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He remembered what his aunt taught him. What his mother would or could not be bothered to. What his sister had long discarded and forgotten. "Panther," she said. "Always be kind. Kind and gentle. You are strong, so you must be careful." But it was through his mother's influence that he learned the true meaning of caution.
So when he saw the man thrashing about in the alley, he could not walk away or ignore him, like many other passersby. Nor could he run headlong into potential danger. He stopped just outside the alley to assess the situation.
The man was old; deep lines and cracks creased his face. The dirty strands of his long, grey hair flew about in a wild arc as he danced about with whatever demons tormented his mind. There were tears in his equally filthy denim jacket and jeans, though upon closer inspection, the boy could see that these were newer — and traced with blood. Curious, the boy edged ever closer. Those dark lines he'd spied on the man's face were, in fact, streaks of blood. Yet, that was not the main appeal.
It was the glasses.
The translucent frames were difficult to spy from afar or with the man's thrashing, but Panther had a good view of them now. Semi-rimless, horn-rimmed glasses. And clean! Clearly clean, sparkling a little when the light caught them, and most certainly not bound with tape at the bridge. Not a scratch! And expensive, if he had to put a number to them. Panther didn't know a lot about glasses, but these would be right at home on a middle-class hipster — not a bum.
He was now less concerned about the crazed old man and interested in retrieving the glasses and maybe tracking down the owner. They couldn't have gotten too far, if their specs were in such pristine condition. But taking them from the man would be...complicated.
The man had been silent until now, only jerking his body around as if to evade invisible blows. His personal Tyler Durden, perhaps. It didn't matter much to the boy, confident as he was in his abilities. He was strong and healthy. Broad shouldered and muscular from more than just playing on the field. "Excuse me, sir?" His abs weren't made of steel, however, so he jumped back the man made a sweeping gesture. Clenched tight in his hand was a switchblade.
"Don't come any closer, you hear?" The eyes behind the glasses rolled wildly. "Get on, ya hear? Get on!" One blue eye landed on Panther for a second, before flickering off to the side. The man swung his knife through empty air, coming back with a grimace and hint of pain. "Stay back, if ya know what's good for ya, eh?"
Panther stood off to the side, hands raised to ward off a potential blow, but starting to feel like an idiot. The man was clearly out of his mind, and would surely hurt himself if left to his own devices. "Sir, I don't want to hurt you. I just want to know where you got the glasses."
"I SAID BEGONE! LEAVE ME, DEMON!" He was slashing wildly now, with such determination that Panther feared the man would turn on him. "THESE ARE MINE! Yes, mine..." He staggered deeper into the alley, away from the light and the soft hum of civilians.
Panther glanced over his shoulder, at the glow of the streetlight that offered itself up as a safe haven. He was free to go home and simply forget the old man. Even his aunt would agree that it was dangerous to confront someone in a state of psychosis. She might even call the police to come and intercept before he could hurt himself or others.
That was what he should have done.
He nodded at the streetlight, as if to say "I'll be back," but stopped short of entering.
The atmosphere didn't feel right; hadn't felt right since the beginning. He was too focused on the man and the knife, and the pilfered glasses to consider that there might be more than his eyes could see. The women in his family relied more on their third sight and intuition, but Panther had only his logic and confirmation of things he could physically touch or see with his own two eyes.
There was something or someone in this alley with them, and the fact that he could not see or fully sense them made the boy uneasy. A long tongue with a forked tip quickly flicked through the air. He immediately regretted it; the alley smelled strongly of piss, mildew, and garbage. There were subtle hints of human activity: cigarettes, latex condoms, and a bit of vomit. But the strongest and freshest presence belonged to the man, who reeked of musk and the generic scent of "old people."
He was growing agitated now, compounded by the whimpering and pleading of the man. Even if it meant being stabbed, he was willing to take the risk. Would be happier to be confronted by a deranged human, not some invisible beast. He was strong. He could take on anything thrown his way.
He was a dragon.
Panther plunged deeper into the dark, turning the glow of the light into a distant reminder. Like the unidentified presence, the darkness bothered him. It was too thick, almost artificial.
He could barely see the man, even with his low light vision, slumped into the ground with his back to a wall. Gasping, knife forgotten and hands wrapped around the space beneath his chin. His body was littered with lacerations, none of which appeared to be self-inflicted. Panther cautiously stuck out a hand to brush the air in front of him, and was met with resistance.
"Run..." was all the man managed to whisper. Blood dribbled through his open lips.
Bracing himself for impact, Panther slammed his shoulder into the point of resistance — and stumbled into the wall instead. "Oof." Smart monster. He carefully stepped around the man, hands curled into fists at his side. How was he supposed to fight what he couldn't see?
He instinctively jerked his leg back when he felt a hand pull at his jeans, but relaxed when he saw it was just the man. The man who was slowly bleeding out and needed an ambulance. Panther knew this, but there were more pressing matters at hand.
"Try not to move so much. I'm going to get you out of here, alright?" The man only shook his head and gestured to the glasses. What, was his dying wish to return them to their owner? Panther couldn't imagine they'd want them back, now that they were tainted by the man's blood…"Wait."
Ignoring the obvious threat lurking in the darkness around him, Panther leaned down to take a closer look at the glasses. They were clean. Too clean for the ordeal the man just went through. "What the heckie..."
The man's blue eyes lit up then, full of life like they might have been when he was sixty years younger. "Take." He was smiling, even while he coughed up more blood. Still smiling as the life began to ebb out of his body. Panther's blood turned cold, but he did as he was told.
Panther squinted behind the glasses, down at the wide and staring eyes of the man below, his lips contorted into a cartoonish grin. "Jesus." How was he going to explain this to the police? Should he call the police? And if so, how? He knew it wasn't wise to use his phone, but… "Oh man. Oh man..." He was prepared to fight, not juggle corpses.
The boy froze in place. How could he forget the man's killer? He'd expected a monster of some sort, but this sounded like a woman. "Who are you," he said, not turning around.
"Who I am doesn't matter. It's what I want."
The glasses? He flicked his tongue into the air. He still had no idea what he was dealing with here. Pine tar, feminine hair care products, blood...and something that reminded him too much of his mother. So much like his mother that he nearly turned on impulse. "What are you?" They clearly weren't human, but they at least wore the shell of one.
"Give me the glasses." He could feel her at his back, not touching but imposing her will and presence. "It would be a shame to kill another irregular...especially one as unique as yourself."
He shook his head. "I know what you are, and it's physically impossible." He was a dragon, the apex predator. He had no natural enemy he could think of, and aside from a few minor injuries, was as close to indestructible as a construct could get. But he still feared the possibility of running into someone who could kill him and had overestimated the invisible woman. "No offense, but I'm not afraid of vampires." They were understandably horrifying to the human populace and lesser supes, but overall…
"They're kind of played out, like Mado—" The words died in his throat as a terrible force gripped and spun him around so fast his stomach went reeling. Panther wheezed, and for one moment he had a perfect view of his assailant: a pale faced woman with long brown hair and piercing green eyes. His eyes squeezed tight when she shoved him into the wall, one knee buried just above his groin. He was face to face with the man's killer, yet worried more about pissing his pants in front of a girl.
"One: Madonna is iconic and a great inspiration to countless pop stars today. Two: I am more than just a 'vampire,' and I ought to kill you for implying I can't." Her nails dug through the fabric of his hoodie and into his skin. "Now, give me the glasses, little boy, and I'll let you off with just a warning."
Vampire or not, she was really strong. Panther tried to plant his feet into the ground and shrug her off; he was 6'4 to her 5'8, and twice as heavy. Yet here she was, holding him up like their roles were reversed. "I'm...I'm sorry. Madonna's great. I love her current stuff." He just wanted to be let down, but it actually seemed to be working.
She loosened her grip on him...somewhat. The knee didn't retreat, but one hand moved to rest on her hip. "Her latest work is atrocious; the only saving grace is Minaj's contribution to 'Bitch I'm Madonna.' One could argue that 'Confessions' was her last great album, but mm...I'm biased because I enjoyed part of the album, but. Early Madonna shall always reign supreme."
He just nodded along. As long as she was talking, she wasn't killing. Just another thing he picked up from his aunt. "My aunt loves Madonna. Anything 80s, really." If he could just get his feet back on the ground...
"Sounds like a woman after my own heart. How attached to her are you?"
He stopped pawing at the ground long enough to stare her dead in the eye. "What?"
"For a snake, you sure are slow on the uptake. Look. Kid." She gripped him by the chin and forced his head down. His eyes dropped to the man below. "That's your future you're looking at."
"Why are these glasses so important? And I'm not a snake! I'm a dragon." He puffed his chest out at the last bit. Those words and conviction alone should be more than enough to convince her, but the woman looked unimpressed.
"On second thought, killing you would be like drowning a mentally disabled child." She let go and stepped back. "I bet you're just as ignorant of the wards placed on you."
Freedom! He tried and failed to keep his expression neutral. "Wards?" He had an inkling of what those were; protective enchantments. But he never volunteered for any.
"...God, you really are a child." Now that she wasn't dangling him in the air like a kitten, Panther could see she was rather attractive, if not a little old. Somewhere in her early thirties, at best. "The witch responsible must really love you."
He wasn't entirely sure what she meant, but was grateful for it all the same. And...disappointed? He backed away but was stopped short by the wall behind him. "Does that mean you'll let me go?"
She smiled, causing a shiver to run down his spine. Of course she wouldn't...that was a stupid fucking question. "Breaking your wards would be too much trouble...and killing you would be of no benefit to me."
"So...you'll really let me go?" It sounded too good to be true. Most killers loathed an audience, not unless they intended to dispatch off the remaining witnesses. And he still had the glasses.
"Go home, boy. And be thankful to have people who care for you." She nudged the dead man's body with the toe of her boot. "Unlike this poor fool." Her grin was bigger than the Cheshire cat's when she looked up. "And say hello to your aunt for me."