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The knock on his front door heralded the upcoming change in his life.
There was nothing to say that if he hadn't answered it, that anything might have turned out differently. But it still seemed that in that one pivotal moment as the door swung open, his entire world changed.
"Uncle Dark! Guess what?!" Cain demanded as soon as the door opened.
Dark was as perplexed by the impossibly vague question as he was by the normally restrained teenager behaving like a five year old on a sugar high.
"I can't guess. You're going to have to tell me."
"My mom's here! She's over at our house, right now!"
"How is that even possible? I thought that if you or your dad ever saw her again that she'd die."
"I don't know. Dad could probably explain it. He told me to come over here and ask you if you wanted to come over to our house to celebrate."
"Your mom is here and your dad wants me to be there?"
"Yeah! Do you want to come over or not? I can wait if you need me to, but I don't want to miss too much."
"I suppose, if Ares asked you to..."
"Then come on!"
* * * * *
Dark was surprised and pleased that in the rush to reach their destination, Cain had been able to resist the urge to assume his animal form and race ahead.
Although they weren't running, they were moving at a fast enough pace that it made conversation difficult, if not impossible. That was just fine with Dark. He appreciated having a few minutes to compose himself before meeting Andrea for the first time.
Ever since Ares had returned to Brynnhollow, Ares and Dark had spent a great deal of their free time together. They might drink some ale and reminisce about 'the good old days' or they might engage in some activity with the boys, but all that Dark knew was that it was as close as he could come to having a family since his own had been lost in a fire, many years before.
The undefinable emptiness that Dark carried with him for as long as he remembered, seemed to be filled by Ares' presence. Dark had found such contentment in the recent months that the news of Andrea's arrival shook him to the core.
To be honest, Ares had never spoken an unkind word about his wife. But by the same token, neither had he been singing her praises. Dark could tell that Ares carried some regrets about the way things had turned out. But he didn't get the sense that Ares was 'pining' for her.
* * * * *
As Cain and Dark approached Ares' house, Dark felt his anxiety ratchet up another notch.
He had lost his best friend once, which had been the beginning of a very lonely time of his life. His logical mind couldn't seem to find any reason to believe that the same thing wasn't about to happen again.
"Oh yeah, Dad told me to tell you that Mom knows about the curse and stuff, so it's okay to talk about it in front of her." Cain said just before opening the front door.
The words drew Dark's mind back to the question of how Andrea could be there at all. By all that he knew, once a woman had been cursed, she would go insane or die. It was a simple immutable fact of their lives.
"Dark! I'm glad you're here! Come on in and get comfortable!" Ares said from the kitchen doorway, then added, "Andrea will be out in just a minute."
"How is everything?"
Ares stopped and considered for a moment before answering, "About a hundred unexpected and impossible things have happened in the past twenty-four hours. From the way things look right this minute, everything's fine, but don't hold me to that."
"You got it."
"Go ahead and sit down. Can I get you anything to drink?"
"Do you still have any of that ale from the summer solstice celebration?"
"I think so." Ares said uncertainly, then cautiously asked, "Are you alright? You don't usually indulge in the hard stuff."
"I'll probably only have one. I just need to take the edge off."
"The edge off of what? Is something wrong?"
"I don't know yet. But I have a strong feeling that if things end up going in that direction that I'll appreciate already being somewhat anesthetized."
"You realize that I have no idea what we're talking about, don't you?"
"Yeah. How about I sit down and shut up while you get me that drink?"
Ares lingered for a moment, looking at Dark with concern, before nodding and retreating into the kitchen.
* * * * *
Dark sat in the living room for a moment and fought to collect his emotions. Although the prospect of returning to his life of solitude was a major factor in his discomfort, there was something deeper that Dark was working very hard not to acknowledge.
"Here you go." Ares said carrying a large bottle and an empty glass.
"Thanks..." Dark began to say, then saw Andrea slowly entering the living room.
"Dark, I'd like for you to meet my wife, Andrea." Ares said, somewhat formally.
Before Dark could respond, Andrea quietly said, "Please don't introduce me as your wife unless you plan on us renewing our commitment."
"Sorry. I didn't mean for that to sound like I was staking my claim." Ares said to his wife apologetically, then turned to Dark and explained, "Andrea and I have decided to give things time to settle down before we commit to what we're going to do next."
"But isn't it the commitment that gives you a direction to move in?" Dark asked before he could think better of it.
Andrea smiled at his question, then said, "You might be right about that. But I'd still like to take some time to get my bearings before I start making plans."
"I think that would be the smart thing to do even if you didn't have the curse to contend with." Ares added.
"What about the curse?" Dark asked cautiously.
"It's not our curse. Ima and her sisters came up with a different curse to override ours and allow Andrea to stay here. The problem is that we can't be sure what side effects there might be." Ares explained.
After a moment to consider, Dark cautiously admitted, "I don't understand how that works."
"Neither do we. That's why we're waiting for things to settle down." Andrea said warmly.
"Dad! Are Tan and Jim going to be here soon?" Deimos asked as he raced into the living room.
"They'll probably be here in about half an hour." Ares said simply.
"Okay!" Deimos said as he dashed away.
"Where are your manners?! We have company!" Ares called after him.
"Hi Uncle Dark!" Deimos called from the next room.
Andrea, Ares and Dark shared an amused smile at the boy's antics.
* * * * *
Dark started drinking his ale as Ares and Andrea returned to the kitchen to check on the meal that they were preparing.
Nothing that had happened or had been said served to put Dark at ease, although he couldn't pinpoint just what was bothering him.
"Mom! I found it!" Cain bellowed as he ran into the living room.
"She's in the kitchen with your dad."
"I knew I had this, I just couldn't remember where I put it." Cain said as he held out a fine silver chain.
"What's that for?"
"Do you remember those charms that Jim made for us?"
"Yes. He did some very nice work. I thought about asking him if he'd like to display some of his work in my mask shop."
"Well, when he gave me mine, I thought that I'd wear it on a necklace, but then I decided to carry it in my pocket, like everyone else does."
"So what are you doing with the necklace?"
"Dad was asking me if I still had it because he wanted it for Mom." Cain said frankly.
Before Dark could think of anything to say, Cain was off like a shot, into the kitchen.
After a long silent moment, Dark felt his spirits sink as he finally realized the thing that had been eluding him. Regardless of what Ares and Andrea said or how they felt about each other, one thing could not be denied. They were a family.
Even though he had been invited, he still felt like an intruder. He was there, sharing in their love and happiness, as though he were somehow entitled to it.
If it weren't for the fact that Ares would be offended, Dark might have left while no one was around.
"I think everything is set for a while." Ares said as he walked into the living room and took a seat.
"Will Andrea be joining us?" Dark asked casually.
"Probably... eventually. Cain gave her a necklace and now she has to... I don't know, change her hairstyle or clothes or something to match it."
Dark laughed despite himself.
"Andrea's decided to stay at Drake's for a while, until she's had time to make some decisions."
"Oh? I guess I just naturally assumed that she'd be staying with you."
"I told her that she could stay with us if she wanted to, but I also made sure that she knew that she had other options."
"What do you think she's going to decide?"
"There's no way of knowing. But she's not the only one who has a say in what's going to happen next."
"Do you know what you're going to do?"
"I'll do what I can to watch out for the best interests of the boys and once I'm sure that they're going to be alright, I'll take a look at the rest."
"That's probably best."
"Here in a couple months we're going to be having the Samhain celebration. I can't even imagine how that's going to work."
"A million different things could happen between now and then. But whatever happens, you won't have to face it alone." Dark assured him.
"I know. Thanks."
* * * * *
"How does it look?" Andrea asked as she walked into the living room.
"It looks perfect." Ares answered with a smile.
Dark looked at the pendant on her necklace and immediately recognized it. "Jim made that, didn't he?"
"Yes. From what he told me, this was originally his." Andrea quietly answered.
"My grandfather said that Ima and her sisters cursed the talisman. It's good that you're going to wear it. It could be dangerous if anyone else were to take possession of it."
"Did anyone tell you what the pendant is supposed to be?" Dark asked cautiously.
"Jim said that it was meant to symbolize my boys, but I have to admit that I can't see the connection to them."
"It's supposed to be their animal forms... You know what I mean by that, don't you?" Dark thought to ask.
"She can change into a swan." Ares said simply.
"Oh, well then, why don't you get the boys to show you their transformations? I know they'll be excited to show you. And then you'll understand the significance of the pendant." Dark suggested with a smile.
"Actually, why don't we wait until after dinner for that?" Ares interjected.
"That's probably best." Andrea agreed with a smile.
"Drake and his kids should be here just about when dinner's ready. I'll go wake up my grandfather so he'll have some time to come fully awake before it's time to eat."
"Uncle Dark! We're gonna show Mom our rooms. Do you wanna come?" Cain asked breathlessly as he ran to his mother's side.
"I helped you build those rooms."
"Yeah. So? You wanna come with us or not?"
"Sure. I'd be happy to."
* * * * *
Even though Dark had seen the boys' room several times before and even had helped to build them, taking the tour with Andrea was like seeing them for the first time.
It also turned out that all the stories that the boys excitedly told their mother, chronicled events in their lives that he had been a part of.
Yes, Andrea was their mother, nothing would ever change that. But listening to their stories confirmed that Dark, too, was a significant person in their lives.
"When we change halfway we have to wear the loincloths that Grandpa Lowell made for us so our junk don't hang out." Deimos stated seriously.
"I suppose that's very important." Andrea said as she tried to restrain a chuckle.
"You're going to love Uncle Dark's change. His is the coolest!" Cain declared.
"Let it be a surprise." Dark said quietly.
"Okay." Cain said reluctantly, then quickly added, "But it explains why Uncle Dark gives such great hugs."
Dark couldn't resist the urge to pull the young teenager into a hug to demonstrate.
"Did you hear that?" Deimos asked suddenly.
"I didn't hear anything." Andrea said honestly.
"I think Tan and Jim are here!" Deimos said before dashing out of the room.
Dark released Cain from the hug, then watched as the boy raced away.
"Of all the things I imagined could have happened, I never thought that the boys would be so happy, living such a different life." Andrea said conversationally as she started slowly walking toward the door.
"I thought that they were happy before, but now that you're here, it's like a light has been switched on behind their eyes. Please don't doubt for a minute that you're a major part of the joy that they're feeling." Dark assured her as he followed.
"Thank you, Dark." Andrea said quietly, then glanced at him before continuing, "Even though I just met you, I feel like I've known you for years."
"Maybe that's because Ares and I have been best friends since we were four or five years old. I'm sure that we must have picked up a few mannerisms or personality traits from each other over the years."
"That must be it." Andrea said warmly as they walked into the living room.
* * * * *
"How are you doing, Andrea?" Drake asked with a smile.
"Honestly, I keep thinking that all of this has to be a dream." Andrea said frankly.
"Not a nightmare, I hope." Drake said cautiously.
"No. Getting lost in the woods yesterday was the nightmare. Today is just a dream." Andrea assured him.
"How have you been, Dark? Is business going well?" Drake asked casually.
"It's the wrong time of year for masks, so I haven't done much business there. But my other things have been selling well enough. From what Mason's been saying, there's been a lot of demand. He seems sure that he'll be able to sell as much as I can produce." Dark said honestly.
"What do you make?" Andrea asked curiously.
"A variety of things. I do some paintings and wall hangings, as well as some decorative sculpture." Dark said simply.
"That's one of yours, isn't it?" Drake asked as he pointed to a nondescript wood and metal piece on the side table.
Dark smiled, then said, "Yes and no. Ares and I made that one before he left. I was just getting started then."
Andrea looked at the odd sculpture for a moment, trying to evaluate how she felt about it. The thing was certainly crude in its design, but it also had a certain charm. For some reason, she could almost see a young Dark and Ares collaborating to make it.
"What about that one over the fireplace? That looks like some of your more recent work." Drake asked curiously.
"Yes. I gave that to Ares and the boys as a housewarming gift." Dark said with a smile.
Andrea looked at the large rectangular frame over the fireplace which housed an odd variety of different geometric shapes as well as some more fluid looking metallic components. The metal pieces were made to look vaguely like vines and leaves. The overall effect was of a scene from the forest that surrounded them, but she could see the artistry in his work. The three dimensional aspect gave it a more tangible quality than a flat painting, and the natural woodgrains and patina of the different materials used brought a sense of 'reality' to the overall work.
"I thought the kids would be in here." Ares said as he walked into the living room.
"They went outside as soon as we got here. It's best to let them work off a little of their energy before they have to sit down to dinner with us." Drake said with a grin.
"You're probably right about that." Ares chuckled, then thought to ask, "Can I get anyone something to drink? We've got about fifteen minutes or so before dinner will be ready."
"Anything will be fine for me." Drake said simply.
"Me too." Andrea quickly chirped.
"They're an easy bunch to please." Ares said with a grin at Dark, then added, "I put your ale back in the coldbox, or I can get you something else?"
Before Dark could respond, Lowell walked into the living room and said, "I don't know why I don't take naps more often. That was incredibly refreshing."
"I'm getting drinks for everyone. Would you like some sassafras tea?" Ares asked his grandfather warmly.
"Yes. I think I'd like that. With just a drip of honey, if you've got some." Lowell said as he walked to his favorite chair and settled in.
"Why don't you all get comfortable, I'll be right back." Ares said as he turned to leave.
"I'll help you." Dark immediately volunteered.
Ares gave him a quick smile, then led the way out of the room.
* * * * *
"Ares, I need to tell you something." Dark said as soon as they were alone in the kitchen.
"You can tell me anything." Ares said as he went about the process of making drinks for everyone.
"Not this. We haven't talked about... this, since you've been back." Dark said reluctantly.
"You'll have to give me another hint, because I have no idea what you're talking about." Ares said honestly.
"You know the things that we used to do... you know, back when we were kids?" Dark cautiously asked.
"We did a lot of things." Ares said as he stopped all his activity and devoted his full attention to his life-long best friend.
"Sex, Ares. I'm talking about us having sex." Dark finally admitted.
Ares seemed to be shocked into silence for a moment, but eventually said, "Yeah. I remember."
"I know you've got a lot of decisions to make, what with your wife and kids being here. And I really don't expect you to..." Dark trailed off with frustration, not being able to find the words to express what he wanted to say.
"Are you telling me that you're having feelings for me?" Ares asked in an obvious guess.
"Yeah. That's what I'm saying." Dark said quietly.
"Why are you just mentioning it now? Is it because of Andrea?" Ares asked curiously.
"No. I mean, yes... In a way." Dark stammered.
Ares rolled his eyes and waited for Dark to explain.
"I've been feeling this for a while, but I was okay with seeing how things worked out. But when Andrea showed up and you started talking about the decisions that you're facing... I just thought that I'd let you know so that you could... at least consider it." Dark said with difficulty.
"Do you remember back when your dad talked to us about sex? He told us that with the way things are here in Brynnhollow, that sometimes the guys took care of each other, because there wasn't really any other choice." Ares asked distantly.
"Yeah. I remember." Dark quietly admitted.
"Even though I never said it at the time, it was always more than that for me. It wasn't just getting off together for a lack of better options." Ares said as he looked into Dark's eyes.
"So, you're interested?" Dark asked cautiously.
"I haven't given it serious consideration since I've been back, just because I didn't know that you had those kinds of feelings toward me. I still have to consider what's best for Andrea and the boys, so things might not end up working out the way we would want them to. But I promise that when I'm making my decisions, I'll take both our feelings into account." Ares said sincerely.
"Thank you, Ares. And if things don't turn out with us being... together, I'll still be here. You're my best friend before anything else."
"I never had any doubt of that."
* * * * *
After serving the drinks, Ares and Dark took seats and joined into the light conversation which focused mostly on Andrea.
When she mentioned speaking to the waitress at the Waxell Diner, Ares told the others about the 'warm' reception that he and the boys had received when they had stopped there.
"Are we waiting on something before having dinner?" Lowell asked curiously.
"I'm just waiting for the timer to go off." Ares said simply. Then, in an effort to keep the conversation going, Ares turned to Andrea and asked her, "By the way, how is your mother doing?"
"Fine, as far as I know. I received a Christmas card from her last year." Andrea answered simply.
"Really? I thought with me out of the picture that she might make an effort to reconnect with you." Ares said honestly.
"She's not like that. Once she's written someone off, she doesn't ever take them back."
"Well, she sent you a Christmas card. At least that's something."
"That was just her way of saying that she was aware of where I was and how I was doing and that she was choosing not to help me. She signed it 'Mom'. She didn't write anything else in the card."
"I'm glad that we chose to never tell the boys about her. It would have hurt them to know that they have a grandmother who doesn't want anything to do with them."
"I wish that I didn't know about her. It would hurt less."
"You know that the boys and I love you, right?"
"Yes. I do know that." Andrea was saying when they heard a noise on the front porch.
"Dad! Is it time to eat yet?" Cain asked as he leaned in through the front door.
"I'll have it on the table by the time you're washed up for dinner." Ares replied as he pushed himself up out of his comfortable chair.
Cain ducked out the door without further comment.
As Ares walked toward the kitchen, he turned to his grandfather and said with a grin, "That was the timer I was waiting on."
* * * * *
The design of the kitchen and dining room was such that they could add extra tables and chairs to accommodate a larger number of people. Although a gathering of so many hadn't been anticipated, in Brynnhollow it was customary in both furniture and house design to be prepared for such an eventuality.
As Dark looked around the large table, which was actually several tables butted end to end, he noticed the very clear evidence of the relationships in play.
Cain and Tannis were almost sitting in each others' laps. Although they were quiet, relative to the rest of the guests, they might as well have been at their own private table together. It was much the same with Jim and Deimos. Although they were a bit more restrained in front of everyone, it was obvious that their attention was mostly on each other.
Drake's younger kids, Viv and Ollie, were on one side of their father, and seemed to have ended up together, somewhat by default, due to their younger ages.
The thing that surprised Dark was that Andrea was sitting on Drake's other side and seemed to be in much the same state as her sons. When she wasn't engaged in general conversation, she seemed to have most of her attention focused on Drake.
"Don't you like the schnitzel? I thought it was one of your favorites." Ares asked quietly from Dark's side.
"It's great. I was just thinking."
Ares stared at him for a moment, then broke into a slight smile before saying, "I bet I can guess about what."
Dark ducked his head and thought that he could feel a slight blush rising up his cheeks.
"I'm going to do my best to see that, when it's all said and done, no one gets hurt. That includes you."
"But you have to take care of your wife and kids first."
"I don't have a priority list with you at the bottom. If there's any way I can do it, I'm going to try to engineer things to work out so that everyone's happy."
Dark nodded that he had heard.
"Ares." Andrea said, gaining his attention from across the table, "If you could cook like this all along, why didn't you cook at home? This is wonderful."
"I don't know. Laziness, I guess. You always seemed to enjoy taking care of the family and I was just as happy to sit and relax for a while when I got home from work."
"The same thing would happen at our house if I didn't encourage the boys to contribute. People tend to do as little as possible unless they're given a reason to do more." Drake said reasonably.
"After working and slaving at my job all day, I would go home and cook dinner for Ares and the boys. Are you saying that all I would have had to have done was ask them to help?" Andrea asked him cautiously.
"Probably, yes. I imagine that none of them would want to tread on 'your domain' if they thought that you enjoyed taking care of the house and the cooking. Although I don't know Ares that well, from all that I've seen, I'm sure that it wouldn't have taken much more than a simple request to have both him and the boys taking on some of the workload."
"I guess from the way that I was raised, it never occurred to me to ask them."
"There's something that I've learned..." Ares said, drawing her attention, "...the answers that are right for one person aren't necessarily right for another. We're all making it up as we go along and hoping for the best outcome that we can get."
Drake nodded, then added, "I'm doing my best to provide my kids the skills they'll most likely need when they're out on their own. But what they end up doing with those skills in their day-to-day lives is going to be entirely up to them."
"Maybe not entirely." Andrea countered, then explained, "You're their example. Even if you don't explain the choices you make, I think that they'll see what you did and want to emulate those actions because they were there to see the results for themselves."
"Or avoid them, if they didn't like the results." Ares helpfully added.
"Can I have some more carrots?" Ollie asked suddenly, obviously oblivious to the conversation.
"May I have some more carrots." Drake gently corrected.
"Yeah. You can if I can." Ollie said happily.
"Let me get that for you." Ares chuckled as he stood and placed a portion of glazed carrots on Ollie's plate. When he was finished, he turned to Drake and asked, "Would you like some more?"
Drake glanced lovingly at his youngest son before saying, "Well, I guess since I've been given permission, I might as well."
* * * * *
When the meal was drawing to an end, Ares announced, "We'll have dessert later, after dinner has had a chance to settle. Why don't you move into the living room and I'll join you in a moment?"
"No, Dad. You cooked. We'll clean up." Deimos said firmly.
"Yeah, and with all of us, it'll only take a few minutes." Cain added.
"Thank you, boys. When you're done with that, come to the living room. We've got something planned." Ares said quickly, before all the children could dash away.
The twins looked at each other, then Deimos quietly asked, "What are we going to do?"
"You'll find out once the dishes are done." Ares said with a grin.
Dark noticed the intensity of the twin glares focused on Ares and was sure that he was very near to giving in. Knowing Ares as he did, he concluded that it was only the presence of the other adults in the room that kept Ares firm in his resolve.
"Come on." Jim finally said, breaking Cain and Deimos out of their battle of wills with their father.
The adults watched as all of the children, even Ollie and Viv, did their part to clear the table.
After the last of the children had gone into the kitchen, there was a long moment of silence before Andrea quietly said, "I think that being here is the best thing that could have happened to the boys."
"I grew up here, so I thought my point of view might be a little biased, but I came to the same conclusion." Ares said frankly.
"If it weren't for the curse, I don't think that I'd have any regrets about raising my children here, like this." Drake said honestly.
"From what I've seen so far, being cursed isn't so bad. I mean, I always feel like I'm one step away from turning back into a swan, but after what I've been through in the past year, that isn't so bad." Andrea said seriously.
"Your curse isn't like ours." Lowell said quietly, then explained, "Most of what you've seen so far is what it's commonly like for the men. For the women, there is an obsessive need to procreate, followed by a homicidal rage after the child or children are born."
"When I told you that my children's mother was no longer with us, I didn't mean that their mother was dead. Well, to be honest, Jimson's mother, Tinya, died in childbirth. But Tannis' mother and Ollie and Viv's mother are both still alive... as far as I know. Once they had given birth, the second phase of their curse manifested and they were exiled to live amongst the lunatic crones in the coven."
"I don't understand." Andrea said cautiously.
"For cursed women, there is a level of obsession connected with the concept of becoming pregnant and giving birth. It causes the girls and women afflicted by it to concoct any manner of ways to seduce or trap men for that sole purpose. From there, the afflicted spiral into insanity. We do the best we can for them, but there is actually very little help that we can give them. Any direct contact we have with them invariably results in someone being killed." Lowell explained.
"We try to anticipate their needs and provide food and supplies for them, but since we don't have direct contact with them... we just don't know if what we're doing is really helping them at all." Drake quietly added.
"Couldn't you give them a radio or even just a notebook so that they can give you a list of supplies that they might need?" Andrea asked thoughtfully.
"The curse prevents them from behaving rationally, at least in relation to us. Maybe when there are no men or male influences around, they might fall back into something resembling sanity. But from everything that I've witnessed in over a century of observation, I feel safe in saying that anything more that we might try to do is likely to cause more harm than good." Lowell said tiredly.
"We're done! Can you tell us now?" Cain asked hopefully as he led the pack of children and young teens into the living room.
"No." Ares said simply, mostly just to mess with him.
Before Cain could mention how 'unfair' that was or say that 'you promised', Ares quickly added, "But if you're not wearing your loincloth, you might think about putting it on before we go outside."
Cain blinked once, then broke into a smile before dashing away, toward his bedroom. As expected, all the children and young teens in his entourage immediately followed.
"Andrea, I didn't think to ask, but would you like a robe or anything to cover yourself when you transform?" Ares asked cautiously.
"Oh. I hadn't thought about that. Yes. That might be best." Andrea said quietly.
"Anyone else?" Ares asked as he looked around.
"Is there any reason that I should have to fully transform?" Drake asked curiously.
"No. You can change as much or as little as you want. This is just to show Andrea what's normal for us and at the same time give the kids a chance to let loose and show off for each other." Ares said with a smile.
"When I half-transform, I can still wear my pants, so I think I'll just do that." Drake said decisively.
"What about you, Dark?" Ares asked curiously.
"No, thanks." Dark answered easily.
Ares nodded, then motioned for Andrea to walk with him back toward the bedrooms.
* * * * *
"Jim? That's an interesting outfit that you're wearing." Dark said when he saw the boys enter the open area beside the house.
"Deimos said that as long as he has his loincloth that he can change in front of everyone, so he let me use this." Jim said shyly as he kept his naked body concealed beneath the dragon cloak which barely reached his knees.
Dark noticed that Tannis had borrowed Cain's tiger cloak and was wearing it much the same way.
"Aren't you guys cold?" Dark asked Cain and Deimos as they approached, both only wearing their loincloths.
"I'm going to have fur in a couple minutes, so I'll be okay." Cain assured him.
"Me, too. Except that I'll have scales." Deimos added, continuing his brother's thought.
A movement drew Dark's attention and he saw Andrea approaching, wrapped in a loose fitting plain gray robe.
"Is that everyone?" Lowell asked from nearby as he looked around.
"That's it. Do you want to start?" Ares asked his grandfather in return.
Lowell turned to face Andrea and quietly said, "Dear lady. I hope you won't take offense at my brief nudity, but I'm too old to affect a facade of adolescent shyness. If something offends you, please avert your eyes for a moment."
"I'll do that." Andrea assured him.
Without further adieu, Lowell began to undress.
The younger members of the family simply appreciated the fact that they were being included with the adults. But Ares, Drake and Dark could see the subtle shift in Lowell's form as he disrobed. He was shifting ever so slightly as soon as his restrictive clothing was removed. All three men stood in awe of Lowell's precise control.
Andrea had only seen the slightest hint of Lowell's transformation earlier and was unprepared as his body reformed into something not quite human or animal. While part of her intellectually knew what was happening in front of her, another more primal part was excited and terrified by what she was seeing.
When Lowell's transformation was complete, he appeared to be nothing less than a fully fledged werewolf.
"Andrea, why don't we change together? That way I can help you if you lose concentration." Ares asked encouragingly.
"I don't know what to do." Andrea timidly admitted.
"Just remember what it felt like to change before and let it happen again. If you're anything like the rest of us, you're probably going half crazy resisting the urge to transform."
"Is that what I've been feeling? I knew that I felt like I might slip and lose control at some point, but it didn't register that the need that I was feeling was to change."
"Just let go and let it happen. Until you learn better control, it's going to be easiest for you to make the complete transformation first. Once you've done that, start the change back and stop when you're about half-way, just like you did before. I'll be right here with you if you have any trouble."
Andrea took a deep breath to brace herself, then suddenly started to shrink.
"That's it. You're doing just fine. I'm going to go ahead and change now." Ares said before seeming to disappear into his clothes.
As everyone watched, a swan and a raven worked their way out of the clothing pooled on the grass.
The raven began to change first, but the swan was only a moment behind him. Ares grew in height, taking on a mostly human form, but he had claws for feet and was covered with black feathers. Although his head was that of a raven, in concert with his humanoid shape, it looked more like a mask or cowl.
Andrea, on the other hand, was covered with white feathers and had a decidedly feminine form.
The soft, downy feathers covered her like a close fitting bodysuit, yet were enough to accommodate her modesty. Like Ares, her facial features were more avian than human, however where his appearance was somewhat frightening, hers was soft and gentle.
"Mom!, you look great!" Cain exploded with delight.
"So what are you? A were-swan?" Deimos asked hesitantly.
"I don't know. Maybe. I have no idea what you call something like what I've become." Andrea answered honestly.
"While it would be easy to call any of us 'were' creatures in our half transformed states, the actual term for your mother would be an 'Oskmey' or 'Swan Maiden'." Dark told Deimos informatively.
"Then what's Dad?" Deimos asked curiously.
"A 'Tengu'." Dark answered simply.
"What's mine?!" Cain asked quickly.
"Why don't you transform for me and I'll have a look?" Dark asked with an indulgent smile.
"He's a 'Mog' half man half dog. When he changes, we can call him Barf!" Deimos said with delight before breaking down into giggles.
The blank stares from everyone around Deimos reminded him that most in attendance weren't familiar with cultural references from the outside world.
Dark pulled his attention away from Deimos and realized that Cain had completed his transformation.
"I should start by telling you that while these terms are generally correct, most of them are derived from mythology, so they're not always going to be entirely accurate." Dark warned them.
"So, what am I?" Cain asked cautiously.
"An 'Agdlak'." Dark answered simply.
There was a long moment of silence before Deimos quietly said, "Mog's easier to remember."
"Okay, then what's Deimos?" Cain asked Dark hopefully.
"If he'll change into his half-transformed state for me, I'll see if I can identify it."
In less time than it took for Dark to say the words, Deimos morphed into his half-wyvern state.
"The most specific term that I can come up with for you, Deimos, is something that applies to all half-dragons. In my opinion, you would best be referred to as a 'Saurial'." Dark said carefully.
"'Lizard Face' is easier to remember." Cain said playfully.
"What about you, Uncle Dark? What's your half-form called?" Deimos asked curiously.
In an instant, Dark seemed to vanish, dropping into a pile of mostly empty clothes. The sight of the enormous pale snake that emerged from the clothing was a shock to all those who hadn't seen it before.
Once the snake was completely clear of the clothing, it began to grow and reform itself into a vaguely humanoid shape... or, at least the top half was humanoid.
When Dark finally stabilized in his half-form, he calmly said, "Although I'm sometimes called a 'snake-man' what I am is a 'Nāga'."
Andrea stared at Dark in wonder. The lower half of his body was that of a snake, the upper half appeared to be human, but not entirely.
She noticed that his fingers seemed to be slightly elongated, terminating in dangerous looking claws. He also seemed to now have pointed ears, like one would think of being on an elf. But perhaps the most striking difference was that his formerly brown hair was now wispy silver-white and that his eyes were almost ruby red. They were enthralling.
"I don't know why you don't change all the time. Your half-form is great!" Cain said in appreciation.
"Thanks, Cain. All I can say is that I'm a little shy about it. I don't have any logical reason why." Dark quietly admitted.
It was only then that Andrea noticed that Dark's overall coloring had changed ever so slightly. His skin was more ashen and gray than that of a typical human. Combined with the wispy silver hair and the red eyes, it made Dark seem to be almost otherworldly.
"Jim! Do you want to be next?" Deimos asked hopefully.
"No. My dad should go first." Jim said simply.
"Yeah. He almost never changes in front of us and his is really great!" Tannis said enthusiastically.
"Yeah! Come on, Daddy! I wanna see!" Viv said from beside her brothers.
Andrea could tell that Drake warmed to the praises and enthusiasm of his children. When she glanced at Dark, she noticed an expression of relief, having the focus of everyone's attention being directed elsewhere.
Drake looked to each of his children to be sure that they were paying attention, then he opened his shirt and took it off. Drake's chest and abdomen were reasonably toned. Andrea had to admit, if only to herself, that Drake was quite attractive.
Andrea was jarred out of her thoughts when she noticed Drake's skin darkening. it took her a moment to realize that what she was actually seeing was a thin layer of hair growing out, covering nearly all his exposed skin. At the same time, his chest seemed to be filling out, becoming nearly half-again as big as when he had started.
By the time it was done, Drake had the kind of sculpted and chiseled physique that just about any bodybuilder would kill for.
When Andrea was finally able to look at Drake's face, she was surprised to see that it didn't look human at all. Admittedly, the tuft of hair that fell from between his enormous spiral horns seemed to be his regular 'human' brown hair, but besides that, his head seemed to be like something between a goat and a horse.
"What do you call that, Uncle Dark?" Ollie asked quietly.
Dark was surprised by the question, mostly because he hadn't ever really been around the child before. He supposed that because Jim and Tannis had taken to calling him 'uncle' it was only natural that their younger brother would also do so.
"The only way I can think of to describe your father is as a 'Baphomet'." Dark responded gently. He had to fight the urge to explain that a baphomet was usually depicted with the head of a goat, so the classification wasn't exactly right. But Ollie was too young to understand such a thing anyway.
"A bath mat?" Ollie asked cautiously.
"Baff-o-met." Dark carefully pronounced.
"What does that mean?" Ollie asked curiously.
"It's just a name, as far as I know. There's a mythical beast called a baphomet and he looks something like your father." Dark explained.
"I hope I can look like that when I grow up." Ollie said as he turned to look at his father again.
"I'm gonna look like Daddy!" Viv interrupted.
Dark didn't comment and fought down the despair that he felt, knowing that the young girl's dream could never be realized.
"I'm next." Jim said, and before anyone could say otherwise, he suddenly began to grow taller.
His feet had transformed into hooves, and once he had reached a certain height, a second set of hooves descended from beneath the robe he was wearing and touched the ground.
Within half a minute the transformation was complete and Jim took off the dragon scaled robe that he had borrowed from Deimos and let it drop to the ground beside him.
"Um, Jim..." Deimos trailed off timidly.
Jim looked at Deimos, then followed his gaze down and beneath him.
An immediate scarlet blush rose up Jim's face as he quickly muttered, "Excuse me." Before dashing away as quickly as he could with his horse-sized erection bobbing beneath him.
"Should I go after him?" Deimos asked uncertainly.
"Yes. Tell him that much the same could happen to any of us. When we're not in our human forms, things like that sometimes happen." Lowell said decisively.
"Okay." Deimos said then took a few running steps and transformed completely into his Wyvern form before launching himself into the air.
"Do you want to go ahead and change, Tannis?" Drake asked his son quietly.
"What if that happens to me, too?" Tannis asked anxiously.
"You're wearing a robe. If the same thing happens to you, just keep the robe on until it goes down." Drake told his son reasonably.
"Okay." Tannis said shyly, then seemed to change ever so slightly.
His face became longer and buds of horns protruded on his forehead. Andrea looked down and saw that his feet had transformed into cloven hooves.
After a moment to peek inside the tiger striped robe that he had borrowed from Cain, a smile of relief crossed his face.
"Everything alright?" Drake asked to confirm.
"Yeah." Tannis said as he took off the robe and placed it on the grass beside the one Jim had worn.
Andrea couldn't help but smile at the young faun.
"Do you want to go and see if we can find Jim and Deimos?" Cain asked quickly.
"Yeah!" Tannis immediately agreed.
"I wanna go, too." Viv announced to her brother.
"Me, too." Ollie agreed.
Tannis looked to his father with a classic 'do I have to?' look, and received a nod in response.
"Come on!" Tannis said in a slightly begrudging tone, then led the way with Cain, Ollie and Viv following closely behind.
* * * * *
"So, Andrea, is all of this too much for you yet?" Ares asked gently.
Her eyes unwillingly tracked to Drake's body, looking big, buff and beautiful, before she answered, "There's no doubt that I'm a little overwhelmed. But I think it would be different if I were just seeing it happen. Since I can change too, I think that I'll eventually be able to come to terms with it."
"That's good, because there are a few more things that we haven't told you." Lowell said frankly.
"There's more?" Andrea whimpered.
"Nothing quite so dramatic as the animal transformations, I assure you. But the curse upon us has some other conditions that you should be aware of before you inadvertently trigger something because we neglected to warn you about it." Lowell said carefully.
"What are you talking about?" Ares asked curiously.
"You were raised here, Ares. You were never taught any of the religious invocations or practices of the outside world, so this wouldn't apply as much to you." Lowell said simply.
"True. But those things were all around me while I was living away from here." Ares said honestly.
"To put it simply, a child must be indoctrinated at an early age to honestly 'believe' in the mystical. Most of those who come to their understanding later in life, do so for self-serving reasons which are blatantly dishonest. They are deceiving the people around them, with whom they wish to curry favor, or they are deceiving themselves, wanting to believe in something fantastical to allow them to avoid reality or abdicate responsibility for their own horrid behavior. Those with 'true belief' have access to mystical powers that they themselves may not be aware of." Lowell said seriously.
"What does any of this have to do with Andrea?"
"I can't say that it does. But there are some very common things that people do in everyday life which are actually low level spells and invocations. If someone were to sneeze and Andrea were to bestow a blessing from a deity upon them, there might be consequences for her because of it."
"What kind of consequences?" Andrea slowly asked.
"What one might describe as a flurry of bad luck. Milk will sour. Eggs will rot inside the shells. Breads won't rise. Fires won't light or stay lit... Things along those lines. Due to the curse, we're forbidden access to the religions of other cultures. Their gods won't hear our prayers or offer us their salvation." Lowell finished quietly.
"Does that mean that there's another god that you do pray to?" Andrea asked cautiously.
"Dozens." Drake said, at the same time Lowell responded, "Hundreds."
"What?" Andrea asked in confusion.
"There's a whole pantheon of greater and lesser gods from the ancient times. There's plenty of time for you to learn as much as you want to know about all the various gods. I can't speak for others, but the one to whom I give most reverence is Cernunnos, the horned god of animals." Lowell said seriously.
"So do you pray or give sacrifices to him or something like that?" Andrea asked carefully.
"We show our reverence by treating this forest and the creatures who live in it with respect. Occasionally, we might thank him for some great bounty and we honor him with celebrations on holy days, like the equinox and the solstice." Lowell said calmly.
"I've never been religious, so it shouldn't be any problem." Andrea assured him.
"You wouldn't think so, but you might be surprised by which everyday courtesies and traditions are actually mystical invocations." Lowell said frankly.
"Since the children have run off, why don't we change and go inside where it's warmer?" Drake suggested as he picked up the robe that Andrea had been wearing and held it open for her.
"Yes. That sounds like a very sensible idea." Lowell said as he gathered his clothing.
"Thank you." Andrea said timidly as she turned and allowed Drake to drape the robe around her shoulders.
Ares smiled tenderly at the action, then glanced at Dark.
That action, more than any words, told Dark that Ares held no jealousy toward any relationship that Drake and Andrea might be developing.
Once she was covered, Andrea easily made the transition back into her fully human form.
"Don't forget your necklace." Ares said as he motioned to the silver jewelry on the ground.
As Drake reached down to pick it up for her, Lowell quickly said, "Don't touch it! Andrea is the only one who should handle that."
"Of course." Drake said as he withdrew his hand.
"What would happen if he touched it?" Andrea asked curiously as she retrieved her necklace.
"There's no way to know for certain. But since it is a cursed item, it's best to handle it with the utmost care." Lowell said as he slowly dressed himself.
"Just a few days ago I would have told you that I didn't believe in things such as curses. Now I'm living under one." Andrea chuckled.
"It may take some adjustment, but at least here you can manage it. Everyone understands." Ares assured her.
"Yes. The thing that may be more difficult to deal with is being the only female in the community. It's impossible to predict what might happen because of that." Lowell said gravely.
Dark looked around and realized that everyone else had changed back to their human forms and were more or less dressed. He was the only one who was still half-transformed.
"Is anyone ready for dessert?" Ares asked casually.
"Should we go after the kids?" Andrea asked as she looked in the direction where they had gone.
"They'll be fine." Ares assured her, then turned toward Dark and asked, "Would you care to help me get the desserts ready?"
"I need to change." Dark said as he began to gather his clothes.
"I know." Ares said simply, then leaned in and quietly added, "Slither on into the kitchen and you can change while I'm getting the desserts together."
Dark was surprised to realize that Ares understood his misgivings. Due to the way he transformed, there was no practical way he could change back to his human form in front of Andrea without exposing himself, but he would also be conspicuous if he waited outside until the others had gone in.
"Yeah. I'll help." Dark said with a smile at his friend, then started slithering toward the house.
"I'll never get used to this." Andrea said absently as she watched him go.
"Eventually, you will." Lowell assured her.
"We'll all help you." Drake added.
* * * * *
"How are you doing?" Ares asked as he busied himself making tea and plating desserts.
"Better than I expected to be." Dark answered as he dressed himself.
"Good. I guess that I can understand why you were apprehensive and I'm sure that you're not going to be the last. Having a woman living in Brynnhollow is bound to cause all sorts of chaos."
"I hadn't thought about that. Do you think it's going to be safe for her here?"
"Here with us? Yes. Here in Brynnhollow? We'll just have to wait and see how things go when word gets out." Ares said frankly.
"Maybe your grandfather could talk to the village elders and see if we can get their help."
"My grandfather isn't exactly one of their favorite people... neither am I, for that matter."
"So what do you think we should do to protect Andrea?"
"I don't see what we can do until we know how people are going to react to her being here. I'd like to hope that everyone is going to behave in a civilized manner and treat her with respect. But with her being the only woman in the village that could possibly enter into a long-term relationship... I don't know. People might behave very differently when they're presented with an option that was never available to them before."
"I didn't think that I'd be saying this, but I really like your wife." Dark said timidly, then continued, "If there's anything you can think of that I can do to help, just let me know."
"There is one thing." Ares said as he turned to face Dark fully.
"What's that?" Dark asked cautiously, honestly not having any idea of how he could be of help at all in their current situation.
"Make something for Andrea." Ares said simply.
"Something? Like what?" Dark asked cautiously.
"I'll leave that up to you. But you know as well as I do that there's something a little bit mystical about your artwork. Even though it may not seem like it at the time that you make it, looking back we can usually see that your artwork is prophetic." Ares said seriously.
"That again..." Dark sighed, then explained, "Looking back, you see what you want to see. You take all the little random bits and assign meanings to them that were never there."
"The biggest critic of your work in all of Brynnhollow is you. I mean, you had thylacine and wyvern masks waiting for my sons to need them. People all over Brynnhollow come to you for the most random and obscure animal masks and you always have them ready and waiting."
"Can you just drop it? I don't have any psychic abilities. I just have eclectic tastes in masks."
"If it helps you to believe that, I'll go along with it. But will you please make something for Andrea? We're facing a lot of unknowns and if there's even a chance that we can get a little hint about what's to come, I'd like to have it." Ares asked hopefully.
"Well, I guess since you asked me so nicely and said 'please' and everything, that I could go ahead and come up with something." Dark quietly agreed.
"Thank you, Dark. Even if you're right and you don't have any psychic ability, it'll still make me feel better to know that I've done everything possible to make things work out." Ares said honestly.
"You always were weird." Dark said fondly.
"So you've said." Ares chuckled, then asked, "Will you take the tea service out? I'll follow behind with the desserts."
* * * * *
"I was beginning to think that I'd need another dinner before I'd get dessert." Lowell sniped as Ares and Dark walked into the living room.
"Oh? Are you getting too old to walk into the kitchen and get it yourself when you need something?" Ares asked with mock concern for his grandfather.
"When I was your age, we knew how to show respect to our elders and betters." Lowell growled.
"Yeah, but when you were my age, the country was still fighting to recover from the war, wasn't it? People were recently reminded of how dear their loved ones were to them."
"True enough. Those were different times."
"Which war was that?" Andrea reluctantly asked.
"The war to end all wars!" Lowell declared, then added more quietly, "The first one."
"Did you fight in the war?" Andrea asked curiously.
"Although I came up with hundreds of reasons why I should go, the stark reality of the situation was that the community couldn't afford to take the chance of any of our men-folk joining the military and being discovered by the outside."
"But how is it possible that you've been able to remain hidden? I mean, not just from the selective service and social security. What about satellite images and GPS?"
"The elders see to all of that." Lowell said quietly, then paused for a moment before continuing, "They don't discuss their defenses with the likes of me. But the little that I know of it involves magic, money and political power, all in large quantities."
"That's right." Dark confirmed, then turned to Andrea and said, "I'd guess that because you've already been touched by the curse, that the enchantment on the forest must have drawn you in rather than repelling you, as would normally happen."
"It did seem like when I turned around to go back to my car, that everything had changed. Was that magic?" Andrea asked curiously.
"Most likely, yes." Lowell thoughtfully answered. "We protect the forest and the forest protects us. But the enchantment isn't absolute protection. There is a natural ebb and flow to the magic and there are times when outsiders can find their way through."
"It's been awhile since that happened. When it does, the few people who do find their way to Brynnhollow can't ever leave." Drake said quietly.
"Except for that one guy!" Dark quickly interjected.
"What 'one guy'?" Ares asked curiously.
"I remember my dad talking about him when I was a kid. There was a guy who no one had ever seen before who showed up in town and asked to talk to the elders. He was here for a few days, then he left and no one ever saw him again." Dark said seriously.
"I believe that I know of the incident that you're talking about." Lowell said thoughtfully, then quietly continued, "Although we live in a magical place, essentially cut off from the outside, we're not the only magical people in the world. I believe that the person you described is probably one of those on the outside who works to keep our existence concealed."
"It would have been nice if I'd known that there was someone on the outside who knew about us. Maybe he could have helped me establish an identity or to start my life away from here. For a long time, I was completely alone out there." Ares said quietly.
"It's as likely as not that he would have seen to it that you were destroyed, to protect the community. As I've said, I have little first-hand knowledge of such things, but it seems reasonable to assume that the person or persons on the outside who work to protect us probably have to make some very difficult decisions on our behalf."
"Yes. I've often wondered how much pain and misery has been caused because of us, just to keep our community a secret. I've never been one to ascribe to the adage that 'ignorance is bliss'. But in this case, I don't know if I could have anything resembling a happy life if I knew what steps were being taken to keep us protected." Drake said honestly.
"We found him!" Cain said as he led the procession of children in through the front door and across the living room.
"I never doubted that you would." Ares said with a grin as he watched all the children walk into the hallway that led to the bedrooms.
"It's all for them." Drake said distantly.
"It is." Andrea immediately agreed.
"I just wish..." Drake trailed off, then shook his head, trying to dismiss the unpleasant thought.
"Although things here sometimes appear to be unchanging, Andrea's arrival might well be the precursor to other things. You would do well not to give up hope at this particular point in time." Lowell said carefully.
"What do you mean?" Drake asked curiously.
"As with magic, life also has an ebb and flow. Unless I miss my guess, this should be an interesting time to be in Brynnhollow." Lowell finished with a smile.
* * * * *
The next day, Dark was lost in thought, reliving the events of the previous night.
He remembered that when the children returned to the living room, all of them were once again dressed in the clothes that they had arrived in. Jim was quieter than was usual for him, but no one mentioned the incident earlier and by the end of the evening, he seemed to have mostly forgotten about it.
With the children present, the adults kept the conversation on safe topics. The majority of the evening was spent with Cain and Deimos telling their mother about all of their adventures since they had arrived in Brynnhollow.
Dark's hands were working autonomously as he continued to relive the evening in every detail. While the good conversation and good company had both been appreciated, it was the feeling of family that he had experienced with them that nourished his weary soul.
When he suddenly stopped working, he looked at the sculpture that he had been working on to find that it wasn't a sculpture at all. He was surprised to find himself holding a wooden doll, or to be more precise, a marionette. The strings hadn't been attached yet, but the holes were already drilled where they would be needed.
The marionette was decidedly male in its shape, but it didn't remind Dark of anyone that he knew. It was currently raw wood with a few small metal fixtures to serve as joints. More out of instinct than thought, Dark picked up his creation and moved to another part of his workshop, where he kept the paints.
Without thinking, he automatically picked up the black paint and already had the brush loaded before he was aware of what he was doing. He only paused for a moment, then began applying the paint, as his hands seemed to be determined to do, whether he wanted to or not.
Since he seemed to be compelled to create whatever it would ultimately be, he let his mind return to the events of the previous evening as his hands expertly applied the paint.
* * * * *
"Dark? What a surprise to see you again so soon! Did you need to see Drake? I think he said that he was going to be in the valerian patch, just down the hill."
"I didn't come here to see Drake. I actually came here to give you a gift to welcome you to Brynnhollow."
"Yes. Maybe you don't do that in the outside world when someone new arrives. I really don't know much about their customs."
"No. I mean, maybe some people do. It's not something that I've ever done. Does this mean that when people find out that I'm here that they'll all start bringing me gifts?"
"Maybe a few. It depends on the person and if they feel that they have something that might convey the message that you're welcome here."
"Oh. Well, thank you."
"Open it. I'm interested to see what you think of it."
Andrea carefully unwrapped the cloth bundle to reveal the nearly one foot tall marionette, complete with multicolored strings attached to a wooden control bar.
"It's beautiful! Did you make this?" Andrea asked in awe.
"Yes. I was a little bit worried that it might be disturbing to you. It doesn't look like anyone you know, does it?" Dark asked carefully.
"He looks a little bit familiar, but I can't place who he might look like."
"Is it too creepy?"
"No! Not at all. He looks like a very respectable man, dressed in his black suit. And even though his expression is kind of serious, I get the feeling that there's someone worth getting to know underneath."
"Good. I can't always be sure how my work is going to be accepted. I'd feel really bad if I brought you something that gave you nightmares."
"I don't think there's any chance of that." Andrea said with a smile, then looked him in the eyes as she said, "Thank you, Dark. This is a wonderful gift. I really do feel welcome here."
"Then my work here is done. Tell Drake that I said 'Hi' when he comes back in."
"Won't you stop in and have some tea? You must be thirsty after your long walk."
"No. Thank you. I just came over to deliver this, now I have to get back to my workshop. I still have a few other things that I need to work on."
"I understand. Drake says that everyone is stockpiling as much as they can so that they'll have what they need to get through the winter."
"Yes. That's a fact of life here."
"Well, thank you again, Dark. I can see why Ares claims you as his best friend."
"Goodbye. And welcome to Brynnhollow."
* * * * *
Dark hadn't been exaggerating. He did have other things that he needed to work on and Andrea's unexpected project had thrown him behind. Once he had caught up, he kept the momentum going and threw himself into his work.
It was several days later when a knock on his door jarred Dark out of a rather generic painting that he was working on.
As he walked to the door, he almost expected it to be Cain, since he was the last person who had visited.
"Ares? What's going on?"
"You know how we were talking the other night about the decisions that I was facing?"
"Yes. Does this mean that you've decided?"
"I have, and so has Andrea. We thought that rather than take the chance of a miscommunication or a misunderstanding, that we'd get everyone together and tell them at once. Do you have time?"
"You mean right now?"
"I'm expecting everyone to arrive just after sunset. Cain and Deimos are going to stay over at Drake's tonight so that we'll be able to have our discussion undisturbed." Ares said as he turned toward the door and waited for Dark to join him.
"Can you tell me what you've decided?" Dark asked as he slipped on his jacket.
"I'd rather wait until we're all together. But I thought, if you wouldn't mind, maybe we could talk along the way about what you'd like to happen. We've never really discussed that." Ares said as they walked out of Dark's house.
"I told you that I was interested in you. Wasn't that enough?"
"That was a big step for you to take, and I really appreciate that you trusted me enough to take that risk. But I still don't know how you'd like for things to end up. Would you like to live with me and the boys? Do you want for everyone to know that we're a couple? What about the boys? Do you want to be a parent or would you feel more comfortable being their uncle?"
"Do I need to decide this right now?"
"You don't have to decide anything. But if I have some clue about what outcome would make you happy, then I'd know how to influence things to turn out for the best."
"I love the boys. So however I can be a part of their lives will be enough for me. As far as the rest... I suppose I'll be happy with however things work out, just as long as I know that you're there."
"I'm not asking you what you'll settle for. In a perfect world where you don't have to worry about what it will do to anyone else, what would make you happy?"
"Being with you. I'm happiest when I'm with you. I promise that I'm not being stoic and denying myself for the greater good. I just want for you to be part of my life in any way that's comfortable for you. If that means that I visit with you and the boys on weekends, that'll be enough. If it means that I move into your house and become 'the mommy'... well, okay, that might not be what I'm dreaming about, but it'd still beat being cut out of your lives."
"My kids have a mother and they're past the age where they need a 'mommy'. You won't have to worry about that."
"I wasn't worried. I wasn't even saying that I wouldn't do it. I was just mentioning that it wasn't something that I was hoping for."
"Don't worry, Dark. I got it."
"So, what are you going to do?"
"I can't really tell you much more until we're all together. Everything's interconnected and if one person changes their mind, it may cause the rest of us to have to adapt."
"One person being Andrea?"
"Not necessarily. If Andrea makes a certain decision that Drake doesn't agree with, then many of the other plans will have to be adapted to compensate for it."
"Do you think that they're going to get married?"
"It's too early to tell. He's been kind to her and she appreciates it. I'm detecting more than a little attraction between them. But they've only known each other for a few days."
"I guess you're right. It's just with her staying at his house, it seems like things might be going in that direction."
"Regardless of what her logical mind knows, I think that inside she still feels like I abandoned her. Drake represents safety and security. If there's more than that going on, they haven't given any sign of it."
"How would you feel if Andrea divorced you and married Drake? Would you be hurt by it?"
"No. I've had months to examine my feelings and come to terms with letting her go. I want what's best for her. As long as I know that she's going to be happy with someone who isn't going to hurt her, I'll be at peace with it."
"So, has she told you her decision yet?"
"We've discussed things, but just like me, she's resisted the urge to commit to anything until we're all together."
"Does she know that I'm interested in you? I mean, you know, romantically?"
"Of course I am! I told you that!"
"What you've told me is that you want to be part of my life in whatever way it turns out to be possible. I don't recall any mention of romance."
"What do you want? Candies and flowers?"
"No. I just want a clearer idea of where you would like a relationship between us to go. But I honestly can't figure out if that means handjobs out behind your shop when everyone else is busy doing other things or if it means us waking up every morning in the same bed."
"Ares, I've never been attracted to women. Because of that, I've never dreamed of myself in a situation where I'd wake up next to someone. There's a certain protocol that the guys follow here, where they're able to get their rocks off without getting entangled in any kind of emotional involvement. That's all I've ever known. I wouldn't know how to make something 'romantic' work."
"What Andrea and I had worked well for us, but I can't see you and me being able to live that way. I guess that, if you wanted to try it, we could forge something new that would be custom tailored just for us."
"So, does that mean that there's a chance that things can work out that way?"
"Without knowing what Andrea and Drake have decided about things, I can't say anything for certain. But from all that I know, there is a chance."
* * * * *
When Ares arrived at his house, he and Dark went to work preparing a light dinner and making sure that they had drinks enough for everyone.
After all that had been said on the walk over, both needed time to think about how they felt about things and what they really wanted.
When a knock sounded at the front door, both of them stopped and looked at each other.
"Are you ready?" Ares asked with concern.
"No." Dark answered simply, then added, "But I'll do it anyway."
"I think this will end up being worth the effort." Ares said before leaving the kitchen.
"Just remember that whatever happens, I'll be here for you."
"I never doubted it."
* * * * *
"Come in Drake. I'm glad you could make it. How are the kids?"
"I left Jim in charge. I'm sure that they'll be fine."
"Andrea, how are you?"
"Nervous. I know that you're making us dinner, but do you think that we might be able to get right to it? I'm nothing but nerves right now."
"I can't think of any reason that we should have to delay. Come in and sit down and you can tell us what you've decided."
"I want my own house." Andrea blurted out.
"When I arrived, you said that one of my options was to have my own place. I think that I'd like to do that."
"Oh, yes. Of course. If that's what you want..." Ares stammered.
"I'm sure that I'll be spending quite a bit of time over here with the boys and over at Drake's house. But when I'm not doing that, I think that I'd like to have a place that's mine where I can focus on myself, if only for a little while." Andrea explained.
"I think that sounds like a wonderful idea and if we were to make an announcement, that the elders might call for 'Raising Bee', like they did for Ares and the boys." Drake suggested.
"There's no reason to make a big deal about it." Andrea said shyly.
"It's our way, Andrea. Please allow the community to welcome you and accept you." Dark said in a low voice.
"He's right." Ares confirmed.
"Okay. If that's how you do things here, then I guess that's how we'll do it." Andrea finally agreed, then she turned to Ares and asked, "Was that everything? Or were you going to make an announcement too?"
"I don't know how much of an announcement it is, but I was hoping that if Dark would do me the honor, that he might agree to accompany me on a date this Friday."
"A real date? Like for the whole community to see?" Dark asked cautiously.
"Well, I don't plan on us doing anything that they'd be much interested in seeing, but yeah. I thought that we could go down to the Brynnmorrow Tavern for dinner and a few drinks."
Dark's expression of surprise caused Ares to explain, "I just want the chance to prove to you that I'm interested in you. I want to do it right."
"Andrea, would you mind if I invited you out on a date sometime?" Drake asked cautiously.
"I wouldn't mind that at all." Andrea responded warmly.
"Ares, would you be willing to watch after the kids when we go out? Even though I'm sure that Jim could see to things in my absence, I'd feel better about it if there were an adult close at hand." Drake asked hopefully.
"Well, with your four and my two, I think it might work out better if I had some help." Ares said, then turned to Dark and asked, "What do you think Dark? Are you up to it?"
"Sure. Sounds great." Dark replied easily.
"Good. Then who's ready for dinner?" Ares asked with a grin.
"Is that it? Is that all that we needed to decide?" Andrea asked curiously.
"Well, I think that at some point you're probably going to need to look at getting a job. But I don't see any reason that it has to be decided tonight." Ares said frankly, then motioned for his guests to accompany him into the dining room.
* * * * *
After getting everyone seated, then serving the food, Ares quietly asked his guests, "Do you think that the kids are going to have a problem with us doing this?"
"I've had a chance to spend some time with the boys and they seem to be perfectly happy with the decisions that we've made so far. They were surprised that I wasn't going to be living with them, but when I told them that I was staying in Brynnhollow and that we'd be able to see each other all the time, they seemed to be satisfied." Andrea said thoughtfully.
"If you think about it, we were leading mostly separate lives all along, so it's not really that much for them to have to adjust to."
"I don't think I ever told you, but I've been worried about what kind of an example we've been setting for them. I mean, it's good that we weren't at each other's throats, but by the same token, I don't think they ever saw us 'in love'. How are they supposed to grow up to be passionate loving people if they've never been exposed to anyone who lived that way?"
"I don't know about that. I think it's natural for the passion to die down over time and become a comfortable coexistence. Not only was that something realistic for them to have seen, but I think it was a good example for them to witness how love can change over time."
"He may be right." Drake reluctantly added.
When the others around the table turned their attention to him, he explained, "Being here, with the way things are, your boys wouldn't get the experience of seeing what a long-term relationship looks like. All they'd get to see is the curse drawing on people's instincts, causing them to mate and produce offspring, then the descent into madness that follows."
"I still don't understand about that. Are you saying that every woman who gets married in Brynnhollow goes insane?" Andrea asked carefully.
"Yes. The only exceptions are a few old virgin crones who were able to resist the curse. And even they are mad to a certain degree."
"So is that what you expect to happen to Viv?"
"Yes. That's one of the most insidious parts of the curse. We bring children into the world knowing that they're destined to horrible fates. Vivendel will grow into a woman, then she will be compelled to select a mate and bear him children. Once she does that, she will go insane and we will have to send her away."
"And the boys will grow up never being able to have a fulfilling relationship, caught in this timeless void where they're neither human nor animal." Ares quietly added.
"Isn't there something that we can do for them? I mean, if you were able to help me, isn't there a way to help them too?" Andrea asked anxiously as she looked around the table.
Dark waited for a moment, but when no one answered, he finally explained, "Yours was a very special case. The curse that Ares carried had weakened to the point where it didn't manifest when it should have. That gave the witches something to work with. Although they couldn't throw off the curse completely, they were able to overlay another curse on top of it to give you a better outcome."
"If they can do that for me, can't they do it for other women?" Andrea asked imploringly.
"I suppose that it's possible that seeing the results of what their new curse did to you might lead them to be able to come up with something for the others... Honestly, I don't know enough about magic and curses to speculate about that. It's probably more of a wish than a possibility." Dark finally admitted.
"Drake told me about the origin of the curse, but I still don't understand why the Brynns would institute the curse to begin with. What would they gain from it?" Andrea asked reasonably.
"Vengeance." Ares said simply. "Connor Brynn defied them, so they came up with a punishment that would cause him to suffer."
Drake nodded, then added, "To me, it seems that they were using him as an example to the rest of their people of what would happen if they ever took any action against the elders. They came up with a curse so horrific, bestowed for such a minor infraction, that the rest of their community would fall into line and do whatever they were told."
"In a sense, Ares has brought the curse full circle. He left Brynnhollow and willingly came back with his family to live with his curse." Dark said speculatively. "Maybe that has some significance."
"Or maybe it's a series of unrelated events. We'll probably never know." Ares said frankly.
"I feel like there should be something that we can do." Andrea said with frustration.
"If you can think of something, just let us know and we'll all support you. Our people have tried everything we can think of for centuries and nothing has worked." Drake said honestly.
"We have to do something. It kills me to think of the boys growing up and never falling in love or having kids of their own." Andrea said as tears welled in her eyes.
"There's every likelihood that they will fall in love. And when that happens, they probably will have kids. Without that, there wouldn't be any suffering, which is the point of the curse to begin with." Ares quietly explained.
Dark nodded and picked up the thread of the conversation, "And the curse is very efficient at causing us to maintain our numbers, so that we don't die off. The women aren't the only ones being compelled to keep the cycle of misery going."
"You'd think that if someone had all this magical power at their command that they'd use it for something better than this." Andrea said thoughtfully.
"If you had a community of people, each with this much potential power, what could you do to control them? You'd have to come up with something spectacularly unpleasant to make them fear you." Dark said reasonably.
"Wait. Are you saying that all the Brynns have that magical power?" Andrea asked cautiously.
"Yes. All of them and all of us. However, the curse prevents us from being able to access it. The crones on the mountain can use magic, hence your curse, but the rest of us can only do so in relation to our transformations." Ares carefully explained.
"You can do magic?" Andrea asked as she looked around the gathering.
"That's what our transformations are." Ares said simply.
"There are a few of us who can do things beyond our transformations. Jim can summon fire. He's quite good at it." Drake interjected.
"It just seems that with access to magic, there should be something more that you can do for Viv." Andrea said quietly.
"We've done everything that we can think of to try. If you can think of something more, we'll all help you however we can." Drake assured her.
"Do you have a library or anything where I can do some research? To be honest, I don't know anything about magic or curses." Andrea asked cautiously.
"We really don't have a central library. Each family keeps their own. You could try asking around. I'm sure that everyone would be happy to lend you any books that they have on the subject." Drake said thoughtfully.
"I think that the best source of information might be Ima and her sisters in the castle on the hill. Being a woman, you would probably be able to approach them without danger." Ares added.
"Probably..." Andrea parroted.
"Probably." Ares confirmed with a nod, then noticed that all of his guests had finished eating.
"Why don't we move into the living room where we can be more comfortable? I'll bring in some tea when I've finished clearing up." Ares asked as he stood.
"I'll help you." Dark immediately volunteered.
Ares smiled at him as he gathered dinner dishes.
* * * * *
"I think that went pretty well." Ares said as he walked into the kitchen.
"Yes. Although I'm still having trouble getting myself to accept that you chose me over Andrea." Dark said seriously.
"Have you seen how she looks at Drake?" Ares asked with a grin.
"But what if she were looking at you that way? Would you rather be with her?" Dark asked cautiously.
"I can't answer that, Dark. I can't tell you what I'd do if things were different. I can only tell you what I want to do with things being as they are." Ares said frankly.
"What do you want to do?"
"Right this minute? I think I'd like to kiss you."
"In all the time that we were 'messing around' when we were kids, I don't remember us ever kissing. Don't you like to kiss?" Ares asked as he stepped away from the sink and into Dark's personal space.
"I... I don't know. I've always thought that it looked like something that I'd like to do." Dark stammered.
"You've never kissed anyone?"
"The guys I fooled around with just wanted to get their rocks off and the girls... well, I already told you about that. You were gone so... no. I never did."
Ares wrapped his arms around Dark and slowly moved closer, on alert for any sign of resistance.
There was none, so he continued on until their lips finally met.
Dark closed his eyes and reveled in the exquisite sensation.
Although Ares wanted to kiss Dark deeply, he felt that they would have plenty of time to explore each new thing and each new level. In the end, he was content with a chaste kiss.
When the kiss finally ended, Dark whispered, "That was incredible."
"There's so much more that I want to show you and do with you. But that will have to wait. We have guests." Ares said as he looked deeply into Dark's eyes.
"I love you." Dark whispered.
"I love you too." Ares said gently, then asked, "Will you start on the tea while I work on dishes?"
I see that word and it makes me cringe. Like so many of MM's stories, I don't ever want to see it come to an end.
I do realise that stories need to have an ending, but in this case, there still seems to be a sequence that we would all like to see happen, such as some way for the curse to be at least mitigated. I am glad to see the people who seem to love each other are working on the situation so that things can be moved forward, but I don't think the story should end here. Just my humble opinion.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher