Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
Fate always had a dry sense of humour.
Closing shift at Inkwood Public Library was usually an uneventful affair. It should have been a night like any other — the last of the returns filed and reshelved, feeding the plants (they got testy if they didn’t have their dinner), a quick (but thorough) walkthrough around the aging building to ensure no stragglers remained. On a good day, she could get the whole thing done in twenty minutes. On a bad day, upwards of an hour.
And then there were nights like this.
In retrospect, Aurora really should have seen it coming. Some facts of life were simply indisputable:
1) St Patrick’s Day had devolved into an excuse for public drinking and debauchery,
2) lovely weather meant all manner of folk would be partaking in the revelry, and
3) fey were notorious tricksters. Especially when drunk.
And this one had evidently decided that Aurora’s day hadn’t had quite enough trouble.
“Get out you little pest!”
The broom’s head sailed through the air in an arc, landing right in the newly-vacant spot where the fey had just been, smack between two stuffy portraits of a centaur and his wife in their turn-of-the-century finery. The previously mentioned annoyance-with-wings stuck his tongue out at her, darting about the arched ceiling of the library’s atrium.
“Too slow!” he crowed, bringing his flask to his lips and generously spilling more vibrant, green alcohol across the marble floors and oak counters than he actually ingested. Not that Aurora was even sure the fairy was aware of the mess he wasn’t deliberately creating.
Running a hand down her face, she huffed an aggravated breath; a less satisfying alternative to the scream she silently wished she could hurl at the winged menace. Rather than give in to her frustration and tear all her hair out, she counted backwards from ten, her tense grip around the broom handle slowly easing off by the time she neared one.
By that point, the fairy had emptied his flask and brought the container up to his eye, peering in for any dregs of absinthe that remained.
And unfortunately for him, Aurora had spotted an open window just beyond his shoulder.
It only took one unfortunate moment of distraction for the fairy — drunkenly squinting up at his surroundings — and one well-aimed swing with Aurora’s broom. She could see it happening in slow motion.
The fairy blinked in slowly-dawning alarm as the heavy bristles neared his face, but it was too late — with a satisfying thwack, he went flying across the atrium and right out the window. His flask clattered on the marble floor, Aurora slammed the window shut, and threw up her hands in victory.
It was only then that she realized what time it was.
She should have been home two hours ago.
Neither of her parents had seen her texts, which she figured was probably a good thing, considering the hour. It wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary that she’d come home to one or both of them asleep, and that was on a good day.
Which this, most assuredly, was not.
Her little setback at the library didn’t just cost her the extra time she’d spent cleaning up the fairy’s mess, it also meant Aurora just missed the train, meaning she was forced to wait 40 minutes for the next one.
Well, it was either that or Uber, and considering the amount of drunken disorderly conduct she’d already observed, Aurora could only imagine the prices.
At least her neighbourhood was blessedly quiet.
Winter’s chill still bit at the new spring air, sinking deep under the folds of her jacket and woolen sweater dress. It wasn’t just quiet at this hour, it was practically dead. The houses slept, windows shuttered to the world, whatever night critters that scavenged had clearly decided tonight was not their night. Aurora couldn’t blame them.
As she slid her phone open once more to check for a response, she quietly thanked Aurora-from-two-weeks-ago for having the foresight to book the weekend off. At least tonight’s events would be nothing but a bad dream tomorrow; she could sleep in, spend the weekend curled up at her bedroom window with a good book and a cup of chamomile. A smile pulled at the edges of her lips.
And that’s when she smelled it.
It smelled like iron and metal. Sharp, almost acidic. Like electricity in her mouth, like ash. Like blood.
It was just a whiff, something passing on the wind. With a shudder, Aurora picked up the pace, dropping her phone in her bag and fisting her keys instead.
It’s fine. Everything is fine. She tried to ignore the chill that ran down her spine, focussing instead on the stillness of the night. Everything is going to be okay.
The night stretched its arms around her, calm, quiet. Too quiet.
The smell was back, and it was stronger.
Pretending to fix the strap of her bag, Aurora glanced over her shoulder. Something moved in the darkness.
It’s fine. It’s fine.
It was fast, and it slithered from shadow to shadow, blacker than the night itself. She quickened her pace, ignoring the urge to keep looking over at it. By now it was apparently that the thing was following her.
Whatever it was, it was big. At least seven feet tall, by the look of it, bipedal and broad shouldered. She glanced again, this time not bothering to hide it.
Dread curled in the pit of her stomach.
Three red eyes blinked at her from the dark.
It’s going to be okay.
The demon stepped from the shadows, lunging at her, faster than she could scream. Faster than she could even inhale.
The last thing Aurora thought was, this can’t be how it ends.
Light blistered violently and sent the creature skipping across the road into the broadside of a dumpster.
It laid limp, a pool of limbs and shadows as residual sparks glittered lightly on the asphalt from the impact, like comets from an exploding star.
The street was quiet again.
It wasn't dead, though. Far from it.
"Get back." The voice was flat and toneless as another shadow moved to stand between Aurora and the demon. Clad in black and a hooded cape, it was the crimson stitching that stood out as defining, along with an occultist symbol of three intersecting triangles and a ring on the left sleeve of the jacket: Hunters.
With slow lethargic movements, the demon recovered, angry with a renewed thirst for blood. The air was hot with static, smelling of sulfur and burnt flesh and something foul and pungent. It rolled in like a thick, heavy smog as the stranger reached around their neck and pulled a layer of fabric to cover their face. Something glowed in the stranger's hand. It only became apparent it was a rune-laced dagger as the blade shimmered like sapphire when the demon bellowed a cry and rushed forward.
As claws and nails and teeth swiped forward, like water the Hunter fluidly moved to avoid would undoubtedly be a deadly blow. They didn't move like a human. They didn't move like any otherkin. They moved with a flow of unspoken magic that the rumours could have never captured.
The dagger struck once, and the demon shrieked, doubling backwards as the brilliant light exploded in sequence. Angry and desperate, the creatured bellowed again, its sinewy limbs splintering as they stretched longer and wider and its body contorted. The bellow was high and loud enough to rumble through the ground, cracking the earth and shattering the glass of the bus shelter. The street lamps blew out simultaneously, raining broken glass onto the asphalt.
"Move," the figure commanded, wrapping an arm around Aurora's waist and rolling with her across the sidewalk into a frozen, salt-encrusted embankment. Behind them, all that remained of the bus station was bent steel and crumpled plastic.
As the demon stalked towards them again, the Hunter froze still above her. "Aurora?"
Green-hazel eyes gleamed from a face obscured in black and shadows. It was a familiar voice, like one from a dream of long distant memory. One buried and forgotten.
If the Hunter intended to say more, they weren't given the opportunity. The demon charged forward, and they were quickly on their feet, standing between Aurora and the creature once more. When the demon struck this time, it was certain that it had hit the Hunter, as the two fell down into the asphalt together in a billowing display of black shadows and a wave of fabric from their cape.
Everything was quiet. The demon laid still. The Hunter underneath it. Time slowed. Hours passed.
There was a cough, then a curse, as the sagged form of the spindly monster rolled to one side and the Hunter reached up to pull the balaclava down from their face – rather, his face. Exhaling a breath, he dragged himself the rest of the way free from the seven foot monster and wiped the dagger on the side of his pantleg before sheathing it again on his belt.
With the demon dead, and the hood and mask off his face, it became apparent then why his voice was so familiar and how the Hunter had happened to know her name:
“Are you alright?” Cassian extended a gloved hand to help her to her feet.
Five years had sharpened the shape of his face, from the boyish charm she’d once known to something grown up; an edge behind the lines of his expression. Aurora took his hand unconsciously, allowing him to pull her to her feet.
He dropped it once she stood, and their hands fell to their sides.
Cassian never imagined he would ever see Aurora again – and certainly not under the circumstances he found himself in.
Five years was a long time, but not a single thing about her had changed. Not her eyes. Not her hair. Not even the freckle on her left cheek. It was like she had been preserved in a time capsule for the entire time he was away from Cephia.
As if speaking as a testament to the time that had passed, Cassian cast his gaze off behind them; the corpse of the demon laid still. He’d have to burn it, incinerate to ashes and erase any evidence of it ever being there. Demons didn’t belong in Anon. They were banished long ago. Banished to protect this world and the people within it. Someone had summoned this one, though – summoned it with foul-smelling, forbidden blood magic.
Avoiding answering her directly, Cassian gestured over her shoulder to an oversized arm bag glistening faintly with the dusty, shards of broken glass. “Is that your stuff?”
She didn’t move. Rather, Aurora continued to stare at him; a myriad of intensity flickering across her violet eyes.
“It is you,” she muttered, seemingly to herself rather than him. Then, taking a page out of his book, she turned to pick up the discarded bag, avoiding his question entirely.
She was rattled. Most humans and otherkin had only read about demons in books. Few were attacked and lived to tell the tale.
In a polite gesture, Cassian reached down to help her.
With a start, Aurora jerked back, her outstretched arm whirling instead to meet his face with a resounding slap.
It hit him like a face full of ice water. His cheek burned with a perfect handprint mark. Looking down at his feet, he dragged his tongue over his bottom lip still stinging from the aftermath. He’d seen both fear and shock lead to an assortment of reactions over the years – grown men sobbing, children frozen still – but being slapped was certainly a first for him.
Instinctively, both hands came up on either side of him in surrender as he took a step back from her and the bag his fingers had only momentarily brushed. “I was just trying to help.”
“I don’t — I don’t need your help.”
She staggered backwards away from him, away from the corpse that still smouldered only yards away.
“This has all just been one big, terrible —” Her gaze landed on the demon’s remains, and she swallowed. “— just one bad dream. I’d like to wake up now.”
A hysterical laugh bubbled in her chest, escaping almost unintentionally. Aurora blinked at him, then broke out in peels of laughter.
“This is unbelievable. Unbelievable. Of all the people in the world… and that thing… and the fairy—”
He pulled Aurora into his arms with some resistance. “It’s okay. You’re safe.” Cassian tightened his hold. “It’s gone.”
Hunters weren’t supposed to involve themselves with civilians – the aftermath was a problem for the police – only nothing in the policies and procedures said anything about situations when it involved a childhood friend. Especially one he hadn’t seen in nearly five years.
The hysterical laughter very quickly turned to sobs, and she shook in his arms as they wracked her.
Eventually the heaving calmed to trembles, to silent sniffs. She hiccuped once, then gently pushed him off, stepping away from the circle of his arms.
“I need to go home,” Aurora mumbled, dragging the back of her hand over her eyes.
“I’ll take you home,” Cassian replied without thinking.
He couldn’t leave her there. Not alone.
“I just need a moment.”
She only nodded, refusing to meet his eyes.
He turned and faced the demon. The magic left his hand without a word spoken and the demon smoldered to ash.
As sirens were heard in the distance, he guided the two of them forward.
To say the walk home was awkward would have been generous. Awkward didn’t begin to describe it.
At least it was easy enough to avoid the elephant in the room when Aurora was busy going over what exactly had just happened.
She’d never actually seen a demon before, which wasn’t altogether too surprising; strictly prohibited on the mortal plane, there were very few who had ever laid eyes on one, and fewer still who lived to speak of it. She supposed she could count herself amongst them, now. But it begged a second question: why?
Though the creature that had attacked her was strong, it had all the bearings of a lower demon. There was no way it could have entered their realm on its own — which left the rather chilling realization that someone had summoned it here.
Someone in her neighbourhood?
She rubbed her arms to stave off the sudden chill that ran down her spine.
If Cassian hadn’t been there, she’d be dead. Of course his presence alone only brought up more questions.
As they neared the turn to her street, she shouldered her bag, carefully dusting off the glass and dirt remnants that still clung. “Okay, well, this is me.”
“You never moved,” he noted, somewhat curiously behind her.
He had followed behind her the whole way, remaining at a respectable distance and never breaking the silence between them.
She frowned at him. “Not all of us have the means to just leave everything behind.”
If her reply stung him, Cassian didn't show it. But everything about him seemed to have changed. The only thing left of that boy she knew growing up was the hazel colour in his eyes.
"I'll walk you to your door," he answered instead, seemingly insistent. He looked over her shoulder down her street, focused on something unseen in the distance.
“That’s really not necessary…”
Whether he heard her or chose to ignore her was unclear. Cassian started down the street forcing her to follow, with his attention trained forward. He looked like a house cat spooked in the night, posture gradually shifting defensively as they moved. When they were three houses down, he suddenly pulled her back behind him and stopped. His arm held her back in place.
"Something's wrong," he mumbled, although he didn't elaborate.
He turned his head, studied the quiet street. The black windows. The closed doors. The stirring limbs of the naked trees. The entire suburb was asleep and not a single thing out of place.
“What are you talking about?” She peered over his shoulder, at the darkened street. “What’s wrong? Is it — it’s not another of those things is it —”
"Stay here" Cassian instructed.
He left her alone on the sidewalk, a shadow disappearing into the dark residential street. The streetlamps caught his silhouette, they moved like matching armies as silence returned to the night.
The quiet settled in place of Cassian's absence. Something disturbed and unsettled. The wind blew, rattled the trees, stirred dead leaves uncovered by the snow melt. It was cold and still and quiet. She wrapped her arms around herself, unsure of what she should do.
Dread-laced paranoia crept from the pit of her stomach, spreading in a cold chill across her chest.
It stretched on for what started as seconds then minutes. Aurora left completely alone with the dead night. When Cassian returned, she hadn't even seen his approach. “We gotta go.”
His hand had wrapped around her bicep, abruptly turning her around as they walked. There was something sharp in his voice. Something alert and alarmed.
He pulled her more urgently. “We have to move.”
“No—” she yanked her arm back, probably with more force than was expecting. He looked surprised as his grip slipped, and she was running into the house before he could stop her.
Dread, like inky black roots, spread its tendrils from her core down the length of her limbs. Her parents, she had to get them.
She had to make sure—
Like slow motion, the stairs fell under her feet, the hallway, the door left ajar to her parents bedroom. The blood on the floor.