Delilah walked at the back of the group, as she had tended to do since arriving in the Enchanted Dominion. Her introverted tendencies had been exacerbated by what she viewed as a failure on her part in their most recent struggle.
Anastasia had swooped in and stolen away Isabelle, and Delilah had been nearly useless.
Even with three Summons and several years of intensive training, it wasn’t Delilah who made it to the fight first, but Chelsea. And in the midst of the vicious conflict, it was Chelsea and Lorelei who had shown the most skill and usefulness.
Delilah had taken what seemed like ages just to reach Chelsea as she dueled Anastasia alone. She lacked the all-important Enhancement Magic skills of Hunters, so she’d been left in the dust as Chelsea and Lorelei raced ahead at superhuman speed. And then, once she’d joined the fight, it had looked like a total disaster.
Felix couldn’t come close to landing an attack on Anastasia. Nekoma, heavily armored and incredibly strong, had looked like a flimsy ragdoll. Redding, so impressively swift and accurate in the past, had missed with every single shot.
Delilah had then watched in shock as Chelsea’s owl, a brand new Summon just born with no training, swooped in and saved the day.
Delilah didn’t resent or even envy Chelsea for what had happened. She just took these experiences to heart, and that heart was in pain.
When will I be truly useful to my family? Delilah wondered. It seemed like a nearly forgotten dream having Caleb say “I’m proud of you” outside the library.
What had he been proud of?
Chelsea’s owl hadn’t left, and Delilah often founding herself staring at the majestic bird perched on Chelsea’s arm. He was a beautiful creature, even if he had a bit of an ominous appearance. The chains he had carried in his talons into battle were now wrapped about his legs and body.
Delilah couldn’t help but notice that the glowing white chains looked a lot like the ones Caleb used in his Containment Magic.
With doubts and wonders clouding her mind, Delilah nearly bumped into Chelsea as the group came to a stop.
“Here’s our exit,” Gwen said. She stood at the lead of the group. Right in front of her were two trees that had grown up alongside each other. Even their higher branches had twined together, making the space between the two trees look like a doorway. “I’m not sure where it goes – the fight with Anastasia means we lost our window to cross over to Eventide Archive. There’s no telling where we’ll end up now, so be on your guard.”
“We’ve got that handled,” Chelsea said, confidence thick in her voice. She looked up at her owl, grinning.
“We’re ready,” Lorelei said with a nod.
How are they so confident? Delilah wondered. We barely got out of that last fight alive, and yet they’re so… calm.
Gwen nodded, stepping into the space between the trees, vanishing instantly.
“That is so weird,” Chelsea murmured, staring in awe.
“I wanna go!” Isabelle said, raising her hand. She skipped forward, vanishing through the space. Lorelei followed, and then Chelsea, and Delilah was left staring at the opening all alone.
“Guess I… should go, too,” she said softly, taking a tentative step forward. She shook her head vigorously.
Snap out of it. Don’t be so down in the dumps. It’s gonna be fine. Try to be like Caleb.
One more step and she passed between the trees… and was instantly blinded.
It had been nighttime as they’d walked through the Wood of the Wisps, and yet with all of the Wisps bobbing around with their own light, Delilah hadn’t noticed how dark it had been. Now daylight hit her with such sudden force that she could barely see, squinting with her hand in front of her face.
“Sorry,” came Gwen’s voice. “Day and night are different through the Dominion, so I had no idea what we’d be stepping into.”
“I thought my eyes were gonna die,” Chelsea said with a groan.
“It sure is beautiful here, though,” Lorelei said. Apparently her eyes had adjusted. “Do you know where we are, Gwen?”
“Oh, yes,” Gwen said, and Delilah could hear in her voice a nostalgic joy. “Welcome to my home.”
Delilah blinked, rubbing at her eyes, and then she could see. Shapes and color came into being, and soon she was looking at a picturesque cottage atop a grassy hill. Lilacs sprang up out of the ground everywhere in shocking number, lending a beautiful aroma to the air.
“You live here?” Isabelle asked, racing a few steps up along the dirt path leading to the cottage, then turning around and staring in shock at Gwen. “Really?”
Gwen laughed, nodding. “I do indeed, little one,” she said.
“It’s so pretty!” Isabelle cried, giggling as she stuck her face into a bunch of lilacs, taking a deep whiff and then reeling back, stunned by the scent.
“I found this hill a long time ago,” Gwen said, leading the way up the path. “Just floating out here all alone, with no one laying claim to it, and not even a name – the Cartographers had never bothered with it, since it was just a simple hill with nothing to it. So I decided to build my home here. I had some lilac seeds, and starting planting, and they took to the soil quite well. I call this place Lilac Hill.”
Gwen’s golden eyes sparkled with joyful brilliance as she spoke. Delilah could feel her love for the place. The hill really was all there was – at its edges on every side, the grass simply stopped, giving way to a white void. The sky overhead seemed more brilliant than the daytime sky over Hollow Island, with a golden tint to it. Blue lights popped and faded here and there, like silent fireworks on a sunny day.
The cottage they walked up towards was larger than it had seemed from the bottom of Lilac Hill. It was two stories tall, with an oddly sized balcony that was accessible from both the first and second floors. A cobbled stone chimney puffed out cheerful little clouds of white smoke.
“When’s the last time you were home?” Isabelle asked.
“Oh, it’s been quite a while,” Gwen said. “I travel a lot, so I’m rarely home. But it’s always good to be back.”
“So what’s the plan from here?” Chelsea asked. She lifted her arm, and her owl Summon went soaring into the sky, his feathers seeming to sparkle in the golden light.
“I thought you might like a short rest,” Gwen said as she stepped up onto the porch and opened her front door. “You’re all dressed for cooler weather, and it’s likely we’ll be sticking to warmer climates, so a change of wardrobe might be in order. Also, I have plenty of delicious food. Perhaps we could sit down for a meal together?”
Delilah couldn’t argue with any of that. She felt like they lacked direction right now – yes, they were trying to help Isabelle get home, and also trying to find a way back to Earth while they were at it, but with Caleb gone and little to no clues of where to go next, it felt like a chance to relax would be welcome.
She couldn’t complain about the change in clothes, either. Lugging around her coat, hat, scarf, and gloves for several hours was wearing on her.
“A break sounds like just what the doctor ordered,” Lorelei said.
“And comfier clothes are always a plus,” Chelsea said, grinning.
Into Gwen’s house the group went. “Let me show you around,” Gwen said, and she began their quick tour of the cottage. Right inside from the front door was a coatrack and a shelf for shoes, so the girls even got to take off their shoes – something that went a long way towards making their first impressions of the place feel homely and welcoming. There weren’t shoes allowed indoors at Greyson Manor either, and that made Delilah both homesick and more comfortable.
To their left as they entered was a simple, rustic kitchen, while to the right was a lovely little dining room with big windows to let in the light and give a wonderful view of the lilacs all along the hill. Straight ahead, they came out into an open area with couches and armchairs, a fireplace with a stone hearth, and a grand piano. Stairs to the right led up to the open-air balcony, and another set of stairs led from the balcony to the second floor.
The balcony was spacious and open to the air, letting a warm breeze blow through. Climbing to the second floor, they found Gwen’s bedroom and a large work space. Gwen’s bedroom was small, with only a dresser and a circular bed that looked delightfully cozy – red sheets and blankets trimmed in gold and a near mountain of plush pillows made Delilah want to dive in, curl up, and not wake up until tomorrow.
Gwen’s work space took up the rest of the second floor. She had several tall, spacious tables designed to be worked at while standing, along with a smaller table lower to the ground with a chair next to it situated next to the largest window on the second floor. Fabric was everywhere, along with a number of other materials – thread, buttons, leather, lace, and different types of patches for embroidery. An amazing variety of pincushions were here, there, and everywhere, in a wide assortment of colors and designs.
“You like to sew,” Chelsea said, prompting Delilah to frantically attempt to suppress a sudden giggle fit.
“I’m a tailor by trade,” Gwen said happily, stepping out into the space and picking up a red and gold pincushion, turning it over in her hands.
“Do you use any magic?” Lorelei asked.
“I can,” Gwen said, “and do, from time to time. But I like the feeling and the accomplishment of working with my hands. Though I will be using magic for you four, since we can’t stay long enough for me to put in the proper time to make outfits for you.”
“You’re going to make me new clothes?” Isabelle asked, looking up at Gwen with wide, sparkling eyes. She still wore nothing but a plain white dress – she didn’t even wear shoes or socks, though her bare feet seemed completely unaffected by the many surfaces they’d walked on. Her feet weren’t even dirty, much to Delilah’s surprise.
“That’s right,” Gwen said, smiling as she ruffled Isabelle’s hair. “So, make yourselves at home.”
“Can I play your piano?” Isabelle asked.
“You like to play?” Gwen asked.
“I love it!” Isabelle said happily.
“Well, would you allow me to play with you?” Gwen asked. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve touched the keys, so I may be rusty, but –”
“Oh yes please!” Isabelle said, taking Gwen’s hand and leading her down the stairs. “I haven’t played a duet in so long!”
As the pair headed downstairs, laughing and talking, Delilah stopped at the balcony, leaning on the rail and looking out over the hill. Lorelei and Chelsea continued further down, leaving Delilah alone with her thoughts.
It really is a wonderful place, she thought, smiling as she sniffed the fragrant aroma of the lilacs. Gwen and Isabelle began to play the piano, starting and stopping here and there as they talked, laughed, and worked on getting into a rhythm. Apparently they weren’t playing from any music, instead just making it up as they went along.
I really don’t know anything about Isabelle, do I? I think… she played a Piper’s Flute outside the library, didn’t she? She tried to counteract Anastasia’s music with her own, and that’s what sent us all to Hollow Island. But even though she plays a Piper’s Flute, she isn’t bad. She’s… kind of refreshing. She reminds me of Shana, in a way. So much energy and curiosity and happiness.
I wonder how Shana’s doing. She and Shias probably know Caleb and I are missing by now. Are they okay? Did they go looking for us? Did they stumble into the Enchanted Dominion in their own way, too? I know Shana would love it in this world, but… I hope they’re still back in Grimoire. Mom and Dad are probably losing their minds already about Caleb and me, they don’t need more of their kids to disappear.
So… what am I going to do?
That was the question that kept coming up for Delilah. She’d been swept off to this world because she couldn’t leave Hunter business to the Hunters. She’d trained a lot against weak little Snifflers and thought that was good enough for her to challenge real danger.
And now… what? Why was she here? Could she even contribute to protecting Isabelle and getting her home? On Hollow Island, her Felines had been woefully unprepared to defend the group against the Hollows. And against Anastasia, she’d been useless.
Should I just ask Gwen to take me home?
That would be remarkably selfish. It would probably derail the rest of the group from getting Isabelle home.
That’s what’s really important. That girl… she’s been gone from home for a really long time. She doesn’t really know how to express or understand time, which makes me think she’s a heck of a lot older than she looks. But she still has the mind of a child. Whatever her age in terms of years is, she’s effectively the youngest of us all, and the most vulnerable.
Plus… Caleb told us not to worry.
He also said to “have fun” but, I mean, that’s classic Caleb.
I thought he just meant not to worry about him, but did he mean not to worry at all? About anything?
Did he sense that I was doubting myself, and tried to offer some encouragement?
If only her brother would come back. But he was off training, because he’d taken his Time Magic too far.
I thought Caleb was invincible.
Gwen and Isabelle’s music had found its way, blending into a delightfully cheerful tune. Without looking, Delilah could tell who was in charge of the melody as the two traded back and forth. At times, the song was driven by a bouncy, bubbly, childish energy that had Delilah tapping her toes despite her mood – Isabelle. Other times, it had this refined, soaring joy, sweeping Delilah into a sense of adventure, wanderlust, and excitement – Gwen. Isabelle’s harmonies when Gwen was in the lead had a percussive, enthusiastic energy, while Gwen played under Isabelle’s bubbly melody with a warm, mature softness, giving the feeling of a mother watching over her young child.
Music really was an infectious thing, Delilah realized, as her doubts and worries started to drift away. She smiled, before she even thought of a reason to smile, and the happy duet brought to mind memories of her and her family. She thought of Caleb hugging her and ruffling her hair, of Shias studying with her, of watching Great Feline Adventures with Shana. She thought of shopping with her parents, and of how she’d sit up on her dad’s shoulders when she was younger, and felt like she was flying.
She thought of when she’d first brought Felix into the world. He was a tiny little swordmeowster then, barely coming up to her knee. And then she thought of the Wood of the Wisps, and all that she’d learned about where her Summons came from.
They all found their purpose in her. If Delilah was directionless, how would they feel? If she felt worthless or like she couldn’t hope to do better, what would they do?
Caleb didn’t smile and laugh so easily because he was perfect or invincible, Delilah realized.
He smiled and laughed because there’s beauty in the world. Because there’s always hope to do better. Because getting down in the dumps about your own weaknesses doesn’t help you improve.
Delilah grinned, leaning out farther over the balcony’s rail, rising up on tiptoe to take in the golden light above, the purple flowers and green grass beyond. Gwen and Delilah continued to play, and the piano’s heartwarming tune did just that – it warmed Delilah’s heart, until she felt full of life and hope and energy.
I’ll do better, she thought. I’m already so much stronger than when I first started training. Caleb said he was proud of me, and he meant it.
I can’t give up now. I have so much farther to go.
Turning back from the rail, Delilah headed downstairs. Chelsea and Lorelei were relaxing on the couch nearest the piano, with Chelsea’s owl perched on the back of the couch right behind her. His wings were tucked in, and he leaned down and forward, cuddling against Chelsea’s hair with his stomach as Chelsea kept one arm up, rubbing her owl’s chin with a finger.
Delilah smiled, taking a seat next to Chelsea. She watched as Gwen and Isabelle played their duet, and she let the music wash away her worries and fears.