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Chapter 9:

An Antlered Mount

Keio (9-K-O-512)

Time: Daytime, afternoon
Location: forest floor
Health: weakening, dehydrated
Additional effects - enhanced nature-vision, impaired movement

As soon as I pull myself up onto the lowest branch, the forest offers me a better opportunity. The life-shape of a large creature slumbers peacefully in the wide tree's shade.

I freeze and wait.

A bright, white, soft-lipped head appears from behind the trunk, crowned by flat branching antlers. Followed by another and a pair of legs with bulky hooves. As the high, hunched back slides into view, I realise the antler-bearer – an elk – is also two-headed, like the ravens on the fir. Now I can see bright pulsating spots visible against the rest of its life-shape – in the nape of its neck, between the two heads.

But how to approach the elk without scaring it away too soon? For a while, I watch the elk heads in silence. One seems to be sleeping, the other snacks on shoots and sprouts in the moss – young fir-saplings!

Now I know the way. I take a handful of juicy fir sprouts from my cocoon-pocket, quiet-like, spreading them onto the moss at the foot of the tree.

As the elk wanders under my branch, looking for the tasty shoots, I slide myself onto its back. I bare my palms and push them onto the pulsating spots, clinging to the elk's hunched back with my thighs.

Our life-shapes flicker and waver restlessly as the elk fights against my influence. But the cloud-truffle feeds my natural power and my will prevails over the animal. I throw it some more fir sprouts to enjoy and the alert head snatches them up straight away. The elk stands sniffling, waiting.

Drink, I ask in my mind. Lead me to water.

The elk sets off calmly in a decisive direction, carrying me on its back as a rider. Every time the elk stops or I feel our bond weakening, I feed fresh fir shoots to my antlered mount.

Soon, bright daylight streams from ahead and more and more gnarled oaks appear amid the lanky birches. The elk strides on, toward the clearing. I sense Little-Friend close by.

Suddenly, a shout in a human voice: “Get, you devil!”

It's followed by a dark thud and, suddenly, a spider-rat's voiceless call for help pierces the forest's silent song. Little-Friend is in trouble!

I urge the elk to hurry and it gallops toward the clearing, me barely clinging to the animal's back.

I find Little-Friend in the clearing, stunned and kicking on the ground. An unshaved human towers above it, axe raised for a blow.

“Don't!” I shout, guiding the elk into the stranger's way. “That's my little friend!”

The stranger has stopped, dumbfounded, axe still hanging in the air. Only now do I realise I understood his words. I glower at him – indeed, patches of the smart-fabric's pattern appear under his furry clothes made of indigenous fabric. And stripes of unmistakable terminal-ink cover his arm.

There can be no doubt – he must be a survivor from the ship.

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