Akari struggled to stay awake for her first few classes that day. Last night's train ride had been long and miserable to say the least. Half of it, she'd spent in the coach's restroom trying to make two bandages fit over a finger-length wound. She would have stayed in there if some old Silver lady hadn't pounded on the door.

After that, she'd curled up in the back, watching the endless miles of farmland roll by, and regretting her life choices.

Going to Tidegate had been a calculated risk. She knew big cities were dangerous, but she hadn't realized the extent of that danger until last night. In hindsight, taking the trip had been one of the stupidest things she'd ever done. And as pissed as she'd been at Magnus, he'd actually done her a favor.

Most of his students were grown men—Silver Mana Artists—who could have done any number of things to her. She never could have defended herself in that place long-term. Not when she had no money, no friends, and no talent.

The world told her to keep her head down. If she played her cards right, she might get a job waiting tables, mopping floors, or cleaning houses. Then, maybe if she worked hard enough, she wouldn't starve to death.

Akari could suck it up and work some shitty job if she really had to. Hundreds of other Bronze did it. But was it so wrong to ask for more? Mana Artists trained. And the harder they trained, the bigger the rewards were. That was a game she could play. She wasn't asking the world for a handout. She just wanted to play by the same rules as the Silvers and Golds.

Now, she was more behind than ever. To make matters worse, she was running out of time and options. She'd be sixteen in a matter of months. When that happened, the Cliftons would kick her out. Food and shelter would be her top priorities, and Mana Arts would be a distant dream.

The bell rang, and Akari uncurled herself from her chair, joining the tide of students as they flowed toward the door. From there, she inched through the crowded hallway toward her Trigonometry class on the second floor.

Her route took her past rows of navy blue lockers, tall glass windows, and clusters of students—mostly Bronze and Silver. Not only were Golds the rarest of the three ranks, but not all Golds attended public school in the first place. Sometimes, their parents hired private tutors instead. Either that or they took a portion of their classes at the local university.

"Miss Zeller?" someone called her name, and a hand tapped her shoulder.

She spun around, and her heart almost shot out of her ribcage. The security guard yanked his hand back as if he'd pressed it to a hot stove.

"Don't touch me," Akari snapped at him. Her raised voice drew the attention of several other students, but no one actually stopped.

"Oh. Um—sorry." The guard scratched his head and looked away. Akari couldn't remember his name. She just thought of him as the socially awkward one.

"I need your help with something," he said. "If you'd follow me, please?"

"Help? What's that supposed to mean?"

"You'll see when we get there." And with that, he turned around and began walking down the crowded hallway.

Talek. Why her? Credit where credit was due thoughthis guy might be weird, but he was the most polite of all Elegan High's security guards.

Akari squeezed her backpack straps and followed him up the stairs. They passed through two more crowded hallways, then a more desolate one all the way on the third floor. Finally, they stopped outside a supply closet.

What the hell?

As if this whole situation wasn't strange enough, he raised his knuckled hand and knocked on the door.

Talek help her, she was alone with a madman.

"Miss Zeller is here to see you," he called out.

"Perfect," a male voice replied. "Send her in."

Akari's blood froze as the guard opened the closet door and gestured her inside. At this point, her instincts were screaming at her, telling her to turn around and run.

Then again, she was no stranger to secret meetings. Not after her little hacking side hustle. And curiosity got the better of her.

Her shoes echoed against the tile floor as she stepped into the doorway. The closet was about the size of her bedroom at the Cliftons' house. Which was to say, it was half the size of a normal bedroom. Steel supply shelves lined every wall, stacked to the ceiling with cardboard boxes.

There, in the middle of the room beneath the golden light, sat Kalden Trengsen with a Gold badge around his neck.

Well, shit. This week just kept getting better, didn't it?

Kalden inclined his head as she shuffled inside the closet, spinning his leather office chair to face her. "Good morning, Miss Zeller."

"Mr. Trengsen," she replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. Then she glanced around at the shelves. "What's the matter—all the good throne rooms were taken?"

"Ah yes." He raised a disposable mug to his lips and blew on the steaming brown liquid. "The heir to Clan Fulton was already holding court in the men's room, and Alton Tusk had the spot below the bleachers."

Akari blinked. Usually, mocking Golds was a good way to piss them off. And they were so, so easy to mock. Especially when they strutted around acting like little kings and queens.

In Kalden's case, he sat back on that chair as if it were a throne, with one ankle resting on his knee. His jet-black hair had a good three inches of volume on top, and he'd parted it on the left without a single strand out of place. His badge, shoes, and watch looked like they'd all been polished that same morning, and a leather messenger bag leaned on a box next to his car keys and sunglasses.

Talek. It was like no one told him he was still a high school student.

"Seriously though," Akari said, "What do you want?" The most obvious answer was that he needed his grades adjusted. But then, she'd already seen Kalden's grades. Not only were they perfect, but he was the top student in the entire school.

"I just want to talk."

"And you needed your evil minion to summon me here? We both have the same lunch hour, you know."

He inclined his head again. "You know why we can't meet publically."

Akari's eyes fell to the Gold badge on his chest, and she made a rude gesture. "Yeah well, I have class in like two minutes."

"Not anymore," Kalden said. "Mrs. Rhodes and I had a talk, and you're excused from Trigonometry for today."

Akari raised an eyebrow.

"Coffee?" Kalden gestured to another disposable Jumpstart cup beside his own. "It's a Storm's Eye. My treat."

"Can't," she said. "I'm allergic—"

"To chocolate," he finished for her. "Don't worry, I got you one without."

Okay, that was just creepy that he knew her allergies.

Still, Akari stepped forward and accepted the cup. Talek knew she could use the caffeine today, and there was no sense in letting a six-note drink go to waste. She would wait to drink it until her next class. If this was going to make her pass out, she'd rather that happened when she wasn't alone with him.

It also couldn't hurt to write, "Kalden Trengsen did it" on her stomach with a marker. Just in case.

Kalden only smiled again. "Have a seat." He gestured to a plush leather office chair like the ones in the headteacher's office. How he'd gotten two of them in here was the biggest mystery yet.

"Make me," she said.

"Suit yourself," he replied with a shrug. "But if you're acting childish to get a reaction out of me, you're wasting your time." He took a sip of his coffee. "Besides, I think we'd both prefer to talk business."

"And what is 'business'?"

"Mana Arts, of course."

That got her attention. He must have seen it on her face because his smile widened.

But Kalden wasn't a Mana Artist. He was studying alchemy. At least, that's what his student file had said. Alchemists only had a theoretical knowledge of mana at best. They could refine their own mana for pills and elixirs, plus some other science shenanigans that involved plant and animal parts.

Basically, alchemy was nothing but the most boring parts of Mana Arts.

"You visited Magnus's Dojo last night in Tidegate," Kalden said, "but he turned you down."

"Talek's tits," she blurted out, "You really have spies everywhere, don't you?"

Kalden raised an eyebrow. "Isn't Talek a man?"

She rolled her eyes. "Clearly, you're no fun at parties though."

"I want the same thing you do," Kalden said. "And I think we can help each other."

Akari frowned. "You ... want to become a Mana Artist?"

He nodded. "A Combat Artist, specifically."

"But you're a Gold," she said. "You can literally snap your fingers and make it happen."

He gave her another patronizing smile. "You think it's that simple, do you?"

"For you? Hell yes. You could waltz into the Mana Wing right now and sign up for a class. The teachers would roll out a red carpet for you."

"I would need a permission slip from my mother," he said. "And my mother wants me to be an alchemist."

"It's your life. What does she care?"

Kalden seemed to weigh his words for a moment. "When you're as rich as Clan Trengsen, you can hire ten Combat Artists for the price of one alchemist."

So it was all about money. Typical. Still, she hadn't considered that a Gold might have a restriction, even a small one. It made sense, though. As powerful as Golds were, they couldn't hold a candle to their parents.

"You already know about Magnus's Dojo," Akari said. "Why not go there and have him train you?"

"You think a Gold can walk into that place without drawing attention?"

"Get a private lesson then. I'm sure the fee is less than what you pay your minions."

He shook his head. "Again, it's not that simple. My mother gets a statement in the mail. She sees every purchase and withdrawal I make from my bank account. Could I sneak a few lessons like you tried to do? Probably, but I'd still get caught, and we both know a few lessons wouldn't make a difference."

These all sounded like petty excuses to her. The idea of a Gold not being allowed to learn Mana Arts? It was like a bad joke.

"Trust me," Kalden said, "I've given this some thought already. I've also consulted my informants. Or my 'evil minions' as you so elegantly put it. There's only one way to learn Mana Arts without a teacher."

"The dark web," Akari realized. And then it clicked. This was why a Gold had lowered himself to her level. He'd heard about her hacking skills.

He needed her.

Akari had considered going to the dark web before. Doing it from a school computer wouldn't be easy though. You needed all sorts of special software. Not just a specific browser, but a virtual private network to encrypt your movements. Ideally, you also wanted your operating system up-to-date, which her school didn't bother doing. Then you needed to emulate another operating system on top of that to ensure no personal information got out.

None of this was impossible to do at school, but it would take longer than the occasional hour she had in the computer lab. What's more, there was no guarantee she would find anything. She'd heard rumors about secret Mana Arts communities, but rumors were just that.

"Here's my offer." Kalden leaned forward again. "I have a computer in my house with internet access. I can get you whatever other software you need, assuming it's not too expensive."

A computer free from watchful eyes. The idea sent her heart pounding in her chest. Her foster family had money, but they'd never seen the need to buy a computer. Even if they did, they probably wouldn't let her use it anyway.

"If you can get us into the dark web," Kalden said, "then we can learn Mana Arts together."


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About the author

David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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