Magical Security Taskforce




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Chapter 60: The Road to Endrell

Session One

Problematic as it was that the troop had royally pissed off the Hokoni, Frank accentuated the positives of the trip. The Puurxan were still on board with fighting the Hageshoni, the team got through their first battle with a decisive victory and even netted themselves a prisoner out of it. The demon henchman Troy hadn't killed was left behind and, since the Hokoni weren't playing nice, would make a nice interrogation subject and bargaining chip down the road. Overall, Frank deemed it a success.

Once they arrived back at the compound, Reggie was ready to celebrate. “Okay, you guys know the drill. Party at my place!”

Frank chuckled, but said, “I appreciate the sentiment, Reggie, but I think I'll field this one. I agree that you've earned a break, though.” He turned to Lania, “Tell the staff to send their meals to the temple.”

Lania's eyes grew wide, but she nodded. “Yes, sir. You must indeed be proud of them.”

“Temple?” Meg asked. “Is that a euphemism for something?”

Frank only grinned. “You'll see. We've got a lot of work ahead of us and with a day like this, there's only one way to kick back.”

Reggie nodded. “Okay, party as his place... after party at my place!”

With cheers of agreement, they dispersed to freshen up and change. Between the dirt from the village and the sweat of the battle, nobody was in a condition to enjoy each other's company.

Actually, Molly wouldn't have enjoyed it anyway, but she felt inclined to appear. After directing traffic in her unit's room to make sure everybody could change in private, she went back downstairs and realized she had no idea where this 'temple' was.

Thankfully, Lania was in the kitchen, washing a few plates. She was the only one in the kitchen, which surprised Molly as there was supposed to be some big meal in store.

“So... where is this temple?” Molly asked.

Lania looked straight ahead, then sighed and dried her hands with a towel. With a great deal of trepidation, she replied, “I suppose I can lead you towards it. I wish he had directed you to it first.”

“He probably did. I wasn't really listening.”

The Puurxan led Molly through the compound, past several closed doors. Along the way, Lania explained, “Frank does not permit anyone from this world into his temple. He says it's a place for deep spiritual reflection. To be invited so quickly is truly an honor.”

Molly tried to count the number of things she found wrong with that, but gave up. Still, she was now intrigued, especially when Lania pointed to the door at the far end of the hallway. She refused to go anywhere near it. Molly thanked her and slowly approached. She grasped the door's handle, then thought better of it and knocked.

Cammy opened the door wide and smiled. “There you are!” she chirped, shooing Molly in before shutting the door quickly. This was only the entryway, with only a pile of shoes along the far door. Molly didn't ask questions and took hers off before following Cammy into the temple.

She saw the altar immediately- a 48” high definition TV airing an NBA Finals game. From how closely Kathryn was following it, it was either live or no more than a day old. Renee and Meg (or more likely Morgan, judging from the loud cheers) were also watching intently. Elsewhere, Reggie and Troy were playing pool while Blaine, Bryce, Crystal and Candace were throwing at a dartboard on the wall.

“It's a stupid rec room,” Molly mumbled, simultaneously awed and disgusted.

“Yep. Make yourself at home,” Frank said, appearing suddenly next to her, holding a large glass of rum and Coke. “And thank the MST for recognizing the need for a room like this here. There's pot roast on the table.”

She grunted. “Well, this explains why our supply package included season two of Mad Men.”

“Yeah, getting live TV takes considerable magic resources, so I usually live on box sets. Tonight's a special reward... and it's game seven.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “Deep, spiritual reflection, Mr. Monroe?”

“You try explaining all this to the locals.”

“Is taking our shoes off part of the ruse?”

“Uh, no. Lania can't come in to clean it, so I don't want to get the floor dirty.”

Molly rolled her eyes and walked away, fixing herself some dinner and settling into a chair in the corner. She was in no mood for a party and couldn't stand that everybody else apparently was. To her, it was very upsetting day that didn't warrant celebration. They had helped a demon faction convince a Puurxan tribe to go to war needlessly. The Hokoni then turned on them, certain to do so again before everything was over. To top it off, their battle ended when Troy took another life.

She understood that this kill was more justified than Marie's death. She certainly wasn't going to give him grief about it, especially in front of Frank. The problem was that Troy still didn't shy away from it. He could have used something less lethal to stop that demon, as Kathryn had done. Given how many friends he had lost because of Marie, Molly was disappointed that Troy still chose to go for the kill first, especially when it was against Frank's orders.

Molly found it encouraging that Renee and Kathryn still generally avoided Troy. Unfortunately, that had far less impact now that the team had tripled in size. While she agreed with Molly, Meg and Troy had a certain Water Thruster camaraderie that prevented her from hating him too much. Her three possessors didn't seem to care. If Giles cared, he didn't show it. Besides, Molly had surmised that Giles was incapable of hating anybody.

The real problem was Reggie. As Molly observed over the course of the night, he and Troy were becoming friends quickly. She realized that Reggie could easily fill the void Kurt had left behind, much in the way Molly and Kathryn had drifted towards each other. This was bad. At least Kurt had always been able to keep Troy in line. Kurt also didn't have a cadre of hot girls at his disposal. Losing Renee wasn't going to sting with the likes of Candace and Cammy around.

The smiles from the pool table continued as Frank joined them. As disciplined and rigid as he could be when on the job, he had always been capable of leaving his work at work and unwinding with the best of them. Molly had to admit that off-duty, he was fun to be around, even charming at times. Sure enough, there he was joking along with Troy like nothing had ever happened. Years of separation were erased in a day, with everything forgiven instantly and silently.

Angry as Molly was, she almost wished she could let go if it as quickly as Troy seemingly could. She could never be that friendly with Frank. She had never received the kind of acclaim from him that he was now heaping on Troy. Much as Frank favored her over Troy growing up, everything seemed to reverse itself in an instant. She forced herself to turn away from them.

Therefore, it startled her when Frank tapped her on the shoulder minutes later. “Playing the wallflower as always, I see.”

She didn't turn around. The last thing she needed was him jostling her. “Didn't want to spoil your father-son bonding,” she said, not hiding her acerbic tone.

Frank didn't seem to catch it. “I appreciate that. But I don't want you to think I've forgotten about you. You kept that shield up just like I taught you. Good work”

“Mmm hmm,” she mumbled.

“I just wanted to thank you for everything.” Now Molly turned around. This was new, and Frank had trouble fishing for the words himself. “You know, one of the reasons I was so intent on training you was because Ellen wouldn't let me work with Troy.” He chuckled. “I guess in the end, it couldn't have worked out better. I helped you reach your full potential, and in turn you helped Troy reach his.”

Molly's face turned to horror as he smiled obliviously, “Seeing him in action, I can tell you brought him up perfectly. Good work. I'm really proud of both of you.”

He patted her on the knee and went to pour himself another drink. Molly stared blankly. She finally got credit for something- the one thing she was desperate to avoid. She stepped out of the room, preferring to have her meltdown in private.


Session Two

Molly had never intended to do right by Frank. Quite the opposite, actually. If she did have any agenda in her role as Guardian, it was borderline seditious. She was mostly ambivalent to the successful development of her recruits, figuring that whoever succeeded was going to no matter what she did. She was, however, determined to make them distrust the MST. Whether that meant conveying the organization's deceit or simply making the experience as unhappy as possible, Molly did not want the unit to feel like it belonged. Whether she was viewed as a victim of the MST or part of the problem was irrelevant.

Troy not only ignored all the warning signs about the MST and overcame the hurdles she threw at him, he did so without blinking. No matter how backwards the organization could be, no matter how sneaky Marlowe was and no matter how unforgivably they treated Renee, in the end he seemed to desire nothing but a top post with the company. No matter what Molly did to dissuade or deter him, he seemed well on his way to achieving this.

As she staggered through the empty hallways of the compound, Molly could only wonder how she had let all this happen. Troy had been surrounded by good people with good heads. Kurt and Kathryn were not only great influences, they were regular victims of MST shenanigans. Without Frank in his life, Troy should have followed their leads, sticking by his friends while maintaining a healthy distrust of the organization. Failing that, Molly had done her best to stick it to Frank and ensure that Troy was unsuccessful in his MST pursuits. With Troy's ethically dubious move leading to Frank praising both him and Molly, her failure was complete.

Molly ended up in the living room area, face down on the couch. She couldn't vent her frustrations the way she wanted. The only alternative was running off, which was a very bad idea in a foreign world at night. She was downright ashamed of the things going through her head. She wanted out more than ever.

For all the times she had warned Kathryn about the pain of memory recalibration, it now seemed like a tempting option. Sure it was inexact, but there was nothing in her life that she absolutely needed to remember. She had an advantage over Kathryn: Molly was out of high school and could afford to forget everything and go to college with a blank slate. She didn't have a life outside of the MST, but that didn't mean she couldn't start. She might even follow Kathryn's suggestion and give that whole boyfriend thing a try.

“So what's wrong this time?” Giles startled her. She shuddered not because he showed up, but what was on her mind when he did. She wondered how he managed to time things to be as awkward as possible.

“Why are you here?” Molly asked, head still buried in a cushion.

“Because I hate basketball,” he replied. “But Kathryn and Renee are occupied and it looked like you needed someone to talk to.”

“I doubt you're qualified for the job. Do you have any idea what I've been through?”

“Sure. We've heard quite a bit, and I kinda pieced together your history with Frank.”

Molly sighed. Talking about this with someone with second-hand information was bound to be unproductive.

Giles added, “You should really sit up before I make a comment about how cute your butt looks when you're laying like that.”

She tried to turn and deliver the glare, but he was positioned well beyond her range of vision. That's what prompted her to sit up more than anything. Molly still clutched a pillow and was close to strangling it.

“Anyway, it seems you're mostly hung up on Troy.”

Molly wondered how he could get back on topic so abruptly, but answered, “You do know what he did, right?” The fact that she wasn't sure made her doubt this conversation already.

“Yeah. He made a mistake. I think he knows that.”

“He doesn't though. That's the problem. To him, it doesn't matter that he's lost Kathryn and Renee over it. Now both his father and the MST are validating him.” She winced. “And apparently validating me for training him that way.”

Giles shrugged. “So?”

She stared at him, eyes narrowed. He had only said one word and while it frustrated and infuriated her, it made her think. Why was she so pissed off about this?

She came up with an answer, but it took her a moment. “I hate the MST. And I hate Frank. If it wasn't the sole purpose of my existence, I'd quit tomorrow. But I'm assigned to train this unit, and I had it in my mind to foster the biggest group of troublemakers they'd ever seen. You can imagine how I feel when one of them is not only excelling in their eyes, but destined to reinforce all of the problems I have with them.”

Eyebrows perked, Giles replied, “Sole purpose of your existence? Who told you that?”

Again, Molly hesitated. It wasn't what she expected him to follow up on, and she wasn't happy about the answer. “Frank had always said that I was destined for something big. For all the meaningless crap we get stuck with like this mission, he thought I was bound to have a say in something that really mattered. That kind of thing has an impact on a nine year old.”

“Do you still believe him?”

She looked down. “I have to. It's consumed my whole life since then. Besides, there must be some validity to it if the Urayoni and Hokoni were so interested in me.”

Giles nodded, a smile growing. “I believe it. There's a lot of folks following your career pretty closely... on both sides. It's no secret that Meg's an admirer.” He turned away. His grin grew slightly as he added, “Guess that's rubbed off on me a bit.”

When he turned back to Molly, her eyes were on him. They weren't harsh, but she was staring him down with uncertainty. “You know, I still can't tell whether or not you're hitting on me.”

He shook his head. “Wasn't intending to.” She gave a curt nod and turned away. “I was going to see how our date went first.”


Session Three

Two days later, they were on the road again. The wagon, bruised by the Hokoni assault, had only received the most essential repairs. The ride was bumpier now, with miniscule holes in the frame making for a drafty interior. They were heading north on a cool summer day and everybody wished they had brought jackets.

This time, they were told to bring additional provisions. Unlike the previous mission, Frank gave very few details about the operation. The implication wasn't that this was something overly secretive or dangerous, only that it was important that they be in Endrell, and the city itself would answer why. Still, not knowing made it a tense trip.

It was clear that all of this stemmed from Frank's interrogation of the Hokoni captive the day before. The troop could only speculate on his exact methods, but he came out of it convinced that they needed to visit Endrell as soon as possible. Other than Frank, nobody had seen the demon prisoner since their return to the compound and there was no reason to believe the MST had any line of communication with the Hokoni to discuss his release.

As they drew closer, Frank started to open up. “There are many presumptions about how the Hokoni are building support in Endrell. It's time we take a look at their tactics ourselves.”

“Doubting the intelligence already?” Meg asked, smirking.

Frank stared forward, neither angry nor happy about the retort. “There may be a few unknown variables we need to look into.”

“Such as?”

“Such as whether anybody's listening. The Hageshoni have a far bigger mark in Endrell, but sometimes people don't realize they're being oppressed.”

“Well... are they?” Kathryn asked. “You've been here long enough. You should know.”

“Of course they are. They're very cruel to the locals. Slave wages, no freedom, unhealthy living conditions. It's terrible. Just a question of whether anyone cares.”

“Why wouldn't they? Sounds like it's ripe for an uprising.”

“That's the logic, but...” Frank pointed out a porthole. “Well, see for yourself.”

They crowded around the portholes and could see the city in the distance. And it was still in the distance, probably two miles away. Still, a row of functioning smokestacks were in sight. Closer to them, a tower of scaffolding surrounded what looked like a coal plant under construction. That is, if they didn't know any better.

“Wait... I thought this place was medieval fantasy...” Renee said.

“That's how it started,” Frank mumbled. “When you're in the business of war factories, things get streamlined quickly. They've managed to introduce centuries worth of industrial technology in about a decade.”

“But Uriel said the demons like this world because it was the best setting for old school weapons,” Meg turned back to Frank. “He said factories didn't get them right.”

“Modern factories don't. But the folks here remember what a good sword feels like. Tell you what, the local blacksmith is a zillionaire.”

“So the factory owners make all the money, the government gets all the weapons and the people starve?” Molly made it sound like a pretty common scenario. She was looking away, barely paying attention.

“Exactly,” Frank made it sound like the most dire thing in the world.

“So I'm guessing the Hokoni are just going to progress things a little further and introduce the concept of socialism.”

Frank was taken aback. Then he grinned. “Now that's my girl. Did you figure that out on your own? Took me forever to get that out of the prisoner.”

“Seems like the most obvious tactic.” Molly turned to him. “Why haven't we tried it?”

“So they're trying to start a people's revolution against an well-armed militant government...” Meg's eyebrows flared. “That'll end well.”

Yuki was confused. “So... do we want them to succeed or not?”

“It doesn't matter because they won't,” Frank said. “Problem is, now that the Hokoni know we're involved, we may be part of their narrative.”

“What?” Troy leaned in. “They're going to make us out to be the bad guys too? How?”

“That's what we're here to find out. We're here to observe their methods, see how successful they are, and make sure we're not part of it.”

They stopped the wagon at a stable on the outskirts of the city. Even before they stepped out, the smell of factory smoke and garbage overwhelmed them. The sights weren't any more encouraging. The path into the city was a single cobblestone road that probably wasn't always black. Despite the evolution of their industry, the houses were still stuck in the past, many with thatched roofs that didn't handle soot very well. Furthermore, it was the middle of the afternoon and the place was silent.

“Everybody must be at work,” Frank said. “Let's get into town and find somewhere to settle in before rush hour.”

Everybody set their bags in a circle on the street, where Giles whisked them away to some dimensional portal. Frank didn't want to create any impression that they were visiting. He directed the group to act like they've been there before, that they knew where they were going, and that nothing about this foreign city from a bygone era was surprising. Renee was awful at this.

While she darted her head around, wide-eyed, Kathryn turned to Molly. “Is it me or is this sounding worse and worse?”

“Probably depends on the level of squalor. It's entirely possible that this is like the

Puurxan village and life here isn't half bad.” Molly stopped to let a rat cross the street. “But I'm betting it's as advertised. And in that case, I'm interested in seeing how this plays out, at least from a societal aspect.”

Renee nodded. “Yeah, it's like the Russian Revolution with demons and magic and stuff.”

Straight-faced, Molly replied, “You're implying that the actual Russian Revolution didn't involve demons and magic.”

That raised an eyebrow. “Wow... so maybe that Anastasia cartoon was historically accurate after all.”

“It was up until the part where she lived through it.”


Session Four

They ended up at a tavern downtown. Troy had to peer through the window to make sure it was open. Inside, he saw two patrons and a bored bartender flirting with a waitress. It was the perfect hole to duck into and assess the mood of the town as a whole.

If only there weren't other matters to attend to. Frank handed a small sack of coins to Reggie. “You're in charge until I get back. Split the group up and sit at separate tables. Stay there, talk among your table, nurse your drinks and just listen for now. I'm sure this place will fill up soon.”

“So we get to drink?” Troy asked.

“You don't. You and Molly are coming with me to the inn. I want to get that squared away first. There might be a few clues there too.”

Crystal winked at them. “Have fun you two!”

Team Tavern stayed outside and argued about the table assignments. Frank heard parts of it as he led Troy and Molly down the sidewalk. He shook his head and said, “That would look far less conspicuous with more than three guys in the group.”

“So why am I going with you?” Troy asked.

“I've made an arrangement with the innkeeper to be able to put entire troops up if necessary. Problem is there's no guarantee if he'll actually be working the desk... or if his staff can be trusted. I don't want too many people knowing we're here.”

“That didn't answer the question,” Molly replied.

“The backup story is that I'm here with my kids and we all need separate rooms.”

“You still didn't have to bring Troy. It's not like there's any authenticity with me here.”

Frank shrugged, tired of the conversation. “Better than nothing. We'll say you look like your mother.”

“You've never met my mother,” grumbled Molly.

Frank didn't respond, but after a few seconds of silence, Troy cracked a smiled and joked, “Are we there yet?” Again, Frank didn't respond.

They were pretty close anyway. The inn was only three blocks away. By the time they reached it, workers were starting to fill the streets. With just the three of them, Frank, Molly and Troy were able to blend in just fine. Like everyone else, they kept their head down and went about their business. All the same, Frank waited until nobody was looking before entering the inn.

This was no mom and pop bed & breakfast. The floors were marble, gas lamps lined the walls and a few patrons were sitting at a large dining area. The front desk could have been confused for a modern hotel's had it used computers instead of large bound books.

Frank directed Molly and Troy to a bench in the lobby. “Wait here.” They sat at extreme opposite ends of the bench and tried not to make eye contact. “You know, you are pretending to be brother and sister. Don't act like total strangers.”

Molly and Troy blinked. Molly and Troy did not move. Frank shook his head and went to the front desk.

They sat there silently and did not make eye contact. They scanned the lobby thoroughly, which was quite the bore as there was nobody other than Frank and the concierge. Still, Troy got the sensation that they weren't alone. He perked his head up and looked over his shoulder. There was still a wall behind him.

“I think someone's watching us,” he whispered.

Molly scoffed and said, “And why would you be thinking that? Nobody else is here.”

“Don't know. But after Claude stalking me for a year, I'm used to the feeling.”

She looked around again, listening carefully. For the entrance to the fanciest inn in town, it was extremely quiet. It wasn't that she heard anything, but she started to get that same feeling. “It's crazy, but you may be right.”

Then she heard it- the slightest of brushing sounds, like a shoe scuffing the floor. She stood up instantly and said, “Come on.”

Hastily, they approached a narrow hallway by the doors that led to the dining room. They rounded a corner, but nobody was there. Molly and Troy took two steps onto the rug in the hall and stopped.

“Maybe it was just my imagination,” Molly mumbled.

“Sure felt like it did when Claude was tailing me,” Troy said, shaking his head.

He started to turn around when the rug underneath them jerked, knocking them both to the floor. It pulled them down the hallway, at least until Troy rolled off it and Molly used a flight spell to levitate. They got to their feet and readied their triggers.

They jumped in front of a small enclave of the hallway that led to a restroom. Ready as they were to fire on just about anything, what they saw proved to be an exception.

It was, in fact, Claude. He was just as confused as Molly and Troy. “Fancy meeting you here,” he mumbled.

“You...” Troy snapped and fired an ice beam. With a slight leg shuffle and little concern, Claude blocked it with a shield.

Claude looked annoyed more than concerned. “Really? Is that how this is going to be?”

“You did orchestrate an attack on our school and kidnapped me and Renee,” Molly said. “Nearly got us all killed.”

Scoffing, Claude replied, “Nearly? It was a bloodbath on our end. Besides, I was merely following orders. I had no part in putting any of you in danger. You can blame yourselves, the Hageshoni or that Marlowe person for that.”

“We're still taking you in...” Troy looked at Molly. “Right?”

Molly kept staring at Claude. “That would be the logical course of action. Going quietly?”

Claude staggered back a little, up against the wall. “Well... I don't want to fight you. Besides the fact that we've already established that you can beat me, I'm not all that interested in my job here.”

“What is your job here?” Molly narrowed her eyes. “I didn't think the Urayoni were involved in all this.”

“They're not, hence my disinterest.” Claude's eyebrows raised. “Meanwhile, I didn't think the MST was involved.”

“We shouldn't be.” Molly lowered her finger. “And to be honest, I'm not all that engaged in this mission either.”

“Well, in that case, perhaps we should sit down and catch up.” Claude grinned. “For old time's sake.”

Molly stared back at him. He was still sneaky and probably had something up his sleeve, but she was interested in what he had to say. Claude was also right: she really didn't care about this mission, so she wasn't worried about jeopardizing it.

Troy saw her ponder the offer and grew concerned. “It might be a trap.”

“Might be, but it sounds intriguing,” Molly replied. “Tell Frank we'll be in the dining room chatting someone up. Make sure he stays out of it.”

Frowning, Troy almost protested, but shook his head and muttered, “Yes, Madam.”

Molly couldn't help but snicker as he walked away. Now Claude frowned. “I still don't understand how you can work with him.”

“Oh, I still despise him,” Molly said. “But I do appreciate irony.”


Session Five

Molly wasn't sure what was in the mugs the barmaid served her and Claude. Without Yuki around, she'd have to trust that they weren't poisoned. All the same, she ordered a third for Troy and swapped for that one when it arrived.

“Clever,” Claude said. “But just as a gesture of trust...” He took the mug that was originally Molly's and gave his to Troy.

Instead of responding, Molly drank. It was some sort of milk-based smoothie that was quite decent, although Molly couldn't identify the fruit concoction and didn't want to think about which animal the milk came from.

“In hindsight, perhaps we should have socialized more outside of school,” Claude said after his own sip.

“That would imply that I considered you a friend,” Molly replied. “You were an ally. Now you're an enemy... I think.”

“We should be able to get along better as enemies. Less pressure.”

Molly had to concede that point and nodded. Troy arrived and sat down. “Frank's upstairs figuring out the rooms and doing some paperwork. If we're not back in twenty minutes, he's coming down and blowing something up.” He breathed and took a drink. “Wow, this is pretty good.”

“Now that we're all accounted for, first order of business...” Molly leaned in towards Claude. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Claude sighed. “Well, the unfortunate thing about hasty getaways is that you don't get to choose your company. Uriel's little envoy pretty much laid waste to the keep and I was left scrambling to escape with the rest of the Hageshoni.” Annoyed, he eyed Troy. “Didn't even give us time to properly bury Marie.”

Molly snickered. “You'd appreciate that Renee wanted nothing to do with Troy after she found out about that. Might make you feel better.”

Still staring at Troy, Claude said, “A little bit, yes.” Back to Molly, he continued, “Anyway, I was stuck with the Hageshoni for awhile. Since I was the only Urayoni left and my mission to observe you was to run through our graduation, my superiors completely forgot about me. When the Hageshoni heard rumors that the Hokoni were trying to stir things up here, they sent me to investigate.” He sighed again. “They reasoned that an Urayoni would be more familiar with the kind of tactics the Hokoni would use. Someone also heard this has something to do with Sho killing Kendrick.” Shaking his head, he added, “I knew that was going to cause problems.”

“You did say something about that,” Molly said. “So what have you found out?”

Claude chuckled. “Sorry, Madam. Something tells me I shouldn't be divulging secrets to the MST. I know you well enough to recognize that no matter how disinterested you are in this mission, you will carry it out loyally.”

Molly looked away, frowning. “I don't know. This one's been testing that. I am stuck working with Frank.”

“Well... if not...” Claude tilted his head towards Troy. “This one will.”

Troy stared back. He had been irritated this whole time, but bore it quietly. “You're lucky we aren't just arresting you now. We could make you tell us.”

With a frown, Claude turned back to Molly. “If you really were dissatisfied, I could suggest that we give both sides a miss and go AWOL.”

Molly's eyebrows flared. “Tempting, but it would never work. It would involve us trusting each other.”

“Precisely. Plus I understand Marie made a similar proposal and it didn't go over very well.”

“So with that off the table...” Molly paused. She had to think about what came next. She really didn't want to acknowledge Troy's point that they had every reason to arrest Claude and draw all the information they wanted. She wasn't even sure if she was opposed to the idea. But as unscrupulous as Frank and the Hokoni had been thus far, she really wanted to keep things civil.

Claude made his own suggestion. “Well, I gave you my story. May I ask why you're here?”

“No,” Molly and Troy each replied flatly.

Leaning back in his chair, Claude stared at both of them. Then he smiled. “I'm going to take that to mean you're here to overthrow the Hageshoni as well.”

After glaring at him, Molly scoffed. “Damn, I forgot that you were smart. You don't show it very often.”

“I keep my cards close to the vest. Unfortunately, that's not something I can simply withhold from the Hageshoni.”

“Who said we were letting you report to the Hageshoni? Just because I don't really care to arrest you doesn't mean we won't.”

Claude frowned. “So I suppose I have to tell you what I know in order to ensure my freedom?”

“That and don't tell the Hageshoni why we're here.” After she said that, Troy went from staring at Claude to staring at Molly.

“I do have to tell them I spotted you.” Claude looked down. “I suppose I can leave our little chat out of the conversation, as well as your motives. Is that fair?”

With a slight smile, Molly nodded. Troy interrupted, “Wait, we're letting him go?! You actually believe him? After everything he put us through?”

Head darting at Troy, Molly snapped back, “Consider it professional courtesy. Plus I don't want the added chore of detaining him. Besides, I already got my payback over the attack on the school when I beat the tar out of him.”

Coughing, Claude said, “I'd like to think that was a fairly even duel, but anyway... the Hokoni seem to be stirring the locals into rebelling against the government. They have the elven tribes on board and I'm told their big push to win over the population here begins in earnest tomorrow. It's been mostly rumors and idea planting until now.”

Troy shook his head. “We already knew all that. We're letting you go free for that?”

Annoyed at Troy but ignoring him, Claude continued, “If your plan is to let them thin out the Hageshoni and then make a move yourself, it won't work.”

“Why not?” Molly asked.

“You're under the false impression that the Hageshoni would fight back with tactics that involve thinning themselves out.”

“In this time period? It's not like you can mow them down with machine guns.”

Claude simply smiled. “Stick around long enough and I'm sure you'll see what I mean. I'm not putting these guys past anything.”

“So what?” Troy asked. “You expect us to just give up and pull out?”

“I expect nothing. I don't have a horse in this race. I'm just saying that I'd rather be working for the Hageshoni than anybody planning to engage them. Any further questions or is that sufficient?”

“One more...” Molly said. The conversation until this point had been tense, but her eyes suddenly softened. “What's your honest opinion of what's going on in this world? I assume that as an Urayoni you have a keen eye towards corruption in society. So I'll ask you- is this place really as bad as it's made out to be?”

It was a thoughtful question, and Claude paused in order to give a thoughtful response. “There's a certain beauty to barbarism, don't you think? The rules may be harsh, and the punishment for breaking them may be unforgiving, but at least these people know what the rules are. And if they shut up and toil away, they'll get by just fine. The Hageshoni rule here may be brutal, and it is indeed absolute. But how many things in life can you say are absolute? And how much easier would life be if more things were?”

“What are you saying?” Troy asked.

“Yes, they rule this place with an iron fist. Yes, it's an arduous life for people and yes, woe befall any who cross the Hageshoni's path. But isn't that the easiest kind of society to figure out? When you think about it, it's the least corrupt world you'll ever see.”

It took a moment for Molly to process, but then she nodded. “Yeah... that sums it up well.” She looked back at Claude. “I wouldn't mind trying to stay in touch in case our situations change, but if not...” She extended a hand across the table. “...take care. Far too many of my classmates have been dying lately.”

Claude smiled and shook it. “You too, Madam. Good luck dealing with Frank.” He stood up, went to the bar to pay for all three drinks, nodded one more time at her and left.

Troy was left stewing. “We just ran into a demon that helped orchestrate an attack on our school that kidnapped you, Renee and Yuki... and you just let him go report us to the enemy.” He shook his head. “You do realize that's treason, right?”

Molly leaned back. She wasn't thinking about anything Claude had said. Or anything he had done in the past. Or any of the proper protocols for this kind of situation. She was just hoping she, he and her teammates would get out of this in one piece. That seemed more important to her than any mission.

“Probably,” she replied. “But right now I don't care.”


Session Six

At the inn, the rest of the team obeyed all of Frank's instructions to the letter. They entered as separate groups, sat at opposite ends of the room and didn't look at each other much. Meg and Giles treated the group dispersion like a complicated math puzzle in order to make the groups look as authentic as possible. For example, Reggie's girls entered first, chattering away like lifelong girlfriends.

Once they were situated, the other two groups weren't as difficult, although Kathryn wondered how she ended up with Meg, Giles and Reggie. “You look the oldest,” Giles explained. “Rounds out the college table.”

“Yeah, but that just leaves Donovan, Renee and Yuki,” Kathryn said.

Meg and Giles just smiled. Kathryn turned around to catch Donovan, Renee, Yuki taking their seats. Blaine and Bryce were with them.

“Someone in the high school group has their little sister tagging along,” Meg explained.

“But Meg, what are high school kids doing in a tavern?” Maple asked.

“Maybe the food's good,” Giles replied.

Kathryn shook her head. “At least we figured out the whole boy-girl thing. How the hell are there only three guys on this team without Troy?”

“Uh... excuse me...” said Morgan, arms folded.

“What, I said without Troy. Giles counts as a boy... at least he will when he hooks up with Molly.” Kathryn turned to him. “How's that going, by the way?”

Uneasy, Giles said, “I think he means you forgot him.”

“Him?” Kathryn turned to Morgan, staring back sullenly. It took her a second, but she shouted, “Wait, you mean...!”

Meg grinned in amusement. “What, you never noticed that Morgan's a boy? He is named Morgan.”

“Morgan's a girl's name too!” She took a moment to calm down. Other patrons were already staring at her. “Jeez... so is it mostly upside or downside?”

Morgan shook his head. “Once you get used to seeing Meg naked, it's all downside.”

“You did say you had the hots for her!” Mindy exclaimed.

“Oh, you're just happy you've got a nice rack now,” Morgan fired back.

Maple blushed. “Do we have to talk about this in public?”

“Yeah, seriously...” Meg looked over at Reggie, who had been quietly staring into the distance. It was as good a reason as any to change the subject. “What's up, Reg? You're pretty quiet given the direction of the conversation.”

He turned only when he heard his name called, but he answered, “Oh... well, yeah Mindy, I remember you being pretty flat.”

Meg glared back before Mindy could. “I meant what are you staring at?”

“Oh, just keeping an eye on the girls.”

“I thought we weren't supposed to look at the other groups,” Kathryn said. She had been fighting the urge to check on Renee and Yuki this whole time.

Reggie grinned at Kathryn. “We were supposed to act natural, like we always come here. If I came here all the time with you three, I'd spend most of it staring at whichever table has all the hotties.”

“What, Meg and I not lookers enough for you?”

“I have been told I have a nice rack,” Meg muttered.

Giles cleared his throat and offered a defense of his fellow man. “I think he means that as an excuse to see who's joined them at their table.”

All of them looked now and indeed, two young gentlemen had cozied up next to Reggie's girls. They were certainly getting their groove on, and the girls were at least pretending to be receptive.

“If I didn't know any better, I'd say they were hitting on them,” Kathryn deadpanned.

“Well, I better get in on this then,” Reggie said, standing up.

Meg shook her head. “Reggie, we're supposed to act like we don't know them.”

“Yeah, I don't know them, so I'm going to hit on them.” Reggie flashed a smile. “Who says lightning can't strike twice?”

As he left, Meg said, “This should be amusing.”

“Plus we can watch them now,” Giles added.

Reggie strolled up to the table. The two gentlemen were dressed quite well for the times, decked in brown blazers and ties. They certainly weren't slaves to a factory, but weren't in such fine attire to be elevated to a higher class. Reggie barely noticed them, as he winked at Carmen and Crystal. Candace and Cammy had their arms around the two men.

“Hey, I thought you girls looked familiar. My dreams, right?”

Crystal struggled not to laugh at the exceedingly bad pick-up line. Carmen was faster to respond, “You have to be more specific. We're dreamed about a lot.”

“Name's Reggie. Mind if I join you? Looks like there's still two openings.”

Cammy looked around the table. “I don't know. Two guys. Four girls. I'm fine with that math.”

Reggie grinned. “All the more reason for me to get to know you better.” He squeezed in next to one of the men. “They call me Reggie. Other than beautiful, what are you all called?”

The four girls all got the hint and played along, introducing themselves with tones ranging anywhere from disgust to 'skip the formalities, let's make this happen.' The repulsed way Crystal responded was the most important, as it kept the two men from bailing. The one farthest from Reggie, still cozy with Candace, decided to follow suit. “I'm Graham. He's Arthur. So what do you do around here?”

Reggie smiled back. “Oh, the usual grind. Toiling away for the man. Another day older and deeper in debt, you know?”

Graham nodded. “I know exactly what you mean. We're in the same boat. Seems like everybody in town is, doesn't it?”

“Guess that's just life,” Crystal said. “Why aren't our drinks here yet?”

Had they actually been concerned about their order, they wouldn't have noticed Arthur staring at Graham and the slightest of nods that Arthur gave him. Instead, they all caught it, and on cue Graham said, “You know a number of us are getting a little fed up with this life. Thought that maybe we should do something about it.”

Reggie raised an eyebrow and shared a knowing look with Candace. “Like what?” he asked.

Arthur replied, “Depends on how much support we have. We're staging a little rally tomorrow evening in the town square. I encourage you all to stop by.”

Nodding, Reggie replied, “Well, I might just have to do that. Especially if you lovely ladies will be there as well.”

“Wouldn't miss it,” Carmen answered.

Chuckling, Reggie said, “Well, I suppose I better get back to my table..” He gestured at Meg, Giles and Kathryn, all staring back at him. “Guess I'll be seeing you tomorrow.”

Carmen and Candace waved goodbye as Reggie returned triumphantly. He sat down, smiled at Meg and said, “Did you miss me?”

Meg recoiled a bit. “Keep it down. I took an eavesdropping potion. Tomorrow evening, they said?”

“Yeah. I might have to stop by.” Reggie nodded once at his girls, already back to flirting up Graham and Arthur. “I think those girls liked me.”

“Honestly, how the hell do you guys do it?”

Giles grinned. “Yeah, our unit can't work in unison like that and four of us are in one body.”

Reggie leaned back in his chair and stretched. “What can I say? I run a tight ship.”





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