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Shadow Prowlerby Aleksey Pehov
Night is the best time for my kind. When I appear in the street, ordinary people have long been asleep in their warm, soft beds. Old drunks out drinking late wont brave the citys impenetrable darkness. No, they would rather spend an uncomfortable night in a tavern.
Night. Silence. Only the hollow echo of the municipal guard patrols footsteps bounce off the walls of the old houses and ripple on along Avendooms dark streets, dead and empty until morning.
The soldiers hurry along, walking quickly. In the darkest alleyways they break into a run. I can easily understand how these valiant servants of the law feel: no, its not people theyre afraid ofany madcaps who might summon up the impudence to attack the guardians of public order will be given short shrift with their heavy battle-axes. What makes them afraid is something else. There are other creatures lurking in the shadows of the stone buildings. Creatures that creep out into the open at this uneasy hour for their nocturnal hunt. And may Sagot help the men ofthe watch if those vile beasts are feeling hungry.
The shades of night are a refuge for all: for the good townsfolk, fearfully hiding themselves away from dangerous men; for the petty thieves whose one wish is to clean out the respectable citizens purses as quickly as possible; for the robbers just waiting for a chance to make use of their knives. And, of course, for the demons living in those dark shades, who are only too happy to prey on good citizens, petty thieves, and robbers alike.
Fortunately, I have yet to run into the demons who have appeared in the city since the Nameless One began stirring in the Desolate Lands after centuries of calm. And thats why Im still alive.
Shortly after they pass me, the watchmens footsteps fade into silence on the next street.
On the orders of Baron Frago Lanten, the head of Avendooms municipal guard, all patrols have been tripled in strength. The rumor is that the artifact that has until now held the Nameless One in the Desolate Lands is weakening, and soon he will burst through into our world from that icy desert covered with eternal snow. War is approaching, no matter how hard the Order of Magicians and the multitudes of priests try to put it off. Its simply a matter of time. Six months, or perhaps a yearand then all those things they used to frighten us with when we were children will be upon us. The Nameless One will gather together an army and come to us from behind the Needles of Ice, and the horror will begin. Even here, in the capital, you sometimes come across devotees of the Nameless One. And Im far from certain that the Wild Hearts of the Lonely Giant Fortress will be able to hold back the hordes of ogres and giants. . . .
Once again I have gone unnoticed. My thanks to the shadow of night. The shadow is my helpmate, my lover, my companion. I hide inside her, I live with her, and she is the only one always ready to shelter me, to save me from the arrows, from the swords that flash balefully in the moonlit night, and the bloodthirsty, golden eyes of the demons. No one else cares for Harold . . . maybe Brother For.
"Shadow is the sister of darkness," says Brother For, Sagots kindly priest. And where there is darkness, the Nameless One is never far away.
What absolute nonsense! The Nameless One and the shadow? Entirely different things. You might as well compare an ogre and a giant. The shadow is life, freedom, money, and reputation. Shadow Harold knows about such things firsthand. For a shadow to appear there has to be at least a scintilla of light, and to compare it with darkness is stupid, to say the least. But of course, I dont tell my old teacher that. You dont go teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.
Its quiet. So quiet you can hear the moths scrabbling at the coolness of the night with their fragile little wings. Its a long time now since the watch patrol passed me and its high time for me to be going about my business, but somehow Im feeling extracautious to night. . . . Some premonition makes me remain in cover, beside the wall of the building that is submerged in gloom.
There were no suspicious sounds to be heard in that narrow little street with the old stone houses that could remember the old Quiet Times. Nothing but a painted tin sign above the bakers shop creaking in the faint wind. The slow-stirring grayish yellow mist for which our capital is famous lay thick across the rough stone paving of the road, chipped and battered by the cart wheels. They say the mist was a trick played by some half-trained wizard back in the distant past. But ever since then not one of the kingdoms archmagicians has been able to rid the city of the consequences of his innocent prank.
The silence alarms me. The only place that is ever this quiet is a rich mans vault after a visit from one of the citys bands of petty thieves.
The signboard creaks, the light wind swirls merrily, clouds drift lazily across the night sky. But I stand there, fused with the shadow of the building, trying not to move a muscle. My intuition and my experience of life compel me to listen to the night silence of the city. No street, not even the most deserted, could be as dead as this.
There should be sounds in the night. Rats rustling in the garbage. A drunk snoring away beside them, his pockets cleaned out by thieves who are already sheltering for the night in some dark, narrow hidey-hole. The sound of snoring from the windows of the gray houses. A dirty dog sneaking through the darkness. The heavy breathing of a novice thief lying in wait for his victim, clutching his knife in a palm sweaty from excitement. Sounds from the shops and workshopseven at night the laborious work continues in some of them. But there was none of this in the dark little street wreathed in its shroud of mist. There was nothing but silence, gloom, and a thickening atmosphere of danger.
The carefree, roistering wind ruffled my hair affectionately, but I didnt dare raise my hood. Some insistent hand seemed to hold me back.
Sagot! What is happening on this quiet little street of artisans?
In answer to my prayer the glorious god of all thieves seemed to make my hearing keener.
Footsteps. Hasty footsteps that even the creeping yellow-gray froth of the mist had failed to deaden. In a recess in the wall of the house opposite, I spotted a momentary flicker in the darkness.
Had someone else decided to hide here?
I peered hard into the ink-black night. No. Id imagined it. I was too much on edge, anticipating non ex is tent problems. I must be getting old.
Meanwhile the footsteps grew louder and louder. The sounds came from the street into which the municipal guard patrol had turned only a few minutes earlier. I froze and tried to merge even deeper into the shadow, while the phantom of danger circled indolently above my head.
A man came round the bend at a fast walk, almost a run, and made straight for me. He had to be a fool or a brave man to be roaming through the darkness alone. Most likely a fool. Brave men dont live long in our world. But then, neither do fools, unless they work as jesters for our glorious king.
The stranger was coming closer. Tall and well dressed, even wealthy looking, his hand resting on the hilt of a rather good sword.
Once again clouds crept across the sky, covering the stars, and the gloom that was already total became absolutely impenetrable. Even when he drew level with me, I couldnt make out the strangers face, although he was so close that if Id wanted, I could have reached out my hand and lifted the bulging purse off his belt. But Im n
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