Megan jumped as a muffled crash came from the door to her right, immediately followed by several rather savage oaths. She shook her head slightly and entered a large, open room with tall arching windows and a balcony with a view of the setting sun. The windows were open, letting in the warm winds of summer.
A young woman of about eighteen stood with her back to Megan as several items floated around her. The young woman had cascading locks of rich, chestnut brown hair that fell in waves to just below her shoulders and well-tanned skin as if she spent all her days outdoors. She wore an aquamarine tunic and black leggings, each embroidered with silver.
Megan dropped into a crouch as a large book sailed towards her. “Uh, Lillian? What are you doing?”
The young woman turned, “Hi, Megan! I was looking for something actually—duck!”
Immediately, Megan shrunk rapidly, sprouting teal-tipped yellow feathers and a pair of wings. Looking up, she was privy to a view of the underside of a large box as it flew through the space where she’d just been standing.
“Okay, that’s not what I meant,” Lillian said, trying and failing to keep a straight face.
Duck-Megan fixed her stormy blue eyes on the grinning woman and quacked reproachfully before shifting back to her human self.
“I don’t even want to know how many times you’ve turned into a duck to be able to do it that quickly.” Lillian pulled a face prompting the corners of Megan’s mouth twitched upwards into a half-smile. “What’s up?”
“Mj’s back, we’re meeting in the library,” Megan replied, then added under her breath, “Assuming I survive until then.”
Catching her mumbled comment, Lillian grinned sheepishly and made an apologetic gesture with her hands. “Sorry, Meg.”
Megan heaved a dramatic sigh. “Just come on.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She saluted exaggeratedly and followed the other woman through the elegant hallways of Megan’s manor, not for the first time, marveling at the beautiful design of the structure and how it was built specifically to fit Megan. It was airy and bright with many different places to come and go, especially with Megan’s talent for advanced shapeshifting. The manor was designed to repel anyone who attempted to enter, magical or otherwise. So teleportation, flying, or even walking across property lines was impossible.
They soon reached a room with a high, round ceiling and huge majestic windows. Books filled each of the bookshelves from floor to ceiling, each bound with gold and dusted daily. A large mahogany table sat in the very center of the room, beneath a beautiful crystal chandelier. But the two figures already occupying the room were gathered around a smaller table in one of the darker parts of the room. Megan announced their presence with a, “Hey, Mj. Hi, Celie.”
They both started and turned, each mustering up a tight smile. Both women were beautiful but in very different ways. One was tall with warm dark skin and black, shoulder-length bushy curls with deep brown eyes that seemed to shine with an inner light under the glow of the sun. She wore an outfit similar to Lillian's with black leggings and a tunic but Mj's was a shimmery lavender color.
The other woman was a vision in purple with a head of gorgeous purple locks that fell in waves around her shoulder and were swirled with rainbow and gold. Her eyes were just as colorful, shining with the colors of the rainbow and containing pink and purple flecks. She wore a plum-colored dress with an intricate brown belt and black robes and boots.
The four of them each possessed a different power and worked together to smuggle the hunted Commons out of the Dunaire Empire. Mj was a Sorcerer with a talent for learning a variety of spells making her the most versatile. Lillian was a general Elemental who was able to use her ability in more discreet ways, working in the shadows and a great asset in physical combat. Megan was a Shapeshifter which gave her an edge in the spying world. Celeste managed their contacts, contributors, and supporters telepathically along with covering their mental tracks.
Today, their usual cheerful faces were clouded. “We have a problem, guys.”
“Yeah, we’re on the clock,” Mj added, worry creasing her brow. Lillian and Megan exchanged a glance before hurrying over to the desk. “The emperor has changed his plans, the Shadow Sworn are going to ‘purify’ Swilina three days from today.”
“How many Commons live there?” Lillian asked, studying a map of the large, sprawling city of Swilina.
“Forty-three, Swilina is the most major crossroads in all of Dunaire. A lot of Commons gathered there so they can flee in any direction. But they won't be able to outrun the emperor this time,” Celeste said. “We have three contacts there but none of them are trained to extract people.”
“What are they trained to do again?” Megan asked, tracing a path from her manor to Swilina absently.
“Listen, look, learn, and report back,” Celeste said. “That’s all we ask of our contacts. They don’t want to put themselves at that big of a risk by being a smuggler or extractor.”
“They should learn anyway.” Mj fiddled with the bottom of her wand, irritation flitting across her face. “Sometimes you just have to step up and choose to stand with who they think is right.”
“Not everyone can make that kind of commitment,” Lillian reminded her and Mj acknowledged this with a half-nod. “We’ll need to send a team in.”
“It has to be us,” Mj replied. “We’re the closest team to Swilina. And the strongest.”
Megan glanced at Celeste. “With so many people, we may all need to go into the field for this one.”
But Celeste was already shaking her head. “I can’t, I’m a liability. I’ve always been a liability, that’s why I usually don’t enter the field. Besides, my skills are better suited for tactical and technical support.”
“With so many Commons, your skills might be best suited for this one,” Mj countered. “You can talk to all of them at once non-verbally to get them organized.”
“If they capture me, they’ll eventually find a way to get answers from me,” Celeste said gravely. “We shouldn't take that chance.”
“You won't get caught,” Megan vowed.
“We’ll protect your brother, no matter what happens,” Lillian added.
“We need you, Celie,” Mj said.
Looking around at the three grim but empathetic faces around her, Celeste steeled herself, determination blossoming in her. “When do we leave?”
All of them knew this was a sacrifice, a risk that could lead to disaster, and Celeste was willing to take it. Lillian said, “As soon as possible.”
On the map before them, Mj tapped Megan’s manor and then Swilina. A glowing purple line snaked its way from one point to the other. “How fast can we get there?” Celeste asked, peering at the shimmery line.
“This is the fastest route. It’ll still take a day or two with no stops by ground.”
Mj bit her lip before tracing a new line, this one red, from point A to B over obstacles the other had to avoid. “If we use our powers, we could all get there in a moment.”
“With so little time, we'll have to use magic,” Celeste said.
“How long do you think it would take to get all the Commons ready to move?” Megan asked.
Celeste answered this time, “About a day, many of them are children whose parents abandoned them when they didn’t manifest a talent.”
Mj drummed her fingers on the table thoughtfully, “Because we’re bringing you, Celie, it’s probably best if we all move as a group as we head south.”
“We’ll have to be ready to divide into smaller groups if the emperor gets too close,” Lillian reminded her. “We can divide into one group of twenty-one and two of eleven. Celeste, you and Mj would take the larger group because you two can herd a larger amount of people and protect them with spells. Megan and I would each take one.”
“Okay, I’m going to go search for some protective spells, how about we reconvene in an hour and then leave?” Mj offered.
An hour later, each of them had a small bag slung across their backs and wore a silver necklace of a simplified soaring dragon. It was the symbol they left in some of the abandoned houses of the Commons they’d smuggled away. The soaring dragon was universally acknowledged as their symbol. After some debate, they decided that Lillian would use the shadows to travel to Swilina with only the three others in tow to conserve the others’ energy. It was slower than teleportation but faster than any other method of transportation.
They clasped hands and disappeared, reappearing in the lengthening shadows of Swilina’s walls. Lillian staggered, placing her hands on her knees and taking deep breaths.
She recovered quickly and joined the other three in examining the city, or what they could see of it. Swilina was protected by towering walls on all sides, with gates on the north, east, south, and west sides. Just like Megan’s manor, it was impossible to magically enter Swilina without consent. The two women approached the eastern gate to enter the city. It was guarded by a small platoon who would undoubtedly have a psychic among them.
Thankfully, Celeste could probably shield all of their minds and even create fake memories with Mj’s help. However, as a Mentalist, when Celeste spoke, she had no choice but to speak truthfully. Fortunately, she could cease talking altogether, but the more powerful the Mentalist, the stronger the desire to answer questions, especially when urged on by another Mentalist. Mj laid a reassuring hand on Celeste's arm. “You ready?”
Celeste’s face was bunched up in concentration but she nodded, “We have friends in high places and we wanted to see Swilina. Start playing in character now or I'll have to hide these memories, too.”
“I’ve always wanted to see Swilina,” Megan gushed immediately, slipping into character with the ease of constant practice. As she spoke, her hair lengthened dramatically and lightened to a shiny platinum color while the tips of her hair stayed a dark teal.
“Me too,” Lillian chimed in after a moment of collecting her wits, unable to mirror Megan’s ease. “It's the center of the empire, I’m so excited to see everything!”
“Yeah, come on,” Celeste said distractedly, leading them towards the gates as they kept up a steady background of nonsense chattering. Mustering a smile, she said, “You guys can go in front of me.”
Megan took the lead, chattering on about a completely false sightseeing tour in one of the mountain cities. She flitted from side to side in front of them, playing her role with the grace of a well-trained spy.
“Megan, slow down!” Mj called. Megan came back and dragged them forward until they stood in front of an official guard, breathless and laughing.
“Hello, may I please have your names and abilities?” The young man asking the question had closely cropped dark hair and deep blue eyes which gleamed with amusement.
“Hi! I’m Megan!” Megan trilled, gesturing as she spoke. “I’m a Shapeshifter, Lily’s an Elemental, Celie’s a Psychic, and Mj’s a Sorcerer. We’re looking for some people that we plan to meet up with before leaving on a sightseeing tour to the south!”
The man directed his next question to Celeste, “Why are you here?”
“We’re here to look for some people here before heading south,” Celeste replied honestly.
He stared for a moment longer before nodding, “Come on in and have a great day, all of you.”
“You, too!” Megan danced past him, a disarming grin fixed upon her face. The others quickly followed as the man turned back to greet the next set of visitors. The energy seemed to drain from Celeste as the rush of adrenaline faded and she began to lean put more and more weight on Mj. As they caught up to Megan, the smile melted off her face. “I hate pretending to be a ditzy blond,” she groused.
Celeste laughed, “At least we got in.”
“Let’s find an inn,” Mj suggested. “Then we can make a plan.”
“Sounds good,” Celeste said, staggering as she released Mj’s shoulder and tested her legs. Steadying herself with Lillian’s shoulder, she led the way through the streets, illegally reading minds to find their way quickly. They arrived within minutes and booked a room. The four women headed up and Mj immediately set about warding their room, muttering under her breath as she paced the room. The other three conversed mentally as they examined a map of the city pinned to one of the walls.
When Mj finished her spells, she joined them saying, “You can talk now.”
“My contacts were more helpful than I thought they’d be,” Celeste said. “They've given me all the info we need. So I’ll project seven faces and locations to each of you and we’ll split up and find them. They’re going to have to exit the city themselves. All you have to do is show them the symbol and tell them to meet us at the southern gates by noon tomorrow.”
“That’s twenty-eight people.” Mj frowned.
“Two of Celeste’s contacts already reached out to the other fifteen,” Megan explained. “Once we’ve found our seven, we’ll rendezvous here.”
“So gather all your stuff and head out,” Lillian said as Celeste projected her thoughts to them.
Midnight found Celeste slipping back into the inn, having just finished her job. With the help of their powers, Megan, Lillian, and Mj had all finished quickly but they made sure to make use of their extra time. Megan studied a book as she shifted from shape to shape, ease growing with each animal. Mj was curled up in the corner of the room, studiously memorizing spells. Lillian was studying the map, committing as much of it to memory as possible.
“You’re back.” Megan turned, relief evident on her face. “We thought something might’ve happened.”
“Not everyone has fancy-pants abilities,” Celeste teased. “I had to walk.”
Megan sniffed, feigning haughtiness. “Well, that’s your problem.”
“We should focus, guys.” Mj had risen and joined Lillian at the map. She traced a line from Swilina to the southern border. “This is the path we’ll take. Commit it to memory and then sleep, we have a long day ahead of us.”
Despite their late night, the four women rose with the dawn. They exited the southern gates and left Mj and Celeste to direct the Commons to Lillian and Megan using both telepathy and magic.
Soon they were all gathered in a magically created clearing. Spells were cast to further conceal it and ensure their voices wouldn't carry far.
Megan stepped forward. “Hello, everyone. My name is Megan. We are the Dragons, a group dedicated to protecting the Commons. The Shadows are approaching, we plan to smuggle you all out of the Dunaire, but we need your cooperation. If you want to fend for yourself, please come forward.”
No one did; they couldn’t outrun the Shadows without the aid of special abilities. The group set off, making good time as they traveled, reaching a village by dusk to pick up supplies and then making camp a few miles away.
They were all in good spirits as Mj set out to create wards around their campsite once more. But when she returned, a small flicker of fear shone in her eyes. “There's someone out there. I think it's the Shadows. They must have arrived just as we left and tracked us here.”
Immediately after she spoke, another, more powerful voice rang out over the clamor of the clearing. “We have surrounded your camp, surrender and we won't harm you!”
“There are twenty of them,” Celeste whispered as she stretched out her senses. “We can’t protect so many Commons and fight that many Shadows at the same time.”
The four of them were quiet for a moment. Then Celeste spoke again. “I’ve got an idea but you aren’t going to like it.”
The other three said nothing and Celeste forged ahead, “I’m going to show them an illusion of us trying to escape to the north. Mj will hide the real group and then as soon as they follow me, you’ll divide into three groups and head for the border separately.”
“You can’t create illusions,” Mj said.
“I can show them things mentally, basically broadcasting an illusion straight to their minds.”
“Where will you be?” Megan asked.
“I’ll be leading the fake group,” Celeste replied grimly. “But I won’t let them capture me, we can’t just hand over our secrets. Don’t worry, I won't let them take me alive.”
“Take care of my brother, Lily. You said you would, remember? I’m holding you to that.” Celeste glared at Lillian until she bowed her head solemnly, tears pooling in her eyes.
“I can shield us,” Mj reminded her.
“There’s no way you can shield us from so many Shadow Sworn,” Celeste snapped, letting the truth of the statement sink in. “There’s nothing we can do that they cannot, they outnumber us five to one. I’m doing this for you, and for them. Take care of my brother and tell him…tell him I love him. So create the illusion, Mj.”
Mj obeyed numbly, and Celeste rose, saying, “I love you guys.”
Without another word, she turned and sprinted away into the darkness, heading north, presumably projecting an illusion of their group to the minds of the Shadows. Shouts of surprise and pounding feet came from the surrounding forest as the Shadows gave chase. Megan jumped up, prepared to take to the skies and help Celeste but was halted by Lillian. The Elemental shook her head, pain reflected on her face as she said, “She chose to make this sacrifice, it's too late to save her but we will finish what she started.”