The Magic Quill #171: The Litter Box

by Robbie Fischer

Contest winner: Evensong
With an assist from Sir Read-a-Lot

Merlin felt he had been walking for hours, but the scenery had not changed. They were some kind of vast tunnel, filled with an unchanging twilight coming from no visible source of illumination. The ceiling arched high above them, supported by damp stone walls standing several dozen meters apart. Their unvarying greyness and pattern of masonry did nothing to relieve Merlin’s sensibility that he was going nowhere. Indeed, the only signs that they were making any forward progress at all were the round, grate-covered drains in the floor that they overtook at regular intervals, and the scorch-marks that Miss Pucey left beside each one with a jab of her wand. At least they could take comfort from the fact that they hadn’t passed any of these marks again.

They were both getting tired. Miss Pucey’s shoes made ever more frequent scraping noises on the flagged path. Merlin’s shoulder ached under the weight of the survival satchel his friend Karl had gifted him in–oh, another lifetime. The weight of his companion’s hand on his other arm had grown heavier as well. So when Miss Pucey paused to scorch another mark next to a floor drain, Merlin proposed a ten-minute halt. “I quite agree,” was all the lady replied. They had long since exhausted all other topics of conversation that they held in common.

Merlin promptly sat down on the floor, groaning as the weight went off his feet. Miss Pucey, meanwhile, began rummaging in her handbag. This gave Merlin the idea of doing an inventory of Karl’s satchel, which he hadn’t opened since the affair of the hothouse many miles back. He still had one dose of Liquid Skill, whose sight gave him a pang as he thought of his wife, so far away. Then there were the clown nose Don Pagliai had given him, the tin of Turbo Gum lozenges from Signor Subito, the lumpy bundle of cloth that (after a moment’s thought) he recognized as Signor Boccachiusa’s Peekaboo Kit, and of course the satchel itself, which had many uses. Apart from these, the only special gadget that Merlin still possessed from the beginning of this mission was the Four Points Wand wrought by his friend Jaan. He wondered if there was any point using it. Was the way out as obvious as following this tunnel to its end? Perhaps there was a hidden door somewhere along the side walls… Or should they use some of Subito’s gum to make this leg of their journey pass more quickly?

While he cogitated on how best to use the tools in his satchel to survive their ordeal, Merlin idly watched Miss Pucey see to her own comforts. After a brief search, she pulled out a small, satin-covered box with a snug-fitting lid, like a doll-sized hatbox. She removed the cover, then delicately extracted an even smaller box from inside the first. This she gently placed on the ground. Merlin turned his full attention to what Miss Pucey was doing when this second box began to grow.

Soon he saw that it was more than just a box. It was like a miniature carriage without wheels, supported by four stout legs like the posts of a bed. Or perhaps it was a bed – a canopied bed, only with ornately paneled walls all round, broken only by curtained windows and, on the long side facing Merlin, a door. In this, again, it was like a carriage – a bed-sized carriage – and also in the poles that stuck out at the ends, as if for the purpose of harnessing a horse. But what horse could draw a carriage without wheels? And why were the poles at each end? And surely, if a horse was intended to pull this thing, the poles should be wider spaced apart, and longer…

By now the bed-carriage thing had stopped growing. Miss Pucey pulled the door open and stepped within, not bothering to close the door behind her. She sank, sighing, into a pile of tasseled and brocaded cushions to one side of the door. Merlin stood up, staring at the luxury that, all this time, had lain concealed in Miss Pucey’s handbag.

“There’s room for another,” Miss Pucey said, her eyes still blissfully closed. “Though I would ask that you take off your shoes before…”

Merlin flopped heedlessly onto the couch opposite her, boots and all. “This is why I love witches,” he said, grinning. “I would never have thought to bring something like this along on a dangerous quest…”

“If you recall,” said Miss Pucey, “I hadn’t planned on a dangerous quest when I left home last evening – or last week – whenever it was. I was prepared only for a night on the town with my young wizard. I might have packed differently, had I known you were about to drag us both into this. But I must admit, being unprepared has its compensations…” From behind one of her cushions, she produced a cut-glass decanter of something golden and sparkly, and two matching long-stemmed glasses. “I had meant to use this for Rigel’s tucking-in. Reading the story of the Wizard and the Hopping Pot just doesn’t do the trick any more.”

“They grow up so fast,” Merlin drawled.

“Too right,” said Miss Pucey. “Do you hear something?”

“Maybe,” said Merlin, unconcerned. “A kind of purring sound? That might be me. Or perhaps you keep a cat in here?”

“Well,” she admitted reluctantly, “if you consider that we’re sitting in a litter, I suppose that makes the box it came in…”

“Do you have opera glasses in that handbag of yours?” In seconds Merlin had swung from idleness to anxiety. He tried to shade his eyes from some of the mysterious, ambient light as he squinted through the window in the litter’s door. Miss Pucey handed him a pair of dainty, gold-leaf-trimmed opera glasses – actually an item in the Omnioculars catalogue, enchanted to provide captions (translated, if necessary) to help opera-goers understand the libretto while watching the stage action in close-up detail. Merlin flinched the moment he raised this device to his eyes. Then he looked again, and almost dropped it.

“What is it?”

“It’s Rigel,” said Merlin, lowering the glasses. “He’s on his way here.”

“He can’t possibly be making all that noise,” Miss Pucey protested.

“He isn’t,” said Merlin. “That’s the sound of the eighteen-foot tidal wave he’s riding.”

“Riding? A tidal wave? How?”

“It looks like he’s using a door as… That isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that a wall of water is headed straight for us. At the rate it’s moving, it will be here in”–he consulted the glasses again, twiddling a dial to change the captions indicating that Rigel’s voice, though drowned out by the roar of rushing water, was screaming Coo-ee, into a read-out of the wave’s ETA–“forty-three seconds. Any suggestions?”

Miss Pucey stared at him blankly. The growing roar of the water made it necessary for her to raise her voice when she replied: “Not one. You?”

Merlin looked out the window again. He spotted his satchel, left behind on the floor where he had sprawled earlier. “Er… I beg your pardon, Madam, but do you chew gum?”

+++ DOUBLE CHALLENGE FOR TMQ #173 +++

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: Which character last seen in Chapter 166 will lead the first attempt to find and capture a djinn for Harvey?

CONTEST: Describe a dance that might be performed by wizards and witches, vampires, goblins, centaurs — any magical being of your choice. Details may include, but are not limited to, rhythmic patterns, instruments used, dance steps, group formations, and the time and place of the dance.

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