Within seconds of opening his eyes, the dream had already begun to fade, however the feeling of disquiet that the dream evoked seemed to linger on and on.
As Agent Roberts walked into his bathroom, he saw his reflection looking back at him, appearing to be tentative.
"Listen. I don't know what all you showed me in my dream last night, but the only thing I remember is that the dream was about you."
His words didn't seem to put his reflection at ease.
"We're good, okay? I don't wish you were gone and I don't want to pretend that you aren't here."
The reflection looked at him with interest, obviously understanding what he was saying.
"There are just times when it will be important that we don't let the wrong people see that you're your own person. I need to be able to count on you at those times."
After a moment, the reflection hesitantly nodded his acceptance.
"I don't know what to expect today so I can't tell you what I'm going to need you to do. I guess the only thing I'm going to ask of you is not to reveal yourself to anyone who doesn't already know about you. If things get tight, the element of surprise may end up being the only advantage we have."
The reflection nodded his agreement a little more easily.
"Good. I'm glad that we're on the same page with this. Considering what we've been through recently, I can think of more than a few scenarios where we'll be better off if everyone doesn't know about you and what you can do."
Agent Roberts was surprised to see his reflection's sorrowful expression as he hugged himself in the mirror.
It took a moment for Agent Roberts to interpret what he was seeing, but he finally said, "I know that it must be lonely. I promise that I won't keep you locked away from people."
The reflection shook his head slowly, then revealed a slight grin as he made a lewd gesture with his hands.
Agent Roberts was shocked by the action, but was finally able to say, "Just as soon as we've resolved the current situation, I'll see what I can do about finding a special someone for us. Milo told me that you're overloaded with my unresolved sexual tension so I'm committed to doing something about it."
The reflection nodded in hearty agreement.
"I'm going to go ahead and get my day started. If you realize that you need anything, just try to find some way to let me know."
The reflection nodded seriously, then faded from view.
Agent Roberts looked around and soon found his shadow looking like a regular shadow, cast on the wall of the bathroom.
"Um, I'm going to need you back in the mirror when it's time for me to shave."
Agent Roberts saw his shadow nod his agreement.
* * * * *
As Agent Roberts walked into the kitchen, he noticed someone foraging in the refrigerator.
"Did you need something?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously as he approached.
"Food... Starving..." Paul said past a mouthful of roast beef.
"We'll be leaving for the diner as soon as everyone's up and ready to go." Agent Roberts said quietly.
"Sorry. I just couldn't wait. I guess doing all that magic yesterday must have taken a lot more out of me than I expected."
"Is this going to be enough to tide you over until we get there?"
"I don't know. I've been hungry before, but I don't think I've ever been so deeply hungry, like down into my bones."
"Well, if you're feeling like this, it wouldn't surprise me to find out that the others are in a similar state. In other words, we need to get everyone together and ready to leave for the diner as soon as we possibly can."
"Yeah. Maybe helping you get everyone going will help me keep my mind off being hungry."
"I wouldn't bet on it. But at least you'll be busy while you're miserable. That might help to pass the time."
"I'll go start waking people up."
"Before you do that, I'd like to know how you're doing."
"Except for being hungry, I'm fine."
"So the pressure of all of this isn't getting to you?"
"Maybe a little. But with the way the job keeps growing and the way the stakes keep getting raised, I think it makes sense to be a little freaked out by it."
"I suppose that's true. Even when it was just us helping the Wudewas, it was still a pretty big responsibility."
"It helps a lot that I trust Professor Everstone and the teachers as much as I do. Otherwise I'd be a whole lot more freaked out."
"I don't know if I'm as comfortable as you are with that. With everything changing minute by minute, I get the feeling that they're making it up as they go along. It looks to me like, without proper planning, one little unanticipated variable could cause this whole thing to come crashing down."
"If you're trying to make me feel better about what we're doing, you might want to try something else."
"I'm trying to make sure that you have realistic expectations so that when plans are being made, you'll be in a better position to notice potential problems."
"Mr. Hansen isn't going to be able to do the spelling at the protectorate all by himself. If we can't get him some help, we're not going to be able to make this work." Paul said frankly.
"I know. But it sounds to me like, if the Nephilim and Archdruid Highley's congregants both can and will cooperate, that there might be a chance that it could work."
"Think about what you just said." Paul said gravely, then continued, "Can we really commit to a plan that depends so heavily on that many unknowns?"
"Is it ideal? No. I freely admit that. But we make the most out of what we have to work with." Agent Roberts said frankly, then continued, "I assume that we're going to be testing and questioning every step along the way. If at any point we encounter something that we can't overcome on our own, we'll stop and call in the help that we need, to do the job right."
"We're going to have to find some way to communicate from all the different sites, or this isn't going to work."
"I know. We've been managing up to now but you're right, communications is one of our biggest problems. The best I've been able to come up with is for us to draw up a schedule which allows us to get things done, but also to regroup and make further plans and adjustments. If everyone agrees that they're going to cast a certain spell at a certain time, that should work, shouldn't it?"
"Are you guys crazy?" Zanner asked as he walked into the kitchen.
"I'm assuming that's a rhetorical question." Agent Roberts responded without hesitation.
"What are you doing up so early?" Zanner asked as he scooted past Paul to look in the refrigerator.
"Hungry?" Agent Roberts asked with a smile.
"Absolutely starving." Zanner responded, then added, "I woke up thinking about how good your roast beef was. I had to have some more."
"Would you guys like to go around and start waking people up?"
"Yeah. We'd better. There's not enough roast beef left for everyone to have some." Zanner said frankly.
"Let everyone know that we'll be leaving for breakfast just as soon as they're all ready." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"Do you need to call Agent Fastbeck to let him know what we're doing?" Paul asked as he stopped in the kitchen doorway.
"I talked to him last night. He's going to meet us at the diner. It won't hurt if we get there a few minutes ahead of schedule."
* * * * *
"Are we ready to go?" Agent Roberts asked as he entered the living room.
"We will be as soon as Mr. Bentley Brown gives me an answer regarding his willingness to take part in the spellcasting." Professor Everstone said firmly.
"I am here to observe, not to participate." Mr. Bentley Brown stated simply.
Agent Roberts raised a hand in Professor Everstone's direction to forestall any response.
"From my understanding of the situation, if you refuse, we're going to have to call someone in who has an adequate affinity for water. Not only is that likely to delay us, but there's no way of telling if that person will actually be skilled enough to handle the relic properly or respect the relic enough to even try. If you're bound and determined to protect the relic, consider carefully where your priorities lie."
"While I am capable of wielding the magic of the relic, I am not what one would call a 'master of the craft'. I'm more what would be classified as a 'serviceable practitioner'."
"Artistry is all well and good, but at this point in time 'competence' will do. If you can manage that much, then please say that you'll help us so that we can move on to the myriad of other problems." Professor Everstone said frankly.
"I have had sufficient contact with the third grail to become attuned to it. If the situation is as dire as you say, then I will agree to help you in this one instance."
"Thank you Mr. Bentley Brown. That takes an incredible weight off my shoulders." Professor Everstone said gratefully, then turned and continued, "Agent Roberts, would you gather Mr. Hansen and the boys? I need to outline a few things with your group before we leave."
"You'd better hurry. Everyone's really hungry." Agent Roberts said honestly.
"I know. I just need to touch base with each group before we leave so that we'll all be assured that we're all working toward the same goals."
"Fine. I'll go get them. But we're going to leave for the diner as soon as you're done talking to us." Agent Roberts cautioned.
"I'll be right behind you." Professor Everstone assured him.
* * * * *
"Dag, the professor wants to meet with us before we leave for the diner."
"I hope he's come up with a plan, because I haven't been able to come up with anything new." Mr. Hansen said frankly.
"He didn't mention anything about that. I think that he just wants to confirm that we all have the same understanding about what's going to happen next."
"I can't cast a spell that powerful." Mr. Hansen said quietly.
"Maybe with the help of the Nephilim and using the congregants as a retention pond for magic, you'll be able to direct the magical flow to where it needs to go." Agent Roberts encouraged.
"When you put it that way, it at least sounds possible."
"A hundred different things could still happen, so just trust that Professor Everstone won't ask you to do something impossible." Agent Roberts said as he motioned for Mr. Hansen to start walking with him.
"I don't know if you're grasping just how big this really is." Mr. Hansen said with a look askance at him.
"I've been charged to protect various groups of people and I am literally powerless to do anything meaningful to help them." Agent Roberts said gravely.
"You're keeping us focused on what's most important and giving us a reason to at least try. I can't imagine anyone else in your position doing a better job at that."
"Zanner. Dex. Professor Everstone wants to meet with us before we leave for breakfast."
"Has something new happened?" Zanner asked cautiously.
"Not that I know of."
* * * * *
After a brief meeting to verify what they already knew, the group left for Waxell, with the boys riding with Mr. Hansen.
Agent Roberts drove alone and despite all the unknown factors, he was still able to achieve a certain level of serenity about the entire undertaking.
Upon arriving at the diner, Agent Roberts poured himself a cup of coffee, then went to take a seat at an unoccupied table.
"Is it okay if we sit with you?" Paul asked as he approached with Filipe at his side.
"That'll be fine, as long as you understand that Agent Fastbeck may be joining us at some point and he might need to speak with me privately." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"Do you want for us to sit somewhere else?" Filipe asked cautiously.
"No. I just wanted to give you fair warning in case it turns out that way. I'm not trying to get rid of you." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"Good. Because I think you and Paul need to talk to each other. You both have lots of good ideas, but so far I haven't heard about either of you figuring out how we're going to make all of this work." Filipe said honestly.
"From what I've seen, there aren't a lot of options for us to consider. We either do this, using everyone we have, giving it everything we've got or we call in outsiders, who will probably end up taking over the project and will more than likely kick all of us out."
"They'll probably think that a bunch of kids has no business trying to do something dangerous or important." Paul said with a nod.
"Yeah. Like we should leave this to the people who know what they're doing and have nothing left to learn." Filipe added bitterly.
"At the same time, in doing that, we'll be giving up any measure of control we ever had in the situation and we would no longer have any say in what happens to all the people that we've sworn to protect." Agent Roberts added in a dire tone.
"Good morning." Agent Fastbeck said as he approached with a cup of coffee in his hand.
"Good morning, Conrad. Is it okay if the boys sit with us or do we need to speak privately?" Agent Roberts asked quickly.
Both boys looked up at Agent Fastbeck with expressions that clearly indicated their own preferences in the matter.
"I don't have anything new from when we last spoke. If you're okay with them joining us, I have no problem." Agent Fastbeck said honestly.
"I don't really have anything new either. Actually, that's part of what's worrying me." Agent Roberts finished anxiously.
"How's that?" Agent Fastbeck asked, then looked toward Harry as he approached the table.
* * * * *
After exchanging pleasantries with Harry, all four placed their breakfast orders. Although Agent Roberts was aware that the boys were hungry, he was still surprised by the amount of food that they ordered.
Agent Fastbeck and Agent Roberts exchanged a serious look, confirming that they were ready to get down to business.
"So, what's happened since we last spoke?" Agent Fastbeck finally prompted.
"The whole thing has become impossibly more complicated. They've figured out how to do this huge mega-spell thing that will basically fix the Brynn barrier..." Agent Roberts began to say, but was interrupted.
"I thought they were here to fix the Southseid barrier." Agent Fastbeck said honestly.
"While that's true, the interconnectivity of the barriers makes it necessary for us to involve all of them. Now it turns out that there's this really big job that can be accomplished by using the magic of the three barriers combined. It'll take everything and everyone that we've got to do it, but if we can pull it off, with one simple casting we'll have the opportunity to resolve all the barrier problems in one go." Agent Roberts said seriously, then after a long thoughtful moment to review his statement, he turned to Paul and asked, "Am I oversimplifying it?"
"Hold on. I've got something." Paul said slowly as he closed his eyes.
Agents Roberts and Fastbeck looked at Filipe inquiringly.
"I think something you just said might have triggered an idea." Filipe quietly explained, then slowly added, "Wait for it."
"The way you said that... 'one simple casting'..." Paul said slowly.
"Okay. Well, I know that 'simple' is kind of a relative term. I'm sure that it's actually anything but." Agent Roberts admitted.
"No, no. I get what you're saying, and you're right. Even though the spell may not be simple, as in 'short and sweet', the concept behind the spell really is... or at least I think that it could be." Paul said slowly and seemed to be peering into a distant place that only he could see.
After a long moment, Paul finally continued, "The way you said that... it sounds like what we're going to be doing is a recasting...I mean, instead of changing the things that don't work and adding the new things that we need it to do, it would be more like an overall casting of a simple definition of each barrier to get rid of any glitches or snags that might have crept in over time from all the fixes and patches that everyone's done."
"Kind of like reinstalling an operating system?" Agent Fastbeck hazarded to guess.
"Yeah. Just like that." Paul confirmed.
"What about the changes that were just made?" Agent Roberts asked slowly.
"We can include them. In fact, it's probably the best way to fully incorporate the changes into the existing barriers. If you'll hang on here for a minute, I need to talk to Professor Everstone. I think you might have just figured out how we can make all of this work." Paul said excitedly before dashing away.
"Happy to help." Agent Roberts said in a slightly bewildered tone.
* * * * *
"If Paul's talking about doing what I think he is, this is going to be really tough." Filipe said thoughtfully.
"How's that?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"It sounds like he's thinking about completely recasting a barrier spell, from beginning to end. Not only will something like that take a lot of time but it would take a scary lot of magic." Filipe said slowly.
"But with the way we were talking about distributing the magic among all those attending, would that make it more manageable?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"More like it makes it 'possible'. No witch alive could cast that big of a spell with the flood of magic that they needed to cast it, crashing in on them like that. It would wash them away. But having the magic divided and evened out like that, it could be accessed when it's needed but held back in reserve when it's not." Filipe said carefully.
"It sounds like something big, but I'm still not getting what you're talking about." Agent Fastbeck said frankly.
"If I'm getting what they're saying, they're talking about going through each of the barrier spells and recasting them from beginning to end, redefining the terms of the spells..." Agent Roberts trailed off as Harry approached with a tray loaded with food.
"Is all this food for just four people?" Agent Fastbeck asked as Harry began to place plate after plate of food on their table.
"Actually, it's going to be food for three people if Paul doesn't hurry up and get his butt back over here." Filipe said hungrily.
"The kids woke up hungry this morning." Agent Roberts explained to Harry with a smile.
"You don't have any food in your house, do you?" Agent Fastbeck asked in sudden realization.
"None to speak of. But I wanted to thank you for helping me the last time I shopped. I cooked up that big chunk of meat that you had me buy and everyone loved it. I couldn't have done it without your help."
"I'm glad it worked out for you." Agent Fastbeck said as his plate was placed before him.
"Professor Everstone said that he'd think about it." Paul said as he quickly scooted into his chair.
"Thanks Harry. Everything looks wonderful." Agent Roberts said sincerely, not only to thank Harry, but also to remind the boys that they weren't free to speak about certain things at the moment.
He needn't have worried. Before Paul had come to a complete stop, he had his fork out and was shovelling in the food.
"I know how hungry camping can make you. I hope you guys are having fun out there." Harry said with a smile at the boys' enjoyment, then added, "I've got a lot more food to deliver. Make sure to call me if you need anything."
"I think we're set for a while." Agent Roberts said as he watched Paul and Filipe, focused on their food to the exclusion of all else.
"Yeah. Thanks, Harry. This looks really great." Agent Fastbeck added.
When Harry stepped away, Agent Roberts and Agent Fastbeck exchanged a look before digging into their own breakfasts, at a far more reasonable pace.
* * * * *
There was little talk over breakfast except for the occasional comment about how good the different foods were. Apparently, Harry and his father had outdone themselves on the biscuits. They were as near to perfection as it was possible to get.
As the boys slowed their eating, Agent Fastbeck finally asked, "So what are we doing next?"
"My guess would be that we need to go somewhere to do a little planning. Not only are we going to have to debate the merits of Paul's new plan, but as I understand it, there's also going to be a lot of 'crafting' that will need to be done in advance. I would assume that that's going to have to be done at all three sites." Agent Roberts said slowly.
"And we need to find the vinculum chamber." Paul said between bites.
"Right." Agent Roberts confirmed, then said to Agent Fastbeck, "We need to get a map that shows all three barrier sites so that we can triangulate to find the most likely location of some kind of chamber or something. It might end up being important."
"I have some maps at the office. We could go and do that right now, if you wanted." Agent Fastbeck said simply.
"I wouldn't want for everyone to have to wait on us and it looks like they're nearly finished." Agent Roberts said uncertainly.
Just then, Harry walked up to their table, carrying a heavily laden tray.
"Dad thought that you guys might like a little something special to finish off the meal." Harry said as he began placing enormous gooey cinnamon rolls at each place setting.
"There's no possible way I could even think about eating more." Agent Roberts said as he reflexively backed away.
"I'll eat yours." Paul immediately volunteered.
Agent Fastbeck looked from his cinnamon roll to Filipe's wide hungry gaze and asked, "You got this, Filipe?"
"Uh huh." Filipe said with a grin.
"Enjoy your cinnamon rolls and we'll be back in a few minutes." Agent Roberts chuckled as he stood.
"If we get caught up in something, just come over to the office and get us." Agent Fastbeck said as he got up more slowly.
Both boys were eating with renewed vigor to finish the last of their breakfasts before attacking the surprise treats that they had been given.
* * * * *
"So, what else do I need to know?" Agent Fastbeck asked as they walked.
"Well, with everything still up in the air, whatever I tell you is subject to change." Agent Roberts cautioned.
"Understood." Agent Fastbeck confirmed.
"In regard to you specifically, it looks like we're going to need you to go to the Southseid barrier and talk to the Wudewas for us. What we'd like to do is get a nature-based spellcaster to lead a small group of Wudewas to unlock the magic of their land so that it can be used to recast the spell on their barrier." Agent Roberts carefully explained.
After a moment to consider, Agent Fastbeck said, "That shouldn't be a problem."
"When it comes time for the actual spellcasting, we're probably going to need you present to allow the witches access to the barrier. That part's not for sure yet." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully.
"So are you going to have to be present at the Brynnhollow barrier to serve the same function?" Agent Fastbeck asked curiously.
"Maybe. But if at all possible, I'd like to be with my team so that I can keep an eye on Dex. I feel an added responsibility for him due to the promise I made to his father." Agent Roberts said in a conflicted tone.
"It looks like neither of us is going to have the luxury of doing what we want to. I'd much rather be in Brynnhollow overseeing that everything is going to plan there." Agent Fastbeck said honestly.
"I hadn't thought of that. You practically have a family there, don't you?" Agent Roberts asked with concern.
"If anything were to go wrong... I don't know what I'd do." Agent Fastbeck said frankly.
"Worst case scenario, it doesn't work and we have to remake the barriers. Right?" Agent Roberts asked, trying his best to sound optimistic.
Agent Fastbeck didn't answer as he opened the outer door and held it for Agent Roberts.
* * * * *
Once they were inside the office, Agent Roberts quietly asked again, "Right?"
"We're going to be dealing with extreme levels of power on a massive scale. I'm not saying that something 'explosive' is possible but... well... no one really knows, do they?"
"I guess not." Agent Roberts quietly admitted.
"How sure are you that doing all of this is necessary?"
"From what I can tell, these updates and upgrades need to be done, regardless of who does them. If we do them ourselves, then we have at least some small measure of control over the situation and the outcome. If we choose not to do them, then the next people who try may approach it from a very different perspective. They may not care about the people in the barrier communities... or the people of Waxell. They may make more 'convenient' decisions because they aren't worried as much about the consequences." Agent Roberts carefully explained.
"So putting it off will make it more likely that the people we care about will be harmed."
"Not only that. If we don't do it now, what happens if one of the communities is attacked or discovered due to our inaction? We would be entirely responsible for whatever happens to them."
"I see your point. What do you suggest we do next?"
"Get out the map and see if the central point is somewhere that we can reach it."
"Clear off your desk." Agent Fastbeck said as he walked into his office.
* * * * *
"Just how old is this thing?" Agent Roberts asked as he looked at the map in wonder.
"How should I know? This is the best map I could find with all the locations on it."
"Right. So how do we do this?"
"Find the three locations on the map, then draw a line from each one to exactly between the other two. Where the three lines intersect should be our center point."
"Sounds right, although finding the three locations on a map this old might be a challenge."
"Even compared to everything else that's going on?"
* * * * *
"Okay. We've found the location. Now what?" Agent Roberts asked slowly.
"Now we find the same location on the current map and see what's there."
"Sorry. I thought it was the literal middle of nowhere."
"Back when this map was drawn, it was. Now... help me get the current map laid out."
"I'm trying. This thing seems to have a mind of its own."
"Do your best. I've got my hands full keeping the old map in place."
Agent Roberts was surprised when a pair of dark semi-transparent hands began helping to smooth out and hold down the map.
"What the hell is that?" Agent Fastbeck asked suddenly.
"Do you remember me telling you about how I had my shadow stolen?"
"Yes. I remember that." Agent Fastbeck responded slowly.
"I got him back... That's him." Agent Roberts said simply.
"While I would like to discuss that entire event with you, I think it can wait for a while. For right now, I'd just like to know how and why your shadow is able to act independently from you."
"Magic." Agent Roberts said simply.
The withering look Agent Fastbeck turned on him was epic in its proportions.
"Look. Before you get too worked up about this, please try to keep in mind that nothing that happened here was my shadow's fault."
"How's that?" Agent Fastbeck asked cautiously.
"He was hanging out, minding his own business, then all of a sudden he was ripped away from me. When that happened, I guess he sort of 'woke up' and fought to defend himself. Because of that, when he came back to me, he was a little more self-aware than when he left."
"I guess I can see that."
"Okay. So now that he's back with me, I'm not going to try and force him to be like he was before. We've talked and he's agreed not to show himself in public or around people who don't already know about him. But when we're at home or in the right company, he can come out and take part in events if he wants to."
"And you're okay with that?"
"Yeah. I really am."
"Alright then. As long as you're at peace with the way things worked out, I have no reason to have a problem with it."
"Good. Now what are we looking at here?"
"Let me see." Agent Fastbeck said as he peeled back the edge of the newer map to look at the markings on the older one.
Agent Roberts backed away slightly and watched what Agent Fastbeck was doing.
He glanced to his side and noticed that his shadow had taken on a three dimensional form and was standing beside him, exactly mirroring his pose.
Agent Fastbeck laid the newer map flat again. As he did, both Agent Roberts and his shadow placed their hands back on the map to hold it in place.
Agent Fastbeck traced his finger along the map, as he said, "Based on the landmarks, I'm pretty sure that the central point that we're looking for is right around here."
"Where is it?" Agent Roberts asked as he and his shadow leaned closer to see.
"It looks like the point where the lines cross is smack dab on top of the Old Tennyson place."
To Be Continued...
Editor's Notes: Hmmm, the old Tennyson place. That's interesting, isn't it?
Tha old map must be very old indeed, since the old Tennyson place was pretty old, itself, so if that map came from farther back than the Tennyson place, how old does that make that map?
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher