Sunday, January 4, 2009

146. The Merhags

Contest winner: TWZRD

Scarcely had Rigel handed both brooms to the parking valet and offered his arm to his date when a Wizarding Wireless presenter shoved a wand in his face. He squinted as a hovering lens focused the light of a blazing candelabra on his face. Evidently he was expected to speak into the wand-tip. "Er," he hemmed. "Say again?" he hawed.

"I said," the presenter said with quite as much grin but half the sincerity, "Isn't this your first public appearance since suddenly arriving at adulthood?"

"I suppose so," Rigel said sourly. "I mean, I've been an adult before, so..."

"And who is your lovely date?"

"Er," Rigel stammered, glancing at the woman beside him. "Th-this is Lucretia Pucey. She's actually my..."

"Miss Pucey, now that you're dating one of wizarding London's most eligible bachelors, how does it feel to know that he's already been through his second childhood?"

The woman on Rigel's arm blushed and covered her mouth. "I really can't say," she mumbled.

"We're not dating," Rigel said forcefully. "Miss Pucey is my governess."

The presenter tittered naughtily. "Well, be that as it may, you're all grown up now, aren't you? With a gown like that, you can tell she doesn't let a little thing like unemployment get her down."

Rigel gestured toward the shabby theatre, whose entrance the presenter was effectively blocking. "If you don't mind..."

"Actually, our listeners would love to hear your thoughts on tonight's show."

"I haven't seen it yet," Rigel said pointedly.

"But surely, you have some idea what you're about to see. It isn't everyday a society bad-boy turns up, after being presumed dead for a dozen years, sporting an attractive young witch on his arm..."

"Look," Rigel snapped. "I've been friends with the choreographer since I was a kid. The first time, that is. He played in some of the first games of Head Quidditch."

"Ah, so it's your personal connection to Bob Fossil that draws you to this opening-night."

"A good stick, old Bob is," Rigel agreed gruffly.

"Would you say he is growing creatively?"

"I suppose so. This is what, his third musical? No one thought dancing skeletons doing a jazz revue would amount to anything, but when they saw Deadhead..."

"That's exactly who saw it," the presenter said archly. "No one."

"Yes, but that's not taking ghosts into account. Deadhead did quite well in the unquiet-dead community. Which is really, you know, Bob's target audience."

"Don't I know it," the presenter said through clenched teeth, glancing up and down the quiet street in search of any other warm bodies to interview. "I've never seen such a quiet premiere. It's like a graveyard."

"Actually, it is a graveyard," Miss Pucey pointed out. "The Kidney Street Theatre hasn't had a live audience since it was hit by a German shell in 1940, during a sold-out performance of Sickle Serenade."

"It has the largest ectoplasmic acting company in Britain," Rigel added. "There isn't another troupe in the world that could mount a production of How to Succeed in the Afterlife Without Really Dying."

"You should know, shouldn't you?" purred the presenter, cupping her hand over her ear. "Isn't it true, Rigel, that you were the executive producer of that show?"

"I would really like to go inside," said Rigel.

"Are you also backing tonight's production of The Shroud Game?"

Rigel bristled. "I'll have you know that ghosts are perfectly capable of..." He winced, put his hand to the silver-backed diamond stud attached to his earlobe. Then he pulled his hand away as if burned. "Excuse me a moment."

"Sure," cooed the presenter. "May I ask Miss Pucey where she picked up that sensational...?"

"Oh, the blazing billywigs," Rigel cried out in a strangled voice, desperate to control his urge to swear on live wireless. "Not now!"

The young woman at his side looked concerned, saying, "Master O, is something wrong?" Then, just as she reached out to touch his arm, he disappeared with a sickening pop -- and dragged her after him.

They landed on a damp, gritty, stone floor. Rigel might have kept his footing if Miss Pucey hadn't barreled into him, sending them both rolling through a shallow puddle that ruined their evening clothes.

"I've seen better landings," said a gruff voice.

Rigel sat up and glared at Merlin. "And I've seen better places to land."

Merlin helped the governess to her feet. She seemed surprisingly unruffled, considering her confusing journey and her uncomfortable new surroundings. "This is unexpected," she said, gazing directly at Merlin with an uplifted chin.

"I beg your pardon for interrupting what seems to have been a big night," said Merlin, while Rigel looked around at the damp slabs of stone that surrounded them on all sides. They were in a chilly room, slightly larger than the public room at the Hog's Head, with a ceiling so high that the light from Merlin's wand-tip barely reached it. In the center of the floor was a staircase leading down to a pool of black, still water, eight or ten steps below floor level.

"Crikes, the smell," said Rigel, covering his mouth and nose with one hand, while favoring his singed earlobe with the other. "Like a fishy sewer. It has to be Venice."

"Venice is actually some distance above us," Merlin said casually.

"And that's the only way out of here?" Rigel tilted his head toward the steps, the pool.

"I'm afraid so."

"What about these walls? The ceiling? Surely Il Comte must have a secret way into his -- I don't know -- boat slip? Besides, that helm the goblins gave him isn't fond of water."

"This isn't part of Il Comte's estate," Merlin murmured, quietly filing away the information Rigel had unwittingly provided.

"Then why the devil did you come here? What did you think you would find? And why can't you just leave the way you came in?"

"Because," said Merlin, "the ones who brought me here are waiting outside."

Rigel looked down into the dark water. He wasn't sure, but he thought he saw something move below the surface. "Merfolk?" he guessed. Merlin nodded. "What is this place, then? A prison? What did you do? Did you violate their territory? Did you poach in their waters?"

"Oh, nothing like that," said Merlin. "And anyway, this isn't a prison."

Rigel stared at him. He and Miss Pucey stared at each other. They both looked at Merlin again with eyes full of dread and curiosity.

Merlin pointed his wand at the corner behind him, where several barrels were stacked in front of a shelf full of filthy cans and jars. Hanging from the ceiling were the gutted carcasses of two drowned dogs, a stiff fox, a partially eaten goat, and several large fish.

"It's a larder," Miss Pucey whispered.

"But merpeople wouldn't eat us," Rigel protested furiously. "We're people. They're practically people too. It would almost be cannibalism!"

"Most merpeople wouldn't eat us," Merlin agreed. "But I've discovered an interesting fact that I don't remember reading in Newt Scamander's bestiary. Wherever there are people, you see -- people of any kind -- there is also a small percentage of magical people."

Rigel's brow wrinkled as he tried to follow Merlin's line of thought. "You mean... there are merwitches?"

"Exactly. And wherever one finds witches, one also finds a number -- a much smaller number, to be sure -- of hags."

Rigel looked like he wanted to be sick. "So it's merhags, then."

"Once we've ripened a bit," Merlin went on ruthlessly, "we'll be the most popular main course on their menu."

"We've got to get out of here," Rigel said as if he meant, You've got to get me out.

"That's why I needed you," said Merlin. He bowed to Miss Pucey and added, "Your presence is a nice bonus."

"What do you need me for?" Rigel shouted. "Go on. Escape. Swim past the bloody merhags, then. I would only hold you back."

"It isn't the merhags that scare me," said Merlin. "I already have a defense against their teeth and claws. Only, I've found out something else about this place. Another way out, maybe. Or maybe better: a way in to someplace I never expected to find. It's just that, I won't have time to check it out if the merhags come back for me.

"So what I need is a diversion. I need you to try to escape. The merhags will chase you, thinking you're me. They've never been good at telling one air-breather from another. While you lead them away from here, I'll have time..."

"You must be mad," Rigel screamed.

"Barking," Merlin agreed, holding out a smooth stone that dangled on a leather thong.

Miss Pucey looked from one wizard to the other, hiding her thoughts behind her composed face, as if calmly waiting to see what happened next. At last, with an inarticulate snarl, Rigel snatched the ironskin stone out of Merlin's grasp.

Miss Pucey smirked with her back turned to him as her former escort peeled off his dress robes and prepared to enter the dark water. He paused on the third step to tie his wand to his forearm with one shoelace. His skin looked green, possibly due to light from Merlin's wand reflected off the water. "You'll be all right, the two of you?"

"I'll see to it," said Merlin.

Miss Pucey drew her own wand and said, with the primness proper to a highly effective governess to any hell-raising young wizard, "We both will see to it." And her tone of voice made certain no one would dream of contradicting her.

"I'll keep the merhags busy as long as I can," said Rigel. "After that, I'll be at the Gritti Palace, waiting for you or a sign from you. Don't keep me waiting long."

Merlin looked appraisingly at Miss Pucey, who had begun to throw items out of her handbag -- two brass candlesticks, a crowbar, and a coil of strong rope already lay at her feet, and just now she was plucking out a pair of greasy work-boots. He nodded. "We won't."


From the "Credit Where Due" Dept.: Let's give a big hand to my Dad, Cuda, for designing the new headline for this blog. Doesn't it look great?

Another round of applause goes to Andrew Sims for offering to continue publishing TMQ on MuggleNet. Andrew becomes the fourth editor to grapple with this heroic task.

I am so glad to continue this column's affiliation with MuggleNet. Nevertheless, Andrew and I have agreed that The Magic Quill blog will also continue. This means that, even though TMQ will continue to appear on MuggleNet, there will no longer be a Chamber of Secrets forum thread for each new chapter. Instead, the blog comments will be the place to answer your weekly Double Challenge. Hopefully the bugs in the comment system have been worked out.

We (the quill and I) still need your creative contributions! Please visit soon and often, and help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill. The more readers who participate in each week's Survey and Contest, the more exciting the results will be. You might also consider signing up to follow this blog!


Simply leave a brief comment (up to 150 words) answering the following Survey and Contest. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest answer that Robbie likes best, will turn up in the chapter after next. [EDIT: This discussion is now closed.]

SURVEY: When we last left Sadie, she was witnessing a horrible duel between Il Comte and Uncle or Aunt Leslie. What happens when Chat Noir gets involved? (A) He tries to defend Leslie and wins. (B) He dries to defend Leslie and is defeated. (C) He switches sides and joins Il Comte. (D) He goes in for himself and runs off with the ring of Count Matthias. (E) We don't find out what he does, because in the commotion Sadie gets away with the ring.

CONTEST: Describe a famous painting or photograph which, with a few alterations, might reveal an "untold story" relating to the magical world.


greyniffler said...

I vote D or E: either Chat Noir or Sadie gets the ring.

Linda Carrig said...

Thank your dad for me for that awesome banner of the quill!

I think Sadie gets the ring.

I'm on the lookout for a painting/photo.

Quercitron said...

I vote E.

The starry night is actually a vision of the great Atlantis disaster. This was actually the result of a terrible wizard civil war. When Atlantean wizards insulted Aztec wizards: "You remind me of the ocean, you all make me sick", the Aztecs in a cunning plan combined their efforts to minaturzie Altantis and drop it at the bottom of the sea. The whispy winds are actually images of the tentacles of the dread atlantis jellyfish and the castle looking thing is actually a sea anenome that started growing. The seemingly anachronistic architecture is actually a result of the extra-advanced Atlantean civilization.
p.s. the atlanteans escaped and are currently living in a colony on a leaf on a small pacific island. Unfortunately, as the Atlantean's size decreased, their magical potency also decreased, and so far, they have only been able to accomplish three major feats of magic: secretly telepathing the whereabouts of the new world to Columbus, which led to the untimely arrival of the conquistadors at Tenochtitlan (little known fact, all Aztec wizards were immediately wiped out by small pox), getting into the head of Van Gough to get him to paint a painting in their memory, and instituting a blanket curse on architecture such that ours is and will for some time be a monument to the Atlantean's.

Linda Carrig said...

Nice one, quercitron! I'll have to get a move on..

Linda Carrig said...

I have three suggestions.

1)The triptych painted by H. Bosch depicting the garden of heavenly delights and hell side by side is actually a true vision of what the wizarding world was at that time under the thumb of that age's Voldemort; an evil wizard named Harbo the mean.

2)All of Degas' paintings of lovely ballerinas are really paintings of hags learning how to dance. The viewer can only see these horrible hags if they are wearing spectraspecs (like Luna got from her magazine).

3)Picasso's entire 'pink/rose' era are really paintings of wizards suffering from Umbrigditis rosea: a hideous complaint caused by too much contact with D. Umbrigde.

greyniffler said...

Rene Magritte's Time Transfixed shows a miniature railroad locomotive emerging from a greenish wall inside a fireplace.

In 1931, a passenger train was misrouted onto a siding. Although the engineer activated the airbrakes and put the valve gear into reverse, the locomotive barrelled through the stop at the end of the rail. With the weight of the train behind it, it rolled off a hill and down into a hollow, at the bottom of which lay a wizard's cottage. His first thought was to stop the train, but he quickly realized that the rescue, recovery, and investigation would put him at risk. Instead, he performed a prodigious diminution spell, reducing the whole train to the equivalent of an O gauge. He was not quick enough to also stop it; it smashed through the window of his home. His wife, realizing what her husband was doing, tossed the whole jar of floo powder into the the fireplace and steered the train into it, while sending it into the home of a large and capable wizarding family. It emerged in their drawing room, leaving them to figure out how to return it to its proper place and size, and to conceal from its crew and passengers what had happened.

Mass memory charms don't always work well, and Rene Magritte's hazy recollection of his train emerging from a green-filled fireplace eventually led him to produce this painting.

Robbie F. said...

We're still going to need more votes in Chapter 145 if we're going to resolve the "Survey" challenge!

Dragonic said...

I Vote E.
ALso the famous "Surgeon's photo" of the Loch Ness Monster, later revealed to be a hoax, is in fact, a hoax. You see, this is something wizards do all the time. Pretending to e muggles, they will create hoaxes of things like the Loch Ness Monster. Then, when these hoaxes are revealed as hoaxes, the muggle community loses faith in the existence of something that wizards don't want them to know exist.

TWZRD said...

I would have sworn I'd already answered this one. Must have been eaten by the post gremlin.
Anyway, there are so many lovely possibilities in your survey, but Sadie is the best sort of opportunist, so I vote E -- which is not to say the Chat Noir doesn't make an attempt!
(Aside: I can't help but root for Il C in the duel. He's a much more classy villian than Auntie/Uncle.)

OK, a picture or photo.
BTW I love the Loch Ness idea, and Umbridgditis is too funny!)

Well, let's try any of those angels painted by Mellozzo da Forli (aka degli Ambrogi) circa 1480. You know the ones; they turn up on Christmas cards. One plays a lute, one a viol, etc... And they all have the same face. He changes the eye color, or the hair-do, but it's the same chick over and over. Well, sure, he's painting his girlfriend or sister all the time, right?
Or... maybe the model is a animorphmagis. She figured out she could get lots more muggle money out of painters if she pretended to be a different girl all the time. Being a bit lazy, she usually didn't change her round face and eyes, or the flat forehead that ran down into the broad nose above the pouty lips. Just new hair and eyes was enough to make Melozzo think he'd done a whole string of angel models, while really the same witch had been showing up every other day for a new portrait. Oh, did I mention that Miss Morph was a little vain?

PS for some reason this site won't accept my password unless I sign in before I look at a comments page. Annoying...

greyniffler said...

M.C.Escher's Belvadere resulted from the artist's accidental visit to the mountain home of a wizard. Owing to a gap in the muggle-repelling charms, and some good (or bad) luck, he found himself gazing on a patio where wizards had enjoyed their lunch, and were now resting on the upper level of an "impossible" structure. The details of prisoner and cube-student were his own invention.

He returned during the winter, when the family was in a warmer climate, and found the library, in which he discovered a manuscript that provided the inspiration for Curl-up and House of Stairs. This, however, disturbed some security charms. The family later corrected their security charms and he never found the place again.

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