The night air brought bittersweet release. Silke stood on the edge of the city walls and leaned forward into the chill wind, imagining herself perched on a rock above a graceful bend in the Rhine, singing with her sisters. She took comfort in the daydream. Better that than to turn and see what she had wrought. Better that than to pay attention to the chattering in her head. She opened her eyes and stared at the two branches of the river coming together below her, sluggish and black like old blood.
Silke shivered, but not because of the cold.
So much blood.
Splattered on the machinery of the cannon.
Pooled beneath the bodies scattered on the wall behind her.
They hadn’t been bad men, those dead American soldiers, just drunk. She could not picture them killing her brother or slaughtering her parents. Silke frowned. Were her parents dead? Memory and truth remained frustratingly out of focus, hidden behind the whispering screens in her mind. Was it all just zaubersänger lies?
This was the second massacre she had witnessed since coming to America. The bodies of the soldiers behind her were added to the poor men at the docks who had rushed down to help her from the water. Those men had seemed friendly, befuddled, and even a little embarrassed as they averted their eyes from the wet fabric that hugged her body. One of them found blankets and old, dry clothing. They had given her hot tea and whiskey. Their kindness made the chorus in her head grow quiet and unravel.
And then the elben came.
The sorcerer’s pets from the unterseeboot.
Silke did not know she had a name for them until it flowered, unbidden, in her mind. Cold, pale giants in black cowls. Silent and terrible. It had been their thrashing progress through the bay that she had heard while she swam. They were not graceful, but they were fast and strong, and the men who pulled her from the water were dead before they knew they were under attack. Corpses thudded to the floor around Silke. Her fingers clutched the steaming mug in her hands, fingers sending signals of heat and pain that her brain ignored.
As it tried to ignore the blood and broken bones, the crushed skulls and detached limbs.
As it was telling her to ignore the bodies behind her now.
The dead American soldiers lay strewn about the cannon they had been so eager to show her. Old men and youths and the one called Sims with the crooked smile. They were all dead because of her.
Because they could not resist her songs.
Because they had the misfortune to be assigned to the cannon battery.
The elben were at work behind her, doing something to the cannon. They did not speak. They had not spoken the entire evening as the American soldiers bought her drink after drink, growing more boisterous and boastful. She had slipped her drinks to others or poured them out discretely though the temptation to slip into a fog of forgetfulness and derail her conscience was intense.
Every word spoken by an American, every glimpse of one of the soldiers, sparked memory and emotion in Silke. Whispered reminders stirred in their wake. Remember brother. Remember parents. Were they real? She saw flashes of their bodies, grainy images of the demonic soldiers that had killed them. The men buying her drinks were not those men, were nothing like those men, but Silke was powerless against whatever suggestion the sorcerers had planted in her. She knew what she had to do to quiet the voices, to rid herself of the terrible scenes.
And so she sang soft words into reddening ears, convinced men flushed with pride and drink to take her to their cannon. They had not noticed the elben lurking at the edges of the group that poured from the dance hall. Nor had the guards at the base of the wall, infected by the good humor of their fellow soldiers and enchanted by her song. She was a flame to the moth of their attention, keeping them from noticing the threat gathering around them.
Silke shuddered. One of the elben stood behind her, cold and solid as stone. All sound faded, even the hiss of voices within her skull. The monsters had finished their work, leaving mangled bodies and broken machines in their wake. Now they waited for her to depart, to return to their sorcerous master.
“It is done,” she murmured to the night and to the army waiting to descend on the city. The river might weaken the spells of the zaubersänger, but the greatest of the Americans’ weapons were useless now.
Silke waited for release. Her task was complete, but the voices in her head were not gone. There was a sense of waiting, of expectation.
Why weren’t they gone?
Dead, black eyes regarded her from a long, pale face. The creature wore no expression, but she sensed its hunger.
“There is another task.”
Silke ground her teeth, relishing the pain. She was tempted to cover her ears, but she knew that would do nothing to silence the voices.
Because the voices were inside her head.
And her job was not done yet.
More lambs had to be led to an elben slaughter.
* * *
Freiheit vibrated beneath Konrad. The pre-dawn air was bitter, but he suspected the drachenwolf shook with anticipation for the coming battle rather than with chill. Konrad sympathized with the beast. His nerves were as raw as the morning, and wind ripped at his coat and scarf as the two of them twisted in the darkness. The rest of Jasta 94 were clustered on ropes around them, dangling beneath the zeppelin, shivering and snarling.
Konrad could see little of the airship beyond its black silhouette against the blue-tinted darkness. Blackout curtains had been drawn on the cabin, but he knew one of the warlocks crouched at the railing, ready to release them when the zeppelin pilot signaled they were in position. Konrad brushed his fingers across the pistol strapped to his chest and whispered to Freiheit.
The air rippled with the passage of something foul and unseen, and Freiheit released the line before Konrad processed the signal from the hexenmeister. For a moment they hung motionless, the silence broken only by the snapping of the now-slack lines trailing from the zeppelin. Then they fell, Freiheit rotating to point his snout toward the invisible ocean below.
Konrad’s stomach surged into his throat, and he fought the nausea that besieged him, yanking hard on Freiheit’s reins. He felt the beast’s growl rumble against his legs and muttered an apology before letting the reins go slack. Focusing his mind, he kept Freiheit central in his thoughts. Without the ability to create the connection he now sought, Die Fliegertruppen would not have trained him as a rider, no matter what illustrious family name he bore. Names mattered little next to a talent for bonding.
Konrad closed his eyes, pushed his face into the fur on the drachenwolf’s back, and inhaled. The heat and scent of the creature filled him. The sense of a second mind, full of simple and hungry thoughts, formed inside his own.
“Freiheit,” he whispered, and felt the surge of recognition and acceptance flow from the drachenwolf.
Konrad opened his senses to a doubled world, his own superior vision melding with Freiheit’s greater smell and hearing. The joy of the dive rushed through him. His lips peeled back from his teeth in a lupine grin. Konrad and Freiheit howled into the wind together, and the answering howls of the other drachenwölfe and their riders rose around them.
The scent and roar of the sea crashed into him—into them—and Konrad-Freiheit spread their wings, angled their dive, leveled off just above the waves. Mist soaked their skin-fur and coated their wings. They shivered, and the Konrad part of their merged self wiped spray from his goggles. In the darkness ahead, there was a smudge of orange clinging to the horizon.
Konrad glanced back at the first blush of dawn coloring the sky behind them, silhouetting the other bonded pairs of Jasta 94. The wings of the drachenwölfe were fixed, the riders leather-clad bundles hunched in their saddles.
Konrad twisted forward again, his doubled vision reconciling as he fixed his eyes on the same horizon that Freiheit was focused on. The sky was clear—a good omen. The sun would rise out of the ocean behind them just as Jasta 94 came within visual range of the fabled walls of Gotham.
The city would not notice them until it was too late.
* * *
Rory staggered as Nora slumped against him. He tightened his arm across her shoulders, guiding her through the quiet streets. She moved mechanically, arms wrapped around her handbag, more intent on clutching the cards in her hands than in staying on her feet.
When he first raced across the street to help her, Rory thought them mere scraps of paper spilled in the wake of the pale giant’s assault. But after he’d roused her, Nora had cried out and snatched up the scattered papers, trying to hide their colorful faces from Rory.
Fortune tellers’ cards.
He’d heard James scolding Nora for wasting time and money on such things before.
Rory had tried to help her, but Nora had scrambled about on her knees, knocking his hands away from the cards. By the time she recovered them, Rory had lost track of his battery mates. He didn’t know if they were still in the dance hall, but he couldn’t abandon Nora to go looking for them. Putting thoughts of giant brutes and the pale girl out of his head, he helped Nora to her feet.
It took them hours to reach their neighborhood, progressing in fits and starts, Nora moaning and trembling beside him. Other pedestrians gave them a wide berth, and Rory looked about in vain for streetcars, finding none at this late hour. He was frightened. Nora had always been so calm, so reserved, so opposite the dashing boisterousness of his brother James. She was more like his eldest brother, Patrick—the one rumored to be Nora’s true love.
Before the Germans killed him.
Nora stumbled and sagged against him. Strange words fell from her lips, and her skin was hot where it touched his own.
“Lorelei lures, the circle closes,” she panted. “Lightning explodes, the bright star falls. Seas awaken.”
Rory paused to wipe the sweat from her brow with the sleeve of his greatcoat. Her dark eyes were unfocused. Tangled hair clung to her damp cheeks. Rory’s heart thudded uncomfortably in his chest, and he could not swallow the knot of fear lodged in his throat. He didn’t know what to do. Was something wrong with the baby? Was Nora dying?
“Just a one more block,” he whispered.
That was all he could do. Get her home. Let somebody else figure out what was wrong with her, maybe get her to a doctor.
“No, no, no. I can’t. She can’t,” Nora gasped, and Rory knew she wasn’t talking to him. “Too much to ask. She’s not even born.”
He was supporting most of her weight now. Her feet had stopped moving, and her shoes scraped against the pavement as Rory dragged her across the street.
“Just a bit farther. James will be worried.”
“She can’t. She can’t,” Nora whispered as if she hadn’t heard him.
Somebody shouted, and Rory lifted his head. They were within sight of Aunt Eva’s brownstone now, and James was rushing toward them, his black hair shining under the amber glow of the Edison lamps.
James pushed Rory aside and grabbed his wife by the shoulders. His face drained of color as he stared at her. Then he grunted and swept her up, carrying her back to the house. Rory trailed behind him, trying to explain what happened, but the words would not come. They stuck, useless, in his throat. Their mother ushered them into the house and then hurried into the sitting room behind them.
James lowered Nora to the couch and gently brushed damp hair from her face. “Nora,” he whispered, and her faraway gaze stilled, tracked back to his face.
She reached out, bent and twisted cards clasped in her fingers. “Don’t…don’t go. I have seen it. You—”
James tore the cards from her hands and flung them across the sitting room. He pressed his hands against Nora’s cheeks and forced her to look at him. She moaned, her fingers twitching, eyes dull and unfocused. James glanced over his shoulder at Rory, his face twisted and ugly. With jealousy? Anger?
“What did you do to her?” he hissed.
Rory’s mouth fell open. “I…I found her…like this.”
His mother hurried into the room, water splashing from the glass she carried.
“At that colored fortune teller’s?” James growled. “I’ll have that woman arrested.” He grabbed the glass of water from his mother and turned back to Nora. “Why can’t you stay away from her? Why now, of all times?”
Nora’s eyes rolled in her head, and she slumped, boneless, back against the couch. James dropped the glass, and it thudded to the floor, water splashing dark across the carpet. He guided Nora’s head to a pillow as her limbs spasmed, eyes showing only white as her lips shaped silent pleas, no longer aware of the room around her.
James pulled a blanket from the back of the couch and draped it over his wife. For a moment, his face was blank. Then he turned to Rory.
He stopped. The question, half-asked, died on his lips. His eyes were fixed on Rory’s collar.
Rory looked down, and the cannoneer’s pin winked back at him.
“No,” Rory whispered.
James reached him in two long strides and gripped his collar, lifting the pin up to Rory’s face. “What is this?” he hissed.
“What’s wrong, James?” Confusion was written on their mother’s face as she came to stand beside them.
Rory’s mouth opened. “Mother—”
“Don’t, Rory,” James growled. “Don’t do this to her.”
The door slammed open behind them, and James twisted, dropping Rory’s collar and yanking his service revolver free of its holster.
Aunt Eva stormed into the room and brushed past James, ignoring the gun in his hand. She took in Nora’s prone form on the couch before turning to her nephews. She was wearing her goggles again, and glowing symbols danced across their enchanted lenses. A small snake of hair had pulled free from the tight bun that gripped the back of her head.
“With me, Rory,” she said. “Something’s wrong on the wall. Unexpected fluctuation in the vryl fields near the cannon battery.”
Rory started to splutter a response. His mother was turning slowly toward him as she processed the words. But Aunt Eva had already grabbed his arm and was dragging him from the room. She paused as she passed in front of James, looking up into his stony face. He still held the revolver at his side.
“Protect them, James. Something is wrong. The city may be in danger.”
A wailing rose as if in response to her words. For a moment, Rory thought it was his mother, finally understanding what the insignia on his collar meant or what the mention of vryl fields and cannon batteries implied. But the piercing noise was coming from outside, coming through the open door. It vibrated the windows and set his teeth on edge.
The walls of Gotham were sounding the alarm.
The sirens were a familiar sound, one the residents of the city had endured dozens of times since the Kaiser took the war to Britain’s shores. Their political leaders had insisted the Germans would never cross the Atlantic, but the military brass had not been so sanguine. Many had served with the Expeditionary Forces in Europe. They knew the threat and demanded that the citizenry be well-drilled in case of invasion.
But the warning sirens usually sounded in daylight, not the dark hours of early morning.
This wasn’t a drill.
Aunt Eva pushed Rory toward the door but kept her eyes locked on James. She said something quick and urgent to his brother, something about a child, but the sirens were too loud and her voice too low for Rory to make out the words. He thought he heard Patrick’s name. Then Aunt Eva patted James on the cheek and hurried past him, grabbing Rory’s arm and dragging him through the door, back out into the night.