'I . . . must . . . congratulate your . . . Personage on such . . . consideration,' said the Vizier, and fell forward into a dish of boiled soft-shelled crabs.
   'I had an excellent teacher,' said the Emperor.
   ABOUT TIME, TOO, said Mort, and swung the sword.
   A moment later the soul of the Vizier got up from the mat and looked Mort up and down.
   'Who are you, barbarian?' he snapped.
   'Not my Death,'said the Vizier firmly. 'Where's the Black Celestial Dragon of Fire?'
   HE COULDN'T COME, said Mort. There were shadows forming in the air behind the Vizier's soul. Several of them wore emperor's robes, but there were plenty of others jostling them, and they all looked most anxious to welcome the newcomer to the lands of the dead.
   'I think there's some people here to see you,' said Mort, and hurried away. As he reached the passageway the Vizier's soul started to scream. . . .
   Ysabell was standing patiently by Binky, who was making a late lunch of a five-hundred-year-old bonsai tree.
   'One down,' said Mort, climbing into the saddle. 'Come on. I've got a bad feeling about the next one, and we haven't much time.'
   Albert materialised in the centre of Unseen University, in the same place, in fact, from which he had departed the world some two thousand years before.
   He grunted with satisfaction and brushed a few specks of dust off his robe.
   He became aware that he was being watched; on looking up, he discovered that he had flashed into existence under the stern marble gaze of himself.
   He adjusted his spectacles and peered disapprovingly at the bronze plaque screwed to his pedestal. It said:
   'Alberto Malich, Founder of This University. AM 1,222-1,289. "We Will Not See His Like Again".'
   So much for prediction, he thought. And if they thought so much of him they could at least have hired a decent sculptor. It was disgraceful. The nose was all wrong. Call that a leg? People had been carving their names on it, too. He wouldn't be seen dead in a hat like that, either. Of course, if he could help it, he wouldn't be seen dead at all.
   Albert aimed an octarine thunderbolt at the ghastly thing and grinned evilly as it exploded into dust.
   'Right,' he said to the Disc at large, 'I'm back.' The tingle from the magic coursed all the way up his arm and started a warm glow in his mind. How he'd missed it, all these years.
   Wizards came hurrying through the big double doors at the sound of the explosion and cleared the wrong conclusion from a standing start.
   There was the pedestal, empty. There was a cloud of marble dust over everything. And striding out of it, muttering to himself, was Albert.
   The wizards at the back of the crowd started to have it away as quickly and quietly as possible. There wasn't one of them that hadn't, at some time in his jolly youth, put a common bedroom utensil on old Albert's head or carved his name somewhere on the statue's chilly anatomy, or spilled beer on the pedestal. Worse than that, too, during Rag Week when the drink flowed quickly and the privy seemed too far to stagger. These had all seemed hilarious ideas at the time. They suddenly didn't, now.
   Only two figures remained to face the statue's wrath, one because he had got his robe caught in the door and the other because he was, in fact, an ape and could therefore take a relaxed attitude to human affairs.
   Albert grabbed the wizard, who was trying desperately to walk into the wall. The man squealed.
   'All right, all right, I admit it! I was drunk at the time, believe me, didn't mean it, gosh, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry —'
   'What are you bleating about, man?' said Albert, genuinely puzzled.
   '— so sorry, if I tried to tell you how sorry I am we'd —'
   'Stop this bloody nonsense!' Albert glanced down at the little ape, who gave him a warm friendly smile. 'What's your name, man?'
   'Yes, sir, I'll stop, sir, right away, no more nonsense, sir . . . Rincewind, sir. Assistant librarian, if it's all right by you.'
   Albert looked him up and down. The man had a desperate scuffed look, like something left out for the laundry. He decided that if this was what wizarding had come to, someone ought to do something about it.
   'What sort of librarian would have you for assistant?' he demanded irritably.
   Something like a warm soft leather glove tried to hold his hand.
   'A monkey! In my university!'
   'Orang-outang, sir. He used to be a wizard but got caught in some magic, sir, now he won't let us turn him back, and he's the only one who knows where all the books are,' said Rincewind urgently. 'I look after his bananas,' he added, feeling some additional explanation was called for.
   Albert glared at him. 'Shut up.'
   'Shutting up right away, sir.'
   'And tell me where Death is.'
   'Death, sir?' said Rincewind, backing against the wall.
   Tall, skeletal, blue eyes, stalks, TALKS LIKE THIS . . . Death. Seen him lately?'
   Rincewind swallowed. 'Not lately, sir.'
   'Well, I want him. This nonsense has got to stop. I'm going to stop it now, see? I want the eight most senior wizards assembled here, right, in half an hour with all the necessary equipment to perform the Rite of AshkEnte, is that understood? Not that the sight of you lot gives me any confidence. Bunch of pantywaisters the lot of you, and stop trying to hold my hand!'
   'And now I'm going to the pub,' snapped Albert. 'Do they sell any halfway decent cat's piss anywhere these days?'
   There's the Drum, sir,' said Rincewind.
   'The Broken Drum? In Filigree Street? Still there?'
   'Well, they change the name sometimes and rebuild it completely but the site has been, er, on the site for years. I expect you're pretty dry, eh, sir?' Rincewind said, with an air of ghastly camaraderie.
   'What would you know about it?' said Albert sharply.
   'Absolutely nothing, sir,' said Rincewind promptly.
   'I'm going to the Drum, then. Half an hour, mind. And if they're not waiting for me when I come back, then well, they'd just better be!'
   He stormed out of the hall in a cloud of marble dust.
   Rincewind watched him go. The librarian held his hand.
   'You know the worst of it?' said Rincewind.
   'I don't even remember walking under a mirror.'
   At about the time Albert was in The Mended Drum arguing with the landlord over a yellowing bar tab that had been handed down carefully from father to son through one regicide, three civil wars, sixty-one major fires, four hundred and ninety robberies and more than fifteen thousand barroom brawls to record the fact that Alberto Malich still owed the management three copper pieces plus interest currently standing at the contents of most of the Disc's larger strongrooms, which proved once again that an Ankhian merchant with an unpaid bill has the kind of memory that would make an elephant blink . . . at about this time, Binky was leaving a vapour trail in skies above the great mysterious continent of Klatch.
   Far below drums sounded in the scented, shadowy jungles and columns of curling mist rose from hidden rivers where nameless beasts lurked under the surface and waited for supper to walk past.
   'There's no more cheese, you'll have to have the ham,' said Ysabell. 'What's that light over there?'
   The Light Dams,' said Mort. 'We're getting closer.' He pulled the hourglass out of his pocket and checked the level of the sand.
   'But not close enough, dammit!'
   The Light Dams lay like pools of light hubwards of their course, which is exactly what they were; some of the tribes constructed mirror walls in the desert mountains to collect the Disc sunlight, which is slow and slightly heavy. It was used as currency.
   Binky glided over the campfires of the nomads and the silent marshes of the Tsort river. Ahead of them dark, familiar shapes began to reveal themselves in the moonlight.
   The Pyramids of Tsort by moonlight!' breathed Ysabell, 'How romantic!'
   'Please don't.'
   'I'm sorry, but the practical fact of the matter is that these —'
   'All right, all right, you've made your point,' said Ysabell irritably.
   'It's a lot of effort to go to to bury a dead king,' said Mort, as they circled above one of the smaller pyramids. They fill them full of preservative, you know, so they'll survive into the next world.'
   'Does it work?'
   'Not noticeably.' Mort leaned over Binky's neck. 'Torches down there,' he said. 'Hang on.'
   A procession was winding away from the avenue of pyramids, led by a giant statue of Offler the Crocodile God borne by a hundred sweating slaves. Binky cantered above it, entirely unnoticed, and performed a perfect four-point landing on the hard-packed sand outside the pyramid's entrance.
   'They've pickled another king,' said Mort. He examined the glass again in the moonlight. It was quite plain, not the sort normally associated with royalty.
   That can't be him,' said Ysabell. They don't pickle them when they're still alive, do they?'
   'I hope not, because I read where, before they do the preserving, they, um, cut them open and remove —'
   'I don't want to hear it —'
   '— all the soft bits,' Mort concluded lamely. 'It's just as well the pickling doesn't work, really, just imagine having to walk around with no —'
   'So it isn't the king you've come to take,' said Ysabell loudly. 'Who is it, then?'
   Mort turned towards the dark entrance. It wouldn't be sealed until dawn, to give time for the dead king's soul to leave. It looked deep and foreboding, hinting at purposes considerably more dire than, say, keeping a razor blade nice and sharp.
   'Let's find out,' he said.
   'Look out! He's coming back!'
   The University's eight most senior wizards shuffled into line, tried to smooth out their beards and in general made an unsuccessful effort to look presentable. It wasn't easy. They had been snatched from their workrooms, or a postprandial brandy in front of a roaring fire, or quiet contemplation under a handkerchief in a comfy chair somewhere, and all of them were feeling extremely apprehensive and rather bewildered. They kept glancing at the empty pedestal.
   Only one creature could have duplicated the expressions on their faces, and that would be a pigeon who has heard not only that Lord Nelson has got down off his column but has also been seen buying a 12-bore repeater and a box of cartridges.
   'He's coming up the corridor!' shouted Rincewind, and dived behind a pillar.
   The assembled mages watched the big double doors as if they were about to explode, which shows how prescient they were, because they exploded. Matchstick-sized bits of oak rained down among them and a small thin figure stood outlined against the light. It held a smoking staff in one hand. The other held a small yellow toad.
   'Rincewind!' bawled Albert.
   'Take this thing away and dispose of it.'
   The toad crawled into Rincewind's hand and gave him an apologetic look.
   That's the last time that bloody landlord gives any lip to a wizard,' said Albert with smug satisfaction. 'It seems I turn my back for a few hundred years and suddenly people in this town are encouraged to think they can talk back to wizards, eh?'
   One of the senior wizards mumbled something.
   'What was that? Speak up, that man!'
   'As the bursar of this university I must say that we've always encouraged a good neighbour policy with respect to the community,' mumbled the wizard, trying to avoid Albert's gimlet stare. He had an upturned chamber pot on his conscience, with three cases of obscene graffiti to be taken into consideration.
   Albert let his mouth drop open. 'Why?' he said.
   'Well, er, a sense of civic duty, we feel it's vitally important that we show an examp— arrgh!'
   The wizard tried desperately to beat out the flames in his beard. Albert lowered his staff and looked slowly along the row of mages. They swayed away from his stare like grass in a gale.
   'Anyone else want to show a sense of civic duty?' he said. 'Good neighbours, anybody?' He drew himself up to his full height. 'You spineless maggots! I didn't found this University so you could lend people the bloody lawnmower! What's the use of having the power if you don't wield it? Man doesn't show you respect, you don't leave enough of his damn inn to roast chestnuts on, understand?'
   Something like a soft sigh went up from the assembled wizards. They stared sadly at the toad in Rincewind's hand. Most of them, in the days of their youth, had mastered the art of getting rascally drunk at the Drum. Of course, all that was behind them now, but the Guild of Merchants' annual knife-and-fork supper would have been held in the Drum's upstairs room the following evening, and all the Eighth Level wizards had been sent complimentary tickets; there would have been roast swan and two kinds of trifle and lots of fraternal toasts to 'Our esteemed, nay, distinguished guests' until it was time for the college porters to turn up with the wheelbarrows.
   Albert strutted along the row, poking the occasional paunch with his staff. His mind danced and sang. Go back? Never! This was power, this was living; he'd challenge old boniface and spit in his empty eye.
   'By the Smoking Mirror of Grism, there's going to be a few changes around here!'
   Those wizards who had studied history nodded uncomfortably. It would be back to the stone floors and getting up when it was still dark and no alcohol under any circumstances and memorising the true names of everything until the brain squeaked.
   'What's that man doing!'
   A wizard who had absent-mindedly reached for his tobacco pouch let the half-formed cigarette fall from his trembling fingers. It bounced when it hit the floor and all the wizards watched it roll with longing eyes until Albert stepped forward smartly and squashed it.
   Albert spun round. Rincewind, who had been following him as a sort of unofficial adjutant, nearly walked into him.
   'You! Rincething! D'yer smoke?'
   'No, sir! Filthy habit!' Rincewind avoided the gaze of his superiors. He was suddenly aware that he had made some lifelong enemies, and it was no consolation to know that he probably wouldn't have them for very long.
   'Right! Hold my staff. Now, you bunch of miserable back-sliders, this is going to stop, d'yer hear? First thing tomorrow, up at dawn, three times round the quadrangle and back here for physical jerks! Balanced meals! Study! Healthy exercise! And that bloody monkey goes to a circus, first thing!'
   Several of the older wizards shut their eyes.
   'But first,' said Albert, lowering his voice, 'you'll oblige me by setting up the Rite of AshkEnte.'
   'I have some unfinished business,' he added.
   Mort strode through the cat-black corridors of the pyramid, with Ysabell hurrying along behind him. The faint glow from his sword illuminated unpleasant things; Offler the Crocodile God was a cosmetics advert compared to some of the things the people of Tsort worshipped. In alcoves along the way were statues of creatures apparently built of all the bits God had left over.
   'What are they here for?' whispered Ysabell.
   'The Tsortean priests say they come alive when the pyramid is sealed and prowl the corridors to protect the body of the king from tomb robbers,' said Mort.
   'What a horrible superstition.'
   'Who said anything about superstition?' said Mort absently.
   'They really come alive?'
   'All I'll say is that when the Tsorteans put a curse on a place, they don't mess about.'
   Mort turned a corner and Ysabell lost sight of him for a heart-stopping moment. She scurried through the darkness and cannoned into him. He was examining a dog-headed bird.
   'Urgh,' she said. 'Doesn't it send shivers up your spine?'
   'No,' said Mort flatly.
   'Why not?'
   BECAUSE I AM MORT. He turned, and she saw his eyes glow like blue pinpoints.
   'Stop it!'
   I — CAN'T.
   She tried to laugh. It didn't work. 'You're not Death,' she said. 'You're only doing his job.'
   The shocked pause that followed this was broken by a groan from further along the dark passage. Mort turned on his heel and hurried towards it.
   He's right, thought Ysabell. Even the way he moves. . . .
   But the fear of the darkness that the light was dragging towards her overcame any other doubts and she crept after him, around another corner and into what appeared, in the fitful glow from the sword, to be a cross between a treasury and a very cluttered attic.
   'What's this place?' she whispered. 'I've never seen so much stuff!'
   'He certainly doesn't believe in traveling light. Look, there's a whole boat. And a gold bathtub!'
   'And all those statues!'
   Ysabell's face set grimly.
   There was another groan, from the other side of the cluttered room. Mort followed it to its source, stepping awkwardly over rolls of carpet, bunches of dates, crates of crockery and piles of gems. The long obviously hadn't been able to decide what he was going to leave behind on his journey, so had decided to play safe and take everything.
   Ysabell clambered gamely after him, and peered over a canoe at a young girl sprawled across a pile of rugs. She was wearing gauze trousers, a waistcoat cut from not enough material, and enough bangles to moor a decent-sized ship. There was a green stain around her mouth.
   'Does it hurt?' said Ysabell quietly.
   'Does it?'
   MAYBE. WHO KNOWS? Mort took the hourglass out of an inner pocket and inspected it by the gleam of the sword. He seemed to be counting to himself, and then with a sudden movement tossed the glass over his shoulder and brought the sword down with his other hand.
   The girl's shade sat up and stretched, with a clink of ghostly jewellery. She caught sight of Mort, and bowed her head.
   'My lord!'
   'I shall be a concubine at the heavenly court of King Zetesphut, who will dwell among the stars forever,' she said firmly.
   'You don't have to be,' said Ysabell sharply. The girl turned to her, wide-eyed.
   'Oh, but I must. I've been training for it,' she said, as she faded from view. 'I've only managed to be a handmaiden up till now.'
   She vanished. Ysabell stared with dark disapproval at the space she had occupied.
   'Well!' she said, and, 'Did you see what she had on?'
   'But it can't be true about King Whosis dwelling among the stars,' she grumbled as they found their way out of the crowded room. 'There's nothing but empty space up there.'
   'With slaves?'
   That's not very fair.'
   They hurried back along the avenues of waiting ghouls and were nearly running when they burst out into the desert night air. Ysabell leaned against the rough stonework and panted for breath.
   Mort wasn't out of breath.
   He wasn't breathing.
   'But I thought you wanted to rescue the princess!'
   Mort shook his head.
   She ran forward and grabbed his arm as he turned towards the waiting Binky. He removed her hand gently.
   'It's all in your own mind!' yelled Ysabell. 'You're whatever you think you are!'
   She stopped and looked down. The sand around Mort's feet was beginning to whip up in little spurts and twirling dust devils.
   There was a crackle in the air, and a greasy feel. Mort looked uneasy.
   It hit like a hammer, a force from out of the sky that blew the sand into a crater. There was a low buzzing and the smell of hot tin.
   Mort looked around himself in the gale of rushing sand, turning as if in a dream, alone in the calm centre of the gale. Lightning flashed in the whirling cloud. Deep inside his own mind he struggled to break free, but something had him in its grip and he could no more resist than a compass needle can ignore the compulsion to point towards the Hub.
   At last he found what he was searching for. It was a doorway edged in octarine light, leading to a short tunnel. There were figures at the other end, beckoning to him.
   I COME, he said, and then turned as he heard the sudden noise behind him. Eleven stone of young womanhood hit him squarely in the chest, lifting him off the ground.
   Mort landed with Ysabell kneeling on him, holding on grimly to his arms.
   'Not you, idiot!'
   She stared into the blue, pupil-less pools of his eyes. It was like looking down a rushing tunnel.
   Mort arched his back and screamed a curse so ancient and virulent that in the strong magical field it actually took on a form, flapped its leathery wings and slunk away. A private thunderstorm crashed around the sand dunes.
   His eyes drew her again. She looked away before she dropped like a stone down a well made of blue light.
   I COMMAND YOU. Mort's voice could have cut holes in rock.
   'Father tried that tone on me for years,' she said calmly. 'Generally when he wanted me to clean my bedroom. It didn't work then, either.'
   Mort screamed another curse, which flopped out of the air and tried to bury itself in the sand.
   'It's all in your head,' she said, bracing herself against the force that wanted to drag them towards that flickering doorway. 'You're not Death. You're just Mort. You're whatever I think you are.'
   In the centre of the blurred blueness of his eyes were two tiny brown dots, rising at the speed of sight.
   The storm around them rose and wailed. Mort screamed.
   The Rite of AshkEnte, quite simply, summons and binds Death. Students of the occult will be aware that it can be performed with a simple incantation, three small bits of wood and 4cc of mouse blood, but no wizard worth his pointy hat would dream of doing anything so unimpressive; they knew in their hearts that if a spell didn't involve big yellow candles, lots of rare incense, circles drawn on the floor with eight different colours of chalk and a few cauldrons around the place then it simply wasn't worth contemplating.
   The eight wizards at their stations on the points of the great ceremonial octogram swayed and chanted, their arms held out sideways so they were just touching the fingertips of the mages on either side.
   But something was going wrong. True, a mist had formed in the very centre of the living octogram, but it was writhing and turning in on itself, refusing to focus.
   'More power!' shouted Albert. 'Give it more power!'
   A figure appeared momentarily in the smoke, black-robed and holding a glittering sword. Albert swore as he caught a glimpse of the pale face under the cowl; it wasn't pale enough.
   'No!' Albert yelled, ducking into the octogram and flailing at the flickering shape with his hands. 'Not you, not you. . . .'
   And, in faraway Tsort, Ysabell forgot she was a lady, bunched her fist, narrowed her eyes and caught Mort squarely on the jaw. The world around her exploded. . . .
   In the kitchen of Harga's House of Ribs the frying pan crashed to the floor, sending the cats scurrying out of the door. . . .
   In the great hall of the Unseen University everything happened at once.[9]
   The tremendous force the wizards had been exerting on the shadow realm suddenly had one focus. Like a reluctant cork from a bottle, like a dollop of fiery ketchup from the upturned sauce bottle of Infinity, Death landed in the octogram and swore.
   Albert realized just too late that he was inside the charmed ring and made a dive for the edge. But skeletal fingers caught him by the hem of his robe.
   The wizards, such of them who were still on their feet and conscious, were rather surprised to see that Death was wearing an apron and holding a small kitten.
   'Spoil it all? Have you seen what the lad has done?' snapped Albert, still trying to reach the edge of the ring.
   Death raised his skull and sniffed the air.
   The sound cut through all the other noises in the hall and forced them into silence.
   It was the kind of noise that is heard on the twilight edges of dreams, the sort that you wake from in a cold sweat of mortal horror. It was the snuffling under the door of dread. It was like the snuffling of a hedgehog, but if so then it was the kind of hedgehog that crashes out of the verges and flattens lorries. It was the kind of noise you wouldn't want to hear twice; you wouldn't want to hear it once.
   Death straightened up slowly.
   'Master, if you would just be so good as to let go of my robe —' began Albert, and the wizard noticed a pleading edge to his voice that hadn't been there before.
   Death ignored him. He snapped his fingers like a castanet and the apron around his waist exploded into brief flames. The kitten, however, he put down very carefully and gently pushed away with his foot.
   'Exactly, master, and now if you could see your way clear —'
   'Indeed, and if you would but let go —'
   The change in Albert's voice was complete. The trumpets of command had become the piccolos of supplication. He sounded terrified, in fact, but he Managed to catch Rincewind's eye and hiss:
   'My staff! Throw me my staff! While he is in the circle he is not invincible! Let me have my staff and I can break free!'
   Rincewind said: 'Pardon?'
   'My staff, you idiot, my staff!' gibbered Albert. 'Sorry?'
   'My sta-!'
   There was an implosion and an inrush of air.
   The candle flames stretched out like lines of fire for a moment, and then went out.
   Some time passed.
   Then the bursar's voice from somewhere near the floor said, 'That was very unkind, Rincewind, losing his staff like that. Remind me to discipline you severely one of these days. Anyone got a light?'
   'I don't know what happened to it! I just leaned it against the pillar here and now it's —'
   'Oh,' said Rincewind.
   'Extra banana ration, that ape,' said the bursar levelly. A match flared and someone managed to get a candle alight. Wizards started to pick themselves off the floor.
   'Well, that was a lesson to all of us,' the bursar continued, brushing dust and candlewax off his robe. He looked up, expecting to see the statue of Alberto Malich back on its pedestal.
   'Clearly even statues have feelings,' he said. 'I myself recall, when I was but a first-year student, writing my name on his well, never mind. The point is, I propose here and now we replace the statue.'
   Dead silence greeted this suggestion.
   'With, say, an exact likeness cast in gold. Suitably embellished with jewels, as befits our great founder,' he went on brightly.
   'And to make sure no students deface it in any way I suggest we then erect it in the deepest cellar,' he continued.
   'And then lock the door,' he added. Several wizards began to cheer up.
   'And throw away the key?' said Rincewind.
   'And weld the door,' the bursar said. He had just remembered about The Mended Drum. He thought for a while and remembered about the physical fitness regime as well.
   'And then brick up the doorway,' he said. There was a round of applause.
   'And throw away the bricklayer!' chortled Rincewind, who felt he was getting the hang of this.
   The bursar scowled at him. 'No need to get carried away,' he said.
   In the silence a larger than usual sand dune humped up awkwardly and then fell away to reveal Binky, blowing the sand out of his nostrils and shaking his mane.
   Mort opened his eyes.
   There should be a word for that brief period just after waking when the mind is full of warm pink nothing. You lie there entirely empty of thought, except for a growing suspicion that heading towards you, like a sockful of damp sand in a nocturnal alleyway, are all the recollections you'd really rather do without, and which amount to the fact that the only mitigating factor in your horrible future is the certainty that it will be quite short.
   Mort sat up and put his hands on top of his head to stop it unscrewing.
   The sand beside him heaved and Ysabell pushed herself into a sitting position. Her hair was full of sand and her face was grimy with pyramid dust. Some of her hair had frizzled at the tips. She stared listlessly at him.
   'Did you hit me?' he said, gently testing his jaw.
   He looked at the sky, as though it could remind him about things. He had to be somewhere, soon, he recalled. Then he remembered something else.
   Thank you,' he said.
   'Any time, I assure you.' Ysabell made it to her feet and tried to brush the dirt and cobwebs off her dress.
   'Are we going to rescue this princess of yours?' she said diffidently.
   Mort's own personal, internal reality caught up with him. He shot to his feet with a strangled cry, watched blue fireworks explode in front of his eyes, and collapsed again. Ysabell caught him under the shoulders and hauled him back on his feet.
   'Let's go down to the river,' she said. 'I think we could all do with a drink.'
   'What happened to me?'
   She shrugged as best she could while supporting his weight.
   'Someone used the Rite of AshkEnte. Father hates it, he says they always summon him at inconvenient moments. The part of you that was Death went and you stayed behind. I think. At least you've got your own voice back.'
   'What time is it?'
   'What time did you say the priests close up the pyramid?'
   Mort squinted through streaming eyes back towards the tomb of the king. Sure enough, torchlit fingers were working on the door. Soon, according to the legend, the guardians would come to life and begin their endless patrol.
   He knew they would. He remembered the knowledge. He remembered his mind feeling as cold as ice and limitless as the night sky. He remembered being summoned into reluctant existence at the moment the first creature lived, in the certain knowledge that he would outlive life until the last being in the universe passed to its reward, when it would then be his job, figuratively speaking, to put the chairs on the tables and turn aU the lights off.
   He remembered the loneliness.
   'Don't leave me,' he said urgently.
   'I'm here,' she said. 'For as long as you need me.'
   'It's midnight,' he said dully, sinking down by the Tsort and lowering his aching head to the water. Beside him there was a noise like a bath emptying as Binky also took a drink.
   'Does that mean we're too late?'
   'I'm sorry. I wish there was something I could do.'
   There isn't.'
   'At least you kept your promise to Albert.'
   'Yes,' said Mort, bitterly. 'At least I did that.'
   Nearly all the way from one side of the Disc to the other. . . .
   There should be a word for the microscopic spark of hope that you dare not entertain in case the mere act of acknowledging it will cause it to vanish, like trying to look at a photon. You can only sidle up to it, looking past it, walking past it, waiting for it to get big enough to face the world.
   He raised his dripping head and looked towards the sunset horizon, trying to remember the big model of the Disc in Death's study without actually letting the universe know what he was entertaining.
   At times like this it can seem that eventuality is so finely balanced that merely thinking too loud can spoil everything.
   He orientated himself by the thin streamers of Hublight dancing against the stars, and made an inspired guess that Sto Lat was . . . over there. . . .
   'Midnight,' he said aloud.
   'Gone midnight now,' said Ysabell.
   Mort stood up, trying not to let the delight radiate out from him like a beacon, and grabbed Binky's harness.
   'Come on,' he said. 'We haven't got much time.'
   'What are you talking about?'
   Mort reached down to swing her up behind him. It was a nice idea, but merely meant that he nearly pulled himself out of the saddle. She pushed him back gently and climbed up by herself. Binky skittered sideways, sensing Mort's feverish excitement, and snorted and pawed at the sand.
   'I said, what are you talking about?'
   Mort turned the horse to face the distant glow of the sunset.
   'The speed of night,' he said.
   Cutwell poked his head over the palace battlements and groaned. The interface was only a street away, clearly visible in the octarine, and he didn't have to imagine the sizzling. He could hear it — a nasty, saw-toothed buzz as random particles of possibility hit the interface and gave up their energy as noise. As it ground its way up the street the pearly wall swallowed the bunting, the torches and the waiting crowds, leaving only dark streets. Somewhere out there, Cutwell thought, I'm fast asleep in my bed and none of this has happened. Lucky me.
   He ducked down, skidded down the ladder to the cobbles and legged it back to the main hall with the skirts of his robe flapping around his ankles. He slipped in through the small postern in the great door and ordered the guards to lock it, then grabbed his skirts again and pounded along a side passage so that the guests wouldn't notice him.
   The hall was lit with thousands of candles and crowded with Sto Plain dignitaries, nearly all of them slightly unsure why they were there. And, of course, there was the elephant.
   It was the elephant that had convinced Cutwell that he had gone off the rails of sanity, but it seemed like a good idea a few hours ago, when his exasperation at the High Priest's poor eyesight had run into the recollection that a lumber mill on the edge of town possessed said beast for the purposes of heavy haulage. It was elderly, arthritic and had an uncertain temper, but it had one important advantage as a sacrificial victim. The High Priest should be able to see it.
   Half a dozen guards were gingerly trying to restrain the creature, in whose slow brain the realization had dawned that it should be in its familiar stable, with plenty of hay and water and time to dream of the hot days on the great khaki plains of Klatch. It was getting restless.
   It will shortly become apparent that another reason for its growing friskiness is the fact that, in the pre-ceremony confusion, its trunk found the ceremonial chalice containing a gallon of strong wine and drained the lot. Strange hot ideas are beginning to bubble in front of its crusted eyes, of uprooted baobabs, mating fights with other bulls, glorious stampedes through native villages and other half-remembered pleasures. Soon it will start to see pink people.
   Fortunately this was unknown to Cutwell, who caught the eye of the High Priest's assistant — a forward-looking young man who had the foresight to provide himself with a long rubber apron and waders — and signalled that the ceremony should begin.
   He darted back into the priest's robing room and struggled into the special ceremonial robe the palace seamstress had made up for him, digging deep into her workbasket for scraps of lace, equins and gold thread to produce a garment of uch dazzling tastelessness that even the ArchChancellor of Unseen University wouldn't have been ashamed to wear it. Cutwell allowed himself five seconds to admire himself in the mirror before ramming the pointy hat on his head and running back to the door, stopping just in time to emerge at a sedate pace as befitted a person of substance.
   He reached the High Priest as Keli started her advance up the central aisle, flanked by maidservants who fussed around her like tugs around a liner.
   Despite the drawbacks of the hereditary dress, Cutwell thought she looked beautiful. There was something about her that made him —
   He gritted his teeth and tried to concentrate on the security arrangements. He had put guards at various vantage points in the hall in case the Duke of Sto Helit tried any last-minute rearrangement of the royal succession, and reminded himself to keep a special eye on the duke himself, who was sitting in the front row of seats with a strange quiet smile on his face. The duke caught Cutwell's eye, and the wizard hastily looked away.
   The High Priest held up his hands for silence. Cutwell sidled towards him as the old man turned towards the Hub and in a cracked voice began the invocation to the gods.
   Cutwell let his eyes slip back towards the duke.
   'Hear me, mm, O gods —'
   Was Sto Helit looking up into the bat-haunted darkness of the rafters?