When they reached the top of the long, dark, spiral staircase, Merlin and Miss Pucey found themselves in a drab hallway floored in scuffed tile. Flickering jars of fluorescent fireflies hung from the ceiling, casting a sickly light over the framed prints that lined the yellowish walls on either hand. One of the prints was a moving, wizardly copy of Munch's The Scream, complete with a deafening bellow of anguish triggered by their arrival.
A little gray man looked up from behind the counter that barred their way forward. The room beyond the counter was featureless except for a small dumbwaiter, a pneumatic tube, and a pair of doors at the far end. One of the doors appeared solidly built and secured by numerous tough magical locks and bolts. The other looked like a battered screendoor held shut by a dainty hook.
Merlin took in all this in the time it took the little gray man to clear his throat twice and say, in an unsurprisingly reedy voice, "May I help you?"
"Yes," said Merlin. "We're here to break into il Comte's private vault. Is it the door on the left?"
"Hmmm," said the man, pressing a fingertip to his chin. "That would be form N.I.L.P.R.I.M., I believe."
"Your pardon?" said Merlin.
"Notice of Intent to Loot, Pillage, Redistribute, Invade, or Mooch." The little gray man conjured six rolls of parchment out of thin air and laid them, one by one, on the counter. "To be completed by each of you. In triplicate."
Merlin studied Miss Pucey's face for almost a minute, wondering how she controlled the urge to roll her eyes. Strangely, this exercise helped him avoid the same faux pas. Then he said, "May we take these forms with us? I promise to fill them out and post them back to you."
The little gray man appeared to consider this. "Hmmm. Will you be looting or pillaging today?"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand the distinction."
"Then no. You must fill out the forms in my presence."
"Wait, I've got it: pillaging."
"Are you sure?"
Merlin's fingers twitched. He really wanted to wrap them around his wand.
"Sorry," said the little gray man. "If you're not sure, you'll just have to..."
"I'm sure," said Merlin.
"I think not," said the little gray man. "Here are the ink and quills."
"What if I forced my way past you, regardless?"
"Hmmm. I believe that would require form R.A.S.H.B.U.M.P., a Request for Authorization to Subdue, Humiliate, Beat Up, or otherwise Molest my Person. I must warn you, however, that the criteria for approval are very strict, and the review process may take up to 10 business days."
"Who reviews these things?" Merlin asked, barely maintaining his indoor voice.
"I do, actually," said the little gray man, straightening his bow tie modestly. "But I do make an effort to consider every application with all the objectivity..."
"All right!" Merlin snapped. He dragged an inkwell, quill, and roll of parchment toward him. Miss Pucey, looking prim in her tight-lipped silence, began to fill out her forms.
A minute later, the parchment Merlin was writing on exploded. He glared at the little gray man through a coating of soot and the singed remains of his eyebrows.
"Tsk," said the little gray man, pronouncing the word as spelled. Then he handed Merlin a new roll of parchment to replace the one that had self-destructed. "I shouldn't have to warn you that it is useless to write false or misleading information on these forms."
"How can you expect a body to give his correct name and address," Merlin whinged, "when he's about to loot and pillage..."
"I'm sorry to interrupt," said the little gray man, "but my coffee break is coming up in fifteen minutes. If you haven't completed these forms by then, you will have to step outside and start over when I return."
Merlin almost exploded. "I've never heard anything so..."
Miss Pucey nudged him in the ribs. Her elbow was amazingly sharp. Muttering under his breath, Merlin subsided into a frenzy of scratching and scribbling.
"Five minutes," said the little gray man, when Merlin was only about halfway through his paperwork. The latter bit his tongue and scratched harder.
A minute later the little gray man began to review Miss Pucey's completed forms. "Pucey, eh?" He darted an appraising look at her evening dress. "Of the Bedfordshire Puceys, I take it? Such a fine wizarding..."
"Entirely unrelated," Miss Pucey said shortly.
The little gray man's eyebrows climbed toward his scalp. "Really? Most coincidental..."
"My ancestors have been in Suffolk since the Magna Carta," said Miss Pucey. "Muggles as far back as I can trace them. Except for my mother, of course."
The little gray eyebrows dropped. Through narrow, pinched eyes the man behind the counter considered her again, then said: "I wonder which is worse - to suppose that a scion of a great wizardly bloodline would come to this, or..."
"I beg your pardon," Miss Pucey sniffed. Drawing herself up, she assumed a classic pose and began to recite:
That wizard over there says that witches need to be helped off of broomsticks, and not apparate alone, and get the best seat in the Knightbus. Nobody ever helps me off broomsticks, when I apparate, or or gives me a good spot anywhere! And ain't I a witch? Look at me! Look at my wand! I have cast spells, and stirred potions, and wizard could head me! And ain't I a witch? I can produce as many charms and enchant as many objects - when I'm given the chance - as any wizard - and endure all your prejudices as well! And ain't I a witch! I have borne sven children, and seen 'em all labelled as second-class for being born to a mudblood, and when I cried out the injustice, not even the Seers heard me! And ain't I a witch!Merlin stared at her.
"What?" she snapped, noticing him.
"For bearing seven children, your figure has held up quite well."
Now she did roll her eyes. "Your education has been sadly neglected."
"Verity Pilgrim," said the gray little man, daubing sweat off his forehead with a sickly yellow handkerchief. "A most gifted orator, and a tireless advocate for Muggleborn rights." He refrained from adding that he hadn't heard such a blistering recitation since his own and his sisters' years under the forceful hand of their governess. He wondered whether there was a special place where such witches were trained...
Hands shaking, the little gray man vanished a corner of the counter and gestured to Merlin and Miss Pucey to walk through. "I'm afraid your paperwork was lost in a pneumatic mishap," he said. "How inconvenient! Ah, well. It's the screen door there, on the right. Yes, I'm sure. The strong door leads to a pit filled with sharpened erumpent horns, most disagreeable. Good luck now."
As the screen door banged behind them, Merlin realized that he was not as close to the end of the adventure as he had hoped.
He and Miss Pucey now stood at one end of a long glasshouse. At first the hot, moisture-heavy air was hard to breathe. Then, when his nostrils registered the odors of the plants before them, breathing became even harder. Sickeningly sweet perfumes mingled with the scents of rotting carrion. Rank, minerally, muddy tangs mixed with the pong of wet animal fur, unpalatable blends of spices, musty and moldy smells, and a faint whiff of poison.
There were no paths ahead of them. Only beds of flowers in every bright color, every strange shape, every threatening posture of stem and vine. Some of the plants seemed to breathe. Others turned to look at the witch and wizard who had just entered their growing space.
"Earned a N.E.W.T. in herbology, did you?" Merlin asked Miss Pucey.
She shook her head. "I'm allergic to dirt. That's why I became a governess."
Merlin paused to think about this, then gave up. "I got kicked out of herbology in my third year, after I tried to organize a bouncing bulb fight club. Some folks have no sense of humor about that sort of thing."
Judging by her harrumph, Miss Pucey was one of those folks.
"Any road," Merlin went on nervously, "these don't look like the kind of plants we had in the O.W.L. greenhouses. They seem more... advanced. Dangerous, maybe."
As if to underscore his point, one of the flowers ahead of them shot a barrage of razor-sharp seeds at a neighboring plant, whose creeping vines suddenly withdrew their grip from the first plant's roots. The stricken creepers writhed in agony while the leaves on their main stalk opened and closed, as if silently screaming. The ordeal ended when a third plant leaned over, wrapped its huge leaves around the gasping stalk, and snapped it off above the ground with a horrible wrench.
Miss Pucey shuddered. "Not maybe," she said. "Definitely dangerous."
Merlin looked round. Behind them, where the screen door had been, there was now a solid sheet of glass. There was nothing to see on the other side of the glass except brilliant light, diffused across the moisture that coated the inside of the glass. He turned back to view the plant with the prehensile leaves, which were now bashing pieces of its vegetable victim against the ground.
"All right, then. There's nothing for it." He rummaged in his survival satchel, then brought out a small bottle corked with a glass ball. "Second of four doses," he said gravely, imagining his wife's concerned eyes as he regarded her specially-formulated potion.
"What is it?" asked Miss Pucey.
"Liquid Skill," said Merlin. "I reckon I could use one day with a green thumb, like Miles O'Roughage. Otherwise, we won't know where to step, what these plants could do to us."
Miss Pucey nodded, adding: "Or how to get across this hothouse alive and well."
Merlin hesitated before breaking the cap off the bottle. He couldn't help but remember what had happened after the first dose, when he had become an animagus and almost didn't change back into his human form in time. There didn't seem to be any such danger in this situation. But then again, none of the dangers he had faced so far had been expected.
"Here's to herbology," he toasted. Then he drained the vial.
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #167 +++
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.
SURVEY: What is your favorite variety of Honeydukes sweets?
CONTEST: Describe something you can do with modern (muggle) technology, and how a wizard or witch might interpret it. Remember to make it brief and entertaining.