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by Bob Stein

Autumn colors spread across the summer sky as the sun eased its way over the horizon. Any other time, Russ would probably have admired the sunset. Right now, he was more interested in the flat, featureless desert which surrounded him. Rising heat made the terrain waver, blurring detail of distant objects. It was easy to forget he was in Montana, and imagine this to be the plains of Africa.

He shivered despite the high temperature, feeling frightened, excited, and stupid all at the same time. He'd tried some oddball things before, but never in the presence of another. Jumping naked over a beaten copper knife, wearing what was supposed to be a wolf skin belt, drinking vile-tasting concoctions made up from recipes found in dusty books. Nothing had worked. Yet here he was again, standing naked in the Montana desert with a strange old woman, waiting for the full moon.

"Here." The woman in question thrust what looked like a piece of beef jerky into his hand. "Start chewing it. The time draws near."

He took the cardboard-like meat and stared at it apprehensively. "This is it?"

"What did you expect, boy?" She snorted in disgust. "Can't just walk into a store and grab a Zebra heart from the butcher. Now, if ya' wanted to be a cow or a chicken..."

"OK, OK!" He stuck it in his mouth, wincing in anticipation of really terrible taste. "Actually, I wouldn't mind being a cow. Or a bull. Maybe not a chicken, though." The meat really wasn't bad. In fact, it pretty much tasted like store-bought jerky. He couldn't help wonder for the umpteenth time if this was all some elaborate hoax.

"Cow's aren't traditional. Neither are chickens. And this American preoccupation with wolves!" The woman spat. "Fah! Nothing more than wild dogs. My people practice tradition. My magic follows tradition."

Russ didn't point out that he obviously wasn't one of her people. Blonde hair and blue eyes hardly marked him as a follower of African folklore. In fact, he would have preferred the wolf shape she seemed to despise. Still, becoming a Zebra, a cow, Hell, even a chicken, would fulfill a longing which tore at his soul. Werewolves had filled his youth, but as he got older, he had discovered that the legends of shapeshifting covered every form of animal known to man.

Even now, almost ready to graduate from college, he found himself taking chances. Tonight, for instance. He'd met the old woman two days ago. Poking through an occult shop in search of shapeshifting books and paraphernalia. Her shop. He had felt her eyes watching him the whole time he browsed. At the time, he'd thought she was making sure he didn't shoplift. And when she'd grabbed his hand at the register, turning it to read the lines on his palm, he'd figured she was more than a little crazy.

So what was he doing out here in his birthday suit? Other than making a complete and total fool of himself? Because she had made the offer. The offer to shapeshift in the light of the full moon, to throw off the bounds of human skin and gallop across the earth on four hooves. The offer to transform him, just for one night, into an animal.

He'd already told himself this wouldn't work. That this strange old woman was a fraud, a phony mumbo-jumbo artist out to cheat the silly white boy. Yet she had asked for no money. In fact, she'd insisted that he bring nothing but whatever clothing he had to wear. Blackmail? There was no law against eating Zebra hearts. Running around naked might raise an eyebrow or two, but he doubted even that would get him more than a lecture from the police.

More violent possibilities, such as kidnapping, murder, or rape had crossed his mind briefly. And were just as quickly dismissed. While no football halfback, Russ was lean and strong. The old woman didn't come up to his shoulders, and he hadn't seen so much as a pocket knife in her shop. Not to say he wasn't watching her carefully. He might be crazy for doing this, but he wasn't stupid.

"Swallow!" Russ jumped at the sudden command, obeying instinctively. Even though it had tasted OK, he couldn't help gagging a little at the thought of what was sliding towards his stomach. The heart of a Zebra. According to the woman, this was the first step of a ceremony brought over from Africa. She claimed to be the equivalent of a sorceress, her craft passed down over generations. Not voodoo. Or the curses and love potions marketed by those so-called witches in magazines. And, he hoped, not Black Magic.

So far, he'd seen nothing he would regard as Satanic. Her shop dealt with the spirits of nature, animal totems, and African veldt. Oh, and Tradition. Jeez. The woman prattled on about tradition. The rites and ceremonies which were almost lost, for they could be passed only verbally. No written language could capture the sounds and movement.

He heard the woman pick up something that rattled, and turned to see what she was doing. Amazingly, he was more embarrassed to discover her without clothing than he was to be naked himself. He averted his eyes, though her body was nothing to be ashamed of. Especially at her apparent age. He'd guessed her to be in her sixties, but below the neck she could be half that.

Flushing, he had to remind himself of his own earlier fears. The woman was old enough to be his grandmother! Yet she circled around him now with uncanny grace, her arms reaching up as she chanted gibberish, softly at first, and then with growing intensity. A prickly feeling ran down his spine, and he turned to look up at the now darkened sky. Hanging directly overhead, pale as death, was the full moon.

He could hear his heart pounding, feel the blood pulsing through his body. And then a second beat joined in. A second heartbeat. Russ stared down at his chest, trying to disbelieve the new sound. He could feel the steady rhythm growing stronger, more centered in his ribs. And then a spasm rocked him backwards, arms thrown stiffly up. Snapping back, he gasped and clutched his aching breast. And felt it push outward in the center.

There was only one heartbeat now, a thundering sound which echoed in his head. His skin was becoming rough with emerging hair, shifting and pulling over his expanding bones. Oh, God! It was really happening! He dreamed of this for years, but faced with the reality, Russ was terrified. Another spasm threw him forward this time, and he screamed as he fell heavily on numb, swollen hands. Fire raced over his back, leaving an odd sensation of thickness. As it spread down his arms, he saw smooth skin darken, and then vanish under a blanket of white and black fur.

Fingers and toes throbbed, melting and reshaping into solid hooves. He screamed as the fire consumed his head, the sound catching in a throat which stretched impossibly. Vision blurred and expanded, split in the front by the swelling mass of his face. It seemed as if his very brain was being dipped in acid, his insides filled with boiling oil.

And then it was over. The relief was so sudden it shocked him almost as much as the pain. He was gasping, drawing great volumes of air through flared nostrils. New sensations bombarded his mind, which curiously seemed able to sort and identify them. Everything felt different, but natural. Standing on four legs, lashing an unseen tail, the ripple of muscle under his thick hide. Even his thoughts had changed.

A small corner of his mind marveled at the clarity and concentration of equine comprehension. Anyone who thought the animal mind was dull or slow needed to experience the world as a Zebra! His ears picked up a symphony of sounds, his nose drank in scents familiar and strange. And dangerous. That last though confused him. What danger could he face out here?

He turned towards the old woman, trying to ignore the instinctual alarm as he reveled in his new shape. She had given him his dream! He'd do anything for her. It was hard to spot the woman at first, for his equine night vision was poor. Then he caught movement to the right of the car, and trumpeted joyfully.

"Yes. You have discovered the strength of the animal spirit. The power, the purity of thought." Her voice was oddly distorted, pronunciation somewhat lisped. She stepped closer, almost staggering. Yet even hunched over, she displayed a fluidity of movement that belied her age. The woman stood suddenly, stretching out her arms with a cry of pure pleasure. Russ saw her skin ripple as pale golden fur sprouted, her slender form growing thicker and more powerful.

The Zebra backed away, only barely held in check by Russ's fading intellect. He recognized the danger now, the threat which his new instincts had tried to warn him of. Her scent was thick in his nostrils, musky and ripe with the promise of death.

"My people are true shapeshifters." She flexed her hands, watching calmly as they swelled into massive paws. "The slavers who brought my ancestors here learned too late. And we found ways to adapt. To chase rats in the city, or perhaps a deer in the woods. Enough for basic needs, but not really satisfying."

"You wished to know life as an animal. There is more than just the physical form." She was more lioness than human now, yet he could still understand her. "Now you will know the primal instincts, the fight for survival. The thrill of the hunt." She dropped to all fours and arched her back as the transformation completed, her voice lost in a rumbling which finally broke through Russ's paralysis.

Spinning, he surrendered to the Zebra mentality, unleashing the power of his legs in a spray of sand and dust. The lioness was watching him, not giving chase just yet. Playing with him. Or perhaps, giving him just enough of a chance to make things interesting. He was very fast, and there was a lot of open land to run. He just might survive. But deep in his pounding heart, the Zebra knew which ending was traditional.

The End