Magical Security Taskforce




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Chapter 64: Weapons of Mass Distraction

Session One

Nobody at the factory noticed two additional workers. The overseers in charge of production did notice an increase in efficiency, but they certainly weren't going to complain about that. Frankly, they were relieved. The Hageshoni demons responsible for gathering and distributing the factory's weapons output (the term “corporate” hadn't entered the lexicon in Enriel yet) were griping about the decline in both quantity and quality of the output, but the overseers hadn't been able to pinpoint a cause. Therefore, this rare good day was music to their ears.

The two workers caught on quickly and enjoyed the job immensely. The conditions were abominable- little light made it from the high windows through the smoke to the shop floor. Most of the light came from the fires, blinding nearby laborers whenever flames burst. The whole place smelled of coal, iron and sweat. Still, it was hard for Blaine and Bryce to say this was a poorer working environment than they were used to.

One of their new co-workers looked at a newly forged pike with a critical eye. He nodded, somewhat surprised. “Not bad for your second try. Have you done this before?”

Blaine set down his hammer and wiped sweat from his brow. “Nope, but I've read up on how to do it. Just in case it ever came up.”

“We'll put it on our pile. I don't think we can pass off the first one though.”

“Can I keep it?” Blaine asked eagerly, picking up his initial attempt. Rather than rounding out to a point, the pike vaguely resembled a question mark.

“Are you done playing around?” Bryce said. His try somehow became an ampersand. “It's gotta be time.”

“Reggie said we had to stay on schedule.” Blaine turned to the worker. “Think I can squeeze a sword in?”

The answer was no, as evidenced by Bryce's watch beeping. Blaine frowned. “Aww... time flies when you're having fun, huh?”

Bryce shook his head, held his watch into the air with one hand and started swirling it into the air. The sound of the beeping amplified and carried out through the entire factory. At once, three-quarters of the labor force dropped what they were doing. Several picked up a sword, pike or halberd from the floor. Those who didn't react at first were filled in quickly enough. They joined in, most not wanting to be left out, others not wanting to argue with the burly co-worker with the sword, pike or halberd.

They exited the building as one. Some made a pit stop to raid the surplus of fresh weaponry forged that day. These guys just weren't as romantic about utilizing a weapon they themselves had created. No matter: the stockpile was large enough for everybody, and soon the whole roster was outside and awaiting further instruction.

Bryce pinched his earlobe. “Phase one complete,” he whispered.

“Okay, so we got them out here,” Blaine said. “Now what do we do until the Hageshoni respond?”

“Hmm...” Bryce looked around. Now that everybody was outside, they were waiting for the next step. Labor strife was a new concept to them. Unfortunately, it wasn't exactly Bryce's area of expertise either. “I dunno. Keep them riled up, I guess.”

Bryce marched to the front of the mass, quickly followed by Blaine. He turned his back to the mob to cast a voice amplification spell, then faced them. “Men!” His voice, while loud, was hardly boisterous, but it got their attention. “This is the day you've been dreaming of. The day the chains come off and we all become free!”

That's all he could remember from the speech he had rehearsed the night before. Everything that he thought of saying after that was ripped off from Aragorn's speech in Return of the King or involved breaking into a song from Les Miz.

Blaine noticed the delay. “What's up? You were doing good.”

Bryce turned the amplification off. “Yeah, that's all I got. You got anything?”

Blaine looked at the men. Either what Bryce had said was enough or Reggie's instructions had been successfully passed around: they were at attention and waiting for the next step.

It came before anyone up front realized it. At the factory's entrance, a few pikes were brandished and a small commotion caught the attention of the minions. They shuffled their way through to the back and found a well dressed man with a halberd under his chin. His hands were raised.

“What's going on here?” the man asked.

“Labor strike!” Bryce said in a pleasant tone. “We're done working for you until you-”

“A labor what?” replied the man. “And who are you? You don't work here.”

“My name is Bryce and this is Blaine. We're experts at unfair working conditions and we're putting a stop to it now. These men don't return to work until our demands are met.”

The man stared back at Bryce, then sighed. “What are your demands?”

Bryce smirked back, then realized that nobody had gone over that part. Still exuding confidence, he turned to Blaine. “Blaine, explain our demands.”

“What?!” Blaine was exuding confusion more than confidence. “Um... well, he's not the one who can make the call on this, right?”

“Yes. It does you no good holding me hostage. You have to talk to my supervisors,” the overseer explained.

Bryce pointed excitedly. “Yeah, yeah! Get a hold of them and let them know what's going on. Tell them we need to, uh, start negotiating right away.”


Except he didn't do anything. After an awkward, lengthy pause, he asked, “Well? Aren't you going to let me go?”

Bryce was shocked. “Why should we let you go?” Bryce asked.

“How else am I going to get a hold of the management? What, do you think I'm psychic or something?”

“Uh... no, of course not! On your way!” Bryce grinned stupidly as the men lowered their weapons and the overseer ran off to hopefully tell somebody that this was happening. As he didn't appear to be Hageshoni himself, he seemed just as liable to take the rest of the day off.

He didn't, although the process of contacting corporate turned out to take a lot longer in an age without phones or e-mail. It took more than an hour for anyone to show up. Thankfully, corporate came through: the negotiating party was an equally large number of soldiers brandishing melee weapons of their own. Only a handful were orcs. The good thing about that was that it meant that the Puurxian and elven offensives likely worked to thin out or reposition the bulk of the Hageshoni army. The bad news was that these were likely Hageshoni demons, and therefore magic users.

Either way it unsettled the workers. And Blaine. “So Bryce... think of any good speeches?”

Bryce shook his head. “Just one.” He re-cast his amplification spell and shouted, “Fear not! Today we celebrate... our independence day!”


Session Two

The secret about impenetrable fortresses is decorating them in just the right fashion to make the twenty-foot walls, arrow towers and moat look like aesthetic choices. In the case of Endrell's city hall, which under Hageshoni rule had become de facto imperial palace for all of Enriel, a dazzling ivory paint job and towering minarets left the townspeople downright proud of the structure symbolizing the unbreakable power of their conquerors. Nobody questions why the towering minarets also have arrow towers.

At the same time, as powerful a metaphor as the building was, it also had to be open for business so the Hageshoni could carry out their unbreakable power. Evil overlords tended to be hands-on governors. Deep within city hall, Supreme Commander of the 10th Division of the Glorious Hageshoni World Brigade Herrod Erlon (and yes, that whole title is printed on the nameplate on his desk) had enjoyed every minute of the Hokoni revolution effort. He was less thrilled that tensions were still boiling under the surface even after the Hokoni ran home in defeat. The silly insurrections by the “lesser species” in Enriel were delightful and all, but the feeling of civil unrest in Endrell was no fun whatsoever. He liked fighting armies, not minds.

He knew exactly who was responsible for letting it get this bad, and called him in once he received word of the next crisis.

“What's the good word, Commander?” Claude asked, faking a smile.

“Mr. McClellan...” To the best of Claude's knowledge, Commander Erlon had never called anyone by their first names. “...remember your suggestion of increasing promotion of the Hokoni rally in order to draw any and all potential insurgents out of the woodwork so we can destroy them in one fell swoop?”

“Of course. If only-”

“The bomber, which I will remind you was something we knew we'd only get one attack with before the Taskforce installed an embargo, dropped its payload within an acceptable range of the target.”

Claude sighed. “As we say on Earth, close only counts in horseshoes and... well, never mind.” He coughed. “I will admit the reaction was far more defiant than I would expect from such a passive population.”

“Exactly. Between all the propaganda and whatever movement is succeeding the Hokoni, we're seeing more resistance to our rule than ever before. None moreso than today.”

“What's going on today?” This must have been the point of all this ranting, so Claude played along.

“The entire workforce at the forge, at once, dropped what they were doing, took arms and are refusing to return to work.”

Claude raised his eyebrows. “They went on strike?! Remarkable!”

“Hardly the language I'd be using, Mr. McClellan. And they haven't struck yet. Our troops have been deployed there and are ready to take them down at a moment's notice, but as of yet there has been no strike.”

Trying not to grin at what the amusing confusion in terminology, Claude asked, “Well, what are their demands?”

“Mr. McClellan, this forge is one of the most important operations in the world. Several conflicts depend on the quality steel coming out of there. That factory is far too important to cave into the demands of these miscreants.”

“Killing them isn't a prudent solution either. Which is why you called me to navigate.”

“As poor as your record has been so far, this situation is better handled by an Urayoni. Just don't expect a long leash.”

“Fine then.” Claude stood up. “Lead the way.”

Claude followed Commander Erlon out the door, down several flights of stairs and to the lowest level. About a dozen or so people were mingling about the corridor, most just doing their jobs. A young man and a young woman paid particular attention to the retreating demons. One of them stared at Claude. For a second, she thought he made eye contact.

The young man docked into an alcove and pinched his earlobe. “Elvis has left the building,” Giles reported.

Renee pinched hers too. “Molly, wait. I think Claude saw me.”

Over telepathy, Molly answered, “Are you sure?”

“I think so. I wasn't expecting him to be there. Is that bad?”

“Possibly. For now, get into second position and wait for more instructions.”


Outside the moat, making use of a very large invisibility circle, Molly turned to Frank. “We may need to abort; Renee may have been spotted.”

“That's why I sent her and Meg. They weren't in the square. Nobody would recognize them.”

Molly almost blurted otherwise, but managed to bite her tongue and rephrase it to, “Somebody that knows Renee was there. He knows she's in the MST”

“How could anyone possibly know Renee is with us?”

“Wait... was it Claude?” Troy asked Molly. She turned to him, frowned and nodded.

“Who's that? Does someone in the Hageshoni know you all?”

Donovan grunted. “Why fear a weakling like him? It is time to strike!” With magic, he flew over the moat, ascending high enough to switch spells at his apex. He fell now, but lunging at the walls. He cast another spell that would allow him to pass through the ivory walls that appeared to jut out of the water.

Well, not these walls, exactly. He smashed into them and fell into the moat.

“Anti-magic walls,” Frank said. “I thought you said you dealt with these before. Troy, get that water away from him. It's probably poison.”

Poison or not, Troy had no trouble sweeping away the water surrounding Donovan. It created a nice 'parting the sea' effect that Troy was particularly proud of. It also exposed the ground underneath the walls.

“Well, while we're at it, Meg?”

“You mean Morgan!” Morgan replied, grinning and magically tunneling a hole into the exposed earth. As the tunnel wrapped under the walls, Reggie climbed through it, then popped out a few moments later, flashing a thumbs up.

Frank pointed to Meg, who took over from Morgan and pinched her earlobe. “Giles, do you and Renee have the silencer up?” She nodded to Reggie.

“Bombs away!” Somewhere inside, the floor exploded.

“Okay, Troy and Carmen secure the perimeter. Everybody else, dive in!” Frank shouted.

They did. Reggie, Meg, Kathryn, three of Reggie's girls and Yuki, the latter sneaking Donovan an antidote for the poison he had taken a bath in. Donovan followed, as did Molly, though a little hesitant. Frank went last. As soon as he reached the other end, he gave Troy the all-clear. Troy stopped Moses-ing as Carmen used an air spell to keep the moat from covering the entrance (and emergency exit). That gave Troy time to strengthen and reinforce two ice walls that contained the water and allowed him and Carmen to take a breather.

There was no breather inside as the troop marched past the armies of clerks and lobbyists. There were only a couple security guards, and they went down easily enough.

“Well, that wasn't too hard. Is this really all they had?” Reggie asked.

“No, the rest are upstairs. That's under a negator. We need to smash that, seize the entrance controls and lock the place down.” Frank said.

“Why isn't the negator affecting the lowest floor?” Renee asked.

“You ever try doing paperwork without magic? Now that's a labor strike waiting to happen,” Molly replied.


Session Three

The factory had not yet erupted into violence, although neither the striking workers nor the Hageshoni army were giving any ground. The Hageshoni were silent and intimidating and looked like they were content with that, when in reality they were just waiting for orders. The workers operating directly under Reggie were leading their brethren in song. As they had learned it from Reggie, the song of 'unification and inspiration' was actually just the riff from Seven Nation Army.

When Commander Erlon and Claude arrived, rather than pinpoint an actual leader, Erlon just made a general statement at the masses. “Attention! Return to work or face our wrath!”

“Bring it! We aren't scared of you!” Bryce shouted back. Blaine turned around to make sure all the workers were still singing and not being totally scared.

Claude's nose wrinkled when he saw the minions. “You two? Really?”

“You know them?” Commander Erlon asked.

“Yes. Not exactly the two I'd suspect to be rabble-rousing. Something's going on.”

“Let's dispose of them quickly then.”

Claude stared at the minions, then the army. He then replied, “It won't be quickly enough. Let me handle this.”

Without waiting for Commander Erlon's assent, Claude approached Bryce. “All right. What are your demands?”

Bryce scoffed. “Ha! Like you're going to give us anything. What's the use in telling you?”

“Why are you here anyway?” Blaine asked.

“Yeah, if you actually wanted to negotiate, you wouldn't have an army of thugs here.”

Claude smiled and turned around. “Commander Erlon, please remove your thugs... er... troops.”

“Surely you're joking,” Commander Erlon replied.

“You wanted an Urayoni solution and I have one. A Hageshoni would be better suited for, say, the attack going on back at the palace.”

“What attack? Do you know something!?”

“Taskforce members leading the strike. Taskforce members spotted in the palace. How good's your math?”

Despite the insult, Commander Erlon worked it together. It took a while, but it came to him and he sneered and gritted his teeth. “We can't just let this revolt continue unsupervised!”

“So let's end it.” Claude turned back around. He looked not to the minions but to the closest man who actually looked like he worked at the factory. “Sir, what are your wages and average work hours?”

For some reason, this man had a Scottish brogue. “We toil all day in the hellfire, sun up 'til sundown everyday. And for what? For crumbs! A pittance, I tell ye!”

Claude eyed Commander Erlon. “Sound about right to you?”

Commander Erlon folded his arms. “I couldn't understand a damn thing that man said.”

The Urayoni ran through the list quickly. “Seven day workweek, dawn until dusk, hazardous working conditions.”

“Oh. Well, yes. Plus fifteen minutes for lunch and fifteen for a smoke. What are they complaining about?”

Back to the gentlemen, Claude grinned and said. “We'll offer you a ten percent wage increase and one day off a week.”

Bryce shook his head, dismissive. “That's it? Are you serious?”

“What?!” Commander Erlon shouted. “Give them the whole factory, why don't you?!”

Claude backpedaled and whispered, “Commander, you really need to get these troops to the palace. This revolt is a distraction.”

Seething, Commander Erlon spat, “And how do you know?”

“Because the Taskforce members are the only ones rejecting it.” Gesturing to the mob, Bryce and Blaine were utterly disgusted at Claude's proposal. The workers were downright giddy.

The Scottish guy was on cloud nine. “My, a whole day to spend with me wee ones. When can we start?”

Claude took it as a good sign and shouted to the mob, “So do we have a deal?”

The wild cheering was answer enough. Commander Erlon grumbled, but gave the order to withdraw. As the troops marched away, the workers celebrated with a song of labor unity. We know it as Chelsea Dagger.

Blaine and Bryce just looked at each other nervously as Claude approached them. Smug, he said, “So, let's iron out the paperwork and get these boys toiling again.”


Session Four

Once on the second floor of the palace, Crystal, Candace and Cammy went after the negator. Meg and Giles went for the entrance controls. With the negator in full effect, it was going to take a while. That meant holding off the bulk of the security guards with nothing but ineffective smiters and Kathryn's staff.

The first guard Kathryn faced blocked her staff with his bare hands and kicked her in the stomach. She doubled over.

“Ow... that's not usually how it goes,” she coughed.

While fending off a guard of his own, Frank said, “Magic enhances your physical abilities, doesn't it? You might notice a diminished physical ability.”

With a groan, Kathryn replied, “Thanks for the head's up.”

Indeed, when it came to direct physical contact, even five muscular Hageshoni guards were a tough match for the remaining troops. The idea was to hope Meg and Giles came through and prevented any backup from arriving, and hold on until the negator was destroyed. They were barely doing that.

If they had had all day to outlast the guards and Reggie's girls had any clue where the negator was, things may have turned out different. As it was, only two of the guards had been knocked out when an entire army started pouring in from every entrance.

Donovan snickered. “And more opponents stream in to their deaths.”

“I... don't think so.” Molly looked around and concluded that escape was impossible unless they had magic. She tried firing an energy bolt; they did not have magic. The seven of them lined up against the only wall with no doors and threw their smiters to the floor.

Commander Erlon strolled in, chest puffed out as he sauntered past the three lines of soldiers. “Did you really think you could outwit the entire 10th Division of the Glorious Hageshoni World Brigade?” he asked.

“Yes,” Frank said. “We really did.”

“I warned you that we were sniffed out,” Molly mumbled. It may not have been loud enough for Frank to hear, and Molly wasn't sure if she wanted him to.

“Let me guess, using civil unrest to distract us while you stage a hostile coup of the palace?” Erlon gloated as if he had figured it out himself.

“We had nothing to do with the strike,” Reggie said. “Just heard about it and saw an opportunity.”

“Noble effort to exonerate them, but wrong again.” Claude burst into the room, but there were so many soldiers in the room that nobody heard him. He squeezed his way through everybody.

Molly and Renee steeled themselves to prevent an outburst in front of Frank. Kathryn failed to, but merely muttered a generic, “You bastard.”

“As I was saying, there's no sense trying to protect the laborers. As it turns out-”

Claude was interrupted again. This time it was Giles and Meg coming through a different entrance. Unsurprisingly, they were instantly alarmed.

“Oh wow...” Giles marveled at the additional enemies in the room. “Boy, did we get turned around!”

“I knew we should have tried the stairs,” Maple mumbled as they raised their hands and joined their allies along the wall.

“Is there anyone else that we need to check into the dungeon?” Commander Erlon asked. “Or will we need to thin out the numbers beforehand?” Renee gulped. Everyone could guess how they thinned out the prison population here.

“Troy's missing,” Claude said. Before Frank could ask how he knew Troy, Claude continued, “But unfortunately, it's a moot point.”

A hush fell over the room. There were few scenarios where it was unfortunate that it didn't matter that Troy was missing. Giles had to ask, “Unfortunate for you or for us?”

Claude didn't answer. “With the ruse exposed, the strike organizers saw no need to pretend they weren't connected to this little attack. While they agreed to my terms in general, they did insist on an unfortunate bit of language.”

As he was staring at Giles, the term 'unfortunate' was again vague. “What, did they sell us out or something?” Kathryn asked.

“Unfortunate for us!” Claude hated having to clarify himself. “They insisted on a safe passage clause for anybody that happened to be trespassing on state property today.”

“What?” Commander Erlon was livid. Without making eye contact, Claude handed him a contract. He skimmed it through, then slammed it to the ground. “That's what I get for relying on your kind. Some factions would rather not be taken in by fine print.”

“Wait, what just happened?” Kathryn asked.

“I think Blaine and Bryce just saved our asses,” Molly replied. She turned back to Claude. “Those two really stood up for us like that?”

Claude glanced briefly at his grumbling superior before staring back at Molly. “That's the thing about a good minion, Madam. One can be stubbornly loyal, even when it isn't expected of him.” He raised an eyebrow to remove all doubt.

“Guards!” Commander Erlon barked. “Escort them off the premises. And if any of them ever show up again, kill them on sight.”

Frank's troop wasted no time following them out. As Reggie passed the commander, he said, “Oh yeah, you might want to track down my girls upstairs unless you feel like splurging for a new negator.” Commander Erlon glared at Reggie, but obeyed.

The room cleared out in a hurry, leaving just the commander and Claude. Claude picked up the contract and straightened out any crumpled pages. “We should consider ourselves lucky. Had you just attacked the workers like I'm sure you were planning to, this building would be under MST control.”

“Lucky? Our labor expenses at the factory went up fifteen percent, productivity is down one-seventh and thanks to your poor negotiating you let them all go. Tell me why I shouldn't have you discharged on the spot.”

Claude shrugged and flipped to a page in the contract. “If you look closely, you'll see that news of both their strike and the resolution are to remain confidential, which will avoid repeated incidents around town. Also, this minor concession is sure to take the momentum out of any anti-Hageshoni sentiments in town. They hate you just a little less now. Plus I trust that you'll increase the defenses here, and that the MST knows it and will shy away from future attacks.”

Walking away, he added, “Just because there were no shots fired doesn't mean we didn't just win the war.”

“Mr. McClellan...” Commander Erlon's voice remained testy. “I said tell me why I shouldn't have you discharged on the spot.”

Claude turned around. “That wasn't argument enough?”

“The Hokoni are gone and you claim that we've won the war. Therefore I no longer see any use for you. Prepare for reassignment. I'll be contacting your superiors immediately.”

Erlon marched back to his office before Claude could protest. He didn't. He wasn't sure if he wanted to. Given how little respect he received for navigating the Hageshoni out of that situation, this was probably a good thing. Claude was just frustrated. He left the palace, already imagining a way to let out his frustration.


Session Five

The devastation of the operation's failure was no more apparent than in the revelry at Reggie's Endrell headquarters. The factory workers were still unaccustomed to civil disobedience, so breaking the terms of confidentiality were out of the question. Still, they were thrilled to have fought and earned working conditions that were slightly less oppressive, and they had to celebrate somewhere.

That meant precious limited space for Frank's troop to grumble about how poorly it all went. The concessions at the factory were hardly a sign of change, yet pacified the locals and denied Frank the swell of popular support he'd need for radical upheaval. Even if Endrell did see more labor unrest and earned a better way of life, such a transformation would take forever and carried no guarantee that the Hageshoni would be swept out of power. That's what the MST needed, and a content population made that less likely.

To Frank's dismay, few in his troop were grumbling with him. Reggie and his unit were among the celebrants dancing along to the local music (either some of the workers had instruments stashed away or they hired a band on very short notice). They stood no actual benefit from the agreement, but damned if they were saying no a party. Kathryn and Renee weren't center stage, but they were watching in amusement and nudging Molly to do the same. Giles was doing one better, trying to get her to dance. Frank was surprised that she was even putting up with it.

Donovan was grumbling. That was encouraging. In fact, everything Frank had seen out of Donovan so far had been encouraging. Wait, hear this out: while unsuccessful, Donovan tried to trick the Hokoni into an alliance. He and his minions were so flashy helping the townspeople during the bombing that they swayed several into joining the local movement. And for all Frank knew, those minions really had been the ones who saved their skins with some clever negotiating. It was all smoke and mirrors, but with Frank desperate to find some way to continue the fight, he was a key component in his Hail Mary pass.

With everybody else otherwise engaged, Frank whispered to him, “Donovan, can I have a word?”

They went into a private office, Donovan taking several glances over his shoulder to make sure they weren't seen. Frank didn't care all that much; he just wanted someplace quiet. Once the door closed, Frank asked, “What's your impression of the mission so far?”

“An utter disaster,” Donovan spat. “How can they celebrate after such a thorough defeat. And barely with a chance to fight even!”

“I couldn't have said it better. I hate to say this, but with the Puurxan and elves gone and the locals sated, we're running out of paths to victory. We really only have one chance, and it's not something I can throw an entire unit at.”

Donovan grinned. “Ah... are you suggesting only I am capable of the treachery necessary for this?”

“Not so much treachery as personality. You seem to have an ability to gain support from the town. And given how Blaine and Bryce were able to bail us out-”

“Which they have been reprimanded for. Next time I insist that we fall in battle.”

Frank ignored that. “If you have smart kids like that as minions, it says an awful lot about your charisma. Such charisma will be necessary to win over the dwarves in Tulas.”

Donovan nodded. “Ah... in need of another legion to die for the cause?”

“I don't like to put it in those terms, but yes, we do need additional force. If the Hageshoni value the factory in Endrell so much that they'd resolve a strike peacefully, their relationship with the dwarves may be strained. I want you three to travel there, find out, and if possible gain their support.”

“A dwarven army at my command? Surely that will lead to conquest.” He stood up. “We leave tonight.”

Despite recoiling at the sudden movement, Frank nodded. “Yes. I'm sure your minions will scour up directions. Have them report back to me. In the meantime, we'll be returning to base before Commander Erlon can send his forces after us.”

Never one to take the Hageshoni at their word, Frank insisted on having someone guard the entrance. Troy drew the short straw. After convincing his dad that doing a patrol outside would be quite suspicious, he settled into the reception desk. It meant missing all the fun inside, but he wasn't in a party mood. Like Frank, Troy saw it as nothing but a failed mission as well. And he spent the whole time outside, so couldn't feel the same relief over the agreement bailing them out.

It was a boring job, but Troy managed to stay alert enough to leap into position after hearing a knock on the door. Trigger at the ready, he shouted, “Who is it? We're closed.”

An envelope appeared under the door, flying in the air and fluttering around wildly as if caught in a breeze. Being indoors, there was none, but the paper made a show of it anyway, dancing through the air until it finally evaded Troy's hands and flew into his face.

The envelope was addressed to 'Madam M. Pearson.' For a moment, Troy wanted to rush out the door and find the messenger, but understood how terrible an idea that would have been. Instead, he went inside to deliver it, understanding that this action may have been equally terrible.

“Um... Molly?” For once, the sight of him didn't appear to ruin her day.

Instead, she replied, “Problem outside?”

“Maybe.” He handed her the letter.

Giles chuckled. “'Madam...' they're so formal here.”

“Wait is that from...?” Renee watched eagerly as Molly opened it.

“I would assume so,” Molly said, far more neutral than anybody else. The moment she pulled out the letter, she glanced at Giles and Renee, then stood up and left for the reception area.

Troy followed. She was staring at the paper inside, but stopped when she saw him. She rolled her eyes and said, “My intention was privacy.”

“I'm still supposed to be watching the door,” he said, just as hostile. He walked past her and reclaimed his seat at the desk. “What does Claude want?”

After she finished scanning the letter, she replied, “He wants to go out for a drink.”

With a raised eyebrow, Troy said, “Really? After all that, now he wants to be sociable?”

Troy scoffed and shook his head. That prevented him from noticing Molly unlocking and opening the door. “Where are you going?” he asked.

Molly blinked at him. “I'm going out for a drink.”

He jumped to his feet as Molly disappeared behind the door. “Wait, you can't just leave! He's a demon! He nearly got us killed! And besides that we have a curfew. What am I supposed to tell Dad?”

Molly poked her head back in and said, “You're not supposed to tell him anything. Understood?”


“Don't wait up!” Molly sang, slamming the door behind her.


Session Six

Molly wasn't sure if it was coincidence or design that Claude chose the same tavern where Reggie and his girls had first met Graham and Arthur. It was certainly the only one she could find. It was half-filled, but late in the night and the barstaff were getting a head start on picking up chairs. One of bartenders looked at Molly with mild revulsion, unhappy that yet another customer had arrived to prolong her night.

She found Claude, silently signaling her over to a corner table. The surrounding tables all had chairs on them.

Claude smiled as she sat down, “I wasn't sure if you would actually come. Or even if he'd let you off the leash.”

“I assumed it was something important. I doubt your people would be happy to see us convening.”

After pausing to let Molly ordered a drink, Claude said, “Not really. Just wanted to chat before I head off.”

“You're leaving?”

“Discharged, to use their parlance. My solution wasn't appreciated by the management. I have no complaints though. I'm quite happy to leave this place. I hope you are too.”

Molly scoffed. “I wouldn't put it past Frank to keep trying. Impressive solution though. Not only does it take away our element of surprise, but also stems popular support for rebellion. The Hageshoni would have never considered it.” She paused to accept her drink from the barmaid, then eyed him. “I told Frank to abort the mission as soon as Renee saw you.”

Claude nodded. “Had I not spotted her, you would have probably succeeded. It was a good plan to use against the Hageshoni. I'm assuming Frank would have traded the lives of all those factory workers for control of Endrell?”

“I don't doubt it. He certainly didn't care about the Puurxan.” Molly took a long drink. “So were they suspicious about the escape clause or are we still pretending it was Bryce and Blaine?”

“Erlon thinks I'm incompetent, not treasonous. He's angrier about the workers, to be honest. He'll make sure you can't get in again.”

“I suppose this is the part where I'm supposed to thank you for saving us. We'd all be pretty much dead if you hadn't, would we?”

“I suppose I could chalk it up to professional courtesy the way you pretend to. But we both know that doesn't exist in this profession.”

Claude paused, looking Molly in the eyes. “That whole invasion really put things into place. It's fine to squabble over territory and grimoires and such. It's in our nature. But why are we killing each other over it? And who's really dying? Certainly nobody important.”

“Don't suggest that Kurt wasn't important,” Molly spat.

“To you and his friends and family, sure. But to the MST? I'll give you a better one: who was Marie important to?”

Molly wanted to suggest Kathryn, but the fact that she was already resorting to a friend, and not even a best friend, proved his point.

“That spells out everything. I was quite complicit in executing my orders and leading that invasion. I made your lives hell and I do not apologize for it. Troy and his group broke every rule in the book trying to rescue you and Renee. Look who died.”

“Clearly, Troy's actions-”

“Other than sneaking out, Troy's actions are consistent with what MST leadership would recommend. And Sho or anyone in the Hageshoni would probably do the same thing.” He shook his head and sighed. “You know, I should have done more to help her. We came from very different places, but we were both Urayoni. She was fine at what she was sent to do. She could easily pretend that none of us knew magic. But when everything changed... it was unfair to expect her to adjust. I should have helped her sort things out. Maybe she wouldn't have put herself in that position.”

Molly nodded. It made a lot of sense, even if it was strange to think about the invasion from a demon's perspective. While it certainly didn't absolve Troy, she was also surprised that Claude would blame his own faction for Marie's death.

“That doesn't speak very well for your faction.” She leaned in and cracked a smug smile. “I thought you were still trying to sign me over.”

Claude jumped back in his seat and stammered, “Right... I forgot about that. Although that was not a required part of the mission... which is technically over anyway.” Regaining his composure, he added, “Besides, it's not like you'd actually join us. For all your protests, you still serve loyally.”

“You don't know that. Frank would have my head if he found out I was here.”

“You said you asked him to abort your mission. Yet you still carried it out when he refused.”

“I don't care about the mission. I just want to go home. Disobeying Frank isn't going to help that.”

A wide grin flashed on Claude's face. “Really...” Molly wasn't sure if he was amusing or didn't believe her. “ about we put that to the test?”

Molly set down her drink and readied her trigger finger. She had no idea what Claude was planning, but she knew well enough to stay on guard with a statement like that.

“Since I no longer have any interest in what goes on here, I'm going to tell you how to beat the Hageshoni.”

Molly relaxed her finger, but narrowed an eye. “What? What do you mean?”

“You're all under the impression that taking control of Endrell is the secret to defeating the Hageshoni. It's useful, of course, but the real source of their power is nowhere near here. It's also vulnerable to a surprise attack.”

“What? And you're just going to tell me? What's the catch?”

“You still have to tell Frank. And then you still have to go through with the attack. While it's the easiest path to victory, it's no gimmee.”

Molly looked around the room, then again asked, “Okay, but what's the catch?”

Claude let out a cackle. “Oh, this will be fun. Okay, so there's a temple in the middle of Ursu. You know, orc territory. It's called the Shrine of Laug and it's a holy site for the orcs. Whoever controls it holds dominion over the orcs. Orcs are forbidden from waging combat on their sacred ground, so the Hageshoni have to defend it themselves. They won't make it easy, but if you catch them off guard... you've got a shot.”

With Molly's mouth opened wide, Claude stood up. “I think I better be going now.” He took two steps away, then stopped. Without looking back, he added, “Although I really should stay and see how this plays out.”

“No!” Molly snapped out of her shock in time. She stood up and marched up to him. More stern than any order she had given him in student council, she barked, “Claude, this is my final command. You are to leave here immediately. If what you just told me is true, the Hageshoni will not let you get away with that.”

Claude didn't see the severity of it. “By the time anything comes of it, I'll be well off their radar.”

“I don't care. Get out. I saved your life when I didn't turn you in. You saved ours when you let us go. I need to know that no matter what happens, one of us was able to get out safely.”

He couldn't protest that. Claude could see it meant too much to her to take lightly. So he smiled and extended a hand. “I guess I'll be off then. It's been an honor working for you and a delight working against you.”

Molly shook the hand and nodded, but as he started to walk away, she called out again, “What's the catch?”

Claude stopped and looked back at her. She continued, “Why would you tell me something that important? If the information's correct, we win. You realize that, right?”

“Of course. I don't care who wins. Likewise, you say you just want to go home.” Claude shrugged. “If you want to go home, all you have to do is not tell Frank.”

That was the catch. And as Claude left the bar, leaving Molly's life forever, she knew it was a nasty one.





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