Garbol dreamed of a talking trout rousting him out of bed to fight demons that clambered out of an earthquake’s fissure.
Screams jolted him awake. He slumped in the back corner seat of a Greyhound bus, his Iowa State jacket wrapped around him, his Notre Dame hat pulled over his eyes, his pool stick gripped against his chest.
A wraith crawled along the ceiling in front and took swipes at the passengers. Any that he touched fell frozen to their seats or to the floor.
Garbol slid out of the bench and jabbed his pool cue toward the thing. “Touch not the passengers, ye foul ghost. See me, a traveler, ye want most.”
The wraith flattened on the roof and crept toward him. Through the black smoke of its ethereal form, Garbol discerned a thick mustache and prominent teeth, horns coming out the back of its head, more like a horned toad than a ruminant. It looked like a really pissed off Freddie Mercury wearing a helmet and it crawled toward him like Spiderman.
“What the hell are you?”
It spoke in a far away echo as if it were in a deep stone pit, a guttural language Garbol vaguely recognized, Pictish maybe? This wraith was very old and had wandered the earth a long, long time. As it neared, Garbol warded himself and the passengers around him.
The screams died down to gasps and whimpers, and the bus driver pulled onto the shoulder.
Garbol waved his pool stick in a circle, which made the wraith stop and cringe. “Through tearful moans and frightened cries, show me home through ghostly eyes.”
Whisps of black smoke billowed from its back and through it appeared a stone cylinder rising from the ground, tapering slightly inward.
“You’re not a wraith. You’re a broch shadow.” Garbol studied the thing with new eyes, and it stared back reflecting ancient purpose and loneliness. “Who just came from Scotland?”
No one answered.
“I could forget it and let this thing find you.”
“We came from there.” Two middle-aged ladies sitting next to each other held their hands up. One had a scarf with blues and greens, a Campbell tartan, the other similar but with bold red lines, a MacDonald.
“Do you have any idea…? Never mind. What did you bring from Scotland?”
“Just a few trinkets,” said the MacDonald scarf.
Garbol hardened his voice even more. “What…did you take…from a broch?”
“Nothing,” said MacDonald.
Garbol turned on his don’t-mess-with-me voice. “Get your bags.”
They pulled seven pieces of luggage from the storage compartment.
“You’re seriously going to make me search each one of these? You took something from a broch. What was it?”
“We didn’t take anything,” said the Campbell.
The broch shadow crawled out the top of the bus door and squatted on a side window.
Garbol waved a hand. The suitcase clasps popped. They hopped into the air, turned over, and opened, dumping their contents onto the ground.
“Hey!” said the MacDonald.
“Where’s the artifact?” asked Garbol.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said the Campbell. She went to the smallest suitcase and pulled a stone with swirls carved on it out of the pile. “I didn’t find it at a broch. It was in a shepherd’s hut.”
Garbol took it. “Near a broch.”
The Campbell pushed her lower lip out. “You asked what we took from a broch. Can your magic repack our things now?”
Garbol glared at her. “You play games at parsing words with me, and you want me to pack your bags?”
“You dumped them.”
“This is why we’re all going to die,” said Garbol. He swept his pool cue over the luggage and scattered them along with their contents into the ditch by the road. “Enjoy yourselves, ladies.”
MacDonald scoffed. “You are no gentleman, sir.”
Garbol stepped up to the shadow and held the stone in front of him. Its hands wrapped around it, but couldn’t take it. Garbol grabbed the pouch hanging around his neck, pulled the opening loose, and placed the stone inside. He made a show of warding it, and he swore he saw the shadow relax. “I’ll see you in Orkney.”
The shadow faded as it turned, crawled over the top of the bus, and disappeared.
The driver waited outside for the tartan ladies while the rest of the passengers reboarded, the frozen ones stirring and getting back in their seats. Garbol worked his way to the back and sat down.
“Mr. wizard, the ones that were frozen are speaking a strange language. Like the ghost did.”
He wrapped himself with his jacket and pulled his cap over his eyes. “It won’t last long.”
Later that day, Garbol dispatched a zapworm in the bus station’s toilet and helped a young mother with three kids get rid of a witch’s hex that made them have to pee every three minutes.
On the car ride up to the cabin he encountered a pitifully weak warlock who got his jollies from casting spells on woodchucks that made them run out into traffic. Garbol put an incantation upon him that would make him squawk like a chicken, repeat the words “I’m pretty,” and fart continuously the next few times he used magic.
At the cabin, he shook everything off, set up a lawn chair by the lake, baited a hook, and cast a line.
The sun warmed him, the breeze cooled him, and the sounds of nature soaked into his bones.
“Garbol, I need to talk to you.” A carp the size of a raccoon popped its head out of the water.
“Did you just talk to me?”
“Yes. It’s Hascal. I’ve got a hoard of gnomes that took over a skating rink in Chicago. Can you go?”
“Nope,” said Garbol. “I’m on vacation.”