We had to split up for the last two raid locations, with Michael identifying a group of cultists in a building for me to take out before they could react, while he dealt with picking off the individuals scattered around the area.
The cultists who held vantage points, it turned out, were also relying more on weapons than on magic. Allowing enough heat to escape my body reduced their attacks to mere annoyances, and that in turn caused them to yield quickly. Which was quite good, as I fear what would have happened to the structure of the buildings if I had kept my heat up much longer. I am convinced at least one of them was already compromised from my brief burst; when I raised the matter to Michael, he promised to have someone look into it.
The lack of magic concerned me, however. In every other instance of encountering the Brood of Nachash, they relied heavily on the power of their dark gods. Here, they relied heavily on illegal weapons. I considered the possibility that the people I was facing were not actually part of the cult, but I could find little reason for him to have otherwise been able to identify them the way he did, and their weapons were still illegal. If they were part of the cult, it suggests that either they’re branching out, or that their recruitment in Britain did not allow them time to properly initiate these cells. Such a rush cannot be looked upon lightly.
After everyone was arrested and safely transported to the prison, we stepped through the gate and I was formally introduced to Lord Hudson. I checked with him and with Michael, and there was no sign of anyone matching the Barzai’s description at any of the raid sites. It was possible he would have been at the attack on the bishop, we were still waiting for Akshainie and Matteson to return, but I was growing concerned. If the Brood is in enough of a rush that they’re suddenly getting sloppy in training, and the Barzai is occupied elsewhere, something big was in the works. We would have to be vigilant against that, and I was concerned we were running out of time.
There was little else for me to do, however, so I was shown back upstairs while the Hudsons began to process their suspects. I reminded them that I was available if any last rites were needed, with a stern look reminding them I did not want them to be needed, but I left all the same. The fact is that I had no real authority here, and it was beginning to appear my work was complete. I took a walk around the grounds to think, and stopped when I found the work site where the corner of the estate was being rebuilt. Alice was there, as well, and I walked to her.
“You seem bothered,” I said. I noticed she was shivering, so I allowed a little more heat to escape my form.
“It’s…it’s nothing, Benedict. But thank you,” she answered, softly. She soon noticed the heat, and shifted closer to me. We both stared at the wall for a long moment.
“Did Matteson really do that?”
“I don’t know. Melinda said the place was so infused with magic that he might have, but we weren’t able to see exactly what happened. The cult priest was also calling on some spell or another at the time, it may have been him.”
“I see.” We stood in silence for another length of time, and when I glanced down to her I noticed a tear on her cheek. “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about something? As someone who hears confessions, I understand how to keep it between us.”
“I appreciate that, but no. I think it would be best if I didn’t. I guess this trip just didn’t go how I expected it to.”
“You have seen very little of the supernatural before now, have you not?” I asked. She nodded. “I imagine it must be quite the shock.”
“That’s one way to put it. I just…” She faded out, then paused before looking up at me. Her eyes were welling up with tears now. “What do I do, father? I love Matteson, but if this is what his life is like, am I really ready for it? Is this really want I want for my life?” I wrapped my arm around her shoulders.
“Every life has different challenges than you expect going into a relationship,” I said. “No one can decide if those challenges are worth it to you but you.” She buried her face in my chest and cried, and I held her and waited. I wasn’t tracking the time, but it must have been some minutes before she finally pulled back and looked into my eyes again.
“Thank you. I think I just needed to get some of that out.”
“Well,” I said, wiping the hair from her face and giving my best comforting smile, “just make sure you don’t hold the rest in too long, okay?” She nodded, and slipped away back inside the house. I gave the house work one more look before continuing my walk.
From the records of Lord Hudson
By sorting out the targets for the cult cells and basing their locations on the ley network they would certainly be using to instantly mass communicate, Benedict and I were able to map out where to find the cells with a workable level of accuracy. The first three cells, it was close enough to strike before they realized we were there for them; a quick ambush from both of us at full power, and a portable door that tossed them straight into the dungeon as soon as they were sufficiently subdued, made short work of them. Short enough they couldn’t get a warning out. Exactly the goal, augmented by Benedict’s desire to avoid killing as much as possible.
It was nearing noon. We hadn’t heard from Matteson and Akshainie, and were beginning to wonder why. Were they having difficulty? With Matteson’s wound he would certainly be limited, and there was nothing we could do to speed his healing. But they had ways of letting us know if they needed help. Had the cult not attacked yet? If not, when were they planning to? Would the cult be on higher guard once the time for the attack came?
As we approached the fourth location, I received a call from father. He and his personal team had gone after the cell targeting the Queen, due both to proximity and the need for the true Lord Hudson to be handling something so sensitive. It was a harder fight than ours had been—they were prepared for stronger defenses, after all—but the task was finished and the cultists were in custody. He was now on his way to the cell targeting the Archbishop of Canterbury, and we had two more to handle.
This group was more well-hidden than the others. We knew they were nearby, but the area was more densely populated than the others we’d dealt with so far, and it was harder to pinpoint their locations. The others had a limited number of places they could actually be in the space; with the shops and flats surrounding us, we had no idea if our targets would even be collected in one spot. And, of course, collateral damage was much more likely here. We had to be far more careful. Benedict and I found a secluded place where I could work out a spell.
“Why are you trying to keep this a secret?” he asked, after I’d ensured we weren’t being watched.
“Are you suggesting that the rest of the world does not?” I asked.
“Well, I certainly don’t know about that. But I am certain that neither Akshainie nor Matteson will consider secrecy an important aspect of their mission if you didn’t tell them.”
“Why not? They come from somewhat civilized lands.”
“Akshainie comes from a culture that openly discusses the spiritual side of reality, and I don’t know how you think things work in the United States, but the only secrets they keep are sexual. And that, only occasionally,” he said. I stopped and looked him in the eye.
“I have been to the States. They did not seem very open about magic.”
“It’s not that they’re open about it. Most of them seem to just assume it’s around but not important to their lives. They might focus only on miracles, or get very interested in psychics, or any number of things. But they generally think of it as something that happens from time to time, just usually outside of their personal experiences, and have a tendency to explain away any minor forms of it they come across. It’s a weird balance.”
“But the end result is that Matteson will just chat about it? Be open about his involvement in the supernatural? Because it is part of his personal experience?”
“That has been the impression he’s given me.”
I groaned and refocused on the task at hand. I should have probably given them more clear directions about how to carry themselves in England, but it was too late now. I’ll just have to have a debrief with the bishop later if anything happens. The spell I need for now would be more difficult, however. I no longer had access to the magical signature I’d used to track the cult before, and even if I did, it was likely at least a bit different between cells based on their regional connection to the ley network and the specific spells they were doing in preparation. I was going to have to use the Registry.
Using the Registry was cumbersome for daily use. Augmenting my vision to compare every individual with a non-standard magical nature against the records of every single registered embodied spirit and mage across the Empire took time, and often added a slight bit of lag on my senses. Benedict would have to pick up my slack if we had to actually fight. But it was a necessary spell for every Hudson to know, because it was useful in instances like this, where I needed to be able to quickly identify members of the magical community and determine if they were a threat. The cult was not registered, and while their members could technically have registered under false affiliations, something in their file should have failed to line up if they had. Red flags and unregistered magic users would have to be my targets in this setting; hopefully, if any of them were not part of the cult, we’d be able to sort them out in questioning back at the estate. I was growing concerned that Benedict would not endorse such a system, and reactions would be even worse if he told the Americans; so I simply told him that the spell allowed me to register people affiliated with the cult. Father and I could deal with the sorting later, without our freelancers. The spell was ready and cast, and as I turned around my vision marked Benedict as an unregistered half-spirit.
“It’s ready,” I said. He nodded and let me through, and we began searching the neighborhood.
From the records of Lord Hudson
One by one, the beacons were going dark.
I couldn’t contact Benedict or Akshainie while they were in the metaphysical realm, since phones didn’t exactly get reception there, but I could mark their progress by observing the order in which beacons on the other side of town were snuffed out. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing with the cultists—the result from my end would be the same whether the cultists were dead or unconscious—but it hardly seemed important. I was already able to ambush and arrest three lone cultists, but I was carefully watching the beacon on the move. One of them, it seemed, was staying a step ahead of me, and after the third ambush I stopped to study its direction. I checked it against my map when I got suspicious, and grew concerned that it was heading toward the estate.
The estate, of course, could probably defend itself. Roderick and mother were sufficient to handle most isolated threats, and the estate has its own defenses, and of course they had the option of recalling father from London. But I was still concerned, and kept an eye on it until I saw it go dark as well. There was still one more isolated cultist I was tracking, but by this point the line of the other team’s progress was leading directly to what seemed to be a hub of beacons, and I didn’t want to leave them without backup.
On the way there, I received a call from mother. She informed me that Matteson had taken down a cult priest, who was now in the dungeon, and Alice had delivered some paperwork from that priest that indicated the next steps of their plan. I agreed to collect Benedict and Akshainie as soon as we were done with our next strike and return to the estate to study those documents. I also asked how Matteson fared against the priest, and she hesitated before telling me to brace myself for seeing some collateral damage when we returned. I made a mental note of that and we disconnected.
I arrived at an abandoned warehouse outside of town and meditated to sense the presence of people in the metaphysical realm. I waited about ten minutes before I felt the others arrive, and then exited the car as a massive flaming demon and a naga, unmistakably Akshainie, stepped out of the metaphysical realm.
“Is this what you normally look like, Father?” I asked.
“Normally? No,” he replied. The fact that it was Benedict’s voice unnerved me but I couldn’t put my finger on why it should.
“Do you know how many are in there?” Akshainie asked.
“Looks like about thirteen,” I said, “but these things have room for error above five or so.” They both nodded, and Akshainie drew her swords. “What have you done with the others?”
“They’re waiting to be collected, in a shed over there,” she said, pointing back toward a few old houses. “Didn’t seem otherwise occupied.”
“What’s your play, boss?” Benedict asked.
“Do those wings work?” I asked. He nodded. “Then I would like you to start at the top. Stay out of sight until you’re inside, no need to worry the whole countryside with visions of the apocalypse.”
“Akshainie, you start at the loading area over there, and I’ll start at the front entrance. We can all move in toward the center until there’s no one left.”
“Results?” Akshainie asked. I considered that we already had their plans and someone reliable to interrogate, and that we had that information because they had attacked the estate.
“We don’t need any survivors,” I said. “If you want to bother with dragging them back, that’s your problem.” With that, Akshainie and I split up and Benedict vanished. As soon as I was reasonably sure we were all in position, I charged up some offense spells and blew the door open. Inside was a robed figure frantically shoving a pile of trinkets into a suitcase; I threw a bolt of lightning that fried them before they could react. I could hear commotion beginning to echo from other parts of the building, even some gunfire, and raised a mystic shield as I made my way forward.
The other front rooms were empty, and when I entered the large main room I intercepted three people running from Akshainie with another bolt of lightning that arced between them. Split up like that, it wasn’t enough to kill them, but I summoned a sword and finished them off as I passed. Akshainie already had five slain in her path and as I made my way forward she dispatched a sixth. Benedict crashed through the catwalk above us, two figures in each massive hand. They were unconscious, I realized as we all approached each other.
“You’re bringing those ones back to the estate?” I asked. Benedict confirmed he was. “Fine. We need to return, Alice and Matteson have information for us. I don’t suppose you’ll fit in the car with those,” I said, nodding toward the cultists, then turned to Akshainie. “Will you ride back with me, or accompany him?”
“I’ll grab the others and meet you there,” she said. I nodded, thanked them for a job well done, and walked back to the car alone.
From the records of Lord Hudson
The locus at the cult was corrupted, and feeding too much power to the cultists. It had to be decommissioned until this matter was under control. It simply couldn’t be allowed to continue playing a role in this investigation if we expected to resolve it effectively. I didn’t tell the others the plan, of course. Matteson knew his part, but he didn’t need to understand what I was going to do with it and I didn’t have time to explain anything unnecessary. And the others…well, I don’t know how much Alice even understands about magic yet, and I know how badly the other two would react to the idea of neutralizing a locus. I knew the damage from doing so would be much more widespread than we needed, but the ley network will recover in a matter of hours, drawing energy from other loci. It was a price worth paying, even if they wouldn’t see that.
I could sense the presence of Benedict and Akshainie as they lingered in the house for a minute or two after stepping into the spiritual realm, but I didn’t concern myself with them. Soon they were gone, and I was able to focus on the task at hand. The concept was simple enough; tracking spells usually look for some kind of trail to follow, and all I had to do was isolate the trail formed by the specific magic used by the cult. I drew from my pocket a trinket I’d pulled from the body of the cultist I’d interrogated. It was likely this small runic inscription was meant to be destroyed when his body was—it did appear to be made of a flammable material after all—but since he wasn’t clothed when he died I still had it. Once the ritual was set up, I used it to isolate the magical signature he’d been using and seek any trail it may have left.
At first, there was too much noise. Between the recent spell and all the magic flowing along the ley line, I could barely make out anything specific. But magic using this much power is uncommon, and if I could just get a lead in a direction different than the ley lines I would be able to track movement. So I waited, and focused, and after a while I started to get a vague sense of what I was looking for. I stepped outside of the house, and was able to see a fuzzy path. It was too fuzzy and wide to reliably trust for tracking, but it pointed me in a general direction, so I took a few steps along, checked my watch, and waited. If I had mapped out Matteson’s travel time properly, and my studies on what would be required for him to silence the locus were accurate, things would change within the next few minutes.
Sure enough, four minutes later, I felt the ambient magic in the air shatter, and the line before me suddenly came into focus in the lack of distracting energy. In the distance, I could see pillars of light, no doubt marking the location of concentrations of Nechashic magic; the cultists. I smiled, ran to the car, and made my way to the closest beacon. It would be hours before they would go dark, but only hours. Now was the time to strike.
After we separated from the other two, Akshainie, Michael, and I made our way back to the farmhouse where we had captured the cultists. The goal today was to track any connection we could find to other cultists. Michael had materials for a tracking spell to see if he could find where the cultists had come from before the farmhouse in the hopes he would find a hub of some sort; Akshainie and I were asked to slip into the spiritual realm and follow the ley lines connected to the site, splitting up if needed, to seek out any other ritual locations on the network. We entered the house, did a cursory investigation to make notes of anything particular to this branch of the cult that should stand out to us at other sites, and then stepped aside out of the physical realm. Both of us took our more spiritual forms once we crossed over, since they were able to cover ground more quickly than our human forms. We stood for a moment and watched Michael continue to take notes on the site, then turned our attention to the ley line and followed it away from the town.
“I think Alice has some legitimate concerns about our employer,” Akshainie finally said, after we were well out of earshot of the house. We didn’t know how much Michael’s spell would allow him to see or hear, and it seems we both felt it prudent to assume he could hear us while we were close.
“Are you saying that because you think something is off, or because you consistently haven’t trusted him?” I asked. She sighed, slithering slightly slower.
“Both, I suppose.”
“There is little we can do about the latter at this point. I doubt anything there will change until he actually has his audience with your queen.”
“If he seeks an audience.”
“If he seeks an audience,” I repeated. She gained pace and resumed her place at my side. “But about the former.”
“Yes,” she said. “I didn’t want to consider that Alice might be right about the capture of the cultists. I haven’t really thought of them as people we have reason to consider for some time now.”
“They have chosen a path of darkness.”
“So it suits our purposes to just wipe them out?” I stopped and rested my hands on my hips, looking at the sky. She turned back and rested in coils in front of me, holding her head just high enough that she could look me in the face.
“They have chosen a path of darkness,” I said again, slowly, trying to wrap my head around how to say the rest. “But it was a choice, and given reason, they may be willing to make a different one.”
“So we have to give them a chance.”
“I don’t know. But I think I need to. It’s pretty important to my religion, you know, getting another chance.”
“Important like your oaths? Or important like transparency with your supervisors?”
“Like my oaths.”
“So the death of the cultists during Michael’s interrogation, then, does not sit right with you?”
“I gather it doesn’t sit right with you, either.” I lowered my gaze to meet hers, and she frowned at me for a moment before turning and continuing along the line.
“I want the cult to be destroyed. I’m willing to kill every member if I need to.”
“But what if we don’t need to?” I asked. She paused.
“You have something better in mind?”
“I…I don’t know yet.”
“Then we can talk about it when you do.” With that, she continued, and I jogged to meet her. We walked in silence for a few more minutes. We were approaching another little town by this point, and I could see a nexus point just on the edge of it. As we approached, a sudden shudder rippled through the ley line, giving the air a faint metallic taste. Akshainie’s eyes grew wide. “Get off the line!” she yelled, diving to the side. I jumped the other way, and suddenly the line exploded with energy and then crumpled into a dark, frozen shard.
“What was that?” I demanded.
“Matteson,” she said, staring at the line. “What the hell did he have Matteson do?”
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.