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Grolion strode about with the energy of frustration. “So we are locked in with a vampirous plant and a magical design that will destroy us if it is not completed. Only your master truly understands what needs to be done, but if I revive him, he will probably feed me to the plant to gain the wherewithal with which to finish his project and achieve his life’s goal.”
“That is the situation.”
Grolion abused the air with his fist. “I reject it,” he said. “My experience is that unhelpful situations will always yield to a man of guile and resource. I will exert myself.”
“In what direction?”
“I will eliminate the middleman.”
The resident was framing a new question when a voice called from the corridor. A moment later, the invigilant’s belly passed through the archway, followed shortly after by the man himself. He took in the scene, noting the resident’s bonds, but said only, “How goes the work?”
The resident made to answer but Grolion cut him off. “A new administration has taken charge. The situation as it stands is unsatisfactory. It will now be invested with a new dynamic.” He moved toward the invigilant with an air of dire intent.
“What’s this?” said the invigilant, a look of alarm making its way to the surface of his face through the rolls of fat beneath it. His plump hands rose to defend himself, but Grolion treated them as he had the tree’s creepers; he pulled up the flap that closed the invigilant’s wallet and seized the knife that cut steagle. A flick of his wrist caused the blade to spring free with a sharp click.
“You cannot threaten with that,” said the invigilant. “It cuts only steagle.”
“Indeed,” said Grolion. He made for the tree, in his peculiar bentkneed stride. The invigilant bent and undid the resident’s bonds, but both stayed well clear of the barbthorn. My rumblebee was tired, but I drove it to follow the traveler.
Grolion marched to the base of the barbthorn. Several wriggling tubers reached for him, the tree having not fed well for many days. He slashed at the air with the black-bladed knife, a long horizontal cut at head height. Lifejuices spurted, bedewing the hairs of his arms with pink droplets. He ignored them and made two vertical cuts, one each from the ends of the first gash. Now he cut a fourth incision in the air, at knee height and parallel to the first. Then he gripped the knife between his teeth and thrust his hands into the top cut. He seized, tugged, and ripped until, with a gush of lifejuices, a slab of steagle the size of a sleeping pallet fell out with a splat onto the stone paving.
Grolion stepped back. The barbthorn’s feeders sampled the air above the dripping flesh, then, as one, they plunged down and fastened multifanged mouths onto the meat. The tubules pulsed rhythmically as the tree fed. Grolion paused to watch only a moment then, wielding the knife again, he stepped to the side and repeated the exercise. Another weighty slab of steagle slapped the pavement, and the tree sent fresh feeders to drain it.
“Now,” said Grolion, “for the design.” He folded the steagle knife and pocketed it then, with the tree occupied with steagle, he threw himself up and into the barbthorn. Ever higher he climbed, ignoring the wounds his passage through the thorns inflicted on him, while he methodically stripped every branch of its chrysalises, be they mature, middling, or newly spun. These he tucked into his shirt, until it bulged.
When he had them all, he dropped swiftly down through the foliage, paused at the base to cut another wedge of steagle for the tree, then strode to the workroom. “Follow me!” he called over his shoulder.
The invigilant and the resident did so, though not without exchanging freighted glances. I flew to where I could get a view of the proceedings. There was Grolion at the work bench, pulling handfuls of chrysalises from his shirt. He found a scalpel and sliced one open, as the resident looked on open-mouthed.
An almost-made almiranth appeared. With surprising deftness, Grolion teased it free of its split cocoon, laid the feebly wriggling creature on the benchtop, and, with a pair of fine tweezers, spread its wings. He breathed gently on the wet membranes to dry them. Then he turned to the resident and said, “Now you collect the scales.”
Wordlessly, the resident did as he was told, while Grolion informed the invigilant that his task was to sort the chrysalises by species and apparent maturity. The official’s mouth formed an almost hemispherical frown and he said, “I do not—”
Grolion dealt him a buffet to the side of the head that laid the invigilant on the floor. He then stood on one foot, the other poised for a bellykick, and invited the prostrate man to change his views. Trembling, the invigilant got to his feet and did as he was told.
Time passed. The tree fed, the men worked, and the supply of scales for the starburst grew. When Grolion had extracted the last moth mature enough to have harvestable scales, he asked the resident, “Have we enough?”
The resident looked at the several reeds, each loaded with pigment and said, with mild amazement, “I believe we do.”
“Then get to work.” To the invigilant, he said, “You will act as assistant, handing him the reeds as he asks for them.”
They set to. Meanwhile, their new supervisor went out to the tree. The barbthorn, having sensed the availability of a rich and ample source of food, had sent forth its primary feeder; this was a strong tube, as thick as Grolion’s thigh and rimmed by barbed thorn-teeth as long as his thumb. It had fastened onto the second of the two slabs of steagle, which it was rapidly draining of substance. The operation was accompanied by loud slurps and obscene pulsations of the fleshy conduit. The first slab was but a shrunken mat of dried meat.
“Let us keep you occupied,” said Grolion, deploying the black blade. He cut a fresh segment of steagle from the air, twice the size of the others, and let it fall beside the now almost-shriveled piece. Tubules strained toward the new sustenance, and, in a moment, the thick feeder left off from the slab it was draining and drove its thorns into the more recent supply. The tree shivered and a sound very like a moan of pleasure came from somewhere in the matrix of branches.
Grolion loped back to the workroom. The two men, on their knees beside the design, looked up with apprehension, but he waved them to continue. “All is as it should be,” he said, almost genially. “Soon we will be able to put this unpleasantness behind us. Continue your work while I inspect the premises.”
He left the area and I could hear clinks and clatters as he rummaged through other rooms. After a while, he came back to the garden, a bulging cloth sack in his hand. Leaving the bag near the workroom door, he went to the tree again, saw that it had fully drained the latest steagle. Its tubules were again sampling the air. An expression that I took to be simple curiosity formed on the man’s foxlike face. Unfolding the knife once more, he cut again, standing on tiptoe to make the upper incision, stooping almost to the ground for the lower, and thrusting the blade arm-deep into the cuts. Out fell a huge block of steagle and Grolion stood drenched in viscous pink. He brushed at himself, then went to immerse himself among the singing fish, which gave out an excited music as the flavor of their water changed. The tree, meanwhile, was writhing in vegetative ecstasy, sending up new shoots in all directions.
The resident and the invigilant were now finishing the starburst. The former laid a line of deep vermilion against a wedge of scintillating white nacre, then bid the latter hand him a reed filled with stygian black. This he used to trace a spiral at the heart of the pattern, delicately tapping out the pigment a few scales at a time.
He finished with the black, then called for old gold and basilisk’s-eye green, two of the rarest colors from the barbthorn’s palette. The invigilant passed him the reeds just as Grolion hove into view through the doorway, dripping wet and bending to retrieve his bag of loot. “How now?” he said, his unburdened hand indicating the design.
The resident appeared startled to hear himself declare, “I am about to finish.”
“Then do so,” said Grolion. “I have wasted enough time in this place.” Now came the moment. I flew close, but my rumbling buzz annoyed Grolion; he brushed me aside with a brusque motion that sent me tumbling. I fetched up hard against the side of the doorway, damaging one of my wings so that I fell, spiraling, to the floor. I looked up to see him frowning down at me, then his huge foot lifted.
“Look!” said the invigilant and the crushing blow did not come. All eyes turned toward the space just above the center of the starburst where, as the final iridescent flakes of color fell from the end of the reed, a spark had kindled in mid-air. In a moment, like a flamelet fed by inrushing air, it grew and spread, becoming a glowing orb that was at first the size of a pea, then the width of a fist, now of a head, then larger, and still larger. And as it grew, the starburst that had been so carefully laid upon the workroom floor was drawn up in a reverse cascade of sparkling colors, to merge with the globe of light, now scintillating with scores of rare hues, having grown as large as a wine cask, and still waxing.
The three men watched in fascination, for playing across their eyes were colors, singly and in combination, such as few mortals have ever seen. But I had no thought for them now, not even for my betrayal and the unjust abuse I had suffered. I flexed my injured wing, told myself that it would bear the rumblebee’s weight long enough. I bent my six legs and threw myself toward the light, willing my three good, and one bad, membranes to carry me forward.
Instead, I drifted to one side, away from the prize. And now the resident noticed me. At once, he knew me. He came around the edge of the tray, from which the last trickles of the intricate design were flowing up into the orb of light, and struck at me with the hand that still held the final reed. I jinked awkwardly to one side, a last few ashy flakes of nacre dusting the hairs on my back, and the blow did not fall. But my passage had brought me close to Grolion again, and his hand made the same sharp stroke as before, so that the backs of his hairy fingers caught me once more and sent me spinning, helpless—but straight into the globe!
I passed through the glowing wall, heard within me the rumblebee’s tiny last cry as its solid flesh melted in the rarified conditions of this little exemplar of the overworld that had now appeared in our middling plane. Freed from corporeality, I experienced the full, ineffable isness of the upper realm, the colors that ravished even as they healed the wounds. Refulgent ombre was mine, and with it ten thousand hues and shades that mortal eyes could never have seen. I languished, limp with bliss, enervated by rapture.
Somewhere beyond the globe of light, the resident, the invigilant, and the wanderer went about their mundane business. I cared nothing for them and their gross doings, nor for the parcel of flesh, bone, and cartilage that had once housed my essence and was now itself confined in a coffin of lead and antimony.
They had feared my retribution. But there would be no revenge. Then was then, now was now, and I was above it all, in the overworld. I exulted. I reveled. I swilled the wine of ecstasy.
THE MAN who called himself Grolion stared at the multicolored orb. It had stopped growing after the bee had entered it. All of the starburst was now absorbed and the globe hung in the air above the empty tray, complete and self-sufficient. Curious, he reached a hand toward it, but Shalmetz, the man who had finished the design, struck away his arm.
Grolion turned with a scowl, fist raised, but subsided when Shalmetz said, “A sliver of ice thrown on a roaring fire would last longer than your flesh in contact with that.”
Groblens, the fat village officer, pulled back his own hand, that he had been hesitantly stretching toward the microcosm. Grunting, straining, he levered himself to his feet. “Is it over?” he said.
Shalmetz observed the globe. “It seems so.”
“Test it,” said the traveler, aiming his chin toward the blue book on the shelf. Shalmetz touched a finger to the book’s spine. “No spark.”
Grolion gestured meaningfully. Shalmetz made no objection but with a rueful quirk of his lips, passed across the Phandaal. “You are welcome to it,” he said. “I will return to my job at the fish farm.”
“Give me back the steagle knife,” the fat man said. “It is of no use beyond this eldritch intersection of planes.”
“It will have value as a curio,” the foxfaced man said.
Shalmetz looked through the window. “The village may need it to keep the tree content. It seems to have developed a fondness for steagle.” And more than a fondness. The barbthorn had been growing, and was now half again as tall as it had been that morning, and substantially fuller. Moreover, it had grown more active.
“I will cut it one more portion,” he said, “to keep it occupied while we depart. After that, it becomes part of my past and therefore none of my concern. You must deal with it as you can. I recommend fire.”
To Shalmetz and Groblens, the plan had obvious shortcomings, but before they could address them, the traveler was loping to the base of the tree. Again, he cut deep, wide, and long, and in moments another block of steagle dropped before the questing feeders. The tree fell upon the new food with an eagerness that, when displayed by a vegetative lifeform, must always be disturbing.
But there was an even more troublesome coda to its behavior: even as its smaller tubules fixed themselves to the slab of steagle, the main feeder, now grown as thick as a man’s body, darted toward the still closing gap in the air from which the pink flesh had come. Before the opening could close, the thorn-toothed orifice thrust itself through. The end disappeared. But it had connected, for immediately the tube began to pump and swallow, passing larger and larger volumes along the feeder’s length, as if a great serpent was dining on an endless litter of piglets.
A deep thrumming came from the plant, a sound of mingled satisfaction and insatiable gluttony. It visibly swelled in height and girth, while a new complexity of bethorned twigs and branches erupted from its larger limbs. The man with the knife stepped back, as the tree’s roots writhed and grew in harmony with the rest of it, cracking the wall against which it had grown, tearing up the stone pavement in all directions, upturning the fountain and sending the singing fish out into the inhospitable air to gasp and croak their final performance.
The man turned and ran, stumbling over broken flagstones and squirming roots that sprang from the earth beneath his feet. Shalmetz and Groblens fled the workroom just as the tree’s new growth met the foundation of its wall at the garden’s inner end. In an instant, the wall was riven from floor to ceiling. The room collapsed, bringing down the second story above it, though when the debris settled, the kaleidoscopic orb that held a facsimile of the overworld, which in turn held the blissful essence of the house’s builder, remained unscathed, shining through the billows of dust.
The bag of loot was beneath a fallen roof timber. Its collector reached for it, found it held fast. He addressed himself to one end of the beam, and by dint of prodigious effort was able to lift and shift the weight aside. But as he stooped and seized his prize, he heard Shalmetz’s wavering cry of fear and dismay.
The man stood and turned in the direction of the other’s gaze. He saw the barbthorn, now grown even huger, looming over the ravaged garden, roiling like a storm cloud come down to earth. Its main feeder, now wide enough to have swallowed a horse, continued to pump great gobbets of steagle from beyond this plane. A constant bass note thrummed the air and the ground shook unceasingly as the roots drove ever outward.
But it was not the tree that had frightened Shalmetz or that now caused both him and the invigilant to turn and flee through the corridor that led to the foyer and the outer door. It was the vertical slit that was rending the air above and below the place at which the feeder left this plane and entered another. The fissure rose higher and lower at the same time, cleaving stone and earth as easily as it cut the air. And through the rent appeared a dark shape.
The traveler stood and watched, his bag of loot loose in his grasp. A thing like a great rounded snout, but ringed about its end with tentacles, was forcing its way through the gap, splitting it higher and lower as it came, throwing a bow wave of earth and stone in either direction. More and more of the creature came through, and now it could be seen that, at the place where it would have had a chin if it had had a face, the barbthorn’s feeder was fastened to its flesh. Around the spot where the thorns were sunk out of sight was a network of small scars, and three fresh wounds, still dripping pink juice.
The tentacled snout was now all the way through the gap. Behind it, the body narrowed then swelled again, displaying a ring of limb-like flukes all around its circumference that beat at the air, propelling the creature forward. It showed no eyes, but its tentacles—four large ones and more than a dozen minor specimens—groped toward the tree as if they could sense its presence.
Now two of the steagle’s larger members seized the feeder tube, and, with an audible rip of tearing flesh, detached it from its face. Pink lifejuices gushed from the deep wound left behind, and one of the smaller tendrils bent to place its flattened, leaf-shaped end over the injury.
As the feeder came loose, the tree roared, a sound like an orchestra of bass organ tubes. The main feeder writhed in the steagle’s grasp and the barbthorn’s every creeper, branch, and tubule strained and flailed toward the source of combined nourishment and threat. The steagle met the assault with equal vigor, and now a kind of mouth appeared at the center of the ring of tentacles, from which issued a hiss like that of a steam geyser long denied release, followed by a long, thick tongue coated with a corrugation of rasping hooks and serrated, triangular teeth.
The tentacles pulled the barbthorn toward the steagle, even as the tree wrapped its assailant in a matrix of writhing, thorned vegetation. The traveler heard cracks and snaps, roars and moans, hisses and indefinable sounds. He felt the ground quake anew as the impetus of the steagle’s thrust tore the barbthorn’s new roots from the ground.
Time to go, he told himself, and turned toward the passageway through which the others had fled. But he found himself in the midst of a wriggling, seething mass of roots, erupting from the earth amid volleys of flying clods and pebbles that stung and bruised him. Though he stepped carefully, finding firm footing was impossible; the entire floor of the garden was in constant, violent motion. Worse, some of the roots had snapped, and their ends flailed the air like whips and cudgels. One dealt his thigh a hard blow, knocking him off balance, and as he spun around, a root the thickness of his thumb struck his wrist.
The impact numbed the hand that held the bag. It fell between two roots, and, though he feared his arm might be trapped if the two came together, he reached for the prize. But as his fingers touched the cloth, the floor of the garden collapsed into the crypt below, taking the loot with it, and leaving the man teetering on the brink of the cavity.
He threw himself backward, ignoring the slashing, flailing blows that came from all sides, then turned and scrambled for the corridor that led out. I will come back for the bag, he told himself.
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