Hard earth sped by beneath my feet, but I barely felt it. The exhilaration of running made it seem as if I was flying and there was nothing under me but wind and joy. The night air was alive with scents, and while the scenery blurred past me too fast to see, I was picking up the story of my environment with every inhale.
The pungent smell of algae, still warm from baking in the day’s sun, gave the air a dank, swampy odor, something that made me feel like home. It also gave me a good indication of where the land ended and the water began.
There was nothing for me near the water’s edge. Most of the animals in the trees were fair game: small rodents, rabbits and other easy prey. Sometimes I’d find a real challenge and get to stalk a deer through the spongy bog. But where the moss and peat gave way to proper swamp, and land became water, I was hesitant to get too close.
I was not the scariest thing out for blood during the full moon.
Once—and only once—I’d crossed paths with an alligator who mistook me for an easy meal. Werewolf versus alligator might sound like a kickass premise for a bad SyFy channel monster movie, but in my case it had been one of the worst nights of my life. If not for my heightened healing ability I would definitely still have some nasty scars to brag about.
But you should have seen the other guy.
That particular fight was not something I had any desire to repeat, no matter how badass the story made me sound. Just thinking about it made my heart beat a little faster. So, in spite of the water’s edge being a great place to catch easy prey unaware, it also put me at too great a risk. Instead I stuck to the trees, avoiding the swamp and the hiking trails as well. At this time of night the area was mostly clear of humans, but I didn’t like to take risks.
Boldness wasn’t my problem, I had it in spades these days, but I preferred to be smart rather than to tempt fate. Foolhardy was just another way to say stupid.
Leave it to me to still be a goody two-shoes while I was covered in fur. Some habits were hard to break no matter what form I took.
My wolf urged me forward, driving me on at a breakneck pace. I’d caught a whiff of rabbit and now my singular mission was to sink my teeth into it. The frenzied patter of its heart sent vibrations to the air, singing a perfect ode to my hunger. Feed feed feed. My mouth watered and I bared my teeth, though there wasn’t an animal in sight for me to menace. The wolf was desperate for the kill and she and I were of one mind on the subject.
Once I’d learned to yield to the wolf within, I was able to turn off the magical part of my brain and simply be the wolf. Like most werewolves, I was thirteen when I first started shifting. The same age young hereditary witches came into their power, something most wolves didn’t have to consider. Unluckily for me, I’d inherited both gifts leaving my magic and my wolf to collide in a disastrous and literally explosive way. That was how I came to spend my formative years getting to know the ins and outs of a swamp very well.
Now I was older, a little wiser, and definitely had a better handle on my magic.
I skidded to an abrupt stop, nails digging into the damp ground below. Sniffing the air I parsed the layers of scent, dismissing the bog water and night air until the only thing remaining was fear. Sweet, delicious fear. It smelled like dying flowers and fresh blood.
Movement low to the ground caught my attention and I went rigid, ears upright, listening intently. There. I could practically feel the creature’s heartbeat in my mouth.
I crouched low, my whole body coiled like a spring as I moved closer inch by inch to where the nervous rabbit lay in wait, thinking it was hidden from me. One moment it was frozen, the next it bolted and I went after it, pouncing before it had a chance to hide again. My teeth pierced its neck and there was a brief glorious moment where I could taste every ounce of its fear, then it went limp.
The hunt was over.
I ate quickly, the flavor less satisfying now that the fear was gone, but the meat was still delicious and reinvigorated me for the run back. Night was coming to an end and when the sun rose I didn’t want to be isolated in the middle of the swamp. My wolf might have a good natural sense of direction, but not all my supernatural abilities translated from my animal form to my human one. I set off running again, zig-zagging my way through the woods, still avoiding the edge of the water. It felt good to burn off my energy, bringing myself back to nature and the place I’d felt at home for so long.
The night sky was turning purple-blue as I found my way back to the abandoned military encampment of Fort Pike. Sometimes, when luck wasn’t on my side, I’d find party-happy teens or adventurous ghost hunters wandering the grounds. I didn’t like to encounter people when I was in my wolf form. Though most of my human mind still worked for the most part, I didn’t have the same inhibitions or morals holding me back as I did when I walked on two legs. If someone were to lash out at me or make me feel threatened, I wouldn’t hesitate to attack them. During the full moon my wolf ruled me, and while I might feel bad about after the fact if I hurt someone, it wouldn’t stop me.
It was best, then, not to put myself at any risk of running into any people. Werewolves had a bad enough reputation without the media painting us as thoughtless killers, too. That would be a PR nightmare I wanted no part in.
My nails clicked against the stone floor, but they were the only sounds. Tonight I was alone. I stopped beside the neatly folded pile of clothes I’d abandoned earlier in the night and lay on my belly, licking the blood from my paws. I could push myself to change early, but it would hurt more. If I waited another fifteen minutes until the sun was up the transition would happen naturally, without too much discomfort.
I watched between the open arches as the horizon changed colors. It wouldn’t be long now.
Then I saw her.
My first reaction was surprise. I hadn’t heard anyone approaching, and humans made so much noise they were impossible to miss. She couldn’t have gotten this close without arousing my attention. Those thoughts vanished when I really paid attention to what I was seeing.
She moved between the shadows silent and slippery as a ghost, but ghosts didn’t have a smell. Whatever she was, she reeked of charcoal and burnt skin. I got up and edged away, baring my teeth and growling. The implicit threat should have been enough to keep her at bay. Most sensible people don’t approach a huge wolf whose teeth were flashing.
It didn’t slow her down at all.
As she oozed out of the shadows my snarl faltered and a small whimper of confusion escaped me. She crept forward, her arms akimbo like a broken mannequin who was reassembled with all the wrong parts. Her head was tilted sideways at a painful angle, broken and mangled. Skin peeled away, baring flesh and bone in raw red and white patches.
She advanced on me and I backed away, though my natural instinct resisted. I didn’t want anything to do with her, but I was stubborn to the core. Royal werewolf blood and a long history of lectures from my uncle Callum meant I never wanted to yield the upper hand to anyone, not even a walking immolation-monster, or whatever she was.
Behind the smell of charred skin was a reek of death and sulfur.
She wasn’t human.
That should have been obvious at first glance, what with the charred skin and impossible bone structure, but I’d seen enough truly weird things in my life I never took anything at face value. Her smell, however, was unmistakable. The sulfur scent was a hallmark of something dark and demonic.
Her mouth opened, wider than a human mouth could, and a horrible screeching yowl emerged, croaking and grinding like rocks in a blender.
Then she was gone, blowing apart like smoke as the sun rose.
Moments later the shift took me, and remade me, leaving me naked and panting on the brick, shivering from the too-recent memory of what I’d seen.
What the hell was she?
And why did I feel like I should know?