They moved in a diamond formation with Kalden on point. Akari and Darren held up the sides, while Maelyn brought up the rear.
To be honest, though, Akari hadn't even heard the term 'diamond formation' until today.
"He likes military tactics," Darren had whispered once they'd descended the stone staircase. "When we were kids, he made us run drills in the backyard."
"Every ten-year-old girl's dream," Maelyn deadpanned.
"You know I can hear you both," Kalden said from the front.
Ten minutes ago, Akari might have laughed at this. But after what she'd just seen on the surface...
Yeah. If fancy formations helped keep her alive, she could get on board.
The tunnels themselves weren't as dark or dingy as she'd imagined. The ceilings were curved, with sturdy brick archways that reached down to the stone floor. Copper tiles filled the spaces between them, and orange lightbulbs shone from old-fashioned chandeliers.
According to Maelyn, this 'nice and shiny' part wouldn't last long. The Arkala State Guard maintained the first few tunnels, but things took a darker turn after that. Some species avoided light, and this made them think twice before expanding their territory toward the surface.
Akari clutched her fire rod for the first few minutes, expecting an attack from every crevice and shadow. The others made small talk as they walked, but she didn't join in. Images of those wounded teenagers kept flashing in her vision, and the smell of their blood lingered in her nostrils.
We're better equipped, she reminded herself for the fifth time. Those other kids were wearing t-shirts of all things. Meanwhile, her group had more than a dozen Missile rods, leather vests, helmets, and...
Akari glanced at the strange metal base that hung from a hook on Darren's backpack. Maelyn carried a second one behind her.
She cleared her throat for the first time in several minutes. "So ... what are these sprinkler things, anyway?" She glanced back at Maelyn, then pointed to the one on Darren's backpack.
"Sprinklers," Darren echoed with a chuckle. "See? I told you they looked like sprinklers."
Maelyn groaned, pressing a gloved hand to her helmet. "I still don't get the comparison. Don't sprinklers, like, spin in circles?"
"I get what they're saying," Kalden said from up ahead. "Oscillating sprinklers shoot straight up, then pivot back and forth. The shield Constructs do look similar."
"Well," Maelyn said, "clearly you're all sprinkler experts, and I'm—"
Akari cleared her throat again. "Shield Constructs"?
"Sorry," Maelyn said. "Yeah, these are portable shield Constructs. When you turn them on, you get a wall of protection mana."
"Like the defensive equivalent of Missile rods," Kalden added.
That seemed useful, especially if their enemies had long-range attacks. There wasn't a lot of cover down here, otherwise.
"People expect the healers to provide shields," Maelyn explained. "That's why I picked these up last year."
Akari frowned. "You can't conjure shields with your own mana?" In the movies, it was always the healer character who protected the group mid-battle.
She shook her head. "Healers don't have a Construct technique. Just Missiles."
What a ripoff, Akari thought. "So you don't have a Cloak technique either?"
"Nope." She pointed up at Kalden "Honestly, I've never even heard of a Cloak technique until he asked me last week."
Strange. And the Grandmaster seemed to regard that knowledge as fundamental. Come to think of it though, Akari had never heard of Cloaks either until she saw the video. At least, not by name. Obviously, the most powerful Mana Artists in stories had much stronger bodies than ordinary people.
"Cut the chatter," Kalden said with a raised hand.
Yes, Sergeant Trengsen.
"There's movement up ahead, just beyond the light."
Akari squinted as she stepped forward. Sure enough, the light ended about ten yards ahead, but she didn't see anything beyond that. Then again, her vision had never been great, even with her glasses.
"I see them," Darren said. "Arkions."
"How many?" Maelyn asked.
"Three?" Kalden ventured. "Maybe four."
"Probably an ambush attempt." Maelyn dropped her backpack, letting it fall with a clatter on the stone floor. "We should set up here. Arkions don't mind the light, so they'll come to us if we pull."
Akari and Darren stood watch while the other two set up the shield Constructs. She had to remind herself to look both ways down the tunnel. They'd taken a few turns along their way, so it wasn't impossible for another group of mana beasts to flank them. Or even another group of hunters looking to steal their gear.
The others had shrugged off that last possibility when she'd first brought it up. They did it with straight faces too, as if they'd never been mugged before.
Must be nice.
Kalden and Maelyn set up the shield bases about ten feet apart, and walls of semi-transparent mana erupted from the metal bases. They adjusted dials that seemed to control the width and height. The shields stretched all the way to the ceiling by the time they'd finished, and they'd left a ten-inch gap between them. Big enough to shoot through, but not so wide that an enemy could squeeze in.
Akari took a few steps toward the nearest shield. Gazing through one was like seeing the world through a sheet of shallow water. Ripples emitted up from the metal base, blurring the scene even further. She stretched out an open palm but hesitated.
"Is this gonna zap me?" she asked the group in general.
"You're all good," Maelyn said as she adjusted the dial near the ground.
Akari pressed her hand to the wall of mana. Somehow, it felt both solid and liquid—like a sheet of half-melted ice. It also didn't threaten to tip over, no matter how hard she pushed. Some sort of gravity mana, maybe? Airships used gravity Constructs to make themselves lighter as they flew. Why not do that in reverse to make something heavier?
She held her hand in place as visions of her own future flashed in her mind. Soon, she'd be making shields like this with her bare hands. They'd move with her through the battlefield, appearing and fading at her will.
She shook her head as the enemies moved in the darkness. Now wasn't the time for daydreaming. She already had her first technique. Time to use it.
"Alright," Kalden said once the shields were in place. "Everyone ready?"
They all gave a verbal confirmation. Akari switched off her fire rod's safety but kept the weapon in her left hand. Then she cycled her mana through her channels, preparing to gather energy on her right.
"Good." Kalden knelt down in the middle of the two shields. "Who's pulling? Darren?"
"On it." The blond boy hefted the ice rod from its holster and took a few steps beyond the shield formation. Apparently, you always started a fight with ice if you could. Most Missiles couldn't kill an enemy beyond fifteen or twenty yards, but crowd control effects still worked at longer ranges.
Akari knew that one from personal experience.
Darren pulled the trigger, and a line of pale mana shot out from the steel rod, hurling itself into the blackness ahead.
An insect-like screech followed, and the other arkions scuttled forward on six legs. Their last two limbs looked more like giant hands, hovering several inches above the ground as they moved. Carapace shells covered their bodies, from their long necks to their stubby tails. Unlike a spider, each arkion only had two marble-sized eyes in the center of its head, but their mandibles were twice as large as Akari's hands.
"You're up," Darren said as he joined her behind the shield. "You wanted the practice, right?"
Akari gathered mana in her palm and released it at the nearest enemy. Her heart was already racing, so her cycling had increased accordingly. The missile struck the creature's back, but its armor absorbed the blow. Damnit. Her own Missiles were still too weak.
She switched the fire rod to her right hand, lined up her shot, and pulled the trigger. The weapon vibrated as a sphere of burning mana shot forward. Again, it struck the creature head-on, but it ducked its face, absorbing the blow with its armor once again. The impact knocked it back several feet, but it seemed unharmed.
"The belly is the weak spot," Darren shouted over the commotion as Kalden and Maelyn launched their own shots. "Wait 'til he stands up."
The weak spot.
Her eyes darted to the left where the other two arkions stood up on their hind legs, conjuring balls of green toxic mana between their claws.
Talek. It was creepy to see animals doing Mana Arts.
Sure enough, one of Kalden's Missiles struck a killing blow on the creature's exposed stomach. The second arkion launched its Missile, then dodged to the side to avoid Maelyn's.
The creature on Akari's side kept creeping forward, making no attempt to fire a Missile.
But maybe she could help it along?
Akari crouched down until her hand was practically touching the stone floor, then she released a sphere of her own mana. Unlike those from a rod, she could still control these techniques in midair.
No sooner had the mana left her palm than she sprang to her feet and pulled it back.
The timing wasn't flawless, but it worked. The Missile soared under the arkion, and the sudden upward force caused it to stumble back on its hind legs. At the same moment, Darren fired his own rod, searing a molten crater in its underbelly.
The creature crashed back-first on the floor, curling its legs around its corpse.
"Good shooting," Darren said.
"You too," she hollered back.
"On the ceiling!" Kalden shouted from behind the other shield.
Akari snapped her head up to see the fourth arkion hanging upside down in the shadows above.
Damnit. She'd forgotten there were four of them. Akari raised her rod to fire, but the creature was quicker. Green flashed at the edge of her vision. The impact struck her helmet, knocking her back against the stone floor.
She lay there, breathing hard for several seconds while Darren finished her attacker with a few quick shots. Green liquid stained her visor, and her hand instinctively moved to wipe it away.
No, she reminded herself. It's toxic. Like, melt-your skin-off toxic.
"Three more," Kalden said, "incoming."
She forced herself to her feet and squinted through the shield. The poison mana still stained her visor, but not enough to impede her vision.
There, beyond the light, a second wave emerged. This time, they hid behind a wall of glowing green mana.
"Shit," Akari said. "They can make Constructs too?"
"Told you not to underestimate these guys," Maelyn hollered back.
They all fired at the shield as the enemy pushed forward. The Construct flickered, but it didn't break. The arkion in the center seemed to struggle beneath their assault.
Talek, but their movements looked so human. For a moment, Akari wondered about the moral implications of hunting creatures this smart. But then her mind went back to Mrs. Hansen's biology class. Unlike humans, some animals were born with Mana Arts techniques. She didn't remember all the science, but she knew it was the same reason some animals were born knowing how to walk while human babies were helpless.
Besides, the arkions would overrun the city if no one fought them. That made it more like an act of war as opposed to hunting them for sport.
"Hold on," Kalden held up a hand after they'd fired a few more shots. "We're wasting mana here."
"Got a better idea?" Maelyn snapped back.
"Actually, yes. Get ready to attack from the right."
Akari watched with interest as Kalden stepped to the left side of the shield wall, gathering a sphere of pale blue mana into his palm.
He released the Missile, and it soared straight past the enemy's shield. Then he took several steps to the side before pulling the Missile back toward him.
Clever. Akari wanted to kick herself for not thinking of it first.
Kalden's technique took the arkion in the tail, and the shield broke as it stumbled forward. She pulled the trigger on her Missile rod, and Darren and Maelyn did likewise. Fiery red mana broke against their carapace armor, causing them to break ranks and scatter.
Akari holstered her fire rod and reached for ice instead. Her next attack knocked the shieldbearer over on its side, and a Missile from Darren's rod struck its underbelly.
Until now, she'd worried she might freeze in battle, the way she did with Noella, or with those security officers in Tidegate. She'd feared her body would shut down, and she wouldn't be able to move or fight. But this was the exact opposite. The world seemed to slow around her as she entered a state of utter focus.
When she woke from her dreams, the details were always hazy. She couldn't remember the Arts she used, or how she used them. Only the feelings remained. The feelings of finding her true self, and her life's purpose. Now, she felt the mana coursing through her channels, urging her to act. She felt the air currents around her Missiles like extensions of her body. She even felt the impact as they struck her opponents.
Her own techniques weren't half as powerful as the ones from the Missile rods—not yet. Still, this felt right. This one act of defiance was the first step toward hacking the system that oppressed her—shattering their secrets and lies.
Kalden's last few shots caused the battle to die down. Silence followed, then he let out a slow whistle.
That wasn't so bad. Akari wanted to say the words aloud, but she'd seen enough Mana Arts movies to know how stupid that would be.
"Anyone hurt?" Maelyn asked.
"Akari got hit," Darren said.
"Just my helmet." She pointed to the green splotch on her visor. "I'm fine though." Of course, she still gave herself a more thorough check after that. She'd been in enough fights to know that wounds weren't always obvious in the heat of battle.
Satisfied, Akari pulled off her helmet to scrub it clean. She'd been shivering when they'd first entered the tunnel. Now, strands of sweaty hair clung to her forehead and the back of her neck.
She shook the hair loose, unzipped her backpack, and scrubbed the visor clean with a cloth and some rubbing alcohol. Most of the stuff had evaporated by now, leaving a crusty residue in its place. The toxic effects had worn off, too. Most liquid mana did that, according to Kalden. Only sigils or alchemy could keep it stable in other forms.
Once she'd finished, she joined the others to collect their spoils.
"Alright, listen up." Maelyn stepped toward the nearest corpse and pulled out a knife from her leg holster. "Time for Core Harvesting 101." She used her boot to turn the arkion over. "You want it laying on its side like this. That way, gravity will do some of the work."
She plunged her blade into the center of its chest, just a few inches below the base of its neck. After some more poking and prodding, the fist-sized, crystal mana core hit the ground with a thud. It was covered in dark green blood which she hadn't expected from a giant insect. Or ... arachnid—whatever it was.
The crystal's edges looked uncomfortably sharp as Maelyn wrapped it in a disposable cloth and threw the bundle in a plastic bag.
"They really walk around with those things inside them?" Akari asked.
"Huh?" Maelyn looked up. "Oh, no. The crystal forms after they die. Their mana's in a different state before that."
Ah. That made sense now that she remembered the Grandmaster's videos.
Akari eyed the other corpses, doing some quick mental arithmetic. Supposedly, each core sold for around fifty copper notes. Multiply that by seven arkions, and she and Kalden would have three-and-a-half silvernotes between them.
After Maelyn's first demonstration, they all set to work. Akari poked and prodded at hers for what seemed like a full ten minutes before the core finally rolled free. Clearly, it wasn't as easy as Maelyn made it look.
"Anything else we can harvest from these?" Akari asked Kalden as they worked. "Some alchemy stuff, maybe?"
Kalden made a leveling gesture with his hand. "The shells might be worth something, but it's not worth carrying it all back. Like I said in the car, if these things were too valuable, they wouldn't be here at all."
That made sense. More advanced Artists considered this a 'beginner's area' while they worked out of the Hunter's Guild in White Vale. Of course, you could venture deeper into the Hollows, but that was an even bigger dice roll. There were things down there that even an army couldn't face.
"Alright," Maelyn said once they'd bagged all the cores and stuffed them into their backpacks. "I say we call it quits after this."
"Really?" Akari asked. As far as she could tell, they still had more than half their ammunition left. Even her physical supply was full again, thanks to the tunnel's denser ambient mana.
The other girl gave a serious nod. "You get too greedy down here, and you might lose everything."
"That's a good point." Kalden raised his visor to meet Akari's eyes. "We already have enough to buy a few bottles of liquid mana. We can always come back once we've burned through those."
"Sounds good to me," Darren agreed.
Akari gave an inward sigh. It made sense that the others wouldn't risk another fight. They didn't need the money or training as much as she did. She'd clearly been outvoted though, so she kept quiet.
"Perfect," Kalden said, "then let's..." He trailed off, seeming to notice something beyond the light.
Akari followed his gaze to where two or three more arkions scuttled out from the darkness.
"Just a few more," she said. "We could—."
"No." Kalden looked harder, then his eyes widened. "We need to go. Now!"
Everyone sprang into motion, gathering up the backpacks and shield bases. From there, they broke into a jog and ran back the way they'd come. Fortunately, she'd spent time training her body after learning Mana Arts. Even the act of cycling mana was a workout, and her muscles and lungs were both far stronger than they'd been before.
She glanced back to see more than a dozen arkions creeping forward. Most crawled on the floor while others clung to the walls and ceiling. Thank the Angels they weren't that fast. Facing four of those things had been close enough.
Her group continued to run, putting more distance between themselves and the enemy. A few more toxic Missiles flew their way, but they dodged those as the tunnel curved.
For a second, Akari thought they'd made it out. But when they rounded the next corner, half-a-dozen more arkions stood blocking their path.