Marian didn't know what to do with her hands. This was a constant problem since the change, because she no longer needed to swing her arms to provide balance for a two-legged gait. It was especially bothersome when she was nervous, as she was now. She usually settled for folding her arms across her stomach. San Savant was supposed to see her for counseling in a few minutes, and waiting outside his office before one of these sessions always made her tense. Pacing might have helped, except that there were several people in the lobby area of the Center for Gifted Research, most of them strangers, and Marian was afraid of stepping on someone. Besides, being a centaur was bad enough without having people think she was a neurotic as well.
Finally, the door opened. Lucille Pierce, also known as Cinnamon Girl, came out, filling the air with her delicious scent. Except for the minor side effect of producing that distinctive aroma, Lucille had complete control over her powers. This was true for most of the several hundred people directly affected by the mysterious event which had come to be known as the Gifting. Unfortunately, though her Gift itself caused her little trouble, Lucille was currently having problems with her family. Her parents and sister were reluctant to accept that she had changed. They either tried to pretend that nothing had happened, or avoided her. To get help in dealing with both reactions, she had scheduled a series of counseling sessions with San Savant.
"Good morning," said Lucille, looking up at Marian as she held the door open for her.
"Good morning," Marian responded, smiling in spite of her own troubles. Lucille's ability to manipulate pheromones made it difficult to be anything but happy in her presence.
"Good morning," called San Savant, as Marian entered. His greeting contained a carefully calculated amount of restrained cheerfulness. "What did you want to talk to me about?"
Marian was grateful to see that one of the pads she used was positioned in front of his desk. She stalled by settling herself on it, carefully folding her four legs under her. Even in this position, she was nearly as tall as San Savant. At half a ton in weight and nearly eight feet tall, Marian was probably the largest human on earth... if you could still count her as human.
"You remember that I told you about what I did to that service station attendant," she began, finally, referring to an event from a few days before, when she had lifted a rude pump jockey off the ground by the front of his shirt. "That is just one example of the acts I have been committing lately which disturb me."
"In what way are they disturbing?"
Marian spread her hands, trying to find the right words.
"That sort of aggressive behavior just isn't me! I mean, the actions seem natural and right at the time, but later the things I do or almost do appall me."
San Savant had her give a few more examples, then thought for a moment.
"This could be one of two things." He looked off into the distance, rubbing his chin. "You could simply be taking your frustrations over your change out on the most immediate irritant. Or, the increased vitality of your new form could be acting as a stimulant. You told me yourself that you now feel as energetic and restless as you did when you were a child."
"That could be," said Marian, slowly, "but I also know that some Gifts bring mental changes."
"And you are worried that you might no longer be your own master." San Savant smiled sympathetically. "Well, since you have so far refrained from hurting anyone and are disturbed by your uncharacteristic actions and thoughts, I would say that your Gift does not include a change in mental patterns."
They talked for several more minutes, then Marian had to make way for the next session. She was somewhat reassured, but still unsettled.
On the way out, Marian ran into Bodystocking, previously known as Celia Dobbs. She was now permanently intangible, but had the ability to animate flat sheets of material, wrapping them around her like a second skin. In this state she looked like a hairless woman wearing a head-to-toe, skin-tight costume. Marian looked askance at Bodystocking's current garment.
"Wall paper?" asked Marian. "Worse yet, flower pattern wall paper?"
"Never mind how I look," snapped Bodystocking, surprising Marian. The young woman usually knew how to take a joke. "I've been trying to find you. Kiddo stupidly parked on the grass this morning, and now his car is stuck."
"Kiddo" was Martin Thurber, a twenty-eight year old accountant whose Gift had regressed him to the physical age of eight. It was too early to tell if he would grow naturally. Martin had been heard to remark that he didn't know which would be worse; staying eight forever or going through puberty again.
"Why not get Sturdy to help?" It was a reasonable question. Sturdy was over a hundred times as strong as a normal man.
"He's off on a mission," replied Bodystocking. "So is Flow, or I would ask her to change into an elephant or something. You're the only person strong enough who's handy."
Marian's Gift wasn't all bad. She was even stronger than she looked, and could run faster than a thoroughbred. Also, like most Gifted, she could heal completely and quickly from any non-fatal injury, never got sick and was in perfect physical condition.
"All right," sighed Marian, "let's get it over with."
Marian was dreaming of thunder. As usual, she slept on her waterbed, the largest she had been able to find, with the equine part of her body laid along one edge and her human torso at ninety degrees to it, parallel to the headboard. Her legs were folded against her underside, her arms wrapped around a pillow.
There was a sudden shock that set the water in the mattress sloshing. That woke Marian. At first she thought the noises she still heard were part of a real thunderstorm she had simply inserted into her dream. Then she realized that the sounds were more like dull explosions. She lumbered out of the bed and onto her feet. A quick glance at her clock showed that it was just after 4:00 AM. Grabbing a robe from the coatrack, she went out into the hall. Many of the inhabitants of the Center were already up and about, some milling around in confusion, others simply peeking out of their doorways. Like Marian, most of the dozen or so people staying at the Center for Gifted Research had some problem with their Gift which made it awkward for them to live normally.
There was yelling in the distance. Marian couldn't catch the words, but they sounded urgent. There was another jolt, and the lights flickered. The strange pounding noises stopped after that, but the yelling continued.
"What's going on?" yelled Bodystocking, near panic.
Marian decided to see. She ran down the stairway ramps to the lobby, and found that several members of the Center staff were already there. Sturdy and San Savant were shouting orders to members of the Center's volunteer troubleshooting team, while Pinky was busy on the phone.
Flow ran past Marian, heading for the stairs.
"The Monster is loose!" she shouted, answering the obvious question before Marian could ask it.
That was bad news, indeed. The Monster was a Gifted mass murderer, horrendously strong and tough, and mindlessly violent. He had been placed in a special cell in the basement of the Center, after police had realized that no jail would hold him. Marian shivered. From what she had heard, the Monster could tear her apart, despite her own great strength.
The Monster been in the Center for two months, and had long ago given up trying to batter down the door to his room. According to what Marian was able to gather, something, no one knew what, had set him off again. This time, instead of attacking the door, he had turned his attentions to the reinforced concrete basement wall. This still should have held him, but he had somehow broken through and burrowed to the surface.
Marian heard San Savant calling her, and trotted over to see what he wanted.
"We are forming search teams," he told her. "Each team will have one person who can delay the Monster and another who can quickly summon help. I want you to go with Adamant."
That was unexpected. The members of San Savant's taskforce were used to violence and danger, but Marian wasn't. She started to refuse, but the thought of the Monster free among the suburbs near the Center made her hesitate. Then, surprising herself, she nodded.
Marian and Adamant started with the others, at the hole in the ground where the Monster had emerged. Marian had taken the time to put on her warm-up top, with a light jacket over it. Due to her bulk, low temperatures didn't affect Marian much. Adamant was wearing his usual shorts, T-shirt and running shoes, despite the cold of the night. Low temperatures didn't bother the indestructible man at all. After receiving their final instructions, the five teams took off. Marian and Adamant headed North, moving at Adamant's quickest pace.
Although Marian was far faster, Adamant never tired, and could move at a dead run until he had to sleep. She found herself forced to alternate between her walk and her trot. Bipedal locomotion was continuously variable, but quadrupedal creatures, such as Marian now was, were limited by anatomy to certain paces. Still, the unlikely pair made very good time.
They had gone nearly a mile before finding the first sign of anything unusual. A chain link fence beside a four lane divided highway had a section torn down.
"Ed, should I go back and tell the others?"
"No." Adamant, used to making decisions under fire, had already made up his mind. "We aren't sure this was actually done by him, and even if it was, we better find him first."
Marian jumped nimbly over the deep, concrete lined ditches on each side of the road, Adamant following as best he could. On the other side they found more evidence: something had broken through the white plank fence separating the large back yard of a fancy house from the road. As Marian looked ahead, she spotted a figure walking quickly towards the open field on the other side of the yard.
"Is that him?"
"Where?" Adamant peered into the shadows, shielding his eyes from the nearby street light.
Marian, like many Gifted, had excellent night vision. She was surprised that Adamant didn't. Suddenly, her partner stiffened.
"That's him! Hurry, he's getting away!"
"You better get on," said Marian, offering him a hand.
This was the first time anyone had actually been on her back, and Marian found the sensation uncomfortable. Fortunately, Adamant, though not a great horseman, had ridden before. He clamped his legs around her barrel and wrapped his arms around her torso, getting a good hold. Marian started off at a trot, then shifted to a canter when it seemed that the Monster might drop out of sight behind a small rise.
Marian got her first good look at their quarry as they topped the rise. The Monster didn't appear very threatening. He was a small, slim man dressed in ragged, dirty clothes, and from the expression on his face he seemed more like a lost child than someone who had killed and mutilated at least twenty-three people. However, there was something about those vacant eyes which sent a chill through Marian.
The Monster heard their approach and turned to watch them. Adamant stopped Marian about twenty yards from the fugitive and slipped to the ground.
"Get out of here," said Adamant. "I'll keep him busy."
Marian didn't argue, but wheeled and ran. She had covered about a hundred yards when something struck her a glancing blow on the left side. She went head over hooves. As Marian struggled to rise, she felt a sharp pain in her equine chest.
"Are you all right?" It was Adamant, jumping to his feet from where he had landed ahead of her. "He threw me at you!"
"I can't... breath..."
"He knocked the wind out of you." Adamant paused and looked back towards the Monster, who was steadily advancing on them. The indestructible man looked both angry and determined. "Listen, get to the ditch and lie down. I'm going to take this guy out."
With that he ran towards the Monster. Marian managed to get to her feet in spite of the pain, and moved at a fast walk back towards the highway. She glanced over her shoulder as she went, and saw Adamant tackle the Monster, knocking him to the ground. He then straddled the madman and began systematically pummeling him. Adamant's strength was only human, but he had boxed some in college and could put his full strength into every blow, without tiring or fear of injury.
Somehow, Marian managed a trot. She had almost made it back to the board fence when a bright flash split the night. This was closely followed by a sound like a giant firecracker, and a shockwave which nearly pushed Marian off balance.
She turned, gasping at the pain which stabbed her side, and ran back towards the fight. It was all over long before she got there. The Monster lay unmoving near the edge of a large burned spot. Adamant, naked except for a large medallion on a chain around his neck, was sitting on the opposite side of the scorch.
"Uh, can I borrow your jacket?"
"How did you..."
Adamant fingered the medallion, grinning like a boy with a new train set.
"San Savant got it for me, after I kept complaining about not having enough offensive capability." He laughed. "It's a defective magic item. Instead of releasing its energy in a controlled fashion, it all lets go at once. Nearly killed the guy who made it."
As Adamant tied the jacket around his waist, a huge, leathery form glided silently overhead, then banked and returned to land nearby.
"You got him," said Wurm, apparently not surprised.
Marian shivered, although the incongruity of an eighteen year old girl's voice coming from a dragon helped dilute the sinister image a bit.
"You'd better carry him to the Center," said Adamant. "Marian's hurt, so we may be a while getting back."
The dragon nodded solemnly, seized the Monster in a hind claw, and took to the air.
"I lost one of my shoes," said Marian, absently. "And one of the others is loose."
Although she was wrapped in blankets and sipping hot soup from an oversized mug, Marian couldn't seem to stop shivering.
"I really blew it, didn't I?"
"Nonsense," said San Savant. "From what Adamant told me, you did quite well."
Marian's injury had been diagnosed as a pair of cracked ribs, nothing serious but rather painful. Now she was in the lobby at the Center, along with the rest of the volunteers and some of the guests. Wurm, back in her human form of Christine Criswold, was gamely trying to stay awake on the couch beside Marian.
"Listen, champ, anyone can have a bit of bad luck." Sturdy shrugged his massive shoulders.
"Yeah," said Flow, putting her arm around Marian, "what's important is that you helped capture a dangerous menace."
"Well, I know one thing," said Marian. "I am no longer worried about being overly aggressive. After tonight, I'll think twice before swatting a fly."
"What I want to know," said Sturdy, "is why San Savant doesn't just remove his powers."
Marian had wondered that herself. This solution had been offered to her shortly after San Savant had begun working at the Center. Anyone could work magic since the Gifting, and some people, such as San Savant, had received a talent for it. With that talent, San Savant had quickly worked out a way of removing a person's Gift. Marian had considered the offer, then refused it. There was a chance that getting rid of her Gift might not return her to her normal form, leaving her a centaur without the benefits of being Gifted.
"Taking the Gift from a willing subject is mildly hazardous but usually successful," San Savant explained. "Taking it from an unwilling person would most likely be fatal."
Wurm had dropped off to sleep. Marian was tempted to join her, but it was nearly time to get up anyway. Marian sighed and rose to get ready for work.
Later, after things had settled down and everyone else had either returned to bed or gone to work, Adamant went to San Savant's office. The older man motioned him to be seated.
"What did you want to see me about?" asked Adamant.
"The Monster could not have broken out of his cell without help," said San Savant. "I just finished confirming this. Someone cast a spell to weaken the barriers I had erected, and another to incite him to escape."
"Do you know who it was?"
San Savant shook his head.
"I could tell that it was done from a distance, most likely though a skrying device. I could not trace the culprit."
"Could it be von Druben again?" Adamant looked thoughtful, as he recalled the last time the rogue wizard had troubled them. "If so, we'll have to warn the Lexington Contingent."
"This is not his style." San Savant sighed and rubbed his eyes, feeling a tiredness that was due to more than simple lack of sleep. "I fear that we have a new enemy. Or an old one who has gained new power."
"Whatever it is, we can deal with it," he announced confidently. "Either alone, or with help from our friends."
"I hope you are right," San Savant replied. "I sincerely hope you are right."
This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith,
who can be reached at: email@example.com. Please contact the author for
permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.