She arrived in Kalden's neighborhood the next morning. It had been a long night of tossing and turning in her bed, but she'd finally done it. After weeks of trial and error, she'd finally conjured her first real Missile.
Speed had been the missing ingredient. As long as she cycled her mana fast enough, it left her palm in a semi-solid state. That made perfect sense in hindsight. No matter how tightly you packed a snowball, it wouldn't fly far without some force behind it.
Fortunately, her cycling increased along with her heart rate, so speed shouldn't be a problem in combat.
As she walked, Akari tried to focus on her success rather than her new set of problems. For one, her foster mother could sense mana through solid walls? Did this mean it wasn't safe to practice in her room anymore?
No ... she'd been practicing for most of Hexember, and this was the first time Noella had caught her. Whatever this technique was, it wasn't active all the time. Still, she couldn't risk bringing an expensive bottle of liquid mana in her room after last night. But where else could she keep it? With Kalden? His parents weren't even away every weekend, and his mother's business trips were growing more infrequent. How was she supposed to train?
Talek. What a mess.
She walked up the driveway to find Darren in the garage, loading Kalden's trunk with more weapons than they could carry. He wore his leather combat vest, along with a black shirt, dark jeans, and black leather boots.
Kalden stepped out of the house wearing a more tailored version of the same outfit. He carried a padded bag over his shoulder which Akari guessed were the healing potions. He'd made those himself in alchemy class this week. His mother actually encouraged alchemy, so the cost was no concern here.
"Hey," Akari said as she followed him toward the car. "You mentioned before that you can see mana? "
"Morning to you too." Kalden lowered his sunglasses and dropped the bag into the trunk.
She crossed her arms and waited.
"I assume you're talking about mana in its vapor state?" Kalden asked.
She nodded. "That, or sensing other states through walls."
He hummed in consideration. "Yeah, I could probably see it through a wall if I was looking."
"How?" she asked.
"Relax your regular vision," Darren cut in. "You're not actually using your eyes. It's a totally different sense."
"Wait," Akari rounded on him "you can do it too?"
"But you're not even a Mana Artist!"
Kalden turned around and peaked his head out of the garage. "Hey, Maelyn?"
Maelyn stepped up to the garage, carrying something that looked like a yard sprinkler with a wide, black base.
"We're trying to explain how to see ambient mana," he began. "Do you—"
"Sorry." Maelyn set down the sprinkler-thing in the trunk next to the potions and Missile rods. "Not allowed to say."
Great. She'd said the same thing last weekend when Akari had asked for Missile advice. All students in the school's Mana Arts program had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and they faced serious consequences if they broke it.
Kalden might have pressured her, but he chose not to. Once his skills became public, Maelyn would be the primary suspect. He wanted her to be innocent if someone interrogated her.
Akari slumped her shoulders as she followed the others back inside. Whatever this technique was, the Grandmaster probably covered it in his ambient mana video—a video they still hadn't found. But how hard could it be if Kalden and Darren had both stumbled upon it? She'd have to practice later.
When she walked through the door, Maelyn glanced down at her outfit and shook her head.
Oh, for Talek's sake.
The other girl made her way toward the living room, gesturing for Akari to follow.
Akari grimaced. "What?"
"Come on," she said with another wave.
Akari glanced over at Kalden who gave a helpless shrug. Damnit. She slipped off her Traverse shoes, then followed Maelyn past the waterfall and down the winding wooden staircase.
"Remember what I said last weekend?" Maelyn continued walking past the bar, stopping outside an unfamiliar door. "The boys aren't gonna say anything, but someone has to. Your school uniform might not be the best choice for the tunnels."
Akari glanced down. She wasn't wearing her entire school uniform, just the dark gray skirt, along with black leggings and a red hoodie. She'd come close to wearing her old jeans today, but they were even more tattered than she'd remembered. Pride and habit won out in the end.
"Well," Akari said, "this was what I felt like wearing."
"I'd offer you my extra pair of jeans," Maelyn continued, "but you're a bit shorter." She gestured from Akari's head to her own, as if the difference wasn't clear as glass. "Plus, you don't have much in the way of curves."
"Gee, thanks." She bit back her real retort, though. Best not to snap at the person who might heal her injuries later.
"Come on." Maelyn pushed open the door and stepped inside. "We're going shopping."
"Seriously?" Akari let out a huff of annoyance. "What's next? Makeup and jewelry?"
"It's not about looking pretty. It's about practicality."
Akari perked up at the last word. "More micro-Constructs?"
"They do make jeans with shield sigils," Maelyn said with a laugh, "But they're crazy expensive. I think Kalden's wearing some now, but even Golds don't spend that kind of money on kids' clothes."
They wove their way through a labyrinth of metal shelves covered with plastic tote bins. Maelyn checked the labels as they walked, muttering beneath her breath.
"You really know your way around Kalden's house," Akrari noted.
"I've been his retainer since I was a kid." Maelyn pulled a bin off one of the lower shelves and popped open the blue lid. Akari tilted her head and read the label. Hana. Age Twelve.
"Kalden's step-sister," Maelyn said as she rummaged through the clothes. "She goes to Ironhaven University right now."
Ah. Kalden hadn't mentioned a stepsister before. Then again, they rarely talked about their families.
"Here we go." Maelyn held up a pair of blue jeans.
Akari raised an eyebrow. "Aren't those for kids?"
"They'll fit you," she said. "Trust me. Even when Hana was twelve, she was still taller than you."
Akari rolled her eyes as she pulled off her leggings, leaving her skirt in place. She stepped into the jeans a second later, and they fit perfectly.
Then again, she shouldn't have been surprised. If Maelyn knew about her chocolate allergy, then of course she knew her clothing sizes. But that begged the question: if Kalden's fifteen-year-old informants were this good, then how good were his mother's? How had they even lasted this long without her finding out?
More importantly, how long until she put a stop to it?
"Maybe you'll like these better," Maelyn said as she pulled out a pair of combat boots. They were made of shiny black leather, with gold buckles along the back. It seemed strange wearing clothes with gold on them, but it wasn't like anyone would see them in the tunnels.
"Again," Maelyn said, "no Construct sigils, but the leather should give you better protection than those Traverse shoes you wear. Plus, these are old, so it doesn't matter if you get blood on these."
Akari unbuckled the boots and slipped them on. She hated to admit it, but Maelyn was right. She felt sturdier than she had before. Less like a timid high school student, and more like the Mana Artist she wanted to be.
Twenty minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot outside the tunnel entrance. To her surprise, there were only a few more cars there.
"Thought this place would be busier," Akari muttered. Not that she wanted to deal with crowds, but it was supposed to be the town's only tunnel entrance.
"Ten percent of the population is arachnophobic," Maelyn said from beside her in the back seat.
"Yeah," Darren agreed from the front, "And that number jumps to about ninety-nine percent when the spiders are as big as dogs."
"Spiders?" She didn't remember those on Maelyn's list.
"They're joking," Kalden said from the driver's seat. "Spiders are too valuable to leave out in the wild. Some ambitious farmers came through a few years back and abducted them all for their silk."
Maelyn opened her car door. "Arkions are still arachnids though."
"Say that ten times fast," Darren suggested.
She glared at him before turning back to Akari. "And they're just as scary. You'll see when we get down there."
They unloaded the car, put their helmets on, and made their way across the parking lot. A pair of Missile rods hung from Akari's leather vest, bouncing against her legs as she walked.
The entrance was nothing but a downward stone staircase surrounded by a thick iron cage. If not for the gate, it could have passed for an ordinary subway entrance.
Not that Elegan had any ordinary subways. Not anymore. The city had tried to build this one fifty years back, then they ran into the Hollows—the vast cavern system that spanned the entire planet.
Originally, they'd thought the nearest section was more than a hundred feet below Arkala. Thousands of goldnotes later, they realized their mistake. The diggers created an opening, shenanigans ensued, and the mana beasts chased them out.
Sure, they could have tried to keep building, but taming the Hollows was like taming a storm at sea. If you're smart, you keep your distance.
Oh well. One failed train project was a Mana Artist's playground. Akari and the others weren't actually going into the Hollows, of course. Not only would that be suicide, but the entrance was more than ten miles from here. Fortunately, the smaller mana beasts wandered up through the man-made tunnel system, and their crystal cores were as good as any.
Kalden tucked his badge behind his vest as they approached the guards, and Akari did the same.
Two State Guards stood watch outside the iron cage. They wore camouflage fatigues with Silver badges pinned to their chests.
Maelyn led the way as they approached, pulling out her hunting license and handing it to the guard on the left. He was a blue-eyed Espirian with a shaved head, probably no older than twenty.
The man gave a curt nod and gestured them through. Simple as that.
This had surprised Kalden at first, but it made perfect sense to Akari. People were more likely to follow rules if they considered those rules reasonable. And the last thing this city wanted was people breaking down the other sealed entrances.
"Careful in there," the man said. "I hear the arkions are roaming in groups of five or six. The spring nests are all grown up, so—"
A shout echoed from down the tunnel, and both guards drew their Missile rods as they spun to face the staircase.
Footsteps followed, and a trio of teenage boys burst out from around the corner.
The boy in the middle—a brown-haired Espirian—had his arms resting on his friends' shoulders. He walked with a limp as they pulled him up the stone staircase.
When they finally crested the top, Akari saw why. His jeans had a wide hole in the left thigh, almost as long as her forearm. Blood ran down his leg, staining the denim a deep violet. Akari gaped at the wound for several long heartbeats, and she spotted a glimpse of white bone among the sea of red.
One of his friends had a broken claw protruding from his right temple, and a thin river of blood ran down his cheek. The other friend had several rips in his t-shirt, but no visible wounds.
The guard holstered his rod. "Let's take a look." He glanced up at the other two boys. "Neither of you is a healer?"
"I'm the healer," the boy with the bleeding leg spoke in a raspy voice. "Mana's dry."
The man pressed his hand to the boy's thigh, and a burst of golden light followed. Skin and muscle re-knit around the wound, as smooth as flowing quicksilver. "That should slow the bleeding," he said. "Get to the hospital, and he'll be fine"
"What?" the boy blurted out. "You can't heal the whole thing?"
"I could," he said, "but then I'd be out of mana too." He looked up again. "You know the way to Elegan General?"
They nodded, and he rose to his feet. "Get going then."
"What about me?" The Cadrian boy pointed to the broken claw in his forehead.
"Let the hospital's healers take out the claw. It'll just bleed more if you do it here."
The other guard cleared his throat, "And wear a helmet next time. They're not just for decoration, you know."
Akari's gaze followed the trio as they limped off.
The sight made her knees shake, and her own breath echoed inside her helmet. Maelyn had told them what to expect. She'd even been detailed in her descriptions. Still, it was one thing to hear about injuries...
And to think, less than twenty minutes ago, she'd been picking out jeans and shoes. She turned to look up and Kalden. His face was calm and controlled behind his clear visor, but it seemed to require some deliberate effort on his part.
Talek. Were they being too reckless here? Should they wait until they'd practiced more?
You don't have time to wait, Akari reminded herself. A few more months, and she'd be on her own, without the luxury of choosing her battles. Besides, if she'd been born two-hundred years ago, she would have faced mana beasts every day, just beyond the borders of her clan's village.
No ... if she wanted to get stronger, then she had to take risks. She also had to expect some blood along the way.