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The Things that had once been Isrim al Qurad -- and still superficially resembled him -- returned to their body, settling into it like a new pair of shoes. I mean, yes, it pinched a bit in the shoulders. And all right, maybe it could be a bit more flexible around the spine. Still, it fitted fairly well, and all new bodies take some breaking in, don't they. With the putting on of an individual body, a sense of self returned. Like the body, it superficially resembled Isrim al Qurad, but only superficially. Like the body, already subtly less human than it had been, that would change in time.
dIsQurad surveyed the remains of his caravan. Tents and wagons blazed merrily away all around him. His own tent had begun to burn and would soon be another pyre in the general conflagration. He ignored it. He had all the magic on the disc at his disposal now. And the first thing he needed, he decided upon surveying the general carnage, was some new minions.
Conina and Rincewind found the others holed up in a cave in the hills, a small fire warming them until the effects of Horsery could thaw the supernatural ice and snow covering the landscape.
Nijel met them at the cave mouth. "He's resting," he said of the wounded unicorn. "I've done what I can, but... My book doesn't have a lot of... Not really a medical... I mean, I'm s'posed to be a barbarian, right?"
You're supposed to be a hero thought Rincewind. But Nijel looked about as fragile as Rincewind felt, so he merely grunted instead. There was a soft sound, as of leather gloves brushing dirt off of stone, and the Librarian came up beside Nijel.
"Ook," he said gently.
"Right," said Rincewind. "You're right." He turned to Nijel. "Listen, I... it's not your fault, all right? Things just... just... went wrong, eh?"
"Too right," Nijel said bitterly. "Look, I'm off to find some ice that isn't melting already. Be back quick as I can."
He set off without waiting for a response. The librarian, grunting softly, headed off himself, in search of herbal remedies.
"Right," said Rincewind, too late to be heard. He looked over at Conina, who was looking out in the direction her husband had gone with a look of sadness with a stubborn sort of pride mixed in. "You know," he told her, "he is entirely too nice to be a proper barbarian hero."
Conina sniffed, then smiled. "I know," she said. "But he's my barbarian hero, and that's better than a proper one any day. Besides, I had enough of barbarians coming up."
Rincewind grinned. "Don't let your father hear you say that."
"What, him? Suspect he'd agree. He says he'd rather a roll of soft lavatory paper than a clump of leaves any day."
"Yuh," grunted Rincewind. "Sounds like Cohen."
"Come on," Conina said, dragging Rincewind into the cave. "Let's go check on your friend."
"Right," said Rincewind, who'd managed to convince himself rather handily that nothing horrible could happen to Star Swirl so long as he kept himself from finding out what had happened.*
* Erwin Schrödinger having never been heard of on the Disc, this idea could have advanced the field of theoretical magic by decades, had Rincewind not correctly identified it as juvenile.
It is a well-documented fact that trolls do not like fire. It is a less well-known (but not unknown) fact that, as silicaceous lifeforms, the reason for this dislike is that fire slows the electrochemical reactions in their silicate nervous systems. It only stood to reason, then, that the unnatural cold spreading across the Disc would have the opposite effect. The problem, then, became this: Philosophy.
It is an even less well-known fact that trolls are apt to catch Philosophy as they age. The increased speed of their thought processes in the cold weather only sped that process along.
Rapid Onset Philosophical Enlightenment Syndrome was reaching epidemic proportions, sweeping across the disc along with the cold. Everywhere, trolls who were just settling down for a nice powdery bit of pumice, or crushing some human who'd happened across their path, or just on a stroll through the landscape (often literally), would stop to think for a moment. And then they would just go on thinking. Entire troll communities had ground to a halt, their populaces tied up with philosophical conundrums. These troll towns were as frozen by their minds as the human communities were in ice. Zeno would have had a field day.
Colonies had been set up for the care of those stricken by the disease, but then the caretakers would start to wonder what their charges were thinking about, and...
Well, you see the problem.
The mood inside the cave was sombre, bordering on grim, but with hints of melancholy. Rincewind hardly noticed the two alicorns, who had huddled together on the opposite side of the fire from where Star Swirl lay. He did note the peculiar way in which Celestia's long, pastel rainbow mane flowed in a wind that nothing else felt. He did note the fact that, by comparison with her, little indigo What's-Her-Name looked positively miniscule. But then his attention moved on.
Star Swirl lay curled up on the far side of the cave, with his side pressed up against the Luggage. He had a small bandage wrapped around his brow, but Rincewind was far more concerned with the other bandage. His barrel was tightly wrapped in white bandages, from just behind his forelegs down to his belly. On his belly itself, the bandages were stained red with blood. In the firelight, though, it looked black.
Conina tried to speak, but all that came out was a tight-throated grunt. She backed away, leaving the two of them (three, counting the Luggage) as alone as she could manage in the cave.
Star Swirl's eyes half-opened. "Told 'em you'd be along. Hullo, Rincewind."
"Don't sound so glum, man," Star Swirl said, then coughed. The red splotch on his bandage spread slightly but visibly. "We did it!" He tried to gesture towards the alicorns with a hoof, but Conina stepped forward and gently forced him to lay back down. "Nijel says I'm likely to scar if-- er, when I get better. I do hope so. Scars are dashing, impress the mares, don't you think?"
"Oh? Any mares in particular?" Rincewind essayed a weak attempt at a smile.
Star Swirl's smile was much better. It was, in fact, almost a grin. "Oh, there's one," he said after a moment. "Pretty coat... brilliant eyes... even more brilliant mind, too. I was so proud of her when she went from Journeymare to Master of Magic." He sighed, which led into coughing again. "She doesn't seem to understand that makes us equals now, more's the pity." His gaze, which had grown distant and misty as he talked about the mare, refocused on Rincewind. "And you?"
Rincewind tried another smile. It was better, but still tinged with a bit of bitterness. "Put it this way," he said. "You've heard the phrase 'wine, women, and song'? There's a reason wizards tend to know a lot of drinking songs."
Star Swirl laughed outright, which triggered another bout of coughing, which further spread the stain across his bandages. Uncomfortable in the presence of someone so gravely injured, Rincewind sidled over to Conina.
"He can't keep on like this," he said. "At least, I don't know how much longer he can."
About five minutes, I expect, said a voice like a mausoleum door slamming shut.
dIsQurad smiled. It felt good, so he tried a little chuckle. Even better, he concluded. Throaty and sinister. He steepled his hands, tapping his clawed fingertips together. The body was slowly getting more comfortable, but that was by the wayside now. Now, it was time to see about those new minions.
It is a much more widely known fact about trolls that they hate humans. While not entirely true -- a good many simply disdain or disregard any alithic life they encounter (or, more often, trample over) -- it is true of enough trolls to make it a safe assumption. Any given troll is more than likely to kill you, be it out of malice, callous disregard, or simply not looking down often enough.
The trolls dIsQurad appeared amidst with a snap of his fingers and a flash of light fell well within the "malicious" category. In fact, his sudden appearance so startled them, driving them into such a hot-crystaled* frenzy that it spared a number of them, who were just about to sit down and get some real, heavy duty thinking done for a change.
If they stopped to consider it, they would have had to feel grateful, which would have raised some interesting questions about morality and the interrelatedness of all things. In fact, a few did stop to consider just that, and Auguste Rodin was coincidentally struck by a particle of inspiration at that exact moment.
Good old Shalesworth, however, did not stop to consider much of anything, ever. Who cared if he was sedimentary? He had some nice sharpish edges about him, and so he sprung into action. dIsQurad smirked, then snapped his fingers. And then Shalesworth exploded.
Tactfully, no one commented on the secret shame his demise finally exposed: Shalesworth had suffered from fossils.
* Being silicaceous, trolls naturally lack blood.
Rincewind gritted his teeth. It wasn't just the voice, as terrible and ominous as that voice was. It wasn't the way the temperature in the cave had seemed to drop a few degrees in an instant. It wasn't the presence Rincewind could feel just behind him. It wasn't even what he, both as a wizard and from personal experience, knew that all of those added up to.
It was, in fact, all of that combined with his concerns about his new friend's health. Rincewind turned, finding himself, as he expected, face-to-skull with the Grim Reaper. It wasn't the first time, by any stretch of the imagination. It probably wouldn't be the last. But, for the first time, when faced with the Reaper, Rincewind didn't know what to do. His first instinct, which was to run, would not help. His second instinct, which was also to run, would serve about as well as his first. Redundant backups figured heavily in Rincewind's finely honed sense of self-preservation, so his next five instincts were just as useless, which left him at loose ends.
Hullo, Rincewind, Death said in a voice like a granite slab toppling.
"Erm," said Rincewind. It suited his mood, so he decided he'd say it again. "Erm."
The word you are looking for, said the Reaper with glacial patience, is "hello."
"Right," said Rincewind. "Hullo, erm... er..."
Death, supplied Death.
The two of them stood there in awkward silence, neither quite knowing how to cope with a situation that didn't involve Rincewind fleeing in terror from the bony apparition. The silence looked forward to dragging on for a great while, and had even started to make retirement plans involving the cave, until it was cut down in its prime by a voice as full of life as the Reaper's was devoid of it.
"Oh, hey!" said the cheerful voice. "It's the weirdo clown again! Hi, weirdo clown!"
Rincewind craned his neck. There, behind Death, was a pony much like Star Swirl in size and build. This one, however, was female, hornless, and very, very, very pink. She waved a forehoof at the invalid unicorn, then hopped over to him in a way that Rincewind was fairly certain was anatomically impossible for an equine, whose legs didn't -- or at least shouldn't -- bend that way.
Star Swirl blinked up at the pink pony in confusion. "Chancellor Puddinghead?"
She giggled. "Nopey-dopey!" she said. "Oh, but I played her in a big pageant in Canterlot once! And all my bestest best friends were in it!" (Rincewind considered that the pink pony was probably singlehandedhoofedly responsible for keeping several exclamation points employed.) "Like Applejack was Smart Cookie, and Rarity was Princess Aluminum..."
"Platinum," corrected Star Swirl with a grin at the thought of the self-important unicorn princess hearing herself referred to as 'Princess Aluminum.'
"Uh-huh," continued the pink pony without pausing for breath, "and Twilight Sparkle was Clover the Clever, and Rai--HEEEEY!" She pointed an accusatory hoof at the recumbent unicorn. "I know who you are! You're Star Swirl the Bearded!" Even more excitedly (another whole family tree of exclamation points finding themselves unexpectedly hired to work overtime), she zipped over to where Death was standing, barely even brushing against the intervening air on her way over. "Boss! Hey, boss! Boss! That's Star Swirl the Bearded!"
Death gave Rincewind a long-suffering look -- or would have done if his face hadn't perforce been locked in the customary calcareous grin -- then returned his attention to the pony. Before he could say Yes, I know, however, she had already returned to the unicorn's side.
"I don't suppose there's anything you can do," said Rincewind as across the cave, the lively pink pony could be heard chattering away at top speed, thereby occupying Star Swirl's attention.
There is one thing, said Death.
"Oh?" Rincewind could feel something at the pit of his stomach, which he was terrified might actually be hope.
I can do my Duty.
"Ah." Rincewind fidgeted awkwardly, as that feeling curled back up again into a sort of solid rock-like weight in his gut. "See, I was rather hoping there could be an alternative to that."
"I, ah, see your point." The wizard shuffled his feet, as one of his many redundant backup instincts tried unsuccessfully to apply itself to the situation. "You could..."
Yes...? said Death, who, it must be noted, operated with foreknowledge of the conversation and in situations like this merely saw his role as one of prompting his conversation partner.
"Maybe..." The next words to come out of Rincewind's mouth did so in a rush, as though in an effort to get out before being caught by verbal security at the door, so to speak. "Takemeinstead?"
The two stared at each other for a time -- time in which the level, orbless gaze of Death reminded Rincewind that with each moment, his life was slipping away just as readily as everyone else's. Oh, said Death. I see. Can't be bothered to keep an appointment unless it suits you, eh, Rincewind?
"Er..." Er'ed Rincewind helplessly.
But the moment it does, I'm expected to rearrange Time and Space to suit your needs, am I? Well, I'm sorry, the Reaper continued, but after all the times I've gone out of my way to meet you, only to have you cancel at the last minute, which is in no way an impediment to an organized work schedule, I'll have you know--
No, said Death. It is not possible. Everyone gets one life and one death - no exchanges, substitutions, or refunds. Even if I were inclined to upset the natural balance of things in this regard, I could not.
"We can't just let him die," came from the other side of the cave, where Celestia (who had spoken) and Luna were just rising to their hooves.
In fact, said Death, you can.
"We won't," said Luna. "He is the first pony we have met, and these here the first to show us true kindness, and you would have us simply let him die?
I would have nothing, said Death. My desires do not enter into this. I merely pointed out that it is, in fact, possible to simply let him die. It is not, one way or the other, my decision to make.
Celestia stepped forward, raising her head to gaze levelly at the Reaper. "There is something you're not telling us," she said.
Death did not reply. Rincewind got the sense that, had he eyebrows, the Reaper would have arched one at the large equine.
Celestia narrowed her eyes at Death.
There is a hierarchy amongst all sentient things, be they sapient or not. A constantly changing state of dominance and submission, always in flux. Death, lacking the biochemical processes involved in this interplay, was therefore experiencing something he was entirely unprepared for: a dominance play in this heirarchy. Death was being stared down.
The face-(and skull)-off was interrupted by a startled gasp. Everyone turned toward the source of the sound.
Luna, her eyes glowing white with pony magic, her mane now darkened and flowing in the same unfelt breeze as her sister's as she used her power, was staring at Star Swirl with a sort of dawning horror.
"He-- he's being... drained," she said. "It's not just a wound to his body - his soul is bleeding too."
"Right." Celestia stomped a hoof, cracking the cave floor. Her horn flared, a bright yellow-white light shining in everyone's eyes, blinding them. As a result, only the two alicorns, protected by their magic, could see Death move between Star Swirl and the pearly equine.
What, he asked, are you doing?
"I'm going to patch his soul," she said. "I'm going to give him a piece of mine."
No, said Death.
Celestia stomped the floor again, widening the cracks beneath her hoof. "What did you say?"
I said "no," Death replied. You cannot. Or, rather, you should not.
"Explain," the regal (if not strictly royal) pony said in a voice even colder than his.
Your life force - your soul - is of a different order than his. It would keep him alive, yes. Even as his body ages beyond the ability to sustain that life, he would survive. As age and decay render him unable to so much as speak, he would survive. As his body becomes dessicated and cracked, a husk only kept intact by the magic you would wind through his soul, he would survive. Wishing for death, but unable to beg for it, he would survive. Death met Celestia's horrified gaze. You would grant him life at the cost of the peace it is my place to give, and I cannot condone this path.
"Then--" said Luna, but Death raised a hand.
Did you think your soul was any different in this regard from your sister's?
The indigo alicorn hung her head.
"What about mine?" said a voice that had, until then, been completely silent. Rincewind turned to stare, shocked, at Conina.
What about it?
"I'm quite sure my soul isn't on the same order as theirs," she explained.
It is not, said Death. I can say no more, except that if you are to do anything, you must do it now. He reached into his robes, pulling out what Rincewind first thought was a glass sculpture. It consisted of two blue bowls, one pouring its contents into the other. A five-pointed star was etched into the top bowl, on a background consisting of whorls. The name 'Star Swirl' was engraved on the lower one.
More importantly, the top one was cracked in several places, and the silvery sand of Star Swirl's life was pouring through those cracks faster than into the lower bowl. Celestia's eyes widened, moved from the bowl, to Star Swirl, to Conina, to the Grim Reaper, and then narrowed.
Her horn was enveloped in a warm yellow glow, which speared out and forked, and each fork struck both Conina and Star Swirl in the center of their ribcages. The two of them floated off the ground, orbiting around each other as the light began to radiate from them, Star Swirl's taking a blue-green tinge and Conina's a red-orange one, which began to mix and swirl in between them.
As the light faded and the two of them lowered gently to the cave floor, Rincewind was startled to realize that both Death and the pink pony that had accompanied him were no longer present, no longer being needed. He found it odd that the Reaper had shown up when no one had died, but this was in part due to the fact he'd never studied the science of transretrocausality. (It was widely considered by the students of Unseen University to be a course only taken by those who wanted to spend their magical careers in special wizard robes whose sleeves wrapped around the torsos and tied up in back, conducting seminars to empty rooms with cushions on the walls.)
At this point, Nijel came into the cave, took one look at everyone and shrugged. "I've not come back at a bad time, have I?" he asked.
He hadn't, but the group of angry trolls approaching the cave had.