The sun was a welcome sight when they finally emerged from the tunnels. Akari didn't own a watch, but it looked like early afternoon. Talek. They'd only been down there for a couple of hours? It felt like it should be nighttime by now.
Once they reached the top of the staircase, they set out for the processing shop on the opposite side of the parking lot. Each of them carried a full bag of cores which they'd harvested during Kalden's talk with the ice princess.
The tension faded as they put more space between themselves and the exit. Slowly, the others began laughing and joking again as if they hadn't just come within an inch of death.
Or maybe it was because they'd almost died.
Akari had felt invincible until that moment when the arkion tackled her. She'd been in her share of fights—always against stronger opponents—but her life had never been in real danger until today. With her arms and legs pinned against the stone floor, she'd been helpless against the creature's assault.
The scenario kept flashing in her mind's eye like a looping video, and she wondered how she could have handled it differently. Her current skill level didn't give her many options. However, it was technically possible to release Missiles from her feet, or even the center of her chest. Both options sounded less intuitive than the palm technique, but the latter might have been enough for her to escape.
Constructs were another possibility, but that seemed beyond her at this point. Even if she found the Grandmaster's next video.
Once their group was out of earshot from the guards, Kalden removed his helmet and gave Darren and Maelyn a serious look. "I thought you researched who trained in these tunnels."
"We did," Maelyn said. "Emberlyn doesn't train here every week. She was lying through her teeth about that."
"Right," Darren agreed. "She wasn't even in town last weekend. Or the weekend before that."
"Just making sure." Kalden's voice shook as the last words left his mouth. Clearly, he'd fallen for the girl's surprised puppy act, and he'd assumed he had the upper hand until now.
Funny. Hadn't he once lectured her on Gold politics?
"But if her story's so easy to disprove," Kalden began, "then why would she bother lying at all?"
"Hey now," Darren said. "I'd hardly call it easy. You just have excellent informants."
"Very true," Maelyn said. "He has better taste in retainers than he does in women."
Kalden cleared his throat. "Nice to see you two agreeing on something."
They continued walking across the parking lot, and Kalden slowed down until he and Akari were side by side. Darren and Maelyn sped up as if to get out of earshot.
Kalden remained silent for several more steps, then drew in a deep breath. "I'm sorry about what I said. To Emberlyn, that is."
"Why?" Akari said without meeting his eyes. "Seemed like the best way to get rid of her."
"Maybe," he replied. "But if she'd insulted Maelyn or Darren like that, I wouldn't have stood for it."
"Yeah, well, I'm not one of your minions. Or retainers—whatever you call them. I don't want to be one, either."
"No," he agreed. "But I do consider you a friend."
"Oh." Heat rose to her cheeks, and she still couldn't meet his eyes. That last word shouldn't have flustered her so much, but somehow it did. Maybe it was because she hadn't had a real friend in years. Silvers and Golds had obviously been out of the question, and she couldn't stand the way her fellow Bronze just quietly accepted their fate.
Say something, she told herself, before he takes it back.
"Thanks. Um—you too."
The talk with Emberlyn still rubbed Akari like a stone in her shoe—mostly because it brought their differences back into the light. It also proved how good of a liar Kalden was. He'd told Emberlyn exactly what she wanted to hear. What if he was doing the same with her?
He saved your life today, she reminded herself. Actions speak louder than words.
"You think she'll tell anyone?" Akari asked to fill the sudden silence.
"I think I bought us some time," Kalden replied.
"But Emberlyn wasn't the only one there," Akari noted.
He let out a breath and shook his head. "It's only a matter of time until my mother finds out about this. We've always known that would happen eventually."
Right. Kalden could call them friends for now, but they both knew he'd cast her aside when that moment came. In the end, this would all be a game to him. A time of defiance, a mystical skill to dabble in, and some exciting stories to tell his kids someday.
After another minute of walking, they reached The Aftermath. A black sign hung in the window which read, WE BUY CORES in big bold letters. The inside felt like a strange mix between a butcher and a sporting goods store. Solid concrete covered the floor and fluorescent lights flickered in the wooden rafters above.
Maelyn led the way toward the left side of the store which seemed to handle core processing.
The man behind the counter was a Silver Espirian in his mid-twenties. He wore a white apron over his brown t-shirt, and curls of brown hair stuck out the sides of his hat.
"Been here before?" he asked as she approached.
"Yep." Maelyn poured out the contents of her backpack on a wide, stainless-steel table and began unpacking the crystal cores. Akari and the others followed her lead until they'd amassed a large pile.
After that, the worker pushed the cores down a steel ramp toward what looked like a scale.
Once he'd finished weighing them, the total appeared on the note register's screen: 1g, 4s, 95c.
Almost one and a half goldnotes. That was more than twice what she'd lost that night in Tidegate, and it had taken her months to make that money. Still, after that last battle, she understood why these tunnels weren't more popular. Sure, it would take a month to earn this at a minimum wage job, but restaurant customers didn't threaten to kill you.
Below that was another number which read: 1g, 3s, 46c
"Top number is store credit," the man said. "Bottom number's a payout."
So, if you spent the money in the store, you got ten percent more? She might as well buy her mana potions here then, assuming they hadn't jacked up the prices to ridiculous levels.
"We'll keep it on a tab for now," Maelyn said as she began unzipping her leather vest. "We'll also take four showers, and cleanings for our vests, helmets, and boots"
"You got it." The man pressed some buttons on the register. And just like that, they were down eighty coppernotes.
To her surprise, the showers were nicer—and far more private—than the locker rooms in Elegan High. Akari spent a good fifteen minutes standing under the scalding water, scrubbing the dried blood from her skin.
After that, she continued piling on soap, scrubbing away the scent of Maelyn's mana. Restoration mana didn't smell bad exactly. Some people even liked the faint whiff of wood and herbs. But scents carried memories—memories she'd rather forget.
Like most skilled Healing Artists, Maelyn's techniques left no scars behind. Some would have called this a perk, but not Akari. Real warriors had scars. Without scars, you could say you'd been wounded in battle, but no one would ever believe you. They could call you crazy, and you couldn't prove them wrong.
Once she'd dried off, Akari changed back into her school skirt, leggings, tank-top, and Traverse shoes. Her hoodie and jeans were beyond fixing, and she had to throw both in the locker room's trashcan. At least Maelyn had talked her out of wearing her school uniform down into the tunnels. Losing that would have led to an awkward conversation with her foster parents.
A burst of cool air hit her face as she stepped back onto the sale's floor. After a quick lap, she found Maelyn on the mana potion aisle.
"Hey," the other girl said with a wave. "The guys are already in the car."
She nodded. "I think Kalden was worried about someone else recognizing him in here."
Well, that was understandable after that surprise run-in with his stalker ex-girlfriend. Or whatever Emberlyn was.
"It's alright though," Maelyn continued quickly. "You still have time to pick out some things."
For starters, Akari grabbed a half-gallon of liquid mana. Her share of the earnings was just over three and a half silvernotes, but she still opted for one of the cheaper brands. This wouldn't be as good as the bottle they'd taken from Kalden's mom, but that was fine. Quantity mattered more than quality at this point in her training. To get stronger Missiles, she needed a denser soul. And the only way to get more mana in her soul was to make a shitload of Missiles.
Seemed simple enough.
She wouldn't be able to store this bottle in her bedroom, but she already had a backup plan for that. Now that she'd learned some proper techniques, it wasn't safe to practice indoors anymore regardless.
The used clothing section caught her eye next. There wasn't much on the racks, but she did find a gray hoodie in her size.
"Ninety-nine coppernotes?" she blurted out when she read the price tag. "I thought this was used?"
"Well yeah," Maelyn said. "Micro-Constructs don't lose their value as long as they still work. That would be like three or four silvernotes new, so it's really not a bad deal."
Akari frowned down at the hoodie. Now that Maelyn mentioned it, the fabric did have a slight stiffness to it.
"If you like it," she said, "then try it on."
Akari complied as they both stepped over to the mirror. The fit was actually decent. If anything, it fit her better than her old hoodie had. The fabric had some stretchiness, and it clung to her figure better.
"Is it worth it?" she asked the other girl. "Didn't you say this morning that only rich people buy this stuff?"
Maelyn shrugged and made a leveling gesture with her hand. "If you have enough old clothes to spare, it might not be worth it. Usually, a good vest and helmet can protect all your vitals. Plus, I'm not a career hunter. Four years of university, then I'll be working in a hospital or physician's office somewhere."
Plus, Maelyn only thought of combat as something that happened in designated areas where you had enough warning to wear armor. She'd never been attacked in the school bathroom, or in the middle of a crowded train platform.
Akari continued to run her fingers over the gray material. It still seemed like a ridiculous amount of money when she could have bought three or four normal tops for the same price. Then again, this could help keep her alive. If her life were a role-playing game, this was like an increase in hitpoints. And honestly, who could say no to more hitpoints in a world with no save points or respawning?
"Plus," Maelyn continued, "once you get better at cycling, you can recharge the material just by wearing it. With some practice, you can keep recharging it as part of your normal cycling process. Might even help you increase your total mana count in the long run."
Well, that settled it then. Akari had been hoping for a way to increase her mana during normal activities like walking to school or sitting in class. This sounded perfect for that.
She took off the hoodie and draped it over her arm. "You sure you're allowed to tell me this stuff?"
Maelyn gave a small laugh "I'd like to see the state tell any highschool girl she can't talk about clothes."
As opposed to telling me I can't do Mana Arts, which is perfectly reasonable? But the other girl was only trying to help, and Akari wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
They did one more quick lap around the store as she considered how to spend the rest of her earnings.
Talek, there were so many options here. They passed a footwear section with boots that let the wearer run faster or jump higher. They passed bikes and skateboards that drew on the rider's mana for a boost of extra speed, and jewelry with built-in healing Constructs.
Akari had known these things existed, but she'd always seen them as something she would buy in some vague, far-off future. Today, a lot of these were actually in her price range.
However, this stuff was all situational. Sure, it might be useful in her next fight, but Angels only knew when that would be. She needed something that would benefit her on a daily basis—something that would help her long-term growth.
"What did Kalden get?" she asked Maelyn as they walked.
"He spent his full share on liquid mana," she replied.
Not a bad way to go. But Kalden probably had a safe place to keep it all. Akari wasn't about to invest more money into something that might get stolen.
They circled back to the jewelry section, and she eyed the mana watches beneath the glass counter. She'd thought about these before. If she could translate her mana growth into actual numbers, that would let her figure out which practices and techniques gave her the most benefit for the time she put in.
Akari moved in that direction, but Maelyn held out a hand to stop her. "Fair warning they probably won't let you try anything on."
She frowned. "Because I'm a Bronze?"
The other girl gave an apologetic shrug.
Right. What use would she have for a mana watch? Kalden's friends had been surprisingly accepting of this whole thing, but the rest of the world wouldn't be.
"If you want something specific," Maelyn said, "I could grab it for you."
Might as well. She'd already made up her mind, and Maelyn probably knew more about the best brands and models. It wasn't like Akari could do much research without internet access.
Five minutes later, she left the store wearing her gray hoodie with her watch and mana potion in a brown paper bag. After all that, she still had twenty-seven coppernotes to spare.
Kalden started driving as soon as they were inside, and Akari opened her new mana watch just as quickly. It was solid black with a leather band. According to the directions, you could wear it on your wrist to get a measurement while cycling, or you could place it in the center of your chest for a more accurate reading. Akari unzipped the front of her hoodie and pressed the cold metal to her skin. After holding it there for several seconds, she glanced back at the LCD screen.
"Twenty-nine," she read aloud. Didn't seem too bad considering she'd just started a few weeks ago.
She turned to Maelyn who sat across from her in the backseat. "What about you?"
"Let's see." Maelyn reached out a hand and accepted the watch. "It's been a while since I've used one of these, but..." She pressed the metal part to her wrist and waited. "Ninety-eight."
No surprise there. Maelyn had been doing this for years, so of course her number was way higher.
The stoplight turned red up ahead, and Kalden's car came to a sudden halt.
"Alright, Your Goldship"—Maelyn passed the watch up to the driver's seat—"Let's hear it."
Kalden fidgeted with the watch for several seconds. Akari guessed his number would be somewhere between her's and Maelyn's. He obviously had more mana than her, but—
"Two-hundred and ten," Kalden said.
What the hell?
That was eight times more mana than Akari had. Stranger still, that was twice as much as Maelyn, and she'd been at this for years. He must have done it wrong. But when she glanced around the car, no one else seemed surprised.
"Fifty-six," Darren said as he passed the watch back to Akari.
"What?" Akari blurted out, spinning to face Maelyn. "How? Darren's not even a Mana Artist? And how does Kalden have more than you?"
Maelyn bit her lip.
"What?" Akari demanded. "Another state secret that you can't share?"
"It's not a secret," she said. "Kind of the opposite. I mean—they teach this in elementary school. Golds are born with the most mana. Silvers have the second most, and Bronze have the least."
Akari slumped her shoulders as she collapsed in her leather seat. She'd heard that in school, but she'd always assumed it was propaganda. Until this moment, she'd never seen any real evidence. Sure, Silvers and Golds always claimed they had higher mana, but Akari assumed she would prove them wrong, just like she'd proven them wrong about Bronze becoming Mana Artists.
She flipped the directions over to reveal a second page—a diagram labeling the different mana ranges.
She couldn't deny it any longer. The four of them really were different, and the ranks had been real all along. That was how Magnus had known she was a Bronze that night in the dojo, and that was how Emberlyn had spotted her today.
They'd seen the mana inside her soul.
Akari clutched the mana watch in her right hand, feeling a fresh wave of resolve surge through her channels. So what if the ranks on this island actually meant something? She might have been born with less mana than them, but that wouldn't stop her.
"Humans are most human when we're improving ourselves," the Grandmaster had said.
If anything, this was good news. She knew how to increase her mana, and she had a way to measure her progress.
Best of all, she had a way to prove her power that no one could refute, and she was already halfway to Silver.