The Magic Quill #56: The Breath-Ants

by Robbie Fischer, concepts contributed by AngelBot

As Merlin’s tale continues, he and his reluctant companion Rigel are trapped in a cavernous Goblin dungeon, with a choice of seven tunnels leading down into the darkness…

“’Which way do you think we should go?’ Rigel asked me.

“’I move that we see what’s behind Door Number One,’ I answered.

“’Yeah, but which end are you counting from?’ says Rigel.

“’The right end, of course,’ says I.

“’Well, I vote in favor of starting on the left.’

“’What for? They look the same.’

“’If you think so, then why are you arguing with me?’

“’Who’s started it? You just have to be contrary, don’t you?’

“Rigel gave me a smug-looking leer and replied, ‘If you want to go your own way, so be it. Only I’m the one wearing the Cloak of Visibility.’

“I bit my tongue. Give some lads a bit of power and don’t they throw it around! So we started down the first tunnel on the left, Rigel looking at me with a satisfied smirk now and then, as if hoping I would burst out into arguing with him again. The tunnel just kept goin’ on and on, mostly downhill, curving this way and that, and partially blocked by an occasional cave-in. But for the most part, it all looked the same. No other tunnels crossed our path, there was nothing interesting to see or hear, and after a while we felt as if we had been walking down that tunnel all our lives.

“It might have been an hour; it might have been a day. We sat down, footsore and a bit dull from the feeling of not getting anywhere, and Rigel rummaged in his pocket-universe storage locker for a bite to eat. He found a plate of cheese-and-pickle tea sandwiches and a jug of butterbeer, which with uncharacteristic kindness he started to share with me. But when we put the plate down on the floor between us, the sandwiches suddenly grew legs and ran away. A moment later the flask pinched Rigel’s hand, and he dropped it with a startled cry. Instead of shattering on the floor, it landed on its own pair of feet and scampered off the other direction. We watched our meal go without making any effort to stop it. Then we just stared at each other in the dim light that seemed to come from nowhere, all around Rigel.

“’At least a rest will do us some good,’ I said, as Rigel’s face came over with a giving-up look.

“’Don’t move,’ Rigel croaked, as if telling me something very confidential.

“’That’s what I was just saying,’ I snapped. ‘I don’t plan on taking another step without a nap.’

“’I mean, don’t move because there’s something crawling next to your leg.’

“I looked down and saw not just one something, but a whole crowd of somethings scurrying towards us through the darkness. The first few had already started to climb my robes. The more I saw of them, the less I liked. They had too many spindly little legs, and long waving antennae on their heads. Their bodies had a shriveled look, like prunes, and their faces were dominated by a trumpet-shaped proboscis ringed with vicious-looking, hook-like hairs. A group of them paused as if studying the upward slope of my robes, preparing to climb up my chest.

“’Fearless little critters, aren’t they?’ I said calmly, for Rigel looked like he needed encouraging even more than before. ‘I expect they’re what walked off with our dinner.’

“’No,’ said Rigel. ‘Our dinner walked off by itself. I could tell–the legs were made of pickle. No doubt there’s something leaking magic in my pocket-locker. Besides, I’ve seen these little wretches before. They don’t steal food; they steal air.’

“’Well, there’s plenty to go around,’ I said, trying to conceal a nervous shudder as a nonchalant chuckle. ‘I don’t see what harm they can do.’

“’I mean,’ Rigel said, looking as desperate as I ever saw him, ‘I mean they steal the breath right out of your mouth. It isn’t the air they want; they can breathe just like you or I. It’s your life they’re after.’

“’Oh,’ I said. ‘Well, in that case…’

Forgetting my exhaustion, I jumped to my feet, gave my robes a vicious shake with one hand, dragged Rigel up with the other, and ran for dear life after the sandwiches (which we never caught) but away from the breath-ants. But we had only run about a hundred yards when we stumbled out of the end of a tunnel into a huge gallery. Even in our terror and confusion, it didn’t take us long to realize it was the gallery with seven tunnels coming out of it—and we had come out of the same tunnel we had gone in.

“”That isn’t possible,’ Rigel panted. ‘We went straight in, and there were no forks in the way. It can’t have gone full-circle. So how can we come out the same way we went in?’

“’When we ran from the breath-ants,’ I wheezed, ‘we must have doubled back the way we came.’

“’I don’t know,’ said Rigel, looking doubtful. ‘Even so, it took it much longer to get to where we sat down than to get back here.’

“I shrugged. Only a wizard who had lived a very sheltered life would be as upset as Rigel was. After all, Gringotts is a magical place! Just the same, we paced out the whole gallery again, to make sure it was the same place we had been before. Then we tried the second tunnel from the left…”

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