Callum and Deirdre stood across the street from the Zodiac Building, staring at the dark figure that stood before the doors.
“What is he doing here?” Callum asked.
Deirdre placed a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t we ask him ourselves?” she asked.
“But Caleb –” Callum started.
“Is unlikely to be in imminent peril,” Deirdre said. “Blaise said as much to you, didn’t he? He wasn’t interested in harming us. He likely had his people take Caleb prisoner to take him out of the fight. Regardless, we need to remain calm. And Jacob… I think I may know what he’s here for.”
Callum clenched his hand into his fist, but that tight grip loosened at his wife’s gentle touch. “Well, let’s talk to him, then.”
He and Deirdre walked forward, and the dark figure – Jacob Crowley – turned to face them. Though as imposing as he always was, the Head of the Hunter Guild had dark circles under his eyes, and his normally impeccable, slicked-back hair was a disheveled mess.
“Greysons,” Jacob said, his deep voice slightly hoarse. “Just the pair I was looking for.”
“You’re here for us?” Callum asked. A glance at his wife showed she’d already expected this.
Always so perceptive.
“You thought you could conduct a large-scale operation in the middle of the day without me noticing?” Jacob asked. “And then you come up from the Underground looking ragged and defeated. You went after the Shadows, didn’t you? And you failed, coming home with your tails tucked between your legs.” He turned aside, looking up towards the top of the Zodiac Tower. “But you come here. Which means you suspect what I have also come to suspect. The Head of our Council has something to do with this madness.”
“Jacob –” Callum started.
“Why, pray tell, did you not come to the Hunter Guild for support?” Jacob asked. “Why go after the Shadows alone? If you know where they’re hiding, I have a right to that information. The defense and security of Grimoire is my priority. Or did you forget? You aren’t the Hunter Guild’s Head anymore, Greyson.”
“We don’t know who to trust,” Deirdre said. “Several of your Hunters have turned out to be in league with the Shadows. We went with only those we trusted most.”
“And you didn’t include me in that number,” Jacob said with a dark stare.
“We –” Callum started.
“We didn’t think it prudent to bring you in,” Deirdre said, laying a gentle hand on Callum’s arm. “There’s too much bad blood between us. As much as –”
“As much as you’ve tried to change that, yes,” Jacob said, looking away from Deirdre to focus on Callum. “If only your husband felt the same.”
“If only you felt the same,” Callum shot back. “You’re the one who started all of this.”
“And we don’t need to keep dredging it up,” Deirdre said. “Jacob, you’re right. Defending Grimoire is your highest duty and responsibility. If you think you can work with us, we’d be glad to share our knowledge.”
“I don’t have time for games or bargains,” Jacob replied.
“Jacob, please,” Deirdre said. “We need you – and in the end, you’ll need us as well. You may hate us all you wish, but you’ve always been intelligent and pragmatic. Let’s put our differences aside, even just for a week.”
“A week?” Jacob said, arching an eyebrow. “So the Lunar Festival is where all will come to fruition. I see…” He looked away, brow furrowed in thought. Slowly, he nodded. “You will have my full support.”
Callum was stunned.
He’s not going to insist on leading? He’s willing to defer to us?
Callum took a closer look at Jacob’s expression.
He realizes how serious things are. And he doesn’t know half of what we know.
“We appreciate it,” Deirdre said. “Can we talk now?”
Jacob turned his head, gazing up the height of the Zodiac Building. “I had planned to speak with our Council’s Head,” he said. “But if the danger is as imminent as the Lunar Festival, we need to speak immediately. The Festival starts in mere hours.”
“Deirdre,” Callum said in an urgent whisper. Deirdre met his gaze with a level stare, while also showing him a message on her phone.
It was from Chelsea:
We have a lead on Caleb. Going to rescue him now. Rally the troops to protect the city.
We might not be there for the main fight. But we’ll join you as soon as we have Caleb.
When had Chelsea and Deirdre exchanged numbers, Callum wondered? But more than that…
Caleb was in good hands. Which meant Callum, Deirdre, and all those they could find could focus their efforts on the city, on the Festival, on the storm that was on its way.
It wasn’t just the Shadows. The Radiance would arrive tomorrow night, as well.
Thank goodness Jacob’s willing to work with us. Without him…
Well, we clearly underestimated our foes. We need his help, and we need his Hunters.
When all this is over…
He might be able to start putting his hate behind him, too.
Callum, Deirdre, and Jacob left the Zodiac Building behind, making their way to Jacob’s office at the top of the Hunter Building on the other side of Grimoire. The entire office gave off the feeling of being completely open, but Callum realized as he walked through it that wasn’t the case.
Glass. Glass walls were everywhere. Jacob’s assistants had their own offices, and they had walls and doors to create a sense of privacy, at least for sound.
But one could see every inch of the spacious top floor from wherever they stood.
It’s a lot different from when Deirdre and I were the Heads of the Hunter Guild. I’m not so sure about the floors and ceilings and furniture all being black, but…
This kind of transparency isn’t such a bad thing. And it’s certainly fitting for Jacob.
And just like that transparency implied, here Callum and Deirdre told Jacob Crowley everything. They told him all about their children’s escapades through the Enchanted Dominion, about the Daylight Bastions, about the Endless Night, and of course about the imminent threats from the Radiance, as well as all they knew – and the many questions they still had – about the Shadows.
“So Blaise is in charge of them, after all,” Jacob said, stroking his chin in thought. “And he thinks he’s some white knight saving the world, though it comes at the expense of too many lives to count. There’s his base beneath the Underground, which seems to have mysteriously disappeared on you, and his plans for the Festival aboveground – which remain a mystery – and this ‘Radiance’ atop all of that.” He stared at each of the Greysons in turn. “And you thought you could fight all of this with your ragtag band of misfits?”
“They aren’t –” Callum started, but was stopped by his wife’s gentle touch.
“We have the support of Hagen and Mercedes, as well as most of the Guardian Guild,” Deirdre said calmly. “But even so.”
“Even so…” Jacob said, nodding. “I’ll increase the patrols, and get every Hunter I trust ready to man the Festival from day one. We’ll work around the clock, as we often do.” He let out a heavy sigh. “For now, I’ll coordinate our efforts from here.”
“For now?” Callum asked.
Jacob nodded, his dark eyes steely with determination. “I must join the fray at some point. It will take every last one of us to be certain of victory if Blaise is involved. He’s too cunning and too powerful for anything less than our very best.”
All hands were on deck to coordinate preparations. Callum and Deirdre pulled in their remaining Council contacts – the ones they could trust, at any rate – and spent their time patrolling the lesser-staffed Festival hotspots. Crater District was the biggest attraction, but there were major booths, stages, and events set up in every district.
Jacob’s Hunters are doing an excellent job at keeping a low profile. Though if I can occasionally spot them, that means Blaise’s Shadows can, too.
When will they strike? What will that look like? They repelled us in the Underground, likely fighting only to weaken us while they took Caleb. And they succeeded in weakening us, so the strongest play would be to strike quickly. They’ll hit soon, and hit hard.
So how will they retaliate?
“It’s so peaceful,” Deirdre said, looking out across Lunar Plaza on Main Street. The trolley trundled on through the center of the plaza, its bell dinging as it went, and a few people got off, smiling as they looked around at the different shops and games set up around the plaza. People were getting off work right around now, checking in on what the Festival had in store. Spherical moon lanterns drifted here and there, glowing silver, tethered to posts in the ground by silver cord. Maps of Grimoire through the decades were in every single hotspot, a mainstay of the Lunar Festival.
The Lunar Festival celebrates the history of this city more than anything. It’s about where we’ve come from, and carries with it the hope of where we’re going.
And Blaise says this city’s going to die. He won’t attempt to save everyone, and worse, he’s enacting his plan during the week that honors this city. And he quoted one of the Lunar Architects to justify his plan.
How did it come to this?
On either side of the trolley’s path were circular three-tiered fountains, spraying water high in the air even as winter’s frost began to set in. This was their last hurrah. After the Lunar Festival, all of the fountains in the city would be shut off until spring.
It was peaceful. But Callum couldn’t see it that way.
This isn’t peace.
It’s the calm before the storm.
Music drifted through the air from many directions at once. Much of it was faint, though the warmup of the acoustic band on the stage in Lunar Plaza was most prominent.
But something about the music seemed peculiar. It wasn’t the band, it was something farther off, faint, hard to discern.
Callum looked at a couple starting off north along Main Street, towards Crater District. Something didn’t seem right, so he kept watching them. What was it…?
“They only just arrived,” Deirdre said slowly.
Callum looked at her, saw that she was staring at the same couple. “They only just arrived, but they’re already leaving.”
Callum thought that was certainly odd, but…
He spotted a portly gentleman running a booth selling used books who suddenly stood up, leaving his booth in the middle of negotiating with customers. They stared at him, called after him.
But he didn’t look back.
He headed north.
Towards Crater District.
“The band,” Deirdre said.
Callum looked, and saw that the three members of the acoustic band had left their instruments behind and were walking north with several others.
Turning back, he saw a married couple with three young children coming from the south. They kept on walking, and it was their eyes most of all that gave things away.
Their eyes were empty, spellbound, like they were in a trance.
On the wind, that faint music…
“Piper’s Flutes,” Deirdre said suddenly.
Immediately, she and Callum were running, as fast as they could, north along Main Street. The farther they ran, the clearer that set of music became.
Piper’s Flutes. Not just one, or a small group, either. There must be hundreds, all playing together, playing that one song Callum knew and hated.
It was the Song of Hypnosis. The song that caused people to follow them, had caused this city so much pain with missing children.
Now hundreds of Pipers were playing that song, but they weren’t drawing people out of the city.
They were drawing them in. Towards Crater District.
Before Callum arrived, he had a strong idea of why. And it made his blood boil.
Blaise’s weapon is pointed at Crater District. He needs to sacrifice enough people to prevent further destruction, or so he says.
So he’s drawing as many as he can to Crater District.
He’s adding to the death toll with every second.
How long do we have? Will he wait until the end of the Festival? Will he wait until after the Radiance arrive?
Callum’s heart pounded in his chest as he realized he didn’t know. He had no idea when Blaise’s weapon was primed to fire. He knew the where. And he knew the death toll, in a general sense – it was too much, and it kept rising.
He just didn’t know when. And that meant that he and his wife were racing into what could turn into their own grave.
“Isla’s with Chelsea,” Deirdre said, typing away on her phone even as she ran at a full sprint. “They’ve found their own way below. While they look for Caleb, they’re also going to try to dismantle or disarm the weapon.”
Let’s just hope they’re fast enough.
I wish we knew more.
We need more information, but…
It’s too late now!
Crater District came into view, and Callum and Deirdre stopped at the top of the ridge that formed its perimeter. The sight before them was a horrifying one.
Thousands – and more by the second – of people were pouring into the bowl-shaped crater. The music of the Piper’s Flutes was louder than ever, because all across the Crater – atop every roof and booth and lamp post – were Pipers. Hundreds of them, all playing in unison.
The trap had been sprung.
The battle for Grimoire had begun.