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.