Ontogeny

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Chapter Six

Matron Darniss was well known and well liked in the city. Whenever she walked the streets of Marboll she would be seen by people who knew that she worked in the palace, and she would be asked, with a tentative hand on her sleeve, for the latest news on the condition of the Princess. She always gave the same response when this happened, that she was holding up well and deeply touched by the vast upwelling of love that was rising from her people. She would say that the Princess was buoyed up and encouraged by the thoughts and prayers of the people of the city, and that the whole royal family was deeply moved by their concern. The concerned citizen, usually a woman, would nod gratefully and reaffirm her love and devotion for the Princess, and then go on her way to share the good news with everyone she knew.

Darniss's progress along Victory Street, one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, was greatly hindered by these people, and it took her twice as long as it normally would to traverse its length. She didn't mind, though. This kind of attention was a mere foretaste of the fame and celebrity she would enjoy when her title as Duchess had been restored, and so she basked in it, delighting in each call upon her attention and imagining the time, not so far in the future now, when she would hear her name being called through the windows of a stately carriage being pulled by white horses to some great state occasion. She would be dressed in fine silks, instead of the dowdy work clothes she was currently wearing, and would be bedecked with pearls on every part of her body. Pearl earrings, a pearl necklace, a pearl brooch, and more pearls anywhere else she could think of putting them. She loved pearls, and would probably measure her success in life solely by the number of pearls she could afford to buy.

The downside of all this attention, though, was that it made it much harder to meet with her handler for her monthly debriefing. They absolutely could not be seen to be meeting regularly, and so she had gotten into the habit of going to the opera, where she liked to watch from a box seat, officially so that she could enjoy the performance without being pestered with more enquiries regarding the health of the Princess. Boxes were expensive, though, and so she would share it, and the cost, with someone else also wanting some measure of privacy.

Her handler always tried to change his appearance for each occasion. A month was easily long enough to grow some real facial hair, sometimes a neatly trimmed beard, sometimes a small moustache, then shave it off for their next meeting, and in addition he would wear something on his face, a monacle for example, or a flamboyant hat, the purpose of which was to attract attention away from his facial features so that nobody would realise that she was sitting with the same person every time. The one thing that never changed, though, was the thick pink powder that he always wore on his face and hands. She assumed it was because he had blemishes or birthmarks that were distinctive enough to stick in people's memory.

Today's performance was “Valiant Freedom”, a drama featuring elaborate costumes, rousing songs and long dance routines, loosely based on the conflict between King Maylorth of Carrow and one of his most important and powerful Lords, a conflict that had led to the eastern provinces breaking away to become in independent kingdom. Both Darniss and her handler, whose real identity she didn’t know, frowned as the actor playing the King ranted and raved about how he would destroy his enemies in true megalomaniac fashion while the crowd booed and threw things at the stage.

“When we rule here again, we will commission a new play depicting the truth of what happened,” said the handler, whom she only knew as Mandeville.

“I've been here so long now that I can barely remember the truth,” replied Darniss. “Even their history books tell only the Helberion version. I have to parrot their version of events whenever the subject comes up in conversation. It takes all my self control to prevent myself using words like thieves and traitors.”

“It won't be for much longer,” Mandeville assured her. “Very soon now, those who promote these lies will be punished and the people re-educated. This land will be returned to its true owners. Carrow will return to its former glory and become a power that even Kelvon will have to reckon with. The next time you enter the royal bed chamber, imagine yourself sleeping there as King Nilon’s representative while King Leothan’s head adorns a spike above the palace gates.”

“May it be soon,” said Darniss, looking across at some of the other opera boxes. There were aristocrats in some of them. Lords, Dukes and Earls, all dressed in magnificent uniforms and gowns, all grown rich on stolen land while her countrymen starved, trying to scratch out a living on the barren land left to them after the secession. Helberion sold them food, at inflated prices. Profiteering from the misery of her people. Every time she thought of it the old familiar rage would rise within her again and she had to take deep breaths to get herself back under control.

“Lord Krell approves of your handling of the Pettiwell situation,” said Mandeville as the actors on stage started singing a particularly rousing and enthusiastic song in which the common people of eastern Carrow declared that they’d had enough of King Maylorth’s cruelty and injustice. Darniss noted that the play made no mention of the armies Kelvon had sent into Carrow to ‘ease the transition and give humanitarian aid’. The Empire much preferred to be surrounded by lots of small, weak countries than a few big, powerful ones. “I’m relieved to hear that,” she said. “I was worried he might be angry at Thurley’s return.”

“No, you did the right thing,” Mandeville assured her. “We couldn’t take the risk of his being captured. You yourself might have been forced to flee. We have other people in the city, of course, and in Helberion's armed forces, but you are, right in the palace, rubbing shoulders with the King himself. Your presence there is worth an entire division of soldiers. You must protect yourself at all costs.”

“I am pleased to be able to help my true King.”

“And you will be well rewarded when this is all over. King Nilon remembers those who are loyal and faithful.” He chuckled. “I look forward to seeing you in your ancestral gown and pearls. You'll be pleased to know that our agents have already had some success in tracking down your family jewellery. The Allwyn pearl, for example. It's currently being held by Lady Gwendolyn of Feltham. Apparently she's never worn it. It's been gathering dust in the bottom of her jewellery box for thirty years.”

“They say it’s the largest jewellery grade pearl in the world,” said Darniss. She looked away from Mandeville, suddenly embarrassed. She knew full well that it was the largest in the world. “ Not that I'm guided by such material considerations, of course.”

“Of course not,” agreed her handler. “The King himself knows that you are motivated solely by your devotion to him. The information you have been able to send back has been invaluable, and will grow in value as war approaches.”

“It's not as easy as it once was,” she said, though. “Until recently, you could learn amazing things just from overheard conversations. Everyone gossips, and I have a legitimate reason for being within earshot but just out of sight, checking on the state of the carpets or something. Now, though, they know there's a spy in the palace. Everyone's much more careful what they say, even if they think there’s no-one who can hear. They're questioning everyone, searching every room for incriminating evidence. I had to get rid of my box of poisons.”

“You must be careful,” warned Mandeville. “If the flow of information dries up for a while, we'll understand, but you must not take any unnecessary risks. Anything you can give us, anything at all, will be welcome.”

“I'll do what I can,” promised Darniss. “My best source of information is the Queen herself. I only have to get her talking about her daughter and It’s easy to steer her onto any subject I like. The King is careful about what he shares with her, but she still knows which General he has most confidence in, what part of the country he's most anxious to protect, that sort of thing. She's so worried about her daughter that she completely forgets the need for security. I never expected the Princess’s condition to have this effect.” She turned to her handler. “If the Brigadier were to be successful in finding a cure, that source of information could dry up.”

“Don't worry about the Brigadier,” replied Mandeville with a secret smile. “We have taken steps to make sure he won't succeed...”

☆☆☆

There was no obvious sign that they were entering Radiant territory. There was no fence, no warning signs. The only real clue was the absence of any human habitation despite it being good farming land, with low, rolling hills dotted with scrubby bushes and wild goats. Here and there the remains of a low wall could be seen, rising up out of the knee high grass, all that was left of a large building that had stood there centuries past. Evidence that the Radiants had moved into this area some time since then, after the humans had left. Malone wondered whether the humans had left voluntarily, or been forced to leave by the land’s new tenants. The Radiants had never forced a human community to relocate in living memory, but maybe that was because they already had all the living space they needed.

The quiet wariness the men normally maintained while travelling reached a new level as everyone kept a careful watch, alert for anything out of the ordinary. They were keeping to as straight a line as possible, to minimise their time there, but even so they’d be going well over a hundred miles inside the generally agreed boundary, and perilously close to one of the Radiant cities.

“What do we do if we see one?” asked Malone, riding at the Brigadier’s side. He kept a careful grip on his horse’s reins. All the horses were skittish, as if sensing the nervousness of their riders, and a sudden flight of birds from the undergrowth earlier that day had almost caused them to bolt.

“Just keep calm,” the Brigadier replied. “Chances are it’ll just ignore us. This exclusion zone is our idea, not theirs.”

“What if it doesn’t ignore us? They back off if we attack them in our own cities. Will they back off here? If they get the idea that mankind is taking a more aggressive stance towards them...”

“Then let’s not give them that idea. We’re just passing through, nice and peaceful.”

“We're not the only ones, by the look of it,” said Crane, who'd brought his horse up alongside theirs. He slid off it and knelt down to examine the ground, reaching down with his long, dexterous fingers to touch wheel tracks that the others only saw once he’d drawn attention to them. “A wagon,” he said as the others pulled up behind him. “Correction, two wagons. Each pulled by two horses. I'd say they passed this way sometime yesterday, going the same way as us.”

“Traders, probably,” said Blane. “Wanting to shave a couple of days off their travel time. This is encouraging. If they make this journey often, they must think there's nothing to worry about.”

“And if they’re ahead of us, they'll run into trouble before us,” agreed Cotton.

The Brigadier nodded. “We'll follow them,” he said. “So long as they keep going in our general direction. Take the lead, Crane.” The tracker nodded and got back on his horse.

He had to keep dismounting from time to time as the tracks they were following got too faint to see from horseback, but the tracks got fresher as they progressed, since horses with riders could move faster than horses pulling a cart. As evening fell Crane said that the wagons were only a few more miles ahead and the Brigadier briefly considered continuing on, to meet up with them, but if the traders were more than five miles ahead it would be full dark before they arrived, and Radiant territory was scary enough in the daytime. They made camp where they were, therefore, and Malone began cooking up their evening meal.

“I wonder if they’ll have some decent food we can buy from them,” mused Cowley, scratching at his beard.

“What's wrong with my food?” demanded Malone. “You always eat enough of It!”

“You add globs to everything! Can't we just have venison on its own for once?”

“No hunting here, remember?” Malone reminded him of the order the Brigadier had given them before entering Radiant territory. “Anyone who goes off alone might get carried off and adopted. We have to rely on what we’re carrying, and what we can find in the immediate vicinity.”

“You ever want to get adopted, Spooner?” asked Crane. “Some people spend their whole lives trying to get themselves carried off.”

“Can't imagine any self respecting radiant wanting to adopt him,” smirked Harper.

Spooner just glared at him and Spencer spoke to fill the suddenly awkward silence. “Nobody really knows what being a radiant is like,” he said. “Maybe It’s better than being human, maybe It’s not. Without knowing that, how can we make a meaningful choice?”

“They're a higher life form,” said Crane. “Being a radiant has to be better than being human, just like being human is better than being a horse or a dog or whatever you were before.”

“What does that actually mean, though, to be a higher life form?” asked Spencer. “Are they more intelligent than us? They just drift across the sky like jellyfish. Has anyone actually seen one doing something clever? What if they’re completely mindless creatures, and being a rung above us is just an accident of biology?”

“They build cities,” pointed out Crane.

“So do termites. Maybe they’re just great floating termites.”

“They've been seen acting cooperatively,” said Blane. “When there's a human they particularly want to adopt, three of them will act together to get him.”

“Lots of animals hunt in packs,” countered Spencer.

“What about Count Fenwick? He wanted to catch a radiant. Remember? He built a trap for them, baited with the strongest, healthiest people he could find. Not one single radiant fell for the trap.”

“Yeah, I remember hearing about that,” said Harper. “Every so often a radiant would come close, but they always drifted away again without making any attempt to take the bait. Like they could see it was a trap.”

“They say they can read minds,” said Malone, looking up from the stew he was stirring in the large, black cookpot. “Maybe they read the minds of the men he was using as bait.”

“Who says they can read minds?” demanded Spencer.

“It's how they communicate, isn't It?” said the batman. “They communicate by telepathy.”

“That's just speculation. Nobody knows for sure. They may not communicate at all. It may all be just instinct to them.”

“My dad, Those Above rest his soul, said they could cause earthquakes and volcanoes...” Spencer laughed out loud and Malone blushed angrily. “What about when Cenaria invaded the Radiant lands between them and the Foggy Sea? Three days after their armies entered their territory Cenn City was devastated by a massive earthquake!”

“Just a coincidence!”

“Is It? Then why are people afraid to enter Radiant lands? Why were we afraid to come here?”

“Just superstition!”

“Is It? Are you sure? People disappear in Radiant lands! They just disappear!”

“There are stories told about all sparsely populated lands. Every deep, dark forest has ogres and trolls. Every mountain range has dragons, every ocean has sea serpents. It would be more strange if there weren't stories told about Radiant lands...” His voice trailed off and he stared off to the south, his eyes widening. The others followed his gaze, and they gasped and sat up straight as they saw what he'd seen. A faint glow on the darkening horizon, growing brighter as full night approached. An unearthly greenish radiance that stretched from their left to almost straight ahead and that flickered faintly like some kind of spectral grass fire. In one place the brightness rose and fell in a steady rhythm, like the slow, steady bearing of some ghostly heart, and Malone felt his scalp crawling in primal fear. Someone muttered a prayer of protection against evil in a quiet, frightened voice.

“A Radiant city,” said the Brigadier. “Just over the horizon. Nothing to be alarmed about. I've been within sight of a Radiant city and nothing happened. Nothing at all. Relax, We’re perfectly safe. We'll keep a guard, though. Just like we always do, just in case. There might still be human bandits around.”

“Right,” said Spencer doubtfully. “Human bandits.” The Brigadier have him a look but said nothing and there was silence around the campfire as Malone began sharing out the stew with a shaking hand.

☆☆☆

The glow was still there the next morning, but as it grew lighter it gradually became washed out by the bright morning sunlight. The rangers kept a nervous, watchful eye on it as they ate a quick breakfast of cold venison and cornbread, but by the time the sun was fully risen it was no longer noticeable and their superstitious fears gradually ebbed to be replaced by curiosity. “We'd only have to climb that ridge and we'd be able to see it,” said Cowley as he saddled his horse. “It's only a couple of miles out of our way.”

“We keep go a straight course,” replied the Brigadier. “We keep to the mission. No risks, no distractions.”

“That time you saw a Radiant city,” said Cowley, “was it because you allowed yourself to be distracted from a mission by curiosity?”

“No. The mission was to capture a Carrow saboteur. He thought I wouldn't follow him to the city. He was mistaken. Then he had to be taken back to Marboll as quickly as possible for interrogation.”

“But if you hadn't caught him in sight of the city, If you'd caught the saboteur just over the hill from the city and that light had been just over the horizon...”

“I would still have taken him straight back to Marboll. The mission takes precedence over idle curiosity.”

“Yes, of course.” The Brigadier and Blane both glared at him, and the ranger got back to the task of adjusting his saddle.

They found the wagons they'd been following just before noon. Crane had gone a few hundred yards ahead to take a look over a low ridge they'd be crossing and the others halted when they saw him galloping back. “Something happened to them,” he said as he reined in beside the Brigadier. “Looks like they were attacked. One wagon’s overturned, the other’s half a mile further on, abandoned. No horses, no traders but...” He glanced around at the sky, as if to make sure it was still empty. “I saw clothes. Complete sets of clothes scattered over a wide area, including underclothes, as if they'd stripped themselves naked while running away.”

Everyone went pale. They all knew what that meant, and they all started searching the sky, hands going to their weapons. “Demon,” whispered Harper, as if just saying the word...

“Let's pick up the pace!” said the Brigadier. “All eyes on the sky! Quill, prepare yourself!”

“Yes, Sir!”

They passed the wagons a few minutes later and saw them just as the tracker had described. They all tensed up as they passed the site of the attack, in case the demon was still in the vicinity. Malone saw a pair of rabbits chewing a patch of grass to the side of the road. One was pure white, the other brown and half the size. Malone thought it likely that they'd been horses just a few hours before. He felt himself tensing up, felt his whole body quivering with nervous energy. The very idea of a demon was terrifying, even to experienced veterans. The thought that there might be one very nearby, that all the humanity he'd struggled so hard to gain since the death of his parents might be stripped away from him... In fact it might be worse than that! He wasn’t fully human yet. The demon’s curse might throw him further back than to the dog he'd once been. He might be thrown back further, to become a rat, or a toad or a lizard, or whatever he'd been before some unknown dog had adopted him all those years ago.

There were small, dark specks visible in the sky as they cantered onwards. Just birds, probably, but Malone kept an eye on them, trying to see whether they had long tentacles hanging below them like the tails of fairday kites. They were too far away to see, but then his attention was caught by a movement off to his left, and he turned in the saddle to look. There was something there, in the trees. Probably just a bird or something, hopping from one branch to another. There were meadowfowl here, he knew. The men had been talking about catching a few, to add a bit of variety to their trail rations. Or it could have been a Radiant, floating low to the ground the way he'd heard they sometimes did. The sun was in the sky behind it, meaning he might not notice a luminous cloud hiding there, waiting to ambush them... He looked more carefully, which it why he was the first to see it when it lifted into the sky and leapt towards them.

“There it is!” he cried, reaching for his gun. The Brigadier was faster, though, and had his pistol in his hand and was taking aim before Malone had even cleared his holster. As the other men scrambled for their weapons, the batman got a clearer look at the creature. It lacked the graceful symmetry of the Radiants, the lobes on one side of its body being visibly larger than on the other, and it’s glow was duller and tinged with red. The Brigadier was already firing, and bullets ripped through the creature’s jelly-like flesh. “Demon!”

The creature had coiled its tentacles under it, and now it used them to throw itself towards them with impossible speed. One of its tentacles lashed out, coiling around Dacson’s waist, and it pulled him out of his saddle and up into the air, crying out in fear. Harper yelled in alarm and aimed his gun, but he didn't have a clear shot. The demon was holding Dacson in front of it, as if using him as a human shield, while it lashed out with other tentacles, searching for more victims. The pelt of short hairs that covered its pulsating body rippled like a field of corn in the wind, and waves of brighter light flowed through it as if the creature was filled with liquid fire.

Blane and Cotton, the best shots among them except for the Brigadier himself, fired their weapons, avoiding Dawson’s flailing body, and more holes were torn in the creature’s gelatinous body. Malone retched as a foul smell washed over them, the ammonia smell of rotting fish, then he ducked as a tentacle swept by over his head. Dacson, meanwhile, had managed to pull his pistol from its holster and was trying to twist around in the demons grip so he could aim at it. A smaller tentacle wrapped itself around his arm, though, and the ranger screamed as his arm was pulled from his shoulder.

Men cried out in fury, and a barrage of fire shot up at the demon. Some of it hit Dacson, but everyone understood that he was as good as dead now. Nothing could save him, and a merciful death was the best they could do for him. The demon responded by lurching up into the sky, and then more tentacles wrapped around Dacson as he struggled and screamed uselessly. They pulled, and the man was ripped apart, his waist separating from his upper body with a scream and a sickening, tearing sound that haunted the others for the rest of their days. Malone threw his arms over his head to ward off the shower of blood and gore that fell across him, and he heard a scream of fury from someone. The air was filled with the noise of gunshots and the weird, piping sound that demons and Radiants alike made, and then silence fell as the creature retreated, flotation gases hissing from its bullet wounds. “Run!” roared the Brigadier, reaching across to slap the rump of the horse beside his. “It’s going to...”

Malone felt a surge of terror and spurred his horse into a gallop, even as he heard the creature’s piping rising to a higher note. There was a sound that he felt rather than heard, vibrating through his body like the lowest notes of a gigaram’s horn, a sound that his body responded to with instinctive terror. His horse felt it too and it reared under him, its eyes staring and foam flying from its mouth, and he had to use all his skill to keep it from throwing him and bolting. He felt a tingle across his back and heard someone cry out. More gunshots rang out, but then new notes were added to the piping noise and something bright flew across his vision. He looked around to see three Radiants, true Radiants this time, speeding across the landscape towards the demon, propelling themselves forward with blasts of air from vents in the sides of their bodies.

The demon turned to face the Radiants, and the four creatures bumped into each other like rubber balloons, bouncing apart again until their tentacles entwined around each other like mating snakes. The demon struggled in their grasp, but was unable to prevent itself from being lifted high into the sky and carried away, the humans aiming their guns after it until it was clear that the threat was over.

The Brigadier holstered his weapon and they dismounted, men and horses both sweaty and breathing heavily. They watched as the creatures drifted slowly away, the Radiants carrying the captive demon back to the city just out of sight behind the nearby hills. “You okay?” He asked Malone.

The batman was trembling and staring at the splatters of blood covering his arms. Dacson's blood. There was more on his face and matting his hair. He managed a too quick, nervous nod, though. He was a ranger, as much as any of the others. He wasn't going to show weakness in front of them.

“Your first real action,” said the Brigadier. “The first time you've seen a comrade killed in action. We've all been through the same thing.” He studied the younger man for a moment or two, then nodded. “You'll be okay,” he said. “Get yourself cleaned up.”

“I never heard of them attacking their own kind before,” said Fletcher, trying to wipe the blood from his uniform with a rag.

“Strictly speaking, it wasn’t their own kind,” replied the Brigadier, sick with horror at the visual reminder of the fate that awaited the Princess if their mission failed. “It was an aberration. That’s what happens when the transformation from human to Radiant goes wrong. It was probably insane, had no idea what it was doing.”

“And they just let it run around free?” cried Harper.

“They had no way of knowing there were humans here who might come to harm. They did intervene when it attacked us. Is everyone else all right?”

“Smithie got hit, hard!” someone said. The Brigadier went back to look at him and his face grew expressionless with the shock that he was trying not to reveal. “It tried to curse us,” the same man said. Cotton, the Brigadier now saw. ”He caught the full force of it.” He helped the others remove Smith’s clothes while other men cursed softly under their breaths. Much of his humanity, gained over many years from the loving care and attention of his parents, had been stripped away, leaving him half returned to the animal they had adopted.

The creature that had been Corporal Smith bleated miserably, as if he still had enough intelligence to understand what had happened to him, and he stared at the humans around him with his wide pupilled goat eyes. The Brigadier added his own curse. “He’s been with me since Eldale,” he said, his lips thin and tight with anger. “He saved my life at Ballimore.“

He looked across as Quill, who nodded and came forward. “Stand back,” he commanded. He laid his hands on Smith's body, cooing softly under his breath as his comrade in arms tried to pull away in fear. It was the first time Malone had ever seen a wizard casting a spell, and he leaned forward in fascination as Quill mumbled under his breath, his eyes closed in concentration. He was trying to create an instant parent bond with the ranger, making himself feel the same love for him as his parents had had and then using the power of his own human form to accelerate the ontogenic change, something that normally required two human parents and took years. Malone saw Smith's body slowly change, the spine lengthening, the limbs becoming more human-like, claws changing to become fingers. Years of uplift taking place within minutes.

Quill removed his hands from the ranger’s body and leaned back, gasping with exhaustion. Harper and Spencer helped him back to his feet. “I'm sorry,” he said. “That’s the best I can do.”

Smith had failed to regain his full humanity. He was trying to stand but couldn’t quite balance on legs that still lacked the strength to bear the full weight on his body. He stared at his hands miserably, flexing fingers that weren't quite as long and dexterous as they should be. “I okay!” he insisted. “Okay. I okay!”

“I'm sorry, Smith,” said the Brigadier, coming forward to stand before him. “You'll have to sit the rest of this mission out. When you've risen back to full human I'll be glad to have you back, but your part in this mission is over.”

Smith looked as though he might protest further, but then he nodded his not quite human head and allowed Harper and Spencer to help him get dressed again. His clothes didn't quite fit, there’d be some tailoring required, but they were determined to give him the dignity of human clothing.

“Will he be all right?” asked Malone.

“If he gets back to his parents before too long. They raised him to human once, they can do it again. Tallion, Cowley, take him to Vidwell. It's a market town, about four day’s travel that way. He’ll have to walk the whole way. He can’t sit on a horse any more. You should be able to hitch a lift on a wagon back to Helberion from there. Return him to his parents, their address with be in the personnel files, in Dreiberg.”

“What about that?” asked Malone, looking at Smith's former mount which had been half transformed back to the small rodent from which it had been raised. In its present form, it wouldn’t survive in the wild for long.

“I'll take care of it,” said Quill. He walked over to it, and the animal skittered away from him in alarm. He cooed at it and held out his hands, though, crouching over as he crept closer, and this time the animal stood its ground, perhaps feeling some residual loyalty and confidence around humans from before it had been stricken. Quill eased himself forward the last couple of feet, and when he was close enough he reached out a hand towards its neck, stroked its fur, then grabbed it firmly.

It kicked and struggled, but Quill had it now and he once again concentrated on forming a parent bond with the creature. Once again he used the power of his human form, but this time in reverse, using it to pull the animal back down the rungs of life instead of raising it up. As always, the curse made him feel sick inside, as if he was committing a terrible crime, doing something abominable. He had to remind himself that this was a mercy, that if it was left in its in between state it would almost certainly die, and die miserably, before the end of the week.

Curses always worked much faster than blessings, and within moments the last trace of horse had been stripped away. He released it, and a badger scampered away into the grass, disappearing almost immediately.

“Not quite the right environment for the creature, but at least it’s got a chance now,” he said as he re-joined the others. “Who knows, maybe it’ll be a horse again one day, or maybe a deer or a goat. It might even be human one day.”

The Brigadier looked up at the sun, almost at noon above them. “Get ready to move on,” he said. “I want to be far away from here in case they come back.”

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