The Transformation Story Archive The Gifted Saga

The Secret

by Bob Stein

(NOTE: This story uses characters and the background premise from Rod Smith's "Gifted Saga" game and stories - used with permission of the originator)

John opened the office door quietly, and stuck his head in. His new boss was engrossed in a pile of real estate paperwork, and didn't notice the intrusion. She looked like an attractive, but reasonably average woman, an illusion created by his location and her custom-built desk. When she stood up, she was not only more than 8 feet tall, she stood on four hooves. He had the distinction of working for what was reputed to be the only centaur in existence.

Even now, no one knew what had happened other than the fact that magic had reappeared in the world with an explosion which had leveled a small island in the Florida Keys. The "blast" wave from the explosion had swept out across the world, harmless to most of the billions of people on the planet. Only a few thousand had been "gifted" the new magic, and of those only a handful had been so totally transformed as Marian Holst.

Below the waist, she had the full body of a young mare, and the human torso above it was proportional. He'd been more than a little surprised when he showed up for the interview, but was open-minded enough to accept her as a person. Although it had only been a couple of weeks, he felt pretty comfortable with her - except for times like this. She had given strict orders to be left alone while she prepared for a big meeting. And it wasn't fun to interrupt someone who could toss her desk at him as easily as a pencil. He cleared his throat politely to get her attention. "Excuse me, Ms. Holst. I know you didn't want to be disturbed, but there's a Dr. Randal on the phone who insists on talking with you."

Marion looked up with a frown which the young man immediately cringed at. When she saw his reaction, she laughed and pushed the pile of real estate paperwork aside. "Save the 'Ms. Holst' for when I have customers, John. As long as it's just us, please call me Marian. Unless you want me to start calling you 'Mr. Rhoads' all the time?" The young man flushed, and shook his head. "No, I'll try to remember, Ms. ... uh, Marion. What about Dr. Randal?"

"Oh, put her through. I need a break from this mess anyway." She grinned as the head vanished from her doorway. Her own boss loved to tease her about her new "Boy Friday," but John was a very intelligent and capable young man. And he was one of the few people she had interviewed that hadn't freaked when they found out she was a centaur. Of course, the fact that he was good-looking didn't hurt.

She sighed and stretched, shifting the bulk of the mare's body which lay heavily on the thick mat behind the desk. It had been more than four years since she had seen or talked to Dr. Randal. The physician had been responsible for putting Marian in touch with the Institute, an action which had saved her sanity, if not her life. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since the Monday afternoon when she was suddenly transformed from a very human mother and wife into a four-legged creature of myth.

The phone buzzed, and she picked it up. "Marian Holst." The was a moment's hesitation on the other end. "Ms. Holst? This is Dr. Lynn Randal. We met a few years ago at the clinic - after you were, uh, gifted?" Marian had to smile. "Of course, Dr. Randal. It's been quite a while." After the normal pleasantries, the conversation wound down to an awkward silence which Dr. Randal finally broke. "Look, I'm sorry to bother you. But a friend of mine has a, well, a real problem that you might be able to help with. Are you still working with the Institute?"

Marian was puzzled. The Doctor knew how to get in touch with the director of the Institute directly. Why involve her? "Well, I'm not living there anymore, but I do keep in touch. What's the problem?" There was another silence. "Dr. Randal? Are you there?"

It took another moment for Randal to answer. "I'm sorry, Ms. Holst. This is very - awkward - for me. The problem involves one of the 'gifted.' An old friend of mine has been taking care of him ever since, well, ever since 'it' happened." There was another pause. "Could we possibly meet with you somewhere? He really needs to talk to someone about this, and you are the best person I could think of."

Marian was reluctant to get involved, but she did owe Randal something. Besides, she was a little curious about a problem which involved one of the gifted. "How about coming to my office after lunch? We can have some privacy." Randal must have been hoping for just that arrangement, and enthusiastically accepted.

Her visitors arrived promptly at 1 p.m., and were ushered in by John. Randal must have prepared her friend for the meeting, as he showed none of the awe or shock she was used to seeing in strangers. If anything, he seemed somehow relieved by her unusual appearance.

Randal looked pretty much the way Marian remembered her, perhaps a little heavier. She had to suppress a grin at that thought. As if someone with the body of a healthy mare had room to talk about weight! Her companion was an older man, perhaps in his sixties. Another doctor, this one was a family practitioner named William Kilpatrick. After Randal had made the introductions, she sat back and looked expectantly at Kilpatrick.

He sighed, and stared intently at Marian. "What I am about to tell you is a breech of confidence. I suspect that it will cause me quite a bit of professional headaches, and possibly some legal trouble. If you decide that you cannot help me, I ask that you do not repeat any of this." She nodded her head, and he continued.

"I have a small practice, mostly wealthy families on the West End who like a doctor who still makes house calls. I've had some of them as patients for almost 40 years now." He paused a moment, and looked down at the floor. "Some of us are very close friends now, and I've stretched rules a bit ever now and then to help. But there is only one thing I'm ashamed of." He sighed again, steeling himself, and then sat up. "The son of one of my patients was changed by the gifting, as you were. At the request of his parents, I have kept him completely sedated for the past four years."

"What?" Marian bolted upright. Kilpatrick shriveled under her accusing glare, suddenly looking much older. "The boy's change was monstrous - his mind was affected, and he got violent. At first, the sedation was for his own good. Later, well, his parents begged me to keep him under."

Marian rose to all fours, staring down at the man in disbelief. "And you agreed? You actually kept him drugged all this time?" Kilpatrick nodded glumly. "The boy was a minor. They had the legal right, and if I didn't do it they might have gotten some quack. At least I could watch after Toby's health."

"So why the change of heart?" Marian couldn't hide the contempt in her voice. "They quit paying you?" Anger and pain flashed across the man's face, and she immediately regretted the outburst. He gripped the chair with white knuckles, and Randal jumped up in outrage. "How dare you? Don't you understand the risk he is taking?"

Kilpatrick grabbed her arm. "No, Lynn. Ms. Holst is right. I never should have agreed to it. Or continued hiding this for so long." He waited for her to sit back down before he continued. "Toby was 14 when he was, uh, 'gifted.' Lynn told me what happened with your family when you were transformed. Believe me when I tell you that Toby's change was much, much worse than yours."

The image of her own children backing away in terror flashed in Marion's mind, and she shuddered involuntarily. Even after four years, they still wouldn't accept her as the mother who had loved them. Who still loved them. Kilpatrick nodded grimly, guessing her feelings. "Toby's parents didn't actually see the change. He was alone in the family room, but his mother ran in when she heard him scream. When she saw what was in there, she grabbed a gun and shot him. She didn't realize who it was until she recognized the scraps of clothing on the floor."

Kilpatrick shook his head sadly. "They called me in a panic. By then, the gifting had been on the news, so I had some idea of what happened. But when I saw Toby..." His voice quavered a bit as he continued. "The room was destroyed, bookcases and furniture shattered into splinters. And lying in the middle of everything was this huge, bleeding monster. The bullet wound wasn't really serious. I think Toby was more in shock from knowing his own mother had shot him."

Kilpatrick sighed. "He was such a wonderful boy. A high school junior at 14, a straight A student. And he loved reading, and playing games on the computer. The thing that he became was violent, destructive, and unable to read, write, or even speak. All because of this 'gifting'." He spat the word out.

Marian was puzzled. "I've seen more of the gifted than most people, Doctor, and few of them have been changed mentally, at least in a negative way. And regardless of whatever the changes were, they were always connected some way with a desire or dream that person had. Even in my case." She indicated the horse's body below her waist. "When I was a little girl, I used to dream about being a horse, and even pretended to be one. I guess I never really got over that fantasy, and when the Gifting affected me, this was the result."

The Doctor nodded glumly. "I read everything I could about the gifting, trying to figure out what had happened with Toby. I know things weren't all that great for him at school. It was hard for him to relate to his classmates, since most of them were a couple of years older. And the kids his age pretty much shut him out because he was going to high school. But I couldn't figure out what would change him into such a horrible.. thing.

"His parents begged me to keep Toby's condition secret. With the media circus that was going on then, I thought it would be best for Toby as well, at least at first. The same with the sedation. He was so violent and destructive that I had to keep him knocked to keep him from hurting himself."

Marian snorted. "If he is anything like I am, there was more risk to the furniture than to him. Besides, there were places like the Institute. Why didn't you send him there?"

Kilpatrick looked down at the floor, wringing his hands. "His parents refused to give me permission to even ask. They converted the basement into a kind of hospital room, and hired a nurse to take care of him. Everyone else got told that Toby had been sent off to school somewhere in Europe."

"And he's been a prisoner there for four years?" Marian couldn't keep the hostility from her voice. "It's bad enough that you have helped. How could they do that to their own child?"

He shrugged. "I don't think they have ever really accepted what happened. Neither of them have been down to the room in more than two years, and his mother talks like she is starting to believe her own lies about Toby being in Europe. His father wasn't involved much even before the change. Typical corporate type, I guess. And now he spends even more time away from the house."

Marian frowned, angry, yet also understanding a little bit. Her own children and husband had abandoned her, and at least she had been recognizable from the waist up. If this boy's change was as bad as the Doctor described, his parents had nothing they could link with the child they remembered. "So, what do you want from me?" Her voice was still harsh, despite her best efforts to remain calm.

"Today is Toby's 18th birthday. That means he is legally an adult, and can make his own decisions." Kilpatrick straightened in the chair, and met her gaze directly. "I stopped the sedatives more than a month ago, and Toby is awake and staying calm. His parent's don't know, but the nurse who takes care of him and I have been working out a sort of sign language. He tries to talk to us, but all he can do is make noises like some... animal."

"I want to take him out of there today, but I need help. Not with his parents. I think I can take care of that. Toby is the one who will resist. He thinks of himself as a freak, a monster alone in the world. If you could come with us, and show him that he isn't the only one who ..." Kilpatrick stopped, and flushed. "I'm sorry, Ms. Holst. I don't mean to imply that you are a monster, or.."

Marian silenced him with a gesture. "You don't have to explain, Doctor. Or lie. I'm used to stares and whispers, even now. I don't get mad anymore. I just feel sorry for those poor, ignorant people who can't deal with anything different from what they consider normal. Where would you take him?"

"I bought a small farm outside the city. It is remote, and has a lot of wooded land around it. And I've fixed up the house so that he would be comfortable there."

Marian's expression softened somewhat. "You really care about him, don't you?" Kilpatrick's eyes brimmed with tears, and he swallowed hard. "I haven't been able to get him out of my mind since this whole mess started. I'm sure that Toby is still there, somewhere inside. And he deserves more than being locked away in a cell."

Both Kilpatrick and Randal were staring at her now. She glanced at the pile of paperwork on her desk, thinking of the major clients who were due here in an hour. Damn. Then she shook her head and hit the intercom button.

"Yes, Ms. Holst?" John's voice was tinny and distant on the speaker. "Cancel my appointment with the Hughes group. Tell them something unexpected came up, and try to reschedule for anytime tomorrow." To his credit, John didn't ask any questions. "I'll call right away."

Marian turned back to her visitors. "All right, Doctors. We'll take my van. And I'll tell you now that if Toby wants to leave, he is leaving that house today." Kilpatrick started to protest, but she cut him off. "This situation has gone on for too long already. Four years too long. It's time to end it."

She gestured towards the door. "Please wait outside just a moment. I have to make a quick call before we go." After her guests had left, she sighed and picked up the phone and tapped out a number. The phone on the other end was answered almost immediately by the Institute's ever-present receptionist. Marian cleared her throat. "Hi, Pinky. It's Marian. I've got a situation..."

The ride out to West End was quiet, except for occasional directions from Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick did tell her a little more about the parents. Arthur and Janice Wood were the proverbial pillars of the community, involved in most of the socially-proper activities and functions. Both came from wealthy families, though they had actually built a considerable fortune of their own by careful investment and hard work.

Toby had been quite a surprise to a childless couple already in their late 30s, and was raised by a succession of nannies and governesses while his parents returned to their business activities. Kilpatrick assured Marian that both mother and father had loved the boy very much, and had taken great pride in his achievements. She snorted, but made no comment.

Despite her anger, Marian couldn't help being impressed by the estate. The house was a huge southern-style mansion, complete with white columns and brightly-colored gardens. It was set far back from the entrance gate, which was controlled by a uniformed guard. He passed them through after Kilpatrick assured him it was all right, but Marian saw him pick up the phone as they drove in.

She pulled up next to a burgundy Mercedes convertible with personalized plates reading "J. Wood." The owner was already coming down the front steps when Kilpatrick and Randal got out. Janice Wood was an attractive woman in her early fifties, with reddish-brown hair and bright blue eyes which were presently clouded with anger. "I wasn't expecting you until later, Bill" She spoke in a cold, clipped voice. "And I certainly didn't expect you to bring... guests."

Before Kilpatrick could answer, Marian slid the side door open and stepped out of the van. There was a moment of silence, and then Wood exploded. "Get that monster out of here! How dare you, Bill!" She backed away in obvious terror, ready to run at the first sign of attack. "Go away, all of you, before I call the police!" Marian looked at the woman with utter contempt. "Go ahead and call, Mrs. Wood. I'm sure they will be more interested in child abuse than us."

Wood froze, and then fixed Kilpatrick with an accusing stare. "You bastard! After all these years, how could you betray us? And to bring this, this monstrosity to my house!" The old man flinched, but held his ground. "Toby is 18 today, Janice. He has the right to decide what to do with his own life."

"That - thing - in there HAS no life!" Wood was shrieking now, her eyes wild. "It's a monster, an animal.." Marian gave her an accusing stare. "He's your son, Mrs. Wood." Kilpatrick hesitated, but then faced Wood squarely. "Toby has been awake for a month, and is alert and communicating. If you don't let us see him right now, Janice, I'll report this first to the police, and then... to the newspapers."

The woman wilted, and Marion was nauseated by utter disgust when she realized it was the threat of publicity, not legal trouble, which Wood was responding too. "Go in then, damn you. But I am calling Arthur, and you will not do anything until he gets here." Wood did not conceal the hatred in her voice, and the centaur shivered involuntarily to know that much of the hostility was directed towards her.

The woman stormed back up the stairs, and the group followed. Marian managed the wide, low steps easily, and the double doors were more than adequate for her to walk through. Her hooves left deep impressions in the carpet as she followed Kilpatrick through an impressive grand hallway with sweeping curved staircases. She couldn't keep her real estate broker's mind from mentally calculating the value of the home, at least until it passed the million dollar mark.

The hallway leading to the back was normal sized, and she had to duck to get through the doorway at the end. She was a little concerned about how she would get down to the basement, and was considering switching to human form when Kilpatrick stopped in front of a security keypad next to double doors. He punched in a series of numbers, and pulled the doors open to reveal a wide ramp. "He's down here. I had them build this in case he ever needed emergency treatment. Though I don't really know where we could take him."

The ramp led down to a large open room containing a wide variety of medical equipment. The Wood's certainly hadn't spared any expense to keep Toby in good health. A large black man, about 40, met them and gestured upward. "Mrs. Wood gave me orders not to let anyone in until Mr. Wood got here. Sorry." Although he gave Marian a longer look than the others, the man was surprisingly comfortable with the centauress.

Kilpatrick nodded. "I know, Danny. I guess the traitors can follow orders one last time, eh?" The black man shook his head and smiled sadly. "I hope Toby decides to go to your place, Doc. I won't get much of a reference from the Woods after today." Kilpatrick turned to the two women. "This is Daniel Sanborne, one of the best home care nurses in the business. He's been taking care of Toby almost since the day he changed."

Randal and Marian introduced themselves, and then looked around the room. Everything was sterile and functional, adding to the hospital-like atmosphere. The door to Toby's area was oversized, with a second entrance to the left which led to Danny's apartment. The nurse pulled out chairs for the two humans, and shrugged apologetically to Marian. "Sorry, Miss. I'm not really set up for company, especially, uh, unusual guests."

Marian smiled. "I run into the problem all the time. I'm comfortable standing." She picked up a framed photograph of a sandy-haired young boy from the desk. Average-looking, maybe a little thin, with thick glasses and freckles. "That's Toby. Or at least how he looked - before." Danny sighed and shook his head sadly. "All the staff told me he was a great kid. Very quiet and polite, wouldn't hurt a fly. I've only seen him since, well, since he was changed, and most of that time he's been asleep."

He leaned against a cabinet. "You're the first person I've seen that was anything like Toby. 'Course, even like that you're a pretty woman." The nurse looked thoughtful for a moment, and then cocked his head. "How do people react to you, Ms. Holst? I mean, seeing a centaur on the streets? Do they treat you OK?"

She sighed. "Well, I suppose I get treated about the same as anyone else, sometimes even better. But there are a lot of stares. People tend to be uncomfortable with anyone who is different." He nodded. "I see it all the time with patients who are handicapped. Especially those with obvious mental problems. I don't mean crazy, or anything like that. I mean people who are retarded, or who can't control their bodies." He shook his head sadly. "It's like they think a handicap makes a person not human."

Kilpatrick looked at his watch, and then gestured towards a section of wall next to the door. "It'll be a while before Arthur gets here, Danny. Can we let them have a look?" Danny shrugged and went to a control panel by his desk. "She didn't say anything about not letting you look." He pressed a switch, and the lights suddenly dimmed as the wall slid open to expose a huge window.

"It's a one-way mirror. His parents used to watch him for hours at a time, even though they wouldn't go into the room." Randal gasped, and even Marion was startled by the huge, dark figure which was revealed. Toby was standing directly in front of them, although he showed no sign of seeing them. Kilpatrick watched his patient for a bit, and then sighed. "That's all he does. Stare in the mirror. Sometimes we can get him to communicate, but usually he just stands there and look at himself." Randal shook her head in horror. "Oh, God. He's a, a... " Marian completed the sentence. "Minotaur."

She had seen many of the "Gifted," but never one that was so different. Despite her size, Toby was actually taller and more massive-looking. The first impression was that of a huge bull somehow standing on its hind legs, but he was obviously a humanoid. True, his chest barreled out and his legs and head looked almost fully bovine. But the incredibly muscled arms and massive, four-fingered hands belonged to no bull. And the eyes. Marian shivered. His eyes were red, not bloodshot, but actually red with large black pupils.

A thick glossy coat of black fur covered his body, and they could see the ropy tail which twitched slightly between the legs. Danny was a bit embarrassed by what else was also plainly visible. "I've tried to get him to wear something, but he just pulls off whatever I put on him. He isn't, uh, well, able to control his bodily functions."

Tears streamed down Marian's face as she was overwhelmed by grief. Despite her strong front, she'd never completely shaken the feeling of being a freak since she was gifted. Compared to this poor child, her transformation was nothing. "Oh, God. And locked up alone all this time." Her voice cracked, and she began to sob.

Danny quickly produced a handful of tissues, and she managed to pull herself back together. It was comforting to note that the two men and Randal also had wet faces. "Damn! This isn't going to help." She pulled out a compact and tried to fix her makeup. "I'm glad you let us see him first. I can handle it now."

It wasn't the boy's appearance that had moved her to tears so much as the awful loneliness and despair which seemed to emanate from him. Her own transformation had stemmed from childhood fantasies. What dark dreams had caused this child's monstrous form? She twisted to look at Kilpatrick. "Do you have any idea why he might have changed like this? The gifting always draws changes from the person's own desires. We've had people who have changed sex, gotten larger or smaller, even a man who became a child. But nothing like this."

It was Danny who answered. "Let me show you something, Ms. Holst." He went into his apartment, and emerged with a large cardboard box. "When I first came here, Mrs. Wood had the maid clean up Toby's room. She found this stuff hidden under his bed, and gave it to me. I kept it in case he ever wanted it."

Kilpatrick stared at the nurse. "You never told me anything about this. Why?" Danny set the box down on the desk and shrugged. "Until a month ago, you were the one keeping him sedated. I didn't figure it mattered, anyway. But if it helps to know why he looks like that..." He opened the box and pulled out a small, painted object. Marian recognized the general type. It was one of those role-playing game figurines that her own children used to play with. The nurse handed it to her so she could get a better look. It was a minotaur, carefully painted to match the living creature on the other side of the glass.

The nurse pulled out some books and sheets of paper and stared at them. "As best I can figure, Toby got into playing one of those dungeon games on the computer. He created this minotaur character about a year before he changed, and had all sorts of stuff for it." He handed one of the pieces of paper to Marian. "This is the description. It has everything on it. There's even a scar on his back to match one his character got in a game battle."

Grugzerk. That was the name of the fictional minotaur Toby had made up. Although she had never played the games herself, Marian knew a little about how they worked. One person described where the players were and acted as their five senses, reporting everything they experienced. Her own boys had spent hours pretending to be knights and wizards, though they had been too young to play the real games.

It was suddenly obvious to her what had happened. As a minotaur, Toby was powerful, respected, and even had friends of a sort in the form of disembodied characters he adventured with. His monstrous form was linked to the things his human body and intelligence desperately wanted, but didn't have. And the gifting had used those feelings to make his character real.

She tried to follow the numbers and codes on the sheet, but couldn't make sense of it. "Do you have any idea what all this means?" Danny nodded. "I had my nephew look at it. The six numbers at the top are his strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, and charisma. The highest score is supposed to be 18, and the lowest is 3. My nephew said it was a great character."

Marian looked at the numbers again. The two-letter codes next to them made sense now. "ST" meant strength, which was listed at 19. "I thought you said the highest score was 18?" Danny shrugged. "I don't really understand it, either. My nephew said something about trading intelligence for strength, but it's just gobbledygook to me."

She looked down the rest of the list. Intelligence was 13, wisdom - 9, constitution - 17, dexterity - 12, and charisma - 7. Something about the numbers bothered her. If the range was 3 to 18, that meant that a medium score was about 10. If he had really become the creature described on the sheet, then...

Her thought was interrupted by heavy footsteps from the ramp. Arthur Wood stormed into the room, followed by his wife. The lean, impeccably groomed man blinked a bit when he saw Marian, but then whirled towards the doctor. "Damn you, Kilpatrick. What are you trying to do to us? It's bad enough that we have - this - to deal with. Why do you have to parade our misery in front of ... Oh, God!" He stared at the glass. "It's awake!" Mrs. Wood shrank back, turning her head away. "I was so upset, I didn't think to tell you. John said he's been awake for more than a month!"

"Shit!" The man spun and advanced on Kilpatrick. "I told you not to bring him around. Ever!" Marian thrust herself between them, knocking Wood backwards with enough force to make him stumble. Her eyes were blazing, and Wood was smart enough to recognize both rage and extreme danger. Whatever loathing Marian had felt for the mother paled in comparison, and she approached him stiffly. "You son-of-a-bitch." The words were hissed through clenched teeth. "You locked your own child away in this glass cage, kept him unconscious for four years, and you think HE'S a monster?"

Wood backed away from her until he was flattened against the wall, his own anger replaced with growing fear. "Get away from me! I'll have you arrested, I'll call the police, I'll.." He stopped his tirade as Marian pressed her equine chest against him and placed one hoof squarely on one of the imported leather shoes. She glared down at him, barely able to repress the desire to do physical damage. "If you are lucky, Mr. Wood, we might not call the police. Not to save you any problems, but to make things easier for Toby. But we are going in there now to talk to him. And I am going to do my best to get him to leave this hell-hole. If you say or do anything to interfere, I swear to God that I will break every bone in your miserable body!"

The man nodded wordlessly, his face white. As Marian backed away, she took bitter pleasure in the evidence that he had soiled his Armani suit. Her friends at the Institute would have been shocked to see her like this. She was always the calm one, the one who didn't lose control. But this was a boy suffering like no other boy in the world. The pain of losing her own children only fueled the compassion she felt.

There was a small click from the door to Toby's quarters, and Danny pulled it open. "Let's go in now." The parents backed away, clutching each other's hands in miserable hatred. Marian gave them a defiant stare and followed Kilpatrick and the nurse into the room.

At first, the huge figure didn't seem to notice them. Kilpatrick approached him and gently touched a fur-covered wrist. "I've brought some friends, Toby. People who want to help you." The bull's ear twitched, and then he turned to face them. The eerie eyes widened when they saw Marian, and Toby took a step forward and grunted in surprise.

"Hello, Toby." Marian smiled and walked towards him slowly with her hand extended. Despite his imposing appearance, the minotaur backed away from her. She stopped, her hand still extended. "I know you're not dumb, Toby. I saw the character sheet. Grugzerk's character sheet." The animal snout couldn't show emotion, but his lips twisted slightly as he attempted some sort of expression. The others looked at her curiously.

"The figure for intelligence was 13. I don't know much about the game, but if average is 10, that means you are still smarter than average. Maybe not as smart as you were, but smarter than most." When there was no reaction, she dropped her hand. "You can't talk because your mouth is all wrong, maybe your vocal chords, too. But there are other ways to communicate. Writing, maybe." Toby raised one of his hands, displaying the thick, hoof-like fingers. "They probably don't work like human hands, either. But you have fingers, and that means you can learn how to use them."

She reached out slowly and pressed her hand into the coarse, black palm, and Toby gently enfolded it. "You don't have to worry about hurting me. I'm strong and tough. I'm like you." She emphasized the last words, and looked directly into his eyes. Huge arms suddenly grabbed her in a crushing grip, the heavy muzzle pressing down hard against her shoulder. A loud animal bellowing, emerged from the shuddering body, and she realized that Toby was crying. Her own eyes filled with tears, and she hugged him as hard as she could until the shuddering and bellows stopped.

"There are others like us, Toby. Thousands of us. No two are alike, but we are all gifted. And that means all sorts of wonderful things." Toby pushed away from her, obviously confused. "You'll never get sick, never get old. And if you are hurt, you'll heal very fast." She paused, weighing the possibility of future disappointment against sure hope in the present. The decision was easy.

"There's something else, Toby. Something very important. You may not be stuck like that." Everyone in the room jerked their heads at that, but Marian was only interested in the minotaur. "Watch me." She concentrated, and felt the familiar floating sensation as she shifted back to her human form. Although her now-oversized blouse hung lower, it did not cover enough. Modesty be damned.

The minotaur looked down at her, and then at his own massive body. She took his hand again, not wanting to loose the connection. "Most anyone who is changed by the gifting can look like they did before. You have to learn how to control it. It took me a long time, and I found out by accident. I'm used to being a centaur, and it's my real body now. But I can change when I want to. You have to picture yourself the way you used to look."

The red eyes blinked, and then closed. She could see his muzzle wrinkle as he concentrated, but nothing happened. Then Danny stepped forward with something in his hand. "Take this, Toby. Look at it." The minotaur took the framed photo and held it up. Again, nothing happened, and she squeezed his hand as he continued to try. "It takes practice, Toby. You might not get it right awa.." She was suddenly holding the very human hand of a teenage boy, somewhat older, but unmistakable the same one from the picture.

"Toby!" Janice Wood screamed from the other side of the glass and ran into the room with her husband. The boy stared at himself, and then gave a shout of joy which twisted into an animal bellow as he became a minotaur again. Marian squeezed his hand hard and spoke firmly to break through the boy's obvious fear. "You did it! You'll be able to do it again. Do you hear me? It just takes practice to stay human longer!" She shifted back to her centaur form to reinforce her words.

The Woods had backed away as soon as Toby changed back, and cringed a little as he took a step towards them. He closed his eyes, and became human again. The boy looked at them, and then at Marian. "I want to go with you. Away from here." The words were forced and pronounced oddly, but each one hit his parents like a fist.

Mrs. Wood took a step forward. "Come back to us, Toby. You can be normal again. Everything can be like it was." Her voice was shrill and pleading, and Marian almost felt sorry for her. Almost. Toby gave her a sad look, and was suddenly the minotaur again. Red eyes swept around the room, and then down to the photo still held in his hand. He dropped the picture on the floor and took Marian's hand, and they walked out of the room together.

- end -

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The Secret copyright 1996 by Bob Stein.

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