It was trying to hold itself together against the forces roaring around inside its body. It skewed wildly across the stone, making odd little mewling noises, and then, with one good eye glaring balefully at Victor, stepped off into space.
Victor pushed himself up on his hands and knees and dragged himself to the edge.
Even on the way down the Thing wasn't giving up. It was trying frantic evolutions of feather and hide and membranes in an attempt to find something that would survive the fall -
Time slowed. The air took on a purple haze. Death swung his scythe.
YOU BELONG DEAD, he said.
- and then there was a sound like wet laundry hitting a wall and, it turned out, the only thing that could survive the fall was a corpse.
The crowd moved closer in the pouring rain.
Now that all the control was gone the Thing was dissolving into its component molecules, that were washing into the gutters and down to the river and out into the cold depths of the sea.
'It's deliquescing,' said the Lecturer in Recent Runes.
'Is it?' said the Chair. 'I thought that it was some kind of shop.'
He prodded it with his foot.
'Careful,' said the Dean. 'That is not dead which can eternal lie.'
The Chair studied it.
'It looks bloody dead to me,' he said. 'Hang on - there's something moving-'
One of the outflung tentacles slumped aside.
'Did it land on someone?' said the Dean.
It did. They pulled out the twitching body of Ponder Stibbons, and prodded and patted him in a well-meant way until he opened his eyes.
'What happened?' he said.
'A fifty-foot monster fell on you,' said the Dean, simply. 'Are you, er, all right?'
'I only wanted one drink,' Ponder muttered. 'I'd have come straight back, honest.'
'What are you talking about, lad?'
Ponder ignored him. He got up, swaying a bit, and staggered off towards the Great Hall, and never, ever, went out again.
'Funny chap,' said the Chair. They looked back down at the Thing, which had nearly dissolved.
' 'Twas beauty killed the beast,' said the Dean, who liked to say things like that.
'No it wasn't,' said the Chair. 'It was it splatting into the ground like that.'
The Librarian sat up and rubbed his head.
The book was thrust in front of his eyes.
'Read it!' said Victor.
The ape opened it at a page of pictograms. He blinked at them for a moment. Then his finger went to the bottom right-hand comer of the page and began to trace the signs from right to left.
Right to left.
That was how you were supposed to read them, Victor thought.
Which meant that he'd been exactly wrong all the time.
Gaffer the handleman panned his picture box along the row of wizards and then down to the rapidly-dissolving monster.
The handle stopped turning. He raised his head and gave everyone a bright smile.
'If you could just bunch up tighter, gentlemen?' he said. The wizards obediently shuffled even closer. 'The light's not very good.'
Soll wrote down, 'Wizards Joking at the Corepse, take 3,' on a piece of card.
'Shame you didn't get the fall,' he said, the edges of his voice deckled with hysteria. 'Maybe we can stunt it up or something?'
Ginger sat in the shadows by the tower, hugging her knees and trying to stop trembling. Among the shapes the Thing had tried just before the end had been her own.
She pulled herself upright and, holding on to the rough stonework to steady herself, walked uncertainly away. She wasn't certain what the future held, but coffee would be involved if she had any say in the matter.
As she passed the tower door there was a clattering of feet and Victor staggered out, with the Librarian swinging along behind him.
He opened his mouth to speak, and started to gasp for air. The orang-utan pushed him aside and grabbed Ginger firmly by the arm. It was a warm, soft grip, but with just a hint that, if he really ever needed to, the Librarian could easily turn any arm into a tube of jelly with bits in it.
'Look, it's over,' said Ginger. 'The monster's dead. That's how things end, OK? And now I'm going to get something to drink.'
Victor raised his head.
'It's . . . not over,' he said.
'It is for me. I just saw myself turn into a . . . a THING with tentacles. A Thing like that has a bit of an effect on a girl, you know.'
'It's not important!' Victor managed. 'We got it wrong! Look, they'll keep on coming now! You've got to come back to Holy Wood! They'll be coming through there, too!'
'Gook!' the Librarian agreed, jabbing the book with a purple fingernail.
'Well, they can do it without me,' said Ginger.
'No, they can't! I mean, they will anyway! But you can stop them! Oh, stop looking at me like that!' He nudged the Librarian. 'Go on, tell her,' he said.
'Gook,' said the Librarian, patiently. 'Oook.'
'I can't understand him!' wailed Ginger.
Victor's brow wrinkled. 'You can't?'
'It's all just monkey noises to me!'
Victor's eyes swivelled sideways. 'Er-'
The Librarian stood like a small prehistoric statue for a moment. Then he took Ginger's hand, very gently, and patted it.
'Oook,' he said, graciously.
'Sorry,' said Ginger.
'Listen!' said Victor. 'I got it wrong! You weren't trying to help Them, you were trying to stop them! I read it the wrong way round! It's not a man behind a gate, it's a man in front of a gate! And a man in front of a gate', he took a deep breath, 'is a guard!'
'Yes, but we can't get to Holy Wood! It's miles away!'
Victor shrugged. 'Go and get the handleman,' he said.
The land around Ankh-Morpork is fertile and largely given over to the cabbage fields that help to give the city its distinctive odour.
The grey light of pre-dawn unrolled over the blue-green expanse, and around a couple of farmers who were making an early start on the spinach harvest.
They looked up, not at a sound, but at a travelling point of silence where sound ought to have been.
It was a man and a woman and something like a size five man in a size twelve fur coat, all in a chariot that flickered as it moved. It bowled along the road towards Holy Wood and was soon out of sight.
A minute or two later it was followed by a wheelchair. Its axle glowed red-hot. It was full of people screaming at one another. One of them was turning a handle on a box.
It was so overburdened that wizards occasionally fell off and ran along after it, shouting, until they had a chance to jump on again and start screaming.
Whoever was attempting to steer was not succeeding, and it weaved back and forth across the road and eventually hurtled off it completely and through the side of a barn.
One of the farmers nudged the other.
'Oi've seen this on the clicks,' he said. 'It's always the same. They crash into a barn and they allus comes out the other side covered in squawking chickens.'
His companion leaned reflectively on his hoe.
'It'd be a sight worth seeing that,' he said.
' 'Cos all there is in there, boy, is twenty ton of cabbage.'
There was a crash, and the chair erupted from the barn in a shower of chickens and headed madly towards the road.
The farmers looked at one another.
'Well, dang me,' said one of them.
Holy Wood was a glow on the horizon. The earth tremors were stronger now.
The flickering chariot came out of a stand of trees and paused at the top of the incline that led down to the town.
Mist wreathed Holy Wood. From out of it spears of light crisscrossed the sky.
'We're too late?' said Ginger hopefully.
'Almost too late,' said Victor.
'Oook,' said the Librarian. His fingernail raced back and forth as he read the ancient pictograms - right to left, right to left.
'I knew there was something not right,' Victor had said. 'That sleeping statue . . . the guard. The old priests sang songs and did ceremonies to keep him awake. They remembered Holy Wood as best they could.'
'But I don't know anything about a guard!'
'Yes, you do. Like, deep down inside.'
'Gook,' said the Librarian, tapping a page. 'Oook!'
'He says you're probably descended from the original High Priestess. He thinks everyone in Holy Wood is descended from . . . you see . . . I mean, the first time the Things broke through the entire city was destroyed and the survivors fled everywhere, you see, but everyone has this way of remembering even things that happened to their ancestors, I mean, it's like there's this great big pool of memory and we're linked, up to it and when it all started happening again we were all called to the place, and you tried to put it right, only it was weak so it couldn't get through to you unless you were asleep-'
He trailed off helplessly.
' “Oook”?' said Ginger suspiciously. 'You got all this from “oook”?'
'Well, not just one,' Victor admitted.
'I've never heard such a lot of-' Ginger began, and stopped. A hand softer than the softest leather was pushed into hers. She looked around into a fare that compared badly to a deflated football.
'Oook,' said the Librarian.
Ginger locked eyes with him for a moment.
Then she said, 'But I've never felt the least bit like a high priestess . . . '
'That dream you told me about,' said Victor. 'It sounded pretty high priestessy to me. Very . . . very-'
'Sacerdotal. Yeah,' Victor translated.
'It's just a dream,' said Ginger nervously. 'I've, dreamed it occasionally as far back as I can remember.'
'What'd he say?' said Ginger.
'He says that's probably a lot further back than you think.'
Ahead of them Holy Wood glittered like frost, like a city made of congealed starlight.
'Victor?' said Ginger.
'Where is everybody?'
Victor looked down the road. Where there should have been people, refugees, desperately fleeing . . . was nothing.
Just silence, and the light.
'Where are they?' she repeated.
He looked at her expression.
'But the tunnel fell down!' he said, saying it loudly in the hope that this would make it true. 'It was all sealed off!'
'It wouldn't take trolls long to clear a way through, though,' said Ginger.
Victor thought about the - the Cthinema. And the first house, which had been going on for thousands of years. And all the people he knew, sitting there, for another thousand years. While overhead the stars changed.
'Of course, they might just be . . . well . . . somewhere else,' he lied.
'But they're not,' said Ginger. 'We both know that.'
Victor stared helplessly at the city of lights.
'Why us?' he said. 'Why is it happening to us?'
'Everything has to happen to someone,' said Ginger.
Victor shrugged. 'And you only get one chance,' he said. 'Right?'
'Just when you need to save the world, there's a world for you to save,' said Ginger.
'Yeah,' said Victor. 'Lucky old us.'
The two farmers peered in through the barn doors. Stacks of cabbage waited stolidly in the gloom.
'Told you it were cabbage,' said one of them. 'Knew it weren't chickens. Oi knows a cabbage when I sees one, and of believes what I sees.'
From far above came voices, getting closer:
'For gods' sake, man, can't you steer?'
'Not with you throwing your weight about, Archchancellor!'
'Where the hell are we? Can't see a thing in this fog!'
'I'll just see if I can point it - don't lean over like that! Don't lean over like that! I said don't lean-!'
The farmers dived sideways as the broomstick corkscrewed through the open doorway and disappeared among the ranks of cabbage. There was a distant, brassica'd squelch.