Rincewind was still angry and humiliated and so forth, but these emotions had died down a bit and something of his normal character had reasserted itself. It was not very pleased to find itself on a few threads of blue and gold wool high above the phosphorescent waves.
He’d been heading for Ankh-Morpork. He tried to remember why.
Of course, it was where it had all started. Perhaps it was the presence of the University, which was so heavy with magic it lay like a cannonball on the incontinence blanket of the Universe, stretching reality very thin. Ankh was where things started, and finished.
It was also his home, such as it was, and it called to him.
It has already been indicated that Rincewind appeared to have a certain amount of rodent in his ancestry, and in times of stress he felt an overpowering urge to make a run for his burrow.
He let the carpet drift for a while on the air currents while dawn, which Creosote would probably have referred to as pink-fingered, made a ring of fire around the edge of the Disc. It spread its lazy light over a world that was subtly different.
Rincewind blinked. There was a weird light. No, now he came to think about it, not weird but wyrd, which was much weirder. It was like looking at the world through a heat haze, but a haze that had a sort of life of its own. It danced and stretched, and gave more than a hint that it wasn’t just an optical illusion but that it was reality itself that was being tensed and distended, like a rubber balloon trying to contain too much gas.
The wavering was greatest in the direction of Ankh-Morpork, where flashes and fountains of tortured air indicated that the struggle hadn’t abated. A similar column hung over Al Khali, and then Rincewind realised that it wasn’t the only one.
Wasn’t that a tower over in Quirm, where the Circle Sea opened on to the great Rim Ocean? And there were others.
It had all gone critical. Wizardry was breaking up. Goodbye to the University, the levels, the Orders; deep in his heart, every wizard knew that the natural unit of wizardry was one wizard. The towers would multiply and fight until there was one tower left, and then the wizards would fight until there was one wizard.
By then, he’d probably fight himself.
The whole edifice that operated as the balance wheel of magic was falling to bits. Rincewind resented that, deeply. He’d never been any good at magic, but that wasn’t the point. He knew where he fitted. It was right at the bottom, but at least he fitted. He could look up and see the whole delicate machine ticking away, gently, browsing off the natural magic generated by the turning of the Disc.
All he had was nothing, but that was something, and now it had been taken away.
Rincewind turned the carpet until it was facing the distant gleam that was Ankh-Morpork, which was a brilliant speck in the early morning light, and a part of his mind that wasn’t doing anything else wondered why it was so bright. There also seemed to be a full moon, and even Rincewind, whose grasp of natural philosophy was pretty vague, was sure there had been one of those only the other day.
Well, it didn’t matter. He’d had enough. He wasn’t going to try to understand anything any more. He was going home.
Except that wizards can never go home.
This is one of the ancient and deeply meaningful sayings about wizards and it says something about most of them that they have never been able to work out what it means. Wizards aren’t allowed to have wives but they are allowed to have parents, and many of them go back to the old home town for Hogswatch Night or Soul Cake Thursday, for a bit of a singsong and the heart-warming sight of all their boyhood bullies hurriedly avoiding them in the street.
It’s rather like the other saying they’ve never been able to understand, which is that you can’t cross the same river twice. Experiments with a long-legged wizard and a small river say you can cross the same river thirty, thirty-five times a minute.
Wizards don’t like philosophy very much. As far as they are concerned, one hand clapping makes a noise like ‘cl’.
In this particular case, though, Rincewind couldn’t go home because it actually wasn’t there any more. There was a city straddling the river Ankh, but it wasn’t one he’d ever seen before; it was white and clean and didn’t smell like a privy full of dead herrings.
He landed in what had once been the Plaza of Broken Moons, and also in a state of some shock. There were fountains. There had been fountains before, of course, but they had oozed rather than played and they had looked like thin soup. There were milky flagstones underfoot, with little glittery bits in. And, although the sun was sitting on the horizon like half a breakfast grapefruit, there was hardly anyone around. Normally Ankh was permanently crowded, the actual shade of the sky being a mere background detail.
Smoke drifted over the city in long greasy coils from the crown of boiling air above the University. It was the only movement, apart from the fountains.
Rincewind had always been rather proud of the fact that he always felt alone, even in the teeming city, but it was even worse being alone when he was by himself.
He rolled up the carpet and slung it over one shoulder and padded through the haunted streets towards the University.
The gates hung open to the wind. Most of the building looked half ruined by misses and ricochets. The tower of sourcery, far too high to be real, seemed to be unscathed. Not so the old Tower of Art. Half the magic aimed at the tower next door seemed to have rebounded on it. Parts of it had melted and started to run; some parts glowed, some parts had crystallised, a few parts seemed to have twisted partly out of the normal three dimensions. It made you feel sorry even for stone that it should have to undergo such treatment. In fact nearly everything had happened to the tower except actual collapse. It looked so beaten that possibly even gravity had given up on it.
Rincewind sighed, and padded around the base of the tower towards the Library.
Towards where the Library had been.
There was the arch of the doorway, and most of the walls were still standing, but a lot of the roof had fallen in and everything was blackened by soot.
Rincewind stood and stared for a long time.
Then he dropped the carpet and ran, stumbling and sliding through the rubble that half-blocked the doorway. The stones were still warm underfoot. Here and there the wreckage of a bookcase still smouldered.
Anyone watching would have seen Rincewind dart backwards and forwards across the shimmering heaps, scrabbling desperately among them, throwing aside charred furniture, pulling aside lumps of fallen roof with less than superhuman strength.
They would have seen him pause once or twice to get his breath back, then dive in again, cutting his hands on shards of half-molten glass from the dome of the roof. They would have noticed that he seemed to be sobbing.
Eventually his questing fingers touched something warm and soft.
The frantic wizard heaved a charred roof beam aside, scrabbled through a drift of fallen tiles and peered down.
There, half squashed by the beam and baked brown by the fire, was a large bunch of overripe, squashy bananas.
He picked one up, very carefully, and sat and watched it for sometime until the end fell off.
Then he ate it.
‘We shouldn’t have let him go like that,’ said Conina.
‘How could we have stopped him, oh, beauteous doeeyed eaglet?’
‘But he may do something stupid!’
‘I should think that is very likely,’ said Creosote primly.
‘While we do something clever and sit on a baking beach with nothing to eat or drink, is that it?’
‘You could tell me a story,’ said Creosote, trembling slightly.
The Seriph ran his tongue over his lips.
‘I suppose a quick anecdote is out of the question?’ he croaked.
Conina sighed. ‘There’s more to life than narrative, you know.’
‘Sorry. I lost control a little, there.’
Now that the sun was well up the crushed-shell beach glowed like a salt flat. The sea didn’t look any better by daylight. It moved like thin oil.
Away on either side the beach stretched in long, excruciatingly flat curves, supporting nothing but a few clumps of withered dune grass which lived off the moisture in the spray. There was no sign of any shade.
‘The way I see it,’ said Conina, ‘this is a beach, and that means sooner or later we’ll come to a river, so all we have to do is keep walking in one direction.’
‘And yet, delightful snow on the slopes of Mount Eritor, we do not know which one.’
Nijel sighed, and reached into his bag.
‘Erm,’ he said, ‘excuse me. Would this be any good? I stole it. Sorry.’
He held out the lamp that had been in the treasury.
‘It’s magic, isn’t it?’ he said hopefully. ‘I’ve heard about them, isn’t it worth a try?’
Creosote shook his head.
‘But you said your grandfather used it to make his fortune!’ said Conina.
‘A lamp,’ said the Seriph, ‘he used a lamp. Not this lamp. No, the real lamp was a battered old thing, and one day this wicked pedlar came round offering new lamps for old and my greatgrandmother gave it to him for this one. The family kept it in the vault as a sort of memorial to her. A truly stupid woman. It doesn’t work, of course.’
‘You tried it?’
‘No, but he wouldn’t have given it away if it was any good, would he?’
‘Give it a rub,’ said Conina. ‘It can’t do any harm.’
‘I wouldn’t,’ warned Creosote.
Nijel held the lamp gingerly. It had a strangely sleek look, as if someone had set out to make a lamp that could go fast.
He rubbed it.
The effects were curiously unimpressive. There was a half-hearted pop and a puff of wispy smoke near Nijel’s feet. A line appeared in the beach several feet away from the smoke. It spread quickly to outline a square of sand, which vanished.
A figure barrelled out of the beach, jerked to a stop, and groaned.
It was wearing a turban, an expensive tan, a small gold medallion, shiny shorts and advanced running shoes with curly toes.
It said, ‘I want to get this absolutely straight. Where am I?’
Conina recovered first.
‘It’s a beach,’ she said.
‘Yah,’ said the genie. ‘What I mean was, which lamp? What world?’
‘Don’t you know?’
The creature took the lamp out of Nijel’s unresisting grasp.
‘Oh, this old thing,’ he said. ‘I’m on time share. Two weeks every August but, of course, usually one can never get away.’
‘Got a lot of lamps, have you?’ said Nijel.
‘I am somewhat over-committed on lamps,’ the genie agreed. ‘In fact I am thinking of diversifying into rings. Rings are looking big at the moment. There’s a lot of movement in rings. Sorry, people; what can I do you for?’ The last phrase was turned in that special voice which people use for humorous self-parody, in the mistaken hope that it will make them sound less like a prat.
‘We-’ Conina began.
‘I want a drink,’ snapped Creosote. ‘And you are supposed to say that my wish is your command.’
‘Oh, absolutely no-one says that sort of thing any more,’ said the genie, and produced a glass out of nowhere. He treated Creosote to a brilliant smile lasting a small percentage of one second.