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There are battles that alter the course, not of nations, but of worlds. There are struggles the tales of which are recounted for millennia. Often, the two overlap. But not always.
Only the most dedicated of scholars would ever learn, if they happened to find just the right book, of the night a failed wizard, an orang-utan, a hairdresser, a self-taught hero, a unicorn, and a box with legs set out to rescue two prisoners from a Klatchian traveling show, and, in so doing, altered the destinies of two worlds. For only in a lone book normally kept in the Canterlot Archives (though a much-edited version is available in a few other Equestrian libraries) is recorded the names of Star Swirl the Bearded*, Nijel the Destroyer, Conina the Cunning, and Rincewind the Brave**. Though the Librarian and the Luggage are mentioned, at times in long, praise-filled passages, their participation in the raid that night went largely unnoticed.***
It began in a straightforward enough manner. Conina, Nijel, Star Swirl, and the Librarian simply marched up to the edge of camp and stood there, waiting. It would not be accurate to say that Rincewind and the Luggage were nowhere to be found. Those who might have been interested in finding them, however, were about to be otherwise occupied.
According to the book Inne Juste 7 Dayes I wille make You a Barbearian Hero!, the Triple Orcthrust with Extra Flip is the most impressive manoeuvre in a swordsman's arsenal. This fact, along with a rudimentary knowledge of basic swordfighting techniques, is arguably all one needs to prove that the book, purportedly written by Cohen the Barbarian, was in fact ghost-written, and by someone who had only once seen even an illustration of a sword. It is also, arguably, proof that the author had no knowledge of simple laws of momentum and basic human anatomy.
It's the twist right before the extra flip that does it, of course. As a nod to the fact that no human swordsman has a wrist that is capable of rotating a full three hundred sixty degrees without first parting company with the rest of the swordsman, it is listed as being an optional step. In deference to the conflicting fact that a combination of momentum and centrifugal force causes the twist (and its own consequences) anyway, there are no instructions for performing the manoeuvre without it.
In fact, noted Barbarian swordsman Lars the Half-Man (it was a point of shame that his mother was, in fact, a woman) infamously took one look at the illustrations, prior to using the pages as tinder, and christened the move "How to Disarm Yourself in Eight Easy Steps." He did, however, concede that steps one through six would be suitably impressive if they did not perforce lead straight into steps seven and eight.
Shortly after moving to the Shades, and discovering the vigorous sort of lifestyle contained therein, Nijel and Conina found a heretofore undiscovered aspect about the manoeuvre. That aspect is this: An adequately skilled swordsman (one capable of performing steps one through six) would, with sufficient clearance, reliably place their weapon, hilt first, exactly twelve feet in front of and two and a half feet to the right of themselves. Also, given the stupendously eye-catching nature of the manoeuvre, exactly zero people end up watching that precise spot. To Conina's hereditary (and highly trained) fighting instincts, that was too good an opportunity to pass up.
So it was that, when the attack came, it came from exactly the place none of the Klatchians were watching. In fact, only two pairs of eyes witnessed the full breadth of the manoeuvre, their owners invisible to almost everyone then present on the field. Star Swirl, who would have been able to see them, was so fascinated by the combination of the Triple Orcthrust, followed by Conina's expert use of the blade that fell into her hands exactly as if she'd planned it so (she had) that when he heard a voice (which he would later swear had to have come from the Earth Pony Chancellor Puddinghead) call out, "Oh, hey, it's the bearded clown! Hi, bearded clown!" he couldn't bring himself to look for the speaker until it was too late.
* Together with the others, at any rate. Alone, Star Swirl is mentioned throughout the pre-classical era, and, indeed, has his own wing in the Archives.
** Ponies have a somewhat biased view of Rincewind, owing in large part to the events of that, and subsequent, nights.
*** Except by those present, most of whom are no longer in any condition to comment on the innacuracies.
The equine known as Princess Celestia, who was not truly a princess of anything at the time, woke with a start. She had been dreaming, as always, of ponies. Ponies of all colours of the spectrum, with the possible exception of octarine. They were hers, her refuge from the terrors of captivity. She dreamed of the things that she and her sister Luna most longed for: wide, rolling fields; good friends; laughter. And each night, while the guards slept, she would wake at the end of a dream and tell her sister all about it, weaving stories about gentle Posey, mischievous Surprise, clever Twilight Twinkle, hard working Applejack, daring Fyrefly, and elegant Sparkler. She would tell Luna all about her little ponies, and then they would be their little ponies. Luna would come up with such stories -- of how boastful Lulamoon came to Ponyland and tried to best each of Celestia's little ponies at their own game, or how a giant dragon threatened to cover all of Ponyland with its smokey breath... and then, after their little ponies had dealt with the threat, the two of them would have the same conversation.
Luna would ask if it was true that there were no humans allowed in Ponyland, and Celestia would say that it was.
Luna would then ask if they could live in Ponyland some day, and, her heart breaking, Celestia would say "of course we can."
Now, this had been shaping up to be a particularly good dream, all about a big fancy party, so she was quite surprised to be awakened before the dream was over. She looked around the tent for the source of the disturbance, and saw a human silhouette there in the darkness with them.
"Shhh," the silhouette hissed.
Celestia nodded, rising to her hooves. She was nervous, but there was not much she could do.
"Right," said the silhouette. "This, erm... this is a bit of a rescue sort of thingy." It glanced nervously over its shoulder as the sound of fighting intruded from outside the tent. "I don't suppose the keys to those cages are anywhere about?"
Celestia shook her head. "Isrim keeps them on his person at all times."
She couldn't see the expression on her would-be rescuer's face, but she could well imagine it. Especially when he groaned, muttering "of course he does." The silhouette rummaged futilely about the tent for a bit, its muttering now focused on imprecations against Klatchian slavers which called the slavers' parentage into question.
The third time he bashed his shins on the same wooden bench, his cry of pain less muffled each time, Celestia stifled a giggle and asked if he would like some light. When he accepted, she applied the slightest amount of concentration, and her horn began to glow -- it was the one spell she knew how to cast. So it was that Princess Celestia got her first clear look at Rincewind the wizard.
He was a ratty looking sort of fellow. Indeed, it has been suggested numerous times that he had some rodent in his ancestry. It certainly looked that way. He was somewhere between lean and emaciated, depending on how many meals he'd managed to acquire recently, and the frayed, patchy red robes he wore did nothing to conceal that fact. His ears were perhaps a bit overlarge which added to the way his face seemed to sweep back, rodent-like, from a largish nose. In an effort, perhaps, to hide his weak chin he had cultivated what could only be called an attempt at a beard. He simply wasn't cut out for the actual item.
In light of Celestia's situation, however, the majestic Alicorn decided he was the bravest looking man she'd ever met. She watched closely as he bent to examine the lock on her cage.
It was a simple enough lock to look at, but whoever designed it obviously knew their trade. It was made of octiron, the hardest, densest metal on the disc, and was therefore impervious to most magic and well-nigh indestructible. He would never be able to break the lock, and without the key, would require lockpicking skills greater than his own to open it otherwise. He saw only one solution, and it was one he didn't like at all.
It did not help that he had done this exact thing before, with an even more complicated lock. The fact was that he was about to attempt one of the most difficult and dangerous feats of practical magic known to the Disc: telekinesis.
Rincewind's mind, and his frankly not very considerable power, was to act as the fulcrum of a lever, applying gentle but inexorable pressure to the tumblers of the lock. As Celestia looked on, an expression of equal parts dawning comprehension and rising hope crossing her muzzle, Rincewind carefully split his attention to two related tasks: opening the lock, and keeping the principle of leverage from squeezing his brains out of his skull.
He drifts through the aether, the astral plane that surrounds the disc while, at the same time, in a sense above it. He is here for a purpose, he knows, but they he is having trouble remembering what that is. The buzzing makes it hard to think. It is everywhere and they he cannot see, nor otherwise sense, its source.
He tries to focus, bring their minds his mind to bear on the problem, but the buzzing will not relent. Their memories are His memory is not exactly fading, but becoming harder to access. They He almost cannot remember who they are. So they remind themselves himself. You, he says, are the wizard Isrim al Qurad. They He They reach for the magic and find it easily. Too easily. You are the ard Isrim al Qu.
The magic, he remembers. They He came here to see why there was so much of it. He casts their minds out to the far reaches of the Disc, finding it easier than they he expected. They feel themselves himself fragmenting, and tries the mantra again, but the harder they try he tries, the worse the buzzing gets: You are d Isrim ad.
There is the answer, though: The Disc turns, grinding out magic with the friction of its rotation like a millstone the size of a planet, but across the Disc itself, wizards are succumbing to the supernatural cold of the Windigoes, and with fewer wizards to use it, the magic accumulates.
That (You are the wizm al) would also explain the buzzing. (are the wizard Qurad) As the magic builds (You wizard rim al), it is drawn towards their body as to a lightning rod, and the fabric of the universe is pushed down (You are d Isri rad) by the pressure of so much magic towards the Dungeon Dimensions. The buzzing (You are the) is the Things. They know they should be concerned by this (Isrim) but strangely, all he feels is a weird (You) sort of elation. He pulls themselves together, descending towards their body, and a chilling realization strikes him.
The buzzing is coming from inside their minds. Finally terrified, they beat a hasty retreat to their body, and the last thought they have before coming out of their trance is the mantra:
You are d IsQurad.
You are dIsQurad.
Rincewind had difficulty containing his jealousy. Here he had risked his life and worn himself to the bone (metaphorically speaking) opening the lock to Celestia's cage, and she had just... well... She'd trotted over to the smaller alicorn's cage, the glow around her horn had flared, and the octiron lock, supposedly immune to all magic, had torn itself apart in an explosion of white fire. One piece had even nicked his ear as it flew past with a zipping sound, and another was causing the canvas on the far side of the tent to smoulder. It just wasn't fair.
It perhaps would have helped if he had a better understanding at the time about the relationship between disc magic and Harmonious (or pony) magic. It is a well known fact that in a world as permeated with magic as the Disc, all things have their opposites. Dark is not the opposite of light, for example, merely its absence. On the disc, however, there are colours of darkness once you go past mere black and out the other side. What no one had yet considered, however, was what the opposite of magic is. Science is an entirely unrelated concept, which develops best in the absence of magic, but is not its actual opposite. Considering an absence of magic was virtually unheard of (apart, arguably, from Rincewind). What do you get when you go past the zero point on the magical axis of a graph, and keep going?
The answer, naturally, is Harmony -- pony magic. On a practical level, this meant that octiron, famed for its invulnerability to all known forms of magic, was in fact incredibly vulnerable to a heretofore unknown form of magic. This, in turn, meant that Isrim had done the equivalent of trapping a phoenix in a paper bag. Which had been soaked in petrol. And sealed shut with plastic explosives.
This also meant that, in the presence of a Horseror such as Celestia or Luna, let alone both of them, any act of magic -- Disc magic, that is -- required a simply staggering amount of energy behind it. All told, then, it was no wonder Rincewind's legs had gone all wibbly just then.
Annar al Morir was no fool. So he told himself, at any rate. Anyone with even the most basic understanding of Narrative Causality -- which was most everyone who'd spent more than a few weeks alive on the Disc -- could see where this situation was heading. On the one side, a few dozen heavily armed guards, well trained, highly disciplined, and wearing the traditional garb of a Klatchian thug. On the other, a small band of distinct individuals, poorly trained and diverse. The Klatchians hadn't stood a chance.
He'd tried to alert Isrim, of course, but the wizard had been deep in a trance since sunset and could not be roused. That's it, then, thought Annar. It was time to get while the getting was good. Adequate, at any rate. Passable. Time to get, he decided, while the getting was moderate to poor. Before it got even worse, that is.
Conveniently, he had found a large sea chest standing open at the foot of his bed. Without questioning what it was doing there - his first mistake - he began throwing his valuables into it. This, of course, was his second. It is widely known that trouble comes in threes, so Annar's third mistake was, perhaps, inevitable.
He turned his back on the open box to gather some clothing for his unscheduled departure.
Something bumped into him from behind. He wobbled, flailing his arms for balance and sending his clothing flying about the room, then fell over backwards. There was a sharp, wooden snapping sound, which had an air of finality about it. It was inevitable. Anyone with a sufficient knowledge of Narrative Causality would have seen it coming the moment he'd decided to take flight.
Annar's clothing lay on the floor around the luggage, unpacked. It was just as well: he needn't have packed after all.
Conina caught herself enjoying the fight -- the cut and thrust and parry, the rush of adrenaline. She grimaced. Just when she'd nearly broken herself of the habit. Three years on the wagon, she thought, not so much as a barroom brawl, gone just like that. She caught her grimace just as it tried to sneak a grin past her face's defenses. At least it's for a good cause, she rationalized. Her sponsor would not have approved.
Nijel, she noted, had improved beyond all recognition, thanks to their time in the Shades*. He'd only dropped his sword three times, and not once in a way that rendered it unrecoverable. Meanwhile, Star Swirl was holding his own surprisingly well. He easily warded off attack after attack with a flash of azure unicorn magic, then would pivot on his forehooves to plant a solid kick in whatever portion of his attackers' anatomies he could reach. Each devastating impact was accompanied by a merry jingle from the bells on his cloak, a groan, and a thud.
The Librarian, by contrast, had needed no improvement: he was an absolute terror. Each opponent he reached was dealt with quickly, thanks to a firm grasp of leverage and-- No, she quickly amended, it was thanks to a grasp of his opponents extremities, followed by an application of leverage.
She was just beginning to think they might actually pull off the rescue without a hitch when the largest tent erupted into a massive column of flames. Silhouetted against this blaze, she saw two winged horses -- one full grown, the other only slightly larger than Star Swirl, and the familiar sight of Rincewind in full, panicked flight.
"Run away!" he shouted needlessly to her. To the survival-minded, the sight of a fleeing Rincewind is all the cue one needs.
"Where to?" said an unfamiliar voice, young and feminine. Despite having spent a good portion of the evening planning this rescue with a talking pony (among others), Conina was still surprised to realize the voice had come from the smaller horse -- alicorn, rather: now that she'd galloped past, Conina could see her horn.
She was further surprised when the expected retort came not from Rincewind, but Star Swirl. "Never you mind about 'to,'" he said, rearing back as the last remaining guard managed to score a glancing blow against his jaw. "I expect that'll--" and then everything went horribly awry.
The Klatchian had seen an opening when Star Swirl reared back, exposing his belly, and struck. The Klatchian's scimitar cut him just below the ribs, deep enough that Conina saw a brief surge of blood from the wound before he collapsed. Fury and grief drove her towards the last standing combatant, and suddenly her vision went red.
When her vision cleared, it was not because she had calmed. In fact, she hadn't even reached the Klatchian yet. The red pulled away from her, and resolved into the flapping robes and flailing limbs of a desperate, enraged Rincewind.
Quite apart from merely looking somewhat rodentine, Rincewind fought like a cornered rat. Or rather, he fought like a Morporkean, which amounts to the same thing. It involved a lot of flailing knees and elbows, applied with a sort of frenzied precision to the most vulnerable places they could reach, along with even dirtier tactics best not described outside of a story meriting the dread [grimdark] tag, which this is not.
As this is not that sort of story, Conina's attention, along with the narration, were perforce driven to focus on the wounded body of Star Swirl. Even then, though, she was not as fast as another.
The Luggage, its many legs pumping hard and driving it on as fast as she'd ever seen it move, dove at the body, lid open, and rolled over as smoothly as possible for a box to do. It came upright with a thump, and its lid closed with the gentlest of clicks as it continued its mad flight into the hills and the forest beyond.
"Eek!" shrieked the Librarian.
"I'll take care of him," she called out to the orang-utan. "You get that lot out of here!"
Without waiting to see if he heard, she advanced on Rincewind, whose movements were gradually losing energy. She laid a hand on his shoulder and he twisted round, his eyes bloodshot and streaked with tears.
"Come on," she told him. "We're not out of this yet."
He nodded and staggered to his feet, letting her lead him towards the others. He only made her stop once, so that he could scoop up something battered and conical and stuff it, with a muted jingle, into the front of his robes.
*"Come for the Unique Cultural Experience!" the new brochures read. "Stay for the cheapest funerals on the Disc!" The Ankh-Morpork Guild of Merchants and Traders, it must be noted, had vastly improved its rhetoric, as well as its morbid sense of humour.