Magical Security Taskforce




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Chapter 65: The Cost of Secrets

Session One

Other than Frank, everybody on the wagon back to base was happy to get out of Endrell. Reggie and his girls stayed behind again, but mostly to verify that Claude's concession did indeed quiet the populace. They were still mostly miserable, but they learned an important lesson of talking things over peacefully and not resorting to violence- a nice moral for children but very inconvenient for the MST. Not that it mattered, as the palace remained on high alert and any attack would have been suicide. The Hageshoni had successfully defended the city and Reggie's unit was ordered to return to base as soon as they could sublet the office space.

This was a foregone conclusion to Frank, and leaving Reggie behind was done not only to put it to rest, but also to account for Donovan's absence. Frank reasoned that sending the entire troop home except Donovan would have looked mighty suspicious to Molly. He reasoned wrong as Molly didn't even ask, but he liked to have his ass covered. Sending Donovan to court the dwarves was a desperate move and there were all sorts of situations that could lead to him not returning. Frank didn't know his lack of concern for these was pretty consistent with everybody else.

Until he got an update from Tulas, the mission was at a standstill. Frank wasn't going to send anybody home until he received that update, but he couldn't do anything but ponder the failures. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that only one element surprised him. The Hageshoni solution to the strike was not a Hageshoni solution at all. Which led him to believe the negotiator that freed the army to return to the palace was not Hageshoni. That young man seemed unusual, and Frank realized it was important based on one word- 'madam.'


“You actually went to see him?” Renee asked.

“You just let him walk away?” Yuki asked.

“Did you drink anything with alcohol?” Kathryn asked.

While Frank stared into an unknown future, the rest of the troop was in the back of the wagon, peppering Molly with questions, excited about her blatant violation of Frank's rules.

“Yes, yes, and yes,” Molly answered. Her audience exploded.

“Ha! You alkie,” Kathryn said, playfully punching Molly in the shoulder. “Next time tell me when you're going bar hopping. I bet they don't ID here.”

“What did he want?” Giles asked.

Kathryn leaned into Giles and said, “What do you think he wanted? Don't be jealous now.”

“He wanted to say goodbye,” Molly said. “That's all. I didn't think about it at the time, but he and I did have a good working relationship. He was nice enough to bail us out yesterday, so I'll give him my time.”

“He really did that? I wonder why,” Yuki said.

“Because neither of us are supposed to be here. Not every encounter between a mage and a demon has to end with a fight to the death. No matter what the MST says.”

Nobody said anything, but Renee and Kathryn each stole a glance at Troy. He shook his head. “If he really saved us like that, then whatever.”

Now Kathryn made a point of turning to him and frowning. “That's funny, because I remember Ma-”

Molly's silencing spell stopped that. “Please drop it. I'm not in the mood.”

“All rise for the mighty commander!” Mindy shouted. She made a big show of saluting and stood, bumping her head on the roof. The others just watched Frank approach.

Frank saluted back. “Nothing important. I just need to talk to Troy.”

“Oh, sure.” Troy was surprised, but happy to get out of that conversation.

He followed his father to the front of the wagon and asked, “What's up, Dad?”

Frank stared down the trail and took a deep breath. “You all know somebody else here, don't you? Somebody helping the Hageshoni.”

Troy looked back into the wagon. From their position, they couldn't hear the conversation inside. He hoped the reverse was true. “Um... yeah. Claude. He led the attack on the school. Urayoni, I think?”

Frank nodded, but didn't change his expression. “That would have been important to know. In order to be successful, it's crucial that we know what the enemy is planning. Having an Urayoni in the picture changes their tactics.”

“Well... Molly told you before we went in. She said Renee was spotted.”

“I remember that,” Frank said. “I also remember that you somehow knew who she was talking about.” He turned to his son, eyes steeled. “Which means you knew he was here beforehand.”

Troy tried not to panic, but those eyes were daunting. He turned away from them and mumbled, “We may have run into him in town.”

“Why didn't you report him?”

That was a great question. It was a better question for Molly. Troy had no objection to subduing Claude and throwing him at the mercy of the MST. In fact, he would have liked that very much, and was unhappy at Molly for not making Claude squirm. He had every reason to explain this to his father and let Molly fend for herself.

“I... I don't know.” What he really didn't know was why he was hesitating. He understood why Molly let Claude go. It was the same reason she had been easing off Troy. Whether it was the constant run of violence, the loss of power or Kathryn's influence, Molly was growing tired of all the conflict. She was done instigating for the sake of instigating, even if it meant letting Claude walk. After his brush with death, Troy could respect the idea of not starting fights whenever the opportunity arose.

Not that Frank was going to be swayed by Troy's inner monologue. “Troy, you realize that letting him go was seriously irresponsible. It may have meant the difference between success and failure. Now as much as I want to forget about it, I'm not making the same mistake. I will report this, and you'll come across much better if you explain yourself.”

As much as Troy respected Molly's newfound pacifism, he could sense his father's disappointment. After he had just gained Frank's respect after years of Molly stealing the attention, he wasn't about to lose it for her sake.

Troy stood up and said, “Ask Molly. It was her decision.”

He returned to the back of the wagon, sat down and tried not to make eye contact with anybody. Everybody stared at him. Nobody wanted to be the first to ask.

The rest of the ride was in silence.


Session Two

Upon their return to the base, most of the troop was left to suffer through the boredom of having neither modern technology nor Reggie to keep them entertained. Molly was dreading it. She knew she was in for it if Frank found out she had visited Claude. Therefore, she had to trust that either Frank was totally oblivious and wanted to chat with Troy for unrelated reasons, or Troy was going to be more loyal to her than his father. As much as she had tried to give him a break, she wasn't optimistic. Still, other than Troy she had covered her tracks well and it was possible Frank wasn't suspicious. She had to pretend he wasn't for the time being.

“Molly, please come to my office.” Even via telepathy, Frank was firm. Firm was his default setting, however, so Molly still couldn't be sure this was what she was dreading.

“Sir?” She hid her trepidation as she reported.

“Have a seat, Molly.” She did without hesitating. He took a deep breath and led with the fastball. “So who's this Claude character?”

She steeled her face, knowing better than to show any emotion around him. “He's an Urayoni demon. He integrated himself as a key member of my student council at school, then helped coordinate the Hageshoni in their attack last February. He's still working with them, apparently, as he was with them yesterday.”

“Did you know he was here before yesterday?”

“Yes. Troy and I saw him at the hotel the day before the bombing. That's why I suggested that we should abort the mission. If he recognized Renee, it would give away our plan.”

“Yet you only said Renee had been recognized. Not by an Urayoni. And certainly not by somebody who knows you all. That's vital information. Why would you withhold it?”

Molly found it harder not to flinch. “We were in a hurry. There was no time to write a novel for you.”

“Why didn't you report Claude the first time you saw him?” Frank changed gears so quickly Molly couldn't help but stammer.

“He...” Molly fished for a moment for something that he could find justifiable. “He provided information.”

Frank didn't reply, only gesturing for her to continue.

She struggled to remember what Claude had told her the first time. “It wasn't as useful as I had hoped. He confirmed some of the Hageshoni's methods and that they knew what the Hokoni were planning. He also said that they were prepared for any follow up attack, but that sounded more boastful than anything else. He certainly didn't say anything about the bombing.”

“It's not your job to decide whether that's useless information. It's mine.”

“One of the agreements we made was not to tell our superiors about our conversation.”

Frank frowned. “Did you honestly trust him to keep his end of the bargain?”

“He did. And yes, I did trust him. He worked for me long enough for him to have as much loyalty to me as to the Hageshoni.”

“And you to him, it would seem,” Frank grumbled.

That tripped her up. She never considered that she'd owe anything to Claude. He was her minion, not the other way around.

“I don't understand it,” Frank said. “The only reason he ever worked for you was to keep tabs on you. He learned everything he could about you, then attacked you all when he had the opportunity. So now, rather than follow protocol, you for some reason believe that he would have any interest in helping you and make an agreement that gives us nothing and lets him continue to do evil.”

“I...” Molly wanted to say that Claude did still have some semblance of loyalty to her. Maybe not compared to his loyalty to the Urayoni, but to the Hageshoni. She wasn't sure she believed it herself. All she knew was that Claude wanted a chance to talk to her. “What would have happened to him if I had followed protocol?”

“He'd be arrested and prosecuted. You know that.”

Molly nodded. Frank may as well have said 'executed.' “I've seen too many of my classmates die. Demon or not, I'm not going to be responsible for another one.”

She sighed, hoping he'd understand and let it go. But she knew better, wincing the moment he spoke. “Molly, I didn't train you to be compassionate. You exist to fight demons and protect humanity. Your classmates don't matter. Now given the consequences of this, I have no choice but to write you up. You realize that if Bryce hadn't come through for us, your failure to act could have gotten us killed.”

“Bryce didn't insert the escape clause,” Molly blurted. It just came out, a correction she felt compelled to make, not considering any implications. Still, it was done and she was at least going to spin it in her favor. “Claude did. He didn't want us to die either.”

She wasn't sure how Frank would take that, or even if he'd believe it. He didn't give anything away at first. Finally, his response was, “How do you know?”

Molly tried not to give anything away with her face, but now she was panicking. No way would Frank buy Claude's code words. There was only one other way she could have learned that, and it involved a violation far worse than what she was already facing. She also couldn't blame Troy for this one.

She wasn't sure if it was the way she breathed or a flinch of her eyes, but Frank glowered. “Did you talk to him again last night?”

Bowing her head and barely audible, she said, “Yes, sir. The Hageshoni discharged him and he wanted to talk once more before he left Enriel.”

Frank wasn't looking at her. He had turned away, hand clenched in a fist. “You know, you had so much potential. I really thought that you could have been the greatest mage of your generation.” He shrugged. “And now this.” Facing her, he said, “I don't know what they'll do to you. Whatever it is, I can't help you.”

Despite expecting this, Molly was stunned. Her association with Claude was absolutely against the rules and she knew that. She didn't care, nor did she regret ensuring his safety. Yet she dreaded the consequences. She dreaded knowing that despite everything Donovan and Troy had gotten away with, she was up against worse. She was facing discharge, recalibration, and an empty life with a future she couldn't plan for. She was stunned that this wasn't what she dreaded most. She couldn't stand seeing Frank this disappointed in her. As much as she hated him, he had so much hope in her. And no matter how many years it had been since her harsh training, she still couldn't face letting him down.

“I mean, there's nothing to justify this. Given what he did to us, you can't defend it. You didn't gain anything, you didn't learn-”

“Shrine of Laug.” It was was out before she realized it, and by then it was too late. It was a reaction, some vocal muscle memory still conditioned as a faithful soldier.


Session Three

Molly hated herself for saying it, but knew there was only one path now. It didn't magically take the heat off of her, but it did disrupt Frank's scolding. “W... what about it?” he asked.

She gulped, steeled her face, and reported what she knew: “As I said, he had as much loyalty to me as he does to the Hageshoni. Since he was discharged, Claude told me their weak point. Take that and apparently we control the orcs.”

Frank scratched his chin. “Shrine of Laug...”

“Something to do with orcs obeying whoever controls their holy site. I found it a bit far-fetched myself. I mean, orcs having sacred ground where they can't attack? They're orcs. Either way, I was planning on telling you once we got back here. As you just said, you decide what's pertinent.”

Molly didn't question how she could act so professional all of a sudden. She always had that in her. Instead, she wanted someone to punch her out of the charade.

“I don't know,” Frank said with a huff. “I'll look into it. For your sake, you better be right. You're dismissed.”

She nodded and said, “Yessir.” Molly left the room before she could lose her composure.

Kathryn, Renee and Yuki were waiting in the living room. Probably Meg and Giles too but Molly didn't see them. She only saw her unit, the girls she had spent the last two years trying to keep alive. She was dooming them to risk their lives in one more unnecessary fight. They asked questions. Molly didn't answer, ignoring them as she ran up the stairs and to their quarters. She fell on her bed, face down and resisted the urge to break something.

Molly knew she had done the right thing in letting Claude off, but she hated him so much. His test was diabolical, and she had failed it miserably. If the information was correct, and Molly somehow knew it was, she and the entire troop would be throwing themselves straight into orc territory for another battle against the Hageshoni. She could have prevented it by staying silent. Claude somehow knew she wouldn't. Now she would have seen him killed a thousand times rather than keep her unit in this mess.

“I'm, um... sorry.” She had dived onto her bed so quickly she hadn't noticed that Troy was in the room. She was too startled by his presence to recognize his apology.

“I didn't want to tell him we met Claude,” he continued. “I mean I don't think it was a good call, but I got it, you know? You've been getting into fights all your life. I imagine you must be pretty sick of it.”

Again, Molly didn't respond. She wasn't sure if Troy was right. She didn't mind getting into fights, but did all of them have to have such dire consequences?

“I don't know, I just... couldn't stand the thought of letting Dad down. It's...” Troy paused, failing to come up with the words. “It's hard to explain.”

“There's no need,” she replied. Still laying down, she turned to look at him, shaking her head. “I know what you mean.”


“Frank, we really need to stop meeting like this,” Uriel deadpanned on the screen. “How'd your revolution go?”

Frank glared back. “I don't want to talk about it. I need you to look something up for me.”

“You know there are research team for that, right?”

“Those guys take days. Even longer with the new academy term starting.”

Uriel sighed. “Yes, and it's not like I'm busy filling in for Miller and half his staff while trying to keep tabs on my district.”

“Is anything actually happening in your district?”

After a long pause, Uriel slumped his shoulders. “No. With Molly's unit over there, it's back to the doldrums. Fire away.”

“I want to find out how the Hageshoni took this world in the first place. Molly came across some information that suggests some monument in Ursu might be of strategic importance.”

“You've been there how long and you don't know its history?”

“I know the basics, but remember that the ruling faction here burns down libraries for pep rallies. Exact records are hard to come by.”

Uriel nodded and reached for the phone, frowning the whole time. “Someone should really make this sort of stuff accessible in a universal database.”

As he dialed, Frank replied, “It's not online?”

Uriel shrugged, then spoke into the phone. “Yes, is this the library? It's Uriel. Can you cross-reference Hageshoni military records with Enriel?” After an awkward pause, he spelled Enriel for the librarian. Uriel glanced back at Frank, surprised that he maintained his composure the whole time. “Yes?” Uriel listened, and nodded. “If it has information on Enriel it's a good start. Can you zap it over to me?”

Whatever the response was, he closed his eyes in disgust. “Magic. You can do that, right?” His eyes widened at the next response, not that it made him feel better. “Oh. What do you mean by missing? Is it checked out?” Another pause, then Uriel sighed. “Lovely. Well if you find it or you think of any alternatives, call me.”

“That didn't sound promising,” Frank said.

“One book in the whole library that could help you conquer Enriel and it's disap...” Uriel paused as he looked away from the screen. There was a book under a stand of papers on his desk. The binding matched the title the librarian had given.

Uriel picked it up and stared at the cover. The cover featured an army of triumphant demons hoisting their weapons high as they stood on the steps of a temple above a field strewn with their fallen adversaries. “Well, I'll be damned.”

Frank shook his head. “Always remember to return your books to the library.”

“I didn't check this out.” Uriel checked the inside of the cover to see if the check-out card was still in its pocket, but the library had long evolved from such primitive filing systems. “How the hell did this get here?”

“Whatever. What does it say?”

He waited as Uriel checked the index and flipped through the book slowly. It was not a large book, but it was dense with text. The Hageshoni had taken a lot of worlds over the last millennium. Some of them multiple times.

Uriel pointed to a passage and summarized, “Enriel... once shared evenly by the four native races. Hmm... the Hageshoni actually took control by attacking the orcs.” He skimmed further before explaining, “They marched to the orc's largest city, but before arriving the orcs mysteriously surrendered and pledged their service... which gave the Hageshoni an army large enough to conquer and hold Endrell.”

With a slow nod, Frank said, “What was the last place they took?”

Turning a page, Uriel said, “Well... here's a record of the battles in their campaign. Talk about anti-climactic... hundreds of troops lined up in the Battle of Desolation Plain... bloody mess-”

“Cleaned up nicely though,” Frank observed. “A few flower patches and it's not so desolate anymore.”

Uriel cleared his throat. “But the final battle had a listed army of seven orcs. They were wiped. Three Hageshoni casualties. That was someplace called the Shrine of Laug. No more hostilities listed beyond that.”

“Thank goodness.” Frank cracked a smile. “Call up our support troops. We know our target.”


Session Four

For all the evils of the Hageshoni, one of their most positive contributions to Enriel was the construction of a proper road connecting Endrell with the mountainous region of Tulas. It was for selfish reasons, of course: as determined as they were to strike a deal to purchase weapons and raw materials from the dwarves, they failed to consider a good method of transportation once an agreement was in place. The dwarves were more than happy to take money from outsiders, but were less cooperative establishing a supply route. The Hageshoni spent the next twelve years clearing plains, chopping down trees and blowing up mountains in order to create a nice gravel road to Tulas. For some reason, the elves had a problem with this, but that's why the bombing of the Hokoni was called the Fourth Endrell Massacre and not the first.

The road made Donovan's journey easier, but not faster. Even after Bryce secured a wagon a few hours in (he never explained how), the trip still took two days. It may have gone faster had Donovan not commanded Blaine to stop and hunt for food every few hours, but they arrived safely at the Tulas border where the road ended.

Although the dwarves did not permit an interstate highway in their territory, Hageshoni traders had left clear directions at the border leading to the dwarven mines. They also had “accidentally” cleared over a few trees, while vandalizing others to create subtle road signs. Donovan ignored all of this. Blaine and Bryce couldn't stop admiring the handiwork.

In time, the secret road turned up into the mountains. The hike would have become very difficult if Donovan hadn't given up halfway and cast a flight spell to levitate to a giant door embedded into a cliffside. Ancient markings lined the surface, slightly pronounced but faded in the elements.

“Stand back!” Donovan declared, stepping closer to the door. “I will attempt to translate.”

When he got close enough to read the markings, however, his Lucidrol kicked in and their secrets became a clear message: “Shipping and Receiving Only. Visitors Use Front Door.”

“So... where's the front door?” Bryce asked.

Donovan pounded on the door anyway. Blaine said, “I feel like we should start looking for the other entrance. I doubt they'll let us in unless we're delivery guys. I'm sure they're set in their ways like that.”

“Nah... you say you're FedEx, Donovan can be UPS and I'll be Estes.”

The door opened. Nobody was surprised that a dwarf answered, but all three had trained their eyes straight ahead and had to look down. Nothing about this particular dwarf was unusual, down to the dirty beard and generally miffed look on his face. They probably should have asked why he was carrying an axe, but it fit the stereotype.

“Well it's about damn time,” he said, shaking the axe. His voice carried over the muffled sound of iron being struck inside. “We were beginning to give up on you lot. We've got three months worth of product sitting here and we'd like someone to pick it up and pay for it. We all got families to feed, you know.”

Blaine stammered. “Uh, actually, we're not-”

“Yes... about that...” Donovan interrupted. He glared down at the dwarf. “The powers that be have made other arrangements and we would like to negotiate an alternative.”

The dwarf stared back, an intense look in his gray eyes. He blinked, then turned into the compound and shouted, “Mike! Get yer arse over here!”

“Mike?” Bryce asked.

“Operations Manager,” the dwarf replied. “Right good tosser. Chief's grandson.”

“And his name's... Mike?”

“ And I'm Tony if you actually need something done 'round here. 'Scuse me.” Tony walked away, leaving the door open.

Bryce shook his head. “Dwarves named Mike and Tony... Renee would be throwing a fit.”

Donovan did not wait for Mike. He stepped inside. He grinned at the rows of armaments awaiting him. Racks upon racks of swords, axes and halberds, blades reflecting the light from the many torches along the wall. The cave was supported well, but open earth still dominated the walls. Several tunnels led further in; some went down. Most had tracks, some with elevated walkways adjacent to them, roped off to prevent accidents. Blaine was jealous that the dwarves cared more about occupational safety than Donovan.

“Excellent... the arms have already arrived,” Donovan mumbled to himself.

Mike appeared out of one of the walkways without tracks, the only one that led up. He was taller than Tony, just about approaching Blaine's height in fact. His beard was cut short at chin level, not counting the field of stray hairs on his neck, a fashion faux pas that never quite reached the steps of Tulas.

“Well, speak of the bloody devil,” Mike said, his accent distinctly and inexplicably Liverpudlian. “I was just sitting down to a meeting to discuss what to do with you lot.”

“They say they want to review the agreement,” said Tony.

“Then why don't you join us? Tony, grab these men a cup of tea and let's hash something out.”

Donovan didn't move at first, but Blaine and Bryce followed obediently. Only after the minions led the way did Donovan follow at a safe distance. The tunnel gave way to scaffolding overlooking the main factory line. Other than being inside a mountain, it reminded the minions of the conditions in the Endrell factory. The mountain had been hollowed out enough to prevent the smoke from interfering, but it was still dirty as all hell.

Mike pointed at the pile of finished product loaded into a cart. “Even though we haven't seen you in forever, we're still running at full capacity. What else can we do with these slobs? Scale back and let 'em starve?”

He continued up the walkway, through another tunnel and a side door. The three humans followed him in. Donovan failed to duck and banged his forehead. Inside, twelve dwarves sat around a stained oak table. Ancient runes were carved into the front wall, translated as “1) Mining 2) Forging 3) ????? 4) Profit.”

Gesturing to nearby chairs, Mike said, “Have a seat. Meet the board of Tulas Enterprises: Ed, Ted, Brad, Chad, Al, Hal, Sal, Larry, Gary, Gerry, Gerald and George.” All twelve looked at the humans with disdain. All were dressed very well compared to Tony, some even with suits that would have passed for stylish in the capital. Brad, Sal and Gary didn't even have beards. Gerald was bald.

Mike walked to the front of the room. “It's fortunate our guests showed up as we're trying to head off a total hash-up in the making. Despite solid sales growth in refined minerals and an increase in materials productions, our Q2 sales are projected to dip a ton year over year. Now I assume you lot read Ted's assessment report, but let's have Ted give it a go.”

Ted nodded and opened a report of at least 200 pages. “Our conclusion is that it's due to our top client not purchasing or picking up its contracted shipment since the last month of Q1.”

“Is Legal looking into that?”

“It's a clear breach, but as the client rules the world, they may be hostile to litigation,” Gerald replied.

“But why wouldn't they want our product?”

Hal answered, “We weighed a number of different metrics and determined that outside conditions should be very favorable to sales. Recent unrest down south should be boosting demand, but the numbers don't back that up.”

“Wait...” Bryce said. He was loud enough to get their attention, but his voice became hushed once he did. “You guys know they have a factory in Endrell, right? They're making their own weapons.”

After a pause, the entire board erupted. All thirteen looked around, yelling about how this happened, the implications of lost production, and lots of talk about earnings reports, stockholder trust and downsizing. It was chaos.

Donovan sat back and grinned. “Well done, Bryce. Now this is a council I can enjoy.”


Session Five

It took a while for Mike to calm the board down, mostly because he patiently let them get their grievances off their (thick and hairy) chests. He called for order only upon the threat of one of the dwarves flipping a table. He did so by shouting until the others stopped, then pointing at Donovan. “You! Explain yourself!”

Donovan grinned. “It would seem they have altered the deal... pray they don't alter it further.”

Blaine smacked his forehead. Bryce said, “Donovan, have you even seen Star Wars?”

“You think you can march in here and gloat about this?” Mike shouted. “We need those sales dollars!”

“Explain why we shouldn't lob your head off,” Gary said.

“We got plenty of shiny new axes downstairs thanks to you!” added Al.

“Excellent,” Donovan cooed. “For we are not here on behalf of your oppressors. We are here to raise an army to fight them.”

That hushed them up real good. Mike leaned in towards Gerald and asked, “Can we do that?”

“Uh, no. That's an civic matter,” Gerald replied.

“We can start lobbying for action,” Larry suggested.

“Not if we're broke,” Chad said.

Hal pointed at Larry and Chad. “Not necessarily. If we can lobby the high council to begin a conflict, they will then need a supply of weapons, which we can then supply to them, thereby funding our lobbying effort!”

Several appreciative nods followed. The board seemed very happy with such innovative thinking.

“For a remote fantasy village, they're sure learning quickly,” Blaine mumbled.

“Nah, that's the oldest trick in the Hageshoni playbook,” Bryce replied.

Ed raised a hand. “What if the war effort fails?”

“It won't! Our steel is better than theirs!” Mike proclaimed.

“They still buy their steel from us.”

Hal waved him off. “Even if we lose the war, we'll have sold enough to salvage Q2. We can worry about Q3 in Q3.”

The meeting continued like this, mostly concerned with creating a lobbying budget and figuring out the accounting behind that. It was all tedious; Bryce nodded off halfway through. Either way, the end decision was to hammer out a final proposal to vote on in a week.

In all, the backing of an influential corporation (regardless of their motivation) only helped Donovan's effort at getting the dwarves to join the war effort. So naturally, Donovan was displeased and protested to Mike as soon as the meeting ended.

“How can you stand for this circus? We must strike now!”

Mike took it in stride. “I think you came to the wrong place. I mean, we'll see if we can't get things started for you, but we're not in charge of the army. Hell, I don't even know if Tulas has an army. We don't get out much, if you haven't noticed.”

Donovan only glared back. Mike wasn't intimidated by the figure towering over him. Instead, he scratched his minimal beard. “Have you actually tried talking to my granddad? The chief? It'll take us a while to come up with a formal proposal. If you go up and explain everything, he might come around early.”

“Why don't you?” Blaine asked. “You're his son, and you run a major business here. You'd have more of an in.”

Mike shrugged. “Like I care about any of this. I'm just giving the rest of the board an excuse to crunch numbers. Keeps 'em busy. Makes 'em feel important. Come on, I'll take you to his office. He's usually not doing anything.”

He led them out. Blaine mumbled, “Wow, he is a tosser,” then snuck a wind gust at Bryce's head to wake him up.

Outside the factory, Main Street Tulas was very open and bright for an underground city. The ceiling was lofted and supported with steel columns decorated with brass plating. Strands of lit torches bridged each column, illuminating the road between the mine and the domed town hall on the other side. The hall was the largest building, but not by much. The entire street was lined with stores, each stacked with one or two floors worth of what could only be described as condominiums.

The stores ranged from essentials to luxuries. At least a third sold some sort of jewelry. The human visitors were amazed at how frivolous so much of this merchandise was. Several dwarves sat on benches, smoking cigarettes as they read books or magazines. Blaine was pretty sure one was looking at whatever passed for pornography.

Mike neither commented nor showed any interest in giving them the tour. He led them through the street as if it wasn't bound to raise a hundred questions. Donovan had none, and was likely struggling to remember why they were there. The minions were looking in every direction but forward. Bryce was impressed when a woman on the second floor emptied a chamberpot out the window and into a drainage pipe that led well away from the street. Partially because of the effort at a waste management system, partially because he'd never seen a female dwarf before.

The hall was large, but not decorated as elaborately as the one in Endrell. Inside, it was little more than a simple office building. Mike led them upstairs to a large door with a brass plate reading “Dimsgrud the Elder.” He knocked and opened the door in the same motion.

“Hey Gramps, got some outsiders that want us to start some trouble with the other regions.”

Donovan couldn't see the figure on the other side, but heard the gruff reply: “Who doesn't these days? Let 'em in and I'll deal with it.”

“All yours,” Mike said to Donovan, stepping out of the doorway and walking away. Donovan and his minions entered to find a stark brown room with little more than an oak desk, chairs and a row of cabinets. The desk had a tray with a few sheets of paper, two books and a tankard of something alcoholic.

Like Tony, Dimsgrud fit the stereotype. He hopped from his chair and walked around the desk to get a better look at his visitors. His beard had gone gray and his cane had an extension at one end for adding a blade.

He took a long look at the three and said, “So you want us to take arms against the Enriel leadership, huh?” It sounded threatening, like the wrong answer would lead to a beheading.

Donovan answered, “Indeed. They have disrespected you by refusing to agree to your contract. They must pay. It is the only path to our domination.”

Dimsgrud only laughed. “Domination. You sound like all the rest of these entitled brats. It sounds like such a good deal, doesn't it? They get their steel and we get all that Endrell money. 'A new way of life!' they said! Well, we got it. You saw all that noise out there.”

“Noise?” Blaine asked.

“The factories have money to burn, so the rest start making junk to sell to get a piece of it. That's what it's all about now. We've totally forgotten who we are. First sign of the money drying up and they want to charge out and get it back.” He scoffed. “Kids these days. Don't even know how to name themselves anymore. The hell kinda name is Tony?”

Neither Donovan, Bryce nor Blaine had any idea where to start trying to persuade Dimsgrud that the kids were onto something with their naive mentality. But Donovan tried anyway, “Why stay inside and starve? Go forth and conquer! With us, you shall prove yourselves the mightier than the elves or felines!”

Dimsgrud sighed and gestured for them to sit. He returned to his seat behind the desk. “It's too late. There's already been a movement to break out and conquer the surrounding lands. The opinions of us old timers don't seem to matter anymore. I'm little more than a figurehead nowadays. If these people want a war, they'll listen to someone who will give them one.” He looked up past Donovan and frowned. “Someone like you.”

They hadn't heard the door open, but they felt someone's presence behind them. Before they could turn around, they heard his greeting. It was unmistakable, and even though he couldn't mask the surprise in his voice, he did not waver from tradition.

“Hello, Donovan.”





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