Rincewind looked down at the snake, which was still trying to keep out of everyone’s way. It had a good thing going in the pit, and knew trouble when it saw it. It wasn’t about to cause any aggro for anyone. It stared right back up at Rincewind and shrugged, which is pretty clever for a reptile with no shoulders.
‘How long have you been a barbarian hero?’
‘I’m just getting started. I’ve always wanted to be one, you see, and I thought maybe I could pick it up as I went along.’ Nijel peered short-sightedly at Rincewind. ‘That’s all right, isn’t it?’
‘It’s a desperate sort of life, by all accounts,’ Rincewind volunteered.
‘Have you thought what it might be like selling groceries for the next fifty years?’ Nijel muttered darkly.
‘Is lettuce involved?’ he said.
‘Oh yes,’ said Nijel, shoving the mysterious book back in his bag. Then he started to pay close attention to the pit walls.
Rincewind sighed. He liked lettuce. It was so incredibly boring. He had spent years in search of boredom, but had never achieved it. Just when he thought he had it in his grasp his life would suddenly become full of near-terminal interest. The thought that someone could voluntarily give up the prospect of being bored for fifty years made him feel quite weak. With fifty years ahead of him, he thought, he could elevate tedium to the status of an art form. There would be no end to the things he wouldn’t do.
‘Do you know any lamp-wick jokes?’ he said, settling himself comfortably on the sand.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Nijel politely, tapping a slab.
‘I know hundreds. They are very droll. For example, do you know how many trolls it takes to change a lamp-wick?’
‘This slab moves,’ said Nijel. ‘Look, it’s a sort of door. Give me a hand.’
He pushed enthusiastically, his biceps standing out on his arms like peas on a pencil.
‘I expect it’s some sort of secret passage,’ he added. ‘Come on, use a bit of magic, will you? It’s stuck.’
‘Don’t you want to hear the rest of the joke?’ said Rincewind, in a pained voice. It was warm and dry down here, with no immediate danger, not counting the snake, which was trying to look inconspicuous. Some people were never satisfied.
‘I think not right at the moment,’ said Nijel. ‘I think I would prefer a bit of magical assistance.’
‘I’m not very good at it,’ said Rincewind. ‘Never got the hang of it, see, it’s more than just pointing a finger at it and saying “Kazam-” ‘
There was a sound like a thick bolt of octarine lightning zapping into a heavy rock slab and smashing it into a thousand bits of spitting, white-hot shrapnel, and no wonder.
After a while Nijel slowly got to his feet, beating out the small fires in his vest.
‘Yes,’ he said, in the voice of one determined not to lose his self-control. ‘Well. Very good. We’ll just let it cool down a bit, shall we? And then we, then we, we might as well be going.’
He cleared his throat a bit.
‘Nnh,’ said Rincewind. He was starting fixedly at the end of his finger, holding it out at arm’s length in a manner that suggested he was very sorry he hadn’t got longer arms.
Nijel peered into the smouldering hole.
‘It seems to open into some kind of room,’ he said.
‘After you,’ said Nijel. He gave Rincewind a gentle push.
The wizard staggered forward, bumped his head on the rock and didn’t appear to notice, and then rebounded into the hole.
Nijel patted the wall, and his brow wrinkled. ‘Can you feel something?’ he said. ‘Should the stone be trembling?’
Are you all right?’
Nijel put his ear to the stones. ‘There’s a very strange noise,’ he said. A sort of humming.’ A bit of dust shook itself free from the mortar over his head and floated down.
Then a couple of much heavier rocks danced free from the walls of the pits and thudded into the sand.
Rincewind had already staggered off down the tunnel, making little shocked noises and completely ignoring the stones that were missing him by inches and, in some cases, hitting him by kilograms.
If he had been in any state to notice it, he would have known what was happening. The air had a greasy feel and smelled like burning tin. Faint rainbows filmed every point and edge. A magical charge was building up somewhere very close to them, and it was a big one, and it was trying to earth itself.
A handy wizard, even one as incapable as Rincewind, stood out like a copper lighthouse.
Nijel blundered out of the rumbling, broiling dust and bumped into him standing, surrounded by an octarine corona, in another cave.
Rincewind looked terrible. Creosote would have probably noted his flashing eyes and floating hair.
He looked like someone who had just eaten a handful of pineal glands and washed them down with a pint of adrenochrome. He looked so high you could bounce intercontinental TV off him.
Every single hair stood out from his head, giving off little sparks. Even his skin gave the impression that it was trying to get away from him. His eyes appeared to be spinning horizontally; when he opened his mouth, peppermint sparks flashed from his teeth. Where he had trodden, stone melted or grew ears or turned into something small and scaly and purple and flew away.
‘I say,’ said Nijel, ‘are you all right?’
‘Nnh,’ said Rincewind, and the syllable turned into a large doughnut.
‘You don’t look all right,’ said Nijel with what might be called, in the circumstances, unusual perspicacity.
‘Why not try getting us out of here?’ Nijel added, and wisely flung himself flat on the floor.
Rincewind nodded like a puppet and pointed his loaded digit at the ceiling, which melted like ice under a blowlamp.
Still the rumbling went on, sending its disquieting harmonics dancing through the palace. It is a well-known factoid that there are frequencies that can cause panic, and frequencies that can cause embarrassing incontinence, but the shaking rock was resonating at the frequency that causes reality to melt and run out at the corners.
Nijel regarded the dripping ceiling and cautiously tasted it.
‘Lime custard,’ he said, and added, ‘I suppose there’s no chance of stairs, is there?’
More fire burst from Rincewind’s ravaged fingers, coalescing into an almost perfect escalator, except that possibly no other moving staircase in the universe was floored with alligator skin.
Nijel grabbed the gently spinning wizard and leapt aboard.
Fortunately they had reached the top before the magic vanished, very suddenly.
Sprouting out of the centre of the palace, shattering rooftops like a mushroom bursting through an ancient pavement, was a white tower taller than any other building in Al Khali.
Huge double doors had opened at its base and out of them, striding along as though they owned the place, were dozens of wizards. Rincewind thought he could recognise a few faces, faces which he’d seen before bumbling vaguely in lecture theatres or peering amiably at the world in the University grounds. They weren’t faces built for evil. They didn’t have a fang between them. But there was some common denominator among their expressions that could terrify a thoughtful person.
Nijel pulled back behind a handy wall. He found himself looking into Rincewind’s worried eyes.
‘Hey, that’s magic!’
‘I know,’ said Rincewind, ‘It’s not right!’ Nijel peered up at the sparkling tower.
‘It feels wrong,’ said Rincewind. ‘Don’t ask me why.’
Half a dozen of the Seriph’s guards erupted from an arched doorway and plunged towards the wizards, their headlong rush made all the more sinister by their hastly battle silences. For a moment their swords flashed in the sunlight, and then a couple of the wizards turned, extended their hands and –
Nijel looked away.
‘Urgh,’ he said.
A few curved swords dropped on to the cobbles.
‘I think we should very quietly go away,’ said Rincewind.
‘But didn’t you see what they just turned them into?’ ‘Dead people,’ said Rincewind. ‘I know. I don’t want to think about it.’
Nijel thought he’d never stop thinking about it, especially around Sam on windy nights. The point about being killed by magic was that it was much more inventive than, say, steel; there were all sorts of interesting new ways to die, and he couldn’t put out of his mind the shapes he’d seen, just for an instant, before the wash of octarine fire had mercifully engulfed them.
‘I didn’t think wizards were like that,’ he said, as they hurried down a passageway. ‘I thought they were more, well, more silly than sinister. Sort of figures of fun.’
‘Laugh that one off, then,’ muttered Rincewind.
‘But they just killed them, without even-’
‘I wish you wouldn’t go on about it. I saw it as well.’
Nijel drew back. His eyes narrowed.
‘You’re a wizard, too,’ he said accusingly.
‘Not that kind I’m not,’ said Rincewind shortly.
‘What kind are you, then?’
‘The non-killing kind.’
‘It was the way they looked at them as if it just didn’t matter-’ said Nijel, shaking his head. ‘That was the worst bit.’
Rincewind dropped the single syllable heavily in front of Nijel’s train of thought, like a tree trunk. The boy shuddered, but at least he shut up. Rincewind actually began to feel sorry for him, which was very unusual-he normally felt he needed all his pity for himself.
‘Is that the first time you’ve seen someone killed?’ he said.
‘Exactly how long have you been a barbarian hero?’
‘Er. What year is this?’
Rincewind peered around a corner, but such people as were around and vertical were far too busy panicking to bother about them.
‘Out on the road, then?’ he said quietly. ‘Lost track of time? I know how it is. This is the Year of the Hyena.’
‘Oh. In that case, about-’ Nijel’s lips moved soundlessly-’about three days. Look’, he added quickly, ‘how can people kill like that? Without even thinking about it?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Rincewind, in a tone of voice that suggested he was thinking about it.
‘I mean, even when the vizier had me thrown in the snake pit, at least he seemed to be taking an interest.’
‘That’s good. Everyone should have an interest.’
‘I mean, he even laughed!’
Ah. A sense of humour, too.’
Rincewind felt that he could see his future with the same crystal clarity that a man falling off a cliff sees the ground, and for much the same reason. So when Nijel said: ‘They just pointed their fingers without so much as-’ , Rincewind snapped: ‘Just shut up, will you? How do you think I feel about it? I’m a wizard, too!’