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Akari darted to the side, feeling the polished pinewood floor beneath her bare feet. She reached out with her right arm, and her fingertips grazed the flying manaball, stopping it just before it hit the dojo's back wall.

"Nice catch," Kalden hollered from across the room.

She fell into a wide stance and prepared to hurl it back. Roughly eight inches in diameter, the ball was wrapped in soft layers of blue and yellow leather. She turned it toward the ceiling and began forcing the mana from her soul.

Akari had struggled to sense her own mana at first, even after drinking that potion four weeks ago. Sure, her stomach went supernova when she'd first swallowed it. Then after a few minutes, it just ... vanished. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't sense it again.

To be fair though, Akari sucked at meditation. No way she would let her guard down in a stranger's house. And she wasn't a calm person by nature. Her thoughts raced even faster as she tried to quiet them. That led to a downward spiral of overthinking the process, then scolding herself for failing.

Kalden didn't do much better at first though, so that was one silver lining.

Eventually, he gave her a small jar of liquid mana to practice with on her own. Every night before bed, Akari took a swig of the minty-flavored potion and tried to sense its path. She chased shadows for several days, mistaking every physical sensation for her soul. The lessons didn't tell her what to look for, and that made things even more frustrating.

"Your soul exists in the spiritual realm," the Grandmaster had said in his second video. "It's anchored to your body, but it's not a part of normal human biology. As such, the feeling is unique for each person. No one can tell you what to expect."

Kalden succeeded after two weeks, and his achievement sowed the first seeds of doubt in her mind. What if there was a difference between Bronze and Golds? What if she'd never be as strong as him, or even as strong as a Silver?

Akari crushed those thoughts before they took root. She had to move forward, not wallow in self-pity.

After sixteen days, she finally felt her soul. She felt it in the final moment when the mana vanished from her stomach. Only, it hadn't really vanished. It was still there—not as tangible as liquid, but there nonetheless. It followed a path outside her body, like a doorway to another realm.

Her thoughts followed the mana through that doorway, and her soul waited on the other side. She saw it as a swirling sphere of light in her mind's eye. And when she pushed on that sphere, the mana rushed through her channels.

Supposedly, these existed outside her body too, but it sure as hell didn't feel that way.

"Pain is normal," the Grandmaster had said. "You've never used your mana channels before. It's natural to feel a bit stretched."

'Stretched' was an understatement. This felt like a fist-sized marble rolling through her torso, pushing her organs aside like a train plowing through snow. Her heart rate doubled, her lungs felt too tight to breathe, and she had to clench her jaw to keep from screaming.

The tightness spread up her arms, with every muscle and bone protesting along the way. When the energy finally reached her palms, it burst out of her in a rush of pure relief.

It reminded Akari of a sneeze. Some dark web comments had made ... other comparisons, but she lacked experience in those areas.

Now, almost two weeks later, she could move and release her mana with little conscious effort. Even the pain had subsided. After all those years of searching, she'd become a real Mana Artist. Soon, she'd be making proper Missiles and shields, and anyone who tried to hurt her would regret it.

Akari glanced back across the dojo to where Kalden waited, then she forced her mana into the base of the ball. The energy left her hand in a river of pale blue light, pushing the ball several inches above her outstretched palm. This wasn't as impressive as it sounded. Manaballs had built-in sigils to force air mana downward and keep them floating at their current height.

Still, it looked cool. And with enough practice, she'd be able to move any small object like this.

Akari took a step back until the ball hung between her and Kalden. She fell into a more narrow stance this time—one foot directly in front of the other. Mana cycled through her channels, from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes.

Finally, she extended her right palm toward the ball, and the energy followed. Mana hit leather, and the ball soared directly toward Kalden.

He leapt to the right and released a burst of his own mana. This struck the ball at an angle, slamming it against the wall between them.

Kalden stepped forward and shot a second burst of mana from his left hand.

Talek. So far, she'd only practiced with her right hand. In theory, though, you could shoot mana from any part of your body. Your feet, your head ... even the center of your chest.

This second burst sent the ball hurtling toward her again. Akari bit her lip and tried to copy Kalden's technique—hitting the ball from the side rather than striking it head-on.

"Focus on control for now. Power comes later. Too often, students rush into making real Missiles, the same way they rush into aspecting their mana. Trust me, you want a strong foundation so you don't waste time breaking bad habits."

Strangely enough, that was all the Grandmaster had said about aspecting. At least that answered her question about it being a prerequisite though. He'd even demonstrated pure mana Missiles and shields in the third video. Did that mean he'd never aspected his own mana?

Still so many questions.

"We'll talk about aspecting later," he'd said. "For now, I urge you to ignore it."

Fire and Metal Artists hit a lot harder than Pure Artists. Ice mana could freeze people in place, and Air Artists could literally fly.

But sure, she would just ignore all that.

Then again, maybe there were advantages to waiting? After all, once you aspected your mana, you couldn't take that back.

Either way, she knew this type of training wasn't common. Kalden's friend Maelyn had confirmed this—once she sensed her soul, her instructor had gone straight to aspecting, even before she formed her first Missile.

Akari ducked as the ball soared over her head, bouncing off the wall behind her. She stretched out her right palm and hit it with a burst from behind, lending it more speed as it flew toward Kalden again

After that, they fell into an easy rhythm of pushing it back and forth. It was actually kind of fun. Akari had no idea what the actual rules of manaball were—something stupid involving nets and cheering crowds.

But as a control exercise, she had to agree with the Grandmaster's videos. If she could hit an eight-inch ball in midair, then she could definitely hit a live target.

Akari shot the ball toward Kalden again, but it came back faster than she could blink.

She reached out a hand and tried to knock it off course, but her channels were empty this time.

Damnit.

She pushed harder, but her soul felt like a wrung-out rag.

The ball slammed into the side of her head and sent her glasses flying free. The force knocked her back, and she landed in a heap on the hardwood floor.

"Sorry!" Kalden shouted as he jogged over. "You alright?"

"Uh-huh," Akari muttered as she felt around for her glasses. She caught a blur of movement as Kalden knelt down and picked something up. She felt the smooth plastic in her hand a second later.

"Sorry," he said again as the world came into focus. "I got a little carried away there."

"No," Akari said. "It's fine. I just ran out of mana."

He offered her a hand, then seemed to think better of it.

"Oh, for Talek's sake." People thought she disliked all human contact, which was bullshit. Good thing dating wasn't high on her priorities list, because those rumors would have everyone running away. She grabbed Kalden's wrist and pulled herself to her feet. His hand was warm, but not half as sweaty as her own.

"How much mana do you have left?" she asked.

Kalden hesitated, closing his eyes for a few breaths. "Half. No—maybe two thirds?"

Akari gritted her teeth. For some reason, he always outlasted her. Maybe she burned through hers quicker? Just as well—the more mana you burned through, the faster your soul would expand. It was like building muscles that way.

Speaking of muscles, she really needed to work on that too. Physical strength mattered a lot more than she'd expected. Especially when you were first starting out. Kalden was way stronger than she was. Maybe that was why he burned through mana so much more efficiently? Something to research later.

"Alright." Akari let out a long breath and wiped the sweat from her forehead. "If I drink some more potion, I should be good for another round."

"Yeah, about that..."

She frowned. "What?"

Kalden scratched the back of his head. "That was our only bottle."

"What do you mean? Your mom's bar is bigger than most restaurants."

He shook his head. "That was her only bottle of mana though. She doesn't practice much these days, remember?"

Great. Akari's mana would still regenerate on its own, but that took a few hours. Apparently, that process was faster in places rich with ambient mana, but Kalden's basement wasn't on that list.

"So what's with the dojo then?" Akari asked as they passed through an arched doorway into the bar. "If your mom doesn't practice."

"It's a Gold thing." Kalden opened the fridge and pulled out two bottles of water. "Gotta keep up appearances."

Akari accepted her bottle and drank half of it in one gulp. By now, she'd abandoned the thought of Kalden drugging her. For Talek's sake, he couldn't even throw a ball without apologizing twice. "So ... Golds need to look like they train and fight, even if they don't?"

"Yeah, that about sums it up." He made a vague gesture toward the computer. "In the old world, your rank was something you earned rather than something you were born with. I guess some of that still permeates our culture today."

In other words, Golds were born wealthy now, but they pretended they'd earned it. Unfortunately, there was no real explanation for rank these days. The Golds decided who the other Golds were. And, naturally, they chose their own family members. Same with the Silvers. They all agreed to play along as long as they got a slice of the pie.

How did Kalden have so much mana though?

She'd asked him before, and he had some stupid theory about how Golds started with a higher base mana number than Bronze. Typical. One minute he'd act self-aware, then he'd try to justify the Gold's rule with some made-up biological difference. Akari had just glared at him until he dropped the idea.

Kalden was studying to become an alchemist though. Even if he wasn't, his family had access to all sorts of resources. Who knew what fancy enhancement pills or elixirs he'd been consuming over the years?

Also, he'd only given her a fraction of the bottle they'd started with. If it was gone now, that meant he'd drank most of it himself. More mana meant more daily practice. Not much she could do about that, though. It wasn't like Kalden had agreed to split it fairly with her.

Still, time was running out. She'd made progress these last few weeks, but was it enough to defend herself or to earn a living? No. Hitting a ball was one thing, but she was still weeks away from forming a real, tangible Missile. For that, she needed her own bottle of mana to practice with. Unfortunately, even the cheaper, pint-sized bottles cost fifty coppernotes or more.

"Sorry," Kalden said. "I feel bad about the mana."

Akari shrugged. "What's your mom have against you learning Mana Arts, anyway?"

Kalden didn't answer that. "I might be able to scrounge up some money without her finding out. Then I could buy us some more mana potions."

Us? Akari narrowed her eyes. "You're serious?"

"Sure, why wouldn't I be?"

She raised her shoulders again. "I mean—it's not like that was part of our deal."

"Yeah, well, I want to make sure I'm pulling my weight. And I can't believe that money is our biggest barrier here."

No argument there. You are one of the richest people in town.

"Well," Akari began after a short pause. "I did have one idea for making money."

He leaned forward, putting both his elbows on the wooden bar.

"Remember those abandoned subway tunnels we talked about?"

"Sure."

"Well, I researched them some more. Only specific spots are off-limits. Otherwise, you can hunt mana beasts there and get paid for it. All you need is a hunting license to sell the stuff you find."

"A license..." Kalden hummed in consideration. "I guess that part falls on me?"

She gave a brisk nod. "You turned sixteen last week, right?"

"I did," he began slowly. "But someone might recognize my name. It's the same problem I had before with Magnus's Dojo. If word gets back to my mom..."

Damnit. She'd been afraid he'd go all goody-two-shoes again.

Kalden must have seen her frown because he continued quickly. "It's still a good idea though. Tell you what—I'll ask Maelyn about it. I know she's done some group hunting in the past. She might know what to do."

Akari drew in a deep breath, feeling her spirits lift again. She'd always dreamed of getting paid to fight, and now things were moving quicker than she'd ever imagined. If this worked, it would be a way to test herself against real opponents. Talek knew she needed all the practice she could get.

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A note from David Musk
So, @Shadowmail just asked who Talek was in his recent review, and I thought I could answer the question here.
 
This world has a pantheon of sorts called Angels, and they’re the people who have ascended beyond the mortal realm. Talek is one of the more popular examples here, and Akari likes to swear by his name as a way to be deliberately edgy/irreverent. It will be a while before he (or any of the Angels) are relevant to the plot though. In the meantime, I might go back and insert some more subtle explanation to an earlier chapter (for example, maybe Akari walks by an Angelic temple on her way back from school, and there’s a statue of Talek out front.) 
 
It’s always a struggle to balance world-building with pacing, but it’s also good to hear which things people are curious about. That way I know what to edit later. :)

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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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