This is the opening chapter to The Hunted, the bestselling prequel to The Damned and The Darkest Hand trilogy. Having recently been number one in the Kindle charts in Holland, The Hunted hits North America along with The Damned in March 2016. So it's a little early treat for people on the other side of the pond and something for everyone else who've not already dared enter Inquisitor Poldek Tacit's terrifying world!
SUNDAY, JUNE 28th, 1914 .
SARAJEVO. BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
ONEThe pavement around the Priest was slick with blood, thick rivulets of darkening crimson snaking from the body drying fast beneath the hot Sarajevo sun. The side of his face had hit the ground with such force that it appeared to be submerged in rock. Th e spray of blood formed a halo, the Priest’s final panicked thought realised in savage patterns across the paving stones. Crows had settled nearby almost immediately, their greedy black eyes on the warm corpse. But there was to be no feast for them here. A large crowd had quickly formed, those first running to see what the strange sound had been and those who came after, why there were such shrieks of horror and alarm on this much-heralded day of celebration at the Archduke’s arrival.
The swelling crowd drew back, no one daring to approach the body, as if they too might be cursed and suffer a similar fate should they touch it, faces turned away, hands clasped to mouths. From out of the crush police officers appeared, pushing and yammering angrily at the gathered throng, ordering people to let them through, all three of the officers harassed and sweating beneath their thick formal uniforms. Bright silver buttons gleamed and crushed velvet shimmered under the summer sun ahead of the Archduke Ferdinand’s arrival in the city. On seeing the body, the officers also drew back, not touching it in case their snow white gloves became stained with the dead Priest’s blood. Paralysed by indecision, they opted to form a cordon about the body, their arms splayed wide in a vain attempt to obscure it from the increasingly inquisitive crowd and give the Priest a little dignity.
With the passing minutes the mood in the street changed. Once the initial shock of seeing the shattered body was over, it no longer seemed a thing of revulsion. Lying lifeless and still on the pavement stones, it had turned into an object of fascination and intrigue. People jostled to see, to glance at the butchered Priest whose blood now stained the bleached stones of the Turkish Quarter of Sarajevo. Th e police fought to keep the crowd back, their hands threatening on the hilts of their sabres, whilst someone ran off to find a catholic Father who would know what to do.
Two were found, pale faced and perspiring. Bound in black cassocks, their shoulder length pellegrina capes rippling as they scuttled through the Sarajevo streets; they had wasted little time on being told the news. Their only delay had been to clasp bibles and set birettas on their heads before they hurried from their church. The crowd parted like a sea and, on seeing the body, the Priests grasped at their starched white collars and drew handkerchiefs to their noses – prayers muttered by stuttering tongues.
“I recognise him,” hissed the taller of the pair, the rim of his hat slipping down over his glistening narrow forehead, slick with sweat. “My God, I think I saw him only this morning!”
“Who was he?”
“I don’t know. He’d only been in the city a few days. He came to Mass last Friday. He seemed grave. Kept his own counsel. I wished him good morning when I saw him out walking, a few hours ago.”
“Well, it didn’t turn out to be good for him. Who could have done such a thing?” the other Father asked, swallowing hard, his eyes wide in his skull. Th ere was timidity about him, as if every movement was an effort.
“Perhaps he fell, Father Martinuzzi?” the tall Father suggested, pushing his hat up out of his eyes and creeping back.
“Yes, from a window above?” Father Martinuzzi replied, craning his neck skywards to see from where the Priest could have toppled. It confused him to see that there were no tall buildings above, certainly none with windows high enough from which to have fallen and received such injuries. Father Martinuzzi peered down at the body and shivered, feeling a sickness tighten in his stomach.
“We should cover him,” the other Father suggested, his hand still clutched to his hat.
“With a cloth,” Father Martinuzzi agreed. “I’ll go back to the church and get something.”
Martinuzzi turned to leave but immediately found his way blocked by another Priest, tall and as broad as a door, like them clad all in black but with a heavy coat drawn tight over his wide muscular shoulders. Father Martinuzzi looked up into his hard stony face and shuddered, the brim of the large Priest’s round capello romano hat like a black rimmed crown around his head.
“Mercy me,” Martinuzzi squealed in both awe and fright, his hand to his chest. “I’m sorry, Father, I didn’t see you there.” He stared up into the newcomer’s cold eyes, black beads set deep in a face ravaged by years of toil and struggle. There was a control about him, a grim demeanour that hinted at authority within the Church although of what kind, Martinuzzi didn’t dare think. Despite the stench of alcohol and sweat exuding from the man, he knew he must do whatever he was bid by him, and without delay.
Martinuzzi dragged his eyes from the man, turning briefly to look over his shoulder. “We think it’s Father Rhodian. He’s just been found. He’s … we think he’s-”
“Fallen?” the giant of a Priest growled, his accent as weathered as his appearance, suggesting an eastern European heritage. He pushed himself forward so that he stood over the body and peered at it, like a detective surveying his crime scene. He dropped to his knees, setting a battered brown travelling case down next to him, staring close at the bloodied remains of the Father without hesitation or revulsion. He examined the length of the corpse, checking for anything which might suggest how the Father had come to be lying partially crushed on the pavement, eventually looking back to the shattered remains of his face. After a moment, he glanced up into the heavens, peering about the buildings around them. Father Martinuzzi noticed how dark his eyes seemed, set against the glare of the sun. He caught the stench of stale alcohol again and turned his face away, as if ashamed. “Do you think he’d fallen?” the newcomer asked, the right side of his lip turning up in disquiet or displeasure.
“Yes, fallen,” Martinuzzi replied, unavoidably transfixed by the scowling giant.
“He didn’t,” the Priest spat, now standing, his eyes turned upwards in the direction of the tall building across the street from where they stood. “He was thrown.”
The two Fathers followed the Priest’s eyes to where they had settled on an open window high up in a building some thirty feet away.
“Thrown?” Father Martinuzzi muttered incredulously.
The giant in Priest’s robes looked back down at the dead Father. The telltale signs were all there. He knew they had been lost on everyone else but not him. He’d recognised them at once, the moment he had clapped eyes on the body, the fact the Priest lay with his back to the pavement and yet his head was turned towards the stone slabs of the street. That the Priest’s head had been snapped around his neck before he had hit the ground. Th ere was only one thing which could have done such a thing, only one entity that possessed the power and the hatred.
“Cover the body,” he ordered, pointing to it with a large commanding finger, “and get it moved to the local church.” He picked up his case and began to push his way roughly through the crowd in the direction of the opposite building.
“But Father, who shall we say you are?” one of the Priests called after him, but he gave them no reply.
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