Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Felicia Hardy: The Black Cat (Ltd. 1994) [COMICS]

Felicia Hardy: The Black Cat (Marvel) (Ltd. 1994)

I've never really had strong feelings about Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat.  I liked her well enough as an occasional adversary or supporting character to Spider-Man, and I'd say sometimes she was a good cure for Peter Parker's descents into angst and melodrama.  While writing this,  it just dawned on me (because I'm slow), that the idea of a jewel thief with a cat moniker who operates on both sides of the law and serves as an occasional love interest for a rooftop swinging hero may not be the most original idea in the world.  But I digress.  In 1994, The Black Cat was given her first shot at a four-issue limited series, just like pretty much every other character in the Spider-Man books during that time period.  (Hey, Spidey was really popular!).

In Issue # 1, Black Cat finds Spidey on a rooftop fighting Cardiac, the anti-pharmaceutical company vigilante (a stretch for a character concept, but all the good ideas were taken thirty years ago . . .).  Cardiac escapes by setting an "air conditioning control box" to explode, and thus Spidey and Black Cat have to stay behind to disarm it.  After the two save the day, they bicker, as apparently Felicia broke up with Flash recently.  Anyway, Paul Proust, a representative from the pharmaceutical company that Cardiac was trying to sabotage, the Morelle Corporation, offers the Black Cat a commission: retrieve a mysterious asset called "Chimera" which has been stolen by a rival pharmaceutical outfit, Cobalt Chemical.  La Chat Noir infiltrates a Cobalt Co. yacht looking for Chimera, but is instead cliffhangered (new word; like it?) by "Faze and his Mechabytes."  As superhero stories from this time period go, it's not bad.  A notch above average?  Maybe.

Let's talk Issue # 2, which proclaims we've come to "The Limited Series with Unlimited Action!"  Now according to the Marvel Chronology Project, Faze (and his Mechabytes) never, ever, appear again, so we should be courteous.  Faze has the ability to turn himself intangible and dresses in a head to toe leotard that isn't far off from the Black Cat herself (except no white gloves or spiked collar).  His Mechabytes are little mouse-sized robots that do . . . mecha-sorta things.  I'm not sure how the two concepts work together, but that's okay.  Black Cat and Faze fight, but she tricks him into fleeing by pretending a self-destruct system is about to blow up the yacht.  She cracks into the ship's computer system, downloads a bunch of info, and then takes it to an incarcerated fellow named Loop for analysis.  Later, Cat sneaks into the HQ of the company that hired her (Morelle) and discovers a secret cybernetic-enhancement program to create super-soldiers: "Project: First Strike."  And Cardiac appears again on the last page for the least memorable cliffhanger ever.

In Issue # 3, you won't be surprised to hear that Black Cat and Cardiac team up against Project: First Strike.  Although the cybernetic assassins have self-repairing systems, Cat realizes that they don't heal damage they've inflicted on each other and manipulates them accordingly.  Meanwhile, a comatose dude named Brian Lash has awakened in a secure hospital.  He escapes and visits a secret weapons (and costume!) lab because he has to hurry to arrive at the house of Morelle Corporation executive Paul Proust just in time to cliffhanger (see, verbs are useful!) our heroine.  Lash has assumed the identity of "Scar the Stalker."  I'm not trying to be extra snarky, because I love comics and have fun reading these, but Scar has about the worst costume I've ever seen.  Coincidentally, he also never appears after this series.

In the "Fury-Filled Finale!" (Issue # 4), we learn that Scar has captured Cat and left her unconscious and hanging from a high spire.  Through helpful flashbacks, we learn that Scar and B.C. used to be criminal partners, but during a heist of an armoured car, Cat objected when Scar went to kill a guard; to try to stop him, Cat scratched his face with her claws, just leaving Scar  . . . scarred.  Motivation!  In the present, Cat escapes and realizes that Scar has left her with clues to his present location where he's holding the kidnapped Paul Proust.  Cat arrives and dodges remote control armoured cars (Scar is like "See what I did there?").  Cat beats Scar and goes in for the kill, but Spider-Man poops all over the party and won't let her.  In the end, it turns out that Paul Proust is Chimera and hired Black Cat to figure it out and stop Morelle Pharmaceuticals.  Not 100% certain of the thought process there, but some questions are not worth further review.  In the epilogue, we see that Cat has started a new private security firm with Paul and Scar's dad called "Cat's Eye Investigations."

Overall, the limited series did succeed on what I think is an important thing for a limited series to do: change a character's status quo and position him or her for a brighter future (potentially, an ongoing series).  For villains, however, the creative team went 0 for 4, as Cardiac, Faze, Project: First Strike, and (worst of all) Scar the Stalker are all completely forgettable foes.  If a heroine is only as good as her villains, we have an explanation as to why it took several years for Black Cat to get another shot at a solo book.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Realms Toowoomba Session # 41 [RPG]

[16 Kythorn 1372]

The wind continues to howl through the night, and all of the adventurers decide to rest in the back of Tunak's large carriage. Near dawn, Tunak is awakened by what he explains is an ancestor warning him that someone has drawn near. As the others wake, they hear someone scratching against the carriage's rear double-doors. Peering through a narrow crack in the door, Cammy manages to make out a hobgoblin standing there. It moans about being "here to adventure" and wonders "why everyone left." The scratching on the door turns into heavy pounding, and lest the doors be shattered, Tunak throws them open to reveal a ghastly sight: Terreck! Although obviously quite dead with a gruesome wound to the throat, the hobgoblin manages to croak a repeated request to "rejoin the group." He holds a strange segmented white cord with a ghostly head at the end: Aloysius' spine!

The mocking spirit of Aloysius sings an obscene song until Cain has had enough. "I don't journey with undead!" he shouts, and lets loose a ray of scorching light. The reanimated corpse of Terreck is damaged by the magical assault, but responds in anger by twirling Aloysius' spine and using it like a spiked chain to attack! As the spectral head of Aloysius bites down on an adventurer, life drains away from them. Tunak begans a battle chant to bolster his allies spirits, but Cammy decides discretion is the better part of valor and tries to run. The incredibly strong winds keep knocking her down, however, over and and over again. Fargrim joins the battle and repeatedly smashes his blade deep into Terreck's corpse, while Mellia finishes the abomination off by casting Nightflower's Retribution and hurtling magical spheres of black energy. Aloysius' spine continues to writhe like a serpent until Cain crushes it and starts a fire to burn both it and Terreck's body.

The terrible winds begin to die down over the next few hours, and the adventurers emerge from Tunak's carriage to see that the inhabitants of the other carriages parked nearby are doing the same. A young man in fine noble's clothing introduces himself as Temeris Reginald Cottingswald III, the self-styled leader of, as he variously calls it, the Carnivale Intrepid, the Dungeoneer's Delve of Delight, the Adventurers' Circus of Respite, and more. Temeris introduces the other members of the troupe: Nik, Nak, and Nok, halfling acrobats and jugglers; Latisha, a caravan guard; Bettina, a heavyset, well-muscled woman with tattoos who always speaks in sailing metaphors; Ulugu, a purported conduit of the spiritworld; and Daisy, a friendly blonde with a childlike personality and a love of animals.

Temeris explains that the troupe of entertainers started as a guise to escape Zhentil Keep, which he and Daisy had travelled to in order to find her kidnapped brother, Dolf, who had been enslaved. However, it turned out that Dolf was highly sought after as a man of prodigious intellect and had been apparently sold to someone called "The Thane" somewhere deep below Startop Mountain. Temeris explains that he and his friends plan to travel there to rescue Dolf from the Thane's clutches.

With the wind remaining strong, everyone decides to stay put for the day and socialize.

One of the adventurers spots Bettina sitting on a stool, practising her act: in one bucket are dozens of padlocks of various sizes and in various states of disrepair, and Bettina quickly tries to pick each lock and dump it into a nearby empty bucket while blindfolded. When she's finished and takes off the blindfold to see Markus in the distance admiring Daisy's managerie (including a griffon!), she exclaims that the young man reminds her of "her dearly departed" husband, also a sailor, who disappeared while repelling enemy boarders while sailing off the coast of Port Llast. Bettina takes an instant shine to Markus, and after asking Mellia if his "mooring lines are already lashed to another" tries to persuade him to let her accompany him on his adventures. Bettina claims to be an expert cook with excellent balance and the ability to crack any lock ever made. Markus says he'll have to ask Fargrim, and when the dwarf witnesses Bettina's act, he's impressed enough to give her permission to come along.

Meanwhile, Cammy ventures into Ulugu "The Far-Seeing"'s carriage and is rewarded with a rather dubious and quite over-the-top performance of fortune-telling. Ulugu does seem to get a few details correct of the person Cammy is planning to meet in Silverymoon, but it's not clear whether this was mere guesswork and rephrasing or true prognostication. When Cammy moves on to see Nik, Nak, and Nok, the trio of halflings refuse to perform unless they see a trio of performances first. Cammy promises to see what zhe can do.

Fargrim talks to Temeris, and learns that the exuberant young man hails from Cormyr and ran away from his father's estate to avoid the dull and rigid upbringing of nobility. A member of the Royal Society of Explorers, Temeris claims to be quite skilled with cartography, and proves his claim by later allowing Mellia to have one of his maps of the area around the Evermoors. Temeris tells the group that he'll try to leave signs for them in Startop Mountain: three dots to represent the III in his name along with a symbol of what lies ahead. Later, in discussion with Markus, Temeris says that he's heard of a "retired" adventurer named Verdusk in the hamlet of Jalanther who knows something about dragons.

Although Cain and Tunak mostly stay at the fringes of the joint campsite, they do not escape attention entirely. Daisy plops down next to Cain, and, in a conversation about why the cleric is so quiet, somehow gets the impression that he was hatched from an egg. Temeris comes over and suggests a communal bonfire, a proposal with which Cain eagerly agrees and takes the initiative in starting. When the fire is well-underway and drinks start to flow freely, Cammy puts hir plan into operation. Zhe sings a funny song about a dwarf and a blue ribbon, persuades Tunak to sing (he's horribly out of key at first, but then gets much better), and then gets Markus to dance. As promised, Nik, Nak, and Nok return the favor in a bout of aerial acrobatics, including a death-defying leap-and-throw over the bonfire.

As the singing and dancing continues, Tunak, enjoying the moment, notices Fargrim sitting and refusing to participate. Channelling some arcane energy into his song, Tunak encourages Fargrim to dance in a manner the dwarf cannot resist. "My moment is now!" shouts Fargrim, as he jumps up and begins a traditional dwarven jig. On the other side of the bonfire, Latisha points out that Markus seems to have flecks of gold on his skin, something no one can explain.

The party goes on long into the night, and after weeks of adventuring and battle, the change is welcomed by all.
Director's Commentary (June 6, 2016)

I'm not sure where I got the inspiration to have the deceased Terreck return as an undead creature, begging to "join the group" while using Aloysius spine and skull like a spiked chain, but man I'm glad I did.  The whole thing is patently absurd, utterly hilarious, and effectively creepy.  I don't mind patting myself on the back for that one.  With the wind howling through the desolate nightime Evermoors, it was the perfect time for the encounter.

The inspiration for the travelling circus/adventuring group came from my very first time role-playing when I was 17.  The group I joined had their PCs travelling in the guise of a circus.  I look back on all of that quite fondly.

I couldn't help but introduce my former PC, Temeris Reginald Cottingswald III, into the game as an NPC.  I strictly adhered to the continuity of his last appearance as a PC in an enjoyable Realms campaign I played in online back in 2012.  The character of Daisy was also in that campaign, and became the alternate/back-up character for the person playing Mellia.

Alas, poor Aloysius did not Rest in Peace.
I made up the other members of the circus from whole cloth.  Ulugu proved to be a surprising amount of fun, as the players could never quite figure out whether his whole act was a sham or whether he did have some sort of supernatural powers.  Nik, Nak, and Nok added a bit of fun, and Bettina was developed as the cohort (under the Leadership feat) for Markus.  I applied the Leadership rules strictly and let Markus' player pick the race, class, and alignment while I did everything else.  When he asked for a human rogue, I don't think he was expecting a widower who was an expert on lock-picking, but the character actually would have been very handy had the PCs ever spent much time in the depths of Startop Mountain.  Bettina was memorable, however, and a real role-playing challenge, because she also talked in sailing metaphors.

After the opening encounter, this became a heavy RP session but was quite fun.  Fargrim shouting "My moment is now!" when magically-induced to dance still cracks me up years later . . .

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Realms Toowoomba Session # 40 [RPG]

[Flashback to 8 Kythorn 1372]

Ralkin, Katanya, and Flindle are again quite fortunate, making it out of the Evermoors and into Silverymoon without incident.

[13 Kythorn 1372]

The group continues slowly heading east through the lightly-forested land between the Evermoors to the south and the River Rauvin to the north. Slowly rotting trees in the area show that the Evermoor's foul miasma is starting to spread. During the voyage, Cammy notices an almost invisible magical sensor floating in the air and realizes the group is being scryed. Despite having this brought to their attention, the others are unable to see it. To entertain the scryer, however, Cammy and Tunak sing while Markus dances.

Over lunch, conversation turns to the most harrowing experience each adventurer has gone through. Markus tells of his recent, near-fatal incident with a brain-sucking worm. Mellia brings up the recent attack by the frost giant and white dragon. Markus is eager to hear more about the latter. Cain says for him it was the late-night attack by shambling mounds: "grass that doesn't burn is a problem!" Fargrim is reluctant at first, but then brings up shipwrecking on the shores of that mysterious island that houses a temple to Myrkul. Fargrim says it was the first time he realized he had been trying to run away from his past. For hir part, Cammy tells a funny story about being attacked and hung upside down by a Yeti. Tunak concludes the round of story-telling by saying that after growing up as part of Mammoth Clan, he fell through the precarious ice on a river and lost consciousness, washing up somewhere far downstream in the warm tent of a strange figure.

While the others converse, Mellia draws Markus and Cain aside. She shares her concerns over Fargrim, stating that Eve detected the dwarf to be evil and noting his somewhat different personality recently. The trio suspect Grim's mask, which the dwarf carries tucked into his belt, may be part of it. They decide to put a plan in place for later that day.

Meanwhile, Fargrim decides a ceremonial burial is appropriate for the bodies of Aloysius and Terreck that were left behind. With Cain's help, he gathers stones and makes a symbolic cairn for each of them. Using the incredibly tough end of a minotaur horn, Cain etches the deceased' names on their tombstones. Everyone gathers to say a few words. Fargrim begins the eulogy, stating that Aloysius died in loyal defence of the party and that Terreck will be missed.

As night starts to fall, Tunak demonstrates the impressive capabilities of his carriage: on each side, a large tent unfolds to provide shelter for the horses and anyone else. Before turning in for the night, Markus tries to detect magic and Cain tries to detect evil on Fargrim's mask; both spells return answers to the negative. When queried about their behaviour, Mellia and Cain concoct a story that they're trying to uncover the source of strange dreams Markus is supposed to be having.

[14 Kythorn 1372]

The group continues to head east. Mellia lets Cammy in on the ruse to uncover what is happening with Fargrim, and the lascivious half-elf agrees not to interfere. To put their plan into motion, Mellia performs the incantation to read the surface thoughts of those in the area, telling Fargrim she plans to use this ability on Markus; in fact, however, she is using it on Fargrim while trying to elicit thoughts and memories of Grim. Simultaneously, Cain has channeled divine magicks to allow him to detect lies. However, neither investigator gets anything conclusive for their effort. Fargrim does have some suspicious trouble remembering certain details of his past.

Before turning in, Cain tells the others that he senses the winds will be quite strong upon the morrow.

[15 Kythorn 1372]

During the night, Fargrim faces an inner psychic battle for control of his soul! As part of the Horned Harbinger's curse, Fargrim's resistance to the spirits of the dead had been weakened, allowing Grim's essence to slowly alter the dwarf's psyche. This night, however, Fargrim finally throws off the shackles of Grim's soul and becomes himself again. When he awakens, he explains to the others that he knows he hasn't been himself lately, and states he has some difficulty remembering recent events.

When the memory of Bearos' loss in the vortex to the astral plane returns, the sudden shock leaves Fargrim stunned. The dwarf staggers away from the others, out of sight, and grieves. Mellia joins him, and delicately explains that there is still hope for Bearos; travel to the astral plane is not impossible, and Eve, despite her perceived faults, would likely protect him. A despondent Fargrim says that the only he time he was a real leader was when he was urged to do so by Grim's spirit, but Mellia disagrees, reminding him of his impressive combat prowess at the front line of almost every battle the group has had. Fargrim nods, and heads north to the fast-flowing river. He places a small wooden trinket carved by Bearos on the waves and watches it disappear.

When the party moves on, they decide to follow the river more closely. Incredibly strong winds make travel slow, and as night begins to fall the adventurers see the dim lights of a small village across the river--the village of High Hold. On the near side, four carriages are parked, and each is painted garishly and is adorned with a name: "Carnivale Intrepid" says the first, "Nik Nak Nok's Daring Feats of Derring-Do" says the second, "Ulugu the Far-Seeing" says the third, and the fourth, and largest, says "Imanagerie". The carriages are buttoned up tight due to the strong winds, and the adventurers decide staying inside is the wisest course of action as well.

Director's Commentary (April 22, 2016)
Here's Fargrim, Dwarf Barbarian!

No encounters or action in this session.  To me that wasn't necessarily a problem, as long as the role-playing was good.  I always had a random encounter chance (depending on the area the PCs were moving through and whether they were moving openly or cautiously, etc.) and a lot of sessions it just didn't happen.  I currently play in a group where the GM ensures at least one encounter every session, and that definitely has its advantages too (especially for an action-oriented game like D&D).  I'm not sure which style is best.

The scene at the beginning where each character tells the story of his "most harrowing experience" as an adventurer was something I should have done more of.  I simply picked a topic and told the players that it came up during a routine period (a meal, or while camping, etc.) and to role-play their characters accordingly.  It's a great way to get the characters talking about things beyond the obstacles directly in their path and to get to know them a little better.

In this session, it's obvious that Fargrim has been having more and more problems from the curse placed upon him by the dying priest of Myrkul after the first story arc in the campaign, to the point where he was being possessed by the soul of a dead nemesis (Grim).  But in this session, he rolled a natural 20 on his daily check and broke free completely!  I have to give credit to Fargrim's player here: he has real role-playing talent and was able to bring greater emotional depth to his character than anyone else.  RP this good probably shouldn't be wasted on D&D!

The encounter with the carnival at the very end will be discussed in the next post, but I will drop that it ties back into my very first ever time playing D&D way back when I was 17 . . .

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Vegan Police: January 2013

This post and the ones that will follow monthly are a bit weird, and are to help me stick with a New Year's resolution rather than to be read.  Last year, I was a very bad vegan, and narrowly escaped arrest by the Vegan Police!  I'm trying to do better this year, and public confession will be quite handy in keeping me accountable to myself.  Yes, this is still very weird, but it works:  now, before I give in to sweet, sweet milk chocolatey temptation, I think to myself "I'm going to have to report this", and often it's enough to get me back on track.  Though not always, as you'll see below.  The hope is that over the course of the year, I'll be able to see some gradual improvement.  Meanwhile, these will be the most banal posts possible, so move on: nothing to see here!


Jan. 3,2013:  ice cream, sub with mayo (not my fault!)

Jan. 5, 2014:  dessert, two cupcakes

Jan. 6, 2007. Marshmallow Santas x2

Jan. 8:  hostess cupcakes

Jan. 8:  pop tarts, cereal with real milk

Jan. 9: Donut

Jan. 10-12:  Travel snacks

Jan 15:  Weight Watcher chocolate nut bar

Jan. 19:  chocolate sundae, pancakes

Jan. 21 cheese pizza, peppermint patty

Jan. 24:  Chocolate Sundae

Jan 27:  Peppermint patty

Jan. 29: Cheese pizza

Hell Frozen Over: Chapter Nine [BUFFY]


The final five miles to Arctic Ridge, which everyone expected would only take a few minutes to travel, dragged on for almost half an hour up a twisting mountain road. Willow ended up driving, with Cordelia refusing to let Xander drive while at the same time refusing to drive herself. Still, everyone was in fairly high spirits as they were finally about to reach their destination. It had finally stopped snowing, the roads had been plowed, and the wind had died down. The scenery itself was amazing: postcard-perfect views of mountain peaks with pine tree stubble.

Their first sight of the resort came as they crested a small hill and saw what must be the resort’s main lodge. From a distance, it looked like everything they were expecting: walls made of wooden logs, a wide chimney jutting from the roof, a banner proclaiming “WELCOME TO ARCTIC RIDGE—ENJOY YOUR STAY!” As they drew closer, however, their expectations were dashed. The banner was torn and dirty, the windows and door to the lodge were boarded over, many of the logs were cracked and in sore need of repair, and worst of all, they didn’t see anyone else around—no vehicles or skiers. Further on, they could see only a handful of small cabins and a ski-lift. It wasn’t running.

“I don’t get it,” Willow said. Everyone wore glum expressions, including her, as she stopped the SUV in front of the lodge. “The place looked great on the Internet. Happy skiers everywhere, a cozy lodge to hang out in.”

“Maybe the pictures were from before it went bankrupt,” said Xander.

“That can’t be,” said Willow. “I checked—the website was updated just a month ago.”

“Well I don’t care!” exclaimed Cordelia, obviously peeved. “This is so not what I was promised. When I get back I’m going to have my father call our attorney. This is like fraud or false advertising or something!”

They were arguing about whether they should go right back to Sunnydale or try to find somewhere else to spend the weekend when they saw a young man walking toward them from the direction of the cabins. He was dressed in jeans and a bright blue sweater, and had a pair of goggles around his neck. The man was quite handsome. With a broad smile and a cheerful wave, he looked as if he could have returned from an International Male catalog shoot.

“Well maybe it’s not all bad,” said Cordelia, getting out of the car and staring intently at the approaching figure. The others followed and waited for him to approach.

“Welcome to Arctic Ridge!” he yelled as soon as he was within range. He jogged the rest of the way over to them. “Chad Allen,” he said as he grabbed each of their hands and gave it a hearty shake. “I’ll be your guide for the rest of your stay.”

He saw the confused looks on their faces and then looked over at the lodge.

“Er, you are here to visit the resort, right?”

Buffy was the first to speak. Being the Slayer seemed to carry over to other fields as well: the others looked to her for leadership in situations besides vampire hunting.

“To be honest, uh, Chad, this was not quite what we were expecting.”

He looked slightly disappointed, as if the fault were his own.

“It’s just that, well we won these tickets, and I guess we were expecting something a little more . . .”

“Open,” Xander finished for her. He continued without pausing. “This place is deserted. No skiers, no employees. The lift isn’t even running. Are we supposed to ski back up?” It was clear Xander’s mood from the night before hadn’t completely worn off and Cordelia’s fawning over Chad wasn’t helping matters. “Let’s just get out of here,” he said, turning to the others.

“But it is open,” Chad said hastily. He noticed that Cordelia seemed especially attentive to his words. “There are other skiers. In those cabins over there, they just like to sleep in late.” He pointed as he spoke. “And the lift works just fine. I only need to turn it on. And as for employees,” he continued, “there’s me. I’m sort of the combination caretaker/ski instructor/equipment manager.”

He saw that the others were still skeptical. “Look, I know the place isn’t what it used to be. We had to close down the lodge because it was too expensive, and we don’t get many vacationers here anymore. Heck, I’ve been here three years and every spring I expect my paychecks will stop arriving. But I guess the old man wants to keep this place running, because they keep coming. I’m sure if you just give it a chance you’ll have a great time!”  He seemed genuinely welcoming and enthusiastic, unlike most everyone they ran into in California.

Buffy and her friends walked off a little distance and conferred in whispers.

“Well, I’m not going to spend another twelve hours stuck in that car with you losers. Besides, Chad’s pretty cute.” Cordelia flashed a smile in his direction as she spoke.

“I think it sounds creepy,” whispered Willow. “And that lady said the place was haunted. Just cause we’re not in the Hellm—“

Xander clamped a hand over her mouth and then held up his pinky. “Remember? Don’t disrespect the pinky!”

“Well anyway,” Willow continued after Xander removed his hand, “freaky things can happy anywhere. What kind of ski resort only has one employee?”

The thought of driving all the way back to Sunnydale seemed like the waste of a perfectly good weekend to the others—and who knew when they would get another chance? In the end, Willow was outvoted. She contemplated putting on her resolve-face but thought better of it—she didn’t want to be the one to ruin the others’ fun.

They followed along slowly in the SUV as Chad led them in the direction of the cabins. A few minutes later, they stopped outside one of the medium-sized cabins near the ski-lift. The cabin was of simple construction, but looked sturdy. Two windows, a door, and a chimney were all the features that could be seen from the outside. The other cabins looked the same, but one was larger than the others.

“This is where you’ll be staying,” said Chad. “Take a few minutes to unload and relax. Come over to that cabin when you’re done,” he pointed to the largest one, “and I’ll get you outfitted with some gear. Lessons start at nine a.m. I really am glad you decided to stay!” He smiled again and waved goodbye before walking away.

The inside of the cabin looked larger than one would expect from the outside, but it was still cozy. A double bed lay next to each of the side walls, while a fireplace dominated the back wall. A door led to a small restroom in the rear of the cabin. Otherwise, the cabin was unadorned.

Cordelia seemed to be regretting her vote to stay, but tried to make the best of it. “I’ve got this one,” she said, laying her cosmetics case on the larger of the two beds.

“Fine,” said Buffy, knowing there was no point in arguing. “Willow and I can bunk together. That means you’ll have to sleep with Xander.”

“I’m not ready for that yet!” Cordelia exclaimed. “I mean, he’ll have to sleep in your bed.”

“There’s no way we’re fitting three—“

“Ladies, ladies,” interrupted Xander. “I’ll just sleep . . . here.” He tossed his suitcase on the floor and sighed.

The lift was already operating by the time they made it outside, and they saw a few middle-aged women chatting away vociferously as they walked towards one of the intermediate slopes.

The inside of Chad’s cabin presented an odd contrast. One room looked like a typical bedroom, with a dresser, footlocker, and posters on the wall. Across a small entryway, the other room looked like a small store. A counter and cash register were set up, and racks of skis, clothing, and other gear lined the walls.

Chad stood behind the counter and waved them over when they came in. He examined their tickets carefully before pronouncing them valid.

“I’m surprised, though,” he said, placing them in the cash register drawer. “As far as I knew, we stopped all advertising and promotions a few years ago.”

“Why was that?” inquired Willow, sure she was getting to the bottom of something.

“Not sure exactly. It was after the owner’s daughter died. He started acting kind of weird after that. Stopped putting money into the place--didn’t want to close it, but didn’t want to pay much to keep it open either.”

“Which is why you’re the only employee left,” observed Buffy.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Chad said. “The other employees weren’t forced out or anything. It’s just that some of the other larger resorts, like Vail or Breckenridge, pay a lot more. And working at a ski resort is seasonal employment anyway. I liked it here though, and decided to stay year-round. As the others left, I just started taking on some of their responsibilities. And . . . well here I am,” he lifted his palms up and grinned again. “But enough talk. Let’s get started with the fun stuff!”

Willow eyed Chad suspiciously as he helped them pick out the right length of skis and poles. Xander managed to snatch only snowboard. He hoped his skill with a skateboard would rub off on it, but even if it didn’t, he knew it would look cooler.

One of the women they had seen earlier joined them for the morning lessons, which were fun and flew by quickly. Chad was a skilled skier, but kept the lessons lighthearted by cracking jokes and doing silly stunts. Most of the time was spent getting everyone strapped correctly to the skis to begin with, and then the balance lessons began. Falling was the most common result of the lesson, but it always ended with giggling instead of bruises. Cordelia seemed to topple over, quite coincidentally, every time Chad walked nearby she noted with pleasure that he caught her every time. Xander expected the snowboard to be easier, but landed on his duff several times for want of poles to balance himself with. Buffy learned to balance on the skis quickly, her ice-skating training no doubt coming into play. Unfortunately, Willow barely managed to stand up and wobble forward.

Near the end of the morning, Chad took them over to a very gentle slope that flattened out after just a few dozen feet.

“This is what we refer to as the ‘Bunny Slope’,” he said, pronouncing it carefully as if it were a complex technical term, causing the others to grin slightly. “This is where you’ll do your first real skiing. Now remember, keep your knees bent, your balance forward, and your eyes straight ahead.”

Chad had instructed hundreds of students, but he still had trouble suppressing laughter when he watched newbies try to ski for the first time. If he had a video camera, he knew, he could make thousands from America's Funniest Home Videos. Despite his best efforts, the new visitors fell in just about every way imaginable, and some that weren’t.

Xander had just found himself lying on his back from one such fall when he looked up and saw Cordelia making butterfly eyes at Chad yet again. It’s not like I’m jealous or anything—I just hate seeing her with other guys. This thought led Xander to initiate something he had always wanted to take part in but never had the opportunity to do.

He rolled over into the snow and grabbed a handful, discretely squeezing it with his hands before rising to his knees and aiming carefully. The snowball hit Cordelia square in the back with a thud, almost making her fall. She gave a little yelp and with effort managed to turn around. It took her a moment to realize what had happened, but then she looked around and set her eyes on Willow, who had stopped in front of Xander to help him up.

“You bitch,” Cordelia said to her, but with a slight grin instead of a scowl. She quickly rolled up a snowball of her own and bounced it with a lucky shot off of Willow’s shoulder. Willow looked shocked at this uncalled for violence, but responded in kind—only she overshot, and Chad took a solid hit right in the ear. Everything went downhill from there, and even the women they saw earlier joined in. For Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Cordelia, who had lived in California their whole lives, this was their first snowball fight—and it represented to them what life outside of Sunnydale could be like.

When they were all exhausted and anxious to get someplace warm, Chad squeezed into the backseat of the SUV and directed them to a small town about ten miles away on the other slope of the mountain. They feasted on pancakes at a local diner, swapping stories and generally having a good time. Chad had just finished a rather ribald tale about what happened when one of the guests a few years back decided to try skiing naked when Willow asked him about the resort being haunted. Buffy was disappointed by the question. For a few hours, she had succeeded in forgetting all about Sunnydale and the Hellmouth—and now she was thinking about it again.

“Guests do ask about it sometimes,” Chad responded. “But I really have no earthly idea where the rumors originate from. I’ve never seen anything, and I’m always at the resort. Not that I mind much—every tourist attraction in the country is happy to be ‘haunted’—draws in thrill-seekers if nothing else.”

Although she was warming up to Chad, Willow was still skeptical. “How was it the owner’s daughter died?” she asked.

Chad’s smile quickly dropped, and he looked uncomfortable. “A skiing accident,” he finally said. “I swear it doesn’t happen often. But . . . well, Sonny Bono’s not the only one to smack himself into a tree at high speed.”

The conversation lulled after that. Maybe I came on to strong with the Agent Scully routine, Willow reflected. After lunch, they dropped Chad off at his cabin and pulled up in front of their own. The unanimous agreement was that a nap was in order—after last night’s drive and this morning’s excitement, they were all rather tired. Before they got inside, however, Xander noticed a visitor he hadn’t seen before. She was just beginning down one of the slopes about a hundred yards away, but even from a distance she was simply gorgeous. She had long, blonde hair, and a cute, pert figure.

Xander quickly grabbed his snowboard out of the SUV’s trunk where he had stowed it earlier. “Guys,” he said distractedly, “I’m not really all that tired anymore. Think I’ll go for a run.”

He heard Buffy say “Where are you going?” but didn’t respond as he ran over in the girl’s direction. He reached the slope quickly but lost sight of her. Knowing that she must have started down it already, he decided to follow after her and quickly strapped on the snowboard. It wasn’t until he was a few dozen feet down the slope and picking up speed quickly that he realized what he had done. The slope was steep and he had no idea how to stop himself without tumbling over into the snow. He continued to pick up speed and soon objects in his peripheral vision were a blur as he concentrated on staying upright and hoped that the slope would level out soon.

He had just started to praise himself for coolness under fire when he realized he was headed straight for a cluster of thick pine trees. He began to panic then, pinwheeling his arms all about to maintain his balance as he leaned desperately in every direction to get the board to turn. Something came out from nowhere and tackled him to the ground, knocking the breath out of him. He hit the ground hard, and even with the snow to soften the fall, he was dazed. He felt something covering him, then the weight was removed and something was tugging on his hand.

“Come on, get up. I know you’re not hurt,” he heard a voice say.

His eyes focused with difficulty and he saw that the girl he had chased after was standing over him, trying to pull him to his feet. She was wearing a yellow snowsuit, but it could have been a yellow bikini as well as it showed off her body’s features. Her face was round and pretty, with cheeks red from exertion. He knew she must be about his age, maybe a little younger.

It was hard to stand while still strapped to the snowboard, but she pulled hard and Xander managed to regain his feet. He put a hand to the back of his head and looked around, still disoriented.

“Let me guess. You’ve never ridden a board before, have you?” she said dryly but with a hint of teasing behind it. She was balanced carefully on a snowboard of her own.

Xander tried to think up either a good fib or a witty retort, but for once he was struck dumb. He just stood there with his mouth open, wondering why he wasn’t saying anything.

The girl giggled. “A man of few words. I can admire that. Suicidal, too, apparently,” she said with a sparkle in her eye and pointed towards the trees. “This part of the resort is off-limits. You know what’s on the other side of those trees?”

Xander shook his head, mentally urging his brain to get it in gear.


“What?” he said, proud of himself for finally saying something.

“Those trees overlook a cliff. If you were lucky enough to miss them, you would have sailed off almost four hundred feet. For one brief, shining moment, you would have been just like those guys who jump from the airplane on snowboards in the Mountain Dew commercials. Then you would have gone ‘splat.’”

Xander sat down and unstrapped the snowboard, heeding the call of the all-too-vivid image of himself smashing into rocks. She led him back up the slope.

“So. Uh, what’s your name?” he said and and then bit his tongue. Clever. Next I’ll ask her what her sign is and then go straight for the phone number.

“Amara. And you must be Xander.”

“How did you know that?”

She shrugged and said teasingly “My agents are everywhere.”

They had a long walk back to the main area of the resort, but the time passed quickly. Xander found it easy to talk to her once he got started, though he had difficulty not mentioning anything about all of his adventures with Buffy—everything that had happened to him in the past year paled in comparison to them. Amara chatted easily as well—she could transition from explaining why Ginger made a mistake in leaving the Spice Girls to why the United States should have intervened in Rwanda—and she made it look easy. Xander had difficulty following everything she said, but what he could follow, he liked.

When they reached the resort, instead of leading him back to the cabins, she led him over to one of the beginners’ slopes and told him to get back on his board. He was afraid she was going to ditch him there since he wasn’t up to her level, but she stayed and helped him glide down several times. She was as good an instructor as Chad, and Xander definitely found her much more attractive. He felt he was really starting to get the hang of it. When it started to get dark, she took him back to her cabin for dinner and more conversation.

“So?” Willow said.

“So?” Buffy responded.

“Come on, you gotta tell me. It’s like The Young and the Restless, only better and not as hokey.” The pair were wandering around outside. Willow was wearing the over-sized winter jacket she had worn to portray an Inuit at the International Culture Festival a few weeks before—it was the best piece of winter clothing she had. They had just eaten but were too sore to do any more skiing for the day. With Cordelia spending all her time around Chad, and Xander off doing whatever, they were alone for the first time in quite a while.

“It . . . it’s going perfectly,” Buffy confided, smiling widely. “He is such a gentleman too. And such a good kisser. I think for my birthday I just want Angel tied up in a bow.” They both giggled. “And what about you, Will? Any developments on the Oz-track?”

Willow blushed just a little. “No. Well kind of. I mean we’ve been talking a lot.”

“That’s definite progress,” Buffy said confidently.

They walked a bit further, both lost in thought.

“Buffy?” Willow said finally.


“Do you think Xander knows I like him and is consciously rejecting me, or doesn’t know I like him and is subconsciously rejecting me?”

Buffy felt sorry for her. “Willow . . . everyone in Sunnydale and a two-hundred mile radius can tell you like Xander. He would have to be completely oblivious not to notice. But . . . I don’t think he notices.”

“I think he’s too focused on you,” Willow teased, even though it hurt her to say it because they both knew it was true.

“Well, he does have great taste,” Buffy said, trying to lighten the mood. “But come on Will, you know I haven’t done anything to lead him on.”

“I know. You know what, on the last night of summer before school started, he was almost about to kiss me. Maybe. I think,” Willow said, remembering a smudge of vanilla ice cream on her nose.

“Well what happened?” Buffy said.

“Vampires. And you showed up to save the day.” Willow felt bad—she didn’t mean it to sound like that.

“He’ll come around,” Buffy replied. “And if he doesn’t—well, it’s his loss.”

Xander didn’t return to his own cabin until well after sunset. He wasn’t quite sure why, but he knew he was infatuated with this girl. She was cute, funny, smart—everything he had been looking for. Maybe, he reflected, his luck was beginning to change now that he was finally out of Sunnydale and the Hellmouth’s vibes. Maybe he had finally broken the “I-always-end-up-dating-psycho-women” curse. Or maybe not, he said to himself as opened the door. Maybe she’s actually an intelligent orangutan disguised as a woman, or a demon from another dimension, or a “What the—“

He stepped back slightly, not sure what he was seeing. Buffy, Cordelia, and Willow were each dressed in their pajamas, propped up on pillows. They were singing some silly song he didn’t recognize, and Buffy was painting Willow’s toenails while Cordelia was braiding Buffy’s hair. The smell of somewhat-burnt popcorn filled the air intermingled with the distinctive odor of roasted marshmallows.

“Hi Xander,” said Willow sweetly. “We wondered where you were.”

“Just, uh, out,” he said. He had expected that they would be more curious about Amara, since they he had spent most of the day with the girl. He had even expected that Cordelia would shoot him some dirty looks or be weird about it. But the three acted completely nonchalant and didn’t say anything about it.

“So,” he said. “Can I just ask—what the heck is going on here?”

“Slumber party,” Buffy said looking up. “It’s way too cold to do anything outside, and there’s nothing to do inside. So, slumber party. It’s been years since any of us have had one. It was Willow’s idea, but Cordelia found the popcorn and marshmallows.”

“But you can join in too Xander,” said Willow, following up. “We even saved some for you.” She held up a small bottle of pink nail polish.

“I . . . don’t think so,” Xander said, remembering the night that several frat boys had forced him to dress up in womens’ clothes.

“C’mon Xander, haven’t you ever wanted to be in on some girl talk?” said Buffy.

“Well . . .” It was either join in or sit in the corner and watch. “I guess,” he said walking over. “But only if I get the red polish. Pink is just so effeminate,” he stated as laughter rippled throughout the small cabin.

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