Once I came down from the adrenaline rush that got me away from the priest, the pain became unbearable. It took all my strength to stay focused on waiting for John, and once I was in the car I began to slip in and out of consciousness. I don’t think he even really noticed, he was so bent on finding the priest who hurt me. Which I guess is admirable in a way, but I thought that I may need to have a talk with him about how much attention he should pay to the injured-and-barely-awake person he’s got in the car with him should the occasion ever arise again.
I remember seeing the priest as we were arriving at the estate, and reacting to the sight of him. Then I was being pulled from the car by Melinda and laid on the concrete of the driveway. There was a glow, and I felt the pain fade away and my head grow more clear. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, and as the glow faded I blinked a few times and looked up at Melinda. She was looking away from me, a fearful expression spreading across her features. When I followed her gaze I saw John punch some kind of massive snake-person in the face, the latter screaming as the scales ripped away from his body and he started to look more human.
“Can you stand?” Melinda asked. I turned to her and nodded, and she helped me to my feet and immediately began moving backwards toward the house.
“What are we doing? Shouldn’t we help him?” I asked. Melinda looked at me with wide eyes.
“What do you think we can do?” There was a loud boom and the ground shook, and we both looked to see a pillar of fire in the driveway. John dove out of it and punched the now-fully-human priest again, who stumbled backward. “Listen. Maybe I could take that man, whoever he is. His magic seems powerful, but not abnormal. But your boyfriend? Do you have any idea what complications he would bring to our involvement? Or what will happen if he loses control of himself right now?” By this point we were to the door, and she let go of me.
“I didn’t think he was really controlling it to begin with.”
“It’s…I don’t fully understand how Anchors work, but I know that we have warnings about them. There is some degree to which his ability is active, even if he isn’t conscious of it. And if he loses control of that, it gets very ugly very fast; especially when you consider how much raw magic is pent up in this house.” We turned to find the priest about twenty feet from John, who was holding his side. The priest’s clothes were in shreds, and he ripped off what little was left. As we watched, small shapes all over his body started glowing.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Rune magic, looks like. It’s old, and powerful, and if those are tattooed they’re more durable against antimagic. Probably how he’s held out as well as he has.” The priest raised his hands, and the ground around John started to break and shift. The sky was growing dark, and a wind was picking up. I held close to Melinda, not sure what was about to happen, and then John started to glow. “Have you ever seen him do that?” Melinda asked. I shook my head. “Oh, shit,” she muttered, and she pulled me down as she ducked. There was another large blast, and a flash of light, and the ground shook violently. We were both knocked over, and the corner of the house nearest the fight collapsed. When we looked back, John was dragging the priest by the leg up the driveway. I couldn’t tell if the priest was dead or unconscious, but I could finally see the small knife in John’s side. His eyes were still glowing, and Melinda ran down the driveway waving her hands and demanding for him to stop.
“I could use a drink,” John growled. Melinda put her hands to her side and stood her ground.
“And you’re a walking time bomb right now! You walk into that house in this mode and you’ll disenchant everything we own! Give me that man,” she ordered, snatching the priest’s leg out of John’s grip, “and you stay right here until you’ve calmed down.” As she continued up the driveway, I ran down and threw my arms around John.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, “I think Melinda took care of it while you were off fighting.”
“Good.” He stood there for a moment, holding me, then I drew away and led him to the courtyard where we sat and chatted and waited. His eyes returned to normal after a minute or so, and he was finally calm enough that I thought it safe to go inside a few minutes after that.
It had taken a bit of convincing for the priest to talk to me alone, but I finally managed to get him to sit down with me and talk after everyone else left even if it was still out in the sanctuary. He seemed more willing to talk once I suggested that it was about a cult operating in the area, and he began there.
“What is your connection to this cult, I’m sorry, what was your name, young lady?” he asked, kneeling backward in the pew in front of me.
“Alice Templeton. My connection to them?”
“Yes. Have you been approached by them? Do you know someone who has fallen into the cult?”
“Oh! Actually no, sorry, I’m actually involved in investigating them.”
“You’re here from America?” he asked. I nodded. “It seems awfully strange for you to come all this way to investigate a group to whom you have no direct tie.”
“Well, I’m actually here as part of a team that was hired by a local with a vested interest.”
“What kind of vested interest?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss my client’s interests.”
“Well then.” He turned to sit in the pew, sideways so he could still see me, but he appeared a bit less invested. “What does this investigation have to do with me?”
“It’s the nature of the cult. They’re called the Brood of Nachash, and they have a theological mandate to overthrow all organized religion, by force if necessary. We’ve learned that they are planning a strike against the Church of England.”
“Oh my. Do you really suppose they would be interested in our little church?”
“It’s hard to tell. They have certainly been active in the area, so we can’t discount the possibility.”
“You seem very confident in that claim. Are you certain they’ve been active here?”
“Yes. We apprehended a few cultists last night in the midst of a ritual.”
“This sounds very serious.” He steepled his fingers against his mouth for a moment, then stood and straightened his shirt. “Perhaps we should send your warning along. Come with me, we should waste no time.” He began walking toward a door near the stage, and I followed. “Is there any way I can talk to the cultists you apprehended? It may be a long shot, but perhaps they will be willing to tell me something they have not told you.”
“That…won’t be possible. I’m sorry, they are not available for outside questioning at this time.”
He led me to his office, and indicated a pair of chairs facing his desk, where the phone was sitting. I sat down as he closed the door.
“So you managed to capture a few members of the cult last night, you said? During a ritual?” He hadn’t walked away from the door yet, and as I turned to respond to his question I saw him pull a small leather book and a pen from his pocket.
“Four of them? And you got them to talk to you?”
“We managed to get some information from them, yes. Did I say there was four of them? I don’t remember saying that.”
“Hm.” He jotted down a note and then closed the book and set it aside. “Here’s the thing, Miss Templeton,” he said, calmly, as he locked the door. I gripped the arms of the chair as I suddenly realized I didn’t know another way out of the room. “You and I are both aware those cultists are dead, are we not?”
“How do you—”
“We are connected. Or were. I felt something disrupt our network, and then they died shortly after I reconnected with them. Quite strange.” He slowly paced toward me, and I stood and began backing away. “I was planning on following the trail to where they died today, learn a bit more about who found us and what they learned, and then you just come waltzing in saving me all that effort!”
“Look, I don’t know what you think I did, but—” I tried to buy time as I made my way around his desk and found myself pressed against the wall, but he wasn’t waiting for me to finish.
“Well, let’s see.” He muttered something and held out his hand. A fireball formed over it, and he threw it in my direction. I screamed and ducked and it hit the wall above me. “You weren’t the one who cut off the network. And I doubt you were the one doing the actual questioning; though if it had been someone powerful enough to break a ley line, I doubt I would have felt it happen when it did, which suggests at least two others in your team, yes?” He continued to make his way slowly toward me. “But they sent you here alone. I wonder why.” Another fireball formed over his hand, and he played with it as it danced along his fingertips. I made a dash around his desk, on the opposite side as him, trying to get to the door before he could react, but the fireball hit me square in the side and I crumpled to the floor with a yelp. I slid myself away as best I could as I tried to catch my breath. He formed another fireball.
“Please, no, listen—”
“I am only interested in knowing who you’re working with, and what you’ve learned about the Brood. Is that what you’re planning on saying, Miss Templeton?”
“I…I don’t, I just—”
“It doesn’t sound like you’re ready to talk. We can work on that.” He raised his hand as if to throw again, but there was a sudden crackle in the air, like there was when Matteson cut off the ley line. As soon as that hit, the fireball dissipated and the priest screamed in pain, stumbling backward. I don’t know where I found the strength, but as soon as I knew he wasn’t prepared to stop me, I made for the door again. He roared and grabbed a knife from a high bookshelf as I fumbled with the lock, yanking the door open just as he gathered the energy to lunge at me. I heard him hit the door and I ran as fast as I could, holding my side and crying. The tears were making my vision blurry, and I heard the knife clang into the ground behind me. Then there were footsteps in the hall, the priest rushing after me. I stumbled and tried to push myself forward when I felt his hand close around my ankle. I spun around onto my back and kicked, but he deflected the blow with his other hand. Then he grabbed the knife, and as he started to straighten I saw an opportunity and kicked for his groin as hard as I could with my free leg. He howled and let go, falling backward and dropping the knife. I pushed myself to my feet, grabbed the knife, and continued running. I heard him screaming after me, but I got outside before he caught up to me, and collapsed into the grass beside the sidewalk. I gripped the knife, watching the door, but the priest didn’t emerge. As soon as I caught my breath, I slowly rose and stumbled away, holding my side. Once I was a safe distance, I leaned against the wall of what looked to be a florist and pulled out my phone to call Matteson.
What I wanted to be doing with my day, of course, was talking to Roderick and digging for more information on the Hudsons and magic and why we were so strictly separated from it. But I was part of this now, and I had technically come here as part of a team he had hired specifically to work under him in an investigation, so I ultimately accepted the task Michael had for me. It was, somewhat annoyingly, the most mundane of the jobs he had in mind.
And that was how I found myself attending an Anglican mass. I wasn’t entirely sure about the logic, but Michael believed that the presence of the four cultists we’d captured the night before—who were now dead, which only raised more questions for me—hinted at a larger concentration of the cult in the immediate area and presumed they would need to be in position to strike the church constantly until their signal was given. So he expected there would be at least one cultist, somewhere in the church, and that they would be thrown off by the absence of their compatriots. What I was supposed to do if I found some cultists wasn’t entirely clear, but I was hoping just reporting them to Michael would suffice. I was not prepared to have a fight with these people.
The service was fine, a bit more stilted than the services I was used to in the one my family has attended since moving to the states, but not outrageously so. I tried my best to look for someone who might be in the cult, but I didn’t have much to go on. What was I even looking for? Someone who looked lost, or confused? Someone who looked like they were expecting someone who wasn’t showing up? These were such vague ideas I didn’t even really know what to do with them. I never felt certain enough to make note of anyone, and by the time mass ended I hadn’t accomplished anything. I knew Matteson would be by sometime soon, but not exactly when, so I probably had some time and didn’t want the trip to be an absolute waste. I decided to warn the priest about the cult.
I was laying on our bed looking at the details in the ceiling while Matteson was at the desk, taking notes and poring over some books he’d snatched from the library on our way inside. I was pretty sure we were both trying to avoid thinking about the same thing, and after a while I decided I couldn’t do it anymore and rolled over to face him.
“I didn’t know,” I said, softly. He set down the pen he was using and turned toward me.
“Didn’t know what?” He asked.
“My family doesn’t know anything about the magic work the Hudsons do. I learned about that since we got here, that it was purposefully hidden from us. That it’s what my grandpa wanted.”
“I…I don’t know.” I sat up and thought about that for a moment. “We never got to discussing why we weren’t supposed to know about our ties to magic.”
“That feels like something you should find out. Did you at least learn about that thing, what was it you said? Jackie found a block?”
“Yeah, there’s something hindering magic in me. Which she thought might be on purpose, and I suppose if I was part of some powerful line or sorcerers it would be necessary to keep us from finding magic on our own.”
“Major success there,” he said with a scoff.
“Yeah, that didn’t pan out.”
“Look, this is all seeming really hard on you. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I think I just need to ask Roderick some more pointed questions. And maybe find some way to get my mind off things until then.”
“You don’t want to just go and ask him now?”
“It is Valentine’s Day, John. I would like to end our night’s outing some other way than talking to a hollow set of armor.”
“You have something in particular in mind?” He asked. I sighed, mentally reminded myself that he doesn’t think about these things quite the way I do, and then patted the bed next to me.
“Why don’t you come over here and find out?” He looked at me for a second, then chuckled, closed the books, and slipped into the bed.
We were walking back from the restaurant when Matteson suddenly stopped and started staring off into space, his nose flaring as if he smelled something foul and goosebumps erupting on his arms. I stepped forward to look him in the face and barely stopped myself from jumping back when I saw his eyes, dilated and bloodshot.
“John?” I asked, resting my hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay?” He muttered a reply, almost in a droning voice, then met my gaze and told me he was sensing the flow of magic from the site being activated. So he frantically called Benedict and, after telling him what was going on, turned back to me.
“I guess I should call you a cab,” he said. “Sorry our date has to end like this.”
“Absolutely not!” I crossed my arms and stared into those seemingly bottomless eyes. “You are in no condition to go alone, and I’m certainly not letting you walk into some nest of evil without some kind of backup!”
“What are you talking about? I feel fine.”
“You don’t see what I see.”
“Okay, we can talk about that later, but, this might be dangerous.”
“Yeah! And you’re not doing it alone.”
“We can stand here arguing about it or we can follow the trail. Your call, babe.”
He sighed and nodded, and off we went. It was weird watching him, he moved almost like a bloodhound, his eyes always fixed on something that wasn’t visible to me, his attention fully absorbed in the sensory trail he was following. I realized how accustomed to it he must be when I realized he was still aware of things like traffic and obstacles, but it was impossible to tell he was aware of anything physical until he reacted to it. We didn’t talk the whole way. I was thankful I’d worn flats when I realized we were leaving the town center, and more so when we finally stopped outside an abandoned stone manor nearly a half hour later.
Following the trail as we were, we arrived at a plain wall instead of the door. We went around the building, like we had for other obstacles along the way, but by the time we were around the other side he whispered to me that the energy wasn’t continuing on from this place. Whatever was happening was happening here. So we crept back around, listening for any sign of activity, and I peeked in a couple windows as we went until I got a view of the parlor through a broken door. I tapped his shoulder and waved him toward the window, and we watched as four people in hooded robes paced around a large basin. We couldn’t hear them, but when we saw the basin his eyes narrowed.
“I think they’re scrying,” he whispered.
“That’s the bit where you watch things elsewhere?” I asked, and he nodded. “Do we have any way to know what they’re scrying on?”
“Not from here. Jackie or Michael probably could, though.” We both slipped away from the window and he called Benedict again, explaining where we were and what we’d found. As he was talking, he made his way to the corner of the house and I followed. We saw a pair of headlights appear over a rise down the road, then park, and Matteson confirmed he saw them before hanging up. “Now comes the fun part,” he said, turning to me. “You can still go to the car.”
“Not a chance,” I said. “If this is what you do on a regular basis, I want to know what it’s like.” He grudgingly accepted that answer, and we went to get into position. It had apparently been agreed upon by the others that they could handle the cultists themselves, if Matteson cut off their extra power while I played lookout to tell him when to stop. I asked how he intended to do that, and he led me back to the wall where we originally arrived at the house and explained that the energy was flowing along a ley line, where he was now standing.
“Ley lines are pretty durable,” he explained, closing his eyes and cracking his knuckles. “The simple presence of an Anchor on one isn’t enough to disrupt them, unless it’s over some years, like if I lived on one or at a nexus site. But I can serve as a dam on one, or cap a nexus site entirely, if I try hard enough.”
“Have you ever tried that before?”
“No. But Jackie’s told me about it, apparently she’s seen the results of it.” He slowed his breathing and began moving his hands as if pushing down against resistance, and soon I could taste a bit of static in the air. There was a faint, tangible crackle, and then something like a pop. I heard the people inside react immediately, apparently aware their power was gone, and got to the window just in time to see Michael’s team charge in.
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.