The Magic Quill #143: Enormity in Action

by Robbie Fischer

Contest winner: Linda Carrig

The cupboard door effectively hid her, while the holes carved into it in an elaborate design enabled her to see every move of the duel. This, she thought wryly, must be the reason Aunt or Uncle Leslie wanted to load up on calories.

It began with the sound of thunderous footsteps growing ever closer. Sadie had hidden before the door even opened. As the enormous witch or wizard passed through the broad archway at one end of the room, the space was suddenly filled with a blaze of light that made Sadie’s eyes water. It came from mirrors hung all around the walls, and showed that the room was furnished only with a sturdy bench under the center of each long wall and an enormous dresser at the end opposite to the arch. Several other ornately carved doors stood around the room, similar to the cupboard door in front of Sadie.

Aunt or Uncle Leslie paced, his or her body quivering with each step. It was impossible to read the expression of his or her bloated face. Meanness and hunger always seemed to be there, and there was precious little nuance the tiny eyes and puckered mouth could add. But impatience must have been on the menu, for when Sadie heard a distinct pop near the far end of the room, His or Her Horridness snarled, “You’re late.”

Sadie shifted her position quietly to get a better look at whoever had Apparated. She didn’t have to stifle a gasp – her habits of burglary were too deeply settled to allow such a gaffe – but her shock registered in the way her grip tightened around the fang whistle that hung round her neck.

“I was forced to make an unexpected detour,” Il Comte di Bestemmia replied smoothly.

“Detour my toe,” said the mountain of flesh that faced him, his or her voice as androgynous as her or his body. “You Apparated, didn’t you?”

“But in stages, of course,” said the well-groomed wizard, fingering a black carnation in his buttonhole. “Many carefully planned and prepared stages, some in countries I have only visited for the purpose of setting them. So when I spotted someone following me – inconceivable as that may seem – I was forced to double back and work my way around through another region. It would have been even more difficult, had I not traveled so extensively. You see, it does pay to be a wizard of the world.”

“How could anyone follow you?” the giant or giantess honked peevishly. “You can’t follow someone who is Apparating, unless you know where they were going and every stage of their route. How would someone know that?”

“I was wondering the same thing,” said Il Comte with his usual smiling charm. “I’ll admit one theory crossed my mind.”

“I would hardly need to put a trace on you,” Uncle or Auntie snapped, having caught his or her guest’s meaning. “I know where I live. Which leaves few possibilities apart from one of us being indiscreet.”

Il Comte’s eyes sparked and gleamed. “Shall we settle the matter in the usual form?” he purred.

“If that pleases you,” said Uncle or Aunt Leslie. “But I must say, it’s a pity to kill you before we get down to business.”

“That is hardly a difficulty,” said Il Comte, drawing a gleaming white wand out of his spotless robes. “We can deal while we duel. Our heirs will carry out whatever agreement we reach. Have you an elephant bird quill?”

“Certainly,” said Auntie or Uncle. “Two of them, in fact. They can write duplicate contracts with utter reliability, while one of us obtains satisfaction. May I ring for my nephew? He will bring the quills.”

“By all means,” said Il Comte.

Uncle or Aunt Leslie reached forward and pulled on thin air – or perhaps, an invisible bell-pull. Somewhere in the distance a gong sounded.

While they waited for the nephew to show up, Il Comte fingered his wand, sniffed his fingertips, and looked his opponent over.

“I believe you have lost weight,” he said blandly.

“It’s possible,” said Auntie or Uncle Leslie. “My former physician suggested a low-carb diet. I started by eating him.”

“Did you notice a difference?”

“He was a lot tougher and dryer than my previous doctor. I hate the ones who practice what they preach.”

Il Comte rolled his eyes heavenward. “I meant,” he said with deliberate patience, “a difference in how you feel.”

“I find it harder to feel full,” said Uncle or Auntie. “And at night I get chills.”

“At least that’s something,” Signore Maledicto muttered.

A starved-looking young man – the one Sadie had been following – bowed his way into the room. “Yes, sir or ma’am?”

“Fetch the wooden box from my bedchamber,” he or she snapped at him.

The youngster hesitated.

Uncle or Aunt Leslie snorted impatiently: “Well?”

“Do you mean the hope chest at the foot of your bed?” the youth asked. “The one with pink bunnies, flowers, and a pony painted on the lid? Or is it the box with the cricket things and hunting knives, that you keep under the stuffed swordfish on your wall?”

Uncle or Auntie chewed his or her tongue, turning several shades of pink and purple, before choking out the words: “The small one, like a pencil box, in the first drawer of my writing desk. Quick step, now.”

Il Comte refrained from snickering, as that would be beneath his dignity; but he did so in such a manner that Aunt or Uncle Leslie knew about it, and resented it.

“It’s not that I am so attached to childish things,” he or she explained loftily. “I have earned far more valuable belongings since I turned to … er, business. But some of the objects handed down to me in childhood are really quite valuable. Do you know I own the very pot in which Jules Melantier and Everard Owens brewed their infamous Tempest of 1588?”

“The one that got away?” Il Comte’s slightly raised eyebrows showed slight interest, which coming from him meant he was very impressed indeed.

“The very one,” said Uncle or Aunt Leslie. “Their mistake was trying to pour it into a cup without adding milk first. The china was not of the best quality. The cup shattered, the storm escaped, the Spanish Armada was destroyed… ”

“It’s an ill wind that bloweth no man to good,” quipped Maledicto.

“My granduncle gave me the pot,” said Auntie or Uncle. “I keep it in my hope chest. Before I punch out, I hope to use it again. Perhaps I will brew a storm that will wash a lot of useless people away. Pity that you won’t be there to enjoy it.”

“If you say so,” said Il Comte.

The starved nephew was back. Looking very serious, he handed a small wooden box to Auntie or Uncle Leslie. Obeying a look from him or her, the youth backed out of the room and vanished around the corner.

“Let me set this on the dresser,” said Uncle or Auntie Leslie. “Once the quills are ready to write, we can begin.”

He or she heaved his or her bulk the length of the room, pulled two scrolls of parchment out of a dresser drawer, weighted the edges down with lead soldiers who, Sadie was sure, would walk down the scroll, keeping a length of it open for the quills to write on, while allowing the ends to roll themselves up. Two inkwells were uncorked and set alongside the parchment. Finally, the enormous witch or wizard lifted the lid of the wooden box and took something out of it. As he or she swung round to face Il Comte, Sadie saw briefly that it was a wand – white, like Il Comte’s, but a white not of wood but of bone.

Sadie’s eyes widened, but Il Comte was not all surprised. Before the wand came to bear on him, he had his trained on the center of Uncle or Auntie Leslie’s body mass. He said something then, something terrible and loud that echoed from the rafters and cracked the glass in some of the wall mirrors. The vast figure opposite him stood suddenly motionless. The mean little eyes rolled with terror, but their owner seemed unable to speak or even breathe. Aunt or Uncle Leslie began to turn blue as Il Comte walked toward her or him.

“That was poor form,” he murmured, taking the wand out of his or her hand. “Breathe.”

Beyond belief, Sadie felt sorry for the monstrous creature that sucked in one huge, wheezing breath, then breathed out once and stopped again, looking as terrified and almost as blue as before.

“I find the Imperius Curse terribly passé, don’t you? Besides, your Ministry here has set up so many new restrictions and taboos that I am loath to risk it. What do you think of this litte substitute? I whipped it up myself. Breathe.”

Auntie or Uncle gasped in, blew out, and was frozen again. Sadie clutched at the sides of her face, feeling some of his or her torture herself, yet afraid to give in to her urge to gasp for air. She was sure Il Comte would hear her, even from her hiding place several meters away.

“Here’s how it works,” said Il Comte. “You still have your free will – but you can only act upon it with my permission. If I forget to tell you to breathe, for example, you will die. Breathe.”

His helpless victim breathed, looking both terrified and furious at once.

“I will only give you permission to do what I want you to do,” Il Comte said calmly, walking all the way around him or her. It took quite a few steps. “And if you don’t do it, I will leave you like this. You won’t last very long – just long enough to make it unpleasant. But really, at bottom, it’s up to you. You can choose to do what I ask, and live; or you can do nothing. Breathe.”

Another breath. Sadie breathed at the same time. Watching this was agony. She fiddled with the whistle on its dragon-bone chain, tempted to try it…

“Now,” said Il Comte, “I believe you have in your possession a certain ring that has only come to light after being lost for centuries. What is it called again? The Ring of Count Stephen? Answer.”

“Either that or of Count Matthias,” Uncle or Auntie wheezed, stealing as many breaths as possible between his or her words. “It depends on which side of…”

“That’s enough,” said Il Comte, instantly arresting his adversary’s tongue and lungs. “Is it true that whatever writing you seal with this ring must be obeyed by the first person who reads it?” Nod yes or no.

Swelling dangerously, Auntie or Uncle nodded yes.

“Have you tested this? Nod yes or no.”

Another affirmative nod.

“All right, breathe. You now have a choice, esteemed colleague. Take me to the ring and I will free you from this curse. Refuse, and I will turn every room of this house upside-down till I find it. Either way, I will have the ring. I am offering you a chance to live, simply in exchange for shortening my stay in your lovely home, and saving me a bit of trouble. What is your answer? Nod yes or no.”

Uncle or Auntie didn’t move for quite a long time. She or he was quite black in the face before, at last, he or she nodded.

“Excellent,” said Il Comte. “You may breathe at will.”

Apart from relieved gasps, the huge witch or wizard did not move at all.

Sadie bit her lip, furious and confused. Her mind raced. How could she find the ring before Uncle or Auntie Leslie led Il Comte to it? How could she steal it before he did, without becoming the target of a curse like the one he had cast on Leslie? And how could Il Comte – who, by all accounts, was not such a powerful wizard in terms of pure magical power – how could he have cast such a powerful spell?
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE +++

You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! First, go to the forums, or send Robbie feedback. Then, in 250 words or less, answer the following Survey and Contest. The survey answer with the most votes, and the contest answer that Robbie likes best, will turn up in the chapter after next.

SURVEY: Which storyline will we see in TMQ #145? A) Sadie and Joe’s mission to recover the Ring of Count Matthias. B) Merlin’s mission to recover a goblin talisman from Il Comte’s villa. C) Spanky and Dalrymple’s investigation of Persephone’s yak. D) A new mission featuring another recurring TMQ character. Write-ins will be regarded as “concepts contributed” and the winner will be chosen by Robbie, if D gets the most votes in the survey.

CONTEST: What if the “book mistakes” in the Harry Potter series were actually deliberate ploys to cover up things muggles like us aren’t supposed to know about? Pick an apparent “book mistake” and suggest the “untold story” that may lie behind it.

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