"Good. Then Milo can finish up here while we go talk to Reaper." Archdruid Highley said thoughtfully.
"I'd rather wait so that Milo can join us. I'd like for him to be included in whatever happens next." Agent Roberts said honestly.
"I've never been inside the Protectorate before. Do you think it'll be alright?"
"Absolutely." Agent Roberts said emphatically, then explained, "Faith is nice and everything, but I think that if this is going to have any chance of working, that you should see who and what you're going to be defending."
"Actually, that's one of the reasons that I haven't taken Jenn and Milo into the Protectorate before. After seeing it, they might decide that it would be better to let it be destroyed."
"Even so, I think that it's important."
"Good morning Shadow." Milo said cautiously.
Agent Roberts turned to see that his shadow had climbed up more than half of Milo's body and seemed to be in the process of engulfing him.
"Is he bothering you?" Agent Roberts asked hesitantly.
"Not at all. He's just saying good morning."
"If you're going with us, you'd better finish up what you were doing here." Agent Roberts suggested.
"There's nothing so important that it can't wait until I get back." Milo said simply, then cautiously asked, "Am I dressed alright?"
Archdruid Highley glanced at him, then said, "It's hard to say. The royals of the Nephilim choose to adhere to etiquette and protocol at the strangest times. I suppose that, given the choice, you should probably err on the side of caution and wear your robes."
"Then I'll be ready in just a minute." Milo said quickly before dashing out of the room.
"Do you want to take the opportunity to slip into something less comfortable while he's doing that?" Agent Roberts asked with a grin.
"I probably should." Archdruid Highley said unenthusiastically.
"Milo and I will be along as soon as he's ready. Go on."
Although he was obviously less than thrilled by the development, Archdruid Highley nonetheless hurried away.
* * * * *
After about two minutes, Agent Roberts turned at the sound of movement and smiled when he saw Milo walking into the room, dressed in his robes.
"Jarvis went on ahead to change. We'll meet him at his house."
"Unless you had something else that you needed, I'm ready to go."
"Do you have an umbrella or anything? It looks like it could rain."
"I'm afraid that my umbrella had a rather unfortunate malfunction... or twelve. I'm planning to pick up a new one next time I'm in town."
"Hopefully the rain will hold off until we can reach the Protectorate." Agent Roberts said as he followed Milo out of the cabin.
"Are you saying that when it rains here, it doesn't also rain in the protectorate?"
"No. I don't think it does. Actually, as far as I know, it may not rain there at all."
"So, is it very different there?"
"I guess you could say that. The best description I can come up with is Persia... around the sixth century... BC... combined with equal parts Wonderland, OZ, and Narnia."
"That doesn't really tell me a whole lot."
"Don't worry about it. You'll see it for yourself in a little bit." Agent Roberts said with a grin, then his expression became more serious as he asked, "Is there anything we need to talk about while we've got the chance?"
"I don't know. I just got the feeling that there might be things you'd rather not discuss in front of Jarvis." Agent Roberts said frankly.
"It looks like whether I want to or not, everything that I've kept hidden is going to be revealed."
"If you want to talk about it, I'll help if I can."
"There's actually nothing to talk about. I think you know everything that's important. I'm just so used to hiding that side of who I am that it feels really uncomfortable finally acknowledging it. He's always known about my faerie heritage, but I've hardly used any magic around him."
"I guess that I wanted to be accepted for who I am, not for what magic I can do."
"That makes sense." Agent Roberts said honestly, then added, "Let me know if there's anything I can do."
"Just, if you could, no matter what happens, try to keep in mind that I'm still me."
"Yeah. I can do that." Agent Roberts assured him.
* * * * *
After arriving back at the parsonage, it only took about a minute before Archdruid Highley had stepped outside to join them.
"Milo, when we get in there, you'll need to let me do the talking. You won't be able to speak their language." Archdruid Highley warned him as they walked.
"Reaper can make himself understood when he wants to." Agent Roberts said simply.
"Yeah. I talked to him when he came out of the Protectorate to look around." Milo helpfully added.
"Provided that we are able to meet with 'Reaper', what do you have planned for us to do next?" Archdruid Highley asked Agent Roberts cautiously.
"If all goes well, I think the next step should be for us to go to the vinculum chamber and make sure that you'll be able to open it."
"Vinculum chamber? What's that?" Milo asked curiously.
"It's a room that exists in several places at once. If it works the way we hope, it will allow us to perform the spell to make the stored magic of the meta-diagram available to be used."
"Is that where I'm going to be casting my spell?" Milo asked timidly.
"Yes. At least, that's the plan if everything works the way we expect it to."
* * * * *
Conversation stopped as the trio climbed down the steep walkway.
Once they were on flat ground again, none of them seemed to be inclined to pick up the conversation where they had left off.
The clouds overhead seemed to be darker and more ominous.
"In the days of tribute, in the months of seeing, in the years of trial, in the centuries of pain, we persevere. I humbly ask that you grant entry to one who serves. I am the keeper." Archdruid Highley said toward the heavens as they stood in the open field.
"Just so you know, I was able to summon the arch to the protectorate, too." Agent Roberts said as he followed Archdruid Highley inside.
"But you haven't been granted the blessings of angels, have you?"
"No. But I've been given a magical gift by a demon."
"I would think, if anything, that that should disqualify you from entering the protectorate at all."
"To be honest, I opened the Brynnhollow barrier first, so that established that I was the Harbinger."
"Yeah. Just like you're the Keeper and Conrad's the Guardian."
"So you think that once one of us has been established that we're automatically able to open all the barriers?"
"So far it seems that way."
Milo was silent as he walked with them, staring wide-eyed at the bizarre alien landscape.
"I don't understand why they would do that. Doesn't it defeat the purpose of a lock to hand out keys like that?"
"Well, I can think of two reasons why they'd do it this way. The first is, they might not have a choice. It's possible that they're restricted as to what they can do. In order for the lock to work at all they may need to install failsafes like this into the system."
"And the other reason?"
"The other might be the need for at least some pretense of trust among the groups being represented here. If we give someone the key, we trust them. Hopefully that will give them status as ambassadors with the others so that they can travel from territory to territory."
Before they could say more, a familiar and welcome sight appeared before them.
"Reaper! I'm glad you're here!" Agent Roberts said happily.
"Linnaeus sought out Reaper, told of your presence." Reaper said pleasantly.
"You seem to be able to speak a lot better than you did before."
"The atunement has proceeded since our last meeting."
"Well, good." Agent Roberts said with a smile, then continued. "Reaper, you have already met my demi-friend, Milo. And I'm sure that you've at least heard of Archdruid Highley."
"Sure. Why not?" Agent Roberts responded easily, then asked more seriously, "Would you have time to talk to us about renewing the barrier of the protectorate?"
"Yes. Such is destiny. Proceed."
Agent Roberts puzzled over the response for a moment, then carefully explained, "What we'd like to do is remake the barriers for all three colonies, all in one go. The only way to do that would be to tap into the magical reserves of the three colonies and direct it to our use."
Reaper gave a slow nod of understanding.
"We're here to ask you if either you, or someone you know and trust, could stand with us to release the power held within the land of the protectorate so that the witches can use it to remake the protectorate barrier."
"Some beings exist for a purpose. They are blessed... or cursed. Regardless, so shall I be too." Reaper said introspectively.
"Um... okay. So do you think you've got the magical ability to release the magic of the protectorate?"
"I have ability. What's more, I have understanding. This gathering of us to perform such a feat has in the past been referred to as The Assembly of the Magi."
"Magi? Like the three wise men?" Archdruid Highly asked in surprise.
"Yes, but no. In the common tongue, the word 'wise' does not relate the proper meaning. I don't know if such a word exists. The correct word to describe a Magi should convey the idea of being both magical and mundane; beings of otherworldly power attuned to this realm."
"I think we've got it. So since you know how an assembly of the Magi normally goes, do you happen to know what we're supposed to do next?"
"The three Magi must be of three 'kinds'."
"So far we've got a half-angel, a half-demon and a half-faerie. From everything we've been able to figure out, that should work."
"I should caution, having the proper 'kinds' is the least of the requirements. The spell may be spoiled by covetousness or obscene desire even though the participants appear to meet all requirements."
"So you all have to be of good character?" Agent Roberts asked thoughtfully.
"'Reasonable' character should be sufficient." Reaper assured him.
Agent Roberts glanced at Milo, then said with a grin, "Looks like you squeaked by on that one."
"Excuse me?" Milo said indignantly.
"You stole my shadow. I don't know if a person of 'good' character would do something like that."
"I explained why I did it and I apologized. I don't know what more you want from me." Milo said with annoyance.
"I want you to own it." Agent Roberts said simply.
"What do you mean by that?" Milo asked cautiously.
"I mean, every time we've talked about it, you've deflected the responsibility by saying a dozen different ways that it wasn't your fault. You did something to hurt and manipulate me. As soon as I believe that you honestly regret your actions, I'll stop bringing it up."
"Okay." Milo said quietly.
"Okay?" Agent Roberts asked uncertainly.
"I'll take a look at what I did and why I did it and when I'm to the point where I can be completely honest about my feelings on the matter, I'll share that with you so that we can bring this to an end."
"I'll look forward to that." Agent Roberts said sincerely.
"This is good." Reaper interjected, then continued, "It is required for the Magi to have support, both magical and mundane, to perform the release ritual."
"Well, from the way I understand it, we're planning on having Dex access the power of the earth. Zanner will summon that power and feed it to you. Archdruid Highley is the Keeper of the Protectorate, so he should be able to unlock the seal for you." Agent Roberts said seriously.
Reaper slowly nodded, then looked at Milo before asking, "What part does your demi-friend play?"
"Milo is a half-faerie and can cast spells with faerie magic. If we can make this work, he's going to be doing the same thing as you, except that he'll be doing it at the Southseid barrier."
"Before I do that, I'm going to need to know what spells we're going to be using. Faerie magic isn't the same as the magic of witches." Milo warned them.
"This, I can do for you. I believe that in this endeavor I shall be assuming the role of Melchior, the Magi of Arcane Knowledge."
"What does that make me?" Milo asked cautiously.
"From what has been said, and what I have witnessed, I believe that you will assume the role of Gaspar, the Magi of Volition."
"I have no idea what that means." Milo said honestly.
"Not to worry, demi-friend Milo, it is simply a general descriptor of your role in the ritual. It is who you already are, not who you are supposed to strive to be." Reaper assured him.
"Do you think that you'll be able to manage opening the seal on your own, or are you going to have to get a few of the other Nephilim to help you? I'm only asking because it seems that we're going to need to have equivalent amounts of power on all sides, so we're going to need to arrange that in advance, if we can." Agent Roberts said carefully.
"When the time comes to enact the ritual, we will see if more power or control is needed. In the past each of the Magi have been capable of performing the release ceremony unaided. But if others are needed to assist, they can be called upon."
"We've been assuming that the ceremony would be conducted at the vinculum chamber. Do you know if that's right?"
"Quite correct." Reaper confirmed, then added, "Your people have been able to uncover a surprising amount of information about the ceremony considering the obscurity of it."
"Most of that is thanks to Paul. He seems to have some sort of instinctive knowledge about these things, thanks to his demon heritage."
"You should be aware that the descendents of angels have an understandable distrust of those associated with demons. Although the evidence at hand suggests that you have been provided reasonable guidance, I would be reluctant to accept such information blindly."
"I don't know anything about trusting demons, but I trust Paul. He would never intentionally lead us astray." Agent Roberts said firmly.
"That being true, if the information he were given were incorrect, then he might in turn, however unintentionally, mislead us."
"Then I guess it's good that we'll have you on our side to let us know if what he's telling us doesn't sound right for some reason."
Reaper looked at Agent Roberts uncertainly.
When he noticed, Agent Roberts explained, "Forgive me if I don't completely trust what either one of you tell me. But by anyone's measure, I would be irresponsible if I did. Distrusting people is part of my job description."
After a moment to consider, Reaper smiled and said, "You are forgiven Friend-Shawn. I understand and concur. I can only promise that to the best of my knowledge, the information given me is true."
"Should we go to the vinculum chamber now? It seems like it's going to be the center of what we're going to be doing next." Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"Although I know of the location of the chamber, none within the protectorate are capable of unlocking it for our use."
"Don't worry about that. Conrad and I already figured it out. I can open it for you." Agent Roberts said as he indicated the path before them.
"Of course. I hadn't considered the utility of the mundane person required for the ceremony. That would explain the requirement." Reaper said from Agent Roberts' side.
"Yeah. Well, I just hope you don't expect me to do too much more than opening the door because that's about all the tricks I know."
"You'll have to show me what to do if I'm going to be expected to perform the same duty." Archdruid Highley said honestly as he and Milo followed along, side-by-side.
"It's basically the same thing you already do to open the entry archway. You just modify the words a little to state what you want to happen."
"Friend Shawn, if I may ask, do I understand correctly? Did you and another personally witness the opening of the vinculum chamber?" Reaper asked curiously.
"I guess you could say that. That's how I got here. I entered the vinculum chamber in Waxell and exited it here." Agent Roberts said simply.
"Wait. What?" Archdruid Highley asked confusedly.
"The way I understand it, the vinculum chamber is a point of bilocation... or multi-location." Agent Roberts carefully explained. "You can enter it from different places around the area, but all the archways feed into the same big room."
"Although we are each our own group unto ourselves, collectively we are stronger and more able to resist outside forces that might threaten us." Reaper said sagely.
"Yeah. And having the colonies in such close proximity to each other makes it less likely that the 'real' world can gain a strong foothold."
"I have a feeling that there's more to it than that." Archdruid Highley said slowly.
"Of course there is. I know for a fact that there are government officials who work to protect this place. Beyond that, there's something magical going on to keep Waxell adrift in time."
"I wasn't aware that there was so much going on outside the protectorate."
"If you keep yourself sequestered from the world like you do, you're not likely to know what's going on outside."
"I've done my best to follow in my father's footsteps, but I guess that I don't have his contacts outside the protectorate."
"Or his charisma." Milo muttered under his breath.
Archdruid Highley glanced ruefully in Milo's direction, but didn't dispute his words.
"It sounds like your father is a... 'colorful' person who has found ways to capitalize on his strengths."
"Yeah. That sounds like a fair assessment of him."
"Now it's up to you to protect this place and these people. Your father doesn't enter into it. You've seen what worked for him, but now it's time to find out what works for you."
"While I agree with the sentiment, I can't see what that has to do with what we're doing now."
"We're embarking on something big and new. If you're going to step up and take charge of the situation, now would probably be the best time to do it. Think about it, when everything is quiet and at rest, there's resistance to any change. When things are in motion, it takes little effort to nudge them in the direction of your choosing."
"From what I've observed, you've taken on more of a leadership role than anyone else."
"Yes. So far, I've been doing my best to coordinate things since I have a unique vantage point. But eventually I'm going to be leaving, so now would be a good time for you to position yourself as leader so there won't be a power vacuum when I have to go."
"Although I can see what you're saying, I don't know what you want me to do."
"I'm suggesting that you set yourself up to take over when I'm done here. Learn about how and why everyone is doing what they're doing. When people have questions, be sure that you've positioned yourself to be seen as the guy with the answers."
"It would be difficult to see myself like that."
"If you can pull this off, you'll probably surprise a few people. But it's now or never. Scrape up everything you've got and make it happen."
"Friend-Shawn speaks truth. Today you begin to be what you will someday truly become."
"Look over there, can you see that castle?" Agent Roberts asked as their path led them to the top of a small hill.
"That's the abandoned castle. I've never been there. I've always been told that it's a dangerous place that I should avoid." Archdruid Highley warned.
"The danger is real. The castle of origin is claimed by all, though held by none. It was the lone structure that existed when we arrived in this place that was created for us." Reaper said quietly as they continued to walk.
"If that's the case, why doesn't anyone live there?"
"The very land calls out a warning to us to stay away. None can endure the assault of it for any length of time."
"Of course. We had the same thing at the Old Tennyson Place in Waxell. The feeling of dread was so thick that you could barely get past it." Agent Roberts said thoughtfully.
"You said that the castle was like that when you got here. Where did you come here from?" Milo asked curiously.
"Midian." Reaper answered simply.
"Is that the same Midian that's mentioned in the bible?" Archdruid Highley asked cautiously.
"Yes and no. The place we lived before is much like this one, magically isolated and secluded from the world of men. When your people speak of Midian, they refer to a mythical place. Where we come from is that place which the myth was based upon." Reaper explained.
"So you and your people have always been kept confined like this?" Agent Roberts asked thoughtfully.
"The steps that have been taken were born of necessity. Even so, in the fullness of time our society fractured. I'm sure if you asked those who remained behind, they would say that we were exiled for our radical beliefs. However, we regard ourselves as the visionaries and pioneers who went out into the world to live free... or at least under our own governance."
"So there are other Nephilim back in Midian?" Milo asked curiously.
"We assume so. Although it is entirely possible that they might have found a way to destroy themselves in the subsequent millennia." Reaper said quietly.
Before Agent Roberts could formulate a response, Reaper continued, "Our civilization divided into thirds along ideological lines. Two groups with diametrically opposed radical beliefs chose to move away and start their own colonies, to prove that theirs was the preferred way of life. Those who didn't share in the beliefs of either stayed behind."
"How did that end up working out for you?" Agent Roberts asked cautiously.
"We haven't heard anything from our brethren since we departed, so we can only speculate. But I prefer to believe that each group ended up making their perfect world, based on how they believed a society should be structured."
"Do you believe that about your society?" Archdruid Highley asked hesitantly.
"While the choices made by individuals might not always lead to the most favorable results, the philosophy that we live with allows us the freedom to achieve what we desire or simply to enjoy what is."
"But it has always seemed to me that the 'royals' of the Nephilim are constrained by endless conflicting rules governing protocol and decorum."
"Yes. But that is simply due to the fact that it pleases us to participate in such things. We are free to withdraw and pursue other endeavors, should it please us to do so."
"Do you mean that my father and I did all that bowing and scraping for no good reason?"
"Perhaps. But you are not us. If you wish to interact with us, you must do so on our terms. Likewise, if we should come to you to ask something of you, we would do our best to do so in a manner that is respectful to your ways and customs."
"But you've never asked anything of us."
"That does not invalidate the premise."
"I suppose not." Archdruid Highley conceded.
"When we get there, are you going to be expecting me to do something?" Milo asked anxiously.
"Actually, getting you there is pretty much my whole plan. Everything after that is going to be left to those who are a little more magically inclined." Agent Roberts admitted.
"Friend-Shawn, you are responsible for calling an Assembly of the Magi. You have achieved something that no other being has in a thousand years."
"It wasn't just me!" Agent Roberts immediately said in his defense.
"Perhaps not, but I get the feeling that none of this would have happened without you." Archdruid Highley said sincerely.
"Okay. But just stop talking about it. We've still got a lot to do and we can't afford to be distracted going into it." Agent Roberts said sharply.
"As you say, Friend-Shawn." Reaper said with a note of tenderness under his words.
* * * * *
"Is anyone else having difficulty breathing?" Archdruid Highley asked as they started walking down into a valley.
"The hair is standing up on my neck." Milo said anxiously.
"That's the feeling that Reaper and I were telling you about. You know, the thing about 'the land calling out to stay away'?"
"I couldn't have described it better myself." Archdruid Highley said as he looked around nervously.
"If you can just push past the uncomfortable feeling until we get inside, it'll be okay."
"I don't know if I'll be able to do it." Milo quietly admitted, then explained, "Even though I do my best to live in the human world, at the core, I'm still a creature of instinct."
"If it's too bad for you I can try going on ahead and shutting it down for you. When I open the door, it lets up."
"Okay. I'll try." Milo promised.
"It'll be fine. We'll all help you." Agent Roberts assured him.
* * * * *
"It's just up ahead. How are you guys doing?" Agent Roberts asked as he led the way into the courtyard.
"Now I understand why no one lives here. This is horrible." Archdruid Highley said frankly.
"Agent Roberts? I don't think I can force myself to go any farther." Milo said weakly.
"Do you see that archway right over there? That's it. As soon as we pass through, the feeling will go away." Agent Roberts said carefully, then asked, "Will you try?"
"Yeah." Milo rasped with determination.
"Good. Thank you, Milo." Agent Roberts said, giving evidence of his respect and admiration through his voice and expression.
Although Agent Roberts was anticipating the psychological attack and knew for a fact that it was about to end, he still had to struggle to continue on.
"Are you absolutely certain that it's necessary for us to do this?" Archdruid Highley asked loudly, as though he were trying to be heard over a howling wind.
None of the others noticed his shouting since they were each fighting their own battles.
"Yes. Keep going. We're almost there." Agent Roberts assured him as he saw the magical flow of the archway.
As soon as Agent Roberts determined that he was near enough to the arch, he stopped and raised one palm toward the sky as he said, "I call upon the powers-that-be to grant me entry to the sanctuary, I use the power granted by devils. I am the harbinger."
He could see as well as feel the change in the archway before him.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he stepped forward to take the final step.
Stepping through the archway brought immeasurable relief.
Agent Roberts immediately turned and saw as Reaper passed through the archway.
"Are you alright?"
"I can only imagine how you were able to enter this chamber without encouragement."
"Actually, I was showing off for my boss." Agent Roberts said, then reached forward to take Archdruid Highley's arm to stabilize him as he walked through the arch.
"Thank you." Archdruid Highley said shakily.
"It's better in here. Just take a minute to collect yourself." Agent Roberts said as he released Archdruid Highley's arm and turned to help Milo through the arch.
The look on Milo's face was nothing short of complete terror. He seemed to be a heartbeat away from completely losing any semblance of emotional control.
Before Agent Roberts could do anything to help the frightened man, his shadow took on a fully three-dimensional form and stood forward to pull Milo into a firm hug.
There was a long moment of silence as the shadow expressed caring and compassion entirely through touch.
"Friend-Shawn?" Reaper asked uncertainly.
"I admit that me and my people don't have current knowledge of humans, but this is out of the ordinary... is it not?"
"Yeah. But it's not something dangerous. I promise." Agent Roberts said as he kept careful watch on what his shadow was doing.
"Agent Roberts. What are we seeing here?" Archdruid Highley asked as he stared wide-eyed at the drastically different landscapes being displayed through each of the four arches.
"We're in a room that exists in four places simultaneously. If we're going to unlock the magic stored in all the barriers, this is where we're going to have to do it." Agent Roberts said seriously.
"Thank you, Shadow. I'm better now." Milo said quietly.
Agent Roberts' shadow slowly released Milo from their embrace, then held one insubstantial hand against Milo's cheek for a moment before becoming two-dimensional and resuming his appearance as a typical shadow.
"Are you going to be okay?" Agent Roberts asked with concern.
After a moment to consider, Milo finally said, "I think that I'll be alright, I just don't know what to think about what just happened."
"It's easier to manage the second time. It's no less intense, but at least you have a better idea of what to expect." Agent Roberts assured him.
At Milo's look of confusion, Agent Roberts elaborated, "That was my second time walking through it and it was easier to make myself do it this time."
"Oh that! I was talking about being held and comforted by Shadow." Milo explained.
After a moment to consider, Agent Roberts finally said, "Actually, the same thing probably applies to both situations."
To Be Continued...
It took me a while to keep in mind the steps to properly place the various parts of the placement of the mention of the notes and then the notes themselves. I think I have it pretty well memorized, now.
I think Shadow has become quite fond of Milo.
Remember, Milo basically brought Shadow into the three dimensional world. When Milo removed shadow from Agent Roberts, in effect, he gave shadow substance and knowledge. Milo was the only one who could see shadow as a living being, until Agent Roberts returned to the protectorate with the boys. Milo returned Shado to Agent Roberts. Then Agent Roberts realized that Shadow was more than just a plain flat shadow, but together, Shadow and Shawn figured out how to blend in to the real world and keep from freaking out the mondanes. Still, it seems that Shadow still cares about Milo, which was surprising, since Milo had kidnapped him and kept him away from Shawn.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher
Sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants.