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Although the grunts and growls of the Wudewas elder were loud and abrupt, as Shawn got used to hearing them, he began to get the sense of how gentle the enormous beast was.
"We need to go and try to find a way to deal with your attackers." Conrad said earnestly.
Shawn felt another chill run up his spine as the Wudewas looked at him appraisingly.
"This is Shawn. He's here to help me." Conrad said when he noticed.
A snorted grunt was Ud-wra's response.
"No, he and I aren't members of the cursed. I come on their behalf, since I am capable of speaking with you. Shawn is here representing himself, following his personal quest to right wrongs and aid those in need."
The Wudewas elder looked at Shawn again, this time with a far more gentle look in his eyes.
"Time is not our friend. We must go if we are to resolve this before more of your people are injured or killed." Conrad said seriously.
Ud-wra let out a gruff whispered growl, then withdrew.
Shawn and Conrad stood quietly for a moment, looking where the Wudewas elder had disappeared into the mist. Finally, Conrad broke the silence by asking, "Do you have my clothes?"
"Um, no. I kind of got distracted." Shawn shyly admitted.
"Will you help me find them? I need to get dressed so that we can go."
"Yeah." Shawn muttered distractedly, then squatted down to try and find Conrad's clothes in the mist at their feet.
"What are you?" Shawn asked as he felt around on the ground.
"I'm a human, just like you." Conrad said simply.
Shawn stopped gathering clothing for a moment as he looked at the bird... man... monster, dubiously.
"I'm a human who was cursed. As a result, I can shapeshift." Conrad said simply.
"And because of that, you were somehow able to learn the Wudewas language?" Shawn guessed as he stood.
"Hold this." Conrad said as he handed Shawn the clothing he had gathered.
Shawn took the clothes from him and sorted them as he waited.
Before his eyes, the bird creature transformed into a naked man, standing before him.
"In ancient times there was a great man... or maybe a god. I guess it doesn't matter. His name was Aengus MacOg. He was said to be able to transform himself at will into a black swan."
"Like you just did."
"Exactly. Because I share his transformative ability... I'm not sure if it creates a bond or if it makes me a suitable vessel, but for whatever reason, the form that I can take makes it possible for me to carry a sliver of Aengus MacOg's essence, giving me the ability to speak to all living creatures."
"So you can speak to... dogs and cats? Squirrels?" Shawn asked cautiously, then held out the clothes that he was holding so that Conrad could dress himself.
"I suppose so, although I can't imagine that they would have much to say. I've only had the ability since early this morning, so I can't really tell you how it works."
"I get that you can't or won't talk about certain things, but you said that you're under a curse, right?"
"Is the person who did this to you, who made you able to speak to the Wudewas, the same person who originally cursed you?"
"But from all appearances, you're doing this of your own free will. Was there a reason that you were cursed?"
"I was in the right place at the right time to help people in need." Conrad said, then squatted down to put on his shoes.
"If I were to have contact with the person who did this to you, would I be cursed too?"
"Probably not. While I suppose that it would be possible for her to curse you, she wouldn't do it without a good reason." Conrad explained, then stood as he asked, "Are you ready to go?"
"Lead the way."
* * * * *
Shawn was aware of the huge gray beast that was following them, mostly out of their sight.
He supposed that he couldn't blame the Wudewas for being suspicious of strangers in their home.
As soon as he and Conrad reached the barrier, Conrad led the way through and they emerged into late afternoon daylight.
"Should we do a little reconnaissance before we head back to the car?" Shawn asked cautiously.
"No. There's too great a chance that we'd be spotted and be killed or taken captive. We need to get back to the car as soon as we can. I know of a few people who can help us with reconnaissance when we come back."
"As soon as we're out in the open, I'm going to need to make a call. I don't know how much preparation time my people will need... if they'll even agree to do it at all." Shawn said seriously.
"We should go back up to that peak so you won't be limited by the mountains on either side."
"Good plan. Are you going to need to call anyone?"
"My people don't have phones, I'll have to go and ask them in person."
"Okay. Then I guess as soon as we get back to the office, I can do some research and see if the bureau has anything useful to let us know who these people might be." Shawn said thoughtfully, then thought to ask, "When are we looking at leaving Waxell to come back out here?"
"Let's try for seven in the morning. Will that give your friends enough time to make the trip?"
"I'll be sure to ask them... But calling them my friends might actually be pushing it a bit."
"I can't be sure who of my friends will agree to come along. They have their own lives and own commitments to worry about."
"Your friends, they're from the other colony, right? The cursed ones?"
"Yes. But I'd rather not get into too much detail about them. Everything I tell you has the potential to compromise their safety."
"But if it's something that I've already figured out for myself, then you're not really telling me anything. It's to your benefit if you verify my assumptions so that you'll know that I'm not working with a faulty understanding of the situation that we're in."
"I suppose that's true."
"You said that you can change because of a curse, and you call the people of the other colony, 'The Cursed Ones'."
"But you've also said that you're human, but from the way you said it, I'm assuming that your friends are something else."
"Since they're cursed, does that mean that your friends shapeshift like you do?"
"Do they look human?"
"Yes. Except when they're transformed, of course."
"Of course." Shawn said with a smile.
"What about your friends? Do they look human?" Conrad asked curiously.
"Yes. Well, usually."
"Do they transform?"
"Yes. Although I suspect that I haven't seen all of what they can do."
"And they have some sort of ability to wipe out people's memories?"
"Yes. I've actually experienced that. It's very effective."
"If that's the case, why do you remember them now?"
"Because they allowed me to remember. Maybe they thought that it was worth the risk."
"So I guess that means that they trust you?"
"I think that they trust me to the same extent that you do."
"As much as is necessary to get the job done."
"Right. And I totally get that. It's just frustrating to know that there's information that might be important that's being withheld."
"We're all walking a tightrope. We'll both have to do our best to see that our friends don't regret trusting us."
"If the Wudewas didn't need our help, I would never have told you."
* * * * *
When they finally reached the jagged peak, Shawn found the number he needed in his cell phone, then dialed it on the sat phone.
"May I speak to Dr. Killian please?"
"Yes actually, it is. This is Agent Roberts from the FBI."
"Thank you. I'll hold."
"Dr. Killian, this is Agent Roberts from the FBI. I've run into a situation and I could really use your help."
"Sorry about that, I'm on a satellite phone, so there's some lag. Let me get right to the point. In the course of my duties, I've come across a group of people who live in seclusion, but are now in danger of being exposed to the outside world. We have yet to determine who has found them, but once we do, we're very limited in what we can do to stop them. I was hoping that you might ask Lane and Duran if maybe they could come down here to help me deal with this." Agent Roberts said in a burst to minimize the effect of the satellite lag.
Agent Roberts got a strange look, then looked to Agent Fastbeck and asked, "What's the name of their colony?"
"I don't know if it's the official name, but I've heard it referred to as the South Seid Colony."
"Southseid." Agent Roberts said into the phone.
He waited for a moment for a response, then smiled in relief.
"Yes. Thank you. We're planning to leave from the Waxell FBI field office at seven in the morning. Just let me know when they should be arriving and I'll arrange to meet them."
After a moment to wait for the lag and Dr. Killian's response, Agent Roberts finally said, "Yeah. I'll hold."
Agent Roberts then put his hand over the mouthpiece and said, "He's going to talk to the guys and make sure that they're willing to do it. If so, he'll find out for me when I can expect them to arrive."
"Did he know where you were talking about?"
"Who knows? He's as good as you are about not revealing what he really knows. He had me undress for him so that he could examine my naked body and I never even suspected... wait, never mind."
"Don't stop now. You've caught my interest."
"Do you think that your friends will be able to make it here in time?"
"No problem. The drive shouldn't take more than five or six hours..." Agent Roberts was saying, then abruptly stopped as he said into the phone, "Yeah. I'm still here."
After a moment of waiting for the lag, then listening, Agent Roberts finally responded, "That sounds fantastic. Just have them call me at the office... give me a second. I don't know the number."
"Waxell 1409." Agent Fastbeck automatically supplied.
"The number is Waxell 1409... I'm not sure how you're supposed to dial that."
There was another long pause, then Agent Roberts said, "Good to know. I'll be expecting their call when they arrive."
"Thanks for helping me. I knew that you'd be able to see the parallels between these people and yours and sympathize with their situation."
"Yeah. You too. Goodbye." Agent Roberts said before disconnecting the call.
"So they'll be driving in tonight?"
"Yes. They'll probably be on the road in the next hour or so."
"Then I suppose that we'd better hurry and get back to the office. We still have a lot of research to do, trying to determine the identities of our alleged hunters."
"I think you mean that I have a lot of research to do. As I recall, you're going to be going someplace with no phones to ask for volunteers to help us."
"That's true. But I shouldn't have to spend a lot of time convincing them. By the time I'm back, hopefully you'll have some leads for me to help you follow up on."
"I got a lot of experience doing research before I was finally allowed to go out into the field. I should be able to come up with something."
"Do you miss it?
"The desk job? Not at all. As Agent Simmons said when I first met him, 'No one goes through all the training to end up behind a desk'."
"That's true. This is the part of the job that everyone thinks of when they say 'FBI Agent'."
"Not exactly this. I mean, tromping through the forest on a quest to save a colony of..."
"It's best if we stay in the habit of calling them Wudewas. It's more accurate."
"Okay. But do you know if there are other... creatures... wait, that sounds so rude..."
"Remember how you talked about them on the phone? Just call them people."
"Do you think that there are other 'people' like the Wudewas out there?"
"This is the second secret colony that I've personally encountered, so it wouldn't surprise me to find out that there are others."
"Is the other colony called Northseid?"
"You know, when your friends and my friends get together, it might actually make conversation a lot easier if we have an agreed upon name for each group."
"I suppose that it might be better to describe people by where they're from, rather than by what they are."
"Trust me, I know what it's like to be completely defined by someone else's label for you. I wouldn't ever want to do that to anyone I call a friend."
"How has it been for you in Waxell so far? Has anyone treated you badly?"
"No. Not at all." Agent Roberts quickly assured him, then cautiously added, "But you have to understand that I have a lifetime of conditioning associated with this. I've been hurt enough times that I'm incapable of completely letting my guard down and opening myself to the possibility of letting it happen again."
"The town where my friends are from is called Brynnhollow. Their people are most commonly referred to as 'Brynns'."
"That's a lot less creepy than I was expecting."
"What about your friends?"
"Well, the friends that I called for help are from Columbus, Ohio. But the community that they're from is called 'Shadeside'. They call themselves Shadesiders."
"I'm not sure if that sounds creepy or not. It sounds to me like something that's trying to be creepy, but really isn't."
"Do you think that there'll be any problem getting the Shadesiders and the Brynns together?"
"Not knowing your friends, I can't say for sure. But if they're all decent people, there shouldn't be any problem."
"Lane's a decent person. Duran... tries... usually. When he slips up, most people excuse his behavior because of his age."
"How old is he?"
"That's hard to say. I'm still unclear on how Shadesider aging works. But he looks like he's about sixteen... sometimes he acts like it too."
"Well, you said that he tries. I think that as long as people recognize that, there shouldn't be too much of a problem."
"What about the Brynns?"
"I'm going to have to ask around and see who's available and willing to help. I really don't know who'll end up going with us."
Agent Roberts slowly nodded his understanding as they continued to walk.
"By the way, make sure that you don't ever mention the Brynns when you're in Waxell."
"Do they know about them there?"
"There are a few people, like Tracy, who know a few of the Brynns by sight. Most of the rest have just heard the stories about them."
"It's mostly your typical fairy tale stuff. Haunted woods, mysterious creatures..."
"Like the swan-thing you turned into?"
"It's called an Oskmey, and... yes. It's likely that at some point someone stumbled across one of the Brynns when they were transformed and that's what started the legend."
"From what I've picked up, my Shadesider friends have some sort of instinctive need to go out into the woods and 'run wild' every so often. Could it be something like that?"
"Probably. The Brynns have to transform themselves at certain intervals. That's part of the curse that they're under."
"Maybe, when this is all done, your people and my people can 'run wild' together for a while."
"We'll have to wait and see how things go, but that might turn out to be something that they'd all enjoy."
"I don't know about you, but I think it's about time to break out the flashlights. Between the mountains and this tree cover, I can barely see a thing."
* * * * *
Very little was said as they finished their trek back to the car.
The ride back to Waxell was conducted mostly in silence as both men thought about what they needed to accomplish in the coming hours.
"I'll be back just as soon as I've gotten things arranged with my people. Will you still be here?" Agent Fastbeck asked as he unlocked the door to the office.
"I should be. I've got to wait for the guys to arrive."
"I'd better get going then." Agent Fastbeck said before leaving.
Agent Roberts went to his desk and signed onto his computer to begin the monumental task of trying to do research on something for which he had essentially no search criteria.
* * * * *
"Lane? I thought you were going to call when you got here."
"I thought that too, but I couldn't get a signal."
"We stopped at a restaurant to use their phone but the waitress knew who you were and told us where to find you."
"Well, I'm glad that you're here. You made good time."
"From the way Rafe talked, you've got some kind of an emergency. What's up?"
"Hang on." Agent Roberts said before hurrying through the doorway into the office.
When he returned, he had an office chair with him. He moved it around the reception desk and said, "Go ahead and sit down. This could take a minute."
Lane and Duran took their seats, then waited expectantly.
"What we've got is a secret society that's been hidden away from the world for a few hundred years. Someone's found them and has started shooting at them through their barrier. A few of them have been killed."
"Yeah. Agent Fastbeck and I have been to the colony and all I can tell you is that they really need our help. While I believe that they're capable of finding and eliminating the people who attacked them, I'm afraid that if they did that, they'd probably end up being exposed because of it. I was hoping that, with your help, we might be able to make the people who found them forget what they'd found."
"Before we do that, just how important is it for this colony to remain hidden? I mean, can't they find a way to blend in and operate on the outskirts of society? Even though it's not ideal, it might allow them to keep up with the times and progress along with the modern world."
"They're not human... or, they don't look human. There's no way that they could ever live among regular people." Agent Roberts said carefully.
"Stop dancing around it. Just what is it that we're talking about, here?" Duran asked impatiently.
"Okay. In simple terms, what we're talking about is a colony of Bigfoots. They've lived in isolation and seclusion all this time and never hurt anyone. Now some hunters or something have found them and have started taking pot-shots at them."
"A colony of Bigfoots?" Duran asked dubiously.
"What did you think I was going to say? Vampires?" Agent Roberts asked with a grin.
"So you want for us to find who's doing this to the Bigfoots... Bigfeet...?" Lane stammered to a halt.
"We call them Wudewas. I've been told that it's a more accurate description of them."
"So we're supposed to find who's been shooting at the Wudewas and stop them?" Lane asked cautiously.
"No. Actually, Agent Fastbeck is out right now recruiting some help with the 'finding'. I'm going to trust in him and his friends to handle that part. As soon as they've found whoever's been doing this, it will be up to us to determine how much they know, how much evidence they have accumulated and where they've stored it, and then to make them forget that they ever encountered the Wudewas."
"You're not asking for much." Duran said with a roll of his eyes.
"I'm open to other suggestions." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"How about we just kill them all?" Duran asked simply.
"We're considering that 'Plan B'." Agent Roberts said uneasily.
"Are we still planning on leaving first thing in the morning?"
"Yes. You guys can stay at my place tonight, if you'd like. I've got a spare room that you're welcome to."
"We had talked about getting a hotel room, but we didn't see any on the way into town." Lane said frankly.
"This isn't much of a tourist destination. The closest thing we have to a hotel is Mrs. Shumlin's Boarding House."
"Should I know what that is?"
"She rents out rooms in her home to strangers. If you're there at dinner time, she'll invite you to have dinner with her. Think about it as being like visiting your grandma's house for the weekend."
"It sounds horrible." Duran said with a cringe.
"I think we'd like to accept your invitation to use your spare room." Lane said with a grin.
"Good. If you guys are hungry, you can take a few minutes to go back to the diner. The food is excellent and Agent Fastbeck should be back before too much longer."
"We drove straight through, so we're pretty hungry. A meal sounds good." Lane said honestly, then looked at Duran with question.
Duran nodded his wholehearted agreement.
"What about you? Have you eaten?" Lane asked with concern.
"I haven't had time, but I can't leave this. I'm trying to compose a list of likely candidates of who might have attacked the Southseid colony."
"If you can tell us what you want, we can bring you something back."
"I would love a cheeseburger." Agent Roberts said immediately as he stood and took out his wallet.
"Don't worry about it, we can get it." Lane said as he also stood, then added, "Consider it payback for letting us stay at your house."
"Okay. Thanks, guys." Agent Roberts said as he put his wallet away, then sat behind his desk again.
* * * * *
"Mission accomplished." Agent Fastbeck said as he walked into the office.
"You just missed the guys. Lane and Duran went over to the diner to get something to eat." Agent Roberts said as he looked up from his work.
"I didn't expect them to be here so quickly."
"They drove straight through."
"Well, I've arranged for three, possibly four, people to help us."
"Pending parental permission."
"You want to bring a child with us?"
"He's a young teenager. It might end up being a good experience for him to use his natural... or supernatural talents for something important." Agent Fastbeck said frankly, then asked, "So what have you come up with here?"
"Nothing concrete. I've narrowed the list of 'possibles' down to under twenty. I don't know how much help it will be, but at least with this information we should be able to track any of them down that we need to."
After standing over his shoulder and reading for a few seconds, Agent Fastbeck quietly said, "This is some good solid work. Any of these people would be likely candidates. Make sure that you download all their files onto the laptop so that we'll have the information with us if we should need it."
"Right... Where do you keep the laptop? I haven't come across it yet." Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"In the bathroom cabinet, under the sink."
"Why do you have it in there?"
"That was the only outlet that I could find that wasn't already dedicated to another purpose."
"Shawn? Why didn't you tell us..." A voice trailed off from the doorway.
"Lane and Duran, I'd like to introduce my new boss, Agent Conrad Fastbeck." Agent Roberts said formally.
"I prefer to think of us as coworkers." Agent Fastbeck said in response, then looked to their guests and said, "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"What the hell is up with you?" Lane asked as he put an arm out protectively and guided Duran toward the door behind him.
"What's wrong?" Agent Roberts asked curiously.
"Every instinct I have is telling me that we don't want to be anywhere near him. He's dangerous." Lane said and seemed to be breathless in panic.
"I guess Shadesiders must be able to sense curses." Agent Roberts said cautiously.
"Since they didn't react negatively to you, that seems possible." Agent Fastbeck said speculatively, then carefully added, "I can download those files. Why don't you knock off for the night and get some sleep? We'll meet back here at seven in the morning."
"Yeah. Call me if you need anything before then."
Agent Fastbeck nodded as he noticed that Lane and Duran had already left.
* * * * *
"Are you guys alright?"
"I don't know what that was. I've never felt anything like that." Lane said frankly.
"If it affects you that strongly, then tomorrow might be interesting."
"What were you saying about a curse?" Duran asked cautiously.
"It's not important right now. That food smells great, let's go back to the house and eat."
"I'm not going anywhere until you've told us what you've gotten us into." Lane said firmly.
"That food smells really good." Duran said urgently.
"I'm parked behind the office. Follow me out and we'll talk over dinner."
Lane seemed reluctant, but at Duran's pleading expression, he finally agreed.
* * * * *
"You FBI guys must make some pretty good money." Duran said as they got out of their cars.
"As Agent Fastbeck has said, the economics are a little different here."
"Yeah. I couldn't believe it when our three meals cost less than five dollars." Lane said as he followed Agent Roberts up to the front door.
Agent Roberts smiled as he opened the door, then stood aside to usher his guests inside.
"This place is awesome." Lane gasped as he walked into the living room.
"Yeah. I think so too." Agent Roberts said with a smile.
"Guys? Remember the food?" Duran said urgently.
Shawn laughed, then said, "Why don't we have our dinner in the breakfast room? I think you'll appreciate the view."
"Breakfast room?" Lane asked dubiously.
Shawn smiled at him, then said, "This is just as amazing to me as it is to you. I'm glad that you're here so that I can share it with you."
"Less talk. More food." Duran said as he followed.
"We're almost there." Shawn assured him, then stood aside as he presented the little breakfast nook off the kitchen.
The room was surrounded on three sides with windows which afforded an eerie view of the untamed wilderness in the moonlight.
"Okay. Cool room." Lane said as he walked to the window and looked out.
"Yeah. Great." Duran said impatiently, then asked, "Food?"
Lane took the paper bag that he had been carrying to the small table and sat it down.
"Would you like for me to get you some plates?"
"I think we're okay. Come on. You've got to be hungry too." Lane said as he took his seat.
Agent Roberts was only too happy to comply.
* * * * *
"So, what can you tell me about your... friend, Agent Fastbeck?" Lane asked seriously.
"What I can tell you may not be the same as what I know. I just want to be upfront with you about that."
"Believe me, we know all about having to keep secrets." Lane said frankly.
Duran nodded his agreement, since his mouth was otherwise engaged.
"When I look at Agent Fastbeck, I don't get any kind of... vibe, or anything like that from him. I don't know what it is that you're feeling, but I don't feel it at all."
"I'm not imagining it." Lane said firmly.
"I wasn't implying that you were. I'm just saying that I don't feel it and you do. That seems to suggest that what you're sensing is something that's unique to Shadesiders." Agent Roberts said carefully.
"Okay. Yeah. That sounds reasonable."
"I don't know everything about Agent Fastbeck, but I've already asked him flat out and he's told me that he's human... I mean, like me. The only difference between us is that he's been cursed."
"Wait... hold up... cursed?" Lane asked dubiously.
"Don't ask me how or why it happened because he hasn't told me. And although I've witnessed at least one example of how the curse manifests, I think that out of respect for him, that he should be the one to decide who he shares that with."
"But you've seen enough to confirm his story?" Lane asked cautiously.
"I don't know if I'd go that far, but I've witnessed something that I can't explain and he's provided an explanation for it." Agent Roberts said seriously, then continued, "The point I'm trying to make is that as far as I know, it's his curse that you're sensing. Your instincts might see it as being something dangerous to you or something that you're not equipped to deal with."
"This has to be the best hamburger that I've ever tasted." Duran said blissfully.
Lane looked at him uncertainly, then took a bite of his own burger.
That prompted Shawn to also start his meal.
"Well?" Duran asked impatiently.
Lane considered carefully as he chewed, then quietly said, "I will forgive your blasphemy against White Castle and admit that this is the 'second' best burger that I've ever tasted."
To Be Continued...
Well, to me, White Castle and best hamburger should never be spoken in the same sentence. Understand that I sort of like the tiny little things. It takes at least five of them to equal even a small burger from Mickey Dee's. The other thing that I am not all that fond of is those darn pickles they put on them.
I find it interesting that the Shadesiders are creeped out by shapeshifters, or people that are cursed. It's ironic, to say the least. If I didn't know better, I might think their reaction would be kinda racist.
These people have had to hide their true identities from most of the world. And it points out that there are most likely very good reasons for the Brinns to hide their central differences from outsiders.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher