The release of Frostwalker continues to draw nearer! To tease you further, today I’m happy to post a new excerpt for your reading pleasure. Give it a read, and be sure to leave a comment with your thoughts!
Also, you can still snag your free copy of my latest short story The Card by signing up for the Frostwalker release notification email. Remember, that’s not a mailing list and your email won’t be used for any other purpose, or sold or given away to anyone else.
Beyond the wall of thorny underbrush, Jake and Eric found the trees closely spaced. The trees here were old. Mostly oaks, with a few other species among them, many grew so large that they would have been hard pressed to reach around them with both arms. A few trunks the two could not have encircled together with joined hands.
The darkness was almost a palpable thing, and it felt to Jake as if the low branches above were bearing down on them. There was a totality of silence here that seemed otherworldly. By comparison, the meadow and the forest beyond was a cacophony of birds, squirrels, and other noisy creatures. When they spoke, it was in whispers.
“This place is creepy as hell,” Eric said.
Jake nodded. Looking around, he took a few steps into the darkened grove, stopping frequently to listen for any hint of danger. Eric followed him as he moved farther in.
They had gone perhaps as far as ten feet into the trees. Looking back, Jake was stunned to see that the snowy meadow they had crossed was already out of sight. All that could be seen was a sliver of white that seemed to glow in the dimness around them.
What light there was filtered down through the densely interwoven branches of the massive trees above them. It gave a sickly gray cast to everything, and when he saw Eric’s face, it looked ghostly. As Jake turned back toward the deeper darkness further within the grove, Eric drew his pistol.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Jake asked, his whispered voice like a hiss.
“I’m not likely to shoot you or myself. I’d rather have it ready,” Eric replied. His eyes darted from shadow to shadow, and a thin sheen of sweat beaded his brow. Still, Jake thought he looked calm, despite his tense posture.
They continued farther in, careful to note where they’d come from. It wouldn’t be good to get in and find nothing to fear, only to be lost, wandering in circles trying to find their way out. The thought of such an outcome gave Jake chills.
Soon, a faint odor made him think of wet moss and molded food. As they continued, the smell grew stronger and the air seemed to brighten. He turned to Eric and crinkled his nose, the question in his eyes. Eric nodded. It’s not just me; he smells it too. Stepping around a large, leaning oak, Jake came to an abrupt halt. Eric stepped to his side, looking for what had caused the sudden stop.
Beyond the tree, a great wide hole had swallowed the forest floor. The massive oak beside them leaned drunkenly toward the pit, many of its enormous roots protruding out into open air.
The hole was easily twenty or more feet across, almost perfectly circular. It was dark inside and impossible to tell how deep it was. Around the edge, Jake could see where roots hung in the air, and the ground sagged in places, threatening to collapse farther into the abyss. The smell seemed to be coming from inside, and it was very strong here. Wispy streamers of steam rose into the cold air, and a wet heat rose from below.
“What the hell is this?” Jake asked.
“Beats me, but I don’t like it.” Eric had raised the pistol into a two-handed grip, holding it up by his face.
A low growl rose behind them. Turning, Jake saw a large black dog. It was of indeterminate breed, a mutt that perhaps had collie or German shepherd ancestry, among other breeds. It was tall, the top of its head rising perhaps to the height of Jake’s waist, and it had long, black fur. The shaggy coat was matted and splattered with mud. The black of its hair faded to a dark brown where it had lain in the muck. Snarling, the animal was baring its teeth at them. Thin strings of saliva flicked from its jaws as it snapped and growled.
Eric spun about. Bringing the pistol down, he sighted on the dog. As he began to squeeze the trigger, the beast leapt at him, snapping at his face and neck and slamming bodily into his chest. The pistol’s report was deafening in the previous silence of the grove, and Jake clearly saw the slug tear its way out of the animal’s back as it crashed into Eric, knocking him back.
Eric’s grip on the pistol had been strong, holding it with both hands. But with the recoil of the shot and the animal charging into him, he had lost his hold on it, raising his hands instinctively to protect his face. The pistol fell to the ground, and Eric stumbled back.
The dog fell to the ground and turned toward Jake while Eric wheeled his arms in the air, searching for balance. Flailing, he went over backwards into the pit. As he fell, his left arm struck a large protruding root. The woody snarl lodged in Eric’s armpit, and he clung to it, his feet dangling over the blackness below. Eric’s fall had stirred up the fetid air from below. Jake felt like it was a living thing, forcing its way into his nostrils. He could taste wet moss.
Jake’s heart was racing, and his bladder threatened to release. A thin stream of black fluid dribbled on the ground between the creature’s front legs from where Eric’s shot had struck the animal. It didn’t seem to notice. The dog snapped once, froth flying from its teeth, and then launched itself at him like a missile. He tried to dodge away to his right, but his foot caught on a root, and his ankle twisted painfully. He went down—hard—and his right arm went numb as it struck the ground, elbow first.
The dog passed by him, airborne, its snapping jaws reaching for his face but only finding his shoulder. The teeth caught in the flesh of his shoulder, and fire lit the muscles there, then the animal was gone, carried past him by its momentum.
Jake scrambled to turn over, not wanting to lose sight of the creature as it landed and turned to finish him. Something hard and sharp dug into his ribs. Glancing down, he saw the grip of the pistol sticking out from under his body.
Rocking back and bending his left arm under him, he snatched the pistol up. It was upside down, and he had no idea if it was cocked or otherwise ready to fire. The last two fingers on his left hand were looped through the trigger guard, and his thumb was flexed over the butt of the handgrip. He pointed the pistol at the dog as best he could. His arm shook with terror and the pain that flared in his shoulder as he extended it.
The animal came at him, and Jake squeezed the trigger with all his might. He closed his eyes tight, and the gun twisted in his tenuous grip—but the gun fired. It kicked violently, ripping itself from his hand and twisting his wrist painfully. The slide cracked against the bones of this wrist, abrading the skin there.
Hot droplets of something unpleasant spattered Jake’s face. He lay with his eyes still squeezed closed, the shot ringing in his ears, for some time before chancing a look. The dog lay on its side, unmoving, and a sizable portion of its snout and head were gone. Fighting the urge to vomit, Jake turned away.
“Hey! Help me up!” Eric called. “I’m starting to slip!”
Jake scrambled on his hands and knees to the edge of the black void his friend was dangling over. Extending his hand, he grasped Eric’s reaching arm and pulled. Eric worked his way along the massive root he was hanging from until he was close enough to reach the edge of the pit. Grabbing a root that was firmly in the ground, he heaved himself up over the side.
Lying on his back, gasping for breath, Eric gave Jake his thanks. It wasn’t verbal, but the sort of “thank you” close friends share with a nod. Once he had recovered, they stood and walked to the body of the dog, stopping to pick up Eric’s pistol.
The dog’s shattered head had spilled much of its contents. The brain—what was left of it—was clearly visible and was a greenish gray color. Maggots crawled among the chunks of tissue.
“My God. What the hell?” Eric asked.
Jake could only shake his head. He was still trying to recover from the ordeal, and his legs still felt like water.
“We should go,” Eric said, glancing around them at the darkness between the massive trunks.
Jake nodded and started back the way they came. As they walked from the grove, Eric patted Jake on the shoulder and said, “That was a hell of a shot. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
Jake replied, “You’ll have to tell me about it sometime. I didn’t see a thing.”