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A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale, Part 7

Illustration for article titled A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale, Part 7

(Part 6, Previously)

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There was silence, and the drip of chicken.

Ponder Stibbons had resolved to never eat eggs again. Or chicken wings. Or roast chicken. Or, really, any poultry-based product, ever again. He raised his hand to push back the soggy drooping tip of his pointed hat and a dribble of chunky yellow blended goop dribbled out of his sleeve and onto his forehead with a sad "ploop" noise.

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The other faculty were scattered around, sitting in puddles of blended bird foodstuffs or leaning against the walls, breathing heavily. The Bursar was sitting off to one side, giggling gleefully as he worked the handle of his backpack-pump to create a fountain of goop to rain down on his own head. Sitting in the center of the room, however, was the fruit of their labors: A small pile of the wooden boxes the Archancellor had made, each vibrating or shaking slightly from the entity within that had, against all of Ponders guesses and calculations, been contained within.*

Above it all stood Archancellor Ridcully, bearing an ear-splitting beam of accomplishment while standing in a liberal coating of yellow chunky liquid. He turned to Ponder, lightly tossing one of the boxes from hand to hand as if it were a mere cricket ball. Internally Stibbons quailed, for he had seen, albeit briefly, what the grey hooded figures could do, and had no inkling of a desire to repeat the experience.

"Now, GET THE BUGGERS!" yelled Ridcully, and at once, all of the faculty began pumping furiously and dousing the grey figures with the eggy solution. The figures halted in place, vibrating with what Ponder would guess was confusion and utter revulsion; An identical response to what he would have done in their position. Then Ridcully popped open one of his wooden caramel-boxes and threw it at the nearest cloaked figure. The cloaked shape disappeared into the box with a whooshing noise, and Ridcully deftly sprinted over and snapped it shut with an indistinct noise of triumph.

The other faculty followed suit, and soon there were only three of the cloaked figures remaining. They had begun to turn the egg covering into some kind of powder with a mere touch, each pile a pure black, white, yellow, or even just a puff of gas that caused Ponder to wrinkle his nose.** The Bursar and the Senior Wrangler had trapped one of the cloaks in a corner of the Great Hall ceiling, and the Wrangler was now just attempting and failing to throw the box high enough to catch the cloaked figure.

Meanwhile the Chair of Indefinite Study and Lecturer in Recent Runes were chasing a second in widening circles, followed by Rincewind, who was following at such a healthy distance that the grey shape actually came up from behind him. Rincewind gave a girilish shriek and in one fluid motion wrenched off his backpack-pump, threw it at the cloaked figure, and huddled into the protective fetal position. The figure made a sweeping gesture and the pump and leather straps dissolved into more puffs of grey, brown, and black powder. The poultry soup inside, however, remained intact and splashed full-on onto the cloak, weighing it down several feet and allowing the Chair of Indefinite Study to clamber up onto a table and catch the bottom of the creature's cloak in a broad swipe of a wooden caramel-box.

However, the third cloaked shape had cornered the Reader in Esoteric Studies, and had already vaporized his pump and chicken slurry. There was a wave of a hand, and a cloud of atomized material obscured where the Reader had been, before a puff of wind replaced Ponder's fear with utter confusion. The Reader was still standing, albeit with a distinct lack of cloak to cover the pasty flesh and grubby nicotine-stained underclothes beneath. Scrawled all over his arms in hasty black ink were a variety of mathematical formulas and phrases. As the cloaked figure paused in confusion, Ponder could read "2+2=5" and "WATER IS DRY" across one of his arms***, before the other arm whipped forwards to hurl a caramel-box through the center of the misty figure.

The Reader, however, had unfortunately neglected to open the box, and it passed harmlessly by to land quite heavily against Ponder's chest, where he caught it on reflex before it hit the ground. The cloaked figure made another swiping motion, but all that occurred as the Reader flinched and closed his eyes was the powdering of one of the many notations scrawled on his arm into a fine black and purple-blue dust. The figure tilted the cloaked area of the hood where a head would be, and tried again with the same result. There was a brief pause as the hood tilted to the other side, and then another swipe, this time powdering all of the inked sigils and briefly wreathing the Reader in what appeared to be a cloud of smoke. Ponder frantically opened the caramel-box he caught, and before the figure could dissolve the Reader he flung it as hard as he could into the middle of the cloaked grey mist.

There was a howling noise as it was caught, and the box neatly landed next to the Reader, the box snapping shut with a clean, if slightly caramelized, "click." A second "click" echoed across the hall, and Stibbons turned to see the Librarian dangling from the egg-coated rafters where the cloak had been trapped, holding one of the boxes in one hand and wearing an expression of complete disapproval and mild disgust. He swung to another rafter, dropped onto the back of the statue of some long-forgotten archmage, and from there clambered down to the floor to place the box in the pile in the center of the room. There was an "Ook" with a very distinct huff in it before the orangutan waddled off towards the direction of the washrooms.

And then there was silence, and the drip of chicken.

A short while later, the Faculty were assembled in Ridcully's study, pervaded with the smell of freshly-changed laundry and the faintest whiff of omlettes. Before them was one of the caramel-boxes, still shaking visibly, and surrounding it was the oddest protective circle Ponder had ever seen inscribed. There were more of the nonsensical phrases such as the Reader of Esoteric Studies had on his arms, inscribed into the wood of the table, as well as a dribble of the egg-chicken mix around that. But most notable was the spherical cage that surrounded the box****, made of what Ponder realized were enormous dull bronze swords, hammered into a crude curve. When asked, Ridcully chuckled and told him that they had been "borrowed" from the statues on Satyr Square. "Specifically, they're from the ones back from the signing of the Quirm Ceasefire back in the Year of the Salted Goose. Swords from a peace statue, eh?" he said, jostling Ponder's already-sore ribs with an elbow.

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Ridcully tapped the cage a few times to check for it's soundness, and then reached a stick through the bars between the swords to tilt the lid open. Within a heartbeat, the cage was filled with a grey mist, and Ponder and the other assembled faculty flinched as the impression of annoyance bordering on rage suffused their thoughts for an instant. This was broken up by Ridcully sticking the rod back into the cage and rattling it a bit with a cry of "Here now, knock that nonsense off or I'll dribble more of the blended chicken in there, y'hear?"

There was a distinctly sullen silence, broken by Ridcully clearing his throat before going on to speak. "Now, what's with all this nonsense about not investigating the trousers of time being all wadded up and knotted? We'll do whatever we damn well like; Nobody ever tells a wizard no.*****" The silence shifted from sullen to confused for a few seconds, before becoming mildly inquisitive. "Ah-HA! You don't want us finding out about whatever this is before you lot do, eh? You from that upstart university over in Klatch then?"

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Before the figure could reply, there was a quiet yet forcefully distinct cough from behind them. Everyone turned to see a small man in orange robes standing in the doorway, wearing some kind of spinning stone block on his back that was only now just humming to a stop with a whine and smell of burning yak butter. He noticed Ridcully, and gave a smile and a small bow. Ridcully huffed acknowledgement, and before Dean's gaping mouth could utter any words, said "'ullo Lun-Tze."

The Time Monk smiled, and replied "Hello Mustrum. Further pleasantries will need to wait until later, as you have trapped something that can kill us all, and has just broken through your feeble containment."

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Ponder turned, again with the rest of the Faculty, to witness in horror the now-powdered piles of copper and silvery dust and the growing cloud of malevolent, angry grey mist.

(Continued in Part 8)

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*The Dean had become frantic early on when he accidentally trod on one of the boxes and gotten his foot stuck inside, worrying that he was to be trapped as well. After Ridcully bellowed at him to keep his head, he had simply unlaced his shoe and proceeded to trap one of the figures inside the box. Ponder felt sorry for the figure within being dually-assaulted by both caramel paradoxes and the legendary fungal aroma of the Dean's feet.

**The cigarette held behind the Senior Wrangler's ear flared when one of the puffs of dust hit it, turning it a brilliant blue and nearly catching what little hair he had left aflame. Ponder noted that, wishing briefly that Hex were present to record it until the gloop of liquefied bird reminded him why he left it behind.

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***The Reader in Esoteric Studies, while not exceedingly intelligent, nevertheless was quick on his feet when it came to preparing for the unknown. This came in handy when the esoterics being studied abruptly grew fangs or poisonous spines.

****The spherical cage even pierced through the table to complete the shape on the underhalf, as Ponder found out when Rincewind dove under the table for cover during an especially violent bout of shaking from the box, eliciting a loud "clang!" and a cry of pain.

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*****This elicited a round of approving nods from around the table

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