Beams of ultra-relativistic electrons in blazar jets develop pair cascades interacting with ambient soft photons. Employing coupled kinetic equations with escape terms, we model the unsaturated pair cascade spectrum. We assume that the gamma rays predominantly scatter off recombination-line photons from clouds photoionised by the irradiation from the accretion disk and the jet. The cascade spectrum is rather insensitive to the injection of hard electron spectra associated with the short-time variability of blazars. Adopting physical parameters representative of Markarian 501 and 3C 279, respectively, we numerically obtain spectral energy distributions showing distinct features imprinted by the recombination-line photons. The hints for a peculiar feature at 3 TeV in the spectrum of Markarian 501, detected with the MAGIC telescopes during a strong X-ray flux activity in 2014 July, can be explained in this scenario as a result of up-scattering of line photons by beam electrons and the low pair-creation optical depth. Inspecting a high-fidelity Fermi-LAT spectrum of 3C 279 reveals troughs in the spectrum that coincide with the threshold energies for gamma rays producing pairs in collisions with recombination-line photons and the absence of exponential attenuation. Our finding implies that the gamma rays in 3C 279 escape from the edge of the broad emission line region.
AGN; blazars; non-thermal; radiation processes; electromagnetic cascade; pair production; inverse Compton; magnetosperic vacuum gap; 3C 279; Markarian 501