Ontogeny

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Chapter Nine

They spotted the volcano less then twenty four hours after leaving Barag Tull. They were climbing a ridge of low hills on which the soil was thinner, allowing only grass and a few low, tangly shrubs to grow, and as they reached the top there it was. An almost perfect cone sitting on the horizon, its upper half shining a brilliant white with a covering of snow and with a thin coil of smoke drifting upwards from the summit. It gave the paradoxical impression of peace and tranquillity, even though everyone in the patrol knew the truth of them, of the violence and destruction that could be unleashed during an eruption. They all stopped for a moment to stare at it, all of them struck by the beauty of it, standing all alone in the middle of an almost flat country. A trio of Radiants were drifting above the volcano, they saw. Nothing but three brilliant points of light at this distance. Malone wondered whether they also had a concept of beauty, and whether they'd come just to admire it from above.

The path they were taking to reach Tollawen would take them almost to the feet of the volcano, and Sherren Harle was looking nervous again, his eyes shifting around as if he was expecting a sudden ambush and his long, black tongue darting out to lick his thin lips. He said something to Crane, to which the Brigadier listened intently, trying to pick some meaning from it from the two short lessons the tracker had already given him, the night before and that morning. “I think I caught the word for house, or home,” he said after a moment. “That was all, though.”

“That was very good, Sir,” said Crane. “The word for home was the only word I've taught you so far that he used. He just said that this is where the spirits live. Around this mountain. He's getting scared, sir. The extra pay we've promised him may only take him so far.”

“I'm not too worried about that. I think we could find our way back to the city on our own if we had to, if our friend decided to leave us. And now that we've got that nice, large landmark to guide us, we could probably find our own way to Tollawen if we had to. What was the word for mountain that he used?”

“Toll,” replied Crane. “Tollawen means the land under the mountain, it's the same word in Pennygab and the Mekrol language, so Pennygab probably borrowed the word from here, just like it's borrowed other words from other languages all over the world. There are quite a few words of our own language in it, which is what makes it so easy to learn.” He pointed ahead of them, to the right of the volcano, where the silvery line of a river was threading its way through the trees. “He says that, the last he heard, Parcellius was in that area, near a small town called Tollbine. The village under the mountain.”

“So it's the only village near the mountain?” asked Malone.

Crane spoke a few words to their guide, who gave a single word answer. “Yes,” translated the Brigadier. “I imagine there aren't that many people willing to live so close to a volcano.”

“So why does anyone live here?” asked Malone.

“They don’t have farms,” Crane reminded them. “Their Gods forbid it. They get all their food from hunting wild animals and gathering fruit from wild growing plants. That’s a very inefficient use of the land, though. They have to use every part of it, including those bits on the flanks of a volcano. I gather the village is a local staging post for the game hunters.”

Malone looked to the south, to where the topmost peaks of the Uttermost range were still visible above the treetops, made almost the same shade of grey blue by the mistiness of the air in between. ”Are there other volcanoes over there?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” replied Crane, “but from what I know of such things, it would be odd for there to be just one volcano, all alone. The whole range might be volcanic, for all I know. On the other hand, the people of Barag Tull don’t seem worried about living so close to them. I would guess that the stories of spirits in this area are based on geysers, ground tremors and so on. Ignorant people might attribute these things to the actions of malevolent spirits. There’s no such fear of spirits in the city, though.”

“That we know of,” replied the batman. “We barely entered it. And remember how it was built of huge blocks of stone, every building as solid as a mountain as if they have a lot of earthquakes. Also, the people of that city were probably well educated. They're probably too sophisticated to believe in evil spirits.” He looked at the mountains again. “What’s on the other side, I wonder?”

“Just wasteland, from what I've been able go gather so far. No-one seems very willing to talk about it. There are lots of Radiants seen in this area. Maybe it's radiant territory over there.” Malone nodded thoughtfully, then turned his attention back to the way ahead.

They lost sight of the volcano again as they descended the other side of the hilly ridge and re-entered the forest, and Sherren Harle led them down a shallow valley and along a swiftly flowing brook until they reached a larger river that took them to the village of Tollbine. All the trees for hundreds of yards around were coppiced, with a dozen or so thick branches rising from the stump, and they saw a team of workers cutting down the oldest trunks, stripping the branches off and loading them onto a cart drawn, they were relieved to see, by a team of ordinary cart horses.

The village itself was composed of fifty or so log cabins, most of them just large enough for a small family but with a number of larger public buildings in the centre. A tavern, a boarding house, a stables, a blacksmith’s workshop, a couple of what seemed to be storage sheds and what they guessed was the administrative building where what passed as the mayor and his staff did their business. Everything was arranged in a rough circle around a central open space, in which a large iron cage hung from a wooden scaffold. Inside the cage was the almost skeletal body of a man, being pecked at by a flock of crows.

Crane guided his horse over to a villager and had a short conversation with him, pointing at the body in the cage. The others saw him going pale as the villager answered his questions. “That, apparently, is the most recent sacrifice,” he told the others. “Appeasing the Gods, so they'll allow the village to stand here. He was caught stealing, so he was a convenient choice when the time came, once every year.”

“What if nobody committed a crime one year?” asked Harper.

“Then they...” Crane paused for a moment to swallow and regain his composure. “They choose someone by lottery. They write everyone's name on pieces of paper, put them in a box...” He found himself unable to go on and stared at the body in the cage again.

“Nobody commit any crimes,” said Harper. “Okay?” Spencer laughed nervously.

“Shit!” said Malone. “They seem like such nice people...”

The villagers seemed eager to confirm this opinion of them and invited the rangers to have their midday meal with them, in the tavern, while a crowd of locals gathered around. Crane was kept busy translating while their hosts demanded that their guests tell them stories of the exotic northern lands from which they came. In the cosy building, it was easy to forget the horror hanging outside, and Harper and Spencer were soon telling stories of their adventures in the service of the King while the Brigadier listened carefully to Crane’s translation, getting a feeling for the general rhythm of Pennygab and adding more words to his vocabulary.

The villagers confirmed that there was indeed a man called Parcellius in the area. He was an archaeologist, they said, and had spent the last few months digging in the ruins of a city of the Hetin people, the civilisation that had preceded their own and of which only a few scattered relics remained. Parcellius came to the village every couple of weeks, they said, for supplies and to store some of his more exciting finds. They brought some of them out to show their guests. Porcelain ornaments, rusted weapons and items of jewellery. The rangers pretended to be interested, for the sake of politeness.

The site of the dig turned out to be just a couple of hours away on horseback, and so as soon as their meal was finished they thanked their hosts for their hospitality and set off.

It took them rather longer than they'd hoped to find the dig site. They travelled in the direction the villagers had given them, but when four hours had passed they decided that they must have missed it and turned back. They spent the rest of the day criss crossing the area, and when night fell they still hadn’t found it. They spent the night out under the trees and resumed the search the next morning, and it was almost noon before they finally found it. It was another log cabin, apparently made from logs brought from elsewhere as there was no sign of felled trees in the area. “This must be it,” said Crane, looking around for any sign of the hut's owner, and their guide nodded his agreement.

“It could be a trappers cabin ,” said Harper, though. “There might be several cabins like this in the woods.”

“They're not allowed to build cabins,” replied Crane, though. “Nothing more than a tent that leaves no sign that it was ever there when they pack up and leave. Parcellius had to get special permission from the priests to build this. The villagers would have said if there was more than one in the area.”

The Brigadier nodded and led the way towards it. He called out a greeting, not really expecting a reply. It was the middle of the day and the shack had the look of a night shelter, a place the owner entered only to sleep and have meals. A stream flowed close beside it, and the Brigadier wandered over to have a closer look. The fast running water had eroded a deep gully, he saw, the walls of which were striped with layers of compacted leaf litter and volcanic ash. At the bottom of the gully, ancient bricks could be seen in the stream bed. The remains of a building of the Hetin folk, they guessed. A trapper must have passed this way, seen the ancient ruins and mentioned them in passing to the townspeople next time he went in to sell his catch. The Brigadier wondered how long it had taken word to make it all the way to Parcellius.

The archaeologist had begun to dig a safe distance away from the stream, creating a tunnel that entered the ground at a shallow angle. Besides it was a large pile of loose dug ash-stained earth, and they guessed that he was down there, doing whatever it was he had come here to do. Nevertheless, prudence and courtesy demanded that they check the cabin first.

The Brigadier pushed the door open, still calling out a greeting, and paused a moment before entering. There were two cots, he was surprised to see. Both empty and covered with tousled woollen blankets. Beside it was a stone hearth in which a few glowing embers still burned, and there were some small bones, the remains of the last meal, discarded on the floor.

“It still might not be him,” said Malone, standing in the doorway and peering curiously in.

“It’s him,” replied the Brigadier, crossing to a crude wooden bench on which some curious objects stood. There was a journal, along with quills and ink, which he opened, glanced at, then closed again. Beside it were ancient, dirt covered objects they guessed had come from the hole outside, some hastily cleaned off. A porcelain ornament in the shape of an eagle sitting on a branch. A pair of shoes rotted almost out of all recognition. A badly corroded handgun different in design from anything he’d seen before. Picking it up, he noted that the ammunition seemed to go in through the hand grip. He felt it in his hand, aiming it around the room, then placed it back where he’d found it.

“Look at this,” said Malone, picking up another dirt encrusted porcelain ornament. It was a woman, bare from the waist up, with two bulging mounds of flesh hanging from the front of her chest, one of which was partially hidden by a strange animal she was holding in her arms. It was about the size of a house cat, but looked like a human with pudgy arms and legs and a head too large in proportion to its body. It had its mouth clamped to the woman's mound of chest flesh, as if feeding on it. The woman was gazing down at it with a smile of delight and adoration.

“Looks like her son, partially raised from a pig,” said Malone, staring in bafflement. “Why is she letting it bite her?”

“Not a pig,” said Blane, who'd followed them in. “I've got no idea what kind of animal that once was. It's already more or less human shaped, despite still being small. Some kind of ape, perhaps.”

“It's hairless,” pointed out Malone, though. “Losing the body hair is one of the last physical changes. Just look at me. That's why I thought pig.”

The others were trying to crowd into the small room, and were peering over Malone’s shoulders to see the object. “There may have been animals around back than that have vanished now,” suggested Harper. “Some kind of small hairless ape, perhaps. What are those mounds of flesh on her chest?”

“She’s probably an aberration,” said Spencer, although from the doorway he could barely see it. “They must have had the occasional aberration back then, just like we do today. The process of raising a child goes wrong and it grows deformed. Maybe the artist was saying that even an aberration can raise an animal to human.”

“I’ve seen aberrations,” said the batman though. “Plenty of them. I’ve never seen one like that, though.” He found himself staring at the woman's chest. Although it was deformed, a deviation from the smooth, flat chest of a normal woman, there was something pleasing about the sight of it, something that held his attention. Those bulging mounds didn't look like a deformation. They looked right, natural, as if they were supposed to be there, and that idea was reinforced by the expression of serene joy on the woman's face, as if being bitten by that creature was the single most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her. He looked around at the others, and found them staring at the woman's chest as well. Even the Brigadier, although the look on his face held something more than simple fascination. There was a crease in his forehead, as if he was thinking intently about something that was bothering him.

“It's probably symbolic of something,” suggested Blane. “Or maybe it's the representation of a God, like S'Ton, with his four arms and forked tail.”

“Most likely,” agreed the Brigadier. “We'll probably never know what was going through the mind of the artist when he made it.”

There was something in the tone of his voice made Malone stare at him again, though. One of the things he loved about him was how his words always matched up with his thoughts. There was never any deception in him, except that needed to defeat an enemy in battle. Suddenly, though, the batman was seized by the certainty that the Brigadier was deeply bothered by the statuette, that he was keeping his true thoughts to himself. Could he have seen something like it before?

A shout came from outside and they exited to see two men emerging from the shaft. One was young and muscular. A hired labourer, they guessed, of the same race as Sherren and their guide. The man who did all the heavy work. The other was older and had the look of a scholar. “Parcellius?” said the Brigadier hopefully. “The men of the village said we could find you here.”

“Yes, I am Parcellius,” replied the older man. “What can I do for you?”

☆☆☆

‘So you’ve come all the way from Helberion,” said Parcellius when the Brigadier had finished explaining the reason for their visit. “I spent some time there back in my youth, long enough to learn the language. Never went to Marboll itself, spent most of my time in Embry, on the river Bale. Know the place?”

“Been through it a few times,” replied the Brigadier as Parcellius produced a bottle of wine and offered it around. Malone accepted gratefully but the Brigadier declined. The rest of the men had gone back outside, to give them some room. “You come from Vendugal, unless I’m very much mistaken. Your accent...”

“You have a good ear,” the archaeologist said, raising his glass and taking a sip. “I haven’t been there in nearly forty years. Thought my accent had well and truly gone by now. Guess it’s true what you say. You can take the man out of Vendugal... Anyway, your beautiful country is famous as the world’s greatest seat of learning, and learning is what I wanted to do, so as soon as I was fully human I went there. What do you remember of Embry?”

“I remember it had a university.”

“That’s the place!” said Parcellius. “Nice place, nice people. There was a bit of a war going on with Carrow at the time but it didn’t impact Embry much, except to make the food more expensive. I studied under Crawley, in his class on ancient cultures. That’s where I developed my fascination with archaeology. Been digging in ancient ruins ever since. I came down here twenty years ago when I heard of this place. One day I’ll go home and present my findings, but there’s so much still to find...”

“I had hoped that your speciality might be in ontomancy. We heard that you were a wizard. We came all this way in search of a man who might be able to help Princess Ardria.”

“I'm no wizard I'm afraid, but it’s just possible that your journey wasn’t wasted. We had a man here a few years back who learned he had just a couple of years to live. He wanted to speed up the raising of his son so he’d be fully human before he died. He hired an ontomancer to put a blessing on him. The blessing failed. In fact, he regressed all the way back to a goat. The ontomancer told us this wasn’t the first time it had happened, there have been quite a few similar cases over the years, and all in this general area. He did a bit of research and discovered that every case had one thing in common. The adoptee had eaten bluecoat mushrooms either just before or just after the blessing.”

“So it worked even after the blessing?” The Brigadier said, leaning forward hopefully. “Even several months after the blessing?”

“That I don’t know,” admitted the archaeologist. “I would suggest a small dose at first, then increasing it if it doesn’t work. We can find plenty of bluecoats down in the valley, and anyone in town can give you some good recipes.”

“Is this ontomancer still in the area?” asked Malone. “He might have more he can tell us.”

“His name’s Traglor and he lives in Crammoth, but he travels around a lot. He could be anywhere within a hundred miles of here. It might take months to find him.”

“We can’t take the time,” said the Brigadier. “We have to get back to Marboll as quickly as possible. Would you come with us? It would be helpful if you could tell this to the King in person.”

“My work isn’t finished. There’s a whole city down there, under the ash. Buried thousands of years ago when the volcano erupted, buried deeper and deeper with each subsequent eruption. It's perfectly preserved! Everything! An entire city of the Hetin folk! Do you know now rare that is? Everywhere else, virtually everything they created has been destroyed by three thousand years of wind and rain. Everything above the surface has gone! Just gone! They say that some of our present day cities are built on the sites of Hetin cities, that there are still tunnels and caverns of the Hetin Folk under them...”

The Brigadier nodded. “Marboll is one of them,” he said. “There are tunnels and chambers that extend fully a mile beyond the walls of the city, all empty. Whatever might have been in them was taken by looters and grave robbers centuries ago. We use them for storage.”

Parcellius nodded excitedly. “Hence the importance of this place! Everything intact, perfectly preserved! The locals let me dig down and tunnel around so long as I don’t disturb the surface, but so far I've barely scratched the surface! Why just the other day I found...”

“We are more concerned with the present and the future,” interrupted the Brigadier. “The city will still be there when the Princess has been cured.”

“Yes, yes, but I simply can’t leave! I’ll go with you back to the village, though, show you the mushrooms you need. They can be tricky to find, and there are several kinds that look alike, but then I have to come back here to continue my work. I’m learning things about them that no-one ever suspected! Their science was far in excess of ours! They could do things that seem miraculous to us! Machines that could fly, machines that could think! Machines that could transmit a man's voice across the world, allowing people thousands of miles apart to speak as though they were in the same room!”

“Is this one of them?” asked Malone, picking up the statuette of the deformed woman and the strange animal. He rubbed at some of the dirt that still covered her arms and back.

“I'm not sure. She may be a mythological creature, like a centaur or a dragon. I suppose they had myths and legends, just like we do. I've found all kinds of creatures that have no counterpart in the modern world. Did they actually exist and have since gone extinct, or were they just mythological? There are some strange omissions, though. Here, look at this.” He reached down under his cot and pulled out a couple of old books, the paper brown with age. “I found a library a few days ago. Most of the books have been destroyed by age. All that knowledge lost for ever, but a handful have miraculously survived. I've sent most of them back to town, there‘s a chap there who’s helping me translate them. Used to be my assistant, then he and his wife decided they wanted to raise a child. Here, look at this.”

He handed one of the books to the Brigadier, who took it reluctantly, not wanting to become sidetracked. Their mission had lasted weeks already, and the need to get help back to the Princess as soon as possible nagged insistently at him. He knew that the way to engage with an academic was to pretend to be interested in their field of study, though, so he turned the pages. “Did you find any texts on weapons, firearms?” He asked. “Something that could give us an advantage against the Carrowmen if hostilities break out again?” The text was in ancient Hetin and badly faded, and large parts of each page were covered with black mold, but there were illustrations on virtually every page that told him that it was a school textbook on animals and wildlife. “Very interesting,” he said, closing it and handing it back.”

Parcellius chuckled. “You have both the virtues and the weaknesses of a military man,” he said. “This is indeed very interesting. Very interesting indeed. You know why?” The Brigadier shook his head. “There is no mention of Radiants. None whatsoever.”

The Brigadier’s eyes widened and he took the book back, searching through the pages again, his eyes occasionally flicking back to the statuette of the deformed woman. There it is again, thought Malone. He knows, or suspects, something, but what?

Parcellius nodded, pleased by the Brigadier's reaction. “That book contains references to every form of life you’ve ever heard of. Birds, farm animals, pond life, insects, worms and head lice, but there are two that are conspicuous by their absence. Radiants and globs. As far as the people of that city were concerned, it was as if they just didn’t exist.”

Malone stared at the Brigadier, the glass of wine frozen halfway to his lips. The news clearly held some significance for his commander and he tried to catch his eye so as to prompt an explanation, but the Brigadier ignored him. “When can you leave?” he asked the archaeologist.

“First thing in the morning. The sooner I sort you out with what you need, the sooner I can get back here.”

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