"There are three basic techniques," the Grandmaster said. "Missile, Construct, and Cloak. Think of these like arithmetical operations. The human body can only move mana in so many ways. No matter how complex or fancy a technique looks, it's always a combination of these three."
Akari had seen this video about fifty times, but she couldn't help it. Nothing hyped her up like videos of Mana Artists. Each clip was like a glimpse into her own future. Maybe ... hopefully.
Kalden was upstairs waiting for his friends to arrive, which left her curled up in the leather computer chair by herself.
"If you can emit mana from your hands," the Grandmaster continued, "then you already have the basics of a Missile down. The trick is gathering enough energy in your palms before you release it."
As always, the Grandmaster wore his black t-shirt with the screen cut off at his neck. He still had the voice modulator too, but his thick Espirian accent was obvious. Especially when he was trying to be funny.
"As you gather the energy," he said, "be sure to keep breathing and channeling mana through the rest of your body. You'll need that to propel the Missile forward."
He raised his right arm at a forty-five-degree angle from the camera, and blue light gathered beneath the pale skin of his palm. Finally, a swirling nucleus of light burst out from his hand, flying at some unseen target across the dojo.
Several more videos played in rapid succession, each one showing a different type of Missile. Some had clear visual indicators like fire, water, ice, lightning, and metal. Others were more subtle like air, restoration, heat, and sound.
"As a general rule," he said. "Missiles can move away from your body, or towards it. But you'd be surprised how much variation this allows. We'll cover advanced shaping exercises in a later video."
"Next up is Constructs." The scene shifted back to the dojo. "Unless you live under a rock, I'd wager you see these every day. At the Foundation stage, they take on the form of shields." He demonstrated this by stretching out both hands and creating a wall of glowing mana in front of himself. His body motions seemed less specific than when he'd fired the Missile. Strange. Maybe this technique was more mental?
A Missile flew in from off-camera, and the shield absorbed its impact.
"Sometimes," he said, "a Construct is made of a certain mana type. In this case, I'm using pure mana which repels most physical projectiles. Other times, a Construct can repel a specific form of matter or energy."
Again, the camera switched to a scene of a black-clad Fire Artist stretching out her hands and keeping a fire at bay. Another scene showed a sailor redirecting the wind toward his ship's sails.
Akari had known most of this already, even before she saw the video. As the Grandmaster said, Constructs were common, and technicians like her foster father worked on sigils to create permanent ones around the island.
Unfortunately, this video said little about how to make them. Just that it involved releasing your mana more slowly, then reshaping it as it mixed with the ambient mana around you.
Yeah ... that was way out of her league right now. Akari couldn't even sense ambient mana, much less do fancy stuff with it. Still, it would be nice to start practicing, but Constructs were covered in the fifth video.
"And last but not least," the Grandmaster said, "we have the Cloak technique. This is when you reinforce your physical body, making yourself faster, stronger, or more resilient."
His entire body glowed blue as if there were a light burning inside him, struggling to break free. The camera pulled down and out to reveal a slab of solid concrete on two cinder blocks. It must have been six or seven inches thick. The Grandmaster raised his muscular arm over the concrete, and his fist shone even brighter than before.
After a dramatic pause, he brought his arm straight down, severing the slab into two clean pieces.
He straightened his posture again, and the camera zoomed back to his chest. "You should know that the Cloak technique is impossible at the Foundation level. Trust me, kids, don't try it now, or your bones will snap like twigs."
Even after re-watching the first four videos, Akari still had no clue what the 'Foundation' level was, or what level came after it. Kalden had asked Maelyn, and she hadn't known either. Probably some outdated phrase that no one used anymore.
After finishing the overview, Akari closed the media player and opened the fourth (and final) video they'd found. This one showed Missiles in more detail, including the proper stance. Supposedly, the fifth video was all about Constructs, auras, and ambient mana, but she hadn't been able to find that one yet.
The Grandmaster demonstrated the Missile stance on the screen, and Akari pushed the chair back to follow along. One foot in front of the other. Dominant arm extended outward. Other arm curled up behind you.
The hard part was gathering enough mana into her palm. Whenever she tried, it felt like scooping up the last bit of soup from the bottom of the bowl. There just wasn't enough to work with.
Apparently, Kalden had conjured his first real Missile last night after she'd left. Akari was happy for him though, and not the least bit jealous or pissed off.
Footsteps thundered down the stairs, followed by Kalden's voice. "Maelyn and Darren are here," he said. "We're going to practice in the back yard."
"Okay." Akari dropped her stance and let out a breath. "Be right there."
He'd called Maelyn last night about their hunting idea. She'd responded with a long lecture on how they'd probably die without a healer in their group. Now, here they were, all practicing together.
The whole thing was a pain to schedule though. Normally, Kalden just summoned Akari to his outdoor throne room, and they made plans from there. If only things were that easy over the weekend. Obviously, Kalden couldn't just leave a message on the Clifton's answering machine. Her foster mother might look up his phone number and realize who he was. And even if Kalden wasn't a semi-famous Gold, Noella didn't want Akari spending time around boys in general.
"We wouldn't want you repeating your mother's mistake and getting pregnant," she always said in her stuck-up Espirian accent.
Bitch. As if the birth control she'd prescribed her wouldn't take care of that.
In the end, it was Maelyn who left the message. "Hey Akari," she'd said. "I think we should study again this weekend. What do you say? The library? Three o'clock? Let me know if you can't make it. Otherwise, I'll see you there."
Akari joined the others outside, and they'd already set up an entire shooting range in the backyard. Fortunately, the ten-foot-tall brick wall offered plenty of privacy. Not to mention the forest that went on for several acres. It was the middle of Hexember now, and most of the trees had shed their leaves, leaving brown skeletons behind. A few more weeks, and there would be snow on the ground too.
A row of wooden training dummies sat lined up on one side of the open grass area, about twenty yards from where Kalden and the others stood. Darren was already loading a missile rod with a clip of ammunition.
Akari couldn't help but frown at the chubby blond boy as he raised it toward the training dummies. Seriously? They were fighting mana beasts with him? He might be a good informant, but he'd probably slow them—
Darren fired three blasts in rapid succession, taking the three training dummies between their eyes.
"Shit," Akari whispered. Okay, she'd be the one slowing them down.
Nearby, Kalden showed off his new Missile technique to Maelyn, gathering mana in his right palm and hurling it at the wooden dummies. His Missiles weren't as strong as the ones in the rod, and each one missed the targets. Still, that was more than Akari could do.
You've made it this far, she reminded herself. Sometimes, her practice felt like walking on thin ice. As if this were another one of her dreams, and one wrong move could send her back to square one.
But then she remembered Kalden's words that day in the quad. "No one can take this away from us."
She hoped to Talek and all the Angels that was true
"Ever shot one of these before?" Darren raised his sunglasses as he turned to face her.
Akari blinked, then realized she'd been staring at the weapon when she'd zoned out. "Just a couple times."
"Good day for practice then." He flipped a switch near the top and handed it to her.
Akari accepted the weapon and adjusted her grip. It was heavier than the rod she'd lost, but not as heavy as she'd expected. The shaft was nothing but a steel cylinder, about an inch in diameter. Aside from the leather grip and trigger, the only real difference was the ammunition canister at the back. Judging by its size, it could hold a dozen or more Missiles.
"See those pointy things at the top?" Darren gestured with his finger. "Those are iron sights."
Akari nodded as she tried to line up the sights with her target. "Like on a gun?" She'd never actually fired a gun, but she'd seen iron sights in video games.
"Basically," he said. "Experienced Artists don't bother with them, but they're useful if you're just starting out."
"So ... you're not a Mana Artist then?"
"Nah. I'm studying to become an accountant."
"Why?" Akari blurted out.
"It pays well."
"But Mana Artists can make money with their bare hands," Akari said. Mana crystals weren't technically currency these days, but places would pay to take them. If the quality was good enough, they would grind them down to make potions. As for lower quality crystals, they could turn those into fuel. That fuel powered every single car, train, and building in the Archipelago.
"Sure," Darren replied. "But let's say you spent hundreds of hours practicing, and you learn to make a perfect, culinary grade crystal..."
"Alchemy grade," Kalden corrected as he walked over. "It's not an essential oil."
"Alchemy grade," Darren amended with narrowed eyes. "At best, a Silver can make three crystals in an eight-hour workday. That would get me sixty coppernotes per day if the market is good. The only way to increase your output is to drink potions. And that sort of defeats the purpose, right?"
Sixty coppernotes per day didn't sound so bad to Akari. Minimum wage was only five coppernotes per hour, after all.
"Now, as for accountants—"
"Here we go," Maelyn said as she strolled over. The Shokenese girl was a head taller than Akari and Darren, but still not as tall as Kalden. Her black hair came down past her chest, accentuating her height even further.
She ignored Darren's glare and turned to Akari. "It's not every day a cute girl asks him about economics."
Akari blinked. Did Maelyn just call her cute? Probably sarcasm or something.
"Anyway." Darren spent a full second clearing his throat, pointedly not looking at either of them. "An entry-level accountant can make twenty coppernotes per hour. Or 1.6 silvernotes per day. Plus the work is more interesting, and you can move up a pay grade every year."
Akari gave a slow nod. "What about combat then?" He couldn't say he found some cushy office job more exciting than killing mana beasts.
"You're still at the mercy of the market," Darren said. "The mana beast populations fluctuate all the time. The military protects the big cities like Ironhaven, so a freelancer has to join the Hunter's Guild in White Vale. Sure, the pay is decent, but other jobs are more consistent."
"Plus," Maelyn broke in. "Combat comes with the looming threat of injury and death—something most people like to avoid." She rested her chin on the back of her hand. "That's why Healing Artists are so popular."
Akari had never considered a Healing Art before. Mostly because her foster mother was a healer, and she'd poisoned that well forever. Healers also lacked offensive techniques, which made them useless outside a group setting.
Kalden crossed his arms and nodded. "Maelyn's been in the tunnels five or six times now. That's why she's giving us a crash course on staying alive down there."
"Right," Maelyn said. "Lesson number one is armor." She knocked a fist on her black leather vest. Akari glanced at Darren and Kalden who also wore vests of a similar style.
The other girl walked over to the wooden table where they'd gathered their things. She picked up a fourth vest and tossed it to Akari. "You can borrow one of mine for today—and next week when we go hunting for real."
Akari slipped the vest on over her hoodie. It was heavier than she'd imagined, not to mention stiffer.
"These are woven with micro-Constructs," Maelyn explained. "They can stop bullets, knives, or Missiles."
Well, that explained the stiffness. Most permanent mana Constructs had a crystal-like quality, and crystal wasn't known for its comfort.
Maelyn also passed out helmets. These were black, with clear visors across the front. Not exactly the first image that came to mind when you thought of Mana Artists. Then again, real Artists could protect themselves with Constructs and Cloaks, so a helmet would just get in their way. Akari and the others still had a long way to go before they reached that level.
Once they had their helmets and vests on, Maelyn eyed Akari's skirt with a raised eyebrow. Damnit. The other girl had the same school uniform, so she probably recognized it. "I'd also wear jeans if I were you. And boots if you have them."
Akari didn't have either of those, but maybe she could figure something out before next week. She already planned to have her Missile technique ready by then. Even if the rods were more powerful, she'd rather not rely on them.
Maelyn explained the creatures they were likely to encounter in the tunnels, along with the tactics they'd need to kill them. They spent the rest of the afternoon practicing with the Missile rods, hitting the training dummies at various ranges. Kalden's family had plenty of spare ammo, so money was no real concern here.
They practiced together until the sun went down. By then, the auroras filled the sky with swirls of green and blue light.
They ordered Shokenese food for dinner—spicy shrimp, crab, fried noodles, and vegetables. It was a nice change from what she had at the Clifton's house. It almost reminded her of the food her mother used to make.
Akari's biggest surprise was how normal this group seemed. They were all business at school. Kalden was their Gold leader, and Darren and Maelyn were his Silver minions. Even their parents worked for Kalden's mother, so they came from a long line of rulers and retainers. That was what she'd come to expect from the so-called higher ranks.
They didn't wear their badges in private though. Here, they were friends. And after spending time with them today, Akari got her first glimpse of what that felt like.