Magical Security Taskforce

 FULL ARCHIVE

VOLUME: 5

CHAPTER: 1

1 2 3 4 5

Chapter 36: The Murder's Aftermath


Session One

Molly closed the whole goddamned school Monday. She didn't specify a reason either, nor did anyone ask for one. Even the media charged with relaying the message failed to get an answer and knew Molly well enough to not try investigating. Anyone who didn't catch the news found the doors locked that morning. This included several teachers, the principal and a congressman there for a photo op.

There was a certain logic behind the lockout: no school meant the rumor mill couldn't churn the news of Kurt's death as quickly. This bought the MST time to work its magic and come up with a cover story. In all honesty, of course, Molly called a snow day because she was just really pissed off about the whole thing.

Tuesday wasn't much better. By then, the 'truth' had gotten out: Kurt had been killed in a work-related accident. The details about what he was doing and how he died became a macabre game of Mad Libs for the MST. The headline still shook the school. Even students who weren't prominent characters had been friends with him and took the news hard. There was even talk of raising money for a tribute plaque, which died down once everyone assumed Molly was too heartless to orchestrate such a thing.

Molly herself did not appear at school Tuesday. Neither did Renee, presumably to keep Molly company. The ol' lunch table was uncomfortably empty that day. Kathryn and Yuki were both gone. So was Kamila, of course. Among the witnesses, only Troy and Donovan came to school, and Lord knows what Donovan did all day.

Troy had assumed that school would be the best place to try to move forward. Surrounded by friends, they could grieve together, share memories of Kurt and be distracted by inconsequential lessons about the Civil War. It didn't work out that way. No matter what he did, there was no escaping the incident. A quiet, unassuming Saturday at home had turned exciting one moment and deadly the next.

It was the 'exciting' part that bugged him most. When he had gotten word that Sho was attacking, he was eager to help. Troy was more than willing to charge in and save the day with his friends. That's what the MST was all about, right? Working as a team to fend off the demons. The implied risk was there, of course, but that made it all the more adventurous. Troy himself had his share of noble acts and deeds. He had jumped into harm's way several times to save Renee, Kathryn... hell, even Molly. Without fully realizing it, he had done so again against Sho. At no point did he reconsider; it was his duty to face the danger. Kurt taught him that more than anybody. Troy simply had never fathomed that the odds would catch up to them.

He could grasp why it happened pretty easily. Yuki was in trouble and Kurt acted to save her, and then Molly. Kurt probably saved several lives that day. There was no lack of respect around school, even among friends who had no idea what had really happened. Kurt was praised as a friendly, caring buddy. Even a mentor, in some cases. So the 'why' wasn't hard; dying for his friends was totally in line for Kurt. It was just the fact that it really did happen that remained vexing.

So Troy was still contemplating everything Tuesday. The constant reminders made it worse, most of them friends from the old motor club leaning in asking, “Hey, d'ya hear about Kurt?” It pained him to simply nod without elaborating on what had actually happened. Particularly when one of the follow-up questions was “Have you talked to him lately?”

Lunch made him feel lonelier. Without Kathryn and Yuki, he didn't have anybody else forced into silence. To his surprise, he didn't get much comfort from Marie. Normally, they were both very level, each capable of calming the other down when one got riled up over something. Troy was stuck pondering the tragic complexity of it all, lost in a pensive malaise . He had expected her to hold him quietly as they stared into their own naivety. Instead, his first meaningful conversation of the day started with the last phrase he had expected to utter.

“You okay?”

He had never seen Marie this bothered before. Her hands shook, her breaths were labored and her eyes gazed downward. “I just... just... I just can't believe this is happening,” she stammered in a low voice. He patted her back.

“I know,” was all he could say.

“I mean it's so sudden and... I mean I was away with Kathryn the whole time and-”

“Marie...” Troy trailed off. Yes, that was unfortunate. Of all people, Kathryn needed to be there. Her absence was the most tragic part. It was also probably a deliberate move on Kamila's part.

“Just the thought that we were off having such a good time while he was...” She paused, not wanting to fill in the blank. “It's awful.” Troy nodded, even though he was to blame: he couldn't bear to break the news over the phone.

“It's just so wrong and...” Again, she struggled to finish her thoughts. Troy silenced them by leaning in and holding her. She still trembled.

“Why did we even come in today, Troy?” Marie shook her head, glancing at the empty chairs. “Kathryn and Yuki are gone. I should have stayed home too.”

Troy wanted to respond. He knew exactly why he chose to come to school. And despite everything, he found it better than wallowing in grief back home. But he was surprised at how attached Marie had been to Kurt. Kathryn and Yuki had deep, personal reasons to wallow in grief back home. Did Marie really see herself in the same category as them?

“I just... I just don't know if I can handle this.”

At that moment, Troy went from being overwhelmed by Marie's emotions to uncomfortable. He didn't know what she was implying, and he was too frozen to ask. This hidden anguish was a side of her he hadn't seen before. Sad as the times were, it was justified. But it still scared him.

Unable to respond, he stroked her hair. She calmed a little, comforted by his arms though his words were absent. Troy figured they'd probably be okay. There was grief counseling available; in time he and Marie would recover and continue their lives. Still, something about her reaction bothered him. Had it been Kathryn or anyone else, he would have understood. But Marie had always been so calm and rational. Had this side of her always been around without him noticing? In all the time they'd been together, was this really the first time he'd seen her at her worst? And if so, why was he so disturbed by it?

 

Session Two

Kathryn took the news as harshly as Marie. Nobody was surprised. She didn't leave her house since finding out; it was up to Troy to make regular stops to verify her sanity. He, her parents and the school were patient, giving her time for what was certainly a hell of a grieving process. She was numb for days, barely able to eat or sleep and instead lying prone on her bed, trying to piece together everything that was blowing apart in her face and to regain peace with the reality she so adored.

Losing Kurt was just the beginning. So much challenged everything she knew about life and her friends, yet affirmed her worst hunches about the MST. It was a devastating beginning though. When she had returned from Mansfield, Troy and Yuki struggled to relay the news, which Kathryn should have known was bad. Everybody had been so complacent with their adventures in magic that 'we battled a demon' could have been said with a shrug. Perhaps she too had fallen into that trap because despite their squeamish struggling to get to the headline, she had never expected that someone would lose their life in all this.

For all the frustrations he gave her- his closeness with Molly, his stubborn loyalty to the MST, his insistence that there was something better beyond her humble, satisfying life... in his absence she realized just how perfect he was for her. When it came to guys, she'd be the first to admit that she was less than picky. Not to an absurd degree of course: she wasn't sleeping with any asshole with a good pickup line. But if he had the looks, the charm and a kindness that she perceived as real enough, why not? Kathryn was careful enough avoid obvious trouble and responsible enough to limit the risks. She wanted to be excited and thrilled too, reputation be damned. Honestly, that's the only reason she had hooked up with Kurt in the first place.

Yes, that's right. Her relationship with Kurt was never a climax to her fairy tale. He was not the Prince Charming destined to lift her away from her minor affairs to live happily ever after. At no point had she ever believed that he was anything other than the next one in line. In time, Kathryn figured they'd part ways and she'd find someone else to date. Now that he was gone, and not by choice, she could see just how well they fit. He had the same free spirit as her, cared for friends the way she did, and knew when he was supposed to be serious. In a way, the headaches were a plus too. They kept her on her toes and made sure she wouldn't become complacent. Plus they were trivial: in hindsight, she'd rather have him flirting with Molly than with somebody who might actually pose a threat. Whether or not it could have worked long-term, it would have been great to try.

Agonizing as it was to process all that, other factors were even more overwhelming. In particular, she had not only been enjoying herself after his death, she was even flirting with other boys. Oh, Troy made the obvious reassuring argument: she didn't know. But she could have been with him. She could have felt something wrong or gotten word that something bad was brewing. Even if Kathryn wasn't there in person, she could have at least worried about it and followed up immediately. Heck, why had she invited Marie again? Her petty issue with Kurt and Molly? A need to show Marie a good time in light of her own problems? Had she been more selfish, she would have invited Kurt. They would have really enjoyed the outing, and everybody would be alive.

Except Yuki. All that peace and quiet, with the Donovan incident the only involvement with demons, and another faction shows up out of the blue and tries to kill Yuki. The logic was nothing more than vengeance over some ruined plans. Yuki didn't even stumble upon Sho and Kamila intentionally; in fact she bought into their lie. Still she gets targeted. If everyone had been so baffled by Kendrick pushing the envelope on attacking students, what about this? Everything Kurt and his superiors did suggested a higher knowledge of magic and demons. They had a protocol utilizing everything they knew to efficiently keep people safe. Magical Security was two-thirds of their name, with the final third suggesting an initiative to work on this. If not for Kurt, they lose Yuki. In the process, they lose Kurt. Not only that, but the enemies escaped unpunished. How can such a failing happen to such a seemingly crucial operation?

Not that the enemies escaped Kathryn's mind. Kamila Hurley: teammate, friend, demon. Kathryn still couldn't believe it. It raised so many questions that nobody seemed capable of answering. Did Kamila choose this path? Did she know her friends were in the MST? Did she intend to befriend them to begin with? Could demons really blend in that easily with society? For that matter... what was a demon anyway? Were they human or not? Did Kamila really want to go through with all that? Was she reluctant or eager to turn on her friends? Above all... why wasn't Kathryn angry enough to hunt down Kamila and beat the answers out of her?

Kathryn questioned everything. Her past, her future, her friends, her causes and her philosophies. Everyone canonized the late Kurt Sempman, ignoring his flaws and amplifying the great person he was and the things he stood for. He had always looked beyond his lot in life to some higher purpose. He had always believed there was more than this. Kathryn had always laughed it off. 'This' had been fine. 'This' was a good present and a good future and if she ever needed more, she'd claim it. Now his views seemed to resonate more. Perhaps she was supposed to seek out a higher calling, whether with the MST or some grand, benevolent cause. Was his path really the way to go or a ghostly illusion?

All she knew now was that her 'this' had never felt so empty before.

 

Session Three

For several days, Yuki's textbook lied open on her desk at home, displaying the recipe for second-stage healing as if it were part of an altar. Yuki had only looked at it once, and just long enough to realize her mistake. The book then sat untouched, silently reminding her how routine it all should have been. She was supposed to do exactly what her training dictated, and her failure cost someone his life.

The crucial omission to her process had been a settling stage. It gave the contents time to properly mix with each other right before her trigger infused their magical properties. Without the correct blending, the result would not nearly be strong enough, and could be potentially volatile. In fact, it was supposed to be part of her elementary potions as well. Her habit of rushing that stage had been part of the reason for all of the explosions early on. Reggie had emphasized that proper settling was key and that impatience was risky. While it wasn't as necessary with the basic potion, stronger versions absolutely demanded it.

So in the end, it was something she should have been practicing, but wasn't accustomed to doing. Yuki had plenty of time to learn it and make it part of her normal routine, but she failed to grasp the concept fully. After any failure, she'd shrug it off, assure herself that she'd figure it out later and go back to doing it her own way.

The biggest problem with 'her own way' was that it was just barely good enough. No matter how many potions exploded, teammates she annoyed or Troys she froze, there were no consequences. Until now, whenever she needed to come through with a healing, she had. Her work at Central was tolerable often enough. When it wasn't, all parties simply attributed it to her age. A girl this young with that bloodline was bound to be good eventually.

Yuki had given in to that mentality as well. Her magic lineage made her a surefire Crafting savant. Her age made her a laughingstock. Suddenly having it both ways didn't make sense any more. Her grandfather had used his vast influence to enroll Yuki at Central because her family felt she could keep up. It wasn't about potential power or letting her stumble at a young age: she was supposed to be smart and skilled enough to hold her own now. That meant potions were executed according to the MST's designs- no excuses.

Although she had never completed that potion in the field before, it had been a key part of her most recent term at Central. Yuki knew she had pulled it off once, but she hadn't committed it to memory the way she had with other spells. Usually, she would practice a new potion repeatedly until she could do it without fail. Instead, she grew complacent: months since the most recent attack and months until the next term, she thought she had plenty of time to get it down. Meanwhile, there were friends to hang out with and school functions and normal teenage life that she started to feel qualified for.

Part of that included Kamila. Looking back on the events now, Yuki felt stupid falling into every trap so easily. When she had stumbled on the two in the dark room, she was instantly suspicious of Sho. In fact, for a moment, she had no doubt that he was a demon. Kamila had talked her way out of it. And Kamila was one of the least tactful girls Yuki knew. She was irritable, brash and a little obnoxious. Even undercover, she was a perfect Hageshoni specimen. Yuki fell for it anyway. Even while Sho was trying to kill Yuki, she refused to believe Kamila was involved until Kamila personally admitted it.

How could she have left herself so open? With Kathryn out of town, Yuki was easy prey for Kamila. She was suspicious even, enough to bring a bodyguard. Why not something more substantial, like insisting that Kurt or even Troy come along with them? Her blind trust in Kamila trumped her own intuition. Her minimal preparation had saved her life, but cost Kurt his.

She still didn't know what to make of that. Kurt died making sure she didn't. That was what really kept her at home. How could she possibly comprehend how close she had come to death? Especially now that the ramifications of death shattered everything she knew. If not for him, she'd be the one everyone was mourning. Death wasn't something kids her age dwelled on often. Yuki had no experience with it: her family had access to some wonderful longevity spells and the eldest of her clan were pushing 150. All she knew about it was that it was inevitable, painful and pretty damn permanent. Actual reactions and consequences may vary.

Kurt's death left Troy and Kathryn with nothing but questions. Yuki had nothing but cold answers. She never questioned why Kurt died, because she had no one to blame but herself. It was her gullibility and incompetence that had put him in such a bad spot. In the end, all the problems that had led to this were due to her. Quite simply, she blew it.

Still, Yuki knew it wasn't the end. All this hindsight would haunt her forever; there was no avoiding it. That was her punishment for failure, and she had no choice but to accept it. The only way she would be able to live with herself was if she took its lesson to heart. Life would go on, the MST would continue fighting demons and she would one day be needed again. She couldn't fathom losing another the way she lost Kurt.

Yuki picked up her Crafting text. She wasn't just going to learn about this new potion; she was going to perfect it. She was going to perfect everything necessary to become an efficient third-year Crafter. Her age was no longer an acceptable excuse and she needed to demonstrate her lineage through something tangible. Sad that it took such a devastating tragedy to show her the truth, but she saw it clearly. For all her failings, the worst possible outcome would be not reacting.

Text and satchel in hand, she marched out the door. There was a nice quiet place nearby where she could practice her craft in peace. She was going to devote more time than she ever had before. When she returned, the unacceptably childish Yuki Shizuka would be gone.

 

Session Four

Kurt's wake was surprisingly mundane. For all the talk of him dying as a hero and providing such great service to the MST, when Thursday came there was no sign of anything befitting such a noble death. No draped flag, no twenty-one fireball salute, no riderless horse down Main Street. It was a normal service at a normal funeral home in L. B. Gould. The logic was to allow all the unaware locals to participate and mingle with the magi. Still, it seemed a little shallow to everybody who knew how he really died.

What was supposed to be a memorial bothered Troy immensely. How was anyone supposed to fully commemorate Kurt's life without divulging the most important part of it? Furthermore, something told him that it wasn't just the local mortician who had prepared Kurt's body. It was utterly pristine. The vicious wound through his chest was gone. Either the process was far more skillful than Troy gave credit for or there was magic involved.

Either way, one sight of Kurt had Marie sobbing on Troy's shoulder. He rubbed her back, silently contemplating the body. Sometimes the dead seem to be at peace, comfortable with their passing on and ready to call it a day. Kurt looked rather detached. No matter how the MST spun it about him dying in battle to save his friends, Kurt neither planned for it, expected it nor desired it. Had it been up to him, he either never would have gotten hit in the first place or Yuki would have pulled that potion off.

“Troy,” Marie sniffed, “I need to get some water.” She turned around and exclaimed, “Yuki!”

Midnight blue was as close to black as Yuki had in her wardrobe. Even so, the dress seemed unusually dark for the girl. So did her expression. She was not going to chirp back at Marie nor dive into her arms crying. Yuki's face was steeled and cold. Even so, her eyes were moist. She wasn't leaping forward to hug Marie, but Marie crouched and embraced her.

“Are you okay, Yuki?” Marie asked, trying unsuccessfully to contain her own tears.

“I will be,” Yuki replied, staring at Troy. He looked back, in awe of her surprising show of strength. It went beyond her dress, face and words. There was something else to her that Troy couldn't pinpoint.

Marie found it. As she pulled back and looked into Yuki's eyes, she said, “You cut your hair.”

Troy's eyebrows raised as he noticed it too: her trademark braids were gone. The rest of her hair was trimmed to a simple, neat cut that didn't reach the nape of her neck.

“Yeah,” was all Yuki said.

Marie nodded. “Looks good. I'll be right back.”

As Marie left to fix herself up, Yuki approached the casket. Troy approached Yuki.

“You really okay?” he asked as she peered at Kurt. For all her attempts at looking stoic, they didn't stop the stream of tears from rolling down her face.

Yuki shook her head. “Never again,” she declared. “I'm not going to pretend that I'm not partially responsible for this. He was relying on me the way I relied on him. I failed. Now I have to live with this. It's awful. So I'm never letting it happen again. To any of us.”

Troy patted her back. Somehow this was reassuring to him. The words were one thing, but Yuki's tone of voice had changed. This wasn't one of her sing-song chirps or blubbering squeaks. She sounded different and looked different. If Yuki really was different, Troy could only nod in respect.

“Troy?” He heard a man's voice call him. When Troy turned around, he gasped at the sight. He recognized the man only through a memory ball at Central Academy. Kurt's father stood before him.

“Mr. Sempman...” Troy mumbled, in awe.

“I've heard a lot about you, Troy,” Trent replied.

Yuki spun around as well. Trying to keep her hard-fought composure, she stammered, “Mr... Mr... oh, I'm so sorry... I hope you don't hold-”

Trent interrupted her with a faint smile. “And this must be Yuki Shizuka.” He bowed.

“Please don't do that. I don't deserve it,” Yuki said, her voice now clear.

“It's all right. If you don't mind, I'd like to steal Troy for a moment.”

Troy nodded silently. When they turned around, they found Marie. “Troy,” she said, looking up at Trent. “Who's this?”

Nervously, Troy said, “This is Kurt's father, Trent.” Marie's eyes widened as Troy went on, “Mr. Sempman, this is my girlfriend, Marie.”

Trent nodded at her. “Troy and I need to talk for a bit.”

“But...” Marie mumbled.

Yuki stepped in and took Marie's hand. “They need to talk about some things. They'll be back soon.”

Still a little confused, Marie let them go, taking a deep breath as Troy and Trent moved on.

“What is it with Monroes and civilian girls?” Trent said. “Like father, like son.”

Troy blew it off and got to his big question. “How did you get here?”

Trent responded with a look of confusion. “What do you mean? When we found out, the force gave my wife and I some time off. Only natural to want to be here.”

“Your wife?” Troy looked around.

“Yeah, she's off talking with Alicia.”

“But weren't you in another world? Seems like some trip.”

Again, Trent looked confused. “It's just a matter of beaming back to Central. We pop back a couple times a year. Not a huge deal.”

Troy stared back, unsure what to think. He had always assumed that being in another world was more or less permanent. If it was possible to jump back and forth at will (or at least at the MST's will), it again raised questions about his own father.

“Wish this time it could be on better terms.” Trent added.

Sighing heavily, Troy said, “Kurt really helped us all. Felt like he did more to train us than Molly... er, our guardian.”

Trent nodded. “You never expect things like this to happen. In all my years in battle, I've only lost a dozen or so men. Any loss is tragic. All we can take out of this is that he died doing his duty, and in a very noble gesture. At least he'll be honored and celebrated for his deeds. Can't say that always happens with everybody who deserves it.”

His words left Troy stunned. Trent said a quick farewell and started to walk off. Quickly, Troy blurted, “Hey, have you heard from my father recently?”

Turning back around and narrowing his eyebrows, Trent replied, “Oh, Frank? No, not lately. Why? Is something wrong?”

Trying not to mutter, Troy said, “No, not really.” As Trent walked off, Troy found several things wrong. Considering his son had just died, Mr. Sempman seemed far too level. Trent even acknowledged that casualties in the MST were rare. Where was the parental outrage? He must have been aware of the circumstances that had put Kurt in such a precarious position. Molly and Kathryn had been concerned about it the whole time. Trent wasn't, even after the worst scenario came to pass?

Marie squeezed Troy's hand. “Is everything all right?” she asked. “How is he doing?”

“He's doing fine,” Troy muttered, clasping Marie's hand.

“And you? You look a little...”

“I don't know,” Troy answered. “It just bugs me a little bit. I don't know why.”

Troy refused to elaborate for Marie. He wasn't sure if he felt like elaborating for himself.

 

Session Five

Molly had been closest to Kurt when the fatal blow landed. That image replayed in her mind for days. She had seen allies take hits before. She had even seen Renee fall unconscious in battle. Every time, she felt a little sick to her stomach. But the moment it happened, she knew this time was worse. From her perspective, she knew it had been an injury Yuki would struggle to heal. That was the moment Molly Pearson lost control of everything.

For someone who could control an entire population, suddenly she couldn't even control herself. She had no capacity to help Kurt while he laid bleeding, yet it took an intense effort from Renee to get her to budge. It almost killed Troy in the process. As a guardian, Molly knew Yuki did not handle pressure well. As a human, she gave Kurt's only possible savior an abundance of it. Even afterwards, Molly was so distraught that she failed to report anything to the MST. Of all people, Blaine was the only one capable enough to return their calls.

What was it about Kurt that prompted such an unbecoming response? As long as he had been in his unique position of mentor, assistant and later field agent, she tried not to think about him in any other context. They had a professional relationship because situations were always forcing them to. Such a partnership dictated a measured level of concern when he was hit, not absolute panic. She had a professional relationship with Claude too, but she barely flinched whenever something happened to him.

Molly had to finally acknowledge that they were more than just allies. She never let her guard down for mere allies. But around Kurt, involuntarily, often unknowingly, she could relax. Even if he didn't fully grasp her situation or agree with her methods, he came closest to understanding who she was. In far too many ways, she needed Kurt.

She had just started to appreciate having someone like him around. Clearly, 'professional relationship' understated things severely. He had been a true confidante, co-conspirator, sounding board and, yes, a friend. Her only real one, in fact. Few could stand on equal terms with Molly and even fewer wanted to associate with her when they did. Kurt had, even going so far to offer personal suggestions, coaxing her out of her shell and such. He even had the gumption to tease her now and then. Annoying as it was at the time, she was really going to miss that. In hindsight, Molly saw Kurt as her best friend, only now realizing how badly she needed one.

So what was she supposed to do now? Surely, even if the MST was kind enough to supply them with a permanent field agent that was actually qualified, that connection was gone. A replacement would probably be a Richard Herman type, and Molly loathed Richard Herman. The feeling was likely mutual. She could never hold anything resembling a friendship with her subordinates either. She disliked Troy, Kathryn disliked her right back, while Yuki was naive, flighty and firmly grounded in a system Molly didn't trust.

Renee was just as tricky. The sisters got along quite well for two girls with totally opposite personalities, but Renee didn't have the perspective necessary to understand Molly's problems. She also maintained a stubborn belief that all this magic stuff was 'cool.' Kurt dying may have opened Renee's eyes. One thing was for sure, Renee had been firmly at Molly's side since the attack.

That included an informal 'meeting of the minds' after Kurt's wake. Renee was not one of those minds. In fact, she seemed a little awed at the presence of so many higher-ranking magi- a Thrusting professor, a dean of student affairs, Kurt's parents (themselves generals) and one frazzled district commander.

Seeing everybody there, Renee had to ask, half-jokingly, “So, don't suppose we can bring him back through alchemy?”

Prof. Weatherstone hesitantly replied, “No, um, that would be... bad.”

“I guess it's expecting too much to think that he could be revived?” Molly muttered.

“Well... it's not totally impossible,” said Marlowe, in a low tone.

Molly lifted her head and faced him. “You're saying it's possible to bring someone back to life? How?”

He shrugged and said, “Magic.”

“You're not helping,” mumbled Uriel.

With an involuntary chuckle, Marlowe said, “What, you've never heard of Green Knightshade?”

“Drop it, Marlowe,” said Trent, growing annoyed.

“What's that?” Molly asked, leaning forward.

Marlowe explained, “It's a very rare plant that can preserve the soul of whoever eats it. If they're killed while the spores are still in their system, they wake up unharmed some time later. We call them 1-up plants.”

Molly narrowed her eyebrows, both curious and a little disturbed. “1-up? You mean like Super Mario?”

“Did you just get a video game reference?” Renee said, ready to fangirl in sisterly pride, despite the circumstances.

Weatherstone scoffed. “Renee, dear, everybody knows Mario. And I wouldn't get excited. Green Knightshade was harvested to near-extinction years ago. Besides, one must be eaten prior to death to be of any use.”

Marlowe nodded. “Yes, sadly, when I said it wasn't impossible, that involved the possibility that he had consumed one prior to last Saturday. Which I assume is not the case.”

“Then why the hell did you mention it?” Molly said through clenched teeth, her hand balling into a fist. Renee set her hand atop it, patting it gently. Marlowe considered it for a moment, but did not respond.

“Fact is, we're in a bit of a corner right now,” Uriel said, measured. “With our limited budget and the Hageshoni now involved, nobody will want to take Kurt's old job. And whatever motive the demons had, they have no incentive to stop pursuing it.”

“Then we have to take the offensive. Send in a squadron to hunt them down and destroy them,” Trent said.

Weatherstone shook her head. “You're suggesting starting a war with the Hageshoni... in the middle of Ohio?”

“They blatantly attacked the granddaughter of a High Councilman. They're begging for a response like that, which suggests a trap,” Marlowe replied.

“We don't have the resources to attempt that anyway,” Uriel said. “And I'm sure as hell not getting the likes of Richard Herman to take the lead. Unless you're willing to volunteer, Trent.”

“Unfortunately, we have to return to our posts soon,” Trent muttered.

“Fact is, everybody here is right. We need to do something, but we can neither fall into their traps nor pretend we have the ability-” In the middle of Uriel's speech, Molly stood up and started to walk away. “Molly? Where are you going?”

She didn't reply. Renee followed Molly out of the room. After a period of silence, she heard Marlowe say, “Until we know what their motives are...” That was where the door closed behind her.

“That sounded important,” Renee said.

“Sounded... but isn't,” Molly mumbled, sitting down, away from the think tank's spinning wheels. “They'll talk forever and not come up with any good conclusions. In the end, we'll be in as much danger as we were in last week.”

Renee sat down next to her and clutched her hand. “So what are we supposed to do?”

“Nothing. What goes on beyond this city is none of my business.”

“And if they attack?”

“If those two attack again, I will personally destroy them.”

Renee leaned her head against Molly's shoulder. “That's more like it. Nice and simple.”

“Nothing is nice and simple, Renee.”

Chuckling, Renee patted her sister's hand. “It is when you're in charge. I know you could do it too.”

Molly sighed. Renee was probably right. At least pretending Renee was right made Molly feel better. Until she could figure out what it was, the honest truth would have to wait.


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