“It isn’t just me, right?” Caleb asked. “Howlers aren’t normally this aggressive.”
“It isn’t just you,” Chelsea replied, blasting flames into the face of a lunging Howler. The hairless, tattooed wolf yelped in pain, but it was committed to its forward momentum, and couldn’t escape before it was burned to ash.
Caleb sidestepped a Howler that leapt at him from the roof above. He reached out with white, magical chains, wrapping them around the torso of the beast and, with a wave of the arm holding Caleb’s open pocket watch, slammed the Howler into the wall of the building it had leapt from. Two more Howlers charged from further down the street, and Caleb flung his captive at them, using it like a wrecking ball to smash the two oncoming wolves aside, the Howlers crumpling as they hit the wall of the building opposite the street.
Bricks came loose from that building, and Caleb winced. He knew the owner of the odds-and-ends store Taro Beyond. Hopefully he wouldn’t be too upset at the property damage Caleb had just inflicted.
“Maybe don’t turn Howlers into wrecking balls,” Chelsea suggested, surrounding the last Howler still standing with a vortex of flame. With a howl of pain, the monster was destroyed.
“I thought it would look cool,” Caleb said, as he and Chelsea collected the Drops.
“It did,” Chelsea said, smirking, “until, you know, you broke Mister Franklin’s wall. But hey, at least you didn’t cave the wall in. Just some surface damage. No big deal.”
“You’re tremendously comforting.”
“Instead of chatting, you two could pay more attention,” said a female voice behind Caleb and Chelsea. “You missed three.”
The speaker was the same age as Chelsea, with red hair tied in a single braid while her bangs were left to hang loose. She wore a long blue pea coat, grey scarf, jeans, and black boots. Her bright blue eyes were her standout feature, seeming to shine from a gaze that rarely betrayed much emotion.
She pointed behind her, at three Howlers. The beasts were encased entirely in ice save for their heads, and they were snapping their jaws, desperately trying to break free.
That wouldn’t be easy. The ice had a telltale blue glow to it – a sign of magic at work.
“Should I finish them off?” the girl asked.
“Go for it,” Chelsea said. The girl nodded, and swung her hand in an arc. In it she held a small, cylindrical vial. Droplets of water flew through the air, flashing blue. Hanging in the air at spots around the Howler’s heads, there was a crackling sound, and then the droplets expanded and froze, turning into three foot long icicle spears that ran themselves through the heads of each of the three Howlers with vicious speed.
Caleb, wincing at the brutal takedown, let out a low whistle. “You are cold, Lorelei,” he said.
The girl rolled her eyes. “And you’re only about one percent as funny as you think you are,” she shot back.
Lorelei Frost had been friends with Caleb since high school, and with Chelsea since the girls were in kindergarten. When Caleb had found out Lorelei used ice magic, he’d tried to tease her, saying, “What, did you choose ice magic because your last name is Frost?”
Her response had been simple: “Yes.”
That had stopped teenage Caleb in his tracks. What do you do when you’re trying to tease someone in high school and they don’t get embarrassed?
You become friends with them, of course.
“We’re not making great time,” Lorelei said, capping her vial and returning it to her pocket. “It’s still ten blocks to the library, correct?”
“And the streets are just as thick as last night,” Caleb said. The trio started running, sticking to the narrow streets for a few moments before taking a staircase up to a rooftop walkway.
All around them, the city was flashing with the light of magic at work. It was a beautiful sight. A massive golden falcon flew over Grimoire Academy in the distance. Other smaller, landlocked Summons could be seen leaping around on the rooftops. Fire spouted in a pillar here, lightning flashed there, and lights burst into being and then faded away, all illuminating the forms of Hunters in the midst of battle.
“Caleb,” Chelsea said in a hushed voice, bringing Caleb’s survey of his fellow Hunters to a halt. She and Lorelei were walking while staying low to the rooftops, heading to a wide chimney they could crouch behind. Caleb followed suit.
“What’s going on?” he asked. Chelsea held a finger to her lips, then pointed down at the courtyard below.
Caleb’s eyes grew wider and wider the longer he looked where she was pointing.
First, he saw three Summons in action, and they were Summons he’d never seen before. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He knew the characters. They were three characters from Great Feline Adventures, that show that Shana and Delilah were utterly obsessed with. Caleb had never seen them as Summons. That was shocking enough.
But then he saw a girl standing on a wide, white disc. The disc acted like a floating platform, hovering twenty feet over the three Summons fighting below.
The girl standing on that platform was Caleb’s youngest sister, Delilah.
“Those… are Delilah’s Summons?” Caleb asked, finally finding his voice.
“Look what she’s fighting,” Chelsea said, grinning.
Caleb watched as the swordcat in the lead of the trio of Summons dashed forward, cutting through several small forms. It would have been hard to make out what they were from this distance, but Caleb knew, thanks to his familiarity with this smallest type of Hollow: Snifflers.
Snifflers were the “pests” of the Hollows. From a distance, they looked cute – like little balls of fluff with twelve tiny legs and little beady eyes. But up close, anyone would see they weren’t so adorable. They kept their noses to the ground, but when they lifted their heads, their noses became clear to see – pig-like, with massive nostrils dripping with yellow snot. And when they actually decided to attack something, Sniffler mouths were just a circle with four rows of teeth running the entire perimeter as they slobbered over everything.
Two years ago, Snifflers had started appearing less and less. It had seemed a godsend to the Hunters. Snifflers were more annoying than anything else, but they couldn’t be ignored. They’d slip into houses through cracks, able to shrink their bodies to fit through tight spaces. And if they reached a sleeping human, they latched on to their skulls with their teeth and started… well. It wasn’t pleasant.
The problem was how small and numerous they’d been. They took time, and little more. Certainly not a threat to experienced Hunters, Snifflers despised open combat, and would take off running at the first sign of conflict.
First, they’d started appearing less.
Then, six months ago, it seemed as if they’d stopped appearing entirely.
Now Caleb knew why.
Delilah held up a keychain as she stood on her floating platform. On the end of the keychain were three small plushies – Caleb could already guess what they were. Three Summons below, all characters from GFA? Delilah collected plushies from the same series, so it was no doubt they were the same as her Summons.
In the courtyard below, Delilah’s trio of Felines had rounded up dozens of Snifflers. While the orange swordcat focused on dispatching them with amazing accuracy, a green archer Feline stood on the rooftop overlooking the courtyard, firing arrows down at the horde of tiny monsters. These weren’t normal arrows, either – some of them expanded into nets to trap Snifflers, others into ropes that wrapped around their targets, and others still multiplied after they were launched from the bowstring, turning into five or even ten arrows that formed makeshift cages to block Sniffler movement.
At the only exit from the courtyard stood a purple Feline in heavy armor. In one hand she held a sword longer than she was tall, and in the other, she held a long chain with a spiked ball on the end. Any Sniffler that tried to escape through the easiest exit was crushed by the ball and chain or sliced to ribbons by the massive sword that the purple knight-cat wielded with surprising speed.
Caleb grinned. Delilah had, it seemed, taken it upon herself to defeat Snifflers. And she’d been doing an amazing job at it, judging by the results known by the rest of the Hunters.
“Two Eliminators and a Warden,” Lorelei said, watching the fight below. “With your sister acting as Overwatch. Impressive.”
Caleb had to agree. Delilah understood the fundamentals of Hunter team combat. Each Hunter had a designated role. Wardens, like Caleb, were focused on trapping and restricting Hollow movement. Eliminators, like Chelsea and Lorelei, were the combat specialists. They were the fastest at destroying Hollows through their devastating offensive magic. Overwatch was a term for Hunters that focused on overseeing the battle, relaying tactical information to their team and managing more frantic combat encounters. Caleb’s friend Will was a natural in that role.
There were also Supports, specializing in Support Magic and healing abilities. Lorelei had quite a bit of that as well, so she was able to switch between roles quite easily when the need arose for a healer. She’d saved Caleb from Piper toxin not long ago, and that memory was fresh in Caleb’s mind.
At first, Caleb thought that Delilah had missed that role. But then he saw the swordcat receive a scrape on his leg. Delilah waved her keychain, and white particles of light flew to the tiny injury. Within seconds it was sealed up, good as new.
She’s their Overwatch and their Support, Caleb realized, swelling with pride.
If she keeps this up, my baby sister’s going to be way cooler than me in no time.
It only took about thirty seconds for Delilah’s team to wipe out the Snifflers. Once the area was clear, the three Felines assembled themselves in a line as Delilah brought her floating platform to the ground and hopped off.
“Good job,” she said. Her voice was strong, and the small fourteen year-old with the mass of curly blonde hair sounded like a natural-born leader. “I think that’s all of the Snifflers. We’re getting better. Not good enough to be a real help to Caleb or mom and dad, though. We need more training.”
No, you don’t, Caleb thought, smiling. Delilah and her Summons were incredible. You’re already better than some Hunters I know.
“Looks like she can take care of herself,” Chelsea said, smiling at Caleb. “Shall we keep going?”
Caleb nodded. His face was a permanent smile of brotherly pride now. He was pretty sure it wouldn’t go away for weeks. The trio of pro Hunters left their rooftop perch, running south towards the library.
It was a rough path to get there. They faced a trio of Weavers, and then seven Howlers. Two Splicers, strange Hollows with scythe blades for arms, blocked their path at one point. By the time Caleb, Chelsea, and Lorelei reached the public library, the bags they carried for Hollow Drops were nearly overflowing.
“Lucrative night,” Chelsea said, happily patting her bag.
“More for you two than for me,” Caleb said.
Chelsea shrugged. “You know how it is. Wardens have to give up the best Drops to Eliminators.”
“Class hierarchy,” Lorelei said, copying Chelsea’s self-assured shrug. “Your fault for being a Warden.”
Caleb jabbed a thumb in Lorelei’s direction. “Why did we invite her, again?” he asked.
Chelsea put her arm around Lorelei’s shoulder and grinned. “Because she’s my best friend,” she said simply. “And because it’s more fun to tease you when she joins in.”
Lorelei gave Caleb a look that said “there you have it.” “That’s how it is,” she said, a tiny smile creasing her lips. She looked around as they stood in the courtyard of the library. “Strange. The city is practically under a full-scale invasion, and yet the library is so quiet.”
“Even though all the Hollows we fought were heading this direction,” Caleb said. He pulled out his phone, checked the notifications on the Hunter’s Re-Code group. “There were even more groups heading this way as well, but they were taken out by other Hunters.”
“What’s so interesting about the library?” Lorelei asked, staring at the castle-like stonework.
“Well, I already told you about Isabelle,” Chelsea said.
Lorelei pursed her lips in thought. “But what would the Hollows want with her? It’s all very strange.”
“Let’s head inside and check up on her,” Caleb said, leading the way around to the basement garden’s overlook. The trio leapt down, Caleb retrieved the key from the frog fountain, and they made their way through the tunnels.
“That’s not the sound of a Piper’s Flute,” Chelsea said as they walked.
Caleb listened, puzzled. “It’s a piano,” he said softly.
“The library has a piano, right?” Lorelei asked.
Caleb racked his memory, then nodded. “I think so,” he said.
“Why isn’t she playing her flute?” Chelsea asked.
“Let’s ask her,” Caleb said, leading the way.
The song from the piano, echoing through the stone corridors of the trio’s secret entrance, didn’t have the same haunting loneliness that the Piper’s Flute intrinsically had. The texture to this song was different, despite the song itself being quite similar to last night’s. And with that change in texture, the entire song, while so similar to the one Caleb had heard first, held brand new emotional resonance.
“I can’t,” Chelsea said, turning away. “I’m sorry. I’ll wait outside, and come in after the music stops.”
Caleb reached out and squeezed her hand. “Okay,” he said, offering a smile. Chelsea nodded, then walked back the way they’d come.
After a few more paces, Lorelei gave Caleb an odd look. “Chelsea’s gone,” she said.
“Yeah,” Caleb said. He blinked a few times, puzzled. Why was she stating the obvious?
“Don’t you want to ask me what’s going on with her?” Lorelei asked.
Caleb shook his head. “She said she can’t talk about it,” he said. “So I’m waiting until she can.”
Lorelei smiled a genuine, full smile, a rare feat for her. “You know, Caleb, you’re annoying, but you’re a good guy. I’m glad Chelsea has you.”
Caleb laughed. “I’m lucky to have her.”
They didn’t have to walk much farther before they reached the stairs up to the library. Caleb found himself smiling at the song drifting down to them from above. It carried with it loneliness and pain, but… there was hope. It showed up only rarely, barely noticeable amidst the driving melody, but it was there.
A tiny spark. That’s all hope needed to be, sometimes.
Climbing the stairs and stepping into the library, Caleb watched Isabelle as she played the piano. The piano was by one of the large windows, and where Isabelle sat, the moonlight caught her just right. Her dress looked like liquid silver. Her long, apple-red hair gleamed, and her large eyes were shining.
“Hello again,” Caleb said, just loud enough to be heard over Isabelle’s playing.
The girl looked up and broke into a smile. “Caleb!” she cried out happily, jumping up to stand on the piano bench. “And…” She pointed at Lorelei. “You’re not Chelsea.”
“I’m Lorelei,” came the reply, as Lorelei smiled back at the child.
Isabelle’s smile grew, and her eyes widened. “That’s such a pretty name!”
Lorelei laughed. “Thank you,” she said. “Isabelle is quite a pretty name, too, don’t you think?”
Isabelle grinned, leaping down from the piano bench and rushing over to them, holding out her hand to Lorelei. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said with careful enunciation.
“And you as well,” Lorelei said, shaking the offered hand. Isabelle giggled, and then skipped over to the couch she’d occupied the previous night. Hopping up onto it, she sat back, kicking her feet as she watched her visitors.
“You kept your promise,” she said, smiling at Caleb. “I knew I could trust you!”
Caleb laughed as he and Lorelei took seats across from Isabelle. “You know, Isabelle,” he said, “I was wondering: why do you stay in this library?” Isabelle cocked her head to the side in response, clearly puzzled by the question. “I mean, if you want to find your way home, why stay in one place?”
Isabelle leaned back and closed her eyes, letting out a long sigh. “I can’t leave,” she said solemnly.
“What do you mean?” Lorelei asked, leaning forward.
Isabelle hummed thoughtfully. “When I end up in a place, I can only stay in that place,” she said. “It’s been that way ever since I got lost. First I was in the other place, and now I’m here.”
“So this is the second place you’ve been since you got lost?” Lorelei asked. Isabelle nodded. “What was the first?”
Bringing Lorelei was a good idea, Caleb thought. She’s a much better interviewer than I am.
“It was outside,” Isabelle said. She stared at the ceiling as she talked, her nose scrunching up as she concentrated. “I was surrounded by trees, but the space I wasn’t allowed to leave didn’t have any trees.”
“So the trees were like a wall around your grove?” Lorelei asked.
Isabelle leaned forward, eyes bright with excitement. “Grove!” she said, nodding emphatically. “That’s the word! I was in a grove!”
Lorelei smiled. “What else can you tell us about it?”
Back to staring at the ceiling, Isabelle thought carefully as she spoke. “It was really big. Bigger than this library. And since there weren’t walls of books like here, I had more space. But there wasn’t any furniture. And the grass wasn’t as comfy as it looked – it was rough and itchy. And…” Isabelle frowned. “The sky was weird.”
“Weird how?” Caleb asked.
“It was like… a bunch of thread,” Isabelle said. “Silver, like the moonlight. It crisscrossed again and again. You look up, and that’s the only thing you see.”
The question had come from Chelsea, who had just entered the library.
“Chelsea!” Isabelle called out, pointing at her. “You’re back!” She looked at her nervously. “You’re not scary today, are you?”
Chelsea took in a breath slowly, let it out. “I’m not,” she said. She smiled, and Caleb could see that it wasn’t entirely forced. Chelsea’s expression was much softer than the previous night. Choosing to sit out until the music stopped was a good call. “But you said thread, right?”
Isabelle nodded. “That’s right.”
Chelsea stared at Caleb, like she expected him to understand something, but he just shrugged, earning himself a groan from Chelsea. “You were listening to the last song tonight, right?” she asked.
“What, from the show?” Caleb asked. What does a Falling Stars song have to do with this?
“Yes,” Chelsea said earnestly. “Remember the second verse? It talked about a sky of silk thread.”
Caleb stared at Chelsea, then back at Isabelle. “Well,” he said slowly. “That’s weird.”
“Do you remember the rest?” Lorelei asked.
“Just the other strange line,” Chelsea said. “Something about a ‘nest full of dread’.”
“Creepy,” Caleb said.
“Can I hear the song?” Isabelle asked, raising her hand like she was in a classroom.
“I don’t have it,” Chelsea said. “And I can’t play it myself. Maybe next time.”
Isabelle gave a dejected sigh as she lowered her hand. “Oh, well.”
“So… a sky of silk thread…” Lorelei had one hand on her chin, staring intently into empty space as she thought. “And it’s over a grove surrounded by trees? I haven’t heard of anything like that.”
“We’ll just have to do some research tomorrow,” Caleb said, smiling. “We might be on to some big discoveries.”
Caleb’s smile didn’t last long. Into the comfort of their conversation came a sound that the three Hunters knew all too well. They were instantly on their feet, Talismans in hand, as the deadliest of songs rang through the library.
A Piper’s Flute was playing the song of summoning.
“Where is it?” Caleb asked, leaping up to stand on top of the nearest bookshelf. They only had a matter of seconds before Hollows filled the library and it turned into an indoor melee.
“There!” Chelsea shouted. She stood on the bookshelf to Caleb’s right, and she was pointing up at the indoor balcony of the library’s second floor.
On the railing stood a figure playing a Piper’s Flute. But that was no Piper.
The one playing the song to summon Hollows was a human.