Reaper Man

Chapter 17



"No!"

"Arthur!" screamed Doreen, prodding an advancing trolley with her makeshift club.

"Oh, all right."

There was a momentary vision of Arthur Winkings clinging desperately to the ceiling, and then he dropped on Windle and Reg, the disc clasped to his chest.

The music stopped abruptly. Pink tubing poured out of the ravaged hole above them and coiled upon Arthur, making him look like a very cheap plate of spaghetti and meatballs. The fountains seemed to operate in reverse for a moment, and then dried up.

The trolleys halted. The ones at the back ran into the ones at the front, and there was a chorus of pathetic clanking noises.

Tubing still poured out of the hole. Windle picked up a bit. It was an unpleasant pink, and sticky.

"What do you think it is?" said Ludmilla.

"I think," said Windle, "that we'd better get out of here now."

The floor trembled. Steam gushed from the fountain.

"If not sooner," Windle added.

There was a gasp from the Archchancellor. The Dean slumped forward. The other wizards remained upright, but only just.

"They're coming out of it," said Ludmilla. 'But I don't think they'll manage the stairs."

"I don't think anyone should even think about trying to manage the stairs," said Windle. "Look at them."

The moving stairs weren't. The black steps glistened in the shadowless light.

"I see what you mean," said Ludmilla. "I'd rather try and walk on quicksand."

"It'd probably be safer," said Windle.

"Maybe there's a ramp? There must be some way for the trolleys to get around."

"Good idea."

Ludmilla eyed the trolleys. They were milling around aimlessly. "I think I might have an even better one... " she said, and grabbed a passing handle.

The trolley fought for a moment and then, lacking any contrary instructions, settled down docilely.

"The ones that can walk'll walk, and the ones that can't walk'll get pushed. Come on, grandad. " This was to the Bursar, who was persuaded to flop across the trolley. He said 'yo', faintly, and shut his eyes again.

The Dean was manhandled on top of him.

"And now where?" said Doreen.

A couple of floor tiles buckled upwards. A heavy grey vapour started to pour out.

"It must be somewhere at the end of a passage," said Ludmilla. "Come on."

Arthur looked down at the mists coiling around his feet.

"I wonder how you can do that?" he said. "It's amazingly difficult to get stuff that does that. We tried it, you know, to make our crypt more... more cryptic, but it just smokes up the place and sets fire to the curtains -"

"Come on, Artor. We are going."

"You don't think we've done too much damage, do you? Perhaps we should leave a note -"

"Yeah, I could write something on the wall if you like," said Reg.

He picked up a struggling worker trolley by its handle and, with some satisfaction, smashed it against a pillar until its wheels dropped off.

Windle watched the Fresh Start Club head up the nearest passage, pushing a bargain assortment of wizardry.

"Well, well, well," he said. "As simple as that. That's all we had to do. Hardly any drama at all."

He went to move forward, and stopped.

Pink tubes were forcing their way through the floor and were already coiled tightly around his legs. More floor tiles leapt into the air. The stairways shattered, revealing the dark, serrated and above all living tissue that had powered them. The walls pulsed and caved inwards, the marble cracking to reveal purple and pinkness underneath.

Of course, thought a tiny calm part of Windle's mind, none of this is really real. Buildings aren't really alive. It's all just a metaphor, only at the moment metaphors are like candles in a firework factory.

That being said, what sort of creature is the Queen? Like a queen bee, except she's also the hive. Like a caddis fly, which builds, if I'm not mistaken, a shell out of bits of stone and things, to camouflage itself. Or like a nautilus, which adds on to its shell as it gets bigger. And very much, to judge by the way the floors are ripping up, like a very angry starfish.

I wonder how cities would defend themselves against this sort of thing? Creatures generally evolve some sort of defence against predators. Poisons and stings and spikes and things.

Here and now, that's probably me. Spiky old Windle Poons.

At least I can try to see to it that the others get out all right. Let's make my presence felt...

He reached down, grabbed a double handful of pulsating tubes, and heaved.

The Queen's screech of rage was heard all the way to the University.

The storm clouds sped towards the hill. They piled up in a towering mass, very fast. Lightning flashed, somewhere in the core.

THERE'S TOO MUCH LIFE AROUND, said Death. NOT THAT I'M ONE TO COMPLAIN. WHERE'S THE CHILD?

"I put her to bed. She's sleeping now. Just ordinary sleep."

Lightning struck on the hill, like a thunderbolt. It was followed by a clanking, grinding noise, somewhere in the middle distance.

Death sighed.

AH. MORE DRAMA?

He walked around the barn, so that he could command a good view of the dark fields. Miss Flitworth followed very closely on his heels, using him as a shield against whatever terrors were out there.

A blue glow crackled behind a distant hedge. It was moving.

"What is it?"

IT WAS THE COMBINATION HARVESTER.

"Was? What is it now?"

Death glanced at the clustering watchers.

A POOR LOSER.

The Harvester tore across the soaking fields, cloth arms whirring, levers moving inside an electric blue nimbus. The shafts for the horse waved uselessly in the air.

"How can it go without a horse? It had a horse yesterday!"

IT DOESN'T NEED ONE.

He looked around at the grey watchers. There were ranks of them now.

"Binky's still in the yard. Come on!"

No.

The Combination Harvester accelerated towards them. The schip-schip of its blades became a whine.

"Is it angry because you stole its tarpaulin?"

THAT'S NOT ALL I STOLE.

Death grinned at the watchers. He picked up his scythe, turned it over in his hands and then, when he was sure their gaze was fixed upon it, let it fall to the ground.

Then he folded his arms.

Miss Flitworth dragged at him.

"What do you think you're doing?"

DRAMA.

The Harvester reached the gate into the yard and came through in a cloud of sawdust.

"Are you sure we'll be all right?"

Death nodded.

"Well. That's all right then."

The Harvester's wheels were a blur.

PROBABLY.

And then...

... something in the machinery went clonk.

Then the Harvester was still travelling, but in pieces. Sparks fountained up from its axles. A few spindles and arms managed to hold together, jerking madly as they spun away from the whirling, slowing confusion. The circle of blades tore free, smashed up through the machine, and skimmed away across the fields.

There was a jangle, a clatter, and then the last isolated boing, which is the audible equivalent of the famous pair of smoking boots.

And then there was silence.

Death reached down calmly and picked up a complicated-looking spindle as it pinwheeled towards his feet. It had been bent into a right-angle.

Miss Flitworth peered around him.

"What happened?"

I THINK THE ELLIPTICAL CAM HAS GRADUALLY SLID UP THE BEAM SHAFT AND CAUGHT ON THE FLANGE REBATE. WITH DISASTROUS RESULTS.

Death stared defiantly at the grey watchers. One by one, they began to disappear.

He picked up the scythe.

AND NOW I MUST GO, he said.

Miss FIitworth looked horrified. "What? Just like that?"

YES. EXACTLY LIKE THAT. I HAVE A LOT OF WORK TO DO.

"And I won't see you again? I mean -"

OH. YES. SOON. He sought for the right words, and gave up. THAT'S A PROMISE.

Death pulled up his robe and reached into the pocket of his Bill Door overall, which he was still wearing underneath.

WHEN MR. SIMNEL COMES TO COLLECT THE BITS IN THE MORNING HE WILL PROBABLY BE LOOKING FOR THIS, he said, and dropped something small and bevelled into her hand.

"What is it?"

A THREE-EIGHTHS GRIPLEY.

Death walked over to his horse, and then remembered something.

AND HE OWES ME A FARTHING, TOO.

Ridcully opened one eye. People were milling around. There were lights and excitement. Lots of people were talking at once.

He seemed to be sitting in a very uncomfortable pram, with some strange insects buzzing around him.

He could hear the Dean complaining, and there were groans that could only be coming from the Bursar, and the voice of a young woman. People were being ministered to, but no-one was paying him any attention. Well, if there was ministering going on, he was damn well going to get ministered to as well.

He coughed loudly.

"You could try," he said, to the cruel world in general, "forcing some brandy between m'lips."

An apparition appeared above him holding a lamp over its head. It was a size five face in a size thirteen skin; it said 'Oook?" in a concerned way.

"Oh, it's you," said Ridcully. He tried to sit up quickly just in case the Librarian tried the kiss of life.

Confused memories wobbled across his brain. He could remember a wall of clanking metal, and then pinkness, and then... music. Endless music, designed to turn the living brain to cream cheese.

He turned around. There was a building behind him, surrounded by crowds of people. It was squat and clung to the ground in a strangely animal way, as if it might be possible to lift up a wing of the building and hear the pop-pop-pop of suckers letting go.

Light streamed out of it, and steam curled out of its doors.

"Ridcully's woken up!"

More faces appeared. Ridcully thought: it's not Soul Cake Night, so they're not wearing masks. Oh, blast.

Behind them he heard the Dean say, "I vote we work up Herpetty's Seismic Reorganiser and lob it through the door. No more problem."

"No! We're too close to the city walls! We just need to drop Quondum's Attractive Point in the right place -"

"Or Sumpjumper's Incendiary Surprise, perhaps?" this was the Bursar's voice. "Burn it out, it's the best way -"

"Yeah? Yeah? And what do you know about military tactics? You can't even say "yo" properly!"

Ridcully gripped the sides of the trolley.

"Would anyone mind tellin' me," he said, "what the - what the heck is goin' on?"

Ludmilla pushed her way through the members of the Fresh Start Club.

"You've got to stop them, Archchancellor!" she said. 'They're talking about destroying the big shop!"

More nasty recollections settled on Ridcully's mind.

"Good idea," he said.

"But Mr. Poons is still in there!"

Ridcully tried to focus on the glowing building.

"What, dead Windle Poons?"

"Arthur flew back when we realised he wasn't with us and he said Windle was fighting something that'd come out of the walls! We saw lots of trolleys but they weren't bothered about us! He let us get out!"

"What, dead Windle Poons?"

"You can't magic the place to bits with one of your wizards in there!"

"What, dead Windle Poons?"

"Yes!"

"But he's dead," said Ridcully. "Isn't he? He said he was."

"Ha!" said someone who had much less skin than Ridcully would have liked him to have. "That's typical. That's naked vitalism, that is. I bet they'd rescue someone in there if they happened to be alive."

"But he wanted... he wasn't keen on... he... " Ridcully hazarded. A lot of this was beyond him, but to people like Ridcully this didn't matter for very long. Ridcully was simple-minded. This doesn't mean stupid. It just meant that he could only think properly about things if he cut away all the complicated bits around the edges.

He concentrated on the single main fact. Someone who was technically a wizard was in trouble. He could relate to that. It struck a chord. The whole dead-or-alive business could wait.

There was another minor point that nagged at him, though.

"... Arthur?... flew?..."

"Hallo."

Ridcully turned his head. He blinked slowly.

"Nice teeth YOU got there," he said.

"Thank you," said Arthur Winkings.

"All your own, are they?"

"Oh, yes."

"Amazing. Of course, I expect you brush regularly."

"Yes?"

"Hygienic. That's the important thing."

"So what are you going to do?" said Ludmilla.

"Well, we'll just go and fetch him out, " said Ridcully.

What was it about the girl? He felt a strange urge to pat her on the head. "We'll get some magic and get him out. Yes. Dean!"

"Yo!"

"We 're just going to go in there to get Windle out."

"Yo!"

"What?" said the Senior Wrangler. 'You must be out of your mind!"

Ridcully tried to look as dignified as possible, given his situation.

"Remember that I am your Archchancellor," he snapped.

"Then you must be out of your mind, Archchancellor!" said the Senior Wrangler. He lowered his voice. "Anyway, he's an undead. I don't see how you can save undeads. It's a sort of contradiction in terms."

"A dichotomy, " said the Bursar helpfully.

"Oh, I don't think surgery is involved."

"Anyway, didn't we bury him?" said the Lecturer in Recent Runes.

"And now we dig him up again," said the Archchancellor. "It's probably a miracle of existence."

"Like pickles," said the Bursar, happily.

Even the Fresh Starters went blank.

"They do that in parts of Howondaland," said the Bursar. "They make these big, big jars of special pickles and then they bury them in the ground for months to ferment and they get this lovely piquant -"

"Tell me," Ludmilla whispered to Ridcully, "is this how wizards usually behave?"

"The Senior Wrangler is an amazingly fine example," said Ridcully. "Got the same urgent grasp of reality as a cardboard cut-out. Proud to have him on the team." He rubbed his hands together. "OK, lads. Volunteers?"

"Yo! Hut!" said the Dean, who was in an entirely different world now.

"I would be remiss in my duty if I failed to help a brother," said Reg Shoe.

"Oook."

"You? We can't take you," said the Dean, glaring at the Librarian. "You don't know a thing about guerrilla warfare."

"Oook!" said the Librarian, and made a surprisingly comprehensive gesture to indicate that, on the other hand, what he didn't know about orangutan warfare could be written on the very small pounded-up remains of, for example, the Dean.

"Four of us should be enough," said the Archchancellor.

"I've never even heard him say "Yo"," muttered the Dean.

He removed his hat, something a wizard doesn't ordinarily do unless he's about to pull something out of it, and handed it to the Bursar. Then he tore a thin strip off the bottom of his robe, held it dramatically in both hands, and tied it around his forehead.

"It's part of the ethos," he said, in answer to their penetratingly unspoken question. 'That's what the warriors on the Counter-weight Continent do before they go into battle. And you have to shout -' He tried to remember some far-off reading. "- er, bonsai. Yes. Bonsai!"

"I thought that meant chopping bits off trees to make them small," said the Senior Wrangler.

The Dean hesitated. He wasn't too sure himself, if it came to it. But a good wizard never let uncertainty stand in his way.

"No, it's definitely got to be bonsai," he said. He considered it some more and then brightened up. "On account of it all being part of bushido. Like... small trees. Bush-i-do. Yeah. Makes sense, when you think about it."

"But you can't shout "bonsai!" here," said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. "We've got a totally different cultural background. It'd be useless. No-one will know what you mean."

"I'll work on it," said the Dean.

He noticed Ludmilla standing with her mouth open.

"This is wizard talk," he said.

"It is, isn't it," said Ludmilla. "I never would have guessed."

The Archchancellor had got out of the trolley and was wheeling it experimentally back and forth. It usually took quite a long time for a fresh idea to fully lodge in Ridcully's mind, but he felt instinctively that there were all sorts of uses for a wire basket on four wheels.

"Are we going or are we standin' around all night bandagin' our heads?" he said.

"Yo!" snapped the Dean.

"Yo?" said Reg Shoe.

"Oook!"

"Was that a yo?" said the Dean, suspiciously.

"Oook."

"Well... all right, then."

Death sat on a mountaintop. It wasn't particularly high, or bare, or sinister. No witches held naked sabbats on it; Discworld witches, on the whole, didn't hold with taking off any more clothes than was absolutely necessary for the business in hand. No spectres haunted it. No naked little men sat on the summit dispensing wisdom, because the first thing the truly-wise man works out is that sitting around on mountaintops gives you not only haemorrhoids but frostbitten haemorrhoids.

Occasionally people would climb the mountain and add a stone or two to the cairn at the top, if only to prove that there is nothing really damn stupid that humans won't do.

Death sat on the cairn and ran a stone down the blade of his scythe in long, deliberate strokes.

There was a movement of air. Three grey servants popped into existence.

One said, You think you have won?

One said, You think you have triumphed?

Death turned the stone in his hand, to get a fresh surface and brought it slowly down the length of the blade.

One said, We will inform Azrael.

One said, You are only, after all, a little Death.

Death held the blade up to the moonlight, twisting it this way and that, noting the play of light on the tiny flecks of metal on its edge.

Then he stood up, in one quick movement. The servants backed away hurriedly.

He reached out with the speed of a snake and grasped a robe, pulling its empty hood level with his eye sockets.

DO YOU KNOW WHY THE PRISONER IN THE TOWER WATCHES THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS? he said.

It said, Take your hands off me... oops...

Blue flame flared for a moment.

Death lowered his hand and looked around at the other two.

One said, You haven't heard the last of this.

They vanished.

Death brushed a speck of ash off his robe, and then planted his feet squarely on the mountaintop. He raised the scythe over his head in both hands, and summoned all the lesser Deaths that had arisen in his absence.

After a while they streamed up the mountain in a faint black wave.

They flowed together like dark mercury.

It went on for a long time and then stopped.

Death lowered the scythe, and examined himself. Yes, all there. Once again, he was the Death, containing all the deaths of the world. Except for -

For a moment he hesitated. There was one tiny area of emptiness somewhere, some fragment of his soul, something unaccounted for...

He couldn't be quite certain what it was.

He shrugged. Doubtless he'd find out. In the meantime, there was a lot of work to be done...

He rode away.

Far off, in his den under the barn, the Death of Rats relaxed his determined grip on a beam.

Windle Poons brought both feet down heavily on a tentacle snaking out from under the tiles, and lurched off through the steam. A slab of marble smashed down, showering him with fragments. Then he kicked the wall, savagely.

There was very probably no way out now, he realised, and even if there was he couldn't find it. Anyway, he was already inside the thing. It was shaking its own walls down in an effort to get at him. At least he could give it a really bad case of indigestion.

He headed towards an orifice that had once been the entrance to a wide passage, and dived awkwardly through it just before it snapped shut. Silver fire crackled over the walls. There was so much life here it couldn't be contained.

There were a few trolleys still here, skittering madly across the shaking floor, as lost as Windle.

He set off along another likely-looking corridor, although most corridors he'd been down in the last one hundred and thirty years hadn't pulsated and dripped so much.

Another tentacle thrust through the wall and tripped him up.

Of course, it couldn't kill him. But it could make him bodiless. Like old One-Man-Bucket. A fate worse than death, probably.

He pulled himself up. The ceiling bounced down on him, flattening him against the floor.

He counted under his breath and scampered forward. Steam washed over him.

He slipped again, and thrust out his hands.

He could feel himself losing control. There were too many things to operate. Never mind the spleen, just keeping heart and lungs going was taking too much effort...

"Topiary!"

"What the heck do you mean?"

"Topiary! Get it? Yo!"

"Oook!"

Windle looked up through foggy eyes.

Ah. Obviously he was losing control of his brain, too.

A trolley came sideways out of the steam with shadowy figures clinging on to its sides. One hairy arm and one arm that was barely an arm any more reached down, picked him up bodily and dumped him into the basket. Four tiny wheels skidded on the floor, the trolley bounced off the wall, and then it righted itself and rattled away.

Windle was only vaguely aware of voices.

"Off you go, Dean. I know you've been looking forward to it." That was the Archchancellor.

"Yo!"

"You'll kill it totally? I don't think we want it ending up at the Fresh Start Club. I don't think it's a joiner." That was Reg Shoe.

"Oook!" That was the Librarian.

"Don't you worry, Windle. The Dean is going to do something military, apparently, " said Ridcully.

"Yo! Hut!"

"Oh, good grief."

Windle saw the Dean's hand float past with something glittering in it.

"What are you going to use?" said Ridcully, as the trolley rocketed through the steam. "The Seismic Reorganiser, the Attractive Point or the Incendiary Surprise?"

"Yo, " said the Dean, with satisfaction.

"What, all three at once?"

"Yo!"

"That's going a bit far, isn't it? And incidentally, if you say "yo" one more time, Dean, I will personally have you thrown out of the University, pursued to the rim of the world by the finest demons that thaumaturgy can conjure up, torn into extremely small pieces, minced, turned into a mixture reminiscent of steak tartare, and turned out into a dog bowl."

"Y ┬ĘC" The Dean caught Ridcully's eye. "Yes. Yes? Oh, go on, Archchancellor. What's the good of having mastery over cosmic balance and knowing the secrets of fate if you can't blow something up? Please? I've got them all ready. You know how it upsets the inventory if you don't use them after you've got them ready -"

The trolley whirred up a trembling slope and cornered on two wheels.