Akari stepped off the mana train when it reached Tidegate Central. A burst of autumn wind sent strands of dark hair across her face. She pushed them aside and zipped up her hoodie, covering the Bronze badge that hung from her neck. She'd already stuffed her school blouse in her backpack, and her skirt was solid gray with no hint of her rank. Badges were required in most public places, but not where she was going.
Where she was going, these so-called ranks shouldn't matter.
It was almost rush hour, and more than a hundred other commuters crowded the train platform. She passed other students with Bronze and Silver badges hanging over their uniforms. She even spotted a cluster of Golds lounging on the benches, taking up twice as much space as they needed.
Akari clung to the railing as she shuffled down the stairs. Most people were headed back to the suburbs at this hour, so she had to move against the crowd. For a short Bronze like her, that was about as fun as a mana Missile to the face.
Blue-collar Bronze workers slogged up the stairs, along with Silvers in dark suits. It was far rarer to see an adult Gold on a public train. Those types usually had private drivers. Either that or they lived across from their offices in some fancy condo.
Akari looked both ways when she finally reached the sidewalk. A line of cars sat bumper-to-bumper all the way to the stoplight, and the scent of burning mana crystals stung her nostrils. It was like sniffing a mineral, but sweeter.
Tidegate was the second-largest city in the Archipelago, and the buildings here stood well over ten stories tall. She pulled out a crudely drawn map and tried to orient herself. To her right, a faint glow of bright blue mana filled the sky.
The city's namesake.
Then again, it was more of a wall than a gate. So why did they call it 'Tidegate', then? Did they think 'gate' sounded cooler?
Regardless, the mana wall was on the city's eastern coast to protect it from the Inner Sea. That meant she needed to go in the opposite direction.
She followed Illirya Street for about a mile inland. The buildings got shorter as she walked, and fancy condos became rundown apartments and townhouses. Instead of shiny windows you could see yourself in, these all had dirty brick exteriors with chipped frames around the doors and windows.
After navigating a maze of sidestreets, Akari found her destination squished between an old Shokenese ramen place and a cheap elixir store. The brick building didn't have so much as a sign out front, but why would it? This wasn't the sort of business you advertised on the street.
Akari climbed a short stone staircase and pushed open the door. A bell rang above her head, and footsteps echoed from a backroom. The heat fogged up her glasses as she stepped inside, turning the world into a gray blur. She immediately wiped them dry on the front of her hoodie.
The footsteps drew closer, and a muscular Shokenese man leaned over the counter. He wore a simple black t-shirt with tight-fitting sleeves. It was the sort of thing a nightclub bouncer might wear, and his massive biceps completed the look. His black hair was tied back in a knot, and a thin goatee framed his chin.
"You lost, kid?"
"No." Akari stood up straighter as she approached the wooden counter. This room was clearly a false-front, but Angels only knew what it was supposed to be. She cleared her throat, "I'm here to pick up my order."
The man raised a dark eyebrow at her. Shit. Had she mucked up the passphrase? Gotten a word wrong, maybe? She'd rehearsed this thing more than two dozen times. It should be right. Then again, the message might've had a bad passphrase to begin with. Her palms started to sweat, but she didn't break his gaze.
"What color was your order?" he finally asked.
Akari let out a breath of relief. "Blue and yellow."
He shrugged, then gestured her behind the counter. "Take a right, then head down the stairs."
"Thanks." Akari hurried past the counter before he could notice her shaking knees. She opened the first door on her right and crept down the creaking staircase. At first, everything was dead silent. But when she reached the bottom step, a dozen explosions hit her eardrums like a train.
She spun around and gaped at the staircase. A sound suppression construct? She couldn't see anything, but most mana constructs were invisible. Especially when they came from a Sound Artist.
The antechamber was a well-lit room with a wooden floor and a bench on either side. The door sat cracked open, so Akari stepped into the dojo.
Here, half-a-dozen Mana Artists trained together in the vast space. Two women sparred to her left, attacking each other with blasts of fiery mana. Unlike the sound construct on the staircase, these attacks were clearly visible, painting the room with bright shades of orange.
The male Artists on her right shot their Missiles at a row of training dummies. Their attacks were white and silver, and the collisions sounded almost metallic.
Akari's heart leapt at the sight of true freedom. Normally, the state restricted Mana Arts to their approved school programs. Her own high school had one of these programs, but they only accepted Silvers and Golds.
Thankfully, those rules didn't apply here.
No one approached Akari, so she continued glancing around the dojo. The room had floor-to-ceiling mirrors against two walls. Probably so the Artists could check their forms as they fought. Either that or this used to be a dance studio at some point. Maybe both. Graffiti covered the other two walls, but the colors were faint in the dim lighting.
The two women continued sparring on her left, ignoring Akari entirely. One had the pale skin of an Espirian, and her blonde hair was pulled back in two braids that bounced against her bare shoulders. The other woman was part Shokenese like Akari, and her black hair was pulled back in a tight knot behind her head.
Akari had always kept her own hair short, mostly because long hair was such a pain to deal with. These two looked tougher with their hair pulled back though—more fierce. Something to consider.
Her gaze shifted from them to her own reflection. Her own dark copper hair barely fell past her chin. If she tried to pull it back, the knot would be about as big as her thumbnail.
"Who are you?" A gruff voice asked from behind her.
Akari spun around to face a blond-haired Espiran man. He was barely taller than her, and he wore a pair of dark-framed glasses that matched her own.
Well, at least not all Mana Artists are tall and menacing. Still, this man was older than anyone else in the dojo by at least a decade. He must be Magnus, the guy who ran this place.
"I'm here to pick up my order," she said.
Magnus waved a dismissive hand. "You're already inside, kid. Just tell me what you want."
"Oh." She drew in a deep breath. "I want to learn Mana Arts."
He chuckled. "How old are you?"
"Old enough to pay you in silver right now."
"Uh-huh. But are you old enough to drop the bullshit and answer a straight question?
Akari winced. Way to make a good first impression.
"Sixteen," she lied.
He squinted at her as if staring directly into her soul. Akari resisted the urge to look away, shuffle her feet, or fidget.
"Sorry," he said. "Can't help you."
"What? Why not?"
"You're a Bronze."
Damnit. How did he know? How did people always just ... know? Her badge was hidden beneath her hoodie, and nothing else about her clothing should have given her away. Then again, maybe it was a simple deduction on his part? A Silver wouldn't bother hiding her rank, and a Gold wouldn't come here in the first place.
Either way, no point in denying it now. Even if she claimed to be a Silver, he could easily demand proof.
"I didn't know you cared about those rules here," she retorted.
Magnus furrowed his brow as he stepped back into the waiting room. "Speaking of which, how did you hear about me?"
Akari followed him. "One of your students goes to my high school. He told someone else about this place through a private message, and I read it when I hacked his account."
She'd already prepared for this question and decided the truth was easiest. 'Hacked' was a strong word though. Technically, he'd never changed his default password, just like ninety percent of her clueless peers. All she needed was his date of birth, then she was in.
Hacking sounded better though, and Talek knew she needed all the help she could get.
Magnus's scowl deepened, and he pulled out a pocket-sized notebook. "And what's this guy's name?"
"Tristen Stowell." Once again, she had no qualms with throwing a pretentious Silver under the train. Especially one who'd been harassing her since elementary school.
Magnus jotted the name down, then pocketed his notebook again. "It's not about the rules," he finally said. "Bronze bodies can't take this kind of heat. A Missile from a Silver could kill you."
Speaking of bullshit. Everyone said Bronze bodies were weaker than Silvers and Golds, but they failed to point out a real biological difference. She'd been hit by a Silver's Missile before, and it wasn't much worse than a regular punch to the face.
Still, his internal logic made sense, and her slender frame wouldn't help her case. "What if you just teach me the basics then? I'll watch and learn, but no sparring. I'll practice alone, and—"
He shook his head. "Sorry, kid. Not worth it to me."
"You know why not."
She did know, and despite the man's blunt tone, he was too nice to say it. Having a scrawny Bronze in the dojo would make him look bad. But if she didn't learn Mana Arts here, she might never get another chance. Her gaze shifted back into the dojo where the other six students trained.
Talek. She wanted this more than anything in the world. Not only that, but her life might depend on it someday. Sure, she could have saved this money for a month's worth of food or shelter in the future, but that month would end, and she would still need to defend herself.
"Okay." Akari slumped her shoulders. "How about I pay you full price for one private lesson?" Eight silvernotes was supposed to pay for several weeks, but she didn't have a choice. Maybe if he at least taught her how to sense her mana, she could figure out the rest on her own?
"Nope. I'm not giving private lessons to some twelve-year-old girl. That's just creepy."
"Hey, I wasn't lying about my age!" She was lying, of course. But only by four months.
Her outburst caught the attention of a larger man in a sleeveless gray shirt. Sweat glistened on his bald head, and a web of tattoos covered his massive arms. If he wanted to, he could probably flick his wrist and send her flying through the wall.
"Everything alright, boss?" Despite the man's size, his voice was anything but deep.
"Everything's fine," he replied. "This young lady was just leaving."
The larger man loomed in the doorway with raised eyebrows.
Akari clenched her fists as she turned to leave. She'd spent the past month preparing for this moment, and now it was all over. Her rank shouldn't have mattered here, but it did. Not because of the state, but because these idiots chose to believe their anti-Bronze propaganda.
"One more question," she said, "then I promise I'll go."
Magnus crossed his arms and waited. It wasn't a promise to answer, but it also wasn't a dismissal.
"Is there anyone on this island who might train me?"
"Probably," he said. "But you'd need a lot more cash to convince them. I'm talking goldnotes here. Even if you had that kinda money, I wouldn't waste it on fighting lessons if I were you."
Akari grimaced and looked away. His advice was probably good. Even a few goldnotes would be enough to buy a cheap car. Or a year's worth of rent in a cheap apartment. Still, he was wrong about one thing—Mana Arts were so much more than fighting lessons. Being a Mana Artist meant not having to live in fear. Not just in shady neighborhoods like this, but at her high school, and in her own home. More importantly, Mana Arts were a way to move up in the world and to make something better of your life.
Her mother had been a Bronze too, and she'd waited tables from the time she was sixteen right up until the day she died. They'd always lived paycheck-to-paycheck, but even that was a better life than what Akari would have. Once she turned sixteen, she'd be a legal adult. She'd be kicked out of her foster home, forced to live on the street.
She didn't know how the ranking system worked—everyone said it was usually genetic, but even that wasn't consistent. Everyone also said a Bronze couldn't become a Mana Artist, but she'd read stories online that suggested otherwise.
Maybe if she became one, they'd be forced to start calling her a Silver? That would open a whole world of possibilities. She could get into a university, or even join the military. She could buy a house, or travel the islands—whatever she wanted.
No use in dreaming about that now, though.
The sky was dark when she stepped outside, and raindrops struck her face. Akari raised her hood and retraced her steps back to Tidegate Central. Fortunately, it was only an hour's ride back to Elegan by train. She'd be home by seven o'clock—long before her foster parents even realized she was gone.
A group of homeless people gathered in a parking lot beneath the A16 overpass. She'd passed this spot before, but she hadn't noticed them. Now, their campfire stood out in the darkness, and their voices carried.
An Espirian girl caught Akari's eye as she surveyed the scene. Her red hair still had a silky shine, as if she'd shampooed and conditioned it that very morning. What's more, her black and white Traverse shoes were even cleaner than Akari's own.
The girl sat a short distance from the others, with a canvas backpack clutched in her arms, obscuring the Bronze badge that hung outside her jacket.
Akari stopped walking a few paces from where the girl sat. She glanced over her shoulder. "You just turned sixteen, didn't you?"
"Today," the girl said without hesitation. Her voice sounded desperate. Talek. That trusting nature could get you killed out here.
After a short pause, the girl added, "my name's Lira."
Yeah, way too desperate. Poor thing wouldn't last until morning.
"Well Lira, I'd get the hell out of this city if I were you."
Her blue eyes widened. "What?"
"Get out of Tidegate. Tonight."
"I've never left this city before."
"Well, now's a good time to start. If you like the beach, then go to Breakwater or Wavemeet. Otherwise, just go inland to Elegan or Hento. Those towns are smaller than this. That means no gangs or brothels trying to recruit you."
The girl still looked confused, as if Akari had suggested visiting one of the moons.
"It's easy," she explained. "You know where Central is, right?"
"So, you walk up to the counter and let them scan your badge. Then ask for a ticket to anywhere but here."
"I graduated high school," she said. "And I don't have any money."
Ah, that was a problem. The mana trains were free for students—even university students—but you were on your own after that. There was no point in asking if this girl had friends to stay with. She wouldn't be out here if that were the case.
Akari glanced left and right, making sure no one was close enough to see. Finally, she unzipped her hoodie, reached down the front of her shirt, and grabbed her bundle of silvernotes. She immediately hid it within her hoodie sleeve, separated one from the rest, then handed it to Lira.
"This should get you a ticket to anywhere on Arkala. Plus a good eighty coppernotes in change."
Lira accepted the note and blinked down in surprise.
"Don't go flashing that around here," Akari told her.
She closed her hand and tucked it in her jacket sleeve. "Why are you helping me?"
Akari shrugged. "All I know is this—If someone spent two minutes to help me, my life wouldn't suck so much either."
"You sure you don't need it more than me then?"
She waved a hand. "I made that by hacking into my school's computer and changing some rich kids' grades. I can always get more."
"Thanks," Lira finally said.
Akari nodded. "Just do what I said. Get on a train tonight and put this city behind you."
The rain fell harder, and Akari quickened her pace toward the train station. This street had been crowded during rush hour, but now the sidewalks were almost empty. She walked a few more blocks, then cut through an alleyway between two shorter office buildings.
That was when she heard two pairs of footsteps behind her.
Damnit. Akari broke into a jog, but another figure shifted to block her escape—a dark silhouette against the street lights.
She was surrounded.