A basilisk lay panting in the baking shade of a rock, dribbling corrosive yellow slime. For the last five minutes its ears had been detecting the faint thump of hundreds of little legs moving unsteadily over the dunes, which seemed to indicate that dinner was on the way.
It blinked its legendary eyes and uncoiled twenty feet of hungry body, winding out and on to the sand like fluid death.
The Luggage staggered to a halt and raised its lid threateningly. The basilisk hissed, but a little uncertainly, because it had never seen a walking box before, and certainly never one with lots of alligator teeth stuck in its lid. There were also scraps of leathery hide adhering to it, as though it had been involved in a fight in a handbag factory, and in a way that the basilisk wouldn’t have been able to describe even if it could talk, it appeared to be glaring.
Right, the reptile thought, if that’s the way you want to play it.
It turned on the Luggage a stare like a diamond drill, a stare that nipped in via the staree’s eyeballs and flayed the brain from the inside, a stare that tore the frail net curtains on the windows of the soul, a stare that
The basilisk realised something was very wrong. An entirely new and unwelcome sensation started to arise just behind its saucer-shaped eyes. It started small, like the little itch in those few square inches of back that no amount of writhing will allow you to scratch, and grew until it became a second, red-hot, internal sun.
The basilisk was feeling a terrible, overpowering and irresistible urge to blink …
It did something incredibly unwise.
‘He’s talking through his hat,’ said Rincewind.
‘Eh?’ said Nijel, who was beginning to realise that the world of the barbarian hero wasn’t the clean, simple place he had imagined in the days when the most exciting thing he had ever done was stack parsnips.
‘The hat’s talking through him, you mean,’ said Conina, and she backed away too, as one tends to do in the presence of horror.
‘I will not harm you. You have been of some service,’ said Abrim, stepping forwards with his hands out. ‘But you are right. He thought he could gain power through wearing me. Of course, it is the other way around. An astonishingly devious and clever mind.’
‘So you tried his head on for size?’ said Rincewind. He shuddered. He’d worn the hat. Obviously he didn’t have the right kind of mind. Abrim did have the right kind of mind, and now his eyes were grey and colourless, his skin was pale and he walked as though his body was hanging down from his head.
Nijel had pulled out his book and was riffling feverishly through the pages.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ said Conina, not taking her eyes off the ghastly figure.
‘I’m looking up the Index of Wandering Monsters,’ said Nijel. ‘Do you think it’s an Undead? They’re awfully difficult to kill, you need garlic and,-’
‘You won’t find this in there,’ said Rincewind slowly. ‘It’s – it’s a vampire hat.’
‘Of course, it might be a Zombie,’ said Nijel, running his finger down a page. ‘It says here you need black pepper and sea salt, but-’
‘You’re supposed to fight the bloody things, not eat them,’ said Conina.
‘This is a mind I can use,’ said the hat. ‘Now I can fight back. I shall rally wizardry. There is room for only one magic in this world, and I embody it. Sourcery beware!’
‘Oh, no,’ said Rincewind under his breath.
‘Wizardry has learned a lot in the last twenty centuries. This upstart can be beaten. You three will follow me.’
It wasn’t a request. It wasn’t even an order. It was a sort of forecast. The voice of the hat went straight to the hindbrain without bothering to deal with the consciousness, and Rincewind’s legs started to move of their own accord.
The other two also jerked forward, walking with the awkward doll-like jerking that suggested that they, too, were on invisible strings.
‘Why the oh, no?’ said Conina, ‘I mean, “Oh, no” on general principles I can understand, but was there any particular reason?’
‘If we get a chance we must run,’ said Rincewind.
‘Did you have anywhere in mind?’
‘It probably won’t matter. We’re doomed anyway.’
‘Why?’ said Nijel.
‘Well,’ said Rincewind, ‘have you ever heard of the Mage Wars?’
There were a lot of things on the Disc that owed their origin to the Mage Wars. Sapient pearwood was one of them.
The original tree was probably perfectly normal and spent its days drinking groundwater and eating sunshine in a state of blessed unawareness and then the magic wars broke around it and pitchforked its genes into a state of acute perspicacity.
It also left it ingrained, as it were, with a bad temper. But sapient pearwood got off lightly.
Once, when the level of background magic on the Disc was young and high and found every opportunity to burst on the world, wizards were all as powerful as sourcerers and built their towers on every hilltop. And if there was one thing a really powerful wizard can’t stand, it is another wizard. His instinctive approach to diplomacy is to hex ‘em till they glow, then curse them in the dark.
That could only mean one thing. All right, two things. Three things.
All-out. Thaumaturgical. War.
And there were of course no alliances, no sides, no deals, no mercy, no cease. The skies twisted, the seas boiled. The scream and whizz of fireballs turned the night into day, but that was all right because the ensuing clouds of black smoke turned the day into night. The landscape rose and fell like a honeymoon duvet, and the very fabric of space itself was tied in multidimensional knots and bashed on a flat stone down by the river of Time. For example, a popular spell at the time was Pelepel’s Temporal Compressor, which on one occasion resulted in a race of giant reptiles being created, evolving, spreading, flourishing and then being destroyed in the space of about five minutes, leaving only its bones in the earth to mislead forthcoming generations completely. Trees swam, fishes walked, mountains strolled down to the shops for a packet of cigarettes, and the mutability of existence was such that the first thing any cautious person would do when they woke up in the mornings was count their arms and legs.
That was, in fact, the problem. All the wizards were pretty evenly matched and in any case lived in high towers well protected with spells, which meant that most magical weapons rebounded and landed on the common people who were trying to scratch an honest living from what was, temporarily, the soil, and lead ordinary, decent (but rather short) lives.
But still the fighting raged, battering the very structure of the universe of order, weakening the walls of reality and threatening to topple the whole rickety edifice of time and space into the darkness of the Dungeon Dimensions …
One story said that the gods stepped in, but the gods don’t usually take a hand in human affairs unless it amuses them. Another one – and this was the one that the wizards themselves told, and wrote down in their books – was that the wizards themselves got together and settled their differences amicably for the good of mankind. And this was generally accepted as the true account, despite being as internally likely as a lead lifebelt.
The truth isn’t easily pinned to a page. In the bathtub of history the truth is harder to hold than the soap, and much more difficult to find …
‘What happened, then?’ said Conina.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Rincewind, mournfully. ‘It’s going to start all over again. I can feel it. I’ve got this instinct. There’s too much magic flowing into the world. There’s going to be a horrible war. It’s all going to happen. The Disc is too old to take it this time. Everything’s been worn too thin. Doom, darkness and destruction bear down on us. The Apocralypse is nigh.’
‘Death walks abroad,’ added Nijel helpfully.
‘What?’ snapped Rincewind, angry at being interrupted.
‘I said, Death walks abroad,’ said Nijel.
‘Abroad I don’t mind,’ said Rincewind. ‘They’re all foreigners. It’s Death walking around here I’m not looking forward to.’
‘It’s only a metaphor,’ said Conina.
‘That’s all you know. I’ve met him.’
‘What did he look like?’ said Nijel.
‘Put it like this-’
‘He didn’t need a hairdresser.’
Now the sun was a blowlamp nailed to the sky, and the only difference between the sand and red-hot ash was the colour.
The Luggage plodded erratically across the burning dunes. There were a few traces of yellow slime rapidly drying on its lid.
The lonely little oblong was watched, from atop of a stone pinnacle the shape and temperature of a firebrick, by a chimera. The chimera was an extremely rare species, and this particular one wasn’t about to do anything to help matters.
It judged its moment carefully, kicked away with its talons, folded its leathery wings and plummeted down towards its victim.
The chimera’s technique was to swoop low over the prey, lightly boiling it with its fiery breath, and then turn and rend its dinner with its teeth. It managed the fire part but then, at the point where experience told the creature it should be facing a stricken and terrified victim, found itself on the ground in the path of a scorched and furious Luggage.
The only thing incandescent about the Luggage was its rage. It had spent several hours with a headache, during which it had seemed the whole world had tried to attack it. It had had enough.
When it had stamped the unfortunate chimera into a greasy puddle on the sand it paused for a moment, apparently considering its future. It was becoming clear that not belonging to anyone was a lot harder than it had thought. It had vague, comforting recollections of service and a wardrobe to call its own.
It turned around very slowly, pausing frequently to open its lid. It might have been sniffing the air, if it had a nose. At last it made up its mind, if it had a mind.
The hat and its wearer also strode purposefully across the rubble that had been the legendary Rhoxie to the foot of the tower of sourcery, their unwilling entourage straggling along behind them.
There were doors at the foot of the tower. Unlike those of Unseen University, which were usually propped wide open, they were tightly shut. They seemed to glow.
‘You three are privileged to be here,’ said the hat through Abrim’s slack mouth. ‘This is the moment when wizardry stops running,’ he glanced witheringly at Rincewind, ‘and starts fighting back. You will remember it for the rest of your lives.’
‘What, until lunchtime?’ said Rincewind weakly.
‘Watch closely,’ said Abrim. He extended his hands.
‘If we get a chance,’ whispered Rincewind to Nijel, ‘we run, right?’
‘From,’ said Rincewind, ‘the important word is from.’
‘I don’t trust this man,’ said Nijel. ‘I try not to judge from first impressions, but I definitely think he’s up to no good.’