As he crossed the quadrangle again he saw a herd of mice swarm over a balcony and scamper towards the river. The ground they were running over seemed to be moving, too. When Rincewind looked closer he could see that it was because it was covered with ants.
These weren’t ordinary ants. Centuries of magical leakage into the walls of the University had done strange things to them. Some of them were pulling very small carts, some of them were riding beetles, but all of them were leaving the University as quickly as possible. The grass on the lawn rippled as they passed.
He looked up as an elderly striped mattress was extruded from an upper window and flopped down on to the flagstones below. After a pause, apparently to catch its breath, it rose a little from the ground. Then it started to float purposefully across the lawn and bore down on Rincewind, who managed to jump out of its way just in time. He heard a high-pitched chittering and caught a glimpse of thousands of determined little legs under the bulging fabric before it hurtled onward. Even the bedbugs were on the move, and in case they didn’t find such comfortable quarters elsewhere they were leaving nothing to chance. One of them waved at him and squeaked a greeting.
Rincewind backed away until something touched the back of his legs and froze his spine. It turned out to be a stone seat. He watched it for some time. It didn’t seem in any hurry to run away. He sat down gratefully.
There’s probably a natural explanation, he thought. Or a perfectly normal unnatural one, anyway.
A gritty noise made him look across the lawn.
There was no natural explanation of this. With incredible slowness, easing themselves down parapets and drainpipes in total silence except for the occasional scrape of stone on stone, the gargoyles were leaving the roof.
It’s a shame that Rincewind had never seen poor quality stop-motion photography, because then he would have known exactly how to describe what he was seeing. The creatures didn’t exactly move, but they managed to progress in a series of high speed tableaux, and lurched past him in a spindly procession of beaks, manes, wings, claws and pigeon droppings.
What’s happening?’ he squeaked.
A thing with a goblin’s face, harpy’s body and hen’s legs turned its head in a series of little jerks and spoke in a voice like the peristalsis of mountains (although the deep resonant effect was rather spoiled because, of course, it couldn’t close its mouth).
It said: ‘A Ourcerer is umming! Eee orr ife!’
Rincewind said ‘Pardon?’ But the thing had gone past and was lurching awkwardly across the ancient lawn.
So Rincewind sat and stared blankly at nothing much for fully ten seconds before giving a little scream and running as fast as he could.
He didn’t stop until he’d reached his own room in the Library building. It wasn’t much of a room, being mainly used to store old furniture, but it was home.
Against one shadowy wall was a wardrobe. It wasn’t one of your modern wardrobes, fit only for nervous adulterers to jump into when the husband returned home early, but an ancient oak affair, dark as night, in whose dusty depths coat-hangers lurked and bred; herds of flaking shoes roamed its floor. It was quite possible that it was a secret doorway to fabulous worlds, but no-one had ever tried to find out because of the distressing smell of mothballs.
And on top of the wardrobe, wrapped in scraps of yellowing paper and old dust sheets, was a large brassbound chest. It went by the name of the Luggage. Why it consented to be owned by Rincewind was something only the Luggage knew, and it wasn’t telling, but probably no other item in the entire chronicle of travel accessories had quite such a history of mystery and grievous bodily harm. It had been described as half suitcase, half homicidal maniac. It had many unusual qualities which may or may not become apparent soon, but currently there was only one that set it apart from any other brassbound chest. It was snoring, with a sound like someone very slowly sawing a log.
The Luggage might be magical. It might be terrible. But in its enigmatic soul it was kin to every other piece of luggage throughout the multiverse, and preferred to spend its winters hibernating on top of a wardrobe.
Rincewind hit it with a broom until the sawing stopped, filled his pockets with odds and ends from the banana crate he used as a dressing table, and made for the door. He couldn’t help noticing that his mattress had gone but that didn’t matter because he was pretty clear that he was never going to sleep on a mattress again, ever.
The Luggage landed on the floor with a solid thump. After a few seconds, and with extreme care, it rose up on hundreds of little pink legs. It tilted backwards and forwards a bit, stretching every leg, and then it opened its lid and yawned.
‘Are you coming or not?’
The lid shut with a snap. The Luggage manoeuvred its feet into a complicated shuffle until it was facing the doorway, and headed after its master.
The Library was still in a state of tension, with the occasional clinking of a chain or muffled crackle of a page. Rincewind reached under the desk and grabbed the Librarian who was still hunched under his blanket.
‘Come on, I said!’
‘I’ll buy you a drink,’ said Rincewind desperately.
The Librarian unfolded like a four-legged spider. ‘Oook?’
Rincewind half-dragged the ape from his nest and out through the door. He didn’t head for the main gates but for an otherwise undistinguished area of wall where a few loose stones had, for two thousand years, offered students an unobtrusive way in after lights-out. Then he stopped so suddenly that the Librarian cannoned into him and the Luggage ran into both of them.
‘Oh, gods,’ he said. ‘Look at that!’
There was a shiny black tide flowing out of a grating near the kitchens. Early evening starlight glinted off millions of little black backs.
But it wasn’t the sight of the cockroaches that was so upsetting. It was the fact that they were marching in step, a hundred abreast. Of course, like all the informal inhabitants of the University the roaches were a little unusual, but there was something particularly unpleasant about the sound of billions of very small feet hitting the stones in perfect time.
Rincewind stepped gingerly over the marching column. The Librarian jumped it.
The Luggage, of course, followed them with a noise like someone tapdancing over a bag of crisps.
And so, forcing the Luggage to go all the way around to the gates anyway, because otherwise it’d only batter a hole in the wall, Rincewind quit the University with all the other insects and small frightened rodents and decided that if a few quiet beers wouldn’t allow him to see things in a different light, then a few more probably would. It was certainly worth a try.
That was why he wasn’t present in the Great Hall for dinner. It would turn out to be the most important missed meal of his life.
Further along the University wall there was a faint clink as a grapnel caught the spikes that lined its top. A moment later a slim, black-clad figure dropped lightly into the University grounds and ran soundlessly towards the Great Hall, where it was soon lost in the shadows.
No-one would have noticed it anyway. On the other side of the campus the Sourcerer was walking towards the gates of the University. Where his feet touched the cobbles blue sparks crackled and evaporated the early evening dew.
It was very hot. The big fireplace at the turnwise end of the Great Hall was practically incandescent. Wizards feel the cold easily, so the sheer blast of heat from the roaring logs was melting candles twenty feet away and bubbling the varnish on the long tables. The air over the feast was blue with tobacco smoke, which writhed into curious shapes as it was bent by random drifts of magic. On the centre table the complete carcass of a whole roast pig looked extremely annoyed at the fact that someone had killed it without waiting for it to finish its apple, and the model University made of butter was sinking gently into a pool of grease.
There was a lot of beer about. Here and there red-faced wizards were happily singing ancient drinking songs which involved a lot of knee-slapping and cries of ‘Ho!’ The only possible excuse for this sort of thing is that wizards are celibate, and have to find their amusement where they can.
Another reason for the general conviviality was the fact that no-one was trying to kill anyone else. This is an unusual state of affairs in magical circles.
The higher levels of wizardry are a perilous place. Every wizard is trying to dislodge the wizards above him while stamping on the fingers of those below; to say that wizards are healthily competitive by nature is like saying that piranhas are naturally a little peckish. However, ever since the great Mage Wars left whole areas of the Disc uninhabitable, wizards have been forbidden to settle their differences by magical means, because it caused a lot of trouble for the population at large and in any case it was often difficult to tell which of the resultant patches of smoking fat had been the winner. So they traditionally resort to knives, subtle poisons, scorpions in shoes and hilarious booby traps involving razor-sharp pendulums.
On Small Gods’ Eve, however, it was considered extremely bad form to kill a brother wizard, and wizards felt able to let their hair down without fear of being strangled with it.
The Archchancellor’s chair was empty. Wayzygoose was dining alone in his study, as befits a man chosen by the gods after their serious discussion with sensible senior wizards earlier in the day. Despite his eighty years, he was feeling a little bit nervous and hardly touched his second chicken.
In a few minutes he would have to make a speech. Wayzygoose had, in his younger days, sought power in strange places; he’d wrestled with demons in blazing octagrams, stared into dimensions that men were not meant to wot of, and even outfaced the Unseen University grants committee, but nothing in the eight circles of nothingness was quite so bad as a couple of hundred expectant faces staring up at him through the cigar smoke.
The heralds would soon be coming by to collect him. He sighed and pushed his pudding away untasted, crossed the room, stood in front of the big mirror, and fumbled in the pocket of the robe for his notes.
After a while he managed to get them in some sort of order and cleared his throat.
‘My brothers in art,’ he began, ‘I cannot tell you how much I -er, how much … fine traditions of this ancient university … er … as I look around me and see the pictures of Archchancellors gone before …’ He paused, sorted through his notes again, and plunged on rather more certainly. ‘Standing here tonight I am reminded of the story about the three-legged pedlar and the, er, merchant’s daughters. It seems that this merchant …’
There was a knock at the door.
‘Enter,’ Wayzygoose barked, and peered at the notes carefully.
‘This merchant,’ he muttered, ‘this merchant, yes, this merchant had three daughters. I think it was. Yes. It was three. It would appear…’
He looked into the mirror, and turned round.
He started to say, ‘Who are y-’
And found that there are things worse than making speeches, after all.
The small dark figure creeping along the deserted corridors heard the noise, and didn’t take too much notice. Unpleasant noises were not uncommon in areas where magic was commonly practised. The figure was looking for something. It wasn’t sure what it was, only that it would know it when it found, it.