Delilah stood on a tower overlooking Grimoire’s public library.
She’d followed the shadowy figure with the Piper’s Flute through the streets of Grimoire and across rooftops to this location. Along the way, she and her Feline Summons had fought through two waves of Hollow reinforcements.
That’s why she hesitated now.
It hadn’t been easy. She’d trained heavily, every day, for years. But almost all of her combat experience was against Snifflers, the weakest of all Hollows. She could count the number of times she’d fielded her Feline team against “real” Hollows on one hand.
Well, until tonight.
She’d set Felix against the Weavers closing in on her sisters earlier. And then, after rounding up the Snifflers and destroying them, she’d started her pursuit of the Flute player, battling two waves of Hollows – one of six, the other of ten.
Along with Felix Feline Felinosis, First Swordmeowster of the Twelfth Circle, Delilah had two more Feline Summons. Well, three, actually, but she wasn’t convinced she was ready to field four Felines at once yet. The two that she focused on using to support Felix were the master archer – Redmond Feline Rickenback, Captain of the Catwood Company – and the royal knight – Nekoma Feline Nyasaria, Knight Commander of the Royal Knights.
Nekoma had done a lot of the heavy lifting in the last fight, using her heavy armor and long reach to defend Felix and Redmond from Howlers and Weavers and more. Delilah had just finished patching the knight commander up with her Healing Magic, and she’d sent all of her Summons away for now, since they glowed all the time. Kind of made it hard to hide her presence.
Perched on the tower’s edge, Delilah sweated as she fretted.
She’d seen Caleb and his group go into the library. She’d used Divination Magic to zoom her vision in, seeing Caleb and Lorelei speaking with the little girl.
And then she’d spotted her quarry, slipping into the library through a window at the top of the central tower.
What do I do? Delilah wondered. Caleb and Chelsea and Lorelei can handle this from here, right? They’re pro Hunters – I’m just a wannabe who cleans up the Snifflers.
But… that person with the Piper’s Flute wasn’t a Piper. Delilah had seen Pipers before. They were tall and skinny, like they were made out of sticks bundled tightly together. With both arms and legs longer than their entire torso, they had proportions that were simply impossible for a human.
So Delilah had known quickly that the woman she pursued wasn’t a Piper. She was short, and wore a long scarf and hat to disguise her profile. And she had tremendous Enhancement Magic. Without using any signs of other types of Magic, the woman had leapt up four stories while hardly needing to flex her legs to push off. She’d run faster than Delilah could ever hope to keep up with, and the only reason Delilah could keep track of her and continue following was because of her Divination Magic.
Summoners were popular among mages, but they had a major drawback – the more they focused on Summoning Magic, the less they could enhance other types of magic for their own use. The most powerful Summoners were also the most vulnerable mages if an enemy got past their Summons. Delilah was no different. She’d relied on Summoning for two reasons. First of all, she had only been ten when she’d resolved to do everything she could to become useful to her parents and siblings as fast as possible. Hunters fought in teams, always, no matter how strong they were. So, Delilah being unable to have a team that would be as intensely disciplined as she’d resolved herself to be at such a young age, was determined to make a team of her own through Summoning.
And secondly, Delilah loved Great Feline Adventures. It was an obsession that bordered on unhealthy, and Delilah was aware of that, but she couldn’t help it. She focused on finishing her homework and studies as fast and efficiently as possible, at a high enough quality to maintain her pristine GPA, so that she could spend more time thinking about, talking about, watching, and playing GFA. There wasn’t just the show – there were several TV movies, a number of video games, and an obscene amount of collectible merchandise.
Delilah took it all in. And, at ten years old, Delilah realized Summoning Magic might be the key to taking her obsession to the next level. No current mages on record had as complex of Summons as the characters from GFA, but Delilah had read a lot on the subject before committing to Summoning as her path of focus, and she’d found a lot of encouraging information about past Summoners. Bringing complex Summons like the Felines to life was possible. And when Delilah had first brought Felix Feline Felinosis to life, she’d been overjoyed.
She’d kept expanding on her Summoning as her training continued, keeping them secret from her family. She wanted to save them as a surprise for when she was finally ready and strong enough to be useful to her family, especially her parents.
Because Summoning was Delilah’s focus, she had to be smart about what other magical skills to develop. She’d settled on Support Magic – specifically Healing Magic, a subclass of Support – and Divination. Her healing meant that she didn’t need to have a Summon devoted to that – she could be the one who kept her feline team in action when the going got tough, so they could focus on fighting. And Divination was what had allowed her to stay on the woman summoning Hollows. She could use Divination to track targets she had lain eyes on before. It was what had allowed her to so efficiently track down, round up, and defeat the Snifflers every night since she’d made that her mission.
What do I do? Delilah wondered, staring at the library. Her hands were shaking, and she clutched them against her coat to still them. Whoever that woman is, she has incredible Enhancement Magic – and she definitely has more than that. Every mage of caliber is proficient in at least two classes of magic. And with her being able to summon Hollows whenever she wants… I can’t fight her. If she decides to take to the field instead of staying at a distance, I’m done for.
But can Caleb and his friends handle her? Can I just walk away trusting that? Delilah checked her phone. 12:32. It was too early to just walk away. She’d already defeated all of the Snifflers in Grimoire tonight. Twenty-eight minutes… what could she do in that time?
What should she do?
I’m still just a child, she thought, frustration welling within her. I’m not good for anything other than Sniffler clean-up. I need more training. I need to be stronger. I…
The song of summoning drifted to Delilah’s ears. Muffled though it was by the walls of the library, Delilah could hear it clearly enough.
Raising her keychain, Delilah spun it once, the plushies attached to it knocking against each other as a portal opened up in the courtyard. Felix, Redmond, and Nekoma came forth, ready for battle. Delilah, for now, decided to stay on her perch, rather than expose herself on a glowing mobile platform.
As she expected, Hollows were appearing outside the library, as well as within. But…
What the heck?
Delilah stared in horror. She could see that Hollows had melted into existence from their strange, inky-black portals within the library. And yet outside the library, in the courtyard where her Felines would be fighting… there were dozens. At least fifteen Howlers. Seven Weavers. Fourteen Splicers.
Pipers only ever summon thirteen Hollows at once, at most. That’s what Delilah had heard and read, and for five hundred years, it had been fact.
But what if a human played a Piper’s Flute? Could they affect the summoning capabilities of its music with their own magic?
That seemed to be the case. And now Delilah found herself desperate for a solution. Three against thirty-six. Could her team do it?
Of course we can’t, was Delilah’s first thought. We’re just the clean-up crew.
We’ve fought so well tonight. And if I give up, that’s an instant loss. If I choose to fight, there’s always a possibility of victory. I can’t give up. I can’t lose before the fight even begins.
Delilah’s eyes flashed. We’ll make the first move.
“Redmond, spread them out,” Delilah said softly. She could transmit her commands over any distance to her Summons, no matter how far they were and how softly she spoke. “Felix, push small groups and individuals to Nekoma. We’ll divide and conquer. Stay on the move and don’t let them corner you.”
The trio of Felines went to work. Redmond leapt onto a low wall, fired off a few arrows, and then jumped from there to a balcony on the library’s third floor. His first volley of arrows tangled up Weavers, crippled Splicers, and scattered the pack of Howlers.
Hit them first and keep them off-balance, Delilah thought, staring intently at the unfolding battle. She’d trained several maneuvers and strategies into her Summons, drilled them over and over, both in actual combat, and in mock battles against imaginary foes in the daylight hours. There wasn’t need for very many verbal commands, and even Delilah’s own emotions and thoughts could help guide her Summons in combat. She was their Overwatch, their eyes and ears. What she saw from high above, her Summons saw, too. A Howler that was moving around a low wall to flank Felix was shocked when the Swordmeowster cut through that very wall to slice the wolf to ribbons. A pair of Weavers dropping down from above Redmond on lines of web were suddenly shot down, shrieking in shock and pain.
Howlers and Weavers turned out to be easier prey than Delilah had expected. Today was her first day ever fighting them, and yet her Summons tore through them quite easily. Weavers that had time to lay a trap would be a problem, but since they were summoned by a Piper’s Flute, they didn’t get the chance.
The Splicers were the real issue. Delilah had managed to act quickly, forcing the new Hollows off-balance, but she’d only managed to eliminate Howlers and Weavers. Splicers were fast, and their blade-arms worked in their favor for both offense and defense. When Felix engaged one, his swords were forced away by the Splicer’s arms. When Nekoma swung her long chain flail at another, it used its powerful legs to leap away in an instant.
It isn’t just the sharp sword-arms, Delilah thought. Those things are so fast and strong. They have reflexes perfect for frantic combat. Can we… can we still win this?
It’s fine. If we hold on long enough, Caleb and the others will finish their fight inside the library and will see what’s happening outside and come to help. I can heal my Summons, so they can last longer than most, even if they take a few hits. And from where I am, I can help them see through walls. Just make sure they don’t get surrounded or cornered. Stay on the move. Wipe out the weaker ones quickly, so we only have to worry about the Splicers.
Nekoma took the brunt of a pair of Splicer’s on her armor, blocking a pincer attack against Felix. That allowed the swordmeowster to leap up and over, slashing down and removing one of the Splicer’s heads. The other dashed away, seeming to expect Felix to follow, but was tripped up by an arrow from Redmond that transformed into a rope to wrap up its legs.
That’s the way! Delilah mentally cheered on her Feline force. This is what teamwork is all about. And besides… those Hollows may be dangerous in numbers, but they aren’t coordinated.
The Weavers were, which would have been a problem if they weren’t out in the open. But there were only seven, and Redmond, from his perch, was easily able to dispatch them. Howlers often moved in packs, but they were also easily frightened. When Felix charged into the center of their largest group and destroyed two, while injuring three more, the Howlers scattered, and were unable to form a coherent counterattack.
Even the Splicers, strong and fast as they were, only operated in groups of three or less. Nekoma wasn’t fast enough to pursue them, but with her and Felix operating close to each other, she didn’t have to move far to shield the swordmeowster while he worked on finishing off the Howlers.
Two Splicers noticed Redmond’s perch, and leapt up to attack him. Three stories seemed an easy leap for the vicious creatures. Redmond jumped out and away from them, turning in midair to fire nets at them, pinning them to the wall. The big victory that kept those Splicers tied up was that he’d managed to lock their arms in place. They couldn’t cut through the magical nets now, and trapped as they were, they were easy targets for Redmond to fill with arrows.
The green archer coming back down to the ground made a tempting target, and three Splicers converged on him. But Delilah had been smart, directing Redmond towards his companions. Nekoma charged, blocking off two, while Felix engaged the third. The swordmeowster had two swords, and he was fast and accurate with them, yet he ended up locked in a vicious back-and-forth duel with the Splicer.
So one-on-one, they’re evenly matched… Delilah gritted her teeth as she still realized how much further she had to go. She was proud of her Felines’ teamwork, but their individual strength wasn’t up to the level that Delilah had set for them to reach.
I’m still not strong enough.
Thrusting and slashing, parrying and dodging, Felix kept up his duel with the blade-armed beast. Redmond tangled a Splicer’s legs and then found a new perch, closer to Delilah this time, overlooking the courtyard from opposite the library. Pushing away a pair of Splicers, Nekoma swung her greatsword, cleaving one of the beasts in half.
All that’s left are ten Splicers, Delilah thought, staring intently at the battlefield. Can we do it?
If the Splicers tried to gang up on Nekoma, the slowest of the Felines, they’d leave themselves open to attacks from Redmond and Felix, who kept their distance. If they tried to chase after Felix, Nekoma would be his shield, and Redmond would rain arrows onto them. If they pursued Redmond, he could race back to Nekoma.
That’s the issue. If they went after Redmond, that would be the best way to get the trio surrounded. Unless… she could have Redmond stay on the move. Or…
I’m not as good at this as Shias, Delilah realized. His Divination Magic lets him go through simulations and analyses so quickly, but I just have to trust what I see and think on the fly. And he just has a more analytical mind than most. I’m sure I’m missing something. I’m sure I’m failing somewhere.
A Splicer knocked aside one of Redmond’s arrows, and then dashed towards his perch. Redmond fired two net arrows, but both were evaded by the speedy sword-armed Hollow. It leapt up towards Redmond, and the archer, at Delilah’s mental instruction, sidestepped, racing along the rooftop and leaping to the next one.
Don’t let them bring you back to the main group, Delilah thought. Stay on the move. You’re fast. You won’t get caught. I won’t let you get caught.
Redmond fired arrows back at his pursuer as he ran, just barely outpacing the Splicer. All he had to do was make sure he didn’t get cut off, and he could maintain this chase as long as needed.
Although… that left Felix and Nekoma to fend for themselves against the other nine Splicers. Nekoma was taking the brunt of the attack, but Felix was being forced out by groups of two and three at a time.
Delilah gritted her teeth. They’re being isolated. I can’t… I don’t…
Nekoma pushed away her attackers. Spinning in a circle, she swung her chain flail. One Splicer was hit, snapping one of its sword arms clean off, but the rest evaded. They pressed the attack again as Nekoma recovered from her maneuver.
What do I do? What do I do?
Felix leapt further and further away from the struggling Nekoma, struggling desperately to stay in the fight. When he tried to move around his pursuers, he was blocked off. He was faster than an individual Splicer, but they had the advantages of numbers now.
Redmond raced along rooftops, and all of his arrows fired back at his lone pursuer were deflected or dodged.
What do I do? What do I do?
Delilah clutched her keychain Talisman tightly, staring out at the battlefield as desperation welled up within her. She was out of options. She’d fought well, but she’d known from the start she wasn’t good enough. It was only a matter of time before she was cornered, beaten down, and forced to retreat.
And then, in an eye blink, flashes of white light appeared at three separate spots on the battlefield. Delilah stared, shocked at the sudden shift. The lights were…
Caleb had noticed the fight outside, and he’d sent some help! He must have slowed down time, surveyed Delilah’s condition, and then trapped the Splicers that were the biggest threats. Two Splicers attacking Nekoma were wrapped up in the chains, unable to fight. Two of the three attacking Felix were now chained up, leaving Felix in a one-on-one duel. Redmond’s pursuer was chained.
“Thank you, Caleb,” Delilah whispered softly, staring at the window to the library as relief welled up within her. She could see lights and flames flashing within the building – the fighting in there must be fiercer even than Delilah’s desperate struggle outside.
And yet her big brother had stepped aside from that and lent her a hand.
Delilah smiled, analyzing the battlefield once again and assigning new instructions. Redmond quickly eliminated his former pursuer, and then rained down traps, snares, nets, and ropes to harry and restrict the Splicers that were still free. Felix found an opening in his opponent’s defenses, sliced the Hollow to ribbons, and then dispatched the two that had been chained up. Now free, the swordmeowster raced to Nekoma, offering much needed support and relief.
The battle only lasted thirty more seconds after Caleb’s relief arrived.
We did it, Delilah realized, welling up with pride as her Feline force assembled in the courtyard. She sent out healing magic, particularly to Nekoma, patching up her Summons for whatever might come next.
Setting up a mobile platform, Delilah stepped out on to the large glowing disc and directed it to float to the ground, where she hopped off. Her three Feline Summons knelt to one knee, eyes fixed on their Summoner.
Many claimed that Summons had no emotions. That they were just magical constructs, bound to the will of the one who summoned them. They didn’t feel or think for themselves.
Delilah fervently disagreed. And as she looked at her Summons, and they looked back at her, she could swear their eyes and expressions reflected the same pride that Delilah felt in her heart.
That moment lasted far too briefly. Into the sudden quiet came the song of reinforcements from the Piper’s Flute once again. Delilah felt her heart race, her chest tighten, her eyes widen, as she looked for the source of the next threat.
But there was nothing outside.
That’s when she realized – every single Hollow that was now being summoned was being called into the library’s interior.
Caleb! Without a thought for her own safety or the exhausted condition she was in, Delilah raced to the library, Felines in tow, in a desperate bid to help her brother like he had helped her.