“You have a message from Mommy?” Isabelle asked.
The blonde-haired man nodded, reaching into his pants pocket and pulling out a miniature tablet. He detached a stylus from it, and began tapping and swiping on the screen.
“Where’d you get that?” Chelsea asked. Delilah wondered the same thing. They’d seen some technology here in Starlight Spires, but nothing so modern.
“A traveler from Earth gave it to me,” the man said with a nervous chuckle. He did that a lot, ending his sentence with a small “he-he” or “ha-ha,” almost under his breath, like he was trying to diffuse tension that only he felt. “It’s very useful. Here… this is it.” He tilted the tablet’s screen towards the girls, who came a little closer to see it better. It was a video, and it was impossible to mistake who the woman on the screen was.
“Mommy?” Isabelle asked, her voice shaking as she took another step closer, staring at the screen in disbelief.
“It’s… well, it’s just a recording,” the man said. “Please l-listen closely.”
“Isabelle,” the woman said. Her voice was warm and kind, making Delilah’s heart ache for her own mother. Isabelle’s mother looked sad and hesitant, brushing aside her apple-red hair. “I’m so, so sorry that I lost you, sweetheart. I still don’t know exactly what happened. I lost Maribelle as well, and I’ve been unable to find her. Despite being certain I knew where your other sisters were, I failed. They aren’t where I’d hoped, and my search since then has proven futile. I…” She broke off, looking away from the camera. “Sorry.”
“My Lady?” came the voice of the blonde man. “S-should I –”
“No,” Isabelle’s mother said, looking back at the camera with a determined glint in her eyes. “Isabelle, I know it must be hard for you, out alone with no idea how to get home. I…” She sighed. “I should have just taught you the Song of Solitude. Then you’d be home at least, even if you’d be alone. But thanks to Lahain – he’s the one recording this, say hello.”
“H-hello,” came the blonde man’s voice. “I’m Lahain.”
Isabelle’s mother smiled. “He’s quite shy and has difficulty speaking,” she said, “but he’s loyal. And loyalty is in unfortunately short supply these days. You can trust Lahain. He is going to find you. As for why I won’t…” She looked away again, her expression filled with bitter sorrow. “I cannot. Not until I find the one who did this to me, who dares to keep me from my daughters. But I will find them, and end whatever horrid magic they’ve worked. So be patient, dear Isabelle. Lahain will give you the song. Go home and… do your best.” She sighed sadly. “I wish I had more time. I wish I could say more. Good luck, my dear daughter. I love you very much, and I’m so sorry.”
The video ended as Isabelle’s mother blew a kiss at the camera. Isabelle reached, grasping at the air and then pressing her palm against her cheek.
“So you’re Lahain,” Delilah said, testing the name out. “How long have you been looking for Isabelle?”
Lahain did that nervous chuckle, looking down at his tablet as he tapped away at the screen. “It’s hard to say,” he said. “I, well… Lady Kodoka found me about…” He looked up. “I’m sorry, some of you are humans, aren’t you? So time here is strange and I… well, I don’t know the conversion to Earth time, sorry to say…”
“Slow down,” Chelsea said, pursing her lips. “You’re all over the place. Aren’t you supposed to give Isabelle the song for her to be able to go home?”
Lahain nodded. “Yes, right, sorry,” he said quickly, glancing at Chelsea only briefly before ducking his head. “Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Chelsea muttered. “Just pull yourself together.”
“Lahain,” Lorelei said, giving Chelsea an admonishing look before approaching the blonde man. “We’re trying to help Isabelle, too. Can you give her the song now, or is there something else you need to say or do?”
“I hid it,” Lahain said. “The Umbran Wing. Follow me.”
Lahain stood, leading the way up two different flights of stairs and then along a walkway that had a view out across the rest of the music library. Delilah was glad for a railing to slide her hand along as a guide, because she couldn’t stop staring to her left, at the expansive repository of knowledge around her.
The music library had a sort of chaotic design to it. Stairs came up here and there, in different sizes and styles, leading to walkways or small lofts and alcoves. There was rarely very much open, unbroken floor space, almost as if a series of hundreds or even thousands of platforms had been forced to connect to each other in a single gargantuan room. There were rarely any walls, so the entire library seemed like one gigantic open room.
The walkway the girls were currently on quickly led to another ascending staircase that curved to the left, up to a loft with a rack of twelve-string guitars and several wooden, armless chairs. From there, they crossed a miniature suspension bridge with cables holding its interlocking wooden planks together, and it dipped and swayed as the group crossed it.
“How’d you find us, anyway?” Chelsea asked. “We weren’t even originally going to come to the music library.”
“I was just waiting,” Lahain said. “I… well, I hid the score for the Song of Solitude here, so, I thought I should stay close to it. And I thought you might… perhaps… come here at some point? I didn’t know Isabelle was traveling with so many people.”
“So basically, you gave up on looking for her and just got lucky,” Chelsea said, rolling her eyes.
Lahain chuckled nervously. “Seems that w-way, huh?” he asked.
“Why hide the music here?” Lorelei asked. The climbed a wrought-iron spiral staircase to a sitting area surrounded by shelves of books. “Why not keep it with you and search the Dominion?”
“I did search,” Lahain said. “For… a long time. Lady Kodoka didn’t have much for me to go off of. I just had a, um, description of Isabelle. And some ideas of where she might go. And… there is this.” Lahain reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue stone pendant on a silver chain. “She said it m-might lead me to her.”
“Mommy used to always carry that,” Isabelle said. She’d become subdued since watching the video of her mother, but now she stared at the pendant with wide eyes. “She said it made sure her daughters wouldn’t get lost.”
Lahain nodded. “But whoever used magic on Lady Kodoka must have also tampered with the stone,” he said. “It continued to point me here. So, eventually, I gave up the search and waited, hoping perhaps you would arrive. In truth…” He bowed his head. “I had almost given up waiting here, too. I… I had planned to leave tomorrow.”
“So where’s the Song of Solitude’s score?” Delilah asked. “How far in here did you hide it?”
“There are e-employee safe boxes,” Lahain said. “I started working here early, when the stone first started pointing here, so I have one of my own. I… well… I put it there. It isn’t much father now.”
“So you know this library pretty well then,” Chelsea said. Lahain nodded, responding with just a nervous chuckle.
Their winding path took them up and up, until they were on the highest platforms of the music library, looking down about seven stories at the floor far below. They’d stayed close to the walls of the library, which had a series of metal lockers with combination locks on the top floor.
“Why do they keep the employee safe boxes in such an out-of-the-way place?” Gwen asked. “It seems they’d be better situated on the lower levels, closer to the entrance or reception desks.”
“Oh, these are just…” Lahain said, taking a moment to clear his throat. “These are just for the lowest level employees. The s-sprouts. That’s what… that’s what they call us.” He began busying himself with one of the lockers, while Delilah found herself struggling not to laugh. Looking over at Chelsea, she was having the same problem. Sprouts? Delilah wanted to ask, incredulous. They call you sprouts?
“There we go,” Lahain said, opening the locker and retrieving the only item inside: two sheets of white paper. He started to give them to Isabelle, but then stopped. “I… I’ll be honest. I don’t know everything. But… you may not want to g-go back to the Library of Solitude.”
“Why not?” Isabelle asked, holding out her hands expectantly for the score.
Lahain looked away, fear flashing across his face. “Something isn’t right,” he said. “Lady Kodoka can’t go back, but even if she could… she might not be able to fix everything. It may not be safe for you.”
“She has us, too,” Delilah said.
“How much do you know, Lahain?” Gwen asked. “Isabelle’s mother told her to go back to the Library. Why would she say that if it isn’t safe?”
Lahain clutched the score tightly, the papers rustling against each other. “I… I was able to reach it,” he said. “Only once, shortly after Lady Kodoka found me. She isn’t able to go back, but she was able to send me there, temporarily, so that I could… could see what…” Lahain covered his face with the sheets of music. “I’m not sure anyone should go there.”
“Mommy told me to go,” Isabelle said, her voice strong and determined. “Not just in her message. She always would tell me ‘if anything happens to me, you must return to the Library. Keep it safe.’ That’s what she told me. That’s why I’ve been trying to get back. So I have to go. It doesn’t matter how dangerous or scary it is.” She held out her hands again, smiling. “You don’t have to come, Lahain. You can stay where it’s safe.”
Lahain sighed, lowering the score into Isabelle’s hands. “If you need help reading it, I can assist you,” he said.
Isabelle took a look at the two pages of music, eyes wide with awe and excitement. She shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “I can read this. And I recognize some of it. I was really close to figuring it out!”
“If… if you’d like,” Lahain said, pointing to his right, “there’s a performance room that’s a little more private. Playing a song to teleport you somewhere else… it might disturb the library’s patrons. Perhaps. Maybe. I don’t…”
“You’re just trying to help,” Lorelei said, smiling reassuringly. “We understand. Thank you.”
“Bye, then,” Isabelle said, waving to Lahain as she led the way to the performance room. She had to stand on tiptoe to open the door, and then in they went. Delilah came in last, casting one last look back at Lahain. He looked dejected, staring at the carpet.
“Thank you,” Delilah said, and Lahain looked up sharply, a puzzled look in his eyes. Delilah smiled. “You helped her. She’s been trying to get back home for a very long time. What you did means more to her than you know.”
Lahain offered a weak smile. “Thank you for that,” he said, nodding. Delilah slipped into the room, closing the door behind her.
Inside was a white room with only a few black benches for seating, and a trio of black metal music stands. Lorelei set one up for Isabelle, who took her seat on a bench in front of it. She waved a hand and… Delilah had to do a double-take. She’d heard about it from Caleb and Chelsea, but seeing the little girl conjure up a Piper’s Flute out of thin air and prepare to play it like it was any ordinary instrument was alarming.
It just goes to show that the mages of Grimoire don’t know as much as they thought, Delilah reminded herself. Magic’s bigger than we ever realized, and so is the universe. And then along comes this little girl, showing us that Piper’s Flutes are something else entirely. They’re not just some evil instrument that lures children from their homes.
“You should all probably stand close to me,” Isabelle said. “I don’t know exactly how this all works. But the closer you are, the better chance I have of taking all of you with me.”
Delilah, Chelsea, Lorelei, and Gwen crowded in around Isabelle, who giggled as Chelsea ruffled her hair. She looked up at each of them in turn, expectantly, and each of the girls around her nodded as she looked at them.
“Okay,” Isabelle said, her voice quavering with anticipation. “Here… here we go.”
Lorelei rested a hand on Isabelle’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right,” she said.
Isabelle nodded, raised the Flute to her lips, and began to play.
Delilah recognized the sound, but… this was different. She knew the haunting, sorrowful tones of a Piper’s Flute, but the way Isabelle played, there was a soul to the music that wasn’t normally present. From the very first note, Delilah felt Isabelle’s hopefulness mingled in with the pained, almost anguished sounds of the song itself played on this specific instrument. Slow and somber went the song, and yet there was an undercurrent of childish joy, shimmering through the sadness like a lone ray of light shining down in the midst of a storm.
Chelsea looked like she was in physical pain, and had turned towards Lorelei, who held her hands. The friends leaned their foreheads against each other’s, Chelsea gritting her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut while Lorelei whispered words that Delilah couldn’t hear. Gwen had closed her eyes and bowed her head, and a single tear rolled down her cheek.
Delilah, for her part, was captivated. Where had this song come from? Who had written it, and why was a song to take someone back home so sad and lonely? Though perhaps that wasn’t the original intent of the song. Lahain had called it “The Song of Solitude.” And indeed, it did evoke a sense of isolation, of someone who had been separated from everyone and everything they loved, and yet couldn’t return.
So why was such a song the way to return? Delilah didn’t understand, and as it seemed Isabelle was nearing the end of the song, she wondered if it would actually work at all.
Isabelle let one final note ring out, longer and longer, until it seemed like it was fighting a desperate, impossible battle to stay in the air. Isabelle’s face turned a slight shade of red, and Delilah could see the girl’s effort, knowing that this was the last note, her last chance, and she was terrified that the song hadn’t worked, that there was no way for her to return home.
Finally, painfully, the final note ended, and Isabelle sat back, struggling to get her breath back. For several moments, all five girls waited, hanging on the echoed memory of the final note.
And then… the entire room seemed to shift. In Delilah’s vision, it looked like the room was starting to rotate, and yet she felt like she was standing still. She swayed, struggling to make sense of her body’s sensations and what she could see. Lights began to float through the air, blue and purple and green, flickering and floating like globes of fuzzy radiance.
“What’s happening?” Delilah asked, and her voice sounded funny to her, like the sound of talking into a fan as it was spinning.
She didn’t get a reply, and suddenly she was spinning, unable to find solid ground, rotating round and round in space as the lights grew more and more plentiful, obscuring every hint of the performance room until they were all that Delilah could see. She couldn’t stand it, so she squeezed her eyes tight. She could still feel herself spinning, and there was a sound, like a single musical note, ringing out in the distance. On and on it went, growing louder and louder, until it washed through Delilah’s mind, clearing out every thought until that single note was all she could hear, see, think, taste, touch – a single note consumed all, until Delilah couldn’t bear it.
And then… it stopped.
In the silent stillness came a small voice.
“You should not have come here.”