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  • Malorie Nilson

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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I


MIYA


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.


“H...Help.”


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?


The Dreamwalker and her wolf.


Every child had heard the story a thousand times, and like some rite of passage into adulthood, they were constantly reminded of how important it was to the town’s history and culture. People in Black Hollow believed in fairy tales. And while Miya loved the idea of fables hidden beneath the veil of the mundane, she’d yet to unearth anything truly spellbinding. After all, the wolf didn’t spirit her away into the Dreamwalker’s arms.


Still, she kept returning to the playground, hoping to see the wolf someday. It was her sanctuary from everything she didn’t want to face. Maybe it was childish, but Miya lamented that reality wasn’t a fairy tale she could rewrite with the power of her imagination. Reality wasn’t timeless or enchanting; it was finite and perilous.


There was no forever-after in Black Hollow or anywhere else. Eventually, Miya would have to rip herself free from this inertia and moving away seemed a seductive option. What did she have to lose? She could go to a new city, shed all self-imposed expectations and start over. Eventually, she’d make enough to pay back her family. All she’d leave behind would be a good friend and a sea of false hope.


Miya’s bones pulsed with excitement; she could finally get a clean start. Tomorrow, she’d pull a blindfold over her eyes and drop a pin on the map. Wherever gravity wedged it, she’d make her new home.


The moon hung low in the clear night sky, and several stars glimmered over the pitch-black field. Sitting on the swing, Miya clutched the chains on either side of her and bent over backwards until her hair touched the sand. As she stared off into the meadow, she saw shadows shapeshifting like those on her wall. But one of them wasn’t wavering like the others. It was solid, a figure she couldn’t quite make out. Rather than waxing and waning, it slowly but surely moved closer. Miya realized the shape belonged to a person—a man tall enough to be intimidating in the dead of night.


She thought back to Elle, left with no memory of what happened, and stories of other girls who’d come before her.


Maybe it wasn’t a spirit.


Maybe it was a person.


Miya sat up and gathered her things. As she threw on her shoulder bag, the man paused as though he’d caught sight of her. They both froze, like two animals meeting by chance in territory they’d each claimed. The hairs on the back of Miya’s neck stood on end, and before the man could take another step, the headline of her memento came back to her.


Another missing girl found at Old Market Playground.


Miya bolted through the field, leaving her memories behind her.


II


KAI


HE DIDN’T KNOW where he was, or how he’d gotten there. He only knew that it was a hot summer night and that every breathing fibre was searing with hellish pain.


It was the same dance every time, and it always ended like this: with a kick to the nuts. An angry snarl rose in his throat as he clutched the dirt between his fingers, rolled over, and pressed his back against the ground to rub his burning skin into the soil. That’s right, it was August—the worst month of the damn year. Scorching hot surfaces, screaming children on summer vacay, smog, heatstroke, and everything that belonged in hell. August was a bitch even the devil wouldn’t want to fuck.


His fingers clawed deeper until the ground turned cool. Grabbing a fistful in each hand, he smeared the dark soil over his face, desperate to make the itching stop. His scalp was crawling under the thick, disheveled mess of black hair. He could smell blood under his fingernails, so he picked out the tiny clots while waiting for his vision to adjust. These eyes saw colour. The psychedelic effect of reds, blues, and greens bleeding into the world took a few moments to stop. Above him were shapes swaying through the air, and behind them loomed a dark expanse he assumed was the sky. Long, thin wisps slowly came into focus: willow tree branches.


Kai took a deep breath as the familiarity of this place flooded him. He’d woken up under the giant willow many times before, but he could never find it when he wanted to. Instead, it always found him.


Under the earthy scent of bark and dirt, he detected the faint undertone of death hanging in the air, tugging his eyes towards the unmoving heap several feet away. It was a woman—a dead one to be sure—her eyes wide and her blue lips parted in an expression that was both vacant and surprised. A thin, gold chain encircled her bruised neck, its imprint etched in her flesh.


Kai tried to remember where he’d last been, but nothing came back to him. It wasn’t the first or even the second time he’d woken up to a dead body, but it remained an unwelcome surprise. Either way, Kai was pretty sure he hadn’t done it. Strangulation wasn’t his style, and there wasn’t any blood.


Regardless, he had no intention of hanging out with a corpse. His clothes and what little money he'd had were lost, and now he had two choices: ravage the donation bin outside the local second-hand store or beat someone up and rob them.


Pulling himself up, he cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders, then dragged his feet, one in front of the other. Gradually, he picked up his pace, grateful that it was at least after dark.


Once out of the forest, he heard the swings from the playground—and they sure as hell weren’t swaying from the wind. Some weirdo was there, staring at the moon. Normally, Kai would have skipped around them, but it was difficult to go unseen in an open field. He really wasn’t in the mood for crawling, so he kept on his path without much concern. It was likely some dumb teenager. They’d be scared off soon enough.


The swinging came to a stop, and the person—a girl, he discovered—fixed her gaze on him. Her posture was rigid, and no sooner had he sensed her unease than she was dashing away like a frightened rabbit. Kai shrugged and continued on his way. He hadn’t seen her face, and he was sure she hadn’t seen his, either.


Only one road led into the downtown core of Black Hollow, but Kai knew the woods better than he knew the lines of his own face, and that opened up other options. Once he settled into his body, jumping wired fences and stalking through private property wasn’t even light exercise. The streets were empty, with only the occasional passing car warranting some evasion. For the most part, there wasn’t much to be wary of.


As Kai approached a local sports bar, the smell of alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette smoke hit him in a nauseating wave.


Prey would be near.


Up ahead, several men were gathered around a pickup truck under a flickering neon sign, laughing loudly and taking swigs of beer. A faint orange glow emanated from the bar’s greasy windows, and dark shapes danced across the pavement around the truck—distorted by the murky tapestry of thick, cracked glass. The light passed briefly over the men's faces as people walked by inside, illuminating their features just long enough for Kai to discern which of them was the most intoxicated. He watched from the shadows as one split off from the herd and headed into an adjacent alleyway.


Slipping around the parked cars, Kai sneaked after the man into the narrow passage. It was darker there, well out of the shine of fluorescent lights. His target was standing by a garbage dumpster with his legs apart, rocking back and forth while holding his pecker in both hands. The scent of urine mingling with rotting trash wafted through the air. Kai wrinkled his nose in disgust. Couldn’t this asshole take a leak on something that didn’t already stink?


Soundlessly strolling up to the stranger, Kai reached out and tapped him on the shoulder. The man whirled around, yelping in surprise.


“What the hell?” he hollered, stumbling back as he looked Kai’s naked form up and down.


Kai grumbled and pointed at the man’s jeans. “I need those.” He took stock of the buffoon, still holding his dick for dear life. “Try not to soil them,” he added dryly, taking a step forward.


He grabbed the man by the throat and lifted him off the ground in one smooth motion, feet dangling. Slamming him into the wall, Kai heard a hefty thwack as the man’s head hit the bricks, his brain rattling around inside his skull before shutting off. Kai released the dead weight—who was lucky to have a pulse—and watched him crumple to the ground with a thump. Crouching down, he checked every pocket, disappointed when all he found was a measly twenty-dollar bill. It pissed him off. So much so, he felt his hand curling around the man’s throat without his say-so, his fingertips digging into the soft flesh around the jugular vein.


Hey there, monster.


Kai’s every muscle turned to stone. It was that thing again—the voice of his nemesis—egging him on as he held the fragile life of this moronic human between his fingers.


Do it. Tear his throat out with your teeth. Relish in the taste of his life on your tongue.


Kai snarled at the empty air, and had it not been for the frantic voices calling for their missing friend, he may very well have gone for the kill.


“Hey! Get away from him!” a large, lumbering man shouted as he closed in.


Kai straightened, not bothering to turn as the air moved behind him. He side-stepped to avoid the incoming swing, and his attacker tumbled forward onto his knees. Kai kicked him in the stomach, leaving him lurching before his two companions arrived at the scene.


Their drunken flails were clumsier than a toddler trying to catch a butterfly. Kai evaded each one before his counter attack hit them twice as hard—one in the jaw, the other in the kidneys. It was like playing piñata without the blindfold.


The alpha managed to find his feet again and pulled a hunting knife from a sheath clipped to his belt. He lunged at Kai, stabbing erratically. Backed into a wall, Kai blocked one of the blows that came down towards his shoulder. The blade nicked his forearm, but he pried it away with brute force. Turning the knife around, he drove it into the man’s side, then headbutted him in the face. The satisfying crunch of a fracturing nose sent a gush of blood cascading into his mouth. Kai shoved him away as he screamed, the sound vibrating painfully in his ears. He wanted to fold them shut, but his anatomy didn’t allow it so, instead, he kicked the SOB in the head.


“Goodnight, you glass-faced fuck,” he sneered as the man crumpled to the pavement.


The other two were already scrambling away, abandoning their wounded friends. Kai watched them flee, and some part of him took pleasure in their terror. He flexed his fingers around the knife handle sticky with blood from his hands. Red trickled down his jaw, dripping from his chin onto his toes. He caught the droplets on the back of his hand, then sucked the blood off his thumb. A slow, wicked smile spread across his face at the sight of the retreating figures, his shoulders starting to shake as he tried to suppress the laugh rumbling in his chest.


You enjoy watching them run.


“They’re pathetic.”


That’s why you should have killed them.


“Not worth the bloodstains.”


You’re no hunter, the voice mocked. Just a coward who likes playing sadist.


“You taught me well, you whimpering bitch,” Kai growled back. “Now teach me how to get rid of you.”


Get rid of me? Raucous laughter thundered in Kai’s ears. There’ll be more blood before you earn your release.


As if Kai would spill blood for the monster’s entertainment.


Poor little Elle. Didn’t know the Big Bad Wolf lived under the willow.


“I know I didn’t do that.”


But do you remember?


No, he didn’t. Sometimes, Kai wondered if he was crazy, but he’d seen crazy before and knew this wasn’t it. No, this was something else. This thing wasn’t part of who he was. It followed him, but it sure as hell wasn’t coming from inside him.


There had to be a way to break free of it.


Kai returned to his original target and stripped away his clothes. After throwing on jeans and a hooded jacket, he looted whatever money and valuables he could find on the two men left behind: a few bills, a wristwatch, and a Zippo lighter. He hung onto the knife, swiping the sheath from the fat one’s belt. By the time he finished, the voice had quieted, leaving him in peace for the time being.


Kai quickly deserted the scene. Whipping the hood up and shoving his hands into his pockets, he strode out of the alleyway. His stomach growled. He slowed as he passed a local grocer, reaching out and testing the knob. It was locked. Normally, he didn’t have money when he went into stores. Now, he had money, but the stores were all closed.


“Fuck you, sod,” he sneered, kicking the bottom of the door before addressing his stomach. “And you too, you goddamn black hole.”


He wondered what Alice would think if she was still around. Would she feel sad that he’d sunk to this? Ashamed, maybe?


Kai slumped his shoulders and sighed, trudging towards the forest from where he came. He reminded himself that Alice wouldn’t—or rather, couldn’t—care.


The dead had nothing to be concerned about.



The Hollow Gods (Chaos Cycle Duology #1) by A. J. Vrana


Black Hollow is a town with a dark secret.


For centuries, residents have foretold the return of the Dreamwalker—an ominous figure from local folklore said to lure young women into the woods and possess them. Yet the boundary between fact and fable is blurred by a troubling statistic: occasionally, women do go missing. And after they return, they almost always end up dead.


When Kai wakes up next to the lifeless body of a recently missing girl, his memory blank, he struggles to clear his already threadbare conscience.


Miya, a floundering university student, experiences signs that she may be the Dreamwalker’s next victim. Can she trust Kai as their paths collide, or does he herald her demise?


And after losing a young patient, crestfallen oncologist, Mason, embarks on a quest to debunk the town’s superstitions, only to find his sanity tested.


A maelstrom of ancient grudges, forgotten traumas, and deadly secrets loom in the foggy forests of Black Hollow. Can three unlikely heroes put aside their fears and unite to confront a centuries-old evil? Will they uncover the truth behind the fable, or will the cycle repeat?

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