Tuesday, February 17, 2009

152. The Whispering Cloak

Contest winner: greyniffler
Runner-up: Rehannah

"Don't touch it! Everyone, back away carefully..."

In the infirmary at Isola Indietro, a clutch of teachers stopped squabbling and warily widened the gap between their feet and the crushed remnants of the falcon figurine. Two students remained on hospital beds, one of them staring fearfully over the edge of his sick-berth, the other lying still under a sheet. A portly, middle-aged man peeked around the edge of a nearby screen, giving free rein to his Quick Quotes Quill while, behind him, a younger man with a large, smoking camera jostled for a view. Only Ilona remained close to the fragments.

She pointed her wand at a small, gleaming object among the shards of hard-baked clay. As the wand tip lifted, so did the little bright thing, rising up off the floor until it hovered in front of Ilona's face, an arm's reach away.

Into the hush came a quick, stifled gasp. No one looked round to see who had done it. Everyone in the room felt the same way. For hundreds of years, the falcon figurine had been reckoned indestructible. But now it had shattered into hundreds of pieces. Who would have guessed that among them would be something like this?

It was made of smooth, clear crystal. It seemed to glow with a faint, inner light; or perhaps that was the effect of torchlight reflecting off countless tiny, glittering specks suspended within it. If it had any color at all, one might have called it golden; but again, that may have come from the torches. A weight of silence seemed to press down upon all who looked at it. If it was part of a statue, the whole must have been a marvel to behold. Though this small bit, by itself, might have looked ridiculous when made of any other material, no one grinned as the faculty, student, and guests realized what the object was shaped like. In sparkly crystal they beheld a perfectly formed, life-sized, human index finger.

"If that's a piece of a statue," whispered the Tummetot headmaster, "the whole must have been priceless beyond imagination."

"Don't be thick, Sandstad," his opposite number from Iphinassa barked. "We would know if there had ever been such a statue. No, this finger is what it is."

"But what is it?" breathed Isola Indietro's Quidditch instructor.

"It was one of a matched pair," Ilona replied.

"How do you know that?" Professor Sandstad snorted.

"Look there," said Ilona, gesturing with her free hand while holding the levitating finger at wandpoint. The others looked down and spotted tiny, gleaming fragments of crystal among the remains of the stone falcon.

"That could be anything," scoffed the Iphinassa head. "All the king's horses and all the king's men..."

"Bit small for all that, don't you think?" the lurking journalist blurted. Everyone but Ilona jerked around at the sound of his voice. Flushed with embarrassment, Bo Dwyer stepped out of his hiding place with his hands above his head. A moment later he reached back and yanked his photographer into view. "Sorry," he said. "Couldn't help but overhear..." He was careful to position his and his assistant's bodies so that the others did not see his Quick Quotes Quill scribbling on a roll of parchment.

Ilona threw him a tight smile and chirped, "Mr. Dwyer, how kind of you to join us!"

"There's a ring down there," said the less dead of the two students, who had continued to scrutinize the debris on the floor while the others argued. It was impossible to mistake what he said, because of his richly rolling r. Nevertheless, the Tummetot headmaster said, "A what?"

Ilona rolled her eyes, as if to say, Not another ring!

"Well spotted, Aris," said the Iphinassa head as he lunged forward to pick up the ring.

"Don't!" was all Ilona had time to say, but it made no difference. The Greek wizard came up holding the ring between his fingers, showing no signs of harm.

"That," Professor Sandstad said scathingly, "was brilliant even for you, Chiron."

"Thank you. Here's a surprise for you," the Iphinassa head said, squinting at the object in his hand. "The ring seems to be made of some type of hide, folded in on itself..."

"Like parchment?" Bo Dwyer suggested.

The Greek professor nodded. "Exactly." He began delicately prising the layers of parchment apart.

Ilona wanted to cover her eyes, sure that the man in front of her was about to be struck by a curse. Instead, she kept studying the fragments on the floor until she spotted what looked like a sliver of crystal fingernail. This confirmed her guess that there had originally been two fingers inside the figurine.

"Can you read it?" asked the teacher from Isola Indietro.

Chiron squinted at the unrolled slip of parchment, first with one eye, then with the other. Then he shook his head. "It is - how do you say? - all Greek to me."

Sandstad snatched the parchment from him, gave a disgusted noise, and handed it to the Italian witch, who also shook her head.

Ilona allowed herself a peek at the parchment, and was so surprised to see words written in her native Romanian that she forgot to keep the crystal finger levitating. Typically, Chiron lunged and caught it in time to stop it shattering on the floor.

"One of these days, you're going to regret that habit," Sandstad sneered.

Chiron gaped at him. "What did you say?"

"It wasn't a threat," the Tummetot head replied, exasperated. "I only meant that you shouldn't rush to touch things that may be..."

"I can't hear a word," Chiron interrupted. "Great Hecate! I can't hear my own voice! Help! I've been cursed!" His voice rising to a wail, he let the finger fall out of his hand. This time Ilona caught it with a ready levitation spell.

"Oh, that was close," said Bo Dwyer.

"Say again?" said the Greek wizard, his expression changing.

"You're a right twit, aren't you?" the journalist added.

"I heard that!" said Chiron. "I'm not deaf, you know! Wait... I'm not deaf! Hee hee!"

"Not cursed, then," mused the Italian Quidditch teacher.

"No," said Ilona. "The parchment explains that the fingers are given as ear-stoppers against a time when it becomes perilous to hear the words of men."

"Apparently," Sandstad observed, "One is enough."

"That is odd, though," said Ilona. "The instructions say you need one for each ear. Clearly, you needn't actually stick them in your ears..."

"Oh, but I've been deaf on the left side since I was a boy," Chiron said cheerfully. "Had a bit of an accident with my father's wand when I was too little to have my own."

"I see how well it taught you not to handle things you don't understand," Sandstad muttered.

"Just think," marveled the boy in the hospital bed, "how many centuries the Maltese have revered this stone bird, and all along it was just waiting for the right time to break open..."

"And reveal ear-stopping fingers," said Professor Sandstad, looking disgusted. "What a waste of time!"

Ilona, meanwhile, had plucked the finger out of the air. She looked at the others and said, "I can still hear you, but only out of my right ear."

"Hold it in your wand hand," the Italian witch suggested.

Ilona switched the finger to her right hand and said, "Somebody say something."

"I have a poster of your Magymnastics team in my dormitory," the injured student told her. "Would you sign it for me?"

"Wasn't that a bit before your time?" said Ilona, blushing slightly. "Oh! Now I'm deaf on the right side!"

"You see?" cried Chiron, as if this proved something he had asserted. "With only one finger intact, it is only useful to someone who has been deafened in one ear."

"If you're suggesting that this object rightfully belongs to you," said Professor Sandstad, "then let me remind you that a great deal of study remains..."

"I suppose you think, somehow, that you're best qualified to be the first to study it," Chiron blustered back.

"If by 'best qualified' you mean cleverer than yourself, then yes," Sandstad retorted. "Besides, it was my student who took the falcon, and sacrificed his life for it. Therefore, it comes to Tummetot."

"Are you deaf in one ear?" Chiron challenged.

Sandstad shrugged. "I'll study it while wearing my whispering cloak. Every headmaster at Tummetot has worn it since the 18th century. I use it to remind me of appointments and to give me directions for the shortest route from one classroom to another. Unfortunately it also has a way of criticizing one's spellwork and potion ingredients, which can be very..."

"I have no interest in capes that whisper in people's ears," the Greek wizard spat. "The fact that I own an air-cooled T-shirt does not make me best qualified to judge an ice sculpting contest. Your fashionable wardrobe is not the question. The question is whether this artifact had better be examined by someone who has made a career in wizard archaeology - which is to say, me - or by someone who cannot even find his way around his own school without..."

"The finger is in my custody," Ilona said in a soft but firm tone that instantly quelled the two headmasters' loud argument. They glared at her rebelliously, but said nothing. The RMB had jurisdiction in this incident, after all.

Ilona collected the other fragments in a leather pouch, tucking it into one pocket of her robes and the finger into another. "Other agents will come round to interview all of you in the morning. I'll be flying to Malta tonight. But first, may I have a private room and a few moments with Mr. Dwyer and his associate?"

The journalist looked nonplussed. The headmasters turned away grumbling. The young man in the bed furrowed his brow, wondering if he was going to get that autograph after all. "This way," said the Italian witch, leading Ilona out of the infirmary with Bo Dwyer and his photographer in tow.

+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #154 +++

You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! 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: What became of Sir Lionel Niblet? (A) He was kidnapped. (B) He survived a broom crash but was stranded in a remote, hard-to-reach part of the world. (C) He went into hiding. (D) He woke up in a strange place with no memory of who he was.

CONTEST: Describe a villainous way to use a specific magical creature.

11 comments:

greyniffler said...

I'll take B on Sir Lionel: he was stranded someplace, perhaps someplace unplottable. Perhaps il Comte's home?

Robbie F. said...

Oops - I always forget this:

SURVEY: What became of Sir Lionel Niblet? (A) He was kidnapped. (B) He survived a broom crash but was stranded in a remote, hard-to-reach part of the world. (C) He went into hiding. (D) He woke up in a strange place with no memory of who he was.

CONTEST: Describe a villainous way to use a specific magical creature.

Linda Carrig said...

I say D)

Using blast-ended skrewts as guardians of something valuable.

Dragonic said...

A. And he's with Sadie. (Plotline crossovers make me happy and simplify things while increase the mystery of the story.)

Gnomes, as a typical household pest, could be infected with a disease and used for some form of biological warfare.

TWZRD said...

I think D sounds like fun. Since there's obviously dirty work afoot, he's been shamelessly obliviated right into a grand case of amnesia. Poor fellow! Maybe he could get some of that live backwards stuff and pick up before he left off.

A magical creature, hmmm...
Well, we have plenty of examples of employing house elves without a conscience. Dragonic's biohazard gnomes are pretty evil, too.

What about infesting your treasure cellar with acromantulas? The spiders could be confined with a spell, but anyone entering unawares would likely become lunch.

I can also see someone farming unicorn blood - a whole donor herd locked up in stalls. Ick.

Linda Carrig said...

Ick is right! TWZRD, how about if the very same unicorns had had their horns removed for potion ingredients. (poor animals)

Rehannah said...

Yay, I'm runner up (I really wasn't thinking about it too much though).

I'll say B - definitely some place unplottable. I'd naturally say an island, but it could be anywhere really.

Hmmm... How about enslavery of mermaids, I mean merpeople. Perhaps snatching them as babies. That would be horrible, and only someone really villainous could get away with it.

Il Comte would probably just make them his private musicians just for the fun of it. Plus, he'd take the better looking ones from warmer waters (according to JKR). So sad...

Sir Read-a-Lot said...

B

Bowtruckles are well known to be wood. It is less well known, however, that bowtruckles make excellent wands for the cruel and unscrupulous. Being inherently magical, they do not need a magical core, and they take less skill or time to prepare than normal wands. Bowtruckle wands are often even more cruel than that, however, as a bowtruckle can, using the proper spells, be made into a wand while it is still alive. These wands are extremely strong, and they can take independent action if they choose, although they are bound to the will of their owner.

greyniffler said...

Plant a caged fwooper near where someone works or lives and put it under a disguise spell of one sort or another. If the victim doesn't recognize the bird's song, he or she will eventually go mad. If the victim is a muggle and there's nothing remarkable about the occasion (if, say, the person was a little batty to begin with) you might get away with it.

Linda Carrig said...

Don't ask me how, but someone dastardly got a hold of some moon calves and is keeping them in barns, grazing them in broad daylight on the fields. He/she is trying to milk them but is having no luck because the animals are stressed and not producing any. They are in a sorry state; skin and bones, all the hair/fur has fallen out and they have whip marks from the person whipping them because they don't give any milk. Their dung is useless as well. They have also gone blind due to their eyes not being used to sunlight.

greyniffler said...

Say, Robbie, let's remember that the Exions are still out there: Averice, Malignancy, Concupiscence and ... papa.