‘Speaking as a poet,’ said Conina carefully, ‘what would you say about this situation?’
Creosote shifted uneasily. ‘Funny old thing, life,’ he said.
Nijel lay back and looked up at the hazy stars. Then he sat bolt upright.
‘Did you see that?’ he demanded.
‘It was a sort of flash, a kind of-’
The hubward horizon exploded into a silent flower of colour, which expanded rapidly through all the hues of the conventional spectrum before flashing into brilliant octarine. It etched itself on their eyeballs before fading away.
After a while there was a distant rumble.
‘Some sort of magical weapon,’ said Conina, blinking. A gust of warm wind picked up the mist and streamed it past them.
‘Blow this,’ said Nijel, getting to his feet. ‘I’m going to wake him up, even if it means we end up carrying him.’
He reached out for Rincewind’s shoulder just as something went past very high overhead, making a noise like a flock of geese on nitrous oxide. It disappeared into the desert behind them. Then there was a sound that would have set false teeth on edge, a flash of green light, and a thump.
‘I’ll wake him up,’ said Conina. ‘You get the carpet.’
She clambered over the ring of rocks and took the sleeping wizard gently by the arm, and this would have been a textbook way of waking a somnambulist if Rincewind hadn’t dropped the rock he was carrying on his foot.
He opened his eyes.
‘Where am I?’ he said.
‘On the beach. You’ve been … er … dreaming.’
Rincewind blinked at the mist, the sky, the circle of stones, Conina, the circle of stones again, and finally back at the sky.
‘What’s been happening?’ he said.
‘Some sort of magical fireworks.’
‘Oh. It’s started, then.’
He lurched unsteadily out of the circle, in a way that suggested to Conina that perhaps he wasn’t quite awake yet, and staggered back towards the remains of the fire. He walked a few steps and then appeared to remember something.
He looked down at his foot, and said, ‘Ow.’
He’d almost reached the fire when the blast from the last spell reached them. It had been aimed at the tower in Al Khali, which was twenty miles away, and by now the wavefront was extremely diffuse. It was hardly affecting the nature of things as it surged over the dunes with a faint sucking noise; the fire burned red and green for a second, one of Nijel’s sandals turned into a small and irritated badger, and a pigeon flew out of the Seriph’s turban.
Then it was past and boiling out over the sea.
‘What was that?’ said Nijel. He kicked the badger, who was sniffing at his foot.
‘Hmm?’ said Rincewind.
‘Oh, that,’ said Rincewind. ‘Just the backwash of a spell. They probably hit the tower in Al Khali.’
‘It must have been pretty big to affect us here.’
‘It probably was.’
‘Hey, that was my palace,’ said Creosote weakly. ‘I mean, I know it was a lot, but it was all I had.’
‘But there were people in the city!’
They’re probably all right,’ said Rincewind.
‘Whatever they are.’
Conina grabbed his arm. ‘Don’t shout at him,’ she said. ‘He’s not himself.’
Ah,’ said Creosote dourly, ‘an improvement.’
‘I say, that’s a bit unfair,’ Nijel protested. ‘I mean, he got me out of the snake pit and, well, he knows a lot-’
‘Yes, wizards are good at getting you out of the sort of trouble that only wizards can get you into,’ said Creosote. ‘Then they expect you to thank them.’
‘Oh, I think-’
‘It’s got to be said,’ said Creosote, waving his hands irritably. He was briefly illuminated by the passage of another spell across the tormented sky.
‘Look at that!’ he snapped. ‘Oh, he means well. They all mean well. They probably all think the Disc would be a better place if they were in charge. Take it from me, there’s nothing more terrible than someone out to do the world a favour. Wizards! When all’s said and done, what good are they? I mean, can you name me something worthwhile any wizard’s done?’
‘I think that’s a bit cruel,’ said Conina, but with an edge in her voice that suggested that she could be open to persuasion on the subject.
‘Well, they make me sick,’ muttered Creosote, who was feeling acutely sober and didn’t like it much.
‘I think we’ll all feel better if we try to get a bit more sleep,’ said Nijel diplomatically. ‘Things always look better by daylight. Nearly always, anyway.’
‘My mouth feels all horrible, too,’ muttered Creosote, determined to cling on to the remnant of his anger.
Conina turned back to the fire, and became aware of a gap in the scenery. It was Rincewind-shaped.
In fact Rincewind was already half a mile out over the dark sea, squatting on the carpet like an angry buddha, his mind a soup of rage, humiliation and fury, with a side order of outrage.
He hadn’t wanted much, ever. He’d stuck with wizardry even though he wasn’t any good at it, he’d always done his best, and now the whole world was conspiring against him. Well, he’d show them. Precisely who “they” were and what they were going to be shown was merely a matter of detail.
He reached up and touched his hat for reassurance, even as it lost its last few sequins in the slipstream.
The Luggage was having problems of its own.
The area around the tower of Al Khali, under the relentless magical bombardment, was already drifting beyond that reality horizon where time, space and matter lose their separate identities and start wearing one another’s clothes. It was quite impossible to describe.
Here is what it looked like.
It looked like a piano sounds shortly after being dropped down a well. It tasted yellow, and felt Paisley. It smelled like a total eclipse of the moon. Of course, nearer to the tower it got really weird.
Expecting anything unprotected to survive in that would be like expecting snow on a supernova. Fortunately the Luggage didn’t know this, and slid through the maelstrom with raw magic crystallising on its lid and hinges. It was in a foul mood but, again, there was nothing very unusual about this, except that the crackling fury earthing itself spectacularly all over the Luggage in a multi-coloured corona gave it the appearance of an early and very angry amphibian crawling out of a burning swamp.
It was hot and stuffy inside the tower. There were no internal floors, just a series of walkways around the walls. They were lined with wizards, and the central space was a column of octarine light that creaked loudly as they poured their power into it. At its base stood Abrim, the octarine gems on the hat blazing so brightly that they looked more like holes cut through into a different universe where, in defiance of probability, they had come out inside a sun.
The vizier stood with his hands out, fingers splayed, eyes shut, mouth a thin line of concentration, balancing the forces. Usually a wizard could control power only to the extent of his own physical capability, but Abrim was learning fast.
You made yourself the pinch in the hourglass, the fulcrum on the balance, the roll around the sausage.
Do it right and you were the power, it was part of you and you were capable of-
Has it been pointed out that his feet were several inches off the ground? His feet were several inches off the ground.
Abrim was pulling together the potency for a spell that would soar away into the sky and beset the Ankh tower with a thousand screaming demons when there came a thunderous knock at the door.
There is a mantra to be said on these occasions. It doesn’t matter if the door is a tent flap, a scrap of hide on a wind-blown yurt, three inches of solid oak with great iron nails in or a rectangle of chipboard with mahogany veneer, a small light over it made of horrible bits of coloured glass and a bellpush that plays a choice of twenty popular melodies that no music lover would want to listen to even after five years’ sensory deprivation.
One wizard turned to another and duly said: ‘I wonder who that can be at this time of night?’
There was another series of thumps on the woodwork.
‘There can’t be anyone alive out there,’ said the other wizard, and he said it nervously, because if you ruled out the possibility of it being anyone alive that always left the suspicion that perhaps it was someone dead.
This time the banging rattled the hinges.
‘One of us had better go out,’ said the first wizard.
‘Ah. Oh. Right.’
He set off slowly down the short, arched passage.
‘I’ll just go and see who it is, then?’ he said.
It was a strange figure that made its hesitant way to the door. Ordinary robes weren’t sufficient protection in the high-energy field inside tower, and over his brocade and velvet the wizard wore a thick, padded overall stuffed with rowan shavings and embroidered with industrial-grade sigils. He’d affixed a smoked glass visor to his pointy hat and his gauntlets, which were extremely big, suggested that he was a wicket keeper in a game of cricket played at supersonic speeds. The actinic flashes and pulsations from the great work in the main hall cast harsh shadows around him as he fumbled for the bolts.
He pulled down the visor and opened the door a fraction.
‘We don’t want any-’ he began, and ought to have chosen his words better, because they were his epitaph.
It was sometime before his colleague noticed his continued absence, and wandered down the passage to find him. The door had been thrown wide open, the thaumatic inferno outside roaring against the web of spells that held it in check. In fact the door hadn’t been pushed completely back; he pulled it aside to see why, and gave a little whimper.
There was a noise behind him. He turned around.
‘Wha-’ he began, which is a pretty poor syllable on which to end a life.
High over the Circle Sea Rincewind was feeling a bit of an idiot.
This happens to everyone sooner or later.
For example, in a tavern someone jogs your elbow and you turn around quickly and give a mouthful of abuse to, you become slowly aware, the belt buckle of a man who, it turns out, was probably hewn rather than born.
Or a little car runs into the back of yours and you rush out to show a bunch of fives to the driver who, it becomes apparent as he goes on unfolding more body like some horrible conjuring trick, must have been sitting on the back seat.
Or you might be leading your mutinous colleagues to the captain’s cabin and you hammer on the door and he sticks his great head out with a cutlass in either hand and you say ‘We’re taking over the ship, you scum, and the lads are right with me!’ and he says ‘What lads?’ and you suddenly feel a great emptiness behind you and you say ‘Um …’
In other words, it’s the familiar hot sinking feeling experienced by everyone who has let the waves of their own anger throw them far up on the beach of retribution, leaving them, in the poetic language of the everyday, up shit creek.