From the author: In 2008 I had an email from Gardner Dozois asking me if I wanted to contribute to an anthology of stories set in the Dying Earth in homage to Jack Vance. My reply: "Try and stop me!" Grolion is the main character but that's not the name by which he is known to Vance aficionados.
GROLION OF ALMERY
by Matthew Hughes
When next I found a place to insert myself I discovered the resident in the manse’s foyer, in conversation with a traveler. Keeping myself out of his sightlines, I flew to a spot high in a corner where a roof beam passed through the stone of the outer wall, and settled myself to watch and listen. The resident received almost no visitors -- only the invigilant, he of the prodigious belly and eight varieties of scowl, and the steagle knife.
I rarely bothered to attend when the invigilant visited, conserving my energies for whenever my opportunity should come. But this stranger was unusual. He moved animatedly about the room in a peculiar bent-kneed, splay-footed lope, frequently twitching aside the curtain of the window beside the door to peer into the darkness, then checking that the beam that barred the portal was well seated.
“The creature cannot enter,” the resident said. “Doorstep and lintel, indeed the entire house and walled garden, are charged with Phandaal’s Discriminating Boundary. Do you know the spell?”
The stranger’s tone was offhand. “I am familiar with the variant used in Almery. It may be different here.”
“It keeps out what must be kept out; your pursuer’s first footfall across the threshold would draw an agonizing penalty.”
“Does the lurker know this?” said the visitor, peering again out the window.
The resident joined him. “Look,” he said, “see how its nostrils flare, dark against the paleness of its countenance. It scents the magic and hangs back.”
“But not far back.” The dark thatch of the stranger’s hair, which drew down to a point low on his forehead, moved as his scalp twitched in response to the almost constant motion of his features. “It pursued me avidly as I neared the village, growing bolder as the sun sank behind the hills. if you had not opened...”
“You are safe now,” said the resident. “Eventually the ghoul will go to seek other prey.” He invited the man into the parlor and bade him sit by the fire. I fluttered after them and found a spot on a high shelf. “Have you dined?”
“Only forest foods plucked along the way,” was the man’s answer as he took the offered chair. But though he no longer strode about the room, his eyes went hither and thither, rifling the many shelves and glass-fronted cupboards, as if he cataloged their contents, assigning each item a value and closely calculating the sum of them all.
“I have a stew of morels grown in the inner garden, along with the remnants of yesterday’s steagle,” said the resident. “There is also half a loaf of bannock and a small keg of brown ale.”
The stranger’s pointed chin lifted in a display of fortitude. “We will make the best of it.”
They had apparently exchanged names before I had arrived, for when they were seated with bowls of stew upon their knees and spoons in their hands, the resident said, “So, Grolion, what is your tale?”
The foxfaced fellow arranged his features into an image of nobility beset by unmerited trials. “I am heir to a title and lands in Almery, though I am temporarily despoiled of my inheritance by plotters and schemers. I travel the world, biding my moment, until I return to set matters forcefully aright.”
The resident said, “I have heard it argued that the world as it is now arranged must be the right order of things, for a competent Creator would not allow disequilibrium.”
Grolion found the concept jejeune. “My view is that the world is an arena in which men of deeds and courage drive the flow of events.”
“And you are such?”
“I am,” said the stranger, cramming a lump of steagle into his mouth. He tasted it then began chewing with eye-squinting zest.
Meanwhile, I considered what I had heard, drawing two conclusions: first, that though this fellow who styled himself a grandee of Almery might have sojourned in that well-worn land, he was no scion of its aristocracy -- he did not double-strike his tees and dees in the stutter that was affected by Almery’s highest-bred; second, that his name was not Grolion -- for if it had been, I would not have been able to recall it, just as I could never retain a memory of the resident’s nor the invigilant’s. In my present condition, not enough of me survived to be able to handle true names -- nor any of the magics that required memory -- else I would have long since exacted a grim revenge.
The resident tipped up his bowl to scoop into his mouth the last sups of stew. His upturned glance fell upon my hiding place. I drew back, but too late. He took from within the neck of his garment a small wooden whistle that hung from a cord about his neck and blew a sonorous note. I heard the flap of leathery wings from the corridor and threw myself into the air in a bid to escape. But the little creature that guarded his bedchamber -- the room that had formerly been mine -- caught me in its handlike paws. A cruel smile spread across its almost-human face as it tore away my wings and carried me back to its perch above the bedchamber door, where it thrust me into its maw. I withdrew before its stained teeth crushed the life from my borrowed form.
When next I returned, morning light was filtering through gaps in the curtains, throwing a roseate blush onto the gray stone floors. I went from room to room, though I gave a wide berth to the resident’s bedchamber. I found Grolion on the ground floor, in the workroom that overlooks the inner garden, where I had formerly spent my days with my treacherous assistants. He was examining the complex starburst design laid out in colors both vibrant and subtle on the great tray that covered most of the floor. I hovered outside the window that overlooked the inner garden; I could see that the pattern was not far from completion.
Grolion knelt and stretched a fingertip toward an elaborate figure composed in several hues: twin arabesques, intertwined with each other and ornamented with fillips of stylized acaranja leaves and lightning bolts. Just before his cracked and untended fingernail could disarrange the thousand tiny motes, each ashimmer with its own aura of greens and golds, sapphire and amethyst, flaming reds and blazing yellows, a sharp intake of breath from the doorway arrested all motion.
“Back away,” said the resident. “To disturb the pattern before it is completed is highly dangerous.”
Grolion rocked back onto his heels and rose to a standing position. His eyes flitted about the pattern, trying to see it as a whole, but of course his effort was defeated. “What is its purpose?” he said.
The resident came into the room and drew him away. “The previous occupant of the manse began it. Regrettably, he was never entirely forthcoming about its hows and how-comes. It has to do with an interplanar anomaly. Apparently the house sits on a node where several dimensions intersect. Their conjunction creates a weakness in the membranes that separate the planes.”
“Where is this ‘previous occupant?’ Why has he left his work dangerously unfinished?”
The resident made a casual gesture. “These are matters of history, of which our old Earth has already far too much. We need not consider them.”
“True,” said Grolion, “we have only now. But some ‘nows’ are connected to particularly pertinent ‘thens’ and the prudent man takes note of the connections.”
But the resident had departed the area while he was still talking. The traveler followed and found him in the refectory, only to be caught up in a new topic.
“A gentleman of your discernment will understand,” said the resident, “that my resources are constrained. Much as I delight in your company, I cannot offer unlimited hospitality. I have already overstepped my authority by feeding and sheltering you for a night.”
Grolion looked about him. The manse was well appointed, the furnishings neither spare nor purely utilitarian. The wall of its many chambers were hung with art, the floors lushly carpeted, the lighting soft and shadowless. “As constraints go,” he said, “these seem less oppressive than most.”
“Oh,” said the resident, “none of this is mine own. I am but a humble servant of the village council, paid to tend the premises until the owner’s affairs are ultimately settled. My stipend is scant and mostly paid in ale and steagle.”
He received in response an airy gesture of unconcern. “I will give you,” said Grolion, “a promissory note for a handsome sum, redeemable the moment I am restored to my birthright.”
“The restoration of your fortunes, though no doubt inevitable, is not guaranteed to arrive before the sun goes out.”
Grolion had more to say, but the resident spoke over his remarks. “The invigilant comes every other day to deliver my stipend. I expect him soon. I will ask him to let me engage you as my assistant.”
“Better yet,” said Grolion, his face brightening as he was struck by an original idea, “I might assume a supervisory role. I have a talent for inspiring others to maximum effort.”
The resident offered him a dry eye and an even drier tone. “I require no inspiration. Some small assistance, however, would be welcome. The difficulty will be in swaying the invigilant, who is a notorious groat-squeezer.”
“I am electrified by the challenge.” Grolion rubbed his hands briskly and added, “In the meantime, let us make a good breakfast. I find I argue best on a full stomach.”
The resident sniffed. “I can spare a crust of bannock and half a pot of stark tea. Then we must to work.”
“Would it not be better to establish terms and conditions? I would not want to transgress the local labor code.”
“Have no fear on that score. The village values a willing worker. Show the invigilant that you have already made an energetic contribution and your argument is half-made before he crosses the doorstep.”
Grolion looked less than fully convinced, but the resident had the advantage of possessing what the other hungered for -- be it only a crust and a sup of brackish tea -- and thus his views prevailed.
I knew what use the resident would make of the new man; I withdrew to the inner garden and secreted myself in a deep crack in the enclosing wall, from which I could watch without imposing my presence upon the scene. It was not long before, their skimpy repast having been taken, the two men came again under my view.
As I expected, the resident drew the visitor’s attention to the towering barbthorn that dominated one end of the garden. Its dozens of limbs, festooned in trailing succulents, constantly moved as it sampled the air. Several were already lifted and questing in the direction of the two men as it caught their scent even across the full length of the garden.
Sunk as I was in a crack in the wall, I was too distant to hear their conversation, but I could follow the substance of the discussion by the emotions that passed across Grolion’s expressive face and by his gestures of protest. But his complaints were not recognized. With shoulders aslump and reluctance slowing his steps, the traveler trudged to the base of the tree, batting aside two of the creepers that instantly reached for him. He peered into the close-knit branches, seeking the least painful route of ascent. The resident repaired to his workroom, a window of which looked out on the court, enabling him to take note of the new employee’s progress while he worked on the starburst.
I left my hiding place and angled across the wall, meaning to spring onto the man’s shoulder before he ascended the tree. The way he had studied the contents of the parlor showed perspicacity coupled with unbridled greed; I might contrive some means to communicate with him. But so intent on my aims was I that I let myself cross a patch of red sunlight without full care and attention; a fat-bellied spider dropped upon me from its lurking post on the wall above. It swiftly spun a confining mesh of adhesive silk to bind my wings, then deftly flipped me over and pressed its piercing mouthparts against my abdomen. I felt the searing intrusion of its digestive juices dissolving my innards and withdrew to the place that was both my sanctuary and my prison.
When I was able to observe once more, Grolion and the resident had ceased work to receive the invigilant. I found them in the foyer, in animated discussion. The resident was insistent, arguing that the extra cost of Grolion’s sustenance was well worth the increased productivity that would ensue. The invigilant was pretending to be not easily convinced, noting that a number of previous assistants had been tried and all found wanting.
The resident conceded the point, but added, “The others were unsuitable, vagabonds and wayfarers of poor character. But Grolion is of finer stuff, a scion of Almery’s aristocracy.”
The invigilant turned his belly in the direction of Grolion, who at that point in the proceedings had made his way to the partly open outer door so that he could examine the road outside and the forest across the way. “Are you indeed of gentle birth?”
“What? Oh, yes,” was the answer, then, “Did you see a ghoul lurking in the shadows as you came up the road?”
“We noticed it this morning and drove it off with braghounds and torches,” said the invigilant.
“Indeed?” said Grolion. He edged closer to the door, used the backs of one hand’s fingers to brush it further ajar, craned his neck to regard the road outside from different angles. I saw a surmise take possession of his mobile features.
“Now,” said the invigilant, “let us discuss terms--”
Grolion had turned his head toward the speaker as if intent on hearing his proposal. But as the official began to speak, the traveler threw the door wide, then himself through it. To his evident surprise, the doorway caught him and threw him back into the foyer. He sat on the floor, dazed, then moaned and put his hands to his head as his face showed that his skull had suddenly become home to thunderous pain.
“Phandaal’s Discriminating Boundary,” said the resident. “Besides keeping out what must be kept out, it keeps in what must be kept in.”
“Unspeak the spell,” Grolion said, pain distorting his voice. “The ghoul is gone.”
“He cannot,” said the invigilant. “It can only be removed by he who laid it.”
“The previous occupant?”
“Then I am trapped here?”
The resident spoke. “As am I, until the work is done. The flux of interplanar energies that will then be released will undo all magics.”
Grolion indicated the invigilant. “He comes and goes.”
“The spell discriminates. Hence the name.”
“Come,” said the invigilant, nudging Grolion with the heel of his staff, “I cannot stand here while you prattle. Rise and pay attention.”
The discussion moved on. The resident’s plan was approved: Grolion would be granted his own allowance of ale, bannock and steagle, contingent upon his giving satisfaction until the work was finished. Failure to give satisfaction would see a curtailment of the stipend; aggravated failure would lead to punitive confinement in the house’s dank and malodorous crypt.
Grolion proposed several amendments to these terms, though none of them were carried. The invigilant then took from his wallet a folding knife that, when opened, revealed a blade of black stone. He cut the air above the refectory table with it, and from the incisions fell a slab of steagle. He then repeated the process, yielding an other slab. Grolion saw what appeared to be two wounds, seemingly in the open air, weeping a liquid like pale blood. Then, in a matter of moments, the gashes closed and he saw only the walls and cupboards of the refectory.
The invigilant left. The resident gave brisk instructions as to the culinary portion of Grolion’s duties -- the preparation of steagle involved several arduous steps. Then he went back to the design in the workroom. I sought an opportunity to make contact with Grolion. He was at the preparation table, a heavy wooden mallet in hand, beating at a slab of steagle as if it had offended him by more than the sinewy toughness of its texture and its musty odor. He muttered dire imprecations under his breath. I hovered in front of him, flitting from side to side rhythmically. If I could gain his attention, it would be the first step toward opening a discourse between us.
He looked up and noticed me. I began to fly up and down and at an angle, meaning to trace the first character of the Almery syllabary -- it seemed a reasonable opening gambit. He regarded me sourly, still muttering threats and maledictions against the resident. I moved on to the second letter, but as I executed an acute angle, Grolion’s head reared back then shot forward; at the same time his lips propelled a gobbet of spittle at high speed. The globule caught me in midflight, gluing my wings together and causing me to spiral down to land on the half-beaten steagle. I looked up to see the mallet descending and then I was gone away again.
By the time I had found another carrier, a heavy-bodied rumblebee, several hours had passed. The resident was in the workroom, extending the design with tweezers and templates. The last arm of the sunburst was nearing completion. Once it was done, the triple helix at the center could be laid in, and the work would finally be finished.
Grolion was halfway up the barbthorn, his feet braced against one of its several trunks, a hand gripping an arm-thick branch, fingers carefully spread among the densely sprouting thorns, many of which held the desiccated corpses of small birds and flying lizards that had come to feed on the butterfly larvae that crawled and inched throughout the foliage. The man had not yet noticed that a slim, green tubule, its open end rimmed by tooth-like thorns, had found its way to the flesh between two of his knuckles and was preparing to attach itself and feed; his full attention was on his other hand, carefully cupped around a gold-and-crimson almiranth newly emerged from its cocoon. The insect was drying its translucent wings in the dim sunlight that filtered through the interlaced limbs of the tree.
Grolion breathed gently on the little creature, the warmth of his breath accelerating the drying process. Then, as the almiranth bent and flexed its legs, preparing to spring into first flight, he deftly enclosed it and transferred it to a wide-necked glass bottle that hung from a thong about his neck. The container’s stopper had been gripped in his teeth, but now he pulled the wooden plug free and fixed it into the bottle’s mouth. Laboriously, he began his descent, tearing his pierced hand free of the tubule’s bite. The barbthorn sluggishly pinked and stabbed at him, trying to hold him in place as his shifting weight triggered its feeding response. From time to time, he had to pause to pull loose thorns that snagged his clothing; one or two even managed to pierce his flesh deeply enough that he had to stop and worry them free before he could resume his descent.
Through all of this, Grolion issued a comprehensive commentary on the stark injustice of his situation and on those responsible for it, expressing heartfelt wishes as to events in their futures. The resident and the invigilant featured prominently in these scenarios, as well as others I took to be former acquaintances in Almery. So busy was he with his aspersions that I could find no way to attract his attention. I withdrew to a chink in the garden wall to spy on the resident through the workroom window.
He was kneeling at the edge of the starburst, outlining in silver a frieze of intertwined rings of cerulean blue that traced the edge of one arm. The silver, like all the other pigments of the design, was applied as a fine powder tapped gently from the end of a hollow reed. The resident’s forefinger struck the tube three more times as I watched, then he took up a small brush that bore a single bristle at its end and nudged an errant flake into alignment.
Grolion appeared in the doorway, grumbling and cursing, to proffer the stoppered jar. The resident shooed him back with a flurry of agitated hand motions, lest any of the blood that dripped from his elbows fall upon the pattern, then he rose and came around the tray to receive the container.
“Watch and remember,” he said, taking the jar to a bench and beckoning Grolion to follow. “If I promote you to senior assistant, this task could be yours.”
“Does that mean someone else will climb the barbthorn?”
The resident regarded him from a great height. “A senior assistant’s duties enfold and amplify those of a junior assistant.”
“So it is merely more work.”
“Your perspective requires modification. The proper understanding is that you command more trust and win more esteem.”
“But my days still consist of ‘Do this,’ and ‘Bring that,’ and nothing to eat but mushrooms from the garden and steagle.”
“The ale is good,” countered the resident. “You must admit that.”
“Somehow it fails to compensate,” said Grolion.
“Pah!” said the resident. “I had hopes for you, but you are no better than the others!”
But the question was waved away. “Enough chatter! Watch and learn.” The resident removed the stopper from the container, inserted two fingers and deftly caught a fragile leg. He drew the fluttering creature out, laid it on a mat of spongewood atop the workbench, then found a scalpel with a tiny half-moon blade. With a precise and practiced stroke he severed the almiranth’s triangular head from its thorax.
While the wings and legs were still moving in reflexive death throes, the resident donned a mask of fine gauze and bid Grolion do the same. “A loose breath can cost us many scales,” he said, picking up a miniature strigil. Delicately, he stroked the wings, detaching a fine dust of gold and crimson, demonstrating the technique of moving the instrument to the left to pile up a pinch of gold on one side, and to the right to accumulate a minuscule heap of the other hue. When each of the four wings was stripped to the pale underflesh, he produced two hollow reeds and, using the gentlest of suction through the gauze, drew the pigments from the table.
“There,” he said, “a productive morning. Grolion, you have earned your ale and steagle.”
Grolion did not respond. He had not been attending to the demonstration, his eye having instead been caught by the shelves of librams and grimoires on the opposite wall. One of them was bound in the blue chamois characteristic of Phandaal’s works.
The resident saw the direction of his assistant’s gaze and spoke sharply. “Back to your duties! Already I can see a green-and-orange banded chrysalis on that branch that hangs like a limp hand -- there on the left, near the top! I don’t doubt that’s about to provide us with a magnificent nighttorch!”
“I must tend my wounds,” said Grolion. “They may fester.”
“Pah! I have salves and specifics. You can apply them tonight. Now get yourself aloft. If the nighttorch escapes, neither ale nor steagle shall pass your lips.”
“This is a sudden change of attitude,” Grolion said. “But a moment ago, I was being congratulated and promised promotion.”
“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 work 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 forefinger 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 than 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.”
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 bent-kneed 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 wadge 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 recipient on the floor. He then stood on one foot, the other poised for a belly-kick 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, “As 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.
Behind him, the rest of the steagle emerged from the rent between the planes: a segmented tail that ended in a pair of sharp-edged pincers. These now joined the front of the creature in its attack on the barbthorn, and their reinforcement proved decisive. Though the tree’s thorned limbs continued to beat and tear at the steagle’s hide, raising a spray of pink ichor and gouging away wedges of flesh, the unequal battle was moving toward a conclusion. The tentacles and pincers tore the limbs from the tree and severed its roots from the stem, flinging the remnants into the hole that had been the crypt. The barbthorn’s roars became cries that became whimpers.
And then it was done. The steagle snapped and cut and broke the great tree into pieces, filled the hole in the earth with them. At the last, with discernible contempt, it arched its tail and, from an orifice beneath that appendage, directed a stream of red liquid at the wreckage. The wood and greenery burst instantly into strangely colored flames, and a column of oily smoke rose to the sky.
The steagle, somehow airborne, floated around the pyre, viewing it from several angles. Its passage brought it within range of the multicolored microcosm of the overworld, which hung in the air, untroubled by the violence wrought nearby. The steagle paused before the orb. Its eyeless face seemed to regard the kaleidoscopic play of colors that moved constantly across the globe’s surface. One of its minor tentacles reached out and stroked the object, paused for a moment as if deciding whether or not it fully approved of the thing’s taste, then curled around it and popped it whole into the steagle’s maw.
The mouth closed, the creature turned toward the rent in the membrane between the planes and in less time than the man who called himself Grolion would have credited, it was through and gone. The air healed itself and there was only the burning devastation of the tree and the shattered garden to indicate that anything had happened here,
The man had watched the final act from atop a rise some distance down the road. Here he had found Shalmetz and Groblens. The latter was too winded by the combination of pell-mell flight and a life-long fondness for beebleberry tarts, but the former had greeted him thusly: “Well, Grolion -- if that is even an approximation of your name -- you certainly invested that situation with a new dynamic.”
The traveler was in no mood to accept criticism; he answered the remark with a blow that sat Shalmetz down on the roadway, from where he offered no further comments. After a while, he and Groblens made their way back to the village. The other man waited until the eerie flames subsided. Toward evening, when all was still, he crept back to the manse.
The house had collapsed. The hole that had been the crypt was full of stinking char. Of his bag and its contents, he could find no trace. The only object left unscathed was the lead coffin, whose incised runes and symbols had somehow protected it from the otherworldly fire. It was not even warm.
The man used ropes and pulleys to haul the object from the pit. In the same outbuilding that had held the tackle he found a two-wheeled cart. He lowered the coffin onto the vehicle and pushed it away from the stink and soot of the burned-out fire. He admired the emblems and sigils that decorated its sides and top; he was sure that they were of powerful effect.
When he had wheeled the cart out to the road, he set his fingers to the coffin’s lid and pried it loose. He had hoped for jewels or precious metals; he found only fast-rotting flesh and wet bones, with not even a thumb-ring or an ivory torc to reward his labors. He said a harsh word and threw death’s detritus into a roadside ditch.
Only the coffin itself remained. It might prove useful, if only for the figures carved into it. But now saw that with the removal of the contents, the signs and characters were fading to nothing.
Still, he believed he could remember most of them. Tomorrow he would carve them into the lead then cut the soft metal into plaques and amulets. These he could sell at Azenomei Fair, and who knows what possibilities might then arise?
This story originally appeared in Songs of the Dying Earth.