“That’s the thing about this city,” Megan mused, poring over the enlarged map of Avalir as she spoke. The Shapeshifter looked like a water goddess today; her skin was perfectly tanned and glittered with shiny cyan sparkles. Her hair cascaded down her back like a waterfall, starting white and darkening to a deep teal. Even her clothes matched the theme; billowing blue fabric was draped over her frame in a long, elegant tunic. Only her pants were different, coal-black in color, and made to allow free movement. “It was built on such a big trade road, it's hard for the guards to keep track of who goes in and out.”
Maya tugged on a lock of her golden-brown curls absently, “So what do we have to do exactly?”
Mj turned to the newest addition of their group. In the last couple of days, the two Sorcerers had spent a lot of time practicing spells together and were practically inseparable. “All we need to do is move the forty-three Commons under our protection across the Kyall border into their border city of Niz. Then, the three of us have to sneak back over the border and return to the capital.”
“That’s all, is it?” Megan muttered.
“We could do it in one trip,” Mj said confidently.
Megan raised an eyebrow, “Did you want some reality with those ambitions?”
“Why can’t we just teleport them across the border?” Maya interrupted.
Mj sighed, “I wish we could but the borders are all protected by ancient magic that’s connected with the emperor himself. It prevents that sort of magical intrusion on either side. And, unfortunately for us, magic doesn’t work all that well on Commons.”
“What?” Maya blinked.
“Using your abilities directly on a Common doesn't work,” Megan explained. “For example, if Mj tried to light Nathan on fire”—she gestured to the pale Common—“his clothes would light but he would be perfectly fine. Now if Mj lit the ground around him on fire he would burn with it.”
“Only Sorcerers are affected?”
“No, no, Elementals and Mentalists can’t directly alter anything about a Common,” Mj assured her. “Elementals would have to control the winds, not create them. Mentalists can’t erase memories, only take them away to be stored in their own minds. It’s pretty complicated, but generally, if you have to alter a physical aspect of them, it probably won’t work.”
“What about Shapeshifters?” Maya wondered.
Megan flashed her a wide grin. “Nope, I could kill a Common as a lioness just as well as I could as a human. My powers only work on myself so I can't even alter anything else.”
Maya mulled this over, fingers still entangled in her hair and Megan returned to studying the map of Avalir. Getting the Commons through the city and out the border would be the hardest part of their mission. They would have to spend several days preparing; surveying the border guards, memorizing city streets, stealing or bartering for information. But Mj was right, they could get the Commons out in one trip, in fact, that might be their best chance. She looked up as Maya began to speak again, “Won’t the border’s magic sense us leave the city unwarranted?”
“The thing about the border,” Mj replied. “The main purpose of the barrier is to prevent attack and invasion but you’re right, it will sense us leave the city. Fortunately for everyone, they have a pair of powerful Sorcerers on their side. You and I will create a small shield around the Commons when we leave so that the border can’t even detect us.”
“So what’s our plan?”
“We’ll get to Avalir in a day or two and . . . ” Megan trailed off, feeling something at the edge of her consciousness.
“Megan?” Mj asked. Then louder, “Megan!”
“Wait . . . just wait . . . ” Megan concentrated and she felt something shift.
A familiar voice filled her head, calling out to her. Can you hear me? Hello?
Surprise coursed through her, infusing her words with the emotion. Celeste?
Hey, Megan, miss me?
“You’re getting that look on your face,” Mj warned, bringing Megan’s mind back to her body. At Megan’s questioning glare, she elaborated, “The look Lily got right before she left.”
“I’m stupid, not that stupid.” Megan rolled her eyes and redirected her attention to Celeste’s voice. Where are you? How are you still alive? What were you thinking?
It’s good to hear from you again too. Even through her mental voice, Megan could detect Celeste’s laughter. I don’t know where I am, not yet. I can explain more to you when I join you, Mj, and Lia!
Lily’s not here, Cel, Megan thought. She got infected with the heroic virus you caught and ran off two days ago to save her brother. We haven’t heard from her since.
Guilt trickled from Celeste’s mind to hers and Megan added, It’s not your fault, I doubt we could have stopped her even if you were here.
I wish I had been there. Celeste’s mental projections were quiet and Megan knew the Mentalist must be thinking hard.
It’s okay, we’ll arrive in Avalir in just a couple of days. You can find someone to teleport you there, set up some bases before our group arrives. When we rendezvous, Mj and I will introduce you to someone we picked up along the way.
Replacing me already, are we? Celeste’s amusement was evident in her tone.
Yes, we’ve replaced you with a Sorcerer because we thought she could read minds, turns out we need a Mentalist for that. You feel up to the task?
Puh-lease, Meg, I was born ready. Besides I’ve picked up some allies of my own.
We’ll catch up when you get here, Mj might pull her fingers off if she keeps wringing them, I better stop her.
Well, we have a replacement if we need one apparently, Celeste replied with a snort.
Megan laughed, See you in Avalir.
Wouldn’t miss it.
Megan felt Celeste leave her mind and she was jolted back to the present. She blinked quickly as her eyes refocused. Mj was watching her shrewdly while both Maya and Nathan seemed unsure what to do with themselves. Mj raised an eyebrow, “So . . . ?”
“Celeste,” Megan breathed. “She’s alive.”
Mj froze, shock and excitement dashing across her face. Maya’s eyes flicked between the two women curiously, focusing on Mj as she spoke, “W-what?”
And then Megan surged forward, laughing uncontrollably as she took Mj’s hands and danced around the clearing. The Commons bustling around the tents looked up in surprise as their supposed saviors laughed and cried like madmen. Nathan and Maya followed them at a distance, apparently attempting to discern whether they needed to restrain Megan and Mj in any way. Finally, the two stopped, breathless from laughter on the south side of the clearing, eyes still bright with joy. Mj furrowed her brow and in a moment, her wand was in her hand. “Someone just breached the barrier.”
The mirth drained out of Megan, replaced by a strong surge of fear. “Where?”
Mj put her back to the trees carefully, “Just over my left shoulder there’s a tree with a large knot in it. Count nine trees to the left and he or she is hiding right there.”
Megan nodded and they both began to stride back to camp. Maya and Nathan greeted them, identical concern flicking across their features. “What happened?”
Mj shook her head, “Walk with us.”
As soon as they were positioned behind a tent, Megan shrank into a gray-brown cat and slunk away into the trees. She walked quickly under cover of the leafy forest and shifted to a squirrel when she was confident no one could see her. She scampered up the nearest tree and dashed across branch after branch, quickly finding the tree Mj had pointed out just a few moments before. Megan hurried across the tree into the next, nose twitching frantically as she scented the air. There.
It was a young man, cloaked in a forest green cloak that faded away to an ash white. She circled the lone figure, eyes alert for traps. Finding none, Megan decided to take a risk. She leaped down from her perch, shifting into a jaguar as she did, and landing in a smooth crouch. The man surged to his feet, beginning to shift as well. But she was already on top of him, pinning his torso to the ground with her two front paws. Mj emerged from the trees across from her, looking confused at the single figure waiting for them. Maya stepped out from behind the older Sorcerer and let out a groan, “Isaac!”
Megan sat back on her haunches, head tipped to the side curiously. Mj turned to Maya, “Do you know him?”
“He’s my brother,” Maya sighed. “Don’t worry, he’s not a threat.”
Mj regarded the young man thoughtfully as Megan sprang off him. She reverted to her human shape as Isaac stumbled to his feet. His hair was the same dark brown that crowned Maya’s head but his was slightly messy and faded to a lighter color at the tips. His eyes were hazel and piercingly intelligent. “Um . . . hi . . . ?”
“What are you doing here, Isaac?” Maya demanded. “I told you to stay with our parents!”
“Hey, I’m fifteen, Maya, I can decide for myself where I will and won’t go.” Isaac crossed his arms. “Besides, Mom and Dad gave me their blessing.”
Maya threw up her arms frustratedly, “But I specifically told you not to follow me!”
Megan and Mj’s eyes flicked from sibling to sibling, watching the verbal spar with some form of detached curiosity. When Isaac drew breath to shoot back a reply, Megan stepped in. “So, I know you both are mad and stuff but I really don’t want to get thrown into prison tonight so it’d be super helpful if you both lowered your voices a little.”
The siblings turned matching glares on her and their similarities were unnerving, standing side-by-side, they could have been twins. Mj stepped to her side. “We can discuss this back at camp under the protection spells we’ve cast.”
Maya nodded reluctantly followed by Isaac. As the group headed back in the direction they came, the two siblings engaged in a whispered argument, and Megan shook her head amusedly. Beside her, Mj waved her wand discretely and a silence fell over the two of them. “What are we going to do with those two?”
“We should bring them along.” Megan shot a glance over her shoulder at them. “I mean they’ve come this far, we can’t exactly take them back.”
“Good point but we’ll have to train them,” Mj replied.
“I’ve always wanted a mini-me following me around.” She laughed. “It’s so coincidental that we’re the only two left and these two happen to have the same powers like us.”
“Maybe it’s fate.” Mj’s eyes glittered as they re-entered the camp clearing. She waved her wand and the bubble melted away around the two of them. She turned to the siblings, “Isaac you’ll share Maya’s tent and Megan can stay with me.”
“Okay!” Isaac cried at the same time as Maya said, “He’s staying?”
“Yes, he’s staying, we can’t exactly leave him behind,” Megan answered. “Get some sleep, we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Dawn the next day saw early risers already beginning to prepare for the day ahead, a sleepy Megan and Mj among them. The two were nursing mugs of hot, sweet tea as they studied the map of their path one last time before they departed. Megan had discarded her eye-catching water goddess appearance in exchange for a pale, delicate one. Mj traced their route. “We can push hard on the road today and reach the outskirts of Avalir or we can keep a lighter pace today and tomorrow and reach the same place sometime after noon tomorrow.”
“We should try to make it there today,” Megan replied. “That way we can leave the Commons out there and scout out the city for an extra day. I also need to call Brooke and Flint to see if they made it to my mansion safely and if they have a plan to find Lily.”
“Okay then, let’s pack up and get on the road.”
Fifteen minutes later saw the group traveling the road to the border, urged to greater speeds with the news that they would soon reach their destination. With noon, more men and women began to fill the roads and the Dragons realized that their group wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. They divided into three groups; Maya with Nathan, Mj, and Megan with Isaac.
Late evening brought Megan and Isaac’s group their first glimpse of Avalir and with their goal in sight, energy renewed within them. Still, they were the last group to arrive at the rendezvous point and they found the entire camp already set up when they arrived. Mj, Maya, and Nathan greeted them, along with a large group of Commons who helped the new arrivals settle in.
“Celeste will arrive tomorrow with her two companions,” Mj said. “She didn’t expect us to make such good time and honestly neither did I. Tonight, I was thinking we could scout out the city a little and begin to form a rough plan. What do you think?”
“Yeah, let’s do that,” Megan agreed wearily. “Just let me call Brooke and Flint, then you and I can leave.”
“Why can’t we go?” Maya and Isaac seemed to materialize out of the darkness before them.
“We need a Sorcerer to stay and protect the camp,” Mj explained as Megan retreated to a quiet place to make her call. “Also . . . ”
She didn’t hear the rest as she took out her travel transmitter and laid it on the ground. “Sutherland Mansion.”
The call rang a few times before the familiar transmitter home in her mansion took form before her. A single figure stood in the large room, her wide, bright green eyes scrutinized her curiously. “Hi, Fawn. Where’s your brother?”
“There were some intruders on the property, Brooke and Flint went to deal with them,” she chirped helpfully. “Do you want me to fetch them?”
Megan smiled, “Yes, please. Tell them it’s urgent.”
Fawn nodded and left the room, leaving Megan with her thoughts. She stroked her chin as she paced, murmuring ideas aloud. Hurried footfalls drew her attention back to her transmitter for a second but she resumed pacing when she recognized Brooke, “About the compound—”
She broke off as she realized that more figures had followed her friend into the room. Lily. Her eyes found one of them in particular and astonishment flew to her before it was replaced by a strong sense of irritation. She was talking before she even realized she’d opened her mouth, “You idiot! When I get over there, I swear to the skies, I will destroy you! Are you hearing me? How dare you leave us out of the blue! How dare you!”
Her anger heightened when Lillian grinned impishly, “Sorry, Meg.”
“Sorry, my foot!” She yelled, not caring that the Commons nearest her were backing away fearfully. “You could’ve gotten captured! Flint and Brooke were about to—”
“Technically, I did get captured and someone tried to stab me, too. It's hard to grow old in this profession.”
“No one's tried to stab me,” Megan replied loudly. “And that's cool because I enjoy not being stabbed. You should, too.”
“Sorry, it’s an occupational hazard.” Lillian flashed another one of her annoying grins. “Usually I stab the other person first.”
“You worried us all, Lily! We didn’t know where you were or what happened! Flint and Brooke went all the way out there to find you!” Megan snapped irritatedly. “What were we going to do?”
“Hey, Meg, as much as we all appreciate the spectacle,” Brooke said, looking decidedly amused. “Was there a reason you called?”
“Yes, yes there was.” Megan took a breath as a young man and woman joined the group gathered around her. She noted that the arrivals seemed to all be Shadow Sworn but decided that she’d have to think about that later, “Celeste is alive, she’s alive.”
Stunned silence greeted her words. Brooke recovered the quickest, “What? How?”
Megan opened her mouth to reply that they didn’t know yet but a man spoke first. Recognition wormed through her but she couldn’t put her finger on his name. “She was simply never caught. The report said that she escaped capture, leaving five Shadows behind. Dead.”
Megan’s mind was already racing, storing the information and putting the pieces together into an indistinct image of what could have happened to Celeste. She barely kept up with the conversation as people continued to speak.
“The details seemed a little sketchy, we’ve been investigating foul play.”
Megan decided they were getting slightly off-topic when several other Shadows looked like they wanted to join the debate. “The point is that she’s alive and well and that she’s going to meet my team at the border.”
Lillian grinned, looking relieved, “Thank goodness, give her my best.”
“I’m still mad at you,” Megan warned her before turning to Brooke. “Lay low for a while, make sure Lily’s still there when I arrive—”
“So she can feel your wrath,” a voice interrupted from the back of the room. Megan turned her head to see Flint and Fawn looking on from the shadows. Fawn giggled and Flint offered her a slight wave.
Megan grinned at Fawn, “Exactly. I have to go now, but I’ll call back soon.”
“Don’t die, Meg,” Brooke told her.
She met everyone’s eyes when she responded, “You too, all of you.”
Then she tapped her transmitter and the room vanished. Mj appeared at her side. “Ready?”
Megan grinned, “Let’s take down Avalir.”