“Are you kidding me? A five-year-old could draw a better map than this.” Laura Hadstrom turned the piece of paper sideways, upside-down, and back to what she thought was right-side up. “Okay, maybe that five-year-old was me. But still. Dad didn’t even put a compass in the corner…”
Her hand reflexively went to her back pocket, but she stopped. “Right. Left my wand at home because, apparently, we don’t need them anymore.” Squinting at her dad’s crudely drawn map, she tilted her head to see it better beneath the dim glow of a 12th Street West streetlight.
The moment she wanted more light, the silver ring on her thumb—her own physical piece of the Hadstrom family legacy—flashed, and her dad’s map glowed from within, a single point on it illuminated brighter than the rest. “There we go. Next time, I’m gonna tell him to at least put a big star or something so I know where to start.” Laura glanced at her ring. “Wonder if my sisters have figured out how to use their rings better than the wands.”
With a shrug, she looked at the back of the Bullock Texas State History Museum. “Okay. Ten-thirty at night. Doors are locked. Lights are off. If there’s anybody watching…guess I’ll just cross that bridge later.” She walked along the long stretch of the museum’s back wall until she got to what could have been the illuminated spot on the map—if her dad had drawn anything to scale. But she didn’t see anything. No back door, no shed, no outbuilding. Shaking her head, Laura puffed out a sigh, then glanced at her ring. “Let’s try again.”
She tapped the illuminated space on the map, then pointed at the back of the museum and drew her finger through the air like she would have with her wand. “Ostendo.” The same muted glow rose from her ring, moved through her pointing finger, and shot out toward the building. “Hey.” She grinned at the ring. “I think we’re starting to get to know each other. Now where is it?”
For a few seconds, she thought she’d missed the mark, then her gaze fell to the asphalt of the employee parking lot. A circle of muted light pulsed on the ground. Laura wrinkled her nose. “Why does it have to be a manhole?” With a sigh, she folded the map, stuck it in her wand-less back pocket, and headed toward the glowing manhole cover.
She glanced around to be sure no one was watching, then whispered, “Patentibus.”
The silver ring flashed brighter, and the glowing metal disk set in the asphalt jumped from its place over the manhole and tossed itself two feet to the side. The loud clang echoed against the building and over the parking lot as the cover spun several times like a wobbly top before coming to a stop. “Okay, so there’s still a learning curve. That was way stronger than I wanted.”
After a few seconds of listening for a warning shout or footsteps headed toward her—and only hearing the buzzing insects in the summer heat, even at night, plus a yowling cat a few blocks away—Laura stepped toward the gaping black hole.
“Down the rabbit hole, then.” She pointed into the blackness. Before she could utter the spell she’d always had to say with her wand, her ring summoned a bubble of soft light that beamed down into the darkness. Laura blinked away her surprise, then smirked and turned around to lower herself onto the now-visible rebar serving as ladder rungs.
The glowing light moved as she moved, illuminating a radius five feet around her. “Man, this thing goes down forever. Like the time I went through those caves up north.” She chuckled. “I thought I was never gonna reach the bottom, then bam. There I was, right where that eighth-century potion’s bowl had been hanging out for five hundred years without ever—oh!” Her right foot missed the next rung, and she realized it was gone.
Laura wobbled on the rebar ladder and tightened her grip. “Pay attention.” She peered down and saw the ground three feet beneath her, so she steadied herself and dropped nimbly the rest of the way.
When she stood, Laura found herself in a concrete cavern with three branching tunnels on the far end. She fetched her dad’s map out to check which way the first arrow pointed. “Okay, standing here…yep. We’re going with the right tunnel.” The light followed her across the cavern and into the tunnel on the right, which narrowed around her until she felt too big for the tiny passage. “It’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory down here,” she muttered. “There’s no way I can keep going.”
Then she spied steps at the end of the tunnel. Metal grates led down one step at a time. Laura moved slowly down, taking care not to hit her head on the low ceiling.
“Now this looks like a ship.”
The incredibly large room before her descended hundreds of feet into the darkness; even her trailing bubble of light couldn’t reach the bottom. The grated stairs led right to a narrow catwalk stretching across the gaping hole. On the other side, she discerned a storage room without any walls or railings. Four more grated staircases descended through the nothingness toward other platforms at various levels. Ropes and nets hung from every metal beam and pillar, creating a lattice that gave the illusion of enclosed walls—only she could see everything through the nets.
“Good thing I’m not afraid of heights.” Laura cocked her head and set off across the catwalk toward the first platform on the other side. Her footsteps echoed through so much space, and she leaned over the side to try to glimpse the bottom. “Nothing.” With a nod, she walked the other half of the grated catwalk and stepped onto a wide, circular, concrete platform. A huge metal column stretched from the platform to the ceiling of the cavern, though even that was too far above to see. Boxes, metal crates, dusty tarps, more draped netting, and a collection of unfamiliar metal tools lay strewn about without any rhyme or reason. Laura lifted her foot when she made out something soft beneath her shoe. It looked like…a pelt?
“What kinda place is this?”
The map came out again, and she turned it every which way to orient herself. She squinted up the metal column and took a few more steps forward. “Hello?” She hadn’t raised her voice that much, but with the echo she might as well have shouted.
Dad said she lives here. I think he forgot the facts about this just like everyone in the world forgot how to lock the Gorafrex back up in its prison…
“My name’s Laura Hadstrom,” she called. Her name echoed back a dozen times. “My father Gregory Hadstrom told me I would find you here, that you might be able to help with a little Gorafrex problem.”
She took a few more steps across the platform, then stopped to listen for a response. “Come on,” Laura whispered. “This can’t just be another dead end—”
Beside the metal column, a pile of tarps shifted. Then it rose at the center, all the material shifting and sliding around. A few scattered newspaper pages slipped out and fluttered to the floor, and the pile grew and grew. It looked like a massive bear rising out of hibernation, though covered in canvas instead of fur. Laura stared as all the tarps slid away.
The Engineer might have been nine feet tall if she wasn’t bent over with age; as it was, she hunched at around seven feet. A huge mop of tangled gray curls fell to her shoulders, partially hiding the dirty, wrinkled face beneath. The giant woman shook the hair out of her eyes, which glistened huge and bug-like in her face, then Laura realized she wore some kind of magnifying goggles. Or really thick glasses… The woman’s jumpsuit was a patchwork collection of tan, dark-green, and faded copper, covered in zippered pockets and straps and buckles. Those huge eyes behind the goggles blinked slowly, and the Engineer took a shuffling step forward. Laura felt the concrete platform shudder, but she stood her ground.
The Engineer caught sight of her and craned her neck forward, squinting. “You are so loud,” the old woman said, her voice deep and coarse with age and infrequent use. “I could hear you all the way from the surface.”
“Oh.” Laura smiled and gave a little shrug. “Sorry about that. My name’s—”
“Laura Hadstrom. Yes, I know.” The Engineer turned away from Laura and took another shuffling step in the other direction. “I haven’t heard the Gorafrex mentioned in eons. Why are you coming to me about this?”
The Engineer’s huge hand came slapping down with incredible speed onto one of the metal crates in front of her. When she lifted it again, she’d caught something that looked an awful lot like a cockroach three times bigger than Laura thought they should ever be allowed to grow. And that brown, glistening bug went into the Engineer’s mouth with a loud crunch.
Ew. Laura swallowed. She forced herself to speak through the crunch and wet smack of the bug between the Engineer’s teeth. “I came to you because my sisters and I need your help.”
“Is there such a shortage of knowledge these days?” A glob of something thick and yellow dribbled down the woman’s wrinkled lip.
Laura’s nostrils flared, and she pulled her gaze up to the Engineer’s magnified eyes behind the goggles. “It definitely seems that way. Yes.”
The woman swallowed with a loud glurp. “And you came to me for such knowledge of the Gorafrex. Why?” That last word was a harsh, hissing whisper.
Better go with the truth this time. It’ll come out anyway.
Laura took a deep breath. “Because, well…I accidentally set it free.”