Rain drenches the streets, gift of a tear-sodden sky. Sodium-orange streetlights etch harsh shadows in the mouths of alleyways as night draws a veil of forgetfulness over the anonymous city. A row of dark windows act as empty witnesses gazing through uncaring eyes, their silent un-vigil punctuated at intervals by the flicker of television sets, casting mindless images into the ether of non-imagination. A man lies slumped in a doorway, huddling for the meagre transient shelter offered by a tattered awning. Alcoholic fumes gather around a grimy, lined face, stalking his fractured dreams with the temporary solace of oblivion. For the moment he is safe, forgotten and forgetting, a child of the city.
Within the shadows, a deeper shadow stalks, lithe and young, steel-limbed strength powering the confidence as she strides unfamiliar walkways. Her journey has been epic, from the furthest reaches of the city she has walked across disputed territory, daring hurt at every turn. Driven by a need she does not recognise, prompted by deeper instinct she has come to the innermost region of the city in a quest for closure. She has made this vow, to come here, to this now. Forced into the promise at the start of a new year devoid of hope and love.
He walks alone. He always has. The city is cruel and cold, and no respecter of warmth or kindness; the rules are drawn in absolutes, marked at the boundaries with lines of life and death. The blades he carries are deadly, his victims spread the legend, and the rumour of his coming enthrals the bit-players who wait for their verisimilitude to be chased away, vicarious leeches haunting the edges of being, desperate to be relieved of their clinging ennui.
She knows him. She has watched him from heavy lidded eyes, weighing and assessing. From shadow to shadow, peripherally aware of jewelled droplets capturing fragmented shards of light as they fall from over-laden gutters. Shadow to shadow, silently sweeping from darkness to darkness, gliding on fettered intent, she stalks him.
He is unaware of her. Unremembered years of battle scar him with indifference, the city is open to him, owned and owning. A movement wakes his attention. The attack is sudden. They were waiting for him, clutched in anticipation and dread they rush from all sides, fear searing their eyes and staining their dry mouths, driven by the rewards of his death. Four of them. How can he stand? They are quick; blades flash with fatal purpose, war screams meant to paralyse and terrify, an overwhelming storm surge.
He is quicker. A dancer pirouetting effortlessly between their straining bodies, slash and stab, bright reams of scarlet streaming skyward, diluted by the rain. Screams of war change pitch, to a song of fear as life flees one, then another, riven from abused bodies. His ceaseless dance, merciless in its execution, captivating in its sickening elegance.
She tilts her head, appraising his skill, and nods slowly, approvingly. He is alone again. The blood of his attackers shines on him as a challenge, a warning, and a lesson. Eyes blink out as he passes, unwilling to draw his scrutiny and the shadows shuffle closer together. He knows they have watched, knows they will pass on his feat, his legend and legacy, and he walks on.
She follows, passing between darkness and light with easy familiarity, eyes caressing his passing wake, moving as a smooth ribbon of lethal nuance. Muscles bunch and slide, nerve endings tingle as the tension of their impending appointment begins to permeate her awareness. A vow made, a vow met, a vow to be completed.
The city has become aware of her. Whispers echo through the streets, furtive mutterings passed from mouth to ear and interest quickens as she passes, her presence testament to her power. Her eyes play over him, noting the tautness in his back, the scars on his neck and legs, and the newness of his limp.
She steps into a pool of light and stands proud, the road a grey river that separates their destinies. Her presence pierces his aloofness, and he stops, turns. A car rumbles between them, headlights cutting the darkness and a backwash of noxious fumes fouling the air as it passes. He recognises her challenge and reacts instantly, blades flicking out as he bounds through the air, twisting and turning, snarling his acceptance.
She is calm as he comes. Her breath is measured, he is swift as the wind and as merciless, but she is ready. Her own blades flash as they are unsheathed and then he is upon her, his breath hot and rancid as he bowls her over. Spitting and cursing they roll over and over, punching and stabbing in a frenzied melee. Then they break apart, facing each other, sides heaving, blood falling from each to stain the hard ground with their pain.
He is astonished. Not in a decade has he broken from an opponent without holding the upper hand, and yet she stands before him, hazel eyes blazing her defiance and hate, unblemished by fear. It is too much for him and he leaps again, blades poised foremost, meaning to crush her defiance and slash her insolence into ragged memory.
She almost cannot believe his strength and speed; he is awesome, savage. And yet, she will not, cannot yield to him. He leaps, spitting venom and abhorrence. She is ready, falls to her back before his approach, sees the triumph light his eyes as he commits to the attack, and then the dawn of despair when her blades penetrate his stomach, an eviscerating slice which will steal his victory and end his reign of terror. An unwilling vow fulfilled.
The life flees from his eyes, laboured breathing ceasing at last as his unrealised questions slip away, unanswered. She turns, hurt, but unbowed. The ending of his story has met her need, her partner’s untimely death answered in kind, as it had to be. The shadows withdraw and melt away, even hurt she is more than they, and they know it. The journey back to her children will be long, but unmarked by events of note. Her legend will now walk before her.
The man in the doorway grunts in his troubled sleep as she stops by him. His smell is unappealing, radiating uncounted days of unwashed existence, his skin pouring forth a litany of scavenged eatings, abusive drinkings, and the legacy of a thousand unprovoked assaults. And yet, and yet, there is a hint about him of a time before the dirt and the self-loathing, a time of family, and children, and a loved wife, lost to fortune’s turn, and kindness, and warmth. For this, he feels the city has punished him. She nudges his face and watches as he struggles into unwelcomed wakefulness, bleary eyes reaching for focus.
The pain accompanies him into consciousness as it always does, his demons gnawing at his sanity as soon as he is aware. Before him is a cat, sleek and silver, she has been fighting and he can see the cruel slashes on her face and side. She is gazing at him steadily with bright hazel eyes, urging him to fight on, lending some of her strength. An unsteady hand reaches out to stroke her, but she gracefully eludes his touch, walking away down the street, swallowed by the darkness and the night.