Agent Roberts rushed away from the trio toward the figure emerging from the archway.
As he approached, he recognized the man slowly walking toward him.
"How are you doing Emilio? Is everything alright?"
"It was incredible." Emilio slowly muttered.
"Tell me about it. What was it like?"
"I went in there to perform the blessing. I thought it would be just like a hundred other blessings that I'd done over the years. Say the thing, do the thing, then move on, knowing that it was done."
"But this time was different?"
"I could feel the magic flowing through me. I could almost taste it. It was like I was bestowing the gifts of life and hope on the land and its occupants."
"I can't even imagine what that must feel like."
"There aren't words big and grand enough to describe it. It's like I was able to infuse the land with joy. Everything was made fresh and new, filled with potential and promise."
"So, do you think that your blessing will help to keep the people of the protectorate safe?"
"If any unholy being tried to do anything to harm anyone in there, the very essence of the land would rise up to stop them."
"What about the people who live inside the protectorate? Are they going to continue fighting each other?"
After a moment to consider, Emilio slowly said, "They might."
"How does that work?"
"Think about the atrocities committed in the name of righteousness throughout history. Not only are these people subject to those kinds of feelings, they're nearly the embodiment of them."
"So this could end up making them fight each other even more?"
"That's possible. People will fight to defend their families or loved ones from perceived threats. The Chindari see themselves as being better than the other clans and are always stirring up trouble, they might attack or be attacked just due to that."
"Who are the Chindari?"
"They're the children of the Grigori, the angels of the fifth heavenly realm who were 'given' the earthly realm to oversee. Even though the Grigori were cast out of the heavenly realms and cursed to live in darkness, the Chindari still believe that the ownership of the earthly realm is their birthright. At the same time, the children of the other choirs see the Grigori, and by extension, the Chindari, as the primary cause of their entire situation."
"So do you think that the Chindari would go so far as to disregard the fact that they're on holy ground?"
"They might. By their way of thinking, nothing is holier than they are."
"Okay. Enough said. I know the type. I can see how that could play out."
"It's just a possibility. But even if they continue to fight each other, what we've done today is still a beautiful thing. Not only seeing the blessed land, but being able to bestow that blessing. I feel like I'm a better person than I was and I want to keep on getting better and helping the people around me."
"It sounds like it changed you."
"Maybe it did. Or maybe it reminded me of how I used to be, how I really am, deep inside. It makes me want to be that way again; full of optimism and idealism."
"Those things tend to fade on their own over time. But I can see having a renewed sense of wonder being a good thing for a priest to have."
"Druid." Emilio automatically corrected.
"I think it would apply to any spiritual leader."
"I haven't been much of a leader lately... or much of an example, either." Emilio confided, then continued, "This experience makes me want to be a better person."
"There's nothing wrong with that. It seems like you could take this renewal experience into your regular life and do something amazing with it."
"I don't know how amazing it will be. But I suppose that rather than living each day for myself that I could find someone to share it with and make both our lives that much better and continue on from there."
"Be careful of that. Being in love with the idea of being in love has put many men on the path to destruction. If you go looking for love you're more likely to find something that you don't really want."
"True enough. Although the renewed purpose is great for motivation, it might not be the best for life-altering decision making."
"Good. As long as you're not going to go all googly-eyed over the first person who gives you a second glance, you should be alright."
"Am I the first one back?"
"Yes. We haven't seen any of the others since you went in."
"Would you like for me to go back in and see if I can help them?"
"Let's wait. If it starts getting late and we're still missing someone, we can send in a search party."
"Is there anything I can do to help out here?"
"There's nothing to do for the spellcasting. But it might be good to check in with Milo and Jen. Your people might appreciate some answers about what it's like inside the protectorate."
"If they had the first clue of what it's really like in there, they'd run away screaming."
"Unless I'm misreading the situation, you need those people to keep 'Nevermore' financially solvent."
"Right you are. Thanks to their financial support and Jud's miraculous bookkeeping, we don't have to stress out about losing the land. The tax exempt status doesn't hurt either."
"What's with the abandoned town? Why doesn't anyone live there?"
"Back when Dad ran this place, he was trying to grow 'Nevermore' into a self-sustaining religious commune. It didn't work out, but he gave it a good try. It was nice for a while. Regardless of what else you say about them, religious zealots are at least interesting."
"I doubt that I'd have the patience to deal with them."
"It helps if you grow up with it. Life in the outside world seems a little too normal to me. I miss the chaos of dozens of people, each with their own vision of utopia, all trying to change the world at the same time."
"I can see how that would cause each day to seem like its own new adventure."
Before Emilio could respond, Den emerged from the archway looking dazed and amazed.
"How'd it go, Den?" Emilio asked knowingly.
"I need to spend more time at the protectorate. That was incredible."
"If you're up to it, why don't we go and do some blessings?" Emilio asked his brother with a tranquil smile.
"Sure. Bestowing blessings is almost as big a rush as receiving them."
"What do you say, Shawn? Would you like to be blessed?" Emilio asked gently.
"No thank you. I wouldn't want to mess up the balance of forces that I've got going on right now."
"If you change your mind, you know where to find us." Den said before turning to leave.
"Yeah. We're probably going to hang around here until you guys are finished. I can't wait to see what's going to happen next." Emilio added.
"Have fun." Agent Roberts said, unable to keep from smiling at their joy.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts slowly walked over to check on Mr. Hansen and the boys, but found them concentrating on their work.
He next looked toward the congregation and found them enthralled by whatever Emilio and Den were dramatically telling them. Agent Roberts deduced that even if there weren't magic at work, Emilio and Den would probably be just as enthralling with their newfound joyous exuberance.
In the end, Agent Roberts decided to return to his position near the archway to greet any of the returning brothers, or discourage any of the residents of the protectorate from exploring the outside world.
"Are the others back yet?" Jud asked as he passed through the arch at an unhurried pace.
"Emilio and Den are here." Agent Roberts told him, then cautiously asked, "Did everything go alright?"
"Yes. I performed the blessing and everything seems to have worked as expected."
"Forgive me for asking, but your brothers appear to have had life changing experiences when they performed their blessings. Why didn't it have the same profound impact on you?"
"Probably because I'm more used to it than they are. I followed in our father's footsteps and have gathered a small group of followers so that I can pass on the shamanic-druidic teachings that I was raised with."
"But how does that make a difference now?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"Because either through my contact with the angels or as a consequence of my continued work, I've been able to perform blessings for years. What I did today was more powerful and on a much larger scale, but it was no more important or fulfilling than conferring a blessing on a troubled child who needs to find some hope in their life."
"I've never had much use for religion, but I have a feeling that I might get something out of listening to what you have to say."
"I'm sure that I would enjoy that, but you've already started on your path. This part of your journey is about discovery. I help to guide those who are directionless."
"I need to get your contact information before this is all over. I've met a few people who've needed to find a direction and didn't know what to tell them."
"Although everyone seeks a direction in their life, not everyone finds it. Many are condemned to go through their lives without a purpose to guide them."
"I'm not sure whether it's better for a person to have no direction or a self-serving direction which is detrimental to society."
"It's hard to say, but the only ones I can help are those who are open to it. Someone who has already committed themselves to a purpose or a way of life are beyond my help." Jud said regretfully.
"Trust me, I know how that is. In my line of work I can't help but come in contact with people who are hopelessly corrupt."
"Hopeless, yes. That's a good way of putting it." Jud said soberly.
Agent Roberts glanced toward Emilio and Den, then quietly asked, "Do you feel like helping your brothers bless the devout followers who came when they were called?"
"As much as I don't want to interrupt their newfound faithfulness, I should probably be there to keep them from making any rookie mistakes."
"I'm sure that they'll welcome the advice of their more experienced brother."
"You don't have any brothers, do you?"
"No. Just a sister."
"Let's just say that brothers tend not to enjoy being corrected by each other. We all like to feel that we're the best at whatever we do."
"I suppose that I can see that."
"Even so, I still think that it will be nice to share in this experience with them. We don't get many opportunities to do things together anymore."
"Go ahead. I'll stay here to watch over the archway."
"Thanks for doing this Shawn. You being here is making it possible for everything to run smoothly."
"I'm happy to do it."
* * * * *
As the witches worked their spells and the druids performed their blessings, Agent Roberts stood by and kept watch on the archway.
When Cyrus stepped through he was in much the same state as Den and Emilio had been. Agent Roberts talked with him for a few minutes before watching him join his brothers.
As the sun sank lower in the sky, Agent Roberts began to become concerned and contemplated organizing a search party for the last of the brothers.
Before he could take any action, Archdruid Highley finally emerged from the protectorate, not looking like his usual self.
"Is everything alright?" Agent Roberts cautiously asked.
"I've been such a fool." Archdruid Highley said distantly.
Although Agent Roberts couldn't dispute his words, he responded by asking, "How so?"
"All this time I've been going through the motions, thinking that I was a 'holy man', and I didn't have the first clue of what that really meant."
"But now you do?"
"I'm not arrogant enough to say that. But I think that I've caught a glimpse of the power and responsibility that I have access to, now I just have to decide if I have the courage to wield them."
"I think that it may be more a question of if you'll be able to live with yourself if you choose not to."
"I'm pretty sure that the decision's already been made. Right now I just have to find a way to wrap my mind around it."
"Well, if that's the case, then I'm going to go out on a limb and offer you some advice."
"What might that be?"
"Two things. First, don't let your own insecurities talk you out of it."
Before Archdruid Highley could respond to that, Agent Roberts continued, "Second, don't be afraid to ask your brothers for help. Keep in mind that even though they can't do what you do, they each have their own strengths, life experiences and points of view. Remember that you can draw on them to make the best decisions for all involved."
After a moment to consider, Archdruid Highley quietly said, "I'll do my best to keep that in mind."
"Your brothers are all back, if you want to go ahead and close the archway.
"Oh, yes. Thank you for reminding me." Archdruid Highley said as he performed the simple ritual to cause the archway to fade into nothingness.
"I need to get back to Mr. Hansen and the boys. Why don't you spend some time with your people? If you're going to commit to a new way of being, there's no reason to wait. You've got everyone in the same place and in the perfect frame of mind to accept as much as you're willing to give."
"Yes. That should make things easier. Thank you again, Agent Roberts. I know that it isn't part of your job. I appreciate that you're willing to go out of your way to help us."
"Just like you, I do what I can to help people."
* * * * *
As Agent Roberts approached Mr. Hansen and the boys he became concerned by what he saw.
At the risk of interrupting something important, Agent Roberts cautiously asked, "How are things going over here?"
"Zanner is about to cast the final mirage spell. As soon as he's done I'll reinstate the folded space and we'll be done for the night." Mr. Hansen answered distantly.
"All three of you look like you're exhausted. Are you sure that you're going to be up to it?"
"Yes. I'm certain of it. But don't even think about asking us to do any magic for a while after this. I think that all three of us are just about spent."
"The only thing I might ask is for some light. The sun is almost completely set and I left my flashlight back in the car."
"I think we'll be able to manage that much."
"Mr. Hansen, will you look it over? I think it's ready." Zanner asked in deep concentration.
"Hold on. I was following along with what you were doing and everything was looking good, but this is the point in the process where we're most likely to make mistakes. We need to be extra careful."
"Just let me know when you're ready for me to turn it loose."
"How are you doing, Dex?" Agent Roberts asked gently.
"I can feel the vibrations of the others through the earth element." Dex said very slowly.
"It sounds like they're almost done. It should only be a few more minutes."
"No. I don't mean Zanner and Mr. Hansen. I'm talking about Paul and G and all the others. I mean, I can't feel them if they're not using magic, but I think that I've felt everyone at some point."
"Can you tell how they're doing?"
"No. I could just tell that they were there, accessing their primary elements. I get the feeling that Paul knew that I could sense him, but I think he was the only one."
"Can you tell if the others are working right now?"
"Paul and Corabeth are. It feels like G is in his element, but he's not doing anything active. I think his magic is mostly like that, really still and quiet."
"Well, since we're almost done here, we might end up being the first ones home. I only know how to cook about three things, but maybe if I can get some help, we might be able to put together a nice dinner for everyone."
"I won't mind helping you, but I've never really cooked anything before."
"Zanner, the spell looks good. Go ahead." Mr. Hansen said seriously.
Agent Roberts and Dex fell silent and waited as Zanner quietly muttered, "Here it goes."
* * * * *
As expected, the part of the protectorate that they were attempting to influence was far enough away that nothing visibly happened.
"Very good. You did that expertly, Zanner."
"Are we done now?" Zanner asked hopefully.
"We will be once we have the protectorate folded away into its own dimension."
"We'll be back tomorrow, won't we? Why can't we leave it like it is? It's invisible and the archway is closed." Zanner asked curiously.
"Although we could do that, it wouldn't be right. We need to leave the protectorate as well defended as we possibly can just in case other priorities surface and we can't return as soon as we would like."
"Mr. Hansen's right. Even though it's not likely that anyone will go into your house while you're at the corner store, it would be foolish not to lock the door for the short time that you'll be away." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"Are you saying that you don't trust people?" Mr. Hansen asked with a weary grin.
"FBI." Agent Roberts responded simply.
Mr. Hansen and the boys laughed at his deadpan response.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts could tell that all three were exhausted and wished that there was something more that he could do to help them.
"Would it help you if you undid the spell you put on the druids? Would that give you extra magic to work with?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"It wouldn't make any difference. Now that they've been given access to the divine power, they no longer need us to augment them. They just needed a little boost to give them access to the magic that was there waiting to be used."
"Does this mean that humans can access magic like witches do?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"That's difficult to explain. The short answer is 'yes', but it takes not only a lot of hard work and dedication, but also some degree of luck. In most cases, a human will need to have been blessed, cursed or otherwise imbued with a magical gift that will open the door for them."
"Okay. Well, how about the amulet that the kids made for me? Would that be enough to give me access to magic?"
"That's the other thing that makes working with magic so unpredictable. My first instinct is to say that it wouldn't be possible, but the magic works in its own way and sometimes appears to have its own will."
"I was just asking because the thing with the amulet might have opened the door to what happened when I got my shadow back."
"There may be some relation, but then again, there may not. Things like this sometimes just happen. To be honest, I don't know much about shadowmancy. "
"Is there anyone who would know? I'd like to learn as much as possible so I don't end up accidentally hurting someone with my shadow."
"Professor Everstone is well versed in many of the more obscure magics. It's possible that he might know something."
"I'll be sure to remember to ask him"
"Mr. Hansen?" Zanner quietly interrupted.
"When you're ready to fold the protectorate, do you think that I could join with the earth element and watch what you do?"
"Yes. I think that after all that you've done today that you should be able to follow along with a more complex spelling."
"Thanks. I know that it's way too big for me to be able to do, but I'd like to see how it works."
"I'm glad to see that you're interested. In fact, I think that I've had enough rest. Why don't we do it right now?"
"Okay!" Zanner said happily.
"I'm going to stand with Archdruid Highley's followers, just to be sure that they stay out of the way." Agent Roberts said professionally.
"Thank you. I appreciate that." Mr. Hansen said gratefully before turning to face the protectorate.
* * * * *
"They're about to fold space. You might want to keep everyone back." Agent Roberts said as he approached Milo and Jen.
"They're about to do it! Everyone hold on! It's about to get really windy!" Milo called out.
"Back up a little and be sure to brace yourselves." Jen said firmly.
Archdruid Highley and his brothers were working to prepare people for the impending gale.
Agent Roberts looked toward the protectorate for a moment, taking in the sight of the alien landscape.
On impulse, he carefully took hold of the necklace he was wearing and slowly lifted it off.
As soon as the necklace had been removed, Agent Roberts saw the landscape before him drastically change. The 'mirage' looked like several small groves of trees. It didn't bear any resemblance to either the open grassy field or the alien landscape of the protectorate.
As he put the necklace back on, he saw the landscape change back to the bizarre sandy crystalline spectacle that it had been before.
"Agent Roberts! Your shadow!" Milo screeched.
As he turned, he saw his shadow engulfing Milo, already up to his shoulders.
"Shadow. Think very carefully about what you're doing. If you hurt Milo, I may be forced to do something that I really don't want to do."
There was a long silent moment as Agent Roberts waited to see what was going to happen next.
"It's not hurting me... I think maybe that it's trying to protect me." Milo said uncertainly.
"Let me know if he does anything that you don't want and I'll move away."
"It's okay so far. It's just holding me."
Although Agent Roberts didn't have any empathic sense to speak of, he nonetheless surmised that Shadow was somehow letting Milo know that he wouldn't cause him harm.
A sudden gust of wind caught Agent Roberts' by surprise and he turned his attention back toward the protectorate.
There were sounds of struggle behind him as the congregation fought to maintain their footing.
"Are you alright?" Agent Roberts called out, knowing that Milo was the only one who could possibly hear him over the howling wind.
"Your shadow is keeping me anchored. I'm fine." Milo responded.
There was a momentary stillness and silence, then the wind began to howl in earnest.
Agent Roberts instinctively crouched down to try and minimize the impact of the wind on him, then glanced back at Milo to assess his situation.
Although the light was meager, Agent Roberts could see that Milo was still standing upright and was cocooned in darkness.
By all appearances, he wasn't struggling against the wind or the shadow.
Agent Roberts turned his attention forward in time to see the entire protectorate twist out of their reality.
As the wind subsided, all that was left to see in the dim twilight was a wholly unremarkable grassy field.
"How are you doing, Milo?" Agent Roberts cautiously asked.
"That was amazing. Thank you for doing that."
"Hey, it wasn't me. Shadow wanted to protect you and keep you safe."
"Thank you Shadow." Milo said sincerely, then added more quietly, "I'm sorry that I hurt you."
The shadow surrounding Milo lingered for a moment, then began to recede.
"I need to go check on Dag and the boys. Are you alright?"
"Yeah. I'm great." Milo assured him.
* * * * *
As Agent Roberts approached, he became concerned.
"Is he hurt?" Agent Roberts asked as he knelt at Mr. Hansen's side.
"He's just resting for a few minutes. Doing the space folding spell wore him out." Zanner quietly explained.
"Would you mind making some light for me? I'd like to check him over, just to be sure."
"Yeah. No problem." Zanner quickly said as he rushed to perform the gestures of the spell.
Whether it was from his haste or perhaps his connection to the earth through Dex, the cloud of fairy lights that Zanner created encompassed the entire gathering of people as well as a significant part of the grassy field.
It stood out to him that while everyone else was looking around in awe, Milo seemed to be suddenly anxious.
A murmur of oohs and ahhs rose up from the congregation.
Agent Roberts carefully examined Mr. Hansen for any outward signs of injury.
In the end he finally determined that Zanner was probably right. Mr. Hansen was asleep due to exhaustion. Just as he was about to say as much, Mr. Hansen opened his eyes and looked around blearily.
"How are you doing, Dag?" Agent Roberts asked with concern.
"I think I'm alright. That just took a little more out of me than I expected."
"Do you need anything?"
"For this day to end."
"I'm working on it. Do you need a few more minutes to rest before we go?"
"No. I think I can manage."
"Did everything go alright with the space fold?"
"Yes." Mr. Hansen said, then turned his head slightly and asked, "Zanner? Could you tell if all the spatial primacies were sealed?"
"Yes. You got them all and even finished double-checking them before you faded out." Zanner said confidently.
"Good. Things got a little fuzzy there at the end so I couldn't be sure."
"It's completely closed and stable." Zanner assured him.
Mr. Hansen slowly forced himself into a sitting position, then stopped for a moment to recover from the effort.
A strange sound drew Agent Roberts attention and he looked back to see Archdruid Highley gleefully laughing, surrounded by his brothers and their followers.
"Do you think that we're going to have to worry about some of these people telling about what they saw?" Dex asked quietly.
"I think that we're going to worry about it, whether we want to or not. But there's not much we can do about it either way."
"Can't Jen do something with her mind control magic?" Dex asked curiously.
"Possibly. I don't have enough of a sense of her ability to speculate." Mr. Hansen said, then worked to achieve a standing position.
Agent Roberts and both boys did their best to help him to stand.
"Are you going to be able to make it back to the car?" Agent Roberts cautiously asked.
"I believe so. Although I may need to go slowly when we have to climb."
"I don't think that will be a problem. None of us are feeling very zippy at the moment."
"I feel like I could sleep for a week." Zanner said as the group started slowly walking toward the path that they had arrived on.
"We brought you here today to act as an earth mage. You performed flawlessly in both planning and execution. What you've gotten is a taste of what lies ahead of you, should you choose to follow this path."
"Are you leaving?" Archdruid Highley interrupted as he approached.
"These guys have had a hard day and they need to rest."
"I just thought you might want to stay for a while, it's turning into something of a celebration."
"Thank you but no." Mr. Hansen said simply
"We'll see you tomorrow. I need to get these guys home." Agent Roberts added.
"What can we expect tomorrow?" Archdruid Highley asked curiously.
"We're going to need to check in with the other teams before we can formulate a plan for the next phase." Mr. Hansen said seriously.
"From the way it looks to me, you're already set up with everything you need. If we don't come back at all, the protectorate will be just fine." Agent Roberts said honestly.
"Then why are you coming back?"
"There may be some things that we can do to make the protectorate more secure or more enduring. The barrier is adequate for today. Next we will attempt to make it adequate for tomorrow." Mr. Hansen said frankly.
"Which we will discuss in more detail after these guys have had some rest." Agent Roberts said firmly.
Archdruid Highley looked at Mr. Hansen and the boys, before saying more quietly, "Be sure to take as much time as you need. A lot of people are going to be counting on you."
"I'll take good care of them." Agent Roberts said in the tone of a vow.
"Of that I am sure." Archdruid Highley said warmly, then turned to go back to his followers and his brothers.
* * * * *
The trek back to the cars seemed to take a disproportionately long time.
When they finally arrived, Agent Roberts thought to ask, "Are you going to be alright to drive?"
"I should be okay, although I would appreciate it if the boys could go with me to help keep me from drifting off."
"Can you handle that, guys?" Agent Roberts asked seriously.
"Yeah. Don't worry about us. We'll keep him awake." Zanner assured him.
"If you say that you've got this, I'll trust you."
"Thanks." Zanner said sincerely.
* * * * *
The drive home was slow and anxious as Agent Roberts kept careful watch on the car following him.
When they finally arrived back at the house, Agent Roberts felt that he had been relieved of a great weight.
The boys helped Mr. Hansen to the front door as Agent Roberts opened it for them.
"Dag, would you like to stay down here until after dinner or would you rather go up to your room for a while?"
"I want to be present when it's time to discuss what's to be done next. Perhaps I could lie down for a bit, until the others have arrived."
"That sounds like a plan. We'll see to it that you're up before anything is discussed." Agent Roberts quickly agreed, then said to the boys, "Why don't you help Mr. Hansen upstairs and see that he's comfortable while I start dinner?"
"Sure thing. You can count on us." Zanner assured him before leading Mr. Hansen away.
To Be Continued...
Editor's Notes: I can sense a few changes in most of the people involved in the protectorate. Most everyone has learned a lesson or two, it would seem. Probably the most significant change might have happened to Archdruid Highly.
He doesn't seem to be quite as full of himself as he was. Maybe he is beginning to realize just how really important it is to truly follow in his father's footsteps as he was at least hoped to do, if not exactly expected to do.
One way or another, it is best if we all can grow and improve things for ourselves and others.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher