“I think I’m done for the day,” Caleb said, panting as he plopped down on a weight bench. Sweat poured down his face, glistened on his arms, soaked his shirt and pants. “Seriously, guys, this was good. Really good.”
“Your stamina really has taken a hit,” Chelsea said, hands on her hips as she stood in front of him. “Come on, lazy-bones. We’re not even half finished, yet.”
“That’s right!” Shana said, pumping her fist energetically. “Let’s keep going! Come on, Caleb!”
Caleb laughed. Somehow, Shana’s energetic way of cheering him on reminded him of Ingrid.
I wonder how they’re doing on Midnight Bridge. Mister Midnight said he’d be trying to weaken the Radiance before they end up here. I hope that’s going well. But if it doesn’t…
“Come on, you,” Chelsea said, holding out her hand. “Let’s get back to it.”
We’ll be ready. For whatever comes.
Caleb was back on his feet for all of three seconds before the doors to the training hall burst open. Delilah stood in the doorway, eyes wild, hands shaking. “D-do you –” she started, voice halting on a sob. “Do you know where mom and dad are?”
The next few moments were a blur, and Caleb was driven almost entirely by instinct, a protective drive towards his littlest sister. They soon found their parents, who had been deep in discussion in their office next to the Vault’s entrance, and then met in the family room, where Delilah began to tell them about her frightening encounter, from The Gate to the mall and the strange woman who had threatened her. Even now, Delilah looked as if she felt eyes on her, as if she hadn’t escaped her pursuit.
Before Caleb knew it, he was racing out the door, but he didn’t make it halfway down the front walk before strong fingers gripped his arm. He turned, and his eyes met Chelsea’s.
“You can’t just run off,” she said, her voice shaky. “You can’t investigate The Gate, or Delilah’s going to be kidnapped, or worse. And other than that, we don’t know where to start. The Greysons are being watched – all of you. You go running off alone, and you make yourself a target.”
Caleb looked away, staring out across the hills of Grimoire. “If it was your sister, what would you be doing right now?” he asked.
Chelsea, to his surprise, laughed. “I’d already be gone,” she said. “And you’d need more than a strong grip to stop me from running out there to find that woman and torch her to a crisp.” She laughed again, but it was tinged with bitterness. “It’s funny, isn’t it? Normally you’d be the one keeping me safe from recklessly giving in to my emotions.”
Caleb stared at the ground. “Yeah, it’s pretty funny.” But he didn’t laugh. “So… what do we do?”
“I know where we start,” came Callum’s voice. Caleb and Chelsea both turned to look, and Callum held up his cell phone. “The woman’s number wasn’t blocked, so Delilah still had it in her phone. Maybe it just goes to a burner, but it’s worth a shot.” He nodded towards the Manor. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
Callum’s voice was calm, and he even smiled a little.
But Caleb saw in his father’s eyes the same fire that burned inside his own heart.
The threat to Delilah would not stand. Not while her parents and siblings still had breath.
Inside, the Greysons and Chelsea gathered in the family room. Will, Lorelei, Gwen, Kathryn, Rae, and Ben excused themselves, returning to their training upstairs. Callum placed his phone on the table, with the mysterious number prepared to call.
“Listen to me very closely,” he said, his intense gaze sweeping across the room. “Only myself and Deirdre speak. No one else. No matter what happens, none of you say a word. Understood?”
Nods all around. Delilah sat between Shana and Chelsea, face downcast, her hands gripping her dress tightly.
Callum hit the call button, putting the call on speaker, and they listened to it ring.
Then it stopped.
A woman’s voice spoke.
“Hello?” she asked. Her voice was strange – light, airy, cheerful, like a child’s, and yet there was a depth that made it clear she was an adult. Caleb looked at Delilah. Her eyes went wide, her hands clutched her dress even tighter, and Shana and Chelsea leaned into her protectively.
“This is Callum Greyson speaking,” Callum said.
“And Deirdre Greyson,” Deirdre said.
A light giggle came over the phone. “We knew that, sillies. Your daughter gave us your number.”
“The way she tells it, she didn’t give you anything,” Callum said.
Another giggle. “Sorry. I suppose that’s fair. But she did drop her phone. That’s an honest fact, by the way. Sweet little Delilah was so frightened and nervous that she never put her phone back in her pocket. We barely saved it from falling into the water and being useless forever. And if that had happened, we’d never have had a reason to meet sweet, precious little Delilah. She’s adorable, isn’t she? Reminds us of our little sister. They’re always so cute when they’re little, aren’t they? It’s such a shame they have to grow up.”
“What are you hiding beneath The Gate?” Callum asked.
There was a brief pause, followed by a light giggle. “That’s for us to know, and you to hopefully never find out. Secrets are secrets for a reason – they’re not to be shared. If we told you, our friends would be very cross with us. They might even put us back in the Dark Place, and we hate the Dark Place.”
“Can you tell us your name?” Deirdre asked.
Pause. Giggle. “How would you know we were telling the truth?”
Deirdre pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “I’d know.”
There was a long pause, and when the woman laughed this time Caleb stared at the phone in shock. Instead of her light, childish giggle, she gave a low chuckle. When she spoke, her voice had changed, deepening, speaking slower and more measured. “Little Delilah? You’re there, right? Didn’t you give your parents the proper warning?”
“The only warning was about The Gate,” Deirdre said, “as you well know, since you’re the one who delivered it. Are you going to tell us your name?”
The woman’s voice changed back to the lighter tone, and she giggled. “That’s rather complicated to do, though. But we can go by the name the Boss uses. He’s such a meanie! Just like Stride, he never calls us by anything else. So rude!”
“And?” Deirdre asked. “What’s the name the Boss uses?”
The woman giggled. “It’s Duo, of course. Just call us Duo. Not that it’ll do you any good. See, we can use any of the team’s ‘Boss names’ like that, and you won’t be able to tie them to anyone or any information. Like Stride. We can say it all day long, but it doesn’t tell you anything.”
“Duo,” Callum said, “will you leave Delilah alone from now on?”
There was a long pause, followed by Duo’s voice dropping to that low chuckle again. “No.”
Then her voice rose back to the lighter, childish tone. “Of course not! Little Delilah… she’s someone very special to us. We only just met, but we can tell. We never really got a chance to know her. Not yet. But we will.”
“What makes you so confident?” Callum asked.
Giggle. “We always get what we want.”
Callum looked across the room at Delilah. All eyes were on her. She was the only one in this room who had seen Duo in person, and it showed on her face that, as strange and unhinged as Duo came across in her voice over the phone…
Meeting her in person was much more frightening.
“Are all of you still there?” Duo asked. She sighed. “Well, it’s not as if we need to worry about you keeping us on the phone too long. You could have traced this number with the help of Crowley and his Investigators, but you wouldn’t do that, because you would want to make this a ‘family meeting’ or something adorable like that. So we’ll stick around as long as you want.”
“Duo,” Deirdre said. “What are you and your allies hiding beneath The Gate?”
Giggle. “Come and take a look. See if you can find out for yourself.”
Of course she’d say that. As if we could, after the warning she gave Delilah.
“Who’s your Boss?” Callum asked. “And what is he planning?”
“It’s so cute that you think we’d actually tell you. Don’t worry. Everyone will find out during the Lunar Festival. Though we suppose we really should stop talking to you. The Boss will get mad, or worse – Ana will. Ana’s really scary when she gets angry. And everyone’s always picking on us. Sorry, but we have to leave! Not that we have anything else interesting to say. Oh! Except for this: Delilah. Precious little Delilah. We’ll take you to meet our little sister soon. The two of you can have a wonderful play date, and we’ll supervise. That’s all for now. Toodles!”
The line clicked, and Duo was gone.
“Delilah,” Deirdre said, looking up at her daughter. “I swear we won’t let any harm come to you.”
Delilah nodded, but she didn’t speak. Shaking, she leaned into Chelsea, who wrapped her arms around her. Altair left Shana’s lap to curl up in Delilah’s, nestling his little blue head against her stomach.
Callum stood, fire in his eyes, and Deirdre stood with him.
“I’m going out for a bit,” he said.
“Where to?” Deirdre asked. She laid a gentle hand on his arm, and Callum looked at it, then her, and sighed, offering a small smile.
“Not to do anything stupid, don’t worry,” he said. “As much as I’d like to. I’m going to gather the troops. We’re calling a council.”
Deirdre chuckled. “You know, you could just phone them.”
Callum smirked. “This feels more dramatic, though, right?”
“What do you mean by ‘the troops’ and ‘a council’?” Caleb asked.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Deirdre said. “Caleb, Chelsea, we’ll want both of you there. Not the rest of your teams, as much as you trust them. We’ll leave it to you to decide how much to tell them of it afterwards. And Delilah, sweetheart…” Deirdre walked around the couch, leaned over behind Delilah, and wrapped her arms around the girl’s shoulders. “What do you want to do? You can join us, if you like.”
“I…” Delilah started, her voice shaky. Altair sat up on her lap, tilted his head up, licked her chin lightly. Delilah looked at Shana, and Shana nodded. “I just want to spend time with my sister. Do something nice, and try to… try to feel safe…”
“Nothing can harm you within these walls,” Deirdre said gently, kissing Delilah on the forehead.
While Callum was out in Grimoire “gathering the troops,” Shana and Delilah went upstairs to spend time together, and Kathryn and Rae joined them. Ben and Will both went home, and Will was asked to send his parents over if they were home – apparently the Rooks were among “the troops.” Lorelei and Gwen stuck around, waiting in the training hall until Chelsea was ready to go home.
Caleb paced. All around the spacious Manor, he paced. Chelsea sat in the family room, arms folded, staring at the spot that Caleb kept coming back around to. After his fourth lap, she sighed, came over to him, and wrapped him in a hug.
“She’s become like a sister to me, too,” she said softly. “I’m as worried as you are. And if I lay eyes on that Duo for even a second, she’s toast.”
“But how do we find her when we can’t go to the one place we know she might be found?” Caleb asked.
“We figure it out,” Chelsea said. “One step at a time.”
“We don’t even know where to look. She stands out, in a big way, but… how come none of us have ever seen her before?”
“Well, you always have your head in the clouds,” Chelsea said, poking Caleb’s nose playfully. “So it’s no wonder you haven’t noticed all the weirdos roaming the city. But –” she stopped, eyes narrowed as if she’d just arrived at a thought. “Ana… I just brushed it off because she can say all sorts of names, but Duo said Ana, and I’ve heard that before.”
“It’s not Annabelle,” Caleb said. “That wouldn’t make any –”
“No, no,” Chelsea said, shaking her head. “Not Annabelle. There was a woman we met, a woman who was chasing Isabelle, who wanted her powers for her master. And when we saw her the second time, she was with a friend, and that friend called her ‘Ana’.”
Caleb’s eyes widened. “Anastasia,” he said softly. “But she works for Blaise Mathers, right? Probably the same as Bronn, since they work together.”
“And Bronn mentioned Stride,” Chelsea said.
“So then…” Caleb thought back to the meeting his parents and siblings had had together, when Deirdre had taken notes on all they knew. “Blaise Mathers… the Head of the Council of Mages… he really is involved in all of this.”
“And you can bet Duo’s part of his secret team. Anastasia, Bronn… we’d never seen either of them before, in all this time. And Bronn stands out in a big way, so he’d be very difficult to ignore.”
Callum soon returned, and three people followed him. Caleb recognized Will’s parents, Hagan and Mercedes Rook, dual heads of the Guardian Guild. Hagan was a tall, broad-shouldered bear of a man with a thick black beard flecked with grey, and yet offsetting his intimidating stature were clear, cheerful eyes. On his right hand were three rings – one gold with a ruby, one silver with a sapphire, and one of clear crystal inset with an emerald.
Mercedes was a small, slender woman, who looked even smaller next to her massive husband. She had seemed ageless as long as Caleb had known her. Her long, platinum-blonde hair hung down to her waist, and her soft facial features matched her easy smile and kind blue eyes. She wore a long, flowing blue dress under a white coat, and had a shimmering purple scarf draped around her shoulders.
With them came a stranger, and she looked rather mysterious. Her hair was stark white, yet her skin was fair and unwrinkled, her eyes bright and clear, everything about her appearance, save her hair’s color, suggesting that she was around the same age as Caleb’s parents. Long and wavy, her hair was swept mostly to the right side, hanging down to hide her right eye from view. Her mouth seemed turned upwards in the slightest, smallest of half smiles, and her grey, nearly silver eyes had a glittering, mischievous glint to the them. She wore a long black coat that hung down past her knees over a white shirt, along with white pants tucked into black boots.
More mysterious was the Summon at her side. It was a pure white fox, about the size of a medium-sized dog.
Or… was it yellow? Its color seemed to shift and warp, changing from white to yellow to silver to pale blue. And it had… how many tails? At first Caleb thought it had three, but then there seemed to be seven, and then only one.
“Caleb, Chelsea, you already know the Rooks,” Callum said, “but you may not have met Isla. She’s a colleague of ours on the Council of Mages, and a very good friend.”
Isla. He only introduced her by her first name? That’s not normal among mages.
“A friendship built on understanding,” Isla said. Her voice was flowing, almost hypnotic, pulling Caleb in with just a few simple words. “Friends come in many ways, and many ways bring friends together.”
“Isla’s been running point for us on a number of things,” Deirdre said. She and Isla hugged. “It’s good to see you. You’ve been gone a while.”
“Long walks among the trees,” Isla said, her small half smile quirking upwards a little more. “While I was gone, I met a friend. He may join us ere the day is done.”
“There are others who are a part of our small group,” Callum said. “Dad’s one, Mina’s another, but they were both busy with other work. They know everything we’re going to discuss, though.”
“Shall we sit?” Deirdre asked. She smiled at Isla’s fox Summon. “And how’s little Dama doing today?”
Isla smiled. “He wonders why you haven’t noticed the luster of his tails,” she said. “But he appreciates your attention.”
“Ah, they do look especially magnificent today,” Deirdre said, laughing.
They sat in the family room, and Deirdre rekindled the fireplace. Isla sat with Deirdre and Callum, Dama curling up at her feet. Hagan and Mercedes sat together, while Caleb and Chelsea each occupied a separate chair. Briefly, Chelsea explained Duo’s “Ana” and how that was Anastasia, tying Duo even further to the same “Shadows” that were, presumably, led by Blaise Mathers.
“It’s puzzling how we’ve never met or even seen Anastasia, Bronn, or this ‘Duo’ before,” Hagan said, stroking his beard in thought. “Each of them has very distinctive features. They’d be hard to miss.”
“To think that there is something mysterious to The Gate, and yet we’ve never noticed all this time,” Mercedes said.
“The things we take for granted often go most unnoticed,” Isla said. “And under rock and stone and water can lie many strange wonders, if one has the courage to look.”
“And yet we can’t look beneath The Gate,” Callum said. “If we do, Delilah…”
“How certain are we that we can’t protect her?” Hagan asked. “Greyson Manor’s wards and locks are some of the greatest in Grimoire. And you have the Guardian Guild on your side, Callum.”
“We need to know more,” Callum said, shaking his head. “Because we don’t know Duo’s abilities, we can’t really know how much of a threat she is. We know of five – Duo, Anastasia, Bronn, Stride, and the ‘she’ that Bronn mentioned – but our knowledge mostly extends to their existence. We need to know their abilities, their strengths and weaknesses, and how many more there are.”
“Seven,” Isla said, pulling every gaze to her. “Jormungand we also know of, and then of course there is our esteemed leader.”
“Blaise…” Callum said softly, staring at his hands.
Caleb now knew what his parents struggled with so much regarding Blaise. He was their friend, and had mentored them as Hunters.
He’d been to them, in many ways, what Chase had been to Caleb. The betrayal still stung for Caleb. How much worse would it be for his parents, with a friendship of decades, if Blaise turned out to truly be some evil mastermind?
“Speaking of Jormungand,” Hagan said, “I thought I saw him. Last Tuesday, at Renaldo’s. I was there, as always every Tuesday, drinking coffee and going over the paperwork for the week, when I saw a strange man in the corner. He wore a hat and slid it down low in front, so for a while, I wasn’t sure. But he looked up once, and I saw that he had white hair, and a scar across his face just like you described.”
“Did he say anything?” Callum asked. “Meet with anyone? Do anything strange?”
Hagan sighed, shook his head. “No. He was reading a book, and I didn’t see it until he left, but it was just one of those Gadrick Gorensell novels. Volume 13, I think it was.”
“But where did he go?” Callum asked, leaning forward.
“Around the corner, and then vanished,” Hagan said with a frown. “I thought I was following him closely, but he just… disappeared. There’s nowhere really to blink to from the alley he went into, and yet…” He shook his head. “I have no idea how he did it.”
“We should take a look at the spot tomorrow,” Deirdre said. “I might be able to find something.”
“We work closely with Crowley’s Investigators,” Mercedes said, “and they seem to think they have the city fully protected after last night’s battle. But more than that, they’ve taken a great interest in the Libra Vale.”
Caleb’s eyes narrowed as he thought on that. “Libra Vale?” he asked. “You mean they think the Shadows are operating outside of Grimoire?”
“It wouldn’t be too surprising,” Deirdre said. “It’s just past the Western Hills. You can walk there and back in half a day.”
Chelsea suddenly sat up straight, eyes wide. “And it was connected to the Underground!” she said.
“The Underground?” Callum asked.
“You mean that failed subway project from before any of us were born?” Hagan asked. “What’s that have to do with anything?”
“It wasn’t a complete failure,” Chelsea said. “My mother, she left behind journals, and she discovered that the Underground was built. All of the tunnels are there, beneath our feet, still intact. They just never put in the trains, or built proper entrances above-ground. And the Underground went out to both of Grimoire’s close neighbors: Pinewood Park and Libra Vale.”
“So there’s a tunnel underground going from Grimoire to Libra Vale…” Hagan said, stroking his beard.
“And my mother thought that the Shadows were operating out of the Underground,” Chelsea continued. “But she only ever found one entrance, and she warned that it was too heavily watched and defended to be useful.”
“Are there any maps of the Underground?” Deirdre asked.
Chelsea nodded. “There are. They’re not perfect, since they’re maps of how the Underground was planned to be, when it was completed. But the tunnels should mostly line up, at least.”
“What we need to know more than anything right now,” Deirdre said, “is whether or not the tunnels go under Grimson Bay.”
Everyone was silent for a moment, struck by that revelation.
“That’s genius,” Callum said, grinning at his wife.
“Secret tunnels are unlikely to show up on anything other than secret maps,” Isla said. “True discovery may require personal investigation.”
“The maps are a good start,” Caleb said. “And we can spend time looking for other entrances, figuring out what we can discover above-ground. We have two weeks until the Lunar Festival.”
“And thank goodness for that,” Callum said. “Even if I wish we had more time.”
“If nothing else, we have a very promising lead for where the Shadows are operating,” Hagan said. “So we focus on keeping Delilah safe, looking for entrances, and seeing if we can find any of the Shadows above-ground and capture them. We need information.”
A sudden musical chime turned everyone’s attention towards the entrance hall. It had come from outside. One chime, then another, like they were ringing against each other, sounding like…
Caleb’s eyes widened, and he raced for the front door, a wide smile across his lips before he even reached it. He swung the door wide, and stared at a man he hadn’t seen since he was a child.
“Marcus!” he exclaimed, heart dancing with joy. Before him stood the man, same as he remembered him, though it had been almost fifteen years. Marcus was a man of unimposing height and stature, with long silver hair tied back in a ponytail that hung, long and thin, down to his knees. He dressed simply, in linen shirt and pants, with a belt of rope about his waist, and a single leather pouch tied at his hip. Despite the chill, he walked barefoot, and he didn’t look the least bit uncomfortable.
In his right hand was held a staff, more than seven feet in length. Its bottom was capped with metal, and it was topped with a wide metal loop, from which hung silver bells in the shape of rings. A tap of his staff, and several of those bells chimed, ringing against the loop and against each other, filling the air with a clear, sweet musical sound that brought laughter to Caleb’s lips.
“It’s been a long time, Caleb,” Marcus said. His voice was smooth and strong, and his dark eyes filled with mirth. “Goodness, how you’ve grown!”
“Marcus…?” came Callum’s shocked question. He stepped out onto the front walk, staring at Marcus as if he was seeing a ghost. “You’re… really here?”
Marcus laughed, the kind of laughter that comes from the soul, and shines light into the cloudiest hearts of any who hear it. “Yes, old friend, I am here,” he said. “And it seems not a moment too soon. In truth, I should have been here earlier, but I had other friends to meet with. And I couldn’t bear not to stop off at Daphne’s for a cinnamon roll. They are simply delightful, you know. I would have come immediately when I arrived, actually, but I met Isla on the way, and she persuaded me to make my other stops first.”
“Frivolity should come early rather than late,” Isla said, “when a storm approaches.”
Marcus nodded. Though his smile didn’t fade, his eyes grew grim. “And indeed, a storm approaches. In fact, some of the storm has already reached this city. It will only grow worse from here on out, I fear. But why are we talking outside, when you have a delightful home right here?”
“Oh, of course!” Callum said, finally coming to his senses. “Come inside, please.”
Inside, Marcus took a seat on the floor, draping his staff across his legs. He asked that Callum, Deirdre, and the others inform him on all that was happening, and didn’t give any hint as to what he already knew, so they told the entire story, while Marcus listened intently.
The mood in the room had brightened considerably with Marcus’ arrival. It had done the same when Caleb, just eight years old, had last seen Marcus. The man arrived without warning or invitation, but when he arrived, everyone knew there was nothing to fear. Joy, welling up from deep within, came with him.
Everything’s going to be okay, now that he’s here.
When all were finished explaining, ending with Duo’s threat to Delilah, there was only a brief pause before Marcus spoke.
“I saw a great number of posters in town,” he said. “It seems children have been going missing.”
Callum sighed, staring at the floor. “Yes,” he said. “Shana found where they were, and we said we’d take care of it, but…”
“We were beset by a Shadow,” Hagan said. “Not like the ones who attacked last night… a living Shadow. It came from nowhere, and it filled all the woods. In broad daylight, it seemed to swallow up the sun. We…”
“Fled,” Callum said bitterly. “We ran away, and we haven’t gone back since. There was something…” He shook his head. “I can’t explain it. There was more than magic to that… Shadow.”
“And wandering the hills has brought us no answers,” Isla said. “Three days and nights on Mount Erebos, yet I have brought back no news of our foe.”
“But you found me,” Marcus said with a smile. “And I’m glad for it.” Dama rose from his spot at Isla’s feet and came over to Marcus. Marcus laughed as he stroked the fox Summon’s fur. “Yes, it has been a very long time, little friend. I’m glad to be back.” He looked up at Callum. “Can you tell me where the children are?”
Callum blinked in surprise. “I… you’re… you’re going to go to them?”
Marcus nodded. “Yes, and save them, too,” he said.
“Who do you want to go with you?” Callum asked.
Marcus chuckled, waving his hand. “No one. Don’t trouble yourself, old friend. I’ll bring all of the captives back home safely. And I’ll see what I can learn of this Shadow, while I’m at it.”
“You…” Callum started, then shook his head, grinning. “Why would I ever doubt you?”
“I can’t think of a reason,” Marcus said, scratching his head for a moment. “Well, if you come up with one, let me know. While I’m gone, I hope you’ll all be careful. Discover what you can about the Underground, about The Gate, about Blaise’s Shadows, if they are, in fact, his.”
“You’re not sure they are?” Callum asked, his tone filled with a desperate hope.
Marcus smiled, a far-off look in his eyes. “We are far from having all the answers,” he said. “So while I save the children, I expect all of you to keep your heads on your shoulders. Stay safe. Stay brave. And hold fast to each other. While you’re at it, try to learn as much as you can, without getting into too much trouble. If all we know is true, then we have two weeks. That’s plenty of time to foil evil’s plans.”
Callum smiled. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said.
Marcus nodded. “As am I, of course. Before I leave, I would like to have a word with the prisoner in your Vault. Void, is it? I’d very much like to speak with him. And I’d dearly like to talk to Delilah. I believe this will be the first time, actually. Well, the first time she can talk back, anyway – she was only a few weeks old the last I was here.”
“You’ll have everything you need,” Callum said, rising to his feet. “And then some, I hope.”
Caleb smiled. Hope had arrived in the midst of fear. And it hadn’t waited until the last possible moment, either. They’d have plenty of hope for this entire venture, this entire task to find out the truth and dismantle the deadly foes they now faced.
Everything was going to be all right.