For the first half hour, Professor Pendleton played by the rules of humans. He slid effortlessly through the crowd, a disguised grace that made him nearly impossible to keep up with unless most of his pursuers were willing to shove their way through the other shoppers. This was a bigger hurdle for some than others. Nick seemed to keep pace with the same inexplicable speed, and Alice was not too shy about bullying her way past people in her way (she’d been to enough designer label releases to be well at home with this concept). Will was a having a little more trouble, yet he seemed strangely unconcerned about it. The one having the biggest issue keeping up was the one who had to elbow her way through the crowd without the benefit of being seen. Britney briefly entertained the idea of going visible to make her pursuit more effective, but realized it was a poor trade off. Yes, she was a little slower than the others, but she was also the one least likely to be caught and eliminated. Besides, it wasn’t like she had to keep perfect pace with the professor. When she lost sight of him all she had to do was follow the other students taking the trial. It seemed he hadn’t really thought this through too well, or he would have realized that having them take the test all at once made it infinitely easier on them. So long as they kept each other in sight, the success of one was the success of all of them.
Britney managed to catch up to them outside an upscale men’s clothing store. They were milling about, trying hard to look like they weren’t staring at the entrance. Well, Alice and Will were. Nick seemed to have lost the trail, and of course Tiffani was even harder to find than Britney was. So logic dictated that the professor had gone inside and they were all waiting for him to emerge. Given what they sold, it seemed a fair bet that he would leave in different attire than he entered, a standard trick to throw people off one’s trail. Briefly, the idea of entering the store and watching him shop entered Britney’s mind; however, she banished it away almost as quickly. Without a solid frame of reference for how long he’d been in there, she could easily miss him and his exit, losing track of the others to boot. No, the smart play was to wait out here at a distance where she could resume pursuit safely. It was a good plan. Unfortunately, she hatched it at the thirty-five minute mark.
“Sorry, Britney, I’m afraid you’re out,” said a familiar voice just as a hand landed on her shoulder. She turned around to find Professor Pendleton looking down at her. His gaze was a bit off, which made sense when she realized he couldn’t see her face. She was right that he’d changed clothes: now he wore a button-down and a blazer, but that didn’t explain how he’d managed to circle back on all of them. Of course, even that wasn’t the most pressing question at hand.
“How did you find me?” Britney realized her voice was thicker than normal. She was glad no one could see her: from the warmth cascading over her skin she knew she was blushing fiercely.
“I chose an outdoor mall for a reason. For one thing, there are puddles from last night’s rain storm, which still splash when you walk through them. For another, lots of open spaces where shadows can be seen. Didn’t you ever notice?”
Britney looked at the ground, very confused. She didn’t cast a shadow while invisible, she already knew that. As her eyes bore into the ground, she did actually notice something. There was a very minor shimmer, like a heat distortion, in the spot where he shadow should be. It was something she’d never caught before, given that it was so subtle she could only barely see it now.
“Invisible people don’t cast shadows, but they aren’t completely translucent either. They cause a small disruption in the light, almost impossible to find unless you know what you’re looking for,” Professor Pendleton explained. “Which, obviously, I do. Still, good effort.”
“Why come after me? You can clearly see the others, so why target me first?”
“Because they know they can be seen, so they are paying extra attention to their surroundings in case I try to approach. You trusted in your ability too much and let your guard down as a consequence.”
Britney started to protest then realized he was right. She was so certain she was safe that she’d only focused on following, not on watching out for him. It had been a mistake, and Britney wasn’t a captain because she was too stupid to learn from her failures.
“I guess I did. Can you tell me how you managed to get out of the store without us noticing at least?”
Professor Pendleton gave her a comforting smile. “Sorry, no can do. A magician never reveals his tricks.”
“Well, do me one favor then.”
“Make sure I’m not the only one to get eliminated this way. That would be humiliating.”
“Now that much I can certainly oblige,” Professor Pendleton assured her.
* * *
Nick looked down at the professor seemingly talking to empty air from his hiding place a few floors up. Either his teacher had gone off the deep end into crazy, or Britney was now out of the running. Not surprising; she’d hardly been discreet as she punched her way through the crowd, leaving a trail of confused faces behind her. She’d likely assumed they wouldn’t notice one more body amidst the crowd pressing in around them. That false theory had made her exceptionally easy to track, at least as far as her general location. Add in that Alice was jerking her head around every few seconds, making her look insane but also rendering her nearly impossible to catch unaware, plus Will’s easy manner which indicated he had something up his sleeve, and the rest of them had been far more difficult targets.
Not that Nick was under any misimpression that Britney would be the last one tagged out. The others were doing well, but from Professor Pendleton’s disappearing act, it was obvious he’d decided to step things up a level.
That was fine with Nick; he’d been getting bored anyway.