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Despite all her time training with Kalden, he and his friends mostly ignored her at school. Akari hadn't thought it would bother her this much. Before, she'd seen all her peers as potential enemies, and there was a certain comfort in being alone, knowing it was her against the world.

These days, she trained with Kalden in private, but nothing had changed otherwise. It wasn't like they could eat lunch together, sit in the library, or talk on the phone. Basically, it was like having a friend, but with none of the benefits. She felt like his shameful secret, and that rubbed her like a stone in her shoe.

You're profiting from this too, she reminded herself. Quit complaining and take what you can get.

Besides, she couldn't do much at school anyway. Not with those stupid security guards trailing her. Her social life had been nonexistent before. Now, it wasn't so much as a distant dream.

Although, there were perks to having a uniformed escort. For one, Golds like Emberlyn Frostblade left her alone. Sure, the ice princess could have cornered Akari if she really wanted to, but Kalden's earlier theory proved true so far. Emberlyn considered their last encounter a victory, and she'd lost interest soon after.

The rest of the week took its sweet time, and she counted down the days until the weekend. It was Talekday evening now, the night before their tunnel excursion. She sat cross-legged on her bed—still trying and failing to conjure her first Missile.

Mazren had gone away for the weekend—something about a broken wall fragment in the channel between Arkala and Teras. Her foster sister, Elyna, also had a late music lesson. That left her alone with Noella. Her foster mother was even more of a bitch when her family wasn't there to see her true colors. Best to stay in her room as much as possible.

Akari stretched out her hand, mentally counting the seconds as the mana gathered in her palm. It started out soft like a pulsing muscle, then started to vibrate, pushing away from her like a repelled magnet.

As always, she lacked the control to hold it there for long. The mana left her hand in a cloud of invisible vapor—a far cry from the glowing blue sphere she'd expected. The force was enough to levitate small objects like an empty water bottle or a pencil, but even that strained her channels.

No doubt Kalden's absurdly high mana supply made this part easier for him. Apparently, his mana had been dense enough to see even when he failed to create a proper Missile. Then again, he'd also claimed to see Akari's mana when they'd trained together, which didn't make any sense.

Still, she was getting better. Her most recent effort had lasted a full seven seconds, and she jotted that down in her notebook beneath her previous record of six. Her practice sessions were getting longer too. Almost a half-hour had passed, and she had mana to burn.

At least that meant her soul was expanding to hold more mana. Then again, maybe it was her technique that changed? Without a mana watch, she had no way to get actual measurements. Mana watches cost a few silvernotes, but that might be on the table after tomorrow's hunting excursion.

Besides practicing her Missiles, Akari worked on her shaping exercises, releasing mana from one hand and pulling it back with the other.

"Everyone wants the flashy techniques," the Grandmaster had said. "But ninety-nine percent of soldiers and students neglect their shaping. Yes, it's tedious work, but it will give you an edge. Not only that, but it will open the door to more advanced aspects later on."

More advanced aspects. Akari liked the sound of that.

She was probably getting ahead of herself there, but Mana Artists only got to choose one aspect, then they were stuck with it for life. Might as well pick the best one.

The Grandmaster also came from a different age, at the height of humanity's power. If he called this an advantage, then Talek only knew what she could do here in the Archipelago. Who could dare call her Bronze when she was stronger than any Gold?

Akari pushed more mana into her palm. She'd practiced this well over a thousand times now. Not just before bed, but every morning before she showered. She practiced in the bathroom between classes, and during her walk home by the river. Any time she had a free moment, she trained. And once she got her hands on another bottle of liquid mana, she could—

Footsteps echoed from outside her bedroom.

Akari released her mana in a puff of vapor, and the door swung open on its creaking hinges.

Her foster mother, Noella, stepped inside the room. She was Espirian like her husband, with strawberry blonde hair, and eyes like daggers. Her pale skin looked far too youthful for someone in her forties, but that was typical for Healing Artists.

Ever heard of knocking? The question sprang to her lips, but she didn't let it out. She already knew the answer.

"What were you doing?" Noella's crisp voice snapped like a whip.

"Uh..." Akari reached down and picked up her notebook. It was just a bunch of numbers that could, conceivably, pass for math. "Homework?"

"I thought I smelled mana."

Bullshit. Pure mana didn't have a strong scent unless you burned it. Maybe you'd smell a Missile if it hit you in the face, but not from the hallway.

Noella squinted around the room before her gaze settled on the closet. She pulled open the white double doors, knelt down, and lifted the loose floorboard in the corner.

What the hell?. Akari sprang to her feet. Adrenaline raced through her veins, urging her to run.

Her foster mother reached into the floor and pulled out the empty jar of liquid mana.

How? How did she know?

"What were you doing with this?" Noella took several steps forward, holding up the jar between them. A few drops of the royal blue liquid still rolled around the bottom.

Akari looked away. The woman wasn't nearly as tall as Kalden, but she still towered over her. It made her feel ten years younger. The adrenaline in her blood turned to ice as a dozen memories pinned her into place.

"Well?" Noella's voice sliced through the silence.

"Someone at school gave it to me..." Her own voice came out small, with none of its usual fire. "...to try."

"This is useless to you."

If it's so useless, then why do you care? But once again, she held her tongue.

"And dangerous," Noella continued. "Bronze bodies won't process this the same way Silvers and Golds can. It can gather in your cells and poison you over time."

She actually believed that propaganda, didn't she? She'd probably heard one of her professors say it when she was young, and she never asked to see the evidence.

But the woman spoke with such cold indifference. Sometimes, Akari wished Noella were a raving lunatic like some of her other foster parents had been. Many of them drank too much, did drugs, or worked jobs they despised.

At least in those cases, Akari knew they were just looking for a dog to kick.

But Noella had a perfect life, and a well-paying job she seemed to enjoy. She loved her real daughter, and she hated Akari. It had been that way since the first moment they'd met, and no one ever told her why.

Akari didn't reply as the older woman adjusted her grip on the jar. Her hands itched to rip off her glasses and throw them aside. If they broke, she'd be useless tomorrow. But she couldn't even manage that much. Her heart thundered in her chest, but her arms hung like lead weights at her side.

To her surprise, Noella lowered the jar and turned around. "If you want to poison yourself, fine. Just don't do it in my house.." She tossed the jar back toward the closet, and it shattered on the floor. "Now clean this mess up."

The door slammed behind her as she left. Akari gritted her teeth and clenched her fingers into fists. Damnit. Why had she just stood there? She and Noella hadn't been alone like this in months. After all that training, she should have been stronger. She should have fought back.

Sweat coated her palms as she stared down at the broken jar. Half of it lay scattered in smaller shards below her bed and dresser, but one larger chunk remained.

Mana rushed out from her soul, tearing through her channels like a raging river. It pushed against her skin, yearning for release. The pressure built up against her clenched fist, forcing it open.

Never again.

Akari thrust out her palm, and a sphere of pale blue light emerged. The Missile soared across her room, faster than she could blink. It flew like an extension of her own body, more precise than any rod.

The jar fragment let out a high pitched sound as it shattered into a hundred smaller pieces.

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A note from David Musk

So, someone recently left a semi-negative review on this story claiming that it shouldn't have the xianxia tag. I wish the person just left a comment so I could ask for clarification, but oh well. Now I'm curious—is the reviewer right? I thought I was using a lot of the same tropes but in a different setting, but maybe I'm wrong. (Maybe the modern setting completely disqualifies it?) I'm open to removing the tag if that's the case.


Support "Web of Secrets [Modern Cultivation]"

About the author

David Musk

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

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