As soon as she rose, Celeste knew the Shadows had seen her. Surprised yelps rose from the forest and she could only assume they hadn’t expected the Commons to attempt to make a run for it. Of course, that was because it was the stupidest idea ever, she reminded herself humorlessly. Soon the shouts died and were replaced by the sounds of many pursuers.
Celeste ran as fast as she could, leading the fake Commons northward as she pelted through the forest. A destination was fixed in her mind. She had seen it on the map the night before as well as the many other times they had memorized parts of Dunaire, and she could recall the way there with almost clarity. It was a city known as Orvelin and very large, almost as large as Swilina, with lots of foot traffic and a variety of different people. She also knew that once she arrived, it would be easy to disappear into the crowds to lose her Shadow tails in the chaos. Unfortunately, Celeste had to get there first.
Her thoughts wandered to her friends whom she had left crouching in the darkness one Dragon short. Megan, Lillian, and Mj would still have a long road ahead of them, especially when the Shadows realized that Celeste had just been a decoy. But she knew that her friends were capable. They were quick enough, clever enough, and strong enough to survive.
She broke out of her musings as an unwelcome presence prodded at the barriers of her mind. Mentalists, Celeste snarled internally, and perhaps a little hypocritically as she had done her fair share of invasive prodding just the previous day.
Her energy began to fade and she realized she should have been channeling her mind’s energy from the beginning. Celeste quickly corrected her mistake, letting her mind fuel her physical body, feeling her legs speed up and her senses took on a new clarity.
Whipping through the forest, she let her mind take over, shunning intellect and welcoming instinct. As she ran, she sent her projections of the Commons to the north, east, and west in small groups of no more than four people. They would eventually fade away as the distance between them increased. But hopefully, the Shadows tracking them would assume they simply got away clean and wasted time attempting to pursue them.
Celeste could feel the combined effort of maintaining such a rigorous pace and such strong illusions slowly chipping away at her life force. She had never attempted to use so much mental energy in one push as large and powerful as this one. But without it, she would have no chance of outpacing her pursuers. The aid of her mental energy lent her muscles the strength they needed to cover distance so quickly. Her pursuers would later recall that they thought they were pursuing an Elemental who was calling on the winds to aid her as she ran.
The Mentalist led them on a wild race across the countryside, never straying far from her main goal of Orvelin. She continued to gradually send her projected Commons away, lending more and more of her energy to her legs. Not once did she slow, much less stop, on her long, winding journey. Eventually, she fell into a rhythm that gave her no time to think, depending solely on instinct and intuition.
Soon, all of Celeste’s “Commons” had made their escape and she was able to lend all her strength to her legs. But inevitably, her strength started to wan, her pace slowing dramatically as the rush of pure exhilaration and raw energy faded.
The young Mentalist eventually collapsed from exhaustion, both physically and mentally, around two in the morning. She had covered an amazing distance in just under four hours, missing her final destination of Orvelin by a mere two miles.
This meant that Celeste had covered an astonishing distance of ninety-seven miles northeast in less than four hours. Alone, in the dead of night with only the moon to guide her, and maintaining a powerful projection.
But like all things, her speed didn’t last. She lay where she had fallen, too tired to even raise her head and see that the city she had been striving to reach was not so far away. Even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to make the next two miles no matter how hard she tried.
Still, through her weary haze, she managed to draw a small, silver dagger from a hidden pocket in her boot. Her mind was inching along, still attempting to recover from its all-out effort. Celeste forced herself to focus, clearing her mind as best she could and centering it on one thought; she couldn’t let them take her alive.
Her strength was sapped, her lids were heavy, and her mind was still but she managed to raise her dagger and position it above her chest. Her hands shook, from fear or exertion she wasn’t sure, and the weapon’s point was unsteady.
There were no inspirational or honorable last words, just a steady stream of determination to get the job done. When Celeste plunged the dagger downward, the wavering tip missed her heart. Feeling the blade pierce her chest, she screamed, pain lighting her nerves on fire.
Even though it missed her target, she could feel herself fading away, as she grew farther and farther from this world. Just as she lost consciousness altogether, she heard the frantic voices of multiple Shadows as they found her bleeding out into the grass. “…stabbed herself…”
“…can’t be dead…”
Then her senses abandoned her and she heard no more.
Celeste woke with a small groan and a migraine gnawing at her skull. For a moment, she lay still, wondering how she had gotten there. Then it hit her. She had been running…and she…she stabbed herself. Celeste jolted upright, fear and alarm rushing through her, ignoring the slight vertigo that came with her blood rushing to her head in one quick stream. How…how was she still alive?
She put a hand over the place she knew she’d stabbed. Through the black clothes she now wore, she could feel the slightly raised line of a scar.
Horror coursed through her as the realization of what that meant crashed over her. She had failed, she had come in alive, she couldn’t lie her way out of this like Megan, Lillian, and Mj could.
“Welcome to the land of the living, Miss Shinobu.” Celeste nearly fell off the bed, her whirlwind of emotions setting her nerves on end. The voice was male, aloof and sharp with an icy bite of steel. He stood in the corner of Celeste’s cell, cooly observing the newly awoken Mentalist. The man was tall and well-muscled with jet black hair and matching eyes that made the hair on the back of Celeste’s neck stand on end.
She wanted to say something snarky but all she came up with was, “I was dead?”
The man chuckled darkly. “Not quite, but you came very close.”
Celeste said nothing, first barricading her mind before reaching out her senses to try to invade the man’s mind but he just chuckled and said, “Now, now, none of that, Celeste.”
“Who are you?” Celeste demanded.
“I think I’m the one who will be asking the questions,” the man said loftily. “You may call me what you wish.”
Celeste eyed her, doubtfully, “I highly doubt you’ll like any of the names I’d like to call you.”
He snorted, “You will call me Keenan if such a simple task is so difficult for you.”
“It’s not difficult,” Celeste assured him, “it’s beneath me.”
Keenan showed no sign that he’d heard her, saying only, “Now, we know you are with the Dragons so there’s no use hiding it.”
Deception is a skill, lying is a choice, Celeste reminded herself, just annoy him until he leaves. “And how have you come across this very valuable piece of information?” She asked, layering her voice with sarcasm and annoyance.
Keenan said nothing and waved his open hand, where her silver soaring dragon necklace lay. She let her dismay show on her face because choosing her battles was more important than winning them all. Building on this charade, she let her mouth form an “O” shape. But she said nothing too, letting the silence stretch between them. Celeste met his gaze defiantly and he was the one who turned away.
“What do you the Dragons do?” He asked. This question piqued her curiosity, every Shadow should know what the Dragons did.
“We smuggle Commons out of Dunaire,” Celeste answered evenly. “Which you know, because we leave our symbol everywhere.”
“Yes, right.” Keenan cleared his throat, recovering his composure quickly but she noticed the slight hesitation in his voice. Suspicions and theories swirled through her mind as he asked his next question, “What is your purpose?”
“Living and reproducing,” She replied innocently. “Isn’t that yours?”
“What is your purpose as a Dragon?” He asked, irritation showing clearly on his face. “Why are you a Dragon, surely it's a risk putting a Mentalist into the field.”
“This was one of my first field assignments.” Celeste had been on three field assignments altogether. Situations that specifically called for her ability or were dire enough to need more support.
“I see,” he said and Celeste caught his eye before delivering a massive eye roll which he pointedly ignored. “What did you do in the meantime?”
“Studied, ate, slept, complained, talked, read,” Celeste listed. “That’s a few of them.”
“Something important!” Keenan snapped. “Something you did to help the Dragons! Something useful to us!”
“Number one, none of those were questions.” Celeste squinted at him. “Number two, why would I tell you any of that?”
The shadows in the room took on shapes of their own, many of them threatening. Keenan stood, fist clenched, glaring daggers at Celeste who said cheerfully, “So…you’re a light elemental or a shadow one. Not very strong though or they would already start changing as your emotions changed directions. And I think you’re a singular Elemental, or a different element would’ve shown itself first. I have a friend who’s a general Elemental. When she gets mad, the first thing to change is wind. It’ll just start going cra—.”
"Stop," he snarled. "You will answer to...the emperor."
Again, he only hesitated for a moment, but she was looking for it now. She tipped her head to the side thoughtfully, what are you not telling me?
"I want you to tell me where the Dragons meet," he ground out, anger beginning to simmer closer and closer to the surface.
"We meet anywhere," Celeste replied. "We don't have a fixed meeting place every Dragon knows about."
Abruptly, Keenan stiffened and cocked his head, a distracted look stealing over his face. Celeste recognized the expression of one being delivered a mental message. After a moment, he turned his gaze back to her and, with more of his initial control, said, "As much fun as this has been, Miss Shinobu, I have more important things to deal with."
“Sure, it's not like I have a choice."
Then he turned on his heel and exited the cell.
Through the open door, Celeste caught sight of a symbol that was printed on the back of a woman’s uniform. But it wasn’t the crossed swords of the Shadow Sworn or even the golden sun of the emperor. So who were her captors?