Spanky hummed to himself as the hoverchair floated along the corridor. Ilona followed behind, fondling the hair on the back of his head.
The chair stopped in front of a shiny golden plate, fixed to the wall next to a door. There were four large words printed on the plate: "THE LEWIS BELL WARD." Under them a dense block of text was engraved in a thin, curling script:
"Dedicated to the memory of Lewis 'Cannon' Bell, beater for the Chudley Cannons from 1921 to 1938, holder of six all-time records: most spectators hit by bludger in a single game (17), season (124), and career (1,227); most mascots struck by bludger (18 to his own side's mascots and 49 to the opposing side's, including two on one shot), and most bludgers put through a scoring hoop (11 in his career, though no one started counting these until 1929). In spite of the danger to spectators, he was considered the best beater of his time because of his record for protecting his side from the bludgers, though he was less successful at interfering with the opposing team. The Daily Prophet announced his retirement with the headline: 'Quidditch Now Safer to Watch than to Play.' Later in life, as head of the Department of Magical Games and Sports, 'Cannon' crusaded against the use of performance-enhancing spells and potions. Upon his death, Mr. Bell left his considerable fortune to the Hospital, with the express desire that it be used 'to help athletes and other witches/wizards recover from the use of, and dependency on, magic-altering potions.' This ward is the result of Mr. Bell's generous gift."Engraved at the top of the plate was a small, golden image representing a bludger in flight. When Spanky reached toward it, the tiny bludger popped out of the plate, knocked into the side of Spanky's head, and slammed back into the wall from which it had come. Spanky yelled, rubbed his sore head, and scowled murderously at the golden bludger.
At that moment the door of the ward opened, and a short, stocky wizard emerged, gowned in Chudley Cannons colors and beaming at the Spankisons. "Gets them every time," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Mr. and Mrs. Spankison, I presume? I'm Healer Higgins. Let me show you in."
Healer Higgins led them through what appeared to be a long corridor lined with doors. The odd thing about it was that, between the doors, there were no walls separating the rooms within from the corridor without. Beyond the doors were rooms that seemed to have no walls around them. In one room, witches and wizards sat around small, round tables, eating toast and yogurt while an orderly handed out cups of pills. In another room across the corridor, several people were seated in a circle of chairs, one of them standing and talking to the others. The Spankisons could not hear what was being said, however.
"Magical walls," Healer Higgins said with a sweeping motion of his hands.
"I believe we know the gentleman who set them up," said Ilona, while Spanky went back to humming cheerfully. "Friend of ours. His family has been in the magical wall business for generations."
"Oh yes," agreed Higgins. "Mr. Harvey. Such a sad case, what happened to him. You know him, do you? Then I expect he will enjoy having you in his recovery group. It might be good for both of you."
Ilona shivered. This was the first she had heard about Harvey's fate since last Christmas, when he had supposedly taken a draught of Essence of Merlin and began living backward in time. Had he, in fact, been here all this time?
They passed more rooms with transparent walls. One was occupied by a pair of thin, wan youths playing table-tennis with a snitch whose wings were held down by a strip of sticky-tape. Healer Higgins stuck his head through the invisible wall next to the door and said something to the young men, to which they replied with shrugs. He did the same to a room where a blindfolded lady was painting a picture, and another room where a house-elf was trying to spoon porridge into the mouth of a thin, elderly man who was standing on his head. Ilona and Spanky could not hear what the Healer said to these people, but he explained afterward that he was just saying good-morning and making sure everybody had taken his meds.
Still another room contained a simmering cauldron guarded by a massive, shaggy, apelike creature with enormous fangs. Healer Higgins walked past this room without pausing.
"Aren't you going to say good morning to that one?" Ilona asked.
The Healer's cheeks reddened. "Mr. Faberhorn? Er...I don't like to disturb him at this hour. He can be a little grouchy before he's had his first cuppa."
Ilona looked back and saw the monster stretch in its sleep, licking its considerable chops.
"I quite understand," she said nervously.
"We'll get you started in here," said the Healer, reaching through the wall and turning a doorknob from the other side. "Mind you, the walls are bespelled so that only healers can do this. Everyone else has to knock on the doors and be invited in. Please, after you!"
Ilona followed her husband's gliding chair into a small, brightly lit laboratory that, on this side, seemed to be surrounded by perfectly solid walls. Almost immediately Spanky yelled "Yowch!" A winged thing of silver and glass, which she took at first for a small bird, flapped away from him, dropping a red-tipped needle into a sharps bin and ejecting a sealed tube of blood onto a padded tray. While Spanky rubbed his shoulder resentfully, Ilona followed the tube with her eyes. First it was picked up by a little clockwork machine that stood on five joined legs; the machine began spinning around until it became a blur in her vision. Then other machines - each one similar in size but unique in shape and function - took over and did a variety of things to the blood sample, until finally a bell chimed and a slot on the Healer's desk belched up a shiny coupon that appeared to be printed on silver foil.
"Hecate's boil!" the Healer swore as he read the coupon. "I've never seen anything like this. Platypus venom...essence of frogwort...concentrated spider sweat...poison-ivy-berry wine with an infusion of dog-chestnut extract...34% nondescript...I don't know quite what those people put in you, Mr. Spankison, but at these concentrations you should not have lived!"
Spanky giggled softly, leaned his head against Ilona's chest, and began to snore.
"We should take him to the resting room," said the Healer, beckoning. Ilona followed him, pushing the hoverchair ahead of her. They rounded a corner and came suddenly to a large, sunny courtyard where a breeze stirred the leaves of a pair of trees and a small stream bubbled over rocks. Several other patients were there already, napping in hoverchair recliners while mechanical bees buzzed around them, monitoring their vital signs.
"Let's put him here, next to Madam Nonmonnom," Healer Higgins suggested. "He'll be all right here while we discuss a few things in my office."
Ilona tucked a cushion behind Spanky's head and, with a reluctant backward glance, followed the Healer out of the resting room.
Some little while later, Spanky was awakened by snoring even louder than his own. He peered irritably through his eyelashes at the elderly lady reclining next to him. "I say," Spanky said softly. This he repeated, each time less softly. By the sixth "I say" he had awakened everyone but the old witch beside him. Finally he reached across and shook her arm. The lady turned her head the other way and slept on, mercifully snoring no longer.
He closed his eyes and began to go back to sleep, ignoring the grumbling of the other patients, who were shuffling out of the resting room with sullen looks in his direction.
The next time he awoke, it was because something pointy was digging uncomfortably into his neck. Holding as still as he could, Spanky opened his eyes slowly. The old lady was leaning over him with a leer of triumph on her face.
"You're Agent Spankison of the Rogue Magic Bureau," the lady whispered, her breath smelling like throat lozenges.
"You have the advantage of me," Spanky replied coolly. Somehow, having a wand poked into his neck had cleared his mind wonderfully.
"You won't know me," said the elderly witch. "But I have been waiting for you, ever since my niece Ava came to visit me. She had to come in disguise, you know. That's down to you. You've destroyed the lives of my brother and his girls. Home and business wrecked, years of prison staring them in the face, Avarice on the run and hungry. That's down to you as well. But she warned me to look for you, and here you are."
"I'm touched," Spanky said, though this was less true than it had been a moment ago.
The old witch went on in a half-whisper: "'Auntie Viv,' she said. 'Auntie Viv, do this one thing for us, and Daddy will give you the antidote to that silly little potion he slipped to you all those years ago. He didn't mean it, you know. It was just his little joke. Do this one little thing and you won't have to be mad anymore. Isn't that worth forgiving Daddy? Do this one very little thing, and you can come and live with us again. Wouldn't you like that, dear, old, mad Aunt Vivis?' So I said I would. I said I would stop you before you could regain your wits, before you could tell your awful lies to the Wizengamot, before..."
"I don't need to hear it," Spanky cut in, his voice calm. "I'll be dead soon, anyway. So, if it's all the same, could you just get it over with?"
"All right," said Aunt Viv. She stepped backward, her wand-tip pointed at him with only the slightest tremor. "You asked for it. Incendio!"
A jet of flame erupted from the wand. Spanky was enveloped in fire, together with his levitating bath chair. Smoke, the smell of burning hair, the crackle and pop of the wood in the chair, filled the resting room. Aunt Viv blocked the doorway with a shield spell just in time to stop the Healer and his orderlies from running in. She laughed a high, wheezing laugh at their horrified faces, and waved at them with her free hand. So she was taken a bit off guard when Spanky, completely unharmed, stood up out of the ashes of his no-longer-hovering recliner, brandished not one but two wands at her, and said: "I arrest you in the name of the Queen."
This only made Aunt Viv laugh the louder. "You?" she said. "You can't do anything to hurt me. My brother saw to that."
"I think you've got it turned around," said Spanky. "I'm not sure, though. There's only one way to find out. Stupefy!"
A vague, diffuse glow came out the tip of his right wand. Aunt Vivis snorted with laughter.
Red in the face, Spanky cleared his throat, swished his left wand, and tried again. Sparks stuttered out of it, hitting Aunt Viv's shoulder, but having little effect. She did look a little tired, but she shook it off and laughed louder.
"You see?" crowed Auntie Viv, still holding off the orderlies with her shield spell. "My brother's potion worked! Only it had a little unforeseen side-effect. So we're at a stalemate! I reckon we'll have to do this the Muggle way. Hit me."
Spanky hesitated. It didn't seem right to take a swing at an old lady who wasn't doing anything to fight back.
"All right, I'll go first," she said. With her free hand, she grabbed him by the neck and hoisted him off the ground. Spanky struggled in midair, clawing at her hands. He couldn't make a sound.
"Oops!" said Aunt Viv. "Another side-effect. Who would have thought it? My poor brother will never make it in the potioneering field, at this rate!"
With the strength of madness, the elderly witch began to crush Spanky's windpipe. He was beginning to see stars when, with hardly a thought in his head, he brought his two wands together, held between both hands, and mouthed the stunning spell one last time...
...and was momentarily blinded by a flash of light, almost deafened by a crack of thunder. The witch's iron claw released him and he crashed to the ground, gasping. Voices and running footsteps suddenly surrounded him. Strong hands hoisted Spanky onto another recliner. Spanky saw the Healer's concerned face - Ilona's cheeks streaked with tears - and as the ringing in his ears faded, he heard a young orderly's hysterical voice shouting, "She's dead!"
"Oops," Spanky whispered hoarsely as his eyelids drooped. "Another side-effect."
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE +++
To help choose the direction of the next few chapters of The Magic Quill, visit the Discussion Forum, or send Robbie feedback. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest entry (or entries) Robbie likes best, will be featured in the chapter after next. [EDIT: This discussion is now closed.]
SURVEY: Is Harvey really in the Lewis Ball Ward? (A) Yes, and he has been there all along. (B) Yes, but only after living backward through history and forward again. (C) No, it's somebody else claiming to be Harvey.
CONTEST: What kind of New Year's resolution might a witch or wizard make?
[Originally posted 12/22/07]