Chelsea wasn’t nearly as enamored with the Will Wisps as the rest of the girls.
As she watched Lorelei laugh with glee at the touch of another Wisp, Chelsea pursed her lips in frustration. “Doesn’t it hurt at all?” she asked.
“What are you talking about?” Lorelei asked. “It feels amazing!”
Well, I’ll just leave that alone, then, Chelsea decided.
For her, touching the Will Wisps was… strange. She could understand what the others were getting, and she herself did feel some of that joy. But… it hurt.
Sometimes quite a lot.
Her first contact with a Will Wisp had flooded her with complicated emotions, dredging up some of her own frustrating feelings in response to Caleb leaving. She knew he’d be back, but… she had so much to tell him. She’d been ready to talk to him about everything, but now…
Every moment Caleb was away from her, she felt less sure of being so open with him.
That doubt and confusion plagued her. The brief gasps of joy emanating from the different Wisps quickly gave way to painful shocks, like electricity zapping her fingertips. Was it the Wisps, or was it her? Or was it some combination of them both?
I know you guys are trying to talk to us. So what are you trying to tell me?
“You okay?” Lorelei asked. Chelsea looked up and realized that the group had been leaving, heading in the direction Gwen indicated.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Chelsea said, following along. Lorelei gave her “the look” that Chelsea had known for years. It was the look that meant “I know you’re lying to me, and I don’t like it, but I’ll wait patiently until you tell me because you always tell me eventually.”
Chelsea wasn’t very fond of “the look.”
It was something that came from a bond shared for decades. Chelsea and Lorelei had lived next door to each other. Their parents had been friends, and neither Chelsea nor Lorelei had siblings, so they quickly became for each other the sisters they never had. Thinking back, Chelsea couldn’t think of a stretch longer than two days that she and Lorelei hadn’t spent time with each other.
Lorelei knew far more about Chelsea than Caleb did, and she was perfect at keeping secrets. Either that, or she’d told Caleb everything, and Caleb was the one who was great at keeping secrets.
Just thinking that made Chelsea want to crack up. Caleb? Keep secrets?
Fat chance of that.
The trust between them had been hard on Chelsea’s part, but became easier over time, as Lorelei ended up being there with her for everything.
She’d been at each of the funerals: Chelsea’s mother’s, then her father’s, then her grandfather’s, and finally her grandmother’s.
She’d been through the frantic period in middle school when Chelsea had her first crush, and the despondent period after Chelsea had been turned down.
She’d been there through Chelsea’s complete insanity in early college, when Chelsea finally realized she was head over heels for Caleb, and for months danced around the subject before finally, after quite a lot of patient advice from Lorelei, telling that silly boy how she felt.
From learning Fire Magic to learning to drive, from dealing with bullies in high school to fighting Hollows after college, Lorelei had been there through the insane and the mundane.
So “the look” happened a lot. Chelsea wasn’t very fond of being vulnerable and open with people, but Lorelei’s kindness and patience always pulled it out of her. Why Lorelei had stuck with her for so long, Chelsea would never know.
“It hurts,” Chelsea finally said with a sigh, glaring at a Wisp that was approaching her, causing the pink-gold orb to zip away. “Every time I touch them. I don’t know why.”
“Where does it hurt?” Lorelei asked. The two girls kept a ways back behind Gwen, Delilah, and Isabelle, and spoke softly so they wouldn’t be overheard.
Chelsea almost said her fingers, but that wasn’t it. To test it one more time, Chelsea brushed her hand against a fuzzy grey wisp, and she felt it once more.
“My heart,” she said. “It’s kind of like what Isabelle’s music did to me. It’s like loneliness and heartbreak given physical form, stabbing right into my chest.”
Lorelei was silent for several paces, eyes on the grass and flowers that she walked over. She looked up, ran her hand along the top of a pulsing, lime-green Wisp, and she came away from it grinning from ear to ear. But it was a brief expression, before she resumed thoughtfulness.
“I think they try to attune themselves with others,” Lorelei said. “They’re looking for someone to give them purpose, right? So they’re kind of probing us, trying to understand and then reflect our own emotional states and desires.”
“So I’m just a lonely, heartbroken basket case, then?” Chelsea asked.
Lorelei looked at her with sympathy. “You’re emotionally intense,” she said. “And now Caleb’s gone, and you don’t know when you’re going to see him again… I don’t know. I don’t know exactly how you feel. But I can guess. And I know you have a lot going on in there. So maybe all the pain you already have is resonating with the Wisps you touch, but that only amplifies the pain – and why wouldn’t it?”
“Well, then I’ll be glad when we get out of this place,” Chelsea said, scaring away another Wisp with a glare. “I just… I just want to help Isabelle find her stupid library, and then hopefully Caleb will be back.”
Lorelei chuckled. “When did you become invested in getting Isabelle home?” she asked.
Chelsea shrugged. “What’s it matter?” she asked.
“I’m just saying,” Lorelei said. “It seems like that girl has grown on you.”
Looking ahead at Isabelle, who was dancing along, laughing and happily conversing with Gwen and Delilah, Chelsea smiled. Of course she’d grown on her. Who wouldn’t be won over by the girl’s ridiculous happiness and innocence?
But she shook her head. “It’s not just that,” she said. “Caleb… he promised her that he’d get her home. Now he’s not here, so… somebody’s gotta do it.”
Lorelei nudged Chelsea with her shoulder. “Don’t act so tough,” she said, smiling. “Nothing wrong with trying to help a little girl. And nothing wrong with having an emotional reason for it.”
“I’m not acting tough,” Chelsea said. “I don’t feel very tough right now, honestly. I just want to finish this, get Caleb back, and go home.”
“We’ll get there,” Lorelei said. “And I’ve got your back the whole way.”
Chelsea smiled. “Thanks.”
Naturally, that moment of peace and comfort was when everything suddenly exploded into chaos. Isabelle screamed into the night, and Chelsea looked up to see…
The mysterious woman had vanished when she’d gotten off the ship, and now she was back, racing into the distance with Isabelle screaming in her arms. Gwen and Delilah were already running after her, along with Delilah’s Feline Summons, but Anastasia was so fast.
Joining the pursuit, Chelsea realized why Anastasia had looked so familiar to her.
“She’s the woman from the library,” she said as she pushed her Enhancement Magic to its limits, running faster than any human could. “How did we miss it?”
“Because she wasn’t wearing her hat and scarf,” Lorelei said, matching Chelsea’s speed. “And because we never got a good look at her eyes. I’d recognize them anywhere.”
Chelsea agreed. She’d looked into Anastasia’s eyes once at the library, when Lorelei had the woman encased in ice. They seemed to shimmer with their own magic, and had a completely unfamiliar violet hue to them.
Anastasia, Chelsea remembered, had been insanely fast and strong, likely a result of a focus in Enhancement Magic. So even with Chelsea and Lorelei quickly outpacing Gwen and Delilah, they still had to watch as Anastasia continued to gain ground, while Isabelle’s screaming grew more and more distant.
“Can you handle her?” Lorelei asked, her Talisman glove on her right hand. “If I can stop her, can you handle her one-on-one until the rest of us reach you?”
“Of course I can,” Chelsea said, eyes gleaming with determination.
“Can you do it without burning Isabelle?” Lorelei asked.
“I can do precision bursts,” Chelsea shot back. “Can you stop her or what?”
“I think so,” Lorelei said. “In five seconds, she’s all yours.”
Chelsea continued running forward as Lorelei stopped to focus. Two seconds, then three, and Anastasia was almost out of sight. Four… five…
There! Lorelei came through, as ice shot up from the ground, encasing Anastasia’s legs and bringing her to a sudden stop. She quickly broke free, but Lorelei’s aim was true, and ice continued to form up, keeping Anastasia stuck to one spot.
Just a little bit longer… Chelsea urged silently, as her magic-enhanced speed had her coming up on Anastasia and Isabelle incredibly fast. Even then, it didn’t feel fast enough. Three seconds? Maybe four? It feels like forever!
And then Chelsea was there. She leapt up and over Anastasia, spinning and flipping in the air. A silver lighter in each hand, Chelsea sent forth lances of emerald flame, each as sharp and as thin as a needle. Two missed as Anastasia dodged with her enhanced speed, but one hit her exactly where Chelsea wanted – along her ankle. Anastasia tumbled into a roll, somehow managing to keep Isabelle in her arms and safe from harm.
So she wants her alive and unhurt, Chelsea noted as she landed on the grass. That’s helpful.
In that brief moment as Chelsea recovered from her landing – she’d jumped higher than she’d intended, so landing was a bit rougher than usual – Anastasia surged towards her, leaping off of her uninjured leg.
It was a distance of thirty feet, yet Anastasia crossed that in a single horizontal bound, spinning into a sweeping kick. Chelsea jumped, but her feet still went out from under her, sending her tumbling in midair.
Oh no you don’t! Chelsea used a wall of flame to block Anastasia’s next attack, forcing the woman back, then landed on her feet. She surrounded Anastasia with a flaming cylinder, capping it off on top before the woman could leap up and over it. Then she jumped up into the trees, giving herself a vantage point.
With Anastasia’s speed, there was no way Chelsea could fight her on flat, open ground. But now that she was contained, and Chelsea had the high ground, things could turn in Chelsea’s favor.
Just as she was thinking that and readying her next attack, Anastasia spun within her flaming prison, lashing out with her injured leg. Her long, spiked heels glowed with white light as she blew apart the fire and looked around for where Chelsea had gone.
Her shoes are her Talismans? Never seen that one before. But now Chelsea knew to especially watch out for Anastasia’s kicks. If she was focusing on attacking with her feet at close range, then she wasn’t just strong in Enhancement Magic – she was a combatant skilled with Confrontation Magic.
That put Chelsea in quite the bind. She thrived on keeping her distance and blasting her foes with fiery destruction from relative safety. Since Anastasia was holding Isabelle in her arms, Chelsea couldn’t let loose like she liked to. And since the woman was so insanely fast, she could negate any distance that Chelsea put between them.
Hey, Lorelei? Scratch that. I can’t take her alone. Hurry up and get over here, okay? Thanks.
“No one needs to die here,” Anastasia said, startling Chelsea. She had a strong, beautiful voice, with none of the harshness that Chelsea had expected. And those violet eyes glaring up at her – they didn’t seem as cold and vicious as Chelsea had first supposed.
“What, scared?” Chelsea asked, regaining her composure. She shot a quartet of flaming needles, which Anastasia dodged, zipping ten feet to the side in an instant.
“Not in the slightest,” Anastasia said, grinning up at Chelsea. “But my master wants this girl as soon as possible. Killing you and your friends would waste valuable time.”
“Don’t get cocky,” Chelsea retorted, sending more precise shots of flame Anastasia’s way. The woman dodged three, but was struck by the fourth in the shoulder. She barely showed any signs of pain or injury, leaping up towards Chelsea in a spinning kick.
Chelsea jumped, leaving behind her branch for a new one, watching as Anastasia’s spike heel ripped through her previous perch, shattering it into splinters in an instant. Firing back with flame shots, Chelsea found herself frustrated and on the back foot as Anastasia alternated between avoiding Chelsea’s shots, tanking through them while showing no signs of pain, and viciously destroying every spot that Chelsea tried to attack her from.
Why did Lorelei’s ice stop? Chelsea wondered as she found herself on the grass below, dodging behind a tree as her assailant’s heeled boot smashed a large chunk of its trunk into oblivion. And where are Delilah’s Felines? They were moving so fast before.
Am I actually on my own?
Chelsea had fought hundreds of Hollows – maybe even thousands. And even on the first day of her internship as a Hunter, she hadn’t been afraid. She was powerful, and could eliminate Hollows with ease. She’d only ever been afraid in a battle twice – once when Caleb had been poisoned by a Piper, and then not that long ago, when Caleb had collapsed on Hollow Island.
This was the first time Chelsea had ever feared for her own life.
A wall of flame was turned to vapors by Anastasia’s vicious offensive. Fiery vortexes became nothing but smoke from spinning heel kicks.
Chelsea jumped, ducked, dodged, and ran, but wherever she went, Anastasia found her. She couldn’t keep distance from her foe, and her own offense was torn to shreds until Chelsea was forced into a fighting retreat.
Jumping over a kick, Chelsea mistimed her evasive maneuver, and felt her ankle explode into pain as she was sent spinning round and round, flying over the grass until she slammed painfully onto it, rolling across it to a painful stop.
Biting back a scream, Chelsea found she couldn’t get her feet under her. Her ankle was almost definitely broken, and she was struck by such dizziness and vertigo that she couldn’t rise up. Lying in a bed of flowers, Chelsea could only watch in abject terror as Anastasia sauntered towards her. The red-haired girl in her arms was unconscious, but otherwise seemed unhurt. Despite a dozen burned holes along Anastasia’s arms, legs, hips, and back, she seemed completely unhurt, and she looked down at Chelsea with a sympathetic smile.
“Care to give up?” she asked. “I’ll spare your life. As I said, no one needs to die here.”
“You first,” Chelsea said, glaring up at her foe.
Anastasia let out a long, dramatic sigh. “You don’t need to play the hero,” she said. “You can’t fight anymore. Don’t you value your own life?”
“I have something I need to do,” Chelsea said softly, more to herself than Anastasia.
As Anastasia came in for the killing blow, an orange blur dashed towards her, stepping forward in a sword thrust, aiming his blade towards Anastasia’s arm.
The woman turned into a cyclone of motion, spinning into a kick so strong that Felix seemed to simply vanish, struck away into the distance. Green arrows came raining down, and Anastasia leapt away, kicking aside Nekoma’s chain flail and then dashing towards the purple knight. A swift kick to the chest sent Nekoma to join Felix far in the distance.
Ice rose up around Anastasia’s legs, but she dashed away. Lorelei was on the scene now, blasting cold winds Anastasia’s way while forming ice walls to protect her from powerful counterattacks. Redmond continued to rain arrows down at the woman from the trees, while Delilah floated overhead on her magical platform.
But it wasn’t enough. Chelsea could see that very clearly. Anastasia must be a slow starter in combat, because now she was faster and more ruthless and aggressive than Chelsea had seen. Lorelei evaded attacks by a hair’s breadth, and nothing seemed to phase or slow down Anastasia for more than a fraction of a second.
We’re all going to die, Chelsea realized, staring in horror at the failing battle before her. Unless… I have to do something. I can’t stand, but… if I could just…
Then, Chelsea felt that pain in her heart, the same she felt every time she touched a Wisp. Wincing, she looked down, and saw a glowing white blob surrounding her twisted, broken ankle.
“What are you doing?” Chelsea asked, her voice weak with pain on two fronts. “Get away – stop it!”
But the Wisp wouldn’t leave. It enveloped her ankle, pulsed three times, and then slowly let go. As Chelsea felt the pain in her heart ebb, she realized that her ankle was also healed, and that the pain there was gone as well.
“You…” Chelsea stared at the white Wisp, as it bobbed in the air before her eyes. It didn’t want to leave. “What do you want?”
The Wisp squished into itself, and then expanded, a small portion of it extending like a fingerless hand. Chelsea reached out tentatively, until her index finger touched against the Wisp.
Emotions surged through her, and Chelsea realized… none of them were hers. While other contact with Wisps had brought out her own pain and anguish, all she felt now was what the Wisp felt.
Loneliness. Heartache. Fear. Loss.
A desperate sense of longing, of doing something valuable for another.
“You… we’re…” Chelsea was breathless at the torrent of feelings and impressions flowing over to her. “I… we’re the same.”
Not the same in all ways, of course, she realized that. But emotionally, she felt in this Wisp the same fragility and desperation that she often felt in herself. This small, simple white blob of light was in pain. And in that pain, it wasn’t reaching out to Lorelei, the one so great at comforting others. It wasn’t reaching out Delilah, the girl who could command three Summons at once.
It was reaching out to Chelsea.
“What can I do for you?” she asked the Wisp, feeling tears form in her eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I can’t help you. I’m as much a mess as you are. Get out of here. It’s dangerous.”
But in the silence that followed Chelsea’s speech, she felt emotions and impressions form into words, speaking softly, like a bare whisper, straight into her heart:
You’re the only one.
The only one for what, it didn’t say. But Chelsea could guess, and the idea that this small little thing full of pain and longing would think of Chelsea as the only one for it, the only one that could heal its heart and give it strength, left Chelsea nearly speechless. She looked away from the tiny Wisp towards the desperate losing battle against Anastasia, and then back to the Wisp.
“You have to help them,” she said. “Promise me. Promise me you can save Isabelle and my friends. If you can do that, then I’ll take you. I’ll make sure you’re never alone again.”
The Wisp bobbed, as if nodding, but then sent a wordless question into Chelsea’ heart.
“A name?” Chelsea asked, laughing despite herself. “You kidding me? You want me to give you a name when I need you to go fight right now?” But the Wisp was determined, latching onto Chelsea emotionally and not going anywhere else.
A name… well, you’re the same color as Caleb’s magic. His chains, his cages, his discs… you have the exact same white color. It’s uncanny. Would calling you… look, do I ever have to speak your name out loud, or can I keep it a secret?
Wordless assurance flooded into Chelsea’s heart.
Chelsea smiled in her tears. “Fine then,” she said. “You have your name. Now go kick some butt.”
The Wisp finally made audible noise then, emitting a musical cry filled with impressions of hope and life and purpose. Once a shining white ball, it now transformed, until it melded into a being thrice as large as it had started, and half Chelsea’s size.
White wings burst forth, sprinkling white motes of light all around. A body like a barn owl, with a round face and big, black eyes came into being, and the Wisp – Chelsea’s new Summon – took flight, clutching long, winding chains in its talons.
Dashing forward, crying out with that musical voice that seemed to speak directly to Chelsea’s heart, her Summon flew over Anastasia. One set of chains lashed out from the owl’s right foot, lashing Anastasia’s arms away from Isabelle. Another set of chains reached out more gently from the owl’s left foot, picking up the unconscious Isabelle and pulling her up and away from Anastasia.
The woman broke free from the Summon’s chains, but that was enough time for Chelsea to rise to her feet, hold up both lighters, and unleash a barrage of controlled, fiery fury. Anastasia leapt away, only to be beset by icy spears flashing through the air towards her. Dodging from that only brought her into the range of Nekoma and Felix, now recovered and attacking with combined fury.
Kicking, leaping, dashing, and dodging, Anastasia was only pushed farther and farther away from Isabelle, who was carried by Chelsea’s Summon to be laid gently in the grass next to her. Chelsea met Anastasia’s eyes and sent her a wordless challenge with her gaze.
Come and get her. If you can.
Anastasia glared at Chelsea, and then cast her a fleeting smile. Turning aside from Felix’s sword thrust, Anastasia raced in the opposite direction, fleeing the battle, and leaving Isabelle safely in Chelsea’s care.
Chelsea found herself smiling as she pocketed her lighters and held out an arm. Her owl circled around her, and then landed on that outstretched arm, folding his wings and looking at Chelsea with those big, black eyes.
You’re so light, Chelsea realized, smiling up at her Summon. You look big and strong and heavy, but… you’re almost weightless.
“I did say not to get too attached,” Gwen said, joining the group and fixing Chelsea with an amused look. “But it seems you knew exactly what you were doing.”
“Not really,” Chelsea said, still looking up at her owl. “But I had some help. And it all worked out.”
“What’s his name?” Delilah asked, excitement clear in her voice.
Chelsea laughed, bring her arm closer and reaching up to scratch her owl on the chin.
“It’s a secret,” she said.
As Delilah and Lorelei groaned, Chelsea just smiled.
Thank you, she said silently to her Summon. And she felt him respond with thanks of his own. She chuckled. We both saved each other, huh? I like the sound of that.
“I bet I know his name,” Lorelei whispered, leaning on Chelsea’s shoulder.
Chelsea sighed. “I’m sure you do,” she said, raising her arm and watching her owl take flight. “You have a knack for stuff like that.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone,” Lorelei said.
Chelsea smiled. “Thanks,” she said.
Watching her Summon fly circles overhead, letting out musical cries of joy, Chelsea found herself relishing in a brief moment of peace. Finally, if only for this one moment in time, she felt calm and at ease.