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After a delicious and filling breakfast, Agent Roberts stood and said, "We'll be leaving in a few minutes. Make sure to stop by the bathroom before we go. You're not going to get another chance for a while."
"Do you need anything from the office before we leave?" Agent Fastbeck asked quietly.
"No. I have everything I need in my car."
"So, are we heading out as soon as everyone's done with the bathroom?"
"We need to stop by the store for food. We'll be taking off from there."
"Good. Then while you're doing that, I'm going to see if Hyatt's in yet. If he's not, then I'll call him later and ask him to keep an eye on the shop for us."
* * * * *
The stop by the little mom & pop market ended up being more entertaining than Agent Roberts would have guessed.
He couldn't decide which was funnier, the reactions of the adults to the prices or the reactions of the teenagers to the alien foodstuffs from a different era.
After explaining Farina to Corabeth and Postum to G, Agent Roberts decided that they had dallied long enough and started herding his charges toward the checkout.
* * * * *
When Agent Roberts stepped out the door of the market, he immediately spotted Agent Fastbeck waiting out front in his car.
"Is Hyatt going to watch it for you?"
"Yes. I told him that I'd call him later to make sure that everything was alright."
"That sounds like it should work."
"It looks like everyone's about ready to go. Is there anything else you need to do before we leave?"
"The belly's full and the bladder's empty. I think that about covers it."
"Thanks for sharing. But I was really asking about last minute supplies..."
"I think I've got that covered. Why don't you take point while I bring up the rear, so we don't have to worry about anyone falling behind."
"Sounds like a plan. As soon as everyone's ready, give me the signal and I'll lead the way."
* * * * *
"Agent Roberts, can we ride with you?" Paul asked hopefully as he approached with G and Filipe following close behind.
"I thought you'd want to ride with your teachers so that you could get a hint about what you're going to be doing." Agent Roberts said honestly.
"I don't think that Corabeth and Miss Oaken would want us tagging along with them." G said frankly.
"I'm pretty sure that Dex and Zanner are going to be talking to Mr. Hansen about earth and nature stuff that doesn't have anything to do with me." Filipe said regretfully.
"And even if we rode with Professor Everstone, I doubt that he'd tell us anything about what he's planning." G thought to add.
"And if we don't ride with him, then we're stuck riding with Mr. Bentley Brown." Filipe said gravely.
"I'd rather walk." Paul said bluntly.
"Point taken." Agent Roberts admitted, then continued, "Let me open the trunk for you so that you can stow your gear."
"Thanks Agent Roberts." Filipe said sincerely.
"Actually, I'll appreciate the company. I just naturally assumed that you'd be excited about your upcoming mission and would want to spend the trip talking to your teachers about that." Agent Roberts said reasonably as he led the boys to where his car was parked.
"That would be nice, but I think we've been told everything that they're going to tell us until they've actually seen the barrier and decided what we need to do next." Paul said frankly.
Agent Roberts walked around to the back of the car and opened the trunk as he said, "When you put it that way, I have to agree with your reasoning. Although I'm a little surprised that you didn't ask Agent Fastbeck. After all, you've known him longer."
"It probably wouldn't be bad... but it might feel kinda weird, like we were spying on Cain and Deimos or horning in on something that belongs to them." Paul said uncomfortably at the thought.
"Yeah. I think they're starting to get close and they don't need anyone screwing up what they've already got going on." G agreed.
After placing the boys' backpacks in his trunk, Agent Roberts closed it, then indicated for the boys to get into the car.
"Does everyone have everything that they're going to need for a while?" Agent Roberts asked as he settled into the driver's seat.
"I think we're good." G assured him.
Agent Roberts saw that Agent Fastbeck had been watching and flashed his lights to signal that he was ready to go.
A moment later, Agent Fastbeck led the procession down the main street of Waxell, away from the M&K Market.
* * * * *
"Is it weird for you being around us?" Filipe asked from the passenger seat.
"No. Not really." Agent Roberts said honestly.
"I grew up hearing all kinds of stories about witches, but I thought that they were fairy tales. When I found out that they're real... and that I'm one of them... that was kind of a lot to take in. I just wondered if it was anything like that for you."
"In a way, but by the time I found out about witches, my view of the world had already drastically changed. I was surprised, but it wasn't the earth shattering revelation that it would have been if I had encountered witches first."
"What else did you find out about?"
"I'm sure that you understand why it's so important to keep the existence of witches in the modern world a secret. All I can really say is that you're not the only ones who want to stay hidden."
"We've studied about all kinds of natural and unnatural creatures in school, so it's not like we don't already know that they exist." Filipe slowly reasoned.
"There's a difference between knowing that they exist and knowing that they're here, amongst us."
Filipe seemed to be thinking about that, so Agent Roberts said a little more loudly, "Since we're on our way now, it might be a good time for me to tell you a little bit more about what we'll be facing."
"Do you think we'll get to see the Wudewas?" G asked hopefully.
"It's a possibility. That's as much as I can promise at this point."
"Wudewas? Like, bigfoot?" Filipe asked in surprise.
"Yes. That's who's living in the colony that we're going to help." Agent Roberts said calmly.
"I thought we were going to help some witches who couldn't adapt to the modern world. You're always hearing stories about stuff like that." Filipe explained.
"No. It's a Wudewas colony, hidden in a valley deep in the mountains. While their barrier hasn't failed, it apparently hasn't been maintained either. Modern technology has reached a point where it can breach their defenses so they need for us to secure it for them." Agent Roberts said slowly and precisely.
"Paul has studied a lot about barriers. Maybe he can fill us in on what to expect when we get there." G suggested.
"Well, yeah. I've studied about them. But just like with a lot of the spells that we study in school, I get the feeling that they intentionally leave things out of the textbooks so that no one knows the really important stuff, like how to take a barrier down or breach it if they're not supposed to."
"Just tell us what you can. It's got to be better than going into it completely blind." Agent Roberts said as he kept the majority of his attention on the road.
"I thought that you'd be telling us to hold on until Professor Everstone got us all together and told us what he wanted us to know." Paul said honestly.
"I may not know all about how witches compare to each other, but from what I've seen, I get the feeling that it wouldn't have taken too much for the people in charge to have found a group of witches with the raw power that they needed to pull this off. That being the case, if they wanted a bunch of dumb little zombies to blindly follow orders, that's who they would have brought with them..."
"Paul and I actually know someone who could arrange that... the zombie thing, I mean."
"If we really are going to be working on a barrier, we're going to need power, lots of it." Paul said thoughtfully, apparently not hearing his brother's words.
"The way I understand it is Dex is going to be providing that power." Agent Roberts said in response.
"I have to admit that I don't know much about Oriads. There's not a lot of information about them, so I'm not sure how all of that works." Paul reluctantly disclosed.
"Based on my limited understanding of what I've heard, it sounds like Dex is going to be the key to unlocking the power of the earth. Zanner is the one who's going to have to control that power."
"I don't know how much 'control' he's going to have, but he should be able to 'direct' or 'influence' the power to where it's needed." Paul said thoughtfully.
"That sounds about right." Agent Roberts confirmed, then continued, "But I really don't know much about what the rest of you are going to be expected to do."
"There are a few different types of barriers that I've heard of, so I can't be sure." Paul said in prelude, "But looking at who we've brought with us, I'd say that Filipe and I are going to be using the water element to try and help Zanner. Water can influence earth, so we can push while he pulls, or something like that."
"But you said that you aren't adept at using water. How's that going to work?"
"I don't know if it will. Even though I don't have a lot of power when it comes to water, I've channeled enough to be able to manipulate it. Maybe that's the ability that they need instead of just someone with a lot of raw power." Paul said thoughtfully.
"If you and Filipe are going to be managing the water, that must mean that Corabeth and I are going to be manipulating the air." G said slowly.
"That would make sense." Paul agreed.
"Even though my abilities are based in air, I haven't really done much with the manipulation of the elemental properties." G quietly admitted.
"It sounds like you two are probably going to be the backup of the backup. If Filipe and I can't handle the water, then you two are going to be called on to help us."
"There's got to be more to it than I'm seeing, otherwise they would have chosen students who had attained more of a mastery in those elements." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"Yeah. When things get rolling, G's going to be using his sorcery to weave an illusion into the barrier spell. That's the big thing that he can do that none of the rest of us can. In the same way, Corabeth is going to add her 'wall of force' magic that will physically stop people from being able to get in."
"What about you and Filipe?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"If it were just me, I'd say that it had something to do with Alchemy. But since Filipe and I have been teamed up together, I'm guessing that they're going to need for us to do a charm or a curse or something like that. That's what we're best at." Paul said, not entirely certain of his own deduction.
"Again, I know very little about such things, but in all of this you haven't said anything about actually 'casting' the spell, I mean, over the entire Wudewas colony. Do you think that maybe the two of you are going to be handling that?" Agent Roberts asked carefully.
"I just kind of thought that Professor Everstone would be doing it, but... that would actually make sense. Filipe and I are exact opposites in a lot of our powers, but we've been able to sync up with each other. With the spell being so big and complicated, it would make sense for us to combine our abilities to do the casting."
"The biggest thing I've ever done is making charms with you." Filipe interjected.
"It's not what we did, it's how we did it. I used my alchemy and you used your thaumaturgy to manipulate the spells to work in ways that they were never intended. We were able to complete successful spells... well, except that the charms weren't always usable when we were finished. Still, we've proven that we can manipulate and integrate complex spells and end up with something stable."
"Which sounds very much like what they're going to be asking you to do incorporating the sorcery, 'wall of force' and all the rest of it into the barrier spell." Agent Roberts added.
"This is crazy." Paul muttered under his breath.
"Since you seem to have a better grasp on the situation than most, do you think that you could come up with a more effective team to renovate an antiquated barrier?"
"Yeah. I can think of six people right off the top of my head who are more powerful with water than I am. I can't think of anyone who could outdo me at Alchemy, but I don't even know if we'll be needing any alchemy spells on this job."
"But of those six people, do you think that any of them could integrate spells with Filipe... or with anyone else, as efficiently as you do?"
"No. What Filipe and I have going on is like a lock and a key. We match up with each other. I don't know of anyone else who has established that kind of rapport." Paul said thoughtfully.
"If I'm right about this, that's what got you included on this mission. You might want to focus more on that aspect of your abilities and trust that Professor Everstone has thought through the rest of it."
"What about me?" G asked from beside Paul.
"What about you?" Agent Roberts automatically responded.
"There are senior students who can do a lot better illusions than I can. Why do you think Professor Everstone picked me to do this? What should I be focusing on?"
"You would know better than I would." Agent Roberts said honestly, then added, "The Professor mentioned that you consistently do quality work. Maybe that's a feature that he's looking for."
"I think that it might also have something to do with your part in our group spellcasting." Paul said speculatively.
"How's that?" G asked curiously.
"How many other sorcery students do you know who have combined their skills with witches from other magical specialties?"
"All I did was an overlay. It wasn't that big of a deal."
"You adapted your illusion to conform to what the rest of us were creating. I think that maybe it's not just that your illusions are great, but also that you have the flexibility to tailor them to coordinate with other people's spells." Paul said reasonably.
"Okay. Yeah. I can see that."
"In fact, adaptability seems to be the one thing that all of us have in common... except for Corabeth. From everything that I've heard, she's kind of a one trick pony." Paul finished hesitantly.
"It just so happens that her one trick is something that we're going to need." G added.
"Chances are that she won't pick up on it, but if she notices that she's the only one who's not learning new things, we'll need to let her know that we appreciate her force wall thingie and really need her as part of the team."
"Is she a close friend of yours?" Agent Roberts thought to ask.
"Not really. Even though we both practice Wizardry, we travel in different circles. But she's never gone out of her way to be rude to me, so I don't want to cause her any unnecessary trouble."
"If we're going to be fueling the barrier with magic from the earth element, do you think we're going to have to convert it before we can use it for the spell?" Filipe asked anxiously.
"No one's said anything about that, but I think it was Mr. Hansen who mentioned that Zanner is proficient in natural magic. I don't know enough about it to speculate any further." Agent Roberts said uncertainly.
"We'll have to see for sure what discipline the spell is based in. I think all the barriers that I studied were based in nature, but you could accomplish the same thing in a lot of different ways. As long as we've got enough magic to fuel it and a tight enough spell, it will just depend on what Professor Everstone wants to do." Paul said thoughtfully.
"Well, there's no way it can be based in sorcery... and I'm okay with that. I wouldn't want to be the center of attention with all that responsibility on my shoulders, anyway."
"I don't go out of my way to be the center of things, but if it happens, I don't run away from it either. I do what needs to be done and let everyone else think what they want to."
"I don't think that I could do that." Filipe said quietly.
"If it happens, just focus on doing your job and don't worry about what anyone else thinks. No matter how things work out, people will respect that you put yourself out there and at least tried to do something. A lot of people are too afraid of what other people think to even try." Paul explained reasonably.
"He's right. Keep your eyes on the prize. Everything else will sort itself out." Agent Roberts confirmed.
"Besides all that, you're the youngest person on the team. If you weren't exactly the right person to do this job, they would've picked someone older. You're probably the most capable member of the team because, if you weren't, they would have chosen someone else... to protect you." Paul said with certainty.
"I guess that sorta makes sense... maybe." Filipe said slowly.
"You also need to keep in mind that the teachers will be there keeping an eye on things. If you have any questions, they'll be there to answer them. If you're about to make the wrong decision, they'll be right there to help you reevaluate your reasoning." Agent Roberts said with conviction.
"Yeah. But it still feels like they'll stand back and watch me fail so that they can give me a bad grade."
"I'm not saying that there aren't teachers who'd do something like that, but do you honestly think any of these teachers would treat you that way?"
"No. I guess not." Filipe quietly admitted, then quickly amended, "Mr. Bentley Brown would, but the teachers wouldn't."
"Bentley Brown doesn't matter. When this is all said and done, you guys will be heroes and Bentley Brown will be forgotten."
"How will we be heroes when no one knows that we're doing it?"
"You'll be the heroes of your own stories. It's something that you'll be able to carry with you for the rest of your lives. Other people knowing about it only causes a distraction which can prevent you from doing other, even greater things." Agent Roberts said sagely.
"I think you're right." Paul said thoughtfully, "Knowing that I did something big and difficult like that sounds like its own reward, even if no one else knows that I did it."
"Just don't make the mistake of thinking that there aren't any stakes in this. While being a hero may be nice, it's by no means a foregone conclusion. You can fail. There is danger and people might be hurt if you make a mistake. The teachers will be there to guide you and help you, but there's no way that they can protect you from your own stupidity if you're determined to goof around or not take the work seriously." Agent Roberts warned.
"Yeah. And if we screw up it's not just us who will pay the price. Our mistake might end up hurting the Wudewas, because we made their barrier less powerful than it should be." G said grimly.
"So what you're saying is to be focused on the job and take it seriously, but if we're able to do everything right, we'll end up doing something that we can be really proud of." Filipe said slowly.
"Yes. Exactly." Agent Roberts confirmed, then continued, "You're going to school to learn a set of skills that you'll be able to take out into the real world and make a valuable contribution. Right here, today, you're going to get a chance to see that in practice. If you've ever wondered 'why' you're forced to go to school, this is it. This is why. This is what you get out of it."
"Are the teachers paying you to tell us this?" Paul asked jokingly.
"I'm just telling you what I wish someone would have told me. I was pushed to conquer and succeed for its own sake. Every test was hyped to be such a big deal, just because it was a test. While I was doing it, I only had the most nebulous concept of 'why'. Learn the stuff, take the test, repeat, ad infinitum."
"Yeah. I know how that feels." Paul admitted.
"Well, now you're going to get a peek at the 'why'."
* * * * *
The sense of excitement grew when Agent Roberts turned left off the main road onto a dirt road, following the line of cars.
"Is it a lot farther?" Paul asked quietly.
"We'll get out and start walking in about half an hour.." Agent Roberts said simply.
"It's beautiful here." Paul said in wonder.
Agent Roberts smiled at the comment, feeling that he was probably witnessing something extremely rare, that being, Paul in awe.
Conversation was sparse as everyone fixated not only on the scenery passing them by, but also the sense of separation from all that was familiar to them.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts slowed his car and made his way to a place along the shoulder of the dirt road just past where all the other cars were stopping.
"How long is it until we're at the colony?" G asked before the car had even come to a full stop.
"That all depends on how fast we move and how many breaks we take." Agent Roberts said honestly, then added, "Remember, we can only move as fast as the slowest member of our group."
"So we just need to get our stuff out of the trunk and start walking?" Paul asked uncertainly.
"Essentially, yes. But we'll gather with the group first, just in case they've come up with anything that we all need to know before we head out." Agent Roberts said before opening his car door.
As soon as he stepped out of the car, his attention was immediately drawn to the sky.
He could almost taste the rain hanging in the clouds above them, awaiting the perfect moment to release.
"Thanks for telling us about the rain gear. It looks like we're going to need it." G said as he walked to the back of the car where Agent Roberts had opened the trunk.
* * * * *
"It looks like everyone is here. Agent Fastbeck will be leading our way, so be sure to stay reasonably close to him. If you start falling behind, let him know." Professor Everstone called to the group.
"Actually, I was thinking that since Agent Roberts also knows the way, that maybe we should split into two smaller groups. I can lead the advance group with the stronger hikers and get the site settled before the second group arrives." Agent Fastbeck said simply.
"I can see the advantage of that, but are we going to run a greater risk of one or the other of our groups becoming lost if we separate?" Professor Everstone asked cautiously.
"No. That shouldn't be a problem. But this way if someone needs to take a rest or has a particular problem with one part of our journey, it won't throw the entire group behind. One group can be setting things up while the other is still making their way." Agent Fastbeck said reasonably.
"How would you propose dividing our number?" Professor Everstone asked carefully.
"I was thinking that I could take Paul, G, Mr. Hansen, Miss Oaken and Corabeth... that is, if they wouldn't mind travelling at an increased pace."
"I think I'd prefer it." Miss Oaken said simply.
Corabeth nodded her immediate agreement.
"Agent Roberts can lead the second group and they won't be under as much pressure to push themselves. They can take whatever pace is comfortable for them." Agent Fastbeck continued.
"Thank you for thinking of that, Agent Fastbeck. That sounds like a reasonable way to proceed." Professor Everstone said confidently.
"Everyone on my team, be sure that you have your rain gear close at hand and we'll move out as soon as you're ready." Agent Fastbeck called to his people.
"Are you going to want to take all the camping gear with you?" Agent Roberts asked uncertainly.
"Yes. Everyone can carry their own personal gear, but we'll take the tents on ahead with us." Agent Fastbeck agreed.
Agent Roberts put down the tent that he had slung on his back.
"Paul, do you want to get this for me?" Agent Fastbeck asked over his shoulder.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts watched as Agent Fastbeck's group quickly and efficiently gathered their equipment.
"I could've kept up with them." Filipe said as he walked to Agent Roberts' side.
"I agree. But it makes sense to break into two groups. I'm going to be counting on you to help me if anyone starts having trouble along the way."
"You don't have to say that. I know that I'm smaller than everyone else. I just feel bad that they didn't think I could do as good as them."
"I can understand that. But you were chosen to be in my group, so the best thing you can do right now is do your best and prove them wrong."
"I'm actually okay with being in the second group." Zanner said as he and Dex joined Filipe.
"You don't feel like your being 'picked last'?" Filipe asked him curiously.
"I don't care about that. I'm just as happy to be able to go at a normal pace and save my energy for what really matters."
"That's a good attitude to have, Zanner. I need to talk to Professor Everstone for a minute. Why don't you guys get your stuff together and we'll start out as soon as I'm done?"
"What about him?" Filipe asked as he looked at Mr. Bentley Brown.
"Don't worry about him. He'll manage." Agent Roberts said before walking away.
* * * * *
"Professor, are you ready for this?"
"Nearly. I have one thing left that I need to do before we leave." Professor Everstone said as he rifled through the backpack, which was sitting on the hood of the rental car.
Agent Roberts watched and waited as Professor Everstone extracted what looked like a foot long section of metal pipe from his backpack.
Before Agent Roberts could speculate about the utility of such a thing, Professor Everstone thrust the pipe out before him with one hand.
As Agent Roberts watched, the pipe began to extend in both directions and reform itself slightly.
Within the space of a minute, what had looked like a segment of pipe had become a nearly six foot long spear. While the spear wasn't elaborately decorated or bejeweled, Agent Roberts couldn't help but appreciate the craftsmanship and elegance of the ancient piece.
"Is that real?" Zanner asked as he hurried to Agent Roberts' side.
"Yes, by many definitions of the word." Professor Everstone said calmly.
"There's a lot of magic in that thing. A scary lot. It almost hurts to look at it." Filipe said as he approached more slowly.
"For those with the gift to see it, that would be true." Professor Everstone confirmed, then thought to add, "Agent Roberts, you might want to keep your distance. Trust me when I tell you that getting cut is the least of your worries from this spear."
"Don't worry. I've been filled in on the power and danger of the relics. I'll show my proper respect and be sure to keep my distance." Agent Roberts assured him.
"Now that the relic has been allowed to assume its true form, it will soon attain its full power. I am ready to proceed whenever you are." Professor Everstone said as he set the spear aside and pulled on his backpack.
Agent Roberts looked around to see that everyone had their gear on and were waiting for him to give the signal.
Mr. Bentley Brown's look of disgust was the last bit of confirmation that Agent Roberts needed that all was in readiness. Those who were prepared to take the work seriously were primed for action and ready to go. Likewise, those who were determined to be miserable, were appropriately so.
To Be Continued...
It seems to me that there are always people who seem to want to be miserable. I also notice that those who prefer being miserable seem to want everyone around them to be at least as miserable as they are, if not more so, if possible. When I think back through my life, I remember teachers as well as bosses who seemed to thrive on making things as unpleasant as possible not only for those over whom they had power, but also for themselves. I just thought about the old saying, "Misery loves company."
Mr. Bentley Brown is a person like that, and he literally is not able to be happy without being miserable while doing his best to make everyone around him feel awful right along with him.
I have known people in all sorts of positions of power from teachers to bosses to preachers/priests as well as politicians, who revel in making everyone else suffer, rather than help others actually find ways to feel better about themselves and the world around them.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher