Kalden had to admit, he'd thought hacking would be more exciting than this. Everything happened so much faster in movies. The characters typed on their keyboards, words flashed across the screen, and helpful progress bars filled up.
"That's all fake," Akari had said earlier when he'd mentioned these movies. "Just a bunch of flashy nonsense for garden gnomes."
Right. Garden gnomes. Whatever that meant.
"Besides," she continued, "going on the dark web isn't hacking. It's not even illegal. You can do shady stuff there, sure, but it's also a way to share things privately. Think of it like ... exploring the abandoned subway tunnels."
"Actually," Kalden said, "I'm pretty sure that is illegal."
"Alright, bad example."
"So if this isn't real hacking," he began, "Then why does it take a hacker to get there?"
"It doesn't, but there's a shitload of scams floating around. Most people don't have a clue what they're doing when they leave the garden. Hackers try to sell them fancy software they don't need, and they eat it up like candy."
Kalden nodded sagely. But the truth was, he wouldn't have batted an eyelash if she said she needed money for software. To him, that was just how the world worked. Most Golds and Silvers probably shared his mindset. Hence the scams.
Kalden leaned forward to get a closer look at the screen. The motion caused Akari to jump, and she snapped her head in his direction.
"Sorry." He raised his hands in a placating gesture.
Color rose to her cheeks as she glanced back at the monitor. Her fingers fidgeted with the keys, and the rest of her body sat coiled like a spring.
What a weird girl.
His informants had warned him not to touch Akari—not even a friendly tap on the shoulder. He hadn't, but that didn't make her any less skittish around him.
"Anything I can do to help you relax?" he finally asked her.
"I'd take a Missile rod," Akari said without missing a beat
"Seriously? He raised an eyebrow. "You want to carry a loaded weapon around my house?"
"You have one, don't you?"
Kalden glanced down at the steel rod on his belt. He always carried this outside of school—so did most Golds who weren't Mana Artists.
"You know," he said after a short pause. "You are free to leave when we're done here today. In fact, you can walk out right now if you want. No one will stop you."
"Sure," she replied with a stiff shrug.
"Fine." Kalden rose to his feet and strolled over to the safe on the other side of the basement. He entered the combination on the keypad, and the steel door swung open to reveal three racks of Missile rods. Most of these used pure mana, but they had a few fire and lightning rods in here too.
Kalden reached into the safe and pulled one of the weaker, Silver-class weapons. Worst case scenario, this could break someone's nose, or put a hole in the drywall.
By contrast, a fully powered Gold Missile could shatter a boulder. He'd seen Emberlyn's father do it before. Kalden's mother might have a similar level of power, but she hadn't used her Combat Art in years. Not since Kalden's brother, Sozen, left.
He was about to return to the family room when he paused. Was he really going to give a Bronze a loaded weapon? The girl's skittish demeanor made her look harmless, but she still had a criminal background. Not to mention some impulsive tendencies when it came to Golds.
Yeah ... it'd be downright embarrassing if this girl robbed him while they were alone together. Embarrassing, and entirely his own fault.
Kalden glanced down at his own mana rod that hung on his belt, and a surge of guilt rushed through him.
A compromise, then.
Akari glanced up expectantly when he returned, and he gestured to the empty hook on his belt. "There," he said, "now we're both unarmed."
She remained silent as she returned her eyes to the screen. Still, her shoulders seemed a little more relaxed than before. That was progress.
Another hour passed as she continued the setup process. Yes, setup. They still hadn't gone on the actual dark web yet. First, she had to update his operating system to the latest version and create a fresh user account, free of personal information. After that, she installed a virtual private network to encrypt their movements and hide their location.
But things got even more complicated from there. Even though Akari had updated his operating system, she had to install something called an emulator. This made his computer use an entirely different system on top of the first one. He'd already forgotten this one's name, but the user interface looked like something from the last decade. While modern interfaces sported metallic effects, this one was all solid colors and thick borders.
According to Akari, they needed this setup for security reasons. One wrong click on the dark web could get you a virus. Or worse, someone could get your real identity and use where you've been against you.
No argument there. He'd rather have this whole Mana Arts thing stay secret for as long as possible. Not to mention this partnership with Akari.
He continued asking her questions as she worked, and she usually gave long and detailed answers. Back in school, talking to this girl had been like fighting a sabertooth tiger. She took every word as a personal attack, and she struck back accordingly.
Still, she obviously liked talking about hacking. That had seemed strange at first. Then again, people liked to feel competent and appreciated. It must be rough having a secret skill you couldn't share.
"And ... what's this garden you keep talking about?" Kalden asked.
"Oh." Her lips curled up at the edges. "That's code for EOL."
"Yeah, it's the web browser most people use. We call it a garden because it's all curated content—chat rooms, message boards, stuff like that." She gestured back to the screen. "If you use a browser like Thoroughfare, that means you've left the garden and started exploring the real city."
Kalden gave a slow nod. "And the dark web is the tunnels beneath that city."
"Pretty much. To get there, we need another browser called FreeWeb. That's the last thing I need to download, then we're good to go."
Akari sat back as they took their final steps into the dark web.
Kalden had asked a lot of questions throughout this process, but he wasn't as annoying as she'd expected. Sure, the questions were basic stuff, but he never asked the same thing twice. He also formed conclusions quickly, which was a good reason to be wary.
If Kalden learned too much by watching her, then why bother keeping her around?
With this in mind, Akari masked her actions as she worked, making the process look as complicated as possible. He didn't bother taking notes, which seemed like a good sign. Then again, some rumors claimed Kalden Trengsen had an eidetic memory. That would explain his perfect grades.
At one point in the day, Kalden got up to answer the door, and Akari peeked at his internet history. Apparently, he didn't know how to clear that. Then again, none of her other classmates did either.
True to his word, Kalden only used the computer for homework—mostly research for history and alchemy classes. Other than that, he seemed to like clothes shopping and researching the latest fashions.
Typical Gold. Those jeans he wore cost a whole two silvernotes. She could buy eight regular pairs of jeans for that much.
Focus. Akari closed that window and switched over to EOL Instant Messenger. If Kalden planned to kidnap her, she'd rather find out now—not tomorrow when he had her dancing on tables in a metal bikini.
First, she checked his messages with Emberlyn Frostblade. These were mostly small talk and flirting. Not that Akari was an expert on flirting, but Emberlyn was about as subtle as a cat in heat. Kalden, for his part, didn't seem to mind it.
Good to know.
She switched over to his conversations with Maelyn and Darren. These were much more extensive, and she only bothered to search for her own name. One result popped up, and that was a talk with Darren Warder, way back in Quintember when she'd first changed his grades.
That's right. Darren had paid her extra for information on the dark web. That talk had been for Kalden the whole time.
Footsteps echoed down the stairs. Akari scrambled to close the chat windows and switch back to the other browser.
That had been more than an hour ago. Now, they'd put the city behind them and began their journey into the depths below. Sites on the dark web didn't look so different from ordinary websites But a current of danger ran through it all—the same way a town felt different after dark. Her palms began to sweat as her hand moved the mouse, and she had to wipe them on her skirt several times.
"This is slower than most websites," Kalden remarked as they waited for the Omnipedia to load.
"That's because we're passing through three times as many routers," Akari said. "Security through obscurity. Imagine you're walking around town, and you don't want anyone to know where you've been..."
"You visit a bunch of stores at random," Kalden finished with a slow nod.
"Right." Akari glanced back at the page as it finally loaded. She'd never been on the Omnipedia before, but people said it was like the dark web's town square. On one hand, they'd be drowning in information here. But the whole "no censorship" rule had its downsides too. Sure, she saw pages about Mana Arts, but most were the same scams she'd warned Kalden about.
Akari ignored those for now and continued on to one of the larger chatrooms. Here, bright green text flashed across the dark page as the messages came in.
"Almost two-thousand users online," Kalden muttered from over her shoulder.
Akari frowned, glancing at the number in the bottom right corner: 1957.
"How's that possible?" he asked. "There's only—what? A half-million people left in the world?"
"Something like that."
"That can't be right," he said. "Two-thousand people is almost 0.5% of the entire population."
Good point. Even the busier chatrooms on EOL didn't get this full. What if these people were from outside the Archipelago? But no ... even if people lived in the outside world, that still wouldn't explain these numbers. Most of the theories she'd read online talked about smaller communities of Mana Artists who knew how to survive in the harsh conditions. But two-thousand people online at one time? You would need entire cities for that.
"They're probably all bots," Akari said after some more consideration.
"Bots?" Kalden asked. "Like ... programs?"
She nodded, then pointed to the screen. "See this one? It keeps spamming the same message about soulshine pills."
"I guess that makes sense," he said.
Akari still wasn't convinced. As far as she knew, most dark web content was repurposed from the old world, and only a few dozen people knew how to access it. Why bother with creating that many bots?
Either way, she could look into it later. Mana Arts was still the priority for now.
She spent the next half-hour asking for recommendations in the chatroom. More people tried to scam her, of course, but she eventually found a lead. They called him the Grandmaster. Apparently, he was some kind of university professor who'd posted a video series on the internet a few years back. The state had those videos removed, but their legacy continued here on the dark web.
Once they had a name, it wasn't hard to track down the first video using the Omnipedia's resources. Well, technically, she found the first four videos, but she didn't tell Kalden that yet.
Besides, how did they know this 'Grandmaster' guy was the real deal? She'd had her hopes crushed more than once this week, after all.
Still, her heart fluttered with anticipation as they watched the blue download bar fill up.
Twenty seconds left.
She'd been dreaming of her first Mana Arts lesson for years, the way some girls might dream of their wedding day.
She'd always imagined a dojo with a real teacher. But after what Magnus had told her, she wasn't surprised to find herself here of all places..
Finally, the media player popped open, and she clicked the circular play button. The video faded into a man's torso. He wore a form-fitting black t-shirt, but the camera cut off above his collar. He stood in a well-lit dojo with bamboo walls behind him.
"Hello," the man spoke in a thick Espirian accent. "I'm a Grandmaster, and a professor of Mana Arts. I can't tell you my name, or where I teach, but I hope my knowledge will speak for itself."
His voice also seemed disguised. Not in a creepy serial-killer way, but he'd definitely added some sound effects to make him harder to identify.
"I created this video," he said, "because the Espirian government has placed restrictions on Mana Arts. They tell us which Arts we can learn. They tell us who can learn them, and where."
The Espirian government. That implied these videos were far older than the files themselves. Decades had passed since Espira's fall. Whoever this Grandmaster was, he must be long dead.
"The government looks at Mana Artists, and they see assets to society—fighters, healers, and creators. But these abilities are the byproducts of Mana Arts rather than the end results. They ignore the benefits for the individual. I'm talking about spiritual awareness, opening your mind to something greater, and taking the first steps toward immortality."
Chills crept down Akari's arms as she listened. She'd always felt like something was missing from her life—something as essential as food or water. Until this moment, she'd lacked the words to describe it.
"Now," he said, "I'm sure some of you are rolling your eyes at my words. That's fine. You don't have to share my beliefs to experience the benefits. Regardless, this knowledge belongs to everyone. After all, our rulers didn't discover the path to power on their own. They merely stood on the shoulders of those before them. But to restrict this skill to the rich is to deprive others of what it means to be human."
The Grandmaster paused as if for dramatic effect. "In these videos, I will teach you real Mana Arts. Not the diluted way it's taught in university classes or the military. Those institutions prioritize quick results over long-term gain. This is no accident. Rather, it's by design. You see, not only do our governments restrict this skill, they seek to control those who learn it.
"Populations aren't what they were three centuries ago. Back then, Artists kept to their own clans and sects, and restricting knowledge was easy. Only one in ten-thousand people rose to true power. Today, there are more Mana Artists than at any other time in human history, and each one is a threat to the world's power structure.
"So no, I won't teach you Mana Arts the way it's taught to students or soldiers. But trust me when I say this—those aren't the lessons you want."
The video faded to black as if it were over. Akari hovered over the progress bar with her mouse and realized it was only halfway done. Slowly, the camera faded back in, and the second part began.
"Let's start with the basics," the Grandmaster said. "Which is sensing the mana in your body. If you can already do this, then feel free to skip ahead to Lesson Two."
There was another short pause. Akari leaned closer, giving the video her complete attention. Kalden did the same, and a faint whiff of cologne passed her nostrils.
"As you already know, mana comes from the souls of living things. Every being has a soul, and that soul acts as a portal to the spiritual realm. Regardless of where you are at the Foundation level, you should be able to sense the mana within your own soul.
"Normally," he said, "this takes weeks of meditation, but there is a way to make the process go faster. Simply buy a cheap mana potion and take a sip—half an ounce should do, but you might need more depending on your level. Your soul will try to expand when the mana reaches it, but it will fail. You can't increase your mana capacity without training, but feeling your soul is the first step to controlling the mana inside of it.
"Finally, once you've consumed some liquid mana, it's time to sit and meditate. Yes, you heard me! As a Mana Artist, you'll be spending a lot of time in your own mind and body. Might as well get comfortable. If you don't know how to meditate, then look it up. And for those of you planning on skipping to the next video, don't bother. I'm going to start that one assuming you can sense your mana. Good luck."
The video ended, and Akari sat there in stunned silence. Was sensing your soul really that simple? Talek. If this worked, she was going to feel like an idiot for not trying it sooner.
A few more seconds passed, then Kalden stood up and stretched. "Lucky for us," he said, "my mom already has some liquid mana potions. Come on."
After leading her across the basement, Kalden stepped behind the bar and pulled out a glass bottle from the refrigerator. Akari fell into the leather-padded barstool, leaning her elbows on the bar’s lacquered surface.
Kalden placed the bottle between them and poured them each half a shot glass's worth. The mana was a deep shade of royal blue, but she knew that was fake. Alchemy-grade mana was normally paler than this, but people filled it with food coloring to hide the imperfections.
Akari brought the glass to her nose, and it smelled vaguely of mint. That was fake too—probably to cover up the mana's natural mineral scent.
"Have you drank mana before?" Kalden asked her.
Akari shook her head. Before today, she'd assumed Mana Artists only drank this when they needed to replenish their souls. If she'd known this would help her learn, she would have gotten her hands on the stuff years ago.
"In that case..." Kalden pointed to a nearby door. "You already know where the bathroom is."
Akari followed his gaze. "It's really that bad?"
"Not always," he said. "But you definitely feel it in your stomach, and my mom doesn't like blue carpets."
"Well then." Kalden picked up his shot glass and clanked it against hers. "Here's to true power."
They threw back their heads and drank together.