6 Nights of Midnight – 5 – The Sharp Touch of Shadows

The kid from Shanghai likes to call himself Duke.  He doesn’t realize the name’s already been taken.  He’s been in Midnight only two nights.  He doesn’t really understand what happened.  He’d been running, yes, and hiding, but he never meant to disappear with such finality.

He sticks to the shadows.  It’s easy to do so in the City of Night, which is almost all dark and murk.  He listens a lot.  Not everyone here speaks English.  Some of them know no more than he does about this place.

He speaks only a little English himself, mostly what he learned watching old movies with his mom.  She loved American westerns.  She loved private eyes but hated war films.  She never let him watch war films, not even with ones with John Wayne.

He found himself here with no money, but with a knife, a long sharp blade he’d stolen when he was thirteen.  It feels like forever ago.


In the light of a candle, which flickers and dances despite that the air is still, an old, old man, originally from Chengdu, sits at a thick wood table.  He has tea, the surface of which reveals secrets to him.  He has a single sheet of quality paper.  He has brushes and ink.  He wears only a frown.**

Duke, a name he stole, used the knife his first night in Midnight.  There was a lot of blood, but he’s crafty, he knows how to position himself to avoid any spray.  He wiped the blade clean on the woman’s jeans, took her money, and bought himself some hot meat and cold drink.  There was enough left over for a piece of bread.

He’s hungry again.  But he’s smart.  You can’t just grab anyone.  He’d lost the gun while he was running, or lost it while hiding, so he has to go after easy prey.  No one too big.  No one with anyone else.  No one who didn’t look easy to take.  He is thin, not muscular; he is fast, but tired.  And the chemicals that had been fueling him are mostly gone.  He feels anxious.  Mad.  Fearful.  He paces in the shadows.  He wanders.  He needs something strong, and he will kill for it, but he has to find it.

First: money.  There, that girl, she looks like an easy target.  She’s walking slow.  Carelessly.  Recklessly.  Perfect.


The old, old man touches brush to paper, spreading ink in deliberate arcs and lines, in precise control of the breadth and length of every stroke.  The first, as always, is most difficult, and the candle flame nearly goes out.  It is a broad first stroke.


Duke falters.  It’s a spasm, runs down the length of his arm.  It’s an effort to keep his fist closed around the handle of the knife.  The girl, alerted, doesn’t run.  She kicks him in the balls.  She screams–no, she shrieks.  Attracts attention.  If there’s one thing you don’t want in the shadows, it’s attention.

He runs.  He ignores the pains.  He ignores the cravings and the sheen of sweat and the shakes starting inside him.

It’s a long alley.  The girl continues to shriek.  Other eyes appears in the dark, in the windows and crevices.  As he runs, his left leg suddenly bends sideways, as though he has no control over it.  He nearly tumbles.  He does crash into the bricks.  He tightens his grip on the knife and cries out a string of Chinese curses.


The old, old man is nearly done with this single new character.  It takes a whole sheet of paper.  It’s a work of art, a symbol never before created.  He would never admit it, but it’s magnificent.  He pauses before applying the final line of ink.  He looks to the tea, and he frowns, and he guides the brush back to the paper.  The symbol, when complete, unites two others: shadow and sword.


The shrieking still hasn’t subsided.  His ears hurt, his arm tingles, his leg burns.  But he’s got control of himself again.  Full use of his limbs.  The happy, hungry knife.  His vision’s a little off; everything’s got a sickly yellow tint.  The shadows seem thicker.  Sharper.  Alive.

The shadow hits Duke hard in the chest, taking his breath, breaking his ribs.  The shadow is solid, and looming, and all about him.  The eyes reflect the light of a single distant candle.  Its movements sound like metal.

Duke lunges with his knife, cutting shadow–which is to say, having no effect.  The shadow draws back its own blade, longer and sharper and older and more traditional, and thrusts it through Duke’s chest, piercing his heart.  The sword and shadow dissolve into dark and murk.  Duke, no longer able to hear the girl’s unending shrieks, catches the barest glimpse of an old, old man in the light of a quickly fading candle.  Duke hits his knees.  He closes his eyes.  Shadow embraces him.


The old, old man drinks his tea, glances briefly at the leaves, and shakes his head sadly.  He picks up the paper.  The wet ink still glistens.  He touches the edge of it to the candle and holds the paper while it transmutes into ash.


June 19, Thunderstorm Books starts accepting pre-orders for Once Upon a Time in Midnight.

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