“Yeah, nobody here right now,” Watch Captain Arliss “Arlo" Wallace scratched the bridge of his nose, idly casting his flashlight across the floor of the warehouse. To his surprise, no vermin skittered past the beam of light. “Weird how quiet it is, honestly.”
“They've been like that, Captain,” answered Delia Sacks. “Caught Randall’s unit off guard.”
Arlo tightened his lips, and muttered, “Yeah. I heard.” Right now, however, nothing felt particularly… wrong. Just quiet. “Sacks, stay down here. I'm going upstairs to clear the second floor.”
“Okay, Captain,” though Delia seemed nervous.
Slowly ascending the rusted staircase, Arlo thought over the mission debriefing he had received from Kestenfeld. Sergeant Lance Avery and sixteen special service explosions experts. They had been looking to defuse a series of bombs reported to them by an anonymous tip. Within an hour, no bombs, but plenty else.
A riff of classical guitar. An explosion of light. And, if lone survivor Jannika Hawking was to be believed, the smell of crushed roses and pineapple.
“I hate to sound melodramatic,” Shoshana had added, “but my specialty is cults, and my guess is that we’re looking at is a cult.”
She had gone on to explain, in excruciating detail, the sigils of flaming shields and thorn-crowned hearts. The scrawled messages, on tenement halls, praising the Lightbringer and the throne of blood and gore. The pamphlets, scattered in subway alleys, that read, “Even the Damned can be saved through the Fiery Heart and the Burning Shield!” Praises of the messiah, come in the form of “a dawn colored angel.” The bodies, found in crumpled, ashy piles, clutching strings of rosary beads.
“All we can do,” Kestenfeld answered, “is give consequences to actions. If it's an organized violent religious sect, and it seems to be, then anything we do will be validating. Our strongest move is to eradicate the structures that keep it moving.”
Someone, likely too stupid to realize Kestenfeld’s connection to Ashton Morris, asked how the cult had started.
Sniffing quickly, Kestenfeld snapped, “Obviously, political vacuums are dangerous. Carelessness in… difficult sectors has resulted in less than optimal information being leaked to dangerous people."
“Dangerous people,” Arlo now repeated. He shook his head. He could handle a lot-- witches, zombies… anything that didn’t really have much human left to it. Humans hurting other humans, though… it never got easy.
Arlo twitched his flashlight over the brickwork walls. He breath stopped for a minute as the light settled. A drawing, childish but fluid, of a heart encircled in flame.
Arlo inhaled deeply. Floral and fruity… he’d been out in Tucson once, he remembered. He'd stepped on a prickly pear while walking the desert late at night. Crushed under his foot, in the summer moon, it had smelled exactly like this.
“Shit,” he muttered, wheeling downstairs. “Shit-- Sacks!”
An explosion of sound-- music? Laughter?
Arlo remembered Kestenfeld’s final warning: regardless of what you hear, keep your eyes down and covered.
Arlo yelled out, already hopeless: “Sacks, cover your eyes!”
But, as with the last five encounters with the Children of Light, the air already smelled like crisping bacon.