Zeitgeist Preview: Chapter 1

Zeitgeist 1919 is a tale of magic and machines, star-crossed lovers and mythical monsters, and you can pre-order your copy for 50% off the list price for a limited time! Read more about the book, including a number of teasers and the book's Prelude on the Zeitgeist book page. Or dip your toe in with the first chapter, presented here in its entirety...

Available November 17, 2017

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CHAPTER 1

Gotham glowed beneath an orange and gray dusk, her myriad Edison lamps pushing back the encroaching gloom. The city’s streets hummed with tales of industry and magic, with rumors of the war kept at bay by the mighty Atlantic and the arcane machines of American technomancy. Rory Donnelly walked those streets in a daze. He ran his hands through the dark tangle of his hair and then lowered his fingers to stare at them, wondering that they were not still tingling.

“I touched it,” he muttered.

His fingers strayed to the brass pin affixed to his collar, a stylized lightning bolt atop a disk. He remembered the pulse of the imprisoned energies, his skin itching and crawling as the great machine hummed to itself.

A Tesla cannon.

“I touched it,” he repeated, still in disbelief.

Had it been just a week ago that he stood in the shadow of the great wall listening to the buzz and crackle as the cannoneers tested their weapons, dreaming that one day he would be up there with them, preparing to defend the city? 

And what of tomorrow?

Tomorrow could not come soon enough for Rory. Tomorrow the new recruits would take part in firing one of the great weapons. 

Rory shivered inside the borrowed greatcoat. His wiry frame would never fill it out as James had. He frowned as he pictured his older brother’s burly, athletic build, the black gloss of his hair, the Defense Force pilot’s wings pinned to his collar. Rory unfastened his own cannoneer’s lightning bolt and shoved it deep in his pocket. James would know what the symbol meant. Despite all the strings he pulled on their mother’s behalf to get Rory behind the safety of a desk, somehow his younger brother had been assigned to the Tesla cannon batteries.

Mother would not be happy.

Rory paused beneath the glow of an Edison lamp and tugged his collar up against the evening chill. Now that he was almost home, he wondered if maybe he should have accepted the invitation from his new battery-mates to join them for dinner.

A curtain twitched on the second floor of Aunt Eva’s brownstone, and Rory’s lips compressed in a tight smile. If he’d accepted that invitation, his mother would have sent James to look for him. Worse, she might have come looking herself.

Rory stepped out from beneath the Edison lamp and crossed the street. On the stoop of Aunt Eva’s building he took a deep breath to settle himself and to suppress the excitement the Tesla cannon had smeared all over his face. Then he pushed open the door.

* * *

The city glowed on the horizon, a pale finger between dark sky and darker water. Silke stared at it from the rolling deck of the unterseeboot. The black water surrounding the submarine sang to her, but its chant was deep and alien. Not like the cheerful babble of the brook beside her parents’ farmhouse. Not like the weary lament of the Rhine where she and her sisters…

The Rhine? Had she ever seen the Rhine? And what sisters had she been thinking of?

Silke shook her head.

A brother. She had a brother.

But he was dead now, wasn’t he? Hadn’t the Americans killed him? Silke tried to order her thoughts. She couldn’t even remember her brother’s name. But she knew he was younger than her. Surely too young to enlist? And why would he have been fighting Americans? The Russians were closer.

The Russians…

A fleeting image danced through Silke’s head of a wasted and shambling man, skin gray where it was not rubbed raw and pink. Bones protruded from his savaged arm. Worms writhed in empty eye sockets.

Silke twisted a pale strand of hair around equally pale fingers and tugged hard enough that tears filmed her eyes. The vision fled, dragged down by other memories of trucks and trains and cold rooms with steel tables. Men in dark robes—Zaubersänger sorcerers, measuring and whispering, examining her body, testing her intellect. Prodding and probing. Pain and sickness.

Her hair had been darker then, streaked with red and gold. Silke remembered it piled on the floor around her, harvested by unkind shears. She remembered the hissing voices, the hunger for revenge blossoming in the confusion of her mind. Revenge for her slain brother.

And what about her parents? Were they dead as well?

Memories of lumbering gray bodies in the village.

The Russians. And some of her neighbors.

The corpse-army! Coming for her family, coming for her…

The gray bodies in her memory gave way to slender shapes, sinuous and bright beneath the sedate flow of the Rhine. Her sisters, voices raised in chorus for the watching sorcerers. And the zaubersänger, adding their own voices to the song. Her thoughts and memory being pulled apart, woven back together.

And then the long dark.

Why wasn’t she shivering? A bitter wind tugged at Silke’s thin dress, but the cold did not bother her. It was a distant thing. Nothing to worry about.

She lifted her hand. Light from the distant city painted the webbing between her slender fingers a pale pink. Had they always been like that? Why couldn’t she remember? What had the zaubersänger done to her memory, to her body? Were the sisters real? Was her brother? Her parents? The village of her birth? They all felt true. But maybe not. And what of the corpses stalking her…?

“Forgive us, the drugs were necessary. They kept you safe.”

Silke’s head snapped around. The rumbling engines of the unterseeboot and the insistent song of the sea had masked the arrival of the man standing behind her on the deck. Or at least she assumed it was a man. The robed figure’s features were hidden by the darkness. She made out several indistinct shapes looming behind him, silent and watchful as standing stones.

“The confusion will pass. Your mind will settle shortly.” The words slithered around her, oily and gritty all at once. “The song of the deep ocean during the crossing would have driven you mad.”

Zaubersänger, thought Silke. She took an involuntary step back. The dark water called to her. It would be so easy to jump in, to swim away, to put distance between herself and the sorcerer. And water. Water had power against their breed of magic.

Silke hugged herself. How did she know that? What had they done to her? Something flashed beneath the sorcerer’s hood. His teeth?

“It calls to you, does it not?” he rasped. “But remember your mission, maiden. Remember.”

He stepped close to her, and Silke fought the impulse to dive into the dark water lapping the hull of the submarine. It was deep and alien and forbidding, but no more so than the man—or was he a demon?—standing before her. He leaned in close, and the dim light played across a wasted expanse of dark hollows and scars. Had some disease ravaged his skin? The sorcerer’s eyes burned with a green light that held her motionless, opened windows in the mist of her thoughts.

Shuffling corpses on the farmhouse path, wearing the faces of her parents—

“Remember your brother, maiden. Remember who killed him.”

The sorcerer’s breath smelled of stone and dirt and decay. Grave-stench.

Whispers chased each other through Silke’s head. Her mouth opened. The zaubersänger raised one finger, bent at an unnatural angle, and touched it to her lips. Heat blossomed. Burned. She could not pull away.

“Your parents and your brother. Remember them. Remember what happened to them.”

Corpses. Oh dear God, the corpses. The dead should not walk. How could they be walking? Where were her parents? What did her parents look like? There were holes in her memory, holes shaped like brother, like mother, like father. The farmhouse remained. The animals and flowers and gardens remained. But no faces of those she loved, no names even. All forgotten. All stolen.

“Remember.”

Another finger touched her forehead, tracing a line of fire across her brow. The zaubersänger began to chant in an unfamiliar tongue, and Silke’s mind flooded with images of her brother, his body broken and bloody. But he was not in the garden, torn apart by corpses that might have been her parents. He was on a battlefield, and American soldiers loomed above him, their features twisted and demonic.

“The Americans have ways of detecting us,” the sorcerer hissed in her ear. The stench was terrible. “Machines built by Tesla, Edison, and their technomancer ilk. Defenses the river prevents us from getting close to. But not you, maiden. Magic has shaped you, and yet you have no spellcraft to trigger their alarms. Remember your mission. Remember what you must do.”

The rhythm of his words surrounded her, wrapped her in a tight embrace. Silke put her hands to her head, touching skin that was clammy and cool. Had she always been like this? She tugged hair that was almost white, not the gold from the mirrors of her childhood. Shaking her head, she tried to remember that girl.

“Go, maiden,” the sorcerer hissed. “Open the way so that we may enter, so that we may avenge the fallen. Your fallen.”

Image of her parents, ruddy-cheeked and smiling.

Fading.

Now ashen-faced and gaping.

Dead eyes. Gray hands reaching—

“The Americans,” a voice insisted from inside her head. “It was the Americans. Take your vengeance.”

Silke shook her head, trying to dislodge the voice, but a second joined in, and they hissed in chorus. And a third. Then a fourth. A whole host of whispering voices.

The sorcerer’s lips brushed her ear, and Silke shuddered.

“I can make them go away,” he rasped. “The voices. The memories. The visions.”

His hand touched her shoulder, fever-hot through the fabric of her dress. She did not know what was real and what had been put in her head by sorcery. She did not know who she was. Was Silke even her real name?

“Do it and be free.”

Silke twisted and dove from the rolling deck with a cry, the dark sea parting to embrace her, icy and warm all at once. For a moment, all she heard was the dull roar of the unterseeboot’s engines. Then, as she put distance between herself and the submarine, other sounds reached out to touch her. First came the bright chorus of small streams singing of mountains and trees and sunshine. Then the languid, steady drone of an old river. Then the deep chanting of the bay.

But there was another song lurking beneath them, an ancient and menacing dirge she had heard before. It had brushed against her mind during the ocean crossing, sending questing fingers through the fog of zaubersänger drugs.

So unfathomably old…

The deep-song chased Silke toward the city as she swam with all the speed the zaubersänger shaping magic had gifted to her. It promised protection, promised safety. And belonging. Just swim to the deeper water, it called. Swim to the cold currents of the sea. Be free.

But the chattering in her head was too loud, too insistent. Could the song of the sea rid her of what haunted her mind? Or was that something only the zaubersänger could do?

Had the sorcerers put the voices there to begin with?

Vaguely, Silke was aware of something making thrashing, violent progress across the surface of the bay, following her with unerring accuracy. But that was only of minor concern to her. The noise paled beside the horror of the voices from her past, beside the ocean-song that told of madness and imprisonment and a yearning to be free.

To touch the air again. To see the stars. To feel the wind. Lost, all lost.

Something in the sea was trapped.

Trapped like the voices in Silke’s head.

And dead. Dead for so many centuries.

Silke swam.