The Crimson Sword
Midnight shadows filled the forest, spectral images born of moonlight filtering
through a thicket of gnarled oak and shagbark hickory, of pine and spruce, of
ferns and fronds and slithering ivy. Upon the ground, dark profiles weaved and
merged, gathered over twigs and needles in a series of dry pools. Once puddled,
the darkness shifted in silent ripples, mimicking the languid motion of branches
and leaves swaying overhead in a late summer breeze.
the edge of one such pool, standing just within the sifted radiance of a pale
moon, a mouse lifted its head to sniff the scented air. Whiskers wriggled atop
its nose, brushing the air with ceaseless anticipation. Its heart beat
furiously within its chest. The creature glanced quickly to one side, then the
other, then looked back to the small grain seed clutched in its paws. Once,
twice, it nibbled experimentally, turning the morsel over, testing it from
either end. Finally, it cast the seed aside and reached for another.
sudden shadow fell over it. The mouse squealed as iron talons pierced its
flesh, a sharp squeak of fear and surprise. Before it could draw another
breath, its chest collapsed beneath a crushing grip as it was hoisted free of
the earthen floor.
owl bore its twitching meal skyward, winging its way through a labyrinth of dark
Shadow watched the owl's flight and remained hidden, eyes and ears probing the
darkness. But the attack had been perfect. Almost immediately, the shrill
echoes of the mouse's cry were lost to the wind, and what remained of life
within the forest went about its business without notice or concern. The Shadow
permitted itself a private smile. Perfect.
detached itself from its concealment then, peeling from the trunk of a nearby
birch like a strip of bark. It cast north and south, crouched low, searching
for a response to its movement. Detecting none, it resumed course, a shimmer
amid the trees. Like the owl, it flew upon wings of death, slipping through the
foliage without a whisper to mark its passing. Rodents scurried from its path;
trees shuddered in a gust of wind. Made anxious by its ghostly presence, nature
recoiled, finding safe quarter from which to watch and wait out the trespasser's
helped the Shadow to think in such exaggerated terms, to distance even itself
from its true identity, to imagine itself a creature of supernatural origin and
prowess. It fancied itself a fiend among children, pitiless, as inexorable as
Unhindered, it slid into a copse sprouting from the fringe of the forest. Less
than a hundred paces to the south, down a gently sloping hill, loomed a
forbidding shape, a wall outlined against the night by the pale wash of moon and
stars. The Shadow's gaze swept the wall's surface, a skin ravaged by mosses and
ivy and crumbling mortar seams. Despite its weathered appearance, the stone
structure towered over the land. A trickle of a moat ringed its base, little
more than a stream of sewage headed for the nearby Royal River. Most
importantly, only a single sentinel stood watch upon this section of the
rampart, one who, amazingly enough, appeared to be dozing while leaning upon his
Without further hesitation, the Shadow dashed from its cover, plunging into the
knee-deep prairie grass that carpeted the hillside. It crossed the clearing in
a crouch, leapt the putrid stream, and came to rest against the cold stone of
the castle wall. With only a slight breeze to mark its passing, it need not
have paused to ensure that it had not been spied. But the Shadow wore caution
as a soldier would his heavy armor, a coat of arms enmeshed over limbs and
joints, impossible to remove without concerted effort, and shed not a moment
before the battle was won. Caution shielded against overconfidence, which often
led to mistakes. And in a contest such as this, a single mistake could grant
passage into death's domain. So the Shadow made none.
army of crickets chirped in shrill cadence. Farther off, an owl hooted deep
within the woods. Nearby, the waters of the moat lapped against their earthen
banks. But the Shadow's presence, draped flat against the wall, remained
Secure in this thought, the Shadow turned to face the unyielding stone,
producing a coiled length of slender rope from within its cloak. To one end was
fastened a tiny, three-pronged grapnel, its metal hooks wrapped in cloth to help
quiet any sound and guard against the reflection of light. With deft movements,
the Shadow sent the hook hurtling to the top of the crenellated battlement some
ninety feet overhead. The throw was true. A muffled clank echoed upon the wind
as the hook swung around a crumbling merlon and bit like a serpent into the
Below, the Shadow waited, a tiny crossbow poised to bury its bolt into the
unsuspecting face of any curious sentry. But once again, its caution proved
unnecessary, as a sudden snore broke the near silence.
crossbow vanished, and a pair of daggers appeared. After spinning them in its
fingers, the Shadow placed the blades in its mouth. Seizing the threadlike
rope, the invader tested its hold before beginning to climb.
Shadow breezed up the monstrous structure, running skyward along the wall while
pulling hand over hand upon the rope. Upon reaching the top, the Shadow swung
skillfully between two moss-covered merlons, drew the daggers from its mouth,
and buried each to its hilt in the throat of the oblivious guardsman. Slumping
to the ground within a shadowed alcove, the sentry fell silently into a sleep
from which he would never awake.
Pausing briefly to draw a breath, coil its rope, and retrieve its blades, the
Shadow turned and raced along the battlement, down a flight of lichen-covered
steps, and into the city below.
Closed shops stared with blank expressions as the Shadow passed through the
slumbering marketplace. It knew well the route to take, racing through the
empty business center while avoiding the areas infested at this hour with
drunks, whores, thieves, and various other miscreants. Although more at home
with their type than most others, on this night, the Shadow had other business
with which to attend.
Overhead, scattered clouds hid the moon and stars as they tracked across the
sky. Pools of lamplight were scarce in this sector of the city, and easily
avoided. Though ever mindful of its surroundings and watchful of the darkened
alleys through which it passed, the Shadow hastened its pace.
Within moments, the iron fence encircling the royal palace emerged from behind a
slat-wood building. A pair of watchmen stood before the towering grillwork,
laughing over some obscene gossip about their queen. As it studied the men and
their surroundings, the hidden Shadow considered their raillery with wry
interest. In other nations, speaking such words meant death, but in Alson, half
the rumors about Queen Ellebe were started by King Sorl himself—by the sound of
it, this one included.
in Alson, the Shadow thought, where the king's penchant for lurid tales and
unrestrained revelry was the stuff of legend. It was said that no ruler in
history knew better how to sate the base urges of himself and his exclusive
guests than old King Sorl. His was a large and wealthy land, built on his
father's efforts, and it was not in Sorl's nature to worry about cost or
consequence. Though Alson fell into further ruin with each passing season, the
king demanded that his treasury be kept full, his father's fortune supplemented
from time to time with taxed and stolen treasures in order to fund his
shame he reserved so little of that fortune for the commission of more-competent
the pair of guards erupted into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, the Shadow
stepped forward and slit their throats before they could register its presence.
As it lowered the second guardsman softly to the ground, the Shadow found a
confused expression on the man's stubbled face.
"You're dead," the killer said in a whisper, like that of a dry leaf scraping
across the cobbled street.
soldier's grunt fell from his throat with a choking splash of blood.
that, the Shadow wiped its blade before scampering to the top of the gate and
jumping lightly to the ground beyond. It hit the stone running, and within
moments had reached a structure that dwarfed its surrounding companions.
Despite its size, the tower of King Sorl was by no means magnificent. Once upon
a time, it had been the most splendid structure in Alson, a proud symbol of her
lands and ruler. But now, it more rambled into the night sky than soared, and
was so cracked and weathered that it seemed as if only the clinging ivy kept it
reaching the tower, the Shadow skulked alongside its circular outer wall, making
for the servants' entrance. But the area was heavy with traffic, as the last of
the revelers and food merchants and drug mixers from the night's festivities
headed home or lingered about, not yet ready for the debauchery to end. Most
were too inebriated to give the Shadow pause. Whores giggled and sighed, some
teasing and demure, others open and inviting as they considered last-minute
propositions. But others appeared more cognizant, such as scullery maids
pushing out wagons of refuse and the whoremasters come to collect their fees.
When a trio of guardsmen sauntered over to inspect and then join the commotion,
the Shadow decided to seek another avenue.
Flitting away, the Shadow moved back toward the front of the building, where it
considered the broad flight of steps leading up to the tower's main entrance. A
murky collection of moon and lantern light washed down over the stone, taunting
the Shadow with its ability to expose the darkness, daring it forward.
Shadow cast an ear back toward the side of the tower. The risk, it had begun to
realize, was minimal.
mounting the steps, the Shadow pushed experimentally upon the enormous pair of
doors fronting the structure. They knocked briefly against the crossbar locked
within. Spinning away, the Shadow came to rest against a postern. Hearing
nothing from within, it went to work on the keyhole of the wrought-iron gate
that warded the wooden door beyond. Soon, the tumblers shifted and the latch
released with a click. With the protective grillwork unlocked, the Shadow
reached between its bars for the knocker clinging to the main door.
* * *
Carrus groaned. Realizing that the tapping was not a result of the dreams in
his head, but of a spear butt against his helm, he came awake and slapped at the
intrusion. "What in the Fiend's eye?"
Tehmin snorted and withdrew his spear. He offered a toothy grin as Carrus's
thrashing did little more than knock askew his own helm. "We's got company."
"What?" Carrus finally centered his helm and glared at his fellow guardsman,
who pointed to the receiving door of the main foyer. "Well, run them off
already. What do you need to wake me for?"
"Procedures," Tehmin reminded him, although the man's smirk betrayed the fact
that he had roused his companion for no other reason than to irritate him.
Chuckling at Carrus's muttered curses, Tehmin approached the door and drew back
the viewing slat. His statement of dismissal caught, however, as he gazed past
the bars of the security gate.
is it?" Carrus prompted.
kids." Tehmin slammed shut the viewing slat and turned away. Before he had
taken two steps, the knock sounded again. Spinning about, he tore open the
slat. Someone on the other side of the door gave a low whistle.
Tehmin growled and threw back the locking bar. Behind him, Carrus chuckled.
now, Tehmin. Procedures."
Tehmin ignored him and yanked open the wooden door. As soon as he did, the
security gate flew open as well, and Tehmin doubled over. Carrus stopped
laughing long enough to squint at the shadow that came rushing forward. His
eyes widened as they caught a flash of steel, but before he could so much as
find his voice, Carrus felt his windpipe collapse beneath the shredding tips of
twin daggers. He clutched at his assailant, but might as well have been
grasping at the wind. He felt his muscles stiffen and convulse, heard blood
splatter as he coughed, then watched the world fade.
* * *
Shadow squinted against the torchlight. Ordinarily it would have shuddered at
such a risk, but this mission had become a touch too easy, and having granted
caution its due consideration, the Shadow did not mind adding some excitement to
its task. Now, after positioning the pair of guards in a pretense of slumber
and securing the portal, the Shadow slipped away from the reaches of the
revealing chamber light to the base of a stairway fronting the main hall.
Climbing to the top took a matter of heartbeats, at which point the Shadow chose
one of several side passages and moved cautiously down its length toward a
second set of stairs beyond.
silent efficiency, the Shadow navigated the maze of corridors and stairs that
crisscrossed the interior of the royal palace, winding its way skyward.
Reaching the upper floors proved no difficult task; nor was there any challenge
in locating Sorl's room. The passages were empty of life, and once it had
reached the tower's apex, the Shadow followed the snore of a sentinel to the
king's door. The fool lay on the ground in a drunken slumber, a half-filled mug
of ale leaning dangerously upon his lap. Above his head, a torch burned
gleefully, its light creating strange yet innocuous shadows that helped to make
the lethal one invisible. There were no sounds from within.
guard did not see the glint of steel as the killer's dagger slid from its
sheath. Nor did he see how close the blade came to slitting his throat before
the Shadow shifted and withdrew the weapon, deciding against the spilling of the
man's blood. Let the man try to explain himself in the morning. Let him squirm
before his captain and wish that he had been slain. Let him live to wonder at
and to curse the Shadow's inexplicable mercy.
Smirking to itself, at its ability to play games with fear and death the way
others played with dice, the Shadow shoved the unlocked door fully open.
Without a second glance at the dozing guardsman, the Shadow blew like a stray
gust through the arched opening and into the chambers of Sorl, king of Alson.
door closed silently. Inside, the Shadow found a comfortable sitting room,
complete with a flaming hearth and padded chairs. Clothes and mugs and food
trays littered the otherwise plush landscape. To the left, an empty doorway
opened in on the king's bedchamber.
Sliding along the near wall, the Shadow sheathed its dagger and produced again
its tiny crossbow. It could see the king's slumbering form clearly now, a
mountain beneath rumpled sheets. Surprisingly, the man slept alone, sprawled
upon his back beneath the awning that stretched across brass bedposts, their
curtains drawn back.
Alone, save for his cat.
animal lifted its head as the Shadow crossed the threshold of the bedchamber.
One eye was missing, the scarred lid stretched tight and sewn shut against the
hollow socket. Its good eye glittered while the cat hissed a slow, steady
warning. When the Shadow eased forward, the animal bounded away, scampering
across Sorl's chest before dropping to the floor and vanishing behind a dresser.
its wake, the king woke with a start and jerked upright.
"Who's there?" he coughed.
Pieces of the man's evening feast still nested in his tangled black beard. His
eyes were puffy and shaded. His garments appeared to be those he had worn that
day, stained with gravy and drink and the stench of smoke from feast hall
Shadow offered no response. It stood motionless while Sorl blinked and rubbed
his eyes and cast about for the source of his alarm. After a moment of
searching, Sorl finally saw the Shadow, and he began to tremble as he spied its
weapon, leveled already with deadly aim.
. . . whatever you want—"
shall have," the Shadow whispered.
Sorl's face went pale and he began to cast frantic glances about the room. The
Shadow watched him, reveling in the man's fear. Ironic, that the people of
Alson might actually think the assassin had done their land a service.
People were, after all, shortsighted and foolish.
Realizing his doom, the wide-eyed Sorl finally shrieked a desperate cry for
help. But it was cut short as the lethal bolt leapt from the assassin's
instrument and buried itself in the king's throat, pinning him to his bed.
Awakened by his king's cry, the sentry from the outer hall scurried to his feet
and rushed into the room. Inside, he found Sorl lying in his bed, and unaware
of the small arrow sticking through his lord's bleeding throat, his eyes flew to
the window, where he was certain he saw a man leaping over the stone sill.
sense of duty lured him to the open window, where he poked his face into the
warm night wind and scanned the vista below. After searching in vain for
several moments, the sentry shook his head. Perhaps the old coot had had a
nightmare. Or perhaps the entire episode had been of his own imagination.
yawning guardsman closed the shutters, fumbling with the latch as he blinked
away the odd dream, then wiping at his breeches where he'd spilled his
unfinished ale in his haste to respond. As he stepped from the window,
muttering to himself, the sleeping king behind him made a strange gurgling
sound. The guardsman turned at once. Bowing respectfully as he backed toward
the room's exit, he apologized for disturbing his lord's slumber, nightmare or
my liege. 'Twas merely a shadow."
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