"It doesn't add up."
"That woman's story. Her daughter was in the hospital for a year and she never went to visit her even once?"
"Some people don't like to travel and some are creeped out by hospitals."
"Even so, a whole year? And not even so much as a phone call? Doesn't that seem a little bit odd to you?"
"So what's the situation, as you see it?"
"Based on what we've discovered so far, I'd guess that the subject got sick. Her husband got depressed. He took their twin sons somewhere and probably did the murder-suicide thing. Then, when the subject recovered from her illness, she went searching for them."
"Then where is she?"
"Maybe she found them and decided to join them."
"I suppose that's possible, except that no bodies have been found."
"Do you think we should save ourselves some time and put a call out for cadaver dogs? I don't want to draw this thing out any longer than necessary."
"No. Let's do a little investigation first to see if we can pick up her trail before we commit to searching for a body."
"I'm still a little bit suspicious because this all seems too obvious. According to all the records that we've been able to pull, there's a trail that a blind man could follow, leading right to this pissant little town in the middle of nowhere. The last credit transaction shows her gassing up her car, then nothing. If someone were intentionally leading us on a wild goose chase, this is exactly how they would do it."
"We'll be there in less than two hours. Let's talk to the locals and see what we can find out. Maybe we'll get lucky."
"I wouldn't bet on it."
* * * * *
"I'm not getting any signal."
"My cellphone. No signal."
"Do you want me to pull over and get the sat-phone out of the trunk? It's all charged up and ready to use."
"No. It can wait."
"We'll be in Waxell soon, I'm sure that you'll be able to get a signal there."
"I still don't know why the FBI is being called on to investigate this. From what I can see, this is a simple missing persons case. In fact, the missing person seems to have gone missing of her own free will. There was no indication of a struggle or any type of coercion."
"Officially, I would say that it's possible that Mrs. Brynner was abducted, and if that were the case, the subsequent evidence indicates activity related to her across state lines, which makes it our jurisdiction. Realistically, I think the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Greymont has quite a few influential friends among the higher ups at the bureau."
"I'm glad she's not my mother. What a horrible person."
"That doesn't have any bearing on the assignment that we've been given. I know that it seems like a waste of resources when so many people legitimately go missing, but the people in charge told us to do this, so we'll do it."
"I know. But why do you think that we were pulled off of an active investigation to go out to BFE for this?"
"Maybe we were getting too close to something sensitive and the powers that be wanted us out of the way."
"Well, if that's what they were going for, I think they accomplished it. Are you sure you're not lost?"
"It'd be kind of hard to get lost on a road with no turnoffs."
"That sounds like the beginning of one of those Sci Fi things that you enjoy reading."
"Have you been reading my books?"
"I did a little investigating. It's what I do. I still don't see what you get out of that fantasy nonsense."
"It helps me to expand my perspective to allow me to entertain non-standard possibilities."
"So, do you think this Andrea woman was abducted by aliens?"
"Not really, but I'd like to think that if something out of the ordinary happened to her that I'd be more open to other explanations than someone who believes only in one ironclad set of strict rules that govern reality."
"If it were aliens, I wish that they'd taken the mother instead."
"She really got to you, didn't she?"
"I just can't stand people who act so entitled and better than everyone else. But to top it off, 'Heleficent' acts like her daughter is her own personal property that's been misplaced and she's going to stamp her feet and hold her breath until someone brings her back. Sixty year old spoiled brat!"
"'Helen' isn't our boss. We interviewed her. With any luck, we won't have to face her again unless or until we find out what happened to her daughter."
"That's not going to give me much incentive to find the woman."
"As soon as we've found Mrs. Brynner, the case will be closed and we shouldn't have any reason to have to face 'Skeletor' again."
"I had a feeling that she bothered you too."
"I can't let that stop me from doing my job."
"'Skeletor'... good one."
* * * * *
"This is interesting."
"Andrea's husband. I got to looking at his file and I'm seeing all the telltale signs of an assumed identity."
"Did you get a signal?"
"No. I downloaded the files before I left. I don't have any way of cross checking what I'm seeing here, but it looks like Ares Brynner sprang into existence at the age of eighteen."
"That's not too odd, but I suppose that it's worth looking into."
"His existence began in Waxell, Kentucky."
"Well, then we might be able to investigate at the source. That's lucky."
"I don't know if I'd call it luck. I still feel like we're being spoon-fed information and given a trail of breadcrumbs to follow."
"I guess we'd better be on guard for witches, then."
"Hansel and Gretel."
"Tell me again, you really don't believe in all that supernatural nonsense, do you?"
"It was a joke!"
"That's not an answer."
"Let me put it this way, I don't believe in aliens at the moment. But if at some future time I see a flying saucer and feel myself being levitated off the ground and into their ship, I might decide to reconsider."
* * * * *
"What a shithole."
"I've been to a few third world villages that were worse."
"I wonder if they have indoor plumbing here."
"I guess you can check on that while we're investigating what happened to the Brynner woman."
"How do you want to do it?"
"Why don't you hit the courthouse and the local police to see if they know anything. While you're doing that, I'll interview the gas station attendant and see if maybe Mrs. Brynner stopped at the local motel... if they have one."
"I still don't have cell service. Where and when do you want to meet up:"
"Let's meet at the Waxell Diner over there in about two hours. We can compare notes and decide what we need to do next."
"Do you think that you'll need the sat-phone?"
"No. You take it. You're the one who's going to be looking at the official reports. You may need to fact check or something."
"Do we at least have lapel mics or walkie-talkies or something? It feels wrong being out of touch with each other."
"No such luck. We got pulled away so suddenly that I didn't have a chance to stock up on gear. Face it, this isn't a James Bond job, it's a MacGyver."
"Well, sitting here isn't getting it done. The sooner we start, the sooner we'll be able to get back to civilization."
"That's the spirit."
* * * * *
"Good afternoon. Welcome to the Waxell Diner. Just have a seat and I'll bring you a menu in a minute."
"Is it okay if I sit in the back?"
"Sure. Anywhere you want."
"Someone's going to be joining me. Can you let him know where I am?"
"Is he another Fed, like you?"
"How did you know?"
"'Cause no one around these parts dresses up in a suit unless someone's being married or buried. And since I've never seen you before, and you haven't tried to sell me anything, I figure you gotta be a Federal Agent... FBI would be my first guess."
"I guess it's a good thing that I'm not trying to go undercover. Yes. As a matter of fact, I am an agent with the FBI. Agent Fastbeck. When my partner arrives, would you let him know where I'm sitting?"
"Yeah. I'll tell him. I'm Harry. Give a yell if you need anything."
* * * * *
"How's it going? Did you run into trouble?"
"No. Just a sheriff's deputy that I couldn't get to shut the hell up."
"Any good information?"
"That remains to be seen. I didn't get anything on Andrea, but it turns out that Ares Brynner has something of a reputation around Waxell."
"Really? That's surprising. By everything that I've been able to uncover about him, he's been nothing but a model citizen."
"Well, to be honest, I couldn't find any evidence to say that he'd ever done anything wrong while he lived here... well, except for the murders."
"Five of them."
"Ares Brynner is a mass murderer?"
"That's still a little bit up in the air. But my gut tells me that he isn't. From all accounts, about twenty years ago Ares Brynner was living here in Waxell. He worked at the local feed store... before you ask, yeah, they've got a feed store. It's about a block over from here. Anyway, he worked hard and was reasonably well liked. Then one day, some strangers showed up in town asking about him. The next thing anyone knew, five people were dead and Ares Brynner was never seen or heard from again."
"Were the five people the ones looking for him?"
"No. They were all locals. None of the men who were looking for Ares were ever seen again either."
"So, they might have taken Ares away with them?"
"No. It seems more likely that Ares was somehow able to evade them. If you take into account the time for travel, his first appearance in Maryland fits almost to the day."
"Are you ready to order?"
"We haven't looked at the menus yet. Could you give us another minute?"
"Sure. Do you know what you'd like to drink?"
"Is your Coke on tap or in the can?"
"Neither. It's in bottles."
"Really? Yeah! Two bottles of Coke."
"I'll be right back."
"So, did you find out anything?"
"No. The gas station attendant and his manager didn't remember Mrs. Brynner. When I asked to review their security camera footage, they looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language."
"I noticed that the forms they use at the sheriff's office were all mimeographed. Before, I was just joking about us needing to get back to civilization, but this place is like a throwback to the 1950's."
"Well, from what I hear, they had pretty good food back then, so I'm willing to give the local cuisine a try."
"I'll try a hamburger, but I'm still not going to take a chance of drinking the local tap water. Canned or bottled beverages only."
"I'm with you. I only had to learn that lesson once. The only thing I remember about my time in Venezuela is the three days I spent on the toilet."
"Did you find out anything else?"
"The closest thing they have to a motel here is a boarding house. Apparently, Mrs. Brynner never stopped there."
"Yeah. I booked a room for us."
"It sounds quaint."
"Mrs. Shumlin seems like a sweet old lady. Of course, I got the feeling that she might go after you with a baseball bat if you made too much noise after seven o'clock."
"I can't wait to meet her."
"So my investigation was a total washout. No one that I talked with remembered seeing or speaking with Andrea Brynner while she was here."
"Any idea of where to look next?"
"Have you guys had a chance to look at the menus?"
"Yeah. I'll have a burger."
"I'll have that for you in just a few minutes."
"Hold on, Harry. Before you go, do you know if a woman named Andrea Brynner might have stopped in here? It would have been a few months ago."
"I don't know if that was the woman's name, but Tracy was going on and on about a woman who stopped in here and said she was Ares Brynner's wife and that he took their kids and skipped town while she was in the hospital."
"Really?! Where is this Tracy? Can we talk to her?"
"It's her day off. I guess she's probably at home. If you want, I can call her and find out."
"Would you? We'd really like to ask her a few questions."
"Yeah. I'll put in your order, then I'll call her. She won't believe it when I tell her that the Feds want to talk to her."
"You told him that we're Federal agents?"
"He was able to guess from our suits. We don't exactly blend in here."
"I suppose not."
"It looks like we may have stumbled onto a significant lead."
"While our food is cooking, I need to check in. Do you want to check your email while I'm online?"
"Yeah. Just give me the password to your hotspot and I'll do it on my phone."
* * * * *
"Something's really not right here."
"I've been instructed to travel back to DC to resume the Piet investigation."
"What? Just now?"
"Yes. Didn't you get the message?"
"I was looking at my personal email. I can't access my professional email on this phone. Security."
"Use the laptop."
* * * * *
"I've been instructed to continue the investigation into the disappearance of Andrea Brynner by myself."
"I can't just leave you here. You won't even have a car."
"I'll see what I can do about borrowing one from the local law enforcement."
"Something like that usually takes weeks of paperwork."
"True, but maybe if I just tell them who I am and ask nicely, they'll let me borrow one on a handshake. I think I'd like to give the good 'ole boy network a chance before I start filling out requisition requests."
"Well, it looks like it's your show. I'm going to eat my burger, then hit the road."
"I'll probably be working on this for a few more days before I've exhausted all the leads."
"Are you guys still doing alright? Your food should be out in just a minute."
"We're fine. Did you talk to Tracy?"
"Yeah. She'll probably be here before you've finished your meal."
"Thank you, Harry. You've been incredibly helpful."
"When I told Dad that we had FBI agents here, he said that he wanted to make something special for you. He said that the pie that he was baking should be out of the oven by then and he's just started a batch of ice cream to go with it."
"I don't know if we'll have time..."
"What kind of pie?"
"Fresh baked apple pie and homemade ice cream? Count me in."
"Is that a real government computer?"
"I guess you could say that. With this we have a secure connection to the main office in Washington DC."
"Wow. That's like something out of a movie!"
"Don't the people around here have personal computers?"
"Sure. A few people do. But they can't do anything important with them. They're sure not connected to the FBI."
"Don't you have Internet?"
"I've heard that Doc Alvarez has it and I bet that one or two of the people on the town council probably do too."
"That's Dad. I'll be right back."
* * * * *
"This is really delicious. In fact, I don't think I ever remember tasting a burger this good."
"This place and these people are really creeping me out."
"I think it's kind of nice. Like what America used to be."
"America was never really like this, except in people's nostalgic dreams. If you think about it, during that time period there were wars, political scandals and civil unrest as western society was beginning to evolve out of its industrial paradigm."
"Then how do you explain this?"
"I can't. Maybe your weirdo Sci Fi books might do a better job of it."
"I wasn't going to mention it, but I have read a few stories that started out this way."
"Watch yourself, Con. I'm not going to be here to remind you to keep your feet on the ground. Remember who and what you are."
"Don't worry. I'm here to do a job. Just as soon as I've located Mrs. Brynner or found out what happened to her, I'll be on my way back home."
* * * * *
"Guys, this is Tracy. She's a waitress here."
"It's nice to meet you Tracy. What is your last name?"
"Harry, I didn't get your full name. It would be good to have it for our report."
"Thank you, Harry."
"Ms. Manson, I'm Agent Long and this is Agent Fastbeck. As I'm sure Harry told you, we're from the FBI. If you'd please have a seat, we'd like to ask you a few questions about your encounter with Andrea Brynner."
"Please call me Tracy. And I don't know if her name was Andrea. I don't think she ever told me. But I'll be happy to tell you anything I can."
"I suppose the best way to proceed is to start at the beginning. When did you first meet her?"
"She came in here for lunch. It was a slow day and I think she was the only one in here right then."
"So she ordered lunch. From what Harry said, she talked to you about her husband and kids. How did that happen?"
"She was looking for them. She brought up a picture of them on her phone and it was Ares Brynner."
"You know Ares?"
"Yeah. I knew him when he lived here before. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones because I lived to tell about it."
"Do you think Ares killed those people?"
"Honestly? No. I can't say that I knew Ares all that well, but I don't think he had it in him to kill anyone. But I think that those people died because of Ares Brynner. Even before Ares, I'd heard tell about strange things happening when someone got tangled up with a Brynner. No good ever come from it."
"We've gotten off track. The woman we're assuming was Andrea Brynner came into the diner and asked you if you'd seen her husband and sons. What did you tell her?"
"That was almost two months ago. I can't say for sure what I said word for word, but as I recall, I told her that I'd seen them here in Waxell just before Halloween last year."
"Is that all you told her?"
"No. I think I told her about the ghost stories that've been circulating around this town for as long as anyone can remember."
"What ghost stories?"
"I know it sounds silly in the light of day, but my grandmama used to tell us about a town hidden deep in the forest northwest of here where monsters live and fairy tales are true."
"Nice thing to tell a kid."
"It was her way of warning me. I'm not saying that there's monsters there, but there is danger. I don't know if she knew what it was, but she was protecting me by making me afraid of something that really was dangerous."
"What did you talk about after that?"
"I think Arn called out that her food was up and I got it for her. After that, I left her to eat."
"Arnold Weaver, Harry's father. He owns this place."
"Did he speak with Mrs. Brynner?"
"No. He was in the kitchen the whole time. I'm the only one that talked to her."
"What's northwest of town?"
"Have you ever been there?"
"No. And you couldn't pay me enough to go there."
"Can you think of anything else about your encounter with Mrs. Brynner? No matter how insignificant it may seem, it could turn out to be important."
"I really felt for her. Her husband left her while she was in the hospital and she was looking for her kids. It broke my heart."
"Thank you, Tracy. If you think of anything you can call me... wait. My phone doesn't work here. You can contact me at Mrs. Shumlin's boarding house."
"I'll let you know if I think of anything."
"Thank you. You've been very helpful."
"I warned her. I told her not to go after him. No good ever come from being tangled up with a Brynner."
"Thank you, Tracy."
* * * * *
"Oh my God! This is the best pie crust that I've ever tasted in my life!"
"Focus, Conrad. You need to listen to me."
"Just try the pie crust and tell me that it isn't the absolute best that you've ever had."
"I want you to drop this investigation."
"Just tell them that we arrived in Waxell and couldn't find any leads as to the whereabouts of Andrea Brynner. If anyone asks, I'll back you up."
"I've got a bad feeling about this, Con. I can handle drug lords and jihadists all day long, but I'm telling you, something like this is best left alone. Just walk away and take the hit on your performance record."
"Now who's the one being taken in by Sci Fi nonsense?"
"It's not funny. Some things are best left alone. This is one of them. Walk away."
"You should already know that I'm not going to do that. Remember the 'I' in FBI? That's what I'm here for. This is what I do. There's no way that I can walk away from something like this. Besides, it'll probably end up being like we said on the way here, a murder-suicide thing."
"The funny thing is, for some reason I can see that being the best possible outcome for all of this."
"Eat your pie."
* * * * *
"This is it, the county sheriff's office. Watch out for a deputy named Kemp, he'll talk your ear off."
"I'll be on the lookout."
"Between the sat-phone and your laptop, there's no reason for you not to stay in contact with me."
"Expect to have messages waiting as soon as you're able to get reliable cell service again."
"I'll hold you to that."
"You'd better get going. I'll see you as soon as I have this all wrapped up."
"I'll hold you to that, too."
* * * * *
A knock on the door startled Conrad out of his research into the facts that he and Agent Long had been able to uncover thus far.
"Agent Fastbeck, you have a phone call. You can take it in the parlor." A woman's voice called through the door.
"Thank you, Mrs. Shumlin. I'll be right there."
He made sure to secure his laptop before hurrying out of the bedroom. All the while he puzzled over who could possibly be calling him via landline.
* * * * *
"Hello?" Conrad said cautiously.
"Yes, that's right. Who is this?"
"This is Harry at the Waxell Diner. I'm sorry to bother you, but I thought it might be important."
"That's fine, Harry. What can I do for you?"
"There's a guy here asking us if we know anything about Andrea Brynner. He's wearing a really nice suit, but I don't think he's a federal agent. He's something else."
"Is he still there?"
"Yes. I took their order, then I went to the back to call you. I figure that if you come right over, they'll probably still be here."
"Thank you for calling me, Harry. I'll be right there."
"Do you want me to try to stall them or anything?"
"No. Just give them the same good service that you gave us."
"I answered their questions but I didn't tell them anything about you being here. Was that right?"
"That's fine. You did exactly the right thing. I'll be there in a few minutes."
* * * * *
Agent Fastbeck drove his borrowed car to the Waxell Diner, still not quite used to the size of the enormous vehicle. Even so, he was just relieved that it wasn't a 'black and white' patrol car.
When he stepped into the diner, there was no mistaking who Harry had been talking about. Sitting at a table, three away from the door, was a man in a very nice suit and two teenage boys.
Conrad tried to look casual as he walked past them to the service counter and positioned himself so that he could watch the table out of the corner of his eye.
"Can I get you anything?" Harry asked quietly as he approached.
"Do you still have any of that pie and ice cream left?" Conrad asked hopefully.
"Sure. Do you want a Coke to go with it?" Harry asked immediately.
"I think I'd rather have some coffee."
"Is Sanka okay?"
"Yeah. We don't usually have coffee made at this time of day. After breakfast, just about everyone around here drinks Sanka. But if you really want coffee, I'll make you some. It just might take a few minutes for it to brew."
"You know what? On second thought, I think I'll stick with Coke."
"Okay. I'll be back in a minute."
* * * * *
"So, what are we going to do next?" One of the teenagers asked, drawing Conrad's attention.
"It looks like we've gotten what we came for in Waxell, so after we've finished our dinner, we'll travel northwest." The man said patiently between bites of his food.
"Wait. Did I miss something? Do you all of a sudden know where we're going?" The brown haired boy asked curiously.
"Not exactly, but I have an idea. Try thinking of it as an adventure." The man said with a smile.
"Wow! That sounds like something that's gonna suck!" The darker haired boy declared.
The man smiled at the words, but didn't respond otherwise.
* * * * *
The man and two boys finished the last of their meal and left a few minutes later.
As soon as they were out of sight, Conrad dropped a twenty dollar bill on the counter and hurried to follow.
When he saw the trio crossing the street, walking toward a very nice car, he dashed around the side of the restaurant and got into the car that he had borrowed from the Sheriff's department.
He pulled onto the road just in time to see the gunmetal silver car pull away.
There was a certain art to pursuing someone without letting them know that they were being followed. Although Conrad might not be a master of the art, he was certainly competent.
* * * * *
As with the road into Waxell, Conrad was puzzled by the lack of crossroads. Occasionally there were dirt roads off to one side or the other, but so far as he could tell, no other actual paved road intersected the road he was driving on.
Conrad internally kicked himself for not pulling up a map of the area northwest of Waxell when he had the chance. Although he had his sat-phone in his pocket, he wasn't really in much of a position to be looking at maps.
The light of the setting sun was a distraction as he fought to remain focused on the car in the distance ahead of him. It felt as though if he looked away, even for an instant, that the car would disappear.
Then it happened.
Between one moment and the next, the car just all of a sudden, wasn't there.
As Conrad pulled closer to where the car seemed to have vanished, he slowed significantly.
An orange and white fence was blocking the road ahead of him and beyond that was a wall of trees.
Knowing that he might be making a monumental mistake, Conrad inched forward, expecting to feel the impact as he ran into the fence.
Instead, it was as though he had driven under a blanket and as he continued to move, a whole new landscape revealed itself.
Before him was a huge open field with vehicles of every age and description in more or less orderly rows.
Agent Fastbeck guided his car to the end of one of the rows and stopped in the next available space.
He opened the door and as he stood, he heard a boy's voice calling, "We're over here!"
That snapped Conrad out of his shock and he looked around until he spotted the man and two boys beside their car about twenty feet away, in the next row.
"Where are we?" Conrad asked as he cautiously approached them.
"A parking lot." The man said simply.
"But what was that? There was a fence and trees and then... what happened?"
"You passed a test." The man responded with a smile.
"Wait. Back up. Before you start feeding me a lot of mystical BS, could you please explain what just happened? Because until I understand that, I'm going to have trouble accepting anything new."
"Fair enough." The man said with an easy smile, then he explained, "It was an illusion."
Conrad waited for a moment. When he was reasonably sure that more of an answer was not going to be forthcoming, he cautiously asked, "That's it?"
"Unless you want to get into the nuts and bolts of how it works, yeah. That's it."
"Maybe later. Right now I have some bigger questions that I need to ask."
"I don't know what all your questions are, but I know enough to tell you that we don't have the same goals in being here. You're welcome to come with us while our goals match up, but we'll be going our own ways at some point, so we can each conduct our own business." The man said professionally.
"That actually sounds like a reasonable way to proceed. I'm Agent Fastbeck, from the FBI, but I have a feeling that you already know that." Conrad said slowly.
"Yes. Let's just say that I knew that you'd be coming here before you did." The man said with a smile.
"So this is all a setup?" Conrad asked slowly.
"I don't know if I'd go that far." The man responded cautiously.
"We stopped in Waxell so this guy could accidently run into us and follow us here. I think that's probably the definition of a setup." The dark haired boy said frankly.
The man smiled at Conrad helplessly as if to say 'kids!', but didn't dispute what the boy was saying.
"Since you already know who I am, who might you be?"
"Aloysius Darroch, but my friends and family call me 'D'."
"But who are you?" Conrad asked firmly.
"We need to start walking or we're going to lose the light. We can get to know each other along the way." D said to Conrad, then turned to the two teenagers and said, "Boys, gather your things. We need to be going."
"I didn't bring anything with me." Conrad said slowly, not so much as a complaint as a way to fish for more information.
"I'm sure our hosts will be willing to provide whatever you'll be needing." D said without concern as he opened the trunk of his car.
"Were you guys needing someone to show you the way into town?" A young man asked as he approached from the treeline.
"Yes. We were just getting our things together." D responded.
"I brought a lantern. It'll be dark before we get there." He said as he got nearer to the group.
"Thank you. We brought some flashlights, just in case they were needed." D said as he took a messenger bag and a backpack out of the trunk.
"The lantern should be enough, unless you decide that you want to go off on your own adventure before we get to town." The young man finished with a chuckle.
"I think there's very little chance of that." D stated with a reasonable amount of certainty.
"I'm Rocky, by the way. If you guys are ready, we'll get going." The young man said pleasantly.
"It's nice to meet you, Rocky. I'm D and these are my sons, G and Paul. Our traveling companion is Conrad." D said professionally.
"It's nice to meet all of you. Mason sent me out here so that y'all wouldn't get lost on the way into town. If you stray from the path, there's no telling where you might end up." Rocky said as he started walking and motioned for the others to follow.
"None of us have ever been here before. Is there anything that we should be aware of before we get to town?" D asked cautiously and Conrad was surprised to realize that the strangely professional and in control man might be a little bit nervous.
"There's no weird 'rules' that I can think of, or anything like that. I guess it's pretty much the same as anywhere else. But if you go around talking about how bad it is here and how much better things are on the outside, you probably aren't going to get along well. This is our home and even though it's not perfect, we're still proud of it." Rocky said seriously.
"Boys? Do you think you can manage that?" D asked his sons.
"Yeah. We're not going to talk trash about someone's home." Paul immediately responded.
* * * * *
Although Conrad had been promised answers, as they walked all he seemed to be getting were more questions.
Unable to remain silent any longer, he turned to D and asked, "Where are we going?"
"Brynnhollow." D answered simply.
Conrad could honestly say that the one word answer had absolutely no meaning to him.
"Shouldn't we tell him about... you know, stuff, before we get there?" The dark haired boy, G, asked his father urgently.
"Agent Fastbeck needs to uncover things at his own pace and in his own time. He wouldn't believe anything we told him now and it might make it less likely that he would believe what he uncovers later." D patiently told his son, then turned to Agent Fastbeck and continued, "Sometimes it's better to be shown than told certain things."
"If there's anything that you can tell me now, I'd really appreciate it. I have no idea of where we are or what we're doing." Conrad said seriously.
D glanced in Conrad's direction for a long considering moment, then said, "I don't have any personal knowledge about the whereabouts of Andrea Brynner except to say that I've heard that she is in Brynnhollow. The same people who got you assigned to her case contacted me to let me know that there was a potential threat to Brynnhollow's security."
"So, does that mean that Brynnhollow is some kind of a government project?"
"No. The original Brynnhollow Shire predates the United States government. Of course, that village had to be relocated when they were discovered by the outside world. What I'm doing here is assessing the situation personally and deciding if we're going to have to relocate the populace of Brynnhollow to a safer, more discrete location."
"If this isn't a government project, how did you know about me and my assignment?"
"Have you heard of the Illuminati?"
D laughed at the reaction, then said, "Yes. I'm kidding. This isn't that. But I can't really tell you anything more except that there is what you would think of as a secret society working behind the scenes to ensure that the general public is never aware of certain truths."
"I don't see how Andrea Brynner figures into all of this."
"Her disappearance spawned your investigation, which has the potential to expose the existence of Brynnhollow. So far as I know, that's her only part in the whole scenario."
"Why did you set me up to go with you? If you hadn't stopped in Waxell, I doubt that I ever would have found this place."
"I have my reasons, but they probably won't make sense to you until after you've discovered a few things. If you'll ask me again later, I'll explain whatever you haven't already figured out on your own."
"Hold up a minute! It's getting too dark. I need to light the lantern." Rocky said from ahead of them.
"Boys, why don't you get out your flashlights? You remembered to bring them, didn't you?" D asked his sons as he took a flashlight out of the side pouch of his backpack.
"Yeah. You only told us, like, a dozen times." G answered grumpily.
"Actually, I forgot." Paul admitted shyly.
"We can share mine." G said as he turned his flashlight on.
With the lantern and flashlights lit, Rocky started leading the group deeper into the forest.
* * * * *
"This town that we're going to, am I to understand that they don't have any motorized vehicles there at all?" Conrad finally asked into the silence.
"It'd be better if you asked Rocky about that. Although I've known about this place since I was G's age, I've never been here before, so I don't know a lot of the nitty-gritty details." D explained easily.
Before Conrad could ask, Rocky said, "We sometimes take vehicles into town to pick up or drop off shipments of things, but that's about it. People tend to walk to wherever they need to go. A few of them will ride a horse or a buggy, but that's usually only if they need to travel a great distance or if there's some sort of an emergency."
"Although the actual town of Brynnhollow is a rather small place, there are homesteads and family farms throughout these woods. From what I understand, all of them are collectively considered to be Brynnhollow." D explained.
"I was only told to take you into town. Do you know if you already have someplace to stay the night once we get there?" Rocky asked D curiously.
"Yes. I was in contact with Carn and he assured me that he'd arrange everything for us." D said pleasantly.
"Good. Because Brynnhollow doesn't have anything like a hotel or boarding house." Rocky said frankly.
"Being closed off from the outside world, why would it?" D asked with a smile.
* * * * *
Conrad was surprised when he realized that although they were walking through the forest in the dark, he didn't feel any real tension. He was traveling with others and they had a knowledgeable guide lighting their way.
It had occurred to him that all of what he was experiencing might be some kind of ruse to lead him to conclude that some sort of mystical premise, yet to be revealed, had merit. Yet, if they were going to do that, it would stand to reason that they would be working to convince him of something, even if it were only by staging a few jump scares or mysterious noises to create a sense of dread.
No one seemed the least bit afraid, although the teenagers seemed to be understandably excited by embarking on a new adventure. D was taking it all in stride and didn't appear to be the least bit bothered.
"Conrad, would you mind if I asked you a question?" D asked, breaking the silence between them.
"No. Go ahead."
"What are your long-term plans? Do you already have a career path in mind?"
"Just the same as anyone else, I suppose. I plan to stay with the bureau and eventually I'll probably end up behind a desk, overseeing younger, less experienced agents in the field."
"That sounds like an admirable goal."
"What about you? What do you do?"
"There isn't a simple answer to that. I've been given responsibility for a great many things. I don't have what you would classify as a 'job' so much as a varied group of 'interests' that I maintain and oversee."
"It sounds like you're the guy at the top. When they say 'the buck stops here', they're talking about you."
"In a sense, but in most cases, the buck will appear to stop with someone whom I advise from a discrete distance."
"That sounds mysterious."
"It's simply a matter of seeing that the right hand and the left hand are working together to achieve our goals, whether they're aware of it or not."
"Which explains what I'm doing here."
"As things unfold, it's sometimes necessary to correct the course of events to keep them moving in the preferred direction. That's what you're doing here."
"So, me being here isn't the culmination of some long-term plan that's been years in the making?"
Conrad waited a moment, then finally said, "Getting an explanation out of you looks like it's going to be an uphill battle."
"Tell me about it." Paul lamented sympathetically.
"It's like trying to nail Jello to the wall." G added.
Conrad broke into an unwilling smile, appreciating that he wasn't alone in his frustration.
"All I'm asking is for you to conduct your investigation. Know that when you've reached your conclusions, that I will be available to verify your understanding and possibly answer a few of the more difficult questions for you." D said carefully.
"But there's nothing more that you can tell me now." Conrad guessed.
"So, what am I supposed to do when we get to Sleepy Hollow?"
"Right. What do I do when I get there?"
"When I talked to Carn, I asked that he make arrangements for places for us to stay for the time that we're here. You were included in that request. I assume that since it's so late, that when we arrive we'll be taken to our lodgings for the night. What happens to you beyond that will be entirely out of my hands."
"I'm probably going to need to go back to Waxell tomorrow so that I can get my things from the boarding house. I don't even have a change of clothes with me."
"Just be careful if you try to go back to the parking lot on your own. From what I've been told, this forest can be a little disorienting and you could end up wandering in circles for days."
"So you arranged for us to arrive at sundown so that I wouldn't be able to find my way back to my car."
"If it helps you to believe that, I don't see the harm."
"So you don't confirm or deny the allegation."
"As I see it, you don't have any reason to trust a single word that I say. You're here, traveling with us, due to a lack of better options. Anything I tell you is automatically suspect because it was me who said it."
"I suppose that's true."
"I don't mind that you're asking questions. In fact, that's really what you're here to do. I just feel that it's better if you find your answers and verify your understanding on your own terms."
"Okay, then maybe I should take a step back and verify some of what I already suspect."
"Ask your questions and I'll answer what I can."
"Is Mrs. Greymont working for you? Did you tell her to call for this investigation?"
"No. Her motives are strictly her own."
"I thought so. If she were play acting, I think she would have tried to display at least a pretense of humanity."
"Much of what followed was influenced by me, but her actions were entirely her own."
"Okay. Then what about the reports about Ares Brynner? Were those for real or did you doctor them, giving us some more breadcrumbs to follow?"
"They were real, but we were aware of what they contained and what conclusions they might lead you to."
Conrad nodded, then asked, "What about in Waxell? Did you know that Andrea stopped at the Waxell Diner and talked to Tracy?"
"Yes. It was mentioned that both Ares and Andrea had stopped at the Waxell Diner. I have no idea what was said, but it sounded to me like both of their encounters might have been memorable enough that someone would be able to tell you about them having been there."
"So you gave us enough time to investigate, then stopped in at the Waxell Diner so that Harry would call me and we could accidentally meet?" Conrad asked, sounding fairly certain of it.
"Actually, I had assumed that the waitress who had spoken to Andrea would be working today. But basically, yes. We went there expecting you to be notified of our presence."
"And you arranged for Fred to be recalled to DC?"
"Once you had begun your investigation and initiated contact with your home office, the next step was to separate you."
D considered for a long moment before slowly answering, "You're getting into a subject that I can't discuss. But what I can tell you is that for things to work out, we need for you to investigate on your own terms and come to your own conclusions. It is believed that you have everything you need to do this successfully. Your partner is of the mindset that he would likely impede your investigation or encourage you to discount valid evidence simply due to his own biases."
"It looks like you went to a lot of trouble to include me in whatever this is. You must be expecting for me to do something really important."
"Actually, at this point, it could go a lot of different ways. If one scenario plays out, your participation and point of view might be invaluable. If another plays out, your presence will be inconsequential. It's not so much a case of it being essential for you to be here as it is that we might be grateful to have you here if things end up going a certain way."
"And if things don't end up going that way, my being here won't disrupt your other plans."
"That's our hope. Yes."
"I can't believe this!" The brown haired boy, Paul, said suddenly.
"What's that?" D asked his son curiously.
"Somehow you guys made walking through a spooky forest at night... boring." Paul said frankly.
"Were you hoping to be frightened?" D asked Paul with a grin.
"Well, yeah! Look at where we are! Spooky forest, after dark, on our way to Sleepy Hollow..."
"Whatever. When are we ever going to have a better chance to get a good case of the creeps?"
"I'm sorry if we disrupted your plans. We'll be quiet now. Go ahead. Be afraid."
"I can't." Paul groused. "I couldn't feel safer if I was at home in my own bed."
"Sorry." D said weakly, then asked, "Rocky? Do you know any good ghost stories about Brynnhollow?"
"It's said that the spirits of the dead of Brynnhollow don't move on to an afterlife, but remain here in the forest. Both in life and in death, the people of Brynnhollow are bound to protect the forest, just as it is bound to protect us." Rocky said seriously.
"So everyone who ever died here is still here, wandering in the forest?" G asked cautiously.
"That's what they say." Rocky answered simply.
"Did you ever see any ghosts in the forest?" Paul asked curiously.
"Me? No. I've heard of a few other people who did, but I don't have that gift." Rocky answered simply.
"What did the ghosts do? Did they try to hurt them or scare them?" G asked cautiously.
"No. These are the ghosts of our ancestors. They love us and our town... and our whole way of life. It's like they surround us with their love and concern, shielding us from what might cause us harm." Rocky said, somewhat distantly.
After a moment of walking in silence, Paul finally said, "That's not scary."
"It's kind of beautiful, if you think about it." G confirmed.
"Maybe we'll be able to find something to scare you when we reach Sleepy Hollow." D said to his son with an indulgent smile.
"Brynnhollow." G corrected.
* * * * *
Conversation stopped as they emerged from the forest and into an immense cornfield.
G and Paul shared a look, but made no sound as they walked with the adults between the rows.
Once they were out of the cornfield, Rocky led them to what seemed to be an actual 'road'. It wasn't paved, of course, but it seemed as though it had been well traveled.
"Not far now. By cutting across the forest, we saved ourselves about an hour of walking." Rocky said happily.
"Do you mean that there was a 'road' that we could have followed?" Paul asked curiously.
"Yeah. Of course. How else do you think we could make deliveries or pick up stuff to sell on the outside?" Rocky responded.
"Why didn't we just drive here, then?" G asked reasonably.
"Most of the places that you'll want to be going don't have roads. There's really no parking or anything like that. It'd just be a big nuisance for everyone." Rocky said frankly.
"If you don't do cars, what about horses?" Paul asked curiously.
"Yeah. Just about everyone outside of Brynnhollow proper has a few horses. Some use them for plowing and such, some use them for riding or pulling wagons of goods." Rocky said casually.
"On those roads that you don't have." G said slowly.
"Sometimes. If you have even ground from where you are to where you're going, you don't need a road." Rocky told him patiently.
"I think, by definition, that is a road." G challenged.
"We shouldn't be unnecessarily combative with our host." D reminded his son.
"Okay." G relented.
"It sounds like your son has a finely tuned 'crap detector'. Take it from someone who knows, that can be a very useful skill to have." Conrad told D with a smile.
"Yes. But another important skill is knowing when to keep one's mouth shut. Once you've detected someone's bullshit, it's often better to let them dig their own grave than to call them out on it immediately." D said, directing his statement mostly toward the boys.
"I suppose that you're right about that." Conrad admitted, then turned to the boys and said, "But don't confuse being quiet with not being inquisitive. Keep questioning and looking for inconsistencies. It can end up being one of the most valuable tools in your toolbox."
"Good advice." D agreed.
"There's Brynnhollow." Rocky said as they came to the top of a rise.
"Why's it so dark?" Paul asked as he squinted to get a better view.
"It's not dark. I can see lights on all over the place." Rocky said with confusion at the question.
"But don't you have any street lights?" Paul asked curiously.
"We have them. But we only light them on special occasions, when we know there's going to be a lot of people out and about." Rocky said seriously.
"Do you have electricity?" Paul reluctantly asked.
"We do here in town, although most people don't use it for much more than lighting. Some people outside of town have generators, but from what I hear, most of them used them for a month or two, then decided that it wasn't worth the bother." Rocky said frankly.
"So you don't have internet?" Paul asked in horror.
"What? Oh, yeah. Mason told me about that. No. From what Mason said, we've got something close, but it's not exactly the same." Rocky said seriously.
"What's that?" Paul asked curiously.
"You call the electronic thing you have, 'the internet', so I guess you might call what we have 'the outernet'. Around here, we call it getting off your ass and talking to people, face-to-face." Rocky said with a grin, then continued, "You still get to share things with your friends, except with our way you get to look them in the eye when you do it."
Both boys were stunned as D and Conrad burst into laughter.
Rocky smiled with accomplishment at the boys' flustered states.
* * * * *
"Here we are. Do you know where you need to go?" Rocky asked D curiously.
"If you could direct me to Carn's house, that should be all we'll need." D said with a smile.
"Carn doesn't live here in town, but if you're supposed to meet with him, I'm betting that he'll be in his office. That's right over this way." Rocky said as he led them down the street.
* * * * *
When they stepped onto the wooden plank 'sidewalk' in front of one of the larger buildings, Rocky walked directly to the front door and opened it without knocking.
D and the boys followed Rocky inside with Conrad bringing up the rear.
"Carn? Are you here? I brought the guys you were expecting."
"You made good time." A fortyish looking man said as he walked out of one of the inner rooms.
"They got there before I did." Rocky quickly informed him.
"Oh? I hope you didn't have to wait for too long." Carn said with concern, looking mostly between D and Agent Fastbeck for their reactions.
"Not at all. We were just getting out of our cars when Rocky arrived." D assured him.
"Good. Welcome to Brynnhollow. My name is Carlton Brynnford, everyone calls me Carn. I'm one of the elders of the community. The others wanted to be here to meet you, but I asked them to wait until tomorrow to give you a chance to settle in. I hope that's alright." Carn finished with a look of concern.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Carn. I'm Aloysius Darroch, you may call me D if you like. These are my sons G and Paul. And of course this is Agent Fastbeck from the FBI." D said diplomatically.
"A pleasure to meet all of you." Carn said in a reasonably credible friendly voice, but Conrad could detect a hint of anxiety in his eyes.
"If it were just me, I'd probably prefer to meet with everyone tonight and get right down to business. But I'm sure that my companions will appreciate the chance to get a good night of sleep before embarking on any new adventures." D finished with a smile.
"I hope that you're not too tired. Ares suggested that your sons might enjoy having a sleepover with his sons." Carn said with concern.
"Ares Brynner?" Conrad asked quickly.
"Yes. From what little Mr. Darroch... excuse me, D told me, I anticipated that you might welcome the opportunity to speak with Ares. If you have no objection, you'll be staying at his house tonight."
"Will Andrea be there?"
"Not that I know of, but you can ask Ares about that when he gets here."
"Before I forget to ask, what time should I be here to meet with the other elders tomorrow?" D asked carefully.
"Sometime in the morning, I suppose. We're not in the habit of scheduling things too tightly." Carn explained.
"Well, that's a little different from what I'm used to."
The sound of the door opening drew their attention, then a timid voice asked, "Are they here already?"
"They arrived just a few minutes ago. Come in, Ares." Carn said with a smile, that seemed to Conrad to be a little bit forced.
"Thank you." Ares said as he stepped fully into the room, then added, "I hope I didn't keep you waiting too long."
"Not at all. We were just discussing plans for tomorrow." D said pleasantly, then continued, "I'm D, these are my sons G and Paul, and this gentleman is Agent Fastbeck from the FBI."
"Conrad." Agent Fastbeck quickly supplied.
"FBI?" Ares asked cautiously.
"Didn't I mention that when I spoke to you earlier?" Carn asked slowly.
"No. You didn't." Ares said to Carn, then turned to Agent Fastbeck and asked, "Are you here to arrest me?"
"Actually, I'm here looking for your wife. Do you happen to know where she is?"
"Not really. We've separated and she lives on her own now. From what I know of it, she tends to work at night, so there's no easy way to contact her at the moment. But if you like, I can take you over to her house in the morning. Most likely she'll be there."
"It looks like you'll have time to get some sleep before you have to get back to work." D said to Conrad with a smile.
"It does look that way."
"Ares, did you leave your sons at home by themselves?" Carn asked curiously.
"No. Jim and Tan are there and I trust Jim to keep order in my absence. But I should be getting back. I hate to imagine what they might get up to if they're left unsupervised for too long."
"If Carn doesn't have anything else for us, then I suppose we should be on our way." D said with a questioning glance at Carn.
"No. I just wanted to welcome you to town personally and see that you were satisfied with your accommodations. Have a good evening."
"You, too. I'll see you in the morning." D said pleasantly, then looked to Ares, indicating that he was ready to go.
* * * * *
As they stepped out the door, Ares stopped to pick up a lantern, which was lit with a low flame. After adjusting the flame higher, he started leading the way out of town, opposite the way that they had entered from.
"Mr. Brynner, would you mind if I asked you some questions?" Agent Fastbeck asked cautiously.
"Considering what questions I think you're going to ask me, I probably will mind a little bit. But go ahead and ask them anyway." Ares said reluctantly.
"What happened twenty years ago in Waxell?" Conrad asked in a voice that sounded to be more curiosity than official business.
"I moved to Waxell to start a new life..."
"From where?" Conrad interrupted.
"Here. I was born here in Brynnhollow."
"According to what I've been able to find, there's no official record of your existence before you went to Waxell."
"Very few people in Brynnhollow officially exist."
"Why is that?"
Ares looked to D for guidance.
"I brought Agent Fastbeck here so that he could uncover the truth." D said simply.
Ares looked at D anxiously for a moment before finally turning back to Conrad and saying, "The people of Brynnhollow have a condition which makes it difficult for us to live away from here."
"What condition?" Conrad asked carefully.
"There's no way that you're going to believe me if I tell you."
After another uncertain glance at D, Ares finally said, "We're cursed."
"Of course you are."
"See? I told you that you wouldn't believe it."
"Hold on. Give me a chance. You haven't really told me anything. What kind of a curse are we talking about? Physical deformities? Mental deficiencies?"
"What are you trying to say about us?"
"No, no! I'm not suggesting anything like that. I can just easily imagine environmental factors that could cause such things and make a group of people feel that they had been cursed."
"If you're planning to show him, it might be best to get it out of the way before we reach your house." D quietly suggested.
"I don't really want to do it at all, but I suppose that it will be best if we do it when the boys aren't around."
"Would you hold this?" Ares asked as he offered the lantern to Paul.
"Sure." Paul said as he accepted it.
"Agent Conrad..." Ares began to say.
"Right. Sorry. Agent Fastbeck, if you want the family history, I suggest that you talk to my grandfather. He knows a lot more about it than I do. What I can tell you is that for over a thousand years our bloodline has been cursed, causing the men to become all manner of transformed creatures."
"In my case, I transform into a Karasu Tengu. That's a..."
"Human-crow hybrid." Conrad interrupted.
Ares looked at him with surprise, then cautiously said, "You're the first person other than Dark who already knew that."
"There's a reason Conrad was chosen to be here." D said with a smile.
"Well... good! I guess I'll just show you then." Ares said anxiously.
When no one objected, Ares let go of his human form and seemed to disappear into his clothing.
There was a long moment of silence as Conrad stared wide eyed at where Ares had been standing, then waited as a large raven worked its way out of the clothes.
"Nice!" Paul said with a grand smile.
"He has good control." G said slowly.
"What just happened?" Conrad asked, then went silent again as he saw the raven begin to grow.
"You make that look easy." Paul said with wonder.
"Whoa! Nice half-form." G said with appreciation.
"Karasu Tengu." Conrad whispered in amazement as he looked at the black bird-man standing before him.
"As I was saying before, the men of Brynnhollow are each cursed with having an animal aspect that we are unable to fully control." Ares explained.
"How do you mean?"
"If I'm lucky, I can go a full day without transforming. But there have been a few days when I've had to change three or four times. In the outside world, I'd be in constant danger of revealing what I really am."
"What are you?"
"A cursed being."
"A curse, like from a witch?"
"Before you go any further, I think that we should probably define some terms." D interrupted.
"Good idea. While you're doing that, I'm going to change." Ares said as he reached down to gather his clothes.
Right before Conrad's disbelieving eyes, Ares transformed back to his human form.
"A witch..." D said to draw Conrad's attention away from the naked man that he was staring at.
"Yes?" Conrad said as he looked at D.
"In conventional thinking, a witch is a regular person, usually a woman, who has acquired magical powers either through a contract with the devil or with the aid of mystical ancient tomes of forbidden knowledge." D said instructively.
"Yeah." Conrad absently agreed as he glanced at Ares, who was still in the process of dressing himself.
"When we talk about witches, we're referring to a species of people with inherited abilities that are different than those of average, mundane men." D said carefully.
"A couple thousand years ago, there were several tribes. Some of them died out, but a few of them still survive today."
"So, you're saying that Ares isn't human?"
"I suppose that depends on how you define human. I prefer to believe that we're all different varieties of humanity. But if you're asking if Ares is the same species as you are, I'd guess that the answer is 'no'."
"Hold on. Are you saying that Ares is a witch?" Conrad asked weakly, sounding like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
"No. He's saying that I'm a member of the Brynn bloodline that was cursed by a witch over a thousand years ago." Ares said as he officially rejoined the group.
"That's not entirely true." D gently corrected.
"What do you mean?" Ares asked cautiously.
"The curse was bestowed by a witch. You're right about that part. But for a curse to work long term, it needs something to fuel it. A curse on a mundane person will usually last for a standard lifetime at most... or kill them. A curse placed on a witch can be fueled by their innate magic and last for countless generations." D said seriously.
"So Ares is a witch, who was cursed by a witch?" Paul asked slowly, trying to verify his understanding.
"Given the evidence at hand, I'd say that that's a reasonable conclusion. I don't know enough of the particulars to say for certain." D somewhat confirmed.
"If Ares is a witch, does that mean that he can do magic?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Let's keep moving. We'll talk along the way." Ares said as he held out his hand to Paul, offering to carry the lantern again.
"Good idea." D said to Ares, then he turned to Conrad and continued, "As far as Ares doing magic, I'd say that it's possible but it's also possible that the terms of the curse might prevent him from accessing his full magical abilities... except for his ability to transform. That seems to be tied into the curse."
"I've never been able to do magic, but I know people who can. Even though I've never thought of myself as a 'witch', what you said makes sense. I think you may be right." Ares said frankly.
* * * * *
After a few minutes of walking, Conrad slowly asked, "So, what you're telling me is that Brynnhollow is a community of witches that is kept hidden from the outside world?"
"Cursed witches, but yes. That's essentially true." D confirmed.
"Are there other witches outside of Brynnhollow?"
"Are they in other secret communities like this one?"
"I know of at least one other secret community, but the majority of witches live amongst the general public, leading fairly normal lives."
"Wouldn't they be in constant danger of being discovered?" Ares asked cautiously.
"An uncursed witch has full access to their powers and can choose to go through their entire life without ever using any magic at all." D answered simply.
"How many are there?" Conrad asked slowly.
"Who's to say? I know about some of the different witch communities, all around the world, but since it's necessary for us to hide ourselves, I think it would be impossible for us to take a census."
"Us? Are you a witch too?"
"Yes. But I don't have the gift of animal transformation like Ares does. My abilities are somewhat different."
"Different witches have different specialties. Some of us can do the same things, but mostly we each have our own gifts." Paul interjected.
"You're a witch too?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Well, half. That's kind of a long story." Paul said uncomfortably.
"Which we'll save for some other time." D said in no uncertain terms.
Paul immediately nodded his agreement.
"Do you want to see some more magic? I can change, too!" G asked from Paul's side.
"Let's do that later. I think Agent Fastbeck has enough to digest before he'll be ready for more." D said with a smile at his son.
"Plus, if you change, you'll probably give him nightmares." Paul said teasingly.
"Look who's talking." G said with a grin.
"When we get to my house, you guys might want to let the boys there know that you already know that they can transform. I told them that I'd be bringing outsiders home, so they're going to try to keep their abilities hidden from you." Ares told the boys as they continued to walk.
"Can they just transform, or can they do other magic, too?" Paul asked curiously.
"Jim can conjure fire, but I think that's the only magical ability that any of them have demonstrated." Ares said as he cast his mind back to recall any indication that his sons might be able to do magic.
"I can do fire. I'll have to compare spells with him." Paul said happily.
"As far as I know, he doesn't use a spell, he just sort of wants it and it happens." Ares said slowly, then added, "In fact, when he's excited, he sometimes gets it even when he doesn't really want it."
"Certain magics can be hardwired, sort of like survival instincts. Paul's ability is something like that. When he gets angry or afraid, he has access to his ability without using a formal spell." D said thoughtfully.
"Formal spell? So you do magic from spellbooks, just like in the stories?" Conrad asked curiously.
"It depends on the witch and the magic being used. Certain magics don't lend themselves well to memorization. Something about the magic requires that the spells be written down and read aloud. Other spells can be memorized and you may not even have to speak the words." D said instructively.
"Here!" Paul said as he walked up beside Conrad and held out his hand, palm up.
As Conrad watched, a small ball of flame suddenly came into being.
"Be careful with that. Remember where we are." D warned.
"I was just showing Agent Fastbeck an example of what you were saying." Paul said as he closed his hand and extinguished the flame.
"Still, we're guests here. Burning down their home would not be a proper way of expressing our gratitude for their hospitality." D said with a look askance at Paul.
"Got it." Paul said as he let his steps lag so that he could fall in beside G.
"So, besides changing into animals and creating fire, what else can witches do?" Conrad asked carefully, directing his question mostly toward D.
"Just about what you'd expect from the stories that you've heard. Although, as G was saying, not every witch is capable of casting every spell. We all have our specialties where our magic is stronger and other specialties where we have no talent at all." D said frankly.
"But what about flying on brooms..." Conrad began to ask when he was interrupted by Paul and G's raucous laughter.
"Boys! Behave!" D gently scolded.
"What did I say?" Conrad asked slowly, somehow realizing that he was the butt of some joke that he wasn't aware of.
"That's sort of an in-joke with witches. The whole flying on brooms thing allegedly came about when a group of so-called 'witches' used some type of hallucinogenic salve in concert with broom handles as... well, sexual aids. The resulting 'flight' apparently was the stuff of legends, but likely not magical in any way." D said uncomfortably.
Conrad glanced behind them to see the boys valiantly trying not to laugh aloud, not only at the story, but also at D's uncomfortable telling of it.
"So you can't fly?" Conrad finally asked.
"Me personally? No. There are others who can, whether by means of an animal transformation or by levitation. Alternatively, some can travel short distances with teleportation." D said seriously.
"I can fly." Ares said from slightly ahead of them.
"Of course. In your bird form I can see how that could work." Conrad said honestly.
"Just because something makes logical sense in the mundane world, doesn't necessarily mean that the same will follow when magic is involved." D said frankly.
"For example?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Since we were talking about flying, I can think of a circumstance where the height, weight and wingspan of a transformed creature would seemingly make it impossible for the creature to be able to fly. But with the aid of magic, it still does." D said seriously.
"Magic... I think that's the most difficult part of all of this for me to accept. Although I can see the results of it when you demonstrate it for me, I can't help but think that there must be some kind of scientific explanation." Conrad said thoughtfully.
"There very well may be, but so far as I know, no one has been able to explain it yet." D said simply.
"So, you mentioned other... 'tribes'. Are there more besides regular... people and witches?" Conrad asked slowly.
"Yes. Although I can't really tell you much about them. Witches are especially lucky because we're physically the same as mundane humans. At least, you can't tell us apart by sight. The others have to remain hidden at all times. I don't really have any contact with or first-hand information about other tribes. I only know that they exist... or have existed. I suppose that if you're really interested in where and what they are, you might do some research in the supermarket tabloids." D finished with a shrug.
They walked for a moment in silence, before Conrad finally said, "I'm having less trouble accepting that than I probably should."
D smiled at the comment, then said, "One of the reasons that you were chosen to come here is your willingness to at least entertain non-standard notions."
"We're almost there. Before we go in I should tell you that including your boys, we're going to have six teenagers staying here tonight. If you think that's going to be too much, I can take one or both of you over to my grandfather's house. I'm sure that he would appreciate the company and that it will be much quieter there." Ares said cautiously.
"It shouldn't be any problem for me." D said easily.
"Are you sure that you'll have enough room for all of us?" Conrad asked hesitantly.
"That's no problem. The boys are going to camp out in the living room. That will leave their bedrooms free for the two of you. I just wanted to ask because with six boys, it might get a little bit loud." Ares said frankly.
"I think that I'll be okay." Conrad assured him.
"Good. Because we're here." Ares said with a smile as he gestured toward the log cabin coming into view ahead of them.
* * * * *
A small, oddly shaped striped dog with a long tail ran up to the group as they approached and ran around them excitedly.
"Cain, go let the others know that we're here." Ares said with a smile.
The dog yipped once, then dashed away, back toward the house.
"What was that?" Conrad asked curiously.
"My son, Cain." Ares said simply.
"I thought your sons were named Christopher and David." Conrad said slowly.
"They were. Now they're Cain and Deimos." Ares said simply.
"Why did they change their names?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Ask them about it sometime. I'm sure they'll be happy to tell you all about it." Ares said with a smile.
* * * * *
As the group approached the door to the cabin, four boys piled out to greet them.
"Boys, I'd like for you to meet D, his sons, G and Paul and Agent Fastbeck from the FBI." Ares told the group.
"FBI?" The oldest of the boys asked anxiously.
"Don't worry, Jim. He was invited." Ares assured him.
"We've told Agent Fastbeck about witches and he's seen a transformation, so you don't have to hide anything from him." D told the boys seriously.
"Except within the constraints of polite society." Ares added.
"He means that you shouldn't let your junk hang out." Deimos translated for his companions.
"Yes. That's what I mean." Ares said with amusement, then turned to his guests and said, "I'm sure that you must be hungry after your long journey. If you want to go into the living room, I'll fix us something to eat."
"Nachos?!" One of the twins asked hopefully.
"I'll see if I have what I need in store." Ares chuckled.
"Where can I put this?" D asked as he held up his messenger bag.
"Deimos, D is going to be using your room while he's staying with us. Would you show him the way?" Ares asked hopefully.
"Yeah! Come on! It's right back here." Deimos said happily.
"I guess you're going to stay in my room, Agent Fastbeck. I'll show you where it is." Cain immediately volunteered.
"Conrad, this is my son, Cain." Ares said as Cain tried to get Agent Fastbeck to follow him.
Conrad was more than a little overwhelmed and followed along willingly as Cain led the way toward the back of the house.
* * * * *
After a moment to familiarize himself with the bedroom and a stop at the bathroom, Conrad walked back into the living room in time to hear Ares say, "Boys! I have everything laid out for you. Go into the kitchen and make your nachos."
The six boys filed past Conrad on their way to the kitchen with grand smiles of anticipation.
"How are you doing, Conrad?" D asked into the suddenly quiet living room.
"Honestly? It's kind of a lot to take in."
"I can understand that. But tell me, how much of this would you have believed if I had told you in the outside world?"
"Not a single word of it."
"And what if I'd given you some sort of an amazing demonstration to prove that what I was telling you was true?"
"I'd think that it was some kind of a trick... a part of me still believes that it is."
"That's natural, I suppose." D said casually, then thoughtfully added, "If you were someone who would blindly accept whatever he was told, you'd be of no use to me. The fact that you're skeptical and curious is part of why you're here."
"I have the feeling that you're not going to tell me the rest of the reason." Conrad said with a smile.
"Not yet." D confirmed. "Once you've had a chance to talk with Ares and Andrea and resolve all of that, we'll talk again and I'll fill in the blanks as much as I can."
"I feel like I should be doing something more right now."
"As far as I can see, there's nothing more that you can do at the moment. But maybe taking some time to get to know Ares and his sons will give you some unexpected insights into the case."
"Maybe." Conrad conceded, then stood as he said, "But I need to check in with the bureau and my partner. I probably should have done that before now."
"You won't be able to." D said simply.
"It's okay. I have a sat-phone." Conrad assured him as he held it up as evidence.
"That won't work here. There's a magical barrier that protects this place from satellite surveillance and disrupts any type of satellite communication." D said frankly.
"So you can use magic to disrupt technology?" Conrad asked curiously as he tried to get his phone to establish contact.
"Me, personally? No. But I have some acquaintances who call themselves 'techno-mages' who have developed a working knowledge of magic as it relates to electronics. Honestly, I don't know how all of that works, I just trust that it does."
"And you asked these 'techno-mages' to protect Brynnhollow?" Conrad speculated as he looked at his phone, still finding no connection.
"Not me. One of the 'keepers' before me did that. I inherited what they had already done."
"'Keepers'?" Conrad asked as he reset the phone and tried again.
"It's just like it sounds. We're entrusted with protecting places like Brynnhollow as well as making sure that the mundane population doesn't find proof of our existence."
"It sounds like a big job." Conrad said as he noticed that his phone once again couldn't connect.
"It is. But fortunately we have a support network in place that oversees most of it without my intervention. It's only when something outside of the norm happens that I have to step in and sort things out personally."
"Like the disappearance of Andrea Brynner?" Conrad asked as he turned off his phone and put it back into his pocket.
"That, in itself, wouldn't warrant my involvement. But there are other things in motion and, unless I miss my guess, I should be here to see how they play out."
"And me being here is one of your contingency plans." Conrad guessed.
"And what happens if I decide not to go along with whatever you have planned for me?"
"We'll face that when the time comes. But I have a feeling that once you understand the stakes and the forces at play, that you'll make the right decision."
* * * * *
"The food is heating in the oven. I didn't think that you'd be interested in having nachos." Ares said as he walked into the living room.
"Thank you." D said with a grateful smile.
Conrad nodded his agreement as well as his thanks.
"So, Agent Fastbeck, do you have any questions for me that I might be able to answer while dinner's heating?" Ares asked curiously.
"There is one inconsistency that I wanted to ask you about. You said that the people from Brynnhollow can't live away from here due to the likelihood that they might be discovered. But by all indications, you lived away from here for nearly twenty years."
"For some reason, my curse didn't become active when I reached puberty. I lived a relatively normal life until my sons turned twelve years old, then all our curses became active. That's also when Andrea fell ill. That's how the curse affects women who marry men from Brynnhollow."
"So, does that have something to do with why you abandoned her the way that you did?"
"I brought the boys here, so that they could learn to deal with the curse in a safe place. Then, after getting something to help Andrea with her illness, I went back to give it to her. But one of the conditions of the cure was that if she ever saw me or the boys again, she would die."
"You left her so that she could continue to live?"
"Yes. Like the old saying goes, sometimes when you love someone, you have to let them go."
"But she came back to you."
"She found me. There's a difference."
"You mentioned before that you had separated. I'm sorry that things didn't work out for you."
"There's no reason for you to be sorry. I'm not. Over the course of the past year, we've both moved on with our lives. I think that both of us cherish what we had and remember it fondly, but if we tried to resurrect something that's obviously over, all we'd accomplish is corrupting the memory of what we once had."
"If you both accept that it's over, then what is Andrea still doing here?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Maybe she's staying for the boys." Ares said uncertainly, then continued, "You'd really have to ask her about that."
"I'll be sure to."
"Can we go outside?" Cain asked as he rushed into the living room.
"There's no way you could have eaten your nachos that quickly." Ares said slowly.
"It wasn't that much. But they were good. Thanks." Cain said in a rush, then asked again, "Can we go outside?"
"What do you think that you'll be doing outside?"
"We wanna show Paul and G our transformations! You've always said that since we live so far away from anyone else that we can."
"Stay close to the house. And tell Jim to be careful of his fire."
"Paul said that he's going to show Jim some fire tricks. But we'll be careful. I promise."
"Okay. But be sure to clean up your dishes before you go."
"The guys are doing that right now." Cain said with accomplishment, then thought to add, "And it smells like what you're cooking in the oven is almost ready."
"Thank you, Cain. We'll probably be out to join you once we've eaten." Ares said with a smile at his son.
"Maybe we can get Uncle Dark to come over too! I bet Paul and G would like to see his transformation."
"No. He's very busy right now. He has to prepare for the Samhain celebration on Monday."
"Okay. Thanks again." Cain said before dashing back into the kitchen.
A long moment of silence fell over the living room before Ares finally said, "It's not too late, if either of you wants to stay at my grandfather's house tonight."
"I think it's nice to see the boys so happy and energetic. Mine are usually more restrained." D said frankly.
Ares nodded his acceptance, then looked at Conrad inquisitively.
"I'm having trouble believing a lot of what I've seen since I've been here. I think being here with your family might be the best way to resolve that."
"You had your chance." Ares said with a smile, then got up from his chair and walked to the kitchen.
* * * * *
As they sat down to the late dinner that Ares had prepared, both D and Agent Fastbeck appreciated the food, as well as the peace and quiet that went along with it.
"I noticed that you don't have electricity. Is that a choice that you made or is it just not possible here?" Agent Fastbeck asked curiously.
"If electricity were available to us like it is in the outside world, I'd probably have it. But I grew up this way, so using gas, wood and kerosene is just natural for me. If anyone is aggrieved by the situation, it would be my sons."
"They don't appear to be suffering too badly."
"Honestly, they're so much more physically active and social that it's hard to recognize them as being the same kids. They weren't noticeably antisocial or sedentary before, but the difference is like day and night."
"From what little I've seen of them, I think that your sons are likely to be a good influence on mine. G especially, likes to vegetate in front of the television and binge watch anime. Paul seems accustomed to standing apart from things until he's forced to react. He's not one to take the initiative, even though he's probably the emotionally stronger of the two."
"Well, maybe helping Jim learn to use and control his fire will help to ease Paul out of his shell a little bit." Ares said speculatively.
"Perhaps. I've been concerned about him, but felt that it was best to allow him to work things out on his own."
"That's probably the best thing we can do for our children. If we're always interfering in their lives, they'll never learn to deal with the world. They'll always be expecting us to step in and bail them out."
"It may be the best thing, but it can also be the hardest thing. I don't want to see them get hurt."
"We do our best, but if we keep them wrapped in cotton wool, we're doing them no favors."
"Dad! Dad! You gotta come see! Paul's transformation is the coolest thing EVER!" Cain called breathlessly as he ran into the dining room.
Conrad's eyes went wide at the sight of the boy who seemed to be half human and half dog... and half tiger, in an odd sort of way.
Before anyone could respond or react, Cain was off like a shot, back out the door.
Ares looked around the table before asking, "Gentlemen? Would you be interested in going to see what has Cain so excited?"
"I know that Paul occasionally transforms at school, as part of his studies, but I haven't seen him do it since last Halloween. I think I'd like to see it again." D said as he stood.
"I have to admit that I'm intrigued." Ares admitted, then looked to Agent Fastbeck and asked, "Are you interested?"
"Are you kidding? I'm blown away by the dog-cat-boy thing that just ran in here. There's no way I'm going to miss out on whatever excited him."
Ares and D shared a smile at his reaction as the adults walked as a group out of the dining room.
* * * * *
"I thought you could only transform into animals." Conrad whispered as he stared wide eyed at the nearly seven foot tall horned demonic being standing before him.
"Just do me a favor and don't judge a book by its cover, okay? I'm not going to try and hurt you or steal your soul or anything." Paul said in a surprisingly deep voice.
"Whatever you say." Conrad said distantly as he continued to stare.
"That's really amazing. I don't think anyone in Brynnhollow can do a transformation like that." Ares said appreciatively.
"I think that all of your magical styles and transformative abilities are relatively the same because the people of Brynnhollow have been isolated for so many generations and are all derived from the same genetic stock." D said speculatively.
"G says that in their school, they get to learn about magic and the history of witches and all kinds of stuff that regular people never get to learn about." A small boy said frankly.
Conrad was able to pry his gaze away from Paul to look at the boy and was surprised to see that he had small horns on his forehead and seemed to have goat legs.
"D and Conrad, I don't think you were introduced to Tannis, he's Jim's younger brother." Ares said as he indicated the young faun.
"What G told you is true. There are enough witches in our community that we were able to make a school specifically suited to their needs." D said with a smile.
"I wish we had something like that here." Tannis said sincerely.
"Since you don't have any outsiders here, you should be able to teach whatever you like in your public schools." D said frankly.
"We don't have public schools. The different family compounds around the area each see to the education of their children in their own ways. Travel alone would make having one central school location a nearly impossible burden for the parents." Ares explained.
"Perhaps I could arrange for a teacher or a small group of them to travel in a circuit, teaching at different locations each day. I can imagine that it would be the sort of experience that might be invigorating, for new teachers especially, and allow the children to be given up-to-date knowledge." D said thoughtfully.
"But don't you have to keep this place a secret?" Conrad asked curiously.
"We're witches. We have secrets that we have to keep every day of our lives." D said frankly.
Conrad stared wide eyed at the young centaur that approached them.
"Look at what Paul showed me how to do!" Jim said happily.
Conrad watched as Jim made a complicated hand gesture... and nothing happened.
"Say the words aloud if you can't project them clearly in your mind." Paul said instructively.
"Yeah. I can do it, it's just harder when someone's watching." Jim said, then stopped and took in a long slow breath.
Conrad continued to watch, not wanting to do anything to disrupt the excited boy's minuscule thread of concentration.
Jim once again did the hand gestures. This time the action resulted in a perfectly formed ball of fire resting in the palm of his hand.
"You ready?" Jim asked Paul happily.
"Go ahead." Paul said as he took a few steps back and Conrad noticed his hooves.
Jim hurled the fireball at Paul, who caught it easily with one hand.
Paul tossed the fireball back to Jim and a game of 'catch' ensued.
Conrad watched silently as the centaur and the 'demon' tossed the fireball back and forth between them.
"Agent Conrad..." G began to say.
"Fastbeck." Conrad corrected automatically.
"Right. Is all of this too much for you, or do you think that you can handle a little more?" G asked curiously.
"I can't honestly tell you right now. I'm a little bit overwhelmed." Conrad said frankly.
"Let me know when you're whelmed again, because I've got something really great to show you." G said excitedly.
"I think I'll be alright. Go ahead." Conrad assured him.
"Demi?" G called out.
"I'm ready." One of Ares son's said. He appeared to be dressed only in a loincloth.
As Agent Fastbeck watched, Deimos began to transform and became some sort of a humanoid-reptilian monster.
"I think everyone's changed, so it's time for me to do my thing." G said happily.
Conrad watched G carefully and saw the transformation sweep over him. The average, sweet-looking boy that had been standing before him was suddenly replaced by a smirking demented-looking clown.
G raised his hands in a lifting gesture, then Conrad noticed that all around them, things seemed to be shifting to a new reality. The ground became polished stone, walls suddenly appeared and within a few seconds they were in a monstrous meeting hall complete with pillars and statues.
"G's gift is illusion." D said from Conrad's side, startling him.
"So none of this is real?" Conrad asked disbelievingly.
"No. It's a magical construct from G's imagination." D said seriously, then pointed at one of the pillars and continued, "Do you see how detailed the ivy is, growing up the pillar? That's what G's learning now, how to embed high levels of detail into his illusions."
The game of catch had stopped and everyone seemed to be just as much in awe of G's illusion as Conrad was.
"The fire is warm." Cain said as he stood before one of many fire pits around the room.
"Only because you expect it to be." G said frankly as he looked over his handiwork.
Conrad thought for a moment, then asked D, "Is this like the illusion back at the parking lot?"
"I assume that it is." D said simply, then explained, "It's hoped that when G gets older and more powerful in his magic, that he'll be able to make illusions that will be permanent. It appears that someone with that ability made the illusion at the parking lot and probably tied it into the protection spell that's on the entire Brynnhollow forest.
"Dad, is it okay if I fly for a little bit? I know that I can't carry anyone as big as G or Paul, but I still want to show them." Deimos asked Ares hopefully.
"I think that you'll have to wait for the illusion to end, or no one will be able to see you." Ares said simply.
G made a dramatic gesture, lowering his hands, and the entire illusion that he had created dissolved into nothingness.
Conrad looked around to verify what he was seeing when a movement in the grass drew his attention.
It took a moment for it to register in the dim lantern light, but as soon as he understood what he was seeing, he called out, "Snake!"
Agent Fastbeck had his gun in his hand faster than he would have thought possible, his years of training overriding his conscious thought.
"He's a friend!" Ares hurried to explain.
"Put that away." D said in a scolding tone.
Conrad kept his gun drawn and trained on the enormous pale snake as it approached Ares, then began to transform.
It wasn't so much that he lowered the gun as his arms went slack when he saw the upper portion of the snake take human form.
"Uncle Dark!" Cain said happily.
"What are you doing here? I thought that you expected to be busy today." Ares asked curiously, then pulled the snake-man into his arms and gave him a full, deep kiss.
There was a long moment of silence, but when the pair separated, Dark finally answered, "Actually, I was even busier than I expected. That's why I'm here. I was hoping that I might be able to borrow one or both of your sons tomorrow. My stock is nearly depleted and I'm going to need someone to mind the counter while I make more."
"I had been planning on the boys helping my grandfather but..." Ares trailed off, then looked to D and asked, "Do you think your boys would mind helping us out for the next few days?"
"I don't know. You might ask them." D said frankly.
"Boys! Come over here. We have some business to discuss." Ares called out.
Conrad was once again amazed by the sight of the boys. The demon, centaur, dragon, faun, dog-cat-boy thing and the clown gathered around to see what Ares had to say.
"Dark is going to need some help at the mask shop tomorrow, but I already promised that someone would help your Grandpa Lowell." Ares said seriously.
"Dad said that we could come over here tonight as long as we promised to help him tomorrow." Jim said regretfully.
"Is it okay if we help?" Paul asked his father cautiously.
"That's up to you. I had been planning on you tagging along with me, but this sounds like it might end up being more interesting." D said honestly.
"How does this sound?" Ares asked, drawing all attention back to him. "Cain knows the way, he can take G over to my grandfather's house first thing in the morning so that they can help him load up and go into Brynnhollow. Paul and Deimos can go to Dark's shop and help customers while Dark focuses on making more masks."
"Before you say yes, Grandpa Lowell thinks that the sun is a lazy slob for waiting until sunrise to wake up. We'll have to be there really early." Cain warned.
"I think I can handle it." G said with his exaggerated 'clown' smirk reinforcing his amusement.
"What about you guys?" Ares asked, directing his question toward Deimos and Paul.
"Yeah. Sounds like fun." Paul said easily.
"Good. I think the plan is for us to walk into town so that D can attend a meeting, then Agent Conrad and I are going to go to Andrea's house."
"Agent Fastbeck." Conrad quietly corrected.
"Agent?" Dark asked curiously.
"FBI." Ares confirmed.
"It's okay, Uncle Dark. We invited him. He's supposed to be here." Cain said reassuringly.
Dark looked anxiously at Agent Fastbeck, then unwillingly down at the gun which was still clutched in his hand.
"Dark, would you have time for a drink before you have to head back? I'm guessing that you're going to be up most of the night making more masks." Ares asked pleasantly.
"I haven't had a chance to stop and breathe since this morning. A drink sounds wonderful." Dark said gratefully.
"Then let's head inside." Ares said with a smile.
"Can we stay out a little while longer?" Deimos asked hopefully.
"Half an hour." Ares said firmly, then looked toward Paul and Jim and continued, "Be careful of the fire."
"We will." Paul promised.
Ares nodded, then led the adults toward the house.
* * * * *
"I'll be back in just a minute." Dark said as he slithered into the living room.
"I'll get your drink while you're changing." Ares told him, then asked his other guests, "Would anyone else like a drink?"
"I don't usually, but after..." Conrad trailed off.
"You've earned it." Ares chuckled, then asked, "D?"
"No. Thank you." D quietly responded.
Ares nodded that he had heard, then hurried out of the room.
* * * * *
When Dark walked into the living room, Conrad was surprised to see that he looked like a perfectly normal human.
"I won't be able to stay long. I have a ton of work needing to be done." Dark said as he took a seat.
"With as casual and easygoing as everyone seems to be here, I didn't expect to see someone who was rushed." D said honestly.
"I have the rest of the year to relax." Dark said, then smiled as Ares walked into the room.
"You mentioned before that you run a mask shop. Can I assume that you're talking about Halloween masks?" Conrad asked curiously, then accepted a glass from Ares.
"In a sense. All my masks are handmade, so they might not be what you'd typically think of as 'Halloween masks'. It may be my own conceit, but I think of each one as being an example of my artistic expression. But at this time of year... yeah, they're Halloween masks."
"Here you go." Ares said as he placed a frothy drink on the side table beside Dark.
"Thanks." Dark said gratefully and immediately picked up the drink.
"If you're going to be here Monday, you should probably get a mask for the celebration. Everyone will have one." Ares suggested helpfully.
"I don't know if I'll be here or not. I'll just have to wait and see how things go." Conrad said honestly.
"I'm sure that my boys are going to insist that we attend. I don't know when we'll have time to do it, but I'm sure that I'll be bringing the boys by at some point to get masks for all of us." D said frankly.
"Agent Fastbeck." Dark said, drawing his attention, "Have we met before?"
"Not that I know of." Conrad answered slowly.
"Of course not. We couldn't have." Dark said with a shake of his head, then explained, "But I feel as though I've seen you somewhere."
"Do you already have a mask in mind for him?" Ares asked curiously.
"It doesn't work that way. I make the masks, then people choose the ones they want." Dark said seriously.
"Just a second." Ares said as he hurried out of the room.
"Will we need anything besides a mask to attend this celebration?" D asked curiously.
"Some people will make elaborate costumes, based on the design of the mask. But it's not uncommon for someone to just wear a mask and a cloak to hide their identity." Dark said instructively.
"The boys will probably want to go the whole nine yards. I suppose that I'd better be prepared for that." D said wearily.
"Let Cain and Deimos handle it. Just take a step back and see what they come up with on their own." Dark suggested before taking another drink.
"This is a prime example of one of Dark's masks." Ares said as he walked back into the living room and offered a mask to Conrad.
After a moment to look it over, Conrad quietly said, "I can see what you mean about it being a work of art. This is some beautiful craftsmanship."
"Thank you." Dark said with a smile.
"I agree. That's some beautiful work." D said admiringly, then thought to ask, "Did you make this for Ares based on his Karasu Tengu transformation?"
"No. At the time I made this mask, I hadn't seen Ares in nearly twenty years and he hadn't transformed yet. Cain and Deimos picked out the mask, thinking that it would be perfect for their father." Dark said before taking the last drink from his glass.
"So, can I infer that the masks have some significance beyond that of a simple Halloween celebration?" D asked curiously.
"For first celebrants, the masks tend to align with their emerging animal aspects and help them visualize their manifestation. Beyond that, who's to say? I just know that it's a tradition that's very important to the people of Brynnhollow and that I'm incredibly honored to be chosen to make the masks."
"Why the sudden surge in demand? I haven't heard anything about an increase in population. Why are you having to make so many more masks than usual?" Ares asked curiously.
"Ask Andrea." Dark said as he stood, then added, "I've got to change and get back to work."
Before anyone could question further, Dark hurried out of the room.
* * * * *
"Well, it looks like we're all going to have an early morning so we should probably think about going to bed. I'm going to start the water heater, in case anyone wants a bath." Ares said as he picked up Dark's empty glass.
"Do you need any help cleaning up?" Conrad offered quickly.
"I won't turn down help." Ares responded with a smile.
"I'll call the boys in so that they can get settled before bed." D volunteered.
"Sounds good. We'll be in the kitchen if you need anything." Ares said before leading Conrad out of the living room.
* * * * *
"I noticed that you didn't bring anything with you. Would you like to borrow some clothes to wear tomorrow?" Ares asked as he started washing dishes.
"That would be fine, except that I don't think your clothes would fit me." Conrad said frankly.
"Dark keeps some clothes over here for when he spends the night. He won't mind if I loan you something." Ares said casually as he handed Conrad a washed glass.
"If you're sure that he wouldn't mind." Conrad said slowly.
"He won't mind at all. I promise."
"Please tell me if this is none of my business, but I saw the way that you two kissed when he arrived..." Conrad trailed off uncomfortably.
"It's none of your business." Ares said with a teasing smile, then continued, "Dark and I are in the early stages of a relationship."
"Is that why you and Andrea didn't work out?" Conrad asked curiously as he dried a plate.
"No. Our separation happened before Dark and I even thought about being together. With all the business of Andrea's illness and the boys having their curses become active, Andrea and I drifted apart. If someone has to be at fault for that, I'll take the blame. But I don't think there's any way that things would have worked out that any of us would really be happy if Andrea and I had stayed together." Ares said seriously.
"I suppose that it's better than desperately clutching onto something that's already over." Conrad said thoughtfully.
"I thought so." Ares said simply, then handed Conrad another washed plate.
* * * * *
After finishing the dishes, Conrad walked into the living room to find the boys working collectively to reconfigure the living room furniture to provide sleeping places for six.
"Since everyone knows about stuff, can we sleep in our animal forms?" Cain asked Ares hopefully.
"Sure. If you can find a way to do it so that everyone's comfortable. I imagine that Jim and Deimos are probably going to take up quite a bit of room.
"We'll figure it out." Cain said with certainty.
"Okay. Just as long as someone will let me know if you're having a problem." Ares said with a smile.
"Yeah!" Cain said triumphantly.
"The water heater should be up to temp if anyone would like to take a bath." Ares said, directing his statement mostly toward D, then he turned to Conrad and continued, "Come with me and I'll get you a change of clothes."
"Thank you." Conrad said quietly as he followed.
* * * * *
Conrad woke with a start at a sound outside his bedroom door. It took a moment for it to repeat, but Conrad eventually identified the unmistakable sound as being that of teenage boys trying to be quiet.
It was so dark in the bedroom that Conrad had to fumble his way toward the light under the bedroom door. Once he'd opened it and let some light in, he found the matches to light the oil lamp.
Conrad was surprised to find that the pants that he had borrowed fastened with buttons, rather than snaps and zippers. Regardless, the clothes were comfortable and looked reasonably good on him.
Once he was certain that he was presentable, he left the bedroom. Not only the light, but also the noise drew him to the kitchen where Ares and all six boys were in motion, apparently preparing breakfast.
"I'm sorry if we woke you up with all the commotion. I'm actually surprised that D isn't awake yet." Ares said frankly.
"I don't know for sure, but I think Dad probably used some kind of a silence spell or something like that. He's really good at basic magic." G said honestly.
"Even so, he's going to need to wake up soon so that we can be on our way." Ares said seriously.
"I'll get him." G immediately volunteered.
"We'll all help you." Paul quickly announced.
Before Ares or Conrad could object, all six boys funneled out of the room.
"This is just about ready. Do you want to help me get breakfast on the table? I'm betting that D's going to be wide awake and on his way out here before very long." Ares finally said.
* * * * *
Conrad didn't come from a large family, so sitting at the table with so many people energetically chattering all at once was unfamiliar to him.
As soon as the meal was finished, Cain and G hurried to go to Grandpa Lowell's house.
Jim and Tannis left soon after to return home, and it was obvious that they didn't want to go.
Once the morning dishes were done and everything around the house was settled, Ares, D, Conrad, Paul and Deimos left as a group, heading toward their first stop at Dark's house.
* * * * *
As they walked, Conrad considered how many times he had pointlessly gone jogging, ending up exactly where he had started in a half-hearted attempt to maintain an acceptable level of fitness. The walk through the forest just after dawn was brisk and invigorating. And most importantly for Conrad, it had a point.
When they finally reached Dark's house, Ares sent Deimos around to check in Dark's workshop while he knocked on the front door.
Deimos returned a few minutes later and told the group that Dark was in his shop, still working on masks.
After a brief visit with Dark, Ares and D gave their sons hugs and wished them a good day before leaving them to their work.
* * * * *
The walk from there went on for more than an hour.
Although Conrad still had more questions than answers, he was content to continue on in silence and think about what he had learned so far.
He also had to prepare for his impending meeting with Andrea. There was always the possibility that she had been lured to Brynnhollow and was being kept there against her will by threats against her or her sons.
He didn't believe that to be the case, but he would be derelict in his duty if he didn't at least explore the possibility.
"Do you want to stop in at the town hall for a cup of tea with the elders before we continue on to Andrea's?" Ares asked as Brynnhollow began to come into view ahead of them.
It took a moment for Conrad to realize that Ares was speaking to him. "No. I'd rather get right down to business."
"I have no idea how long this is going to take." D said to Ares frankly.
"None of us do. We'll do our business, then we'll stop in to see how you're doing. We can make plans then." Ares said simply.
D nodded his agreement to the plan.
"Do you know where you're going from here?" Ares asked to confirm.
"Yes. Thank you for all your help."
"My pleasure. We'll see you later today."
* * * * *
After walking for a few minutes, Ares quietly asked, "Do you have a family, Agent Fastbeck?"
"Not anymore. I lost my mom about ten years ago to cancer. My dad was killed six years ago in a mass shooting."
"Was he in the FBI, too?"
"No. He was just a regular guy; retired civil service. As soon as I heard about it, I followed up on the investigation, trying to uncover why it had happened. From what I could tell, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was completely senseless."
Ares didn't have any response to that.
After a few more minutes of walking, Ares quietly asked, "No wife or girlfriend, then?"
"I dated quite a bit when I was younger, but I don't have much of a social life since joining the bureau."
"So it's not like it is in the Bond movies?"
"No. Not really."
* * * * *
"Well, this is it. Are you going to want for me to go somewhere for a while to give you a chance to talk?" Ares asked curiously.
"How about we play it by ear? If I need for you to step out of the room, I'll tell you."
"Just so you know, I'm not good at subtle hints."
"I'll keep that in mind." Conrad assured him.
* * * * *
After a knock on the door, Conrad and Ares waited for any response.
"Is this an unreasonable time for us to be visiting?" Conrad asked quietly.
"Not by Brynnhollow standards, but I don't follow along closely enough with Andrea's activities to know when would be the best time to catch her at home and awake." Ares said honestly.
"Didn't you say that she has a job that she works at night?" Conrad asked slowly.
"That's right..." Ares began to say when the door suddenly opened.
"Ares?! Did we have something planned for this morning?" Andrea asked curiously.
"No. I just thought that this would be the best time to try and catch you at home. We didn't wake you, did we?" Ares asked with concern.
"No. We haven't been to sleep yet. Please come in." Andrea said as she opened the door wide to invite Ares and Conrad inside.
"Andrea, I'd like for you to meet Agent Fastbeck with the FBI." Ares said as he walked into the living room and stood aside.
"FBI? Here?" Andrea asked in confusion.
"Your mother was concerned about you and asked that we investigate your disappearance." Conrad said simply.
"Of course. She might have a use for me someday, so I must be kept safe and pristine up on a shelf until I'm needed." Andrea said wearily.
"Excuse me?" Agent Fastbeck asked curiously.
"Never mind. I have a pot of tea steeping, please come into the kitchen and have a seat, then we can discuss why you're here." Andrea said with an inviting smile.
"Yes. Thank you." Conrad said uncertainly as he watched Andrea hurry away ahead of them.
* * * * *
As they walked into the kitchen, Conrad immediately noticed a frog sitting in a tub of water on one of the chairs by the table.
Noticing Agent Fastbeck's curious gaze, Andrea casually said, "That's Juliet."
Conrad blinked in surprise, then cautiously asked, "Is she a pet or a person?"
In response to his question, the frog hopped out of the tub and onto the table. A few quick hops later, she was on the floor beside the chair. As Conrad watched, Juliet began to grow and reshape herself until she became a mostly humanoid looking woman. As her form began to stabilize, she had one hand strategically placed to cover her mottled green and gray breasts.
Andrea walked to the kitchen door and took a robe down off a peg from behind it.
"Wait. How is this possible? I thought you were the only woman who could transform." Ares asked curiously.
Andrea draped the robe around Juliet's shoulders as she asked, "Do you remember that curse that I've been telling you about?"
"Yes. Of course. But I thought that was just to undo the insanity aspect of the Brynn curse." Ares said thoughtfully.
"For what is given, something must be taken." Juliet said simply.
Both Ares and Agent Fastbeck looked at her curiously.
"Don't ask me to explain it. I just trust that the witches know what they're doing." Andrea said frankly.
"Hold on. I'm getting a little bit... quite a bit lost here. Would you mind if we went back to the beginning of the story so I can understand what you're talking about?" Conrad asked hopefully.
"Sit down and we can talk about it while we're having our tea." Andrea said simply.
"I'll be back in just a minute." Juliet muttered before hurrying out of the room.
Ares and Conrad sat down at the kitchen table and watched as Andrea gathered the teapot and cups onto a tray.
"I hope that you'll excuse my appearance. I wasn't expecting anyone this morning." Andrea said as she carried the tea service to the table.
"A lot of my job is dealing with people who are so coiffed and perfumed that they hardly even seem human. They're just mannequins, with no purpose but to display the latest in fashion and style. It's nice to have the opportunity to sit and talk with a real person." Agent Fastbeck said seriously.
"That's sweet of you to say. I've been so busy since I've been here that keeping up with 'hair and nails' seems like a bizarre waste of time." Andrea said frankly.
"It is." Ares said simply.
Andrea smiled affectionately at him as she began to pour the tea.
"I don't want to take up too much of your time. You mentioned that you haven't been to sleep yet, so I'll just ask my questions so that we can be going." Agent Fastbeck said as he accepted a cup of tea from her.
"Can we wait for Juliet? I wouldn't want for her to feel left out." Andrea asked as she passed a filled tea cup to Ares.
"Did I hear my name?" Juliet asked as she walked back into the kitchen.
This time she looked fully human and was wearing a light blue sun dress.
"I was just telling Agent Fastbeck that I'd rather you be present when he asked his questions, so that you could be included. You've got to admit that there's quite a few things that you know about that I don't. Some of it might end up being relevant to his investigation." Andrea said as she presented Juliet a cup of tea.
"Thank you. I don't know how much help I'll be, but I'll do what I can." Juliet said timidly.
Andrea stepped away for a moment, then returned with a plate of miniature apple tarts.
"Mrs. Brynner, if you don't mind, could you tell me about how you came to be here? I'd like to hear it from your point of view." Agent Fastbeck asked professionally.
"Please call me Andrea. And I suppose that there's really not that much to it. Last year I started having abdominal pain and went to the doctor. The symptomology seemed to indicate ovarian or uterine cancer, but all the tests came back negative." Andrea finished darkly.
"She was in so much pain that she had to take a leave of absence from her job." Ares interjected.
"I can't say whether it was the pain or the pain medication that was more debilitating, but the combination of the two had me confined to a hospital bed within a month of my first symptoms." Andrea said quietly.
"At that point, I didn't have any clue of what the cause of her symptoms might be or I would have gone to seek help for her sooner." Ares said gravely.
"Your sons were eleven years old at the time, right?" Juliet asked cautiously.
"Yes. I was so afraid that I wouldn't live to see them turn twelve." Andrea said honestly.
Agent Fastbeck looked from one person to the next before quietly asking, "So you believe that your sons turning twelve years old had something to do with your illness?"
"When I married Andrea, she fell under the curse. But it seems that since my curse never became active for some reason, that her curse didn't either. Our sons were automatically cursed just for the fact that they are my sons. The curse usually manifests in children around their twelfth birthday, some sooner, some later, but twelve is about the average." Ares explained.
"And you believe that when your sons reached the age where their curses became active that it caused yours and Andrea's curses to become active as well?" Conrad speculated.
"Based on what followed, that's the only explanation that I can come up with." Ares said simply.
"We've gotten off track." Agent Fastbeck said irritably, then turned and asked, "Andrea, can you tell me what happened next? I wasn't able to uncover much information about you between the time that you fell ill and when you arrived here."
"Actually, there isn't much to tell. Between the pain and the medication that I was on, I was unconscious or delirious most of the time. I know that Ares and the boys visited me in the hospital several times and that I interacted with them to some degree, but I honestly couldn't tell you one thing that we said to each other." Andrea said frankly.
"The last time I visited, it was to deliver the cure to her. She was asleep and never even knew that I was there." Ares said distantly.
"The cure? Was it some sort of medication?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Actually, it was a poem and some scented oil. I was told that I had to read the poem aloud three times, then anoint her with the oil. After that I had to leave her and never return, because if I didn't, it would kill her."
"So, as I understand how things work around here, you basically cast a spell on her." Conrad surmised.
Ares turned his head and wouldn't meet anyone's eyes.
"He divorced her and disavowed any relationship with her." Juliet finally said into the silence.
"He what?" Conrad asked with surprise.
"There's a little more to it than that, just enough actual magic to make it work. But his marriage to her is the only reason that she was cursed to begin with. It was our hope that in breaking that bond, we could cause the weakened curse within Andrea to go dormant again." Juliet said seriously.
"We? What is your part in this?" Conrad asked curiously.
"I actually didn't do that much, but I was one of the witches that came up with the initial cure for Andrea and the subsequent curse that allowed her to continue living once she had arrived here." Juliet responded.
"Okay. Back to reality for a moment. Andrea was sick. Ares visited her, said his poem to her, then left with the boys..."
"I left with the boys then came back to read the poem, but close enough." Ares interjected.
"Right. So then, Andrea, from my investigation I heard that you had a sudden miraculous recovery." Agent Fastbeck said slowly, prompting her for more information.
"Yeah. Miraculous. That's the word for it. It was almost exactly a year ago, on Halloween. All of a sudden, it just stopped hurting. The doctors treated me like I was lying to them, then once I finally had them convinced, they said that I couldn't just stop taking the pain medication. They had to ween me off of it. Then there were tests on top of other tests, trying to find some difference between when I was sick and well." Andrea said honestly.
"So they never found a physical cause for your illness?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Not really. I mean, they could tell that I was in legitimate pain. And while I was in the hospital I kept getting all these different infections, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't anything mystical. That whole place was one big petri dish with infections passing from patient to patient... and I think I had food poisoning once. They swore that it was a mild case of the flu, but I'm pretty sure that it was from bad chicken. The food there was really awful." Andrea said thoughtfully.
"But what happened when you got out of the hospital?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Well, even before I was released, I tried to call Ares, but there was no answer. I tried calling him at work, but they told me that he was no longer employed with them. I even tried calling the boys' school, but they told me that the boys had been withdrawn." Andrea said quietly.
"What happened when you went home?" Conrad asked as he noticed that Ares had tears falling down his cheeks.
"I had to take a taxi... I think that hurt almost as much as anything else that I'd gone through. After almost a year in the hospital, I didn't have anyone who cared enough about me to see that I was alright and that I got home safely." Andrea said as her own tears started to fall.
Juliet got up from the table and walked across the kitchen. She opened one of the lower drawers and took out some cloth dinner napkins.
When she got back to the table, she set one at each place before sitting down again.
"Thank you." Andrea whispered as she dried her eyes.
"So, when you got back to the house, Ares and the boys weren't there. What happened next? How did you decide to come to Waxell?" Conrad asked curiously.
"That didn't happen until later. For the longest time, all I did was cry and feel sorry for myself. But once I was past the worst of that, I got angry and started searching for any clue as to where Ares might have taken the boys."
Conrad nodded that he understood, encouraging her to continue.
"It's funny, in all the years that we were married, I never realized how much I didn't know about my husband. He had mentioned that his father was dead, but I never heard one word about the rest of his family. I didn't know where he grew up, went to school or anything at all about his childhood. As far as I could tell, he might not have existed at all the day before I met him." Andrea said distantly.
"I existed, but not much else." Ares said quietly.
"But how did you decide to come to Waxell to look for him?" Conrad asked curiously.
"I was at home, going through some of our wedding things, feeling sorry for myself and trying to find something to hang onto, to prove that our whole life together wasn't a lie. Then I found some paperwork with a Waxell address."
"What paperwork was that, if I may ask?" Conrad asked hopefully.
"Actually, it was an old paycheck stub with a note about our wedding scribbled on the back." Andrea said seriously, then asked, "Would you like for me to get it for you?"
"That won't be necessary." Conrad assured her, then continued, "So when you found the Waxell address, you came to Kentucky to search for Ares?"
"Not right away. I made a half-assed attempt at starting my life over, but it wasn't much more than going through the motions. Every day I'd think more and more about Ares and the boys. Finally, when I couldn't stand it anymore, I decided to go and look for them, once and for all. If I didn't find them, then I'd commit myself to trying to get my life back on track." Andrea said thoughtfully.
"So you drove to Kentucky, stopped in Waxell, found out where Ares was and ended up here?" Conrad guessed.
"Well, no one knew exactly where they were, but they told me enough to point me in the right direction. After that, I ended up coming here and getting lost in the forest. Fortunately, I found Drake's house before I starved to death or froze or got attacked by some wild animal." Andrea said frankly.
"Drake?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Jim and Tan's father." Ares said simply.
"Thank you, Andrea. That fills in a few of the blanks for me. I'm really sorry about bringing up unpleasant memories. There's really just one more thing that I'd like to know, if you don't mind continuing."
"No. That's fine. What did you want to know?"
"Why did you decide to stay here? I mean, I can understand you wanting to be around your sons, but it's like you dropped out of the outside world completely. You left your job, your house... your mother."
"My mother left me years ago. As far as the rest... it's meaningless to me now. Here in Brynnhollow, I have the chance to help people... not in some abstract way, like donating four cents a day, but really help them and change their lives for the better. In the outside world I was Ares' wife, Chris and David's mother and just another nameless, faceless drone slaving away every day at my job to make the corporation's stock rise a quarter of a point."
"And here you're more than that?" Conrad asked, seemingly more from personal than professional curiosity.
"I'm becoming more than that." Andrea said firmly, then smiled as she turned to Ares and continued, "I will never be able to thank you enough for encouraging me to be my own person. Even though I went through a lot of pain, both physical and otherwise, that single action is what I'll remember most. When you said that I should think about what's best for me and consider my happiness... you helped me to take responsibility for my choices."
"I only tried to share what I'd learned since I had to leave you in the hospital like that. I hated myself for what I had to do, but given the same choices, I would do it again. Since then, I had to reexamine my life and my priorities and decide what kind of future I wanted to give the boys. I didn't want them remembering their father as a self-loathing monster filled with bitterness, so I worked to forgive myself for doing what I had to do, then worked to make a life for us that would be a good foundation for them, moving into the future." Ares explained.
"What you've done for the boys is remarkable. They're so much happier and more energetic than they ever were before. So are you, for that matter. And even though you're past the point where you need my forgiveness for anything that you might have done, you have it anyway." Andrea said gently.
"Thank you." Ares said sincerely, then added in a whisper, "I never wanted to hurt you."
* * * * *
"I thought the apple pie in Waxell was the best that I ever tasted, but I think your apple tarts outdo even them." Agent Fastbeck said in amazement.
Andrea chuckled, then said, "I wish I could take credit for them, but Ares' grandfather sent these over with the boys when they visited the other day."
"Well then, I'll compliment you on the tea. It's a perfectly balanced blend." Conrad said with a grin at her.
"Actually, that blend was made for me by Drake, he's an herbalist." Andrea said simply, then continued, "And since we've already established that I'm a frumpy hausfrau, maybe you should quit while you're behind."
"I'm fairly certain that at no time did I ever say the word 'hausfrau'." Conrad said with a smile.
"I suppose you didn't." Andrea said warmly.
"Since you haven't had a chance to sleep, I think we should be on our way now." Conrad said as he stood.
"Don't worry about that. I'll have plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead." Andrea said with a mischievous grin.
"Actually, according to Ima..." Juliet began to say, but stopped at the withering glare from Andrea.
"Would you mind if I stop by again some other time and ask you a few more questions?" Conrad asked in a voice that sounded a little bit more personal than professional.
"I wouldn't mind that at all." Andrea said with a demure smile.
"I'll see you later then. Have a good sleep." Conrad said as Ares joined him at the door.
"Yes. I'll see you later." Andrea said, then walked with Conrad and Ares to see them off.
* * * * *
"So, did you find out what you needed to know?" Ares asked curiously as they walked.
"I think that a few of my more important questions were answered, although I'll probably have to speak with her a few more times before I can definitively say that the matter is concluded."
"I think you just want the chance to flirt with her some more." Ares said with a teasing grin.
"I wasn't flirting. I was interviewing." Conrad stated reasonably.
"I don't remember you complimenting my apple tarts or my tea when you interviewed me."
"If you recall, we were interrupted during dinner last night. But I'm sorry if I forgot to mention that the chicken was very good."
"Well, it was good."
"Thank you." Ares said graciously, then added, "But if you were flirting with her, you should know that she and Drake have been seeing a lot of each other. You might have some competition."
"Is it serious?"
"It looks like it could go that way, but I don't think it has. With Andrea working all the time and Drake's work, plus taking care of his four kids... it's a wonder that they've been able to get as close as they have." Ares said honestly.
"I'm going to be leaving as soon as I'm done with this investigation. It would be a mistake for me to get involved with anyone." Conrad said thoughtfully.
"Yeah. One of those mistakes that people make when they're having a life."
"What are you trying to say?"
"If you don't let anyone in, life can get very lonely. And for what? Your job? You work and then you die? That's not much of a plan."
"Maybe it's not in the cards for some people."
"It's certainly not in the cards if you never ante up. You'll never win if you don't take the chance of losing."
"Wait! Are you trying to fix me up with your wife?"
"No. I'm just telling you how things look from my perspective. You've lost people and been hurt by it. Now you protect yourself by not getting close to anyone else. Not only is that not healthy, but it's also not necessary. You can have everything that's good in your life right now plus someone to hold you at night and wake up with you in the morning."
"Every day, I see the worst in people. It's my job to investigate them and discover the heinous things that they've done and don't want anyone else to know about. I think what you're talking about requires faith in humanity. I don't know if I have any."
"Then you haven't been in Brynnhollow long enough, because I have no doubt that you'll find all the humanity that you'll ever need, right here."
"For me, it's still up in the air if you people even are human."
"Okay. You may have a point. But whether we're human or not, I still think we have more than enough humanity."
"At first glance, it does appear that way."
* * * * *
The rest of their walk back to Brynnhollow was conducted in comfortable silence. Both men had things to sort through in their minds and appreciated the chance to do so without annoying chatter distracting them.
"It certainly is a lot busier during the day." Conrad said with surprise when he noticed the number of carts and people out and about.
"This is the lead up to the Samhain celebration on Monday. For the next couple days people will be buying and selling their wares all up and down the main street. Everyone is just getting set up. There'll be more to see later."
"What are we doing now?"
"I'm going to stop in and let D know that we're here. If you want, you can go over to the tavern and get us a table."
"Actually, why don't I wait for you over by that cart?" Conrad asked as he pointed to D's and Ares' sons standing with an elderly man, whom Conrad assumed was Ares grandfather.
"What are Deimos and Paul doing here? I thought they were going to be working at Dark's all day." Ares asked with surprise.
"Why don't I investigate that while you let D know that we're here?"
"Good plan. I'll see you in a few minutes."
* * * * *
"Hi, guys. I'm surprised to see you here." Conrad said as he approached the group.
"Uncle Dark asked us to take a load of masks to Mason's. We need to get back, he's been busy all morning and he needs us to be there."
"Your dad will be here in a minute, he's just letting D know that we're back."
"Not much is going on here. We're still getting things laid out and people are mostly just looking." Cain said frankly.
"It still looks like it's shaping up to be quite a party." Conrad said as he looked around at the hustle and bustle of activity surrounding them.
"This is nothing compared to what it'll be like on Monday." Deimos said with a grin.
"Yeah. I hope you're not shy, Agent Fastbeck." Cain chuckled.
Before Conrad could ask what that meant, Ares voice said from behind him, "I'm glad to see you guys, but I didn't expect you to be here."
"Uncle Dark needed us to deliver some masks for him, but we've got to go now. He needs us to watch the shop while he's working."
Ares walked to Deimos and gave him a firm hug, then seemingly on impulse, he gave Paul a hug too.
"We'll see you at the house tonight. Can we tell Uncle Dark that he's invited to dinner?"
"He's always invited, but go ahead and tell him anyway."
"We will." Deimos promised as he and Paul hurried away.
* * * * *
"I thought we were going to meet at the tavern." D said as he approached the group, accompanied by Carn and a few other men.
"It looked like you were embroiled in your meeting, so I assumed that it would be a while before you'd joined us." Ares said frankly.
"We decided that all of us would appreciate a break as well as an early lunch." D said frankly.
Ares looked at his grandfather as he said, "We'll be in the tavern if you need us for anything."
"You'd be welcome to join us, too, Lowell." Carn offered cautiously.
"Thank you. But I think my place is out here, attending to my daily business." Lowell said firmly.
Ares, Conrad and D fell into line, following the Brynnhollow elders across the street to the Brynnmorrow Tavern.
* * * * *
As the group walked into the tavern, Conrad was temporarily blinded by the sudden lower light level. Once his eyes adjusted, he looked around and saw that the tavern didn't appear to have any windows. The large main room was lit by gas wall sconces around the perimeter as well as oil lamps at each table. The dark wood bar and tables appeared to be quite old and immaculately kept, but they also virtually sucked up all the light.
Conrad followed along as the group walked through the tavern and immediately into a back room, which from all appearances, seemed to be reserved for their use.
As soon as everyone was seated, D took charge by saying, "Agent Fastbeck, I asked the Elders if you could be included in the next part of our discussion, not only to aid you in your investigation, but also to give us your outside point of view."
Conrad slowly nodded, not knowing exactly what was going to be expected of him.
"You already know Carn. Next to him are Adair and Lachlan. There are a few others who work with or advise the council in specialized areas, but these three have the final say about things and make all the decisions." D explained.
"It's a pleasure to meet you." Conrad said diplomatically.
"Please relax, Agent Fastbeck. This isn't nearly as daunting as it sounds. All we're really doing is having an early lunch and we thought that while we're doing that, we'd bring you and Ares up-to-date on the Samhain plans." Carn said reasonably.
"Why?" Ares asked curiously.
"What was that?" Carn asked cautiously.
"I can sort of understand why you'd want Agent Fastbeck here, but why would you want to involve me in any of this?"
"That would mainly have to do with your involvement with Andrea. You have nearly twenty years of history with her, so you may be able to spot a flaw in our plans that none of the rest of us could possibly be aware of."
"What does any of this have to do with Andrea?"
"That's what we're here to explain. Please, take a moment to look at a menu and place your order so that we may begin." Carn said as he gestured toward the menus in the middle of the table.
* * * * *
Although Conrad had had the privilege of experiencing the cuisines of many different cultures, he had difficulty deciphering the tavern's menu.
"What language is this?" Conrad finally asked.
"I forgot about that. I doubt that any of us need to look at the menus anymore." Carn said with a smile, then continued, "I don't know if it's a specific language. It's more an amalgamation of Gaelic, Welsh and some severely bastardized English. You'll encounter quite a bit of that if you look at any of the old Shire records that were brought over. But in daily life, you'll probably only find it here. I don't think they've updated the tavern menu in a few centuries."
"What would you recommend?" Conrad asked Ares cautiously.
"How are you with meat and potatoes?"
"I'll order for both of us, then." Ares offered, then turned to D and asked, "Would you like for me to order for you, too?"
"No. Thank you. I should be able to manage."
"Well, good." Carn began to say, then smiled as the waiter walked into the room to take their orders.
* * * * *
Once the orders were placed, Carn turned and asked, "Agent Fastbeck, how much have you learned about the Brynn curse?"
"I don't know how much I believe, but I've heard that the curse makes it possible for your people to... um, change."
"Have you heard about what it does to the women?"
"I was told that it was the reason for Andrea's illness, but not much beyond that."
"Yes. That part of the curse applies to outsider women who marry Brynnhollow men. The women who are born here have quite a bit more to face."
Conrad thought for a moment, then slowly said, "I didn't notice before, but Juliet and Andrea are the only women that I've seen since I've been in Brynnhollow."
"Juliet? Would that be Juliet Calbrynn?" Carn asked curiously.
"I don't think she ever mentioned her last name. All I know is that she was over at Andrea's when we visited, right before we came here." Ares explained.
"If it is her, Juliet was accepted by Ima and her sisters. She's more the exception than the rule when it comes to how the curse affects Brynnhollow women." Adair explained.
"Even so, it's surprising to hear that she came down off the mountain." Carn said apprehensively.
"From the look of it, she was helping Andrea with something." Ares said simply.
"Regardless, the curse affects women in Brynnhollow differently from the way it affects men. When Brynnhollow girls reach puberty, the curse becomes active and increasingly drives them to select a mate... or mates... and procreate." Carn said uncomfortably.
"In the case of Juliet, she had the strength of will to resist the compulsion, so she went to live with the witches on the mountain, where she wouldn't have to face the constant temptation of men." Adair quietly added.
"But the majority of women are unable to resist the curse and end up getting married... or at least pregnant. Once that happens, the next phase of their curse goes into effect. After giving birth, they begin the rapid slide into complete insanity." Lachlan interjected.
"Since they still have the increasing compulsion to procreate, they become obsessed by it. At the same time, they begin to change both physically and mentally. Their bodies become deformed and twisted... and so do their minds. In the end, they go completely insane." Carn finished regretfully.
"So Andrea, being an outsider, was just supposed to get sick and die. But a woman who was born here would go completely insane?" Conrad asked to verify his understanding.
"Yes. When Brynnhollow was founded, an enormous structure was erected on an isolated pillar of rock, surrounded by a deep chasm. Once it was completed, the insane women of Brynnhollow were moved there, so that they could live independently without any male 'temptations' to aggravate their conditions." Carn said seriously.
"So you have a place where a group of mentally ill women are being held against their will?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Before you judge us too harshly, please know that we do everything that we can for them. We provide them the necessities of life, sometimes causing the residents of Brynnhollow to have to do without." Adair hurried to explain.
"Conrad, please don't get too caught up in this. I understand how you feel about the violation of their human rights." D said seriously. "But what we're telling you is the history. Things appear to have changed and that's what we're here to discuss."
At Conrad's curious look, D continued, "She survived the curse. She didn't die or go insane. With the help of the witches on the mountain, she's been given a way to alter the curse on the women of Brynnhollow."
"Alter? Not remove?" Conrad asked to verify his understanding.
"Yes. Although I don't know every detail of the curse, it appears to be of such enduring strength that the only possible way to be rid of it entirely would be the extermination of every last descendent of the Brynn bloodline."
"Okay. So what do you mean about 'altering' the curse?"
"To put it in modern terms, the curse has been 'patched'. The witches created a curse that will work in concert with the Brynn curse, altering the end result without negating the original curse entirely."
"So they're cursing the curse?"
"I hadn't thought of it that way, but yes. You could say that."
"I still don't get where Andrea fits into all of this."
"That's a little bit more difficult to explain. It has to do with her in-between state of being. She's not a witch... technically, but she survived the Brynn curse. That makes her capable of carrying the new curse without falling under the terms of the old one."
"So, it's like, since she survived the curse, she's immune to it now?"
"Yes! That's a perfect way of looking at it!" Carn said triumphantly.
"Okay. I think I get that." Conrad said thoughtfully, then asked, "So am I to understand that Andrea now carries a version of the curse that will undo some of the worst effects of the old curse?"
"Yes. But let me back up and explain why we're telling you this now." Carn said seriously. "Over a month ago, Andrea came to us and told us much of what we just told you. It was her hope that with our help, we could find some way of reintegrating the Brynnhollow women back into our society."
"Which would likely cause all kinds of anger, resentment and chaos." Ares interjected.
"Wait. I don't understand why that would be." Conrad said seriously.
"What do you think would happen if two, three or even four of your exwives suddenly appeared on your doorstep and each of them felt entitled to your undivided love and attention?" Adair asked quietly.
"And what happens to the children? How does a family that's barely supporting themselves suddenly adapt to having more mouths to feed when they weren't planning on it?" Lachlan asked worriedly.
"It could conceivably cause our society to collapse." Carn said simply.
"So what are you going to do?" Conrad asked curiously.
"For better or worse, we can't keep the women isolated now that they're not a danger to themselves or others." Carn said resignedly.
"Hold on. Let me see if I got this straight. Are you saying that Andrea took this new curse that she carries and went to where the women are and basically cured them all?" Conrad asked slowly.
"Yes. Except that it isn't really a cure. All of us are still cursed. But thanks to Andrea's actions, the terms of the curses on the women have been altered so that they're not insane anymore."
"Is that why Juliet was able to transform herself?" Ares asked curiously.
"I would assume so. I'm not sure about the details, but it seems that in exchange for their sanity, they gained some of the less desirable aspects of the curse, usually associated with what happens to men." Carn said carefully.
"Okay. So now instead of being insane, the women will change into animals, which makes it so that they can't leave here and live in the outside world?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Yes." Carn confirmed, then added, "There's also the matter of the original Brynn curse. Although we don't have any way of proving it at this time, it's believed that the new curse won't be passed on through marriage or childbirth, like the old one is."
"So Andrea will have to give the new curse to anyone who has just the old one." Conrad said speculatively.
"Yes. But only when the Brynn curse becomes active. Andrea was told by Ima that she cannot bestow the new curse on someone whose curse is dormant." Carn carefully explained.
"Dormant?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Such as in prepubescent girls or newly married outsider women. Until the curse activates, it can't be overridden." D supplied easily.
"Okay. I think I get all of that. But I still don't know what you're going to do about all these women suddenly reappearing in your lives, all at once." Conrad said as he looked around the group.
"We don't know either." Carn said frankly.
"That's one of the things that we've been discussing." D added.
"You don't have a plan?" Conrad asked with surprise.
"On Monday we'll be having our annual Samhain celebration. At that time, something is going to happen. We're not decided on just what that will be." Carn said reluctantly.
"Now that they're sane, we can't, in good conscience, keep them locked away. But it's hard to say that they'll be better off here with us if we can't provide them food and shelter through the coming winter." Adair said frankly.
"And that doesn't even take into account the familial strife that it's going to cause when multiple wives, mothers, sisters and daughters all return at once, expecting to be welcomed with open arms." Lachlan said quietly.
"What are you going to do?" Conrad asked as he began to realize the severity of their situation.
"Eat." Carn said as he pointed to the doorway, where the waiter and the middle-aged tavern keeper were entering, carrying heavily laden trays.
* * * * *
"Sorry. I had some things I needed to do at the house. Am I too late?" A man asked as he hurried into the private dining room.
"Actually, you arrived at the perfect time. Why don't you go tell Arv what you'd like for lunch, then sit down and join us? It will be good if you're included in the next part of our discussion." Carn said pleasantly.
"Be right back." The man said as he raced out of the room.
"That was Festus, he's a prominent person in the community." Lachlan said informatively.
"He's very good about helping us to see that everyone's needs are taken into account in our decision making." Adair added.
"So, what did you need for me to be here for?" Festus asked as he hurried back into the room and took a seat at the table.
"Festus, I'd like for you to meet Mr. Darroch, he's one of those from the outside who's responsible for keeping us safe, I think you probably know Ares, and this is Agent Fastbeck from the FBI." Carn said formally.
"You brought in outside law enforcement?" Festus asked cautiously.
"Mr. Darroch brought him. Since we trust him with so much else, I see no reason for us to question him on this decision." Carn said seriously.
"Please excuse me. It's nice to meet you Mr. Darroch, Agent Fastbeck. I'm Festus Brynnmyl."
"A pleasure." D said for both of them, then added, "Please feel free to call me D."
"We were just about to discuss the plan for Monday. Since Festus is one of the few who knows that his wife is alive, well and sane, I thought that he might have a valuable perspective for us to consider." Carn said seriously.
"I don't understand. Why is he one of the few?" Conrad asked curiously.
"When Andrea came to us and explained that she could alter the curse on the women of Brynnhollow, we asked that she not let it be known to the general populace to avoid the anxiety and frustration that would almost certainly result."
"I don't understand why."
"Because, at that time, there were only a small number of women who had received Andrea's curse. The vast majority were still quite mad and Andrea couldn't be sure how effective the curse would be when it was used on larger numbers of women."
"I would guess that you have those answers by now." Conrad said speculatively.
"Yes. It seems that the curse has been effective in every instance, however the 'recovery' time seems to vary on a case by case basis."
"So you're planning to do something on Monday?"
"Yes. The problem is that Andrea is the only line of communication that we have with the women. It's difficult to coordinate things when we only speak once or twice a week."
"So, what's going to happen on Monday?" Ares asked cautiously.
"We're going to go on with the Samhain celebration as planned. While the new celebrants are showing their first transformations, a group of us are going to be lowering the drawbridge to allow the women to go free. From that point on, we're going to have to trust that Andrea has some sort of a plan for the women to follow."
"Why don't you just ask her what she's intending?" Conrad asked curiously.
"When we last spoke to her, she wasn't able to commit to any specific plan because too many things were still uncertain within the Coven."
"That's what we've traditionally called the colony where the women are located." Ares explained.
"Colony? It sounds more like a prison." Conrad observed.
"To me, a prison would imply guards. Likewise, an asylum would imply the presence of doctors." Carn said carefully.
"It's all semantics. We all know what it is, even if we don't have a proper label for it. What we need to do now is decide what we're going to do to preserve the population of Brynnhollow." D interjected.
"What can we do? We can't leave the women locked up, knowing that they're no longer insane and dangerous. With winter approaching, delaying their release isn't likely to result in anything positive. As I see it, there isn't much we can do but release them, then do our best to deal with the results." Carn said wearily.
"Andrea has said that they've formed their own society and authority structure within the Coven. She mentioned that she's going to try to encourage them to embrace their autonomy and work collectively to help us." Lachlan added.
"While I trust in her good intentions, they don't do anything to address the concerns that we're facing." Carn responded.
"Festus, what are you planning to do when your wife is released?" D asked curiously.
"Tell her that I still love her." Festus said simply, then added, "And show her how well our boys turned out."
"But what are you going to do after that? Do you have a place for her in your home and in all your lives?" D asked in a leading tone.
"I'd like to think so, but it's been so long... I don't know how much she might have changed, if she'll even want us... me... in her life anymore." Festus said regretfully.
"I think that's a legitimate concern. And while some people will get the answers that they're hoping for, there will be others, both men and women, who won't. What will we do for them? What can we do for those who have lost everything and everyone?" Carn asked quietly.
"If it were just a few, I'm sure that we could find a way to manage. But we're conceivably talking about dozens, perhaps even hundreds." Adair added.
"Which brings us back to the point of what can we do? There aren't unlimited resources at our disposal."
"What if there were?" D asked cautiously.
"What was that?" Carn asked curiously.
"If resources weren't an issue, what do you think might make the impending release easier for all involved."
After a moment to consider, Carn finally admitted, "I don't know."
"Did you have something in mind?" Conrad asked curiously.
"No. But I have access to resources outside Brynnhollow, so I thought that I should bring it up so that we could at least consider what more we might be able to do." D said frankly.
"Do you think that it might help if we asked Andrea to join us?" Ares asked cautiously.
"I'm confident that she would have come to us and let us know if she had been able to come up with anything more than what we've already discussed. Summoning her here now would only serve to take her away from what might end up being more productive endeavors."
"Maybe if we told the men what was happening, they might have a chance to emotionally prepare themselves." Ares said slowly.
"And what happens to those who prepare and then are disappointed? I think the potential scale of the fallout needs to be considered. This impacts the deepest, most personal part of people's lives. No matter what we do, emotions are going to be running high. If we do this wrong, it could escalate to the point of people becoming homicidal or suicidal."
"What if we do our best to rally the men and appeal to their better natures? There are some genuinely good people living here. Don't they deserve a chance to rise to the occasion?" Ares asked carefully.
"The inconvenient fact of the matter is that the people elected us to make decisions just like this and determine what's the best thing for us to do for the common good. Regardless of what might be best for select individuals, we have to look at what's best for the community, both in the short and long term."
"Are you thinking of not releasing the women from the Coven?"
"That's not an option. They will be released and there's no doubt that this is the time to do it. What we're discussing is how we're going to do it so that we can minimize the adverse impact on the community."
"So, if I'm understanding your plan so far, on Monday you're going to go to the Coven, throw the doors open wide and the women are going to come out of their isolation and... we're all going to hope for the best?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Actually, we'll lower the drawbridge, but yes. That's essentially true." D confirmed.
* * * * *
Conrad ate his meal and was quiet as the men around the table continued to talk back and forth about what they were planning.
Finally, when there was a break in the conversation, he turned to D and said, "I'm going to need to go back to Waxell to check in with the bureau and gather my things from the boarding house."
"Carn, do you have someone who can go with Agent Fastbeck and help him find his way back?" D asked hopefully.
"We'll have to talk to Mason about that. He's the one who handles everything to do with visiting the outside. But I'm sure that he'll be able to find someone to help you." Carn said easily.
"Thank you." Conrad said sincerely.
"In fact, it looks like everyone's done eating, so why don't we return to our offices and allow Agent Fastbeck to attend to his duties?" Carn asked decisively.
As everyone started to stand, Conrad noticed Ares looking a little bit lost.
"Would you like to come along?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"To Waxell? Not a good idea." Ares said frankly.
Conrad couldn't help but smile as he said, "You're probably right."
"I have a few pieces of furniture on display at Mason's. I'll check in with him to see if anyone has placed any orders. After that, I'll see if there's anything I can do to help my grandfather." Ares said casually.
"If you're going to Mason's anyway, you can ask him about finding someone to take you into Waxell." Lachlan suggested helpfully.
"We'll do that." Ares assured him.
Conrad noticed that before stepping away from the table, each of the men placed one or two dollars beside their place settings.
It took a moment for Conrad to realize that the dollars weren't what he expected. The printing reminded him of foreign currency. Although he couldn't make out every detail, he could see "The Southern Bank of Kentucky, Three Dollars" clearly printed on the front of one bill.
He turned to Ares and quietly said, "It appears that I don't have your local currency. Could you help me?"
"You're our invited guest. The council will pay for the meal. We were just leaving tips for Talbot, our waiter." Carn explained pleasantly.
"Oh. Would it be better if I got some of your local currency to tip him?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"That's not necessary. If he can't use what you give him, he can always exchange it with Mason." Carn said simply.
Conrad took out his wallet and dropped a five dollar bill on the table before joining Ares at the door.
* * * * *
After a short walk down the street, Ares and Conrad arrived at Mason's shop.
Conrad was surprised to see so many 'outside world' trinkets on display. He was likewise intrigued by the selection of masks that were on a table just inside the door.
"Ares! I'm glad you stopped by. Give me a minute and I'll get you the list of orders that I've taken." A man said quickly.
"Orders? You mean that someone wants to buy my furniture?" Ares asked with surprise.
"Yes. It looks like you're going to be busy for the next few months." The man chuckled.
"Before you go, we need to know if you have someone who can go into Waxell with Conrad so that he can find his way back." Ares rushed to say before the man disappeared into the back room.
"Let me see if Rocky's left yet." The man quickly responded, then dashed away.
"That was Mason." Ares said simply as he started to look around the store.
Conrad was drawn to the masks and started looking through them as they waited for Mason to return.
* * * * *
"Agent Fastbeck?" A young man's voice asked from behind him.
"Yes? Oh. Hello, Rocky." Conrad said with a smile.
"Mason said that you needed to go into Waxell. I was going to be gassing up the truck today, so I'll be passing through there if you need a ride." Rocky said pleasantly.
"I have a car... well, it's borrowed. If you can get me to the parking lot, I should be able to find my way to Waxell from there. I just don't know what I'll do about finding my way back here." Conrad said thoughtfully.
"We can go to the parking lot, do what we need to do, then I can meet you in Waxell at the drugstore whenever you're done. If you need to return your borrowed car, I can drive you back to Brynnhollow from there." Rocky said pleasantly.
"I won't be able to decide anything like that until I've checked in with the bureau." Conrad said with a smile, then asked, "Do you need to do anything, or are you ready to go?"
"I'm ready." Rocky said easily, then looked down at Conrad's hands and asked, "Did you want to buy that?"
Conrad was surprised to find that he had been holding a mask while they talked.
"No. I didn't realize that I'd picked it up." Conrad said honestly.
Ares, who had been watching, said, "Why don't you go ahead and get it? You're going to need one anyway and you might not get another chance. I can take it back to the house with me."
After looking it over, Conrad quietly asked, "How much is it?"
"How much do you think it's worth?" Ares asked with a smile.
Conrad handed the mask to Ares, then took out his wallet and selected a twenty dollar bill.
"If this isn't enough, let me know. I'm not trying to be cheap. I just don't know the value of money here." Conrad said as he handed the money to Rocky.
"I think this is fine." Rocky said as he walked behind a counter and placed the money in a lock box.
"I'll see you when you get back. You'll be able to find me at my grandfather's cart." Ares said with a smile.
"I'll see you later." Conrad said before leaving with Rocky.
* * * * *
As Rocky and Conrad walked, Conrad quietly asked, "Do you ever think about what it would be like to live in the outside world?"
"Not really. It's a nice place to visit, but there's no way I'd want to give up my life in Brynnhollow." Rocky said earnestly.
"I suppose that I can see that." Conrad said easily.
"Mason tries to limit the time we spend outside, so people don't start recognizing us or asking questions. I'll probably only be running for another month or two before someone else takes my place." Rocky added.
"What are you going to do then?"
"I'll be working in Mason's store, like I do now. Later on, I'll probably find something else that I'd like to do more and start doing that."
"Do you think that you'll miss traveling to the outside?"
"No. I think I've seen all that I wanted to see."
* * * * *
When they arrived in the parking lot, Rocky went to a pickup truck as Conrad went to his borrowed car. Rocky made a point of once again telling Conrad where they were going to meet.
Driving back to Waxell, Conrad couldn't help but feel like he was waking up from a dream. He was leaving the 'fantasy' world of Brynnhollow and traveling back to 'reality'.
A part of him regretted leaving and was a little bit afraid that he wouldn't be able to return.
With a bit of effort, he was able to get his mind to focus on the job that he had been sent there to do and he compiled a list of things that he needed to accomplish as soon as he reached Waxell.
* * * * *
"What the hell happened to you? You said that you'd keep in touch!"
"Yeah. I ended up in a dead zone where even the sat-phone couldn't connect. Don't worry, everything's fine."
"Did you find out what happened to the Brynner woman?"
"Yes. I located Andrea Brynner and she's alive and well."
"So, are you on your way back now?"
"No. There are still one or two things that I need to sort out before I can call the case closed."
"What kind of things? What did you find?"
"I can't go into it right now. Let's just say that Andrea dropped out of sight for what appears to be legitimate reasons. I should be able to determine if they are in the next two days. If they're not, she may need my help to return to Maryland."
"You're not getting personally involved in this, are you Con?"
"No... well, maybe a little. But even if I weren't, I'd still need to do this. Everything should be resolved Monday night, so expect to hear from me on Tuesday."
"Tuesday? Do you mean that you plan to be out of touch until then?"
"That's right. What I'm investigating takes place inside that dead zone that I was telling you about."
"Do you need for me to come down there to back you up?"
"No. So far I haven't seen any indications of anything dangerous. There are just some matters that need to be resolved and I'd like to see how that turns out before I close the case."
"If you're sure... but call on me if you need anything. Remember, I've got your back."
* * * * *
After checking his email, Conrad gathered his things and settled his bill with Mrs. Shumlin. Once his luggage was loaded into the car, he drove to the main street, then walked to the drugstore where Rocky said that they would meet.
Stepping inside was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting. It occurred to him that Brynnhollow wasn't the only town that seemed to exist outside of time.
After looking over the menu board, Conrad ordered a cherry phosphate. Thinking back, he couldn't help but concur with Fred's assessment of Waxell. After the initial quaint nostalgia had worn off, the place was well and truly giving him the creeps.
The tinkle of a bell as the door opened drew Conrad's attention and he saw Rocky entering.
"Ready to go?" Rocky asked pleasantly.
"Yes. I'm parked on the next block. There's no way I could have fit that car into one of the tiny parking spaces out front." Conrad said as he stood.
"Yeah. That's where I parked too."
"Did you want to get anything while you're here?"
"No. I've got too much to do when I get back."
"Somehow I thought that when you went to town you'd take the opportunity to indulge in things that you can't do at home." Conrad said as he casually walked with Rocky down the sidewalk.
"I've done that, but I'm over it now. All I want to do is go home."
"Then let's do it."
* * * * *
As Conrad drove, he had to admit, if only to himself, that he was looking forward to the peace and quiet of Brynnhollow. All the while, he examined his feelings, trying to determine if he were in any danger of disregarding his previous commitments and starting over in the timeless land where monsters live and fairy tales are true.
In the end, he was certain that when the case was concluded that he would go back to the 'real' world. But there was a part of him, deep inside, that was desperately searching for a reason to stay.
* * * * *
When they finally reached the parking lot, Conrad joined Rocky for the long walk back to Brynnhollow. Although Conrad's bags weren't particularly heavy, he was nonetheless grateful that Rocky had volunteered to help him carry them.
"Can I ask you something?" Rocky asked, breaking the long contemplative silence between them.
"Sure. What do you want to know?"
"What kind of a life do you think I would have had if i'd been born in the outside world?"
"I think that mostly depends on the circumstances that you were born into. If you had been born to wealthy parents, your expected outcome would be vastly different from if you'd been born poor."
"It's nothing like that in Brynnhollow. I mean, if your parents are winemakers, you might become a winemaker. But everyone's free to become whatever they want to be."
"Unless they're born female."
"You've had the opportunity to see how people live outside of Brynnhollow. How does it make you feel to know that there's a whole world of people experiencing things that you can't have?"
"Of course I feel like it's unfair, but that's just the way it is for us. I'm a Brynn. It's my lot in life. I can either hate it or make the most of what I do have."
"Do you think that you'll ever get married and have kids?"
"Well, I don't know how much choice I have in the matter. I don't think anyone knows exactly how the curse works, but it seems to me that if there weren't some kind of a compulsion at work, forcing us to act against our own best interests, that the Brynns would have died out a long time ago."
"How do you mean?"
"We all know that when a woman gets married, or just gets pregnant, that she's just a year or two away from being exiled to the Coven. These are people that we grew up with and that we love, but we still keep doing the thing that will hurt them the most. I can tell you right here and now that as long as I'm in my right mind, I'll never hurt someone I love like that."
"Do you know of any men in Brynnhollow who haven't gotten married... or fathered children?"
"There are a few, but not many. I think they're probably the male counterparts of Ima and her sisters."
"But you think that other than those rare few who were able to resist the compulsion, that the rest of the men of Brynnhollow are victims of the curse that forces them to condemn the women to their fates?"
"Yes. If everyone were in their right mind and thinking clearly, the Brynns would just die out. No one would get married or pregnant, no one would go completely insane, and no children would be born to suffer the same fate later."
"When we get back to town, would you mind talking to D and Carn about this?"
"I don't want to say more at this point, but if you're right about the men of Brynnhollow being under a compulsion, then it might be something that needs to be addressed right away."
"Why would it be? It's been this way for hundreds of years. What's the sudden rush?"
"You know that I'm with the FBI, right?"
"In the course of my job, I sometimes come across things that are sensitive, classified or top secret, even though they may not be presented as such at the time."
"Okay, I guess so."
"To do my job effectively, it's sometimes necessary for me to withhold certain information. I'm asking that you trust my judgement in this matter."
"Okay. Yeah, of course. It just seems weird because this is something that everyone probably already knows. I mean, if I reasoned it out, it's got to be pretty obvious."
"It's possible that others know, but they may not have deduced the link between this and... other things that are going on."
"Oh! You mean Andrea, don't you? Her being here seems to have stirred some things up. In fact, that's what brought you and D here, isn't it?"
"Yes and no. Andrea is the initial reason for me being here, but I don't know that what we were discussing has anything to do with her directly."
"Okay. I won't ask anymore questions."
"I don't want you to stop asking questions, just understand that there are certain things that I can't talk about."
"Alright." Rocky said easily, then asked, "What's it like being in the FBI?"
"Paperwork. From. Hell."
* * * * *
Their discussion moved on to lighter topics, mostly focusing on the comparison of how things were in Brynnhollow as opposed to the outside world.
During the course of their conversation, Conrad was surprised to learn that Rocky had come to the conclusion that Waxell was somehow 'fake' or at least, not what it seemed to be on the surface.
When they arrived back in Brynnhollow, Rocky and Conrad went directly to the council offices.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, do you mind if I come in for a moment?" Conrad asked from the doorway to the council chamber.
"Please do. Can I assume that all went well in Waxell?" D asked curiously.
"Yes. Everything is fine." Conrad assured him, then asked, "Do you mind if Rocky comes in, too? We were discussing something on the way back here and I don't know if it's something that you've considered in your plans."
"Yes. Please come in and have a seat. I have to admit that I'm intrigued." Carn said with a smile.
"You're cursed. That's been established. It's been suggested that your people would have died out by now if the curse that affects the men didn't include a compulsion, comparable to that of the women."
"Yes. We've been speculating about that for as long as anyone can remember." Carn confirmed.
"So what happens when the curse on the women is altered? Is it going to cause a comparable alteration in the men's curse? Or will the curse on the men continue to operate as it has all along, forcing them to copulate despite what their logical minds are telling them is the right thing to do?"
"That's a good question. If marriageable women suddenly appear in Brynnhollow, is it going to cause us to lose all reason?" Carn asked distantly.
"Is there any way we can test it out?" Lachlan asked cautiously.
"And even if we did, what could we do about it?" Adair interjected.
"I think someone needs to consult the witches and get their advice. They know more about the curse than any of us and considering what they've done with Andrea, it appears that they've even learned how to manipulate it to some degree." Carn said decisively.
"Should we send someone, or go ourselves?" D asked cautiously.
"We're needed here. If Ares is available, he might be the best choice. By all accounts, he knows a direct route to reach them."
"He should be just outside, at his grandfather's cart. Would you like for me to go and get him?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"I think it might be better if you asked him. Historically, we don't have the best relationship with Ares and his family. We had a productive meeting with him this morning, I think it best not to tempt fate." Carn said frankly.
"What should I tell him?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Just what you told us. I'm sure that he'll see the importance of it and volunteer to help you."
"Me? Do you want me to go, too?"
"Who am I to say? If you have other commitments that are of paramount importance, then of course you should attend to them. But if you'd rather see that everything that can be done is being done, then you might consider going along."
"I know that you want to limit the number of people brought in on this, but do you mind if I fill Rocky in on what you're planning and have him accompany us, too?"
"If you feel that he will be of help, of course you may."
Conrad felt compelled to explain his reasoning, "Rocky's been able to see the world from both sides. He's interacted with uncursed people, but he also intimately knows what's normal in Brynnhollow. I think his point of view might be important."
"From what I hear, it's quite a hike. You'd probably better be on your way." Carn finished with a smile.
"I'll let you know what we come up with as soon as we get back." Conrad promised.
* * * * *
"Did you get everything taken care of in Waxell?" Ares asked as Conrad and Rocky approached.
"Yes. I think so. And on top of that, now I'll have a change of clothes when I need them." Conrad said as he indicated the luggage that he and Rocky were carrying.
"Good. Then if you're ready, I can walk you back to the house so that you can stow those. These guys don't need my help." Ares said, indicating Cain, G and his grandfather.
"Actually, something's come up and I was hoping that you'd be willing to act as a guide for us." Conrad said cautiously.
"Of course. Where did you want to go?" Ares agreed easily.
"To visit 'the witches'. I know that we've already established that everyone here are witches, but I don't think I heard them described otherwise." Conrad said carefully.
"Carn asked if we could escort Agent Fastbeck to visit Ima and her sisters." Rocky helpfully supplied.
"Why me?" Ares asked cautiously.
"They said that you know a shortcut to get there." Rocky said simply.
"True enough. Well then, I suppose that we'd better lay in supplies and head out. It's a long trek." Ares said resignedly.
"Should I leave my things here?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Cain! Front and center!" Ares called toward the cart.
"Yeah?" Cain responded as he approached. Lowell and G followed him and waited to see if they were also going to be called upon.
"We have to run an errand. Will you keep an eye on Agent Fastbeck's things and carry them back to the house if we're not back before you're done for the day?" Ares asked his son seriously.
"Yeah. G and I will make sure that no one messes with your stuff." Cain responded, directing his answer to Conrad.
"Thank you. I'd appreciate that."
"Rocky, do you know where we can get some lanterns, a few flasks of water and some food that's suitable for travel?" Ares asked hopefully.
"Sure. I've got all those things at my house."
"We'll see you guys later." Ares said as he took one step forward and gave his son a firm hug.
"I'll stay at your house with the boys until you return." Lowell said seriously.
"You don't need to do that. I'm sure that they'll be fine with D." Ares said as he shifted Cain to his side and kept an arm around his shoulders.
"Oh? Are you saying that you expect your house guest to attend to your perpetually hungry sons?" Lowell asked acerbically.
"Good point." Ares conceded, then added, "Thanks, Grandpa."
"You'd better be on your way. I don't know what you're getting yourselves into but I feel safe in saying that time is probably not on your side." Lowell said knowingly.
Conrad and Rocky nodded their agreement to Lowell's assessment.
"Lead the way, Rocky." Ares said as he reluctantly released his son.
* * * * *
"What are we getting into?" Ares asked as they walked.
"Let's get our supplies together and get on the road before we get too much into that. Rocky still needs to be filled in on the plan for Monday." Conrad said seriously.
"Is there a plan for Monday?" Ares asked curiously.
"I mean about the curse and counter-curse and all of that. We need to fill him in before we fill you in on why we're going to visit the witches."
"That doesn't sound good." Ares said thoughtfully.
"I think it's too soon to be making good or bad judgements. We need to travel there and ask their advice before knowing just how bad things actually are." Conrad said seriously.
"This is my place." Rocky announced from ahead of them.
Conrad and Ares wore matching smiles at the absolutely quaint little house, nestled comfortably within an equally quaint little neighborhood.
* * * * *
After quickly and efficiently gathering the supplies that they would need, the group set off on their journey.
Ares and Conrad worked together to bring Rocky up to date on the developments brought about by Andrea's arrival. Rocky was amazed as well as worried by what he had learned.
Ares wasn't surprised by Rocky's theory regarding the men of Brynnhollow and their curse, but once he understood Conrad's misgivings, he agreed that consulting Ima seemed to be the best possible course of action.
"Deimos and Jim have been working with my grandfather to repair the footbridge up ahead. I've been looking for an excuse to come out here and look over their handiwork." Ares said casually as they walked.
"I've been meaning to ask, is 'Grandfather' just a term of respect? Or is he really related to you?"
"He's really my grandfather."
"How is that possible? Father I could believe, but he's far too young to be your grandfather."
"He's one hundred eighteen years old. We can't be sure if it's from him being a witch, the curse, our way of life or some combination of those factors, that causes the people of Brynnhollow to be long lived." Ares explained.
"Look at that." Conrad gasped.
"It is a majestic sight." Ares said with a smile, then turned to Conrad and asked, "Are you afraid of heights?"
"Not at all." Conrad said with a smile at the footbridge spanning a deep chasm.
"I'm not afraid of heights, but I do have common sense." Rocky declared, then continued more quietly, "If the bridge starts swaying too bad, I'm not getting on it."
"Don't worry Rocky. The bridge was just recently repaired. It's safe." Ares assured him.
"It's not that I'm scared. I'm just saying that I'm not going to do something stupid. Walking across that thing when it's swaying would be extremely stupid."
"When you put it that way, I can see your point. However, if you'll look at the footbridge, you'll see that it isn't swaying at all." Ares said with a grin.
"I saw you at the Samhain celebration last year. I know that if you fell off that bridge you could just turn into a bird and fly away. Some of us aren't so lucky. If I fell, I'd go splat." Rocky insisted.
"You guys can argue about it if you want. I'm going across." Conrad said as he approached the bridge.
"Even though I trust my grandfather and my son... and Jim, too, I guess. I still think it would be wise if you were careful to be sure of your footing as you cross." Ares warned.
"I will be as careful as the situation warrants." Conrad assured him as he took the first step onto the narrow bridge.
Ares and Rocky watched and waited as Conrad slowly and carefully proceeded, step by step.
Although he appeared to have a few unsteady moments around the halfway point, he mostly kept up a reasonable pace until he reached the other side.
"If you decide that you want to go back, no one will think less of you." Ares told Rocky quietly.
"If he can do it, I can do it." Rocky said determinedly.
"Then why don't you go first? That way, if you get stuck, either Conrad or I can help you, depending on which side you're closer to." Ares said seriously.
"If he can do it. I can do it." Rocky repeated, then forced himself to start walking.
From opposite sides of the chasm, both Ares and Conrad watched as Rocky slowly and deliberately continued, step by step, across the footbridge.
Although Ares couldn't hear what was being said, he could see Rocky's excited movements and Conrad's smile of admiration for his achievement.
Seeing that the other two were safely across, Ares stepped onto the bridge and was sure to take slow, careful steps as he went. It wouldn't benefit anyone if he were to have an accident due to his overconfidence.
* * * * *
"Are there anymore bridges like that?" Rocky asked excitedly as soon as Ares was across.
"No. That's the only bridge worth talking about. The next obstacle is to travel across slippery rocks." Ares said frankly as he indicated the direction that they would be traveling.
"I should have thought about getting more appropriate shoes if we were going to be hiking." Conrad said frankly.
Ares looked down at the black leather shoes and couldn't help but agree, although he didn't voice his opinion. Instead, he said, "After seeing Juliet this morning, I don't know what to expect when we get there. When I visited before, Ima and her sisters were all hideously disfigured and deformed. But since Juliet looks so... normal, I guess it's possible that now they'll just look like a group of women."
"If I'm understanding correctly, Juliet's keku transformation was something new, brought about by Andrea's curse on her." Conrad said slowly.
"Yes. And if she can do that, then Ima and her sisters may be able to transform as well." Ares confirmed.
"If they were able to cast a spell that could do that, why didn't they do it fifty years ago?" Rocky asked curiously.
"As I understand it, they needed someone immune to the Brynn curse to be able to bestow the new curse. Until Andrea arrived, they had the ability to make the curse, but no way to cast it." Ares said carefully.
"It's hard to believe that an agent of the FBI is out here in the middle of nowhere, going to visit witches to ask them about a curse." Conrad said frankly.
"I have a feeling that after Monday that you'll be able to go back to your 'normal' life in the 'real' world. If you choose to, you'll be able to block Brynnhollow and all of us out of your mind and pretend that none of this ever happened." Ares assured him.
"But I don't want to forget you." Conrad said simply, then continued, "Now I know for a fact that magic is real and extraordinary people exist. How will I be able to find fulfillment in investigating some politician who's skimming funds from their charitable trust when I know about this?"
"Maybe Ima can give you something for that. I don't know if she has any memory altering mojo, but that might be a way to go." Ares said simply.
"I don't know what I'm going to do after Monday, but one thing that I'm sure of is that I don't want to forget."
* * * * *
"You weren't kidding about the slippery rocks!" Conrad said as he struggled to maintain his footing.
"I think we're past the worst of it. It's not too much further to Ima's." Ares assured him.
"Next time, we'll take a few extra minutes to go to the parking lot and drive up here. This is crazy!" Rocky said firmly.
"Have you ever delivered supplies to Ima before?" Ares asked curiously.
"No. But I helped with a delivery to the Coven once. That was the creepiest thing I've ever done." Rocky said frankly.
"What was that like? I've never heard anyone say." Ares asked curiously.
"Yeah. No one likes to talk about it." Rocky said seriously, then continued, "After we pulled the truck up to the front, we pulled the lever to close the remote lock on the courtyard gate. After that, we had to look through binoculars to be sure that no one was hiding in the courtyard to ambush us. That took about fifteen minutes. Then we started lowering the drawbridge while keeping watch for any signs of movement.
"As soon as the drawbridge was down, we drove across and started unloading supplies. The worst part was that someone stayed by the drawbridge controls so that he could raise the bridge if we were attacked."
"So if you'd been attacked, you would have been left for dead." Conrad asked slowly.
"Yeah." Rocky confirmed.
"Do you know if that's ever happened?"
"Yeah, but no one ever says what happened next. At least, they never said it to me."
"I don't want to imagine." Ares said frankly.
* * * * *
As the group arrived at the front gate of Ima's castle, Ares stepped forward and aggressively pulled on a heavy rope.
"What now?" Rocky asked anxiously.
"Now we wait. We've let them know that we're here; that's all we can do." Ares said simply.
"Is it true that the witches might try to attack us, like the women in the Coven?"
"Yes. They can be perfectly reasonable, but they'll be the first to tell you not to trust them and to never allow yourself to be alone with one of them." Ares said seriously.
"I thought from the way that you described it, that they were able to overcome the curse." Conrad said cautiously.
"No. If that were the case, they could have bestowed the new curse themselves. They have to constantly fight against the full force of the curse to be able to have anything resembling a normal life." Ares explained.
"It still seems that with access to magical powers that they would be able to do something more, whether it be to benefit Brynnhollow or themselves." Conrad said thoughtfully.
"Try thinking about it this way. When you have magical abilities, it's like you have access to a toolbox that average 'mundane' people don't. Not every witch has the same tools in their box. Most of us get screwdrivers, but only some of us get hammers and others get hacksaws." Ares said carefully.
"Okay. I can see that." Conrad confirmed.
"When the curse was put on us, many of the tools were locked away. That applies to me, to Ima and to any woman at the Coven. While we all may have those tools, we can't use them. Someone like D has access to his entire toolbox and can do much more than any of us."
"If that's the case, then why can't D do a spell to undo the Brynn curse?" Conrad asked curiously.
"From what Grandpa told me, every witch alive today, all working together, couldn't lift the Brynn curse. Also, if D were to try to alter the curse on his own, like Andrea's doing, then it would likely blow back on him, cursing him and his bloodline." Ares said seriously.
"But it doesn't do that to Andrea because she's had the curse and survived?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Yes. Exactly." Ares said with a smile.
"Actually, there's a little more to it than that." A woman's voice said, startling the three men. She appeared to be in her late fifties to early sixties and had a warm yet elegant appearance.
"Hello. Sorry about visiting unannounced, but we need to speak with Ima." Ares said seriously.
"It sounds urgent. Please follow me." The woman said as she opened the heavy iron gate.
"I'm Ares Brynner. With me are Rocky and Agent Fastbeck from the FBI." Ares said as he and the other men walked through the gate.
"We've met before, Ares. Although I can understand if you don't recognize me." The woman said with a trace of amusement under her words, then she continued, "I'm Hilda."
"It's nice to meet you... again." Ares said uncertainly.
Hilda giggled, then said, "I overheard you talking when I arrived. You seem to be working under the assumption that Andrea can bestow the curse because she survived the Brynn curse."
"Yes." Ares confirmed, then explained, "We don't know much about magic, but that's what we've been able to put together from the evidence at hand."
"Well, while that's essentially true, there's one other factor that's very important to make everything work." Hilda said as she led the way across the courtyard to the castle.
"What would that be?" Ares asked curiously.
"Andrea isn't a witch. She has no innate magic to fuel the curse." Hilda said simply.
"But she can transform. How does that work?"
"It's part of the new curse that she carries. Just like the stories of old, of a witch turning a hapless 'mundane' victim into a frog or some such, in the balance of powers Andrea gained the ability to transform." Hilda said before opening the front door of the castle.
"But the new curse wouldn't work on her at all if she hadn't been afflicted with the old curse, right?" Ares asked cautiously.
"Yes. Andrea still carries a benign version of the old Brynn curse. Since she was meant to die, it no longer has any real affect on her. But it serves as a foundation for the new curse that she carries."
After a moment to consider, Ares finally said, "I think I'll just leave the witchcraft to you and Ima."
"Watch your step, the stairs can be a bit slippery." Hilda warned as she led the way down a stone staircase.
* * * * *
"Please excuse us for not coming upstairs to greet you. Come in and make yourselves comfortable." A little pixie of a woman with white hair said with an inviting smile.
"Thank you." Ares said hesitantly as he looked around.
None of the women present looked the least bit like any of the 'hags' that he had met before.
"Although they haven't told me why they're here, I have a feeling that it might be important, for them to have made the journey." Hilda said seriously.
"Ares, it's good to see you again. Who have you brought with you?" The little white haired woman asked energetically.
"This is Rocky and Agent Fastbeck, from the FBI." Ares said cautiously as he continued to try and find any resemblance to any of the hags that he had met previously.
"Oh, yes. Andrea mentioned you, Agent Fastbeck. It's a pleasure to meet you." She said energetically, then continued, "My name is Ima, we also have Vera, you've met Hilda and Kathryn is around here somewhere. So far as I know, Juliet is still out helping Andrea."
"You're Ima?" Ares asked in astonishment.
The white haired woman chuckled with delight, then said, "Believe it or not!"
"And Vera... all of you look amazing." Ares said in wonder.
"Isn't that sweet of you to say." Ima said with a grin, then continued, "But Hilda's right, I'm sure that you wouldn't have come all this way just to tell us how lovely we are. What can we do for you, Ares?"
"Oh?" Ares said as he was snapped out of his wonder. "It appears that Conrad, I mean, Agent Fastbeck and Rocky were discussing some things earlier today and stumbled onto something that might be a problem."
"What might that be?" Ima asked, turning her attention to Conrad.
"Well, I'm new here. Rocky was explaining how things work and if I'm understanding what he told me right, then there's sort of a balance between the men and the women of Brynnhollow. The curse affects them differently, but there's still a balance. If Andrea carries a curse that alters the curse on women, then wouldn't that cause an imbalance which might cause the men's curse to react... badly?"
"For an outsider, you've got really good instincts." Ima said in an impressed tone. "That's something that we, ourselves have considered, but the simple fact of the matter is that without a vessel to contain a comparable counter-curse, there really isn't anything that we can do."
"What kind of vessel? Do you need for Jim to make you a special pendant or something?" Ares asked curiously.
"No. Actually, his pendants are perfect just the way they are. What we need is for someone to wear the cursed pendant, as Andrea does." Ima said frankly.
"If it were that simple, I'm guessing that you wouldn't be saying that there's nothing you can do." Rocky said seriously.
Ima looked at him inquiringly.
Rather than try to explain, Rocky simply asked, "Can I wear the pendant?"
"No. You have magical heritage and the Brynn curse. The pendant alone wouldn't be able to override it." Ima said seriously.
"So, who can wear it?" Rocky persisted.
"No one." Ima said simply.
"How's that?" Ares asked curiously.
"For the countercurse to work, it would be necessary for the person who carries it to have been cursed and also to have survived." Ima said seriously.
"But a mundane man who marries a Brynnhollow woman doesn't receive the curse." Ares said thoughtfully.
"My curse was dormant until last year. Would that make me eligible?" Ares asked cautiously.
"No. Quite the opposite." Ima said simply. "You would have been ineligible while your curse was dormant, and you became that much more so when your curse activated. What is necessary is for a person without magical heritage to be cursed, survive, and be willing to carry the modified version of our curse to bestow it on the men of Brynnhollow."
"It sounds like I'm the only one here who can possibly do it." Conrad said simply.
"By all appearances, you're of mundane heritage, so you're not disqualified on that count, but the way the Brynn curse works is that it only activates in outsider women. So even if you were to be married, you wouldn't be cursed... you would likely be killed by your new wife, but you wouldn't be cursed."
"Excuse me if this is a stupid question, but can't you just curse him yourself?" Rocky asked timidly.
Ima looked at him with surprise, then said, "That's not a stupid question, but I'm afraid that one of the conditions of the Brynn curse would prevent us from being able to do that."
"What about D? Him and his boys are witches, but they're not cursed. Could they do it?" Conrad asked curiously.
"I don't know of whom you are speaking." Ima said cautiously.
"D is a witch from outside Brynnhollow who works to keep us hidden from the mundane world. He came here with his sons when he heard about Andrea and what she was doing with the Coven." Ares quietly explained.
"It might be possible... I suppose it would depend on whether this man or his sons have any talent for bestowing curses." Ima said thoughtfully.
"Okay. If we just work under the assumption that one of them can, then what are you going to do?" Conrad asked seriously.
"Over the years, we've compiled a reasonable facsimile of the original Brynn curse. Now, after all the work that we've done with Andrea, we've gained some skill in crafting and manipulating the countercurse. So once the selected individual has been cursed..."
"No need to beat around the bush. I'm the only 'mundane' person here. It's going to be me." Conrad interrupted.
"True." Ima said with an apologetic smile at him, then continued, "Once this D person, or one of his sons, has placed the Brynn curse on you, then we can bestow the countercurse, in the form of an amulet."
"And then..." Conrad prompted.
"Then you'll need to go to each man in Brynnhollow and bestow the new curse on them so that they won't become ravening rapists when they encounter a bevy of marriageable women for the first time in their lives." Ima said frankly.
"You already knew that this was going to happen and you weren't going to do anything about it?" Rocky asked curiously.
"We suspected, but there was nothing that we could do." Ima said simply.
"If there's nothing else that we need to know right now, we need to go talk to D and the boys. Time is not on our side." Ares said, then looked at Ima with question.
"While you're doing that, we'll work on the countercurse for the men." Ima said simply.
"Thank you, Ima." Ares said sincerely, then added, "By the way, you really do look wonderful."
"That's sweet of you to say. But until we can get this whole curse and countercurse mess sorted out, it's best if we not dwell on that. It might lead to something that one of us would regret." Ima said frankly.
"I wasn't... I didn't mean..." Ares stammered.
"Let an old woman have her fantasies." Ima chuckled, then said, "Go on, now."
* * * * *
As they walked up the stairs, Rocky quietly said, "Since Agent Fastbeck is going to need to be here to get cursed, it would be kind of pointless for him to walk all the way down to Brynnhollow and back. You can fly. You could go and get D and his sons and bring them back here a lot faster."
"I hadn't thought of that." Ares said with surprise.
"I can stay here with him just in case one of the witches loses control. My half form is kind of fierce, so I can protect him." Rocky said seriously.
"That sounds like a good idea. I'll fly back to town, let D know what's going on, then we'll all head back here." Ares said decisively.
"If you talk to Mason, he should be able to get someone to drive you up." Rocky said thoughtfully.
"D has his own car. If you go with him, you can show him the way to the parking lot and back here." Conrad added helpfully.
"It seems the long way around, but it will be a lot easier on them not to have to hike up the side of this mountain." Ares agreed as they walked out the front door.
"Is there anything we can be doing while you're gone?" Conrad asked as they walked into the courtyard.
"Just talk to the witches and see if there's anything more that you can learn about their plan. As much as they're helping us, there's always a chance that they have some hidden agenda that we're not seeing." Ares said as he stopped and began to undress.
"That sounds like something that's right up my alley." Conrad said frankly.
"Yeah. It sounds like a good job for the FBI guy." Rocky said with a smile.
"I'll be back as soon as I can." Ares said simply, then suddenly changed into a large raven.
Conrad watched in wonder as Ares flew away.
As Conrad stood staring, Rocky knelt down and gathered Ares clothes.
* * * * *
"We've had a change of plans." Conrad said as they returned to the 'dungeon'.
"Oh? What was that?" Ima asked curiously.
"Ares has gone to get D and his sons and we're going to stay here and wait for them. Is there anything we can do to help?" Conrad asked hopefully.
"Come and look at these pendants and decide which one you'd like to wear. Once we've crafted the countercurse, you're going to have to wear it from then on." Ima said as she indicated a black velvet board with several silver pendants pinned to it.
"So, since I don't have magic of my own, I'll be wearing a pendant that contains the magic to bestow the curse?" Conrad asked slowly.
"Yes. That's exactly right. The amulet will be enchanted, imbued with our magic and within that will be the curse that you can bestow." Ima said seriously.
"That one's nice." Rocky said as he pointed to one of the pendants.
"It's a little too 'dragony' for my taste. I probably would have liked it when I was your age, but I think I'd like something a little more restrained." Conrad said as he looked over the various different pendants.
"What about that one?" Rocky asked as he pointed at another.
"It's nice. I appreciate the craftsmanship. But I've never really felt any affinity for bears." Conrad said frankly, then turned to Ima and asked, "Is this like the Halloween masks in town? Am I going to be choosing my spirit animal or something like that?"
"The role of the Samhain masks has been discussed and debated for centuries. That, as with this, is something that no one can adequately explain. Just find what appeals to you and it may turn out to have some greater significance in the fullness of time... or it may not. Andrea's pendant represents her children and has nothing to do with her transformation." Ima said as she seemed to be searching for something in a large dusty tome.
After a moment of looking through the available selections, Conrad finally said, "I think I like this one."
"What is that?" Rocky asked curiously.
"Predators and prey." Conrad said with a smile.
"I see a fox... a dog, or maybe that's a wolf, a bird of some kind and is that a lizard?" Rocky asked as he moved closer to see.
"It's different types and kinds gathered together. I don't know why, but I get a good feeling from it." Conrad said with a smile.
"So, it's decided?" Ima asked as she walked to Conrad's side.
"Yes. Not only is it well crafted, but it's also visually interesting."
"That it is. I suppose that if we wanted to, we could construct some long convoluted explanation about it representing the struggle for civility or banding together for the common good, but honestly, we don't have the time. If you're sure that this is the one you want, I'll get it ready while Vera's getting the cauldron going."
"How much of what you're doing is really witchcraft and how much is theatrics?" Conrad asked curiously.
Ima laughed at the question as she continued to work, then finally said, "I suppose that there's equal amounts of each. You have to admit that it wouldn't sound nearly as foreboding if I said that Vera was heating up the soup kettle."
"I suppose not." Conrad admitted, then asked, "But as I understand what you're doing, you follow precise strictures in the preparation of these 'spells' of yours. That suggests to me that what you're doing is something of a science, rather than a religious invocation."
"Again, it's a little of both. We do have to perform the spells precisely to achieve the desired result. But we also have to be aware of the balance of forces at work. Something like the phase of the moon or the ascendance of Mercury in relation to Virgo may actually have some affect on the spell, even though the logical mind discounts it as irrelevant."
Conrad thought about that for a moment, then slowly asked, "Does that mean that you have to be aware of those astrological factors in addition to what's written in the spell book?"
"That's only the beginning. Even the ebb and flow of emotional states within a community can spoil a spell." Ima said frankly.
"And even when you take every single thing into account, there's still a chance that it won't work. Exact replication of the spell won't guarantee the desired result." Vera interjected.
"Is everything ready?" Ima asked hopefully.
"The cauldrons are heating. We still need to gather the ingredients." Vera answered.
"Gentlemen, we're going to be busy for the next little while. You may go upstairs and rest after your long journey, if you'd like." Ima said seriously.
"I'd like to stay here and watch, if I may." Conrad said immediately.
"As you like, but I won't be able to chat with you. We have quite a bit to do and time is short." Ima said simply.
"Excuse me, but do you have a tub or a pond of water somewhere that I can use for a little bit?" Rocky asked uncomfortably.
"Yes, it's in the east courtyard. Kathryn can show you where that is." Ima said with a sympathetic smile at him.
"Thank you." Rocky said uneasily.
"Is something wrong?" Conrad asked his companion curiously.
"I didn't know that we'd be doing all of this today, I haven't changed for a while and I'm really needing to. I just thought that since they don't need for us to do anything, maybe I could get it out of the way while we're waiting for Ares to return." Rocky said honestly.
"Would you like for me to go with you, or would you rather do it in private?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"I normally wouldn't mind either way, but I promised Ares that I'd protect you. I won't be able to do that if you're down here and I'm floating in a pool somewhere else."
"I don't think there's much more that I can do here, anyway."
"Are you ready to go?" A relatively young woman asked as she approached them.
"Kathryn?" Conrad guessed.
"Yes. Ima asked me to show you where the spring fountain is." Kathryn said pleasantly.
"Thank you. Yes, we're ready to go." Conrad answered for both of them.
"You don't need to be shy about it, I have an aquatic form, too." Kathryn said as she led the way.
"How often do you have to change?" Rocky asked curiously as they climbed the stairs.
"I don't know how often I 'have to' change, but I like to change early in the morning so I can enjoy watching the sunrise. The tranquility of it carries me through the rest of the day." Kathryn said with a smile.
"I usually only change when I have to. But I guess that I can see how starting out your day like that would make it easier to focus on everything else, since you don't have that stress of wanting to change nagging at you." Rocky said thoughtfully.
"Ima is going to need me when we start the spellcasting, but maybe we can find the time to swim together some other time." Kathryn said warmly.
"I don't think that I've ever gone swimming with anyone else when I'm in my animal form. That might be nice." Rocky said honestly.
Kathryn walked up to a window and pointed as she said, "There's the fountain. Don't worry, it's deeper than it looks. Unless you transform into a whale, you should have plenty of room."
"No. Not a whale." Rocky assured her.
"Good. I have to get back now. Enjoy your swim." Kathryn said before hurrying away.
After a moment to get his bearings, Conrad said, "I think that if we go through here, we'll get to the entrance to the courtyard."
"I think something just happened." Rocky said slowly.
"What's that?" Conrad asked curiously.
"She was being all nice and curious and interested and... I think you'd better hurry up and get that countercurse." Rocky said anxiously.
"What are you feeling?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Something that I don't like." Rocky said as he fought to meet Conrad's eyes.
"I think I know what you're talking about, but can you explain it to me?"
"It's like the thinking part of my brain was shutting down and the feeling part was taking over. All of a sudden, I wanted to spend time with Kathryn and get to know more about her and... touch her." Rocky said anxiously.
"Your curse makes you desire her, and with the countercurse on her, there's nothing to curtail that desire. Prolonged or repeated exposure might even cause you to feel that you're 'in love'." Conrad speculated as they arrived at the side of the fountain.
"I don't care about the magic that makes us change or keeps us from living in the outside world. All of that's fine with me. It's just the way that it is. But magic that messes with how you feel about people is WRONG. If I could, I'd do away with all the magic just to be free of that part of it." Rocky said with disgust.
"Maybe a little soak in the fountain will make you feel better about things." Conrad quietly suggested, understanding that Rocky was feeling violated.
"Yeah." Rocky grunted absently, then thought to add, "Would you make sure that Kathryn doesn't go in there with me? I might not be able to control myself."
"I felt a little funny when Ares left you here to protect me. I feel a lot better about us protecting each other." Conrad assured him.
As Rocky shucked off his clothes, Conrad noticed that the young man had a rather determined erection.
Much to Conrad's surprise, when Rocky transformed, his body got larger rather than smaller.
The enormous fish was perched on the edge of the fountain, and Conrad realized that he had fins that were elongated and formed so that on land they could function much like feet.
With one little push, the six and a half foot long fish slipped into the water.
The dive was executed perfectly and didn't result in much of a splash.
Conrad walked to the edge of the fountain to watch as Rocky swam around, getting familiar with his surroundings.
After a few minutes, Conrad sat on the edge of the fountain and looked out over the forest of Brynnhollow.
'What have I gotten myself into?'
* * * * *
A while later, a splash in the water broke Conrad out of his wandering thoughts.
He turned to see Rocky, still in his fish form, with his head sticking out of the water.
"I'm fine if you want to stay in a little while longer." Conrad said easily, anticipating Rocky's question.
As Conrad watched, Rocky's form shifted to become considerably more humanoid.
In fact, as Rocky continued to change, Conrad recognized the form that he was taking.
"Have you ever seen 'Creature from the Black Lagoon'?" Conrad asked curiously.
As soon as his gills were out of the water, Rocky answered in a gurgling growl, "I haven't seen the movie, but Mason showed me a couple pictures of it."
"I never thought that the creature from the movie might have been modeled after an actual being, but it's possible that someone might have encountered a Siyokoy, like you, and the mythology could have sprang from that."
"That could be, or maybe the legend or mythology came about naturally, then when it came into the contemporary zeitgeist, our magic was somehow able to tap into that and give it physical form." Rocky said as he climbed out of the fountain.
"So you think that because a number of people either believe or are aware of the mythology that it makes it possible for witches to manifest it?" Conrad asked curiously as he watched Rocky transform back into his fully human form.
"Well, there's got to be a lot more to it than that. But I think that it's too easy to say that A causes B causes C. We should at least consider that C led to B which resulted in A." Rocky said frankly as he started to dress.
"That's a really good point. If we were able to establish causality, there might be some way that we could manipulate what's introduced into the collective consciousness and thereby add beneficial transformations into the possible pool for witches to draw upon."
"Do you mind if I ask you something?" Rocky asked as he sat down to pull on his socks and shoes.
"You can ask me anything. I might not answer, but you can ask."
"By doing this, helping us, you're kind of going to become one of us, in a way. I mean, you won't be a witch, but you'll be able to bestow a curse, like a witch. How do you think you're going to see yourself? Will you still be able to look in the mirror and call yourself human?"
"I guess I won't know about that until I'm actually in that position." Conrad said frankly, then added, "But after seeing how you were affected by Kathryn, I know that what I'm doing is right. I'm in law enforcement to help people who need it and to stop people who harm others. When I look in the mirror, I hope that whatever else I see, I'll also continue to see that looking back at me. Human or witch, that's the core of who I am."
"But what are you going to do when you've closed the case and it's time for you to leave Brynnhollow?" Rocky asked as they walked away from the fountain.
"I'll look at the options that I have in front of me at that time and do what I can to make the best possible decision."
Rocky nodded thoughtfully as they continued to walk.
"Actually, I might ask for your help when it comes to that."
"You seem to have a talent for looking at things from different perspectives. You might be able to spot an alternative that I wouldn't consider."
"I'll be happy to help, if I can."
"But before we worry about that, let's see what the witches have been able to come up with."
* * * * *
As Conrad and Rocky walked into the 'dungeon', they were surprised to see Andrea standing aside and watching as the witches, including Juliet, worked on various projects around the room.
"Agent Fastbeck, it's good to see you again." Andrea said pleasantly.
"Please call me Conrad." He immediately responded, then continued, "I'm surprised to see you here. Were you able to get some sleep?"
"Yes. Not nearly enough, but if I can just keep going a few more days, I should have plenty of time to sleep next week." Andrea said pleasantly.
"Have they filled you in on what they're planning?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Ares did. He stopped at my house and told me what was going on, in case I wanted to be here."
"I'm glad he thought to do that. You should be included." Conrad said with a smile.
"There's more to it than that." Ima interrupted.
"What's that?" Conrad asked as he turned to face her.
"We've been working under the assumption that the unfettered witches that you brought with you will be able to cast a curse. That is by no means a certainty. If it turns out that none of those witches has that talent, then it may be necessary for us to reengineer Andrea's curse to be able to bestow a curse on you." Ima said frankly.
"I take it from your tone that that will be an undesirable outcome." Conrad said cautiously.
"It will force us to have to undo everything that we've done with Andrea to date and start from the beginning." Ima said seriously.
"Will that have any effect on the curses that she's already bestowed?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"It shouldn't, but with magic, one can never be certain. For now, let's just hope that one of the witches will have the ability to bestow a curse, so we won't have to find out."
"So is everything ready for when they arrive?"
"Not hardly. If you'll excuse me, I need to get back to this. Perhaps you three could go upstairs and wait for the bell to let our guests in through the gate?" Ima suggested.
"Sure. We've just been waiting for something to do to help." Conrad said seriously.
Andrea smiled at his response and gestured for him and Rocky to accompany her.
* * * * *
Once they were upstairs, Andrea thought to ask, "Can I get you anything while we wait?"
"If it wouldn't be too much of a bother, I could use something to eat and I can imagine that Rocky must be starving by now." Conrad said honestly.
"Have a seat and I'll be right back." Andrea said before dashing away.
After a long moment of silence between them, Rocky quietly said, "I didn't feel anything."
"What was that?"
"Like what I felt for Kathryn. I didn't feel that for Andrea."
"Well, maybe the interest has to go both ways before the magic works. If she's not interested in you, then the magic doesn't kick in and make you interested in her."
"I guess that's possible." Rocky said slowly, then added, "Besides, it'd be creepy if I was attracted to someone old enough to be my mom."
"I don't think the magic cares."
"Yeah. Age never seemed to make much of a difference to anyone back in Brynnhollow."
"If everything works out the way we're hoping, what do you think that you're going to do?"
"You've grown up expecting things to work out a certain way, based on the way things have always been. What are you going to do if all the rules suddenly change?"
"I guess I'll keep on doing what I'm doing until I have a reason to do something else."
"Listen, Rocky. I don't know how things are going to work out. But it looks like whatever happens, I'm going to be inexorably linked to Brynnhollow, probably for the rest of my life. What I'm trying to say is that I'll be here if you need me. If this new world doesn't make sense to you, I'll do my best to help you figure things out."
"I'll be okay. You've got to remember that this place isn't like it is outside. It's not me against the rest of the world. Everyone in Brynnhollow will stand up and fight for me if I need them to, just like I'd do for them. We're Brynns. We stick together."
"I'll still be here if you need me."
* * * * *
Andrea walked into the room carrying a large tray with chunks of bread, meat and cheese.
"This is the best that I could do without actual 'cooking' and messing up their kitchen." Andrea explained.
"This is fine. Thank you." Conrad assured her.
"Yeah! This looks great!" Rocky said hungrily.
Andrea smiled at his response, then hurried out of the room again.
"You know, if things end up going the way that we're hoping tonight, we're going to be changing a lot of lives in a very positive way." Conrad said as he tore off a chunk of bread.
"I just kind of wish that there was something that I could do to help you."
"Are you kidding? It's because of you that we're doing this at all!"
"How do you mean?"
"You're the one who asked the questions that started all of this. I don't want to imagine how bad things might have gone if not for you."
"I guess so. But I still feel like I should be doing something."
"If things go right tonight, what do you think we'll be doing tomorrow?"
"You'll be cursing people... men, trying to get them all ready for Monday night."
"I'm not from here, Rocky. I don't know anyone and they don't know me. How do you think it's going to work if a stranger walks up to some random man and asks him, "Do you mind if I curse you?"
"Yeah. That might not work out too well." Rocky reluctantly chuckled.
"Would you like some wine?" Andrea asked as she carried a tray with a bottle and three glasses.
"That sounds perfect." Conrad said to her with a smile.
"Andrea, how do you get people to go along with letting you curse them?" Rocky asked curiously.
"The way I ended up doing it was to find one person to curse, then tell them that if they knew of anyone else who wanted to be cursed, to meet with me the next night. It worked kind of like a ripple pattern, each night with more and more people, until I finally had them all." Andrea said frankly.
"We don't have enough time to do it that way. I think we're going to have to go door to door... even then we're going to miss a lot of people." Rocky said thoughtfully.
"What about if we set up a stand or a cart on the main street, like Ares' grandfather did? If we let people know that we offer a service that will benefit them, maybe we can get them to come to us." Conrad said thoughtfully.
"Yeah. And if it does something that they can actually see and know that it works, then word of mouth could get them to come to you." Rocky said with a nod.
"But the curse doesn't do anything that you can see at first. It's mostly mental." Andrea said quietly.
"Maybe, if we ask them right now, we can get Ima to add something to the curse so that they'll think that they're getting something really good." Rocky suggested.
"Let's ask her now. Hopefully it's not too late to add something else to it." Conrad said as he stood.
Andrea and Rocky immediately followed him out of the room.
* * * * *
The sound of a ringing bell caused all three to look up in unison.
"They made good time." Rocky said as he started toward the door.
"I'm guessing that they were sufficiently motivated." Conrad said as he followed.
The group walked across the front courtyard and to the heavy iron gate. As they approached, they saw the gunmetal silver car waiting and Ares standing by the rope.
Conrad and Rocky pulled the gates open wide to allow the car entry.
When the car stopped, the back doors immediately flew open and four boys piled out.
At Conrad's questioning look, Ares quietly admitted, "I couldn't say no."
"Did Ares fill you in on what we're planning?" Conrad asked D as he got out of the car.
"Yes. But I'm afraid that we may have a problem." D said gravely.
"You don't do curses?" Conrad guessed.
"No. I don't have that talent." D confirmed.
"What about the boys?" Conrad asked as he felt his hopes falling.
"As I'm sure you can understand, curses aren't something that we typically teach our children." D said slowly.
"I guess that makes sense." Conrad reluctantly admitted.
"Considering G's gifts that we know about, it's highly unlikely that he will have a talent for curses. We can try, but I don't hold much hope." D said frankly.
"What about Paul?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"His flavor of magic can be a bit troublesome. While he is more likely to be able to bestow a curse, with no training it's possible... probable that it will get out of hand." D said reluctantly.
"Excuse me, but you're talking to a mundane person who didn't believe in magic yesterday. I don't know what you're saying or trying not to say. And while I usually wouldn't have a problem with that, I think the stakes are too high for us to be playing word games right now." Conrad said seriously.
"Paul's biological father was a demon. Paul's magic is demonic. For him to tap into his power risks releasing hell on earth." D said firmly, then asked, "Is that simple enough for you?"
"Yeah." Conrad said as he remembered Paul in his demonic form the night before.
"However, I agree that it may be the only practical way of doing what needs to be done. Let's go talk to your witches and evaluate the risks. Time is not our friend right now." D said firmly.
"D, this is Andrea." Ares said as he gestured toward her.
"A pleasure." D said to her, then turned behind him and said, "Boys! Remember, this isn't playtime. We're here to do serious work. If you can't manage that, then it would be best if you stayed with the car."
"You're going to have to trust us someday." G said with exasperation.
"If you can behave reasonably, today might be that day." D said, then motioned for them to follow the others into the castle.
* * * * *
"My, look at the lot of you." Ima said with a grin.
"We may have a problem." Conrad said, wanting to cut right to the chase.
"What might that be?" Ima asked curiously.
"D can't bestow curses. He doesn't think that G will be able to either. That leaves Paul, who's a..." Conrad faltered, then looked at D helplessly.
"...Cambion. A half demon." D said simply.
"Really? When you let loose, you must really let loose." Ima said with a grin at D.
"He's my wife's son from a former relationship, but I've since adopted him as my own." D said seriously.
"Paul, was it?" Ima asked as she looked him over critically.
"Yes, ma'am." Paul said cautiously.
"Have you ever bestowed a curse or learned the proper technique?" Ima asked carefully.
"No. That's something they really don't want us doing. I've heard that when we get to college, that we can learn stuff like that, if we want to." Paul said frankly.
"There's no time to teach you." Ima muttered to herself in thought, then glanced back at Paul speculatively.
"What?" Paul asked cautiously.
"Do you have a demonic aspect?"
"What do you mean?"
"Can you transform yourself into a demon?"
"Yes..." Paul reluctantly answered.
"Would you do that for me right now? I want to try something." Ima asked carefully.
Paul looked at his father anxiously and received a nod.
After making a few hand gestures while concentrating, Paul began to grown taller and his body reformed into that of a demon.
"Good. Good." Ima said as she looked Paul over critically.
"Did you find a way to make it work?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Perhaps." Ima said slowly, then looked Paul in the eyes as she said, "I'm speaking to the other, the inner, the hidden."
Paul looked at her with confusion at the strange words.
"The rider cannot help, I require the service of that being ridden. Come forth in voice, I demand it."
"Speak. Ask what thou wilt." Paul answered in a deep gravely voice..
"We need for the rider to bestow a curse, but he has no skill. Will you aid him?"
"Such a thing is possible. Why should it comply?" The voice asked coldly.
"Because I can banish it. I can separate it from it's rider. Forever." Ima said firmly.
"It must protect the rider. So shall it be." The voice trailed off.
"What the hell was that?" G asked fearfully.
"What happened?" Paul asked groggily.
"Nothing to worry about, dear. I think we just found a way to make things work out." Ima assured Paul, then cast a warning glance in G's direction.
"Can I change back now?" Paul asked cautiously.
"Yes. I won't need your help for a while, yet. Make yourself comfortable." Ima said gently.
Paul closed his eyes and his demonic features started to fade. At the same time, the clothes that he had been wearing all seemed to be reshaping themselves to accommodate his changing body.
"How do you make your clothes do that?" Deimos asked quickly.
"Yeah. Can you teach us?" Cain asked hopefully.
"Yeah. It's a basic spell. You might be able to do it." Paul said with a smile as he joined the boys.
G made his way closer to Ima and whispered, "What did you do to Paul?"
"Ask your father. I have things that I need to be attending to, just at the moment."
G looked back at his father in time to see him look away.
"You knew about this?" G asked accusingly.
"Paul doesn't know, and you can't tell him until he's ready." D said to his son firmly.
"Doesn't know what? I don't know what I just saw." G said seriously.
"It appears as though Paul's biological father must have given Paul a little helper, to keep him safe in the mundane world." D said carefully.
"Paul's possessed by a demon?" G asked cautiously.
"Technically, yes. But I think it's more of a shared occupancy arrangement." D said reluctantly.
"And you knew that Paul had that thing inside him?" G accused.
"I had my suspicions." D confirmed.
"And you didn't do anything about it?" G asked in a wounded tone.
"G, it keeps Paul safe. Maybe one day he won't need it any more, but until that day comes, I want Paul to have every advantage that he can get. You've got to admit, he had quite a few cards already dealt against him when he first arrived with us."
"It won't hurt him?" G asked cautiously.
"No. It would die before causing Paul a moment of pain. And what's more, since you're so close to Paul, I'm sure that it would actively work to protect you as well." D explained.
G nodded his understanding as he slowly walked away.
"I guess being a witch doesn't make parenting any easier." Conrad said quietly.
D glanced at him, then gave a weary smile as he said, "Not one bit."
* * * * *
"I think that's got it!" Ima said, startling most of the people in the room.
"You've got it ready?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"Yes. Agent Fastbeck, could you stand right over here? Everyone else, you might want to stand away a bit. You wouldn't want to get caught in any overspray from the curse." Ima told the others surrounding Conrad.
After a moment for people to shift around, Ima then said, "Paul, it's your turn."
"I don't know what to do." Paul said weakly.
"That's no problem. I think I have it worked out so that when you start casting the spell, all you'll have to do is let it happen." Ima assured him.
"We don't have any spells like that at school. Every time I know that we're having a spelling test, I have to study for three or four hours to prepare for it." Paul said frankly.
"This is... consider it a shortcut. You'll still need to study for your regular tests, but just this once you'll be able to do it the easy way. Just take a mental step back. You don't have to think about it." Ima told him pleasantly.
"Okay, what do I have to do?" Paul asked cautiously.
"Change into your demon form, then I'll get you the parchment to read from." Ima told him seriously.
Paul once again made the few hand gestures, which the others now knew were part of the spell on his clothes, then he willed himself to begin to change.
Conrad watched, this time more in appreciation than wonder, as the quiet, timid boy transformed into the enormous, muscular demon.
"Very good, Paul. Now I'm going to give you the text. All you'll really need to do is focus on Agent Fastbeck, then read the text. Everything else should happen naturally... or supernaturally, depending on how you look at it." Ima finished with a grin at her own joke.
Paul started reading the parchment in his hand silently as everyone waited for what was going to happen next.
Conrad felt a sudden prickling heat wash over his skin as an acrid odor assaulted him.
Others around the room were likewise affected, but everyone remained silent as Paul slowly began to speak.
His impossibly low raspy voice began to mutter in an incomprehensible language, possibly Latin, or Latin based, but certainly not anything that anyone in the room could recognize.
As Paul continued to speak, the heat and humidity in the room rose to uncomfortable levels and the vile odors came one after another, wafting through the room.
When Paul's voice finally trailed off, he took a step forward and raised one of his claw-like hands and took Conrad's into his for a brief moment. Releasing Conrad's hand, he then touched one fingertip to Conrad's lips and held it there, just for a second. Finally, he placed a hand over Conrad's rapidly beating heart.
"Your touch is cursed. Your words are cursed. Your heart is cursed. So shall it be." Paul said in English as he stepped back.
In that moment, Conrad felt as though he had been doused with icy cold water. The chill washed over him, literally from head to toe. His head was first to register the sensation, then it washed over the rest of his body.
"Conrad? Are you alright?" Andrea asked with concern.
"I... What..." Conrad stammered incoherently.
"Can I get you a drink or anything? You look like you're about to faint." Andrea said as she stepped closer to him.
"I don't know. All of a sudden I'm so light headed." Conrad said as his vision started to narrow.
Seeing that he was on the verge of passing out, Andrea quickly grabbed hold of him, only to find herself holding his empty clothes.
"What just happened?" G asked into the otherwise silent room.
"Conrad? Are you alright?" Andrea asked as she knelt down and helped to free him from his clothes.
The bird squawked as soon as it's head was free from the tangle.
"If you're anything like I was, you're really confused right now, but all you have to do is remember what it felt like to be a person, and then push yourself to feel that way again. I know how it sounds, but that's really all there is to it." Andrea gently explained.
After a long moment of everyone watching and waiting, the black swan began to grow, assuming a mostly humanoid form.
"If you stop where you are right now, your feathers will cover your... modest areas." Andrea told Conrad quietly.
"Don't mind us. You can keep going if you want." Vera said from across the room.
"Worth the price of admission." Ima said with a grin at her.
"What just happened?" Conrad was finally able to ask.
"When Andrea touched you, your curse reacted by forcing you to transform." Ares said simply.
"That's exactly the same thing that happened to me when Ares touched me after my curse." Andrea said seriously.
"It seems that Paul was able to do much more than I had anticipated. He has not only bestowed the initial Brynn curse, but also woven in the groundwork for the countercurse. But no matter. Now that it's done, we can carry on." Ima said as she stepped away from her sisters.
"What do we need to do next?" Conrad asked her cautiously.
"Don't worry, this part is very simple. Since Paul did all the heavy lifting, all you have to do is accept your talisman from me and the countercurse will be bestowed." Ima said as she picked up a black velvet pillow with a silver pendant on a chain on it.
"Do I need to change or something before I do that?" Conrad asked uncertainly.
"You can if you like. I'm certain that no one here would complain." Ima said with a grin.
"Agent Fastbeck?" G asked cautiously.
"If you want, I can give you cover while you dress yourself."
"Would you please?"
G made a simple 'raising' gesture with one hand, then waited as Conrad dressed himself in a reasonably good approximation of a department store changing room.
"Party pooper." Vera grumbled at G.
In response, G let his 'clown' features come into being, especially the big irritating smirk.
"Thank you, G. That was very helpful." Conrad announced.
"No prob." G responded, then made a 'lowering' gesture with his hand that corresponded to the 'changing room' dissolving into nothingness.
"Take this pendant." Ima said as she offered it to Conrad on the pillow.
Conrad took the pendant then looked around, waiting for something to happen.
"That's it. You're done." Ima said pleasantly.
"I don't feel any different." Conrad said honestly.
"You aren't really. Except that now you can transform, like everyone else around here. And more importantly, you can bestow a curse on someone who is in need of it." Ima said frankly.
"How do you mean?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"I mean, when you find someone who needs your curse, you can bestow it on him. Your restrictions are the same as Andrea's. You have to touch the person you're cursing, you have to tell them that you're cursing them, and you have to want the curse to be bestowed." Ima said seriously.
"No one can make you curse them or someone else. You have to decide that it's the right thing to do." Andrea added.
"Also, never curse someone who doesn't have the original Brynn curse active in them. Very bad and unpredictable things could happen if you did that." Vera said firmly.
"Rocky." Conrad said, noticing that Rocky was staring, transfixed on Kathryn.
"What?" Rocky asked as he blinked and tried to tear his gaze away from her.
"You started all of this. Would you like to be the first to receive the new curse?" Conrad asked as he held Rocky's gaze.
"Does it hurt?" Rocky asked cautiously.
Conrad looked toward Ima inquiringly.
"No. Not at all. It just makes your libido a bit more... discerning, and a bit less active." Ima said carefully.
"You don't have to. We can do it later." Conrad said simply.
"No. Now it's my turn to cross the bridge first." Rocky said with a smile.
Conrad returned the smile, then took Rocky by the hand, looked him in the eye and said, "I curse you."
"That's how you do it!" Andrea said approvingly, then started to clap.
The others around the room joined in as Conrad released Rocky's hand and stepped out of his personal space.
When the applause died down, Ima suddenly said, "Oh, that's right, I forgot to warn you."
"Now you tell me? You forgot to warn me about what?" Conrad asked cautiously.
"It's nothing bad. It's just, when we were talking about how to make men want to be cursed... well, I didn't know what men would most want so I kind of made up a little magical grab bag for them. It doesn't really amount to much, but you might be able to sell it as something positive enough to make the men overlook that they're actually being cursed." Ima said reluctantly.
"So, what exactly did you just trick me into doing to Rocky?" Conrad asked firmly.
"We came up with five common wishes that we thought men might want and wove it into the curse to grant the one they wanted most." Ima quickly explained.
"So what is taken, is the excess of the original curse and what is given is a wish fulfilled?" Conrad asked carefully.
"Yes. That's it, plain and simple." Ima confirmed.
"What are the five wishes?" Ares asked cautiously.
"I think it's better if I let you figure that out for yourselves. Maybe if you tell people that they're getting their deepest, unspoken wish granted the placebo effect will be on our side and people will assume that all kinds of crazy things are their wish coming true." Ima finished with a smile.
"But there really is a wish being granted, isn't there?" Conrad asked to confirm.
"Yes. From within the context of the curse, a wish fulfilled establishes a balance, which in-turn roots itself into the subject's innate magic, which fuels the curse, which fuels the wish fulfillment..." Ima trailed off.
"...Which results in the granted wish being permanent." Conrad finished the thought.
"Can you give us a clue as to what the wishes are? It might help us to 'sell' it to the men of Brynnhollow."
"Each of the wishes is something that it is in my power, as a witch, to provide. In other words, I'm not going to make anyone a president, a king or an emperor. I don't have that kind of power. "Each of the wishes is something that people generally want. No one wishes for a jar of Hilda's pickled prune preserves, so they aren't on the list."
"You don't like my prunes?" Hilda asked in offense.
"Of course I do. Your prunes are quite lovely, dear... and quite effective. I'm just saying that they aren't commonly wished for."
Hilda reluctantly nodded her acceptance.
"And they're magical." Ima finished with a smile.
"What are?" Conrad asked uncertainly, not entirely sure if they were still talking about Hilda's prunes or not.
"When the wish is fulfilled, you'll know it's magic. I'm not farting around with fuzzy warm feelings and the wonder of morning dew. Whatever it turns out to be, you'll know that it happened by magic and that it's your wish being granted."
"Oh? Well, Rocky. I guess you've got that to look forward to." Conrad said with a smile at the young man who had been such a help to him.
"Do me next! I already know what I want!" Deimos said suddenly.
"I think that lends to the idea that the wishes will prompt people to want to receive the curse." Ima said frankly.
"What's your wish?" Cain asked his brother curiously.
"I don't have to say it, do I?" Deimos asked Ima seriously.
"No. You don't even have to decide what it is that you want. Of those wishes offered, the one you desire most will be granted." Ima once again explained.
"Come on, Agent Conrad. I'm ready. Go ahead and do it." Deimos said firmly.
"Fastbeck." He absently corrected as he looked at Ima, then at Ares, to see if either of them objected to what he was about to do.
"Come here." Conrad said as he held out his hand in invitation.
Deimos placed his hand in Conrad's and waited.
"I curse you." Conrad said simply.
"Thanks!" Deimos said happily, then turned to Ima and asked, "How long does it take to work?"
"With magic, one can never tell. It could happen immediately or I suppose it could take as long as four or five days." Ima said consideringly.
Deimos released Conrad's hand and hurried to Cain, Paul and G as he said, "Let's see if it worked."
The adults around the room watched as the boys gathered into a close group.
"What do you suppose that he wanted?" Ares finally asked.
"I can think of two things..." Ima began to say when she was interrupted.
"I did it! It worked!" Deimos happily called out.
"What's that?" Ares asked cautiously.
Deimos erupted from the group of boys with a ball of fire balanced in the palm of his hand.
"That was one of them." Ima confirmed.
"What's his gift?" Ares asked cautiously.
"Access to one of his blocked magical abilities." Ima said simply.
"So, the curse typically prevents most of your people from accessing their magic, but one of the five possible wishes is to grant them access to one of those abilities?" Conrad asked to confirm.
"That's right. Were it in my power, I would grant everyone full access to all their abilities, but that simply can't be done." Ima confirmed.
"So, are you saying that Deimos had an innate ability for fire magic, but was prevented from using it. But since it was what he most desired, he now has access to it?" Ares asked slowly.
"Yes. Because the affinity for fire was something that he was born with, he's always had that desire within him but no way to express it." Ima said slowly.
"And seeing Paul and Jim playing catch with fireballs probably just made it that much worse for him." D added quietly.
"Can you do me next?" Cain asked hopefully.
"Do you already know what you want?" Conrad asked curiously.
"No. But if it's as cool as Deimos', I don't really care what it is."
Conrad held out his hand, and accepted Cain's.
"I curse you." Conrad said with a smile.
"Thanks!" Cain said happily.
"It looks like you're going to have a lot of work ahead of you in the next few days, Agent Fastbeck." D said frankly.
"It does look that way." Conrad agreed, then turned and asked, "Since we're here, do you want for me to curse you too?"
"We might as well, although I can't imagine what gift I'll be receiving. I've already got everything that I could want." Ares said honestly.
Agent Fastbeck took Ares' hand and gave it a quick squeeze as he said, "I curse you."
"Thank you." Ares responded with a smile.
"Is there anything else that we need to do before we head off to Brynnhollow?"
"I just wanted to tell you that everything is being prepared for Monday at sunset." Andrea said seriously.
"The elders said that they were certain that if there were any change of plan that you'd notify them." Ares told her.
"Yes. I appreciate them not hounding me, constantly wanting updates. The only thing I'm going to need in the immediate future is for a few boxes to be delivered to the Coven before Monday. It's all the masks that I've gathered for them."
"Are they at your house? Because I can take care of that, if you need me to." Rocky volunteered.
"Yes. Is there any way that you could do that sometime tomorrow afternoon? I'd like to make one more trip to Dark's to be sure that I have a mask for everyone before I send them off." Andrea asked hopefully.
"That'll work out fine. I have some other stuff to do in the morning..." Rocky trailed off, then looked to Conrad and asked, "You don't need for me to be there with you if you're setting up a stand, do you?"
"No. I think that we've done everything that needed to be done. I should be fine from here on, but if I do need your help, be sure to know that I'll call on you."
"That goes both ways. Since I know that you'll listen to me and take me seriously, you can count on me showing up if I need you for something." Rocky said seriously.
"If we're all done here, we should think about heading back home. I don't want Grandpa to feel too put upon, seeing after things at the house in my absence." Ares said to the group.
"Since Grandpa Lowell's there, is it okay if Cain and I fly home? That way you should have enough room in the car for everyone." Deimos asked hopefully.
"Be careful not to drop your brother. And be sure to stay away from any populated areas in your animal forms." Ares warned.
"Yes, Dad. We promise." Deimos said for both of them.
"Conrad, would you like to fly over to my place before going on to Ares'? That way I can help you get used to changing into your oskmey form." Andrea asked pleasantly.
"Actually, I might need your help learning how to fly, before I can learn anything else." Conrad said frankly.
"The flying instinct comes hardwired. It's as natural as breathing to us." Andrea said with a smile.
"Conrad, make sure that you keep your talisman with you and don't let anyone else touch it." Ima warned.
"Don't worry, I'll fill him in on all the tricks of the trade." Andrea assured her, then turned to Ares and asked, "Do you want to fly over with us?"
"No, thank you. I'm going to ride along with D so that I can show them the way back to the house." Ares said with a smile at her.
"Would you mind taking our clothes there with you?"
"I wouldn't mind at all."
"Then I guess we'd better go." D said as he started toward the door.
* * * * *
Once everyone was upstairs, Andrea led Conrad to the front door and the others followed.
"If you need me for anything, you'll probably be able to catch me in the morning." Andrea said as she walked to the center of the courtyard.
"I think we're all clear about what's going to happen next, but we'll get in touch if we need anything." Ares assured her.
Andrea then turned to Conrad and quietly said, "This time you're going to remember what it felt like to change into a swan. It's probably already calling to you, so all you'll really have to do is let it happen. Once you've changed, make sure that you've still got your talisman around your neck. Ares is going to see to our clothes, so you won't have to worry about that. Just get free of the clothes and when you're ready, we'll take flight." Andrea said instructively.
"I guess I'm ready when you are." Conrad said simply.
"Go ahead and change. Once I see that you're not having any problem, I'll change too."
Conrad closed his eyes and concentrated on what it felt like when he had unexpectedly changed before. This time it was a simple matter of just letting go and letting it happen. Between one moment and the next, he found himself in a tent of his own clothes.
As everyone watched, the black swan and the white swan took flight into the star filled night, each with a silver talisman around their necks.
* * * * *
As Andrea had said, word seemed to spread in a ripple pattern. Conrad ended up at Lowell's cart and countless people came to him, asking for his curse.
Carn and the others had let it be known that not only was Conrad's 'gift' legitimate, but that they had accepted it themselves.
When Monday finally arrived, the carts were gone from the main street and the party had begun. A feast to rival all feasts was presented, up and down the main street, for all to share.
The group of boys seemed to have split into two factions. Jim, Paul and Deimos were openly demonstrating their fire abilities for anyone willing to watch. Tannis, Cain and G seemed to be more interested in tasting every variety of food that Brynnhollow had to offer.
As night approached, Conrad, Ares and D walked, all dressed in their masks, to the natural amphitheater where new celebrants displayed their first transformations for all to see. Conrad was conspicuous by the fact that rather than wearing a cloak, he chose to wear his business suit.
"Shouldn't we have gone with Carn and the others to open the drawbridge?" Conrad asked with concern.
"No. They have Mason and his people with them. We'd only be in the way." D assured him.
"How long do you think it will be before they arrive?" Ares asked anxiously.
"There's no way of knowing that without knowing what they're planning on doing." D said simply, then turned to Conrad and asked, "Has Andrea said anything to you about what they're planning?"
"She's said that 'The Queen' has seen to organizing her people. But that's about all." Conrad said honestly.
"How are things going with you and Andrea?" Ares asked curiously.
"She's been helping me come to terms with... what I've become. I didn't think it would be so difficult." Conrad said honestly.
"If you ever need a sympathetic ear, Paul is someone you might consider talking to." D suggested easily.
"Your son, Paul? Why?" Conrad asked in confusion.
"He was raised believing that he was human. On my wedding day, one year ago today, to be exact, he discovered that his mother was a witch and his biological father was a demon. I can't imagine what he went through, coming to terms with discovering such things about himself." D said frankly.
"He seems to have come through it okay." Ares observed.
"Yes. With the help and support of his friends and family, he came through something that might easily have destroyed someone weaker." D confirmed.
"It looks like they're starting." Conrad said as he pointed to the stage area.
"For most of these kids, it's going to be their first transformation. This is the biggest day in their lives so far." Ares explained to Conrad quietly.
"Like a rite of passage?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Exactly." Ares said, then they all watched as a twelve year old boy flawlessly transformed into an owl.
Applause rose up from the entire gathering as the small owl changed back to his human form and quickly donned his robe.
Conrad noticed a movement, and watched Dark step up to Ares' side.
As the next celebrant stepped forward, Conrad felt a hand on his shoulder.
When he turned, he saw Andrea, wearing a white swan mask.
Conrad couldn't help but smile to himself, knowing that he was wearing the black version of the same mask.
Without Ares, Dark or D noticing, Conrad slipped away with Andrea toward the back of the amphitheater.
"What's going on?" Conrad asked as soon as they were far enough away so as not to disturb anyone.
"The women are here. They're entering town right now. I was hoping that you'd stand with me with the elders." Andrea said honestly.
"I'd be honored to stand with you." Conrad said simply.
* * * * *
Andrea, in her white mask and cloak, accompanied by Conrad, in his black mask and suit, walked over the rise to where they had an unobstructed view of all of Brynnhollow.
The women were all wearing light colored robes and each of them wore a mask.
"Is it time?" A voice said from beside Conrad, startling him.
He turned and smiled at the small woman, wearing a Chinese dragon mask.
"It looks that way." Conrad confirmed, then said, "I didn't know if you'd come down off your mountain."
"If we come down at all, it's for this celebration. But this year there's more of a reason to celebrate than most." Ima finished happily.
Conrad saw that Vera, Hilda and Kathryn were present and he couldn't help but ask, "Where's Juliet?"
"She's marching with the women. Some of them were nervous about their reception here, so Juliet volunteered to walk with them." Andrea said with a smile.
"I bet you wanted to go with her." Conrad speculated.
"If it weren't necessary for me to be here leading the way, then yes, I would be with them." Andrea admitted.
"What are they going to do when they get here?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Carn is going to make an announcement to everyone about what is happening. You and I will be there to stand with him. When that's done... we'll see what happens." Andrea said simply.
"I've been so busy with cursing people that I haven't heard, have you come up with a plan for what to do with all the women returning at once?" Conrad asked curiously.
"We'll explain that in a few minutes. Let's watch and wait for the last new celebrants to finish. We don't want to interrupt their special day." Andrea said as she guided Conrad to walk with her.
Ima and the others automatically followed as they returned to the top of the rise where they could see both the celebrants transforming and the women approaching.
"I thought I wasn't going to find you." Rocky said with a smile at Conrad as he approached. Although he was wearing a fish mask and robe of a matching color, having seen Rocky's transformation, Conrad had no doubt that it was him.
"It's the mask. No one could ever guess it was me." Conrad said with a smile.
"Right, like there's so many suit wearing black swans running around this place." Rocky chuckled, then continued, "I went to help open the Coven. I think they're as scared as we are."
"That would make sense."
* * * * *
The new celebrants were just finishing up as the first of the women from the Coven arrived at the edge of the amphitheater. Carn motioned for Andrea and Conrad to come forward and stand with him.
"Come on, Rocky. This is your victory, too." Conrad coaxed.
"I didn't do anything." Rocky said hesitantly.
"Let's not go through that again. We're here, now, in large part thanks to you." Conrad said firmly, then added, "Come on."
Rocky finally reluctantly walked with Conrad to the stage area to join Carn and the other elders.
"Everyone! Please, if I may have your attention for just a moment!" Carn called out.
"On behalf of the Brynnhollow elders, I would like to thank all of you for joining in this celebration with us. In a sense, this has become something of a new year's celebration for us. No, we don't turn the calendars, but this has become the day when we close one chapter and begin the next. We choose to let the past lie in the past and press forward leaving old heartaches and resentments behind."
Lachlan stepped to Carn's side and continued the thought, "In the spirit of ushering in a new day, we are pleased and honored to have the members of 'The Coven' joining us. Before anyone can become concerned, the madness that forced them into exile has been cured. There is no reason to fear or distrust them. Our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters have returned to us. This is a day for celebration."
The procession of women walked around the amphitheater, led by a blond woman in a rather eerie unadorned porcelain white mask.
Carn and Lachlan stood aside and welcomed the woman to take center stage.
"As was said, we are your mothers, your sisters, your wives and your daughters... but before any of that, we are ourselves. This night, we will share in your celebration and revel in being able to visit with loved ones and catch up on old times. But when this night is over, we will return to our home. Our people and yours will be free to come and go as they please and it is hoped that in time both populations will normalize to a balance of men and women... but that will take time. For now, before all of you, I, Queen Marimba, formerly known as Ophelia Brynnmoore, declare that The Coven is no more. Henceforth, the community of women to the northeast of Brynnhollow shall be known as Brynnhaven."
Rather than applause, as might have been expected, there was nothing but stunned silence. Had it been just a bit earlier in the year, there most certainly would have been the sound of crickets chirping in the distance.
Finally, Carn stepped forward and said, "Anticipating the reactions of people to the news, we've asked that extra wine be made available for the occasion. The streets of Brynnhollow are open to you, mix and mingle. Reconnect or form new friendships. In other words, HAVE FUN!"
"That's the plan?" Conrad asked Andrea incredulously.
"Did you have something else in mind?" Andrea asked with amusement at his reaction.
"I don't know, I thought maybe each woman would be reintroduced to the community or something..." Conrad trailed off.
"Do you have any idea how long that would take? This way, the announcement was made and people can work it out for themselves. No one has to worry about having enough food, or beds or anything like that." Andrea said frankly.
"But I can't be sure that all the men got the curse. What happens if one or more of them lose control?" Conrad asked anxiously.
"You'll curse them. All the women know about the curse on the men and will see that they're brought to you." Andrea said simply, then looked around before continuing, "Carn suggested that all of us should circulate to see if we can spot any problems."
"Right. That's probably a good idea." Conrad said as he watched the women slowly infiltrating the clustered group of men in the amphitheater.
"Mom!" Conrad heard a familiar voice call out and turned in time to see Rocky hugging a woman with all his might.
After a moment of watching, Andrea quietly asked, "Do you think it was worth all of the struggle that we went through?"
Conrad smiled at the question and without reservation, he answered, "It was."
To: Director, FBI
(ATTN: GENERAL GOVERNMENT CRIMES UNIT, CID)
Andrea Brynner - SUBJECT;
Helen Greymont - INQUIRY;
Ares Brynner - RELATED SUBJECT;
Christopher Brynner - RELATED SUBJECT;
David Brynner - RELATED SUBJECT
Enclosed for the Bureau is a report of the findings of the investigation.
Sufficient information has been developed indicating that the subject ANDREA BRYNNER was located in a remote site in Kentucky. Following multiple interviews, there are no indications of coercion or any type of manipulation in regard to her. ANDREA BRYNNER is living independently and is self sufficient and in good health.
Related subject ARES BRYNNER was also located and likewise appears to be living independently, separate from his estranged wife, and has custody of their two children related subject CHRISTOPHER BRYNNER and related subject DAVID BRYNNER. There were no indications of the children being subjected to restraint, duress or unreasonable limitations on access to their mother.
Investigation concludes that no crime has been committed.
Conrad Fastbeck, Director
FBI Field Office
Oh, man! For possibly the first time since I started reading MM's stories, I can say wholeheartedly that this was a truly satisfying time to end a wonderful story. That is not to say that other stories were not satisfying, it is just that I love to see more of most of the people in his stories, so I cringe when I see the words 'The End'. With this story. It has come to a very satisfying conclusion. Of course, that doesn't say there should never be a sequel. There is always the chance that other adventures could find their way to us in the future, but this story actually ended where it needed to end.
Wonderful story, MM! Thank you!
DARRYL AKA The Radio Rancher