What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a failing coffee shop trades what the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans'. After dumping coffee made by the beans into a potted bonsai tree, a massive ash tree mysteriously grows overnight inside the shop. Following a miraculous weekend which saves the coffee shop, Andrew suddenly leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman. When he does not return to work for several days, Lara enlists the help of Blackout to find out what has happened to Andrew. A dark presence attacks Lara as she attempts to enter Andrew's apartment, wounding her badly..The drive back to the coffee shop was a blur in Blackout's mind. Later on, attempting to recall it, he would only remember Lara prohibiting him to take her to emergency, an image of him laying her gently into the back seat of his car; driving as fast as he could given the winter conditions back over the river valley; of trying to wake her to get the keys to the shop so he could open the door; his hands slipping into her coat pocket, realizing as he did so that there was blood on that hand--her blood. He would wonder later, given how much blood soaked his back seat at how convinced he had been that returning to the shop was the best thing for Lara.
Unlocking the door. Returning to the car. Nearly slipping on the ice with her again in his arms. In his arms, but not how he'd imagined. Laying her on the coffee bar. Standing, a blank look on his face, feeling suddenly stupid for not having disobeyed her. For not taking her to the emergency.
"You did the right thing," said a woman's voice. A dry, sandy voice that reminded him of his grandmother smoking cigarette's while she drank her morning coffee.
He looked up to see a matronly woman, her long silver hair pulled into a great braid that descended all the way down her back enter the shop from the back room. "We sensed her wounding and summoned her here. Thank you for believing."
Believing? Believing what?
The matronly woman approached Lara's body, and two more women entered the room through the same door, one a middle-aged Asian woman with a pleasant smile on her face, the last a young African woman whose eyes flashed golden in the dim light. They surrounded the coffee bar and placed their hands over Lara, closing their eyes as they did so.
It seemed as though the lights dimmed, as though something was drawing off the energy that powered them. And then the women began to glow...and that glow flowed out into Lara's still body, brightest where she'd been wounded by the...
By what? What did we see in Andrew's apartment? All I saw was darkness, and a sound like a big cat...and then Lara was bleeding, and falling into my arms.
But somehow he knew it hadn't been a cat. Just like he knew that he'd needed to bring her here rather than to the hospital. And how he knew that inexplicably, these three women were healing Lara with the light.
And with all that knowledge, his gaze traveled from the three women to the Tree which canopied above them all, spreading its boughs like protective arms. And he also knew that Lara had not built this Tree. He couldn't imagine how he'd ever believed that this was a fake tree, a fantastically massive prop, a piece of clever staging. How could he have mistaken that ancient bark for polystyrene or paper-mache? How could he have assumed that these deep green leaves were made from silk? How could he have missed the utterly vital presence of Life all around him? It was the same sensation he had standing on the dock at his parent's cabin in the Okanagan valley, staring up at the moon casting its double down upon the placid lake waters.
Awe. That's the sensation. How did I miss it before?
"We can only ever see the reality we've constructed in our minds," the dry sandy voice said.
Blackout tore his gaze from the Tree and looked into the matronly woman's eyes. She was lighting a cigarette. The Asian woman was making coffee, while the African woman was sitting on the counter, Lara's head in her lap, stroking her brow and singing a quiet, wordless melody.
"I didn't say anything," Blackout said.
"You don't have to," the silver haired woman replied. "Your face says a great deal. I've been around enough first time reactions to the Tree to know them when I see them. You just awakened to what's really in front of your face. And you're asking yourself how you could ever have seen it any other way." She smiled and took a drag of the cigarette. Blackout said nothing. "But you've had twenty some years of being told that a tree like this one can't grow up in a coffee shop overnight. That magic can't heal people. Those realities die hard. Some people walked in here this past week and saw the Tree for what it was, basked in the magic, but walked out the door and let themselves forget all about it. They'll remember from time to time, especially if they're here in the right frame of mind and in the right circumstance, but there's too much real life out there," she said, and pointed out the window. "Makes it tough to keep a sense of wonder about things. But you've had some other experience tonight. Whatever placed that hurt upon our young Lara wasn't any animal of this world. It was a being of magic."
"I don't know what it was," Blackout admitted.
"Well tell us what happened, and maybe we can help with that. I have my suspicions, but that's all they currently are."
She came out from behind the coffee bar and sat down at a table, indicated for Blackout to follow suite. He did so, as the Asian woman put down two cups of coffee on the table.
"Honestly Terry," she said, shaking her head. "You just talk and talk without any common courtesies." She looked at Blackout, and her smile put much of his worry to rest. "My name's Ima, and the singer over there taking care of Lara is called Hatima. You've probably guessed that the talkative one is Terry."
"My name is Mark," he said. "But most people call me Blackout."
"Well Mark," said Ima. "Tell me if you need cream and sugar, and then tell us what happened."
He took both, and then told the women, as best he could, what had happened at the apartment. He had to keep correcting himself, saying firstly what he thought had happened; the locks were faulty, the shadow was a big cat, and then going back at Terry's insistence and just telling them what happened. Not what he thought had happened before he knew that the Tree wasn't just interior decor.
What is it then? he wondered.
"We sensed a source of dark power the other day when your friend Andrew left with the girl," Terry said when Blackout was done. "But we hoped it was just an extremely bitchy woman."
Blackout must have looked surprised at this, because Ima said, "A woman in full-on bitch mode will give off the same sort of power emanations as a lower caste evil spirit; all humans can do that. You have enough divinity in you to resemble either demon or angel, and every other fey that lies between. Little gods is what the fair folk call you, but they say that tongue in cheek. You might be little gods, but you're blind and deaf to it."
"But this creature that wounded Lara is no human," Terry said. "It can look like a human, but it isn't one. Some sort of changeling; unless I miss my guess, we're dealing with a Lilitu."
"A very old type of succubus...a demon that feeds off the life force of a human by having sex with them." Terry looked at Blackout's surprised expression. "You don't believe me."
"It's not that," Blackout said. "In fact, you're not the first person to suggest that tonight. I just never expected him to be right."