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A Shift in the Water – Chapter Two

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Chapter Two

Cade struggled to breathe. The cold wracked his body with tremors. A fire burned deep inside of him, trying to force its way out through his chilled skin. His head throbbed. His eyes were dry, his tongue was thick, and a sour taste filled his mouth. What happened? The vocalization came out as a low whimper, all his wolf could manage. The man existed as a part of the animal, each half of one whole being. He tried to stretch, but lacked the strength. Where was he? The world was gray. His paws were burned and blistered. The coppery scent of his blood filled his nose. He struggled to lift his head. He was prone on a concrete pad no more than fifteen feet long and five feet wide. Outside that pad a dozen feet of dirt in each direction was surrounded by a thick chain-link fence. A farmhouse sat on a short slope with a fire pit outside the door. High stone walls surrounded the entire property. Cade couldn’t see anything outside the walls but sky and a few tall trees. There were no cars driving by, no sounds of civilization, nothing but the chirps and twitters of birds and small animals scurrying about. Dawn was breaking. A weak glow to the east provided his only orientation. Cade could smell the sea, the scorched earth, and a wood stove burning somewhere inside the house. Faint curls of smoke wafted from a chimney on the left side of the structure. He scrambled to his feet, wavered, and fell over again after the first step. Drugs. They’d drugged him. He had to shift back. If he shifted back, his body’s natural regeneration process would cleanse the drugs from his system. Why hadn’t he shifted already? Most unconscious werewolves automatically shifted back into human form. He closed his eyes and reached for his humanity. All he had to do was calm his body and he could shift easily. A spasm slammed into him. The man inside slipped from his grasp. What the hell is happening to me? Shifting was instinctual, especially since he was a werewolf by birth. Two or three calm breaths, a single thought, and the shift would overtake him. It had never failed before. He took a deep breath, but a ball of fire exploded within him. He howled in pain, writhing helplessly on the concrete. Panting, he tried again. At the first twinge in his bones, the fire took over. Time and time again he tried. But only his wolf remained. His head cleared, and though his body was spent, he managed to stand on all fours again. When his front paws touched the dirt, he howled and leapt back. The dirt was scorching. It felt like hard-packed lava. He pulled up his paw and licked the thick pads. They were blistered and raw from the single step. He gingerly tested the dirt all around the concrete. There was no respite from the burning earth. He tried again, leaping as far as he could this time. Eight feet from the pad the dirt was even hotter. He cried out in pain, his voice hoarse and weak as he stumbled back to the safety of the concrete. Blood oozed from his burned paws and the scent of charred flesh soured his stomach. The fall had seared patches of fur and skin from his belly. His pack. Where was his pack? He’d seen them trapped in the apartment fire. Had they perished? Were they somewhere as unforgiving and alone as he was? He howled loud and long, a cry that only his pack would recognize. If any of them were within earshot, they’d return the call. There was only silence. His pack was his life. He shook with anger and fear, their screams and the sickening snap of Bill’s neck pummeling his memories. His family. Gone. All because of one fire elemental who wanted revenge. Cade slept off and on for more than a day, but the fire inside of him never faded. He was used to running hot. But the pulsing heat that consumed his entire being made his one hundred degree core temperature skyrocket. He needed water. The sun beat down on him, intensifying the pain and weakness in his limbs. Was Katerina going to leave him here to die? Bill had been right. Katerina had tracked him down, but why had she brought him here? Why hadn’t she killed him immediately? Cade knew a little about elemental charms. The four elemental components: earth, air, fire, and water, each had their own unique strengths. A fire elemental could reach down into the earth’s core and control the heat from the molten lava. Katerina could suck oxygen from the air, electrify everyday objects, and was immune to flame. Some fire elementals fought fires for a living, but they tried to keep their existence a secret. Men and women hailed as heroes for rescuing those trapped in a seemingly impossible conflagration were often fire elementals who could cool the heat of the flames enough to walk right through them. A water elemental could harness moisture in the air and bodies of water. They often worked to ease droughts, calm flood waters, and purify drinking water in underdeveloped countries. Earth elementals were usually farmers. They needed to maintain contact with the rocks or soil to draw upon their power. They never flew in airplanes and most hated tall buildings. Their magic dampened and insulated, crushed and transformed. Air elementals commanded the wind. They cooled the earth. Many were small plane pilots or spies. Air elementals could hear whispered conversations for half a mile, send their own voices to those far away from them, and even move small objects. If Katerina was behind this—and he couldn’t think of any other explanation—she must have charmed the ground to be as hot as lava and she’d managed to do something to his body to trap him as his wolf. Will the charm fade? Will it kill me? Where did she take me? Cade had no answers, only endless questions. He drifted off to sleep again in the heat of the afternoon only to be woken by an icy blast of water that hit him square in the muzzle. He snarled and leapt to his blistered and bloodied feet. The water chilled his fur. He whined and backed away until he hit the edge of the concrete pad. One foot on the burning earth and he stopped his retreat. He was forced to take the relentless, watery assault. Blind, barely able to breathe through the spray, he prayed to whatever God or Goddess existed, asking to be spared. He wasn’t a religious man, but he wanted to live. The blast slowed to a trickle and a voice rang out, high pitched and bracing. “Drink up, dog. I hope you like the cage you’re in.” Cade shook his head and body, dispelling as much of the water as he could. He growled at the woman standing outside of the steel. She wore jeans and a red sweater. A tight ponytail held her black hair high on her head. Her lips curved into an evil smile. She clutched the industrial fire hose, hooked up to a pipe next to the house. Cade slumped down onto the pad and growled. He had to conserve his strength in case he found a way to attack her. “Not happy? I didn’t think so. You can’t talk or ask questions, so let me fill in a few things for you. You can’t shift. The charm I used keeps your core temperature well over one hundred twenty degrees. Your blood has expanded, your bones have hardened, and your pelt thickened. It won’t fade. I’ve made sure of that. The ground there is also charmed, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. It’s nearly five hundred degrees. Now that was fascinating work. I needed help from my precious Jeremy for that.” Cade whined in a question. He needed to know why. Katerina paced back and forth outside the cage. “We haven’t officially met. My name is Katerina Olmstead and your father killed my mother.” Cade growled, but Katerina hefted the hose again, menacingly. “Don’t give me that, dog. I was there. She was practicing her charms in the desert. A woman should be able to wield fire in the middle of the Mojave without worrying about repercussions. My father was turned into a goddammed werewolf by some bitch in Sacramento. He left us. For the fucking dog who turned him. All my mother wanted was to make him pay, but your precious Caldwell pushed my mother off a cliff.” Caldwell—Cade’s father—had killed Kylie Olmstead—or at least he’d been there when she’d died. He’d confessed his secret to Cade after a night of drinking. Kylie had killed an old werewolf who’d long given up his humanity to live out his last years as a wolf. Caldwell had tried to stop her, but she’d tripped and fell down a cliff, breaking her neck. Caldwell’s confession had come only days before he and Cade parted ways. Cade had only been twenty when Caldwell died. As the alpha of the Barstow pack, Caldwell had expected Cade to follow in his footsteps. Cade didn’t want to lead, and ran away to Seattle to go to college. The day he’d left, father and son had fought. A black eye and a busted lip later, Cade had boarded the train north and had never seen his father again. Cade didn’t believe in regrets, but the memory of that day haunted him. You fucking bitch. I read the police report. Your mother killed a helpless old man, Cade thought. But of course, she couldn’t hear him. Katerina aimed another blast of water at him, but this one was short-lived. “I had to watch her die, you know. He tried to pretend he was sorry. Hell, he even set aside some money for me and my sister when we turned eighteen. I used my share to find someone who could teach me how to harness my fire. And then I used that fire to kill your father. Him and every member of his pathetic pack.” She smiled. Cade bared his teeth. So his father had been killed. “I lost track of you for a long time. I was originally going to kill you too. Burn you alive with the rest of your mongrels. But then I decided that it would be so much better to make you suffer like I did. I couldn’t kill your father when you were twelve. That’s the age I was, you know. That would have been the best plan. But since time travel doesn’t exist, I decided making you suffer was the next best thing. I’ll kill you eventually, but not until I’ve had my fun with you.” Cade got up and limped to the edge of the concrete. His blue-gray eyes narrowed and he growled low in his throat. It was a deadly threat—the only one he could muster. I will kill you if it is the last thing I do. Katerina laughed. “I’m not sure how long I’ll keep you like this. I was thinking as long as I spent in my first foster home. A year? That place was a hell hole. Never enough food, no heat, beaten if I talked back. I wore rags to school. I worked for every scrap of food I got. Your father ripped me and my sister from our mother’s warm embrace and threw me into hell. My precious sister got adopted by a rich family. She’s had a charmed life, apparently. Wants nothing to do with me. Werewolves took my entire fucking family from me. I want you dead, but not until you’ve suffered first. The Goddess has shown me your death at my hand. She loves me, even if my sister doesn’t. So much that she’s shown me such wonders—including the charm that now keeps you trapped.” She turned around and picked up a piece of steak the size of a dinner plate. Cade raised his head. Katerina unlocked the chain-link door, threw the steak with all her might, and relocked the door. The meat landed a few feet away from the concrete pad and immediately started to sizzle. “Well, go get it, dog. It’s all you get for a few days. Wouldn’t want it to turn to charcoal.” Katerina whirled around and stalked back to the house. Cade raced as fast as he could out onto the dirt. A high-pitched wail escaped his lupine mouth as the blisters on his paw pads broke open again, but he soon had the steak in his mouth and sped back to the concrete. Once on the safety of the pad, he dropped the meat in front of him. It was half rancid. Gray, mottled, and disgusting. He sniffed and immediately turned his head away. He couldn’t do it. He took the meat gingerly in his jaws and laid it on the dirt beyond the pad. It sizzled as it cooked. When he feared it was about to turn black, he snatched it back and gulped it down. He lapped up the water that had gathered in pools on the concrete. He had to stay alive so his pack—if they lived—could find him. After the sun went down, Cade curled up in the center of the pad. His mind wandered. He’d been a wolf now for at least two days. He’d never suppressed the man he was for so long. What would happen to him? Would he ever see his pack again? His woodworking shop? His paws itched. Memories swirled. His hands running over intricate whorls and cuts in cedar, the scent of wood dust in his nose. The last project he’d worked on was a carved headboard for his elderly neighbor, Maggie. She was close to eighty and had taken to bringing Cade casseroles a few times a month. Her husband had passed several years ago and Cade kept an eye on her place at night. Who would look after her now? Perhaps it was foolish to worry about a neighbor when he was trapped in his wolf form by a psychotic elemental. But Cade had to grab hold of anything he could to remember the man he once was. It rained that night—a summer storm that whipped pine needles and leaves against Cade’s pelt. The wind howled through the trees. He couldn’t sleep. He paced. Every step was agony on his blistered paws, but the pain kept him focused. He had to find a way out.

~~~

Mara shivered in the thin blue hospital gown. I’m going to have to talk to Sheila about ratcheting up the temp in here, she thought. The paper spread out on the hard examination table rustled beneath her as she tried to get comfortable. It was no use. Doctors and nurses made terrible patients. Her fingers and toes were pale, the nail beds almost blue. Mara blew on her hands. Her fingers trembled. It was nothing. It had to be. The flu. Mono. It couldn’t be anything else. A brisk knock and the click of the door made Mara flinch. The paper rustled again. “Miss Taylor, it’s been a while.” Doctor Pendergast frowned as he read her chart over a pair of half-height spectacles balanced on his sharp nose. “Headaches, blurry vision, dizziness, weakness, loss of appetite. These are serious symptoms.” “Are you going to chastise me or examine me?” Mara asked. “Both. How long has this been going on?” Doctor Pendergast set down Mara’s chart and palpated her lymph nodes. “Slightly swollen,” he mused. The stethoscope was cold against her back. “Breathe in,” he said. She was quiet while he listened to her lungs. “Well?” “I’ve had this my whole life. Off and on. Doctors could never find anything. But it never lasted this long before.” “How long do the symptoms usually last?” Mara bit her lip. The doctor’s pale blue eyes pierced her. “A few days. A week at most.” “And how long has it been this time?” He held the stethoscope and cocked an eyebrow. “Six weeks,” Mara said, dropping her eyes. She shouldn’t have let it go this far, but her job left her little free time. As a neonatal nurse, she often worked ten or twelve hour shifts. By the time she got her daily swim in, she was rarely home. The only reason she was here now was that she’d passed out at the nurses’ station three days ago and her supervisor insisted she have an exam before her next shift. “Breathe in and out again.” The stethoscope moved to her chest. “It used to only happen when it was hot, but lately, it’s been constant. It’s why I moved up to Washington in the first place. Sacramento was way too hard in the summers. I lived in the pool.” She wanted to laugh, to babble, but the doctor shone a light down her throat and then into her eyes. “Well, we’ll run some tests. A full blood workup, maybe a CT scan. Vitamins?” “C, D, and B12. I don’t smoke, never have more than two drinks a night, four drinks or less a week. I have too much coffee, but caffeine never really seemed to affect me. I really like the taste. I don’t do any illegal drugs, I swim two miles nearly every day, and I love vegetables.” Mara knew she was rambling again. But she did everything right. She had ever since her adoptive mother had died. Wendy’s heart attack had frightened her. Before that, she’d existed on her mother’s fried chicken, creamed spinach, and bread for weeks at a time. If she’d known her biological mother, she could have turned to her for answers about her mysterious condition, but she’d died when Mara was just a baby. She had a sister, a dozen years her senior, but the only time the two had met, Mara had kicked her out of her family’s house. The woman was a bitch. “Relax, Miss Taylor. You’re at a healthy weight, your last routine physical showed nothing out of the ordinary and your blood pressure is stellar. Likely this is exhaustion or some sort of hormone imbalance. Pregnancies, children?” “No. Neither.” “Sexually active?” “Not in a long time. Years. My ex-fiancé cheated on me and so I had a full STD workup not long after that.” Doctor Pendergast examined under her arms, her stomach, and returned his attentions to her neck. “I don’t like how your nodes feel. But it could be a touch of the flu. You’re a nurse, right?” “Neonatal.” “Okay. You should take a few days off until we make sure it’s not anything contagious. But other than that, try to relax. Here’s a lab sheet. Take this down to the basement and they’ll draw your blood. Then go home and rest.” Doctor Pendergast patted Mara’s arm, handed her the lab sheet and walked out, leaving her alone. Mara shivered again. This wasn’t the flu. She’d dealt with these symptoms for years, but they’d always gone away quickly provided she could get into the pool or out into the rain. Lately, neither of those cures had done a damn thing. Her thirtieth birthday had come and gone and all of a sudden, her body went batshit crazy. She hopped off the table and winced as the cold floor froze her toes. After she dressed, she took the sky bridge over to the hospital and up to the neonatal ward. She knew she wasn’t contagious, but she did want a week off and the doctor’s orders would be the perfect excuse. A short talk with her direct supervisor to secure her vacation days and six vials of blood later, Mara slid behind the wheel of her Prius. It was only a twenty minute drive home, but the thought of staying awake that long made her head hurt. She rolled up the windows, turned on the air conditioning full blast, and cranked up the radio. Great Big Sea’s pounding drums kept her company on the short drive. She pulled into her garage and rolled her head around, cracking her neck as the door shut behind her. A nap. She could really do with a nap.

~~~

First thing the next morning, Mara filled her thermos with coffee, packed a few changes of clothing, her wetsuit, goggles, swim cap, and her Kindle. Ninety minutes later, she pulled into the ferry line. She’d be swimming by noon. Even the thought of getting back into the icy waters of Puget Sound had her heart beating faster and a smile curving her lips. She loved swimming off of Orcas Island. The water was a lot cleaner than the waters around Seattle and the beaches were always deserted on the north side. May in Seattle was cool, breezy, and a bit rainy, though they’d had an unseasonably hot spate of days last week. Today, the skies were gray. The tourist season on Orcas didn’t start until for another few weeks. Mara booked a room with a fireplace and a view of the water. She spent the ferry ride bundled up in a blanket, face pressed to the glass so she could see the waves. The moment she drove off the ferry, she felt better. Her exhaustion started to abate. Her hands steadied. She wasted next to no time in her hotel room. She shed her clothes and yanked on her wetsuit. The beach was only fifty steps from the door. Carefully, she tucked her long red braid into the swim cap. The goggles sat on top of her head. Tugging her water booties on, she wiggled her toes. A smile broke out on her face. She couldn’t help it. Everything about this day was perfect. Everything except for the dark pall of a serious illness hanging over her head. But she wasn’t going to dwell on that now. She was alive and in moments, she’d be gliding through the water, free and happy. The tiny waves that lapped against the shore carried a faint tune to her ears. Did someone nearby have a radio? Mara closed her eyes and tried to listen, to pick out the source of the notes that coalesced into a comforting song as she stood with her toes in the water. After a few minutes, despite turning, listening, and turning again, she’d been unable to discern where the sound was coming from. “It’s pretty,” she murmured. Like home. Long swims, room service, and plenty of sleep usually restored Mara’s energy. But three days later, she felt only marginally better. Wrapped in a blanket out on the patio, she hummed that same tune she’d heard her first afternoon here. She felt lighter now. Until the shrill ring of the phone disrupted the peaceful evening. “Hello?” “Mara Taylor?” Doctor Pendergast’s voice spiked Mara’s heart rate. “Yes.” “I have your blood work back and I’d like to schedule a time for you to come in and talk with me.” Mara’s stomach flipped. If it had been the flu, the doctor would have told her over the phone. “Okay. Can you tell me anything now?” “I’d rather you come in. We need to run some more tests. How’s tomorrow at two?” “Doctor, please. I’m a nurse. I’m not going to sleep, eat, or think straight until you can tell me something. I know how this all goes. If it was the flu, you’d tell me. So it must be something serious.” Mara fiddled with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The doctor paused. Papers rustled. “Your blood work showed some highly irregular results. Both your red and white blood cell counts are low. Your white blood cells are slightly denatured. I need to run another round of tests and I want to give you a transfusion. The good news is that you’re not contagious. You’re of no danger to your patients, friends, or family. But until I run more tests, I have no idea what it could be and I don’t want to speculate. You don’t have the markers for leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma, but beyond that, I don’t know.” “Okay,” Mara rubbed the back of her neck. “I’ll see you tomorrow at two.” “I’m sorry, Miss Taylor. I wish I had better news for you. But you’re young and you’ve been healthy up until now. You work at one of the best research hospitals in the nation. Whatever this is, we’ll figure it out.” At two the next day, Mara sat across from Doctor Pendergast. He showed her the test results from behind his cherry wood desk. She nodded as she flipped through pages upon pages of numbers. “None of my other doctors reported this sort of thing. Every time I move to a new city, I try again to pinpoint what this is. No one’s ever found anything like this. Usually I get told to up my vitamins and see a sleep specialist or something like that.” “You’re older now.” The doctor held up his hand when Mara narrowed her eyes at him. “I didn’t say you were old. I’m old.” He grinned. Doctor Pendergast was close to sixty. “But perhaps something else has changed. Hormone levels, the IUD, working longer hours . . . it could be anything. But we’ll figure it out. I’m going to admit you for a few hours. I want to run more blood work and give you a transfusion. It won’t fix whatever is causing this, but it’ll make you feel better while we figure it out. It’ll also let me take more blood for testing than a couple of vials. I promise that you’ll be home after dinner.” Doctor Pendergast walked Mara across the sky bridge to the hospital and brought her to the admitting desk. He handed off her paperwork personally and patted her shoulder. “I’ve known your supervisor Petra for ten years. She speaks very highly of you. We’ll figure this out. I promise.”

~~~

Two days later, Mara met with the doctor again. “I wish I had better news for you.” He went on to explain that Mara’s body was attacking her own blood. Something they couldn’t isolate was devouring her red blood cells. The transfusion had nearly erased her symptoms, but the doctor didn’t think that it would last. “We can keep up regular transfusions for a while, but I’ve never seen anything like this and neither have any of my colleagues. Something is killing your active red blood cells and that’s why you’re so tired. The red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. Your blood has about twenty percent fewer healthy red blood cells than it should. That’s twenty percent less oxygen. It explains the exhaustion, your blue nail beds, and the dizziness.” Mara listened, but when he told her that her second blood test showed even more of a decrease in healthy cells than the first, her brain simply shut down. All she could think of was that she was getting worse. “Mara? Mara? Are you listening to me?” Doctor Pendergast touched her arm and she flinched. “Sorry. What?” She rubbed her eyes. “I’m not giving up on this. Neither should you.” He presented her with a treatment plan that involved weekly blood tests, transfusions whenever her red blood cell count dipped below a certain threshold, and a few supplements. He cleared her for work, but no more than forty hours a week. He tried to convince her to give up her daily swims, but she couldn’t possibly dream of it. She’d give up work and live on the streets before she’d give up swimming. She only felt truly healthy when she was in the water.

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