A legendary serial killer stalks the streets of a fantastical city in The Helm of Midnight, the stunning first novel in a new trilogy from acclaimed author Marina Lostetter.
In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power—the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city.
Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.
It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter, on sale 04/13/21!
Krona had been called to a fair few scenes of violence in her three years as a Regulator. Crimes of passion often took place around enchanted items—usually arguments over ownership rather than any sort of magically aided conflict—and in her opinion it took little skill to kill. “No, not exactly. You see, it was Charbon’s knowledge of anatomy that allowed him to dissect and rearrange the bodies as he did. His will to kill might very well be engrained in his echo, but it was his intricate knowledge of the internal workings of a human, and his capacity to dismember a body just so, that Eric Matisse preserved.”
The man nodded, as though considering this. He hemmed and hawed for a few more moments, then blurted, “And which of these baubles would you say Magistrate Iyendar is the most proud of?”
Perhaps an innocent question. Perhaps not. “I don’t know him personally,” she said carefully.
The man took a small, sliding step back toward the brooch. New tears brimmed at the edges of his eyes, and he used his sleeve to dab at his nose. “Surly it’s not the ruby,” he said, jaw clenched. “The feelings of others never did interest him.” Trembling fingers clenched and unclenched. “Tell me, Regulator, where would you be the evening after your granddaughter’s passing? At a gala?” He reached for the glass.
“Monsieur, please move back.” She put a warning hand on the hilt of her saber, simultaneously sucking in the reverb bead. “I may have a problem,” she murmured.
“Understood,” chimed three replies in her ear.
Monsieur Iyendar the younger—for now she was sure—did not touch the case, but turned on her. “Where would you be?” he demanded. “Would you make your son leave his child’s side? Would you make him endure pleasantries for the sake of face?”
Krona’s chest tightened, but it was not her place to inquire after—or, save the Five, make judgments about—the Chief Magistrate’s family. “Monsieur—”
With a strangled sob, he skipped backward, toward another pillar. “He likes the masks best. I know he does. This one with the fish, what’s so dangerous about it?”
She caught sight of Tray moving in from the front, and Sasha walking stiffly from the other side of the collection, both dodging potted palms and guests alike.
“The mask belonged to Lord Birron. He was very skilled in opiate refinery,” she said placatingly, taking Iyendar by the elbow. “Please, monsieur. Come away with me. To that seat just over there.”
He threw her off. “No. If these trinkets mean more to him than my daughter, I shall examine them until I am content.” His palms smacked against the case, leaving sweaty smears.
Wishing the others would move faster, she unsheathed her saber. “You know I am fully within the order of the law to remove you.”
“So remove me!” he shouted.
Faces snapped in their direction, carrying various expressions from irritation to interest.
“Do you want to cause a scene?”
“A scene?” he scoffed, feigning scandalization. “I resent the idea that I would in any way desire to disrupt the Magistrate’s perfect evening.”
“How may we be of aid?” Tray asked as he and Sasha drew up on the opposite side of the pillar.
In contrast to the frills, alternating high-low collars, and soft lines of the attendees’ clothing, Regulator uniforms were simple, yet imposing. The three of them looked like black pieces from an artisan chess board. Tall, wide helms—roomy enough to accommodate an enchanted mask beneath, though one wasn’t always worn—spanned shoulder to shoulder, making the Regulators look like neckless, faceless, multihorned beasts. Long leather coats gave them strong, box-like proportions, and many Regulators, like Krona, chose to bind their chests beneath. The coat topped a pair of umanori, which made for easy movement and encompassed knee-high boots with thick-heeled soles.
The only snatches of color on the uniform belonged to their bracers, faceplates, and weaponry.
“Oh, yes, helpful, aren’t you?” Monsieur Iyendar spat. “Make sure no one’s smile cracks, make sure no one has a pout, or scuffs a shoe, or breaks a nail.”
He babbled on, all the while holding the glass case between his palms.
“Monsieur, I believe you’ve indulged too much this evening,” Sasha said, grabbing one wrist and wrenching it behind his back.
“Unhand me!” he shouted.
The guests’ casual glances had turned to stares, and the natural, joyous flow of the room halted.
“Unhand me, unhand me!” he continued to shout as Tray took his other arm. The two Regulators dragged him in reverse, but he lashed out with his feet before they could put any distance between the grieving man and the collection.
A flailing boot caught the upper portion of the pillar, sending it off-balance.
Krona’s heart leapt as she lunged for the mask case. The stand toppled away, beyond her reach. A resounding crash brought even the violinists’ music to an end.
A jagged blast pattern fanned away from the overturned stand. The mask itself—carved of hardened cherrywood, depicting two blue carp swimming in opposite directions with waves and cherry blossoms swirling around them—appeared unharmed. Krona thanked the Five for small favors.
As the young Monsieur Iyendar was hauled bodily through a side door that led to the catering kitchens, the three remaining Regulators—Royu, Tabitha, and De-Lia—hurried toward her position. They urged the guests back while she contained the scene.
“What happened? That was my son.” The booming voice of the Chief Magistrate echoed in the conservatory. He was a tall man that led with his belly, and his hands seemed perpetually fisted and ready for shaking at the air. He was of an age most people could never hope to see. Well into his sixties, approaching seventy. Krona was sure he’d cashed in many of his family’s time vials.
“Please stay back, Monsignor. We have a containment issue,” said De-Lia, holding out a barring hand.
Sweat beaded across Krona’s forehead as she squatted down near the shards of glass. From her side satchel she brought out a velvet containment bag, lined with mercury-infused threads. Carefully, she slipped the mask inside.
Why hadn’t she defused the situation sooner? She should have forced him away from the display as soon as she’d confirmed he wasn’t of joyous mood. He was an outlier. Outliers were always dangerous because they were unpredictable.
Securing the cloaked mask in her pack, she set the pillar upright in time to notice three men from the Nightswatch rush through the main doors. All other eyes were turned in her direction, and thus failed to notice.
She sucked on the reverb bead and marched over to the next display case. “I think we should secure the rest of the collection. I don’t like—”
Movement outside the window caught her eye. Something shifted in the darkness, bulky and covered in spines. Or maybe it was simply the wind riling the shrubs. No, there—the eyeshine was unmistakable.
“Varg,” she said breathlessly, keeping the bead firmly beneath her tongue. “We have a varg.”
“How did it get past the Watch?” asked De-Lia.
Krona addressed the crowd, doing her best to keep the fear out of her voice; a panicked rush for the doors would only make things worse. “I need everyone to back away from the windows, please.”
She was glad for the enchanted gemstones on her arms. Vargerangaphobia, the healers called her condition. An intense fear that went well beyond the natural aversion most people possessed. She had nightmares about the monsters, dreams that often left her screaming and sweaty in her darkened apartment. Their huge, hulking forms would stalk her in her sleep; somewhat canine, somewhat bear, and somewhat unique horror all to themselves, they were misshapen, violent aberrations of nature.
Without the borrowed emotions in her bracers, Krona would have curled up on the spot.
“How many?” De-Lia pressed.
“I only see the one.”
“Loners don’t come into the city, there have to be more. Quickly,” she said to the other Regulators, “get the Magistrate out of here.”
Krona drew her quintbarrel. The specialty steam gun—made for shooting down varger with five-inch, needle-like ammunition—possessed five cylinders, each with its own type of shot. After every pull of the trigger, the barrels automatically rotated, bringing the next firing chamber in line with the striker.
Five types of varger, five types of needles. They were the only instruments that worked against the monsters, and even then you couldn’t kill them, only contain them.
“Holster that,” De-Lia chided, pulling out her own quintbarrel. “You’re staying here.”
“I can do it, I passed my—”
“That was on the range, not a varg in sight.” The stern tone of her voice said, We both know what happens when you get too close to the monsters.
Krona cursed, silently admitting to herself that De-Lia was right. She’d only just passed her quintbarrel rearmament exam—her score embarrassingly low. She could use a blunderbuss just fine—snip the hair off a horse’s chin at a distance. But a quintbarrel would always make her think of varger. The weight of it in her hand muddled her mind, and a small voice of doubt whispered to her, You can’t do it, you can’t do it, no matter how hard she fought for the contrary.
Once more, Krona drew her saber. “A miss with a quintbarrel is better than a hit with a blade,” she protested. At least with a quintbarrel you get a second shot, a hit with a blade won’t so much as slow one down. Everything in her body screamed to pick up the gun again, no matter her past failures. “I can’t take a varg down this way.”
“You won’t have to,” De-Lia assured her.
Krona looked to the guests again; a few of them were inching toward the glass. “Back away!” she ordered.
Several partygoers mistook Krona’s command as an invitation for the opposite; they flocked to the panes, trying to decipher what had gotten the Regulator so excited. A flash of long fangs clued them in to the danger.
“Varger!” one woman screamed, her tight, high-collared bolero doing nothing to restrain her voice. “Varg. There’s a varg!”
The quiet murmurings in the hall erupted into shouts and bellows. Part of the crowd rushed toward the windows for a better look. Another portion dashed for the doors, creating a bottleneck of bodies. A third segment huddled together in the center of the conservatory floor, subconsciously deciding safety lay in numbers.
“Let’s hope it’s not a jumper,” De-Lia said before springing into action. The five types of varger each possessed their own devastating abilities. Jumpers could disappear and reappear—one minute outside, in the next. “I need all Regulators on site into the poppy garden, promptly. Single varg spotted, pack suspected. Krona, finish with the display. Tray, find the nearest Nightswatchmen and recruit—we need to direct our noble mesdames and messieurs to safety.”
“There are three from the Nightswatch—” Krona began, but, scanning the crowd, she couldn’t find them again. “Never mind. Understood.”
Holding her gun high, so as to keep it away from the frantic guests, De-Lia marched out of the conservatory.
Before attending to the other artifacts, Krona went to the windows, putting herself between the panes and the people. “Back away.” They skidded away from her sword, as though only just now grasping her authority. “Varg protocol. We don’t know what types are out there, so I need you all to—”
Krona whirled. On the other side of the glass stood a varg, head lowered, eyes trained on her. Its long, misshapen snout curled in a snarl. Thick saliva dripped from its jaws, and green pus oozed from one of the many fist-sized boils poking through its spiny fur. As she watched, it padded away, disappearing beyond the reach of the gaslight glow.
After another moment it returned, running at full speed toward the smorgasbord. Today’s special: humans under glass.
Another resounding thunk. The panes rattled, and a small spider’s-web crack splintered across the green expanse. Someone sobbed. A gentleman fainted.
In the darkened garden, a series of flashes revealed shots fired from a quintbarrel. The special powder blazed boiling-hot, bursting the steam chambers that sent needles straight and true at high speed. But the gunman’s target was not the assaulting varg.
At least it’s not a jumper; if it was a jumper people would be dead already, Krona assured herself.
“Nightswatch: hah!” yelled an officer from the entryway. “If you’ll all find a partner and follow the Watchmen through to the hourglass catacombs, please. Orderly, orderly, please! We aren’t common, now are we?”
People streamed out the doors in a rush of neutral colors, looking for all the world like a wash of dirty water. Watchmen pulled stragglers out from behind trees and benches.
Outside, more gunfire. The flashes illuminated the streams of people. The Watchmen were quickly losing control of their charges—nobles darted out of the building and into the garden instead of the entrance to the catacombs, screaming, running with no destination in mind, just panic in their hearts.
More varger appeared, catching the nobles’ cries and running toward them like the sound was the blaring of a dinner bell.
“Look away!” Krona shouted at the partygoers still frozen before her, still enwrapped with the monster trying to beat its way inside. “Look away!”
One of the panicked men came running at the solarium, almost directly for the varg attacking the glass. Perhaps it was a mimic—masters of camouflage that could blend into the environment. Perhaps the man thought it nothing but a bush rustling in the wind. The varg spun, its hackles raising, spines flaring. The man realized too late that teeth were before him.
Outside, the flashes from the needle guns made everything appear as though it were happening at half speed.
Flash, and the man’s expression shifted from panic to fear.
Flash again and it was horror—
Flash again and the varg was leaping—
Another flash and claws were tearing—
Flash, blood, flash, viscera, flash, bone.
Flash, flash, flash.
Krona turned away herself, clamping down on the bile in her belly that wanted to escape. The emotion stones in her bracers helped her focus, the magical boost of courage and resolve keeping her fears muted and pushed to the back of her mind.
There were maybe a dozen nobles left inside, and they were fighting the Watch to stay.
“The monsters are outside! We’re safe here, safe indoors!”
“There are some in the kitchens!” a Watchwoman argued. “Our best bet is to get you off the grounds!”
With gory bits of sinew and fat dangling from its jaws, the varg at the window turned to the glass anew. The beast sought its first goal once more.
Perhaps it was a love-eater. They sought prey with strong emotions, those wallowing in love, or hate, or guilt, or . . . jealousy.
The cracks in the glass seemed to paint a bull’s-eye directly on Krona’s back.
Additional fissures appeared. Hopefully the pane would hold long enough for Krona to gather the enchanted goods.
Kicking and screaming, the last of the guests were hauled bodily from the room. But their hollering only worsened. Reverberations of pain and horror echoed from the halls. Krona did all she could to block them out and focus on her task. The Watchmen would see to the people. The Regulators would see to the varger and enchantments.
The strongbox in which they’d transported the items lay tucked at the back of the room. With the conservatory now empty, she darted to it, setting her saber aside and throwing open the lid to dig out the specialty cases formed to fit each piece.
Three boxes in hand, she spun—
—and a great weight barreled into her. She fell, and the boxes flew to the side, skidding across the polished marble. Whatever had hit her now held her down, scrabbling at her uniform. It pushed her faceplate against the floor and tore at her arms.
But she refused to stay pinned.
Working one hand free, she stretched for her saber. Her reach came up short. Mere inches separated her from her weapon.
Sharp knives—or claws, claws—raked down her trapped left arm, tearing off her lower sleeve, taking both her bracer and skin with it.
As the bracer flew away, it felt as though a deeply embedded thread—like a lifeline wrapped around her heart—was yanked from her body. She felt every inch of the invisible link slide through her insides, tearing and ripping.
The left bracer contained the enchanted yellow topaz, a stone imbued with borrowed courage. Its magic filled in the void of her fear, covered over the emotional wounds with bandages of bravery.
But now the stone was gone. Point two seven grams of courage, gone.
And with a possible varg on her back, she didn’t have a drop of her own courage left.
Fear stopped her lungs, but with her last intake she caught a whiff of moldering fur and rancid breath. The smell was primal. It called up images of blood and bones, tearing and open wounds. And festers. Varger always had festers, as though the very air caused their skin to boil and burn.
I’m going to die, she cried out in her mind, though the panic that swamped her was so complete she could barely think in words.
The monster continued to claw at her, tearing at her shoulders, looking to swipe off her helm. It beat her head into the floor, pressed down on her shoulder blades, and drew more blood.
The memory of that first varger attack when she was young—so many years ago—assaulted her. It buzzed through her brain like a swarm of locusts. She knew what came next, once a varg had you down. It would rip and grind, masticating its prey thoroughly before consuming it.
She’d turned away this evening—couldn’t watch it happen through the rippled sheen of green glass. But she’d seen it happen in grotesque living color before, taken in the scents of masticated human and varg saliva and hot stomach acid.
She’d seen it happen right at her feet.
To her father.
There was a flash in her mind.
Dark, dark blood. A gaping hole where a throat should be . . .
A growl suddenly curled against her ears, but it sounded wrong. She knew what a varg sounded like: otherworldly. A sound no other creature could mimic. Deep, and high, and far, and near. A varg call vibrated in your very bones. This was not that sound.
Her bravery may have evaporated, but she still had her right bracer—still had the resolve granted by the red garnet.
Kicking, she reached, willing her tendons to stretch, willing her fingertips to extend.
A blade won’t work against a varg.
I won’t die without a weapon.
Copyright © Marina Lostetter 2021
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