The situation within the library had erupted into chaos faster than Caleb ever thought possible.
The woman playing the Piper’s Flute had appeared. And, prepared for thirteen Hollows to fill the cramped library, Caleb, Chelsea, and Lorelei had readied their Talismans and spread out to defend Isabelle.
But there weren’t thirteen Hollows.
There were thirty.
As soon as the song was finished, Caleb very nearly missed the flute player leaping from the balcony, diving straight towards Isabelle. He slowed time, watching the player’s descent. She was moving incredibly fast, made even more apparent with time slowed. While everything and everyone else seemed to be standing still, the strange figure diving for Isabelle was still visibly in motion.
She must specialize in Enhancement Magic, Caleb thought. Most Hunters trained only to a certain level of competency in Enhancement Magic, as other magical classes were more effective for combat while requiring less training. But for those who specialized in or focused on it, well… they could do truly superhuman feats.
Like moving faster than Caleb had ever seen within his world of slowed time.
Caleb leapt down from the bookshelf to move Isabelle, and was startled to find her staring at him.
“What did you do?” she asked, cocking her head to the side. She looked around at the Hollows and Hunters nearly frozen around her. Waving her hand in front of her face, she then returned her gaze to Caleb. “Why did everything slow down except you and me?”
That’s what I want to know, Caleb thought. But he didn’t have much time for debate or wondering whenever he used his Time Magic. Already he was feeling a tightness in his chest, a slight shortness of breath. In truth, he could hang around like this without returning time to its regular flow for over an hour if he wanted to.
Of course, if he kept time slowed for that long, he’d also pass out as soon as he released his control of it.
Limits inspire creativity, had been Caleb’s motto as he’d learned and experimented with his Time Magic. And now, with the Flute player diving at frightening speed towards the small, mysterious child on the couch, Caleb needed to be creative.
How well can we hold her off once time is normal? Caleb wondered. Alone, it wouldn’t be too much trouble. Caleb could chain her up, or Lorelei could freeze her, and they’d be fine. But a quick glance around showed that just wasn’t going to be possible.
At least ten Weavers were crawling along the ceiling. They’d just been summoned, and yet were already spinning their webs. The spiders couldn’t be left to their own devices, or they’d make the battlefield smaller and smaller as time wore on.
The remaining Hollows were all Howlers, thankfully. At least, that would be a good thing if the battle was out in the open. But here in the library, the large wolves would be able to easily corner a careless Hunter in narrow spaces between bookshelves or along hallways.
“Hey,” Isabelle said, sticking her wide eyes in Caleb’s face. “Are you going to do something? I think we’re in trouble, right?”
“Yeah,” Caleb said, chuckling despite the desperate scenario. Isabelle’s attitude in the face of danger was surprisingly funny. “Hey, if you have any bright ideas, speak up, But otherwise… can you stay close to me?”
Isabelle nodded. “Sure can,” she said, smiling. “I trust you.”
“And I trust you,” Caleb said, smiling. “Tell me if you see anything important, okay? Things are going to get rough, but I’ll do my very best to protect you.”
Isabelle nodded, hopping down to stand next to Caleb. “Whatever you did to slow everyone down, it’s pretty hard for you to do, huh?” she asked.
Caleb nodded. “Sure is. Ready for me to bring things back to motion?”
Isabelle nodded. “Yup.”
Caleb let out a breath, released his hold on time, and immediately grabbed Isabelle, leaping backward. The flute player crashed into the couch, collapsing it, and then rolled along the floor before hopping to her feet. It was clear she was a woman, though she kept her face obscured with a long scarf and hat. All that could be seen were her eyes, and they flashed violet as she locked eyes on the girl in Caleb’s arms.
She makes it completely obvious what her objective is, Caleb realized, putting Isabelle down and waving his pocket watch in an arc. Four chains appeared, surging forward to trap the woman.
Her right hand popped up, slapped aside the first chain. The remaining three, she simply sidestepped, moving like Caleb had never seen a human move.
She’s strong! And so fast!
So he did the only thing he could think to do. He slowed time once more.
If I don’t stop her soon, I won’t be able to last in this fight. Caleb turned to Isabelle, who was watching him intently. “Stay close, okay?” he asked.
Isabelle frowned. “We already agreed to that,” she said.
Caleb smirked. Sharp girl. He turned his attention back to the mystery woman. She was floating through the air towards him and Isabelle, in the midst of a superhuman leap forward. Caleb summoned chains, wrapped them around the woman’s feet and wrists, and then anchored them to the floor.
Now, what about these Hollows?
Four Howlers were close, following the woman in a dash towards Caleb and Isabelle. Two of them were in midair, and Caleb grinned.
“Hey, wanna see something cool?” Caleb asked.
Isabelle’s eyes lit up. “Yes, please!”
Caleb stood next to one of the midair Howlers. “Funny thing about slowing time… things tend to be lighter, for some reason. And when they’re in midair…” Caleb reached out and pushed the Howler very lightly with his index finger.
The tattooed wolf altered its trajectory at Caleb’s touch, moving where Caleb wanted it, until its leap was aligned to collide with its partner, who was also in midair.
“That’s so cool!” Isabelle cried out in delight.
Caleb grinned. “Right?” He flinched at the pressure in his chest. “Okay. Time’s coming back to normal. Stay alert.”
Time resumed, and Caleb immediately brought up cages around the two Howlers who hadn’t yet leapt. While he did that, the Howler he’d pushed slammed into the other midair wolf, and the two beasts went rolling across the floor, yelping in pain and surprise.
“Don’t think about it!” Lorelei suddenly shouted. Caleb turned, and saw that the woman with the Piper’s Flute was already breaking free of the chains. Lorelei was there and in action. She wore only one glove, on her right hand, and it glowed, revealing that it was a Talisman. Before the woman could break free from Caleb’s chains, magical ice began forming around her.
“I’ve got her,” Lorelei called out. “Focus on the Hollows.”
Caleb gave a quick nod, then leapt up to the nearest bookshelf.
“I can’t jump that high!” Isabelle said, staring up at Caleb.
Right, Caleb thought. I have to stay near her. He jumped back down, summoning more chains to grab hold of a Howler near him and – despite Chelsea suggesting he not do it – using it like a wrecking ball. At the same time, if Howlers tried to slip past Caleb’s improvised ball and chain, he summoned more chains to pummel and entrap his would-be assailants. The frantic fighting had Caleb frequently using his free hand to push his glasses up or realign them when they went askew.
This is why I prefer contacts, Caleb thought ruefully.
“Chelsea!” he called out, casting his gaze around the library when he could. It was cramped, and dark, so it was no surprise he couldn’t see her.
“I’m okay!” Chelsea called out, somewhere a few aisles over. A blast of flame from the floor up to the ceiling followed up that shout, disintegrating two Weavers.
“Stay that way!” Caleb called back.
“Same to you!” came the reply.
Caleb grinned, continuing his fight with renewed energy. He turned frequently, so that he could stay aware of the entire battlefield and Isabelle’s location. Twice the girl saved him, calling out Howler attacks just in time for Caleb to turn and stop them. Chains served for some, while cages helped hold off enemies Caleb couldn’t get to immediately. Sometimes, he even summoned one of his Mobility discs, using it as a springboard to repel Howlers mid-leap, sending them flying back the way they came, or towards the ceiling, or off to the side.
I may not be able to destroy them quickly like Chelsea and Lorelei, Caleb thought, but I can fight just fine.
He remembered how insecure he’d felt during his Hunter internship. Going into it, he’d been confident in his Time Magic and use of Mobility Magic, but the fact that he hadn’t trained much in actual combat abilities had been made painfully clear extremely quickly. He’d been faced with a choice, and the need to pick a role – Warden, Eliminator, Overwatch, etc. – and gain competency in some form of combat abilities to supplement that role within two months.
For some reason Caleb had settled on Containment Magic, manifesting it as chains and cages. He didn’t remember exactly why he’d chosen it – it had seemed like just a whim, a decision made quickly under pressure with no real forethought – but he’d quickly been happy that he did.
With his movement abilities and being able to slow down time on top of that, he could have been a very effective Eliminator. He could slip into any enemy’s blind spot before they even knew he’d moved, and blast them into oblivion.
But Chelsea was clearly going to be an Eliminator. Caleb liked the idea of supporting her, but he didn’t want to focus on Support Magic. It felt boring, and not like it complimented his own abilities so far.
Whatever the reason, once he’d settled on chains and cages, he’d loved it. He had reach, and he could direct his different types of Containment constructs with his mind, summoning cages and chains up to twenty feet away from him with ease. His chains were strongest when they were being directly controlled by him, coming forth from the face of his pocket watch. But the versatility he had with being able to bring forth traps from any direction, separate from his own body, was amazing.
And, while many Wardens used Containment Magic purely for restricting Hollows until Eliminators could, well, “eliminate” them, Caleb’s chains had a multitude of active combat applications. He didn’t often fight heavily, letting Chelsea do the heavy lifting, but in situations like this, with so many foes, Caleb really got to let loose.
Limits inspire creativity. It wasn’t just something relating to his Time Magic. He didn’t have the destructive power of Chelsea. He didn’t have any specialized and deadly Summons like Delilah. He could slow time, he could move around quickly, and he could summon chains and cages. That was it.
But that was enough. Having chosen when he was a teenager to manifest Mobility Magic as discs to hop and step on, or to even bounce him long distances, had ended up being fantastic as a Hunter. Those discs could serve as weapons, not just as mobility tools. Even backed into a tight corner, forced to defend a little girl, Caleb had a huge bag of tricks. Being able to summon his various “weapons” from any direction near him, to strike his foes at their blind spots, to use their momentum against them, and to limit their movement to only fight when he wanted to, made Caleb a deceptively capable fighter.
But as Caleb fought, he realized something. He’d noticed a few lights here and there out of the corner of his eye, but they always were far away, so he hadn’t paid any attention.
Until he did. And what he saw put his mind into furious motion.
Outside, another battle was raging. Splicers were dancing around, battling against three Summons.
Judging from the Drops scattered throughout the courtyard, they’d already defeated many enemies. But now the Felines were on their heels, fighting a desperate battle.
They’ll probably lose, Caleb realized. He slapped aside a Howler with his chains, bounced another away with a springboard disc. Unless…
Caleb took in a deep breath, then let it out. He slowed time once more, and before he even had a chance to move in the slowed time, he felt his chest tightening.
I’ve been overdoing it for a few days, now, he realized. He hadn’t wanted to realize it. He knew he had a nasty habit of overdoing things, of pushing too far, of not respecting his limits. And there was a nagging fear in the back of Caleb’s mind that he’d become too reliant on his Time Magic.
But that fear could wait. His sister needed him. He didn’t have the strength or time to make it outside and fight directly – and even if he’d wanted to, he had Isabelle to consider. So he ran to the window, where he could get a good look at the fight outside.
“What are you gonna do?” Isabelle asked, hopping up to stand on the desk next to the window so she could look outside, too.
“I just need to chain up a few of them,” Caleb said, gasping at how difficult it was to talk. Focus, he thought calmly to himself. How many can I grab? Probably six. No, five. I want to block that one on the roof, chasing the archer, and that’s far away. So… well, I should take a few off of the swordcat. And if I can help out the knight a bit… Caleb exhaled, focusing on the distant targets, willing chains into existence.
He gasped again, short of breath, knowing he was pushing it too much. I can worry about that later, he told himself. I can sleep in. I never need to get up in the mornings, anyway. And if we catch this woman here and now, we won’t have to worry about a crazy fight like this tomorrow, so I can relax. But right here, right now, my sister needs me.
He managed it, somehow. Five Splicers, chained and anchored to where they stood. He took care to chain them properly, restricting the movements of their arms – he’d seen those scythe-blades cut through his chains like paper.
“Think that’s enough?” Isabelle asked.
“It’ll… have to be,” Caleb said, his voice ragged as he struggled for breath.
“You can do it,” Isabelle said, laying a hand on Caleb’s shoulder and smiling at him. “Just a little more, right?”
Caleb felt warmth fill his body. Whatever it was, whether it was just an emotional response to Isabelle’s simple confidence, or actual magic from the little girl, it didn’t matter. Caleb let out a breath, turned around, and let go his hold on time.
Now to finish this fight, he thought, eyes flashing as he summoned more chains and battled the Howlers.
By the time Caleb had whittled down his enemies to a handful of Howlers, Chelsea had finished with the Weavers on the ceiling. She came leaping across the bookshelves, and the fire that came with her instantly eliminated the remaining Howlers.
“Well, that’s that,” she said, blowing a few strands of stray hairs out of her face. “Now, what about our strange enemy here?”
“I can’t remove her hat or scarf,” Lorelei said, glaring at the woman in bewilderment. “They must be held in place by magic, though I’ve never seen someone go to such lengths to hide their face.”
“Wanna talk?” Caleb asked, eyeing the woman as she struggled against the ice that had encased her up to her neck.
The woman glared back at him, and Caleb was again startled by her violet eyes. For some reason, he felt he’d seen those eyes before. Their completely impossible color spoke to him, and he was at a loss for words.
“Stop!” Chelsea shouted. Caleb only then realized that the woman’s right hand, the one not holding the Flute, had begun to glow, just like a Talisman.
It was too late. Caleb didn’t even have time to slow down time before the woman abruptly vanished. Casting about, he spotted her, back on the indoor balcony above. The Piper’s Flute was to her lips.
“No you don’t!” Chelsea shouted, launching tendrils of emerald flames at the woman. A barrier of light formed, blocking the fire from reaching the woman, and she began to play.
“We can’t keep fighting in here,” Lorelei said, already running for the window on the courtyard side.
“Right,” Caleb said, following her. “Let’s take this outside!”
“Stay close,” Chelsea said, and Caleb realized she was talking to Isabelle. The girl had been distracted for a moment, but Chelsea was now holding her hand as they ran.
Hollows began to form, again and again, melting into existence from strange, inky-black portals. Lorelei was first to the window, and she fiddled with the lock for only a moment before getting it and flinging the window open.
Hunters do their best to avoid property damage, Caleb thought as he followed Lorelei out the window, Chelsea and Isabelle close behind.
The song of summoning that the woman was playing was too long. She kept adding onto it, extending it, and Caleb feared what would result. If the first song had brought on more than thirty Hollows, what would they be up against now?
Running across the courtyard, Caleb saw Delilah racing towards him with her Feline Summons. He waved his hand frantically. “Get out of here!” he shouted.
“You need my help!” Delilah protested. The siblings reached each other, and Caleb grinned.
“I know we do,” he said, ruffling his sister’s hair. “I just meant you. Let your Summons fight with us. But you need to get up high, stay out of the way of danger.”
Delilah’s face quickly relaxed. “Right,” she said, nodding. She formed a glowing platform and stepped onto it, beginning to float up into the sky.
“Hey!” Caleb called out, smiling at his sister. “I’m proud of you!”
Delilah smiled down at him, and then looked away, her eyes fixed on her Summons and the oncoming Hollows.
Caleb turned, spinning his pocket watch as monsters poured out of the library in numbers worse than he’d imagined. His Talisman flashed as he summoned chains to lash down a Splicer, pinning its arms in place. He brought forth a cage, trapping a Weaver. Lorelei blasted the growing hoard with icicle spears, rending and slicing and impaling. Chelsea’s twin lighters sparked and flared as she launched spheres and spirals and walls and waves of fire at the enemy. The Felines were in motion, the green archer firing arrows at rapid speed, the purple knight swinging her chain flail, and the swordcat charging in close, stabbing and slashing.
They beat back the first handful of Hollows that reached the courtyard, but they were coming faster, fighting back angrily. The doors to the library swung open, and Caleb’s jaw dropped. How many Howlers were there? Fifty? Sixty? At least that many Splicers?
And from within the library, the song of summoning continued to play.
We’re going to need backup, he realized, wondering who would be the one to send out the call.
“Her song is no good,” Isabelle suddenly said, pulling out her own flute. “It’s causing trouble. I’ll stop it.”
The little girl began to play. It was the same haunting, lonely, regretful song that Caleb had heard the first time he’d met the girl. He didn’t know what good it would do, but if it stopped the woman in the library from calling forth more and more Hollows, he’d be glad for it. Resuming his fight, Caleb bounced a Howler into a Splicer with one of his Mobility discs, then chained the pair together, anchoring them to the ground. For another Splicer, Caleb called in chains from either side. The monster cut them apart, but then Caleb brought chains out from the ground at its feet. Caught off-guard, the Splicer was lashed in place long enough for Chelsea to burn it to ash with a vortex of flame.
And then… something strange happened. As Isabelle’s song melded with and fought against the song of summoning, the world began to waver.
At first Caleb thought he was imagining it. He must have pushed himself even harder than he thought if the walls of the library looked like melting wax. The Hollows were all melding together in his vision. His legs felt weak, and the songs that were being played slowly transformed into two discordant notes, ringing out loud and clear, hammering against Caleb’s eardrums.
“Make it stop!” came Chelsea’s shout, and Caleb wasn’t sure he was imagining things anymore.
“I can’t!” Isabelle cried frantically. “I don’t know what’s happening!”
Light flooded Caleb’s vision, and the two notes grew louder. He felt hot, and heavy, and faint. Everything was too bright, even when he closed his eyes. It was far too hot. He was going to melt. He was sure of it. Either that, or be crushed by this strange pressure in the air.
Then, the lower of the discordant notes vanished. All that remained was a single crystal clear note, ringing out in the emptiness. The pressure faded. The heat turned to a soothing warmth. Brightness ebbed, until Caleb could make out shapes, and then a clear sight.
He was on a beach. As the single note faded, he could hear the sound of the ocean, and turning, he saw waves lapping against the shore behind him. In front of him stretched a jungle, thick and dense, with trees the likes of which he’d never seen. And above him, the sky…
It was white. Pure white. No sun could be seen, nor clouds. Why was that so unsettling?
“Where… where are we?”
It was Chelsea who asked, and Caleb saw her kneeling in the sand a few feet from him. She looked sick. Lorelei was near her, a hand on her friend’s shoulder as she looked out at the strange jungle before them.
“What’s wrong with the sky?” Delilah asked. She was standing behind Caleb, staring up above.
“I know this place!” Isabelle called out, stepping ahead of the trio. “Although… we really shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe.”
“What is this place?” Caleb asked.
Isabelle turned to face him, uttering four words that made Caleb’s blood run cold.
“This is Hollow Island.”