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Wraith by Joy Blood (1)

Chapter One

It had to be snow. My target couldn’t be living somewhere warm like a sandy beach in the Bahamas. He’s at the top of a mountain, covered in thick, white, fluffy snow. For years, this man has evaded us. His legacy had almost been forgotten until radio silence broke nearly two years ago. A hit was put on his head when word surfaced that his location had been discovered, but it wasn’t our men who got the contract. And because of that, he got the better of them and slipped through their cold, dead fingers.

Then, there was nothing.

Until three days ago, when a rumor spread about a drifter who had taken up residence in the middle of a remote forest in the dead of winter. It had to be him. Maybe traipsing up a mountain through three feet of snow is a little extreme for only a hunch, but when I heard the information, I knew, deep in my gut, it was him. It felt like him.

Wraith.

The man whose name precedes him. If he wanted you dead, you wouldn’t know until the bullet pierced your skull and you fell, lifeless, to the ground. Or if he was feeling more personal, the knife he used to slice your throat wouldn’t catch a glint of light before doing his bidding.

My snowshoes help me trudge through the freshly fallen snow, but it’s still hard to navigate through the forest. I have close to three more miles to go and only one hour left of sunlight. Last night, there was a thin mist of rain, giving the snow an inch of crunching ice. My feet break through the barrier before being sucked in by the quicksand-like snow underneath, slowing me down. The thought of a snowmobile is once again sounding like a good idea. I decided against it, since Wraith would hear it coming from miles away and anticipate it—anticipate me. The unlikeliness of one person on foot will be my ally. Hopefully.

The darkness shrouds me as the sun drops from the sky. I keep my knife close as I continue forward. The threat of predators, and not just my target, keeps me alert. Howling catches my ears, and I stop for just a moment, trying to pinpoint where it’s coming from. I hear it again, not far behind me. Gripping the handle tighter, I turn and scan the area, squinting my eyes to use the moonlight to my advantage. With the thick white blanket through the forest, the light bounces off just enough to allow me to see at least a hundred yards or so away.

Not catching any movement behind me, I decide to keep walking. Only a mile to go. I'm not going to get mauled by a pack of wolves before I get to him. Failure isn't an option. Master’s words echo in my ear.

“You will do it again and again, until your knuckles bleed and your bones ache. Push through the pain, it is only a figment of your imagination.”

Master liked my blood. Liked it when my hands could hardly move at the end of the day. Sometimes, I could barely feed myself from being so swollen and bruised. He made me eat from the floor once when he found me using my fingers instead of the provided fork. The plate went flying across the floor with a smack of his hand, leaving a trail of my food in its wake. “You will eat off the floor if you insist on eating like an animal.” I did as he said, getting to my knees and going for the first bite with my hand, only to have him slap it from my grip. “No! You will eat like a dog if you insist on acting like one,” he scolded, forcing my face down so I could reach the food with my mouth. My stomach growled for the small trail of lumpy porridge, so I ate, grateful for the sustenance.

Shaking my head from the memory, I take in a deep breath. Smoke. I'm close. The cabin has to be near. I quicken my pace, then rein it back in, not wanting to get overly confident. It leads to failure. And that…well, we already covered that.

The small glow of light barely comes into view through the sparsely covered forest. The higher up I get, the less trees cover the ground and more snow takes their place. With only a smattering here and there, the trees sag under weight of the snow, their tops glowing in the moonlight as if lighting my path to the cabin. I keep my movements slow, calculated. I want so much to take off the thick, tennis racket looking snowshoes, but know I will sink if I do so. Heel, toe. Heel, toe, I remind myself, preventing me from making noise as I push on. Knowing I can’t just walk up to the door, I find a place to lay low where I can fully see the cabin, but also stay hidden. I get comfortable, and there, I wait.

He will have to make himself known at some point, and when he does, I will strike.