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A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale (Part 5)

Illustration for article titled A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale (Part 5)

(Part 4, Previously)

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PLOP.

Jeremy Critchens considered himself to be a dutiful servant, helping to attend to the innumerable little tasks venerable buildings as large and old as the Unseen University tended to have. There were hinges to oil, cracks to mortar, floors to sweep and scrub, and of course, countless wall hangings and fixtures to dust and clean until they shone. It was during one of these such mindless routines that he was aware of a droplet of water worming it's way to his scalp through his combed-over tufts of hair.

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Critchens' first action was to duck and roll, and following that, to dip his entire head in the bucket of rather alarming mopwater he had brought with him.* Following that, he cautiously removed his head and peered around, his gaze following a trickle of liquid down the wall up to the damp patch on the stone ceiling, where it was emerging from between a pair of granite blocks. As he watched, another drop fell to the floor, and Critchens followed his instinct again and dove into a nearby alcove with a small ugly vase on a pedestal.

PLOP.

When he emerged from the alcove he dove into, there was no explosion of magical energy Critchens could see. No smoking ruin, no uncomfortable-to-look-at-shape, no howling void drawing in the surrounding rock. Just a little damp patch, darkening the flagstone almost imperceptibly. After gingerly poking the patch with a mop and recieving no hiss and cloud of steam in return, Critchens let out an audible sigh of relief, one that morphed into a grumble of annoyance almost seamlessly.

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"Damn wizards. Knocking about in their baths like that'll ruin the finish upstairs." He bent down to get a brush, and began scrubbing the floor.

PLOP.

If one squinted, the small stuffed creature** suspended in a magical aura before the wizards could be seen as floating in front of a majestic waterfall, almost like one of those magic-eye postcards where you need to squint one eye and stand on your head in order to see an apple and an inspirational word or two. In this case, looking too closely would cause one to notice the headache-inducing reality that the waterfall was in fact originating from the bone-dry cotton lump.Nearby was a large cabinet, pierced through in every direction by glass tubes and channels, and covered in arcane glyphs, various magical skulls and similar gruesome trinkets, and oddly enough, several brightly-colored cheap birthday garlands. Surrounding it was a series of layered umbrellas of various hues and patterns, primarily canary yellow, that formed a barrier that would have made General Tacticus proud. If the sound of the rushing water and mutter of conversation could be muted, a soft hushing sound could be heard as millions of tiny ants marches through the glass pipes, carrying bits of wood, biscuit, fabric, and on one occasion, part of a fingerbone.The large plaque on the front of the cabinet proudly inscribed the word "HEX".

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In the center of the whole affair was a worn swivel stool, occupied by Ponder Stibbons, who was frantically slotting sheets and shapes of paper, riddled with holes, into slots on Hex that never seemed to be large enough to admit the holed slip. Some of the shapes seemed to be elaborate foldings of lacework boxes, a perforated swan, and even a strip that had been taped together on one end to form an endless loop. Every several seconds, there would be a clunking noise, and a sheet of paper would spit out from yet another side slot, covered with block-printed letters and glyphs, and at one point an image of a pair of trousers.

PLOP.

Crashing through the protective shell of water-repelling umbrellas came Ridcully, adjusting his waist as bits of umbrella fell to the ground behind him. "Ha, Stibbons! Tell me lad, what is that contraption of yours telling us about that queer stuffed bear over there?"Ponder wheeled around, checking frantically that the flow from the suspended toy was still sluicing properly into a nearby drain and not coming near Hex.*** There was the faintest sound of "It's not a bear, it's a dog-" under a muttered breath as he spun, but were quickly silenced from a glare from the Archchancellor. As Ridcully opened his mouth with the air of indignation brewing, Ponder quickly cut in and shielded himself with the defense of countless overworked employees everywhere: A sheaf of papers with complicated figures on them and the urgency that it needed to be addressed by whoever was about to berate them. "It was as we feared, Archchancellor. The stuffed dog-"

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"Bear," muttered Ridcully in a voice meant to carry.

Ponder ignored him, and pressed on. "-the dog being grasped by our good friend, Mr... Um, pardon me, what was your name again?"

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Kennard, who had up to this point been sitting on a small chair and watching the ants crawl through the tubes of Hex, sat up startled, and quickly stammered out "Uh, Kennard, m'lords. Kennard Oakstave." Ponder nodded his thanks, and turned back to Ridcully.

"When Mr. Oakstave here grabbed his dog-" he ignored the abrupt bought of coughing from Ridcully that sounded conveniently like the words bear, "-he accidentally knotted the trousers of time. From what Mr. Oakstave told us, they were on a boat when, poof! He can't recall much else between that and waking up in a streetcorner in Satyr Square, but from what Hex is telling me, the water is channeling through from where the doll should have been at this point in time, namely several hundred feet below the waves out to sea."****

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Kennard managed a weak smile, his stomach throwing conniptions. Lying did not come easily to him, and it always gave him a bout of nasty indigestion, but he was at least relieved they hadn't pressed him too closely about his arrival back in the city, the old monks who had helped him, or more importantly, how old he had been when he left.

PLOP.

Kennard could barely hear it, but on the edge of audibility was the sound of discussion. Something about "fluid dynamics" and "pressure differential" and "rapid sedimentation," as well as the scritching of invisible pencils on equally-transparent paper. Feeling an horrifically-familiar sensation of deja-vu, Kennard stood up and began backing towards the nearest door, his eyes darting around for more precariously-balanced gargoyles. Ponder took note, and as his words came to an awkward halt as he noticed Kennard looking like a rat in a trap. Ridcully followed Stibbon's gaze, and began to say "Here now, what's the matter-"Then there was the muffled sound of a heavy stamp hitting paper with a dull thud that Kennard would have missed if he hadn't been waiting for it.

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PLOP.

Kennard had barely enough tme to open his mouth and scream "Look out-" before the stones under their feet gave way with a wet crumbling and several tons of stone, woodwork, standing torches, glassware, confused ants, equally confused wizards, and screaming Kennard Oakstave plummeted into darkness.

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(Continued in Part 6)

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*In a building surrounded by wizards and other objects and concoctions of an arcane nature, one could never be too cautious. One of Critchens' coworkers a few years back had felt a dribble of what he thought was pudding land on his arm, and it was only after a great deal of magical pyromancy and a pair of generously large steel pliers that the bloodleech, now gorged into somnolence and only occasionally exuding a squirt of acid, was removed from what remained of the arm.

**Some words had been had over the exact nature of the small corduroy keepsake, and after several comments about other opinion-holder's parentage and beard quality, it was eventually amicably agreed on that the object was, at once, a bear, pig, squirrel, cottage with a roof shaped like a pair of ears, rabbit, cat, dog, dog corpse after a few days in the River Ankh, and a banana. All agreed, however, that it could also quite easily have been the comfort toy for a creature of the Dungeon Dimensions, and so they kept a respectful distance from it nonetheless.

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***The room had a few drains near the edges of the walls, and between that, the manacles on the far wall, and the spiked bed that they had wheeled out to make room for Hex, there was a mutual unspoken agreement to not question why the Unseen University would have use for a room that, while not a torture room as Archancellor Ridcully had so firmly stated, nevertheless seemed very unwelcoming to overnight guests.

****It was at this point that a small innocuous brown octopus was jetted from the water flow, landing on the tiles with a wet splat unnoticed by the conversing wizards. It slowly slunk back into the drain, and had a long and checkered career as the deadliest predator in the Ankh-Morpork sewers until Buggy Swires bested him in a five-hour wrestling match and used him as his mount for the newly-formed Ankh-Morpork Naval Section.

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