Contest winner: TWZRD
The Magic Quill No. 146: The Merhags
Scarcely had Rigel handed both brooms to the parking valet and offered his arm to his date when a Wizarding Wireless presenter shoved a wand in his face. He squinted as a hovering lens focused the light of a blazing candelabra on his face. Evidently he was expected to speak into the wand-tip. "Er," he hemmed. "Say again?" he hawed.
"I said," the presenter said with quite as much grin but half the sincerity, "Isn't this your first public appearance since suddenly arriving at adulthood?"
"I suppose so," Rigel said sourly. "I mean, I've been an adult before, so..."
"And who is your lovely date?"
"Er," Rigel stammered, glancing at the woman beside him. "Th-this is Lucretia Pucey. She's actually my..."
"Miss Pucey, now that you're dating one of wizarding London's most eligible bachelors, how does it feel to know that he's already been through his second childhood?"
The woman on Rigel's arm blushed and covered her mouth. "I really can't say," she mumbled.
"We're not dating," Rigel said forcefully. "Miss Pucey is my governess."
The presenter tittered naughtily. "Well, be that as it may, you're all grown up now, aren't you? With a gown like that, you can tell she doesn't let a little thing like unemployment get her down."
Rigel gestured toward the shabby theatre, whose entrance the presenter was effectively blocking. "If you don't mind..."
"Actually, our listeners would love to hear your thoughts on tonight's show."
"I haven't seen it yet," Rigel said pointedly.
"But surely, you have some idea what you're about to see. It isn't everyday a society bad-boy turns up, after being presumed dead for a dozen years, sporting an attractive young witch on his arm..."
"Look," Rigel snapped. "I've been friends with the choreographer since I was a kid. The first time, that is. He played in some of the first games of Head Quidditch."
"Ah, so it's your personal connection to Bob Fossil that draws you to this opening-night."
"A good stick, old Bob is," Rigel agreed gruffly.
"Would you say he is growing creatively?"
"I suppose so. This is what, his third musical? No one thought dancing skeletons doing a jazz revue would amount to anything, but when they saw Deadhead..."
"That's exactly who saw it," the presenter said archly. "No one."
"Yes, but that's not taking ghosts into account. Deadhead did quite well in the unquiet-dead community. Which is really, you know, Bob's target audience."
"Don't I know it," the presenter said through clenched teeth, glancing up and down the quiet street in search of any other warm bodies to interview. "I've never seen such a quiet premiere. It's like a graveyard."
"Actually, it is a graveyard," Miss Pucey pointed out. "The Kidney Street Theatre hasn't had a live audience since it was hit by a German shell in 1940, during a sold-out performance of Sickle Serenade."
"It has the largest ectoplasmic acting company in Britain," Rigel added. "There isn't another troupe in the world that could mount a production of How to Succeed in the Afterlife Without Really Dying."
"You should know, shouldn't you?" purred the presenter, cupping her hand over her ear. "Isn't it true, Rigel, that you were the executive producer of that show?"
"I would really like to go inside," said Rigel.
"Are you also backing tonight's production of The Shroud Game?"
Rigel bristled. "I'll have you know that ghosts are perfectly capable of..." He winced, put his hand to the silver-backed diamond stud attached to his earlobe. Then he pulled his hand away as if burned. "Excuse me a moment."
"Sure," cooed the presenter. "May I ask Miss Pucey where she picked up that sensational...?"
"Oh, the blazing billywigs," Rigel cried out in a strangled voice, desperate to control his urge to swear on live wireless. "Not now!"
The young woman at his side looked concerned, saying, "Master O, is something wrong?" Then, just as she reached out to touch his arm, he disappeared with a sickening pop -- and dragged her after him.
They landed on a damp, gritty, stone floor. Rigel might have kept his footing if Miss Pucey hadn't barreled into him, sending them both rolling through a shallow puddle that ruined their evening clothes.
"I've seen better landings," said a gruff voice.
Rigel sat up and glared at Merlin. "And I've seen better places to land."
Merlin helped the governess to her feet. She seemed surprisingly unruffled, considering her confusing journey and her uncomfortable new surroundings. "This is unexpected," she said, gazing directly at Merlin with an uplifted chin.
"I beg your pardon for interrupting what seems to have been a big night," said Merlin, while Rigel looked around at the damp slabs of stone that surrounded them on all sides. They were in a chilly room, slightly larger than the public room at the Hog's Head, with a ceiling so high that the light from Merlin's wand-tip barely reached it. In the center of the floor was a staircase leading down to a pool of black, still water, eight or ten steps below floor level.
"Crikes, the smell," said Rigel, covering his mouth and nose with one hand, while favoring his singed earlobe with the other. "Like a fishy sewer. It has to be Venice."
"Venice is actually some distance above us," Merlin said casually.
"And that's the only way out of here?" Rigel tilted his head toward the steps, the pool.
"I'm afraid so."
"What about these walls? The ceiling? Surely Il Comte must have a secret way into his -- I don't know -- boat slip? Besides, that helm the goblins gave him isn't fond of water."
"This isn't part of Il Comte's estate," Merlin murmured, quietly filing away the information Rigel had unwittingly provided.
"Then why the devil did you come here? What did you think you would find? And why can't you just leave the way you came in?"
"Because," said Merlin, "the ones who brought me here are waiting outside."
Rigel looked down into the dark water. He wasn't sure, but he thought he saw something move below the surface. "Merfolk?" he guessed. Merlin nodded. "What is this place, then? A prison? What did you do? Did you violate their territory? Did you poach in their waters?"
"Oh, nothing like that," said Merlin. "And anyway, this isn't a prison."
Rigel stared at him. He and Miss Pucey stared at each other. They both looked at Merlin again with eyes full of dread and curiosity.
Merlin pointed his wand at the corner behind him, where several barrels were stacked in front of a shelf full of filthy cans and jars. Hanging from the ceiling were the gutted carcasses of two drowned dogs, a stiff fox, a partially eaten goat, and several large fish.
"It's a larder," Miss Pucey whispered.
"But merpeople wouldn't eat us," Rigel protested furiously. "We're people. They're practically people too. It would almost be cannibalism!"
"Most merpeople wouldn't eat us," Merlin agreed. "But I've discovered an interesting fact that I don't remember reading in Newt Scamander's bestiary. Wherever there are people, you see -- people of any kind -- there is also a small percentage of magical people."
Rigel's brow wrinkled as he tried to follow Merlin's line of thought. "You mean... there are merwitches?"
"Exactly. And wherever one finds witches, one also finds a number -- a much smaller number, to be sure -- of hags."
Rigel looked like he wanted to be sick. "So it's merhags, then."
"Once we've ripened a bit," Merlin went on ruthlessly, "we'll be the most popular main course on their menu."
"We've got to get out of here," Rigel said as if he meant, You've got to get me out.
"That's why I needed you," said Merlin. He bowed to Miss Pucey and added, "Your presence is a nice bonus."
"What do you need me for?" Rigel shouted. "Go on. Escape. Swim past the bloody merhags, then. I would only hold you back."
"It isn't the merhags that scare me," said Merlin. "I already have a defense against their teeth and claws. Only, I've found out something else about this place. Another way out, maybe. Or maybe better: a way in to someplace I never expected to find. It's just that, I won't have time to check it out if the merhags come back for me.
"So what I need is a diversion. I need you to try to escape. The merhags will chase you, thinking you're me. They've never been good at telling one air-breather from another. While you lead them away from here, I'll have time..."
"You must be mad," Rigel screamed.
"Barking," Merlin agreed, holding out a smooth stone that dangled on a leather thong.
Miss Pucey looked from one wizard to the other, hiding her thoughts behind her composed face, as if calmly waiting to see what happened next. At last, with an inarticulate snarl, Rigel snatched the ironskin stone out of Merlin's grasp.
Miss Pucey smirked with her back turned to him as her former escort peeled off his dress robes and prepared to enter the dark water. He paused on the third step to tie his wand to his forearm with one shoelace. His skin looked green, possibly due to light from Merlin's wand reflected off the water. "You'll be all right, the two of you?"
"I'll see to it," said Merlin.
Miss Pucey drew her own wand and said, with the primness proper to a highly effective governess to any hell-raising young wizard, "We both will see to it." And her tone of voice made certain no one would dream of contradicting her.
"I'll keep the merhags busy as long as I can," said Rigel. "After that, I'll be at the Gritti Palace, waiting for you or a sign from you. Don't keep me waiting long."
Merlin looked appraisingly at Miss Pucey, who had begun to throw items out of her handbag -- two brass candlesticks, a crowbar, and a coil of strong rope already lay at her feet, and just now she was plucking out a pair of greasy work-boots. He nodded. "We won't."
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #148 +++
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SURVEY: When we last left Sadie, she was witnessing a horrible duel between Il Comte and Uncle or Aunt Leslie. What happens when Chat Noir gets involved? (A) He tries to defend Leslie and wins. (B) He dries to defend Leslie and is defeated. (C) He switches sides and joins Il Comte. (D) He goes in for himself and runs off with the ring of Count Matthias. (E) We don't find out what he does, because in the commotion Sadie gets away with the ring.
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