My arms ached as I bent my back over the oars. The boat cut clumsily through the water, sending up splashes of spray whenever I hit a wave. I cursed at the oars of the blocky little rowboat, but kept on pulling.
Every now and then, I’d cast a glance over my shoulder, up at Boreray. The island, gloomy and wild, towered up out of the mist. Cliffs rose up in uneven teeth that bit at the dim sky, and birds winged constantly around their peaks, shrieking with harsh, hoarse cries.
My fate lay on Boreray.
After an eternity, my boat finally reached the rocky shore, and I leapt out into the freezing surf to pull it up out of the water. The water didn’t penetrate the leather of my boots, but I still shivered as I stowed the oars inside the hull of the old rowboat.
Once I’d ensured that the tide wouldn’t carry my transportation away, I turned to the island, stomping forward. My eyes looked up at those towering cliffs, at the thousands of birds winging overhead.
“Well, I’m here – no turning back,” I told myself aloud, trying to bolster my confidence.
And I trudged in and up, climbing up the rise of the beach as I headed towards my fate.
As I walked along, the mist closing in around me from all sides and quickly obscuring my view of the beach, I slipped one hand back to check my pack. Inside, I could feel the bulky shapes of the candles, the bones that I’d brought – and the book, most important of all.
Walking along, surrounded by nothing but walls of stone, mist, and my memories, I recalled how this whole quest started. I’d had such grand plans, once so long ago.
“Magic,” I had boomed out to the others at the coffeehouse, “must exist. Stories and legends of magic exist in every society, even in our own. These could not all have arose by chance, not so similarly across so many different locations.”
Across from me, Waddington scoffed. “James, we’ve been over this a hundred times,” he insisted, rolling his eyes. “Magic is just the refuge of charlatans, of hedge doctors. It has not been documented in any scientific setting, for modern man to observe and repeat.”
“Ah, but the issue is that very setting!” I cried, and with a flourish, produced a heavy tome from my satchel – the same tome that now sat in the rucksack slung over my shoulders. “And I propose to remedy that!”
Waddington just groaned, but several of the other men in the circle sat forward, looking interested. “Go on, James,” encouraged Harrings.
I nodded to him, thankful for his support. “You see, it all depends on the lines of force,” I expounded. “We know much about the aether, now, and we know that it flows along certain channels. It makes sense that magic is simply manipulation of that aetheric energy, using its force to perform acts, much as a waterwheel can use the flow of a river’s water to perform labor.”
None of this was new, of course, but Harrings and the others besides Waddington listened anyway. “Yes, yes,” Waddington finally interrupted. “But no one knows the location of these aetheric channels, and so these supposed ‘magicians’ simply claim that their movement or ebbing is the reason why their tricks don’t work under scientific scrutiny.”
“No one *knew* the location of these channels,” I corrected him, grinning broadly. I tapped the book in front of me, and then flipped it open. “But now, I have discerned the location of one of these channels!”
The others gasped, but Waddington just leaned back in his chair. “And where is this ley line, then?” he asked.
“Boreray, near Scotland.”
My pronouncement provoked a flurry of discussion from the other members of our circle, but eventually, I cleared my throat to recapture their attention. “And so,” I went on, “I shall travel to the Druidic altar on Boreray, and prove once and for all that these aetheric channels do exist.”
And thus began my expedition, which now approached its apex.
I consulted my compass, wiping away the moisture of the fog that clung to its glass. Not much further, now. I summoned more strength from within, seeking to replace the heat that the fog sapped from me as I forged onward, deeper into the uninhabited wilderness of the island.
I nearly tripped over the altar when I finally reached it.
The Druids who shaped and assembled this altar, so long ago, had clearly been absent for well over a hundred years. Some of the pillars had toppled, and vegetation overgrew the central stone. I cleared away the majority of the brush, my hacking with my machete putting heat back into my chilled limbs.
Even just standing inside the circle of stones around the altar, however, I felt a curious humming around me, as if the very air surged with energy. Looking around, I realized after some time that, although the fog hung heavy in the air all around me, the circle itself was clear of any mist.
Once I’d cleared the altar, I set down my bag, pulling out some of the items from within. I’d chosen a spell that would leave me with evidence that I could bring back to the other members of my circle, true proof in magic’s existence, in the power of the aetheric channels. I assembled the bones on the altar.
A tiny part of me still recoiled from them, knowing how I’d come by the human remains. I’d been forced to skulk into the graveyard in the dead of night, to labor with a shovel until I hit the coffin, and then smash apart the rotten wood to retrieve its grisly contents.
But Leonardo da Vinci had taken the secret of his alchemical transmutation to the grave. And so, to retrieve it and prove my theories correct, I needed to speak with him.
With the bones arranged, I opened the book, found the right page, and began to speak. I’d practiced reading off the twisted, nonsensical words for many nights, until they flowed naturally from my tongue.
But never before could I remember them echoing back at me, perhaps reflected by the standing stones of the circle. The very air grew colder around me as I chanted. I felt as though an outsider controlled my very throat, as if I couldn’t stop the chant, even had I wanted to do so.
Above me, invisible in the mist, the birds of Boreray wheeled and called out to each other, and the fog closed in around me. I was alone, the only man on this deserted isle, chasing my quest.
I chanted, my voice echoing out across Boreray. The chill of the island deepened, as if the very energy of the world was being sucked away. Tendrils of mist invaded the circle of stones, curling around the bones on the altar in front of me.
And in front of me, as the mist reached around them and probed at them, the bones began to twitch…