‘He had you thrown in a snake pit!’
‘Perhaps I should have taken the hint.’
The vizier started to mutter. Even Rincewind, whose few talents included a gift for languages, didn’t recognise it, but it sounded the kind of language designed specifically for muttering, the words curling out like scythes at ankle height, dark and red and merciless. They made complicated swirls in the air, and then drifted gently towards the doors of the tower.
Where they touched the white marble it turned black and crumbled.
As the remains drifted to the ground a wizard stepped through and looked Abrim up and down.
Rincewind was used to the dressy ways of wizards, but this one was really impressive, his robe so padded and crenellated and buttressed in fantastic folds and creases that it had probably been designed by an architect. The matching hat looked like a wedding cake that had collided intimately with a Christmas tree.
The actual face, peering through the small gap between the baroque collar and the filigreed fringe of the brim, was a bit of a disappointment. At some time in the past it had thought its appearance would be improved by a thin, scruffy moustache. It had been wrong.
‘That was our bloody door!’ it said. ‘You’re really going to regret this!’
Abrim folded his arms.
This seemed to infuriate the other wizard. He flung up his arms, untangled his hands from the lace on his sleeves, and sent a flare screaming across the gap.
It struck Abrim in the chest and rebounded in a gout of incandescence, but when the blue after-images allowed Rincewind to see he saw Abrim, unharmed.
His opponent frantically patted out the last of the little fires in his own clothing and looked up with murder in his eyes.
‘You don’t seem to understand,’ he rasped. ‘It’s sourcery you’re dealing with now. You can’t fight sourcery.’
‘I can use sourcery,’ said Abrim.
The wizard snarled and lofted a fireball, which burst harmlessly inches from Abrim’s dreadful grin.
A look of acute puzzlement passed across the other one’s face. He tried again, sending lines of blue-hot magic lancing straight from infinity towards Abrim’s heart. Abrim waved them away.
‘Your choice is simple,’ he said. ‘You can join me, or you can die.’
It was at this point that Rincewind became aware of a regular scraping sound close to his ear. It had an unpleasant metallic ring.
He half-turned, and felt the familiar and very uncomfortable prickly feeling of Time slowing down around him.
Death paused in the act of running a whetstone along the edge of his scythe and gave him a nod of acknowledgement, as between one professional and another.
He put a bony digit to his lips, or rather, to the place where his lips would have been if he’d had lips.
All wizards can see Death, but they don’t necessarily want to.
There was a popping in Rincewind’s ears and the spectre vanished.
Abrim and the rival wizard were surrounded by a corona of randomised magic, and it was evidently having no effect on Abrim. Rincewind drifted back into the land of the living just in time to see the man reach out and grab the wizard by his tasteless collar.
‘You cannot defeat me,’ he said in the hat’s voice. ‘I have had two thousand years of harnessing power to my own ends. l can draw my power from your power. Yeld to me or you won’t even have time to regret it.’
The wizard struggled and, unfortunately, let pride win over caution.
‘Never!’ he said.
‘Die,’ suggested Abrim.
Rincewind had seen many strange things in his life, most of them with extreme reluctance, but he had never seen anyone actually killed by magic.
Wizards didn’t kill ordinary people because a) they seldom noticed them and b) it wasn’t considered sporting and c) besides, who’d do all the cooking and growing food and things. And killing a brother wizard with magic was well-nigh impossible on account of the layers of protective spells that any cautious wizard maintained about his person at all times. The first thing a young wizard learns at Unseen University – apart from where his peg is, and which way to the lavatory – is that he must protect himself at all times.
Some people think this is paranoia, but it isn’t. Paranoids only think everyone is out to get them. Wizards know it.
The little wizard was wearing the psychic equivalent of three feet of tempered steel and it was being melted like butter under a blowlamp. It streamed away, vanished.
If there are words to describe what happened to the wizard next then they’re imprisoned inside a wild thesaurus in the Unseen University Library. Perhaps it’s best left to the imagination, except that anyone able to imagine the kind of shape that Rincewind saw writhing painfully for a few seconds before it mercifully vanished must be a candidate for the famous white canvas blazer with the optional long sleeves.
‘So perish all enemies,’ said Abrim.
He turned his face up to the heights of the tower.
‘I challenge,’ he said. And those who will not face me must follow me, according to the Lore.’
There was a long, thick pause caused by a lot of people listening very hard. Eventually, from the top of the tower, a voice called out uncertainly, ‘Whereabouts in the Lore?’
‘I embody the Lore.’
There was a distant whispering and then the same voice called out, ‘The Lore is dead. Sourcery is above the Lo-’
The sentence ended in a scream because Abrim raised his left hand and sent a thin beam of green light in the precise direction of the speaker.
It was at about this moment that Rincewind realised that he could move his limbs himself. The hat had temporarily lost interest in them. He glanced sideways at Conina. In instant, unspoken agreement they each grasped one of Nijel’s arms and turned and ran, and didn’t stop until they’d put several walls between them and the tower. Rincewind ran expecting something to hit him in the back of the neck. Possibly the world.
All three landed in the rubble and lay there panting.
‘You needn’t have done that,’ muttered Nijel. ‘I was just getting ready to really give him a seeing-to. How can I ever-’
There was an explosion behind them and shafts of multicoloured fire screamed overhead, striking sparks off the masonry. Then there was a sound like an enormous cork being pulled out of a small bottle, and a peal of laughter that, somehow wasn’t very amusing. The ground shook.
‘What’s going on?’ said Conina.
‘Magical war,’ said Rincewind.
‘Is that good?’
‘But surely you want wizardry to triumph?’ said Nijel.
Rincewind shrugged, and ducked as something unseen and big whirred overhead making a noise like a partridge.
‘I’ve never seen wizards fight,’ said Nijel. He started to scramble up the rubble and screamed as Conina grabbed him by the leg.
‘I don’t think that would be a good idea,’ she said. ‘Rincewind?’
The wizard shook his head gloomily, and picked up a pebble. He tossed it up above the ruined wall, where it turned into a small blue teapot. It smashed when it hit the ground.
‘The spells react with one another,’ he said. ‘There’s no telling what they’ll do.’
‘But we’re safe behind this wall?’ said Conina.
Rincewind brightened a bit. ‘Are we?’ he said.
‘I was asking you.’
‘Oh. No. I shouldn’t think so. It’s just ordinary stone. The right spell and … phooey.’
‘Shall we run away again?’
‘It’s worth a try.’
They made it to another upright wall a few seconds before a randomly spitting ball of yellow fire landed where they had been lying and turned the ground into something awful. The whole area around the tower was a tornado of sparkling air.
‘We need a plan,’ said Nijel.
‘We could try running again,’ said Rincewind.
‘That doesn’t solve anything!’
‘Solves most things,’ said Rincewind.
‘How far do we have to go to be safe?’ said Conina.
Rincewind risked a look around the wall.
‘Interesting philosophical question,’ he said. ‘I’ve been a long way, and I’ve never been safe.’
Conina sighed and stared at a pile of rubble nearby. She stared at it again. There was something odd there, and she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
‘I could rush at them,’ said Nijel, vaguely. He stared yearningly at Conina’s back.
‘Wouldn’t work,’ said Rincewind. ‘Nothing works against magic. Except stronger magic. And then the only thing that beats stronger magic is even stronger magic. And next thing you know…’
‘Phooey?’ suggested Nijel.
‘It happened before,’ said Rincewind. ‘Went on for thousands of years until not a-’
‘Do you know what’s odd about that heap of stone?’ said Conina.
Rincewind glanced at it. He screwed up his eyes.
‘What, apart from the legs?’ he said.
It took several minutes to dig the Seriph out. He was still clutching a wine bottle, which was almost empty, and blinked at them all in vague recognition.
‘Powerful,’ he said, and then after some effort added, ’stuff, this vintage. Felt,’ he continued, ‘as though the place fell on me.’
‘It did,’ said Rincewind.
‘Ah. That would be it, then.’ Creosote focused on Conina, after several attempts, and rocked backwards. ‘My word,’ he said, ‘the young lady again. Very impressive.’
‘I say-’ Nijel began.
‘Your hair,’ said the Seriph, rocking slowly forward again, ‘is like, is like a flock of goats that graze upon the side of Mount Gebra.’
‘Your breasts are like, like,’ the Seriph swayed sideways a little, and gave a brief, sorrowful glance at the empty bottle, ‘are like the jewelled melons in the fabled gardens of dawn.’
Conina’s eyes widened. ‘They are?’ she said.
‘No,’ said the Seriph, ‘doubt about it. I know jewelled melons when I see them. As the white does in the meadows of the water margin are your thighs, which-’
‘Erm, excuse me-’said Nijel, clearing his throat with malice aforethought.
Creosote swayed in his direction.
‘Hmm?’ he said.
‘Where I come from,’ said Nijel stonily, ‘we don’t talk to ladies like that.’
Conina sighed as Nijel shuffled protectively in front of her. It was, she reflected, absolutely true.
‘In fact,’ he went on, sticking out his jaw as far as possible, which still made it appear like a dimple, ‘I’ve a jolly good mind-’
‘Open to debate,’ said Rincewind, stepping forward. ‘Er, sir, sire, we need to get out. I suppose you wouldn’t know the way?’
‘Thousands of rooms,’ said the Seriph,’ in here, you know. Not been out in years.’ He hiccuped. ‘Decades. Ians. Never been out, in fact.’ His face glazed over in the act of composition. ‘The bird of Time has but, um, a little way to walk and lo! the bird is on its- feet.’