The issue stars in the Manor, with Paige and Leo continuing the conversation from the end of Issue #8, about Neena's status as "The First Witch". Leo explains that Neena (as she's calling herself now) was born before names. Paige asks what she's doing now, and Leo answers "I wish I knew" as the issue cuts to a two-page spread of Neena's demon army attacking the Elders. Rennek, the Darklighter, tells Neena the demons aren't strong enough to defeat the Elders, and she responds that they won't realize that until it's too late.
Back in the Manor, Leo continues telling Neena's story, explaining to Phoebe -- who has retrieved the Book of Shadows -- that the sisters need to know Neena's history before they attempt to confront her. Leo assures them that Neena wouldn't have killed Piper, so Piper is likely safe for now.
Leo begins telling the story, which begins in the early days of humanity. The scene shifts to Piper, in some kind of dark limbo with a tree, who nearly acts out Leo's story. As Leo explains, there is an energy that runs through the Earth called "The All", which is significantly more powerful than The Nexus.
"Thousands upon thousands of years ago, a woman came across that nexus. She alerted her mate to what she had found. At first, they were too afraid to go near it. Even at a distance, they could feel its power. But she pushed past that fear.
Piper sees a shadowy figure by the tree and chases after it, but it's gone by the time she gets there. She picks a lone apple from the tree, and an Angel of Destiny arrives, warning her not to eat it. However, in Leo's story, the woman tapped into the power and "was infused with more of The All than any human was intended to possess."
The Angel of Destiny explains to Piper that they're in a place that shouldn't exist, and she arrived there the same way Piper did. She theorizes that only the magic that brought them there can allow them to leave.
Leo's story continues, as he explains that the woman shared the power of The All with her mate, making them immortal, and created a new state of consciousness: The Higher Realm. However, the magical bond between the two of them contained The All in the higher realm, and Earth started to die, so the only way to save it was to separate the powers. As Leo's explaining the last of this, Neena's attack continues against the retreating Elders. Kyle, who should have moved on, gets the Elders safely behind the gates, where Neena leaves a demon to stand guard, so her army can regroup.
Leo's story resumes, and he explains that the woman and man were forced to abandon the higher realm, never to return. Phoebe chimes in that the story sounds "kind of familiar", and Leo says many belief systems come from the same origin. He continues that once the woman was on Earth, she gave birth to a pair of children. The first had the mother's powers, but not as strong, and gave birth to the line of natural-born witches. The second "twisted the magic for darker purposes" and is responsible for the line of warlocks. The other children the man and the woman had didn't have powers themselves, but in rare cases their line could give birth to a full witch, upsetting the grand design. Leo explains that the Warren family is part of that woman's bloodline.
Back in Piperville, the Angel of Destiny explains that the realm they're in was a failed attempt to recreate the higher realm. The Angels of Destiny would have stopped Neena, but they misunderstood her plan. The realm starts to break up, as a side effect of creating an alternate plane. The Angel of Destiny says The First Witch (Neena) exists outside the grand design, so they have very little control over her, and can only witness her actions. She then bites into the apple, and disappears, as the shadowy figure observes.
Back in the Manor, Paige asks what happened to the mate of The First Witch, and Leo says he returned to the Higher Realm without her, which causes Paige and Phoebe to kind of see Neena's side of things. Leo explains that with every witch born, The All was weakened, and it needed one of the two to return. While that's going on, Neena marches her demon army to a set of giant golden double doors, and says "Let's crack this sucker open."
Leo continues, saying that the mate didn't choose to leave the first witch, just that one day, he was gone, and she was along for the first time. To save The All, the Elders had to pick one of them to return to the Higher Realm, and they chose him.
This is explained over Piper standing confused, before the shadowy figure emerges to hand her an apple. And that shadowy figure is...
Hey, let's start with that last part first, because it's a doozy. The return of Cole is something that's been asked about by fans since the "Charmed" comics were announced, and it actually makes sense within the confines of this story. If there was any character about whom it could be said he existed outside the Grand Design, it's Cole. There's no real implication in the issue that Cole is the mate that was spoken of -- and something like that would badly conflict with what we already know about the character from the show -- but by the end he'd definitely reached "outsider" status, after the whole Source->Wasteland->Avatar->Alternate Universe->Limbo thing he went through in Seasons 4-7.
As for the rest of this issue, I definitely needed to read it twice to grasp everything, because there's a LOT in there, and it adds layers upon layers to "Charmed" mythology. At first, I was a little taken back at how much was being heaped on top of what we already knew, but the more I read, the more I realized that what was being given backstory here was a lot of the stuff that we never really got explained during the course of the series. Aside from the Warren history, there was never really a great explanation of witches or magic in general, and we always took "up there" for granted as something that just existed, without an explanation of how or why. So I don't think writer Paul Ruditis has introduced anything that drastically conflicts with anything we knew from the show itself, nor would he be expected to, given his involvement with previous tie in novels.
I will say that I'm still not a fan of the voiceover exposition over changing scenes technique in comics. I've seen it pop up in a few books I read, and I think it overly complicates things for the reader (and makes things almost IMPOSSIBLE for a recapper). Still, it's necessary here, because a long, drawn-out scene of Leo talking to Paige and Phoebe would have been boring and artistically representing Leo's narration would have spoiled the identity of the mate, which I'm assuming is going to be a big deal in an issue or two. I did like the technique of having Leo's story and Piper's first actions go together, since it tied together the sisters, who were otherwise completely separated this issue.
Now, as for the artwork, pencilling duty falls to Dean Kotz for this issue, making him the fifth different penciller in the nine-issue run of this series, and the fourth different one in the last four issues. His style seems very much like Marcio Abreu's with loose pencils, particularly in his shadow work. As with all previous "Charmed" artists, the judgment of his overall ability lies in his likeness work. I though his Piper was as good as we've seen in the series, and his Phoebe seemed to be in the vicinity of Alyssa Milano, but Paige never looked quite right. Also, the constantly changing artists mean we're still not getting a consistent look from Neena, which isn't a good thing, considering how important she is to the story. At least now her outfit is distinctive enough that she's readily identifiable to the reader, but her skin tone, hairstyle and facial build have changed drastically from the early issues to now.
Overall, I think this was a solid bridge issue, filling in a lot of story, and mixing in just enough action to keep things exciting. Where the story goes from here will determine how this particular issue is judged in the long run.
Previous Issue#8, Oh, Henry
The All or Nothing
#10, Three Little Wiccans