A Sea of Troubles

A Discworld Fanfic by Beth Einspanier

Disclaimer: Discworld, Ankh-Morpork, Unseen University and the staff thereof are the creations and property of Terry Pratchett. I'm just borrowing them for the duration of this fanfic. No, really. I am.

Author's Note: This was the first Discworld fic I ever started, and now I'm trying to finish it. Somehow through the recent revisions it's evolved from a thinly veiled Mary Sue to a thinly veiled romance. Have an idea for the ending, just need a way to get there. As always, R&R. Thanx

*****

Imagine if you will a place at the intersection of Possibility and Reality, where anything than happen, and usually does. A place on this side of improbability from the Twilight Zone, where a world can be flat and carried on the backs of four elephants, who in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle. Imagine that somewhere in this world someone is running for their life. Imagine that someone is being chased by a terrifying monster whose only intention is the utter annihilation of the runner.

Imagine that for once, it isn't Rincewind.

*****

When Rincewind heard the sound of boots sprinting across the cobbles of Ankh-Morpork, his first instinct was to look at his own feet to see if their instinct for self-preservation had noticed something he didn't yet and, as was their habit, simply took off while he held on for the ride. This instinct had saved him from any number of dangers, and he generally took them at their word that there was something worth running from. However, his feet were not, in fact, running. For once. He looked around for other possible sources of running feet(*a) and saw a woman skidding around a corner at high speed, managing to knock over someone who looked suspiciously like CMOT Dibbler (scattering Sausages Inna Bun all over the street) before she regained traction. She was clad in a teal green dress, the skirts of which flapped behind her like the tail of a very jittery peacock, and her loose red hair streamed behind her like flames.(*b) She was bent nearly double in a posture Rincewind had dubbed the oh-shit-I'm- gonna-die sprint, after his own use of the pose.

This train of thought whizzed through Rincewind's mind in the five seconds it took her to close the distance between them. At this point she cannoned into him full-force, sending them both tumbling to the cobbles in a tangle of limbs and robes and knocking the wind from him. After a half-beat to recover, she pushed herself up off him and resumed her sprint without a word of apology, her lead foot missing planting itself into his stomach by a fraction. He groaned and sat up.

He promptly wished he hadn't.

All wizards can see into the octarine, the eighth color of the Discworld light spectrum. Because Rincewind was a wizard,(*c) he likewise had this ability, and this allowed him to see very clearly what the woman had been running from. An *oh bugger* tried to psych itself up enough to actually leave his throat via his gaping mouth, but in the end it just huddled there, feeling a bit of a fool, until he swallowed hard to get rid of the resulting lump.

The creature now rounding the corner was not from the Dungeon Dimensions, he could tell right away. Nothing from there had a carapace.(*d) The thing rounding the corner looked like a huge crustacean who had decided, just for the hell of it, to grow thirty feet tall, sprout an extra pair of pincers, and turn midnight blue. The head was not very crablike, though. It pivoted this way and that on a short neck, like it was looking for something, and lacked antennae. The face, however, was vaguely insectile. It looked like the sort of insect that spent its holidays in various circles of hell and, before leaving, would drop a little survey card into a box labeled "Please Let Us Know How We Can Make Your Stay More Excruciating.".

Icy sweat poured down Rincewind's face and back as his feet scrabbled on the cobbles in a desperate effort to get underneath him. Finally he managed to scramble into a semi-upright position and started to run as fast as he could.

He was nearly past an alley mouth when a pair of hands grabbed him by the shoulder of his robes and pulled him into the shadows, slamming him back against one of the walls. He drew breath to scream, but a hand clamped over his mouth at a crucial moment, so that it felt like the scream went out through his ears.

"I'm going to take my hand away," whispered a feminine voice, "and you are not going to scream. The reason for this is that if you do scream, the thing outside this alley will find both of us. Do you want that to happen?"

He shook his head fervently. The rest of him was shaking too; he hoped the woman could differentiate one from the other. She slowly peeled her hand away. The figure opposite him was clad in a hooded robe, though the fleshiness of her hand dispelled any fears that she was some helper of Death. The hood turned suddenly towards the alley mouth, and just as suddenly she fell full-length against him, pinning his hands with her own, his body with her own, and shoving his face into the hood next to her head. He tasted hair.

"Don't move," she said, in the faintest of whispers right by his ear. He had no intention of doing so until she added, "It's right outside."(*e)

The he heard footsteps, if what it had could rightfully be called feet. The sound was like the world's largest set of castanets being played by a very patient and laid-back flamenco dancer. He could hear the cobbles cracking under the thing's weight. To take his mind off the possibilities of what might happen if he should so much as cough, he concentrated instead on his more immediate surroundings.

Okay, at least one thing is settled - the person in the alley with me is definitely female. Even a wizard could scarcely mistake that, especially at this proximity. Rincewind himself, having not quite mastered the arts of magic, had considered it redundant to follow the traditional wizardly avoidance of relations with members of the opposite sex.(*f) Item the second: she is very strong. Rincewind had never really needed physical strength even in his Disctrotting adventures. Generally speaking, running like hell worked just as well as punching the other man in the face, and you didn't get your knuckles bruised. But he found himself pinned so firmly that even if he wished to move, he would be utterly unable to. Item the third: Her hair - of which he was currently making a close acquaintance - smelled like brine. For most people in Ankh-Morpork, the smell of water was synonymous with the smell of a wet Labrador Retriever that has just rolled in a spilt barrel of salted cod. Rincewind himself had done quite a bit more seafaring than he ever expected to do in his lifetime, so he knew what the ocean smelt like, tasted like, and felt like being jettisoned up both nostrils upon reaching the bottom of an impromptu swimming lesson off the side of a ship into water infested with many carnivorous animals. He hated the ocean.

As he was ruminating on the 436 things he hated most about the ocean, he became aware that she'd released him and stepped back. That meant that a) the creature had left without finding, and doing hideous things to, either of them and b) he now had a chance to get a good look at her as she pushed back her hood.

She was about a head shorter than him, which begged the question of how his face had been so easily shoved into her hood just moments ago. Her hair, which he thought at first was merely red, was in fact alternating locks of red and black, as though someone had at one time tried to change her into a roulette wheel, with limited success. Her teal dress, it turned out, was fashioned very like wizards' robes. Such robes had not been seen on a woman for a very long time, and only once before. Rincewind had the sinking feeling that if any of the senior wizards at Unseen University saw her, they'd all die of a collective brain aneurysm, brought on by the magical chauvinism shared by those wizards of sufficiently high level to no longer care about rebelling against traditions. Her eyes, set in as fair a face as had ever graced the city, were a startling shade of blue, and around her neck was a small amulet, made of some stone that couldn't decide whether it wanted to be blue or green, hanging from a fine silver chain.

"Um," he said, intelligently, his cheeks turning red.

"I need your help," she said.

"Me?"

"You saw the creature. You can see into the octarine. You're a wizard."

Rincewind quickly concluded that she wasn't from Ankh-Morpork - or, indeed, from anywhere else.

"You're asking the wrong man," he said flatly, edging his way towards the alley mouth.

She frowned. "That thing that's chasing me knows my scent. It won't give up easily. It might have picked up your scent, too."

He paled. "How? It didn't seem to smell either of us a few minutes ago." Even though, he thought, he must have had buckets of fear-scent pouring off him.

"Your hat."

He instinctively felt the top of his own head. His pointy wizard's hat, with WIZZARD embroidered on it in sequins, was not there. He leaned out of the alley to see if it had fallen off when he fell. It sat in the street, a tiny conical monument to wizardry in the face of utter incompetence. He looked around for any signs of the crab-monster and upon seeing none, he darted out, retrieved his hat, and replaced it on his head. He became aware that she was still behind him. He turned to face her.

"Listen," he said, pointing a finger at her, "Every time someone asks me for help, something horrible lies in my immediate future."

"I just kept something horrible from finding you," she protested.

"That only means that something more horrible is coming later. Besides, you said that thing would come back. I don't want to be anywhere around you when it does."

She drew back, stung. "I thought the wizards of this country were noble, wise, and willing to help a damsel in distress."

"They aren't," he admitted, "Most of them are idiots in pointy hats."

"At least the presence of wizards creates a field of high magical energy. The creature can't enter a place like that."

"They'd also have a heart attack if they saw you dressed like that."

She shrugged. "Who says they'll see me?" As he opened his mouth to protest, she added, "And you can't tell them because you won't remember me." And she seized both sides of his face and kissed him full on the mouth. His eyes went wide, and then glazed over.

He didn't remember taking her back to Unseen University. He didn't remember showing her the loose bricks that students used to sneak out at night, or the secret entrance in the cellar. And he didn't remember the mysterious woman who left him in a random corridor, still gaping like a fish.

*****

Arianna was good at not being seen, or at least not being remembered.(*g) Her robes flickered with a stonework pattern as she made her way down one of the mazelike corridors of Ankh-Morpork's premiere(*h) college of wizardry. Every so often a student or random wizard would pass her and simply not notice her. In the relative shelter of a door she paused to catch her breath and to consult a book that she carried tucked in her robes.

_Journeys in L-Space_ was its title. The author had theorized that every book possible existed _in potentia_ in the space between libraries and, through close examination of the Disc's magical field, the content of these books could be determined. She needed to find one specific book on one specific topic, and if she could find the author of _Journeys_, she might be able to find that information. She didn't have much time before the creature found out where she was hiding.

She tucked the book away in her robes, flipped up her hood, and kept moving.

*****

Ponder Stibbons made his way through the hallways of the High Energy Magic building, where he and several other student wizards maintained Hex, the huge thinking engine of Unseen University. In one hand was a mug of hot cocoa, for which he had abandoned coffee after discovering the meaning behind Adrian Turnipseed's assertion that said coffee was just ground that morning. Adrian's coffee tasted like mud. Under the other arm he clutched a ram skull, which Hex had requested the other day, for the purpose of improving how fast it thought. Ponder was not entirely certain where the other ram skulls residing in Hex had come from, and every time he'd asked, Hex had given him a DIVIDE BY CUCUMBER error. In any case, the ant farm seemed to use them when Hex was working out a problem.

He stopped in the doorway of the High Energy Magic Lab. He was certain that there were no academic tours scheduled for that day, for he would have heard in advance if any of them were to pass through the High Energy Magic building. Anyway, it was hard to be a tour group with only one person in it, and he had not heard about the faculty inviting any women to be future alumnae, especially ones as, ahem, academically distracting as this one. He was aware that he was beginning to flush. He cleared his throat.

"Excuse me," he said, "Are you supposed to be here?" He figured the answer was going to be in the "no" family, but it was worth asking anyway.

She turned to look at him thoughtfully, then consulted the inside back cover of a book she had with her. "This is interesting," she said, by way of not answering his question.

He tried again. "May I help you?" he asked.

"I'm looking for a Mr. P. Stibbons," she said, finally addressing him. Her voice had a certain quality to it, like whalesong. Ponder, having only been to the ocean twice, during the curious events at Mono Island and FourEcks, and had never heard a whale sing at all, failed to make this connection, but it is worth noting anyway.

"That's me. Uh, Ponder Stibbons," he clarified, "And who are you?"

"My name isn't important," she said, "I don't expect we'll meet again."

Stibbons thought about this statement. It made little sense, but that was about par for UU.

"I read your book about Invisible Writings," she continued.

"I haven't written any..." he began, then stopped. If what she said was true, then the existence of such a tome would definitively prove his theory about Invisible Writings, even to the thickheaded senior wizards. Maybe even to the Archchancellor. To have in his possession a book that definitely could not have been written yet would be a massive leap in his research.

"I need your help in piecing together some information that probably hasn't been set to parchment yet, but is very important if you don't want to go insane."

"Well. That's good to know," Ponder said distractedly.

"I'm being hunted by a Retriever," she summarized.

"Golden or Labrador?" asked Ponder.

"Neither. A Retriever is a type of demon."

Ponder had at that moment the extreme misfortune to be taking a sip from his mug, and learned very quickly that land-based creatures were not meant to breathe hot cocoa. The strange woman pounded him on the back until he stopped coughing.

"Can you help me find information on the subject?" she asked, finally.

"Piecing together obscure information by hand would take a very long time," he said, "I take it you need it now, though."

"By tonight, if at all possible."

"Well, several of us in the High Energy Magic building built Hex to facilitate the reading and transcription of Invisible Writing. That should make things quicker, anyway."

"Hex?" Her brow furrowed in confusion.

"Our thinking engine." He gestured grandly with the ram skull to indicate the mechanical behemoth that dominated the room. At last, he thought to himself, he was back in his element.

"You built a mind?"

"Not as such," he said, pushing his glasses further up on the bridge of his nose with one thumb, "Hex makes calculations and comes up with solutions based on the data he is given."

"How much does Hex know about demons?"

"Not very much," Ponder grimaced, "We try to keep demonologists away from him, ever since a little incident that left Hex ejecting pea soup from his speaking tube at random students and spinning his ram skulls. It took forever to get him to stop writing YOUR SUFFERING WILL BE LEGENDARY, EVEN IN MAGICAL THEORY CLASS whenever we asked him a question."

"If I were to tell him something about one particular demon, though, would he be able to tell me how to defeat it?" she asked.

"Theoretically," Ponder said, "If you told him enough about that demon."

"How do I do that?" she asked, looking at the jumble of random parts that comprised Hex, some of which Hex himself had requested for various reasons and fully half of which had simply shown up on their own.

"Just a minute. I need to add this skull on." He set the ram skull and mug of cocoa on the top of a ladder on wheels and pushed it over towards Hex.

"Why?"

"Hex asked for it. He just does, from time to time." He climbed the ladder and seated the skull next to its calcareous neighbors, making sure not to spill the cocoa. Once he had climbed down, he said, "Just tell Hex what you want. Talk into this tube here." He indicated the speaking tube, which allowed those who were not manually dextrous enough to use the rune keys with any great speed to directly ask Hex questions.

She leaned up to the speaking tube. "How do I defeat a Retriever?" she asked, and jumped back as the quill pen dipped itself in the inkwell and scratched a reply on the parchment.

+++GOLDEN OR LABRADOR+++QUERY+++

She sighed. "I'm not talking about a type of dog," she said calmly, "It's a sort of demon."

+++DEMON, TYPE RETRIEVER, UNKNOWN+++ +++INSUFFICIENT DATA TO CARRY OUT REQUEST.+++

"Insufficient dates?" she asked, confused.

Ponder, who had already gone through this innumerable times with Ridcully, shook his head in resignation. "It means he doesn't know. You have to tell him what a Retriever is."

"Okay...?"

Ponder aimed the speaking tube towards himself. "Defining Demon, type Retriever," he said into it. To her, he said, "Okay, tell Hex what it is."

She began describing the Retriever. As Ponder listened to her description of what it looked like, what its role was, and what it did to those it retrieved, he became aware that cocoa was splattering out of the mug onto his robes. He looked at his hand and saw that it was shaking violently. He almost collapsed in relief when the description ended, but he at least had the presence of mind to pull her out of harm's way when the huge hourglass bobbed down on its huge spring.

"What's THAT?" she asked, alarmed that the thinking engine had apparently just tried to clobber her.

"Hex is thinking about the data... information you gave it. We should get an answer in a couple of minutes."

"Good," she said, "I want to be certain I can fight it off when it gets here."

Ponder choked on another mouthful of cocoa. "Will you please stop saying things like that while I'm taking a drink?" he snapped.

"Sorry."

Finally, the hourglass bobbed back up, and the quill pen began scratching Hex's reply. The woman watched the parchment scroll out of the output slot, and before Ponder could read any of it she tore it off, smiling in what looked like relief.

"Thank you, Mr. Stibbons," she said "This will help me immensely."

"Indeed. Now about that book--"

"Now to put this to use. Thanks again." She kissed Ponder on the cheek, and any further thoughts about the book were displaced by a fluffy pink cloud of oblivion.

*****

This was very interesting, thought Arianna as she sprinted through the corridors with her newfound information. The iconograph of P. Stibbons in the back of Journeys showed that he had to be about fortyish, and he sported a neatly trimmed black goatee, but the man who had identified himself as Ponder Stibbons looked to be in his mid-twenties, certainly no more than thirty, and his face had little in the way of a true beard, though the ambitious stubble on his upper lip and chin certainly indicated where one would be in the near future. On the other hand, one of the main theories regarding invisible writings was that a book could exist in L- Space before its author had written it. Therefore, logic stated that the actual author could be any age at the time in which the book was pieced together from invisible writings, and wouldn't really write the book until any interval later.

Several times she had to stop and double back after hitting a cul-de-sac or a Mobius hallway. The University was full of trick corridors, caused by the magical field around the place. A library, she thought, where the hell do they keep their library? She unaccountably found herself in front of a set of heavy ironbound double doors in the courtyard. It sounded like somebody was summoning imps on the other side. Oh, well. It was a door she hadn't tried yet, at least.

She pushed open the doors and was greeted by gibbering at the edge of hearing, and the rattling of chained grimoires on their shelves.

And somebody going "Ook" at her.

She looked down and saw an orangutan crouched in front of her, his heavy brow furrowed in what she hoped was merely annoyance.

"Oook," it said again, more emphatically.

She looked around helplessly and fruitlessly for a human librarian. But then again, in a place like this people have fights with reality all the time. They just lose sometimes.

"Maybe you can help me," she said to the ape, and offered him the roll of parchment. His brow unfurrowed slightly.

He took it in his attenuated hands and studied it with such an expression of concentration that anyone who wasn't aware of the immense proportional strength of an adult orangutan would have burst out laughing. She wasn't aware of this bit of trivia, but all the same she thought it imprudent to laugh at someone she was asking for help.

"Oook," he said finally, and beckoned for her to follow as he knuckled off into the shelves. Having no other alternative, she followed him. All around her, books jerked to the ends of their chains like very enthusiastic but not very bright attack dogs.

They passed by a ladder currently occupied by Rincewind, a tome, a bullwhip, and a length of chain. He glanced down as they passed and saw the Librarian leading someone through the shelves who couldn't possibly be a woman because everyone knows they don't allow women at UU, but who nonetheless had the general build of a woman, and who struck an odd chord of familiarity in Rincewind's mind. Well. Time and space were a little weird around here. Maybe he'd already met her, but didn't know who she was because he hadn't already met her yet. He was starting to get a headache.

*****

Some time later, the cloud dissipated a bit, so that there was room for thoughts like "What just happened?" and "Where am I?" and "What's my name, again?" This last question was answered quickly.

"Stibbons... STIBBONS!" bellowed Ridcully, very close to Stibbons' ear. The younger wizard spasmed awake with a yelp. His arm jerked, sending a mug half-full of ice-cold cocoa pinwheeling out of his grasp to bounce off the Dean's head.

"We found you with Hex," said the Dean, rubbing at the splash of brown on the crown and brim of his pointy wizard's hat where the mug had rebounded.

"I've always said that spending too much time with that thing will do things to your mind," the Archchancellor put in.

"You were standing there all rigid, like you'd seen a ghost," the Dean continued, ignoring him, "We had a devil of a time getting you up the spiral staircase to the infirmary."

"Couldn't you have the common decency to get scared stiff in a more flexible posture?"

Ponder was barely paying attention. His mind swam with images from a strange dream he'd just had... or was it a dream? He remembered, or imagined, a beautiful red-haired woman in what seemed to be wizards' robes, holding a book that Ponder himself hadn't written yet, asking about demons. He was dimly aware that the senior wizards were discussing offering him a week's paid vacation, and then recalling that they didn't pay him anyway.

"How long was I asleep?" he asked the room at large. Nobody answered him. They were still arguing over whether it would cost more to give him a vacation or to have a raving lunatic running around the High Energy Magic building. No big surprise there. Nobody noticed when he slipped out.

He had to find some answers. If it was a dream, there was nothing worry about. But if it wasn't, then Hex might remember what had happened before he blacked out. Or at least what information she wanted.

*****

Arianna left the Library some time later with a new scroll of information tucked under one arm. She now had some idea of how to fend off the Retriever, but little idea of where to find the item she needed. She was ruminating on where one would keep such a staff if they didn't want the wrong people to get their hands on it. Probably in a vault somewhere underground, lined with octiron so nobody could look for it magically. Or maybe close by - most wizards were very protective of their staves. One question answered, another asked. That was always the way.

"Hey, you there!" a voice bellowed. She froze. None of the students was a baritone, she was willing to bet, and none of them was of sufficient skill to see through her chameleon robe's illusion. It had to be a senior wizard.

Dammit.

*****

Ridcully had little time to be surprised at the presence of a woman in the hallway, for as soon as he called out to her, she broke into a sprint that would have made Rincewind proud. On the other hand, Ridcully did not adhere to the sedentary lifestyle shared by most wizards, and was fitter than any man there. He was also by nature a sportsman, and not likely to let someone get away because she could run fast. He gave chase.

*****

Arianna heard the sound of boots in pursuit, and she swore. Of all the wizards that had to notice her, it had to be one without emphysema. She zigged and zagged around bewildered students, who were probably just as startled to see a high-level wizard in hot pursuit, especially considering the rule about wizards being celibate, shortly before Ridcully completely failed to dodge around them. They left a trail of fallen academics behind them. Arianna had one last trick up her sleeve. She prayed it would work.

*****

Ridcully was gaining, despite all the collisions. His breath huffed in and out through his mustache like a steam engine. Suddenly the woman half- turned and threw something on the floor behind her - a bagful of marbles. They skittered across the floor tiles so that even had he been merely walking, there wouldn't have been room to put a foot between them. His lead foot hit the first of them and skidded out from under him. He put down his other foot to avoid falling, and it slid the other way, leaving him standing as still as he could, his arms out for balance, and his feet rather farther apart than normally allowed by male comfort. The inside edges of his boot soles were thus far preventing him from slipping any further, but this position was so precarious because of the marbles still under his feet that he was afraid to breathe too hard. He looked like a very tense starfish in a wizard's robe.

Maybe, he thought, if I shift my weight ever so slightly onto this foot, I can get my other foot off these accursed marbles--URK!

His weight-bearing foot slipped an inch outward. He froze. He became aware of a spider above him, lowering itself towards him on a length of silk. His eyes tried to cross as it settled on the end of his nose. It tickled. Beads of perspiration formed on Ridcully's brow as the spider crawled slowly towards one nostril.

*****

Arianna had paused for breath around a bend in the corridor, so she was in a perfect position to hear the explosive sneeze and a chaotic clatter as her pursuer finally fell in the marble trap. She continued running.

*****

Ridcully lay spreadeagled on a bed of marbles on the floor. He noted to his chagrin that the spider still dangled from the ceiling. He incinerated it with a small fireball.

*****

Ponder arrived in the Lab, first making sure that there were no mysterious strangers there already. He approached the huge thinking engine.

"Do you remember someone asking you about demons?" he asked Hex.

+++YES I DO+++THE USER WAS NOT A STUDENT+++

"That's right. I need to know what you told this user about Retrievers."

+++ONE MOMENT, PLEASE+++

The hourglass bobbed down. Ponder waited.

*****

Outside Unseen University, night was falling like a pyroblastic cloud from a volcano. A huge shape approached the University gates, so big that most of the Morporkians didn't even see it.(*i) It ground its mandibles together as it hit the high energy field of magic that surrounded the place. Well. There was more than one way to torture a minor imp. Three hundred and eighty-five, so be exact.

*****

The unearthly howl stopped Arianna in her tracks. It had found her! She ducked into the nearest room and did what any self-respecting wizard would do. She hid under the bed.

Okay, what one self-respecting wizard would do.

Well, what Rincewind would do.

*****

The keen raised the figurative and literal hackles of every wizard in the building. That was its purpose. The only wizard that seemed unaffected was the Bursar, who kept sipping his tea even after the cup had shattered. On the other hand, on any given day the Bursar would be unaffected by a line of dwarven cabaret dancers prancing through the room.

In the library, Rincewind went stock-still like a startled hare. He had heard the expression making one's hair stand on end, but had thought it was only a figure of speech until now. His hair and beard prickled out like the individual strands were trying to flee his head, and even the fine hairs on his arms and on the back of his neck stood out, as though craning to see what all the fuss was about. The tome he still clutched in one hand wriggled free and flapped away to a distant corner, buffeting the Librarian along the way. The orangutan had the sort of expression shared by most primitive creatures upon hearing something bigger and meaner than them roar in the distance, but not sufficiently far away not to bother with it. He had a lot more hair to have stand on end, too. He looked like he was fighting the impulse to climb a tree - or in this case, a row of shelves - and gibber a warning to run and hide.

"What in the bloody hell is that?" demanded the Archchancellor as he viciously kicked the marbles out of his path. A terrified student rebounded off him and passed out from the shock, utterly pale-faced. Most student wizards tended towards fairer complections, due to the fact that they are inside all day and generally only go out for their leisure time at night, but as Ridcully looked at the fallen student, he wondered that the lad didn't have fang-marks on his neck. Well. He wasn't going to have a widespread panic on his hands over some prankster with a bullroarer and an amplification spell.

He strode over to a window, tore back the curtains, and glared out at the courtyard. Hmm. No light spells, no aura of octarine there. On the contrary, there seemed to be an octarine glow coming from just outside the University walls. His gaze drifted up to the aura and saw an insectile face staring back at him, from between two pairs of pincers folded on either side like the forelimbs of an over-achieving praying mantis.

"Great Scott!" remarked the Archchancellor, before he did what any sensible wizard would do. He ran for the door, missed it entirely, and knocked himself out cold on the adjacent wall.

*****

Ponder tried not to let the keening get under his skin as he hurried towards the library, carrying some printouts from Hex. He sprinted across the frightfully open courtyard faster than any sedentary wizard ought to be able to run in robes, covering his ears against the howling. He hit the library doors at full tilt and was inside with his back against the closed doors so fast that the casual observer would have sworn he went straight through without opening them at all. The grimoires were frantic at the presence outside the gates, but at least that was a halfway familiar shrieking and gibbering, and made a shift at drowning out the demon's howling.

Reasoning that he would be unable to sleep anyway, Ponder had decided to follow up on some theories that Hex had presented to him regarding the woman, the demon, and how the one first attracted the attention of the other. One of the theories was very curious indeed, and worth following up on. With the Librarian nowhere to be found - no surprise, considering most instincts regarding predators - Ponder set about the arduous task of finding a copy of Grimtooth's Fantastick Monstyrs of the Dysk.

About an hour later, he found it hiding under one of the writing desks. It hissed and snapped at him as he reached into its hiding place, but after a few false starts he managed to pin its cover shut with a yardstick and slide it out that way.

"Listen," he said to it as it growled at him, "As soon as I find out what I need to know, I'll put you back in your hiding spot. That may take a short time, or a long time. That all depends on you."

The book seemed to consider this, then opened up obediently. He flipped to the M's. The pages were brittle and tended to come out in his hand.

"Let's see... Manscorpion... blast... Manticore...ack... Medusa... dammit..."

*****

The next morning brought quite a different mystery to light. As wizards are not, by nature, early risers,(*j) nobody was quite certain how long the staff bathroom had been occupied, or by whom. They also didn't know what could possibly be making the sound that the wizards heard quite clearly above the sound of running water. It sounded like a tuning fork, with a range far greater than one note, and remarkable endurance.

"Sounds like someone's playing a saw in there," volunteered the Dean.

"Maybe we have mice," said the Lecturer in Recent Runes.

"Mice don't sound like that," the Dean pointed out.

"Maybe they're being tortured or something."

"Now you're just being silly, Runes. Everyone knows that if someone was torturing mice around here there'd be a revolt in the pipes."

"Even so, I think there's a definite possibility--"

He stopped as Ridcully approached, looking as though he'd recently had a fight with a brick wall and lost. Which, in fact, he had.

"What is that noise?" Ridcully demanded.

"Someone's torturing mice in the bathroom," the Bursar chirped cheerfully.

"That's nice, Bursar," said Ridcully, in the distracted tone usually adopted by one in response to one of the Bursar's non sequiturs.

"Some of the lads - not me, of course - thought maybe it was you in there," said the Dean.

Ridcully listened to the sound. "I'm not a soprano!" he snapped indignantly.

"Playing the saw," added the Lecturer in Recent Runes.

"We'll have none of that talk around here, Runes," snapped Ridcully, "We are fully-grown wizards, not schoolboys." He looked at the bathroom door, from which the sound was still issuing. He pounded on it with his fist. "All right, you! Come on out! We know you're in there, we can all hear you caterwauling!"

"I wouldn't call it caterwauling, sir," said the Dean.

"What would you call it, then?" asked Ridcully acidly, "Singing?"

"I say it sounds like someone playing the saw."

Ridcully put one hand over his eyes and shook his head. "I thought I made it quite clear that this is a learning institution, NOT a boys' locker room. I should at least be able to expect you chaps not to go around talking like prepubescent boys, talking about playing one's saw and the like."

"But--"

"We are supposed to serve as an example to our students! Uphold a certain code of conduct for the budding wizards!"

"Excuse me, gentlemen," said a new voice as its owner made her way between them from the bathroom.

"Good morrow."

"Nice day, eh?"

"Have a good day."

"Fruitcake."

"What would the students think if they heard us using language like playing one's saw?" demanded Ridcully, without missing a beat, "They'd wonder, what sort of role models do we have, who think about sex all the time?"

"Excuse me, Archchancellor..." said the Lecturer in Recent Runes.

"It would drive them to distraction! Then how much learning would get done around here?"

"Sir?"

"Why, I remember a time when wizards knew how to act! They knew that the presence of such thoughts in a wizard's mind was nothing but a distraction from the fine art of magic!"

"SIR!"

"WHAT!"

"At the risk of sounding, um, distracted, was that a woman that just passed by?"

"You see?" said Ridcully, "This is precisely what I'm talking about. You know very well that women aren't allowed at Unseen University!"

"Exactly my point, sir."

Ridcully opened his mouth to say something further. Then the full meaning of what had just happened struck him. "This woman," he finally said, in carefully measured tones, "What did she look like?"

"She had red hair, and was dressed in a curious imitation of wizards' robes."

There was a thoughtful pause.

"Which way?" Ridcully asked.

The Lecturer in Recent Runes pointed.

"Excuse me," said the Archchancellor, and he departed in that direction.

After a few moments' pause, the Dean said, "That's right, lads. No skirt chasing amongst us wizards."

After a few more thoughtful moments, the Lecturer volunteered, "Maybe we should tag along. You know, for emotional support. Bathroom phantoms can get pretty mean."

"Oh yes."

"Indeed."

"There goes Captain Squishy!"

*****

Arianna found herself in the University's kitchen. Well, as long as she was there...

She began gathering morsels of food from what was laid out in preparation to make the wizards' breakfast. She heard boots approaching the kitchen door and froze. The Archchancellor's face appeared in the little barred window in the kitchen door that Mrs. Whitlow always said made the place look like part of a dungeon. Ridcully expelled a snort that ruffled his mustache. The latch slowly turned. Arianna hid behind one of the preparation counters. Ridcully strode into the kitchen, looking around slowly.

*****

Ponder woke up in the Library, face-to-color plate with one of Grimtooth's illuminations. It depicted a group of creatures, half human and half-fish, frolicking amongst the waves. On the facing page was the beginning of an extensive entry on merfolk. He sat up, adjusting his glasses back into place, and peered back down at the page.

"Merfolk [read Ponder] is the term used to refer to an aquatic race of sentient beings with the upper half of humans and the lower half of fish. Of the two sexes, the females, or mermaids, are by far the better known, as seafarers the Disc over have reported of their physical grace and beauty, and of their enchanting singing (see also Siren), traits that frequently lead powerful nobles to attempt to capture mermaids for their harems. It is said that the kiss of one of the merfolk (see Kiss of Oblivion, below) can cause mundane people and some lower-level magic-users to completely forget any memory of the merman or mermaid, though he may be haunted by inexplicable dreams, or deja vu if they see the merfolk in question again. Both sexes are capable of practising magical arts similar to wizardry, though in most cases their use of arcane magic (spell casting) is limited to their underwater environment.

"It is said that merfolk frequently make journeys onto land, changing their shape to accommodate this by means of a magical item, usually a ring or amulet. On land, they must rely upon magical items such as rings, staves, or amulets to focus their magical energies. Without such a physical focus, they are as mundane folk, unable to cast any magic at all. The land-faring shape of one of the merfolk is generally that of a human of exceptionally pleasing appearance, often with hair of an unusual shade or color, and always with eyes of a striking shade of blue or aquamarine. In apparel they tend towards shades of blue, green or silver, or some combination of these colors. They retain all innate abilities save for the use of arcane magic. It is, however, difficult to capture one of the merfolk on land as, being far from clumsy as seals and walruses are, they are fleet of foot and possess remarkable agility and intelligence. Above all, they are experts at hiding, even weaving traveling cloaks to aid them in this goal."

*****

"I think I have her cornered!" Ridcully called over his shoulder to the other wizards, in case they were within earshot, "Come on and help me catch her!"

The scrape of a boot drew his attention. He jumped onto a clear space on one of the counters.

"Ha!"

There was no one on the other side.

"Damn."

The Dean and the Lecturer in Recent Runes arrived at the kitchen before the other wizards. Ridcully straightened up and scanned the room. He saw a flash of teal disappear around the far side of one of the counters. He motioned to the other two to try to surround her and to be very quiet about it.

*****

"Even if cornered, merfolk make formidable foes, as their quickness and agility are unrivalled by most land-based races. It is said that in a pinch, merfolk can even outrun a spell cast at them, though at this point this remains only a rumour."

*****

Arianna, crouched in the relative shelter of the counter, heard the two wizards coming and folded herself into a low cabinet nearby. Shortly after she had quietly shut the door, the Dean and the Lecturer jumped out from opposite ends of the counter and cast spells at the same time, aimed towards the middle of the aisle. The Dean's execution of Lorenzo's Full Body-Bind passed the Lecturer's casting of Gabriel's Octiron Net midway and hit the Lecturer, throwing him to the floor in a neck-to-ankles covering of mummy bandages, while the Dean found himself fighting with a layer of fine octiron chainmail. They could only watch as Arianna left the cabinet and made her way to the door.

She didn't expect Ridcully to be standing between her and the hallway.

"Whoops! Wrong way." She turned and tried to run, but Ridcully caught her by the arm and held her in place.

*****

"If one of the merfolk is captured, they are quick thinkers and glib speakers, able to think their way out of most situations with a minimum of violence."

*****

"I don't know how you got in here," growled Ridcully, "But I DO know how you're leaving."

"You act like I broke a federal law being here," she said, feeling around the countertop behind her.

"Worse. You broke centuries of magical tradition. Unseen University has always been an all-male school, and will continue to be so."

"No women at all?"

"None."

"Not ever?"

"Never."

"Not even when the wizards host a ball or something?" Her fingers closed around the handle of what felt like a cast-iron skillet.

"You stupid woman!" Ridcully snapped, "Wizards don't have balls!"

There was a very long pause.

Ridcully heard sniggering behind him. He turned to see the majority of the faculty standing in the corridor behind him. His brows met like fighting caterpillars. "You stay out of this!" he commanded them, and turned back to face Arianna.

CLANG.

There is a certain standard in the animated cartoons of our world that any metal object that strikes somebody in the face will retain the outline of that person's face indefinitely, or until the object is used again, whichever comes first. This is not so. On the contrary, any metal object that strikes a person in the face will cause the person's face to attempt to assume the shape of the object, and will feel as though it has indefinitely, or until fifteen minutes after the person wakes up, whichever comes first. In this case, Ridcully's head, being not so elastic as that of your standard cartoon character or standard human being, did not feel any such inclination, but he found it impossible to argue with the stars dancing in his vision, who said quite clearly that he should pass out now.

Arianna leaped over the fallen wizard and dashed down the corridor, amid the bewildered stares of the wizards. An octarine glow caught her eye through an open doorway, and she slid to a halt. She peered through the door and saw... an ordinary bedroom, with a dresser against one wall, a bookshelf against another, a wardrobe in the corner, and a squat bedside table next to a four-post bed, the sort with a canopy across the top to keep spiders and bugs from falling on the sleeper during the night(*k). The posts were nearly all identical, just seven-foot oak poles, decorated at the top with pine cones carved from jade. One of the pine cones, however, the one to the left and feetward of the hypothetical sleeper, glowed with the greenish-purple light that signified the presence of magic.

Of course! It was the perfect hiding place! Forget octiron vaults and whatnot - if you really don't want people to find something, hide the blasted thing in plain sight! She stacked books under the corner of the bedframe and began prying the staff loose as carefully as she could.

*****

Ponder knew he had to show this to somebody. It would certainly explain a lot of what was going on - like the presence of a woman in the University. He looked in vain for a bookmark, and settled instead for holding his place with one hand while the other hand kept the book shut and discouraged the loose pages from making bids for freedom. On his way out of the library, he paused at the Librarian's desk to check out the book. The orangutan pointedly watched him as he did so, despite its drooping eyelids and the bags under its eyes from the poor night of sleep.

He left the library and hurried across the courtyard, even though in the daylight hours there was nothing loitering outside the University gates and howling.

Let's see, he thought, it's ten o'clock and a bit according to the University clock, so the senior wizards should be at breakfast by now.

He trotted through the corridor, headed for the dining hall.

He didn't see Arianna coming the other way, and she didn't see him in enough time to prevent him catching the staff across the chest. Sheer momentum kept his feet going for a few steps before he was spun to the floor, his glasses pinwheeling away, the book flying from his grasp, and the pages scattering everywhere.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she blurted, leaning the staff against a wall while she helped him reassemble the book.

"Did you see what happened to my glasses?" he asked, feeling around for them.

"Hey, watch it!"

"Sorry."

"Your glasses would be on the floor, wouldn't they?"

He felt his face grow warm. He knew by the voice and the slight misstep his hand took that the person in the hallway with him was indeed a woman, and he knew intuitively that a woman should not be in the University. But if his theory was correct...

She pushed a pair of glasses into his hand, and he put them on. He blinked owlishly at her.

"Have we met?" he asked.

"Technically, yes," she replied, "Just now. Quite forcefully."

"I mean before that."

"Not precisely."

"What do you mean, 'not precisely'?"

"We were never formally introduced."

"Oh."

They continued reassembling the exploded book in silence. Finally he simply had to test his theory. If he was wrong, he would apologize and that would be the end of it. If he was right, though, chivalry dictated that he help her, even if he got a few raised eyebrows from the senior wizards. He took a deep breath.

"Need any help getting to the Circle Sea?" he asked. She froze. He picked up a page and added it to the worn book.

"You think you're so smart," she said acidly, then added with a wave of her hand, "I'm not the mermaid you're looking for."

"All the evidence says otherwise. I read about merfolk in Grimtooth."

"I'm not the mermaid you're looking for!" she repeated, waving her hand in front of his face again.

"I also know merfolk are practically powerless on land."

She sagged in resignation.

"Could you hand me page 34?" he asked, indicating a piece of parchment on the floor. She did so.

"So, now you're going to tell, are you?" she asked him.

"Another thing I learned about merfolk is that in the water they can escape anything, even better than they can on land."

"But with that thing out there I won't last five minutes at night. It's a miracle I even got this far."

"What if someone - a wizard, say - were to help you along?"

"He would have to be the craziest bastard on the Disc."

Ponder reflected on this. Most of the other wizards thought he was nuts for pursuing his ideas on theoretical books. He *felt* sane, of course; in fact he liked to think of himself as the only sane person at UU. On the other hand, he would be an ass to let her try to fight this thing alone.

"Just give me time to get my hat and some spells together."

"You *are* crazy!"

"Right now, I prefer to think of it as chivalry."

"Fine line."

*****

Ridcully sat in the infirmary, holding a bag of crushed ice to his face. He had remained silent even after he woke up, and one might get the impression that he was sulking, had he not been an eighth-level wizard and therefore above such childish things. The Dean and the Lecturer in Recent Runes had, with help, disentangled themselves from each other's binding spells, and were trying in vain to engage him in conversation.

"You couldn't have predicted that she'd hit you in the face with a frying pan," said the Dean.

"Hrrrmph."

"You also couldn't have predicted that she was strong enough to knock you out with it," added the Lecturer.

"Hrrrmph."

"So all in all, you couldn't possibly have foreseen her escape," concluded the Dean.

Ridcully affixed the other two wizards with a stare generally associated with sentences beginning, "If looks could kill..."

"On the other hand," said the Lecturer quickly, "The swelling seems to be going down nicely."

"grumblegrumbledon'twannatalkaboutitgrumblegrumble."

*****

Ponder regarded himself in the full-length mirror in his room as he adjusted his pointy wizard's hat to what he deemed a proper wizardly angle. While he was not by nature vain, he was at least aware of the respect given to wizardly-looking men, and at this point he needed to look as wizardly as possible. After all, he had just volunteered to be *chivalrous*. The effect would be ruined if he looked like a twerp.

His eyes scanned the shelf of possible spells he could prepare for this little outing. Elander's Explosive Stones... Leopold's Protective Gazebo... Dieter's Really Cool Flashy Lights... Water Breathing... Water Walking... Water Shaping... Water Drinking...

"Are you almost ready?" asked Arianna, as she had introduced herself, from outside his living quarters, "I want to be out of the city by nightfall."

"It won't take that long," said Ponder as he continued scanning the shelves, "All we'd have to do is follow the Ankh down to the bay--"

"Eww."

"What, 'eww'?"

"I presume we're both talking about that river a bit turnwise of here, with stuff growing on it?"

"Well, *I* am," Ponder replied, indignant with civic pride.

"You can *walk* on that river. I can't swim in that."

"Look, I don't think you're in much of a position--"

"You volunteered to help me, remember?"

"Nobody expects you to swim in the Ankh!" he snapped.

"I'm not swimming anywhere near the Ankh," she stated, as though it was less a preference than a prophecy.

He turned to face her. "All right, what do you propose, then?"

"I propose we leave the city headed widdershins. I assume there's a gate that way."

"I think so."

"Then we continue half a day in that direction before heading rimwards to the Circle Sea."

"But that takes us away from the nearest body of water. Merfolk need to be in the water to cast spells, right?"

"That's right," she said, "and that's why this plan will be exactly what the Retriever *isn't* expecting."

Ponder turned this over in his head. "I'm not sure I follow. You plan to get to safety by travelling *away* from the river?"

"It'll be guarding the bay, and probably the Ankh as well."

Ponder sighed. "If we're going on an extended journey, I'll have to pack-- "

"I advise you to travel light. You never know when we'll have to run."

He considered this. His mind formed an image of himself trying to run with camping gear on his back, and the Retriever gaining on him steadily. "Urgh," was all he said when he formed the natural conclusion. He shook his head to clear it of the grisly scene now unfolding in its depths. "All right. But I still need time to study some spells."

*****

The Librarian regarded the returned copy of Grimtooth's Fantastick Monstyrs of the Dysk, and the accompanying note. Many of the pages had fallen out and been loosely put back in during the 'incident' that Ponder mentioned in the note, and they would certainly have to be glued back in. He frowned. Only a greater ape has enough facial muscles to achieve this sort of frown.

Normally Ponder would have paid the fine in person, thought the Librarian. This was unusual for him. He shrugged, resolving to clear matters with Ponder when he came in next, and knuckled away for his book-repair tools.

*****

Arianna seemed to have a very keen sense of direction, Ponder noted. The only thing that worried him was that the route she was taking had them both headed for the Shades, and area of Ankh-Morpork that was best accompanied by the legend "Here There Be Dragons." Granted, she was indeed heading due widdershins, but there were some places that even a wizard feared to go.(*l)

"The Widdershins Gate is more rimwards," he observed.

"Oh. Sorry. I've only had a brief tour of this place, at high speed." She smiled. He didn't. He steered her along a side street that led more or less towards the gate, anxious to get away from the Shades. To ease his nerves, he made an attempt at small-talk.

"So, what sort of staff is that?," he asked.

"According to the books, the Staff of Assuming the Middle Ages On Another's Beast of Burden. Translated, of course."

"So, how does it work?"

She shrugged.

"You don't *know*?" Ponder asked, shocked.

"Not as such."

"How do you expect to use it, then?"

"My people have a knack for these sorts of things."

"You *do* know how to use it against a demon, don't you?"

"No idea whatsoever." She was infuriatingly calm about the whole matter. "The way I see it, whatever will happen, will happen when I need it to."

"Sort of like those legends about people who turn into green-skinned ogres when they get upset?" he asked, sarcastically.

"Something like that, yes. Only not so crude."

"Scuse me," said a new voice. It was the sort of voice that carried knives in parts of its anatomy one didn't like to think of blades being. They turned around.

While they were talking, they hadn't noticed the shadowy figures detach themselves from the darkness of an alley and begin following them. Now, however, the seven muggers milled like excited hyenas behind their leader. Now, thieves licensed with the Ankh-Morpork Thieves' Guild knew better than to try to rob wizards, because of the extra expense of having Guild members changed back from the shapes of various amphibians. On the other hand, freelance muggers tended to be new to the city, and preferred to learn things the hard way, for lack of an alternative.

"Get behind me," said Ponder as the muggers closed in, trying to coax Arianna into a position from which it would be easier for him to defend her, and preparing a defensive spell. He needn't have bothered.

A few heartbeats later, a lightning bolt arced down from the cloudless sky and grounded itself on the jade pinecone in the Staff of Assuming the Middle Ages with a loud noise best spelled FWACKOOM! Electricity curled around the staff like snakes on a caduceus. The circle of muggers abruptly expanded to a more respectful seven-foot radius.

"Gentlemen," said Arianna, "This... is my BOOM STICK! One Staff of Assuming the Middle Ages on Another's Beast of Burden with a seven-foot oak shaft and a jade focus crystal, it will unleash one metric assload of hurt on the next person to touch either of us! Any questions?"

One mugger sheepishly raised his hand.

"What?"

"Er," said the mugger, "Exactly how much hurt is in a metric assload?"

"Two and a half times the amount in a standard Ephebian assload, I understand," she replied coolly.

"How much is in *that*?" the mugger persisted.

Arianna and Ponder exchanged a glance. Hers asked, "Are they really that stupid?" His said, "Of course they are. That's why they're trying to mug two wizards."

"I believe you have the advantage of me, sir," she said to the mugger, "As you can see, I have no weapons, and you have probably a lot of weapons and several friends besides."

"Is that a problem?" asked the mugger, in a tone that indicated that he didn't care whether it was a problem or not, because if anyone had the problem it was her.

"It might be. I abhor violence, you see."

Ponder considered that this was exactly the wrong thing for an unarmed wizard without access to magic to say to a heavily armed mugger with several friends, as the muggers burst out laughing. One of them grabbed Ponder by the shoulders, and another grabbed Arianna.

At least he tried to.

He really did.

Nobody makes an impression on people quite like a woman in wizard's robes. This is especially true if she happens to be wearing pointy steel-capped boots and she is in close proximity to the impressee. The mugger's eyes crossed, and he folded up like a Hogswatch card. The focus crystal on the staff was now glowing bright octarine, and trailed magical fire as she used the staff in ways Ponder was certain a magical staff should not be used. For someone who abhorred violence, she seemed skilled in the use of a quarterstaff. After the third mugger was taken out of the fight, Arianna grabbed Ponder's sleeve.

"Run!"

As they ran, he said to her, "I thought you said you abhorred violence!"

"In other people. I abhor violence in other people."

"Oh." He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw that at least the remaining muggers were smart enough not to follow. He wondered distantly who was the one actually being chivalrous towards whom.

*****

By the next morning, the swelling had finally gone down, but Ridcully still was in a mood like a rabid pit bull. The Dean felt sorry for anyone who tried to talk to him.

There was a tap at the door of the Archchancellor's office.

"WHAT!" The word lashed out at the visitors like the strike of a rattlesnake, and with about as much venom. The student wizard hid behind the Dean.(*m)

"Well, what do you want?" Ridcully prompted acidly.

The Dean cleared his throat. "Ponder Stibbons is missing, sir. He hasn't shown up for any of his lectures all morning." He considered this for a moment, and then added, "Stibbons always shows up for his lectures, sir."(*n)

"Well, maybe he decided to come to his senses about that little habit of his. Or else he's finally taken leave of his senses entirely (as I always predicted he might, being around that damned thinking engine all the time) and wandered off somewhere. He'll turn up. Mark my words."

"That isn't the only thing," said the Dean, "I think you should come see this, sir."

Ridcully stared hard at him. "Come see what?"

*****

Ponder's room was a mess. Books were cast on the bed haphazardly, atop a layer of scattered clothing. By contrast, the bed itself was still neatly made, and didn't look as though it had been slept in the previous night. Ridcully reached the only logical conclusion.

"It seems that Stibbons has been kidnapped," he announced, in the tone usually used by detectives wearing deerstalker caps and cape-backed overcoats while puffing at elegantly curved pipes and playing the violin.

"It seems so, sir," said the Dean, in the tone usually adopted by the aforementioned detectives' trusty sidekicks.

"But who would want to kidnap *him*?"

"Well, we haven't seen anything of that strange woman lately," volunteered the Dean.

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, I've heard of ancient tribes of warrior women who frequently kidnap men for the purpose of--" he stopped, realizing Ridcully was staring at him. He cleared his throat. "Well, that's that I heard, sir."

"I seriously doubt Stibbons was kidnapped for some progenitative rite, Dean," Ridcully said sharply.

"But it's still possible, sir."

"It's also *possible* that he's off playing hide and seek with that blasted Cheerful Fairy! But the fact remains that *someone* has kidnapped one of our staff, and I will *not* stand for such things at my university!" With that, he marched back towards his office for his crossbow and wizard's staff. Like all wizards' staves, his had a knob on the end.

*****

Ponder hurt. He had never been the outdoors type, and would have preferred to go camping with a proper wizard's tent, which contained, among other things, a potbellied stove, wall to wall carpeting, and a full-sized featherbed. But Arianna had said to travel light, so now his lower back was making a close acquaintance with a pointy rock. He was positive he'd gotten ants in his hair.

He remembered leaving the city and entering the Sto Plains. He remembered night falling and Arianna guilelessly offering to share the safety and warmth of her magically camouflaged robe. He reddened. Instead of accepting, he had chosen to sleep a chivalrous distance away and chivalrously froze half the night. He was beginning to question the wisdom of chivalry. At least it was something mundane like the cold that kept him awake instead of something supernatural like a giant spider howling nearby.

He opened his eyes, rolled over onto his side, and completely failed to find an Arianna-shaped blur where she had slept the previous night. He sat up in a hurry, wincing as several joints resettled into their usual positions, and put his glasses on. Still no Arianna. He said an unchivalrous word, grabbed his hat, dusting it off and putting it back on his head, and stood up - snap pop - to look for her.

Now the woods are unnerving enough for most urban folk, especially if you don't know how far it is to civilisation, or in which direction it lays. It was worse when you entered the woods with someone who was now missing. The sadistic corner in Ponder's mind(*o) imagined carnivores of all shapes and sizes lurking in the shadows (even though it was by now broad daylight), causing him to jump at every noise and attempt to look in every direction at once.

Through the sound of his heart thudding in his ears, another sound started to weave itself into his awareness. He looked in that direction, listening hard. It sounded like someone playing a flute or the pipes, he thought... but who? Curiosity overcame apprehension, and he quietly made his way towards the source of the sound, pushing aside low-hanging branches - though he had to retrace his steps twice to retrieve his hat - until he reached a clearing and stopped short.

Arianna sat on the bank of a small stream not far away, her boots sitting next to her, with her bare feet in the water itself. The staff was a small distance behind her. Her back was mostly to him. Her mouth was open, and from it issued the sound that had brought him there in the first place - she was singing.

He tried to remember what Grimtooth had said about the song of a mermaid, but somehow the words were starting to get all jumbled, like someone had dropped his thoughts into a box and was giving it a good shake. The song seemed to bypass the logic circuits of his brain and plunge directly into his emotions.

("... song of a mermaid...")

He started to stagger forward on stiff legs.

("... most enchanting sound on the Disc...")

He fought for control of himself.

("... lead sailors to crash their ships...")

He managed to halt his forward progress.

("... crash their ships...")

He gave himself a good shake to clear his head, blinking hard and trying to catch his breath.

"Wow," he breathed, then cleared his throat to let her know someone was there.

She turned, startled. The song stopped. Ponder found his thoughts clearing again, for the most part.

"Good morning," she said, smiling. "I didn't hear you get up."

"I didn't hear *you* get up either," he replied, "I woke up and you were gone. I thought..."

"I was just scouting around a bit."

"You might have told me." He knew he sounded irritable; it came from a combination of poor sleep, unfamiliar surroundings, and a rather sudden prickly feeling of foreboding in the hairs at the back of his neck. "What did you find?" he asked, trying to keep calm - wizardly intuition was seldom wrong.

"I got my bearings at the stream, and... what?" She was looking at him curiously.

The feeling was stronger now, and he knew that whatever it was that they had lost back in Ankh-Morpork, it had just unlost them. His suspicions were confirmed, by the expression she aimed over his shoulder to a point somewhere behind him.

"RUN!" they both shouted at once, linked hands, and tried to sprint in opposite directions. They had little time to recover from the resulting mutually dislocated shoulder, as a jointed leg scythed through the forestry barely a stone's throw from them. Arianna darted back to the streambank for her boots and the staff, and then grabbed Ponder by the wrist, running alongside him down a slightly less congested trail through the forest.

Ponder was running on pure adrenaline now; the logic circuits of his brain protested that he shouldn't be able to do this, that he shouldn't be able to run this fast, and besides, who ever heard of someone outrunning a demon on foot.

The rest of his brain shouted at his logic circuits to just shut the hell up and let us run.

Arianna slammed into his shoulder suddenly, causing him to stagger aside a fraction before the razor-edge of the Retriever's leg would have sliced open his back. This gave him an idea, and as the demon passed overhead he grabbed Arianna by the most polite regions he could on such short notice and hurtled them both into the cover of the undergrowth.

He was counting on the demon to lose track of them after it stepped over them.

He was not, however, counting on the ground to slope away sharply on the side of the path he had chosen to hurtle himself and Arianna.

They tumbled down the slope, encountering some rather exciting geography and botany along the way.

After gravity overcame momentum and they had settled to a stop, they remained where they were for several heartbeats. This was partly to regain their bearings and to assess damages, and partly because - by accident or by design - they had wound up in each other's arms, with Ponder lying partially atop Arianna, theoretically to shield her from any impending dangers from above.

So this is chivalry, he thought to himself. He had nearly concluded that chivalry was impractical, illogical, painful, and altogether way more trouble than it was worth.

*Yes,* said a voice in his head, *But look at all the fringe benefits. You're in very close proximity to a beautiful woman, and you're both in a relatively private bit of the forest.*

Ah. He had wondered when his libido was going to voice its opinion on this whole thing.

He pushed himself up on his elbows and looked at his traveling partner, and nearly the same time she regained her senses and looked up at him. Their eyes locked. The moment stretched out for what felt like an hour. It was the sort of breathless moment in which anything could happen, and usually did, for better or for worse. There were ten thousand different ways the moment would find closure.

The one that decided to happen was that his glasses fell off and hit her in the face.

"Ow."

"Sorry."

And, as simply as that, the moment was broken. He rolled aside to lay beside her as she returned his glasses. By some miracle, the only damage they had suffered in their hillside fall was a thin crack along the right lens. He shrugged and slipped them back on, glancing back up at the top of the hill.

"I think we lost it," he observed quietly, seeing no octarine glow in that direction, then added with a smirk, "I'd hate to have to roll down another hill."

She smiled briefly at his quip. "Not that I'd mind another roll in the grass with you." She paused while Ponder exploded into a startled coughing fit. "All the same," she continued, in a more serious tone, "I vote we wait here for the time being, in case it doubles back.

As Arianna huddled close to him at the bottom of the hill, Ponder found he had no immediate objection to this arrangement.

***Footnotes***

(*a) A bit of a novelty for him.

(*b) It is a standard literary convention that all red hair, whether it is auburn or strawberry blonde, resembles flames when its owner is running or otherwise doing something poetic or graceful. This has nothing to do with the person being a hothead, except in the case of certain demons, who do in fact have flames on their scalps. However, since these demons' flaming hair is often blue instead of red, this has nothing to do with the story at all.

(*c) Technically speaking. At least, he had attended class. Most of the time.

(*d) Not permanently, anyway. Most of the things from the Dungeon Dimensions had a hard time settling on a form, much like a woman with a closet full of clothes who claims she has nothing to wear. The denizens of the Dungeon Dimensions had a metaphysical closet of scary shapes to choose from, but they couldn't decide from moment to moment what they wanted to look like. In its own way, this trait made them all the more horrifying.

(*e) It is said that if there is one phrase that everybody will react poorly to, it is the instruction, "Don't move, there's a snake by your foot." On the other hand, "Don't move, it's right outside" tends to elicit exactly the right response of not moving, except in horror movies and wizard's towers, where at least one person will look outside to see what is so damn scary. This, most believe, is a sort of intellectual Darwinism.

(*f) The origin of this tradition is not widely known, though the senior wizards assert that the presence of a woman in a wizard's life distracted him from more important things, such as throwing random chemicals into a beaker until they explode and then trying to reproduce the experiment to find out which element of the concoction it was that caused the explosion. A wizard's laboratory is one of only two places [the other place being the Alchemists' Guild] where, upon hearing the instruction to Watch This, anyone within earshot should immediately take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture and make sure the speaker's next of kin is known. It is thought [primarily by those who are neither wizards nor alchemists, and especially by women] that a woman in either location would sow a few seeds of sanity and prevent the spectacular pyrotechnics now familiar to their neighbors.

(*g) On the other hand, she was aware that she was the source material for the dreams of several men in various cities who had helped her and for the life of them couldn't remember whole intervals of that day, that week, or even whole months. It couldn't be helped.

(*h) i.e., only.

(*i)This was for the same reasons that most people cannot see Death, except under extraordinary circumstances, like being a witch, or a wizard, or dead. People simply do not see what they don't expect to be there, and no amount of proof will convince them that there is indeed a gigantic spider with four pincers walking through Sator Square.

(*j) With the notable exception of the Archchancellor, who would frequently go directly from a late night to an early morning, Do Not Pass Sleep, Do Not Collect Forty Winks, with no apparent detriment.

(*k) This is especially important at the University, as thrill-seeking spiders have been known to bungee-jump on silk lines into the mouth of a snoring wizard. Poor timing can lead to disaster for both parties involved.

(*l) Such as, for example, the students' quarters.

(*m) Of course, this was an easy matter, due to the Dean's rather generous girth. On any given day, the Dean could cause localized solar eclipses.

(*n) In fact, Ponder Stibbons, having graduated from UU relatively recently, was one of the few [i.e., only] members of the staff who made an effort to connect with his students. As such, he seldom scheduled any lectures for the mythical Room 3B.

(*o) Everyone's mind has a specialised portion whose job it is to imagine the scariest possible thing that might be accompanying you in an uncertain situation, and to assure you that it is right behind you.