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As if compelled by some alien force, Brian felt his leg lift and beginning to carry him along the way to meet the woman on the stoop. He was sweating with nerves and heat, and the amused look the woman was giving him made him all the more nervous. All the while he walked, he wondered why he didn’t turn tail and run. He felt real, honest intimidation flow from this short motherly woman and he couldn't really place just why. He knew deep in his soul she was more than she seemed. He knew without having to ask that this was Rhonda. He suddenly knew why everyone who even knew her name, spoke it in a hushed tones.
When he was finally standing beside her, he could do nothing but look nervously away. With surprising strength she reached out a mahogany colored hand and grasped his chin, forcing his powder blue eyes to meet her deep forest green ones. She seemed to be looking for something in the icy depths of his eyes because after a moment she nodded, apparently satisfied and released his chin. She then took a moment to look him up and down. Her eyes alighted on the rip in his jeans and the blood slowly soaking the denim.
“Boy, you resemble nothing so much as cat in a thorn bush.” She said laughing warmly.
“Story of my life.” Brian managed to sigh looking away again.
“Don’t I know it, Honey.” She chuckled grabbing his wrist gently. “Now come on outta the heat and I’ll see what I can do about that leg.”
Brian had no choice but to follow into a surprisingly bright foyer. A Beautiful mosaic of a green tree growing in a green circle on a backdrop of white was picked out in white and green ceramic tile all along the left wall of the entryway. He didn’t have long to stare as Rhonda dragged him relentlessly onward, through an old white wooden door into the living room. It wasn’t exactly “witchy” in it’s decor. The hardwood floors stretched all the way through the living room and across under a white arch separating the dining room. The windows facing the front of the house were letting in some late afternoon sunlight through the translucent purple curtains draped artfully around them. There was a large purple sofa against the right wall along with a large beat up brown leather armchair, set slightly away from the wall as to allow the chair to recline. A table sat before the sofa made of a dark brown wood, decorated in excellently rendered golden scrollwork, on top of this sat a single purple and white tiger lilly in a white vase. A huge rug covered most of the floor in the living room. It was largely white with a green encircled tree in the center. At the base of the tree was a smiling mask.
This mask caught Brian’s attention. He was so fixated on it that he hardly noticed Rhonda had released his wrist and strode off into the kitchen beyond the dining room. There was something about the mask he liked yet, found unsettling. The face was ovular with tribal markings around it’s eye holes. Its mouth was split in a wide grin but the whole picture wasn't exactly inviting. It was more like someone trying hard not to start laughing while playing a particularly cruel joke on someone. It was the face of someone you knew you couldn't trust. It was a trickster’s face.
The sound of clacking broke into Brian’s thoughts, making him jump about a foot in the air. It was the unmistakable sound of claws on wood and, sure enough, less than a minute later an enormous smoky grey dog came bounding down the stairs. Without a single sniff or bark, he leapt up and placed his forepaws on Brian’s shoulders. He began licking his face with a single minded intensity. Brian didn’t mind too much. He loved dog’s, the bigger the better, and this guy just about took the cake. Removing the paws from his shoulders, he squatted down on the floor to look the dog in the eyes. Not that he needed to get that low. Standing on four paws the dog was about four feet high, and he was taller than Brian when standing on two. He looked the dog in his honey colored eyes and scratched him behind the ears. The dog’s mouth lolled open in contentment. Judging by it’s size and the shaggy smoky hair in it’s coat, Brian decided he was looking at a particularly large Irish Wolfhound. His tag hung from a brown leather collar about his neck, reading “Bentley”. Brian read this and looked again into the Bentley’s eyes. He loved those eyes, they were a translucent gold and flavored with a warm genuine kindness he had never seen in a dog before.
“You must be special.” A voice said, forcing Brian to look away from the dog. “He doesn’t usually come see strangers without me at his side.”
A young woman was standing at the base of the stairs, one fist resting on a cocked hip, and the other on the bannister. She was tall, at least six foot probably taller, and she looked so different from Rhonda. She had no make up on, not that she needed it; with full lips, large beautiful eyes, and a strong jaw, she could captivate most people’s attentions without any artificial help. Her hair was natural to, Drawn back into a bun at the back of her head, the rest of it was covered by a headband made of what seemed to be bits of braided fabric. She was wearing a light sleeveless top in a dark rich purple color that matched the sofa almost perfectly. He lower body was encased in faded jeans tucked into calf-high boots. A gold medallion belt glimmered at her waist, drawing attention to the curves in her lithe frame. The most striking thing about the girl was her resemblance to the mask on the rug. Not in aesthetics but in expression. Again he saw that look of someone trying to hide laughter at a cruel jest.
She strode forward. Again, unlike Rhonda she didn’t dance across the floor. She seemed to move like a stalking beast, all predatory grace and slow movements. She extended a hand to Brian as he stood. He took it, noting the golden bracelet in the shape of coiling snake around her wrist, as well as three separate rings on her right hand, one a wolf’s snarling face, one a triangular shape that Brian didn’t recognize which looked almost like a sailboat, and the last being an old ring with the crest of the U.S. Navy on it. Brian felt himself run his thumb along the band of the claddagh ring on his right hand, feeling somewhat under-ornamented.
“I’m Sharice” She said, her voice was deep and unabashed. “You must be Brian.”
“Uh, yeah.” He said taken aback. “Everyone here seemed to know I was coming before I did.”
“Well you were asking after me, Honey” Rhonda said coming back into the room grinding something with a mortar and pestle. “Ain’t Nothing calls down a witch’s eye faster than saying her name.”
“So you are a...?” Brian trailed off, not really wanting to sound rude.
“Of course I am.” She said slightly exasperated. “Now I know it’s been a while since you’ve seen anyone genuine, but the soul knows a witch when it sees one.”
Not really knowing what to say to that, Brian kept his mouth shut and allowed himself to be steered to the sofa. He allowed himself to be steered down onto the purple cushions while she gave the concoction in her hands one more grind and mix. It smelled disgusting to Brain, like ginkgo trees and birch sap and when Rhonda removed it from the small bowl it was in, it was a foul dark green color. He had a shrewd idea where that paste was intended to go and was tempted to head it off before she could put it on his skin. He restrained himself. If this lady was as much of a witch as she claimed to be, he wanted to see a little of what she could do. Not only that, but if she was as genuine as she seemed to be, he didn't want to risk offending her.
Rhonda sat on the edge of her table, coated her fingers in the mixture and slowly began smearing it onto Brian's abused knee. Screaming was the first action that occurred to Brian. Whatever she was rubbing on him felt like liquid flame. It made him grit his teeth and roll his eyes in an effort to contain a wail of agony. He gripped the couch with all his strength and occasionally sputtered when the pain took an especially nasty upswing. But for all his pain, he sat as still as stone. Brian was used to pain.
“I'm impressed,” Brian barely heard Rhonda say. “I've seen grown men behave like children when confronted with this mess. Burns like the dickens especially on a big ole cut like this. Most of them go to pieces; stamping their feet, screaming, hands in the air.”
She turned an amused green-eyes smile on him, almost as though she knew the effort it was taking him to keep from stamping his feet and screaming. When she was done applying whatever it was, the burning resigned itself to a dull agony, and Brain was able to devote some brain cells to speaking once more.
“Nasty stuff!” He managed to gasp out wiping sweat from his forehead with the back of a shaking hand. The two women laughed, and there was a sudden resemblance between them, Brian couldn't tell why he hadn't seen it before. When they had stopped laughing, Rhonda stood up and crossed to stand next to the young woman.
“I'm afraid everyone here knew you were coming, Brian, but let me make the formal introduction as best I can.” She stood up a little straighter with a smile on her face warm and charming as always. “My name of course is Rhonda Wright, resident witch of the bayou. But you can call me Miss Rhonda.”
She placed her hand on the shoulder of the girl standing next to her. The girl made a joking curtsey and smiled at him.
“This right here is my daughter, Sharice.” Rhonda said. Brian attempted a smile and waved weekly at her. “And of course you've met Bentley.”
The wolfhound was nudging Brian's elbow with his nose, trying to get him to pet him. Brian finally relented and the dog sat on it's haunches to enjoy his ministrations. The pain in his knee was subsiding somewhat and Brian was able to lean back and relax just a bit. He suddenly realized how exhausted he was. Sleeping in his car, the back of a bus, then on road side ditches covered in leaves and trees had not lead to any sort of particularly restful respite. This was the first time he'd had any sort of chance to sit and rest and realize how poorly he'd been sleeping. It must of showed on his face because Rhonda crossed back across the room and took her place on the edge of the table again.
“Well let's get to business, you didn't drive all this way just for pleasantries.” She had lost her warm smile and instead had adopted a fierce penetrating glare. “You want to know if I can get this curse off you.”
“Yeah,” Brian nodded. “Sorry we don't have more time, but you were a hard lady to find.”
“All part of the territory, Mon Cher. Can't have it getting too easy, else every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a stubbed toe would come a-knocking.” She leaned back, her palms spread wide on the table and kept looking at him critically. “I might be able to get this off of you, that still remains to be seen. But you need to understand that whatever I do, comes at a price.”
“I've heard that.” Brian said, smiling at her darkly. “I'm guessing you know what the curse does? I hit twenty five and I'm a dead man. I don't have any money to pay you with. But I have a feeling your not asking for that. I'll pay you whatever you want.”
“Think careful now, Cherie.” Rhonda cautioned, cocking an eyebrow. “The things I ask for aren't things most part with easily.”
“There's nothing I have I wouldn't gladly give to keep breathing past my birthday.” Brian's eyes were locked on Rhonda's, once again the light powder blue met those forest green ones.
“Well if that's the case, Darling” She said sitting forward again. “We can save the discussion of payment until after the primary consultation. Let's see if I can do anything for you at all.”
Without another word, Rhonda placed her left thumb on Brian's forehead and her right above his heart. He stood stock still not really knowing how to react. He glanced around Rhonda towards Sharice but she simple shrugged and shook her head. He could hear Rhonda whispering under her breath, her quiet mutterings sounded almost like a quick chanting song. It proceeded to increase in tempo, volume and intensity for a while. Rhonda kept repeating the same lines of the song over and over again, faster and faster each time. It was strange and musical, in a language Brian didn't know. He couldn't even tell what language it might be. As the chanting continued, Brian began to feel dizzy, his vision blurring and his head starting to spin. He was tempted to shake his head to clear it of the strange drumming that seemed to be filling it but the thumb on his forehead held him fast. The drumming went faster and faster beating louder and louder, keeping pace with Rhonda's chanting. When the drumming had reached a crescendo, Brian felt her thumbs press hard against his heart and head, pushing both away.
All at once, Brian was gone from the living room, gone from the purple couch. He was lost in swirling colored mist. He seemed to flying through it at great speed his body awkwardly held still in the same sitting position. The mist was resolving itself into something more solid, he could see it taking the forms of trees and patches of grass. Finally he sat awkwardly in midair above a field of scorched earth. Blood splattered the ground in sickening puddles around the fallen bodies of men, women and children all in clothing native to a more ancient time. Broken shields, plows, carts, chariots and all manner of wooden objects littered the ground. What seemed to be the remains of a village lay smoking and destroyed several yards away, several of the buildings still on fire. He could smell, the sickening metallic stench of blood, pervading over carnage like smoke after a firework.
A woman stood on the edge of the field in a white dress, billowing in the fierce cold wind. She screamed a terrifying scream of utter loss, despair and rage. Wordlessly she cried her fury onto the world. She fell to her knees beside a heap of corpses, touching the face of one, desperate to feel warmth in the flesh. She hung her head in deepest despair. The sound of hooves rang out from behind Brian, but he couldn't move his head to see who was approaching. The woman seemed to notice him then. She locked eyes with him, and he could see the boundless pain and fury she felt reflected in them. She stood up, ignoring the crimson stains that had soaked into her virginal dress. She whipped back her raven hair in a gesture of furious defiance. It billowed about her head as if she was underwater, seeming to be another expression of her grief and promised revenge. Eyes still on Brian's, she snatched a dagger from her belt and pointed it at him. He felt sudden fear turn to bile in his throat. She was going to stab him and he couldn't move. He didn't have any idea what was happening and he desperately struggled against whatever force was holding him.
She did not stab him. She pointed the knife at him in dire accusation. She began to scream in a language he did not recognize, though he could tell that the words were tinged with fury. Her whole posture screamed retribution, and all he wanted to do was back away from it. The same sense of primal power that exuded from Rhonda flooded the field now. It swept over him like a wave of heat, making him itch and tingle. The woman was still screaming but her words had an echoing, repetitious quality to them. They became a furious keening chant, that repeated over and over and over. Finally the woman uttered one last phrase, gave Brian a viciously hate-filled look, and dragged the dagger across her own throat. Blood poured from the gash like dark red wine. It ran in rivers down her front soaking easily into the white fabric. She stood stock still as the blood ran out of her, the hatred in her eyes fixed and unchanging. Brian had never seen someone with their throat slit before, but he was fairly certain she was staying on her feet an unnaturally long time. Finally she coughed, blood bubbling out of her mouth in another gout of red. Without a single change in expression, her eyes rolled up into her head and she crumpled to the earth.
Brian wanted nothing more than to scream, to run, to find somewhere dark and hide. He shut his eyes as hard as he could and let out one hoarse shout of fear and discomfort. A dog barked in answer. Brian's eyes flew open and to his wholehearted relief, he was back in Rhonda’s living room. He leaned back against the cushions and lifted a shaking hand to cover his face. Bentley jumped up on the couch beside him and nestled down, his big head in Brian's lap.
“That was...educational.” Rhonda said, standing and beginning to pace. “Someone in your line pissed off the exact wrong person, Cherie.”
“What was that?” Brian asked, taking the hand away from his face.
“Well it was a look into the past, I suppose you could say.” She gave grudgingly. “What's on you boy is worse than most people ever see in terms of curses, but it doesn't change the game too much.”
“Can you help me?” Brian said intensely. The pure ferocity of his gaze seemed to make Rhonda stop her pacing and consider him coolly.
“I can help you, Cherie, but it wont be easy for either of us.”
“Tell me what I have to do.” Brian was ready. He was certain now that she could help. He believed wholeheartedly that she was what she said she was and he was ready to give up anything she asked of him, in order to stay alive.
“Well, this is a blood curse. Someone had to die to lay a curse this strong on your entire male line.” She began, pacing again. “We have two methods for getting it off you. Number one, we do it all at once.”
“Whats the catch?” Brian asked, knowing there was most definitely a downside for this all too easy option.
“Well the it would probably require just as much life to break it as it did to bind it. So I would more than likely drop dead. As sweet as you are, Darlin', I am not prepared to die for you.”
“So what's the second option?”
“A blood pact,” She said as if explaining where to find peas in the grocery store. “You form one with me, and you work for me for a year. All that time and energy would build up and I could use it to fuel the spell, as opposed to my own energy.”
“Okay...” Brian said slowly, again this sounded far too easy. “Again, what's the catch?”
“Just so happens.” Sharice said, speaking for the first time in her mother's presence. “My Testing Time's drawing close.”
“My testing time.” She said, shooting him a cocky grin. “I go round fixing things that have gone screwy in the paranormal department, basically to see if I'm a witch or not.”
“So you, what? Read palms, ghost hunt, take pictures of Bigfoot?” Brian's cynicism had been battling against his common sense the whole time. It seemingly won out and the temper of the room changed with a strange rapidity. Rhonda's warm smile faded and her emerald eyes flashed. Sharice crossed her arms across her chest, cocked a hip and raised an angry eyebrow at him.
“This isn't television, Boy.” Rhonda hissed in a deep threatening voice. “There's no safe ground for her. Do you know what a wendigo is?”
Brian shook his head with a sinking feeling that he was about to find out. Rhonda lifted her skirt several inches above her ankle to display her left calf. Five thin pale lines marred the otherwise flawless dark brown skin. The scars had a painful jagged quality about them. Brian felt his stomach contract at the sight of it.
“That thing got a hold of me, during my own time. And I only got out of it alive because I had my mama's knife on me.” She dropped her skirt and locked eyes with Brian. She radiated power once more. Like waves of heat that were also chilling. Goosebumps rose on Brian's arms and the sparse hairs on them stood on end. “Make no mistakes with me, boy. There are things that go bump in the night, and half of them would kill you for nothing more than the pleasure of it.”
He was pressed so far back into the couch, he thought he might become one with the upholstery. Seeing her point was made, Rhonda strode away.
“And it's my job to hunt down the nastiest.” Sharice chuckled, cocky smile back in place.
“And you don't even know?” Brian questioned. “Wouldn't it make more sense to wait to know if your a witch before wandering the country fighting monsters.”
“That's the whole point.” Sharice piped up smiling. “I throw myself at everything dangerous for a year and if my powers don't show up after all that, I'm not a witch.”
“That's where you come in.” Rhonda said, she had a slightly evil smile on her face as she said it. Brian felt his stomach clench again, this time it did not unclench. “Going alone into the deadliest of situations is not healthy for a young girl. I want someone there to watch her back. Someone who will do her best to keep her out of trouble.”
“And you want me?!” Brian exclaimed, he was tempted to break into hysterical laughter. “My whole life has been nothing but trouble!”
“So who knows better than you how to handle trouble once it finds you.”
“You're just gonna sign some random stranger up to go around the country with her? I could be a monster for all you know, what if I hurt her or something.” At this both women looked at each other with identical looks that said only too plainly 'not in a million years' and began to laugh.
“Cherie, I would be very surprised if you could over power Sharice. She might not look it but she knows how to hurt somebody in more ways than I have teeth. And for another thing, I took the measure of your character the instant I looked in your eyes. You might be lazy and a touch sarcastic, but you'll look after my girl as best you can, for her sake as well as your own.”
“Okay then,” Brian said running out of counter arguments and running his sweating hand through his hair. “So then what's the deal.”
“You make a pact with me, for one year you travel with Sharice, you do your best to help and protect her, you keep her alive no matter what, and when that year ends I lift this curse before your twenty fifth birthday.” She was intense again, power and confidence wrapped around her like a cloak. “You wont have to worry about clothes, food, lodging; I have plenty of money set aside for that. You go where the problems are and sort them out, get her out in one piece. Do all that and your a free man come midnight on your twenty fifth year.”
“Deal.” Brian grunted, standing to face her. Rhonda held out her hand and Sharice pulled a knife from a sheath behind her back. She slapped it handle first, into her mother's hand. Rhonda drew the blade across the palm of her hand, eyes fixed on Brain the whole time. Her face never changed expression even as a red line of blood welled in her palm. She clenched a fist and handed the knife to Brian. He felt like objecting, complaining about blood-borne diseases and how unsanitary this was, but one look at the intensity in Rhonda's eye reminded him of the power she could wield. He readied the knife above his palm, breathing heavily. He screwed his eyes up and drew the edge across his own palm. He grit his teeth to fight against the yell of pain fighting to escape as a white hot line of fire traced itself through his hand. Finally done he removed the knife, ignoring the blood spilling from the wound into his palm. He blinked tears of pain out of his eyes and met Rhonda's furiously. She held out her hand palm up to him. He placed his palm down on her's. She began chanting again. This time it was short staccato phrases. She sang them out in harsh sharp shouts. Finally with a last word and a feeling like an electric shock, their hands parted.
Brian shook his hand vigorously to rid it of the stinging pain the shock had left. Looking back at his palm, he saw that the cut had healed already, the skin perfect once more. The only thing that marred it now was a deep black mark in the form of an ovular laughing mask. Rhonda wiped the sweat from her brow and sighed deeply.
“Well that's done at least.” She said her warm smile back in place. “Sharice, go set the table for dinner, I'm gonna eat like a starved dog after all that.”
“On it, Mama” Sharice said and she walked to the kitchen. Rhonda began to follow her and Brian began to follow Rhonda. However when she reached the narrow doorway that led off the dining room, Rhonda turned sharply and gave Brian an intense piercing stare. She seemed more dangerous in that instant than she had at any point earlier in the day. Brian stopped his blood running cold.
“I wasn't playing, Cherie.” She said, voice a deadly whisper. “If she dies, you die. One way or the other.”
And without another word, she strode into the kitchen, leaving Brian standing there wondering just what he had gotten into.