by Robbie Fischer
Contest Winners: TWZRD, Linda Carrig, and HPMN_Tom
When the breathless group of friends and accomplices arrived at the Bogley Squint ward, they beheld a scene that would haunt their memory for years afterward.
“Blimey,” gasped Sadie. “That must be all the food in the entire hospital!”
“It is,” groaned the Assistant Healer. “And apart from one live chicken that’s running around here somewhere, all of it is encased in some kind of magical bubble.”
The ward was unrecognizable. Where there had been tables and chairs, beds, groups of patients, and a table-tennis set, now the only thing to be seen was food. Pots of it, platters of it, great spherical globs of it, from Salisbury steak to rice pudding, from steamed snap beans to mashed potato, and every chunk individually wrapped in a gleaming sphere of pure energy. The food-balls spilled out the door into the hallway, pouring round the ankles of the rescuers the Assistant Healer had led from the waiting room. Nevertheless, the spheres of hospital food remained piled up nearly to the ceiling, a rolling, tumbling, seething mass of culinary debris.
“It’s funny,” said Endora, sniffing the air. “But I don’t smell food at all.”
“The bubbles are air-tight,” Harvey deduced instantly. “God help anyone who may be stuck inside one.”
“I hear voices begging for help,” said Joe Albuquerque, tearing the round white collar off his black vicar’s shirt and wading into the bumpy, slippery disaster area. Meanwhile, those behind him began scooping spheres of food out into the hallway. There Spanky and his wife Ilona (invisible to all but him) vanished them before they could roll away and bury somebody else.
The first person to be rescued from the food avalanche was a fat wizard who immediately complained that he was hungry. “Food, food everywhere, and not a bite to eat,” he moaned, as the shell-shocked Assistant Healer supported him out into the corridor. “I was chewing on a tough piece of chop when it suddenly felt like a rubber ball in my mouth. I tried to chew on it, but the thing just shot out of my mouth and bounced off the wall. I tried to stick my fork into another piece of chop, but something wouldn’t let me get near my plate – I tried harder and harder to reach the food, until the plate shot off the table. Next thing I knew, I was sinking into this flood of gorgeous food, but I couldn’t hold on to anything – couldn’t stay on top of the pile – went under, thought I was a goner – I swear I’ll never look at food again…You wouldn’t happen to have a biscuit, now?”
Several more shells-and-cheese-shocked patients emerged from the rubble, looking remarkably fresh and chipper for spell-damage victims who had been nearly crushed or smothered under a mountain of inedible food. The quiet headaches, the omnipedritis cases, even the eternal stench victim seemed to have been cured. The rescuers dug faster, risking the collapse of precarious piles of food-balls; Endora had to be dug out of two separate avalanches. The patients they rescued did not seem regretful when they saw Spanky destroying whole piles of hospital food.
Finally they reached the bottom of the ward, from which by all accounts the trouble had come. At first, on seeing the empty bed, Endora cried out in alarm. But then they heard laughing voices from under the bed, and the group kept digging until they unearthed (or unfooded) Merlin and Rigel. They had taken refuge under the bed, and had passed the time until their rescue by playing marbles, using sphere-encased crumbs to shoot at a larger sphere that contained a suspicious-looking muffin. The moment daylight reached their refuge, the muffin-ball shot out from under the bed and Merlin began gathering up the marbles.
“Hey, no keepsies,” Rigel whined.
“Tough luck, kid,” said Merlin, pocketing the crumbs. He crawled out from under the bed and straightened up, beaming at his friends. “What took you so long?”
“Just as I expected,” Harvey marveled. “The fox pox is gone!”
“Is it?” said Merlin, touching his cheek. Before he had more than a split second to confirm the purity of his skin, Endora bowled herself at him and nearly knocked him down, sobbing into his arms. “There, there,” he said, patting her head while she embraced him. “You see? We’re all right.”
Her response was made indistinct by a congested nose, a constricted throat, and a mouth muffled by Merlin’s hospital robes.
Rigel came out from under the bed, looking daggers at Endora and shying away from his father’s outstretched hand.
“Well, that’s all sorted then,” said Joe Albuquerque, who had transformed himself from a vicar into a healer. “I’m sure the patient will be discharged in a few moments, and we can all get back to…”
“But why did all this happen?” Harvey demanded, and the other members of the rescue party murmured that they wanted to know this too.
Merlin, with Endora still clinging to him, managed somehow to explain how the Food Tasters’ Friend had summoned all the bad food in the hospital – how, in effect, every plate in every ward, and all the pots and pans in the kitchens, had materialized around him and Rigel – and how, if he didn’t get something into his stomach very soon, he would consider eating the live chicken that was now pecking at a nearby kernel of magically-shielded corn, fox pox or no.
“Let’s go, then,” said Joe. “By the powers vested in me as a healer, I pronounce you discharged. Shall we go by portkey or Floo powder?”
“If you’re going back to the Hog’s Head, you might want to get rid of that amulet,” Orion Oldmanson suggested.
Merlin was digging in his pockets for the stone when another Assistant Healer approached, breathless, pushing a wheeled chair that stopped just short of running Sadie down. In it was what at first looked like a scarecrow made out of woven reeds, with an assortment of flowers, fruits, and vegetables attached to it in a parody of human facial features and clothing. Endora almost screamed when the scarecrow moved. Sadie, who had somehow caught the chicken, covered the bird’s eyes. What kind of spell was this? Was it an animated scarecrow? Or had someone been hexed so that his flesh turned into vegetable matter?
“Is it too late to cure this man?” the attendant panted. “He’s just arrived at St. Mungo’s. Everyone else has been cured – can you do to him whatever you did to them?”
Merlin hesitated, holding the amulet in his hand.
“Don’t do it,” Harvey warned. “This man is at least partly made of food. The least that could happen is that he would be trapped inside an airtight bubble until he died. At worst, he could be torn to pieces!”
With an audible gulp, Merlin returned the stone to his pocket.
“But the man is desperate,” the attendant cried. “He could begin rotting any minute. Birds keep trying to peck his eyes out. What is he going to do?”
“How did this happen to him?” Harvey asked.
“It was the Literalis Curse,” said the patient himself, in a rustly, leafy voice that made several of the bystanders shudder. “I write for Broomstick and Wand, travel section. A reader from Italy wrote to me about an article I had done about that country. The letter said it was so full of uninformed clichés, that he was enclosing a Literalis Curse in the letter – it said that by the time I had read that far, it was already too late for me – that the next cliché I uttered would become my fate…”
“Let me guess,” said Spanky. “’You are what you eat.’”
“A statement that is only literally true for cannibals,” Joe pointed out, causing Sadie to try to cover the chicken’s ears. “And for Mr. Walking-Market here.”
“The name is Regianini,” said the poor man.
“What we need to know is the name of the wizard who cursed you,” said Harvey. “Then, if we find him, perhaps we can persuade him to lift the curse.”
“Oh, that’s a simple matter,” said Mr. Regianini. “The letter was written on letterhead stationery. I’ve got it right here, tucked behind my left turnip.”
Sadie returned to covering the chicken’s eyes, while a cornstalk hand held out a neatly folded piece of thick, creamy, linen paper. Harvey took it gingerly, unfolded it, and almost dropped the letter.
“It can’t be,” he said, handing it to Merlin, who immediately had to sit down.
“Signor Maledicto di Bestemmia,” Merlin read aloud in a strangled voice.
“Impossible,” said Rigel, reading over Merlin’s shoulder. “How can he be back? He should still have about ten years’ worth of Lilly Grate in his system. No one could recover that fast.”
“I don’t know how,” said Merlin, dully. “But I know what this means. He will come after us next. You, me, the Durmstrang lot, and the Clown Wizards.”
“We have to warn them,” Rigel exclaimed.
“He’ll have to go through the lot of us to reach you,” Endora said, looking fiercely round at all the companions.
Catching their urgency, Harvey said, “We need to make some plans. There isn’t a moment to be lost. Let’s meet in our customary place in one hour…”
“But what about me?” rustled Mr. Regianini as the group began to hasten toward the exit. “How am I going to get turned back into flesh and blood?”
Harvey replied with a bit of parting advice: “I’d ask the healers about food preservatives, if I were you.”
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #88 +++
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