For Chelsea, all the chaos of the battle had come to a standstill.
How many Hollows were around her? How desperate was the fight?
Chelsea didn’t know. For her, all she saw, and all she knew, was one thing.
Caleb had fallen.
It was worse than just falling. Caleb’s entire body was translucent. She could see straight through him.
It took her several moments to realize she was screaming his name.
One of the monstrous Howlers was looming over Caleb’s unconscious form, fangs dripping with saliva. Slowly, so slowly, it began to lower its vicious maw towards his body.
One word, sounding like a cannon blast in Chelsea’s mind. She held up her twin lighters and let loose. An emerald inferno burst to life, surging over the monster’s form in a ferocious blaze.
Chelsea would hold nothing back. Isabelle had urged her not to burn the trees, and the girl probably had her reasons, but…
Too bad. Nothing hurts Caleb.
Fire Magic was wild and dangerous. Just like how Caleb had been heavily warned not to practice Time Magic, Chelsea had had dozens of mentors, teachers, and family members urge her not to pursue the power of the flames.
“Magical fire is a living thing.”
“Nearly all of your focus will be on learning to tame it.”
“You won’t be able to learn any other magic.”
“You won’t be able to control it.”
“You can’t let it burn freely.”
“Don’t do it.”
She’d shut out all the cries, all the warnings. All because of her grandmother, who’d raised her after Chelsea’s parents had died.
“Fire Magic is a powerful and dangerous thing,” her grandmother had said when Chelsea asked her about all the people telling her not to study it. “It is indeed a living thing, and not like a Summon. Fire is wild, willful, and demands to be free.”
“So I shouldn’t learn it?” Chelsea had asked.
Her grandmother had smiled at her, ruffled her hair, and said words that Chelsea would never forget.
“Fire Magic is just like you, my dear. So be free. And when you need it most, let your flames be free, too.”
Here, on Hollow Island, in her desperate moment of need, Chelsea let the flames run free.
Everything turned to green. Chelsea called out to the magical inferno, singled out Delilah, Lorelei, and Isabelle.
And she singled out Caleb most of all.
Nothing touches them, she said to the flames. Everything else, you burn.
A rush, a high, filled Chelsea’s entire being. She felt alive, weightless, euphoric, the emotions of the fire – her fire – melding with her own, sharing with her their utter joy at being free.
Hollows turned to ash instantly. Trees, grass, flowers, birds, bugs, everything was ash. Nothing was spared beyond Chelsea and her friends. Her eyes went to Caleb, still unconscious on the jungle floor, still translucent and pale and looking like death itself.
You will not die, she urged silently. You will not. I won’t allow it. I can’t… because you…
You are everything.
Suffocating heat and smoke threatened to choke off Chelsea’s own breath, but instead, it only added to her rush of emotions. Joy, terror, anguish, and – drowning out the rest – rage.
No one harms Caleb. I will…
The cry was faint. A whisper on the wind. Was it real?
Louder this time. Was that…
“You have to stop this!”
Stop? Why would I stop? Can’t you see Caleb? Can’t you see he’s in danger? Can’t you see…
“You’ll… you’ll burn us, too!”
No. I told the flames not to touch you. They listen to me. Nothing will touch you. Nothing will harm you. I’ll make sure of it.
Pained, choking coughing rose to Chelsea’s ears. “Please!” Lorelei called out, her voice weaker now. “Make it stop!”
I don’t… I don’t want to. This rush. This exhilaration. Everything burns. Isn’t it amazing? This is what I can do. This is power – my power. My power to protect those I love, and to destroy all else.
It was barely a whisper. Chelsea blinked. She pulled her gaze away from Caleb’s body, away from the blaze spreading so brilliantly and beautifully around her.
Lorelei was kneeling at Chelsea’s feet. Coughing, gasping, she was barely conscious.
Beyond her was Delilah. The girl had already collapsed. She’d lay spread out, and her hand, even in unconsciousness, was reaching out for the form of her older brother.
Isabelle was fine.
She stood between Lorelei and Delilah, watching the fire and smoke roar and rage, consuming more and more.
Physically, she was fine, but…
She was crying.
Chelsea had never seen such anguish, such pain.
No. She had. More than once.
The day she found out her mother died.
When she came home from her funeral.
Years later, when she found video tapes from her mother’s younger days.
Every time she gripped her lighters, Talismans left to her from her mother.
All that pain, the pain Chelsea never let the world see, she saw reflected in the little girl’s face.
Don’t burn the trees!
That’s what Isabelle had said, with such frantic desperation.
Where were the trees?
Stop, Chelsea called out. The euphoria, the rush, died out so suddenly that Chelsea nearly collapsed at the sudden burden of reality. An emerald inferno that had spread out and out, suddenly and swiftly was extinguished.
Chelsea stood in the smoldering waste of Hollow Island, and was astonished at what she saw.
Where were the trees?
How far had her flames burned?
She turned around, looking back the way the group had come. Across the blackened, charred waste, she could see the beach where they’d arrived, and the ocean beyond. Before her, in the direction they’d been running, Chelsea could finally see the massive mountain that was their goal. And, around it, and far, far, far away to her right and left, Chelsea could just barely see the green of trees.
She’d burned away entire miles of jungle, of Hollows, of flowers and birds and trees and all living things.
And finally, in the stunning silence left behind with the fires gone, Chelsea could hear Isabelle’s wailing. And all the pain she’d seen written on the girl’s face hit her with that voice, penetrated to her heart, and struck Chelsea to her knees.
They’re just trees, Chelsea wanted to say. Why are you so upset?
But she couldn’t. She couldn’t throw that in the girl’s face. Such raw emotion couldn’t answer to reason.
Chelsea knew that better than most.
“You…” Isabelle said, staring at Chelsea with horror and sadness. “Why? Why did you… I told you not to. Don’t burn the trees. Don’t… they…”
Chelsea could feel it, then. There was more than just Isabelle’s desperate anguish. There was raw emotion echoing across the devastation Chelsea had wrought. It was coming from the land itself.
The Enchanted Domain. That’s what she called this world. A land of magic. So magic infuses everything. Even the trees, the grass, the flowers, everything. All of it, alive and calling out for anyone who cares to listen.
Isabelle clearly had a stronger attunement to magic than any human. If Chelsea could grasp just the tiniest echoes of the pain and despair crying out from the destruction around her, what must Isabelle be feeling? What must she be hearing?
Chelsea stood, shaky on her feet. She pocketed her lighters. One step. Then another. She crossed the short distance between her and the child, knelt down, and wrapped her arms around Isabelle.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, barely getting the words out. “I just wanted to…”
I just wanted to protect Caleb.
I can’t lose him.
Isabelle’s wailing ceased, and she hugged Chelsea back. This girl was so small, so utterly fragile in Chelsea’s arms. She could summon Piper’s Flutes from thin air. She could use magic without a Talisman. She played music that pierced straight to Chelsea’s soul and brought up emotions that tore her to pieces.
Isabelle wasn’t human. Of that Chelsea was certain.
And yet, she really was just a child.
So Chelsea hugged her, held her, and the two of them cried. Soon, Lorelei was on her feet, and she helped Delilah regain consciousness and stand as well.
Chelsea didn’t want to look back at them. She heard Lorelei and Delilah talking, very quietly. She heard Caleb’s name several times. She heard the telltale low, hollow whistling tone that accompanied Lorelei’s Healing Magic.
It went on for far too long. Nothing ever took this long to heal.
So Chelsea couldn’t look. Because that must mean…
“Chelsea,” Lorelei said softly. Chelsea felt her friend’s hand on her shoulder. Dread mounted within her. She closed herself off, tried her hardest not to hear Lorelei’s next words, the words she couldn’t hear, the words that would tear her world to pieces.
But the words didn’t come.
Instead, came a small light of hope.
“Caleb’s alive,” Lorelei said.
Chelsea let go of Isabelle and looked up at her friend. Lorelei’s expression didn’t look hopeful, but she had led with that for a reason.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” Lorelei continued. “Magic doesn’t seem to touch him. I can’t heal him. He isn’t hurt, or sick, but… I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I have no idea what’s wrong with him. He’s breathing. His heart’s beating. But…”
Chelsea stood up and raced over to Caleb, dropping to her knees at his side. Reaching out, afraid her hand would pass straight through his body like smoke, she was astonished when her skin contacted his. Her hand held his face.
But there was no warmth. He wasn’t cold, either. He just… was. He didn’t feel alive, but Chelsea had also held the dead before, and Caleb didn’t feel like that, either. There was no temperature. There was barely any sensation at all. His skin was like glass. His breathing came so softly, she almost didn’t notice at first.
He’s so pale, she realized, staring at his face. He looks so weak. So pained. What… what’s wrong?
“Caleb,” she said softly, tears flowing down her cheeks. “Caleb, please. What’s wrong? Tell us… tell us how to fix you. Why are you…”
“I think it’s his Time Magic,” Delilah said. Chelsea looked at her. She and Delilah hadn’t spent much time together, so it was hard for Chelsea to read her expression. “He… I’ve seen him use it a few times before, and his body gets like this, just for that small moment when he’s slowing down time.”
That’s right. Chelsea recognized it now. She’d seen Caleb use his Time Magic countless times, but it always lasted for a second, sometimes less. She hadn’t realized the similarities, but Caleb’s body had that blurred, intangible appearance to it. Touching him like this was so strange. He didn’t look real.
“So he’s… stuck in time?” Chelsea asked.
“I don’t know,” Delilah said, running her fingers through her brother’s hair. Her free hand wiped away her tears. “That would be my best guess. But this has never happened before.”
“And none of us knows enough about Time Magic to be sure,” Lorelei said. “No one ever talks about it, except to say how it’s impossible to use, and that…”
“It comes with a terrible price,” Chelsea finished, staring in horror at Caleb.
That warning was always thrown around about Time Magic. People talked about how it was impossible to master, but even more than that, they talked about the price that came with it.
Caleb had brushed it off in his usual carefree fashion. He smiled, dropped a joke about it, and went on slowing down time. A few times, he’d told Chelsea how it felt when he used his Time Magic too much in one night.
A tightness in his chest. Shortness of breath. Pressure, bearing down on his body.
But he liked pushing his limits. So did most Hunters, Chelsea included. Magic was exhausting, and fighting Hollows every night was even more so. Caleb’s symptoms sounded close enough to someone who had overexerted themselves that Chelsea hadn’t worried. Good rest and eating well would take care of it.
Caleb acted so strong. How much had using Time Magic actually harmed him? How much did it really hurt?
Had Caleb seen this coming all along?
What can I do?
Nothing. That was the answer, and Chelsea hated it. She couldn’t bear it.
Nothing? Really? I can’t do anything to save him, after all the times he’s saved me? I can’t do anything to help him, after all the ways he’s helped me?
Chelsea’s mind filled with images of Caleb, with memories. The way he teased her and joked with her, but always became serious when she asked him to.
The constant strength he showed, constant and determined no matter the danger.
The way he made small contact with her all the time. Holding her pinky with his, bumping lightly against her shoulder, brushing against her hand.
The way he looked at her. So full of love, so full of joy, so full of warm emotions that Chelsea never felt she deserved.
The patience, the insane, impossible patience, as he could clearly see all the pain in Chelsea’s heart, and yet never pushed, despite how unfairly she held back with him, how unfairly she kept secrets from him.
The way he smiled.
All the time, smiling.
How could one person smile so much?
And how could it always seem completely genuine?
“Chelsea,” Lorelei said softly, wrapping her arms around Chelsea’s shoulders and pulling her into a hug.
“I can’t do this,” Chelsea said, letting her tears fall freely. “I can’t. He… he has to get better. He has to be okay. This isn’t right. This isn’t…”
Lorelei started to say something, but Chelsea stood up abruptly, pulling away and walking across the desolation. Charred remains of so many things, more than Chelsea could grasp, crunched and cracked beneath her feet.
“Hey,” Lorelei said calmly, following her. Chelsea came to a stop after a few paces, staring out across the wasteland.
“He’s everything,” Chelsea said, shaking her head. “I can’t lose him.”
Lorelei stopped, her shoulder against Chelsea’s. “I know,” she said.
“There’s so much I need to tell him,” she said. Some tears flowed over her lips, and Chelsea didn’t bother to wipe them away, tasting their salty bitterness. “I kept so much… I always thought there would be time.”
“And there is,” Lorelei said. “He’s alive. Somehow, he’ll come back to you. Either we’ll find a solution, or whatever’s happening to him will wear off somehow.”
“You think so?” Chelsea asked, looking into her friend’s eyes. True to her name and her magic, Lorelei’s eyes were an icy blue. So many people, especially boys, had teased her over the years, calling her “Ice Queen” and saying she didn’t have a heart.
To many, it was hard to see emotions on Lorelei’s eyes. But Chelsea knew her better than anyone, and she could see the mixed hope, sadness, fear, and determination in those eyes.
Lorelei was afraid. But she hadn’t given up.
“Lorelei, if he doesn’t…” Chelsea said, choking back a sob. “If he doesn’t get better… if he doesn’t come back… what do I… what do I do?”
“You don’t think about that,” Lorelei said. “You hold out hope for him. You don’t give up on him.”
“I need to tell him everything,” Chelsea said. “But… I’m afraid it will destroy him. I’m afraid it’ll push him away.”
“Don’t be,” Lorelei said. “He loves you. You’ve told me everything, and I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“But these are things that –”
“I know. It’s still not going to push him away. I’m sure of it.”
Chelsea leaned into Lorelei, who wrapped her up in a hug.
He’s everything. He’s everything, and I can’t do anything.
If he comes back, I’ll tell him everything. I’ll tell him all I’ve held back. All that I’ve locked away.
And then, when he hears it all, I’ll watch as his love for me disappears. I’ll watch as he walks away from me. I’ll stand there and take it as my world falls to pieces.
“What do we do now?” Chelsea asked.
“We get off this island,” Lorelei said, looking towards the mountain looming in the distance. “And we take Caleb with us. You watch over him. Don’t let him go. Don’t give up on him.”
“Let’s go,” she said, returning to the group and scooping Caleb’s glassy form into her arms. He was so light, Chelsea could scarcely believe it. She didn’t need to use any Enhancement Magic to reinforce her strength. As light as feathers, Chelsea was even more struck by how unreal he seemed. How, even as he breathed slowly and steadily, he seemed so heartbreakingly lifeless.
Turning towards the mountain, determination in her heart, Chelsea led the way.
Caleb… don’t you dare die. Come back to me. Just long enough for me to tell you what you’ve been waiting so patiently for me to say.
Even if it costs me your love.
Even if it costs me my everything.
You deserve the truth.