On the eve of World War Two, Nazi sorcerers come gunning for Cade but kill his family instead. His one path of vengeance is to become an apprentice of The Midnight Front—the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program—and become a sorcerer himself.
Unsure who will kill him first—his allies, his enemies, or the demons he has to use to wield magick—Cade fights his way through occupied Europe and enemy lines. But he learns too late the true price of revenge will be more terrible than just the loss of his soul—and there’s no task harder than doing good with a power born of ultimate evil.
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The night reeked of demons.
Their stench haunted every direction as Nando Cabral fled through wooded hills south of Lemberg, Germany, less than five miles from the French border. He lurched like a drunkard, one hand clamped over the gunshot wound in his left flank. Shafts of moonlight pierced the trees' canopy. Blood pulsed against his palm with each step he took.
He glanced at his pursuers. Blurs of motion, twenty yards away and getting closer.
It was too dark to see their faces, but the young Spaniard knew who they were. He didn't know how they'd found him, but it didn't matter now. Only a handful of spirits were yoked to his bidding, just enough to afflict him with a constant headache. He didn't have the minor legion he'd need to fight one fellow karcist, never mind two. All he could do now was run.
A spectral whip cracked, spitting green fire as it ripped bark from the trees to his left. The enemy was upon him. All hope of reaching France abandoned, Nando turned and steeled himself for battle. His foes moved like wraiths, over a dozen meters apart.
To split my focus, Nando reasoned. With a thought he dispatched two demons normally tasked with divination to be his sentries. Then he used another spirit's gifts to make himself invisible — a delaying tactic at best, but every second mattered in magickal warfare.
His enemies were nowhere to be found — whispers lurking in the dark.
He silenced his steps with the talent of ARIS, one of the Descending Hierarchy's patrons of thievery. Though the ground was littered with dry twigs and debris, he skulked across it without leaving a trace or making a sound.
They must have seen me trailing their courier. Other than one moment on the streets of Stuttgart, he had been careful to stay out of sight and under the concealment of warding glyphs. Breaking cover to track the Thule Society's messenger to his final destination had been a calculated risk — one that had earned Nando a bullet in his gut and the attention of the two enemies his master Adair had warned him to avoid at all costs.
He searched the night as he flanked his foes. They had caught him less than prepared for battle, but he wasn't defenseless. The strongest spirit he held in yoke was BELETH, a king of Hell renowned for its love of destruction. Nando felt the fallen angel's wings as if they were his own. He beat them twice, unleashing strokes of thunder that rent tree trunks into splinters. Shock waves coursed through the broken forest, churning up dust —
Twin bolts of violet lightning arced through the haze and struck Nando's chest. They hit like a charging bull, launching him backward. He tumbled over roots and sharp rocks.
A sharp freezing pain in his chest stripped away his invisibility as he lost his mental hold on GLASYA, which returned to the Abyss, the letter of its duty discharged. Nando pawed at the maggot-covered wound in his torso and realized he had been felled by the spear of SAVNOK, a marquis of Hell that delighted in spreading pestilence.
Movement, on his right. He lashed out with a demonic blade against which no armor could stand, only to see it deflected.
A darting form on his left. Nando made the trees his soldiers. Their limbs lashed out to seize a red-haired young woman. Within seconds she was snared, an oaken branch coiled around her throat and clamped over her mouth.
Nando commanded the trees, Tear her —
A fireball swallowed him whole.
It was a strike from a demon's firebrand. Nando filled the air with screams, but he couldn't hear them over the roaring of hellfire.
When the last lick of flame died, he lay supine before his enemies. The woman, now free of the trees, stood tall. She radiated contempt, her copper mane so tousled as to look almost feral. If not for the malice in her blue eyes, Nando would have found her beautiful beyond compare.
Equally striking was her companion, a fair-haired man with chiseled features. Even after waging a duel in the forest, he looked immaculate. His shoes betrayed not a scuff, his tailored suit admitted not one wrinkle. If the warnings Nando had heard from his master Adair were true, the man before him had to be the Nazis' top sorcerer, Kein Engel.
Kein regarded Nando with weary regret. "So much potential. What a waste."
The woman made a fist of her right hand. "Let me finish him."
"No, Briet. It needs to be me." From beneath his black trench coat, which bore a swastika on its lapel, Kein drew an athamé, a black-handled knife used in ceremonial magick. He kneeled over Nando, whose ravaged body was racked with tremors. Leaning close, Kein dropped his voice to a confidential volume and spoke in perfect Spanish. "Training you and the other nikraim as karcists was clever. Your master Adair never used to exhibit such foresight."
Nando wanted to spit in the dark magician's face, but his mouth was as dry as cinders, and it took all his strength to speak. "You won't beat us all."
"I have already killed Adair's other five like you. And when I find the last of your kind, the one that was hidden, this war will be over" — he stabbed the blade into Nando's heart with a savage twist — "and a better future can begin."
The silver Austin Ten slowed to a halt in front of the Royal Army recruiting office. Outside, rain slashed up St. Giles' Street, scouring the façades of Oxford town houses. Thunder rattled the chauffered car's windows as Cade Martin grasped the rear door's handle.
His father, Blake Martin, grasped Cade's arm. "We're late, son. Be quick."
"I'll be back before you can say 'Chamberlain's a knob.'"
Cade's mother Valerie leaned forward to speak past her husband. "Cade, we're serious. The storm's washing out the roads. We can't afford to miss the boat, it's —"
"— the last one home to America. I know, Mom." He opened the door. Rain drenched him as he paused to tell his father's English driver, "Don't let 'em leave me behind."
"No promises, Master Cade."
"You're a peach, Sutton. Never change." Cade dashed through the squall. After all the years he had lived in England — first at a boarding school in London from the time he was fourteen, and then at Oxford's Exeter College for the last two years — he had come to admire the dryness of British wit, and to delight in skewering its pretensions whenever possible.
The predawn hours in Oxford were always dark, but the storm made this morning doubly so. In spite of the downpour, wind, and gloom, a line of men stretched down the street from the recruiting office, all waiting to enlist in the war Germany had sparked by invading Poland two days earlier. Most of the men looked like locals, but Cade recognized a few from various Oxford colleges. He went to the only one he knew by name. "Claydon! Have you seen Miles?"
The gangly student winced as the wind shifted and stung his face with rain. "He's inside. Crazy blighter was at the head of the queue."
"Shit." Cade shook his head, annoyed at himself. Knowing Miles, he stood out here all night to make sure he was the first one in. "Thanks, Claydon." He hurried up the steps and shouldered past the queue. His passage was tracked by frowns, but he paid them no mind. They're all just dead men walking.
He pushed open the door at the top of the stairs and strode inside. The foyer was spare, lacking chairs, sofas, or other comforts. Small tables sported handbills extolling the virtues and rewards of national service. Minding it all was a cherub- faced corporal who nearly fumbled his clipboard as he intercepted Cade. "Sir, you need to wait your —"
"Relax, I'm not dumb enough to enlist. I'm just looking for someone who is." The corporal stammered as Cade hurried past him and down a corridor. Drawn by Miles's rich baritone, Cade passed portraits of military officers whose mustaches were likely older than he was. At the hall's open last doorway, he stopped and leaned in.
Miles Franklin, his best friend and fellow Oxford undergraduate, sat in front of a desk lorded over by a sergeant whose every pen, paper clip, and sheet of paper had been placed parallel or at a perfect right angle to one another, as if his stationery and office supplies had been mustered into a parade formation. Disapproval drew a frown beneath the man's trimmed mustache when he saw Cade. "And you are ...?"
The question prompted Miles to turn toward Cade and beam at the sight of him.
"Cade! Come to your senses, old boy?"
"No, I came to watch you take leave of yours." To the sergeant, Cade added with mock excitement, "I never saw a man throw away his whole life before."
Miles got up. "Forgive me, Sergeant, but could my friend and I have the room for a moment?"
The sergeant stood and retrieved his hat from a rack in the corner. "Very well, Mr. Franklin. One minute." He left the room, pausing only to scrunch his eyebrows at Cade, who answered the sergeant's disdain with an irreverent smile.
Miles towered over Cade. "What are you playing at?"
Cade mused that they must seem to others like a pair of mismatched socks. Cade wore the suits and ties expected of Oxford undergraduates, yet on him they looked like bad disguises, whereas Miles had a knack for fashion. By the same token, Cade was pale and ordinary-looking, while Miles was ebony-skinned with regal features. Even their voices were a study in contrast. Cade was convinced his American accent sounded doltish next to Miles's English baritone. "Dammit, Miles. I can't believe you'd leave Oxford with half a degree just to join the army."
"Believe it." Mischief sparkled in Miles's eyes. "You can do it, too."
"It's not my war."
"That's your father talking." He set his hand on Cade's shoulder. "Come with me! The army's happy to sign up Yanks."
"Yeah, but they don't take gents like you."
"Like me?" He held up a brown hand. "Sons of Africa?"
"You know what I mean." He checked over his shoulder to make sure the sergeant had not returned. "Poofters."
Miles laughed. "The army frowns upon categories of behavior, not categories of person. I'll be fine."
"You're just gonna live a lie for the duration of the war?"
"I won't have to." He poked Cade. "Unlike you, I know how to control my appetites."
His teasing made Cade recall the many nights they had haunted the pubs of Oxford, telling tales, singing songs, and humbling all who dared challenge them at darts. It saddened Cade to imagine his boon companion going off to war — and he felt more than a twinge of shame that he lacked the courage to enlist with him, even though he knew in his heart that it would be the right thing to do. Masking his self-reproach with bravado, he said, "Tell me you're not just doing this to prove some bloody point about Oxford men being patriots."
Miles didn't hide his disappointment. "I'd really hoped you'd come around."
"I could say the same of you."
The sergeant marched between them on his way to his desk. "If you two are quite finished?"
Before Cade could respond, his father's driver, Sutton, leaned through the doorway to interrupt. "Pardon, young master, but time and tide ...?"
"Coming." Saddened at parting from the man he'd loved like a brother for the past two years, all Cade could do was shake his head. "Take care. And try not to get killed."
Miles grinned. "Worried about me already?"
"Sod off. You owe me ten pounds."
Miles turned out his empty pockets. "Sorry, mate, I'm a bit short." A humble shrug masked the moment's sorrow. "Settle up next time?"
Cade embraced his friend. "Count on it." They gave each other's backs hearty slaps, then parted with a valedictory handshake. Miles returned to his chair in front of the sergeant's desk to finish his enlistment paperwork, while Sutton led Cade out of the recruiting office.
Outside, whips of rain lashed the street, and lightning flashed across the sky. Idling in the street was the Austin Ten, its headlight beams spearing the storm's curtain.
As Sutton scurried ahead to open the rear door of the Austin Ten for Cade, Cade heard steam whistles — the mournful cries of trains hurtling past Oxford Station, half a mile away.
Even from Exeter's secluded Fellows' Garden, Cade had heard trains rumbling across the countryside. By order of His Majesty's government, over the past two days tens of thousands of children and teens from every stratum of society had been evacuated from the urban and industrial targets of southern and central England, to the illusory safety of the rural north.
Cade's grim reflections were cut short by a hand on his arm. An older man with an ashen bramble of a beard and a Scottish accent halted him midstep. "Cade Martin?"
He eyed the stranger with suspicion. "Do I know you?"
"I'm here to recruit you for —"
"No thanks." Cade continued toward the sidewalk.
He made it only one step before the mad-eyed stranger seized Cade's collar. "I'm not done yet, Mr. Martin. The war effort needs you."
"Don't touch me!" Cade broke the Scot's hold. "I don't know who you are, but I'm not buying what you're selling. This isn't my war. Get it?"
Again Cade walked away. He made it as far as the sidewalk before the stranger caught up to him. "If you run, you'll endanger everyone near you." That stopped Cade, who turned back as the man added, "Including your parents."
Before Cade could demand an explanation, his father Blake bolted from the Austin Ten and put himself between Cade and the stranger. "Get in the car, son."
"Dad, what's —?"
"Get in the car!"
Cade backed away from the confrontation between his father and the older man. He retreated toward the Austin Ten, lingering just long enough to hear his father warn the stranger, "Don't ever talk to my son again."
The Scot sounded desperate. "It's too late, Blake. He can't hide forever."
"Maybe. But he's not going with you." Cade's father shoved the older man, who fell in a heap on the sidewalk. Cade stood mesmerized by his plight until his father, on the move, took Cade's arm and led him toward the car.
In spite of the downpour, a reek of sulfur haunted Cade as he and his father hurried to the Austin Ten. Cade winced at the odor as he glanced across the street to see another stranger staring at him: a pale, brown-haired man in his thirties, sporting a close-cropped Vandyke, a dark suit, and a fedora. The man tracked Cade's every step but made no attempt to approach; he just stood with his hands in his pockets, exuding malice.
Cade's father hustled him into the car's backseat, sandwiched him in the middle between himself and Cade's mother, then snapped at Sutton, "Go!"
Compelled either by instinct or by anxiety, Cade stole a look out the car's rear window. The older man was still sprawled on the sidewalk, but the stranger in the fedora had vanished.
The Austin Ten lurched into motion and sped away. Its chassis rumbled and clattered over the stone-paved streets of Oxford as rain slashed across its windshield.
Trapped between his parents, Cade found himself troubled by the altercation on the steps. "Dad ... who was that?"
"No one who concerns you."
"What did he mean when he said I couldn't hide forever?"
"Just forget about him, Cade."
Cryptic looks passed between Cade's parents. His mother tried to mask her concern with a nervous smile. "Try to sleep, sweetheart. We'll wake you in Liverpool."
Tempest-drenched scenery blurred past. Oxford's suburbs gave way to rural countryside after less than thirty minutes of driving. Outside the rear window, Cade saw only billowing clouds of exhaust, as if his past had been erased.
He felt hypnotized by the road's ambient drone. The patter of raindrops on the roof, the white noise of tires on wet asphalt, and the purr of the engine lulled Cade to sleep. His mind protested at the thought of sleep, but his eyes fluttered closed.
A moment, then. Just a few minutes' rest. ...
* * *
Cade awoke with a start and squinted into hazy morning light.
The car was stopped, and he was alone in the backseat. His eyes adjusted as he looked around. The Austin Ten was parked beside a crowded dock where a massive steamship was anchored. The trunk was open. Burly porters pulled the Martins' luggage from the car and carried it toward the ship's gangplank. His parents stood in front of the car, talking with Sutton.
Cade got out of the car. Muggy heat pungent with the stink of low tide made him miss the car's air of clean leather and sweet pipe tobacco.
His father shook Sutton's hand. "I'm sorry I can't offer more than a week's severance, after all the years of service you've given us."
Sutton waved away the sentiment. "It's nothing, Mr. Martin."
"I disagree." Cade's father handed the driver a folded slip of paper. "The car's title. I've signed it over to you. Call it a parting gift."
"Most generous, sir," Sutton said, with strong emotion in his voice. "I'll keep it in good order until you return." He tipped his cap at Cade. "Safe travels, young master."
Cade waved good-bye to Sutton, then was guided away by his parents, across the dock and up the gangplank of the steamship Athenia.
Excerpted from "The Midnight Front"
Copyright © 2018 David Mack.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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