Edmund Templeton, a time-manipulating sorcerer, and Istvan Czernin, the deathless spirit of WWI, are the most powerful agents of the magical cabal now ruling the US 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?
File Under: Science Fiction [ Borrowed Time | Esprit de Corpse | Fight for Peace | Wizard and Warlord ]
About the Author
Author hometown: Washington, USA
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"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.
"Yes, but ..."
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.
2012. 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 ten drilled 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.
Excerpted from "Immortal Architects"
Copyright © 2017 Paige Orwin.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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