Gary Brandner


In the dark Arda Forest on the border between Greece and Bulgaria there is a dead gray patch of land roughly one mile square where no one goes and nothing lives. Today no map marks the location; no road leads there. Four hundred years ago it was a village. It was called Dradja.

Even when the village lived it was a place of darkness. Peasants from the surrounding lands made the sign of the cross when they spoke its name. They entered only when they had to, and left as soon as their business was done. Passing travelers were warned to avoid the place. Some who did not heed the warning would later wish they had.

The stories told about Dradja were unfocused and often conflicting. On one point they all agreed: there was Evil in the village. The Evil took various forms, depending on the storyteller. Travelers listened to the stories and nodded. It was bad, but it was not their concern. They would skirt the village and cross themselves and tell each other that some things were best left alone. In the bleak autumn of 1583, all this changed.

In that season a shepherd named Kyust, with his wife Anya and his little daughter, brought his flock to the rich fields near Dradja. The land to the north, where Kyust had always grazed his sheep, had suffered through a terrible drought, and moving the flock was the only way to keep the animals from starving. Kyust had heard the dark tales of Dradja, but his need was greater than his fear.

At sundown of his first day Kyust settled his sheep and then returned to his cottage. After a family supper, he fell into a deep sleep. In the morning he found three of his young lambs savagely killed, and the mother ewe bleating pathetically over the remains. The shepherd brought in a dog to keep watch through the next night. In the morning it, too, was dead.

Kyust knew the family could not survive without his flock. He had to catch the killer of his sheep. Through the next night he stayed with his flock in the fields. So that his wife would not be alone with their daughter, he sent for his sister Rachel.

Kyust spent a quiet, uneventful night and then worked all the following day. That evening, his little daughter, who had been playing in a nearby meadow, did not return home. Anya and Rachel called to her and searched as far from the cottage as they dared. Finally, Rachel ran to the field to get Kyust, and all three began to search. In a grove of alder trees near a stream where the child often played, Anya found what remained of her daughter. The small body was so badly torn it was barely recognizable as human.

When the shepherd saw what had been done to his child he let out one horrible scream. He swore vengeance and set off for the village of Dradja, vowing to destroy the Evil that lived there, whatever form it took.

The shepherd Kyust never returned. The sheep, untended, wandered away. Rachel stayed by the side of her sister, who refused to leave without her husband. Knowing she must have help, Rachel left the cottage one morning and journeyed many hours to a place where Gypsies often made their camp. To one of the Gypsies she gave a message for her brothers in their home village, telling of the tragedies that had befallen Anya, and asking the brothers to come for them.

In her haste to return to the cottage Rachel chose a shortcut that took her close to Dradja. Night had fallen by the time she passed the village, and a flurry of movement caught her attention. What she saw in Dradja was horrible beyond belief. The black secret of the place was the last thing she would ever experience.

When her brothers, having received her message, found her mangled body, they gathered a hundred men from their village and marched on Dradja. Armed with clubs, axes, pikes, and a few matchlock firearms, they swarmed into the accursed village and herded the people into the centre of town. They ordered the guilty to step forward. No one moved.

It was clear then what had to be done. In that bloody day every man, woman, and child caught in Dradja was tortured to death. When the ground of the village was a crimson swamp the bodies were stacked with layers of dry wood, soaked with pitch, and set afire. The animals were slaughtered, the village itself put to the torch. When nothing remained of Dradja but ashes, these were plowed under. The fresh-turned earth was sown and sown again, but not even a weed would grow.

Chapter One

The September heat lay heavy on Los Angeles. In the condominium community called Hermosa Terrace all the windows were tightly closed. The only sounds were the hum of exhaust fans and the muted growl of a power mower.

In the living room of Unit Two, Karyn Beatty stood on tiptoe to kiss her husband, Roy. Lady, their miniature collie, wagged her approval from the sofa. It started as a casual husband-and-wife first-anniversary kiss, but it quickly became something more. Karyn drew back her head and looked into Roy's clear brown eyes.

'Are you trying to start something?' she said a little breathlessly.

'Darn right,' Roy replied, taking her in his arms.

Roy pulled her close, his big, gentle hands warm through the thin material of her summer dress. He kissed her neck where the blond hair curled forward below her ear.

'Won't Chris be here soon?' she said, her lips close to his ear.

'We won't answer the door.'

'You couldn't do that to your best friend. Especially after we asked him to come by for an anniversary drink.'

'I suppose you're right,' Roy admitted. 'Anyway, he won't stay long. He has a date.'

'Anybody we know?'

'A new one, I think.'

'Doesn't Chris ever get serious about anybody?'

'Who knows? I think he's secretly in love with you.'

'You don't mean it?'

'Why not? All my friends have good taste.'

* * *

Max Quist shut off the power mower and took out a soiled handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face. He watched as a young couple in sparkling tennis whites climbed out of a sports car and ran laughing across the lawn. They didn't pay any attention to Max. Nobody living in Hermosa Terrace paid any attention to Max. He was like another piece of shrubbery to them. No, he thought, not even that much. Max hated these people. He hated them for having all the things he would never have. He would quit this lousy job in a minute if it weren't for his parole officer. Just once he would like to show the smug sonsofbitches that Max Quist was somebody.

* * *

The telephone rang in Unit Two. Roy Beatty picked it up and frowned as he listened to the voice on the other end. He spoke briefly and hung up.

'Anything wrong?' Karyn asked.

'I've got to go to Anaheim. Deliver some books.'

'On Saturday? On our anniversary?'

'Dammit, it's my own fault. I promised to drop off a set of inspection manuals at Aerodyne yesterday. Had them in the trunk of the car and forgot all about it. I don't know how it slipped my mind.'

Karyn smiled. It was very unlike Roy to forget anything. He was always thoroughly organized, like one of the technical manuals he edited. When she had first met him she had thought Roy Beatty was as stodgy as a church deacon. However, she had soon discovered his warm sense of humor, an open-minded willingness to listen, and a depth of intellect that was not apparent in his All-American good looks. Karyn had been working as a convention hostess for the New York Hilton at the time. Roy was in the city for a gathering of engineers. For the first time, she had broken the hotel rule against socializing with the guests. Roy had stayed on

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