“Man, the streets are thick tonight,” Caleb said, making the most of his momentary reprieve.
Clouds obscured the moon and stars above, making tonight’s patrol a murky one. Lights flashed here and there throughout Grimoire, and the sounds of Hollows of all types could be heard.
“Which means a big payday for us,” Chelsea said, grinning in the green firelight of the burning Howler between her and Caleb. Her phone chirped, and she took a look at it. “Pair of Weavers heading south between Brookwater and Midas.”
“So near the library,” Caleb said. “No word on Pipers?”
Chelsea shook her head. “Well, Jace’s team forced one to escape before it caught any kids, but otherwise nothing.”
“Better keep our eyes open, then,” Caleb said. He flashed his pocket watch, forming a staircase of glowing discs leading up to the roof of the toy shop next to them. “Let’s go.”
“You’re surprisingly subdued tonight,” Chelsea said as she followed Caleb up his staircase. “Deep thoughts?”
“I was hoping we could track a Piper,” Caleb replied as they alighted atop the roof and began heading south along the tiles. “But with this many Hollows, I may just have to wait.”
“Track a Piper?” Chelsea asked. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking there are little kids going missing,” Caleb replied. “And I’m thinking we know exactly what’s taking them, but we don’t know where they’re going. So I was thinking we’d follow one and find out.”
“They vanish when they reach the boundary line. If it were that easy, someone else would have already done it.”
Caleb smirked. “I didn’t say I thought it would be easy,” he said.
“Well, at least your cockiness is back,” Chelsea said, rolling her eyes. “I spotted the Weavers. How do you want to take them?”
Caleb looked where Chelsea indicated, spying a pair of truly grotesque spiders.
As large as a grown man, Weavers were the worst types of spiders, the kinds with bulbous, oversized abdomens, spindly legs, and tiny heads with beady eyes. That giant rear section always freaked Caleb out, even in ordinary-sized spiders – it looked like the arachnid was hiding some horrible secret weapon or poison or something disgusting. In these massive, monstrous spiders, it was made more freakish, as their large abdomens weren’t smooth, but mottled and bumpy, and seemed to ripple and squirm depending on the Weaver’s movements.
“I’ll keep my distance and watch you light them up,” Caleb offered, earning a sharp glare from Chelsea. He laughed sheepishly. “I know, I know, Hunters face their fears.”
“It’s not like you haven’t fought Weavers before,” Chelsea said. “So? What’s the play?”
“I’ll trip up the one in front,” Caleb said. “Wait until I say go, then blast the rear one with everything you’ve got.”
“I love it when you let me play to my strengths,” Chelsea said sweetly.
Racing ahead, Caleb slowed time to a crawl, leaping from one rooftop to the next.
Enhancement Magic. It was the key class of magic that all Hunters had to gain a certain level of proficiency in before being allowed on patrol. Used purely as a way to, as the name suggested, “enhance” the wielder’s own physical capabilities, it was responsible for Caleb, Chelsea, and all other active Hunters being able to leap gaps that Olympic long jumpers couldn’t dream of jumping. Not just that – Hunters of even the lowest rank in Enhancement Magic could safely land from a two story drop, could run for hours without exhausting themselves, and could lift even the heaviest of their companions with just one arm if the need arose and carry them at a full sprint.
Caleb crossed three large gaps between rooftops, closing on the Weavers. The tightness building in his chest let him know that he really shouldn’t have started slowing time so early – the more he exerted himself physically while using Time Magic, the less time he could keep it active.
And the more he hurt himself.
Returning time to its normal flow for a few seconds, Caleb ran across rooftops, now ahead of the Weavers. Making sure he wasn’t spotted yet, he slowed time once more and leapt down to the street. Just one block more. Caleb flashed his pocket watch open, using one of his magical discs as a springboard to launch himself one hundred yards in an instant.
That was the other component behind Caleb’s superhuman capacity for maneuvering around the city streets and rooftops so quickly – Mobility Magic. Like many classes of magic, Mobility had a lot of flexibility in its use, and Caleb frequently manifested it as white and silver discs. Used mostly for creating pathways he couldn’t easily jump or climb, he had other tricks up his sleeve, like the springboard leap he’d just used to rush ahead.
The key to most magic was creativity. Two different mages could use the same type of magic, and it would look and act completely differently. Chelsea’s Elemental Magic was all about fire, and yet she used it like she was a dancing painter, creating beautifully artistic shapes and movements of green flame. Other fire mages would have different color flames and use it completely differently. While Caleb manifested Mobility Magic as discs, one of his friends created a sort of magical jetpack, zipping around with short-range flight. Many mages could use a simple ability of Mobility Magic – the Blink – to get around quickly. A short-range teleport, even Blinks could look and act completely differently.
That was what had drawn Caleb to being a Hunter. He was able to use creativity in high-pressure, intense situations that moved quickly. Thinking up solutions on the fly, and training specific techniques again and again so that they were pure muscle memory – these were the things that made Caleb’s heart soar, his blood rush, and his whole being feel most alive.
So, even when facing his fears and rushing down grotesque spiders with absurdly large and hideous abdominal sections, Caleb was grinning.
His pocket watch flashed with light, and shining white chains formed from thin air. Surging forward, they wrapped up the lead Weaver’s legs, and Caleb returned time to its normal flow.
Time Magic, Enhancement Magic, Mobility Magic, and, finally, Containment Magic. That was Caleb’s true specialty after Time Magic. Containment was all about containing, constricting, and restricting a target. Caleb liked to manifest it as chains and other physical constructs like cages and traps.
With the lead Weaver tripped up, Caleb shouted out “Go!”
Chelsea was on the rear Weaver in a flash, emerald green fire roaring over the arachnid’s body more like ocean waves than blasts of flame. Caleb was impressed – he wasn’t sure Chelsea had been able to keep up with him over that distance with him slowing time so much.
Then again, she was the best Hunter he knew.
Both Weavers were crying out in their trademark piercing, inhuman screech that Caleb hated, but appreciated. It felt like knives stabbing his eardrums, but it meant the Weavers were in pain, and as long as they kept them contained, it would be over quickly.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Chelsea shouted, forming roiling walls of flame to block her Weaver as it moved to escape. Caleb wrapped another set of chains around his Weaver’s legs for good measure, and then started blasting it with spheres of white light. His own offense wasn’t particularly powerful. His specialties lay in movement and containment, and it was why he worked so well with Chelsea. He could easily present Chelsea with a stationary, weakened target, making her own attacks that much more impactful.
It took a scant few seconds for Chelsea to finish off hers, and then she was quickly on the second. Together, they destroyed the Weaver with ease.
“I’ll check for webbing,” Caleb said, using one of his discs as a springboard, launching him up to the roof of a three-story building in a single bound.
“I’ll collect our spoils,” Chelsea called back to him in a singsong voice.
Weavers could be very difficult combatants if they got the jump on a Hunter, but in open combat, they weren’t particularly deadly. The problem lay in the aftermath. It wasn’t just about destroying the Weavers themselves – everywhere they went, they had a tendency to produce a thick, magical webbing over surfaces. If it wasn’t cleared away, it could trip up other Hunters on their patrols, and even impact regular citizens the next day. The webbing didn’t just restrict movement if someone was caught in it – it was filled with malice and anger, and to those who couldn’t see the webbing, it was particularly potent. Ordinary, non-magical folks would be moved to fits of rage. The webbing couldn’t be left hanging around.
“Anything?” Chelsea asked, leaping up to join Caleb on the roof.
“Nothing,” Caleb said. He kept his eyes peeled for the telltale blackened aura of the webbing, but didn’t see a thing.
“Well, they were moving a lot faster than usual,” Chelsea offered. “Guess they weren’t interested in webbing the place up.”
Caleb turned to Chelsea. “What?”
Chelsea put her hands on her hips. “Come on. You were talking about following Pipers earlier. You have a plan?”
Caleb shrugged. “Not really. Just find a Piper, don’t let it see us, and follow it to the boundary line.”
“They disappear at the boundary line,” Chelsea said. “Is that the best you can do? We’ve seen them hit the boundary. We know what happens.”
“How well have we ever examined the area right after they vanish?” Caleb asked. “When have we tried following them further? It’s always ‘oh no, it got away,’ and then back to patrols and fighting.”
“Because that’s our job,” Chelsea said. She let out a weary sigh. “We need a better plan than that. And we should probably work with a larger team.”
“Why’s that?” Caleb asked.
Chelsea groaned, tilting her head back as she did so. It was her trademark sign of complete and utter exasperation with Caleb.
He found it adorable.
“How good is your Divination Magic?” Chelsea asked. “I know mine is flat garbage. How well can the two of us handle thirteen Hollows alone if the Piper sees us and calls for reinforcements? How well can we handle a Piper, for that matter? We’ve been in both those situations before, and it wasn’t pretty either time. Are you a tracker? Am I? What if the Piper gets one of us with its toxin? I’m not a Healer. Are you? No. Are you keeping up with me? Are you seeing what I’m getting at?”
Caleb stared into the distance. “Yeah. You’re right. I know that. I just…”
“You were acting on emotions, not taking the time to think.” Chelsea placed a gentle hand on his arm. “My heart aches for the kids who are disappearing, too. But if we get ourselves killed trying to look for them, what good does that do? And if we follow a Piper who has kids with it to the boundary line, and it vanishes with those kids, and we failed to stop it and can’t find a way to follow it, whose fault is it those kids were stolen away? And if the Pipers are taking the kids to their deaths, which I think is a strong possibility, then if we allow a Piper to escape and can’t follow it, the blood of those kids is on ourhands.”
Caleb sighed. “Yeah. I hear you. So… what now?”
“We need a team.”
“Any thoughts on who should join?”
“You won’t like this,” Chelsea said, “but I think we should form a team during the day. There are too many Hollows to keep chatting like this.”
Caleb let his shoulders sag. “Yeah. I figured that’s where you were going. Okay. So, where to next?”
“Seemed like the Weavers were rushing to reach the library,” Chelsea said, eyes downcast as she thought. “But why? Weavers are all about stealth – when do they ever rush around like that?”
“Wanna head to the library and find out?” Caleb asked.
Chelsea nodded. “Let’s do it.”
On they went, talking as they ran and leapt across the rooftops of Grimoire.
“Any thoughts for who to have on our team?” Chelsea asked.
“Well, we need Divination and Healing,” Caleb said. “Will’s probably a good choice.”
Chelsea sighed. “He is, but… he usually comes packaged with you know who.”
Caleb chuckled. He knew. Will Rook was Caleb’s best friend, and they’d known each other since middle school. Both Caleb and Chelsea got along great with him. The problem was Will’s frequent partner on patrol: Jackson Wallace. Caleb rather liked the guy. He had a lot of style.
Chelsea couldn’t stand Jackson.
“I can try and get Will without Jackson,” Caleb offered.
“If you succeed, I’ll buy all of your groceries and meals for a year,” Chelsea said wryly. “Lorelei’s a strong choice, too.”
“Right. She’s the one who…” Caleb trailed off, remembering his and Chelsea’s run-in with the Piper recently. The scar on his arm would have been much larger – or he would have even lost his entire arm – if Lorelei hadn’t been nearby. A good friend of Chelsea’s, Lorelei was an excellent Healer who’d spent lots of time researching Piper toxin and training to handle it.
“How big should the team be?” Chelsea asked.
“Dunno,” Caleb said. “I’m thinking small. Right now, assuming we can’t avoid Jackson, that’ll make five.”
“Five’s a good number.”
Caleb grinned. “Yeah. If we think of anyone else, we’ll figure that out.”
“Here we go,” Chelsea said, dropping to a crouch and Caleb following suit. From their perch on the peak of a steeply sloped roof, they looked out across the courtyard in front of Grimoire’s public library.
Styled like a small castle, the library had been around for nearly a thousand years, only receiving slight renovations here and there. Four rounded towers marked each corner, and the main entrance was a massive wooden gate. Faded stonework and architecture from a bygone era worked together to make Grimoire’s public library feel truly old.
Caleb loved that. He didn’t spend much time there nowadays – if he wanted to read a book, he was more likely to buy it than borrow, now that he was an adult with a lucrative career – but he had many fond memories. Most of all, he loved the style. The library’s interior was like a labyrinth of bookshelves, with multiple floors separated by spiraling staircases. There was even a basement garden, which always struck Caleb as the weirdest and coolest thing ever when he was a kid.
“No sign of Hollows,” Chelsea said, frowning. Sounds of battle raged through the night, but they were all distant. The library was the picture of peace.
“Should we go inside?” Caleb asked.
“Can you pick locks?”
Caleb chuckled. “I know a secret entrance.”
Chelsea stared at him, perplexed. “Really?”
Caleb grinned at her, then leapt down from the roof, landing in a crouch on the street below. Chelsea followed suit with catlike grace, her short hair falling perfectly back into place when she landed.
Caleb found himself staring. He often did – Chelsea’s grace and style awed him at every moment. She had admitted to him that she was self-conscious about her short hair, but she had good reason to cut it that way. Using fire magic like she did, she’d had an incident in her Hunter internship where her long hair had caught fire from her own magic. Since then, she’d kept it cut a few inches shorter than shoulder length – the shortest she was willing to go.
Caleb loved it. Cut short as it was, it made her strong shoulders and arms more pronounced, emphasizing that Chelsea was strong and active.
She looked like the fierce fighter that she was.
“Now’s not the time for staring,” Chelsea called out sweetly as she led the way towards the library.
“When is?” Caleb asked.
Chelsea cast a teasing look over her shoulder. “When we’re not in a potential combat zone.”
Caleb faked a dramatic sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to cope.”
“You can manage it.” Chelsea stopped in the courtyard, about ten yards from the library’s main gate. “So where’s this ‘secret’ entrance?”
“Around the back,” Caleb said. He led the way across the courtyard to the right, circling around the library’s side. It was dimly lit here, and in the gloomy, cloudy night, shadows were strange and ethereal, and the darkness seemed to have a life of its own.
Sometimes Caleb thought the darkness actually did have a life of its own. With the kind of magical world he lived in, he wouldn’t be surprised.
Through the darkness and around the library’s rear, Caleb walked over to a railing overlooking an outdoor section of the basement garden. He nodded to the drop, and then leapt over. A simple two story drop was nothing – as long as your aim was good. There were stone statues and rose bushes all about, so Caleb couldn’t leap carelessly. Landing between two lion statues, he stepped aside to make room as Chelsea followed him down.
“Kind of a creepy place in the dark,” she said, looking around. There were a few lights active at night, but they cast a dim glow, serving mostly to lengthen the shadows of the condensed layout. Rose bushes appeared taller, statues appeared fiercer.
“There’s a hidden key,” Caleb said, striding confidently through the pathways, stopping at a squat frog statue. During the day, its oddly-shaped mouth would spit out a steady stream of water into the basin below it, but now, that function was deactivated. Taking hold of the frog’s head, Caleb twisted it gently to the left a few inches, then the right a few more inches. There was a click, and Caleb lifted the frog’s head, revealing a hollow interior. Beneath the pipes that transported the water through the statue’s body was an old-fashioned silver key.
“Should I ask how you know this?” Chelsea asked.
“I was a precocious kid,” Caleb said defensively.
“You’re still a precocious kid.”
Caleb laughed. “You’re probably right.” Taking the key to the nearby door, Caleb inserted and turned it. There was another click, and the door easily swung open.
“This doesn’t look like a legitimate entrance,” Chelsea said with a frown.
Caleb entered the darkness, pulling out a mini flashlight clipped to his belt and turning it on. “It’s a service tunnel. It was built before this area was turned into a garden. I’m not sure exactly how things used to be set up, but they still maintain it.” Caleb grinned. “They open it up around Halloween when they turn the whole library into a haunted house.”
“Charming,” Chelsea said dryly, following Caleb. She clicked one of her lighters, forming a ball of green flame that floated over their heads, providing more ambient illumination. Caleb’s flashlight was still useful for examining specific details.
“It’s like a maze,” Chelsea said, peering left and right at a four-way intersection. “Why so many paths?”
“Dunno,” Caleb said with a shrug, taking the path to the right. “They all lead somewhere, but aside from the main path between the garden and the library itself, everywhere else just leads to closets and storerooms that aren’t in use anymore.”
“You think maybe what the Hollows were attracted to about this place might be in this tunnel?” Chelsea asked. She ran her hand along the stone wall, then pulled it away, staring at her fingers. “The walls are wet.”
“The plumbing isn’t great,” Caleb said with a chuckled. He paused, listening. “Hear that? Water’s dripping somewhere.”
“This feels like a completely different building. More like a centuries-old ruin than a part of a modern library.”
“Well, the library isn’t all that modern.”
“You know what I mean. It’s been renovated. It looks like a modern building designed to have an older feel to it, but it isn’t… like this.”
“I get what you mean.” Caleb stopped at the next intersection, and though he intended to go left, he hesitated.
“What is it?” Chelsea asked.
“Hear that?” Caleb asked back.
“I… is that music?”
Caleb strained to hear. Was it coming from above, or from within the tunnels? And the music…
“It sounds like a Piper’s Flute,” Chelsea said ominously.
“Can you tell where it’s coming from?” Caleb asked.
Chelsea shook her head. “If I had to guess, I’d say up above.”
“All right. Let’s hurry.”
Caleb took the left path at a jog. Even with his familiarity with this secret entrance to the library, it was still dangerous to try charging through at top speed. He’d gotten lost down here more than enough times to know that much.
But while he took a measured speed on foot, his mind was racing as fast as it could. The music was growing louder, and the sound of it was the haunting, hollow tones of a Piper’s Flute.
But that song – it was going on for too long, for one thing. And for another, he’d never heard a Piper play that. They seemed to have two very rigid songs – one for luring children to follow them, and one for summoning Hollows to their aid. Those two songs never changed as far as Caleb knew. Hunter training even involved listening to recordings of both songs, so that new Hunters would be sure to memorize them.
As far as he knew, there were no other songs.
So what was this strange music?
The song for luring children from their homes had a sort of upbeat melancholy to it. It was something that made you want to tap your foot to the rhythm and cry at the same time – a joy juxtaposed with a heavy heart.
For summoning Hollows, the song was tremendously short. Just a quick series of high, frantic notes, and reinforcements arrived. It made sense. If you were going to call for reinforcements, you couldn’t afford to take your time on a long, complex melody.
But this new song that drifted through the stone hallways was completely different. It didn’t repeat itself like the luring song did. It continued into new phrases, emotions changing and shifting, like it was telling a story. What had started out haunting and lonely was now tinged with a sadness that pierced Caleb’s heart. That sadness rolled itself forward into a bitter regret, a guilt of time wasted and things left unsaid.
“Caleb?” Chelsea asked. Looking up, only now did Caleb realize that Chelsea was ahead of him, looking back with concern.
“I…” Caleb started, but what could he say? His heart felt so tremendously heavy.
“Are we close?” Chelsea asked. Caleb nodded, moving forward once more to lead the way. He thought he saw, for a brief moment, tears staining Chelsea’s eyes, but she turned away.
There. The stairs up to the library’s main floor. Like Chelsea had guessed, it was clear now that the song filled with emotions too deep and powerful for words was coming from above.
“Stay cautious,” Chelsea said. She spoke in a restrained voice, like it was hard to get words out. Caleb nodded, feeling the same way, uncertain if he could speak. Pocket watch in one hand and flashlight in the other, he led the way up the spiral staircase.
At the top was a door, and he pushed it open carefully.
The song washed over them, and Caleb almost fell back at the sudden surge. With a force of effort, he stepped forward. They were in one of the open lounge areas in the library, with tables and chairs and couches spread out for leisurely reading.
On the far side of the open area, seated on a couch, someone was playing a flute.
It was clearly a Piper’s Flute. Caleb would recognize that strange design anywhere. But the person playing it wasn’t a Piper.
It was a young girl.