Delilah exhaled slowly, lowering herself to the ground. Breathe in, slow, deep. Exhale, push upwards, rise.
Her arms shook. Sweat dripped from her face to the floor. Despite her best efforts to tie it back, she just had too much hair, and several blonde strands were trying to poke her in the eye.
“Six…teen…” she said slowly, groaning with effort. She rolled over onto her back, let out a sigh of relief, stared at the ceiling high above.
The training hall in Greyson Manor was huge, and it felt even bigger when she was all alone in it. Delilah was small – despite multiple growth spurts over the summer, despite having started high school, she still had the height of an elementary school graduate. And her whole frame was small, her muscles weak, so she’d never done much physical training. That was part of why she’d focused on Summoning – to be as useful to her family as possible, as young as possible, she needed magic that didn’t rely on her own physical capabilities.
The Library of Solitude had displayed to her clearly the weakness of that plan. Even with four Summons, she herself was vulnerable. She herself could barely contribute to a fight. And magic was a drain on the mind and body, so for someone so young and small, it drained Delilah even faster than others.
If I can get stronger, then my Summons can get stronger. If I can get stronger, it might open doors to me of other magic to use, other ways to help those I care about.
It might make me brave. Brave enough not to give up like I did at the Library. If Shana hadn’t succeeded when she did… we would have all failed.
And it would have been my fault.
Delilah rolled back over, set herself up in a pushup position for “super-slow pushups.” She’d gotten the idea from listening to Caleb and Shias talk about their training sessions one day, long before any of them had known about the Enchanted Dominion or the living darkness.
“So if you do each rep as slowly as possible, it’s more effective?” Shias had asked.
“That’s right,” Caleb had said. “Even the exertion part of each rep, where you’d normally do quickly with a lot of strength, go as slow as possible. If you don’t need to build up explosive power, and instead want to focus on stamina, body control, and strength, super-slow reps are the way to go for almost everything.”
When Delilah had first tried them out, she could only do three super-slow pushups before collapsing in a heap. She’d finally reached ten pushups in a row the day before being whisked away to Hollow Island. After all she’d been through and not really getting chances to do focused training, she thought she might have gotten weaker.
But somehow, she’d gotten a little bit stronger.
It still isn’t enough. I’ve relied on my Felines too much. But they should be able to rely on me, too.
I have a strong team. But when I’m the weakest link in that team, how strong can we really be?
Another set of pushups, and Delilah collapsed at fourteen. She punched the floor mat lightly, grunting with frustration at not matching her previous set. Rolling over on her back, she stared up and around at the training hall some more as she caught her breath and rested her muscles.
I feel so small in here. I wonder how many people could train in here together at once? Caleb and Shias usually use it, just the two of them, but they’d have plenty of space. Five people could use it easily. Maybe even ten? Yeah, I think ten would still have space. That would depend on fighting styles, though. If you have a bunch of highly mobility-focused fighters, they won’t have enough space, but if most of the ones training are more stationary, then –
Delilah sat up suddenly at the sound of the main door opening. She was surprised at who entered. First there was Caleb, then Chelsea, but then came Shana, and Shias, and then still more. Lorelei, Gwen, Ben, Rae, Kathryn… even Will Rook, Caleb’s best friend, who Delilah hadn’t seen in a long time.
Caleb and Shana were chatting away, but stopped as they noticed Delilah.
“Hey!” Shana said, pointing, a grin spreading across her face. “You’re here, too!”
“This is crazy,” Caleb said, laughing. “All of us were surprised to run into each other, and now you!”
“This is perfect, we can all train together!” Shana said.
Delilah’s heart pounded in her chest, and she leapt to her feet. “N-no, I –” she started.
“We’d love to have you,” Chelsea said with a smile.
Delilah shook her head frantically, turned away and walked swiftly towards the side entrance to the training hall. The protests of her siblings fell on deaf ears, as she flung open the door and slammed it shut behind her.
Now out of sight, she ran, up the stairs to the third floor, and down a hall to the east wing. She reached her bedroom, slipped inside, and slammed that door, too. She didn’t mean to slam the doors, but she was so worked up, she found it impossible not to. Tugging her hair free, she let it fall all around her, and sat on her floor, staring at the wall, catching her breath.
Why? Why did they have to be there? And why did they have to be so welcoming?
I failed them all. And they’re still so nice. They act like nothing happened.
I’m too weak to train with them, anyway. They would have seen that once we started.
It wasn’t just all of that, though. Delilah knew she was also extremely self-conscious about anyone knowing she was doing her own personal physical training. Just like with her Felines, she’d been training in secret, and when she was found out, it was embarrassing.
Why am I always discovered before I’m good enough? If I’d had more time before Anastasia used the Flute, before I had to help save Caleb and Chelsea…
None of this would have happened.
Shana, Chelsea, Lorelei, Gwen… they would have been able to count on me.
Delilah blinked at wetness in her eyes, and it wasn’t until she wiped at her face that she realized she was crying. “Stop that,” she said softly, pouting at herself. “Just stop.”
Tears and sweat mingled together. Her hair-tie still in her hand, Delilah tossed it against the wall, then stood up. She gathered together some clean clothes and ducked inside her bathroom to take a shower.
But that didn’t refresh her, and instead of changing into pajamas like she’d planned, hoping getting comfy would raise her spirits, she changed into outdoor clothes – the same clothes that Gwen had made for her at her home on Lilac Hill: a long, light green hooded jacket over a white dress, dark blue leggings, a black belt, and black, high-top shoes. It was too cold for just that, though, so Delilah donned a blue headband to keep her ears warm, gloves, and a purple scarf which she tucked into the collar of her coat. Downstairs she went, and out the door, leaving Greyson Manor behind.
The blast of cold air was an instant refreshment, especially after a hot shower, and as Delilah walked she found her spirits lifted slightly. But then she was faced with the question:
Where to go?
The library? No, even though it’s quiet, I don’t want to be around people. That rules shopping out, too, as much as shopping usually helps when I’m having a bad day.
Another gust of frigid air swept across her face.
Guess that decides it.
Delilah traveled north, sticking to the smallest streets and most out-of-the-way paths. She bypassed Crescent Avenue – despite the chill, the partially outdoor shopping street was bustling with activity. But then, that was Grimoire. People here weren’t daunted by the cold.
As she walked, she thought.
I’m already all caught up on schoolwork, despite being gone so long. First-years have it easy, even in high school. So now I just… go back to normal life? Train, go to school, shop, play, read, spend time with my family?
That’s not so bad. But…
I’m just like Shana, aren’t I? There’s danger all around us, coming in on our family. She wants to help, despite what mom and dad say, and so do I.
But Shana also wants to save the city. She wants to save the universe, she wants to save everyone.
Saving the Library was great. Saving the universe would be amazing. So would saving Grimoire.
But really… all I want to do is help mom and dad.
Delilah had known for a long time that her parents were targets of some kind. She’d often heard them talking, late at night, about “dark tidings” and dangers that they’d faced, as well as many utterances of “we need to keep the kids out of this.”
Sorry, mom. Sorry, dad. But I can’t stay out of it. You’ve been in danger for a long time. How can I ignore the needs of my parents? You’ve done – and still would do – anything for me. How can I just take what you give, and never give back?
That was why Delilah had started training. She’d researched Hunter combat tactics, Hollows, team compositions, and different types of magic. She’d settled on Summons, brought Felix into being, and Nekoma and Redmond shortly after. Taking a page from Caleb’s book, Delilah had manifested a little bit of Mobility Magic as a disc, but using it as a wider platform that could fly, a sturdy base for her to survey the battlefield from.
And then she’d gone out in secret, taking on Snifflers. One day, she’d planned to move on to stronger Hollows.
When she was ready.
But her time had come sooner than planned. All of her plans had been undone, and while her time in the Enchanted Dominion, and especially in the Library of Solitude, had been a valuable one…
It had starkly shown her all of her flaws. All of the ways she fell short were put on display.
So what can I do but keep training? I don’t think I can join either of the teams, either. Shana’s got her own quest on her mind, too. She’s focused on saving the whole universe from the living darkness. And Caleb’s team is all of trained fighters, four of them Hunters. They’re way beyond my skill – I saw that well enough with Chelsea, and Lorelei, and Gwen. And they’re focused on this entire city, not just mom and dad.
So I just keep soldiering on alone.
Delilah managed a small smile.
But I’m not alone. I have four Felines on my side. And –
Her thoughts were interrupted as she sniffed the air. The aroma of cinnamon wafted to her, confectionary temptations seizing hold of her will. Delilah followed her nose, arriving at Daphne’s, a prominent bakery near Ring Park, and bought herself a cinnamon roll. It was piping hot, and she ate it as she walked, squealing in delight at her first bite.
“It’s been too long!” she said softly, with her mouth full of the cinnamon and sugar and deliciousness. She sighed contentedly. “Perfection. I missed you, my sweet cinnamon rolls.”
She had her Felines. She had her parents, even if she still kept her support for them a secret for now.
And she had cinnamon rolls.
What else did a girl need?
Farther north Delilah walked, tossing the wrapper of her consumed cinnamon roll into a trash can by the mall, and continuing on, past the Crater District, past Lunar Park, past Grimoire University.
The smell of salt hit her all at once, as a sudden, more powerful, more frigid wind washed over her. And as she crested a hill, she saw it: Grimson Bay. And beyond it, the ocean.
The Bay was a hot spot in the brief summers of Grimoire, and through late spring and early fall, as well as in the coldest months of winter when most of it froze and ice skaters came down daily.
But right now, when winter was on their doorstep but the first snowfall had yet to arrive, Grimson Bay was deserted.
This was Delilah’s favorite time to visit.
To her right was the path up to the Bay Overlook, and beyond that was the wide, well-known road down to Shore Park. But Delilah trekked straight ahead, and began descending the sheer rocky cliffs to the shore below by a winding, narrow trail that Caleb had found and introduced all of his siblings to. It was “The Secret Greyson Path,” and Delilah loved it, even though it had become less and less secret as the Greysons kept using it in broad daylight over the years. There were signs of worn stairs cut into the rock, signaling that this path had once been an official, well-maintained descent. But in the end, it had gone into disuse in favor of wider roads and shallower declines.
Setting foot in the white sand, Delilah hugged her arms tight to her body. Here at the bottom, with a slight rocky overhang above her, the wind whipped at her viciously, caught in the small space at the bottom of the stairs. A few steps out, however, and the wind ceased its vicious assault, instead following the pace of the tide, coming in strong, then departing, before a swift return.
The sound of the wind mingled with the waves washing in and out from the shore. The tide was low, and the white sand stretched out far and wide, in front of Delilah and to her right and left, curving forward as it went out, wrapping around the Bay. The sky was slightly overcast, but as the clouds shifted, the sun peeked out, and a brief, dazzling blast of light lit up the entire shore like a beach of diamonds. The clouds returned, and the diamonds turned back to sand, and Delilah started to walk once more.
Out across the vast Bay were rock formations. Some of them were tiny miniature islands – two even had small, flowering trees on them, somehow never getting swallowed up in the tide. At times, when Delilah was in the right mood and the light hit the Bay just right, she thought it all looked like the ruins of an ancient castle, now half submerged under the water. Several rocks had smaller “stepping stones” out to them when the tide was low, and others were close enough to shore that anyone taller than Delilah could reach them even at high tide without having to swim.
While most of the rocks were small, scattered, a variety of simple shapes without too much presence, the farthest formation was the most fascinating and impressive. Dubbed “The Gate” by the people of Grimoire, they towered up at the farthest end of the Bay, just before it met the open ocean. From each edge of the farthest side of the Bay, up rose massive, arching pillars that, at one time, probably were joined together, but now their top middle section was crumbled, leaving a hundred foot wide gap between them. Somehow, they remained standing, and gulls often made nests in the pitted alcoves where the rocks had worn down. Moss covered sections of them, and there were probably some strange gemstones as well, judging by how sections sparkled in the right light. They rose up taller than the cliffs, and down beneath them, in the center, was a forked stone pillar rising up about fifty feet above the water. In its center was some sort of pedestal, though what purpose all of this had served, no one knew. The ruins had been here in the Bay even hundreds of years ago, when the Lunar Architects had first discovered what would become Grimoire.
It was fascinating, and haunting, and beautiful. And as Delilah walked along the shore, looking out across the rocks and the waves, she felt a peace wash over her. The wind whipped her hair something fierce at times, but its violence was distant to her, for her heart was calm.
I’m going to get stronger. I’m going to keep working at this, and working on myself.
Part of me wants to work with my siblings. But they have “bigger” plans and missions and goals. I just want to protect them, and my parents. So I’ll support them from the shadows, carefully and quietly, while working on myself. And if things get really bad…
I’ll be ready.
Delilah was about to turn away and begin her trek back home when she saw something strange. Something within her – instinct? Fear? – caused her to duck low to the sand, all senses on alert. She peered out across the Bay, her eyes fixed on the forked pillar beneath The Gate.
There was a black figure there. She hadn’t seen them at first – had they been there this whole time? Or had they only just arrived? If they had, from where?
And had they seen her?
Delilah stayed still, not daring to move, even to the rocky cover just a few feet to her right.
Friend or foe? Human or Enchanted? Dangerous or benign?
How could she tell from this distance? All she could do was watch, wait, hope for some clue about the form across the water. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she felt sweat drip down her face despite the frigid wind sweeping over her.
Suddenly, the black figure moved. A huge leap, high into the sky, to the right. They landed on a smaller pillar, and then leapt again, a lower, dashing leap, to the next rock. Four more leaps, and they’d reached the shore. Still, they were as far out as could be, and Delilah couldn’t make out more about them. But they were dressed in black, and they clearly had potent Mobility or Enhancement Magic.
And they don’t mind using their magic in broad daylight.
The figure stopped on the shore for a long while, and seemed to be slowly moving their head, looking around. Would they see her? Delilah didn’t dare move. If she went for the cover, she’d lose sight of the figure, even if she wasn’t seen, and what then?
I need to keep my eyes on them. Don’t move. Be as inconspicuous as the sand itself.
Thankfully, instinct had also led her hand to grip her keychain Talisman when she ducked down, so if the figure was an enemy, and did spot her, and then tried to attack her, Delilah would be ready for the fight.
Don’t even try to fight, though. Bring out the Felines, jump on your disc, fly up and out of here. Retreat, get home, report.
This is the kind of thing that I can’t keep a secret. This is the kind of thing that mom and dad and all the others need to know about.
And if the figure doesn’t attack, and leaves to somewhere else…
Do I follow them?
No. The pillar. I need to see what they were doing there. I need to see if I can find clues about it. And honestly, I’d be terrible at trailing someone. They’d notice me in a heartbeat, or I’d lose track of them too fast.
The figure seemed to stand in that spot, far off on the shore, for an unbearable amount of time. Minutes? Hours? The sun barely seemed to move, yet it felt like eternity to Delilah.
And then the figure ran, as suddenly as they’d stopped before, vanishing around the cliffs towards Shore Park and the road up to Grimoire.
Delilah stayed crouched down in the sand for several moments longer. Then, seeing no sign of the figure returning, she rose to her feet.
She kept her hand in her pocket, kept a tight grip on her Talisman.
I need to get to that pillar.
She walked swiftly across the shore, heading along the right bank towards where the figure had departed from. Once there, she looked out towards Shore Park, and the road leading up to Grimoire, and the low parts of the cliffs.
No signs of the figure. They must really have gone into the city for some purpose.
Delilah turned to the water and considered her options. No matter how she looked at it, it was going to take magic – in broad daylight – to get to her destination.
So the question is, how do I minimize the chances of anyone noticing me?
She only had one way of getting there: her disc-shaped platform. It glowed white, which was an advantage, since it would be less conspicuous out here than any other color. But that was still too obvious.
I could pick my way on the far side of the rocks, staying low. But anyone on the highest cliffs would be able to see… and if I stay too low, my feet will get wet, and it’s way too cold to bear that.
Maybe it’s worth it?
She couldn’t wait long. Who knew when the dark figure would return, assuming they would?
Delilah started taking breaths and letting them out, jogging in place, psyching herself up.
You won’t even feel it. Your feet are hot. They’re blazing! They need a good soak. You won’t even notice. It’ll be refreshing. Okay. You got this. Let’s go!
Delilah stepped out onto the water as the tide came in, forming her platform as she did. It appeared just millimeters beneath the water, and she did her best to keep it close to the surface, but the water wasn’t some flat, formless floor. It rose and fell, swirled and whirled, swished and crested. Frigid water lapped against Delilah’s shoes, and though her feet didn’t get wet right away, she knew it was only a matter of time.
“Here we go,” she said softly. Crouching halfway down on her platform, she urged it forward at a speedy, but not conspicuous, pace. If she went too fast, water would splash up and get all over her, and that would do her no good. But she stayed low, kept close to the far side of each rock she passed, and soon she had reached the forked pillar beneath The Gate. Water had seeped through, drenching her shoes and the socks within, and her feet were bitter cold. Whatever she found, she wouldn’t be able to stay and investigate it. Stepping up onto the rock, Delilah walked along a platform and up a few steps to the pedestal. It was a small stone pillar rising up, with a concave depression on top. It looked as if some kind of spherical object should be placed on it.
Delilah knelt, examining the stone from all angles. But she shivered. It wasn’t just her feet – water had gotten onto her leggings, nearly halfway up her lower legs, and with how harsh the wind was this far out in the Bay, Delilah wouldn’t last long.
She was only glad it wasn’t actually winter yet. Then she wouldn’t have had a chance at all if she’d gotten any part of her body or clothes wet.
On the far side of the pedestal, as Delilah knelt down and looked up at the depression from the bottom, she noticed a series of lines. They weren’t worn and weathered like the rest of the stone – they were fresh, new. Black lines traced out some sort of runic symbols that she didn’t recognize, but she took out her phone and snapped photos of them from several angles. They were only on the far side of the pedestal, not anywhere else. But as Delilah stood up and stared down at the depression, she noticed something odd. Wiping a gloved hand across its surface, she understood.
The pedestal wasn’t as weathered as it looked. Some kind of substance was spread across it, like fake dust, but clingy enough to resist the constant wind. A few rubs, though, and some of it smeared away, revealing something very interesting.
The runes continued into the concave depression itself. Delilah looked around, across the Bay, up at the cliffs. She didn’t see anyone. But her heart pounded in her chest all the same, feeling that she was in a desperate race against time. Finally, realizing it could take many minutes to fully clear the pedestal, she just started snapping photos as fast as she could.
“This’ll have to do for now,” she said softly, teeth chattering. Stepping down towards the water, she boarded her disc once more and sped away towards the opposite shore from where she’d come. Every second she was whipping her head around, hair flying in her face, eyes darting about for any sign of other humans.
As far as she could tell, there was no one. She arrived at the other shore having completed her task in secrecy.
And yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched. Keeping a death-grip on her Talisman, she jogged up the lesser-used road on this side of the Bay, up along the cliffs towards Lunar Park. She needed to get back to civilization fast, back to populated places where she wasn’t so vulnerable. Each step made her feel more and more like she was being pursued, and her heart felt like it was going to rip itself free from her chest. She dared not look back, but only ran on faster, occasionally looked to her left, out across the cliffs and the Bay below.
Finally, she could bear it no longer. Let the danger come. Let a fight break out. She could defend herself. She steeled herself and whipped around, brandishing her Talisman.
But there was no one there.
She was all alone.
A slow, icy shiver ran down her spine, like a cold finger tracing a lazy line down her back. Delilah stiffened, then whipped around in the opposite direction.
Still, she was alone.
She took a deep breath, let it out. Never letting go of her Talisman, she placed her hands back in her pockets, started walking more comfortably.
Everything’s fine. I’m fine. There’s nothing to worry about.
Finally, just as she was about to leave the Bay for good, walking back towards the city, she turned once more towards the cliffs, staring out towards The Gate.
Her heart froze in her chest.
Standing on the forked pillar were three dark figures. And though they were so far away, so difficult to make out, Delilah could tell. She didn’t know how, but she could tell all the same.
All three of them were staring at her.
Delilah barely stifled a gasp, wheeled around, and ran as fast as her frozen feet could carry her, sprinting desperately across Grimoire University’s campus, across Lunar Park.
People. I need people. I need a public place full of people!
Delilah’s breathing came in ragged, fearful gasps as she ran, but she dared not stop for anything. Descending into the Crater District, on she ran, making a desperate break for the mall.
Every step, she felt the same feeling as she had climbing up out of the Bay. She felt like she was being chased, like eyes were on her back, like someone was right behind her. But this time she dared not stop, ran with wild abandon. There were the doors. There was sanctuary. She dashed inside the mall, and right before she merged with the crowd she wheeled around to face her pursuer.
She hadn’t been followed. Stepping forward tentatively, pressing her face against the glass of the doors, Delilah stared out, expecting to see the dark figures up on the top of the crater.
But there was no one.
Delilah’s feet couldn’t take anymore, and her heart could take even less. She walked the rest of the way, to a central area of the mall’s first floor where a natural hot spring fed into a public tiled foot-bath. Some kids were splashing their feet in it, parents were soaking their feet happily, and Delilah joined the crowd, pulling off her wet shoes and socks, rolling up her leggings, and wincing, but then sighing in relief, as she placed her feet into the water.
Don’t stay long. And figure out how to dry your socks and shoes. But we have to get home. Actually, I should text the others, before something happens.
Delilah reached into the inside pocket of her coat, where she always kept her phone when she wore it.
But her phone wasn’t there.
Delilah’s heart began pounding again, and she patted all over herself, frantically searching for her phone. She felt her wallet, and her Talisman, but…
No. No. There’s no way. I put it back in my inside jacket pocket, didn’t I? Nobody could have taken it, and I couldn’t have dropped it. There’s no way. No way at –
“Miss?” came a pleasant voice from behind Delilah, to her right. “You dropped this.”
Delilah turned slowly, stared at the outstretched hand holding her cell phone. She grabbed it gratefully, looking up at the stranger who’d recovered it. She was an odd-looking woman, to say the least. Her hair was parted to the right, and long on that side, but shorn almost to a buzz-cut on the left side. Several earrings studded her left ear, but only a single one, dangling in a long chain, adorned her right. Her left eye was blue, while her right eye was green.
The more Delilah looked at her, the more she felt that sense of duality. The woman wore clothes that were different from right to left. Her jacket faded from purple on the left to bluish-green on the right. Her white pants had a red stripe down the left leg, and a yellow stripe down the right. On her right hand was a black glove – on her left, a white one. Her shoes were the opposite colors.
“I, um…” Delilah said, lost for words for a moment. “Thank you.”
Don’t judge a book by its cover, Delilah.
The woman smiled, closing her eyes as she did so, and somehow it made the expression look both more cheerful than it would have otherwise…
And more suspicious.
“You’re very welcome,” the woman said. “Try not to lose it again, though, okay? We’d hate for a little girl like you to get lost with no way of contacting her family.”
Delilah pouted slightly at the “little girl” remark, but she couldn’t deny she fit the picture. “Thanks again,” she said, smiling. “Um, but…” she looked around the crowded mall, “where did you find it?”
The woman was already walking away, but she cast a look at Delilah over her right shoulder, the long side of her hair half concealing her green eye. “At the Bay,” she said, grinning so she showed her teeth. “Beneath The Gate.”
Delilah stared, her hand reflexively going into her pocket for her Talisman. But the woman kept on walking, and as soon as she reached the crowd…
She vanished from sight.
Delilah stared for a long time where the woman had vanished, but she never saw her again. Slowly, struggling with every moment to control her breathing, Delilah stared at her phone.
She was scared even to flip it open.
Slowly, she did. Her background was the same picture. Everything seemed to be organized as before.
Delilah opened up her photos folder. And then she knew. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what had happened.
All of her pictures were there, except the ones from today.
All of the pictures she’d taken of the runes at the pedestal had been deleted.
Her phone chimed, and Delilah jumped, nearly dropping it into the bath. She grabbed it, opened her new text. It was from a blocked number, but she didn’t need to know the number to know who had sent it.
That was a foolish stunt you pulled there. Little girls shouldn’t wander out into strange places all alone. It’s dangerous, okay? They’re liable to disappear, and we'd hate for that to happen. But it’s okay. Just stay away from That Place and you’ll be perfectly safe. And make sure no one else goes there. Somehow we get the feeling that even if a big, strong man were to visit, it wouldn’t be him who would go missing.
We’ll be watching!
The message was ended with a series of emojis, all of them smiley-faces and hearts.
But Delilah felt no happiness or love from this message. All she could do was keep staring at the same line of the text, again and again:
We’ll be watching!