READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: The Hollow Gods (Chaos Cycle Duology #1) by A. J. Vrana
Black Hollow holds grim secrets. Amidst the temperate rainforests of British Columbia, a small town hides a troubled past and a primal threat looms on the horizon. Ancient grudges, forgotten traumas, and deadly secrets lurk in the mists, and three unlikely heroes must navigate their own paths in a quest to unravel twisted traditions and find their place within this tangled web.
For fans of Katharine Arden's Winternight Trilogy and Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle, The Hollow Gods is a perfect story for contemporary fantasy readers who love their narratives razor-sharp and their secrets dark and deadly.
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MIYA HAD ALWAYS BEEN OBSESSED with the hidden. What lurked beneath the veneer of a perfect smile or the façade of Stepford contentment? What cracks hid under the polish, threatening to topple the entire structure? But behind the gloss of the British Columbia logo printed on the envelope in her hand, Miya knew exactly what she’d find. She tore it open, not caring that whatever was inside became collateral damage. Piecing it back together, she forced her eyes to scan over the page.
Dear Miss Emiliya Delathorne,
After careful review of your academic performance, the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences regrets to inform you that you have been placed on academic probation for failing to meet the Satisfactory Progress Policy requirements outlined below.
Sweat pooled at the back of her neck as her eyes tripped over every word.
No notation will appear on your official university transcript. You can review the Satisfactory Progress Policy on our registrar’s website—
Miya tossed the letter aside, uninterested in the rest. How the hell did it get this bad? she thought, her stomach knotting with guilt. Her parents would be gutted. They’d agreed to pay for the semester, and they expected results. Distance learning was intensive, so they'd hoped to lessen the pressure to find gigs, allowing her more time to study. But scraping rent money together was still on Miya’s shoulders. She was late again this month, and her ostentatious landlady, Patricia, was running dry on charity.
Digging a shallow grave in the sand with her shoe, Miya kicked the letter in and ground it into the dirt. She shifted on the swing and gripped the rusted chains at her sides, staring across the hazy white field where vendors would set up the market in a few hours. Her audience, an endless blanket of towering trees, loomed from the perimeters of the meadow only a few paces from where she sat.
For as long as Miya had lived in Black Hollow—an insignificant dent in British Columbia’s temperate rainforests—the market was next to the abandoned playground on the edge of the misty black woods for which the town was named. Whenever fog descended on Black Hollow, the surrounding forest’s emerald lustre seemed to darken. For twelve years, Miya had been returning to the old swing by that viridescent sea—especially on nights like this. She could find it blindfolded.
Don’t lose your way, she heard the wind hiss an ominous spell, or there'll be hell to pay.
Feathers kissed the back of Miya’s neck and she shuddered, jumping from the swing and spinning towards the forest. Some said the playground was haunted, and it wasn’t unusual to hear voices in the wind, beckoning innocent bystanders to approach—or sometimes, to run away. But Miya wasn’t one to shy away from the unknown.
“I’m not lost,” she called to the darkness. “I know exactly where I am.”
The declaration was met with silence. Miya sighed and reached down for her bag when the nearby shrubs rustled. A raven swooped down to the swing and cawed, his wings flapping as he steadied himself.
Miya squinted at the bird—barely visible in the dim blue light before dawn. “Tough luck. I’m going home,” she told him and turned to leave, but a flurry of feathers and the scrape of talons on the back of her skull stopped her.
“Jesus!” She flailed her arms over her head and turned back towards the swing, only to find the raven still perched there. It was like he hadn’t moved at all.
He canted his head and chortled.
“How did you—”
Before she could finish, the rustling from the woods grew louder, more persistent. There was someone there.
It was a faint murmur, barely audible in the open air. Dropping her bag, Miya rushed towards the trees. As she kicked past the shrubs, she reared back when she saw a young woman clinging to a nearby branch for support. In the pale glow of sunrise stretching across the sky, Miya caught a glimpse of her face and recognized her immediately.
“Elle!” she gasped, rushing to catch the swooning girl.
Although she was slight, Elle crashed onto Miya’s shoulder like deadweight. She was barely conscious, her skin cold as ice, and her teeth chattered as she grasped weakly at Miya’s clothes.
They didn’t know each other personally, but it was hard to go a day without hearing Elle’s name. She’d been missing for almost a week. After struggling to pull her from the woods, Miya combed her over for injuries, but aside from a few scratches and shadows clinging to the hollows of her eyes, she appeared unharmed. Miya stripped off her jacket and wrapped it around Elle’s trembling frame, then pulled her phone from her back pocket and dialed the police.
“I’ve found Elle Robinson,” she blurted out when the operator answered. The voice on the other end perked up.
“Yes, she’s alive, but I think she needs medical attention.”
After hanging up, Miya sat down next to the huddled teenager and rubbed her shoulders, awkwardly attempting to warm her up. Her knee-length nightgown was fraying near the hem, the ivory satin soiled from tumbling through the woods. She was fiddling with the thin gold chain around her neck when she looked up. Who—or what—could have done this to her?
“You,” Elle trailed off, wide eyes trained on Miya. “You told me to stay away from Black Hollow.”
Miya dropped her hands from the young woman’s shoulders. “I think you might be confused,” she replied. “We’ve never met.”
She must have been a bit loopy from dehydration.
Miya burned to ask where she’d been, what had happened to her, but it felt ill-timed. When the police arrived, they took Miya’s statement as the ambulance carted Elle off to the hospital.
“Think it was the Dreamwalker?” she caught one of the officers whispering, only to be hushed by the lead detective.
“We don’t deal with boogeymen, only criminals,” he chided. He turned to Miya and shook her hand, smiling brightly.
“It’s a miracle you were here,” Detective Brandon Hughes told her. “You saved her life, Emiliya.”
“Fateful timing, I guess.” Miya revelled in the praise.
Detective Hughes offered her a ride home, and she happily accepted. He didn’t ask what she’d been doing out before dawn and seemed perfectly content to dole out kind words.
Miya ate them up like all-you-can-eat sundaes. Her heart swelled, the memory of the probation letter already fading. She’d done something amazing—even if by accident—and it was enough to momentarily abate the existential dread.
Perhaps even the shallowest grave was deep enough to bury failures.
Miya was riotous with motivation. She wrote a statement to her university, acknowledging full responsibility for her shortcomings and imploring the administration for a second chance. The letter teemed with vulnerability, heart-felt apologies, and promises to get back on track. Without even waiting for a response, Miya began preparing for her triumphant return.
But when the article on Elle Robinson’s disappearance came out, Miya’s chest tightened as she scanned the story. There was no mention of her contribution. Still, she snipped the news piece from the diner’s free paper when no one was looking and kept it as a memento—a reminder of
how good it felt to do something right.
As the days blurred together, so did the print in Miya’s textbooks. A week later, her bank statement arrived with a number stamped at the top: $41.52. Her gut clenched and, with a defeated sigh, she let the letter drift into the trash can. Miya had saved ten times that by her final year of high school.
Now she was fast approaching her twenty-first birthday, but there would be little reason to celebrate.
Rolling off the futon wedged between her sticker-covered dresser and dull, grey-blue walls, Miya stumbled out of her room. The final rays of orange and red were disappearing from the tiny window nestled in the corner by the door. After a few nights of no sleep, time whirled by like a
high-speed train. Insomnia was that clingy, unwelcome guest who couldn’t take a hint when they weren’t wanted anymore.
It didn’t help that Miya’s browser was littered with tab after tab of job listings she didn’t have the courage to respond to. If she got an interview and went dressed as a semi-mature twenty-something-year-old, she’d be found out for what she really was: an imposter. They’d realize she was only pretending to give a damn about their campy mission statement and it would all be over. Capitalism would be done with her, and she’d be forced to join a commune somewhere in the mountains where taxes couldn’t find her.
Going somewhere no one could find her, on the other hand, didn’t sound bad.
Miya got dressed and dragged herself to the door, but as her hand touched the knob, she glimpsed something darting across the room from the corner of her eye. She whirled around and came face-to-face with the wall—blank as a canvas save for the shadows cast by furniture.
Just my imagination playing tricks on me again.
Turning away from the mosaic of shadows, she left her basement studio with the playground burning in her mind.
After so many years, the walk was automatic. Miya knew that she was close when the buildings grew sparse and the sidewalk turned to gravel. At the intersection with the town’s faded green welcome sign and the crooked maple, she ambled up the hill and through the field where the farmer’s market operated on weekends.
The swings were still coppery with rust and weeds protruded from the wooden curb framing the playground. Miya caught the corner of her probation letter poking out from the sand, so she scooped some up and piled it on top for good measure.
The world had gone dark, and the sound of cicadas filled the air like an orchestra in an amphitheatre. Miya looked towards the forest and fixed her gaze on a spot between the trees near where she’d found Elle. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen something unusual there.
She remembered being eight years old and swinging towards the sky when a swift movement in her periphery pulled her attention from the clouds. Digging her foot into the sand like an anchor, she scanned the edge of the clearing. A shadow slithered somewhere behind the trees. Breath held, Miya listened to the foliage rustle as the shape moved closer to the light. Moments later, an animal emerged—a wolf. Ears erect, posture stiff and alert, it watched her with uncanny attention as she in turn watched it. She was too enthralled to remember the ominous stories townsfolk whispered about wolves. She even forgot they were dangerous predators.
Every time Miya excavated this memory, she imagined locking eyes with the wolf. She didn’t remember the colour of the animal’s coat, but those eyes remained clear in her mind—large, curious, and full of life. Seconds later her name was called, the sound of it lashing through the air and striking her from her fixation. By the time she looked back, the wolf was gone.
Miya never told anyone what she'd seen that day. How could she in a town where people were frightened of a myth?