“What do you mean he’s missing?”
Standing in the shadow of the Hunter Building, Chelsea’s heart caught in her throat as she stared at Callum and Deirdre Greyson. Their faces were downcast as they delivered the news.
“It isn’t just Caleb, either,” Callum said bitterly. He stood the farthest in shadow, his face dark and grim. “Will’s gone missing, too.”
“How long have they been gone?” Chelsea asked.
“Dad saw them just before noon,” Callum said. “He went back to the café at three, and they were gone.” He pulled out his phone, staring at its screen. “We’ve been sending him texts and calling, but either his phone’s turned off, or he’s somewhere with no reception.”
“So he’s back in the Enchanted Dominion?” Chelsea asked. Callum shook his head. “Then… th-then where… how…”
“We’re not sure,” Deirdre said. “We’d hoped to find out before the end of the day. I’m sorry for waiting so long to tell you.”
You darn well should be.
It was just before midnight, and Chelsea and Lorelei were about to start their patrol. They’d already checked in. They couldn’t back out now and go gallivanting off on their own.
But… but this…
“How do you know they aren’t in the Dominion?” Lorelei asked.
“We’re fairly confident it has something to do with Duo,” Deirdre said. “Some of Oscar’s allies who were watching the school saw glimpses of something happening not far from Lunar Café around two o’ clock. They thought they saw Duo, and Delilah. But then there was ‘a blur of motion,’ as they described it, and Delilah vanished.”
“When they chased after Duo, they found out it wasn’t her,” Callum said. “Someone was wearing a wig and clothes to make her look like Duo from a distance. Oscar questioned her, and found out she didn’t know anything, except that the wig, outfit, and a large sum of money were delivered to her that morning, along with instructions.”
“And Delilah?” Lorelei asked.
Deirdre’s eyes narrowed. “She never left the school building until three-thirty.”
“So then… the Delilah they saw…” Chelsea said slowly.
Deirdre nodded. “We think Duo masqueraded as Delilah. And the blur of motion –”
“Was definitely Caleb,” Chelsea said. She’d seen his Time Magic in action enough times to know what it looked like. “He saw Duo with his sister, and ran to rescue her. But instead…” Her hands clenched into fists.
How dare someone do something so vile?
And of course Caleb would fall for that trap. He’d been on edge ever since Delilah was threatened, more emotionally frayed than Chelsea had ever seen him. He wouldn’t hesitate for a second if he saw even the slightest hint of Duo running off with his sister.
“Oscar said that Duo confronted the three of them in the café,” Deirdre said. “Before she vanished, she talked about a ‘game’ to play with Caleb and Delilah.”
“But it seems she only took Caleb,” Callum said.
“Is Delilah all right?” Lorelei asked.
“She’s upset, but she’s safe,” Deirdre said. “Though after what happened today… it’s hard to know how safe someone can be from Duo. She seems to be able to come and go as she wishes, wherever she wants. We still don’t understand her abilities.”
“So what do we do now?” Chelsea asked, gripped by helplessness.
“We keep searching,” Deirdre said. “And we keep all others we love as safe as we can. Duo will prey on our weaknesses, and I’m sure her allies will do the same. Stay smart, stay calm, and make the right decisions – especially when it’s hardest to do so.” She stared out at the dark city, and the light caught her eyes. She looked terribly sad, despite her best efforts to hide it.
“We need a third person,” Lorelei said. “And we need to protect the city.”
“But we can’t just –” Chelsea started.
“We can gather information while we fight Hollows,” Lorelei said. “And in an hour, we’ll be done, and we can keep searching.”
“We’ll keep you updated,” Callum said. “I’m sorry. I really am sorry that we couldn’t do more.”
Chelsea watched the Greysons walk away, and then suddenly cried out. “No! I’m sorry. I… you must be as worried and scared as I am. You don’t need to apologize to me.”
Callum smiled. “We’re all doing our best for Caleb and Will.”
The Greysons were gone, and it was time for Chelsea and Lorelei to start their fight. But first they needed a third teammate.
“Who do we ask?” Lorelei wondered aloud. “Oh… hey, with Will gone, his team needs partners, too.”
Chelsea glared at her. “You know who that includes,” she said.
“And they’d be good to have,” Lorelei said. “Maybe we can send Jackson to a different team and keep Claire.”
“Fat chance.” Chelsea sighed. “Ah, fine, let’s see if it’s possible. But I’m relying on you to keep Jackson from driving me crazy if we can’t ditch him.”
Lorelei smiled. “I’m on it.”
Inside, they found that Claire was already there, speaking with the coordinators at the desk.
There was no sign of Jackson.
Claire Diamond had been one year ahead of Chelsea and Lorelei all through their school days, and she had long been an object of admiration to the pair, until, over time, they developed a strong friendship with her. She wore her auburn hair in a pair of braids, and her brown eyes shone with energy and, at the moment, a bit of dismay. She was below average height, fit and strong from spending her entire school life playing both softball and volleyball. Noticing Chelsea and Lorelei’s arrival, she broke into a smile.
“I heard you two were finally back!” she said happily, rushing up to hug them both. “Oh, it’s good to see you! Chelsea, nice haircut. And I love your clothes, where did you get them?”
“We know a good tailor,” Chelsea said. “Hey, what are you doing here alone?”
Claire’s smile quickly faded. “Will’s missing, along with Caleb,” she said. “And Jackson’s sick. So I’m out of a team!”
“Jackson’s sick?” Lorelei asked.
Chelsea raised an eyebrow. “He never gets sick. Are you sure?”
Claire nodded emphatically. “He was coughing like crazy over the phone. He said he was too sick for me to come take care of him, he didn’t want me to catch it.”
Chelsea pursed her lips and, glaring, pulled Claire close, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “So Claire… you’re seriously dating that guy?”
Claire nodded, her braids bouncing. “Sure am! I know you don’t like him, but he’s…”
“The look in your eyes tells me I don’t wanna hear it,” Chelsea said with a sigh. “Well anyway…” She stopped, looking at Lorelei, then Claire. “Hey. Teams have to be three Hunters. We need a team. You need a team. And there’s three girls right here.”
Claire’s eyes brightened. “Fantastic! Let’s get signed up and pick a route.”
They chose the northernmost route available, which included the Bay Overlook and Shore Park. Without the sun to give a bit of warmth, the air coming in from the Bay was as frigid as could be, letting all know just how near winter was.
“So no one knows where Will or Caleb are?” Claire asked, walking alongside Chelsea and Lorelei. It was a leisurely route, and from the chatter over Re-Code, it was like that everywhere. The Hollows were shockingly thin, breaking the pattern of constant, vicious combat that had been going on for weeks now.
Chelsea stared at the dark grass, shaking her head. “No.”
“And you guys have been having secret meetings and stuff, right?” Claire asked. “Will wouldn’t tell, but I could guess from how he avoided the subject of what he was up to yesterday.”
“That’s –” Chelsea started.
“It’s something you’re better kept out of,” Lorelei said. “We might bring you in, but… it’s dangerous to know even a little.”
“Wait…” Claire stared at Lorelei. “That’s what got Caleb and Will in trouble, isn’t it? They were kidnapped or something?”
“Look, you shouldn’t –” Chelsea started.
“Tell me,” Claire said, staring at Chelsea with those wide, earnest eyes. “Please.”
Crap. I could never refuse that look.
“I’ll keep things as vague as possible,” Lorelei said. “There are bad people who are targeting the Greysons. Delilah was threatened, so naturally Caleb was trying to protect her. Will insisted on going with him. That’s the last we knew before they vanished.”
Claire stopped in her tracks, staring at her companions, her confusion and dismay written all over her face. “But that’s…” She pursed her lips for a moment, then shook her head. “No. It can’t just be people targeting the Greysons. This has to do with the Shadows, doesn’t it? And they’re not just after the Greysons, they’re after… something. So some of them are specifically targeting the Greysons, but their bigger plan involves all of us. Am I wrong?”
Chelsea sighed. “You’re not wrong. And that’s all you should know, okay?”
Claire put her hands on her hips. “Just bring me in, why don’t you? How long have we been friends? I trust you. I hope you can trust me, too. I want to help, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
“Typical,” Chelsea said.
“Even if it makes you a target?” Lorelei asked. “Even if it means you might get kidnapped, or killed? Or that Jackson will be targeted to get to you?”
Claire nodded, undaunted. “I’m a Hunter. I’m already a target of those Shadows, and so is Jackson. We’re trained to fight. And ever since the first Shadow attack, we’ve both been revising our combat strategies and skills, considering how to fight not just against Hollows, but against other mages.”
She’s sharp. And she’s already prepared. Why didn’t I bring her in right away?
Oh, right. Jackson.
“You’re in,” Chelsea said with a sigh. “I’m not telling you more tonight. We can only talk about it in secret – as secret as we can these days, anyway. Now keep your eyes open. This place…”
Chelsea stopped on the edge of a cliff, staring out across the dark Bay beyond. The sky was overcast, leaving no light to reflect off of the water, so she could see nothing but a formless darkness, stretching out to the invisible horizon.
It reminded her of darker things, of the battle for the Library.
What would they do if living darkness came for Earth? What would that be like? They were able to repel it in the Library because of Shana and the Forge, but –
No. She couldn’t worry about that now. She had enough to be worried about.
It’s a long way out to The Gate. It’s a good place to make a base. Even in the summer, it’s not often that people swim out that far, and if your secret entrance is hidden well enough, you don’t have to worry about intruders.
Could some of them be watching us right now, just like they watched Delilah? We wouldn’t be able to see them.
Is Duo out there?
Are Caleb and Will out there, trapped in their main base?
Hollows interrupted Chelsea’s thoughts – Weavers clambering up the cliffs below her, Hollows and Splicers charging out of the woods behind. The three girls leapt into action, Chelsea’s fire making quick work of the spiders below her. Lorelei blasted away with ice, and Claire brought out her Summon, Nailah, a beautiful golden doe. Claire used a variety of magic through her Summon, and what she focused on in this brief skirmish was Containment. Nailah raised her head, and glittering golden seeds appeared in the air and shot towards Howlers and Splicers. On contact, the seeds burst into a growing, entangling shroud of golden vines, trapping and constricting their targets long enough for Lorelei and Chelsea to finish them off.
After picking up their Drops, they continued on, but it wasn’t long before Lorelei stopped, turning to look back towards the city.
“What is it?” Chelsea asked.
“Isn’t it… really quiet?” Lorelei asked.
Chelsea paused, listening and looking. Lights were flashing here and there throughout Grimoire, evidence of the battle between Hunters and Hollows.
But it was oddly quiet. Sounds of battle were distant and scarce, and though their group was out here on the edge of the city, there were two other routes that other teams had taken near the Bay. Why was there no sign of them?
“It’s always quiet out here,” Chelsea said.
“Right,” Claire said, stroking Nailah behind her ears.
Lorelei turned back, started walking again. Her face was hard to read, even for Chelsea. “Maybe you’re right,” she said softly.
Their path took them up to the Bay Overlook, a solitary cliff face that had a simple sign etched in the stone of the path, and a single bench looking out over the water. Chelsea walked up to the edge, gazing out at the darkness.
Normally, standing on the Bay Overlook, even in the dead of night, was soothing. The sound of the waves, the smell of the sea, the wind in her hair.
But for some reason, tonight, Chelsea felt exposed as she stood on the edge. Like a million eyes were on her.
Was this what Delilah felt?
Chelsea turned, and saw her friends standing safe and sound, looking out in different directions.
All was calm. All was safe.
So what was this uneasy feeling?
Out beyond the Overlook was the Bay itself, and open air. Behind, back the way they’d come, was a sparse scattering of trees, open and clear, opening even more as they reached Shore Park.
There was nowhere for anyone to hide out here.
But in the darkness, anything could be lurking. It was the perfect camouflage, especially for…
When the Shadows attacked two days ago, they targeted Caleb and me the most, splitting us up and throwing almost everything they had at us.
And yet yesterday, they didn’t appear at all. So I thought we were…
Wait. Why did I think all was fine after one night of peace? They took a lot of hits in their last attack, so of course they needed some time to recover. But Healing Magic can work wonders in a short span of time.
And last night, we were deep in the city. There were plenty of teams of Hunters near us. But out here…
I wanted to be near the Bay, near The Gate, to try and get clues about Caleb. Who took him? Where did they take him? What did they do to him?
Duo used Delilah to get to Caleb.
So they could easily use Caleb to get to…
“We should go back,” Chelsea said softly, just loud enough for her friends to hear. They looked at her, and Claire opened her mouth, but Chelsea subtly, briefly raised a finger to her lips, shook her head. She started walking back up the trail, towards Grimoire University, towards Lunar Park.
Towards civilization. Towards the rest of the Hunters.
“Lorelei, stay on the left,” Chelsea said softly. “Be ready to form barriers if they come from the way or behind. Claire, stay by me, keep your focus on the cliffs. I’ll take any who come from in front.”
“You think –” Claire started.
“We’re on it,” Lorelei said. “Claire, how’s your Divination?”
“Better than it used to be, but it’s not my best,” Claire said. A small, round pin on the left breast pocket of her jacket glowed with magic as she scanned the area around them. Her expression grew serious. “Strange shapes in the trees. Not Hollows. They’re moving slowly, tracking alongside us. Can’t tell how many… looks like four? I can’t tell who they are or anything about them.” She looked towards the cliffs. “Other shapes are moving along the beach. Out of my sight now. They’re below the cliffs.” She looked ahead. “Similar shapes… maybe six?… on top of the University’s observatory.”
“Can you see the other teams that picked Bay routes?” Lorelei asked.
Claire looked around some more, shook her head. “No. The only things moving out here are us and…”
“Our enemies,” Chelsea said. She looked up, and felt an impression from her owl, hidden in flight high above the clouds. He understood, and he was ready.
I know you didn’t like me asking you to fly so high when you haven’t been able to be with me all day, but I’m glad you relented. I need you ready for a secret attack, if it comes to that.
It’s definitely going to come to that.
“Sorry, I can’t maintain that,” Claire said, shaking her head and rubbing her eyes.
“It’s fine,” Chelsea said. “We have a sense of where they are, and how many. I can sort of see them, now that I know where they are. They’re making good use of the darkness, but they’re not invisible.”
“Who do you think will attack first?” Lorelei asked.
“If they’re smart, they won’t attack at all,” Chelsea said, spinning one of her lighters in her hand. “But I think they’ll all come at once. So they’re probably waiting for us to get closer to the observatory.”
“And waiting for the ones on the beach to get closer to us,” Lorelei said.
“So… where do we want to fight?” Chelsea asked.
“Couldn’t we just run?” Claire asked.
“You’ve got your Mobility Magic,” Chelsea said, “but Lorelei and I aren’t made for evasive tactics. Without knowing what we’re up against and how fast our enemies will be, we’re better off fighting.”
Claire nodded. “I’ve got your back.”
Chelsea smiled. “I know you do.”
“Do we want to be in the open, or to have cover?” Lorelei asked.
“You can make cover for us,” Chelsea said. “I’d rather be in an open place when it’s dark like this. Easier for us to know where everyone is.”
“So, the Circle?” Claire asked. “That’s the most open place before the observatory.”
“The Rose Mounds,” Lorelei said. “We’ll have to run past the observatory, but it’ll give us open space while also giving us some natural cover to go with what I can create.”
“And it’s difficult for large groups to fight there, at least on the ground,” Claire said, nodding. “Let’s hope there aren’t too many of them who thrive on being airborne.”
“When do we run?” Lorelei asked.
“I’ll have my owl hit the observatory guys,” Chelsea said. “Then we run. Don’t get too far separated from each other, no matter what. Stay close, even if you have to slow down.”
“I’ll slow any pursuit behind us,” Lorelei said.
Chelsea sent a mental message to her owl Summon. It was time to act. Her heart started beating a bit faster. She felt warm, despite the frigid winds flying around her.
It’s hard not to get excited before a battle. The tension before it starts, the way your body starts revving up for action, knowing that all systems are fired up and ready to go…
A gleaming white streak shot down silently from the clouds, Chelsea’s owl shooting towards the roof of the observatory in a thousands-foot dive. Two seconds, then three, then four.
Her owl was there. His battle cry rang out through the night, clear and defiant. Gleaming white chains shot out in all directions, and shouts of pain and dismay rose up above the observatory.
“Let’s go,” Chelsea said. She, Lorelei, Claire, and Nailah took off running, parallel to the observatory as they aimed for a shadowy hillscape beyond. The Rose Mounds, a grouping of four low hills covered in wild rose bushes. In the center was a flat, green circle about twenty feet in diameter. With hills on four sides, narrow paths leading to the center, and crowns of threatening, thorny bushes above, it created a good sort of natural defensive site.
More footsteps joined theirs, and sudden, crystalline ringing sounds went up behind, shedding bright blue light all around. Lorelei was going to work with her ice, blocking off and slowing down their pursuers.
Shadows came out of the darkness ahead, before the Mounds. One held a long staff with blades on either end. Another carried two swords, and a third carried a large axe.
Carrying weapons instead of using magic openly so you can stay in the darkness. Some might call it clever.
I call it cowardly.
Chelsea raised her lighters, clicked each once, firing small, streaking darts of emerald flame. On contact with the ground at the feet of her opponents, the darts exploded with powerful force, flames roaring forward, up and over and around the three Shadows.
One screamed in agony, but the other two were gleaming with light – the left axe-wielder purple, the right staff-wielder silver – and strolled out from the flames unharmed.
Chelsea fired a barrage of pinpoint darts of flame that whistled through the air, hissing as they made contact. They sparked off of magical barriers, but those same barriers fizzled and flickered, showing their weakness.
Not too skilled at Guardian Magic, are we?
The axe-wielder charged with a sense of urgency, his large feet pounding the pavement with each step. Chelsea shot two small darts at his feet, and they exploded as they hit the ground, bursting upward in a pillar of flame that knocked the axe-wielder into a tumbling backflip. The staff-wielder plunged his staff into the street, and it gleamed with silver light. He raised his hands…
And then coiled inward on himself as a golden seed struck him in the chest. It burst into glittering vines, swiftly wrapping around the staff-wielder as he tumbled to the ground, immobile. Another seed struck the axe-wielder before he could recover, and he was down, too.
The path ahead was clear. The girls ran on and passed between the first two hills, entering the central defensive space. Lorelei came in last, forming a wall of ice around three of the four entrances, leaving the one they came through open.
For a moment, they were free to breathe. Chelsea’s owl swooped in with a triumphant cry, landing on her shoulders. He’d incapacitated the six atop the observatory for the moment, though there was no telling how long they’d stay that way.
“How many left, do you think?” Chelsea asked.
“I counted six climbing up the cliffs,” Claire said.
“There were eight from the forest, and while I immobilized some of them, they’re all still conscious,” Lorelei said.
“So at least fourteen,” Chelsea said, clicking her left-hand lighter once. A plume of flame roared into the sky, billowing outward. For the moment, it would discourage any acrobatic or aerial attacks, and the green light it shed helped illuminate the darkness.
“It got quiet again,” Claire said. Nailah leaned her head in, nosing against Claire’s cheek. Chelsea watched the one opening into the Mounds, waiting for any sign of movement. The pin on Claire’s jacket glowed, and she peered forward intently for a moment. Then she leaned back, a puzzled expression across her face. “They… stopped.”
“They what?” Lorelei asked.
“They’re all just standing there,” Claire said. “They’re not talking, and they’re not… doing anything. They’ve freed or helped up their allies, but now they’re just standing around.”
“Are they looking at us?” Chelsea asked.
Claire nodded, rubbing her eyes. “Yeah. But they aren’t moving.”
“They’re waiting,” Lorelei said, turning in a circle to survey her walls of ice. “But for what?”
Chelsea looked around, and then down. Her eyes rested on the Moon-Rose Stone, a marker in the very center of the Rose Mounds. It was a flat stone inset into the ground, ringed in metal, and it seemed completely black unless moonlight struck it. Then it would gleam silver, and letters would appear around the rim, forming some sort of riddle that Chelsea and her friends often pondered over as children:
Below the roses
One rings true
Filled with power
Twins, yet one
And then another
Await a guest
If only one finds the door
The words, apparently, had not always been there. The Moon-Rose Stone had, ever since the place that would become Grimoire was discovered, and even the destruction that created what is now the Crater District did nothing to damage the Rose Mounds and the Moon-Rose Stone, as if both were protected by magic.
If Chelsea remembered right, the words hadn’t appeared until sometime when Chelsea was in middle school, about ten years ago.
Something about the words came to her mind, and she puzzled over them as if she was a child again.
A child, but with an adult’s knowledge and intelligence.
“Twins, yet one.”
“Await a guest.”
Why are those phrases sticking out to me?
“Hey, one’s coming,” Lorelei said. Chelsea looked up, peering into the darkness. One shape was approaching.
Farther back, someone cried out “Don’t do it! That’s the witch’s lair!”
Chelsea’s eyes went wide. She looked all around, pulling the pieces she knew together. Four hills. But what was strange about them? What had always…
That was right.
On two hills, red roses bloomed.
On the other two, white roses.
“Twins, yet one…”
She kept calling herself “we.” Plural. And her voice changed, like she was two different women, two different personalities in one body.
“Awaits a guest.” She wanted to play a game. She wanted Delilah, then turned her attention on Caleb.
But it can’t be…
But then how?
Chelsea stepped up to the entrance, raised her lighter, and blasted flame towards the approaching Shadow. He yelped in pain, ran back to his allies.
“Let’s not get interrupted by them,” Chelsea said, walking back to the center of the Mounds.
“You’ve figured something out?” Lorelei asked.
Chelsea nodded, tapping the Moon-Rose Stone with her foot. “Remember the riddle written here? I think I figured it out – at least some of it.”
“What’s that got to do with our current situation?” Claire asked.
“Duo took Caleb and Will,” Chelsea said. “And beneath this place… is Duo’s home.”
Lorelei’s eyes widened. “Twins, yet one,” she said softly. “And the red roses on two, white roses on the other two. So we just have to find…”
“The door!” Claire said.
Chelsea nodded. “We find the door, and we find our way to Caleb and Will.” She glared at the Moon-Rose Stone. “We’ll put an end to Duo’s sick game.”