Agent Roberts was impressed with the dedication and determination of his team. Although they were all aware that they weren't expected to push themselves, the entire group pressed on without complaint.
Even Mr. Bentley Brown was keeping up the pace. He obviously wasn't happy with his situation, but at least he wasn't whining about it.
At the first of several challenging climbs, Agent Roberts fell back to bring up the rear so that he could be available for anyone who might need his assistance.
While Dex and Filipe seemed to struggle a little, they were able to complete their climb unaided. Mr. Bentley Brown scaled the steep incline wearing his grim expression, but didn't falter. It seemed curious to Agent Roberts that regardless of the difficulty of the terrain, Mr. Bentley Brown never once released the valice that he was carrying. He never set it down or even shifted it to his other hand.
"How is everybody doing? Does anyone need a break?" Agent Roberts asked as they began their descent.
"I'm hot. Is it okay to take off my jacket?" Zanner asked without stopping.
"I think it's going to be cooler as we climb down. If you're still warm when we reach the bottom, you can take it off."
"I think it's starting to rain." Filipe announced.
"Yeah. Go ahead and break out the rain gear. From the look of it, it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better."
"It's okay to do magic here, isn't it?" Zanner asked cautiously.
"Yeah. That's no problem."
Zanner stopped for a moment and seemed to be concentrating as he made a series of quick hand movements, the way that one might do when they were trying to describe something that was difficult to articulate.
As soon as he was done, he looked toward Dex and said, "If you walk beside me the rain won't bother you."
"Thanks." Dex said timidly.
"Agent Roberts?" Filipe quietly asked.
"I can keep the rain off you too, if you want me to."
"Thanks, Filipe. As long as it's not too much trouble for you."
Filipe moved closer to Agent Roberts' side, then did much the same as Zanner had done.
"Professor Everstone, do you need a minute to put on your rain gear?" Agent Roberts asked carefully.
"No need to worry. The spear is taking care of that all on its own." Professor Everstone said pleasantly. Agent Roberts noted that the Professor had been using the spear like a walking stick or a staff as they had been hiking.
Despite his reluctance to do so, Agent Roberts glanced at Mr. Bentley Brown and found that he seemed, if not content, at least no more unhappy than was usual for him.
"If we're all ready, let's go."
* * * * *
Agent Roberts could tell that they were moving at a slower pace than when he and Agent Fastbeck had traversed the same route. However, he couldn't find fault in the amount of effort that any of his team were putting forth.
He came to the honest conclusion that they were doing their best. Pushing them to work harder or move faster would only cause unnecessary hurt feelings and likely wouldn't do anything to increase their speed of travel.
"Is it a lot farther?" Filipe quietly asked from Agent Roberts side.
"We're not quite halfway there." Agent Roberts answered simply.
"How did you ever find this place, out in the middle of nowhere like this?"
"We had a map." Agent Roberts said simply.
"But I thought this place was supposed to be a secret."
"It is. The map was a secret too. When we were told that the Wudewas needed help, we were given the map so that we could find them."
"Who told you?"
"Agent Fastbeck told me. I can't say for sure who told him or who gave him the map. But even if I knew, I probably couldn't tell you."
"Was it just the two of you when you came here the first time?"
"Yes. You see, back then all we knew was that the Wudewas needed help. We didn't know what kind of trouble they were in. Once we had talked to them, we did our best to give them the help that they needed. Now we're here following up, making sure that they won't have to worry about being found out again."
"It's just hard for me to imagine you two going out here and facing that all by yourselves."
"If you heard that there was someone in trouble, wouldn't you want to do whatever you could to help them?"
"Yeah. But I'd probably need to ask someone else because I can't do that much by myself."
"Filipe. If you think about it, you'll see that that's exactly what I did. That's what you're doing here."
They walked in silence for a long moment until Filipe finally responded, "This is a lot bigger than just helping the Wudewas, isn't it?"
"I guess it depends on who you ask. I'm sure that this is just another job for Mr. Bentley Brown. I think that this will probably end up meaning different things for all of us."
"Even though I have magic, this is different. If everything goes right, now I'll know that I have power."
"You know the old saying about power and responsibility, don't you?"
"Just don't let it go to your head. Okay?"
"I'll try not to, but I'm afraid that I won't know that I'm doing it."
"Don't worry. If you seem to have forgotten, I'll remind you."
* * * * *
"What's that?" Filipe asked as he pointed toward the sky.
"A bird." Agent Roberts answered simply.
"I know that. But it's big. What kind of a bird is it?" Filipe persisted.
Agent Roberts looked more carefully, then cautiously said, "Actually, I think that might be Agent Fastbeck."
"Really?" Filipe asked in surprise as Agent Roberts began to wave his arms in a grand gesture.
When the bird altered its course and started toward them, Agent Roberts called out to his team, "We need to stop here for a few minutes. There might be trouble up ahead."
The group stopped and watched as the black swan came in low, then landed directly in their path.
"Is there a problem?" Agent Roberts asked with concern.
All present watched as the swan began to grow and take on somewhat humanoid features.
"No problem, only a slight change in plans." Agent Fastbeck assured him.
"What are we doing?"
"The other team arrived at the site and they're getting set up. I came back to check to see that your team is doing alright. Since it turns out that you're so close, I thought that maybe we could go directly to the barrier and then continue on to the campsite from there."
"Excuse me, but Mr. Bentley Brown and I may have some difficulty with this new plan of yours. We can't predict how the relics will react when they are in close proximity to the existing barrier."
"Just keep us updated on how things are going and we'll stop if we need to." Agent Roberts said decisively.
"Right. If it comes down to it, the group can stop for a few minutes while I go on ahead." Agent Fastbeck agreed.
"I thought you were a human." Filipe said suddenly.
"I am." Agent Fastbeck responded with a smile at him, then explained, "I'm a human who was cursed by a witch. Part of my curse makes me change forms. But we can talk more about that later, once we've taken care of business."
"Are you going to be okay to walk like that?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"It isn't far from here. I'll be fine." Agent Fastbeck assured him then looked around the group and asked, "Are we ready to go?"
After a moment to see if anyone had any objection, Agent Roberts finally said, "Lead the way!"
* * * * *
Fortunately, the rain had subsided, but from the look of the clouds, it could start up again at any moment.
"As I had feared, the Mikael Spear is reacting to the barrier. I shouldn't get any nearer until we are ready to enact the ritual." Professor Everstone warned.
"That's no problem. We're only a few minutes away from the barrier now. If the rest of you want to wait here, I shouldn't be too long." Agent Fastbeck said assuringly.
"Actually, it might be good for the Wudewas and the kids to meet each other." Agent Roberts interjected.
"How so?" Agent Fastbeck asked curiously.
"It'll give the kids an idea of exactly who they'll be helping. At the same time, it would give the Wudewas an opportunity to see more of the variety of people who are working to help them."
"I don't know how much impact it will have on the Wudewas, but since their contact with outsiders is so limited, this little glimpse of our people might end up giving them some sort of comfort. This way they'll be able to see that not everyone on the outside are murderous monsters intent on destroying them."
"Is it going to be safe for us?" Dex asked timidly.
"It will be fine. I visited them before and even though they might look a little scary at first, you'll be perfectly safe." Agent Roberts assured him.
"Drop your packs. You won't be needing them." Agent Fastbeck added.
Agent Roberts was only too happy to unburden himself.
Once all three boys had taken off their packs, Agent Fasbeck started leading the way.
Agent Roberts looked back at Professor Everstone and Mr. Bentley Brown one last time before following.
* * * * *
When Agent Fastbeck stopped walking, all three boys nearly walked into him.
"This is the barrier." Agent Fastbeck said as he looked back to confirm that Agent Roberts and the boys were all ready to proceed.
"I don't see anything." Dex said cautiously.
"I can see it." Filipe said quietly, then explained, "I can see the spell. Well, not all of it, but.. It's old... it's really old."
"That's the problem. The spell was perfectly fine at the time that it was cast, but now modern technology has developed to a point where it can breach the barrier." Agent Roberts explained.
Without further adieu, Agent Fastbeck stepped forward and slowly said, "In the bond of blood, in the bond of pain, in the bond of shared grief, in the name of Cernunnos who oversees and protects, accept the guardians of light into your sanctuary."
"That wasn't witchcraft." Filipe said nervously.
"It's just the password to let us through the barrier." Agent Roberts explained.
"No. There was magic there... I don't know what kind though. It was different. Paul could probably tell you. He's always talking about the different flavors of magic."
"Come on. We have people waiting on us." Agent Fastbeck said as he pushed through the branches and vines into the misty darkness.
* * * * *
The visibility was such that Agent Roberts made an extra effort to keep track of the three boys. He didn't want to imagine what they would have to endure if any of them became lost.
When Agent Roberts saw a large hulking shape moving ahead of them, he held out his arms and motioned for the boys to stop and be silent.
When the ten foot tall monster stepped forward, Agent Roberts had to fight down his natural instinct to run.
"It's good to see you up and moving around. Are you feeling better?" Agent Fastbeck asked warmly.
The beast let loose a low growl that caused a shiver to go up Agent Roberts' spine.
Agent Fastbeck laughed, then said, "You deserved every bit of that rest and more. Don't feel guilty for one minute for giving yourself time to recover."
"I'm guessing that this is the Wudewas who left here to go for help." Agent Roberts explained to the boys.
"This is Rhuru-wra. He is the young warrior who braved the dangers of the outside world for the sake of his people." Agent Fastbeck said over his shoulder, then turned back to Rhuru-wra and said, "We need to speak to your father."
The brownish-gray monster before them growled something that made Agent Roberts want to put his hands over his ears.
"No. No. It's nothing like that. In fact, we're here to reinforce your barrier so that no one can disturb your people again." Agent Fastbeck quickly explained.
Rhuru-wra snorted once, then turned and started to walk away.
When he was almost out of sight, he let out a low growl.
"He wants us to follow him." Agent Fastbeck translated.
"Are you guys okay?" Agent Roberts asked quietly as he turned to look at the three boys.
He found all three of them pale and trembling.
"If he was going to kill us, he would have done it by now. Come on." Agent Roberts said simply, as he motioned for them to follow.
"That doesn't make me feel a whole lot better." Zanner said as he started walking.
"I'm pretty sure that no one ever told me that making you feel better was part of my job description. I'm supposed to bring you back alive... yeah. I think that was about it." Agent Roberts continued and was happy to see that all three boys were following him.
"That was a Wudewas?" Dex asked weakly.
"Yes. That was one of the people that we're here to defend and protect." Agent Roberts said more seriously.
"We're supposed to protect them?" Filipe asked disbelievingly.
"That's the plan." Agent Roberts confirmed, then continued, "Remember all that magic and stuff that you've been learning. Here's where it makes a difference. Here's where it matters. And when you meet these people and get to know them, you'll see why it matters."
"This is why you wanted us to come inside the barrier with you, isn't it?" Filipe asked cautiously.
"I never doubted that you'd take the work seriously or that you would do any less than your best, but I thought that it'd be good if you actually met the people you're going to be protecting. It not only ups the stakes, but it will also make it more real when you look back on this, years from now. It's not some abstract concept based on what you learned from a textbook. Once you've looked into their faces and met their families, you'll really know what it is that you're doing here."
"How do you know? Have you done this before?"
"Not something exactly like this. But when I was in the military, I saw a little action. I learned not only about helping the helpless, but also about regret. No matter how afraid you ever are, don't let it stop you from doing what you know is right. It's the faces of the ones you didn't help that will haunt your nightmares."
As Agent Roberts started to descend the series of logs that were neither stairs nor a ladder he made sure to keep careful watch on the three boys to be sure that they would be able to manage the climb.
Filipe, especially, seemed to be struggling, but Agent Roberts allowed him the dignity of overcoming the obstacle on his own.
* * * * *
Once the last of them had finally settled at the bottom of the stairway/ladder, Agent Fastbeck led them toward a source of light.
The vines and branches seemed to be parted to allow them access to the lighted world.
Rhuru-wra growled low in his throat, suddenly reminding Agent Roberts and the boys that he was still leading them.
"The elder doesn't know that we're coming, so Rhuru-wra's going on ahead to tell him." Agent Fastbeck translated, then added, "Stay together."
Agent Roberts noticed how the three boys were gathered around him and said, "I don't think that will be a problem."
* * * * *
Agent Roberts noted that the day was drearier than on his last visit, but even so, it was still far brighter than it had been in the shadowy mist.
The boys were silent as they slowly followed Agent Roberts, fascinated by the variety of Wudewas who were also silent and staring back at them.
Having visited before, Agent Roberts was able to get over his initial wonder and look more carefully at how the Wudewas lived.
While primitive, their village was undeniably neat and clean. Everything in sight clearly had a purpose and was expertly crafted. He suspected that nothing was wasted, neither resources nor effort. It appeared to be a difficult life, but also a rewarding one.
* * * * *
As the group approached the large central hut, Rhuru-wra emerged and growled at Agent Fastbeck.
"Ud-wra will see us." Agent Fastbeck translated before walking past Rhuru-wra through the doorway.
Agent Roberts was a little nervous walking so near to the enormous beast.
The boys were obviously scared half out of their wits, but fortunately they were able to keep it together well enough to continue walking into the hut.
"Ud-wra, I'm sure you remember Agent Roberts. Allow me to present Zanner Sands, Dexter Mulryan and Filipe Pena. They are part of the team who will be working to reinforce the Southseid barrier so that there won't be a repeat of the tragedy that befell your people." Agent Fastbeck said carefully.
Ud-wra grunted and gave a low growl in response.
"Yes, that is correct. The ones you met before were cursed witches and vampires. These boys are witches, unfettered by any curses. Each member of our team has a different specialty to contribute to reestablishing your barrier."
Ud-wra was silent for a long moment, then glanced in Agent Fastbeck's direction and grunted.
"I don't really know, I'll have to ask." Agent Fastbeck responded, then turned to Agent Roberts and said, "Ud-wra would like to know what the boys will be doing to contribute to the barrier project."
"I don't know all the details..." Agent Roberts said, then turned to the boys and added, "...correct me if I'm wrong."
All three boys nodded.
"Filipe will be using Thaumaturgy and combining his spellcasting skills with Paul's. Zanner will be using his skill with nature magic and Dex is an Oriad and will be providing access to the power of the earth." Agent Roberts said carefully.
Agent Fastbeck relayed the summary, nearly verbatim, then waited for Ud-wra's response.
After a long moment of consideration, Ud-wra finally gave a low growl, then made a gesture toward the door of the hut.
Without having to be told, Agent Roberts and the boys automatically started to walk out of the room.
"He wants us to go outside. I don't know what for." Agent Fastbeck said as he followed.
"Stay close to me, boys." Agent Roberts said in a low voice.
"Any closer and I'd be in your pocket." Filipe whispered in response.
Agent Roberts smiled and gave Filipe a quick hug around the shoulders as they emerged from the large hut and came to a stop.
Ud-wra took a few steps past them, then began to call out in a low, rumbling growl.
The other Wudewas in the area simultaneously stopped whatever they were doing and began to gather around.
The agents and the boys remained still and silent as nearly thirty Wudewas assembled before them.
Ud-wra let loose a lengthy growl, which while being loud, wasn't quite as frightening as some of those earlier had been.
In response, the assembled Wudewas all began to growl, more or less in unison.
Agent Roberts felt a chill go up his spine as he looked around the group and found all of them looking back. Their large, soulful eyes conveyed so many emotions that he couldn't count them all, even though he was certain that he was experiencing each and every one of those emotions with them.
At some unspoken cue, the spell was broken. The Wudewas suddenly went silent, then started to drift away, going back to whatever tasks they had been doing before.
"Ud-wra explained why we're here and asked that his people thank you for what you're willing to do for them." Agent Fastbeck quietly related to his companions.
"Can we go now?" Dex asked in a slightly trembling voice.
"Yes. We've done what we came to do. It's time to get to work." Agent Fastbeck said to Dex, then turned to Ud-wra and continued, "We will be leaving now. I just came to tell you what would be happening in the next few days. I won't be part of the party working on the barrier, so it's possible that this may be the last time we meet. It was an honor and a pleasure to get to know you and your people."
Ud-wra growled once in response, then turned to go back to the large hut.
"Goodbye." Agent Fastbeck said quietly, then motioned for Agent Roberts and the boys to follow him back to the vine covered archway filled with mist and shadows.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts purposefully held himself back so that the boys could precede him up the stairway/ladder. Although he knew it would be difficult for all of them, he was particularly concerned about Filipe. It turned out that even though it was obviously a strain on the boy, he kept up with the older boys every step of the way.
In contrast, Agent Fastbeck didn't seem to have any problem climbing in his Oskmey form. Something about his avian/human physiology resulted in a surprisingly adept climber. In fact, Agent Roberts couldn't be sure that Agent Fastbeck didn't somehow have a little bit of spider mixed up in there too.
Once they were on level ground Agent Roberts took stock of his group and found them to be in reasonable shape. The climb had been taxing, but meeting the Wudewas had made the whole trip more than worth it.
"Would you guys do me a favor and not brag too much about getting to meet the Wudewas?" Agent Fastbeck asked as he led the way in the misty darkness.
"Define 'too much'." Zanner said immediately.
"Just think about how you'd feel if you had missed out on something like this. Don't be a jerk and do that to your friends." Agent Fastbeck said solemnly.
"Yeah. Okay. I probably wouldn't have done it anyway. It'd feel almost like I was doing stuff to hurt the Wudewas if I did something like that. I'd be holding them up and showing them off just to make myself look more important than I really am." Zanner said thoughtfully.
"I'm glad that you understand." Agent Fastbeck said sincerely.
"The reason I wanted for you to meet the Wudewas is so that you'll know who you're trying to help. Now it's not just some vague notion. You've met them. You've seen where they live. When we start to work on the barrier, you're going to know exactly why we're doing it." Agent Roberts said firmly.
"This isn't something that we're doing for a grade. This matters." Filipe interjected.
"Yes. That's the point I was trying to make." Agent Roberts confirmed.
"You made it." Zanner admitted.
"Then enough said." Agent Roberts said with accomplishment.
* * * * *
After stepping through the barrier, Agent Fastbeck said, "I'm going to go back to the camp and let them know that you're on your way."
"Will you still be there when we arrive?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"It will probably only take you about twenty minutes to hike to the camp from here. I should be about ready to start the hike out by the time you get there."
"Well, if I don't see you again before you go, expect me to check in at the office periodically. I'd like to keep you up-to-date on how things are going."
"Thank you. I would like to be here with you for this, but that just isn't possible."
"I know." Agent Roberts said regretfully, then cracked a smile as he added, "Maybe next time."
"Maybe." Agent Fastbeck agreed before starting to walk away.
As Agent Roberts and the three boys watched, Agent Fastbeck's 'Oskmey' form suddenly became smaller, and within seconds, a large black swan was taking to the air.
"We're the witches. We should be able to do that." Zanner exclaimed.
"Each of us have our own special gifts to contribute. Agent Fastbeck has that one." Agent Roberts explained.
"What gifts do you have?"
Although the question could be taken as something of a challenge, Agent Roberts got the sense that Zanner really wanted to understand.
"The gift that I'm bringing is who and what I am." Agent Roberts said carefully. "I'm a human, an FBI agent and someone who is aware of other special 'people' in the world. As such, I have a unique point of view to contribute, along with specialized training and personal experience."
"I always thought that non magical people weren't special and couldn't do much of anything." Dex said quietly.
"We can all do different things." Agent Roberts assured him, then added, "The trick is in recognizing your talents and putting them to good use. I get the feeling that a lot of people get hung up on that last part."
"But that's what we're doing now, isn't it?" Zanner asked thoughtfully. "That's what you're making us do. You're bringing us out here and showing us not only how to use our magic for something that matters, but also that we have other things, like you do, that aren't magic, but are just as important."
"That's right. If you take a step back and look at it, you'll see that you weren't chosen for a single attribute that you possess, but for your whole selves. And it's not just about what you bring to the project, but also what you're likely to take away from it."
"If we were here with only witches, we might not have seen that." Filipe said cautiously.
"I think that one of the reasons that I was included was to give you that opportunity." Agent Roberts said, remembering his talk with Mr. Darroch on the matter.
"There's a whole lot more to this than fixing their barrier, isn't it?" Dex asked quietly.
"I think that the people in charge were given a challenge and found ways to make it an opportunity." Agent Roberts said simply, then quickly added, "Let's go and get Professor Everstone and Mr. Bentley Brown so that we can get this started."
"Yeah!" Zanner said enthusiastically.
"Did all go well?" Professor Everstone asked as Agent Roberts and the boys approached.
"Yes. The Wudewas know what we're going to be doing and Agent Fastbeck has gone ahead to let everyone else know that we're on our way." Agent Roberts answered professionally.
"Dexter, did you feel any ill effects from being so near the barrier?" Professor Everstone asked with concern.
"No. I didn't feel anything."
"Good. That indicates that you're in sync with your element. Hopefully those of us who will be manipulating the other elements will be able to establish such a rapport."
"Have you been able to tell anything about the barrier since you've been here?" Agent Roberts asked hopefully.
"There is a ritual that we will have to enact to divine the properties of the current barrier. All I can tell you at this point is that it exists. Thus far I have been unable to gain any further insights."
"Paul and I can see inside spells. If you think it would help, maybe we could do that." Filipe suggested.
"Yours is an incredible gift and it has much value. However, in this circumstance, you would be unable to visualize the details of a spell such as this one. The scope of it is beyond what you could possibly comprehend." Professor Everstone said seriously.
"Then I guess we'd better get going so that we can get this thing started." Agent Roberts said encouragingly, then glanced in Mr. Bentley Brown's direction.
By all appearances, Mr. Bentley Brown might just as easily have been waiting for an overdue bus. The 'put upon' expression seemed to be right at home on his face.
Once Agent Roberts was sure that everyone had their backpacks in place, he loudly said, "Let's move out!"
* * * * *
The hike away from the Wudewas barrier was conducted in determined silence.
Although the assumption had been made that they couldn't keep up and might end up being a liability to the greater team, none of them were feeling that. They were doing their best and giving it their all.
Agent Roberts couldn't be more proud of them if they had somehow arrived at the campsite before the other team.
* * * * *
About five minutes after they had started walking, the rain began in earnest.
Filipe automatically moved to Agent Roberts' side.
As soon as Agent Roberts was aware of the movement, he felt the rain suddenly stop.
After a look around, he was able to verify that it hadn't stopped raining, but rather that the raindrops were no longer hitting him.
"Thanks." Agent Roberts said quietly.
"It's part of being a team." Filipe responded.
After another minute or two of hiking, Agent Roberts checked on his team to be sure that none of them needed to stop to put on rain gear.
Dex and Zanner were walking side by side, much the same as he and Filipe were. Although he couldn't spot any indication of magic being used, he could tell from their ease of movement that they weren't being held back by the rain.
Professor Everstone was still walking, holding the spear. Agent Roberts could detect a slight transparent swirling blur surrounding the professor, which seemed to be repelling the water from him.
Mr. Bentley Brown had no such blur present, but at the same time, didn't appear to be wet at all.
"Is everyone doing alright?" Agent Roberts asked, simply for his own peace of mind.
"I don't know why I ever stayed inside on rainy days. This is great. I love how it smells." Zanner said happily.
"I've always liked the rain." Dex quietly added.
"Will it be much longer?" Mr. Bentley Brown asked impatiently.
"Just a few minutes." Agent Roberts responded in a similarly impatient tone.
As the rain poured down around them, the group pressed forward to reach their destination.
To Be Continued...
The Wudewas seem to be quite an interesting group of people.
I think the kids are beginning to learn that humans, even though they don't necessarily have the use of magic, can certainly accomplish many things, and that each person whether or not they have magic at their disposal, have their own individual attributes, some good and some perhaps not so good. It all depends on how a person uses the gifts they possess, and their attitudes toward others that counts.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher