Friday, November 30, 2007

Episode 44: A Circle of Trees

They walked out of the Deep Dark Woods into a clearing, ringed by trees which stood apart from the forest. Leaving Granny's house had been hard, but all of them understood that time was of the essence. The Leprechauns had a head start on them for the Pole, and while Eostre could have caught up with them by herself, even she agreed that such a strategy was foolhardy.

"What I still can't fathom is what they hope to accomplish by framing Father Christmas or his elves with the death of Dieter," John said, adjusting the straps of his backpack. He watched as the rest of the group entered the clearing and then swept his arm out in a grand gesture toward the ring of trees. There were twelve in all.

“Welcome to the gateway to the seven holy days,” John said.

On each of the twelve trees was a symbol, carved into the wood. In addition, not one tree was alike. There was a dead tree, its bark black, and its limbs twisted as though it were in agony. A jack-o-lantern was carved into its bark. Another tree was filled with buds of spring, which kept blooming and dropping petals even as they looked, leaving a multicolored carpet at the roots. The symbol carved onto it was a decorated Easter egg.

“That’s my tree,” Eostre said to Lara, who was grinning.

“This is the clearing where Jack Skellington came to…” Lara said.

“Well, his name isn’t Jack or Skellington,” John said. “But he is the Pumpkin King, and it is where the fellow with the messy hair and a penchant for black got the idea.”

"Tim Burton traveled the Tree?" Lara asked, unmasked surprise in her voice.

"A man with that much magic in his work," Charles said, "has almost always traveled the Tree.”

“Walt Disney?” Sunny asked.

Charles nodded. “Not enough, but he did travel. Enough for the magic to be in the work…but not enough…”

“For…?” Sunny raised her eyebrows.

“Let us not speak ill of the dead,” Charles said, and nodded to John. “You have the floor.”

“I came here many years ago,” John said. “And passed through that door.” He pointed to an evergreen tree, covered in holly and snow.

“What door?” Andrew asked.

“The trees are the door. And each has a different way of entering,” John said, approaching the evergreen. He pulled back a branch and then another, and Andrew could see that miraculously, they were parting, opening to allow John to enter. When he had pulled enough branches aside, he stepped through the opening and beckoned for the rest of them to follow. “This will take us where we need to go!”

“It’s where I got the idea for the Wardrobe, among other things,” Jack said with a wink, stepping past Andrew and into the opening.

One by one, the group walked through the opening. Andrew stood, waiting with Charles until everyone was through. As Charles stepped through the opening, Andrew caught movement out of the corner of his eye.

Stepping into the clearing was a man dressed in blue jeans, sandals, and a hooded knit sweater. He had long dark hair, a beard, and was clearly of Middle Eastern background.

“Shalom,” the man said, smiling at Andrew.

“Hi,” Andrew replied.

Two dogs stepped into the clearing from behind the man, a German Shepherd and a mixed breed who reminded Andrew of what he figured Snoopy would look like if he were a real dog.

“Just out for a walk,” the man said. “Taking these ladies further up the Tree.”

“Oh,” Andrew said. “Well, have a nice walk.”

“Already have,” the man replied. “I’d wish you the same, but I’m not sure it will all work out that way.”

The German Shepherd whined, and looked up at the man.

“Nala seems to think she could do you some good on your journey,” he said. “But sadly, those worlds aren’t for her or Patches anymore.” He patted Nala’s head. “Come on ladies.”

The three of them walked to the other side of the clearing and disappeared into the Deep Dark Woods. Andrew watched them go.

“Come on!” Lara called from the opening of the evergreen. “You really need to see this! It’s incredible!”

Andrew jumped at her voice, but quickly gathered himself and passed through the opening in the branches. Once he stepped through, John folded the branches back into place, closing the entrance.

On the other side, the place where John had reset the branches was on the sole Evergreen on top of a high mountain. All around them, for as far as Andrew could see, were mountains. The sky was dark, but a clear winter’s night, filled with sprays of constellations and a full moon, a silver disc hung on a black curtain. Deep powdery snow covered everything in sight.

“Incredible,” Andrew breathed.

“Listen!” Blackout said, and they all turned in the direction of a noise growing steadily louder.

It was the sound of a train, approaching along a set of tracks that ran along the steep mountain, and down into a deep valley.

“I suppose you’re going to tell me this is the Polar Express,” Ripper said derisively to no one in particular.

“Seeing is believing,” Jack said with that mischievous grin. “All aboard!” he shouted as a great black steam engine pulled into view, the beam of its light cutting through the night like a sword.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Episode 43: Better than sex

Lara was an extremely sensual woman. Not in the way that Andrew had been considering Silke to be sensual, in that front-cover-of-Cosmopolitan style of sensuality. Rather, Lara's sensuality was simply that she appreciated her senses, and since all of them were in perfect working order, she felt that it would be somehow ungrateful to the Goddess to ignore them. This is not to say that she over-indulged her senses, as real world Satanists are wont to do; for Lara, the seven deadly sins still seemed rather deadly. She just really enjoyed how things felt, smelled, looked, sounded and in the case of Granny's breakfast, tasted. She had never tasted anything so amazing in her life. And considering how her cigarette smoking had dulled her taste buds, that was really saying something.

If this was the magic she had come to learn, she was ready to sign up.

Granny and Eostre had discussed the matter over breakfast while Andrew and Silke continued to engage in a clumsy dance of socializing not merely cross-culturally, but cross-ontology. It's difficult enough to understand the differences in genders, let alone one from a world where chivalry and romance are not only not dead, but are likely living entities walking around somewhere nearby. The three older men had left the table to prepare for the coming journey. Her own crew of adventurers milled about the meadow, loading up packs, sharpening weapons, fixing arrow fletchings, and trading friendly banter.

Lara kept silent while the hare and the old woman spoke. She could tell that this was serious business, whatever she might hope about cosmically improving her baking skills. Finally Granny nodded at Eostre and turned to Lara.

"You're certainly right about the amount of power in the girl," Granny said, looking her over appraisingly. "If she can learn to harness it, that alone will be impressive enough. But if she learns how to draw upon the other energies around her..." She arched an eyebrow and looked at Lara knowingly. "There's no time to lose. Her training begins today. And whatever you might think about her safety Eostre, she needs to make the trip to the Pole, if for no other reason than to talk to Kris."

Eostre opened her mouth to object, but Granny cut in. "If my presence can't assure you of her safety, then nothing can. But if the Fates have indeed made her one of their own, then she is tied to the Tree like the boy is. And the fate of the Tree might well be dictated at the Pole."

Eostre nodded. "I think I knew all these things before coming here," she said. "But I also knew she needed a teacher."

Granny stood up from the table. "This one," she said, gesturing at Lara. "Needs only a push in the right direction. The rest should come naturally. For her, the issue won't be what to do with the power, it will be accepting that she has power. You can see in her face she doesn't really believe any of this is true."

"I think it would be more accurate to say I believe it's too good to be true," Lara said.

"So you have a tongue," Granny smiled. "And there's no difference in how disbelief affects us, regardless of its why. But a demonstration never hurts. Let's see what we can do about Eostre's broken tooth, shall we?"

She beckoned Lara to rise and come to the other side of the table. Lara hesistated a moment, then joined Granny standing beside the hare, her wrinkled hands on either side of Eostre's face. Eostre had pulled back her lips to bare her front teeth. The broken tooth was snapped off beneath the gum line in a jagged ridge.

"Do you think you can do anything about this?" Granny asked Lara.

"I wouldn't know where to start," Lara replied.

"That's a good answer," Granny replied. "The starting point is within you...and I can help you to look for it, but not with finding it." She released Eostre's face. "I want you to stand as I was, holding Eostre's face in your hands. For healing, contact is essential."

Lara took Granny's spot beside Eostre and placed her hands on the great hare's face.

"Now close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing," Granny said. "Feel the breath rushing into you...and filling you, and then releasing are breathing in everything surrounding you. You are breathing in the fabric of this are connected to it through your breathing. You are connected to the roots of the Tree in this world, and thus into all worlds..."

Granny's voice intoned on, but instead of hearing them, Lara was seeing the, not the words, the very things themselves. The words were only constructions, means of understanding the things, but as Granny spoke of the roots of the Tree, Lara could see those roots, the branches, the great trunk all in her mind's eye. She could feel the sap rising in the Tree, flowing through it like blood through her veins...and then came the realization that the sap was the blood flowing through her -- there was no barrier between them; there never had been, save for her lack of awareness.

Now that she was aware, she allowed the sap to flow through her, and out into her hands, and then into Eostre. A warm golden glow enveloped her vision, and her body tingled as though a honey liqueur were rushing through her. The warmth spread, and it was ecstasy; not like orgasm, but something greater, something higher than mere sexual pleasure. This was above sensuality. It was spiritual.

She could hear Granny's voice faintly, saying, "Good, good, now return your focus to the breathing...and when you're your eyes."

Deep breaths of fresh, sweet air were pulled deliberately, deliciously and slowly into her lungs, and then exhaled. Finally, Lara opened her eyes to see Eostre smiling at her, the broken tooth made whole...a new tooth, whiter than the one next to it.

"Thank you," Eostre said.

"You did well," Granny said, placing a hand on Lara's shoulder. "Better than I expected. It was simply a nudge that was needed. You'll learn fast."

"It was incredible," Lara said quietly. "I've never felt anything like it. Is it always so...?" Words failed her

"Let's put it this way," Granny replied with a mischievous grin. "If you've never faked it before, you will now."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Episode 42: The Gang's all here...

The conversation turned to planning how to catch up with the Redcoats, what the strategy would be for engaging them in combat, followed by wistful reminiscences of past adventures the three men had shared. Charles was speaking about something to do with Aleister Crowley, but Andrew's mind was elsewhere. He felt far too much like Bilbo Baggins and not enough like Conan the Barbarian to be of any use.

Guardian of the Tree? he thought. I never asked for this! I didn't ask to be given such a responsibility... The Bilbo Baggins part of him wished to be at home, sitting on the couch with a large bowl of popcorn, a couple of chewy cola bottle candies and a lime-coke slush, watching the new Battlestar Galactica on DVD. And while you're watching your shows of bravery, courage and heroism, you'll be wishing you could do something genuinely great instead of escaping from all the failures of the past few years.

That's what he'd been doing, for certain. He'd always run from the last mistake by diving into a new endeavor. New endeavors were fresh; they didn't have the broken, fragmented nature of the failed ones. As soon as the new endeavor went sour, he left it behind for a new one. He was the same in relationships. The newness of the first dates, revealing only the parts of himself that would attract the girl to him, the excitement of the physical progression from hand holding to kissing, to foreplay to sex was intoxicating. Maintaining a relationship was a pain in the ass.

Like caring for the Bonsai Tree from his grandfather.

The little tree hadn't withered because Andrew lacked any skill in plant care. It was because he lacked skill in ongoing plant care. He lacked skill in anything ongoing. When circumstances got too messy or too tough, it was time to run. Running away from girlfriends by running to new ones. Running away from disillusionment in one department of the University by running to another one. Running from the failure of the coffee shop by giving the deposit away. Running into the arms of the succubus, and in doing so, nearly running away forever. And finally, running from the Tree by running into it. That was the strangest of all. Trying to run away from the responsibility of being the Tree's guardian by running deeper inside it.

It was time to stop running. Time to stand. Stand and defend the Tree.

But I don't know how.

"What did you say?" Silke asked. Andrew realized he'd spoken his thought out loud.

"I don't know how to be a guardian of the Tree," Andrew replied. "I wasn't given a set of instructions for the job; I don't understand what I'm supposed to do."

"None of the guardians have, for quite some time," Granny said, overhearing Andrew. "The instructions were passed along in an oral tradition, from guardian to guardian. Each guardian would choose one or more apprentices and pass the tradition along to them. Nothing was written down, for fear of the writings falling into the wrong hands. And then, an entire generation of guardians and nearly all their apprentices were assassinated at a gathering of the guardians...those who survived went into hiding, and broke all ties. Much of the lore of the Tree was lost. It's why traveling the Tree can be so dangerous."

"Who taught you?" Andrew asked.

"My Aunt Jewelynn," Granny replied. "In this world, the guardians of the Tree has been a matriarchal order."

"And in mine?" Andrew asked.

"You're the first guardian of the Tree in close to half a century," Granny said. "The last guardian was a young professor from Oxford." She smiled at John when she said this, but John pretended to ignore her. "But he died before completing his writing on the Tree, and the way was shut. Until now."

"There was talk of a tome that was created by one of the guardians in the nineteenth century, but no one has ever seen it," John said. "Many think it's a legend."

"I thought Leprechauns and the Easter bunny were legends before all this," Andrew said. "I'm beginning to think anything is possible."

"Speaking of Eostre," Granny said, looking over Andrew's shoulder, "Here she comes now, with our other guests."

Andrew looked over his shoulder and blinked twice. Walking around the corner of the house toward the assembled breakfasters was what appeared to be a rabbit well over six feet tall loping alongside Lara, who looked like a cross between a manic survivalist and Morticia Adams, and Blackout, Ripper, Sunny and Courtney looking like Mountain Equipment Co-op had merged with an armory. He leaped up from the table and shouted Lara's name.

"Andrew!" she called back, a look of surprise on her face.

"What are you doing here?" Andrew asked.

"I'm here to rescue you!" she said with a smile.

"You're a little short for a stormtrooper," Andrew replied.

"And you make a terrible princess in distress," Lara said.

"But what about the rent?" Andrew said, "I thought you were going to pay it with the Leprechaun gold."

"It turned into chocolate coins after you left with those little bastards," Lara explained. "Don't worry about the rent. Eostre sent a tooth fairy to pay it."

"I'm not even going to ask what the hell that means," Andrew said. "Wait--if this is Eostre, then who the hell do the leprechauns have in that big box?"

"Her husband," Lara replied. "Eostre, this is Andrew. Andrew, meet the Easter bunny."

"Hare," Eostre corrected, loping towards the table to embrace Granny.

"She's pretty touchy on that one," Lara told Andrew. "So you either killed all the Leprechauns single-handedly or escaped. I'm guessing the second."

"I mostly fell down and that girl there," Andrew pointed at Silke, "rescued me. So if you're here to rescue me, then why aren't you following the leprechauns?"

"Eostre seems to think I've got some magical abilities I'm unaware of, and she wants the old lady there--"


"--to teach me how to use the magic."

Andrew looked over at the table with its motley assortment of legendary and historical figures gathered around food worthy of a Brian Jacques novel, and shook his head.

"I keep thinking I'm going to wake up and find out this is all a dream," he said.

"If I wake up and find out this is all a dream, I'm going to be cosmically pissed off," Lara said. "I've been waiting my whole life for some real magic. At any rate, I hope neither of us wakes up before I get to have some of those waffles."

Monday, November 26, 2007

Episode 41: Guardians of the Tree

Andrew whirled and looked up at Jack, John, and Charles, standing in the golden sunlight, smiling at him. Well, John and Jack were smiling. Charles was frowning as usual.

Jack lifted a cloth from a basket filled with bread as Granny approached the table. "Not waiting for our guests?" she asked.

"If I wait for them," Jack replied, "Neither the pup nor I will get anything to eat." He winked at Andrew.

"The pup's name is Andrew," Granny said with only a light scolding and embraced each of the men in greeting. She whispered something to Charles and to Andrew's surprise, he smiled.

Jack looked up from spreading butter on his bread to see a lithe figure with a head of golden hair step from the house.

"Silke!" Jack shouted. She returned his smiles, flashing impossibly white teeth, and danced lightly across the lawn, laughing and acting in a manner that made Andrew doubt this was the same girl who had killed Coll so easily the night before. She was dressed in a light shift that covered her to mid-thigh; her bare legs shone golden in the sunlight.

"She is a vision, isn't she?" Charles said, standing at Andrew's elbow. Andrew suddenly realized he was unabashedly staring at Silke and turned his head down to study the food on his plate.

"Apparently not as beautiful as bacon and eggs," Jack grinned.

"Don't mind ," Granny said. "He enjoys having fun with our guests. And it's been a long time since we've had anyone here near Silke's age."

"What are you two talking about?" Silke said, coming up to the table and sitting down beside Andrew. Andrew felt the blood rise to his cheeks and ears again. "I could have sworn I heard my name."

"I was just telling Andrew here how long it's been since we had anyone near your age here in the valley," Granny said.

Andrew mustered his courage to get back into the conversation. "I thought you said you were part of an order...are none of them your age?" he asked.

Silke's face grew dark, her smile vanishing suddenly. Andrew looked over at Granny, a look of confusion on his face. Granny gave Andrew a sympathetic look.

"I'm the last of the Rotkäppchen," Silke said.

"I'm sorry," Andrew said.

"You couldn't have known,' Silke said, getting her composure back. She looked up at Andrew and gave him a smile.

"So this is the newest guardian of the Tree," Granny said, appraising Andrew.

Jack nodded. "He doesn't look like much, does he? But neither did Tollers when he was given the job."

"I think you've got the wrong guy," Andrew said. "I'm not the guardian of the Tree."

"Yes you are," Silke said. "That's why Jack sent me to rescue you."

Andrew sat, feeling uncomfortable. "Growing the Tree was an accident. I didn't mean for it to happen."

"Perhaps the Tree did," Granny said.

"And technically speaking, you didn't grow the Tree," John said, filling his plate with bacon and eggs. "The Tree exists outside the worlds. It was here before the worlds were made, and as each was spoken into existence, it became like a piece of fruit upon the Tree."

Andrew nodded, "The Garden of Forking Paths. But what is the Tree in my coffee shop?"

"A manifestation of the Tree within a world always appears as a full tree itself. Or a bush. Or a huge beanstalk,"John said.

"But we're getting off the matter at hand John," Jack said. "It isn't really accurate to say you're the Guardian of the Tree Andrew. It might be better to say you are a Guardian of the Tree. Each manifestation of the Tree requires a Guardian. It's almost always the person who plants the seeds for the Tree's avatar."

"That's what Granny is in this world," Silke said. "And it's what you are in your world."

"And it's why you're going to help us stop the Redcoats, before they start a fire that could burn the whole tree to ashes," John said, his face a grim mask of determination. "Would someone pass the blackberries please?"

Friday, November 23, 2007

Images: Patchik the Tooth Fairy

Patchik, the Tooth Fairy (one of many) from episode 38, has been rendered very nicely at the Blank Page. Here's the finished picture, but if you check out the post, there are development sketches as well.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Episode 40: To Grandmother's House We Go

Running. The trees were simply different types of shadow, shadow that sometimes struck Andrew in the face, made the running difficult, made it hard to see Silke's form up ahead, her cloak blending into the shadows that could be trees, could be just shadows. His legs had gone beyond ache, and the burning in his throat was so constant that it transcended irritation. They had run through several shallow creeks, but Silke had told him not to drink any water they found in the deep dark woods.

"How can every stream be poisonous?" Andrew had asked after they crossed the third.

"They're not all poisonous. Some will kill you, for certain. Others cause a lifelong slumber, others make you happy, some make you physically strong, some make would you say it...very excited...sexually. And there's supposedly one that grants eternal life. The trouble is, water looks like water. There's no way of knowing until you drink it."

Now that would make one hell of a coffee blend, Andrew thought. The coffee tastes like a homeless person's clothing, but now I can lift a car over my head.

She gave him short drinks from her water flask from time to time, but it was clear that she was far more used to going long distance running without hydrating than he was. His feet formed blisters, his calves got shin splints, and then his upper thighs started cramping. It was only when he'd fallen asleep while walking and nearly collapsed that they reached Silke's goal.

Andrew was too weary to see clearly where they were going, but he could clearly see a rope ladder descending down through an opening in the foliage. As he descended, the sensation of the closeness of the Tree's dense dark forest gave way to a feeling of wide open space. He tried to see where they were, but it was night here. The moon was a barely present sickle of silver carving it's way delicately into the night sky. Unlike the interior of the Tree though, here there were stars.

Wherever they were, it wasn't the North Pole. The air was warm, like the best summer's nights when it's just warm enough to be out without a coat, and cool enough that you need to wear something longer than shorts. There was a slight wind blowing, and he could hear leaves and boughs rustling and swaying.

When he reached the bottom of the ladder, it was unexpected, and he stumbled a bit. Strong hands caught him, and a male voice filled with warmth said, "Rest easy now son."

Andrew tried to look up, but all he could see was the outline of three figures against the night sky, looking down at him.

"I see you found our lost pup," a deep voice that sounded familiar said as Silke clambered down the rope ladder.

"Just in time," she replied. "Any longer and the Redcoats would have killed him."

"I'm Andrew," Andrew slurred.

"I know," the deep voice said, and Andrew was lifted off his feet.

Andrew fell asleep momentarily, only to awaken at the creak of a door opening, and he had a vague impression of orange light...firelight...the sound of logs crackling in the hearth, then drowsing again, then waking as he was lowered onto a large soft surface...a bed?...and then an encompassing tranquility, a sensation of falling into a comforting oblivion.

* * * * * * * *

He woke to sunlight streaming in through the window of his room. It was a vibrant, quickening light, diffused only slightly by the transparent curtains which blew in a slight breeze in front of a narrow, open window. Andrew rubbed his eyes and surveyed his surroundings.

The bed was an old wooden four poster, intricately carved with images from nearly every fairy tale Andrew could recall. There was Little Red Riding Hood, and Goldilox and the Three Bears, and Rapunzel, and on and on, weaving around the wooden columns. Beyond the bed, the room was done in a half-timbered style, with cream-colored plaster in between the frames, old style wattle-and-daub. The ceiling was high, and steeply pitched. Andrew felt like he was in one of the fairy tales on the posts.

But you are, he laughed to himself.

He moved to get out of bed and groaned at the pain and soreness in his legs. Gritting his teeth, he swung himself out of the bed and stood up. His, coat, shoes and socks had been removed, but he still wore the rest of his clothes, covered in dirt and grime from the race through the Deep Dark Woods. He winced as he looked at the beautiful white sheets he'd been sleeping on, now soiled.

He opened the door and walked into a hallway. He could hear voices and laughter, and followed in their direction. He passed through a large sitting room, where the embers of a fire still glowed in the hearth. More sunlight streamed through multiple windows in this room. The voices and laughter were closer, and Andrew passed through a large wooden door into a world flooded with gold and green.

He was standing in a verdant meadow, surrounded on all sides by sloping hills covered in brush and tree. Tall grass swayed in the light breeze, and warm sunlight fell upon his face, from a sun more vibrant and golden than any he'd ever seen before. And he could see it. He wasn't blinded by it's light, but merely held in rapture at it's beauty.

"Good morning!" a female voice called to him.

Andrew looked to his right, to see a table set with food and drink; seated behind it was an elderly woman who was smiling. "Breakfast is still hot, if you're hungry."

Andrew's stomach reminded him that he was indeed, hungry. He limped slowly over to the table.

"I'm Andrew," Andrew said, holding out his hand.

"I'm Dorothea Evangeline," the woman replied. She stood and walked around the table, not the bent or tired gait of a senior citizen, but that of a woman strong and healthy, in her prime. Her diminutive frame belied such vigor. She took his hand and shook it. "But everyone just calls me Granny. And you'll need to wash those before you eat," indicating his hands. She pointed over to a water barrel at the side of the house.

Andrew turned to survey the house. It was a massive Tudor-style structure, with additions running off in all directions. Andrew could see that further back there was a second floor. He walked to the barrel, washed his hands up to his elbows, splashed his neck and face and returned to the table.

"You can get properly cleaned up once you've eaten," Granny said. "I've got some herbs that added to the water that should set you right as rain."

Andrew looked about the table. It was like someone had taken the photos from a breakfast menu, the photos that made you think a plate piled high with waffles and 'seasonal fruit' would be truly delightful, but the waffles were always slightly burnt, the whipped cream was out of a pressurized can, and the fruit was bruised and sometimes still a little frozen. This food looked like the pictures. The whipped cream was real cream. The waffles were as golden as the sun's light. The fruit was not only in season, but larger than any Andrew had seen before. The bacon was crisp, but not too crisp, with hardly any fat on it. There was orange juice...and the coffee...the smell was delightful.

"It tastes better than it looks," Granny said.

"I find that hard to believe," Andrew replied.

"Never know until you try," Granny smiled.

Andrew started filling a plate. "Where is Silke?" he asked.

"Still asleep," Granny replied. "She'd been out on patrol for several days and was on her way home when the Tree summoned her to come find you."

Andrew stopped chewing the piece of bacon he'd placed in his mouth in surprise. If that's how she ran when she was dead tired...

He looked over the long table, heavily laden with food and wondered at the spread Granny had laid out. Why had the old lady prepared such a feast? Was she expecting more?

"I heard voices and laughter as I was coming out," he said, but was interrupted by a deep voice from behind him.

"A meal fit for a king...or maybe a hobbit, wouldn't you say Tollers?"

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Episode 39: Girl Talk 2

"Wake up," Eostre said softly into Lara's ear.

Lara protested the intrusion upon her slumber. Eostre nudged her gently. "I need to speak with you a bit before the others wake."

Lara snuggled up against the rabbit's soft fur. "I thought the sun would be up by now," Lara said as she opened her eyes with a yawn.

"There is no sun inside the Tree," Eostre replied. "Or stars. What is above us here is not sky. It is the Tree," and she motioned to the darkness of the surrounding of forest, as she stood up. She yawned noisily, then bent over double, resting her front paws on the ground and stretching out her hind legs. They had slept curled up against each other, which had made sleeping on the ground much more comfortable, for Lara at least. Lara imagined that she hadn't improved Eostre's rest at all, while Lara had been reminded of sleeping with a giant plush animal she'd had as a child.

Lara had to stifle a laugh at the sight of the, hare, Lara thought, Eostre had made it quite clear that she was a hare, not a rabbit..."None of my kind have ever been domesticated," she had said...we remain wild...the sight of the hare, as she stretched out her hind legs. Taller than a human, Eostre's back legs were likely stronger than a kangaroo's.

"How fast can you run?" Lara asked, watching Eostre shake one of her hind legs out of the stretch.

"I don't know exactly," Eostre replied, coming out of her stretch and massaging her legs. "I've never measured my speed. But I can outrun human land vehicles in your realm."

"My realm?" Lara asked, standing up and stretching as well. "You mean Earth?"

"No. Earth is only one world of your realm."

"You mean universe," Lara said.

"That is how you would say it," Eostre said. "Whatever word you use, it is one of many such places the Tree encompasses and enfolds."

"I don't understand," Lara said. "You mean to say traveling the Tree could take us to an entirely other universe?"

"Yes," Eostre replied. "Such as the one I'm from."

"You're not from my universe?"

"I'm from one of the realms," Eostre emphasized the word meaningfully, "A few branches over from the one which carries yours."

"But your actions still govern the weather systems in our world?"

"Only because of ancient pacts made between the realms, alliances made in order to keep the realms from warring with each other," Eostre said. "I've begun to wonder if that isn't what the Redcoats are about."

"You think all of what they're doing is about starting war between your realm and ours?" Lara's head spun.

"Could be. Or it could be a warlord from an entirely other realm, merely seeking to begin conflict. There are always people who profit from war, so they seek to ignite the flames of conflict for their gain." Eostre had been rooting through the grasses at the edge of the path, and seeming to have found what she sought, straightened up. She was holding something that looked like an acorn.

"I'd normally crack this myself," she said, extending it to Lara, "but my mouth still pains me awfully."

"I have something for that," Lara said, taking the acorn. "I mean the pain. And now that I think about it, I have something for the acorn as well."

Lara gave 4 aspirin to Eostre and then cracked the acorn open with her hammer. She took the seed and gave it to Eostre, who broke it in half and returned a portion to Lara.

"These are more than enough food for the day," Eostre said.

"Are they magic?" Lara asked.

"They are part of the Tree," Eostre said. "But the Tree is more than simply magic. I'm surprised you know so little about magic, given how much power you carry inside you."

Lara stopped from biting into the seed and shot a look at Eostre. "Power? What do you mean?"

"You carry a great deal of your realm's magic in you," Eostre said. "I can smell it on you. And it's not power you stole. It is your own."

"But I've tried to do magic," Lara said. "It's one of the first things you're expected to do as a wiccan. But nothing happened."

"Mechanics," Eostre said. "Alchemy and ritual. That's not magic, it's manipulation. Magic is...deeper. More intimate. But you are unaware of yours..." She stopped, as if thinking. "That is likely why the Fates chose you as a sister. And it is why we are going to Grandmother's house before we look for your friend."


"We need to go somewhere you can learn what to do with this power," Eostre replied. "And I believe Grandmother can teach you what you need to know."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Episode 38: Here's the Easter Bunny, hooray!

Lara stared, incredulous at the nearly six foot tall rabbit currently standing in the entrance to the coffee shop. There was matted blood all over the fur on her chin, and Lara could see she was missing one of her front teeth. There was something perched on her shoulder, but in the shadows Lara couldn't identify what it was.

"You escaped from the North Pole?" was all she could think to say.

"I was never at the North Pole," Eostre replied. "And if you know that much about the Redcoats' plan, then I need to know--are you friends or foes?" The thing on the rabbit's shoulder moved, and it seemed to Lara that it was tensing up, as if getting ready to pounce.

"Friend," Lara said. "I think."

"You think," Eostre said, her voice laced with caution, her pink eyes roving over the group. "I tracked the Redcoats, and their trail stops here. I assume that tree behind you is an axis mundi."

"I'm not much of a botanist, but I was thinking it was an ash," Geo replied, trying to helpful. Lara was shocked at how calm he sounded.

"An axis mundi isn't a type of tree, it's the tree from which all types find their source," Eostre explained disdainfully. "And we aren't friends yet, so enough of this chit-chat."

Lara drew herself up, and taking a deep breath said, "I'm guessing by the Redcoats you mean the Leprechauns. We're no friend of theirs, I can tell you that much. Our friend is with them, and I believe his life is in danger. We were just about to enter the Tree and try following them."

"So one of you is a Pathfinder," Eostre said.

"I don't know what you mean," Lara replied.

"Not a Pathfinder and yet ready to brave traveling the Tree," Eostre said, her eyebrows raised appraisingly. "Brave or stupid."

"I'd like to think both," Lara said with a smile.

Eostre smiled back. "You have something about you I trust," she said, indicating Lara. "It seems we will walk two paths together, you and I. One to find the Redcoats, and the other to see if we will be friends in the truest sense of the word."

"Does it strike anyone else as utterly bizarre that we're talking to the Easter bunny?" Ripper asked suddenly. There was an awkward silence.

"Are you a Pathfinder?" Lara asked, breaking the silence. Once again everything was happening so suddenly that she felt she needed to ask a least one question of this creature who she'd assumed was trapped at the North Pole up until a few moments ago.

"No," Eostre replied. "But I can sense where the Redcoats are, or at the very least, where my husband is."

"Your husband? I suppose that would be...who? Peter Rabbit?" Ripper asked, trying to keep from laughing. Courtney punched him in the shoulder.

"Dieter," Eostre corrected. "They kidnapped him and took him along to the Pole. I was kept hostage in a warehouse downtown."

"What did they want with your husband?" Lara asked.

"They want to frame him for the attack on the elves," Eostre said. "They intend on wiping out Santa's elves, killing Dieter, and leaving his corpse as a testament to the attack."

"What can they possibly gain from doing that?" Lara asked. "Why wouldn't they take your body to the Pole to frame the elves' for your kidnapping?"

"I'm insurance," Eostre said. "They kept me in the event something went wrong. They could hold the powers of the world ransom with the northern hemisphere in perpetual winter. If the attack succeeded, the Redcoats guarding me would have killed me, brought my body to the Pole and that would have been the end of it all. But I escaped, killed the guards, and followed the Redcoats' trail here."

"Then I guess there's no time to lose," Lara said. "I suppose you should lead the way."

Eostre nodded and walked across the shop to the ladder. "The Tree is new," she commented.

"A little over a month old," Lara replied. And then it suddenly occurred to her. "Can the Tree be harmed?"

Eostre looked back at her. The thing on her shoulder had shifted into the shadows again. "Of course it can. That's why a guardian is always assigned to it. Are you the guardian?"

"I think I'm kind of like one of the Fates," Lara replied. "But I'm not totally sure."

"The Fates," Eostre said. "Are they here?"

"They're out at a Dixie Chicks concert...they said they'd be back by now."

"Typical of the Fates," Eostre said. "Not terribly reliable. Makes people wonder why bad things happen and all that. So who is the guardian, if you're not?"

"I think my boss is," Lara replied. "So the tree can be damaged?"

"Absolutely," Eostre said.

"And what happens to us if it gets hacked down while we're still inside?"

"We would perish for certain," Eostre said.

"Then one of us has to stay back," Lara said. Eostre inclined her head quizzically. "There was an attempt to harm the tree just recently. I'm worried it will happen again. Plus, if we're gone too long and there's no one to pay the rent...the shop will likely be repossessed...and there's no telling what would happen to the tree."

"You need money?" Eostre asked.

Lara nodded.

"How much money?"

"Andrew said it was $3600."

Eostre looked down at the thing on her shoulder, and turned her shoulder toward the light. Lara gasped. Someone swore again.

The creature reminded her of an armadillo, with the series of ivory colored plates all along it's round body, but it was nearly spherical, aside from a bloody bony fin jutting from the top of it's back.

"Pachik?" Eostre said gently. And at her voice, just like an armadillo, it stretched out it's body. Lara could see better that what she had thought were bony plates were teeth. Dark eyes looked at her from underneath a ridge of incisors. It opened a ridiculously large mouth, which was filled sharklike, row upon row, with human teeth. Lara gaped.

"A tooth fairy," Eostre explained.

"That's the fucking tooth fairy?" Ripper exclaimed. "It looks like a cheeseball that got rolled through someone's dentures." This time Courtney kneed him in the thigh, giving him a charley horse. He dropped into the chair behind him, holding his leg and wincing.

"Pachik came to collect my tooth when I broke it off, and I asked him to do me a favor instead of leaving me money. I got him to rip through my restraints. Pachik," Eostre said turning her head toward the tooth fairy again, "I need you to do my another favor, for which I will repay you. I need you to take money to the place this girl sends you, in the amount she writes down for you."

Pachik snorted and leaped down from Eostre's shoulder onto the coffee bar. It skittered across the counter, it's little claws clicking on the hard suface. Lara jumped as it got close to her.

"Don't be afraid," Eostre said. "Just tell him where to take the money, and how much to take."

Lara spoke the address and amount to Pachik, who immediately rolled into a ball again, and launched himself off the counter to roll across the floor to the door. By the time he'd reached the door he was rolling too fast to be seen, and simply slipped through the door's surface and was gone.

"So that's what the tooth fairy looks like," Sunny said.

"A tooth fairy," Eostre said. "There are many. But yes, not quite what your parents' speak of. Just imagine if children knew the truth? Who would ever wish to give up a tooth to invite one of those into your home? But they're mainly peaceful creatures. With access to huge caches of change."

"He's going to pay $3600 in change?"

Eostre nodded and laughed. "Beggars can never be choosers child."

"I'm Lara," Lara said, extending her hand.

Eostre shook it. "It's time to go now Lara. Are you ready?"

"No," Lara said. "But I'm not sure I ever will be."

"You said someone needed to guard the Tree," Geo said in his halting, slow manner of speaking. Lara wondered how anyone would stay awake through a lecture on Math by this man.

"Yes," she said.

"Mikey and I will stay," Geo said. "We will take turns guarding the Tree."

"What?" Mikey exclaimed. "I'm going along!"

"No way," Blackout said softly. "You're staying here. We don't need your disappearance attracting more attention to the Tree."

Mikey stared at Blackout in defiance, then mumbled a "fine" and turned away. Blackout shook his head and looked up at Lara, who was handing her keys to the shop to Geo.

"I think it's time we got going," Blackout said.

"Yes, I think so," she replied, smiling at him. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, and Lara giggled a little. If his eyebrows could have crawled off the top of his head, Lara was sure they would have.

"Off to the North Pole!" Ripper shouted dramatically.

"Not just yet," Eostre said. "First, we have a stop to Grandmother's house."

And with that, they ascended into the tree, leaving the shop in darkness.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Episode 37: Sam Gamgee was no fool

Lara looked up at the Tree. With the sun down now, the shop was dark, save for blue glow of the LED lantern sitting on the coffee bar. It cast ghostly cerulean beams over the surface of the Tree, making the dark entrance Andrew and the Leprechauns had passed through even more threatening.

It had been nearly 24 hours since she'd discovered the Leprechaun's deception.

The late breakfast with Courtney, Blackout, Ripper and Sunny had been surreal. She'd told them what she knew, and there had been some debate on Ripper's part as to whether or not the chocolate coins were a sign of diabolical intent or just fairy mischief. Courtney had voted for erring on the side of caution, and both Blackout and Sunny had agreed with her. Ripper had shrugged his shoulders.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't go after them," he said, taking a drink of orange juice. "Hell, I've been waiting for someone to come and tell me there's an open portal to another world since I first read The Fionavar Tapestry. I just never figured it would be a barista."

They'd agreed to split up into a few groups to go and collect the gear they'd need for the journey, and meet at the coffee shop by 6:00pm.

As they stepped out of the High Level Diner, Courtney handed Lara a piece of paper.

"What's this?" Lara asked, unfolding it.

"Your essentials for a trip like this," Courtney replied.

"You've given this a lot of thought," Lara said.

"We all have," Blackout said, looking over Lara's shoulder to check the list. Lara felt a little shiver of excitement at how close he was standing, and suppressed it.

This is no time for your love life, she told herself.

"We'd talk about it over drinks after gaming sessions," he told her. "Idle conversation to pass the time. I never actually imagined it would turn out to have practical merit."

Lara had caught a ride with Sunny, who was the only one of the group with a car. Blackout was waiting for Geo, the other member of their gaming group to come and pick him up and give him a lift.

The girls had gone first to Sunny's house; she rented a bungalow with some other med students. Lara stood outside having a cigarette, studying the list while Sunny collected her things. It was very basic:

Camping Clothes (don't forget a change of underwear!)
Light Camping Gear
Rope (Sam Gamgee was no fool)
A Weapon (hand-to-hand and missile)
Toiletries (bad breath is inexcusable in any world!)

When Sunny was finished, they hurried to Lara's sister's place. Lara had been staying with her sister and husband since she'd moved to the city. She asked Sunny if she wanted to come in, and Sunny said she'd be fine to wait in the car.

"Who knows when I'll have the opportunity to listen to Jon Mayer again?" she said with a wistful smile.

"You don't seem as excited about all this as the others," Lara said.

"I'm still trying to wrap my head around it," Sunny replied. "Plus...if you're right about all this, then there's going to be fighting...and people are going to get hurt. I could be one of them. So I'm a little scared."

"Glad to know I'm not the only one," Lara said with a smile, and ran into the house.

Neither her sister Denise nor her husband Robwere home. There was a note on the table.

Went to see the Dixie Chicks perform. Back late. Dinner's in the fridge.

She'd hurried to her room and threw off her clothes, then changed into a pair of army pants, a tank top and an old, heavy cotton hooded sweatshirt. Heavy wool socks borrowed from Rob's drawer, and then she was strapping on the army boots.

Good for stomping...leprechauns.

Then it was out to the garage. Rob's compound bow and quiver were the first order of business. As soon as Courtney had mentioned a compound bow, she'd envisioned the one Rob used for hunting. Then a pair of work gloves, like Courtney had recommended.

Her eyes darted about the garage for a formidable weapon for close up work. She decided on Rob's claw hammer. She seemed to remember Mel Gibson blocking a sword with a hammer in Braveheart. The hard metal and easy balance felt good in her hand, and she threw it and some rope and an old sleeping bag into a framepack. The sleeping bag had been hiding an LED lantern, which she tested before clipping onto the outside of the pack.

Back inside the house, she added a bottle of aspirin. Sunny was right; she anticipated getting the shit kicked out of her at some point in this venture, and while Sunny was studying medicine, she sort of doubted she'd just magically heal her sorry ass if she got hurt bad. She also threw in a toothbrush and toothpaste. There was really nothing she hated worse than having that "sweaters on your teeth" feeling a few days without brushing would bring. Bad Breath is inexcusable in any world, she reminded herself.

A pack of smokes. Two lighters. Three water bottles. Her digital camera (after all, if she made it back, she'd want a record of her adventures), her i-pod (she didn't have any Jon Mayer, but maybe Sunny would be into some Lacuna Coil), her makeup, a box of lid-care wipes, and some feminine hygiene products, extra underwear and she was on her way out the door.

She left a note for Rob and Denise.

Went to rescue a friend from Leprechauns. Took your compound bow Rob. Back in a week or so.

Sunny and Lara had been the first back to the shop, which was just as well, since Lara had the keys. Sunny went through her medical supplies, amalgamating what she had into her backpack in a well organized kit. Lara smoked another cigarette and brewed some coffee.

At this point it occurred to her that she ought to work on her archery skills before she actually needed to use the bow. Since the paneling was all going to be ripped out anyhow, she drew an outline of a leprechaun in black marker on the wall and began target practice. As it turned out, she hadn't completely lost her ability from summer camp. The completely immobile wall leprechaun took 3 arrows to the head, 2 to the chest, one in each arm, 1 near enough the groin to seem mortal, and one in the foot. The rest hit his imaginary friends on either side. Lara sighed. If she could get off 20 shots before the leprechaun got to her, she might just kill him.

Courtney had arrived, and noticing Lara's target practice, had tried some of her own, with unerring accuracy. The wall leprechaun took an entire quiver without his invisible friends taking a hit. She gave Lara a few pointers, and when Lara tried again, she hit all but 5 times.

Ripper was the next to show up. While Courtney was taking another turn at target practice, Lara watched how he and Sunny interacted with interest. She'd asked Sunny what the deal was, and laughed at the 'friends with benefits' reply. She could see why it hadn't gone any further; she'd thought it might have been Ripper's fault, given that he tended to be a mouthy jerk, but watching them, she realized that Ripper was fairly smitten with Sunny, who was completely uninterested.

Medical student, Lara mused. It's all just chemicals and body parts.

That got her thinking about Blackout again, and she had a rush of chemicals through her body parts that made her stop thinking about Sunny and Ripper.

"Anyone want a coffee?" she asked.

"That'd be great," Ripper said.

He had put down his backpack, but was wearing a workman's tool belt around his hips. As Lara poured him his coffee, she nodded at the belt.

"Wouldn't have figured you for the handyman type," she said.

"I used to work trades before I opened the shop," Ripper replied. "They didn't give a shit about my long hair, so it was a good gig. Money was great. Bringing the belt made sense. The Claymore is great," he said, patting the big sword, "but this little saw I've got here is going to come in handy, mark my words." He held up a small saw with an orange plastic handle.

"Yeah, I'll use it to amputate your leg," Sunny laughed.

The sun set shortly before 6:00, and Lara turned on the LED lamp instead of the overhead lights. "Last thing we need is someone looking in here, seeing us all dressed up with weapons and then phoning the cops."

Blackout and Geo were the next to arrive. Blackout was dressed in fairly regular clothes, and he was carrying his gear in standard duffel bag with a shoulder strap. He was also carrying a road case like the ones musicians carried their instruments in.

"I don't go camping," he said when Ripper commented. "I'm not an outdoorsy sort of person."

When Ripper had made further comment about the lack of a weapon, Blackout had opened the road case. Inside were an array of colorful tubes, wires, and several battery packs.

"What the hell is all that?" Ripper asked.

"Pyrotechnics," Blackout replied, grinning, holding up a few sticks of what Lara was sure were dynamite. "You have to hold a blaster's permit to use pyro in Edmonton. So I thought I'd make it worth my while."

Geo had been standing off to the side, silently looking up at the Tree in the light of the LED lantern.

"He's having trouble buying into all this," Blackout whispered to Lara as she brought him a coffee. "Math professor...everything needs to be cut and dry--logical."

"Is he coming?" Lara asked. Geo didn't look like he'd have much to offer in a fight.

"He hasn't decided," Blackout replied. "That's why all his stuff is still in his car."

Mikey was the next to arrive.

"You guys suck!" he exclaimed, walking into the shop. "If I hadn't called Courtney to see how she was doing, you'd have all left me behind!"

"Wasn't sure your parents would let you come," Blackout said. "And what about school?"

"School?" Mikey nearly shrieked. "School? You're going to travel to the North Pole and battle dwarves and you're worried about me skipping school?"

"Leprechauns," Ripper corrected him. "They're not dwarves, they're leprechauns. What about your folks? What did you tell them?"

"I left a note saying I'm running away from home to join the circus," Mikey replied, pulling a face. "I didn't tell them anything," he said. "I'm not going to miss out on this just because my parents might get worried."

"Might get worried?" Blackout said. "Mikey, we're going to be gone for a week. They'll have an all points search for you underway when we get back. Forget it. You're not coming."

"No way man, no way," Mikey said, gesticulating wildly.

"You all look like you're going on a trip," a female voice said.

"Terry? Ima?" Lara called into the darkness.

"No," the voice replied. A tall form stepped into the glow of the lantern. Lara gasped. Someone swore. Mikey and Blackout stopped arguing. Pink eyes filled with intelligence gazed at them all. "My name is Eostre."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Episode 36: What to wear when going to Narnia

The first thing Lara had done when she'd discovered the Leprechauns deception was to grab a flashlight and run down into the basement, hoping to find Terry, Ima, and Hatima awakened from the deep meditative state they'd entered to heal the Tree. Only darkness and silence greeted her. I thought they were supposed to be tending the tree. As she turned to leave, she spotted a yellow sticky note taped to one of the pipes.

The Tree is nearly healed. Went to see the Dixie Chicks perform as treat. Back tomorrow.

"Why is it that every time I need your help, you're out seeing a concert?" she fumed, then returned to the main floor. She was about to start up the ladder when she realized; I have no idea where I'm going. I know it's supposed to take a week to get to the Pole via the Tree, but I'm not prepared for a week long trek. It might have worked for Andrew to leave in a hurry, what with his traveling companions carrying all the outdoor gear, but Lara needed more than her winter clothes and few pieces of biscotti.

She'd sat for a moment, trying to make a mental list of all the things she thought she might need, but kept realizing that she really had no idea how to prepare for a trip to the North Pole which might involve violent action against Leprechauns.

"How does one pack when one knows they're going through the Wardrobe?" she mused out loud. Lucy and her siblings had the convenience of ignorance and a closet full of fur coats. She had a coffee shop and a single room apartment with a lot of great clothes. Which was the final thought she had before exhaustion overcame her, and she fell asleep on one of the leather couches in the store.

* * * * * *

In the aftermath of the battle with the Succubus and the Nephilim-Golem, Blackout had gone with Ripper and Sunny to the apartment next to Force Five Comics. Sunny had said she needed to make sure he didn't have a major concussion, and Blackout suspected that finding out that Ripper had been instrumental in killing a Golem-doppelganger-demonspawn had been some sort of turn on, and they'd be taking advantage of their friends with benefits package. Blackout had been looking forward to sleeping, even if Sunny would be waking him at regular intervals throughout the night to ask him the date, his name and other skill testing questions.

When he woke on Ripper's couch the next day at noon, he got dressed and walked down stairs, marveling at how the exterior of Andrew's coffee shop bore no scars to commemorate the chaos of the night before. The door to the shop had a hastily written note in black marker which read, Closed for renovations. It was locked.

Blackout pressed his face against the glass and peered inside the shop. In the dim light, he could see Lara's sleeping figure curled up on one of the couches.

Andrew must have gone through with the Leprechauns, he thought. The ludicrousness of the thought struck him and he laughed to himself. In the light of day, with no sign of the previous night's battle, it almost seemed like it had all been a dream. Aside from the way his head hurt when he moved too fast, it felt like it had happened a long time ago.

He wanted to bang on the door, to wake Lara and take her for breakfast, but he didn't know how long she'd been sleeping. The only reason he'd woken was out of a long-held deep hatred for sleeping anywhere but his own bed. It never felt right, because it never felt like home. He looked at how peaceful Lara looked, deep in slumber, and reflected that she didn't seem to share his homebody tendencies.

She's been sleeping in the ripping Tree's branches for the love of Pete, he reminded himself. He guessed that had a lot to do with the Tree feeling a lot more like home to Lara, and felt a twinge of envy. To have a magical connection like that; what would it be like? Don't complain, he thought, you got to be part of a real life fantasy adventure and lived to tell about it. What more do you want?

He wanted her. To hell with dragons and sex-demons and Leprechauns. He wanted Lara. And he knew that banging on the window would be a sure sign of that great dating deterrent; desperation. Breakfast at the High Level Diner would be just fine with a few friends. He hoped Ripper and Sunny were up now and needing sustenance after a night of commitment free sex.

* * * * *

Lara woke with a start. She'd been having one of those dreams where you're doing what you would be if you were awake. In her dream, she'd been preparing to enter the Tree, and was about to step onto the ladder when she realized that she was still sleeping, and all her hard work was just oneiric mist.

A quick glance at her watch told her she'd been asleep for four hours. Four more hours Andrew was in danger.

In danger. Again. She laughed at this. He really was the inverted fairy tale male. A pretty little princess, always getting his ass in danger for her to rescue. Only he wasn't the prince she was interested in, a thought which caught her by surprise.

She rescued Andrew because it was the right thing to do. But if she had to kiss the prince, she hoped it would turn out to be Blackout. Mark. She'd been keeping herself distant because of what had happened with Josh. But she'd realized last night, when she wondered if Blackout were dead, just how much she cared about him.

He'd been there for her every time she had needed him. And he'd done it all without once pressuring her, without once asking what was in it for him. He was a good guy. A nice guy. Maybe too nice for a recovering alcoholic. He was a prince; but was she the princess?

She got up and stretched, and grabbed her coat. If she was going to go rescue Andrew, she needed to be getting to it. Then she realized that she would need to call a taxi, and decided that it would be easier to wait for a cab over breakfast at the High Level Diner.

* * * * *

Courtney had walked back to Lister Hall alone. She was glad for the solitude, not wanting voices to intrude upon her reflections.

In the heat of battle, everything had been a blur. There had been no thought, only action. Walking in the cold darkness of the early morning, she'd considered that now there was only thought. And she had smiled, for what thoughts they were.

She had wielded cold steel against the forces of darkness, and had prevailed. That new coffee girl, Lara had been her sister-in-arms against the succubus. They had a bond now, whether Lara knew it or not, a bond forged by victory in combat.

She'd stripped off her clothes, taken a shower that was just shy of scalding to wash off the blood and filth, and then fallen into bed. If she dreamed, she didn't recall, so deep was her slumber. When she woke, she felt strong hunger. She dressed in a thick sweater and blue jeans, put her hair up in a red bandana and headed across the campus for the High Level Diner. It would be the best place to grab breakfast. Just the thought of how good crisp bacon would smell quickened her step.

She spotted Lara crossing the street from the coffee shop and called out. Lara stopped, frowning at her until recognition dawned.

"Sorry," Lara said. "I didn't recognize you in regular clothes..."

"Without the sword," Courtney laughed. "Where are you headed?"

"The High Level Diner," Lara replied. "I'm famished."

"Me too," Courtney said, falling into step beside the shorter woman.

They walked in silence for a few moments, their feet making squeaky, crunching noises on the dry snow. The sound reminded Courtney of Styrofoam for some reason.

"Actually, I'm glad I ran into you," Lara said, breaking the silence.


"I wanted to say thanks for saving our asses last night," Lara said. "That was amazing, what you did."

Courtney shrugged her shoulders, feeling a bit awkward. "No big deal."

"No big deal? You had a fucking Samurai sword---and you knew how to use it!"

"Kendo lessons," Courtney replied. "Trust me, the pleasure was all mine. It's pretty cool to own a sword, but you always wish for the opportunity to use the damn thing. Last night was--incredible. I'm still having trouble believing any of it happened. If I didn't have this--" She pointed to where the succubus had wounded her, "I wouldn't believe it at all. I'd think I'd dreamed it all."

"I felt that way when this all started," Lara said. "But with everything that's happened in the past month I feel swept up in it, like I'm a character in a story. No one ever questions magic in fairy maybe that's what this is. A fairy tale." She paused. "What would you take with you if you were going to Narnia?"

"Why Narnia?" Courtney asked.

"Well, any fantasy world. Like if you had the chance to step through the Wardrobe, or be sucked into another realm, and it was one that would involve magic and elves...and fighting...what would you take with you?"

"Heavy wool socks and a pair of army boots for starters," Courtney replied without hesitation. "I assume you'd be doing a lot of walking, and there's nothing like heavy work socks to keep you from getting bad blisters. Plus they're good for stomping on giant bugs, or whatever you need to stomp."

Good for stomping...leprechauns, Lara thought.

"Weapons," Courtney continued. "I'd pick up a good compound bow at a hunting store. And a serious knife. And a pair of work gloves. My dad always said, you can't do better than work gloves for a multi purpose item. They keep your hands warm, and let's face it, until you master firing a bow, the fletching tears hell out of your hands; work gloves keep that soft pink skin safe."

"I took archery at summer camp," Lara offered.

"Cool. Why are you asking?" Courtney said, walking up to the door of the High Level Diner and holding it open for Lara.

"I think I'll save that answer," Lara said, looking into the restaurant and spotting Blackout, Ripper and Sunny. "I don't want to have to tell this twice."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Episode 35: Rotkäppchen

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 series of dark adventures culminating in the near destruction of the shop, a group of leprechauns arrive, with the enigmatic request to travel the Tree to rescue the Easter Bunny. Andrew mistakenly assumes them to be his guides sent to help him travel the Tree. In a dream, Andrew discovers his error, but too late, as the leprechauns prepare to execute him by impromptu firing squad.

Originally published at Magik Beans in April of 2007.

It had occurred to Andrew for reasons he couldn't place his finger on, that he felt as though he were acting out scenes from the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Predator. The vegetation being mowed down; the scene where Jesse Ventura has just gotten his torso turned into Tony Roma's rib special. Andrew pressed against the tree, hoping the darkness would keep him hidden while Coll approached, swinging his flashlight back and forth in searching arcs; the scene where Arnold, covered in cool mud, evades the Predator's infrared detection. Only Andrew wasn't covered in mud; he was covered in moss, bits of bark and dirt, which merely formed a speckled pattern over the white shirt he wore to work. And the white shirt still made for a great reflective surface when the flashlight's beam finally struck it.

"Found you," Coll said in a singsong voice.

Andrew's head jerked up to look into the leprechaun's grinning face. Coll brought up his automatic and took aim...

There was a sound that onomatopoeia might render as 'twang' 'tung' or 'the sound of a taut bowstring being loosened' (the last following the school of literal sound effects) followed by a sound that could be approximated as someone sticking an ice pick into an overripe watermelon, which caused Coll to jerk back, making noises that might remind one of a broken coffee percolator, your asthmatic uncle gargling mouthwash at six in the morning while you're still sleeping, or of someone choking in their own blood, which was actually the case.

An arrow was protruding from both sides of Coll's neck, and blood was gushing from both wounds.

"He shot Coll!" one of the leprechauns shouted.

"Where'd he get a bow?" another screamed.

There was another bow twang followed by the rush of an arrow slicing the air. Andrew heard a grunt.

"Got me in the Kevlar," someone growled. Andrew found himself wondering how it was you could get child-sized Kevlar vests. He was beginning to realize that people thought of the strangest things while under pressure.

"Come with me if you want to live," a voice said at his ear.

While this has likely reminded all our readers of yet another Arnold Schwarzenegger film, the link didn't occur to Andrew because; a) the voice was female b) the female was hot and c) the current governor of California is neither female nor hot.

The eyes were a vibrant jade green, shining out from a face covered in camouflage face paint. Her golden hair was pulled back tight against her head, receding into a dark hood, the color of which was indistinguishable in the dim light. She was clutching a bow in one hand and drawing an arrow from a quiver slung across her back.

"Move your ass!" she hissed, grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet, dashing deeper into the woods.

The leprechauns told me to stay out of the woods, he said to himself.

The leprechauns just tried to make you into a human colander, his ever witty self replied.

He could hardly see his mysterious guide as she lead him in and amongst the bushes and trees. The screams and shouts of the leprechauns faded away as they ran further on. Finally, with the din of their rage far behind, the beautiful woman stopped in the midst of a clearing. Andrew realized, looking around, that no path had lead them here.

"Um. Thanks for--saving my life," Andrew said. Add that to the list of phrases I never thought I'd hear myself say, especially to a woman carrying a serious longbow.

"Well, I assumed you were an enemy of MacCuhaill and his gang," the woman replied.

Celebrate good times, come on! Andrew's witty self chimed in.

Shut up already, Andrew told himself.

"A fairly recent development," Andrew said, "But yeah, I guess I am."

"That's what you get for traveling with redcoat leprechauns."

"Which are different from...?"

"Greencoat leprechauns. The red coats are a sign of outlaw faeries. All leprechauns in the world not living on the Green Isle are outlaws." She stated all this in a matter-of-fact way which made Andrew feel like he was back in elementary school.

Not that I'd mind getting the strap from her.


"Besides, you have the Tree to thank really," the woman said. "It told me how to find you."

"The Tree speaks to you?" Andrew said, incredulous.

"The Tree speaks to everyone with ears to hear," she replied. "I've been tracking you and the Redcoats since you entered the Tree."

"But you waited until tonight to do anything?"

"You weren't in harm's way until tonight," she said, and added with a wink, "never play an ace when a two will do."

"My name is Andrew, but I suppose the Tree told you that."

"That's not what the Tree calls you."

"What does the Tree call me?"

"I can't pronounce it using a voice. You'll have to ask the Tree."

She's barking mad, his self commented. Dead sexy, and barking mad.

This is why I can't speak to the Tree, Andrew retorted. I'm always talking to you.

Well exCUUUSE me.

"And your name is?"

"Silke," she said, "One of the Rotkäppchen."

"Rotkäppchen...that's German for Little Red Riding Hood, isn't it?"

"It means Red Hood, but yes, that's what it refers to."

"I don't see a red hood."

Silke made a flourish with her cloak; Andrew could see that, while the outside of it was black, the inner lining was a deep scarlet. "The founder of our order wore a more obviously red hood, but she felt in hindsight that it impeded our mission."

"Your mission?"

"Hunting big bad wolves," she said with a grin. "And rescuing lost boys."

And with that, she turned, and ran further into the deep dark woods, with Andrew doing his best to keep up with her.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Episode 34: That scene from Predator

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 series of dark adventures culminating in the near destruction of the shop, a group of leprechauns arrive, with the enigmatic request to travel the Tree to rescue the Easter Bunny...

Originally published at on April 5, 2007

Andrew stood up abruptly, his heart hammering. Visions from his dreams came flooding back in with harsh clarity. He would have to get the box open, he would have to get whatever was inside out, the leprechauns had tricked him, he would have to...

"I just knew you were after me lucky charms," Finn's voice said from the direction of the fire.

Andrew turned to his left to face the group of leprechauns, who were all fully awake, standing with guns drawn, cocked and aimed at him. Finn had a look of mock sadness and sympathy on his face.

"You've definitely made a ballache of this, Andy," Finn said. "And just when were were gettin' ta be pals."

"What's in the box?" Andrew asked.

"This isn't a James Bond movie," Finn said. "We won't be carryin' on with a lengthy palaver to give you time to escape. We're just goin' ta slot ya and be done wit' it."

Between the gunshot going off and what happened next, Andrew had an exceedingly brief moment when instead of his life flashing before his eyes, he coolly contemplated his options.

The first was to stand exactly where he was and let Finn's bullet strike him wherever Finn was aiming. Andrew guessed somewhere lethal, like the head or the heart. Finn was extremely pragmatic, and as he hadn't bothered to waste any time giving the command to open fire, he wasn't likely to shoot Andrew in the kneecap to get things started. Unless he was a lousy shot.

The second was to try and get out of the path of Finn's bullet, which would only buy him seconds before the rest of the group opened fire. If he dropped down to the ground, it would place him directly behind the box, which would serve as brief cover from the assault. However, whatever was in the box would definitely take a bullet, unless it was so important that the leprechauns wouldn't fire. A bit of a gamble to be sure. Nevertheless, it would only prolong the inevitable, and his guess was that Coll, being far less pragmatic than Finn, would try shooting him in the groin just for laughs.

The third was to go out in a blaze of glory. Jumping forward (and hoping Finn's bullet didn't hit him) would allow him to tackle Finn before he met his death, which would fulfill a life-long adage Andrew had played sports by, which was "it isn't whether you win or lose but how cool you looked while you were doing it that matters."

The fourth was to rely upon his mutant healing abilities to compensate for the damage the bullets would cause, which would be greatly reduced by his virtually indestructable skeleton, while he popped his claws and tore into the surly group of midgets, slicing, dicing, perhaps even making them into Julianne fries. But then he remembered that he had neither a mutant healing factor nor an indestructible skeleton, nor metal claws (nor the bad haircut to go with any of them).

By now he'd wasted his time imagining what he could do and instead was only left with the first option.

What he didn't know about his situation came together very rapidly, in, oh say the time it takes for a bullet to leave the barrel of a gun and fly across a 15 foot space.

He hadn't known that even as he'd had stood up and turned to face the leprechauns, he'd repositioned his feet; and when he'd realized they were all holding guns trained on him, he'd taken an inadvertent step to his right, away from the leprechauns and closer to the edge of the clearing. He hadn't known that this had placed his right foot in the middle of a twisted loop of tree root.

He had hoped, but couldn't have known that Finn wasn't so much a bad shot as a fan of Dirty Harry, which meant that his handgun of choice was a .44 Magnum revolver. The recoil from this gun is considerable when you're as tall as Clint Eastwood, but when you're the size of a digitally altered Elijah Wood, it means your aim doesn't count for shit once the gun is fired. The front end of the barrell always went up as the gun went off, which meant that instead of taking Andrew's head clean off, the bullet grazed the top of his head and burnt his hair.

The obvious difference of course, being that having your head blown off doesn't hurt like hell.

The pain shot through Andrew's body and sent him lurching backwards, tripping over the twisted tree root and crashing through a bush filled with thorns and brambles, which consequently made him twist, with the end result being that when he finally stopped moving, he was no longer in the clearing, but covered all around by thick foliage.

"Are ye dead?" Finn called.

"I think ye just nicked him," Coll said.

Andrew tried moving to edge further away from the clearing. A branch snapped beneath his weight.

And the leprechauns opened fire.

Chips of bark, sprays of dirt, chunks of moss flew into the air and fell on top of Andrew, but none of the bullets struck home. The whine of the projectiles and the noise of the gunfire was maddeningly frightening, but when Andrew rolled to one side, he realized why he was still alive. In his epileptic dance into the undergrowth, he had fallen sideways behind one of the dark trees that lined the path. A .44 Magnum round might be able to punch through an engine block, but not the trunk of a tree centuries old.

He scrambled onto his haunches and placed his back to the tree, waiting for the leprechauns to cease fire.

When they finally did, the silence was nearly as deafening as the gunfire had been.

"You dead now?" Finn called.

Andrew could see from his vantage point that while they'd been unable to hit him, they'd done a fine job of mowing down the brush surrounding his hiding spot. If he were to break from his position and run, he'd be a perfectly visible target.

"Someone go and check," Finn said.

"I'm not going into the woods," James replied.

"You won't be going into the woods," Finn said. "Just to the edge. Have a look see."

"I'm not going near the edge either," James replied. The others murmured similar sentiments.

"What a bunch of ass bandits," Coll growled. "You're all certified fairies, in every sense of the word."

Andrew could hear the deliberate footfalls as Coll approached the edge of the wood. He could only hope the darkness would hide him.

Coll turned on a flashlight.

I now officially hate Mountain Equipment Co-op, Andrew thought.

"Where are ye, ye little runt?" Coll said, and stepped up to the edge of the wood. Andrew could see the leprechaun out of the corner of his eye, but didn't dare move.

The beam played over the shattered bushes and trees, casting weird shadows. Andrew held his breath as the flashlight beam moved in an arc, closer and closer...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Episode 33: The Thing Inside the Box

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 series of dark adventures culminating in the near destruction of the shop, a group of leprechauns arrive, with the enigmatic request to travel the Tree to rescue the Easter Bunny...

Originally published at March 29, 2007.

In his dreams Andrew was back in the shop; Lara was mouthing words and pointing at the great wooden box the Leprechauns were manhandling up into the Tree. Finn was replying, but his face turned to a mask of surprise and horror as the box slipped free of Coll's grip and tumbled to the hard tile floor. One of the corners struck the floor, but the workmanship was sound; it held together. Finn glared up at Coll, who simply shook his head.

Then the box moved. It shuddered and jumped, as if something were inside. The wood bent and bowed against an inner force that sought escape. Curses were spoken in a language Andrew knew, but couldn't immediately place. Then, the repetition of "du" and "ich" placed the language. German. Whatever was inside was cursing in German.

Finn yelled something--it was difficult to make sense of his words--he must have been shouting in Gaelic. Several of the Leprechauns, including James threw themselves on the box and held it in place while Coll jumped down from the Tree and approached the box with a slim metal rod attached to a control box. He inserted the rod into the box through one of the gaps in the wood and there was the sound of a high voltage current, a scream, and the box became still.

Finn's countenance was dark. The leprechauns quickly picked up the box and hoisted it into the tree. In this dream Andrew never even thought about accompanying the Leprechauns into the Tree.

In others, the Leprechauns came but Lara was not present. In some, she was present, but her hair and clothes changed color and style. In some, there was no Tree, and no leprechauns. Others were more ludicrous; Lump appeared, dressed in a Santa suit. In one, he was a girl, and found himself in the basement talking to three women who stood amongst the roots of the Tree.

In one, the box shattered, and Andrew caught a glimpse of white fur before he heard a scream, and turned to see Finn pulling out one of his guns and yelling orders in Gaelic. He saw the muzzle flash, and then darkness.

* * * * * * *

He awoke with a start. The fire had died down. The sounds of snoring mixed with the pop of the coals in the darkness. The embers from the fire cast a low, orange glow over the whole scene. He sat up, slowly, the memories of the dreams fading save for a general disquiet in his demeanor. In his youth when he'd woken up from such dreams, he'd wondered if he'd received a message from God. He'd seen a Billy Graham film in his youth where a man had woke in the middle of the night and set to prayer immediately, believing his waking to be a revelation.

He sat up, and glimpsed movement in the trees beyond the edge of the fire. James' words about staying out of the deep dark woods returned to him.

The Tree is good. But not everything in the Tree is.

"It's the Thing in the Box," a voice whispered, close to his ear. He jumped, and turned around, but all he could see was a form, shrouded in darkness, the embers of the fire too weak to spread light across its features.

"Who are you?" Andrew asked in a whisper.

"Your shadow at morning striding behind you," the figure replied.

The phrase seemed familiar. The figure could tell Andrew was trying to place the phrase.

"The Wasteland," it said. "Better yet, do you remember Borges?"

"The Garden of Forking's one of my favorite works by him."

"Ts'ui Pen was right...there is no such thing as absolute time. But the labyrinth wasn't a's the Tree."

Andrew nodded. It made sense in a dreamlike way. In The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges imagined an infinite series of times, that forked and broke off, much like the boughs of a tree, some crossing over each other, some never touching.

"I've come to tell you that Finn lied to you," the figure continued. "The Thing inside the Box is not a weapon. And the elves didn't kidnap Eostre."

"What? So what's in the box?"

The figure said something. Andrew heard it, and understood it, but seemed to be having trouble remembering it.

"I didn't catch that," he said. "Could you say it again?"

This time Andrew heard and understood. His eyes went wide.

"So...this whole thing's a farce?" He looked back at the sleeping Leprechauns. "You need to help me get out of here."

"I can't do that," the figure replied. "I'm only a mistake, a ghost."

And in that moment, the figure shifted his position enough for Andrew to look into his own eyes.

* * * * * * *

He awoke with a start. The fire had died down. The sounds of snoring mixed with the pop of the coals in the darkness. The embers from the fire cast a low, orange glow over the whole scene. He sat up, slowly, the memories of the dreams fading save for a general disquiet in his demeanor. In his youth when he'd woken up from such dreams, he'd wondered if he'd received a message from God. He'd seen a Billy Graham film in his youth where a man had woke in the middle of the night and set to prayer immediately, believing his waking to be a revelation.

Unable to shake the feeling, and remembering the image of white fur amidst the shattered fragments of the box, Andrew slid from the sleeping bag and raised himself to a crouch.

Whoever was supposed to be on watch was among the sleeping. None of the Leprechauns had their eyes open. He stood up and waved tentatively. No response.

His chest felt tight and his stomach was in a knot as he took his first step, carefully placing his foot like he'd learned to in a Tai Chi class he'd taken at the University. Then he distributed all his weight forward onto that foot before moving again, raising his leg and slowly moving it forward, keeping his weight all on the planted foot. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The moments passed like hours. It seemed like an eternity he was slowly moving across the little clearing, moving agonizingly, deliberately, toward the box.

He was so intent upon keeping his movements silent he almost stepped on top of it. He pulled his raised foot back from stepping on top of the boards, which were sure to creak. Lowering himself to a crouch, he placed his ear to the side of the box. In the dead silence, the sound was unmistakable.

Something was breathing inside the box.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Episode 32: Into the Deep Dark Woods

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 series of dark adventures culminating in the near destruction of the shop, a group of leprechauns arrive, with the enigmatic request to travel the Tree to rescue the Easter Bunny...

This episode was originally published at on March 22, 2007.

The sensation of traveling the Tree gave one the simultaneous impression of walking in a wide open space and feeling like the walls were closing in on you. Andrew could sense the vastness of the Tree even beyond the distance he and the Leprechauns had covered in the 16 hours since they'd left the shop. At the same time, the Tree's foliage had given way to what now seemed to be a dense, dark forest grown up on either side of the path.

The path.

Andrew had stopped dead in his tracks when, after walking alonside Finn for the first hour, he'd looked down and seen, not the wood grain of the Tree's massive bough, but soil, and grass. A path in the forest. When he pointed it out to Finn, the leprechaun had just winked and smiled.

He'd stopped asking Finn questions early on anyhow. He never got anything approaching a satisfactory answer. Like why the Leprechauns wouldn't just bother to charter a helicopter or airplane to take them to the North Pole.

"You've got enough money obviously," Andrew had said.

"Aye, but no matter how long we'd fly, we'd never reach where we're headed," Finn had replied. "You canna find the Pole just by travellin'. You have to use magic."

Once they reached the first fork in the path, Finn stopped talking with Andrew anyhow, intent on finding the fastest route through the Tree. Andrew had walked in silence, listening to the Leprechauns joke with each other or sing. They often spoke in their own tongue, which was unintelligible to Andrew, though it's sing song quality was still enjoyable to listen to.

About five hours into their march, Andrew stopped and stepped towards the wood on his right side. Before he reached it, a firm grip had seized his hand and pulled him back. He looked down to see Coll, an older Leprechaun with streaks of grey in his red hair.

"I need to take a piss," Andrew said.

"Then ye piss here," Coll said. His voice sounded like he was working on getting something solid and substantial out of his throat. "Ye nae be gawin in the woods."

"That's a fact," James, the youngest of the group, said in agreement. Unlike the other Leprechauns, he didn't have a thick accent. "You leave the path in the deep dark woods, and you never come back."

"Why, what's in the wood?" Adam asked. "The big bad wolf?"

"A few of them," James replied. "And worse."

"But...isn't this all inside the Tree?"

"It is," James said.

"Well...isn't the Tree good?" Andrew asked.

"It is," James said. "But not everything in the Tree is."

Andrew had peed off the side of the path.

By the time Finn told them to stop and draw up camp, they'd be walking for nearly twelve hours. Andrew's legs ached. He was certain the only reason he'd been able to keep up was that his stride was double that of the Leprechauns.

They camped at a crossroads, since the space of the path was large enough to spread out and start a fire. Andrew collapsed on the ground, rolling his jacket up as a pillow.

A bundle of bedding thumped down onto the ground beside him. He looked up to see James smiling down at him.

"One of us has to take a watch while the others sleep," James said. "So there's always an open bunk."

"Thanks, but won't it be a bit small for me?" Andrew said as he unfolded the bedding.

"They don't make Leprechaun sizes at Mountain Equipment Co-op," James said, laughing. "And the adult ones cost as much as the kids, and are easier to sell later."

"I take it you guys do this a lot?" Andrew said.

"Whenever someone hires us," James replied. "We do whatever job comes our way, so long as the customer is willing to pay our fee."

"That's why you have all the gold?"

"Nah, we get all of that at the end of rainbows."

"I'm not sure if I should take that comment seriously or not."

"Well, it's half true," James said. "Only I won't tell you which half is the truth."

"I notice you don't have an accent."

"That's because I'm second generation American leprechaun. My dad's the one currently trying to light the fire," James said, pointing to one of the older leprechauns who was placing a chemical fire-log in amongst some branches that had been hanging far enough away from the woods to be deemed safe. "So I grew up in Chicago. That's why we wear the red jackets instead of the green."

"I see," Andrew said. "So there's different sorts of leprechauns?"

"Don't be tellin' him all our secrets," Finn said, stepping up and standing over them. "Next thing you know he'll be wantin' me lucky charms."

"Okay, that one was definitely a joke," Andrew said, smiling. "And not a very good one."

The jokes told over dinner though, were very good ones, or at the very least, seemed to be. Andrew laughed so hard his stomach hurt. He couldn't tell if that was because of the quality of the humor or the richness of the mead the leprechauns were drinking along with the food. While they'd bought their camping gear at MEC, the food was the sort you read about in fairy tales. Roasted meat on a spit over the fire, fat loaves of bread and slices of a delicious cheese which lingered around the taste buds long after the eating was done.

Light headed, Andrew staggered back to his sleeping bag and laid down, a dopey smile on his face. He could hear the leprechauns making jokes about his inability to drink like an Irishman, but he couldn't summon the energy or wit to make a comeback. Instead, he rolled over and looked up into the boughs of the forest's trees, which formed a canopy over the path.

"Almost expected to see stars," he murmured, and fell into a deep, rich sleep.