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Excerpt for The Stream That Ran Uphill: An Aubrey Arthur Story by , available in its entirety at Smashwords








THE STREAM THAT RAN UPHILL

An Aubrey Arthur Story


Russ Anderson Jr & Michael Fogg









Copyright © 2018 by Russ Anderson Jr & Michael Fogg

All rights reserved.


Published by Pulpwork Press

Cover design by James, GoOnWrite.com






"I'm thinking we probably shouldn't touch that," Martin Gardner said.

The 'that' he referred to was a phosphorescent blue stream, about four inches wide, trickling along the forest floor. It was mid-afternoon, but the canopy of elms overhead made it look like dusk, and the stream glowed brightly enough to cast dapples of aquamarine light on Martin and the surrounding trees.

Beside him, Aubrey Arthur grunted in agreement and unzipped the backpack hanging from Martin's shoulder. He didn't protest as she rummaged around inside. When her hand finally emerged she was holding a clear glass sphere, a little smaller than a billiard ball.

"Have you read about anything like this?" Aubrey asked, zipping the backpack up. Like Martin, she was eleven years old. She was a little taller than him, though, and scrawny, with olive skin and dark black hair cut short. She wore an old Disneyland T-shirt, a pair of khaki shorts, hiking boots, and a red hoodie tied around her waist.

"No," Martin said. "I don't think we need the witch glass to tell us it's magic, though."

"Yeah, probably not," Aubrey agreed, but she brought the glass sphere closer to the stream anyway. The sphere was called witch glass. It had a number of uses, but the most important at the moment was its facility as a magic detector. It started glowing pink as soon as Aubrey put her hand on it, but as she approached the stream, it lit up in earnest. Currents of orange and green light swirled through it, curling into multi-colored whirlpools. By the time she was crouching at the edge, the ball glowed brighter than the stream itself, casting patterns of color across her face.

"Definitely magic," Aubrey said.

"That actually makes me feel better," Martin said. "I'd hate to think what it could be if it wasn't magic. You think this has something to do with Brett?"

Aubrey shrugged unhappily. "His apartment is just on the other side of these woods, right? If he played back here, he might have found it and touched it."

"And then what?" Martin asked.

Aubrey stood up and trudged back up the slope. "I don't know. Maybe he thought your book could tell him what it was."

Martin looked around at their other two companions. "What about you, Ruby? Any idea what we're looking at here?"

Standing next to Martin – towering over him, really – was a clay statue wearing a yellow sundress. The statue was featureless save for its generally feminine shape and an engraving of the Hebrew word for "truth" on its forehead. Its name was Addie, and it was a golem, a sort of artificial man – or in Addie's case, artificial woman. Addie didn't respond to Martin's question, just stood impassively facing the stream. That was fine, since Martin hadn't been talking to the golem anyway. He'd been talking to the fairy perched on the golem's shoulder.

Rhubarb Shadewick – Ruby to her friends – was eight inches tall. Tiny black-feathered wings, like a crow's, sprouted from her back, and her skin was bright pink. Her dark black hair was cut in a pageboy, and she wore a sweater and cut-off jean shorts, both of which she had almost certainly harvested from one of Aubrey's old Barbie doll sets.

"Looks like fairy pee," she said off-handedly.

"What?" Martin demanded.

Ruby shrugged. "I mean, it's probably not, but that's what it looks like."

A weighty silence hung between the four of them for several seconds, until finally Martin scoffed.

"I'm serious," Ruby said with a shrug. "Believe me or don't."

"I've read two books on fairies in the last month," Martin said. "There's nothing in either of them about fairy urine being fluorescent blue."

"That's because fairies don't go around sharing bathroom stories with every human with a typewriter and a little free time," Ruby explained. "I'll bet you haven't found anything about it not being fluorescent blue."

Martin opened his mouth to reply, then shut it in frustration. "You're just messing with me," he grumbled. Then, to Aubrey, "She's messing with me, right?"

"Let's assume it's not fairy pee," Aubrey said. "Any other ideas?"

Ruby shook her head. "Nope. It's flowing uphill, though. Look."

Aubrey turned and looked again. Ruby was right. The ground was level here, but about thirty feet downstream, it began to slope gradually upward. Instead of turning or pooling, the blue stream kept going in a straight line, climbing the slope.

"Fairy pee doesn't do that," Ruby said. She thought about it for a moment, then added, "At least not that I've noticed."

Aubrey went digging in Martin's bag again, and found an empty plastic water bottle. She opened it, shook the last droplets of water out of it, and then handed it to the golem.

"Addie, get us a sample. Don't touch it if you can help it."

The golem took the bottle and lumbered down to the stream, leaving Ruby to abandon its shoulder and hop onto a nearby tree branch. The golem straddled the stream, bent over at the waist and, with surprising delicacy, dipped the open end of the bottle into the stream without bringing its fingers into contact with any of the liquid. It stood up and brought it back up the slope to Aubrey, who used some leaves to daintily wipe off the outside of the bottle before taking it from the golem and capping it.

"Take this back to the house and see if you can find out anything about it," Aubrey said to Martin. She set the bottle down gently inside Martin's bag, and then retrieved one of two walkie-talkies that resided in there. "If you find out anything, give me a call."

"Good idea," he said. "What're the rest of you gonna do?"

"Your pal Brett is still out here, right?" she said, hooking the walkie to her belt. "We'll follow the stream and see if it leads us to him."

"You sure that's a good idea?" Martin asked. He looked nervously around the woods, as if he expected whatever had snatched Brett Greene to leap out from behind a tree.

"I'll have Addie with me," she said, hooking a thumb at the golem. "She can handle anything I'm likely to run into."

Martin eyed the golem. "What if she glitches?"

This wasn't just Martin being a worry wart. While it was true that Addie the Golem was much, much stronger and faster than a human being its size, it also had a tendency to stop working at inopportune moments. The magic required to keep it animated was in short supply these days, and relying on it as a bodyguard was an iffy proposition at best.

"This is the first time I've activated her in days," Aubrey assured him. "She should be topped off."

That wasn't exactly the way it worked, and they both knew it. Leaving the golem immobile wasn't the same thing as parking it at a gas pump. It didn't absorb magic at a constant rate, and there was no way to tell when it was full and when it was running close to empty.

"I'll go with you," Ruby said. The fairy leapt through the air, landing lightly on Martin's shoulder.

"You sure this is a good idea?" Martin asked again, directing the question at Aubrey. "If you run into trouble out here..."

"The flightless fairy probably isn't going to be much help," Aubrey finished.

"Hey!" Ruby barked.

"Sorry!" Aubrey said, showing Ruby both palms to ease her back. "But you've got more experience with magic than any of us. It's better if you help Martin figure out what this blue stuff is."

That seemed to mollify Ruby, but Martin could still hear her grumbling in his ear. He slung his pack off his shoulder, pulled his own walkie-talkie out, and pointed at Aubrey with it. "Check in every ten minutes," he said. "If we don't hear from you, we'll come back."

Aubrey popped off a salute. Then she waved for the golem to follow, and the two of them began following the stream deeper into the woods.


#


Brett Greene was a fourth grader. This made him little more than a baby to Aubrey and Martin, from their elevated perch in the lofty heights of sixth grade. Martin might not have even known his name, except they had been waiting for the school bus at the same stop since Brett was a first grader. Since they were both loners, they had also occasionally ended up sitting next to each other when the bus got too crowded. Brett knew he could count on Martin not to be mean to him, and Martin knew he could count on Brett not to talk too much. This was important because Martin usually had his nose stuck in a book for the entirety of the ride to and from school.

Two days ago, Martin had been sitting on the curb, reading Wava Blodgett's A Sorceror's Garden while he waited for the bus. The book's cover was wrapped in brown paper to make it look like a school book and to keep curious eyes away from it, which was a standard precaution Martin took when he was carrying around one of the magic tomes from Aubrey Arthur's library. So he was surprised when Brett plopped down next to him and asked,

"What are you reading?"

It wasn't the question so much as the tone that set off the warning bells in Martin's head. Brett wasn't asking because he was curious or bored. He was very, very interested in the answer, like a hungry kid who thought he just saw one of his buddies trying to sneak a bite of a candy bar.

"Math book," Martin said, casually placing his arm over the text. "It's about the history of the number zero."

He had crafted this lie for the exact purpose of deflecting anyone who caught him reading magic books outside the safety of Aubrey's house. Martin would definitely read a book like that, but nobody else he knew would be interested in the slightest.

"Really?" Brett craned his neck, trying to see around Martin's arm.

Brett was bright, but he was only a fourth grader. Chances were he wasn't going to see anything in the book that would hurt him, or even give away Martin's lie. Martin shut the book anyway, slapping it closed without marking his place. Brett flinched and straightened.

"Mind your own business," Martin said, putting just a little bit of his older-kid authority behind the words. For a moment, Brett looked like he wanted to argue, but then the bus showed up and Martin put the book away and they both dropped it.

Martin had pulled the book out of his bag once more that day, during lunch, and he was sure he'd put it back when he was done. He was sitting with Aubrey at the time, and she didn't love the idea of him taking the books home with him in the first place, so she would have noticed if he hadn't stowed it when he was done. But that night, when he'd wanted to do a little light reading before bedtime, it hadn't been in his bag.

After the panic had died down, he decided that he must have left it in his locker. He probably should have called Aubrey at that point, but he'd been too embarrassed. It was only hours later, after tossing and turning sleeplessly in his bed, that he remembered Brett's interest in the book that morning. And hadn't Brett sat behind him and Aubrey on the bus ride home that day? Martin thought he had. Which meant the younger kid would have had access to Martin's backpack, stuffed beneath his seat.

"I'm gonna kill him," Martin had muttered to himself. The promise didn't help him get any sleep that night, though.

The next day, Brett hadn't shown up at the bus stop or at school. Aubrey hadn't been happy to hear about the book being lost, and she'd been even less happy to learn that it may have been deliberately stolen.

"He probably just wanted to look at it because I wouldn't let him," Martin assured her. "He probably doesn't even understand what it is."

That didn't exactly ring true to Martin, and he suspected it didn't to Aubrey either. He couldn't help remembering the intensity of Brett's interest, the flash of anger in the kid's eyes when Martin had told him to mind his own business.

He'd gone straight to Brett's house after school, but Brett hadn't been there. The police had been, though, along with Brett's weeping mother and stoically worried father. Neither of Brett's parents had seen the boy since he'd gone to bed the previous night. Martin had gone straight home and called Aubrey.

"Okay, so how much trouble could he possibly get into with that book?" Aubrey had asked.

Martin had chosen his words carefully. "Well, it's about plants. He's not gonna be able to grow anything he sees in there without the right seeds and a bunch of time... but if he found something magical, already growing somewhere, it would help him identify it and show him a few ways to use it. How many magical plants do you have growing in the wild around here?"

"I doubt there are any," Aubrey had replied.

"You doubt it or you're sure?"

Aubrey had been silent for a long time, and then she muttered, "No, I'm not sure. I haven't had time to conduct a thorough survey of all the weeds in town, Martin."

"There are some woods out behind Brett's house, next to the highway. Some of the neighbor kids like to play back there. Come over and help me look for him."

"Don't you think that's the first place the police would look?"

"Probably," Martin had admitted, "but I think we're going to have a better idea what to look for."


#


Now, Martin pedaled his bike and wished Aubrey Arthur lived a little closer to town. It was a twenty minute ride from his door to hers, and a little farther from where he'd started in the woods. By the time he got there, did some research, and got back, at least an hour would have passed--and that was assuming he found what he was looking for quickly.

Among the many wonders contained in Aubrey's old plantation house was a library of magical tomes. A year ago, a large spell called the Magna Renovatione had gone wrong, and subsequently wiped out most of the magic in the world, not to mention most of the magic users and magical creatures. The library was a priceless source of magical knowledge, but its usefulness was hampered by two facts. First was that it wasn't fully catalogued yet. Martin was working on it, but he was a long way from being done, so finding specific information was like finding a needle in a pile of other needles. The other problem was that all of those books had been written in a world that was brimming with magic, so even finding the right spell didn't guarantee there was enough magic around nowadays to cast it.

Martin had volunteered for the job of librarian, and he probably knew the books in Aubrey's library better than anyone living, but at times like these, he wished he could just punch some keywords into Magic Google and hit Enter.

"You wanna take it easy?" a voice said from his backpack, snapping him out of his thoughts. "You're shaking me like a martini in here."

"Sorry," Martin said, slowing his pace.

"Stop for a minute," Ruby said. "I'm getting out of this bag."

"Not a good idea," Martin said over his shoulder. "Somebody might see you."

"If you keep bouncing around like you are, this bottle's going to break open and I'm going to get whatever this gunk is all over me."

"What're you worried about?" Martin asked with a smirk. "It's just a little fairy pee."

Ruby's response was drowned out by the blat of a car horn. An old hatchback pulled up alongside, slowing down to pace him.

"What's going on?" Ruby asked.

"Keep quiet," Martin replied, coasting to a stop.

The driver of the hatchback was Martin's big sister, Claudia. She leaned across the seat and rolled the passenger side window down.

"Mom wants you home," she said. "Throw your bike in the back and get in."

"Why?" Martin demanded. "What's going on?"

Claudia rolled her eyes. Martin couldn't remember the last time he'd had a conversation with his sister without her rolling her eyes, so he was glad she'd gotten it out of the way quickly. "Some kid down the street ran away from home, and now she's afraid somebody's out here abducting children. I told her nobody'd want you, but she told me to come get you anyway."

Martin shook his head. "I'm doing something. I'll be home in a little while."

"I know what you're doing," Claudia said. "You're going to Aubrey Arthur's. But you're going to have to go another time, Martian, because mom wants you home."

"Martian" was a nickname Claudia had given him when he was a baby. It had once been a term of endearment, and she might have still intended it that way, but it set his teeth on edge.

"I'll call and check in when I get to Aubrey's," he said, putting his foot back on the pedal. "Just tell mom you couldn't find me."

"She'll never buy that. Come on, Martin. Just get in the car!"

Instead of replying, Martin put his foot on the pedal and shoved off the pavement with his other foot. His bike coasted forward, but before he could really get going, Claudia rolled the car forward, angling it in toward the curb as she did so. She'd probably intended just to box Martin in, but Martin panicked and whipped the handlebars to the right, driving his front tire straight into the curb. He wasn't going fast enough to flip over the handlebars, but the sudden stop drove him into them belly-first. He toppled to the side and fell off the bike, spilling onto the sidewalk. He thought to twist at the last second, taking the impact on his shoulder instead of his back. It hurt, but he'd taken worse falls from the bike.

"Ruby, you okay?" he said, propping himself up on his elbows. She didn't answer, but he could feel her moving around inside the pack. The zipper yanked open and Ruby started to climb out. "What are you doing?" he demanded.

"The bottle split open," Ruby said. "Take the pack off before it soaks through."

The hatchback lurched to a stop and Claudia leapt out, racing around the front toward where her brother had fallen. "Martin! Are you okay?"

Ruby, who had wiggled the rest of the way out of the pack by this time, ducked behind Martin's shoulder, clinging to his shirt while he hurriedly shrugged off the pack. "I'm fine," he grumbled. "No thanks to you. What were you thinking?"

"I was just trying to stop you from running off," Claudia said. The guilt and regret in her voice had dried up now that she saw Martin was okay. The two stared each other down for a moment, and then she lunged forward, grabbed the frame of Martin's bike, and carried it toward the back of the car.

"Hey!" He clambered to his feet and followed, barely noticing Ruby's weight disappearing from his shirt as the fairy let go and dropped to the ground behind him. By the time he reached Claudia, she already had the hatchback open and was wedging the bike into the car.

"If I don't bring you home, I'm in trouble too," Claudia said.

Martin reached for his bike, but Claudia swung her hips around and blocked him. When he was clear of the door, she slammed it shut before he could reach for it again.

"You want to have this fight with mom, you can have it with her," Claudia said. "I don't like it any more than you do."

She stepped away from the car and Martin slipped around her. The moment his hand fell on the handle for the hatchback, though, the car chirped, indicating that she'd locked it from the key fob. He banged a fist against the window, and was turning to give his sister another piece of his mind when he saw she had walked back to the curb and was reaching for his backpack. From his angle, Martin could see Ruby crouched behind it, trying to stay out of sight, and he could see the wet blue stain spreading across the bottom of the pack, where the bottle had broken open.

Before he could tell her to stop, Claudia grabbed the pack and lifted it off the ground. She froze, her gaze falling on the fairy crouched in the grass. Ruby had frozen as well.

Most people, including Claudia and Martin's mother, didn't know that magic existed. They certainly didn't know that fairies were real. It was important to keep that sort of thing a secret because even though Aubrey Arthur practiced magic, there simply wasn't enough left in the world to sufficiently protect herself from the people who might want it. This was why Aubrey bristled at Martin taking books home, and this was why Ruby (who couldn't fly) usually stayed hidden when they strayed from the Arthur property.

She wasn't hidden now, though. Claudia cocked her head to the side, momentarily confused. Martin could see her processing what she was seeing. There was a very small chance she might think Ruby was a very lifelike toy that had fallen out of Martin's pack. That seemed to be the look Ruby was going for, anyway, since she'd frozen on her knees in the grass.

"Oh my God!" Claudia shrieked. "Its eyes moved!"

Ruby had indeed allowed her eyes to swing upward to see if Claudia was buying her toy act. Now she snapped them downward again, but that just made matters worse. Claudia stumbled back until her hip hit the side of the car while Martin skidded into the space between her and Ruby.

"It's just a doll," he assured her, trying to keep the panic out of his own voice.

"It's breathing!" Claudia insisted. "I can see it breathing! I--" She stopped suddenly and looked down at the hand that was clutching Martin's backpack. "Did you spill something in here?"

Her hand was covered in the blue liquid that had formerly been in the water bottle, and now had saturated Martin's backpack. She clucked her tongue in annoyance and wiped it off on her jeans, taking the pack with the other hand while she did so. She realized that she'd gotten the spill on her other hand, made the same clucking sound, and switched hands so she could wipe that hand off too.

Martin's brow furrowed in confusion while he watched his sister do this. The panic of seconds earlier had seemingly evaporated, and now she was just annoyed, trying to clean herself off without realizing that she was getting more of it on her every time she switched the pack to a different hand.

"Just put it down, Claudia," he said slowly.

She dropped the pack, which squelched as it hit the pavement. She brushed her soaked hands together thoughtfully, then looked up at Martin. Her face was expressionless and, for a moment, Martin wondered if the sight of Ruby had sent her into some sort of shock.

"I'm sorry I knocked you off your bike," Claudia said. Her hands were stained blue, as if she'd been eating radioactive blueberries. It was all over her pants and the hem of her T-shirt too. None of this seemed to bother her anymore.

"That's... that's okay," Martin said.

"I'll tell mom I couldn't find you," she said, and then she turned and walked back around the front of the car.

Martin said her name, but she didn't respond. She just opened the driver's side door and got in. Martin leapt over his pack and reached for the passenger door, but it was still locked. Claudia started to pull away.

"Claudia!" he cried, pounding on the window, but it was like his sister couldn't hear him, couldn't see him. She sped up and then swung the car around, forcing Martin to let go of the door and jump away from the car lest he get run over. She turned completely around and then accelerated back toward home.

Only home wasn't the only thing that lay back in that direction. There was also the woods, and Aubrey Arthur and her golem, and the blue stream.

Martin went back to his backpack and, being careful not to get any of the blue stuff on himself, pulled the bag open. He'd known what he was going to see, but he had to be sure. The only thing he'd been carrying in the pack except the bottle and Ruby was his walkie talkie, and it was covered in blue goop. Even on the off chance it still worked, he didn't dare touch it.

He was stranded without his bike. Something was seriously wrong with his sister, and he had no way to tell Aubrey what was going on.

"Come on," he said to Ruby. "Hop on my shoulder. We have to go."

"And just leave that there?" she asked, pointing at the sodden backpack. It lay in the road, where anybody might come along and pick it up. And even if that didn't happen, what if some of the mystery liquid seeping out of it made its way down a storm drain?

Martin groaned and ran both hands through his hair. "Okay," he said. "Okay, I'll deal with it. You've gotta get going, though. You have to catch up with Claudia."

"She's already gone," Ruby pointed out.

"Then go back and find Aubrey," Martin said. "I've got a feeling they're going to end up in the same place."

Ruby nodded and began to bound away, clearing a dozen feet with each leap. After half a block, she leapt into a tree and was lost from sight.

Martin picked a nearby house at random, and jogged toward the door, hoping that somebody in this neighborhood would be willing to give a garbage bag to a strange kid and not ask too many questions about it.


#


Aubrey and her golem followed the stream of phosphorescent blue as it climbed slopes, cut around trees, and meandered along the crumbling edge of ridges. Occasionally a small branch or a pile of dead leaves – and once the corpse of a dead bird – were borne past, seeming to move much faster than the stream itself. After a while, Aubrey realized they were moving in a big circle. The stream stayed within the bounds of the woodland, not venturing into the residential area on one side or the Interstate on the other, and it was looping back toward their starting point.

Shortly after she noticed this, the stream narrowed and then vanished, trickling into the ground at the base of a hill, as if a drain were concealed beneath the brown leaves and other deadfall. Up the slope from where the stream disappeared, at the top of the hill, sat a colossal elm tree, rising at least sixty feet into the air, with a canopy forty feet across. It dominated the area, the other trees keeping their distance in deference.

Aubrey walked up the slope and rested her hand against the tree. Its branches were gnarled and twisted with age, but still plenty sturdy. The wide spread of branches practically begged to be climbed, and Aubrey had no doubt that even the topmost limbs could support her weight. It was a good tree.

From beside the tree, she could see down the opposite slope, and was not surprised to see the stream reappeared on that side of the hill, bubbling up from the ground and rolling off again. She judged she wasn't more than two hundred yards from where she and Martin had first encountered the stream. If she'd followed it in the opposite direction, she would have found this place in just a few minutes.

Whatever the stream was, Aubrey was willing to bet this old elm was its source.

She walked back down the hill, the golem following close behind, and crouched next to the place where the stream disappeared into the ground. Clearing the deadfall away with a stick, she found the blue liquid was draining into a hole only about four inches across. It was much too small to have swallowed the dead bird she'd seen whisked along a few minutes earlier, but the bird was nowhere to be found. She supposed the corpse could have been picked up by a scavenger, or it could have been deposited somewhere upstream by the current and she just hadn't noticed it, but she didn't think that was the case.

She had seen the blue liquid perform all sorts of physics-defying acrobatics while she'd been following it, but this was the only time she'd seen it enter something. It was running underneath this hill, and this tree, for a reason.

"Addie," she said, standing up. "Dig me a hole. Find out where this stuff is going."

The golem straddled the stream, bent over the hole, and began to dig, scooping handfuls of earth away and flinging it to either side. Aubrey had to stand in front of her, higher up the slope, to make sure she didn't get pelted with flying dirt and rocks. The golem was immensely strong, and it didn't get tired, so within just a few minutes it had dug a hole straight into the hillside, like a railroad tunnel, ten feet deep and tall enough for it to stand in. The golem kept the stream between its feet as it worked.

With nothing else to occupy her attention, Aubrey realized she was overdue to check in. She pulled the walkie talkie off of her belt and called Martin. After half a minute of silence, she checked to make sure she had pushed the right button, and then repeated the call. Still no answer.

He was probably just in the middle of something delicate, or in the bathroom, or both. His failure to reply probably wasn't as ominous as it seemed.

Probably.

The rate of debris flying out of the hole tapered off. Aubrey moved down the hill to peek inside the tunnel, and then called for the golem to stop. It did and she stepped into the tunnel behind it.

"Let me through," Aubrey said, and Addie stepped to the side, giving her enough room to sidle past. The golem's sundress was muddy and torn, its fingers caked with clay and rich black soil.

Addie had broken through into a cavern deep below the hill. The space was roughly circular, less than twenty feet across, and barely tall enough for the golem to stand upright in. The magical stream cut straight through the center of the space, and the light coming off of it cast the cave in a soothing blue light. Above her head, the roots of the giant elm penetrated the ceiling, wrapping around overhead like a protective dome before spilling down in a twisted pillar of wooden tendrils against the opposite wall. The braid of roots opened up near the floor, allowing the stream to run through its coils before exiting the cave through the wall behind it.

A little boy was curled up face-down in the fetal position to one side of the stream. Thin roots curled up from the floor and enclosed him in a skeletal cocoon. Lying open in the dirt next to him was the copy of A Sorceror's Garden that had disappeared from Martin's backpack.

"Brett," Aubrey said, moving forward. His skin was ashy, and she had to get right up next to him before she could confirm he was breathing. He seemed to be sleeping, his rounded cheek pressed into the soil. She reached for him, and the roots surrounding him contracted, visibly tightening their hold and pressing him into the ground. Brett still didn't wake up, but he moaned.

Mine.

The thought was so alien, but so clear, that it made Aubrey feel a little sick. She shook her head and looked around. Addie stood outside the cave, in the tunnel. The only other things in here were the stream and the tree roots.

Was the tree sentient somehow? Aubrey had heard of such things, but that was back when the world was full of magic. It seemed unlikely now.

She left Brett's side and stepped carefully over to the other side of the stream, getting closer to the braid of twisted roots that reached down through the cave. She leaned in close to have a better look... and jumped back when the individual roots began to spread apart, opening the braid and revealing a shape nested within.

It wasn't human, whatever it was, but it was trying to be. Its skin was the same grayish-brown as the elm, shot through with threads of mossy green. Its eyes were silvery and glistened like tree sap. Hair that wasn't quite hair, but had the thickness and color of poison ivy vines, flowed down from its scalp. The roots completely enclosed it, hiding most of its body from view. For all Aubrey could see, the creature may not have even existed below the collar bone. Still, the face and the head told her a few things. It was female, for one thing, and its full, black lips and prominent cheekbones were that of an adult. For another, it was not happy.

Get out, the woman in the tree said, directly into Aubrey's mind.


#


"Who are you?" Aubrey demanded.

The roots overhead shivered, sending dirt drizzling down into the cave. It wasn't a lot, but it was a stark reminder that Aubrey was in a very small box, with about two tons of elm tree balanced on top of that box. Maybe it would be smarter to retreat and try to figure out what she was dealing with, she thought... but then she caught sight of Brett, still curled up on the ground and cocooned in the tree's roots. She couldn't leave him here.

"My name is Aubrey Arthur," she said. "I'm not here to hurt you, but you need to stop whatever you're doing to him."

Need him, the voice said.

"For what?" Aubrey demanded.

Instead of replying the creature repeated itself: Get out.

"I can have my golem tear him out of that cage, but I think that's probably going to hurt you. It's better for all of us if you just let him go."

The roots in the ceiling trembled again, and Aubrey almost lost her nerve. She took a step back toward the tunnel.

"Who are you?" she asked, playing for time.

She expected another rebuke, or maybe the creature would just go ahead and drop the ceiling on them, but what she got instead was a blast of emotion. Up until this point, the creature's speech in her mind had been terse and uncomfortable, like someone struggling with a language they barely knew--but it had still been words. This time Aubrey was bombarded with a head-spinning wave of confusion and fear that almost drove her to her knees. Her mouth was suddenly full of dirt, and she spat it out, only to find there was nothing there after all. She leaned against the wall and squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the feeling to pass.

When it had gone, Aubrey opened her eyes and found the creature staring at her, as immobile as a statue, but also somehow alive.

"Who are you?" Aubrey said again.

I don't know, the creature said. Do you know who I am?

Aubrey didn't think the creature was mocking her. Its question was sincere, its tone no longer threatening, but anxious.

"I don't know who you are," Aubrey admitted. "How long have you been down here?"

Two... seasons.

"Seasons? Like spring, summer, fall?"

The creature hesitated, then said, Yes.

"Do you remember anything before that?"

A crease of frustration appeared between the mossy lines that served as the creature's eyebrows. You don't know anything useful. Leave this place. I won't warn you again.

"Wait!" Aubrey pleaded, making a conscious effort to hold her ground. "I don't know who you are, but I think I know what you are."

The crease disappeared and the creature's eyes narrowed, making a sound like a thin, dry branch bending in a breeze.

Go on.

"I'll tell you if you let him go," Aubrey said, pointing at Brett.

No.

"You're killing him." Aubrey didn't actually know that to be true, but when the creature didn't deny it, she decided she was on the right track. "At first you were just controlling him, right? Like when you made him steal my book."

Yes, the creature admitted. When he saw the book, I saw it too, and told him to bring it to me, but it was no help. He wasn't able to bring me enough raw materials, even with the flow to help. I need a body, and he will help me to build it.

"So now you're just going to," Aubrey paused, searching for the right word, "absorb him?"

The creature didn't respond, and again, that was confirmation enough for Aubrey.

"You're a tree nymph," she said. "That's what you're called. You're like an elf that takes care of trees."

Tree nymph, the creature said. It seemed to be trying the phrase out, seeing how it fit.

"I can't let you do hurt that kid," Aubrey said.

I can't let you stop me.

A plan started to form in Aubrey's mind. It wasn't a good plan, or even a halfway decent plan. It was dumb and full of holes, but she didn't think she had time to come up with anything better. She would command her golem to come in here and guard the nymph, threatening to yank it out of its nest of coiled roots if it tried anything. Then Aubrey would free Brett and drag him out. If the nymph called her bluff and started to collapse the cave, she and Addie would retreat and try to find another solution.

"Addie, come in here," she said.

She waited a beat, and when she didn't hear anything to indicate the golem was responding, she chanced a look back over her shoulder, knowing what she was going to see even before she saw it. "Addie?"

The golem was poised in the tunnel, exactly as it had been the last time she looked. It hadn't moved since she'd entered the cave.

Grumbling, she moved back toward the tunnel entrance, stepping carefully over the blue stream. Ever since the cataclysm that had knocked out most of the magic in the world, Aubrey's golem occasionally ran out of magical energy and froze up, like a toy with a rundown battery. When the golem glitched, she could usually get it going again after a couple of minutes by rubbing the Hebrew character off of its forehead and re-drawing it. She could draw the character in her sleep by now, and it would only take a second. Then she could get on with this "rescue".

She heard the hurried footsteps coming down the tunnel from somewhere behind the golem, but Addie was blocking her view, and she barely had time to worry about it before Martin's sister, Claudia, burst into the cave and grabbed Aubrey by the shoulders.

Aubrey was so stunned she almost forgot about the blue stream behind her. As Claudia drove her back, she skipped, hopping over the stream and landing awkwardly on the other side. Her ankle wrenched beneath her, and she cried out as she fell. Claudia put her foot right into the liquid and slipped, letting go of Aubrey and going down to her knees.

Aubrey landed against the wall of the cave, and tried to claw her way back to her feet, but Claudia was on her again before she could. There was nowhere to run, no way to put any distance between them. The older girl spun Aubrey around, throwing her momentarily onto her hurt ankle again, and then put her in a full nelson. Aubrey struggled, but Claudia was bigger and stronger than her.

She heaved Aubrey up into the air and set her down on her feet, then did it again, walking her away from the tree nymph and back toward the tunnel. She thought Claudia was just going to throw her out of the cave. Instead the older girl dropped to her knees beside the stream, forcing Aubrey roughly to the ground beside her. Still holding Aubrey in the full nelson, she began applying pressure to the back of her neck, forcing Aubrey to bend her head down. Aubrey strained to escape, but slowly, inexorably, her face descended toward the stream.

Something ricocheted noisily off of the low ceiling and hit Claudia high in the chest, knocking her backward off of her knees. Claudia let go of Aubrey as she tumbled, and Aubrey slapped her hands to the dry ground on either side of the stream bed, stopping her fall mere inches above the blue liquid.

"Get out of here, kid!" Ruby shouted from somewhere nearby. Aubrey couldn't see her in the dim blue light, but it had obviously been the fairy who had struck Claudia.

Aubrey didn't waste time dwelling on how close she'd come to being another snack for the tree nymph, or wondering how Martin's sister had ended up in the nymph's thrall. She hopped over the stream, minding her twisted ankle, and dashed for the tunnel, putting as much distance between herself and Claudia as she could.

When Aubrey reached the golem, still stalled in the mouth of the tunnel, she swiped a hand across its forehead and traced the character that would reset it and bring it back to life. The golem lurched, forcing Aubrey to step back from it quickly.

"Addie!" Aubrey yelled, pointing back at Claudia. "Grab her!"

Martin's sister was in the process of getting to her feet, but she hadn't quite made it there yet when Addie reached her. The golem lifted Claudia up by the shoulders, and pulled her into a bear hug, locking its arms around her while she kicked and struggled helplessly against it.

Aubrey leaned against the wall to catch her breath, lifting the foot attached to her twisted ankle. Ruby landed on the wall next to her hand, clinging to the uneven surface like a miniature rock climber.

"What happened to your foot?" she asked.

"What happened to her?" Aubrey countered, pointing at Claudia. "And where's Martin?"

Before either of them could answer the other, a chunk of the ceiling fell in, knocking Ruby from her perch and sending Aubrey stumbling backward. The walls began to twitch, as the roots winding through the hill flexed and pulled. One side of the chamber – the side closest to where Brett still knelt in his form-fitting cage – didn't so much collapse as sag in upon itself, the domed wall slumping into the cave like the inside of a punctured balloon. The floor lurched, and Aubrey's stumble turned into a sprawl. She realized dimly that she was going the wrong way – falling back into the cave rather than into the relative safety of the tunnel.

She fell beside the stream, her hand slapping down into the blue liquid. She had half a second to realize what she'd done before...


#


Aubrey cursed and scrubbed her palm against the dirt next to the stream. Whatever the blue stuff had done to Brett and Claudia, it didn't seem to be affecting her. Not yet anyway. Maybe she still had time to get everybody out of here. Maybe she still had a chance to save them.

She blinked and looked around. The sunlight that had been trickling into the cave from the tunnel was gone--because the tunnel was gone. The wall that Addie had dug through was solid again, and the only light in the tiny hollow came from the glowing blue stream. Addie and Ruby were gone too. Brett was there, still kneeling with his forehead down in the dirt, but the cage of roots pinning him down was gone. Claudia lay curled up on her side next to him, fast asleep.

Aubrey's eyes finally came around to the nymph. It stared impassively out at her from its sarcophagus of twisted roots.

"Where am I?" Aubrey asked.

"You're with me," the nymph said, and Aubrey was surprised to see the creature's lips move, its eyes crinkle. Before it hadn't moved at all, but now it looked like a living, breathing creature.

Aubrey knelt next to Brett and shook him. When he didn't respond, she switched her attention to Claudia, shaking the older girl by the shoulder and calling her name. She didn't stir.

"They won't disturb us," the nymph said.

Aubrey stood up and went to the wall where the tunnel was supposed to be, put her hands on it, confirmed it was as solid as it looked.

"This isn't the real world," Aubrey said, turning back toward the nymph. "We're in your head."

"Yes," the nymph replied. "It is easier for me to communicate like this."

"So you're controlling me out there now," Aubrey said. It wasn't a question. "What are you making me do?"

"I am making you hold still," the nymph said. "That is all I am doing. For now."

"Are you going to use me as 'raw materials' too?"

"I might." The nymph's tone was bland, as if she didn't intend this as a threat. It was just an alternative idea she was considering. "You and the girl would be more than enough. I could use you two and let the boy go. Like you wanted."

"Well, that's not okay either!"

"I could simply kill you all," the nymph pointed out.

"Is that what you want?" Aubrey asked. "You want to start this new life by killing people?"

"Death feeds life," the nymph said, with a shrug of her voice. "This is the way of things."

Aubrey closed her eyes and willed herself to wake up, to take control of her body again out in the real world. She even tried pinching herself, but nothing happened. Climbing out of the nymph's head apparently didn't work like emerging out of a bad dream. She looked at Brett and Claudia again, and for the first time, wondered why she was conscious in here and they weren't.

"You know about magic," the nymph said, as if in answer to the question in Aubrey's mind. "Tell me how I came to be like this."

"You've taken control of my body. Can't you just read my mind?"

The nymph didn't reply for a long moment. Then it said, "You will tell me what I want to know."

"You can't," Aubrey said. "If you could read my mind, you would have done it already."

"I can," the nymph replied. "But our minds are very different. Yours is complicated, like all humans. It would be difficult to take the information from you, and it would take too long. Instead, you will simply tell me."

Aubrey felt a glimmer of hope. If the nymph really wanted to kill all of them, it could have done so already. It was confused and desperate, but it was looking for an out.

"I'll tell you anything you want to know, but you have to let all of us go. Brett and Claudia and me. And you have to get rid of this stuff." She pointed to the blue stream running through the cave. "No more taking control of human minds."

"I cannot do that."

"Then no deal."

"You misunderstand me," the nymph said. "I am not negotiating. I literally cannot let you all go and cut off the flow. If I do both, I die. I need materials..."

"Yeah, let's start with not using that word to describe people anymore," Aubrey said. "I can help you, but I need you to stop driving Brett and Claudia around like golf carts."

"I have no reason to trust you," the nymph pointed out. "You invaded my home and threatened me."

"Okay, listen," Aubrey said. "About a year ago, a spell was cast called the Magna Renovatione. It was a routine spell, but it was big, and something went wrong. It... exploded? I guess that's the word. And it wiped out most of the magic in the world, along with most of the magical creatures. Including you."

"So how am I alive now?"

"Because magic is coming back. It's coming back very, very slowly, though, and that's why you need help creating a new body."

"How do you know all this?" the creature asked.

"My parents were great magicians," Aubrey said.

"Your parents. Not you."

Aubrey repressed the urge to respond badly to that, and instead agreed, "Not me."

"And yet you think you can help me survive without these materials."

"What did I say about calling people 'materials'?" Aubrey snapped. "You had Brett steal the book because you thought it could help you. I have an entire library of books just like that one. I'm sure there's something in there that can help."

"The book was useless," the nymph replied. "How do I know any of these others will have what I need?"

Aubrey gritted her teeth. Martin was her librarian. If he was here, he might have been able to think of something they had on the shelves that could help this creature, but Aubrey was just grasping at straws.

"Why are you in such a hurry?" Aubrey demanded. "You've just come back to life, or woken up, or whatever, for crying out loud. You're obviously healing, so why not just let things take their course? You don't need to hurt anybody."

"I draw life from the tree," the nymph began, "but the sleep season is upon us. When my tree sleeps, it will not be able to nourish me, and I am still too weak to survive on my own until the waking season."

"You're afraid you'll die before spring rolls around."

"I know I will."

"I can make sure you don't," Aubrey said. "I can bring you dead animals to help you regrow your body. Or I can put you in stasis until spring."

"All of that depends on trusting you to do what you say you will do," the nymph said. "I would be putting my life in your hands, and you are only a child."

"You're only a couple of months old yourself," Aubrey pointed out.

The nymph didn't dignify that with a reply. "I will offer you a choice. I need two of you to rebuild my body. Which two would you have me use? You and the girl? The boy and the girl? Will you pick one of their lives over your own?"

Aubrey ignored the question. "You have me under your control now, right? Let me go so I can help you, and if I can't, you can just bring me back here and absorb me."

The creature hesitated. At least Aubrey hoped it was hesitating, and not simply pausing before sucking all the life force out of them all.

"I lost my family when the magic went away," Aubrey said, hoping that if she kept talking, the nymph would keep not killing them all. "My parents, my sisters, my... my uncle. All of them. And I don't want to see anyone else die. I promise you, I'll find a way to help you. And if I don't, I'm the collateral. You can have me instead."

The nymph considered her silently. Aubrey tried not to hold her breath while she waited for the other shoe to drop.

"You would give your life for theirs?"

"I would," Aubrey said firmly. "But I'm not going to have to, because I'm going to help you."

"Perhaps..." the nymph said. And then, instead of continuing the thought, it opened its mouth wide and screamed. The volume was shattering, like tentpoles were being driven through both of Aubrey's eardrums at once. She slapped her hands over her ears, but they did nothing to block the sound out. Across the room, Brett and Claudia writhed in torment, though they both still seemed to be asleep.

Aubrey dropped to her knees.


#


When she hit the ground, she was back in the real world. The screaming was gone, but the world was collapsing all around her.

The center of the cave's ceiling buckled, and the air was full of dirt and rocks and sagging tree roots. Ruby was somewhere in the maelstrom, shouting, but Aubrey couldn't see her or tell what she was saying.

Then the collapse stopped. Small rocks continued to patter down, but the ceiling stopped falling. Aubrey looked up and saw roots as thick as her arms flexing and twisting through the ceiling, reinforcing the weakest points.

Go, the tree nymph said in her head.

Aubrey looked toward the corner of the cave where the nymph was growing out of the braided roots of the tree. The creature was immobile again, like a carving, and the roots were weaving closed again, hiding it from sight. There was no hint of emotion on its face as it disappeared into the tree, but--maybe because Aubrey had just been in its head--she could feel that it was straining to hold the ceiling up.

Claudia still struggled to break free of Addie's bearhug, but even as Aubrey noted this, the girl went limp in the golem's grip. Addie was still functioning, and Aubrey wondered how long she'd been in the nymph's thrall. It couldn't have been as long as it seemed. Seconds? A minute at the most? It was a question for another time.

"Addie! Get her out of here!" As the golem moved to obey, Aubrey turned and hurried toward Brett. The roots holding him in place were retracting, and were gone by the time Aubrey reached him. He was still unconscious, so she grabbed him under the arms and started to drag him toward the tunnel. For such a little kid, he weighed a ton. Addie could have easily carried all of them out of there, and Aubrey bitterly regretted sending the golem away.

She turned back toward the tunnel to call for help, but then the ceiling directly above her collapsed, bulging inward like a soap bubble. She fell to the floor, one hand still hooked under Brett's arm and the other raised reflexively to cover her face.

Roots snapped free of the walls, letting the rest of the cave implode while they wove around and through the section of the ceiling that was threatening to crush Aubrey. When it was all over, Aubrey was still alive. Her mouth and eyes were full of dirt, but there was still a narrow crawlspace's worth of clearance between her and the tons of dirt suspended above her.

She hooked both hands under Brett's arms again and pushed with her feet, hauling him with her as she slid backward toward the tunnel. She'd gone barely five feet before she felt Addie's fingerless, mitten hands grab her shoulders and yank her the rest of the way. Brett came with her, and once they were out of the cave, Addie picked both of them up and loped down the length of the tunnel toward daylight.

The cave finished collapsing as soon as they were out, and the tunnel started to collapse while they were still in it. Addie bulldozed through, the three of them chased out of the imploding shaft by a cloud of expelled dirt and rock. When they'd gone a safe distance, Aubrey told the golem to set her down.

One side of the hill containing the nymph's cave had fallen in, giving it the look of a half-deflated balloon. The giant elm at the top of the hill was still there, but its trunk now leaned noticeably to one side. The tunnel Addie had dug to reach the cave was gone. In its place was a dark, dirt-filled wound in the side of the hill.

Addie laid Brett down on the ground next to Claudia. Aubrey did a mental headcount and came up one short.

"Addie, what happened to Ruby?"

On cue, Ruby emerged from the neckline of Addie's sundress. She climbed up onto the golem's shoulder and had a seat, shaking a shower of dirt out of her feathers. "I hitched a ride when things started falling apart," she explained. "It's a good thing I did too, because I had to tell Addie here to go back and get you. I thought we'd lost you for a minute there when you put your hand in the stream. What happened? Were you zonked like these two?"

"I was talking to it," Aubrey replied. "The tree nymph. I was in its head."

"Did it collapse the cave on purpose?"

"I don't think so," Aubrey said, then shook her head. "I think... I think we did it. I think digging the tunnel made the cave unstable somehow."

"Aubrey!"

Aubrey looked around as Martin came crashing out of the woods to one side of the hill, carrying a black trash bag in one hand. He slowed as he drew closer, eyes drawn up to the large depression in the hillside. His puzzlement couldn't compete with his fatigue, though, and before he could ask what in the world had happened, he had to stop and put his hands on his knees.

"Are you okay?" he asked when he'd finally regained his breath. Instead of waiting for an answer, he continued, "I was following the stream, and it just... vanished. I thought I was lost, but then I heard this big boom--whatever that was." He waved at the partially collapsed hill. "Geez! Did you blow it up or something?"

Aubrey looked down and saw that Martin was right. The glowing blue stream that had led them all here was gone. Vanished without a trace.

Martin went over to his sister and crouched down next to her, pushing some of her filthy hair out of her eyes. Claudia groaned, but the sound was more annoyed than pained. She rolled away from him.

"Are they gonna be okay?" he asked.

"I think so," Aubrey said.

"What about you, Aubrey?" Martin asked, eyeing her. "Are you gonna be okay?"

"There was a tree nymph. I was reasoning with her, getting through to her, and at the end, she saved me. But if the stream is gone... she must be gone too."

Martin stood up, opened the trash bag, and delicately pulled out his backpack. It was bone dry. "It really is all gone," he said.

"The stream was part of her," Aubrey said. "She used it to bring dead animals to her, and to find humans who could help."

"So not fairy pee," Martin said, casting an accusing look at Ruby.

"Not fairy pee," Aubrey agreed.

Instead of putting the backpack on, Martin dropped it back into the garbage bag. "So we won," he said.

Aubrey didn't reply. It didn't feel much like a win to her.


#


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