I wrote this for an anthology my publishing partner wanted to do, Monsters & Mormons, a reclaiming of our questionable literary heritage as pulp fiction villains. Even though this story is very niche, I’ve decided not to link to any clarifying information. Y’all are smart. You’ll figure it out.
NOR DOES he tonight when I show up for work, though I expect another chastisement.
Baby ’gator greets me and a raven lands on my neoprene-covered head. Several skunks waddle out from the brush on the sandbar where we park, and a black bear rumbles out from the forest on the left and straightens to her full nine feet, four inches. Ezekiel’s mouth tightens.
“Tell your friends to cool it. I’m not the enemy.”
Then why do they think you are?
I expect him to answer my thought, but it seems as if he hasn’t even heard it. Either he’s deliberately not listening, he’s ignoring me, or my thoughts have been shielded from him.
Since I don’t know which, my attitude does not improve when the animals clear out as instructed and we wade into the bayou.
“How do you feel?” he asks abruptly, half a mile in, not a demon in sight.
What a strange question. “Fine. Why wouldn’t I?”
“You weren’t on your game last night.”
“Like you expected me to be?”
“I didn’t know you were that insecure.”
“I’m not insecure. I’m an average hunter in a crap assignment. I know that and I’m okay with it.”
He looks at me sharply. “Average? Crap assignment? Is that what you think?”
“You tell me,” I say snidely. “You can read my mind.”
He says nothing for a second or two. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that,” he mutters. “Habit. For what it’s worth, I can’t now.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
The layer of en garde I had added dissipates like a demon under fire. My muscles loosen up and I can focus again.
“In any case,” I say, and nonchalantly swipe through a gaggle of demons that pops up to my right. “I’m sure you’ve seen my numbers. Perfectly average. In a target-rich environment. My kill ratio isn’t anything to brag about.”
“Uh, okay. You and I need to talk.” He mists another squadron to our left and says, “But not right now.”
We blast our way through the swamp. He curls his lip when he realizes he’s going to have to swim a while, but he does it. I surface close to a two-hundred-year-old swamp cypress in whose trunk I have slept many times when I’ve been too tired to drive home. She, too, is my friend.
I wade toward her to find out how she’s doing. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this far into the swamp.
“Don’t touch her!” Ezekiel snarls.
I don’t. But I’m flabbergasted. Is he here to sever all my relationships with the beings I love?
I do. Because that’s what I do: obey.
He points at her and slices clean through her at her wide base, at least ten feet in diameter. I cover my ears when she cries out in pain, and watch in horror when she slowly topples into the swamp, triggering wakes that might have knocked over a weaker human.
I don’t care if he is the High General. “Why did you do that?!”
“Don’t scream at me. Look.”
Demolition demons—legions of them—ooze out of the stump of the cypress like sap, fizzing out like birthday candles dunked in water.
I’ve never seen that before, and I blink to clear my vision.
“They—” I stop. I don’t know what to say. “They can’t—” But they were. Eating. Not sowing the seeds of disease, but actively destroying a living being. “They’re not supposed to be able to—” I look at her body, all hollowed out, and now I want to puke. “How—?”
“They do advance in knowledge.” Ezekiel wades through the water toward the tree. “It just takes them longer.” I cry. Silently. I can’t help it.
I love her.
Grief makes its way through the swamp and I can hear the keening of the other trees and the birds, feel the quiver of the swamp bottom under my feet from the creatures swaying and stomping out their sorrow. My poor, confused baby ’gator rubs up against me for comfort.
Why haven’t I watched her more carefully? Has it been that long since I was this far east?
High General Alleyn looks at me, but I look away.
I’m only average.
Why am I here?
Ezekiel takes out a sample kit and scrapes a bit of her body into a bag. The inside ring looks like it’s been burnt, but it doesn’t flake. It clumps. I reach out to touch her.
Where once was warmth and joy and love, there is only a cold body.
I am ashamed to cry in front of the High General.
“Jesus wept,” he says softly.
“No.” He tucks the bag in a pocket in his skin. “It was her time. She served her purpose.”
“What, to be an incubator for lab demons?!”
“You’re screaming again.”
He stares at me for a moment. “Are you … questioning … Sister Judge?”
I nearly bite my tongue in two.
I can feel his stare getting heavier by the millisecond, like a yoke around my neck.
“Go home, Deb.” He flips a switch on his disperser. It begins to glow, brighter and brighter as it warms up until it’s lighting the swamp like a collection of flood lamps around a baseball field. It hums ominously and I stand transfixed. “I said go home!”
It’s all I can do to get out of the swamp, peel off my neoprene, drive home, and crawl into bed without breaking down.
And then I do.
My friend is dead.
• • •
I AWAKE to a pounding on my door.
It’s my landlord, wanting me to do something with whatever vermin the restaurant next door has attracted.
I drag myself out of bed and throw a robe on.
He’s a tense and easily agitated little man, but for some reason he settles down when he’s around me.
“What is it this time?” I ask.
Not more. The same family, finding their way back after I’ve told them a million times to stay where I put them. It’s not like they don’t have restaurants in Baton Rouge.
“D’accord,” I sigh, wanting only to get back to bed. I’d only just gotten to sleep—
His brows lower and he cocks his head. “You all right, chère?”
“You don’t look so good. I’ll send up some soup.”
He offers to feed me at least once a week; he thinks I’m too skinny. I never take him up on it, but today … “Merci.”
That earns me a long look. The back of a cool hand on my forehead. “You go back to bed. The rats will wait.”
“I’m not sick, Antoine. Let me get myself together and eat.”
I pray. Shower. Eat the homemade chicken soup Antoine left on my table. Dress in another one of my vintage outfits—
I was born in 1952. It’s my hobby, collecting outfits from eras past, chronicling my history via my closet. Every decade had its highs and lows—mostly of the hemline type. My journal starts with my wedding dress, the one I never wore.
My parents, my fiancé, my friends—they don’t remember me, don’t have one trace of a scrap of an inkling that I ever existed. I don’t mind. I wasn’t cut out to be a wife and a mother. I had no talents. I was an average student. I had few friends. I was a disaster as a babysitter. I was a passable athlete and marginally decent at girls’ camp.
My only redeeming characteristics were my beauty and my affinity for animals, and I couldn’t take any credit for either of those. I was Elly May Clampett and as annoyingly popular—only without the blissfully ignorant part.
In short, I was entirely useless as a human being. Or anything else.
So when something that looked like love came calling, it didn’t occur to me not to do what I was supposed to do and kneel at the altar.
My mother was more excited than I was.
It was 1971. I was nineteen. I handed my recommend to the worker at the front desk of the Salt Lake temple, and he said,
“We’ve been waiting for you, young lady.”
Of course they were. I could see my and my fiancé’s names written right there in the appointment book with “sealing” written right beside them.
I was taken to the bowels of the temple and stuck in an office somewhere. I had never been to the temple, but even so, this seemed … weird.
An older couple entered the room—
Well, everybody who works in the temple is old. Sometimes … a lot older than they look.
The sister sat in the chair on my left, and the brother sat in the chair on my right.
“Where’s my mother?” I burst out.
“She went to do a session,” said the sister with a mischievous smile. I liked her immediately.
The brother inhaled through his nose, deeply, enough to puff his chest out. He blew it all out with a whoosh. “Sister Deborah Judge,” he said quietly. “We would like to extend you a calling.”
Okay, now that was not normal. Even I knew that.
But they explained the calling, what it entailed, every detail of what would happen to me and those closest to me. I could accept, or not. If not, I would go about starting the life I had come here for, and leave with no memory of this meeting.
“Are you sure?”
Sure? A chance to be ugly, alone, and childless? Doing something I might stand a chance at doing well? Perhaps acquire an actual accomplishment? Being useful?
“Sign me up.”
I stroke the dress made of white Swiss dot cotton and flowery lace emphasizing the empire waist. I press the velvety bumps between my fingers and wonder again why I was called to this position. Unfortunately, I had no innate talent for it; I didn’t excel in my training; I was fundamentally no different from the gorgeous girl who had entered the front door of the temple to get married and came out the back door an ugly demon hunter.
And now I have a swamp full of enhanced demolition demons I don’t know how to fight, armed with inadequate weapons, the highest-ranking officer in our army snarling at me, and the beginnings of what feels like the flu.
… hunters don’t get sick.
Therefore, I am not sick. I’m tired, in shock, intimidated by my commanding officer, grieving for my friend, feeling guilty—and so very inadequate—that I didn’t know she was hurting.
I turn and look at the clock. A little after nine. I knew it.
Oh, well. I’ll escort the raccoon family somewhere with a restaurant that serves their kind of food (and hope they stay there this time) and come home for an afternoon nap.
I clip down the back stairs and open the door to the alley.
It’s a really good thing tonight’s my night off, or I’d have been late.
For the first time in almost forty years.
In front of the High General.
I put my fingers to my mouth and let out a whistle only animals can hear. The raccoons come waddling. They know they’re in trouble, but they don’t care; they chuck their noses up at me and trudge on past me to the parking lot and wait at the side of my car.
They know the routine.
But this time I’m prepared.
“I’m taking you to Ponchatoula,” I say as I turn north onto the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. “They have a nice restaurant there. I made sure it was to your taste.”
The daddy ’coon sniffs in disdain.
They don’t care for me much. I suppose I wouldn’t care for someone who kept running me off my territory, either.
I park a block away from an old hole-in-the-wall diner that still hand-presses and breads its chicken-fried steak and fries it in a cast-iron skillet, still makes its own mayonnaise, still grates its own cabbage for the cole slaw, grows its own okra for the gumbo, and has pie crust so light and flaky it’s almost phyllo dough.
I usher them out of my car, and the mama takes a whiff. I think she may approve of my choice. I lead them around the corner to the alley. “I’ll make you a deal. The minute they start serving frozen, nuked food, you can come on back, okay?”
They still don’t like me—the daddy uses his back claws to kick up dirt at me—but they head toward the restaurant’s back door to dig through the refuse.
Time for bed.
“ … gave your word.”
I stop short. I know that language. I know that voice. What’s it doing in Ponchatoula? Why isn’t it in Atchafalaya?
And why is he using Adamic?
“Look, General.” I would never dare speak to Ezekiel with that tone of voice. “You have your problems and I have mine, and one of mine is that you aren’t doing your job.”
“What, you think it’s easy for me to get away?”
“Speaking of, where’s your novitiate?”
“Probably watching American Idol or something equally mindless.”
“She’s not too bright. Good luck with that.”
“Thanks. I need all the luck I can get.”
My heart thumps so hard I’m nauseated.
I creep along the wall until I get to the next corner, around which I peek to see the High General talking with … a demon.
Not just any demon. Their king, one step up from Ezekiel’s rank, equivalent to Michael, able to take on not just the approximation of a human, but any species, real or imagined. He is powerful and impervious to our weaponry.
He could probably turn into the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man if he wanted to.
Apollyon is shirtless and looks like your run-of-the-mill biker, only … handsome. Extraordinarily so. Ezekiel is, well … he’s … plain.
Beauty comes standard on incubi, as one would expect, even if they are bald and their skulls are covered in tattoos.
I look up and through my trifocals until all his tattoos come into focus: the Adamic language put to symbols regular humans can’t see. They spiral around his neck, off his shoulders and down his arms.
It’s a list of names, his conquests—humans whose lives he’s destroyed with his machinations and mind tricks. They shift, his tattoos; it’s dizzying how fast new runes appear on his skin. It’s like a stock ticker. For him, souls are like compound interest; they increase exponentially over time, with no extra effort expended.
I see the names; they mean nothing to me. It’s an intimidation tactic for those who can read them. Why is Ezekiel here with Apollyon?
I can’t move, so I pray for guidance, because that’s what I do best—the only thing I do well.
Apollyon shoves his finger in Ezekiel’s face. “You don’t get to do the bargaining here, Zeke. You’re under my command. Please do try to remember that.”
I’m still praying.
But I can’t not hear this.
“She’s nothing to me,” Ezekiel says. “Take her. I don’t want her at my back.”
“I already have her,” Apollyon sneers. “You’re not paying attention.”
“Look, I’ve given you everything you want and apparently you’ve taken whatever else you wanted, so give me what I want.”
Apollyon sighs. “Zeke Zeke Zeke. You’re as stupid as she is. Did you think you were exempt from the Morning Star’s toll? Really?” He starts to laugh at the look of utter betrayal on Ezekiel’s face.
I stop praying and run.