Tamiko hid in the closet from her brother’s friends. They were yelling and being rowdy again. She just wanted to sleep, but couldn’t with all the noise in their small apartment, so she tried to focus on reading a book. But it was too loud. She covered her ears and willed them to leave. She could tell they were fighting, but their laughter told her she needn’t call her mom or the cops. Tamiko’s hair was short and dark brown, barely reaching her shoulders. She had long bangs and wore a long blue skirt and white T-Shirt.
She was 15 now, too old to be cowering in a closet. She should tell those boys to get lost. But her hand trembled when she grabbed the door handle. She pushed it open regardless, trying to force her shyness to disappear. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw a tall red haired girl in front of her. She screamed and fell backward into the closet. There was a strange girl in her room! Had she broken in through the window? Tamiko pulled her cell phone out of her skirt pocket, but was fumbling too badly to dial her mother.
“Let’s get you out of here.” The red haired girl said, reaching down for her, but Tamiko burst out of the closet, shoving her phone into her pocket and racing past the intruder. She dashed down the stairs, a cold feeling of shock tearing through her. She ran to her brother. He had black spiked hair and wore a green letter jacket from his soccer team.
“Raito, help! There’s a stranger in my room!” Raito scoffed.
“What are you talking about? I’d have heard the door open. Plus we’re on the 48th floor, no one could’ve come through the window.” He turned to his friends, distracted as one put the other in a headlock. “Not cool, man.” He muttered, breaking them apart. Raito turned away from Tamiko. She dared a glance behind her and the red haired girl was back.
“Look! There she is!” Tamiko scrambled behind Raito. The walls in the apartment were yellow and the kitchen full of orange accents. The smell of oven-microwaved freezer dinners permeated the air. And for a moment, Tamiko was struck by how normal all of it was, except for the smiling intruder at the bottom of the stairs.
“Raito, look! It’s her!” She exclaimed, her voice breaking. Raito pulled Tamiko closer.
“Where?” He said, looking around in every direction.
“At the foot of the stairs!” Tamiko exclaimed. Raito looked puzzled for a moment and his friends stopped fighting.
“But there’s no one there.” Raito said, and Tamiko felt a chill go down her spine.
“What do you mean? Look! It’s a girl with red hair, in a green shirt, black pants, don’t you see her?” Raito shook his head and Tamiko’s stomach flopped and her blood ran cold. The girl laughed, and Raito’s friends did too. So Tamiko ran out of their apartment, fleeing to the elevator, the door closing just before the red haired girl followed her in. Once the elevator made it to the lobby, she dashed down the street, but it began to rain and she slid against the apartment complex and sat on the ground. A stranger was following her and no one else could see her. She started to cry.
“You can stop crying.” The red haired girl said. She’d followed Tamiko outside! The girl extended her hand to Tamiko, offering to pull her off the ground. Tamiko clasped her hand, only to confirm that she was flesh-and-blood and not of her imagination. She could in fact, feel the warmth from her hand and the solidness of it. Tamiko laughed nervously. Stress can make a person hallucinate, can’t it? She thought.
“What are you? My imaginary friend in the flesh? Or a burglar who somehow got into my room and chased me outside afterwards? But then, how is it that my brother and his friends can’t see you?” Tamiko’s heart froze for a moment. What would cause her to see things that weren’t there? Was she ill?
“You can stop worrying.” Said the red haired girl. “My name is Kohana. I’m an Image Manipulator. I made myself invisible when I came to your house. You saw through my invisibility. That’s what I came to find out.”
“Your invisibility?” Tamiko asked.
“I came into your house when your brother’s friends walked in, and I projected an invisible field around myself. You could see through it, meaning you have the gift. You’re an Image Manipulator too. Only a rare few are born with the gift. Congratulations!” Kohana’s voice was cheery.
“An Image Manipulator?” Tamiko said, confused.
“You can see through and create illusions. There aren’t very many Image Manipulators. But the ones who exist are useful for catching the bad ones. I suspected you have the gift. Your mother does, and it’s hereditary, but your brother didn’t get it, since he couldn’t see me. That’s not unheard of. It’s just like how you both have different hair colors even though you’re related. Whether a person inherits a knack for seeing through illusions is a recessive genetic trait. Like red hair. So it’s rather rare. I’d like to hire you. Have you ever had a job before?” Kohana inquired.
“My mom is an Image Manipulator? Why didn’t she tell me? I sure can’t make illusions. You might have to find someone else.” Tamiko said.
“Your mom had a falling out with our group. But you still have the potential to join us in disrupting the Image Manipulator’s illusions. Would you like to learn how?” Kohana looked at Tamiko worriedly, unsure if she’d agree to her proposition.
“If we get out of this rain and you buy me a hot chocolate, I’ll consider it.” Tamiko said, smoothing the rain out of her hair. Kohana’s face lit up.
“Excellent! Come with me!” Kohana clasped Tamiko’s hand and ran to the nearest coffee shop. It was a two story building with little circular tables outside and umbrellas hanging over them, colored with purple and blue stripes. The chairs were black and metal, as was the metal mesh table. Kohana went in the building and ordered Tamiko a hot chocolate and a latte for herself, and they retreated to the metal table and chairs outside.
“The rain’s helpful, no one wants to be outside and it’ll be easier to talk about this stuff without any people around. Alright, I have to unlock your powers first. You can see through illusions, so you have the power, but you need a catalyst to awake your illusion-creation abilities. This tonic will awaken your powers. It’s made of Hawthorn Tree leaves and a faerie’s tears.” Kohana said, taking a tiny test tube out of her pocket.
“How did you get faerie tears? Wait, faeries exist?” Tamiko said, puzzled.
“Play them sad music until they cry. And yes, they exist. They mostly stay invisible to humans though.” Kohana said, pulling the cork out of the test tube.
“Well, does the tonic taste bad?” Tamiko said, nervously.
“Oh, you don’t taste it. Here.” Kohana said, dripping the tonic on her fingers and flicking it in Tamiko’s eyes. Tamiko jerked away.
“Hey!” Tamiko shrieked.
“Now, I want to see if you can unlock your powers, Tamiko. Look at the steam coming off your hot chocolate, really focus on it. You can change it from white to blue.”
“Oh, that’s silly.” But as Tamiko focused on the steam, it turned blue before her eyes.
“Woah! That’s weird.” Tamiko said, leaning away from the hot chocolate.
“You can create more complex illusions in much the same way.” Kohana said. Suddenly, Tamiko’s cell phone rang. She fished it out of her pocket. It was Raito.
“What do you want?” She said grumpily.
“Sis! I didn’t mean for you to run out into the dark and the rain. I’m sorry. I sent my friends home. Where are you? I can come get you. But when you get home, we’ve got to get your eyes checked. If you’re seeing things, maybe you need glasses?” Raito seemed genuinely worried and apologetic. Tamiko figured she could find it in her heart to forgive him for not believing her.
“I’m at the Striped Coffee Shop.” She said.
“I’ll be there in 10 minutes!” Raito hung up abruptly.
“Well, Kohana. It’s been weird. But I’ve got to go home.” Tamiko said.
“Will you consider joining me again tomorrow? At least come on an Image Manipulator hunt with me. I want to show you how it’s done. And if you don’t hate it, perhaps you’ll help me out on occasion?” It was clear Kohana was holding her breath until Tamiko answered.
“I suppose that seems reasonable. Perhaps I will.” Tamiko said earnestly.
“That’s great!” Kohana cheered.
Tamiko waited nonchalantly outside her apartment complex, waiting for Kohana to show up. She wasn’t sure what to bring with her for an Image Manipulator hunt, but she had a purse with pepper spray in it and a small net. When Tamiko told her mom and brother that she was going to the mall with her friend, they were happy for her. Tamiko mostly stayed home and read and watched T.V.
Kohana appeared, carrying a metal rod with two separate prongs on top of it, like a tuning fork, but between the prongs was a blue glass sphere.
“What’s that?” Tamiko asked.
“A magic-canceling staff. Here, I brought you one too. It’s made of magic in its purest state, and ordinarily it can cancel out illusions like an EMP cancels out technology, but it only works if I’m aiming it at an Image Manipulator. And the prey we’re after is one that’s been hiding out at a mall and causing trouble.” Kohana said.
“The mall is still open? Just about all the stores are closed by now.” Tamiko took the magic staff in hand. The local mall was rather old and had a lot of completion from other businesses around it. Most of the stores within it were closed except one clothing store and the movie theater.
“Yeah, it’s nearly deserted. But that’s what Image Manipulators like. If it’s a place with only a few humans, it’s easier to dupe one or two into thinking they’ve gone crazy.” Kohana said.
Tamiko clutched her staff pushed open the heavy metal doors to the mall. Long escalators filled the space above her and the walls were covered in blue wallpaper. Tamiko followed Kohana, who passed two closed electronics stores before heading up an escalator. Only five or so people occupied the huge mall, and Tamiko started getting nervous.
“Who are we looking for? What does the Image Manipulator look like?” She asked.
“It’s hard to tell. The likelihood that the Image Manipulator has altered their appearance is high. They could be a girl, boy, tall, short, brown hair, blue hair, anything really. But they do tend to prefer a human-like form.” Kohana said. “So here’s what you do, you take your staff, aim it at the Image Manipulator, and it should cancel out their illusions so we can capture them. Image Manipulators can make illusions to fool humans, but sometimes they’re strong enough to fool other Image Manipulators as well, in that case, you just have to look through the staff’s orb and you’ll see through the illusion.”
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to make glasses out of this material?” Tamiko asked, touching the glass orb.
“The Institute of Magical Wares is working on some goggles that would let a person see through illusions, but the prototypes were making the subjects ill, dizzy, and temporarily blinded, so for now, the orb on these staffs are all we have to work with.” Kohana held out a roll of stickers, tearing the paper to give Tamiko a few sheets of them. “When applied, these blink and make noise so we can find the Image Manipulators. They can’t cover them in false images like they can for their surroundings. But you need to get close enough to touch them.” Tamiko nodded. She felt uncomfortable about all this. Now there was a whole institution devoted to finding Image Manipulators? How common were they? And how much trouble could they cause? Peering up the escalator she saw a couple holding hands, two children playing loudly on phone games while their exhausted mother watched, and three chatting businessmen on their way to lunch.
Then she saw a lone boy in jeans and a red T-shirt, and focused on him. The blue orb revealed a girl with sandy brown, curly hair that extended past her shoulders. She wore a large blue ribbon in her hair and wore a blue velvet dress. Tamiko tensed.
“Look Kohana! That boy in the red shirt!” Kohana used her staff like a monocle and stared at him.
“We found her. Now the trick is apprehending the Manipulator and not causing a scene. Image Manipulators tend to base their appearance on someone they’ve seen before. It’s not unreasonable that the boy she created could bear a resemblance to another person. So the idea is to see if she’ll play along with a fake story in order to avoid rousing suspicion from people nearby. Follow my lead.” Kohana walked up behind the boy and grabbed his hand, linking her fingers through his casually.
“Hi Jack, I was calling for you but you didn’t hear me, how have you been?” Kohana smiled easily. Tamiko looked on nervously. How could she be certain the Image Manipulator wouldn’t attack her?
“I’m fine as usual, how have you been?” The Manipulator coolly played into Kohana’s act. After all, how could the Image Manipulator know if the original bearer of their current appearance knew Kohana?
“I’ve missed you ever since summer camp.” Kohana said as she pulled the Manipulator into a hug, pressing the locator sticker onto her back. The Manipulator froze completely. Tamiko worried she’d felt the sticker, but she pulled away, smiling. “How about we catch up? Let’s get ice cream.” The Manipulator disentangled their hands gently.
“I’m sorry buddy, but I have to get to my part time job. I’ll see you later.” The Image Manipulator said. Tamiko wondered if the Image Manipulator actually did work, or if it was just a lie. Could the Image Manipulator have a whole double life as this person? One that the person they were imitating knew nothing about? The escalator had ended and The Manipulator walked at a noticeably brisk pace through the mall. He ducked into a theater and Tamiko and Kohana raced after. The lights were on in the theater and it was empty, but Tamiko saw a girl with a blue ribbon, and noted the blinking sticker on her back marked her as the Image Manipulator. Tamiko and Kohana sat next to her in the theater.
“What’s the advantage of catching me anyway? Do you get an award?” The girl said, dully, looking at Tamiko. Kohana shook her head.
“We’re just doing our job.” Kohana said, reaching out to grab the Image Manipulator, but she snapped her fingers and the grey and black colors drained from the room, replaced by blues and whites. Tamiko gasped and clung to Kohana’s arm. A green wave washed over the room and a sandy beach appeared, with surf lapping at the shore. Tamiko reached out in front of her and picked up a handful of sand, gasping when it felt warm and grainy.
“What did you do? Is this an illusion too?” Tamiko said fearfully. The girl laughed.
“I am Cece. I can make you see what I want, and I can convince your brain that you’re touching real sand. But we’re still in the theater. I can even convince your mind that you’re not tripping over theater seats in real life.” Tamiko’s hands shook.
“Tell me, does the curly blonde hair make me look cuter? Does it give you more sympathy for me? How about pink?” Cece snapped her fingers and pink corkscrew ringlets adorned her head. Tamiko clutched her staff tightly, uncomfortable with the nonchalant way Cece could alter things. The whole beach looked too real. Was it real? Tamiko could swear she felt warmer.
“Don’t fall for it.” Kohana said sternly. “It’s not real.” As if to emphasize this, or perhaps just to unnerve Tamiko, Cece snapped her fingers a few times, changing her hair from pink to blue to purple, then yellow.
“Stop it! Why are you doing this?” Tamiko exclaimed.
“Well you were stalking me at the mall. This is what you wanted, right? For me to use illusions to freak out people so you’d have a reason to arrest me? I was just minding my own business. Why do you hunters really need to come after Image Manipulators anyway?” Cece said bitterly.
“You bend the fabric of reality!” Kohana said. “It’s not right. I want you to come with me. Your powers are a danger to others.”
“You mean they might be a danger to others. You’re arresting me for something I might do?” Cece said, crossing her arms and glaring defiantly. Tamiko had to admit she had a point. The idea of hunting a magical creature had excited Tamiko, but she hadn’t expected the quarry to be so harmless.
“Maybe she’s right Kohana. I mean she hasn’t hurt anyone.”
“But she turns herself and everything around her into a lie!” Kohana exclaimed. Cece snapped her fingers and a gaping hole in the sand opened beneath them and they fell. Tamiko could feel herself falling, her stomach lurching. How could this be, if it was only an illusion?
Tamiko and Kohana fell through the ground and down a long tunnel. The stone walls were purple and glittered. The two of them screamed until they landed in a deep pond. Tamiko clawed to the surface, casting quick glances all around her for something to latch onto.
Eventually, Tamiko bumped into a thick block of ice, but when she attempted to crawl onto it, the ice capsized.
“Kohana!” She shouted, sliding into the water. She peered around, but only saw large blocks of ice plunging deep into the sea, and peculiar purple dolphins circling around her. She grasped the fin of a passing dolphin and it didn’t toss her as she pulled herself onto its back.
“Kohana!” She yelled again, then she saw her sitting upon a piece of ice drifting by. The dolphin swam away and Kohana pulled Tamiko onto the ice. “Where are we?” She asked Kohana.
“Cece’s illusion.” Kohana said, her voice tense.
“All of this?” Tamiko gazed around, the scenery seemed to go on for miles. “I didn’t know illusions could get this big.” Kohana began squeezing the water out of her hair.
“This is more complex than an ordinary illusion, I’m not sure how she did it.”
“The floor opened up around us…” Tamiko mused.
“I don’t think that was part of the illusion, she could have rigged the blast in the theater so that the floor opened up. We could be in a basement now, one with no furniture, which is why we haven’t bumped into anything that would contradict the illusion. I refuse to believe her claim that she can make us think we’re touching something that doesn’t exist in real life. Surely she’s exaggerating to scare us. I don’t know how she managed to get our hair wet though.” Kohana said.
“She lured us here, didn’t she? This was pre-meditated. Or maybe she planned to lure anyone who found out about her to this place and deceive them.” Tamiko said.
“I wonder if she has a vendetta against the Institute of Magical Wares. They’re the ones who pay me for my Image Manipulator hunt, after all.” Kohana said. Tamiko raised the magic-canceling staff.
“This should dispel the illusion, right?” The staff emitted a light and the ice in front of them flickered slightly, then the image waved back and forth before resuming crystal clarity.
“It didn’t work!” Tamiko said, panicking.
“The illusion is too big.” A voice stated: Cece’s. “That staff is too weak to erase the illusion.” Cece flew down on black wings, landing primly on the ice, staring down at Tamiko and Kohana.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Kohana said in awe before her anger took over. “You must be so proud.” She said sarcastically.
“Quite proud. Do you still feel like arresting me?” Cece said with a smile.
“Of course! If anything, you’re even more dangerous now! You could con a whole room full of people into thinking they’re in a different world! Who knows how badly that would mess up people? They could get hurt, and even accidentally walk off cliffs in real life! Don’t you see the danger in what you’re doing?” Kohana said, furious. Tamiko put a hand on Kohana’s arm.
“You know Cece, you’re pretty talented.” She said, facing Cece with a smile. Cece’s expression turned surprised.
“What?” She said, unbelieving.
“It’s true.” Tamiko continued. “You’re wasting your gift, trapping us. You could impress a lot of people with skills like these. You could do magic shows and travel the world, getting praise from all over.” Cece smiled, delighted like a kid in a candy store.
“You really think so? You don’t think it’s bad like your friend does?”
“No, not at all. It’s marvelous.” Tamiko said. “And it’s wasted on just Kohana and me. In fact, you should’ve charged us money to see it. You’re wasting an opportunity, showing us your talent for free.” Tamiko and Kohana looked at Cece nervously as she sat cross-legged on a piece of ice, folding her wings behind her back.
“You make a good point. You really don’t deserve to see my mighty powers.” Cece snapped her fingers and the illusion disappeared. Kohana and Tamiko found themselves floating in a pool under the theater. It appeared to be a part of a gym on the first floor of the mall. They realized they were clinging to inflatable pool toys that were physical stand-ins for the dolphins and ice in the illusion. Cece turned to leave the pool.
“Wait!” Kohana blurted out. “You can’t just leave, you’re under arrest for unregulated and harmful use of your powers.” Tamiko put her hands over Kohana’s mouth.
“Just ignore her!” Tamiko said, and Cece shrugged and skipped off.
“What are you doing? She’s going to get away!” Kohana yelped.
“She’s too powerful for us, for our weapons, we need more powerful magic-canceling staffs before we capture her. Besides, if she’s directing her power into a creative outlet, she’s less likely to use it at random in places people can get hurt.” Tamiko said. Kohana reluctantly nodded and the two of them went to the Institute for Magical Wares, who heard them out and immediately began developing a more powerful magic-canceling staff. Agents searched the mall and surrounding area for Cece, finding no trace of her. They also patched up the hole in the theater floor, realizing it wasn’t caused by an explosion as Tamiko had thought, but rather a pipe bursting, though they were unsure how Cece manipulated it, and couldn’t prove she had in the first place. Kohana’s boss at the Institute of Magical Wares welcomed Tamiko to their company, and suggested the two of them move onto other cases now that Cece wasn’t causing trouble.
Then Tamiko went home and explained the situation to her parents and Raito.
“I’m an Image Manipulator.” Tamiko said gravely as her family was gathered in the kitchen for dinner that night.
“You mean you manipulate photos?” Raito asked in confusion.
“No.” Tamiko said, “I can make illusions and in some cases, see through them.” She made a bouncing pink rabbit appear out of thin air on the table. Her parents and Raito jumped back. Raito knocked over a drinking glass and it fell to the floor.
“No way!” Raito said. “So you’re like…magic?” Tamiko nodded.
“That’s pretty cool.” Raito said. Tamiko smiled.
“I can make illusions too, Raito.” Her mom said, manifesting another rabbit to play with the one Tamiko created. Raito gasped. Tamiko’s dad hugged her.
“Your mother showed me her powers long ago. She would make illusions and I would film them.” Tamiko wasn’t surprised; her dad filmed movies for a living. Her mother painted, and her work was in galleries. She wondered how many of her mom’s paintings started out as illusions she manifested. “We need to get your illusion on video, Tamiko!” Her dad said. “Can you make more illusions than that one? What’s your favorite thing to manifest? I want to see! Wait just a minute!” Tamiko’s dad said as he ran upstairs to get a camera. Tamiko smiled at her mother, who smiled back.
“Also, I now work for the Institute of Magical Wares. I’m not sure if it’ll be a long term gig or if I can put it on a resume, but they offered to pay me to test out their technologies and seek out other Image Manipulators.” Tamiko said.
“Wow that sounds like a great opportunity! I worked at the Institute of Magical Wares for a while, but rounding up others of our kind who were dangerous didn’t appeal to me after a while. I started to feel bad for the rouge Image Manipulators, since many of them just wanted attention or were afraid of their own powers. But perhaps you’d be better suited for the job. You’ve gotten much braver, Tamiko, if you’re willing to do that. I’m proud of you.” Tamiko’s mom hugged her.
“Thanks mom!” Tamiko said, returning the hug.
“I’ve got the camera!” Tamiko’s dad exclaimed as he raced down the stairs and sat at the kitchen table. He put the camera on a tripod and aimed it at the table where Tamiko was making an imaginary bunny jump and flip. Raito went to the living room where the T.V. was still on and started to turn it off, so the noise wouldn’t interfere with his dad’s tape. Then he said shakily:
“Hey! You have to see this!” Loud enough to wake the other people in the apartment complex. Tamiko, Raito, and their parents crowded around the T.V. On the screen, a blonde girl with curls wearing a bright red dress was petting an enormous dragon. She was standing in front of a vast fantasy land with pink clouds and turquoise waterfalls behind her. Faeries flew around her. She curtsied and the crowd in the theater went wild. The newscaster’s voice chimed in over the audio, saying that the tape wasn’t digitally altered, and if the audience wanted further proof, that Cece The Magnificent had offered to show her illusions to anyone, in person, for a reasonable price. The audience applauded her.
“Wow. She took my advice.” Tamiko said.
“What advice?” Raito asked.
“That girl’s Cece, my friend Kohanna and I tried to capture her, but we ended up letting her go because we didn’t have the technology to dismantle her illusion world. It’s good to see she’s not making trouble.” The phone rang and Tamiko picked it up, still facing the T.V.
“Hello?” Tamiko asked.
“Did you see what Cece did? The Institute of Magical Wares is going crazy! We can’t hide this!” Kohana frantically exclaimed.
“Yeah. I saw it on the news. But at least this way, you don’t have to keep Image Manipulators a secret, right?” Tamiko said.
“That’s true.” Kohana agreed, considering it. “I guess that will make our job a bit easier. In fact, I might have to apologize to Cece one day.”
“I’m sure she’d like that.” Tamiko said. She turned to the T.V. just in time to see Cece snap her fingers and the illusion disappeared.