“Why don’t we tell mom and dad?” Shias asked.
Shana was staring at him, her expression making it clear how incredulous she thought his suggestion to be. He thought her own suggestion was equally incredulous – that the Dawn Riders go ahead and check out the grove right now, with their training not even close to complete.
“There isn’t time!” Shana insisted, her shortness of breath making it clear she and Kathryn had run the entire way to Greyson Manor.
“But we’re not ready,” Ben said. “And Caleb and Delilah were already missing and you weren’t so urgent then.”
“But Fae isn’t a fighter,” Shana said.
“Neither is Delilah,” Shias said.
“She has a beastly Summon,” Shana said, folding her arms over her chest. “She saved Fae and me outside Grim Night’s the night before she disappeared.”
That was news to Shias. When had Delilah trained?
“Mom and dad would be able to handle things better than us,” Shias said. “Why does it have to be us?”
Of course, he’d been against the Dawn Riders from the start. Why not tell mom and dad? Being the children of two of the most powerful mages in Grimoire had its perks. Shias liked their team and enjoyed training for the sake of training, but things seemed more and more dangerous the more he thought about it. Shana’s plan was crazy, as far as he was concerned.
“Because this was why we formed the Dawn Riders,” Shana said, glaring at Shias. “You agreed to this. You agreed to search for the missing children, and Caleb, and Delilah, and Rae’s dad.”
Shias couldn’t argue with that. He had agreed, against his better judgment.
Shana was too persuasive, at least to him. It was always too hard for him to refuse her. He had a feeling things were going to take that kind of turn once again, which is why he tried his best to fight back.
With plenty of time and proper training, Shana’s plan might be a sound one. But despite their progress so far – and Shias was impressed at how far the group had come in just a few days – they weren’t remotely close to being a team. They could probably handle a single Hollow, depending on what type it was. But what if the grove was crawling with monsters?
Their lives were on the line. Shana realized that, Shias knew she did, but he also knew that she was very emotional about their siblings disappearing. Fae vanishing must have broken her.
“We need more training, Shana,” Shias said. He tried and failed to put on a stern voice. I’m way too soft with her. He knew that for years, but it had never mattered until now.
“One of us could disappear next!” Shana cried, eyes wide and glistening with the beginnings of tears. “Fae’s gone now. What if mom and dad disappear next? What if one of us is gone tomorrow? What is happening and why is everyone disappearing and how do we stop it and why don’t you care about how big this is?” Shana grew more and more intense and urgent the longer she talked, nearly screaming at the end.
“I-I don’t think t-that’s very f-fair to say,” Rae said softly. “I… um… we all know how bad things are. That’s why we’re… you know… training.”
“Shias gets it,” Kathryn said, resting a hand on Shana’s shoulder. “He just doesn’t think there’s anything we can do yet.”
Shana took several deep breaths, letting them out slowly with her eyes closed.
“Please,” she said softly, not opening her eyes. “We have to save them.”
Shias felt it then, the same feeling he felt so often – Shana had won him over. He didn’t agree with her, he didn’t want to do what she asked, but he found himself unable to refuse. He let out a long, reluctant sigh.
“Let’s check out the grove,” he said. Shana looked up in shock, but Shias held up a finger before she spoke. “We’re just doing reconnaissance. You and Altair have been training for that, right? Let’s test out those abilities, see what we can see from a safe distance. We need information before we can act.”
Shana nodded emphatically. “Right,” she said. “Right. Right. We need information. Right. Got it. We can do that.” She smiled, tackling Shias in a hug. “This is why you’re the most important part of the team. You’re the smart one.”
Shias shook his head. You give me way too much credit.
“So… wait, we’re going?” Rae asked, clearly frightened by the possibility. “B-but… we need more training, right?”
“We’re just doing recon,” Ben said with a shrug. “Plus, more information will help us better train for what’s in store for us.”
“We still have a few hours of daylight,” Kathryn said. “And Hollows don’t show up until midnight. We have plenty of time.”
And so the Dawn Riders began packing and changing for the hike up to the grove. Shias had studied the maps of the hiking trails around the grove several times, and he was familiar with a lot of the land up there. The low, forested parts of the mountains east of Grimoire were a favorite spot for him and Shana when they were younger and spent their weekends outdoors, hiking and exploring the “wilderness.”
About an hour of walking from here, Shias thought to himself as he packed a bag. Maps of the area, protein bars, water bottle, flashlight… He didn’t necessarily need the flashlight – forming magic lights was one of the easiest things for a mage – but he felt it was always good to have a backup.
“Thank you,” Shana said to him as they were packing. Shias couldn’t handle her grateful smile, so he swallowed the retort he had ready and just smiled back at her.
Greyson Manor was near the southeastern edge of Grimoire, so the walk to leave the city behind was a short one. Soon, the five members of the Dawn Riders were walking along the sloping, grassy hills up towards the beginnings of the eastern mountains. Open grassland gave way to pine trees galore, and as the five started along one of many hiking paths, the openness of before seemed to suddenly close in, leaving them walking in two lines, sometimes closing in to single file when the path grew especially narrow. Once they were on the paths and out of sight of most people, Shana pulled out her bookmark Talisman and summoned forth Altair. The blue pup was more excitable than usual lately, enjoying his training with Shana, and he constantly dashed ahead, wagging his tail and barking happily.
“This is the way, right?” Ben asked. He had the best eyesight of the group, so he stayed in the lead, with Shias close behind him, map in hand.
“Right,” Shias said, tracing their path on the map with a finger as they walked. It was late October, and the climate tended towards cold around Grimoire, so there were few sounds aside from the five teenagers walking along. Birds had already mostly migrated south, bugs had all hidden away from the chill, and animals like deer, squirrels, foxes, wolves, and bears tended to live away from the paths in more densely forested areas, keeping to themselves.
“We’ll take Grisham’s Stair,” Shias said. “Should see a sign soon enough.”
They did, and hung a left at the fork, hiking a steep incline that led to a rocky set of natural stairs. Shias didn’t know where they’d gotten their name, but he always enjoyed this path to hike along. It started with Grisham’s Stair, then crossed Grossman’s Bridge, wound its way along the banks of Gerta’s Current, and finally ended at the rocky overlook known as Gradle’s Lookout. The names fascinated Shias, and it was such a delightful path. Stairs formed naturally out of the rocks of the mountainside, and Grossman’s Bridge was a stone arch that went up and over a small stream that was always dammed up with a massive beaver-made construct. Even late in the year, beavers could still be seen around Grossman’s Bridge, not a care in the world for the frigid waters as they swam and wrestled and played and chomped away on trees, adding more and more to their dam as it wore away, never letting it lose its massive size and domed shape.
Crossing Gerta’s Current was also up to nature. After heavy rains, Gerta’s current was impassible, leaving Gradle’s Lookout only accessible via a five hour detour. But in the drier fall and winter seasons, there were large rocks poking up from the water, forming an easy enough path to walk across, as long as you were careful. Rae was nervous about it, but Kathryn and Shana helped her along, staying by her side to make sure she didn’t fall. Altair also did his part to assist, staying ahead of the three girls and offering reassuring tail wags as he looked back at them.
Unfortunately, today their path wouldn’t take them all the way to Gradle’s Lookout. They had to veer off on their own detour after crossing Gerta’s Current, following narrow deer paths downhill for nearly a mile before finally coming to a stop.
“The grove is just ahead,” Shias said softly, nodding to Shana. “Just through these trees.”
Shana nodded, kneeling down and scratching Altair’s ears. “Ready, buddy?” she asked. Altair nodded, knowing not to be loud now. Shana grinned, pointing towards the trees and the grove that lay beyond. “Okay. Altair, recon!”
Altair dashed forward, completely silent as he wriggled his way through the densely packed foliage, until even his blue light vanished from sight.
Along with Shana training in Support and Healing Magic, she’d also worked on another role for Altair – that of a scout. Using Divination Magic, she could see whatever Altair saw, hear whatever Altair heard, smell whatever Altair smelled. Right now, Shias’ twin sister had her eyes closed, focusing on the experiences of her Summon.
The wait for information from Shana and Altair was excruciating. Shias did all right, idly studying the map (despite there being no need, now that they’d reached their destination) and occasionally looking up and around at the pine trees.
Ben was his usual anxious self. His fingers wouldn’t stop drumming a staccato rhythm on his pant legs, and several times Kathryn shot him dirty looks, which he pretended not to see.
Rae kept her eyes closed, taking in deep breaths and then letting them out slowly and softly. Shias felt the girl had nothing to worry about, and had done his best to tell her so through their training. She had a shockingly strong Summon in Brutus, and she was also very effectively in command, with a number of attacks and strategies to call upon. She was still a nervous wreck like she always was, but Shias had noticed a slight upswing in her demeanor. She had a bit more confidence, and was more easygoing around her friends.
Shias would never mention it, though. Drawing attention to Rae’s changing behavior would easily crush the natural improvements she’d made so far.
Kathryn was puzzling to Shias. She’d been with Shana when they arrived to deliver the news about Fae’s disappearance. She seemed firmly on Shana’s side – Shias wondered what would have happened if he’d been able to more forcefully deny Shana’s wishes. Kathryn probably would have served as a backup, making it impossible for Shana’s plan to fail.
That was fine. Shias was glad Shana had such a close friend. His sister had always been the social butterfly, easily making and keeping friends, and the loyalty Kathryn had for Shana was a good thing in his mind.
“There are… people,” Shana said slowly, eyes still closed. “This is it, all right. There are mostly kids, but there are a few adults. They’re all wrapped up in some kind of… I can’t tell. Rope? It looks like silver rope. It’s all over the place.” She opened her eyes. “They’re there. And they’re unguarded. We can save them.”
“Hold on a second,” Shias said. “What else can you see? Are Caleb or Delilah or Fae there? Is Rae’s dad there?”
Shana closed her eyes. After a few moments, she shook her head. “I don’t see them,” she said. “There are… there are only about twenty? It’s a lot less than the number of missing kids that Pipers have taken away. But I recognize some of the faces from posters.” Shias could hear the pain in Shana’s voice. “They’re all sleeping or unconscious, but… they all look so frightened. We have to –”
“Shana, we need information,” Shias said quickly. “We can’t just go rushing in there. How big is the space? Are you sure they’re unguarded? Is there anyone awake? What do you hear, or smell?”
It was moments like these that Shias wished he had a Summon. Going through Shana was frustrating to him, because he didn’t know how much information she was skipping in relaying it to the team, or how well she was investigating the space. He felt the need to see it for himself, to examine it with his own eyes and ears. But he had to rely on someone else’s account, and that made his mind race with questions of how reliable her information was.
“I don’t hear anything,” Shana said. “It’s so… so quiet.” She opened her eyes, staring at Shias desperately. “We have to do something. They’re right there.”
“And there are people missing,” Shias said. “There aren’t enough. What happened to the rest? Where is everyone else who’s missing? What if going in there springs a trap? What if there are multiple groves where people are being held, and saving everyone from one means that the rest are moved to somewhere that we might never find them?”
“Stop being so analytical,” Shana said, frustration evident in her voice. “You spend too much time thinking. This is the time for action. Don’t you see?”
Shias was about to continue arguing with her, when Shana turned away, charging into the trees towards the grove. “Shana, wait!” Shias cried out, but it was too late. She was gone, and Kathryn was close behind her, with a determined expression that said she was going in there to help Shana with her plan, not to stop Shana.
“Looks like we’re going,” Ben said, shrugging.
“D-do we have to?” Rae asked. “My dad…”
“We’ll find him,” Shias said, nodding to Rae. “Even if he isn’t here, we’ll figure out where he is and find him. For now, we need to back Shana up. Are you ready?”
“I…” Rae started. She took a deep breath, let it out, then nodded. “I can clear a path. Brutus!”
She summoned her massive Summon, who quickly charged forward, clearing a path with his big, burly arms, shoving aside trees like they were toothpicks. Rae, Ben, and Shias followed close behind. In his hand, Shias held his pen, running through different combat strategies in his mind.
His specialty was Guardian Magic. That meant he really should have been the first one into the grove. He could only hope that Brutus got them there fast enough that he could still defend his sister if danger was springing up.
But Shias’ fears faded as he reached the grove. Brutus stepped aside, revealing Shana and Kathryn standing in the center of the grove, unharmed and looking around. Shias took a look for himself, and his jaw dropped.
He recognized some of the faces, too. These were some of the missing children, ones who had been abducted by Pipers, some several years ago.
Why did they still look the same age as they did in their posters? Five year-olds looked like they hadn’t aged a day in years. That wasn’t normal.
“Don’t,” Shias called out as Shana moved to free one of the kids wrapped up close to the forest floor.
“What are you talking about?” Shana asked, glaring at him. “They need to be rescued.”
“Why are they all still the same age?” Shias asked. “Some of them have posters dating back as much as ten years ago. Why are they still little kids?”
“They’re frozen in time,” came a girl’s voice. Shias held up his pen, spinning slowly around to survey the entire grove.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m sorry,” the voice said. In the center of the grove, a small girl appeared. She was dressed in a simple white dress and nothing else – even her feet were bare. Her apple red hair was long and thick, tumbling down her back nearly to her ankles. “Here I am.” The girl smiled as she spoke. “Hello. No one’s ever come here on their own before. Who are you?”
“We’re the Dawn Riders,” Shana said, and Shias cringed inwardly. Shana was just the person to deliver such an embarrassing proclamation without a hint of awkwardness, though. “We’ve come to save these kids, and everyone else who’s been disappearing from Grimoire.”
The girl pursed her lips, bobbing her head back and forth in thought. “But… do you have to?” she asked.
Her voice sounded so earnest and sad that Shias was taken aback. “We…” he said slowly, his mind racing and considering the current information and possibilities as he spoke, “these children have been stolen from their homes. We need to get them back to their parents. Is there a problem with that?”
“But…” the girl continued, her expression growing pained. “I don’t… these are…”
“What’s your name?” Shana asked. She knelt down in front of the red-haired girl so that their eyes met, and held out a hand. “I’m Shana.”
“I’m… Annabelle,” the girl said, shaking Shana’s hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Annabelle,” Shana said, smiling. “So, what were you saying about the kids tied up here?”
Annabelle shifted on her feet, clearly thinking carefully. “Well, it’s just… these are my friends,” she said.
“They’re all sleeping,” Kathryn said, looking up and around. “And they’re tied up.”
“They’re tucked in,” Annabelle said. “It’s past their bedtime. You should be quieter.”
“Sorry about that,” Shana said, lowering her voice. “So… do you know that your friends’ parents are really worried about them?”
Annabelle shook her head. “I didn’t know that,” she said, her wide eyes staring at Shana with curiosity.
Shias felt more and more uneasy as the conversation went on. Annabelle herself was already strange enough – dressed in a thin, sleeveless dress, and barefoot to boot, outdoors in this cold? Why weren’t her toes turning blue? Why weren’t her cheeks flushed from the cold?
And why was she talking about the kids as if everything was fine? They were very clearly not “tucked in” – they were kidnapped, wrapped up and tied to trees.
“Do they have to go home?” Annabelle asked. “I… I’m lonely here.”
“I can come visit you,” Shana said. “But I need your help, first. I need to take these kids back home, but there should be more, too. Do you know of any other children or adults who are tucked in like these?”
Annabelle shifted on her feet, and that’s when Shias felt his uneasiness spike. Annabelle was lying. He was certain of it.
But he was also certain that Annabelle wasn’t lying of her own will. That uneasy gaze, the way she thought really hard about answering questions, the painful expression that flickered and then faded on her face…
Annabelle wasn’t lying because she wanted to. And the longer this went on, the harder it would be for her to keep up the falsehoods.
“I don’t know of any others,” the girl finally said. Her hands were clasped tightly together in front of her, and she wouldn’t look at Shana.
“Annabelle,” Shias said, stepping forward and kneeling down next to Shana. He spoke softly, so softly that he wasn’t entirely sure the girl could hear him. “Someone’s holding you hostage, aren’t they? They’re making you lie about the kids in order to trap us. But we can save you, too. Just tell us, as quietly as you can, what’s happening, and we can help you escape.”
Annabelle and Shana both stared at Shias in shock. Shana opened her mouth to speak after a moment, but Annabelle beat her to it.
“I can’t,” she said quietly. “The King, he said…” She sighed, shook her head. “I can let you leave. But I can’t let you take the children. And I can’t leave.”
“What do we need to do to save you?” Shana asked. “Is there anything?”
Annabelle shook her head. “There’s nothing,” she said sadly. “I… only my sisters can save me. But they’ve been gone a long time, and they think I left forever. They’ll never find me.”
“Tell us about your sisters,” Shana said. “Anything you can. We’ll find them, and tell them what’s happened to you. I promise.”
Annabelle looked at Shana with big, desperate eyes. Even Shias felt like his heart might break at just how scared and sad and hopeful this small girl was.
“My oldest sister,” Annabelle said. “Her name is Maribelle. You can find her at the Last Home in the Final Frontier on the Westward Plains. Tell her Annabelle didn’t leave – the Radiant King took her.”
“I… don’t know what any of that means,” Shana said.
“Is that on Earth?” Shias asked, internally thinking that was the weirdest question he’d ever asked in his life. But Shana’s dream had clued him into something he’d theorized for a long time, and Annabelle’s strange directions seemed to lend further credence to his suspicions.
The little girl shook her head. “The Enchanted Dominion,” she said. “There’s a doorway to the Dominion somewhere in Grimoire, but I don’t know where. There’s a man called the Locksmith. He would know.”
“The Locksmith,” Shias said, and Annabelle nodded. “Got it. We’ll look for him. We’ll find your sister, and we’ll tell her what’s happened.”
“But what about –” Shana began, but Shias shook his head.
“Something bigger than we imagined is happening here,” he said. “We need to help Annabelle before we can help the rest of them.”
Shana looked like her heart was breaking, but she nodded. “Okay,” she said softly. She turned back to Annabelle, took the little girl’s hands in her own. “We’ll come back. I promise. We’ll save you.”
Annabelle nodded. “You should go,” she said softly. “You’ve already been here too long. If the Lady finds you, you won’t have a chance to leave. Hurry.”
No more time for questions, Shias thought, standing up and turning towards the path Brutus had made. Just remember the details: Maribelle, Last Home, Final Frontier, Westward Plains, Enchanted Dominion, door in Grimoire, Locksmith, Radiant King. That’s a lot. But it’s not bad. I can handle that.
“We’re leaving,” Shana said sadly to Kathryn, Rae, and Ben.
Just as the Dawn Riders were entering the path and heading out of the grove, a woman’s voice pierced the air. It seemed to come from every direction at once, making Shias shudder as he turned around, looking everywhere for its source.
“Oh, dearest Annabelle,” the woman’s voice said, its texture smooth and silky, enchantingly persuasive, “I’m disappointed in you. I thought you would have noticed.”
“Noticed what?” Annabelle cried out, her face the expression of pure terror.
“That girl has the Dreamer’s Heart,” the woman’s disembodied voice said.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl for Shias as he watched Annabelle’s expression change, his heart racing. Her terror turned to confusion, then curiosity, then understanding. Slowly, the girl’s eyes locked onto Shana, and her expression changed to hopeful anticipation.
“I’m so sorry,” Annabelle said. “But things have changed. I’m afraid I can’t let you leave after all.”