Filipe was the youngest of the teenagers and beyond that, he was a bit small for his age. Even so, he was still able to put away an impressive amount of food.
Agent Roberts supposed that with the amount of hiking and other exertion that they had done the previous day that all of them were due for some additional caloric intake.
After everyone had finished their breakfasts, Professor Everstone paid their bill and left a generous tip for Harry.
The professor had suggested that everyone travel in their groups to prepare themselves for the task ahead. So Agent Roberts found himself alone in the car, following Agent Fastbeck toward their next destination.
The quiet time alone in his own company gave him a chance to think. He didn't feel any ill effects from being without his shadow, but since he was dealing with something that could conceivably affect his perception, he couldn't be sure that he would notice a change if there were one.
According to what Mr. Hansen and Miss Oaken had told him, his shadow was a reservoir for those things which he kept repressed. While Miss Oaken had suggested that his aggression might be an issue, he didn't feel that he had been repressing any anger or hostility. He had always been very good about expressing his anger in an appropriate manner when he was feeling it and in the longer term, finding healthy ways of dealing with it.
Likewise, or perhaps as a result, when he had faced his issues with his parents, he hadn't repressed his emotions. He had succinctly explained what he expected and in some instances, what he would tolerate. Although they had tried to use passive aggressive tactics to manipulate him into doing what they wanted, in the end he had stood up for himself and remained true to his own convictions. Looking back, he had no regrets.
As far as Michelle, he had told his sister honestly about his concerns for her and offered her a reprieve from their parents' constant hounding. He had, in essence, paved the way. He knew within himself that he hadn't repressed anything in his interactions with her or in matters regarding her. He told her that he loved her and outlined his concerns. What happened next would have to be up to her or it wouldn't have any meaning.
Feeling settled in his soul, Agent Roberts concluded that the absence of his shadow would probably just be a minor inconvenience for a short time.
As he relaxed, his mind began to wander and he felt unusually tranquil as he remembered a soft, sweet smile. Although the smile was indeed beautiful, what made it most precious was that it was for him.
Realizing what he was doing, Agent Roberts regretfully put the image out of his mind so that he could focus on the job ahead.
As he considered the likelihood that in the coming day's events, G and Corabeth would be called upon to go above and beyond the job that they had been invited to do, that smile once again intruded on his thoughts, stirring feelings within him that he hadn't experienced for a very long time.
"Oh shit!" Agent Roberts gasped as he realized what was happening to him and very nearly caused him to apply the brake. The revelation was so stark that he felt the instinctive need to 'literally' stop and deal with it.
Even though he was shocked, he was still 'with it' enough to not fully panic. Years of training in keeping his cool in crisis situations kicked in and he began to evaluate the elements of what he was experiencing.
While his aggression and anger seemed to have been appropriately channeled or otherwise dealt with, his sexuality had always been shoved aside to deal with later. And, if he were being honest, he had to admit that 'later' rarely, if ever, came.
If what Mr. Hansen and Miss Oaken had told him was accurate, and it was looking more and more like it might be. Then that might mean that his shadow could contain a lifetime worth of his repressed sexuality.
Not knowing the nature or capabilities of a shadow or reflection, he couldn't begin to speculate about the 'real world' consequences of such a thing. Although from what Paul had said the previous night, the 'untethered' shadow had the capability of taking some sort of action in the real world.
Every so often the universe decides to dispense a little justice. Although he knew that he shouldn't delight in another person's misfortune, Agent Roberts found that in this instance he couldn't help himself.
As he fought down a grin, Agent Roberts muttered to himself, "Poor Milo."
* * * * *
As Agent Roberts continued to drive, the vision of that smile, those kissable lips, kept returning to haunt him.
Since he seemed incapable of ignoring it, he instead devoted a sliver of his attention to it.
As Agent Fastbeck began to slow, Agent Roberts turned his full attention forward. What he was seeing didn't make sense at first. As he got closer, he realized that the hazy shimmering before him was an immense illusion.
Agent Fastbeck drove headlong into it and seeing that no injury had befallen him, Agent Roberts followed closely behind. If he had a little more time he would have very much liked to have stopped and taken off his necklace so that he could see what everyone else was seeing.
As Agent Roberts pulled his car to a stop in the field that was serving as a parking lot, he noticed the odd variety of other vehicles parked there.
Unbidden, stories of the planes and ships lost in the bermuda triangle flashed into his mind.
* * * * *
As Agent Fastbeck approached, Agent Roberts pulled his mind back to the present and got out of his car and opened his umbrella.
"I'm sure that these guys will want to get right to work on the barrier. If you'll watch out for them, I'll fly into town and make sure that they know what we're going to be doing." Agent Fastbeck said professionally.
"It'll take them a few minutes to get acclimated to the relics, but they should be ready to get started before too long." Agent Roberts responded, then thought to add, "Paul and G made a point of asking if they could visit with their friends, if that's possible."
"No promises, but I'll do my best to pass on the message..." Agent Fastbeck trailed off as he looked strangely at Agent Roberts.
Before Agent Roberts could ask, Agent Fastbeck cautiously asked, "Is there something wrong?"
"Something seems... off, about you. I can't quite put my finger on it." Agent Fastbeck said slowly.
"Oh, yeah. Don't worry about it. It's nothing. Milo just stole my shadow yesterday. As soon as we go back to Nevermore he's going to give it back to me."
"He stole your shadow?" Agent Fastbeck said dubiously.
Agent Roberts looked at the ground at Agent Fastbeck's feet to see where his shadow was, then down at where his own should have been.
"See? No shadow." Agent Roberts said as he pointed, then added, "I don't have a reflection either."
"Are you alright?" Agent Fastbeck asked with concern.
"Yeah. I'm fine. From what I can tell, a shadow is something like an appendix, serving to remove emotional toxins from the system and to store beneficial emotional energies for when they're needed later. Being without it for a while shouldn't cause too much of a problem."
"Do the others know?"
"Yeah. They don't seem too worried about it."
"You need to understand that when he attacked you, he escalated this situation. I'm involved now. If you need anything, let me know."
Beautiful kissable lips, timidly smiling, intruded into Agent Roberts' thoughts for a moment.
"Yeah. I'm fine right now, but as soon as I'm not, I'll tell you."
"They look like they're ready to get started. I'm going now, but I'll be back before you know it." Agent Fastbeck said as he started to walk back toward his car.
Agent Roberts watched as Agent Fastbeck walked strategically behind his car, then disappeared from sight.
A moment later, a large black swan emerged from behind the car, then took flight.
"We're just normal humans, aren't we." Agent Roberts said under his breath as he watched the swan fly away.
* * * * *
"How are things going here?" Agent Roberts asked as he approached.
"Paul and G are just acclimating to their relics. Should we wait for Agent Fastbeck to return before beginning?" Professor Everstone asked cautiously.
"I'm sure he would have warned us if anyone were likely to have a problem with it."
"Yes. I'm sure that he would have." Professor Everstone agreed, then turned to the students and said, "Disregard what your eyes tell you and see if you can follow the elemental magic to the edge of the barrier."
Agent Roberts had expected the students to walk up the road that they had arrived on to where the illusion was, but instead, they began walking between the cars toward the treeline.
As Agent Roberts began to walk, he turned to Professor Everstone and asked, "So the 'actual' barrier isn't where the illusion is?"
"No, the illusion is projected by the barrier, making the area of influence seem far greater than it actually is."
"I remember you saying something about this barrier making people not want to go near it or something like that. Do you have everything you'll need to deal with a barrier that can affect people that way?" Agent Roberts asked carefully as he did his best to spot anything that could be used as a landmark, in case he ended up having to lead the way back.
"You're surprisingly observant, Agent Roberts. It turns out that if we end up having to modify that component of the spelling, that we may very well have to call in reinforcements." Professor Everstone said gravely as he kept pace with the group.
"But you have everything that you'll need to make that determination right here and now?" Agent Roberts asked in a leading tone.
"Another astute observation." Professor Everstone said in an impressed tone, then explained, "Miss Oaken has the rudimentary knowledge and skills to evaluate the spell. She, however, does not have the skills or knowledge to recast the spell, should that be necessary."
"If you're going to need someone else brought in, let me know as soon as possible. I have a satellite phone with me and we can call Mr. Darroch immediately."
"I will keep that in mind. Regardless of whether we need to call for reinforcements or not, I need to bring Mr. Darroch up-to-date on the status of our project. He needs to be aware of the change in scope."
"From what I've seen of him, I'm guessing that he'll also want to know that his sons are doing okay."
"Yes. Even if everything were going exactly to plan, it would be worth making the call just for that."
* * * * *
Agent Roberts noticed a chill on his skin from a light breeze and the diminished light from the canopy of leaves. The 'path' to his right seemed to be better lit and more inviting than the one to his left.
Paul, G, Zanner and Dex seemed to be drawn unerringly toward their common goal and took the left path without hesitation.
As suddenly as the chill had come over him, it left.
"Professor, you might want to watch out. I think this thing might be trying to control us or trick us in some way." Agent Roberts warned.
"What makes you suspect that?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's the charm that the boys made for me to keep me from being tricked by Jen's illusions. Whatever it is, it feels to me like there's something whispering in my ear and nudging me in the direction that it wants me to go." Agent Roberts said as he tried to articulate his feelings.
"It's hard to say whether we're immune since we're witches or if we're fully under the enchantment and don't realize it."
"Filipe. Can you help me for a minute?"
"What can I do for you, Agent Roberts?" Filipe asked as he eagerly approached and fell into step with them.
"You know the spell you put on the necklace for me? Would you cast it again right now, on yourself?"
"Do you think we're caught in an illusion?"
"More of a subtle mind control. Go ahead and cast the spell and see if I'm right." Agent Roberts suggested.
As he watched, Filipe cast the familiar spell, using both words and gestures. Agent Roberts was a little concerned that Filipe was so engrossed in his spellcasting that he might not be aware of his footing as they continued to walk.
After Filipe had finished, Agent Roberts cautiously asked, "Can you feel any difference?"
"Yeah. It's showing us what we want to see." Filipe said slowly.
"Do you think that we're being misled from our goal?" Professor Everstone asked with concern.
"I don't know. If you want, I can try to join with the elemental water and see if I'm seeing the same thing that Paul does." Filipe suggested cautiously.
"Let me try something first." Agent Roberts said as he stopped walking.
"Guys! Hold up a minute." Filipe called after them.
"It's just up ahead. We're almost there." Paul complained.
"If Agent Roberts is right, it's always going to be 'just up ahead'. Hang on for a minute, okay?"
Paul, G, Zanner and Dex all stopped and slowly walked back to where everyone else had gathered around Agent Roberts.
"With all of you knowing about magic and stuff, I know that this is going to sound really silly, but if what I'm thinking is right, this could actually work." Agent Roberts explained to the group.
"Go ahead. Do as you will." Professor Everstone encouraged.
Agent Roberts looked around the group and felt nothing but their complete faith in him.
"In the pain of birth, in the pain of growth, in the pain of achieving maturity, in the name of the horned god of the animals, I humbly ask that we be granted entry to this, your sanctuary. We are the harbingers of the next age." Agent Roberts carefully said as he watched to see if anything were going to happen.
"Whoah! How did you do that?" Paul asked in astonishment as he looked around.
"What happened? I'm wearing the charm you made for me so I couldn't see any difference." Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"I don't know. I didn't know anything was wrong before, but when you cast that spell, the false world melted away and now we're standing here in reality." Paul said as he looked around.
"How did you do that?" Filipe demanded to know.
"And what did you do?" Paul asked more reasonably.
"I took what I'd witnessed at the other two barriers and applied it to this one. I figured that I would say my little poem and either it would work or nothing would happen. All things considered, I think it was worth the risk." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"But you're a human." Dex said slowly.
"Yes, but so are Agent Fastbeck and Archdruid Highley and they can both open barriers." Agent Roberts said reasonably.
"But Agent Fastbeck has been imbued with god power and Archdruid Highley has an angelic enchantment." Paul slowly explained.
"True. But I've had my shadow stolen. I don't know if you need a full-blast enchantment on you or if you just need to have been 'touched' by magic for it to work."
"...because if you tried and it didn't work, we'd be no worse off." Filipe said thoughtfully.
"Right. Now that the illusion's been broken, we can find the 'real' edge of the barrier."
"Hold on. Before we do that, where did you come up with the words for the spell?" Mr. Hansen asked curiously.
"I made them up. I just made sure that my poem contained the same elements as the poems that Conrad and Archdruid Highley used."
"From the look of it, you would've made a pretty good witch." Paul said with a grin.
"Why would I want to do that? I'm doing just fine with what I've got."
"You certainly are!" Professor Everstone said with a delighted chuckle which spread to the rest of the group.
"The edge of the barrier is over this way." Paul said as he started walking off in a different direction.
Without acknowledgement or complaint, the rest of the group automatically followed.
* * * * *
"Agent Roberts, would you mind saying your 'poem' again? I'd like to watch you while you do it." Paul asked cautiously.
"I didn't even think of that. Me too!" Filipe said quickly.
"Um, sure." Agent Roberts cautiously responded, then did his best to recite the 'poem' from memory.
After doing so, Paul broke into a grand smile and said, "I knew it! It's demonic!"
"What?!" Agent Roberts asked with surprise.
"Since you hadn't been imbued with magic to be able to cast a spell, I wondered what kind of magical flavor your 'poem' would have. It looks like you leeched some of the magic from the charm we made for you and that's what fueled the spell to open the barrier for us." Paul explained.
"It wasn't just demonic magic, but instead of it being my 'plain' magic, that's the same as everyone else's, Paul's demonic magic being in there made it so that there's no chance of it being anything else." Filipe added.
"So what does that mean for me? Did I kill the charm or gain the ability to do magic or something?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"No. You're just like you were before. But since you were willing to take a chance and try something different, you proved how the barrier locks work." Paul said simply.
"And that helps us with working on the barriers. Now that we know how the locking spell is made, we'll have a better chance of making it so that the next people who work on the barriers won't have any problems because we messed up the locks." Filipe said seriously.
"Guys! I think this is it!" Zanner said from ahead of them.
"Oops! I'm on duty. We'll talk later." Paul said before dashing away.
"I had my concerns about bringing a group of younger students instead of only choosing from the 'senior' talent pool. I'm glad that I ended up listening to my instincts." Professor Everstone said thoughtfully.
"I think we're all glad of that." Agent Roberts said with a smile.
* * * * *
"G, what do you see?" Professor Everstone asked cautiously.
"Not only is there a ton of air manipulation here, but a lot of sorcery too."
"Do you think that Miss Knawld will be able to help you in deciphering what you're seeing?" Professor Everstone asked cautiously.
"Yeah. And I think I'll probably need Paul and Filipe to help me when they're done with their water stuff. This is insane!"
"What about Zanner and Dex?"
"Unless they've figured out how to read spells outside their specialty, they probably won't be able to do much. But considering what they did yesterday, I think they've probably earned some down time. We should be able to handle this." G said seriously.
"That's a very good point. Why don't we let them get their part out of the way while you take the time to fully investigate what's before you."
"That sounds like a good idea. There's a lot of it and I don't want to miss anything." G agreed.
"What do you want me to do?" Corabeth asked cautiously.
"If you don't mind, would you focus on the primary 'air' spells while I'm digging into the sorcery? You don't have to do anything but identify what they're for at this point. We'll go back and figure out how they work when Professor Everstone is ready for us."
"Yes. I can do that." Corabeth said confidently.
"Thanks. That'll help a lot." G said appreciatively, then he turned and asked, "Paul, could you help me out with something before you get in too deep?"
"Yeah. Sure. What do you need?"
"Shelter." G said frankly.
"This is going to take everything that I've got and when I go full-out, I don't want to be drenched in rain for however long it takes to go through all these spells. If you could lend me a little of your water, I have a spell in mind that will make it so none of us will have to get wet.
"Sounds great. Just tell me what I have to do." Paul said with interest.
"Give me a stone tablet so I can write out the full spell for you. We'll have to synchronize it to make it work, but it'll be worth it."
Paul made a casual gesture and a stone wall erupted from the ground, just the same as the table and benches had at the campsite and at Nevermore.
G stepped forward and placed one finger on the stone and glowing writing began to appear.
Agent Roberts tried to read it, but was completely lost halfway through the first sentence.
"Where did you come up with this?" Paul asked with surprise.
"Research project. Unfortunately, since I don't have any talent for water, all I could do was write about it. I've always wanted to try it."
"I can see why. It's like a perfect blend of illusions and elemental manipulations."
"Yeah. It's not often that one of my spells ends up creating something 'real'." G said regretfully.
"Is that all of it?" Paul asked when the writing seemed to have stopped.
"Yeah. I've been through this thing a zillion times, so we can do it whenever you're ready." G said easily.
"Alright. Let's do it." Paul said confidently.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts watched the truly magical sight in wonder.
As Paul held the chalice and G held the spear, they cast their spell, using different words but the same exact cadence.
At times it seemed that one would finish the other's sentence or complete their thought, although Agent Roberts was well past the point of following what either of them were saying.
Cold wind began to blow and the fallen rain around them began to swirl and form different shapes.
Agent Roberts remembered a warning that he had received about witches sometimes getting lost in the spectacle of casting a difficult or exceptionally well-crafted spell.
He believed that he was seeing that play out in front of him, however he couldn't find any fault with it. The boys were consumed with their spellcasting and joyful in their ability to create something magical and new.
As the spiralling swirling streams of water began to slow, Agent Roberts realized that the cold air was causing the water to freeze in place.
Before his amazed eyes, a beautiful little gazebo appeared, right there in the clearing in the forest.
"I'm going to miss this spear when we're done. That was AWESOME!" G giggled with delight.
"Mr. Bentley Brown may have to fight me for the chalice, too." Paul said with a laugh, then looked in Mr. Bentley Brown's direction and quietly said, "Kidding."
Agent Roberts could have sworn that he almost spotted a smile on the dour man's face, but to Mr. Bentley Brown's credit, he was civil enough to give a nod of acknowledgement to Paul to assure him that no offence had been taken.
Not only was the gazebo that the boys created a very practical and functional thing to have in the persistent rain, but it was also an undeniable work of art.
"I heard that you had participated in cooperative spelling, but I didn't expect to see an example of it on this excursion of ours. Very well done." Professor Everstone said firmly.
"Now that we don't have to worry about being rained on, I guess it's time for us to get to work." G said as he stepped to the front of the gazebo and sat down.
Agent Roberts stepped under the roof of the gazebo and closed his umbrella. Considering that the gazebo was made of ice, he had expected to be feeling chilled, but as it turned out, he didn't notice anything like that at all.
"Corabeth? Are you ready?" G asked calmly.
"Yes." Corabeth answered as she settled at G's side.
"I guess we're next." Paul said as he sat beside Corabeth.
"Don't start without me." Filipe said as he hurried to Paul's side.
"Ready?" Zanner asked Dex cautiously.
"Yeah. I think I am." Dex said with an easy smile for him.
All six of the teenagers fell silent as they concentrated on the clearing before them.
Even though Agent Roberts had the necklace to dispel any illusions, he still couldn't see anything where they were looking.
"Professor. This is the same earth that we had at the protectorate." Zanner said slowly.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. You know how Paul and Filipe are always talking about the 'flavor' of certain magic. Well, I can't see like they do, but I can recognize patterns. This is the same earth that was being processed at the protectorate. There's no doubt."
"It's the same water, too." Paul confirmed.
"And, as expected, the air apparatus is quite extensive at this site, so that it will be capable of supporting the other two." Professor Everstone said with a nod.
"How does the air get there?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"What was that?" Professor Everstone responded.
"How does the air that's processed here get to the other two colonies?"
"I'm just trying to understand. Is it like folded space where air that's processed here is suddenly there, or does it travel through a pipe or a wormhole or an interdimensional portal? How does it get from here to there?"
"I have my suspicions, but I haven't verified them as yet. Would you be interested to hear what I believe?"
"Yes. I really would."
"Are you familiar with the theory of bilocation?"
"Someone being in two places at once? I've heard of it, but I don't even begin to understand what they're claiming, much less if it's true or not."
"This is something like that, except instead of a person being in more than one place, it's a place being in more than one place." Professor Everstone said carefully.
Agent Roberts thought for a moment, then slowly said, "So, if the processed air is being sealed away... let's say it's being kept in a balloon somewhere. That balloon actually exists simultaneously in three different places and the people in all three places can draw from it?"
"I'm surprised that you got that so easily. Many of my students who have witnessed a physical demonstration of the principle still couldn't grasp the concept."
"So, if what you've got here is really a case of bilocation or multilocation, then how does that figure into what's happening in Waxell?"
"I'm going to tell you something that I probably shouldn't, but I believe that you've earned the right to hear the truth."
"What is it?" Agent Roberts asked with concern.
"I will have to ask that you not tell the others that I told you this. Will you promise?" Professor Everstone asked as he looked around to account for the other adults.
"Yes. You have my word." Agent Roberts promised.
"You asked how the bilocation of elements effects Waxell. Is that right?"
"My answer is... I. Don't. Know."
"While it may seem obvious from your point of view that some sort of leakage or contamination from one or all of the barriers might have contributed to the result in Waxell, the gods’ honest truth is that I don't have any idea of how or why that is."
"So you don't think that it's a 'feature' built into the three-way colony structure?"
"Again, I don't know. I suppose that it's possible, although I can't begin to speculate as to what the motive might be for doing such a thing."
"So, if you don't know what's causing the Waxell situation, then I'm guessing that you don't know if fixing these barriers is going to stop it." Agent Roberts said cautiously.
"That is correct." Professor Everstone confirmed.
"Can we leave the barriers the way they are? I mean, just slap a fresh coat of 'keep out' on the Southseid barrier and walk away?" Agent Roberts asked hopefully.
"Kicking the can down the road not only doesn't solve the problem, it's none to good for the can." Professor Everstone said frankly.
"You realize that by continuing this, you're endangering a lot of lives, don't you?"
"Yes. I am quite aware of that."
"It's not too late to call in a group of experts to take a look at this and do it safely." Agent Roberts quietly suggested.
"If you care about the people of Waxell, you'd do well not to wish 'experts' upon them. I dare say that they will not improve the situation." Professor Everstone said gravely.
"If they find out that there's a 'leakage', not only will they want to fix the leak, but also get rid of the evidence that the leak had ever happened."
"Some things aren't so different between our societies. A bureaucrat is still a bureaucrat." Professor Everstone said regretfully.
"I thought you guys would have come up with a spell to deal with that by now." Agent Roberts said with a grin.
"Not as yet, but one can still hope."
"Okay. I'll stop beating the drum to call in additional help but I'm really serious about not wanting the people of Waxell to be hurt."
"I understand that and I share in the sentiment."
"Thank you Professor. Just knowing that makes me feel a lot better."
"Just remember your promise."
"My what? Oh, yeah. Don't worry. I won't tell anyone that I asked you a question and you didn't know the answer." Agent Roberts said with a smile.
"Thank you. I appreciate that."
"No problem. Besides, who'd believe me, anyway?"
"Professor, are you ready?" Zanner called from ahead of them.
"Yes. You may begin."
To Be Continued...
Editor's Notes: I really love the fact that Agent Roberts is able to pull together the facts of the situation and draw pertinent information that even the adult witches have missed.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher