“My dearest fire blossom,
Now that you have read the first letter and seen my memories, I hope you understand some of what led to you being orphaned so young. I’m truly sorry for all the pain I must have caused you. But I hope that you have grown up well, and I know that there must still be love in your life. Lorelei and her parents are dear friends, and you’ll still have your grandmother, and the Greysons.
I hope you saw the memory of me writing, filling up books in the Vault. Many of the books there are full of my notes, studies, and research on magic, particularly Fire Magic. I hope they’ll prove useful to you.
There is one book – unfortunately only one – that contains all of my notes and observations regarding the mysterious shadow organization seeking to do harm to our city. I wrote it in secret, and you are the first I have ever told of its existence. I hope it will augment my memories and put you on the path to discovering the truth and putting an end to their schemes.
But it is likely you saw me writing a great many books, as fast as I possibly could. The bookshelf at the far end of the Vault is full of them, and they are for you.
I only got to spend five years with you. I had so many plans and hopes and dreams for my time raising you, nurturing you into a fine young woman. I had so many things to teach you, and undoubtedly so many things to learn from you. Those books contain everything I possibly could think of to pass on to you. Much of it may seem frivolous – there are a number of recipe books, for instance – but I hope all of it will be useful and meaningful to you. I hope you will cherish them. I hope you will feel, in some way, that your mother didn’t abandon you. I never meant for things to happen as they did. I hope that these books can make up, in some small way, for all the precious time we lost.
I love you more than words can say, Chelsea. May you live long, and live well, and be a blessing to the world and all those around you. I hope you remain bright and beautiful, and grow ever brighter and more beautiful.
And now I find words failing me. I’ve written so very much, and now I’m at the end, and yet… I feel as if I haven’t come close to saying all I should, all I meant to.
All I can say is that I hope you can someday know how much I love you. And I hope that the small amount of time I had with you has helped make you into the woman I know you can be.
Love, forever and for always,
Chelsea wanted nothing more than to go and bury herself in the Reiner Vault, and not come out until she’d read every book. But after coming out of her mother’s memories, she’d found the fire burned down low, and the bright light from outdoors was now darkness. Night was upon her and her friends, and that brought a unique set of challenges.
Chelsea, Lorelei, and Caleb – all Hunters – had already skipped an entire night of Hunting since they’d returned to Grimoire. They needed to show up early, and face whatever consequences there might be for their extended absence. And more than that, they needed to deal with the consequences for not being able to divulge the details of where they’d been and what had happened to them.
Chelsea was chiefly concerned with how she’d explain one very new thing about herself.
Namely, her Summon.
Chelsea’s owl had taken to Grimoire quickly, roaming far afield during the day, swooping over the mountains and forests that surrounded Grimoire, far out of sight of most people, only returning at night to rejoin Chelsea. Their mental connection remained stable no matter the distance – something Chelsea found curious, since she’d been unable to feel his presence when she’d been trapped with Gwen in the shadow world – and Chelsea got impressions of how he was growing and learning, relishing in the exploration and the wide open spaces.
But the problem was, all Hunters were expected to be open about the full breadth of their magical abilities. For Chelsea, it had always been easy: “Focus: Fire Magic. Some supplemental Enhancement Magic” had always sufficed. But now she had to explain her Summon, and more than that…
She would be expected to openly share his name.
I’ve bucked expectations before, but this might not be so easy to avoid.
Her owl hooted in annoyance. He rode atop her shoulders as she walked to the Hunter Guild with Caleb and Lorelei.
Come on, I named you in a moment of panic and desperation. I didn’t have time to think about it. And I’m not ashamed of your name. I love it. It’s just… it’s supposed to be a secret. And it’s embarrassing. And now both Lorelei and Gwen know…
Chelsea cast a glance to her right at Caleb. She still hadn’t told him and, surprisingly, he hadn’t asked since the one time at the Library.
He’s going to tease me so much if I tell him.
An amused hoot from her owl.
You can keep your thoughts to yourself, mister.
“He’s talkative,” Caleb said, reaching up his hand to stroke the owl’s face. Contented hooting accompanied the owl nuzzling against Caleb’s hand, and Caleb smiled. “He seems mischievous, but he’s really a sweetheart.”
“A little like someone else we know,” Lorelei whispered just barely loud enough for Chelsea to hear. Chelsea glared at her.
Just rub it in, why don’t you?
And then they had arrived. It was time to face Mister Crowley, and hope they could get back to their jobs as Hunters without too much fuss.
The headquarters of the Hunter Guild was technically within the Zodiac Building, but that was just a section of offices with a conference room. With so many Hunters active, and them having such an active profession, they needed a large space all their own. Thus, the Hunter Building had been constructed. Five stories tall, it had massive training facilities and gyms, its own library dedicated to combat-based magic, Hollows, and other subjects focused on defending Grimoire and fellow mages, and much more spacious offices and conference rooms. Built of black stone with reflective windows, it tapered upwards, so that its top floor was the smallest. But it didn’t feel that way inside, for the top floor was almost entirely dedicated to the office of the head of the Hunter Guild and his staff.
Jacob Crowley was known, and in some corners feared, as one of the strictest, sternest mages in Grimoire. He was dour and grim, and wore all black at all times, even in the hottest parts of summer (and even always wore long sleeves and long pants!). He wasn’t known to have friends… not recently, anyway.
Marion Reiner had been one of his closest friends. She wasn’t just his brightest student but, by all accounts, a good friend. Her death had changed him.
Her death had had a profound impact on a lot of people in this city, Chelsea was beginning to realize.
The trio stepped out from the elevator onto the fifth floor, passing from the lighter marble and steel of the rest of the Hunter Building to the black, reflective floors, walls, and ceilings of Jacob Crowley’s office space. Windows were on every side, running the entire length of each wall, and the walls between different sections of the fifth floor’s office space were glass, as well. None of Jacob Crowley’s staff were present, but Jacob himself was, a dark figure at the far end of the floor. He stood with his back to them behind his desk, hands clasped behind his back, as he stared out the windows.
He knew they were meeting with him, of course. The trio had argued over who should be the one to call for the three of them, and in the end, Caleb had drawn the short straw, and been none too happy about it.
Slowly, Jacob Crowley turned around, dark eyes glinting with keen, dangerous light. He was the very picture of the villain from a spy movie, Chelsea had always thought, and yet appearances weren’t always what they seemed.
He was a fierce, dangerous man. But he was not, in Chelsea’s estimation, an evil one.
Still, that didn’t make him any less scary.
He walked across the floor, opening a glass door and continuing towards the trio. His polished black boots glistened as they click-clacked across the floor, until he came to a stop five feet away from them. Every time Chelsea met him in person, she was struck by how tall he was, looming like a dark shadow. For a long time, no one spoke.
Naturally, it was Caleb who broke the silence.
“Long time, no see, Boss,” he said, chuckling nervously. Jacob Crowley’s dark gaze turned slowly on Caleb, and he ducked his head. “So, uh, anyway…”
“Greyson,” Jacob Crowley said, his voice deep, commanding, focused. His gaze slowly swept across the trio. “Reiner. Frost. I expect there’s an excellent explanation for your absence.” His eyes shifted slightly, back to Chelsea, and then tilted slightly upward to her owl.
Jacob Crowley’s scowl deepened. “I see you’ve picked up a few new tricks since you’ve been gone, Reiner.”
“Yes, he’s –” Chelsea started.
“What’s his name?” Jacob Crowley asked.
Did he have to start with that?
“I… well… sir, I’d… rather not say?” Chelsea asked, her nerves driving her to frame it as a question, a request, a plea.
A long silence, during which Chelsea silently begged her owl not to hoot up a storm. He was far too talkative and nonchalant, and she could feel his attitude, a sort of “What’s the big deal? Lemme tell a joke, lighten the mood,” kind of thing, and Chelsea was not at all pleased with it.
He’s still just a child, and he still acts like one.
“Fair enough,” Jacob Crowley said, so suddenly after such a long silence that Chelsea jumped. “You have my trust, Reiner. And I’m more interested in where you’ve been and why than in your choice of Summon. Feel free to expand your magical repertoire, as long as it doesn’t detract from your Fire Magic. Your talents are too exceptional to allow them to diminish.”
Chelsea nodded meekly. “Yes, sir.”
“So. Talk.” Jacob Crowley gazed at the trio with a commanding stare that brooked no dissent. For a moment, Chelsea was so overcome by his presence that she very nearly spilled the entirety of her adventure through the Enchanted Dominion at once.
“We were –” Caleb started.
“I’m not interested in hastily crafted fabrications, Greyson,” Jacob Crowley said, glaring at him.
“B-but I didn’t even say anything,” Caleb said, blinking in surprise.
“I know where you’ve been,” Jacob Crowley said, and Chelsea felt a chill go down her spine. “Or at least I have guessed, in part. There is only one possibility, considering how reliable you three have always been. Through happenings that I’m sure you will explain in full detail, you were spirited away to the Enchanted Dominion. Only now have you finally found your way back, and it seems all three of you have been changed by the experience. I hope for the better.”
“You know about the Enchanted Dominion?” Caleb asked.
“I have been there, once,” Jacob Crowley said. “With your grandfather, as surprising as that might be to you. I know well how difficult it is to return once found in the maze of ever-moving Locations.”
“With grandpa…?” Caleb asked, staring wide-eyed at Jacob Crowley.
“Speak,” Jacob Crowley said, looking to Chelsea and Lorelei. “Explain what brought you there, what you went through, and how you’ve come to return. I’m not interested in lies, but if you feel there are things you must leave out, then state that plainly. Do not try to hide anything from me.”
There was no avoiding it. So the trio began telling the story, starting with the encounter outside the library with Anastasia, and continuing on through much of their adventure. Chelsea and Lorelei focused mostly on Hollow Island, the Wood of the Wisps, and Starlight Spires, while Caleb said only that he’d “found a master of Time Magic and went through intensive training under his guidance.” They said little about Isabelle or the Library of Solitude, and stated plainly what they were unwilling to share in full. They were able to tell their story without any interruptions, and when they were finished, the head of the Hunter Guild was silent for several long moments.
“Quite the adventure,” Jacob Crowley said, his dark gaze unreadable. “Greyson, if you’ve returned having actually mastered Time Magic, then I hope to see those results in the field. I’ve always believed you could be one of our very best. Prove me right. Reiner, Frost, that goes for the two of you, as well. Also, the three of you will operate as a team from now on. Frost, I know I’ve had you float from one team to the next quite a lot, and you’ve never complained. But you would prefer being with Reiner, correct?”
Lorelei nodded, smiling. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
Jacob Crowley nodded, then looked to the wall, at the clock that read just two minutes until midnight. “Well, you three had better get to work. I hope you haven’t forgotten how to be Hunters in the time you’ve been away.”
“Sir?” Caleb asked. “That’s… that’s all, sir?”
Jacob Crowley glared at Caleb. “Yes, Greyson. That’s all. Get to work.”
Caleb nodded. “Right!”
And away the trio went, and all three let out heavy sighs once the elevator door closed.
“I can never get a read on him,” Caleb said. “But… was he being nice to us today?”
“Nice for Mister Crowley, at any rate,” Lorelei said. “I was surprised, too.”
“And he’s been to the Dominion?” Caleb asked, staring at his feet. “With grandpa?”
“And here I thought all the things that could surprise me anymore were in the Dominion,” Chelsea said with a chuckle. Her owl, mercifully silent through the meeting with Crowley, now let out a low hoot of assent.
Ding. They’d reached the first floor, and the elevator door swung open. Standing before them, as if waiting for them rather than the elevator…
Was Chase Fredricks.
“Chase?!?” Caleb asked, and the tension in his voice was surprising. Chelsea stared at him, now even more surprised – and worried – by the shock and fear in Caleb’s eyes.
Weren’t they friends? Chase had trained Caleb and Chelsea. What was Caleb freaking out about?
“You’re back!” Chase said, grinning. Charming as usual. Chase Fredricks was the “golden boy” of the Hunters. Just four years older than Caleb and Chelsea, he’d quickly risen to prominence thanks to his skill, strength, and keen tactical mind. He contrasted Caleb in many ways physically – where Caleb had dark hair and eyes, Chase was blonde and blue-eyed; Caleb slim and angular, Chase broad-shouldered and full; Caleb pale, Chase tanned. Despite the differences, both had a similar cheerful disposition and were quick to a smile.
But Caleb wasn’t, not now, and Chelsea dearly wished to ask him what was wrong. Chase, too, saw Caleb’s face, and his grin faded. “Well,” he said softly, a strange expression of understanding on his face, “it’s good to see you again. Good luck out there.” He flashed a smile, but it seemed forced, and he looked intently at Chelsea before he turned away and left.
“Okay, what was that about?” Chelsea asked, staring at Caleb as they left the elevator.
“Tell you later,” Caleb said.
Chelsea growled, grabbed Caleb by the shoulder and pushed him against the wall outside the elevator. “You’ll tell me now, Caleb Greyson,” she said, glaring daggers at him. “I’ve never seen you react that way to anyone, least of all a good friend. What are you hiding?”
“I…” Caleb started, staring wide-eyed and helpless at Chelsea. He looked around, as if checking to see if anyone was around them. The bottom floor and its vast lobby were empty, save for two Hunters who manned the main desk, ready for calls for healers to be dispatched. Caleb’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Shana’s learned some things over the past few weeks. It seems that, whatever plot is underway in Grimoire, Chase is somehow wrapped up in it.”
“Chase is in on the madness?” Chelsea asked. Now it was her turn to be shocked to the core.
“We can talk more about this later,” Lorelei said, glancing meaningfully towards the main desk. One of the Hunters manning it was staring at them.
“Right,” Chelsea said, trying her hardest to collect herself. “Caleb? You good?”
“No,” Caleb said, letting out a heavy sigh. “But I’ll do my best.”
And out into the night they went. The Hollow Hour had begun, and already they could see the signs of combat between Hunters and Hollows throughout the city. Standing on a rooftop on a high hill, Chelsea gazed out at the brilliant display of light and color, the swift-moving forms of her fellow Hunters and their Summons.
It’s been a long time. And there’s a lot else I have to deal with, but tonight, for one hour…
I’m back to normal.
Through the streets Caleb, Chelsea, and Lorelei roamed, destroying every Hollow they saw. Just like things had been the night they were whisked off to Hollow Island, the Hollows were thick tonight, and the fighting was constant and vicious.
I thought it was because of Anastasia using her Piper’s Flute, but I guess there’s more to it than that. So what’s got the Hollows riled up? Why are there so many, and why are they so much more aggressive than normal?
Not that I’m worried, though.
Chelsea grinned as she torched a Howler. This was almost too easy. After fighting the hordes of Shadow Hollows, living darkness, and Valgwyn in the halls of the Library of Solitude, going back home to fighting regular Hollows made it clear how much she’d grown in her battle. Lorelei and Caleb, too, showed just how much they’d changed and improved. Caleb pulverized Hollows with gleaming chains that had large weights on the end – he’d expanded his repertoire, using his chains as offensive weapons now just as much as he did to constrict and contain. And he rarely used Time Magic – Chelsea only saw him blur, become seemingly intangible, the tell-tale signs of Time Magic, once, and for a far shorter period than she’d ever seen him before. And yet he was swift, and strong, and made decisions so quickly and decisively.
Caleb… you really have changed a lot.
They battled their way south and west, stopping at the edge of the Crater District and heading back north along a different path. The Crater District was huge and open, and was always a thick battleground, but it was also easy. And, reliably, there were always many Hunters there. They could handle things.
The bravest, most ambitious Hunters kept to Grimoire’s narrow streets, its older neighborhoods, coming on Hollows in dark, secret places, or weathering ambushes in the same dark, secret places. The webs of Weavers were a deadly trap for inexperienced Hunters, but Chelsea, Caleb, and Lorelei saw their thin, dark strands long before they fell into traps, and Chelsea’s Fire Magic swiftly destroyed every trace of the webs. Splicers leapt down from their high hiding places, bladed arms gleaming, only to be impaled with icy spears, torched with emerald flames, or constricted and pummeled by gleaming chains. Howlers ran howling in fear, but never escaped, coming up against icy walls or sudden shackles that anchored them to the street.
The trio encountered two Pipers, playing their Flutes, seeking children to lead astray. Their spindly forms, erratic movements, and long, clawed fingers had long been a frightening sight for the trio – particularly Caleb, who still bore a scar from his last encounter with one.
Yet Chelsea, Caleb, and Lorelei descended upon the fiends and wiped them out as if they were nothing more than scarecrows made of straw.
“This isn’t even fair,” Chelsea said, stopping for a momentary breather on a long, low rooftop. She grinned in the night, and her friends smiled back at her.
“It’s a testament to what we’ve been through,” Lorelei said. “No amount of ordinary training would have brought us this far, this fast.”
“It was really unfair for Mister Crowley to put all three of us together,” Caleb said, laughing. “We’ve just gotten way too good.”
Chelsea laughed, but suddenly felt a chill down her spine. It was a warning, an impulse sent from her owl. He’d spotted something from high above, and he was diving at full speed to her aid. Chelsea whirled around, a lighter in each hand, eyes seeking the unseen threat.
Figures came at them out of the dark of night, seeming to melt into existence from the very shadows themselves. Yet they were solid, and they were human. Chelsea spotted three, four… seven in all, and more appeared by the minute. Each was hooded and cloaked, their faces veiled by both magic and attire, their heights and builds cleverly disguised with loose, flowing capes and bulky padding underneath.
They never spoke a word, but the one closest stretched out a gloved hand, and that glove pulsed once with light. It was their Talisman. The roof tiles under Chelsea’s feet clattered and cracked, surging upward, twisting and morphing into spiky shards that flew towards Chelsea. She leapt back, dodging what she could and turning the rest to ash. From her right came a blast of violet light, Energy Magic focused into a beam of raw power. Chelsea danced, twisting around it, and fired a torrent of flame at that attacker.
Brief flashes of thought and questions flitted through her mind, but Chelsea’s focus was on combat, and adrenaline and instinct were her primary drivers. She hurled darts of emerald flame into the face of one attacker, and they fell, clutching their face and screaming in pain.
I have no sympathy for any of you. Attacking Hunters – fellow mages – during Hollow Hour, when we’re defending our city? How dare you.
You should all burn.
Their cloaks and other attire had been Enchanted in some way, protected against Chelsea’s flames, which simply rolled off of their clothes. But their faces were unprotected, and those Chelsea continued to target with precise strikes.
Several seconds, as long as hours in a pitched, sudden battle like this, passed before Chelsea remembered her friends. She leapt high into the air, flipping over one of her attackers just as her owl arrived to the battle, and his chains lashed out, grabbed that attacker, and flung them into a chimney with brick-and-bone-crushing force. Chelsea landed, wheeling around in a quick circle to survey the battle.
There was Lorelei, backing steadily towards Chelsea. She was always steady, and she moved with slow, measured steps, forming walls and weapons and blasts of ice to keep her enemies and their attacks at bay. And to Lorelei’s left…
Were more attackers.
To her right…
Chelsea’s breathing grew rapid, and her chest felt tight. She spun in a frantic circle, eyes darting everywhere. She looked to her owl, sent him her desperate request, and he ascended once more, surveyed the battlefield from high above.
But even with his expanded vision, he couldn’t see the one she sought, couldn’t answer her question.
Where was Caleb?