The source of the strange, powerfully emotional melody that filled the library was the small child sitting on the couch in front of Caleb and Chelsea. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and as she played, her eyes were closed. Sitting back on the couch, her legs didn’t even reach the floor, and they kicked in time with the song she played. She wore nothing more than a simple white dress – even her feet were bare. Apple red hair spilled from her head in masses of curls, long and flowing. If the girl stood up, Caleb was convinced her hair would reach all the way down to her feet.
“What…” Chelsea started softly from next to Caleb. She was staring, wide-eyed, as confused and shocked as Caleb was.
“I…” Caleb took a breath. “Who are you?” he asked as loud as he could, without sounding like he was shouting or angry.
The music slowly died away, and the girl opened her eyes, taking in Caleb and Chelsea.
“I’m Isabelle,” she said simply. Her voice was cute and energetic. Combined with the way she kicked her legs, it was hard to believe she was the one behind the sad and lonely music.
“That doesn’t really answer our question,” Chelsea said under her breath.
“Hi, Isabelle,” Caleb said, smiling as he took a few steps forward. “I’m Caleb.”
Isabelle hopped up to stand on the couch, bouncing on the cushion. She twirled the Piper’s Flute in one hand, smiling. “Hi, Caleb!” she said happily. “I think you’re the first visitor I’ve ever had.”
“Visitor?” Caleb asked.
Isabelle nodded, her mass of red curls bouncing adorably. “That’s you!” she said, pointing to Caleb. “And her!” She pointed to Chelsea. “Do you have a name, too?”
“What kind of question is that?” Chelsea muttered. She stepped forward. “I’m Chelsea. Why do you have a Piper’s Flute?”
Isabelle waved. “Hi, Chelsea!” She then took a long look at the Flute in her hand. “Piper’s Flute?”
“Yes,” Chelsea said. “Why do you have it?”
“It’s not a Piper’s Flute,” Isabelle said, staring at Chelsea with her big blue eyes. “It’s my flute. I made it.”
“You…” Chelsea started, letting out a long sigh. “Caleb, what the heck? She has a Piper’s Flute. Shouldn’t we do something?”
“Relax,” Caleb whispered back at Chelsea. “She seems like she’d scare easily.” He raised his voice to address the girl. “What did you mean by that, Isabelle? How did you make it?”
Isabelle cocked her head to the side, staring quizzically at him. She hadn’t stopped bouncing on the couch cushion. “Like this,” she said as she held up her free hand. Trails of light started swirling above her open palm, forming a sphere, and a moment later, the lights dissipated, and another Piper’s Flute was in her hand. She grinned. “Cool, right?” She held it out to Caleb. “Do you want it?”
“How did you do that?” Chelsea demanded. The harshness in her voice came across strongly, and Isabelle hopped back, now standing on the back of the couch. Wide-eyed, she watched Chelsea nervously.
“She’s a kid,” Caleb said softly, placing a hand on Chelsea’s arm. “We’re not going to get anywhere demanding things. Just stay calm.”
“Something isn’t right,” Chelsea said, staring at him. “You can feel it, right? And you can see it as plain as I can. She isn’t ordinary. Why does she have a Piper’s Flute? How was she able to make a second one out of thin air?”
“Let’s find out,” Caleb said. “If we get worked up, we’ll scare her off.” He nodded to the frightened Isabelle. “Right?”
Chelsea sighed. “I’m going to watch your back,” she said. A lighter in each hand, she walked away. She left the green orb of fire with Caleb, floating a few feet over his head, and summoned up another one to follow her as she left.
“She’s scary,” Isabelle said, watching her go.
Caleb chuckled. “She’s just concerned, is all,” he said. “You can do things that we’ve never seen before. And those flutes… well, there are monsters that use them to do terrible things.”
“Monsters?” Isabelle asked. She looked more curious than anything. Apparently Chelsea was more frightening than monsters.
Caleb nodded, walking closer. He pulled out a chair across from Isabelle and sat on it backwards, draping his arms over the chair’s back. “Kids have been disappearing from the city. They’re being lured out of their homes by monsters called Pipers who play those flutes.”
Isabelle frowned, plopping down to sit on the couch. “Pipers…” she said slowly. “Aren’t pipes different from flutes?”
Caleb chuckled. “Yeah, the name comes from an old folk tale,” he said. “They’re similar enough. But anyway… how are you able to make those flutes? I mean, I saw what you did, but I don’t understand it.”
“It’s magic,” Isabelle said brightly, smiling proudly.
“Yeah, I figured that,” Caleb said.
Isabelle leaned forward, wide-eyed. “You can use magic, too?”
“Sure can.” Caleb held up his pocket watch, flipping it open. The face of the watch glowed with bright light, and out came two spheres of white light. They flew forward, danced a halo above Isabelle’s head, and she laughed as she watched. Returning the lights to his watch, Caleb closed it and grinned at Isabelle. “Pretty cool, right?”
Isabelle kicked her legs faster. “Right!”
“But, see…” Caleb twirled the watch by its chain, “I can only use magic through an object like this, called a Talisman. But it looked like you used magic freely. Am I right?”
Isabelle nodded. “That’s right!”
“So… do you know how you do it?”
Isabelle frowned, swaying side to side. “I dunno. I know how I do it, but only as a feeling. I just… know what to do. And then I do it.”
“And you can make these magical flutes,” Caleb said, pointing to the flute in either of Isabelle’s hands.
The little girl nodded. “That’s right!”
“Why those flutes? Can you make other kinds of instruments?”
Another nod. “I can make all kinds of instruments! But… these are special.”
“Special? Why’s that?”
“Because…” Isabelle looked deep in concentration. She twirled the flute she’d made before Caleb and Chelsea’s eyes, and it vanished into thin air. She then held up the first flute, the one she’d been playing the song with. “This is the only way I can get home.”
The way Isabelle said that made Caleb pause. She’d seemed so energetic and friendly, but when she talked about going home, her voice was filled with the loneliness and regret that her song had been.
“Where’s home?” Caleb asked.
“The Library of Solitude,” Isabelle said, enunciating each syllable carefully, like she’d practiced the name over and over. “For some reason, I keep ending up in this library. It’s not the right one.”
“Do you know where the Library of Solitude is?” Caleb asked. He had about a million other questions about a place called “The Library of Solitude,” but he didn’t think throwing all of those into the face of a little girl who just wanted to go home would help him much.
Isabelle shook her head. “I know what it looks like. But… I don’t remember how to get there. Or what else is around it. I just know that there’s a song that will guide me back. But I don’t know which song.”
“And you have to play it on that flute?”
Isabelle nodded. “Right.”
“Do you know how others might get flutes that are just like that one?”
“Like the monsters?”
Isabelle rocked back and forth, staring at the flute in her hand. “There’s a man who asks me for them. He’s not a monster, though. He’s a person, like you.”
Caleb frowned at that. “I thought I was your first visitor.”
“You are. The man hasn’t found me since I came here, and I don’t know how to find him. But he would always come to me, when I was in the other place, and ask for this specific flute. But I can’t give him this one. So I made him one that’s just like it, and he said that was good enough. Though he was still kind of pushy about this one.”
“There’s something special about that one?” Caleb asked, pointing to the flute in Isabelle’s hand.
She nodded emphatically. “This is the first one. My mommy gave it to me and told me to make sure I never lose it, because it was the only way to get home if I got lost.”
“What was the man like?” Caleb asked. “And how many flutes did you give him?”
Isabelle swayed side to side again, her eyes tilted upward as she thought. “He was taller than you,” she said, pulling details from her memory one at a time. “He had white hair. And a big scar. It went from the top of his face on one side, across his nose, and down to his neck on the other side.”
Well. That didn’t sound like anyone Caleb knew. He’d remember features like that.
“I didn’t give him all of the flutes at once,” Isabelle continued. “He asked for one. Then he showed up again, asking for two. The next time it was for five. And… he kept wanting more. I think I gave him about one hundred before I ended up here and didn’t see him anymore.”
Caleb gaped. One hundred? How many Pipers had the Hunters destroyed? Less than twenty in the past five hundred years, if Caleb knew his history as well as he thought he did.
“Do you know how long ago you first met him?” Caleb asked.
Isabelle sighed, staring at the floor. “Time’s difficult,” she said softly. “My mommy always said so. At least it is for people like us.”
“What do you mean by that?” Caleb asked. “What kind of person are you?”
Isabelle opened her mouth, but then the old clock in the library started to chime. “No!” she whined. “My time’s up!”
“Your time’s up?” Caleb asked.
Isabelle nodded sadly. “Sorry. It was fun meeting you, Caleb. Hey! Can we talk more tomorrow? We just got started, but you’re really interesting, and you ask a lot of questions, and it’s fun!”
Caleb stared, not sure how exactly to take all of that. Finally, he just smiled. “Yeah, sure. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Isabelle hopped to the floor. Even standing up straight, she only barely came up to the top of the chair. She held out her free hand, pinky extended. “Promise?”
Caleb nodded, entwining his pinky with hers. “Promise.”
And then, just like that, Isabelle vanished.
“Caleb, time’s up!” Chelsea called out, coming back around to the lounge area. “Hey, where’d the kid go?”
“She said her time was up,” Caleb said, standing. “She just disappeared.”
“Time…” Chelsea stared at the couch where Isabelle had been, confusion and fear clouding her expression.
“What is it?” Caleb asked.
“I’m not sure what it means,” Chelsea said, holding up her phone so Caleb could see the time, “but it’s one o’ clock.”
It took Caleb a few seconds to process what Chelsea was getting at. But once it clicked, he felt a cold pit at the bottom of his stomach.
“One o’ clock’s when the Hollows disappear,” Caleb said softly. “That’s when their time’s up. And Isabelle… disappeared at the exact same time.”
Caleb stared at the spot where he’d made the pinky promise with the little girl. Creating Piper’s Flutes, talking about the Library of Solitude… and disappearing at the same time as the Hollows.
Who was this girl?