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Excerpt Reveal: The Cage of Dark Hours by Marina Lostetter

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The Cage of Dark Hours by Marina Lostetter

The Cage of Dark Hours is the second novel in the epic fantasy trilogy from acclaimed author Marina Lostetter, where the defeat of a serial killer back from the dead has pulled the mask off the myths and magics of a fantastical city.

Krona and her Regulators survived their encounter with Charbon, the long-dead serial killer who returned to their city, but the illusions of their world were shattered forever.

Allied with an old friend they will battle the elite who have ruled their world with deception, cold steel, and tight control of the magic that could threaten their power, while also confronting beasts from beyond the foggy barrier that binds their world.

Now they must follow every thread to uncover the truth behind the Thalo, once thought of as only a children’s tale, who are the quiet, creeping puppet masters of their world.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Cage of Dark Hours by Marina Lostetter, on sale 2/14/23.


2

Krona

Krona watched with a pained grimace—well hidden behind her helm—as the crack of the Matron’s whip drove the line of prisoners forward, toward the Penalty Block. The noise was sharp, and the gathering crowd jumped at its snap. The prisoners, however, were desensitized to it, plodding onward evenly, approaching Krona and Tray’s position at the base of the Penalty Block listlessly.

The lawbreakers had walked there in a processional from the nearest House of Penalty—a place very different from any other jail or prison. It was both coterie and confinement—a place for those who’d earned the gods’ wrath to repent before receiving their punishment.

The sky was clear overhead, bright and still—in a way that made the pentagonal shape of the public gathering place seem cheery. But being well lit and the air calm only guaranteed the gore to come would shine all the starker. Sunlight would glint off the fresh blood, and any screams of pain would not be muffled by the wind.

There were six who would pay Knowledge’s penalty today. Six with their heads hung low, and their shoulders hunched and their wrists bound—the last time their hands would make a tidy pair. Six who’d fancied themselves deserving of forbidden knowledge.

And one of them Krona had personally apprehended.

His name was Yonder Jamiss. An academic—which was no surprise, really. Those who most often slighted Knowledge’s orders were those most enamored of the very thing fey represented: wisdom, intellect, discovery. Knowledge knew hubris often accompanied a keen mind, and that’s why fey had tried to temper intellectual hastiness with feir commandment.

Monsieur Jamiss was a bit different from his fellow prisoners today; the forbidden advancements he’d attempted to make weren’t in mechanical engineering, nor chemistry, nor medicine, nor enchantment.

No, his crime had been astronomy.

Well, his crime had also been stealing an enchanted spyglass, which was why a Regulator had been assigned to the concern in the first place, and why Krona had made the arrest. But that was not the crime for which he’d lose a hand. Optics had been what interested him, and his desire to develop a better telescope by which to see the planets and the stars had so overwhelmed him that it had condemned him.

Krona watched him closely, even as she and Tray mounted the steps at the rear of the Penalty Block to take their place on one side of the raised stage. His brown hair fell ragged and dirty around his ears, over his brow. Uneven stubble covered his cheeks, and he looked at his chained feet as he shuffled forward.

A stark contrast to the tidy, confident man she’d apprehended.

The thickly planked staging area was large enough to accommodate a dozen hangings at once, but today it featured only a half a dozen wooden pedestals. A second pair of Regulators—from a first-district den—flanked the opposite end of the Penalty Block, helms on, visors down, marching together in perfectly stoic synchronicity. Once all four of them were in place, the pair nodded in tandem to Tray and Krona, and the two of them nodded back.

It was the first time Krona had felt the intimidation of the uniform staring back at her. The cherry red of their visors—which she often thought of as a warm splash of color on her own uniform—seemed cold, lifeless, and mildly gruesome. Like dried blood. The horns on their helms, which matched hers perfectly, were fit for goring. Instead of the rich, onyx-colored leather representing duty and strength, for an instant she saw it as the physical incarnation of demanding brutality.

The aura projected by the first-district pair was one of pressure. Krona was used to embodying that pressure—to personifying order and control. Putting on the helm and becoming a faceless enforcer was usually a relief. It was where she felt confident and prepared. It was the part of her life that had clear, meetable expectations. There were laws and she upheld them . . .

Until she took off the uniform in the evening and broke them just the same as these poor sods about to lose their limbs.

She suddenly couldn’t breathe in her own helmet. Her armor became absurdly claustrophobic. She wanted to tear at its seams, pull down her collar, throw off her bracers, and toss her helm into the crowd.

But she never let her posture change. Though her muscles twinged with the effort, shaking minutely, she held herself steady and projected serenity. She could not let her own inner failings become a concern to the outer world.

Still, Tray knew her well enough to realize something was wrong. “Steady?” he asked via reverb bead.

“I’m fine,” she answered flatly.

The line of prisoners arrived at the Penalty Block, and the Matron ordered them to climb the stairs. The crowd began to shift and murmur, knowing what was to come, their collective mood shifting from excited to uneasy in turns. Jamiss was the third onto the stage. There was no way for him to recognize Krona, and though it should have been a comfort, instead it sent cold guilt fluttering through her like a snow flurry.

Each prisoner was shackled to the planks behind a wooden pedestal, and one of their arms at random forcibly placed atop the plinth. A metal cuff was bolted over their forearm, to keep it pinned in place.

Krona looked away as Jemiss turned pleading eyes onto the crowd, knowing no one there could be counted on to save him.

She was the same as these people on the chopping block. She’d spit just as firmly in Knowledge’s face, seeking forbidden information. She’d done it over and over.

And she’d do it again without hesitation. This very day, even. As soon as the sun went down.

There were words for the kind of hypocrisy she was engaged in—which was not just the hypocrisy of do as I say, not as I do but the sanctimoniousness of one willing to dole out punishment to others for committing the same sins simply because she was in a place of power and they were not.

She recognized all this—rolled it over in her mind and on her tongue and let it boil in her belly until she felt sick—and yet she had no intention to make it right.

She would not call for the executioners to stay the penalty. And she would not turn herself in.

Nor would she stop.

I have my reasons, she told herself, even as she immediately scoffed and thought, They all have their reasons.

When each prisoner was locked in place, the jeers started in earnest. The crowd hurled insults at the blasphemers, and their tongues cut Krona just as sharply.

The executioner took up their axe, and the Matron from the House of Penalty began reading off the first prisoner’s crimes.

Krona tuned her out, let her hearing go fuzzy.

Only secondary to her guilt in this moment was disgust at her own self-pity. Here she was, protected by her station, nauseated at her own actions, while right beside her, half a dozen people were about to truly suffer.

And for what?

All of the Penalties, save this one, could be seen as attempts to balance the societal scale. For disobeying the gods, they owed their fellow peoples a debt.

Nature demanded one toil for others. The deadening of emotion did not mean those emotions went to waste but that they were added to the state’s stockpile, which was purchased by Emotioteurs and circulated in their enchanted stones. And Time’s penalty—an early death—was exacted in a number of ways. The most societally beneficial was applied to tax dodgers. Extra time was pulled from them, which directly boosted the economy, putting more time vials on the streets to balance out the number drained by old aristocrats cashing out.

But Knowledge’s penalty . . .

Krona flinched as the executioner’s axe fell the first time, and it did not escape Tray’s notice.

. . . Those severed hands would become pig feed, nothing more.

The first prisoner wailed relentlessly as a set of healers pulled her free of her restraints and dragged her off the Penalty Block. Out of sight from the crowd, they’d do what they could to stop the bleeding and bandage what remained of her wrist.

Stepping over the fresh streaks of blood, the Matron—a younger woman than her station evoked, with deep black hair and an equally black dress—read out the second prisoner’s crimes.

Krona’s eyes caught on the blood, the way it painted the wood and shone in the late-morning sunlight. She’d served as witness to plenty of Penalties in the past three years. She’d seen people hanged—their necks snapped, their eyes unseeing and their bodies limp. She’d seen them robbed not just of limbs but of life. And yet that one hand on the chopping block, the fresh blood flowing freely, pumped by a healthy heart, felt different in ways she could not fully order in her mind.

She was no stranger to blood. But the last time she’d seen it with that par- ticular shimmer, it had stained grass instead of planks. And it had been flowing not from a wrist but from a neck.

Her sister’s neck.

Unconsciously, she slapped a palm against the jaguar mask clinging to her belt, letting its presence steady her.

What I do is not blasphemy, she insisted to no one but her inner demons. I have to right this wrong. Knowledge knows what I search for is just.

The axe fell again.

Thwack.

This time, it wasn’t just the owner of the dismembered limb that cried out, but Monsieur Jemiss next to him as well. Tears began to fall down his cheeks in earnest as the bleeding man was dragged away and the Matron began to list Jemiss’s misdeeds.

You could stop this, a part of Krona insisted. He wanted to look at the stars. He wanted to better see the world as it really is. Does he really deserve to lose his hand? Even if she stopped the axe from falling today, it would fall tomorrow instead. She didn’t have the power of pardon. She was a cog in the justice system’s machine. Its gears turned round and round and round, and she turned round

with it.

To stop the Penalty today wouldn’t save Jemiss’s hand. It would only pull Krona into an unnecessary spotlight.

The Matron finished her reading and stepped aside. The executioner approached.

Jemiss squirmed and begged, leaning as far away from the oncoming axe as his restraints would allow. “No, please. No—no, please!”

He clenched and unclenched his doomed fist, and Krona watched his face contort through every possible expression of panic and fear.

He did this to himself. His own actions condemned him, not you. I should be right there with him, right there beside him.

Her station let her get away with the very thing she condemned others for. The executioner lifted their heavy blade.

Jemiss’s pleas increased.

It was over in the blink of an eye. The heavy thump of the blade passing through bone and flesh to catch on the block of wood beneath provided the bass to Jemiss’s treble of a scream.

The witnessing left Krona shaken but undeterred.

As the crowd dispersed and the amputees were cared for, Krona, Tray, and the other pair of Regulators left the scene to return to their respective duties. She had a difficult time mounting Allium, so wobbly were her legs. So numb were her hands.

Tray didn’t hide his concern. “Krona, are you feeling all right? Are you sick?” “Just fatigued,” she dismissed. “Fitful sleep these last few nights.”

He didn’t press her, but the answer clearly wasn’t satisfactory.

Lost in thought as they rode toward their next destination, an asylum, Krona gazed out toward the Valley rim, wondering what the gods truly thought of her.

Copyright © 2022 from Marina Lostetter

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