The Magic Quill #156: In For a Sickle

by Robbie Fischer

Contest winner: Linda Carrig
Runner-up: Dragonic

A canal in Venice. A moonlit night. The sound of a guitar playing behind some open window. A dog pauses while chasing a rat across a bridge, looks down and sees a head emerging from the water, then resumes pursuit.

Wisely, Rigel doesn’t dismiss the Bubble-Head charm until he is well on dry land. He heaves himself wearily up a short flight of stone steps and collapses on the stone quay. Looking down, he sees a clutch of hideous women looking up at him from just below the water’s surface. They favor him with rude gestures; he returns the favor. They linger, as if hoping he will come back down into the water, until he catches his breath enough to walk away.

Rigel’s legs feel like pieces of cooked spaghetti as he trudges, dripping, through a narrow alley. He looks around carefully, trying to get his bearings and hoping he can get to his hotel without having to cross water. He absent-mindedly rubs the stoneskin ring that hangs around his neck on a leather thong. He owes his survival to its protection from the merhags’ piercing fangs. On the other hand, the ring hasn’t prevented the merhags from developing a taste for his skin. He shudders to remember the feeling of his arms, chest, and back being licked by dozens of slimy, black tongues.

A strange sound rouses him from his reverie. He peers ahead through the gloom. The sound comes again: a deep snuffling noise, like a very large creature stifling a sneeze. It seems to come from an angle in the passage ahead. The moonlight isn’t much help in this narrow alley. Rigel edges forward cautiously, preparing to flee back to the canal. Then his breath catches in his throat as a dark shape moves out into the alley ahead. A huge, dark shape. How, he wonders, could he not have noticed that smell?

As he thinks this thought, Rigel turns on his heel… and stops. Another figure is coming up behind him. A human figure. “Go back,” Rigel hisses in a stage-whisper. He says it again in Italian, but the figure keeps walking toward him at the same pace. He glances over his shoulder. The great beast behind him is just standing there, filling the alley. He looks ahead again, just in time to see the shadowy man transform into another hulking animal shape. Another hulking, stinky, menacing, animal shape.

“Cripes,” Rigel squeaks. But the wonderful thing about Rigel is that he never freezes under pressure. Even while all this is happening – from the moment he has spotted the first wereyak, in fact – his fingers have been picking at the stitches tacking a slender strip of silk piping to the seams of his damp trousers.

The creatures have begun to close in, but slowly – cautiously. Rigel curses himself silently for leaving his wand tied to his arm by a shoelace. He must choose between escaping and defending himself; and since his first instinct was to pick his silken ladder free, escape is now his only option. If only he could use his wand for defense, he might be able to buy himself a bit more time to escape. As it is, the only spell he can count on (with his wand where it is) is Lumos.

He tries it. Light flares out of the tip of his wand, showing him every humped, shaggy, slobbery detail of the figure in front of him. The creature stops moving forward, wincing into the brightness. But the snuffling, shuffling noises from behind continue to draw nearer.

I don’t know who these people are, Rigel told himself, or why they all turn into yaks, but I have a feeling I should avoid them like Dragonpox…

“Nox,” he says, putting out the wandlight. Then he throws the silken ladder upward with an expert snap of the arm. A moment later, a long thread hangs above his head, reaching vertically into the pale darkness above the cobbled alley. Rigel jumps for the end of the thread and shins up it. When he reaches the top, hanging in space, he looks down and sees two yaks directly below him, looking up.

A moment later, two dark human shapes have taken their place, one of them crouching to spring toward the bottom of the silken ladder. Quickly, Rigel swings the lower end of the thread around so that it hangs above him, and continues his climb. The next time he looks down, the alley is deserted.

When he finally reaches the roof of one of the nearby buildings, Rigel collapses against the stone tiles with a grunt of exhaustion. Bracing his legs against a lead gutter, he spools up the silken ladder and stuffs it into a trouser pocket. Then he rubs his cramped hands, wriggling for a more comfortable position as the roof tiles seem determined to dig into the sore muscles of his shoulders.

A passing breeze makes him shiver. Or maybe it wasn’t the breeze. Rigel wrenches his neck painfully, looking around to see who or what might be on the roof with him. No one is there. He sighs, flops on his back, and almost chokes when a hand reaches up from the alley and grips the edge of the gutter, just between his feet.

This time Rigel has nowhere to escape to. His only choice is to fight. Clawing at the waterlogged shoelace tying his wand to his forearm, he racks his brains for a spell he can use in this situation. The first thing that comes to him is the disillusionment charm, which he casts on himself with a soundless movement of the lips, as soon as his wand comes free. He does it just in time, too. The owner of the hands pulls himself over the gutter a second later, seeing nothing but a loose shoelace dangling over the gutter.

Rigel balances dangerously on the gutter itself, scarcely out of the reach of the man’s arms. He owes his silent tread to his shoes having been left behind in the merhag larder.

The other man picks up the shoelace, sniffs it, then raises his nose to the moonlit sky and sniffs again. He turns his head slowly, eyes closed, then stops and opens them. He is looking directly at Rigel.

Rigel looks down at himself: still disillusioned! Can he see me? he wonders. Who are these people?

The wereyak’s intent gaze is suddenly distracted by a clatter of stone on stone. His head whips around to look at a small avalanche of pepples on the adjacent rooftop. It appears that someone invisible is attempting to run away in that direction. Glancing back in Rigel’s direction with a snort of disappointment, the man follows in a stooped scramble, keeping his hands close to the sloping stone tiles beneath him.

Rigel waits until his pursuer is out of sight before padding as quietly as possible in the opposite direction. He clambers over the peak of one roof and up the slope of another, easily hurdling a narrow alley, little caring that he has lost his way in one of the world’s most confusing cities. After covering some distance without seeing any sign of pursuit, he climbs down a drainpipe and staggers wearily toward the nearest canal.

He spots a vaparetto tied to a stanchion and instantly, though with a twinge of remorse, decides to steal it. It takes but one flick of the wand to part the rope securing it to the pavement, and a brief twirl to get the propeller turning without the noise, smell, and bother of starting the engine. Within moments, he has rounded a point and found his bearings in a familiar canal.

By now dawn is not far away, its light already paling the eastern horizon. Rigel has never wanted anything as badly as the hot bath and soft robes that would await him at the Gritti Palace… but he does not steer in that direction. Biting his lip, he sets a course for the island of Il Comte di Bestemmia. He can think of no one else with the motives or resources to send two wereyaks after him. Il Comte must know he is working with Merlin to despoil him — or, at least, to expose his treachery. And if Il Comte knows that much, he will know where Rigel lodges. His hotel will not be safe. Nowhere in this city will be safe, indeed, until they bring Il Comte down.

Although Rigel hasn’t intended to get involved, he sighs and mutters to himself: “In for a sickle, in for a galleon…”

+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #158 +++

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: Whose storyline will be featured in Chapter 158? (A) Spanky. (B) Sadie. (C) Sir Lionel Niblet. (D) Harvey. (E) Endora.

CONTEST: Invent a whimsical name for a witch or wizard of historical importance. Also briefly describe what he/she did to become famous.

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