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A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale, Part 9

Illustration for article titled A Barrel of Paradox: A Discworld Tale, Part 9

(Part 8, Previously)

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Kennard looked up to see the smiling face of the time monk from all those years ago, beaming down at him. Chrysoprase and his associates came short upon seeing him, and while the other trolls started to lurch forward threateningly, Kennard was taken aback when the troll mob boss waved them back.

Lu-Tze bowed, and said with another beaming smile said "Greetings to you again, young Pebble."

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The trolls flanking Chrysoprase suddenly stiffened, and if looks could be believed their expressions suddenly became much more stoic and resolved. However, one of them cracked with a quiet "Heh." Faster than Kennard thought anything his size could move, the boss suddenly swung, nearly graceful, and landed a fist the size of a wheelbarrow into the side of the head of the one that let out the snicker, the steely glint of a knuckle-duster visible over his enormous hand. There was an enormous crash, as the other troll dropped to the ground in a crumpled heap of unconscious stone.

Kennard's jaw had begun to ache from gaping as the troll then turned back towards Lu-Tze, and let out a mirror of a bow, before saying "Greetings, Master." He then gargled off something in Troll that sounded like shaking gravel inside a wooden bucket. Lu-Tze smiled widely again, and replied in kind. The rocky back-and-forth continued for a minute, and then abruptly broke off when Chrysoprase bowed deeply again, before turning to his henchman and saying "'ere, we're goin' now. Grab Picrite and bring 'im with us for a...discussion, later."

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The Time Monk then turned and placed a fatherly hand on Kennard's shoulders. "Mr Oakstave, please follow me, and bring your stuffed... animal*...with you. The faculty at the University would like to speak with you. Again."

Kennard nodded slowly, but couldn't keep his eyes off of the departing troll. Lu-Tze noticed his gaze, and in a quiet voice said "Once, years ago, a young troll came to our monastery seeking enlightenment and knowledge. It quickly became apparent that he was merely interested in his own self, his future, and so we had no choice but to shut our doors to him shortly thereafter. Time monks are not allowed to disseminate the future like a fishwife distributes rotten halibut heads."

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He sighed, looking up to the sky quietly for a few moments, before turning back to face Kennard. "However, janitors such as myself are far below such wordly concerns, and it is not unheard of for them to accidentally let slip of an individual's fate when asked."

He looked back at the barely-visible departing troll. "Some only saw the crimes the young troll had committed, would commit. Grand larcenies to be sure, beatings, muggings, more than a few murders. But no-one checked much farther than that, and as a result no-one saw what role he would play in helping stabilize the city's underworld and prevent a thousand other crimes through his machinations."

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After negotiating through a traffic jam between a crashed cart full of jarred cabbage preserves and a trolley piled high with unrefined raw treacle, Kennard and the Time Monk had just crossed the intersection with Upper Broadway. The Patrician's Palace could be seen above the heads of the carts, oxen, and drivers, and when the light of dusk hit it there was a brief glint of gold.

They finally managed to meander to the gates of the University in short order, and were quickly ushered inside. In the Great Hall**, the faculty were assembled around a lopsided table, enjoying various delicacies from a dessert trolley, burping, farting, and generally sitting about with the happy glazed-over expression one gets after eating a hearty meal after a long day's hard work. They began straightening up after Kennard came into view, Rincewind in particular letting out a low moan and abruptly standing up and edging towards a doorway, staring at the floor fearfully the entire time.

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Ridcully let a broad smile crack across his face, and clapped Kennard heavily enough on the back that he stumbled and nearly planted his face into a custard pie on the table. The other faculty gave the young man expressions varying between excitement and pity (And in the case of the Bursar, a look resembling a man attempting to pass an obstinate squib of gas), and Ridcully turned to the Dean, excitement in his voice.

"So, is it ready yet?" The Dean cleared his throat, and then unfurled a complicated scroll filled with mechanical diagrams filled with gears, pulleys, inordinate amounts of rope, and what appeared to be a basket of bananas. After several seconds of examining the scroll, and then the ceiling, lips moving silently as he did calculations, the Dean finally said hesitantly "Yes, although I cannot recommend enough that this wait another few days to make sure we rigged it properly."

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The Archancellor let out a laugh of excitement that could have easily passed as a cackle, and then clapped his hands together. "Right then! To the Inferior Hall!" He began striding purposefully towards one of the doors, grabbing a forlorn Rincewind by the scruff of his robe as he passed and dragging him along.

Kennard and Lu-Tze followed the group of wizards as they wound through side passages, corridors, and tunnels. At one point, Kennard began counting the number of turns, and at least twice he calculated that they must have returned to the Great Hall. However, the turns instead just stayed wide enough for two to walk shoulder-to-shoulder***, and became more and more twisty. The doors the wizards were leading them through became more ornate, with demons and monsters wrought in steel and runes burned on some doors that hurt Kennard's eyes to look directly at. At one point, Ridcully pulled up short of a set of black-and-white checkered flagstones, and carefully crouched over and began doing something Kennard couldn't see. From the back of the crowd of mages Kennard only heard Ridcully mumbling, followed by a snapping noise like someone slapping a ruler against a desk, and the tearing noise of fabric accompanied by a wail of despair from Rincewind. Ridcully grunted some sort of approval, and the group moved on, albeit at a far quicker pace as they passed over the innocent-looking tiled floor.

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Finally, the corridor widened and came upon a pair of double doors that the Archancellor pushed open with a flourish. Inside was a huge open hall, ceiling barely visible in the upper distance above through a layer of puffy clouds. Torches sparkled like stars on the far wall, what looked like at least a mile away if not two****. There might have been chandeliers, far above, or perhaps stars. If it weren't for the occasional towering pillar the diameter of Sator Square every several thousand feet, Kennard wouldn't have batted an eye if someone told him they'd gone outside.

In the center of the room was a small wooden contraption, the size of a writing desk, surrounded by candles and lanterns for better lighting. In addition to that was some kind of ornate silver podium, with a trio of delicate metal prongs that appeared to be designed to hold something. Capping it all off was a squat orangutan, checking over the entire contraption with a wrench that seemed comically small in his lanky arms. He greeted the group with a distracted "ook" before tightening some obscure nut on the wooden device.

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The faculty approached the center of the room, the Dean in particular fussing over the wooden device, while Ridcully and the Chief Wrangler carefully extracted Kennard's stuffed...creature...from the mass of baling wire and bits of scrap wood using pairs of iron tongs, before gingerly placing it in the prongs on the silver pedestal. It began to gently emit a silvery-white light, and the water emitting from the doll began pooling to one side of the base of the pillar.

Most of the other wizards took a step backwards as Ridcully stepped up to the puddle, and said a few brief words that seemed to slide in and out of Kennard's ears like an eel, unable to recall even individual syllables. The puddle of water flared a brilliant turquoise, before becoming crystal clear as a mirror. Through it could be seen an endless plain of ocean, viewed as if from a tall cliff over the water but with no land in sight. Ridcully and the others checked the puddle, looking between it, the wooden device the Dean was still fretting over, and the scroll filled with diagrams and calculations. Lu-Tze also checked the puddle himself, snorting but still giving it a terse look of satisfaction.

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Finally, Ridcully nodded, and the others began pushing the odd wooden device on small, ear-torturing squeaky wheels towards the puddle, before halting right at the puddle's edge. The orangutan (Whom the wizards had introduced to Kennard as "The Librarian") clambered atop the wood device, strapping a leather cap and goggles to his head before giving the largest thumbs-up Kennard had ever seen. The Dean began shouting over a gust of wind that was blowing through the puddle and into their hair and clothes, saying "Now remember to float until we come by to pick you up! Don't aim for anything but the water, since ocean's a lot more forgiving than wood if you misjudge reduction of your descent!"

The others nodded, although Kennard was still slightly baffled as to what was going on, and they all clustered around the puddle, wind whipping their robes about their feet. "On three!" shouted Ridcully. "One..." and he abruptly helped the Dean push the wooden contraption into the puddle. The water rippled, and the device, Librarian still aboard and ooking some kind of curse, dropped through, rapidly falling towards the water far below.

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"Two-here now, where're you goin?" he said, grabbing Rincewind by the hem of his robe as he began to flee. He reeled Rincewind in hand over hand, and then smiling broadly, nudged Rincewind off balance and into the puddle-portal. He fell screaming downwards, the Librarian and mechanical cabinet now barely a speck above the water.

"THREE!" he bellowed, and the wizards, Kennard, and Lu-Tze jumped into the puddle, more or less as one. Kennard was slow to jump though, and his legs began to fail him as he looked at the descending wizards and time monk. Before he could back away, however, Ridcully tackled him at a run, grabbing him under one arm while the pedestal still holding the doll was held aloft in the other. The Archancellor then jumped into the rapidly-shrinking puddle with a cry of "Geronimo!" and a scream rose unbidden from Kennard's throat.

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As he fell, after the first second of sheer terror, he managed to gain his bearings enough to look around. Ridcully looked ecstatic, his arms spread and his robe billowing around him. Far below, where Kennard was expecting to see a small splash of the Librarian and the contraption, the tiny speck suddenly became the distant outline of a boat, sails unfurling even as he watched.

However, the other wizards abruptly zipped upwards past Kennard, held aloft on what looked to be little purple and pink clouds made of tiny bubbles, and he only heard the Dean utter "Oh, dammit, we forgot-" before he zipped past, hurtling towards the rapidly-growing waves below him.

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(Due to NaNoWriMo, this is on hiatus until December 5th!)

*When Otto Chriek had come by for a photograph of, as he put it, "dis vierd und vascinating little oddity," when he pushed the lever on his camera, the imp inside let out a drawn-out scream, punctuated my a quiet popping noise. When the photograph had emerged later, the paper was blank of any paint, and instead covered with tiny ripped holes from an equally tiny paintknife. Otto had smiled his unnerving smile and apologized for the imp, but left in a hurry nonetheless.

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**The servant who took them to the Great Hall glared at Kennards little cart, still sloshing water from the tiny fluffed toy inside. The faint aroma of cleaning fluids in the hall still couldn't quite cover the scent of caramel and soured eggs, however.

***With a bit of jostling, of course. Wizards detested sharing anything, including a stretch of dank tunnel.

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****The size of the hall was, of course, impossible, but this was somewhat of a given inside of the walls of a wizarding school. Mustrum had adamantly put his foot down about the idea of moving staircases though, as the one occasion he had permitted them he had "played silly buggers with them leading me in circles for nearly an hour and a half." Afterwards the stairs were not enchanted to be anything but stationary, and huge heavy chains kept the remaining stairs relatively immobile.

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