Akari sat alone in the Headteacher's office, crossing her arms as the air vent blasted her from above.
A hoodie would be nice right about now. Or two.
Seriously, who ran the air conditioning at the end of Hexember? It's like Grandhall wanted to make his students uncomfortable.
Dark wooden shelves lined the wall to her left, filled with all sorts of pretentious-looking books. A pair of abstract paintings hung on one side of the curtained window, and his university degrees hung on the other side.
Footsteps echoed from the other room, and Akari jumped as the door swung open behind her.
"We tried calling your foster parents," Grandhall spoke in a clear, deep voice as he stepped behind his oaken desk. "Unfortunately, the calls went straight to the answering machine."
No surprise there. Mazren worked out in the field as a mana construct technician, and Noella spent all day mending patients with her Healing Art. Then again, Akari would bet emeralds to eggs they'd pick up the phone for their real daughter.
Grandhall sat down in his brown leather chair and began sifting through papers. As usual, the headteacher wore a navy suit with a polished Silver badge over his white dress shirt. His complexion was dark for an Espirian, and he kept his black hair cropped short.
"Mr. Carvell has examined your computer, and he found software and scripts that could be used for hacking."
Akari pressed her lips into a line. Grandhall was fishing for a reaction, but every good hacker knew to cover her trail. She'd even encoded her notebooks in case they went snooping through her backpack.
Still, that sucked that he sent Carvell after her. She liked the Computer Science teacher, and not just because he was a Bronze.
"Miss Frostblade says you were trying to change the security camera footage," Grandhall said, still glancing at his papers. "She says you threatened her, claiming you could 'hack' the footage and get her expelled."
And of course, he'd already talked with Emberlyn and her ninety-nine minions, leaving Akari to twiddle her thumbs in the waiting room. Whatever they'd told him would be the Angel's Truth, and anything Akari said would be labeled a lie.
Grandhall continued with the rest of the charges, and his papers sounded like birds' wings as he leafed through them. They'd discovered her fake independent study, but that wasn't hard since it didn't have a teacher assigned to it. That was a flaw in their own system, and no one could prove she'd done it on purpose.
They also knew about the crawlspace between the bathrooms and the computer lab. Harder to deny that one when they'd found her sitting behind a locked door.
Strangely enough, Emberlyn had left out the fact that Akari had punched her. Why? She probably had a nice purple bruise to prove it.
"So?" Grandhall's chair groaned as he leaned back. "Anything to say in your defense?"
"There's no point," Akari muttered. "It's not like you'll take my word over a Gold and her minions. But, if you look at the camera footage—"
"We have looked at it," Grandhall replied. "We saw you and Miss Frostblade talking. Nothing else."
Talek. She figured something like that would happen. Elegan High might be safer than most schools, but that only made it worse when a mana-related attack happened. Everyone looked at the victim like she was crazy.
"Emberlyn changed it," Akari said. "But North Elegan Security keeps an off-site backup of the day's video footage. I'll bet she didn't know about that."
He leaned forward. "Is that what you were doing in the computer lab today? Trying to access that footage?"
Akari snapped her mouth shut, curling her fingers into fists on her lap. The evidence was there, but they chose to ignore it. In theory, Grandhall outranked the Golds as long as they were students in his school. This rule even applied to Bronze teachers like Carvell.
Real life was messier. Sure, Golds weren't technically allowed to bribe or threaten school staff. Just like Emberlyn wasn't technically allowed to use Mana Arts on her peers. People had gone to great lengths to make the world look fair.
"This doesn't look good for you," Grandhall spoke into the sudden silence. "You claim Miss Frostblade changed the footage. But unlike you, she has no record of rule-breaking. Also, we hold our students in the Mana Wing to a high standard. We haven't had an incident in over three years."
Typical. Not only did Emberlyn's parents donate to the Mana Arts program, but an incident like this would make Grandhall look bad. If he saw an easy way out, he would take it.
And if a Bronze paid for it, then so what?
Akari stopped paying attention after that. It was all more accusations she couldn't defend against. If she tried, they would only use her own words against her.
Finally, after what seemed like ten more hours, Grandhall got to her sentence. "As I said, Miss Zeller, we can't prove you were hacking, and it's clear you refuse to cooperate with us. We do, however, know you've been sneaking into the computer lab every day at one o'clock. This proves you can't be trusted."
Damnit, this can't be good. She'd been ready for a suspension, but...
"From now on," he continued, "a security guard will escort you between all your classes. Finally, you will be banned from the computer lab for the rest of the year."
School was over by the time they released her, and crowds of students filled the quad as they waited to board their trains back home.
Talek, but she hated this time of year. The dusty air always made her eyes water. They'd been doing that ever since she left the headteacher's office. Better to walk home alone rather than have people get the wrong idea.
Her route took her below a raised train platform, and past dozens of brick buildings, all crammed together between the river and Main Street. Most were small shops and cafes with smaller apartments on their second levels.
Red maples and cherry blossoms lined the cobblestone streets, and clusters of university students sat on benches with coffee and open textbooks.
Once again, Akari opted for a longer, less-crowded route, cutting through Phoenix Park rather than facing the crowds. Here, she walked down a stone staircase and followed the winding path along the river.
A group of elementary-aged kids practiced Mana Arts stances in an open grass area while a gray-haired Silver critiqued their moves. These stances wouldn't actually turn them into Mana Artists, of course. If they did, the state wouldn't let them practice in public. Rather, this was just one of many prerequisites you needed to learn.
Akari only had a vague idea about the others. Every human soul produced mana, but only an Artist knew how to sense that mana and move it through her body. That was the first step. From there, you needed to form it into specific shapes for Missiles and constructs.
Akari had experienced all of this in her dreams, but it happened so effortlessly there. More natural than breathing, even.
Aspecting your mana was even more complicated. Emberlyn had ice mana because she was training to be a Martial, but there were a hundred other options she could have chosen. Healing Artists like her foster mother used restoration mana to mend wounds. Soldiers used metal and fire in battle. Sailors used water and air to move their boats, and the list went on.
But where did the aspects come from? Emberlyn's mana was cold, sure, but it only took on the properties of ice. You wouldn't actually find frozen water molecules if you put it under a microscope.
Was it possible to learn the basics of Mana Arts without choosing an aspect? Akari could never get a direct answer, and now she was farther from the truth than ever.
Headteacher Grandhall's sentence echoed in her mind like an annoying song she'd rather forget. This was so much worse than suspension. Without the computer lab, she couldn't research anything. Not only was the dark web out of reach, but she couldn't earn money by changing rich kids' grades—money she would need if she wanted to survive the next year on her own.
Cobblestones gave way to concrete when she reached her neighborhood. Moss sprouted from cracks in the sidewalks, and piles of dead leaves spilled out from front yards. It seemed like the amount had doubled overnight, and they covered her ankles in some spots.
Although, they did make a satisfying sound as they crunched under her Traverse shoes. So maybe autumn wasn't so bad. At least the air smelled nice, and the weather wasn't too cold.
Like the buildings in downtown Elegan, the townhouses in her neighborhood had almost no space between them. The Clifton's house looked just like the others, with brown bricks and white trim across the front, and piles of leaves littering the lawn. Mazren's dark blue Quest sat parked in the road outside, and a layer of dust covered the bottom half as if he'd just driven down a dirt road.
The TV was the first thing she heard when she stepped inside—probably her foster father watching the news. Maybe, if she avoided the creaking floorboards, he wouldn't—
"Akari?" A voice asked from the living room.
She slumped her shoulders and stepped forward into the archway. "Yep?"
Mazren sat on the leather sofa with the day's mail sprawled out on the cushion beside him. He looked like a typical Northern Espirian—styled blonde hair, clear blue eyes, and high cheekbones. He still wore his work clothes, Silver badge and all.
"You're home early," she said.
He nodded, not taking his eyes off the TV. "I had to leave work early for an appointment." When he finally turned to face her, his eyes widened and he lowered the TV's volume. "What happened to your forehead?"
She glanced away. "I slipped and fell on a dumpster yesterday."
"Hmm. Maybe Noella can look at it when she gets home."
Now there's a good joke. Mazren pretended to care sometimes, but his wife made no effort at all. Even if Akari asked for healing—which she'd never do—Noella would claim her mana was drained from work.
It made her wonder how she got here in the first place, or why this particular family kept her around. It wasn't like they needed the money.
"We got a message from your headteacher on the answering machine," Mazren continued. "Multiple messages, actually."
"Oh." Akari fidgeted with the straps on her backpack, still not meeting his eye "What did they say?
"I don't know. I'd rather hear it from you first."
Again with pretending to care. Still, it couldn't hurt to talk to someone. Talek knew she'd only make herself more miserable if she kept everything bottled up.
So Akari told him about Emberlyn, and how the headteacher had caught her sneaking into the computer lab. She even told him about the ceiling crawl space, and how she'd 'allegedly' been hacking into a server to get the camera footage.
To her surprise, Mazren actually chuckled. "A ceiling crawl space, huh? How'd you even find out about that?"
A warmth spread through her chest at the implied compliment. "I saw it in the school's original blueprints. They've made some layout changes since then."
"Ah, right." He brought an amber glass bottle to his lips. "That whole section was an auditorium back in my day." A short pause. "Was it Frostblade's daughter who attacked you?"
"Never liked that family," he muttered into his glass.
She felt her lips curl in a small smile. At least someone believed her, even if it didn't make a difference.
"You know, things would go easier for you if—"
"I don't want easy," she broke in. "I want to win next time."
"Yeah, well, there's no winning against Golds."
And that's only true if you believe it, she thought. If a Bronze or Silver got strong enough, wouldn't that make them Golds too?
Mazren turned back to the TV, and Akari followed his gaze. A reporter stood with a microphone outside a broken section of chain link fence. One of the holes looked big enough for a person to walk through, and several smaller holes surrounded it.
Her eye's widened at the sight. "Did mana Missiles do that?"
"Looks like it," Mazren said as he increased the volume. "It happened up in Keylas. Whoever this guy is, he put two Gold Martials in the hospital."
Akari frowned. "Where's Keylas?"
"Other side of the island," he replied, "north of the Contested Territory."
She glanced back at the TV. "I didn't know anyone lived over there."
"They don't, but there's an opening in the mana wall there." As a construct technician, Mazren knew all about the mana wall that surrounded the island. "People think this guy came from the outside."
"The outside ... you mean another island? Like Zoron or Teras?"
Mazren shook his head. "No, I mean outside the entire Archipelago. The conspiracy theorists are going crazy right now. They say this proves the outside world still exists."
No surprise there. The outside world was supposed to be some uninhabitable wasteland. Espira, Shoken, Cadria ... all the major continents had been destroyed decades ago, and these islands were humanity's last haven.
At least, that was the official word.
Akari shrugged off her backpack and sat down on the opposite side of the leather sofa to watch. She was, after all, one of those crazy conspiracy theorists.