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Darkness was an old friend. It wrapped him in shadow deeper than night and hung on him like a blanket on a cage, hiding him from prying eyes or accidental glances. And darkness was in his nature, in a strange sort of way, though it hadn't always been.
There had been a time when he wasn't cloaked in the colour of night, when his idea of a good time had involved less skulking and sneaking and fewer risks, or at least risks of a different nature. When he had believed in the innate goodness of people in general, though he really should have known better. His eyes had been opened to that fallacious concept, and not too long ago, either.
Whether it was too late or not was another question entirely, but he would never know if he didn't take the chance.
The wind whistled outside the windows, slashing rough and cold through the skeletons of trees gone dormant in preparation for the winter that fast approached. The sound alone made him shiver, or so he told himself. Better to shake from anticipation of the coming season than to admit even to himself that he was afraid.
It wasn't the sort of fear to freeze a man in his tracks, nor yet the variety that might cause one to reconsider. It was still fear, but there was a certain sense of thrill wrapped up in it, some biological function of adrenaline that urged him on. It spoke to his primal mind, a sort of this can be done and you're the one to do it, or something equally senseless but inescapable. And he would do it.
He would do it or...well, not die trying. There was little chance that he'd be so lucky, if caught. And that was the part that gave him some small bit of pause, but it was too late to back out. Too late to make other arrangements. There was no time, and he knew it better than anyone else.
The wind screamed again, rattling the glass this time, and he moved, shaken from his thoughts by the sense of time passing and the knowledge that he had a job to do.
He had one shot at it. Only one. He'd played out the plan in his mind at least a thousand times. It would work, or at least it could work.
He had one shot. He wouldn't screw it up, either. Not if he could help it.
Careful steps along the darkened hallway, senses sharp and aware. His unwitting hosts believed he'd left-headed into what passed as a town for a bit of fun. That lie would be useless if he were seen where he wasn't supposed to be.
He had no doubt that he could concoct some other story, should he be found before he'd penetrated too deeply, but that would mean he'd failed. With less than another twenty-four hours in his current location, this was it. All or nothing.
The darkness seemed to breathe around him as he closed in on the end of the hall, though it was only his imaginationâ€”and perhaps his own heart beating. It was the tension singing through his veins that made it seem so, he was sure.
The last door on the right was his goal. The last door before the hallway ended in a T and would force him to go one way or the other, through better-lit passages towards either more public areas or the private and guarded wing belonging to the family. Neither of those two options worked for what he was doing.
The hinges of the last door on the right barely whispered steel-on-steel when he opened the door slowly and slipped inside, but he hadn't expected anything else. He'd oiled the metal himself the night before, when he'd been invited to the small family gathering in the private wing. Fifteen seconds was all it had taken. Fifteen seconds to drizzle unguent over too-tight hinges, then discard the small squeeze bottle in the vase nearby.
The cleaning staff changed the flowers every three days. Even if he couldn't collect the proof of his passage later, by the time they emptied that particular vase, he would be well away from the complex, and even the entire country. And it still would never be traced back to him, but he didn't like the thought that some innocent servant might be blamed. Assuming there was such a thing as an innocent servant, of course, but even if there wasn't, no servant would be guilty of what he was about to do.
He allowed himself one brief, relieved breath once he'd closed the door behind him. He didn't lean against it, though he wanted to. In a building the age and size of the one he was currently ghosting his way through, even the stress-creak of an old wooden door might give him away. The security personnel weren't hapless, after all. They were simply set in their ways and unaware that he'd been watching them, learning their routines.
Thin leather soles made quick work of moving stealthily around the edges of the room and he pushed past the hanging velvet curtain that hid the closet enclosure. The first time he'd been in the room, the dust from the curtain had made him sneeze for nearly ten minutes, but that had been almost a month earlier. Either the dust had redistributed itself or he'd become used to it. Nobody, it seemed, used the closet in the largely neglected, oddly shaped room that had possibly been somebody's study, once. Nobody seemed to use the study at all, for that matter, as it held old, broken furniture and lamps. He didn't know why those things were being kept, but it wasn't his business.
He'd stayed in this very complex, years earlier, when he'd been but a child. Somewhere between other places his family's travels had taken them. He'd hidden in the same closet he'd just entered, a time or two back then. And being a boy with dreams and a ridiculous desire for adventures as fascinating as those he'd seen on screens and in books, he'd looked for the unexpected and had found it.
He had never mentioned the secret passageway from the grim, neglected room, and now that he was making use of it to fulfil his obligations, he never would.
The hidden entry made a small whine when he flipped the tiny toggle that triggered its opening, but it was such a subtle sound that he didn't worry. He'd barely heard it himself, after all, so there was little chance that anyone else might have. Even so, he waited thirty seconds, just in case, though he didn't know how on earth he would explain even being there, much less the soundless hinges on the door to the hall. When nothing changed, he stepped inside the passageway, ducking his head to clear the lintel, and pushed the panel behind him closed carefully.
A laugh fought for freedom when the red-lensed flashlight he'd brought showed him that the candle he'd used to wander the passageway so many years earlier still sat beside the wall, along with the old disposable lighter he'd discovered in one of the cars while playing one day. What had he been thinking, running around in the guts of a sprawling building of wood and stone with an open flame?
Still, it was a good sign that nobody had discovered the hidden secrets of the place. Not that he'd really expected anyone would, but the candle and lighter-along with the absence of any fresh footprints in the dust on the floor-had him feeling more hopeful. He left the detritus of his childhood behind, moving slowly through the passages he knew.
Straight ahead, sixty steps, though it had been eighty when he was younger. He saw the bent nail that had caused the little scar on his ribs and smiled, though he didn't have time for strolling down memory lane. The nail was only waist-high now.
He turned left a few feet later when the passageway branched, then went straight on, being very quiet now, his red beam trained at the floor less than a foot in front of him. He was behind the entry to the family wing, and the guards weren't likely to think any sounds he made were anything more than mice, or possibly rats. To the best of his recollection, the walls in this area were on the thin side.