Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia
The darkness in Audra Grayson’s head was growing stronger. It chilled her nape and throbbed behind her eyes.
She had to force it back, or she’d get nothing more done today. Setting her lips in a tight line against the pain, she pressed two latex-gloved fingers against the painful spot in the center of her forehead.
Deep breath in…out. That helped a little. So did being under the tent canopy, out of the glare of direct sunlight.
She and her archaeological team had set up the square, green tent as a workspace on this remote island. The students had no idea she needed it for any other reason.
Bracing her elbows on the folding table they used to sort artifacts, she rubbed her brow and concentrated on breathing.
A welcome breeze wafted across her face, lifting strands of black hair that escaped her short ponytail. Even in November, the Okefenokee Swamp had some warm days. That figured, considering this was south Georgia, and the heat made the breeze doubly welcome.
“You okay, Dr. G?” Joe Banks, a graduate student on the team, frowned across the table at her. In his lean face, his brown eyes narrowed in concern.
Audra mustered a smile. “I’m good, thanks. Just my allergies again.”
The lie came easily now. After all, telling the truth would get her yanked off the project, and she couldn’t afford that. Not this time. But nobody wanted a supervisory archaeologist who, as they saw it, imagined a dark force hovering over her that grew stronger when she handled Native American artifacts.
If only it were imaginary.
Nothing less than the need to help her mentor, noted archaeologist Dr. Robert Wells, would’ve forced her to this job. She’d known the kinds of relics they found would empower the shadow in her head. Robert had meant to lead this excavation–which had originally been slated for another island before a recent wildfire mysteriously revealed this one–until a stroke sidelined him.
Then he’d asked Audra to step in. Because he’d believed in her when no one else did, she hadn’t been able to refuse. Despite both the shadow and her private doubt that they would fulfill his hopes by findings objects that substantiated the old legends of an advanced civilization deep in the swamp.
“Maybe you should try different meds.” Joe took off his blue Georgia Hope University ball cap and ran a hand through his dark brown hair. Resettling the cap on his head, he added, “Prescription stuff, maybe.”
Audra shrugged. Drugs were no help for what ailed her. She’d learned that during the same shadow-induced crackup that had driven her from specializing in her beloved Native American archaeology.
“As long as I can keep it under control,” she replied, “I don’t want to take any kind of serious meds.”
“I hear ya on that one.”
They worked in silence for several minutes. Using a soft brush, Joe gently cleaned the pottery fragments, or potsherds, they’d unearthed today. Audra photographed each one and catalogued it in a small, plastic bag with a stick-on label.
“Any news on Dr. Wells?” Joe asked.
“No change, but thanks for asking.”
Medicare had refused to pay for more occupational therapy, stating that he’d hit maximum improvement. But Audra was sure he could get over this hump, so she was paying his therapy bills as well as her student loans. With the pay from this job on top of her salary as a probationary, part-time grants coordinator, plus the income from subletting her Atlanta apartment while she was here, she could just barely manage.
Footsteps hurrying over the dirt path outside snapped Audra back to the present. Kevin Hall, Robert Wells’s teaching assistant, or TA, and the supervising student on the project, ducked inside.
The grim expression on his square-jawed, rugged face yanked Audra to her feet. “What’s wrong, Kevin?”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to say anything. But you need to see this, Dr. G.”
“See what?” she asked, hurrying around the table.
“It…” Again, he shook his head. “I don’t want to prejudice you. But we found something odd. Just come look.”
Audra exchanged a baffled glance with Joe as she stripped off the latex gloves that let her put a slight barrier between her hands and the artifacts. Not that doing so hindered the shadow much. She and Joe followed Kevin out into the sunlight.
“I already thought this place was creepy,” Joe muttered.
Audra couldn’t disagree. Something here fed the shadow. If she was lucky, it was nothing more than artifacts that still lay buried.
“It is weird,” Kevin added, leading the way down the path through saw palmettos, with their big, multi-frond, fan-shaped leaves, and pine trees. “I mean, that fire in the swamp burned this whole area, destroyed the Spanish moss and a lot of the plants, plus most of the trees on the prairies and other islands. Yet nothing on this island looks burned.”
“You hear crazy things about wildfire,” Audra said. “Maybe some strange wind pattern spared this island.”
Or maybe whatever was spurring her shadow had something to do with it.
Although the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regularly flew over the swamp, no one had known about this island until the fire burned away the heavy, thorny thickets, known as hells, that had made the area inaccessible.
That added to the creepout factor.
The path led them past the burial mound their permit didn’t allow them to touch, a hillock thirty feet across and ten high–and surprisingly treeless. Just beyond it lay the project site.
The other grad student, Libby Dean, straightened inside the thirty-inch-deep trench. A frown on her usually pleasant, creamy brown face, she glanced down at her feet. “Hey, Dr. G.”
“What’ve we got, Libby?” Audra asked.
Libby shrugged and stepped across one of the white cords creating a reference grid over the trench. A wave of her hand indicated something in the meter-square segment she’d vacated. Careful of the cords, Audra hopped down beside her to look.
Her heart clutched, and she dropped to her knees. Gently, she brushed sandy soil free of the long, narrow shape. A metal shape, likely a sword hilt. Bronze, by her best guess. Buried with prehistoric artifacts of a people who had never known that metal.
The shadow in Audra’s head cackled with glee. She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, and forced it back. One deep breath, and she raised solemn eyes to her students.
“It looks like metal,” Kevin noted slowly. “But it can’t be.”
Audra replied, “It shouldn’t be, anyway. Not here.” They all knew as well as she did that Native Americans had not smelted metal or forged weaponry.
She let her gaze sweep slowly over them. “I have to ask. Do any of you have any idea how this got here?”
They shook their heads. “We wouldn’t,” Libby burst out. “Dr. G., you know we wouldn’t plant a fake.”
If it was a fake. The metal under Audra’s fingers had a resonance that implied great age.
When the darkness and its affinity for Native American objects had driven her out of studying her cultural heritage, she’d turned to the Bronze Age Hittite Empire. Her studies had included handling a few precious, ancient weapons. Enough that she’d learned how they felt. Saying that would also get her branded as crazy, but her grandfather, a Cherokee medicine man, had often told her to be open to what the world had to tell her.
No matter how nutso it sounded, she could distinguish an ancient piece from a modern one by touch.
“I didn’t think you actually had done this,” Audra assured Libby, “but I had to ask. Just so you know, I didn’t do it either.”
Planting artifacts, real or fake, was career-ending fraud for an archaeologist, and her career was already hanging by the thinnest of threads. Feeling faintly queasy, she fisted her hand on one knee.
“What about the undergrads?” she asked. “Could one of them have sneaked this in here somehow?” Half a dozen junior and senior archaeology students worked the site on weekends only.
“Maybe,” Kevin answered slowly, “but if the rest of that weapon is there, it’s too big to fit in a day pack. We’d notice someone carrying it on the boat.”
“Yes,” Audra murmured, thinking of the small, flat-bottomed boats that were crowded with five people aboard. “We would, and a piece like this is far too expensive to use in a prank.” Even replica Bronze Age swords did not come cheaply.
“Even if there’s not much more of it,” Kevin said, “the ground was packed down over and around it. It’d be hard for someone to plant that when we’re all onsite.”
“Uh, Dr. G?” Joe ran a hand over his face. “You don’t suppose that thing is, uh, real…do you?”
“It can’t be,” Audra blurted. The words carried an edge of panic.
She made herself settle. “A real one would cost vastly more than a good replica. Besides, the hilt and the bit of the blade you’ve uncovered are in great condition, much too well preserved for what appears to be an ancient weapon.”
No matter what kind of vibes it gave off. Maybe the shadow was addling her sense of the hilt.
The students looked relieved. Until Kevin added, “But we still have to report this. Explain it somehow.”
“We do,” Audra confirmed. “But that’s on me, not you. Y’all uncover the rest of it, and we’ll see what we have. I’ll be cataloguing if you need me.”
She stood and brushed off her knees. A sick feeling rose in her throat, but she mustered a calm tone. “As Dr. Wells always says, the truth is in the artifacts. There’s an explanation, and we’ll find it.”
She stepped out of the trench and headed down the path. When the mound hid her from view, she realized she was shaking. Audra leaned against the thick trunk of a live oak.
Ethics required her to report this find, but there was no cell reception this far into the swamp. Once they got back to the old farmhouse they rented as a base, she would phone the granting museum’s foundation and report this. She had no other acceptable choice.
But she dreaded that call. Since a grad school clash, she’d been on the shit list of Denise Larrabee, grants director of the Native American Coalition Museum Foundation, which was funding this work. And then there was the blot on her record from that shadow-induced crackup.
If Audra couldn’t explain that sword, she’d be off this project and likely lose the grants job with the Okefenokee Heritage League. Her chances of getting another job when her current, nonrenewable fellowship expired this coming May were already slim. This could destroy them.
No one wanted a staffer who committed fraud, and that would be the starting assumption of all her peers when word of this got out.
The kids might not know about her crackup, as the archaeology world saw it, but it was a damn sure bet every professional in the field did. Whether or not the sword was genuine, how the hell was she going to prove she hadn’t planted it out of desperation to make a splash that would live down that old episode?
Without a professional-level job, she couldn’t pay for Robert’s therapy. Not to mention her student loans. His health was at stake along with her slim chance at an archaeological career.
Audra ran her hands over her face and squared her shoulders. Someone, somehow, had planted that weapon.
She would find the truth. She had to.
“If the ghouls manage to open a portal and admit Void demons to this world, everything that breathes is an endangered species,” Will Davis glumly noted, surveying the crowded dining room of the Marsh Heron restaurant.
His companion, dark-haired mage physician Stefan Harper, nodded. “Talking about the end of the world in here, now, surrounded by all these people having a good time seems…surreal.”
“Yeah.” Will, too, looked around the room. He knew Stefan brooded about the problem as much as he did.
They’d come here for dinner to relax, but both of their minds had circled back to the threat most of humanity didn’t have a clue existed. Every mage’s first duty was the protection of Mundanes, or nonmagical humans, from dark forces, even though Mundanes couldn’t be trusted to know mages existed.
Ghouls were the mages’ deadly enemies. Dark magic users unable to conceive children among themselves and able to eat only fresh kill, they preyed on humans and mages for breeding stock. And sometimes for snacks.
As though that weren’t enough, they’d recently allied with demons from the Void between worlds.
All that stood between humanity and extinction were mages like Will, Stefan, and their friends. For several years, Will and Stefan had been part of a covert ops team raiding ghoul settlements, or nests, and searching out mage traitors who worked with ghouls.
“Taking those nests out was a real joy,” Will said. “It’s good the shire reeve’s office is finally free of traitors and doing its job again, so we don’t have to, but I kind miss the action.”
“Believe it or not, so do I. Every time we took out a nest, we all knew we’d done something good. Now, trying to figure out what the ghouls’ll do next, and where…” Stefan shrugged. “It’s damn frustrating.”
“You said it. We can’t stop what we don’t know is coming.” There was no denying the ghouls had upped their game lately, and the mages were scrambling to catch up.
Stefan grimaced his agreement. “Any word from your sources about the possibility of a Void demon being loose?”
“Nobody has anything definite.”
Will took a long swallow of his beer and eyed his friend. Though Stefan looked as calm as always, dark shadows smudged the skin under his eyes, and fatigue lines bracketed his mouth.
“How’s my favorite badge babe?” Will asked. Stefan and his fiancée, FBI Special Agent Camellia “Mel” Wray, had recently been ghoul prisoners for a short time.
Humor lit Stefan’s brown eyes. He lifted one dark eyebrow. “You plan to call her that to her face?”
“Why not?” Will grinned. “It’s a compliment.”
“We’ll see if she agrees.” The amusement faded from Stefan’s expression. After a moment, he said, “She’s good.”
That beat of hesitation spurred Will to add, “I’m asking her fiancé, not her doctor. If that matters.”
Stefan set down his fork and rubbed a hand over his face. “She’s doing well, all things considered. She has occasional nightmares.”
“That’s to be expected, I guess.” Playing a hunch, Will asked, “Is she the only one?”
Stefan shrugged. “I signed on for the risks. She didn’t.”
That would be a no, then.
The phone at Stefan’s belt beeped. He glanced at it and excused himself. Must be important if he was walking outside to talk. Stefan was the chief physician at the Southeast Collegium, a facility secretly encompassing the mages’ governing body, magical academy, and law enforcement center, and so was always on call. As assistant archivist there, Will had more freedom.
He let his gaze wander the crowded dining room, but he kept coming back to a group of eight women sitting around a table piled with gifts wrapped in silver or white paper. Hmm. Maybe this was a bridal shower.
Not all the women were magazine-cover pretty, but every one radiated confidence and enthusiasm that made her attractive as hell. The blonde he’d been watching off and on sat at the end of the table. Damn, but she had a pretty smile…Also a diamond on her left hand. Crap.
Just as Asimov had three law for robots, Will had three inviolable rules for dating. Number two put the blonde–the bride, apparently–off limits. He never, ever poached. Doing unto others, et cetera.
Maybe things would work out for the blonde and her guy. They did for some people. But those women and others like them had no future unless he and his friends solved this problem with ghouls and demons.
Will frowned out at the twilight. The marsh outside the plate glass window at his left looked peaceful with a breeze stirring the tall grass and rippling the water. Despite the restaurant’s name, he had yet to see a heron out there.
Beyond the marsh, the lights of Brunswick, Georgia, cast a glow into the evening sky.
Will’s cell phone buzzed, signaling a text. He pulled the phone from his pocket and saw his mom’s name on the screen. Smiling, he tapped to read the message.
Archaeologists in southern Okefenokee finding bronze weapons x last 3 days. Sponsor seeks consult. Want it? the message read, followed by LU, her code for “love you.”
Will’s eyebrows rose. Bronze weapons in the Okefenokee? Somebody had some serious ‘splainin’ to do.
Intrigued, he rubbed his chin. His archaeologist parents ran a foundation that specialized in complex archaeological fraud. Solving a case would be a great change from all this hamster-wheel running about the ghouls.
He had time to do it, too. With the approach of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, his duties in the archives had tapered off.
He texted back, Sounds fun. Email deets. LU2, the number doubling as “also” and a reference to his dad.
The waitress had already left the check. Will dug out his wallet and stuffed enough cash to cover the bill and a good tip into the black folder. He and Stefan could settle up later.
“Excuse me.” The cute brunette from the bridal party stood by his table, smiling at him.
Will smiled back and got to his feet. “What can I do for you?” He kept his eyes on her face, away from the enticing cleavage inches from his chest. Although he stood six-one, her heels put her bright, tawny eyes on level with his nose. He did so like tall women.
“We’re a bachelorette party. My friend’s getting married day after tomorrow.”
“You gotta love a wedding.” Whether or not you intended ever to take the plunge yourself.
“Yep.” The probable bridesmaid nodded, a satisfied glint in her eyes. “They’re a great pair. The thing is, we’re playing this little game. A contest.”
He grinned at her, keeping it light, as though they were friends already. “Did I win?”
“No, but if you give me your phone number, I might.” When he raised his eyebrows, she continued, “The person who brings back the phone number of the best-looking guy wins.”
“And you picked me. Sugar, that’s the nicest thing to happen to me all week.” If pale blue eyes, longish, streaky blond-brown hair in need of cutting, and a day’s growth of beard appealed to her friends, she was a shoo-in to win.
He dug his wallet out of his pocket again. Which card should he give her? His fulltime job was Assistant Loremaster–to Mundanes, Assistant Archivist–at the Georgia Institute for Paranormal Research, as the Collegium was known to its Mundane neighbors. But his part-time gig as a consulting archaeologist for the Veritates Antiquae Foundation, his archaeologist parents’ business, might be more impressive. Both cards had his cell number on them.
He passed her the foundation card. She took it with her left hand. Her ring-free left hand.
He kept his grip on the end of the card. “I’ll swap a phone number for a name. A number for a number’s even better.”
She flashed him a grin. “The name’s Brenna. Can’t give you the number…” She glanced down at the card. “…Will. It’s against the rules of the game.”
“Fair enough.” He let go of the card. “Is it okay to say I hope you win?”
“It’s the absolute right thing to say. I like a man who’s confident but not cocky.” Smiling up at him, she tapped the card against her fingers. “And I like my chances. Thanks.”
“Glad to be of service, and thanks back atcha.”
She nodded and returned to her table. Will stuffed his tablet into his backpack and walked out. Maybe he’d hear from the lovely Brenna, maybe not. He had plenty to do either way.
Just outside the door, he met Stefan heading back in. “I need to get back,” Stefan said. “A kid experimenting with dark magic got caught in the backlash.”
Damn. The lure, the rush, of dark magic had enticed many a mage kid to disaster in spite of all the warnings they received.
“Let’s go, then. I got the check already.”
Stefan thanked him. They hurried out to Will’s silver Infiniti together.
“Hell,” Stefan muttered as they climbed into the car, “I hate leaving with this Void demon threat escalating, but I am so ready to go on vacation.”
“You and Mel need the time, so no guilt allowed. Just one more day, and then you can lounge around in sunny California.” Will clapped him on the shoulder. “If they don’t get tired of your sorry ass and ship you home.”
Buckling his seatbelt, Stefan grinned. “Don’t project your personality failures onto me, bro.”
“You wish.” But that grin meant Stefan’s spirits had lifted a bit despite the emergency waiting for him. Good. Will’s work here was done.
Too bad the ghoul problem wasn’t as easy to solve.
“So how long is this guy gonna be around?” Joe’s chin jutted as he asked the question.
“Until we have an answer,” Audra replied. The students stood around her in the yard of the farmhouse they used as a base.
She didn’t like having a watchdog sicced on them any more than they did, but she had to put a good face on it. “Look, this isn’t personal. We’ve uncovered relics that are just flat-out anomalous. Of course there’ll be an investigation.”
“Yeah, well.” Scowling, Libby scuffed her boot toe in the dirt driveway. “If they can’t find any other explanation, we know who they’ll blame.”
Audra said, “That’s not going to happen.” At least she hoped not. She drew a deep breath and blew it out. “This could actually be a break.”
With the students eying her skeptically, she made herself sound upbeat. “Dr. Will Davis, actually William Ralston Davis IV, comes from a long line of famous archaeologists. He’s a big name in his own right, having uncovered a cache of swords, spearheads, shields, and axes authenticated as Persian in a previously unexplored site in Greece. He knows ancient weapons. If anyone can figure out what’s going on here, he can. So let’s look at this as a break.”
Please, please, let it be a break, not the hammer of doom.
Kevin rubbed his chin. “If those weapons are real–I know it’s unlikely, but if–that’s a huge discovery. If this Davis guy authenticates it, won’t he get the credit, not Dr. Wells?”
Over Audra’s dead body.
“With some people,” Audra answered, “that would be a strong possibility.” Like if Denise at the museum foundation were coming here. “But the Davises pride themselves on credit going where it’s due. I asked around, and nobody had anything bad to say about Will Davis. Nobody.”
Everyone did say he was a player with women, although an honest one, but there was no need to go into that with the students. Unless he broke his reputed pattern and hit on Libby. Then Audra would have step in, and fast.
They gave her dubious looks but no more argument. Audra managed a smile. “Head on out and get started. I’ll follow with Dr. Davis when he arrives. Yes, the Georgia Institute for Paranormal Research is an odd place for an archaeologist to work, but that’s his business. Let’s look on the upside until we have reason to do otherwise.”
The students exchanged looks. At last, Kevin said, “Fair enough.”
They climbed into the school van. Audra waved as they pulled out. With them went the need to keep up a game face. She let her shoulders slump and sat on the top step of the three leading up to the front porch.
There’d been no point in telling the team, at least not yet, about Denise’s edict that Davis was in charge from the moment of his arrival. Since her museum’s foundation held the purse strings, Audra couldn’t argue. Maybe she could convince Davis to make the change in control less obvious. That would go a long way toward helping the students adjust.
Meanwhile, she would put the best face on things, greet the man with friendly cooperation, and hope, hope, hope the fly in the ointment he represented was the solution to her problem and not the end of all her dreams.
Something was seriously wrong on Mystery Island, site of the problem excavation. Driving to meet the team two days after accepting the consult, Will drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and mulled over the situation. He scarcely noticed the monotonous stands of commercially grown timber lining both sides of the Georgia 94, better known as South End Road because it ran along the Okefenokee’s southern border.
His mom had tried to remotely scry, or magically view, the excavation site to see where the mystery artifacts had come from. She should’ve been able to summon images of the site’s current status and recent past in a bowl of water. Her inability to do so was a bad sign.
Will had led the mage team that investigated the island after its mysterious appearance a couple of months back. They’d found nothing but faint, residual traces of old magic. It was likely the spell that had concealed the place, though they hadn’t been able to figure out why it had been hidden.
If scrying was blocked now, some kind of serious magic had awakened there. So he came prepared for trouble.
Besides, consulting archaeologists in fraud cases were often not greeted warmly. Will glanced at the sheathed machete leaning against the passenger seat of his blue, 1995 Ford Bronco. He also had a hatchet in the toolbox in the back. Both would be normal equipment for working in the Okefenokee.
At least he’d go into the swamp well armed, with magic to back up the blades. He had a few other favorite weapons hidden in his gear.
Obedient to his GPS, he turned into the driveway on his left. Half a mile off the road sat a two-story, weathered-white farmhouse with a wide porch. An unpainted barn stood about thirty yards behind and to the left of the house, which looked old but solid and fairly roomy.
A bronze-skinned woman wearing jeans, work boots, and a tan barn coat sat on the top porch step. Her jet-black hair was gathered in a short ponytail at her nape. She stood and waved.
Will waved back. As he drew up to the house, he spotted shadows under her dark brown eyes and fatigue lines around her generous mouth made her look tired, but possible career-ending scandal could explain that. At least she looked friendly enough, if a bit somber, like the photo in the file he’d received.
As he parked, she came around to the front of the truck, not crowding him. He climbed out and offered his right hand. “Dr. Grayson, I’m Will Davis.”
“Make it Audra, please.”
“Good to meet you.” Their hands met and clasped. A bit of heat instantly sparked between them. Then a frisson of dark power rippled up Will’s arm to chill the nape of his neck.
What the hell?
On reflex, barely managing not to snatch his hand back, he wrapped a thin, invisible layer of magic around it. The shield involved wouldn’t be evident to her. A flat, sour taste invaded his mouth.
Shit. At least the sour taste wasn’t the ammonia of ghoul venom or the brimstone that would signal Void demon presence. He’d definitely sensed something evil, though.
Dark power could cause anything from annoying nightmares to a full mental takeover, with the subject having no memory of what happened during those times. Had he just shaken hands with the cause of this project’s problems?