We’re excited to share an excerpt from Marina Lostetter’s The Helm of Midnight, the first novel in a new dark epic fantasy trilogy—publishing April 13th with Tor Books.
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.
Krona and the man she’d fought saw the resident healers in the underground surgery wing. De-Lia had refused to send the man to a public hospital. She’d arrested him then and there, while he bled on the polished floor.
The den had once been a military armory, back in the days when the five city-states had continuously threatened war against one another. Its white limestone walls were rough-hewn, and even in Lutador’s summer, the place was frigid. Most of the den lay underground, covered over with a mound of sod.
The compound lay on the eastern side of the city, removed from the crushing closeness of Lutador’s multistory buildings by a handful of rolling hills and a low wall. To the left of the old armory sprawled the barracks, where most unattached Regulators hung their hats at the end of the day. Behind that sat the stables. A thin road sporting a single, heavily guarded gate was the only proper way in and out.
Krona didn’t call the barracks home like the majority of her colleagues, which kept her from hearing the siren song of a warm bed while the healer did his work. She held her gaze on a chipped brick on the opposite wall while his hands fluttered over her arm. He added a salve, which didn’t sting, and drew stitches through her flesh, which had her gritting her teeth to hold back the expletives. Once he was done, fresh, salt-white bandages stood out starkly against her black skin. The deep gashes burned every time she moved, and her entire arm throbbed.
It felt good to be out of her helm, making eye contact, but it also left her vulnerable—she couldn’t hide how the attack had affected her.
“Lift,” said the healer, Master Utkin, indicating she should raise her elbow. “How’s that?”
“Better,” she lied, anxious to confront her assailant.
He frowned at her. By now, he knew when she was rushing him. He’d been her den-assigned caregiver far too long.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” he asked.
“The fear. The varger—real and not-real. It’s been a long time since you’ve faced one.”
Krona scratched at the wound absently. She hated discussing her feelings on the matter. Most people didn’t know about her varger-based terror, and she preferred to keep it that way. Regulation was about keeping the upper hand, maintaining control and power. Weakness was unseemly.
But healers needed to know everything about their patient’s health in order to properly see to their well-being. She couldn’t keep her fear a secret from him.
And, her team knew. She was sure it was a black mark against her: first De-Lia places her own baby sister in their ranks—whose three years of Regulation thus far had been admirable, though nothing special—but then the younger Hirvath’s got vargerangaphobia to boot, which makes her a terrible shot with a quintbarrel.
Krona had hoped it would never be a problem, that she would have more time to train, to improve. Most Regulators went their entire careers without facing a varg. Regulators were trained to deal with varger as a contingency plan only. It was Borderswatch that kept the monsters at bay. Typically.
Varger were monsters from beyond the Valley. The one type of creature the magical, god-created barrier at the rim could not keep out. The Borderswatch was in charge of containing as many as they could, of keeping the majority from ravaging the countryside and assaulting the cities.
Utkin was ex-Borderswatch.
He understood varger, knew how much damage they could cause, how much pandemonium they could sow. He was the one who’d diagnosed her phobia.
“I don’t want to talk about it. It’s done,” she said.
His bald head was freshly shaven, and his thick, graying beard well trimmed. He pulled at the curls of his whiskers, holding himself squarely, like the solider he was. The stiffness of the garrison would most likely never leave him. She remembered the same constant readiness in her papa.
“Did your fear affect your performance?”
Utkin didn’t counter her. He simply let the silence draw out, long and full, waiting.
“Perhaps,” she admitted quietly.
“I’ve been looking into some new philosophies regarding phobia. When I’ve completed my research, I’d like to start a new course of treatment.”
Internally, Krona perked at this. It had been years since any other healer had suggested something could be done for her. Outwardly, she maintained her skepticism.
“If you’re willing,” he added. “It may be rough. But, if your future concerns continue to involve varger, it will be worth it. I have high hopes.”
And if this concern continues to involve varger… ? Krona hadn’t wanted to consider the possibility—that there might be more monsters before the matter was settled. “We’ll get the enchantments back soon,” she offered dully. “Perhaps we can talk about it again after?”
He frowned, but accepted her hesitancy.
“Say ah,” he directed. She did so and he popped a mineral tablet into her mouth. “For the pain,” he explained. “You’ll be short one bracer for the time being. Your wounds can’t bear it, understand?”
“Yes.” All personal magic use took its toll one way or another, physically or mentally.
He nodded approvingly, then packed up his supplies and dismissed her.
Instead of heading upstairs into the main gallery to deliver her report to a recorder, she stole down the nearest hall. They’d rushed the false-varg into a surgery with three healers and a handful of aides, but from the outside the room was still. She pressed an ear against the door, trying to pick up hints of conversation or the clacking of metal instruments. Nothing.
She pushed open the thick, paneled door, peeking around the edge. One healer stood bent over his patient, who lay on a cot. A thin robe had replaced the man’s varg costume, and bandages matching hers—though already showing signs of seepage—encased his throat. She noticed tattoos down one shin and up his left arm. Tattoos were strictly prohibited. Self-mutilation was abhorrent. Ironically, the punishment was further mutilation—the filleting of the blemish clean off.
His exposed, limp hand also bore markings. One on his thumb caught her eye—it was a brand.
Catching the squeak of hinges, the healer turned. “He’s sleeping,” he said bluntly.
“I need to question him,” she said, coming fully into the room.
“It’s going to be some time before he can speak again. Your cut was expertly placed—you spared his life.”
“Credit luck, not skill.” She pretended that the sharp scent of medicinal alcohol kept her from approaching the cot, but truly she didn’t trust herself. Now that the blood had stopped rushing—both through her veins and from his wound—she no longer felt the panicky desire to keep him alive. Anger put heat on her temples and tongue. “When will he wake?”
“Hard to say. But he certainly won’t be able to tell you anything.”
“I hope for his sake he knows how to use a pen,” she said.
With one last narrow-gazed study of the unconscious man’s face, she left the healer to his work.
De-Lia was waiting in the hall, leaning against the stonework with one boot propped up casually. She’d also removed her helm, revealing her stern, thin features and close-shaven head. Her skin was even darker than Krona’s, almost as black as her uniform. She looked lithe and athletic, but tired. “How is he?” she asked.
“Unconscious,” Krona said bitterly.
“And you?” She pushed off the wall and gingerly took Krona’s injured arm, cradling it in her palm and examining the healer’s work with a critical eye. Silvery stains splattered the captain’s sleeves.
“It’ll scar—but what’s one more?”
De-Lia nodded, both accepting the statement and approving the application of the wrap.
“The varger?” Krona asked.
“Secure. A runner confirms a Borderswatch break-in three weeks ago. At a camp, while a shipment was on its way to the vault. Several bottled varger were stolen.”
“Three weeks? The ones at the party were no bottle-barkers, those were full strength.”
“Whoever perpetrated the robbery must have force-fed them to get the creatures up to muster so quickly.”
De-Krona balked. If these tangible varg had been bottle-bound three weeks ago, then they must have eaten a person a week. Where might one get so many victims? The Dregs? The mines? The work camps?
Varger consumed people—only people. But if they went long enough without a meal, they became ethereal. Immaterial. Little more than wisps of mist. But that mist could still latch on, could still kill. If you inhaled it, the varg would eat you from the inside.
That was what made varger so terrible. You couldn’t slay them. Couldn’t tear them apart or burn them to ashes. The only way to halt them was with the needles—and then it had to be the proper type. Five kinds of varger meant a quintbarrel shooter had to keep five kinds of needles on them at all times: gold, silver, iron, nickel, and bronze.
After shooting one down with the appropriate needles, effectively pinning it to the spot, you had to cage it and starve it—turn it to mist and put it in glass, sucking it into a spherical, enchanted vessel—a containment bulb—tipped with a nipple made of the correct corresponding metal. The only good varg was a bottled varg, shelved away deep in the city-state’s vaults. They were safe to transport that way, easy to carry as canned goods.
“How many varger were stolen?”
“Three, which we captured. But I could have sworn I shot a fourth,” De-Lia said.
“It could have been taken from elsewhere.”
“Or it could have been the same kind you fought,” De-Lia said. “Because I’m sure I hit it.”
“With all five metals?”
De-Lia averted her eyes. “No.” She rubbed the side of her gun hand, which displayed a mild chemical burn. The tips of her pointer and middle finger were wrapped with bandages as well.
“What happened to your fingers?”
De-Lia waved that aside. “Mishap with a mending needle yesterday morning. A few drops of blood, nothing more.”
“Again? Maybe you should start letting maman darn your clothes for you.” Krona noticed something shimmery on De-Lia’s knees. “Is that mercury?” she asked, nodding at the stains on De-Lia’s uniform.
“So they doused the varger to keep them hidden from the Watch’s detectors—which is why they got as close as they did. I’ve never seen a plan so, so—”
“Ludicrous? What kind of a madman thinks they can control a varg? I bet they ate a few of their handlers, and that’s how they solidified so fast.”
But it worked, Krona thought, keeping her expression flat. Varger attack was the perfect distraction.
And if I’d had my gun out instead of my saber, we’d have much less to go on. Not quite serendipity, but definitely a fortunate mistake. Damn it all if her shoddy aim with a quintbarrel wasn’t to thank for revealing the deception.
Not that the man’s capture was much to celebrate. She’d let someone walk away with a massive despairstone and a killer’s mask. She’d done nothing this evening to be proud of.
But that’s why I have to fix this. I have to get them back. She couldn’t disappoint her sister. Sometimes it seemed like all her life, Krona had only been chasing after her own mistakes, and this was yet another in a long line. So unlike De-Lia was De-Krona. De-Lia was strong, and beautiful, and successful, and so self-assured—everything Krona aspired to be.
I will fix this, she resolved. You’ll see.
“The Martinets are going to be sent in, aren’t they? To investigate us?” she asked. The legal oversight of the legal oversight—those who investigated the investigators. While a Regulator’s word was law, a Martinet’s word was divine and absolute.
“Yes, they’re here already.”
Krona’s heart fell. “They’ll question my assignment under your command.”
“No, they won’t. You did a fine job. If anyone is to blame for tonight, it’s me. And rightfully so.”
“That’s what concerns me. Requesting your sister be assigned to your detail… They don’t take nepotism lightly.” She let “nepotism” roll heavily off her tongue.
“It’s not nepotism,” De-Lia insisted, pushing away from the wall. Her fatigue seeped away, replaced by the kind of intensity that always answers insult. “I picked the strongest team, I requested all of you because you each have special skill sets that are stronger when all woven together. You wouldn’t have been assigned to my detail if anyone here believed any differently. I do not make official decisions based on my personal feelings.”
It was true—De-Lia was efficient, straightforward. She wouldn’t let her passions interfere with her work because, above all, she despised the incompetence that came with that kind of emotionality.
“I know that,” Krona said, reaching out with her uninjured arm to clasp her sister’s in comfort. “But the Martinets don’t.”
“So what are you saying?”
“If you must admit to favoritism, tell them I shouldn’t have been on the team.”
“You don’t need to take the blame for this.”
“Why not? Perhaps someone else wouldn’t have been distracted by the grieving father. Perhaps they would have said something about the out-of-place Nightswatchmen. Perhaps they would have secured the collection, and Charbon’s mask and the despairstone would still be under Regulator control.”
“Let the Martinets investigate,” De-Lia said firmly. “They will find no impropriety or negligence on my team. Do you hear me? They will not sacrifice one of us to appease their need to place fault. We will retrieve our enchantments and these thieves will hang. Understand?”
“Yes.” Krona let herself smile. De-Lia’s dedication was always a wonder to behold.
“Good. Are you still fit for duty?” De-Lia asked.
She caught herself cradling her injured arm and swiftly dropped it to her side. “Of course.”
“Then after the Martinets interview you, I want you to go to the Chief Magistrate’s chateau to interview his son and the house staff.”
The timing of Iyendar the younger’s outburst was suspicious, at best. But Krona’s instincts told her it was a coincidence. “The Nightswatch didn’t detain him?”
“The Chief Magistrate wouldn’t let them.”
“Ah. I see.”
“And I’m sending Tray with you.”
Tray was a good friend; the sisters had known him since childhood—which would perhaps be another check in the nepotism column to the Martinets, but he was headstrong and pinpoint focused, and Krona knew he would not take this side trek to the Iyendar household well. Interfacing with the Watch had been his responsibility, and his attention would stay with them.
But she would not argue with the captain on this point. “Naturally,” she said. “Permission to check out the Leroux mask?”
As Krona turned to leave, De-Lia reached for her shoulder. “Forty-eight hours before the trail is likely to go cold,” she said.
“I know,” Krona replied, bobbing her head solemnly. “And then…”
“With Charbon’s mask loosed? Chaos.”
Half the time, that was all enchantments caused.
Excerpted from The Helm of Midnight, copyright © 2021 by Marina Lostetter