What has gone before: Andrew Weazle, the owner of a coffee shop trades the Friday night deposit in return for 'magic coffee beans', which cause a massive ash tree to grow overnight inside the shop. Following this miraculous weekend, Andrew leaves work in the company of a fatally attractive woman who turns out to be a succubus, a demon which steals human life force through sexual contact. Lara and Blackout rescue Andrew, but Lara soon discovers that what they thought was Andrew is a clever doppelganger in league with the succubus. The real Andrew is still missing...
Andrew couldn't recall how long he'd been sitting at the cafe at the top of the Tree. In fact, he had difficulty remembering much of anything. What filled his thoughts most, was that the squirrel who was working as the barista here made the best coffee he had ever tasted.
"Is it the beans?" he asked when the squirrel offered him a second cup. "Something like the Kpoi Luwak?"
"No shit coffee!" the squirrel replied emphatically. "Just beans from the Tree!" The squirrel talked like one imagined a squirrel would, like a verbal chain gun, spitting out syllables with a rapidity that only sustained proximity to caffeinated drinks made possible.
He'd wondered at that. "I don't know much about botany, but I'm pretty sure Ash trees don't produce coffee beans--or any kind of consumable product for that matter. Hell, I doubt you could make tea out of the leaves."
"Not Ash Tree!" the squirrel said. "Aaaaaaaxis Muuuuundiiiii!"
He knew the term. They'd discussed it in one of his religious studies classes. In organizing sacred space, or cosmology, almost all cultures featured a central pillar, tree, mountain, ziggurat, temple or city around which the rest of the universe was organized. The scholarly term Mircea Eliade had popularized for this ritualization of space was the axis mundi. He could buy that the Tree he was currently sitting at the top of was an axis mundi, but how was that connected to the tree in the coffee shop? Why was he even thinking about the two trees in the same thought? The tree in the shop was a regular sized tree, however fast it had grown to maturity. The Tree he was sitting at the top of was massive enough to be seen from space.
"Mind if we sit down?" said a deep, resonant voice.
Andrew realized he'd heard the sound of a bus driving up and stopping, the door opening and closing, but had ignored it because he was so entranced by the vision of the Tree, and musing about the axis mundi. He turned around to see three men standing on the wooden patio deck of the cafe. The one in the middle was clearly the speaker, as he had a look of expectancy on his face.
Andrew motioned with his hand to the empty seats around his table, and the three men sat down. The squirrel darted from behind the coffee bar with three cups of tea on a tray.
"Axis Mundi Tea," the squirrel said to Andrew with a wink, and darted away again.
"Not quite the Bird and the Baby," the deep voiced man said to his companions, but loud enough to include Andrew, "but it has a hell of a view, and Ratty's a good enough fellow." He smiled and produced a cigarette from his jacket and lit it, before extending a hand across the table. "I'm Jack."
Andrew took the hand and shook it. "Andrew."
The others introduced themselves with handshakes as well. John, seated to Jack's left, was a long faced man with a Roman nose, his hair combed very neatly. Unlike Jack, whose shirt open at the collar in an unkempt fashion, John had his tie knotted in a very proper Windsor. He produced a pipe and packed tobacco into it while Andrew made his greeting to Charles, a rather homely fellow on Jack's right who wore thick spectacles and had a glum look about him.
"Makes a splendid tea," said John, lighting his pipe and puffing it into life.
"Still not a replacement for a pint Tollers," Jack said in reply. "At least its not the vile stuff our lad is drinking."
"I've grown rather fond of it myself," Charles said. "Especially when there's a cool breeze flowing out of the West."
"Bitter tastes for bitter temperaments," Jack laughed, and Andrew laughed with him, despite his utter lack of knowledge about what was so funny.
The three men talked about a number of things, and argued about as many. Jack effortlessly drew Andrew into their circle, and while he felt entirely out of his depth, found himself animatedly bantering with them from time to time, especially on matters of literature. He kept trying to guess their ages, but the concept kept eluding him, as though age were not something to be considered above the verdant expanse of this massive Tree, with a sun more golden than any he'd ever seen before shining down on them.
"We'd best get to business," John said at length. "We didn't come here for chit-chat, pleasant as it has been."
"Right you are," Jack said. "I'd say your the best man for the job here Tollers."
"Why me?" John asked. "We all played our parts when the Tree was ours to protect."
"Yours," Jack said. "We all signed on to help, but the responsibility was always yours alone. C.W. didn't even come along until after you were given the job."
"I don't understand," Andrew said. "Do you mean this Tree?" he asked, pointing down to the green sea, undulating in a light warm breeze beneath them.
"Yes," John said. "And no. This Tree cannot be guarded by any one man. But it has...manifestations in the worlds it ties together. And those manifestations can be guarded. I was given guardianship over one such tree...many years ago."
"They took a photograph of him under it," Jack said. "He was much older than he looks right now when they did it...but that was the Tree all the same."
"Christopher's taking care of it these days, isn't he?" Charles asked in a tone that sounded like an attempt at amicability, like he wanted to be more familiar with John than he might be in actuality.
John nodded, and smiled at Charles with a twinge of regret in his face. He turned to Andrew. "Do you know any Norse mythology, young Andrew?"
"I took a class in it," Andrew replied. "Got a little bursary from the 'Sons of Norway' for getting a decent grade."
"Money for beer or books?" Jack asked with a smile.
"Books," Andrew replied.
"Good lad," John said. "You know what Yggdrasil is then, don't you?"
"I do," Andrew said, and then his jaw dropped. He looked down at the massive Tree. "Is this Yggdrasil?"
"Yes...and again, no," John replied. "Yggdrasil is a perception of the Tree, but the Tree is not Yggdrasil. The Tree you've been entrusted with is a part of this Tree, just as the Tree I was entrusted with was as well. But guarding one of these manifestations of the World Tree is too much for any one person to bear. It takes many hands. A community. A...group of companions. I might have to rely on Charles to explain this. He had a theory about it all. Co-dependence, or some such rot."
"Co-inherence," Charles corrected, ignoring John's jibe. "It was an idea that came to me during the Great War. Simply put, it is that all things are connected. Like the worlds are connected through the Tree, so we are connected to one another. We do nothing alone. Our actions impact the world around us."
"Chaos theory," Andrew said.
"Except that it is Chaos that we are holding back," John said. "The Tree, however tangled its growth, is about Order. And those entrusted with the care of the Tree in all its manifestations are charged with the keeping of Order, and the resistance of Chaos."
Andrew sat there, silent, trying to take it all in. "So you're saying I need to recruit some other people to help me take care of the tree in the coffee shop?"
"I can tell just from the way you say 'tree' that you aren't comprehending the scope of your commission," John said.
"Tollers loves trees," Jack said. "Don't get him started. He'll go on for hours about branches and leaves. Wrote a bloody short story about it."
"It's more than that, and you know it Jack." John shot the man a look. "We weren't sent here for tea and coffee. We were sent to help him understand."
"And we've clearly done a brilliant job of confusing him all the more," Jack said.
"What you need to know," said Charles, leaning forward and fixing his intense gaze upon Andrew, "Is that if you attempt to do this alone, you will die. The forces of Chaos have already made an attempt on your life. It will not be the last."
"But your preservation is not our greatest concern," said John. "The work that has been done due to your negligence could very well allow Chaos to gain access to the Tree in a way which could poison it at its very roots...blacken the entire Tree and swallow the universe with it."
Andrew swallowed cold coffee hard. He had enjoyed the earlier conversation a great deal more. Suddenly, he felt a tug, as though someone had pulled his chair from behind.
"Looks like there's still life left in your bones," Jack said. "Still enough of your quickening spirit left to return home it seems. Not ready to board the bus just yet."
Andrew was about to ask Jack what he meant when the golden tableau was yanked out from his vision as though it had been a painted backdrop on a theater stage, and he found coming to in a dark, dank closet. Someone was leaning over him, and he could hear exclamations of excitement, though they made no sense to him.
He was naked, cold and shivering, and fairly sure he was laying in his own filth. He had really enjoyed the earlier conversation much, much more.