As Agent Roberts approached the trio, he saw that Mr. Hansen was silently watching over Dex and Zanner while they appeared to be whispering and scheming together.
"Is there a problem?" Agent Roberts asked as he walked to Mr. Hansen's side.
"Not at all. We simply have to make some accommodations due to there being an obstructive barrier inside the folded space. We hadn't originally anticipated that." Mr. Hansen said frankly.
"Are you saying that you didn't pick that up when you did your initial evaluation?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"That's right. It's actually quite ingenious how it was done. The obstructive barrier is a completely separate spelling from anything else that we were able to detect. Whereas one might normally trace a spell back to its root, then find what other spells were also tapping into the same elemental reservoir, this spelling derives its magic from a completely different and unrelated source from all the more obvious spellings that surround it. It's really very exciting."
"I suppose... if you're into that sort of thing." Agent Roberts said slowly.
"However, as interesting a development as this is, it won't significantly impact our timetable. We just have to make a few allowances for it." Mr. Hansen assured him.
"This other source of power that it's drawing on, do we have the personnel that we'll need to handle it safely?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"We have the best." Mr. Hansen said with a smile at Dex and Zanner, then explained, "The spell is based in earth, just like the others, but this one is based in the earth native to this location and dimension. The other spells rely on the created angelic earth from within the folded space. This is actually very smart because if someone were trying to covertly dismantle the shielding of the protectorate, this would provide a rather effective roadblock for them."
"So this shield doesn't use the angelic earth element at all?"
"No. It uses natural magic drawn from the earth element from the native land."
"How likely do you think it is that this might be in place to prevent someone on the inside from getting out?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"I can't say how likely it is, but from what I've studied about the Nephilim, I can believe that such a thing is possible. Left entirely on their own, I'm sure that they would go extinct in a short amount of time. Given their hostile natures and shortsighted behaviors, it would stand to reason that special accommodations would have to be made to facilitate their continued existence."
"I was looking at it more from the standpoint of them being prisoners held against their will, but when you put it that way, it isn't quite as black and white as it first appears. From my admittedly ignorant point of view, it looks to me like the people who set this up put this unique barrier in place for a specific reason. It looks to me like they might have gone to such lengths as a way of preventing those with access to angelic magic from dismantling the shield from the inside."
"That's possible. But the truth is that it doesn't matter. We will strive to reinforce the barrier regardless of the reason for its initial construction. Trying to divine the motives of angels and gods is a fools game. I caution you not to go looking for trouble. You will no doubt find it." Mr. Hansen said frankly.
"Do you know what the 'I' in FBI stands for?" Agent Roberts asked with an impish grin, then before Mr. Hansen could respond, he answered, "It stands for 'I'm looking for trouble'."
"I'll keep that in mind." Mr. Hansen said with a smile.
"But considering what I've witnessed and overheard since I've been here, I agree that you're probably right. The 'protectorate' is just that, a place created to protect beings who couldn't survive in fair competition with the other species... or even amongst themselves. I guess that explains something else. They get reborn over and over again because it's the only way to keep them from dying out." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully.
"Possibly. But it's also said that the Nephilim are typically born sterile. That would be another reason for someone to have taken steps to preserve them in this manner. They are incapable of maintaining or increasing their number." Mr. Hansen said frankly.
"While we were inside the protectorate, we saw that Marklah, one of the Nephilim, had a baby. Admittedly, it was speculated that it might be the reincarnation of her husband, but even so, having a baby would prove that she's fertile."
"That's not necessarily true. In such a situation, traditional definitions may not apply. It may come down to how one might define the difference, if any, between fertility and immaculate conception."
"I suppose that as long as we both know what we're talking about that it doesn't matter what we call it. But your point about infertility makes sense. I noticed that Reaper didn't appear to be of a specific gender, but at the time I didn't consider that there might be a logical reason for it."
"I'm surprised that you chose to introduce him around like that. I would have thought that you'd be trying to keep him contained within the protectorate."
"To be honest, I had intended to do just that. But after a few minutes of conversation, my diplomatic training kicked in and I started treating Reaper as a visiting dignitary."
"I'm glad that it turned out that way. It seemed to mean the world to him. I think it also served to show Archdruid Highley's followers how a person faced with unexpected circumstances can respond with dignity and decorum."
"Like I give a rat's ass about what Archdruid Highley's followers think." Agent Roberts grumbled.
"Well then... so much for dignity and decorum." Mr. Hansen finished with a grin.
"We're done. We've got the whole thing mapped out. Do you want to check it out?" Zanner asked excitedly.
"That didn't take as long as I thought it would. Yes. Show me what you've come up with." Mr. Hansen said as he moved to where the boys were working.
To show his support, Agent Roberts decided to follow along and listen in as the boys reported on what they had been able to discover, even though he was certain that he wouldn't understand one word of what they would be saying.
* * * * *
Surprisingly enough, Agent Roberts was able to get the gist of what the boys were describing. By using their access to the earth element, they were able to trace the usage of natural earth magic to each of the contact points with the barrier, thereby providing a pattern that could be used to distribute a new or supplementary spell.
"So what does that mean for the spell that we're going to be working on?" Agent Roberts finally asked.
Dex and Zanner seemed to be just as curious as Agent Roberts and were awaiting the answer with anticipation.
Mr. Hansen considered for a moment, then finally responded, "We're somewhat limited in what we can do while the druids are performing their blessings. I believe the most productive thing that we can do at this time is to begin instituting some of Paul's technomage modifications to the obstructive barrier."
"As I understand it, Paul's magic is very specific and you have to have a natural talent for it to be able to use it. In fact, Paul can't even use the magic himself. He needs for Filipe to cast the spells for him."
"Quite right. The modifications that I am speaking of are earth based spells which address the same concerns that Paul's spells do. We can use earth magic to incorporate diffusion and obfuscation properties into the shielding to negate the capabilities of aerial and satellite surveillance."
"Do you have everything that you're going to need to be able to do that?"
"Under normal circumstances, we would need several more people, a variety of items, both magical and mundane, and quite a bit of time. But with Dex's help, I believe that we should be able to achieve our goals with just the spells."
"How does Dex change that?"
"Think of trying to hit a target with a single shot. Dex basically gives us a shotgun blast."
"So you're able to sacrifice precision in favor of increased power?"
"Not exactly. But we can eliminate the need for complex rituals and supplies, since we don't have to 'augment' the spell. Our aim doesn't need to be nearly as precise. The spell can function perfectly well in its natural state."
"Or supernatural state." Agent Roberts said with a grin.
Mr. Hansen stared at him for a moment, then slowly said, "Yes. If you'd like to think of it that way."
Zanner and Dex were trying to fight down their laughter at the exchange.
"So, what do we have to do next?"
"Right this minute, we need to go over the spells. We'll start casting them as soon as they're ready."
"Between planning and casting, how long do you think everything will take?"
"I'd guess about three hours, more or less."
"Do you think that we'll have the time or energy to do more once you're done with that?"
"Likely not. I can imagine that we'll all be feeling a bit burnt around the edges by the end of such an ambitious casting."
"What do you think the chances are that the druids will be done by then?"
"I have no idea. I don't know enough about how their magic works to be able to make a wild guess."
"I'm surprised to find out that priests and people like that really do have magic. All this time I thought it was just an act."
"For the most part it is. But there are a rare few clerics who have been granted legitimate power. I can't really tell you much more than that. It's not something I've ever had occasion to deal with before."
"But you think that their blessings will actually help your situation?"
"Possibly. They certainly won't hurt."
"Well, even if it does nothing else, it gives the druids the opportunity to contribute. That sort of puts us all on the same side of things."
"My only concern in all of it is the possibility that it might end up causing a problem for Paul. What we're doing essentially makes the entire protectorate toxic to him. That might come back to haunt us at some future time."
"Still, from an 'outside' point of view, it seems like a reasonable way to safeguard the protectorate."
"Quite right. Anyone attempting to use incompatible magic within the protectorate would be severely limited in what they could do."
"What about your 'nature' magic?"
"Even that would be somewhat limited, although that only applies 'within' the barrier. Everything that we'll be doing is on the outside."
"Sounds good. Just let me know when you're ready to start and I'll get out of your way."
"I think we've had enough of a rest." Mr. Hansen said, then turned to the boys and asked, "Have you decided what you'd like to do?"
"Yeah. There's a spell that I know to create a mirage that I think we can cast on the whole protectorate." Zanner said happily.
"That sounds promising. Go through the spell with us and we'll see if we can make it work on this scale."
* * * * *
Agent Roberts wandered away as the trio began discussing the technical details of Zanner's spell.
"How's it going, Milo?" Agent Roberts asked as he approached, keeping careful watch on his shadow as he did so.
"I became a druid so that I could remain part of the human world that I grew up in, since it's the only world I know, but still have access to the magical world that I'm also a part of." Milo said introspectively.
"This may be a little off topic, but where does stealing my shadow fit into that?"
"If you found out that there was a threat to the protectorate, wouldn't you want to do something to help?"
"Of course. That's what I'm doing here."
"Jarvis had the vision that the boys needed to be here to save the protectorate. I did what I thought was right to make sure that the boys would be here when they were needed. I admit that I caused more problems than I solved, but at the time it seemed like the best thing that I could do."
"Well, if you hadn't made contact with us, we might not have known that the protectorate existed. While trying to update the Southseid barrier, we could have unintentionally disrupted or even destroyed the linked barriers. So, by a certain way of thinking, you actually did save the protectorate by making us aware of it."
"Thank you for saying so. Looking back at it, I suppose that there probably was a way that I could have accomplished our goals without causing you so much trouble."
"Maybe. Maybe not." Agent Roberts said simply, then continued, "What matters most right now is to do the right thing going forward. If you feel that you made mistakes, learn from them and try to make better decisions in the future."
"I'm a little afraid of what the future's going to hold for me. With Jarvis inviting everyone to witness this, everything's going to change. I'm not sure of what part I'm going to play now that we're going to have all these 'followers'."
"I don't know either, Milo. I guess that you'll have to face each new thing as it comes and do your best to make sound decisions."
"I'm used to the way things were."
"Like it or not, you can't go back. You can either face the future with courage or run and hide from it."
"I have courage. But I work best when there's someone around to tell me what to do next. Once I've been told that, I usually don't have any problem making myself do it."
"While that may be a good way to get along in a cult, it's a miserable way to live your life."
"When I decide things for myself, I usually end up making a big mess."
"That happens. But whether you're good at it or not, you really need to make your own decisions. Otherwise you're not living your own life, you're allowing someone else to live your life for you."
"You don't know how it is..."
"Trust me. I know exactly how it is. I have a domineering mother who did her best to micromanage my every thought and feeling well into my adult life. I finally snapped out of it when I went into the service, but up until then, I never even considered my own feelings regarding the decisions being made about my life."
"I guess you do know how it is. I was sixteen when my mom brought me to Archdruid Highley... I mean Ambros, not Jarvis... she brought me here and left me with them. Ever since then I've just been doing what I'm told."
"The problem with life is that things change. People change. If you continue to allow others to run your life and do all the thinking for you, there might come a day when you'll find yourself on your own and you'll be ill-equipped to make decisions for yourself."
"Even if I wanted to do it, I wouldn't know where to start."
"I don't know either, Milo. I guess that you'll have to decide that you're going to be your own person and then start making decisions for yourself. I'm pretty sure that the more you do it, the better you'll get at it. If you keep it up, before you know it you'll be ready to live independently."
"I don't know if that's even something that I want. I mean, it sounds lonely."
"It's possible to be alone in a crowd of people. It's also possible to be perfectly at peace in your own company. How you feel is something that you can control for yourself. It's no one else's responsibility."
"I never said that it was." Milo responded cautiously.
"I'm just emphasizing that point because a lot of people seem to get hung up on that one concept. They seem to think that the world is somehow supposed to bend over backward to cater to their feelings. If they're not happy, then the world needs to change, not them. If you're not buying into that mindset, then you're already doing better than a lot of people that I've met."
"Well, maybe I do that a little bit, but I'm not too bad. At least, I don't do it all the time." Milo finished defensively.
"I believe you." Agent Roberts assured him, then added, "I just mentioned it because it seems to come up so often in my dealings with people... not around Waxell, but back in DC, when I was still living there."
"Most of what I know about the outside world is from television. I haven't been away from Nevermore very much since I arrived here, so I haven't seen much of anything for myself. Catching that flight to meet up with your group is the most that I've ever been around regular people."
"Really? I never would have guessed. The only thing that tipped us off about you was your interest in the kids. That was kind of creepy."
"Milo! Are you going to help me or not?!" Jen asked indignantly.
"Everything's fine. As long as everyone stays back, there isn't anything for us to do." Milo responded.
"Jarvis is counting on us to keep order until he gets back!" Jen snapped.
"You need to let people know what's going on and that everything's going to be alright."
"I think they understand that. There's literally nothing happening."
"It looks like you've got this. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help." Agent Roberts said as he turned to leave.
"Just watch out where you cast your shadow. When the sun starts setting and the shadows get longer it could feel emboldened and decide that it wants to cause trouble."
"I'll keep an eye on it." Agent Roberts assured him, then walked back toward Mr. Hansen and the boys to see how they were doing.
* * * * *
When Agent Roberts arrived, he found that all three seemed to be completely lost in their spellcasting.
"Zanner, have you got it?" Mr. Hansen asked distantly as he held his arms rigidly out before him.
"Yeah. How you doin Dex?" Zanner responded.
"I'm good. I'm stabilizing the magical flow. Just let me know if you need more."
"No. I'm good. Keep it just like that." Zanner said firmly.
Agent Roberts watched the three but couldn't see any indication that they were doing anything.
He glanced back toward 'the congregation' and found them waiting with anticipation for something to happen.
"I'm ready with the first mirage. Do you want me to turn it loose so that we can see how it works?" Zanner asked slowly.
"Hold on and let me look it over first. It'll just take me a minute." Mr. Hansen said decisively.
"Let me know when you're ready." Zanner responded as he maintained his intense focus.
"How are you doing Agent Roberts?" Dex asked as he turned.
"I'm fine. How are you?" Agent Roberts asked with concern.
"I'm great. This isn't anything like I thought it would be. I thought that I'd be here while Zanner and Mr. Hansen did all the work, but regulating the raw magical flow and keeping it stable is really helping them. If I weren't here they'd have to fight to tame the magic before they'd be able to use it." Dex said happily.
"That looks good, Zanner. Go ahead." Mr. Hansen said seriously.
"Excuse me." Dex said as he turned to face the vast expanse of the protectorate.
"I call upon the earth to grant shelter and protection for the children of heaven. Heat of earth, cold of earth, heat of air and cold of water be joined in this my spell. So let it be." Zanner called out in a firm confident voice.
As Agent Roberts watched, the image of the protectorate before them began to waver and shimmer.
Although he heard murmurs from the congregation, he kept his attention focused in front of him.
After nearly a minute of shimmering in the distance, the image seemed to stabilize, returning to how it had been before.
"Did it not work?" Agent Roberts asked hesitantly.
"I'm pretty sure it did. The magic felt right when it took hold. Remember that illusionary magic doesn't work on either one of us." Dex said informatively.
"That looks good. Now we need to do the same thing six more times to cover the entire protectorate." Mr. Hansen said enthusiastically.
"Are you up to it Dex?" Zanner asked cautiously.
"Yeah. No problem." Dex immediately responded.
"Zanner? How are you doing?" Mr. Hansen asked more slowly.
"I'm good. Give me a minute to get the final version of the spell all sorted in my head and I'll be ready to go again." Zanner finished with a smile.
"Take as much time as you need." Mr. Hansen said patiently.
Agent Roberts couldn't help but recall what he and Mr. Darroch had discussed about witches getting lost in the joy and wonder of plying their craft. Although Zanner didn't appear to be in any danger, he was certainly getting some kind of a rush from performing such a powerful and high-level spell.
"Agent Roberts?" Dex said quietly.
"What can I do for you, Dex?"
"Your shadow..." Dex said hesitantly as he looked down.
Agent Roberts followed his gaze and found his shadow trying to climb up Dex's leg.
"Stop that!" Agent Roberts snapped and his shadow immediately retreated.
Once he was assured that the shadow wasn't going to move toward Dex again, he said, "We've got work to do right now. Later, when we get home, we'll figure something out for you. I'm not disregarding your feelings, but we have a job to do. Are you with me?"
Agent Roberts shadow didn't show any sign of comprehending his words.
"You know, if you decide to help me instead of just doing whatever you feel like in the moment, we might be able to achieve both our goals through cooperation." Agent Roberts explained.
"I don't think it can understand you." Dex cautiously ventured.
"I think he understands more than he lets on. He just doesn't want me to know so that he can get away with playing dumb. It's probably safer for him to be thought of as a playful 'pet' rather than a thinking feeling being with his own agency."
"If you say so..." Dex said hesitantly.
"Shadow, let Dex know that you're sorry for trying to molest him so that we can get back to work." Agent Roberts said to his shadow.
Both Dex and Agent Roberts watched as nothing seemed to happen.
"When Milo took you away from me, I did what he asked just so that I could get you back. You weren't given away, you were stolen from me." Agent Roberts said firmly, then asked more gently, "Do you want to work with me and help me? Do you want to be my teammate?"
As both Dex and Agent Roberts watched, Agent Roberts' shadow suddenly began to stretch out of proportion away from Dex and toward 'the congregation', more specifically, toward Milo.
"Find a way to let me know what kind of revenge you want and I'll see what I can do to get you satisfaction." Agent Roberts said evenly.
When his shadow retracted, it shifted on the ground, then began growing toward Dex.
"He's not going to hurt you. He just wants to say that he's sorry." Agent Roberts said in a gentle calming tone.
"That's alright. He doesn't have to. He didn't hurt me. He just grabbed my leg." Dex said nervously.
"It's important that when he does something wrong that he's held to account." Agent Roberts said simply, then smiled slightly as the shadow seemed to climb up Dex and surround him.
"I can feel him. He's hugging me." Dex said in wonder.
"That's good. As long as he's not getting too familiar as he does it." Agent Roberts said cautiously.
"No. It's fine." Dex said as the shadow began to recede.
"Thank you Shadow. That was very nice of you." Agent Roberts said with a smile.
"Yeah. Thanks." Dex said in wonder at what he had just experienced.
"Dex? Are you ready to go again?" Zanner asked from a few feet away.
"Yeah. I'm ready when you are." Dex said as he turned his attention to what Zanner and Mr. Hansen were doing.
Agent Roberts watched as Dex stepped away to join them, then said toward his shadow, "It's good to have you back. Now that I know you're here, I'll make sure that you won't be neglected."
* * * * *
Mr. Hansen, Zanner and Dex were silent as they worked collectively to perform their spells over the entire protectorate.
The congregation seemed to have settled in to watch what was happening, although there honestly wasn't much for them to see.
As he was about to turn his attention back to Mr. Hansen and the boys, he noticed Milo walking away from the congregation and directly toward him.
"What's going on, Milo?"
"I was wondering if you knew what was being planned. Some of the people have questions about what's going on and I don't know what to tell them."
"Right now they're performing spells to hide the protectorate from the sight of aircraft and satellite surveillance, even when it's fully in our dimension. If I understood correctly, they're going to finish their spells, then twist the protectorate out of our space again before calling it a night."
"So they're planning to do that thing with the wind that they did earlier?"
"As far as I know. Yes."
"Good. Then I'll let people know that all they can expect to see tonight is more of what they've already seen."
"I think that's a reasonable summary..." Agent Roberts began to say, then noticed his shadow sliding up Milo's leg.
"Aggh!" Milo screamed as he hurriedly backed away.
Agent Roberts' shadow seemed to stretch for a moment, but finally retreated.
"Sorry. I wasn't watching where he was going." Agent Roberts said as he fought to restrain a grin.
"Listen, there isn't anything else that I can do about your shadow, but if it gets to be too much of a problem, let me know and I can try to get in touch with my dad. He's a master shadowmancer. He'll know how to fix it."
"No thanks. Shadow's already had too much stuff done to him. I'll figure out some way to make things work without hurting him any further."
"Your shadow isn't like a person, it's just a reservoir, like a bladder. In fact, it's not even that important. You don't need it for anything."
"Maybe he was like that before you broke him away from me, but now he's a being with his own thoughts and feelings. Admittedly, most of those thoughts and feelings seem to involve getting revenge on you, but he's still his own person. I won't let you hurt him any more." Agent Roberts said firmly.
"If that's what you believe, I'll respect your feelings. I promise that I won't cause your shadow anymore harm... well, except in self defense. He keeps groping me."
"Maybe he doesn't hate you as much as he wants to get close to you. Sneaking up on you and groping you may just be the only way he has of doing that." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully.
"Then perhaps your next pursuit may need to be teaching your shadow some manners." Milo said as he continued looking at the ground, keeping careful watch on where Agent Roberts' shadow was casting.
"We've already had a little talk about that. I get the feeling that Shadow will be able to figure it out pretty soon. But what happens between you and him is your own business. I'm not going to tell him that he can't have his revenge... or romance, whichever way it ends up working out. You caused this. You get to deal with it."
"Do you really think that it... he likes me?" Milo asked cautiously.
"I don't know if like is the right word. It might be more accurate to say that he seems to be attracted to you... or maybe he's just fixated on his revenge." Agent Roberts finished with a slight shrug, then thought to ask, "But if he really wanted to hurt you, he could, couldn't he?"
"An experienced shadowmancer can strangle, blind or even crush an opponent using only their control of shadows. I have no reason to believe that your shadow wouldn't be capable of inflicting the same level of damage."
"So Shadow is choosing not to seriously injure you. It's possible that he just wants your attention and doesn't know a better way of getting it."
"It's also possible that he's aware that I can destroy him. I haven't done so because I wanted to return your shadow to you as I had promised. But it is within my power to do so."
"That's good to know, but I still think that he's being more playful than threatening with you. At the core of it, he's a lover, not a fighter."
"That I can believe." Milo immediately agreed, then added, "I've never encountered so much unresolved sexual tension and frustration concentrated in one place. You seriously need to get laid."
"Yes. You said that before." Agent Roberts said with a slight smile, then added, "Well, if you'll just hold still for a few minutes, maybe Shadow can dissipate some of that sexual tension he's got stored up. It could solve a lot of problems at once."
"You can't be serious." Milo said hesitantly.
"That's right. I'm not serious." Agent Roberts said with a grin, then added more professionally, "Let your people know that there's probably not going to be much else to see today. At the most it'll be more of the same."
"I'll let them know." Milo confirmed, then looked toward the ground where Agent Roberts shadow appeared to be spread out innocently, just like any other shadow.
After a moment to consider, Milo quietly said, "Shadow, if you really don't hate me, maybe we can find a way that we can... I don't know... be friends? Or, at least not terrorize each other."
Agent Roberts watched carefully and didn't notice any reaction.
Finally, he quietly said, "Let him think about it. I can imagine that it's hard for him to find different ways to express himself."
"Fair enough. Hopefully we'll be able to find a way that we can get along." Milo said before walking away.
Agent Roberts watched him leave, then said down to his shadow, "Good job. If you can manage to behave yourself like that when you need to, we're going to get along fine."
The shadow suddenly receded and virtually disappeared.
"Right. It's time to get back to work."
* * * * *
As the sun began to set, Agent Roberts kept close watch on the protectorate.
A movement drew his attention and he watched as a lone figure emerged from the archway.
To Be Continued...
Editor's Notes: That is comforting to see those three words.
This story continues to grab my attention with each new chapter. I certainly hope we will get some new chapters soon.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher