f45dg64fdg.png

Chapter 1

San Francisco

No matter where I went, everything was always the same.

    Isn't the world nothing but one big playground? Despite our proclivity to separate and divide, content with this illusion of distinction, people were the same—their essence, their mistakes, their lives. Daemons didn’t change either, no matter if in a remote village in Asia, Russian tundra or sunny California.

    I frowned, realizing I should have more optimistic thoughts, especially now. Mother Nature even granted me flawless sunny weather for a perfect view of the city as we descended into the San Francisco airport. It was a long, tiresome journey, but in the end, I was finally here… finally in America. So far from home yet gaining a new one at the same time.

    It looks as beautiful as I imagined.

    I’d be lying that I didn’t expect something going wrong. Something stopping me from coming here—like the plane crashing over the Atlantic or my passport vanishing from my bag. Nothing like that happened, of course. Lorenza made sure that I triple checked my flight info, like a proper caring sister, but everything else was left to chance. I arrived alive and well, and stepped onto the metaphorical American soil of the plane hangar with my right foot. The flight attendant promptly wished me a pleasurable stay. I thanked her with a smile and a nod.

    As I walked through the airport hall, I tied my curly hair into a messy man bun on the crown of my head. After so many hours on the plane, I needed to appear at least a little presentable, even though they didn’t hire me for my good looks. No, just my skills. All there was left to do was to get my luggage. Thankfully, I didn’t have much. All I needed was one suitcase and a smaller bag.

    After grabbing my measly belongings, one suitcase and a smaller bag, I hailed a taxi outside of the building and showed the driver a letter with an address that I got weeks ago.

    I hoped things would be different in America. Better than in Italy.

    Peacekeepers were acknowledged here as an official organization, after all. For quite some time now. Their level of work must have been exceptional. At least that was my impression from all those stories I heard and the information I researched. People trusted them here, because they understood they were doing a good job—and an important one.

    Some of the people, anyway.

    It wasn’t going to be too easy, even here.

    “Every beginning is hard,” Lorenza always said. Getting used to new people, a new environment and a new job… not easy at all. But I learned to adapt a long time ago.


 

    The driver finally stopped in front of a house at the end of a street. “Thanks a lot,” I said, handing him cash for the ride. He accepted it with a smile. After I got my suitcase out of the trunk, I stood in awe on the sidewalk, long after the taxi’s exhaust fumes curled away into the air.

    Our headquarters in Italy looked pretty different. Here, it all seemed new, clean and presentable, at least in this part of the town. The building itself was a beautiful three-story brownstone townhouse with large, open windows. I had a good feeling about it.

    After a few moments, I noticed someone in the top-right window. A girl, watching me through the curtains. As soon as she realized I had spotted her, the curtain shuddered and she was gone. I lowered my head with an unsure grin and walked through the open main gate. Do they have security precautions? I stopped to look for the signs of the sacred geometry on the ground, right below the stairs.     With a bit of concentrating, the symbols appeared, ones strong enough to only permit humans.

    While holding my breath, I stepped over it. It was a stupid fear. Like when you’re passing a policeman or airport security, knowing you are innocent but… what if. What if I have a pack of cocaine in my bag? What if I have a gun in my pocket? What if there’s a daemon latched onto me and I didn’t know?

    Apparently, I wasn’t possessed by anything, so I easily passed through the door. When I opened it, a younger woman clipped straight toward me, fierce and determined. Her thick braid bounced with every step.

    Not the shy wraith peeping through the window.

    “I suppose you’re Arno.” She raised her eyebrows. Strong mental power radiated from her. Even though she looked relatively young, she had to have a lot of experience and skill. She fixed her intense icy-green eyes on me, which matched her unusual green attire that looked tailor-made. A long coat, pants, and a blouse.

    “That would be me.” I smiled, faint and awkward, and stretched out my right hand to her. She accepted it and squeezed tightly. I knew what she was trying to do—it wasn’t that hard for someone experienced to tell other people’s energy from a simple touch. One could even sniff out someone’s character, if they’re a good person, to a certain extent. Few people could perfect that skill to such a level. Even she was way too young for that.

    “Blanche DuPont. I’m the Executive Peacemaker here,” she said, loud and proud, and it almost seemed like she was waiting for my surprised expression—the one I tried to hide.

    “You have my sincere admiration for that. You must be very gifted,” I admitted, my brows slightly raised, hoping she wouldn't take it as a provocation.

    “I must be,” she echoed my words, smirking. With a sharp breath, she energetically turned on her heel and continued: “So… Donovan mostly told me everything already. A little on the phone, a little through the emails. He sent me all of your numbers and completed case files. You deserve some admiration too, let’s be honest.” She glanced at me while she breezed through the hallway. I half-jogged to keep pace. “You have a lot of accomplishments given the short time you’ve been with the Peacemakers there. I’m almost shocked that they gave you away so easily. No one even gave me a proper reason...” Curiosity peaked her next glance at me. It laced her voice too. “It wasn’t work related, so that’s all I really need to know, anyway.”

    At least I didn’t have to worry about that. If she wasn’t lying, they spared her all that bullshit.

    “I just had some… personal disagreements with a few colleagues,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t come back to that topic, at least not before I properly settled. She reacted just with a simple ‘chm’ and continued walking. “Nothing that will be an issue here,” I added confidently.

    “Oh, I hope so. We have enough issues here, trust me. I don’t know how things are in Italy, but America is a land of endless possibilities—to make things harder for us. Christians and other experts think they can tell us how to do our jobs, or that the Bible or whatever book they worship will help them deal with daemons.” Her rant continued. “Then, of course, to a lot of regular people, we’re nothing but some lunatics comparable to the Scientologists.”

    I wore an amused smile behind her back.

    “Not a big fan of religion, I take it?”

    “Not my favorite thing, most of the time.” She turned to me with a bitter grin. “It mostly just complicates things… I’m a little hesitant to even accept Peacemakers who are religious, although we have some. I need people with their feet firmly on the ground–daemons aren't monsters made by the Devil or whoever is the Bad Guy in their book. They’re simply different kinds of beings, like bacteria. Living in a completely different realm of reality from us, doesn’t mean they are something… magical. They’re just pests, most of them. Only harder to deal with. But you already know all that anyway, I hope?” She halted on the other end of the hallway in front of a large door that probably led into the meeting room or an office.

    I chuckled. She was a little scary when she got into it—but I could appreciate her passion.

    “I was never much of a spiritual guy, frankly. There might be things I don’t understand and I’m not completely closed off to the possibility of some higher authority, but as far as I know, it’s not for me…”

    She nodded. “We just want men and women who can do their job here. That’s it. As long as you can deal with daemons and have some sense about you, we’re good. Let me introduce you to the others now. You can leave your luggage here.”     She pointed to the ground in front of the door and I complied.


 

    People lingered around the room, talking by the bookcases, reading in plush chairs, standing by the windows. Everyone’s eyes turned to us as we entered.

    “Here we are, everybody. This is the new blood, Arno.” She stepped aside and waved her hand toward me like I was the next circus performance. “He’s from Italy and could be a good addition to our team. Let’s hope so.” Optimism glittered briefly on her face.

    “Welcome to San Francisco!”

    “Welcome!”

    Almost everybody in the room shouted over each other with honest enthusiasm, making me feel a little overwhelmed but excited. Most of them looked young, with a few clearly more experienced individuals here and there. Back home, I only interacted with late twenty to thirty-year-old men, but here… everything seemed more progressive. The room sparkled with positive energy

    “We’re not a huge branch, so hopefully you'll feel like you’re part of our little family in no time,” an older woman with greyish blonde hair said, beaming.

    “I would appreciate that.” I gave her an honest smile.

    “Your accent is very good,” one of the younger women said. It made me chuckle.

    “Yes. I used to live in America when I was younger. My father was in the army. He’s American. We moved around for a few years and then went back to Italy, where my mother’s from, when I was thirteen…”

    “Interesting,” she replied.

    “Flo!” I was surprised when Blanche almost shouted the name, and somewhere inside me, I already knew who she called to. “Finally. You’re always wandering around this place like a ghost, aren’t you?” The petite girl walked into the room. My heart skipped a beat at the pure innocence and… goodness seeping out of her. I didn’t even need to touch her to feel that. She looked about nineteen years old with those large, brown puppy eyes bulging out of her head. Her long, black wavy hair and beautiful brown skin clearly spoke of Native American heritage, mixed with black, perhaps.

    “I’m sorry,” she whispered and shifted her gaze from Blanche to me.

    Yes, it’s definitely her. The one who watched me from the window.

    “Hello,” she said, but her voice barely tickled my ears. Her clear brown eyes held my complete and utter attention.


 

    “She’s something, huh?” Blanche stepped towards me and pulled me out of the trance. I nodded. “Everyone has the same reaction. I have never seen anyone with such a clean, radiating aura.” She peered at her, like she still couldn’t believe it. “Flo is also a newcomer here. She can show you the room where you’ll be staying for the night. I guess you can bond over being the new faces in the meantime.”

    “Are you one of the Peacekeepers or just… staying here for protection?” I ignored Blanche and talked straight to the girl. With her energy, she was like an open invitation for daemons, not just for the lower, weak ones, but for the stronger ones too. If a powerful daemon would latch onto her, they would have an unlimited supply of the most wonderful quality food for a long, long time.

    “I’m… I want to be a Peacekeeper,” she confirmed, rather reluctantly.

    “She’ll make a wonderful Seer one day. She’s just not ready yet,” Blanche said, maybe too harshly.

    Seer, huh? Those are rare, especially good ones.

    “I can show you to your room,” she offered with a warm expression, though I didn’t miss the slight flinch from Blanche’s remark.

    Blanche agreed. “Go and get some rest. Not everyone is here yet, anyway. Some are out working. I can introduce you to the rest at dinner. Is that alright?”

    “No problem.”

    I waved to everyone in the room and walked out to get my luggage. Flo led me up the stairs, her soft steps quiet.


 

    “I’m Arno. I don’t know if you caught my name.”

    “Oh yeah, I know. I mean, Blanche said you were coming.” She glanced at me with a shy smile.

    “How long have you been here?” I asked.

    “About three months.”

    “Have you been out on any missions yet?” I asked when we arrived on the second floor.

    “No.” She almost chuckled and pushed a strand of her black hair behind her ear.     “I just… get too scared, overwhelmed.” The mask of contentment on her face hid her actual disappointment. “That isn’t really desirable. And I know how easily some daemon could take advantage of me, so… I’m just staying here for now. Trying to work on my mental abilities.”

    “You know, having such strong energy and an open aura also means that if you can control and focus it well, you can be a real nightmare for them. A force to be reckoned with.” I caught her eye, trying to impart some faith in herself. Not everyone had an opportunity like that.

    Her cheeks flushed with a rosy glow, and she stared at her feet.

    “Well...”

    “You’re still young, though. It’s harder to control your energy now. Give it a few years.”

    “Thank you.” She nodded, pointing to the door we stood in front of. “Your room is here, by the way. It has a little bathroom and a nice bed. Living in this house is really great. I mean… you’re staying here just for now, but most of the people live in their own flats around the city. I’m sure you’ll still enjoy it at the HQ. Adriana makes wonderful food.”

    “I’d welcome that. With mostly men at my last place, the food was crap.” I grinned. “Definitely no women in leadership positions like here either.”

    Flo laughed.

    “You don’t have to worry about that here. And Blanche is… a good leader, really.”

    “She’s certainly unique.”

    “She’s the youngest Executive Peacekeeper in America. How cool is that?” Her eyes glittered with excitement. Not so much like a shy ghost anymore.

    I had to admit, Blanche was impressive. She must have been through a lot to get into that position so young. “Then I’m glad I can work under her,” I said.


 

    “I won’t bother you anymore; you’re probably really tired.”

    “Oh no.” I shook my head. “You’re not bothering me. I’m happy for some friendly face, honestly. Haven’t seen many of those in these past few years. You want to come in? Seems like you could use someone to talk to as well.” I knew her answer before she replied.

    The bedroom was nice and spacious. A bed dominated the left corner, and off-white walls brightened the room. I planned to find a flat outside of the headquarters eventually. To have my own space and privacy rather than living in one big house with a bunch of people. I got enough of that in Italy.

    I dropped my bag and sat on the bed.

    “It’s nice.”

    “Yeah. My room is much smaller, but I love it still.” She stood next to the wall, her hands clasped together on her thighs.

    “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get into all of this?” Rarely did good circumstances bring people into this life, this job.

    “It was… my pa.” Her whole face changed, her aura guttering. “He’s always been… abusive, a troubled man, but it wasn’t just him. I could see shadows inside him.” She narrowed her eyes like she was trying to picture or remember something against her will. “They were daemons. Not just one, and it wasn’t just possession guiding his behaviour. He… welcomed them and used their help, like he wanted them to be part of him.”

    “Integration,” I said quietly with a frown. Things don’t get much worse than that.

    “I called the Peacekeepers once.” She looked at me. “I told them the truth and they came but… they couldn’t see anything. I don’t know how, but they hid from them, so they just left. Nothing they could do. It didn’t make Pa happy.” Flo squeezed her arm.

    “I’m really sorry,” I breathed. “We can see them when they don’t hide. We can see them even if they try to, most of the time, but if the host purposefully hides and shields them…”

    “The more people know about us—about Peacekeepers—and believe us, the more situations will occur where the daemons aren’t the cause, but they were there. I called the Peacekeepers again a year after, when things got so bad. They almost left but I made them see. I… I lured the daemons out.” Her voice shook, her eyes shimmering with tears.

    “Flo.” I said her name firmly to make her snap out of the past and come back to the moment.

    Her eyes blinked, then lifted to me. “I’m sorry…” She started to wipe her tears with a sleeve.

    “It’s okay. It’s okay. Just take a breather. I’m sorry I made you think about it. I shouldn’t have asked.”

    “Oh it’s okay.” She chuckled. “I’m too emotional, as Blanche said. And the thing with my father… it wasn't the first time I saw it. I could—I think I have always seen demons. At least it feels like it.”

    “Impressive.” I leaned back, my eyebrows raised. “Not impossible, but rare.”

    She looked at me carefully. “Can I ask you something too?”

    “You wanna know how I started to see them?”

    “I was told you start seeing them after some traumatic situation or… when you see someone die.”

    “That’s not entirely true.” I shook my head. “It’s the most common reason, but not for me. I went through… an event that should’ve kickstarted my sight, but I could only see after I… after I nearly OD’d.” I chuckled, a little embarrassed to talk about it basically with a child, but it was probably a good drug PSA.

    Flo’s eyes widened. Her mouth hung slightly agape.

    “I was a little out of control in school.” I smirked, waving off the seriousness. “I had some issues from the past. People drink and take drugs to forget and whatever, all that cliché. And one night, I had too much. Got me into a hospital. It’s probably a miracle I survived. I saw a lot of weird things that night, and I haven’t stopped seeing them since.” I shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad it happened.”

    She hesitated, juggling what tone of voice to use, how to look at me. “It seems you lived an interesting life.”

    “Yeah. I guess you could say that.”

    “I still have some reports to help with. It’s what I do until I’m ready for more. Is it okay if I leave you for now?”

    “Sure.” I nodded with a smile. “I’ll unpack a bit, and I guess I’ll see you before dinner.”

    “Yeah. Food’s usually on the table around 6:30. See you there. I… I hope you like it here.” She looked at me like she really meant it. It made me feel good, better than I ever felt back home. I needed this new start, where I could be judged by my work, what I could do, more than anything else. Maybe San Francisco was that place.

    “See you then.”

    About an hour before dinner, I decided to go downstairs and explore. After a decent nap, I bounced with energy, and the conversation with Flo improved my spirits. Gifted people like her could radiate their energy onto others, good or bad.

Photos hung on the main stairwell. I hadn’t noticed them before.

    The building was quite old, but had served many different purposes over the decades, judging by the handwritten, scribbly dates in some of the corners. This place was named the official Peacekeeper HQ about thirty-five years ago, which clearly showed in the men and women posing for the picture wearing vintage clothing.

    I continued, following a voice coming from the main room that I passed with Blanche earlier. The door was open, so I saw her straight away, sitting at her big desk in the middle of the room. A floral stained glass window spanned the back wall behind her, seemingly unique only to her office.


 

    Briefly, she took her eyes away from the papers. “Exploring, I see.”

    “If I’m allowed.”

    “Sure,” she said, looking back down. Two other people sat in the room, scribbling into books.

    “Is this your archive?” I asked the man closest to me.

    “Yeah. Well, part of it.” He tilted his head.

    “We keep documentation about every case written and online,” Blanche said, her eyes still fixated on her work. “You can never be too careful. Knowledge is all we have, after all.”

    “How many active hunters are here?”

    “Twenty-two. Twenty-three now, I suppose.” She smirked. “Then we have people who work in the archive, do background checks. People who take calls, people who research. Every position’s important. Maybe forty people around here at one time, I’d say.”

    “U-hm.” I nodded, glancing over the stacked shelves full of thick files and books, both of which were color-coded and alphabetized. “Who did the protective seals around the house?” I really hoped my constant questions wouldn't put anyone off, but I needed to ask to ease my nervousness.

    “Me. Why?” Maybe I managed to annoy Blanche with that question, judging by her look. “Are they not sufficient? I can assure you, nothing will get through those.”

    I blinked. “I wasn’t trying to imply that.”

    Breaking the following silence, someone stormed into the room, paper in one hand and phone in another. “Blanche,” she blurted.

    “What?” she sighed.

    “I, um...” The woman glanced at me and then back at Blanche, unsure if we were in the middle of something. “We just had a call. It’s pretty urgent.” I knew all too well the look she passed to Blanche.

    “People always call only when it gets urgent, don’t they?” I chuckled and, thankfully, she nodded too.

    “What’s it about?” Blanche pushed aside her papers.

    “From what she said, it’s most likely a succubus possessing her daughter. She said it’s bad and they’re desperate. It seemed pretty legit.”

    “I can take care of it,” I blurted right as she finished speaking. Blanche studied me with a slight frown. “I mean, I’m sure you wanted to test me at some point. I can prove myself now.” I smiled nervously, hoping I wasn’t too keen.

    “You haven’t even been here a day. I can’t let you go to a mission tired, not to mention—”

    “I got some sleep, and I’m well-rested. I wouldn’t go if I couldn’t handle it,” I replied, though hesitation wormed into my mind. It wasn’t about me proving myself as much as wanting to go to normalcy. But someone needed help, and I came here to do exactly that.

    Blanche’s gaze was pensive.

    “You are aware that it’s a succubus, right? They're a bit challenging, especially for men.”

    I almost laughed.

    “They’re not a problem for me. If I can’t handle that, I shouldn’t even be here.” I held her with a firm gaze. She thought for a moment, narrowing her green eyes, then sighed.

    “Fine. You’re right. It shouldn’t be a problem.” She said it more for herself than me. “I’ll send Laura with you. Jill, tell her and get her here.” She waved at the woman, who scurried away.

    It was decided.

_