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"Dad! What are you doing all the way out here?" The young dragon-boy asked as he swooped down to gently deposit the small animal that he had been carrying.
"I've just been visiting your great grandfather. but I think the better question might be, why aren't you two in school and what the hell do you think you're doing flying around transformed in broad daylight?"
"It's okay. This is kind of a special occasion. Mom came and got us out of school so that we could help G and the others from the outside." The young dragon said as the tiger striped animal that he had been carrying began to grow and take on a more humanoid shape.
"What's going on that's got you so excited?"
"There's Mom. She'll want to tell you. Besides, I didn't understand all of it anyway." The young dog... cat... boy said as he stood on two feet.
As the white swan came to a graceful landing beside them, Ares quietly said, "Andrea, I'm surprised to see you here."
"You know how things are. Just as soon as we think that everything's settled, something new comes along to stir things up." Andrea said as her body transitioned to a new form.
"Never a dull moment, huh? Probably not at all how you assumed it would be when you decided to stay here."
"That's certainly true." Andrea chuckled at the understatement as she completely resolved into her Oskmey form of a half human, half swan.
"What's going on?" Ares asked with concern.
"I don't know how much you already know, but basically, the witches from outside are planning on taking down the Brynnhollow barrier and recasting the spell."
"Yes. I was already aware of that much, although I don't know any details."
"Thanks to the time we spent with Sophia, Corabeth and G, I think we know more details about it than we will ever need to know. But what's important right now is that it sounds like they're going to need our help."
"Okay. What can we do?"
"From the way I understand it, they're going to need people who can accept a deluge of magical energy from them and disperse it to their clan and kin."
"Wait! Who am I talking to?" Ares asked cautiously.
"What do you mean? What a strange question."
"Am I speaking to Andrea Brynner or Caer Ibormeith?" Ares persisted.
"I'm still me, Ares. Every now and then she just pops in to give us a little help."
"'Clan and kin' doesn't sound like something that Andrea would say." Ares said almost accusingly.
"Well, if Caer is bothering to speak through me, that must mean that it's something important. We should probably pay attention to it."
"What do we need to do?"
"Gather a few people to help disperse and diffuse the magical torrent that will soon be coming your way."
"Why don't you just go into town and ask Carn to get some people to help you? I'm sure it wouldn't take much more than a request from you."
"While it's true that we need warm bodies that can store and release a magical charge, that's not the only thing that we need. When the first bolt of magic hits you, you'll automatically reach out to those who are emotionally closest to you to help you shoulder the burden of channeling so much magic."
"Okay. I suppose I can see that. But why do you need me?"
"I can't do it. Despite the curses and the magic that's been used on me, at the core, I'm still a human. I can't hold enough of a magical charge. I have to wear my necklace to hold the tiniest charge at all."
"So, since you can't do it, you want for me to do it instead?"
"Well, Conrad can't store a charge either, so you were next on my list after him."
"I think I'm missing something here. I still don't see why you can't just ask Carn."
"Because the first person in the chain has to be someone known to us, who cares and is cared for. As the requirements were revealed to us, it became clear that you were our only real choice. I don't know anyone who would have a better chance of creating a long and involved enough chain to accept and store the accumulated magic of all of Brynnhollow until it's ready for use." Andrea fought to explain.
"Even though there's probably someone better than me to do it, I wouldn't know who that is. And with you coming all the way out here to find me instead of waiting for me at my house, I'm guessing that we must be dealing with limited time. So why don't I just go ahead and do it, at least until someone better comes along."
"Good. I'm glad you said that because I didn't have a backup plan." Andrea said appreciatively.
"How much time do we have?"
"From the way Conrad was talking, they could be ready to start casting it this afternoon."
"It's after noon now."
"Then we'd better gather the people closest to you so that you won't get totally obliterated when the magic hits you."
"Where do we start?"
"That depends on you. Who would you want to stand with you at a time like this?"
"Dark, of course. Then probably my grandfather. And Drake too, I think." Ares said thoughtfully.
"What about Jim and Tannis?" Cain quickly asked.
"Although I love them like my own children, I can't see myself calling out to them for help."
"No, but Drake might. They should probably be there to help him manage his overflow." Andrea said thoughtfully.
"We want to be there to do that for you, too, Dad." Deimos stated firmly.
"No. It's too dangerous."
"Ares, if the boys don't get the magical flow from you, they'll get it from Jim and Tan. It'll be best if they're with us where we can keep an eye on how things are going and explain to them how to manage it."
"If that's how it works, it sounds like this could spread like wildfire."
"Hopefully it will. Otherwise the pooled magic might end up being more than you can endure."
"What should we do first?"
"I think our best bet will be to split up. Let's go and get everyone and meet in Queen Marimba's garden. We'll walk to the vinculum chamber from there." Andrea said decisively, then thought to ask, "Can everyone find their way to the garden?"
"I haven't actually been there, but I've flown over the area a few times. I know where it is." Ares said seriously.
"We were just there with you this morning so we know how to get there. No problem." Deimos said confidently.
"Good." Andrea said with relief, then hurriedly continued by asking, "Cain, will you go and get your great grandfather and take him there?"
"Yeah. But I don't know how long it's going to take us. We might not be able to get there before dark."
"Just do your best. Get going." Andrea said firmly.
No sooner had she said the words than Cain shrank into his fully animal form. As Andrea watched him scamper away, she said to the others, "The rest of us can fly. Ares, go get Dark, Deimos, go get Tannis and Jim at their school. I'm going to get Drake."
"What happens if Conrad comes for us before we're all there?" Ares asked cautiously.
"We'll deal with that when the time comes. Too many things are up in the air and outside our control to be committing to much of anything right now." Andrea said firmly.
"Speaking of 'up in the air', that's where we should probably be." Ares suggested.
"Right." Andrea said before shrinking into the form of a swan.
"I'm going to have to hurry too. Jim and Tan can't fly." Deimos said before transforming back into his full Wyvern form.
Ares stared after him for a moment, then reminded himself that he wasn't dealing with unlimited time.
* * * * *
"Dark? Are you out here?" Ares called uncertainly as he peeked inside the mask and curio shop door.
"Ares? You're transformed. What's wrong?" Dark asked as he looked up from the mask that he was working on.
"Andrea and the boys caught me on the way back from my grandfather's and told me that we're going to be needed so I flew right over to get you."
"We're needed? For what?"
"I already told you about the witches who were visiting. Well, it seems like they're going to take down the protective barrier that surrounds Brynnhollow and replace it with one that can stand up to modern technology."
"That sounds like something that has the potential to go horribly wrong." Dark said frankly.
"Yeah, probably. And what's more is that they need for us to play a key part in their plan."
"What can we do?"
"Well, even though we're blocked from performing magic, we're still witches. From the way I understand it, they need for us to accept and store the magic that they will be using to recreate the barrier."
"How dangerous do you think that is?"
"We could probably be completely disintegrated by it."
"Oh... what's the best case?"
"The barrier will be remade and everyone we love will be safe and happy for the rest of their lives because of it."
"But since Andrea asked you, you're automatically going to do it?"
"Since Andrea asked me, I'll automatically consider doing it, but before I committed to anything I wanted to come here to talk to you about it."
"What if I say no?"
"Then I'll say 'no' too. I'm not doing this without you."
"Yes. Really." Ares slowly responded, then explained, "I know that we haven't really talked too much about our relationship... I mean, in the longer term. But in my heart, I envision us growing old together and being in love with each other every step of the way."
"I kinda thought you might feel that way." Dark quietly admitted.
"Whatever happens, I want for it to happen to both of us. Whether it's the honor of helping to save the entire community or the disgrace of walking away from it, we'll go through it together." Ares said as he firmly held Dark's gaze.
"When you put it that way there really isn't much of a choice, is there?"
"Can you think of another way to put it?"
"No. I guess not."
"What do you say? Do you want to be a hero?"
"You mean like with cheering crowds and parades?"
"No. The other kind, where you know what you did, even if everyone else doesn't."
"You'll do it?"
"Yeah. I never really liked cheering crowds anyway. Too noisy."
"That's what I figured."
"So, if we're going to do this, what do we need to do first?"
"We're going to have to meet Andrea and the boys in Brynnhaven."
"Are you holding something back from me?"
"It's nothing too terrible..."
"Then why won't you tell me?"
"Because I know that you're not going to like it."
"What is it?"
"The only way we're going to get there in time is to transform."
"That's going to mean that we'll either have to stay transformed the whole time that we're there or we'll have to find clothes in Brynnhaven... a community of women." Dark said carefully.
"Yeah. That's the part that I thought you weren't going to like."
"But leaving that aside, there's no way that I'm going to be able to slither all the way to Brynnhaven before nightfall."
"I know. I thought of that too. It looks like I'm going to have to carry you."
"How is that going to work?"
"I was thinking that if you'll transform all the way down, as tightly as you can, then I'll transform between human and raven, small enough so that I can fly, but also large enough to be able to carry you."
"Do you think that you can really do that?"
"I couldn't do it in my Karasu Tengu form, I know that much. But I think that I might be able to manage if I stop my transformation about halfway between Karasu Tengu and raven."
"Ares, tell me honestly, just how important is this?"
"I've lived on the outside. I have some idea of what tools they have at their disposal. Frankly, I'm surprised that they haven't discovered Brynnhollow already. If we're going to have any hope for the future, if we're going to pass anything on to Cain and Deimos, we've got to do whatever we can to make sure Brynnhollow remains hidden."
"Do we have time for a kiss?" Dark asked shyly.
"Yes. But we don't have time for what naturally follows. I'm going to have to give you a raincheck for that bit." Ares said warmly.
"I guess that gives me an extra incentive to survive, doesn't it?"
Ares let his Karasu Tengu form slip away so that he could give Dark a very naked, very enthusiastic kiss.
* * * * *
The sight of a large black bird carrying a snake through the air was a bit unusual.
When the primitive looking, oddly misshapen raven finally landed, it was something decidedly less than graceful.
The snake immediately freed itself from the clutching talons and began to transform.
"Ares! Are you alright?" Dark asked in panic as he assumed his 'Nāga' form.
"I didn't think it would be that difficult." Ares gasped as his Karasu Tengu form automatically filled out and lengthened his body.
"Are you okay?"
"I won't be able to hold that form again. It takes everything I've got."
"Ares. I don't know where we are. Before you go passing out on me, you need to tell me where we're going."
"I took you as far as I could. We're almost at the Brynnhaven drawbridge. Just follow this road. Andrea said that she'd meet us in Queen Marimba's garden."
"I don't know where that is. Are you going to be able to walk?"
"No. Not yet. I'm going to need a few minutes to catch my breath. That took everything that I had to give."
"If you'll transform down, I can carry you for a while."
"Thanks Dark. Just as soon as I've caught my breath, I'll walk on my own."
"Take as much time as you need. Hop on and enjoy the ride." Dark said warmly.
Rather than respond verbally, Ares forced himself into his full transformation.
Once he had stabilized in his raven form, Ares hopped onto Dark's shoulder and did his best not to dig his nails in as he fought to balance himself.
After a moment to be sure that Ares was settled in place, Dark started slithering at his best speed up the road.
* * * * *
Since Dark didn't have to maintain eye contact with anyone at a 'human' level, he was free to travel in a more comfortable position in his half-snake form, with his chest low to the ground.
Once he was past the drawbridge, Dark was able to dart down the back streets and alleyways of Brynnhaven without notice.
There weren't many people out and about in Brynnhaven so Dark decided to keep things simple by staying out of sight as much as possible.
Dark finally came to rest in a little park area and considered asking Ares to transform and give him directions.
Just as he was about to ask, a shadow crossed overhead and he looked up to see a small dragon flying by.
Dark didn't so much as utter a word as he took off at his best possible speed to follow the familiar young Wyvern.
* * * * *
Just when Dark thought that he had lost the trail, the Wyvern would appear again, showing him the way.
The sound of hoofbeats nearby suddenly made him realize that Deimos must be leading someone else, probably Jim, to their meeting place.
A moment later, Dark saw Jim, in his centaur form being ridden by Tannis who had transformed into a faun.
"I see that you guys got called in too." Dark called as he fought to keep up with Jim's pace.
"Yeah. Deimos said that they needed us." Jim answered as he slowed a little and allowed Dark to fall into place beside him.
"Ares came and got me." Dark said simply.
"I thought he'd be flying ahead, showing you the way, like Deimos is doing for us."
"Actually, the only reason we made it this far is because Ares carried me most of the way. It didn't end up working out as well as we would have liked, so he's resting up from it now."
"I guess sometimes you don't know how things are gonna work until you try them." Jim said simply as he looked toward the sky to see where Deimos was leading them.
"Something's wrong." Jim said as he suddenly slowed his pace.
"What?" Dark asked anxiously as he looked toward the sky for any indication of a problem.
What he saw was Deimos flying toward them at top speed.
"You guys need to wait here for a minute!" Deimos called out as he transformed to his half-form in mid-air.
"What's wrong!?" Jim called in return.
Deimos came in to land beside them as he said in a normal voice, "I just saw Cain and Grandpa Lowell. They're almost here. We need to give them a couple minutes to catch up to us."
"Did they run here all the way from your grandfather's house?" Dark asked with surprise.
"Yeah. As far as I know." Deimos said honestly.
"Wow! That must have been a tough run." Tannis said in wonder at their achievement.
Before anyone could respond, a wolf and a tiger striped dog-creature came into view, running up the street.
"Guys! Let's go the rest of the way together!" Jim called out in their direction.
The stripey dog stopped before them as he began to grow.
"How'd you get here so fast?" Deimos asked in his half-dragon saurial form.
"We ran. Do you have any water?" Cain panted.
"No. But do you remember the fountains in Queen Marimba's garden?"
"Yeah. That's right! Let's go! Grandpa Lowell and I need some water in the worst way." Cain said urgently.
"Are we ready to go?" Dark asked as he looked over their group.
"We're not helping anyone by sitting here." Deimos said before taking to the air to lead the way.
"Who put him in charge?" Dark asked, mostly rhetorically.
"He did, I think." Jim slowly answered, then asked, "Is he wrong? Do we need to wait here for something?"
"Nope. Let's go." Dark said, then glanced at Ares on his shoulder before slithering away at top speed.
* * * * *
Dark was one of the slower members of the group but at no point was he in danger of being left behind.
When Dark finally arrived in Queen Marimba's garden, it was to the sight of everyone else in their animal transformations, slaking their thirsts at the fountain.
"Ready for a drink Ares?"
Ares response of a squawk not only was undoubtedly in the affirmative, but also proved that Ares must be feeling at least a little better.
As Dark slithered up to the edge of the fountain, Ares hopped off his shoulder to stand on the fountain's edge where he could help himself to the water.
Dark cupped his hands and took a slow, cool drink.
Ares, on the other hand, dunked his head, then raised it up and shook it vigorously.
Dark couldn't help but smile at the playful, frolicking mood that Ares seemed to have adopted.
He was actually tempted to go into his full snake transformation, but reasoned that, given their situation, one of them should stay in a fully communicative state to speak for them, if needed.
"Mom and Drake should be here any minute." Deimos announced to those gathered at the fountain.
Dark was surprised when Ares hopped away from the fountain, then began to grow.
"Is there anything else we need to know before we go?" Ares asked cautiously.
"No. I'm pretty sure that all we're going to have to do is show up." Deimos said honestly.
"Yeah. It sounded to me like all we're going to do is stand around like a bunch of buckets, waiting to be filled up and emptied out." Cain added.
"What do you think the chances are that we're going to be enough to hold all the extra magic that they're going to have?" Dark asked cautiously.
Before anyone could answer, a white swan landed in their midsts and began to transform.
"We're just the beginning." Andrea said as she was coming into her white oskmey form, then continued, "We're going to pass the magic on and share it with everyone else in Brynnhollow. But the most important thing is that we're going to be the ones who control the flow. We're going to be opening and closing the floodgates so that we can protect the people further down the line."
"Were you able to get Uncle Drake?" Cain asked his mother with concern.
"He's arranging for someone to watch after Ollie and Viv. He'll be along as soon as that's taken care of." Andrea assured him, then thought to ask, "How did you get here so quickly?"
"We ran. It's what we do." Cain said simply.
"An old dog is still a dog." Lowell stated with a weary growling chuckle.
"I wouldn't want for you to take the chance of hurting yourself by pushing too hard, but I'm glad you made it." Andrea said honestly.
"Do you need to rest for a while before we go on?" Ares asked his grandfather with concern.
"Werewolves are more durable than you imagine. Do what you need to do and I promise you that I'll be there when I'm needed." Lowell said confidently.
As Ares was about to respond, the movement of a shadow across the grass drew his eye upward.
He smiled at the majestic sight of Drake, in his Baphomet half-form, gliding through the air on large leathery bat wings.
"It looks like that's everyone. Unless anyone has something else, we can go now." Andrea announced to the group.
When no one immediately responded, Andrea transformed fully into a swan before taking to the air.
"As much as I'd like to ride the rest of the way on your shoulder, it's probably best if I lead our way from the air. That way no one else will have to wait on us." Ares said frankly.
"I've been keeping up fairly well, but it's a good plan, just in case." Dark said seriously.
"Just don't worry if you lose sight of the others. I'll make sure you don't get lost." Ares said before completing his transformation into a raven.
Dark decided to go fully into his snake form so that he would be able to follow along at maximum speed.
* * * * *
Dark was so distracted by the sudden overwhelming sense of disquiet that he inadvertently crossed under Jim's legs and was nearly stepped on.
When he realized what he was doing, Dark quickly shifted to his half-form and said, "Sorry Jim."
"Are you feeling that?" Jim asked anxiously.
"Yes. It's like every nerve in my body is being irritated at once." Dark said honestly.
"I couldn't think of how to describe it, but that's what I'm feeling too." Jim said irritably.
"Listen! Everyone! We're near the vinculum. Just keep going and it'll get easier once we're inside." Andrea called out.
"Is there going to be room for all of us inside of it?" Dark asked worriedly.
"I don't know... I haven't been there yet. Conrad just told me where it is." Andrea admitted.
"If it gets too bad, we can go back to Queen Marimba's garden and Conrad can meet with us there." Dark said reasonably.
"Conrad mentioned the bad feeling, but I didn't know it was going to be quite this bad." Andrea admitted.
"If he's not there when we get there, I'm going to turn back. I can't stand this feeling for any length of time." Ares said frankly.
"From what Conrad told me, this next courtyard should be it."
"Can you fly back and get us when he shows up? Me and Grandpa Lowell can't stay here like this." Cain announced.
"Lowell? Are you okay?" Andrea asked as she forced herself to press forward.
"I can do this if I have to, but I won't stay for no good reason." Lowell said firmly.
"He isn't here." Andrea said anxiously as she looked around the open courtyard.
"Where's that chamber you were talking about?" Ares asked as he looked around.
"Over there, I think." Andrea said, making no move toward the ornately carved stone structure.
Although the feeling deep within him told him that he would rather do just about anything besides walking up to that door, throughout his life, Ares had forced himself to do many painful and unpleasant things, simply because they needed to be done.
That being the case, Ares resigned himself to the task and slowly stepped forward in his Karasu Tengu form.
As Ares approached the blank archway, it suddenly changed, revealing a large room with a table and benches inside.
"Ares! I didn't expect you so soon." Conrad said as he stepped through the doorway.
"Yeah. We're all here, but I don't know for how long. Every single one of us wants to run as far away from this place as we can get."
"I humbly call upon Cernunnos, horned god of the animals who protects us, in the name of Angus MacOg, his devoted follower, to suspend the warning during the assembly of the Magi. I use the power granted by gods, I am the Guardian." Conrad called toward the sky.
Ares and Dark shared a disbelieving look as the eerie creepy feeling evaporated into nothingness.
"Thank you, Agent Fastbeck." Ares said appreciatively.
"You can call me Conrad. We're practically family."
"You're dating my ex-wife. I'm not sure that qualifies."
"I don't know why it wouldn't. We both care deeply for the same people. Isn't that what families do?"
"Well, maybe. But aren't the two of us supposed to hate each other or something?"
"If you had mistreated Andrea or the boys in any way, it would be very easy for me to hate you for it. But the way things turned out, you're an important person in the lives of the people I love... can we do this later? I mean, like when everyone isn't watching?"
"No need. I think we're good."
"Yeah." Conrad agreed.
"So what do we need to do next?"
"I'm going to introduce you to your Magi and the spellcasters who you will be working with. It may be a few minutes before everyone's ready to talk to you, so I suggest that you kick back and relax while you have the chance." Conrad said before stepping back into the vinculum chamber.
* * * * *
"Are you alright?" Dark asked Ares quietly.
"I just feel like there's something wrong with me for not being mad at Conrad. I feel like I should hate him... or at least resent him or something."
"Just feel what you feel and don't worry about what you think other people expect."
"Easier said than done."
"I guess so." Dark said noncommittally, then quietly asked, "Does it bother you that he's in charge of things?"
"No. He's from the FBI. Even if he didn't have leadership training, he has the authority and experience to do the job.
"I don't mean logically. I'm asking if you resent the fact that he's the one who's going to save your friends and family."
Ares thought for a moment, then quietly said, "I really don't think so. I mean, sure, I'd like to be the one who makes everything all better for everyone, but realistically, I'm not the guy who can do that. I think that maybe Conrad is. Either way, I'll help him to make this work however I can."
"Good. I just wanted to be sure where your head was before we were called upon to do anything important."
"How about you? How committed are you to this?"
"The man I love asked me to face death at his side. Let's just say that I'm 'all in'."
"Yeah." Dark confirmed, then let out an involuntary laugh and said, "Anyone else would be freaking out on the word 'death'."
"I guess that means that I'm not just anyone."
"No. I think it's safe to say that you're someone special."
* * * * *
"Everyone! Just so you know, yours is the first group to assemble. If all goes to plan, before long we'll be having gatherings like this one in the other two barriers." Conrad called to the group of mostly half animal beings.
"We all rushed to be here, so what do you need for us to do?" Ares called in return.
"For those of you who haven't been introduced, this is Paul." Conrad said, indicating the fifteen year old boy at his side.
"Hi." Paul said uncomfortably, although, to his credit, he didn't fidget or try to hide behind Conrad.
"Paul will be summoning the natural magic of the world and using it to release the stored magic of the three barriers."
Before Ares could formulate a question, Conrad motioned for someone to step out of the vinculum chamber.
"For those of you who haven't met him, this gentleman's name is D, he's Paul's father. He will be one of those commanding the stored magic that Paul will be releasing."
"It's good to see you again, Ares. What do you think about if next time, maybe you and the boys could come over to our place to visit?""
"Yeah, but if you could arrange it so that it isn't a life-threatening emergency, that'd be great." Ares said frankly.
"No promises." D said with a slight grin.
"So are you going to be recasting our barrier?"
"I'm going to be playing a part in it, but I won't be the one leading the effort. I'll be happy to leave that honor to Miss Oaken, mostly in deference to her familiarity with the existing barrier."
"Is there anything that we need to know about our part in all of this?" Ares asked anxiously.
"Yes. We're fortunate that things have unfolded as they have. You've been asked to take the lead among the people from Brynnhollow. When asked, I had to admit that you were the person that I got to know the best and had come to trust the most. That type of rapport is necessary for the spell that we will be using." D explained.
"Okay. That actually makes sense to me." Ares said seriously.
"Good. The only other thing that you need to know is that you're going to have an insane flood of magic coming from me to you. When it hits, you're going to need to feed it out to your closest friends and loved ones. They, in turn, will pass it on to others. Once all those connections have been completed, then you can release the 'tamed' magic to friends and acquaintances within the community."
"Tamed magic?" Ares asked cautiously.
"Magic, at its root, isn't good or evil. It's simply is. But it can be given intent, turned to a purpose. If a community were suddenly flooded with raw, 'untamed' magic, it's likely that the magic they receive would be twisted and perverted a hundred different ways, based on each person's desire."
"So you think having me get hold of the magic first will do... something?"
"I expect that the magic will carry your desire for the survival of your family and your community. That intent will then be passed on to everyone downstream from you and when the magic is retrieved, it will be possible to turn it to benevolent use."
"So that's how it is... Okay. I understand now."
To Be Continued...
Well, I can only think of one thing to say, right about now,
WOW! What a wonderful chapter!
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher