Nick had hoped to at least possess the element of surprise, but as he approached the front yard of the residence, the woman standing next to a rose bush in the front garden turned instinctively, looking him directly in the face, her lips turning up in a gentle, slightly bemused smile.
She was not what Nick had expected. Although obviously elderly,. What's more, she seemed to glow with a natural energy, and something about her appearance was singularly strong and earthy. In fact, she looked as if her limbs had actually sprung from the soil beneath her, and her hair was a tangle of intertwining strands that formed an unkempt halo that blossomed wildly around her face. She looked as though the rose bush she was tending might actually be her cousin.
To Nick, it seemed as if this woman might have been sculpted directly from the primordial substance from which the rest of mankind had only descended -- sculpted by some divine hand that, if not all knowing, at least possessed artistic flair and the capacity for great forethought.
"I've been expecting you, dear." her voice was low and deep, but not marred by age. It reminded him of rustling leaves.
"I..." Nick stammered, taken by surprise.
" I understand you are in a bit of a quandary. I'm sorry, what is your name, love?"
"A pleasure to meet you, Nicholas. I'm Deirdre. I suspect we have a lot to discuss. But let's do so more comfortably, shall we? Do come in, dear. I'll make you some tea."
Wordlessly, Nick followed her into the house. As he passed through her screened front porch, he noticed a large loom tucked in the corner.
Deirdre ushered him into her living room. It was a room that looked lived in -- the furniture worn, though not shabby. She urged Nick to make himself comfortable on the sofa and trotted off to prepare their tea.
As he observed her fussing over the tea tray in the adjoining kitchen, it struck Nick that Deirdre embodied all womankind -- a maiden peeking through in her coy smile while a mother's kind eyes gazed tenderly out from the wrinkled face of a wise old woman. Yes, she was all women, and Nick found himself inexplicably mesmerized... and more than a little overwhelmed.
Perhaps he was under her spell? Was she some sort of siren? In her presence, he felt almost a wee bit tipsy, his vision ever so slightly off-kilter, tilted at an almost imperceptible angle. Perhaps she was giving off powerful pheromones or some other intoxicant?
Deirdre returned to the living room with a tray containing two cups and saucers, a rather delicate looking china tea pot, cream, sugar, and a plate of tea biscuits. She set the tray gingerly upon the coffee table.
"Cream and sugar?" she asked, beginning to pour.
"Really, I'm fine." Nick said, trying to gently decline her hospitality. He was nervous about drinking anything she had prepared.
She had kind eyes that twinkled and seemed to have endless depth. There was a hint of mischievousness glimmer in them, it was true, but it was playful and didn't seem at all malicious. Nick decided that he liked her. He couldn't help it.
"You came here because you have a problem, did you not, Nicholas?" she asked.
"But you seem to have some misconceptions about witchcraft. Let me put your mind at ease a little, dear, and then we'll get to your problem."
She paused to pour herself some tea and savor a sip.
"There are many types of witches, young man, and the vast majority are benevolent. The world would be in far worse shape than it is if it weren't for the guiding hands of witches. But, while technically a witch, I'm not a typical one. I perform a specialized task; few women throughout history have chronicled the lives of mankind. In Greek mythology, these women were known as the Fates. They have also been known by many other names over the course of history. But their nature has always been fundamentally misunderstood."
Nick waited for her to continue.
"Such women have been credited with writing men's fates." she said, shaking her head sadly. "But our involvement has never been active; it is a passive role. I do not write a man's destiny; I merely record it. I am a simple historian." she said, turning her palms turned up in a gesture of openness.
"So that loom you have..." Nick gestured in its direction.
"Yes, my life's work. I weave the thread, but each tapestry is merely a history. I do not create the events; I merely record them."
"So, your problem then?" she coaxed him with a gentle smile.
"Ah, yes. There is a sort of shadow disease." he began. There was no easy way to explain this. "It is bleeding over from the realm of the collective unconscious and infecting people. Eventually, they are overwhelmed by shadow and disappear from our world, apparently absorbed into the shadow realm..."
"I am aware of the growing rift between our worlds." Deirdre said thoughtfully. "And I am also aware of your role. You have been using sets of universal symbols to help contain the ruptures, have you not?"
"Yes." Nick responded. "But that won't stop this infection."
The old woman nodded.
"The cat said that symbols will not work because of your involvement." Nick said.
"No, symbols will not work, but that has nothing to do with me. I did not create this distorted fate." she said.
"But do you know how to stop it?"
"To intervene in a person's fate is a serious crime. But I don't think that is of real concern to someone with your nature." she said with a smirk.
Nick dismissed the reference to his nature. There were more pressing matters than his damnation right now.
"Besides, these fates are a result of underlying sickness in the tapestry of life." Deirdre continued. "The pattern is unnatural -- altered by disease. I cannot interfere myself, but I don't object to you doing so."
"You will recognize the afflicted by the pictures on their skin. No mortal can cross over without these glyphs of transportation. That is why your symbols can have no effect. Their own organic ciphers act as a shield."
"Why did the cat blame you then?" Nick wondered aloud.
"Damned cat can't admit that there are things he doesn't know." the old woman grumbled. "Snarky psychoid." she muttered.
Shaking her head, she continued, "But the infection can still be purged. When you encounter one of the afflicted, induce vomiting. I will give you a conduit -- the afflicted are tainted by shadows; they must purge until their liquids run clear."
She placed a leathery hand atop his own, patting it reassuringly.
Looking into her face, Nick was suddenly struck with the beauty of age. Living in a culture that valued youth, he had automatically dismissed aging as undesirable all his life -- an unfortunate side effect of growing older. But now he saw with sudden clarity that each line was like a medal life had bestowed. With every wrinkle, there was wisdom. An aged face was like a palm; the lines could be read if only the person looking was correctly versed for the task.
The crone was beautiful in her quiet, faded way -- in the same way a flower is still beautiful when its blossom is waning. It was not the arrogant beauty of youth, but a humble beauty -- deepened by experience, replete with the soft, lingering sadness that comes with wisdom.
The kind lines around her eyes bunched as she smiled, and Nick was in a strange sort of reverential love. A love for her kindness, wisdom, and understanding. After he left, he would have to banish this epiphany from his mind in order to go back to a valuing the empty robustness of youthful beauty.
"Thank you." Nick said.
She nodded, patting his hand once again. "Purging will cure individual cases. But, in order to put an end to the phenomenon, I'm afraid you'll need to do something far more dangerous."
Nick nodded but said nothing. He knew that the big final showdown that everyone kept alluding to was probably his alone to face.
"Just a moment." Deirdre said, rising and excusing herself.
Nick stared blankly at his undrunk cup of tea.