Sunday, September 30, 2007

Episode 20: Rockabye Lara

What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a coffee shop trades the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans', which cause a massive ash tree to grow overnight inside the shop. Following this miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman who turns out to be a succubus, a demon which steals human life force through sexual contact. Andrew is rescued by Lara and Blackout, while the demon is nowhere to be found.

"He's got the stink of her all over him," Ima said to Lara. "There are still got the residual traces of dark magic clinging to him. I don't know how long it will take to dissipate, but he won't be wholly healthy until it does."

Lara looked over her shoulder at Andrew, who was standing behind the counter, giving a customer their change. His eyes were still sunken, but after a week of rest, he was back on his feet. The presence of the Tree seemed to invigorate him. He gained strength by proximity; sometimes he would just lean against the massive trunk and close his eyes, a satisfied smile passing over his lips, as though the Tree were passing it's life-giving force over to him.

Ima took a drink of her coffee. The Fates had still not made themselves known to Andrew, but had been observing him by posing as customers. Lara still had no idea how they got from the basement to the shop without moving through the staff room, but she was glad for their vigilant watch.

"He's still not really himself," Lara replied, nodding.

"What did he say to your suggestion to hire someone new?" Ima asked.

"He thought it was great," Lara said. "I already took in some resumes, and he said he saw a promising candidate. Apparently he's coming in for an interview this afternoon." She massaged her temples. "It'll be nice to have someone to take the pressure off me being here all the time."

Lara had closed the shop for the first two days of Andrew's convalescence. Blackout had remained with her; his flexible schedule was what finally allowed her to return to work, opening the store for grueling sixteen hour shifts. She had reasoned it was either that or lose the shop, and with it, the Tree. When the Fates had healed her, she experienced a vision of some sort; as though the magic that flowed into her ruined leg had been from the tree, an orange, viscous fluid. Not orange, she It had been like golden sap running from the Tree into her wound.

The result had been that the sixteen hour shifts weren't exhausting; it were as though the Tree gave her the vitality to work without rest. She hadn't needed nearly as many smoke breaks. She was pretty sure, in fact, that if she wanted to, she could quit cold turkey and suffer no ill effects. Providing she could live close to the Tree. The first nights back at work, she'd gone home to sleep. The weariness that came over her once she left the store was excruciating. And so she'd set up a camp bed in the staff room, and virtually moved into the coffee shop. She'd brought enough of her clothes to last her a week, and went over to the Van Vliet center for a shower every morning.

On the night before Andrew returned, Lara took a risk and brought the ladder out into the main shop. Dressed in her Emily Strange pyjamas, she'd climbed up into the leafy canopy of the Tree to where she'd found Andrew that first day.

"I'm gonna break my neck," she said, and put a tentative hand onto the branch. "Don't let me fall," she whispered to the Tree.

As if in reply, the bough bent itself downward, and the surrounding branches moved to create a nest. Lara knew she should be surprised, but somehow, she wasn't. She just giggled, and climbed into the leafy bed.

It was the best sleep she'd had in memory. And when she woke, she had no craving for her morning smoke.

Two days later, however, she was feeling like hell. She figured the hectic pace had finally taken it's toll. Even when Andrew had returned, it was clear that he was in no shape to manage the shop alone. So Lara continued to stay at the shop. She'd taken the camp bed home before Andrew had returned. While he might applaud her devotion, it was illegal to effectively be living in the shop--it wasn't zoned as a residence, she knew that much. But she hadn't needed the bed anymore; she'd be climbing up into the Tree to sleep.

The past few nights, worried Andrew might come in early and discover the ladder and Lara sleeping in the Tree, she'd simply climbed up through the branches. The Tree moved aside the thick foliage to allow her passage to her place of rest.

Rock-a-bye-baby, she thought to herself. The way she felt right now, she couldn't wait for the end of the day. She took a drink of the blueberry rooibos in front of her and winced. Maybe she needed a cigarette after all. She looked over her shoulder again.

The lineup of customers had died down and Andrew was leaning against the Tree again, that smile on his face. That beatific smile, as the Tree restored him back to health.

* * * * * *

Lara crawled along the thick branch towards her leafy bed, yawning as she went. Andrew had left two hours earlier, following the interview with the prospective hire. The girl who'd come in for the interview had seemed nice enough; pretty mousy by appearance, but she didn't lack confidence because of it. Lara had been impressed, and let Andrew know. Andrew agreed, and after making a phone call to ask the girl, whose name was Julie, to come in for a second interview. He'd asked her if she was okay to close up, and she'd said yes, despite the way her head felt like someone was using it for kettle drum.

She'd made herself more rooibos, and that seemed to help. Now, as she climbed in the dim light, her headache seemed to be receding. To any passerby, the store would look closed; only a few lights on near the coffee bar. Enough to see by into the Tree's branches...or perhaps the Tree had moved branches to allow more light in, she wasn't sure.

Lara laid down on the leafy bed the Tree had constructed for her, wrapping herself in the blanket she'd left up there the first night. "Good night," she whispered to the Tree.

Someone's coming, she heard in reply.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Episode 19: Lying in Bed, just like Brian Wilson did

What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a coffee shop trades the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans', which cause a massive ash tree to grow overnight inside the shop. Following this miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman. When he does not return for several days, Lara and Blackout seek 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. The Fates reveal that Lara's attacker was a succubus, a demon that steals the human life force through sexual contact...

"Do you think it matters that it's steel?" Blackout asked Lara as they stepped out of the elevator to Andrew's apartment. "I mean...steel's mostly iron."

"I think hitting that bitch with a shovel will be good therapy for me," Lara replied, hefting the item in question. "I shouldn't have to put up with this crazy shit for what Andrew's paying me."

They stopped in front of Andrew's door. "Deja vu all over again," Blackout said, adopting a batter's stance...with a sledge hammer instead of the requisite Louisville Slugger. "You ready?"

"Just make sure you hit the lock directly," Lara said.

Blackout nodded. Knock three times on the ceiling, even in a big city, and there might be at least one Samaritan on the floor who'd knock twice on the pipes to the cops. Especially in the middle of the day. They had decided to return in daylight, hoping that there was a connection between nightfall and the lilitu's power.

Blackout took a deep breath, focused on the deadbolt, and swung hard. There was a loud CRACK accompanied by a high pitched TANG as the head of the hammer connected with the deadbolt and sent it flying into the apartment along with fragments of the door. Lara raised her foot, sheathed in her best pair of knee high Doc Martens and kicked the door, splintering the frame as it tore loose and swung inward on strained hinges.

There was silence in the hall. And silence within the apartment. Blackout gave a quick nod to Lara to get inside, and they stepped through one after the other.

The stench of fecal matter, wet animal, ammonia, and lingering traces of chlorine smell was still present, but not nearly as pervasive. Shafts of sunlight peeked in through the drawn curtains in the living room and kitchen. Blackout swung the broken door closed and braced it with one of Andrew's shoes. Lara was brandishing the shovel like it was a pole-arm, peeking around the corner, into the bedroom.

Andrew lay naked and unconscious, partially covered by one of his sheets. Lara advanced slowly into the room with Blackout close behind.

"Check him," Lara said, cautiously opening the closet with her boot with the shovel ready to strike.

Blackout crossed to Andrew's sleeping form and knelt beside the bed. Andrew's eyes were sunken and his lips were cracked. His muscles seemed to have a life of their own, twitching spasmodically from time to time.

"He's badly dehydrated," Blackout said. "I'm going to the kitchen to get him some water." He stood up, placing the hammer beside the bed and ran to the kitchen.

Lara walked to the window and drew the curtains aside. The winter sun invaded the dim twilight of the room, falling upon Andrew. He stirred, moaning. Blackout returned with water and a wet cloth. He dabbed the cloth on Andrew's lips.

"We need to get him to a hospital," Blackout said.

"Or take him to the Fates," Lara suggested.

"He doesn't need magic," Blackout replied. "He needs his electrolytes restored...he just needs medical attention."

"Where the hell is she?" Lara said, walking to the bedroom door and looking into the bathroom. "She's not here...but the door was still jammed like before. How did she get out?"

"She's a demon," Blackout replied, dabbing more water on Andrew's mouth, which was partially open now. He squeezed drops of water into it. "Maybe she has wings like a bat and flew away. Who knows? Who cares? I'll be honest, I'm glad she's not here."

"I'm not," Lara said. "I want a re-match."

Andrew stirred again and his eyes fluttered open. "Blackout?" he whispered. "What are you doing?"

"Saving your life I hope," Blackout replied.

Lara crossed to the bed and looked down at Andrew. His gaze moved to her, and he squinted his eyes. "You're the girl I hired," he said. "Lori?"

"Lara," she said. "Where is the...?" She paused. He might know what had happened. "Where is the girl you brought home."

"Gone," Andrew replied.

"How long ago?" Lara asked.

Andrew shook his head weakly. "Don't know," he croaked, and closed his eyes again.

"We're phoning an ambulance," Blackout said. "He needs--"

Andrew's eyes went wide and he grabbed Blackout's forearm. "No," he said, a firm resolution in his voice. "Don't want anyone to know..." He swallowed hard. "What I did."

Blackout shivered. He realized that Andrew would have difficult questions to answer in an emergency room about how he'd ended up in this condition. Blackout had no idea what sort of damage a sex demon would leave a victim with, but it was clear Andrew didn't want it to be on public record.

"You might die," Blackout said.

"Won't die," Andrew said. "Promise."

Blackout shook his head. "All right. I'll run down to the store to get some Gatorade, and we'll hope for the best." He looked at Lara. "You okay to stay here, or would you prefer to go get the juice?"

"I'll stay here," Lara said, tightening her grip on the shovel. "In case devil woman's just out for a quick bite or a smoke."

Blackout smiled at her, then looked down at Andrew, who was asleep again. "You're a lucky son of a bitch," he said quietly. "The whole province has labor issues, and you hire Xena for a barista."

Lara laughed. "Lucy Lawless is taller than me, and skinnier."

"Nowhere near as hot," Blackout replied and looked directly into Lara's eyes. She smiled, a genuine look of appreciation for the comment in her eyes. Blackout could tell it didn't mean they'd be finishing off the day with a movie, but they might get around to it someday, if he didn't push things. Good time for an exit, he thought, and stood up, leaving the glass of water and the cloth on the bedside table. He got to his feet and headed for the door.

"Hurry back," Lara said.

"You'll be all right?"

"Hey...I'm Xena, right?"

He nodded, and walked out. On his way out the front door, he picked up the ruined deadbolt and shoved it back in the hole. It wouldn't pass a close inspection, but hopefully it would do until they could get Andrew back on his feet. He stepped into the hallway, and jogged towards the elevator, smiling. Nowhere near as hot, he thought, that kicked ass.

* * * * * *

Lara opened the window to the bedroom. The air was crisp and cold, but a welcome change from the stink inside the apartment. From the stains on the bed, she surmised Andrew had been lying there for quite some time, unable to move in his weakened state. She drew in a breath of fresh air, then returned to the bedside. She looked up warily at the open closet, remembering Terry's words.

Monsters travel through closets...Everyone knows that.

Is that how you got out of here? she wondered. And what were you here for in the first place? She looked down at Andrew. "What did she want with you?" she mused out loud.

"Not me," Andrew croaked in his sleep. "The Tree."

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Episode 18: How to get a clown off a swing

What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a coffee shop trades the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans', which cause a massive ash tree to grow overnight inside the shop. Following this miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman. When he does not return for several days, Lara and Blackout seek 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. The Fates reveal that Lara's attacker was a succubus, a demon that steals the human life force through sexual contact...

"I was in the middle of an incredible session of WOW," Riptide said. "And you call me over here to go through the gaming books?"

"If you'd just give me a key to the place, I wouldn't have to do this," Blackout said. "It was your comment that got me thinking about it."

Riptide was turning on the lights in Force Five Comics while rubbing his arms and stamping his feet to get warm. "What comment?" he asked.

"The one about the succubus," Blackout said. "I want to include one in our campaign."

"Sort of spoils the surprise for me, don't you think?"

"Not if you're the one who summons her."

Riptide raised his eyebrows. "You're allowing me to summon my own personal sex demon?"

"You make it sound dirty."

"It is dirty," Riptide said. "Courtney will hate it. I'm definitely in." He went over to the shelves containing the rulebooks. "What sort of succubus do we want?"

"What are my options?" Blackout asked.

"Well, the new rulebooks sanitized everything in response to the born again fundies back in the 80's, so if you want something really nasty, I've got to go back to stuff like Arduin Grimoire or the original Monster Manual."

"That sounds about right."

Riptide considered Blackout for a moment. "This isn't like you," he said finally. "You never include sex as a major component of the game."

"Not true," Blackout retorted. "There was that time when Corinne was still playing, before she went to New Zealand..."

"Where she interrogated that pirate 'below decks'..."

"That's right."

"Yeah, but that was only because you had the hots for her," Riptide said, returning his attention to the bookshelf. "And you got a little hot under the collar when she suggested giving the pirate a blow job as a way to knock him out without resorting to violence--" Riptide stopped and turned back to Blackout. "This is about that new coffee girl, isn't it?"

Blackout thought about this for a moment, then replied, "Yeah, I guess in a way it is. If you must know."

"Hey, whatever floats your boat," Riptide said, pulling a book off the shelf. "She's too short and a little too well padded for my taste."

"Just find me the information," Blackout said.

"Blackout wants his succubi," Riptide said, launching into an impromptu song: "Suuuuck---yoooooo---bi!" He stopped and looked amused. "Hey--that would make a helluva sign in on one of those sex chats!"

* * * * *

"A holy weapon?" Lara said, a frown wrinkling her features. "I was expecting something involving chalk and a pentagram."

"Well, we could go that route," Blackout said. "The trouble is, the caster has to effectively replace the succubus while chanting the incantation, which means..."

Lara's eyes widened. "I understand what it means Mark," she said, cutting Blackout off. "So tell me more about the holy weapon."

"Any blessed piece of iron can be used," Blackout said.

"And what sort of blessing do we need?" Lara asked. "Like a priest, or a rabbi?"

"It doesn't matter who blesses it, so long as there's faith behind the blessing and the person who wields it."

"Seems a little too easy," Lara replied.

"Well, we could always climb a volcanic mountain to get the piece of iron," Blackout said sarcastically.

The sun was starting to come up. Lara was still bundled in a blanket Blackout had retrieved from his car's winter emergency kit, sipping fresh coffee she'd brewed for the two of them. The Fates were playing a game of Dutch Blitz, which Hatima was currently winning.

"Any piece of metal, eh?" Lara mused. "It's like the joke about the clown off of a swing."

"I don't think I know that one," Blackout admitted.

Lara gave a smile that showed her teeth. And reached her eyes. Blackout would have laughed at the worst knock-knock joke in that moment.

"How do you get a clown off a swing?" Lara asked.

Blackout grinned and shrugged his shoulders.

"With a shovel," Lara replied.

"Got one of those in the basement," Terry called from across the room.