The Quest begins...
Joseph Winstanton, the Last Magus, or as his local newspaper had branded him simply The Wizard, sat in the train carriage with his forehead resting against the window as the train rattled along on the rails. The conductor, or should that be train guard now? Joe never knew which, maybe it was both, had just checked his ticket for the third time. But, Joe smiled as he thought, at least it gave the guy something to do and in a way, it relieved Joe’s boredom as he had nothing to do, nothing but sit and watch the dreary country roll by the window! Nice as this trip was, Joe had to admit the view from the window didn’t exactly fire his enthusiasm for Bonnie Scotland!
After catching a train from his home town on the South East coast to London Joe had transferred to another train heading north to Glasgow. He looked briefly at his watch and smiled, “Maybe a few things change after all.” The trains so far had actually been on time. He had crossed the Scottish border yesterday evening, that famous wall that marked the border, what he had seen from the window as the light was failing, just looked like a line of rubble that a builder might dump out of a skip somewhere. Joe honestly couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. “That wouldn’t have kept many rampaging Celts out would it?”
Today though, after a good nights sleep, perhaps his first in years, in a wonderful Glasgow hotel bedroom that smelt strongly of fresh heather and seemed to have every available surface decked out in tartan patterns, and with a solid breakfast of Scottish porridge, toast with fresh raspberry jam and the most aromatic strong black coffee he had ever tasted in his life inside him, he had boarded this train. Glasgow to Oban. He actually felt incredibly good, he had to admit it, good but sadly bored! Bored out of his mind!
“Whatever the day throws at me I’ll handle it!” He had said to himself confidently as he boarded the train..but just forty minutes of that grey countryside rolling past the window and his mood had sagged, he felt bored! As he rested his forehead on the window, feeling the vibrations of the train’s locomotive through the window glass, he saw the train was starting to climb a gradient. He was heading into the highlands and it looked about as dreary and desolate as everywhere else, just a world of cold grey!
“Hoots Mon it’s a braw day nee doubt!” He whispered quietly to himself with a half sneer. His impression of Scotland thus far was...bleak! Joe had seen the advertising hype in the holiday shop in town. Romantic Scotland, “take your lover on a romantic break in the Scottish highlands, come and stay at this small discrete crofters cottage or that discrete hotel...” yeah he’d read it all! But he had decided they obviously must be referring to another Scotland! Joe didn’t consider the sight he was seeing of an almost constant drizzle as rivulets of water ran down the window glass to be that romantic! It was just wet...very wet! And it got in everywhere, cold and wet seemed to seep into your very bones. Of course, weather like that did have advantages, in the wet, you stayed indoors and with the cold, there was nothing like staying in bed with the aforementioned lover was there? But then this was mid-April, his lover was several hundred miles south so he’d curled up last night alone! Maybe the reality was a lot colder and wetter than the hype only because of his timing.
Long rolling hills of tussocky grass, patches purple with heather, rose and fell in slow waves like humps on a line of despondent camels. Joe rolled his forehead against the glass to look back. He could just see the way the land was dropping away behind them. An almost constant curtain of mist and rain greyed the distant hills while everywhere else glistened with water. “Wet! Must be a red-letter day here when it stops raining!” Thank God the highlands weren’t his destination. Maybe it would have been nice to bring Natalie along. He could have really curled up with a cuddle in his lonely hotel bed last night. He hadn’t been chilled but he had felt so damn lonesome, just to have someone else familiar to reach out to. Maybe that might even have broken the stalemate he felt his relationship with her was grinding to, time away and a chance to relax, take stock. But then again, he chided himself, this was not a holiday trip, was it? He was here on business...magic business!
His destination, Joe smirked at the thought, “could barely a flyspeck of a rocky island in the North Atlantic that might not even be there be considered an actual destination?” It was certainly too small for any map and good old Google Earth only showed it as a dark shapeless blob! Natalie had said it was a two-day boat ride from the nearest port, the nearest port being a village on the north-west coast of the island of Harris and Lewis in the outer Hebrides. Joe groaned at the thought, “Two days on a boat, God help me!”
Joe trusted Natalie’s judgement, he had to admit she possessed a devastatingly powerful mind. The way she had organised and administrated his whole magic show performances, allowing him to concentrate on the actual magic...real magic! But more than that she had the looks too! A face and a body that could fill his most fevered dreams, and when Joe considered his previous track record with women, it was astounding to him that she would be even remotely interested. She clearly was otherwise why was she sticking around? He briefly considered his newfound wealth as the source of her interest but Nat wasn’t that shallow was she? He pictured her in his mind, those soft sexy hazel eyes, that dark, almost black hair down to her shoulders and oh boy what a figure she had! There was no mistaking that Natalie was all woman, she had curves where a woman should. He could spend hours just contemplating the curves of her body. Everyone who met her described her as a babe! He smiled to himself, she hated that word, but she could easily grace the pages of a hundred magazines. A couple of times Joe had managed to get her into a one-piece costume, his magic assistant at one of his shows. She had looked hot enough to burn! That one piece costume fitting in all the right places with a pair of fishnet tights and sexy stiletto-heeled shoes clicking as she moved around. All chosen by her, Joe hastily added! However that had had to be cut out, the audience’s reaction had been so enthusiastic about Natalie that they had forgotten entirely about the magic. One particular party he’d tried to perform at had almost become a major bloodletting fight when some of the males had assumed Natalie to be a stripper and subsequently tried to help her out of her clothes! Joe silently thanked whatever providence there was that he hadn’t had a fireball spell at the time, he had been upset enough to use it on them. Instead, Joe had dropped one of the louts with a well-timed sleep spell and called the show-off. But as a result, Joe now only considered children’s parties, and having a super sexy assistant wasn’t really important to eight-year-old children. He left her to the admin side though, but in some ways, he missed her not being a part of the shows. He knew from her own hints she wanted to be more involved with the magic but what part could he give her? At least he had money now, in fact, thanks to a singularly wonderful spell he had an effectively endless supply. He could pick and choose who and where he performed. He knew...he loved Natalie deeply. But try as hard as he might, he just couldn’t imagine what she saw in him!
It was true he had saved her life that day in the bank when three men had tried to rob the place. Their leader had been threatening Nat with his sawn-off shotgun. Joe had stepped up as the man of the hour he’d saved everybody! Putting the thieves to sleep long enough for the police to show up. Was it saving her life that made her feel attracted to him? Joe shook his head ruefully if it was then the relationship wasn’t going to last. That would be a shame!
And because of these feelings of insecurity and uncertainty he felt terrified if he pushed the idea of them being together in a more physical sense, he was scared rigid she would leave. All his life he’d been shunned by women and then in the space of three days he’d found he could do magic, become financially stable, the local hero...Joe had stopped that robbery all on his own! The fact it could have cost him his life at the very least made him pale momentarily, he remembered looking down those twin barrels as the leader of the gang threatened to shoot him. But to top it all he was now dating the most stunningly beautiful woman he’d ever dreamed he could meet. His life had changed so much he almost didn’t recognise it as his, and he didn’t want to think about it too deeply, in case, like the Scottish mist, it all suddenly evaporated…Joe looked out the train window again “That is if it ever does evaporate!”
Natalie he was sure considered herself to be his girlfriend, but at the moment it was a platonic relationship. He smiled as he pictured her again...another fact that held him back was the age difference between them. She was a ravishingly nubile twenty-one while he was going to be forty-eight on his next birthday. It may not have seemed that big a deal, but to Joe, this was a huge reason he hadn’t pushed the sexual side of their relationship, he felt he was old enough to be her father! Yes, he wanted her, he doubted there was a man who met her who didn’t think the same. Yes, he wanted to make love to her and he felt pretty sure she wanted that too...but that age difference! Joe shivered and hung his head, no Nat was more than eye candy...she deserved more, maybe she deserved better! So if it was meant to be between them then he wanted it to be her choice, not his! He smiled to himself again, secretly he couldn’t imagine a more pleasant experience than cuddling up next to Natalie, under the bed covers, feeling the soft silk and satin of her nightdress slipping beneath his fingers as her lithe curvaceous body moved with it. But he’d been alone so long, perhaps too long, and that sort of thing carried emotional baggage...baggage the size of the old steamer trunks! So though every fibre of him screamed that he wanted Natalie, he was scared...He could excuse the reticence as waiting until she felt ready...or the fact that the magic had been taking a stronger and stronger grip on his life. Sometimes in his darkest moments, he feared the power he seemed able to wield, feared the hold it was gaining over him. So let him get this magic schools thing settled, let him put this to rest one way or another, then he could concentrate on Natalie.
Joe drew his head back from the window, rubbing his forehead. Resting it against the vibrating glass had been something he had done since childhood but it still left his head throbbing from the vibrations. He patted the chest pocket of his leather jacket, it was an old cracked mid-grey thing with detachable sleeves, sleeves that he’d lost years ago. The leather was stiff and cracked, faded in places while smelling of the wax polish he used on it. In spite of everything else in his life, Joe treasured this jacket. It had been his first real leather jacket, he rubbed the leather with a fingertip reassuringly. “If I have to lose everything else I hope I get to keep this...this and Nat and I’ll be happy!” He was carrying a notebook with him in the chest pocket and written down in Natalie’s neat handwriting on the first page were the Longitude and Latitude coordinates of the flyspeck along with train times and ferry schedules. So far she’d been dead on, literally to the minute. This train would take him in...let’s see...four hours? Joe groaned, four more hours of this? End of the line was the ferry terminal on the western coast at Oban. There he hoped to be able to find a ferry either today or, Joe glanced at his watch again, maybe tomorrow out to the island of South Uist. Once there Joe would have to travel north, catch another ferry from Uist to Harris and then even further north, hoping to find that village...what was its name again? Yeah, that was it, he tapped the notebook page Port of Ness...and there hire, rent, charter or, if it came to it, outright buy a suitable boat and skipper able and willing to take him out to that flyspeck. Joe had no clear idea of what to expect out there. Draco had described towers of rock hundreds of feet high, shaped by magic. What would it look like after six thousand years? It was in the middle of very deep water too, suppose it was all submerged? Joe had deliberately packed a dozen steel washers into his bag, just in case he needed some serious hard cash. He smirked again, at least someone robbing him of steel washers would get nothing! It was his magic that gave them any value, with just a small spell, only his second that he had learnt, he could transmute the steel with a wave of his hand into solid gold and solid gold just had a way of changing people’s minds.
The train wound painfully slowly through the rising terrain, the uphill gradient caused progress at a reduced speed and that just seemed to make everything else drag. Joe sighed as he looked out of the window again, “Bored, bored, bored!” He could swear the train hadn’t actually moved, had the train stopped for some reason? His view was the same rolling hills, the same grey mist and the same chilly drizzle. He rolled his eyes upwards and sighed, “Scotland bloody Scotland… well, you can keep it if you ask me! What the hell am I doing here? I could be home with Nat!” He patted the notebook pocket again, “Then again...This better not be a wild goose chase!” He stopped himself, perhaps he secretly hoped it was because that might mean the other five towers didn’t exist either. But then if none of them existed he would have to consider his other options, give up or limit his magic use. He shuddered at that thought...give up? No never! He patted the jacket pockets for reassurance. He had the notebook but where had he put his wallet now? “Jesus only an hour and I need a hot coffee! At least it might break this bloody tedium.” Joe smiled wryly. When it came to black coffee Joe was an addict! Life without coffee was as unthinkable to him now as life without magic. Coffee could even be blamed as the trigger that had started this whole magic experience, it had been because of trying to make himself a coffee on that cold January night that he’d triggered this whatever it was...ability? Now thanks to the firelight spell he no longer needed matches! He was never without a flame or light. So with a slight stagger, as the carriage shimmied, he got to his feet.
His last few days had been a hectic roller-coaster ride. “Or maybe it was just a bad dream...” It had certainly felt surreal, dreamlike at the time. It seemed to be his standard response now “just a dream!” This dream involved his mother standing before him, nothing unusual there except she had been dead these past six years. She had told him he was asleep so that surely meant a dream right? She had said that asleep was the only way she could talk to him now…obviously since she was dead! But she had said how proud she was of him and always had been and then told him the magic was dangerous. If it had been a dream surely she would have told him more or perhaps been more reassuring, but she had been cut off before she had had an opportunity to give him any details. That meant not a dream, didn’t it? Some third-party had interfered... The oddest thing about Joe’s life now were periods that felt like dreams but weren’t or periods that he could swear were one hundred per cent real that were imagination. His mother though had appeared not as she had been at her death, but as she had been before marrying his father. So how could he have imagined that he’d seen an old grainy photo once but that had been years ago! Joe felt a sense of loss about his mother...he still grieved for her. She had been gone six years courtesy of a nasty aggressive cancer, he had done his best to be there for her but he felt it had not been enough...
“Stop It!” He rebuked himself he had dealt with this, settled this grief...he’d dealt with it! What was the use in dredging it all over again? Joe shuddered, “No use at all so forget about it!” It had been those memories that had unexpectedly found him his way back to his old primary school...and the horror show that he felt sure would have cost him his life. Unbidden the memory of that afternoon returned, an image of Old Tatty smiling, leering at him. Joe cringed whether unintentionally, or because of his new magic abilities reaching out, he had awoken the ghosts of his old school. He had witnessed his old school friends playing, heard his memories of sports day or the game of cricket where he’d faced the headmaster’s bowling and defeated him. Joe’s hands started to quiver unconsciously, the memory washed through his mind in spite of his trying to suppress it. The whole thing had been so overwhelmingly real, so powerful that Joe had been carried along helpless. Each memory as it surfaced in his mind had felt torn from him with such ferocity that it had left him gasping for air...immediately prior to him reliving it in vivid colour! A psychic assault that at one point had left him believing he actually was an eleven-year-old boy again, he was an eleven year old looking out through the eyes of a forty-seven-year-old. It had all been so totally overwhelming, he had been like Alice tumbling down that rabbit hole. That was until reluctantly he had been forced to open the front door and come face to face with perhaps the scariest echo of all, his old headmaster! Had Old Tatty been the source of the assault on him? Even as a forty-seven-year-old man, suddenly coming face to face with the apparition of Old Tatty had left Joe scared. The old head had been nice as a man...but this undead version had been terrifying! Joe remembered him as a man capable of having a laugh, some might say even jovial, a wonderful man with a generous spirit who made Joe’s days in the school a pleasure. But his ghost...was another story entirely. So imposing...so dominant...so...terrifying! You expect to see ghosts as an insubstantial spirit...but this thing had been one hundred per cent solid. As Joe had watched him struck mute and followed submissively into the classroom, this phantom had begun to degenerate rapidly into something truly nightmarish. Joe pulled his jacket back down to his waist from where it had ridden up while he sat and shivered. His hands shook, the memory of Old Tatty, the nickname they’d given the old man. Just watching him decaying, rotting into a shambling half paralysed zombie in front of Joe. None of the old horror B-movies did that sight justice, and all while Joe had been surrounded by the insubstantial phantoms of his former classmates. Could they all be dead? Was he the last surviving member of that class? If he was the class reunion might be a bit quiet! He’d never kept in contact with any of them...just left them in his wake. That thought triggered another shiver, all dead and gone! At least one, his best friend Pete, had admitted he was dead...But then with half of Pete’s skull missing and that water bloated green polluted colour, it would be a little difficult to be anything else. At that point the psychic assault had all been too much, overloading Joe’s mind until he’d curled up into a ball on the floor and screamed himself raw!
Then he’d been returned to reality so soundly he’d wondered if it were just round two! A hand on his shoulder, a security guard who found him lying in the former main classroom of the school, now just a derelict shell due for demolition. Inhabitants...nil, except for ghosts and memories! Joe didn’t know how to feel about that, in part he wanted to preserve the good memories of his days there. Maybe just maybe the ghosts would be laid to rest when it was demolished, they had begged him to give up his magic so they could be free. That was stupid...it wasn’t him or his magic holding them there, they weren’t prisoners...were they? Another vision of the horror Old Tatty became assailed him. Perhaps it was the spirit of Old Tatty holding those ghosts prisoner? But in a state of shock and intensive emotional fatigue, Joe had then run, jogging the mile distance home, arriving there near the point of physical collapse. He shivered again as he remembered why he had run. Every time he had slowed he had felt an icy presence as if something horrific were trailing him. He would look back, half panicked, see a movement, or feel a cold chill breath run down his neck and his feet would start pounding tarmac again. Joe had told Natalie about it, his description didn’t even touch on the terror that had filled him. Then she had told him her news...She had potentially found the first of the ancient magic schools, she was unclear which one. But was reasonably certain it was on the flyspeck island that Joe was currently travelling to.
“Probably a lot of fuss about nothing.” he huffed to himself and stared at his hand still quivering. If that had been a sample of his future, reconsideration of this magic might be advisable after all. One of those schools dealt specifically with the undead, suppose it was this one? He tucked the notebook back into the chest pocket. Part of him wanted to give up..but the magic addict inside him, that curious inner self-activated that January night, demanded he go on! But if the schools were lost after all then so was the magic they possessed.
The conductor waddled past for a fourth time, four times in an hour was this guy serious? Were the train company paying him by the mile walked? The train couldn’t be that short surely? Joe couldn’t even remember having stopped at any stations so how could anyone new have got on? Yet there was the conductor scanning and asking for tickets.
“What a bloody jobsworth!” Joe huffed and started to reach for his ticket for the fourth time. He rolled slightly as the carriage shimmied on the rails again. The conductor was dressed professionally enough, a good solid dark blue uniform jacket sporting the company insignia and wearing his ticket machine by a bandoleer strap from one shoulder. Relatively short, shorter than Joe anyway and rotund enough to be fat. This time however he gave Joe a curt little nod and a thin-lipped smile to acknowledge that this time he recognised Joe. “Thank heavens for small mercies.” The conductor started to waddle past.
“Excuse me?” Joe called out. The conductor stopped took a moment to gain his balance, turned his head back to look over his shoulder and then a little unsteadily pivoted around on his heel to face Joe, “Yes sir, can I help you?” He spoke with a thick Scottish purr so the R in sir rolled.
“Can you tell me is there a dining car? Or a trolley service? I’m going all the way to Oban so I’ve got what...four more hours on here? I could really do with a coffee and maybe a snack?”
“Well you’re in luck sir we actually have both!” The conductor smiled a little too triumphantly for Joe’s liking, “the trolley should be along in a few minutes if you wish to wait or you can make your way to the end carriage and get your coffee there. Since you are travelling first class your ticket affords you the privilege of the dining car.”
“First class passengers only? Well, I think I could do with the walk...which way do I need to go?”
“That way sir...towards the rear of the train.” The conductor extended his arm towards Joe straight as a ramrod almost putting his finger into Joe’s eye, “two carriages and you’ll be there, you can’t miss it!” The man smiled another triumphant little sneering smile, “Not that many places to go on a train in motion, forward or back. Sideways is limited one might say. The dining car you will find is the last carriage.” The guard gave another half-smile, “So if you find yourself face down in gravel between two shiny rails...you’ve probably gone too far! You’ll also find the toilet compartment is in the next carriage sir if you need it...after your coffee of course!”
“You’re most welcome sir.” The conductor tipped his peaked cap and wheeled back around giving a little self-contented chuckle at his own joke. He straightened and started plodding the way he had been walking, “tickets please!” He called out.
Joe watched him go shaking his head slowly, “Everyone’s a bloody comedian!”
Joe looked back down the train, patted his chest pockets again and walked down the aisle thankfully in the opposite direction to the conductor, the further away he could get from that man the better. Besides coffee was what he craved now and coffee was what he would get. He reached the connecting door and was momentarily surprised when it opened automatically with a hiss as he looked for a handle. “Shows how long I’ve been away from train travel, I’m looking for a bloody handle.” He stepped through and heard a similar hiss from the door into the next carriage. The train at that moment jolted to the left, hard, as the wheels clacked over a set of uneven points. It happened just as Joe was stepping through the exit door from his carriage. The unexpected lateral movement was so sudden and so immediate that it threw Joe off balance, he fell hard against the frame.
“Ow! God damn!” Joe straightened up again nursing his left shoulder. He stepped through the connecting conduit into the next carriage. “Will, someone tell the driver to take it easy huh? I’d like to get to Oban in one bloody piece!” He rubbed his shoulder and continued walking. Joe moved to the left-hand side of the carriage as he passed into a short tight corridor that came into an open area having rounded a large curved wall, the toilet cubicle. A small light pinged a single chime as it lit up with the word Occupied. Joe smirked, as he muttered, “Great tell the world. Might as well put up a sign saying he’s having a piss please watch your step!” A male passenger sitting in the seating next to a complicated looking bicycle glanced up from his newspaper. Joe felt a flush of deep embarrassment, sometimes when he talked to himself he could be a little louder than he realised. “Hi...how are you?” Joe smiled. The passenger just tilted his face back down, flapped his paper and continued reading, muttering the words stupid Sassenach! The carriage rocked again and Joe stepped forward to avoid overbalancing into the man’s lap. He muttered and walked the rest of the carriage length in slightly more of a hurry. Another automatic hiss as the door opened followed by the door into the dining car. Joe paused at this set of doors, then almost jumped through hoping to avoid another shoulder jarring crash. When he came through the door he therefore stopped and drew in a small gasp. “Wow, now this is something else!”