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Westchester Station

an extract from the novel

by Patrick Welch

Foreword

This self-contained segment from Westchester Station has appeared previously in Millennium and Dark Matters. The book detailing the complete advertures of Robert Winstead in the intertimensional train station is now available for download from Double Dragon E-Books. I also have a web site for the book, which includes a different excerpt, the cover art and reviews.

The Attendant

Westchester Station. An intertimensional train depot lying somewhere between Chicago and eternity. I, Robert Winstead, was brought here by someone I did not know for some purpose I had yet to discover. But I also knew that only by fulfilling that purpose would I be allowed to leave...assuming I survived the journey. Somewhere among the hallways and denizens of this haunted environment I would find the answer. I had to.

After my experience with the Minotaur, I was relieved to find the sign proclaiming "Mens" in several different languages and symbols. My travails in the labyrinth had left me tired and dirty; I needed to refresh myself.

I would not have felt that way in New York City, but I was confident that no horde of prostitutes would be waiting inside to harangue patrons. Indeed, I was pleased to find the interior old-fashioned but clean, outfitted with all necessary hardware and empty save for an old man wearing an extremely oversized coat seated near the corner.

I was even more grateful when hot water poured from the faucet. This was indeed not Grand Central Station! I rolled up my sleeves, removed my tie and proceeded to wash up as thoroughly as possible without undressing more. I brushed as much dirt as I could from my now-ruined slacks, then reached for the towels.

There were none. I stood there with water running down my neck and arms, looking up and down the row of basins. No towels, no air jets, nothing. I turned and looked to the old man still seated in the corner. "Excuse me," I called out, "but I don't suppose you would know if they have any towels?"

The man shook himself, as if slowly rousing from a deep sleep. I knew he hadn't been, however, because I had noticed him several times in the mirror studiously watching me. He maintained the charade, however, long enough for me to ask once again. "A towel, you say? Let me see. A towel." He sat for a second, said something, and wriggled his fingers in some strange manner. Seemingly satisfied, he reached into his coat and pulled out some implement. He looked at it, then shook his head. "No, that's a trowel." He looked at me, apologetic. "Be patient, sir; I'm sure I can summon one." Then he repeated his actions and returned his hand to his coat. I stood, dripping and getting colder by the minute while he seemed to search every nook and cranny of his voluminous garment. Finally he smiled. "Your towel, sir," he beamed and indeed flourished a large white towel.

I approached and took it from him and was surprised to find it was hot to the touch. I reveled in the feel of the warm cotton as I rubbed my face and hands vigorously before handing it back. He returned it to his coat without a word. "Thank you. Thank you very much."

"Anything else, sir?" he asked in a monotone.

His manner suggested seriousness, so I looked down at my ruined suit. "If you could do it, I could sure use a new pair of pants," I replied only half facetiously.

"Pants." He muttered something while waving his hands, reached once again into his coat, and produced a bouquet of roses. "Flowers! Damned I be! Has my magic totally forsaken me?" He tried again; this time he withdrew a pair of gray herringbone trousers. A perfect match to mine. I noticed that his hand shook slightly as he gave them to me.

"I would think your magic is working exceptionally well," I complimented as I admired his work. How did he do that?

"But unpredictably," he muttered. "It is not the way of Merlin to make mistakes. Yet it seems every incantation..." His voice trailed off.

Merlin. The trousers nearly fell from my hand. Could this be the magician of Camelot? Of course it couldn't be. But after my recent encounters with a werewolf, Judge Crater, Atlas and too many others, why not? If Westchester could lead me to the lands of Greek Mythology, it surely had the power to bring another mythology here. "Of Camelot?" I asked, half fearful of his answer.

He seemed to take affront at my question. "Of course. Is there any other Merlin? What is wrong with me?" The last he addressed to himself.

I studied him. An old man, shrunken by age. A face wrinkled yet impassive. I noted that his hands shook slightly even as he sat. "Perhaps it is Westchester that is the problem. Perhaps your magic will not work properly here," I offered.

He threw up his hands. "If only it were so. I am here because my magic has failed me elsewhere. Twice with tragic result. Am I laboring under another's spell? Have the gods abandoned me? Why?"

"Perhaps I can help. Or at least try," I added hurriedly when he frowned at me. "In repayment for what you've given me."

"You are no magician. I doubt you are even an apprentice. What can a mere mortal possibly know about magic?"

I had heard the last, although with another vocation substituted, countless times in my advertising career, first as an artist, then as an account executive. My counter was always the same: the owner/company president/advertising manager is too close to his product and often can't see the forest for the trees. He needs an independent, unbiased viewpoint to find the solution to his problem. You've come a long way, Robert. From marketing to magic in less than one day. "I will know whatever you care to tell me. Then we'll see. Two heads, after all, are better than one."

He considered, then nodded. "Then know you this. A duke summoned me. A fire was threatening one of his farmholds. I called down a shower of rain. Instead we were deluged by wheat. The property was, as you may surmise, totally destroyed. A knight of the realm asked me to assist him in the wooing of a lady. A simple potion to be surreptitiously added to her meal; a task I'd performed countless times. This time when the cook sprinkled it over her food, the stench of clove was so strong it gave the young lady vapors, ruining the assignation and the knight's disposition.

"There have been others, countless others. You have seen so yourself. A magician cannot make such mistakes!"

"There must be something in common," I offered hopefully.

"I am becursed," he snarled. "There is simply no other explanation."

"Then perhaps your magic can remove this curse."

He shook his head. "A magician is immune to his own magic, just as the snake cannot be killed by its own poison. Yet I can think of no mage strong enough to place such a powerful spell upon me. And me not sense it!"

I considered his arguments. "Maybe it's something else," I said finally.

"Impossible! There is no other explanation!" He swirled his coat around himself and made to stalk away.

"Perhaps if you tell me a little about how magic works," I responded quickly. "I might learn something that can help you."

He studied me and frowned. "There is an insolence about you I like not. But very well." He suddenly adopted a professorial stance. "The working of magic is simple. It is the practice of magic that is difficult.

"Magic works through the Power of Three. First is the Thought. What is it you are trying to create? The picture must be formed within your mind, complete in every detail. This requires uncommon and total concentration, a talent that takes years to master.

"Then there is the Word. The sound that signals the onset of the transformation from your mind's conception into the World's perception. A Word spoken correctly and succinctly, with care taken to ensure proper intonation and emphasis upon every required syllable. A talent that again takes years to master.

"And finally there is the Sign. The physical translation of Thought and Word that both initiates and ultimately completes the final physical transformation. Every object has its unique signature, its unique spelling. Each movement must be practiced until mastery of the Sign is without conscious thought. A talent that takes years to master.

"The power of the Three; the Thought, the Word, the Sign. The three must work as one, combine into One. When done perfectly, when performed properly in conjunction with each other, that One that is created is the actual physical reality of the original Thought." He smiled. "Simple, yes? For me it was," he finished bitterly, "once."

I thought of the towel and the pants, and the objects that had preceded each. And I thought of something else. Rather, someone else; my own father. A magician in his own right, a magician with the wrench. A mechanic who could make the most stubborn engine purr like the proverbial kitten. Until, barely into his fifties, he was struck down with Parkinson's Disease. And was soon unable to work his mechanical magic.

I recognized the symptoms now in Merlin. The rigid facial muscles, the monotone voice, the uncontrolled tremor in the extremities. The disease had destroyed my father; I suspected it was doing the same to Merlin. And from what he had revealed about magic, I now had an idea how it was destroying his powers as well. "Could you try one more time? So I can watch? Something simple, perhaps." I thought for a moment. "A beer would be nice. I would like a nice, cold beer."

Merlin hesitated, then nodded. "That will be simple enough." He stood a moment in silent concentration, then muttered something and made a gesture.

The freezing wind erupted suddenly, blowing him off his feet and me back into the wall.

"What are the gods doing to me?" he screamed as his robes whipped about his frail body. "What have I done to them to anger them so?"

"I know," I yelled also, trying to be heard above the gale blowing around us. "Stop the storm. I know what is wrong! Stop this storm!"

He struggled to stand, but the wind was too powerful. He huddled near the ground, his back to the savagery.

"Hurry for god's sake!" The wind was holding me upright against the stone wall; a most uncomfortable position.

"I'm trying. Now!" His arms flew out with a flourish. The storm vanished as quickly as it had erupted. I sagged slowly onto the floor, then looked at him. He struggled to stand, then slowly rearranged his coat. Finally he looked at me and smiled weakly. "Undoing a magical construct is much easier than creating one."

I shook my head, trying to catch my breath and my senses. "I think," I gasped, "I think I know."

"Magic," he said with effort.

"No, no, not magic. Hold out your hands." I ignored his reproachful stare. "Please, hold out your hands."

He did as I asked. Both trembled slightly and I knew it wasn't from the recent cold. It had to be Parkinson's. "Why do your hands shake?"

He shrugged. "I am an old man. It is an affliction that we all must face someday."

"It is an affliction that is causing your magic to go awry." I hurried on before he could question me. "The power of Three; the Thought, the Word, the Sign. Each must be done perfectly; that you have told me."

"So I have," he admitted, now curious.

"Your hands. Notice how they shake slightly. Think of what your magic has summoned. I asked for a towel, you brought forth a trowel. I ask for pants, you created..."

"Roses."

"...plants. You needed rain but called down grain."

His eyes lighted with sudden understanding. "I summoned love and brought forth clove. I call for ale and instead created a gale!"

"One letter!" I smiled and patted him on the back. "Your physical condition is forcing you to create the Signs wrong!"

He formed a wide smile of understanding and relief. "Of course! How could I not have seen it!" He came forward and grabbed my shoulders. "You have saved me, kind sir! You have..." Then he stepped back. He looked down at his traitorous hands. "There is nothing I can do," he finished sadly. "I can be a magician no longer."

"A potion, perhaps?"

"I am immune to my own magic," he responded darkly.

"How about medicine?"

"Medicine?" He frowned. "Medicine is not magic. But I know of no..."

"I do. What you suffer from is still a common illness. However, we have found cures, or at least medicines that can control the spasms. Levodopa is used most often, but that is a modern curative and doubtless unavailable to you. Perhaps some sort of muscle relaxer. Something to soothe your nerves," I added quickly since he would not be familiar with the more scientific term.

He nodded. "I know of poultices used to soothe the pain in the joints. Some tonics, ointments, infusions and teas that can bring peace to troubled souls." He suddenly brightened. "Now that I know what my needs require, I will surely find something suitable in Camelot!"

"There is no cure," I cautioned, recalling the inevitable devastation my father had experienced. "But you might find something that will help control some of the more obvious symptoms. Including the trembling."

He hugged me briefly. "I will try as you say. If what you postulate is true, I can return to Camelot!"

I thought once again of my father. Only for a brief time. But that may be sufficient. It was the only hope I could offer. "Good luck, and thank you."

He stepped back and studied me briefly. "I could bring you along as well. You have a sharp wit about you, even if thee be old for an apprentice."

A twentieth century man in Camelot? I toyed with the idea briefly, then shrugged. "I have to stay here. At least for a little while."

He nodded, bowed, and walked slowly, painfully from the room. I looked at the carnage the miniature gale had wrought, then at the new pants I held. Two gifts from a doomed magician. I was not surprised that the pants fit perfectly. I shook my head; such talent now laid to waste by an uncaring, uncontrollable disease. Just like my father. At least this time I won't be around to watch it happen. "Travel well," I whispered and followed him out the door.


© Patrick Welch 1998, 2001

This excerpt from the novel Westchester Station has previously appeared in Millennium (January 1998) and Dark Matters (May, 2000).

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