Most of the wizards managed to turn their heads away. A few -and there are always a few like that watched in obscene fascination.
Coin watched, too. His eyes widened in wonder. One hand went to his mouth. He tried to back away. He couldn’t.
‘Marvellous,’ said Nijel weakly.
WEIGHT DOESN’T COME INTO IT. MY STEED HAS CARRIED ARMIES. MY STEED HAS CARRIED CITIES. YEA, HE HATH CARRIED ALL THINGS IN THEIR DUE TIME, said Death. BUT HE’S NOT GOING TO CARRY YOU THREE.
IT’S A MATTER OF THE LOOK OF THE THING.
‘It’s going to look pretty good, then, isn’t it,’ said War testily, ‘the One Horseman and Three Pedestrians of the Apocralypse.’
‘Perhaps you could ask them to wait for us?’ said Pestilence, his voice sounding like something dripping out of the bottom of a coffin.
I HAVE THINGS TO ATTEND TO, said Death. He made a little clicking noise with his teeth. I’M SURE YOU’LL MANAGE. YOU NORMALLY DO.
War watched the retreating horse.
‘Sometimes he really gets on my nerves. Why is he always so keen to have the last word?’ he said.
‘Force of habit, l suppose.’
They turned back to the tavern. Neither spoke for some time, and then War said, ‘Where’s Famine?’
‘Went to find the kitchen.’
‘Oh.’ War scuffed one armoured foot in the dust, and thought about the distance to Ankh. It was a very hot afternoon. The Apocralypse could jolly well wait.
‘One for the road?’ he suggested.
‘Should we?’ said Pestilence, doubtfully. ‘I thought we were expected. l mean, l wouldn’t like to disappoint people.’
‘We’ve got time for a quick one, I’m sure,’ War insisted. ‘Pub clocks are never right. We’ve got bags of time. All the time in the world.’
Carding slumped forward and thudded on the shining white floor. The staff rolled out of his hands and upended itself.
Coin prodded the limp body with his foot.
‘I did warn him,’ he said. ‘I told him what would happen if he touched it again. What did he mean, them?’
There was an outbreak of coughing and a considerable inspection of fingernails.
‘What did he mean?’ Coin demanded.
Ovin Hakardly, lecturer in Lore, once again found that the wizards around him were parting like morning mist. Without moving he appeared to have stepped forward. His eyes swivelled backwards and forwards like trapped animals.
‘Er,’ he said. He waved his thin hands vaguely. ‘The world, you see, that is, the reality in which we live, in fact, it can be thought of as, in a manner of speaking, a rubber sheet.’ He hesitated, aware that the sentence was not going to appear in anyone’s book of quotable quotes.
‘In that,’ he added hurriedly, ‘it is distorted, uh, distended by the presence of magic in any degree and, if I may make a point here, too much magical potentiality, if foregathered in one spot, forces our reality, um, downwards, although of course one should not take the term literally (because in no sense do I seek to suggest a physical dimension) and it has been postulated that a sufficient exercise of magic can, shall we say, um, break through the actuality at its lowest point and offer, perhaps, a pathway to the inhabitants or, if I may use a more correct term, denizens of the lower plane (which is called by the loose-tongued the Dungeon Dimensions) who, because perhaps of the difference in energy levels, are naturally attracted to the brightness of this world. Our world.’
There was the typical long pause which usually followed Hakardly’s speeches, while everybody mentally inserted commas and stitched the fractured clauses together.
Coin’s lips moved silently for a while. ‘Do you mean magic attracts these creatures?’ he said eventually.
His voice was quite different now. It lacked its former edge. The staff hung in the air above the prone body of Carding, rotating slowly. The eyes of every wizard in the place were on it.
‘So it appears,’ said Hakardly. ‘Students of such things say their presence is heralded by a coarse susurration.’
Coin looked uncertain.
‘They buzz,’ said one of the other wizards helpfully.
The boy knelt down and peered closely at Carding.
‘He’s very still,’ he said cautiously. ‘Is anything bad happening to him?’
‘It may be,’ said Hakardly, guardedly. ‘He’s dead.’
‘I wish he wasn’t.’
‘It is a view, I suspect, which he shares.’
‘But I can help him,’ said Coin. He held out his hands and the staff glided into them. If it had a face, it would have smirked.
When he spoke next his voice once again had the cold distant tones of someone speaking in a steel room.
‘If failure had no penalty success would not be a prize,’ he said.
‘Sorry?’ said Hakardly. ‘You’ve lost me there.’
Coin turned on his heel and strode back to his chair.
‘We can fear nothing,’ he said, and it sounded more like a command. ‘What of these Dungeon Dimensions? If they should trouble us, away with them! A true wizard will fear nothing! Nothing!’
He jerked to his feet again and strode to the simulacrum of the world. The image was perfect in every detail, down to a ghost of Great A’Tuin paddling slowly through the interstellar deeps a few inches above the floor.
Coin waved his hand through it disdainfully.
‘Ours is a world of magic,’ he said. ‘And what can be found in it that can stand against us?’
Hakardly thought that something was expected of him.
‘Absolutely no-one,’ he said. ‘Except for the gods, of course.’
There was a dead silence.
‘The gods?’ said Coin quietly.
‘Well, yes. Certainly. We don’t challenge the gods. They do their job, we do ours. No sense in-’
‘Who rules the Disc? Wizards or gods?’
Hakardly thought quickly.
‘Oh, wizards. Of course. But, as it were, under the gods.’
When one accidentally puts one boot in a swamp it is quite unpleasant. But not as unpleasant as pushing down with the other boot and hearing that, too, disappear with a soft sucking noise. Hakardly pressed on.
‘You see, wizardry is more-’
‘Are we not more powerful than the gods, then?’ said Coin.
Some of the wizards at the back of the crowd began to shuffle their feet.
‘Well. Yes and no,’ said Hakardly, up to his knees in it now.
The truth was that wizards tended to be somewhat nervous about the gods. The beings who dwelt on Cori Celesti had never made their feelings plain on the subject of ceremonial magic, which after all had a certain godness about it, and wizards tended to avoid the whole subject. The trouble with gods was that if they didn’t like something they didn’t just drop hints, so common sense suggested that it was unwise to put the gods in a position where they had to decide.
‘There seems to be some uncertainty?’ said Coin.
‘If I may counsel-’ Hakardly began.
Coin waved a hand. The walls vanished. The wizards stood at the top of the tower of sourcery, and as one man their eyes turned to the distant pinnacle of Cori Celesti, home of the gods.
‘When you’ve beaten everyone else, there’s only the gods left to fight,’ said Coin. ‘Have any of you seen the gods?’
There was a chorus of hesitant denials.
‘I will show them to you.’
‘You’ve got room for another one in there, old son,’ said War.
Pestilence swayed unsteadily. ‘I’m sure we should be getting along,’ he muttered, without much conviction.
‘Oh, go on.’
‘Just a half, then. And then we really must be going.’
War slapped him on the back, and glared at Famine.
‘And wed better have another fifteen bags of peanuts,’ he added.
‘Oook,’ the Librarian concluded.
‘Oh,’ said Rincewind. ‘It’s the staff that’s the problem, then.’
‘Hasn’t anyone tried to take it away from him?’
‘What happened to them, then?’
The Librarian had put his candle out because the presence of the naked flame was unsettling the books, but now that Rincewind had grown accustomed to the dark, he realised it wasn’t dark at all. The soft octarine glow from the books filled the inside of the tower with something that, while it wasn’t exactly light, was a blackness you could see by. Now and again the ruffle of stiff pages floated down from the gloom.
‘So, basically, there’s no way our magic could defeat him, isn’t that right?’
The Librarian cooked disconsolate agreement and continued to spin around gently on his bottom.
‘Pretty pointless, then. It may have struck you that I am not exactly gifted in the magical department? I mean, any duel is going to go on the lines of “Hallo, I’m Rincewind” closely followed by bazaam!’
‘Basically, what you’re saying is that I’m on my own.’
By their own faint glow Rincewind regarded the books that had stacked themselves around the inner walls of the ancient tower.
He sighed, and marched briskly to the door, but slowed down noticeably as he reached it.
‘I’ll be off, then,’ he said.
‘To face who knows what dreadful perils,’ Rincewind added. ‘To lay down my life in the service of mankind-’
‘All right, bipeds-’
‘- and quadrapeds, all right.’ He glanced at the Patrician’s jamjar, a beaten man.
‘And lizards,’ he added. ‘Can I go now?’
A gale was howling down out of a clear sky as Rincewind toiled towards the tower of sourcery. Its high white doors were shut so tightly it was barely possible to see their outline in the milky surface of the stone.
He hammered on it for a bit, but nothing much happened. The doors seemed to absorb the sound.
‘Fine thing,’ he muttered to himself, and remembered the carpet. It was lying where he had left it, which was another sign that Ankh had changed. In the thieving days before the sourcerer nothing stayed for long where you left it. Nothing printable, anyway.
He rolled it out on the cobbles so that the golden dragons writhed against the blue ground, unless of course the blue dragons were flying against a golden sky.
He sat down.
He stood up.
He sat down again and hitched up his robe and, with some effort, unrolled one of his socks. Then he replaced his boot and wandered around for a bit until he found, among the rubble, a half-brick. He inserted the half-brick into the sock and gave the sock a few thoughtful swings.
Rincewind had grown up in Morpork. What a Morpork citizen liked to have on his side in a fight was odds of about twenty to one, but failing that a sockful of half-brick and a dark alley to lurk in was generally considered a better bet than any two magic swords you cared to name.