Titus Fistley lay giggling on the floor of his cubicle, surrounded by laughodil bushes. As his mirth subsided, he lifted a leaf on a nearby plant and read aloud from its underside: "Question: How many Dark Lords does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: Three - one to try and do it with his best curse, and be stopped by an infant; one to try and do it by possessing a willing minion, and be stopped by an adolescent; and a third to take matters into his own hands and screw in the lightbulb . . . which then falls out and steals his wand! Ah, ha ha ha ha ha!" Tears ran down his face.
By this time of night, faces had stopped appearing in the doorway, looking in on his breathless laughter with a mixture of concern and revulsion. The wall torches had dimmed, and the hovering light-bulb plants had drifted off to some shady corner to rest. There was barely enough light left for him to read by. So when an owl flew into the cubicle and perched on the corner of his desk, Fistley did not see it. And since, at that moment, he was laughing at a series of uproarious knock-knock jokes about the Hogwarts Houses, he did not hear its wings flapping either. So he was quite startled - in truth, he screamed a bit - when the bird pecked his elbow.
Fistley took the letter proffered by the owl and squinted at the elaborate wafer seal on it. It seemed a pity to break it, but as he was too tired to charm it off, Fistley bit through it and spat out the wax over his shoulder. The moment he opened the letter, however, his moist, puffy eyes went blank. He read aloud his instructions from Lee Shore, esq., in a voice as glazed as his eyes. Then, after murmuring "We hear and obey," he chewed up the letter and swallowed it.
He moved like a sleepwalker through the vast labyrinth of the Abraculture Office, gliding effortlessly around obstructions while staring straight ahead. The olives on a seeing-eye olive tree turned to follow him as he passed. An elephant ear plant (which remembered every word ever spoken to it) perked up at the sound of his footsteps. Orchids sniffed at the hem of his robe, and some Mexican jumping beans went very still as he passed the bush on which they lived. Triffids, Devil's Snare, and Malagasy man-eating trees jerked against the stakes that held them firmly in their soil. Cattails hissed, dogwood blossoms whimpered, and a horse-chestnut tree whinnied softly.
Titus Fistley floated deeper and deeper into the maze of planters, terraria, digging tools, and sacks of fertilizer until he came to a region of barrels, hogsheads, butts, and firkins, stacked in long shelves. These contained spirits and extract distilled from the myriad herbs and fruits catalogued by the office. Here casks of cow-parsley cordial ruminated contentedly; essence of milkweed curdled as it aged; jars of buttercup ghee glowed with purity; a barrel of mead, inadvertently left open, provided the ministry's bee population (which worked to keep the plants pollinated) with an opportunity for a loud, drunken party; and in one grossly ill-judged experiment, a cask of guevara - a blend of Cuban rum and guava brandy - bubbled quietly, fermenting rebellion.
Still deeper Fistley drifted, his feet barely touching the ground. He passed, without hesitation, through the illusion of a solid, stone wall that had been charmed to feel solid to all visitors but those with a high security rating. With a single touch, he opened the door of a vault that was only supposed to admit people of Deputy Minister rank or higher. He passed numerous top-secret liquors, and vials containing the last residue of priceless and irreplaceable potions, heading directly for a dank and gloomy stairway - which he began to descend, unconcerned by the fact that it was booby-trapped to drop anyone without a special warrant from the Queen directly into a deep, dark dungeon. He flicked aside spectral signs (modeled after will-o-the-wisps) that warned about the approaching danger of hazardous substances.
In some corner of his mind he knew what was down here. Here were acids that could eat through any substance known to man; since only a substance unknown to man could hold them, it was imperative that no one ever visit them and find out what it was. There were sneezing powders that could make a man's head explode; lotions that could make a woman so repulsive that the sight of her was fatal; a salve that, if poured into one's eyes, would result in maddening visions; a flatulence cure that had been recalled after turning several users into human weather balloons; and a vaccine against deception, which had the side effect of destroying a person's imagination. There was even a balm for unhappiness there, but no one remembered what disastrous results it caused; it had always been considered too horrible to discuss. But at the very back of the cellar were a number of bricked-in vaults. The next-to-last one - beside a vault filled with clumsy masonry and decorated with the graffito "Fortunato wuz heer" - was guarded by a last will-o-the-wisp warning sign: "DANGER: NAPPLE CIDER - HIGHLY TOXIC."
Fistley touched the brick wall with one finger, and it collapsed in a pile of dust around his feet. Within the vault was a stack of firkins - 70 imperial gallons, each - covered in a coating of dust. He coughed slightly, and for a moment almost emerged from his trance, if the brief look of confusion in his eyes could be taken so far. But his eyes glazed over again, and he pointed an ink-stained finger at the nearest barrel. It lifted itself off its shelf and levitated out of the vault, following its mesmerized master up out of the cellar and back through all the stacks and storehouses of the Abraculture office.
All was still and dim when he arrived in the hooper's shop. The jumping juniper cask was easy to discover by the way it incessantly rolled from side to side. Fistley gave a flick of his wrist, and the bung flew out of the napple cider barrel. A funnel levitated over the hole in the waiting juniper cask, which trembled but otherwise held still while it was being filled. The latter was only a hogshead, somewhat over fifty gallons' capacity; so not all of the contents of the firkin went into it. When the hogshead was full, Fistley stoppered it, and vanished the firkin with its remaining contents.
The jumping juniper barrel was soon rocking back and forth on the bed of a levitating, zero-wheeled cart, which he effortlessly towed to an enormous, freight-sized fireplace. A fistful of Floo Powder ignited green flames in the hearth, and Fistley guided the cart and the hogshead into them . . . and then out of a similar fireplace in a cavern bustling with heavily laden goblins.
"State your business, please," growled a particularly hideous specimen with a squashed nose.
"Take this to Vault 1036," Fistley said blankly.
"Very well," said the goblin, after consulting a clipboard. "Have a pleasant day. Now shove off."
As soon as Fistley had shoved off (taking the cart with him), the squashed-nose goblin screeched at a goblin with cauliflower ears. Cauliflower Ears rolled the hogshead barrel to a nearby rail platform and, with the help of two other goblins and an enormous prybar, managed to wedge it into a large ore cart. The three goblins - Cauliflower Ears, Wrong-Way Elbows, and Braided Eyebrows - steered the cart to Vault 1036, where they deposited the barrel.
As soon as the vault door slammed, a sack of money in the corner lifted, then fell aside, proving not to be a sack at all, but an artfully designed wizard's robe. A wizard stood up in it, looking so like Thierry Henry that it could have been no one but Joe Albuquerque. From the shadow behind him emerged a stiff and groaning Sadie, still in her veil and black leotard.
"There's the delivery we expected," Joe said grimly, pacing around the enormous barrel, which even now was rocking from side to side, stirring its contents.
"I wonder what's in it," Sadie yawned.
"Whatever it is," said Joe, "she won't be long in coming to get it. Then, perhaps, I will believe" - his voice faltered - "believe Bette Noir is alive."
Sadie touched Joe's arm gently. "You never expected that you would see her again," she whispered.
Joe's face, or rather Thierry's, darkened. "Neither," he murmured, "does she."
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE +++
Help decide the shape of The Magic Quill's plot line! All you have to do is visit the forum and leave a brief comment with your answers to this week's survey and challenge. [EDIT: This discussion is now closed.]
SURVEY: From page 2 of the record-shattering discussion on TMQ #133, which of the following idea(s) would you like to see in Chapter 138? (Please, vote for only 2 or 3 ideas at most!).
- A: Harvey meets Yevrah, his evil double from a backwards, bizarro-universe.
- B: Yldemhs (Bizarro-Shmedly) visits our universe.
- C: Gratefruits are used to counteract napple toxin. (Note: Someone please remind me what previous chapter they were in!).
- D: Rashrooms (mushrooms that make you feel reckless).
- E: Beet-ems (vegetables that beat anyone who trys to eat/touch them).
- F: Leekys (Leeks that give the eater an irresitable urge to go to The Leaky Cauldron).
- G: Feral Root/Kennel Root (Fenel roots that make the eater wild).
- H: Slow-Dates (Dates that when consumed, make everything seem slower).
- I: We meet the original Merlin as a child, only beginning his long career of living backward through time.
J: Shout-kraut (a screaming cabbage).
- K: Wrestle Sprouts / Rassle Sprouts (help me with this one).
- L: Self-pitting olives.
- M: Self-spitting (self-seeding) watermelons.
- N: Collared greens (veggies that help you arrest someone).
- O: Plants growing out of control due to an out-of-control acceleration spell.
[Originally posted 5/4/08]