Struggling for a moment, Shias was assuaged by the voice that spoke in his ear.
“It’s me, you guys.”
“Caleb!” Shana said excitedly when the hand came off of her and Shias’ mouths.
Sure enough, their assailant had been their older brother. Tall and broad-shouldered, with plenty of laugh lines even at just twenty-two years old, and a complexion that every day inched closer to “rugged,” Caleb was looking at the twins with a mixture of amusement and puzzlement.
“What are you two sneaking around for?” he asked.
“We’re detectives!” Shana replied before Shias could even open his mouth.
“We’re following Rae,” Shias added.
Caleb leaned around the corner. “She does look suspicious, doesn’t she?” he asked.
“You’re not gonna stop us, are you?” Shana asked, her expression beginning to morph towards a pout.
Caleb flashed a crooked grin. “Heck no. I’m gonna help you. Come on. I know a better way to stay out of her sight.”
The twins followed Caleb down the street after Rae, checked on her location, and then went down an alley that ran parallel to the street Rae had turned onto. “Here we go,” Caleb said, climbing a stone staircase that ran up two stories, to a walkway along the roofs of the buildings to their right – the ones in between them and their target.
“Stay low,” Caleb said softly. He stepped up from the walkway, along the slanted rooftop, so that he could see over to the other side, and Shias and Shana followed suit, walking in a crouch, moving slowly so as not to lose their footing on the ceramic roof tiles.
Thankfully, Rae wasn’t moving quickly. Just like she had been for nearly an hour now, she stopped frequently. Casting a wary, wide-eyed gaze around in all directions, she looked jittery, her hands often shaking. Twice she nearly dropped the box she was holding so tightly, and three times she tripped and very nearly face-planted before managing to either pivot and fall on her butt, or stumble and get her feet under her to avoid falling entirely.
“She’s not very good at this,” Shias said.
“But she’s jumpy,” Caleb said, moving and watching with careful seriousness. “You stay on the street at her level, and she’s more likely to see you. And if she did see you, there’s a chance we’d never find out where she’s going.”
“So she’d give up?” Shana asked.
Caleb nodded. “At least for a while. Wherever she’s going and whatever she’s carrying, it likely wasn’t her idea.”
“So someone put her up to it?” Shias asked. He took a close look at his mousey friend. She certainly didn’t look confident or focused, but that was also in her nature. He would have said that aloud, but Caleb had met Rae several times and commented, much to Rae’s dismay, on those same traits.
“What do you think she’s carrying?” Shana asked.
Caleb chuckled. “You’re so excited,” he replied.
“That’s because being a detective and learning from you is super fun!”
Grinning as he watched over the roofs, Caleb stopped for a moment, as Rae had below. “I’m not sure what that is,” he said. “The box is a strange shape and size. I can’t…” Caleb suddenly went silent, and watching him, Shias thought his older brother looked like he’d landed on an idea.
“What is it?” he asked.
Caleb shook his head, composing himself. “I can’t be sure. I hope I’m wrong.”
“This is so cool,” Shana said, completely unable to read the mood, a giant grin on her face.
“Shias, you didn’t try divining what’s in it?” Caleb asked.
Shias blinked, stunned. He let out a slow sigh. “No,” he said glumly.
A strong hand on his shoulder, Shias looked up to see Caleb smiling at him. “Don’t sweat it. Just give it a shot now.”
Shias nodded, pulling out his pen and removing the cap. It didn’t glow or shine with magic, but it didn’t need to for this. Shias just needed his Talisman – a necessary tool for harnessing and wielding magic – in hand for this. Keeping his eyes focused on the box in Rae’s trembling arms, Shias dug into one of the two classes of magic he was training to specialize in: Divination.
Divination wasn’t, as many thought at a glance, about reading or seeing the future. That was impossible. Divination was a class of magic that focused on “divining,” or discerning, the unknown. It relied on analysis, observation, and seeing through to the truth of the matter.
That made it right up Shias’ alley.
The world, for Shias, took on a colorless, black and white tint. The box in Rae’s hands radiated a dark shroud from it. Shias focused, his vision zooming in closer, aiming to penetrate the shroud of darkness. Commonly associated with Illusion magic, Divination was the perfect way to see through this lie, and Shias was quite good at this.
Except… he couldn’t. The closer his vision grew to the shrouded box, the more of a struggle it was for him to continue zooming his vision in closer. Repelled, Shias was stunned.
What kind of magic is this?
“Anything?” Caleb asked softly.
Shias let out a breath, returned his vision to normal, capping his pen. “No,” he said. “There’s an intense dark shroud around the box, and… I can’t see past it.”
“It’s crazy strong, then,” Caleb said. He smiled at Shias. “You gave it your best. Even masters of Divination can’t see through everything.”
“She’s moving again,” Shana whispered.
“And so shall we,” Caleb replied, grinning. They continued on along the roofs, curving around to the right, until Rae stopped again. Shana and Shias both sucked in a quick breath as they realized where they were.
“Grimoire’s Grimoires?” Shana asked. “She… she looks like that’s where she wants to go.”
Rae stood outside the bookshop, package in hand, staring uncertainly at the entrance. She shifted side to side on her feet, glancing around and then back at the entrance.
“What would she want there?” Shias asked.
“Wanna get a closer look?” Caleb asked. He pulled his silver pocket watch out, spinning it by its chain and grinning.
“But you can’t use magic if regular people will see you,” Shias said, puzzling over Caleb’s idea.
Caleb held up a finger. “We won’t be seen.”
“How?” Shana asked, eyes full of wonderment.
“C’mere, you two,” Caleb said, wrapping an arm around each of their waists. “We’re gonna take a short trip.”
“Wha –” Shias started to ask, but then the world changed. Everything seemed to slow to a crawl, and then to a complete standstill. Colors faded, losing their vibrant sheen, and Shias could hear his own heartbeat, slower than he could imagine.
Shias knew Caleb could use Time magic, but being able to pass on the effects of that magic – to share the sensation of time’s flow altering – with others? Shias never imagined he could do something like that.
And then they were weightless. Caleb had leapt from the roof, clearly using Enhancement magic to give himself a superhuman leap. With Shias in one arm and Shana in the other, Caleb ferried them through the air, leaping across the gap between them and the roof of Grimoire’s Grimoires.
The time in the air felt like hours. Or was it days? Time was… Shias shuddered. His head felt fuzzy. Down below, Rae looked like a doll, not blinking, not shaking, not moving the slightest bit. Their time in the air took them past a cardinal in flight – the bird looked like it was hanging from an invisible wire, both wings in the middle of a downbeat, feathers in a strange pattern from the wind ruffling them.
How often did Caleb see the world like this? Did he always slow time down this far? It was like time was stopped entirely, and yet Shias still had his awareness, could move his eyes, even if everything else was happening so slowly. Slowing, or even stopping, time itself – it seemed like it would be simple. Things stop moving, and you don’t. But this… it was paradoxical. Light itself had bent and shifted and lost some of its hue. Shias didn’t… his mind was beginning to blur. Keeping his thoughts together was becoming an exercise in futility. The world felt… compressed. Heavy. Dark. Distorted.
And then, all of a sudden, as if it had lasted for only an eye blink, the world was back to normal, and the three Greyson siblings were crouched down on top of Grimoire’s Grimoires’ roof.
“Caleb,” Shana said softly, swaying on her feet. “Maybe… don’t do that again?”
Caleb rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “I’ve never tried that with passengers before,” he admitted. “Guess I’m too used to the effects of time distortion. How weird was it?”
“On a scale of one to ten?” Shana asked. She held up seven fingers. “Seven billion.”
Caleb chuckled, though he looked perturbed. “Okay. I’ll try to avoid doing that in the future. Shias? You okay?”
Shias was staring at the tiles beneath his feet, and for several moments after the question was asked, words still wouldn’t come.
“That… was fascinating,” he finally said in a hushed voice. “And you see that all the time?”
Caleb smiled. “Yep. Every night.”
“So, what do we do now?” Shana asked.
“We watch,” Caleb replied, crouching even lower and leaning up over a strange indent in the roof.
That’s right – the shop has a skylight. Shias always found it a charming piece of architecture, especially when it rained. A perfect square ten feet in diameter, it was easy to peer over and get a wide view of the shop’s interior.
Rae entered the store, stepping up to the main counter. She showed the box to Kemma Frei, one half of the married pair that owned Grimoire’s Grimoires. She looked shocked, and covered over the box as she looked around the store.
“Making sure there’s no one else,” Caleb said softly. “Definitely something fishy going on here.”
Now comfortable that they weren’t being watched (or so they thought), Kemma uncovered the box and eyed it closely. She nodded thoughtfully as she ran a finger along it, then pulled a tape measure that was far too stylish for a tape measure from her pocket. With a burnished bronze casing covered in silver filigree, it stood out from the tape measure crowd in a big way. She pressed the measure to the box, and the silver lining on the box turned to vapor, which Kemma blew away gently. Returning the tape measure to her pocket, she lifted the lid of the box, and…
Caleb let out an audible gasp of shock as the contents of the box were revealed.
“Some kind of… flute?” Shias asked, trying to see as well as he could.
“A Piper’s Flute,” Caleb said softly.
“You mean, like… Pipers, as in, the Hollows?” Shias asked, starting to gather what Caleb was so shocked about.
Caleb nodded. “Exactly that.”
“But don’t they use those flutes to lure away children?” Shana asked, and then she gasped. “Wait… is that what all the missing kid’s posters are about lately? They’ve all been taken by Pipers?”
“That’s right,” Caleb said, glaring through the skylight at the flute. “I can’t imagine what Kemma wants with an intact flute, but it can’t be anything good. They’re supposed to be destroyed as soon as they’re found.”
“So… what now?” Shias asked, fearing the answer. Were they going to have to confront Rae? What was she caught up in?
Caleb leaned back from the skylight. “Nothing yet,” he said. “We need to tell mom and dad. I… I don’t know what else yet. The Freis are part of the Archivist Guild. Maybe they have a good reason for having it, but…”
“You said they’re supposed to be destroyed,” Shias said.
Caleb nodded. “Just like all other Hollow remains and accessories, once retrieved, they’re supposed to be turned in to an Appraiser, and then the Appraiser destroys them. That includes Piper’s Flutes. Get back!” Caleb quickly grabbed the twins and pulled them back away from the skylight.
“Do you think they saw us?” Shana asked, her voice tinged with fear.
Caleb smirked. “I can find out.” His form seemed to blur, for just a moment, and then he was normal. “Doesn’t look like it. Kemma was just handing Rae some money. Looks like a hefty sum.”
“Like a –” Shana began, but then Caleb started walking to the other side of the roof.
“We should talk somewhere less conspicuous,” he said, chuckling. “Come on, there’s a path down to the street.”
“You don’t want to tell the rest of the Hunters?” Shias asked. They had made their way back to the ground, and were walking the streets in the general direction of the Greyson manor.
“Dunno,” Caleb said, buttoning his jacket as a chill breeze swept over them. “I would, except that Kemma and Reltas might get in trouble – not to mention Rae. Mister Crowley isn’t known for leniency when mages break laws that he personally wrote and voted for.”
Jacob Crowley was the head of the Hunter Guild – which would make him Caleb’s boss. But Caleb wouldn’t be worried about upsetting his superiors. It’s specifically because it was Jacob Crowley that Caleb worried.
Shias couldn’t blame him. He’d only met the man twice, but both times he’d been unnerved by the head Hunter. It didn’t help that Jacob Crowley had it out for the Greysons’ parents, the former Hunter Guild heads who had since moved on to higher positions – positions that Crowley made quite clear he coveted. But he had an aura about him, a stern and angry demeanor that made Shias always careful to keep his distance.
“So we just tell mom and dad,” Shana said. “They’ll know what to do.”
Caleb grinned. “That’s right.”
“Why are you still walking with us, anyway?” Shana asked. “Don’t you have work to do or something?”
Caleb feigned looking hurt. “Can’t a big brother check in on his younger siblings now and then?” he asked.
“I guess so,” Shana said, playing at aloofness for a moment, before grinning. “Are you coming to visit? Are you staying long? Can you stay for dinner?”
“Yes, maybe, and yes,” Caleb said with a laugh. “And I don’t have work. Nearly all of my scheduled work is after the sun sets.”
“What about Chelsea?” Shana asked excitedly, eyes bright. “Can she come over for dinner, too?”
“I’ll have to ask, but… well… I had a bit of plan. It’s limited only to Greysons, though – specifically you two, Delilah, and me.”
“A plan? What kind of plan?” Shana asked, bouncing on her feet.
“You guys visited Fae any time recently?”
“We were just talking about that earlier,” Shias said. “Nope. We were thinking about it, though.”
“Wait, you want the full power of the Greyson siblings to go after our wayward sister?” Shana asked, her excitement building by the millisecond. “Really? Truly? That’s a great idea!”
Caleb burst out laughing. “I like the way you put that,” he said. “Yeah. That’s the plan.”
“Because you don’t have enough confidence to go visit her alone,” Shias said, rolling his eyes.
“She can be scary, you know,” Caleb shot back. “Dunno why she’s so distant, but I was hoping you guys could help me.”
“Specifically Shana, right?” Shias asked, chuckling.
“Why me?” Shana asked, eyes wide with curiosity.
“Because Fae loves you,” Caleb and Shias said, nearly in unison.
“I wish!” Shana said. “But she never calls or texts or anything! I just… I want to know what’s wrong. The last time I saw her, she seemed so sad. And angry.”
Shias let out a long sigh. “I wish I knew, too,” he said softly, staring up at the sky, as clouds rolled through the fields of blue.
“Make that three,” Caleb said, sighing like Shias. “I probably should have stepped up sooner, planned something months ago. But I kept calling and texting and trying to get a hold of her, but –”
“You’ve been calling and texting her?” Shana asked suddenly. “But… but…” She huffed, stared down at her feet. “I should have, too. I’ve been waiting for her to make the first move.”
“Well, we have a plan, now,” Shias said. “No sense mulling over the past. Let’s just make sure we do this right.” He cast a look at Caleb. “When were you planning on going over?”
“Are mom and dad home?” Caleb asked.
“Not when we left,” Shana said. “They were out with Delilah, but…” She pulled out her phone, checking the time. “They might be back by now.”
“If they are, maybe we should put off talking about the Flute,” Caleb said. “Just pick up Delilah and head over to the Academy. If we can catch Fae, maybe we could even get her to come to dinner.”
Shias laughed, a soft, bitter sound. “We can try,” he said.
“Hey, why do you think Rae had the Flute?” Shana asked.
Caleb pursed his lips in thought, then offered a shrug. “Someone probably put her up to it. The Freis may not even be the ones who actually want the Flute. It could be passing from Rae to Kemma, and then from Kemma to two or three or four other people, before it gets where it’s supposed to go. And whoever started it likely doesn’t want to be known if the Flute is discovered. So they put Rae up to it, thinking she’d be the best able to feign innocence and ignorance.”
“She’d be good at that,” Shias said, nodding.
“But… it’s like a huge conspiracy!” Shana said, her voice loud enough that people probably heard her four streets over.
“Yes, so let’s just shout it to the whole city, shall we?” Caleb asked, a finger to his lips. “Whatever’s going on, I doubt Rae is actually part of it. She’s just the delivery girl. I just hope whoever actually set this plan in motion has good intentions for the Flute.”
“Can people use a Piper’s Flute?” Shias asked. “I’ve seen pictures of Pipers, and their mouths are really oddly shaped.”
“They are, but…” Caleb scowled. “I don’t know. I don’t know that anyone’s ever actually tried. If humans can, well…”
“Then they could lure kids away and kidnap them,” Shana said, wide-eyed with horror.
“Not just that,” Caleb said. “The Piper’s Flute can also summon Hollows to the Piper’s aid. That’s what makes them so tricky to catch and destroy. If they see trouble, they can bring dozens of Hollows to their side in seconds.”
“So, hypothetically, if a human could use it –” Shias started.
“Let’s not get carried away just yet,” Caleb said, glancing around furtively. “At least, not while we’re out on the streets.”
The conversation died down from there to casual back-and-forth, chatting about this and that, what each of the siblings had missed in the other’s lives. Shias smiled. It had been a few days since he’d last seen Caleb, and it was reassuring having his older brother nearby. It was a good thing he’d shown up in the midst of this – what would Shias and Shana have done, or even been able to do, if they’d followed Rae the entire way alone? Shias held out hope that whatever this conspiracy was, it wouldn’t spiral into something dangerous and cataclysmic.
And yet, he couldn’t deny that the idea made him just a little bit excited.