Caleb touched the edge of the pool and came to a stop, bringing his head above water and catching his breath.
This is a bit different from the pool at the university… but I do like it.
Caleb grinned as he looked up and around. Adelaide’s house was a delight of childish imagination, with wild, spiraling staircases, bowl-shaped indoor balconies, trees bursting horizontally out of the walls, and so much more. And, at Caleb’s suggestion, she’d modified half of the pool into the proper length and depth for Caleb to swim laps.
“You’re so fast!” Adelaide said, splashing in the shallow end as she watched him. “Can you teach me to swim like that?”
“I don’t know how much of a teacher I can be,” Caleb said with a laugh, “but I could give it a shot.”
Adelaide giggled, then pointed past Caleb. “So why aren’t you getting in the water?”
Caleb tilted his head back so he could see the response from Will, who stood on the edge of the pool. Will tapped on his phone, then held it up:
I don’t want to.
“He doesn’t like water,” Caleb said.
“Boo!” Adelaide said, pouting. “How are you guys best friends? He’s so much more boring than you, Caleb.”
Boring’s fine by me.
“Will’s an acquired taste,” Caleb said. “He’s tons of fun, once you get to know him.”
I feel like you’re only half complimenting me.
Caleb grinned. “They’re always full compliments from me.”
You’re such a kid.
“That’s why he’s so fun!” Adelaide said, paddling her way over. She propped herself up on the edge of the pool, staring at Will with her two-toned eyes. “You could stand to be more childish, you know.”
She and Will ended up in a sudden, undeclared staring contest. Both held each other’s gaze steadily, Adelaide’s expression becoming more and more intense, while Will’s stayed calm and passive.
“I can do this all day, you know,” Adelaide said, pursing her lips.
Without breaking eye contact, Will tapped away on his phone.
So can I.
“How come you only talk with your phone?” Adelaide asked.
I don’t “only” talk with it. I just prefer it.
Adelaide’s scowl intensified. “But whyyyyy?”
“Don’t like talking,” Will said in his soft, flat voice.
Adelaide laughed, pointing at him. “I got you to talk!”
“And I got you to blink,” Will replied.
Adelaide’s eyes widened in shock, and then she slapped the water. “Dang it!” She pointed at Will. “You win this time, mister. I’ll get you one day.”
“Ah!” Adelaide threw her hands up. “You’re so rude when you use your phone!”
“He has more personality with text,” Caleb said, grinning.
“Won’t you at least sit and put your feet in the water?” Adelaide asked. “It’ll feel good, right?”
Will stared at her for a moment, then shrugged. He pulled off his socks, rolled up his pant legs, and sat on the edge of the pool, dipping his feet in the water. Adelaide grinned mischievously, and reached up to grab his leg, pulling.
Will didn’t budge, and the cell phone in his hand glowed softly with magical light.
“Don’t use magic to stop me from pranking you!” Adelaide said with a groan. “That’s cheating!”
“This whole house is magic,” Caleb said. “How is using magic cheating?”
“’Cuz it spoils my fun,” Adelaide said with a pout.
Will typed out a new message, held out his phone mainly to Caleb, though Adelaide came over to look, too:
Last night was weird.
“Yeah,” Caleb said. “Very weird.”
“What was weird about it?” Adelaide asked. “You did your Hunter stuff, right? And you didn’t run into Shadows.”
“Yeah, but…” Caleb stared off into space. “Pipers were back. But they weren’t acting like they usually do.”
“Is that good or bad?” Adelaide asked. She was floating on her back, kicking her feet and paddling her hands very slightly now and then to direct herself.
“Well, they weren’t luring away any people,” Caleb said. “So… on the surface, it seems good.”
“But you don’t like when you don’t know why something changes,” Adelaide said. “Right? Right?”
Caleb laughed. “Right.”
They just summon Hollows and fight.
“Yeah,” Caleb said. “And I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It makes them easier to focus on, since they aren’t trying to escape, but… hey, Will, do you remember when Pipers first started showing up?”
497 years ago.
“And they always had their Flutes, right?” Caleb asked. Will nodded. “But we’ve had Hollows for… at least a thousand years, right?”
Earliest recorded Hollow Hour was 1076 years ago.
“How do you remember that exact number so fast?” Adelaide asked, gazing at Will with wide, impressed eyes.
“And all the Hollows showed up together,” Caleb said, thinking. “We had Howlers, Weavers, Snifflers, Splicers, Bruisers all at once. The only time that ever changed was when the Pipers appeared.”
“Ooh, that is weird,” Adelaide said. “They’re the only ones that weren’t there at the beginning.”
“Right. And Chelsea and the others said they never saw shadow Pipers in the Library, and we never saw any on Hollow Island…”
What if they aren’t Hollows?
Caleb stared at Will’s phone, eyes wide.
He’d never considered that.
“They disappear at one o’ clock with the rest of them, right?” Caleb asked.
But a well-used Blink or Illusion Magic, and careful timing, could make that happen just as easily. And you said when Isabelle was at the public library, she disappeared at the end of Hollow Hour, too.
“The plot thickens,” Adelaide said, putting on a serious expression as she leaned against the edge of the pool.
“If they aren’t Hollows…” Caleb tilted his head back, staring up at the skylight high above, and the rays of sunlight that filtered through it from the east. “Well, then… what the heck are they?”
“Could they be people?” Adelaide asked. “Dress them up with weird costumes and use some Illusion Magic, and they could look like anything, right?”
That’s one possibility.
“Or!” Adelaide said, eyes lighting up. “What’s a magical thing that can make creatures appear and disappear whenever they want? And it doesn’t expose the mage, either.”
Caleb stared at her, eyes wide.
“They could be… Summons,” he said softly.
We never considered it because of their costumes, but with magical attire and assistance from Illusion Magic, we’d never see the telltale glow of a Summon. And they never leave behind Hollow Drops.
“You’re right,” Caleb said. “They only ever drop their Flutes. Nothing else is left behind. They aren’t like Hollows at all.”
But then the questions also come to Isabelle’s flutes. She made them – why do they summon Hollows? Why are they capable of luring children away from home?
Caleb groaned, bumping his forehead against the edge of the pool. “I should have asked so many questions when I had the chance. But I was so caught up with –”
Will tapped Caleb’s shoulder, and he looked up.
You were focused on helping her.
Caleb smiled. “Yeah.”
We don’t know for sure if they’re Summons yet. But now we can tell other Hunters what to look for. Let’s bring our theories to Mr. Crowley tonight.
“Let’s,” Caleb said with a nod.
Adelaide splashed water at Caleb’s face, grinning at his surprise. “So now that we’ve solved a mystery, aren’t you guys hungry?” she asked. “I think it’s just about lunch time!”
That night, after delivering their theories and suspicions to Jacob Crowley, the word went around to all Hunters: “Destroy Piper clothing. Analyze them with Divination Magic. Figure out who – or what – they really are.”
Caleb, Chelsea, and Lorelei were teamed up, as usual. In the streets below, fire and ice flashed with green and blue light, eliminating Hollows everywhere.
Meanwhile, high above, Caleb perched on the very top of Zodiac Tower. One of many old watch towers from Grimoire’s earliest days, Zodiac Tower’s top was the very tallest point in the city, by a large margin. Built atop the highest hill of the city, it was a perfect place from which to see far and wide.
His phone chirped, and he glanced at it.
A message from Chelsea, sent to the Re-Code messaging group for the trio. Caleb had left his phone out on the ledge in front of him, so he could quickly communicate with his team below, and they with him. He started to type a message, but stopped.
He leapt from his perch, free fall propelling him towards the ground below. Halfway there, he formed a slide of Mobility discs, which he jumped off of, using a few bounce discs to get him the rest of the way to the street in a zigzag pattern.
“By the elementary school,” Caleb said, just as Chelsea and Lorelei cleared a new wave of Hollows. “Heading south, but not quickly.”
“Let’s go!” Chelsea said, racing ahead. She and Lorelei wove through the streets, while Caleb took to the air, leaping here and there with his Mobility discs, keeping a careful eye on his prey.
There it was: a Piper. It had just summoned a group of Splicers and sent them at a trio of Hunters who had tried to claim it as their prey.
The Piper’s back was turned to Caleb and his team.
If it’s a Summon, then the Summoner might be watching its back.
We need to be fast.
Luckily, speed was Caleb’s biggest strength. He propelled himself forward, hurtling like a rocket through the frigid night air towards the Piper. It turned before Caleb reached it, confirming his suspicions.
But no mage or Summon is faster than I can be.
Though, admittedly, I can cheat.
Caleb entered Time-state while in midair, as the Flute was halfway to the Piper’s grotesque, cracked lips. He flipped over the Piper, slowed his momentum with a Mobility disc, and then sprang a dozen traps. Chains surged out of the ground, gleaming white, wrapping up the Piper’s arms, torso, and the Flute itself. Multiple sticky Mobility discs formed beneath the Piper’s feet, adhering it to the ground, and chains came to assist, anchoring the fake-Hollow’s legs.
“Now, let’s see what you are, shall we?” Caleb asked, exiting Time-state. He pummeled the Piper’s face with a weighted attack chain. No mask came flying off, as he’d hoped, and there was no break in the illusion.
Fire flashed, heralding Chelsea’s arrival, and the Piper’s head and shoulders went up in flames. Caleb entered Time-state again, watching carefully.
If the Pipers were Summons, then the Summoner would likely cause this Piper to vanish before its true identity was discovered. That could happen in an instant.
Caleb needed to be able to see, with his own eyes, before that happened.
There! The flames burned away raggedy cloth and leather, and Caleb saw.
The face beneath glowed. And the eye that was revealed was black.
It really is a Summon.
A sudden shift caused Caleb to stop time entirely with a Phase Step. He saw, amidst the flickering green flames, that the Piper was being recalled by its Summoner. Its glowing amber body was coming apart, vanishing into motes of light.
Caleb stared, taking in every detail he could from what little had been exposed.
The Pipers are Summons.
That reality shook Caleb severely. It was one thing to be pitted into a battle against fellow mages. But for those same enemy mages to go one step further, fabricating the Pipers, using Isabelle’s precious flutes as weapons to call upon Hollows, to lure children from their homes?
There were mages, all around Caleb, in his city, who actively participated in the violence that he fought against every night.
There were mages here in Caleb’s city that actively participated in mass kidnappings, in spreading sorrow and despair to so many families.
How would they ever answer for themselves? How could they?
But beneath that, Caleb had only one question, the same question that plagued him about Chase:
What would drive people to commit violence against their own homes? Against their allies, their teammates, their friends and family?
In a nutshell:
Caleb let time resume its natural course, and the Piper vanished in an instant, its clothes burning to ash, its Flute falling to the ground with a clatter.
“Learn anything?” Chelsea asked.
Caleb nodded. “It was a Summon,” he said softly.
Chelsea cocked her head to the side, looking at Caleb questioningly. “You okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Caleb nodded, though he swayed on his feet, receiving support from Chelsea. “I just… it’s… a lot to process.”
Sudden, frantic music pierced the night, and Caleb whirled around. There, atop the elementary school’s gymnasium, were two Pipers, playing their songs of summoning.
But no Hollows appeared. A voice cried out, words that Caleb didn’t catch, and lavender light slashed through the darkness. Two Flutes were now in four pieces, useless to their owners, and the Pipers swiftly vanished into thin air.
“What was –” Chelsea started.
“Caleb Greyson!” shouted a familiar voice. Caleb turned, and saw on the roof of a café, the masked mage that he’d been wondering about ever since he first met her.
“Royal Raven,” he said, laughing just at saying the name.
“What’s so funny?” Royal Raven asked, leaping down from her perch, strolling across the street towards him. Several small, glowing butterflies fluttered about her, their lights shining on her like spotlights, reflecting off of her purple-and-silver costume. Her feathery cape billowed in the wind, and she flashed a smile as she stopped a dozen paces from the trio.
“Just not used to talking to superheroes,” Caleb said, grinning back at her. “That’s twice you’ve jumped in to save me.”
“I said that wouldn’t be the last we met,” Royal Raven said.
“She’s even weirder than you described,” Chelsea said, gawking at the costumed superhero. “What’s up with the outfit and the alias? If you’re a Hunter, just do things normally. And if you aren’t, what the heck are you doing out here?”
“I need to speak with Caleb, if that’s all right with you,” Royal Raven said, eyes flashing as she stared at Chelsea.
“What if it isn’t?” Chelsea asked, taking a step forward.
“It’s fine,” Caleb said, throwing out an arm. “Let’s not fight, okay? And Royal Raven, whatever you have to say, you can say it in front of them, too.”
Royal Raven stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “I merely have one question,” she said, her voice softening, losing its dramatic flair. “Do you…” She looked down, and Caleb could hear the mingled hope and fear in her voice. “Do you know where Fae is?”
She’s asking about…
I see, now. Yeah, that hair color, those eyes… I haven’t seen her in a long time, but…
Well. I guess I can understand why she wants to hide her identity.
Caleb smiled. “I don’t know exactly, but have you heard of the Enchanted Dominion?”
“The Enchanted –” Royal Raven started, then glared. “Are you making fun of me?”
“No,” Caleb said. “Where do you think the three of us disappeared to for so long? Fae’s in the Enchanted Dominion, but I don’t know exactly where. She’s on some quest of her own, though. I don’t know the details. I’m sorry, she… she doesn’t talk to me.”
“But, was she –” Royal Raven started, desperate worry clear across her face. “I mean, I… was she alone?”
Caleb shook his head. “She was with friends, but I hadn’t seen –” He stopped. “Wait… yeah. I thought they looked familiar. She was with the three members of Falling Stars.”
“The band?” Royal Raven asked.
Caleb nodded. “Yup. I don’t know the story, I only saw her once, but they seemed to be getting along.”
“She…” Royal Raven hung her head, staring at the ground. “I…”
“Do you want to find her?” Caleb asked.
Royal Raven stared at him, eyes wide. “You could help me?”
“Maybe a little,” Caleb said. “I don’t know quite how to get to the Enchanted Dominion, but I have a few leads. Let me look into it. Find me again tomorrow night?”
Royal Raven’s eyes brightened. “You would do that for me?”
Caleb ginned. “Sure would. And it isn’t just for you, you know. I’m worried about Fae, too.”
Royal Raven smiled, then suddenly turned away, her cape snapping out dramatically. “I thank you, Caleb Greyson!” she called, back to her flashy “superhero” voice. “We will speak again tomorrow night!” She leapt away into the night, butterflies swarming around her, sparkling and shining, until she vanished.
“Well, she’s a weirdo,” Chelsea said.
“No,” Caleb said, smiling. “She’s just looking out for her best friend.”
“You know who she is?” Chelsea asked.
Caleb nodded. “But I’m not telling.”
Chelsea groaned. “You’re as bad as Lorelei.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Lorelei said, smiling.