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"Shelly? Do you have a few minutes to help me out with something?" Agent Roberts asked hopefully.
"What's wrong? You sound like you're in a panic. Are you in trouble?"
"No. Well, yes. Sort of. I've got to make dinner for about a dozen people and I have no idea what I'm doing. Can you help me out?"
"I'm not a great cook, but I'll do what I can. Tell me what you're making and I'll see what I can do for you."
"I thought that I'd make meat and potatoes, but the cookbook is telling me to 'braze' and 'sear' and I'm supposed to have something called 'fond' and I don't even know if that's a spice or a vegetable or what."
"What have you done so far?"
"I opened the cookbook to get an idea of what I'd have to do, then I called you."
"Good. At least we won't have to try and salvage something that's already been messed up. Have you turned on the oven yet?"
"No. But I know how to do that!"
"Calm down. Breathe. Now turn on the oven and set it to 350. It's going to need time to heat up."
"Okay. I've got that."
"Good. Now, tell me, what kind of meat are we cooking?"
"Beef, I think... I'm pretty sure."
"What does the label say?"
"It doesn't have one. It's wrapped in white paper and tied with string. There's some writing on the outside, but I don't know what it means, it's something like 'ZZG'."
"Okay. No problem. We can still make this work. How big is the piece of meat?"
"It's about the size of a newborn baby."
"How many pounds would you estimate?
"I don't know... about six maybe?"
"I hope you aren't planning on serving dinner anytime soon. That's going to take some time to cook."
"No. It's going to be a while before everyone gets here."
"Even so, we need to get your meat braised and into the oven right away."
"There's that word again. I don't know what that means."
"Don't worry, I'll talk you through it. Do you have any flour?"
"Yes. I've got some right here!"
"I need for you to put some flour into a large shallow pan, big enough to hold the piece of meat. Don't use your baking pan, you're going to need that when you finish with this part."
"Okay, I know what a pizza pan looks like, but I'm a little fuzzy on what I'm working with here. Which pan would be best to use for baking?"
"What would be ideal is a granite roaster, but if you don't have one of those, any pan with a lid that's big enough and can be used in the oven should be fine."
"There's nothing here made of granite, they're all metal..."
"That's just a name. A granite roaster is dark blue, almost black, and it has white specks. It's shaped like an oval and has a matching lid."
"I don't think that I have anything like that but there's a really big cast iron kettle with a lid. That would probably be big enough to hold it."
"Cast iron? Actually, that could work really well. Before you do anything else, you need to wipe out the cast iron kettle and make sure that it's clean. Once you've done that, smear shortening all around the inside of it."
"Yeah. Like Crisco. Do you have anything like that?"
"I don't think so. But to be honest, I don't know what I'd do with it if I had it."
"We don't have time for me to explain. Do you have any kind of oil?"
"Yes. Conrad told me to buy some vegetable oil."
"Good. Pour a little bit of that into the cast iron pan and swish it around. Once the bottom of the pan is completely coated, pour out whatever's left."
"Okay. I don't understand why you want me to, but I'll do it."
"Trust me. This is going to help us later. Go ahead and do that, then put the pan in the oven... I'll wait."
* * * * *
"Okay. It's in the oven. What now?"
"Do you have some kind of a pan or dish that you can put the meat on while you coat it with flour?"
"Is it okay if I use the pizza pan?"
"Sure. Stick with what you know. Just dump the flour on the pan... you'll need enough to coat the roast. Probably about a cup."
"Okay. I got that. What now?"
"I think we'll keep it simple. Sprinkle some salt and pepper into the flour, then mix it to distribute it throughout the flour."
"Okay. I've done that."
"Good. Then the next step is to coat the roast. Put it on the pizza pan and rub the flour into every surface. Make sure to flip it over and coat the bottom too."
"Okay. Be right back."
"I'll be right here. Take all the time you need."
* * * * *
"It's completely coated with flour. What next?"
"Get some potholders or a towel and take the cast iron pan out of the oven and put it on the stovetop. Turn the burner on under the pan and set it to medium high."
"Okay. Got it."
"Good. Then put about a quarter cup of oil in the pan. Once that's done, move the meat into the cast iron and hopefully it'll be hot enough to sizzle."
A moment later, Michelle could hear the frying sound in the background.
"Now you'll need to keep turning the meat until you've browned it on all sides."
"Yeah. Just a minute."
"Go as slow as you need to, Just make sure it's browned all over."
* * * * *
"Okay. That's done. What now?"
"Move the pan off the heat." She said immediately, then asked, "Do you have any cloves?"
"I don't know what that is."
"It's a spice."
"Conrad picked out some spices for me, but I don't know what he got."
"Look for cloves and bay leaves. If you've got those, we'll be okay."
"I'm looking now... yeah. I've got both of those."
"Good. Take eight cloves and press them into the surface of the roast, cut it if you have to. After you've done that, drop three bay leaves into the pan."
"This seems so weird to me, like I'm performing some kind of pagan ritual."
"If you think that now, just wait until it's finished. That's when you'll really get to see the magic."
"Okay. That's done. What's next?"
"Listen, I have some things that I have to work on tonight so I won't be able to hold your hand through this whole thing. The hard part's done, so I'm going to give you the instructions for the rest so that you can finish it off yourself."
"Thanks for doing this Shell, I really appreciate it."
"Do you have any onions?"
"You'll need about two medium or three small. Peel them and slice them thinly. Scatter the onions overtop of the roast, then add about half a cup of red wine..."
"I don't have any wine."
"Do you have vinegar?"
"Yes. Conrad told me to buy that."
"Add half a cup of vinegar, then about the same amount of water. Put the lid on and put that into the oven."
"Before you go, can you tell me how to make some potatoes to go with it?"
"I'm getting there. Peel about six or eight potatoes and cut them into bite-sized chunks. Peel three or four carrots and cut them to about the same size. In about an hour and a half, put the carrots and potatoes into the pan with the roast, then let it cook for at least another hour."
"Yeah. Okay. I can do that."
"When the time is up, test one of the larger pieces of potato to be sure that it's fully cooked. If it's not, give it another fifteen minutes, then check again."
"Be sure to call me and let me know how it turns out."
"I'll do that. Thanks Shell, you're a lifesaver."
"It's just good to know that you aren't 'perfect' at everything. There are still a few things that your little sister can do to help you."
"I wish we lived closer together. I miss you."
"I miss you too. But we both have things that we have to do."
"Listen, I've got to get going. Get that roast into the oven as quickly as you can or your guests won't be able to eat before midnight."
"Thanks again. I'll talk to you later."
* * * * *
"Whatever you're cooking smells really good." Zanner said as he led the way into the kitchen.
"Do you need any help?" Dex asked as he looked around at the disheveled kitchen.
"I just need to peel some potatoes and carrots, but it'll be awhile before I need them." Agent Roberts said as he opened drawers, obviously looking for something.
"I can do the potatoes while you clean up." Dex cautiously volunteered.
"Yeah. It looks like your kitchen kinda exploded." Zanner added.
Before Agent Roberts could respond, Dex asked, "Did you need this burner turned on for some reason?"
"No. I guess not. Shelly just never told me to turn it off."
"My sister. I called to ask her advice on making dinner." Agent Roberts said as he turned off the burner.
"How did you want the potatoes done?" Dex asked curiously.
"Peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks."
"Are you making mashed potatoes?"
"No. They're going to be cooked in with the roast."
"That sounds good. Don't worry about the potatoes and carrots. They'll be ready when you need them."
"How's Mr. Hansen doing?"
"We talked to him about the protectorate for a couple minutes, then he fell asleep."
"How about you guys? Do you need some rest after what you've just gone through?"
"I think we both need to do something that's low stakes and not magic related for a little bit." Zanner said frankly.
Dex nodded his wholehearted agreement.
"I suppose that after all the excitement it's good to get back to your routine." Agent Roberts said slowly, then thought to add, "I wonder how the other groups are doing."
Dex put down his paring knife and closed his eyes for a moment.
"I didn't mean for you to check on them. I know you're tired." Agent Roberts protested.
"It's no more trouble for me than looking out the window." Dex said simply, then looked up and added, "Both groups are still working."
"Well, then let's make sure that they have a good meal waiting for them when they get home."
"So are we just having roast and potatoes?" Zanner asked from the sink, where he was drawing a pan of water.
"Is that not enough?"
"I don't know. But I was asking in case there's something else that we need to start working on before it's too late."
"Conrad had me get some vegetables, but I don't know if there's anything I can do with them. I mean, I don't know if they'd go with this meal."
"What kind of vegetables?"
"I don't know. He pointed at stuff and I bought it. Look in the drawer in the refrigerator and see if there's anything you can work with."
"Dex, have you got this?" Zanner asked hopefully.
"Yeah. Go ahead."
* * * * *
"It sounds like someone just pulled up out front." Zanner announced from the island where he was cleaning radishes.
"I'll get it." Agent Roberts said as he quickly dried his hands on a dish towel, then thought to ask, "If I get tied up, will you add the potatoes and carrots to the roast in about ten minutes?"
"Don't worry. We'll take care of it." Dex assured him.
As Agent Roberts hurried out of the kitchen, Zanner cautiously asked, "Do you want to try the dressing that I made?"
"Is it as sweet as the last one?"
"No. I think I figured out the problem. I must have confused teaspoons and tablespoons when I was reading the recipe. This one's better. I promise."
"Okay. I'll try it."
* * * * *
"How are you guys doing?" Agent Roberts asked as he hurried out the front door.
"G fell asleep on the ride back. He really wore himself out." Miss Oaken said as she slowly got out of the car.
"How did the barrier work go?"
"G and Corabeth were both amazing. They came up with some really ingenious improvements for the barrier."
"I woke him up." Corabeth said as she got out of the passenger's side of the car.
"So what's the plan? Are we going to regroup here, then go into town for dinner?"
"Dinner's in the oven. It still needs to cook for a little while, but that works out since we're waiting on the other team."
"Where's Mr. Hansen?" Corabeth asked as she looked toward the house.
"From the way it looked to me, unfolding and refolding space took everything that he had to give. He's taking a little nap before dinner, but he made me promise that we'd wake him before we discussed the barriers."
"I think that all of us could use some time to reflect on the events of the day before we start comparing notes. It might help us to identify the most important points, so we can discuss those first."
"G fell back to sleep." Corabeth said as she leaned down to look into the back seat.
"Wake him up so we can get him inside." Miss Oaken said with a slight smile.
"Don't bother. I'll carry him in." Agent Roberts said as he walked to the car.
"You don't have to..." Miss Oaken began to say, but trailed off as she realized that Agent Roberts was going to do it regardless.
* * * * *
Although it was an uncomfortable angle, Agent Roberts was able to scoop the sleeping teenager into his arms and lift him out of the back seat of the car.
"I'll get the door for you." Corabeth said quickly as she rushed ahead.
"Thank you." Agent Roberts said quietly, then smiled as G shifted slightly in his arms to snuggle.
"I'll put him in my room and we'll wake him up when dinner's ready."
"Is there anything we can do to help with dinner?" Miss Oaken asked hopefully.
"I think everything's under control. Why don't you two take some time to get comfortable and relax?" Agent Roberts asked as he continued on through the living room.
"Yes. That does sound nice." Miss Oaken said contentedly.
"Do you need anymore doors opened?" Corabeth asked cautiously.
"Nope. I've got it from here." Agent Roberts said as he carried G into the hallway.
* * * * *
When Agent Roberts placed G on his bed, he noticed that the boy was still fully dressed for hiking. Although he wasn't wearing a backpack, he still had a coat and hiking boots on.
He moved slowly and deliberately to get G's coat off, then just as carefully took off his boots.
Once all of that was done, Agent Roberts took the spare blanket from the foot of the bed and gently covered G, so that he wouldn't get chilled as he slept.
G's response was to gather the blanket around him as he turned onto his side.
Agent Roberts smiled at the move, then quietly left the room, gently closing the door behind him.
* * * * *
When Agent Roberts entered the living room, he found it empty. Supposing that Corabeth and Miss Oaken had gone upstairs to change, he continued on to the kitchen where he found Dex and Zanner working together to add the vegetables to the roast.
He stood and watched silently as the boys worked to complete their appointed task.
As soon as the boys were done, Agent Roberts said, "Thanks for taking care of that for me."
"Is everything alright?" Zanner asked curiously.
"It looks like G completely wore himself out, he's asleep in my room right now. Miss Oaken and Corabeth are relaxing for a few minutes after their long day."
"Why aren't we doing that?" Zanner asked with a grin.
"Because we'd rather do for others than do for ourselves." Dex said frankly.
"Yeah. I guess that's true." Zanner reluctantly admitted.
"I appreciate all that you guys have done to help, but if you'd like to rest for a while, there's really not much left to do."
After a long silent moment, Dex finally said, "I think that I'd be able to relax a lot better if I knew that all the dishes were done."
"You're weird." Zannner said with a look askance at Dex.
"If we don't do the dishes now, there's just going to be that many more to face when we're done eating."
"I guess so." Zanner reluctantly agreed.
"Excuse me, but you're both my guests. You don't have to do any dishes at all." Agent Roberts informed them.
"You cooked. Someone else gets to do the dishes. It's only fair." Zanner said firmly.
"As nice as that sounds, I'm pretty sure that it doesn't work that way. I'm the host, you're the guest, that's all there is to it. Go take a break."
"Nope. We're doing this. Deal with it." Zanner said With a cheeky grin.
Before Agent Roberts could react to that, Dex timidly asked, "Do you know if you have enough plates and silverware for everyone?"
Agent Roberts eyes went wide at the question. Rather than answer he hurried to the nearest cupboard to explore what treasures it might hold.
"Good call." Zanner said quietly to Dex as he began to run water in the sink.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts was contemplating calling Gil and Nancy to see if they could loan him some dishes when he walked into the dining room and spotted the china cabinet.
Upon investigation, he found that the cabinet not only had china plates and crystal but also drawers full of silverware, including various serving utensils.
Feeling a wave of relief wash over him, he started to collect the dishes, determined to give them a thorough washing.
Although he was no expert on the matter, he suspected that the silverware might be actual silver, mainly due to the dull color.
He didn't know if he had what he might need to polish the silver or if, indeed, he had the time to do so. But he supposed that in the worst case scenario that his guests might be forced to eat off tarnished silverware.
All things considered, he doubted that anyone would mind too much... with the possible exception of Mr. Bentley Brown. He had no problem at all with accepting that possibility.
* * * * *
"Look what I found." Agent Roberts said as he carried the first stack of dishes into the kitchen.
"Wow. Those look like the dishes my mom keeps put away for when we have special people come over." Zanner said frankly, then cautiously added, "But I don't think we've had anyone special enough so far because I don't think we've ever actually used them."
"I'm sure that these dishes are probably very precious to the Spencer family, who own this house, so we need to be sure to be very careful with them. But dishes exist to be used. They have no real value and serve no purpose if they're only ever kept up on a shelf."
"I guess since you're bringing those in here you want for us to wash them for you." Zanner guessed.
"They need to be rinsed off, but if you don't feel like doing it, I can do it myself." Agent Roberts said simply as he set the plates beside the sink.
"Did you find any silverware?" Dex asked curiously.
"Yes. Although I'm going to have to see if I can find some silver polish. The silver looks like it hasn't been used for a few decades." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"Before you do that, let me try a few things. I've got a few cleaning spells that I've never really used that much. One of them might work."
"You don't need to bother. Silver is a basic element of the earth." Dex said from his place at the sink. "There's only a few 'tricks' that I can do as an Oriad, but dismissing tarnish and restoring luster to earth metals is one of them."
"Is it something that you can do without making yourself too tired?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"It doesn't take any energy at all. I just join with the earth and the silver is restored. I actually have to fight not to remove tarnish and patina."
"Oh. Alright then. If you guys don't mind, I'll just bring in all the silver and crystal that we'll be using for dinner and once it's washed, I'll set the table."
"Sounds good to me. Does that work for you?" Zanner asked Dex curiously.
"Yes. As soon as we have all the silver in one place, I'll restore it before we wash it."
* * * * *
The sound of the front door opening drew Agent Roberts' attention as he was placing dinnerware on the dining room table.
He hurried into the living room in time to see Professor Everstone, Paul, Filipe and Mr. Bentley Brown wearily making their way into the living room.
"How did everything go?" Agent Roberts asked with concern.
"I was not sufficiently prepared for the levels of power necessary for the task." Professor Everstone said frankly.
"Was there a problem?"
"We were able to complete the required modifications, however had I known the complexity of the spells that we would be using I would have requested additional personnel." Professor Everstone said as he walked past Agent Roberts to one of the large overstuffed chairs.
"So does that mean that you're all exhausted?" Agent Roberts guessed as he took a seat on the couch that was opposite.
"In a manner of speaking. While we are capable of channeling the magic present in the world around us, each of us also carry our own magical reserve. In the course of today's events, I believe that each of us has exhausted our personal reservoir of magic. I can't really think of an equivalent sensation to describe it to you, but suffice it to say that it is something more than feeling tired." Professor Everstone said wearily.
"It's like having sex so much that you've run out of cum." Paul said, obviously straining from the effort of even doing that much.
"Yeah. We're all shooting dust." Filipe said with a weary pained smile.
"Please tell me that the wonderful aroma coming from the kitchen isn't just a product of my wishful thinking." Professor Everstone said, not dignifying the boys' example with a response.
"Yeah. There's a roast in the oven. It should be ready in about half an hour. If you feel like cleaning up or getting changed or anything, you've got plenty of time to do it." Agent Roberts said with concern.
"Bathroom." Paul said immediately as he forced himself off the couch.
* * * * *
As soon as Paul was out of the room, Filipe quietly said, "I'm worried about Paul. There were a couple times today that I thought we were going to lose him."
"How do you mean?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"He put so much of himself into the spell that he went into his demon form."
"I thought that was normal for him."
"Yeah. But just for a few seconds, I think Paul kinda disappeared. He went beyond his demon form. What took his place... I don't think it was Paul at all." Filipe said anxiously.
Agent Roberts looked to Professor Everstone to see if he had an explanation.
The professor seemed to be deep in thought, either pondering possibilities or considering what was proper to reveal.
Finally Professor Everstone quietly said, "Most of us have an affinity for one of the primary elements, but we also have a lesser potential with other elements. It's not uncommon for someone powerful in fire to be able to enact a minor wind spell to augment his ability."
"So let me guess, Paul has elemental affinities in both fire and water, right?" Agent Roberts guessed.
"Yes, which in itself is unusual, since fire and water run in direct opposition to each other." Professor Everstone said seriously.
"Can I guess who you're talking about?" Paul asked as he walked back into the living room.
"I was attempting to explain your situation for Agent Roberts' benefit." Professor Everstone said simply.
"Yeah. Thanks. I guess I'm just a little on edge about the whole thing. I didn't know anything about it until today." Paul said frankly.
"You didn't know about your elemental affinity?" Agent Roberts asked to confirm his understanding.
"I was told that my thing was fire and I was put into Wizardry classes to learn more about how to use it. Even though I could make some of the basic water spells work, there was never any reason for me to try and do more with them." Paul said honestly.
"Part of the fault is the school's policy for dealing with such things. Every student is only told about their primary affinity. Those with a secondary affinity are typically told only after they have achieved a certain level of mastery of their primary." Professor Everstone said carefully.
"So you knew about my water ability before all this started?"
"Yes. Of course. Although at the time I had been working under the assumption that the barrier would be entirely earth based. In such a circumstance, you would not have had occasion to use your water affinity except in support of Dex and Zanner as they performed the bulk of the modifications to the barrier."
"What does this have to do with something going wrong when Paul went 'full power'?" Agent Roberts cautiously asked.
"I'm only speculating, but it appears that Paul naturally maintains a balance of fire and water magic within him. When he expended all his water magic, his fire magic filled the void. It would seem that his fire magic is tied directly into the demonic aspect of his heritage." Professor Everstone said simply.
"If Paul spent all his water magic and he naturally keeps a balance, does that mean that he needs to use some fire power to even things back out?" Agent Roberts ventured.
"Not necessarily. Things left as they are should normalize without our intervention. However, the time may come when Paul will be required to expend some fire magic to keep the imbalance from becoming too pronounced."
"Actually, if you don't mind, I'd really like to do a quick summoning. It'll take the edge off my fire and I wouldn't mind spending some time with Mah Zah and Ginh Zah." Paul said hopefully.
"As long as Agent Roberts has no objection, I certainly don't mind." Professor Everstone said easily.
"I don't mind at all." Agent Roberts assured them.
Unlike most times that Agent Roberts witnessed magic being performed, Paul didn't do anything more than glance at the floor beside the couch where he sat.
A glowing spell diagram appeared on the floor and a moment later a smudge of darkness formed in the center.
As had happened before, a kitten and puppy emerged from the dark blur and looked around curiously.
"We've finished our work for the day and I just wanted to check in with you." Paul told them simply.
The kitten chittered and meowed for a moment, then walked to Paul and began to climb up his leg.
The puppy barked once as she stayed in place.
"I don't know." Paul told the puppy, then looked to Agent Roberts and asked, "Where's G?"
"He fell asleep on the way back from the barrier site. So when they got here, I carried him into my room and he's asleep on my bed." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"Where's your room? Ginh Zah wants to check on G and make sure that he's okay." Paul asked as he cuddled the kitten against his chest.
"It's down the hallway, the first door on the left..." Agent Roberts began to say as the puppy hurried toward the hallway.
Agent Roberts stood as he said, "The door's closed. I'd better get it for him."
"Don't worry. Ginh Zah can get it herself." Paul assured him, then added, "In fact, Ginh Zah could rip the door off its hinges if she wanted to."
"Good to know." Agent Roberts said cautiously.
"Agent Roberts? I think it's time. Do you want to check on the roast?" Zanner called from the kitchen doorway before Agent Roberts could retake his seat.
"Yes. I'll be right there." Agent Roberts said as he started toward the kitchen.
* * * * *
"Do you guys want to help me?" Agent Roberts asked as he entered the kitchen.
"What do you want us to do?" Zanner asked curiously.
"Shelly told me to taste one of the larger potatoes to be sure that it was completely cooked. I figure that if we each take one and try it, then we can be reasonably sure that they're all done."
"That sounds great! I'm starving!" Zanner said enthusiastically.
Agent Roberts opened the oven, then used potholders to lift the large heavy cast iron pan.
As soon as it was on the stove top, he carefully used a potholder to lift off the lid.
"That smells AWESOME!" Zanner said with a grand smile.
"Let's just hope that it tastes as good as it smells." Agent Roberts said as he stepped away enough to retrieve three forks from the silverware drawer.
He handed out the forks, then targeted his pick for the largest chunk of potato on display.
The boys each speared a potato chunk, then all three blew on their pieces of potato, in hopes of making them cool enough so as not to cause injury when they were eaten.
Agent Roberts was the first to attempt to eat his potato, but the boys were only a moment behind.
After a considering pause, Zanner said around a mouthful of potato, "Salt."
"Yeah. Seriously." Dex confirmed.
Agent Roberts couldn't help but agree. He took the salt shaker from beside the stove and began to vigorously shake it over the roast and potatoes.
"How are they as far as being done?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"Fine. They seem to be cooked all the way through. They're just seriously bland." Zanner said frankly.
"Give me a second." Agent Roberts said as he retrieved a large slotted spoon, then began to stir the potatoes and carrots, to mix the salt into the rest of the dish.
"Did you make gravy for it?" Zanner asked as he watched.
"No. It did that all by itself." Agent Roberts said, then asked, "Are you ready to try another one?"
"Yeah. I want to get one with some gravy on it." Zanner said as he immediately went for his potato chunk of choice.
Dex moved more slowly, but also chose a potato with gravy.
Agent Roberts selected a sufficiently large chunk of potato and once again slowly blew on it.
"Oh man! That's good!" Zanner said appreciatively, once again past a mouthful of potato.
"I think dinner is ready." Dex confirmed.
"Okay. Would you guys go and get Mr. Hansen and Miss Oaken? I'll go get G and then we'll eat.
"Yep! We're on it!" Zanner said immediately, then hurried out of the room with Dex following a step behind.
Agent Roberts put the lid back on the cast iron pan before leaving to wake G.
To Be Continued...
That dinner sounds fabulous, doesn't it?
This was another excellent chapter.
I love those little imps.
It looks to me as if everyone put a huge effort into their individual tasks, and things are just about to settle down so everyone can have a really good meal.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher