The thirteenth-century bronze dagger in Laura Hadstrom’s hand sent a sharp buzz through her fingertips and up her arm. “Oh—” Both her hands wrapped around the vibrating hilt so she wouldn’t drop the thing. “You’re really hummin’ now,” she said, looking up at the lone willow surrounded by green, shimmering water. “Okay, fifth trip here is the charm. Let’s see what you can do.”
Barton Creek was deliciously cold around her bare toes. Laura wiped her arm across her sweat-slicked forehead and tightened her grip on the dagger. The soft, smooth stones lining the creek were slimy with algae but still easy to maneuver. When she’d stepped far enough that the creek ran just above her ankles, she knew this was the place.
“One more step, and I break my record.”
She turned to look downriver in case anyone happened to discern a young woman in hiking shorts with a huge dull knife in her hand stalking up the Greenbelt in the middle of downtown Austin. Thankfully, not very many people were willing to brave the muggy hike any farther than the first few swimming holes closest to the access road and the parking lot. But it wasn’t Laura’s bravery that brought her out here.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t let this take me more than a month, didn’t I?” the young witch told the dagger. Her mother liked to say that bravery drove people to do stupid things. Laura made decisions in the name of curiosity. “And stepping up to a good challenge,” she muttered.
Consulting her mother’s old books on local magical hotspots was a logical choice, but she’d found nothing about Barton Creek.
Behind her, a lock appeared in the tree, unseen, glowing with three quick pulses of sickly green light before disappearing again.
Laura moved from the empty creek bed and stepped downriver into shallow water just above the soles of her boots. She faced the broad, shaded willow ahead, its roots beneath the murk of a slightly deeper pool. “Here goes.”
The first step sent the dagger’s tingle all the way past her forearm and up into her shoulder. The second step made her neck twitch. When she set her foot down on the algae-slickened stones a third time, a giant unseen hand pinched her entire arm from her fingers to her neck all at once.
“It’s happening,” she whispered. Her long brown hair, given to all three Hadstrom sisters, fluttered in the wind and fell around her shoulders.
She steeled herself for whatever the wards around the willow would do next. The dagger was her divining rod, and now that she’d felt the change, she sensed the wards.
After two more steps, the pressure and the buzzing tingle in her arm disappeared. Laura spun around in the water with only a gentle splash. “That’s it? That was your whole circle of protection?” The sky was clear, the water flowed naturally around her, and it was still hot. Even the insects in the woods kept up their slow, pulsing hum. She lifted the cold, perfectly still weapon in her hand and shrugged. “Pretty easy. Now let’s go figure out why I couldn’t get this far without you.”
Striding upriver, Laura headed straight for the massive willow. “Whoever put these wards here clearly went to a lot of trouble. And they obviously know a good deal about how this type of spell works. Well, so do I.”
Five times she’d been redirected off course by the wards before she’d even realized how strange things got at this part of the creek. After all the expeditions, excavations, and surveys she’d attended, she’d learned to pick up on the signs and fit them together until they told her what she wanted to know.
“Hmm. Covert misdirection wards to keep people away? Someone is hiding something.” The fact that there were also wards to confuse the memories of unsuspecting passersby—so they wouldn’t remember there was something being hidden in the first place—meant there was definitely something worth finding. And Laura hadn’t become University of Texas’ youngest tenured archaeology professor by letting ancient magic turn her away from a discovery.
The minute her fingers brushed against the willow’s thick, draping branches to pull them aside, the excitement of a new find petered out by something she couldn’t explain. The tree and the artifact beneath it had both been here a lot longer than she thought.
Streams of sunlight poured through the willow’s outer wall of foliage. The tree wasn’t actually growing up from the middle of the creek but from a circular berm about three times wider than the willow’s trunk. On the berm, in the blackness of the enclosed shade, sat a large, round, white stone. It was the same size and relative shape of the tree stump Laura had sat on to take off her hiking boots, and it glowed where the slivered sunlight made it through to fall across its surface.
Laura let out a low whistle, then waded through the dark water toward the spot of raised land where just enough space allowed her to kneel on the damp, mossy soil beside the stone. Darker patches of moss and some kind of strangling vine covered most of the stone’s surface. The top of the stone dipped into an almost perfectly round bowl, where none of the moss or vines or any other vegetation grew. Peering into the depression, Laura
“Not limestone. Maybe not even from the Greenbelt. So… what is it?” She leaned forward to search for anything between the stone and the willow’s trunk yet only found more moss. A derisive snort escaped her. “I’m an archaeologist. Not a geologist. Do you know what it is?” She raised her eyebrows at the bronze dagger, then tipped it toward the stone. The tingling from when she’d approached the wards didn’t return. “No. I guess you already did your job, huh?”
A series of lines ran around the lip of the stone bowl. There were too many vines to tell if they were simply weather lines or something purposely etched there centuries ago. “Like a message,” she muttered. “Or a warning?” She brought the tip of the dagger down upon the cool stone to scrape back the tangled vines.
Like a heavy iron lock clicking into place mixed with a struck gong, a huge, echoing knock filled the air, and it sounded like it came from right below her. The berm and the creek bed trembled. A loud, shushing noise rose from the stone like the intake of a breath, like waves crashing on the beach in one long, endless roar. The top of the willow swayed in a breeze she couldn’t feel. Then, all the drooping branches lifted, some of their tips dripping with water. The willow was trying to become a bird, lifting its wings three hundred sixty degrees before taking flight.
Sunlight flooded over the berm and the white, vine-covered stone. The loud breath stopped. A hushed, wordless sigh of relief followed. Like a Sprite commercial, Laura thought, frowning at the floating willow branches.
The next second, a shimmering, opalescent light burst from the bowl in the stone and shook the willow. It shook the berm, and Barton Creek, and Laura too. The dagger fell from her hand as whatever energy she’d unleashed blasted her and knocked her off the tiny island. Rolling thunder growled and echoed. Laura splashed into the creek, and a few of the willow branches snapped overhead.
The glowing energy coalesced above the stone and the berm, drawing more of itself together until it churned like storm clouds. It swelled beneath the dome of the willow and hissed like a snake the size of her house.
What the heck is that?
Laura scrambled backward through the water. Her hand slipped once off the slick stones of the creek before she reached into her pocket and pulled out her wand. “Whatever you’re planning,” she shouted, aiming her wand at the churning mass of hissing light, “don’t even think about it!” She hardly heard her own voice over the ringing in her ears, though she definitely heard the low, rhythmic pounding growing faster and louder.
The energy drew itself up the undersides of the branches, then dove straight down to the water—and Laura. “Nihil propius,” she shouted, gritting her teeth as the massive energy source barreled at the bright-yellow, glowing orb at the tip of her wand. At the last second, the shimmering energy darted away and shot through the willow branches. The wildly fast pace of the drumming cut off, and everything fell silent.
Laura held her breath. All she heard was the ringing in her ears. Either I’m still hearing the echo, or my ears are bleeding. After a few moments, nothing happened, so she puffed out a huge breath and crawled, sopping wet, back up onto the berm.
“You’re coming with me,” she muttered, snatching up the bronze dagger and shaking her head at it. “There’s a shelf with your name on it.” She glanced at the stone bowl beside the tree and bit her lip. “That can’t be good.” Through the center of the round depression in the white stone—magically hidden for centuries until now—was a wide, jagged crack with burn marks around the edges. “Note to self,” she said, eyeing the dagger. “Never excavate a magical artifact with another magical artifact. Whatever was in there, I think we just blew it up.”
She stood and grimaced at her sopping shorts before slipping her wand back into her pocket and tucking her long dark hair behind her ear. It was impossible to tell if her hair was damp from her topple into the Greenbelt or just the wet, sticky heat that got into everything, no matter what. “Great. Now I have to go home and change.” She checked her waterproof Timex Expedition. “Perfect. Just enough time to get cleaned up for my little sister’s graduation.” Laura brushed the willow curtain aside and stepped into the suffocating light of the early-evening sun; Texas was one hell of a steam-cooker.
Everything looked the same—no massive crater in the Greenbelt, no pause in the chirping crickets or the droning katydids. A flight of grackles—messengers for the hidden magical world—took off in a rush from the trees on Laura’s right, swooping low over the creek until they darted into woods on the opposite bank. And that was pretty much it.
“Well.” She waded through the creek until she reached the pebbly shore, leaving a trail of soaked stones behind her. “Guess we didn’t find anything worth taking, huh?” This time when she sat on the tree stump, she left the dagger in her lap, glad it had stopped tingling.
“I have to admit”—she tugged on her socks and shoved one foot into a boot—“I thought we were gonna find some kind of treasure. Or a map. Maybe some witch’s ancestral burial site. A Hadstrom relative, even.” She sighed and shook her head, then finished tying her laces and stood. “But I have no idea what that was.”
She glanced at her watch and nearly choked. “How did that happen? I just checked! Oh, man, I’m gonna be so late. I can just…” Laura stopped, cocked her head, and patted her pocket, feeling the familiar wand tucked there. Hesitating only a moment, she stormed across the pebbly beach toward the boulders and the Greenbelt Trail beyond while shaking her head. “Nope. Emily might pull out her wand for every little thing, but this girl here knows better.”