Carolyn had always known she would someday be a doctor. She had always wanted to be a veterinarian and preferred most animals over some humans she had met but since her family were changelings, she had to learn how to treat both animals and humans. She had dreamed about it since she was a little girl when she had found an injured bunny in her parents’ garden. As she grew up, she was always bringing home sick or injured animals of one kind or another. Her parents had never tried to encourage her to do anything else and had taught her to know that she could be anything she wanted to be if she just believed in and applied herself.
She had thought she had a normal childhood but then she had never really mixed with anyone away from the mountain where she had grown up, until she had gone to college. So the fact that her family were changelings was not unusual to her. She had never felt the urge to share their secret, until she had met Tammy.
Carolyn’s family was a little different from most of the other changeling families on the mountain. While it was not required, most changelings married within their own species. Bears usually married other bears. Stags married doe’s, so on and so on, but their family had often married outside of the norm, going back several generations on her father’s side. Daniel Masters’ great grandmother, who had been a bear, had mated with a mountain lion and brought the cat blood into the family but it had been dormant until now. Even for those families who had intermixed, most of the time, sons followed their fathers and daughters followed their mothers’ but Carolyn’s mother is a doe, her father is a bear, and her sister, Donna is a doe, while Carolyn is a panther. The only other odd one out was her brother, Kevin. He was an otter and no one was certain where that blood line came in since there were no other otter changelings on the mountain that they knew of in their family lineage. As far as they knew, Carolyn was the first cat born into the family and Kevin was the only otter.
At 15, Carolyn’s cat had been about the size of a large dog. Now her cat was more like the size of a pony. Her paws were the size of a dessert plate and stretched out from the tip of her long tail to the end of her nose, she measured over 8 feet in length. Standing on all four legs, her back came all the way to her father’s elbow and Daniel Masters was not a small man by anyone’s standards. He stood well over six foot five in his human form.
That was 13 years ago. Since then Carolyn had gone on to medical school. Now, at 28, she was the doctor for all the changelings in her area. Carolyn had a nice clinic in the small town near the top of the mountain where her family’s property was located. She made a good living treating the “towners″ pets and farm animals, as well as the other changelings that lived in the area. “Towners″ were what the changelings called people that did not have the ability to change into an animal. There was a small settlement of them that lived below the changeling part of the mountain. Most of the towners were people whose ancestors had settled the area in colonial days. Most people had left and gone to the big cities during the great depression but there were a few die-hards’ that had hung on, mainly because they had been too poor or stubborn to move.
After the war, when the country began to prosper again, developers had tried to come in several times, wanting to turn the mountain into a ski resort but this area of the Appalachian Mountain Range was settled mostly by changelings who would not sell at any price. To do so would mean exposure not only for themselves but for their families and neighbors.
A few new humans had moved to the area, mostly people wanting to get away from the commercialism of life in the big cities. They had settled near the base of the changeling mountain. Mostly old hippies who wanted to live a healthier and more natural lifestyle. Many changelings lived and worked among the towners undetected and had normal, happy lives but they almost always married other changelings, usually within their own species.
When she had been growing up, Dr. Matson, who was an owl, had taken care of everyone on the mountain, changeling and towners alike. Carolyn had worked with him as an assistant during her final year of high school and it had helped her go through medical school twice as fast as most students. She had achieved not only her masters in veterinary medicine (a VET) but had become an MD as well. Then Dr. Matson passed away in the winter after she had graduated from college. Carolyn had always figured that she would move away from the mountain once she graduated and had been working at a hospital near Asheville, NC when, about a year after she had gotten out of school, her younger brother, Kevin, had gotten hurt and Carolyn’s mother had called her to come home. Kevin had changed just after his 13th birthday, into an otter and he had been in trouble ever since. He wasn’t accepting the change as easily as Carolyn.
Kevin’s animal form was a bit of a rascal and kept getting him into trouble. It was just a few days before his 18th birthday when he had swam down river away from the family land and had gotten caught in a steel animal trap. It was a good thing that Carolyn’s Uncle Ray had been in the area and had found Kevin before the hunters had or he would have been in real trouble.
Uncle Ray was an eagle and their father’s younger brother. He had been keeping an eye on Kevin that day, suspecting that he was going to end up in trouble when he had spotted him swimming downstream. He saw him get caught in the trap and quickly flew down and freed him. He had carried him home but Kevin’s arm was badly broken and they needed a doctor badly. Because Kevin was a changeling, they couldn’t take him to a regular doctor. He would have sedated Kevin to set the broken bones and Kevin would have changed back into a human. How in the world would they have explained that? Kevin would have healed on his own due to the supernatural healing powers they all possessed but unless his arm was properly set first, it would be deformed when it healed. As it was, it was half a day before Carolyn could get home from Asheville where she shared an apartment with her best friend, Tammy. Carolyn had had to re-break it to set it properly.
Kevin had eventually come to terms with his animal and stayed out of trouble for the most part but every once in a while, he would end up on the carpet in front of his father, trying to explain what he had been thinking when he had done whatever it was that had him in trouble this time. Kevin had always had a knack for mechanical things and had gone to trade school in the city. He was currently living at home, but working at a garage in town. He was hoping to be able to save enough money so that he could get his own place.
Carolyn stood up from her lounge chair on the porch and changed into her cat and leaped down off the porch. She ran her normal patrol and then returned to the house. She stretched and arched her back then sheathed her claws on the scratching post next to her back door before changing back into her human form. She straightened her clothes and went into the house. Her clinic was about two miles from the center of the small town, and her cottage was about a mile farther up, just at the base of her parents land. Her cottage was set back from the main road that led up to not only her parents’ house but it was the access to many of the other changeling homesteads. She was like the gatekeeper in many respects. She kept strangers or “towners″ from wandering on to the family land. The clinic was where she treated the local towner’s pets and the farm animals that could be brought in, otherwise she went to them.
Residents in town thought the mountain was haunted and very few ever dared venture up there. There were rumors of witches and werewolves and maybe even of bigfoot living on the mountain. Most of them just warned their children never to go up there and everything was fine. But every once in a while, they would get an outsider that wanted proof or some high school kids daring their friends to spend the night in the woods. So long as they stayed off family land, that was fine but once they crossed the line, Carolyn could usually chase them off. But “towners″ could be sneaky. Several times she had caught them parking their cars on the side of the highway that ran just below the changeling part of the mountain. They would walk in, trying to avoid being detected, but they usually gave themselves away because they never came alone and always made enough noise for even a person with normal hearing to know that they were there. That and the fact that they always started a fire.
The towners had been partially right in guessing some of the “fairy tales’ ′ creatures that lived on the mountain. There was a witch, or rather a Shaman. He lived on the other side of the mountain. Carolyn had never met him but she had heard of him. He was very old and kept pretty much to himself and his own family. The creature that most outsiders came looking for was actually a really big bear that had trouble going all the way through the transformation all at once. Charlie Woods was the largest changeling on the mountain but he was also extremely shy and “not all that bright″. Sometimes he didn’t change all the way fast enough before he would come out of hiding and people had spotted what they assumed was bigfoot but it was actually just Charlie Woods. Most of the time, Charlie stayed in his bear form, except when people came around. Charlie was also the reason people thought there were werewolves living in the mountains. Charlie had been seen several times running away from people while in mid transformation.
Hunting was not allowed on the mountain and the borders of the changelings’ part of the mountain were clearly marked with no trespassing and no hunting signs. It also didn’t hurt that the local sheriff and his deputies were changelings. They kept the “good old boys” from hunting down the “threat” when they got to drinking and reliving past experiences of having been scared off the mountain by Charlie or one of the other changelings out having a joke on the hunters. Carolyn herself had scared many of the towners off the mountain by staying in the shadows and screaming at the towners until they decided they would be better off coming back with more guns some other time. None of the changelings that lived on the mountain hunted but were either vegetarians or satisfied their appetites for meat at the local supermarket.
Carolyn usually patrolled through the woods that ran along the base of her father’s land after dark every night. During the spring, summer and fall, it was not a problem for Carolyn to be able to move through the woods virtually undetectable because of her black fur but once the snow began to fall, she had to be a lot more careful because she would show up so plainly against the white background. But there was still time before winter arrived.
Carolyn pulled on a house coat that she kept by the back door and got a bottle of water out of the fridge and went over to her desk. Her personal bills needed to be paid and notes on the patient’s she had seen this week needed to be entered into the computer. She sat down determined to get them done. She flipped on the radio and hit the power button on her computer. As she waited for it to gear up, she took a sip of her water and then pulled a stack of bills towards her. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the money to pay them, it was that she dreaded the paperwork. Carolyn would much rather spend her time with the animals than with doing paperwork. She wondered how her best friend, Tammy, dealt with it all the time. “Maybe she uses her magic.” Carolyn thought.
Thinking about Tammy made her think about when they first met in their first year of college. Carolyn had been dreading having to have a roommate when she went to live in the dorms at school. Luckily, her roommate turned out to be Tammy. Tammy had known without being told that Carolyn was a changeling. Tammy had taken one look at Carolyn and smiled and Carolyn had known Tammy was someone she could trust. The first week they had roomed together, Carolyn had often smelled strange things in the room. Most of it was herbs and roots that Tammy seemed to collect. She had little jars in a box full of the stuff. One night, Tammy had closed the door of their room and blocked it with a chair so that no one could interrupt them and when she turned around, she smiled at Carolyn. “I’ll show you my secret if you’ll show me yours?” It hadn’t been a dare. More like a friend wanting to share a special secret.
“You first.” Carolyn had said.
“I’m a witch.” Tammy said. She had smiled at the comical look of disbelief on Carolyn’s face then put her hands together, like she was going to start praying. Then she lifted her arms into a large “Y” over her head and the lights in the room went off but there was a glowing light around her and her voice sounded like she was talking with a bucket on her head like it had an echo. “My name is Tamaura. I am a white witch. My aura tames whoever or whatever I shine it on. If it’s a human, my aura will shine a different color, usually a pale blue but when I’m near an animal soul, it shines white, like now.” Tammy seemed to whisper as she slowly brought her arms back down in front of her. Carolyn had not realized it at first but when Tammy had been glowing she had also been floating a few inches off of the ground. As she landed back on her feet, the lights came back on and her aura was harder to see. “Everyone is usually pretty mellow when I’m around.” Tammy had giggled.
“That’s an awesome power to have.” Carolyn had told her.
“So what are you?” Tammy asked. “I can tell you have an animal soul but I can’t make out what kind of animal.”
“Aren’t you afraid that I might turn and hurt you?” Carolyn had asked.
“No. Like I said, most everyone is usually pretty mellow when I’m around.” Tammy said.
“Ok but promise me you will never tell anyone!” Carolyn had made her promise.
“I promise. You know my secret and I’ll keep yours.” Tammy had replied.
Carolyn had transformed and Tammy didn’t hesitate one bit in coming over to scratch her behind her ears. “Wow, now that is awesome. You are beautiful.” She had held Carolyn’s head in her hands and looked into her eyes and from then on they had been best friends. Tammy had explained that she had known a shapeshifter once before and that was how she had recognized that Carolyn had an animal soul.
Needless to say, Carolyn’s parents had been very upset when she told them about Tammy but once they met her, they had gotten used to the idea. Carolyn often wondered if Tammy had used her calming powers on them that day.
Tammy was her roommate all the way through college and they have been best friends ever since then. After they had graduated, Carolyn was doing her required residency at a hospital in Asheville and Tammy had taken a job working in a lawyer’s office. They had found an apartment together and were enjoying being on their own. Then Kevin had gotten hurt and Carolyn had to return home to take over for Dr. Matson. Tammy had stayed in Asheville but they had kept in touch via phone and emails.
After several months, even though Tammy always told her she was fine and that everything was going well, Carolyn could tell that something was wrong. Carolyn tried to believe that Tammy could handle it, whatever it was, but she was still worried about her friend. The last time she had seen Tammy, she had lost weight and looked tired. The 2nd anniversary of being on their own had been close and they had been planning a reunion to celebrate being out of school and on their own for two whole years. They were going to meet at Virginia Beach when Tammy had called and said she would not be able to make it. She had sounded so strange on the phone and Carolyn had been so worried that she had closed the clinic that very weekend and had gone to see her. She couldn’t believe her eyes when Tammy had opened the door to her apartment that day. Tammy had been nothing but skin and bones and her aura was very thin and a kind of a smoky gray. Her blonde hair was lifeless and hung around her face and she had big dark circles under her blue gray eyes.
“Oh Tammy. What has been going on? You look awful.” Carolyn had told her as she followed her into the apartment and closed the door behind her.
“It’s my job, Carolyn. All the negative energy I have to deal with all the time is zapping all of my strength. My magic is almost gone.” Tammy said.
“I never understood why you went to work there anyway.” Carolyn said. “Come on. Get dressed. I’m taking you home with me.”
Carolyn had helped her pack a bag and then helped her down to the car. Carolyn had taken her back to the mountain and spent a month getting her back in good health. It had taken a bit more to convince her to quit her job in the city and to start her own bookkeeping service in town. Six months later she had finally caved in and Tammy now did the books for not only Carolyn’s business but several other small businesses in the small town where Tammy lived. Tammy had an apartment of her own and her aura was back to being a pale blue most of the time now. Carolyn knew that most people couldn’t see Tammy’s aura but they just felt more at peace when she was around, so she had quickly made friends and was dating a very nice young man named Jerry Fulson, who was a mechanic at a local garage.
“Enough wool gathering, Carolyn. You’ve got to get these bills paid.” Carolyn told herself as she began opening the mail and entering the bills into the computer. She had often thought about having Tammy do her personal bills as well as the business stuff but that would be lazy. She didn’t have many to deal with, after all. Once she had them all put in, she loaded checks into the printer and selected which ones needed to be paid right away and printed them out. She signed them and stuffed them in the return envelopes and put a stamp on them. She spent the next hour inputting patient information on the computer. As she closed the last file, she glanced at the clock. Where had the time gotten too? It was nearly midnight and she really should get to bed but she felt wide awake.
She walked back out onto the back porch, dropped her house robe on the floor and transformed again. She would just take a good run and then maybe she would feel more like sleeping. She ran through the woods along the river for about a mile when suddenly she smelled something different. She froze in her tracks and lifted her head as she sniffed the air. There was a stranger in her woods!
Carolyn stalked through the underbrush, moving slowly and silently towards the new scent, every fiber of her being on full alert. She froze and couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw him on the other side of the creek. It was a large cat, like her, only his fur was a honey colored brown. At first she thought he was a local mountain lion but as far as she knew there weren’t any living on their mountain and even if there were, it would be very unusual for them to come this close to civilization. He was getting a drink of water from the stream. Since she was down wind of him, he didn’t see, smell or hear her. She crouched low on the forest floor and watched him as he turned and trotted off in the opposite direction, following the creek, towards town. Carolyn wanted to know why he would be going towards town. Most wild animals would avoid town. If he was a changeling then he was new to the area because she knew all of the changelings who lived in this area and he was definitely not one she had ever seen before.
Carolyn followed him for about a mile before she lost him. “Where could he have gone?” She wondered as she sniffed the ground where she had last seen him. She slowly stalked the ground in a large circle around the last place she had seen him but couldn’t find a sign of him anywhere. That disturbed her and she let out a loud growl, then ran back into the woods. She took a different route home and kept all of her senses on full alert. She had the strangest feeling that someone had been watching her. Before she reached her back porch, she stopped and looked around her but saw and smelled nothing but the woods. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had been watching her so, instead of jumping up on to her porch, she ducked into the small dug out under the deck where she could look out without being seen. She peered out at the darkness but still saw nothing but the woods. The moon came out from behind the clouds and as she looked up, she saw a large bird perched on a limb in a tree. It seemed to be looking at her and she stared at it for a full minute trying to make it out more clearly but it was in the shadow of the tree so all she could see was a faint outline. Suddenly it spread its wings and flew away, up over the treetops towards town. Carolyn finally changed back into her human form and climbed the steps to the porch and went back into the house. For the first time in a long time, she locked her door and glanced at the clock on the stove. It was too late to be calling her father but she would have to get in touch with him first thing in the morning. She needed to make him aware that there was another big cat on the mountain, one with the power to disappear into thin air.
The next morning, after a quick visit to the bathroom, she started the coffee pot and then called her parents’ house. Her mom answered the phone and she tried to sound normal but she could never fool her mother. “Hi mom! Is dad around?”
“What’s wrong?” Angela Masters said.
“I’m not sure there is anything wrong. I just wanted to make dad aware of the fact that there was another big cat roaming the woods last night.” Carolyn told her mom. “Is he there?’
“Maybe your mate?” Her mother teased, before she turned the phone over to her father.
“What?” He said to his wife and then to Carolyn “Hey baby cakes, what’s this about a mate?”
“Mom’s wishful thinking. Dad, there was another big cat in the woods last night about midnight. I was taking a run along the creek and I saw him getting a drink and then he turned and ran into the woods. I followed him but he went over the hill alongside the creek and I lost sight of him for just a second. When I got there, he was nowhere to be seen or smelled. I did a large circle around where I last saw him but couldn’t find any trace of him. No paw prints. Nothing. It was like he just disappeared into thin air.”
“Hmmmm. That is strange. I’ll check with Uncle Ray and ask him to keep an eye open for anything out of the ordinary. We heard a big cat scream last night but I thought it was you chasing towners away.” Daniel Masters told her.
“Well, I didn’t make a sound except for a loud growl but it wasn’t very loud, at least not loud enough for you to have been able to hear me way down near the creek.” Carolyn told him.
Just then someone began frantically knocking at her front door and Carolyn asked her father to hang on for a minute. She answered the door to a very frantic Tammy.
“Tammy, what are you doing here so early? What’s wrong?” Carolyn asked, after she opened the door to her friend. “Hang on a second. I’ve got my dad on the phone.” Carolyn spoke into the phone and told her father, “Dad let me call you right back. Tammy’s here and she’s got something she needs to tell me.”
“Ok but call me right back.” Daniel Masters said, with concern in his voice.
“I will dad.” Carolyn said and hit the end call button.