As noted last week, Chuck Wendig provides good writing prompts. This week I drew an interesting in his combination of X vs. Y. I really don’t want to spoil what’s in it, so read for yourself and find out who’s fighting who in this week’s mashup.
As a note, this contains a little bit of alternative history – particularly around the tragedy of the raid on the Branch Davidian Cult back in the nineties. If that kind of thing might make you feel uncomfortable or angry, perhaps this isn’t for you.
Personally, I think there’s a great long-format story waiting to be expanded in here. I hope you agree.
When Mitch arrived on the scene of the standoff there were already bodies piled up. The whole thing reminded him of Waco again. He’d been a young agent on that raid though. He hadn’t been toughened yet, was too green for the truth of what had been going on inside the Branch Davidian Cult.
He approached the scene and flashed his badge at one of the staties tasked to help keep the whole circus in order. The uniformed man nodded and lifted the yellow crime scene tape. It didn’t take Mitch long to find the people in charge.
One of them was a tall guy who looked like a scarecrow that had half its straw missing, leaving nothing but sticks and partially filled clothes. He was saying something about formations and casualties.
“Evening folks,” Mitch said. He approached the huddle with his typical Texas drawl and good old boy posture. “So, what have you got for me?”
The scarecrow looked up. “Excuse me, we’re kinda in the middle of something here.”
“I know, I know, and that’s great. Why don’t you just stop what you’re doing and tell me how you lost your men?”
Now the entire group looked up. Scarecrow looked to be the kind of guy that Mitch was used to dealing with: territorial, self-assured, and one hundred percent out of his depth.
“You got a badge, peckerwood?” said Scarecrow. Big words for a guy who looked like he was on the tail end of chemo, Mitch thought.
Mitch flashed his fed badge again, but before he could put it back in his jacket the gangly man pulled it out of his hand.
“Federal Department of … okay, what the fuck is this? Arrest this man. Get him the fuck out of here before I -“
Scarecrow’s phone rang and his fellow agents hesitated. Mitch waited patiently for the man to answer his mobile.
“Norwood here, look I…” Scarecrow’s voice seemed to strangle itself in his throat. “No, sir, but I…” his face went pale. “Are you… alright. Okay. If you say so.”
Scarecrow’s phone went back in its pocket and he straightened. “Okay. I’ve been directed to follow your lead, Mr…?”
“What, didn’t read it the first time? Name is Whatley. Mitch Whatley. And this is now a Federal Department of Xenoarcana operation.”
“So we sent in a first unit with body cams attached. We’re still trying to puzzle out what exactly the guys inside did to them. It was a five man squad. Four are dead now, and the lone survivor came out screaming like a lunatic. He’s missing most of his right arm, and minus a few fingers on his left hand.”
Mitch scratched his chin. “You got footage from the team handy ?”
The analyst swiveled on his chair in the surveillance truck and brought up a series of monitors. In them, Mitch watched the team’s entry. They managed to get to the front door, ram it open, then gain entry. About ten seconds in, a man stepped into the end of the entrance hallway. From what Mitch could see the guy was unarmed. Then, there was some shouting and the man in the hall raised his hand. There was a single shot from one of the agents, then a flash of light. All the cameras went out at once.
“We’re thinking EMP,” the Analyst said. “But, the people we pulled out had all sorts of other electronics on them, all fine. Watches kept ticking, walkies were good.”
“You’re right, it’s not EMP.” Mitch said. “That gesture, see that?” he pointed to the monitor containing a grainy, green-white image of the man in the hall. “That’s a spell meant to occult the caster from sight. As for what killed those men, I’d have to say they used another spell that causes its victim’s flesh to necrotize. Probably a standard withering spell.”
The analyst looked at him with a clear look of disbelief.
“You don’t have cultists, son. You’ve got Cultists. Capital C.”
Mitch pulled out his cell phone and speed dialed a number. He didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s official. Bring in SWAT.”
The black van arrived thirty minutes after his call. Mitch looked at the moon. It was gibbous, pregnant with its culminating phase. Thank god for small favors.
The van door slid open and five people stepped out. They were a mixed group. Short, tall, fat, thin, male, female. The only common thing between them was their attire. Their suits were form fitting black tights. All were barefoot and bare handed. Mitch walked up to one of them, a middle aged guy with a physique going to fat. Mitch reached his hand out.
“Bancroft. Goddamn, when they move you out here?”
“Two years ago. You know, after that whole Detroit heroin raid?” The man didn’t seem entirely comfortable.
“Oh yeah, that FBI loan out. Sorry that went south on you man. I heard you took a hell of a hit.”
“You have no idea.”
“I got a notion.” Mitch looked to the rest of the group. “These your folks?”
“Yeah, they’re… they’re my family now.”
“You the big dog?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Well, good, you make sure they follow your lead.”
“I know. I remember Waco.”
“I’m sure you do, Bancroft. I’ll have an agent over here in a second to brief you on the situation.”
Mitch turned from Bancroft and went to the new huddle of shot callers. Scarecrow was still there – Mitch didn’t give a flying fart what his actual name was – as well as a pair of FBI agents, an ATF woman, and a liaison from FDX.
Mitch cleared his throat and started giving orders.
“Okay, our SWAT team is here. You,” he pointed at Scarecrow, “I need you over there with SWAT to give them a basic overview of who you think is in there. How many, how they’re conventionally armed, any kind of training they have, shoe size, voting history, whatever you got.”
Scarecrow looked at the swat team with contempt. “You mean, they’re… that’s the SWAT team?”
Mitch looked at Scarecrow, irked to be interrupted. “Yeah, you got a problem, slim?”
“This is un-fucking-believable.” Scarecrow looked at his feet and shook his head. “Okay, so you’re some kind of special fed division, I get that. I don’t like it, but I get it. But we have four dead agents. One that probably isn’t going to make it through mentally, even if his body does. We’ve got cameras here now, watching,” Scarecrow pointed to the flashing blue and red lights that kept a small but growing number of media staff a good two hundred meters away. “And you’re going to send in a bunch of… I don’t know who the fuck in, unarmed?”
Mitch looked over his shoulder to the SWAT team. Bancroft was talking to a six-foot five woman with a neutral expression who was barely contained in her skin tight uniform. The other three were scratching themselves almost uncontrollably and looking at the moon.
“Trust me, they’re specialists. And they can hear you too. Sharp as bloodhounds those folks are, so you mind your fucking P’s and Q’s, you read me, good buddy? I wouldn’t piss those fellas off.”
One of the SWAT team members stopped itching long enough to shoot a salute at Scarecrow as Mitch stopped speaking.
“So, go on, git,” Mitch said, fighting the urge to kick Scarecrow in the ass on his way out. “The rest of the sdults got work to do.”
He turned to the others as Scarecrow sulked away.
“I’m gonna need a secondary squad to follow up on the primary SWAT team to handle anyone who surrenders or to retrieve hostages. Just hang by the entrance and remember: no matter how weird things get, just stay clear of the primary squad…”
Mitch saw the whole operation play out from the exterior surveillance footage routed into the van. It was all over within three minutes. It tended to go this way once FDX’s SWAT teams were deployed in Mitch’s experience. The only questions were how many bodies ended up on the books and from which side.
Within twenty seconds of SWAT’s insertion, the gunshots started. This disconcerted some of the usual FBI and ATF guys – they lived in an age of body cameras and thermal imaging. Hot shit toys and by the book tactics fed them intel they’d learned to use as a crutch. Mitch had waved all of that aside. “Don’t need ‘em,” he’d said. Some of it might have helped provided the Cultists didn’t cast any more wards, but magic was costly. Mitch knew that. But, he’d take the SWAT team as they were over another whole van full of high-tech gear.
At thirty seconds in, there was even more gunfire, and then an uncanny noise. It was low at first, but raised in intensity over the next few seconds. Then, the howls became clear. Mitch saw the panic ripple through the folks working in the other agencies. Fed, ATF, fucking Navy SEAL, it doesn’t matter, he thought. You hear that noise, you know someone’s gonna die. Mitch put his hand on the surveillance analyst’s shoulder. The kid almost jumped out of his skin.
“S’okay, kid. Almost over.”
Sixty seconds in, one of the walls from the compound’s main building buckled. From the camer’s view, it seemed as if a wrecking ball got a shot from inside the structure somehow. Dust puffed out and several cinderblocks fell, but the wall held. There was a brief spat of panic fire from agents at the perimeter but it was quickly halted by a squad commander somewhere.
Ninety seconds in, the glow started. The main room of the compound had high windows all around it’s bulk, and green, searing light came pouring out of them. A few folks wearing light amplifying goggles were forced to turn away, and a wave of pure chaos seemed to overtake everyone in sight. Some agents fell to their knees and wept, others shouted, and another touched herself. At least one agent turned his gun on the agent next to him and shot him.
Mitch hated that part the most – Cult magic just made people standing around batshit crazy. It was usually the buttoned-up, upstanding, really with-it types that buckled too. The more strange or open-minded you were, the less the magic could hurt you, but even a little magic went a long way. It ate order and shit madness.
The inter departmental shooting caused a ripple of panic along the line as the madness took hold. Before things could get any more out of hand, Mitch saw the FDX liaison make a kind of strange gesture and the riotous units went slack jawed and complacent. Mitch hadn’t figured the agency had hired on Deep Ones yet, but… he hadn’t seen anyone else command that kind of power. He’d have words about that back at headquarters after all of this was over.
At two minutes, the wall that had buckled earlier burst out and two forms could be seen.
The first was a Cultist, crackling with eldritch flux. His skin was emitting a baleful green glow, and his flesh was starting to burn and crackle. His eyes glowed even brighter, and his mouth was releasing torrents of malign energy toward his assailant.
The assailant was easily eight-and-a-half feet tall. Clad in all black, its clothes beginning to tatter, was profuse with hair and fang and claw. It’s wolf-like head used powerful jaws to snap of the Cultist’s arm. A gout of ooze and green fire erupted from it, scalding the wolf thing’s muzzle. The beast spat out the limb and bit again, this time seizing the Cultist by the torso, then shook him until there was a crack that could be heard audibly even above the howling and the chanting booming from inside the main building. The Cultist went limp and his inner glow died. The wolfen figure released it’s bite and batted away the corpse, howling in triumph.
Agents who still had their wits about them on the line fled. Mitch kept his hand on the analyst’s shoulder. The poor guy was weeping and gibbering now. Par for the course. Mitch was made of sterner stuff.
At minute two, second forty-two, there was a single howl of triumph and then Cultists and hostages poured out from inside. The liaison made another hand gesture and suddenly the enrapt units came to, and their training took hold. They had the fleeing men and women on the ground and started to make their arrests and rescues.
In all of the confusion, the five semi-naked swat team members came out, not a scratch on them, and went to Mitch for debriefing.
Scarecrow was not doing well. Last Mitch saw him, he was being carted off in an ambulance, catatonic and drooling. Mitch had that figured that would happen from the get go. He had little remorse for him or guys like him: too straightlaced for the true nature of the world.
The rest of the agents on the line had some fuzzy recall of the entire event.
The man who’d been shot didn’t even remember who had done it to him; it was easy in the post-op to write it off as cultist panic fire (cultist of course being written with a small ‘c’ in the ‘official’ paperwork). The guy who shot him didn’t even remember doing it. A fortunate side effect of the kinds of chaos Cultist magic wrought was that it almost always was forgotten. Those who didn’t forget could be made to, or turned out to be great FDX recruits.
The folks running the show on state and federal levels, they had some questions though. They always did. But, with a little magic ‘push’ and some help from the almost full moon, Mitch had taken care of it with as much grace and care as he could. He didn’t like using magic himself, but sometimes, he had to. It was the only way to keep the gears moving and humanity alive.
And the press? Shit, the press was easy. FDX had infiltrated them years ago. Most of the folks running the media knew what side their bread was buttered on. Anyone reporting the truth got lumped in with conspiracy theorists and Fox News.
As the whole scene began to deconstruct, Mitch made it a point to go to the van and talk to the team.
“I gotta hand it to you, Bancroft, you’re doing a hell of a job in Scrying, Werewolves, and Thaumaturgy.”
“It ain’t easy,” Bancroft said. He wiped a prodigious amount of sweat from his forehead. “I don’t think I ever handled a pack this big. Three was my upper limit before but these guys are good.”
“I knew you had it in you,” Mitch said. “And besides, there’s nothing you can’t do with the moon behind you.”
“Yeah, the moon gave just enough kick to negate the worst of the Cultist mojo. Coulda stood for a full one though. Hard to alpha that one.” Bancroft pointed to the giant SWAT woman who no longer had a shirt or any apparent trace of modesty as she tried to smear blood off her chest. “She’s a toughie. I’ll recommend her for special training for pack ops. She rates her own pack after taking out their Magus.”
“I’ll see to it.”
Mitch put out his hand. Bancroft took it with some hesitation and shook it.
“We’re seeing more of this, you know,” Bancroft said. “It used to be I’d get a raid like this once every two or three years. But now… I’m getting them every three or four months. It’s happening isn’t it? That’s what Koresh said back at Waco. ‘The stars are right.’ You heard anything?”
“No. That kinda thing is probably beyond both of our clearances and pay grades. Best to not ask.”
“Yeah,” Bancroft said. “Maybe so.”
“You watch yourself, alright?”
“Sure,” Bancroft said and walked back to the van. The pack followed him in, and they drove away.
Mitch spat in the grass as the op began to shut down. He looked at the stars.
No matter how hard he looked, they didn’t seem right to him yet.
For curious readers, the assignment was ‘Cultists Vs. Werewolves.’