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A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale (Part 4)

Illustration for article titled A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale (Part 4)

(Part 3, Previously)

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"You're saying reality is what now?" said Mustrum Ridcully, esteemed leader of the wizards of the Unseen University, director of terrible and unfathomable forces beyond the ken of mere men, and who was currently sitting in a worn plush armchair drinking tepid tea out of a ceramic mug with the logo of UU barely visible on the chipped exterior.

Ponder Stibbons, long-suffering up-and-coming faculty and, up until last weekend, proud owner of the Hex-Top computing mechanism, pushed his glasses back up his nose and for the third time said "According to Hex, and the limited readings I got from Hex-Top before it was damaged*, reality is shifting. Earlier today, in fact, I was able to measure that for approximately one minute and twenty-five seconds that two plus three equaled six, rather than the previously-accepted norm of five. It caused a backup of traffic down on the main roads from duplicating goods and the ensuing confusion, and poor Widower Jacobson abruptly had another mouth to feed before it vanished along with the goods."

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Ridcully shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and thought long and hard about the problem. Primarily the problem that the cheese cart had been woefully short of a good sharp muenster for several days now, but at least some portion of his thoughts eventually ambled into the region of information Stibbons had just presented. There was an internal bout of bickering between the Ridcully interested in the preservation of reality and the Ridcully interested in sating his craving for a pungent orange cheese, until eventually the hungry internal Ridcully sulked off in search of at least a memory of muenster with which to sate itself. Ridcully harumphed and made other various noises one makes when they forget they are not alone in a room, before clearing his throat and asking Stibbons "So what you're saying then is reality is all pear-haped currently?"

Ponder tilted his head in thought for a moment, and after a brief pause said "Well, possibly. Not yet, obviously, as all our hands and legs and dimensions and such are still in order, but if these readings are anything to go by, these anomalies will be occurring more and more frequently until eventually one of them sticks."

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"Sticks?" asked Ridcully, noting the abrupt attempt Stibbons had made at a poker face, and the beads of sweat that marked why Stibbons never won a shilling on Saturday nights. "What happens if it sticks?"

By way of answer Ponder just held up the printout from Hex. The end of the paper was filled with burnt charred holes, eventually being burnt away to a tapered cinder, and Ridcully got a sense of unease about the shapes and forms of several of the burnt holes and characters printed on the brown crinkled paper. He harrumphed again, and then, as solemnly as he could manage in his faded beige nightrobe, intoned "In this case I think it best that we should invoke the Rite of Ashke-Ente."

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Ponder nodded eagerly after a brief pause, causing to Ridcully to frown slightly. He missed the days when that phrase was met with stares of horror and a flurry of activity as drippy candles were lit, circles were inscribed, and those who were exceedingly old scrambling to attempt to ward themselves from the coming reaper. Instead, Ponder went over to a small cupboard, opened a cabinet notably free of arcane sigils or blackened candles, and pulled out three bits of wood and a small jar with powdered mouse blood inside. Ridcully did notice that one of the pieces of wood had been whittled into the shape of a leering skull, but the effect was a bit ruined by the other two having been made into a squirrel and a small lumpy chair by the same whittler. Ponder carefully measured out a bit of the dried blood to a small shallow dish, added a dash of water to it, and swirled it for a bit before chucking the wood carvings into the dish. He then made a series of strangled clucks and what sounded like a bout of stuttering** before the room abruptly filled with a dark greasy smoke.

However, instead of a familiar grinning skull, the robe before them was merely that, a robe, with a constant thin grey mist flowing from it. The voice that emanated from the circle originated from no mouth Ridcully could see, and seemed instead to appear directly inside of his brain without passing through his ears.

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You will not meddle, said the voice. You have observed, and that is all you will be permitted to do. You will not meddle.

Ridcully stared agape at the shape, before gathering his composure and sputtering with indigence at the somewhat-familiar shape before him. He remembered these, vaguely, and in a slippery sort of way that didn't permit you to remember them directly but you could still recognize if you remembered everything except the shape before him, and he strongly got the impression that they were not the sort Ridcully should simply bend at the knee for.

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"I'll have you know, you oversized fart of a fogbank, I am Mustrum Ridcully, and I'll do whatever I damn well please regardless of-"

The words abruptly ceased in his throat through none of his own volition, and he could see Ponder out of the corner of his eye, white with fear. Ponder did recognize the shape before him in some book or another, and despite having never seen it before was keenly,m acutely aware that Ridcully was attempting to anger something that shouldn't be made angry. He squeaked out the start of some placation before the shape turned the empty gap of the hood towards him as well, and terror strangled the rest of his sentence.

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You will not meddle, the shape said again, before vanishing with a damp poof of dust. Ponder could have sworn he got the impression of some kind of emotion in that last sentence, but then again he was quivering so much that he had accidentally churned the cloud storage jar on his lap into a small hurricane.

Ridcully frowned, and then smiled broadly, then cracked his knuckles and turned to Stibbons. "Get the other faculty, and send out a message to that chap with the soggy stuffed...dog... and get him to come back for another check. I'd bet my hat that he's tied up with this as well."

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Ponder nodded, and with a flash of remembrance, started frantically fishing around for a rain poncho or tarp to drape over Hex.

In a bleak, dark dimension on the edge of reality, there is a black cottage, surrounded by dark purple rosebushes and with a finely-manicured onyx lawn. At the edge of the obsidian cobbles leading from the small house to a dropoff overhang on the edge of a cliff, there is a puff of greasy smoke and a hooded shape appears, with grey mist billowing from it's formless interior.

After a few brief seconds of scrutiny of the surroundings, the shape visibly relaxes its shoulders and lets out a sigh of relief. There is a small scuttling noise and a tiny skeletal mouse in a black robe crawls out from under the robe, dragging a pair of pots filled with a bubbling material that is pouring out mist and fog. As if removing a mask, a grinning skull fades into the empty hood, with two bright blue flames popping into existence inside the empty eye sockets as skeletal limbs reach out and stretch from under the robe with the sound of snapping twigs. The flashes of white contrast with the darkness of their surroundings, and yet feel perfectly appropriate.

The skeletal mouse looks up at the hooded skeleton with eye sockets filled with pinpricks of blue light, and utters a single "SQUEAK?" in a tone that sounds like the snapping of traps and the thump of collapsing tunnels.

"WHY? BECAUSE THEY ARE ALREADY MEDDLING, AND IT IS BETTER TO LET THEM FIND THE TRUTH FOR THEMSELVES. PERHAPS THEY MAY FIX THE PROBLEM AS WELL, AND SAVE ME THE TROUBLE."

The smaller hooded mouse skull nodded slowly, then looked back up and said with an odd certainty "SQUEAK."

"OH ALL RIGHT. I ALSO DID IT BECAUSE I DON'T LIKE BEING BOTHERED." The skeleton lifted the smaller figure up on a bony palm to look it directly in the eye socket. "SATISFIED?"

The smaller figure nodded, and after the skeleton placed it back on the charcoal cobbles they began walking up towards the small cottage. There was a brief pause as the smaller figure tugged on the larger one's robes, and then the skull smiled*** and reached into the robes to produce a small block of orange-white cheese, a splash of color in the darkness of the landscape around them. The smaller figure let out a satisfied "SQUEAK," and the pair continued their walk

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(Continued in Part 5)

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*Ponder was extremely proud of the development of the ability to store the data from Hex and Hex-Top using an ingenious contraption consisting of a water bladder, innumerable small spigots and misters, and several voluminous jars. The ants movement would swirl the water into tiny rainclouds of a unique shape, and after being jarred they could be opened onto Hex at a later point and the ensuing raindrops would direct the ants to do the exact same calculations. The other faculty were a bit skeptical of this "cloud computing," and Ridcully personally believed that the idea that the bits and scribblings of information somehow being suspended in a puff of water vapor was quite ridiculous.

**Ponder had once explained it to Ridcully as that the spells somatic components were merely there to shape the magic and give it form, and that you could condense and purify the vocalization to a few specific sounds and pitches and achieve the same effect. Ridcully couldn't argue with the effectiveness, but he did prefer a longer and more dignified pronunciation of the arcane spell rather than just making a series of noises sounding like someone stepping on a deranged alley cat and then proceeding to fall down a flight of stairs made from badly tuned musical instruments and yet more alley cats.

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***Of course, the skull was always smiling, but somehow one could tell that it was a broader and more genuine than the default expression.

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