Gunmage Goes Wide

My new dark fantasy western novel, Gunmage, is now available across a wide range of platforms including Apple Books, Nook, Kobo, and more for the low, low price of 99¢. Hit the button bellow to see a list of stores where the book is available for purchase, or click the book cover image to read more about this tale of witches and gunslingers, demons and inquisitor-priests!

NaNoWriMo in the Bag

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It’s the final day of NaNoWriMo2018, and I just eased my way over the finish line. Truth be told, I'd finished with the Wardsmith first draft a couple days ago, but it came in at just under 47,000 words, so I've spent the last couple days mapping out the next book in the series.

 
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Writing up character backstories and roughing out the first few chapters of the next book in the series took me over the 50k finish line, but I got there in the end. Now I'll just let the Wardsmith draft sit fallow for a bit before I put on my editor's hat. If you read Gunmage and are looking forward to the next book in Tales of the Avernine, I'm setting my sights on March/April for Wardsmith to hit the shelves, so watch this space.

And on a related note…

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Free Stories!

NaNoWriMo 2015 saw me write 9 short stories in a month…

Gunmage Launch Day

My new novel, Gunmage, is now available from Amazon as a Kindle ebook or 6x9" trade paperback. Not a fan of Amazon? Gunmage will enter wider distribution to most online booksellers in the new year. Watch this space or subscribe to my mailing list to make sure you don’t miss the announcement. Special launch pricing ends soon, so...

Learn more about the book and read the first chapter and change free on the Gunmage book page.

Halloween Free Read: Brethren

Brethren

There’s something living in my tree—in the old, half-dead sugar maple that corkscrews its way up through the forest canopy in a tortured spiral. Perhaps this thing is feeding upon the heart of the tree, a cancer killing it from within? The old maple’s beech and ash neighbors seem reluctant to get too close, keeping a respectful, if not ashamed, distance between themselves and the twisted giant. Great fissures crease the maple’s gray bark, tracing patterns among the many burls and hollows.

What manner of creature might lurk in those fissures?

I have never really seen the thing directly. It is always a doubtful shadow, teasing my wandering eye. A fox perhaps? Maybe a squirrel? But those are living things, creatures that prove solid and certain, given the proper attention. The shadow thing is noiseless and shapeless, a deep gray patch of uncertainty lurking in the corner of the eye, an elusive rip in the fabric of the real and substantial. Blink and it’s gone, and color once again bleeds into the empty space, filling the void.

* * *

This morning, a heron landed upon the old maple, all slow pendulous grace and ponderous flight above the tendrils of fog that clung to the ground below. It lit upon one of the dead branches that points like a decaying, pale finger toward the shadows of the woods beyond. The bird settled upon the tree in a rustle of feathers, the decrepit branch creaking beneath its weight. Languidly, the heron turned its gaze upon the small stream that wound its way along the edge of the rise upon which the ancient tree stood.

My gaze was held by the bird for a minute or more before it occurred to me to grab my camera in order to capture the moment. Fortunately, I spied the device sitting on the desk next to my computer. Just a step away, but a step that would take me from the window. I took a long last look at the motionless, meditating form of the bird before lunging for the camera.

I returned in a rush to the window but alas, I was too late. The heron had vanished. No bird of such size could have flown away so quickly. I was away from the window for no more than a second or two, and yet the bird was undeniably gone. It had disappeared from the twisted old maple, from the crook of a branch just beside the gaping maw of the hollow in the heart of the tree where the mysterious gray something dwelt.

* * *

The neighborhood cats are at it again. Fighting? Mating? Who can tell what strange desires stalk the haughty minds of cats? All that I knew was that it was well after midnight, and an otherworldly noise was coming from my porch, a whining growl that set my teeth on edge and the hairs on my neck on end.

Slipping into a heavy robe, I crept quietly from my bedroom to the window that opened upon the porch. Gently, I pulled back the frayed corner of the thick green curtain. Nothing. The noise was coming from beneath the long wooden bench under the window, and I could not see beneath it from my hidden vantage point. I let the curtain’s edge drop back into place and sat with my back to the wall, eyes fluttering against the creeping tide of sleep and the seductive promise of dreams despite the noise outside.

The maddening growl ended with a sudden, awful screech. 

I spun, rising and throwing aside the curtain violently, hoping to catch sight of what had made such a terrifying noise—or what had silenced it. 

There.

At the edge of the porch, at the edge of the light, it crouched, hunched and terrible, like an emaciated child with long, stick-thin limbs and eyes of the glossiest jet. A huge orange tabby cat hung limply from its jaws. 

And then it was gone. 

I shook my head. Had I really seen such a nightmare? It was no more than a momentary apparition at the edge of the light, and an insubstantial one at that. Had I mistaken my own reflection or the reflection of something in the room behind me for a creature with a cat in its jaws? Shaken, I double-checked that all of the doors were locked and bolted tight before I returned to the uncertain comforts of my bed. 

At the end of a troubled, sleepless, yet blessedly silent night, I ventured out onto the cold concrete surface of the porch. No blood, no fur. Had I imagined the whole affair after all? I returned to the house and put on a pot of coffee and made some toast but was unable to eat or drink as I stared through the kitchen window at the deep, shadowy recesses—like so many hungry mouths—lining the sides of the old maple tree.

* * *

A trap. That’s what the situation called for. Some way to lure the thing from out of the concealing night and to capture it, thus proving to my own doubting eyes that I had indeed seen the creature. But what to choose for the bait? The heron and tabby cat suggested that the thing seemed to feed on animals of a moderate size. I resolved to visit the local shelter and enact the “rescue” of an animal in need.

My fevered brain worked through the sordid details. I would leave my trusting ward out on the porch at dusk, tied firmly to a leash. Then I would wait, hidden behind curtain and blinds, with just the smallest of holes cut in the curtain through which I would track the approach of the beast. I positioned a black leather armchair beside the window and settled in for a long night’s observance.

Birdsong prodded me gently awake in the morning after a dreamless night. I had not slept for well over a day and had not eaten for close to forty-eight hours. The exhaustion had overwhelmed me. Scrambling fully toward consciousness, I raced outside. The frayed end of the red leash lay like an accusing question mark on the patchy lawn.

* * *

The shelter won’t let me have any more cats. The woman there was polite but obviously a little scared—possibly terrified. Her plump fingers shifted nervously from toying with the ends of her knitted wool scarf to adjusting the wire-rimmed spectacles that framed her wide eyes. She never seemed to be willing, or able, to meet my own troubled gaze. I focused instead on the pale curve of her neck where it emerged from beneath the smothering embrace of the scarf. I suppose five cats in one week would be somewhat suspicious, even to a woman whose desk was festooned with framed photos of herself posing with dozens of the creatures.

The bathroom mirror at home, spattered with toothpaste and dirty water and so long ignored, revealed a possible further cause for her suspicions. I had begun to lose weight. My gray eyes were nearly hidden in deep, dark hollows beneath a pale, greasy brow. Patches of stubble shadowed my sunken cheeks. Dull, unwashed brown hair, newly streaked with gray, stuck out in all directions, and it was a struggle to straighten my spine, prematurely bent from my constant stooping to peer through the blinds of the various windows around the house, my eyes hungry for a glimpse of the creature.

I have not changed the rumpled clothes that hang awkwardly on my increasingly spare frame, nor have I bothered to bathe of late. It is quite possible that I am the source of an increasingly unpleasant odor that permeates my house, but I cannot say that I pay it much mind. More distressingly, I have not eaten in over a week. I still feel the impulse to eat, but everything in the cupboard turns to ashes in my mouth. 

I need more cats.

* * *

I had not realized that I was so quick. I shadowed the big black tomcat that claimed dominion over the local feline clans, my movements unnaturally silent across the fallen leaves, through the bare, mossy, toothpick trees tinted green in the damp twilight. 

I crept up behind this king of cats as he crouched to drink from a small, dirty puddle, and…

Got him!

Never have I moved with such speed! In an instant I had him by the neck. Out from behind the tree I had sped on noiseless, bare feet.

And then the grabbing. The twisting.

The snapping of bones like dried twigs underfoot.

But the snapping had not come from beneath my feet. Rather, it had come from between my clenched, claw-like hands. I held the limp form of the tomcat loosely, curiously. What good was a dead cat to me? The creature would not come for a dead thing. Or would it? Why was I so certain that it would not?

I sat on a bed of damp, rotting leaves, the wet soaking through my torn and reeking jeans, and stared at the corpse of the cat. Why had I killed it? I hugged my knees to my bony chest in meditative silence, unblinking eyes focused on the dead thing lying before me. I am so hungry, so very, very hungry.

When my mouth began to water, I bolted upright and ran as quickly as I could away from the carcass.

* * *

Squirrels, foxes, cats, frogs. 

Birds, bats, lizards, mice. 

They have all been surprisingly easy to catch, yet none seem to survive the catching. I climbed down from the tree and stared at the lifeless gray form of the squirrel clutched in my pale, dirty hand. 

Useless.

I have not seen the creature for well over two weeks. I still have not eaten significantly outside of the few small morsels I manage to choke down on the rare occasions that I return to the dubious comforts of home.

Mostly I keep to the woods. My clothes are threadbare, ripped to ribbons by chases amongst the trees and grasping shrubs, through cold, rocky streams, and even into caves that I had not previously been aware of at the edge of my property. I sleep in the largest trees or in leaves hastily piled upon the cold earth as I wait, ever watchful. To what secret, shadowed corner of these woods could the beast have fled?

* * *

I think, perhaps, that I am a damned soul. I came to this sorry conclusion as I followed a child home through the woods today. One of the neighbor girls perhaps? She was a small thing with waves of loosely curled black hair, kicking at stray leaves and sticks with tiny, mud-splattered pink and white sneakers. I tracked her along the wooded path as I would a cat, or a fox, or one of my countless previous victims. To my shame and horror I thought of putting my scabbed, calloused fingers around her soft, snowy throat. Would it be so different? Could it be so easy—so terribly, terrifyingly easy?

I stopped at the edge of the woods and scrambled up into the comforting, concealing shadows of a large pine. There I crouched, gnawing upon my cracked, yellowing nails as I watched her through narrow eyes, clinging desperately to whatever decency remained within my diseased heart. I think that perhaps she heard some tiny sound or felt the weight of my predatory gaze, because she turned, her eyes wide and darting as she scanned the woods. Then she spun and took off in a chaotic, stumbling dash for the safety of home, of mother, of cookies and hot chocolate and marshmallows. 

The hunger may be killing me.

I pray it does before it drives me to some desperate act.

* * *

I haven’t returned home in weeks. My skin has taken on an unpleasant, sallow shade and my already thin hair is falling out in clumps. What am I doing out here? I am so hungry and I can’t seem to find the creature from the old maple. Why am I succumbing to this obsession? I sleep during the day now, while the sun makes its blinding progress across the heavens, and my eyes seem to have adapted to the perpetual nocturnal gloom that clings to these woods.

* * *

I have never really enjoyed poultry. Chicken, turkey, duck—all of them too dry or too greasy for my tender palate. Perhaps the mistake all along was in cooking them. I caught a crow today, and before I could control my hunger, I was tearing at it with my teeth, a mess of feathers and warm blood clinging to my face and arms.

And by God was it good—so good that I managed to suppress the horror of what I had done. And momentarily—if only for a few brief, blessed hours—the hunger subsided. 

I wonder what squirrels taste like?

* * *

I have finally spied the creature that lurks on the boundaries of my every waking thought and haunts my clouded dreams.

I have been tracking it for three weary days and am fairly certain that it knows I am on its trail. But my new skills are all being brought to bear and it has yet to shake my dogged pursuit. We are moving deeper into the woods than I have ever been before—into a land of spectral shadows and quiet whispers. 

The ancient trees seem to watch me with scarcely concealed malice. Or perhaps something lurks within their branches, peering out with malevolent, hateful eyes? The remnants of my shirt have fallen off a sickly, skeletal frame that I scarcely recognize as my own. The jeans are made of stronger stuff, but they too will succumb eventually. I have my doubts about whether I will miss them when they are gone, if I will feel any shame prowling naked through the shadows.

The last remnant of dusk has long since faded as the creature moves into a clearing, and I follow on calloused, silent feet, sometimes dropping to all fours when the situation requires. Though the beast has always seemed a dull, empty gray to my daylight eyes, it now takes on a luminous glow in the pale light of the moon as it mounts a small hillock covered in ghostly, dying flowers. 

She turns—and I am sure it is a she—and smiles at me from beneath a tattered veil of lank black hair. Lips like thin straps of black leather part to reveal wicked rows of sharp, uneven, yellow teeth. A shuddering, keening howl erupts from all sides of the clearing and a host of gray, hunched forms detach themselves from the shadows and caper forward to greet their terrible queen.

And I too am howling in a savage, primal voice. It is a voice that does not belong to the world into which I was born, a world of sunlight and comfort and bright colors. For I am a creature of the shadows now, a skulking terror from the elemental darkness of a child’s nightmare, a hungry thing that goes bump in the depths of the unfathomable night, skittering across roofs on clawed hands and feet, scratching at windows. 

I run a pale, swollen tongue over my own jagged fangs and creep forward to join my brethren as they cavort in ragged, snaking spirals around their goblin queen. 

Expanded Distribution for NuLo eBooks

Here at M.S. Hund HQ, we're in the process migrating out of Amazon exclusivity for ebooks. Zeitgeist 1919 was made available at most major online booksellers at launch, and now my two NuLo books, Seven and Quinboy, have returned to wider distribution. So if you get your ebooks through iBooks, Nook, Kobo, or the like and enjoy some paranormal/fantasy flavor in your dystopian fiction, click a cover below to see where you can buy the books!

 
 

Zeitgeist Preview: Chapter 4

It's release week for Zeitgeist 1919, and in our Chapter 4 preview, the alarms are sounding on the walls of Gotham! Pre-order pages will begin popping up at finer bookseller websites as the week progresses, so keep checking the book page for updated links (Amazon-only at the time of posting, but coming soon to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and many others). On that page you will also find links to the previous preview chapters and the prelude to the book.

Zeitgeist 1919 will be available as an ebook and 6x9" trade paperback on Friday, November 17, 2017. Don't want to chance missing the launch announcement? Sign up for my mailing list or hit the pre-order button below!


CHAPTER 4

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.

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?

Silke turned.

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.

“Soon, soon.”

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.

The city.

Gotham.

New York.

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.

“Where did—?”

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.