Magical Security Taskforce




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Chapter 66: The Demon Who Lived

Session One

“What?! How the hell? Blaine was the only one who managed the appropriate reaction. Bryce instinctively reached for his crystal, ready to throw up a shield in the event of any funny business. Donovan hadn't bothered to turn around. He didn't react at all, actually. If he was surprised, he suppressed it well. If he wasn't, his perception still hasn't gotten any better, for not only was there no reason for the cloaked figure to be behind him, but that Donovan had watched him die.

“At least one of you knows how to make me feel welcome,” Kendrick said. He removed his cloak, hanging it up on the rack mounted to the wall. He wore entirely black, save for a sash covered in dozens of bright gems. “Sorry for the intrusion, Chief, but I noticed these three enter your office and couldn't help but say hi.”

He stood next to Dimsgrud's desk, making sure that Donovan could see him. Then he smiled. “We go way back. Isn't that right, Donovan?”

Donovan waited to make eye contact, but did so in one sharp, dramatic motion. “So! You return as a spirit to torment me!” He snickered. “How very predictable of you.”

Kendrick frowned. “Why do I ever expect you to react appropriately?”

Blaine raised a tentative hand. “Um... but he's right. You're dead... aren't you?”

“Was. Ever hear of Green Knightshade?”

“What?! How the hell did you get a hold of that?”

“Details, details.” Kendrick waved off the question. “Irrelevant anyway since it was a one-time opportunity. But the legend is true: temporary immortality while it's in your bloodstream. Protects you from everything. Even Sho.”

Looking aside, he added, “Although I don't recommend it when you're drowning or being dismembered. Even waking up inside a brick wall hurt like the dickens.” He looked up, carefully eying Donovan and adding, “Especially with no faction to rely on for healing.”

That was probably a major plot revelation, but Donovan missed it completely. “You have no reason to be here, for your death has been avenged. Leave us be!”

“Sir, he just said he's not dead,” Bryce said, adding, “Anymore.”

Shaking his head, Kendrick said, “Let him think what he wants, minion. Fact is, we're both here and our objectives are suddenly in perfect alignment.”

“Yeah... you still haven't explained how you got here. All of us being together is an awfully weird coincidence.”

Kendrick smirked. “Maybe, maybe not. Depends.”

Narrowing his eyes, Donovan's voice sharpened. “Of course... my old nemesis always seeking out a deal.”

“Sir?” Bryce blinked. “He's being vague about whether or not we're all together by chance. That's not-”

“Oh no... Donovan's quite right in this instance,” Kendrick said with a bright smile, resisting the urge to add 'for once.' “But before we get into that...” He jostled Dimsgrud's shoulder. The dwarf woke up.

“Oh!” Dimsgrud rubbed his eyes. “Sorry. I can only hear that 'coming back from the dead' story so many times.” He turned to Donovan. “This guy talks about it every chance he gets. The folks here eat it up like mutton. Supposedly the guy that killed him was allied with the Endrell leadership. Everyone loves that part.”

Kendrick nodded. “Indeed. Isn't that what everyone yearns for? Conquest over the leadership... even in death? It was my death that prompted the recent uprisings here. What say the mighty dwarves of Tulas finish the job?”

“You can sell that to the townsfolk all you want,” Dimsgrud grumbled.

“I have.” Kendrick smiled. “And my, how they've bought in. They want the world. You can give it to them. And Donovan may be able to promise us support from some of the most powerful magi in the universe.”

Donovan smirked. “Indeed. I have an army of sorcerers ready to follow me to the ends of the earth. All we want is a fight.”

“You're all delusional!” Dimsgrud shouted. “They're too strong. What advantage do we have over everybody else?”

“Unlike them, we know where to strike.” Kendrick grinned, steepling his fingers. “Eliminate the orcs from the equation and the Hageshoni are quite vulnerable. And I happen to know of a battlefield where orcs refuse to fight.”

“Orcs refusing to fight?” Dimsgrud grunted. “Even if that were true, why didn't you tell that group avenging you?”

Kendrick raised a finger, nodding. “You know, it's surprisingly hard to get a message through from beyond the grave. I certainly did try.” He eyed Donovan. “It was a trickier endeavor that ran into complications.”

Again, probably a major plot revelation, but Donovan standing up in fury had nothing to do with it. “Enough of this chatter! We have ground forces. We have sorcery. We have a target. We must strike now!”

“Oh, for the love of...” Dimsgrud stood up. It... wasn't all that dramatic seeing as how he was a dwarf. “You win over the townsfolk, you give the mining company an excuse, you have magi ready to back us up.” He sighed. “Fine. You want your war? You got it.”

Dimsgrud walked around the table, huffing his way past Donovan toward the door. He opened it, but stopped, turned around and shouted. “But when we rule over Enriel, don't expect us to do you any favors. We're running this show our way.” He slammed the door shut.

“That's the least I can do for your trouble,” Kendrick said.

Eying him, Bryce sighed. “Sir, do you really think teaming up with Kendrick is a good idea? Besides, I thought the Hokoni gave up on this place.”

Kendrick took the minion's skepticism in stride. “In my death, I have cut all ties to the Hokoni faction. By no definition can I be considered a demon. I choose my own battles and my own purposes.”

“What purpose is that?” Blaine asked.

“Donovan, you once told me what you're really after in life. This is our opportunity to do just that. I've been working these dwarves for weeks now, even before the Hokoni skipped town. You're tied to the MST, who thinks going after the Hageshoni is a good idea. It's ours for the taking.”

“Sir, what's he talking about?”

It took a moment, but Donovan didn't miss this one. His face curled a wicked grin as he said, “World conquest.”


Session Two

They had only been back at the base for two days, but the troop greeted Reggie's return with enough joyful tears that he could be mistaken for a long-serving war hero. His party that night was fantastic, especially after Lania taught Crystal how to mix some of the more popular local drinks. Molly was the only student who didn't attend, despite persistent coaxing from Kathryn and Giles.

Just about everybody was drowsy and/or hungover at the next day's meeting. Frank was quite annoyed at all the glassy eyes in the room, but they were so universal he had nowhere to direct his anger. Even Molly looked rough, her eyes fixed to the floor and looking like she wanted to be anywhere but here.

Frank coughed to get everybody's attention. He wasn't convinced that he succeeded, but after verifying that at least Molly, Meg and Reggie were looking at him, he began. “Let's focus here, people. I know it's been rough so far, but we've made a breakthrough that may finally liberate this world from the Hageshoni.”

Molly looked away from everybody. Frank was too entrenched in his spiel to notice. “The key to eliminating the Hageshoni is to eliminate their muscle. Or, even better, take control of it. We've discovered a way to do that.”

A few eyes darted to Molly. A few minds wondered why he said 'we' instead of actually giving credit to the person that had gained the information. Molly had told everything to Kathryn and Renee, so by now everybody in the room knew what was happening.

Frank, oblivious to this, explained it anyway. The Shrine was guarded, but not by the vast hordes of orcs that surrounded the area. The garrison consisted solely of Hageshoni demons, and not in large numbers that could call attention to what otherwise appeared to be an unimportant relic. With the requested support troops from the MST, the guards would be very vulnerable.

“The battle won't be easy, as I would imagine their strongest magi are stationed there to make up for their lack of numbers. Still, with our support, the odds are in our favor. In theory, once we take control of the shrine, the orcs will respond to our commands and help us defend it from a possible counterattack.”

Meg raised a hand and Frank acknowledged her. “If we pull in an army from home and start charging down there, wouldn't they spot us and send reinforcements?”

Frank nodded. “That's why we are first sending a small team to secretly set up a teleportation circle. That way they won't notice a larger army until it's too late. Who all knows how to make those?”

Molly, Giles and Cammy raised their hands. “That's it?” Frank muttered.

“Well, Donovan knows...” Troy grumbled, looking around to see if Donovan was paying attention. Donovan wasn't even there. “Hey, where is Donovan?”

“Huh, I didn't even notice he was gone,” Yuki said, looking at Molly.

Raising an eyebrow, Molly replied, “I assumed he stayed behind with Reggie.”

Everyone turned to Reggie. He shook his head. “Nope. Wasn't with me.”

Frank cleared his throat, silencing everyone before the speculation could get too disruptive. “Donovan is away on a secret mission. I haven't gotten an update from him.”

Kathryn snickered. “In other words, you wanted him out of your hair. Don't blame you.”

“Absolutely not. I wish more of you were as passionate about liberating this world as he is.” Frank was met with several blank stares.

Renee leaned towards Molly. Under her breath, she asked, “Can he just send one of us off without telling you?”

Molly replied, “I don't think so, but when it comes to things to be pissed off about, that's quite low on the list right now.”

Frank continued, “Molly, you and Giles will be responsible for going in, scouting the temple and setting up a teleportation circle. Troy and Kathryn will act as support just in case. Meg, you'll be in charge of communicating with the away team.”

Raising her hand, Kathryn said, “Hold on, you're sending us alone into orc-infested territory?” She fought off the urge to add, 'with Troy.'

“You'll take a wagon. If you pose as traders, you shouldn't draw much attention.”

“And if we do?” Molly asked.

“If any suspicious guards decide to board, we'll stock the wagon with some low-value fabric or something that will legitimize you as traders. If it's bandits, and quite honestly you may not be able to tell the difference, we'll throw in a few necklaces that look more valuable than they are.” Lania had piles of unwanted jewelry from ceremonies and random offerings; Frank was more than happy to clear it out.

“Wait, we're letting them rob us?” Kathryn asked. “What's the point of having me and Troy there then?”

“That's for emergencies. Ideally, it would be best if you didn't use any magic that could draw attention. The Hageshoni won't notice subtle stuff, but if you have a reputation as orc slayers there may be a problem.”

There were a lot of uneasy eyes facing him, even among those not on the travel team. He frowned and narrowed his gaze at Molly until she noticed. She sighed and leaned back in her chair. Then he did the same to Troy. Troy was taken aback, glanced quickly at Molly and Kathryn, but then turned back to his father and nodded.

“All right then.” Frank took his sights off Troy and addressed the whole group. “You four will set out immediately. Meg's on comm. The rest of you... get ready for the final battle. Meeting adjourned.”

Frank picked up a few papers from his desk and marched out. Nobody else moved. Frank assumed that was a show of respect to their general. The troop proved otherwise once he was out the door.

“Nice knowing you, Giles,” Morgan grumbled.

“I liked the part where he assumed we didn't know any of that,” Reggie added.

Troy winced. “Um... does anybody actually know how to drive one of those wagons?”


Session Three

Molly, Giles, Kathryn and Troy learned how to drive one of those wagons. Carmen was proficient and had actually been responsible for getting Reggie's unit back from Endrell (a logistical problem Frank had completely overlooked). After a few hours of training, the away team was proficient as well.

The Shrine of Laug was located deep into orc territory, just a few miles before the Ursu capital on the southern coastline. Frank estimated it to be a three night journey if everything broke right. While the desert areas could be avoided, the land was still wide open with minimal tree cover and scorching weather. That meant the need for additional rest for their beast and a difficult task staying on the path. There were few landmarks and only a map and compass to guide them. Even the night sky was unhelpful as whoever had designed this world slept through the lecture about creating mappable star patterns.
The bandits visited as they camped the first night. As per the plan, they capitulated and, as expected, the orcs only took the necklaces. The only struggle came with Molly pretending to be afraid of them. Almost gave up the act right there.

The second day was calm, but the third brought the guards. Giles sniffed them out immediately. While the bandits had swooped in from out of nowhere, the two guards practically strutted through the matted grass that Giles hoped was the path. They wore armor and wielded the same kinds of weapons that the orc guards in Endrell had used.

“Heads up, it's the fuzz,” Giles shouted into the wagon. Once he heard shuffling inside, he returned to his driving duty, casually extending a hand to cast a spell. Frank had encouraged subtle stuff over attack spells. Giles was all about subtle stuff.

By the time the guards arrived, they were looking at a wrinkled face and an unkempt beard. All Giles had to do was act like he had gone through this hundreds of times in his long career as a merchant.

“So where you headed?” One of the orcs grunted. Giles was momentarily surprised that he could understand the language. Even with the Lucidrol, Giles couldn't be sure if the orc was hostile or if that's how they always sounded.

This was also the part where Giles realized he didn't know the geography well enough to give a good answer. “Oh... you know... making the rounds... got some nice fabrics here. Figure I'd sell it off and see what your womenfolk can do with it.”

While the occupants inside the cabin rolled their eyes at his use of the word 'womenfolk,' the same orc replied, “Needlework ain't their strong suit, if you get my drift.” He and his partner started a round of hearty guffaws. Giles had no idea why, but joined in on what he assumed was a chauvinistic bonding moment.

Just as quickly, the second orc stopped laughing and said, “Seriously though, let's have a look.”

Giles flinched for a moment, but recovered and gestured to the back. “Meet you there.”

He dashed back into the wagon. Troy and Molly were rolled up in blankets, barely visible and feigning sleep. Only Kathryn was upright, sitting by the trunk of faux merchandise. She too had a wrinkled face and an unkempt beard.

“Better add a layer there, Kathryn, your chest is giving you away,” Giles said.

Kathryn was stroking her beard, identical to the one Giles gave himself. “Yeah, uh, about this... why did you give me a beard?”

“Because it's not a good time to defy traditional workplace gender roles.”

Before Kathryn could clarify, Giles threw the rear doors open. The two orcs looked inside and found her seated with a blanket covering her chest. Her feet rested on the trunk. She nodded briefly at the orcs, faking a baritone. “What's up, Ponch?”

One of the orcs jumped into the wagon and went straight for the trunk. He threw it open eagerly and found... exactly what Giles had said. He frowned and slammed it shut.

“Better wash those before taking them to market,” he grumbled, shuffling out of the wagon.

“All set then?” Giles asked.

“You came a long way to sell crap like that. Next time bring something interesting.” He jumped off and continued down the road with his partner.

Kathryn shut the doors and frowned. “Oy. How long until we get there?”

“We should still be on track for tomorrow night,” Troy said, climbing out of his blanket.

“Yep! Other than the interruptions, we're making good time,” Giles said with a smile. “Troy, can you take the wheel for a few minutes?”

“Isn't it Molly's turn? I thought I was taking the overnight.”

“It's only for a few minutes. Just need to stretch and get a snack. And I'd like to spend it hitting on Molly.”

He didn't notice the stares he got, and didn't respond to Kathryn saying, “That's... awfully forward of you.”

Troy raised his eyebrows. “Molly? Really?” He snickered. “Good luck with that.”

He glanced at Molly, who was still staring at Giles. Troy snickered again and left to take the reins.

Giles did exactly what he promised... he stretched and got a snack. Molly remained dumbfounded. Kathryn scratched her head. “You know, it's awesome that you've got a thing for her and all, but you don't have to be quite so... professional about it. People might start talking.” This was a lie; Kathryn had already been talking about it to whomever would listen. She'd been doing so nonstop since volume six.

Molly didn't buy it. “Either you've gotten even more tactless or you have an ulterior motive.” He didn't acknowledge them, instead poring over the map while munching on a granola bar.

Kathryn shook her head. With Giles not responding, she had lost interest. “Tomorrow night then?”

“Apparently,” Molly grumbled. “Frank hasn't gotten confirmation that the support troops will be ready, but barring an unforeseen complication with that, it's all set.”

“Well, at least the pros are doing the dirty work, right? And it sounds like if we pull this off, they shouldn't have much of a problem.”

Molly shrugged. “I doubt the Hageshoni are going to let this place go as easily as Frank thinks. Who's to say they didn't sneak in machine guns at the same time they shipped in that bomber? They've already shown they're desperate to hold onto this world.” She leaned back, looking up at the stained wagon roof. “I just feel like this is going to end in disaster.”

“And here we are driving ourselves right into it,” Kathryn added.

“Actually...” Giles crumpled up his granola bar wrapper, took forever to find a trash bag, then sat down next to Molly and unfolded the map on her lap. Lowering his voice, he said, “We're driving away from it.”

After receiving nothing but two blank stares, Giles explained, “Let's assume this battle is going to be more trouble than it's worth and that our safest option is to avoid it entirely. Let's also assume that deliberate sabotage is a bad idea since you're already in hot water with Frank. Therefore, the best case scenario is that we screw up, and do so in such a way as to eliminate our element of surprise, preventing another attempt.”

Molly found it difficult to respond, but eventually words came to her. “That would be delightful, but how do we sabotage the mission without... you know, sabotaging the mission?”

“Simple! I took a couple wrong turns on my last shift.” On the map, he ran a finger along the correct path, then the one they were apparently on. Ursu had few roads, and the rare intersection they were bound to come across had equivalents along the right path. “If the map is right, and if all of us follow our directions properly from here on out, we should end up at an orc settlement. We're not getting out of that without magic. That'll get the Hageshoni's attention and suddenly the jig's up.”

“...and hopefully we get the order to retreat and get called back home,” Molly mumbled.

“If that's all right with you. I can get us back on track if need be.”

Giles had such a calm smile, but Molly knew what he was getting at. Just as Claude said, it was in her nature to complete her mission no matter how much she disliked it. She wanted to prove him wrong, and Giles had given her this chance. Even if their ruse was discovered, Giles was the culprit. Unlike Molly, he could afford to take a strike.

“Let's give it a shot.”

Kathryn grinned and stroked her beard. “Man, Giles, you sure know how to hit on Molly.”

Session Four

The intention was to arrive at nightfall, which meant the final night of sleep had always planned to be cut short, how much to be dictated by far they believed they still needed to go. Giles maintained the charade and made the calculations based on where they were supposed to be. Troy was the unanimous choice for completing this anchor leg.

Given how little Molly or Kathryn wanted to do with him, going to bed early wasn't the problem. Getting up was a pain in the ass. He had abandoned the facade of staying with the time period and dug a digital watch out of his bag, setting an alarm based on the number of hours he was planning on sleeping. He had no idea what time it actually was as the watch had not been updated for Enriel time. It went off at 9:00 pm. That was definitely wrong.

He stumbled over his own bags trying to get out of the wagon, eventually casting a flight spell to rise above them. As it was the quietest way to go about it, he flew all the way to the exit.

Troy froze and almost lost his concentration when he heard Kathryn mumble, “That wake you up too?” It was toward the back and definitely not meant for him, but he had no trouble making it out. He probably wasn't supposed to.

The reply came from Molly. “No. Can't sleep.”

“Is it really that hard to go through with this?”

“Yes. I don't understand why, but yes.”

“Fine, but you shouldn't worry yourself over it. It'll go down the way it'll go down. Hopefully we won't have anything to do with what happens.”

“It's never that easy.”

“Pretend. It'll help you sleep.”

Troy hovered out of the cabin. However the conversation concluded, he didn't care. He wanted to forget that tone of reassurance from Kathryn. It was so soothing, so compassionate, and he had benefited from it many times. It had also left him. If she was so determined to sever ties completely, he wasn't going to get nostalgic over a voice that was now helping Molly.

He put it out of his mind and got the wagon moving, sticking a light ball in a lantern so he could actually see where he was going. If they were determined to make it to the shrine in one piece, this was the way to travel: Troy could neither see nor hear any other signs of life. Once he got over the initial terror of such tremendous silence, he found it quite calming. So much, in fact, that he extinguished the light, relying on the plentiful moonlight (never bothering to question why this world had a moon identical to Earth's). The darkness helped him see even better.

Troy was supposed to go right at an upcoming junction. That had only been drilled into his head a few hundred times. Giles had pointed it out on the map before heading to bed. A left would have taken them straight into the capital city. Judging by the massive amounts of billowing smoke he had seen emerging from the capital the day before, he really wanted to avoid that.

Except on this clear night, that smoke wasn't disrupting the horizon. Troy wondered if even the orcs shut the city down at night, but then he realized he hadn't seen it during the day either. At least not where it was supposed to be. He found it eventually and, as expected, it shrouded a pocket of stars low in the horizon. Not as expected, it was behind him.

Troy left the wagon on auto-pilot (very dangerous: do not try at home) and tiptoed into the carriage, generating as dim a light ball as he could manage. Thankfully, Kathryn and Molly had fallen asleep, although Troy tried to shake off the sight of Molly's head on Kathryn's shoulder. He found the map sticking out of Giles's bag. He gripped it, extinguished his light ball, pulled it free and flew back to his post.

The original path was still marked with black pen, but Troy noticed remnants of pencil marks everywhere. The whole map had been rubbed extensively with an eraser, to the point where some of the original ink had faded. Troy tried to figure out where they actually were based on the location of the capital and the junction that was forthcoming. He found one route that fit the description. All along it were tiny holes, each about 0.5 millimeters. The width of a mechanical pencil tip.

Troy turned left at the junction.

They did not reach the shrine by dawn, but Troy got them damn close. With the map, he was able to get back on track and with the cover of darkness he skirted the one settlement they had to pass without waking the locals. They were still probably five miles out before the sky began to lighten.

Troy wanted to continue on, despite daylight travel this close being against orders, but stopped the wagon when he heard a stirring behind him. Molly had a toothbrush in her mouth and extended an empty cup towards him.

“Morning,” she mumbled. He filled it with water, which she used to rinse, spitting it on the grass. She squinted at the nothing surrounded them. “Where the hell are we?”

“Still a few miles away. Looks like someone took a wrong turn yesterday.”

Molly shook her head. “Well damn.”

“I got us back on track, but I'm not sure what we're supposed to do now.”

She took a deep breath and pulled out her marker. “Pull off to the side. Way off to the side. I'll cloak us.”

Troy did so. Molly kept a look of disgust the whole time, looking back into the carriage several times. They were still alone when Molly activated an invisibility circle around the whole wagon. This was both a pretty big circle and a pretty big spell. Molly sat down on the grass, catching her breath.

“You don't seem that angry,” Troy said, sitting next to her. He furrowed his eyebrows, watching her reactions closely.

“Why? Because I thought this might have gone according to plan?” she muttered. “I know better.”

Kathryn poked her head out of the wagon, saw them on the grass and jumped down. “The hell's going on?”

Molly held a finger up to her lips, then said. “First off, we're in an invisibility circle, but it's not soundproof. So keep it down.”

Troy did the rest. “Second, somebody took a wrong turn yesterday. Took me all night to get us back in the right direction, but we're still a ways out.”

Kathryn gritted her teeth. “You... dammit!”

“It's not Troy's fault,” Molly said, making careful eye contact with Kathryn. She was seething when she added, “He fixed the mistake. Who knows where we could have ended up?”

Troy wasn't seething, but he wasn't happy either. “It may not have been a mistake. I looked at the map. Looks like someone was plotting alternate roads taking us away from the shrine. Like they didn't want us to get there.” He eyed both of them. “Would either of you know anything about that?”

Molly gave nothing away. Kathryn exploded. “You think any of us want to get there! You know what's waiting for us?! There's no way it's going to be as easy as he thinks! Don't act like you did us any favors! Dammit Troy, so G-”

The silencing spell muted the rest. Besides the risk of giving themselves away, Molly wasn't going to let Kathryn incriminate Giles. Besides, it didn't matter that Troy couldn't hear her; Kathryn continued her screaming anyway.

Troy stared at Kathryn for a while, but as the rant continued, he turned to Molly. “Did you know about this?”

Molly kept staring at Kathryn. “I'm going to go ahead and say no.”

“I'm as surprised as you, Frank, but when I told them about the whole shrine thing they shut it down pretty quickly.” Frank folded his arms as he received the news from Uriel. “There's something about that place they don't want to mess with. If that means conceding, then-”

“We're not conceding anything. We're too close,” Frank insisted.

“Sorry, Frank. And I hope you're not planning on using the students for this. Capable as they may be, that's well outside the scope of their assignment and way out of their league. Can't have that now.”

“Of course not.” Frank ended the call and paced around the room. He did not understand the hesitation over such a massive opportunity.

He also knew he didn't need them. He pinched his earlobe.

“Stand by. Everything's just about in place.”

Session Five

After a day of staying put, staying quiet and staying completely bored, the wagon reached the shrine a couple hours after dusk. Their need to remain undetected trumped Troy's desire to interrogate Giles about sending them off course. Not only did Troy not want to jeopardize the mission with in-fighting, he didn't enjoy talking to Giles in general. The day consisted mostly of an extended poker session. Molly took everyone's shirts (not literally; Giles was voted down on that).

A few hundred yards away from the shrine, under plenty of cover, Giles created the teleportation circle. When complete, he pinched his earlobe.

“All set here,” he reported.

“Awesome,” Meg replied from the departure point back at base. “What does Cammy need to know?”

Giles gave her the information that would link his circle to Cammy's. Meg wrote it down and teleported outside where the rest of the troop waited. They all wore light armor and most wielded smiters. Meg tried to hand the information to Cammy, but Frank intercepted it.

“I'll need this for the reinforcements,” he said, studying the content. “Meg, your handwriting's terrible.”

Meg scoffed. “Why don't we just wait for the reinforcements? Wouldn't that be safer?”

“No. Have faith in your abilities. They'll be here when we need them.”

Mindy snatched back the note and cast a spell to duplicate it. She handed the copy back to Frank and gave the original to Cammy. “So will this! Shall we begin?”

With the note in hand, Cammy prepared her circle and fired off the spell. They went from a moonlit hilltop to pitch black. Only a single light ball from Giles gave them any clue that they were in the woods. Troy was with him.

“Damn, I can't see a thing!” Morgan shouted.

Giles shrugged. “You said you wanted cover. I gave you cover.”

“This is good,” Frank said. “Where's Molly?”

“Sleeping,” said Giles. “She did have an invisibility circle up all day.”

“Kathryn's still in there too. Should we wake her up?” asked Troy.

“No need,” Frank replied. “Did you get a chance to do any scouting?”

“No, we contacted you as soon as we arrived.”

“That'll be the first step then. We need to see what we're up against before starting our attack. Meg and Crystal- go on foot. Carmen- take the air. Everybody else needs to be ready at a moment's notice. We've only got one chance at this, so if they're spotted-”

He went silent the moment he heard the rustling in the bushes. It continued a moment later. “Wild animal?” Renee whispered.

They did not see the hand emerge from the bushes. They did see the grass they were standing on burst into flames. In the screaming and frantic flying that ensued, only a few of them saw the fireball shoot into the sky and explode.

“Troy! Meg! Water!” Frank shouted. He landed outside the fire and worked to control the fire, keeping it away from both the circle and the surrounding trees. Candace did the same while Troy and Meg played fire hose.

In the chaos, the Hageshoni demon emerged and lunged at Giles. Renee got her spell off first, slowing the demon to a crawl and making him an easy target for Reggie's smiter.

Yuki heaved a few breaths and backed away from the fire. “Okay, uh... that happened.”

“He got off a flare,” Frank said, still keeping the fire in check. “That means they know we're here. Remember what I said about being ready to go?”

“What do you mean?” Renee asked.

Instead of answering, he barked, “Troy, stay here and help me get this under control. Giles, get out there and start an anti-teleport spell. The rest of you- charge.”

“What, you just want us to run out there and start killing stuff?” asked Meg, cutting off her water spell.

“Yes, and now! Don't let them organize!”

Mindy grinned. “Sweet, let's go!” She ran into the bushes. Renee, Yuki, Giles, Reggie and his girls weren't nearly as excited, but followed her through. On the other side, the moon illuminated the battlefield, and the Shrine of Laug itself.

It really was just a relic of a temple. The elements had worn away much of the stone construction and vines covered half of it. There were two columns in front of what was presumably the entrance, fallen in such a way that they were leaning against each other. Whatever had originally connected them to the structure had dissipated long ago. If it really was the linchpin to victory, it was a brilliant disguise: any passing army would be less likely to seize it and more prone to sign up for a guided tour.

It worked both ways, however, as it was not as naturally defensible as a typical military target. The columns were the entrance's only cover, otherwise accessible from any direction. The remaining Hageshoni guards, and by now four had assembled, stood in the open atop the roof.

“Just four of them?” Morgan cried. “Piece of cake!”

“Remember, we're trying to get inside!” Yuki said, adding, “I think.”

With one quick motion from a guard, a giant stone wall surrounded the entrance. The top remained open, but a second guard stood right next to it.

“That complicates things,” Renee said.

Yuki grimaced. “Yeah, there's only four, but they're probably all as strong as Sho was.”

They continued the charge, however, facing only token air and water attacks from the guards. Then came the wall of fire that stretched the entire length of the building. The attackers stopped in time, but the wall broke into pieces and started chasing them. They were now scattered, each followed by a raging flame. The continued potshots of water were suddenly more troublesome, and an air gust knocked Carmen to the ground. Desperate, she turned on her back and cast an air gust of her own at the looming fire. It vanished.

Meg and Giles simply outran their flames until Morgan was able to throw up a wall to block them. Then Morgan started reinforcing the ground with stone and said, “You on anti-teleport duty? Suppose you could use a hiding place.”

“Gee, how considerate,” Giles said, somehow sincere.

When Morgan finished, Meg stepped into the makeshift bunker for a breather herself. “Still, this is turning into quite the headache, isn't it?”

Not long after Frank and Troy got the fire under control, Frank told Troy to fetch Molly from the wagon. Once his son was gone, Frank calmly fetched the notes on the circle, pinched his ear, and delivered them. He stepped away from the circle as it started to glow.

Bryce looked around. “Is this right?”

The rest of the circle was filled with armored dwarves, all standing at attention. Frank nodded. “Yes... yes it is.”

“Got one more brigade behind us,” said Dimsgrud, at the front of the circle. “What's the target?”

“The shrine straight ahead, and the demons occupying it. Now march!”

Session Six

The dwarves of Tulas were never all that impressed with the concept of magic. They like the satisfaction of doing a job with physical tools. Bare hands worked even better. When the Hageshoni seized control of Enriel, the force of their magic alone intimidated the other groups and led to a hostile reception. The dwarves saw them as nothing more than the new guys in charge. That's why they were open to being trade partners and why the Hageshoni could never bully them into an unfavorable arrangement.

Therefore, instead of trying to use magic, Tulas was on the forefront of blocking it. They had a natural resistance, and centuries of R&D had led to armor that made them damn near immune to it. This wasn't a secret; they had once offered to sell early prototypes to the Hageshoni (rejected as they also proved to diminish the wearer's casting ability). While the Hageshoni were aware this existed, they may not have realized just how dangerous this made the dwarves should they ever come to a disagreement.

Adding the dwarves didn't shift the momentum of the battle instantly. Dwarves didn't march that fast. Their presence, however, gave the Hageshoni something else to think about and allowed the MST units a chance to breathe. Carmen spread the word on how to take care of the heat-seeking flames, which Candace and Meg put to good use. Renee did one better, volleying the fire back at the demons atop the shrine. They sent it right back, but it died against Renee's shield.

Shielding proved to be the popular option. Cammy and Mindy followed suit and the non-Weavers got behind them. Yuki took the opportunity to pass out potions to anyone who had gotten singed. For a moment, it looked like the offensive had stabilized, but then came the earthquake.

At once, a violent rattle threw everybody to the ground, save for the well-protected Giles. Everybody lost concentration, everybody dropped spells, and suddenly the potshot fireballs were connecting. Renee caught one with her bare hand and collapsed with a scream. Carmen intercepted a second shot targeted at her. Crystal did one better and threw a mirror in front of them. Suddenly the shots were missing wide. Yuki arrived and forced a potion down Renee's throat. Another quake shook everybody all over again.

This included the dwarves, who were otherwise indifferent to the other attacks. They would march forward, fall over, get up and keep going. It was steady, but it was taking them forever to get anywhere. At the very least they commanded the demons' attention, and that may have been the only thing keeping the troop from being overwhelmed.

Behind them, Frank was preparing for the second wave of dwarven reinforcements. Bryce was doing most of the work, of course.

“Okay, what's next?” Troy asked. Molly and Kathryn followed behind him.

Kathryn winced at a blast on the other side of the brush. “Sounds pretty explodey over there. Everybody okay?”

Frank stared at the bushes. He couldn't actually see anything on the other side, but it sounded like the Hageshoni were prepared enough for an attack. Prolonging it would be bad.

“Kathryn, wait here for the rest of the dwarves,” he ordered. “I need to see what's going on out there. I'll let you know what I want them to do.” He turned to Troy and Molly. “You two come with me.”

He didn't give them a chance to comment. He did not charge right onto the battlefield either. He straddled the line of bushes for about fifty yards, then squeezed through to survey the action. The troop was weathering the storm, but barely. The dwarves were making modest progress.

Good enough for Frank. First he told Molly, “Tell Kathryn to send the dwarves forward. Same as before.” As Molly did, he pinched his own ear. “Reggie, can I get some explosions on the right side of the shrine?”

Reggie had no objection to making loud noises, but Troy asked, “What's that for?”

“Everything except us is a diversion. Get ready to run when you hear them.”

It took a minute for Reggie to get everything set up, but he did not disappoint. On the opposite side of the shrine, a series of fireworks launched, reaching up to the roof of the shrine before exploding in bright colors. Frank, Troy and Molly were sprinting as the first one went off.

“Where does he get time to make those?” Molly mumbled.

There was no way they would be able to reach the stone wall surrounding the entrance before the fireworks stopped and the Hageshoni guards turned back around. As Reggie's last burst subsided, Frank added one of his own- a towering lob of a fireball that didn't catch any enemy eyes until it was too late to stop. It landed on the center of the roof and drew everyone's attention. One tried to pinpoint where it had originated, but by the time that he did, Frank, Troy and Molly were long gone, hiding at the foot of the stone wall.

Frank didn't have to give any commands for Troy and Molly to start working on the wall. Molly carefully traced a circle along the surface while Troy blasted the soon-to-be circle's interior with water. Frank flew higher to see if any of the guards had noticed.

Molly was getting hit with plenty of splashes, but she ignored the inconvenience. “Well I know one thing,” Troy said. “At least you didn't sabotage the map.”

“I didn't.” Molly finished her circle and pulled Troy back. “But I let Giles do it.” With her finger less than an inch from the wall, she executed her trigger. The circled section of stone flew forward and landed inside.

Troy's head darted as he tried to reconcile Molly's actions with her confessions. “But if you were trying to...” He pointed at the perfect hole she had created to grant them access to the shrine.

She shrugged. “We're here now. No sense running.”

Troy didn't have a chance to respond before a Hageshoni guard fell flat on his face behind him. Frank descended rapidly and stabbed him with his smiter. “Someone upstairs probably noticed that. We'll have to move fast. Troy, can you stand guard?”

“Yessir.” Troy saluted his father. “Should I plug this hole once we're in?”

“That'll work. Let's go, Molly.”

“So what's the timetable on this?” Kathryn asked, checking the part of her wrist where her watch would be. Not that she even wore a watch back home.

“It takes a bit to organize a... hold on...” Bryce stopped himself, pinched his ear, and listened to instructions. “Stand back.”

She did as the second group arrived. Her neutral face fell into one of disgust when she saw the dwarves and they looked exactly how she had imagined them.

“Not much for breaking stereotypes here, huh?”

“Actually, once you get to know them, they're not nearly as Hobbit-y,” Bryce replied.

“Hobbit-y?” Tony asked.

“Don't worry about it, Tony.” Bryce turned to Kathryn. “What did Frank say then?”

“Oh, uh...” Kathryn pointed at the bushes. “Charge ahead and take out the demons. I'm guessing your friends will be in front of you.”

“A confident one, she is,” one of the dwarves mocked. “She sounds like you, Tony!”

“Shaddap!” Tony shouted. “Let's do this!” No one else cried out, but they all marched past Kathryn into the breach.

As she watched them depart, hoping they weren't heading to their doom, she relaxed and leaned on her staff. “Tony?” she mumbled.

“Hello...” she heard the voice from behind and almost lost her balance. She recognized it immediately and turned around. As she did, Kendrick pulled the staff away from her and she fell to the ground.

He looked it over, shaking his head. “I'm sorry, I forgot your name.” He smirked. “Guess you could say I'm having a Donovan moment.”

Kathryn popped back onto her feet and stared him down. “You! What are you doing here?” She saw Donovan standing behind Kendrick. He held a hand up towards Bryce, telling him not to interfere.

“Wait, who's side are you on?” she asked Kendrick.

He responded with a vicious strike to her face with her own staff. The infused magical power of the staff knocked her out immediately.

“I don't feel like answering that,” Kendrick said. “But I will say that you'll serve our cause nicely.”





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