Present Day – Two Years Later
Seth sat bolt upright in the bed, wet with sweat and shaking. He rolled to the floor of the trailer, landing on his hands and knees, with just enough time to grab the waste basket before he threw up. Shirtless and freezing, he gasped for breath, trying to get himself under control as the memories replayed in his mind.
He woke up at dawn, alone on the road just beyond the maw of the Hell Gate, beaten and bloody.
The silver carving knife lay next to him, its blade charred and twisted. His Beretta was still in his hand, out of ammunition. The tent and its contents hadn’t been touched, but the cameras and Jesse’s phone were strewn across the road in pieces. The Mustang didn’t have a scratch. Jesse’s keys lay on the ground beside the door.
“Jesse!” He got to his feet and staggered through the tunnel. No burning sigils, no bleeding walls. Fresh bullet holes pockmarked the stone, holes that hadn’t been there the night before, reminding him that his memories were real.
He tucked his empty gun into his waistband and kept moving, afraid of what he would find on the other side. Unwilling to head into another fight without a weapon, he grabbed a rock and a sturdy fallen branch.
A large old tree sat apart from everything on the other side of the trestle. He was running toward the tree before his mind completely processed what he saw.
Jesse hung from a noose, suspended several feet off the ground. His torso had been shredded from the ribs down, deep gashes severing arteries. Blood pooled at his feet and soaked his clothing. Crows rose in a dark cloud as Seth ran closer, and Jesse’s corpse slowly twisted in the autumn wind, pale and lifeless.
It took him a while to realize that the screams he heard were his own.
“No, no, no.” Seth tightened his fists in his blond hair and brought his knees to his chest. He pushed up to sit on the bed, but he didn’t expect to get back to sleep. Instead, after a few moments of deep breathing to quell his shakes, Seth padded to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.
He opened the door and sat at the top of the fifth-wheel trailer’s steps, looking out at the abandoned campground. His hand still trembled, and the t-shirt clung to his back, soaked with sweat. A late October dawn blossomed above the treetops in shades of yellow and orange. The coffee warmed him but would play hell with his stomach later.
Seth didn’t need dreams to remind him of the rest of the story. The cops who’d tried to pick apart his story while he was in the hospital, who made him repeat the tale although it tore him apart. They’d finally concluded the boys had stumbled upon a drug deal gone bad.
His “breakdown” when he insisted on having seen something evil and supernatural.
Their parents, distraught and shaken.
Pictures from Jesse’s funeral, and the way no one had ever looked at him the same way again.
Seth finished his coffee and headed back inside for another cup. He touched the gingham hand towel that hung from a hook like it was a talisman. For him, it was. He’d been stuck in a psych ward for six weeks “under observation” until he’d wised up and told the doctors what they wanted to hear. They released him then, to face more despair.
While he was hospitalized his parents had been killed in a car wreck—hit and run—in his mom’s Honda. The house burned days later under mysterious circumstances. When he got out of the hospital, his boyfriend wanted nothing to do with him.
All he had left was some money in the bank he’d inherited from his parents, his Hayabusa, and the truck and fifth-wheeler that should have been his mom and dad’s ticket to retirement paradise.
Seth took his coffee to the trailer’s small table and looked out the window. His finger ghosted over the scar on his chin he’d gotten from the beating the night of Jesse’s death. When he shifted in his chair, newer, barely healed scars pulled at his skin—a gash on his hip from where a vengeful ghost pushed him down the stairs, a slash across his ribs from the were-cougar he had hunted last month. Those scars joined several others he’d gained from near misses when he was in the service, and some he’d earned learning the trade of killing monsters. He and Jesse had been naive, innocent about what really lurked in the shadows.
Seth had come so far since then. Now, it was time to start getting his vengeance. Jesse’s vengeance.
His phone chirped, and he reached for it, knowing from the ringtone who it was. Nobody else would be calling at this ungodly hour. Then again, few other people were likely to be calling, period.
“What’s up, Toby?”
“You in Richmond?”
“Just outside it. Yeah.” Seth rubbed his eyes and took a long swig of coffee. “Why?”
Toby Cornell had been the first person who believed Seth when he said he saw something that wasn’t normal the night Jesse died—and it sure as hell wasn’t a drug deal. Cornell was a Vietnam Vet and former recon specialist with a passion for ghost hunting and legends about the occult. Mostly, he debunked rumors, but on the occasions when the facts panned out, Cornell documented and if necessary, eliminated supernatural threats. He’d taken Seth under his wing, taught him everything he knew, helped him research what happened that night by the Hell Gate. Connected him to other people who hunted things that went bump in the night. Together, they’d pieced together a more plausible explanation for what killed Jesse. Plausible, and terrifying.
“Got a little more information for you. Ready?”
Seth drained his cup and refilled it, then settled in at the table with his laptop to take notes. “On Gremory’s disciple? What’cha got?”
“I confirmed what you turned up about the Malone family deaths,” Toby said. “There’s been a male Malone death ruled ‘accidental’ every twelve years since 1900. So that checks out. Firstborn for each generation from the original deputy, and if the firstborn is already dead, then the oldest surviving. In this case, Jackson E. Malone.”
“I tell you, the guy is like a ghost.” Seth poured cereal into a bowl, and following up with enough milk to float the corn flakes. “He’s not on social media, I can’t find any decent photos, and there’s no address or phone listed. You got something?”
“Nothing on him. It looks like the trail’s been swept clean. I can’t find any arrests, either,” Toby replied. “I can’t personally get into any of the official databases that should have info. But I might know someone if you really get stuck. Hate to do it more than we have to—the Feds get testy about that sort of thing.”
“Thanks, Toby. I’m not ready to hack into the IRS or the DMV just yet, but I’ll keep the offer in mind. I found one lead—a bar in town called Tredegar’s, like the old foundry. Slim. Just a mention on someone else’s post. I’m going to check it out tonight. Just in case.”
“Be careful,” Toby warned. “Even with everything you’ve learned, stopping Gremory’s disciple from carrying out the ritual isn’t going to be easy, and he’s not going to go out without a fight.”
“Figured that,” Seth replied. “But you’ve taught me well, Obi-wan.”
Toby snorted. “Proof’s in the pudding, as my grandma used to say. Seth—good luck. And be careful, there’s still a lot we don’t know.”
Seth smiled. “Roger, that. How’s Milo?”
Toby made a rude noise, and in the background, Seth could hear Milo make an equally impolite comment. “Still a stubborn ass, same as always.”
“Glad you two are the same old lovebirds I remember.”
“More like buzzards,” Toby chuckled. “Stay safe now, you hear?”
“Thanks, Toby. Say ‘hi’ to Milo for me. I’ll be in touch.”
Seth finished his cereal, downed more coffee, and took his dishes to the sink. Toby was right. There was still so much they didn’t know, but what he had uncovered shook him to his core.
Everyone talked about the train wreck at the Hell Gate back in Brazil, but the real deal was a hanging—a sheriff and his deputies getting the drop on a dark witch who went by the name of Rhyfel Gremory. Back in 1900, from what Seth and Toby had uncovered, Gremory and his coven of disciples had been causing problems—cattle mutilations, animal sacrifices, vagrants and hobos gone missing. No one seemed to know exactly how a small-town sheriff and his posse captured a warlock—hexenmeister—of such supposed power. When they hanged him out by the railroad bridge, all hell broke loose.
Those who swore they had seen things firsthand told of lightning on a clear night, green fire, and a body that burned but was not consumed by the flames. In his dying breath, Gremory cursed the sheriff and his deputies and assured his scattered coven of their immortality. If Gremory himself was immortal, it wasn’t his body—which had been burned with acid, covered in lime, and—according to one source—dismembered.
Within a year, the sheriff and his deputies were dead.
One of those deputies had been a Tanner, Seth’s ancestor.
Since then, so many deaths. Twelve deputies. No one knew for certain how many witch-disciples. Gremory’s death apparently had imparted immortality to his followers, and Seth suspected that the ongoing sacrifices renewed the blood pact. Every year, a descendant of one of the deputies died, moving one by one through all twelve families, only to begin again. That spaced the deaths out enough so that no one noticed the pattern. Some just vanished, while others met bloody deaths blamed on farm machinery or train wrecks. Plausible, and comforting excuses. But Seth and Toby had discovered the truth.
Two years ago, it had been the Tanner family’s turn for a sacrifice.
It should have been Seth. Firstborn.
It hadn’t been the “where.” It had been the “who.”
When he’d found that out, Seth hadn’t sobered up for a week. He was the older brother, the designated victim. The killers had gotten sloppy. Seth and Jesse were the same height, the same build, and everyone always said Jesse looked older than his age. They’d grabbed the wrong brother, and Jesse died. Part of Seth died, too.
Had he known, he would have gladly switched places with Jesse. Guilt just added to the pain. He couldn’t change the past, but he sure as fuck intended to change the future.
The plan was simple and insane. Find the families of each unlucky deputy, and figure out who was the next sacrifice. Stop the murder. Save the victim. Destroy the witch-disciple. Avenge Jesse.
Repeat, for as long as it took to end the cycle. Seth intended to bring an end to the killings or die trying. To get justice for Jesse, and make atonement for having survived. Everyone he had loved had left him. He couldn’t let that happen to anyone else.
Seth changed into sweats and running shoes. He grabbed his keys, locked the travel trailer that had become his home, and headed out to train.
The campground was closed for the season, but he’d talked his uncle who owned the place into letting him stay for a while. The hookups worked, and he had access to the social room for times when the trailer made him claustrophobic. The empty acres gave him plenty of room to run and train without prying eyes.
Seth started at a jog, then worked up to a full run, letting the rhythm of his steps clear his mind. He’d measured out several courses, so he could change up his routine and still know how far he’d gone. Seth missed his fitness tracker, but he’d ditched it when Toby pointed out the device could be hacked to track his location. Today, he started with four miles running, then switched to parkour, something he’d learned to love from the obstacle courses in the army. He vaulted fences, scaled cement block walls, walked a large supply pipe like a balance beam, and went over, under, or around the buildings, utility structures, and decorative features of the park.
By the time he finished his course for the day, sweat dripped from his forehead, and he had unzipped his jacket. Choosing a flat open space, Seth took a few minutes to prepare himself before launching into a challenging series of martial arts katas, something else he’d hung onto from his time in the service. Moving through the forms stilled his mind and calmed his body, while keeping him strong and limber.
Toward the rear of the campground, where it backed up to the forest, he had set up a shooting range. He worked through some target practice with his gun and throwing knives.
After that, it was time for magic.
Seth once again closed his eyes and breathed deep, centering himself and calming his mind, focusing on nothing but the moment. He stretched out his right hand, turned his palm upward, and pictured a tongue of flame hovering above his skin. Seth spoke the incantation, willed the energy outward from the core of his being, and felt a shift as power answered his call.
When he opened his eyes, a thin flame danced above his palm without burning the skin beneath. He kept his focus and made the flame grow and shrink. So far, so good.
He spoke a few more arcane words and made a gesture with his hand like a sudden, hard push. The flame leaped from his hand in a stream of fire…and then winked out before it had gone more than a few feet.
He tried again. This time, the fire might have gained another foot of reach, but it hardly qualified as a badass force to be reckoned with.
Seth felt a headache starting behind his temples, and ignored it, for now. He bent down and picked up a rock about the size of a chicken nugget, then tossed it into the air and spoke a different incantation. The rock hovered at chest height, no longer falling. Seth smiled, spoke another word, and pushed outward with both hands. The stone flew across the clearing, hard enough to leave a small dent in the side of a metal shed. He varied the size of the stone and the direction of the push, pleased at his results.
He walked to the shed and put a hand on the padlock, then murmured the words he had memorized, picturing the lock snapping open, willing the energy to flow through him and work his will. A few seconds later, the lock dropped to the gravel at his feet.
The discomfort in his head became a pounding he couldn’t disregard, and Seth knew it was time to quit for the day before pain escalated to nosebleeds or worse. He looked at the dent in the shed wall again. Progress. Magic was one more weapon to be mastered. Even the headaches were fading, not as bad as they used to be.
It had taken him more than a year to learn a handful of basic spells.
Each had required days of practice and pain. Magic did not come easily. For some gifted people, harnessing power came instinctively. He imagined that for those folks it was like when someone could play any song by ear without written music. Seth figured he was like the determined kid who had no musical talent but practiced for hours until his fingers bled so he could play a few songs perfectly. “Rote magic” some called it, meaning the spells were memorized like multiplication tables, instead of calling up power and improvising. He’d take every advantage he could get.
Toby’s connections in the occult and paranormal community yielded all kinds of useful information. One was an introduction to Sebastian Kincaid, a history professor with an extracurricular interest in the history and documentation of magic and shamanism. Kincaid had been almost as helpful as Toby, helping find grimoires and lore books, translating from ancient texts, and most importantly, teaching Seth about the power of rituals and relics so he could hope to go up against Gremory’s disciples and have a chance of winning.
He’d sparred with Toby and learned from Kincaid, even though Kincaid was an academic, not a witch himself. Witches would not have anything to do with Seth once Gremory’s name came up, out of fear and self-preservation. Toby hooked Seth up with some hunters who went looking for creatures that lurked in the shadows, and he’d put his new skills—magic and martial—to use on ghouls, were-animals, wendigoes, and other monsters. He’d learned the hard way, one scar at a time. Now it was ready to put those lessons to use.
Seth headed back to the trailer, shucked his sweaty clothes and took a hot shower, debating what to wear. He didn’t often go out unless he was researching or meeting a contact. Admittedly, his people skills were rusty, and he hadn’t gone looking for company—even a quick anonymous fuck—in longer than he could remember.
Seth had checked out Treddy’s the previous night. He had barely gone inside, just enough to get an idea of the crowd and the dress code so he wouldn’t stick out. Although he was only inside for a few minutes, that had been long enough to notice the good-looking man behind the bar. And while Seth told himself he needed to stay focused on finding Jackson Malone, he’d have been lying if he hadn’t admitted that the hot bartender made him look forward to making a longer visit.
I’ve got five days to find Malone and stop the witch-disciple. This is no time for a hook-up.
Still, he thought as he toweled off and dried his hair, he needed to look presentable if he expected people to talk to a stranger about Malone. Seth trimmed his scruff to look more hipster than hermit, and dug into the better clothing he rarely wore, selecting a russet button-down shirt that would set off his brown eyes and a newer pair of jeans as well as his least-scuffed pair of boots.
Easy there. It’s just going to a bar, not heading into battle. For some reason, his gut couldn’t tell the difference. He grabbed his motorcycle helmet, locked up the trailer, and roared off on his Hayabusa.