Paige Orwin’s The Interminables introduced us to a fascinating fantasy landscape—al alternate version of the world we know, rent by powerful magic. In 2020, the east coast of the U.S. is under the control of a magical cabal whose two best agents—Edmund, an immortal 1940s-era mystery man, and Istvan, a ghost—are keepers of the peace. In the first book, they must investigate a shadow war that has been waged behind-the-scenes for centuries, and the consequences of their actions were wold-altering.
In September, Orwin returns the story of Edmund and Istvan as they deal with the fallout in Immortal Architects. Today, we’re revealing the cover (designed by Amazing 15) and sharing the first chapter. You’ll find both below the official summary.
Edmund Templeton, a time-manipulating sorcerer, and Istvan Czernin, the deathless spirit of World War I, are the most powerful agents of the magical cabal now ruling the U.S. East Coast. Their struggle to establish a new order in the wake of magical catastrophe is under siege: cults flourish and armies clash on their borders. Perhaps worst of all the meteoric rise of a technological fortress-state threatens their efforts to keep the peace.
As if that weren’t enough, a desperate call has come in from the west. A superstorm capable of tearing rock from mountains is on its way, and it acting unlike any storm ever seen before. Who better to investigate than two old friends with the sudden need to prove themselves?
And here’s the first chapter…
“Come now, it will be perfectly fine,” said the ghost, his accent more than faintly reminiscent of Dracula. “Nothing to worry about. Put your hat on.”
Edmund Templeton regarded his top hat steadily. It was old, like him, and didn’t look it, like him. He’d bought it in the Fifties, when this had all started. He’d been thirty-five then, too.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You’ve put on all the rest,” said Istvan Czernin. “Even the cape, which I should think is the oddest.”
He propped a thumb in his belt, buckled high around the waist as was proper for the uniform he wore: Austro-Hungarian infantry, circa 1915. A medic’s cross banded one arm. His face was broad and bespectacled, his features a hawkish blend of Caucasian and Asiatic, the right side of his mouth twisted upwards, paralyzed in a permanent half-grin. Burn scarring tugged at the corner of his eye and plunged into his collar.
He cast no shadow. Barbed wire coiled at his feet.
“Lay off,” said Edmund. He adjusted the cape, a high-collared number with a mantle, intended to make his shoulders look broader than they were.
“It is,” Istvan insisted. “I’m surprised you still wear it after that business with the tiger.”
“That’s why it’s buttoned, not tied,” Edmund grumbled.
Just give me a moment, Edmund almost said. He didn’t. He stopped himself, even though it wouldn’t have mattered – not with Istvan – and again he regarded his hat. It was the last part of the full ensemble: black double-breasted suit jacket, black tie, black pants, black shoes. Black gloves. A pair of battered aviator’s goggles. A silver pin at his lapel, a pair of crescent moons together forming a clock marking midnight.
It wasn’t exactly a uniform, but it might as well have been.
The Hour Thief. That was how the world knew him, and he’d chosen the title for a reason. It was true. Every word of it, bare and literal.
Before, of course, he hadn’t been known at all. The Twelfth Hour had been a secret, a wizard’s cabal founded just before the turn of the century to carry on that old and foolish tradition of looking too deeply into things that looked back. They had all been secret, then, often even from each other.
Now the Twelfth Hour was one of the only governments left on the northeastern seaboard that could enforce anything beyond its walls.
It had been eight years since 2012. Eight years since Mexico City sank. Eight years since every major population center in the world cracked and buckled under ancient sorceries, twisting into vast stretches of what was no longer quite real: the city present juxtaposed with cities past, future, never, and alien, overrun with warping magics, shattered by the tread of rubble-born beasts like walking skylines.
- The Wizard War. The return of Shokat Anoushak al-Khalid, the Immortal, who might not have been killed in the fighting this time, either.
Eight years trying to pretend that the Hour Thief still moved in the dark.
Istvan strode to the door, footfalls silent despite the hobnails in his shoes. The barbed wire followed him. “Come on, now. You’ve put this off long enough.”
“Don’t remind me,” Edmund told him.
“Someone ought to.”
Edmund took a breath. It was nothing he hadn’t done before. Nothing he couldn’t do. Nothing, really. Just put the hat on and go.
He cast one last look around his living room: the green couches dusted with cat hair, the bookshelves packed with volumes in eighteen different languages, the upright radio in the corner that could only pick up one station and that only in the morning. A blue plastic barrel filled with river water sat near the three shallow stairs to the kitchen. A sheet of steel siding patched what had been the front window, cut in the center to hold a windshield removed from a pickup truck.
No pictures on the walls. No plants. Beldam was off doing the sort of things cats do. She didn’t need him, really. She could find her own meals if she had to. She always forgave him, if he forgot.
Cats could take care of themselves.
The words emerged sharper than he intended. One hand slipped into the pocket of his suit jacket.
Istvan raised his eyebrows. “I’m going to open the door,” he said.
Edmund rubbed a thumb over cold brass. “I’ll do it.”
“It’s my house, I’ll do it.”
Istvan stepped aside. The wire tangled around his feet, rusted and faded, stained with old blood. The blood was normal; rust meant he was worried.
Another breath. Edmund stared at the door handle. His hand stayed in his pocket.
“Your hat,” said Istvan, gently.
Edmund hesitated one more moment – yet another that wasn’t his, that he couldn’t spare – and then donned his hat. The weight settled on his head like it belonged there.
“OK,” he said. The Hour Thief said. With it all assembled, that was who he was. Who he became. That was how the world knew him. What was left of it.
He tried a smile and it fit easily into place.
“There you are,” said Istvan, a note of approval in his voice. He set a hand on Edmund’s shoulder, the touch freezing in a way more than physical but familiar, and endurable. “Shall we be off then?”
Edmund nodded. He reached for the door handle, and turned it.
Nothing foundered. Nothing sank. Nothing sprang at him.
He blinked at sunlight glinting off rain-slick cobbles, the road winding towards the sea, the streetlamps strung with salvaged power lines that reached from cottage to suburban rambler to the pagoda perched high on the hill. A gutted truck sat before his house, stripped of windshield and front doors. Smoke spiraled upwards from chimneys and hobo stoves. Gulls fought over a clump of tendrilled strands that came apart as it fell. A clothesline bobbed, just visible, over the hedge. Edmund tried to remember the neighboring family’s name, and couldn’t.
New Haven. Still home, despite the changes. His house hadn’t been so close to the shore before the Wizard War – it hadn’t been a free-standing structure at all, in fact – and the original city port was gone, stretches of highway and storefront drowned along with it. The new docks were visible just down the street, piers cobbled together from scrap, rubble dumped into the water to form boat ramps.
Across the grey waters of the sound rose a twisted spire, three miles high, marking the deadly remnants of New York City. The Black Building. Auroras crackled at its peak.
Istvan stepped out beside him. “There. Not so difficult, was it?”
Edmund looked away from the horizon. He didn’t need any reminders about New York. A nearby window caught his eye: a round face peering out, a hand raised to wave – and then another figure that rushed over and whisked the curtains shut.
He sighed. He closed his fingers around brass, warm now, and drew out his pocket watch. The embossed hourglass on the front was almost worn off again. He flipped it open. “You know, Istvan, I think it was better when I was just that strange old-fashioned bachelor at the end of the block.”
“I’m sure they appreciate knowing the truth,” Istvan replied.
“They already knew the truth.”
“But now they can know it openly, and I imagine they do feel safer with you about, even if they don’t show it.” The ghost glanced up at the window, then away. Bone flickered beneath his skin. “It’s mostly me, anyhow,” he added, “frightening them.”
“It’s not mostly you.”
Istvan started down the drive. He left no footprints. “Come on, then.”
Edmund eyed his pocket watch. Just past noon. He’d checked his ledger this morning, again, even though there was nothing to note save the usual drain. One more day to replenish. Twenty-four hours.
He snapped the watch shut and dropped it in his pocket. He made sure his hat was on straight. He checked that Beldam hadn’t escaped (as cats do) and that the wards etched beneath his welcome mat were still true. He closed and locked his door.
Then he followed Istvan.
“We aren’t going to see the Magister?”
Istvan shook his head. “No.”
Edmund shoved his hands in his pockets, stepping around whatever it was the gulls had dropped in the snow. “New headquarters site?”
“I, ah… thought we might go for a walk.”
“First,” Istvan amended. “A walk first, and then…”
This again. This was the second time this week. Edmund hunched his shoulders and walked faster. “Istvan, you know I haven’t figured out what we’ll need. You’ve seen the lists. With as hard as it is to get anything now, and trying to convince anyone in the area to go along with it, and trying not to rely on Barrio Libertad…”
He shot a glance around, just in case anything was listening, anything at all, even the dust. “Istvan, the labor alone – the food, the water–”
“Do you know how hard it is to find anywhere with clean water?”
“I can’t bring it all in myself, and we’ll have no power, and no defenses, and–”
A bony vulture’s wing snapped open before him, scattering rotten feathers and loops of faded wire. Hollow eye sockets regarded him through mists that stank of chlorine and mustard gas. “Edmund,” said Istvan, apparently oblivious to the bloodied bullet holes torn in his uniform, “Please remember that I’m quite accustomed to that sort of privation.”
Edmund spent a moment to calm his racing heart. Just Istvan. It was just Istvan. He pushed away skeletal phalanges. “I know.”
“And that I’ve offered to help.”
The specter darted before him again, awful wings flaring. “You’ve a standing order!”
Edmund almost walked through him. He could have – easily, too – but Istvan was a friend, his closest friend in all the world, and treating him like he was no more substantial than he was emphasized that he wasn’t human, and Edmund didn’t want any more reminders of that. No more than the unavoidable.
“Please cut it out,” he said.
Distant artillery hammered. “But I–”
Edmund drew a hand across his lapel.
The specter paused. He glanced down, cursed softly to himself in Hungarian, and brushed away a line of bullet holes ripped into his chest. The wings dissipated. Flesh returned, scarred and pearlescent and unreal as it was. He fiddled with his wedding ring. “It’s getting worse, isn’t it,” he said.
“I’m doing it more than usual, I know it.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Edmund lied.
Istvan peered at him, gaze sharp behind his spectacles. “You don’t believe that.”
Edmund shrugged. “I’d like to.”
He meant it. He really did.
Unfortunately, Istvan was a sundered spirit, a human soul torn to pieces and then merged with the horrific energies of disaster: anything from earthquakes to plagues, famine and war. They were rare – Edmund knew of only three others – and a class of ghosts unlike any other, more attached to a historical event than any place.
In Istvan’s case, the First World War.
He was bound to it. Made up by it. Its violence seethed within him, and its power had brought him back. He remembered not only his own experience in the war but that of everything and everyone that participated. After it was over, he’d fought all over the world for almost eighty years, a cryptid caught in blurred photographs and depicted in unit insignia, driven by the bloodlust that was now a fundamental part of his nature.
The Twelfth Hour had caught him in the Persian Gulf. He was the most dangerous prisoner they had ever kept. Now, freed, he was the most dangerous entity on roster. He hadn’t done anything terrible yet, but no one could guarantee that who he’d been in life was always enough to override what he had become. It was enough to make anyone worry.
Edmund had used him, and though Istvan had accepted more than one apology, Edmund feared that he still wasn’t forgiven. Might not ever be.
He nodded at the road, cobbles winding downwards toward the beach and the rickety docks. Any eavesdroppers were keeping themselves well-hidden. “Were we going to take that walk or not?”
Istvan stood there a moment longer. Then he brushed away the last of the bloodstains, resettled his glasses, and started back along the path. Edmund stepped around the trailing wire and followed.
A team of ragged fishermen and women were hauling a boat onto the jetty as they approached, rents ripped into its aluminum sides and part of its canopy torn off. One man sat on the pier, shaking, trying to untangle a snarl of lines and netting. No haul.
Edmund tipped his hat at them, wishing he knew how many might go hungry. Eight years he’d lived here – since the eastern seaboard from Boston to Washington DC became the twisted fracture zone of “Big East,” since desperate bands of survivors first poured in to shield under the aegis of the Twelfth Hour, which, for a time, he’d led – and he still couldn’t place any names or faces in his own neighborhood.
“Hard sailing?” he tried.
“Some,” one replied, a taciturn man who looked to be prying a hook out of one arm.
Istvan squinted at the damaged boat. “Did you run afoul of a kraken, then?”
No response. The fishermen exchanged weary glances.
“Well,” Edmund said, “if you need anything, let me know.”
“Edmund, there are krakens here? You never told me there were krakens here.”
“Come on, Istvan.”
The beach wasn’t deserted, but it soon became that way. A pair of children that had been throwing rocks in the water now hid behind a carved stone head that had appeared without explanation when the war began, whispering about the wizard that was actually Mr Templeton from down the road, the strange man who lived alone, who sometimes had fits and didn’t come out.
That’s the Hour Thief. The Hour Thief and his ghost.
No one had said he had grey in his hair.
“I’m thirty-five,” Edmund told the stone head as they passed it.
“I’ve told you it looks fine,” said Istvan.
Edmund dropped his hand from the grey streak shot through the jet-black he’d maintained for seventy years.
“Rakish, even,” Istvan continued.
Sand shifted beneath Edmund’s tread, footprints for the tide to wash away. Nothing to think about now. He coughed. “What’s this new site you’ve found?”
Istvan bent to pick up a stone, hefting it distractedly. “Ah… you remember that ossuary cathedral I showed you?”
“We’re not going back to the cathedral.”
“No, no, of course not. But, yesterday, while I was making certain that nothing more had escaped from it, I found a facility that I seem to have overlooked. It’s below a sort of overhang of other buildings – not easily visible from the air.” He hurled the stone at the water; it passed through his hand instead and clattered down onto the beach beside him. He sighed. “Oh, I used to be so good at that.”
Edmund picked up a stone of his own. “What kind of facility?”
“I was hoping we could investigate.”
He angled the stone across the waves. It skipped twice, three times, and then a tentacle shot out of the water and slapped it away. He ducked; it struck the bluffs behind him like a gunshot.
“Krakens,” Istvan said meditatively.
Edmund called down the beach at round faces and wide eyes, peeping out from behind the driftwood. “Do your parents know you’re out here?”
Istvan was still staring out at the water. “Do you suppose…”
Edmund gripped his pocket watch, the thought of mounting an expedition below the waves to take on tentacled horrors was nothing he wanted to consider. Never again. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“The new site is quite dry,” Istvan said, casting him a worried glance.
“What I saw of it, anyhow. I didn’t go very far inside – I was due back at Providence, and, well…” He looked away, dragging the toe of his shoe through sand that didn’t respond to his presence. “I thought you might want to come along. You’ve been so locked up, worrying over those lists all day, not talking to anyone, not going out except at night, like a wraith, and…”
Edmund picked up another stone. Grey, with streaks of white. Six months of the same assignment, starting everything over from scratch. He was the Hour Thief. He was the Twelfth Hour’s most visible asset, most famous member: the oldest fixture of a young wizards’ cabal, compared more than once to the fine china or the family dog, an elder statesman on indefinite probation for a crime no one else remembered. As far as any of the others were concerned, he had simply always been there.
There was a reason for that.
Lead the founding of another Twelfth Hour branch, the Magister had said. Keep an eye on Barrio Libertad, she’d said. You were Magister during the Wizard War, Mr Templeton, and you survived that well enough. How hard can this be?
Sometimes he still woke up shaking. Or worse.
He hadn’t asked to be elected.
He’d never asked.
He threw the stone at the water. It didn’t skip.
“Edmund?” asked Istvan.
“Let’s go have a look at the place,” Edmund replied. He pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open, focusing on its weathered face instead of the ripples on the waves. Past noon. “Might as well. Sooner rather than later. Near that cathedral, you said?”
Istvan nodded. “Not walking distance, but I can show you.”
“All right. I’ll meet you there.”
The specter hesitated. “Pardon?”
Edmund fixed the familiar room in his mind: upright radio, well-stocked bookshelves, green couches he’d never bothered to replace. Ineffable calculations bubbled in the back of his brain, just beyond conscious thought. Safer that way. “I have to feed the cat.”
He snapped the watch closed–
– and vanished.
Istvan watched golden glimmers fade, outlines that sputtered out where Edmund had been, and kicked at sand that flew only begrudgingly. Very well. If the wizard didn’t arrive when and where he was expected, Istvan knew where to find him.
At least he’d agreed to the walk. Come outside, a bit, like a normal person, instead of skulking about at night, doing what he did. It was a start.
There would be no backslide, not if Istvan had any word in it. Once was enough. Once, years past, lost and drowning in the depths of those wine-rich fears…
Istvan sighed. He looked across the water, where krakens dwelled, and then up at the gulls, wheeling. A fine walk, while it lasted.
He wished it had been longer. He wished he didn’t wish that.
He jogged four steps, ran two, and leapt at the water, pinions scattering bloody droplets from their tips. Poison streamed behind, barbed wire looping in glittering contrails. One shoe struck the waves. Nothing grabbed for him. Disappointing.
He skimmed the surface a moment longer, water rippling red below him, then tilted and shot upwards. The seagulls scattered. One wingbeat and he was level with the pagoda on the hill. Another and he circled it, peering through paper windows at a haze of color and motion beyond. A third and he rose above it, New Haven rendered down into features on a map, Edmund’s house at the end of its road and the mountainous edifice of the Twelfth Hour – once a modest library, now mingled with the lines and stonework of a Hindu temple – overlooking fields scratched in and around Yale and its gargoyles.
To the west billowed the smoke and steam of the Generator district. To the south a pine forest grew below a great crystal dome. To the east stretched the sea… and on the horizon, the Black Building, a mirrored spire three miles high. Its auroras crackled even in the daytime, now.
City, all of it. City where there hadn’t been any before. City that shouldn’t have existed, parts of it fallen to rubble or rent by enormous claws, beautiful in its very state of dissolution, its struggles, its terrors. Mixed-vintage misery was the flavor of the day: not at all unpleasant, darkened by dread, textured by small annoyances and flashes of hate or pain. Even the abandoned stretches and the wastes were grand, in their own way.
Istvan was the only one who ever saw it from this high, this far. He’d never met another flyer who wasn’t trying to fight him. He hadn’t seen any aircraft in years.
Oh, if only Edmund could fly as well…
Istvan shook the thought away. He rolled to place the Black Building on his right and sped northwards, wind sheeting through his ears. The Twelfth Hour’s domain receded, replaced by the tenuous alliance of sheltered enclaves it oversaw. Fourth and Black. Oxus Station. The Magnolia Group and their crashed spacecraft. The Wizard War memorial, the concrete corpse of the felled beast stretching across twelve city blocks.
The ossuary cathedral lay eighty or so miles to the north. Istvan reached it in five minutes.
Edmund was there already.
Istvan alighted beside him. The man was staring at the building’s stained-glass windows, their elaborate mosaics glorifying an invisible God of sun and storm, Mary the mother of sacrifice, penitent saints Istvan didn’t recognize. Feathered serpents framed each panel.
“The workmanship is fine, though, isn’t it?” Istvan tried.
“It wouldn’t have felt right,” Edmund replied. He turned, the sun overhead and the brim of his hat casting part of his lean face into shadow. His goatee and sideburns seemed neater now; his smile readier, faint but pleasant. Beneath it churned the truth, the bittersweet roil of familiar fears: fear of the task at hand, fear of past failures, fear of darker things he hadn’t yet and would likely never escape.
He was, on the whole, unfairly handsome.
“Ah,” Istvan said. “Shall we be off?”
A nod. “I’ll follow you. Let me get on the roof.”
Another snap of that pocket watch. In a moment he was gone, and a small dark figure stood on the cathedral roof, stumbling a bit on loose tiles before it straightened, cape snapping in the winds.
Istvan took to the air again, fleshless and awful. Try as he might, he couldn’t fly any other way: he’d never had wings in life.
He led Edmund across a district badly rent by the recent earthquakes, abandoned like the other wastelands, great fissures plunging into the earth along with parts of roadway, tenements, overgrown parks. No dramatic maneuvering, this close to the ground. Not now. Edmund followed in flickers: atop a clock tower and then standing on a market roof and then leaping a gap between alleys, a still portrait stepping from panel to panel, just near enough to keep Istvan in sight.
It wasn’t the power that had given the man his name, but sometimes Istvan wished it were. It asked so much less of him. So much less of those around him. Oh, it would take ages for him to make up the shortfall, and of the means to go about it, well… the less thought about that, the easier it was.
No better, but easier.
At least Edmund didn’t kill people.
Istvan folded his wings and dropped, landing with a billow of chlorine and the booming memory of distant artillery fire. The worst faded with the feathers; only the wire remained, twisting in place of a shadow. He peered out over the edge of a stucco balcony, vines spilling down its sides in a verdant cascade.
A tiny courtyard opened below. In the center, a shaft: spiraling stairs, electric lights that guttered, walls lined with steel and glass. The buildings around it leaned inward, as though drawn towards it.
“Well?” said Edmund, appearing beside him.
Istvan nodded. “Yes, down there. Look.”
Edmund glanced over the edge. “Ah. I can see how you’d miss it at first.” He tugged his cape over a protruding vine. “You said you’ve gone inside?”
“Hm,” said Edmund.
“I thought you might like to come along,” Istvan blurted. “And I, ah… I didn’t want to go any further alone. It seemed abandoned, but what if…”
Istvan rubbed at his wrists, where the chains had been. Twenty years bound. He hadn’t even been able to leave the Twelfth Hour basement until the Wizard War, eight years ago. He’d been a prisoner. A trophy. They had locked him to a pillar in the Demon’s Chamber, forced to his knees, barely able to move. No one had come to visit him but Edmund.
Even after, when Istvan was given more leeway, when he had all of the Twelfth Hour’s claimed territory to patrol… he had worked in the infirmary, and gone out only rarely, either to respond to disasters or to accompany Edmund. He was what he was. He was too dangerous. The wizards had seen what he’d done when they told him to fight, even if he himself couldn’t remember anything but a euphoric blur, and he couldn’t blame them at all, because they were right.
For twenty years he’d had his orders. Disobeying them meant agony.
“There’s nothing stopping me, you know,” he finally said. He realized what he was doing and crossed his arms on the balcony instead.
“You’d stop you,” Edmund said.
“I haven’t,” Istvan told him. “Not before. You know that.”
“I’m still here.”
Istvan punched him in the shoulder, which had roughly the same effect as a blow from a housefly. “That doesn’t count.”
Edmund stood there. He rubbed his shoulder.
Then Istvan’s rational self caught up to what he’d done. “Oh,” he said. He coughed to stifle an idiotic chuckle. He folded his arms on the balcony again, looking down at the well.
“Are you all right?”
Istvan took off his glasses. “Oh, you oughtn’t ask that of me.” The lenses weren’t dirty – they didn’t, strictly speaking, exist, save in memory – but he wiped at them anyway. “‘I’m still here.’ Of course you are. Of course.” He put his glasses back on. “Edmund, you’re a terrific bloody cheater and I shouldn’t be glad of that.”
The wizard stared at him, confusion dueling self-hatred battened down by denial. “Right,” he said. He flipped open his pocket watch. “Let’s see about that facility.”
A snap. They stood four stories below at the edge of the well of glass.
“You could have said something,” said Istvan, reorienting himself. The steel railing spiraled down beside him. He trailed a hand over it. It was cold, hidden down here in the shade.
“Sorry,” said Edmund. He took a step down the stairs, paused as though testing his weight, and then took another. “There’s still power,” he commented.
Istvan tried to focus. Electricity, yes, even though there hadn’t seemed to be anyone down there before, and he couldn’t make anyone out now. Anyone save Edmund.
Oh, he shouldn’t have done that. Shouldn’t have said that.
Cheater, indeed. Don’t bloody remind him.
Shouldn’t have touched him.
“I thought that was interesting,” Istvan finally said. “That the power still works.”
“Hm,” said Edmund. He started further down the stairwell.
Istvan checked again: still no hint of any stray suffering, any human emotion he could taste. All bland and abandoned. That didn’t rule out other beasts, of course, but monsters were usually easier to manage.
Edmund’s apprehension suggested he didn’t share that opinion.
“It isn’t unheard of,” Istvan said, though he wasn’t quite sure that it wasn’t.
“Eight years running through these kinds of earthquakes with no maintenance?”
“Perhaps the Germans built it.”
“Ha,” said Edmund. His top hat vanished from sight.
Istvan rubbed at his wrists, half expecting the burn of chains that weren’t there. Oh, he hated such tight quarters. One never knew what might jump out. Likely innocent, too, and only frightened.
“Coming?” called Edmund.
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
Istvan flitted down the stairwell, taking the steps two and three at a time. The harsh light flickered, spiraling in glowing tubes around and around. Sometimes they ran behind the glass rather than on the outside.
Edmund stood before a steel hatch. A green light blinked above a windowed slot in it, coated in a dull patina of smoke. The labeling was no language Istvan had ever seen, hooks and horns and little squares, tiny lines pressed into the metal.
“Tocharian,” said Edmund.
“Can you read–”
“No.” The wizard tugged at the wheel. “And I don’t think it’s coming open, either.”
Istvan inspected it. Someone had welded the seam between wheel and door together. “Oh.” He hooked a thumb in his belt, somewhat at a loss. “I… didn’t see that.”
“You wouldn’t.” Edmund squinted through the window slot. “I think I can manage, but if this pans out we’ll have to fix that.”
He retrieved his pocket watch and vanished in a golden blur.
Istvan sighed. He hadn’t looked. It hadn’t mattered. He couldn’t move anything that heavy himself, anyhow.
He stepped through the door, steel dragging through his ribs, the chill of the metal rather like stepping through a waterfall while the waterfall simultaneously stepped through him.
He almost ran into Edmund. The wizard had stopped cold on the walkway beyond, staring out at cube after cube of glass-walled hydroponics gardens, lit by great coiling arcs of those same strange tubes. Each cube could have housed a squadron of aircraft. Ventilation hummed.
“Power still works,” Edmund said, weakly.
Istvan straightened his uniform, though nothing was out of place. “I did fly across it, some,” he admitted. “I suppose it self-maintains somehow, or…”
Wait, there was someone here – something–
Footsteps fell on the walkway.
Istvan whirled. He should have known it earlier – he always knew, he couldn’t miss even the most banal of suffering, the smallest annoyance, the merest hint of the human condition–
– except for in one circumstance.
The woman that climbed the stairs to meet them, Oriental, clad in a belted robe of blue and silvery earrings, was a hall of mirrors. Whoever she might have been, whatever self lay beneath, now reflected her surroundings – reflected the fears and uncertainties of others, camouflaged her, hid her within the background flavor of the city above them.
It was as though she were multiple people. A city, herself.
“Afternoon,” she said, in perfectly understandable English.
Edmund raised a hand to tip his hat. Istvan grabbed his wrist.
The wizard glanced back at him. “What?”
Istvan backed away, trying to look everywhere at once. It was so hard to detect them. It was like searching through static.
“Istvan, what is it?”
The woman smiled at them.
Edmund looked to her, to Istvan, then back to her. “Oh, hell,” he said.