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26.12.2018

“A big monster?” said the Arch-astronomer.

“Not particularly, although it is said to be exceptionally fierce, lord.”

The ruler of Krull and the Circumfence considered this for a moment, then shrugged.

“The sea is full of monsters,” he said. It is one of its prime attributes. Have it dealt with. And-Master Launchcontroller?”

“Lord?”

“If I am further vexed, you will recall that two people are due to be sacrificed. I may feel generous and increase the number.”

“Yes, lord. The Master Launchcontroller scuttled away, relieved to be out of the autocrat’s sight.

The Potent Voyager, no longer the blank bronze shell that had been smashed from the mould a few days earlier, rested in its cradle on top of a wooden tower in the centre of the arena. In front of it a railway ran down towards the Edge, where for the space of a few yards it turned suddenly upwards.

The late Dactylos Goldeneyes, who had designed the launching pad as well as the Potent Voyager itself, had claimed that this last touch was merely to ensure that the ship would not snag on any rocks as it began its long plunge. Maybe it was merely coincidental that it would also, because of that little twitch in the track, leap like a salmon and shine theatrically in the sunlight before disappearing into the cloud sea.

There was a fanfare of trumpets at the edge of the arena. The chelonauts’ honour guard appeared, to much cheering from the crowd. Then the whitesuited explorers themselves stepped out into the light.

It immediately dawned on the Arch-astronomer that something was wrong. Heroes always walked in a certain way, for example. They certainly didn’t waddle, and one of the chelonauts was definitely waddling.

The roar of the assembled people of Krull was deafening. As the chelonauts and their guards crossed the great arena, passing between the many altars that had been set up for the various wizards and priests of Krull’s many sects to ensure the success of the launch, the Arch-astronomer frowned. By the time the party was halfway across the floor his mind had reached a conclusion. By the time the chelonauts were standing at the foot of the ladder that led to the ship- and was there more than a hint of reluctance about them? – the Arch-astronomer was on his feet, his words lost in the noise of the crowd. One of his arms shot out and back fingers spread dramatically in the traditional spell-casting position, and any passing lip-reader who was also familiar with the standard texts on magic would have recognized the opening words of Vestcake’s Floating Curse, and would then have prudently run away.

Its final words remained unsaid, however. The Arch-astronomer turned in astonishment as a commotion broke out around the big arched entrance to the arena. Guards were running out into the daylight, throwing down their weapons as they scuttled among the altars or vaulted the parapet into the stands.

Something emerged behind them, and the crowd around the entrance ceased its raucous cheering and began a silent, determined scramble to get out of the way.

The something was a low dome of seaweed, moving slowly but with a sinister sense of purpose. One guard overcame his horror sufficiently to stand in its path and hurl his spear, which landed squarely among the weeds. The crowd cheered then went deathly silent as the dome surged forward and engulfed the man completely.

The Arch-astronomer dismissed the half-formed shape of Vestcake’s famous Curse with a sharp wave of his hand, and quickly spoke the words of one of the most powerful spells in his repertoire: the Infernal Combustion Enigma.

Octarine fire spiralled around and between his fingers as he shaped the complex rune of the spell in mid-air and sent it, screaming and trailing blue smoke, towards the shape.

There was a satisfying explosion and a gout of flame shot up into the clear morning sky, shedding flakes of burning seaweed on the way. A cloud of smoke and steam concealed the monster for several minutes, and when it cleared the dome had completely disappeared.

There was a large charred circle on the flagstones, however, in which a few clumps of kelp and bladderwrack still smouldered.

And in the centre of the circle was a perfectly ordinary, if somewhat large, wooden chest. It was not even scorched. Someone on the far side of the arena started to laugh, but the sound was broken off abruptly as the chest rose up on dozens of what could only be legs and turned to face the Arch-astronomer. A perfectly ordinary if somewhat large wooden chest does not, of course, have a face with which to face, but this one was quite definitely facing. In precisely the same way as he understood that, the Arch-astronomer was also horribly aware that this perfectly normal box was in some indescribable way narrowing its eyes.

It began to move resolutely towards him. He shuddered.

“Magicians!” he screamed. “Where are my magicians?”

Around the arena pale-faced men peeped out from behind altars and under benches. One of the bolder ones, seeing the expression on the Arch-astronomer’s face, raised an arm tremulously and essayed a hasty thunderbolt. It hissed towards the chest and struck it squarely in a shower of white sparks.

That was the signal for every magician, enchanter and thaumaturgist in Krull to leap up eagerly and, under the terrified eyes of their master, unleash the first spell that came to each desperate mind. Charms curved and whistled through the air.

Soon the chest was lost to view again in an expanding cloud of magical particles, which billowed out and wreathed it in twisting, disquieting shapes. Spell after spell screamed into the melee. Flame and lightning bolts of all eight colours stabbed out brightly from the seething thing that now occupied the space where the box had been.

Not since the Mage Wars had so much magic been concentrated on one small area. The air itself wavered and glittered. Spell ricocheted off spell, creating short-lived wild spells whose brief half-life was both weird and uncontrolled. The stones under the heaving mass began to buckle and split. One of them in fact turned into something best left undescribed and slunk off into some dismal dimension. Other strange side-effects began to manifest themselves. A shower of small lead cubes bounced out of the storm and rolled across the heaving floor, and eldritch shapes gibbered and beckoned obscenely; four-sided triangles and double-ended circles existed momentarily before merging again into the booming, screaming tower of runaway raw magic that boiled up from the molten flagstones and spread out over Krull. It no longer mattered that most of the magicians had ceased their spell casting and fled – the thing was now feeding on the stream of octarine particles that were always at their thickest near the Edge of the Disc. Throughout the island of Krull every magical activity failed as all the available mana in the area was sucked into the cloud, which was already a quarter of a mile high and streaming out into mind-curdling shapes; hydrophobes on their seaskimming lenses crashed screaming into the waves, magic potions turned to mere impure water in their phials, magic swords melted and dripped from their scabbards.

But none of this in any way prevented the thing at the base of the cloud, now gleaming mirrorbright in the intensity of the power storm around it, from moving at a steady walking pace towards the Arch-astronomer.

Rincewind and Twoflower watched in awe from the shelter of Potent Voyager’s launch tower. The honour party had long since vanished, leaving their weapons scattered behind them.

“Well,” sighed Twoflower at last, “there goes the Luggage.” He sighed.

“Don’t you believe it,” said Rincewind. “sapient pearwood is totally impervious to all known forms of magic. It’s been constructed to follow you anywhere. I mean, when you die, if you go to Heaven, you’ll at least have a clean pair of socks in the afterlife. But I don’t want to die yet, so let’s just get going, shall we?”

“Where?” said Twoflower.

Rincewind picked up a crossbow and a handful of quarrels. “Anywhere that isn’t here,” he said.

“What about the Luggage?”

“Don’t worry. When the storm has used up all the free magic in the vicinity it’ll just die out.”

In fact that was already beginning to happen. The billowing cloud was still flowing up from the area but now it had a tenuous, harmless look about it. Even as Twoflower stared, it began to flicker uncertainly.

Soon it was a pale ghost. The luggage was now visible as a squat shape among the almost invisible flames. Around it the rapidly cooling stones began to crack and buckle.

Twoflower called softly to his luggage. It stopped its stolid progression across the tortured flags and appeared to be listening intently; then, moving its dozens of feet in an intricate pattern, it turned on its length and headed towards the Potent Voyager. Rincewind watched it sourly. The Luggage had an elemental nature, absolutely no brain, a homicidal attitude towards anything that threatened its master, and he wasn’t quite sure that its inside occupied the same space-time framework as its outside.

“Not a mark on it,” said Twoflower cheerfully, as the box settled down in front of him. He pushed open the lid.

“This is a fine time to change your underwear,” snarled Rincewind. “In a minute all those guards and priests are going to come back, and they’re going to be upset, man!”

“Water,” murmured Twoflower. “The whole box is full of water!”

Rincewind peered over his shoulder. There was no sign of clothes, moneybags, or any other of the tourist’s belongings. The whole box was full of water.

A wave sprang up from nowhere and lapped over the edge. It hit the flagstones but, instead of spreading out, began to take the shape of-a foot. Another foot and the bottom half of a pair of legs followed as more water streamed down as if filling an invisible mould. A moment later Tethis the sea troll was standing in front of them, blinking.

“I see,” he said at last. “You two. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”

He looked around, ignoring their astonished expressions.

“I was just sitting outside my hut, watching the sun set, when this thing came roaring up out of the water and swallowed me,” he said. “I thought it was rather strange. Where is this place?”

“Krull,” said Rincewind. He stared hard at the now closed luggage, which was managing to project a smug expression. Swallowing people was something it did quite frequently, but always when the lid was next opened there was nothing inside but Twoflower’s laundry. Savagely he wrenched the lid up. There was nothing inside but Twoflower’s laundry. It was perfectly dry.

“Well, well,” said Tethis. He looked up.

“Hey!” he said. “Isn’t this the ship they’re going to send over the Edge? Isn’t it? It must be!”

An arrow zipped through his chest, leaving a faint ripple. He didn’t appear to notice. Rincewind did. Soldiers were beginning to appear at the edge of the arena, and a number of them were peering around the entrances.

Another arrow bounced off the tower behind Twoflower. At this range the bolts did not have a lot of force, but it would only be a matter of time…

“Quick!” said Twoflower. “Into the ship! They won’t dare fire at that!”

“I knew you were going to suggest that,” groaned Rincewind. “I just knew it!”

He aimed a kick at the Luggage. It backed off a few inches, and opened its lid threateningly.