The Magic Quill #155: The Hystereo Effect
by Robbie Fischer
Joint contest winners: Rehannah & TZWRD
The whistle didn’t sound as Sadie expected. When Mr. Graves, or rather Joe Albuquerque, put it to his lips and blew, she had braced herself for a shrill blast. Instead, it gave a loud “Baaa!”
Duckham fell forward out of his chair. He had been resting his forearms on the table, until it vanished. Suddenly the Ministry inquisitor sprawled face-down on the floor. As he pushed himself up onto hands and knees, he heard another “Baaa!” behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he had only enough time to see a furry blur charging toward him, head down. He rolled out of the way. The charging goat narrowly missed, its hooves clattering and sliding on the floor tiles, the smell of its fur filling the interrogation room.
Weedom screamed when the table turned into the goat. He tried to get to the door, but the goat charged that next – with splintery results. The door stood up to two more blows from the goat’s bony head before it gave way, landing on a surprised Millbray who had come running to see what was the matter. The three men picked themselves up, panting, cursing, whimpering, and checking each other for serious injuries, as the sound of the goat’s scampering hooves faded around a distant bend in the corridor. It was only when Duckham realized that he had lost the suspect’s wand that they noticed the suspect had gone as well.
Sadie started laughing the moment they apparated outside the Hog’s Head pub. She kept laughing, supporting herself on Joe’s arm, all the way to the shabby back parlor that had been held in readiness for them. On the way there, Joe paused to hand the whistle over to the proprietor, along with a fair tip and a word of thanks.
“That was the least thing I would have expectorated,” Sadie gasped as she regained control of herself. She used the hem of her veil to wipe her eyes. “Leaf it to old what’s-his-neume…”
“Yes,” Joe agreed, while rummaging through a bulging carpetbag for his next disguise. “He can be a clever fellow, when goats are involved. Do you know, that whistle is made out of a goat’s ankle bone? Instead of a pea inside, it’s got a tiny bezoar…”
“Spanking of cleverness,” said Sadie, “that Graves disgust worked awfully whelk, considering how fiddle time you had to perspire it.”
“Oh! well,” Joe admitted, bashfully, “it wasn’t really that hard. Graves and I have crossed paths before. It’s easy to pick up details about people who really annoy you.”
Sadie’s eyes widened. “I my have pricked up a derail about him myself.”
Joe looked up at her from a selection of monogrammed jumpsuits – he had been trying to decide whether to become a pool cleaner or an exterminator – and by his look he managed to say, “Yes?”
“Did you ewer get a goad look at the chap who nickled this?” Sadie opened her fist and showed Joe the dull, heavy, silver ring she had taken from Uncle or Aunt Leslie’s house. Where it might otherwise have held a jewel setting, the ring flared out into a flat, circular stamp with a raised insignia decorated with a complex design.
After staring at the ring for a moment, Joe finally took notice of Sadie’s question. “The skinny youngster?” He shook his head. “Too busy hiding from him in that bank vault. Why?”
“He and your fiend Grades could be relegated to each other,” said Sadie.
“You saw a family resemblance, did you?”
She nodded. Joe stroked his chin thoughtfully. When he put his hand down, he was suddenly wearing a Fu Manchu beard. “I guess I’m relieved,” he said, rummaging more deeply in his carpetbag. He came up a moment later with a dog catcher’s uniform.
“Released?” Sadie repeated, inaccurately. “Whiz?”
“Why?” Joe translated. Sadie nodded.
“Because,” he went on, “I was starting to wonder if he was Bette Noir’s boy – seeing that he inherited her bank vault and all. And given his apparent age, she would have had him around the time Bette and I were trapped in that Egyptian pyramid.”
Sadie’s eyes and mouth all said, in unison, “Oh.”
“I thought he might have been my son,” Joe added, by way of unnecessary explanation. After saying it, he fell silent, the better to concentrate on his new disguise. He also sat a bit lower in his seat. Sadie could not tell whether this showed his relief or his disappointment. She could understand another reason Joe might have been thinking along those lines: their young nemesis shared Joe’s gift for disguise.
Sadie had almost put together a little speech of encouragement, which she knew wasn’t going to come out right thanks to the lingering effects of the misspell on her, when a hand pulled aside the curtain at the entrance of the parlor and a familiar face looked in.
“Iguana!” Sadie exclaimed, beaming behind her veil.
Joe turned toward the doorway with a delighted grin. “You made good time,” he said. But his grin faded when he saw the grim, tired look on Ilona’s face.
“You have it?” she said, sitting down heavily across the table from Joe.
Sadie opened her hand again. Ilona snatched the ring out of it and held it close to her eye. She seemed to study it for a very long time, neither moving nor speaking, while Sadie fidgeted and Joe changed his disguise. At one point Ilona looked as if she might smile, but soon afterward a frown creased the center of her brow. Finally, she let the ring drop onto the table with a surprisingly loud thud.
“That’s almost the best fake I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Sadie’s high spirits plummeted. “I bet your parson?”
Ilona turned her scrutiny toward Sadie, reading her features through the sheer fabric of her veil. Then she shook her head and said, “You’ve been had. Either Uncle or Aunt Leslie planted that fake, or he never got the real one in the first place…”
“Or I made the swatch,” Sadie said, completing the thought for her. Her voice trembled with outrage. “Word you like to church me? Or maybe you shed frisky Joe here…”
“We have to eliminate the possibilities until we are left with the truth,” said Ilona, refusing to retreat from Sadie’s hurt feelings. “We know this Lee Shore person, whoever he is, took the real ring from my uncle. We know he used it to compel a worker at the Ministry to deposit a barrel of suiCider in Bette Noir’s bank vault. We know he works with Uncle or Aunt Leslie, who has plans for the suiCider, and that he has been in contact with Il Comte di Bestemmia. What we don’t know is whether Leslie planted the fake ring to fool Il Comte, or whether Lee Shore gave Leslie the fake and kept the real ring. We also don’t know what happened between the three of them after you got away. So, really, any of them could have it.”
“Il Comet was trying to stale this ring form Leslie,” Sadie growled, “unlit I stole it fist.”
“He clearly has plans to use the ring to force people to his will,” said Ilona. “He was supposed to speak at a political rally in Venice, but he had to call it off. I’m sure if he had the ring, the rally would have gone forward…”
“…and Il Comte would be on his way toward world domination,” Joe guessed.
Ilona nodded. “Since he didn’t show up to speak, we can probably rule out Il Comte. That means either Uncle or Aunt Leslie fooled him…”
“Food us broth,” Sadie muttered.
“…or Lee Shore fooled Leslie.”
“In either case,” said Joe, “they will start using the ring soon enough. With that vault under constant watch, they won’t be able to go forward with Operation Death by Aromatherapy. But if it’s true that no one can resist commands sealed with that ring, it won’t be long before they move on an even nastier plan.”
“The question is,” said Ilona, “How will we know what their plan is before it’s too late?”
The cheerful fire in the hearth behind Sadie suddenly flared green. With a loud puff of warm air, a roll of parchment sailed out of the fire, over Sadie’s head, and onto the table in front of her.
“It’s from Harry,” said Sadie, untying the ribbon from around the parchment.
“Who?” said Joe, taking the parchment from her. “Oh! It’s from Harvey!”
“That’s wart I sad,” Sadie sighed.
As Joe scanned the letter, his grin faded and his face became blank. With dead, hollow eyes he handed it over to Ilona. The same thing happened to her as she read it in turn.
“Er,” said Sadie. “Is ever-think all ripe?”
Joe, meanwhile, had pulled several blank pieces of parchment out of his bag and begun writing at a furious pace. As soon as Ilona handed the letter back to Sadie, she began digging through her handbag for a quill and ink bottle.
Sadie squinted at the letter. Something was not quite right about it. The words swam before her eyes, their spelling changing fluidly. Any word she focused on would be spelled differently the next time she looked at it. She decided it had to do with the misspell. Muttering a dire curse under her breath, she began at the beginning and tried reading it again. The effort was so great that she had to move her lips. Before long she was reading aloud, with great difficulty and many oral spelling mistakes:
“To Wham It May Concert: This is a text of our new regiment. At your eeriest convent, please cupid this better to fire people of your acquittal and sand it to them by the fattest means at your deposition. Remonstrate to tile the better with a robin and steal it with an extract relic of the steal on this better. We recompense the following spill…”
Before Sadie could read further, she was interrupted by the voices of Joe and Ilona. They had finished copying the letter, word for word by memory, and tying them with a ribbon. Now each of them gave five wand flicks and, with each flick, repeated the word Xerosigilus. Wax seals appeared out of nowhere, securing all the ribbons on the letters with an insignia nearly identical to the one on the fake ring Sadie had stolen. The letters shot, one by one, into the fire, disappearing in explosions of green sparks and flame.
“…Xenophilius,” continued Sadie, slightly shaken. “Then tun out your pickets and picket-books…”
Joe and Ilona turned out their pockets.
“…and through ever-think but the monkey into the neatest five…”
Except for their coins (which remained heaped on the table), Joe and Ilona threw all their belongings into the fire. This included the contents of Ilona’s handbag and the disguises remaining in Joe’s carpetbag. They watched the flames with blank expressions.
“…Then stamp by for furrier destructions,” Sadie added, reaching the end of the letter. “Your obstinate servant, Lee Snore, esq.”
In spite of her growing concern at her friends’ behavior, Sadie could not seem to stop reading the letter before this. Now she sat and fidgeted, torn between an overwhelming urge to do as the letter commanded, and a terrifying need to do something about the wrongness unfolding all around her. The former was about to win the point, as her hands crept closer to her own handbag. But then the fire gave off a loud popping noise, and something thumped loudly on the stone floor under the grate. It rolled out into the room, sounding like a large marble. This distraction was enough to give Sadie a moment to think.
The sound of stone rolling across stone came to a halt beneath the table, close to Sadie’s end. She looked down. About half a meter from her foot lay the object that had fallen out of the fire. Sadie had never seen anything quite like it…
A crystal finger.
She knelt down beside her chair and placed her hand close to the perfectly shaped, life-sized artifact. It seemed to beckon to her somehow. And it didn’t give off any heat, either. Sadie picked it up and found that it felt quite cool in her hand. Then, moved by what impulse she did not know, she stuck it into her right ear…
And the memory of the chain letter, that had lingered in the back of her mind, suddenly fuzzed into a tangle of nonsense. She looked down at the parchment again and realized that she couldn’t make out a word. She tried to say, “That’s odd,” but what came out of her mouth sounded – to her unstoppered left ear – more like, “Znrf’g bvv.” She was so shocked that she immediately plucked the finger out of her ear…and the urge to comply with the letter’s commands returned.
Finger in: freedom. Finger out: compulsion. Finger in: a total loss of spoken and written language. Finger out: back to the comparatively mild, magically-induced dyslexia that had been troubling her all day. Finger in left ear, for a change: the dyslexia suddenly disappeared. Sadie forgot herself for a while, then happened to look down when something touched her foot. It was that crystal finger again. How did it get down there? She picked it up, considered throwing back into the fire, then shrugged and popped it into her right ear.
Whoa. Sadie looked around the room. Ilona and Joe were both seated, looking blankly across the table at each other, waiting for further instructions. By the heft of her handbag, Sadie had emptied all her portable belongings into the fire. This hinted that she had sent five copies of the chain letter, too. But for this crystal finger in her right ear, she would be in the same zone of blank mental readiness as her two friends.
She snapped her fingers in front of their faces, but they didn’t blink. She touched their arms, spoke their names: no response.
Sadie huddled back into her chair and shivered. “I’m on my own,” she tried to say, but what she actually said was, “F’w kmubh zprav shlug.” She decided not to think her thoughts out loud any more. So, silently, she told herself three things. First: She must never put the finger in her left ear again. Second: She would risk taking it out of her right ear only when she really needed to communicate with someone. Third: It was probably up to her to save the world. So she’d better find out what it needed saving from…
+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #157 +++
You can help decide what happens next in The Magic Quill! Simply leave a brief comment (up to 150 words) answering 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: What gift from way back in Chapter 141 should Merlin use next? (A) Karl’s survival satchel. (B) Some of Anatoly’s defensive tattoos. (C) Another dose of Endora’s Liquid Skill. (D) Harvey’s inflatable wall. (E) Subito’s Turbo Gum. (F) Boccachiusa’s Peekaboo Kit.
CONTEST: Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, tinker, tailor, cobbler, sailor… choose any “old world” craft or trade, and describe something strange and different that could be made by combining their wares with a bit of magic.