Real magic can only be done in the dark.
That's the first thing they teach you. I learned that lesson some years ago, when I was young and ambitious. My teacher was a charismatic man—handsome, confident, and brilliant. He was also extremely manipulative, but most good teachers are in some way. Headstrong boys often have to be manipulated to learn life's most important lessons.
My teacher taught me magic, but not the kind that entertainers in Vegas peddle to fat tourists. I'm talking about the real stuff. It’s the kind of magic that makes something out of nothing—the magic of legend and myth. I learned it well until I cracked.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I failed as a nightcrafter. In fact, I'm proud to say I got as far as I did. Not many people would last long knowing the kinds of things that I knew, seeing the things I've seen, and doing the things that I've done. My teacher didn't mind that I washed out. The graduation rate had never been high. Failure was always the more probable outcome. But he tried his best anyway. I loved him for that even after he kicked me out. He was just doing what he was supposed to do . . . mostly. He was supposed to wipe my memory clean of all the things I'd learned in the dark. But he didn't, and his motivations have been a frustrating mystery since the last time I saw him. Maybe it just slipped his mind. Maybe he took pity on me and hoped that one day I'd return and be able to complete my training.
Maybe he just didn't want me to forget him.
His lessons made me the person I am today. Most people spend their teenage years afraid of the darkness they saw in the world, but he taught me to embrace it. But the most important lesson that I learned from all that time in the dark was this: the nightcraft is dangerous and it needs to be brought to an end.
There are . . . things in the dark. They are horrible, unspeakable things. The nightcrafter magic attracts them, and leads them out of their natural habitat like bloody bait tempting a shark. These creatures aren't really a threat to the nightcrafters themselves, but they're a big problem for everyone else. Innocent people become collateral damage.
When I was a student of the craft, I didn't care about the repercussions. I didn't care about putting other people in danger. I just wanted the power. But, when my mentor left me alone and abandoned, I had some time to reflect on it all objectively. A few days back in the sun reset my moral compass to true north. I knew what I had been learning was dangerous, and I knew the magic had gotten innocent people killed.
I had a new mission in life after that. I made a vow that one day I was going to stop the nightcrafters from putting innocent lives at risk. One day, I was going to expose the things that went on in the dark.
How? I had no idea. But nothing would stop me. For whatever reason I'd been given a chance that no one else had. I'd seen the world behind the veil and come back with the knowledge intact. I didn't have the details of a plan figured out, but I knew the gist of what I had to do.
Sometimes shining a light on something is the best way to make it disappear.
* * *
I got a new job some months after my career in magic ended. It was a remarkable opportunity, and if I hadn’t just spent years learning magic I might have considered it a dream job.
The interview process for my new career started on a wintry night in New York City. At the time, I was already working as a night watchman at a warehouse. It was a mindless job, but it afforded me lots of time alone and in the dark. In my solitude I practiced a few of the lessons I was able to master before my budding career as a nightcrafter came to an end, so I was able to keep my meager skills honed. But I never used the more powerful spells at work. Bad things can happen when you draw too much from the Rift. I understood that fact, and I acted with appropriate responsibility. But the vast majority of nightcrafters didn't give a damn, and a lot of those assholes lived in New York.
On this particular night it was snowing hard; the kind of snowfall that looks like white ash pouring from the sky. The snow and the biting cold meant that the usually busy New York streets were vacant. There was a foot of snow and slush outside, and the plows hadn't even made a dent in it yet. I wasn't looking forward to my trip home.
My shift ended at five in the morning and thankfully Bob, the morning guard, lived close and was able to get to work on time. When I left the warehouse, the skies were still murky and full of flurries. The blanketing snow cast thick shadows against the limelight from the streetlamps.
Dark mornings always make my skin tingle. The sensation is like an electric excitement that gradually grows stronger as the sun's time to shine approaches. It felt like something wild was about to happen.
It was freezing outside. I had a very warm knit cap, but I hated wearing it. I'd just gotten a buzz cut because I feel like a bum when it gets long, but I've got disobedient wiry Asian hair so when it gets short it juts out at 90 degrees instead of lying flat against my scalp. That makes the knit cap uncomfortable to wear. But it's not as uncomfortable as having my body heat sucked away by cruel New York air, so I put the damn thing on.
I trudged through the fresh, untouched snow as quickly as I could until I got tired of doing it the normal way. After I took a quick look around and saw that no one was watching, I cast a little spell to help me out. Although there was weak light from the streetlamps, the darkness was deep enough to let me conjure up a featherweight effect. Soon, my footsteps barely made a mark in the snow and I walked along at a brisk pace.
The funny thing about nightcrafting is that you don't need to do it in complete darkness. Sure, it helps a lot if you can kill every single bit of light around you, but your average nighttime scene is plenty to do some nifty stuff with. But you've got to make extra sure to avoid direct streams of light. It has to do with something about the frequencies of visible light weakening the forces that make the magic work. I have a rudimentary understanding of it, but that’s about it. I’m like a schoolboy trying to wrap his brain around quantum dynamics with only freshman physics as a reference point.
I headed towards the nearest subway station to get my cold, skinny ass back to the Bronx and in a warm bed. I turned a corner and found a black Lincoln sedan stuck in the snow. The car had diplomatic plates. That’s not an uncommon sight in this city, but it was odd to see one of them alone in this neighborhood and at this hour.
Next to the car, a stocky man in a black trench coat dumped kitty litter into the street for traction. The poor guy didn't look happy about his situation. He reached into his pocket to fish out a cell phone. I didn't make much of it and kept walking. I was halfway to the car when I realized I still had my featherweight spell on.
I could have just walked past the guy and hope he didn't notice that I was prancing on top of a foot of snow, but that would've been risky. I've seen my fair share of ex-military grunts who went into the security business, and this guy fit the profile exactly. There was no way I'd escape his notice. There was a remote possibility that he might just scratch his head and figure his eyes were playing tricks on him, but I didn't feel like taking that chance. I couldn't afford stories about me getting spread out here. There were still unpleasant people looking for me.
So I canceled the spell and sank halfway up to my knees in cold, cloying snow.
Son of a bitch.
I grit my teeth and grumbled as I kept plodding through the wet, white mess. In about two minutes, my quads started to get sore. As I got closer to Mr. Black Trench, he gave me an icy stare. I gave him one back.
Don't ask me to help you, goddammit.
I kept walking. I minded my own business and wondered if I would have the chance to bring up another featherweight spell once I passed this guy. Then that tingling feeling came back. It was stronger this time, and it was immediately followed by a sick feeling in my gut.
Then the streetlights went out.
“Oh hell,” Mr. Black Trench groaned. “What is this shit?”
“Just a power outage,” I said as my vision struggled to discern shapes in nothing but the dim moonlight filtering through the clouds and snow. “The storm must have knocked down some lines.”
“Wonderful,” Mr. Black Trench said. Then he rapped a knuckle on the tinted rear window of the car. “Ma'am, we've got another problem.”
At that point, I realized two things. One, there was someone in else in the car. Two, there was something else with us in the street.
It was something . . . nasty.
That sick feeling in my stomach grew to an almost overwhelming nausea. The tingling on my skin became a fierce burning. I couldn't see the black-furred, four-legged creature that I knew had just arrived, but I didn't need to. I was sure what it was. Nachtjäger.
“You need to get out of here, now!” I yelled to Mr. Black Trench.
“What are you talking about, man? Are you looking for some trouble?” I could see him reaching inside his trench, and then there was a glint of metal in the moonlight. A gun wouldn't help him and he'd be too stubborn to listen to me. He was would be dead in a few seconds. The best I could do was try to help the person in the car.
I focused my mind and let the shadows envelop me. I disappeared fully into the night, confusing Mr. Black Trench. He drew his gun and he reached for a small flashlight on his keychain. That wasn't a bad idea, but he'd need a lot more light than that. The nachtjäger was closing in. It growled—a deep, gurgling rumble that would fill any sane man with fear. Mr. Black Trench turned his little light towards the sound, but the rays weren't bright enough to penetrate more than a few feet of the darkness.
He was distracted now, which gave me the opportunity to approach the black Lincoln. I quietly lifted the door handle on the rear passenger door furthest from Mr. Black Trench. It was locked. That usually wouldn't be a problem for me, but as I looked at the car doors I noticed this was a fancy new model and there were no key holes. That was a problem. I'd have to try something else. I placed a hand against the cold glass of the left rear window and whispered a spell I hadn't cast in ages.
“Rock to sand, sand to glass, glass to air. Sand blowing in the wind. Not solid at all. Glass to air. Not solid at all.”
The glass dissolved into nothingness. I reached inside the car, unlocked the door, and went inside.
The car's sole occupant stared outside the other window, and she didn't notice me slip in. That was probably a good thing since she most likely would've freaked out if she had seen me pull that little stunt with the window. Luckily for me, the whole process just took a few seconds. Mr. Black Trench wasn't having as much luck. The nachtjäger had caught up with him. The woman in front of me jumped when she heard him scream.
“We have to go,” I said. She spun around and gave me a shocked stare. She was a middle-aged black woman with a short haircut and a few crow's feet. She dressed fairly fashionably, but she wasn't wearing any makeup. Her eyes were wide and her mouth was open for a scream.
“Wait,” I said. I put my hands up defensively. “I'm here to help. Your bodyguard is being eaten by a very big, very hungry creature. You're not safe in this car. We need to get out of here.”
She blinked. “What the h—”
“There's no time for argument. If you stay here, you're going to die. If you go with me, at least you'll have a chance. Decide fast. I'm not hanging around for long.”
She was scared, but she wasn't terrified. I could tell this lady had some experience with stressful situations. As her emotions gave way to cold logic, I could almost see the internal battle play out on her face. Her wide eyes narrowed. Her gaping mouth closed. When she spoke again, I could tell she was ready.
“What should we do?” she said.
“Run,” I said.
“In this snow?”
“I'll handle that,” I said. “Just hold my hand and run. Whatever you do, don't let go.”
I'd never cast a featherweight on two people at once before. But I figured it couldn't be much different in principle. I kept my mind focused on making myself light as a feather, and I imagined that the spell's effect ran along my arm, across my hand, and over to the woman that I was trying to save from becoming dinner. Her expression changed. I could tell she felt different, but she didn't say anything. We slipped out of the car as quietly as we could, and our footsteps left no marks on the deep snow.
“How are you doing this?” she whispered to me as we scurried away.
“Is that . . . real?”
“Yes,” I said. “Surprise.”
It was so dark I couldn't see much as I led her away. We heard a sharp howl behind us. I felt my companion tighten her grip on my hand. “What is it?” she whispered.
“A nachtjäger,” I said. “A hunter in the night. Very nasty creature that will start chasing us very soon.”
“Can't you get rid of it?”
“Kind of,” I said. “I can get it to stop following me. But not you. I can't hide you from it. Nachtjägers are smart hunters, and they go for the easiest prey.”
“So just kill it then.”
“I can't,” I said. “At least not without some help. I never finished my training. Killing that kind of creature with just magic is way out of my league.”
“So what are we supposed to do?” she asked.
“We improvise,” I said.
I had walked around this neighborhood many times since I started my night watchman gig. I always liked to have detour options to avoid trouble or annoying construction. I used to joke with Bob, my co-worker, that I could navigate this area with my eyes closed. Tonight I was going to test that theory. Of course, nightcrafters have other senses besides sight at their disposal. The craft provides a sort of sixth sense that I imagine must be a lot like how bats “see” the world through echolocation.
I recalled the small professional photography shop about a block ahead. It was owned by an old guy named Oscar—a nice man who had given me some discounts on stuff when I was broke. I hoped he wouldn't mind what I was about to do to his place.
I ran to Oscar's photo shop, dragging my new ward behind me. Her palm was so sweaty and slick I had to squeeze extra hard to make sure she stayed with me. I could feel the nachtjäger's presence—still far behind, but getting closer.
The store was locked up tight with one of those pull-down metal gates and a huge padlock. I took a moment to compose myself before casting a simple spell that solidified the darkness inside the lock and depressed the locking pins. Through the Rift I could feel the tiny pins rise. I twisted, and the lock popped open.
The woman next to me started lifting the gate before I even got the lock off. I still felt no real terror from her, but she definitely had a sense of urgency. I couldn't blame her for that. I could hear the nachtjäger's heavy footfalls approaching.
I slammed the gate behind us, hoping that it would delay our pursuer for a little while. The shop's door required another quick unlocking spell. It swung open, we scrambled inside the shop, and took deep, relieved breaths. We’d avoided death so far, but I knew that the thin metal gate was too flimsy to stand for long against a nachtjäger.
Sure enough, seconds later, the gate started to rattle. Then it started to crumple.
I flicked a light switch on the wall. As I feared, nothing happened. The power outage had affected this block too. My female companion tried to feel her way in the dark, and she headed away from the creature as quickly as she could manage. “Where's the back door?” she asked.
“Don't worry about it,” I said. “We're not leaving.” I started rifling through the shelves of photography equipment in search of what I needed.
“Didn't we just come in here to lose that thing?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Trying to lose it would just slow it down a little. It would keep chasing. Even if we could somehow throw it off our trail, it would just find someone else to munch on.”
“So what did we come in here for?”
“These,” I answered. I held in my hands several boxes of modeling lamps.
My new lady friend's face twisted into a scowl as she said, “What the hell are you going to do with those?”
“Just trust me, and help me set them up.”
Oscar had a white tarp set up for budding fashion photographers to test out their equipment. It was in an open area in the back of the store. I walked to it as I ripped open the boxes and shoved a pair of the lamps to my companion.
“So what's your name?” I asked her, realizing that we hadn't had time to do basic introductions.
“Dominique,” she said.
“Well, Dominique, I need you to screw the stands into the lamps, and then plug those cables into this box here.”
“I can't see anything,” Dominique said.
“Just feel it out. There's not much to d—”
My words were cut off by the terrible screeching of metal shearing as the nachtjäger shredded its way through the security gate. We didn't have much time.
“Work fast, Dominique.”
We worked feverishly. I could hear Dominique breathing hard. My heart was pounding so fast I could practically feel it in my ears, and I was sweating despite the frigid temperatures. I had to guide Dominique's hands to finish the last of the connections, but in twenty long, agonizing seconds we had the setup complete.
I damn near pissed myself when the storefront window exploded as the shadowy creature burst through. I could feel the floor shake when it landed.
“Stand behind the lights,” I told Dominique. “It'll come after you.”
“You're just going to shine some lights on it?” she said. Her calm composure was starting to crack, but she still did as I told her.
“Yes,” I said. “That's all we need.” The nachtjäger bounded forward. I could feel its hunger and excitement through the Rift as much as I could feel its thundering footsteps through the floor.
“I see a flaw in your plan,” Dominique said. “Don't we need electricity for these things?”
The nachtjäger sprinted towards Dominique—right into the center of the four lights we had set up.
“They're battery powered,” I said. Then I hit the “on” switch.
Brilliant white light streamed from the lamps and bathed the dark animal in radiance. For just a fraction of a second, I could actually see our stalker with my eyes. It was terrifying—muscular and massive. Its claws were like long, gleaming, obsidian scythes. Its face was a mask of scales and teeth. The image of the fearsome creature lasted only long enough to register in my brain before the bright lights annihilated it. The nachtjäger dissolved into nothing more than wisps of shadow, like cigarette smoke floating away on a lazy breeze. I heard a loud “POP”, like the sound of a huge vacuum-sealed jar of pickles opening, and I knew that the creature was gone forever.
Dominique exhaled a breath she'd probably been holding for a few seconds. “Is that it? Is it over?”
“For now,” I said.
“Thank you,” Dominique said.
Dominique leaned against the nearest wall and wiped sweat from her brow. “So . . . who are you exactly?”
“No one in particular,” I said. “My name is Kalani. You can call me Kal.”
“Okay, Kal. What do we do now?”
“We sit here,” I said, “wait in the light, and hope these batteries last until sunrise.”
It turns out we didn't have to wait until sunrise. Instead, Dominique called the cavalry.
She and I sat in the center of those bright, hot lights for an hour. It took that long for the boys in black to arrive. These were not the boys in blue—not your typical NYC beat cops. These guys rolled up in a massive black truck with huge floodlights on the top and a plow attachment that tossed the snow aside like it was just confetti. The men wore black gear and masks, and they carried sub-machine guns. The local police were just the junior varsity squad. These guys were the all-star team.
When they showed up, I figured my work was done and I'd disappear into the remaining bits of early morning darkness. I’d never missed my tiny apartment, but in that moment it was the only place I wanted to be. But Dominique had other plans. She grabbed me by the arm and said, “You should come with me. I have to reward you.”
“I didn't do it looking to get rewarded,” I said.
“That's exactly why you should be,” she answered. “Come on. It's cold, and you must be tired. I'll get you a room at the nicest hotel in the city.”
“Really. It's not necessary.”
Dominique frowned. “A generous woman with some well-armed friends just gave you a nice gesture of gratitude for saving her life. It would be impolite to turn her down.”
“Fine,” I said.
The guys with guns swept Oscar's place thoroughly before they retraced our path to retrieve Dominique's car and the corpse of her unfortunate bodyguard. Then they made way for some new guys carrying an assortment of cases and gadgets; equipment I'd never seen before. Dominique led me into the back of their now empty truck and we sat down on the cold metal benches. One black-clad soldier stood guard outside.
“So,” I said, pointing my thumb at our guard, “are these friends of yours?”
“Employees,” Dominique said. She reached into a metal compartment next to her, retrieved a small laptop, and started typing.
“So they work for you?” I said. “Where do you work?”
“The North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”
I gave her a blank stare.
“NATO,” she said.
“Ohhh,” I said. “Yeah. This all makes sense then.”
Dominique gave me a wry smile. “You have no idea what NATO does, do you?”
“Sure I do. It's like the United Nations . . . but with guns, and no Russia.”
She nodded. “Something like that. NATO doesn't have much of an official presence here in New York, but my department works as a special . . . unofficial . . . liaison to the UN.”
“Unofficial, eh?” I said. “Don't I need security clearance just to talk to you?”
“You would if we were talking about things that both of us didn't already know about.”
“Yeah,” I said, wincing. “About tonight . . . obviously that's some stuff I wouldn't suggest talking about in public. People might think you're crazy. Let's just keep this between us.”
“The proverbial cat is already out of the bag, Kal. We already know about your kind.”
My eyebrows shot up and my mouth dropped open. “You do?”
“Yes. Although I believe I'm the first NATO staffer to actually meet one.”
“What do you know?” I asked.
“We know you have some very special abilities. That's about it really.”
“Who told you this?”
“No one,” Dominique said. “We discovered people like you on our own. It might have been easy for you people to hide a hundred years ago, but we have many more information gathering techniques at our disposal now.”
“What exactly would those techniques be?” I asked.
Dominique shook one of her fingers at me. “That is one of those classified things you don't have clearance to know.”
“Interesting,” I leaned back and crossed my arms. “I'm guessing your generosity isn't just about gratitude.”
“I won't deny that I don't want to waste the opportunity to have someone with your abilities join my team,” Dominique said.
“Join your team? Whoa now, girlfriend. Back up the truck.”
“I'm just putting all the cards on the table,” she said. Her laptop beeped and she turned her attention back to it. “I see no point in trying to deceive you. You said you never finished your training. It doesn't take a genius to deduce that you didn't leave on the best of terms.”
“That doesn't mean I'm eager to roll into a government job.”
“This isn't an ordinary government job, Mr. Kai,” Dominique said.
I paused. “How . . . I don't recall telling you my last name.”
“You didn't,” she said, pointing to her laptop. “But you did tell me your first name, and there aren't many men under forty named Kalani in the state's ID database—which I happen to have access to.”
“Great,” I said. “That's just . . . great.”
“Back to the job offer,” Dominique said. “You'd be in a unique role, and the perks would be considerable. I strongly suggest you accept.”
“NATO doesn't exactly have a flawless reputation,” I said. “I have plenty of reasons to leave right now.”
“That's very true. So what wonderful things can I do to make you stay?”
“Are you trying to seduce me?” I asked.
“In a way, yes. But not with sex. I get the impression you wouldn't be interested anyway.”
“You're damn right about that,” I blurted out before thinking. Then my sense of decency made me wince. “Sorry. No offense.”
“None taken,” she said. “So what will it take for you to consider joining us?”
I'd learned long ago that it's best to avoid being the first to talk about compensation in a job interview, and that was exactly the kind of situation I suddenly found myself in. “That depends,” I said. “What exactly are you offering?”
“A civilian consultant's position,” Dominique said. “You would report to me, and only me. You'd have the same pay rate and privileges as a senior NATO official, but with none of the responsibilities of that position. In exchange, I want you to provide me with as much information as you can about . . . what do you call yourselves anyway?”
“Nightcrafters,” I said.
“Right. I'd want to know all about your nightcrafter training.”
“I told you I dropped out. Never completed the training.”
“But you're still light years ahead of the rest of us,” Dominique said.
“I can't teach anybody how to become a nightcrafter.”
“I don't expect you to. I just want information, not instruction.”
“I . . . dunno about this,” I said. “Nightcrafting has remained secret for a very long time for some very good reasons.”
Dominique raised an eyebrow. “Reasons like what?”
“Protecting the general public from people who would misuse the power.”
“Kal, I think tonight's events show very clearly that the activities of the nightcrafters have done nothing to improve the safety of the general public.”
“Point taken,” I said.
“I've read about incidents like this in a few extremely classified documents,” Dominique continued, “but I didn't really believe any of it until now. Those things in the dark don't belong here, and they wouldn't be here unless something was dragging them out of their normal habitat. The people responsible for all this don't seem to give a damn about the lives they put at risk. That's a problem. Until this point, it's been a problem we've had no solution for. But maybe you can change all that.”
“The nightcrafters don't believe the problem is all that bad,” I said.
“I don't care what they believe,” Dominique said, and her face muscles tightened. “Tonight, I lost a man who was more than an employee. He was my friend. Tomorrow I will have to inform his seventy-year-old mother that her only child is dead. And when she asks what happened, I will have to lie to her.”
“I get your point.”
“Do you?” she said sharply as she leaned forward to stare right in my face. “Do you really? Because the worst part of all this is that there's no closure here. This wasn't a one-time freak accident. It's happened before. It will happen again.”
“So only one question remains,” Dominique said, leaning back into her seat. “What are you going to do about it?”
* * *
So I went to work for NATO.
Dominique set me up with a nice deal. In addition to what she offered that fateful night, she got me a new apartment near her office, and a new car with government plates. I was feeling pretty good about my new lot in life.
Then the tests started.
Dominique decided that the first order of business was to find out as much as possible about nightcrafting from a scientific standpoint. That meant a lot of poking, prodding, and scanning. This all would take place in a secret laboratory buried in the basement of a drab U.S. Government building in Manhattan that was not very far from Dominique's office at the United Nations headquarters. She sent me there with an escort of two very large men with obvious gun-shaped bulges in their blazers. Once at the building, my two new buddies stayed in the lobby while I got into the elevator. The elevator doors closed as soon as I got in, and I automatically descended to a floor that didn't have a corresponding button on the floor selection panel.
While on my way down, I did a mental check of the quick briefing Dominique had given me about the situation. The science guy who supervised the lab and its experiments was Newton. His parents were huge nerds too, which explained the odd name choice. He was named after Isaac Newton (the guy who gets all the credit for refining the theory of gravity). That was all I knew until the elevator doors opened, and he was standing right in front of me.
“So you're the magician,” he said. “It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Kai.”
“Call me Kal,” I said, “and don't call me a magician.”
“No problem,” Newton said, smiling. “Sorry about that. I'm just a little excited. We've had a lot of strange test subjects around here, but you definitely qualify as the strangest.”
“Uh . . . thanks? I guess?”
“You're welcome,” Newton said.
We left the elevator and went into the lab. It was divided into about a dozen smaller chambers, each one full of all sorts of equipment and each walled off by tall transparent glass panels that went from floor to ceiling. Newton led me into the farthest of them and tapped a button on the tablet he was holding. The glass walls frosted and went nearly opaque.
Newton talked the whole time, but I didn't catch much of what he said. He spoke at rapid-fire pace with a ton of technical jargon. He was your stereotypical geek in a lot of ways—he wore glasses, had the fashion sense of a color-blind farmer, and looked like he hardly ever combed his hair. But he was cute, and there was no doubt that he loved his job. He had an infectious enthusiasm that made me a little less uncomfortable with the idea of being a science experiment.
“I won't keep you long,” he said after a long diatribe about quantum entanglement. “We just have a few tests to run. But before we get started . . . could you . . . you know.”
“No, I don't know. What?”
He waved his hands about and said, “Do some of this magic I've heard of.”