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Even though Agent Roberts didn't understand exactly what Zanner was describing, he noticed that the young teenager spoke with more confidence than he had the previous day and was able to perform the evaluation without prompting from Mr. Hansen or Professor Everstone.
Once Zanner had completed his report, Paul and Filipe gave their evaluation.
Agent Roberts was impressed by the display of 'teamwork' that they demonstrated. Paul would succinctly describe one of the spells in his 'bullet point' style and when he was finished, Filipe would take over the presentation, giving more detail and describing any interaction with other spells that were used. The way they 'tag-teamed' their delivery was nothing short of professional and seemed to be even more efficient than the previous day's report. Agent Roberts couldn't be more proud of them if they were his own sons.
Once Paul and Filipe concluded their presentation, it was time for the 'main event'.
"Corabeth? You got this?" G asked when it was their turn.
"Be ready to jump in when I'm done with the dispensation spell." Corabeth cautioned him.
"You can count on me." G assured her.
Taking him at his word, Corabeth began to relay her observations about how the differing spell structures were organized and the importance of each of their basic functions.
Agent Roberts was surprised to realize that her descriptions were so vivid that he actually got a sense of what she was talking about.
No one else spoke a word, out of respect for Corabeth and the outstanding job that she was doing.
When she finally concluded, G took over the narrative without interruption. It was notable that although he sounded as professional as any of the others, his face had taken on the full fledged appearance of a wicked, smirking clown.
Agent Roberts' attention was drawn to a movement and he caught sight of Agent Fastbeck in his half-transformed state, entering the gazebo.
Neither spoke and it was silently agreed that they would wait until G was finished.
As G was talking, not only was Agent Roberts completely lost as to what he was saying, but he got the feeling that everyone except Professor Everstone was right there with him in his confusion. Whatever it was seemed to be very technical and precise.
When G brought his presentation to a close, Agent Fastbeck stepped forward and said, "I've talked to the elders and told them what you're doing. They've asked that before you do anything to the barrier that you inform them of what changes that you're intending to make."
"That seems like a reasonable request." Professor Everstone said easily.
"Did you have any trouble finding us?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"It took a few minutes of searching, but your little ice house was easy enough to spot from the air."
"Well, your timing is impeccable. We've just finished the evaluation. Our next step will be to return to Agent Roberts home and discuss what we've been able to uncover at all three sites."
"It's nearly lunchtime and I don't have enough food in store at my house to feed everyone. We'll either need to go to the store for supplies or take the kids back to the Waxell Diner." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"Actually, why don't you have lunch at the Brynnhollow Tavern? You can use their private dining room to discuss your business and you won't have to bother with hiding who and what you are or watching what you say."
"I was given to understand that the residents of the Brynn colony were isolated from the outer world. I wouldn't want for us to be responsible for their cultural contamination." Professor Everstone said slowly.
"They are isolated, but that's more a matter of their circumstances than anything. They're aware of their own situation and the existence of the outside world. The fact of the matter is that their isolation is more about keeping outsiders from finding out about them. Since you already know about them, there shouldn't be an issue." Agent Fastbeck carefully explained.
"In matters regarding the Brynns, you have the most current knowledge. So, in the absence of other considerations, I see no reason for us to opt for the more inconvenient choice."
"Before you call it settled, you should know that we're going to have to hike for a little bit to get there." Agent Fastbeck thought to warn them.
"We're all dressed for hiking. And I'm sure that knowing that there's food at our destination will keep the younger members of our party from raising too much of a fuss." Agent Roberts assured him with a smile.
Professor Everstone turned and found everyone waiting to hear what verdict he had reached.
"We will be hiking into Brynnhollow to have a meal and discuss our findings thus far." Professor Everstone said to the group.
"Do you think we'll be able to see our friends, Cain and Deimos, while we're there?" G asked hopefully.
"I'm not aware enough of the logistics of the situation to be able to speculate on that." Professor Everstone said, then turned to Agent Fastbeck with a look of question.
"We'll just have to wait and see how things go when we get there." Agent Fastbeck told the boys quietly.
"Does anyone need to do anything before we leave?" Agent Roberts asked as he looked around the group.
When no one immediately answered, Agent Roberts started walking as he said, "Let's go."
* * * * *
Although the sky was still heavily overcast, the rain had finally stopped.
The group first hiked back to the cars, where Agent Fastbeck had left his clothes. They were still on the ground beside his car and thoroughly soaked. Shawn was apologetic when he realized that it hadn't occurred to him to gather Agent Fastbeck's clothes so that he would have them later.
Agent Fastbeck dismissed the apology with a smile as he got another set of clothes out of the trunk of his car.
Once he had transformed to his fully human form and dressed, the group started the long cross country trek toward Brynnhollow.
* * * * *
There wasn't much conversation as the group hiked through the woods and across vast open fields.
Some were still processing what they had discovered about the barrier or were mentally preparing for the upcoming meeting. Others were simply enjoying a long relaxing walk in the breathtaking scenery. After the long rain, everything seemed so fresh and clean that it was inspiring.
"How are you doing, Mr. Bentley Brown?" Agent Roberts asked quietly.
"I'm not used to this level of physical activity, but I am interested to know what plans they have for the use of The Third Grail."
"As I understand it, the professor is going to allow the students to evaluate what they've been able to discover about the barriers and then encourage them to develop plans to upgrade them."
"Although I've been impressed by Paul's power and control, I'm concerned that his inexperience may cause him to be overwhelmed when confronted with a truly massive spelling project."
"I understand that your concern is primarily for the relic, but maybe the best way to protect the relic will be to offer Paul advice based on your own experience so that he can prepare himself and have realistic expectations."
"I'm only here to protect The Third Grail, not to participate."
"To me it seems that the best way to protect the relic might be to see that it is used properly. Unless I miss my guess, you're the one with the most knowledge about the relic's use and capabilities. What good are you going to be doing by withholding that knowledge?"
"Let's see what plans they come up with. If I notice a flaw in their reasoning, I will offer my expertise on the subject."
"I'm sure that everyone will appreciate that."
* * * * *
"There it is." Agent Fastbeck said as they crested a rise.
Agent Roberts looked down upon the quaint little village and marvelled at seeing something so picturesque in real life.
It was like a dream.
"So even though these people are aware of technology, they make the conscious decision not to adopt it themselves, even to the point of not using motor vehicles?" Professor Everstone asked slowly.
"They choose not to use electricity, either." Agent Fastbeck said informatively, then added, "A few families have generators, but see no point in using them. They already have everything that they need and see no advantage to replacing what works with something unfamiliar. I've only seen them turn the street lights on once, during the Samhain Celebration."
"I wonder if this has something to do with the spells carried by the earth, air and water elements within the barriers." Professor Everstone said speculatively as they walked toward the town.
"If it does, is anything that you're thinking of doing likely to change it?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"No plans have been made, as of yet. The better question might be, will we be able to recognize which modifications to the barriers might unintentionally alter conditions within the barriers." Professor Everstone said slowly.
"I hope you won't be mad if I stick my nose in where it doesn't belong while I'm trying to protect these people." Agent Roberts said frankly as he glanced at Agent Fastbeck, at his side.
"As I understand it, that's one of the primary reasons that you were included on this expedition; to watch out for the interests of those not directly involved in the project." Professor Everstone said seriously.
"Yes. Mr. Darroch explained that to me, but at the time I had no idea that I'd end up being responsible for the Brynns, the Wudewas, the Nephilim and the residents of Waxell. I'm just a regular human being. They deserve someone better to watch out for them." Agent Roberts quietly responded.
"You opened the barrier. How many regular human beings do you know who can do that?" Professor Everstone asked firmly.
"I suppose that's true." Professor Everstone said with a reluctant smile, then continued, "But it seems to me that you're in some rather impressive company. What's more, if all goes to plan, none of those people whom you have been tasked to protect will ever be aware of what you're doing on their behalf. If done right, this will literally be a 'thankless' job. Knowing that, who else would you suggest take up this responsibility?"
"Don't worry. I'm not trying to get out of it. I just felt like I had to point out that these people might do a whole lot better with someone else watching out for them."
Professor Everstone slowly nodded, then said, "I can't say if you will be up to it or not, but what's important right now is that you're willing to take up the challenge."
After a slight pause as they walked, Agent Fastbeck cautiously asked, "You opened the barrier?"
"I unlocked it so that they could find the edge of the actual barrier instead of chasing the artificial projection." Agent Roberts explained.
"You're just full of surprises, aren't you Shawn?" Agent Fastbeck asked with a grin.
"I'm just as surprised as anyone else."
* * * * *
The group fell into silence as Agent Fastbeck led the way into town.
To Agent Roberts it was like taking a step into history. Although he had become somewhat familiar with the sensation due to his time in Waxell, the wonder overtook him anew at walking into the late nineteenth century town.
"The tavern's over here." Agent Fastbeck said to draw the attention of those looking around in wonder.
It took a minute, but he was finally able to get the entire group herded inside.
* * * * *
"Arv, is there any chance that we can use your private dining room for a few hours?" Agent Fastbeck asked as he walked up to the bar.
"Of course. Just go on in and make yourselves comfortable. Talbot will be with you in a few minutes."
"Thanks Arv. Please give my apologies to Carn if he decides to convene a lunch meeting for the elders."
"As far as I know they aren't meeting today, but if they do show up, it will do them some good to have things switched up a bit." Arv chuckled.
Agent Fastbeck smiled at the response as he led the way toward the back of the tavern.
* * * * *
Once they had entered the private dining room, everyone filled in around the table and made themselves comfortable.
Agent Roberts noticed that both Dex and Filipe maneuvered themselves so that they could end up being seated on either side of him.
"Since I'm not taking part in your project, would you like for me to leave you alone while you discuss your plans?" Agent Fastbeck asked as he remained standing.
"While it may be necessary for us to exclude you from whatever actions we eventually decide upon, you have the most knowledge of the Brynns and the surrounding area. Your insights will, no doubt, be invaluable in planning the most appropriate course of action." Professor Everstone said confidently.
"I'll be happy to do whatever I can." Agent Fastbeck said solemnly as he took his seat.
"Everyone, why don't you go ahead and look at your menus and decide what you'd like to have before we begin our discussion?" Professor Everstone asked casually.
"What language is this?" Paul asked cautiously as he looked at the menu he had taken from the middle of the table.
"Oh. I forgot about that." Agent Fastbeck chuckled, then said, "From what I've been told, it's an amalgamation of Gaelic, Welsh and some severely bastardized English. When the waiter comes in you can ask him to help you decide what you want."
"I can understand lots of languages, but this makes no sense to me." Paul said frankly.
"I want to be sure that you know that while Talbot wouldn't intentionally steer you wrong, he's from here and might not immediately understand what you're asking for. When you order anything, you need to keep in mind that we're in the mountains of Kentucky, just about as far from the ocean as it's possible to get. So if Talbot suggests anything called oysters, they're not seafood."
Confused looks passed amongst the teenagers, but none of them asked for an explanation.
"It sounds like you've had some personal experience with that particular misunderstanding." Agent Roberts said with a grin.
"I don't want to talk about it." Agent Fastbeck growled.
"I believe that if you'll tell the waiter what you're hungry for, he might be able to suggest a close approximation." Mr. Hansen said simply.
"That sounds like a reasonable way to proceed." Professor Everstone said as he fought valiantly to restrain a grin.
* * * * *
By the time Talbot entered the dining room, everyone had already decided what kind of food they had an appetite for.
There was some rather amusing confusion when G requested Buffalo Wings, but after a brief explanation, Talbot assured him that Arvin, the tavern owner, would come up with something to satisfy his taste.
Once their orders had been placed, Professor Everstone stood and said, "I believe that all of us have a reasonable grasp of the spells and powers at work within the barriers, so unless anyone feels that they need a recap of what has been discovered thus far, I recommend that we dispense with the review and proceed directly to the matter of how to modify the existing barriers to sufficiently protect their inhabitants."
Professor Everstone paused a moment for anyone who might want to object, then continued, "Very well, then I suppose the next step would be to open the table to suggestions and recommendations."
"Before we get too deep into it, I just wanted to tell you that I've got a list of proposed modifications from my technomagic teacher. Some of the things won't work the way he has them, but they're really good ideas and I bet that if we work together we can come up with something that we can use."
"What do you have in mind?" Miss Oaken asked curiously.
"Well, Brynnhollow has an illusion in place to hide it from satellites. Nevermore is folded out of our space, so we don't have to worry about that. But we need to make an illusion or something for the Southseid barrier. The problem is, to do it right, the illusion spell would have to be based in water instead of air."
"When I'm done with the Brynn barrier I could go over and do an air based sorcery for them." G interjected.
"What would you power it with? All the air element spells draw on the Brynn air. The only way to do it right would be with a purely water based spell, otherwise it would run out of power and collapse in just a few years." Paul said firmly.
"Let's table that for the moment while we present other projects. Once we have everything on the table, then we can go back and start working toward solutions." Professor Everstone suggested.
"I think we're going to need Corabeth's wall of force woven into the Brynn barrier." G said simply.
"Why do you believe that?" Professor Everstone asked curiously.
"All their defenses are mental. That's great if you're dealing with people, but what about drones? Unless I'm missing something big, there's nothing stopping a remote controlled device from going directly to downtown Brynnhollow." G explained.
"Southseid has something like a wall of force, it just needs to be extended to protect them from above." Paul added.
"What about Nevermore?" Dex asked timidly.
"Given that the barrier is located within a spacial rift, it is effectively concealed. That being the case, I can see no benefit being derived by adding a 'wall of force' to something that doesn't fully manifest in our reality. So, assuming that we're going to continue to use the folded space pocket that's been created, the priority would seem to be to verify the barrier's integrity. As it is, one weakness could allow an unwitting person to pass from this reality into theirs without warning." Professor Everstone said thoughtfully.
"I don't know enough about multidimensional manipulations to be able to do anything like that." Zanner said weakly.
"Mr. Hansen might be willing to help you with that, if you asked him nicely." Professor Everstone said with less humor under his words than such a phrase might normally imply.
"But do you mean that you're expecting 'us' to upgrade the barrier all by ourselves?" Zanner asked nervously.
"We normally don't resort to the use of relics unless there is a legitimate need. This isn't a field trip for you to 'observe'. You're here to do a real job. What's more, if you do it badly, there will be real consequences for real people." Professor Everstone said firmly to both Zanner and Dex.
Not only Dex and Zanner gawked at the professor. All in attendance were silent as they anxiously waited for what he was going to do or say next.
"Although this project has grown far beyond what any of us could have reasonably expected, I believe that we have the knowledge, the power and the talent necessary to successfully complete our tasks." Professor Everstone said to the group as a whole.
There was a slight tapping on the dining room door which preceded Talbot and a young woman walking into the room with trays of drinks.
"Hilda? I didn't expect to see you here." Agent Fastbeck said with pleasant surprise.
"I just came down off the mountain to visit with my dad for a bit, and wouldn't you know, I'd get put to work." Hilda said with a chuckle as she held her tray steady while Talbot hurried to place drinks around the table.
"Well, when you go back, tell everyone that I said 'hi' and that Andrea and I will probably be visiting before too long." Agent Fastbeck said warmly.
"I'll be sure to tell them." Hilda said as she looked around the room at all the unfamiliar faces.
"Everyone, this is Hilda, one of the witches from the mountain. Hilda, these are the teachers and the students who've been sent to give the Brynnhollow barrier a checkup... Oh, and Agent Shawn Roberts. He's been assigned to work with me at my office in Waxell."
"You'll have to tell us all about it when you visit." Hilda said as she watched Talbot place the last few drinks.
"I'll do that." Agent Fastbeck promised.
"It's nice to meet all of you. Enjoy your time in Brynnhollow." Hilda said before following Talbot out of the room.
* * * * *
"Now, where were we?" Professor Everstone asked as he looked around.
"I was thinking that if Corabeth wouldn't mind, maybe she could show me her 'wall of force' spell so that I could try to adapt it to work for the Southseid barrier." Paul said thoughtfully.
"My 'wall of force' is based in air. Unless you can do high-level air manipulations, I don't think you could use it." Corabeth quietly explained.
"No. I can't do air. But if you can show me how your spell works, there might be a way that I can make a water spell that does basically the same thing."
"Do you need the full version? I usually do most of it mentally."
"Yes. I'll need the words and the gestures, too. I'm not going to be copying you, I'm going to be seeing what you're causing the air to do so that maybe I can do the same thing."
"Can't you just use your alchemy spell on the air like you do when you're making a stone wall?" G asked curiously.
"Actually, I thought about that too. But that spell is temporary and requires me to maintain it. As soon as I lose concentration, it drops. From what little I've seen of Corabeth's spell, it's enduring. If I can find a way to cast something like that based in water, then I have a chance of making something that will actually be able to protect the Wudewas from outside forces." Paul said seriously.
"Professor? Is it okay if I go ahead and show Paul now so that he can be thinking about what changes he needs to make?" Corabeth asked uncertainly.
"Yes. If you'll step to the other side of the room, we'll continue our discussion while you're doing that." Professor Everstone said decisively.
Paul and Corabeth both got up from their chairs and moved to the far side of the room where cushioned chairs and a low table were located near the fireplace, in sort of a conversation area.
"While they're doing that, perhaps we should further discuss the weaknesses and possible modifications of the Nevermore barrier." Professor Everstone said as he turned his attention to Zanner and Dex.
"Okay. But if you're really going to count on us to figure this out, then I think the first thing would have to be to bring the barrier completely into our space. If we tried to work on it while it was folded, it would be possible for the spells to interact and make the space pocket crash and kill everyone inside." Zanner said carefully.
"Yes. In manipulating extra-dimensional space, that is always a possibility." Mr. Hansen confirmed.
"Once we bring it into our space, then I think we need to do like Professor Everstone said and make sure that the dimensional rift is working the way it's supposed to. That thing about someone accidentally walking into it... we need to make sure that can't happen."
"Mr. Hansen has the knowledge and skills to be able to evaluate the rift for you."
"It's been a few years, but I still remember what goes where." Mr. Hansen confirmed.
"Good. Because I don't know how to do any of that stuff. But after that, I think the next thing we're going to need to do is make the Nevermore barrier just as strong as the other two. I don't know a whole lot about space folds, but I know that they're not always the strongest spells around; they can fail."
"While there are a number of things that can potentially go wrong with multidimensional spells, the pocket dimension that they created seems to be perfectly stable." Mr. Hansen observed.
"Yeah. But just because it's stable now doesn't mean that it's going to stay that way. And besides that, even if it works exactly the way it's supposed to that doesn't mean that no one is going to try to get into it."
"Or out of it." Dex quietly added.
"Yeah. I hadn't thought about it, but that's right. Someone on either side of the pocket could cause it to crash. If they didn't wink out of existence, then they'd be stuck in our reality without any protection at all." Zanner said gravely.
"You've made your point." Professor Everstone interrupted.
Zanner already had his mouth open to say something more, but snapped it shut at the Professor's words.
"The residents of 'Evermore' are lucky to have you watching out for them." Professor Everstone said more gently, then continued, "What steps do you believe should be taken to adequately protect your charges?"
"If we could do it, I'd like to do everything that they have at the other two barriers, but I know that there's no way we can do a mind control spell to lure people away from it." Zanner said thoughtfully.
"Yes. That would be exceedingly difficult." Professor Everstone agreed.
"But with the power of earth, I think we can make a physical barrier, like they have surrounding the Wudewas valley. We can weave a magical barrier into that, making it so that someone who doesn't know better will just think that the weeds and vines are too tough to be cut."
"Yes. That sounds perfectly reasonable."
"I think after that we'll need to make a wall of force or something to keep anyone from getting in by air. That's going to be a little bit harder." Zanner said slowly.
"Admittedly, Earth manipulations aren't my forte, but I can't think of any likely spells to use for that." Professor Everstone said reluctantly, then looked toward Mr. Hansen.
"Given the occupants of the barrier, you might possibly consider using a variant of the angelic sanctity spells to provide another level of protection." Mr. Hansen said thoughtfully.
"Are you talking about making the entire barrier zone 'hallowed ground'?" Professor Everstone asked cautiously.
"Yes. Rather than attempting to adapt an air based protection spell to work through the earth element, we could cast an overarching protection spell on the whole barrier region. It should end up performing the same function with quite a bit less chance for failure due to unstable and untested spells." Mr. Hansen said slowly.
"To my knowledge, none in our party would be capable of casting such an enchantment." Professor Everstone said regretfully.
"That's true. But it really seems like the solution best suited to our situation. It might be worth calling in outside help to see that the job is done correctly." Mr. Hansen said frankly.
"You make a good point. Given what we know about the barrier and its occupants, the 'Hallowed Ground' spell would be the ideal solution." Professor Everstone agreed.
"Archdruid Highley could probably cast the enchantment if we gave him access to the power to do it." Dex said in realization.
Agent Roberts looked around during the long moment of silence as everyone seemed to be considering what Dex had just suggested.
Finally, Professor Everstone slowly said, "He is a Druid. He already has an angelic enchantment. If he'd be willing to do it, theoretically it could work."
"Is this going to be more dangerous than doing it ourselves?" Agent Roberts felt compelled to ask.
"No. Actually, this would be quite a bit less dangerous." Professor Everstone said slowly.
"If Zanner will cast the spell to give Archdruid Highley access to the power of the earth through Dex, then everything that follows would be in Archdruid Highley's hands. The boys would only have to maintain the flow of magical energy until Archdruid Highley completes his spell." Mr. Hansen explained.
"Do you trust Archdruid Highley?" Filipe asked quietly from Agent Roberts' side.
"I trust him more than I trust Milo, but that isn't saying much." Agent Roberts answered honestly.
"Do you trust him enough to allow him to bless the grounds within the barrier?" Professor Everstone asked curiously.
"Before I answer, I'd like a better idea of the dangers involved."
"The failure of the enchantment is the most likely negative outcome. If that were to happen, Archdruid Highley might suffer some sort of magical backlash, but there shouldn't be any other consequence." Professor Everstone said, then looked to Mr. Hansen for verification.
"That's right. Zanner and Dex wouldn't be in any danger from that and as far as the project, it wouldn't really hurt anything else that we're doing. We'd just be without that level of protection." Mr. Hansen confirmed.
"The only other negative outcome that I can foresee might be if Archdruid Highley were overcome by having access to so much magic. Without the natural inhibitions and life experiences of a witch, he could conceivably go mad with power and take any number of actions, possibly endangering the entire party." Professor Everstone said frankly.
"If that were to happen, would a bullet or two be likely to stop him?" Agent Roberts asked seriously.
After a moment to consider, Professor Everstone slowly said, "Yes. I believe so. We do our best to train our children to react appropriately and defend themselves in stressful situations. Archdruid Highley wouldn't have that training and would likely react to a sudden threat as any other mundane person would."
Before Agent Roberts could formulate any response to that, there was a tap on the door before it opened, revealing Talbot and Hilda with trays loaded with plates of food.
To Be Continued...
Editor's Notes: Well, it seems to me that a nice meal showing up almost makes up for the fact that the chapter just ended. Not quite, but almost.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher