The scent of iron filled the air, warm and sticky. It mixed with old, dusty brick and the omnipresent exhaust of the city to create something cloying and… exquisite.

A bat and two crowbars or, rather, the pieces of a bat and two crowbars littered the alleyway pavement. Their silvery metal was ripped and stained with a darkening red, the source of the iron scent. Their owners…

Well, they tasted as good as they smelled.

There was something about the degenerate type of human that was just better than the usual fare. The rich and powerful had a clean, pure taste, but they were too easy. Put an ad in a racy magazine and they would call you. She paused her feast for a moment to check her phone. Yes, she had three sexually-charged texts, two men and one woman, waiting for replies. Once, for fun, she’d tried flat-out telling them she would eat them, but they just thought it was kinky.

Too easy.

Working-class people were the hardest. They tended to have decent morals or satisfying relationships. They had people who would miss them, who would call for more powerful help. They tasted fabulous, with that delicate mix of love, satisfaction, and just a hint of desperation, but it wasn’t worth the risk.

These thugs, though, they were a different story entirely. They had the salty flavor of desperation and depravity. These three in particular had a saccharine quality to their blood, the scent and taste of men about to take their pleasure. She’d timed these kills perfectly: string them along for too long and the blood turns sickly, but end it too quickly and the flavor falls flat.

She raised her head from the last thug and crouched there, next to… half of him. The other half was somewhere down the alley. She swirled the last mouthful around in her mouth, savoring it as it slid down her throat. The corpses were empty now, and she could easily last a few days before her next meal. Long enough to move across the city, maybe hit the slums proper. There was a nice skate park there, plastered with graffiti and favored by rebellious teenagers. She hadn’t hunted there in years, and just thinking about their chemical-laced blood made her mouth water.

She stood and stretched, casting a sharp shadow into the yellow pool on the wall behind her. She couldn’t help but smile widely. The people on the road, not even thirty feet away, just kept driving past. Completely oblivious to the carnage. All they had to do was look, turn their heads for once in their lives, and they would see her there. She silently begged the fools to glance her way, see her triumph, see the blood on her blouse and painting the brick walls.

But none of them looked. No one saw her standing there, arms outstretched in challenge, bloody and proud. They kept up their self-imposed blindness, and they kept driving past.

“Lydia, right?”

She didn’t turn around to face whomever was speaking. Instead she felt the chill of her shadow and listened to the blood splatter and the disconnected limbs hit the walls and floor. Her… her side hurt. It hurt with a deep, sharp pain, and when she put her hand to the spot it came away bloody. Had someone actually managed to stab her? With a moment of concentration, and some of the blood she’d drank, she closed the wound, then turned around to get a look at this new corpse.

The new corpse was standing ten feet or so away, between the splotches of light. A large truck roared by behind her, and the light revealed his features.

All in all he was a completely un-interesting man. Plain brown hair, normal brown eyes, not even six feet tall. He wore sturdy workers’ denim pants and an untucked, light blue button-up shirt. On his feet were scuffed leather work boots. Everything about him screamed normalcy, demanded that she forget him as part of the mass of men and women behind her. The only thing to distinguish him from them was his complete and utter disregard for the living shadow standing beside him.

It had her form, of course, but the inky darkness allowed for no features. It breathed in and out, sucking the warmth from the area, but not this man.

“Your shadow’s breath stinks, you know,” he said. Another flash of light revealed a face full of disgust.

Disgust! At her shadow! She slashed him with it, heard the satisfying splat of his blood against the wall.

The man let out a loud sigh. “Come on, Lydia--that is what you call yourself, isn’t it?--don’t you think--”

She cut him off with more slashes, stepping closer and focusing on him. She watched the shadow’s claws rip through him, leave great tears in his shirt and skin. For a moment she almost got to see his guts, but the wounds and rips vanished almost faster than they appeared.

“Seriously, this is getting old,” said the man. “Don’t you think that if your shadow could hurt me, I’d be dead already?”

Rumors, old conversations, news stories… they all ran through Lydia’s head as she tried to connect the dots. The man before her was one of the heroes, there could be no doubt of that. And his power was clearly some kind of immunity. He wasn’t one of the Undying--their recovery didn’t extend to clothing--and...

The man cut into her thoughts. “The last vampire I killed was more... chatty. You scared of me?” His voice was laced with mockery, and she was close enough now she could see him studying her.

“Why,” she asked, “should I give you anything at all?”

He laughed. “Well, I’m not your regular insect, am I? I’m obviously not so easy to kill.”

He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself. Lydia felt her lip curl in a sneer. “That just makes you a cockroach.”

He slapped his hand to his heart. “Oh, touché! Your words wound me, Lydia. At least you have that going for you, huh?”

Anger began to rise in her throat, but she swallowed it. They both knew she was trapped here. She couldn’t act without knowing who he was, what he could do. “Well, while we’re here,” she began, “why don’t you--”

“Tell you who I am?” The man shook his head, still amused. “It’s way too much fun watching you stew over it. What’s your best guess so far?”

Lydia ground her teeth, but decided to play his insipid little game. It wasn’t like they were in any danger of discovery. “Well…” It was a real effort to pretend civility, but she thought she manage a decent effort. “Your wounds seem to heal almost instantly--”

He sucked air through his teeth, then clicked his tongue. “Ehhhh, that’s not--”

“You interrupted me,” she snapped. “Your wounds seem to heal instantly, but it’s more like a reversal of time. That’s why your clothes repair themselves.” She watched his face, but he gave nothing away, standing there in the shadows. The warped roar of passing vehicles continued behind her. Someone was leaning on their horn.

He raised his eyebrows. “Are you going to actually guess, or…?”

“I think you’re Tempus,” she said. It made sense. Tempus was an arrogant bastard, always bragging on camera about the past time-periods he’d visited and the plague-bearers he’d killed. If you dealt him a mortal wound, he just rewound his personal timeline to before he received it.

“No no no, you’ve got to do better than that.” The man looked… disappointed. “I don’t have nearly enough product in my hair to be that guy. You know he dyes it blue, right?”

He was right. “Then who are you? No one else matches your power.”

“Oh, someone does. Think harder.” He stepped closer, an inch now from the yellow light. “Who is known for being utterly invincible? Who is known for toying with the monsters he kills? Who do they whisper is secretly the most powerful man on Shala’s pretty face?”

Lydia scoffed, then chuckled, then burst into laughter. “Look at that god complex! I thought I was egotistical, but I’m downright humble next to you.”

The man’s expression soured and any sense of levity vanished. A harsh chill, unrelated to her shadow waiting quietly beside them, entered his voice. “Let me give you another hint.” He slowly raised his hand into the light. A thin sliver of metal, a needle, glinted there. It was long, and it was stained with blood. She could smell it. It was her blood.

He licked it.

“Figure it out yet?” He seemed eager for her response.

Lydia’s hand went to her side, where the pain had been earlier. “Trying to say you’re a vampire, too? Nice try. You have no shadow, no fangs, and no--”

“So… stupid....” The man put the needle in his pocket. “I killed a vampire three cities over. She figured it out instantly, just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “But clearly you’re an idiot, so let me give you one last hint.”

He stepped forward and the light splashed across his face, revealing the scars. Thousands of them, thin and white, cobwebbed across his face. He raised his hands up right in front of her eyes, and she could see the same kind of scars there, too. Slowly, dramatically, he gripped his right thumb, paused, then jerked it backward. Too far back, until it snapped.

Pain erupted as an echoing snap came from her right thumb. She looked down in shock. It was bent backward, broken at the exact same angle. She used some of the blood to heal it, and instinctively lashed out with her shadow.

Big mistake.

The shadow’s claw ripped into the man’s throat, and hers tore of its own accord. Staggering backward, falling to the ground, she tried to scream in pain, horrendous pain, but the cut had severed her vocal cords. She burned through far too much blood. The cut sealed, she regained her voice, but the pain remained, forcing her to cough and retch.

“Say my name.”

A deep cut appeared on Lydia’s leg, and she healed it immediately. She looked up to see the man holding a knife near his own leg.

“Proxy,” she whispered.

“What was that? I couldn’t hear you?” Proxy shifted his grip on the knife, pointing it downward, and began driving it into his leg--her leg?--using it as punctuation.

“How…” stab “about you…” stab “say it…” stab, twist “LOUDER?”

Each wound hit a different bit of bone, each stab cut a different bit of muscle. Lydia frantically burned through her meal to heal each one, but never had time to heal the pain before another appeared.

“PLEASE! You’re Proxy!” He paused, grinning, while she sobbed in pain.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” He crouched down in front of her. “As long as I have something of yours, like that blood I took…” He shrugged. “You know?”

A bit more blood cured the pain, and Lydia was able to think again. What happened to him happened to her. But… there was a time limit, right? And most heroes were limited by distance. If she could put distance between them, buy some time…

“Well, let’s get this ove--”

Lydia surged to her feet, putting all her strength into the blow, and hit him in the chest. She felt his ribs crack beneath her hands, echoed by her own. He flew down the alley, away from her, and the same force flung her, too. She rocketed backwards, out over the street, only just missing a massive moving van. She crashed onto a speeding taxi and bounced off at an angle. She turned in the air, everything moving in slow motion for a moment, before her pelvis struck the corner of a building. It swung her around and smacked her face against the brick.

Blackness consumed her for many heartbeats.

The minute Lydia regained her senses, she consumed nearly a gallon of blood fixing her ribs, shoulder, and hip. Her supply was nearly gone, but she was nearly an entire city block away from Proxy, and no more phantom wounds were appearing.

She was free.

She picked herself up off the pavement to see that she had gathered a crowd. The taxi she’d hit had pulled over, and others had joined it. The other lanes of traffic kept up their high speed, but this one was at a standstill. The crowd was probably about thirty strong, but they simply gawked, stupid and practically drooling, like she was some circus attraction.

They smelled like workers, on their way home from a late shift. Lydia began to hunger at the scent. She’d used up most of her meal to heal herself; she wouldn’t get far without dessert. She should have time. Proxy, while formidable, hadn’t looked particularly fit. It would take him a moment to close the gap.

One of the onlookers finally grew a pair and stepped into the ring. He wasn’t too fit either, but he had the workman’s scent; powerful, tasty blood. “Excuse me, miss… uhm… You uh bounced off my taxi and--”

Lydia grinned and cut him off. “I think you’ll do just fine!”

The taxi driver stepped back with a look of confused horror. She reached out to grab him, to pull him in and drink him dry, but a fountain of agony erupted in her leg. As she stepped, first the skin then the muscles over her thigh tore. A scream ripped from her throat as the pain pumped in her leg, as the flesh pulled back and forth in a quick motion.

Rip-rip, rip-rip, rip-rip.

The onlookers gasped, some screamed, and stumbled back. One person retched, but no one could look away as she and they watched her leg get severed at the knee. The pain hit a new crescendo when the tearing hit the bone and became sawing, and another torturous shout tumbled out. She clutched her leg and grit her teeth as the leg finally fell off. Tears poured down her cheeks and sobs wracked her chest, but she couldn’t let the pain stop her.

Lydia grabbed her leg and pressed it to her stump, then she consumed blood. Gallon after gallon, everything she’d taken from the thugs, everything she had left. It wasn’t enough, so she used some of her own blood. Hunger bit at her stomach, but her leg finally attached. Shakily, she pulled herself to her feet and dared to look across the street.

Cars, occasionally larger trucks, rushed between them at breakneck speed. Their lights coupled with the street lights, reflections from tinted windows, and gaudy storefronts for a chaotic assault on the eyes; but in the blur between vehicles she could see him standing there, grinning maniacally. The drivers ignored them both equally.

Proxy raised a bone saw and gestured with it tauntingly, then pulled it roughly across his arm. A ragged cut appear on hers, and blood began pouring from it.

Distance, she needed…

As soon as she had the thought, Proxy dropped the saw and drew a knife down across the back of his ankle. Even more pain followed as Lydia’s tendon severed itself and, with nothing keeping it stretched, sucked up into her thigh, dragging little blood vessels and bits of tissue with it. She could feel each one rip.

Her leg refused to support her any longer and she slumped against the wall, still facing the street. Proxy made a mocking show of “what should I do next?” for a few moments. She was completely at his mercy, and she knew exactly how good that felt. Well, she would at least take that from him. She would go out on her own terms. She--

Proxy stepped out into the road. The truck driver mashed his horn as fast as he could, but he couldn’t slam the breaks or he risked causing a massive accident.

Lydia’s eyes met Proxy’s one last time, and she understood. She understood that she had never had any ‘terms’ of her own, that she was completely powerless before him.

The truck plowed through Proxy.

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