The climb up the wet narrow path was a bit troublesome, but the rest of their walk was pleasant, mostly due to the spectacle of the fairy lights.
As Agent Roberts walked into the main room of the parsonage, he overheard G saying, "Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six, fifteen-eight, a pair makes ten and a pair makes twelve."
Agent Roberts puzzled over the strange rhythmic words and moved closer to the table to see what G was doing.
He recognized that the small wooden board with two differently colored sets of pegs was a cribbage board, although he knew nothing about how to play the game.
"Does anyone have anything to discuss before we begin our evaluation?" Professor Everstone asked seriously as he watched G advancing a peg along the game board.
"Do you want to put this away or try to finish it later?" G asked Jen curiously.
"Well, since I'm one turn away from being double skunked, I'm okay with declaring you the winner." Jengellica said sourly.
"Then I guess we're ready." G said happily.
"Make any preparations that you need to, then we'll be going."
"Where's your bathroom?" Filipe asked Archdruid Highley urgently.
"Out the side door, right there, then follow the path." The Archdruid responded with a gesture to his left.
"Thanks!" Filipe said quickly before dashing out of the room.
"Mr. Bentley Brown, would you mind allowing Paul to hold the chalice so that he can have a chance to acclimate to it before we begin?" Professor Everstone asked cautiously.
"That's probably wise." Mr. Bentley Brown said as he set his satchel on the table.
"G, are you ready to take up the spear again?" Professor Everstone asked as he walked to G's side.
"I can if you want, but isn't it Corabeth's turn yet?"
"You were chosen to be teammates due to your complimentary abilities, not your identical abilities."
"I think what he's trying to tell you is that I suck at manipulating air." Corabeth said frankly.
"Actually, I was saying that each of us has a part to play for which we are best suited. That's why we were chosen."
"I wasn't complaining. I just didn't want to hog all the glory." G said simply as he accepted the spear from Professor Everstone.
"The scope of this project has grown far beyond my initial expectations. If things turn out to be as they appear, there should be sufficient glory for all involved, that is, if you're the type for whom such things matter."
Agent Roberts moved a little closer to hear the professor's words, concerned by his darker tone.
"Our team was assembled for the express purpose of evaluating and renovating a barrier that had been compromised. Now it appears that the scope of the project may have expanded to include three interconnected, radically different barriers. Had this been our mission from the beginning, other decisions would most likely have been made."
"So what you're saying is that you don't think that we can do it?" G paraphrased.
"It won't be possible to make that determination until we have completed our evaluations. I am simply saying that if Mr. Darroch, or those who called upon him, had initially been approached with this scenario, I believe that they might have made different choices."
"But we're not giving up?" G asked cautiously.
"No. We will complete our evaluation. Until we encounter an insurmountable problem, we will continue on as originally planned."
"Professor, I have a sat phone. If you decide that we need more help, just let me know and I can call Mr. Darroch." Agent Roberts offered.
"Again, no such determination can be made until we've completed all the evaluations."
"Agent Roberts, I left the lights going in case you need to use the bathroom." Filipe said as he approached from the side door.
"Thank you Filipe." Agent Roberts said appreciatively, then said to the others he had been talking to, "Excuse me."
* * * * *
When Agent Roberts stepped out the side door, he couldn't help but smile at the fog of fairy lights surrounding the path.
He nearly laughed when he stepped into the outhouse.
The twinkling specks of light transformed the rather disgusting reality of the outhouse into something magical and whimsical.
Having a moment alone allowed Agent Roberts to reflect on the situation that he found himself in.
When he had started his career path with the FBI he had assumed that he would be doing investigative work that was somewhat varied and occasionally dangerous.
In his wildest dreams, there was no way that he could have ever imagined the situation that he currently found himself in.
* * * * *
When Agent Roberts returned to the parsonage, it was obvious that everyone was ready to leave.
"Is there anything else we need to do to prepare before we go?" Agent Roberts asked into the silence that preceded him.
"Paul and G are each acclimating to their relics. All that is left is to conduct the evaluation."
"Archdruid Highly?" Milo asked timidly.
"May Jen and I accompany you?"
"Only if the professor has no objection."
Agent Roberts moved slightly nearer to Professor Everstone and tried to establish eye contact with him.
Professor Everstone glanced in his direction, then to Archdruid Highley and Milo before responding, "You may accompany us if you like, but please take care not to distract the students or disrupt their assessment."
"I'll be sure to keep everyone who is not participating out of your way." Agent Roberts said firmly, letting it be known with his tone of voice that he would take his duty seriously.
"Thank you Agent Roberts. That will be much appreciated." Professor Everstone said cordially.
With that being established in front of everyone, Agent Roberts felt adequately empowered to do his job.
* * * * *
Without offering or being asked, Zanner and Filipe once again created fairy lights and fireballs to light the way for the group.
Agent Roberts noticed when the light rain stopped falling on him and a moment later when Filipe's hand worked its way into his.
"I want you to be able to see what's real so that you can protect us." Filipe said quietly as they walked.
"Thank you Filipe." Agent Roberts said in a similar quiet tone, then added, "When I was assigned to do this job I didn't understand why they included me. But from what I've seen so far, this group needs us to watch out for them so that they can be free to take care of their business."
"Everyone. Watch your step. This next part is a bit steep." Professor Everstone warned from ahead of them.
The members of the group were silent as they began the trek down the steep path into the basin.
When the last of them had reached level ground, Professor Everstone called out, "G, Paul, and Zanner, reach out through your elements and find the edge of the barrier."
"Shouldn't we go over there to where the entrance is?" Zanner asked cautiously.
"Given the properties of folded space, that manifestation very likely isn't the edge of the barrier. Disregard that and find the edge of the actual barrier in our space." Professor Everstone said instructively.
"Over here." Dex said to Zanner quietly as he began to lead him away.
Agent Roberts watched as Paul seemed to be frozen in place, focused on the chalice in his hands.
He couldn't help but wonder what Paul was seeing.
"Got it!" G announced, then started walking toward where Zanner and Dex had gone.
"Professor? I can sense the created water from the other barrier... the 'god water'." Paul said carefully.
"What can you tell me about it?" Professor Everstone asked in a leading tone.
"Not much. But it's the same water. It's from there. It has the same 'flavor'."
"Disregard that for a moment and see if you can make contact with the barrier. We need to get this evaluation started."
"Yes Professor." Paul said, then began to walk toward where Zanner, Dex and G had gone.
The rest of the group automatically followed.
* * * * *
To Agent Roberts' eyes, the three boys were lined up, each with one hand outstretched. They were well away from the location where the stone arch had appeared.
"Professor, there's angelic magic here." Paul said cautiously.
"Yes. That would stand to reason." Professor Everstone calmly responded.
"Angelic magic is poisonous to me. I'm not going to be able to join with the other spells that are in here."
"Do you need to withdraw? If so, Filipe can attempt to investigate this, with your guidance."
"As long as I keep myself within the water, I'll be fine. But if you need someone to look more closely at another element, you'll probably need to bring Filipe in."
"Understood. Just be sure to withdraw as soon as you notice any ill effects."
"There's not much water to look at. It comes in, it deploys, and it flows out. It isn't processed here at all. I think that's more proof that this barrier is connected to the Southseid barrier."
"What about you, G? What do you see?"
"Just about the same as the Southseid barrier, kind of like what Paul was saying. The air comes in, it's used, then it goes away. Nothing's really happening to it while it's here."
"Which might suggest that the Brynnhollow barrier takes on that function." Professor Everstone said thoughtfully.
"I've got more than enough earth element here for everyone. This could take a while to get through." Zanner announced.
"Is it more than you encountered at the last barrier?" Professor Everstone asked carefully.
"Yeah. A whole lot more." Zanner said gravely.
"G and Paul, why don't you go through your elements and organize your thoughts while Zanner starts to chip away at his monumental task?"
"Remember that Filipe can read spells outside his specialty. If you see that it's starting to be too much, he can take some of the pressure off Zanner."
"Yes. Thank you. I will keep that in mind."
"Are you ready for me to start?" Zanner asked cautiously.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts half-listened to Zanner as he fought to keep the majority of his attention on those from outside their party.
By virtue of having been with them longer, Mr. Bentley Brown had attained a position of, if not trust, at least resigned acceptance.
Archdruid Highley wasn't exactly trusted, but Agent Roberts got the sense that he was sincere in his beliefs and was stating his motives to the best of his ability.
The other two, Milo and Jen, were more of a mystery to him. Both of them had displayed their fanatical devotion to Archdruid Highley and their willingness to perform illegal acts on his behalf. But even so, Agent Roberts couldn't be entirely sure of their motivations. He could easily construct more than one scenario where either or both of them might betray or otherwise endanger the group.
Apparently, from the hand clasped in his, Filipe didn't trust them either.
"How long do you think this is going to take?" Filipe asked quietly.
"You would probably know better than I would. This is all gibberish to me." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"I understand most of what they're saying, but I don't know how much more there's going to be. There's a whole lot more earth magic than they had at the Wudewas barrier."
"What about the water that you and Paul went through? How does this compare to that?"
"I don't know. I was inside it then. It's hard for me to judge it from the outside."
"Do you want to go and help them?"
"I'll go if they need me, but I think it's better if I stay here for now. I want for you to be able to keep on seeing what's real." Filipe answered quietly.
"You don't trust them, do you?" Agent Roberts asked carefully, interested to understand Filipe's reasoning.
"Why would I? They can mess with our minds, they don't have any problem with kidnapping and they bow down and do anything that Archdruid guy says. The only reason I'm not mad that they're here, is because I want them where you can keep an eye on them." Filipe said seriously.
Agent Roberts gave Filipe's hand an extra squeeze as he quietly said, "I've noticed how much you seem to admire Paul's intelligence and ingenuity. Please don't ever make the mistake of thinking that he's smarter than you are. What you've just shown me is that you have the type of practical intelligence that will take you far in the world."
"I grew up a lot like Paul, not believing in magic. As far as I knew, there was one set of rules that worked the same for everything and everyone. I guess now, even though I know that I'm a witch, I still look at the world from that old point of view. I don't automatically see magic as the cause or the cure. I see the 'real' world side of things first." Filipe said thoughtfully.
"Filipe, I think that what you and Paul have is a gift, just as important as your magic. Cherish it. The people around you will benefit from your ability to see things from a different point of view and reach different conclusions."
"Being from out of town and 'not white' and a witch, sometimes I can't help but feel like I want to be like everyone else. Even if my mind agrees with what you're saying, deep inside I want to go along with what everyone around me is doing and blend in with them."
"Believe me, I know what it's like to want to belong to a group and be included. But I also know how important it is to be true to yourself and make the decisions that will benefit you in the long run. The fact of the matter is that you can do both. Being part of a group can have many benefits, but there's always the possibility that you'll lose yourself and your whole identity will become the label of the group that you've become a part of. You have to have the courage to say 'no' when you know that it's the right thing for you to do."
"Do you think that's what happened to Milo and Jen? They became part of a group and lost themselves?" Filipe asked curiously.
"I don't know. It does look that way on the surface."
"Do you think that it's all an act?"
"It could be. We need to be on our guard for however it turns out."
"Do you think that they're going to do something?"
"It doesn't matter if they do or not. We need to be prepared just the same either way."
"Don't worry. Between us, we'll keep everyone safe." Filipe said confidently.
* * * * *
"I think that's everything." Zanner finally announced.
"Do you want to run back through one more time to be sure that you haven't overlooked anything?" Professor Everstone asked cautiously.
"I've been within the earth element and following along with what Zanner's been doing, at a distance. And I can assure you that he's investigated everything thoroughly."
"Thank you Mr. Hansen. I should have known that you would have been watching over your pupil." Professor Everstone said with a smile, then turned and asked, "Paul? Are you ready to give your evaluation?"
"Yes. But before I start with that I want to be sure that you know that this barrier wasn't set up by the same people who made the Southseid barrier. Not only is it a different flavor of magic, but it's used in a different way. They used different spells to get similar results."
"But if the three barriers are connected, it would stand to reason that there would be a person or group of people coordinating the various constructions to ensure that they are compatible."
"When this barrier was first created it had its own local water before it connected to the outside water. I found the remnants of the old water spells."
"G, did you notice if there were any indications of previous air?"
"I think so. I didn't notice it at the time, but that explains some of what I was seeing."
"Let's all of us keep this in mind as Paul tells us about the water element incorporated in the barrier." Professor Everstone said more loudly to ensure that all could hear.
"It would help me a whole lot if I knew what you were looking for, then I'd know what to focus on." Paul said frankly.
"That's exactly why I'm not telling you. If I were to narrow the scope of your investigation at this stage of things, you might disregard something significant because it fell outside the boundaries that I had established for you."
"Well, the good news is that there's not too much at this location." Paul said in prelude, then began to give his report of what he had discovered.
Agent Roberts was impressed with Paul's organization. He could almost visualize the bullet points as Paul ticked them off.
Although it took a few minutes for Paul to work his way completely through what he had discovered, his efficiency was such that no one could possibly complain about the time that it took.
In the light of Paul's presentation G's wasn't quite as well organized, but it was a decent effort in its own right.
When G's reasonably succinct evaluation concluded, everyone turned their attention to Professor Everstone, awaiting his reaction.
"Tomorrow we will have to go to the site of the Brynnhollow barrier to perform an evaluation. Although I suspect that I know what we will find there, it is still necessary for us to confirm our suspicions."
"If you like, I can ask Agent Fastbeck to go with us. He knows the people inside and can let them know what's going on."
"Yes. That sounds like a very good idea. Thank you Agent Roberts." Professor Everstone said appreciatively, then looked around the group before saying, "If no one has anything else, we should be on our way."
"Excuse me Professor, but am I to understand that after all that you've done tonight that you aren't going to do anything to reinforce the protectorate?" Archdruid Highley asked cautiously.
"We must first complete our investigation, then decide what steps are to be taken next."
"If it involves the protectorate, I need to be included in your decision making." Archdruid Highley said firmly.
Agent Roberts bristled at the man's demanding tone, but was able to hold his tongue.
"I'm afraid that won't be possible. We will evaluate all the information that we've collected then we will make our decisions. At that time we will return and explain what we've come up with. You will have the opportunity to accept or reject our plan at that time. And of course, you'll be free to ask any questions that you might have."
"It would make more sense just to include me from the start." Archdruid Highley pressed.
"No. It wouldn't." Professor Everstone said firmly. "Either you would be in attendance, not understanding a single thing that we were talking about, which would serve no purpose, or you would be asking endless questions, delaying and disrupting our work, which would also serve no purpose."
"I'm responsible for the protectorate. I can't just blindly allow you to do something that might end up endangering it."
"As I said, we will do nothing without your permission and approval." Professor Everstone said firmly, then continued in a more gentle tone, "Perhaps, while we are attending to our work, you might consider using your 'gift' to foresee if one option might potentially yield better results than another for your protectorate. If you were to have such information waiting for us when we return, it would be taken into account."
"Maybe one of us could go with you." Milo said timidly.
"For what possible purpose?" Professor Everstone asked challengingly.
"The only thing that we know for sure is that we need the boys, Zanner and Dex, to be here at the protectorate to avert disaster. Would you allow one of us to go with you so that we can be sure that you aren't going to take them away?"
"Do you really think that you could stop us?" Paul asked challengingly.
"It won't come to that." Professor Everstone said firmly to Paul, then turned to Milo and explained, "Dex and Zanner will not be leaving before we speak with you again. I give you my word."
Milo's puzzled expression clearly conveyed that he didn't understand how that was supposed to assure him at all.
"If you can't trust me enough to take me at my word, then you shouldn't have given me access to your protectorate. Allow us to help in our own way or ask us to never return. Those are the only choices before you."
Before Milo could respond, Archdruid Highley carefully said, "If I'm understanding you right, you intend to take what you've learned about the barrier of the protectorate and improve it... bring it up to date. Is that right?"
"Yes. That is our intention at this stage of things. Once we've completed our evaluations and had our discussion, it is possible that other priorities may be revealed. Regardless, no action will be taken regarding your protectorate without your knowledge and consent."
Although Agent Roberts was paying attention to what Professor Everstone was saying, he determinedly kept his primary focus on Milo and Jen.
A strange hand gesture by Milo made Agent Roberts clutch Filipe's hand a little more firmly, just to reassure himself that whatever else happened, that he wouldn't find himself lost in an illusion.
"Watch out! He's casting a spell!" Filipe warned.
"Stop that! What are you doing?!" Paul barked at the same time.
"Just making sure that you come back." Milo said unrepentantly.
"Milo, these people are here to help us. I'm convinced of that." Archdruid Highley said seriously.
"If that's true, then all I've done is given them another reason to come back." Milo said reasonably.
"What did he just do?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"I don't know. I've never studied anything about fairy magic." Paul said simply.
"Fairy? You know what? That can wait. Right now I need to know what he did and then convince him to undo it." Agent Roberts said as he drew his gun with his free hand.
"If you kill me, you'll never get yourself back. It will be lost forever." Milo said in a slightly quaking voice.
"Kill you? I never said anything about killing you. I said that I would convince you. That doesn't involve your death. It involves lots and lots of pain, but no death... well, unless you beg for it long enough and I'm feeling especially compassionate one day."
"Milo. Release your spell. This doesn't help us at all." Archdruid Highley said firmly.
"Jarvis, don't you see? Without this, they have NO reason to come back. If they leave, then your vision will be fulfilled and the protectorate will be destroyed." Milo urged him to understand.
"A moment, if I may." Professor Everstone interrupted.
"Yes, of course Professor." Archdruid Highley immediately responded.
"Pray tell, just what did Mr... Milo do?" Professor Everstone asked cautiously.
"Milo has inherited fairy magic. One of the spells that he's adept at using is the removal and relocation of a person's 'other'."
"Removal and relocation roughly translates to mean 'theft'." Agent Roberts couldn't help but remark.
"I'm sorry Professor. I was just explaining it for the kids."
"No. that's fine. What I was just wondering is if you would be willing to live with the condition that Milo has inflicted upon you for a short time. Since we were planning on returning anyway, it really won't be an inconvenience for the rest of us. This way these people can have their 'hostage' and we can continue with our work, unabated."
"What did he do to me?"
"In the simplest terms, he has stolen your shadow."
"My shadow?" Agent Roberts asked as he looked around, trying to determine where his shadow should be.
With the cloud of fairy lights surrounding them, no one was casting a shadow, so Agent Roberts couldn't confirm what he was being told.
"It shouldn't be much more than a minor annoyance, and you'll get it back when we return, that is, if you agree."
"I think that if I just blow his kneecaps off, I can get him to give it back right now." Agent Roberts said frankly.
Professor Everstone seemed to consider for a moment, then said, "This is between you and Milo. If you feel that inflicting damage on him is the best solution, I won't stand in your way. Just please keep in mind that the children are watching. Be aware of the example that you're setting for them."
Agent Roberts looked Milo in the eyes and could see the terror housed within.
"You only did this to me, right? You didn't hurt any of the kids?" Agent Roberts asked to confirm.
"Yes. I didn't want to take the chance of incapacitating someone who was necessary to your project." Milo cautiously explained.
"And when we come back, you'll undo what you did to me?" Agent Roberts asked seriously.
"Yes. I will. I promise."
"I don't trust your promises any more than you trust ours. But what I do trust is the knowledge that if you're not here when I come back, that I will use the full resources of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to hunt you down, and when I find you, I will make what remains of your life very very uncomfortable."
"I'll be here. I'm sure that Jarvis won't let me leave, after what I've just done." Milo said regretfully.
"Fine. Whatever." Agent Roberts snapped irritably, then turned to Professor Everstone and asked, "Are we done here?"
"Yes. I believe so." Professor Everstone said gravely.
"Then I'm going back to the car. Anyone who wants to can come with me." Agent Roberts said as he started to walk away.
Before he had taken two steps, he felt a smaller hand work its way into his.
"I'm sorry I couldn't protect you from that. I don't know anything about fairy magic." Filipe said quietly as they walked.
"You did fine, Filipe. It's thanks to you that I was able to see what was real." Agent Roberts assured him.
"I'm glad you didn't kill him. Even though it doesn't bother me too much when I see something like that on TV, I don't think I want to see it for real." Filipe said honestly.
"What Milo did was dishonorable, but he doesn't need to die for it. He doesn't trust others, but believes that others should trust him. In a way, what he did was level the playing field, at least in his own mind. Now, to him, it looks like we both have something the other wants, so we have a reason to work together."
"But we would have helped them anyway." Filipe said in confusion.
"You and I know that, but it seems that Milo doesn't believe in people who would help others without asking for something in return."
"Would you really have shot him?" Filipe asked quietly.
"Maybe." Agent Roberts reluctantly admitted, then clarified, "He attacked me, so it's only natural for me to want to respond in kind. I can't say that I'm proud of it, but for just a few seconds, shooting him felt like the right thing to do."
* * * * *
Conversation stopped as they climbed the steep path out of the basin.
As they climbed, Agent Roberts noticed that the others of their group were silently following along.
Once they reached the top, Filipe did a simple gesture and the path before them lit up.
"That's really handy. You'll have to teach me how to do it one of these days." Agent Roberts said with a smile.
"I would if I could." Filipe assured him.
As they walked toward the parsonage, Agent Roberts went on alert as he heard someone approaching them from behind.
"Agent Roberts? I'm sorry." Milo said as he caught up to them.
"If you were really sorry you'd undo whatever you did to me." Agent Roberts said simply.
"You've got to understand, Jarvis saw the destruction of the protectorate. That's our purpose for being here. It's what we live for." Milo urged him to understand.
"Maybe you should have more than one thing to live for." Filipe interjected.
At Milo's uncomprehending expression, Filipe explained, "If you have lots of things in your life to live for, then it doesn't kill you when you lose one of them."
"He's right. You need to get a life, Milo. What you're doing here isn't healthy." Agent Roberts confirmed.
"Jarvis needs us to help him guard the protectorate." Milo urged them to understand.
"That's fine. I'm not saying that you should stop. I'm just saying that a person needs more than one thing in their life to care about. You need friends, family... a pet, maybe. I don't know. But focusing all your attention and devotion on just one goal makes you a little bit crazy, and when that goal is threatened, it can push you over the edge."
As they approached the parsonage, Milo once again quietly said, "I'm sorry."
"I can see that you are." Agent Roberts said resignedly, then guided Filipe to walk with him around the parsonage and on toward the church.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts was aware of the others following behind them, but didn't feel like engaging them in conversation. Instead, he kept up a reasonable pace around the church and back toward the cars that they had arrived in.
"I think that we could use the ride back to Waxell as an opportunity to process some of what we have discovered thus far. If no one has an objection, I would like for G and Corabeth to ride with Miss Oaken so that they can discuss what they have been able to uncover about the air element. Likewise, Zanner and Dex can travel with Mr. Hansen to discuss the properties of the earth spells used. Filipe and Paul can ride with me so that we may discuss what has been discovered about water."
"Speaking of water, if you're done with The Third Grail, I would like to put it away for safekeeping." Mr. Bentley Brown said in a less demanding tone than was usual for him.
"Sure." Paul easily agreed.
At the same time, G automatically walked to Professor Everstone and handed him the spear.
"I didn't really do anything with the water this time. I can ride with Agent Roberts." Filipe said quietly.
"Perhaps you didn't participate in this assessment, but there are certain things you will need to know when we proceed to the next stage of our work." Professor Everstone told him seriously.
"Yeah and besides, you know about the thaumaturgy and a lot of other stuff that I don't have a talent for. I gathered a lot of information, but I'm going to need your help to be able to do anything with it." Paul explained.
Agent Roberts smiled, knowing just how important it was for Filipe to hear that he was needed for something.
"Where and when should I meet up with you in the morning?" Mr. Bentley Brown reluctantly asked.
Agent Roberts glanced at Professor Everstone to see if he wanted to answer and received a nod in response.
"I think our best bet is to meet at the Waxell Diner for breakfast at nine." Agent Roberts said seriously, then continued, "But you're welcome to come with us now. I have a spare room that's not being used."
"Given the dynamic nature of the project thus far, perhaps it would be best if I were to accompany you."
"Good. Just follow along and we'll be at my house in no time." Agent Roberts said simply.
That being settled, everyone went to their cars and began the long trek through the rolling hills and back toward Waxell.
To Be Continued...
Editor's Notes: Well, it looks as if Milo is one totally self absorbed bullheaded individual. Let's hope this experience will give him some better attitudes.
This was a great chapter!
Of course, I want more!
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher