He started talking as soon as he pulled away from the curb, as if he knew she could understand him. He had a soothing voice and she figured it would lull her to sleep before long so she tuned it out. A nap would be nice but she needed to stay alert or she might not wake up in time to make her escape.
She jolted when he said, “We’ll make a quick stop at the office so I can bandage that wound and get some supplies then we’ll head up into the mountains.”
What? Why were they going up into the mountains? She didn’t need a hike, she needed medical attention.
“It’ll be a long trek and we’ll probably get where we’re going at the wrong time but we can set up camp nearby. I’ll need to fast and prepare my spirit before we head for the lake anyway or I won’t be able to find it. We’ll should get there at sunrise anyway since that’s the best time for this.”
The lake? Any lakes up in the mountains were surely still mostly frozen over right now. What good would a half frozen lake do her? And what the hell did sunrise have to do with it? Just what exactly was he planning on doing to her?
Shit, she should’ve run before because it looked like she’d jumped literally out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Oh, God, she wanted her grandmother.
“I can take you to her, but she can’t do anything to help you now except maybe calm you down a little bit.”
Whoa, wait a minute could he read her mind? Did he actually know what she was and how to help her? That was impossible. No one outside of her own family knew about the curse she lived under, no one, except possibly the Cherokee Shaman her grandmother occasionally consulted on matters pertaining to the shift.
Nana called him A-da-nv-do Ga-no-ha-li-do-hi, the Spirit Hunter in Cherokee, but Lyssa had always thought it was nothing more than another of her grandmother’s legends.
Could she have stumbled onto the one person in the universe that could help her figure this out? And that wouldn’t be put off by her freakish ability? She couldn’t be that lucky, could she?
“Try to relax and get your spirit to a place of peace. You need to trust me and keep your mind open. If your mind isn’t open, this will never work.”
Okay, it seemed he could understand her so she might as well take advantage of the situation and ask some questions. What will never work?
“Atagahi, the medicine lake. The Cherokee call it the Enchanted Lake and you’re right, there are many legends about it. Most say it doesn’t exist or it dried up a long time ago because no human has ever seen it, but it’s there. I’ve seen it and even used it a couple of times to heal my animal friends.”
The Enchanted Lake, she remembered hearing the legend at some point in her life but she couldn’t recall many of the details except that the lake was hidden deep in the Smoky Mountains where people couldn’t find it and if they went looking the lake disguised itself as a nothing more than a dry flat clearing in the forest. The animals knew about it and also knew if they were sick or wounded they could simply swim from one side to the other at sunrise and they’d be healed. But it wouldn’t work for people and though she could shift into a wolf, she was still mostly a human being. At least she considered herself more human than wolf.
He interrupted her thoughts, asking, “Have you tried to shift since the car hit you?”
Oh, man, not only did he know what she was, he absolutely could read her mind.
“Don’t let it worry you, I promise I won’t trespass on any of your deepest or most private thoughts. I only want to help you but if you prefer, when we get to the clinic, I can take the bullet out, bandage your leg, put on a splint if you need it and send you on your way. Is that what you want me to do?”
Good question. She didn’t have an answer so she asked one of her own. Who are you?
He laughed. “Yeah, I guess I should introduce myself. My name is Alex Hunt. I’m a veterinarian. I specialize in working with wild animals, rescuing them, treating them if needed, and after they’re well again, getting them back to their original habitat. I’m sort of the go-to guy for the Asheville PD where wildlife is concerned. I’ve known your grandmother for a number of years now and I’ve also treated her at times. You might say Miss Marcilene set me on the right path.”
He knew her grandmother’s name and the fact that he called her Miss Marcilene was possibly a sign that he was a friend of hers since that was how most of her friends addressed her. But was that enough reason to trust him? She didn’t have a clue so she went back to what he’d just told her.
Treated Nana for what? No, wait; first tell me about the right path, what does that mean?
“It’s a little hard to explain but the Cherokee believe every person has a certain path in life to walk. Mine seems to be medicine but I didn’t know that until I met your grandmother and she was kind enough to help me find my direction. You have a path too, everybody does, but I don’t think you’ve found yours yet. I mean, singing is good, all music is good, but you should be making your own music, not imitating someone who came before you.”
I make good money and it’s the only job I could find that let me work around the shift. Besides, who’s to say this isn’t my path? I’m lucky enough to look a lot like Freddie Mercury, who I consider a god, by the way, and I love his music so why shouldn’t I make my living impersonating him?
“Because you have gifts of your own, I’ve heard you sing and I think you’re as good as, if not better, than Freddie Mercury. Don’t you want to share your gifts with the world?” He hesitated. “Never mind, we can talk about that later. I’m not here to judge you or preach to you. Let’s just say the path is there for you to find if you look for it, Lyssa. Next question?”
As good as Freddie Mercury, yeah, right. She might look incredibly like him with the same high cheekbones and dark eyes, but her singing voice when she wasn’t imitating her idol was adequate at best.
“No more questions?”
Oh, yeah, why did you have to treat Nana?
“Miss Marceline was a wild one in her day, always getting into fights with the other wolves and those fights often resulted in some sort of injury. She came to me after her last, covered with scrapes and a bite wound in her throat that was bleeding profusely. I treated her and was able to get her back. Thank goodness she’s calmed down a little as she gets older.”
She couldn’t hold back the question any longer. How did you know what I am? Or who I am, for that matter?
“You smell like your grandmother.”
Oh, well, okay, that answered that. I smell like my grandmother?
“Yes, you do and it also helps that I am—or was—a shape-shifter too. Like recognizes like, you might say.”
She couldn’t think of anything to say to that. He was a shape-shifter but he wasn’t now? She’d never met any other shape-shifters except her grandmother and her mother. Well, actually, she’d only met her grandmother. Her mother had committed suicide when Lyssa was just a baby, right after she’d found out that she’d passed on the shifter gene to her daughter.
“Have you made up your mind yet?”
Made up my mind about what?
“We’re here, at my clinic. Do you want me to take the bullet out and let you go or are you going to trust me to get you to Atagahi?”
If you can get the bullet out why would I want to go all the way to some lake I’m not even sure exists?
“I guess I forgot to mention it, but if you get to the Enchanted Lake and can swim from one side to the other, it’ll also cure you of your other problem.”
What other problem? All I’ve got is a bullet wound and if you can fix that I don’t need to go traipsing around the mountains looking for a lake that might or might not be there. The only other problem I have is the headache you’re giving me from talking in circles.
“Plain and simple, in addition to curing the bullet wound, there’s the possibility the lake will also cure you of the ability to shift, but if you don’t consider that a problem maybe I should just remove the bullet, put on a bandage and let you go on your way. It’s your choice, Lyssa.”
Oh my God. She’d thought she’d be a shifter all her life and had never even considered not being one.
“It’s a tough choice, I know, so let me give you one more bit of information; if you’re planning on ever having children, you should go to Atagahi because if you have kids while you’re still a shape-shifter, the chances are very good that the baby will inherit that ability. Do you want to pass that gene along to your children?”
Good point. She hadn’t planned on having children because she didn’t want to pass that particular trait on to an innocent baby. If the water in the lake took the shifting ability away from her, she’d be a normal woman. And who knew, if she was normal, she might meet a normal man, fall in love, get married, and then she’d want children, wouldn’t she?
She knew the answer to that one; most definitely. She’d dreamed of it and in her lowest moments had even considered taking the chance of getting pregnant—until she remembered her mother.
Okay, enchant me, Dr. Hunt.
“Good, Atagahi it is and now that we know each other, please call me Alex. I need to get some camping supplies and I want to bandage that wound before we go. It wasn’t bleeding much back at the nightclub but it may’ve opened up some when I moved you into the crate or on the ride over here. You sit tight. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
The fear of being left alone surprised her. She’d lived her life alone so why should it bother her now? Just another puzzle she could think about later. Right now, she wanted to know something before he left. Wait! Why can’t I open my eyes?
The back door of the van opened. “Hang on.” She heard him rummaging in the area beside the crate. When he touched her face, she jumped.
“Steady now, I’m just going to wipe your eyes so I can get a closer look.”
The cloth was wet and cold but his hands were gentle and it felt good. If she’d been a cat she would’ve started to purr. When he finished, he blew gently on her face then lifted the lid of one eye with a finger and she got her first look at him.
All she could think was, oh wow. His Cherokee ancestors had been very generous in the genes they’d passed along to him. Tall, dark and handsome didn’t even begin to cover it.
“Can you see out of that eye?” he asked.
“Okay, let’s try the other.” He let her eyelid drop back into place then lifted the lid on the other one.
“What about this one?”
When he took his finger away, her eye automatically closed, leaving her in the dark again.
“I’m not sure what’s wrong. How hard did you hit the pavement when you came down from your impromptu flight?”
How the heck should I know? It was hard enough to knock me out for a few minutes I think.
He lifted her eyelid again. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Okay, good, now tell me your full name.”
Alyssa Constance Bergin.
“Your grandmother’s name?”
Mary Marcilene Sanders, but most people call her Miss Marcilene.
“Are you sleepy?”
No, but I am thirsty and I could really go for a steak right now. I like them medium rare.
He let her eye close. “I don’t think I have any steak and you really shouldn’t eat before you swim the lake.”
But I thought you said it would take a while to get there. I may be wrong but a while is plenty of time for the food to digest so I should be okay.
“True, but the lake’s waters work better if you fast first. You might also want to try praying—if you pray. That helps to cleanse the spirit and open the mind so the waters can heal you.”
Oh, okay. I don’t have a lot of experience with praying, but I’ll do my best.
He lifted her eyelid again. “Good. What about allergies, are you allergic to any food or medication?”
Not that I know of.
“Did you eat or drink anything tonight, anything that you don’t normally eat or drink?”
Oh, God, the alcohol, she’d forgotten about that. When the shift started and I couldn’t control it, I grabbed what I thought was a bottle of water and drank almost half of it before I realized it wasn’t water.
“What was it?”
I’m not sure but it was some kind of alcohol. That’s something else I don’t have a lot of experience with. It could’ve been vodka or gin or moonshine. All I know is it was strong and tasted awful.
“You don’t drink normally?”
No, I tried it when I was in college but didn’t like the taste or the way it made me feel so I never developed the habit, so to speak.
He laughed. “Shame more people can’t say the same. We’d better get going. You’re not in any danger out here, but just to be safe, I’m going to lock the doors on the van while I go inside and get my bag and some other things. Okay?”
Thank goodness she didn’t have to actually speak because her heart had jumped and lodged firmly in her throat when he’d laughed. Oh man. He had a smile that could take the place of the moon on a Black Moon night.
I’m fine, go on and do what you need to do.
When he shut the door and locked it, her heart started beating again and dropped from her throat to her stomach. Oh man, indeed.
She ignored it as best she could and concentrated on trying to get her eyes to open but her brain wouldn’t cooperate, it kept going back to that smile and the husky sound of his laughter.
It didn’t seem any time at all before he came back. He beeped the lock then opened the door. “I’ve got some water here but you’d better drink it before we leave because it’ll probably end up all over you if you don’t. The bowl is right in front of you.”
God, she hated this and prayed her eyes would open soon. She lowered her head, felt the water touch her nose then lapped some up and wondered if he was watching her.
He must have been because as soon as she raised her head, he said, “I’ve got more if you want it”
No, that’s enough. Do you think my eyes are permanently damaged or something?
“I can’t say for sure. I haven’t treated that many shifters. It could be only a temporary thing or if it is permanent, the waters of Atagahi will probably cure it.”
Another reason to go, I guess.
“Yeah, the waters are miraculous. When I took Miss Marcilene up, she was all but dead. I had to jump in with her and tow her across but by the time we got to the other side she had shifted back to human and all of her wounds were healed. She swam the last fifty feet and climbed out on her own.” He laughed. “She wasn’t too happy about me being there since she was naked when she shifted and she made me keep my eyes closed while she got out of the water and got the towel I’d brought for her.”
For the first time since this crazy adventure, if you could call it that, started, Lyssa smiled. Of course, it was nothing more of a panting curve of her lips but it felt good.
“That’s a nice thing to see,” Alex said. “I usually have that same reaction when I think of that night. Your grandmother is a remarkable woman, Lyssa, but then you probably know that already.”
I do. I don’t know how I would’ve survived this long without her. She taught me everything I needed to know about shifting and used to run with me when I was too small to look out for myself. I wondered why she stopped when I was a teenager but it must have been because you took her to the Enchanted Lake and then she couldn’t shift anymore.
“How old are you?”
He was silent for a minute then said, “Yeah, that would be about right. You would’ve been about seventeen when she made her last run.”
She wouldn’t let me go with her that night and then when she didn’t come home, I thought she’d died or was hurt and couldn’t get back to me. I searched everywhere and when she finally came back two days later, she was fine. I remember telling her if she ever did that again I was going to build a cage and ground her.
He laughed. “Knowing Miss Marcilene, you would’ve had a hell of a time if you ever tried that. We’d better get going.” He’d been bandaging her wound while they talked and she wasn’t sure but she thought he may’ve given her a shot of something because the pain had faded away to a dull ache.
“No, I didn’t give you anything. I would, but since we don’t know what you drank earlier, I don’t think it’d be a good idea. You’re probably just worn out and I imagine the adrenaline flow has subsided now that you’re out of danger. A little nap won’t hurt you. If you’re not awake by the time we get to where we’re going to camp, I’ll wake you as soon as I get everything set up, okay?”
She was too sleepy to say much so she settled for, uh-huh, thanks, and let the drowsiness take over.