“Come on out, Altair!”
Shana held up her bookmark and a portal appeared overhead. Out came the fluffy blue glowing dog, wagging his stubby tail as he ran circles around Shana’s feet.
“I should visit more often,” Caleb said as he kicked off his shoes and hung his jacket on the coat rack. “I keep forgetting how big the manor is.”
Shana laughed, flopping onto a couch. “It hasn’t been long enough for you to forget, Caleb,” she said. “You were just here on Tuesday.” Altair leapt up to join her. He licked her face twice and then curled up in her lap contentedly.
“Looks like mom and dad aren’t home yet,” Shias said. His pen was in hand, and it flashed twice – a telltale sign that they were the only ones in the building.
“Well, how long should we wait?” Shana asked. “If we’re going to see Fae, I don’t want to wait around all day.”
“If we have to wait, I have more questions,” Shias said. He and Caleb sat down in chairs next to the couch. Shana grinned, pulling out her bookmark and flicking it towards the fireplace. A burst of orange flame shot from her Talisman into the hearth, and the enchanted wood within burst into flames. A cozy warmth and pleasant crackling sound provided the perfect atmosphere for curling up with her dog while listening to her brothers.
“How are so many kids disappearing?” Shias asked.
Caleb frowned. “The Pipers are just that good,” he said glumly. “From what the veterans say, there didn’t use to be this many this often. They’d only see a Piper every few weeks – now there are two or three every night.”
“How do they escape?” Shias asked. “Where do they go? How do they keep getting away with this?”
Caleb sighed. “I’m as frustrated as you are. Like I said about the Flutes, Pipers can do more than lull kids into following them. They can summon Hollows to their aid. When a Piper’s spotted, that’s their first defense. They can call as many as thirteen Hollows at once. Even for the best Hunters, it takes time to fight through them, and by the time they do, the Piper is usually either long-gone or close to it. And even if a Piper’s directly engaged…” His face looked grim. “They look fragile, and the way they call on others to fight for them makes them seem even weaker. But they aren’t.” He rolled back his sleeve, showing off a knotted scar along his right forearm. About four inches long, it bulged from the skin.
Shana gasped, leaning forward at the grotesque sight. “When did you get that?” she asked.
“Tuesday,” Caleb said, a grim smile on his lips. “Patrol just a few hours after leaving from having dinner here with all of you. Chelsea and I came up against a Piper, and it let its guard down – or so we thought. We’d never fought a Piper up-close before. Always spent our time taking out its reinforcements, but this one didn’t call for any. We thought it would be simple, but…” Caleb gestured to the scar. “They have some kind of magical toxin in their claws. The longer a wound goes untreated, the worse it gets. And once the toxin is removed, it always leaves a mark. I’m lucky I got away with this little.”
“Did you kill it?” Shias asked.
Caleb nodded. “We managed it. Well, I shouldn’t say ‘we’ – Chelsea did the hard work.”
“So where do they go if they escape?” Shana asked. “Where are they taking the children?”
Caleb rolled his sleeve back down. “That’s the weirdest part. Once they reach the boundaries of town, they vanish, and the kids who’re trailing along with them. Valka Frei has been researching it, and there are these traces of a magical barrier that was put in place over the city generations ago, but that scale of Guardian magic was impractical and nearly impossible to maintain, so the barrier isn’t there anymore. But the traces and boundaries still remain, and it’s when the Pipers cross those boundaries that they vanish.”
“Valka… that’s Reltas’ mother, right?” Shias asked.
Caleb nodded. “And head of the Archivist Guild. She’s a genius. But even she hasn’t been able to figure out where they go.”
“So what’s gonna happen to Rae?” Shana asked, the question constantly on her mind bubbling to the surface. “Will she wind up in the Cove?”
Caleb chuckled. “I doubt it’ll be that drastic. And we don’t need to worry about her unless she gets caught.”
The Cove – just the name sent shudders through most of the magical community. It was a prison specifically designed for criminal mages deemed too dangerous to be locked up anywhere else. Only rumors and hearsay made it to most mage’s ears, with very little factual information known about it – except that it exists.
“What’s this about the Cove?” came a voice from the entrance hall.
“Dad!” Shana called out excitedly.
“And the rest of us,” came a female voice.
“Caleb’s here,” Shias announced, before their parents and youngest sister walked into the common room.
“Well, that’s a welcome surprise,” said Deirdre Greyson. The matriarch of the Greyson family, she was the first into the room. With hair as black as raven feathers, dark eyes glinting from behind narrow-framed glasses, angular facial features, and a slim body that was always impeccably well-dressed, she cut an impressive figure and made an instant impression wherever she went. While she could very easily appear harsh and unapproachable, she smiled easily and projected a warmth that belied her appearance.
“You should visit more often!” said Callum, the Greyson patriarch, as he followed his wife into the room. Bright blue eyes and a messy shock of golden hair framed a smiling face with perfect teeth. Dressed in black slacks and socks, a blue shirt, and darker blue tuxedo vest, it was his hands that seemed peculiar. His right hand was bare save for a golden wristwatch, but on his left hand he wore a black leather glove. To ordinary bystanders it would look strange, but the Greysons all knew – that glove was his Talisman.
“I was just here Tuesday,” Caleb shot back. Standing to greet his parents, he hugged each in turn. “Where’s Delilah?”
“Putting some things away in her room,” Deirdre said. “We went shopping.”
“She just hit a growth spurt,” Callum said with a chuckle. “Going through clothes by the week.”
“She’s already as tall as I am!” Shana said. “Just wait until you see her.”
“But that aside, what’s this about the Cove?” Callum asked.
“Don’t send Rae there!” Shana called out desperately, staring at her parents with pleading eyes.
“Rae?” Deirdre asked. “You mean Mina’s daughter?”
Caleb nodded. “We need to talk,” he said. “There’s an intact Piper’s Flute at Grimoire’s Grimoires.”
The Greyson parents were silent for three whole seconds.
“Intact?” Callum asked. “And at the bookshop? Why wasn’t it taken to Mina and the Appraiser Guild?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Caleb said. Just then, footsteps on the stairs heralded the coming of the youngest Greyson.
“Caleb!” Delilah shouted out, nearly tackling her big brother in a hug.
Delilah was the outlier of the Greyson siblings, in terms of appearance. Four of the five took on most of the physical traits of their mother: straight black hair, dark eyes, angular features, and overall slender proportions. Delilah, on the other hand, had a mass of unruly blonde hair and bright blue eyes like her father, and an overall softer appearance. So when she grinned up at Caleb, she still had the cuteness of a child, even though she had just recently begun high school.
“What the – you are getting tall!” Caleb said, staring in surprise.
Delilah giggled. “I was hoping you’d notice!”
“All right, let’s gather around,” Deirdre said, taking a seat on the couch opposite Shana, Callum and Delilah joining her. Altair hopped down from Shana’s lap and leapt up to greet Delilah, and the young girl giggled as the magical dog licked her nose.
“So – Mina’s daughter, an intact Piper’s Flute, Grimoire’s Grimoires… what’s going on?” Deirdre asked.
“You two started it,” Caleb said, shooting a glance at the twins. “What did you see before I showed up?”
“Rae looked suspicious,” Shias said. “She was carrying a strange box, and looked like she didn’t want to be seen.”
“So we followed her!” Shana added.
“And then you joined us,” Shias said, nodding to Caleb. “She was wandering in a sort of outward spiral along the streets, like she was trying to shake off any potential pursuers.”
“So we followed her to the Freis’ shop,” Caleb said. “She turned over the box to Kemma, and inside was an intact Piper’s Flute.”
Callum pursed his lips in thought, staring at the fireplace. Deirdre nodded. “So Rae was the delivery girl,” she said.
“But it isn’t her fault!” Shana blurted out, desperately hoping her friend wouldn’t get in trouble. “You know how she is – if someone told her to do something important, she probably couldn’t refuse.”
“If she’s just the delivery girl, it’s likely she was put up to it,” Callum said, nodding.
“Any idea who gave her the Flute?” Deirdre asked.
Caleb shook his head. “I wish,” he said. “We just saw her hand it over to Kemma.”
“The box was black, with silver lines around it,” Shias said. “I couldn’t see into it with Divination. But when Kemma opened it, she did something that turned the silver lines into mist.”
“A black box,” Callum said, his tone dark.
“Yeah, we said that,” Shana said, puzzled.
“No, it’s a term,” Caleb said, clearly trying not to laugh. Shana glared at him. “Sorry, just… you know how planes have a ‘black box’ on board that records everything, and is designed to be nearly indestructible? That’s where the term comes from.”
“But this is a magical black box,” Deirdre added. “They’re each individually crafted, designed so that the contents can only be discerned by those who can actually open the box. The magic to open each box is also completely unique. Like a complex locking mechanism, they’re notoriously challenging to crack if you’re trying to break through.”
Shana leaned back, thinking about that. Magic wasn’t her forte, and there were a lot of things she didn’t know thanks to not paying attention or studying magical stuff very often. But now that her friend might be on the line, she was all ears – and realizing just how much she didn’t know.
“And knowing that much helps us narrow down who’s involved,” Callum said. “There are only five mages in Grimoire who can craft black boxes, and only three who are both reliable and discreet.”
“So we need to find out which of them crafted this specific box,” Caleb said. “And we also need to figure out who it was that acquired the Piper’s Flute. Definitely a Hunter, so –”
“The Hunter might not be involved,” Shias said. His eyes had that intense gleam to them that Shana knew as his “strategy face.” It always meant that he was putting his sharp mind to work on a problem, analyzing and considering all of the facts available to him. “You always have to turn in Hollow remains to an Appraiser, right?”
“Yeah,” Caleb said. “And there are almost two dozen we can go to. Most go to the Shotos, since Mina’s the best, but all of the Appraisers in active business see plenty of traffic.”
“What’s the deal with going to Appraisers?” Shana asked.
“When a Hunter defeats a Hollow, it dissolves to dust,” Caleb said. “But there are always a few things – sometimes only one, but usually two or three – that are left behind. We call those Hollow Drops. They’re the remains left behind when a Hollow is destroyed. We turn those in to an Appraiser, as they have specific tools and skills necessary for breaking down Drops into raw materials useful for Enchantments and crafting magical artifacts and Talismans. That’s also how Hunters get paid – the rarer and more difficult to obtain a Drop is, the more an Appraiser will pay a Hunter for acquiring it.”
“Wait, so…” Shana pulled out her bookmark, holding it up by the blue tassel, “this is made from the remains of Hollows?”
“Not necessarily,” Shias said. “There are plenty of ways to Enchant items into Talismans.”
“You had that Enchanted by the Rooks, right?” Deirdre asked. Shana nodded, and Deirdre smiled knowingly. “Then your Talisman doesn’t contain any Drop materials.”
Shana placed the bookmark back in her pocket, considering that. She hadn’t realized how complex and varied Enchanting Talismans could be. It was something all the mages she knew seemed to take for granted, so she had as well.
“Caleb, you should keep this information to yourself for now,” Callum said.
Caleb blinked, puzzlement all over his face. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I can’t tell Chelsea?”
Callum shook his head. “Or any of the other Hunters,” he said. “Just for now, at least.” He cast a glance at his wife, and she nodded back at him. “We’ll look into things on our own for a bit, see what we can dig up without making things public. With Rae and Kemma involved, I don’t think whatever’s going on with that Piper’s Flute is for ill, but we need to make sure.”
“But why not get the authorities involved?” Caleb asked. “At least some Investigators. Surely they could gather information without alerting the people behind this. And their reputation hinges on being discreet.”
“For now, just trust us,” Deirdre said, offering a warm smile to coat over her tone. Shana recognized that combination: the Ultimate Mom Combo™. When she flashed a smile that sweet while using a tone in her voice that subtly suggested “don’t you dare argue with me,” none of the Greyson children wanted to object.
Sometimes a smile was the sharpest sword.
“We should get dinner ready,” Callum said, mirroring his wife’s smile, which further drove home the “don’t you dare argue” aura that surrounded the parents. Together, Callum and Deirdre left, leaving the four Greyson kids with their thoughts.
Shana found herself staring at Delilah. Her younger sister hadn’t spoken a word, and had looked like she was just petting Altair, but Shana saw more. She’d caught it a few times in the past, when Delilah had sat in on serious family conversations. She almost never spoke a word, and pretended she was busily distracting herself, but there were little hints that Shana had picked up over time.
Delilah was a very good listener, and she had absorbed every single word spoken. And probably all of the subtext and inference behind them, too.
“How long ‘til dinner?” Caleb asked his retreating parents.
“About an hour,” Deirdre called back.
Caleb checked his phone, tapping his foot. “Well, I guess we should wait to go see Fae until after dinner, then.”
“You’re going to see Fae?” Delilah asked. There was a sort of blankness to her tone. Thinking on it, Shana thought that might be the first time Delilah had mentioned her oldest sister’s name in months.
“That was the plan,” Caleb said. “Wanna come with us?”
Delilah shook her head, her blonde curls bouncing. “Nope,” she said. “I have to study.”
Caleb leaned back with a smug smile. “Ah, I remember studying,” he said with an over-played nostalgic tone. “And school. It was so long ago…”
“Don’t brag,” Shana said. “And it wasn’t long ago – you just graduated last winter.”
Caleb grinned, chuckling as he stood up. “Shias, wanna get some training in?”
Shias leapt up from his chair, showing more enthusiasm in one action than he normally did in an entire day. “Yeah!” he exclaimed, his gold and black pen already in hand. “Let’s do it!”
Laughing, Caleb left with Shias in tow, leaving the sisters in the common room.
“Hey, Shana?” Delilah asked, crossing the room to sit next to her on the couch. Altair wiggled his way into the space between them, happy that they were sitting just close enough together for him to have to squeeze into a warm and cozy spot.
“What’s up?” Shana asked.
Delilah sighed. “Why do you guys want to try and see Fae?”
Shana stared for several seconds, shocked. “What… because she’s our sister, duh,” she said, playing for nonchalance.
Delilah rolled her eyes. “So? She clearly doesn’t want anything to do with us. Why should we want to have anything to do with her? She’s kind of a jerk.”
Shana thought about that, petting Altair to calm her emotions. “Well… everyone’s kind of a jerk sometimes, right?”
“Fae’s one all the time,” Delilah shot back. “When she was here for Christmas, she barely said anything. And you know how many times she thanked the people who gave her presents? Zero.”
Shana sighed. “Yeah, I noticed that. She’s really reserved and holds back a lot –”
“That’s not holding back,” Delilah interrupted. “That’s being rude and disrespectful. Why do we have to try and reach out to her when she doesn’t want to do anything for us?”
“Because she’s family,” Shana said simply.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Delilah asked, clearly frustrated. “Just because we share the same blood, we should just forgive her and forget and try to be closer to her? If she doesn’t want to have anything to do with us, then how does she even count as part of the family?”
Shana took a few deep breaths, but those, and petting Altair, weren’t helping.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t thought those same things before. Fae made her really angry sometimes. And she didn’t get where and when and why Fae had changed. They used to be so close, and then, seemingly overnight, Fae had turned into a total jerk who pulled farther and farther away from her parents and siblings.
It had broken Shana’s heart more than once. She’d thought plenty of awful things about Fae, and not calling or texting her for months wasn’t, like she’d said to Shias, because Fae was supposed to be the adult.
She was scared. Scared that Fae wouldn’t come back. Scared that Fae wouldn’t be her big sister anymore.
“Sorry,” Delilah said suddenly, just as Shana was collecting her thoughts to respond. “I got carried away.” She stood up quickly. “Look, I… if you still think Fae can change, and that it’s worth it to try, good for you. But I just can’t. I think she’s too far gone. And I’m finding it harder to care about it every day.” Shifting on her feet, Delilah reached into her pocket and pulled out a keychain, handing it to Shana nervously. “I got this for you while I was out. I’m gonna go help with dinner.”
Delilah left, and Shana was alone, staring at the keychain in her hand.
As she cried softly against the state of her sisters, she also smiled at the gift from Delilah. The keychain had a little plush doll on it of a humanoid cat wearing a butler’s uniform, holding a serving tray. Part of the “Fancy Feline” set of plushies – based off the TV show Great Feline Adventures that Shana and Delilah used to watch every Saturday when they were younger – Delilah was still an avid collector of memorabilia.
And the butler cat – Reginald Feline Meowmont the Third – had always been Shana’s favorite.
She clutched the butler cat tight, her heart aching for her wayward older sister, hoping desperately that Fae would be a part of the family again.