enter his apartment first when he'd chivalrously offered, ladies first. She told him she wanted him to invite her in...beg her if that's what turned him on.

And he had. It seemed like a long time ago now, though he knew it couldn't have been more than a day...or maybe two?

A day or two of furious, animal sex. He'd never left the room to his knowledge. Not once. Which bothered him. Why hadn't he had to go to the washroom? He remembered eating...and the sex. And that was all. And it was all a blur of flesh and sweat and sleep. Not enough sleep though.

He could hear Her through the milky haze, like he was hearing her from underwater. She was singing? Or was it chanting - there were rhythmic cadences, and lyrical qualities to whatever it was. And other noises too. Wet noises, like she was working in mud or clay. And then sleep would take him again.

And he thought that just once, he dreamed he awoke to see a hazy reflection of himself, a soulless reflection of himself, staring down at him impassively, before striding out of the bedroom. He heard the front door slam, and all was silent. And in the silence, he gave in once again to a sleep like the dead.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Episode 15: Seeing is Believing

What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a failing coffee shop trades what the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans'. After dumping coffee made by the beans into a potted bonsai tree, a massive ash tree mysteriously grows overnight inside the shop. Following a miraculous weekend which saves the coffee shop, Andrew suddenly leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman. When he does not return to work for several days, Lara enlists the help of Blackout to find out what has happened to Andrew. A dark presence attacks Lara as she attempts to enter Andrew's apartment, wounding her badly..

The drive back to the coffee shop was a blur in Blackout's mind. Later on, attempting to recall it, he would only remember Lara prohibiting him to take her to emergency, an image of him laying her gently into the back seat of his car; driving as fast as he could given the winter conditions back over the river valley; of trying to wake her to get the keys to the shop so he could open the door; his hands slipping into her coat pocket, realizing as he did so that there was blood on that hand--her blood. He would wonder later, given how much blood soaked his back seat at how convinced he had been that returning to the shop was the best thing for Lara.

Unlocking the door. Returning to the car. Nearly slipping on the ice with her again in his arms. In his arms, but not how he'd imagined. Laying her on the coffee bar. Standing, a blank look on his face, feeling suddenly stupid for not having disobeyed her. For not taking her to the emergency.

"You did the right thing," said a woman's voice. A dry, sandy voice that reminded him of his grandmother smoking cigarette's while she drank her morning coffee.

He looked up to see a matronly woman, her long silver hair pulled into a great braid that descended all the way down her back enter the shop from the back room. "We sensed her wounding and summoned her here. Thank you for believing."

Believing? Believing what?

The matronly woman approached Lara's body, and two more women entered the room through the same door, one a middle-aged Asian woman with a pleasant smile on her face, the last a young African woman whose eyes flashed golden in the dim light. They surrounded the coffee bar and placed their hands over Lara, closing their eyes as they did so.

It seemed as though the lights dimmed, as though something was drawing off the energy that powered them. And then the women began to glow...and that glow flowed out into Lara's still body, brightest where she'd been wounded by the...

By what? What did we see in Andrew's apartment? All I saw was darkness, and a sound like a big cat...and then Lara was bleeding, and falling into my arms.

But somehow he knew it hadn't been a cat. Just like he knew that he'd needed to bring her here rather than to the hospital. And how he knew that inexplicably, these three women were healing Lara with the light.

And with all that knowledge, his gaze traveled from the three women to the Tree which canopied above them all, spreading its boughs like protective arms. And he also knew that Lara had not built this Tree. He couldn't imagine how he'd ever believed that this was a fake tree, a fantastically massive prop, a piece of clever staging. How could he have mistaken that ancient bark for polystyrene or paper-mache? How could he have assumed that these deep green leaves were made from silk? How could he have missed the utterly vital presence of Life all around him? It was the same sensation he had standing on the dock at his parent's cabin in the Okanagan valley, staring up at the moon casting its double down upon the placid lake waters.

Awe. That's the sensation. How did I miss it before?

"We can only ever see the reality we've constructed in our minds," the dry sandy voice said.

Blackout tore his gaze from the Tree and looked into the matronly woman's eyes. She was lighting a cigarette. The Asian woman was making coffee, while the African woman was sitting on the counter, Lara's head in her lap, stroking her brow and singing a quiet, wordless melody.

"I didn't say anything," Blackout said.

"You don't have to," the silver haired woman replied. "Your face says a great deal. I've been around enough first time reactions to the Tree to know them when I see them. You just awakened to what's really in front of your face. And you're asking yourself how you could ever have seen it any other way." She smiled and took a drag of the cigarette. Blackout said nothing. "But you've had twenty some years of being told that a tree like this one can't grow up in a coffee shop overnight. That magic can't heal people. Those realities die hard. Some people walked in here this past week and saw the Tree for what it was, basked in the magic, but walked out the door and let themselves forget all about it. They'll remember from time to time, especially if they're here in the right frame of mind and in the right circumstance, but there's too much real life out there," she said, and pointed out the window. "Makes it tough to keep a sense of wonder about things. But you've had some other experience tonight. Whatever placed that hurt upon our young Lara wasn't any animal of this world. It was a being of magic."

"I don't know what it was," Blackout admitted.

"Well tell us what happened, and maybe we can help with that. I have my suspicions, but that's all they currently are."

She came out from behind the coffee bar and sat down at a table, indicated for Blackout to follow suite. He did so, as the Asian woman put down two cups of coffee on the table.

"Honestly Terry," she said, shaking her head. "You just talk and talk without any common courtesies." She looked at Blackout, and her smile put much of his worry to rest. "My name's Ima, and the singer over there taking care of Lara is called Hatima. You've probably guessed that the talkative one is Terry."

"My name is Mark," he said. "But most people call me Blackout."

"Well Mark," said Ima. "Tell me if you need cream and sugar, and then tell us what happened."

He took both, and then told the women, as best he could, what had happened at the apartment. He had to keep correcting himself, saying firstly what he thought had happened; the locks were faulty, the shadow was a big cat, and then going back at Terry's insistence and just telling them what happened. Not what he thought had happened before he knew that the Tree wasn't just interior decor.

What is it then? he wondered.

"We sensed a source of dark power the other day when your friend Andrew left with the girl," Terry said when Blackout was done. "But we hoped it was just an extremely bitchy woman."

Blackout must have looked surprised at this, because Ima said, "A woman in full-on bitch mode will give off the same sort of power emanations as a lower caste evil spirit; all humans can do that. You have enough divinity in you to resemble either demon or angel, and every other fey that lies between. Little gods is what the fair folk call you, but they say that tongue in cheek. You might be little gods, but you're blind and deaf to it."

"But this creature that wounded Lara is no human," Terry said. "It can look like a human, but it isn't one. Some sort of changeling; unless I miss my guess, we're dealing with a Lilitu."

"Which is...?"

"A very old type of succubus...a demon that feeds off the life force of a human by having sex with them." Terry looked at Blackout's surprised expression. "You don't believe me."

"It's not that," Blackout said. "In fact, you're not the first person to suggest that tonight. I just never expected him to be right."