The forest was singing, and its song was all mine. The others, with their human ears, heard only the crackle of the campfire and their own voices. Huddled in down jackets and sleeping bags, they thought they owned the world by virtue of their ability to tame it, and that was an understandable mistake. But they’d never really seen the forest. Not like I saw it.
They couldn’t feel it like I felt it either, poking at my paws with sticks and thorns. Blowing through my fur with the scents of pine, and ash, and warm, plump rodent. Winding through my soul, with the knowledge that I was but part of a whole, a single predator serving nature as surely as it served me.
Soon I’d have to go back to the campfire. To my friends’ idea of “roughing it” with battery powered radios, canned food, and no-rinse bathing wipes, guaranteed to keep you fresh even days into a showerless camping trip. Soon I’d have to put on my human skin so I could be Abby Wade, normal college sophomore. I’d been hiding the feline half of my life for a year and a half, and my secret forest run was just a temporary reprieve from all things human.
Still, the next few moments were mine.
My paws snapped through twigs and sank into underbrush, pushing against the earth to propel me faster, higher. I was a streak of black against the night, darker than the forest, yet a part of it, as I hadn’t been in weeks. Small animals fled ahead of my paws, scurrying through tangles of fallen leaves and branches. The scents of oak, birch, maple, and pine were familiar comforts, relaxing me even as they pushed me for more speed, greater distance. Thorns caught in my fur. Cold air burned in my nose and stroked the length of my body as I ran, like a caress from the universe itself.
I was welcome in the woods. I belonged there, as I’d never truly belonged anywhere else.
When I’d been gone as long as I could stay away without worrying the others, I slowed to a gradual stop, huffing from exertion. It was time for a snack, to replace the energy I’d burned during my shift.
My ears swiveled on my head, pinpointing the telltale sounds of prey. Werecats can’t track by scent, like a dog, so we hunt with our ears and our eyes. On my run, I’d smelled mice and a couple of weasels, both of which stay active in the winter, but I was holding out for a rabbit, or even a beaver. No use wasting a deer with only me there to feed on it.
Something scuttled through the underbrush several yards to the southeast, too fast and light to be raccoon. Probably a mouse or a rat. Too much effort for too little meat.
I slowed my breathing and listened harder. From the north came a soft, rapid swooshy heartbeat, but no movement. Whatever it was, it knew I was close and hungry. I turned my head and sniffed toward the north—I could pinpoint prey with my ears, but could only ID it with my nose, which told me I was hunting rabbit. Perfect. Its fur wouldn’t be white yet—not in mid-October—but my feline eyes would have no trouble distinguishing it from its surroundings.
I pounced. The rabbit sprang from the underbrush and landed three feet away. I caught a glimpse of brown and white fur, then it was off again, racing through the woods and vaulting over low shrubs and fallen logs.
I ran after it at half speed, reluctant to end the chase too soon—who knew when I’d have another chance to hunt? But seconds later, a scream shattered the cold, quiet night with a sharp echo of pain and terror.
A sudden spike of fear froze me where I stood. I knew that scream—that voice. Robyn. My roommate of more than three years, and for the next three nights, my tent-mate.
I turned and raced through the woods toward the campsite, my lungs burning, my heart trying to beat its way through my sternum. I had no plan, no thought beyond simply getting there, and only the vaguest understanding that if I burst into the camp in cat form, I’d scare her far worse than whatever had made her scream.
But I’d only gone a few yards when a second scream split the night again, followed by two deeper, masculine shouts of fear and pain.
I pushed myself harder, my brain racing through the possibilities. Bear? There’d been no growling or roaring, and I hadn’t smelled anything even slightly ursine. Besides, black bears typically shy away from humans. As do bruins, though to my knowledge, no one had ever spotted a bear Shifter in the heart of the Appalachian Territory.
So what the hell was happening?
I flew through the forest, retracing my own path with no thought for the living buffet scurrying all around me. The screaming continued, and I heard terror from Robyn and Dani, but sheer agony from their boyfriends. I’d seen a friend murdered once, which was how I knew exactly what I was hearing in that moment—my friends were being slaughtered.
My clothes hung on branches ahead, but I raced past them. The screaming was louder now, but there were fewer voices. Dani’s boyfriend Mitch had gone silent. I was too late to help him, and before I’d gone another few yards, Olsen’s screaming ended in a horrible, inarticulate gurgle.
My lungs burned and my legs ached—werecats are sprinters, not long-distance runners—but I pushed forward, demanding more from my body than I’d ever had reason to expect from it.
This couldn’t be real. Werecat strays were always slugging it out in territorial disputes and dominance challenges, but the most dangerous thing I’d ever encountered in the human/college world was my Chemistry professor’s hardline no-late-work policy.
Robyn’s screams intensified with her boyfriend’s silence, then suddenly stopped, and for a moment, my heart refused to beat. Not Robyn. I couldn’t lose my roommate of more than a year and the best friend I had in the human world. The girl who left her toothpaste open on the bathroom counter and made me hot chocolate in the middle of the night, when nightmares woke me up.
Then in the sudden quiet, the forest produced a new voice, and my next steps were fueled by simultaneous terror and relief.
“…mouth shut, bitch, or I’ll slice you wide open. Her too.”
Robyn and Dani were alive—so far, anyway. But who the hell was with them?
I’d gone a few more steps when the smell of blood rolled across the forest floor like an olfactory fog, overwhelming my senses and shredding my heart. The sheer strength of the scent was horrifying, and the thought of how much Mitch and Olsen must have lost made me sick to my stomach.