"Did you need for me to make travel arrangements?" Marsha asked cautiously.
"No. I think that I'll be in a better position to do that. But if you wouldn't mind, would you email me with the full names of everyone in the group as soon as all the permissions have been obtained? Don't worry about Dex Mulryan, I'll be talking to his parents about getting their permission at dinner tonight."
"Yes. Of course."
"I'm going to be working from home the rest of the day, so you can contact me there if you have any questions or concerns."
"I'll do that. And thank you for doing this. It's not only good that you're helping to protect those vulnerable people, but you're also providing a unique opportunity for the students to learn a valuable skill that they might not have a chance to learn otherwise."
"It was simply a matter of recognizing an opportunity when it arose. Beyond that, I did what anyone else would do."
"You're assuming that 'anyone else' would do something. In my experience, that's not a foregone conclusion."
"I suppose that's true." Mr. Darroch conceded, then he turned to Agent Roberts and asked, "Are you about ready to go?"
"Where are we going?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"To my house. I can do everything else that needs to be done from there." Mr. Darroch said seriously, then added, "You'd be welcome to stay with us, if you'd like."
"Are you sure? Business is one thing, but I wouldn't want to intrude on your private life."
"I'm sure that the spectre of the impending trip is going to be a major part of my life whether you're visiting with us or not. But since you're offering to open your home to the Work Study Group, it's only right that I respond in kind."
"If you're sure that you have enough room..."
"Actually, the entire Work Study Group could stay with us and there would be no shortage of room."
"I've got all my stuff in the rental car. So whenever you're ready, lead the way."
* * * * *
Agent Roberts replayed the events of the meeting in his mind as he drove. He was aware enough of what was going on to take notice of the beautiful scenery.
When they turned off the main road, he passed through a wrought iron gate. Agent Roberts' first impulse was to assume that they were entering a gated community. But as he continued on, he realized that there weren't any buildings visible.
When he finally crested the rise, an enormous building came into view. At the sight of it, Agent Roberts had no problem believing that Mr. Darroch actually could accommodate the entire Work Study Group.
By the time Agent Roberts pulled his rental car to a stop, he had come to the conclusion that the project they were embarking upon was a worthwhile endeavor. Not only were they going to protect the Wudewas, but it was also an unprecedented learning opportunity for the students.
Leaving the magical aspects aside, he was honored to be allowed to participate. Mr. Darroch had convinced him of his importance to the project and he felt that he had something unique to contribute.
"Go ahead and bring your suitcase." Mr. Darroch said as he got out of his car.
Agent Roberts considered taking his 'bug out' bag of hiking gear with him, but decided that it would be senseless to carry it in and then have to carry it right back out.
"I hope you're not too full from the snacks at the meeting. We should be having lunch before very long."
"No problem. I just had coffee and a danish. If anything, it could be considered an appetizer." Agent Roberts said as he followed Mr. Darroch into the house.
* * * * *
After a few minutes of walking, Agent Roberts began wondering if it might have been better if he had brought his hiking gear. The labyrinthine maze of hallways seemed to be endless.
"Let's stop in and see if Beth is around."
Agent Roberts had no idea who that was and didn't really have any choice but to follow Mr. Darroch into one of the rooms.
* * * * *
"How has your day been?" Mr. Darroch asked gently as he walked into the room.
"Everything's fine. K's been trying to sit up. She's almost got it." The woman said proudly.
"Beth, I'd like for you to meet Agent Roberts from the FBI."
"Please call me Shawn."
"It's a pleasure to meet you Shawn. I'm Beth and this young lady is our daughter K."
"She's a real beauty." Shawn said as he looked at the little girl with wonder.
"She is, isn't she?" Mr. Darroch said proudly, then reluctantly continued, "Shawn and I have some business to attend to. Is there anything I can do for you before we go?"
"No. I'll be fine for a while."
"We're not going to be doing anything that can't be interrupted. Please feel free to call if you need anything at all."
"I think K is just about due for a nap. Once she's asleep, I'm going to call Kayla about the nursery furniture designs."
"Beth and my cousin Kyla are starting up a baby furniture business." Mr. Darroch explained.
"We're just coming up with the designs." Beth said quickly. "But when we were setting up the nursery, we realized that no one was offering exactly what we were looking for, so we decided to design the nursery furniture that we actually were looking for."
"I'm sure that when your designs go into production that new parents will be overjoyed to have some more options to choose from." Mr. Darroch said warmly.
"Go do your work. I'll call you when lunch is ready."
Mr. Darroch gave his wife a quick kiss and a hug before leading the way out of the room.
* * * * *
"So you have three kids?" Agent Roberts asked as they walked.
"Yes. Beth and I each had a son from previous relationships then, when we got together, along came K."
"From what I saw of your sons in the meeting, you have reason to be very proud."
"I'd like to take credit for that, but I honestly think that Beth and I ended up with good kids. As far as I know, neither of us did anything different from any other parent when we were raising them."
"So you don't think the fact that you're a... you know... has anything to do with it?" Agent Roberts asked uncomfortably.
"You can use the 'W' word when it's just us. But please be aware that we sometimes have non-magical people over to visit, so it's best to be sure about who's in on the secret before you start talking about it." Mr. Darroch said as they walked into a very nice bedroom.
"I'm still not sure about what to say and I wouldn't want to offend anyone." Agent Roberts said seriously, then continued, "When I met the Brynns, they were usually referred to as 'The Cursed Ones'."
"Yes. Since they've been denied access to their magical abilities for countless generations, I suppose it would stand to reason that they wouldn't see themselves as fitting into the same category as your everyday run of the mill witches." Mr. Darroch said thoughtfully, then added as an aside, "If it's alright with you, this will be your room."
"Really?" Agent Roberts said in surprise, since the room was nicer than any he had ever stayed in before. Amazingly, it was even bigger than his bedroom back in Waxell, and that was enormous.
Mr. Darroch smiled, then said, "If you'd like to leave your suitcase here, we can go to my office so that we can start making arrangements."
"Oh, yeah." Agent Roberts stammered, then set his suitcase down just inside the door.
* * * * *
Agent Roberts followed Mr. Darroch to his office, which looked surprisingly ordinary.
"If you need to use a computer, feel free to use any of the laptops by the door."
"Thank you. I'll do that... except, I don't know what you need for me to do."
"Since you have firsthand knowledge of the location and terrain, maybe you could construct an itinerary and list of needed supplies."
"Good idea. I'll get right on that." Agent Roberts said as he selected one of the laptops.
"While you're doing that, I'll see what I can do to pin down an exact time for our departure and travel arrangements."
"Is it waiting for the permission for the kids that's holding you back?"
"No. I'm confident that the email with all the permissions and individual information will be here shortly. Actually, it's gathering the supplies that's the bigger problem. In most cases, large magical productions require the use of elaborate and rare artifacts to channel the power and allow it to be used in a meaningful way."
"So you're waiting for some big barrier making tool to arrive?"
"Yes. Well, more than one, but essentially that's what we're waiting for."
"If you're having it delivered, you could schedule the delivery to be sent to the Waxell FBI office." Agent Roberts suggested.
"It's not quite that easy. I can't get into why, but suffice it to say that certain things need to be done a certain way. "
"I'll take your word for it, but if there's some sort of ritual dictating the timetable, is it possible to predict when all the pieces will be ready?"
"I think so. This sort of thing is well outside my own area of expertise. I'm going to have to contact a few people to see if they can give me their estimates before I can make an estimate of my own for the overall project."
"So, while you're doing that, I'll be making a non-magical supply list and a schedule of things that we need to remember?"
"That's the plan."
"Then let's do it."
* * * * *
Making a list of needed supplies for a hiking group of ten people, including himself, was less challenging than he expected. Thanks to his military training, he had the list over half composed in his head before he ever started writing it.
The itinerary, not so much.
He wasn't familiar enough with the project to make any sort of timetable. He was even less familiar with the members of the team and any special accommodations that they might need.
Professor Everstone appeared to be physically fit, but his age was a concerning factor. Filipe was younger and smaller than the rest of the group, so that needed to be taken into account. Dex appeared to be somewhat delicate, so it would be good to allow for that as well.
In the end he fashioned a timetable which called for breaks after each of the more challenging aspects of the hike.
"Bad news." Mr. Darroch said abruptly, breaking the long silence between them.
"What's that?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"If you leave day after tomorrow, like I was initially planning, it looks like you're going to be hiking nearly the whole way in pouring rain."
"Is there another option?"
"Possibly. If we advance the schedule for you to leave early tomorrow morning, you should be able to make camp before the rain starts."
"But won't we still have to hike in during the rain the following day?"
"It's too early to tell for sure. You might be able to hike in between downpours. But either way, I can imagine that hiking to the camp in the rain might be considerably less miserable than setting up camp in the rain."
"I suppose that's true. But what about the tools that we need that aren't ready?"
"I'll need to talk to Professor Everstone about possibly leaving someone behind to travel with the artifacts while the rest go on ahead to set up camp. Since I'm not familiar with the components that he intends to use there may be a need for special handling."
"Does that mean it's something heavy or dangerous?"
"Either or both. And if it's something derived from another dimensional plane, we may have to worry about reality disruptions."
"I'm not sure what that is, but that sounds like something we shouldn't be messing with."
"We actually don't get much choice in the matter. Depending on what tools they need to do the job, we might be stuck having to deal with something that has the potential to do more harm than good."
"What are we going to do if that happens?"
"Take whatever precautions are prudent and carry on as best we can. The only impact that it should have on any of your plans is if it forces us to adjust our timetable. We'll deal with the rest."
"Okay. Any idea of when the initial group will be leaving?"
"Give me a few minutes to make some calls. As soon as I've been able to confirm that everyone will be available, I'll let you know when our flight will be departing."
"Can you give me an estimate?"
"Best case scenario, we'll be leaving for the airport from here at around five in the morning."
"I can work with that. Just let me know if anything changes."
* * * * *
"Find a good stopping point. Lunch will be served in a few minutes. I've invited Lisa to join us." Beth's voice announced over the intercom.
"Perfect timing." Mr. Darroch said with a smile.
"How are things going with the travel arrangements?"
"So far, everything seems to be falling into line. All the participants have said that they can make it... except for Dex, and we'll be talking to his family at dinner."
"What about hiking supplies and sleeping bags? Do you know if everyone's going to be bringing their own?"
"Yes. Although I got the impression that there might be a few hurried shopping trips tonight, everyone has committed themselves to having all the personal supplies that they will need."
"Good. But even if someone ends up forgetting something, they have a decent inventory at the feed store in Waxell. I'm not planning on stopping by there, but it's good to know that it's there if we need it."
"It's always best to have a backup plan." Mr. Darroch said sagely, then thought to add, "Lisa is going to be joining us for lunch. She helps Beth in the afternoons, to give her a little break from constantly caring for K."
"Is there anything I need to not talk about in front of her?"
Mr. Darroch signalled that he was ready to go, then said, "I don't typically discuss business in front of her, but that's just because it has nothing to do with her. I can't think of any topics that are 'off limits', except within the constraints of polite conversation."
"I don't think that will be a problem."
"I know that you weren't planning on staying the night. Is there anything that you can think of that you'll be needing?"
"I should be fine." Agent Roberts assured him, then continued, "I learned early on to be prepared for unexpected diversions. That's probably the first lesson that I learned when I entered the field."
"That's good. But if you think of anything, be sure to let us know."
"I'll do that."
* * * * *
"So, how is everyone doing?" Mr. Darroch asked as they entered the dining room.
"Lisa was just saying that it would be a perfect day to take K to the park, so I think we're probably going to do that this afternoon." Beth answered.
"How did things go with your meeting?"
"Kyla is working on some new ideas for a line of outdoor play equipment, so she's going to get that drawn up and we'll meet again later."
"That sounds like an interesting idea. I don't know enough about what's already on the market to be able to guess if that's a viable idea or not. I can't wait to see what you two will come up with."
"We'll be sure to commission a market comparison before we commit to anything. But from what I saw while we were shopping for K, it looks to me like there's a niche market just waiting for someone to come along and fill it."
"Shawn is going to be spending the night tonight. I put him in the first guest room."
"That should be far enough away from K's room that he shouldn't be disturbed if K gets fussy during the night."
"She's a good baby. She doesn't fuss without a good reason." Mr. Darroch said with an adoring look at his daughter.
Agent Roberts followed his gaze and smiled at the little girl who seemed to be perfectly content in her stroller.
"I still think it'll be a good idea to have her a few rooms away from our guest. Just in case." Beth said frankly.
"Oh, I forgot to mention earlier, I invited the Mulryans over for dinner tonight. I hope that won't interfere with your plans."
"I don't have anything planned at all." Beth said simply, then asked, "Is there some sort of occasion, or were you just being sociable?"
"I wanted to talk to them about the work study that the boys are going on. They're a little reluctant to allow Dex to go."
"Does that include our boys?" Beth asked curiously.
"Yes. They'll probably be gone for a few days."
"What will they be doing?"
"Applying some of what they've been studying in a real world situation."
"Are you sure that Paul's ready for something like that? He's still very new at using his abilities." Beth asked with concern.
"I'm not sure if he's ready, but his teachers seem to think that he is. This isn't just about raw power, but also about being able to adapt to the circumstances at hand. His teachers seem to appreciate his ability to think on his feet."
"What about G?"
"I get the sense that they appreciate G's dedication to his craft. Although there may be students who are more advanced, G is serious about putting forth his best effort every single time. They need someone with that mindset for a job like this."
"I'm guessing that you can't discuss the details of what they'll be doing."
"No. Not really."
"Is it going to be dangerous?" Beth asked cautiously, then looked at Shawn with realization.
"It shouldn't be." Mr. Darroch said reassuringly.
Beth's gaze remained on Agent Roberts as she quietly said, "I would be very upset if anything were to happen to either of the boys."
Ice seemed to flow through Agent Roberts' veins as he understood just how serious her implied threat was.
"Agent Roberts will be there to see that all the members of the team return to us safely." Mr. Darroch assured her.
Although Beth didn't voice a response, the phrase, 'He'd better' was clearly seen in her eyes.
* * * * *
As expected, when lunch was finished, Mr. Darroch and Agent Roberts went back to work on their individual tasks.
"We may have a change of plans." Mr. Darroch said after hanging up his phone.
Agent Roberts had been so focused on his work he hadn't been paying attention to what Mr. Darroch had been doing.
"What's that?" Agent Roberts cautiously asked.
"It turns out that one of the artifacts that we'll be needing to use can only be had if we agree to certain terms."
"How much are they asking?"
"It's not money. The caretaker of the artifact won't allow us to take it with us. He insists on going along, so that he can protect it."
"Is this person going to want to participate in the spell with you?"
"No. He's willing to let us use it, but he won't let us take it out of his sight."
"Well, is there something else we can use in its place?"
"Yes. But any of the alternatives would significantly throw off our timetable. The only options I can see available to us are to accept his terms or reschedule the entire affair."
"Is it really important to repair the barrier right now?"
"Things that get put off tend to be looked upon as less and less important until they're finally forgotten. If we don't repair the barrier right now, the chances of it ever being repaired diminish significantly."
"Okay. I couldn't understand what the rush was all about, but I can see that." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully, then added, "Thank you for making this a priority. The Wudewas are lucky to have someone like you watching out for their interests."
"We're both on their side, so let's do our best not to let them down."
"So to get the job done, we're going to have to let this guy travel with us. Is that his only demand?" Agent Roberts asked carefully.
"Yes. In fact, he has stated that he'll see to his own accommodations. If we'll provide the time and place where he needs to meet us, he has promised to be present with the artifact in hand."
"Sounds like a setup to me. If we don't have any other choice but to do this, I'd like to make the initial contact with him on my own."
"No. We need for you to lead the party to the location. Besides, I think you'll have a greater chance of success with the group to back you up. I don't want to offend you by saying so, but you're not equipped to stand up against a reasonably powered witch. I don't know what kind of power Mr. Brown possesses, but without any magical defenses, you'd be at a great disadvantage."
"What do you think the chances are that he's going to try something?"
"Actually, I'd say that it's most likely that he's exactly what he claims to be and that his insistence to go along is for the reason that he's stated. Not only is the artifact rare and valuable, but it also holds great power. It seems reasonable that such an item would be assigned a protector to see that it doesn't fall into the wrong hands."
"What can it do?"
"I know that it's nature based, but I don't really know much beyond that. I'm not an expert on ancient magical relics. Professor Everstone could probably tell you about it in detail."
"So, if I'm getting what you're saying, then we really have no choice but to accept this man's terms. Is that right?"
"The only other choice would be to scrap all the plans that we've made so far and hope that we'll be able to get everyone that we need together when we're able to secure another suitable artifact."
"Then I suppose that we'll do what we have to do." Agent Roberts said unenthusiastically, then continued by asking, "What does this do to our timetable?"
"We'll just have to wait and see. For right now, we'll proceed as we would have without his participation. When he shows up, he'll just have to work around your timetable."
"Okay. I suppose that's a place to start." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully, then cautiously asked, "What can you tell me about the ceremony or ritual or whatever it is that they'll be doing? I'd like to get an idea of how long it will take."
"I talked to Professor Everstone about that and all he could tell me was that they're going to have to examine what's already present before they can make any judgements about what to do next. As far as a timetable, he couldn't be specific. It could take from two days to a week, depending on what they're facing."
"I guess it doesn't matter. If we're going to be hiking in and out each day, then we'll be able to resupply whatever provisions that we'll be using."
"Don't count out the possibility that you might have to spend a night or two at the location. Again, there's no way to know until you're on site and have evaluated the job at hand."
"I'll keep that in mind. If it comes to that, we should be able to manage."
"One piece of good news is that Professor Everstone has been able to secure another of the relics and he'll be bringing it with him."
"Is he going to need any extra help with it?"
"He says that he won't. Just be sure that you don't touch it. If the relic is a reservoir of enduring magical power, it might be dangerous for a non-magical being."
"I'll be sure to be careful." Agent Roberts assured him, then cautiously asked, "But what's likely to happen if I touch something like that, a magical item, I mean?"
"Most magical items are completely safe for you to handle. The enchantments that they carry access the magic of the witch holding them. Since you don't have any inherent magic, they would just be inert in your hands."
Agent Roberts nodded that he understood.
"More powerful objects have protections in place to prevent a non-magical person from using them. They will either bestow a curse or just kill you."
"How common are things like that?"
"Not very." Mr. Darroch assured him, then explained, "In the old days it was more common for the average witch to need such things in their daily lives. In the modern age, it's less likely for a witch to need a tool that requires more than their own personal magic."
"So that's why you call them artifacts?" Agent roberts guessed.
"No. The artifacts are in a different class. I was speaking more of the enchanted tools that people sometimes use to do large difficult projects at home. Artifacts tend to be of such power that they belong to an entire community."
"And we're going to have things that powerful with us?"
"Yes." Mr. Darroch confirmed, then explained, "Think about what it is that you're actually doing. You're going to be protecting an entire colony from the outside world. It's going to take an incredible amount of specialized magic to do that. These tools were crafted for the specific purpose of channeling that amount of magic and directing it to the use that you're intending."
Agent Roberts thought about that for a moment, then speculatively said, "And even with the artifacts, there's the possibility that the magic is going to go out of control."
"Yes. That's possible." Mr. Darroch confirmed.
"But you're going to send your kids anyway?"
"Yes." Mr. Darroch said simply, then explained, "Professor Everstone, Miss Oaken and Mr. Hansen could probably do this spell without any outside help, but we wouldn't have any backup plan to help them if something went wrong. Having the students perform the spell with the three of them there as backup is an extra layer of assurance that not only will we achieve our goal of restoring the barrier, but also that the practitioners will come through the experience safely."
"And the kids gaining the understanding and experience is just an added bonus and doesn't really figure into your plan at all?"
"It wasn't a determining factor."
"Okay. That makes a lot more sense. You're sending the students to do the job and the mentors not only to train them, but also as a failsafe if the students can't handle it on their own."
"Right." Mr. Darroch said simply, then added more quietly, "I didn't intend for either of my sons to be included in this project. I suppose that it's good that they were. It's forced me to take another look at what I'm doing to be sure that we're not taking any unnecessary risks."
"Even so, it sounds like there's going to be some danger involved."
"Yes. There is the potential for things to go wrong."
"Is there anything more that we can do to minimize that danger?"
"I really don't know. It might have been better for me to arrange for a group of more powerful and experienced witches to enact the spell and leave the children out of it. I could even pass the entire project off to someone else to deal with and wash my hands of it entirely."
"What would be so wrong with that?"
"I would feel as though I were abandoning the people of Brynnhollow and Waxell. I'd be leaving them to the care of people who have no personal connection to them."
"You said before that I'm going along to protect the interests of non-magical people. Is that what you're talking about?"
"You've got a stake in the outcome. You'll at least question how the decisions being made will affect the people around you."
"So you're not just trying to protect the Wudewas. You're trying to make things work out for the best for everyone."
"That's the plan. Now we just have to see if we can pull it off."
"I'm surprised that you're not going along to personally supervise."
"Even if I could get away from my work long enough to do that, they don't need me underfoot, second guessing them and being a distraction."
"You've got me for that."
"In a sense. You're there to keep things pointed in the right direction. But if I were there, they'd be expecting me to lead and coordinate things. My own magical specialty isn't something that could be of any benefit to the project and my presence would provide unnecessary complications."
"But since I'm not a witch and I'm not in charge, I can go along as a regulating influence without being a distraction from their primary reason for being there."
"Okay. I think I understand my role."
"Good. Now let's get back to work. We both still have things that need to be done."
"I'll see what I can do to make allowances for our unexpected teammate."
"If you can work him in, that's fine. But don't go too much out of your way."
"If he ends up booking a room in Gooseneck, it's going to double his travel time. That could end up impacting our timetable."
"I suppose." Mr. Darroch grudgingly agreed, then continued, "And we do need his artifact."
"Let me see what I can do."
* * * * *
"Your flight will depart at seven fifteen in the morning. "
"Have you gotten the approvals from everyone?"
"I've made all the reservations but we'll still have to wait and see how things go with Dex."
"How sure are you that he'll be allowed to participate."
"More than half. But if Dex can't do it, they should still be able to enact the ritual without him. As I understand the powers that they'll be dealing with, having Dex there will actually make things a whole lot easier for everyone involved. But they'll be able to manage regardless."
"But everyone else has accepted?"
"Yes. I've received an email from Mrs. Bright at the school confirming that all the parents except Dex's have given their approval."
"What's left for us to do?"
"I think that we've done everything that we can for the moment. We've taken action. Now we have to wait for the reaction."
"I'm not sure I understand what you mean."
"I've made the travel arrangements. You've made the timetable and supply list. We've done all that we can do with the information at hand. Now we have to wait for Professor Everstone or someone else involved to contact us to tell us why what we're planning won't work so that we can adjust the plan."
"It's good that you're already planning for that."
"It's what I do."
"Do you want to look at the supply list? If we're leaving in the morning, we're going to have to go shopping soon."
"Just attach it to an email to me and I'll get someone to take care of it."
"Do you think it's going to be a problem transporting all the supplies to Kentucky?"
"No. Unless you have something beyond what you've indicated on your lists, you should be able to carry everything with you as luggage. We might have to pay a little extra, but I don't have any problem with that."
"Okay. If you're sure..." Agent Roberts trailed off uncertainly.
"Since I'm not going with you, I'm doing everything in my power to make sure that you'll have everything that you need to make this mission a success. If it costs a little extra to make things easier on your group, so be it."
"But if you've done everything that you can with the itinerary, I'd like to take a look at it. I might be able to make some suggestions.
"Okay. Let's do this." Agent Roberts said as he turned his attention back to the laptop that he'd been using and got back to work.
Well, let's see what we have, and for that matter what we don't have. We still don't have Dex's participation assured. I'll bet he will be able to go. I have absolutely nothing to back that up, but that's my hunch.
I really am enjoying this saga, but then I think I already said that in the last chapter.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher