Chapter 1 “Ira”

   I supposed this would have to be the weirdest setup for a date I’d ever had. The actual date in the moment was fine:
just him and me having lunch at my favorite coffee shop that was small enough to feel cozy but occupied so that I’d have witnesses if he was a dick.
Granted it was really sparse that day thanks to the new competition. 
   I was wearing a plain blouse and skirt because if I spilled my latte on any of my dresses, my soul would leave my body. 
My date was looking especially drab. Khakis, really? I don’t know why my friends wanted me to see if he was “possessed” or whatever.
He was literally just some white guy: he was pretty big (which as a short person I could always notice) 
but the only real quirk he had was his name: “Ambrose.” 
   I rested my elbows on the table and asked him, “Any hobbies?”
   He replied as he tucked his chestnut hair behind his ears, “I used to play football in high school.” That certainly matched his hefty build.
   I twirled my fingers in my curls and asked, “Why’d you stop?”
   He replied as he adjusted his glasses, “I didn’t keep in touch with any of my old teammates.”
   I moved my hands emphatically and asked, “Do you have any current hobbies?”
   He replied as his brown eyes scanned the room, “No.”
   I was losing him, if I ever had him at all: he hadn’t asked me anything about myself at all!
Might have to up the charm if I wanted to keep an eye on him for that possession thing. Plus, I was looking forward to eventually dumping him.
   “Do you do anything special for your hair or is it naturally that nice?” I inquired since his hair was probably chin length, 
instead of just keeping it short like most men do, because he liked it.
   “I think we should continue our date outside. There’s a park that’s within walking distance to here,” he retorted.
   The park they went to was also pretty empty except for old people. It was a humid weekday in the Floridian summer after all. 
The sun was strong, making the greenery more vibrant and the puddles from yesterday’s rain shimmer. 
But the guy seemed tense, looking around anxiously. My friends said to bring him over if he acted “weird”, 
but I wanted to find an explanation rooted in reality first.
   “Expecting something?” I asked.
   He whispered, “You go to that cafe often, right? Did anyone seem odd?”
   “No?” Speaking of the cafe, I should probably head back so her friend could pick her up. “Oh, I forgot to grab lunch for a friend. 
   I’m gonna head back there, you wanna come too?”
   “I suppose, but how about we take the path with the bridge?”
   It took them a little off course but whatever. He seemed even more stressed as he kept looking over his shoulder. 
   He then ran off the bridge and peeked under it. Then a giant bug leg pulled him under.
   A few hours earlier, I was filing reports. I could usually do them while I ignored the inane ramblings of my co-worker Mateo,
but the moron decided to tap on my headphones. I dared to hope that whatever Matt decided was important was actually important,
so I turned off my true crime podcast.
   “Hey. So. What I’m going to ask you may sound crazy,” Matt babbled. I started fading out of the conversation, 
tactfully feigning interest the minimum amount of times needed to get him to the point. 
He told me that I needed to go on a date with someone to get close to a group of interest in more words than necessary. 
I was nearly done with my paperwork and could use an excuse to get away before more came along, so I agreed. 
It had been awhile since I made a show of emotional intimacy anyway.
   My date was dressed head to toe in black which couldn’t be comfortable. She introduced hereself as “Missy”
and even if I didn’t know the group was protective of names, it was obvious that that was an alias. Our conversation was strained;
I gave answers to her questions but couldn’t think about my own inquiries for her or how much information I wanted to withhold.
With discretion, I scanned the area for whatever could be irritating me. There wasn’t any suspicious activity,
but that didn’t change how I felt: something in the room made me see red.
   I suggested we continue our date outside, free from the annoyance, at the park since it would be more scenic than the neighboring gas stations. 
But even there I felt an inexplicable, infuriating shadow behind us. Without seeing it, I knew something was following closely. 
The girl wanted to head back, so I recommended we go a different route. We crossed a bridge over a river, 
but now the presence was coming toward us from the water. I rushed ahead to try and catch it, only to be seized by a large, carapaced limb.
   It pulled me toward an insectoid creature with a horn in the middle of its forehead. I tried pushing it away but it started bashing my right arm. 
With a strong kick, it fell over but its legs lashed out and scratched me. 
I saw the girl hit it with a stick a few times from the shore before the creature disappeared into the water.
   My eyes darted from my drenched date to the eerily calm river. He trudged out toward the cafe. His shirt clung to his back muscles 
(not that bad a sight) and she could see hints of a round tattoo over his shoulder blades. Casually, he checked his unscratched skin.
   “So,” I started, “are you gonna explain what just happened?”
   “That was a demon,” he replied as he started walking again. That neo-pagan possession nonsense my friends were going on about was real? How?
   I offered what seemed to be the most useful question out of all the others buzzing in my head as I followed, “How come nobody knows they’re real?”
   “You could have recorded this encounter and posted it online but everyone would simply commend you for your special effects. No one wants to believe
such things could exist. But I’ve n… So you’re not too surprised. Did The Nightshades explain them to you?”
    Should I know that name? It felt familiar. Okay, pretty sure my friends called themselves that. 
    “Yeah, they’ve told me some things.”
    “... They could not have told you much since they’ve been disbanded for sixteen years.” Fuck.
  “Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I don’t know what’s going on. At all. And. Are we safe?” 
    “It won’t attack the same victim twice so yes: we’ll be fine.” 
    “Because we proved we can fight it, right?”
    He glanced down at me as the stick I clutched crumbled. “… Indeed… Also we’re now on alert so we’d be harder targets. 
They’re opportunists that only go after vulnerable prey.”
   I threw away the stick. “Attacking two adults in broad daylight doesn’t seem like a good opportunity.” 
   “Yes, that was very bold which is… concerning. If it’s that desperate it might go back on the hunt soon. 
   It must’ve been disguised as a human back at the cafe, did anyone seem different?”
   “How’d you know it was in the cafe? Wait, my friends call themselves the Belladonnas! They’ve mentioned demons and the Nightshades.”
   “If they know demons exist you can warn them about this oddity. Do you think they can protect themselves?”
   “Why? You plan on protecting us? Guarding us with what? Holy water guns twenty-four seven?”
   “No, that wouldn’t be practical.” (But it was an option?) “We should stay in contact to update each other on its whereabouts and other important 
discoveries though.”
   We exchanged information through a messenger app (no way I'm giving away my actual number), then parted ways. 
I got a sandwich for my friend, Aquila, and called her for a ride.
   The drive was quiet as I processed what just happened. Like, that was a scam, right? 
The guy told me to go to the park where a monster just so happened to attack only him so he could look cool being my hero. 
Probably does that trick on all his first dates. Whoever was in the bug costume probably wasn’t even his friend but a paid actor. 
Spoiled loser with no friends, only money.
   I turned to my chauffeur, “Hey, you're my friend, right?” and got a grunt, which from Aquila could mean any word in the dictionary. 
Alright then.
   We arrived at their shared apartment. One of our five roommates, Phobos, immediately headed toward us.
   “How did it go, Stella?” she asked me (We like nicknames; it’s just girl stuff).
   “I dunno about any possession. I think he’s just a jerk. Did he tell you he has demons? He did something with demons.” 
   Phobos’s umber brown, pockmarked face filled with worry, “I didn’t– he was rude to you? I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
   “He ignored me then ‘saved me’ from a bug monster.”
   “What did it look like? Was it asymmetrical and smelled like rotten eggs?”
   “I guess so. Oh, right, you mean sulfur.”
   Aquila butted in as she pulled out a box from under the communal wine cabinet, “We mean rot.”
   Phobos took back the conversation, “It’s quite rare for a demon to show its true form. It must’ve– I think it meant to kill you.”
   “Wait fu–,” I stammered, “freak for real? You think it was real? And you sent me to date a guy you thought was possessed?!”
   “We had no idea that would happen; we picked up a very weak yet consistent demonic presence from him, suggesting a minor possession...”
   “You what?”
   “We can detect them with this– this... Aquila, could you get the thing?”
   Aquila brought out a small prism on a necklace from the box. When she got closer to me, the prism started giving off a small, 
wavering magenta glow. It weakened the further away from me it was. But slowly the flickers became more spread out until they fully faded.
   Phobos muttered, “It seems that just interacting with a demon gives off a reading…”
   “Okay…” I started, “It’s less of vibes and more like stench. Like it rubs off on– wait you don’t know how this thing works?”
“We’ve tested it covertly several times: some readings were dangerously strong, some were shaky, 
and sometimes the same person would give different readings on different days. A– anyway we know what we’re doing.”
   “So what do we know about dangerously strong demons, like, how to not get killed by them since you said I was nearly killed by one?”
   “Garlic.” Aquila answered. 
   “Rosemary.” Phobos answered at the same time. They glared at each other.
    I could have asked each of them to state their reasonings without attacking the other’s as I mediated. 
I could have also brought up, again, that I nearly died due to their own misjudgement. 
   “Hey, how about I go grab some of each from the store?” I suggested. “And can I borrow the thing in case I find something?”.
   Aquila opened her hand, showing a donut shaped stone tied to the string of the necklace. Something seemed to lightly tug it in a specific direction. 
   She stated, “It’s a lodestone. Points toward demon shit.”
   I asked, “... Not literally, right? Do they do that?”
   “No.” Aquila answered. 
   “Technically yes because–” Phobos corrected before Aquila smacked her with a pentagram stencil.
   I left with the pendant before the tension became unbearable.
   My drive back to work was uneventful but sore. There wasn’t the dark coloration of a bruise on the arm the demon bashed, 
but it was slightly pink and warm. Trying to rub the ache away was probably not helping. So with both hands gripping the wheel, 
I tried to think of what to tell Matt.
   The straight-forward recapitulation was “the old coven is still gone but the girl seems to be part of a new coven. 
And a demon attacked us.” If I told Matt that, then only two things would happen: I was closest to the coven, 
thus I’d be stuck snooping on some witches to make sure they don’t go grave robbing while Matt
and the team would go take one more abomination out of the world since they’re the professionals. 
Assuming the idiot doesn’t accidentally shoot himself in the foot doing something brash.
   Maybe I could procrastinate my report until I could rework it in my favor. I arrived to see my co-workers on break. 
From the smell, I could tell they were having donuts. They offered me one. 
I turned them down while trying not to gag at the thought of the sugary residue sticking to my hands and mouth. 
I went to my desk and mindlessly sorted parking tickets as the clock ticked away.
   My phone chirped as it received a text from the girl, “demon @ cop stop *station mayb more”
   I looked around at the officers; none of them seemed different from normal, 
but I wasn’t personally close enough to them to tell if anything was abnormal. I discreetly stepped outside and there she was, 
a grocery bag in one hand and a strange pendant in the other. It had what looked like a malfunctioning LED light inside it. 
She brought it closer and it began to brightly shine purple.
   She muttered under her breath, “That bastard gave us the purples.”
   “What are you talking about?” I asked.
   “This thing senses demons…  even if it’s not an actual demon, just the remains of a one time interaction… 
but you ‘interact’ with them a lot, don’t you?”
   “If by ‘interact’ you mean kill, then yes.”
   “Whoa. That fight under the bridge is something you do?”
   “When the opportunity arises... So are there demons in here? Or is it just residual presences?”
   “Well, it’s a police station so...” Did she know there were a few monster hunters in the precinct?
   I said, “But you don’t know.” She shrugged. I continued, “Then there probably is not an actual demon in the building, just presences.”
    “So you didn’t detect anything? No purples? Not even a violet? Why that color anyway? Did the demon we fought give off that color?” 
It didn’t give off purple or any color. Well… except maybe…
   “Red,” I murmured as I rubbed my arm.
   “Cool, what do we know about red demons?” 
   “Red is associated with the deadly sin of–”
   “Ambrose!” Someone called from inside. 
   I gave her a “one moment” gesture before heading back. The officers were worried now. They asked me if I'd seen Matt since getting back; 
he stepped out an hour ago and no one knew where he went. He could have been locked in a bathroom stall and dropped his phone in the toilet, 
but they were all in a dither so I had to feign concern. 
   A fellow Hunter exclaimed, “I think we should send Ambrose to look for him.” When it was agreed that I would do that, 
I stepped out and received a text from the Hunter. It read, “pharmacy thief demon” alongside an address. So that’s where Matt went. 
I noticed Missy was gone, which meant I should focus on finding him.
   I was not going to stay near a bunch of pigs, nor was I going to think about why that guy was at the police station, so I went back. 
I wasn’t going to walk all over town by myself either, especially since the necklace didn’t react to much else anyway. 
Hopefully, my roomies would be placated by the spices they wanted or busy working. When I arrived back, 
Aquila was putting slips of paper on the windows. The printed writing on the papers wasn’t in the Latin alphabet.
   I asked, “Do you know what these say?”
   “Nope, but they work,” Aquila answered. “Find anything?”
   “Nope,” I replied as I took out the groceries, “except that the killer bug thing has red vibes. We know anything about that?”
   “The box we keep the pendant in has a pamphlet.”
   I opened the box and saw a stapled stack of papers with color-coded bookmarks titled “Daemons by Pierro Montanari”. 
I read it and oh fuck: «Ðee daemons ov ira art noted az beyvng read or ssir reesse en ssovl vnd kolerik en hvmovr. 
Groez þornz, mussel, vnd enflameshun en ðeir trw forme. May eny won hw façez ssuch kreachurez hedan ðiss warnvng: deny ðem blvt, kyvr ðeir vyç, 
vnd kwl ðeir tempvr insted, less ðee feed ðee fyr.»
   I went back to the title “Englisc edishun by Yonah Smithee 24-8-1365.”
   I asked, “Is this all we have? Like who the heck is ‘Sir Reese’?”
   “Cerise? That’s a pinkish-red,” Aquila said before she left for work.
   Oh. Did whoever wrote this not know how to read English? Like they knew English words just not how to spell any of them? 
But that didn’t explain why “w” and “v” were being used as vowels. Looking it up, it seemed that “w” could be an “oo” sound in Welsh
and Romans used “v” to represent the letter “u”. Okay, that made reading it aloud easier, but I still had to look up more stuff. 
I typed up a translation and extra research on my laptop.
   Hours later, I called the demon fighting guy, “Okay, so red demons are wrath.”
   “I already knew that, thanks,” he replied.
   “So you’re supposed to bloodlet them? Do a bloodletting?”
   “If they’re choleric then bloodletting would balance their four humours… Yeah, uh, I found… stuff. 
Something about cooling inflammation to make them chill.”
   “I have never heard of… Oh, nice turn signal there, buddy.”
   “Are you driving? While on the phone? Nice road safety there, buddy.”
   “I’m using bluetooth.” Wow, this bastard really was rich. I asked him where he was going. 
He went on, “A robbery happened at the pharmacy that I… I… it’s here. The demon...”
I heard a car door open then close, then a loud bang.
   I felt an unease similar to when the aggressive demon was nearby as I parked my car. 
It was when I started walking toward the presence down an alleyway that I heard a gunshot. 
I found Matt on the concrete, blood pooling around his head, and the demon in all its insectoid monstrosity hunched over him. 
There were chunks of its carapace missing. Matt’s gun was on the ground. The demon tried to grab it, but it slid under a dumpster.
   “Motherfucker!” the creature screeched.
   “Was that the demon? They can talk?” the girl pestered from my earpiece.
   I groaned, “Yes, why wouldn’t they be able to talk?”
   “Huh, got me there. Maybe reason with it?”
   “I’m not going to do that.”
   The demon yelled, “Are you talking to yourself?”
   “... Maybe I am, if you don’t hear it,” I lied. The demon was slowly dragging Matt toward the dumpster. 
I carried on while subtly approaching, “I was going to get my meds when I heard the commotion.”
   “All I got is ibuprofen and this guy, which won’t help with that, so go be a psycho somewhere else.”
   “My fix, but I’ll be fine now. Really sorry about earlier at the park, I’m fine now. Want the pills?”
   “I’ll take some.” 
   The demon threw pill bottles at me. I dropped them on purpose and made one roll towards it. 
As I went to get the bottle, the demon sulked away, likely suspicious. Before it could escape again, 
I pushed the dumpster to uncover the gun. The dumpster moved farther than I expected and rammed into the monster. 
It screamed, then dropped Matt to focus on charging me. I dodged, but it grazed my damaged arm with its horn.
   I shot it in the eye with Matt’s gun. As it slumped against a wall, I checked on Matt. 
His nose was bloody, seemingly from impact with the ground, with no other injuries besides a bump on the back of his head. 
Meaning that one hit from the monster was a total knockout.
   Suddenly, another scream as the demon scrambled toward us, slipping on its own gushing blood. 
I shot it again in the stomach; the horrendous bang momentarily drowned out the bellowing. The beast recoiled but kept coming. 
I fired again. Nothing happened. I threw the gun at the demon, opened the dumpster, 
and jumped inside with Matt before holding the lid closed behind us. The dumpster shook, but it held strong.
   With my free hand, I looked for something to treat Matt’s wounds. My car had medical cold sprays, 
but there was no way I’d be able to reach it while protecting him. There were cold patches in the trash though. 
Things seemed to have calmed down, so I used both hands to open the patches and put them on Matt. His phone was in his pocket but it was dead.
   I whispered into my bluetooth, “Are you still there?”
   The girl whispered back, “Everything okay now?”
   “Barely: my coworker is concussed and we’re hiding in a dumpster. Are you near the pharmacy yet?”
   “... Were you expecting me to go over there? Oh... Did my research help?”
   “No. Alright fine, I’m on my own then. Can you go to the stat–”
   The demon pried open the lid. I pulled it shut but a blistering arm made it inside. 
The peeling limb thrashed while I tried to keep my distance from it. I looked for anything to defend myself. 
I saw all of the cold patches, remembered the “research”, and did something stupid: I slapped a patch on the exposed flesh. 
The arm flinched and slowed down. I put another on it which made it completely limp before it slipped back outside. 
Shortly after, I heard the sound of cracking plastic and tumbling pills. Then all was still.
   I peeked out. The demon was slumped on the ground in a puddle of blood and pain medication. Its shell was sloughing off. 
I quietly stepped out while the demon gurgled.
   It babbled, “The fuck, you didn’t even have any of him? You buy your fix? I used to until they upped their damn prices. 
What’s your game then? Thrill of the hunt? Makes you feel import–”
   I put all of my weight on my foot as I stomped on the demon’s neck. 
It flailed with such force that what little skin it had left was scraping off against the concrete. 
When it stopped moving, its skeletal structure returned to that of its human host. A shudder went up my spine.
   I tried to listen for anything. I could barely tell what was going on from the noise, just that the fight slowed down for a moment. 
Pacing the empty main room was the only thing keeping me calm.
   “Hey,” said the guy, “it’s done.”
   I tittered, “Ha ha yay! So what now? What happened? No, tell me later. No, now. It’s dead?”
   “Its vessel is empty, so the demon must have left and dissipated. Which is as dead as it gets.”
   “Cool cool cool cool. I’ll tell the girls. How’d you kill it?”
   “Pain relieving cold patches and asphyxiation.”
   “Literally snuffed it out, huh? But... You said that aggression wasn’t normal, and what was that talk about ‘fixes’? 
Are those connected? Who was selling the fix?”
   “...There might be a dealer in the area selling human flesh… Someone’s going to have to put a stop to it.”
   “Like us? Be honest, you only used the patches because of what I said, right? I saved you and what’s-his-name! 
Shit, you could’ve died. How? Why were you in that much danger?”
   “There aren’t many Hunters which leads to us being poorly staffed sometimes. Why are you so willing to volunteer?”
   Because monsters existing fucked with my world view
and knowing everything about them would help my neatly place them in my understanding of how to safely navigate the world. 
But that’s not the answer he’d want. That word “volunteer” made me think of how to spin it.
   I replied, “I want to make my town a safe place to live.”
   “That’s respectable, but I’m not sure if our peers would approve of us joining forces. 
We could continue doing this without suspicion under the pretense of dating.”
   First of all, “joining forces” what kinda cartoon villain talk was that? 
Second, was he saying “pretense” because he knew I wasn’t actually into him or what? 
Because I was still planning my brutal break-up and it wouldn’t hold any bite if he didn’t care. I could make him care. 
I could break that little heart like glass. 
   I suggested, “How about a library hang-out to discuss this, Ambrose? Friday evening? I’m busy tomorrow.”
   “I’ll be working then. Saturday at nine?”
   “Ew, no. Let’s do noon again.”
   “Hey, is what’s-his-face okay? Mr. concussion?”
   “I treated Mateo’s face; he’ll be fine, but he still hasn’t woken up yet. 
Though I’m not sure how I’ll tell everyone who isn’t in the know about the supernatural what happened.”
   “Maybe the drug thief hit him with a baseball bat?”
   “I’d need to have one to plant at the scene. Found some concrete to put in the host’s hand. 
Alright, I should take Matt to the hospital, so I’ll talk to you later. Bye, Missy.”
   Then he hung up. I crashed on the couch. I thought of what they talked about and how little I knew. 
Maybe the library would have something on monsters. Until then, back to the booklet. 
And making dinner for everyone because I was the only one who was off work today. Ugh.
   I should’ve been surprised to find out my coworkers only knew Matt first disappeared
when they wanted his spare storage room key for more paper coffee cups. But I wasn’t. At least everyone was okay. 
I was feeling more than okay when I was sent home after returning from the hospital; 
I went on a long walk, prepared meals for the rest of the week, and cleaned my house including behind the fridge. 
The hunt seemed to give me an adrenaline rush that was now settling down. And with it came introspection.
   What the hell did I do? Scheduling another “date” with Missy would let me keep some surveillance on the coven without direct interaction, 
but I did I want that? I hoped I conveyed the fact I wasn’t actually interested in pursuing a relationship with her. 
She could bring some convenience to demon hunting, I was modest enough to admit that. 
I could work with her free from scrutiny under the guise of romance until some new Hunters joined them. 
   But that was it. Being in a relationship was such a commitment of time and resources that I’d rather not gamble right now. 
If I waited a year, then my brain would be fully developed while I’d still be in my physical prime: 
perfect for choosing and being chosen as a spouse. Maybe Missy would be a good way to build a tolerance for a wife
before I encountered a more reliable woman to share finances with. And to share a bed every once and awhile as well, 
I supposed. Those were the reasons marriage occurs. Also the preservation of lineages, but that obligation didn’t seem to matter much. 
Honestly, I don’t know why my fellow straights had to complicate this.
   I took one of my usual evening showers and inspected my body for damage from the fight yet didn’t see any. 
The mark on my arm was gone and so were many other, older blemishes: a scrape on my knee, acne, even a few freckles I didn’t care for. 
   But when touching the base of my neck, he felt a knob. My cervical vertebrae couldn’t be that close to the skin given my fat. 
I pressed down hard and it disappeared. As I dried off, I examined my back in the mirror; the seal drawn there was unchanged. 
The circles and lines that made up its symbols hadn’t moved or grown in size or stopped being jet black.