Akari's Missile shot out from her palm, flying between two thin maple trees. She danced to the left, kicking up snow and pulling the mana back with her other hand.
The glowing sphere whipped around the tree like a boomerang before returning to her. She stepped back to the right, then pushed the Missile between the trees again. Another step and she pulled it around the other side.
Four figure-eights in a row. A new record.
As always, Mana Arts gave her a full-body workout, and sweat coated her forehead despite the winter chill. Snowflakes flew around her as she moved, melting into droplets against her glasses.
Three weeks had passed since their tunnel excursion, and she'd barely seen Kalden or his friends since then. It didn't help that everyone was on Midwinter break, and they wouldn't go back to school until after the New Year.
Apparently, Kalden's parents and stepsister were all home too, doing a bunch of holiday stuff as a family.
Yeah ... definitely the worst time of year.
Sure, it sucked to be alone, but it was even worse watching everyone else go about their lives as if nothing was wrong. Four years had passed since she'd lost her mother. These days, that loss had felt more like a dull ache in the back of her mind. But there was something about the change of seasons—all the new sounds and smells—that brought those memories back to the surface.
Akari still checked the Cliftons' answering machine several times a day, hoping for a message from Kalden. Nothing came, of course. He'd warned her he'd be busy, but she couldn't help herself. Just like she couldn't help but check her mana watch every five minutes, hoping to see that number increase.
Things weren't all doom and gloom, though. At least this year, she had her Mana Arts to keep her busy. More importantly, she had goals to work toward.
Akari continued darting back and forth, weaving her mana in more figure-eights between the two maples.
"As a general rule", the Grandmaster had said. "Missiles can move away from your body, or towards it. But you'd be surprised how much variation this allows."
He was right about that. It took time for a Missile to alter its course in midair. With the right angle and curve, she could move it parallel to her body for several heartbeats before it flew back toward her waiting hand.
She'd spent the past few weeks experimenting with these movements, and each one gave her another trick up her sleeve. The Grandmaster had mentioned a video on advanced shaping techniques, but they hadn't been able to find it yet. Instead, she'd been forced to invent her own exercises.
Story of her life. Her school only had a handful of Computer Science classes, so she'd invented her own assignments to level-up her skills. Many of these exercises had saved her from wasting time later on. After all, every minute mattered when you were sneaking into the computer lab between classes.
Akari figured it would be the same with Mana Arts. If she could weave her mana through trees, she could definitely bypass an opponent's shield, or knock another Missile from the air. She'd gotten lucky against the arkions, but she also would have died if the others hadn't saved her. She couldn't count on luck or allies next time.
So she kept moving through the snow, sending up sprays of white powder with every step. Left. Right. Forward. Backward. She moved until her fingers were icicles and her legs were jelly.
At one point, the Missile grazed the bark of the left tree and threatened to vaporize. She gritted her teeth and redoubled her efforts, willing the mana to hold its shape. The longer this Missile lasted, the less mana she would spend making a new one. And with school out for several more days, mana was a more precious resource than time.
Unfortunately, her efforts were too little too late. While the Missile held its shape for several more seconds, it lost its momentum and shattered into a cloud of white mist.
Akari dropped her shoulders and let out a long breath, more relieved than disappointed. She used her sleeve to wipe her lenses dry, then blinked several times, adjusting to the sudden darkness. Both moons hung in the sky tonight, but her eyes had been so focused on her mana that it might as well have been pitch black.
After taking a minute to catch her breath, she fell back into a combat stance and raised her arms again. But as soon as she started cycling again, her channels felt like wrung-out rags.
Out of mana already? She shifted her hoodie sleeve to reveal the mana watch on her left wrist.
Of course breaking her record would come with a price. Normally, she couldn't do a Missile if her mana fell below ten points, so that explained the dry feeling in her channels.
She'd gone up seven mana points since she bought her watch. At first, this had seemed like slow progress. She'd started at twenty-nine, which gave her the impression that she'd gained more than twenty points in her first few weeks of training. After all, Darren and Kalden were each just a few points above their minimums, and it had been the same for Maelyn when she'd first started.
In hindsight though, Akari must have started far higher. Probably as high as twenty-seven or twenty-eight. She'd been training constantly over Midwinter break, but she hadn't even made her first Missile until the night before the tunnels.
Seemed like decent progress. And if she kept up this pace, she'd definitely be Silver before she turned sixteen next Tresember.
The others had all seemed skeptical of this plan. Especially Maelyn who had given her that annoyingly pitiful look.
"I'm pretty sure it's impossible to jump from one rank to another," she'd said as they unloaded Kalden's car.
"But if ranks are based on mana amounts," Akari countered, "then what's stopping me from increasing mine to fifty?"
"It's just not possible," she said with a shake of her head. "It would be like trying to grow an inch taller."
Akari wrinkled her nose. "Your height is based on your DNA though."
"So is this."
"You're telling me I can go from forty-eight mana to forty-nine ... then what? I'll hit some invisible wall?"
"Basically," Maelyn said. "I'm nowhere near the peak of Silver, but two of my grandparents were, and that's about how they described it. Plus, hundreds of other people have tried too. There are whole teams of researchers who dedicate their lives to the subject."
Oh. Until now, it seemed no one else cared about advancement aside from the so-called conspiracy theorists like her. But what if Maelyn was right? What if there really were whole teams of scientists working to solve this problem? Compared to her, they would have unlimited resources and funding.
And even if these 'research teams' were some cover story invented by the Golds, what about all the other wealthy Bronze and Silvers out there? Some of them must have tried to advance, right?
Even now—three weeks later—the memory of that conversation filled Akari with doubt. Two things kept her going, though.
For one, people always said a Bronze could never become a Mana Artist, and she'd already proven them wrong. Even Miss. Know-It-All didn't have an answer for that one.
What's more, the Grandmaster had claimed advancement was possible, and he clearly knew more about Mana Arts than anyone else on this island. Not only that, but he'd made it sound easy. So easy, that it wasn't even worth its own video.
Maybe that was the secret? Maybe advancement from Bronze to Silver was effortless, and that was why society worked so hard to keep it from them?
She'd find out in a few more months, one way or another.
Akari stepped across the forest clearing and knelt beside a larger maple tree. She moved aside a pile of leaves to reveal an open space between two thick roots.
She'd found this spot the night after their tunnel excursion when she needed a place to hide her liquid mana. It was a quarter-mile off the main trail in Phoenix Park—far enough that no one could see her training, but still on the way home from school.
Akari pulled out the wooden box from between the tree roots, uncorked the bottle, and took a swallow of the mint-flavored mana. After taking a second to cycle it through her channels, she checked her watch again.
Akari returned the box to its hiding place and returned to the center of the clearing for another practice session.
Some might have questioned the wisdom of a girl her age being alone in the forest at night. A month ago, Akari would have agreed with them. But she was a Mana Artist now. If someone wanted to try something, she'd welcome the practice.