The Magic Quill #161: Defensive Tattoos

by Robbie Fischer

Contest winner: Joe

After successfully picking the locks to seven doors in a row, Merlin felt himself struggling with the eighth and knew that another dose of liquid skill had worn off. He shrugged, looked meaningfully at Miss Pucey, and knocked instead.

The door opened by itself. Cautiously, the wizard and witch squeezed through the narrow gap. Then the door slammed so suddenly that Miss Pucey scarcely had time to jerk the hem of her robes out of the way.

Merlin was surprised to find a working laboratory in this deep dungeon. Retorts bubbled. Cauldrons stirred themselves. Liquids, glowing in the oddest colors, chased each other through coils of glass tubing. Candles smoked and flickered as they drifted through the air.

“They seem to be from home,” Miss Pucey sniffed, inspecting her dusty finger after stroking the handle of a blue ceramic teapot. “No one has had tea here for at least a week.”

“Maybe they prefer firewhisky,” Merlin suggested. He made a sweeping gesture that gathered in all the simmering potions and distilling fumes. “These would have boiled dry by now if – ”

His reasoning was interrupted when a disembodied voice shrieked, “Petrificus totalis!”

Merlin turned his head toward the voice. He saw no one in the direction from which the spell came. He flinched as it hit him. Then he completely failed to fall over paralyzed.

“That old gimmick won’t work on us,” Merlin sneered into the tangle of tubes and beakers from which the curse had emerged. He knew, though his assailant didn’t, that his immunity to the body-bind curse owed itself to the one-time-only effect of a defensive tattoo. Since he wasn’t naked, he couldn’t see how the tattoo had actually leaped off his skin and absorbed the curse before it touched him. But he didn’t need to know how it worked. He was just glad that it did. Under his breath he said a word of thanks to his old friend Anatoly.

Two more jets of light leaped at him through gaps in the forest of glassware, pewter and brass. Merlin wondered not what curses were flying at him, but how his enemy had managed to aim them through so many distracting and distorting surfaces. Both curses passed through his robes. Neither quite touched his skin.

“Nor those either,” said Merlin, sidling toward the source of the spells. With a glance and a jerk of his head he told Miss Pucey to keep behind him. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” he added menacingly.

“You have no call to come here,” squeaked a shrill, desperate voice.

“Ah! How can we resist such a warm welcome?” Merlin taunted. “I don’t know. Since you’re so keen on chasing us off, I have to think you’re doing something wrong. And then maybe we do have a call…”

“Imperio,” muttered a voice unexpectedly close to Merlin’s left shoulder. He instinctively dodged backward, bumping into Miss Pucey and upsetting a mortar full of glittering purple dust.

For a moment, even Merlin was surprised that the curse had no effect on him. Yes, that accounted for another of Anatoly’s tattoos. Which ones were left, he wondered anxiously. Meanwhile he turned a thin smile toward his attacker.

At first it seemed no one was there. Then he spotted the thick, wiry eyebrows that almost grew together; the round, blue-tinted eyeglasses; the bruised, gnawed fingernails floating in space around a quivering wand; and the scuffed left boot standing by itself where the invisible wizard’s foot should be.

Merlin shook his head sadly. “You’re not all there, are you?”

“Shut up,” said the nearly-invisible stranger. “There must be spells you aren’t immune to. With my methods, it won’t take me long to find them. So tell me sharpish: Who sent you?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything,” said Merlin.

“Legilimens!” screamed the voice under the eyebrows.

“Nope,” said Merlin.

The eyebrows twitched. “Obliviate!”

“Uh-uh.”

“Imperio!”

“Now we’re beginning to repeat ourselves,” said Merlin, mentally congratulating himself for having correctly guessed which curses he needed defense against.

Fortunately, the fight went out of Doctor Eyebrows right then. The wand lowered. “What are you?” whispered the see-through wizard.

“You’re being naughty again, aren’t you?” Miss Pucey improvised. She stepped around Merlin, in spite of his attempt to make a stile of his arm, and plucked the wand out from between the hovering fingernails. The latter fidgeted amongst themselves.

“If Robertus Magnus finds out,” said the sad, slightly visible wizard, “he’ll take all this away. And then I’ll have nothing but stone walls to look at, and I’ll run mad. Please…”

“You have nothing to fear from us,” said Miss Pucey, “as long as…”

“All right!” screamed the one-booted miscreant. “It’s a fair cop! Yes, all right, I was working on a way to make it rain up. But only for a good cause, you know? Only to move a bit of rain from a really wet area, to water the desert. I mean, all right, there was an interested party who would have paid me rather well…”

“Aha!” Merlin barked. Eyebrows clinked backwards into a tray of stoppered tubes. “A financial interest! And how do you know your client won’t use your upside-down rain as a weapon? Who knows how much damage…”

While Merlin continued his withering tirade, Miss Pucey slipped unnoticed through the racks of beakers, whirring apparatus, and porcelain pots. She gave a low whistle when she found the door at the opposite end of the dungeon.

“…ever again!” Merlin finished, punctuating his words with a well-rehearsed jab that would leave Eyebrows unconscious for a few minutes. Provided, that is, Merlin had correctly guessed what he was aiming at.

He and Miss Pucey closed the door behind them and found themselves at the bottom of a set of worn stone steps. The staircase twisted out of sight, smelling faintly damp and smoky.

“I think this is it,” said Merlin, shaking a bit more light out of his wand tip. He turned toward Miss Pucey and waited until she nodded. Then he began to climb.

+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #163 +++

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 has Rigel been up to since Chapter 156? (A) Infiltrating Il Comte’s compound in disguise. (B) Organizing a ghost riot as a diversion. (C) Battling wereyaks. (D) All of the above.

CONTEST: Suggest a product that Jude the Insecure might sell at his “From Out of This World Outfitters” shop.

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