The Magic Quill #59: The Attack of the Nifflers

by Robbie Fischer, concepts contributed by: Jon and Kelsey

As Merlin’s tale continued, he and Rigel were darting into the lair of a dragon deep beneath Gringotts Bank, armed with a razor-sharp spade, a light sabre, a walking stick, and a boxful of items designed for catching roadrunners…

“Rigel went to the left, I went to the right. We couldn’t see the dragon at all. What we did see was a big shapeless heap, or perhaps a number of different heaps that had all run into each other. The heaps consisted of gold and silver pieces, sparkling jewels, gleaming crowns and daggers and pieces of armor, and now and then a rolled-up canvas, a Persian carpet, a tapestry glittering with stones and gold thread, or a sculpture of marble or bronze. The heaps were so high that we couldn’t see over the top of them. They all but filled a room whose fluted, pillared walls and ceiling could have enclosed a half-dozen Hogsmeades.

“In sconces high above our heads were a ring of torches burning with that peculiar green flame that always means Gubraithian fire. By themselves they would hardly have given us enough light to stumble by; but combined with the reflected glory of all that wealth, they filled the room with a shimmery, goldy-greeny glow.

“The amount of wealth we were wading through, stumbling over, and treading upon was mindboggling. Yet as the deafening rumble of a great dragon’s breathing resonated all around us, and I expected to run right into it at any moment, I realized it was all worthless–except, perhaps, as something to hide behind. And if the dragon made up its mind that we were there to rob it, that money would become worse than worthless to us: it would be our doom.

“It’s hard not to make noise when you’re walking on piles of gold and silver money. The stones and coins scraped, crunched, and chinked underfoot, and cascades of them ran down the sides of the heap at the slightest provocation. And just as I was wondering what had caused Rigel to give out a stifled scream, I almost screamed myself when I found myself climbing over a pile of blackened, human bones. We were apparently not the first wizards to try outwitting this dragon.

“The most distressing thing was not knowing whether I was getting closer to the dragon or farther away—or which end of it I would encounter first. So I hope you can imagine the relief, despair, and surprise that I felt when I met Rigel coming from the other way. Between us we had skirted the outer edge of the dragon’s hoard. Since neither of us had met the dragon, and it certainly wasn’t flying above us (you can be certain we looked for that), it had clearly buried itself under its vast pile of treasure.

“We were both unnerved. Rigel’s self-control looked like a thin shell around almost full-fledged hysteria, and I felt about the same. We now became aware of a lot of slow but massive activity going on under the mound of money. Communicating in silent gestures and nods, we scrambled around the room again (together, this time) looking for another exit. By the time we had passed our entrance twice, the little gold avalanches were going on nearly everywhere. The whole room was starting to shake.

“’You know,’ Rigel whispered, ‘dragons never stop growing. The longer they live, the bigger they get to be. So the size of this one is really a matter of how old it is.’

“’Thank you for that consoling thought,’ I snapped.

“’I only mean to point out that if it’s really as big as it seems to be,’ he said smugly, ‘it may be very old and feeble as well.’

“’If I were betting on a fight between you and a geriatric dragon the size of theH.M.S. Beagle,’ I countered, ‘I would put my money on weight and senility rather than–’

“‘Look!’ Rigel gasped, pointing straight upward. I craned my head, half-suspecting that he was just trying to shut me up. But there I saw it, reflecting some of the sparkly glow that surrounded us. It was a rail—no, a pair of rails—the underside of the sort of track that goblin ore-carts ran upon—showing through the crumbling ceiling high, high above us. It was almost perfectly concealed as a rib in the ceiling. We weren’t so very far from the developed parts of the bank, after all. But how to get up there?

“Before we had any time to ponder this question, a new problem developed. A snout burst out of the mound of money only a few yards away and turned toward us. Rigel grabbed me—it would not be fair of me to say whether it was to push himself in front of me, or the other way round— but before we could make another move, the rest of the body behind the snout appeared. And it was, after all, a niffler.

“Rigel laughed with relief. It was infectious; I laughed too. But our happiness did not last long. A hundred more soft, furry snouts appeared, completely surrounding us. Every snout pointed at us, and then one of them gave a squeal—some kind of signal, I take it—and they charged.

“They moved with amazing swiftness over the shifting ground beneath their paws. Rigel just had time to say something that I didn’t understand in a sort of strangled voice, before they reached us.

“Imagine being buried under a hundred very friendly, playful puppies, all sniffing and licking and playfully nipping and wagging their tails. It would have been fun if there weren’t enough of them to crush the life half out of us, and in another minute they would have torn us apart. But I screamed at Rigel to throw the light sabre away, and I threw the spade. Dozens of the little creatures darted away after the shiny treasures, and Rigel recovered himself enough to yell, ‘Rub-a-dub-dub!’

“Before I could yell something back about this being no time for nonsense, I noticed that a new combatant had entered the fray. The wooden staff that Rigel had insisted on bringing along, without any explanation, was laying about, giving one niffler after another a shrewd knock on the head. Sad to say, it hit me as often as it hit the rest of them put together, but by curling myself into a ball I was able to bear it until Rigel called the staff off. Then he scrambled toward the top of the pile. Half sick with disbelief and horror, I nevertheless followed him—though by now, the tremors running through the room and all its hoard were making it hard to stand upright.

“Quick, while the nifflers are regrouping,’ said he. ‘Open the ACME thing, won’t you?’

“I did. The first thing that appeared was a burlap bag of seeds with the letters “TNT” stenciled on it. I threw it toward the highest concentration of nifflers as they started closing on us again. The bag burst open and seeds flew in all directions, but nothing particularly explosive happened. It must have been a dud.

“So next I tried the piano. It looked like a limp party balloon. But after breaking a capsule at one end of it, it rapidly inflated into a completely real-looking grand piano. Nevertheless it drifted upward, out of our reach. ‘Stay out from under it,’ Rigel warned, and we dodged around to avoid the shadow of the bobbing, levitating piano. Eventually it seemed to get stuck in a groin in the ceiling, but by then I was unrolling a poster showing a train tunnel. I threw it down between us and the approaching nifflers. They scrambled across the surface of the poster without hesitation.

“’This so-called weapon isn’t helping at all,’ I groused, then stepped forward onto the poster to evade a swirl of cheerful, questioning niffler snouts. But instead of standing on top of a poster, I found myself plunging into a pit. Rigel just saved me, but as he pulled me out of the vertical train tunnel I heard his wooden staff clattering downward into the darkness.

“’Things looked quite grim for the next moment or two. It was all we could do to keep the nifflers from surrounding us, while I prised at the cork in the yodeling bottle. At last Rigel seized the bottle out of my hands and dashed it against the wall. Such a piercing, echoing, caterwauling noise now filled the great vault that the nifflers scurried away and burrowed into the piles of gold—would that I could have done the same! By now the room was shaking so much that what had felt like an earthquake before, seemed like a mild vibration now. The ceiling and walls were raining chips of plaster, and the pile of gold was beginning to surge towards the edge of the room as the top of the center mound slowly bellied upward.

“’Portable hole,’ Rigel barked. ‘Now!’

“’I tugged a little flat circle of blackness out of the otherwise empty box. It seemed like rubber and silk and cold, cold water all at the same time. I was about to stick it to the wall when Rigel stayed my arm. He gaped at me like a man gone mad, and then pointed upward. The rumble all around us was too loud, combined with the ongoing yodeling, for me to hear his voice, but I could tell by the movement of his lips that he was saying, ‘No, you idiot! Throw it up there!’

“Once again I looked up and saw what he was pointing at. Straight above us, and just a hair to the left of the wobbling, levitating piano, I saw that bit of rail again. I looked quizzically at Rigel and he seemed to be saying, ‘Next to the tracks! As close as you can!’

“I took aim. I took very careful aim. Rigel’s idea was a good one—in fact, it was our only chance for survival now—so I didn’t want to mess it up. Another thought struck me as I was about to heave the portable hole; I reached into my pocket and drew out the ball of fine thread that the clown wizards had given me. The ‘silken ladder,’ as they had called it. I twisted up an edge of the portable hole and tied the end of the thread around it. Then, as Rigel began to jump up and down with anger or eagerness or both, I threw. And well, you all know that I hit the target—a patch of ceiling less than a foot from the edge of the track. The silken ladder unrolled and tumbled down, seemingly no more than a lightweight thread with a knot every sixteen inches or so. I gave it a firm tug, and it held.

“I gestured to Rigel, urging him to climb. He gave me a frantic look of refusal, so I started climbing the thread. Somehow, it seemed to grow as I climbed it. It felt as thick as a thousand-pound rope and its knots seemed big enough that I could brace my feet against them. I swarmed up toward the hole, but it was quite a long climb. I had to pause to rest, and of course in pausing, I looked down.

“The sight was so terrifying, I might have simply frozen right there. But Rigel, who was climbing just below me, gave the rope a vicious shake which startled me out of my paralysis. It wasn’t just that we were at a dizzying height above the dragon’s mound. It was that a grayish, streaked, reptilian head the size of the Knight Bus was rising toward us, its smoking jaws agape, hindered from devouring us at that moment only by the weight of the treasure still pinning its neck down. But it was gradually wriggling itself free. The nifflers were crowding all around it, cheering it with delighted squeals. And the look in the dragon’s eyes—not of rage, but of cold-blooded irritation— made me certain that it wasn’t about to let me reach that hole in the ceiling…

“But then, happily for us, the dragon’s writhing head crossed into the shadow under the grand piano. The resulting crash, combined with the anguished screams of the dragon, the twang of the bursting piano strings, and the crackling, thumping reports of projectile birdseed going off under the dragon’s scaly head, goosed me onward with a fresh burst of adrenaline. It also slowed the dragon down a bit, so that by the time its battered head had risen clear of the wreckage, I was hauling Rigel through the hole along with the gathering ball of silken thread that had somehow snagged on the hem of his robes. The dragon roared with rage, and its face darted toward the portable hole, but Rigel nimbly ripped it off the floor of the tunnel we found ourselves in, and all the yodeling, roaring, crackling noise was suddenly damped to a distant, muffled stirring.

“’Well, I hate to admit you were right,’ Rigel said, ‘but that was better than starving to death.’

“’Thank you for saying it,’ I replied, for I was having doubts. ‘Shall we rest first, and then see what likes along these tracks?’

“’That’s a capital idea,’ said Rigel, already slumping against the tunnel wall with one hand in his locker-pocket. ‘Let me see if I can find a bite or two that hasn’t learned to run the four-minute mile.”

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