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."