How much can one person sacrifice?
After drowning in the Bermuda Triangle, waking up mated to a supernatural Changer, and being thrust into an entirely different world than she’s always known, Natasha has lost her way. Separated from Raif, her soul mate, she has no one to turn to. In her quest to gain control over her new Changer abilities, she seeks out Stephan—a vampire and the most powerful supernatural creature on earth—to show her the ropes.
After leaving her family and human life behind, Natasha is determined to learn what it means to be Atlantean—which proves to be more staggering every day. Stephan guides her to embrace her Changer side and find her strength, which she’ll need when an ancient prophecy turns her into a target, and she learns there’s more to her relationship with Raif than she could have imagined.
Caught between the Atlantean race and the life she gave up, Natasha continues to make sacrifices no one should ever be asked to make.
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About the Author
In addition to the Origins of the Supernaturals series, she is the author of the award-winning Zombie War, which received the 2015 USA Best Book Awards for Fiction: Horror.
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I was running. The waning crescent moon was my only companion. I knew my tiger's body was not a form I should be in — far too conspicuous — but it was currently my favorite. I liked the playful independence of the tiger, the way this body moved, and the coloring of my pelt. I kept to the depths of the mountain forest to cover my bright orange stripes. I stalked until the call of the open field was too much. There was something about the open fields that seemed to ignite a childlike feeling of contentment. It was a feeling I'd been desperately seeking for weeks. I knew playing in the open field was dangerous, but right now, I didn't care about the consequences.
I would allow myself a few pounces before slinking back into the protection of the surrounding forest. I dug my front paws into the dirt, my rear end high in the air, and eyed the perfect patch of flowers. My feline eyes were level with the tops of the moon-kissed leaves. Twitching the tip of my tail high in the air, I pounced. Petals, pollen, and leaves flew everywhere. I rolled in the patch of displaced flowers, purring and sneezing in delight at the rainfall of petals.
In my own delirium, I almost missed the sound of a gun safety being released. It was the faintest of clicks, yet it caused my movements to stop abruptly. I crouched, allowing the petals and leaves to cover my stripes as I listened for the gun over the thundering of my pulse. This had been a reckless mistake, one that reminded me that I wanted to see tomorrow.
My nose twitched. There was a man with a freshly oiled gun across the field. I figured there had to be at least a hundred yards between us, and if my nose was scenting things correctly, he'd been drinking. Unless he was a sharpshooter, I was positive I could make it to the protection of the forest before he could pull the trigger. I peered over the broken flower stems, ears pinned close to the top of my head. The forest wasn't far, about two body lengths to my right.
All my senses at high alert, I leapt up and ran. I heard his frightened exclamation just before the explosion of the gun. Tree bark splintered a foot from my head, causing me to alter my path. I zigzagged my way deeper into the forest's protection, adrenaline pumping at the thought of how close the bullet had been. Picking up my pace, I gave my animal side free reign. Relying solely on my tiger's natural agility to maneuver through the woods, I wove into the forest, using movements that were becoming second nature. My whiskers received more input than my human brain could catalog. My tail counterbalanced me to keep my body upright and my movements fluid.
Adrenaline pumped through me as I darted through the forest. I knew I'd lost the man, but the excitement of almost being shot and the joy of releasing control to my animal nature kept me running. The thought of being pursued, being hunted, caused me to run faster. My muscles bunched and flexed, heating as I ran.
All too soon, I found myself at the clearing I'd set up for my change. I sat, my sides heaving in an attempt to get enough oxygen. I was exhausted and starving. I refused to hunt in this form, finding the act of physically destroying another life abhorrent. I was certain I'd never completely let go of the humanity that defined me, never fully release control to my animal instincts. The human food was a reward of sorts, congratulating myself on yet another successful change. My breathing began to slow, and I knew what had to happen next. I shuddered, feeling more anxiety over the change than I had over the bullet a foot from my head.
The change hurt. Every time. I listened to the sounds of the forest and attempted to draw some peace from the leaves rustling in the wind. I was tempted, as always, to stay in the stillness of the forest just a little longer. It was always harder for me to become human than it was to become feline. I wondered, again, if this too was normal. I had so many questions; it was past time I sought answers.
I pictured my human form, and the transformation started like usual: with nausea. My stomach rebelled, followed quickly by the rebellion of every other organ and muscle in my body. I tried in vain to relax as my muscles spasmed. My body convulsed, and I found myself on the ground in a writhing mass of fur, bones, and guts. My vision went blurry. I heard my bones cracking and restructuring, muscles straining with the tension of rearranging to fit my new shape. I no longer knew what my natural form was. Did I maintain my humanity? The pain reached a crescendo, and just as I thought I couldn't take anymore, it was over.
Sweat coursed over my naked body, and I began to shiver. Small aftershocks of pain streaked through my veins, causing my muscles to involuntarily twitch. I wanted to close my eyes and give in to the pain and exhaustion, but I knew from experience that I had to eat first. If I waited, I would wake ravenous and end up killing the first thing that crossed my path and eating it raw. The thought caused my stomach to turn. I dressed, the messages from my brain to my limbs taking an excessive amount of time. My whole body felt heavy. My once tight clothes were now loose on my thinner, more muscular frame. I'd changed in so many ways since Atlantis; I was starting to forget who I'd been.
As I opened my backpack, the smell of the three double cheeseburgers inside drifted out, and my stomach growled. It took until I started on the third cold burger to feel somewhat normal. I knew I'd have to stop at a drive-through on my way home, but at least this way I wouldn't hurt anyone. When I got back to the house, Ashlyn would still be in bed, and Katie still at work, so I wasn't too worried. I just wanted sleep now that I'd exerted some of the restless energy I'd had since leaving Atlantis.
Since leaving Raif, my life had become hiding out in the woods to avoid civilization, running at every chance I had. I wasn't certain yet whether I was running toward or away from something, but I knew I couldn't do this blindly anymore. I needed answers about what was happening to me. I had to find someone who could provide guidance, understanding, and most of all, direction. As much as I hated to, I had to go back to the Krypt Keeper and see Stephan.
I gathered my garbage and cleaned my clearing, leaving no trace of my existence. I couldn't be discovered and sent to live the remaining days of my life in a lab. I knew firsthand the life those animals lived and shuddered in sympathy for their captivity. I began the quarter-mile hike down the mountain to where I'd parked my motorcycle. I loved riding almost as much as I loved running. It was the human equivalent, but faster and less reliable than my animal shape. When I ran, I knew instinctively that my feline body would react to protect me from my surroundings. I had no such guarantees when I rode. Instead, I had to put my trust in the machine, and other drivers. The thrill of riding was usually enough to get me through another day. I was so tired tonight though, that the thought of riding back home elicited a groan of frustration.
Even seeing the shiny blue sport bike waiting under the moonlit sky couldn't bring me out of my melancholy mood. I hopped on the bike, revving it to hear the happy purr, and was off. The chilly mountain air bit at my exposed skin, and I embraced it, hoping it would wash Raif's face from my mind. There were more days I wished I'd never gone to Bermuda, never stepped foot on Atlantis, than there were days of joy at what I'd become.
I missed Raif. It was a pain that went bone deep. I wished we'd had more time together, that he could've been the one to show me all the things that were different now that we were mated. I was angry with him for not warning me, for abandoning me when I needed him the most. As angry as I was though, what I wanted most in this world was to be held by him.
I stopped by a 24-hour fast food place on my way home to get something else to eat. I craved protein more than ever since I got back, easily putting away three large steaks at a time and still managing to be hungry. My appetite and change in appearance were at the top of the list of questions I had. I placed the food into my backpack and rode home in relative peace and quiet. Knowing that I had warm food in my bag spurred me to faster than normal speeds.
Katie's light was on when I pulled into the drive. She was home early and waiting for me. I felt a twinge of apprehension at this knowledge, followed quickly by irritation that she was home instead of at work. I just wanted to scarf down my chicken sandwiches and pass out. I snuck into the kitchen, leaving all the lights off, as I didn't need them anyway. My night vision, like so much else, had increased exponentially. Too late, I realized that sneaking in was pointless; Katie had already heard the bike.
"You're home late," she said as she flicked on the light.
I winced and grunted an indecipherable response, hoping she would leave and I could continue to avoid this conversation. I plopped down on one of the kitchen chairs and started eating my sandwiches.
"Tash, please. I think we need to talk. There's been something going on for almost three months, ever since you got back from Bermuda. You've been distant and angry. I know there are things going on that I'll never understand, but you used to talk to me. I want to help." She was pleading, her eyes filling with tears of frustration at my continual avoidance. I had a pang of guilt, quickly extinguished by my hurt and anger.
"When were you going to tell me?" My voice was even rougher than I'd intended as I spoke with bits of bread sticking to my teeth. I'd hoped to avoid this conversation; the pain of her lies hurt almost as much as my changes did.
Surprise was evident in her tear-filled eyes. She clasped her hands in front of her and wouldn't meet mine. She sank into the chair across from me, her legs shaking too much to hold her. The smell of her distress was an aphrodisiac to my carnal nature, although I was relieved to note the sliver of shame at the knowledge that she was afraid of me. I must still have a shred of humanity left after all.
"Tell you what?" she asked, still avoiding my eyes. I almost believed her innocent act, as I had for years. However, there was no hiding or denying it anymore. I knew the depth of her betrayal, knew it the first time I'd changed and scented Ashlyn.
"When were you going to tell me that Keith is Ash's father?" My tone was even, as though I was asking her to pass the salt. I reined in my hurt and temper in a final attempt to allow her to deny the truth, cursing myself at the pang of hope I had that I was mistaken, that somehow my senses had been wrong. The truth had assaulted me the first time I'd changed. Ashlyn's scent had wafted out the door and I knew. The man I'd been engaged to eight years ago was her father.
Katie was silent for a moment. I held my breath and counted my heartbeat four times before she hung her head and sighed.
"I wanted to tell you, so many times." Her shoulders shook in a silent sob. "I didn't know how to say it, and after a while, it just didn't seem important. We'd moved past that. We were happy. I couldn't destroy that."
"How about, 'Tash, I'm the reason your fiancÃ(c) left you. By the way, we're having a baby?' It's been eight years, Katie; you had time. Instead, you continued to lie and cover it up, pretending it never happened, when the proof of your betrayal is curled up in her bed!" My skin tingled in anticipation of another change. It was always harder to control it when my emotions were high. I took a few calming breaths. She waited for me to continue, knowing I had more to say and accepting my anger. "The weird thing is, I don't even care that you two were together. It might have bothered me in the past, but now I just hope things work out for the two of you, for Ashlyn's sake. What really hurts, what kills me, is that you lied to me. For eight years, you lied. You're my sister, the only family I have. I should be able to trust you completely, without question. How could you do that to me?" Acknowledging her betrayal hurt more than when I'd first discovered the truth. There was a pain in my chest, an ache I'd been trying to avoid that was almost as painful as the loss of Raif. If I still had tears, I'd be crying.
"I'm so sorry, Tash." She looked up at me, tears streaming down her face. She looked so pitiful, so forlorn. Her regret was evident, but I didn't care anymore. She'd broken something in me that could never be repaired.
"Does Keith know that he has a daughter?" I said quietly, her tears deflating me of my righteous anger. Before she could respond, another thought occurred to me. "Alex knew, didn't he? That's why he left."
Her face flushed, breaking my heart even further. I felt guilt at the years of disrespect and anger I had built up toward her ex leaving so suddenly. Now, I understood.
"He figured it out and confronted me. I asked him not to tell you about it. I wanted to tell you myself. Keith didn't even know until three months ago. I knew I had to tell him when I saw you two at the airport. That's where I was when ..." she hesitated for a moment, "when you were having your first episode. We thought it best for him to stay away until I could talk to you and figure out what's been going on with you. I've wanted to talk to you about this. I just didn't know where to start. You've had so much to deal with lately; I didn't want to add to it. I'm so sorry, Tasha." We sat in silence, neither one of us knowing where to go from here.
"I hope you do the right thing from now on. Ash and Keith deserve to know each other. You both deserve a chance at happiness. If he can forgive you for hiding his daughter from him for the past eight years, I think you'll be very good for each other." My voice was quiet, firm with resignation. Just because I couldn't forgive her, didn't mean I wanted her to be miserable.
"You're okay with this? You want us to be a family?" The shock and hope in her voice was plainly evident. A bitter smile curved my lips.
"I've always wanted what's best for you, for you to be happy." I sighed, leaning back in my chair as my emotions cooled. "Ash is going to need someone new to torment when I leave anyway."
"Leave? Where are you going?"
"I've needed to talk to you, too. I have to get some help with my ... episodes, as you call them. What's happening to me doesn't feel right. I have to find out what's going on. There's someone in Miami that can help me figure everything out. I'm leaving tomorrow and don't know when, or if, I'll be back."
"You're not okay with this. You're just going to run away so you don't have to face it." I was shocked to hear the anger coating her words. "What, you can't get the right drugs here? I know something's been going on. No one can eat that much and lose weight. What is it? Meth? Some new-fangled drug they can only synthesize in Florida? I've trusted you with my kid, hoping you'd snap out of whatever crap you started after you came back." She sat with her arms crossed, tears drying in streaks down her cheeks as she flushed with anger. "Now you're leaving without any explanation. What the hell am I supposed to tell Ashlyn?"
My animal instincts clouded my better judgment, and I started to growl. I allowed my animal nature to surface ever so slightly so that Katie would fully understand why I had to leave. I stood, placing my hands next to her so that she was trapped within the circle of my arms. Leaning into her personal space, my body trembled while suppressing the urge to transform. My other form still didn't understand the complexity of human emotions, and it wanted to protect me from the perceived threat that was my sister. I would never, could never, hurt her, but she didn't know that. I simply wanted to intimidate her, gain her undivided attention. Fear rolled off her in waves. I sensed she was beginning to understand.
"Katie, I have never and will never do drugs. The fact that you thought for one minute I would ever place Ashlyn in danger kills me. I love that kid like my own. I want you to listen carefully." My voice was cold, hard with suppressed rage. "I honestly don't care what you do anymore. You've made it perfectly clear to me how little love and respect you hold for me. I truly want you to be happy, even if that means you create a family with Keith. I need help. I have a problem that no one here is capable of dealing with. I have to figure out what's wrong with me, and I can't do that here." I stalked out of the kitchen and into my room, leaving Katie trembling in her chair. I was done talking. It was time for answers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Changed"
Copyright © 2019 Jean Booth.
Excerpted by permission of BHC Press.
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