The Last Continent Page 29


'Yes?'

'Sounds a bit odd, but it's happened once or twice, believe it or not.' A tiny green shoot rose from the blackened branches of hope. 'And what's the tradition?' said Rincewind. 'It's on account of it being heartless to have a man standing there more than three times, knowing that at any second his—'

'Yes, yes—'

'—and then all his—'

'Yes—'

'—and the worst part to my mind is where your—'

'Yes, I understand! And so . . . after the third time . . .?'

'He's allowed back into his cell while we get a carpenter in to repair the trapdoor,' said the warder. 'We even give him his dinner, if it's gone on a long time.'

'And?'

'Well, when the carpenter's given it a good test, then we take him out again and hang him.' He saw Rincewind's expression. 'No need to look like that, 's better than having to stand around in the cold all morning, isn't it? That wouldn't be nice.' When he'd gone, Rincewind sat and stared at the wall. 'Baa!'

'Shut up.' So it was down to this, then. One brief night left, and then, if these clowns had anything to do with it, happy people would be wandering the streets to see where his head had come down. There was no justice! G'DAY, MATE. 'Oh, no. Please.' I JUST THOUGHT I SHOULD ENTER INTO THE SPIRIT OF THE THING. A VERY CONVIVIAL PEOPLE, AREN'T THEY? said Death. He was sitting beside Rincewind. 'You just can't wait, can you?' said Rincewind bitterly. NO WORRIES. 'So this is really it, then. I was supposed to have saved this country, you know. And I'm going to really die.' OH, YES. THIS IS CERTAIN, I'M AFRAID. 'It's the stupidity of it that gets me. I mean, think of all the times I've nearly died in the past. I could've been flamed by dragons, right? Or eaten by huge things with tentacles. Or even had every single particle of my body fly off in a different direction.' YOU HAVE CERTAINLY HAD AN INTERESTING LIFE. 'Is it true that your life passes before your eyes before you die?' YES. 'Ghastly thought, really,' Rincewind shuddered. 'Oh, gods, I've just had another one. Suppose I am just about to die and this is my whole life passing in front of my eyes?' I THINK PERHAPS YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND. PEOPLE'S WHOLE LIVES DO PASS IN FRONT OF THEIR EYES BEFORE THEY DIE. THE PROCESS IS CALLED 'LIVING'. WOULD YOU LIKE A PRAWN? Rincewind looked down at the bucket on Death's lap. 'No, thank you. I really don't think so. They can be pretty deadly. And I must say it's a bit much of you to come here and gloat and eat prawns at me.' I BEG YOUR PARDON?

'Just because I'm being hanged in the morning, I mean.' ARE YOU? THEN I SHALL LOOK FORWARD TO HEARING HOW YOU ESCAPED. I'M DUE TO MEET A MAN IN . . . IN . . . Death's eyesockets glowed as he interrogated his memory. AH, YES . . . INSIDE A CROCODILE. SEVERAL HUNDRED MILES AWAY, I BELIEVE. 'What? Then why are you here?' OH, I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT LIKE TO SEE A FRIENDLY FACE. AND NOW I THINK I HAD BETTER BE GOING. Death stood up. VERY PLEASANT CITY IN MANY RESPECTS. TRY TO SEE THE OPERA HOUSE WHILE YOU'RE HERE. 'Hang on . . . I mean, hold on, you told me I was certainly going to die!' EVERYONE IS. EVENTUALLY. The wall opened and closed around Death as if it wasn't there, which was, from his lengthy perspective, quite true. 'But how? I can't walk through—' Rincewind began. He sat down again. The sheep cowered in the corner. Rincewind looked at the untouched meat pie floater and gave the pie a prod. It sank slowly beneath the vivid green soup. The sounds of the city filtered in. After a while the pie rose again like a forgotten continent, sending a very small wave slopping against the edge of the bowl. Rincewind lay back on the thin blanket and stared at the ceiling. Someone had even been writing on that, too. In fact . . . Gdy Mat. Look at the hinjis. Ned. Slowly, as if being raised by invisible strings, Rincewind turned and looked at the door. The hinges were massive. They weren't screwed into the doorframe so that some clever prisoner might unscrew them. They were huge iron hooks, hammered into the stone itself, so that two heavy rings welded on to the door could drop right down on them. What was the man talking about? He walked over and examined the lock closely. It drove a huge metal rod into the frame on its side and looked quite unpickable.

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Rincewind stared at the door for some time. Then he rubbed his hands together and, gritting his teeth, tried to lift the door on the hinge side. Yes, there was just enough play . . . It was possible to lift the rings off the spikes. Then, if you pulled slightly and took a knee-wobbling step this way, you could yank the lock's rod out of its hole and the entire door into the cell. And then a man could walk through and carefully rehang the door again and quietly wander away. And that, Rincewind thought as he carefully manoeuvred the door back on to the hinges, was exactly what a stupid person would do. At moments like this cowardice was an exact science. There were times that called for mindless, terror-filled panic, and times that called for measured, considered, thoughtful panic. Right now he was in a place of safety. It was, admittedly, the death cell, but the point was that it was perhaps the one place in this country where nothing bad was going to happen for a little while. The Ecksians didn't look like the kind of people who went in for torture, although it was always possible they might make him eat some more of their food. So, for the moment, he had time. Time to plan ahead, to consider his next move, to apply his intellect to the problem at hand. He stared at the wall for a moment, and then stood up and gripped the bars. Right. That seemed to be about long enough. Now to run like hell. The green deck of the melon boat had been divided into a male and female section, for the sake of decency. This meant that most of the deck was occupied by Mrs Whitlow, who spent a lot of the time sunbathing behind a screen. Her privacy was assured by the wizards themselves, since at least three of them would probably kill any of the others who ventured within ten feet of the palm leaves. There was definitely what Ponder's aunt, who'd raised him, would have called An Atmosphere. 'I still think I ought to climb the mast,' he protested. 'Ah! A peeping torn, eh?' snarled the Senior Wrangler. 'No, I just think it would be a good idea to see where the boat is going,' said Ponder. There're some big black clouds ahead.'

'Good, we could do with the rain,' snapped the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'In which case, I shall be honoured to make Mrs Whitlow a suitable shelter,' said the Dean. Ponder walked back to the stern, where the Archchancellor was gloomily fishing.

'Honestly, you'd think Mrs Whitlow was the only woman in the world,' he said. 'Do you think she might be?' said Ridcully. Ponder's mind raced, and hit some horrible speed bumps in his imagination. 'Surely not, sir!' he said. 'We don't know, Ponder. Still, look on the bright side. We may all be drowned.'

'Er . . . sir? Have you looked at the horizon?' The everlasting storm was seven thousand miles long but only a mile wide, a great turning, boiling mass of enraged air circling the last continent like a family of foxes circling a henhouse. The clouds were mounded up all the way to the edge of the atmosphere – and they were ancient clouds now, clouds that had rolled around their tortured circuit for years, building up personality and hatred and, above all, voltage. It was not a storm, it was a battle. Mere gales, a few hundred miles long, fought amongst themselves within the cloud wall. Lightning forked from thunderhead to thunderhead, rain fell and flashed into steam half a mile from the ground. The air glowed. And below, emerging from the ocean of potentiality in a rainstorm so thunderous that it was no more than a descending sea, rose the last continent. On the wall of the deserted cell in Bugarup Gaol, among the scratches and stick drawings and tallies of a man's last few days, a drawing of a sheep became a drawing of a kangaroo and then faded completely into the stone. 'So?' said the Dean. 'We're in for a bit of a blow?' The grey line filled the immediate future like a dental appointment. 'I think it might be a lot worse,' said Ponder. 'Well, let's steer somewhere else, then.'

'There's no rudder, sir. And we don't know where anywhere else is. And we're low on water anyway.'

'Don't they say that a big bank of cloud means there's land ahead?' said the Dean. 'Bloody big land, then. EcksEcksEcksEcks, do you think?'

'I hope so, sir.' Above Ponder, the sail flapped and billowed. 'Wind's freshening, sir. I think the storm's sucking the air towards it. And . . . there's something else, I think. I wish I hadn't left my thaumometer on the beach, sir, because I think there's a very high level of background magic in this area.'

'What makes you say this, boy?' said the Dean. 'Well, for one thing everyone seems to be getting a bit tense, and wizards tend to get stro— to get touchy in the presence of large amounts of magic,' said Ponder. 'But my suspicions were first aroused when the Bursar developed planets.' There were two of them, orbiting his head at a height of a few inches. As was so often the case with magical phenomena, they possessed virtual unreality and passed unscathed through him and one another. They were slightly transparent. 'Oh dear, Mugroop's Syndrome,' said Ridcully. 'Cerebral manifestation. Better than a canary down a coalmine, a sign like that.' A little sub-routine in Ponder's head began a short countdown. 'Remember old “Dicky” Bird?' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'He—'

'Three! No, I don't, as a matter of fact. Do tell!' Ponder heard himself bark, louder than he would have done even if he had meant to vocalize his thoughts. 'Indeed I shall, Mister Stibbons,' said the Chair calmly. 'He was very susceptible to high magical fields, and if his mind wandered, as it might do when he was dozing off, sometimes around his head there'd be, hehehe, there'd be these little—'

'Yes, certainly,' said Ponder, quickly. 'We'll have to be very careful to keep an eye open for unusual behaviour.'

'Among wizards?' said Ridcully. 'Mister Stibbons, unusual behaviour is perfectly ordinary for wizards.'

'People acting out of character, then!' Ponder shouted. Talking sense for two minutes together, perhaps! Acting like normal civilized people instead of a herd of self-regarding village idiots!'

'Stibbons, it's not like you to take that tone,' said Ridcully. 'That's what I mean!'

'Now then, Mustrum, go easy on him, we're all under a lot of stress,' said the Dean. 'Now he's doing it!' Ponder yelled, pointing a shaking finger. The Dean is normally never nice! Now he's being aggressively reasonable!' Historians have pointed out that it is in times of plenty that people feel like going to war. In times of famine they're simply trying to find enough to eat. When they've just enough to go

round they tend to be polite. But when a banquet is spread before them, it's time to argue over the place settings.[19] And Unseen University, as even wizards realized at somewhere just below the top level of their minds, existed not to further magic but, in a very creative way, to suppress it. The world had seen what happened when wizards got their hands on enormous amounts of magical power. It had happened a long time ago and there were still some areas where you didn't go, if you wanted to walk out on the same kind of feet that you'd had when you went in. Once upon a time the plural of 'wizard' was 'war'. But the great, open ingenious purpose of UU was to be the weight on the arm of magic, causing it to swing with grave majesty like a pendulum rather than spin with deadly purpose like a morn-ingstar. Instead of hurling fireballs at one another from fortified towers the wizards learned to snipe at their colleagues over the interpretation of Faculty Council minutes, and long ago were amazed to find that they got just as much vicious fun out of it. They consumed big dinners, and after a really good meal and a fine cigar even the most rabid Dark Lord is inclined to put his feet up and feel amicable towards the world, especially if it's offering him another brandy. And slowly, and by degrees, they absorbed the most important magical power of all, which is the one that persuades you to stop using all the others. The trouble is that it's easy to abstain from sweets when you're not standing knee deep in treacle and it's raining sugar. There does indeed seem to be a certain . . . tang in the air,' said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. Magic tastes like tin. 'Hold on a moment,' said Ridcully. He reached up, pulled open one of the many drawers in his wizarding hat, and removed a cube of greenish glass. 'Here we are,' he said, handing it to Ponder. Ponder took the thaumometer and peered into it. 'Never used it myself,' Ridcully said. 'Wetting a finger and holding it up has always been good enough for me.'

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