“Here we are!” announced the driver. “Your ring of old rocks.”
“Thank you, Jenkin, but the Exford Circle is more than, as you would say, a ring of old rocks!” insisted Professor Armstrong. “And this is likely to be something we’ll not see again in our lifetimes.”
“As you wish Prof,” replied the rodentine driver, Jenkin had been with the university for as long as anyone could remember, the man was well-known for his surly nurture but he always treated the Head of Thaumaturgy with respect. Some said he was frightened of the powerful mage while others believed Armstrong had saved him from a strange shape-shifting curse.
“Come on Winslow!” piped up Ellery Brillo, while gesticulating to a scrawny student. “Pinchbeck, bring those cases tout-suite.”
Madame Blavatsky shook her head. “Ellery, this will be like faerie light, your camera, it will not catch it. You may as well try to capture the reflection of a vampire!” she informed him in her heavy accent.
“Well, I’m jolly well going to try,” retorted the Lecturer in Parapsychology huffily.
“We should get on, the sun will be down in an hour” suggested Armstrong.
Madame Yelena Blavatsky, an exotic Bohemian type who was Mackintosh University’s Senior Lecturer in Folklore, had made an astonishing discovery while reading an arcane manuscript. At nearby Exford Circle, on the Winter Solstice during the correct alignment of certain stars, a portal would open to a world of thaumaturgic energy, resulting in a phenomenal display rivalling that of either aurora, Borealis or Australis. After checking with the Astronomy Department, Yelena was overjoyed to find out the right configuration would be this coming solstice. Professor Armstrong, who was quite besotted with her and only too eager to please, organised a field trip inviting eight of the most advanced students including, of course, Derek Scuttle, Gwennie Poole, Esther Hilditch and her ardent admirer Trevor Wilkins. Brillo, on finding out had invited himself along with his protégé Albert Pinchbeck along too.
“Do you think old Blavatsky’s right?” asked Gwennie, bouncing along beside the gangly Derek as they walked towards the stones silhouetted against the horizon. She was well proportioned and very worldly, he was, at times, awkward and prone to gaffes but they had been close for a year now. Well-heeled Trevor, who was athletic and handsome but not the sharpest tool in the box, had been wooing the haughty but beautiful Esther (born with a golden, not silver spoon in her mouth) for roughly the same time but she played him along as it suited her. “Have you and Trev, you know… done it yet?” whispered Gwennie after catching Esther up, despite their very different backgrounds the two young women had become firm friends.
“No!” answered Esther abruptly.
“You’ve never done it have you?” asked Gwennie with a wry smile, this was a bone of contention between them.
“Shut up!” she snapped.
Trevor walking with Derek was watching the pair in front. “You know Derek I envy you, Gwennie might be a bit of a unit but she is good fun.”
“Yeah?” had Trevor just indirectly insulted his girlfriend? “So Esther’s still playing hard to get?”
“You’re not kidding! I mean she’s always telling me she’s not sure if I’m the one,” he gazed longingly at the object of his desire. “I wouldn’t care what number I was.”
While Brillo set up his recording equipment, Armstrong gathered his group just inside the perimeter of the ring, apart from Jenkin, who sat in the coach reading a lurid detective novel. “Now pay attention ladies and gentlemen, when the sun vanishes it will mark the beginning of the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, which, before it was appropriated into the Christmas celebrations along with Yule, Saturnalia and the birthday of the Roman god Mithras, was a very important time to our forebears. They believed when the stars were at the correct alignment on the shortest day of the year a gateway would open between our world and another stranger plane of existence, allowing dark forces to roam the earth. They built these circles of stone to mark them, laying charms to hide them from sight but we in our more magically enlightened times know they are simply a sort of magical blowhole periodically releasing thaumaturgic energy into the world. Without these outlets refreshing the world, our abilities as mages would soon dwindle away as the magic ran out. Now, nothing unpleasant can come from this magical “geyser” but beware, it has an attraction that can draw you in, enticing you to enter. Once inside you will find it difficult to leave and should the portal close, you are there forever! Now we will wait until nightfall when Madame Blavatsky will recite an ancient incantation to reveal the hidden phenomenon.”
The assembled group watched as the sun slowly sank down towards the horizon. “Well Yelena, are you ready?” as she came to his side he cried in surprise. “Heavens above, woman, where are your clothes?”
“This has to be done correctly Winslow.” Now sky-clad (much to the amusement of some of the students), Madame Blavatsky strode towards the heel stone, its silhouette clear against the fading light and stopped at a distance to chant. “An ál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha.”
As the sun disappeared a veritable torrent of “magical” light hurtled up into the night sky to swell out from the heel stone until its circumference reached the bare toes of the lecturer, the funnel of thaumaturgic energy repeatedly cycled through all the colours of the spectrum with a deafening crackling reminiscent of an immense static discharge.
“You gauged the extent perfectly, Yelena!” Armstrong yelled above the din.
“Yes Winslow any closer and I would be inside, it is quite ticklish on my toes!”
“You were right, Madame, the camera is only recording you!” exclaimed Brillo while excitedly checking his instruments. “But the thaumometer is off the scale!”
“I trust you will respect the Lecturer in Folklore’s dignity and not show the footage?” asked Armstrong. The professor noticed that Trevor Wilkins, entranced by the glowing display was walking directly towards it. “No you don’t lad!” he shouted, grabbing the student by the arm. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?”
“Uh I err…” he replied dazedly.
“It’s alright, sir, I’ve got him,” replied Esther in her “fingers down the blackboard voice”, she seemed equally enthralled.
“Right, both of you get back and join the others at a safe distance,” he looked at Madame Blavatsky standing illuminated by the coloured light.
“Magnificent isn’t it?” she shouted to him.
“Quite magnificent indeed.” he replied, his attention on her. “How long will this last?”
“I have no idea. It’s getting a bit chilly, Winslow, could you be a dear and bring my cape?”
The professor joined the students to retrieve the cloak from Gwennie and asked. “Is Wilkins alright now?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Esther took him off somewhere,” replied Derek.
“Really, where?” he asked.
The student shrugged.
“Does anyone know where Hilditch and Wilkins are?”
“I think I saw Esther leading him around the other side of that thing,” a student called Riddermore informed him, pointing to the glowing column.
“Oh no, they couldn’t have?” he ran quickly to Yelena. “Two of the students have gone missing.” He informed her, slipping the cape over her shoulders. “I’m worried they might have been drawn in.”
“The portal is still wide open, someone could enter and find out,” she replied cautiously.
Armstrong ordered the others to search for the missing pair then after going to the coach returned with Jenkin, holding a coiled tow-rope. “Do you think it’s strong enough?” asked the worried lecturer upon hearing the pair had not been found.
“If it’s strong enough to tow a bloody coach, two students and a portly professor shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll tell you something though, it ain’t bloody long enough to reach that glowing bugger from here let alone enter it.”
“Leave that to me Jenkin just loop the end around this rock,” fastening the other around his waist he announced. “Tandem viribus cresceret detineat!” and walked towards the glowing field, the rope stretching as he did so without becoming any thinner. At the very edge he looked at Madame Blavatsky’s worried face. “Wish me luck Yelena.”“Don’t stay too long, Winslow, it’s starting to fluctuate!” she answered anxiously.Armstrong took a deep breath and prepared to enter the unknown.“Here it is I knew I’d dropped it somewhere.” said a voice that set his teeth on edge.“Hilditch!” yelled Armstrong.“My brooch came off when I grabbed Trevor’s arm…”“Where in hell have you been?” “We went for a walk, didn’t we Trev?” she replied blushing slightly.“Yes sir, we went for a walk,” her beau replied.“Didn’t you hear us shouting for you?” asked the professor.“Couldn’t hear a thing above all that noise, professor,” replied Wilkins in all honesty.As if on cue the phenomena collapsed, leaving an unearthly silence. “Well everything is alright now Winslow, let’s pack up and get back to the university” suggested Madame Blavatsky.Gwennie Poole regarded Trevor’s grinning face when the couple re-joined the group and as Esther adjusted her blouse to look coyly at her, remarked. “Christmas come early?”