“This is Hollow Island.”
Isabelle’s words echoed across the beach, strange for such vast openness.
“That sounds ominous,” Caleb said, staring at the jungle that made up the island’s mainland. “What do you mean? The Hollows come from here?”
Isabelle nodded, kicking her feet in the sand. “They don’t look like the monsters you called Hollows, though,” she said. “The ones that live here are actually scary.”
“Well, that’s reassuring,” Chelsea said wryly. She looked across the beach. “Where’d the lady go?”
Caleb looked as well, pushing his glasses up, but the only people on the beach were him, Delilah, Chelsea, Lorelei, and Isabelle. The woman with violet eyes was nowhere to be found. “Maybe she was left behind?” he offered.
“Let’s hope not,” Chelsea said. “With how much damage she already caused in one night, if she can keep playing around with her Flute in Grimoire, the rest of the Hunters are going to have a war on their hands.”
“Let’s focus on here and now,” Lorelei said. “Isabelle, what is this place? Where exactly is it located? How can we get off the island? Tell us everything you know.”
Isabelle tapped her finger on her chin. “I’m not too good on the first two questions,” she said. “I just know where we are. I don’t know where it is. Hollow Island is an island where the Hollows live. No one’s supposed to come here, so no one ever talks about how to get here from other places. But I can tell you how to get off of the island.”
“Wait, you said you’d been here before,” Delilah said. “How did you get here the first time?”
“Mommy took me,” she said. “I don’t know how she got us here. But she took me and my sisters to show us just how dangerous it is, and to show us how to get off the island in case we ever got here by accident.”
“Well, that’s the most important thing for us to know,” Caleb said, smiling. “So? How do we get out of this place?”
Isabelle pointed at the jungle. “There’s a mountain at the center of the island,” she said. “We have to climb to the top, and then drop down to the port. It’s underneath the mountain, but you have to climb to the top first. And there, we’ll take the ship off the island.”
“The center of the island,” Chelsea said, staring at the jungle. “Great. Hey kid, have any advice for surviving the trip there? Or shortcuts?”
“No shortcuts,” Isabelle said with a heavy, disappointed sigh. “But there are paths. And you have to stick to the paths. Lose your way, and you’ll get eaten.”
“What do we do if we run into Hollows?” Caleb asked.
“That’s easy,” Isabelle said. “We run.”
“But we can fight,” Chelsea said. “We’re trained for it.”
Isabelle looked at Chelsea as if she felt sorry for her. It was adorable coming from a little girl. “You aren’t trained for real Hollows,” she said.
“Let’s just stick to the paths,” Lorelei said, a hand on Chelsea’s shoulder. Chelsea looked like she was about to pick a fight with the little girl. “And if we find Hollows, we can run. We’re trained for that, too.”
“Does our magic even work here?” Delilah asked. She pulled out her keychain, spinning it in the air. It flashed with light, and her three Feline Summons came into being. She smiled. “That’s a relief.”
“No service,” Chelsea said, pulling out her phone. “Not even satellite. Which probably means…”
“We’re…” Caleb started. Like Chelsea, he hesitated. The next words were strange to say.
“Not even on Earth,” Lorelei said simply, finishing for them. “Seems that way. If there were a place like this on Earth, people would know about it. And look at the sky. It isn’t natural. You never see sights like this on Earth. Even the ocean looks… wrong.”
She had a point. The sky up above had seemed to just be white, but as Caleb looked at it longer, he realized that wasn’t it. There were flashes of yellow and pale orange here and there. But even so… there wasn’t a sun. There weren’t clouds. The sky itself was just an endless sheet of white, with strange lights bursting into life and then fading across its surface.
And the ocean… the waters were a blue-green, but there was a quality to their movements and the way they caught and reflected light that didn’t seem like water. It seemed more solid, too opaque to be water. Caleb knelt down as the tide came in and scooped some of the strange ocean water into his hands. It was liquid, but it was slightly thicker than water, and… it was just the slightest bit sticky. Bringing his hands to his mouth, Caleb sipped a small amount of the liquid and swished it around in his mouth for a second before spitting it out.
“It’s sweet,” he said. Honestly, it was rather pleasant. He would have swallowed it if he hadn’t known better.
Smart people don’t ingest unknown liquids.
“Hey, Isabelle,” Lorelei said, approaching the girl. She knelt down in front of her, talking to her at eye level. “You know your home, the Library of Solitude? Is the sky outside of that place like this one?”
Isabelle nodded. “Sort of,” she said. “It’s usually nighttime there, though, so I don’t see this much light most of the time.”
“So, if you were to describe the rest of the world beyond the Library, if you were to give it a name, what would you call it?” Lorelei asked.
Isabelle’s eyes brightened. “The Enchanted Dominion!” she said excitedly. “That’s what they call it! I like it because it sounds so magical and wonderful.”
Lorelei smiled. “It does, doesn’t it?”
“Ever heard of it before?” Caleb asked as Chelsea knelt down to join him at the water’s edge.
“Nothing like it,” Chelsea said, staring out at the strange ocean. “And I don’t like the sound of it. Some world beyond our own? It just seems…”
“Like magic?” Caleb asked, grinning.
“Don’t be like that,” Chelsea said, punching him lightly on the arm. “Yeah, okay, when you put it like that, I guess the theory isn’t that strange. But… look at this place. It doesn’t… it doesn’t seem real. How does no one know about it?”
“I’m sure some people do,” Caleb said. “For whatever reason, they’ve chosen to keep it a secret.”
“And that’s the idea that bugs me the most,” Chelsea said. “Why? Why keep it a secret? Why hide it? Grimoire’s called The City of Knowledge for a reason. Knowledge about magic gets shared, not kept secret.”
“Maybe they thought an entire world beyond our own qualified as a loophole,” Caleb suggested. “I don’t know. When we get back, we’ll have to do some investigating.”
Chelsea nodded. “On that, we agree.” She stood up, staring up at the sky. “I don’t like the feel of this place, Caleb. Something’s wrong. We should find our way to that port as soon as possible.”
“Then follow me!” Isabelle said excitedly, waving to them. She was now closer to the jungle with Lorelei and Delilah. “I know where the path starts!”
Caleb smiled as he took Chelsea’s hand. “Ready for an adventure?” he asked.
Chelsea smiled, shaking her head. “You’re like a little kid sometimes,” she said. “Just keep your eyes open, okay? If it’s really as dangerous as the kid says, we need to be careful.”
“Hey, what’d you do with your cats?” Caleb asked Delilah.
“They’re called Felines,” Delilah said. She nodded towards the jungle. “I sent Redmond out to scout. Felix and Nekoma are in waiting. I can summon them pretty quickly if we need them, but if we’re trying to avoid fights, I should keep them away.”
“Which one is Redmond?” Caleb asked, the names of these GFA characters flying way over his head.
“The archer,” Delilah said. She had a bit of a pep in her step as she followed Isabelle into the jungle. “He has a range of about three hundred yards from me. He’s also great at moving swiftly and silently.”
“Three hundred yards?” Caleb asked, staring wide-eyed at his little sister. “How the heck do you have such strong Summons already?”
Delilah looked away, a telltale sign that she was blushing. “I’ve been training a lot,” she said softly. “Started when I was ten.”
That explains everything, Caleb realized, beaming down at his sister. Most Hunters haven’t had much training before they start their internship – a lot of them take the field within a year. If she’s been training for four years – even if it’s only by herself – she’s bound to be strong.
“We need to stay quieter in here,” Isabelle said in a loud whisper, holding her finger to her lips. “Hollows mostly discover people through sound and smells. Their eyesight is pretty terrible.”
Caleb nodded in understanding. That was one advantage, then. With his ability to slow time, if things got especially hairy, he’d be able to make an opening for the five of them to escape.
Then again, he’d been overusing his Time Magic. He wasn’t sure just how much he’d be able to rely on it here.
Maybe just rely on quick reflexes and Containment Magic. And running. Running’s good.
The jungle quickly grew dense. Caleb had walked the pine forests surrounding Grimoire, but this was a completely different experience. Staying to the path seemed to be unavoidable. Walls of seemingly unbreachable foliage closed in on them, and the light from the sky above was quickly blotted out. The darkness was thick and suffocating, and Delilah soon summoned Felix and Nekoma. The orange glow at their front and purple glow at their back helped keep things visible, but the unnatural light sources only added to the jungle’s mysterious and oppressive feel.
Not being able to talk was particularly difficult for Caleb. He was always ready to break the silence and lighten the mood with words and a smile. But now he had to stay silent, and he found his thoughts bouncing around at a furious rate, desperately trying to become vocalized speech.
Shut up, brain, Caleb thought, gritting his teeth. You can’t talk all the time. Maybe that’s why some people call you annoying. You are kind of a chatterbox. Work on that.
Isabelle led the way, with Lorelei close behind her. Next was Chelsea, then Caleb, with Delilah behind him. Chelsea looked on edge. She had each of her lighters in hand, and was constantly peering through the walls of leaves and vines and branches on either side with an intense gaze.
Lorelei looked at ease. She kept an eye on Isabelle, almost like she was looking over a little sister. Isabelle was focused, but still had her usual pep and curiosity, conveyed completely through body language. When they came to a fork in the path, Isabelle was decisive, energetically pointing out the way to go.
Delilah gave Caleb a brief smile when he looked back at her. She was focused, keeping an eye out. And who knew how easy or difficult it was to maintain her three Summons? Caleb didn’t know enough about Summoning Magic, but he’d avoided it partly because it seemed like a discipline meant for multi-taskers. Caleb couldn’t focus on multiple tasks at a time. His mind was constantly moving unbidden from one thing to the next, and if he was going to focus, it needed to be on a singular objective.
Following along as their path took them on a rightward bend, Caleb listened carefully. The jungle seemed quiet at first, with just the sounds of their footsteps and breathing. But as Caleb listened more, he realized that what he’d first thought was just a small undercurrent of a singular noise was in fact a whole host of sounds coming from all directions. Birds chirped, bugs buzzed, leaves swayed, branches creaked, the wind whistled, water dripped. Occasionally there were even sounds that put Caleb into a combat mode – low growls, snarls, distant roars, the padding of paws on the jungle floor.
Nothing came for them yet. But there was clearly a vast array of life beyond the leafy barricades. Caleb wondered how much sound they were making to the strange, unknown “real” Hollows out there. How loud were they? Were their scents clear and easy to follow, or did they blend in?
Caleb’s nose wasn’t particularly sharp, but even he picked out strange aromas here and there. There must be many flowers, though Caleb didn’t see any, as strong smells wafted to him here and there, sweet and aromatic. He was occasionally tempted to stray off the path to find them, but it was a fleeting feeling. Still, the very thought of it worried him. It made him think the jungle itself was reaching out, attempting to snare unwary visitors.
This wasn’t a place for humanity. Even with clear paths to follow, they were narrow, claustrophobic, and occasionally the travelers had to duck under thick branches that took up too much vertical space, jutting across the path almost like a “KEEP OUT” sign. Sometimes they were forced to sidle along sideways, squeezing through trees that had grown up along the path, nearly completely covering it. Idle thoughts in Caleb’s mind wondered why they couldn’t just cut through branches, or take a short detour around such obstructive tree trunks, but there seemed to be a very clear attitude in Isabelle’s leading.
Disturb the jungle as little as possible.
The way that leaves blended into vines and into branches and trunks gave Caleb the feeling that the jungle was completely connected. He could rarely tell where one plant ended and another began, as if all of the foliage was one massive organism.
The path suddenly widened, opening up into a circular clearing. From it, there were three possible paths branching out. Flowers bloomed here, large blossoms that were deep purples and reds.
“Give me a second,” Isabelle said softly, standing in the middle of the clearing. “I’m not sure which path we need to take.”
There was a brief rustle in the foliage, and then a green shape leapt down from the dense canopy above. It was Delilah’s Feline archer, Redmond.
“There are a lot of Hollows,” Delilah said, listening to some wordless report from Redmond. Caleb didn’t know how Summoners and their Summons communicated with each other, but he saw it a lot. He figured it must be telepathy of some sort. “Some have noticed we’re here, but they don’t look like they’re going to attack. It’s like they’re trying to decide whether we’re worthwhile prey or not. And… he thinks he caught a glimpse of the woman, the one who was using the Piper’s Flute. But it was brief, so it might not have been her.”
“If she’s on this island with us, I’d actually take that as a good sign,” Caleb said. “Better than her wreaking havoc back in Grimoire.”
“Did he see her within the jungle itself?” Chelsea asked. Delilah nodded in response. “If it’s true, I wonder how she’s surviving out there. Seems like it’s thick with Hollows, right?”
“Very,” Delilah said. “There’s no end to them. And they look kind of like some of the Hollows back home, but worse. There are giant wolves like Howlers, and spiders like Weavers. But they’re bigger and meaner. And there are others… I haven’t seen anything like them in Grimoire before. But there’s good news. Redmond also climbed up to the top of the trees, to see out above the canopy. And we’re making good time. If we can keep this pace up, we’ll reach the mountain at the island’s center in a few hours.”
“That’s awfully fast,” Chelsea said, casting a look around the clearing. “Let’s hope we can do that much.”
“This is the way,” Isabelle announced, pointing towards the farthest path. “I remember the flowers here. It’s been overgrown a bit since the last time I was here, but this is it.”
“Let’s –” Caleb started to say, but he stopped as all his senses went on high alert.
There was a crashing in the trees beyond. Multiple creatures of some kind were making a lot of noise, growling and hissing and running as fast as they could, not caring what they destroyed on their rush. And it sounded like they were coming straight towards Caleb and the others.
“We need to run,” Isabelle urged, pointing to the path. “Come on!”
“Right,” Chelsea said, clearly frustrated at the idea. “No fighting. Lorelei –”
“I’m on point,” Lorelei said with a quick nod. “Got it. Come on, Isabelle.” She led the way, Isabelle close behind.
“Delilah, take the middle guard position,” Caleb said. “Use your Summons the best way you can, but try not to get caught in a fight. Chelsea and I’ll take the rear.”
“Nekoma can take the rear behind you,” Delilah said as they started following Lorelei and Isabelle. “She’s a perfect rear guard.” The purple Feline knight took up the rearmost spot in their train, keeping a wary eye behind them.
“Works for me,” Chelsea said.
“Hey Chelsea,” Caleb said as they ran. “In places like these, do you ever wish you weren’t a fire mage?”
Chelsea shot a glare at him over her shoulder, and Caleb laughed. “It’s inconvenient,” she said curtly. “That’s all. Maybe, in times like these, you should keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed.”
“I’ll take it into consideration,” Caleb said. Sounds were growing louder and more numerous. The traveler’s flight was attracting more and more attention it seemed. And they couldn’t see anything beyond the walls of foliage just inches away from their sides. A giant monster could come crashing through and they wouldn’t know until it was right on top of them.
“Redmond’s delaying them,” Delilah explained from ahead of Caleb and Chelsea. “It’ll be really bad if they catch us from the sides. He’s doing his best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“You know,” Caleb said, “having one of your Summons be an archer was a brilliant idea. I’ve never seen anyone else try that.”
“Thanks,” came the soft reply from ahead. Caleb smiled.
My sister is so freaking cool.
“Fork ahead!” Lorelei called back from the front. “We’re going left!”
Their group had gotten more spread out as they’d run, so communication was important.
Of course, that communication was probably making their location more obvious to the Hollows around them. If they tracked by sound, being quiet would be smart.
But they also tracked by scent. By this point, they’d probably figured out what Caleb and the others smelled like. Quieting down now wouldn’t do them much good. But…
“If it does come to a fight,” Caleb called out, “fight as quietly as you can. The less they can hear us, the more of an advantage we have.”
“They’re stronger on our left,” Delilah said. “If an attack does come, it’ll probably come from there. They’re more towards the rear, as well. Redmond will try and spread them out.”
When did she get so mature? Caleb wondered, looking ahead at his baby sister with pride. It was hard to believe she was only fourteen. We could be attacked by giant, vicious, killer monsters any second, but she’s still got a level head on her shoulders. It took me over a year to get a handle on my nerves.
“I could give us a fire shield,” Chelsea suggested. “Strategic burning here and there could completely block off groups of Howlers.”
“Don’t burn the trees!” Isabelle called back frantically. “You can’t! It’ll only make things worse!”
“Great,” Chelsea muttered.
“It’ll be all right,” Caleb said. “You’ve got great reflexes and great aim. Just blast them in the face if they show up, and they won’t ever want to mess with you again.”
“There you go, being a sweetheart again,” Chelsea said. “I wish you’d do that more often.”
Caleb chuckled. “I’ll work on it.”
“Left!” Delilah shouted. “Coming in fast!”
Nekoma moved to intercept, as a massive beast tore its way through the leafy veil. Caleb only got a brief look at it before the Feline knight blocked its attack and pushed it back into the jungle, but it was enough to set his heart racing even faster.
Real Hollows, Caleb thought, eyes widening. That’s what Isabelle called them. Now I get it.
Howlers were about the size of a fully-grown Saint Bernard – though not nearly as cute, of course. They were pretty big dogs, or so Caleb had thought.
What had attacked Nekoma was easily twice the size. Bigger than Nekoma, who, with her armor, was over a foot taller than Caleb and much broader in the shoulders. The Hollow’s head alone was bigger than Caleb’s entire torso.
And those eyes. Howlers had black, empty pits where their eyes should be. This beast was much the same, but the blackness within was like a living thing, roiling and churning and pulsing with red energy.
There was raw, primal rage in these Hollows.
“That’s not the only one!” Delilah said. “Redmond can’t hold them all back!”
Crashing through the growth between Caleb and Chelsea was another of the massive “real” Howlers. It was shockingly agile, turning on a dime within the narrow jungle path, leveling its gaze on Caleb, who was struggling to come to a stop.
Time Magic, don’t fail me now!
Caleb slowed down time, gripping his pocket watch hard enough that its metal rim dug into his fingers. As he did so, the world around him seemed to ripple and blur. Caleb’s mind felt fuzzy, his entire body heavy.
What… what’s happening? Pushing outward towards the snarling beast, now nearly frozen in time, Caleb’s arms wouldn’t move the way he wanted them to. His chest tightened, his breathing went ragged, and it was all he could do to sidestep away from the beast as he released his hold on time.
Except he couldn’t. He exhaled, letting go mentally and physically like he usually did to stop manipulating time.
But time stayed nearly frozen.
Frantic, the edge of his vision darkening, Caleb dropped his pocket watch. Even though he was no longer holding his Talisman, time stayed slowed. Caleb felt like he was being crushed, a massive pressure bearing down on him.
There was a voice, somewhere. Caleb could hear it calling out to him, even as his eyes went dark, even as all feeling faded. He was falling, falling, falling. Still there was the voice. What was it saying? Why was it so hard to understand?
Caleb grasped feebly, but the words slipped through his fingers. Falling, falling, falling he was, down and down and down.
And at the bottom, there was nothing.