From an Ocean of Ashes
Author’s note: This is the second time I’ve borrowed Rincewind for a story and this one’s a bit different to its predecessor, The Trouble With Books. The events chronicled in that tale take place after the Discworld books The Truth and The Last Hero. Fairly recently, in other words. This story happens a lot earlier in Rincewind’s timeline: somewhere after the end of Sourcery and before Eric. Hence the reduced number of references to potatoes.
The concept of narrative imperative is discussed in The Science of Discworld, but the Guardians are (as far as I know) my own invention.
The work came about because my esteemed friend Gilda drew me a picture of Rincewind in Trouble With Books and begged me to “write more about the sweet wizzard”. Back then, I had nothing else to write, so I left the poor chap alone for a bit. Some time later, I was playing around with Gilda’s beastmen, which are my favourite Sinner Dragon creatures, and I came up with this sketch. Then I noticed Gilda’s “Library” page was making hopeful noises about fanfiction, so I promised her this story. It’s taken longer to write than I intended it to, but then it’s also longer than I intended it to be.
The title comes from a line in the play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. I’m sure it’s originally from somewhere else, but that’s where I heard it. In full the quote is: “From an ocean of ashes, islands of order.”
* * *
This is a story about Rincewind.
It’s also a story about stories, about inevitabilities and narrative imperative.
It’s about events that happened somewhere else, in someone else’s universe.
But the truth is, this story would never have begun if it weren’t for the Guardians.
The Guardians of Narrative Imperative are rather unremarkable non-corporeal beings whose job it is to make sure stories happen the way they are supposed to. Since the earliest times, people have told stories. Generally they start with “How we got here”, move on to “Why Paradise isn’t here any more” and conclude with “It was the fault of those people on the other side of the mountain who don’t believe in the right gods”. After that, whoever wins generally writes down how they did it. The story becomes legend and more stories are built on it. Large amounts of pressed vegetable matter are employed. And the stories keep coming.
In order that all these stories do not simply become a disorderly mess and start affecting the fabric of the multiverse in unexpected ways, someone has to read them, note what they say and file them away for future reference. This action is in some ways similar to the magical discipline of reading Invisible Writings. By examining those already written, a reader in Invisible Writings can predict the content of future books. The task of a Guardian is essentially the same, except that Guardians don’t predict the exact content of a story: what they predict is its shape. And from knowing the future shape of any given story at any given time, they derive the power to change it.
Imagine a corner of not-space, a nondescript little island in an endless sea of nothing. There are no shortage of pockets like this to be found here, beyond the reach of normal universes. In some parts of the cosmos they’re more numerous than post-rain toadstools on a rotten log. Indeed, experiences remarkably similar to those produced by communing with toadstools can often be had in them.
This corner of not-space is mundane by comparison. Here stacks of paper lie scattered across what, for want of a better word, we will call the floor. These alternate with equally altitudinous piles of books. The only animate things in sight are small grey-robed beings which sit, apparently crosslegged, reading, making notes, consulting sheets from other piles. If you were knowledgeable about the types of beings generally found in places like this, you could easily mistake these for Auditors of Reality, enemies of all things living. But they’re not. These are the Guardians of Narrative Imperative.
In the calm silence, broken only by the rustling of paper, one Guardian turned to another:
Out of interest, what is the current status of Element 13?
Last I saw, replied the other, he was in the Random Mishap phase of his storyline.
Poor chap, said the first, I wouldn’t wish his life on anyone. Sometimes I wonder if we should.. you know, interfere? He deserves a break.
Perhaps, replied the second. It could be dangerous though. Extensive research into the likely consequences of modifying Element 13’s narrative imperative would have to be conducted. And do we have the time?
The first sighed. Its companion had a point. There wasn’t much time to do anything other than their allotted tasks and, really, Element 13 was an important part of the framework of the cosmos. There weren’t many other heroes who saved the world by accident on a regular basis. Meddling with the Random Mishap phase of his storyline might well disrupt the Unlikely Saviour phase as well.
Do we know his exact whereabouts at this time? the first asked, unwilling to return to its book. It was a dreadfully boring tale.
The second Guardian reached over and picked up another book from a pile lying nearby. It flipped through the pages hopefully and then, with a ghostly grimace, turned to the very last page. Reading the end of a tale before its beginning was distasteful, but occasionally necessary.
No, it said, after some cautious flipping of pages. Element 13’s current whereabouts are unknown. He is apparently travelling on a random path through the cosmos. Where he appears next is anyone’s guess.
Such a shame, said the first, picking up the book again. It read a few lines, scrawled some notes, read and scrawled some more. It added its notepage to the growing pile beside it and read on. It was rapidly coming to despise this book, which was composed of three equally excruciating volumes. The trouble was that the accursed thing was so popular detailed notes needed to be taken on it. It would certainly affect the shape of stories to come. If only to ensure that another story like it is never written, the Guardian thought mutinously.
It added another page. And another. It ground its mental teeth and crawled on through the story. Hateful book! Hateful author! Madness was imminent, it thought, and wrote this on its current piece of notepaper followed by five exclamation marks.
Several painful hours later, the stack of papers now piled higher than the Guardian’s head, the book ended. Finished. Closed. Archived.
The Guardian was about to lay down the wretched thing and breathe a non-corporeal sigh of relief, when a flying screaming something broke through a hole in the edge of the universe and smacked straight into its pile of notes.
Half the papers were vaporised instantly, the other half scattered to the four corners of not-space. The Guardian itself was thrown backwards across the floor, its glasses sliding away out of reach. When it looked up, it saw a blurry humanoid shape with a point on the top occupying the place where its notes had recently been. Abandoning the search for its glasses, it leapt to its feet and advanced on the shape with rising fury.
The pointy-topped human looked around and saw large numbers of books, which made him wonder if he’d somehow found his way home. Then he saw the grey robe striding towards him. He really didn’t care for the angle of its hood. It reminded him horribly of the expression the Librarian directed at students who returned books in a less-than-pristine condition. He looked around desperately for a banana to pacify the creature, but finding none, began to slide his way carefully backwards across the floor away from it. The grey robe advanced as he retreated and it spoke to him, not aloud, but directly into his brain, giving the impression of written words scrolling across in front of his eyes.
Do you know, it said, how long it took me to compile those notes?
“Er,” said Rincewind.
Do you know, it said, how excruciatingly, mind-numbingly boring that book was?
“Mner,” said Rincewind.
Do you know, it said, how angry I am that I will have to read that book again?
“Ugh,” said Rincewind as he collided with a hard corner of the universe and found he could retreat no farther.
I, said the Guardian, taking out its pen and pointing it at the wizard, am going to make you wish you’d never been born.
Rincewind was already wishing this as hard as he could, but he didn’t believe the hooded figure needed to know that.
Strings of words shot out of the end of the Guardian’s pen towards him and he thought he heard… saw?… someone else shout: No! Stop! But then the words passed into him and he felt a jolt, and everything was black and octarine.
* * *
The second Guardian reached the first, clutching its companion’s glasses in its non-corporeal hand. It shoved them at the first Guardian and, as the first donned them, shouted:
What did you do that for?
Eh? said the first Guardian. If it had eyes, it would have blinked them.
I said “what did you do that for?”, repeated the second, in some agitation.
The first Guardian, taken aback by its colleague’s strange behaviour said:
That human ruined five hours’ worth of mind-bending work on the most boring book in the cosmos. In a second! Just like that! Five hours!
You idiot, said the second Guardian. Don’t you know who that was?
No, began the first, I… Then it stopped, because it did know.
Oh bugger, it said. Element 13.
* * *
Element 13 awoke in an empty grey desert which wasn’t made of sand. He pushed himself up and examined the stuff he’d landed in. Soft, sort of floaty, very light… ashes! A whole desert of ashes, as though the biggest forest in the world had gone up in an even bigger inferno. Well.. as though something had gone up in a giant inferno. He really hoped it was trees.
He looked around and saw some branchy sticks still standing, but that was all, apart from the endless dunes of ash. The sky above was dark red and ominous-looking.
Not a good place to stay, thought the wizard, but where else could he go? He had no idea how far the desert extended and, knowing his luck, he’d start walking the wrong way, deeper into its heart.
So he went over to the nearest tree and sat down under it to wait for the Luggage. Whether it could help him get out of the desert, he didn’t know, but at least when he crawled exhausted from the ashes into whatever passed for civilisation here, he’d be wearing clean underwear.
* * *
The Luggage was extremely angry. Somehow these people had known it was coming. It didn’t like to be expected. It threw it right off its stride, and when one has hundreds of legs this is no trivial matter.
It eyed the assembled grey robes with its keyhole, waiting for the tiniest excuse to charge them and scatter the papers they were standing around so protectively. Just let one of them so much as adjust its glasses at the wrong time and it would.. it would.. what would it do?
The truth was that the Luggage was not devoting its full attention to the task at hand. This was because of the dirty laundry.
It knew with certainty that the enticing pile of smelly socks and underwear laid before it was a ploy. The grey robes had intended it to be distracted, and, to its intense irritation, it was. It weighed up the options. Clean dirty washing, cause satisfying chaos. The grey robes waited nervously.
Finally, the cries of the laundry to be made clean became too much and the Luggage stepped over to the pile and scooped it up. Then it straightened and shut its lid with a loud snap. It glared at the grey robe-wearers again and then began to walk around them to reach the place where its master had vanished. They edged away from it as it came, which it considered well and good. When it arrived at its destination, it turned back to consider the robes one more time, then it snorted through its keyhole and vanished.
They could make peace offerings of dirty laundry if they chose, but they sure as carpentry weren’t going to get it back.
* * *
“There you are,” said Rincewind, as the Luggage appeared on the open dunes with a pop. It trotted over to him in a self-satisfied manner and opened its lid to reveal neatly-folded rows of clean underwear and socks.
Rincewind extracted a pair of pink frilly bloomers and held them up critically. “These aren’t mine,” he said. “Who have you been eating?”
The Luggage looked at him with its keyhole.
“Actually, forget I asked. You haven’t got any water or potatoes in there, have you?”
The Luggage shut its lid and looked thoughtful.
Then it disgorged a large watermelon.
“I won’t wonder too hard about that either,” said the wizard, “but thank you.” He reached up into the tree for a stick to break open the watermelon. Having obtained one and finding it to be knobby on both ends, he twisted it, trying to break it into a sharp point. The stick snapped suddenly, showering his face with splinters.
Rincewind sighed and dislodged the shards that had stuck. One or two larger scratches were bleeding, though not severely. The wizard returned his attention to the newly-made tool. Good sharp end, sort of white, with a dried-out brown centre.
Strange stick, thought Rincewind, digging it into his watermelon. It had a nice round handle on the blunt end, though. A handle with two knobs and…
Rincewind’s brain tried to shut down, but it was too late. He turned and looked up at the tree. There were bones in it. Human-sized bones.
* * *
The beastman was hungry. This in itself was unremarkable, because hunger is essentially the ground-state of a beastman’s existence. It has to be, what with all the higher-ranked demons hogging the best food and the best damned souls and the best sulfur lakes. In the cities of Hell, the beastmen get the table scraps. Which is why their other ground-state is anger. And why they are so often found on the grounds of Limbo, in the Desert of Ashes.
Few higher demons are willing to sully their hooves with the ashes - which get stuck between their toes - so the beastmen here get first pick of whatever they can find. Damned souls, lost souls, stray animals, other beastmen…
It’s said there’s a dragon who sleeps under the sands, too.
The beastman paused as he recalled finding the legs and tail of the other, half buried in ashes, surrounded by the shifting dunes. No-one ever found his upper body, but they knew where it had gone. Into the mouth of the dragon.
The bottom half had gone into the mouths of himself and his brothers, all the better for being a few days old. Beastmen weren’t sentimental. Food was food, and in the Desert of Ashes you took what you got. All the same, the beastman mused, he wouldn’t mind taking a bite out of that dragon.
He raised his head and sniffed, hoping to catch the scent of the dragon, so he’d know where she was if he cared to try his luck. But the breeze was empty. He felt cheated.
He sniffed again, just in case. Still no dragon. But there was something else.
There was blood.
The metallic tang was drifting in on the light breeze from some distance away, but the beastman felt its pull like a magnet. There at last was his next meal, his own and only his, something he could kill and eat with pride – he wouldn’t be begging the incubi for their slobbery leftovers tonight!
* * *
Rincewind had decided to open the watermelon with the bone anyway, figuring he was more likely to die of thirst than of being eaten by something that wasn’t here right now. The Luggage appeared to be daydreaming, sitting on the ground with its feet hidden, lid tightly shut, making satisfied creaking noises. Rincewind suspected it was sorting through its new underwear. In any case, neither of them noticed the beastman, coloured ash-grey like the desert, peering over the top of the nearest dune.
* * *
The beastman could smell the human, and he drooled in anticipation. He watched it hacking at a large globular green fruit of a type he’d never seen before. He also noticed the strange chest seated beside the creature. How in Hell had it lugged that into the desert?
He shook his head. Unimportant.
He waited until the human bent over the fruit, oblivious to its surroundings, then he charged.
* * *
There was suddenly a large slavering charging beast. Rincewind shoved his watermelon as hard as he could towards its face and fled.
* * *
The beastman found his lower tusks embedded to the roots in the green globular fruit. He shook his head in an attempt to dislodge it, but the weight only caused him to overbalance and fall to the ground. This made him angry. The human was escaping while he sat here in the dirt struggling with a vegetable! He tried to bite through the fruit with no success and finally had to lay it on the ground, put a hand on each end and pull.
Jaw aching, he stood up and started in the direction the human had gone. By the black heart of Satan, he swore, the food wasn’t going to get away that easily!
The box was barring his way.
He stepped around it and it came and stood in front of him again. It had feet, he saw. Lots of them. It also had a keyhole, which was looking at him. And a lid, which it snapped in a menacing fashion.
It’s just a wooden chest, the beastman told himself. Kick it out of the way and get after the human.
But as he raised his hoof and the chest stepped forward, it occurred to him that not all dragons have wings and scales.
* * *
Rincewind was now hot and tired, and still thirsty, having donated his watermelon to the cause. The cause seemed to have been a good one, because the beast had not pursued him, but now he was lost in a desert without a watermelon. He sat down under another tree and waited for the Luggage to arrive. It would, sooner or later, he knew, once it had removed the beast for him.
And waited some more.
It was hot.
He decided to break some of the branches off the tree in case they were still green inside.
They were not.
Rincewind swore. Where was the Luggage? How long did it take to eat a beast not much bigger than a man? He pondered a while longer, until thirst overcame caution and he started back the way he’d come.
* * *
The Luggage was frustrated. It had been looking forward to eating the beastman, but the creature was now out of reach. It reflected in the depths of its sapient pearwood soul that it really shouldn’t have allowed the creature time to pull the watermelon off its tusks. It should have devoured it then and there. So much for giving animals a sporting chance.
It rammed its body into the trunk of the tree, which swayed. The beastman in the branches yowled piteously and clung on tighter.
The Luggage rammed the tree again.
Only a matter of time…
* * *
Rincewind surmounted the last dune and took in the scene of the beastman cowering in the branches of the tree and the irate Luggage attempting to dislodge it.
Then he spied his watermelon still lying on the ground and went over to it. The beastman’s tusks had bored two very convenient holes, which made it a lot easier to break the fruit open. So he sat down to eat it.
The beastman was watching him. Down on the ground, the Luggage charged the tree again and it nearly fell, only its tail wound around a stout branch saving it.
“Human!” it yowled.
Rincewind ignored it.
“Human, call off your dragon-box! Please?”
Rincewind looked up at the creature. There was terror in its yellow eyes.
“Why?” he said.
“It’ll eat me!”
Rincewind waved a chunk of watermelon in a diplomatic fashion. “Surely just recently you were planning to eat me?”
“I’m sorry!” howled the beastman. “I didn’t know you had a dragon-box!”
Rincewind made no comment.
“If you call off your box,” said the beastman, “I promise not to eat you. It’s nothing personal, I swear! I don’t want to eat you in particular, I just want to eat! I’m starving!”
It was stupid, and probably dangerous, but he felt vaguely sorry for the thing. It did look hungry. Even from down here he could count its ribs under the fur.
If I was in this desert, and I had fangs like that, thought the wizard, would anything stop me eating this beastman?
Misplaced compassion, perhaps.
He signalled the Luggage to leave the tree alone, then looked back up at the beastman.
“How do you feel about watermelons?”
* * *
The beastman used his lower front teeth to tear the pink flesh from the green husk of the watermelon. Then he thought for a minute and ate the husk as well.
He sat some distance from the human, because he could still smell blood on it and it made his stomach growl.
He felt like a fool. Here he was, mighty beastman, scourge of the Desert of Ashes, eating a human’s leftovers. That was even worse than begging off an incubus, and he’d done enough of that lately. What next - asking the desert lizards’ permission to catch flies?
He sighed and considered the human. If the man controlled such a powerful thing as the dragon-box, he was surely a being of some influence. A powerful mage. He did have “wizzard” on his hat, after all. Mages deserved respect, even if they couldn’t spell. Perhaps he should attempt a conversation.
“What is your name, great mage?” he asked.
The mage looked up at him sharply, wearing a very suspicious expression. Had he said the wrong thing? the beastman wondered. Was it forbidden to ask a mage’s name?
The mage watched him for a while longer, then shrugged and said “Rincewind. What’s yours, beast?”
“Cchharios,” said the beastman.
The mage looked concerned. “That sounds nasty,” he said. “Watermelon seed gone down the wrong way?”
The beastman looked blankly back, then understanding dawned. “No,” he said, “my name is Charios. You can’t hold your head up in beastman society unless you’ve got at least one velar fricative in your name.”
“There’s no need to be rude about it.”
“No, it means… Oh, never mind. Tell me, “ said the beastman, “how does a powerful mage like yourself come to be stranded in Limbo?”
“Magical accident,” said the wizard shortly, taking another bite of watermelon. Then he raised his eyes and added pointedly: “I was saving the world at the time.”
“Did you succeed?” asked the beastman, before he could stop himself.
“Maybe,” countered Rincewind.
“Perhaps you should go home and check?”
“Charios, if you can tell me exactly how to go about doing that, I’ll be off like a shot.”
“I imagine,” said the beastman, rather taken aback by the wizard’s sarcastic tone, “that you will wave your arms and speak the necessary words of power to bring down a great thunderstorm. Then you’ll rise up into the funnel of its whirling vapours and use them to transport yourself home. This is what great mages do, surely?”
“If I ever meet one,” said Rincewind, “I’ll ask him.”
“But you must know many!”
“It depends on your definition of ‘great’. ‘Of substantial girth’, yes. ‘Generally found shouting opinions at the top of one’s voice while ignoring everyone else’s’, yes. ‘Wise and noble and in the habit of using one’s powers for the betterment of mankind’, no.”
The beastman pondered.
“If you’re not planning to call up a thunderstorm,” he said, “how will you get home?”
“I’m not planning to. I’m stuck here until circumstances take me somewhere else. That’s essentially how my life works. So I’d be much obliged if you were to tell me where ‘here’ is.”
“Limbo,” said the beastman. “Half way between the mortal world and that of the demons.”
“Let me guess: you come from the demon side.”
“Yah. I’m a beastman. Hunger and lust personified.” He looked down at the remains of the fruit in his paws. “Scourge of watermelons.”
“If I wanted to get to the mortal world from here, how would I go about it?”
Charios gave the wizard a look which suggested he was at best extremely foolhardy.
“You can’t,” he said. “Not without Authorisation.”
The beastman appeared reluctant to reply. Finally he said: “There are rules about the mortal world. You can’t just go there whenever you feel like it. You’ve got to be registered as a Tempter, or an Unexplained Phenomenon, or an Occasional Nuisance or a Possessing Spirit or a Bloody Awful Ravening Monster before they let you through the gate. If they don’t know you, you don’t go through. It takes ages to get on the mortal-world list. And… well.. beastmen aren’t exactly of the highest status…”
“You get bumped to the bottom of the queue?”
“Mm,” said the beastman.
“Those are the demon rules. What about mortals?”
“I don’t know,” said the beastman wretchedly. “Look, to tell you the truth, I really don’t spend that much time talking to mortals…”
Rincewind let that go. “But there are mortals here?”
“Oh yes. Whole towns full of them. They’re mostly not human, though.”
“I don’t care what shape they wear. Are they friendly?”
“Probably. They’re unfriendly to beastmen.”
“If I give you another watermelon,” said Rincewind cautiously, “will you take me to the nearest town?” He hoped the Luggage did actually contain more food, as he doubted the beastman would care to be paid in frilly bloomers.
The beastman thought.
“Two more watermelons,” he said at last.
* * *
The wizard and the beastman made their way through the near-featureless terrain of the Desert of Ashes. Rincewind wondered how the beastman knew where he was going. Some sort of internal compass that always pointed to the source of magic? However he did it, the beastman strode confidently, or as confidently as anyone could with the Luggage trotting behind him like an optimistic jackal.
The creature intrigued Rincewind, which was unusual for him. Generally fanged monsters nearly twice his size inspired only the desire to get as far away as possible in the shortest possible time. But the protection afforded by the Luggage removed the need for that course of action, leaving the wizard free to consider his companion as something more than a set of sharp teeth on legs.
Physically the beastman was not short on muscles, but Rincewind had seen barbarian heroes with more bulk for their size. Charios was not at his full potential – that was clear enough. The beastman had said himself that he was starving, and if he’d used the phrase simply in the sense of having had nothing since breakfast, breakfast had been several days ago. He was scruffy and bony and harassed-looking, though again, this last could have been the fault of the Luggage. In fact he unconsciously projected an air of underdogness. Underbeastness. Whatever.
Impossible as it would seem, Rincewind got the distinct impression that life had kicked Charios around a bit, acquired a taste for it, and gotten into the habit of having a proper game at least once a week.
It would be my luck, he thought gloomily, that when I finally come across someone I can actually empathise with he turns out to be a seven-foot-tall monster who wants to eat me.
The beastman stopped suddenly and Rincewind banged into him. Charios was sniffing the air and growling to himself.
“ What?” said Rincewind. The patch of desert in which they were standing seemed to him essentially the same as any other.
“There’s something not right about this bit of land.”
“What sort of not right?”
“Smells a bit… shifty. Just walk behind me for a while…”
The beastman bent his torso right forward, bringing his bull-ringed snout into near-contact with the ashes, and began to walk forward again. Rincewind followed his swishing tail, watching him snort up clouds of dust. He collided with the beastman again as Charios stopped suddenly and stepped sideways, as though skirting the edge of something.
“Yahr… just here,” he was muttering.
Then there was a sudden conical cascade of ashes and he vanished. Rincewind tried to step back from the flowing edge of the cone, but it grew outwards at an alarming rate and sucked him down with it. There was a moment of panic, of ashes everywhere, of blackness, of falling, then he landed on something that went oof.
The beastman was nearly invisible under the continuing rain of ashes and it was starting to bury Rincewind as well. He scrambled off as the cascade slowed and the blood-red sky became visible above them. Then something occurred to him. He grabbed the nearest bits of the beastman and pulled urgently. “Come on! Move! Quick!”
The beastman heaved himself out of the pile of ashes and allowed himself to be dragged away from their entry-point. “What..?” he started to say.
Then the Luggage dropped like a cannonball from the hole above into the pile of ashes. The force of its impact buried it completely and generated a sizeable cloud of dust.
“I thought,” said Rincewind, “having that land on your chest might have caused you just a little inconvenience.”
The beastman’s neck fur prickled. It would have. And now, embarrassing as it was, he was going to have to say it. “Thank you, human.”
It was bloody humiliating, being indebted to a mortal.
Rincewind was looking around. “So what’s this? Old temple ruins? Built of ‘ashstone’ I suppose. Hey, look!” - he pointed to the carvings on the wall – “This is your temple – here’s your picture!”
Charios looked. There were pictures of beastmen here. A temple to beastmen. No such thing existed today, he knew. But maybe, a long time ago, beastmen had been more important. Here on the walls of the temple were stories of the exploits of beastmen. They showed mortals – some human-shaped, some not – making offerings to beastmen and the beastmen in return killing other humans, holding back great storms, smelling out water… A deal. Worship for services rendered. Like gods.
“If my people were ever gods,” Charios said to the wizard, “it was a long time ago. Now we’re scavengers, like the vultures. Disgusting.”
Rincewind wondered which he’d trust less at his back, a god or a vulture. Probably neither. He walked further along the corridor looking at the rows of carvings. Someone a long time ago had been really keen on beastmen to have all this work done. And the beastmen would have derived significant power from the effects of deification. So how had their cult been lost? Most gods had enough sense to know when they were on to a good thing and would materialise often enough to keep their believers interested. It took some serious complacency on the god’s part for a religion to deteriorate…
Then he passed a column and found himself looking at different carvings on a new stretch of wall.
…That, or the coming of something bigger and better.
* * *
Charios could smell something. He sniffed. Sort of hot. Vaguely reptilian. And very, very large.
He dashed up to the human.
“Rincewind! We have to get out of here! Right now! There’s a…”
He broke off at the sight of the relief the wizard was standing in front of.
“Draco nobilis,” said Rincewind, mostly to himself. “They only exist if you believe in them…”
Whoever had decorated this section of the temple had really believed in dragons. Especially in their fondness for eating beastmen.
“In this part of the world they believe in themselves!” hissed Charios urgently, grabbing the wizard’s shoulder. “Let’s go!”
Rincewind trotted beside the beastman, whose hooves were echoing on the ashstone floor. The pile of ashes they’d brought in with them had reached nearly to the surface. It would just be a matter of…
There was a naked man standing in front of the pile.
* * *
Men with no clothes on were not, as a general rule, very high on Rincewind’s list of threatening things. But the look on this one’s face was causing him to do some hasty reshuffling. And the way the beastman was backing away from the man and growling told him it might be worth moving “naked people” up a few more places again.
“You,” said the man, and his deep voice had a strange metallic echo, “woke me up.
“I do not like being woken up by little worms.
“I think you owe me an apology.”
“We’re sorry,” said Rincewind quickly, watching the Luggage sneak up on the man from behind. “We didn’t mean to fall into your temple. If you let us out, we’ll go.”
“Really?” said the strange man. “What if I don’t want you to…” He stopped and spun around.
The Luggage actually stepped back a pace under the green-eyed glare.
“And what do you think you’re doing?” the man asked it.
The Luggage shuffled its feet. Then it produced a bunch of bananas as a peace offering.
Rincewind’s pulse rate rocketed through the roof.
“Don’t run,” said the naked man. “There’s nowhere to go except into my temple.” Then he turned back to the Luggage. “You got any more food in there?”
The Luggage opened its lid to reveal what looked like a sizeable banquet set out on a fine table. Then it shut it again with a snap, as though embarrassed.
“Ah,” said the man. He addressed the wizard and the beastman again. “You’ll be pleased to know I’ve decided not to eat you. This magic chest contains food that requires much less effort. But I am going to keep both of you. Especially you, beastman.”
Charios sprang, with no warning.
And the man… changed.
Rincewind watched in horrified fascination as the creature before him stretched and twisted and grew. When the beastman reached the end of his leap, what he encountered was not a man half his size, but an enormous golden dragon.
The dragon caught him in midair like a man grabbing a fly.
Then he snatched up Rincewind in his other hand.
Rincewind started to struggle, but the dragon’s paw was as hard and unyielding as stone. So he saved his energy as the creature lumbered down the buried temple corridor on its hind legs, carrying them with it to only gods knew where.
* * *
There were carvings on these walls too. They had been made by people who knew for certain what the next twenty four hours would bring. Few them had been happy about it.
“Human sacrifice,” said Rincewind wearily, after reading some of the more instructive etchings. “How surprising.”
The beastman, sitting against the opposite wall of the stone cell, said nothing. He seemed preoccupied.
“So he’s keeping us to sacrifice?” asked the wizard.
The beastman’s tail twitched. “Not as such, no. Not your traditional cut-the-throat-on-the-sacred-altar and catch-the-blood-in-the-sacred-bowl and burn-it-over-the-sacred-flame –type sacrifice, anyway. That’s not interesting enough for his type.”
“No, not just dragons. I knew an incubus like him once and a lot of beastmen are the same. I daresay there are humans like that too.”
Humans that enjoyed hurting people? Yes, Rincewind knew all about them.
“I think you misunderstand me,” said the beastman. “I’m not talking about just enjoying hurting people, I’m talking about hurting people while you’re enjoying them.”
“Fuck,” said Rincewind.
* * *
The Luggage sat obediently beside the dragon, now back in his human form, and provided food. The dragon ate a lot. The Luggage was not pleased by this state of affairs. Its master was the only one it was supposed to look after. It shouldn’t be giving all its food away to a not-master. But every time it contemplated shutting its lid and going in search of its real owner, the dragon would turn that piercing green stare on it. The stare promised firewood, matchsticks, woodchips, pulping for paper. The Luggage vastly preferred the shape it was in, so it stayed put.
But it didn’t have to be happy about it.
The dragon, meanwhile, was contemplating the future of his captives. It was only fair, after all, that since they’d awoken him, they provide him with alternate entertainment. Especially that beastman. He hadn’t had a beastman for a while. They had stamina.
He took mental stock of all the interesting auxiliary items he had at his disposal, holdovers from the days when the ashstone temple had been an active centre of worship. Whips, chains, ropes, oh yes, that lovely thing with the spikes…
Careful planning was the key to a really enjoyable evening, the dragon knew. He pondered and ate, occasionally drawing with his finger in the dust on the table before him. There was no hurry. He had plenty of time to get it perfect.
* * *
Presumably it was night, because the temperature plummeted and a nasty draught began to blow up through the small grille in the centre of the room.
Rincewind shivered in his threadbare robe.
“You’re cold,” said the beastman, his fur fluffed up against the chill. “I’m not cold. Come over here.”
Rincewind looked up at him suspiciously. It was all very well to share watermelons when the Luggage was around, but here in the tiny stone cell, alone with the beastman, if Charios decided to chomp off his head, he didn’t fancy his chances. And if he felt the beastman to be something like himself, well, Rincewind wasn’t exactly trustworthy in a tight corner. Walking straight into the beastman’s fangs seemed like a very bad idea for someone who wanted to keep living.
Charios appeared to recognise the problem.
“I will not,” he said, “and I swear this to you on… what will you believe… my life before your dragon-box? eat you. I will not. If I did, I’d be completely alone. That would be stupid of me. You and I might be able to find some way out of this together. So I won’t have you freezing to death over there either.”
Rincewind thought about this, but he still didn’t move.
The beastman sighed, made his way to Rincewind’s wall and shoved himself behind the wizard like a very large insistent cat. Then he curled up around him and shut his eyes.
Rincewind now found himself leaning against the beastman’s chest with Charios’ tail curving round in front of him. He could feel the heat radiating off the creature’s body and it occurred to him that if he was going to die, he might as well be warm while he did it.
* * *
In his dream was one of the grey hooded creatures with the reading glasses. He began to run, but it called out: Please stop, Element 13, I mean you no harm!
Then, as he slowed to a stop and turned, it appeared right in front of him and said: I owe you an apology.
This wasn’t normal behaviour for one of Rincewind’s assailants. He listened.
Have you ever heard, it said, of narrative imperative?
Rincewind hadn’t, but he knew his Latatian.
“Being commanded by a story?” he said.
Essentially, said the grey hood. My colleagues and I are the guardians of stories’ ability to command. We collect stories, note down the recurring patterns, and so on. But we also have the ability to modify the shape of individuals’ stories, for better or for worse.
“So it’s your fault I’m in..” Rincewind stopped. “Hang on,” he said. “You’re telling me you modified my life, my story, so all this would happen?”
Yes, said the grey robe, and I’m very sorry. You are a rather special case and we fear disruption of your narrative patterns might be very dangerous to those of the world as a whole.
“Disruption of my narrative patterns…? But,” said Rincewind, “how have they been disrupted? This sort of stuff happens to me all the time anyway.”
The Guardian seemed to find this statement very interesting indeed. It stepped up closer to Rincewind, said May I? and, without waiting for an answer, pointed its pen.
Various bits of Rincewind tingled, then the Guardian lowered the pen.
By the pages of endless sagas as-yet unwritten! it said to itself. Then to Rincewind it said: You have in your system a very large dose of Unhappy Ending. But it’s not affecting you. It’s just there. It appeared to be eyeing the wizard as if he were a bomb about to go off.
“You put it there,” said Rincewind. “How about you take it out again?”
The grey robe stepped back. I would, it said, but it’s just not safe. Narrative fallout, that sort of thing. Just try, really try not to give it to anyone else.
Then: I’m sorry, it said again, and the dream faded.
* * *
Rincewind awoke and there was fur. He wondered vaguely whose bed he’d ended up in and hoped it wasn’t the Librarian’s. The mattress appeared to be made of stone, not banana peels. That was promising. He stroked the fur absently while his mind attempted to retain its grip on the dream he’d just had. He was sure it had been important. It had been about...
An urgent message from his hand finally reached his semi-conscious brain and pointed out that when people put animal furs in their beds, they usually took them off the animal first.
“Gaah!” said Rincewind, jolting into full wakefulness.
The beastman, supporting himself on one elbow, let out an amused rumble. “Well, human! I never knew you felt that way!”
“I don’t!” said Rincewind hastily. “I...” thought you were a rug? forgot you were a person? am actually lying and I do? Good answers, Rincewind. All of them certain to ensure your head stays on your shoulders... “...I’m sorry,” he finished lamely.
“Well, I was invading your... uh...”
The beastman locked gazes with him.
“It’s been a very long time,” he said. “Don’t apologise.”
The wizard blinked.
Charios sat up and shook himself. Rincewind dodged the beastman’s horns as they scythed through the air above his head.
“You and I,” said Charios as a cloud of ash dust settled around them, “need to escape. How are we going to do it? You haven’t got any spells..?”
“No,” said Rincewind.
“What kind of mage are you, anyway?” the beastman snorted.
“Not a very good one, truth be told,” growled the wizzard. “Can we drop it?”
“Very well.” Charios looked around the cell. “That grille in the floor,” he said, “If I were to pull it out, could you fit down the hole?”
Rincewind considered. It was pretty narrow, but then, so was he.
“Just,” he said. “But what about you?”
“I’ll... I don’t know. I’ll think of something. You get out while you can.”
The beastman rose and went to the grille. He gripped the bars and pulled. There was a schloing.
Rincewind wasn’t stupid enough to waste time being sentimental. He squeezed himself feet-first into the hole, pressing his back against one wall and his knees against the one opposite to jam himself in. By slightly releasing the pressure he found he was able to climb – if his method of locomotion could be dignified with the term – down into the shaft. There was slime on the stone walls and sometimes he slid. But he reached the bottom without incident.
The end of the shaft dropped a mercifully short distance into a large open room, which appeared to serve as both the temple’s basement and its sewer. There was no visible means of removing the more organic waste that had arrived here in times past, except that it stayed around in mounds and brown slime grew on it, turning it, by the miracle of nature, into more brown slime. It was very cold down and the air felt wet.
Even in a desert there is water, thought Rincewind, but he wasn’t inclined to drink it.
He made his way up the centre of the room, looking for a service entrance, an airhole, anything he could use to escape. He saw several structures built into the walls that he was sure had once been ventilation shafts, but the desert had covered the temple and piles of ash now spilled from their mouths. No way out there.
A draconic roar of rage echoed through the room. “Where’s the human, beastman!?”
The beastman’s voice, less audible, but still echoing down the narrow shaft into the basement said: “I ate him. I was hungry. Dreadfully sorry, but you know how it is...”
There was a pregnant pause, then the dragon’s voice rumbled: “You’ve done yourself no favours. I’ll just have to make it a bit more interesting for you to offset my disappointment.”
There was the sound of something heavy connecting with something else in a very painful way.
Rincewind wanted to run, but there was no way to run to. And if he did get out, what would he do in the desert with no Luggage and no guide? Then a very un-Rincewind-like thought rose like an expanding air-bubble from somewhere that probably wasn’t his brain.
That bastard of a dragon’s got my beastman! it said. And he’s going to do only gods know what to him. How dare he!
Rincewind looked around quickly in case the thought had come from someone else. It hadn’t. But he did spot a stone stairway at the end of the long room.
When he reached it, he sat down on the bottom-most step, removed his left boot and took off the sock. This he filled with the ashes which had accumulated in his footwear. When this resource was exhausted, he topped it up from a nearby drowned airshaft. It wasn’t as good as sand, or half a brick, but enough ashes packed in tightly enough gave his new weapon a reasonable mass. This sort of thing had served before, and Rincewind was a great believer in sticking with what worked. Holding the sock at the ready, in case there were priests, or temple guards, or similar relics of a bygone era, Rincewind climbed the stone stairway and went looking for the dragon.
* * *
The unconscious beastman was chained by wrists and ankles across a large stone doorway which opened on to the main room of the temple. The dragon would have preferred to use the wooden frame he owned, which was custom made for the purpose, but the beastman was strong enough to break it. So he was making do.
Charios slowly regained consciousness and, realising his predicament, made an effort to free himself. The shackles and chains were too strong. So he twisted his head over his shoulder to look at the dragon, who he could smell standing behind him.
The dragon was in his human form and holding in one hand a very good and righteous flagellating device. It was obviously good and righteous. Only something really good and righteous could have that many creatively-engineered spiky bits.
“Hundreds of priests,” said the dragon, “in times now past, wept in holy ecstasy at the touch of this flail. They called it ‘the seven-headed dragon’ and they say there was nothing quite like it for bringing a doubting member of the clergy back to his senses. I can’t tell you what the pain is like, because I’ve never had the good fortune to feel it myself. But I’m going to do you the honour of testing it out on your back, and you are going to tell me all about it.”
I will not, swore Charios, bunching his fists in the manacles. I will not make a sound. I will not give you the pleasure...
“Mmm! Hatred and fear,” said the dragon’s voice behind him in pleased tones. “Very nice. Now, let’s try pain!”
The seven tails of the whip lashed out.
And Charios screamed.
* * *
It took a lot of willpower to run towards a scream and not away, but Rincewind forced himself. He brought with him a burning torch he’d found on a wall. He wasn’t sure whether fire had any effect on dragons, but if not, well, the thing was still heavy enough to use as a club.
From somewhere ahead of him in the temple corridors he could hear the vrish, sklunk, whimper, of the dragon enjoying himself. Rincewind growled and entered yet another corridor.
Then he turned a corner and found Charios. The barely-conscious beastman was supported by wrist manacles, which were chained to something Rincewind couldn’t see on the other side of the stone doorway. There was blood on the floor beneath his feet. The dragon’s human legs were also visible, but the beastman’s bulk hid the rest of him from sight. Rincewind met the surprised Charios’ eye and suddenly remembered that he was dead. He’d been eaten. So the dragon wasn’t expecting him.
Charios was indicating with urgent flicks of his eyes that Rincewind should go back the way he’d come. So he did, but instead of going back through the doorway he’d entered by, he followed the long straight corridor to its very end. There he found another doorway, identical to the one Charios was chained to. It emerged into the main room of the temple.
There was a gigantic stone statue of a dragon between Rincewind and Charios’ doorway. He edged around it...
* * *
Something heavy hit the dragon in the back of the head. He turned, disoriented, and someone thrust a burning torch right into his face.
There was very sudden, incredibly intense pain and he lost consciousness.
He awoke to the certainty that the flesh had been trying to flow off the bones of his face while it had thought he wasn’t watching. He could hear voices.
“Where are the keys?”
“...d’ know... put ’m s’mewhere... couldn’ see...”
“Okay, I’ll find them. How big are they?”
The dragon knew he couldn’t stay in his human form. It was damaged and needed time to repair. So he began to shift...
* * *
Charios’ voice hissed “Look out!” and Rincewind instantly started to run, but something grabbed the back of his robes and stopped him. The something, he saw, as it forced him to turn around, was the dragon, now neither fully human, nor fully draconian, but something between the two, about the same size as Charios. Its dragon-shaped head grinned, exposing jagged teeth.
“Well, human! Ssssomeone told me you werre dead! But not only arrre you not dead, it ssseems you’rre keen to play with me.”
The nostrils flared.
“You’rrre very good at fearrr, you know. Muchhh better than your frrriend. Have you done thisss before?”
“All the time,” snarled Rincewind, currently surfing a pipeline of adrenalin-fuelled insanity. “I just love being sexually assaulted by mad sadistic animals.”
“Oh good,” said the dragon-man, and its claws ripped most of Rincewind’s clothing to shreds.
Then he was shoved face-down on to the ashstone floor, one of the dragon’s claw-hands pressing on his shoulder and the rest of the creature’s weight sitting back on his legs. That was all, so far.
Thank the gods.. thought Rincewind, and then the dragon’s other hand went raking down his back, dragging four lines of fire behind it. The fire was hot and, presently, very wet.
“You know what?” said the dragon’s voice conversationally, “afterrr I’ve had you, I’m going to eat you. A few bitsss at a time, I think, because I rrreally don’t like having burrrning torches ssshoved in my face. In fact, I might ssstart now. How would that be?”
Somewhere behind the diamond-clear certainty that he was going to die horribly and there was nothing he could do about it, Rincewind’s brain found a memory. It was of that wretched dream he’d been trying to recall, where the little grey robe in the reading glasses had apologised to him and told him...
You’re full of Unhappy Ending. Don’t give it to anyone else!
As the dragon’s tongue rasped across his freely bleeding back, Rincewind resolved to be the unhappiest ending for that perverted beast he possibly could. If nothing else, he’d stick in the thing’s throat and choke it.
The dragon licked him again, then began to shift forward. Rincewind took a breath and held it between gritted teeth...
But suddenly the creature’s weight had gone from his shoulder and it was rearing back, wheezing like it couldn’t breathe. A second later, it was no longer sitting on his legs. Rincewind scrambled away as fast as he could towards the still-chained Charios, and his burning torch. Once armed, he turned to look behind him.
The dragon-man was on his knees, coughing and retching. What dripped viscously from his jaws was blood. The blood, Rincewind realised, he’d just drawn from the wizard’s own body. Containing – No! It couldn’t be that simple! – the narrative imperative for an unhappy ending.
Apparently it was that simple, because the dragon now began to choke again and fell to the floor, where he struggled for perhaps another minute before lying still.
“What happened? What happened?” demanded Charios, who couldn’t twist his head around far enough to see.
“I think, said Rincewind from the floor beside him, “you’re bloody lucky you didn’t manage to eat me.”
Then he got up and found the key to the beastman’s manacles.
* * *
Charios lay on the floor, because when you’ve recently been flogged with a really creatively decorated flail, standing up and walking around are not usually high on your list of priorities.
He could dimly see Rincewind, who was cautiously prodding the dragon in case it wasn’t dead. If it wasn’t, it wasn’t saying so.
Then the wizard’s voice said “There you are! Where have you been?”
It was the dragon-box, the beastman supposed.
“You were bloody useless this time round, you know,” continued the wizard, but he sounded too pleased to see the box to be really angry with it. Then he said “No, you’re still not going to eat him. I know you want to, but you can’t. If you have to eat someone, you’re welcome to this dragon... man... thing.”
The dragon-box evidently chose not to take up the offer, because the wizard said “Please yourself, then,” and came back to where Charios lay.
He was silent for a while, then he said “Charios.. Is that dragon getting bigger?”
Charios dragged his head off the floor and looked.
“I think so,” he said. “I’ve heard of this happening. Everything goes back to its natural form when it dies.”
“Good,” said the wizard. “As long as it’s dead, I don’t care what shape it is.”
There was more silence as they watched the slowly-shifting dragon. Then Charios said:
“I have to thank you. You saved my life again.”
“Only by accident,” replied Rincewind.
“But even so. It puts me in your debt. And, I’m sorry, but it’s embarrassing for me to be indebted to a human.”
The wizard’s voice was cold as he answered “If I got the choice between being embarrassed and being dead, I know which one I’d pick.”
“I’m not ungrateful,” said the beastman hastily, “it’s just, I have to give you something in return, to thank you properly.”
“Is this some beastman cultural thing?”
“You could say that,” said Charios evasively. Debts and obligations were important to beastmen. This was essentially because you couldn’t trust another beastman not to bite your tail off while you were looking the other way unless he owed you something.
“You’re feeling guilty about something, aren’t you? That’s why you feel you owe me. Come on. What is it? You still want to eat me, perhaps?”
“No,” said the beastman, cursing the wizard’s perspicacity. “I don’t want to eat you. ‘Sides, “ he added, “from what I’ve seen I’d use more energy digesting you than I’d get from eating you in the first place.”
Rincewind rolled his eyes. “What, then?”
“It’s... well, you know when I said I don’t spend much time talking to mortals?”
“I sort of.. like talking to you.”
“And this is a problem because you’re a mighty beastman, scourge of watermelons?”
Rincewind gestured at the silent empty temple. “Who,” he said, “is going to know? Unless you go back to Hell or wherever and say ‘Guess what, chaps, I made friends with a human today’, or,” and he forced the beastman to meet his eyes and continued, with a hint of bitterness, “’I let a human touch me and for a second I felt a real connection’, no-one will know. Except you, and if you’re speciesist, well, there’s not much I can do about that. But you don’t owe me anything, yeah?”
“All right,” said Charios. “Thank you.”
Silence fell again, then Charios asked:
“Why did the dragon die when he drank your blood?”
“Somebody cursed me,” said Rincewind. “Happens a lot.”
“An Unhappy Ending, apparently.”
“That sounds like something from a story.”
“That’s the weird thing - that’s exactly what it is. A curse that gives your story an unhappy ending.”
“People’s lives aren’t stories,” growled Charios.
“Yeah, I thought that too, but.. I don’t know. I mean, my life’s pretty predictable. It has a central theme, if you like.”
“Running away from stuff, mostly.”
“My theme’s being hungry,” said the beastman. “Always being hungry and always being at the bottom of the pile.” He was surprised at how angry saying these words out loud made him.
“I think,” said Rincewind, “you should run away too.”
Rincewind smiled and leaned his chin on the beastman’s forearm, which was about the only part he could put weight on right now without causing pain to one or both of them. Running was a subject he knew intimately. “The question is not where to, my friend, “ he said, “but where from.”
“From here. From the Desert of Ashes,” said Charios. He looked at the wizard sideways. “You know,” he added, flicking one ear, “it’s just my luck that when I meet someone with whom I... share a real connection, he has to be a furless mortal being half my size.”
“Ach,” said Rincewind, and shoved himself closer to the beastman’s warm body. “Who cares?”
Charios rumbled softly.
“But listen,” said the wizard to the beastman, “we know the place we’re running from, right?
“Soon as we can, we’ll go.”
Then they both slept.
* * *
In a corner of not-space piled high with books and papers, the Guardian of Narrative Imperative finished what it was reading.
What was that? asked the one seated beside it.
I think, said the first Guardian cautiously, it was a happy ending for Element 13.
Element 13 never has happy endings! said the second derisively.
Sometimes he does, said the first. But they generally come from unexpected places.
The second Guardian went back to its book and the first pondered. After all, it itself had played a significant role in generating this happy ending. If it hadn’t attempted to modify Element 13’s narrative imperative for the worse, would things have turned out as well as they had?
It shook its non-corporeal head. If one spent too long considering such things, nothing would ever get done. It picked up a new book.
* * *
And somewhere, just on the other side of the pages, a wizard from one person’s story and a beastman from another’s awoke together from someone else’s tale into an ancient stone temple dedicated to dragons.