Magical Security Taskforce




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Chapter 59: Enemy of the Enemy

Session One

Reggie's party lasted long into the night. Given the time difference between Earth and Enriel, it would be four in the morning before hitting what anybody would call their bedtime. Reggie and his girls did their best to wear everybody out so they could have something resembling sleep that night. They were all expected to be awake at 8:00.

There was no booze in Reggie's room, but Molly still woke up with an awful hangover. She had never gotten the full Reggie's room experience before and it was more intense than she could have imagined. She didn't quite remember the details (no one ever really does), but she knew she had gone well out of her comfort zone. In spite of that, she didn't hate it.

By the time Molly went downstairs, Reggie was already there, totally alert, healthy and nursing a mug of coffee. Molly wasn't sure if coffee was native to Enriel, but let it go.

Reggie grinned as she sat down. “Coffee in the kitchen if you want some.” Molly stood reflexively as she realized that she desperately did. In the kitchen, there was indeed a pot of coffee sitting under what looked like a chemistry experiment involving a flat coffee filter suspended over a funnel draining into the pot. She didn't ask questions and poured herself a cup.

Back in the living room, Reggie was still smirking. “Have fun last night?”

Molly rolled her eyes in disgust, which grew when she realized she didn't know the answer. She sipped her coffee quietly and pretended to ignore him.

Meg came downstairs next. She descended carefully, using the railing and taking a long breath after she sat down next to Molly. Unfortunately, the first thing she said to her was, “So... you actually went to Reggie's room last night?”

Glaring back, Molly grumbled, “I didn't realize this was newsworthy.”

Meg shrugged. “Dunno. You don't seem like the Reggie's room type. Giles seemed proud that he got you in there.”

Molly's eyes widened. Almost as a reflex, she asked, “W... what else did he tell you?”

“Nothing.” Meg looked confused.

Mindy, on the other hand, leaned forward with a huge smile and interjected, “Ooh, why?!” Molly looked away. Mindy hunted for a blush.

“Coffee?” Reggie asked, interrupting any potential discussion of what had happened in his room.

Turning back to him, suddenly calm, Meg replied, “No thanks. I just took another Lucidrol and I'm just barely keeping it down.”

Eager to change the subject, Molly asked, “Feeling any better?”

“I'm not unconscious on the floor, so it's technically an improvement.”

With no good follow-up, Molly and Reggie sipped their coffee in silence. Frank walked through the front door a few minutes later, saw the three of them and said, “Good. Let's get started. Follow me.”

Molly stood up promptly. Reggie took his time and even made a detour towards the kitchen. “Hey Mol', want a refill?”

She was stunned by the sudden nickname, but she gave her mug to Reggie anyway. “How did he make coffee?” asked Frank. Molly didn't answer.

With full mugs, they followed Frank out to the business end of the compound. He opened the door marked 'Command Center' and said, “This is where we monitor the world and its magic output. It's a good way to keep tabs on any conflicts going on.”

Molly was stunned at the room. It had no pretense of being in a rustic cabin in a world simulating a bygone age. The only indication that they were even in another world was the live satellite image of the entirety of Enriel dominating the wall-to-wall display on the far end. Four workstations each had a touchscreen monitor allowing deeper views, a second display for random data and a printer. Curiously, nobody was inside.

Dumbfounded, Molly asked, “What happened to medieval fantasy world? What's powering all this?”

“Magic,” said Frank, Reggie and Meg. None of them seemed fazed by any of it.

Frank motioned for each of the three to have a seat and walked up to the monitor. “Since it's clear that at least one of you are new to the concept of realms, I will start by saying that calling this a world is a bit misleading. Like most realms created by MST terraformers, Enriel is a single landmass surrounded by oceans.

“How big?” asked Meg.

“It's about the size of Montana.” They looked at the map again. Not that Montana was small, but Enriel looked like a vast continent with several distinct regions from the snow-capped mountains in the northeast to the desert in the southwest. Between the two were plains, forests and grasslands, some spots in better condition than others. With that kind of variety, it could have been the size of North America.

“Where are we on there?” Molly asked. Frank typed something into a nearby console and an indicator light flashed on the monitor. They were towards the center of the continent, but closer to the desert than anything else. This made no sense given the hills and lush forest they had walked through.

Despite the dubious geography, nobody raised any questions and Frank continued, staring at the map. “Enriel is home to four different races, three of which have each historically ruled over a kingdom.”

He typed some more and an overlay of what appeared to be political boundaries appeared on the map. The smallest of the three kingdoms, covering the northeast, was shaded blue. “Dwarves occupy Tulas in the north. We probably won't be dealing with them much.” Frank hit another key and the second kingdom, covering the western and central region, filled green. “Endrell had once been the territory for elves, but has fallen under Hageshoni control. It's been developed and industrialized and will be our primary focus.”

The final territory covered the entire southern half of the continent. Now it was yellow. “Ursu is mostly desert and badlands, although the area we are in is one of a few livable regions. The assorted Puurxan tribes are technically in control, although the orcs migrate here from the north every winter. While they aren't officially demons, the orcs act as sort of the muscle for the Hageshoni. They've found that they have a lot in common.”

“So who do the Puurxan side with?” Meg asked.

Frank finally turned around. “That's going to be the big question. They and the dwarves tend to stay out of local politics. The dwarves do forge materials and weapons for the Hageshoni, but that is a strictly financial arrangement. They won't take arms. The Hokoni have already begun spreading their message around and creating anger within the elves. With the Hageshoni controlling Endrell, the effort will likely succeed.”

“So we're going to need somebody for our team,” Molly said.

“Sort of,” Frank said. “The first objective is for the Hokoni to thin out the Hageshoni ranks. Once the Hageshoni take care of them, we march in. We already have a good relationship with the Puurxan, and having them fighting alongside us improves our chances, but it isn't essential.”

Molly and Meg looked at each other, confused. Molly raised a hand. “So... what are we supposed to be doing?”

“This afternoon, the Hokoni are sending a delegation to Lania's tribe in an effort to sway them over. Since they are unfamiliar with the Hokoni, the tribe has asked me to advise them. That's our first mission.”

Reggie smiled. “Ah, I get you. Prevent any funny business and get them off our turf?”

Frank shook his head. “Not at all. We want the Puurxan to go to war for the Hokoni... then be ready to double-cross them the moment we tell them to.”


Session Two

It wasn't a long trip to the Puurxan village, but only because Enriel had at least advanced far enough to domesticate the horse... or at least the local equivalents, which looked and smelled different but had a similar physical structure and filled the same purpose. Nobody asked what it was actually called for fear it was the source of the unidentifiable pink meat.

Still, two of them were able to haul a wagon long enough for the whole group, including Lania. She had already explained that additional domestic assistance had arrived to feed everybody, and they were nice enough to watch over Toma. Conversation had turned to the details of the mission.

“So let me get this straight... we want to work with the Hokoni?” Troy asked.

Frank nodded. “We want them to do as much damage to the Hageshoni as they can before we expend our resources. We're not so much working with the Hokoni as we are encouraging the Puurxan to.”

“So why are we armed to the teeth?” Kathryn asked. Smiters lined the sides of the wagon, which also had berths and portholes, apparently for sniping. Other than Frank and Lania, they were also dressed in the same dark brown shirt and matching pants. While their linen composition matched the period better, it felt more like a uniform to Kathryn.

“They're still demons... they may not appreciate our help.”

Kathryn sat back. It was a bumpy, unpleasant ride and she couldn't see outside from her vantage point. Renee's face was plastered against the nearest porthole; she seemed to be ignoring the conversation inside. Kathryn couldn't pinpoint what exactly it was, but she didn't like this. The whole thing seemed dubious.

She heard Molly's voice say, “You're probably right to be suspicious.” Kathryn darted her head towards Molly. She was staring back, pinching her earlobe. “I don't like where this is going, but play along for now.”

Kathryn wanted to say something back, but the exact phrasing wasn't coming to her. Not that had any clue how to reply to telepathy.


The Puurxan village was a forty-minute ride away. They had left the woods and were in a stretch of flat plains. It was a windy day that blew warm desert air into the faces of everyone that poked their heads out of the wagon as it pulled into town.

Large sandstone walls surrounded the town, providing some break from the wind as the wagon passed through. They weren't tall enough to pose a challenge to any mage, but not even a Puurxan could jump over them. It wasn't a huge town, but it was a serviceable population center judging from the size of the marketplace they were passing through.

The bazaar was lined with shops for grocers and artisans, all eagerly selling to the Puurxan pedestrians. At least they had been. Everybody seemed to stop to stare at the passing wagon. Occasionally, one of the shopkeepers with more touristy trinkets would make a sales pitch, but most remained silent. They just watched, leery of the foreigners.

The troop could only draw so much from the village, but the place seemed to make enough sense. There were sturdy, decorated houses in one area and rows of ramshackle teepees gathered in another. They didn't stop to speculate on the town's income disparity, however, as they approached the village hall. It was only one story tall, but it was an impressive story that lent some height to an otherwise stark, rectangular exterior at the center of town.

A Puurxan male, evidently older judging by his slower stride than all the spry youngsters previously encountered, greeted them. His multi-layered green robes gave him away as a tribe elder instantly.

Frank jumped out of the wagon and nodded at him. “Sorry we're late. Had to reschedule some things from last night.”

“Thank you for coming,” said the elder. “They should be arriving shortly and we want to know much about them.”

Everybody disembarked, with a valet (or some stable boy) taking the reins and getting the wagon away from the town square. Lania joined Frank quickly and bowed to the elder, carefully touching her forehead to his shoulder.

The elder smiled. “Ah, Lania, I hope you've been well.” The pleasantries abruptly ended there as he said, “Please, come inside.”

Unlike the boring sandy walls outside, the interior was furnished well, mostly with ceremonial dressings and banners. The main room had a nice hardwood floor and looked appropriate for a conference between assorted tribes. Or factions, in this case.

The elder, Frank and Lania conferred privately for a long time, leaving the troop outside to wait. Everybody stood around, except for Donovan, who kept trying to pull stuff off the walls, and Molly, who kept yelling at him to stop.

After three minutes, Renee got impatient and asked, “So what do you think they're talking about in there?”

“Eh, who knows? Don't sweat it,” Reggie replied.

“He's probably making the argument that the Hokoni must be watched carefully, but they're their best hope for stopping the oppressive Hageshoni regime,” Giles said, smiling in pride at his expert analysis.

“Wait...” Kathryn looked around. “What oppressive Hageshoni regime? Seems peaceful enough around here.”

“I didn't say that argument would hold water.”

A chamber door opened, but only Lania emerged. The group (except Donovan) surrounded her as she said, “They should be arriving soon. Frank has asked Reggie's unit to stand outside, greet the arriving party and escort them inside.”

Reggie nodded. “Give 'em the old Reggie welcome, got it.”

Meg raised an eyebrow. “I'm not sure what you meant by that, but I am sure it's not what they want. Just stand outside and try not to look stupid.”

With a grin and a dual finger point, Reggie and his girls strolled outside.

“Don't blow the town up, either!” shouted Kathryn.

A few more minutes passed. Lania returned to the chamber at some point, but she was so quiet about it that nobody knew when. She later emerged with both Frank and the elder.

Frank looked at his team idling about aimlessly. He frowned. “Come on, let's look a little more professional. Meg, Giles, you're on door duty. Molly, put your group on each side of Arnek.”

There was no indication or introduction suggesting that the elder's name was Arnek, but he sat at the end of the hallway on a tall, elaborate chair that everybody was afraid to sit in for fear it was decoration. Molly and Troy stood on opposite sides. Kathryn and Renee joined Molly.

“Also, when the Hokoni arrive, don't let on that we're from the MST,” Frank said. “If they find out, they might get suspicious.”

Donovan was still ambling around, unaffected by the sudden activity until Frank shouted, “Donovan! Go outside and tell that to Reggie's team!”

Dropping the ancient, possibly petrified, blowgun hanging on the wall, Donovan glared back at Frank. Giles leaned in and whispered, “Tell Reggie not to spill that we're with the MST.” Donovan continued to glare at Frank, but walked outside anyway.

Outside, the demon delegation was already there. With his girls in formation behind him, Reggie stood nobly as four Hokoni exited their carriage, each wearing formal robes with purple lining and white gloves. As their driver pulled away. Reggie bowed to each of them.

One of them didn't notice. He was staring at Donovan as he approached the group. Donovan was staring right back. No matter how little he had been controlling his actions at the time, he still recognized Grandon Crostell. Judging by the scowl on Grandon's face, Donovan was no stranger either.

Grandon leaned in to Reggie. Sneering, he said, “Bit far from Indiana to be working random security detail, isn't it young man?”

Without missing a beat, Reggie responded, “Boring state to kill a summer in, sir.”

Donovan slowed his pace and kept staring at Grandon, but reached Reggie. With Grandon staring back, he turned to Reggie and said, “We are not to unmask our identities to the demons just yet. The time is not right.”

Grandon grunted in disgust. “I'm standing right here, you know.”


Session Three

With Frank's hope of not giving away their affiliation dashed within two minutes of the demons' arrival, the conference got off to an awkward start. Inside the hall, surrounded by MST agents, the Hokoni stood in the center of the room, keeping their distance from the elder and Frank (or more accurately, their line of guards). Grandon's three associates surrounded him and cast shielding spells.

It wasn't a good way to make the elder comfortable. “Now now, we are peaceful. And my advisor here has spoken of your virtues. There is no need for hostility in this hall,” Arnek said.

Grandon narrowed an eyebrow at Frank, who nodded. “Indeed. I've already told them of your valiant crusade to rid the world of those Hageshoni demons.”

“Yes... of course,” Grandon said. He still stared at Frank, unconvinced. But he went along with it for the time being. “This is a time for different tribes to work together, after all.”

Arnek continued, “That is what I need to be convinced of. Noble as your intentions seem, we have little concern for the happenings outside our boundaries. Endrell may see it fit to fend off their oppressors, but we are not as inclined to do so. The Hageshoni have little interest in the Puurxan.”

“For now. We know them well, and they are never content with one kingdom. I assure you that they are plotting your conquest as we speak.”

“My intelligence is telling me the same thing,” Frank said, drawing surprised looks from not only Lania, but Grandon as well. Molly looked disgusted, but nobody was watching her. “Your forces are no match for theirs. Your only hope may be joining this coalition and striking them first. Even if their revolution isn't successful, it will at least prevent the Hageshoni from invading here any time soon.”

Grandon's words seemed to have little effect on Arnek, but Frank's confirmation supplied the necessary fear. The elder turned back to Grandon; his staunch, regal appearance made him an easy man to trust in diplomatic matters. Arnek knew what was being asked of him, but the stakes seemed to dire to do anything but.

He looked down and took a deep breath. “How many of my soldiers do you need?”

Everything after that was mere paperwork.


The formalities took another hour, and as they dragged on, Frank allowed units to go outside for some fresh air... at least as fresh as the town allowed. Not only was the unusual scent of a foreign world permeating the air, the dander was pretty awful. A few minutes in, Troy made the exciting discovery that he had pet allergies and retreated back inside.

“So... was this good then?” Kathryn asked.

Molly hesitated before answering, “In the sense that this puts the Hokoni in a better position to challenge the Hageshoni, it gives us a better chance of succeeding at our mission.”

Kathryn wasn't fooled. “I'll take that as a no.”

Dour, Molly replied, “This is shaping up to be ground troops smashing into ground troops. It's going to be long and messy. These cat people don't know what they just got roped into.”

Renee nodded, but said, “Yeah, but didn't Frank and the Hokoni guy say the demons were planning to attack here?”

“They were lying,” Molly said. “The Hokoni official was surprised when Frank backed his story up. Neither of them were being honest. The Hageshoni have had control of Endrell for a hundred years and never bothered to invade here. Why would they start now?”

Kathryn and Renee looked around the village. Strange as the Puurxan appeared, they walking around, buying, selling, talking and working like any other civilized beings. None of them had any idea what had gone on inside. Kathryn and Renee knew what had happened, and what it meant for them, and how they watched it merely as spectators. They felt a little bit sick inside.

A few minutes later, Frank emerged with his wife, Troy and the other two units. As if on cue, the wagon pulled up for them.

“Good to go!” Troy said, a hand covering both his smile and his reddened nose.

“Yeah, let's get out of here. I've never been a big cat person,” Morgan added.

They all climbed into the wagon and it pulled out, back through the marketplace and out of town.

“So, now that we have given the demons an army, when do we strike?” Donovan asked. It wasn't how anyone would have phrased it, but several wanted to know the same thing.

“Much, much later,” Frank said. “If the Hageshoni pick up on what the Hokoni are doing, things could get pretty massive. Plenty of attrition on both ends. That isn't our battle. We're going to be far more surgical in our approach.”

“So... we're basically letting the natives go in first and take all the casualties?” Giles asked. Again, not the best phrasing, but he wasn't the only one thinking it.

Frank never had the chance to answer. Something rammed against the side of the wagon with a deafening boom. It didn't break through, but almost tipped it over. Everybody sitting on that side ended up on the other side's laps.

“What the hell?” Molly asked, separating herself from Donovan as quickly as she could.

Meg pulled her head out of Kathryn's chest and looked through the porthole. “Jeez, you'd think they'd appreciate us helping them out.”

Frank stood up, stepped over Yuki and Carmen and peered outside. The Hokoni carriage was parked fifteen feet away. Grandon and his three associates were standing on the roof.

Loudly, Grandon proclaimed, “I don't know what the Force is planning on doing here, but I assure you that we will not play along.”


Session Four

The three Hokoni waited for a response. Frank was determined to give them a good one. “Everybody wait here, but grab whatever weapons and armor you can handle. Something tells me they're done playing diplomat. If they attack again, fire back.”

“Is that all we have for a plan?” Meg asked.

“Plan B is hit them with all we've got until they go away.”

Renee grabbed one of the smiters, scanned it, and immediately handed it off to Reggie. “So what's Plan A?” she asked.

“Plan A is I convince them not to attack again.” Frank kicked open a side door and floated outside. “Molly, come with me and give me a shield.”

Molly followed him up, casting a shield once she landed on the roof of the wagon. They were in the middle of an open plain, with no surrounding cover. The carriage the demons stood on was smaller than the wagon and higher off the ground, but was reinforced better, with a metallic sheen that told Molly it likely resisted magic.

Grandon stood firm, hands clutched on the sheath and handle of the sword clinging to his belt. He wore it at the council as well, but as it seemed to be merely decorative, nobody noticed. Now it was all Molly could stare at.

“What is this all about?” Frank shouted at him. “We are just as eager to overthrow the Hageshoni as you are. Why shouldn't we be allies in this?”

“You just assisted us in luring hundreds of those...” Now that he was away from the village, Grandon no longer hid his disgust. “ monsters to their deaths for our cause.” He added a keen smile. “Forgive me if I suspect an ulterior motive.”

Frank didn't flinch. Molly did at the confirmation that they had, in fact, doomed the Puurxan villagers, but Frank held firm. “What are we supposed to do? Let you conquer and control this world without interfering?”

Grandon nodded. “It would be appreciated. Don't think your assistance ingratiates you to us in any way. This is a personal matter between the Hokoni and Hageshoni and we have no interest in having the MST meddling in our affairs.”

“You can't beat them without our help.”

“We would never accept help from the Force. Especially if you insist on underestimating us.” Grandon held his left hand to his chest. The sword flew out of its sheath and into his right hand. He held it up. “For that crime, it would be best if you were eliminated from the equation.”

Both Frank and Grandon's cohorts were ready to throw down right there, but a guttural laugh interrupted the both of them. Suddenly, Donovan floated between them, hovering in midair. With his hands in his trigger position and a grin on his face, he would have appeared intimidating to anyone who didn't know better. Everybody on the scene knew better, but listened anyway.

“It was very perceptive of you to suspect a hidden motive in supporting your slaughter of those beasts. It is true, but forgive them for not revealing their true goal.”

Grandon chuckled, amused by the interruption. “Ah, yes... I remember you. I was wondering if you'd be gracing the stage. So what is their true goal?”

Downright maniacal, Donovan said, “Mine. You and I seek revenge for the same crime. Don't you see that I have manipulated them into doing my bidding?”

Dumbfounded, Frank pinched his earlobe. Through telepathy, he asked, “Is he being serious?”

Molly shook her head. “He thinks he is.” She replied aloud so as not to break her shield. He had always drilled her never to break her shield, and she knew he'd give her hell if she did.

“Should I have Kathryn smack him?” she added.

Frank flared his eyebrows. “Actually... let's see where this goes. It can't make things worse. If it doesn't work... then she can smack him.”

Grandon was busy pondering Donovan's statement. Suffice to say he was skeptical. “Are you trying to tell me that you were able to discover our plans and, despite being a lowly student with a documented connection to our faction, were able to convince the MST brass that you should be sent here in order to aid us in our crusade... all simply to avenge the death of one of our operatives?”

Donovan stared back at him, then smiled. “Impressive, is it not? I see you regret not enlisting my help when you had the chance.”

Grandon turned to Frank in search of some confirmation. Once Frank picked up on this, he hesitated for just a moment before throwing his hands up and turning to Donovan. “Well, I'm shocked. You really pulled the wool over our eyes, didn't you?”

“Well then...” Grandon shook his head in amusement. “That does change things. If you tricked the Force into supporting this mission when your intentions match ours, perhaps we can work out a truce after all. And yes... perhaps I did underestimate you.”

Donovan's grin grew. He put his hands on his hips, which would have been a boastful gesture if it didn't cancel his flight spell and send him plummeting to the ground.

Ignoring the mishap professionally, Grandon added a chuckle and said, “Indeed, the way I see it, there's but one complication to us working together...” He waited for Donovan to return to midair, then swiftly put his hand on his chest and fired a bolt of dark matter, sending Donovan crashing hard into the side of the wagon.

As Donovan fell face-down to the earth, Grandon stared at him. “You see, the only issue is that I didn't ascend to my position by being gullible.”


Session Five

The response from the wagon was swift. Even before Frank gave any orders, streams of both fire and water flew out of the portholes at Grandon. A shield intercepted them; undoubtedly one of his comrades had been maintaining one the whole time.

Inside, Candace turned to Meg. “You know, maybe we should coordinate this instead of doing fire and water at the same time. I don't think that works.”

Meg continued to peer out the window while Carmen unsuccessfully tried to knock the carriage over with a wind gust. “It's the shield that's the problem. We need to disrupt them long enough to get some shots in and scare them off.”

“And get Donovan a healing potion,” Giles added.

“That too, I guess.” A blast from the demons hit the wagon again, startling everybody. Giles replaced Carmen and added some protective spells.

“If you guys can do that, I can get over there and hit them with some...” Reggie paused, solely for emphasis. “...surprises.”

Meg nodded. “I have an idea.”

Upstairs, the blast knocked Frank and Molly off their feet, but Molly managed to keep her shield up. They stayed low while Meg ran her idea by Frank.

“Sounds like a plan. Make sure they take the smiters but do not use them on him. We still need him.”

Once he concluded, Frank held his left hand down and started charging up a fireball. As it grew warmer, Molly leaned back to get out of the heat. After inflating it, he launched it at the carriage.

It wasn't a direct shot, instead looping in a slow arc. Molly didn't see the point of charging it up, as it seemed easy enough to block. She was surprised when Frank threw a hand on her back and forced her down. Her shield fell for a second, but she put it back up before anyone could notice.

Not that anyone would have as the earth shook violently. Both the wagon and carriage rattled around; Molly quickly understood why Frank was bracing her as she would have fallen off. One of the three demons did fall to the ground and another was swept off his feet. Grandon fell to his knees. He looked up in time to see Frank's fireball finally arrive and connect with his now unprotected torso. It didn't knock him anywhere, but seeing as he was now on fire, he leaped off the carriage to smother the flames on the ground.

Then the cavalry charged in. Reggie, Troy and Kathryn rushed out of the wagon, the first two with smiters. Renee and Cammy followed them for support and Yuki rushed to Donovan's aid. The first demon they met threw a shield up to block Troy's ice attacks, backpedaling as he dodged a few token swipes with the smiter.

“Troy, remember what your dad said,” Renee shouted, keeping him shielded as he chased the demon behind the carriage. Unfortunately, he reacted too well and stopped swiping. The Hokoni flew forward suddenly and laid out Troy with a punch to the face. Renee dropped her shield, hit him with a small energy ball and flew away.

Reggie had something else in mind. While Kathryn kept watch for that second demon, Reggie tossed several discs under the carriage.

“So what exactly are those? And keep in mind we're not supposed to be killing them,” Kathryn asked.

“Like I said...” Reggie chuckled. “...surprises.”

Kathryn shook her head, still not sure about what he was doing. It distracted her just long enough for the second demon to get too close. She put up her staff just as his attack arrived. More followed, however, all while the Hokoni stepped closer and closer, making it harder for her to block his shots.

Reggie jumped in and blocked a shot with his sword... which was blasted out of his hands since smiters aren't built for that sort of thing. The demon was able to fire enough shots to occupy both Reggie and Kathryn, but was no longer advancing on them. He never saw Frank flying in from above, clutching Molly. Frank kicked the demon in the head. Kathryn added a blow with her staff to make sure he stayed down.

Frank continued along, landing at the top of the carriage. He set Molly down to look for Grandon on the other side. Grandon's clothes were scorched, but he was standing. He was also guiding his sword directly at Frank. Frank had time to keep it away from his vital regions, but a last-second redirection from Grandon led it straight into Frank's left hand. He tumbled off the carriage, and onto the ground at Grandon's feet.

The sword was left dangling from the top of the carriage, and Grandon saw fit to fly up there to grab it before disposing of Frank. Up top, Molly started into a spell to engage him, but he was quicker to his trigger and sent her flying backwards, off the other side of the carriage. Now alone on top, Grandon sheathed the sword and looked over Frank, who clutched his hand. The wound cut off his access to magic.

“Sneak attacks and quick rushes only get you so far,” Grandon announced. “In the end, proper might will always rein.” He found one of his guards, the one that had punched out Troy, nearby. “Please dispose of our commander here.”

The demon nodded and approached Frank, charging up a spell. Given the time and energy he was putting into it, he meant business. All Frank could do was clutch his hand and run. He didn't, though. Instead, he stared back, wagering that some underling wouldn't have enough firepower for a fatal shot.

He never found out. An airborne smiter caught the demon in the arm and he went down reeling. Before he dissipated, he turned around to get one look at his killer. Troy held his swollen cheek with one arm and dropped the other. Using an air spell to maneuver a thrown smiter was far harder than the telekinesis Grandon used.

Troy ran up to his dad. Frank's hand was punctured severely, blood trickling down his wrist. Before Troy could do anything, Grandon called down, “You will regret that, boy!” His sword pointed straight at Troy. “My sword may not have any twisted magic behind it, but I'd wager that it could still-”

He stopped as the carriage jostled for a moment, then flew straight up into the air. Grandon clutched the top of the carriage, helpless as it gained elevation, then flew forward into the thick woods and out of sight.

On the other side of where it had stood, Reggie winked at Kathryn and cooed, “Surprise.”

As Troy helped him up, Frank said, “Troy, I gave the order not to use that.”

Troy nodded, expecting this. “Sorry, I just...”

Shaking his head, Frank added, “You did a good job reading the situation and adjusting on the fly. I like to see that. That and most students get gun shy about using smiters for real. No hesitations. Good work.”

Troy tried to hide his smile as they reached Kathryn, cradling a woozy Molly. Frank sent Renee to fetch Maple.

“How's she doing?” Frank asked Kathryn.

“I've seen her in worse shape,” Kathryn replied. “That whole thing sucked.”

Frank nodded. Molly mumbled, “How's Donovan?”

Kathryn took a quick glance. “Looks like Yuki got him back online.”

“Good.” Molly looked up at Kathryn. “Go smack him.”





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