The Magic Quill #49: The Silken Ladder

by Robbie Fischer, concept contributed by: Raluca

Merlin’s tale continued…

“As the sound of locks being undone resounded through the vault, Don Pagliai stuffed something through a knothole in the crate where I was hidden. ‘Hurry,’ he said. ‘Hide this on yourself. It is one of the few things Il Comte did not take from us, and I have hoped until now that it might become useful. Perhaps it will serve you.’

“’What is it?’ I whispered.

“’It is la scala di seta,’ the Italian clown murmured. ‘The silken ladder. It is a thing all clown wizards use. It doesn’t seem like much now, but when it is unrolled—hi! Now put it in your pocket. Farewell!’

“A moment later, the vault doors had opened and a dozen different goblin voices were grunting and swearing all round the pile of crates. I felt myself being lifted and propped on some kind of trolley, with other crates piled close all around me. After what must have been half an hour, the sound of crates being dragged and lifted stopped. A goblin cried out, ‘Away!’ and we were in motion. Swift, sickening, swaying motion. Bottles rattled and crates bumped each other, but I could say nothing about where we were going.

“Suddenly, the trolley slowed down. It came to a rather hard stop, in fact. More goblin voices were shouting and cursing, and the crates were pulled off the trolley. My heart beat fast within me. I could almost smell freedom!

“Then the lid was pried off my crate, and a familiar, long goblin nose was poked in. Though I had burrowed into some straw at the bottom of the barrel, there was no way to hide from the sharp eyes of Nailspike.

“’That was very well done,’ said Nailspike, appreciatively. ‘I can see that you and your friends will be well worth keeping. All you goblins, take note! Before you remove any kind of container from a vault, you must perform an inventory! This test has been very beneficial. Get him out of there. Yes, do we have them all?’

“Rough, long-fingered hands pulled me out of the crate and stood me beside Rigel and the four Durmstrang lads. Other goblins kept searching the crates until every straw had been turned over.

“’We began with two,’ said Nailspike, scribbling on a clipboard. ‘We lock them up in a vault for a hundred and one days, and behold! They are returned to us with interest! That is why I have always said that investment is a kind of magic! Now what further test of our security system shall I put you to? Or shall I run three tests, with three pairs of would-be thieves? Hmmm…’

“The four lads from Durmstrang locked arms with each other. They looked at Rigel invitingly. He stood undecided, looking first at them, then at me. I made up his mind, hooking my arm around his.

“’All right, then,’ said the goblin. ‘Two parties. Let’s see whether four heads are better than two. You will be taken to the dungeon level, which is more cave than dungeon. It has lakes populated by unnamed creatures, caverns so dark that only blind things can live there, perhaps the occasional dragon—who knows? No matter how many traps we set, the pests always seem to be around, nibbling their way into vaults full of treasure. If you survive, perhaps you will find a silver shield which was stolen from one of our, er, preferred clients. Bring it to any goblin, and I will let you and your party go. The losing party, however, will continue to serve as our security testers.’

“Nailspike turned to the goblin workers who had just finished packing the crates onto the trolley again. ‘Ulcernose! Tinfang! Escort these four young scholars to the North Entrance of the Pit. Make sure they are provisioned, and give them any non-magical item they request. Trollspit! Flintflail! These two go to the South Entrance. Be sure to seal those entrances. Otherwise they will simply follow you out and try to escape! If they make it to the West or East Entrances, perhaps they will have learned something we can use. Now go!’

“One of the goblins reached toward my arm, but I slapped his hand away. ’We aren’t going anywhere,’ I said flatly.

“Nailspike flinched at my defiance. ‘I beg your pardon?’ he said. ‘Do you think you have a choice?’

“’Yes, I do,’ I replied.

“Nailspike glared at me, searching my eyes. At last he said, in a voice of deadly softness, ‘You do, indeed, have a choice. But it would be such a waste. Your talents are valuable to us. Otherwise we would have given you to our pet manticore, who has a taste for human flesh. Manty has been rather hungry, lately. Hasn’t he, boys?’

“The other goblins murmured their agreement.

“’Are you choosing to exercise that choice?’ Nailspike asked me in barely more than a whisper.

“I hesitated. At that moment, after months of imprisonment in the vaults of Gringotts, I was considering it.

“Then Rigel spoke up. He locked his arm tightly around mine and said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. This man is on retainer to my family. His life belongs to me. Lead us to the pit!’

“’Shut up, Rigel,’ I snarled.

“’There’s our answer, then,’ said Nailspike, and with a nod of his head he summoned two more goblins to lead me, by force if necessary, in the opposite direction to where the Durmstrang lads were marched. I gave up resisting after the first few steps but fumed at Rigel, inwardly and outwardly, all the way.

“’I’ve just saved your life,’ Rigel groused, as we were shoved into an ore cart. ‘You could at least be grateful!’

“’Grateful!’ My bitter laugh was swept out of my mouth by the rushing wind. Level after level of Gringotts Bank swept by us as we rode the rail, deeper and deeper, past fewer and fewer torches and airshafts. The air grew damper and colder. ‘Grateful!’ I spat again, as a great iron door sped into view, at the very end of the tracks. It was covered in lettering, in Gobbledygook and several other languages, mainly saying things like, ‘Danger! Unsafe area! Do not enter unless your next of kin have been informed!’ And so on. Two of the goblins hopped out of the cart and undid the locks. The massive door swung open without a creak, as if it weighed no more than a feather—perfectly balanced. But beyond it was nothing but blackness.

“’In you go,’ growled the biggest and fiercest of the goblins that had escorted us.

“’Grateful!’ I spat a third time, as the door swung shut between the two of us and the outside world. ‘We might as well have been to see Manty, you spineless twit! Do you know what this place is? It’s our grave!’”

What happens next? Send us your idea in 150 words or less, and tune in next week for another installment of the Magic Quill.