The Hunted - Prologue Preview
Charles cast his gaze upon the lonely path that led to Azmarin; a vibrant little town in the heart of Garen's Thicket. An enormous area of woodland stretching as far as the eye could see surrounded the small town, enveloping it in a ghostly manner and closing it off from society. A single, lonely road was the only means of entering the town, and the neighboring city was days away.
The people liked to call it the Town of Solitude.
Though it depended solely on itself, Azmarin had done fairly well over the years. It was home to around fifty families, all contributing in some way to keep the town safe and healthy. Everyone knew everyone, the children played late into the twilight, neighbors visited neighbors with plates of food simply because no one wanted the people they grew up with to fall asleep hungry.
Azmarin held dozens of spacious cottages and an inn where travelers who happened to stumble into the town could stay and spend the night. It had seldom use, though, as very few people dared traverse the thick and immense redwood forest and rarely encountered it. The inn slowly became a place where men gathered to play a friendly game of chess and discuss their days at work. The owners of the inn didn't complain. Business was business.
Azmarin was also home to The Troll's Lounge, a favorite among the men, young and old alike. It was an ornately decorated building, arguably the nicest in the village, with gold-colored borders around its windows and door frame. The wooden sign floating above the wooden door depicted a green troll with yellow teeth smiling as he held a jar of ale. Though the rich, frothy ale was the main attraction, the tavern also provided the most delicious chicken broth around. It was a place for everyone.
Before Azmarin became the bustling small town it was now, it had started as a tiny settlement consisting of only a few cabins where miners would sleep and, for a few measly hours, be free from the unforgiving depths of Gorgon's Mines. The dark, claustrophobic mines were well over one thousand feet deep and filled to the brim with coal. There, the miners were forced to toil away for twelve or fourteen hour shifts in hazardous and sometimes fatal conditions under the watch of a ruthless overseer. Charles liked to think he pitied them.
But that was a blatant lie. He didn't care for the miners then and he didn't feel sorry for them now. As for the people of Azmarin, well, he despised every single one of them. He resented them because while they lived happily in their closed-off world, stuffing their faces with broth and handing out plates piled high with food as if they were nothing more but small snacks, he had to scrape the crumbs off the ground to even slightly make a dent in his ever-lasting hunger. But that was before he met the alpha.
His life had changed forever ten years ago and he was no longer the man who hadn't had a full stomach in months. He was no longer the man who'd lost his fortune when settlers took over the mining and replaced him with their leader. He was no longer the man who's lover left him for the one who banished him from Azmarin. He was now Charles the Furious, and he was seething with one person in mind.
William Grey was a wealthy father and husband who now owned Gorgon's Mines. He was captain of the settlers who took over Azmarin and turned it into the lively little village it was now, mostly due to the money he earned from the coal business that had once been Charles'. William was a humble man who supervised the mines and lowered the work days to a 10-hour shift. He knew each miner by name, where they lived, talked to their families and raised their pay. William Grey was kind-hearted, amicable and loved by everyone. It was a shame he had to die.
Charles inhaled deeply, a crisp yet musty scent filling his nostrils, and crossed the road that led to Azmarin. It was aptly named Graven Path, as it reminded him of a burial ground. Damned village could at least rid the road of holes, Charles thought. He reached the edge of the dirt path, his boots making no sound as he walked on the bed of soft, leathery needles. It was early Autumn, the redwood trees had begun to sprout bright flowers and, as always, had a dense mat of needles covering the forest floor. Probably the only good thing that vile village has to offer, Charles concluded. Spying on it was easy and quiet.
He slipped off his brown trench coat as he reach the end of the road, revealing his bare muscular body. Folding it, he placed the coat at the at base of a tree and covered it with more needles and moss. He would have to come back to retrieve it. It was the only article of clothing he was carrying.
Under the shifting shadows of the massive trees, Charles prepared himself mentally. This was nothing new to him. He had killed before, both because of hunger and because he was ordered to. But never because of hate, and never on his own agenda. If the alpha found out he had been here tonight, well, William Grey wouldn't be the only one dead. Only another motive to do it quickly.
And do it now. As a bright beam of moonlight struck his naked body, Charles felt himself go numb. The moonlight injected itself into his skin, covering him in a white sheen and beginning to course through his veins. It was as if his blood had been replaced with ice, freezing his insides and making him shiver uncontrollably. This, he knew, was for one reason only. So that the human host would not feel the immense pain the transformation brought.
Charles was no longer in control of his own body, his fingers twisting outward as his knees gave on him. Immobilized by the numbness and bitter cold consuming him, he fell to the ground, desperately fighting against the urge to lose consciousness. Coarse dark hair sprouted from his skin but did little to keep him warm. Charles dug his nails into the dirt in a futile attempt to bring his senses back, but they grew another three inches and ripped the moss and needles he was gripping in his hands to shreds. His neck gave a sudden, spasmodic jerk and he found himself looking straight at the full moon, its shine now fully shrouding him in a ghostly glow.
The muscles in his body were twitching wildly as they doubled in size, making the skin under his fur ripple in protest. Charles somehow found a twig and jammed it between his teeth, biting hard to keep himself awake. His legs were twisting in on themselves, forming powerful hind legs used to pounce on unsuspecting prey. His mouth enlarged and protruded from his face, forming a snout complete with razor-sharp canines and snapping the twig in his mouth into pieces. Just as a cloud began to hide the moon, Charles' eyes snapped open, revealing a set of intelligent gray pupils. He was a werewolf.
Charles emerged seemingly from the shadows, his physique no longer human, but that of a ferocious creature. The cold air made his body appear as if it was steaming, the freezing sensation he had felt was now replaced by an insatiable hunger. Hunger that fueled his hate. Hate that made the blood boil in his veins. Blood will be spilled tonight, Charles said to himself. Blood that belonged to the one man he hated more than anyone.
He prowled along the edge of the forest that circled the village, his red-brown fur melting with the trees and rendering him virtually invisible. A few cottages still had lanterns on, their yellow glare spilling onto the dirt ground. The tavern was bustling with customers. People exited with glasses of ale in their hands, stumbling over themselves and holding onto the wall to keep their balance. Others were just arriving after a day of work, looking forward to relaxing with some good food. Charles would have to steer clear of the place. It was his biggest threat.
Keeping the tavern to his left and sticking to the darkness, he headed toward the northern side of the village, the farthest point from Graven Path. He was looking for the second biggest building in Azmarin, after The Troll's Lounge. A two-story house made entirely of white stone and outlined by wooden beams stood alone, overlooking the village. The roof was made of bricks and held a chimney which was billowing out smoke. Although the wooden shutters were closed, streaks of orange light crept through the cracks and cast long lines along the ground. William Grey was home.
Charles had gone unnoticed since he entered Azmarin, weaving through the trees and, at moments, standing motionless when passerby happen to cast their gaze in his direction. He swayed slightly when being still to match the breeze and the shifting of the shadows, a decade of killing making him an exceptional hunter. But even those thought to be experts make mistakes.
Halfway to William Grey's house his ears perked up to the sound of water splashing onto leaves. Or at least, that's what he thought. Charles stopped, paw mid-air, and tilted his head to the right. The sound continued but was suddenly accompanied by soft grumbling. The splashing stopped. Something shuffled around and leaves crunched. A twig snapped. Heavy footsteps started making their way towards him. The mumbling grew louder.
It was a drunk man. Charles' keen sense of smell picked up the scent of alcohol and urine. Someone had wandered into the forest to urinate. For a moment, he felt obliged to do something. To kill the man for contaminating the forest he lived in. But he quickly controlled his bloodlust and put his focus on the task at hand. The man would have to wait. Charles would be able to recognize his scent easily enough.
Charles couldn't stay there. He had to act, and quickly. The drunk man was a couple of steps away from him now, a few more seconds meant he would be found and the entire village would be alerted to his presence. Killing the man was something Charles couldn't afford to do. He was already taking his chances by disobeying direct orders from the alpha, the last thing he wanted was to leave a trail of bodies behind. So he did something risky.
He gave a sudden pounce to his left and away from the shadows of the forest. He landed quietly between two cottages, his padded paws making no sound against the damp ground. The small house to his left was dark, but the one to his right had its shutters open and he was bathed in the glow of a candle sitting on the windowsill. Smells flooded his nose and his ears began to pick up the slightest sounds, the adrenaline coursing through him throwing his senses into overdrive. William Grey's home was only a few more houses to his right, if only he could...
A scream pierced the gentle chitter-chatter of the village. For a moment, time seemed frozen. The crickets' chirping ceased, the owls' hooting ended, and the few men and women in the street stopped. They stared at the little blonde girl, standing in the middle of the street and pointing at something. She was pointing at Charles.
Time resumed. The women who had gathered outside their doors to gossip were the first to react. They grabbed their children as fast as they could and ran into their homes, locking the doors behind them. Some of the men, who were mostly drunk after spending the night at The Troll's Lounge, began to shout and call for help. Some ran away in fear, their glasses of ale temporarily forgotten and left on the ground. Others just stood there, blaming their drunken stupor for making them see things that weren't there.
But Charles was there. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and now the entire town knew. The window to his right slammed shut and the candle light that had been washing over him disappeared. He was left in the shadows again, but it did little to comfort him. William Grey was still alive and now knew of his presence. Charles had to make a decision.
And it was to run towards the white house at the edge of the village. He leaped over a pile of firewood and weaved right through the wooden cottages as fast as he could. The moon had come out of hiding and was now illuminating him in a white light. Behind him, men shouted and the blast of a musket went off. Something hit his left calf as he jumped over a well and a searing pain exploded through his leg. He roared in agony as his hind legs landed on the edge of the stone pillar and gave on him. Charles fell backwards and was left dangling inside the well, barely able to grab a lose stone that was jutting out of the wall before he landed in the water.
He began to slip as he held on. The wet moss that riddled the inside of the well was sticking to his paws and made it impossible to grip the stone. Trying to regain his composure, he noticed a rope above him that was used to lower a bucket down into the well. It too was wet and covered in green moss, but Charles, favoring his injury, pushed himself up with his right leg after finding a good foothold and carefully managed to wrap the rope around his right paw. He then used the rope to lift himself up and, using the same stone he had grabbed onto when he fell, heaved himself over the side of the well.
He landed softly in the dirt and crouched, concealing his giant bulk behind the shadow of the well. His ears picked up the voice of a man with a thick English accent shouting orders. He was preparing a small group of men to go after Charles, believing he had fallen down into the well and was trapped there. Charles snorted, infuriated with the idea that he was even considered a target.
His plans had been delayed, but not thwarted. William Grey's home stood only a few feet away from him now. The shutters were closed and the trail of smoke that had been rising from the pointed roof had disappeared. The front porch was dark, the heavy wooden door that led into the house had been bolted shut, but Charles was there and nothing would stop him now.
The ground under his paws began to vibrate slightly. Charles didn't have to look behind him to know he was also being hunted. He pushed away from the well and crept towards the white house, applying light pressure on his injured leg. His sensitive ears picked up no sound coming from inside the home. You can't hide anymore, Charles sneered. Sticking to the right side of the house, he went around a small tree in the front yard and noticed the slightest hint of candlelight emanating from one of the windows. Bingo.
Suddenly, the blast of another musket erupted behind him and a bullet grazed his left shoulder. The men had caught up. Charles barely had time to react before another shot rang in his ears. This time the bullet missed him completely, but he wasn't taking anymore chances. He began to run, ignoring the burning pain from his leg and headed towards the window in William Grey's home. He reached the front porch and jumped.
Charles burst through the closed shutters, smashing the wood to pieces and landing in the middle of an ornate living room. The wooden table in the center of the room fell over, knocking a vase to the floor and blowing out the candle he had seen from outside. Everything went dark. A door to his left slammed shut. A woman screamed. A boy cried. Charles' eyes quickly adjusted to the dark and movement to his right made him turn.
He was face to face with William Grey. A subtle orange glow entering from the broken window illuminated William's features and revealed a handsome face and a short beard. Brown hair fell over his blue, determined eyes. The muscles in his jaw were working, a tell-tale sign that he didn't know what to do. But he wasn't fearful.
Charles growled deeply, the sight of William Grey reminding him all over again why he was there. That scream he heard must have come from Valentina, the woman who had left him. The woman he had loved so deeply. For an instant, Charles longed to see her face again, but he quickly remembered that Valentina was now known to everyone as Valentina Grey. And he hated her for it.
"Don't hurt them, it's me you want." William spoke for the first time, his smooth voice bouncing off the wooden walls. Charles snarled, angered by the sound and taking a step towards him. Voices from outside reached Charles' ears. The group of men had reached the home and were shouting for William and his family. Furious that what was supposed to be a quick and quiet job had now attracted the whole village, Charles barked and prepared to end William Grey's life.
"Is it her?" William asked, making Charles pause. "Is it Valentina?" William looked into Charles' grey eyes while slowly moving towards the window. "I know how much she meant to you, Charles. She's spoken to me about her past, but you and I both know I did what I had to do," William said as he reached the broken window. He raised his hands to show he meant no harm, his white shirt catching the gleam of the moon and making him glow.
"We have all done things we regret, Charles. Things we wish we could change or do again. While those things may haunt us for the rest of our lives, we must not forget that we live in the present. And it's what we do in the moment that truly defines who we are."
And with that, William threw a hatchet he had stuffed behind his shirt at Charles and quickly turned around to reach behind a wooden cabinet. Charles was forced to jump away to dodge the weapon aimed straight at his head and he crashed into the chimney, the impact causing embers and ashes to explode into the air. A black cloud rose from the fireplace and hung in the room, blocking the moonlight from entering through the cracks in the shutters. Furious that he had been misled, Charles roared and charged towards William.
Momentarily blinded by the ashes, Charles didn't see what had been behind the cabinet. Charles didn't see a scared, brown-haired boy with green eyes in William's arms. Charles didn't see when William pushed the boy through the splintered window and into the outside. But Charles did hear William's last words before he killed him.
"Run, Willis! Go!" Charles crashed into William and cut him short, slamming him against the wall and violently rocking the house. William's head bashed into the sharp corner of a windowsill and blood began to pour from the back of his skull. He slumped into a heap in the ground, defenseless against his attacker. On the edge of consciousness, William used what little strength he had to reach into his boot and pulled a small, shiny gun. Throwing it across the room, he whispered, "Take care, my family."
Charles, lost in his sudden bloodlust, roared again and bit into William's right shoulder, tearing into it and feeling the blood fill his mouth. William bellowed in agony, his muscles and flesh ripped to shreds and rendered useless. Charles bit down harder, his canines grinding against bone, and twisted his neck to the right. He hurled William across the room and sent him crashing into the wall. Paintings and ornaments rattled and fell to the floor along with William, who went still and quiet.
"William!" Valentina's scream echoed into the night. Charles quickly spun around and his eyes met hers. She was standing in front of the door he had heard slam shut and was gripping a silver pistol. Her silky blonde hair was loose and flowing in the wind blowing through the house. Her emerald-green eyes were filled with tears that were streaming down her smooth cheek. A sob escaped her lips and she gripped the pistol tighter.
Charles must not have noticed her standing there when William threw the gun, but he was glad he didn't. Seeing her then would have made him powerless, made him forget why was there. He hadn't seen her in ten years, but she was as beautiful as the day her first saw her. He took a small step forward, entranced by the green ocean in her eyes and feeling himself transforming back into Charles, back into the man who had fallen in love all those years ago.
But Valentina had never seen the beast that was in front of her. She had only seen it murder her husband and it was now moving towards her, blood still dripping from its massive canines. It stood well over a head higher than her. Its black nose sniffed the air and it took another step forward. Valentina knew she couldn't let it enter the room behind her, even if it meant losing her own life. William was dead, her sweet Willis was gone, she couldn't bear losing what was hiding under the bed as well. So she fired the gun.
The bullet pierced Charles' left shoulder and he roared in pain, swiping the air in front of him to deter Valentina from trying anything else. He immediately stepped out of his trance and barked at Valentina, who was struggling to get another bullet into the chamber. Charles barked again, backing away from the woman he loved and heading to the broken window, all the while trying to contain the beast inside him who wanted to kill her. Suddenly, the front door burst open and two men armed with muskets fell into the room, shouting and pointing their weapons at Charles.
Before he could move, both men shot and Charles felt his side explode with a deep, incapacitating pain that spread throughout his body like poison. The bullets were silver. In a fury, he pounced on the men just as someone else jumped onto his back and cut into him with a knife. Seething with anger and pain, he clawed at the person on him and was horrified when he heard Valentina cry out in pain. She slid off his back and fell to the floor, blood beginning to ooze through her thin nightgown and a forming a crimson stain just below her neck.
More men rushed into the home, stopping in their tracks as they absorbed the scene in front of them. Charles, weakened both emotionally and physically, jumped through a rear window and ran into the night, his trench coat left forgotten where he had left it. Charles bit deeply into his stomach once he was concealed by the shadows, gnawing the silver bullets out of his body. The other bullets wounds would be tended to later.
The moon had vanished, swallowed the by the huge, dark storm clouds that hung overhead. A bright flash illuminated the woods and cast long, twisting shadows along the ground, and a few seconds later the booming roar of thunder rang in the distance. But Charles noticed nothing. He was lost in his mind, replaying the moment when he had killed Valentina over and over. The massive trees gave him a sense of consolation that nothing else could, and he needed it. The blood of the person he loved the most was on his hands.
The cries and sobs of the townsfolk as they came to the realization that William and Valentina Grey were dead followed him well into the woods. A search party would be launched to look for the missing boy. Tomorrow the entire village would grieve. A burial would be held. A memorial would be built in the center of Azmarin decorated by Valentina's favorite flower; wolfsbane.
Charles kept running, angry at Azmarin, angry at the alpha, angry at himself. He was angry at that fateful day when he was granted all the power he could ever ask for, because he now realized it was a curse. And it was last him the rest of his life.
As he ran, he couldn't help but let out a long, mournful howl.
It was done.