She rejected Kalden's offer, of course.
Well, technically, she'd told him she would think about it. Still, Akari struggled to imagine a world where partnering with a Gold was a smart idea. If she'd learned anything last night, it was that her desperation to learn Mana Arts was a weakness that could get her killed.
And Kalden had seen that flaw too, the bastard. And like a typical Gold, he'd seen a chance to profit.
Inner-city Silvers were dangerous, but they were nothing compared to the Kalden Trengsens of the world. His mother was some kind of district court judge. Before that, she used to be an Arkala Martial—one of the most dangerous Mana Artists on the entire island.
In other words, his family could make her disappear with a single word.
That didn't mean Akari was afraid of them though. Golds terrorized her every day in school, and she always fought back. But it was one thing to fight a dragon in self-defense. That didn't mean you ventured into its lair looking for trouble.
Was the offer tempting? Sure, it all sounded like sugar and peaches in theory. But if she really wanted to explore the dark web, then Elegan High had perfectly good computers in the lab. While those weren't ideal, it was still safer than getting involved with Clan Trengsen. So no, she didn't need the middleman.
Akari spent the rest of her 'free' period in the library. Lunch followed, then Biology class with Mrs. Hansen. Today's lecture was more interesting than usual though. It was about the Arkalan toads, and how even their newborns knew Mana Arts.
"Most species have some potential for Mana Arts," the curly-haired Espirian woman said as she wrote on the blackboard. "But they rarely develop these skills early in life. That only happens when harsh conditions force them to evolve."
Mrs. Hansen continued drawing flowing lines with her chalk. "For example, when predators kill off a large percentage of the species in a short time, the survivors become the new baseline. This is how ordinary animals evolve into mana beasts. To change is to think greater than your current environment."
Akari had never seen a live mana beast before, but she planned to visit the Contested Area as soon as she became a Mana Artist. She'd heard rumors of a hunter's lodge in White Vale where Artists earned bounties for defending the city. They didn't even need that much hunting knowledge beforehand. The creatures just ran out and attacked White Vale's outer walls.
So, those hunters literally got paid to train all day. Talk about a fun job.
But it was more than that. The harder they trained, the stronger they got. And the more money they earned, the better equipment and tools they could afford. Mana Arts was an entirely different world—a world that called to her every day and night. It felt like being homesick, even though she'd never been there before.
The class continued, but she couldn't help but watch the clock above the blackboard. The Computer Science teacher had his prep hour at one o'clock, and Akari had changed her schedule to give herself an independent study that same hour. An independent study that just happened to be in a locked computer lab.
The bell finally rang, and she went straight for the girl's bathroom across the hall.
The room was dimly lit compared to the bright classrooms. Florescent lights flickered above the white tile floors, and earth-toned bricks lined the walls in a flagstone pattern. One long wall divided the stalls from the sinks, and a security camera hung nestled in one corner on the sink side.
Akari had barely taken two steps inside when the door creaked open behind her. Her eyes darted to the long mirror on her right, and a flash of golden hair. Emberlyn. The other girl sat a few rows behind her in Biology class. She must've followed Akari in here.
Or it's a coincidence. Just keep walking. Pretend you don't see her.
"Zeller," Emberlyn's voice snapped.
Akari turned around and bit back the first few responses that came to mind. It had been a long couple of days, and the last thing she needed was another fight.
Emberlyn Frostblade was taller than Akari by almost a full head. Her bright violet eyes flashed like a sabertooth stalking its prey. Her golden hair fell in long waves down to her chest, framing the matching badge that hung there. She wore the same gray and white school uniform as everyone else, but layers of makeup covered every inch of her exposed skin.
The girl swaggered into the room, flanked by her two Silver minions. One was another blonde Espirian like her. The other a tall Cadrian girl with a darker complexion.
"What were you doing with my fiancé?" Emberlyn demanded.
"Sorry," Akari let out a long breath. "I don't keep up with school gossip. Who's your fiancé?"
Her violet eyes narrowed to slits. "You really are slow. Even for a Bronze."
"If all Bronze are slow," Akari said, "then why are you talking to me about this?"
Emberlyn took a step forward, but Akari didn't break her gaze. Kalden was impressive, she'd grant him that. He also wasn't afraid to defy his parents, which she respected.
But Emberlyn? According to her student file, she had average grades and below-average Mana Arts abilities. And despite having wealthy parents, she'd done nothing with her life. Every Gold was dangerous, sure, but this one could only do so much in front of a security camera.
"You think you can talk to Golds that way and get away with it?" Once again, the girl tried to sound intimidating but failed. She may have had more curves than Akari, but she had the voice of a ten-year-old. "You really don't understand how this works, do you? If I wanted to, I could have someone push you down the stairs and make it look like an accident. I could invite the manaball team in here and watch them turn you into a real woman."
"Might wanna threaten me with smaller words," Akari said. "I'm a Bronze, remember?
Emberlyn's brow furrowed and she spoke as if addressing a small child, "What were you doing with Kalden Trengsen today in that supply closet?"
"We were making out," Akari deadpanned, "Nothing like a romantic closet to set the mood."
Emberlyn raised a hand to slap her. Too slow. Akari raised her left forearm and blocked the attack. Adrenaline propelled Akari's other arm forward, and she threw a punch below the girl's left collarbone.
When Akari was nine, one of the neighbor boys had taught her how to throw a proper punch. His words came back to her as she swung. Don't punch your target, punch through him. One foot in front of the other like this. Fist aligned with your forearm. Exhale.
Talek bless that boy. The punch knocked Emberlyn back, and she landed in a splat on the tile floor. Everyone said Golds were stronger, but this moment proved them wrong. The reign of Golds was an idea that existed in people's minds. All you had to do was stand up to them, and they fell just like anyone else.
Emberlyn's Silver minions stared at Akari with open mouths. A full second must have passed before they scrambled forward to help her up.
No sooner had the girl regained her footing than she fell into a combat stance.
At first, Akari expected her to punch her back, and she raised her own fists to protect her face.
Instead, Emberlyn stretched out her palm, forming a Missile of pale-blue ice mana.
Right in front of the camera.
Emberlyn's Missiles were identical to the ones she'd faced last night. Most law officers aspected their mana with ice, and Emberlyn's father was a famous Martial. Even her last name—Frostblade—came from some ancient Espirian clan that was probably older than this island.
The orbs stretched into glowing ribbons of light as they leapt toward her. The first one secured Akari's wrists together, and the second one bound her arms to her waist. A chill spread through her body as if she'd just stepped into a blizzard.
As usual, an ordinary person like her had no defense against this.
Instead of knocking her over, Emberlyn raised her hand, and Akari's body lifted several inches off the ground. The world blurred as they moved out of the camera's range. Chains tightened around her lungs as she struggled for breath.
It's fine, Akari told herself. The cameras have already seen her.
Using Mana Arts against another student wasn't just illegal, it was enough to get you expelled from the school's Mana Arts program. Even a Gold couldn't weasel her way out of that.
Still holding her above the ground, Emberlyn stepped closer until their faces were almost touching. The girl's too-sweet perfume stung Akari's nostrils, mingling with the bitter scent of her mana.
"Now," she said, "What did Kalden want from you, you little Bronze whore?"
"Wow." Akari actually laughed despite the cold. "First I'm not a real woman, then I'm a whore. Make up your mind already."
Emberlyn's mouth twisted in confusion.
Akari gasped for breath again. "Yeah, and I'm the slow one."
"You think I'm joking?" she said. "You think I can't make your life hell?"
"It already is," Akari said through gritted teeth.
Emberlyn dropped her hand and released the ice mana bonds. Akari barely landed on her feet. Her knees buckled beneath her, and she stretched out her hands to break the fall.
The three girls disappeared out the door, leaving her gasping for breath on her shaking knees. Her hands shook too, but that had nothing to do with the mana's effects. While her skin felt as cold as a frozen pond, the blood beneath the surface boiled like a hot spring threatening to break free.
Akari forced herself to her feet. Clearly, Emberlyn and her minions had planned this moment well. They'd probably put a sign on the door, along with another minion or two to stand guard.
Still ... could they have messed with the camera?
Akari stumbled over to the corner of the bathroom, standing on her tiptoes to get a closer look. Everything looked fine. No covered lens or cut wires. In that case, they'd probably taken a page from Kalden's book and bribed a guard to look the other way. The video might have even gotten 'lost' from the school's computers.
Well, the joke was on them. Akari would find that video and make sure everyone saw it. The headteacher, the school board, the superintendent ... everyone who mattered.
She moved back to the private section of the bathroom, locked herself in a stall, and removed her badge, blouse, and skirt. This left her in a simple t-shirt and leggings—much more appropriate for where she was going.
After tucking away her uniform in her backpack, Akari paused to make sure the bathroom was still empty. No sound but the flickering fluorescent lights and the rush of air through the vents.
Satisfied, she took a deep breath and climbed on top of the toilet seat, taking special care to balance on the edges. She was usually surefooted, but her knees were still shaking from those mana Missiles. Better to be safe.
She took another step onto the steel flush valve, reached up, and slid the ceiling tile aside. After that, she tossed her backpack into the opening and hoisted herself up. It wasn't exactly graceful, and she probably looked like a desperate cat clinging to a roof.
The space above the ceiling tiles was only a few feet high. Big enough to move on her hands and knees, but not enough to stand up. Akari kept to the wooden support beams as she crawled, dodging vents and light fixtures along the way. The tiles themselves were made of some cheap mineral fiber that would snap like a twig if she put too much weight on them.
Fortunately, the computer lab was just across the hallway, so she didn't have to travel far. The teacher always returned to his office during his prep hour, leaving the room locked up with the lights off.
As always, Akari shifted aside a tile and stuck her head in the room, keeping one hand on her glasses so they didn't fall into that dark abyss. Yes, that had happened before. And no, finding them in the darkness wasn't fun.
Once she confirmed the room was safe, she dropped on top of an empty table and replaced the tile behind her.
Now it was time to deal out some justice.
Akari brushed the dust off her t-shirt and redressed while her usual computer booted up in the back corner. She plopped down in the padded armchair, and her hands flew across the keyboard, opening the various programs she would need. First, her web browser, Thoroughfare. Then a text editor with code highlighting, her terminal program, and her hash decoder.
She also pulled out her hacking notebook from her backpack. The cover had gotten wet last night, but the information was still intact. Most importantly, she had her list of Elegan High's vendors and the web technologies those companies used.
Akari leafed through the pages, stopping when she found the security firm her school contracted to manage their cameras.
North Elegan Security, they called themselves. Very original.
They had a simple marketing website, but she went straight to Elegan's High's subdomain. Here, the school staff could log in and view an off-site backup of the day's security footage. The page had nothing but a simple form with username and password fields.
Safe enough in theory. But according to her notes, this database technology hadn't been updated in two years. And if that was true, they probably hadn't safeguarded against database injections either.
Again, her fingers made a satisfying sound as they pounded the plastic keys. Her heart pounded as she remembered that look of smug satisfaction on Emberlyn's face. That look would shatter like an egg once this video got out. She would lose everything, and she would deserve it.
Akari started by entering a single quotation mark into the username field. If they'd properly escaped their strings, the server would interpret the character as a username and deny her entry. If they didn't...
Akari pressed enter to submit the form
Internal Server Error.
A smile formed on her lips.
From there, it took some trial and error as she entered various queries, sending direct commands to the database itself. Hacking was a lot like lockpicking. First, you had to understand the lock. Once you knew how it was made, you knew which tools you needed to open it.
After about five minutes of this, Akari had the form feeding her back a full list of usernames and passwords. The passwords were all hash encoded, which was one point in this company's favor. This meant that instead of seeing their actual passwords on the screen, she saw long strings of seemingly random characters.
No problem there. Akari pulled up a Jade script on her local terminal and began copying over the passwords one at a time. Again, the same principles as before applied here. If you found the exact algorithm they used to encode those passwords, you could decode them.
Her heart fluttered as one of her attempts worked. A long string of 32 characters became 'Grandhall2891'. The first word was the headteacher's last name. The number at the end was probably his wedding anniversary, his kid's birthday, or something like that.
Either way, Akari had everything she needed now. She returned to the same login form as before, entered the information, and she was in.
All she had to do now was track down today's video, and...
The door handle turned across the room, and her blood froze. The door flew open a second later, flooding the room with a burst of fluorescent light from the hallway. Two figures stepped in—Emberlyn Frostblade and Headteacher Grandhall.
"See?" Emberlyn said, "I told you she was here!"