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The Cold From Beyond


Rodford Edmiston

        Paul walked slowly down the shadowy street, weaving a bit and staggering every now and then. He was bait, in an attempt to draw out whoever was toasting street people. There had been over thirty mysterious deaths in Louisville the past week, and the mayor had asked the Kentucky State Police for help. They, in turn, had included Paul in the project, since there were indications that the deaths might be the work of one or more rogue Gifted.

        It was cold enough to make Paul shiver inside his threadbare "bum's" outfit, and the eerie light/dark patterns on these back streets didn't help his mood. He just hoped that the two policemen assigned as his backup were on the alert; he hadn't spotted them in over an hour.

        Paul and the others in the special team had been taken to the morgue to view the remains, in the hope that this might help them recognize the perpetrator. Actually, the bodies looked less like they had been burned than left in an oven for too long. They had a kind of cooked, dried-out appearance to them; they were desiccated and browned, and the skin had split, leaving an ooze of thickened blood on much of the body and clothing. One look had been enough for Paul. Homeless people were so frightened that they were committing minor crimes to be thrown in jail for the night. The unusual appearance of the corpses had experts convinced that something paranormal was at work. Which probably meant Gifted.

        If it was a Gifted gone wrong, Paul wanted to stop him or her now, before anyone else was killed. He had heard from a number of sources that they expected a witch hunt against the Gifted any day now, due to the trouble that the small number of rogues had already caused. Something like this could touch that off.

        It was three in the morning and Paul had been on the job for more than two hours. There were other decoys performing the same job in other areas, and other officers watching them as backup. Paul, due to his abilities and experience, had been assigned the most likely block. He didn't enjoy the situation, but had to admit that he was the best qualified for the job.

        Still, there didn't seem to be much happening. The only people he had seen were wary and secretive, some actually fleeing Paul's approach. They were scared; the whole city was scared.

        Then, with typical suddenness, it all went wrong. A man stepped out of the alley ahead, and came straight for Paul. He didn't hurry, he didn't swerve, he simply walked purposefully forward and reached out. Paul dodged back, confident that his heightened speed and dexterity would enable him to evade the other's grasp. He was almost right.

        The stranger's hand grazed Paul's shoulder, and that brief touch sent an agony of cold through the whole left side of his body. Paul gasped, and staggered backward as the stranger came at him again, this time with inhuman speed.

        Paul knew one thing; he couldn't let himself be touched like that again. He dodged, already recovering, and started yelling for help. The stranger ignored Paul's cries and continued grabbing. Paul kicked the man in the stomach, hoping that his thick boots would protect him. They did; he only felt a little of that strange cold. The blow had been hard enough to pulp a normal man, but the stranger only grunted and fell backwards. Paul decided to put a little distance between them. He shifted into a cheetah and sprinted down the street.

        A block away Paul stopped, and switched back to human form. Already he could hear his partners running to his aid, but the stranger was charging out of the alley with incredible speed. Paul picked up a concrete bench and threw it at the man. The stranger dodged, then started as he realized that there were two other people approaching, and whirled to face them. He snarled a wordless challenge at the officers as they slid to a stop, shotguns ready.

        "Watch it!" Paul called in warning. "He's at least a strong as I am!"

        Seeing the two normals pause, the stranger snarled at them again, and turned his attention back to Paul. Officer Grady ordered him to halt, twice, then fired a warning shot. The strange figure ignored him and continued toward Paul. As it reached the circle of light under the street lamp, Paul saw it clearly for the first time, and he suddenly knew that this thing, whatever it might once have been, was not human.

        Paul grabbed a traffic sign and twisted it until it snapped off just above the sidewalk. Brandishing his makeshift spear, he circled, maneuvering so that policemen had a clear line of fire. The creature snarled at him, but there was a hungry gleam in it's eyes that told Paul it wasn't about to give up.

        Without warning, it charged. Both officers fired, both hitting. The thing screamed and staggered, but continued it's charge. Paul braced himself, and aimed the jagged point of the channel post at its heart. The creature impaled itself neatly.

        That wasn't the end of it. There was an eruption of energy, a flare of silver light as the metal entered the thing's body. Paul yelled and jumped back, dropping ungracefully into a sitting position, shielding his eyes against the glare in an effort to see what was happening. In moments it was over, and all that was left was a pile of ashes and a half-melted post.

        "Don't ask me what it was," said Paul, back at the Precinct headquarters. "I don't know. We may never know. But at least we got it."

        "You think so?" asked Detective Anderson, who was heading the special task force assigned this duty. "Just before you arrived, we got a call from a unit sent to check on another of our decoy parties. The black-and-white found three more of those shriveled bodies, two of them in uniforms. All their weapons had been fired, some of them emptied."

        "Oh, God," groaned Paul, in dismay. "There's more than one of them."

        It was ridiculous; here Marian was, letting herself be tossed around like an empty garbage can by a man a fraction her weight! And a normal man at that! Of course, she had asked for this, literally. Since she seemed to keep getting involved in dangerous situations, Marian had finally decided to learn to fight, so she would know how to handle herself in a violent confrontation. Also of course, she hadn't realized just how humiliating this sort of thing was for a beginner.

        "Pay attention," Red told her, gently but firmly. "All right, give it a try."

        He had forbidden Marian the use of her paranormal strength, instead insisting that she first learn the proper way to do each technique, without muscling her way through. Red had explained that learning to do it without "cheating" would not only help her against opponents who were stronger than she, it would teach her the control needed to keep from hurting those weaker. That made enough sense that Marian had kept strict obedience.

        She grabbed Red in the kumi kata, the formal grip, pulling him to her, then lifting and pushing backwards in a circular motion while catching him behind the knee with a forefoot. He landed ten feet away, his fall padded by the thick grass on the Center's back lawn and blunted by a double slap at the ground. Marian watched in envy as he then bounded lightly to his feet, smiling.

        "Very good. Now, again."

        Marian winced, but reminded herself that she needed this practice. They resumed the formal positioning, and Marian performed the throw again.

        "Not quite a smooth this time, but still good. Again."

        Marian was wearing the top to Red's Judo gi. He had made a point of insisting that she wear something under it, and after he had thrown her a couple of times she had seen why. A Judo top is supposed to be loose.

        They practiced the kouchigari until Red was satisfied, then moved on to another throw. They had started their workouts three weeks earlier, with what Red referred to as the "hard" techniques; blocks, punches and kicks. Then he had begun showing her on the "soft" system: throws, chokes and joint locks. The main difficulty had been in finding procedures appropriate to Marian's unusual form. Many maneuvers simply wouldn't work for her, and others had to be adapted. Still, she now had about a dozen attacks and defenses which she was confident with in her arsenal. As an added benefit, she was becoming more dextrous and aware of her physical self. If for no other reason, that was enough for Marian to continue.

        A car pulled into the parking lot behind the Center and sounded its horn. It was Clint.

        "I guess we can break a little early for once," Red announced, grinning, as Marian turned to wave. "Now, where did I put my glasses?"

        Clint walked over to join them as Red gathered their equipment.

        "Are you finished beating on my love for now?" Clint asked, as he affectionately put his arm around Marian's waist.

        "I'm havin' trouble gettin' her to work out on her own," Red told Clint, his accent back now that class was over.

        "I don't need the exercise," Marian countered. "My Gift keeps me in perfect physical condition."

        "Yeah, but exercise also helps train body and mind to work together," Red explained. "So keep it up."

        "Yes, kyoshi," she sighed, teasing him with his title.

        "That's all she needs," grumped Clint, jokingly. "More muscles."

        "That's all she needs," repeated Marian, duplicating Clint's voice exactly. "More muscles."

        "That's all she needs," repeated Red, doing a fair imitation of Clint's voice. "More muscles."

        "Great," the paramedic muttered, "now I'm getting it in stereo."

        They walked back into the Center slowly, Marian tired but contentedly swishing her tail, Clint with his arm around her waist, Red buoyant, talking the whole time.

        When they entered the lobby and saw the people gathered there, however, he stopped his chatter and peered owlishly about.

        It was San Savant's "Council of War," the group he called together whenever something needing special attention by the Center came up. The members looked quite serious, as much so as Red could ever recall.

        "Good, you're finished early," San Savant told Red. "We are waiting on you and Paul Lee to arrive before we start."

        "Just let me get changed," Red told them, ducking into the Men's room with his gym bag.

        About half the council were the actual field operatives. The other ten, including Red and Marian, were the planners and directors. Marian wondered what had happened overnight that was grave enough to call the group together for.

        "This looks serious," said Marian. "Are you going to need me?"

        San Savant looked at Marian and Clint for a moment, then reluctantly nodded.

        "Oh, well," Clint sighed. "That's what I get for dating an executive type. I'll call you tomorrow and we'll reschedule."

        Clint stood on tip-toe and kissed Marian goodbye. She watched him leave, regret showing on her face, then turned to find Flow looking at her.

        "What are you grinning about?"

        "Just thinking about how much you've changed since we first met at Donald Criswold's mansion last year," Flow replied. "You've gone from being shy and almost painfully insecure, to practically running this place."

        "That's pretty much the way my whole life has been." Marian shrugged. "Take my job at the real estate agency. I started there five years ago as a secretary, and today I'm an executive assistant. My boss is even talking now about making me an assistant manager."

        "Those who have been successful since gettin' their Gift were generally successful before gettin' it," Red pointed out, as he re-joined the group.

        Paul Lee arrived a few minutes later, looking tired. San Savant led the group into the conference room and started the meeting.

        "My friends, there is a menace loose in the city of Louisville which so far has claimed thirty-eight lives that we know of," San Savant began. "Last night, Paul confronted a monster in human form that seems to be connected to these deaths, and destroyed it. Unfortunately, it now appears that there may be more than one of these creatures. Paul, would you please tell them the details of what happened to you, and what you have learned since?"

        Paul obliged, and the group listened as he matter-of-factly recounted the events of the previous night.

        "So it seems that there is at least one more of these things running around Louisville." Paul stopped to take a long drink from the mug of coffee before him. "Anyway, the various officials involved agree that this problem requires the Center's help. I'm here to get it."

        "So lead shotgun pellets - or were they steel?" asked Red. "Never mind - anyway, the shotgun blasts didn't hurt it much, but spearing it did."

        "I don't know if that was because I did more damage or if I just grounded it." Paul paused a moment, thinking. "I'll tell you something else; it was colder the closer I got to that thing."

        Marian had never seen such an assembly of Gifted before, not even at the conference a few months back. More strangely, all of them were outfitted for battle. With Paul's experience to go on, the were heavily dressed, including gloves and boots. Some wore actual armor of one kind or another. There were even several normals in the group, Red included. Most of these were armed, either with guns or something more unusual. Only a few of the Gifted carried weapons. What impressed Marian most of all was that this was only the first of three shifts!

        The scene was the lobby of the Louisville City Hall. At San Savant's request, dozens of Gifted from all over the region, and a handful from farther afield, had converged here in less than 24 hours. The strange murders had continued, despite the fact that the special patrols had destroyed two more of the human-like creatures. Marian was beginning to wonder if this was an epidemic.

        "May I have your attention, please," called Police Detective Samuel Anderson. He was the unofficial expert in the paranormal on the Louisville Police Department, and had worked with Gifted individuals on several previous cases where their help was needed. Now he was in charge of this madhouse. "A few final words. From what we learned last night, we now know that these things are not all the same. One of the murderers killed last night was much more cunning that the other one, which was more like what Paul fought two nights ago. Also, is seems that they will go after Gifted in preference to normals. So be careful. Now, does everyone have their assignment?"

        There was a chorus of affirmatives.

        "Okay. Get with your police partners. Do what they tell you. And for heaven's sake, don't attack unless you or someone else is in danger! Now go to it."

        Marian watched them leave with a deep feeling of unease. She was on third shift, early the next morning, and would be teamed with a couple of officers she hadn't met yet. Meantime, she was helping run the command center which had been set up to deal with the situation. She wasn't looking forward to her duty the next morning, but Louisville was a big place, and every available pair of eyes was needed to comb through the possible hiding spots. She just hoped she wouldn't have to kill. She didn't think she could handle that, especially something which looked so human.

        She came out of her reverie as she noticed that Anderson was talking quietly to San Savant. Curious, she walked over to them, her rubber shoes squeaking on the polished floor.

        "Hello, Marian," sighed San Savant. "Detective Anderson just delivered some disturbing details about one of the creatures which were killed last night. It seems they've identified the person."

        "You mean that this was someone real, and not just a creature that looked like a person?"

        "Apparently," said Anderson. "This one was killed outside a house. It was just standing there, looking in a window. When it attacked the officers who went to question it, and they killed it - by the way, Pietr, thank you for the suggestion about the spear guns - anyway, the occupant came out to see what all the noise was, and became hysterical. Turns out it was her son, who disappeared a couple of days ago."

        "We don't know yet whether these things are somehow possessing humans, or merely duplicating them, but if so, except for the damage this one accumulated it appears to match the person it looks like exactly, right down to dental records and finger prints." San Savant thought for a moment, then turned to Anderson. "We need one alive to study. I know that is asking a lot, but it has to be done."

        "I'll pass the word," Anderson told him. "But don't expect me to jeopardize either police or civilians to get your specimen."

        The body was bloated, spattered with blood, the lips full and ruddy, and there was stench of decay about it, although the corpse appeared fresh.

        "She's breathing!" whispered Officer Blount.

        "I think you will find that its heart is beating, also," San Savant offered. "What good is a dead host to a parasite?"

        "It has just been lying there since those boys found it, this morning," said Detective Anderson. "I ordered a guard put on this place, but left it alone, like you wanted."

        "Excellent," San Savant replied. "The only way we will be able to understand these creatures is by careful study. That can't be done in the middle of a fight."

        "Think you'll be all right working close to that thing?"

        "I have a number of charms and spells active to protect me," San Savant told him. He glanced over at the three officers armed with spear guns, standing by. "Besides, the metal shafts of those spears worked well enough the past two nights."

        "Well, be careful, anyway," returned Anderson, as he and Blount moved away.

        "Believe me, I will." San Savant crouched down near the creature, examining it for a moment. Then he reached into his case and produced several items, laying them out on the floor in front of him. "Now, my friend, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disturb your rest."

        It took over an hour, but San Savant finally gained the information he wanted. He stood, stretched, then moved away. The creature continued to strain futilely at the magical restraints placed upon it, howling and screaming.

        "You might as well destroy it," San Savant told Anderson.

        "There's no chance of a cure?"

        "None," the wizard replied, shaking his head. "There's nothing left to be saved. Oh, there are a few memory traces left, but for the most part all the synaptic paths have been burned away, except for the motor control area and other portions needed to keep the host going."

        Anderson motioned for his men to move forward.

        "Y'know, that bit about some of the memories still being active might explain why they sometimes return home."

        "It could, indeed," replied San Savant, wincing as the creature shrieked before finally crumbling to dust.

        Later, at the room in City Hall which had been set aside for their use, San Savant held a briefing to relay what he had learned.

        "When I first heard Paul's story, it rang a faint chime in the dim recesses of my memory," he told them. "I began checking my library, and called around to a number of friends and acquaintances, here and in Europe. These helped me organize my recollections, and to locate a first-order source."

        San Savant pulled an ancient, leather-bound journal out of his briefcase, placing it reverently on the table.

        "As it turns out, that source was written by an ancestor of mine, roughly a century and a half ago. He was an official in my homeland, and therefore had his nose into just about everything which went on there. One of the strangest events, which to this day is related to the children of my family in the form of a fairy tale, talks of a series of mysterious deaths, with the corpses resembling closely those left by the creatures we are fighting. It was part of what seems to have been almost a plague, spread throughout the continent."

        There was a general murmur around the conference room table at this. "Ancient superstitions and hokey religions strike again," was Red's comment.

        "The problem was dealt with, and its source discovered," San Savant continued. "Taking into account the archaic phrasing, the, to you, foreign language and the fact that none of those involved had modern scientific training, I have paraphrased the conclusions reached."

        San Savant pulled a sheaf of notes from his case, and began to read.

        "'A hole was formed in space, in some manner unknown to us. Through this hole came a creature, immaterial and invisible to us, but a creature nonetheless, an animal with an animal's hunger. Our world was alien to it, so much so that it could not exist unaltered. To aid its survival it took possession of an innocent farm maid, using her as its vessel. Acting with great cunning, it hid by day and came out at night to feed, which it did by draining the life from its victims.'"

        San Savant lowered his notes and looked up at those around him.

        "'In many ways this creature resembles the Greek legend of the Burcolakas or Vroucolaca, also known as the as Vrykolakas or, more commonly, the vampire.'"

        There was a general stir, which San Savant allowed to die down before continuing.

        "The creatures which are the actual vampires come from a universe of vastly different physical properties from ours," he explained. "Its contents are almost entirely energy, the inhabitants feeding upon its various forms and permutations, and upon each other. It seems that there is an entire ecosystem there. The creatures are as varied as owls and alligators. When the hole opened, some of them fell through, and they found themselves both drowning and starving. Like the Gift, and Life itself, they are partly electricity. Thus, some of them are able to enter living organisms, taking control of them. Since humans are the largest and most common organism in this city, humans are what they have possessed."

        "The fact that there are so many different types explains why they act so differently," said Adamant, excitedly.

        "Exactly. Some are grazers, some hunters, some trappers, and so on. None appear sentient, but we should be on the watch for such."

        "What about finding the hole?" asked Red.

        "The Wizard and Chuck are working on that, with help from a couple of Gifted who are clairvoyant. It should be located soon, and sealed soon after that."

        "This sounds a lot like the gremlin invasion of the M. I. King library at UK last year," Red added.

        "Yes, and in the future we need to establish some way to detect these dimensional rifts as they appear. There will likely be a lot more of them, since the Gifting."

        "Poor things," said Flow. "They get sucked into our world, find themselves suddenly in trouble and latch blindly onto the first food source they come across. They aren't really to blame."

        "Maybe not," observed Paul, "but they're still killing people. Once they're all dead, then I'll feel sorry for them."

        "One important word of caution," San Savant told them. "They would find Gifted far more appetizing than normal humans. And far more energizing."

        "What about me?" asked Adamant, looking worried.

        "Yes, Ed, they can even steal your energy, but more slowly, due to the fact that it is so tightly bound to your physical substance."

        There was nothing more to be said, so the group dispersed and went back to work.

        "You should have seen it!" announced Reach, as he and Red entered the lobby. "Pow! One shot, right in the head! Must have been sixty feet away!"

        "Will you stop saying that!" Red snapped.

        Everyone was tired and irritable. It was three days since San Savant's study of the captured vampire, and all those working on the "Vampire Situation," as the media had dubbed it, were nearly exhausted. A total of twenty-three creatures had been found and dispatched, the hole had been located and sealed, and there had been no reports of bodies or attacks in twelve hours. Since San Savant claimed that the creatures couldn't go for more than about twenty hours without feeding, it seemed that the crisis would soon be over.

        Detective Anderson entered just then, and his face announced the news before he opened his mouth.

        "Three more bodies," he told them, grimly. "Right in the middle of town. One of them no more than four hours old."

        San Savant moved to the assignment board and began reading off the teams which would cover the buildings and other areas of possible concealment He planned for the them to cover a large radius from the location of the freshest body; this was probably the last vampire and he had no intention of letting it remain at large for long. Marian and Adamant were given responsibility for a construction site, without police escort, since they too were stretched to the breaking point.

        "Can't I sit this one out?" asked Marian. So far she had not needed to kill any of the creatures, and had only seen three in the process of being eliminated. Somehow, she felt that this time would be different.

        "Sorry. There aren't any alternates recovered enough yet to go in your place."

        Marian sighed and moved over to the table where she had laid her purse, gloves and jacket, as well as the blankets she used to wrap her equine portion as protection against the vampires' touch. The Wizard intercepted her.

        "A little something to help," he offered. "There aren't enough protective charms to go around, but I have a spell which should provide the same benefits, if only for the next few hours."

        He reached up to cup Marian's head in his hands, and began chanting in a low murmur. Marian felt a warmth and vitality spread into her face, and from there down into the rest of her body. This continued for several long moments, before the Wizard, looking tired, broke contact.

        Marian felt wired. She tingled from her head to her hooves.

        "Thank you," she replied, simply. It was all she could think to say.

        "I take care of my friends," the Wizard told her. "Lord knows, at my age I have few enough of them left."

        The place was eerily silent, only an occasional cold breeze causing any stir. Being Sunday, the site was empty of workers, and the downtown area was practically abandoned anyway due the panic over the vampires. Even the watchman normally present was gone.

        The building was about half finished. The steel framework was up, the lower two floors had the exterior walls in place, and even some of the plumbing was working. Construction equipment and materials were everywhere, creating a jumble that would take hours to search. Marian, who knew nothing about this sort of thing, spread her hands helplessly, and turned to Adamant.

        "Where do we start?"

        For the first time, Marian noticed that the indestructible man was staring at a gem in his hand. "Something new," he told her, absently, as he noticed her staring. "Chuck and the Wizard developed this while they were working on a way to find the hole."

        He swung slowly back and forth, the crystal occasionally flashing dimly blue. Adamant shook his head.

        "It's in there, somewhere, but all this metal is blocking the signal. Let's go in."

        Adamant led the way, glancing at his doodlebug from time to time. Marian nervously gripped the spear gun she had been issued. Adamant was armed, as usual, with only his wits and the exploding charm he had used months earlier against the Monster.

        They were walking next to a stack of I-beams, when the crystal flared hurtfully bright. A noise made Marian look up; there, on top of the beams, was their target. Unfortunately, it seemed to think that they were the prey. It dropped onto Adamant as Marian shied violently back.

        "Run!" Adamant yelled, as he grappled with the creature. Tiny sparks suddenly flickered across his skin.

        Marian knew what that meant; she quickly ducked behind a wall. There was an enormous crack! and the sound of huge masses of metal falling. When it was quiet, Marian looked around to see what had happened.

        There was no sign of Ed or the vampire. Presumably, the first was buried under the beams, while the latter had been destroyed. At least, she hoped so. Leaving her spear gun propped against the wall, Marian moved in and began shifting the debris. She saw something moving, and stood back. Her caution paid off. It was the vampire. Apparently, it had been blown away from Adamant, and then only lightly buried by the beams. Now, it was coming for her. It looked hungry.

        Marian, realizing that Adamant was both safe and helpless for the moment, wheeled and ran. The vampire charged after her, but it was injured and she was fast enough that her lead increased. She came into an area where equipment was stored; there was a poured concrete floor and ceiling, but the only walls were those at the outside of the building, creating a large, open space. Marian couldn't see an easy way out; besides, if she left, the thing would be gone before she could bring back help. She looked for something to throw.

        Nearby there were two large groupings of welding tanks, which looked heavy and sturdy enough to do some damage. She grabbed a green one and heaved it at the vampire as it came through the doorway. She missed, but the clangor and sparks seemed to unnerve the creature. She tossed another, forcing the vampire to dodge. The third tank hit on its valve, and went skittering away with a deafening hiss. That gave Marian an idea.

        She placed the next tank carefully on the ground, aiming it at the creature, which was still advancing towards her. She stamped down with her left forefoot, shearing the neck off. The tank shot across the floor, catching the creature across the legs and knocking it down. Marian thought for a moment that it was finished, but it gave a cry and tried to struggle back to its feet. She began throwing tanks frantically, hitting nearly half the time now. Still the thing came towards her, crawling and shrieking terribly, its body damaged by the combination of Adamant's blast and the impact of the tanks. Still, these things healed supernaturally fast; Marian hoped she could hurt it faster than it regenerated.

        Marian ran out of green tanks and shifted to the nearby stack of red ones. She grabbed a tank and lobbed it at the vampire, knocking the creature down again. Another tank followed, and another, breaking the necks off several of them as they hit the floor, filling the air with a terrible hissing. She was keeping the monster at a distance, but couldn't drive it away. Finally, she dropped another tank clangorously onto the concrete, nudged it into alignment with a hoof, and stamped. It shot away, towards her assailant, trailing sparks. Suddenly, a ball of flame erupted outward from the tank. Marian had time to realize that she had done something stupid, before the fire engulfed her.

        Adamant struggled vainly to free himself. He could barely move, and lacked the strength to push any of the wreckage aside. He kept working at it, even though he realized that he would probably have to wait for help, or even the several hours it would take for the amulet to recharge. Suddenly, there was a blast of heat, and a strange impact that was less like an explosion than a powerful gust of wind. The beams shifted, much of the pile being forced off Adamant. With a wrench of desperate strength, he forced an arm free. In minutes he had wriggled out of the trap, leaving most of his clothing behind in the process. Now, to find Marian.

        He knew which way she had run, and that worried him, because it was also the direction from which the explosion had come. Adamant hoped Marian was all right, but had a dread feeling that she wasn't.

        The work area was a disaster. The blast had ignited every flammable item inside the walls, including cans of tar, filling the place with thick smoke. In what seemed to have been the center of the conflagration Adamant saw the blackened remains of a human, apparently the vampire. About forty feet away was a young woman, naked, lying face down and unmoving. Of Marian there was no sign.

        Adamant wanted to look for her, but the stranger obviously needed help. She must have been Gifted, otherwise she couldn't have survived, but she just as obviously hadn't come through the fire without harm. As Adamant ran to her, he noticed that her skin had a strange, pinkish sheen to it, like the beginning of a sunburn. He knelt down next to the woman, and gently rolled her over. The face seemed strangely familiar, but at first he couldn't place it. Then it hit him like a blow. It was Marian.

        A dozen thoughts tried to run through Adamant's brain at once. He chased them away, concentrating on the need of the moment. The woman, undeniably Marian, had a pulse and was breathing, but was soundly unconscious. The strange flush, which Adamant had originally thought to be from burns, he now realized was caused by the fact that her skin was baby-new, perfect and unblemished.

        He remembered the few examples he knew of a Gifted changing after a near-death experience. In every case, there had been a serious shock to the system, requiring medical care. He looked around, vaguely hoping that the ruckus of the past few minutes might have drawn some attention, but could neither see nor hear any sign that help was approaching.

        Adamant cradled Marian in his arms and stood. He chanted the words that would activate the "City Hall Express" which San Savant had set up for emergencies.

        The expression on Pinky's face as they suddenly appeared in the circle drawn on the conference room floor was priceless. There stood Adamant, nearly naked, holding a young woman, who was completely so. If the situation had been less serious, Adamant would have laughed out loud.

        "That's Marian!" gasped Pinky, before Adamant could say anything.

        She ran ahead of him, opening doors and leading the way to the infirmary. Doctor Swenson looked up, surprised, from dabbing iodine on Kid Power's arm, then abruptly went into medical emergency mode.

        He shooed Kid Power aside and had Adamant put Marian on the table, then chased everyone but his two nurses out, despite Adamant's protests. Then he slammed the door.

        Adamant was pacing back and forth when San Savant, the Wizard and several others arrived.

        "What happened, Ed?" San Savant asked.

        Adamant told them what he knew, then what he had guessed.

        "She must have known that she couldn't get away, and tried something desperate. From the sounds I could hear, there was quite a fight before the explosion, and the vampire looked like it had been pretty well battered in addition to being flash-fried."

        "What's going to happen to her?" asked Mrs. Thomas, Kid Power's mother.

        "We know of at least five similar instances previous to this," San Savant explained to her. "That is, a great physical trauma causing a change in the expression of a person's Gift. In most cases there is a complete recovery. Since, from what Adamant said, Marian appears healthy, I think there's good reason to hope for the best."

        "I wonder what powers she'll have this time?" mused Kid Power.

        Just then the door opened, and Dr. Swenson looked out.

        "Pietr, I need to see you. The rest of you have to stay out here, but I'll leave the door open so you can see."

        As San Savant entered, the others crowded around the doorway to look. Marian, covered now with a sheet, was lying on the examination table, still unconscious. One nurse was taking her blood pressure while the other examined a thermometer. Swenson and San Savant stepped to the far end of the table, near Marian's head, and began talking quietly.

        "My guess is that she'll regain consciousness soon," said Swenson. "I don't know what sort of mental state she'll be in or how she'll react to her change, so I want you here to calm her, and maybe help deal with any new powers she might manifest."

        San Savant nodded. He bent over the young woman.

        "Marian," he said softly. "Marian, can you hear me?"

        Was it his imagination, or had her lips moved slightly? Dr. Swenson motioned the nurses back.

        "Marian, you're safe now," San Savant continued. "Open your eyes. Wake up."

        Marian definitely stirred this time. Then she moaned slightly, and opened her eyes, looking up at San Savant. For a moment this scene held, like a freeze frame. Then, with startling suddenness, four legs and a tail pushed out from under the sheet. The table, with a metallic death cry, collapsed, dumping a kicking Marian unceremoniously on the floor.

        She floundered around for a moment, the clambered to her (four!) feet, clutching the sheet to her torso.

        "Why on earth did you put me on that flimsy table!" she exclaimed. She paused, looking around in confusion. "And how did I get here? And where are my clothes?!"

        There was a confused gabble of explanation, from which Marian managed to extract a few pertinent facts.

        "Wait a moment, you mean I was human again for a while?"

        "Actually, you have always been human," said San Savant.

        "Don't get picky, you know what I mean." She turned to look at her friends, in the room and clustered in the hall. Despite the circumstances, she felt good knowing that there were that many people who cared for her.

        "I have told you before, being stuck as a centaur was most likely caused by the incomplete integration of your Gift," San Savant explained. "Through these past months, that situation has been slowly improving. The physical trauma you have recently undergone was the final stimulus needed to complete the integration."

        "Then why am I still part horse?"

        "Because you awoke expecting to be."

        Marian looked at him doubtfully.

        "You mean that all I have to do is will it, and I'll change back to normal?"

        "Most likely."

        Marian looked from San Savant down at herself, then to the crowd outside. Her friends all knew how much she wanted this and were rooting for her. That was all the encouragement she needed. Marian closed her eyes, and pictured herself as she had been before the Gifting. It was hard to remember her old appearance; she concentrated for several seconds before the image seemed to suddenly lock in. There was a strange feeling throughout her body, a sort of tingling. Then she opened her eyes with a yell, as she started to fall.

        Kid Power, in front because he was shortest, caught her, followed closely by Adamant. A cheer went up. Dizzy, Marian looked down at the two very human feet peeping out from under the sheet. She gave a weak smile, swaying, then turned to Adamant.

        "Watch your hands," she muttered, still smiling.

        "So it's over," said Paul. He took anther drink of coffee, then looked around the conference room at the Gifted and normals there.

        "There have been no signs of any additional vampires since Marian killed that one two days ago," San Savant told him. "Since they can't exist for longer than a day without life energy, this means they are all dead."

        "And the hole is sealed," the Wizard added, in review. "San Savant and I, with several other magically-talented Gifted, have established a system of mystic alarms which will alert us if another such breach occurs at any place on the globe."

        "Good. Now, how is Marian doing?"

        "Quite well, though somewhat disappointed," San Savant told Paul. "She can only maintain human form for a few hours at a time, then reverts to a centaur. I believe that this will improve with practice."

        "So we have a happy ending all around," Red observed.

        "For the most part." San Savant took a swallow of his own coffee, then frowned into the cup, as if seeing something distasteful in the brown liquid. "Most people now realize that the vampires were not our fault, and applaud us for our efforts in destroying them. The Center as a group, and several Gifted as individuals, have received commendations from the Governor of Kentucky and the Mayor of Louisville. There are still a few who believe the Gifted were behind the problem."

        "We don't need 'em," growled Ranger.

        "Be that as it may, we still must make every effort not only to behave in a law abiding manner ourselves, but to help the authorities deal with those Gifted who abuse their Gifts," San Savant told him. "Otherwise, we could find ourselves the subject of a pogrom."

        "Never happen," declared Flow, firmly. "Not in this country."

        "It has happened in this country," Sturdy told her quietly.

        "To the future," announced Red, lifting his can of Mountain Dew, "Prepare for the worst; hope for the best."

The End

    This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: stickmaker@usa.net. Please contact the author for permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.