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Eventually, Mazren's wife and daughter came home, and he went back to the usual routine of pretending Akari didn't exist. Dinner came and went, and after helping with the dishes, Akari returned to her room.

Naturally, hers was the smallest room in the house—just big enough for a twin-sized bed, a desk, and a dresser. It was probably meant to be an office or something. That would explain why it was on the main floor instead of the second level with the other two bedrooms.

The cramped size didn't bother her though. What was the point of more space when she didn't have the stuff to fill it? And there was even a certain safety to a smaller room. More space would make her feel like a marble rolling around the bottom of a trashcan.

Still, while her furniture covered the wooden floor, the gray walls lay cold and empty like a foggy morning. Hanging something there had always seemed like a waste of time. Especially when she went through foster families faster than school uniforms.

Akari lay back on her bed, threw off her glasses, and glanced up at the ceiling. Some Midwinter lights along the edges would be a treat—the reddish-orange kind, with the giant, sphere-shaped bulbs. Her old bedroom in her mom's house had a set of those, and they always made the room feel cozier.

And of course, she wouldn't say no to a computer either.

Especially now.

Talek. What was she going to do about that problem?

School was useless with security guards tailing her all day. Internet cafes were a thing, sure, but those weren't cheap. The library had free computers, but no internet access.

There was always Kalden Trengsen's offer. But then ... what if that whole thing with Emberlyn had been a set-up from the beginning? What if they'd gotten her banned from the computer lab to make her even more desperate? Emberlyn had claimed to be Kalden's fiancé, after all. Those two could have planned her downfall in the time it took to order a coffee.

You can't win with Golds.

Akari still didn't believe those words, but her odds seemed impossible at times like this.

Her thoughts drifted in circles as the problems kept piling up one after the other. Eventually, her eyelids grew heavy, and she drifted off. Sleep didn't always come easy—she had to take what she could get.

 


 

As always, Akari dreamt of Mana Arts.

Skyscrapers surrounded her on all sides—the sort of buildings you only saw in old-world movies. Each one stood ten times taller than the buildings in Tidegate. So tall, she had to crane her neck to see their peaks. Even then, her knees shook, and a wave of dizziness swept over her.

Instead of plain glass windows, each structure had intricate designs of twisting metal along the edges. Some tapered as they grew. Others twisted at their peaks like frosting on a cake.

Rain misted from the sky above, and the streets shone with fresh rainwater, reflecting molten red lines from the setting sun.

A fire Missile tore past her face, colliding with the pale blue shield construct farther down the street. A burning car flew over her head, rolling through the street, and knocking over two advancing enemies. To her left, a Gravity Artist lifted the back of a semi-truck and hurled it through a nearby glass window.

Akari's breath hitched at the sight. True power. If you asked these people the difference between a Bronze and a Gold, they would have laughed. To them, both labels were empty words—nothing but the first few steps on a much longer path.

She stepped forward and joined the battle, summoning her own mana from within her soul. The energy tore through her like a rushing river, strengthening her muscles and bones, making her feel more alive than she'd ever felt before.

Rain prickled her fingertips as she raised her hands toward some distant target. The mana poured down her arms, becoming denser in her palms until her skin couldn't contain the pressure.

When Akari released her Missiles, she didn't shoot fire, or ice, or wind onto the battlefield.

Instead, her Missiles warped space and time itself.

Her brain couldn't comprehend her movements after that. One second, she was standing in the street. The next, she stood on a balcony a hundred stories in the air. Space warped around her as her enemies attacked, turning their own Missiles against them.

Akari struck back like a force of nature. Even as her body moved through the battle, her own techniques felt as foreign as a language she'd never learned. She only knew the feelings that came with them.

Euphoria.

Awe at her own martial prowess.

Complete focus and mental clarity. As if she'd finally found her life's purpose.

Standing there in that moment, Akari knew this was more than a dream. She knew the Archipelago was the lie, and this world was real. Whether this was a memory of her past life or a vision of the future, she couldn't say. Regardless, this was the world she fought to reach. This moment had etched its call onto her soul. Like the Missiles that left her palms, it touched her across space and time.

Soon, the dream would end—they always did. But she would return someday.

She would become a Mana Artist, or she would die trying.

 


 

Kalden reclined on his usual bench in the quad, listening as his informant's filled him in on the day's gossip. The air was cooler than yesterday, and he regretted not bringing a jacket. A dark layer of storm clouds covered the sun, and clusters of leaves danced in the crisp autumn wind.

Beside him, Darren coughed into his arm. "Speaking of Akari Zeller..."

"What about her?" Kalden asked.

"She's heading this way," Maelyn added. "She looks determined."

"Or she's just pissed off," Darren said.

Maelyn chuckled. "In other words, nothing new?"

Kalden glanced up to see Akari shuffling through the quad, head bowed against the wind with her hood halfway over her eyes. He hadn't expected her to approach him in public. Then again, she didn't have many options these days, did she?

The girl hiked up the short staircase to Kalden's curved bench. She stopped once she was a few feet away, shooting him one of her trademark glares.

Kalden sat up straighter and cleared his throat. "Akari Zeller, meet Darren Warder and Maelyn Sanako. My 'evil minions', as you so elegantly put it."

"We've already met," Darren said with a cheerful wave.

"The term 'evil minions' sounds so pedestrian though," Maelyn added. "We prefer, 'Council of Eternal Darkness.'"

Akari ignored them both and continued glaring at Kalden. "You didn't tell me you were engaged to Emberlyn Frostblade."

"There's a simple explanation for that," Kalden replied. "I'm not engaged to Emberlyn Frostblade."

"Then what is she to you?"

"A childhood friend," he said with a shrug. "Our parents have suggested an alliance, but we're not second-century monarchs. I do have some say in the matter."

Akari crossed her arms. "Did you tell her to attack me yesterday?"

Wow. If this didn't feel like an interrogation before, it certainly did now. "Why would I do that?"

She stopped crossing her arms and grabbed her backpack straps instead. "The way I see it, I didn't actually need you to get on the dark web. Not until after Emberlyn got me banned from the computer lab."

Ah. That did look suspicious, didn't it?

Maelyn cleared her throat from Kalden's left. "I'm sure that looks like a well-crafted plot in hindsight, but it's too convoluted to work in practice.."

"No offense," Akari glanced down at the long-haired girl, "but you're hardly biased."

"I think you mean unbiased," Kalden corrected.

Akari turned back to him and made a rude gesture.

"And Maelyn's right," he said, "Even if it were a good plan, I wouldn't do that."

"Prove it," she snapped.

Kalden closed his eyes and breathed out through his nose. Once again, she was trying to provoke him into a reaction. She probably did this as a coping mechanism—pushing people away and testing them before they could surprise her. But that meant they had a chance to work together. She wouldn't bother with these antics otherwise.

"I'm trying to establish trust with you," Kalden said. "Mana Arts is something that takes months—even years—to learn." He gestured to his left. "Maelyn here is studying to become a Healing Artist, and she's confirmed that. Do I manipulate people? Sure. But I don't see that as a viable solution for a long-term relationship."

"Or maybe you're more desperate than you let on," she began, "You said it yourself, I'm your only real option."

Kalden shook his head. "I'll be sixteen in one month, and my mother can't stop me from joining the military then. It's not ideal—I'd be the worst in my class—but Combat Arts aren't completely out of reach for me." After a short pause, he leaned forward. "But Mana Arts is more than combat. I suspect you know that too."

Some spark of recognition flashed in her copper-colored eyes, and Kalden nodded. "There are other ways to earn money or respect, but you can lose those things, whether you're a Bronze or a Gold. Mana Arts can never be taken away."

She stood there for several long seconds, still fidgeting with the black straps on her backpack. All the while, Darren and Maelyn continued to watch the conversation in silence. But that was for the best. If they'd left, more rumors would spread, and that was bad news for everyone.

"I think you're trying to distract me with fancy words," Akari finally said. "But I haven't forgotten about Emberlyn. You could have helped me yesterday, you know."

Kalden felt his lips curl at the edges. "First I'm a dark lord, now I'm held to the standards of the leading man?"

Her eyes narrowed. "It's your fault Emberlyn attacked me, whether you sent her or not."

"Fine," Kalden conceded. "I messed up. I thought sending Alec would be discrete enough, but one of Emberlyn's informants saw you. Can I make it up to you somehow? Maybe I can pull some strings and get you back in the computer lab?"

"You really think Grandhall will budge on that?"

"Probably not," he admitted. Money could buy victory in small skirmishes, but the greater war required a more subtle hand.

"You could testify in my favor," she said. "Tell the headteacher you saw Emberlyn use Mana Arts against me. Then he'd have no choice but to review the security footage."

Darren let out a soft whistle at that. "She really attacked you yesterday, huh?"

Akari frowned at the blond-haired boy. "I thought you guys knew everything?"

"There were rumors," he said, "but that was just one of many."

Kalden cleared his throat. "That's a bold plan, and it would probably get her expelled from Elegan High's Mana Arts program. But she'll find a new school by next week, and all you'll do is inconvenience her."

"It would still feel good," Akari muttered.

"Then she'll come after you," he continued. "And so will the rest of Clan Frostblade. If you play this game to beat one person, you aren't playing to win long-term. If you put all your pieces into one battle, you'll lose the war."

Akari hesitated, crossing her arms again as a gust of wind shot through the quad. Still, Kalden could see the gears turning behind her eyes. The girl was impulsive, but she wasn't stupid. She knew how many graves you dug when you sought revenge.

"Right now," Kalden said, "Emberlyn thinks she's won. She thinks she sabotaged whatever scheme I was planning. I say we let her keep thinking that. In the meantime, she'll leave you alone, and you and I are free to conduct our business."

"So, first she wants to marry you, then she wants to sabotage you?"

Kalden shrugged. "If she can't have one, she'll settle for the other. That's Gold politics for you."

"Fine," Akari said after a long pause. "Does your offer still stand?"

"It does," Kalden said with a nod. "My mother and step-father are away this weekend, so I'll have the house to myself."

She drew in a deep breath. "Then I accept."

"Excellent." Kalden reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a business card—black cardstock with gold embossed text. "This is my home address. Stop by at one o'clock on Azulday, and we'll get started."

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David Musk

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

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