Caleb led the way for his group, racing across the campus of Grimoire University. The campus was quiet and calm, a stark contrast to the pops and other explosive sounds coming from the distant Crater District. Lights flashed, faint now but growing stronger as Caleb raced forward.
Chelsea’s owl flew high overhead, so high he was a mere pinprick of white light in the dark sky. Unless one knew to look for him, they’d never notice him. He relayed information to Chelsea, and what she reported to the rest of the group didn’t bode well at all.
“Hundreds of Pipers have taken control of the entire mall,” she said. “They’ve packed the place, inside and outside, with non-mages under their spell. And the Shadows aren’t surrounding them or behind them, they’re interspersed with them.”
Which makes them incredibly hard to fight. Mom, Dad, the Hunters… they won’t risk hurting bystanders.
No wonder they were pushed back and have to regroup. How do you win that kind of fight? Collateral damage isn’t an option.
“There are a few scattered skirmishes on the southern perimeter,” Chelsea continued. “Looks like some rivalries have led to little duels here and there, and there are other Hunters who are trying guerilla tactics, hit-and-runs to draw Shadows out. Most aren’t taking the bait, but there’s a bit of success there.”
“Anywhere it looks like we can help?” Caleb asked.
“I think it’s best if we don’t immediately involve ourselves,” Lorelei said. “We should get as close as we can without getting into a fight and properly survey the entire situation as best we can. Then meet with the others and combine our information, form a new strategy. We have the entire week until the weapon is fired, right? Let’s use that time to properly think and fight in the best way possible to minimize casualties and keep this from getting drawn out.”
Caleb bit back a frustrated retort. She was right. While he wanted to just leap into action and save people…
That wasn’t always the right thing to do.
Sometimes quick action causes more damage in the long run.
Take our time, do it right. That’s the way to do this.
“We should spread out to cover as much ground as we can,” Caleb said. “But no one should be alone. Let’s divide into groups and – where’s Isla?”
Caleb looked at his team, and saw one – albeit new – member was missing. Their group consisted only of Caleb, Chelsea, Lorelei, Gwen, and Will, with Isla and her fox Summon Dama nowhere to be found.
“Probably Illusioning herself off to learn more than we ever could in our own way,” Chelsea said.
“Her abilities come in quite useful,” Gwen said.
“Though she could’ve taken us with her,” Chelsea said. “Abandoning us like that without saying anything is stupid.”
“Stupid is as stupid does,” came a familiar, mysterious voice. “Or so they say. But in this scenario, would the stupid one be the one who knows not of what she speaks?”
Isla appeared, an enigmatic smile on her face.
“Where were you?” Chelsea asked, coming to a stop with the rest of the group.
“And how long were you gone?” Lorelei chimed in.
Will held up his phone:
She vanished right after we crossed the Bay.
“You knew, and you didn’t say anything?” Chelsea asked.
Will typed out a message, and held it up:
I figured she knew what she was doing. And she had a better chance of success concealing herself if no one drew attention to it.
“Precisely,” Isla said. “Unfortunately, our adversaries are cleverly prepared. The ones most hidden and defended are Diviners watching for all forms of Illusion. I wasn’t able to go very far.”
“They have total command over the crater,” Lorelei said. “They’ll be difficult to defeat now that they’re entrenched.”
“And it honestly does look like they have every non-mage in the entire city down there,” Chelsea said. “Every other Lunar Festival area outside of the crater is abandoned.”
Will held up his phone:
Are you sure the Diviners were only watching for Illusion?
Isla shrugged. “Certainty is elusive,” she said. “But given those fighting on the outskirts have been able to hide effectively between attacks, it seems likely.”
“And the ones fighting on the outskirts aren’t a huge threat to their operation,” Lorelei said.
“We should all see as much as we can with our own eyes,” Gwen said. “We don’t know what the others know. We might end up bringing them the most recent information. And if we’ve all seen it ourselves, we’ll all have a better understanding of where our individual skills might best be put to use.”
“Splitting up as groups sounds good, too,” Lorelei said. “How about two groups? One goes clockwise, the other counterclockwise, and once each has done a full circuit, we go to the others and form a strategy.”
Caleb nodded. “Let’s do it,” he said.
They split up, Caleb going counterclockwise with Will and Isla while Chelsea, Lorelei, and Gwen went clockwise. The sun had fully set now, and the lack of street lights here on the northern side of the crater, where it blended into Lunar Park and then the university’s campus, made things all the darker. Caleb crept ahead, he and his team staying low to the ground as they reached the ridged edge of the crater that formed Crater District. Peering over the edge, he was stunned by what he saw.
The crater, nearly a mile in diameter, was packed with people. And yet, after all this time walking, he hadn’t heard much chatter or “people noises.” The scattered, distant sounds of combat had made it seem like there were just a small amount of people all spread out.
For hundreds – thousands – of people to be so quiet…
That’s when Caleb saw them, just like Chelsea had said: Pipers. Their tall, spindly forms were scattered throughout Crater District, always standing atop rooftops, towers, or street lamps.
Why aren’t they playing? How can all of these people be kept in their thrall if the songs aren’t being played?
Did they discover or invent some new ability? Or have they always been able to do more than we thought, and were just saving it for the right, horrible moment?
The innocent bystanders – of which there were too many to count, men and women, from children to the elderly – stood around with listless expressions, swaying to music that only they could hear.
So they’ve found a way to embed the music in their minds without having to sustain the song.
How do we undo it? If we don’t find a way…
There’s no way we’re saving them.
“We should keep moving,” Will said softly. Caleb nodded, leading counterclockwise around the crater, staying low, letting his eyes drift up and over the ridge every few steps, pausing now and then to take stock of the situation.
It was grim, there was no denying it.
By Caleb’s count, so far he’d been able to spot nearly one hundred and fifty Shadows. They weren’t exactly hiding. They wore their signature dark hooded cloaks, and Caleb could see when they turned just right in the light that they also wore masks that covered the lower half of their face.
One thing stood out to Caleb, though, and he didn’t think it was good.
He hadn’t seen Bronn. Nor had he seen Anastasia.
If this was the great offensive of the Shadows, where were their leaders? Where were their most powerful and prominent members?
On the south side of the crater, where it met the main street that ran north-south through Grimoire, Caleb paused, waiting. After a few moments, Chelsea and her group appeared, and they dashed over to Caleb’s trio.
“Doesn’t seem to be much point in us both doing a full circuit,” Chelsea said. “You can see pretty far from up here.”
“And they don’t seem to be hiding anything, anyway,” Lorelei said.
“What they’re hiding is what’s missing,” Caleb said.
“Ooh!” Isla said excitedly. Everyone stared at her. She smiled. “I quite liked your wording on that.”
Caleb snorted, holding back a louder laugh as he grinned. “But anyway,” he said, fighting to regain his composure, “I didn’t see Anastasia or Bronn anywhere. And there don’t seem to be any prominent mages among them.”
“Everyone with their face uncovered is a non-mage,” Lorelei said, nodding. “Captivated by the music. Perhaps there’s one or two mages hiding among them, but it seems unlikely. They have full control of the entire District. It doesn’t seem like they’re interested in hiding.”
“So where are their heavy hitters?” Chelsea asked.
“Probably acting on their true plan,” Will said. Everyone stared at him for clarification, and he shifted nervously, rotating his phone over and over in his palm.
He’d use his phone to talk, except he knows we shouldn’t risk the light.
“You think this is a diversion?” Caleb asked, nodding towards the crater.
“It’s quite a lot of work for just a diversion,” Gwen said.
“Not just a diversion,” Will said, staring at his feet. He reached up with one hand, adjusting the position of his headphones. “They need them there for the weapon.”
“And because we know that, it means we won’t be so quick to notice if anyone’s missing,” Gwen said, nodding. “I see. They have a two-pronged plan, but we only discovered one part of it. And that part is so terrible, we never stopped to think what else they might have planned in addition to it.”
“So do we just rush to the rest of our allies?” Chelsea asked. “I feel like we should hurry to try and find any trace of the Big Bad Boss Shadows, before they do something really horrible.”
“We don’t have the slightest clue of where to look,” Lorelei said. “And the others might have noticed what we did, and have information about Anastasia, Blaise, and all the rest. We should –” She stopped, staring over Caleb’s shoulder. “Where did Isla go this time?”
Sure enough, Isla was gone. Even Will shrugged when asked about her. No one had noticed her leave this time until after she was already gone.
“She’s probably better off on her own,” Gwen said. “She even said so to us – her abilities to conceal a group were impressive, but apparently those abilities are much more potent when used on just herself.”
“But do we wait here for her?” Caleb asked, peering around the dark city. “Do we head on over to Libra District and trust she’ll find us?”
“That’s the frustrating thing about teammates not communicating with each other,” Chelsea said, glaring into the night.
“We could split up again,” Lorelei said. “One group stays here, the other goes on ahead. We can contact each other easily enough.”
“Staying right here to wait seems like a really bad idea,” Gwen said, peering up and over the crater’s ridge. She then looked out at the city southward, where flashes and noise punctuated the scattered skirmishes happening in Grimoire’s narrow streets.
“Let’s just go,” Chelsea said. “She’ll find us. She did last time. And she knows where to go to meet everyone else, so if she doesn’t find us here, she’ll know where we’ve gone.”
“I wish we knew her better,” Caleb said. “Then we’d know what she’d do.”
“That’s why it’s especially important for new teammates to communicate,” Chelsea said, gritting her teeth. “Come on, let’s go.”
Off they went, hugging the edges of the main street, staying to the shadows but not braving the narrower, labyrinthine network of streets branching off from this one. In this darkness, with little knowledge of what was happening, that wouldn’t be a smart idea.
All in this group but Gwen were Hunters, and all four of them had become Hunters at the same time. They’d roamed these streets nearly every night for almost a year, and in all those nights, they’d owned the streets. Their enemies were Hollows. Their allies were mages.
It was simple. They’d never had to worry about who they could trust, or the kinds of powers their foes might have. Hollows were clear and predictable in their abilities.
But enemy mages? Caleb and his friends could walk right past one and never know they were there, thanks to Illusion Magic. They could walk into any number of traps, sprung upon them by Manipulation Magic, or Containment Magic, or Energy Magic. Anyone could follow them and stay out of sight, combining Illusion Magic with Mobility Magic to stay close without ever betraying their location.
The streets weren’t safe. The young Hunters no longer owned these streets.
If anything, the young Hunters had become the Hunted. Enemies could lurk around any corner, in the faintest of shadows, or even inside the very buildings they stayed so close to. Caleb noticed all of them, including himself, occasionally looked around with the eyes of nervous animals worrying at what might be hunting them in the dark, mysterious night.
What do we do when Hollow Hour begins? How do we fight Hollows and mages at the same time? We did it before, but that was because our foes were scattered, disorganized, and attacking with only a small portion of their strength.
What happens now?
Caleb opened his pocket watch to check the time, rather than risk the light of his phone. Catching a faint gleam of light from a street lamp, Caleb read: eight-thirty.
Three and-a-half hours. Hopefully that’s enough time for us and Mom and Dad and Jacob and whoever else to put together a plan for Hollow Hour.
They were halfway to their destination, and things we going smoothly, if… strangely quiet. The fighting had faded the farther they went, and the ensuing silence made their trek eerie. Grimoire was never this silent. The darkness never seemed so impenetrable. When they passed through Lunar Plaza and saw the empty, unlit stalls, booths, and stages from what should have been one of the highlights of the Festival, it put their situation in stark, heartbreaking contrast.
The light of their city had been stolen away.
Their home was a battlefield. This Festival, this wonderful celebration, carried instead the echoes of a war.
This has to end soon. I still have to be there at seven on the final night to stop the weapon, but we need to stop this fighting as soon as we can. We need to save these people, and defeat the Shadows, as soon as we can.
Tomorrow, the Radiant King’s coming with his army. If Mom and Dad and the others were beaten by the Shadows alone, we won’t stand a chance if we have to fight all of them at once.
Delilah… please stay safe. Addie… I hope you can reach your sister.
And good luck with whatever you’re doing with the White Whale. Maybe it’s even harder than what we’re going to have to face out here. Whatever it is, I hope you succeed, and I hope it makes a difference.
I’m glad it keeps you girls away from this fight. Delilah, I know you can fight – your Felines are amazing, and your command of them is so strong – but you don’t need to be here for this. It’s humans fighting other humans. And in that case, with the kinds of power we all wield…
People are going to die…
I don’t want you to see that. I don’t want to be a part of it, either, but I…
I’ll do my best, as well, on my end. Despite the foes we’re facing, despite the frightening odds…
I’ll do whatever I can to end the fighting as quickly and peacefully as possible. I’ll do my best to defeat the Shadows and the Radiance with as little bloodshed as possible.
Caleb almost laughed at himself.
Mister Midnight would get mad at me if I said that around him. He always was frustrated with my “naïve idealism.”
I won’t avoid the reality of things.
But I’ll never stop hoping, and working towards a fulfillment of my hopes, that things don’t have to descend into the worst places. Things don’t have to get as dark as possible. We don’t have to kill to win.
Caleb found himself squeezing his pocket watch so hard it hurt, and he loosened his grip.
I’ve learned a lot, and gotten a lot stronger.
Let’s see if all that training can make the right kind of difference here.
This is my test.
I’ll make you proud.
Caleb took two more steps, and then all of his senses went on the highest alert. He shouted wordlessly, leaping backwards as magical light streaked down from the sky. The street exploded before his very eyes, and he was blinded for the briefest second.
As his vision cleared, he saw his friends first. All were okay, having leapt away either by instinct, or his shouted warning, or both.
Next he saw their assailants. There were only two of them, and they stood two blocks away, in the middle of the street. One was a woman, her long dress fluttering in the wind, her hair cascading around her shoulders like a waterfall of curls.
The other was a man, and he wore a wide-brimmed straw hat. On his back and at either hip he had large, rectangular boxes strapped to his body.
The man stepped into the light and lifted his chin, and Caleb saw that his left eye was covered over with a dark, tattered eyepatch. His one visible eye had a strange look to it that Caleb couldn’t place. But the longer he stared at it, and the man’s hard, stony expression, the more he felt unnerved by it. Though he had no idea who the man was, he was already frightened by him, by that lone eye that stared straight at him, by the sheer presence the man seemed to have. Though he was of average height and build, he seemed to Caleb to take up the entire street, blocking every avenue of escape, covering over the sky itself.
The corner of the man’s mouth turned upward ever so slightly. “Stay right where you are,” he said, his voice gritty and rough. Yet despite the words of his command, his tone was almost casual, relaxed. “It’s the only way you’ll live out the night.”
Caleb knew what came next. He knew the nature of his friends. He knew the nature of his team.
He knew the nature of himself.
When the mysterious man gave them such an ultimatum, there was only one appropriate response.
Caleb, Chelsea, Lorelei, Will, and Gwen leapt into battle.