Excerpt: Midnight

I. I Rain

All his adventures began with rain, it seemed.

The time of day varied, of course, but there was always rain.

It fell relentlessly across the city, turning midday into early evening. The window was spattered with raindrops and bits of muck washed free of the crevices by the downpour. The street looked more like a river, and the people rushed about like drowning rats.

He was glad to be inside, even if he was only going to be so for a few more minutes.

A glance at the clock showed it to be just a minute or so past noon.

It was not a propitious hour for beginning his sorts of adventures. He was a nightwalker—better to begin at noon’s opposite, but no one ever bothered him at his club or knocked upon his door at the stroke of midnight.

No, they bothered him at noon while the sun was still high, even if today it was mostly buried by the incessant rainclouds.

Stifling a sigh, Devlin sat up straighter in his chair and gave one last look at the rain and frantic people outside. He signaled the steward to bring him a brandy, for to judge by the expression on Crochton’s face he was going to need it.

Crochton made his way slowly across the parlor room of the fashionably shabby club that was Devlin’s second-best sanctuary. He preferred his home, but even an aspiring hermit needed a change of pace once in a while.

Especially when said hermit kept finding himself besieged by social obligations and nightmarish adventures despite all efforts to be a boring hermit. Such obligation and nightmares were in the family tradition, however, so he supposed avoiding them was an endeavor doomed to failure.

The club was simply done up, leather and velvet and dark woods, made to look worn and aged and comfortable at great expense. Men quietly played cards in one corner, while others argued over some article in the rags at another, still others scattered about in ones and twos to read or talk or simply sit in peace and cozy company.

As Crochton crossed the room, every man to the last looked up to watch his progress with not nearly as much subtlety as they liked to believe. Furtive whispers started up the moment he’d passed the first table, eyes shifting from Crochton to Devlin and back again.

Crochton was old, but not yet decrepit. At seventy three, given the life he had led, he looked better than could be expected. He’d lost one eye to a nasty bit of magic at the age of forty; it was completely black, mostly useless now, a stark contrast to the emerald green of his remaining good eye. His hair had been white since he was twenty, or so he’d once told Devlin. Very little of it remained now. The lines and scars and wrinkles carved into his skin told stories no man should have had to live through. He limped, favoring his right leg, a legacy leftover from besting four hungry goblins.

If he looked half so good when he was Crochton’s age, Devlin often thought, he would count himself most fortunate.

He doubted he would live that long, however.

Someone whispered ‘the Mad Duke’ a trifle too loudly. Devlin simply look at him, and his table of cohorts, until they all paled and found something else to look at.

All the whispers, all the rumors, and a new one cropped up every time Crochton visited him.

If the bloody fools knew the reality, they would be too terrified to speak. They would likely never know how much of what they said was true. For their sakes, he hoped they did not, but the odds were high that at least one man in the room would someday become aware of the nightwalker world around him.

One man watched the scene with the same dry amusement as Devlin would normally exhibit. A vampire, one with whom Devlin was briefly acquainted. He lifted his glass of seeming wine in greeting as they briefly locked gazes. Devlin nodded, then returned his attention to Crochton, who slowly lowered himself into the nearest armchair.

“Crochton,” Devlin greeted. “What in the bloody hell are you doing out in this rain?” He knew it made Crochton’s aches and pains all the worse, and it was a bad day for a spry young man to attempt any manner of travel.

“White,” Crochton said in reply. “Finding you, you bloody fool. Why can’t you ever be at home when I go to find you?”

Devlin shrugged. “Why do you always try there first? Learn from your errors, Crochton. I am home at night, when not being made to work. Otherwise, I like to keep the natives restless.” He flicked a taunting smirk at a table of whisperers, who flinched or startled and hastily went back to their cards.

Crochton snorted. “Your lot never could behave worth a damn.”

“Now, that’s certainly not true,” Devlin said idly, sipping his brandy. “Most of my remaining family recently departed for the new world. Some rot about starting a new, clean coven.” He sneered in contempt. “Purists afraid of the dark. Only the elder of my sisters and I remain now, should anyone decide to accuse us of being witches and start the bonfires.”

“You are witches.”

“That does not mean they have to start burning us over it,” Devlin said. “Burning just gets our blood up, and then we are obliged to bear grudges.”

“As I said,” Crochton said dryly, “the Whites never could behave worth a damn.”

Devlin shrugged again. “Misbehavior suits me ever so much better, do you not agree?”

Crochton shook his head, but his one good eye sparkled with mirth.

Finishing his brandy, Devlin motioned. “So tell me about the disaster in which I am shortly to become embroiled. I had just been thinking my life had lapsed into far too ominous a silence. Your arrival is not entirely surprising.”

“Indeed,” Crochton said, grunting in further amusement. The levity faded, however, as he continued speaking. “Draugr, we think,” Crochton said, green eye sharpening to a hawk like focus. “It has not been confirmed yet, but that is my conclusion from what we do know.”

“Your conclusion is worth much,” Devlin murmured, a knot forming in his gut.

Draugr …

He called for another brandy and glanced idly at the scars on the back of his hand.

When the normal people of the world were bold enough to ask, he told them a wild animal had bitten him, on a hunting trip gone horribly and amusingly wrong.

If on occasion one of them knew enough to know it was no animal which put the marks on his hand, they were at least smart enough not to press further.

Fellow nightwalkers knew better than to ask.

“Hmm,” he said at last, frowning. “How is that possible? One or two would not require my presence. They are annoying, but a trifling, really. Rare is the occasion such as the one we shared years ago. Many of the nightwalkers could deal with a walking dead without much trouble, if any at all. The goblins would simply make a stew of the bloody things. To seek me out, the problem must be far more than it seems.”

Crochton nodded.

“Why isn’t Lord Tamor handling the affair himself? Is it not his territory?”

“Outside his territory, actually. It is, in fact, at the far north edge of the vampire territory.”

Devlin swore. “Bloody hell. That’s dragon country.”

“Not close enough for them to trouble themselves,” Crochton said, the slightest hint of bitterness in his old, cracking voice. “The vampires refuse demon interference, and I’m certain I need not tell you why. You were the compromise.”

“Always happy to be of service,” Devlin murmured, feeling anything but.

“I do not see why you are being petulant about this,” Crochton said. “Draugr are a simple enough matter for you, especially if you take—”

“I am not taking him,” Devlin said sharply, giving Crochton a look that brooked no argument.

Crochton harrumphed but did not press the point.

“So give me the whole of it,” Devlin continued.

“Thirteen have appeared so far, at least that is all that we have been told. More have likely risen since our last missive, and those have been few and far between—purely by average means, rather than magical.”

Devlin shrugged. “That is not necessarily a cause for alarm.”

“I know it,” Crochton said irritably. “One never knows, however. Do not get cocky around me, boy.”

“I am no boy,” Devlin replied coolly. “Thirty three puts me a bit beyond that particular epithet.”

“Hmph!” Crochton said, thumping the arm of his chair. “You are forty years younger than I, that makes you a boy in my book.”

“Thirteen so far,” Devlin pressed, getting them back to the matter at hand.

“Yes,” Crochton said, still glaring. “Seven from a graveyard. Two reached enormous size, and three were far too close to becoming proper beasts.” He looked at Devlin grimly. “Five were most definitely from the sea.”

Devlin made a face and drank his brandy. Finishing it, he set the glass down sharply and called the steward. “Pen and paper, now.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“Thirteen,” Devlin said. “Likely more. What on earth connects them?”

“Nothing,” Crochton said tersely. “The graveyard ones were from seven separate, completely unrelated families. Not even third cousins in common. The rest are anyone’s guess, though five being from the sea, they are most likely sailors.”

Devlin nodded. Sea Draugr had only seaweed for heads—to be strictly accurate, it was seaweed wrapped round and round a skull, but all anyone ever saw was the seaweed. There was no chance of identifying who the draugr might have been while alive, but most often they were lost sailors anyway, so the point was moot.

“Tomorrow is the full moon.”

“I know,” Devlin said. “I am sending word to my home, then I will leave immediately. Do I need to keep Lord Tamor apprised? I do hope you brought me directions, instructions, whatever all else I may need.”

Crochton did not dignify the latter half of his statement with an answer, merely handed over a packet of papers. “He did not explicitly say so.”

Devlin nodded and tucked the papers inside his own jacket, smoothing the deep blue velvet as he withdrew his hand. “Then tell him he will have the full of the tale when I have reached its end.”

The steward chose that moment to arrive with the requested pen and paper.

Taking them, Devlin wrote swiftly, waiting impatiently for the ink to dry. When it had, he closed the letter and dripped wax upon it, then sealed it with his signet ring. It bore his family crest, a single, intricate snowflake.

A footman stood waiting in the entryway with his greatcoat. Devlin murmured his thanks, allowing the footman to help him into it. Accepting his hat and gloves, he grimaced and finally threw himself out into the rain.

It did not take but a moment to slide into his waiting carriage, but it was long enough for the water to slap his face and muck to find its way to his boots.

Still, the inside of the carriage was warm and dry, and he hopefully would not have too long a journey.

Pulling out the packet of papers, he smoothed them out and began to read.

Well, so much for a short journey. The city marked was at least three hours away, and in this weather he would be lucky if the carriage did not wind up mired in some wretched mud hole.

Pulling back the curtain, he leaned out just long enough to bellow instructions to the driver, smirking in amusement at the squawk of outrage that brought.

Settling back, he continued to read over the papers.

The sound of movement, and the scent of amaranth, drew his head up.

On the opposite bench sat a beautiful woman. In the dark of the carriage, her features were not clear, but he knew them anyway. Her skin was fashionably pale, hair as black as pitch, with eyes of deepest blue. She was unfashionably tall and imposing for a woman, but a diamond of the first water in appearance, and the envy of thousands for it. Witty, charming, and too clever by far for anyone’s peace of mind.

Though she looked not a day over twenty, she was nearly five hundred years old.

She held out her hand, and Devlin accepted it, dropping a brief kiss on the back. “Consort,” he greeted. “As perfect as ever.”

Lady Violet laughed. “Lord White, I came to thank you for agreeing to lend us your services. I am certain you and Midnight—”

“Midnight is not coming,” Devlin said coolly. “I am being sent to rid a village of draugr.”

“Which is why he would be most useful,” Lady Violet said with a faint frown. “I do not understand.”

Devlin shook his head. “I will not force him to kill his own kind.”

“Midnight is wholly unique.”

“I cannot be certain how seeing them will affect him,” Devlin said. “That is the end of the matter.”

Lady Violet bowed her head in a graceful nod. “Of course. I will leave you to it then, Lord White, and hope that all goes well. Call me if you are in need of assistance. The vampires snarl, but they will not go too far.”

“I am certain I can manage a few draugr,” Devlin said calmly. “My best to you and our estimable demon lord.”

“Ta,” Lady Violet said and vanished as quietly as she had appeared.

Devlin shook his head, and glanced out at the rain again. It was growing worse with no sign of improvement on the horizon. He felt a pang of guilt for the coachman, who must endure the foul weather directly for the next three hours.

Reaching into his jacket, into the special pockets he had put into each one he owned, he withdrew a small drawstring bag of black crushed velvet. Pulling it open, he then paused.

Closing his eyes, he focused—on the driver, the carriage, the weather, the journey’s start and its end. He focused on the cold, the wet, the misery and illness both could bring. Then he focused on driving those negativities back, imagining a wall between them and his driver and carriage so long as the journey continued.

Eyes still closed, he reached into the crushed velvet bag and extracted the three objects which felt warmest to his touch, and came immediately to his fingers.

Pulling them out, he opened his eyes and let out a soft sigh of satisfaction—the runes had drawn true.

“Let it be,” he said softly, and cast the runes on the floor of the carriage.

Light shimmered and spread along the carriage, radiating from the runes in a pattern that almost resembled a spider’s web, fading away gradually as the spell sank in.

Bending, Devlin retrieved his runes. His sister, the one remaining on this side of the world anyway, preferred to work in the more modern spell circles. They were more reliable, but also more difficult and dangerous.

They also required space, time, and greater privacy, since any normal person who caught her drawing spell circles would start the bonfire straight away.

Not to say rune casting was any safer; runes were capricious, too often unpredictable. Rune casting required trusting that sometimes the runes knew better than the caster, but also accepting that sometimes the caster was not casting properly. Knowing how to tell the difference was what made it dangerous.

He rubbed a thumb over the runes still gripped lightly in his hand.

As always, they made him think of Midnight. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell the driver to turn back, take him home first.

Dark, however, was hours away yet. Midnight was still sleeping. That aside, to alter the journey in such fashion would break the spell he had just cast.

He’d meant what he said, anyway. He did not want Midnight brought in to this affair.

Since coming into his care almost fifteen years ago, and after he had come of age, Midnight had proven an invaluable assistant. But no matter the spells, Midnight was still a walking dead. There was no telling how being around other draugr would affect him.

Devlin did not want either of them to wind up regretting what might come to pass.

He did, however, sorely miss Midnight’s gentle presence. Having him along always made these outings more adventure and less nightmare.

For more reasons than he was comfortable contemplating.

He looked again at his runes.

They were simple, plain, as all true and proper runes were. Carved from bone, the marks were deep and they were always warm to his touch, growing warmer still when employed.

This set had been made for him the day of his birth, crafted by his father, who had also been a rune master.

Returning two to the bag, he held the last one to his lips and kissed it lightly, whispering a soft prayer. He returned it to the bag as well, and replaced the bag in his jacket.

Settling back until he was as comfortable as it was possible to be in a carriage, Devlin closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep. He did not doubt he would require all his energy and alertness upon his arrival. Experience had taught him that adventures never waited for him to be ready.

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