Kalden Trengsen lounged on a bench outside Elegan High. It was a crisp Hexember morning, and the trees had finally begun dropping their leaves, cluttering the sidewalks with patches of orange and red.
"That's her," Darren Warder announced. The heavyset Silver sat further down the curved bench on Kalden's right. Like Kalden, he wore the usual school uniform of gray trousers and a white button-up shirt. He'd even rolled his sleeves up in the same way Kalden did.
Kalden followed the blond boy's gaze toward the crowd of students. The morning train had just pulled in, and several dozen of them began filtering out into the quad.
"Could you be more specific?" Kalden asked. "There are like fifty girls over there."
"She's Shokenese," Daren said. "Short black hair—black glasses."
"She's half-Shokenese," Maelyn Sanako spoke up from the other side of the bench. "Her father was Espirian. Also, her hair isn't black. Just very dark brown."
Kalden grinned at the competition between his informants. They were always trying to outdo each other like this. Just as well, it kept them on their toes—less likely to miss things.
It was Darren's job to understand current events. Not just around the school, but around all of Arkala, if not the entire Archipelago. What were people doing? What was the most recent gossip?
Meanwhile, Maelyn specialized in the people themselves. Who were they? What did they want? Most importantly, how could they help Kalden achieve his goals?
Naturally, they had plenty of overlap, hence the competition.
Kalden lowered his sunglasses as the girl stepped into the shadow of their three-story highschool. "And what was her name again?"
"Akari Zeller," both his informants replied in unison.
Kalden gave a slow nod. Like the other girls in the crowd, Miss Zeller wore a knee-length gray skirt with black leggings underneath. Or were those tights? He never knew the difference. She also wore a white blouse beneath her worn red hoodie, and her Bronze badge was just barely visible. Several bandages covered one side of her forehead.
The girl seemed to glare at everyone who passed her. That sort of open defiance was dangerous for a Bronze. He wouldn't be surprised if she'd attracted her share of bullies, or even gotten into a few fights.
Hence the bandages.
He turned to Maelyn, "What else can you tell me about her?"
Maelyn sat up straighter, adjusting her silver-framed glasses. Like Kalden, she was Shokenese, and her straight black hair fell halfway down her back. Unlike most students, she wore the optional gray blazer over her school uniform. "Miss Zeller is a fourth-year student, born on Tresember, 45th, 854. Her mom was killed in an accident four years ago, and she's lived in foster care ever since. Dad's alive, but out of the picture."
She took a deep breath and continued, "Her best subject is Computer Science. Her worst is Social Studies. Unless you count gym, which she always skips. Average grades. Known to sleep in class. She's been in her share of fistfights, too. Always with higher-ranked students."
Interesting. Maelyn could do this with anyone in school—student or staff member. If she'd consulted her notebooks, she probably had the girl's clothing sizes, and height written down too.
It made Kalden wonder just how much she had on him.
"Impressive." Darren stroked the blond stubble on his chin. "But how does she take her coffee?"
"Black," Maelyn replied without missing a beat. "And her all-time favorite drink is the Storm's Eye from Jumpstart. Minus the chocolate. She's allergic."
"Tragic," Kalden murmured, then he gestured back to Darren. "And what makes you think she'll do this?"
"I missed the beginning of this talk," Maelyn fidgeted with her silver glasses again. "Do what, exactly?"
Darren didn't answer her. "My sources say she went to Magnus's Dojo last night, but he rejected her."
"She was trying to learn Mana Arts?" Kalden raised an eyebrow. "Curious. Can a Bronze even do that?"
"Technically," Maelyn said.
Kalden frowned. He'd never heard of a Bronze Mana Artist.
"It's not public knowledge," she explained quickly. "Even the books in the Mana Wing don't mention it. But my parents have some university-level textbooks that mention Bronze Mana Artists fighting in the last Espirian Civil War. That was before the days of guns and Missile rods."
Kalden nodded as Miss Zeller disappeared through the school's glass double doors. "And why is she so interested?"
This brought them both up short.
Finally, it was Maelyn who ventured a guess. "Lots of Bronze resent their place, and they think Mana Arts is an easy fix. Of course, If they just applied themselves in school, they could get university scholarships and decent-paying jobs like the rest of us. Honestly, that would make a bigger difference in their lives than Mana Arts ever could. But they want quick fixes. They look at the higher ranks, and they think everything we have comes from our parents' money. They don't realize that life takes—"
Kalden held up a hand to stop her. Maelyn was a competent informant, but she had some bad habits. For one, she often got long-winded, filling her 'information' with her own little side rants.
Maelyn snapped her mouth shut at the gesture. "Sorry."
He gave her a soft nod then shifted his gaze back to Darren. "So, Miss Zeller went to this underground dojo last night. I assume it didn't go well?"
"The owner let her off nice and easy," Darren said, "But some of his students followed her as she left. There was a fight, and she lost the money she brought. All eight silvernotes."
Kalden read between the lines. Not only was she eager to learn Mana Arts, but she'd be more desperate than ever.
Maelyn spent a full second clearing her throat. "Still lost over here. What do you need from this girl?"
"I need access to the dark web," Kalden told her. "And I need a skilled hacker to help me get there."
"I ... don't know what the dark web is," she admitted.
This brought a wide grin to Darren's lips. Until now, the conversation had seemed shifted in Maelyn's favor.
Kalden glanced down at his watch. Two minutes until the first bell. "Give her the quick version," he told Darren.
"Right." Darren sat up straight as if he were about to address a crowd. "The state doesn't like it when their secrets get out. Especially Mana Arts stuff. They monitor and censor most internet activity, but not the dark web. See, everything is anonymous there. And if they can't track the source, they can't shut it down. The network technology was developed by Espira as a way for their soldiers to communicate back home from the Cadrian War. Needless to say, computer scientists today are no match for them. This means the technology is still untraceable."
Maelyn blinked. "So you're digging for secrets online, and you think Miss Zeller can help you do it?" Skepticism laced her tone, but she didn't admit her ignorance regarding the girl's hacking abilities. While she knew more than Darren about most people, she lacked his talent for digging deeper.
"She's good," Darren said. "Earlier this year, I paid her to hack into the school's database and change my grades. Only as an experiment, of course. I had her explain her process, and it's legit. She might be the best hacker in Elegan."
Maelyn raised an eyebrow. "Better than the professionals?"
"If the professionals were so good," Darren said, "they would keep their systems up to date. Then teenagers couldn't mess around in the first place."
Very true, Kalden thought.
"But here's the most impressive part." Darren leaned forward on the bench."She doesn't have a computer at home. She does all of this in the school's computer lab, in broad daylight." He paused and shot Maelyn a look. "Grades aren't everything. See, this girl has her sights set higher than a college education or a 'decent job like the rest of us.'"
Maelyn rolled her eyes. "So she's delusional."
Darren shrugged his wide shoulders. "Some hackers whisper about this thing called advancement. The idea came from the dark web—from somewhere beyond the Archipelago."
"Advancement?" Kalden asked. "As in ... using Mana Arts to move up from one rank to another?"
"But that's been proven false," Maelyn said with a dismissive wave. "We can increase our soul's mana, but we're stuck with the rank we're born with."
"I know that," Darren said. "I'm just explaining her internal logic here. And I'm saying she's no stranger to hard work. If any Bronze can become a Mana Artist, it's probably Akari Zeller."
"Wow." Maelyn snorted. "Why don't you just ask her out already, Darren? Thanks to me, you already know her favorite drink."
Darren flushed and looked away. Kalden couldn't blame him though. The girl was cute, and who didn't like a badass hacker? Not that he would ever look at a Bronze that way, much less say so out loud.
After a moment, the blond boy cleared his throat and turned back to Kalden. "So, want me to set up a meeting?"
"Maybe," Kalden began. As his gossip informant, Darren knew the importance of discretion in these inter-rank meetings. The whole school would talk if anyone saw them together, and that would go badly for both of them
Before Kalden could finish his sentence, he spotted Alec, one of Elegan High's security guards, walking across the quad.
"On second thought," Kalden stood and shouldered his messenger bag, "I'll take care of this. See you two later."
The first bell rang as he fell into step beside the Silver security guard. The lanky man had unstyled brown hair that always fell halfway down his forehead. He walked with a slumped posture, and his gray uniform always seemed one size too big.
"Alec." Kalden patted him on the shoulder as they walked. "How's my favorite guard this morning?"
"Oh, hey Mr. Trengsen." Alec's gave him a shy smile before looking away. Timidity was an odd quality for a security guard, especially a Combat Artist who was twice Kalden's age. Then again, their school didn't have much violence or serious rule-breaking. It was in the middle of the suburbs, after all.
"I hear Zach wanted tickets to the manaball game this Talekday," Kalden began. "That's his birthday, right?"
Alec blinked in surprise. Clearly, he hadn't expected Kalden to know his son's name, much less his birthday. Fair enough. If Kalden was being completely honest, he hadn't even known Alec had a son until this morning's meeting.
"Yeah, well..." Alec shrugged and averted his eyes again. "Ironhaven's playing Shoken Port, and the tickets sold out right away. Even if they hadn't..."
"What if I told you," Kalden interrupted, "that my brother got four extra tickets—front row seats—that he needs to get rid of?"
Alec raised an eyebrow. "I'd wonder how big of a favor you wanted."
"An incredibly small one, all things considered. Tell me, do you know a student named Akari Zeller?"