C. Allen Exline

C. Allen Exline is a single father and full-time college student in North Carolina, where he was born and raised, and where he works at the oldest law firm in the state.

C. Allen Exline is a single father and full-time college student in North Carolina, where he was born and raised, and where he works at the oldest law firm in the state.

Darkly with the Shadows

They say the world used to have only one moon.

I wonder if this is true, or whether it is just another of the old wives’ tales they tell you, one of the many myths which surround the past. I shake my head, staring into the night. It does not matter, I realize. It’s irrelevant. What matters is now. What matters is tonight, under the twin luminaries of Vox and Nox—the voice and the night. The sky appears angry.

I feel the grit beneath my boots and smell the urban stench that forever billows up from the undercity. I feel my perspiration as it clings to the heavy cloth of my garments and threatens to sting my eyes with salt. I feel the stagnancy of the air, so calm, so balmy; it is almost like oil, slicking all beneath the celestial sphere, which glows with a wan blue light almost as bright as the moons.

I draw one last breath. The time is now. It can be no other.

The first man goes down quiet, just a dull wet thud. No one notices.

The second man sees me. Recognition dawns upon his face. The briefest moment of knowing, and yet he will wear that expression into eternity. He is dead before he can even scream, before he can cry out for his gods, or against them, to rail against his fate. He is dead before he can warn his fellows, who still pace the grounds, who wear ruts into the ancient flagstones that betray their paths.

Two sentries remain.

My heart is a hammer stamping out the seconds in my ears. I grip the hilt of my sword and I swear to myself. I swear. And they fall.

The next man is dead before his face breaks upon the ground. But the last is alert, more so than these oblivious dolts who would not have caught a vagrant sneaking into their demesne. He goes for his blade, but that is all. He dies with honor, with his hand firmly gripping a weapon, even if it does remain in its scabbard. His head tumbles from his shoulders to roll into the gutter.

I open the gates and step forth.

With a gauntleted hand I signal the waiting soldiers. They creep forth from the shadows, pale and resplendent in their armor. Once they see I have won they rush past in rust-colored livery. It is almost purple in this light. Their armor clanks as they pass. The rest is up to them. My part has been played.

Once they are well within the gates I take care that I am not observed. I glance suspiciously over my shoulder before I withdraw my magic amulet, which governs the doors. I step into the passage and seal it shut behind me. The tunnels are long and dark as sleep, yet they are safe. None know them but me. So I sheathe my sword and make my way in blindness. I consider producing the witchlight from the folds of my cloak, but I refrain. It’s okay, for I have memorized the way. It isn’t far.

I come to the proper hatch and I open it with caution, peering about to make sure no one has seen. I have had enough killing for one night.

All is clear. I emerge, sealing the passage behind me. I must always seal it, lest another might discover the way. The way is my edge. And a sword is only as valuable as its edge.

I am in a great hall. Columns climb into the gloom of a great, vaulted ceiling high above. Pilasters stand like stone ribs against the wall. All is distorted by writhing shadow. I walk into this grand chamber and notice the row of barred windows high up the far wall. Lightning flickers there. Perhaps the gods are angry. I would not know; I do not speak with them.

Each flash throws bars of purple light upon the columns, for the windows are glazed with a roseate hue. It is by this intermittent radiance that I navigate, until I reach the chamber’s end. There Gustabbian Ward sits alone at his desk. It is a lonely escritoire, with a single candle placed upon it to banish the darkness in fits of quivering light.

For a few moments I watch my friend from the privacy of the relative gloom, outside the narrow circle of light offered by his candle. He writes upon a long scroll, occasionally dipping the point of his quill into a jar of ink. Every so often he sprinkles sand upon his work. I decide to interrupt him.

I call his name and he looks up, startled. “Who’s there?” he calls, groping for a dagger that rests upon his desk.

“It is done,” I tell him.

“How did you get in here?”

“I have my methods. You know that, Gus. That is why you hire me, is it not?”

Gustabbian neglects to answer. “My men have entered the demesne?”

“Yes. They are there now. I had no need to wait, did I? I have no interest vested in their success.”

Gustabbian pauses for several moments, not moving, not speaking. He is occupied with thought. Then he moves as if to stand, but stops himself, saying, “Why do you not step forward, into the light?”

It is a suggestion.

As he speaks another charge of lightning throws a bright velvet cast upon the cavernous room, lining my helmet with vivid color. He sees this. His eyes play over the dusky impression of the colossal column against which I stand. “Why don’t you come out?” he says.

“Very well,” I say, stepping into the candlelight. “Where is my pay?”

“I may have another job for you.” Gustabbian rises to his feet, gripping his quill pen with a firm but delicate grip. He peers within the shade of my helmet, where he knows my eyes to be, though they are veiled in darkness to be revealed only in the lightning flashes. I prefer to keep it that way.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Oh, pretty much along the usual lines for you, Castor.”

“Specifically?”

“Well, now.” He spreads his arms wide in a gesture of inclusion. “I would prefer some guarantee, my friend, before I put forward such elements as are vital to my plans.”

“You have been in this basement too long, Gus. I will offer no guarantee. Tell me the job and I will consider it, or simply pay me and I will leave.”

“You know I am hesitant in my dealings with Heretics.”

“I know you are hesitant in your dealings with those you do not control.”

“Is pay not a form of control?”

“It’s not if I do not accept the job.”

“Touché.”