I’m happy to announce that my latest novella is now available as an eBook. While many of my books have been historical and set in the isolated wilderness, THE VAGRANTS takes place in modern-day Boston. Shorter than my novels, this is another quick read, about the same length as my novella The Witching House.

Below is an excerpt of the opening prologue. Enjoy.

Available on Amazon, direct from my publisher, and wherever eBooks are sold.

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Beneath the city of Boston evil is gathering.

 

Journalist Daniel Finley is determined to save the impoverished of the world. But the abandoned part of humanity has a dark side too. While living under a bridge with the homeless for six months, Daniel witnessed something terrifying. Something that nearly cost him his sanity.

Now, two years later, he’s published a book that exposes a deadly underground cult and its charismatic leader. And Daniel fears the vagrants are after him because of it. At the same time, his father is being terrorized by vicious mobsters. As he desperately tries to help his father, Daniel gets caught up in the middle of a war between the Irish-American mafia and a deranged cult of homeless people who are preparing to shed blood on the streets of Boston.

“Brian Moreland writes a blend of survival horror and occult mystery that I find impossible to resist.  His writing is clean, precise, and, best of all, compulsively readable.  I know, when I’ve got one of his books in my hands, that I’m going to be lost to the world for hours on end. He’s just that good.”

Joe McKinney, author of Dead City and Flesh Eaters

“Brian Moreland writes horror on a level that soars above the usual fare, and THE VAGRANTS is no exception. Chocked full of scares and suspense, Moreland delivers a tale that will soon be a classic. This is the kind of story horror lovers need.”

Kristopher Rufty, author of OAK HOLLOW and THE LURKERS

“I am in awe of Brian Moreland.”

Ronald Malfi, author of Snow and Floating Staircase

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Prologue

 

 

The darkness beneath Boston was calling him.

No one walking along Tremont Street seemed to hear the whispers coming from the grates and gutters, but Rex Rigby heard them. Their raspy voices sounded like a dozen people whispering all at once. He cupped his hands over ears, but it didn’t stop the madness. They had chosen him. And they weren’t going to quit until he joined them in the cold, black core of the earth.

He drank from his bottle of vodka and tried to fall back asleep on the bus-stop bench.

The whispers persisted. “Rex Rigby…”

He sat up and looked around the busy street. Cars and taxicabs drove by. On the sidewalk, throngs of people moved past him in a hurry. Most of them acted as if he were invisible.

A little girl met his eyes only to gawk at him and quickly look away. Rigby didn’t blame the girl for being disgusted by him. He had a long scraggly beard, greasy hair that hung to his shoulders, and he was wearing the same gray suit he’d worn the day he walked out on his wife, his job, his miserable life.

That was eons ago, and the man he’d once been was now dead to the world that lived above ground. But below ground…the whispers were offering him a way out of his hell.

“Take the Red Line…” They showed him visions of the routes to take and the glory that would be his once he reached them.

Rigby’s mind became sober. He stood and left behind his vodka bottle. Propelled by a sense of purpose he hadn’t felt in a long time, he walked to the T’s Park Street Station and went underground.

The subway at noon was crowded with people coming and going. He walked among them and the crowd parted for him. The stampede of sneakers, high heels and men’s dress shoes echoed off the tile walls. A train on the Yellow Line shrieked by, blowing a warm, unnatural wind across the underground terminal.

He caught the Red Line train. The other passengers kept their distance. Rigby smiled at this.

They weren’t one of the chosen.

One day he’d hear their cries of agony and suffering. He’d see his wife’s face among the damned, bleeding tears from eye sockets devoid of eyes. Her new husband—the man she had been cheating on him with—would be skinned alive and then skewered with sharp instruments. And Rigby’s former asshole boss would be torn apart, one limb at a time, until the only thing looking up at Rigby was a torso and wailing head.

All of this and more, the voices promised.

A few stops later, the automatic doors hissed open and he got off at Broadway in South Boston. While clueless pedestrians hurried past him to catch the train, Rigby walked to the edge of the station to a door with a sign: MBTA employees only. It was locked, so he waited until two subway service men exited, chatting about the Red Sox.

Rigby slipped through the door before it closed and walked through a narrow service tunnel that he imagined ran parallel to the train tracks. The whispers guided him as he meandered through a network of dimly lit passages until he found himself in an old subway tunnel covered with dust and cobwebs. Only the first few yards were lit from the pale light behind him. Straight ahead was an infinite blackness that beckoned.

As the darkness swallowed him, the voices grew louder and clearer. He heard footsteps and felt the presence of others. They welcomed him with pawing fingers and heated breath on his face.

Then came the pain of a thousand needles.

“No, no!” he cried out.

Rex Rigby’s screams and their chittering voices echoed off the subway tunnel walls and traveled upward to the grate of a nearby street. But no one heard them except a homeless woman who was awakened by the calling of the darkness.

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The Abandoned Subway Tunnels of Boston

 

Parts of my book take place in the abandoned tunnels that run beneath Boston and have been sealed off for decades.

Here’s an article about the Boston subway that I find fascinating. It has a great video of a tour through the abandoned Boston tunnels. Below are 2 other videos that will give you a personal experience of exploring abandoned subway tunnels. The first one is an unnamed tunnel system that could be in any city, but it’s what I imagined while writing THE VAGRANTS.

 

The second video is a Red Line subway train running through one of Boston’s abandoned subway tunnels. There’s a scene in my book where I have a man standing next to the tracks when the train passes. Below is an example of what he would have seen.

 

Vagrants_The cover

THE VAGRANTS is available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, direct from my publisher, and wherever eBooks are sold.

In 2 weeks my latest novel THE DEVIL’S WOODS releases (Tues, Dec 3rd), and the reviews are starting to come in.

Here’s a glowing book review from Shattered Ravings.

The Devil’s Woods is currently on sale for a limited time through my publisher Samhain Horror.
 
Here’s what others are saying:
 

The Devil’s Woods is an awesome horror novel, filled with nerve-wracking suspense and thrilling action!”

—Jeff Strand, author of Wolf Hunt

“Brian Moreland’s fiction is taut and spellbinding, often blending varied themes to form a dark genre very much his own.  From his WWII occult thriller Shadows in the Mist, to the haunting chiller The Devil’s Woods, Brian’s work is at once versatile, original, and deeply engaging.”  

—Greg F. Gifune, author of The Bleeding Season

 

The Devil’s Woods is a force of nature. A complex, chilling foray into the darkness of a forbidden land, and man’s tortured soul.”

—Hunter Shea, author of Swamp Monster Massacre and Sinister Entity

 

“In Dead of Winter, Brian Moreland showed why he’s one of the strongest new forces in horror fiction. In The Devil’s Woods, he proves he’s as versatile as he is talented. The Devil’s Woods is fantastic–a terrifying and emotionally-involving read from cover to cover.”

—Jonathan Janz, author of The Sorrows and House of Skin

 

“Brian Moreland has created a new horror classic bursting with bloodshed, chaos, and truly disturbing creatures. Prepare to travel down a dark, terrifying, and twisted path that is The Devil’s Woods. Backwoods horror at its finest!” 
                                        

—David Bernstein, author of Damaged Souls and Amongst the Dead

 

“Reading anything by Brian Moreland makes me understand how much harder I have to work as a writer to generate the level of chills he can deliver.”

Kristopher Rufty, author of The Lurkers and A Dark Autumn

 

Witching House for Widget

Today, I’m thrilled to be releasing my latest novella The Witching House. This is a book that I wrote last fall while staying at a secluded cabin in the woods of East Texas. The story is set there in the present day and was inspired by the old 1970s horror flicks I used to love. The Witching House is about a small group of adventure-seeking couples who decide to explore an abandoned old house in the woods that’s been boarded up for forty years. The house is rumored to be haunted because it’s where a coven of witches had been massacred back in 1972. You can read the prequel in a FREE short story called The Girl from the Blood Coven.

Below is an excerpt.

“Witchcraft, sacrifices, an abandoned house and a thing that has hungered for decades set the stage for this must-read expedition to The Witching House. The best advice anyone could offer a visitor is: Don’t go in the attic, don’t go in the bedrooms, but don’t, under any circumstances, go in the basement. You won’t come out the same…if you come out at all.”

John Everson, author of NightWhere and Violet Eyes

The Witching House represents Brian Moreland at his frantic, bloody best. He takes a clutch of highly-sexed characters and their dark secrets, plunges them into a historical house of horrors, and gleefully throws away the key as all hell breaks loose!”

—Frazer Lee, author of The Lamplighters and The Lucifer Glass

The Witching House starts with fear, moves into terror and ends with a horrific explosion of sensory delights.”

—Maynard Sims, author of Stronghold and The Eighth Witch

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 Excerpt from THE WITCHING HOUSE

“White Ceremonial Magic is, by the terms of its definition, an attempt to communicate with Good Spirits for a good, or at least an innocent, purpose. Black Magic is the attempt to communicate with Evil Spirits for evil purposes.”

—Arthur Edward Waite, The Book of Black Magic, originally published in 1898

Present day

The house that ate people stood within a coven of pine trees like an ancient god being worshipped. The high branches touched its shingled roof with reverence. Towering three stories, the rock house was far from being a flawless god. The moss-covered stones that cobbled its walls were pocked from years of rot and abandon. Fungus and creeper vines had spread across its facade, leafy tentacles invading cracks where boards covered the windows. The glass within their frames had long ago shattered.

The Old Blevins House, as it came to be called, was set miles deep within the East Texas forest and rumored to be haunted. The stone dwelling became a backwoods legend spoken over campfires and around beers at the roadhouse in Buck Horn, referring to it as “that house in the woods”. If anyone foolishly talked about ghosts or witchery, they were sure to spit the ground and cross themselves. Deer hunters wouldn’t dare hunt these parts. The deer wouldn’t come here either.

Otis Blevins, the caretaker of the property, knew all the house’s secrets because he had witnessed his family’s bloody massacre as a child. Now, decades later, the house often spoke to him in whispers and played violent memories inside his head. Some folk called Otis Blevins crazy, but he wasn’t. He just had a special bond with this house that ran deep as blood.

At age forty-seven, Otis now lived on a pig farm ten miles away but still looked after the stone house. On this dewy morning, he checked the front door to make sure it was still locked. The padlock was badly rusted. He made a mental note to stop by the hardware store and buy a new one. As the caretaker walked the perimeter, he noticed that some of the symbols painted on the clapboards had smeared after last night’s storm. He shook his head. East Texas got too much rain this time of year.

Otis pulled a paintbrush out of a mason jar of hog’s blood and repainted a symbol of a triangle with stick-figure arms and legs. He heard scratching from the opposite side of the clapboards—something angry clawed at him from within the house. Whistling, Otis walked around the corner. The scraping nails followed him as he painted the same symbol on every boarded window. The scrapes turned to pounding. The house was in a foul mood this morning. Or maybe just hungry. The caretaker ignored the incessant knocks against the wood and performed the tasks that the house had given him.

When he was done, Otis returned to his truck. In the back, a large hog was pacing in a cage, making all sorts of grunting noises.

“Easy there, girl.” Otis opened the cage and snapped a leash on Bessie’s collar. The sow hopped off the truck and snorted against Otis’s leg. He patted her pink head and then walked her to the back of the house where a long chain lay coiled on the ground. He was mighty upset that it was Bessie’s turn. Otis loved this pig. The house reminded him that he had alternatives, if he was willing.

The caretaker hooked the chain to the sow’s collar and backed away. Tearing up, Otis sat in an old rocker and chewed a wad of tobacco as he waited. Not long after, the chain began to uncoil and went taut. The pig squealed and struggled to run as she was dragged into a dark hole near the house.

Otis left after that. He hated the sounds the house made when it fed.

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“Dead roads are bad omens,” Sarah Donovan’s grandmother used to say when Sarah was a little girl and her family traveled down a road littered with road kill. “You’ll find nothing good at the end of a dead road.”

Today, while riding through the backwoods of East Texas with her new boyfriend, Dean, and another couple, Sarah had counted a dead coyote, two mutilated armadillos, what might have been a possum, and buzzards feasting on a deer carcass. The carrion eaters took flight as the white Range Rover passed them and wound its way through the cloying pines.

Sarah’s nana, who was in to everything New Age, had preached that the universe always gives you signs if you watch for them.

Is this road trying to warn me? Sarah wondered. She looked at her boyfriend. Does this mean our relationship is doomed?

Dean seemed oblivious to the signs all around them. As he and his friends, Casey and Meg Ackerman, passed around a thermos of coffee and talked over strategy, Sarah remained quiet in the front passenger seat. Since they had left Dallas at dawn, she had seen a few truck stops and small towns along the way, as well as the occasional farm, but now mostly her view was empty road and endless trees. Civilization had dropped off since they turned off I-20 into what Dean called “redneck country”. In the backseat, Casey tried to be funny, mimicking the dueling-banjos tune from Deliverance, as if “redneck” meant inbreds. Dean was quick to correct Casey that inbreeding hillbillies were in Tennessee and West Virginia, not Texas. But rednecks were territorial and carried shotguns, and they lived by the creed “Don’t mess with Texas”.

It wasn’t the thought of encountering inbred hillbillies or gun-toting rednecks that had Sarah spooked. It was the legions of spiky pines, spruce and cedars pressing so close to the road. These weren’t the benign oak and pecan trees that stood in small clusters around White Rock Lake where she walked her dog on weekends. Out here, the trees crowded together, their branches intertwined in a constant battle for space. Choking out the gaps between the trees, thickets of brush and briars left no room for a hiking trail. Sarah’s father, the incurable nature lover, had taught her about things to watch out for in the wilds. Even from the moving vehicle, Sarah could spot the copses of stinging nettles and poison ivy that infested the overgrown forest. If only she had inherited her father’s love of exploring the untamed wilderness she might have been thrilled about where Dean and his friends were taking her.

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The Witching House ebook is available for Kindle, Nook, iPad, Kobo, Sony eReader, and more. Also available through Samhain Horror or you can download a PDF to read on your computer.

A Sneak Peek of THE DEVIL’S WOODS

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

I recently sold  my third horror novel THE DEVIL’S WOODS to Samhain Horror. This is a novel that I had started 24 years ago in college. After publishing two novels, DEAD OF WINTER and SHADOWS IN THE MIST, I decided to revisit my old college project and rewrite it from the voice that I write in today. It was originally titled SKINNERS, but since that title was already being used in the horror genre, I changed my book to THE DEVIL’S WOODS. Below you can read the premise and opening chapter.

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Fear wears many skins.

Deep within the Canadian wilderness, people have been disappearing for over a century. There is a place the locals call “the Devil’s Woods,” but to speak of it will only bring the devil to your door. It is a place so evil that even animals avoid it.

When their father’s expedition team goes missing, Kyle Elkheart and his brother and sister return to the abandoned Cree Indian reservation where they were born. Kyle can see ghosts that haunt the woods surrounding the village—and they seem to be trying to warn him. The search for their father will lead Kyle and his siblings to the dark heart of the legendary forest, where their mission will quickly become a fight for survival.

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PROLOGUE

British Columbia, Canada

Lake Akwâkopiy Cree Indian Reserve

Five days after the tragedy, Jon Elkheart returned to the forbidden forest. With a vengeful glare, he challenged the looming wall of aspen, spruce and vine-choked pines that guarded this unsacred land. The only entrance was a trail that disappeared into a black hole inside the jungle-thick brush. The darkness within Macâya Forest was an impenetrable void, a shadow world of shape-shifters, and yet its mysteries beckoned him.

There are places in the world where lost spirits never rest, Elkheart thought with a coppery taste in his mouth. And man is considered prey. Standing by a lake at the edge of the rainforest, he peered through the scope of his assault rifle, searching the woods for sudden movement. He listened for the slightest snap of a twig or brush of a leaf. The June morning was still and windless, as if all of nature sensed what he was about to do.

You should turn back. You can’t do this on your own. The scholarly part of Elkheart understood this logic. As an archaeologist, he had always put his research first, above all else. Until this last mission went haywire. Now the guilt and anger pumping through his veins would not let him rest. You have to go back in there, spoke a voice that was not ruled by logic. You have to find Amy.

“I’m here,” he whispered, noticing that his legs did not want to budge.

Elkheart looked up at the sun creeping over the mountains. Clouds drifted across the valley, as if shielding the forest from the approaching light. Soon only the tips of the branches pierced the white smoke. Stretching out his arm, he turned a small video camera toward his face. “June 10th, 7:00 a.m. My name is Jon Elkheart. I am a professor from the University of British Columbia. I am also one of the last surviving members of the Lake Akwâkopiy Cree band. Most of my people abandoned this reservation years ago. Those who stayed behind have suffered nightmarish visions from a forest that has haunted our reservation for more than a century. A week ago I led a documentary film crew and four mercenaries into Macâya Forest, an uncharted patch of rainforest located at the northeastern tip of the reservation.” A heaviness burdened Elkheart’s chest as he remembered that tragic night. The screams and gunshots echoed in his mind and guilt twisted his guts. “My crew was slaughtered by something that attacked us from the woods. My assistant, Amy Hanson, was taken alive. I’m going back into Macâya Forest to search for her. I pray the spirits of my ancestors will guide me.”

Never enter Macâya Forest with impure thoughts, Grandfather Two Hawks had warned. You must call in your animal spirit guide and enter with the heart of a warrior.

Elkheart blessed a large knife with an elk-horn handle. Grandfather had given him the hunter’s blade on his thirteenth birthday after killing his first elk. He had eaten the slain animal’s heart and earned his name. Now, Jon Elkheart dipped two fingers into a coffee can of elk’s blood and wiped red streaks across his cheeks, as if a mask of war paint could channel the ancient warriors of his tribe. The ceremony did nothing to settle his nerves. He faced the mouth of the forest where few men had survived before him. “This time I will not run.”

Nervous whimpers broke the silence. Elkheart’s German shepherd pressed against his leg. He stroked his dog’s bristled neck. Should have left him back at the cabin. “Scout, run on home.” He shooed the dog. “Go on.” But Scout refused to leave his master’s side. Elkheart sighed. “You’re just as foolish as I am.”

Taking a deep breath, Elkheart sheathed his knife. He gripped his M4 Carbine. The semi-automatic assault rifle had belonged to one of the mercenaries who had died for this mission. Trying not to think of the soldier who had been decapitated, Elkheart turned on a flashlight that was attached to the barrel. A long beam pierced the dripping gray gloom that shrouded the rainforest. Wary of every sound, he passed through the threshold. His dog followed.

As Elkheart crept down the narrow path between spiky pines, firs, and cedars tangled with spruce, ghostly voices filled his head, pulling his thoughts in every direction. His Cree ancestors would not give him peace until he returned to these unsacred woods and exposed its secrets.

A blanket of dew covered the bracken and surrounding leaves. Only splinters of sunlight lanced the dense canopy. The morning fog drifted between the trees, making visibility even more difficult. Elkheart could only see a few feet around him.

Scout sniffed along the ground a few feet ahead, a silhouette in the haze. They weaved between trees, crossing cold-water creeks and climbing up fern-covered hills. The darkness faded into a gray gloom, as the morning sun finally filtered through the tops of the trees.

Untying his green parka, Elkheart loosened the hood to cool off. Sweat soaked his black and silver hair. Slightly winded, he inhaled the pine-scented air. A branch shook above him, dropping pinecones onto his shoulders. He jerked the rifle upward. An owl swooped from its perch and disappeared into the mist.

Elkheart released his breath. Okay, stay alert. Be ready for anything.

Steadying his rifle, he stepped through a thicket. Large fern leafs and dangling vines made his efforts difficult. Only the twisting path separated the trees and underbrush enough to travel through the woods. To venture from the trail would be like wandering into an uncharted jungle.

The fog thickened. Smokey plumes circled his feet, covering his boots and the moss-covered trail. Scout began to fade in the mist. Elkheart bird-whistled the German shepherd to come back. Elkheart’s heavy backpack burdened his spine. Easing the pack off, he leaned against a tree. Scout sat on his haunches, watching the forest.

Fishing into his backpack, Elkheart retrieved his video recorder and a bottle of Stoli. The vodka had been a birthday gift from Wynona, his…what? Ex-girlfriend? No, their relationship had never been that formal. Ex-drinking partner was more fitting. “Friends with benefits,” his students would say.

Studying the clear liquor, Elkheart felt a brief tightness to his chest, remembering the drunken, lust-filled nights he and Wynona had shared before the whole mess started. He still loved her, still caressed the empty spot in his bed where she once slept. But some pasts just couldn’t be healed. And Wynona’s wounds ran deep as canyons. Letting her image fade, Elkheart swallowed a gulp of vodka. He glanced around warily, thumbed the camera’s record button.

“So far, so good. I’m about a half mile deep and all’s quiet.” Elkheart paused to listen to the forest a moment, turning his camera toward the surrounding trees. “For over a century, my people have feared Macâya Forest. The landscape here is different from the woods that surround the reservation’s compound. Here, the trees tower to enormous heights and intertwine with one another as if trying to conceal something the land never wanted man to discover.” He gazed up at the giant trees, the sacred elders, wondering if they were listening. He felt as if eyes were watching him. “I’m about a quarter mile from the strange ruins my team and I discovered before their deaths. I only got a glimpse, but what I saw was beyond belief. I should be there shortly, where I hope to find Amy. If I come across what killed my crew, this time I’m prepared.”

Elkheart hit the stop button. A strong wind blew along the trail, and the fog began to swirl. He half expected an ancient trickster to emerge from it. Or a threat much more real.

Elkheart rubbed the antler handle of his knife, drawing courage from his spirit animal. When that didn’t work, he drank another fiery gulp of vodka. He then slipped his backpack over his shoulders, grabbed his rifle and stepped toward the swirling fog. Scout sniffed the trail a few feet ahead.

As Elkheart grew closer to the ruins, his asthma kicked in. The fifty-year old professor started wheezing. Fear paralyzed him as questions rolled through his mind.

What the hell are you doing here? Why is revealing the secrets of this forest worth more than your life?

Part of him wanted to return to Vancouver with the evidence they had found. He had plenty of artifacts and footage to open up an investigation. He would be on CNN and every major talk show around the world. Time and National Geographic would cover his story. He would finally be respected in his field, and more importantly, earn the respect of his three grown children. But Elkheart couldn’t leave Amy behind. He took another step, a warrior’s vengeance surging through him. He jerked his rifle at a sudden sound. Low, huffing grunts.

Scout growled.

Elkheart tensed, raising the rifle. “Shh, boy.”

The shepherd silenced, but remained poised to attack.

Ahead, something lumbered through the pines with heavy footfalls that sounded like a grizzly. But this predator had run off all the bears from these woods.

Remain still. Wait it out. It’s only passing.

The heavy footsteps tramping over damp earth echoed off the pines.

Scout watched the path, waiting for his master’s command to attack.

Elkheart remained still, holding his breath. Out here, the slightest gasp could be heard a great distance. The asthma tickled his lungs like centipede legs.

The unseen animal lumbered away, its thundering footfalls and cracking branches growing softer.

The wind carried the beast’s familiar stench, stinging Elkheart’s nose, and memories filled his mind: images of a moonlit night, gunshots firing, his crew wailing as their shredded bodies flew through the air. Amy screaming as the thing dragged her off.

Now, Elkheart’s lungs clenched up. He groped for his inhaler, sucked in.

Somewhere beyond the trees, the beast stopped walking.

Elkheart fought to control his wheezing, pumping several gasps of asthma medicine into his lungs. The centipede legs abated and he finally silenced his panicked breathing.

Too late.

The snapping of branches rushed toward him.

Scout turned and barked.

The predator circled them, staying hidden within the fog.

Elkheart hugged his rifle with shaking arms. Staring through spiky branches, he aimed at the forest. God, the beast’s right here! Behind the fog! His heartbeat quickened as he realized he was about to see the thing in the light.

“Come on! Show yourself!”

A cacophonous roar erupted from within the forest.

Barking, the German shepherd dashed into the mist.

“Scout! No!”

The dog’s growling soon blended in with the roar of the unseen beast. Branches cracked, or were those bones? A fatal ripping followed by a canine yelp.

“Scout!”

A long, drawn-out shriek echoed across the valley. Branches snapped. Snarls filled Elkheart’s ears. He raised the rifle and fired a three-round burst into the fog. The shots whizzed between the trees, their final reports echoing across the valley. At least one bullet hit something solid.

The forest grew silent again.

Was it dead?

Elkheart flattened against a tree, watching the mist swirling with the wind. He dug through his backpack. Pulled out the vodka bottle and a jar that contained a rag soaked in kerosene. He stuffed the rag into the bottle, allowing a long strip to hang out. I will not back down. Holding the flame of his lighter beneath the wick of the Molotov cocktail, Elkheart advanced along the path. The forest remained so dead calm he could hear his own heart hammering his chest.

From somewhere in the infinity of trees a twig snapped.

Elkheart stiffened. He listened for the faintest sound. The surrounding pines, like silent observers to this game of cat and mouse, offered nothing.

Another twig cracked, this time sharper.

Closer.

He lit the wick of the Stoli bottle and threw it toward the sound. The make-shift bomb exploded against the trees, torching two of them. A tall shadow beyond the flames roared and lumbered back into the fog.

Elkheart gripped his gun, backing away. The research couldn’t end like this. Not after all his work. Twenty years of expeditions. Who would be left to warn the ignorant world? He had to escape. He was the last Cree descendent who knew enough to expose the secrets of Macâya Forest.

A woman screamed.

“Amy!” Elkheart left the trail, running between the evergreens toward her crying voice. Branches clawed at his clothes with wooden talons. The girl’s moans echoed off to his left, then shifted to his right, and then strangely, back behind him.

He stopped, confused. “Amy, where are you?”

Her crying changed to mocking laughter, and then Elkheart’s heart seized as he realized he had been tricked. He tried to fire his rifle, but it jammed. He tossed the gun and pulled out his knife. He challenged the fog, “Show yourself!”

From above, hot, blistering air heated Elkheart’s scalp. Something wet and sticky hit the nape of his neck, oozing down his back. He tilted his head up toward the tree and saw a large mouth with a rack of fangs. A shadowy thing was hanging upside down from the branches. Its hands gripped Elkheart by the throat, lifting him high into the air. He released a warrior’s howl and stabbed at the beast with his knife. Elongated fingers noosed around his throat, choking off his air. His dangling legs kicked the tree. His beloved knife fell from his limp hand. As the forest went black, Jon Elkheart heard the lost spirits of his ancestors calling him deeper into the cold and visceral darkness of Macâya Forest.

PART ONE

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THE JOURNEY

 

 My shrink says the best way to face your fears is to go back to your roots. To return to the time before innocence was lost. Before a child’s mind witnessed something so horrific that it was forever scarred. The moment of trauma is where the healing journey must begin. But I fear if I dig up my past, the horror will be there waiting for me.

Detective Alex Winterbone

From the novel The Ghosts of Winterbone

by Kyle Elkheart

 

 

Chapter One

 

 “Fear wears many skins…” a raspy voice whispered into Kyle Elkheart’s ear while he was sleeping. Cold fingers touched his cheek. “Kyle, wake up…”

He opened his eyes to the dark and saw the blurry outline of someone standing over him. Before Kyle could react, hands gripped his throat, choking. He jerked up in bed and swung blindly, but his fists struck nothing but air.

The hands released his neck. A shadowy shape backed away, merging with the darkness that concealed Kyle’s bedroom.

“Who’s there?” He pushed a set of buttons on the wall, hoping to turn on the lights. Instead, his TV flashed on a channel with white noise and the automatic curtains began to open. Gray light poured in through the high-rise apartment windows. Kyle’s visitor retreated with the shadows to the far corner of the bedroom. Then, like so many mornings before, the ghost sank into the wall.

It’s just another bad dream, Kyle tried to convince himself as he rubbed his aching neck. The feeling that someone’s icy hands had gripped his throat wouldn’t go away. More and more, his nightmares were crossing over into the waking world. Usually Kyle heard noises or saw movement out of the corner of his eye. This was the first time his haunter had tried to physically harm him. What the hell’s happening to me? Kyle lay back in bed, staring up at the ceiling.

At 6:00 a.m. the alarm radio blared and a DJ spoke like he was high on Starbucks. “Goooood morninggggg, Seattle! You’re waking up with Rowdy Roscoe! Forecast for today is fog and rain! The weather may be gloomy, but you don’t have to be—”

Kyle hit the off button, groaning. He started to call his shrink to tell her about the nightmare that had awakened him, but then hung up. He already knew what Dr. Norberg would say: “The ghost is a figment of your imagination, Kyle. Keep journaling and we’ll talk about it on Tuesday.”

He got up and went to the bathroom sink. A reflection with mussed brown hair and a three-day beard stared back at him. He couldn’t believe that last night he had gone out onto the balcony, looked over the rail and imagined what it would be like to free-fall out of his miserable life. He had two voices battling inside his head—one telling him to jump, the other urging him not to give up. After nearly teetering over from vertigo, he had stepped away from the edge and gone back inside. This morning the memory frightened him. What the hell was I thinking? But last night had been a turning point. Kyle was determined to get his life back on course before his shrink sent him to the nuthouse or his haunter convinced him death was the best option.

“You’re not going to waste another day,” Kyle said to the man in the mirror. “No more feeling sorry for yourself.”

He started his wake-up routine with twenty minutes on the treadmill. Streamers of rain trickled down the floor-to-ceiling window. Living in a corner apartment on the fifteenth floor, he had a spectacular view of downtown Seattle and the main harbor, Elliot Bay. Another gray storm enshrouded the seaport city. “Great,” Kyle muttered. He had planned to drive to Lake Union and go kayaking. “Another day trapped indoors.”

As he was doing pushups, he thought he heard a knock on the wall. Footsteps echoed from another part of the apartment. A door clicked shut. What the hell was that? No one lived in his three-bedroom apartment but him. Grabbing a baseball bat, Kyle hurried to the living room. The apartment was quiet now, except for a clock ticking on the wall. He checked the front door. The two deadbolts were still latched. No sign of a break-in. He searched his office and closet. Empty. As he stepped back into the hallway, another sound, like a book falling over, issued from behind the closed third bedroom door. He crept down the hallway, gripping the bat. He listened at the door. The thought of going in that room got his heart racing. This door had remained shut the past two years. He placed his fingers on the knob, then paused.

I’m imagining things again.

Swallowing hard, he turned the knob and pushed the door open with the bat. The smell of paint and turpentine brought back a flood of memories. He struggled to breathe. His trembling hand flipped on the light. The extra bedroom was an art studio with wall-to-wall oil paintings of seaside landscapes, harbors and Seattle skylines, all painted as if seen from a far distance. An unfinished painting of Mt. Rainier sat on an easel. The room was covered in layers of dust.

Venturing inside, he checked behind the door. Empty. Then he checked the walk-in closet. The walls were lined with canvasses and shelved painting supplies. Kyle sighed, shaking his head. Thunder rumbled outside and a heavy rain slapped the windows.

It’s just the storm.

As he was leaving the room he glimpsed a shelf on the wall full of seashells, colored crystals and other knickknacks. In a silver frame was a photo of himself with his late wife Stephanie on a beach in Maui, holding up handfuls of shells. Her auburn hair blew sideways across her face. Her smile almost knocked him to his knees. God, he had loved her.

He rested the photo in a drawer, closed it and left the room.

Today was going to be different. Instead of moping around and watching TV, Kyle was going to get back to his writing. He stepped into his office and fired up the computer. The screen flashed to a desktop image from the movie The Shining: Jack Nicholson’s crazed face peering through a broken door. “Here’s Johnny!” the computer said as it completed its boot up.

He sat at his computer, eager to write the next chapter of his latest Detective Winterbone novel. Kyle’s brain was electric with remnants from last night’s dream: visions of shadowy woods and a village haunted by ghosts. His dark muse had finally returned from her silent crypt. His eyes locked onto the screen, and he typed as fast as his fingers would move.

More pounding startled him. At first Kyle thought his haunter was back, but he traced the pounding to the front door. Kyle peered out the peephole. It was Eric.

“Shit,” Kyle whispered, debating whether to answer. The two hadn’t spoken since their fallout a year ago.

“Kyle, I know you’re home. Open the door.” His brother knocked impatiently.

“Hold on.” Kyle unlatched the deadbolts and opened the door. “What the hell? It’s six-thirty in the morning.”

“I’ve left a dozen messages.” Eric barged into the living room, his soaked shoes and umbrella dripping water onto the carpet. At six-three, he was taller than Kyle and built of solid muscle. Once a star high school quarterback, Eric had been blessed with looks and charisma, which he now used to his advantage as an M and A lawyer at Nelson, Fairbanks and Koch.

Eric had a suspicious gleam in his eyes. “How’s my big brother?”

Kyle crossed his arms. “Writing. What’s up?”

Eric removed his trench coat without being asked to stay. As usual, he was wearing a silver Brooks Brothers suit with a power tie perfectly knotted. “Can we sit?”

Kyle’s heart plummeted as he recognized the somber tone in Eric’s voice. “Shit, something’s happened to Shawna.” Kyle had visions of his sister’s dead body on an ER gurney somewhere. Another OD, this one successful.

“Relax. Shawna’s fine,” Eric assured. “In fact, right now she and her latest freak boyfriend are crashing on my futon.”

Kyle released his breath. Thank God their sister was all right. He couldn’t go through another scare like last year.

Eric’s face remained grim. “Listen, I received a strange call yesterday from Ray Roamingbear.”

Kyle, Eric and their younger sister, Shawna, had been born on a Cree reservation in British Columbia. Their mother, who was white, left their alcoholic father, Jon Elkheart, and moved them to Seattle. It had been a turbulent time in Kyle’s life, because he had been close to his Cree father. In the past twenty years, Kyle had been back to the reservation to visit a number of times. Eric and Shawna, who were estranged from Elkheart, hadn’t been back once. Whenever their cousin, Ray Roamingbear, called out of the blue, it usually was to share bad news about their father.

Kyle braced himself for the worst. “What’s the news?”

“Last month Elkheart went on another drinking binge and disappeared. He didn’t tell anyone he was leaving or where he was going.”

“Shit.” Kyle felt a mixture of fear and disappointment. Every couple years their father, an archaeologist and chronic myth chaser, called asking Kyle to wire money to help fund some expedition or, when his father went through a bad bender, bail him out of a drunk-tank. “Does Ray have any clue where Dad went?”

“Nothing.” Eric went to the fridge and helped himself to a bottle of Evian. “Ray thinks Elkheart took off to South America on another one of his treasure hunts. My bet is he’s probably passed out again and doesn’t know where the fuck he is.”

Kyle stared out the window at the drizzling rain and the fog shrouding downtown Seattle. “The last time Dad and I spoke he said he had quit drinking and started going to AA.”

“Elkheart called you?” Kyle thought he heard jealousy in Eric’s voice. Talking about their father had always been a sensitive subject.

“Yeah, last summer.” Kyle gazed at a bookshelf that had a framed photo of himself with his father on one of their camping trips. “I went to visit him for a weekend at the reservation. Dad looked great. Happy for once. He had a new university job and a steady girlfriend. He’s been making an effort to turn his life around.”

“Elkheart never asked me up for a visit,” Eric grumbled.

An awkward silence fell between them. There had to be more to the story, because Eric wouldn’t have bothered to visit otherwise. Eager to get back to writing, Kyle wished his brother would cut to the chase. “Any other news?”

“Yeah, Ray said that he and Grandfather Two Hawks are the last tribe members living on the reservation. And check this out…with Elkheart M.I.A. or whatever, you, me and Shawna are the last descendents of the tribe. Ray and Grandfather have something to pass on to us. Something our father was supposed to give us years ago.”

“Did Ray say what it was?”

Eric shook his head. “He said we have to come up to Canada to find out. He invited us all to visit the reservation. Shawna and I have already agreed to go. She’s bringing what’s-his-face, and I’m taking Jessica.”

“I thought you were dating Stella.”

Eric laughed. “Man, you’ve been out of touch. I see Stella when I’m in Portland. There’s Rachel in Vegas and Kristen in L.A. Jessica’s the one I’ve been dating in Seattle.”

Kyle shook his head. “I don’t even bother to keep up anymore.” He ushered his brother toward the door. “You guys have a great time in Canada. Send me a postcard.”

“Actually…” Eric cleared his throat. “We were hoping you could break away for a few days and go with us. Maybe even fly us there in your plane.”

And there it was—the sales pitch Kyle had been waiting for. “I can’t. I’ve…” Kyle looked down at a stack of unedited chapters on the coffee table. “I need to focus on finishing my book. I’ve got a deadline to meet.”

“What better place to write than a remote cabin?” Eric flashed the smile he used to win over clients. “The fresh mountain air could do wonders for your writing. Think about it. This is a chance for all three of us to travel back to our childhood home. Reconnect with our Cree heritage.”

Or find out why we’re all so screwed up. A week in the mountains with his brother and one of his bimbo girlfriends was not a selling point, but Kyle did miss his sister and was slightly curious as to what his native relatives had for them. There was also the off chance that their father might show up, assuming he wasn’t rehabbing at a hacienda in the Mexican desert.

Kyle remained on the fence.

Eric switched his tone to begging. “Come on, it’s been ages since the three of us did anything together. We’ve all had it pretty tough since Mom passed away. It would be good for all of us if we made this trip a family vacation.”

Kyle gave his brother a sideways look. “Since when did you start caring so much about doing things with me and Shawna?”

“Since we almost lost her last year. If you won’t go for me, at the very least go for Shawna. She needs her brothers to steer her in the right direction.” Eric walked up and put a hand on Kyle’s shoulder. “What do you say?”

Kyle looked around at the apartment that had grown tomblike since his wife’s death two years ago. His shrink had diagnosed him as borderline agoraphobic. Except to buy groceries or go kayaking alone, he rarely ventured outside. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten together with his siblings. Lately, Kyle’s only company had been the ghost that walked the apartment at night, whispering strange phrases into his ear. A vacation in the mountains might be just the thing. He sighed. “Okay, you win. When do you guys want to leave?”

His brother grinned. “Tomorrow at the crack of dawn.”

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THE DEVIL’S WOODS is now available.

Check out my other published novels DEAD OF WINTER, SHADOWS IN THE MIST and THE WITCHING HOUSE.

My website: www.BrianMoreland.com

Follow me: @BrianMoreland

For those who have read my historical horror novel DEAD OF WINTER, my publisher Samhain Horror has been so kind to release my WWII supernatural thriller, SHADOWS IN THE MIST, which first released back in 2006 and topped number one on Amazon’s Mystery/Thriller Bestsellers List, beating out DaVinci Code. SHADOWS IN THE MIST will be available through all major booksellers September 4th, 2012. I’m providing the first three chapters here to give you a sneak peek into the story that has been called “Band of Brothers meets DaVinci Code.” Enjoy!

“Combining Masonic history, mysticism, and Nordic rune-lore, Moreland’s tale of a world at war is equal parts horror story and spine-jangling thriller. An adventure not to be missed!”

James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of
Map of Bones and Black Order

“A rocket-paced mystery about occult-obsessed Nazis. Classic good vs. evil action in this page turner!”

Joseph P. Farrell, author of Reich of the Black Sun

“With Shadows in the Mist, Brian Moreland weaves together the best elements of military, supernatural, and religious conspiracy genres, staking out a new territory all his own.”

T.L. Hines, author of Waking Lazarus

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About the Book

The truth will not stay buried.

During World War II, Germany’s Hürtgen Forest was a killing field. But there was something worse than the enemy in the mist. An ancient power was waiting to prey upon those who opposed the Third Reich.

Jack Chambers survived the war, but even after all these years, he still has nightmares about Hürtgen—and the unholy horrors he battled there. Now he is determined to reveal the truth behind his platoon’s massacre and entrusts the task to his grandson, Sean. But Sean’s quest sets him in a deadly race against those who wish to bury the truth forever—and those who plan to use it to unleash hell on Earth. 

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“Brian Moreland writes a blend of survival horror and occult mystery that I find impossible to resist.  His writing is clean, precise, and, best of all, compulsively readable.  I know, when I’ve got one of his books in my hands, that I’m going to be lost to the world for hours on end.  He’s just that good.”

Joe McKinney, author of Dead City and Flesh Eaters

“Brian Moreland has created a great horror novel … Shadows in the Mist is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.”

Horror Bob, The Horror Review

 “Grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.”

Chris Mooney, author of Deviant Ways and The Missing

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occult n (1923) : matters regarded as involving the action or influence of supernatural or supernormal powers or some secret knowledge of them

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

  

 Cult of the Black Order

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis cultivated a fascination with the occult and mind control. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS military, appointed several known occultists into his inner circle. One such occultist was writer and Runologist Karl Maria Wiligut. Together Himmler and Wiligut created esoteric rituals for the SS ceremonies, designed the death’s head ring bearing the skull and crossbones and turned the Wewelsburg castle in Westphalia, Germany, into a Nazi Camelot.

Studies in the occult fueled a secret obsession. In 1935, Himmler formally established an occult research division, the Ahnenerbe-SS. With over fifty departments devoted to scientific studies, teams of Nazi scientists crusaded across India, Tibet, China, South America and Nordic countries such as Iceland to locate archeological proof of the Nazis’ bizarre historical fantasy—that they were true descendants of mythical supermen known as the Aryan race.

The SS occultists, known as the Black Order, shared Hitler’s vision of the Thousand Year Reich—the Nazi plan to cleanse the planet of every race not considered of “pure” German blood. Believing they were destined to become the Aryan master race, the Nazis murdered millions of Jews, Gypsies, Freemasons and Bolsheviks, igniting the flame that would spread without control and build into the Second World War.

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Prologue

August 1944

SS Headquarters, Wewelsburg Castle

 

The castle doors creaked open for the angel of death.

Two Nazi guards yanked the leashes of their snarling Dobermans and stepped back. “Guten Abend, mein Herr.”

Keeping a wary eye on the dogs, Manfred von Streicher entered the castle gripping a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. The heavy doors shut behind him, sending a cascade of otherworldly echoes resounding through the stone fortress. Von Streicher shuddered.

No turning back now.

He marched alone through the grand hall of Teutonic knights. Armored sentries wielding swords and iron spears loomed on pedestals on either side. Von Streicher hastened past them, his boots clumping across the stones. His hand, bearing the death’s head ring, tightened around the briefcase handle. The handcuffs chafed his wrist. The stiff collar of his black tunic constricted his throat. Taking controlled breaths, he wound through the serpentine corridors. The shadowy reaches of the castle moaned as if disturbed by his presence.

This is madness, Manfred. For God’s sake, turn back! Destroy the research.

And what? Defy the Reich? Himmler will have me skinned alive!

Von Streicher stopped before a set of colossal double doors. Voices murmured on the other side, and then laughter erupted. They’re in a cheerful mood tonight. Hate to spoil a good party. Von Streicher slicked back a few wind-blown hairs and opened the doors.

The laughter stopped. Goblets and silverware clinked on the round table. A dozen black-clad officers fixed their Aryan eyes upon the messenger in the doorway.

Von Streicher raised his arm. “Heil Hitler!”

Seated at the far side of the round table, Himmler scowled and checked his watch. “SS-Hauptsturmführer Von Streicher, you’ve missed three courses.”

“My deepest apologies, Reichsführer. My plane was delayed in Norway. A storm—”

Himmler waved his hand dismissively. “Show us the designs.”

“Right away, mein Herr.” Von Streicher set the briefcase on the table, pulled a tiny key out of his gums, and opened the case. “My expedition in Iceland has led us to a breakthrough discovery.” Von Streicher removed a stack of photographs and a dossier.

Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg grinned from across the table. “What is it this time, Von Streicher, more Nordic cave paintings?” Chuckles circulated among the men.

Von Streicher passed around photos. “Actually, Herr Rosenberg, I combined your research with mine.” The photos were received with perplexed expressions all around.

A smile spread on Himmler’s face. “You actually got this to function?”

“Our testing has proven successful on one prototype.” Von Streicher took the thirteenth seat at the round table, where a plate of cold lamb shanks and a goblet of red wine awaited him. He slid the plate to one side and gulped the wine.

Reichsleiter Rosenberg, holding a photo, released a nervous laugh. “But this is merely a thing of legend.”

Von Streicher smiled. “Like the world tree, Yggsdrasil, legends derive from an acorn of truth. My team discovered the acorn. Now with the powers of Odin, we can produce the tree.”

Himmler said, “Not just a tree, gentlemen, an entire forest. We begin mass production immediately.”

Von Streicher choked on his wine. “With all due respect, mein Reichsführer, we are still in the early stages. My team needs more time—”

“No more research. We’ve got weeks before Allies and Soviets hit our borders. We must strike now with a blitzkrieg that will shake the planet.” Himmler handed a map to Von Streicher. “Don’t bother to unpack, Manfred. You will be overseeing the entire operation at our new base camp.” On the map a red box indicated an area near the border of Germany and Belgium.

“The Hürtgen Forest?”

Heinrich Himmler grinned and raised his goblet. “Once we engage these weapons into the war, no army will withstand the might of the reich. Heil Hitler!

The Black Order raised their goblets. “Heil Hitler!”

Von Streicher held aloft his toast with a shaky hand. He glanced down at the map…from the ice fields of heaven to the forests of the Green Hell.

The angel of death is coming. And I’m bringing my demons with me.

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October 1944

The Hürtgen Forest, Germany

 

Gray fog drifted across the rain-drenched battle zone, clashing with black tendrils rising from the smoldering village. Gunshots cracked. Bullets buzzed past Lieutenant Jack Chambers’ ears like swarms of angry hornets.

“This way!” he screamed at his platoon. “Move, move, move!” Chambers charged forward through the smoke and drizzle. Ducking behind the ruins of a brick building, he waved his men over.

“Krauts!” shouted one soldier.

“Take cover!” Chambers aimed his Thompson submachine gun over the chest-high wall.

Ra-ta-ta-ta-tat!

A dozen armed German silhouettes emerged from the buildings.

A metal storm strafed his platoon, chopping down several men. The ones who made it filled in around Chambers. “Base fire, everybody! Stay sharp!”

Sergeant Mahoney barked orders down the line. “You heard the man. Hit ’em with everything!”

The platoon fired over the chest-high wall. Several shadows fell backward, but more emerged to take their place. The enemy closed within fifty yards. A tank shell blasted a nearby wall. Dust drifted over the platoon, filling Chambers’ mouth with grit. His men fired madly at the fog.

Ra-ta-ta-ta-tat! Ra-ta-ta-ta-tat!

Chambers hovered behind the wall, his back flat against the cold flagstones. Metal hornets chipped the stones above his helmet.

Corporal Goldstein, pressing a Red Cross helmet to his head, crawled to Chambers. “Got a plan, sir?”

“Round up the wounded. We’re moving out.”

Goldstein ran hunkered along the brick wall. Chambers studied the miasma behind them. Which way now, Jack? Think. He glanced at his platoon. Battered and bloodied teenagers looked to him as their savior. Bullets whizzed over the wall. One GI dropped dead, a red hole punched in his forehead. Chambers peered into the kid’s glazed eyes. Blue as a spring sky.

Chambers squeezed his lids shut to the haunting memory of those vacant eyes.

Artillery shells shrieked through the village. A building one street over exploded in a spray of rubble. Sergeant Mahoney screamed, “They’re closing in!”

Chambers snapped out of his trance. “Grenades!” Yanking the pin with his teeth, he lobbed a metal pineapple over the wall. “Take cover.” Metal fragments popped against the bricks. “Let’s roll, boys. Move, move, move.” Chambers led the pack between mounds of rubble. Ahead black pines of the Hürtgen Forest stabbed upward through the fog.

Artillery screeched. To their rear, a gas station disintegrated in a fiery whoooosh! Flailing bodies catapulted through the air, screaming. Blasts of scorching heat knocked Lieutenant Chambers flat on his stomach. A heavy weight crashed on top of him.

Gasping, he wiped mud and pine needles from his face. Rain drenched the blaze around him. He tried to move, but a dead soldier pinned his torso and legs. Beside him lay another dead GI, his charred face staring with one drooping eye. Chambers scanned the clearing and saw only smoldering bodies. “Mahoney…Buck…”

Jesus, they’re all dead!

The ground quaked beneath the metallic roar of tank tracks.

A torched GI ran past, waving fiery arms. He screamed like a punished child before being cut down by the ra-tat-tat-tat of submachine-gun fire.

The earth spun like a mad carnival ride. Chambers sat dazed as the drizzle formed rings in the mud puddles. I’ve failed them. More casualties for Lieutenant Grim Reaper.

Silhouettes charged through the mist machine-gunning the fallen bodies. The GIs flopped, their dead limbs and torsos animated by the onslaught of metal slugs. Bullets kicked up the mud around Chambers. Jesus! Grabbing his Tommy gun, he belly-crawled through the bodies. Strafing bullets snaked along the ground in hot pursuit. He rolled behind a tree, bark and fir branches snapping. Heaving, he waited for the ra-tat-tat-tat to end. Then he ran pell-mell through the forest, crashing through walls of sharp pine needles. The sounds of the battle zone echoed farther and farther behind.

Chambers stumbled and fell to one knee, leaning on his rifle for support. Icy rain drenched his face. Lightning jagged across the roiling black sky. He sat back against a tree, snorting a wet sigh of relief. The Hürtgen Forest was a dripping green cavern, soundless except for the occasional distant gunshot. The impenetrable gray fog ruled the trees. His hands trembled. They’re all dead. Just me now. A mixture of sobs and insane laughter erupted from his belly. He shook his head.

Reaper. Reaper. Reaper.

Chambers glanced around at the shadowy trees.

You boys better hope you don’t get Lieutenant Reaper’s platoon. You get Grim, you’re good as dead, chum. Good as dead.

“No, this wasn’t my fault.”

Chambers’ mind reeled. Guilt twisted his guts. You gonna let those men die in vain, Chambers? It was the voice of Captain Murdock. I didn’t train you to be a quitter. You got a mission to fulfill. Now get your ass up. Chambers’ face hardened. He glared up at the bruised sky. An endless storm cloud flashed and swirled overhead. “What now? Huh! What the hell do you want me to do now!”

Distant screams echoed in the woods. “Lieutenant!”

Chambers felt a surge in his chest. “Men!” He searched the haze, trying to place the shouts.

“They’re coming!”

To Chambers’ right, the sound of running feet and snapping branches echoed just beyond the trees. Another sound filled the forest. Growls—rabid and doglike.

Chambers raced over the hill and followed a winding creek littered with fallen logs and slippery rocks. Freezing water filled his boots as he sloshed against the knee-high current.

Splashing sounds from around the curve just behind him. The growling grew louder.

Chambers sprinted faster. Climbing an incline, he followed a trail to a spiked wrought-iron fence covered in ivy. Beyond it stood a graveyard. He opened the gate and jogged between crosses and tombstones.

The tempest wailed through the Hürtgen like a raging thing, whipping the conifers from side to side, scattering broken branches across the cemetery. Rain angled like silver streamers in a gusty wind.

At the top of the hill a jagged roof and bell tower jousted upward above the fir trees. Lightning shattered the sky, illuminating a Gothic church with shattered windows and bricks pocked with war wounds. His soldiers cried out from somewhere near the church. “Lieutenant!”

Chambers scanned the tombstones and crypts that dotted the hillside all the way up to the church. “Mahoney! Buck! Goldstein!”

“Chambers!”

“Over here!” Chambers sloshed between tombstones.

Several voices cried out with gasping wet gurgles, “Grim Reaperrrr…”

He froze. “Where are you?”

“Down here, Lieutenant Reaperrrrr,” a voice bubbled up from the mud.

Something pushed against the sole of his boot. Chambers jumped back. The damp soil parted. A face with pale eyes floated to the surface. Membraned eyes. Like a gray winter sky. Muddy fingers clawed outward. Another hand sprouted from the earth and gripped his calf from behind.

“What the…” He kicked it loose, stumbling backward into a garden of groping hands.

“Chambers…” Skeletal beings draped in rotted military uniforms dug themselves from the graves. “Grim Reaperrrr…” They crawled toward him, bony hands outstretched.

Oh God!

“You belong with ussss…”

Chambers lurched backward, slipping. They tugged at his legs, pulling him thigh deep into a grave. He gripped a tombstone for support, clawing like hell to break loose. The dead engulfed him, pulling him deeper into the soil till the mud rose over his hips, stomach, chest. His hands grasped a cross. He struggled against the death current.

Shadows charged from the mist. Bullets kicked up the ground. The pale hands released Chambers and sank back into the soil.

German jackboots surrounded his half-buried body. Heart pounding, he looked up at a unit of shadow soldiers. Lightning lit up the fog beyond them. Darkness cloaked their faces.

A stout soldier kneeled down, studying Chambers with eyes as cold and black as the deepest arctic waters. He looked back at his German platoon. The black-helmeted heads nodded. With a metallic hiss the stout Nazi drew a sword and drove the blade through Chambers’ heart…

 

 

Jack Chambers woke drenched in sweat.

He jolted up, searching his bedroom. The vestiges of his nightmare still moved around him, the past and present fused together. Jack clung to the bedsheets.

Outside the wind whispered, Grim Reaperrrr.

The dead sank back into their graves, bubbling down into the mud. Shadows of the German enemy retreated into the gloom of the past. The mist dissipated.

Just another nightmare, Jack. At eighty-three, you’re finally ready for the loony bin.

A sharp pain pierced his left arm, flaring like a chain of fire up his shoulder and across the left half of his chest. Jack doubled over, groaning, struggling for air. “Eva…”

His wife turned on the lamp. “What is it, Jack?”

Colonel Jack Chambers held a fist against his chest. “Call 911…my heart…”

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Part One

Buried Secrets

   

War brings out the best in men and the worst in men.

Several decades have passed since World War II,

and I’m still trying to decide what it brought out in me.

—Colonel Jack Chambers, War Diary

 

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Chapter One

 

Sean Chambers ran from his rental car to the front porch of Nana and Grandpa’s home. He rang the doorbell. Goldie, his grandparents’ golden retriever, was the first to greet him, barking at one of the foyer windows.

Inspecting the sun-baked yard and withered flower beds, Sean wiped sweat from his forehead. The merciless sun hovered at high noon, and the sweltering heat pasted his shirt to his back. He rang the doorbell a second time.

The front door opened, and his grandmother put a palm to her chest. “Sean, oh thank heavens, you made it.”

“Hey, Nana.” As he hugged her and kissed her cheek, Goldie circled their legs, barking. Sean peered into the den. “I came fast as I could. How’s Grandpa?”

Nana swatted at two flies buzzing around the doorway. “Recovering a bit slowly, I’m afraid. Nurse Ruby says he’s stable, but you know your grandfather. He’s a stubborn mule, that one. Bloody refuses to stay in bed.”

“So he’s awake then?”

Nana nodded, wrinkles deepening around youthful eyes. “Oh, yes, he’s been tinkering in the war room all morning. Come in out of that heat, love. I was just making some lemonade.”

Sean grabbed his suitcase, welcoming the rush of cool air. He followed Nana through the large den decorated with Texas flags, antique furniture and mounted deer antlers hanging over a flagstone fireplace. Nana’s watercolors of windmills, longhorns and armadillos donned the walls. Passing a well-equipped kitchen that smelled of fruit and herbs, Nana led Sean into a back study.

She tapped on the door. “Love, you have a visitor.”

Jack Chambers wheeled around, a paintbrush in one hand and a miniature soldier in the other. The army colonel’s once muscular frame had withered. But despite his gaunt face, Chambers’ green eyes were still full of spark. “How do, Sean?”

Forcing a smile, Sean walked into the study and shook his grandfather’s frail hand. “How are you doing, Grandpa?”

“Well, I’ve got a zipper on my chest and my golf game’s going straight down the toilet. Other than that life’s a peach.”

A golf cart drove past the back lawn, drawing his attention.

Sean took a seat across from his grandfather’s wheelchair. “Think you’ll get your game back?”

“Hey, I may be on the back nine, but I can still swing a club.” Chambers chuckled. “So how are Meg and the kids?”

“Fine. They’ll be here this weekend.”

“Good, can’t wait to see how Danny and Katie have grown. What’s it been, two years?”

Sean looked down. “Yeah.”

“Well, that’s too long. Nana and I aren’t getting any younger.”

Sean fidgeted. Even in a wheelchair, his grandfather’s steely gaze made him feel five years old. “I know. We’ve been busy with the move and all…but we’re stationed in New Mexico for a while, so we’ll be able to visit more.”

Chambers nodded.

Sean stared around the room. The study’s walls were hung with framed World War II propaganda posters, black-and-white photos of soldiers, medals and patches and a gun cabinet displaying rifles and pistols from several wars. He walked to a large glass frame that encased two Bronze Stars, three Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, Croix-de-Guerre, an American Campaign Medal and seven Purple Hearts. “Are these from World War II?”

“Nah, mostly from Korea and Vietnam. I’m planning on taking those down.”

“What for?”

“Just ready for a change.” Chambers wheeled himself over to his hobby table by the bay window. He picked up a miniature soldier and, grabbing a tiny brush, painted a red cross on the helmet. Behind him stretched a long table that resembled an aerial view of a forest made of model trees, rocks, hills, plastic streams and small villages composed of rubble. The forest was filled with hundreds of soldiers, along with tanks, trucks and artillery. Some soldiers had been meticulously painted army green, others Wehrmacht gray.

“Is that one of the battles you fought?”

Chambers remained silent, positioning hand-painted soldiers in the model forest.

“Sorry, sir, it’s none of my business.”

“No, it’s time you knew, Sean. This represents Germany’s Hürtgen Forest. Bloodiest battle I ever fought. Worse than Korea, Nam. We called these woods the Meat Grinder because they chewed up soldiers by the thousands. Rained every day, and the fog was so thick we could never see the enemy.” He pointed to a long chain of small white pyramids bordering the forest and fields. “These were the Dragon’s Teeth that formed the Siegfried Line separating Belgium from Germany. At first our tanks couldn’t get through, so our infantry fought the first wave in the worst hand-to-hand combat I ever saw.”

“Amazing you got out in one piece.”

“My platoon wasn’t so lucky. Sean, lock the door. I’ve got a special favor to ask.”

“Anything, sir.”

Chambers wheeled his chair over to a desk. He pushed the desk with all his might, his bald head flushing with the effort. The desk budged a couple of inches. He grunted with frustration.

Sean rushed to his aid. “Here, let me.” The boards squeaked as Sean shoved the desk three feet down the wall, revealing a square cutout in the wood floor.

Chambers removed the square panel. “Pull out that box.”

Sean reached into the hole. He pushed his hands through cobwebs and pulled out a dusty metal box. He looked at his grandfather quizzically.

Chambers wiped his brow, breathing heavily. “The combination is seven, nine, seven.”

Sean thumbed the combination and lifted the lid. Inside was a German map and a black diary bound with a leather cord.

Chambers looked at his grandson, his eyes now dark and cloudy. “The map shows where my platoon was buried in Germany. The diary explains what really happened to them. Deliver these to General Briggs at the U.S. Army base in Heidelberg.”

Chambers handed Sean a plane ticket.

“Germany? I don’t understand.”

“General Briggs owes me a favor.” Chambers grabbed his grandson’s wrist. “This is urgent. I’m putting a lot of trust in you, son. Just deliver the diary and map to General Briggs.”

Sean stared down at the diary and ticket. “All right, sir. I’ll do it.”

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Chapter Two

 

Six hours into the flight to Frankfurt, Sean Chambers sat in the first-class section, sipping a Sprite and staring down at the fold-down tray. Before him were the mysterious relics from Grandpa’s past—a war diary and a laminated map of Germany. Sean ran his fingers over the diary’s worn edges, the scent of old leather tempting him to explore the bound stories within.

He pushed the diary away. “It’s none of my business.”

Sean put on headphones and closed his eyes. Maybe Mozart could lull him to sleep. His fingers traced the leather cord that wrapped around the diary. They started to unravel the cord, then stopped. Exhaling, he yanked off the headphones and stared at the diary, rubbing his chin.

Sean unfolded the laminated map. An X indicated a region in western Germany near the Belgian border. On the back of the map, Grandpa had scribbled Catholic church graveyard beside an address in Richelskaul.

What could Grandpa have written to warrant a sudden trip to Germany?

Sean lifted the diary, and a black-and-white photograph slid partway out. He pulled out the photo, which showed a platoon of seven haggard soldiers. A few wore helmets. Some had smiles. One man held a cigarette clamped between his lips. Another had his arm around a buddy. A grinning, gap-toothed soldier lay lengthwise across the arms of the front soldiers, who held him up. Lieutenant Jack Chambers stood at one end of the group, his expression stoic. He was a handsome man in his day, with light brown hair and emerald green eyes. Compared to some of his compatriots, Jack looked medium built, with a slim, yet muscular six-foot frame. Even so, his piercing gaze demanded respect and admiration. Written on the backside of the photo was The Lucky Seven.

Sean put back the platoon photo and stared at the darkening sky outside his window. His mind retraced the details of how he would explain all this to General Briggs. What do I have to report really? All Grandpa did was give me a diary and a map with a list of gravesites. But what does it all mean?

Sean’s fingers took on a will of their own as they unraveled the leather cord. He opened the diary. The pages were stiff and yellow, like an aged newspaper. Water stains blotched the edges and speckled his grandfather’s handwritten words. Sean read a passage.

Nearly a month now we’ve been fighting in this godforsaken forest. The Green Hell. The Meat Grinder. I hate the very sight of it. Endless fir trees. Brutal terrain. Steep hills and rugged cliffs border Germany like a great wall. My platoon and I have been reconning day and night, trying to map out enemy positions.

Sean flipped the weathered pages, feeling guilty as he scanned the secret life his grandfather had always refused to talk about. What’s this? Toward the middle of the book, the words changed from English to Hebrew. Sean knew his family tree was laced with Christian and Jewish lineage. His parents had elected to teach a hybrid of both faiths and let Sean decide for himself. Although he was still searching for the right path, he was well versed in biblical history and, as a young boy, had learned to read Hebrew. But it didn’t make translating Grandpa’s diary any easier. The letters were Hebrew, but the text was completely undecipherable.

Interspersed amid the handwriting were crude drawings: a stylized cross, the Star of David, and a complex drawing of interconnected circles. Burning with curiosity, Sean flipped to the back of the book. He encountered a drawing of skeletal figures standing in a graveyard just as a hand tapped him on the shoulder. Sean jerked. An elderly man with a trimmed white beard stood in the aisle. “Excuse me, young man. I was wondering if I could have this aisle seat?” He pointed to it with a mahogany cane. “The man next to me is snoring like a buzz saw.”

Sean put away the diary and map.

Behind the thick bifocals, the elderly man’s light brown eyes squinted as he smiled. “Ah, thank you. I am growing far too old for such long flights.” He took several seconds to sit down, groaning with every movement. “My back’s not what it used to be.” He adjusted the knitted yarmulke on his head and pushed his glasses up the bump of his nose.

The plane hit a patch of turbulence, shaking the cabin from side to side.

“Oy! I wish they’d get past this mess.” The man buzzed a flight attendant. “Stacey, pardon me, but could I trouble you for another Bloody Mary?”

“No trouble at all, rabbi.” The blonde smiled at Sean. “How about you, flyboy?”

“No, thanks.”

“How about some ice cream, then? I’ve got Oreo cookie.”

“I’m fine.”

She winked at Sean. “Well, if you need anything at all, flyboy, just buzz me.”

The rabbi watched the flight attendant saunter down the aisle. “I think she was flirting with you. Must be your uniform.”

“Suppose so.” Sean slipped on his headphones, pretending to watch the in-flight movie.

The rabbi nudged his elbow. “Ah, if I was your age, Sean, I’d ask her to dinner.”

Sean held up his hand, wiggling the finger with the golden band.

“Yes, yes, same here.” The rabbi pulled out his wallet and showed a photo of a smiling elderly woman. “Just celebrated our fifty-seventh. Six kids, fourteen grandkids—”

“Wait, how do you know my name?”

“I heard the flight attendant say it.”

“No, she didn’t.”

“Oh, how clumsy of me.” The old man blushed. “I’d make a poor spy.” He offered his weathered hand. “I’m Rabbi Jacob Goldstein. Ring a bell?”

Sean kept his arms crossed.

The rabbi shook his head. “That son of a gun. Well, it’s good to know your grandfather can keep at least one secret.”

Sean glared as the old rabbi leaned forward on his cane.

“I served with your grandfather’s unit during World War II. He and I have stayed in contact. I know about the diary. Read it yet?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it.” Sean latched the briefcase and shoved it under the seat.

Goldstein looked down, his hands folded over the brass handle of his cane. “I was there.” Behind the bifocals, Goldstein’s magnified brown eyes glazed over. “Over fifty years ago, Jack and I witnessed an unspeakable horror. We made a pact to take our secret to the grave. When he told me he wrote the whole incident in his diary, I, well…” He pursed his lips. “Sean, you can’t let the army have that diary.”

Sean looked out the window.

The old man sighed. “How can I make you understand?”

“Understand what?”

“There is more to that diary than just a few missing soldiers. Do you believe in the supernatural, Sean? Do you believe there is a spiritual presence here on earth?”

Sean pinched his eyebrows together. “What are you driving at, Rabbi?”

Goldstein looked down at his aging hands. “What is buried should stay buried. Just hand the diary over to me. I’ll handle it from here. Tell your grandfather you took care of it. And we can all go on with our happy lives.”

Sean drew his feet tight against the briefcase.

Goldstein clamped his jaw and looked at the seat in front of him, brooding, then turned back, his pupils dilated. “Your grandfather is not thinking straight. If you turn in that diary to General Briggs…it will summon a military investigation. Do you know what that will mean to your family? You love Meg, do you not? Danny and Katie? Why risk it?” He looked away, his cheeks trembling.

A rash of goosebumps sprouted on Sean’s arms. “You leave my family out of this.”

Goldstein’s craggy face turned red. “I’m trying to protect your family.”

Sean looked the white-bearded man square in the eyes. “Rabbi, it’s time you returned to your seat.”

“You’re Jack Chambers’ grandson, all right.” He stood. “I just pray that between now and the time we land you will come to your senses and reconsider.”

The flight attendant returned with Goldstein’s drink. “Here you go, Rabbi.”

Goldstein stormed down the aisle. The flight attendant looked at Sean, befuddled. Seething, he stared out the window, dwelling on the pitch night sky.

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To continue the adventure with Jack Chambers and his platoon back in World War II, you can order the book at Amazon.com , BarnesandNoble.com or your favorite bookseller.

“Dead of Winter by Brian Moreland is an exceptionally well crafted horror novel that tells a gripping story of dark religious doings, a horrific serial killer, and a sympathetic Inspector, in a dark and fascinating historical setting of 19th century Canada. The atmospherics are outstanding and the story offers plenty of surprises right up to its shocking and violent conclusion. Highly recommended.” 

– Douglas Preston, co-author of The Monster of Florence and Cold Vengeance.

 “A frightening and chilly romp through a winter wasteland, Dead of Winter will freeze your soul! Sharply written and scary as hell, this one is a must-read for all horror fans. I am in awe of Brian Moreland.”

– Ronald Malfi, author of Snow and Floating Staircase

Readers who enjoyed my first novel SHADOWS IN THE MIST have been asking when will I release my latest supernatural horror thriller. Well, I’m happy to announce that DEAD OF WINTER is now available in paperback and as an e-book for all you Kindle, Nook and Ipad readers out there.

DEAD OF WINTER  is a historical story based partly on true events and an old Algonquin Indian legend that still haunts the Great Lakes tribes to this day. It’s also a detective mystery and, for lovers of gothic romance, the story even has a couple of love triangles thrown in for fun. The story takes place near the end of the 19th Century at an isolated fur-trading fort deep in the Ontario wilderness. The main character is Inspector Tom Hatcher, a troubled detective from Montreal who had recently captured an infamous serial killer, Gustav Meraux, known as the Cannery Cannibal. Gustav is Jack-the-the-Ripper meets Hannibal Lecter. Even though the cannibal is behind bars, Tom is still haunted from the case, so he decides to move himself and his rebellious teenage son out to the wilderness. At the beginning of the story, Tom has taken a job at Fort Pendleton to solve a case of strange murders that are happening to the fur traders that involve another cannibal, one more savage than Gustav Meraux. Some predator in the woods surrounding the fort is attacking colonists and spreading a gruesome plague—the victims turn into ravenous cannibals with an unending hunger for human flesh. In Tom’s search for answers, he discovers that the Jesuits know something about this plague. My second main character is Father Xavier, an exorcist from Montreal who is ordered by the Vatican to travel to Ontario to help Tom battle the killer causing the outbreak.

Here are 3 chapters to give you a sneak peek of what’s to come. Enjoy!

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Part One

Predators and Prey

1

December 15, 1870

Manitou Outpost

Ontario, Canada

It was the endless snowstorms that ushered in their doom. Each day and night the white tempests whirled around the fort, harrowing the log houses with winter lashings. At the center of the compound, the three-story lodge house creaked and moaned. Father Jacques Baptiste chanted in Latin and threw holy water on the barricaded front door. Above the threshold, a crucifix hung upside down. No matter how much the Jesuit priest prayed, the Devil would not release its grip on this godforsaken fort.

Something scraped against the wood outside. Father Jacques peered through the slats of a boarded window. Tree branches clawed violently at the stockade walls. The front gate stood open, exposing them to the savage wilderness. It also provided the only path of escape. If by chance they made it out the gate, which way would they go?

The priest considered their options. Beyond the fort’s perimeter, the dark waters of Makade Lake knocked plates of ice against the shore. Crossing the frozen lake would be a dead man’s walk. Last week, two of the trappers fell through the ice. The only way out was through the woods.

Father Jacques shuddered at the thought of leaving the fort. The trappers had fortified the outpost to keep the evil out. They hadn’t counted on the savagery attacking them from within. He prayed for the souls of the men, women, and children lost in the past few weeks. Last autumn, the French-speaking colony had been twenty strong. Now, in midwinter, they were down to four survivors and not a crumb of food to split among them. How much longer before the beasts within completely took them over?

“Forgive us, oh Lord, for our fall from grace.” Father Jacques sipped the holy water. It burned his throat and stomach like whiskey. “Cast out these evils that prey upon us.”

Behind him, the sound of boots approached from the darkness. The priest spun with his lantern, lighting up the gaunt face of a bearded man. Master Pierre Lamothe, the fort’s chief factor, wore a deerskin parka with a bushy fur hood. His eyes were bloodshot. He wheezed.

The priest took a step back. “Are you still with us, Pierre?”

The sick man nodded. “Just dizzy, Father. I’m so damned hungry.”

Father Jacques knew the pains of hunger. Each passing day it pulled his flesh tighter against his ribcage.“We’ll find something to eat soon, I promise. Here, take another sip.” He offered the bottle of holy water.

Pierre took a swig and winced. Seconds later he stumbled back, rubbing his eyes.

“The burning will pass.” Father Jacques grabbed his wrist. “Remember our plan?”

“Yes… check on the horses.”

“We must hurry. Now may be our only chance.” They removed the barricade from the door. A long staircase led down from the second floor to the snow-covered ground. “Bless me, Father.” Pierre raised his shotgun and stepped out into the blizzard. He all but disappeared in the white squall. The only parts visible were his hood and the outline of his shoulders. Father Jacques nervously watched the fort grounds. At the surrounding cabins, wind howled through shattered windows and broken doors. When Pierre reappeared at the stables, the priest released his breath.

Please let the horses still be alive.

The chief factor pulled a horse out. The poor animal was so thin its hide sunk into its ribs. As Pierre threw a saddle on its back, he raised two fingers, signaling that a second horse was still inside the stable.

Father Jacques closed the door and clasped his hands. “Thank you, oh Lord.”

Someone tugged at his cassock. He looked down to see a small, French-Indian girl. Pierre’s daughter Zoé had tousled black hair and large brown eyes that had kept their innocence despite the horrors they’d witnessed these past few weeks. The girl held a tattered Indian doll to her chest. “I’m afraid, Père.”

Father Jacques touched her head and gave the most comforting smile he could conjure. “Don’t worry, Zoé, the angels will protect us. Here, you need to bundle up.” He fastened her fur parka, pulled the hood over her head.

“I want Mama to go with us.”

“I’m sorry, Zoé, but she’s too sick. She would die out there. You, your papa, and I are going to ride out to the nearest fort. Then we’ll send help back for your mother.”

The girl frowned. “Noël says you’re lying!”

Father Jacques glanced down at the Indian doll. One green eye stared back. The other eye was a ragged hole. Since Zoé had stopped eating two weeks ago, she suffered from dementia. She spent most of her days whispering to her doll. Father Jacques wanted to rip its head off. He squeezed his fist. “Noël is just afraid like the rest of us. Now, pray for forgiveness for speaking to me in that manner.”

“Sorry, Père.” Zoé crossed herself and bowed.

“Now, drink.” He gave the girl the last of the holy water. She drank it and winced as if it were castor oil.

Outside, the horses whinnied. A shotgun fired.

Father Jacques dashed to the window. He searched the fort grounds. A saddled horse ran in circles. Where was Pierre?

Behind the wall of whirling snow, more shots were fired. Then came a scream. Pierre stumbled out of the mist. Blood spouted from the stump of his shoulder. He was missing an arm.

Peering out the boarded window, Father Jacques screamed at the sight of blood gushing from Pierre’s shoulder. As the wounded man stumbled up the front steps to the lodge house, the white mist rolled in from behind and swallowed Pierre. His scream was cut short.

“Papa!” Zoé ran toward the barricaded door. “Let Papa in!”

“No, move away from the door.” Father Jacques grabbed her hand and backed away.

Outside, the storm wailed. Snow blew in through the cracks of the boarded windows. Footfalls charged up the staircase like thundering hooves. Something rammed against the front door. The hinges buckled.

Zoé shrieked.

“Back to the cellar!” The priest pulled the girl through the dark corridors of the lodge house. Behind them, the front door crashed open. Terror stabbed Father Jacques’ chest with icy pinpricks at the shattering of windows and splintering of wood. Growls echoed throughout the lodge.

They’re inside!

Zoé released a high-pitched shriek.

“Stay quiet, girl.” The priest led her down the cellar stairs. The swinging lantern slashed the darkness with a pendulum blade of light. Scratches and streaks of crystallized blood glistened on the steps and walls like a gallery of agonies marking the descent to hell.

They ran into the dark cellar. Father Jacques brought down an iron bar across the door and shoved crates against it. He took the child’s face in his hands. “Hide, quick.”

The girl crawled inside a nook stuffed with fur pelts. She hugged her doll to her chest. Father Jacques pulled a deerskin blanket down over the nook so Zoé was fully hidden. “Don’t come out no matter what you hear.”

A raspy voice whispered, “Father…”

The priest aimed his lantern at a row of beds. The storage cellar had been converted into a makeshift hospital. In three beds lay twisted corpses. In the closest bed, an Ojibwa woman was lying beneath the quilts. Wenonah Lamothe, Pierre’s native wife. She was too delirious to know that her husband was dead. Her skeletal head rolled back and forth on the pillow. Teeth chattering, she coughed clouds of frosty air. Her long, black hair now had streaks of white. Her skin, normally reddish brown, had turned fish-belly pale, with white scabs and ghastly blue veins. She looked to the priest, her bloodshot eyes pleading him. “Help me, Father.”

“I’m sorry, Wenonah.” God had failed her. Failed them all.

The Jesuit picked up a silver cross with a daggered tip. “I cast out all spirits of Satan.”

The woman tied to the bedposts growled like a wolfhound.

Father Jacques stood at the foot of Wenonah’s bed. Her thrashing body smacked the headboard against the wall. She laughed and moaned, blue tongue licking her lips. She kicked off her quilts, thrusting her hips upward, spreading her bony legs for him. Remaining steadfast in his prayers, the priest raised the holy dagger over the Ojibwa woman’s chest.

Wenonah glared with fiery eyes.

Zoé yelled, “Mama!

“Stay hidden, child.” Father Jacques stumbled back as a wave of emotions coursed through him. Anger. Fury. Rage.

Hunger.

His stomach ached for something meaty. Raw and bloody. He sniffed the air, his keen sense homing in on the nook where the girl was hidden. Beyond the scent of animal furs, Father Jacques inhaled the salty aroma of blood pumping through a heart.

Eat the girl! growled a voice inside the Jesuit’s head. Eat the lamb’s sweet meat.

“No. No. No.” He slammed the cross-dagger into a post. “I am a disciple of God. He gives me strength! Lead me not into temptation, oh Lord.”The wave of hunger passed. He chanted faster.

Shrieks echoed from beyond the cellar door. Feet stomped down the stairs. The doorknob rattled. Nails scraped the door, clawing to get in.

Father Jacques backed away, praying the barricade would hold. Even if it did, without food and water they couldn’t last another day in the cellar. We have to escape.

He went to the back wall, climbed up a stack of crates. With a crowbar, he tore planks off a tiny window. Snow blew inward, stinging his face. The mist had cleared. He could see the stables and the open front gate. The square portal was too small for Father Jacques, but not the girl. Tears welled in the priest’s eyes as he realized his last hope had come down to the fate of a nine-year-old girl. “Come, child, now!”

She climbed out from her hiding place, hugging the doll to her chest.

The priest kneeled, taking Zoé’s hands. “There’s still a horse in the stables. I need you to ride out to Fort Pendleton.” He pulled a small diary from his coat pocket. “Give this to Brother Andre.” He stuffed the journal into a trapper’s fur-skinned pack along with her doll.

“No, I’m not leaving…” She started to cry.

“You must, Zoé! We won’t survive down here another day.” He pulled the pack onto her back, fastening the straps around her waist.

“But what about you, Père?”

“You’ll have to go on your own.”

From the bed Wenonah rasped, “Zoé, wait…” Her wrist stretched one of the ropes. “Come here, my child.”

“Mama.”

“No, Zoé!” Father Jacques grabbed the girl just short of her mother’s gnarled fingernails. “Don’t touch her.” He carried Zoé to the back wall. She sobbed and jerked in his arms, reaching for her mother.

He stood her on a crate and shook her. “Listen, child! We need you to be strong. Go now, or you’ll never see your mother again.”

“But I’m afraid to go out there.”

“Remember the story about the lost children who came upon an angel?”

She nodded, sniffling.

“There are angels in the woods, and they will protect you, but they are leaving now, so you must hurry.”

The beasts wailed inside the cellar’s stairwell. An axe blade chopped through the door, cracking it.

The girl screamed and ran up the crates.

Father Jacques helped her out the window. She dropped down to the snowy ground.

“Hurry, Zoé!” He watched her run across the snowfield.

The axe blade smashed through the door. Dozens of white fingers tore at the hole. The priest held up a cross. “God is my savior!”

Another growl issued, this one from inside the cellar. He circled, searching the shadows until he spotted broken ropes at Wenonah’s bed. She now moved in the darkness just beyond the lantern glow. Her bones made popping sounds. The last stage of the change.

The priest stepped toward the row of beds. He barely made out the woman’s spindly shape hunched over, feeding off the flesh of a dead man. The crunching and tearing sickened Father Jacques and at the same time beckoned him to join Wenonah in the feast.

No, stay righteous! The Jesuit coughed. He stumbled to his altar and opened his holy book. The words blurred. His vision spiraled. Inside his stomach, the hunger grew, cold and burning, clinging his flesh to bone, filling him with a hollow emptiness, then turning—Yes!—spreading through him with a sweet rapture known only to saints and angels. “I am a shepherd of death…”

The cellar door crashed open.

Father Jacques raised his arms and smiled as he turned to face the ravenous horde.

2

Ontario Wilderness

The oncoming blizzard roared like a phantom bear. A boreal wind whipped through the forest, shaking the pine branches. Searchers in fur parkas steered three dogsleds through the white squall. Huskies barked at the cracking whips. The search party fanned out between the trees, sleds racing one another.

Riding in the lead sled, Inspector Tom Hatcher clamped his black lawman’s hat against his head. Frosty wind raked his face. Snow blinded his vision. He leaned inward as pine branches brushed the right side of his body. The British detective felt out of place in his two-piece suit, necktie, and gray overcoat. While the hunters carried rifles, Tom gripped his trusty pistol.

If Father could see me now, Tom thought, out in the Canadian wilderness dogsledding with a brigade of fur traders. And if that isn’t crazy enough, I’m following the guidance of a native woman.

Jostling and jerking in his rickety seat, Tom watched the Ojibwa tracker’s long, billowing black hair as she deftly drove the sled through the trees. Anika Moonblood was like no woman Tom had ever met. She only stood about chest-high to him, but she was feisty, and the way she moved through the wilderness was downright preternatural. Her light brown face, with high cheekbones and sparkling green eyes, reminded Tom of a wildcat. Like a puma or lynx. He might have found Anika pretty if it weren’t for the hardness of her face. He had yet to see her smile.

Anika pulled the reins on the dogs. The huskies yelped as the sled skidded to a stop in the deep snow. She hopped off and crouched at the crest of a hill, her deerskin clothes almost blending with the trees.

Tom scanned the woods and saw what the tracker had found. Footprints. The inspector snapped on his snowshoes and climbed upward, raising his knees, awkwardly plowing through the drift. He stepped up beside the tracker. “Any sign of Sakari?”

Anika pulled strands of black hair off a branch. “She was taken upstream.”

Tom scanned the frozen landscape. A legion of snow devils spiraled across the pure white dunes, spinning upward and catching the fierce crosswinds. Endless snow froze against his cheeks. Vision diminished to twenty feet. A familiar parasite of foreboding gnawed at his stomach as the afternoon sun was swallowed by gray clouds.

“The blizzard will soon be upon us,” Anika said.

The inspector spoke over the wind, “Let’s push a little further.”

“We go the rest of the way on foot.” The tracker trudged forward, her slender frame fading into the white mist.

The other sleds caught up. Tom glanced back at the pale faces of the searchers, a mixture of British soldiers in red greatcoats and Scotch laborers bundled in hooded fur coats. The lower halves of their faces were covered with scarves, and their eyes were shielded by goggles made of caribou bone with two tiny round holes. The native goggles made the white men look like Indian fur trappers. Even though Tom couldn’t see their eyes, he sensed their fear. They had been searching for the missing woman for over an hour now, and the blizzard only seemed to be getting closer. It wouldn’t be long before the snow completely covered the trail.

Tom briefly looked at Percy Kennicot, offering the clerk a gleam of hope. Ice crystallized on the man’s mustache. He and his Cree Indian wife, Sakari, had ventured out into the woods on horseback, headed toward Manitou Outpost. The horses had gotten spooked. They separated briefly. Kennicot heard his wife scream, followed by an animal growl. Percy had searched the evergreen forest but found only Sakari’s fallen horse, its throat slashed. The killer had carried off Percy’s wife into the woods.

Tom had told his men to be wary of a rogue trapper in the area or possibly a band of cutthroat Indians. None of the searchers seemed to like that he was in charge. To the soldiers and fur traders, Tom was the newcomer. The man from the city. But they were all scared ever since colonists from Fort Pendleton had started to go missing in the woods. A few weeks ago, a French Canadian hunter had been found disemboweled. Whether the colonists liked Inspector Hatcher or not, he had been hired to track down their killer.

As Tom snowshoed through the woods, he wondered if leaving behind his city comforts had been the right decision. Montréal had been cold, but the interior of Ontario was constantly below zero. The blizzard’s endless breath seeped into his bones. White wisps puffed out of his chapped mouth. His cheeks and nose were numb, and he feared frost bite might eat away his face.

How long can we survive out in this godforsaken weather?

The rest of the search party, all colonists who spent their lives enduring such brutal winters, seemed to handle the cold just fine. He now envied their heavy fur parkas and otter skin boots. Just keep your body moving, Tom.

The inspector led the search party forward, doing his best to keep Anika in his sights as the swift tracker crept like a wraith in the fog. She stopped and waved them over.

Tom quickened his pace to catch up. She showed him a faint blood trail. There were more tracks, too. Deep impressions in the snow. They followed the tracks until they reached the frozen stream of Beaver Creek. They halted.

“Great Scott!” Tom said.

Suspended in the ice was the butchered body of Sakari Kennicot. But only the upper torso, it seemed. She had been disemboweled. Several ribs were exposed. And one arm had been completely severed at the shoulder.

Percy Kennicot ran ahead of the pack, brushing past Tom. The dead woman’s husband fell to his knees and wailed like an animal.

Seeing the remains of Sakari Kennicot, Tom’s mind flashed to images from his last case in Montréal: butchered bodies of women being dragged up from the harbor. Nothing but skeletons strung together by grey sinews. It was the grisly work of the most formidable killer Inspector Hatcher had ever tracked.

The Cannery Cannibal.

Just two years ago, Inspector Hatcher had worked in Montréal alongside British and French Canadian detectives to solve the case of the century. For over a year, the Cannery Cannibal had terrorized the harbor city, abducting dockside prostitutes who sold their bodies near the cannery district. The twisted things the killer had done to those girls. The way he butchered them, carving the flesh from their bones. The hair and skin on their heads had been left, as if the Cannery Cannibal couldn’t bring himself to cut up their faces. He left that meat to the fishes when he dumped the women’s skeletons into the water. Inspector Hatcher had found traces of white powder caked in the eye sockets.

While trying to think like a killer, Tom had spent numerous nights imagining the cannibal carving up these women like a butcher flaying meat off an animal, leaving behind a skeleton with the woman’s head intact. It was only later, after he found the killer’s dockside lair, and final victim, that Tom discovered the beast made up the women’s faces like the powdery visages of Renaissance queens.

Now Tom gripped a tree, trying to erase the memory. The wind shook clumps of snow off the nearby branches. He sensed he was being watched. Catching his breath, he scanned the forest to see if the Cannery Cannibal had somehow followed him to the backwoods of Ontario. But that was impossible, because the notorious murderer was rotting away in prison, awaiting his eventual hanging, if not already dangling from the gallows.

3

Montréal, Quebec

The Laroque Asylum loomed like a fortress for the damned. Its stone walls were powder gray with chinks and cracks from years of brutal winters and internal suffering. Built in 1790, the asylum had been designed to separate the insane from the civilized. A private kingdom for the mentally ill.

Father Xavier Goddard stepped out of his stagecoach onto the cobblestone driveway. Snow flurries swirled around his black robes. He endured the biting wind as he covered his bald head with a black fur cap. Wearing the Russian mink furrowed the brows of his fellow priests, who wore the typical cleric’s hat. But the fur cap was an heirloom from his Uncle Remy, who’d sailed the high seas with the French Navy and brought the expensive cap back from Siberia. Despite its contrary image to the priestly vow of poverty, the mink hat was a daily reminder of his cherished uncle, while keeping Father Xavier’s bald head warm during Quebec’s harsh winters.

The Jesuit turned to his apprentice, Brother Francois, who climbed out of the coach, gazing up at the towering asylum. The young man was wearing a black cassock buttoned to the throat and a black soup-plate hat, while Father Xavier wore the black cassock and white collar of an ordained priest. Each Jesuit carried a small case, much like a house doctor’s medical kit.

Father Xavier gave his apprentice a fatherly look. “Francois, did you pack everything I asked?”

The layman patted his duffle bag, and his eyes brightened. “Oui, I’m ready to see how you work.”

The young ones are always eager at first, Father Xavier thought. He scrutinized the man’s delicate features and innocent eyes. Maybe Francois will be different than his predecessors.

“Let’s get started.” Father Xavier ascended the steps.

Francois followed. “How long will the ritual take?”

“Hours or days. Depends on the willingness of our subject to cooperate.”

The asylum’s enormous front door opened with a heavy grate. A short, stocky man hobbled out using a cane. “Top of the mornin’, Father, thanks for comin’ so quickly,” he said in a thick Irish accent. With his smudged cheeks and crooked teeth, the warden of Laroque looked like some Cretan who had spent years on a pirate’s ship. He had stringy red hair and scraggly mutton chops. A grubby hand jutted out. “Me name’s Warden Paddock.”

Avoiding the hand, Father Xavier stared at the doorway. He got a cold feeling from more than just the gale that swept along the St. Lawrence River. A coven of ravens landed on the rooftop, squawking. “He knows we’re here.”

The warden’s eyebrows knitted together. “I beg your pardon?”

Father Xavier said, “Never mind. Take us to Gustave Meraux.”

“Aye, aye, right this way.” Warden Paddock and Francois entered the white stone fortress. As Father Xavier was about to cross the threshold, something shrieked from behind him. He turned around. Down the hill, a steamboat cut through the cracking ice that covered the St. Lawrence River. Across the river stood Mount Royal, the three-crested hill from which Montréal got its name. The sky above the harbor city had turned pink with streaks of orange.

Feeling adrenaline coursing through his veins, Father Xavier smiled. “A beautiful day to face the Devil.”

The two Jesuits followed Warden Paddock through the main corridor. They passed a set of red-coated soldiers standing guard with rifles. The warden unlatched an iron door then led Father Xavier and his apprentice down a set of winding stairs.

“We currently have one hundred and seventy inhabitants,” Paddock said. “There have been so many crazies coming in lately, that we’ve had to build additional cells down in the undercroft.”

“Warden, I am only interested in the one you sent me for,” said Father Xavier.

“Aye, Gustave Meraux arrived two weeks ago, and ever since, has wreaked nothing but havoc among the inmates.”

At the bottom of the stairs, the undercroft tunneled beneath the old fortress.

Torches illuminated an arched ceiling and metal bars. In between the cells, water dribbled down moss-covered walls. Father Xavier’s shoes splashed through puddles. He winced at the foul smells of urine and defecation. Francois covered his mouth with a handkerchief.

“We’re still working on the sanitation,” the warden said with embarrassment. “We are understaffed at the moment. Several workers quit since Gustave arrived.”

Moaning issued from many of the cells they passed. Most were shrouded by the sepulchral darkness. Inside one half-lit chamber, a fat man with a massive head emerged from a corner. “Feed time! Feed time!” He pressed his cheek against the bars, his bulbous tongue licking the air.

Father Xavier reeled at the prisoner’s brown teeth and atrocious breath.

“Not yet, Mortimer. Six-thirty is feed time. Six-thirty!” Paddock banged his cane against the bars and the fat man retreated. The warden shook his head. “My apology, Father, but they have to learn routine or the whole place becomes a madhouse.” He laughed at his own joke.

From somewhere down the tunnel echoed a cackling scream.

“That’s Gustave,” the warden said. “The craziest of them all.”

The high-pitched laughter made Father Xavier shudder. As a boy, he had once seen a group of gypsies at a carnival. One of the performers, a fire breather wearing clown makeup, spewed out long tongues of fire then cackled at the crowd. The ominous laughter had made young Xavier sprout gooseflesh. The priest’s fist tightened around his duffle bag. He quickened his steps. “Tell me what you know about Gustave Meraux.”

The warden, hobbling on the cane, did his best to keep up. “I’m sure you two have heard of the Cannery Cannibal.”

Father Xavier nodded. The past two years had been a time of darkness for Montréal. The Cannery Cannibal had haunted the harbor, killing thirteen women, most of them prostitutes.

Warden Paddock said, “Gustave earned the name Cannery Cannibal, because he took the women back to the cannery where he worked, cut them up, cooked their meat and innards, and stored them in little tins. He’s a bloody sicko, that one.”

As they reached a barred door separating this chamber from the next, Father Xavier took a deep breath. “Your report stated that Gustave has given you reason to believe he is possessed by the Devil.”

Paddock’s keys jingled as he searched through a large key ring. “Upon his capture, Gustave has been the source of many bizarre occurrences. The prisoners on either side of his cell were found dead. One gouged his own eyes out. The other rammed himself into a wall until he bludgeoned himself to death. And our rat population has doubled. They seem to be drawn to Gustave’s cell like he’s the bloody Pied Piper.”

Francois said, “So the cannibal has become a man with ungodly abilities?”

“A man?” Warden Paddock gave a nervous laugh as he tried different keys in the door. “I don’t think any of us comprehend what he’s become.”

Father Xavier said, “But you are sure he embodies a demon?”

“I come from the moors of Ireland, Father. I know the Devil when I sees him.” He slipped in a key that fit. “Ah, here we go.” The barred door creaked open to an even narrower passage. From the darkness echoed the cackle of damnation.

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