***

The shadows cast by the sky scraping buildings of Aurasen in the evening sun were long and dark. Barely any natural light was left for the last stragglers of the day to rush home before the darkness engulfed the entire city and the night life surfaced from the depths of the Underground to steal the streets once more. Elswhere, along a back alleyway, one such cloaked shadow crept along the wall in the setting sun, apparently unwaware that it was a bit early for him to be slinking. At an intersection with a main street, the shadow halted momentarily, looked quickly from left to right, and then stealthily scurried across the pavement to the haven of the alley on the other side. With increasing ease that spawned from returning to cover from the open, he continued down the alley towards a softly pulsating dusky red glow that emmitted from around a weathered brick corner. There, a scarlet neon sign hung over a recessed staircase and read: Karn's Chalice - Open from Dusk to Dawn, and Happy Hour Somewhere in the Middle.

The gliding shadow glanced once at the sign, nodded slightly, and then made his way down the crumbling stair to a battered steel door and entered, a rusty squawk and a tinkling bell announcing his entry.

"Karn, are you in?" called the shade formally as he extracted himself from his cloak and draped it over his arm.

"'Zat you, Krystoph?" called a gravely voice from somewhere behind the thoroughly polished mahogany bar. "So soon? I wouldn'ta pegged you as an early riser." Karn chuckled and emereged from the back room, a bespectacled, short muscular man in his late fifties carrying a tall glass and a white polishing rag.

"Not normally, Karn," said the shade named Krystoph with a yawn, "but I'm meeting a contact here. One who normally does not emerge after dark."

"Oh, a Daybird. So that explains it."

"Yes, I belive that reason will suffice. You haven't seen her by any chance, have you?"

"No, you're the first one in here." Then Karn stopped polishing for a moment and glanced over his specs, waggling his bushy salt and pepper brows suggestively. "A female, eh? Thinkin' of gettin' lucky?"

Krystoph gave Karn a blank look, who sighed. "You're far too naive, Krys. Nobody would expect an assasin like you to be almost completely devoid of any emotion, much less a sex drive."

"It's my job to be unpredictable," said Krystoph without a trace of humor.

"You'd better hope that this Daybird is as sexually frigid as you are, or you'll be in hot water, buddy," was what Karn wanted to say, but he thought better of it and kept to himself. After all, it was Krystoph's job to be unpredictable. Instead, Karn offered the shade a drink. "Whaddaya want?"

"Something without alchohol, if you please."

Karn snorted at Krystoph saying, "I run a bar, here, Krys. We've nothing but alchohol."

Krystoph turned his cold, dark eyes on Karn. "My senses must be unhindered for this meeting."

The barkeep shivered inwardly at the cold glance from the darkly-clad man at the bar. However, to keep things friendly, he gave a nonchalant shrug and said, "Whatever you'd like, Krys. You're the customer." He retrieved a bottle of a dark carbonated liquid and a chilled glass containing ice and one marinated blood-red chiberry from the back room. "Here."

"My gratitude, Karn."

Krystoph nodded to Karn and made with his drink and cloak to a secluded back table and sat to wait for his contact as the first customers of the night began to trickle through the door.