Winland Underwood’s boots crunched across the loose pebbles and uneven dirt surrounding the town limits of East Calico Rock, Arkansas. Most people would have thought a perimeter check around a ghost town in the Ozarks was a waste of time. Then again, most people didn’t know that East Calico Rock was no longer a ghost town.
Her job was to ensure the town stayed isolated from the outside world.
She passed the old oaks and hawthorns that cast much-needed shade over the northwestern edge of the town’s perimeter and took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air. So far, so good. That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods just yet.
A strong wind kicked up as she continued on the route she’d taken every day since leading the Oriceran refugees into the Midwest. Even after almost two months of the group calling the town home and doing their best to make it feel that way, Winland still refused to hand off the perimeter checks to anyone else. The way she saw it, the refugees were her responsibility. Until she could be absolutely sure that the magicals hunting the descendants of Rhazdon’s followers on Earth would never find them, the entire town would remain her responsibility.
Winland stopped dead in her tracks when a prickle of residual magic raced across her skin at the town’s northwestern edge.
Weird. Two months of walking past this every day, and I’m just feeling it now?
Winland reached into the pocket of her long overcoat and pulled out her wand. A witch never went anywhere without her wand, but since Winland was only half-witch, the wand was only for emergencies.
Still, the smooth rod of pecan wood, which fit perfectly in her hand, made her feel much more prepared for the unexpected tingle of magic washing over her.
Where is this coming from?
Winland stood perfectly still and scanned the woods that circled the town. Here, just north of the main road leading into East Calico Rock, the trees grew especially thick.
Another light wind rustled the branches of the trees and filled the air with the whisper of nature Winland had grown used to over the last few months. Two blackbirds fluttered at the edge of the woods, tweeting at each other before they disappeared into the thick foliage again. Nothing else moved. Even Winland’s enhanced hearing, courtesy of her Light Elf half, didn’t pick up any sounds that were out of the ordinary.
She turned her attention to the traces of old magic that had made her stop.
With her wand at the ready, she took another step toward the tree line, letting her body do the searching for her. Another wave of tingling energy coursed up from the ground beneath her boots into her legs, and she stopped again to close her eyes.
This magic was left here years ago. It’s barely even there, but there’s something else…
She frowned and loosened her grip on the wand. The smooth wood swayed in her loose fingers, and when she opened her eyes to see where the tip was pointing, her suspicions were confirmed.
There wasn’t any visible trace of the leftover magic, but when she took her next step toward the trees, the tingle grew stronger.
“Hmm.” Winland squatted and placed her palm on the sun-warmed dirt. Another faint tingle of magical energy buzzed beneath her fingertips, but it didn’t do anything else. When she scanned the woods one more time, there was still no sign that anything was wrong or had changed. The ground, however, seemed to have collected an unseen pool of residual magic that was just concentrated enough to have caught her attention.
It must just be because I’ve grown used to the place. Two months in, and I’m noticing the little things with a fresh perspective. It’s probably nothing.
Still, when she turned away from the area where the magic was at its strongest, she did another brief sweep of this space around the town’s perimeter. That was all she needed to reassure herself. She slipped her wand back into her pocket and returned to the path that she knew like the back of her hand.
If anything did give her cause for concern, she could handle it on her own. It wasn’t like she’d had no idea what she was getting into when she’d led the refugees to this ghost town to carve out new lives for themselves.
She hadn’t been the only one, either.
Her father had done a little investigation of his own before Winland had left him in his DC mansion to head west.
“I felt a certain responsibility to make sure you checked off all the boxes,” Turner had told her. “I was pleasantly surprised to see that you had.”
I’ve done this on my own, for the most part. If Dad didn’t think there was anything to worry about here, there probably isn’t. And if there is, I have everything I need to take care of it. Perks of being personally trained by the old Fixer.
Winland straightened her shoulders and continued another half-mile south toward the main road that was the only entrance to East Calico Rock. That road hadn’t been used for sixty years, and before that, it hadn’t been updated since this early-1900s boomtown had lost its citizenry to a bad reputation for rough townspeople, even rougher trade, and the wild lifestyle that came with hosting ranchers, miners, and unruly frontiersmen.
Now the town was home to a different kind of weary traveler. It would have had a different reputation, too, if keeping the location of the refugees’ new abode a secret hadn’t been priority number one.
The sounds of the once-more-booming town came toward her on the wind, and Winland’s heart swelled with pride as she approached the edge of the town. It was lined with old buildings that had stood the test of time—for the most part, anyway.
That was the first thing the group of Oriceran refugees had poured their focus into when they’d arrived. After everyone had gotten as settled as possible, they’d ensured the abandoned town hidden in the Ozarks was, in fact, abandoned. Then they’d restored as many of the rundown buildings as they needed to use immediately.
Some of those buildings had proven difficult to clean out and repair without fear of the slanted, semi-rotted beams caving in on them or the floorboards giving way beneath their feet. Of all the edifices that had been left for them by the last of the frontier-era residents, only two had maintained enough of their integrity to be quickly repaired.
On the west side of the main street, what had once been a large saloon was now the town’s most populated apartment building. Most of the refugees had moved into it. In addition to the rooms available upstairs, they’d sectioned off the saloon’s main area into another dozen private spaces just large enough to hold a bedroll and a few personal belongings.
Those who hadn’t found a new home in the saloon received help from the rest of the refugees to gut, rebuild, and repurpose the sturdiest spaces available—the old tack shop, the butcher’s, and the jail. Some had cobbled together one-room huts, but those were few and far between, built only in parts of the town where the other buildings weren’t as well-preserved.
The courthouse halfway down the main street on the east side had been the first building to show real signs of life within this budding new community. It had been rebuilt faster and with more enthusiasm than any of the refugees’ other accomplishments. It was now a rustic-looking co-op and market with a front door and shutters that were left open wide during the day to let in fresh air and sunlight.
It also served as the perfect place to showcase the products of the garden they’d farmed as a community. A Wood Elf named Elaine had a surprisingly well-rounded knowledge of urban farming, and she had quickly become the ad-hoc manager of the market and the produce garden.
Winland smiled at the first sprouts of green herbs finally growing in the window-box planters hanging from every open window of the courthouse’s second story.
The place was busy today, as it was every day when there were so many mouths to feed. Much like everything else the refugees had had to build or grow for themselves, the market kept them going. Those who knew what to do worked in the garden. Others stopped by to browse what had been harvested and trade their few belongings or skilled labor for some apples or beans. Elaine was doing an excellent job of making sure every resident had the appropriate amount of daily rations.
As Winland passed the courthouse, two half-Kilomeas stepped out the front door with cloth bags filled with their daily rations. Elaine followed them out, laughing at their comments, and leaned against the doorframe. Her light-brown eyes landed on Winland, and the Wood Elf raised a hand in greeting. “Everything looking good out there?”
Winland flashed a brilliant smile. “Another day, another night’s sleep. You know what’s really looking good? Those sprouts up there in the window boxes. They’re growing fast.”
Elaine peered at one of the planters. “Thanks. You know, they’d grow a lot faster if I could work a few quick spells…”
“I know, I know.” The Wood Elf chuckled. “If it has even a small chance of sending out a signal, no magic. Don’t worry, Winland. Those sprouts are doing everything all on their own. Promise.”
“I wouldn’t say all on their own. You’re doing just as much work as they are.” Winland gave Elaine a goodbye wave as she passed the courthouse. The Wood Elf was already distracted by a shifter couple walking up the front steps with their three-year-old daughter.
This isn’t even remotely the best place to raise a family, but it might be, eventually. As long as we all do our part and keep working together like this.
Winland had no doubt the community would continue to build East Calico Rock into something they could all be proud of and that would allow for more regular R&R. Everyone here understood how important it was to keep their new home hidden and safe. Turner Underwood had taken them all in to provide shelter and protection after they’d fled Oriceran, and he’d made sure they knew how critical secrecy was.
That was now his oldest daughter’s job.
At the end of the main street was the old playhouse. Until two weeks ago, the building had been boarded up by the last round of townspeople, who’d converted it into a movie theater before they left. The refugees assigned to rebuilding the town had voted to convert it into a storehouse before winter.
Of course, since Winland was their leader—she had been appointed by Turner and had accepted the job without hesitation—approving the vote and allowing work to start on the building was also her job. It only made sense that they would need a place to store the overflow of produce, firewood, and other rare commodities they would have to ration during the coldest months of the year. She’d approved the project almost as soon as she heard about it.
A gnome named Monty had asked to carve out a small space at the back of the storeroom to use as a tailor’s shop. He’s had one on Oriceran.
“I been patchin’ holes and sewin’ on buttons since I could hold a needle and thread, Miss Winland,” he’d told her, holding up his crooked but capable hands. “Can’t do much in the way of bespoke suits and party dresses, but I can make us what we need from day to day s’long as I have some private space to do it.”
She’d agreed to let him work out of what had been the projection room. Monty knew the importance of not using more than minor spells to power his tricks of the trade. The gnome’s eyes had lit up like a child’s when she’d told him the town would be grateful to have his skills, and he’d volunteered to join the crew that would work on the playhouse’s renovations.
That was where Winland was headed now. The boards had been removed from the glassless windows of the playhouse, and the work crew had cut a few tall, thin trees to use as support beams and scaffolding along the exterior walls to keep the more precarious structures from buckling the whole thing while they worked.
The sound of hammers, nails, and saws and the buzz of a few minor spells spilled out of the playhouse’s front entrance, the doors to which had been removed due to being rotted. Shouted remarks and laughter followed. Winland headed through the doorless entrance to take a look at their progress.
After she stepped through the doorway, she stopped.
A hum of magical energy flickered across the back of her neck, raising goosebumps on her arms. Her fingers twitched toward her coat pocket, but she didn’t draw her wand. If the others saw her waving it, they’d know something was up. Then she’d have to deal with questions she had no idea how to answer. Not yet, anyway.
That feels like the leftover magic I found by the woods. Old, yeah. Not nearly as strong as if someone had left it here last month or even before we arrived. But it’s not quite…
None of the work crew seemed to feel like anything was out of place. If they had, they would have alerted her.
With the sunlight spilling through the open windows and illuminating the storm of dust coming down from the rafters and off the walls, the lobby was well-lit despite the lack of reliable electricity in the town. The system worked most of the time, but a good storm could knock it out for hours.
She couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong with the magic she’d felt as soon as she’d stepped inside the building. She stayed where she was and scanned the small, narrow lobby of the playhouse again.
She cocked her head when two strange dark lines on the right-hand wall caught her eye. The sunlight streaming through the doorway made them obvious, and she found more hidden in the shadowy corner between the end of the lobby and the exterior wall of the theater.
That was not part of the original wallpaper.
Winland squinted and raised her hand as she approached the dark corner. For most magicals, conjuring a light took extra effort. For a half-Light Elf, it was a simple spell requiring very little magic, which was the only reason she was using magic inside the theater. Otherwise, she would have been breaking her own rule against casting spells that might draw attention.
A soft white light bloomed at her fingertips and illuminated the dark corner. It wasn’t bright, but it was more than she needed.
She took a step back and frowned at the collections of black lines. They had clearly been spray-painted on the walls. The paint was cracked and peeling, so whoever had decided to tag the defunct movie theater had done it some time ago. They also understood dark magic.
Winland did too; she recognized the shape from one of her father’s Oriceran books. Anyone who’d seen dark-magic symbols would have known this for what it was. It only took her another five seconds of studying the symbol before she realized something was different.
The jagged lines and concentric circles had one additional element that hadn’t been in Turner Underwood’s books—a short diagonal line cutting through two of the circles with thick dots at each end.
Not that I’m an expert on symbols and wards, but I do know that anything added or taken away changes the intention and the result. She leaned toward the wall again, searching for other elements that shouldn’t be there if the magical who’d painted the symbol had been going for dark-magic channeling. Besides the diagonal line and two additional dots, nothing was different.
It might not even be dark magic. All magic came from the same source on the same planet. Makes sense that there would be some overlap between ancient Oriceran symbols meant for the light and the dark.
As the thought flickered through her mind, magical energy leaped from the symbol to Winland’s outstretched fingers. The surge of energy was only strong enough to make her gasp and retract her hand, though the light on her fingertips winked out. It had been the strongest zap of magical energy she’d felt that day.
Three times today. Once by the woods, two here. What’s going on?
She crossed the lobby to investigate the other corners, in which years of dust, mold, and rot had accumulated. She saw nothing else; only the one symbol had been spray-painted on the walls, but that didn’t mean it was harmless.
If the hunters have found us, we’d know. They don’t play with their victims. Then again, I wouldn’t put it past them to set a trap.
She returned to the symbol and pulled her cell phone from the other pocket of her overcoat. Cell service and internet were spotty at best in a ghost town that hadn’t been occupied since the early 1900s. Thank goodness there was still functional knob-and-tube electrical wiring.
Even without service, a phone could still take pictures.
Winland snapped photos of the symbol, making sure to get it from multiple angles. Then she turned off her phone to preserve the battery and stuck it back in her pocket.
In a worst-case scenario, she could venture to Pineville, the closest town. It was less than five miles away, and it hadn’t been abandoned. A dead phone battery wasn’t the kind of emergency that warranted a trip like that, but if something really was afoot and this was more than just a years-old nonsense symbol left by bored magical kids trying to entertain themselves in a ghost town, Winland and her refugees had options. A phone call could be made from a town with all the modern amenities, including cell service and power.
Not yet. This could be nothing, and I’m not risking our anonymity unless it’s our only option.
“There you are.”
She turned to see a young witch with fiery red curls standing in the doorway. Winland huffed out a laugh. “Here I am. Seriously, Sarah, I’m starting to think I’m the only magical in the whole town with the pleasure of being snuck up on by you on every corner.”
“No, no.” Sarah placed a hand over her heart. “The pleasure is all mine.”
The slight bow she offered Winland was comically formal, especially when the witch had tied the sleeves of her lavender fleece zip-up sweatshirt around her waist, and bits of splintered wood clung to her curls.
Winland folded her arms and smirked. “So, I am the only one.”
“Well, if nothing else, you’re the most entertaining when you’re caught off-guard.”
Sarah snorted and walked into the theater. “You’re my best friend and the leader of the Arkansas Renegades. There have to be some perks in it for me.”
Winland chuckled. “Is that what we’re calling ourselves now?”
“Not sure yet. So far, it’s stuck longer than the East Calico Rocketeers or Underwood’s Outlaws, but you know Chuck. Just when you think he’s settled on something, he changes his mind at the last second. Then we have to take a vote all over again. Every time.”
“Perks of being a small communal society living on the fringes, right?” Winland walked toward her best friend and gestured at the open doors and the sounds of the dedicated work crew inside the theater. “And democracy.”
“More like a dictatorship of indecision.”
Snorting, Winland shook her head as they stepped into the massive inner room. “Doesn’t matter what we call ourselves as long as everyone sticks to the plan and we all pitch in to get the job done. It looks like you guys have gotten a decent jump on that today, by the way.”
“Right?” Sarah grinned and put her hands on her hips to survey the crew’s progress. “No complaints so far.”
Winland looked at the ceiling twenty feet above her and shrugged. “I don’t know. I kinda liked the sound of Underwood’s Outlaws.”
Sarah playfully rolled her eyes. “You would. Come on. I could use some help getting the last of these mildewed chairs out.”
Dusting off her hands, Winland followed her best friend down the steep decline of the theater’s center aisle toward the first row in front of the stage. That stage had been used first for plays and later to house the stretched canvas that was the movie screen. Once they got the last of the chairs out of the way, this room would hopefully be filled to the brim with goods the people in town would need to last through the winter.
We’ve come so far, but there’s so much left to do. At least we’re doing it together.
She had to force herself to ignore the brief, faint hum of magic that tickled her back. No calling her father, the old Fixer—not this time.
Not until she was sure there was danger.
One If By Land is book one of The Chronicles of Winland Underwood! It releases June 20!