"Hello. Excuse me. I'm looking for the FBI office. Am I in the right place?" The bearded young man timidly asked as he cautiously peeked in the door from the hallway.
"Yes. I'm Agent Roberts, how can I help you?" The man behind the desk asked professionally.
"Agent Shawn Roberts?" The young man asked as he walked more fully into the room.
"I'm supposed to tell you that I'm the teacher that Mr. Darroch sent. They said that you wouldn't be expecting me, but that you'll know what I'm talking about." The young man said, still seeming to be somewhat uncertain if he was in the right place.
"Aren't you kind of young to be a teacher?"
"I graduated college last year and I've been working at a high school as a teaching assistant since then. When this opportunity came available, I was asked if I was interested."
"What's your name?" Agent Roberts asked curiously, focusing for a moment on the formidable 'man-bun' the young man was sporting.
"Michael Bazien." The young man stated simply.
"How much have you been told about the Brynns?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"I was told that the place I would be going was isolated and not to expect to be able to contact friends and family for extended periods of time." Michael said cautiously.
"That much is true enough. But what did they tell you about the job that you'll be doing?"
"Only that with the village being so remote, that I'd probably be teaching more than just magic to my students."
"Did they give you any hints as to what that 'more' might be?"
"No. From the way they spoke of the isolation, I got the impression that I would be explaining some details about how the outside world works. But they didn't specifically tell me what I'd be teaching."
"They probably didn't want to limit you with unrealistic expectations or unnecessary boundaries. But it's going to be important for you to understand that not only are these people ignorant of most of the happenings in the outside world, but they've also been sheltered from most of the ugliness of humanity. It's worrying to see them, the kids especially, all wide-eyed and breathless when they hear stories about the outside. I don't want them to lose that sense of wonder. It's something rare and worth protecting."
"What are you telling me?" Michael asked cautiously.
"I'm telling you to take care to assess the situation and think carefully about the consequences of interfering with what's always been." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"I was also told not to stop in town and talk to anyone. Is there anything that I need to know about that?"
"There have been stories about monsters living in the woods northwest of town. Along with that, the townspeople also tell stories about the Brynner family who are said to live in the haunted woods and cause misery and heartache for anyone who has the misfortune of becoming entangled with them." Agent Roberts said gravely.
"How much of that, if any, is true?" Michael asked cautiously.
"All of it, to varying degrees. The residents of Brynnhollow are cursed to endure repeated animal transformations. Anyone who claimed to see a monster of some sort in the woods most likely did."
"A curse that covers an entire town? I've heard stories about things like that in my history classes, but I always thought they had to be exaggerations. The amount of magic it would take to do something like that... scary big." Michael finished anxiously.
"The way I understood it, the entire community is directly descended from the Brynn family. The curse is on their entire bloodline."
"A community descended from one family? Leaving the magical aspect aside, that alone sounds creepy beyond belief." Michael said frankly.
"From everything that I've seen so far, it looks like the curse may be weakening, at least insofar as it limits their ability to use magic. Of course, it might just be that no one was inspired to try using their magic before." Agent Roberts quietly reasoned.
"How is that?" Michael asked curiously.
"The group of teenagers who've learned to use their basic magical skills didn't seem to have to struggle to overcome their curses. They simply tried, and with a little dedicated practice, they succeeded. From my own 'outside' perspective, it didn't appear that there was any type of resistance, magical or otherwise, that they were having to fight." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully.
"What about the other part? The thing with the Brynner family. Did something happen there?" Michael asked curiously.
"Long story. Let's just say that one of the Brynns tried to live in Waxell and it ended up not working out too well."
"That doesn't tell me a whole lot."
"Five dead... at least among the Waxell residents."
"Oh. I can see how something like that might taint a family name."
"Yeah. That's why it's probably not a good idea to talk to the people of Waxell about any of the Brynns. Just let them keep believing that it's a superstition that their parents and grandparents came up with. Hopefully that way it will fade away over time." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully.
After an uncomfortable moment, Michael finally asked, "How do you think they'll react to my appearance?"
Agent Roberts looked at the 'hipster' dark hair and beard on the otherwise unremarkable skinny young man for a moment, then finally said, "Why don't we find out?"
"All they told me was to go to the FBI office in Waxell. They didn't tell me what I'd be doing after that." Michael said frankly.
"Well, that's probably because either they didn't know or they didn't think you'd believe it if they told you. Either way, sitting here isn't accomplishing anything. When they were telling you about Waxell, did they happen to mention Agent Fastbeck?"
"Yes. They said that if I met either one of you I was supposed to tell you who I was. If there was anyone else here, I was supposed to ask to speak privately to one of the two of you." Michael quietly explained.
"C'mon. There's a lot to do." Agent Roberts said as he stood and walked past Michael.
Michael hurried to follow and saw that Agent Roberts had walked to the other end of the hallway.
"Hyatt, I'm going out on a call. Will you keep an eye on things for a little while?" Michael heard Agent Roberts ask through the doorway.
After apparently receiving a favorable response, Agent Roberts walked back toward Michael and said, "C'mon. We've got a lot of ground to cover."
Michael was surprised when Agent Roberts walked out the front door without hesitation and kept on going.
As soon as Michael realized what was happening he started to follow and called out, "I'm parked over here."
"Your car will be fine there for a while. The fact of the matter is that even though you might have been sent here, it doesn't mean that you will automatically be accepted and well received by everyone. It's better that I introduce you around and that you be invited to stay before you show up on their doorstep with your luggage." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"Where are we going?" Michael asked as they crossed the street.
"To the drugstore." Agent Roberts said as he pointed at the quaint little shop ahead of them.
"Do I need to know why?" Michael asked cautiously.
"No." Agent Roberts said as he opened the door and it caused a little bell to ring.
* * * * *
"Hi Otis. I'd like for you to meet Michael." Agent Roberts said happily.
"Hello. I'm Otis. It's nice to meet you. What brings you to Waxell?" Otis asked curiously.
"I... um..." Michael stammered.
"He's a teacher. We're going to look into getting him a job locally... more or less." Agent Roberts finished with a sly smile.
"Sent by D?" Otis asked curiously.
"Yeah. I thought it'd be good to introduce you so that if Michael runs into trouble, he'll know who in Waxell he can turn to." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"I don't know how much help I'll be, but if you ever need me, I'll do what I can for you." Otis promised.
"Thanks, Otis." Agent Roberts said appreciatively, then thought to ask, "Did Mr. Tomlin leave you on your own here?"
"No chance of that. He's in the back, taking a nap. If anyone were to come in needing his services, I would wake him up." Otis said frankly.
"Otis is a fully licensed pharmacist, but he wants to learn the old way of doing things and train under an actual apothecary." Agent Roberts explained.
"That sounds... amazing." Michael said with a smile at Otis.
"So far, it is." Otis admitted.
"Anyway, Michael and I have places to go and people to meet so I'd better get to the other reason I stopped by. Obby? Do you want to come with us or stay here with Otis this afternoon?" Agent Roberts asked seriously.
Michael was intrigued because while Agent Roberts obviously wasn't talking to Otis or himself, he seemed to be talking to someone in the room with them.
The movement of a shadow on the wall caught Michael's attention and he automatically looked toward the light to try to determine what was casting the unlikely shadow.
"It's okay Obby. It won't hurt if Michael sees you. I just wanted to stop by to see if you wanted to go to Brynnhollow with us."
"Yeah. I'd like that. Thank you for thinking of me." The shadow said appreciatively. Michael watched, wide-eyed, as the shadow stepped away from the wall and became darker and more solid.
"What the hell is that?" Michael couldn't help but ask.
"It's funny you should mention hell. That is a shadow demon. His name is Obby." Agent Roberts explained.
Michael looked at Obby with surprise, verging on horror.
"Shadow Demon is just a name, it doesn't mean anything. I don't really have anything to do with demons or hell. I was actually created with fairy magic." Obby said informatively.
"We need to be going. Obby, go flat and we'll get out of here. You can go solid again in the car once we're on the road, if you want to." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"It was nice to meet you Michael. I'll see you again in the car." Obby said before shrinking and going flat, looking like any other everyday shadow.
"If I'm still here when you get back, stop in and I'll make cherry phosphates for you. Shawn loves those." Otis said with an amused glance at Agent Roberts.
"We might just do that. We'll see you later, Otis." Agent Roberts said happily before leading the way out of the drugstore.
* * * * *
Michael followed along without comment as Agent Roberts led the way back toward the FBI office. After crossing the street, Agent Roberts led them behind the building to a small parking lot.
At the sound of the passenger door unlocking, Michael opened the door and began to get into the car.
As he took his seat, he quietly asked, "Why do I feel like I'm making a huge mistake?"
"You'd better get used to it. You're probably going to feel that way over and over again about every person you meet and every commitment that you make." Agent Roberts said as he started the car.
"Am I making a mistake?" Michael cautiously asked.
"As far as I know, there's only one way to find out." Agent Roberts chuckled as the car pulled out onto the main street that ran through town.
* * * * *
"Michael, do you happen to have a nickname?" Obby asked curiously as he became solid in the backseat.
"Mike... Mikey when I was a kid, but I always hated that." Michael cautiously answered.
"People in Brynnhollow usually avoid biblical names. It might be better if you introduced yourself with a nickname. I don't think that they would care that your name is really Michael, but they probably wouldn't want to have to call you that." Obby carefully explained.
"Is that right?" Michael asked Agent Roberts cautiously.
"It's the first I'm hearing of it, but I trust Obby to know what he's talking about." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"Cain and Deimos were telling me about how they got their names. They used to be named Christopher and David before they moved to Brynnhollow." Obby said seriously.
"I remember Andrea saying something about the curse making it so that they couldn't call upon the blessings of other gods. If they were to do so, they would be stricken with a flurry of bad luck. Maybe it has something to do with that." Agent Roberts said gravely.
"It sounds like some of the superstitions from the nineteenth century." Michael said honestly.
"Funny you should mention that..." Agent Roberts said with a weary chuckle under his words.
"You need a nickname before we get there." Obby reminded them.
Agent Roberts glanced into the backseat with momentary irritation, then reluctantly admitted, "Obby's right. You're going to have to go in there being comfortable with your name."
"Back when I was in high school there were a lot of guys named Mike in my year, so for a while people just automatically started calling me by my last name." Michael carefully explained.
"What's your last name?" Obby asked curiously.
"Bazien... it's French."
"That's okay. I think it sounds cool anyway." Obby said enthusiastically.
"If Obby likes it, then it should be universally accepted. I've noticed that he has his finger on the pulse of what's cool at any given time." Agent Roberts said with a proud smile at his shadow.
Michael began to smile, but then the smile fell away as he noticed where they were going.
"Please tell me that we're not going to be visiting the graveyard." Michael said cautiously.
"No. I hadn't planned on it. We're going to an abandoned house not too far from here, kinda in the middle of nowhere." Agent Roberts explained.
"Well, that doesn't sound much better than the graveyard, but why are we going to an abandoned house?"
"It's a shortcut to get to Brynnhollow." Agent Roberts said simply.
Michael waited for a moment, then finally said, "That's it? Somehow I expected something a little more spooky."
"I don't know if you think that we're playing games with you, but Obby and I are going out of our way to help you. We're not trying to be spooky. We're just trying to get the job done the best way that we know how."
"Sorry. It's just that sometimes people take the whole 'witch' thing a little too far with all the theatrics and stuff. I'm kind of used to calling it out." Michael said timidly.
"Okay. I get that. I've noticed the same thing. But I promise that we're not doing things to try to impress you. We're just doing what we think is best to get you set up in Brynnhollow. As soon as we can see that you're standing on your own two feet, we'll leave you on your own to take care of business." Agent Roberts assured him.
As Michael was about to respond, he saw another graveyard, this one being older and spookier than the one before.
"By the way, there's something I need to warn you about before we get there." Agent Roberts told him reluctantly.
"What's that?" Michael asked as he unconsciously hugged himself. The neglected weathered monuments to forgotten people were flashing past his window in a sickening procession.
"There's a spell on the place that we're going. It's there to warn people away." Agent Roberts said simply.
"You mean the graveyards aren't enough..." Michael began to say as they approached yet another graveyard, this one being by far the most chilling and decrepit.
"I know, right?" Agent Roberts chuckled, then noticed the state of distress of his passenger.
"Just hang in there for another minute or two, then we'll be close enough for me to dispel the enchantment." Agent Roberts assured him.
"I work at a school for witches. I encounter magic every day. But I never expected to encounter this level of magic out in the open in the outside world." Michael said frankly.
"Then maybe that's a good reason for you to visit the outside world, so that you'll experience how magical things behave in a mundane setting as opposed to being cloistered within an academic institution." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully.
Michael seemed to be in distress, fighting against his instinctive need to flee from what they were approaching.
Recognizing his plight, Agent Roberts enunciated in a slow firm voice, "I call upon the powers-that-be to grant me entry to the sanctuary of your most vulnerable children, I use the power granted by devils. I am the harbinger."
Michael sucked in a sudden breath in surprise, then realized that all the anxiety that he had been feeling had suddenly left him, almost like a soap bubble bursting.
"That... I've never felt anything like that before." Michael was finally able to say past his exaggerated breaths.
Agent Roberts chuckled, then said, "For as big a deal as it seems right now, I'm betting that you won't even remember it by this time tomorrow."
Michael glanced at Agent Roberts dubiously as the car pulled to a stop in front of a dreary and weather-worn abandoned house.
* * * * *
"When I dispelled the enchantment it also opened the doorway to the vinculum, so we won't have to mess with that. It can get kind of tiresome, saying it over and over." Agent Roberts said as he led the way around the house to the overgrown backyard.
"Vinculum?" Michael cautiously asked as he realized that his loafers were completely inappropriate for walking in the more rustic setting that they were in.
"Yeah. It's the shortcut that I was telling you about. Brynnhollow is about a four hour drive from Waxell." Agent Roberts said as he indicated the gazebo that they were approaching.
"Hold on. You mean to tell me that you've actually managed to create a stable traversable portal and maintain it in the human realm?" Michael asked cautiously.
"No. It's nothing like that." Agent Roberts said dismissively as he climbed the steps up into the gazebo.
Michael cautiously followed, not knowing what to expect.
"Actually, this is a point of multi-location that exists in four different places simultaneously. You enter here and you can exit into any of them." Agent Roberts explained as he made a sweeping gesture to indicate the doorways, each looking out on their own distinct landscape.
"No. Hold on. This can't be. Nothing like this is supposed to exist in this world." Michael muttered as he looked around disbelievingly.
"Yeah. Well, I'm guessing that the people who came up with that rule are probably the same ones who set all of this up." Agent Roberts said, then pointed across the room toward one of the doorways.
"We're going through there?" Michael asked anxiously.
"Well, we just wasted a lot of time driving here if we don't." Agent Roberts said curtly.
"Oh, yeah. I guess you're right." Michael said as he finally stepped to Agent Roberts' side.
"I need to tell you one thing before we go through." Agent Roberts said, then waited for Michael to meet his eyes.
"What's that?" Michael cautiously asked.
"No matter what happens, don't get into a relationship with anyone from Brynnhollow. They're cursed. If you fall in love with one of them, you'll be cursed too." Agent Roberts said firmly.
"The same curse that's been following the bloodline for generations?" Michael asked to verify his understanding.
"Yes. I suppose that's how it lures fresh stock into the genepool. If you give into it, even once, you'll be lost forever." Agent Roberts told him firmly.
"This sounds like something from a fairy tale." Michael muttered disbelievingly.
"More like, places like this are where fairy tales are from." Agent Roberts told him frankly.
Before Michael could question what they were about to do, Agent Roberts held his open palm toward the doorway they were standing in front of and said, "I call upon the powers-that-be to grant me entry to the sanctuary of the cursed, I use the power granted by devils. I am the harbinger."
Michael felt a slight breeze blow through the doorway as Agent Roberts stepped through.
"Beyond this point, there be witches." Agent Roberts said with a grin as he watched Michael step through the doorway.
"You're trying to be spooky now, aren't you?" Michael asked cautiously.
"Yes and no. I was being playful, but what I said is true. Everyone you'll be meeting from this point on will be witches." Agent Roberts said more seriously.
"Are they all as powerful as you?" Michael asked curiously.
Agent Roberts looked at him strangely for a moment, then cautiously said, "I'm not a witch."
"What are you then?"
"You can't be. So far I've seen you use complex shadowmancy and manipulate multidimensional space with the skill of a master." Michael said seriously.
"I don't know what to tell you. I'm just a fairly average human... well, except that I was named as 'The Harbinger' during an Assembly of the Magi." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"You actually witnessed an Assembly of the Magi?"
"Witnessed... Participated in... I suppose it's all relative." Agent Roberts said, then gestured for Michael to start walking with him through the ornate garden.
"I've heard that being part of a spelling that big will change you. That after something like that, you can never be the same." Michael said anxiously.
"Well, as far as I can tell, everything it did for me was good. Obby is able to have a life of his own and I'm able to continue to have contact with all the new friends that I made during the assembly. I'm perfectly content with where I am in my life." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"Where is Obby now?"
"He went flat for a while. I can call him if I need him, or he might go solid later on and join in our conversation, if he feels like it."
Michael seemed to take notice that they were walking through a formal garden, approaching a castle and cautiously asked, "Where are we going now?"
"Since we're here, it's only right that I introduce you to the queen of Brynnhaven, Queen Marimba. Once we've done that, I'll be taking you into Brynnhollow so that you can meet the village elders and make arrangements for where you'll be living and how you're going to accomplish your job." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully.
"From the way you said that, it sounds like there's going to be more to it than just teaching classes." Michael said cautiously.
"I really know very little about that side of things. I'm going to take you to the people who know more about it and trust that they will be able to guide you in the right direction so that you can do your job effectively." Agent Roberts explained.
"There you are!" An elderly woman wearing a ceramic mask called out as she hurried toward the men.
"You've got to be kidding." Michael said under his breath.
"Be nice." Agent Roberts cautioned him.
"Agent Roberts, it's so wonderful to see you again. How is your lovely sister doing?" The faded monarch asked pleasantly.
"She's fine. Queen Marimba, I'd like to present Michael Bazien. He's going to be..." Agent Roberts began to say, but was interrupted.
"Now Shawn, you already know that many of the people in Brynnhollow won't be able to accept him with that name. If you're serious about wanting to help these people, you'll need to put forth a little effort... at least until they get to know you." Queen Marimba said in a slightly scolding tone.
"Do you know what name he should be called?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"While calling him 'Bazien' might be functional, in time the formality of it will begin to be a hindrance. I've foreseen a few possibilities. I suppose that now that the time is upon us, there's no putting it off. We're going to have to choose one." Queen Marimba said determinedly.
Michael was understandably creeped out by the woman in the ceramic mask. It took everything he had to keep it together enough to follow along with what she was suggesting.
"It would seem like I was being dishonest if I just suddenly started going by another name." Michael fought to explain, then continued, "If people found out that I was pretending to be someone that I wasn't, it could destroy any semblance of trust that might have developed between us."
"Worry not. That's already been taken into account. Come along now. There's no need to dawdle." Queen Marimba said before turning with a swish of her long flowing gown and hurrying out of the garden.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts and Michael shared a look as they followed the elderly woman in her ceramic mask and faded royal finery.
"Certain functions require a particular setting." Queen Marimba said as she paused to shoulder open an enormous door.
The dim light in the cavernous room caused both men to slow to allow their eyes to adjust.
"Please excuse the mess. The boys must have been playing in here. Little scamps." Queen Marimba muttered fondly from ahead of them, not slowing her pace a bit.
The neglect and decay were thick in the air in the dimly lit room. Neither Agent Roberts nor Michael were able to find their voices as they followed Queen Marimba past clumps and piles of rot and debris.
Michael was surprised to realize what he was seeing as Queen Marimba finally came to a stop.
It was nothing less than an actual throne.
Looking around, Michael could see how the rotting extravagance surrounding them might have once been the royal finery of an actual throne room.
"I toyed with the idea of convening court and having a more formal affair, but the two of you wouldn't have time to enjoy it. If you'll stand over here, before the throne, for just a moment, then you can be on your way to begin this new adventure of yours." Queen Marimba said as she seemed to be looking for something in the chests surrounding the throne.
Agent Roberts and Michael shared a silent look, then in unison, they did as they were told.
"Here it is. I knew that I left it in here... probably for this very thing. Regardless, Michael..." Queen Marimba began to say as she turned with a sword in her hand to find that Michael and Agent Roberts were standing where they had been instructed.
"A thing such as this I do not take lightly. I have few blessings and gifts to bestow and therefore am very frugal with them. Be that as it may, you stand before me now, young Michael Bazien, child of Clairice and Jean-Claude, descended from the nobles of the eastern continent, histories shrouded in secrecy, yet revealed in the fullness of time through your very actions." Queen Marimba muttered in a trance-like voice.
Michael looked at Agent Roberts with question only to receive a shrug in response.
Sounding to be a bit more coherent, she continued, "In the fullness of time you have come to stand before me in the kingdom where I am sovereign. Therefore, as Queen of Brynnhaven I declare that henceforth, the man before me, formerly known as Michael Bazien, shall be known as Bastyan, the Queen's Scholar. As such you shall be granted every courtesy and kindness I and my court have to offer."
Agent Roberts had to fight not to react as the queen raised her sword. Every instinct and every bit of training he had were standing by, waiting for the slightest indication that he or Michael were in danger from her.
A strange movement caught Michael's attention and he could see a faint shadow traveling up Queen Marimba's arm, subtly engulfing it.
As Michael, Agent Roberts and presumably Obby all watched, the Queen lowered her arm and gently touched the point of her sword to each of Michael's shoulders.
"It is done. You are my scholar now. Go in my name and with my blessing, and impart knowledge to the young of Brynnhaven and Brynnhollow." Queen Marimba said as she lowered the sword to her side.
"Thank you... I think." Michael said uncertainly.
"Oh, look at that. This makes it all that much more official. We have witnesses." Queen Marimba said with delight as she let the sword clatter to the ground and hurried across the room to where three grotesque baby dolls seemed to be propped up in a row, just inside the door.
"Those weren't there before, were they?" Michael cautiously asked.
"Let's get out of here while she's distracted." Agent Roberts said quickly, then led the way toward a door to the right of the throne.
"Won't she be upset that we left without saying goodbye?" Michael asked cautiously.
"Possibly, but it's equally likely that in five minutes she won't remember that we were here at all, or she might decide that she just dreamed it and that it was one of the futures that she foresaw that didn't actually happen." Agent Roberts explained as he guided them through a maze of dimly lit stone hallways.
"I was afraid that she was going to hurt you." Obby said, seeming to step, fully formed, out of the darkness surrounding them and continued on with them.
"I saw you wrapped around her arm. Thank you for protecting me." Michael said appreciatively.
"Through here." Agent Roberts said as he led the group toward a doorway filled with bright sunlight.
"I'm glad we came here anyway. I think things will go a lot better for you since you've got your new name." Obby said frankly.
"You don't really take her seriously, do you?" Michael asked with astonishment.
"Queen Marimba is tolerated by the men of Brynnhollow. They don't put much stock in her claims of being the sovereign queen of their people but they also don't bother disputing it. But many of the women of Brynnhaven have actually accepted her as their queen and are devoted to her. What that means for you is that no matter what people believe, Queen Marimba's blessing and bestowal of a name and a title work in your favor." Agent Roberts said frankly as they walked through the doorway into a beautiful courtyard.
"Agent Roberts, Queen Marimba sent word to Mason that you would be needing a ride into Brynnhollow today. You didn't have to wait too long, did you?" A young man asked pleasantly from a horse-drawn carriage as it slowed to a stop in front of them.
"No. Not at all. You're right on time." Agent Roberts said with surprise, then thought to add, "Rocky, I'd like for you to meet Michael..."
"Call me Bastyan."
To Be Continued...
Editor's Notes: I love the name Bastyan. I am not sure if the spelling is the same, but I read a book and saw a movie called the neverending story, and one of the characters was named Bastyan.
I am very pleased to have another chapter of the Brynnhollow saga.
I always enjoy seeing our friends from the magic land.
Hopefully it won't be too long before we see another one.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher