Beyond the door was a large bedroom. The walls were still the large stones of the basement, with tapestries and erotic paintings hanging around the space. The place was illuminated with torches that were already burning and, I suspected, never needed changed. There was a vanity, and a toilet and bathing area, and a sitting area with a bookcase of tomes that all appeared to be hundreds of years old. But the focus of the room was a large magic circle engraved into the floor, with various magical symbols and shapes worked into it. The whole thing faintly glowed, and within its space was a king-sized bed with large posts on the corners that supported a cloth roof and walls of curtains. On the bed was a naked man, who looked similar to John, though admittedly with some features from what would be my ideal man. He sat up as I entered the room, and my eyes were fixed on him as soon as they found him. I felt Roderick’s hand grabbing my shoulder and startled to a stop, and only then realized I had been walking straight toward the man. He smiled and slipped off the bed, walking toward me. In my attempts to avoid meeting his gaze again, I noticed the cabinets, and ropes tied to loops in the ceiling, and another vanity and a table of various makeups and sex toys all contained in the circle.
“You don’t usually escort the new blood, Roderick,” the man said. His voice sounded ethereal, genderless, and had an echo like it was being said by a legion at once.
“That’s because she’s not here to play with you,” Roderick said, his hand tightening ever so slightly on my shoulder. “She’s here to learn about you.”
“Oh, but I could teach her so much better if she was in here with me,” the man said, running his finger through the air. It was sending sparks as it moved, pushing against some sort of barrier, and I realized he had made it to the edge of the circle.
“What are you?” I asked.
“I’m fun,” he answered, with a smile.
“That is a fertility spirit,” Roderick said, “what names they used before coming here are long lost. Most members of the estate who know of them simply call them The Bride. If you enter their space, you will succumb to your base desires, and you will absolutely leave that space pregnant.”
“Wait, what?” I asked, turning to Roderick. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s my service to the Crown, it seems,” the man said with a wistful sigh.
“They were a deity, once,” Roderick continued. “Dominion over the spirits of the land was part of the nature of British rule; they started that practice at home. Each of them was given some task to serve the Crown, and this one was enslaved to the Hudson estate. Every Lord Hudson is introduced to them, and at least once every few generations, the firstborn of the family must be spawned in this room.”
“So a bunch of the Lord Hudsons are nephilim?” I asked. Roderick nodded. “From this guy?”
“I’m not a guy,” the spirit whined.
“That is true,” Roderick said. “This spirit takes on the form the human perceiving them most desires. It prefers to take on whatever gender can sexually reproduce with the human, if that’s an option.”
“So the Hudsons keep a shapeshifting spirit as a sex slave? Why?”
“Power,” the spirit said, “and it’s not such a bad role. You ever try it? I can show you, I’m not always the slave, you know.”
“Humans born within a few generations of a nephil are far more powerful. Sometimes you get a Warlock or Anchor, but most of the time, you end up with a natural inclination to magic that is beyond what a human without supernatural lineage can manage. After hundreds of years of this, the Hudsons—and you—have so much magical potential in your genetic makeup that you’re nearly supernatural beings in your own right.”
“So why keep doing it?” I demanded.
“Why not?” the spirit answered. “I’m here either way, and humans do so like what I have to offer.”
“Your offense is expected,” Roderick continued, ignoring the spirit. “Your great-grandfather was made aware of his inheritance as the next Lord Hudson, and since it had been a few generations, it was demanded of him to bear his firstborn child here. He opposed the idea outright, and appealed to the Crown to set The Bride free. His request was denied—the Empire needs its premier mages to be more powerful than anyone else, after all—and he chose to leave the office to his brother rather than perform this duty.”
“Does…does Michael know?” I asked, softly, turning to look at The Bride again.
“Not yet. He will be informed soon, though I expect The Bride to look surprisingly like another local spirit when he comes.”
“You’re not going to ruin the surprise, are you?” the spirit asked, pouting. I hesitated to answer, my eyes slowly drifting over their body. God, just looking at them was intoxicating.
“It is not her place,” Roderick answered, snapping me out of my reverie.
“Wait, no, I can’t—” I started, turning to Roderick. I felt, more than saw, a stern gaze from him, and fell silent.
“I am showing you this for a reason, and it is not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“You are entering a world that is far more complicated and dark than you realize. Your line was separated from it specifically to keep you safe, to shield you from knowledge of how much of it works. But if you continue down this path, you must know. You must know what you were being kept away from, that you will encounter things you will not know how to keep away from, that you will find things that disturb you and, perhaps, things that will endanger you.” He bent forward, placing his forehead against mine. I felt a comfortable warmth, like he was trying to ease my mind. “The Hudsons are bound by oath not to make your magic available to you or to make you aware of the magical side of reality. But I am not bound by that oath, and I cannot let you dive into this world without knowing what it is.”
“Thank you,” I said, closing my eyes and leaning into the posture. “I—I don’t know what to do with this.”
“You have to choose, Alice Templeton. You have to choose how much of this world you want to engage with. You must choose whether to keep the limitations put on you by your ancestors, or embrace the power within you.”
“Wait,” I said, snapping my eyes open and straightening up. “I can do that?”
“I know how to remove the spell that blocks your access to magic. And I know how to make you forget you ever learned any of this. I will do as you request.” I heard the crackle of power and realized the spirit was pressed against the barrier.
“Are you okay back there?” I asked, not wanting to risk looking at them again.
“I’m just very interested in where this is going!” they said. “I want to watch. Can I watch?”
“I don’t want to forget. And…I don’t think I want magic. I think I want to keep a little separation there. Is that possible?” I asked. Roderick nodded. “Okay. But I’m afraid. What if I’m really in danger and John can’t help? And what do I do if I have kids and they aren’t ready to handle this?”
“Oh!” the spirit called. “I know this one! I know how to do this!”
“What are you talking about?” Roderick demanded.
“Bring her in here!”
“I can drop the glamour and you know how to keep her pants on. But I can help, if you’re in here!”
“And how would you help?”
“Humans, they only think of fertility as sex. But it’s about producing, it’s about sustaining and growing! I can give her a valve, let her power grow enough to break through just a little when she really needs it. And I can change the spell so it ends with her, so her descendants have full access to their magical nature. With your help, of course. You know the original spell, after all.”
“I hardly think—” Roderick began.
“Yes,” I said, turning to look at The Bride again. To my surprise, they had changed form. There was no apparent gender, but they looked an awful lot like some kind of blend of John and Jackie. I felt no sexual compulsion. “I want that. I want what they’ve described.” I turned back to Roderick. “Can the two of you actually do that?” Roderick sighed.
“Yes. I suppose we can. But you must not allow the Hudsons to know of anything that has transpired down here, do you understand?” I nodded, and Roderick let go of me. I stepped through the barrier, and Roderick followed. The Bride led me to the center of the circle, and began running their hands over me until they reached my gut. They stopped there and stared for a moment, then looked up at Roderick.
“You did amazing work on the original spell, you know,” they said. “I don’t think this would have cracked on its own for at least another hundred generations.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere. Tell me what you need from me.” The Bride waved him over, and held his hand to my stomach. The two of them began speaking quickly, more quickly than I could follow, in sounds that didn’t even resemble any language I’d ever heard. After a few moments of that, I felt a tingle over my entire body, and a warmth that started where their hands were and spreading through me. Then they let go and stood, and I realized I felt a bit different. Like I could feel the magic, beneath the surface of my being, just waiting to be released. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, and suddenly realized I could hear the heartbeat of something small off to the side. My eyes flew open and I looked toward the wall.
“You’re attuned to life magic,” The Bride said. “You’ll learn to tune it out, to an extent.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“If that will be all,” Roderick said, straightening up and resting his hand on my shoulder.
“Well,” The Bride said, sitting seductively on the bed, “while you’re here, certain offers are still on the table.”
“Thank you, but no,” I said. I nodded to Roderick and we both began to make our way out of the circle.
“Come back any time!”
Melinda had a long talk with Michael while one of the servants arranged for John to meet with a doctor they knew to patch up his stab wound. My side was still sore, though there was no visible damage, and Melinda told me I should spend the next day resting at the estate. She also wanted John to rest, but he waved the concern off and Michael was all too willing to have him work more as long as he insisted he was up for it.
So, after everyone else left in the morning, Melinda found me lounging and reading in the library. She apologized for pain John and I had suffered from Michael’s plan and expressed hope that everyone was going to be okay today. She then asked me to follow her, and I did, and we walked across the estate and down into the basement, where she threw open a pair of heavy metal doors. Inside were shelves lined with assorted items, books and jewelry and random household items and knives. Just a massive assortment of every kind of thing I could think of, and a few I’d rather not think of in decent company.
“What is this?” I asked. Melinda led me into the room and lifted a jewel-encrusted bracelet that shimmered much more than the low light should have allowed.
“This,” she said with a sweeping motion of her other arm, “is one of our vaults.” She walked over and placed the bracelet on my wrist. It was lighter than I expected, and felt faintly charged somehow. “These things are not fundamentally dangerous, so they aren’t in the high security vault. And they aren’t specifically useful as weapons, so they aren’t in the armory. But they are items we have had need to confiscate or keep out of circulation over the years. That,” she said, pointing at the bracelet, “allows anyone wearing it to summon a protection spell. It will be like a thin magical shield over your whole body that would have been very handy to have yesterday.”
“Why are you showing me this?”
“You are getting involved in a dangerous world. I should have shown it to you earlier, I just…I suppose I wasn’t sure how involved you were actually going to be. But after yesterday—”
“Melinda, it’s not your fault.”
“I know, I know. I just want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And I can’t give you your magic back, but I can offer you some of these.”
“But these need to be out of circulation.”
“These need to be off the streets of the United Kingdom and Her Majesty’s territories. But you’ll be taking them to America, will you not?”
“I…yeah, I would.”
“Well then,” she said with a nod, “let’s do some shopping. Just make sure that boyfriend of yours doesn’t get too much time with them.” We began to work our way through the room, talking about different items and what they did, occasionally pulling one out and adding it to a large purse she’d grabbed after the bracelet. I learned that the knives and sword were not in the armory because their specific magic didn’t lend itself to combat use. Some of the items weren’t even really magical, there were items in there that would serve as a focus for magic or could be used by a mage to store a spell for a single release, but would no nothing for me. We chatted and joked and picked through items for a little over an hour before she was called away by a servant to meet with the crew repairing the wall about something, and I continued to poke around for a little bit before slipping out of the room, turning off the lights, and closing the doors. I looked around the hallway a bit, not entirely sure which way we’d come from, and decided to just start walking and see what happened.
“Are you sure that’s the direction you want to be going?” Roderick asked. I spun around to find the suit of armor standing in the hall a few feet behind me.
“How the hell did you sneak up like that?” I demanded. He shrugged.
“I move how I wish. Do you know where you’re going?”
“I…no. I was going to go back upstairs but I’m not sure this is the way.”
“It is not. However, if you are still seeking answers, upstairs can wait.”
“I most certainly am. You know, you never gave me much to work with when I asked you about my family being cut off from magic.” As I spoke, he nodded, folded his arms behind his back, and walked past me.
“Yes, well. Did you know that your grandfather was supposed to inherit the lordship? Michael’s line was supposed to be the one who became secondary.”
“I don’t think that was ever discussed at home,” I answered, following him.
“I don’t know if he ever bothered to tell anyone. But he was the next rightful Lord Hudson. Threw it all away, including access to magic, because he could not stomach the Hudson family secret.” He stopped in front of a door. With a flourish of his hand he produced and key, which he slipped into the lock of the door but didn’t turn. He looked back to me, his hand hovering next to the key. “Do you think you can stomach it, Alice? Do you think you’re ready to know what your grandfather could not tolerate about this estate?” I looked between him and the door for a moment, then straightened up and crossed my arms.
“Yes, Roderick. If you would be so kind, I would know.” Having received his answer, he nodded and turned the key.
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.
“Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about them,” Roderick said, practicing some stretches in tandem with the people showing on an old VHS exercise video. They looked like the tape had been originally made in the 80s, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he hoped to accomplish when there didn’t seem to be any sort of body inside the armor. Around him, the room had become vibrant, free of dust and clutter with beautiful colors on the walls much more visible than they’d been in my last visit. Michael was lounging on a sofa eating an orange, his notepad laying on a table with the red spiral showing.
“Come now, Roderick,” Michael nudged, “isn’t knowing things your entire job?”
“I know what the estate knows. And the estate has never known this Brood of Nachash.”
“Well maybe we’ll have better luck with the boyfriend,” he grumbled, before looking to me. “Anything much there?”
“We’ve been working on it,” I said. I was in an armchair, switching my attention between them and a set of notes. “Unfortunately, we may not yet even have enough information to know what to look for. All we really know, he said, is that they’re accessing power. He joked that for all we know, they’re using it to repair a van.” Michael laughed at that and looked back to Roderick.
“You know what the estate knows, right? Does the estate think he’s getting anywhere?”
“He is unknowable to the estate,” Roderick answered, turning the tape off and turning to us. “Anchors cannot be read or properly remembered.”
“So there’s a gap where he should be?”
“More like static. Armed with knives.”
“Perhaps this is the wrong approach.” Roderick sat down and faced me. “Can he track the energy?”
“Oh,” I said, setting the notes down and thinking for a moment. “I don’t actually know. I never thought to ask him that.”
“Magical energy flows through almost everything. As a liminal being, he should have some ability to track that, even if he has never exercised the ability. I expect you will find answers faster by seeing where the energy is going than by sitting in the library joking about vans.”
“You know, he has been working on tracking ghosts.”
“It should be similar to that. Pity I can’t explain how to apply it.”
“Maybe I could. Jackie was teaching me about that.”
“Was she?” Roderick asked, leaning back in his seat. “And how did you fare at that?”
“I had limited results. Something was blocking me, we think.” I gathered my notes and stood. “But maybe it’ll be enough to guide him just the little he needs, right?”
“Do the two of you have plans tonight?” Michael asked, nodding toward the clock. It was getting well into the afternoon.
“Oh, not yet,” I answered. “Though I suppose we’re running out of time.”
“I’ll call Chez Davineau, make sure there’s a table for you this evening.”
“Thank you,” I said, patting his shoulder. “I’ll go see what we can do. Thank you both!” As soon as I got out of the room, I glanced down at my notes, and added one about finding out what it meant that Roderick knows what the estate knows, before making my way back to the library. I decided to let him think we just happened to stumble on the restaurant later, since he’s probably had too much rich folk things for one day to handle the concept of reservations very well.
Akshainie and the boys left around 9 to go investigate the site Michael had found. Matteson seemed relieved; he was visibly uncomfortable the whole night, but didn’t seem to want to talk about it. I gathered it was the atmosphere of the estate itself, and determined to talk to him about it some time after they returned. In the meantime, however, I was going to have a pleasant visit with my cousins.
My grandfather and Michael’s grandfather were brothers, with mine moving to the United States around the time his inherited the estate. We didn’t talk about why that had happened, but it seemed to have been cordial at least, since our families maintained close relations afterward. But now that I knew there was magic in their blood, and possibly in mine, I had questions.
“Oh, I suppose it would be impossible to hide from you under the current circumstances,” Melinda said when I finally raised the issue. She was Michael’s mother, and my guide to the estate while her husband was tending to some business at Parliament and everyone else was away. Michael’s siblings were away at school, and Melinda seemed disappointed that she hadn’t known I was coming early enough to call them home for the visit.
“But why was it hidden at all?” I asked. We were, by that point, carrying the box I had brought down a hall off of the main house. It was the first chore I’d seen her personally do, and I started to notice that there were no servants working down this hall, and felt it safe to ask in the relative privacy.
“Because it was requested. Actually, there is someone better equipped to answer these questions just ahead.” She stopped in front of a door and handed me the box, before she drew a key from her pocket and opened it. The room beyond was dark and a bit dusty, with cobwebs gathering on the corners of furniture that looked like it had been crafted hundreds of years earlier. She led me in and then took the box from me, setting it on a table and digging around until she produced a visor that I now realized matched a set of armor on display in the corner that was missing the same piece. Melinda took the visor over and reattached it, then stepped back and clapped the dust from her hands. As she did so, a dim light started to emanate from behind the visor, and after a moment of that the armor began to stretch like a man waking.
“Oh, finally,” a male-sounding voice said from within the armor. “That was a nice vacation but honestly, Melinda, would it have been a bother to ask them to carry me around from time to time?”
“And how would you like me to have explained that request, Roderick?”
“Must everything be explained to you people?” Roderick sighed, then waved his hand in a circular motion. As he did so, I felt a faint crackle in the air and all the dust and cobwebs swirled together and vanished, the sconces lit, and every wooden surface began to shine as if freshly polished. The armor walked forward and sat in an armchair before pointing at me. “And what are you doing here?”
“I—” I started to answer, before realizing I didn’t really have a good answer for him.
“This is our cousin Alice,” Melinda stepped in, sitting on a freshly-cleaned chaise. I slipped onto a cushioned bench. “She brought you home from the States.”
“Yes I know that,” he snapped, “but if it was so hard to explain me to her, then why is she here?”
“The young dear has learned about magic, without any involvement from us.” He turned to face me, and while I couldn’t see any real change, it felt like he was narrowing his gaze as he stared.
“And how did that come about?”
“Well,” I said, “you see, I’m dating an Anchor, I think you call it, and his friend is a witch, and—”
“Oh please tell me that isn’t your entire knowledge of magic, an Anchor and an American witch? What is she, Dutch? One of those people trying to reclaim what they think the Celts practiced?”
“She’s Latina, actually.” I heard him groan and his head angled back into the chair.
“She has questions that I think are very sensible ones for her to ask, Roderick, so be nice,” Melinda said sternly, “before I shove you back into a box.” He grumbled and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms.
“Fine. Ask your questions,” he said, finally.
“I guess the main one is, why was I never told about the Hudsons having magic?” I asked.
“Because you weren’t supposed to be told.”
“That was the point, Alice. Your family went to the States to leave the magic behind. It was agreed that, in respect for your family’s wishes, this side of the family would not discuss the matter.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“That’s my job.”
“Roderick is the family memory,” Melinda said. “He knows basically everything about who we are and who we have been and, sometimes, who we will become.” She turned to him. “And your insight has been sorely missed.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure it has.” He turned to face me, but didn’t say anything, as if he was considering me somehow.
“Well,” Melinda said, standing, “I suppose we should let you get comfortable. Alice knows where to call on you now. Though do be careful coming out while she’s in town.”
“The Anchor, yes, I know,” he said, standing. As I took to my feet, he walked forward and rested his hand on my shoulder. “Be mindful of that one, cousin. He isn’t safe, and you will need to decide what risks you are willing to take. Choose wisely.”
“Oh, um,” I said, patting the metal glove, “thanks, Roderick. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Please do.” And with that, we slipped out of his chambers and made our way back down the hall. The place looked different now, more alive, and I began to wonder just how much influence he had on the estate.
I was having dinner with my parents when Matteson called. The phone ringing caught us all off guard, my friends were so used to not calling at this time on Saturdays that I hadn’t bothered silencing my phone in months. I checked the screen and, seeing it was Matteson and realizing he probably didn’t know that this affair isn’t really meant to be interrupted, I asked leave of my parents to answer. But they were very curious about this man they hadn’t yet met, so they insisted I take the call there.
“Good evening,” I said, answering.
“Hey, I know you said you were doing something tonight, is this a good time?” he asked. Seemed to me like the sort of question that would have been better as a text message.
“Only if it is very important.” He sounded a little bit off, and I suspected he’d been drinking, but was not about to say that in present company.
“Well, okay, I guess that depends on how much weight you put on Valentine’s Day.”
“I suppose that depends on what you’re planning to do instead.”
“I’ve been hired to go do some work for a Michael Hudson in England. It’s a…magic thing. I don’t know all the details yet.”
“Michael Hudson? John, are you doing work for the estate of Lord Hudson?” I asked, looking at my parents. They perked up at the name.
“Uh, yeah. You know much about lords and shit?”
“Well, some. But the Hudsons are of particular interest, being that Michael is my cousin.”
“Is every rich person related?”
“We happen to be. Listen, John, I actually think I have something for them, right?” I looked to my father, who nodded and called Mary over.
“Be a dear and fetch the box labeled ‘Hudson’ in the foyer closet,” he said. Mary nodded and slipped out of the room as he turned his attention back to me. “If you’re going to visit you must return it.”
“What’s going on there?” Matteson asked.
“Well, last time they visited, which was probably a decade ago now that I think about it, they left a couple things behind and we all agreed it would be better to hand deliver it than deal with postage. But then we never really got together again, you see. So I should bring it along.”
“John, you don’t know the first thing about dealing with the nobility, and I haven’t seen my cousin in years, and I’m certain they’re sending a plane so it will be no bother adding one more person. Besides,” I said, leaning back in my seat, “it would be nice to be in the same country as my boyfriend for Valentine’s, don’t you think?”
“Okay, okay, fine. I’ll have to tell Benedict.”
“The priest. I wasn’t going alone.”
“You’re taking a priest?”
“More like a priest is taking me. Us. Anyway, okay, then, I guess I better get you the flight info as soon as I have it.”
“That would be splendid, thank you. I should get back to dinner now, though.”
“Well that sounds like it’ll be a fun trip!” my mother said, as soon as I was off the phone. “You’ll have to give them our best when you get there.” Mary entered with the box, which was set on an open chair next to me.
“Now, you take this back to your place tonight,” father said after he’d dismissed Mary, “and make sure you take good care of it. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to see you all grown up. In the meantime, maybe put your phone on silent?”
I nodded, changed the phone volume, and we went back to dinner.
Biology major on the edges of the 'burgh.