Blood on the Snow

CHAPTER TWO
Blood on the Snow 

I was swallowed in shadows as I retreated into one of the many pine forests scattered around the mountainside. Once I entered the forest, I was no longer within the safe boundaries of the inn. I was in a wild place, an untamed place, and even though I could still see the inn from where I was standing, glowing warmly despite the frigid temperatures, I knew that I had crossed over into a world entirely different from the one that surrounded my home.

  This world, guarded by shivering pine trees and inhabited by shadows, was feral and unforgiving. To the untrained eye, it was just another forest, exactly like the hundreds of others that blanketed the Cascades. To me, it was different. To a werewolf, it was dangerous.

  Dangerous and absolutely breathtaking.

  Creatures lurked in these shadows, the shadows that had comforted me for so long. I came to this clump of pine trees whenever I needed to be alone. I lost myself in the darkness, in the sweet scent of the trees' springy needles, in the repetition of it all. The forest never changed. The same trees always greeted me with a shudder of their branches. Sometimes, being a girl that shifted into a wolf at every full moon, you needed a little uniformity, that sense of sameness.

  Even if your favorite hiding spot was crawling with disir and malevolent faeries.

  Disir are supernatural entities, of sorts. They are composed mainly of shimmering gray fog and stand at about a foot tall. Disir are female spirits of fate, and although some of them were completely harmless, others were much more sinister, hiding deep within forests such as the one I was in, waiting for an appropriate time to trick you into doing something stupid like getting buried in snow drifts or getting your leg caught in a bear trap. Some disir even went as far as conjuring up blankets of fog that seeped through the trees, teasing your curiosity.

  "What's that fog over there, Jane? Isn't it weird? Let's go check it out," said Jack, the ignorant human hiker to his companion, Jane. Jack and Jane then proceed to "check out" the fog and are promptly slaughtered by the disir lurking inside.

  Or so the stories were told. I'd never seen a dis kill someone before. I knew they were wicked little things, because I'd come into contact with them a handful of times during my hikes through the forest, but they didn't seem vicious enough to want to lure someone into their foggy traps. Maybe this was because none of them had tried their tricks on me, yet. I was hoping they never would.

  A tremble danced down my spine as I threaded through forest, my arms stretched out wide so that my hands could brush along the snowy bark of the trees. My eyes were virtually useless. The darkness was too thick, the canopy blocking out the pale light of the moon, and because of my human limitations, I had terrible night vision. I relied only on my sense of touch to guide me. Touch, and the aching familiarity that burned in my chest each and every time I came here.

  I suppose I could have shifted if I wanted to. But, the Change is painful, especially with the moon being just a sliver in the sky and my being so young. My dad told me that it got easier as time went by, that it became less painful. I was seventeen and had been shifting since I was three. Fourteen years had passed me by and the Change still hasn't stopped being one of the most agonizing experiences I've ever went through. Your bones snapped, your hands became paws, your fingernails elongated into hook-like claws. All of this happened while you were writhing on the ground, wishing that the pain would just stop.

  It was all worth it in the end, though. Once the Change was complete, you were no longer human. You didn't have to worry about the mundane things most people fretted over on a day to day basis. Things like: Did I shut the oven off before I left? What will I need to buy at the grocery store? Did I pay the power bill last month?

  All of that was erased from your mind, leaving you with nothing but a few simple thoughts. Thinking didn't really matter when you were a wolf. You relied on basic instincts more than your brain. When you're a wolf, all that matters is surviving through the night. Hunt, fight, kill. That was it. Luckily, I had a family, a Pack that I belonged to that helped me keep my bestial aggravations in check. Werewolves are aggressive by nature. Aggression burns in our blood, makes us far more dangerous than your regular wolf. That's why being a Loner was so stupid.

  Lone wolves lack the companionship pack wolves have. Being alone in the Wolven world meant that you had a harder time keeping yourself in check. It's not as easy for a Loner to stop and think: Hmmm, maybe I shouldn't slaughter that group of hikers for the fun of it. Loners were just that. They were alone. They had no family and were probably driven out of their Pack for one reason or another. Once a Loner, always a Loner. You doomed yourself to that fate and you had to face the consequences.

 As I carefully plodded through the thick snow, the tangy scent of blood filled my lungs when I breathed in. Blood was never a good sign. According to Hollywood, whenever you saw or smelled blood, something was wrong. There was either a serial killer on the loose somewhere in the proximity, or some poor soul was halfway dead, sitting up against a tree. Neither of these possibilities sounded pleasant.

  I considered heading back toward the inn when a low moan sounded from the shadows in front of me. My tongue was thick with fear, my stomach churning wildly. My mind began to race, frantic thoughts tumbling around in my skull.

  The moan came to me again, riding on the wings of the wind. The hair on the back of my neck was standing on end. The scent of blood was getting stronger. If I left now, the risk of getting brutally murdered by the serial killer that I was now convinced was lurking somewhere near me would be cut in half (no pun intended.) If I stayed, I could figure out who was moaning and possibly help them if they needed it.

  If there really was an injured person slumped against a tree, I couldn't just leave them there. I wasn't that heartless. I stood very still within the depths of the woods and opened my eyes. I looked down and, through the darkness I could easily see a trail of bright red blood spattered in the snow, slithering into the shadows ahead of me.

  Shuddering as the wind blew through the creaking trees, I followed the macabre trail through the forest, the cold pressing in on me as the trees grew thinner and thinner. The blood on the snow was getting darker and thicker as I went on, tiny hunks of flesh scattered around my feet, hanging limply from the frosty undergrowth. I felt myself shiver again. Whoever left this trail behind must have really gotten themselves hurt. This wasn't the work of the disir. Disir were much cleaner in their executions. They left nothing but a few bones behind. Whoever (or whatever) attacked the owner of the blood on the snow was sloppy and careless.

  Whoever did this wanted to be caught.

  The wind gusted suddenly, stirring up the snow, making visibility worse than it already was. It buffeted me around, bit at my exposed face. My hands were growing stiff and numb inside my mittens. I shoved them into the pockets of my coat and bent down low, focusing in on the blood spatters and frozen flesh. The trail was barely visible now, thanks to the phantom gust, no doubt conjured by a dis. The bitter taste on my tongue told me that one of the ghostly spirits was watching me now, waiting for me to stray into its trap.

  It hadn't occurred to me that the blood and the moans and the hunks of skin could have been a dis illusion. Even so, the stench of death was getting heavier and more stagnant. I had come this far, and I wasn't about to turn back now, dis trap or not. My own morbid curiosity wasn't going to let me. I had to know where this trail ended.

  I wrapped my arms around my chest, hugging myself tightly. I liked to believe I was doing this because I was a sensible person and knew that doing so would help me retain body heat. That wasn't the real reason and I knew it wasn't. I didn't want to admit to myself that I was scared. I was a big, bad werewolf. I was Melanie Cromwell, tough and resilient. I didn't let a dark forest and a few drips of blood scare me.

  Taking a few calming breaths, inhaling nothing but air so cold that it made me gag, I managed to compose myself enough to keep going. Almost there, whispered Curiosity to Terror. Terror didn't want to listen to Curiosity, however. Terror wanted to get the hell out of there before she got axed up by Michael Meyers. Ultimately, Curiosity won the power struggle going on inside my head.

  Curiosity killed the cat, but it never killed the wolf, right?

  Laughter gurgled up inside my throat, nervous and frightened. I never thought I would get so scared as to laugh at my own lame jokes.

  The snow crunched noisily underneath my feet as I went. Crunch, crunch, crunch. The rest of the forest was uncharacteristically still. The silver wisps of the disir were nowhere to be found. The haunting cackles of the snow fae did not drift through the trees like fog. I glanced upward, and through the thin canopy, I noticed that the moon was smothered in a veil of black clouds. Only the wind howled, tearing through the mountains like a scream.

  Normally, I would have taken advantage of this silence. This wasn't a normal situation. When I came into this forest, I usually didn't hear moans or see trails of blood on the ground. Desperate for noise, I sloshed around louder in the snow, hummed Miss Mary Mack underneath my shaky breath.

  "Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black," I sang, every word materializing in front of me in the form of puffy steam. "With silver buttons, buttons, buttons, all down her back, back, ba--"

  "Wh-what are you singing?" Stammered a weak voice, startling me so badly that I was sure I peed myself.

  "Who's there?" I demanded, eliminating the fear from my voice. If it was a serial killer, I wanted to make sure I sounded as fierce as possible so as to ward them away. I refused to get murdered out here, completely alone. I refused.

  "Bram Sullivan," the voice sagged, sounding closer than before. A loud shambling noise followed, footsteps crunching clumsily in the snow.

  "You're not going to kill me are you?" I asked of this Bram, tilting my chin upward in a defiant gesture he couldn't see. Not in this darkness.

  "Excuse me?" Breathed the voice. A bone rattling cough followed.

"It's a legitimate question!" I snapped, stepping back into the trunk of a tree, snow from its low hanging branches dumping on my head.

  Bram seemed to be considering my question, because it had gotten very quiet again. Not even the wind was there to slap me in the face.

 "If you don't answer me, I'll start singing again!" I warned, sounding more like my mother than I ever wanted to. I waited a few moments for a reply. There wasn't one. "Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black bla-"

"I'm sorry, I was just wondering why you thought I was going to kill you," the haggard voice chuckled, louder still.

  "I come out into these woods all the time and I never see any blood trails or hear any moaning. I'm guessing that, since you're not a serial killer, you're the one making all the noise?" I explained, making no effort to hide the relief in my voice.

  "Yes," Bram replied, sounding sheepish. More shambling noises.

  "Do you need help?" I asked, taking a few hesitant steps toward his voice. It was too dark. The only things I could see were the blood and the snow on the ground. After walking around in circles like an idiot for a few seconds, I decided on a new tactic. "Marco!" I shouted.

  "Er, Polo?" Bram said weakly. He was somewhere to my left.

  I veered off in that direction and put my hands out in front of me in hopes that I would catch him if he walked by.

  "Marco!" I tried again.

  "This is stupid," Bram sighed.

  "Well, it's the only way we're going to find each other, so--Oh!" I gasped.

  Bram and I collided with each other. I started to fall backward and would have landed in a ten foot snow drift if it wasn't for him, his hand catching me by the small of my back. His free hand was hanging on a snowy branch, fingers wrapped tightly around it as though he needed it to support him.

  We sat like that for a few seconds, time suspended on a tightrope above our heads. I could see him and he could see me. His face was framed with thick black hair that fell just above his shoulders, pieces of it falling into his impossibly blue eyes, eyes that were circled with the shadows of exhaustion. His full lips were twisted into a grimace, bleached pale white from the cold. Dark stubble lined his prominent jawbone and on his cheek was a deep red wound, oozing with blood.

  "You're hurt," I mumbled stupidly, regaining my footing, removing his too-warm hand from my back, holding it in mine for a moment. Dozens of little scars riddled his fingers. I turned his hand over and noticed one very long gash in the middle of his palm. Curious, I ran my fingers over it, feeling each tiny bump where his skin had repaired itself.

  Bram pulled away from me, closing his fingers over the scar.

  "Old wounds," he whispered, clutching at his right leg. "This, however, is a new one."

  I looked down and saw that his leg was bloodied and mangled, his jeans torn, exposing the wound to the elements. I frowned and stooped down to look at it when Bram hobbled away from me as if to hide his injury.

  "I wouldn't look if I were you," he grimaced as blood poured from the open wound, spilling onto the snow, blossoming like a flower. "I just need to get out of these damn woods. A dis has been following me and I'm afraid I won't last much longer with it around."

  I froze, and it wasn't because a breath of wind floated through the trees. He knew what the disir were.

  "You're not human," I said, my words hitching in my throat.

  "No," he frowned, gripping the branch even tighter. His knuckles were the color of the snow. "And neither are you."

The End

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