This was no random mugging. If it were, they would have just snatched her backpack and ran.
Shit. Had these guys been watching when she handed that silvernote to Lira? In hindsight, Akari should have walked to the train station with the poor girl. They both would have been safer that way.
Instead, she'd just made things worse.
What's done is done, she told herself. Now, think. How are you gonna get out of this?
She took advantage of the alley's shadows, tilted her backpack to the side, and pulled out the Missile rod from the front pocket. Long and metallic, the weapon was about as long as her forearm with a simple handle and trigger on one side. It was sort of like a gun, but instead of lethal bullets, it shot two medium-strength mana Missiles.
Akari never could have bought this on her own. A Bronze wasn't allowed to carry weapons without a permit, and minors weren't allowed to carry them at all. Fortunately, she'd gotten this one from a rich Silver when she'd adjusted his grades.
"Hand over the money," the man in front of her said. "And we'll let you go." Shadows covered his face, but his tone was surprisingly civil.
Akari forced out a laugh. "You think I'd be stupid enough to carry notes in this city?"
"Yep," he replied in the same even tone as before.
"Well, sorry to disappoint you." She raised her weapon at the man, and the metal shaft caught a glint of pale moonlight.
"You don't wanna do that, girl." His tone was lower this time—more menacing. He took a few steps forward. Akari still couldn't see his face, but he wore dark wash jeans and a black leather jacket. No visible badge.
She glanced over her shoulder again to make sure his friends hadn't gotten any closer. They still loomed in the opposite end of the alley, same as before.
"Or what?" Her voice came out calm despite her pounding heart. Even her hands were shaking less than they had back in the dojo. Funny how that worked.
She took a few steps toward the solitary man. "What's a Bronze like you gonna do?" It was only a guess, but Golds didn't stalk girls in dark alleys, and a SIlver wouldn't hide his badge. Seemed like good odds.
Besides, if these three were Bronze, the bluff might scare them into thinking she was a Silver.
The man held out a hand, and a Missile of flaming orange mana sprang up from his open palm. He held it in place for several heartbeats, and Akari stared at the hypnotic sight. It was like gazing into a fractal with its endless patterns swirling around a glowing white nucleus. All the while, the outer edges crackled and danced like flames, and the light revealed his pale Espiran features.
Needless to say, his face was less impressive than his Missile. His goatee was overly groomed, and it looked like he'd spent hours styling his blond hair just to give himself intentional bedhead.
"Nice try," he said, "but we both know you're the Bronze here."
Akari adjusted her grip on her Missile rod. If these were real Mana Artists, then she was screwed. Her weapon could only shoot two Missiles in a straight line. Meanwhile, Bedhead could change the speed and direction of his attacks midflight. Also, if his shaping skill was good enough to hold a Missile in place, he could probably make shields to block her attacks.
Footsteps echoed behind her as Bedhead's friends closed in. Akari kept walking forward, both to keep her distance from the minions, and to feign confidence.
When she reached the sphere of orange light around Bedhead, she narrowed her eyes and glanced over the man's shoulder. "Who's your friend?"
The idiot actually fell for it, snapping his head around to look. Akari aimed her Missile rod at his feet and pulled the trigger. Most amateur Artists knew how to defend their torso, but they never thought about their feet. Mana Arts was a lot like ordinary fighting that way—she always had more luck with kicks than punches.
The weapon vibrated in her hand as a Missile of pure mana pulsed out from the business end. Pale blue light filled the alley as the attack whistled forward.
Bedhead spun back to face her, releasing his orange Missile on instinct
Akari darted to the side, catching herself on the alley's brick wall. Her own Missile knocked Bedhead off his feet, and she ran forward and leapt over him.
A piercing whistle sliced through the air behind her as one of Bedhead's friends attacked. One Missile singed her ear as it passed, smashing into the brick wall with an explosion of dust. A second one caught her in the leg. She stumbled forward, hitting her head on a plastic dumpster.
The motion sent her spinning around to face her foes. As she fell, she aimed her rod and pulled the trigger again. The Missile hit Bedhead as he stood, knocking him back into his friends.
Akari didn't fare much better as she slammed back-first into the concrete. Warm blood trickled down her forehead from where she'd hit the dumpster.
Still, she scrambled to her feet, running out of the alley and into the road. Several cars honked and swerved as she ran, but none came close enough to hit her.
Her breaths came out hard and ragged by the time she reached the other side. There, she cut through a parking lot and squeezed under a wooden fence. She didn't try climbing over it for the same reason she was out of breath—she'd skipped way too many PE classes this year.
The fence groaned behind her as her attackers vaulted over it.
For Talek's sake. Why didn't they give up?
Akari raced up a set of two stone staircases toward the train platform, passing more Silvers in business suits as they left their office jobs.
Did these guys seriously plan to follow her up here? On a crowded platform?
She crested the stone staircase and spotted a pair of blue-uniformed Tidegate Security Officers—a pale Espiran man and a dark-skinned Cadrian woman.
Damnit, and she was still carrying her Missile rod.
One of the officers met her gaze, and Akari whirled around and ran back down the stairs. At this point, she'd take her chances with the thugs. They might rough her up, but they wouldn't kill her. Murdering a Bronze still counted as murder.
But the police? They could do what they wanted, call it an accident, and get away with a slap on the wrist.
"Hey!" the female officer shouted in her direction.
"Stop!" the man bellowed as he broke into a run. "Police!"
Akari skidded to a halt at the bottom of the first staircase and hurled her Missile rod over the railing.
Bedhead appeared at the base of the second staircase, along with his two friends.
Akari turned around to see the two security officers at the top of the first staircase.
Surrounded once again.
"Officer!" Bedhead shouted from below. This time, his Silver badge hung outside his leather jacket. "Stop her!"
Akari's breath hitched as she turned to face the two security officers. If she were braver, she would have played the part of the victim. With the right words, she might have even convinced them.
But when she glanced up at those blue uniforms, memories assaulted her—dozens of quick flashes—too painful to face head-on.
The pair raised their hands in eerie unison, and Missiles of pale blue ice mana shot out from their palms. The ice moved slower than an ordinary mana Missile. Slower, but even more hypnotic. The first Missile coiled around her wrists, wrapping them together like a snake strangling its prey. The second bound her ankles, and a third hit her core.
Icy numbness spread through her body. Akari lost her balance and fell face-first toward the stone floor. She twisted to the side at the last second, just missing a broken nose.
The security officers stepped down the staircase, and the woman put a hand to Akari's head, pressing her cheek to the stone floor.
"Officer," Bedhead repeated through several ragged breaths. "This girl just stole my wallet."
"Bullshit!" Akari shot back. "They cornered me in an alley. They saw me give money to a homeless girl, and they wanted the rest for themselves."
"The girl threw the empty wallet back on the street," Bedhead continued as if she hadn't spoken, "but I had eight silvernotes inside."
What the hell was this? He was wrong, of course. She'd given one note away, so she only had seven left. But if she hadn't...
Someone must have overheard her tell him that she would pay him in silvernotes that night. She doubted it was Magnus himself. If he'd wanted to rob her, he could've just taken the money and thrown her out.
But one of his students could have passed on the tip to Bedhead. In fact, Bedhead might even be a student himself. He was a Fire Artist, after all.
"I've never seen this guy before," Akari stammered. "Not 'til he and his friends started chasing me." His friends had kept their distance when the police showed up, but she wasn't about to let them go unnoticed.
"They shot me with fire Missiles," she added. "You can probably still smell the mana on his hands."
The male officer seemed to ignore her as he unzipped her backpack and dumped its contents into a puddle of rainwater. Her school blouse fell out first, followed by a notebook and several textbooks. He emptied the smaller pockets one by one, but there wasn't much in there. Just lip balm, some pencils, bandages, and her glasses case.
"Search her," the man told his partner.
Akari flinched as the woman began patting the pockets of her hoodie. Few things were worse than being touched by a stranger, but she screwed her eyes shut and endured it. They wouldn't find anything in there, anyway.
The woman continued searching though. First, she yanked off Akari's shoes and socks. Then she unzipped the front of her hoodie.
"Alright!" Akari said through gritted teeth. "Let me loose, and I'll get it."
After a short pause, the male officer waved his hand, and the ice mana loosened around her wrists.
Akari raised a shaking hand and pulled the wad of silvernotes from the front of her shirt.
The woman snatched it from her and began counting. "There's only seven notes here."
"The girl said she gave one away," Bedhead offered. "No surprise. It wasn't hers to begin with."
"I gave it away while you were chasing me?" Akari shot back. "Was that before or after you hit me with the fire Missile?
"Enough," the male officer snapped in his gruff smoker's voice. He took the wad of notes and glanced down at Akari. "Where did a Bronze like you come by this?"
Akari bit her lip and looked away. She could have said her parents gave it to her, but they might ask for names and phone numbers then. Her foster parents didn't know about her hacking, and things would get even worse if they found out. She could have said she'd earned the money herself, but she was only fifteen. She wasn't old enough for any legal job.
No doubt she would come up with a dozen convincing lies later. But for now, she was still shaking like a leaf and her mouth struggled to form the words.
The officer glanced at Bedhead and sniffed, probably inhaling the scent of burning mana from his right hand. His gaze drifted to Akari's bleeding forehead.
For a moment, Akari dared to hope for justice. Attacking someone with Mana Arts was a serious crime. Even if she had stolen from him—which he couldn't prove—it didn't justify something like that.
"You know what?" the officer finally said. "I think you're both full of shit." And with that, he pocketed Akari's last seven silvernotes. "Now get going."
The woman released her ice Missile from around Akari's legs and core, leaving her with pins and needles all throughout her body. Bedhead made his way down the staircase without a word, and the two officers stepped back up toward the train platform.
Akari lay there for several long moments, struggling to feel her legs again. She was out eight silvernotes—several month's worth of work. Not to mention her Missile rod, which Bedhead's friends had probably picked up from the street below.
If she'd been born a Gold, or even a Silver, things would have been different. Silvers and Golds didn't get mugged in alleyways. They weren't restrained without cause. Their bags weren't searched, and no one questioned where they got their money.
Most importantly, they were actually allowed to learn Mana Arts. Something she was still no closer to than before.
But that was life as a Bronze.