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.

Zeitgeist Preview: Chapter 3

With release day just over a week away and the final notes and corrections filtering in from the proofreaders, it's time for another Zeitgeist 1919 chapter. Today we meet Konrad von Elbing and his drachenwolf, Freiheit.

The fourth and final chapter will drop on these pages early next week, but for now, enjoy Chapter 3. If you like what you read and want to get the novel at 50% off the list price, hit the pre-order button below as the price will jump before our next preview...

Zeitgeist 1919 will be released on November 17, 2017.


CHAPTER 3

The zeppelin’s cabin was thick with abhorrent chanting. Slick, oily fingers of ensorcelled air ran over Konrad’s skin, encircling his limbs and torso. He shuddered and pushed his way through the robed zaubersänger and their miasma of song, conscious of the maimed leg he dragged behind him, conscious of the hooded eyes staring at his cane, topped with a stylized silver eagle.

“Damnable sorcerers,” he muttered, gripping the handle of the door to the exterior walkway. Rain painted the window set in the door, rippling the darkness beyond. The door shivered with the cold violence raging outside. Konrad drew a breath and yanked the door open.

Wind and rain lashed into the cabin, drawing cries of outrage from the assembled warlocks. Konrad hid a smile behind his collar as he lurched out into the storm and dragged the door shut behind him. His hands found the metal railing in the near darkness, the light from the cabin doing little to push back the pall of the storm. Gone was the glimmer of the moon on white-capped waves below. Gone were the shimmering stars.

Good.

The bluster of the storm suited Konrad’s mood. He tugged up the collar of his greatcoat and leaned into the wind, pushing his way aft, nursing his disgust for the Kaiser’s spellsingers. Wretched little men grasping for power, usurping the influence of the Junker nobility.

Konrad’s family was old and honorable. The von Elbing clan had been fighting beneath Prussian banners for centuries. What were these robed troglodytes with their hexes and curses, their myths and monsters? Konrad paused, staring over the railing into the storm-lashed darkness, searching for the shadowy forms he knew lurked there.

Monsters in the dark.

He caught himself rubbing his deformed leg and jerked his hand away as if burned. 

They had done this to him, the miserable hexemeister. They came without being summoned in the wake of the accident, whispering to his father as he lay abed in the hospital, his leg a white flame where the horse had fallen on it. Days, they had claimed. Three days, not the months the doctors said they would need to heal him. The warlocks promised to repair his leg in time for Konrad to assume his commission with the cavalry. They could make the leg better, they said. Stronger. Konrad would not have to wait, would not have to chance missing the appointment he craved.

His place in the cavalry.

Where a scion of the von Elbing family belonged.

Konrad slammed his cane against the railing, sending sparks of numbing pain arcing across his fingers and palm. Why had his father listened to the low-born witch-spawn? Why had he indebted the von Elbing family to sorcerers and let them work their treacherous arts on Konrad’s leg? It went against every tenet of thrift and godliness he had taught Konrad to value. What about fortitude? What about self-denial?

“Lerne leiden ohne zu klagen,” Konrad hissed, echoing his father’s favorite expression.

Learn to suffer without complaining.

Konrad snorted. He wondered if his father really understood suffering. The zaubersänger magic festered in bone and tendon and muscle, a slow and insidious poison that caused Konrad constant pain. He wondered, given the events that followed, if healing had ever been the warlocks’ true intent.

Movement in the darkness below was followed by a snuffling sound, barely audible above the roar of wind and rain. The grimace that twisted Konrad’s features loosened its hold, and he whistled. A vast shadow rose above the level of the railing, pushing toward him with a whine and the stench of leather and wet fur.

“Guten Abend, mein Freund.”

Ungodly monsters they might be, but they were his monsters.

The drachenwolf pressed its snout into Konrad’s chest, shoving him back against the cabin’s curved metal exterior. Konrad chuckled and scratched the creature’s chin. Freiheit had always been his favorite, the mount Konrad considered his own.

The smile that threatened to claim his lips died stillborn. Freiheit was no proper mount, no cavalry horse. Leutnant Konrad von Elbing would never ride into battle in the fashion of his ancestors.

Because the hexenmeister had failed.

Because their sorcery had mutilated and ruined him.

Because their so-called miracles were lies and bargains with the devil. Lies that left him maimed and humiliated. He had wanted nothing more than to carry the von Elbing standard into battle, to add another chapter to their long and honorable family history. But with a ruined leg, there was only one way for him to get to the front lines. Die Fliegertruppen. Or at least that was what the Kapitän who broached the option of a Flying Corps commission had claimed.

Konrad sniffed. Had that officer been pressured to direct him to Die Fliegertruppen? Who would have the motivation to do so? Who would have the influence? Konrad had his suspicions. 

He did not turn, but he sensed the foulness of spellsong seeping through the walls of the cabin behind him. There were times he swore he could smell sorcery. Konrad’s leg ached in sympathy, prompting a fresh flush of anger and resentment.

He remembered his father’s response when he presented his orders. Die Fliegertruppen? Why should a von Elbing serve alongside glorified mechanics, butchers’ boys, and farmers? What glory was there in flying over battles, dropping bombs on the real warriors below? What honor and courage was there in dueling when you could not see the blood or the eyes of your enemy?

As if his father had any right to judge after giving his only son into the care of sorcerers. Hours of pain and chanting bleeding into days of agony. The unclean thoughts of robed figures brushing against his own as they prodded and tugged, reshaping bone and muscle.

And for what?

A half-healed leg, permanently twisted. His every limping step bringing fresh torment.

And something else.

The zaubersängers’ spells had changed something inside him. He first felt it when his father’s favorite dog, Fritz, had come snuffling around Konrad as he sat in his wheelchair in the garden. There was an opening, a window through which he could perceive the hound’s mind. Konrad had known intuitively that he could form a connection with the animal.

And the dog had sensed it as well.

Curse the hexenmeister and their machinations.

Freiheit growled as Konrad’s hands clenched into fists, tugging hard on the fur of the drachenwolf’s neck. How many others had suffered the same fate? How many broken youths from Junker families had the sorcerers “healed” in order to create their riders?

Konrad forced his fingers to relax, to stroke Freiheit’s chin.

It had all been so promising at first. So many young men from proud bloodlines joining Die Fliegertruppen. Stirring speeches from General Ludendorff himself. Personal messages to their training cadre from the Kaiser. It had almost been enough to convince Konrad that they would be the basis of a new breed of warrior, knights of the modern age.

But then the sorcerers introduced the drachenwölfe. 

Konrad remembered the beasts being led out of a hanger, remembered the gasps of horror from his comrades. Giant wolves with wings, products of a demented amalgam of magic and science. Abominations, huge and hideous. And the raw need of the creatures! Konrad sensed their desperation, their openness to bonding. They all did. 

Several of the Junker youths were not present when they mustered the next morning. No reason was given for their disappearance, but those who remained knew.

Knew and hated themselves for remaining.

Because as revolting as the drachenwölfe were, they offered a chance at glory, a chance that most of the Junker youths had thought lost to them. Their minds and bodies may have been broken, but the drachenwölfe would allow them to fight.

And the drachenwölfe could fly.

The first time Konrad rode one of the creatures, he hated himself for loving it, for loving them, for embracing the bond that exposed him to their willingness to please and their ferocity in battle. Were the drachenwölfe not victims as well, their bodies and souls polluted by hexenmeister sorcery?

He wanted desperately to reject what the sorcerers offered, what they expected of him.

But he was more desperate to fight.

And for that, Konrad needed the drachenwölfe. Flying machines would have let him fight without the full use of his leg, but with a drachenwolf he could do even more. They all could. A corps of broken young men, carefully prepared to bond with monsters, to become one with them.

To fly and fight.

“Soon enough, Freiheit.”

The drachenwolf shuddered as he stroked it, and he stared into the creature’s eyes. They glinted in the light coming from the cabin, brown shot through with amber, a sun-dappled forest beneath a distant canopy. Konrad dismissed the momentary thought that the forest was where Freiheit belonged. The drachenwolf was a hunter more suited to ghosting through trees than clinging to the side of a zeppelin as it braved the stormy Atlantic on its way to glory and conquest in America.

If not for its size.

If not for the unnatural wings.

Konrad shook his head. “But such is the world we are born into, Freiheit. The natural order no longer applies.”

Chanting reverberated against the bulkhead behind Konrad, and he felt it moving, sinuous and malevolent.

“The natural order is dead, mein Freund.”

The drachenwolf whined, sensing the anger in Konrad, and pulled back. It tilted its great, shaggy head, rain mixed with slaver dripping from massive jaws. 

Konrad forced a smile and held out his hand for the creature to sniff. “There is nothing left for us in Europe, no honor in fighting and burning the dead Russian hordes. But in America…” Rain ran over cheeks hot with blood. “In America there will be great battles, opportunities for glory. Even the hexenmeister cannot pervert that.”

* * *

Rory’s head swam as he and his fellow recruits stumbled out of the dance hall. His arms and legs were distant and numb, attachments he regarded with vague curiosity. Wearing a uniform carried its privileges, and one seemed to be that it rendered bartenders blind to age. Of course, being in a group where half of the men could be his grandfather didn’t hurt. Rory flexed his fingers experimentally and watched, fascinated, as they moved without his feeling them do so.

“They’re all mad, those maniacs with their flying machines.”

Rory had heard the same sentiment at least a dozen times in the course of the evening. Word of the flyover stunt was on everybody’s lips. He’d yet to say anything to his companions about his brother James being in command of the Air Wing squadron, but he knew it was only a matter of time before alcohol loosened his tongue. For now he was content to float along in their shadow, silent and reveling in the attentions of the citizenry, still buzzing over the test firing of the great cannon.

Corporal Sims, their leader for the evening, leapt onto the base of an Edison lamp and whirled around it, hand shading his eyes as if he were atop the mast of a sailing ship, sighting for land. He paused, leering, and held out an unsteady arm, pointing the way to their next destination. Rory cheered with his comrades as they lifted Corporal Sims down and staggered along the sidewalk in the direction he had pointed. 

As they progressed, they gathered followers. Men who wanted to buy them drinks. Women who wanted drinks bought for them. Street hustlers and vagrants, a motley assemblage whose faces flashed before Rory in a blur of glistening flesh and swirling, boozy smoke. The chill evening air had carried a threat of snow, but Rory couldn’t feel it anymore. He couldn’t feel much of anything.

The arrival of the girl jolted him from his good-natured stupor. New faces swam past constantly, but hers demanded attention and received it immediately. And not only from Rory. Eyes like chips of ice peered out from beneath a cloud of pale hair that floated as if she were swimming through the night. She spoke in a soft sing-song, and Rory strained to make out her words, colored with an accent he could not identify. French maybe? Her clothes were too large and at least ten years out of date, but that only added to the exotic strangeness of her. Out of time. Out of place. Classical in a modern world.

Corporal Sims and one of the larger cannoneers swept in on either side of her, arms settling comfortably across her shoulders. She smiled slowly, but Rory saw the confusion in her eyes, the almost drunken distraction. Something urged him to help her, to rescue her from his companions. Was it the drink making him think like this? Rory’s vision swam, and his stomach churned with an evil queasiness. He tried to blink away the pale spots dancing behind the woman and her two burly escorts.

He blinked again, but the spots remained.

Stretched.

Resolved into the faces of giants, bloodless and impassive as stone. Corporal Sims and the others did not seem to notice them. The dark bulk of the giants’ bodies were rocks around which the carousing bodies broke. Revelers bounced off their immobility, turned to confront them, and suddenly lost any interest in doing so. Dead, black eyes kept watch on the woman.

Rory gathered his courage, fueled by the unfamiliar fire of alcohol in his veins, and prepared to go to the woman’s rescue. But they had already reached the next dance hall, and Corporal Sims swept her through the entrance. The backlog of bodies squeezing through the doors slowed Rory’s progress, and he glanced around, trying to locate the pale giants in the crowd, worried that they had already followed the woman inside.

Instead, he saw his brother’s wife.

What was Nora doing downtown at this hour? 

She stood beneath an Edison lamp, swaying and clutching her handbag. Facing her was one of the huge, pallid strangers with dead eyes. Rory fought the current of bodies being sucked into the dance hall, shouting her name as the stone-faced giant stretched a massive hand toward her.

Nora’s legs buckled, and she slumped back against the lamp post.

Rory surged forward, pushing and cursing his way through the packed bodies. As he dashed across the street, Nora sank to the ground, unconscious, her handbag falling to the pavement. Papers spilled from its open mouth to be scattered by a swirling eddy of wind. The pale giant crouched over her, and Rory let out a wordless cry as he flung himself at its back.

The thing—and Rory was certain it was a thing now, not a man—moved with inhuman speed, retreating into the shadows at the edge of the lamplight, leaving Rory to tumble across the pavement. He rolled to his feet and placed himself between the creature and Nora. His stomach clenched. Twisted. He tasted bile as points of pain blossomed behind his eyes.

“You stay away from her,” he growled through gritted teeth, hands bunched into fists at his side.

The creature only stared past him with its dead, dull eyes. There was no expression on its face, though Rory got the impression that it wanted to attack him, wanted to get at Nora. And what could Rory do to stop it? He was having a hard enough time staying on his feet and fighting down the urge to vomit.

Jaw locked and stomach churning, Rory raised his fists. He’d grown up sparring with brothers who were both bigger and stronger than him. Not as big as this giant, but still…

The creature pulled back from the light without a sound, and Rory watched it vanish. Sweat prickled his brow and dripped down his cheeks. He took a hesitant step toward the shadows, fists still raised.

Behind him, Nora moaned in a language he could not understand.