The house was big and white with green shutters. It stood at the end of a dirt road by the curve of a vast black pond. There was not much of a lawn. Rather, the forest seemed to grow right up to the back door. Even the solitary dirt road was overshadowed by great oak trees which arched over it to form a living bridge, and no matter how hard one looked, one could never see more than a few feet in any direction. The house looked as if it belonged there, as if it had been in that location forever. In reality it was about two hundred years old.
Far away, hidden by the trees, stood a chain-link fence which defined the property, and several armed men, which further defined it. Within the house dwelled the old man as had his father before him and his father before him. It was the first grandfather who had built the house, based upon pictures and stories, and perhaps in part upon dreams as well. For there had been no houses such as this for a very long time.
Deep in the heart of a great forest, three men stooped down by an overgrown trail, intently studying those parts of the ground still visible in the late afternoon gloom. One of them, further ahead than the others, motioned for his companions to join him.
"Will you look at that!" he exploded, not waiting for them to get close enough to see. "Webbed feet—my God, I didn't really believe it was possible. What do you think?" He asked the others.
"You can see that it's not human, Bill." The tallest of the three men crouched down, careful not to mar the print with his fingers. "See this flat area between the toes—that's got to be webbing of some sort. But it still doesn't tell us if it's a mutant who made it—or something else."
Bill snorted derisively, "There is no 'something else.' There's mutants and humans, plain and simple. This one's a mutant—that much is clear—not some creature out of myth like Hanan believes."
Dave, a thickset man wearing a mottled green coat, bent closer to the ground to touch the footprint. "Real enough," he grunted, moving off while his partners talked excitedly about the implications of such a find.
Soon he was entirely out of sight of his companions, but he didn't notice. He did, however, notice that the footprints were becoming easier to see as the foliage thinned out. He rounded a corner and came upon a most peculiar sight. Not hesitating, he sprang forward, calling as he did so, "Bill! Jim!"
Bill and Jim jumped to their feet and sprinted in the direction of their associate's startled cry. They stopped in astonishment when they found him on the shores of a dark lake.
He was struggling with a slender youth who was wriggling like an eel in an attempt to free himself. A boy with webbed feet!
Bill and Jim darted forward to help their partner. Between the three of them they eventually managed to tie the hands and feet of the boy. Finally they stepped back to get a look at their captive.
"Whew," sighed Dave. "What a struggle."
The boy glared defiantly at him out of eyes that did not belong on a human face.
"Ain't he something, Jim?"
"Never saw anything like him," replied Jim. He studied the boy critically, regarding his strange eyes, the greenish tint to his long dark hair, and most especially the webbing that was evident between his toes, between his fingers, and even on his neck. He reached out one hand to touch the delicate folds on the boy's neck, but the boy threw himself to one side, bound as he was, and stared at Jim, breathing in ragged sobs.
"Forget it," warned Dave. "We're here for the Boss, nothing else. Next time . . . ."
"Will there be a next time?" Bill wondered out loud. "What if he's the only one? What if we never find another one like him?" His eyes drifted down to the clear webbing on the boy's fingers.
Dave laughed harshly. "There's money in this, Bill. Once word gets out, these woods'll be scoured for the likes of him, whatever the odds on there being another one of his kind."
The boy lifted his head for a fraction of a second, and his eyes flashed.
"The odds are quite . . . " Jim began, but Bill interrupted him, swearing.
"Can he talk?" he asked, glancing at the boy.
"He didn't make one sound while we were fighting. I don't think he can."
No one talked much after that, however, and before they took the boy away, Jim soaked one of their blankets in the nearby lake and wrapped it around him. "Don't want him to dry out or something," he excused himself.
They brought him directly from the forest to the immense white mansion just at the edge of the woods. He was still wrapped in the blanket at the rear of the carriage.
"Go around to the back," one of the men whispered. "I'll get the Boss."
There was a brief rustle and the carriage wheels creaked, then they were moving again. The buggy halted for a second time shortly after, and the boy was yanked to his feet, blanket and all.
"In there." Between them the three men half dragged, half carried the boy up several steps and into the white house. It was cool and dark in the hallway and it made the brightness of the sun on the pond across the road seem somehow unreal. Jim disappeared momentarily, only to return and beckon the others to a room a little to the left of the entrance hall.
"What's this?" demanded the old man imperiously when they had carried the boy to the sitting room. "Why are you bothering me with this nonsense? Surely my servants or my—oh, you're here, James."
Jim's face clouded for a moment. "You wanted him, didn't you?" Jim asked. "I mean, I thought you said to get him if we could. . ." His hands waved helplessly in the air.
Bill stepped forward. "Ah—Boss. If you don't want him, I'll—"
"Shut up!" While Jim had talked, the old man's expression had changed drastically and his icy blue eyes now shone with hope. He turned towards Jim, dismissing Bill altogether. "Do you mean you've gone—one of Them? A Sprite?"
The boy doubled over suddenly inside the blanket.
Jim apologized for him. "He's probably sick from the journey. I kept the blanket wet to simulate his natural environment, but it may not have been enough."
"I want to see him," the Boss demanded, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "And if this is some trick of yours, James, I swear you'll live to regret it."
"Oh, no sir. He's authentic all right. See?" Jim pulled the blanket away from the boy.
John G. Hanan III took a deep breath to control himself, then studied the creature his men had brought him. It was a youth, no doubt, seventeen or eighteen perhaps, wearing some sort of woven wraparound which gleamed faintly metallic. His eyes glinted angrily right now but beyond that John Hanan could read nothing in them. The boy might be intelligent, then again, he might not.
"Where did you capture him?" This was to Jim.
"We followed the river for two days, like you told us. It was about five miles in from the river on the second day that we found the footprint."
"That's all we saw. But we camped at the spot and searched from there. I think he," he gestured towards the boy, "saw us. He's the devil's own, that's for sure. One morning when we awoke we found all our clothes had been turned inside out. Once, when I knelt down to refill my water bag in a stream, something caught it and nearly pulled me in! There were other things, too."
"Did you see him do these things?"
"Well, no . . . we didn't see him at all until the day we caught him."
The boy in question turned his strange eyes on Jim. He had been teasing them, he hadn't meant to get caught, didn't even think it was possible for such as they to get close enough to touch him.
"And how did you capture him?"
"It was on the third day. We were just about to call it quits and pack up for home when Bill saw another footprint. We all started looking and eventually we ended up by the shore of a lake. The footprints ended at the water."
The boy, whose name was Neistah, remembered. He had led them to the lake fully intending to drown them. But they wouldn't go in the water. He had waited just below the surface while they scoured the vicinity for him, and when they did not come nearer Neistah got bored and climbed out of the lake at another spot. He'd been drying off when one of them, a large one apparently to judge from the looks of the rest, nearly fell over him. Still, he would never have been caught if it hadn't been for his damnable curiousity. One man could not have held him had he not wanted to be held. By the time he had satisfied his own curiousity there had been three men holding him and it was much too late to call the others, even subvocally. Not that they would have come to help him anyway. Neistah had broken the only true rule they had . . . he had let strangers see him. Then the world had exploded in red and yellow, and Neistah woke to a heavy weight that covered him from head to toe and smelled horribly. It was at that moment that he realized he had miscalculated. Someone threw a bucket or two of water over him, making his wrappings stink even more.
Dave continued the narration. "I had a hunch we should look over to the right. That's when I found him. I called the others and we got him, though it was a struggle. You wouldn't think that something that slender would be so strong. He was soaking wet and slippery. I finally had to hit him behind the ear--."
"Did you damage him?" interrupted the old man. "I don't want him damaged!" He rose from his chair and went to inspect the boy's head. Neistah wanted no part of that. He hissed, the first sound his captors had heard him make, and within a few seconds he was out of his bonds and across the room, crouching by the outer door.
"Get him!" screamed the old man.
As Dave and Bill reached for the boy, he crumpled and slowly fell to the floor. They hauled him to his feet as Jim felt behind his ear. "He seems to be fine, just a small bump, but he's awfully dry. I think we should get that blanket wet again."
"I've got a better suggestion," said John Hanan. "Let him swim in the pond. I've had it specially made in case we captured one of them. He won't be able to leave the property."
So these people were oblivious to telepathy, thought Neistah. He let himself be borne from the stifling room. Much of his collapse had been feigned, but not all of it. He was weak, and hungry, and furious with himself for having been caught. The pond would be a relief. Now, to see if he had any power at all over these people. He locked his eyes on Jim's and smiled. A long while later Jim blinked, then continued on towards the pond. Nothing visible had changed.
They dumped Neistah unceremoniously into the bright water and he immediately swam to the farthest shore where he stood regarding them, smiling faintly. Jim ran back into the house but returned shortly with a basket of fresh fruit which he left on his side of the pond. Neistah's grin expanded. Ah, this was what he'd wanted. He could eat fish, of course, but he preferred not to in this man-made water world.
"I can't let anyone find out something like that exists," the old man said later. "And I can't let him go."
Dave and Bill exchanged glances.
"James," spoke the old man. "you will be responsible for this Sprite. Do any tests you need to as long as he is not damaged. I need to know if he is unique, or if the old tales are really true. Then we can decide what to do next."