Coin sagged to his knees, shaking.
‘I don’t like killing people,’ he said. ‘I’m sure it can’t be right.’
‘Hold on to that thought,’ said Rincewind fervently.
‘What happens to people after they’re dead?’ said Coin.
Rincewind glanced up at Death.
‘I think this one’s for you,’ he said.
HE CANNOT SEE OR HEAR ME, said Death, UNTIL HE WANTS TO. There was a little clinking noise. The staff was rolling back towards Coin, who looked down at it in horror.
Pick me up.
‘You don’t have to,’ said Rincewind again.
You cannot resist me. You cannot defeat yourself, said the staff.
Coin reached out very slowly, and picked it up.
Rincewind glanced at his sock. It was a stub of burnt wool, its brief career as a weapon of war having sent it beyond the help of any darning needle.
Now kill him.
Rincewind held his breath. The watching wizards held their breath. Even Death, who had nothing to hold but his scythe, held it tensely.
‘No,’ said Coin.
You know what happens to boys who are bad.
Rincewind saw the sourcerer’s face go pale.
The staff’s voice changed. Now it wheedled.
Without me, who would there be to tell you what to do?
‘That is true,’ said Coin slowly.
See what you have achieved.
Coin stared slowly around at the frightened faces.
‘I am seeing,’ he said.
I taught you everything I know.
‘I am thinking,’ said Coin, ‘that you do not know enough.’
Ingrate! Who gave you your destiny?
‘You did,’ said the boy. He raised his head.
‘I realise that I was wrong,’ he added, quietly.
‘I did not throw you far enough!’
Coin got to his feet in one movement and swung the staff over his head. He stood still as a statue, his hand lost in a ball of light that was the colour of molten copper. It turned green, ascended through shades of blue, hovered in the violet and then seared into pure octarine.
Rincewind shaded his eyes against the glare and saw Coin’s hand, still whole, still gripping tight, with beads of molten metal glittering between his fingers.
He slithered away, and bumped into Hakardly. The old wizard was standing like a statue, with his mouth open.
‘What’ll happen?’ said Rincewind.
‘He’ll never beat it,’ said Hakardly hoarsely. ‘It’s his. It’s as strong as him. He’s got the power, but it knows how to channel it.’
‘You mean they’ll cancel each other out?’
The battle was hidden in its own infernal glow. Then the floor began to tremble.
‘They’re drawing on everything magical,’ said Hakardly. ‘We’d better leave the tower.’
‘I imagine it will vanish soon enough.’
And, indeed, the white flagstones around the glow looked as though they were unravelling and disappearing into it.
‘Aren’t we going to help him?’ he said.
Hakardly stared at him, and then at the iridescent tableau. His mouth opened and shut once or twice.
‘I’m sorry’, he said.
‘Yes, but just a bit of help on his side, you’ve seen what that thing is like-’
‘He helped you.’ Rincewind turned on the other wizards, who were scurrying away. ‘All of you. He gave you what you wanted, didn’t he?’
‘We may never forgive him,’ said Hakardly.
‘What will be left when it’s all over?’ he said. ‘What will be left?’
Hakardly looked down.
‘I’m sorry,’ he repeated.
The octarine light had grown brighter and was beginning to turn black around the edge. It wasn’t the black that is merely the opposite of light, though; it was the grainy, shifting blackness that glows beyond the glare and has no business in any decent reality. And it buzzed.
Rincewind did a little dance of uncertainty as his feet, legs, instincts and incredibly well-developed sense of self-preservation overloaded his nervous system to the point where, just as it was on the point of fusing, his conscience finally got its way.
He leapt into the fire and reached the staff.
The wizards fled. Several of them levitated down from the tower.
They were a lot more perspicacious than those that used the stairs because, about thirty seconds later, the tower vanished.
The snow continued to fall around a column of blackness, which buzzed.
And the surviving wizards who dared to look back saw, tumbling slowly down the sky, a small object trailing flames behind it. It crashed into the cobbles, where it smouldered for a bit before the thickening snow put it out.
Pretty soon it became just a small mound.
A little while later a squat figure swung itself across the courtyard on its knuckles, scrabbled in the snow, and hauled the thing out.
It was, or rather it had been, a hat. Life had not been kind to it. A large part of the wide brim had been burned off, the point was entirely gone, and the tarnished silver letters were almost unreadable. Some of them had been torn off in any case. Those that were left spelled out: WIZD.
The Librarian turned around slowly. He was entirely alone, except for the towering column of burning blackness and the steadily falling flakes.
The ravaged campus was empty. There were a few other pointy hats that had been trampled by terrified feet, and no other sign that people had been there.
All the wizards were wazards.
‘Wasn’t there,’ Pestilence groped for his glass, ’something?’
‘We ought to be … there’s something we ought to be doing,’ said Famine.
‘S’right. Got an appointment.’
‘The-’ Pestilence gazed reflectively into his drink. ‘Thingy.’
They stared gloomily at the bar counter. The innkeeper had long ago fled. There were several bottles still unopened.
‘Okra,’ said Famine, eventually. ‘That was it.’
‘The Apos … the Apostrophe,’ said War, vaguely.
They shook their heads. There was a lengthy pause.
‘What does “apocrustic” mean?’ said Pestilence, gazing intently into some inner world.
‘Astringent,’ said War, ‘I think.’
‘It’s not that, then?’
‘Shouldn’t think so,’ said Famine, glumly.
There was another long, embarrassed silence.
‘Better have ‘nother drink,’ said War, pulling himself together.
About fifty miles away and several thousand feet up, Conina at last managed to control her stolen horse and brought it to a gentle trot on the empty air, displaying some of the most determined nonchalance the Disc had ever seen.
‘Snow?’ she said.
Clouds were roaring soundlessly from the direction of the Hub. They were fat and heavy and shouldn’t be moving so fast. Blizzards trailed beneath them, covering the landscape like a sheet.
It didn’t look like the kind of snow that whispers down gently in the pit of the night and in the morning turns the landscape into a glittering wonderland of uncommon and ethereal beauty. It looked like the kind of snow that intends to make the world as bloody cold as possible.
‘Bit late in the year,’ said Nijel. He glanced downwards, and then immediately closed his eyes.
Creosote watched in delighted astonishment. ‘Is that how it happens?’ he said. ‘I’ve only heard about it in stories. I thought it sprouted out of the ground somehow. Bit like mushrooms, I thought.’
‘Those clouds aren’t right,’ said Conina.
‘Do you mind if we go down now?’ said Nijel weakly. ‘Somehow it didn’t look so bad when we were moving.’
Conina ignored this. ‘Try the lamp,’ she commanded. ‘I want to know about this.’
Nijel fumbled in his pack and produced the lamp.
The voice of the genie sounded rather tinny and far off, and said: ‘If you would care to relax a little … trying to connect you.’ There then followed some tinkly little music, the kind that perhaps a Swiss chalet would make if you could play it, before a trapdoor outlined itself in the air and the genie himself appeared. He looked around him, and then at them.
‘Oh, wow,’ he said.
‘Something’s happening to the weather,’ said Conina. ,Why?,
‘You mean you don’t know?’ said the genie.
‘We’re asking you, aren’t we?’
‘Well, I’m no judge, but it rather looks like the Apocralypse, yuh?’
The genie shrugged. ‘The gods have vanished, okay?’ he said. ‘And according to, you know, legend, that means-’
‘The Ice Giants,’ said Nijel, in a horrified whisper.
‘Speak up,’ said Creosote.
‘The Ice Giants,’ Nijel repeated loudly, with a trace of irritation. ‘The gods keep them imprisoned, see. At the Hub. But at the end of the world they’ll break free at last, and ride out on their dreadful glaciers and regain their ancient domination, crushing out the flames of civilisation until the world lies naked and frozen under the terrible cold stars until Time itself freezes over. Or something like that, apparently.’
‘But it isn’t time for the Apocralypse,’ said Conina desperately. ‘I mean, a dreadful ruler has to arise, there must be a terrible war, the four dreadful horsemen have to ride, and then the Dungeon Dimensions will break into the world-’She stopped, her face nearly as white as the snow.
‘Being buried under a thousand-foot ice sheet sounds awfully like it, anyway,’ said the genie. He reached forward and snatched his lamp out of Nijel’s hands.
‘Mucho apologies,’ he said, ‘but it’s time to liquidise my assets in this reality. See you around. Or something.’ He vanished up to the waist, and then with a faint last cry of ‘Shame about lunch’, disappeared entirely.
The three riders peered through the veils of driving snow towards the Hub.
‘It may be my imagination,’ said Creosote, ‘but can either of you hear a sort of creaking and groaning?’
‘Shut up,’ said Conina distractedly.
Creosote leaned over and patted her hand.
‘Cheer up,’ he said, ‘it’s not the end of the world.’ He thought about this statement for a bit, and then added, ‘Sorry. Just a figure of speech.’
‘What are we going to do?’ she wailed.
Nijel drew himself up.
‘I think,’ he said, ‘that we should go and explain.’
They turned towards him with the kind of expression normally reserved for messiahs or extreme idiots.
‘Yes,’ he said, with a shade more confidence. ‘We should explain.’
‘Explain to the Ice Giants?’ said Conina.
‘Sorry,’ said Conina, ‘have I got this right? You think we should go and find the terrifying Ice Giants and sort of tell them that there are a lot of warm people out here who would rather they didn’t sweep across the world crushing everyone under mountains of ice, and could they sort of reconsider things? Is that what you think we should do?’