Chapter 151

In her nearly two years at Lander, Alice had faced a myriad of trials: some personal, some academic, and some heroic in nature. She was far from the head-up-her-ass-princess that had rolled into Melbrook on the first day and made snap decisions about everyone around her. She’d grown in terms of capabilities, too. Her power had evolved, as well as her willingness to use it. Alice was not quite a first-class warrior, but she no longer wasted time fretting that she was a hindrance to her team. These challenges had caused her to grow, and they had taken place in all manner of locations. So it was with some surprise that she found the one that had worried her most, Professor Pendleton’s tailing exam, was taking place on something of a home-turf for her.

She was standing on the third floor of a massive outdoor mall, looking down at a healthy crowd of people milling about a food court. Healthy, in this case, refers only to the size of the crowd, not their overall physical wellness. A small distinction, but given the quality of the food they were cramming down, an important one. Her green eyes darted through the people, rapidly scanning for any sign of her target. The location in her envelope had put her in front of a designer boutique on the third floor. She’d spotted Will arriving in front of a Radio Shack and Nick looking bored in front of a kiosk selling sunglasses. It seemed Professor Pendleton had decided to have a little fun with doling out their starting positions. She couldn’t see Britney or Tiffani, which didn’t really mean much given their respective talents. Nevertheless, it was clear that all three of the starting positions of which she was aware had only one thing in common: their view of the food court below, which was curiously still absent of Professor Pendleton.

Alice’s nerves manifested in constant fidgeting with the brim of her pink and black baseball cap, an attempt to make herself less recognizable that would have fooled no one. Even with her mane of blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail and stuffed into a hat, she hadn’t thought to cover her striking facial features or dress in a way that concealed her distinctive figure. None of which might be of concern if she failed to even locate her tailing target. If only she knew what his damned ability was. He might be able to change his looks, or even shift size entirely. What if he was masquerading as a child? Or a woman? Alice took a deep breath to try and calm down. If he could do those things, then she was screwed. Nothing would change that. She needed to focus on the scenarios where she had a fighting shot. Like if he was just wearing a mundane disguise.

A quick glance told her Nick and Will were still in starting position. Good. If neither of them had found him, then he probably wasn’t around to be found yet. Alice turned back to the food court, trying to let her gaze wander across everything. Assume he would be in a disguise: that was a fair bet. Okay, so if that was the case, how would she see through it? He was tall - unless it was an all-is-lost scenario there would be no way to hide that. He could hunch over, but that would draw even more attention. She let her eyes lift upward to only observe the highest human points before it dawned on her that he might be sitting.

What next? Professor Pendleton wasn’t a terribly distinctive man: lean frame, clean shaven face as of that morning, dark hair, all features which he could disguise with a basic stage makeup kit, some dye, and a pillow under his shirt. It dawned on Alice that perhaps he favored his non-distinctive style specifically because it made him harder to visually pin down. Her eyes darted over to Nick, clad in a generic t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Except for the glasses, he was much the same as the professor. Nothing about him really stood out. In fact, if he took off his sunglasses, Alice was reasonably sure she would lose track of him in the crowd. Maybe that was the point of them: aside from masking when he used his luck, it gave him the ability to vanish in plain sight.

Alice blinked in surprise at her own realization. That was it. That was what she should be looking for. He was already nondescript, so that’s what she’d been searching faces to find. Professor Pendleton was a professional, he knew how to divert people’s attention. They’d be looking for someone not worth looking at. Alice changed her strategy, letting her eyes be drawn by bright colors or unique people.

Guy in a giant eagle jacket. Not him. Girl in light pink dress and matching shoes. Not him, but Alice wondered if the girl had gotten those heels at one of the stores in the mall. Silver painted man doing the robot as people threw change into his hat. Not him. Gentleman in a crisp business suit with an electric blue tie. Not him. Young guy with spiked hair, spiked choker, and ripped t-shirt. Obviously not... him.

It would have been easy to miss, even knowing what she was looking for, but the disinterested way the punk-styled man leaned his face against his hand did more than convey a sense of boredom. It also hid his key features without seeming like it was intended to. Alice felt her heart quicken with excitement. The lean frame, the dark hair, and even though he was leaning on the cheap plastic table, it was clear he was taller than most of the other people around him.

“Bingo,” she muttered under her breath. As if on cue, the target rose from his table, somehow always keeping a portion of his face obscured as he meandered nonchalantly through the food court. She risked a glance at her fellow test takers. Nick didn’t seem to notice anything, but with his control of body language and hidden eyes, that didn’t really tell her crap. Will was a better indicator, and despite trying to look nonplussed, his dark eyes were definitely darting in the direction of the meandering punk wannabe. Still no sign of the others, but that was enough confirmation for her.

Alice pulled down the brim of her cap and tried unsuccessfully to suppress an excited grin. Despite all the worry, despite the high stakes, despite the knowledge that there was almost no chance she would get a victory, Alice was still pumped up. Win or lose, this wasn’t going to be boring. The disguised professor was nearing the edge of the food court, heading toward an opening that led to the vast expanses of the mall’s main sector.

The game was on.