Eric Page 4

“I've heard of them,” said Rincewind. “Bloody dangerous things.”

The parrot put its head on one side. “It never worked. All he ever got was a neuralger.”

“What's that?”

“It's a demon that comes and has a headache at you.”

Demons have existed on the Discworld for at least as long as the gods, who in many ways they closely resemble. The difference is basically the same as that between terrorists and freedom fighters.

Most of the demons occupy a spacious dimension close to reality, traditionally decorated in shades of flame and maintained at roasting point. This isn't actually necessary, but if there is one thing that your average demon is, it is a traditionalist.

In the centre of the inferno, rising majestically from a lake of lava substitute and with unparalleled views of the Eight Circles, lies the city of Pandemonium*. (*Demons and their Hell are quite different from the Dungeon Dimensions, those endless parallel wastelands outside space and time. The sad, mad things in the Dungeon Dimensions have no understanding of the world but simply crave light and shape and try to warm themselves by the fires of reality, clustering around it with about the same effect - if they ever broke through - as an ocean trying to warm itself around a candle. Whereas demons belong to the same space-time wossname, more or less, as humans, and have a deep and abiding interest in humanity's day-to-day affairs. Interestingly enough, the gods of the Disc have never bothered much about judging the souls of the dead, and so people only go to hell if that's where they deserve to go. Which they won't do if they don't know about it. This explains why it is important to shoot missionaries on sight.) At the moment, it was living up to its name.

Astfgl, the new King of the Demons, was furious. Not simply because the air-conditioning had broken down again, not because he felt surrounded by idiots and plotters on every side, and not even because no-one could pronounce his name properly yet, but also because he had just been given bad news. The demon who had been chosen by lottery to deliver it cowered in front of his throne with its tail between its legs. It was immortally afraid that something wonderful was soon to happen to it*. (*Demons have a distorted sense of values.)

“It did what?” said Astfgl.

“It, er, it opened, o lord. The circle in Pseudopolis.” “Ah. The clever boy. We have great hopes of him.” “Er. Then it closed again, lord.” The demon shut its eyes. “And who went through?” “Er.” The demon looked around at its colleagues, clustered at the far end of the mile-

long throne room. “I said, and who went through?” “In point of fact, o lord -” “Yes?” “We don't know. Someone.” "I gave orders, did I not, that when the boy succeeded the Duke Vassenego was to

materialise unto him, and offer him forbidden pleasures and dark delights to bend him to

Our will?" The King growled. The problem with being evil, he'd been forced to admit, was that demons were not great innovatory thinkers and really needed the spice of human ingenuity. And he'd really been looking forward to Eric Thursley, whose brand of superintelligent gormlessness was a rare delight. Hell heeded horribly-bright, self-centred people like Eric. They were much better at being nasty than demons could ever manage.

“Indeed, lord,” said the demon, “And the duke has been awaiting the summons there for years, shunning all other temptations, steadfastly and patiently studying the world of men -”

“So where was he?” “Er. Call of supernatural, lord,” the demon gabbled. “Hadn't turned his back for two minutes when -”

“And someone went through?”

“We're trying to find out -”

Lord Astfgl's patience, which in any case had the tensile strength of putty, snapped at this point. That just about summed it up. He had the kind of subjects who used the words “find out” when they meant “ascertain”. Damnation was too good for them.

“Get out,” he whispered. “And I shall see to it that you get a commendation for this -”

“O master, I plead -”

“Get out!”

The King stamped along the glowing corridors to his private apartments.

His predecessors had favoured shaggy hind legs and hoofs. Lord Astfgl had rejected all that sort of thing out of hand. He held that no-one would ever get taken seriously by those stuck-up bastards in Dunmanifestin when their rear end kept ruminating all the time, and so he favoured a red silk cloak, crimson tights, a cowl with two rather sophisticated little horns on it, and a trident. The end kept dropping off the trident but, he felt, it was the sort of get-up in which a demon king could be taken seriously...

In the coolness of his chambers - oh, by all the gods or, rather, not by all the gods, it had taken him ages to get them up to some sort of civilised standard, his predecessors had been quite content just to lounge around and tempt people, they had never heard of executive stress - he gently lifted the cover off the Mirror of Souls and watched it flicker into life.

Its cool black surface was surrounded by an ornate frame, from which curls of greasy smoke constantly unfolded and drifted.

Your wish, master? it said.

“Show me the events around the Pseudopolis gate over the last hour,” said the King, and settled down to watch.

After a while he went and looked up the name “Rincewind” in the filing cabinet he had recently had installed, in place of the distressingly-bound old ledgers that had been there; the system still needed ironing out, though, because the bewildered demons filed everything under P for People.

Then he sat watching the flickering pictures and absent-mindedly playing with the stuff on his desk, to soothe his nerves.

He had any amount of desk things; notepads with magnets for paperclips, handy devices for holding pens and those tiny jotters that always came in handy, incredibly funny statuettes with slogans like “You're the Boss!”, and little chromium balls and spirals operated by a sort of ersatz and short-lived perpetual motion. No-one looking at that desk could have any doubt that they were, in cold fact, truly damned.

“I see,” said Lord Astfgl, setting a selection of shiny balls swinging with one tap of a talon.

He couldn't remember any demon called Rincewind. On the other hand, there were millions of the wretched things, swarming all over the place with no sense of order, and he hadn't yet had time to carry out a proper census and retire the unnecessary ones. This one seemed to have a fewer appendages and more vowels in his name than most. But it had to be a demon.

Vassenego was a proud old fool, one of the elder demons who smiled and despised him and not-quite-obeyed him, just because the King'd worked hard over the millennia to get humble beginnings to where he was today. He wouldn't put it past the old devil to do this on purpose, just to spite him.

Well, he'd have to see about that later. Send him a memo or something. Too late to do anything about it now. He'd have to take a personal interest. Eric Thursley was too good a prospect to pass up. Getting Eric Thursley would really annoy the gods.

God! How he hated the gods! He hated the gods even more than he hated the old guard like Vassenego, even more than he hated humans. He'd thrown a little soirée‚e last week, he'd put a lot of thought into it, he wanted to show that he was prepared to let bygones be bygones, work with them for a new, better and more efficient universe. He'd called it a “Getting to know you!” party. There'd been sausages on sticks and every thing, he'd done his best to make it nice.

They hadn't even bothered to answer the invitations. And he'd made a special point of putting RSVP on them.

“Demon?” Eric peered around the door. “What shape are you?” he said. “Pretty poor shape,” said Rincewind. “I've brought you some food. You do eat, do you?” Rincewind tried some. It was a bowl of cereal, nuts, and dried fruit. He didn't have any

quarrel with any of that. It was just that somewhere in the preparation something had apparently done to these innocent ingredients what it takes a million gravities to do a neutron star. If you died of eating this sort of thing they wouldn't have to bury you, they would just need to drop you somewhere where the ground was soft.

He managed to swallow it. It wasn't difficult. The trick would have been preventing it from heading downwards. “Lovely,” he choked. The parrot did a splendid impersonation of someone being sick. “I've decided to let you go,” said Eric. “It's pretty pointless keeping you, isn't it.” “Absolutely.” “You haven't any powers at all?” “Sorry. Dead failure.”

“You don't look too demonic, come to think about it,” said Eric. “They never do. You can't trust them wossnames,” chortled the parrot. It lost its balance again. “Polly want a biscuit,” it said, upside down.

Rincewind spun around. “You stay out of this beaky!” There was a sound behind them, like the universe clearing its throat. The chalk marks of the magic circle grew terribly bright for a moment, became fiery lines against the scuffed planks, and something dropped out of the empty air and landed heavily on the floor.

It was a large, metal-bound chest. It had fallen on its curved lid. After a while it started to rock violently, and then it extended hundreds of little pink legs and with considerable effort flipped itself over.

Finally it shuffled around until it was watching the pair of them. It was all the more disconcerting because it was staring without having any eyes to do it with. Eric moved first. He grasped the home-made magic sword, which flapped wildly. “You are a demon!” he said. “I nearly believed you when you said you weren't!”

“Wheee!” said the parrot. “It's just my luggage,” said Rincewind desperately. “It's a sort of... well. it goes everywhere with me, there's nothing demonic about it... er.” He hesitated. “Not much, anyway,” he finished lamely.

“Avaunt!” “Oh, not again.” The boy looked at the open book. “My commands earlier resume,” he said firmly. "The

most beautiful woman who has ever lived, mastery of all the kingdoms of the world, and to live forever. Get on with it.“ Rincewind stood frozen. ”Well, go on,“ said Eric. ”You're supposed to disappear in a puff of smoke.“ ”Listen, do you think I can just snap my fingers -" Rincewind snapped his fingers. There was a puff of smoke.

Rincewind gave his fingers a long shocked stare, as one might regard a gun that has been hanging on the wall for decades and has suddenly gone off and perforated the cat.

“They've hardly ever done that before,” he said.

He looked down.

“Aargh,” he said, and closed his eyes.

It was a better world in the darkness behind his eyelids. If he tapped his foot he could persuade himself that he could feel the floor, he could know that he was really standing in the room, and that the urgent signals from all his other senses, which were telling him that he was suspended in the air some thousand miles or so above the Disc, were just a bad dream he'd wake up from. He hastily cancelled that thought. If he was asleep he'd prefer to stay that way. You could fly in dreams. If he woke up, it was a long way to fall.

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