Geist made an art of stealth.
She slipped through the moonlight shadows around the Watson Manor House, keeping to the grass to stifle the sounds of her steps. Cloaked in invisibility, she made her way across the vast front yard. Her sorcery—specter sorcery—gave her all the power and versatility of a ghost.
Geist. German for ghost. The magics in her blood had defined her codename.
Once she reached the west wall of the manor, Geist peered in through the nearest window. No lamps. No electric lights. And the crescent moon didn’t help with visibility. Despite those limitations, Geist took in a deep breath and calmed herself. Specter sorcery gave her the portfolio of a ghost, but apex sorcery gave her all the superhuman abilities of a peerless predator. Like any jungle cat, she saw through the dim lighting, her vision perfect and unobscured by darkness.
The Watson Manor House, built in 1837, had all the posh and luxury of a grand palace. The ceilings were carved into twisting, vine-like designs, the marble tiles were arranged to create smoke patterns, and massive paintings adorned every wall. Most notable were the bronze, iron, and steel statues of people long since dead. A statue for every corner of the room.
Although it was midnight, someone should’ve been awake and walking the manor—house staff who tended to the fireplaces or groundskeepers going about their duties while the lord slept.
Instead, the chimneys were cold and the estate as quiet as a graveyard.
With enough focus, Geist stepped through the manor wall, her body, Springfield rifle, and uniform incorporeal until she reached the other side. A shiver ran down her spine as she released the magic. A twisted scar on her wrist burned afterward—a souvenir she had acquired in the German trenches. Unlike a knife or bullet scar, the waxy sheen on her wrist represented damage on a magical level. She pulled her sleeve down to hide it and suppressed the terrible memories associated with the event.
Only fools trip on what’s behind them, Geist thought as she examined the dusty dining table and china cabinets. No one had used either in some time.
Geist snuck across the room and into the nearby hallway.
The Watsons were sorcerers with an unusual sorcery—they could shape metal as if it were malleable clay, and while most Watsons used it for artistry, as evidenced by their many ornate statues, some used the magic for crafting weapons. They had provided specialty equipment for the Allies, outfitting soldier sorcerers in the Ethereal Squadron.
But no one had heard from them in weeks. No letters. No shipments. Not even the nearby town of St. Peter Port had any information. The Watsons allowed their servants to live on their property, and the deliverymen couldn’t get past the gate. Their sudden seclusion baffled everyone.
Which was why Geist had been sent. She needed to investigate their disappearance and report back to the Ethereal Squadron in Verdun.
Please let me find someone here, Geist thought. Anyone.
The wood floor threatened to creak if Geist became careless. She took her time and tiptoed through the dark atmosphere of the Watson Manor House. The shadows of the copper statues created human silhouettes on walls, and while a civilian might feel terror for the unknown, Geist had been through hell and back.
She chuckled to herself. I’m the thing lurking in the darkness that men fear.
After slinking through the foyer and making her way upstairs, Geist slowed and crouched close to the ground, hoping to find signs of a struggle. Sure enough, when she came to the bedrooms, she found the hallway carpets disturbed and upturned at the edges. Instead of opening the doors and potentially alerting someone to her presence, Geist ghosted through the wood, maintaining her invisibility and becoming incorporeal.
A child’s bedroom.
It took Geist a few moments to take in all the details. Stuffed animals. Dolls. Blocks stacked into a house-like shape. She caught her breath when she examined the bed.
Pink sheets and a white comforter were twisted around the pale corpse of an eight year old. Geist walked over, her teeth gritted. Apex sorcery heightened all her senses. When she strained her ears, she couldn’t hear shallow breaths, or even a heartbeat.
Geist touched the skin of the corpse and recoiled. The icy chill of death unnerved her more than the thought of battlefields and combat. The child had died long ago.
She unrolled the body from the sheets. Her hands shook as she pulled back the collar of the child’s dress. Deep puncture wounds over the jugulars told a terrible story of a slow death, and the bruises on the arms screamed struggle and terror. But there wasn’t any blood. None on the dress. None on the sheets.
None left to coagulate in the body.
Geist didn’t look at the corpse’s face. Instead, she covered the body once she had concluded her examination, determined to give the little girl dignity, even if she wasn’t alive to appreciate it.
After a brief moment to steady her breathing, Geist made her way to the next bedroom. A little boy, two years younger than the girl, sat atop his bed in a similar fashion. Cold to the touch and drained of all blood. Nothing but a husk of his former self and shriveled from decay.
The next room was the same. A small child, barely able to walk. The master bedroom, on the other hand, had two corpses, but the room itself had been twisted with bits of metal—even the iron bars over the windows and copper bedframe were warped. Had a fight broken out? Geist took note of the destruction, especially the shattered vase and bullet holes in the wall. One of the corpses held a gun.
With her heart pounding in her chest, Geist made her way back downstairs. War took its toll on everyone, but nothing stung more than seeing defenseless children wrapped up in the violence. She entered the servants’ quarters and gagged on the strong copper scent that wafted out.
Ten men and women lay in the corner of the room, their necks slashed, their clothes and beds black with dried blood. The whole room screamed massacre. If there had been a struggle, Geist couldn’t detect it, which meant fiends had slipped into the sleeping quarters, cut their throats without any of the other servants waking, and then stacked them in the corner.
Sorcerers were far stronger than the average man, and the trained soldiers who fought in the war were far scarier than anything else. The servants never stood a chance, even if they had been awake.
Geist exited the room and searched the rest of the house, her frustration turning to poison in her system without an outlet. Someone should pay for this. A man of honor would never have participated in such a slaughter.
Her findings were what she had feared—every Watson sorcerer had been drained of blood while every civilian in their employ had been murdered.
Geist exited the house, her concentration wavering. With each disturbing thought, her invisibility slipped. She walked down the main road of the house, confident the murderers had left the manor days prior.
Two members of the Ethereal Squadron awaited her at the gates. Even without her apex sorcery to see through the shroud of darkness, Geist knew them by mannerisms alone. One fidgeted with his belt and backpack while the other stood perfectly still, coiled to strike like only trained killers could.
“Geist?” the fidgety one called out. “Thank goodness you came back.”
“What did I tell you?” the other growled. “Of course she would return.”
“She was gone for over ten minutes. That’s longer than her average whenever she goes to investigate.”
“I’m fine,” Geist said with a single chuckle. “You fuss too much, Battery.”
Battery stepped out into the moonlight, his khaki British uniform a sight for sore eyes. He stood the same height as Geist, shorter than most in the Allied forces, but not by much. His youthful facial features and lack of definition hinted at his age. Despite his lack of stature, he stood straight and offered her a smile.
“I’m sorry I doubted,” he said. “But I couldn’t imagine this war without you. Who would lead our team?”
The second soldier scoffed. “She can handle herself. And if anything had gone wrong, I would’ve stepped in to kill it.”
He stepped out to stand next to Battery, a cold glare set on his face as though it were tattoo—permanent and stark. Even if he had an unwelcoming demeanor, Geist still smiled upon seeming him.
Vergess. A German defector to the United States, and one of her most trusted teammates. He wore the drab olive uniform of the American soldiers, complete with a 48-star American flag. While the United States hadn’t officially joined the war efforts, sorcerers weren’t bound by the same restrictions as the average man. Many volunteered for the Ethereal Squadron and were accepted into the ranks after agreeing to follow the instructions of British and French commanders.
“Wie geht es dir?” Vergess asked, his German smooth and natural.
“I’m fine,” Geist replied and with an exhale. “But the Watsons aren’t as lucky.”
Battery shot Vergess a sidelong glance. “I knew it. You were worried about her.” Then he turned back to Geist. “Well, I came prepared. If the Watsons are dead, we should use the camera to record the evidence. It’ll take me a few minutes to set up, but I understand how to use it.”
“Didn’t you set a camera on fire back at the base?” Vergess asked with a chuckle.
“Th-that’s not accurate! Tinker played a trick on me!” Battery straightened the straps of his backpack. “Besides, I read the instruction manual and trained with the cameramen of the 87th regiment. I’m a professional now.”
Battery’s huge backpack carried a giant box made of mahogany wood and steel hinges. He kept the tripod strapped to the outside. The entire getup appeared cumbersome, and the straps of the backpack dug deep into Battery’s shoulders.
Geist didn’t understand cameras. All the reporters said this would be the first war truly captured in detail, yet they never explained how. Their boxes of lights and pictures confused everyone. It wasn’t magic—Geist could understand magic—yet their photographs took still images of reality and made them permanent.
“There are corpses in all the bedrooms,” Geist whispered. “And the servants are dead in their quarters. If you want photographs, make it quick. All the sorcerers were drained of their blood.”
Both Vergess and Battery tensed, their eyes going wide.
“You think Abomination Soldiers targeted them?” Vergess asked.
They all knew why.
Before the Great War, sorcerers could only develop magic that was in their bloodline. But after the war started—once the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians began fiddling with technologies never thought of—they developed Grave-Maker Gas. It melted flesh together at a baser level, creating deformed monsters of multiple people or animals. They used the gas to melt blood into their bodies in order to steal the magics from other sorcerers.
And now they were collecting rare samples.
Geist’s mouth tasted of cotton.
“Major Reese needs to know about this,” Battery said. He hustled past Geist and headed toward the Watson Manor House. “I’ll be done soon.”
Vergess shook his head. “I can’t believe they’re acting this fast. Especially after we destroyed their stores of gas during the assault on Paris. Do they really have more?”
“Maybe they’re just collecting blood for once they have it,” Geist muttered. “Either way, we need to stay on guard. If they catch any of us, they’ll drain us dry.”
Even muttering the phrase they’ll drain us dry sent a shiver down her spine. She knew the enemy wouldn’t hesitate, considering her father and ex-fiancé were top military officers. They had both tried to kill her in the past, and she didn’t see why they would stop now that they had a way to steal her specter and apex sorcery.
Geist glanced back at Battery. He came from a long line of sorcerers with rare magic. And not just one magic, but untold numbers. Would he be a target? The thought lingered in her mind for a prolonged moment.
“Stay with him,” Geist commanded, “while he takes his photos. I’ll go to the port and make sure our ship is ready to take us back to Le Havre.”
Vergess replied with a curt nod.
Blick turned to Geist with a coy smile. “The grand duchess wants to see you alone? You’re a real charmer.”
She shook her head. “Now isn’t the time for games.”
“I bet the duchess asks you for a dance.”
“For both our sakes, I hope she doesn’t,” Geist quipped.
Battery turned to her, his brows knitted together. “Wait, you don’t know how to dance?”
Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and stared. The collective silence bothered Geist more than the question. Of course she knew how to dance! It had been one of the many lessons taught to her by tutors from all around the world. That wasn’t the problem.
“I’m sure the grand duchess will want a man to dance with her,” Geist drawled. “I was taught the steps for a woman. You can see how this will go poorly.”
“Oh,” Battery muttered. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He tapped his chin for a moment before smiling. Then he stood and held out his hand. “Well, it should be a simple task to teach you the opposite steps. I can help.”
Tempted by his offer, Geist got to her feet, though her whole body felt cold and distant. She didn’t want to risk exposing herself for some recognition from the tsar. She just wanted to complete the operation and leave.
Battery kept his hand out, but Vergess pushed it aside. He stepped in front of Geist and held out his hands.
“I’ll do it,” he stated.
Of the two options, Geist preferred Vergess’s instruction. Then again, she didn’t want to learn how to dance in front of her squad. Stumbling around like a drunkard wasn’t high on her list of team bonding.
Geist hesitantly placed her hands on top of Vergess’s. He turned them around. “You hold the woman’s hands,” he said. “You control what’s going on.” Then he nudged her, as if urging her to start the dance.
The others got out of their seats, moved the furniture to the edge of the room, and then leaned against the wall. They watched with amused half-smiles—even Defiant, who squinted the entire time. It was enough to twist Geist’s stomach into knots.
Please, God. What have I done to deserve this?
She started with a few slow steps. Vergess urged Geist to go faster, even though they had no music to work with.
Which meant everything happened in painful silence.
While Geist enjoyed her close proximity to Vergess—especially since no one could complain—she couldn’t enjoy a second of the event. She stutter-stepped around, hesitated for a few seconds, and pulled Vergess along by the hands, knowing full well she looked like a childish amateur. I’m such a fool, she thought, unable to look Vergess in the eye for fear of ridicule and mockery. Why am I even doing this?
For the past few years, she had trained, killed, and fought in a bloody war, yet the thought of playing the man in a ballroom dance was the thing that crippled her confidence. She had no idea what she was supposed to do, and half the time she continued to slip back into the role of the woman, secretly hoping Vergess would just take over so she could be done with the “lesson.”
“Relax,” Vergess whispered.
So damn easy to say.
And it didn’t make things better that the others were muttering amongst themselves.
Then Blick snorted. “You’re terrible.”
Geist ripped her hands away from Vergess and turned away. “Yes. I agree. We should stop this.”
“What?” Blick said. “We don’t want to risk offending the tsar and his family, remember?”
Victory wheeled on his younger brother, a scowl that could wilt plants. Blick chortled, in no way intimidated.
“You should practice,” Vergess said. “Just try again.”
“Why don’t you try explaining what she’s doing wrong?” Dreamer interjected.
“She can learn by doing.”
“A proper teacher uses every tool to teach a student.”
“Yes, well, perhaps explaining the dance isn’t my forte,” Vergess barked. “Why don’t you tell her?”
Dreamer shook his head. “I don’t know how to dance. That wasn’t a skill taught to eunuchs.”
“Then perhaps you shouldn’t offer advice on matters you know nothing of.”
The odd argument got the others tense. Vergess and Dreamer stared for a long moment, but after exhaling, both men turned away. Vergess returned his attention to Geist and held out his hand, ready to practice again.
“Why don’t I try?” Victory said.
He walked around his chair, one arm still in a sling, but he held himself like only a gentleman could. Then he offered his good hand and smiled.
With his aristocratic upbringing, Geist figured Victory would know best. She exhaled and took his hand. The look Vergess gave her when she passed—it was fleeting—was like he wanted to object, but couldn’t.
“You don’t need to worry about the grand duchess discovering your secret,” Victory said. “She won’t have her hands all over you. That’s improper.” He motioned to his hip. “You place your hand here. She will place a hand on your shoulder. And while you may come together in the dance, I doubt she will notice anything through the layers of formal clothing.”
“Th-thanks,” Geist muttered. The simple explanation did put her at ease.
Victory continued, “The key to leading a dance is to control everything from your torso—the core momentum coming from your center of gravity. The woman may be holding one of your hands, but she’ll feel the way you shift from your torso first.”
When Victory swayed side to side, Geist felt the movement. It dawned on her then, like someone pulling back the curtains to reveal the truth. Dancing did come from the torso. Why had she been trying to pull Vergess by the hands? It seemed so foolish now.
“You try,” Victory said.
Although she still felt ridiculous, Geist attempted to lead Victory around the room. To her surprise, he began humming. Although she had never considered his voice soothing or lyrical, the pleasant melody he provided for their faux dance reminded her of a quiet evening in London she once shared with her mother and younger brother, Dietrich. It made it easy to keep pace and focus on the footwork. Much easier than silence.
The others whispered among themselves, but Geist didn’t feel as ridiculous as before. At least I’m actually dancing.
Halfway around the room, Geist stared up at Victory, closer than she had ever been with him before. He had a slight scar over his right eye—one that altered the way his eyebrow grew and affected his eyelashes. He had gotten the scar when they fought the German U-boat. A decision Geist had made. During the fight, a piece of glass had dug its way into his face, and Cross didn’t get a chance to heal Victory until weeks later.
Then Geist glanced down at Victory’s arm resting in the sling.
That was my fault, too.
Victory paused his humming to say, “And if the lady makes a misstep, you apologize.”
“Really?” Geist asked as she returned her attention to him.
“Of course. As the gentleman, and the lead, you take responsibility for all mistakes. Always.”
Shaken by Victory’s words, and the scars on his body—all due to her mistakes—Geist continued to keep his gaze. It took her a moment, even while they danced, to whisper, “I’m sorry, Victory.”
She didn’t say anything else, but the look Victory offered in reply told her everything. He knew what she meant.
Instead of saying something cutting or hurtful, he gave her smile. “A gracious lady will always accept the apology. Everyone makes mistakes.”