Morda Moran just graduated from high school and is happy to be away from the bullies and whispers...until she's thrown to the wolves by a classmate. Literally. Wolves are stalking the woods in Roseburg, and Morda must escape them. But as she gets closer, a whole new world is opened to her, revealing long-buried secrets about her family, her newfound companions, and herself.
Age Rating: 18+
I couldn’t leave it alone.
To be fair, I couldn’t leave much alone.
I bent down, my long hair brushing over my knees as I scooped the bird up into my hands. The crow was seriously injured, one wing bent far out of shape and the other nearly shredded.
Its feathers were the same inky black as my nails. Its chest rose and fell rapidly, my touch inducing panic despite my good intentions. The bird’s tiny eye rolled, assessing the threat I posed.
I cooed to the bird in an attempt to reassure it. It squirmed uncomfortably, trying to lift its rigid wings. The creature was breathing hard as its feet scraped against the inside of my hands.
Its thick beak snapped down on the supple skin of my curled hand, and in my shock, I lost my grip on the bird. It tumbled, one wing flapping tirelessly in an attempt to slow its descent.
It hit the ground and was still. I looked to the bird and then to my bleeding hand, feeling a low pang in my stomach. Some things couldn’t be helped.
I looked up, surprised to hear my name in the middle of the forest. A couple of my classmates stood a few feet from me, beer cases and sleeping bags in hand.
Technically, they weren’t my classmates anymore; I had graduated from high school two weeks prior. The group eyed me warily.
Britt Aiken noticed the crow at my feet. “Did you just kill that bird?”
I looked down at the crow and back at the group. If I said no, it was unlikely they’d believe me. If I said yes, they would freak. So I said nothing.
Britt’s boyfriend, Kale, looked to my hand and frowned. “She’s got blood on her hands, do you think she…?”
“It fell,” I said.
Britt raised an eyebrow, and her friend, Amanda, did the same. “Fell from where? Did it fall before or after you snapped its neck?”
I felt my eyes sting and began to blink rapidly, hoping to keep the tears from falling. I had thought, stupidly thought, that I would never have to see my classmates after graduating.
At the time, I forgot that we all lived in the same, small town.
“I was trying to help the bird, but it bit me, and I dropped it.”
“So you did kill it?” Kale said. “You let the thing fall to its death.”
“I—no—” I fumbled for words, too upset that they were trying to twist my intentions. I had only wanted to help the bird, I hadn’t wanted it to die.
“She was probably going to use its body for a freaky sacrifice or blood call or something,” Amanda said. “Her mom is into all that stuff, you know.”
She was most likely referring to my mother’s amateur fortune reading and her supernatural shop in town.
“What were you going to do, Morda? Summon the Devil?”
I was flushed and numb. “No, I wanted to help it.”
Britt tugged on Kale’s sweater, her eyes large and round as she stared at me.
Kale brushed her off, grinning. “Help it? Help it die so it could help you speak to the dead? Your mom is a witch, right? So aren’t you one too?”
Embarrassment was desensitizing me. “N-no.”
“You’re just a freak,” Amanda sneered. “You’ve always been a freak. The way you dress, the way you walk, the way you speak.” Britt’s mouth was hanging open now, her skin rapidly paling.
“I was just trying to help,” I said, too defeated to sound defensive.
Kale laughed, opening his mouth wide enough to see his straight, white teeth. I remembered when he had braces, acne, and fifty pounds of baby weight clinging to his frame.
I remembered playdates with him, and I remembered the times we ran from bullies together. Clearly, he had forgotten.
Britt was clawing at Kale now, desperate for his attention. Her gaze, which I had previously thought to be on me, I now realized was fixated behind me.
Kale ignored her, but I couldn’t. The look in her eyes was raising the small hairs on the back of my neck.
“RUN!” Britt screamed, dropping the case of beer onto the forest floor. A few bottles shattered, soaking Britt and Kale in beer.
Kale looked down at his soaked pant leg, and then he saw whatever was behind me. He didn’t hesitate before taking off.
Britt sprinted behind Kale while Amanda was a second slower. When she caught sight of what was behind me, she turned, tripping slightly before taking off into a run.
My breathing had spiked, and my stomach had migrated south.
I took a long breath, attempting to calm myself before I died from fright. Slowly, I turned around. For one aching moment, my eyes frantically scanned the trees. Once I saw them, everything stilled.
Before me were wolves. Five of them. Their tawny eyes were narrowed in assessment. One wolf opened its mouth, exposing canines.
They were breathing hard, their paws scratching the earth as they waited for the command to run.
I took off, and not a second later the wolves were after me.
I sprinted after the others, crashing through the forest without any care for the inhabitants. I ducked under branches and clipped trees, rubbing my skin raw where I caught the bark too roughly.
I tripped over exposed roots but hurtled forward, desperate to escape the yips and barks behind me.
I caught up to the others quickly. They were having a harder time navigating the woods than I was. The wolves were close behind, letting out sharp sounds every few moments to send us into a panic.
Flustered was better than focused when it came to prey.
I quickly overtook the others, moving too fast to feel pity for Amanda who was sobbing. Kale was right behind me, his breath heavy and labored. I felt his fingers brush my back and panicked, running faster.
My shins slammed into a fallen log, but before I could be thrown forward from the momentum, Kale grabbed the back of my shirt and ripped me backward.
My back and head hit the forest floor hard, blacking out my vision for a moment before Kale was all that I saw. He was looming over me, tears and snot streaming down his dirty face.
“I’m sorry, Morda,” he panted, “but it’s you or us.”
“KALE!” Britt screamed.
Kale looked up, catching sight of the wolves only a few moments behind us. “Fuck,” he panted.
He looked back down at me, a moment of indecision engulfed him before he gritted his teeth and swore again. “I’m sorry.”
Kale took off running, catching up to Britt who was tiny and Amanda who was stumbling with ease. I pressed my face into the black earth and sobbed once. This was it.
All I could smell was sweat and dirt and moss.
I heard the wolves’ footsteps now. The pack was close, and the hunt was almost over. I opened my eyes and spotted a bush a few feet away.
I fumbled around for a split second with hope before I threw myself forward, half crawling and half rolling until I was underneath the bush completely.
I pressed one side of my face into the dirt and held my breath as the wolves broke through the last bit of thick forest behind me.
They had slowed down their pace, walking around the area where my scent and Kale’s was strong.
My hands were shaking, so I pressed them underneath me. I could barely see anything with the bush’s leaves obstructing my vision, but I did see the paws of a wolf as it stopped just in front of me.
I held my breath. Without the sound of my breathing, the frantic rhythm of my heart was roaring. My entire body was quivering out of both terror and tension. My eyes were stinging, but I couldn’t blink.
The wolf paced around the small space, muzzle dropping to the ground as it attempted to sniff me out.
I bit down on my tongue, hard enough to draw blood. I was sure if I were to release the pressure, I would cry out in hysterics.
In the near distance, a wolf howled. I watched as the wolf in front of me stiffened and then howled back. A moment later, it took off in the direction Britt, Kale, and Amanda had been running.
I waited until I couldn’t hear the footsteps of the wolves anymore, until the forest was silent. I let go of the breath I had been holding, and blood spilled from my lips.
I reached a shaking hand to wipe my chin, my chest heaving.
I reached out my shaking fingers and dug them into the earth before pulling myself out from under the bush. Low branches and twigs caught my hair and clothes, scraping my bare arms and exposed back.
The forest was growing rapidly darker as I sat up in the pathway, breathing hard and blinking excessively in an attempt to dislodge the pain behind my eyes.
Kale’s attack had done a number on my tailbone and skull.
I went rigid as another howl cut through the still forest, echoing off the trees and making it impossible to tell where it came from. Unlike the first howl, no other wolves seemed keen on replying.
I stood up and hastily shook the dirt from my clothing. I looked around, spinning slowly while scanning the tree line as I looked for a familiar marker.
I had spent a lot of time in this forest, but it was large, and I had run into a territory that was unfamiliar to me.
I felt my heartbeat pick back up as I began to panic. I had no idea where the others were, or where the pack was for that matter, and I was sure there were other predators in this part of the forest.
I crossed my arms across my chest as the sun started its steep descent. It seemed like hours had passed since I held the bird in my hands, but in reality, it couldn’t have been more than one.
Thinking back, it was hard to remember why I was in the forest at all.
Hadn’t I been sent by my mother and aunt to pick up some sort of flower in bloom? Hadn’t I wanted to take a few pictures for my portfolio?
I suddenly realized I had no idea where I had left my backpack. I spun around once more and then finally decided on a path.
I had no idea if I was traveling in the right direction, I just figured it was best to keep moving.
I didn’t even get one step before I heard the screaming. The sound stopped me cold as every inch of my body seized. It was unmistakably a man’s scream, and it wasn’t far away by the sound of it.
The screams were long and drawn out, varying in pitch and volume. Whoever was screaming was definitely in pain.
Shivers shot up my spine as the screaming turned into a low, anguished moan and then a pathetic whimper that sounded like a plea.
A bout of nausea hit me as I put it together. The wolves had caught Kale. I started running toward the screaming. My mind told me to help him.
But I only made it a few steps before I slowed. The screaming had already stopped. It would be too late.
I could only hope that Kale’s capture meant Amanda’s and Britt’s escape.
A moment later, I was retching.
“Are you okay?”
I straightened as my heart lodged in my throat. A few feet away, a tall man in jeans and a ripped T-shirt was staring at me.
He looked to be around six feet three, but in the dim light that was all I could make out.
I was too freaked out to be embarrassed of the vomit beside me and too paranoid to reply. I backpedaled instead, taking a few rushed steps backward.
I nearly lost my balance, and the man took a few steps toward me, hands out almost as if he meant to catch me.
“Are you lost?”
It didn’t make sense to me. Who hiked at this time? Better yet, who hiked alone at this time without any gear in an area known to be filled with predators?
The man’s gaze was steady, but there was something else moving behind his eyes. For some reason, I got the distinct feeling that I was being studied.
“You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
“Why are you?”
The man raised an eyebrow. Perhaps he thought I was mute. “I heard screaming,” the man said. “I was pulled off the trail by it. I ran into you first.”
His story made sense, but there was still something off.
“There were wolves.”
“Wolves?” he repeated, his voice low and unbelieving. “I didn’t know there were wolves in this area.” I swallowed hard but said nothing.
The man didn’t look over his shoulder or fidget, which struck me as odd. Wouldn’t that be your first instinct when you found out something dangerous could be afoot? “We should head back to the trail.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
The man scoffed. “Would you rather stay here by yourself?”
Tears filled my eyes. “I—I—”
My garbled speech changed the man’s face. “Did you know the person who was screaming?” he asked. I nodded. “Do you think… do you think he was caught by the wolves?”
The man was silent for a long moment before he resolved himself and took another step toward me. I didn’t move.
“Let’s get back to the path and head into town, we can call the rangers and let them handle it. If someone’s hurt, we should get help.”
“There were two other girls,” I said.
“Okay,” the man said, moving toward me again. “Okay, we can help them.” Tentatively, the man placed a hand on my arm. As soon as he touched me, I felt like I was thrown completely off balance.
I felt a rush of blood in my head, similar to the feeling of moving too quickly right after waking up from a long night’s sleep.
The feeling lasted for a brief moment before I felt a snap in my mind that centered me. The experience left me with an odd feeling.
Beside me, the man had gone completely rigid. All of a sudden, I was aware of his scent.
He was musky smelling, not in an unpleasant or overpowering way, it was just heavy enough to allow me to be aware of it. Pine and dirt and some sort of wood I couldn’t identify.
“Your name,” the man suddenly demanded. Even his voice sounded different, lower and more sultry.
“Morda,” I answered. He made no comment. The man’s touch was gentle as he led me through the forest. He knew his way surprisingly well for someone who had only strayed from the path by chance.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that there was much more to this stranger than he was sharing.
Within a few minutes, we were back on the path. It was just in time too because the sun had dipped below the horizon, leaving us in near complete darkness.
When we were on the trail, the man released the grip he had on my arm but allowed his fingertips to graze my back as we walked.
He said very little, only warned me about low-slung branches and thick roots underfoot. He was confident in the woods, that much was obvious.
Horrible images came to mind as stories I’d heard in the past were whispered in my ear. My heart rate spiked, and my palms began to sweat as I thought of rapists and serial killers.
The man looked down at me sharply, his dark eyebrows coming together in question. Some irrational part of me feared for a moment that he could read my mind.
Of course, this was absurd, but I couldn’t help the thought.
“Are you worried about something?”
I took a few deep breaths as discreetly as I could. A lifetime of anxiety wasn’t helping me calm down any faster. “No,” I answered, “I’m just in shock, I guess.”
“How far did they chase you?”
I looked up at him. “How did you know they chased me?”
“I just assumed,” he replied.
I didn’t say any more. I just focused on the path in front of me. It was getting harder for me to see clearly, and I was starting to feel the stress and fatigue weigh on my bones.
I was sure that as soon as I was alone, I would break down.
We walked for another ten minutes before I began to recognize where we were. As soon as we got to familiar territory, I was able to relax a little.
At least if the man decided to attack me, I’d know where to run.
Another few minutes down the trail, and I saw the dead bird.
“Stop here.” I moved toward the bird and past it, stepping over broken glass before fetching my backpack from the tree I had stashed it underneath.
I rifled through its contents quickly, making sure all my belongings were in place.
“We’d better get going,” the man said.
I nodded and rejoined him. I started walking but quickly realized the man had fallen out of step beside me. When I looked back, he was staring into the forest, back the way we had come.
He wasn’t facing me, so I couldn’t read his expression, but I was sure I saw him shake his head slightly.
He turned and headed toward me, placing a hand on the small of my back to propel me forward. I watched his face as we walked, but he never met my gaze.
When his touch was gone, I imagined he had left a burning handprint on my skin.
“Just through here,” he mumbled lowly.
We pushed through the last collection of trees and emerged in a large field just outside of Roseburg.
We were on a slight hill that allowed us to see the town in its entirety, which wasn’t much in comparison to most settlements.
“Come on,” the man said, “the faster we move, the better for your friends.”
I shivered as I remembered the tortured screaming and started after the man.
He walked through town far more cautiously than he had in the woods. He was constantly scanning the area around him as if he was nervous.
We passed by my mother’s empty shop on our way to the police station. I looked in as we passed, finding no comfort in the dark space. Just beyond my mother’s shop was the police station.
Roseburg was too small to have separate headquarters for the police and rangers, so their departments had been merged into one.
We reached the station fairly quickly due to the man’s brisk pace.
I could only wonder why he chose to use this pace on the streets of Roseburg, the quietest town in Oregon, and not in the woods where a teenager had almost certainly been hunted by a pack of wolves.
“Let me do the explaining,” the man said lowly, “you’ve had a fright and don’t know what you’ve seen.”
Before I could say anything, the man opened the door to the station and ushered me inside, setting me down in a seat by the door before heading toward the front desk.
As far as I could tell, the man behind the desk was the only soul in the building. Everything shut down relatively early in Roseburg; we had an older population that tended to settle before the sun did.
“We were in the woods and saw a group of teens stumbling around in the dark. We saw smashed beer bottles and think they may have drunk a little too much.
“You know how kids are when they get a hold of their dad’s stash. Anyway, it’s awfully dark, and they were pretty far gone. I think it’d be a good idea to send a few guys into the woods after them.”
I stood up, ready to object, but the man sent me a harsh glare. For the first time, I was able to get a good look at him. He was tall, maybe six feet two now that I saw him in the light.
He had broad shoulders and a tapered waist. His hair was near black, his eyes a tawny hazel. His nose was strong but crooked, obviously it had seen some damage in the past.
He had no visible scars on his face as far as I could tell, but I had caught sight of puckered flesh on his upper arm.
The man turned back to the officer on duty, reminding me that he had forgotten to mention the wolves.
Shouldn’t the rangers be notified of the pack? Shouldn’t they know to carry weapons? And what about Kale and the screaming? Wasn’t that an important detail to disclose?
“I need a name, sir, for reference,” the officer said.
The man nodded and cleared his throat. “Steve,” he said, “Steve Bartley.”
“Thank you, Steve. I’ll get some rangers out there right away. Have yourself a good night.” Steve turned and started toward me but then stopped and faced the officer again.
“How will I know if anything’s happened to them?” he asked. “I just need peace of mind is all.”
“Watch the news,” the officer said grimly, “if you hear about them, then it’s likely bad news. If you don’t, they’re home safe.”
“Thank you, officer,” Steve said. “Have a good night.” Steve walked straight for me and helped me up, shushing my protests, and I was all but pushed out of the door.
I turned on him as soon as we were on the sidewalk, fully intending to berate him and then storm back into the station.
“Why didn’t you tell him the whole story?” I asked.
“That is the whole story,” Steve said mildly. “At least that is all that matters.”
“You don’t think the wolves are worth mentioning?” I questioned.
“No, I don’t.”
“What if they go out there unarmed and the wolves attack them? You should have told him about Kale, you should have warned him of the possibility of finding—” I stopped and bent over as nausea overwhelmed me.
The possibility of finding a half-eaten corpse.
“Morda?” he questioned, his voice rising in pitch. I felt his hand on my back and closed my eyes as the nausea swelled. “Are you okay? What’s wrong? Do I need to take you to a hospital?”
“No, Steve,” I said weakly, “I just need to go home.”
“My name isn’t Steve,” Steve-not-Steve said.
I looked up, sure that my face was a hue of green. “What?”
“I didn’t want the officer to have my real name.”
“Ben Harlow,” he answered. I toyed with this in my mind. It definitely suited him better.
I straightened, placing a hand on my stomach as I steadied my gaze on him. “Well, Ben, I think we should go back in there and come clean. We have to tell him the honest truth.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ben argued. “All you’ll do is freak them out.
“How many rangers are honestly going to want to leave their beds in the middle of the night to look for some stupid drunk teenagers if they know they’re putting their own lives on the line?
“I know we like to think our authority is made of strong stuff, but they aren’t. They’ll just fuck around until morning. Besides, your friend isn’t dead, and the wolves aren’t hanging around anymore.”
“How do you know that?” I demanded.
“Wolves are quick killers, they take animals down in seconds. Those screams, they were far too drawn out. Didn’t you hear that last howl? The one that the other wolves didn’t answer?
“That must’ve been some sort of retreat howl since they didn’t rally around it. I bet you the wolves gave up once they were outside of the territory line.” Ben shrugged.
“Besides, if the wolves were feeding, you would hear growling. I didn’t hear any of that.”
I nodded, everything Ben was saying made perfect sense. Except one thing. “I thought you didn’t know about the wolves.”
Ben froze, his tawny eyes widening. His mouth fell open slightly as his entire face became tense. “I…,” he started but had nothing to add. “I just…”
“What aren’t you telling me?”
Ben cleared his throat and moved away from me, eyes suddenly avoiding mine completely. “I’m sure you can get home from here. Good night, Morda.”
I watched as he hurried down the street and disappeared from view. If I was smart, I would forget about this night, forget about the wolves, forget about him. But I had never been able to stay away.
I just couldn’t leave it alone.