Read Hunted Online

Authors: Adam Slater

Tags: #Horror, #Fantasy, #Mystery, #Young Adult, #Thriller

Hunted

EGMONT

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First published in the United Kingdom by Egmont UK Ltd, 2011

First published in the United States of America by Egmont USA, 2011

443 Park Avenue South, Suite 806

New York, NY 10016

Copyright © Hothouse Fiction, 2011

All rights reserved

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www.egmontusa.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Slater, Adam.

Hunted / Adam Slater.

p. cm. — (The Shadowing ; [#1])

Summary: At the time called The Shadowing, the barrier between the netherworld and the human world begins to break down, and as fourteen-year-old Callum sees his visions of grisly murders coming true he strives to fulfill his destiny to stand against bloodthirsty demon forces while he, himself, is being hunted.

ISBN 978-1-60684-261-4 (hardcover) — ISBN 978-1-60684-282-9 (electronic book)

[1. Demonology—Fiction. 2. Supernatural—Fiction. 3. Fate and fatalism—Fiction.]

I. Title.

PZ7.S62895Hun 2011

[Fic]—dc22 2011004898

Printed in the United States of America

CPSIA tracking label information: Printed in July 2011 at Berryville Graphics, Berryville, Virginia

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and copyright owner.

Prologue

R
AIN DRILLS THE SURFACE OF THE BLACK CANAL
. I
T'S TOO DARK
to see properly, but the girl can hear it. Ahead of her, the narrow footpath is nearly blocked with rubbish tipped over the motorway embankment. The girl doesn't go any further. She's waiting for someone.

This is a bad place.

She knows it in her bones. She doesn't want to be here. Every nerve is telling her to run the other way. She peers ahead into the gloom, looks up at the dark windows of the warehouses, looks down in the gutter, looks over her shoulder. Her hands tingle as if they are on fire. She can't shake the feeling there is something or someone watching her.

But she waits anyway.

It hungers, always.

It takes shape after shape as its own, and each body it puts on is as hungry as the last.

It crouches on slick tiles above the black canal. In the faint glow of the motorway lights, it can see the prey it has been seeking for the last three days. It makes the leap from slippery rooftop to wet street without a sound.

The rain is relentless: the thunder of it louder than the swish of invisible traffic passing high above. The girl shivers. Water is seeping down her neck. She pulls up the collar of her jacket and looks behind her again. Nothing there. She waits with hunched shoulders and wide eyes, straining to see in the dark.

The girl jumps when the silent shape comes towards her along the footpath. For a moment, instinct tells her to run. But then she sees the face. She gives a little cry of joy and relief.

“You took long enough! What a place to meet!”

She holds out her hands as she steps forwards. It's a face she loves, a face she's missed. How long has it been? More than a year. But he's here now. He'll know what to do.

He holds his hands out to return her greeting as he approaches. They are nearly within touching distance before she can see him properly in the dim light. And then, in an instant of confusion, she realizes something is not right. She knows the face, but not the eyes. She does not know the savage twist of the mouth, nor the hands that are growing black talons as they reach towards her. She does not know this creature wearing her friend's face.

But she knows it has come to take her life.

The revelation is like a jolt of raw electricity, shocking her so much she can't think straight. Her mind tells her to run, but her body can't move. When she opens her mouth to scream, no sound comes out. At last, she manages to make one foot take a step backwards.

But by then it's too late.

The Hunter looks down at its fallen quarry. The hunt is less satisfying when the prize is taken so easily.

It turns and walks away in its borrowed shape.

It is still hungry.

The girl lies by the black canal, her face turned upwards to the sky like a stargazer. But she will never see the stars again. Her eyes have been torn out. The rain fills the empty sockets until they brim over, spilling bloody tears down her cold white cheeks.

Chapter One

Callum was miserable and cold. He sat hugging his rugby kitbag while he waited for his train, trying to ignore the ghost that stood beside him on the empty station platform.

The pale, blank figure didn't surprise him. Callum Scott had always been able to see ghosts. Lately they seemed to be everywhere he went.

Callum clutched his bag more tightly. The ghost couldn't see him—they never could—but it still felt rude to stare. Even so, it was hard to take his eyes off the horrible figure.

It was a man, his body gray and insubstantial, as if it had been drawn in chalk on the empty air. He wore an army uniform that looked almost as old as the half-derelict Victorian station itself, but the jacket was tattered and frayed and covered with dark stains. Through one gaping hole, Callum could see the wet glisten of torn skin and muscle, and the white gleam of exposed bone. Below his jacket, the soldier's legs ended in ragged stumps just above the knee.

Callum shuddered. How had he lost them? In one of the wars? Falling under a train? Is that what killed him? Did he die down there on those very tracks?

These dark thoughts always seemed to fill Callum's mind whenever the spirits were near him, but tonight he would have been gloomy enough without them. He'd missed his train home after an away match and now he was stuck with a long, cold wait. Callum shivered as the wind whistled and moaned around him, willing the time to go faster.

At last he heard the modern Sprinter train coming down the line, all bright lights and noise. For an instant the ghost's gaze seemed to meet Callum's. Then he was gone, like a blown candle.

The train was crammed with tired, grumpy people coming home from work. But even though he had to stand wedged between elbows and shopping bags, Callum was glad for the human company. Already his stomach was tightly knotted at the thought of the long, lonely walk down the hill from Marlock station to Gran's little cottage in Nether Marlock. Callum especially dreaded the stretch of woods by the abandoned stone shell of Nether Marlock church—the dead always seemed to gather there.

When the train reached his stop, Callum forced himself to set off down the hill, through the housing estate at the edge of town. It was getting dark and the wind seemed to whisper an unearthly warning. The streetlights were already on, their acid-yellow glow casting inky shadows up the driveways. There were never any spirits in the tidy front gardens of these houses, though. The estate was too new to have ghosts. Well, except the one house, halfway down, haunted by the little girl who had been run over by a post van—but she could be avoided by staying on the other side of the road.

Callum trudged from streetlamp to streetlamp, drawn to the pools of light. He walked slowly, putting off the moment when the row of lights would end, leaving him alone in the darkness of Marlock Wood.

Beyond the estate, the road continued on, narrowing to one track as it disappeared into the blackness beneath the trees. Hardly any cars used this stretch of road through the woods, and Callum cursed under his breath as he realized that his torch was still hanging on the back of his bedroom door. He normally packed it when he knew he was going to be walking home in the dark, but of course he hadn't expected to be getting home so late tonight….

Callum glanced longingly over his shoulder, back at the well-lit street behind him. A car pulled out of a driveway and headed up the road towards Marlock, its taillights glowing red.

“Just get it over with!” he muttered to himself.

Gritting his teeth, Callum stepped forwards.

It was like stepping into another world. Beneath the trees, the night crowded in on him. He looked back again. The road was empty now. He edged forwards into the darkness, stepping off the end of the pavement and onto the old, crumbling tarmac.

When he looked over his shoulder a third time, Callum swore aloud to himself.

“For God's sake, stop it!”

There weren't any ghosts back there. He knew that.

But every bone in his body was telling him that there was
something
. Something else.

Callum knew better than to doubt his instincts. He didn't know why, but they were always right. Sometimes it felt like he had some kind of sixth sense that warned him about trouble and danger—his Luck, he called it. He walked on quickly, shivering. He couldn't see anything now, either on the narrow road in front of him, or in the inky depths of Marlock Wood on each side. But he wasn't alone on this ancient path, he was sure of it. Something was watching him. Somewhere in the dark. He didn't know if it was good or bad, but it was there.

Far away, a long and mournful howl rang out, swelling to a deep, throaty rumble, then fading to a low moan.

Callum froze. What the hell was that? It had to be a dog. The ghosts never made any noise at all, and this sound carried over the dark treetops like the deep chime of a bell. He shook his head and set off again, quickening his pace. Gran's cottage was only a mile away. Fifteen minutes. Less, at the speed he was walking. But first he had to get past the overgrown lane that led to Nether Marlock church.

It was always the worst part of his journey. The lane was like a magnet for ghosts. Whenever Callum passed, they were there, drifting eerily through the darkness—long-dead parishioners making their way to prayers, just as they had done a hundred years ago, or four hundred, or more. One figure in a long black cloak always stood just beside the turning, as if waiting for someone. Callum had never been able to tell whether it was a man or a woman, because no matter where he stood, the sinister figure always had its back to him.

The bloodcurdling howl rang out again, closer this time.

Callum stared wildly through the trees, but he couldn't work out which direction the sound was coming from. It seemed to curl all around him, like the thick darkness that was pressing down on him like a blanket. As the noise broke off, he doubled his pace. He walked head down, fast, nearly jogging. It wasn't a good idea to run from a wild animal, right? Whatever was making a noise like that, Callum didn't want to tempt it to chase him.

Now, at last, he was approaching Church Lane. Caught between a rock and a hard place. Between a known and an unknown terror. Taking a deep breath, Callum looked up.

The lane was empty.

Callum's footsteps faltered. He'd never,
ever
passed this way, even in daylight, without seeing some sign of the dead. The sight of the ghosts had always been unsettling, but their strange and sudden absence was worse. There was no reason for it, no explanation. Unless …

Unless the ghosts had been scared off by something.

Callum swallowed, his throat dry. He didn't want to think about what that something might be.

Ahead, through the trees, he could just see a pinprick of light. Home. Callum and his grandmother lived in the only inhabited cottage in a row of derelict almshouses, all that was left of the village of Nether Marlock. Everything else—the church, the old mill, and all the other cottages—had been abandoned long ago.

Callum fixed his eyes on the warm, welcoming light beckoning from the house.

“Come on, not far now,” he encouraged himself.

As if in answer, a chilly wind sprang up around his feet, clutching at his legs with icy fingers. The woods were eerily quiet now. Nothing disturbed the perfect silence, other than the crunch of his own feet. And yet Callum could
feel
footsteps behind him. Soft, padding footsteps coming closer, closer …

He whirled around.

For an instant, he thought he saw something—a red gleam in the darkness. But whatever it was winked out so quickly, Callum couldn't be sure it had really been there at all.

Every cell of his being screamed at him to run, but his body seemed unable to obey. Slowly, Callum backed away, his eyes wide in the darkness. He could feel the prickle as the hairs on the nape of his neck stood up. His Luck had been right—there
was
something there in the shadows.

Moving painstakingly slowly, Callum backed down the road. He was drenched with sweat, as if he had run a marathon rather than walked a couple of miles, but he felt freezing. He almost screamed when his legs bump into something before he realized that it was just the low brick wall that ran around the cottage garden. He'd made it. Almost.

Keeping his eyes fixed ahead, Callum scrambled backwards over the wall and up the garden path. The light over the small porch was on, shining like a beacon. He yanked the latch upwards but—
oh, hell—
the door was locked.

Callum tore off his backpack and scrabbled in the outer pocket for his key. His fingers felt numb. How did it get so
cold
? Without taking his eyes off the road, he slid the heavy, old-fashioned key into the lock and turned it sharply.

The lock jammed.

It often did—the mechanism was old and stiff. It didn't normally matter, but tonight Callum knew that every moment he was outside the cottage, he was vulnerable. Cursing under his breath, he turned his back on the road for a split second to jiggle the key in the lock. With a click, he heard it turn. As he pushed open the door, he glanced back over his shoulder—and his breath caught in his chest.

Just beyond the rails of the old picket gate, deep black against the darkness of the road, stood an indistinct animal shape. Callum couldn't tell exactly what it was, but it was
huge
.

It wasn't just the size of the creature that took his breath away, though, nor the red glow of its eyes floating in the darkness. It was the waves of icy air that seemed to flow from it, so cold they threatened to stop his heart. Callum didn't need a lifetime's experience of seeing ghosts to know that the creature was not of this world.

For a long moment, he stared at the phantom. What was it? And why was it following him? Then Gran's voice called to him through the narrow gap in the door.

“Callum? Is that you?”

For an instant, Callum turned to glance inside. When he turned back, the black shape at the gate had gone.

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