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Labyrinth [MultiFormat]
eBook by L.B. Milano

eBook Category: Horror/Mystery/Crime EPIC eBook Award Finalist
eBook Description: Bad things don't happen in Mourningkill, a sleepy little village at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. That all changes when two young girls become lost in the woods, setting off a series of events that shatter the peaceful illusion. For beneath the quiet calm of Mourningkill lies a dark secret, and an age-old prophecy about to be revealed. The "Mad Monk of Mourningkill" was a Rasputin-like character who centuries ago passed down a legacy of death and vengeance on future generations of the small town. Unbeknownst to the local citizens of Mourningkill, a secret society of "Keepers" thrives in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the ruins of Weeping Stone. From there they send out changelings into the community--firstborns with the power to seek out their enemy through sexual domination until the final prophecy comes to pass... "when one changeling shall rise above the rest and emerge the victor in battle of brother against brother." When Detective Alex Scott discovers a strange connection with one of the missing young girls, his life becomes intimately entwined with the girl's mother, Kim Cross. Together they search for answers to an unusual birthmark shared by both Alex and Kim's daughter, unaware that their search will lead them into the clutches of a serial killer intent on destroying them both. Only then does Alex discover the truth about his birth, and his role in fulfilling the mysterious prophecy.

eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, Published: 2006, 2006
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2006


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Part One

And thy firstborn shall wear the mark of the changeling, cast naked and squalling into thine enemy's arms. There, the babe shall grow and flourish until summoned back to the path of righteous vengeance.

--Lore of the Labyrinth

* * * *
Prologue

October, 1652

Village of Mourningkill

The man robed in black towered over the young girl. His eyes seared into hers as he watched her struggle. Never had anyone defied him this way. Her useless attempts to escape only made him more determined to break her spirit.

Her delicate ankles were scraped raw, shackled by chains heavy enough to restrain a man twice her size. The porcelain beauty of her face was unmarred by the dirt and sweat streaking down her cheeks. Eyes blazing with anger, she fought, refusing to bend to his will.

He flicked the whip with a snap of his wrist, flogging her pale, pale skin and shredding what little rags were left hanging on her body. A bloody welt trailed from her left breast to her right hip. She swallowed a whimper, denying him the pleasure of her screams.

Her chin thrust forward in defiance and he cracked the whip again, drawing more blood. For a moment her body sagged and he felt a surge of disappointment that she'd given up so easily. Then she struggled upright again.

"I curse you," she spat at him. "I curse you and all your sons and their sons to follow unto eternity."

He laughed in her face, delighted by her brave insolence. She would be a worthy adversary. He would have his fun with her and when he owned her, body and soul, when she no longer struggled against his dark needs, he'd rip her heart from her chest and leave what was left for the wolves to feed on. But until then, he'd enjoy her impotent struggles and futile threats.

"Save your curses, little one," he growled. "I'm already cursed by demons more powerful than you." With one swift move he tore her remaining clothes from her body. He gripped a delicately budding breast, squeezing the nipple between thumb and forefinger, tighter and tighter until it felt like a thin strip of leather pressed between his fingertips.

Her jaw jumped as she ground her teeth together to keep from crying out. Her eyes burned hot with hate. It only made him want her more.

And Eryk Kyria, the Mad Monk of Mourningkill, always got what he wanted.

* * * *

Ariadne drifted in and out of consciousness. If only she could hold on a little longer. She knew that eventually her family would find her. And when they did, they'd make him pay. Oh, how she wanted him to pay for the way he'd tortured her, day after day, night after night. Her mind and body were numb with pain, but her soul screamed for vengeance.

It was her own fault. If only she hadn't taken the short route through the woods. If only she'd stayed in the village for the night. But she'd been cocky, sure of herself. And yes, perhaps she'd let her curiosity get the best of her. Perhaps she'd wanted to see for herself the Mad Monk who walked the halls of his abbey deep in the woods of Mourningkill. They said he was a magician, a warlock in disguise. But now she knew he was just a man--a beast of a man who took pleasure in pain and torture.

Ariadne crossed her arms across her bruised breasts and sobbed. Alone in the dark dungeons beneath the Monk's abbey, no one could hear her cries. Only the cold stone walls witnessed the girl's desperate weeping.

* * * *
Chapter One

Somewhere between ninety-eight and forty-six bottles of beer on the wall, Carla Peabody snapped. Even with the windows cracked, the school bus was hot enough to roast a twenty-pound turkey. Add twelve girls screeching, three boom boxes blaring, and one bastard of a boyfriend who'd chosen this morning to give her the royal shaft, and Carla just ... simply ... lost it.

She pulled into the nearest rest area and feathered the brakes, gliding to a stop just beyond weather-scarred picnic tables and a musty shack of a bathroom. She stood and turned to face the puzzled looks on the children's faces, then pointed toward the open school bus door. "Get. Out."

A dozen confused and silent twelve-year old girls wearing tan "Camp Mourningkill" T-shirts stared back at her.

Her voice trembled, gathering speed and volume like a waterfall roaring over the edge of a cliff. "Get the hell out now, DOYOUHEARME? Move. Move. MOVE!"

A quivering voice from the back of the bus piped up. "You can't just leave us here."

The look on her face said she could--and would. The children recognized that look, the rising flush of anger and annoyance, the no-questions-asked tone of adult authority. They filed out, one by one, then stood alone and confused at the deserted rest area as School Bus Number #9 pulled away, leaving a cloud of hot, metallic exhaust behind.

The girls stared at the bus until it was no more than a yellow speck on the ribbon of highway.

Angela Cross was the first to break the shocked silence. "This sucks." She kicked the wooden bench of the nearest picnic table and cursed under her breath.

Angie's best friend, Sara Manning, stood dazed, staring down the long stretch of highway. "She can't just leave us here," she whimpered. She turned to Angie and blinked. "She can't, can she?"

Angie shot Sara a warning look. Don't even start crying, she thought, fighting down a lump in her own throat. She knew if one of them started crying, they all would. Then how would they get out of this mess?

Several girls wandered over to the picnic table, gathering around Angie.

"Know what?" Rachel said. "Once my dad made us get out of the car cuz my sister and me was fighting, and he said we'd have to walk home. But he only drove around the block and came back. He said he was just teaching us a lesson."

Angie stared at the empty highway. "I don't think Ms. Peabody's coming back."

"Well, my dad did," Rachel insisted. Then, in a quieter voice, "He was just teaching us a lesson."

Angie glared at Rachel. "Yeah, well your dad's a jerk. Just like cheesy old Ms. Peabody."

"Is not!" Rachel shouted, her bottom lip quivering.

"Oh, shut up," Angie said, dismissing the girl. "Besides. If she does come back, know what I'm gonna do?"

Sara stared at her best friend. "What?"

"I'm gonna make a citizen's arrest. That's what I'll do." She would, too. If she had the chance. But Angie knew without a doubt that they'd seen the last of Ms. Peabody and School Bus #9.

* * * *

Driving down Interstate 87, Les Bunker glanced across the highway and saw what at first appeared to be a flock of plump brown chickadees. He blinked and realized they weren't birds at all. They were little girls. Little girls all alone, clustered in a circle, looking aimless and lost.

He slowed down. They were on the other side of the highway, separated by a grassy median and on-coming traffic. The rest stop was nothing more than a parking pull-off with a few battered picnic tables scattered around. There were no cars parked in the area. No adults in sight. Just little chickadees.

All alone.

He took a deep breath. "Too close to home," he muttered. A fox doesn't shit in his own hole. That was one rule he lived by. Oh, but they were so tempting. He slowed down, watching them chirp, watching them flutter. Soon the desire to touch became more insistent than the warnings in his head. He reached down and adjusted himself, shifting to get comfortable. The sharp blast of a horn sent him back into his own lane. But he only let the girls out of his sight for a moment.

As he rolled past the rest stop, he stared across three lanes of traffic and watched the girls through his open window. His fingers drummed a measured beat on the side of the car, the sound lost in the rush of wind. He could almost make out the words on their shirts. Almost, but not quite. If only he were closer.

When the rest area was behind him, his gaze flicked from one mirror to the next, watching them grow smaller in the distance, looking even more like birds than little girls. Little birds with clipped wings.

Soon they were almost out of sight. He could feel the heat of desire weaken as the distance grew. He tried to put them out of his mind. He was almost home now, anyway. Home was a two-room hunting cabin deep in the woods with plenty of privacy and a refrigerator stocked with cold beer. What else did a man need?

Then he spotted the turnaround and his resolve shattered. Opportunity didn't have to knock twice as far as Les Bunker was concerned. He eased into the left lane and made the turn, all thoughts of sitting back with a cold beer forgotten as he circled back toward the rest area. There they were. Chickadees sprouting into little girls once again, ripe for the picking.

A few perched on a picnic table, others huddled off to the side with their heads together. Two wandered away from the flock, setting off into the woods by themselves. Not smart, he thought. These woods could be treacherous, hiding unseen danger. Not for him, of course. He knew every cave and stream like the back of his hand. This was his own hole. Oh yes, he knew the dangers well. Not like these tiny birdlings.

His mind raced. The distance shortened. Soon he'd have to decide whether to pull into the rest area and pluck one off. Or maybe two. He was feeling greedy. One might not be enough to satisfy the raging hunger clutching his gut, making him hard and reckless.

Two, yes. The two who had wandered away. His mind raced as he weighed his options. He could corner the two who'd gone into the woods. That would be safer than pulling into the rest area and capturing one out in the open in broad daylight. There'd be no having to coax one into the car and risk a precocious child remembering his license, no chance that a Good Samaritan would arrive on his heels, cutting off escape. The idea of stalking the two girls in the woods appealed to him. He was a hunter after all.

"Here chickie, chickie, chickie," he murmured under his breath.

When the time came to choose, he drove straight past the rest area. He knew in which direction the two wandering birdies had gone and where in the woods it would lead them. He'd cut them off before they found their way out of the woods again. Maybe being so close to home wasn't a disadvantage after all. He could take them back to his cabin quickly and quietly. Then he'd have all the time in the world to enjoy his prey.

A sharp smile of anticipation creased his lips as he drove off to the next exit, then turned onto a back road that would lead him deeper into the woods. There he would wait patiently to rescue the two little lost birds in private.

* * * *

They found what was left of the bus crushed against a rocky embankment. A nearby sign proclaimed this section of New York State's Interstate 87 to be "The Most Scenic Highway in America."

The bus was folded like a yellow accordion.

The driver was dead.

The children were missing.

When the news bulletin broke, Kim Cross was concentrating on sewing a patch onto her daughter's favorite jeans. She jerked to attention at the words "school bus accident." On the television screen, an overhead news helicopter filmed the wreckage below. No, she thought. All school buses look the same. There must be dozens that took that same route. It couldn't be Angie's bus.

But even though she tried to convince herself otherwise, her heart pounded and her fists clenched, bunching the denim in a white-knuckled grip. The needle dug into the fleshy pad of her palm, but the pain was nothing compared to the cold shock of dread that settled in the pit of her stomach. She tried to caution herself not to jump to conclusions. Not yet. Not until she knew for sure.

But she knew. She'd been here before, balanced at that split second of bright-white clarity when the world stopped spinning, then tipped and tilted, forever changed. She tried to stand, but her knees buckled under the weight of memories.

Déjà vu. Fourteen years ago she'd felt the same premonition of tragedy. She'd been sixteen--old enough to stay home alone while her parents went on a second honeymoon. She'd let the radio blare as she danced and sang along to Wham and Madonna and Dire Straits in the empty house. Then the music was interrupted by a news flash announcing the crash of Flight 213--the flight her parents were on. She'd stopped spinning, frozen in the middle of the living room, suspended in time as the sun streamed through the window and the music returned to normal, knowing that everything in her world had changed forever. From that point on her memories were split into two separate and distinct halves--life before the accident and life after.

And now she felt that moment of split reality again. Only this time it was her daughter in danger. "Oh God," she whispered, waiting for an update. "Please don't let that be Angie's bus."

She knew it was a false hope, just as it had been when she'd prayed her parents hadn't boarded that doomed flight fourteen years ago. She'd prayed, even though she'd known it was futile then.

Her fingers tensed into hard knots, flexing uncontrollably with each word from the television screen, grasping onto them like a drowning victim clutching a life preserver.

One casualty.

She brought her clenched fists to her lips, mouthing the words as she heard them.

The bus was empty...

Empty.

...except for the driver, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

The driver. Only the driver. She expelled a whoosh of air from tight lungs and collapsed onto the chair. Only the driver. No children. Her daughter was safe. She'd overreacted again, as she had a thousand times in the past. Having lived through it once, she always seemed to be expecting tragedy around every corner. Her breath wheezed harsh and forced from her throat. She tried to regain control as she watched the rest of the newscast unfold--a close-up shot of the ruined bus, paramedics and fire fighters holding a tarp to hide the sprawled body of the driver from the camera crew, shattered windows, scarred rock.

Then the camera zoomed in and her remaining hope flickered and died. Stenciled on the side of the bus was a number, crisp black against sun-bright yellow. Bus #9. Angie's bus.

She'd watched her daughter get on that bus this morning for day camp, waving with one hand and holding a half-eaten apple in the other. She'd watched her scramble for a seat next to her best friend Sara and the two of them had scrunched their faces against the window, making pig noses on the glass, then collapsing together in a heap of giggles. She could see it clearly. Bus #9, which was now a crushed and twisted mass of metal against rock, was the very bus Angie had boarded this morning.

The blue jeans slid from her grasp, a single drop of blood staining the faded blue denim.

* * * *

"Angie, I think we should go back with the other kids." Sara stood and looked around. It was darker here in the woods. Dark and kinda spooky, she thought. At first it had seemed like an adventure going off on their own to get help. Now it just felt scary.

"Are you kidding?" Angie picked up the wrapper from the peanut butter sandwich they'd split while resting beside a stream deep in the woods. "They're probably sitting around crying like a bunch of babies." Angie stood and wiped dirt off her jeans. "When we come back with help we'll be the heroes. Might even get our names in the paper."

"I don't know," Sara said. "Maybe Ms. Peabody came back and got everyone already. Maybe she was just teaching us a lesson like Rachel said."

"Oh yeah," Angie sneered. "You gonna believe Rachel? She still wets the bed."

Angie had a way of saying things that made you believe they were true. It had gotten them into trouble before and Sara was pretty sure it would this time, too.

Sara let out a long sigh. "We've been walking a long time." That was the closest she would ever come to questioning Angie's leadership.

At first she'd thought it would be fun to sneak off into the woods with Angie. There was the forbidden lure of a mashed-up cigarette in Angie's backpack. But the first puff had made her dizzy and burned her tongue. Now Angie had gotten it into her head that they could take a short cut through the woods rather than walk along the shoulder of the highway.

Sara didn't like the idea one bit. "I wanna go home now." Her voice quivered on the word "home," as if she might start bawling if she wasn't careful.

But instead of making fun of her, Angie looked around and frowned. "We'll be home soon," she said, but this time she didn't sound so sure of herself. If anything, that made Sara even more frightened.

They'd been following the stream because Angie had said that even if they ended up spending the night in the woods, at least they'd have water to drink. Sara didn't want to think about spending the night in the woods, even if they did have flashlights in their backpacks. They'd been wandering through the woods for hours already. She suspected Angie was lost, but wouldn't admit it. For now she was content to let her friend do the leading.

But instead of following a path alongside the stream again, Angie stopped and cocked her head. "Do you hear that?"

Sara listened, then shook her head. She didn't hear anything. Angie grabbed her hand and pulled her across the stream. "This way," she said. "I heard something. People, I think."

They splashed across the low stream. Sara slid on the slippery surface of a rock, but caught herself and scrambled to catch up with Angie, who was already on the other side.

"Come on slow poke," Angie called.

Sara heard a noise in the brush behind her and jerked around. "What was that?"

"What?"

"I heard something. Back there." The woods were more dense here. Branches tangled overhead, forming a dark canopy that blocked out the sun.

"It was probably just a rabbit," Angie assured her, tugging on her arm. "Come on, I can hear people up ahead. It sounds like they're singing."

Sara followed. Branches swayed overhead. Leaves rustled, a sinister whispering surrounded them. And then she heard it, too.

The voices were low and she couldn't make out the words. The sound reminded her of church singing. No, that wasn't right. More like that tape her mother used to listen to a long time ago. Gregory's Chants she'd called it. Her mother had laughed and corrected her, but she couldn't recall the right name. That's what this sound reminded her of, though, soft voices rising and falling together.

Sara couldn't decide which was more dangerous, finding out the source of the strange chanting or staying here alone in the whispering woods.

As they scrabbled to the other side of the stream, the chanting sounds became louder. A shiver rippled down Sara's spine. She hung onto Angie's hand as they crept through the gloomy woods, then up a sloping path. The chanting creeped her out. Branches of pine slashed out at their skin and rocks skittered underfoot. Every now and then they'd stop and listen to be sure they were heading in the right direction.

Angie stopped at the edge of the clearing and put her finger to her lips, motioning Sara to be quiet. Following Angie's lead, Sara crouched down quietly and stared off into the clearing at the robed figures chanting in the distance. Her mouth hung open as she watched them follow a pattern etched into the ground, placing one foot in front of the other as they traced a path along a circular maze.

"What are they doing?" she whispered.

"I bet they're witches," Angie whispered back.

Sara rolled her eyes. "There's no such thing as witches."

"Oh really? Well, I read all about witches at the library. Not Halloween witches, but real ones who wear robes and do magic and stuff. This is gonna be so cool when we tell everyone!"

Sara stared at the dark figures moving in the woods. Witches? Whatever they were, they gave her the creeps. She wished they'd stayed back with the rest of the girls. She never should have listened to Angie.

"I'm going back," she said, turning to go down the slope again. But Angie didn't seem to hear her.

* * * *

Les had barely broken a sweat. He'd hunted in these very woods since he was a young boy. He was in his element here. Two scared little girls were no match for him.

The girls had surprised him by changing direction just when he'd been about to make his move, but he had them in his sights now. He stalked them leisurely, growing more sure of himself. He knew he'd made the right choice. All the signs were there.

Cutting through the back roads had been his only mistake. He would have been able to cut them off if they'd followed the stream, but they'd changed direction and were heading right toward his cabin. He chuckled to himself. It was meant to be. Even if he hadn't spotted them at the rest stop and followed them into the woods, they would have eventually landed right on his doorstep.

This would work out just fine. He could sneak them back to his place and come back for his car later. The fact that they'd played right into his hands convinced him he'd done the right thing. He'd just follow at a safe distance in case they changed their minds again.

He didn't make a sound. He'd tracked plenty of deer in these woods. Stalking two noisy little girls was a piece of cake. He'd almost blown it when the smaller one had slipped near the stream. Without even realizing it he'd stepped forward, snapping a branch hidden beneath a bed of pine needles. She'd whipped around at the sound and stared straight at his hiding place. He'd held his breath and stayed perfectly still. Finally she'd turned and scrambled up the hill.

Now the two girls stood at the crest of the hill, their heads together. The redhead was animated, nodding and gesturing, but the smaller girl pulled away. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but it was obvious they were arguing. Excitement made him hard and impatient. He stepped out from behind his cover and moved closer.

He didn't even try to be quiet anymore. They were too intent on their argument to hear his approach and he was too hungry to wait any longer. He was just about to reach out and scoop them both up when the smaller one turned around and ran straight into his arms. Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth to scream. Before she could cry out, he clamped his hand down on her mouth, muffling the sound.

He lifted her off the ground, twisting her in his arms so he could keep a firm grip over her nose and mouth. She wiggled in his grasp and he tugged her tighter against his body. He could feel her trying to suck in air against his palm. Almost soundless whimpers escaped and soon her struggling began to lose energy. Too bad, he was starting to enjoy it.

The redhead whipped around. "Hey," she screamed, sparks leaping from her eyes. "Let her go!"

Keeping one arm circled around the limp girl's waist, Les reached out to grab the other. But she ducked and slipped out of his grasp. Then, instead of running away, she came at him like a whirling dervish, all fists and arms and bony knees, kicking and screaming and scratching.

He had no choice. He had to hit her.


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