by Eric Schneider and Bob Stein
© Eric Schneider and Bob Stein -- all rights reserved
"Ouch! Will you be careful, Robbie!?" The donkey morph frowned at the five-year-old standing on the examination table as the child prodded his shoulder. "Couldn't you let Dr. Bob do that?"
The boy snorted. "Oh, right. You're complaining about the touch of a little kid, and you want me to try examining you with Shire's hooves? Besides, I need fingers to feel if the bone has knitted." After a couple of additional pokes, Robbie nodded. "Everything seems in order."
"So, are you going to certify me to ride?" The buck-toothed morph grinned as he pulled a sweater over his head, deftly maneuvering his long ears through the neck hole. Then he pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket and held it out. Robbie took it, and after a quick glance over the standard release form, quickly signed it. From the softness of the paper, Robbie could tell that Eric had been carrying it for a long time.
Plopping down on the table, Robbie let his legs swing back and forth as he gave his patient a curious look. "So, what's up? You didn't come all this way just to have me look at that collarbone. Besides, knowing you, you've been riding with it for a week anyway."
The normally lighthearted donkey blushed and dropped his eyes towards the floor. "I'm seeing a farrier tomorrow and I want you to come with me."
"What!?" Robbie gave him a bewildered look. "Your feet aren't morphed enough to wear horseshoes!" Then he grinned. "Even if they were, you'd never get 'em in the stirrups!"
"It's not funny!" shot back an angry Eric as he turned and pinned his ears. Almost immediately the ears drooped and he sighed, scuffing one booted foot against the floor. "I was down this way looking at 'chasers before my fall and I met a farrier at one of the courses who does corrective shoeing. He said he could shoe me so I could race. It's true! I've seen him do it!"
"Shoe you so you could race? I don't understa...." And then Robbie stopped. He did understand. "You mean, he can make you a full morph?"
Eric nodded wordlessly, and then chewed a ponderous lip. "I thought maybe Dr. Bob would like to come with me." He dropped his eyes. "I'm a little nervous about this, and you know this stuff better than anybody."
Robbie nodded absently. This child's form was the result of dealing with a SCAB who could affect other people. More importantly, he'd been wondering about the possibilities of just such a change for himself ever since Eric's earlier visit. They had talked at length about the joys of the equine form. Until his efforts to stop Barnes had cost him his metamorphic abilities, Dr.
Bob had often spent weekends in full animal form. Galloping full out. Even pulling wagons and logs, enjoying the sheer power and mass of his Shire's body.
His Shire form offered none of those joys now. Awkward and bulky, he was stuck as a morph too much horse to function well in the 'real' world, and too humanoid to allow four-legged movement. If Eric had found someone like Splendor, someone who could make the Shire full animal again... "When are you going?"
"Tomorrow morning." The donkey-morph looked up with hopeful eyes. "It's not far. I could pick you up any time. Is 9:30 too early?"
Robbie looked up at Eric, seeing his own eagerness mirrored in the Donkey-morph's eyes. He felt a sense of excitement he hadn't known in years. "Come at 8. I'll be ready."
Bob winced as Eric's truck hit yet another pothole. He didn't know what was worse, the bruising road surface or the driver's terrible singing. Despite being less bestial than the Blind Pig's resident mule-morph piano player, his voice made Jack sound downright operatic.
They had been on the road for close to four hours, climbing deeper into the hilly back country. Bob was beginning to fear that "not far" might mean "less than two days" to the roving donkey. Finally Eric slowed the truck and turned sharply onto an even more rutted access road.
The overburdened vehicle almost stalled as it bounced onto the private dirt path. Bob winced as his Shire head bounced painfully against the headliner. It would have been a lot more practical for Robbie to make the trip, but he'd stubbornly retained the much larger equine form as a matter of pride
Fortunately, the road smoothed out into a broad path across a rolling field. Bob could see audience stands in the distance and timber fences laid out amongst the mounds. This must be the place.
Eric pulled up next to a large, corrugated metal building. Bob gave the makeshift structure a bemused look. Hardly the kind of place he would expect someone with such unusual powers. Of course, he'd gone to a whorehouse to find Splendor.
The donkey morph banged on the door. "Hey, Louis! You in there? It's Eric!" There was a muffled grunt from inside, which Bob assumed was an invitation to enter. Together, they pried the sliding door open and stepped inside. The heat of a large forge hit them like a physical blow and Bob had to look away from the spitting flame. He could hear the clank of metal on metal, and as his eyes adjusted to the light of the forge, Bob began to make out the silhouette of giant.
Like the hooker who had created Robbie, Louis appeared to be fully human. However, the man was almost as big as Bob's Shire form. His dark, short hair was plastered to his skull by sweat which ran in small rivers down soot-stained, leathery skin. Despite his great size, there was no paunch or excess flab anywhere. This man was pure muscle and sinew, and Bob had no doubt he could handle any animal that required his services.
The farrier finished with whatever he was working on, and set the glowing iron down. Only after his tools had been carefully returned and the forge turned down did he acknowledge his visitors.
"So. You come for shoeing, yes?" Louis' voice was gruff and heavily accented. Similar to Pennsylvania Dutch farmers Bob had seen in his travels, though this man lacked the beard and clothing of that people. "And this one? He also come for my services?" The man squinted, furrowing his brow. "You, I know. The Doctor who tried to stop Barnes. Stein, is it not?"
Bob nodded, unable to speak. The man's forehead wrinkled deeper, and then relaxed as he cocked his head to one side. "Ah. You are different now. More animal. I see that now. You not speak no more? Or walk so good, I think." A shrug. "Very easy. We do something later. After I make racer of this Donkey."
Bob was a little taken aback by Louis' casual assumption. After all, he wasn't sure what the man could do, or even if he wanted to risk being transformed again. Fear and anticipation waged war in his head, and he had a sudden instinctive urge to run away.
The farrier stopped and turned towards him with a smile. As they made eye contact, Bob felt a sudden release in his mind. His fear was gone. Louis was someone he could trust and he was completely at ease. The sudden change of attitude had been worked at a very basic level. Bob realized that the man had used some sort of mental telepathy, similar to the link he shared with most equines and equine morphs. Except that Louis could control, not just communicate. The knowledge should have frightened him, yet he simply accepted the fact without emotion.
Perhaps Louis had used the same calming technique on Eric, for the Donkey morph seemed to have lost much of the nervousness he had been showing earlier. Bob couldn't hear much over the muffled roar of the forge. After a brief conversation, Eric began to strip, folding his clothes neatly and placing them in a corner.
Louis went to the back of the building, returning with two large, wooden boxes. Pulling up a small stool, he sat in front of Eric and looked the donkey-morph over carefully for what seemed like a long time. Then he reached out for Eric's left hand. Bob felt a thrill of anticipation. It was starting. Or was it? The man stroked Eric's fingers, and then released them to repeat the action on the right hand. Nothing seemed to be happening. The massive hands slid down the donkey-morph's legs, pausing on each of the mostly human feet. And then they started back up, moving up Eric's sides, tracing the outer edges of his arms, and finally, cradling the young man's head between them.
Nothing. Bob began to wonder if this was all some elaborate joke. It wasn't a very funny one, if that was the case. Eric seemed to be accepting whatever was going on, though. His eyes had glazed over, staring into Louis' face. However, the farrier had his closed. And he was humming. The tune was unfamiliar, but reminded Bob of old Celtic folk songs.
Eric gave a long, deep sigh which started in his throat, and emerged from his snout as a soft whicker. Huh? Bob looked closer. The donkey-morph's face seemed longer, more pronounced. In contrast, his ears had shrunk slightly, and changed shape. And his eyes! Bob stared, watching the orbs grow and shift further apart.
The rest of his body was changing as well, becoming larger and darker. Eric had been a low-degree donkey morph, with just enough of the animal to make it clear what his species was. Now he seemed to be as equine as Bob, with coarse fur spreading over darkening skin like ink on a blotter.
But no longer a donkey. Eric's body was still undefined, but his head was almost fully formed. It was a beautiful head, perfectly formed and proportioned. The head of a thoroughbred. The head of a horse.
And then Eric fell forward, somehow missing the still-humming farrier. His massive body rippled in the uneven light, glossy brown fur covering taut muscle. And then it was done.
Louis stood and stretched, then began a careful, if impersonal, inspection of the stallion that had been Eric. Bob reached out with his mind, trying to speak to the newly-made animal. Contact was immediate and filled with contentment and pleasure. The male was anxious to run in the pasture outside, to feel the earth pounding under his hooves. And there was the faintest scent of mares.
There was a creak of old hinges, and Bob saw Louis pull some horseshoes out of one of the boxes. They looked like polished silver, bright and unusually thin. Yet nicks and scratches indicated they had been used before. Holding one in his hand, the farrier hummed again, tugging at the brown horse's right foreleg. As the animal lifted his limb, Louis pressed the shiny metal against the bottom of the hoof. No nails, no glue. Yet it seemed to adhere solidly.
The action was repeated on the other three legs. Then Louis stepped back as the stallion bolted suddenly for the open door. Something about the mental link bothered him, but there was no denying the pure joy of the animal's thoughts. Louis walked over to the doorway and watched his handiwork galloping through the grass. "Yes. He run good. Very fine racer. I take care of him good, yes?"
"Now we take care of you."
Wait a minute. Bob saw the man reaching for his stool. The farrier was apparently going to perform the same magic on him. But he hadn't even talked to the man yet! There were so many questions to be asked. How long would the transformation last? How much did the man charge? Could he change color, breed, age? What kind of risks were there?
He was still pondering all of the ramifications when he felt Louis' hands stroke his muzzle with surprising gentleness. His eyes widened. Not yet! It was time to change to Robbie, so he could work out the details. Except that he couldn't. Louis had already started.
His five year-old alter ego was gone. Or at least, he couldn't picture it right now. Instead, he was almost overwhelmed by a rush of different equine images, foals and donkeys, draft horses and ponies, every type of horse, donkey or mule he had ever imagined.
Among those images was the glossy brown stallion that had been Eric. And Bob suddenly realized what had bothered him about the mental link with his friend. The thoroughbred's thoughts had been happy, vibrant, and completely bestial. The thoughts of a race horse, with no trace of the person that had been Eric. Fear began to break through the enforced calm of Louis' control. What if the man had changed the donkey-morph permanently?
Vision blurred and distorted slightly. He had to stop this! Yet even as he thought that, his skull widened and grew thick, almost instantly transformed into that of a true Shire. The sensation of warmth and flowing flesh was much like that he had felt when he was able to shift his own form. And it was much faster than Eric's alteration. Even Louis seemed startled, eyes open even though he continued humming.
A heavy scent filled the air. His scent. He tossed his head, whickering softly as he snuffled the ground. Male. Another male had been here. The other musk mingled with his own. Confusion. The scent changed. Still male, but not the same type. Yet it wasn't the other male scent which changed, but his own. A coarse bray escaped his bristled lips, and he twisted around as his body rippled and shrank slightly. Glossy black fur became coarser, lighter hair.
The shaggy mule brayed again, not quite sure what was bothering him. A female scent wafted close by, and he drank it in with flared nostrils. The other male scent was more interesting to her, though. A male, of her breed. The thoroughbred mare whinnied invitation to the distant stallion.
And then the world exploded around him. He stumbled on weak, wobbly legs, once again male. And hungry. Very hungry. His nostrils flared, seeking the mare scent which promised milk and protection. A harsher odor, dimly identified as belonging to the strange two-legged creature which stood over him.
The huge two-leg scooped him up suddenly, and carried him outside. Struggling feebly, he tried to resist, but he was even weaker than before. There was a mare scent nearby, getting closer. And then he was being pressed against the warm side of the female. Confusion. Then pressure and darkness. The foal stopped breathing, stopped moving. Stopped thinking.
The brown thoroughbred came to a stop as he reached the large field. His lips curled up as he scented the air. Confusion. The look of the place was familiar, the jumps and the rails, the towering stands where the odor of two-leggers still lingered. He knew this place, yes, but it smelled different, somehow fresher and crisper. A flock of feathery things rose up from his feet with a squawk and he bolted away.
He halted nervously in mid-field. Air whooshed in and out of his great barrel as his skin twitched white foam onto the grass. Skittishness faded as the thoroughbred remembered why he was here. He turned and trotted towards the far end of the field, slowly at first, then faster as unfamiliar muscles loosened up, finally breaking into an easy canter as he passed the flags.
The stallion circled and slowed to a walk. His head stretched and swung to the side. Something wasn't right. There were no other horses here. There was no starter to drop the tape. Strange. It was race day, there should be other horses on the course today. No matter, the stallion thought, he didn't need anyone else for a race.
The stallion strode purposely towards the starter's flag, stopped for a moment and bowed his head. Teeth champed at a bit that was not there. He shook his head and pawed the grass. He took a deep breath, bunched his hindquarters, and was away in an instant. A moment later, all that remained for the spectators at the start was a spray of turf that rained quietly towards the ground.
Already around the first turn, the racer hurtled towards the first fence. The enormous hedge quickly loomed before him. Five and a half feet of packed sticks, it was nearly taller than he was, yet he cleared it cleanly, powerfully, almost effortlessly. Landing, the stallion collected himself, turned down hill, and galloped towards the next fence.
The far side of the course was harder. Here the course sloped uphill and the sticky mud sucked at his hooves. Galloping was effortless no more as each new breath seared his lungs. His legs burned with the effort, shoulders aching with each stride as he strained to pull ahead. No one would catch him if he willed it hard enough. Not even the wind.
Legs pounded roughly as he closed on the last fence. The deep footing pulled at his legs like treacle. Two strides out, the ground closed on his legs like a trap. He wrenched his hooves from the morass, leaving a shoe behind. The racer stumbled as he tried in vain to recover, finally crashing through the fence.
Twisting himself up from the ground, the stallion and tried to shake the mud from his coat. The attempt made him squeal in pain. The grinding in his shoulder told him there would be no more racing today. With a wuffling sigh, the horse limped past the finish and made his way back to the paddocks.
His right hind leg pulled and twisted oddly, causing him to stumble. Twisting around, the stallion wrinkled his muzzle at the strange scent coming from behind him. No, not behind. It came from a patch of coarser hair which marred his own glossy coat. The scent was a male scent, but belonged to a different breed. Donkey. The word popped into his head, along with the image of a smaller, odd-shaped animal. No, not a donkey, not exactly. An Eric. The image sharpened, bringing with it memories and odd sensations. Eric wasn't a breed. It was a name. His name.
Eric shuddered as his body began to shrink and change. Confusion filled his mind, and he cried out as balance shifted, and he fell. And caught himself with his hands.
"Ouch!" Dropping on his knees, Eric leaned back and shook bruised hands. The cause of his pain was obvious. He'd fallen on silver horseshoes, one squarely located in each of the depressions his hands had made in the dirt. Looking back, he found a similar shoe just behind his right foot. Shouldn't there be four?
Wait. The jump. He'd lost one in the muck there. That had been the start of his change back. When Eric had lost the left rear shoe, he must have broken whatever seal Louis had used the horseshoes to create.
Gathering the three, he trudged back towards the muddy ground. At least he seemed to have regained some energy. He smiled at the memory of his first gallop over this ground. Amazingly, he could recall everything about being a horse. The last part hadn't been quite as fun as he had hoped, especially crashing through the fence. Yet even that had held a certain exhilaration.
Funny thing was, he also knew why he had failed. He needed a rider. Someone to hold him back until the time was right. To guide him through the twists and turns of the course, avoiding the dangerous spots. Curious that he hadn't kept any of his normal thoughts. He'd have been able to run the course easily if he'd had his knowledge to work with. Of course, that was probably all part of the deal. He wanted to race, and it wouldn't be fair to the other horses for him to have both the animal strength and power and his intelligence.
It took a bit of probing in the thick goo before he recovered the missing shoe. Odd that it could come off like that. While there was no obvious attachment, Louis surely wouldn't have set him up in a form that could fall apart in the middle of a race. At least there weren't any spectators around today.
Hmmm. Eric glanced down, suddenly remembering that his clothes were back by the forge. Though some of the animal morphs he knew didn't bother with clothes, but he was sufficiently humanoid that nudity wasn't an option. Not that it was much of a problem right now. He'd retained the mud from his fall as a horse, and only added to the coating in his search for the shoe.
He doubted if Louis had a shower in the rough structure he used to work in. He'd probably have to wash up in one of the troughs. Sighing, he began the long trek back to the farrier's shed. At least he'd have a chance to see how things were going with Dr. Bob.
Something was wrong. Eric didn't know Louis very well, but the normally gruff and businesslike farrier was staring out the window towards the pasture, looking pale and worried. The man glanced over at Eric as he walked in, and shook his head sadly. "The bonding of your shoes, I could not keep it. Much trouble with your friend."
Alarmed, Eric moved to the window. The object of Louis's gaze was a rather average-looking, older mare. Her coat was dull, and marred by scars and dirt. However, she appeared to be healthy. Just not one of the pampered racers. There were no other animals around, and his eyes widened. "You turned Dr. Bob into an old mare?"
Louis gave him an odd look, and then shook his head. "No, not that. He wanted to be draft horse. Big, black, male. I start, give him fine head very fast. But then change go crazy. No longer my power at work. He changed to big black draft horse, then some sort of mule, then a nice race horse like you. Female, I think. And then he got small. A colt. And he kept getting smaller. I carry him quick out to Sally. And when I get to her, he is gone."
Eric looked back at the horse. She had shifted a little, giving him a sideways view. The swelling in her belly was easy to spot, even from a distance. And his mouth fell open. "That's him? Inside her?"
The farrier nodded. "I do not understand. Such a thing is impossible, even for me. So many different shapes, so fast. And without shoes to keep the change in place."
Still a little in shock, Eric took a moment to think about Louis' statement. "What is it with shoes? I mean, you don't use them to make the change. Why do you need them?"
Louis sighed. "When I use my power, I look first into mind of person. Then I picture what they want in my head. I concentrate hard, and the person changes to match what I see inside. But I cannot keep the picture always in my head. The shoes, they bind my thoughts and power in place. Just a little part of me. That way, I can do many changes at once." He looked down at the ground. "Your friend, this Dr. Bob? What happen is very bad. He maybe not come back."
Guilt and fear washed over Eric. He had brought the Shire morph here. And though they hadn't really known each other long, he considered the big equine a friend. Worse, Bob had come here as favor, to help him out. Whatever had happened to him was Eric's fault.
The mare was moving again. No, not moving actually. She was swaying from side to side. Her tail was up, and she was leaning forward. "Oh, damn!" Eric bolted for the door. "She's giving birth!"
They arrived in time to see the forehooves emerging, followed by the slick protrusion of a muzzle. Eric knelt beside the emerging foal, gently supporting its weight as it was squeezed out into the world. He cleared the mucus from the delicate nostrils, and used his fingers to scrape afterbirth from the fine black hair covering its body.
That the foal had matured to delivery in the space of hours was sign enough that this was no normal birth. However, as the mare ejected the last of her passenger, it became obvious that this was no child of the mother. Even newborn, it was clear the colt cradled in Eric's arms was purebred Shire. A large, heavy purebred Shire.
He managed to lower the foal to the ground before its weight overwhelmed him. The colt shook itself, and struggled to stand. Eric leaned forward to help, but the animal was already rising with a sureness which belied its age Louis paused in his examination of the mare to stare in fascination as the foal stretched its neck and gave a shrill whinny.
"Bob?" Eric reached out cautiously to touch the colt's still-damp side. Only to recoil as the animal aged suddenly. A year passed in moments, then another. The Shire standing before him still had bits of afterbirth in its glossy coat. And then it swelled again, becoming magnificent in full maturity. The stallion whinnied, a powerful, trumpeting sound. And then it kicked off like a race horse, galloping across the pasture in an earth-shaking show of strength and power.
Awe changed to concern as the huge equine spun and charged back towards them. Edging backwards, Eric's eyes widened as the mountain of horseflesh bore down upon him. His feet tangled themselves, and he fell to the ground with a cry. The stallion stopped inches away, and reared back with flailing hooves. Eric threw an arm up instinctively, knowing that even a brick wall would be no protection.
And in the midst of rearing, the stallion began to shrink. It gave another trumpeting whinny which altered with the animal's form. Eric blinked, not trusting his ears. For the creature now standing over him on two legs seemed to be laughing.
"Eric! I can change again!" The stallion was now a Shire morph, only slightly more humanoid than the form Dr. Bob had used on the way here. Yet the deep, resonant voice was that of a practiced speaker. The voice of the man who had taken on the menace of Councilman Barnes. The voice of Dr. Bob.
Twisting around, Bob admired his body, and took a few cautious steps. Like his voice, the ability to move with reasonable grace had returned in full. "I don't believe it. After all this time." He spun suddenly, picking up the startled farrier in an embrace. "Thank you! Oh, God! Thank you!"
Louis reddened, in embarrassment, the inability to breath, or a combination of both. Luckily, Bob's enthusiasm was such that he immediately dropped the man and grabbed Eric. Well, lucky for Louis, anyway. Eric winced at the tremendous pressure. Truly, Bob had no idea the strength of his form.
"Look at me!" The Shire dropped him and pranced around like a child. And fell forward as his arms once again became forelegs. For a moment, Bob was the Shire stallion again. And then he seemed to melt away, shrinking into a small, but still equine shape. A Shetland pony. Which inflated suddenly to a large, shaggy mule. The mule reared up onto hind legs, now almost a twin to Jack DeMule. And then Bob was once more a Shire morph.
Eric shook his head in wonder. "How is this possible?" Louis' powers were amazing, yet even they were limited. "Can you become anything?"
"Anything equine, part or whole." Bob danced around the clearing in an impromptu jig. "I don't believe it! Just like before. It's as if that whole nightmare with Barnes never happened!"
Louis was smiling in obvious relief. "I forget. Dr. Bob was metamorph. When I start change, it reset your old powers to come back "
"What about Robbie?" Eric looked up at Bob curiously. "After all this time, is he gone? Might be a little hard to explain his disappearance to the authorities."
Bob stopped and closed his eyes. The Shire form shrank suddenly, the muzzle drawing in and turning pink. After a moment, he reached up with slender fingers to trace the familiar contours of his alter-ego's face. Yet it wasn't quite right. He opened his eyes to see Eric staring open-mouthed. "What's wrong?" His eyes widened. The voice which emerged from his throat was more mature, not a man's, but no longer that of a 5 year-old.
A snort of laughter drew his attention back to Eric, who was shaking his head in apparent disbelief. "And I thought it would be hard explaining Robbie's disappearance!"
Bewildered, Bob examined his arms and hands, and then looked down at his chest and stomach. From the proportions and relative size compared to Eric, he seemed to be a good bit older. Perhaps even a young teenager. Further down, however, there were more obvious differences. Below his waist was a broad expanse of black-furred hide. Hide which spread down to cover equine forelegs all the way down to thick black hooves. He twisted around suddenly to find an equine back stretching behind. He was a centaur!
Eric stood up and brushed off some of the thick mud which still caked his body. Then he walked around Robbie. "Well, it certainly looks like you got the best of this trip. All your powers back, and you skipped from kindergarten straight to Jr. High!" He laughed as the centaur took an experimental step and almost went sprawling. "Careful, kiddo. Don't want to get that shiny new body all dirty, do you?"
Robbie stuck out his tongue. "You're one to talk. I thought you came here to race, not to start some four-legged mud-wrestling!"
Reaching out, Eric tweaked the teen's pug nose. "I may be dirty, but you're ugly, and I can wash up." Then he grinned. "Besides, you'd better be nice to me. Whatever form you choose, it's still a long way back home. And I'm driving, remember?"
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