“You'll get tired,” it continued. “We can wait. We're very good at waiting.”
It made a feint to the left, but Esk swung around to face it.
“That doesn't matter,” she said. “I'm only dreaming this, and you can't get hurt in dreams.”
The Thing paused, and looked at her with its empty eyes.
“Have you got a word in your world, I think it's called 'psychosomatic'?”
“Never heard of it,” snapped Esk.
“It means you can get hurt in your dreams. And what is so interesting is that if you die in your dreams you stay here. That would be niiiiice.”
Esk glanced sideways at the distant mountains, sprawled on the chilly horizon like melted mud pies. There were no trees, not even any rocks. Just sand and cold stars and
She felt the movement rather than heard it and turned with the pyramid held between her hands like a club. It hit the Simon-thing in mid-leap with a satisfying thump, but as soon as it hit the ground it somersaulted forward and bounced upright with unpleasant ease. But it had heard her gasp and had seen the brief pain in her eyes. It paused.
“Ah, that hurt you, Did it not? You don't like to see another one suffer, yes? Not this one, it seems.”
It turned and beckoned, and two of the tall Things lurched over to it and gripped it firmly by the arms.
Its eyes changed. The darkness faded, and then Simon's own eyes looked out of his face. He stared up at the Things on either side of him and struggled briefly, but one had several pairs of tentacles wrapped around his wrist and the other was holding his arm in the world's largest lobster claw.
Then he saw Esk, and his eyes fell to the little glass pyramid.
“Run away!” he hissed. “Take it away from here! Don't let them get it!” He grimaced as the claw tightened on his arm.
“Is this a trick?” said Esk. “Who are you really?”
“Don't you recognise me?” he said wretchedly. “What are you doing in my dream?”
“If this is a dream then I'd like to wake up, please,” said Esk.
“Listen. You must run away now, do you understand? Don't stand there with your mouth open.”
GIVE IT To us, said a cold voice inside Esk's head.
Esk looked down at the glass pyramid with its unconcerned little world and stared up at Simon, her mouth an O of puzzlement.
“But what is it?”
“Look hard at it!”
Esk peered through the glass. If she squinted it seemed that the little Disc was granular, as if it was made up of millions of tiny specks. If she looked hard at the specks
“It's just numbers!” she said. “The whole world - it's all made up of numbers . . . .”
“It's not the world, it's an idea of the world,” said Simon. “I created it for them. They can't get through to us, do you see, but ideas have got a shape here. Ideas are real!”
GIVE IT TO US.
“But ideas can't hurt anyone!”
“I turned things into numbers to understand them, but they just want to control,” Simon said bitterly. “They burrowed into my numbers like -”
GIVE IT TO US OR WE WILL TAKE HIM TO BITS.
Esk looked up at the nearest nightmare face.
“How do I know I can trust you?” she said.
YOU CAN'T TRUST US. BUT YOU HAVE NO CHOICE.
Esk looked at the ring of faces that not even a necrophile could love, faces put together from a fishmonger's midden, faces picked randomly from things that lurked in deep ocean holes and haunted caves, faces that were not human enough to gloat or leer but had all the menace of a suspiciously v-shaped ripple near an incautious bather.
She couldn't trust them. But she had no choice.
Something else was happening, in a place as far away as the thickness of a shadow.
The student wizards had run back to the Great Hall, where Cutangle and Granny Weatherwax were still locked in the magical equivalent of Indian arm wrestling. The flagstones under Granny were halfmelted and cracked and the table behind Cutangle had taken root and already bore a rich crop of acorns.
One of the students had earned several awards for bravery by daring to tug at Cutangle's cloak ....
And now they were crowded into the narrow room, looking at the two bodies.
Cutangle summoned doctors of the body and doctors of the mind, and the room buzzed with magic as they got to work.
Granny tapped him on the shoulder.
“A word in your ear, young man,” she said.
“Hardly young, madam,” sighed Cutangle, “hardly young.” He felt drained. It had been decades since he'd duelled in magic, although it was common enough among students. He had a nasty feeling that Granny would have won eventually. Fighting her was like swatting a fly on your own nose. He couldn't think what had come over him to try it.
Granny led him out into the passage and around the corner to a window-seat. She sat down, leaning her broomstick against the wall. Rain drummed heavily on the roofs outside, and a few zigzags of lightning indicated a storm of Ramtop proportions approaching the city.
“That was quite an impressive display,” she said: “You nearly won once or twice there.”
“Oh,” said Cutangle, brightening up. “Do you really think so?”
Cutangle patted at various bits of his robe until he located a tarry bag of tobacco and a roll of paper. His hands shook as he fumbled a few shreds of second-hand pipeweed into a skinny homemade. He ran the wretched thing across his tongue, and barely moistened it. Then a dim remembrance of propriety welled up in the back of his mind.
“Um,” he said, “do you mind if I smoke?”
Granny shrugged. Cutangle struck a match on the wall and tried desperately to navigate the flame and the cigarette into approximately the same position. Granny gently took the match from his trembling hand and lit it for him.
Cutangle sucked on the tobacco, had a ritual cough and settled back, the glowing end of the rollup the only light in the dim corridor.
“They've gone Wandering,” said Granny at last.
“I know,” said Cutangle.
“Your wizards won't be able to get them back.”
“I know that, too.”
“They might get something back, though.”
“I wish you hadn't said that.”
There was a pause while they contemplated what might come back, inhabiting living bodies, acting almost like the original inhabitants.
“It's probably my fault -”they said in unison, and stopped in astonishment.
“You first, madam,” said Cutangle.
“Them cigaretty things,” asked Granny, “are they good for the nerves?”
Cutangle opened his mouth to point out very courteously that tobacco was a habit reserved for wizards, but thought better of it. He extended the tobacco pouch towards Granny.
She told him about Esk's birth, and the coming of the old wizard, and the staff, and Esk's forays into magic. By the time she had finished she had succeeded in rolling a tight, thin cylinder that burned with a small blue flame and made her eyes water.
“I don't know that shaky nerves wouldn't be better,” she wheezed.
Cutangle wasn't listening.
“This is quite astonishing,” he said. “You say the child didn't suffer in any way?”
“Not that I noticed,” said Granny. “The staff seemed - well, on her side, if you know what I mean.”
“And where is this staff now?”
“She said she threw it in the river . . . .”
The old wizard and the elderly witch stared at each other, their faces illuminated by a flare of lightning outside.
Cutangle shook his head. “The river's flooding,” he said. “It's a million-to-one chance.”
Granny smiled grimly. It was the sort of smile that wolves ran away from. Granny grasped her broomstick purposefully.
“Million-to-one chances,” she said, “crop up nine times out of ten.”
There are storms that are frankly theatrical, all sheet lightning and metallic thunder rolls. There are storms that are tropical and sultry, and incline to hot winds and fireballs. But this was a storm of the Circle Sea plains, and its main ambition was to hit the ground with as much rain as possible. It was the kind of storm that suggests that the whole sky has swallowed a diuretic. The thunder and lightning hung around in the background, supplying a sort of chorus, but the rain was the star of the show. It tap-danced across the land.
The grounds of the University stretched right down to the river. By day they were a neat formal pattern of gravel paths and hedges, but in the middle of a wet wild night the hedges seemed to have moved and the paths had simply gone off somewhere to stay dry.
A weak wyrdlight shone inefficiently among the dripping leaves. But most of the rain found its way through anyway.
“Can you use one of them wizard fireballs?”
“Have a heart, madam.”
“Are you sure she would have come this way?”
“There's a sort of jetty thing down here somewhere, unless I'm lost.”
There was the sound of a heavy body blundering wetly into a bush, and then a splash.
“I've found the river, anyway.”
Granny Weatherwax peered through the soaking darkness. She could hear a roaring and could dimly make out the white crests of floodwater. There was also the distinctive river smell of the Ankh, which suggested that several armies had used it first as a urinal and then as a sepulchre.
Cutangle splashed dejectedly towards her.
“This is foolishness,” he said, “meaning no offence, madam. But it'll be out to sea on this flood. And I'll die of cold.”
“You can't get any wetter than you are now. Anyway, you walk wrong for rain.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You go all hunched up, you fight it, that's not the way. You shouldwell, move between the drops.” And, indeed, Granny seemed to be merely damp.
“I'll bear that in mind. Come on, madam. It's me for a roaring fire and a glass of something hot and wicked.”
Granny sighed. “I don't know. Somehow I expected to see it sticking out of the mud, or something. Not just all this water.”
Cutangle patted her gently on the shoulder.
“There may be something else we can do -” he began, and was interrupted by a zip of lightning and another roll of thunder.
“I said maybe there's something -” he began again.
“What was that I saw?” demanded Granny.
“What was what?” said Cutangle, bewildered.
“Give me some light!”
The wizard sighed wetly, and extended a hand. A bolt of golden fire shot out across the foaming water and hissed into oblivion.
“There!” said Granny triumphantly.
“It's just a boat,” said Cutangle. “The boys use them in the summer -”
He waded after Granny's determined figure as fast as he could.
“You can't be thinking of taking it out on a night like this,” he said. “It's madness!”
Granny slithered along the wet planking of the jetty, which was already nearly under water.
“You don't know anything about boats!” Cutangle protested.
“I shall have to learn quickly, then,” replied Granny calmly.
“But I haven't been in a boat since I was a boy!”