Serena opened the door to the alley with a kick. The bad smell greeted her like a steaming cloud of vinegar shot up the nose. She had been working there for a year, and still couldn’t figure out what it was. At least the combined aroma of fried meat, chips, and cheap sauces that came from the garbage bags in her hands helped counteract it.
Not wanting to spend more time than necessary in the stinky alley, she rushed to the garbage bin. Throwing one of the bags with so much strength that she ripped its side, spreading ketchup and mustard all over her uniform.
Grabbing a tissue from her pocket, she attempted to clean herself, without much success.
“Come on, Serena. This will be an excellent introduction when they publish your memoirs. The humble beginnings of a great artist.”
She threw the tissue in the bin. A quick look at her uniform revealed that she had spread the ketchup and mustard even more. She sighed.
“Why can’t I jump to the part where I’m famous?”
“Assuming you become famous, of course.”
Star looked at the door and saw Ramon coming out with more trash.
“Jeez, thanks, Ramon. It’s good to know my friends believe in my dreams.”
“What’s wrong with what we have now?”
“You mean, besides wearing a hat with a sausage?”
“Hey, there’s pride to be had in the fast food industry. We fight hunger you know?”
“And a healthy a lifestyle.”
“That too, but you can’t have everything.”
Ramon frowned and sniffed the air.
“I see that smell is still with us…”
Serena passed her hands over her face frustrated.
“This misery doesn’t help my art, at all. There’s nothing good here.”
“Well, you met me, right? And Emily, and the rest of the gang… At least you have us.”
“I’m just trying to ease your harsh trials in your path to stardom.”
Serena sat on a box next to the door. Ramon threw the trash and joined her. He offered her some gum.
“Don’t mention it. Look, I get it, frying chips isn’t the most fulfilling of experiences.”
“It kind of is. It fills your tummy.”
“You know what I mean. Let’s hit Tommy’s place after work.”
“Do you mind if I bring Michael?”
Ramon’s happy expression turned to one of distrust.
“That guy gives me the creeps.”
“I don’t know why you’re complaining. He’s always inviting you to go and grab a beer. He’s just the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.”
“That’s the thing. He’s just too nice, too perfect. Nobody can be like that.”
“Where did you find him?”
“In a dark alley.”
“That’s not helping your case.”
Serena could never forget the day she met Michael. She just came back from the market when a couple of thugs ambushed her, knocking her out. Then, out of nowhere, Michael jumped right into the fray and rescued her, but that wasn’t what she remembered more fondly. It was the way he looked at her. Not with fear or anger, but with childlike wonder. She never thought a human being would look at her like that. They had been best friends since then.
“Give the guy a chance. You’ll end up liking him.”
“Fine, at least I will get a few free drinks. Let’s get back to work.”
Serena was about go through the door when she saw someone entering the alley. She couldn’t quite see who it was, but a shiver ran down her spine. Her instinct told her something was off, and she hadn’t survived this long by ignoring her instinct. Ramon looked at her concerned.
“Wow, you look like you have seen a ghost. Is everything all right?”
“Yes, I just realized I’ve got to make a call, can you wait for me inside?”
“Sure but…Hey, who’s that?”
The figure finally became visible. He was huge, more than 6 feet tall, and wearing a trench coat. His face was old, harsh, and marked with the scars of many fights. Serena was pretty sure he was hiding a weapon, or several, under the trench coat.
The alarms went off in Serena’s head. She hissed instinctively and tried to put herself in front of Ramon to protect him. However, Ramon was oblivious of the danger. He smiled nervously and went to meet the man.
“Hey friend, can we help you?”
“You can help me by getting lost, and fast.”
The huge man kept walking towards Serena, paying no attention to Ramon. Although scared, Ramon took a step forward and put his hand on the man’s chest.
“Hey buddy, I don’t know what your problem is but…”
“Remove your hand at once or lose it.”
“Serena, get inside and call the cops.”
With inhuman speed, the man grabbed Ramon’s arm, and twisted it till it broke. Ramon didn’t even have time to scream before the man punched him so hard it sent him flying. Thankfully he landed on a mountain of trash.
“Now that the distractions are out of the way, I can do my holy work.”
Serena could feel her primal rage rising, to the point where it almost overwhelmed her. Every part of her body screamed vengeance against the man who hurt her friend. She contemplated the possibility of letting go, but just for an instant. She couldn’t create a scene here, and there was the danger of Ramon getting hurt even more. So, against all her instincts she and ran away.
“Cowardly creature, you can’t escape from me!”
First, she needed to take him to the woods. Thank God, the restaurant she worked at was so close to the edge of town. Sanctuaries worked better in nature, and the town’s forest was a powerful one.
Serena accelerated once she reached the first trees. Perhaps she could lose him if she was fast enough. Her ears picked a subtle noise. She instinctively dodged to the left, and a knife passed right next to her head, only to end nailed to a tree.
She turned around and saw the hunter approaching fast, inhumanly fast. How the hell did he manage to throw it that hard? There was no time for questions. She could see that he was preparing another one.
Serena ran straight ahead and embraced the enchantment of the forest. A thick mist started to form around her, making it harder to see. Luminescent symbols appeared in the bark of the trees showing the way only to her. The steps of the hunter were getting closer, but also weaker at the same time. The mist didn’t so much block your view as distorting what you were perceiving: Paths disappeared and reappeared in another place, trees became the shadows of people moving around you, and the sound of birds and other animals became screams and whispers.
One last push and she would lose him. She let a bit of her other nature out. The muscles in her legs tightened and grew, increasing her speed. She ran till her lungs and muscles burned. Finally, she reached a clearing. The tree branches became thicker behind her till they formed a wall around the place. Nothing would get past them. She was safe for the moment.
Her legs felt sore as hell. This happened when she forced her body beyond its limits without shifting. Her human limbs couldn’t withstand that kind of pressure.
She took out her phone and started to dial. The signal shifted between weak and non-existent, too much static generated by the mystical energies of the place. After trying many times, she managed to send a message to Michael.
A knife came out of nowhere and hit her phone, knocking it from her hand. Serena jumped back. She searched around and found the attacker. Serena searched the trees for the man, and caught a glimpse of him drawing a sword from within his trench coat. Hacking at the branches, he effortlessly cleared a path.
“You gave me a good run, but your sinful existence ends here. My name is Hector, knight of the order of Saint George, prepare to die.”
“But… how the fuck did you do that?”
Serena called for a bit of her other nature again. Her eyes became sharper, more attuned to what laid beyond the physical plane. She could see powerful bright symbols carved into his aura.
“I’m a holy warrior. The Lord guides me to my prey. No one is coming to save you, so I suggest you fight with all you have.”
Serena, the girl, couldn’t do anything, but the cobalt dragon could. No more calling tiny bits of her essence. She opened a door inside her mind, and something powerful and fierce awakened.
Serena blinked slowly. When she opened her eyes again, everything had changed. Her body was cold, merciless…. reptilian. Her posture also changed. Gone was the fear. She was not a scared little girl anymore. She was a predator.
“You’re going to regret what you did to Ramon.”
Hector swung his sword in a vertical arc towards Serena. Instinct took over, and she dodged the blade without difficulty. Serena’s patience evaporated. She only ever used violence in self-defense. She had a good life with friends and family, and this asshole was going to take it away just because she was different.
The thing inside her reacted to her rising anger. The skin around her eyes turned into blue scales, and her muscles became bigger and more defined. She showed her teeth, now turned into fangs, and hissed.
“Congratulations. You get to see my nasty side.”
The thing inside her roared as she let it free. Her whole skin turned into blue scales as hard as steel. Her hands turned into deadly claws. Horns sprouted from her head and a tail with bone spikes appeared behind her. Her hair transformed into colorful feathers that went all the way down her spine.
She stretched and looked at the hunter like a cat looks at a mouse. It took all her willpower not to rush in and disembowel him. That’s not who she was. She would fight for her life, but she wouldn’t become a monster in the process.
They walked in circles trying to find an opening on their opponent. Serena let the reptile’s instinct take over. The last vestiges of fear and uncertainty disappeared.
Hector attacked. Serena dodged it and jumped at him, but he proved to be faster than she anticipated. He managed to land a hit.
Serena looked at her wound. The sword had cut her scales as if they were paper. Not only that, she wasn’t healing. She noticed bright symbols glowing in the sword’s blade. An enchanted weapon. Hector wiped his sword in the grass. He closed his eyes and started to mumble under his breath.
“When I’m finished with you, I will make sure that friend of yours learns the price of befriending abominations.”
Serena roared. The predator wouldn’t be held back anymore. No one threatened her friends. She put all her energy into one single leap. Hector opened his eyes at the last moment. A strange light shone from them. He moved past her with inhuman speed. Serena felt an excruciating pain in her chest. He had stabbed her. They rolled on the ground together, but only one stood in the end: Hector.
“Disappointing. I was expecting much more from such a fearsome creature.”
Serena concentrated all her energy into healing herself. She managed to stop the bleeding, but she couldn’t close the wound. The pain was beyond anything she had experienced before. Hector approached and put the tip of his sword to her throat.
“Any last words?”
She shifted back to her human form. It took everything she had left, but she didn’t care. If she were about to die, then she would die on her terms, and she was Serena, not a monster. Hector raised an eyebrow.
“If you think that’s going to change my mind, you’re sorely mistaken.”
Serena looked at him in the eyes.
“Then kill me knowing that you’re spilling innocent blood. Kill me knowing that you’re destroying my life and the lives of my loved ones. Kill me knowing that you’re committing murder.”
Serena showed him her throat.
Hector raised his sword.
“I wonder how many of your loved ones knew what you were, monster.”
Another voice joined the conversation out of the darkness.
“The ones that matter know it, and the only monster I see here is you.”
A young man entered the clearing. He was handsome and… Pure. The perfect poster child of a church chorus. Impeccable clothes, white shirt, jeans and elegant shoes; blue eyes and blond hair.
“Hi Serena, it seems I made it in time.”
Hector raised his hand.
“Don’t come any closer. Who are you?”
The strange young man stopped and put his open hands in the air.
“My name is Michael.”
“You’re not worthy of that name.”
“Wait, Hector,” said Serena. “Please, grant me one last request. Let him go, he’s just a regular human.”
Hector kicked Serena. The pain made her curl into a fetal position. She caught Michael staring at her worried, and mumbled a prayer for him to be safe. He was a good man, and she loved him like the brother she never had. His blue eyes were the last thing she saw before losing consciousness.
Michael looked at Serena. His affable demeanor disappeared, substituted by cold rage. He pulled out a gun from his jacket and shot Hector. Hector barely managed to dodge the bullet and took cover behind a rock.
“By attacking me, you forfeit your life.”
“And by attacking her, you forfeit yours.”
Hector mumbled something and threw a knife at Michal with inhuman speed, but Michael reacted equally fast. He dodged the knife and shot at Hector’s hand. A small scream could be heard from behind the rock.
“That little trick of yours won’t work. I fought others of your order before. How about if you give up? I…”
“Never! I won’t leave till I finish her.”
“Have it your way then.”
Michael moved around the rock and found Hector holding his hand.
“Ah yes, painful, isn’t it? Good, I wanted it to hurt.”
Michael, always pointing at Hector with his gun, lifted his shirt, revealing glowing tattoos covering his chest.
“Two can play your game. Getting power embedded into your body is a matter of having the right contacts, and lots of cash. Sadly, for you, I have both.”
“The sacred words of the Lord…”
“Words of the Lord my ass. Everyday magic disguised as sacred texts. Also, have you heard about guns? I know swords are cool and all, but a bullet is way more efficient.”
“And cowardly. My faith is unshakable. Let me show you.”
Hector mumbled something, and a flash of light came from his hand. Michael was blinded momentarily, and that was all that Hector needed. He kicked Michael’s gun away, and then threw him to the ground with another kick.
Hector was about to crush Michael’s head, but he managed to dodge at the last second. When he managed to regain his composure, he saw Hector approaching him with his sword raised.
“Damn, for an old man you’re fast.”
“Prepare to die.”
Michael raised his arm with a smile. Hector’s sword came down and clashed against something hard. A blade made from shadows had formed around Michael’s arm. Hector jumped back surprised.
“You use the tools of the unholy.”
“I use your same tools, just with my personal touch.”
Hector mumbled more words and infused his sword with light. Then he jumped straight ahead, ready to make an upper cut. Michael’s shadow blade disappeared, reappearing on his other arm in time to block Hector’s attack. The blade cracked under the light, but it managed to hold. A quick kick pushed Hector back, giving him time to breathe.
They moved in circles, evaluating one another. Michael laughed at Hector.
“What happened? Not so easy when someone fights back, right?”
“I can tell you’ve never had to fight someone skilled.”
“Last chance to give up or…”
“Or you will bore me to tears? I’ve met fairies with more skill than you.”
Hector used his fury as fuel, making his blade shine like a star, and launched himself forward. Michael summoned a shield of shadows and tried to block it, but in the end, his shield shattered. The shock sent him flying back, only to land rolling on the grass. Hector looked exhausted, but he smiled as he approached Michael.
“Now is when you die.”
Michael panted trying to stand up.
“You’re out of shadows. Any last words?”
Michael looked around and smiled.
“I’m out of shadows, but not lead.” He grabbed the gun and pointed at Hector “Next time pay more attention to where you send your adversary.”
Hector tried to dodge, but he was too tired. Michael shot him in the shoulder, making him fall to the ground. He stood, and walked over to him.
Hector said nothing as Michael pointed the gun at his head.
“As you said before, any last words?”
“Why do you fight for that thing?”
“She’s like the sister I never had.”
Michael cleared his throat.
“Once upon a time there was a little boy who came home and found Daddy hurting his Mummy. His father was an dragon, his mother the princess, and he was the brave knight ready to rescue her. He took a sword and slew the dragon. The little boy was so proud, but he was too late. The dragon had killed the princess. Later, some men came for the boy, and he was put in an institution.”
“In the institution, the boy grew and learned how to survive. Desperate, sad, and alone, he decided the only way to feel better was by killing more evil dragons like his dad, it made him feel good, but it didn’t last too long. Luckily, when he was about to give up, he came to a unique town with extraordinary people.”
A giant smile appeared on Michael’s face when he looked at Serena.
“For the first time in his life, the boy was happy. He finally had a family and friends. Bit by bit the hole faded away and the need to kill dragons with it. He had become a new person in town and vowed to renounce violence, but then the boy learned that dragons wanted to come and hurt his new family, and so he hunts them to protect those he loves.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
Hector closed his eyes.
“Pater, forgive me, for I have failed you.”
“Don’t feel bad. You found the real monster after all.”
Michael shot Hector in the face.
The hole inside of him was fading. He looked at the Hector’s body and smiled. He missed the feeling if he was honest with himself, but he knew she wouldn’t approve. She couldn’t know about his darker side. He approached Serena and checked her pulse. Her eyes flickered.
“Michael? Is that you? What happened?”
Her voice was weak, almost a whisper.
“Don’t speak. Just rest. I’ll take care of everything.”
Michael pulled an ointment from his pocket and applied it to the wound. It had cost him a small fortune, but nothing was too much for her. After all, she was his sister, and nothing was more important than family, even for monsters like him.