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There was a noise like the Procurator’s tower flying through the air and crashing into another one just like it, and light in colours Tash could not recognise that made his eyes hurt, and a thunderous wind that was unbearably hot and unbearably cold in turn. Stabbing pain struck Tash first in one place, then in all of them, and he would have shrieked like a baby if he had been able to breathe. Tighter than he had ever held anything, he clung to the silver cord.

Something in Tash mastered the worst of the pain and the worst of the chaos, and it seemed to him then that he was being pulled through places that could not possibly exist and that he could not possibly have imagined, one swiftly being replaced by the next.

It was black in all directions, and very cold filled with distant points of brilliant light, and great metal machines were floating through it while some sort of winged men or beast flew about them; then there was a wilderness of yellow sand that clutched at Tash with a horrible grasping dryness, and a thing like a man made out of marsh worms peering up at him through a dome of green glass; there were mountains of something bitterly cold that cracked and fell into a sea of tumultuous grey froth as he passed; there was a forest of leafless trees under a virulent pink sky, through which hordes of things like flying gnawers chased each other, and when he passed close to one of the trees he saw that it had eyes. Then there was an endless city of bronze, its streets thronged with some kind of four-limbed men who looked almost as if they were made out of polished stone, with a black sky that had the same points of light as the first place he had seen, but dimmer.  And then there was a vast plain of brightly-coloured plants, with roughly-hewn stones of great size arranged in innumerable lines and circles on it.  He found himself falling towards the middle of one of these and squeezed his eyes shut so he would not see himself hit the ground.

Then the unimaginable din was replaced by silence, and Tash found himself standing in a field. The only sound was the wind, sighing inexorably through the branches of the plants which extended endlessly in every direction. They came up no higher than Tash’s knees, and were a bewildering variety of colours – green, and blue, and golden, and a vivid red, violet, and silver, tumbled together in such a mad profusion that looking at them made him a little queasy. The sky overhead was a deep blue. In one direction something horribly bright was in the sky, far too bright for Tash to look near, let alone at it. The air was warm and had a bitter flavour, and he found himself taking quick shallow breaths of it.

‘I wonder if there is where I am supposed to be,’ thought Tash. He was disturbed to find that he was no longer clutching the silver cord, though he had been holding on to it with all his strength. ‘At least there is no one here doing anything horrid to me.’ Having nothing better to do, he walked towards the nearest of the standing stones, which was about fifty yards away.  Up close the stone, though left unshaped and unpolished, was carved all over with what seemed to be proofs of theorems in geometry.

‘What a curious thing to do,’ thought Tash, forgetting to worry about the loss of the silver cord or what would become of him in this strange landscape, and peering at the theorems.   It seemed to him, though he was not quite sure, that if he looked away from one and then looked back at again it was a different theorem the second time. Yes, he was almost quite sure. He looked away and looked back at one particular theorem a fourth time. He did not look at it a fifth time, because his attention was distracted by a long note from something like a horn sounding in the distance. He headed off in the direction of the sound to find what might be making it.

Before too long Tash could hear other sounds, the sounds of a group of men approaching him, and he could see them coming across the meadow. They were almost like thalarka, but not quite: they were more feathered, and taller, and Tash had the feeling that without their feathers they would be quite a skinny sort of people. Their feathers were the most beautiful things Tash had yet seen – they had the opalescent quality of looking different colours from different directions and glittered impressively in the bright light. Tash felt drab and grey beside them. There were somewhere between a dozen and a score of them, and they were in a hurry. They all had bright red eyes.

‘Are you the inscrutable powers?’ asked Tash hopefully. This did not seem to be such an unpleasant place, and these people did not seem so very unpleasant.

‘This is the one,’ said one of the men. Several of the others threw a large net over Tash.

There did not seem to be any point in struggling with these men, who were very strong, so he meekly let himself be tied up. Up close, they seemed to come in two kinds: one slightly taller, who wore belts as thickly encrusted with jewels as any of the priests Tash had seen in the Procurator’s tower, and one slightly shorter, who wore collars of some drab metal.

‘No wonder the lines were tangled,’ said one of the tallest of the men, coming up to examine Tash closely once he was safely tied up. ‘This one has not even been attuned. Hzghra!’ Tash was not sure at first if this last word was a curse, or somebody’s name, but decided it was a name when one of the shorter ones hurried up. It leaned in close to Tash and examined the hand he had been holding the cord in, then jabbed it without warning with a sharp metal object.

‘Ow!’ said Tash.

‘This one is attuned to Gith-Khash, but only weakly,’ said the shorter man. ‘It has not come completely unattached.’

‘Bring this one to the sorting chamber,’ said the tall thalarka-like man who had said that Tash had not even been attuned. ‘Nine and Ninety Transparent Godlings, what a tangle.’ The men seemed to say something in the same kind of voice, an impatient way of talking with a whistle in it that made it impossible to tell whether they were really irritated or not. Maybe they were all always irritated.

For the first time one of the opalescent thalarka addressed Tash directly. It was the one who had stabbed his hand, and what it said was ‘Do not be very alarmed’.

‘I will try not to be,’ he assured the creature.

Several of the opalescent thalarka-like men picked Tash up then – he had been trussed into a bundle convenient for carrying – and carried him briskly off across the meadow.

‘What purpose do you serve?’ one of the taller ones asked Tash.

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash.

‘Do you know what sphere you originate from?’

‘No,’ said Tash. He would have bowed his head and let his arms droop if he had not been tied up. It occurred to Tash that perhaps the old thalarka who had sent him here did not know what he was doing as well as he thought he did.

Tash was carried to a circle of standing stones, in the centre of which the grass and flowers had been trampled down to packed earth. In the centre of this was what appeared at first to be a pool of water, but as they drew closer it became apparent it was a hole in time and space, like Tash had seen the gnawers make. Instead of just ending, it was bounded neatly with stones. Tash was not very alarmed until it became evident that the almost-thalarka were going to toss him into it; then he did become very alarmed, but he was tied up too tightly to do anything about it.

He flew through the air. There was a very brief tingling and pain as he fell into the void, and then he found himself in a large round stone room. There were some dozens of the thalarka-like men in it, but it was large enough that there was plenty of room between them.  Around the edge were any number of intricate clockwork gadgets, and the walls were covered with carved images – of theorems in geometry, but also of machines, and buildings, and different kinds of men – that were most certainly moving as Tash looked at them.  At the centre of the room was a vertical hole into the void, made somehow into the sides of a triangular block of black stone that slowly turned around. Tash supposed he had got from there to the edge of the room somehow; and also had been untied, since he was standing up and unbound. Some time seemed to be missing from his life, and one of his shoulders stung as if something had bitten it. He rubbed it and this seemed to help a little.

The shortest of the thalarka-like creatures he had yet seen, barely taller than Tash himself, was standing in front of him, holding out a cone with something green in it.

‘What is it?’ asked Tash.

‘Lime ice,’ said the man.

‘Thank you,’ said Tash, sniffing it curiously. It seemed like the kind of thing you could eat, but had no odour of vinegar to it at all.

‘What is this place?’ Tash asked the man who had given him the lime ice.

‘This is the sorting chamber,’ the short almost-thalarka said proudly.

‘What will you do with me?’

‘We will untangle your line from the other lines you have been entangled with, and sort you.’

‘Oh,’ said Tash, understanding this as well as he had understood anything else in this place where nothing made sense.

‘Please,’ said the man. It gestured that Tash should stand someplace other than where he was standing, and he went to the place indicated. It was marked off from the rest of the room with a kind of rope strung between poles, and contained a number of things that looked like they were made to be sat on, though neither of the creatures already there were sitting down. They were peculiar sorts of things. They did not come up much above Tash’s knees, and were evidently the same kind of creature, though they were dressed very differently and the tufts of fibrous material coming out of their heads were different colours and arranged in different ways. Like the feathered men, they had two arms and two legs, and flat sorts of faces with two eyes. One of them had something sticky and glistening on its face, and was making noises that sounded distressed. The other was eating lime ice out of a paper cone and rubbing its shoulder. As Tash approached, the one who was making the distressed noises looked at him and became more distressed, while the other one’s eyes went very wide.

‘What manner of creature are you?’ asked the short pasty creature with the lime ice. ‘I have not seen your like before.’ It was wearing a single black garment that was tied around its middle with a belt and came down to a little below where its knees ought to be.

‘I am a thalarka,’ said Tash, feeling an unworthy satisfaction at being the cause of mystification in someone else for a change.

The creature stared back at Tash in a way that made him uncomfortable. It nodded slowly, and took a bite of its lime ice. It took large, quick bites, as if it was used to eating rarely and in a hurry. ‘I am a human being,’ it said. ‘They call me Number Five Girl, but I call myself Nera.’

‘They call me Tash and I call myself that too,’ said Tash. The other creature that he supposed must be a human being too was slowly making quieter and quieter distressed noises, and rubbing its sticky face. It was wearing complicated garments with tubes around its legs and what seemed to be two or three layers of stuff covering its arms and chest.

‘I don’t know that one’s name,’ said the human being who called herself Nera. ‘I think he comes from somewhere nice.’

Tash nodded.  He would be very distressed as well, if he had come to this strange place from somewhere nice. He took a bite of the lime ice and found it to be very cold, disconcertingly crunchy, and overwhelming in its sweetness, but nevertheless very pleasant.

‘It is like eating snow, isn’t it?’ asked Nera, in a somewhat more friendly tone befitting the camaraderie of fellow lime-ice eaters.

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash. He did not want to admit that he did not know what snow was, so he did not inquire. ‘How is it that we can understand each other?’ he asked. ‘I am bad at understanding women’s language at home.’

Nera shrugged her shoulders. ‘Magic?’ she suggested.

‘What are you doing here?’ Tash asked.

‘My masters,’ said Nera. ‘Put me through to try and swap me with somebody from the other world. That one there who’s crying, I suppose. But we didn’t end up in each other’s worlds, we both ended up here. The bird people said something about our line being tangled up in some other line. My guess is that something went wrong.’ She crumpled up her empty paper cone and let it drop to the floor.

‘I think that might have been me,’ said Tash. ‘They said something about lines being tangled to me, too.’

‘And what are you doing here?’ asked Nera. She had very piercing sorts of eyes.

‘Someone just… sent me here,’ said Tash. ‘I don’t know why.’

Nera nodded in sympathy. ‘It’s pretty bad where you come from, isn’t it?’

Tash nodded in return.

‘What do they call you?’ Nera asked the other small human being, who was just coming to an end of crying in a series of long stuttering sobs. But Tash never found out what is was called, because just then a large group of the thalarka-like men trooped back in, which set it off crying again. The group split into three groups, circled on each of the displaced travellers.

A single very tall man who wore a white crystal between its eyes addressed them.

‘There is no need to exhibit distress. You will soon all be returned to the correct spheres. At the moment we are making the final adjustments to the binding incantations, and the trajectories to return you to your points of translocation will be immanentised very shortly.’

‘Are you sending us back where we came from?’ asked Tash, uneasily.

‘Yes,’ said the very tall man. ‘Send this one first,’ he said, indicating the sticky-faced human who was making all the noise.

‘No!’ said Tash.  He could not bear being sent back to the old thalarka and the gnawers, to the dark labyrinth, the watchful eye of the Overlord and the near certainty of being sacrificed. ‘No!’ He threw his arms in the air, losing grip on his lime ice, and broke free of the knot of men surrounding him.

‘You must be patient,’ said the man who wore the white stone, exasperated. ‘The trajectory immanentisations are not yet complete.’

‘I’m not going back,’ cried Tash. ‘I’m not, I’m not, I’m not!’ He dashed in random directions like a small mire-beast on the road that loses its wits when a cart approaches. The thalarka-like men were hurrying towards him from all over the room now, surrounding him, closing in on him.

‘The portal,’ said Nera, who had somehow broken away from her own group of watchers and was suddenly there at his side.

‘The portal,’ cried Tash, running toward it. If they were sending the crying one first, than the portal ought to lead to its world, surely, the one that was nice.

‘Stop! It is perilous!’ called one of the men.  Nera, with her short legs, could not keep up with Tash, and the almost-thalarka blocked her way, but Tash was inspired by a sudden rush of heroism. Knocking one of the men sprawling – they were strong, but they were not heavy when you got them by surprise, he thought – he swept Nera up in his arms and hurled them both at the hole in space and time.

‘Nine and Ninety-‘ the very tall thalarka-like man who seemed to be in charge began saying. Its words were cut off by the chaos of the void.