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Chapter 1

Saturday, December 23
Jeju Island, South Korea
(60 miles south of the Korean Peninsula)

The boy could smell the blood from fifty yards away. It was a strong, pungent odor that made him gag yet piqued his curiosity. Common sense told him to turn around and get some help. His father. His mother. One of his neighbors. Anyone who could protect him from what he was about to discover. But common sense rarely mattered to an eight-year old.

Especially when he was somewhere he didn’t belong.

The valley to his right was lined with camphor trees, many 75 feet tall and 100 feet wide. The path in front of him was rugged, made of black volcanic rock that dominated the subtropical island and formed its very core. The temperature was cold, in the low 40s, but would climb steadily as the day wore on, a by-product of the nearby Kuroshio and Tsushima currents. The sun was still rising over the eastern sea when he made his choice. He zipped his jacket over his nose and inched forward, following the stench of death.

For years his family had warned him about this place, claiming it was built for evil. It was a story that wasn’t difficult to believe. Sometimes, late at night, he could hear the screams—bloodcurdling shrieks that ripped through the dark and jostled him from his sleep. The first time he heard them he assumed he was having a nightmare, but the sounds didn’t stop when he sat up in bed. In fact, they got louder. This went on for days, weeks, until he could take no more.

He had to know the truth.

Ignoring his family’s wishes, he snuck into town and asked one of the village elders about the sounds from the hill. The old man laughed at the boy’s audacity. He, too, had been a curious child and felt this trait should be rewarded—but only if the boy could understand the truth.

“Look at me,” the old man ordered in Korean. “Let me see your eyes.”

The boy knew he was being tested. He stared at the old man, refusing to blink, hoping to prove his courage even though his palms were sweating and his knees were trembling.

Tension filled the hut for several seconds. The entire time the boy could barely breathe.

Finally, the old man nodded. The boy was ready for the truth, if for no other reason than to keep him afraid of the place on the hill, to keep him alive. Sometimes fear was a blessing.

With a grave face and a gravelly voice, the old man whispered a single name that was known throughout Jeju, a place that sent shivers down the boy’s spine and woke the hairs on his neck.

Pe-Ui Je Dan.

The boy gasped at its mention. The place was so infamous, so ominous, that other details weren’t necessary. He had heard the stories, just like everyone else on the island. Yet until that moment he had thought they were just a myth, an urban legend that had made it across the Sea of Japan for the sake of scaring children into doing their chores. But the old man assured him that wasn’t the case.

Not only was it real, it was close. Just up the path.

At that moment, the boy promised that he’d never venture up there. And he meant it, too. It was a vow he intended to keep. Not only for his safety, but also for the safety of the villagers.

Unfortunately, all of that changed on the morning he smelled the blood.

As strange as it seemed, there was something about the scent that attracted him. Something magnetic. Animalistic. One minute he was walking to the store, the next he was tracking the scent like a wolf. Crunching up the rocky path, looking for its source as if nothing else mattered. Sadly, this happened all the time in the world of children—courage and curiosity taking them places where they didn’t belong—yet rarely did it lead them into so much danger.

The boy didn’t know it as he trudged up the hill, but he was about to kill his village.