Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“Olanthe? I have good reason to be curious, don’t you think? I wish you no harm out in your Oasis. I was a farmer once myself. Say, how did you get out past the guards?”

“You were a farmer? What are you now?” “Now I fight.”

She gave him an appraising glance. “I hear the real fighters are in the swamps.”

“And I do want to thank you for shouting a warning. You could have done it sooner, though, hey?” Her eyes turned away, roving distractedly over the nearby dunes and bushes. “I… did see you, bending over the dead reptile. At first I thought you might be only a bandit.”

“This Stone of yours draws lightning somehow, and it killed the reptile. You followed meIwaiting for the lightning to come again, so you could pick up the Stone from my burned body. And then you couldn’t do it.”

“I didn’t know you, I was afraid,” she said in a small voice. “Help me find it, please, it’s very important.”

“I can understand that. Look,you don’t have to be frightened of me, farm-girl, if what you say is true. Keep your Stone. We in the swamps don’t need its rain.” The rain had all but stopped; Thomas looked up at the sky, where rents and gaps of blue were showing through the cloudy mass. “Since you seem to be no better friend than I am of the reptiles, you’d better take shelter under one of these bushes, as I intend to do.”

“First I must find the Stone! It can’t be far.”

“All right, I give up. If they see you running around here they’ll find me too. Does the thunderbolt actually hit the Stone? At least you can tell me something about it while we search.”

They were both casting over the mounded desert now, eyes on the ground, walking in loops and circles that moved them apart and brought them together again. Olanthe spoke rapidly. “The bolt always hits the Stone directly, yes, and sometimes throws it for many meters. After that the storm can end.” She added what was probably a warning: “You see, whoever formed the Stone meant to make it proof against any one creature’s greed. Only when possession of it passes from one to another does its virtue take effect, and summon up a thunderstorm.”

Thomas had just seen something, twenty meters away. It was the Stone in its case, if he was not mistaken, but picking it up was not going to be easy.

In a moment Olanthe had noticed his fixed attention and was walking at his side. “Oh!” she said, seeing what he saw. The blackened metal case was half-submerged under what appeared to be the flat shimmering surface of a pool of water some eight meters across, filling a small hollow between dunes. “Mirage-plant!”

Thomas nodded. “And about the biggest one I’ve seen.” There was no doubt about what the thing was; reason told that any such flourishing pond of real water here was totally improbable.

In itself, the illusion was flawless. Sunlight sparkled off the seeming surface of the pond (though the rain, which had now stopped, would have fallen through without splashing and shown the pond not to hold water.) Small green plants, genuine enough, living on moisture doled out by the quasi-intelligent masterplant below, rimmed around the illusive pool. This camouflage gave an appearance of coolness to the surface of the pond, which was in fact only a plane maintained between layers of air of different temperatures. This surface rippled faintly, like real water, with the wind. Thomas knew that if one bent to drink and brought his eyes within a meter of the surface, the illusion failed. Man or animal would jump back, once that point was reached; but if they were that close, none lived who could jump fast enough.

Thomas frowned at the sky, where the clouds were still dispersing, not gathering anew. “Did you not tell me that a new storm was summoned up every time the Stone changed hands, and that a bolt must come to strike the Stone itself? If so, we need only wait, and our little pond here will be safely boiled.”

They had stopped about ten meters from the mirage. Olanthe shook her head. “A storm comes only when the Stone is taken up by human hands, or by a creature like the reptile that is capable of speech.”

The Stone rested in a shallow part of the seeming pool, under the surface. It would seem to be very easy simply to step forward and pick it up.

Thomas got some rope out of his pack and made a lasso, with which he had a try at casting around the case. The loop sank silently through the surface of the “water,” and then at once snapped taut. Thomas dug his heels into the sand; Olanthe came to lend her slender strength to his aid, but shortly it was either let go or be dragged in. From just outside the zone of real danger, the two of them watched with fascination while the rope’s tail whipped out of sight like that of a plunging snake. But there was evidently little to the mirage-plant’s liking in the rope -a few moments later it was spat out, wound into a knotty ball and looking otherwise the worse for wear, spat or tossed through the air to land a dozen meters away.

At Olanthe’s suggestion they next had a try at filling in or smothering the mirage-plant with sand. But the sand was flung back at them faster than they, keeping at a safe distance, could scoop it into the depression. And there were no rocks available to throw.

“If only it would spit out your Stone, as it does sand and rope,” Thomas griped. “But no, it must have a taste for magic.”

Now that she knew where the Stone was, Olanthe did not seem much worried about retrieving it. She said, “Well, then, one of us must just try to distract the creature, while the other rushes up and grabs the Stone.”

“Oh, just like that? Your life is not overly important to you?”

“The Stone is life, to the people at the Oasis.” She looked at him haughtily. “Oh, I will be the one to expose myself to danger and create a distraction. It is my property that we are trying to save. And your plan of lassoing it did not work out very well.”

The last accusation was undeniable, but he still had not connected it logically to the new plan when he found himself volunteering insistently to create the distraction himself-though if he gave himself time to think about it, he was not at all sure which of the two roles was the more dangerous. The girl couldn’t have maneuvered him into taking the part she wanted him to have, could she? Just that quickly and easily?

Having rehearsed their plan briefly, Thomas and Olanthe separated, then approached the innocent-looking pool from opposite sides. After an exchange of nods, Thomas rushed forward shouting. In one hand he was carrying his knife, in the other the chewed-up rope, which he had partially untangled. He braked to a halt at the last instant, going down on all fours in the sand. He reached forward and lashed with the rope at the surface of the mirage. It seemed that the trick might work, for the creature beneath began grabbing again at the once-rejected fibers.

Olanthe was very quick, and her timing perfect. Unfortunately however she fumbled the Stone in the instant of picking it up, and was forced to reach for it again. Looking across from the other side of the pool, Thomas for the first time saw the deadly tendrils of the mirage-plant as they shot above the surface of the illusion, looping and snapping about the girl’s body with marvelous speed. He shouted. He hurled himself around the edge of the pool and plunged into the struggle, slashing with his knife. Only when he was enmeshed himself did he realize that, incredibly, the deadly network had not been able to hold the girl, that she was backing away quite free. He had no time to wonder about her luck, for his own was not so good. He was gripped around the waist and head. His blade severed one of the tough, elastic tendrils, but two more snapped around him, their suckers thirsting for his blood. One curled around his right arm, in which he held his knife. His left hand was already caught behind his back. He was sprawled on the sand, only his feet, dug in desperately, keeping him from being dragged to his death. The apparent water-surface had entirely vanished now, as the carnivorous plant devoted its full energy to hauling in this stubborn prey. When the pull of it dragged Thomas half upright again he could see down into the hollow, see the nest of writhing mouths and the white animal-bones between them, where the illusion had shown nothing but a sandy bottom.

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