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“I am of a mutable disposition,” said the resident. “Many have tried to change me, but mine is a character that does not yield. You must fit yourself around my little idiosyncracies. Now go.”
The set of his shoulders an unspoken reproach, the assistant went back to the barbthorn. With the resident watching his progress, I thought it ill-judged to follow. But Grolion did not reascend the tree. Instead, as he neared its wide base, where the thick roots delved into the ground, he suddenly stopped then stepped sharply back, as if some dire threat blocked his path.
The resident noticed. “What is it?” he cried.
Grolion did not turn but peered intently at the tangle of roots, as if in mingled fear and fascination. “I do not know,” he said, then bent gingerly forward. “I have never seen the like.”
The resident came forward, but stopped a little behind the traveler. “Where is it?” he said.
A feeler reached out for Grolion. He batted it away and crouched, leaning forward. “It went behind that root, the thick one.”
The resident edged forward. “I see nothing.”
“There!” said Grolion. “It moves!”
The resident was bent double at the waist, his attention fixed downward. “I still don’t—”
Grolion came up from his crouch, moving fast. One blood-smeared hand took the resident by the throat, the other covered his mouth, and both worked in concert to achieve the assistant’s goal, which was to spin the resident around and force his back against the lower reaches of the tree, where the thorns and barbs were thick and long.
Stray tendrils darted at Grolion’s arms, but he ignored the sucking mouths and held the resident fast against the trunk. Now heavier tubers leaned in from the sides, sensing the flesh pressed against the carpet of fine hairs on the tree’s bark. In moments, the man was a prisoner of more than Grolion’s grasp. The assistant took his hands from the resident’s throat and lips, but warned as he did so, “One syllable of a cantrip, and I will stop up your mouth with earth and leave you to the tree.”
“No new spells can be cast here,” the prisoner gasped. “Interplanar weakness creates too great a flux. Results, even of a minor spell, can be surprising.”
“Very well,” said Grolion, “now the tale. All of it.”
The telling took a while. Grolion considerately pulled away creepers and feeders, keeping the resident only loosely held and only slightly drained. I steeled myself to hear the sordid history of the resident’s treachery and the village council’s complicity, though I knew the tale intimately: how they had bridled at my innocent researches, conspiring to usurp my authority, finally using cruel violence against me.
“He was obsessed with the colors of the overworld,” the resident said. “I was his senior assistant, with two others under me. We were just village lads, though quick to learn. He established himself here because, he said, the conditions were unusually propitious—a unique quatrefoliate intersection of planes, a node from which it was possible to reach deep into two adjacent dimensions of the upper world, and one of the infernal.”
A tooth-rimmed sucker, sensing the flavor of his breath, probed for his mouth, but Grolion knocked it aside. The resident spoke on. “He particularly craved to see a color known in the overworld as refulgent ombre. It cannot exist in our milieu; what we call light is but a poor imitation of what reigns there.
“But our village sits on the site of Fallume the Ept’s demesne, long ago in the Seventeenth Aeon. So potent were the forces Fallume employed that he permanently frayed the membranes between the planes. My master’s researches had shown him that, here and here alone, he could create a facsimile of the upper realm and maintain it indefinitely. Within that sphere he could bask in the glow of refulgent ombre and other supernal radiances. To do so would confer upon him benefits he was eager to enjoy.”
The details followed. The microcosm of the overworld sphere would spontaneously self-generate upon completion of a complex design made from unique materials: the pigmented scales of four kinds of butterflies whose larval forms fed only on the sap and leaves of a unique tree, with which the insects lived in symbiosis—predators drawn to consume the insects were led into its maze of branches, where they impaled themselves on barbed thorns and thus became food for the vegetative partner.
The tree had a unique property, being able to exist in more than one plane at the same time, though it presented a different form in each milieu: in the first level of the overworld, it was a kind of animal, a multilimbed hunter of the transmigrated souls of small creatures that evanesced up from our plane; in the underworld, it was a spined serpent whose feeding habits were obscure, though distasteful. The attributes of all three realms co-existed in the tree’s inner juices. Eaten and digested by the worms that crawled the branches, the ichor was transmuted by the process that turned the larvae into butterflies, and was precipitated out in the scales of their viridescent wings. Taken while fresh, the colors of the scales could be arranged, at this precise location, into the design that would cause the facsimile of the overworld to appear. Within that sphere, refulgent ombre would shine.
Grolion halted the resident at this point. I saw his energetic face in motion as he sorted through the information. Then he asked the question I had hoped he would: “This refulgent ombre, is it valuable?”
“Priceless,” said the resident, and I saw avarice’s flame akindle in the assistant’s eyes, only to be doused as his prisoner continued, “and utterly worthless.”
Grolion’s heavy brows contracted. “How so?”
“It can only exist in the facsimile, and the facsimile can only exist here, where the planes converge.”
Grolion turned to regard the workroom. “So the starburst cannot be moved? Or taken apart and reformed elsewhere?”
“Disturb a grain of its substance, and it will depart through the breach, taking you and me, the house, and probably the village, with it.”
A scowl pulled down the vulpine face. “Tell the rest.”
“The master erected this manse, laid the garden, planted the tree. The village council welcomed him; in recent years traffic along the road has become scant; wealth no longer flows our way. They made an accommodation: the village would provide him with assistants and sundry necessities; he, in return, would perform small magics and provide the benefit of steagle.”
“And what is this steagle?”
“It is an immense beast that swims through endless ocean in an adjacent plane—you will understand that the terms ‘ocean’ and ‘swim’ are only approximations. He gave the village the knife that cuts only steagle; slice the air with it, and a slab of meat appears. With each cut, a new piece arrives, dripping with lifejuices. We would never know hunger again.”
“A useful instrument.”
“Alas,” said the resident, “it, too, only works where interplanar membranes are weak. A mile beyond the village, it is just another knife.”
Grolion scratched his coarse thatch. “Does the steagle not resent the theft of its flesh?”
“We have never given the matter any thought.”
The villagers had taken the bargain. And all was as it should have been, except that the tree flourished more boisterously than anticipated. Birds and lizards had to be augmented by occasional wanderers who had taken the wrong fork and who were impressed as “assistants.” Even they were not enough. Thick creepers began to prowl the village at night, entering open windows or even forcing the less sturdy doors. Householders would arise in the morning to find pets shriveled and livestock desiccated, drained to the least drop. Then the tree started in on the children.
“The council came to my master, but found him consumed by his own ambitions. What were a few children—easily replaceable, after all—compared to the fulfillment of his noble dream? He counseled them to install stronger doors.
“But the village threatened to withdraw support, including we who assisted. My master begrudgingly invoked Phandaal’s Discriminating Boundary, to keep the tree in bounds. But the spell also confined us.”
Hearing this, I was saddened anew at the thought of the council’s shortsightedness, when I had been making such good progress in my work. I tried not to listen as the resident told the rest: how, while I slept, my assistants had fed my watcher a posset of drugged honey, then stolen into my chamber with knives.
The dastardly attack came, coordinated and from three directions at once, catching me unawares in the midst of my sleep-wanderings. I awoke and defended myself, though without magic, I was in a poor situation. However, I had not become a wielder of three colors of magic without learning caution. The traitors were surprised to discover that I had long since created for myself an impregnable refuge in the fourth plane, to which I fled when the struggle went against me. Unfortunately, they had done such damage to my physical form that only my essence won through.
“He left behind his physical attributes,” my former assistant was telling Grolion, “and these we sealed into a coffin of lead lined with antimony. Thus he cannot reach out to repair himself; instead, he projects himself from his hiding place, riding the sensoria of passing insects, seeking to spy on me.” He swallowed and continued, “Something is boring into my ankle. If you release me from the tree’s grasp, I swear to do you no harm.”
Grolion tugged away the tuber that was feeding on the resident’s leg and batted away another that was seeking to insert itself into the prisoner’s ear. He pulled free the creepers that had been thickening around the resident’s torso, then yanked the man loose. The resident gasped in pain; scraps of bloody cloth and small pieces of flesh showed where barbed thorns had worked their way into his back and buttocks.
Grolion tore the man’s robe into strips and bound his wrists and ankles. But he considerately hauled the bound man out of the tree’s reach before going to reinspect the workroom and the design. He reached for the Phandaal libram, but as his fingers almost touched its blue chamois, a blinding spark of white light leapt across the gap, accompanied by a sharp crack of sound. Grolion yelped and quickly withdrew his hand, shook it energetically, then put the tips of two fingers into his mouth and sucked them.
He left the room, took himself out to a bench along one side of the garden, equidistant between the tree and the workroom. Here he sat, one leg crossed over another, his pointed chin in the grip of one hand’s fore—finger and thumb, and gave himself over to thought. From time to time, he looked up at the barbthorn, or over to the workroom window, and occasionally he considered the tied-up resident.
After a few minutes, he called over to the resident, “There were three of you. Where are the other two?”
The resident’s upturned glance at the tree made for a mutely eloquent answer.
“I see,” said Grolion. “And, ultimately, what would have happened to me?”
The resident’s eyes looked at anything but the questioner.
“I see,” Grolion said again, and returned to thought. After a while, he said, “The lead coffin?”
“In the crypt,” said the resident, “below the garden. The steps are behind the fountain in the pool of singing fish. But if you open it, he will reanimate. I don’t doubt he would then feed us all to the tree. He used to care only for refulgent ombre; his murder, followed by several incarnations as various insects, most of which die horribly, may have developed in him an instinct for cruelty.”
Grolion went to look. There was a wide stone flag, square in shape, inset with an iron ring at one side. He seized and pulled, and, with a grating of granite on granite, the trapdoor came up, assisted by unseen counterweights on pulleys beneath. A flight of steps led down.
I did not follow. The glyphs and symbols cut into my coffin’s sides and top would pain me, as they were intended to do. I flew over to a crack in the wall above the resident, and, having established that nothing lurked therein, I settled down to wait.
I knew what Grolion would be seeing: the much-cracked walls and damp, uneven floor of the crypt, the blackness only partly relieved by two narrow airshafts that descended from small grates set in the garden wall above; the several bundles of cloth near the bottom of the steps, containing the shriveled remains of my former junior and intermediate assistants, as well as the wayfarers who had, individually, sought shelter from the invigilant’s ghoul and found themselves pressed into service; and one end wall, fractured and riven by the barbthorn’s roots as they had grown down through the ceiling and the soil above it.
And, of course, on a raised dais at the opposite end of the crypt, the coffin that held my physical attributes. They were neither dead nor alive, but in that state known as “indeterminate.” I did not think that Grolion would be curious enough to lift the lid to look within; that is, I was sure he possessed the curiosity, but doubted he was foolish enough to let it possess him, down there in the ill-smelling dark.
When he came back up into the red sunlight, his brows were downdrawn in concentration. “No more work today,” he told the resident. “I wish to think.”
The tree had been stimulated by its tastes of the resident. Its branches stirred without a wind to move them. A thick tubule, its toothed end open to catch his scent, was extending itself along the ground toward where he sat, still bound but struggling to inch away. Grolion stamped on the feeder and kicked it back the way it had come, then hauled the resident by his collar farther toward the workroom end of the garden. He turned and stared up at the tree for a moment, then went to look at the starburst again. Thinking himself unobserved, he did not bother to prevent his thoughts from showing in his face. The tree was a problem without an opportunity attached; the design was valueless, even when completed, since it had to remain where it was; the Phandaal on the shelf was precious, but painfully defended.
He came back to the resident. “What happens when the design is completed?”
“A microcosm of the overworld will appear above it, and it will be absorbed.”
“Could we enter the microcosm?”
The bound man signaled a negative. “The overworld’s energies are too strident, even in a facsimile. We would either melt or burst into flames.”
“Yet your master intended to enter it.”
“He spent years toughening himself to endure the climate. That was what made him hard to kill.”
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