Brynnhollow: Book 4 - Greater Good

Chapter 1

The few weeks since she'd arrived in Brynnhollow seemed like a dream.

Agonizing her way through a prolonged illness, only to find at the end that her family had abandoned her had been almost more than she could bear.

The only thing that kept her going was the desire to reunite with her children and to know that they were safe and loved.

Now, here she was in a place where her children were growing and thriving with friends and family surrounding them.

Knowing that would have been enough, but she unexpectedly found herself among people who cared for her and supported her in whatever she decided to do.

Looking back, she was amazed that her husband, Ares, had understood what she would be facing and had encouraged her to take the time to discover what she could do for herself to have a fulfilled life.

In an effort to start fresh, she had chosen to accept the invitation to stay with Drake, a virtual stranger, and his family... at least for the short term.

As sweet and dear as Drake had been, Andrea knew that if she were truly going to discover her own path, that she would have to live independently.

When the time came for decisions to be made, she chose to move into her own house, although she continued to stay with Drake and his family for a bit longer, while her house was being built.

The community came together and built the basic structure of the house over the course of a weekend. Drake, Dark and Ares were working tirelessly, along with the children, to perfect the finishes and furnishings inside. Lowell, her husband's grandfather, oversaw the project and occasionally even picked up a hammer to join in.

Although she had discovered a sense of peace unlike any that she had known before, Andrea still felt that something was a bit off. Everything seemed to be going her way but lately she had been feeling like there was something more, something important that she should be doing.

* * * * *

"Are you going out?" Drake asked as Andrea crossed the living room.

"I can't get comfortable. I thought I'd go for a walk."

"Don't stray too far from the house. It's easy to get lost out there." Drake said with a grin.

"Believe me, I remember what that feels like." Andrea assured him before walking out the door.

* * * * *

As Andrea walked away from the house, all her attention was on the full moon overhead. Deep within her she had the undeniable sense that whatever answer she was looking for was contained within it.

Without thought, she continued to walk, drawn by the siren's call of the silvery moonlight.

Even when her view of the moon was obscured by the canopy of leaves, she continued on, seeking her answer.

* * * * *

After climbing an outcropping of rocks, Andrea found herself on the edge of a cliff, unable to continue, yet still being drawn forward.

She only stood there for a moment before allowing her human visage to fall away, revealing her new self, the self that she usually kept hidden from the world.

Once she was fully in her swan form, she took flight, leaving only a rumpled pile of clothes as evidence that she had been there at all.

She was relieved to feel the thin chain around her neck. It had become a habit for her to keep the chain with her, even in her fully transformed state. Her necklace was cursed and too dangerous to be left unattended.

As she gave herself over to the call of the moonlight, she began to realize that she was being drawn to a specific action... a specific location.

* * * * *

When Andrea finally landed, she looked around at the gray stone balcony, illuminated only by the light of the moon.

Finally free from the compulsion that had drawn her, Andrea willed herself to change into her half-transformed state, so that she could preserve some sense of modesty.

"We weren't sure that you'd come." A woman said from the shadowy doorway.

Andrea was startled and turned suddenly to discover the source of the voice.

"Oh my, aren't you lovely?" The woman said softly.

"Are you Ima?" Andrea guessed, finally realizing where she was.

"No. My name is Vera. Ima's waiting for you at the front gate, in case you were attempting to reach us on foot." The old crone said simply, then added, "We had no way of knowing what sort of creature you'd transform into, or if you'd transform at all."

Andrea moved close enough that she could see who she was talking to.

The woman was truly hideous to behold. Her wiry white hair stuck out in every direction. Of course there were the requisite hairy warts that one might expect of a crone. And not only did she appear to have a hunched back, but she also seemed to be tilted drastically to the right, so that she seemed to be on the verge of tipping over. Upon closer inspection, Andrea noticed the gnarled walking stick that Vera kept tightly clutched in one hand and used to keep herself upright.

"Come with me now. We have much to do." Vera said then, without waiting for a response, she started walking away, accompanied by the click-click sound of her cane on the stone floor.

* * * * *

Andrea silently followed down dim corridors.

She could see Vera hobbling along in front of her, but not much else.

As she glanced around, she suddenly realized that there weren't any light fixtures, torches or even candles in the hallway. As dim as it was, she couldn't find any light source that would make it possible for them to see even that much.

"Are you warm enough? We wouldn't want you to catch a chill." Vera asked as she continued to walk.

"I'm fine. My feathers seem to provide good insulation." Andrea said quietly.

Vera suddenly stopped, then turned and said, "Wait here a moment."

Before Andrea could respond, Vera hurried off through a doorway to their left.

Andrea stood for a moment and tried to formulate a logical reason for why she might have been summoned. She finally concluded that she didn't have enough information to come up with a plausible explanation, but the fact that she had been summoned was not in dispute in her mind.

"Andrea, was it?" Vera asked a moment later as she slowly walked into the hallway, the 'click-click' of her walking stick heralding her way.

"Yes, Ma'am." Andrea quietly responded.

"This is Kathryn. She was waiting for you on another balcony." Vera said as she passed by Andrea, continuing on down the hall, the way that they had originally been going.

Kathryn was grotesque, to be sure. But compared to Vera, she actually didn't look all that bad.

"It's nice to meet you." Andrea told the woman obligatorily.

"Are you a duck or what?" Kathryn asked abruptly.

"A swan." Andrea responded quietly.

"At least you can fly. I was afraid that you'd end up in a form that was totally useless." Kathryn said frankly. It was obvious from her casual manner of speech that she wasn't trying to provoke Andrea, she was simply speaking honestly.

"Why have you brought me here?" Andrea asked the pair of women, trying not to sound too demanding.

"It's best if I let Ima tell you about that. She's the one with the plan." Vera said without slowing her pace. She moved surprisingly quickly considering the obvious limitations of her physical condition and the fact that she used a cane to walk.

"I'll go tell her that Andrea has arrived. We'll meet you in the library." Kathryn said determinedly.

"Will you stop by and get Hilda on the way?" Vera asked hopefully.

"Yes. Of course." Kathryn said as she walked away.

* * * * *

To Andrea it seemed that with the determination that Vera was putting into walking that it would be wrong to distract her with unnecessary chatter, so they walked together in silence until they arrived at their destination.

Andrea looked with wonder around the enormous room filled with shelves of dusty tomes, until her attention was drawn by movement from deeper in the room.

"Andrea, I'd like to introduce Juliet. She's fairly new here." Vera said graciously.

Juliet looked almost normal.... comparatively... in a certain light... Alongside Vera, it was disturbing to see the 'before and after' visual representation of the progression of the curse.

The most notable thing about Juliet's appearance was that her head seemed to be slightly too large compared to the rest of her body. All her facial features appeared to be exaggerated. Although she wasn't 'hideous', the overall effect was disquieting, to say the least.

"So, how have you been received in Brynnhollow?" Vera asked as she settled into a comfortable looking chair.

"I haven't gone into town yet. Ares and Drake both seem nervous about how that's going to go. But so far, everyone who's visited has been very nice. They've even built me a house." Andrea finished timidly.

"I'm glad. That should help things to work out well." Vera said consideringly.

Before Andrea could respond, a hideously deformed woman hobbled into the room.

"You're right, Kathryn. She really is quite beautiful." The woman said as she undulated across the room toward Vera. Her movement was nearly a waddle, but seemed somehow unnatural and almost hypnotically rhythmic.

"Are you Ima?" Andrea guessed.

"Yes. And I'm assuming that you're Andrea." Ima said as she shifted her twisted bulbous body into a chair.

"Why have you brought me here?" Andrea asked abruptly.

"To help our sisters, the women of Brynnhollow." Ima said frankly.

"What can I do?" Andrea asked hesitantly.

"By yourself, probably not very much. But with our help, we may be able to alter the curse enough so that the women of Brynnhollow can return to their families and lead somewhat normal lives."

"What do I have to do?"

"Right this minute, be patient with us while we do a little test. We wouldn't want to make their situations worse."

"If there's something I can do to help, just tell me."

"I need to warn you that this has the potential to go very wrong. There's no account of anyone trying to do something like this before. If it ends up going badly, don't be discouraged. We'll keep trying until something works."

"How dangerous is this?"

"We're reasonably certain that your curse will protect you from the curse that you'll be bestowing, but those that you are cursing may instinctively feel that you are doing them harm and attack you."

"You want me to curse people?"

"You're the only person who can. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before we do any of that, we need to test the curse on one of us to see how it manifests. From there, we'll be able to make adjustments."

"I'm going to have to curse one of you?"

"Yes. Juliet is the most recent to join us and has the least magical knowledge so it makes sense that she will go first."

"Just how dangerous is this going to be for her? Could it kill her?"

"Death is one possibility, but it's not the most unpleasant. Compared to some of what could happen, death could be seen as one of the more merciful outcomes."

"I don't want to take the chance of hurting her... or anyone."

"If you don't take the chance, then you'll help no one. You've been given a tremendous gift, but we can't compel you to use it. It must be your choice."

"Isn't there some way that we can test it out or something and make sure that it's going to be safe?"

"That's what we're doing now. If we can get the curse to work properly on one of us, then you'll have what you'll need to bestow the curse on our sisters at the coven to rescue them from the hellish existence that they've been trapped in."

"When you put it like that, I really don't have a choice, do I?"

"You always have a choice. It's just not always an easy one."

"What do I have to do?"

"Come with us downstairs, to our workshop. We've been preparing for this day and everything is in readiness."

* * * * *

Andrea could feel herself trying to slip to either her fully human or swan form, but was able to maintain her hold on the half-form that allowed her to interact with the witches, but also maintain some semblance of modesty.

As soon as they entered what Andrea could only classify as a 'dungeon', all the witches went to work on various tasks as she stood and watched.

"This will only take a moment." Ima assured her as they worked.

"Is there anything I can do?" Andrea reluctantly asked.

"No, dear. Just have a seat over there and we'll have everything ready before you know it."

Andrea spotted the large, crudely made chair and took a seat.

"Since we've been waiting for the full moon to summon you here, we've had time to add a few fail safes into the curse." Ima said without looking up from the concoction she was brewing.

Andrea couldn't think of any way to respond to that, so she remained seated and watched them work.

"With a curse that bestows a curse, there's always the chance of ending up with a 'Midas Touch' scenario. So we've worked very hard to make it so that you won't be cursing everyone you meet, willy nilly." Ima said conversationally.

"I hadn't even thought about that. Is it going to be safe for me to be around my boys?" Andrea asked with concern.

"We think so. Like I said, we've had the time to refine the curse a little bit so that you can't bestow it unintentionally." Ima said as she stopped and turned to look at Andrea.

* * * * *

"Is it time?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"Yes. If you'll stand over here, we'll get this done in short order. Vera, Hilda, start the chant. Kathryn, read through the spell one more time, then stand ready." Ima commanded.

Vera and Hilda began to chant in low, mostly unintelligible voices.

Ima held her hands out to Andrea, inviting her to take them.

"I call upon Gaea, mother earth, to help us right what has been made wrong. I ask only that you help us restore the balance and return living mortal creatures to be as you intended. Allow us to bestow this curse on your daughter so that she may help others return to you." Ima said reverently.

Andrea felt that she should be doing something more, but continued to stand silently as Ima held her hands.

"I place this curse upon your hands. Let those you touch be damned."

Andrea was shocked by the words and had to fight not to pull away. She was startled when Kathryn walked up beside her and reached toward her face.

Andrea flinched away instinctively, but Kathryn was still able to smear something on her mouth.

"I place this curse upon your lips. Let those who hear your words be damned." Kathryn said coldly.

Andrea looked from Kathryn to Ima with fear at what they were doing.

Ima released Andrea's hands, then placed one of her withered, gnarled hands on Andrea's chest.

"I place this curse upon your heart. Let those for whom you care be damned." Ima said before taking a step away.

"Let this thrice damned curse be made one, only then to be bestowed." All the witches said in unison as Ima gently touched a dark crystal to the pendant around Andrea's neck.

"What have you done to me?" Andrea asked as tears began to well in her eyes.

"We've had the curse prepared for some days, waiting for you to arrive. We kept it housed within the crystal. What we've just done is given you the ability to bestow this curse on others. You're a cursed being, dear. It's impossible for you to bestow a blessing, so this is the only way that it could be done." Ima explained.

"What we just did was put limits on 'how' you can bestow the curse." Vera added.

"Yes. You have to physically touch the person that you're cursing, say the words 'I curse you' and you have to feel within your heart the desire for the curse to be bestowed. Without all three of these, the curse will remain in your amulet." Ima confirmed.

Andrea considered their words for a moment as she calmed down. Finally, she quietly asked, "What do I do now?"

"All the preliminaries are done. Now it's time for you to bestow the curse so that we can finally see if it will work as it was intended." Ima said seriously.

"I'm afraid." Andrea quietly admitted.

"Good. Curses shouldn't be taken lightly. Only bestow this curse on those whom you feel will be better off because of it. It is a great burden of responsibility." Ima said soberly.

"I think I understand." Andrea said slowly.

Ima chuckled, then said, "I'm not sure that I understand. But this is all that we can do."

Andrea nodded.

"Then, let's do it. Juliet? Are you ready?" Ima asked seriously.

"Yes. Please." Juliet said as she stepped forward.

"I'm afraid. I don't want to hurt you." Andrea told the woman quietly.

"When you do this, you'll either cure me or kill me. Either one would be better than continuing on like this, withering away until every day is nothing but continuous torture." Juliet quietly explained.

"What do I do?" Andrea asked Ima anxiously.

"Touch Juliet, then tell her that you curse her. If you truly wish for it to be so, then the curse will be bestowed." Ima said simply.

"I'm sorry, Juliet. I hope this works." Andrea said as a tear fell down her cheek.

"Whatever happens, I'm at peace with it. Please do it." Juliet implored her.

Andrea raised a hand to gently caress Juliet's cheek, then quietly said, "I curse you."

"Thank you." Juliet responded as she placed her hand over Andrea's and held it for a brief moment.

"Now, all that's left is to see what happens." Ima said frankly, then turned to Andrea and said, "We've done all that we can do here. You should go back home."

"That's it? Isn't something going to happen?" Andrea asked with confusion.

"Yes. If you truly felt that cursing Juliet was the right thing to do, then the curse has been bestowed. We won't know for some time what, if anything, it's going to do. Tomorrow night is another full moon, so you will be compelled to return here. Then you can see what the new curse has caused to happen." Ima said seriously.

"Oh, I just thought... you know, like with the shapeshifting, that it would just happen all at once." Andrea stammered to explain.

"Perhaps in some cases it will. Magic can be like that. But I think that in most cases that you'll probably have to wait for a bit to see how the curse will manifest."

"Drake's probably worried about me by now. I guess I'll go." Andrea said uncertainly.

"With any luck, when you return we'll have good news for you." Ima said with a smile.

Andrea nodded, then looked around uncertainly.

"There was one other thing that we wanted to ask of you." Ima said, seemingly as an afterthought.

"What's that?" Andrea asked curiously.

"Do you think that, when you have the opportunity, you could ask that young stallion, Jim, if he could make us some more of the pendants, like the one that you're wearing? They seem particularly well suited for carrying enchantments." Ima asked hopefully.

"I'm sure that he'll be happy to help. I'll remember to ask him." Andrea promised.

"I'll walk you up to the balcony." Juliet said gently.

Andrea smiled at her, then left the 'dungeon' at her side.

* * * * *

"Can you feel anything?" Andrea asked as they walked.

"Hope." Juliet answered simply.

"I mean, can you feel the magic working?" Andrea asked anxiously.

"I know what you mean. No. I don't feel anything happening. But even if it doesn't work out, to feel hope is enough." Juliet said thoughtfully.

"If you can think of anything that I can do to help you... just let me know." Andrea said weakly.

"You've already done it. Now we wait." Juliet said simply.

* * * * *

They continued their walk in silence until they reached the balcony where Andrea had arrived.

"Ima mentioned that you had a husband and children. What's it like?" Juliet asked curiously, sounding almost casual.

"It's like being someone bigger and more important than I really am."

"That sounds really nice." Juliet said wistfully, then watched as Andrea assumed her swan form and flew away.

* * * * *

Fortunately, Andrea was able to remember where she had left her clothes. The bigger challenge was finding her way back to Drake's house.

She needn't have worried. Before she could doubt that she was going in the right direction, she encountered the worried calls of Drake and Jim as she made her way unerringly toward the house.

"Andrea!" Jim called out when he spotted her.

Before Andrea could react, Jim ran up to her and pulled her into a frantic hug.

"We were so worried about you! Did you get lost? Are you alright?" Jim rushed to ask.

"I'm fine." Andrea assured him as she returned his hug.

"Jim! Did you find her?" Drake called in the distance.

"Yeah. She's here! She's safe!" Jim called back.

Andrea was finally able to get Jim to release her enough so that she could start walking again.

"Are you really okay?" Jim asked with concern. Andrea couldn't help but be amazed by the way Drake's family, especially Jim, had accepted her. In some ways it felt as though she had a closer connection with Jim than she did with her own sons.

"I'm fine. I promise."

"Where were you?"

"I'll tell you all about it when we get back to the house. You're probably not going to believe it."

"Are you alright?" Drake asked as he approached.

"I'm fine." Andrea automatically responded.

"You really need to stay closer to the house if you're going to be out walking after dark." Drake told her.

"Listen guys, there's some stuff going on and I'm going to need to go out for the next few nights."

"If there's someone else that you're interested in, you can tell me. You're under no commitment to me."

"Thank you, Drake. But it's really nothing like that. I don't want to tell you too much in case things don't work out. A lot of people could get hurt. The only thing I'll say at this point is that when the new curse was put on me, it included a compulsion for me to go to a certain place when the moon was full."

"So the witches did it?" Jim asked cautiously as they finally reached the house.

"Yes." Andrea said simply.

"But why did they want you to go to them?" Jim asked worriedly.

"I really can't say more." Andrea told him in no uncertain terms.

"Jim, go let Tannis know that we're back and that Andrea's fine." Drake told his son firmly.

After a concerned look at Andrea, Jim reluctantly hurried away.

"If it's something we can help with, you'll let us know, won't you?" Drake quietly asked.

"I will. I promise."

* * * * *

Andrea's sleep was filled with anxiety and shadowy dreams of dark and dangerous things.

When she finally woke, she found herself in a beautiful, comfortable place of warmth and safety.

She was in her swan form, nestled into the blankets on the bed. As she changed into her human form, she looked around and appreciated what she had been freely given.

The room actually belonged to Tannis, but Andrea had been allowed to stay there since her arrival. No one in the family made mention of the fact or seemed to be the least bit put out by her staying with them.

After dressing, Andrea made her way to the kitchen where she found Drake and Jim working together to prepare breakfast. Tannis, Viv and Ollie were sitting at the kitchen table, talking quietly about their plans for the day.

She paused in the kitchen doorway and silently watched for a moment.

With the way things stood, she knew that the most encouraging future that Ollie could look forward to would be to do as his father had done and get married, then father a child. Soon after that, he would lose his new wife to the curse and be forced to continue on alone, raising their child by himself.

Vivendel's fate would be even worse, to either marry and go insane or remain celibate and eventually end up with Ima and her sisters in the castle on the hill.

"Good morning!" Jim said happily when he noticed her.

"Good morning, Jim. Did you sleep well?"

"I slept great! Do you want some eggs? The chickens must be in a good mood because we have enough for everyone today." Jim asked with a smile.

"As long as everyone else has had their fill." Andrea said softly, not wanting anyone to have to do without on her behalf.

"Tannis doesn't like eggs. But we've got plenty. Sit down and I'll bring them to you when they're ready."

"Thank you, Jim." Andrea said warmly as she walked to the table.

"Are you alright?" Tannis asked with concern.

It took a moment for Andrea to realize why he was asking, but she finally responded, "I just had something that I needed to do last night. I'm fine."

"Good. We was all worried about you." Tannis responded.

"Thank you, Tannis. I'll do my best not to make you worry again."

"Okay." Tannis said easily, then looked toward the stove to track the progress of breakfast.

* * * * *

"The other kids are jealous of me cause I gots a mama and they don't." Ollie blurted out in the midst of breakfast.

"She's not your mother." Drake told his son gently, yet firmly enough to leave no doubt.

After a moment to consider, Andrea turned her attention to the younger children and quietly said, "I may not be your mother, but I am a mother. Since I'm staying here, I wouldn't mind helping out. If you can tell me about some of the things that you'd like a mother to do, maybe I could do some of them with you."

"I heard that moms make you cookies!" Ollie immediately responded.

"Doesn't your father make you cookies?" Andrea asked with a gentle smile in Drake's direction.

"Mommy cookies are sposta be extra special good." Ollie said firmly.

"Well, I don't really know if my cookies are as good as your fathers, but I wouldn't mind baking some for you sometime. Maybe you could even help me."

"Mommy hugs is sposta be the best, too." Viv timidly added.

"Well, I happen to know for a fact that mommy hugs aren't one bit better than daddy hugs. They're both good in different ways."

"Can I have a hug?" Viv asked hopefully.

"Sure. Come on over here." Andrea immediately answered, then opened her arms to the young girl.

Viv didn't need to be told twice. She climbed immediately onto Andrea's lap and hugged her as though it were her rightful place.

"I wanna hug too!" Ollie demanded.

"Let me give Viv her hug right now. I promise that I'll have hugs for all of you whenever you need them." Andrea said as she held the girl in her arms.

Although he tried to hide it, Jim flashed Andrea the briefest hopeful look before turning his attention back to his meal.

Andrea noticed and smiled at the reaction. She didn't know why it was, but even though Viv and Ollie obviously wanted a mother in their lives, Jim appeared to be the one who most needed a mother.

She was determined within herself to rise to the challenge and provide him whatever peace of mind she could.

"But what about when you move into your own house?" Tannis asked thoughtfully.

"I have a feeling that we'll still be seeing each other quite a bit. I may not be here every day, but we'll have plenty of chances to spend time together and I'll still be available when you need me." Andrea assured him.

* * * * *

Andrea finished Vivendel's hugs, then made a point of hugging Ollie just as much. After that, Tannis and Jim received brief hugs, but Andrea got the sense that they were no less appreciated.

Once all the children had left for school, Drake quietly asked, "So, what do you have planned for today?"

"Ares and Lowell are going to be putting some finishing touches on my house. They want me to be there to make final decisions on finishes and things like that."

"So, when do you think you'll be moving?" Drake asked hesitantly.

"I was originally planning on leaving in the next day or two, but after last night... would you mind if we delayed it a few days, until I know how things are going to turn out?"

"There's no rush! We'd love to have you stay a little while longer." Drake quickly offered.

"Thank you. I don't know what to expect to happen tonight, but it'll be good knowing that I won't be coming home to an empty house."

"You're always welcome here. I hope you know that."

"I don't understand why, but I do know that."

"I don't think that the 'why' is too difficult to explain. There's an emptiness in our lives where the children's mothers should be. You being here helps to fulfill that need. You don't have to try and act like their mother, your presence is enough to provide them what they've been missing." Drake said honestly.

"Every child deserves to have a mother." Andrea said quietly.

"We do the best we can for them with what we've got. I don't think that every child needs the same things and needs to be raised exactly the same way."

"I guess that's true. Just look at my boys. They were raised completely differently from yours, and I think that they still turned out alright."

"Your boys are just fine. I've been concerned about mine growing up with no other children their own ages close by. With your boys here, all the boys can help each other to navigate adolescence and encourage each other to make good decisions. It seems that with all that Cain and Demi have experienced in the outside world, they have a valuable perspective about consequences that my boys wouldn't know about."

"I wouldn't worry too much. Although all your children are wonderful, I can see that Tannis and Jim are growing into incredible young men that you should be very proud of." Andrea said honestly, then regretfully added, "I'd better get over to my house. Ares and Lowell are going to need me there soon."

"I know. And I have a long day of work ahead of me if I'm going to produce enough stock for the runners to sell on their next trip out." Drake said resignedly.

As Andrea was about to leave, she instead stepped forward and pulled Drake into her arms and gave him a firm kiss.

Drake was understandably surprised, but soon eased into her arms and returned her kiss, doing his best not to lose control and overwhelm her with his passion.

It wasn't until she began to release him that Drake realized that he had unconsciously been pressing his hardness against her, gaining stimulation from the friction.

"I'm sorry." Drake whispered, feeling nothing short of mortification at his loss of self control.

"Don't be." Andrea whispered in return, then looked deeply into his eyes as she continued, "I want you, too. But with so many things being unsettled right now, it's not the time for us to start something new. Too many things could go wrong. Too many people could be hurt."

"I know." Drake quietly responded as he tried to look casual and willed his rampant erection to subside.

"I'll see you this evening." Andrea said as she turned to leave.

"We'll have dinner waiting for you." Drake said after her as she walked out the front door.

Drake stood there for a moment, thinking about all the things that he needed to accomplish in the coming hours, but finally concluded that none of them would get done, or at least get done well if he were being constantly distracted. It had been far too long since he had sought release, so he went back to his bedroom to deal with the necessary thing that had to be done before he started his workday.

* * * * *

As the moon rose, Andrea didn't bother with the trek through the woods to the cliff. She simply shed her clothes and changed into her 'Oskmey' form. She made sure that she had her amulet in place around her neck, then walked out of the bedroom.

"Is there anything we can do to help you?" Drake asked as she walked into the living room.

"Not that I can think of. I'll be back as soon as I can." Andrea said honestly.

"You haven't told us anything about what you're doing. I can't help but think that if we knew more, that there might be something that we could do to help you." Drake implored her to understand.

"You're already doing it." Andrea assured him, then added, "I need to be going."

"Just knowing that you're going to be dealing with the witches makes me nervous. Not only do they have access to powers that I don't understand, but they're also more than a little bit crazy." Drake implored her to understand.

"That may be so, but from what I can see, they're going out of their way to give me as many choices as possible." Andrea said seriously.

"Just... be safe." Drake said quietly.

"I'll do my best." Andrea said before walking out the front door.

* * * * *

When Andrea landed on the balcony, she half expected to find Vera or Juliet waiting for her.

Although she didn't know the layout of the entire building, Andrea was able to remember enough to find her way to the library where she had been the previous night. When she found no one there, she continued on to the 'dungeon'.

"Andrea, please come in. We have some very good news for you. The initial curse went better than we could have hoped." Andrea heard Ima say as she entered the room.

"How is Juliet doing?" Andrea asked anxiously.

"Very well, although there were a few unexpected side effects."

Andrea looked around, then asked, "Where is she?"

"She's trying to find something proper to wear. I'm sure that she will join us in a moment." Ima assured her.

It took quite a bit for Andrea to put her trust in someone that she barely knew, but it seemed to be getting easier with practice.

"Let me have a look at your pendant for a moment while we wait." Ima said as she beckoned Andrea to come near.

Andrea walked to where Ima was sitting and leaned in.

Ima brought up her hand once again holding a dark crystal.

Andrea waited as Ima held the crystal in place for a moment, then withdrew it.

"Did you just update the curse?" Andrea asked slowly.

"That's right. Taking what we learned from Juliet's manifestation of the curse, we made a few last minute adjustments."

"Then, is it time for me to go to the Coven now?"

"Nearly, but I think it best if we have at least one completely successful test before you do that." Ima said thoughtfully.

"So you want me to curse someone else right now?" Andrea guessed.

"Yes. And since we're reasonably sure that this version of the curse isn't going to cause too much harm, we'd like it if you'd curse Vera. She has the most need." Ima explained.

Although Vera was hideous, to be sure, it appeared that Ima's condition was far more severe.

It seemed that Ima could sense what Andrea was thinking, because she explained, "Vera's deformity causes her almost constant pain."

Andrea looked sympathetically at Vera and said, "If there's any way I can help you, of course I'll do it."

"After all these years, to think that I'd be asking to be cursed." Vera said with a weary chuckle.

Without further adieu, Andrea stepped forward and placed her hand on Vera's wart speckled cheek as she quietly said, "I curse you."

"Thank you, dear. I never would have thought that those words could sound so sweet."

"I hope it helps." Andrea said sincerely as she withdrew her hand.

"Andrea! You're here! Why didn't somebody come and tell me?" A voice asked from the doorway.

As Andrea turned to respond, she froze in horror at the sight.

Although the person before her was identifiable as Juliet, she looked drastically different.

Her skin appeared to be greenish-gray and slick almost as though it were covered with mucous or some other sort of slime.

"Are you alright?" Andrea asked without thinking.

"Don't let this bother you. It's fine." Juliet assured her.

Andrea pried her gaze away and looked to Ima desperately as she asked, "Can I curse her again to fix this?"

"Juliet, show her." Ima said, then gestured for Andrea to look again.

As Andrea watched in wonder, Juliet began to transform. She didn't change to look like she had the previous night, but instead looked like a perfectly normal woman.

"It seems that when Juliet isn't trying to change, she defaults to her half-transformed state. She was just trying to find something to wear that wouldn't be too revealing with the new shape of her body." Ima explained.

Andrea looked again and realized what she was seeing.

"Before you trouble yourself too much about Juliet's transformation, it isn't your fault that her animal transformation is that of a frog." Ima said sympathetically.

"That's right. I have no regrets about what we've done." Juliet confirmed.

"You didn't answer me before. Can I curse her again to make the curse work right?" Andrea asked Ima slowly.

"You could. That is to say that there's nothing stopping you. But the curse that you carry was designed to overlay the curse of the Brynns. If you were to place the curse atop another overlay curse, the result could be catastrophic."

"What about someone who doesn't have the curse active yet?" Andrea cautiously asked.

"How do you mean?" Ima asked curiously.

"Drake Brynnyn's daughter, Vivendel, is too young for the curse to be active..."

"Only bestow the curse on those who will be better off as a result. If someone is happy in their situation, leave them be. Make no mistake, what you carry is a curse that you can bestow. You can cause harm."

"Andrea?" Vera said shakily.

A look of question was her response.

"I can feel it working." Vera whispered with a joyful snaggletoothed smile.

"What does it feel like?" Andrea asked with anticipation.

"I don't know exactly what I'm feeling, but what I'm not feeling is all the aches and pains in every joint in my body." Vera said as tears started falling down her cheeks.

"I'm glad it's working." Andrea whispered.

"I think that you've done enough for tonight. Why don't you go home and get some rest?" Ima gently suggested.

"I can do more." Andrea immediately offered.

"We need time to see how this curse is going to affect Vera. If it seems that it's continuing to help her, then tomorrow night you can begin the next phase of our plan." Ima said seriously.

"Is that to go to the coven and start to help them?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"That's right. We want to be as sure as we can be that the help we're offering will actually be of help." Ima confirmed.

"Okay. I'll see you tomorrow night." Andrea said quietly.

"Thank you again, Andrea. Even though it may not look like it to you, I'm very happy with the way things have turned out." Juliet said sincerely.

Andrea looked at her and smiled when she saw that Juliet was still in her fully human form.

"If you're happy, then I'm happy." Andrea assured her.

"I'll walk up with you." Juliet said as she motioned toward the doorway.

Andrea gave one last look around the dungeon, then started walking.

* * * * *

When Andrea arrived at Drake's house, she found him alone in the living room, waiting for her.

"Is everything alright?" Drake asked with concern.

"It seems to be."

"Can you tell me about what's going on?"

"I really can't. I don't want to take the chance of giving people false hope about something that may never happen."

"All I really know is that you're under a compulsion to visit the witches. Is that really all that you can tell me?"

"Yes. I'm afraid it is." Andrea said regretfully, then gently added, "I'll tell you more as soon as I can."

"You don't have to tell me anything. I'm just worried about you."

"I know. And I can't tell you how much that means to me."

* * * * *

That night Andrea didn't feel nearly as much anxiety as she had the night before.

Although it was true that Juliet's transformation wasn't exactly ideal, she was willing to accept that Juliet was content with it.

"Is there anything we can do to help you?" Jim asked with concern as she walked into the living room.

Andrea glanced at Drake uncertainly.

"He was worried, so I told him that he could wait up and see you off, if he wanted to."

"Thank you, Jim. As far as I know, there's nothing that you can do. But I promise that I'll let you know if I discover anything."

"Is what you're going to be doing dangerous?" Jim asked anxiously.

"I honestly don't know."

"I've been to the castle before. I can go with you.' Jim quickly volunteered.

"No, thank you, Jim. If Ima were planning to cause me harm, she probably would have done something to me by now."

"Then who are you worried about?"

"I can't really tell you more, but the truth is that I may just be worrying because I don't know what to expect." Andrea said honestly, then added, "Either way, I need to be going."

Jim walked to her and pulled her into an unexpected hug which left her speechless.

"Don't take any chances that you don't have to. I want you to come back home to us safely." Jim said as he held her firmly.

"No unnecessary risks. I promise." Andrea finally assured him when she was able to find her voice again.

Andrea silently held him a moment longer before reluctantly letting him go.

When she glanced at Drake, she could see the concern in his eyes.

"I'll be back as soon as I can." Andrea said before determinedly walking for the front door.

* * * * *

When Andrea landed on the balcony at Ima's castle, she immediately transformed into her 'oskmey' form and made her way directly to the library.

"Andrea! How are you doing tonight?" Ima asked when she noticed Andrea entering the room.

"I need for you to tell me all of what's going on. Revealing each thing to me just as it's happening is not only making me a nervous wreck but it's also hurting people I care about. Even if you don't know every detail, I need to know what you're planning so I can prepare for it and so that I can decide for myself if I really want to go along with your plans."

"Be careful what you ask for." Ima said simply.

At Andrea's confused look, Ima explained, "The compulsion that we put on you ends tonight. You never have to return here again if you don't want to. As far as our plan... It's more of a goal than a plan. We've done our best to give you the tools that you'll need to help our sisters in 'the Coven', but everything you do from this point on is up to you."

"But what am I supposed to do?"

"Go there. Assess the situation. Then take whatever action you deem appropriate."

"I don't even know where I'm supposed to go."

"I'll show you where it is on the map. But there's one last thing that you need to understand. We don't know what you're going to be facing when you go there. We haven't had any contact with them for decades. We believe that they behave more rationally when there aren't any men around, but we don't have any proof of that. We might just be telling ourselves what we want to hear."

"So all of them might be stark raving mad?"

"It's possible, but that's not what I'm most worried about at the moment."

Andrea waited anxiously for Ima to reveal what was worrying her.

"They could hurt you, Andrea. They might even try to kill you. Be prepared to run for your life or fly away from them if you feel that you're in danger."

"How likely do you think that is to happen?"

"We don't know enough to even make a guess."

"What happens if I decide not to go there?"

"Then you'll have to live with the knowledge that you might have been able to do something to help people who were suffering and release them from their captivity."

"That's the real curse, isn't it?"

"That's going to be up to you."

There was a long contemplative silence before Andrea quietly said, "I need some time to think. Would you like for me to curse anyone else before I go?"

"Yes. If you wouldn't mind." Ima told Andrea, then turned and asked, "Kathryn? Are you ready?"

"I don't know. I feel like the rest of you need it more."

"Don't worry about us, dear. We'll manage."

"I can curse all of you." Andrea quietly offered.

"Thanks for the thought but it's too soon." Ima stated simply, then explained, "Even though the curse appears to be working as expected, we can't assume that it will continue that way. Regardless whether you decide to help us or not, our magic is the only hope for our sisters, and by extension, the entire Brynnhollow community."

"I understand." Andrea said solemnly.

"Andrea." A voice said from behind her.

When she turned, she saw Vera and Juliet standing in the doorway.

"We just thought that you should know what kind of power you really have." Juliet said, looking not only perfectly normal, but also incredibly happy.

"This is what you can do to help the others." Vera said soberly.

"How are you feeling?" Andrea asked quickly, all else forgotten for the moment.

"Better than I could have hoped. I had really forgotten what it felt like not to be in pain."

For a moment Andrea took stock of Vera's appearance. To Andrea, it almost appeared that Vera was some sort of puppet, a grotesque caricature of a human being, only having the most general features in common. Even so, her general appearance was greatly improved from what it had been the day before. She still didn't look entirely 'real', but there was no doubt that she was in better condition that she had been previously.

"I understand." Andrea told her sincerely, then turned to Kathryn and asked, "Are you sure?"

"Yes. Please. I Understand the risk and I want to do it anyway. If there's even a chance, I've got to take it."

Andrea smiled at her response, then reached up to gently touch her cheek as she said, "I curse you."

"Thank you."

* * * * *

After being shown where 'the coven' was located on the map, Andrea quietly left Ima's castle, not making any promises as to what she was going to do next.

When she arrived back at Drake's house, she once again assumed her 'oskmey' form before entering.

"Is everything alright?" Jim asked anxiously as Andrea walked into the living room.

"I don't know." Andrea said honestly.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Drake asked cautiously.

"No." Andrea answered simply, then added, "But I don't think this decision is going to get any easier if I try to do everything all by myself."

"I can leave you two alone, if that'll make it easier for you to talk about it." Jim reluctantly offered.

"Thank you, Jim. But I think that I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter."

"What's going on, Andrea?" Drake asked with concern.

"Ima and the others came up with a new curse and gave it to me so that I can bestow it."

"Is that like the curse they gave you so that you can stay here?" Jim quickly asked.

"I have the feeling that the curses are related but I don't understand all of what they do."

"Just tell us what you can." Drake said quietly.

"Ima thinks that this new curse might be able to undo or at least alter the curse on the women of Brynnhollow."

"You can make them normal again?" Drake asked in shock.

"I think normal might be an unrealistic goal. But it might be able to improve their conditions to the point that they might be able to reenter society."

"When are you going to do it?"

"I don't know if I am." Andrea quietly admitted.

"What do you mean?" Drake asked with surprise.

"Ima warned me that they might try to hurt me or kill me if I go there."

"But you've got to!" Jim implored her to understand.

"Think about what it's going to mean if all those women suddenly return. How will your society cope?" Andrea asked Drake more than Jim.

"I'll admit that things might get really complicated if Herta and Shea were to both show up on my doorstep."

"Brynnhollow would go crazy." Jim said thoughtfully.

"Exactly." Andrea said with a smile at him, then continued, "There are a lot of ways that this could go horribly wrong. I'm hoping that with your help that we can come up with a way of doing this where we'll end up doing more good than harm."

"Does that mean that you're going to go there and try cursing someone?" Jim asked cautiously.

"I'll at least go there and assess the situation. But I don't plan on bestowing any curses until I can be reasonably sure that it will actually improve things." Andrea said thoughtfully.

"Do you think that it might be safer if one of us were to go with you?" Drake asked cautiously.

"I'm going to have to fly in. I appreciate the thought, but I don't think it would work." Andrea said regretfully.

"I have functional wings in my baphomet form. I can fly there with you." Drake quickly offered.

"Even if the women weren't insane and under a curse, seeing you in your baphomet form might terrify them and make things a lot more difficult." Andrea informed him.

"Then maybe you could ask Ares to go with you." Jim suggested.

"I'm not sure how the curse works, but with Ares being male, him being there could cause a whole different set of problems to erupt." Andrea said frankly.

"It's true, they do hate men." Drake admitted.

"So, does this mean that you've already decided that you're going, even though you know it might be dangerous?" Jim asked with concern.

"I suppose it does." Andrea wearily responded.

"Is there anything that Jim and I can do to help you?" Drake asked hopefully.

"Yes. Please be thinking about what we can do if this works. I feel like if I make one wrong move that the entire house of cards that is Brynnhollow will come tumbling down." Andrea admitted.

"When are you going?" Jim asked quietly.

"I'll go tomorrow night. If I put it off any longer, I'll probably talk myself out of it."  Andrea said anxiously.

After a long silent moment, Jim quietly asked, "Do you really think it will work? Can you make them better?"

"Ima asked me to bestow the curse on a few of the women there with her, so she could see how it worked and do some fine tuning." Andrea explained.

"Did you curse Ima?" Jim asked quickly.

"No. she didn't want to take any chances in case something went wrong. I cursed three women named Juliet, Vera and Kathryn.

"Kathryn Brynnlynn?" Drake asked cautiously.

"I don't know. I don't think anyone mentioned their last names."

"I knew Kathryn. When she disappeared about a year ago, well, I naturally assumed the worst." Drake admitted.

"I know who Vera is." Jim announced, then grumbled, "Grabby old thing."

"Well, they're not entirely back to normal yet, but they all seem to be getting better."

"Do they plan on coming down off their mountain when they've recovered?" Jim asked curiously.

"They didn't say anything to me about it. I got the feeling that they were committed to seeing that the women at the coven were taken care of." Andrea said thoughtfully.

There was another moment of silence, then Drake quietly said, "This could change everything, couldn't it?"

"Or it could destroy everything, if we do it wrong." Andrea added.

* * * * *

Little was said after that about the decisions that Andrea was facing. In point of fact, they all knew that she had already decided, but they were also aware that she wasn't entirely happy with the decision that she had made.

Through breakfast with Drake's family, and on through the day in her new house, looking around and putting on the last finishing touches, Andrea went through the motions while the dread of what she would be facing welled within her.

Although she logically knew that there was no reason that she should have to wait until dark, she nonetheless did.

As the last rays of the sunset finally disappeared, she internally gathered her courage and took flight.

* * * * *

It turned out that following directions on a map was far easier when flying than when driving.

Andrea was able to fly unerringly and directly to her destination.

As she looked over the enormous stone structure, she couldn't help but admire the architecture and majesty of it.

Much skill and care had been used in its construction.

She flew around the building, which turned out to be more of a compound, made up of various buildings, and searched for a good place to land.

The largest of several courtyards caught her eye and she decided to land there.

No one seemed to be around, so she transformed to her 'oskmey' form, so she could better investigate the area.

"So, the time has finally come?" A woman's voice asked from a nearby stand of trees.

Andrea turned suddenly and could just barely identify a humanoid form standing in the shadows.

"Are you Andrea or Michelle?" The raspy feminine voice asked curiously.

"I'm Andrea..." She began to say, but was interrupted.

"Yes. Of course you would be. That should work out nicely."

"Who are you?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"I'm the Grand Duchess Astrid, the Queen's Keeper of History."

"How do you know who I am?"

"I'm bored already. Just get on with it, will you?"

"Get on with what?" Andrea asked in puzzlement.

"Follow that path that you're on. The Queen won't wait for you forever."

"Wait? Is she expecting me?"

When she didn't get an answer, she looked around and couldn't find any sign of the shadowy stranger.

* * * * *

Having no reason to do otherwise, Andrea continued on down the path, under the light of the waning moon.

A moment later she paused when she heard slightly off-key humming coming from ahead of her.

"Hello?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"Is it too cold for the babies, do you think?" A woman's voice asked from ahead of her.

Andrea puzzled over the question for a moment as she cautiously continued forward.

"I suppose they seem happy enough. I'll wait a bit longer. The night air is good for them."

As Andrea stepped onto a patio, she was finally able to see the source of the voice. The woman was dressed elegantly, however the style of clothing seemed to be a century or more out of date. The woman was covered from neck to ankle with ornate clothing, embellished with swaths of lace.

When the woman turned to face her, Andrea was surprised to find her wearing a porcelain mask framed by carefully styled golden blond hair, which was obviously a wig.

"They're napping now. We should have time for a nice chat." The woman said pleasantly.

"Excuse me, Ma'am, but who are you?" Andrea asked quietly.

"Stupid child! I'm the one you came here to see! I am the exalted and most revered, Queen Marimba!"

"I didn't mean to offend you. I don't know anyone here. It's nice to meet you, my name is..."

"I know who you are! We've been waiting for you! Now get on with it!" Marimba snarled.

"Get on with what? I don't know what it is that you expect me to do." Andrea said quietly, intimidated by the queen's forceful nature.

"Stupid cow! You're supposed to release us from our captivity!"

"How am I supposed to do that?" Andrea asked indignantly.

"Once we're free, the men are going to pay for everything that they've done to us. After we've destroyed the last of them, I'm going to be coronated as the queen of Brynnhollow, wearing a crown woven from their severed penises."

"What are you saying that they've done?" Andrea cautiously asked.

"Now look at what you've done with all your yammering! Giuseppe's awake and before you know it they'll all three be crying their little heads off!" Marimba screeched as she rushed to a crudely made woven basket.

Andrea didn't hear anything. Her curiosity got the better of her and she followed.

Marimba snatched a filthy rag baby doll out of the basket by one arm and bared a shriveled nipple before pressing the doll to it.

"I swear, the little bastard does nothing but cry." Marimba scowled with aggravation as she jammed the 'baby' to her breast.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Andrea asked uncertainly as she tried to process all of what she was seeing. Marimba's ceramic 'face' wore a neutral expression of disinterest which was in stark contrast to her emotionally charged words.

"Leonid probably needs to be changed and Toaster Oven always wants to be held. You might as well make yourself useful, since this is ALL YOUR FAULT!" Marimba finished in a bellowing scream.

Andrea looked around for another basket, but instead found a large soup kettle with one doll in it and a tin wash tub with another. Andrea stopped and looked more carefully at the doll in the wash tub. The crudely made, dirty little doll had an absurdly large cloth penis stitched onto its groin. The penis was nearly as long as the doll's legs.

"Every day that we're left inside this prison is your fault. You're the cause of all our suffering. You really are a vile, despicable cunt." Marimba said coldly.

"I didn't put you in here." Andrea said as she tried to force herself to reach into the wash tub and pick up 'Toaster Oven'. The large button eyes and realistic, possibly real, teeth were disturbing enough to prevent her from getting any closer to the grotesque little thing and she eventually withdrew her hand.

"If you don't get on with it and let us out, your twin sons will pay for it, I promise you that. We'll drain them of their seed... over and over... until they finally wither to nothing and die." Marimba said as she moved the doll, Giuseppe, to her shoulder and began to thump its back, apparently trying to burp him.

"What do you know about my sons?" Andrea asked as she gave up trying to force herself to pick up the disgusting little doll and stepped away from the wash tub.

"And what about that new husband of yours? You don't think we'll let him live, do you? But if you release us right now, I promise that we'll do our best to see that he's one of the last to die." Marimba said in a tone of voice that sounded almost reasonable.

"What 'new husband'?" Andrea asked in confusion.

"Oh? Do you mean that hasn't happened yet?" Marimba asked curiously, then turned her attention back to the doll in her arms as she continued, "Give it time."

"You can see the future?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"Yes. Many of them, in fact... or at least glimpses of them. And in those futures we see ourselves bathed in male blood and tears, basking in the glory of being free to be mothers and wives again." Marimba said dreamily.

"But how can you be mothers and wives if you kill all the men?" Andrea asked as she started backing away from Marimba, back to the path she had entered from.

"Stupid bitch! You believe their lies, don't you? Forget what I said! As soon as you've set us free, I'll see to it that your death is legendary! The last of the dying men will look up at your mangled corpse and be relieved that they won't have to suffer as you did!" Marimba screeched. The bland, impassive look on her ceramic mask only served to intensify the aura of hatred that emanated from her.

Andrea slowly took another step back, not wanting to make any sudden moves to provoke an attack.

"Look at this! How negligent of me. I've forgotten to offer you any tea. Come, dear. Join me. It's a most delightful blend." Marimba said as she gestured toward a table and chairs.

Andrea turned and broke into a full run, away from Marimba, down the path.

As soon as she was in a large enough clearing, she let herself transform fully and took to the air.

* * * * *

As Andrea flew, she decided to go to her new house where she could be alone and think things through. Her mind kept going over and over her encounter with Marimba, trying to make sense of what she had witnessed.

When she finally landed, she was surprised to find herself outside Drake's house. It was as though she had some sort of homing instinct which compelled her to seek out the safety and security that could be found in Drake's embrace.

"How are you?" Jim asked as she entered through the front door.

Andrea didn't have a ready answer and finally responded, "I'll have to get back to you on that."

"You look worried. Can I get you some tea or anything?" Jim asked anxiously.

"No, thank you. Just give me a minute. Where's your father?" Andrea asked as she looked around.

"He was really worried about you and had to get out of the house for a few minutes to work off his pent up energy. He went out for a little bit to forage in his animal form he asked me to wait here for you." Jim answered quietly.

"I need to go change..." Andrea began to say.

"He'll probably be back before you're done. I'm going to make some tea while you're changing."

"Thank you, Jim. That sounds nice." Andrea said gently before leaving the room.

* * * * *

After changing into her fully human form and dressing, Andrea walked into the living room to find Jim and Drake waiting for her.

"How did it go?" Drake asked anxiously.

"Not as well as I could have hoped." Andrea said honestly as she sat down.

As soon as Andrea was seated, Jim stood and poured a cup of tea for her.

Without asking or being told, he prepared her tea with slight amounts of cream and sugar, just the way she liked it.

"Thank you, Jim." Andrea said sincerely.

Jim smiled in acknowledgement before returning to his seat.

"Did you get to talk to Herta or Shea while you were there?" Drake asked hopefully.

"I talked with two people. I don't know what they looked like, how old they were or even what their real names were."

"I can see that something disturbed you about your visit. Can you talk about it?" Drake asked quietly.

"There's really not that much to say. I met someone who called herself 'Queen Marimba' and we talked for a few minutes." Andrea said thoughtfully.

"There must have been more to it than that for it to have bothered you so deeply." Drake observed.

"When people said that the women of the Coven were insane... I wasn't prepared, that's all." Andrea quietly explained.

"So you're freaked out?" Jim asked as he fought to understand.

Andrea smiled warmly at him and said, "You've been spending a lot of time with my sons, haven't you?"

At Jim's look of confusion, Andrea explained, "'Freaked out' sounds like something that Chris... I mean Cain or Deimos would say."

"Well, yeah. But you are, aren't you?" Jim persisted.

"Yes. The entire experience was deeply disturbing." Andrea admitted.

After a moment to think, Drake cautiously asked, "Do you think that you'll be able to help them?"

"I don't know."

"If you can talk about it, can you tell me what was so disturbing?"

"It was a lot of different things. One minute she'd be nice and the next she'd be absolutely horrid. She'd seem reasonable and then say the most absurd things in the next breath. She claimed to hate all men and want to torture and kill them while holding a male baby doll to her breast to feed him."

"That must have been bad. I'm getting creeped out just hearing about it." Jim said uneasily.

"If all the women of Brynnhollow are affected the same way by the curse, I don't know if I'll be able to do anything to help them." Andrea said honestly.

"I can't help but think that there must be something that you can do, otherwise you wouldn't have been given this opportunity." Drake said thoughtfully.

"Things happen." Jim stated simply.

Andrea and Drake looked at him curiously at the seeming non sequitur.

When Jim noticed, he explained, "Just because we wish that it might be true doesn't mean that it is. It might be impossible. If Andrea goes and tries to do things because she believes that there's some greater power guiding events to work out, then she might be killed for no good reason."

"There's another thing..." Andrea reluctantly said as she tried to find a way to explain.

Both Jim and Drake turned their attention to her and waited anxiously.

"It seems that the women of the coven have the ability to see into the future." Andrea said quietly.

"So they know what you're going to do?" Jim asked cautiously.

"From the sound of it, they get glimpses of the possible futures. Because of that, they knew that I was coming. They also knew about Cain and Deimos and even my future... other things that haven't happened yet. But I can't be sure if their visions of the possible futures are really going to happen or if they're products of their hatred and insanity." Andrea said thoughtfully.

"If they know what's going to happen or might happen, that could give us some clue as to what we can do to make things turn out right." Drake said cautiously.

"Marimba talked about bathing in male blood and tears and wearing a crown made of severed penises." Andrea said frankly.

"Oh... Maybe we should tread carefully as we go forward." Drake said uneasily.

After a long silent moment, Jim quietly asked, "Do you think that they're all as insane as that?"

"I don't know. They could be." Andrea quietly admitted.

"Maybe you should talk to the witches and see if they might have any ideas about what you can do." Drake carefully suggested.

"Yes. I'll probably go tomorrow night. If nothing else, I'd like to see how Juliet, Vera and Kathryn are doing. If my curse is still working the way that it's supposed to, I might be able to curse another one of them." Andrea said slowly, feeling at least a little bit better knowing that there was something she could do to help someone.

"That sounds like a very good idea. With any luck, the witches will have some insights about other ways that you can approach the women of the Coven so that you can help them." Drake said reassuringly.

"That reminds me." Andrea said suddenly, then turned to Jim and continued, "Ima asked me to ask you if you could make a few more pendants, like the one that you made for me. She says that they're really good for holding magical enchantments."

"Yeah. Grandpa Lowell told me that they liked my work. I've got five or six made up already if you want to take them to her." Jim answered immediately.

"I'll need a pouch or something to be able to carry them in my swan form." Andrea said consideringly.

"I'm sure that we'll be able to come up with something. If you'll remind me in the morning, we'll stitch something together that you'll be able to wear comfortably in your swan form." Drake said confidently.

"Thank you." Andrea said sincerely, then broke into an unexpected yawn.

"I think that must mean that it's bedtime." Drake said with a tender smile at her.

"Yes. I think that I've settled down enough that I'll be able to sleep. Thank you both for talking with me. It really helped." Andrea said as she stood.

"We'll be here to talk to you whenever you need us." Drake assured her.

"Yeah. Even if it's not about witches or curses or stuff, you can always talk to us." Jim interjected.

Andrea walked to Jim and hugged him firmly as she quietly said, "Thank you, Jim. I can't even tell you how much it helps me to know that."

Jim returned the hug as he took the words to heart.

* * * * *

Drake had a few things that he needed to do to settle the house before going to bed. As he returned to the living room, he found Andrea standing there, waiting for him.

"I was wondering, if you wouldn't mind, do you think that I could spend the night with you?" Andrea asked timidly.

Drake was so surprised by the request that he couldn't find the words to answer.

"That came out wrong. I'm not asking... I'm not ready to... I just wanted to know if I could sleep in your room with you... I don't want to be alone." Andrea stammered nervously.

"I usually sleep in my animal form. If that wouldn't be too uncomfortable for you, you'd be welcome to join me." Drake answered gently.

"I do too. I mean, since I've learned to change, I've been sleeping in my swan form. I seem to rest better that way." Andrea said quickly.

"From what I understand, most people sleep better in their animal forms." Drake said as he motioned for her to walk with him.

"Drake, I don't want you to think that I don't want to be with you. I'm just not ready." Andrea quietly explained as she walked with him.

"I know. Your life is in upheaval right now. I can wait until you've been able to resolve a few things and are ready to take the next step." Drake said easily.

"Thank you, Drake. I just feel like this is the same as it is with the coven. If I take one wrong step, that everything will fall apart." Andrea said anxiously.

"I'm here to help you, however you need me." Drake said as he opened his bedroom door.

"I know. I don't really understand why, but I don't doubt that it's true."

"Either there's a greater plan at work or, as Jim says, 'things happen'. Regardless, I care. What more do we need to know?" Drake asked with a smile.

"If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go into the other room to 'change'." Andrea said shyly.

"Will it bother you if I'm in my Addax form when you get back?" Drake asked cautiously.

"No. That won't bother me at all. Goodnight, Drake." Andrea said warmly.

"Goodnight, Andrea."

* * * * *

After waking and going through the morning routine of sending the kids off to school, Andrea made her way to her house to meet with Ares.

"Well, unless you've spotted anything that you'd like to have changed, I think that everything's done." Ares said when she arrived.

"I looked through everything yesterday after you left and I didn't notice anything." Andrea said honestly.

"Then I guess you can move in, whenever you're ready. The boys have already volunteered to help you carry your things over." Ares finished with a smile.

"It may still be a few days. I have some things that I'm working on right now and I don't want to be in the middle of moving while I'm trying to sort out other things." Andrea said honestly.

"Just let us know when. We'll be ready when you need us." Ares said warmly.

Andrea noticed the contented look in his eyes and quietly asked, "How are things going with you and Dark?"

"We're taking small steps and making sure that we're both ready before going any further. Everything feels so right, like it's the way that it should be." Ares finished with a smile.

"You were never this happy while you were with me." Andrea observed.

"I was happy, just not exactly the same type of happiness. I think that's what I needed then and this is what I need now." Ares said thoughtfully.

"But aren't you worried that as time passes, the same thing might happen between you and Dark and you'll find that you're needing something else?" Andrea asked with concern.

"Sometimes people grow together, sometimes they grow apart." Ares said simply, then quietly added, "I hope that Dark and I will end up being together for the long term. I can really see myself growing old with him at my side and loving every minute of it."

"Yes. I can see that, too." Andrea said with a smile.

"What about you and Drake? How are things going?" Ares asked curiously.

"From the way you describe things with Dark, I think we're in pretty much the same situation. Things are progressing slowly, but they are progressing." Andrea said thoughtfully.

"Do you love him?" Ares asked cautiously.

Andrea was taken aback by the blunt question and had to stop and think about it for a moment.

As Ares waited silently, she considered her feelings and finally said, "I'm not sure. I care about him and I really appreciate how he and his family are going out of their way for me. I love Drake, but I don't think that I'm in a place where I can say that I'm in love with him."

"Be careful, Andrea. You're right at the point where lots of people make life-changing mistakes. I don't know the right answer. I don't know if there is a right answer. Just please be sure of your own feelings and your own mind before deciding anything." Ares implored her.

"My relationship with Drake may have to go on the back burner for a bit while I deal with other things, but when the time comes that I have to make a decision, I'll remember what you said." Andrea promised.

"Is there anything I can do to help you with your 'other things'?" Ares asked curiously.

"Not that I can think of." Andrea said honestly.

Ares nodded, then thought to ask, "Are you and Drake still planning to bring the kids over on Sunday?"

"Yes. We're all looking forward to it." Andrea said warmly.

* * * * *

The flight that night held no fear whatsoever, but there was some amount of dread.

When Andrea finally landed on her customary balcony, she had to brace herself for the task ahead and talk herself into doing what she knew needed to be done.

As before, she first made her way to the library. When she stepped through the door, she was surprised to find all the witches in attendance.

"Did you go to the Coven?" Ima immediately asked.

"Yes. I went there." Andrea reluctantly admitted.

"How did it go? Were you able to curse anyone?" Ima asked hopefully.

"No." Andrea answered, then continued, "I think that I'm going to need your help."

"We've given you the tools that you'll need. What more help can we give you?" Ima asked curiously.

"You made the curse on me so that I can't bestow it unless I really want to. From what I saw last night, I don't want to be responsible for Inflicting any of those horrible people on an unsuspecting community." Andrea tried to explain.

"You have to understand that it's the curse that's making them behave that way." Ima gently explained.

"They're so disgusting that I don't want to touch them, even to curse them." Andrea said honestly.

"I'm sorry, dear. But you're going to have to work past your discomfort to find a way to help them. Imagine what it would be like if you were trapped behind a veil of insanity, watching yourself do horrible, unspeakable things."

"I don't think that I can make myself believe that there's any decency in them. I've never met such disgusting people in my entire life. Besides that, they threatened my children. For that alone I would do everything in my power to keep them confined."

"Perhaps it would have been better if it had been a Brynnhollow native who had been given the honor of liberating the coven. Be that as it may, we can only work with what we've got on hand. We're going to have to find a way to make it work."

"There's something else that you need to know. They can see into the future." Andrea said reluctantly.

"That would stand to reason." Ima said thoughtfully.

"You knew?" Andrea asked with surprise.

"No. But it makes sense from a magical perspective." Ima said consideringly.

"It makes sense? I don't see how that can be."

"For a spell, especially a curse, to be effective and lasting it requires a balance of forces. For everything taken, something must be given to replace it. The ability to divine the future is an incredibly powerful enchantment which could, in theory, be used to offset the hideous physical and mental manipulations of the curse." Ima carefully explained.

"So it's sort of a blessing used to offset the curse?" Andrea cautiously asked.

"Some might think so, but for those who study the mystical disciplines, clairvoyance is seen as more of a trap. It's too easy to lose oneself in all the possibilities of what might be and disregard the real world around you. Magic isn't typically good or bad. It simply is. Good and bad is determined by the use of it."

"But you said that I'm cursed, so I can't bestow a blessing. How does that work?"

"It just means that you are forced to operate within the constraints of the curse that you carry. If you weren't cursed at all, there would be a whole other variety of enchantments available for us to use." Vera explained.

"Wait. Is the balance of forces the reason why you hear about people being destroyed by having their wishes granted?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"Most of that is just stories, cautionary tales about greed and desire. But the basic premise still holds true. Those who seek enrichment without sacrifice are typically destroyed by the fulfillment of their desires." Ima said seriously.

"We've gotten off track. What am I supposed to do about the Coven? If I'm not able to make myself want to curse them, how can I do anything to help them?" Andrea asked anxiously.

"All I can tell you is to continue on and try to find someone worthy of your curse. Perhaps you met with some people who weren't representative of the population."

"That's possible. The only person I really talked to called herself Queen Marimba. Whether or not she's really their leader, she thinks that she is. Her attitude might not be the same as the regular people."

"Very likely not." Ima agreed.

"As much as I don't want to go back there, I probably should." Andrea said reluctantly.

"If you choose to go, you could potentially do a lot of good for them." Ima said frankly.

"I know." Andrea reluctantly agreed, then thought to ask, "Would you like for me to curse anyone else before I go?"

"Hilda? Are you ready?" Ima asked as she turned to face a withered, rail thin woman.

"Yes." Hilda said as she stepped forward to stand before Andrea.

"We still can't be sure that this is completely safe. Are you sure that you want me to?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"Yes. Please do it." Hilda immediately answered, then explained, "I was afraid before that your curse would make things even worse. But after seeing what you did to help Vera and the girls... please do it. I want to feel human again."

Andrea fought back the tears that were threatening to fall as she raised her hand to gently cup the woman's wrinkled cheek.

"I curse you." Andrea said gently.

"Thank you." Hilda whispered joyfully.

As Andrea withdrew her hand, Hilda suddenly dropped out of sight, as though she had fallen through a trap door in the floor. As Andrea looked downward, she saw the clothes that Hilda had been wearing, laying in a heap.

"What happened?" Andrea asked in panic.

"The curse reacts differently on different people." Ima explained reasonably, then motioned toward the pile of clothes.

Andrea looked down and saw movement, then heard a tiny mewling cry.

She immediately dropped to her knees and began to dig through the clothes. It took her a moment, but she finally discovered a tiny kitten struggling to free itself.

"Hilda? Are you alright?" Andrea asked in a whisper.

"Give her a few minutes. As I'm sure you can recall, your first transformation can be a bit disorienting." Ima gently explained.

"But she's going to be okay, isn't she?" Andrea asked hopefully.

"I have the feeling that she is going to be wonderful." Ima assured her.

Andrea gently scratched Hilda behind the ears for a moment before standing.

"Are you going to go now?" Juliet asked timidly.

"Yes. I think that I should." Andrea said, not altogether enthusiastically.

"I wish that I could go with you, even if it was just to protect you." Juliet said honestly.

Andrea once again noticed the 'froggish' features that Juliet had in her resting state and quietly said, "That would be nice, but I have a feeling that even your best hop wouldn't get you across the chasm to the coven."

"We all have our parts to play in this scenario no matter how we might wish it to be otherwise, Juliet is needed here." Ima said firmly.

"What are you going to do when this is all over? Are you going to come down from your castle and rejoin the people of Brynnhollow?" Andrea asked Ima curiously.

"Perhaps we'll go down on special occasions, like the Samhain celebration. But we've taken an oath of service to the community to protect and defend them from both the magical and the mundane. We can't forsake them at a time when our services might be needed most." Ima said seriously.

"I was discussing that with Drake and Jim. They were worried that having all the women suddenly returning to Brynnhollow could disrupt the entire community and throw their society into chaos." Andrea said gravely.

"I suppose that's true." Ima said with a nod, then continued, "But that's not an argument for not helping our sisters. Just because it may be inconvenient doesn't mean that we shouldn't do it."

"True. But I'd still like to think that if we can manage to do this right, that the return of the women to Brynnhollow can be looked upon as a wonderful and joyous thing instead of an invasion and a burden." Andrea said firmly.

"Change is frightening, even good change. I honestly hope that you will be able to realize your vision, but forgive me for being skeptical. In my experience, life just doesn't work that way." Ima said frankly.

"Sometimes you have to make it work the way you want it to." Andrea countered.

Vera broke into a full deep laugh and everyone looked at her with question.

It took her a moment, but she was finally able to explain, "Making things work the way you want them to, counter to the natural flow, is what witchcraft is all about!"

Andrea's eyes went wide with surprise, then she looked at Ima inquisitively.

"She's right." Ima reluctantly admitted.

"Then I guess it's good that I have witches on my side." Andrea said with a smile.

"Go see what you can do at the Coven and we'll see what we can come up with to help ease the newly cursed into Brynnhollow society." Ima said as she looked Andrea in the eyes.

"I will. Thanks." Andrea said warmly, then thought to add, "By the way, Jim gave me these to give to you."

Ima looked curiously at Andrea as she accepted the pouch that she had been carrying.

When Ima poured the contents out into her hand, a smile crossed her crooked lips before she said, "I have a feeling that we'll be able to make good use of these."

"I'll let Jim know that you appreciate his work." Andrea assured her.

"That's not all we appreciate about him." Vera interjected.

"Watch out what you say about Jim. He's practically my step-son... or son-in-law. We'll just have to wait and see how things end up turning out." Andrea said frankly.

"Next time you visit, I want to hear all about it!" Vera said excitedly.

Andrea fought to keep her smile to herself as she turned and walked out of the room.

* * * * *

Andrea wasn't surprised to find that as she walked upstairs from the library, Juliet was at her side.

"How are you doing?" Andrea asked with concern.

"I've been released from the all consuming desire that drove me out of Brynnhollow and away from my family. Now I can appear fully human when I want to and I'm still accepted here at the castle with the witches. Working with Ima and Vera gives me a purpose. With all of us working together, I think that we'll be able to help a lot of people... even if they never know about it." Juliet said thoughtfully.

"So you're not upset about the frog thing?" Andrea asked to be sure.

Juliet laughed, then said, "Here, among my sisters, that is one of the most trivial things that could have happened to me. And since I can control my appearance when I leave here... no. I'm not upset. Not in the slightest." 

"You know, once we've done everything that we need to do and things have settled down, maybe you could come over to my house and take a day or two off. I could introduce you to my family and friends." Andrea said with a smile.

Juliet stopped, frozen in place, and stared at Andrea in wonder.

Andrea couldn't interpret Juliet's expression and finally quietly added, "That is, if you want to. I was just thinking that it might be nice, for a change of pace."

"I'd love to! It's just, in all the time that I've been here, ever leaving always seemed like such an impossibility that I never even dreamed about it. Now you're asking me to go to your house for a visit... and we could do it! We could really do it!"

Andrea smiled at the reaction, then said, "Yes. We could. I know that there's too much going on right now for it to be practical. And besides, I haven't moved into my house yet. But just as soon as it's feasible, we will."

"Thank you, Andrea. You've already given so much back to me. You've given me myself, but now you're also giving me the world. I don't know how I'll ever be able to thank you enough." Juliet said as tears started falling down her cheeks.

"That's easy. Enjoy it. That's all I ask." Andrea said simply, then cocked her head to indicate for them to start walking again.

* * * * *

As Andrea flew toward the coven, she felt a fresh spark of fear awaken within her at what she might find.

This time she decided not to go for the biggest garden, but instead look for one of the nicer gardens, which might indicate a more gentle soul who bothered to take the time and care to tend the plants.

After several passes, she finally found what seemed to be a simple, yet quaint orchard with flowering plants interspersed and a beautiful reflecting pond, giving it the appearance of something that had been carefully planned and designed to be visually appealing.

When she landed, she couldn't resist the temptation to go directly to the pond and go for a long swim. She was a swan, after all.

As she floated along, she tried to devise some sort of a plan for finding a worthy person to bestow her curse upon.

* * * * *

Some time later, a movement caught her attention and she saw a figure hunched at the side of the pond, watching her.

Curiosity got the better of her and she changed course so that she could swim a little closer.

"Swimmy swimmy little girl, silver of the moon."

"Thinking of forbidden tales, hidden in the dark."

"Scheming others' rotten plans, making them her own."

"Dreaming of her own desire, living for a price."

"Climbing days and sliding nights, nothing left to give."

"Wife and mother pristine whore, giving up her voice."

"Nightmare death and daymare life, little in between."

"Moldy mansion gruesome grave, all the same to me."

"Ar deLethe, I humbly ask, will the world be mine?"

Andrea wasn't sure if it were the cadence of the strange poetry or the weary voice that spoke it, but for whatever reason she felt moved by the question and decided to answer.

Only a few feet from the shore where the woman knelt, Andrea began her transformation to her 'oskmey' form. Her body lengthened, and the water was only up to her knees when she finally stood tall.

What she had heard so far convinced her that the woman before her was undoubtedly mad. But contained within the madness was at least some glimmer of coherent thought. It occurred to her that if she were to try and meet the woman halfway, that they might be able to establish some sort of meaningful rapport.

"What world do you seek?" Andrea asked, not making any move toward the woman on the shore.

"The world of 'Real', where the voices behind me are silent and the voice from within me can be heard." The woman said in a gravelly whisper.

"And what will you do in this world, when it is given to you?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"Sing praises in the sunlight and piss in the shadows."

As Andrea was about to respond, she suddenly thought of Drake and Jim's first question when she told them about what she'd been doing.

"For what you ask, there is a price. Will you be willing to pay?"

"I have nothing, you're welcome to it."

"Your name. I want your true name. Give it to me and I'll give you the real world." Andrea promised.

"What of your true name? You're Caorthannach, aren't you? Devious bitch! You've already taken everything from me and now you want to take the last vestige of what I was? I refuse! Go fuck yourself!" The woman spat.

"For what is given, something must be taken. You must know that it's true. You've asked for the gift, I've told you the price. Should I leave now and never return?" Andrea asked reasonably.

"This world you promise, is it filled with beauty?"

"There is beauty, but there is also ugliness. You can choose to surround yourself with either... or both, I suppose. What you do with the gift once it is bestowed will be up to you."

"Let's not play at this any longer. You've got me and you know it. I'll do it! I'll pay anything. I'll promise anything. I'll do anything! Anything! Do you hear me!?"

"Yes. I hear you." Andrea said calmly, then started slowly walking toward the shore.

"You're going to make me do it, aren't you?" The woman asked as she stood to her full height.

"A deal is a deal." Andrea said simply as she noticed the leathery wrinkled face that the woman was trying to keep hidden in the hood of her cloak.

"If this is all a dream, I'm going to be very very pissed off in the morning." The woman growled.

"Tell me. Who are you?" Andrea asked in nearly a whisper as she took the final step and stood before the slightly hunched woman.

"My name was... is... My name is Moira. Moira Brynnmyl." She said, nearly choking on the words, then she followed with a gravelly, "Damn you!"

"No, Moira. Damn you." Andrea said as she reached up, then gently drew her fingertips down Moira's cheek.

"Wh... what?" Moira asked in fear.

"I damn you. I curse you. From this moment forward, you will exist only in the real world."

"What have you done to me?" Moira asked as she backed away.

"Only what you asked me to." Andrea responded simply, then continued, "I'm going now. But I'll return tomorrow. If you know of someone who would benefit from my curse, bring them here and I'll discuss it with them."

"I know who you are now. I remember you from my dreams, Caer Ibormeith. I saw you and I was not afraid." Moira said contemplatively, then focused her mostly hidden eyes on Andrea before continuing, "Maybe I should have been."

"I've given you the world that you asked for. What you do with it is up to you. From this point on, whether you find misery and suffering or happiness is up to you." Andrea said frankly.

"I can feel it coming back to me, like a half remembered dream. It's almost like visions of someone else's life, but I know it was me." Moira said distantly.

"That sounds like something that could take a while to sort out. I'm going to go now." Andrea said gently.

"Before you go, do you know about my boys? Do you know if they're alright?" Moira asked suddenly.

"I don't know many people in Brynnhollow, but if you'll tell me their names I'll see what I can find out about them." Andrea said cautiously.

"Dane and Danner Brynnmyl. They must be fully grown men by now... they probably have families of their own..." Moira trailed off into tears.

"I haven't heard of your sons, but I'll ask around and see if I can find out anything." Andrea assured her, then quietly added, "I need to be going now."

"You said that you'll be back tomorrow night?" Moira asked hopefully.

"Yes. Expect me just after sundown." Andrea confirmed.

"Be well, Caer Ibormeith. Regardless what else you have done, you've let me remember my sons. For that you have my gratitude." Moira said calmly.

"My name is Andrea."

"Perhaps it is, in this incarnation. But your true self still shines through." Moira said peacefully.

"You're still a little bit crazy, aren't you?" Andrea asked cautiously.

Moira gave a slight chuckle, then said, "We both have things that we need to be doing. I will see you here tomorrow."

"See you then." Andrea said uncertainly before releasing her restraint and falling into her swan form.

* * * * *

Andrea was somewhat shaken by her encounter with Moira.

What she had just done was mystical and wonderful and frightening and even a little bit insane.

She didn't know where the instinct had come from that had driven her to behave in such a way. She had engaged the poor insane woman in conversation and exploited her vulnerability. She had used bullying tactics to gain an advantage to achieve her goals. That wasn't her. That wasn't the type of person that she was. She despised such people.

Then again, looking back on the experience, she couldn't think of anything that she might have done differently. She knew that what she had done was ultimately for Moira's benefit. In fact, Moira had even thanked her when she had been able to remember her sons.

Magic isn't typically good or bad. It simply is. Good and bad is determined by the use of it.

Andrea reflected on the words and began to realize that they seemed to apply to much more than just magic.

* * * * *

Upon arriving at Drake's house, Andrea wasn't surprised to find Drake waiting up for her.

"Did the witches have any advice to give you?" Drake asked as he stood and walked to her.

"Basically, they just told me to 'suck it up' and go do what needs to be done." Andrea said with a weary smile.

"I'm sorry to hear that. I really expect them to be able to help you." Drake said as he cautiously pulled her into his arms to give her a gentle hug.

"I think they did help me. They not only motivated me to try again, but they also proved that they had confidence in me to do the job." Andrea said as she enjoyed being held.

"Then, does that mean that you'll be going to the Coven tomorrow night?"

"Actually, I went there when I was done talking to Ima and the others."

"Really? How did it go?" Drake asked as he pulled back to look her in the eyes.

Andrea smiled at him, appreciating how invested he was in what she was doing. "I think it went well. I can't be sure how it's going to turn out, but let's just say that I planted a seed tonight. We'll have to wait and see what it ends up producing."

"Just let me know if there's anything I can do to help you. What you're doing could end up changing our entire way of life." Drake said softly.

"Actually, there is one thing you can do." Andrea said suddenly.

Drake looked at her curiously.

"Do you know anything about two boys named Dane and Danner?" Andrea asked curiously.

"Brynnmyl?" Drake asked uncertainly.

"Yes. That's right!" Andrea said excitedly.

"I know of them. But I can't say that I know them." Drake said slowly.

"All I need to know is if they're alright. I promised their mother that I'd try to find out." Andrea said seriously.

"I've had dealings with Festus Brynnmyl a few times over the years and I recall that he has two sons. I really don't know much more than that." Drake said regretfully.

"Do you know how I could find out?" Andrea asked hopefully.

"You could go into Brynnhollow and ask. I'm pretty sure Festus lives in town. If not, he lives close by." Drake said thoughtfully.

"I'll need to do that tomorrow... Except that I'm nervous about going into town by myself." Andrea quietly admitted.

"Even though everyone probably knows about you by now, I think it'd probably be best if you went with one or two other people, just to be safe." Drake said cautiously.

"Will you have time to go?" Andrea asked hopefully.

"I need to be here for the kids. It takes a few days of planning for me to be able to go into town. Besides, it takes about a full day of travel to get there from here." Drake said regretfully.

"Do you think Ares could do it?"

"Hard to say. His place is a lot closer. If you left there in the morning, you should be able to reach town before noon." Drake said thoughtfully.

"I really need to do this. I promised her that I'd try to find out." Andrea said anxiously.

"How are you going to manage it?" Drake asked cautiously.

"I guess I'll fly to my house tonight, then go over to Ares' house first thing in the morning." Andrea said thoughtfully.

"Do you have any of your clothes at your house yet?"

"No. Everything's here." Andrea said slowly.

"Maybe you could think about staying here tonight, then ride Jim over to Ares' house in the morning. He can get you there a lot faster than travelling on foot." Drake slowly suggested.

"That might be best." Andrea said slowly, then quietly asked, "You don't think he'll mind, do you?"

Drake smiled before saying, "That boy would walk across hot coals for you. I don't think he'll mind a bit."

"Are you worried about how he seems to be getting attached to me?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"I think that what Jim sees in you is the mother that he never had. As long as you don't mind his attention, I think it's best to just let things run their course until he's been able to fill whatever emptiness that he's been carrying around." Drake said thoughtfully.

"I don't mind his attention. He's a wonderful boy and I really enjoy his company. I just wouldn't want to do anything that might end up hurting him by letting him become too dependent on me." Andrea said honestly.

"We'll keep a lookout for signs that things are going that way, but I think he just needs to have a woman in his life to show him approval and acceptance." Drake said honestly.

"So, in the morning I'll ride Jim over to Ares' house and ask Ares if he has time to go into town. When we're done there, I can come back here and then tomorrow night I can give Moira whatever news I've found out about her sons."

"Was she the only one you talked to last night?"

"Yes. But with any luck, she'll have someone else for me to talk to tomorrow night." Andrea said with a smile.

"If you end up talking to Herta or Shea, let them know that I still think about them and that the kids are all fine and miss them very much." Drake said quietly.

"What are you going to do if they come back? What if they both expect to be your wives? What if they expect you to choose?" Andrea asked cautiously.

"I've thought about that." Drake reluctantly admitted, then quietly added, "I don't know."

* * * * *

Andrea enjoyed a relaxing breakfast with Drake and the children. When breakfast was over, Andrea made a point of giving each of the kids an extra special hug.

As Drake had predicted, Jim was more than happy to volunteer to take Andrea to Ares' house.

Although it was a little awkward for Andrea to carry the bundle of Jim's clothes as she rode, she really didn't mind. She appreciated that he was not only willing to help her, but enthusiastic.

When they arrived, Jim lowered himself to allow Andrea to easily dismount.

"Thank you, Jim. I really appreciate the gentle ride." Andrea said gratefully.

Once she had stepped away from his side, Jim allowed himself to transform into his centaur form.

"All you ever have to do is ask." Jim said honestly.

Andrea handed him his bundle of clothing as she said, "I'm going to see if Ares is awake yet. Join me when you're ready."

"I'll be there in a minute." Jim said before carrying his bundle of clothing around the side of the house, where he could change in private.

Andrea watched him go, then waited for a moment to collect herself before walking to Ares' front door.

* * * * *

After waiting a moment, she knocked again and began to wonder if she might need to go around to the workshop to see if Ares were there.

"Is he not home?" Jim asked as he stepped onto the porch.

"I don't know. It didn't occur to me that he might not be." Andrea said honestly.

A sound of movement drew both their attention, then the door opened slightly.

"Andrea?" Ares asked with surprise.

"I'm sorry. I thought you would have been up for hours by now, seeing the boys off to school." Andrea said simply.

"I was... I mean, I did. Then we decided to go back to bed for a while." Ares said disjointedly.

"We? Is Dark here?" Andrea asked curiously.

"Yes. Please come in. I'll be back in just a minute." Ares said before hurrying away.

"What's going on?" Jim asked curiously.

"I think that Dark probably spent the night last night and he and Ares were probably taking advantage of a little 'kid free' time to be together." Andrea said as she pushed open the door and led the way inside.

"Do you mean that they were having sex?" Jim asked timidly.

"I don't know about that. Sometimes holding and being held can be more fulfilling than a romp between the sheets." Andrea said frankly, then looked Jim in the eyes as she explained, "It's none of our business what they were doing and it would be rude to ask."

"I wouldn't ask about something like that." Jim assured her.

"Come on in and have a seat. I'm sure they'll be out in just a minute." Andrea said as she led by example.

Jim followed and took a seat in the chair next to hers.

* * * * *

"What brings you all the way out here this morning?" Ares asked curiously as he walked into the living room, still fixing his collar.

"There's kind of a long story behind it, but the short answer is that I need to go into Brynnhollow and I was hoping that you'd go with me." Andrea answered honestly.

"Sure. I've been putting off going into town for a few days. I don't have anything that I need to do today that can't be put off until tomorrow." Ares said simply, then turned at a movement and asked, "Would you mind if Dark came along?"

"No. I wouldn't mind at all." Andrea answered immediately.

"Where are we going?" Dark asked quietly as he walked to Ares' side.

"To Brynnhollow. Andrea has some business there, and so do I, for that matter." Ares said honestly.

"Actually, if you wouldn't mind swinging by my place on the way, I have some paperwork that I'd like to take to Mason, regarding some consignment jobs." Dark said cautiously.

"That shouldn't be a problem." Ares said, then looked to Andrea and asked, "That isn't going to throw off your schedule, is it?"

"No. I don't have a schedule. I just need to talk to someone and get some information." Andrea said with a smile.

"Would anyone like something to eat or drink before we go?" Ares asked as he looked around to see if anything needed to be settled before they left.

"No. Jim and I had a good breakfast before we left Drake's house." Andrea answered simply.

"We had breakfast with the boys before they left for school." Ares said with a smile, then gestured toward the door as he added, "I guess we're ready to go."

* * * * *

"So, what do you need to do in town? That is, if you don't mind talking about it." Ares asked curiously.

"That's kind of a long story." Andrea warned him.

"It appears that we're going to have plenty of time to talk while we're walking into town." Ares replied.

"Okay. But just remember, you asked for it." Andrea said with a smile, then continued, "I guess it started when I arrived at Drake's house. When he realized who I was, he asked Jim to go to Lowell's house and get his help to find a way to fix things so that I wouldn't die if I saw you or the boys."

"Yes. I've been meaning to talk to my grandfather about that. I'd like to know just what those witches did to you." Ares said honestly.

"They cursed me. From the way I understand it, the curse that I received when I married you was somehow weak or incomplete. That allowed the witches to create a new curse that they could put on top of it and alter the terms of the original curse, which would allow me to continue to live." Andrea said thoughtfully.

"I don't know enough about curses to know how that works." Ares said honestly.

"You see, the thing is, they also added something else in the new curse that compelled me to go to them during the next full moon. When I went there, they gave me yet another curse, except that this curse wasn't on me. It was a curse that I could bestow on others who were already cursed." Andrea carefully explained.

"Why would they do that?" Dark asked cautiously.

"To allow me to undo some of what the original curse did to the women of Brynnhollow. The new curse hopefully takes away their insanity and homicidal rage." Andrea said slowly.

"Do you think that it will work?" Dark asked excitedly.

"From what I've seen so far, it might." Andrea told him, then continued, "Last night I cursed a woman named Moira Brynnmyl."

"I know who that is!" Dark said quickly.

"Do you know anything about her sons, Dane and Danner?" Andrea asked hopefully.

"I remember seeing them a few years back when they needed masks for the Samhain celebration. I don't think I've seen them or heard anything about them since then." Dark said thoughtfully.

"Well, that's why I need to go to Brynnhollow. I need to find out how Dane and Danner are doing. That's the first and only thing their mother asked of me when her insanity started to subside." Andrea said seriously.

"You can cure the women?" Ares asked in a bewildered voice.

"It looks that way. Ima and the others were really careful to let me know that things could still go wrong. The new curse might react in ways that no one expected." Andrea warned.

"But... the women could come back." Ares said distantly.

"Yes. That's our hope." Andrea confirmed.

"My dad's actually worried about that." Jim interjected.

Ares and Dark looked at him curiously.

"How are things going to work when all the women who've been exiled for as long as anyone can remember all show up in town, wanting their old lives back?" Jim explained.

"I can't even imagine." Dark said honestly.

"Even so, we still have to do it. We have no choice." Andrea said simply.

After walking for a few minutes in silence, Ares quietly said, "And here I was, worried that you wouldn't be able to find a way to contribute to the community."

"I just hope that my contribution doesn't lead to its destruction."

* * * * *

"I'm glad that we're going with you. There's no way of knowing how people are going to react to seeing a woman in Brynnhollow." Ares said honestly.

"After the 'raising bee' I'm sure that everyone knows that I'm here by now."

"Knowing and seeing can be very different things." Ares said frankly.

"He's right. There's no predicting how they're going to react. No matter how respectable some people might normally behave, they might react completely out of character when they're in the moment." Dark confirmed.

"Or in character." Jim added.

At everyone's questioning looks, Jim felt compelled to explain, "Instead of acting like everyone expects them to, they might act like they really are, you know, in private, when no one else can see."

"I think that you might be overestimating their reactions. I'm hardly looking my best right now." Andrea said frankly.

"It may seem that way to you. But you have to realize that you're going to be the most beautiful woman any of them have seen inyears. In some cases, decades." Ares explained.

"Don't worry, Andrea. If worse comes to worse, you'll have a Nāga, a Tengu and a flaming Centaur on your side." Dark assured her.

"Deimos said that I shouldn't ever call myself 'flaming' because in the outside world it means something really different." Jim said uncertainly, then quietly added, "But he didn't tell me what."

Ares and Andrea fought to contain their laughter as Dark and Jim looked on in confusion.

After a moment, Ares was finally able to explain, "In the outside world 'flaming' can mean a man who uses dramatic, overly exaggerated stereotypical feminine expressions and mannerisms."

"I don't understand." Jim said frankly.

"Good. I think that's one of the things from the outside world that we can leave outside." Ares said decisively.

"You don't really think that you're going to have to fight, do you?" Andrea asked anxiously.

"I don't expect to, but I can't say that it's entirely outside the realm of possibility." Ares said seriously.

"Is there anything I can do to curtail their interest?" Andrea asked thoughtfully.

"Not really. I think it's best for us to just continue on and see how things go. Assuming that we survive the experience, we'll have a much better idea of what to expect the next time we have to go into town for something."

"It might also be in our best interest to go in there expecting everyone to be on their best behavior. If we show up looking like we're afraid or itching for a fight, we might unintentionally provoke them into an action that they might not have taken otherwise." Dark said thoughtfully.

"Good point." Ares agreed.

* * * * *

Conversation lagged after that, but the silence between them was finally broken by Andrea asking, "Dark, can I ask you something?"

"I guess so." Dark responded uncertainly.

"You seem to know a lot about history and mythology." Andrea said slowly.

"More than most, I suppose." Dark agreed.

"Last night, Moira called me 'Caer Ibormeith', and she seemed pretty insistent about it. Do you know who or what that is?" Andrea asked cautiously.

Dark smiled, then said, "I suppose it stands to reason someone would make the association since Caer Ibormeith is known to be a swan maiden. She is the goddess who has dominion over sleep and dreams. There's a tradition to offer up mead to Caer Ibormeith during the Samhain celebration each year to celebrate her contribution to our lives in the year past and ask for her favor in the year to come."

"Maybe I should start studying about ancient mythologies, now that I know for a fact that magic is real." Andrea said carefully.

"I don't know how much you actually need to know. But if you're interested, I probably have the most extensive mythology library in all of Brynnhollow. Stop by sometime and you can borrow whatever books you want." Dark said easily.

"Thanks, Dark. Once things get a little bit more settled, I may do that." Andrea said easily.

"Deimos said that in the outside world, people get married and divorced all the time, sometimes lots of times. Is that really true?" Jim asked thoughtfully.

Andrea looked at Jim with surprise at the abrupt change of subject.

When Jim noticed, he explained, "Seeing you and Ares and Dark all being friends and... not mad and stuff. It just seems weird. All my life all I've heard is that you find someone who you really really love, and when you're sure that the two of you can't live without being together, you get married. Then, when the curse finally makes it so you have to be apart, you hold on to the love that you had and the memories you were able to gather during your time together."

The adults were speechless as they thought about Jim's perception of the world he had been raised in.

"I just don't understand. How could you be together before and then let each other go when you didn't really have to?" Jim asked anxiously.

"We did have to." Ares said simply.

"That's right. Just like here in Brynnhollow, the curse made it so that we couldn't be together anymore. I got deathly ill and the only way that Ares could find to help me survive was to give me a cure that would ensure that he could never see me again." Andrea urged Jim to understand.

"Jim, I was raised here, like you were. From a very young age I learned to accept that eventually the curse would force me to be separated from my wife and that I'd have to move on. When I married Andrea, it seemed that I wouldn't have to worry about that after all, but when the curse became active in our lives, the reality came crashing down on me that that's just how it is for us. I accepted that I would have to let Andrea go." Ares quietly explained.

"And that's what it really comes down to. He let me go and moved on with his life. While we both still care about each other and even love each other, the life that we had before is over. If I'd never gotten sick, we might have continued on being married for many more years, possibly for the rest of our lives. But being apart for a year allowed us to become independent from each other and grow in different directions."

"If we tried to maintain the commitment that we'd made before, I think that both of us would feel like we were giving up on the new lives that we had started and the new selves that we were becoming. It would have been a step back for both of us." Ares agreed.

"It's also possible that this is necessary for what Andrea is doing right now, with the coven." Dark said thoughtfully.

"How is that?" Ares asked with interest.

"I don't know. It may just be coincidence, but look at what the women of the Coven are going to be facing when they come back to Brynnhollow. Their old lives are gone and in many cases it won't be possible for them to return to how things were before. Maybe Andrea can be an example to them by showing how she lives independently and is her own person. She isn't defined as someone's wife or daughter. She is herself, making her own decisions and building her own life." Dark said carefully.

"Thank you, Dark. But to be honest, I depend on a lot of people." Andrea said humbly.

"In Brynnhollow, we all depend on each other to some degree. If Jim were to move out on his own, everyone in the community would be concerned for him and help him. But when he was finally able to stand on his own two feet, everyone would look at him as being his own person, capable of making his own decisions. I think that's how people see you right now, Andrea. And I think that maybe if we can nudge things to go in that direction, it might be the answer of how to integrate the women of the Coven back into Brynnhollow society." Dark said carefully.

"It could take some time and effort to make things go that way, but I think that the result would be worth it." Ares said frankly.

"Do you think that the village elders will go along with it?" Jim asked slowly.

"I suppose that that's the first big hurdle that we're going to have to face." Dark said honestly.

"Well, unless they can come up with another option, I don't really see what else they can do. I mean, if they're entrusted with the well-being of the community, it's the only plan of action that I can think of that has any hope of working." Ares said slowly.

"They could choose to keep the Coven locked up and separated from the rest of Brynnhollow." Andrea said simply.

"The status quo can be very alluring." Dark agreed.

"I can't believe that they would be that cruel, simply for their own convenience." Ares said thoughtfully.

"Ares, tell me again, how did your dad die? And why did you leave Brynnhollow?" Dark asked with a look askance at him.

"Point taken. I suppose that we'll just have to do our best to urge everyone to think forward and do what's best rather than fall back into the rut of what's familiar and 'has always worked in the past'." Ares said seriously.

"But if we can do it, Brynnhollow is going to be a completely different place than it ever has been before." Jim said as he tried to envision the permutations of what they were planning.

"Actually, Jim. That's what places... and people, are meant to do. They're supposed to grow and develop, not stagnate within magical bubbles trapped in time." Ares quietly explained.

"I'm scared. Is that wrong?" Jim asked as he looked at the adults that he was traveling with.

"No Jim. That's exactly right." Andrea assured him.

The End



Editor's Notes:



Oh Dear, those dreaded two words again. I'm going to have to have a long serious talk with MM about those awful words.

They often portend bad things like either chapters or stories stopping or terribly long waits for things to start moving again.

In any case it would seem that some serious progress is happening, and even if some, if not everyone involved, is scared senseless about what might happen, or is about to happen, it is probably the best thing to happen to everyone.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher