Magical Security Taskforce

 FULL ARCHIVE

VOLUME: 5

CHAPTER: 5

1 2 3 4 5 6

Chapter 40: Allies


Session One

By the time the reinforcements got there, it was too late. The demons didn't actually leave until well after the cavalry had arrived, but the MST agents took so long to hack the student council's security system that it didn't matter. When they finally got the elevator to take them to the basement, all they found was an empty room littered with the assorted furnishings Claude and Molly had thrown around in their battle. The Urayoni and the Hageshoni had escaped with their prizes.

With three students already gone and without knowing their captors' motive, Uriel realized that leaving Troy, Kathryn and Donovan in L. B. Gould was no longer an option. The remaining three needed to be somewhere safe, which left only one choice.

“Central?” Troy said, astonished. “How do we get there? What about school?”

Donovan scoffed. “School? With Pearson gone, the place will surely descend into chaos and anarchy. There will be no school.” He glanced aside. “I wish I could see it.”

“Didn't fall apart when she left last December.”

Uriel's voice interrupted them. “Actually, Donovan's onto something. We're thinking of attributing Molly's absence to a military coup this time, so chaos isn't so far-fetched. You're better off in Indiana.”

Kathryn heaved a sigh. “I don't suppose we get to pack first?”

“Looks like it's clear so go ahead and can swing by your house on the way to the rendezvous point.”

Troy silently went upstairs. Donovan grinned; he had other plans. “Blaine.”

“Sir,” Blaine said.

“Gather my things and return here. We leave tonight!”

“Fifteen minutes, more precisely,” Uriel added. Blaine disappeared.

Sighing again, Kathryn said, “Any chance of borrowing a minion to get my stuff?”

Donovan glared back at her. She looked away, not wanting any of it. “Bryce,” he called.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, then filled Bryce in on what to collect.

After he left, Ellen said, “You don't mind him going through your things?”

Kathryn leaned back. “It's Bryce. Who cares? Besides, after all that I just want to get out of here.”

As Troy and the minions packed up, Uriel relayed information to Ellen. With the group together, Ellen shooed them out the door with no further explanation. Outside, two cars were idling on each side of the driveway with their passenger-side doors open and a man standing in front of them.

“We're taking two cars?” Troy said.

“No, hon, these are our escorts,” Ellen said, nodding to them while leading the three students to her own car.

Bags piled in the trunk and passengers loaded, Ellen pulled out. Troy and Kathryn watched nervously as the escort in front pulled into traffic. Ellen followed it, while the second car followed her. This would have appeared far more impressive had the escort in back not been an actual decades-old Ford Escort.

Despite the precautions, they reached their destination, a park downtown, without incident. A rescue helicopter waited for them. Troy and Kathryn exited the car and pondered the red and white markings on its side. Donovan didn't bother and retrieved his bag.

“Wait, we're riding Care Flight?” Troy asked, shouting over the rotor noise.

Ellen handed him his bag and shouted back, “It's only painted to look like Care Flight. It's a telecopter.”

“What's that?”

“I have no idea. That's just what Uriel said.”

“Whatever,” Kathryn mumbled, following Donovan on board.

With their backs turned, Ellen sneaked in a hug for Troy. He smiled a little, not shying away from his mother.

Despite the noise behind them, she insisted on saying something. “Stay out of trouble, okay? I'm sure you'll be back here in no time!”

He sighed, but said nothing. Troy wasn't worried about himself.

Ellen knew that. “It's out of your hands!” she yelled. Quieter, she added, “They'll do everything they can.” Troy didn't hear her, but nodded anyway, not quite reassured but doubting that Ellen could be any more optimistic without sounding false.

Fact is, none of them had any clue about the likelihood of getting Molly, Renee or Yuki back. Without Kurt around, their only channel to the MST was Uriel, and all he said was to get to safety. Beyond that, they were completely in the dark about what came next.

On board the helicopter (or telecopter, apparently), Troy took a helmet from the pilot and threw his bag where Kathryn and Donovan had dropped theirs. They were strapped into seats on opposite sides of the vehicle, facing each other. Troy sat next to Kathryn and figured out how to buckle the harness.

A sudden jolt shook all three of them and told them they were taking flight. Kathryn stared at the floor, her hands trembling on her lap. Troy reached over and patted them. She looked over at him and made eye contact as a faint, sad smile appeared.

They could feel themselves ascending. Normally, Troy and Kathryn would have loved a ride like this. The circumstances, of course, prevented either from being at all jovial about the ride. That and the fact that there were no windows in the cabin. Which, come to think of it, seemed odd.

Once the telecopter reached its apparent apex, Troy leaned over to Kathryn and said, “This is going to be a boring trip if we can't see anything.” Kathryn nodded silently.

Just as quickly, they fell. The telecopter seemed to bounce down, then stabilize itself for a moment before dipping further. Troy and Kathryn looked around nervously, but the harnesses prevented them from seeing much more than Donovan riding it out impatiently. They couldn't crane their necks enough to see if the pilots were taking evasive action... or even if they were in the cockpit at all.

After another severe dip, Katrhyn shouted, “Is this supposed to be happening?” Troy clutched her arm. This continued for several minutes as both of them tried not to be the first to throw up.

Then the trip was stable again. Troy and Kathryn readied themselves for another turbulent drop, but two minutes passed without a single jolt. Just as they felt brave enough to consider calming down, they heard the cockpit door fly open. One of the pilots came back and motioned for the three to unbuckle and get out.

“What about parachutes?” Troy cried.

“What for?” The pilot shouted back.

Donovan snickered and unbuckled himself. “Clearly you have forgotten our powers of flight!” He stood up, took his bag and walked to the door. Troy and Kathryn glanced at each other, took a deep breath and followed him out.

The telecopter was already on the ground- specifically the giant Central Academy parking lot. Greeting them, Mr. Marlowe couldn't help himself and smirked when he saw their faces.

“Enjoy the flight?” he said, annoyingly smug as always.

 

Session Two

Troy, Kathryn and Donovan were happy to be safe at the Academy. They weren't ready for Kiki providing the medical care. Healing Kathryn involved a whip and an ivory dagger. They were even less prepared for the lengthy debriefing process that followed. For the next hour, the three were separated and forced to relive their experiences for the official record. This meant explaining every harrowing twist- Kamila's death, Kendrick's sacrifice and Marie's alignment. At a time when they just wanted to get some rest, it was an aggravating process.

Still, they were honest. Even Donovan, although his usual flair on the story made it a chore to discern truth from embellishment. Kathryn's problem was the utter lack of sympathy from her interrogator regarding her battle. He was more excited about all the cool details, covertly trying to establish exact quantities of shed blood and torn clothing. His only words of encouragement to her were, “It's just a demon. Don't worry about it.”

Troy's story was less impressive but far more excruciating. First he had to tell the story of how he lost Renee, then how he lost Marie. He hadn't told Kathryn or his mother, and hated letting some stranger with a clipboard be the first to find out. A part of him even disliked incriminating Marie. He did, sucking it up and giving a full report in spite of his misgivings. After all, the more information the MST had about the incident, the better prepared they were to act.

After all three gave their statements, they were left in a holding room for another half-hour. They said or did very little, each continuing their fruitless attempt to figure out what the hell was going on. Finally, the door opened and Mr. Marlowe walked out. They stood up, eager to hear anything. Instead, he smiled inappropriately.

“What's up?” Kathryn asked, barely containing her disdain for the process.

“Exciting stuff,” he said. “You should go to the library and submit memories. You get extra credit for your history courses.”

They were not amused.

Marlowe snickered and continued, “Thanks for the info. We can start to piece things together now. As a special reward, I'll even let you stay in your own room instead of throwing you in Hall A like we usually do.”

Kathryn scoffed. Somehow that wasn't enticing her much. “Where are Yuki and Renee?” she asked, bitter that it hadn't been answered yet.

“And Molly, you mean?”

“What's going to happen to them?”

Marlowe looked up, scratching his chin. “Well, that's not really my department. Uriel's working on that. I'm not sure if he's made contact with the Urayoni to negotiate their release.”

“The who?” Kathryn asked, narrowing an eye. “I thought we were dealing with the Hageshuh... whatever. Those guys.”

“Not according to Troy!” Marlowe replied, far too chipper. Kathryn looked at Troy, who stared straight ahead and didn't acknowledge her. “The Urayoni and Hageshoni have had an alliance for years, so it's no surprise that the two were both in on this.”

“Seemed to catch you guys off guard,” Troy muttered.

Marlowe paused to dismiss the statement, then said, “Hey, this is a good thing! The Urayoni are all about negotiating, so there's a very okay chance we'll be able to get your team back!”

Troy and Kathryn eyed each other nervously. 'Very okay' was not what they were hoping for.

Sensing that, Marlowe changed the subject. “Anyway, you're free to head to your room. This place is your home for now. As long as you don't leave the campus or do anything that would drain a security deposit, you're free to wander.”

Kathryn sighed. With those two restrictions, they were essentially prisoners.

“I'd rather hit the dining hall first,” Troy said. “We kinda missed lunch.”

“Actually, the dining hall's closed,” Marlowe replied, holding out his arm. He rotated his wrist deliberately until a laminated sheet of paper appeared. Marlowe handed it to Troy. It was a short list of pizza places and casual restaurants. “You can order from any of these fine establishments. Just follow the instructions on the top. Since you're our guests, it's all on us.”

“Okay, but-” Troy started.

Kathryn finished. “Great, let's go.”

“But-”

“Troy.” She looked at him with her tired eyes. “Let's go.”

Quietly, he took her hand and teleported to Hall D. Donovan glared at Mr. Marlowe, but before the dean could ask why, Donovan was off too.

 

Room 202 was quieter, darker and colder than usual. The lack of commotion from surrounding rooms added to the prison feel. Before they could let themselves dwell too much on this, Troy ordered pizzas and Donovan turned on the TV. They watched the local news in silence. The lead story was about a chemical fire in Edinburgh that wiped out half an industrial park that injured a handful. It didn't seem like such a big deal.

They made quick work of dinner when it arrived. It was probably average as far as restaurant pizza was concerned, but after everything they went through it was a gourmet meal. Even though they didn't say much to each other besides requests to pass napkins or last slice arguments, it helped them recover a little. At the very least, it helped delude them into thinking everything was going to turn out all right. A mindless Adam Sandler movie later that night helped keep them in denial a little longer.

The illusion faded overnight. Trapped in their rooms, beds and thoughts, there was nothing left to focus on besides the day's events. They had no choice but to accept that this army had really invaded the school and captured Molly, Renee and Yuki. Troy had the additional burden of grasping Marie. Once his mind had focused on it and come up empty, he knew he wouldn't be getting much sleep.

An hour after he went to bed, he heard a knock on the door. “Come in,” Troy said, neither asking nor caring who it was. He lifted his head briefly to see who had entered and set it back down when he saw Kathryn in the tank top and shorts she called pajamas. “You too, huh?”

Kathryn sat on the side of the bed. She didn't say a word.

“Just pretend they'll get rescued and it'll all be okay,” he mumbled. “Not working for me but maybe you'll fall asleep.”

She sighed, drew back the bedsheet and slid in next to him, pulling the covers close. “Doesn't matter,” she said.

He turned slightly, surprised until she clarified, “Well, I mean of course it matters but... is this really what you wanted? Are we really better off being involved in all this?”

“What happens if we're not?” Troy asked. “Kurt and Molly and Yuki are in it either way. Renee signs up for sure. Only difference is we wouldn't know why they disappeared.”

“That must suck.” Kathryn turned on her side, facing Troy's back. “Marie's been enough of a wreck already. How do we explain all this to her?”

Troy shivered. Kathryn couldn't tell if the idea or the air caused it. Either way, she leaned in closer and clutched him. “I know,” she said. “Can't imagine what's going on with her. It's like all of her friends vanished. You better call her tomorrow.”

He shook his head. “I don't have to,” he said, his voice cracking. Within Kathryn's arms, he turned around and stared into her eyes. He still trembled as he whispered, “She knows.”

“What do you mean she knows?” Kathryn raised an eyebrow. “You better not have told her. Then they'll just use her like they use your mom.”

Again, he shook his head. Barely able to contain his voice, he gulped and said, “Remember Marlowe said I ran into the Urayoni?”

“No...” she mumbled. But Troy closed his eyes and leaned into her chest. All she could do was stare forward and try to picture it. She couldn't.

“She was on the roof keeping us from leaving,” he said. “She let me go, but...” Kathryn held him tighter.

“Seriously?” She felt him nod. As much as she wanted details, she kept quiet. It wasn't the time and she doubted he had any answers. Right now, all they could do was lay there, lost in thought and darkness, holding each other.

They were all either of them had left.

 

Session Three

Uriel had one major flaw, one that he was constantly having to account for and demanded extra effort from him and his office to get things done. Now, in the midst of such remarkable events, such a huge deficiency was front and center and he was forced to raise the white flag and acknowledge defeat. The enemy had conquered him.

“So the Urayoni asked for a teleconference with me. I have no idea what that is,” he admitted telepathically. He sat, alone, in a Central Academy conference room. A projector flashed a blank blue screen on the wall.

Marlowe chuckled. “You never cease to amaze me. I'll be there in a second.”

A second later, he appeared and turned on the PC under the table. “You know some districts have entered the 21st century.”

“Negotiations this crucial should be done in person,” Uriel insisted. “Failing that, notarized parchment.”

Marlowe rolled his eyes and fiddled with the projector until the computer's image appeared. “Did they give you any contact information?”

“Only this.” Uriel handed over a piece of notarized parchment. “Other than the date and time, I can't make it out.”

“It's a session ID to log in.” Marlowe typed it into the computer. It registered and loaded up a video window on the screen. As it did, he said, “Mind if I sit in? I was listening in on the three when they gave their reports. Maybe I can help.”

Uriel peered at the screen, uneasy. “Can they see you?”

“That's the point of a teleconference.”

Marlowe smiled at Uriel eagerly. Uriel tried to ignore it. As a student liaison, Marlowe had no business working with diplomatic negotiation. “Oh come on, Jonesy, this sounds like fun!”

“Promise never to call me 'Jonesy' again?” Uriel snapped.

“It's a deal!”

“Fine, sit somewhere out of the way and try not to say anything.”

Marlowe sat back and preened. He liked this diplomatic negotiation thing. As an image came into view, he stared back anxiously. “You know I've never actually met a demon face-to-face before.”

Uriel rolled his eyes at him. “You're not missing anything. The Urayoni are nasty, slimy scoundrels. They'll say anything to get a leg up.”

“That's not very nice,” said Claude, via the PC speakers above the screen.

Rushed, Uriel said, “My apologies...” Then he saw the kid on the screen and frowned. “You're representing the Urayoni? Aren't you the kid from Molly's office?”

“Yes, my name's Claude. Aren't you the strange old man that kept barging into Molly's office?” Claude replied, unamused.

They stared at each other and muttered, “That explains a lot.”

“Jinx!” Marlowe exclaimed, snickering at himself when Uriel and Claude looked at him strangely

Uriel huffed and said, “This is Alistair Marlowe, Dean of Student Affairs. I am Uriel. First question- where are they?”

“They are perfectly fine in one of our realms.”

Nodding, Uriel said, “Second question- what's stopping us from marching in, killing all of you and rescuing them?”

Claude leaned back, a little nervous. Given the mediocre security in L. B. Gould, he wasn't expecting such a threat. Without flinching too much, he replied, “For starters, you don't know which realm we're in.”

Marlowe tapped the keyboard. “Yes we do! I just traced your IP. Out of the way, no MST presence... not a bad hiding place.”

“That's not fair!” Claude shouted.

Uriel shrugged. “Don't look at me. I have no idea what he just said.”

“Doesn't matter. If anybody tries to invade, we'll kill the prisoners.”

“You wouldn't kill Molly,” said Uriel, glowering.

“Perhaps not. But Yuki and the other Pearson are expendable.”

Frowning, Uriel turned to Marlowe, who typed away at the computer, ignorant of how dire the conversation had become. Losing Yuki was out of the question. Given her family's connections, Uriel would be out of a job.

Sighing, he said, “Okay, let's pretend all that invading and killing stuff never came up. What are your terms?”

“Oh, um...” Claude fished around for a sheet of paper, somehow surprised at the question. Uriel hid a smirk by turning to Marlowe, who now seemed to be casually surfing the web and not paying attention.

Claude found his sheet, sat up and said, “Top of the list- Grimoire 17.”

“Absolutely not,” Uriel replied.

Staring straight forward, Claude was at a loss for words. He checked the list again. Obviously, top of the list was pretty significant. “We might have a problem then,” he mumbled.

“Actually, that's negotiable,” Marlowe blurted, not looking up.

“Excuse me?!” Uriel's face flushed and he turned to Marlowe angrily.

Marlowe smiled at Uriel and gestured at the screen. “Little something from the chancellor. Check it out.”

As Uriel slid around the room to read a document on the screen, Marlowe stood and faced Claude. He clasped his hands and smiled. “Suppose that's pretty much the point of your little stunt?”

Bewildered, Claude looked through his list. “Uh... more or less. We've got a few other requests, but the grimoire is a must.”

“Unbelievable,” Uriel mumbled, falling into the chair.

Marlowe looked over his shoulder at Uriel's stunned face, then turned back to Claude and smiled brightly.

“Keeping that in mind, I'm curious... how many of the three girls can we get with the grimoire alone?”

Claude's jaw dropped. “I... I was to believe this was an all-or-nothing proposition.”

“Again... that's negotiable. Answer the question.”

Looking through his list again, Claude grew frantic. “Uh... well, two I guess. For all three, we would-”

“Two's fine,” Uriel said, standing up and joining Marlowe in front of the screen.

“Two's fine?” Claude repeated, clearly not fine with the whole thing. “You would leave one of them here? And we still get the grimoire? What's the catch?”

“Only the matter of which two we get back,” Uriel said, heaving a sigh.

“Right. Depending on who does stay...” Marlowe smiled broadly. “...the grimoire is actually an ideal ransom.”

 

Session Four

Troy, Kathryn and Donovan weren't technically sequestered in their room. The library was still open, the bookstore held abbreviated operating hours and even in February the academy fields hosted pickup games of football, soccer or any number of poorly-conceived magic sports. They had every opportunity to enjoy the campus without the academic hassles it was designed to serve. It just didn't feel appropriate. The bright sun and tolerable temperature made them feel worse about staying indoors; they would have preferred a blizzard.

Neither Troy nor Kathryn were sure if they'd slept that night. Both assured each other that at some point in the night they were asleep. Neither believed it. They didn't feel like it either. Both ended up conking out on the couch around noon. Donovan ignored them and continued to watch TV. If he was groggy, he didn't show it.

In fact, he was the only one who heard the knock on the door. He lazily called Blaine to answer it. When he saw who had walked in, he jumped to his feet and glared the visitor.

“You!” Donovan shouted. “You dare face me again?!”

Reggie shrugged. “You still on about that one time last year? Man, my lips are sealed. What happens in Reggie's room...” He grinned, his eyes closing halfway. “...you know.” Then he looked to the ceiling. “What did you do in there anyway?”

“Reggie?” Kathryn asked, leaning over the back of the couch, still tired. “What are you doing here?” Troy stirred and sat up as well.

“Just saying hi.” Reggie smiled at her. “Heard you were up here and it's my job to extend an invitation in case you need any, uh...” His eyebrows flared. “Cheering up.”

Troy sighed with dismay. “I'm sure we'll take you up on that eventually, but we're not exactly in a party mood today.”

Reggie nodded in understanding. “Yeah, I heard what happened.” Then he paused, blinked twice and added, “What happened?”

“Demons attacked, took our friends and my girlfriend's an Urayoni,” Troy muttered.

Shaking his head, Reggie fell into the chair before Donovan could get back into it. “Aw no... you gotta date Yovoni, man. Their chicks get freaky.”

Troy narrowed an eye, but was too tired to take offense. “I wasn't going for freaky. She seemed perfectly normal.”

Reggie shrugged, ignoring Donovan's glare. “Suppose they can be.”

“Yeah,” Troy spat. “I liked it better when they were all bastards like Kendrick.” Now Donovan glared at Troy, but was again ignored.

Another knock came from the door. This time Troy got up to answer it, pausing when he realized Blaine was still standing in front of the door. Troy nodded to the minion, who opened the door to reveal lunch.

Specifically, the delivery boy with a bag of sandwiches. He stepped inside and gave the bag to Troy.

“Hey, Giles!” Reggie said, waving at the boy.

Giles jumped, startled. “Reggie? What are you doing here?”

“Just hanging. You should stop by sometime when you're off duty. Bring your girlfriends.”

Suddenly offended, he replied, “They're not my girlfriends. They're nuisances.”

Eager to interrupt the awkwardness, and the fact that he had no clue what they were talking about, Troy said, “Hey wait... weren't you delivering pizzas last night?” Indeed he was: Giles, with his short stature, sandy brown hair and ugly red cap didn't look like a college student. Troy remembered thinking about how young the guy looked, despite knowing Giles was likely older than Kurt.

Either way, Giles was just happy he didn't have to deal with Reggie. “Yeah. Outside restaurants can't deliver on campus, so they deliver to me. Then I deliver to you.”

Troy nodded, then asked, “Are we supposed to tip you?”

Now Giles was confused. “A... tip?”

“Well yeah, I know the school covers the bill but don't you want a tip?”

“Uh... I don't know.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“Almost a year.” Giles scratched his neck. “It's never come up.”

Another knock on the door. Troy turned to Blaine, who again opened it, not quite silent this time. “Feeling like a doorman today,” he mumbled.

This time, it was Uriel. One look at his stoic, all-business face and Giles hurriedly stepped aside. “Uh, I'll get back to you on that. Later!”

With Giles gone, Uriel entered. He held a briefcase. His composure rubbed off on Troy, who frowned and asked, “What's the latest?”

“I need to speak to Donovan,” Uriel said, walking past Troy.

Immediately, Reggie stood up and walked away. “Well, I'll let you get on with your lunch meeting. Give me a buzz next time you're on the first floor!”

Uriel raised an eyebrow at the departing Reggie. “I would really like to know why he hasn't graduated yet, but we have more important matters.”

He set the briefcase on a table, opened it and handed the form inside to Donovan. “Read, understand, and if you choose to, sign. By law, I am forbidden to encourage you to sign it... no matter how much it helps us get out of this mess.”

“What's it do?” Troy asked, trying to peek over Donovan's shoulder.

“Long story short- permanently forfeits Grimoire 17 and completes our end of the bargain to the Urayoni.”

Kathryn walked over, eyes widening. “And that's it? We give them that stupid book and they'll give us Yuki and them?”

Uriel glanced away briefly, then turned back and nodded. “Something like that. There's a couple other catches involved, but nothing Donovan has to worry about.”

Smacking him in the back, Kathryn said, “Well hell, sign it!”

Troy looked at Uriel and asked, “Can we encourage him?”

The district commander shrugged. “For all I care, you can bash him over the head with a chair until he listens. As long as I don't interfere and he does it on his own accord.”

“I'll get my staff,” Kathryn said, heading into her room.

“You cowards!” Donovan shouted. “You expect me to sacrifice my family's precious heirloom, the Tome of Vincent Wagner, because you are too shameless to fight back!”

“Donovan!” Troy started to scold, but then he thought for a second. He turned to Uriel. “Damn, he's got a point. Don't you have, like, armies and stuff for this sort of thing?”

Uriel shrugged. “If I was allowed to make an argument, I would mention that the moment we march in with an army, your friends are as good as executed. But I can't. In spite of who actually possesses it, Donovan is the book's legal guardian, and it's his choice whether to do this the easy way or the hard way.”

“Only a fool chooses the easy way,” Donovan muttered.

“Again- a valid point,” Troy said. “Dammit, Donovan, why are you being rational now?”

Kathryn held her staff to the top of Troy's head. “Is this for him or for you?”

“I'm just saying... doesn't it seem like we're letting them win?”

“I don't care.” Kathryn kept the staff up there. “They took out Kurt, then they caught us off guard and attacked us.” She pulled it away and walked over to Donovan. “You two talk about marching in like we're just starting the fight now. It's already started, Troy! We've lost Kurt! They've lost Kamila! We keep doing this and God knows who else we lose. If it means they won, then fine- they win. As long as it's over with.”

As Kathryn fell into a chair across the table, Uriel bit his lip and looked away. Donovan narrowed his eyes and said, “What assurance do I have that-”

“Donovan, just sign the damn thing!”

Troy was busy watching Kathryn, her eyes fixed on the pen in Donovan's right hand. He looked at Donovan; surprisingly he was staring back, silently looking for a second opinion. Silently, Troy gave him a slow nod. Honestly, Troy wasn't sure he agreed with Kathryn, but he didn't have the impassioned plea to counter hers. He wasn't sure if he was really against the deal because of honest reservations or if he had somehow mistaken Donovan's rhetoric for a sincere argument with valid points.

Whether it was the plea, everybody staring him down, or the staff looming in Kathryn's hands, Donovan grumbled and signed the form.

“Thank you,” Uriel said, taking it back and returning it to his briefcase. “We'll get everything else sorted out in the next couple days.” He excused himself and walked out.

Nobody moved at first. Then Kathryn jumped up and grabbed the bag of sandwiches that Troy had abandoned. Troy kept thinking about it all. Yes, he had his doubts about the deal because of his own hesitations. Yes, he had bought into what Donovan was saying, whether legitimate or not. Yet there was a third reason he was concerned: somehow Uriel's 'easy way' seemed far easier than it should have been. That's what scared Troy the most.

 

Session Five

For the rest of the day, Troy did whatever he could to get his mind off the signing. Kathryn had done her best to reassure him that it was a good thing, and he couldn't find a position to argue. There were all sorts of rhetorical reasons to dislike the agreement, but getting their friends back was all that mattered. So he got out of the dorm and killed time any way he could.

With a lack of anything meaningful to do on campus, Troy resorted to a simple walk. With the campus empty and quiet, he could admire what little the academy had for aesthetics. Central had always been known for its bland architecture, and Renee had always complained about its uninteresting facades. Yet, alone like this, Troy found it kind of nice. There were no surprises on the walls, the paths went the right directions and every building looked professional. Considering even his high school had a slew of secret passages, it was comforting.

His moment of ease was shattered when he heard a high-pitched male voice crying behind him, “Hey! You!” Troy stopped and turned around, half-expecting to be admonished for mistakenly thinking he was the target. Instead, Giles was running up to him.

After pausing to catch his breath, Giles looked up and smiled at Troy. “I've figured it out!”

Troy blinked. “Figured what out?”

“Yes, I am allowed to accept tips!” Giles grinned, apparently happy to reveal such critical information. Troy blinked again.

Giles explained, “As long as I report it to my manager, of course. It's taxable income, I mean. Can't just take your money without telling anybody.”

Troy nodded along, wondering when he'd leave. Then Giles asked, “So do you have it?”

“Have what?”

“Your tip.” Giles stared at Troy with his bright hazel eyes. He was totally serious.

So much had happened in those few hours, Troy had completely dismissed the incident. It came as a bit of a shock to him to be told he owed someone money all of a sudden. “I don't have my wallet on me.”

Giles nodded along, completely understanding. “That's fine. You can drop it off at my dorm. Hall A, room 124, got it?” Before Troy could respond, Giles ran off. The young man stopped several yards away to turn around and wave back at Troy, before continuing his exit.

Again, Troy had almost dismissed the incident until Kathryn asked him if anything was going on. With nothing else on campus to speak of and so perplexed by the whole thing, Troy relayed his story. Kathryn stared back blankly, shaking her head.

“I know. Weird, isn't it?” Troy said, happy that Kathryn shared his sentiment.

She nodded back, then asked, “So when are you heading over there?”

“Uh...” Troy wasn't sure if he was going to head over there. Kathryn made it sound like a sure thing.

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You were going to pay him, right? This guy's delivering everything we eat. We'd better stay on his good side.”

“I was only going to give him a dollar or two.”

“Still. Don't take chances. I'm thinking Chinese tonight. That's risky enough.”

Angry, but again not wanting to make an episode out of it, Troy grabbed his wallet and headed for the door. Needing to make one more point, he asked, “What happens when he expects a tip tonight?”

“Tell him you're out of cash.”

“And if he bills me?” he muttered, walking out.

So Troy took the long walk to Hall A and unfortunately remembered that it was room 124. He knocked on the door and heard a woman's voice on the other end cry, “Goddamn it, can't I get one moment of peace?” Troy grumbled to himself; at some point he wondered if it was even possible for Giles to make Chinese takeout any less sanitary.

As the door opened, he readied himself for the bitter, angry bitch that was bound to be on the other side. Instead, it was a fairly pretty young woman with long red hair and a calm demeanor. She looked him up and down and asked, “You know you're the first guy here that actually tipped that poor kid.”

To Troy's surprise, that was the same voice that was bitching about the interruption. Only passive, friendly and not at all angered by the intrusion.

“So I've been told,” he muttered, holding up two dollars. “So where-”

“Ooh, money!” Suddenly, the passive, rational girl pounced on the greenbacks, snatching them away from Troy.

Troy rolled his eyes and said, “That's for Giles.” To his surprise, the girl said it too, only back to acting like an annoyed bitch.

She angrily returned it to Troy, “Christ, Mindy, it's not like you've never seen cash before.”

Taking the money back, Troy said, “So where is Giles? I'd rather give this to him myself.”

The girl looked down, sadly. Suddenly apologetic, she said, “I... I understand completely. Some of us aren't very reliable.”

She looked back up, suddenly level-headed. “Giles had to make a quick run. I can give it to him when he gets back.”

“I'd... I'd rather not,” Troy said.

“Suit yourself. Come on in.”

She stepped back, letting Troy into the dorm. As he expected, it looked identical to room 202. “Thanks, Mindy,” he mumbled.

“Oh, I'm Meg.”

He darted his eyes back at her. “So who's Mindy?”

“I'm Mindy!” replied the same girl. Her eyes had suddenly widened and were focused on the money again.

Before Troy could say anything, the girl angrily cried, “Don't even think about it. I see the way you're looking at that cash.”

Defensive (and utterly confused), Troy said, “But I'm not-”

“I ain't talking to you! I'm talking to Mindy!”

“So who are you?”

“Morgan. What's it to you?”

Behind whats-her-name, Giles entered the room and asked, “Maple, are we out of milk?”

The girl turned around, surprised at Giles. Suddenly shy again, she replied, “Oh, welcome back, Giles. I believe Meg finished it off this morning.”

Giles walked right past her when he spotted Troy. “Oh, hey! I see you've met my roommates.”

“Roommates?” Troy looked around. He had only met one person. Four personalities, but one person.

“I didn't catch your name though,” said the girl neutrally.

“Um... Troy.” He continued to look around for the other roommates. With any luck, the room would be balanced and they'd have no personality whatsoever. He'd get along better with them.

“Nice to meet you, Troy. Can I get you something to drink?”

Immediately, she angrily muttered, “Just not milk.”

“Go to hell,” she told herself.

“Actually, I better get going,” Troy mumbled quickly, standing up. He shoved the two dollars into Giles's palm and scurried out of the room.

With a mad chuckle, Mindy said, “What a weirdo.”

 

Session Six

The conditions of demonic worlds tend to get a bad rap. The term itself is a little misleading, suggesting that realms are either created by or are responsible for the assorted factions. In fact, the MST severely regulates and controls the creation of all alternate worlds. Demons have only developed one world on their own, and that was ages ago when a supremely powerful race known as the Mynoni made one under everybody's noses. The MST attacked it hard, conquered the world and all but vanquished the Mynoni. So that one doesn't count.

In fact, most of the worlds out there were designed to be magic battlefields to pull conflicts away from Earth. The rest are senior projects that were so well-developed that they were implemented in real life, often with an offer for the student to write a series of corresponding fantasy novels. When we say 'demonic world,' we refer to those places that one of the factions effectively won. Many are healthy, comfortable environments with all sorts of noble imaginary creatures running around. They are not all complete hellholes.

That being said, the Urayoni world imprisoning Molly, Renee and Yuki wasn't one of their nicer ones. Whoever designed it went with an underground dungeon motif. Nothing resembling a daytime and a not-quite-comprehensible geothermal luminance that kept the rocky caverns lit without an apparent light source. At the center of it all was an ancient stronghold- towering walls, a courtyard and mazes of hallways going every direction. Truth be told it was a trite and boring place, and wholly unbefitting the Urayoni, who ran their primary operations out of another realm's futuristic dystopia. They didn't use this world much, making it a fitting hiding place for stashing away their stolen prizes.

At least Molly's cell was furnished nicely. Her corner of the medieval prison included a sensible twin-sized bed, a private bathroom and a bookshelf with a fair selection of Urayoni favorites. There was also a negator somewhere inhibiting her magic, but she hadn't been able to find it. She couldn't say her conditions weren't humane, but she knew she couldn't speak for her sister or Yuki. Molly couldn't see where either of them were held, and spoiling her while torturing them sounded like something these demons would do.

She spent most of the hours reading from the library afforded to her. Most of the books were studies in sociology, which she was dismayed to find interesting. Molly took an interest in knowing how a population operated and could be potentially manipulated. It was a secret to her success in student council. Claude's too, apparently.

The titles on the bookshelf were an uncomfortable reminder of her similar interests to the Urayoni. The faction thought on the same wavelength as she did, something she had never fully realized until after their attempts to court her. When they had, they included strong arguments about reshaping the world and the ease of controlling it. She had turned them down because she knew better, but their pitches resonated anyway. Was it just coincidence that the one faction that had tried to lure her over was the one that would have been the best fit?

“I must say your higher ups are more unpredictable than we expected.” She turned when she heard Claude enter the hallway outside. He carried a green folder and waited for Molly to walk to the cell's door before smiling. “Made things much easier, for better or for worse.”

“What do you mean?” Molly asked, sneering.

“All in good time.” Claude shuffled his leg a little and a nearby chair moved itself behind him. He sat down. “Is there anything else we can do to make you more comfortable.”

“Where are Renee and Yuki?”

“They're fine,” Claude replied quickly. “Sorry we can't keep you together, but each of your circumstances is different.”

Molly narrowed her eyes. “How so?” As far as she was concerned, all three of them had been kidnapped and imprisoned. Not much distinction.

Claude apparently saw things differently. “I'm referring to your relative value in bargaining and your value to us. It's why we tried to get all six of you.” Clearly, she didn't like hearing it in those terms and met him with a simple blank glare. “Take Yuki for example. We don't have any use for her, but the MST will pay dearly to get her back. She's an important bargaining chip and nothing more. It would have been the opposite had we gotten Donovan. Can't imagine they'd care about him much, but we certainly have an interest in his assets.”

“You are obviously speaking about his grimoire,” Molly said with a sigh.

“Of course. I don't know if it alone would be worth all this trouble, but it's certainly the highest prize on the list.”

Resisting the urge to chuckle, Molly said, “I had that thing in my office for a whole semester. Why didn't you just take it then?”

“I tried,” Claude replied calmly. “You hid it too well. No matter: we're already assured of it.”

Molly scoffed. “I suppose it's possible they'd give it to you in exchange for us. But they'd need to pry it from Donovan. I assure you he'd never hand it over.”

As Molly pondered whether that was good or bad, Claude smiled and produced a form from the folder. Handing it to Molly, he said, “You need to have more faith in your recruits. It's a done deal.”

Snatching the contract, Molly looked it over in disbelief. Indeed, it very clearly called for the Urayoni to receive the book and Donovan Dunmar very unclearly signed it. It crossed Molly's mind that maybe Marlowe had magically altered a forged signature again, but that seemed unlikely given how treasonous a crime that would have been in this case. That and Donovan's signature was far harder to duplicate than hers.

Improbable as Donovan's selfless act seemed, much of Molly's shock came from the fact that the ordeal was over so quickly. She had braced herself to be imprisoned for weeks, perhaps months. With this agreement, it could amount to merely one wasted weekend. Molly handed the form back to Claude, wondering what the catch was. “So that's it? You get the book and we're free to go?”

“Indeed. An MST envoy is arriving in a couple days to ensure the book's transfer and collect you and Yuki.”

Claude returned the form to the folder and looked back up at Molly. He saw the stare. It wasn't her infamous glare, but rather the emptiest of blank faces that startled him just as much.

“And... Renee?” He couldn't tell if she was leading him on to verify that she'd be included or asking why she wasn't. Knowing Molly, the ambiguity was intentional.

He turned away, immediately uneasy. “Well, Renee is necessary to facilitate the book's transfer, of course.”

“Why?” Her tone didn't change. If anything, it got louder.

“Well, how else...” Claude turned back. One look at Molly and his eyes widened. Not because he feared her eyes. Because he was shocked at what they revealed. “They didn't tell you, did they?”

Those eyes softened. 'They didn't tell you?' was possibly the second-worst thing someone could say to you. The worst often followed it. “Tell me what?”

Claude looked down, suddenly solemn and humbled. “Madam, the reason we can't get the grimoire without Renee is because currently the grimoire is Renee.”

Molly took a step back, almost falling over at the news. It seemed impossible. How could Grimoire 17 possibly have ended up with her sister?

Shrugging, Claude pulled another sheet of paper from the folder. “Caught me off guard too, but the negotiators told me that the grimoire had been embedded into your sister two months ago.”

Molly slowly sat on the bed to process all this. She had been so eager to get rid of the book that she absent-mindedly trusted Mr. Marlowe to put the thing in storage for her. At almost the exact same time, Smittle had mentioned using a magical item to absorb Renee's curse. She wanted both problems solved so much that she accepted the MST's solutions with little thought.

Hesitant, Claude forced himself to continue. “Long story short, in exchange for you and Yuki's safe return, the MST is granting the Urayoni the right to retrieve it.”

She shook her head slowly, forcing herself to recognize the possible consequences. The MST was tentative about the original operation; no way could Renee be considered safe doing the reverse, especially in the hands of demonic surgeons. Even if she survived that, wouldn't she have the vrockrompir curse right back? If not, what would the Urayoni do to her after she was no longer of any use to them? All these questions popped into her head and Molly knew just one thing: the Magical Security Taskforce must have considered it all and signed Renee over anyway.

Facing the floor and in a soft voice, Claude said, “Funny... all these years, I had always imagined that the reason you hated Frank Monroe wasn't because he pulled you into this, but because he ruined the offer for you to join the Urayoni.” He shrugged as Molly turned his way. “Silly notion, I guess.”

He magically returned his chair to its original position. Before walking away, Claude turned to Molly again and said, “Although I should mention that the offer is still open.” He nodded deferentially and walked away, leaving Molly with far too much to think about and plenty of free time to do so.


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