Sunday, January 16, 2011

177. Werewolf Puppy Mills

Contest Winners: Everybody

The island was very small, very beautiful, and very quiet.

It was beautiful because of the staggering expanse of cloudless blue sky that stood over it like the cover on a gargantuan pie-plate, and because of the sunshine that sparkled on the still, turquoise-blue waters of the lagoon separating its shore from the coral reef that surrounded it, and because of its broad smooth beach of sparkling pewter-colored sand, and because of the almost painfully bright green of the grass that waved around the middle part of the island between stands of graceful palms and thickets of colorful fragrant flowers.

It was quiet because nobody lived there. No human foot had ever disturbed its soft sandy soil. No human hand had ever plucked its sweet succulent fruit. No human nose had ever sneezed upon its highly pollinated flowers. No human eye had ever watered with agony after the previously mentioned foot was stung by the spines of its venomous burrowing crustaceans. No human ear had ever heard the squawk of its cheerfully colored (but not very talkative) local species of parrot, nor the buzz of its viciously biting swarms of insects, nor the croaking battle-cry of the indigenous iguana relative whose vermin-infested bite guaranteed a slow, hideous death to anyone whose foot disturbed the island's soft sandy soil, or whose hand pl-... You get the picture.

It was small because... Well, it had always been small. But these days the island was even smaller than it ought to have been, at least if one counted as part of the island the smaller teardrop-shaped hump of sand connected to the main part of it by a slender shoal that was only above water at low tide. For the past little while--long enough for the iguanas to forget, but little enough for the parrots to remember--this stretch of land had been under water. Under water in a most unusual way. A way that threatened the parrots with extinction, because they could not resist their old insect-hunting grounds, even though visiting them meant diving horizontally through a vertical surface of water behind which swam the first sharks in the south seas to have developed a taste for parrot.

Today the parrots, iguanas, and stinging crustaceans of the littler-than-ever island were nonplussed by the arrival of three creatures the likes of which they had never seen. The trio arrived with a pop like a cork exiting a champagne bottle. One was a tall, broad-shouldered wizard whose flowing dark robes brushed the sand, and the hood of whose cloak overshadowed his face. The second was a pale, shapely witch who wore her pointed hat and broomstick-trimmed robes with an indescribable blend of demure domesticity and lively flamboyance, as though she wanted to make up for not being visible for a rather long time. The third was a seven-foot-tall, scruffy dump of a djinn who, although he was already weaving on his feet, risked leaning backward to finish the dregs of an enormous bottle of wine. With a loud hic the djinn sat down hard, crushing an iguana that had been sneaking up in the hope of biting him.

"What the devil is this?" the hooded wizard demanded, gesturing toward the wall of water that surrounded the smaller portion of the island.

"It'th an ishfthsmush," said the djinn, patting his pockets in search of another bottle. "An ithsthmuth. Itshthsmus. Isthmuff. Just a mo, I've got it: iffsmus."

"Not this," the wizard bellowed, kicking at the narrow shoal of damp sand that, at that moment, just cleared the surface of the lagoon. He gesticulated hugely toward the water wall: "This!"

"Dunno," said the djinn, squinting blearily at a paper umbrella he had discovered about his person. "Pimple on face of t'ocean? I say, yer couldn't poss'bly fetch a feller drop ter drink, could yer?"

The wizard turned toward the djinn, but was forced to retreat backwards by a long, rich belch whose odor providentially killed a swarm of bloodthirsty insects that had gathered around the three.

"Awk," the witch gagged, gathering several folds of her robes in front of her face.

"Parrot, I should think," said the djinn, though his pointing arm was just a bit too slow to follow the flight path of a gaily colored bird that, a moment later, perished in the jaws of a shark that jumped the isthmus and returned to the lagoon, all without leaving the water.

The wizard dipped his fingers in the sideways lagoon, pulled them out, and gave a low whistle. "Must be some kind of water-weave charm," he mused aloud.

"Powered by a waterspout spell," the witch added.

"Oi!" the djinn shouted. "Dyin' o' thirst, here!"

The wizard sighed, flicked his wand toward the top of a nearby palm, and caught a coconut as it sailed down into his hands. Then he drew a long, silver knife; hesitated, with a shake of his head perceptible in spite of the hood; and drove it through the shell of the coconut with an ease that made the djinn's eyes go wide. Another wave of the wand and the smell of piña colada brought moisture back to the djinn's dry mouth. Sober as he suddenly was, the djinn's hand shook slightly as he accepted the fruit from the wizard's hand. The umbrella went in, and for a while the only sound that came from behind it was a slow, steady slurp.

"That's him sorted," the witch said, the Romanian lilt in her voice contrasting with her British turn of phrase. She held out her right hand palm-up, balanced her wand on it, and chanted: "Annulus invenio." The wand began to spin like the needle of a compass, only it didn't stop until the witch muttered, "Finite."

"It has to be through here," the wizard said, gesturing with his head toward the wall of water. "I would hate to waste a wish on a broom only to find out that it forms a dome over the entire peninsula."

The djinn snickered behind its paper umbrella.

"What?" the wizard demanded. "What's funny?"

"You said penim- Penum... Pessinoola..." Slurp. "Wicked 'ot, it is. Wot wuz I sayin'?"

"Your drink is evaporating," the witch warned, and that silenced the djinn for another while.

"Bubble-head might get us through," the wizard mumbled, thinking aloud again. "That's if we can move fast enough to get to the other side before the sharks get us. And I can't tell how thick this water-weave is..."

"This would be a great place to bring the kids," the witch said, gazing in the opposite direction to where a lithe, beautiful skink lay sunning itself on the silvery beach. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than a huge pair of jaws rose up from beneath the sand and closed around the unsuspecting reptile. "Maybe when they're a bit bigger, though," she added, shaken.

"An animagus transformation would help about now," the wizard said, continuing his previous train of thought and oblivious to what the witch was saying. "Only it would have to be to some type of aquatic creature. But those spells take ages to learn. And the sharks could still be a problem."

"Maybe a divination spell can get through their defenses," the witch speculated, squatting down before a tiny, reflective puddle of water. As she held the tip of her wand above the surface, a long black tongue darted out of the water, wrapped itself around the wand, and pulled hard. The witch barely managed to hold on as she engaged the creature in the pool in a fierce tug-of-war. Meanwhile, she couldn't spare the effort of calling for help, so the wizard had no idea this was happening. The djinn watched from under his paper umbrella, but did nothing to cheer her on except to continue slurping on his piña colada.

"Maybe a freezing hex?" the wizard thought aloud. "In this climate, it might not last long enough to kill anything, but it might give us time to break through to the other side... Only, it could be a meter thick. How would we get through it then?"

The witch finally wrestled her wand free of the grip of the submerged creature's prehensile tongue. She sat back on the sand, panting, until something stung her hand and she leapt up with a cry.

"Be quiet, will you?" the wizard snapped without looking over. He had begun to pace up and down before the wall of water. "One of us is trying to think here."

The witchground her teeth in frustration, cradling her stung hand as it swelled and turned red.

"Give us a butcher's," the djinn said, considerately setting his coconut aside and offering the witch a helpful hand.

Dubiously, the witch let the djinn check out her wounds.

"Hmm," he said, after holding the swollen limb close to his bleary eyes, sniffing the wound, and giving the swelling a gentle squeeze. "Ah," he said knowledgeably. "Nuffink a wee wish wouldn't sort" was his diagnosis.

The witch yanked her hand away from the djinn's inebriated caress. "I can wait for it to mend on its own," she sniffed.

"Meanwhile," the djinn said, shaking his empty coconut sadly, "P'raps yer'd make me five or six more o' these while yer 'ave time. Would hate ter get thirsty watchin' yer writhe in t'agathas... er, agronomies... angernees..."

"Don't you wish you had this fellow's way with words?" the witch called to the wizard behind her.

"Yes, dear," the wizard said absentmindedly.

Suddenly there was another "pop" as of a champagne cork going. The djinn hiccoughed and fell backward onto the sand, groaning, "Coo, but me 'ead 'urts!"

At the same moment, the wizard exclaimed: "I think I've got it, now!"

The witch, meanwhile, had realized her mistake and tried to stop her partner before he did something they would all regret. "Spanky! Wait!"

Spanky did not hear her. Flourishing his wand, he was already halfway through an elaborate incantation that began with Congelato! and was supposed to end with Reducto! As a result of the djinn's magic, it came out otherwise than as planned. He said "Congelato," all right; and a shield of frozen water spread before him from a center point directly opposite the tip of his wand. But instead of "Reducto," he said "Radix toe!" Then he stared dumbly at the ice shield before him, which was not blasted open by his second spell as expected. Instead, it continued spreading, though more slowly every moment; then stopped and began shrinking again, until all the ice was gone and the water-weave was back to normal.

When he tried to turn around to appeal to Ilona for help, he found himself stuck fast. Looking down, Spanky discovered a long tap-root growing out of his big toe. It had ripped a hole in his right boot and was busily burrowing into the sand when Spanky caught it. In wrestling it free of the sand, he fell over backward and had a good roll in the sand before he caught the waving root under control and, finally, singed it off with a silent blast of flame from his wand.

"Bovver," he said as he rose to his feet, examining his wand with concern. "Wot could've gorn wrong? Oi! Why am I talkin' like..."

Spanky finally paused and looked at the witch, who had stopped trying to get his attention and now seemed to wish she could become invisible.

"Ilona, luv," he said, grimacing at the words he heard coming out of his mouth, "what've yer done?"

"Actually, you did it," Ilona replied evasively.

"Did wot, luv?"

"Wished to talk like the djinn does."

"Did I?" Spanky looked severely dubious.

"A technicality," said the djinn, lifting one hand, index finger raised, from his otherwise supine repose.

"He tricked me," Ilona added.

"You tricked him," the djinn countered.

Ilona rolled her eyes and said, rather to Spanky than to the djinn, "Give him another drink and we can wish it all right back."

Spanky covered his face with both hands.

"She knows 'ow yer feel, mate," said the djinn.

"I wish," said Spanky.

"Aargh!" yowled the djinn, simultaneous to the popping of an invisible champagne cork. The magical creature clutched his head with one hand and his belly with another. "The mornin' after is comin' early, an' no mistake..."

"Oh, Ilona," the wizard groaned.

She turned away from him, her lips white. "Yer meant ter do that," she accused, wincing at the sound of her own voice.

"Get the poor sick child a hair o' the dog," the djinn begged. "I can 'ardly stand it."

Spanky produced three more coconuts, swiftly and efficiently cutting them open for the djinn's convenience.

"There's the problem," he said informatively, as he cleaned his silver knife. "Djinn need lurbi-... loobi... lurbrication ter work proper. Lee."

"Lee who?" Ilona said, rubbing her forehead.

"Proper-like," Spanky corrected himself. Sort of. "Look, there's a way ter get through this weave fing. We just 'ave to say the spell careful-like."

The djinn scowled. "Do I soun' like that fer real?"

"Shut yer gob," the witch-wizard couple said in unison.

"Let's try putting shark ter sleep," Ilona suggested.

"Good idea," said Spanky. They approached the water wall together.

While Ilona pointed her wand at the wall, Spanky stuck his arm into it and splashed it around. The shark jumped at him so quickly that he almost didn't have time to pull his arm back. Luckily, Ilona hit it with what was meant to be a Morpheus spell. Somehow it came out "Morphequus." Instead of falling asleep, the shark turned into a horse and leaped, neighing, out of the water weave.

As the sound of galloping hooves receded into the stand of palm trees, Ilona hung her head in humiliation. The djinn, however, laughed so hard that piña colada came out of his nose.

"This makes the aeons spent squeezed int' a dusty bottle worthwhile," he chortled as he wiped the moisture off his face. Then, after licking his fingers, he returned to his drinking.

"We'd best do this fast," said Ilona, observing that the once-towering djinn would now stand shorter than herself. "If 'e keeps drinkin' at this rate, we won' be able ter find him ter wish our way home."

After several more attempts to put the waiting sharks to sleep had the same effect, the island was home to a large herd of wild horses, all noisily whinnying, cropping the tropical grass, and running along the shore while the sun baked the seawater out of their coats. At last, using his arm as bait, Spanky was unable to attract any more predators. So, bracing themselves with a long look into each other's loving eyes, the witch and wizard held their breath and dove through the vertical lagoon.

A moment later they found themselves standing, drenched, on a flat, teardrop-shaped island under a dome of clear water, lit by the sun beyond. Amid the rippling, dancing patterns of light and shadow, they spotted a long, low, barn-like building, half-buried in a dune at the far end of the island.

"It must be here," breathed Ilona.

Spanky seemed preoccupied. His eyes closed, his nostrils flared...

"What is it?"

"Don't you smell them?"

"I smell something," Ilona whispered. "I thought it might be from having the sea all around us."

"No," he said.

If either of them noticed that they had their own accents back, neither remarked on it. Ilona strained her senses toward the building at the far end of the peninsula.

"Listen," said Spanky in a voice so low that Ilona more felt than heard it. "Listen. You must hear them."

For a moment he did not seem to hear her. Then, just as she separated a sound in the background from the muffled hum of the surf--just as she realized that it reminded her of the growling of a wild beast--a lonely voice, almost human, raised itself in a blood-chilling howl. Then another. Then several others... All of them coming from that slow, sand-swept shack.

The howling of wolves. No... The howling of werewolves.

"What is that djinn playing at?" Ilona trembled.

"Wishes are dangerous things," Spanky replied, unsheathing his dagger for the third time that day.

"Put that up," said a voice to their left. Ilona jumped. Spanky whirled, but not before two spells hit him, one blasting his knife out of his hand, the other taking his wand.

"Expelliarmus!" Ilona hissed, disarming the smaller of the two cloaked figures that had crept up on them from behind the dunes.

The larger of the two, however, took her wand. Doing the math, Spanky and Ilona held up their empty hands.

The wizard Ilona had disarmed picked up the weapons that had been dropped. The one who had overcome them wriggled the tip of his wand in Spanky's direction. "Where's the other barrel?"

The double-barreled wizard gently pulled out his second wand, grimacing in chagrin, and handed it over to his captor.

"Very good. Now I know the both of you, and you probably know me..." Harvey put back his hood.

"Did you like my wall? Family specialty, one of the premium items in our catalogue. No? Well, here you are. I regret that I can't say, 'Welcome to my home from home,' but you didn't choose the best time to pay a call."

To punctuate this remark, the werewolves in the barn--the not-very-distant-at-all barn--renewed their chorus of mournful howling.

"A full moon is going to be rising soon," said Harvey. "Your arrival at this of all times--most particularly, the scent of your blood--could have a most interesting effect on our breeding and training programme."

"Ours?" Spanky asked. "Yours and who else's?"

"Surely you recognize the man who took your knife," said Harvey, gesturing toward his smaller, hooded partner. "Why, he's the man who gave it you."

Another hood fell back, and so sharp was Spanky's shock that as he sucked air through his teeth, it made a whistling sound.

"Zophar," Ilona croaked. "Zophar Good!"

"Alive and well," said the twisted little man; and he gave a slight bow.

"How are you alive?" Spanky asked, his voice thick with emotion. Then, with sudden anger, he demanded: "What would possess you to breed an army of werewolves?"

"The usual motives," said Zophar Goode. "Money, revenge, and..."

"Shush!" said Harvey, but a moment later the need to conceal his last secret was moot. A loud, rubbery snap echoed deafeningly within the water-weave dome. As the echoes died, all eyes looked up at the top of the nearby dune, behind which someone had begun to play a recorder. A furry hump emerged above the top of the dune, followed by the rest of a harnessed yak. Leading it were two servants, while a third played the recorder and, walking beside the animal with her hand on its snout, a witch with a sort of motor-veil wrapped around the brim of her hat came into view. She raised a hand to wave at the party on the beach, releasing the end of the veil so that the wind caught it and let it trail behind her like a flag.

"Yoo-hoo!" cried Madam Solfeggia as her party picked its way over the top of the dune. She beamed at everyone as she came closer, most especially Ilona and Spanky.

"If it isn't the very people I was hoping to see before feeding-time," said the wolf-woman as her entourage brought the yak to a halt. "I was starting to worry that my clues were too subtle. But here you are!" Ilona was too nonplussed to resist having her cheeks air-kissed. "Has Harvey been a gracious host and shown you the puppies? They're just wolves at the moment, but wait until dusk and I daresay you'll be impressed! Shall we refresh ourselves?"

Harvey and Zophar Goode exchanged a look of bewilderment that mirrored the way Spanky and Ilona were feeling.

"I think there's been a misunderstanding," said Ilona. "We're not here about the yak killing. We've come to ask Harvey to turn over an heirloom of my family which he has been, er, minding for me..."

"Don't be silly," said Madam Solfeggia, preening her robes while the recorder-player tootled on. "We both know Harvey isn't to be trusted with such an object. There are simply too many of him. No, dear, I've been holding the ring for you. But first, I have a teensy favor to ask of you. I would ordinarily be ashamed of the imposition, but since you can hardly resist my written request, I think the two of you could be of great service to me."

"To do what?" Spanky growled. "To set yourself up as the next dark lord?"

"Oh, no!" Madam Solfeggia laughed musically. She took Ilona's hand and handed it to Harvey, then put her hand on Spanky's elbow. "Nothing remotely like that. I only wish to lift the stigma that my kind must live under." She kept talking as she, Harvey, and the ever-present recorder-player led the Spankisons back over the dune from which she had come, while Zophar Goode and the other two servants led the yak away toward the barn. "The ostracism, the shunning. The persecution, even to the point of hunting and killing. It all has to be stopped. The time has long since come, but now at last the means has come as well."

"And how do you propose to do that?" said Spanky, as a roof of a smaller building--a house, perhaps--came into view behind the next dune but one. "I mean, if it were as simple as writing a letter, sealed with the Ring of Count Matthias, telling everyone who reads the Daily Prophet to accept werewolves as equal members of society..."

"I would already have done it?" Madam Solfeggia agreed. "But surely you see that it can't be that simple. I mean to say, what would happen after I returned the Ring to you? You would have it in your power to reverse everything I had accomplished. No, our solution must be more permanent. I only took the ring because I needed you, the two most trusted agents in the Rogue Magic Bureau."

Their musically-enhanced walk came to an end below the front porch of a modestly-proportioned but strongly-built house. "Do have a seat," Madam Solfeggia said, gesturing toward a row of driftwood chairs on the porch. "Dinty will be here presently with refreshments."

"I won't make myself comfortable," said Spanky, pulling his arm out of the wolf-lady's grip, "until you tell me how you mean to use me."

"Use you?" The lady's eyes softened. "I should think you would assist me willingly. Surely you can sense the injustice of the way my people are treated!"

"I simply can't see what all this"--Spanky gestured toward the barn, now hidden behind a dune, but easy enough to locate by the renewed howling that must have been triggered by the yak's arrival--"what all this is going to accomplish, in terms of gaining the sympathy of the wizarding world."

"The answer is simple, Mr. Spankison: We propose to have more people bitten. Many, many more."

"Merlin's beard," Spanky gasped. Ilona squeezed his hand, looking sick.

Madam Solfeggia, meanwhile, kept talking, gazing out upon the beach below and the base of the water-weave dome that enclosed it, oblivious to their horror. "Soon nearly every magical family will understand the trial that all too few of us now bear. People hate what they fear, and they fear what they do not understand. So doesn't it stand to reason that if they come to understand--really understand..."


Thanks for your patience, as this chapter took a record 3 months to pull together. My prognostication, back in September, that it was going to come out in record time, goes to show that I probably have Trelawney blood! I am fairly confident that the time-management crisis that curtailed my creative writing for a few months is now behind me (more or less), so I hope you can expect a few more Quills in 2011!


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: Which Magic Quill hero holds the ultimate key to putting the pieces of Harvey back together? A) Spanky with his djinn. B) Joe Albuquerque with his hag. C) Sadie with her waveform collapser. D) Endora with the potion described below. E) Your write-in candidate--the more radical the suggestion, the better!

CONTEST: Our Endora hasn't had much to do for a while. What exciting potion has she been working on? Feel free not only to name the potion, but to describe how it's made, what it's supposed to do, and what happens if it isn't made quite right. The winning entry will be the most entertaining idea.

Monday, August 30, 2010

176. The Picture of Doreen Grape

Contest winner: greyniffler

VOICE: You are listening to the Wizarding Wireless, broadcasting at 42 thaums per lunar cycle.

(Sound of rustling in cupboard.)

WITCH: Oh, drat!

SECOND WITCH: What's wrong, Carmen dear?

CARMEN: Would you believe it, Branwen? I need to make a simple Complexion Concoction and I'm all out of bees' wings, four-leaf clover stems, and moonwater!

BRANWEN: There, there. That used to happen to me all the time, before I found...

VOICE: We interrupt this advert for a word from our sponsor.

REALLY DEEP VOICE: No matter where you fly on Saddler brooms, you are not alone. Old man Saddler stands behind every flight on Saddler brooms. (Evil laughter...)

PREVIOUS VOICE: And now we return to our regularly scheduled advert.

BRANWEN: There, there. That used to happen to me all the time, before I found Lizzie Cauldron's Potion Packs!

CARMEN: Potion Packs?

BRANWEN: Each one has all the ingredients for one batch of a standard potion. They have over one hundred recipes available, and they are adding more every week. And they come complete with full directions.

CARMEN: Do they really work?

BRANWEN: Lizzie's recipies are foolproof, dear. They're guaranteed.

CARMEN: Well, let's go buy some of Lizzie Cauldron's Potion Packs. I can't wait to make my Complexion Concoction.

WHISPERING VOICE: Potion Packs do not include calendar-sensitive ingredients. Read package for full instructions. (Louder) Lizzie Cauldron's Potion Packs are avail-....


Ethelfrigga Spankisdaughter switched off the wireless and closed its cabinet doors. She straightened her shoulders and prepared a cheerful face before turning to face the drawing room and its denizens.

"Still no word from them," she said with courageous carelessness.

"No password, you mean." This came from the rafters, where her older brother Aloysius hung upside-down. He had been doing this a lot since his unfortunate attempt to brew a Polyjuice potion. Ethelfrigga secretly believed Aloysius had performed the recipe perfectly, but that a certain disreputable friend of the family had cheated him by selling a common bat pelt labeled as boomslang skin. Of course, she wasn't going to tell Aloysius that. She was still having too much fun taking it out of him.

"Caught any juicy flies lately?" she teased. "You should be careful. For all we know, one of them might be carrying a message from Mum or Dad."

"Careful yourself," Aloysius sniffed, wriggling his batlike snout. "You don't want to make me cry in my condition. With the echo in this place, I could probably hear where your diary is hidden..."

"Ha, ha!" Ethelfrigga stuck her tongue out at him. She was strictly too old to behave like this, but she did it anyway because it amused the younger children--at least Persephone and Bob, who by this hour of the evening tended to be so worn out that they could swing instantly from giggles to sobs. It didn't help that they had been worrying about, and missing, their parents as long as they had. Nor did it help that the middle boy--Marmaduke--was in a dark, sullen mood tonight. At the sight of Ethelfrigga's wriggling tongue, his pout downgraded itself to a scowl.

"I think it's time for bed," Ethelfrigga said, just as Marmaduke opened his mouth for a speech that most likely would have ended with the little ones in tears.

"I want a story," Persephone said.

Marmaduke rolled his eyes, but he didn't argue against the little witch's wish. Ethelfrigga gathered Bob onto her hip, wrapped her hand around Persephone's hand, and headed for the stairs saying, "When you two are ready for bed, we'll see."

For a long, resentful moment Marmaduke stayed where he was, dwarfed in his father's armchair, wearing a handkerchief in Gryffindor colors knotted at the corners on his head, a T-shirt blazed with the slogan "Down Vold-Mart! Reduce Your Carbon Hoofprint," and a pair of canvas trousers recently and hastily patched at the knees. His pride was still smarting from being hauled off the ground by the scruff of his neck--or more precisely, by the straps of his knapsack--and flown home from the anti-Vold-Mart demonstration by his freak brother. Under orders from their bossy sister. When his parents hadn't sent any word about whether he could go or not, or about anything else...

The sound of Aloysius's snoring finally drove him from his pity party. Marmaduke crept upstairs, where Ethelfrigga was just now tucking a freshly-combed Persephone and a minty-fresh Bob into their beds. He refused to meet Ethelfrigga's gaze as she settled down beside Persephone and began the bedtime story. He perched at the foot of Bob's bed as if he had just stopped for a moment to catch his breath after climbing the stairs, and looked away as if he wasn't really listening to the story. Anyone would have thought he was about to get up and leave. But he didn't.

"Tonight's story," said Ethelfrigga, "is called 'The Picture of Doreen Grape.'"

Marmaduke shivered slightly. He remembered their father telling this story years ago. His hand had left black-and-blue marks on Aloysius's wrist that night.

"Once upon a time," Ethelfrigga began, "there lived a very vain young muggle lady who liked to be admired. She had a lovely face and an even lovelier figure, which she loved to dress up in fabulous gowns and show off up and down the avenues and in all the salons of her city. She dressed like a duchess to walk her dogs. She dressed like a princess to visit the theatre. She went to every fashionable levy and ball dressed like a queen. Her hair always shined and her skin always glowed. Every woman who saw her hated her, because every man who saw her could look at no one else. Her name was Mrs. Grape.

"Mrs. Grape was known for her manners and grace. She had only one fault in polite company, and it was this: She could not resist food. The more delicate the food was, the more ravenously she ate it. If a tray full of canapes came within arm's reach, it would be empty before it passed out again. Mrs. Grape was a menace to any buffet table. At banquets, she ate like a pig. It was almost embarrassing to sit by her.

"Almost, I say; because however much she ate, her beautiful shape stayed the same. She gobbled rich food that would have brought any other lady out in pimples, but her skin stayed perfect. She guzzled heady wines that should have swelled her nose into a big, red, veiny thing; yet she kept the same perfect, perky, lily-white nose. At first, her jealous lady-friends tried to ruin her figure by plying her with food and drink. But the lady went on eating and eating, and drinking and drinking, without so much as a wild hair. Meanwhile, her lady-friends either got fat trying to keep up with her, or went broke trying to feed her.

"Soon Mrs. Grape was the belle of all society. She married numerous times. Her husbands all died young, worn out from trying to keep up with her. Even after mourning so many husbands, her face never got puffy or lined with grief. And she looked as good in black as all the other colors of the rainbow.

"Mrs. Grape had a huge litter of children. They all had to be taken away for their own good because their mother would steal the food off their plates, she was such a pig. Even after bearing all these children, she still had the same girlish figure.

"Many years passed. All the ladies of Mrs. Grape's generation had passed middle-age. Many of them had grown frumpy, if not dumpy. Most of them could at least be described as full-bodied. Mrs. Grape was still wearing the same dress size as when she debuted. Now the daughters, and even the granddaughters, of the ladies who had first resented her, resented her. Men young enough to have been her children's playmates pursued her. Fashions changed, but Mrs. Grape stayed in front of them. Nobody could reckon how she did it. Artists offered to paint her, even at their own expense, but she refused them all.

"One day, a man came to Mrs. Grape with a proposal. At first he offered her money, but she already had plenty of that. Then he offered her love, but she had no trouble getting that. Finally, the man offered Mrs. Grape the one thing she couldn't refuse: a non-stop supply of the world's most exquisite food and drink, served on polished silver by herds of servants in a never-ending ball with music and dancers and lively conversation going on at all hours. All the lady had to do was reveal the secret of her indestructible figure and beauty.

"So the lady explained, between bites of her inexhaustible canapes. She explained how she came from a large family of witches and wizards, but she was a squib"--here Persephone gasped--"with no magical powers whatsoever. Even then she had been greedy and vain, but her family loved her and felt pity for her. So they had often taken her along with them to places in the magical world such as Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. It was in Hogsmeade where a wizarding painter had fallen in love with her and decided to preserve her loveliness in a magical portrait. Unfortunately, the portrait took several years to complete, though Mrs. Grape had only sat for the painter once, and briefly. Still, the artist made a faithful record of the young woman whose beauty had always haunted him.

"The day finally came when the artist presented his portrait to the girl and her family. He was shocked to find that the young lady had become plump and spotty, due to her ceaseless stuffing. Worse still, the foolish squib took offense at the painting, as a reminder of what she had fallen from. The artist took his painting away and never saw Mrs. Grape again. Only a few days letter, Mrs. Grape suddenly began to lose weight. By the time she learned that the heartbroken painter had died, she had become the same beautiful young creature he had captured in oils.

"No one knows whether Mrs. Grape ever knew what the artist had done. Moments before he died, the painter had cast his death-spell on her portrait. From then on, Mrs. Grape would always look like the girl he had painted. But as she ate and drank her way across Europe, her image in the painting grew monstrously fat. The real Mrs. Grape's stomach seemed to be a bottomless pit, but her painting developed a diseased look, covered in rashes and sores. Her painted skin turned red from broken blood vessels. Her ankles and feet swelled up. Her painted fingers looked like sausages. Her painted hair grew lank and greasy, and her eyes all but disappeared in the folds of fat around her face. Whether she knew it or not, the only portrait of the beautiful Mrs. Grape showed a vile, gross thing that could hardly move because of its own crushing weight. But for one reason or another, Mrs. Grape had always set her mind against having her portrait painted, even by a muggle. Maybe it was because of the way that first artist's painting had made her feel.

"But the day finally came when the heartbroken painter's death-spell came down on Mrs. Grape's head. It happened when she stopped to visit her sister, with whom she hadn't spoken in years. Her sister was a witch, and all her children were magical. And one of those children was quite handy with crayons. So Mrs. Grape's doom came when her little niece or nephew--no one remembers which--sketched a crude portrait of Auntie Grape. The squib lady might have torn it up if she had known what was going to happen. But for some reason, she accepted the child's crayon drawing as a gift. Maybe she used it to wipe her guzzling mouth. Maybe she didn't recognize what it was. Maybe she didn't even know that someone had stuck it to the inside of her bedroom door until the middle of the night.

"One way or the other, though, Mrs. Grape got up in the dead of night to use the loo. And what a scream she gave! For on that piece of paper tacked to her door was a wizard's portrait of Mrs. Grape, however crude. And as you know, people painted by a wizard artist can move from one portrait of themselves to another. So it was then, and only then, that the grossly fat picture of Mrs. Grape, painted all those years ago and charmed by its maker in the moment of his death, came face to face with Mrs. Grape herself. At that instant, the painter's death-spell was undone. The vile portrait of Mrs. Grape shrank back to her original, slender beauty. At the same time the real Mrs. Grape swelled to the size, appearance, and state of health the painting had reached.

"She was now too big to get through the door. Even the window was not large enough. Too big to support her own weight, Mrs. Grape had to lie down. And since her bed was no longer big enough to support her, she had to lie on the floor. She never got up from that floor, either. The diseases brought on by a lifetime of bad habits soon overtook her, and Mrs. Grape died. Her sister's husband had to knock down the outer wall to remove her from the room so she could be buried. They couldn't find a coffin big enough for her, so they buried her in the hull of a two-masted ship. Her grave was a crater caused by a meteor. They had to drop soil out of a squadron of airplanes to cover her up..."

By now Persephone and Bob had fallen asleep. Marmaduke had wriggled under the covers with Bob and was desperately trying to stifle his giggles as Ethelfrigga relentlessly embellished the end of the story.

"...They stuck Stonehenge on top of her grave to keep it from washing away in the floods. And if you fly over Sarum when the angle of the moon is just right and your broom is pointed straight into the wind, you might even see the shape of Mrs. Grape holding up the shoulders of the hill..."


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: When next we see Merlin and Miss Pucey, they should: A) Catch up with Il Comte di Bestemmia at last. B) Have to use another life-saving item in Merlin's survival satchel. C) Meet a type of magical creature or being we haven't seen for a while.

CONTEST: Chapter #178 could include a light-hearted parody of what non-Harry Potter film? Provide a few brief examples of how lines or images from the film could be transformed into a magical context.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

175. The Hag Bride

Contest Winner: TWZRD
Runner-Up: Joe

Harvey found himself in the Great Hall at Hogwarts, standing just below the dais where the head table belonged. Instead of the house tables, rows of chairs filled the room, with an aisle down the center carpeted by a strip of avocado-green taffeta. The chairs closest to the aisle were decorated with nosegays of shockingly ugly flowers, most of them either venomous or redolent of spoiled meat.

What, Harvey wondered, had he gotten himself into? And why couldn't he remember how he came to be here...? He looked at himself, and around himself, in a desperate quest to remember.

The dais was covered in a tasteless weave that looked almost like burlap embroidered with twine. The designs featured flowers even more garishly ugly than the ones that decorated the chairs. The staff table had been removed, replaced by a hideously decorated lectern under a gazebo-like awning. A wizard Harvey vaguely recalled as a member of the Wizengamot smiled down at him from under a mantel that appeared to have been stitched out of a yak's pelt. Harvey tried not to look lost as he checked out his own attire (dress robes) and the audience waiting in the chairs. The cream of wizarding society sat on one side, and a collection of crones and hags on the other. Each side watched the other with some mixture of disgust, fear, and resentment.

Are they waiting for me to make a speech? Harvey wondered. Or am I about to be presented with some type of award...?

He shifted on his feet nervously. Someone coughed. A few people on the wizarding side of the aisle smiled at him. One or two of the crones glared at him. Most people who showed any signs of impatience, did so by looking round at the doors at the back of the hall. They didn't seem to be waiting for Harvey to say or do anything.

The more Harvey studied the people in the chairs, the more he was convinced that something truly life-changing was about to come through those doors. He wished with all his might that he could remember what he was waiting for. As more time passed, he looked for other things to hold his attention, so that he wouldn't have to think about his feelings of dread and anticipation.

There, in the sixth row, he recognized the chap from his year who had been caught stealing other students' school books and selling them to a squib porter at Hogsmeade Station. Harvey remembered it because he was on the student committee that had tried to restore the confiscated books to their rightful owners. The ownership of some of them had proven too mysterious for their sleuthing skills, such as the creepy "Half Blood Prince" one Harvey had voted to burn. He was outvoted, though, and the unclaimed books were all tucked into cupboards in the classrooms where their subject was taught, in the hope that their owners would come searching for them....

Harvey sighed. As nothing continued to happen, he reflected on how his passion for student safety had mellowed during the years since he was a student in these halls. He himself had put four thankless children through Hogwarts. He understood the hope that some wizarding parents cherished that their dear little ones might come home with one or two less limbs and an attitude more receptive to parental advice. During his years on the Hogwarts Parent Council, he had seen six motions to raze the Forbidden Forest outvoted by wide margins, on the grounds that rule-breaking and inability to mind one's own were genetic traits that could do with a bit of weeding out. In other words, most Hogwarts parents seemed to agree that, without at least a small chance their children might never come home, there would be no fun in sending them away to school.

The Board of Governors (which Harvey had chaired three years in a row) had also held, for as long as anyone could remember, that nothing teaches a healthy respect for the dangers of potion-making, transfiguration spells, magical beasts and plants, and the dark arts than the occasional mishap such as having one's finger bitten off by a venomous tentacula, or being trapped in the Haunted Airing Cupboard for a month or two. And if the student in question dies, what then? The lesson would be learned by others!

Harvey nodded grimly as he recalled the incident that had brought him over to this point of view -- the little blighter who just wouldn't wouldn't turn down the dare to say "Widdershins" three times while looking into the Mirror of Noitcepsorter -- the one in the fifth-floor hallway that usually showed what one looked like from behind. After whispering the key word for the third time, the boy began to squeal. To this day, no one knew whether he squealed out of excitement to see the back of his head (in the mirror) turning, so that at last his face looked back at him, or whether it was from pain as his body twisted around, from the neck down, to face the direction opposite to his head.

The case was incurable. To this day, the lad (now a young man working in the back room of an apothecary shop in Dublin) had to look backward while walking forward. And Harvey, who no longer had to deal with his younger son's inability to resist a dare and his third wife's habit of throwing hysterics over the tiniest things, was eternally grateful to the Mirror of Noitcesporter.

Harvey was prodded out of his contemplations by a sudden onslaught of nerve-shredding noise. A ghostly orchestra, all armed with musical saws, had started playing a tune that remotely resembled Isaiah Thwackem's well-known processional piece, "The Ear-Trumpet Involuntary in C-Double-Sharp." Harvey reckoned that if this went on for much longer, a lot of the folks in this room would soon be in the market for ear-trumpets of their own.

The doors at the far end flew open with a rafters-shaking crash. The first to make their dramatic entry was a couple, walking promenade-fashion with the female's hand on the wizard's arm. The wizard, Harvey noticed with interest as they moved closer, was himself -- another one of himself, that is -- and the female in question was a simpering hag, got up in a flouncy dress of tangerine-tinted twill. She also sported a shapeless, lacy hat and a completely unnecessary parasol, which rested open on her free arm and, consequently, caught in the hair and clothing of the person nearest the aisle in each row.

By the time Harvey noted all this, two more similar couples had joined the procession. All of the men were Harvey. All of the females were hags. Different hags, each a startlingly original variation on the theme of ugliness trying, with little success and less taste, to appear beautiful. Six, seven... nine... eleven of couples marched in, one after the other, stepping more or less in time with Thwackem's Involuntary. As they reached the foot of the dais, the couples parted, the hags to form a line in front of their side of the audience, the Harveys to line up to Harvey's left.

Harvey's heart sank as he began to realize what this event was, and the role he was fated to play in it.

And now it sank even further when the musical-saw orchestra changed its tune. As they played the opening bars of Pachyderm's "Bombardment and Dissociative Fugue," a hairy, muscular leg thrust itself out of the shadows beyond the great doors, its foot clad in a shoe Harvey could have worn as a helmet. A high-heeled shoe. With training wheels.

The rest of the leg followed, accompanied by the other of the pair and the rest of a very lumpy, spotty, snaggle-toothed hag. She blushed. She giggled. She blew kisses to Harvey over the top of her toadstool bouquet. Her hair had been teased into a massive structure, reinforced with bits of wood and bone and elaborately knotted pieces of mismatched string. Her dress was a suffocating mass of yellowy-white lace, gauze, satin, bleached and felted human hair, and albino leather. Nevertheless, it revealed too much -- things that made Harvey shudder to think about his wedding night. How had he gotten himself into this? Could he still get out of it, considering present company, without getting smashed to a jelly? Where was his wand? Perhaps he could at least put his own eyes out...

Harvey's horror grew as he realized that he could do or say nothing to stop the ceremony. Compelled by a force he didn't understand -- though it certainly didn't feel like an Imperius curse -- he took the bride's hand on his arm and faced the smiling justice of the Wizengamot. Help me, he screamed, but only in his mind. The justice's opening patter ended too quickly. Harvey didn't seem able to make a single sound, except when asked if he was willing to take Madrigal (so that was her name!) as his awfully wedded spouse; and then his mouth disloyally formed the words, "I will." The vows were even worse. Apparently Madrigal had written the vows for both of them, and Harvey was horrified to hear the things he promised her. My soul WHAT? ...What's this about my internal organs? ...Bathe WHERE? ...Oh, stars, no! Not the troll-bone tea service!...

The exchange of rings was most unpleasant, given how filthy and clammy Madrigal's hands were. Harvey thought his despair could grow no deeper until the bride threw back her veil. Until then he hadn't realized she was wearing one. Seeing her for the first time in all her glory, Harvey felt his innards recoil with a start. Her puckering lips protruded, wriggling and making a flesh-crawling sound like two balloons being rubbed together. Worst of all, he couldn't stop himself from leaning in for their first kiss as husband and wife...

Harvey screamed in his sleep. Madrigal smiled a smile of blissful satisfaction as she sat on his chest, cross-legged, knitting a tasseled cosy for the knob in the center of the headboard.

The house-elf named Dinty appeared beside the bed with a pop, bearing a glass of mulled milk on a tray in answer to his master's summoning cry of anguish. The elf's eyes bulged at the sight of the hag riding his master.

"I will, thank you," Madrigal said with gravelly daintiness. "None for himself, I'm afraid." She threw back the toddy in one dash, tossed the glass into the hearth with a crash, and belched richly. "A little less milk next time," she reflected critically. "Let's say, one third as much. Make up the balance with firewhisky. Keep the rest the same. All right?"

The house-elf gulped, nodded, and disappeared.

Harvey groaned. Madrigal giggled.

"Is he gone?" said a painting of a young wizard with his body facing the opposite way to his head, a full-length portrait squeezed into the narrow wall-space between two sash windows.

Madrigal gave the painting a slightly disturbing wink.

The turned-around wizard stepped down out of his painting--or rather, Joe Albuquerque stepped down off the frame, where he had stood carefully balanced in front of the actual painting. For a moment, it looked as though a young wizard contemplated his own, exact image. Then Joe shook himself, pulled a robe over his head, and emerged as an exact double of Madrigal the hag -- though, naturally, with her head facing the right direction.

"Coo," said Madrigal. "It's like being in two places at once!"

"Something your victim knows a lot about," said the other Madrigal. "I'll take over here, in case that house-elf comes back. You move along down the corridor. You have a lot of Harveys to terrorize tonight. And remember, if you see this bauble" -- Madrigal 2 held up a gnarled little finger, wearing a replica of the Ring of Count Matthias -- "bring it directly to me. All right?"

The original Madrigal appeared to give these orders some consideration as she climbed off Harvey's chest.

"Is there a problem?" said Madrigal 2, taking her place.

Madrigal 1 looked confused. "I just don't know if..."

"Look at me," said Joe Albuquerque, his voice (like his face) almost indistinguishable from the hag's. "Don't you trust this face?"

After a split second of seemingly painful thought, Madrigal flashed a grin that almost stopped Joe's heart in his chest. "I suppose there's no point arguing with meself," she chortled; then she left the room with a merry wave.

Joe crossed his thick, hairy legs (or rather, Madrigal's) and tried to make himself comfortable on top of Harvey's chest. Still trapped in a nightmare, Harvey whimpered beneath him.

"Police work," Joe muttered.


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: Which deceased TMQ character should be found, miraculously or otherwise, to still be alive? (A) One of the Goode brothers (1-Zophar or 2-Zichri). (B) Silver Conkling. (C) Bette Noir. (D) Sid Shmedly. (E) ___________ (write-in candidate).

CONTEST: Propose a new magical spell to be used in the chapter after next.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

174. Surfer Mice

Contest winner: Evensong
Runner-up: Linda Carrig

Merlin and Miss Pucey legged it. In their mouths the slightly medicinal, herbal tang of Turbo Gum (tiny lozenge-shaped chicle drops made to Signor Subito's family recipe). Over their shoulders a massive wall of water that advanced so slowly that it seemed almost suspended in time. To their left and right, smooth stone walls that arched overhead to form a vaulted ceiling only a meter or so above the level of the approaching water, but with no footholds to climb and no ledges to climb to. Ahead, a seemingly endless tunnel offering no refuge from the wave behind. Time was in their favor while their legs, and the flavor of the gum, held out.

They ran and chewed. They chewed and ran. The slow-motion roar of the following wave was so deep it could not be heard by the human ear, but they felt its thrum in their feet, legs, chest. Apart from that, only the sound of their panting breaths and running footsteps broke the silence of the watery, subterranean deathtrap in which they ran (and chewed) for their lives.

The wave was not gaining on them. In fact, they were pulling farther away from it every minute. This was not very encouraging, however. They knew that when the Turbo Gum lost its flavor, the wave would take only seconds to cover the distance they had gained. They might have time to pop another drop of Turbo Gum in their mouths... but how long could they keep running like this?

Miss Pucey snapped her fingers. Merlin looked round and followed her pointing hand. This was hard to do because they were both running, so both pointing and looking are chancy affairs and cannot be done with great accuracy. After a few more hand-snaps and emphatic gestures, Merlin finally saw what Miss Pucey was trying to point out.

At the cornices of some of the pillars holding up this endless vault, gargoyles looked out over their own dark, damp, lifeless domain.

Merlin looked at Miss Pucey and shrugged his shoulders and eyebrows at the same time. He was doing his best to say, "So what?" without swallowing his gum or breaking his stride.

Now Miss Pucey began gesturing toward the satchel slung over Merlin's shoulder. He gave her another "So what?" look. She pointed to herself, then the satchel. She pointed to Merlin, then the satchel. Then she pointed up toward the gargoyles.

"We'll never have time," Merlin said out loud.

On the t of the word time he made the mistake of spitting out his gum. "Bother," he said, hastily ducking out from under the satchel's shoulder strap.

Meanwhile, Miss Pucey flew away from him in one direction, and the roaring wall of water suddenly began flying toward him from the other. Merlin desperately patted his pockets in search of the tin of Turbo Gum.

A moment later Miss Pucey returned, still on Turbo time, moving so quickly that she appeared as a blur. She dived into the satchel headfirst. She somehow grabbed Merlin's wrist at the last moment and pulled him in after her. The jerk nearly dislocated his shoulder.

The wall of water was only a thousand feet away. The satchel sat on the stone floor in front of it, sagging open, motionless.

The wall of water was now seven hundred feet away. A wad of gum flew out of the satchel with a dainty pop. The gum ricocheted off two or three cobblestones before getting stuck in a crack.

The wall of water was within five hundred feet. A wand-tip poked itself out of the open satchel. The person at the other end of the wand said something that he or she could scarcely hear over the now deafening thunder of the approaching wave. The spell must have been something like Accio Gargoyle, because the wand-tip was pointing at a gargoyle. Since, however, the gargoyle could not move, the satchel moved instead.

It rose up into the air. It rose very rapidly, in fact. But was it rising fast enough? When the wave was only two hundred feet off, the satchel had risen less than halfway to the gargoyle's jutting chin.

Meanwhile, riding a crest of the approaching wave on a re-purposed door was a lean figure covered in tattoos, piercings, and very little else. Rigel whooped and sported as though a California beach filled with sunkissed girls lay spread before him, rather than an endless, empty, underground cathedral. For a moment he was distracted by what looked like a pair of tiny, fleeing figures far ahead of him, but he dismissed them with a shake of his head. Nobody could move that fast!

With a snap of his head he threw his wet, hip-length hair in front of his face. He had almost made up his mind what color to change it to, when he failed to see a satchel flying straight at him.

WHAP! Lights danced in front of Rigel's eyes. The world spun, tumbled, and roared. Something hit Rigel with all but crushing force, and suddenly everything went black.

Darkness. Silence. No... the sound of dripping water...

For a while Rigel lay still with his eyes closed, wondering. He wondered how he could have been so foolish as to fall asleep in the midst of non-stop, fast-paced danger. Maybe the high-speed action had gone on too long, he had gotten used to it, even bored with it. Maybe he was just too exhausted to help it. But apart from that, how could he have survived?

Another sound was added to the background silence and dripping sound. A scritching sound, like a mouse gnawing and scratching on something. Rigel lay still anyway. He wasn't sure, now, that he wasn't actually dead. He wanted to delay finding out as long as possible.

The scritching sound grew closer. In fact, it was very close. Surely he must be dead. Mice wouldn't get that close to a live body, would they? Now rats, he thought, were a different matter. They would eat anything, living or dead...

Rigel's eyes snapped open. He looked around, moving only his eyes. He was surprised by his surroundings. For one, he wasn't lying on a damp stone floor, surrounded by debris swept in by the wave. Rather, he was on a dry, soft bed, covered by a soft rug and surrounded by all the normal trappings of a bedroom. A woman's bedroom, Rigel realized with satisfaction, taking in the objects on the nearby table, the cut of the curtains over the windows, the soft cushions and pillows, the muted glow of gas lamps draped in patterned silk. The air was warm, delicately perfumed...

The scritching noise came even closer. It was the one thing that truly bothered him. But all in all, this wasn't a bad place to wake up after that horrible dream about the wereyaks, and the merhags, the canal and the tunnel and the wave. He wondered, though, why he couldn't remember whose bedroom this was or what had happened the night before.

Rigel thought about sitting up. He decided to turn his head first and look at the other side of the room. That's when he saw what the scritching was all about.

On the table next to the bed stood an old phonograph with a single bell-like speaker. A furry paw was turning the crank, winding the spring that drove the mechanism. Another furry paw let fall a hinged arm with a needle at the end. The needle landed with a deafeningly amplified SCRATCH on the flat, black disk rotating atop the turntable. Tinny music began to pour out of the speaker. Drums, guitars, keyboards... squeaky voices singing unfamiliar words to a familiar tune...

Rigel slowly turned his gaze up the length of the huge, furry paw that had now withdrawn itself from the phonograph. The paw was attached to an arm, which in turn was attached to a large furry body perched on the edge of the bed. A furry tail grew out of the rear of that body. It stood up and turned around, confronting Rigel with the whiskery, toothy face of a gigantic mouse. Swaying on its hind legs, it began to dance and sing along with the record: "I wish they all could be California miiiiiice...."

Rigel's eyes snapped open. He gave a little scream and tried to sit up, but hands pressed him back into the bed. Hands, he noted, not paws. He tried to see who they belonged to, but the room was too dark. He was definitely in a bed, though. A soft, cushion-strewn bed with perfumed draperies and a warm rug across his chest... Rigel struggled, but again the hands gently restrained him. Not paws. Not paws. He relaxed.

"Good," said a familiar, feminine voice. "That was close, wasn't it? Aren't you fortunate that I sent Carpet to follow you. I must say, the more I see of you, the more interesting I find you."

Rigel clutched the edge of the rug self-consciously. A tassel on the fringe of the rug snapped at him, and he loosened his grip. "Gently, there," cooed the woman's voice, though it wasn't clear whom she meant.

"You're Sheherazade Jenkins," Rigel ventured.

"We've had a strenuous night, haven't we? Sleep now. I'll leave Stanley here to watch you."

"Wait," he said. "Where am I? Where are my knickers? There are people... I mean, I have to find..."

"There, there," said the woman who had neither confirmed nor denied being Sheherazade Jenkins. "It's all taken care of. You're safe now." Lips brushed lightly against his forehead. "Why don't we have a little sleep, eh?"

The bed creaked and shifted. Weight lifted off the side where the woman had been sitting. Footsteps. A door closing. Rigel lay in darkness, wondering.

Rigel wondered who Stanley might be. He could hear someone breathing nearby. He couldn't see anybody except Carpet, whose only name (so far as he gathered) was Carpet, and who didn't seem to need to breathe. To be sure, however, Carpet felt unusually soft and warm just now. As Rigel stroked its fringe, Carpet even began purr. The effect was very soothing. In spite of his worries, Rigel fell asleep in seconds.

Rigel's eyes snapped open. The room he found himself in was quite different from the surfer mouse's bedroom. It felt and smelled like the room he had last fallen asleep in, which he hoped wasn't a dream. It wasn't, however, the boudoir of Sheherazade Jenkins that he had visited earlier, the one with the painting of the joined twins. It was, in fact, the lair of a troll.

The bed was actually a huge pile of fleeces, skins, several heavy rugs, and assorted sacks of rushes and feathers. The perfume came from a brazier near the bed which, even at this bright hour of the morning, blazed with a fire of aromatic wood. The walls were whitewashed. The furnishings were sparse, rough, and well-used. The only woman's touch was the curtain of shells strung on threads that covered the window. The door Rigel had heard closing was a hatch in the floor. All in all it was the nicest troll's lair Rigel had ever been in. Indeed, he might not have worked out that it was a troll's lair, had the troll not been lounging on the floor next to the bed, holding the trapdoor shut with his elbow.

The troll didn't look any more civilized than the average troll. Rigel could only guess that it owed its refined surroundings to some human influence, possibly the woman who owned Carpet.

Carpet began purring again.

"Don't start that again," said Rigel, sitting up slowly so as not to alarm the troll.

The troll watched him with a bored expression, and picked its nose.

Rigel decided it was time to make the introductions. "Stanley, is it?"

The troll's eyes moved slightly when he spoke the name. Otherwise, there was no response.

"Look, Stanley," said Rigel, "I think we should be on a first-name basis before I get out from under this Carpet. Which I've got to do rather urgently, don't you know. But, you see, I haven't got anything on. So, like, me Rigel. Rigel happy to meet you. Now I don't suppose there's a chamber-pot around here somewhere?"

Stanley gazed at him flatly, then began to eat the bogey that he found on the end of his finger.

"Cripes," Rigel groaned, flopping back on the bed. "I don't know if I can remember any Troll after all these years. What was that tutor's name again? And did we ever discuss how to ask if one might go to the loo? Ah, yes! How could I forget? Going to the loo was a whole chapter in the grammar. Er... hem, hem... Oorg graargh heh aarrgh aargh!"

The troll perked up at the sound of its own language. It looked at Rigel with a bit of curiosity.

Rigel felt only slightly encouraged. What was he saying wrong? "Er... Oog grunt heh ugh ugh!"

The troll grunted something back at him and pointed out the window.

"Oh, lovely," said Rigel. "How does one say, 'Would you mind looking the other way?' Er... Grunt raaorr wump-wump blaaaargh!"

At this the troll began to laugh, now and again heartily slapping its massive belly.

"That evidently doesn't mean what I thought," said Rigel, beginning to squirm with discomfort. "I say, Carpet, you couldn't help a lad out, could you?"

Carpet curled at the corners in what appeared to be a sort of textile shrug.

"I'm just going to skip over to that window for a moment. Could you provide a bit of privacy for me?"

Carpet twitched affirmatively, then flew off the bed and attacked Stanley the Troll. While the troll struggled to claw the rug away from his face, Rigel ran to the window and brushed the dangling shells aside. He was about to empty his bladder out the window when he realized that he was standing above an enormous egg-shaped cavern, open to the sky above, and surrounded by similarly curtained windows. A few meters below was a sunny courtyard where dozens of large, scantily-dressed trolls of indeterminate (but probably mixed) sex were hard at work skinning carcasses, pounding seeds into flour, repairing weapons, and building up a fire beneath a huge cauldron. At the sound of Rigel's involuntary yelp of surprise, they all looked up at him. There was nowhere to hide.

"Er," said Rigel, deciding to put on a brave face, "Oorg graalk hurr aarrgh ugh!"

About a hundred meaty paws pointed toward a trap door close to the opposite side of the courtyard. Even from here Rigel could see the crescent moon carved onto the door. A pile of catalogues from Vold-Mart lay nearby, their pages smeared with what Rigel did not care to think about.

"Lovely," said Rigel, and he began the difficult climb down to the floor of the courtyard. His descent was followed by the riveted eyes of every troll in the courtyard, and more joined them at every moment. He had never been a person to feel shame of any kind, but at just this moment Rigel wished he could crawl inside his own belly-button and disappear.

It was only after he reached the floor that Carpet caught up to him and carried him the rest of the way. This, at least, saved him having to dance out of reach of grabby troll hands. He reached the trapdoor, opened it, quickly closed it and spent a minute breathing through clenched teeth while pinching his nose shut, then opened it again and climbed down into the hole. Though it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do, Rigel made sure the trapdoor was shut before he climbed out of reach.

When he got down to the really nasty bit, Rigel wondered how anything with an underground river gushing through it could be this filthy, and what became of anything that happened to live downstream. After all his squirming and wriggling, he found he wasn't in such a hurry to use the trolls' loo now. He made himself use it anyway. He did his best not to touch anything. Then, while mincing back toward the ladder up to the courtyard, he was surprised to find a familiar leather satchel wedged between a pile of catalogues and one of the most sickening pieces of troll plumbing.

Rigel poked the satchel with his toe. "Hello?" he said, reasoning as only a wizard would. "Is anybody in there?"

When no one responded, Rigel's blood ran cold. "Cripes," he said for the second time that morning. "I don't reckon Merlin would let this go without a fight. I hope they're all right."

He picked up the satchel and tried to open it, but of course it would only open to Merlin's touch. "Drat!" Rigel said to himself. "Might as well take it back to Stanley's gaff, anyway." He didn't say it aloud, even to himself, but he didn't mind having something to hide behind until he found something to wear.

He was just emerging from the crescent-moon trapdoor when a melodious voice spoke behind him: "Making yourself at home, are you?" Her words flavored with barely-suppressed laughter.

Rigel spun around, clutching the satchel across his middle. "What are we doing here?" he snapped, more angrily than he meant to sound. Partly he was furious at himself for the blush he could feel spreading down his neck and below his collarbone. "And might I ask what you've done with my robes?"

"You arrived as I see you now," said the woman of Rigel's dreams, Sherherazade or not. "I see you've even recovered your toilet bag. I left it down there hoping that it would come in useful for you. Though it doesn't seem to have done you much good."

Her mischievous eyes did not conceal the fact that she had tried, and failed, to open the bag herself.

"The clasp is a bit stuck," Rigel said defensively. "I'm ordinarily much cleaner than this."

"I hope not," said the woman, cocking one eyebrow in a way that made Rigel's blush spread even further. After another uncomfortable moment, she relented. "Fresh clothes and breakfast await you, this way. Hop on Carpet. Make room, now. I won't bite."

Rigel wasn't worried about that, exactly. He held the satchel firmly across his lap as carpet swooped up toward the circle of sunlight overhead.


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: Which features of Harry Potter's magical world would you most like The Magic Quill to explore? Vote for up to 2. (A) Ghosts. (B) Moving photographs. (C) Talking paintings. (D) Vampires. (E) Professional Quidditch. (F) Magical gadgetry. (G) Magical Plants. (H) Magical Beasts.

CONTEST: Write the script for a 30-second advertisement on Wizarding Wireless, product of your choice.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

173. Dance of the Fauns

Contest winner: kaleidoscopicepic

The arrival of a tall stranger wrapped in a cloak, his face hidden in the shadow of a hood, had the usual result on the patrons of Talia's inn. Most days, the arrival of any stranger at all was enough to stop conversation.

Talia's inn shared a lonely intersection of two forest roads with three other businesses: an apothecary who moonlighted as a no-questions-asked surgeon for magical beasts, a wandwright who doubled as a trader in charmed amulets and talismans against the dark, and a toothless old biddy who performed divination, midwifery, and all the duties expected of the village curmudgeon. No one had any business in these woods except the wizarding clans who lived there and, now and then, the type of visitor best left alone. And though such visitors were rare, the nature of the village meant they were always looking for something rare and powerful.

Long experience had taught Talia's patrons to assume, when they saw a hooded and cloaked stranger, that he was someone not to be crossed, someone not to be trusted, someone up to no good.

"Looking for something special?" Talia asked the stranger when he approached the bar. In her usual way, she looked him over while appearing to slump lazily against the dresser behind the bar, her eyelashes drooping sleepily. She wore a spotless linen towel draped over her left wrist, an impossibly clean apron tied around her plump waist, and a bonnet to hold her ample hair out of the ale. Nevertheless, a keen eye could not have missed the wand tucked up her sleeve, nor the hand that was casually ready to draw it.

The stranger saw all this in an instant, but he understood nothing Talia had said. She asked him another question, equally unintelligible. This was not his language. He said the only thing he knew would be understood here: "Spiro."

Talia stiffened. She sniffed. The voice was very foreign, very deep and dangerous. From the sound of it she gathered a sense of the size and strength of the figure only vaguely revealed by the stranger's cloak. Keeping her hooded eyes fixed on her visitor, Talia poured two glasses of twelve-star Metaxa, drained one in a single draught, and upended the empty glass on the clean countertop. A golden stain began to spread across the wood. The stranger threw back his drink and upended it as well. They looked at each other, he from beneath his hood, she from behind her eyelashes, with nothing to say.

After a minute of this silent, mutual study, a third character joined their tableau. He was a middle-aged wizard with a short, dry, wiry build, dressed for the forest in a short, supple jacket, sturdy boots, snug trousers, and a waistcoat with numerous pockets. Apart from his loose white shirt, open at the neck, the wizard's clothes all seemed to be woven from homespun wool and dyed in shades of brown. Most important for identification purposes was the letter clutched in his hand, a letter sealed with the crest of Count Matthias.

"Spiro, I presume," growled the huge, hooded stranger.

Spiro slapped the letter down on the bar and moved the upended Metaxa glasses onto it.

"What you ask I will do," said Spiro, and even a foreigner could hear him silently adding, "although it is madness."

"Neither of us has a choice," said the hooded stranger. "But I believe we are equal to the dangers of this forest at night." Somehow a knife found itself in the stranger's hands -- a very long, very cruel-looking silver blade, almost a dagger in fact. To Spiro's credit, his hand did not shake as he took a glass offered by Talia and raised it to his lips. When it was empty, he upended it on the counter as well.

The stranger tapped the three glasses with the tip of his knife. Coins materialized in them. Without another word, he turned and walked out of the inn, followed by his wiry new guide.

During the next several hours, the two wizards spoke aloud less than a dozen times. They moved through the forest with a silent, mutual understanding. The terrain was uneven, often sloping steeply and veined with tree roots, and until the moon rose above the treetops they had only a faint gleam of wandlight to guide their steps.

They were near their destination - perhaps half a mile - when Spiro stopped short and put his arm out to halt his companion. Not far ahead, and slightly downhill from where they stood, lay a round clearing whose grasses gleamed like silver in the light of the full moon.

The stranger observed that Spiro was scarcely breathing. He stared at the clearing ahead in rapt stillness, waiting... but for what?

A moment later, the answer became clear. Suddenly, strange figures began to march into the clearing, forming lines. At first they looked like children - boys wearing waistcoats that seemed to be woven out of bark, girls draped in little more than moss-covered vines. There was something especially strange about their legs, clad in furry trousers and moving in a manner that, for some reason the stranger could not put his finger on, struck him as unnatural. And something about the headware worn by the boys tugged at the back of his mind. Then the knut dropped.

"Satyrs?" he breathed into Spiro's ear.

"You see human feet?" Spiro whispered back, his words understood more by the shape of his mouth than by any sound the stranger could hear.

He looked again. No, there were hooves at the ends of the children's furry legs.

"Fauns," Spiro mouthed, then repeated it to make sure he was understood.

The stranger wanted to ask more questions, but there was no time. Something was about to begin. The childlike fauns, male and female, stood in a mixed formation that now tightly filled the clearing -- except for a small space in the very center. Into this space stepped three fauns, two male and one female. One of the males struck a chord on a sort of lyre strung on an enormous, curling horn. The other male began to play a sprightly tune on a bone flute - a tune that struck the stranger as absurdly familiar. And finally, the female began shaking and tapping a tambourine and singing at the same time. As the song began, so did the dance.

Under other circumstances, the stranger would have been breathless with awe to witness the midnight dance of the fauns, in this ancient forest, on the night of a full moon... But instead, he had to stuff half of his hand into his mouth to stifle his laughter.

The fauns were doing the hokey-pokey.

There was no mistaking the dance moves, nor the meaning of the instructions sung by the faun girl with the tambourine. Even with the folk-inflections of the flute skirling around the main melody, the stranger could not fail to recognize it. And with all the seriousness of a magical race celebrating its most mystical rite, the other young fauns danced the hokey-pokey for all they were worth. They put their right hoof in, they took their right hoof out, they shook it all about...

Suddenly, the stranger's urge to laugh aloud merged into a powerful feeling of joy that wiped out all consciousness.

After what seemed like only a few minutes but, by the angle of the moon, must have been several hours, the stranger realized that the dance was over, the fauns had left, and he and Spiro had remained where they were, gazing into the clearing with wonder.

"Wow," said the stranger, pulling back his hood and looking up into the sky, where the disc of the moon had already begun to dip into the treetops again, and where the stars twinkled as though enjoying a hokey-pokey dance of their own. "To think," said Spanky Spankison, his face filled with happiness and moonlight, "to think that that's what it's all about..."

"We must not cross this clearing," said Spiro, his voice trembling slightly.

"No," said Spanky.

Together, they skirted the clearing - though it meant wading across a frigid stream too wide to leap across, making a detour around a dense thicket, and climbing the cliffs on both sides of a massive rock. Finally, they came to the ravine Spanky sought. At the far end of the ravine, in a cave behind a waterfall, something huge and strong and dangerous was reputed to live, something with a loud voice that could be heard roaring and howling on many a moonlit night, a giant being with a vast hunger and even greater thirst. Local legends disagreed whether it was a giant, a troll, or an ogre that dwelt in the cave. The one point on which the locals agreed was that the dweller in the cave behind the waterfall must be avoided at any cost.

Tonight, something moved in the cave behind the waterfall. It moaned. It sobbed. It screamed a hideous scream that made the flesh on Spiro's back creep and crawl.

"I go no further," said Spiro.

"Merlin's beard," Spanky gasped, recognizing something in the sound coming out of the waterfall cave.

"You did not hire me to make the introductions," Spiro said defensively. "Only to show you where to find the ogre. You need not seem so surprised. I do not resist what your letter told me to do."

"No, no," said Spanky. "Listen! The creature is singing!"

Spiro gave him a queer look, and began backing away into the trees.

"I know this song," Spanky explained, grinning at his guide. He began lightly singing along with the tuneless caterwauling of the cave giant: "Ché se non galleggiava per me quest'epa tronfia, certo affogavo. Brutta morte. L'acqua mi gonfia...."

"I do not know this song," said Spiro, though he was intrigued enough to cease backpedaling.

"Your howling troll behind the waterfall?" Spanky gestured toward the source of the horrible noise. "He knows Italian opera! He sings it badly, to be sure... but if that's a savage monster, I'm the Man in the Moon."

"Oh, him," sniffed Spiro with a dismissive wave. "I know him well. Visits Talia's tavern once a month. But this one...! Savage brute or no, he is a dangerous customer. The floor of his ravine is littered with bones. Mauled goats and deer are often found in the country around here. People, entire families have disappeared, their farms vanished without a trace. And many barrels of mead, firewhisky, and Metaxa bound for Talia's have been snatched in these woods. Sometimes the splintered staves are found near this place..."

"Our operatic friend likes his drink, does he?" Spanky grinned even wider, and twirled his silver blade. "Let's go back to Talia's, then. We'll come back tomorrow night a cask or two."

"I will have no part in this craziness," Spiro protested. "I have fulfilled my duty."

Spanky turned toward Spiro with an anguished look on his face. He seemed to beg forgiveness with his eyes even while his mouth formed the words: "Have you?"

Something inside Spiro told him he could not refuse to join yet another night of secrecy and danger. This Englishman with his sealed letter was perhaps even more dangerous than the creature in that cave.

"No," Spiro admitted in a strangled voice. "I appear to be bound to help you."

"Good," said Spanky, the ruthlessness in his voice belied by the sorrow in his eyes. "Let's get some rest. Our next night's work will be much longer than this."

Spiro shuddered as they turned away from the ogre's cave.

"If it makes you feel better," said Spanky, pulling up his hood, "the creature in the cave is neither a giant nor a troll nor an ogre."

Spiro chewed on this as they climbed over the rock, skirted the thicket, and waded the stream. As they paused for breath near the fauns' clearing, he finally asked: "What is the beast, then?"

"Not a beast, so much," Spanky replied cryptically. "It knows opera, after all. Shakespeare, even! And once it's had a drink or two, it won't seem very threatening...."


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: Which are you most interested in finding out? (A) What costume Joe Albuquerque wears next. (B) Which of the contents of his Survival Satchell Merlin uses next. (C) What happens when Sadie lobs the Waveform Collapser at Harvey. (D) What Allie O'Modo, Chat Noir, or Minimilian gets up to (take your pick).

CONTEST: Briefly describe a discrepancy, or possible mistake, in the Harry Potter books and a possible solution to this problem.

Monday, March 29, 2010

172. Sadie's Wine Flight

Contest winner: Linda Carrig

Sadie muttered something highly uncomplimentary about the ring of Count Matthias as she climbed another steep street in Lisbon. Her head was fuzzy from drinking too much wine, an occupational hazard of searching every wine cellar in the city for signs of a genie. People would expect a body to join them in a bottle or two, or half a dozen, when a body shows an interest in what their cellar holds, she grumbled to herself. It's all a body can do to stay upright. And now a body's lost in these bloody streets!

She had started in the obvious places: the haunts of wizards and witches. There was a stop on the Santa Justa Lift, the city's famous outdoor elevator, that only revealed itself to those who had placed a sickle on the tongue of a particular gargoyle on the eaves of a particular building (which could only be reached by broom), and on that floor was a dark, smoky room full of sad Fado music, strong wine, and slow-burning vendettas. It was the only time Sadie had ever seen a centaur dancing with a vampire. She felt lucky to have gotten out of there alive, even disregarding the fact that she had tipsily botched an accio genie charm and brought a whole rack of priceless wine bottles crashing down.

Then there was the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, where she knew of several squibs who had taken holy orders. Their private stash, at the bottom of a brackish cistern, had forced her to use up the last of the gillyweed she had nicked during her last burglary spree in Diagon Alley. It turned out all the squib brothers had hidden down there were a few dozen of butterbeer, the goody-goodies.

She had asked the Statue of João I in the Praça do Comércio whether it had heard about a genie hereabouts, reasoning that since the good king was known as "John of Happy Memory," then he should certainly remember something as happy as a drunk genie. But the king, who in life had only spoken English to his wife Philippa of Lancaster, spent their entire interview waggling his eyebrows and blowing kisses at Sadie. Any information he might have given her had, understandably, flown right out of her mind.

The ghosts in the Torre de Belém were no help; they were insane. In desperation, she had even asked a sea turtle at the Oceanário - reasoning that it must have been around long enough to hear something - but either Potter & Granger's English-Parseltongue Lexicon didn't cover testudian dialects, or Sadie needed a lot more practice. The most intelligible remark the turtle had made was: "When is turtle soup not a mockery?"

Since then, she had spent most hours of the last week, day and night, sampling the wares of wine merchants and insinuating herself into the cellars of bars, restaurants, and ordinary homes. It was a wonder that she could still walk.

So here she was, lost in the Bairro Alto, and unsure where to search next. She paused to catch her breath in a small square where a fountain stood at the parting of five steep, winding ways. She was debating whether to try a Point Me spell when she spotted half a dozen blind men making their way toward her, down one of the adjacent streets. They walked in pairs, shoulder to shoulder, nearly filling the narrow alley. Their eyes were hidden behind dark glasses, but Sadie could tell they were blind because of the sightless way they all stared ahead and slightly upward, as if craning their heads to catch the echo of their walking-sticks tapping on the cobbles before them.

Sadie leaned against the fountain. She decided that watching the blind men pass would make for a welcome distraction from her frustrating and fruitless search. As she leaned against the fountain with a headachy sigh, the blind men suddenly raised their walking sticks and rushed at her.

"Hi, wait a... what are you...?" As their sticks pummeled her, Sadie found it difficult to finish her thought. "I beg your... Will you just...?"

The men pulled black velvet sacks out of their pockets. One of them poked her in the eye before managing to tug his sack over her head. Sadie fought and struggled, but with all six men hanging on her she couldn't get a hand free to pull the hood off her head. In pitch darkness, she could do nothing to fight off the men who were now pulling cloth bags over her bunched fists.

Sadie tried to scream for help, but the bag muffled her voice completely. Completely! She yelled louder, but all she could hear was the tap of the blind men's sticks on the ground. Her world was pitch dark. She stumbled, tried to catch herself, was hauled upright by the strong arms of the blind men who were already marching her - where? She could not tell what direction they were going. Uphill... that could be any of two or three streets... Then a gentle curve to the right... Left... Uphill some more... Steps downward, more stumbling...

Sadie tried to grab the arm or shoulder or neck nearest to her, but somehow the bags on her hand prevented her from being able to feel where anyone was. Her only contact with reality outside her personal envelope of darkness was the strain in her leg muscles, the echoing sound of blind men's canes tapping on cobbled streets, and their grip on her arms below the shoulders.

Suddenly the trip eneded. Sadie felt herself being shoved backward, off-balance. She fought it, afraid to take a bruising fall, but suddenly found herself perched on a firm but comfortable chair. Some type of blanket was thrown over her legs. Then the grip on her arms loosened. She was released.

Sadie instantly tried to stand up, but her hands could not seem to find the arms of her chair. Her legs had no power to push her up. She pawed around in the darkness, trying to free her face from its mask, but she couldn't find that either.

"For all love, before she panics," snapped a harsh, gravelly, yet unmistakably feminine voice.

The hood was pulled off her head. She found herself in a small sitting room, its sunlight dimmed by the wild profusion of vines and flowers that filled the windows. An oil lamp flickered dimly on a wall sconce behind the figure sitting opposite her, leaving the details of the lady's features in shadow. Their chairs were situated at opposite ends of a long oval table set with a sugar bowl, a cream jug, and two demitasses of strong coffee. Sadie realized only now, as the scent of flowers, greens, coffee, burning oil, and upholstery flooded her nostrils, that the hood had also cut off her sense of smell. What sort of magic were these black cloth sacks?

To the right of the table was a low settee. To the left was a bar stocked with bottles that Sadie, with her increasingly aching head, wanted to know nothing about. She caught a few glimpses of striped wallpaper and a doorway leading to four steps upward and unknown realms beyond. The room was warm and humid. Sadie wondered how anyone could stand to drink coffee in it.

"Your espresso will get cold," said the shadowy woman.

"That's just how I like it," Sadie said.

"You look like you could use it, though. Trust me, I've felt the same way after many a night in the Bairro Alto. This is the best medicine for it."

"I'm more of a believer in hair-of-the-dog," Sadie said.

"Though I wouldn't recommend it," said the lady, "that too can be arranged."

"No thanks. Er - how will I drink this if I can't use my hands?"

"It's all a question of will, my dear." As Sadie watched, the demitasse at the far end of the table lifted itself into the air and glided gracefully to the lady's lips. It then tipped its contents into her mouth, a little at a time.

"Most refreshing," said the lady as her empty cup returned itself to the table. "Sugar? One or two?"

"Six, please," said Sadie.

Operating of itself, a dainty spoon shoveled six heaps of sugar into Sadie's cup, then stirred.


"No, thanks. It's terribly hard on my complexion." Sadie shook her head so that the veil that always covered the lower half of her face waved back and forth.

"Drink up, then," the lady urged.

Sadie considered it. As she did so, the demitasse hovered toward her. Even as well-versed in magic as she was, Sadie was a bit shaken by this. What if it spilled? She hated being scalded...

"Don't worry," said the lady. "The spell guards against spillage."

A moment later Sadie was regretting the amount of sugar she had requested, as the thick, gluey liquid oozed down her throat. She finished the drink with a grimace of disgust.

"Good?" asked the lady.

"Never had better," said Sadie, trying not to gag.

"Would you like another?"

"No, thanks. I'm trying to cut down."

"To business, then," the lady said, her charming manner suddenly becoming brisk. "My eyes on the city tell me that you have been sampling a great many wine cellars in the last week."

"Have I?" asked Sadie. "I didn't realize. I suppose I've been too soused to tell."

"I always find it suspicious when a witch or wizard takes such an interest in the fruit of the vine," said the lady. "Most of our kind prefer potions that spark and fizzle and smoke, after all. And of course there's the Fado bar where all the magical down-and-outs end up."

"I've been there," said Sadie.

"They do let all kinds in," the lady sniffed.

"Do you always get suspicious when an overseas witch goes on a bender?"

"Only when they ask certain people certain questions," said the lady. "And you, my dear, have been asking everywhere."

"Everywhere but here," said Sadie. "But while we're on the subject..."

"Don't," the lady warned. "Please don't ask me. I can't lie to you. And I would rather not have to tell the truth."

"If you wanted to avoid being asked," said Sadie, "you should never have brought me here."

"I have an alternate offer for you to consider," said the lady.

Sadie shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I can't consider it. I'm only interested in..."

"Can't or won't?"

"Can't," Sadie said desperately. "There's a geis on me, a magical obligation that I have to fulfill. It compels me to seek..."

"Stop a moment. I have already guessed what you're after. If you name it, I will be compelled to reveal where it is. But we both know that the person who laid this geis on you must never possess what he has sent you to obtain."

"This is true," Sadie admitted.

"But what I can give you will put a stop to his plans. He will become harmless. And you, by extension, will be freed from your geis."

Sadie sighed. "I wish it were that easy. But you see, I'm a gifted burglar. Magrically gifted, if you'll take my point. What I can't get openly, I will take by other means. Now that I know that you know what I know, and that you probably have what I need, it's only a matter of time before I take it from you."

"But that's where you're mistaken, dear," said the lady. "Bundled up as you are, you won't be breaking and entering anywhere, or pilfering anything from anyone. I have a gift for you to deliver to our mutual friend."

"I would rather bring him..."

"Please! Don't make me use the hood again. I want to be able to answer your legitimate questions, but once the hood goes on our conversation will become very one-sided. Now, our friend has a problem, a problem that - forgive me if I don't say how I came by this information - started with a bottle of wine."

Sadie nodded. "Several casks, actually."

"Long-maturing wine with special, magical properties."

"It makes a body live backward in time," Sadie clarified.

"Yes." The lady wrung a handkerchief between her gloved hands. "And so many unforeseeable problems started there."

"I'll say," said Sadie.

"Unforeseeable," the lady said, "but not incurable."

Sadie's jaw dropped.

"Yes, I've..."

"You've found a cure?"

"...found a cure. Quite."

"What is it? Some daft type of lemon that turns rum punch into..."

"No, nothing like that." The lady reached up and tugged an invisible cord. An invisible bell jingled somewhere above their heads.

Moments later, one of the blind men came in, tapping his cane with one hand, and carrying a small package in the other. He set it down on the table and left the room without a word.

Sadie leaned forward as far as her dead-weight legs allowed. The package looked similar to a hatbox covered in striped, satiny paper and tied up with a velvet ribbon. There were holes poked in it. A moment without the sound of the servant's tapping cane confirmed what Sadie thought she had heard as the package entered the room. It mewed.

"Is there a kitten in there?"

The lady shrugged. "Maybe."

"Maybe? I'm sure I just heard it mew!"

"How sure are you?"

Sadie listened, shook her head, then listened some more. "Fifty percent certain, I guess."

"That should be about right," said the lady.

Sadie felt her headache coming back. "Enough kidding around! Is there a cat in that box or not?"

"I don't know," said the lady.

"But it's your, er, gift... or cure, thingy..."

"All I can tell you about it," said the lady, "is that it's a Waveform Collapser. Have you ever heard of Humdinger's Kneazle?"

Sadie wracked her brains. After a minute she said, "No, can't say I have."

"Oswald Humdinger was a paraphysicist--"

"Coo! Like Algy Swerve?"

The lady tilted her head thoughtfully, then said, "I'm sure I wouldn't know. All I can say is that Professor Humdinger invented this little device to repair damage caused by time travel. This was before the International Convention on Chronomancy officially banned meddling with things like time-turners and such, though I'm told your country's Ministry was a bit slow to dispose of its stockpile. Essentially, the Waveform Collapser is a sort of bomb that explodes temporal paradoxes and causality loops, and otherwise heals injuries to the tissue of space-time. In theory, all you have to do is give this pretty little box to our friend. When he opens it..."

"Kaboom," Sadie said soberly.

In the awkward silence that followed, Sadie wondered if another cup of espresso would help her swallow the dry lump in her throat.

"I suppose so," said the lady. "You might want to stand back a bit."

"A bit," Sadie repeated numbly.

"Say, a couple of miles."

Suddenly Sadie's body blazed with a flush of hot anger. "I'm sure he'll be overjoyed to open it," she snarled, "after I hand it to him and dive out the window in one smooth movement."

"I can't think of anyone more qualified to make this work," said the lady. "Use your skills."

Sadie tried to beat her thighs with both fists, but her cloth-sack-covered hands missed their target. "What makes you say that? How do you know so much about him, and me, and the rest of it, when I don't know anything about you?"

The lady looked away, showing Sadie the silhouette of a striking profile. After a pensive pause she said, "Tell him the gift is from Ironica. He will understand."

Before Sadie could bark out an angry retort, darkness descended over her - the scentless, voiceless darkness of the black hood. She helplessly mouthed a curse while the firm hands of the lady's blind servants hoisted her to her feet and propelled her up a short flight of stairs...


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: Which of the following languages must Rigel attempt to learn in his next chapter? A) Troll. B) Gobbledegook. C) Mermish. D) _________ (fill-in candidate).

CHALLENGE: Draft a short (!!!) dream sequence to go between the sentence "Rigel opened his eyes with a start" and another repeat of "Rigel opened his eyes with a start."