The Magic Quill #87: The Wall That Wasn’t There
by Robbie Fischer
Contest winner: zanaboo
There was hardly time for a round of firewhisky after they arrived at the familiar, squalid back parlor at the Hog’s Head. Joe was immediately sent to find and warn the Clown Wizards about the return of Il Comte. Spanky, Endora, and Sadie were sent to three different countries to track down Jaan, Karl, and Anatoly. Rigel and his father hurried back to their home, where the lad had a magic mirror to communicate with Slavik, the last of the erstwhile Durmstrang runaways. Only a few minutes after their arrival, there remained only two wizards in the parlor: Harvey and Merlin. Harvey conjured a drink for each of them.
“In time,” said Harvey, “I hope to hear the full story of your escape from Gringotts. But present circumstances call for a drastic abridgement. I understand that, after the genie returned you and your party to the Pit, it took you nearly three years to escape again. During that time, however, there was one other occasion when you came close to finding a way out. If I am right, that story will be the key to our plan to break into the Vault of Yves the Leper. Making a long story very short, what happened?”
Merlin was a little unnerved by the amount of information Harvey already seemed to have. But then, he reflected, he might have picked up a good deal from reading Rigel’s tell-all autobiography. Taking a deep breath, he began the story.
“We found our way down to that underground river again, which led to the dragon’s lair. Somehow, it seemed that every time we approached the water’s edge, that cracked boatman would appear. He took us back and forth between the dragon’s lair and the Pit, while we stole boatloads of gold from the dragon. Working together, we managed this with only a little trouble from the nifflers and the dragon, and some booby traps, and a couple of other things that might have ruined everything if there hadn’t been so many of us working together. We watched out for each other, you know. So…” – Merlin coughed – “…we busted our way into the Wand Tree Preserve, bribed the leprechaun with massive amounts of gold, who in turn bribed the tree spirits – ”
“Bowtruckles,” Harvey corrected.
“ – Right. The next bit took a lot of time and hard work, but we cut some trees and built a skiff. The boatman, you see, could only take us back and forth between a couple of landings in that underground river. But we wanted to escape from under the bank altogether. So once the boat was finished, we carried it down to the landing – it took the lot of us several days to manage this – and with a week’s worth of food on board, we pushed off.
“We went downstream first,” Merlin continued. “Poor Don Pagliai was convinced the river went in circles, and there would be no way out. Slavik, on the other hand, had a great fear that we would get caught in an underground whirlpool or waterfall. Fortunately for us, all our fears were baseless. Yet after several days of rotating watches, fending ourselves off the walls of the tunnel, ducking under low overhangs, portaging over rapids, and passing numerous landings, side-tunnels, and tributaries, we were coming to the point of no return. We had to decide whether to turn back, and work our way upstream, while our supplies lasted – or to keep going into the unknown. But that was when we came upon the wall.”
Harvey’s face did the seemingly impossible at this point. Somehow, his features showed a relaxation of tension, as if to say, “Now we are on familiar ground,” while at the same time he seemed to be listening with keener interest than before. Merlin, pausing to sip his drink, spent a moment pondering this apparent contradiction. Then he went on with his tale.
“A solid wall stood across the entire tunnel, completely blocking it. We tapped it, pounded on it, dug in it with sharp tools – Jaan, bless him, even dared to dive under it in that freezing water, but when he came up half-dead of cold, he said there was no opening underwater. Yet somehow, the river kept flowing right through the wall. It looked and felt solid, but it wasn’t there.”
By now Harvey’s face almost glowed with a look of eager satisfaction.
Merlin refilled his own drink, then said, “We didn’t waste much time trying to get through it. We moved back up to our landing and refilled our supplies. Then we rowed upstream, where there were fewer and fewer resting places, and where the river branched into more and more little streams. Eventually we came to the point where we could not squeeze the boat any farther upstream. We tried different tributaries, but these always led either to a spring, or to a waterfall, or to some place where the ceiling wasn’t high enough or the channel wide enough for us to go any higher.
“So we went back downstream again. We had to find a way through that wall; that was our best chance. But after trying quite a few ideas that didn’t work, and having many arguments, each worse than the last, it began to look as if our group would break up and go separate ways.
“It was Rigel who finally saved us. We had landed him on one of the side-tunnels, where he had toddled off by himself…”
“That will do,” said Harvey. “You’ve told me all that I need to know.”
Merlin was startled, relieved, and disappointed at the same time. He covered his confusion by taking a deep drink of firewhisky, while Harvey explained.
“What you encountered was a magical wall. I should know, because my family has made the better part of our fortune in the magical wall business. For example, we did very well during You-Know-Who’s first reign of terror. You know all about portable holes; it’s a similar principle, really. Instead of being able to stretch a hole across any solid wall you needed to get through, you could stretch a wall across any hole that you didn’t want someone to get through. They were designed to blend in with the appearance of whatever walls they touched.
“During the troubles with the Death Eaters, a lot of people used our portable walls to conceal things they didn’t want to fall into the hands of Death Eaters – rare books, dangerous magical objects, family heirlooms, and so on. Sometimes they were used to hide people, or even whole families, who were marked for death. In neighborhoods controlled by the Death Eaters, this could mean hiding in a space the size of a broom cupboard for months or years at a time; but in many cases, the portable wall was only meant to provide a temporary hiding place, in case unexpected visitors showed up.”
Merlin listened with wide eyes. He had run out of firewhisky and his mouth had gone dry, but he did not want to interrupt. Though Merlin had heard of wall spells, he had never heard Harvey say so much at one time, and he didn’t want to break the flow.
“A cheap model,” Harvey rhapsodized, “would only appear to be a wall as long as you didn’t touch it, or look too close. To the touch it would feel like fabric, and might even wave a bit in a strong breeze. A middle-range model could conceal a larger area, and would also feel like a wall if you touched it. The deluxe models could block spells or dangerous creatures, as well as to hiding things. And the super-deluxe model could actually function as a wall, or part of a wall, in case someone blasted a hole in your house and you wanted to patch it up in a hurry. Of course, the super-deluxe model was out of the price range of most wizarding families, but one could rent a super-deluxe wall spell until a construction-spell specialist could be hired for repairs.
“Some of these walls had special features; for example, allowing members of the family to pass right through them, while keeping undesirables out…”
“Or,” Merlin said, picking up Harvey’s point, “letting water run through it, while completely resisting our attempts to break it down.”
“Exactly,” said Harvey, looking pleased and sheepish at the same time. “I believe my family may have sold that wall spell to the goblins, many years ago. If that is the case, and if we can find our way to the other side of that wall, we may have the means to get into Gringotts uninvited…”
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