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"I found another video," Kalden told her as they walked down the stairs into his basement.

"Seriously?" Akari didn't bother to hide her shock. "When?"

"Over break—a couple weeks ago. "

"Why didn't you tell me?" They hadn't talked much at school, but he could have taken two seconds to mention this.

"Because I know you," he said, "And I knew you'd spend the whole time jealous and anxious."

Talek. Was she that obvious? The comment filled her with a strange warmth though. Maybe they really were friends after all.

Kalden turned around when they reached the bottom of the polished wooden staircase. "And like I said before, my mom and stepdad were home for the past few weekends. This was the first chance I got to have you over."

"Still," Akari said, "you could have shared the content—told me what things to practice."

He gave an apologetic shrug. "Unfortunately, this one's more theoretical than the others. You'll see what I mean. It's about aspecting."

Well, that got her attention. Pure mana was better than nothing, but aspected mana could have made quick work of those arkions back in Hexember. Emberlyn and her minions had proved that.

"So," Akari said as they entered the office, "you went on the dark web by yourself?"

"Yeah, figured I've seen you do it enough times now. Plus, you took care of the hard stuff when you first set things up. All I had to do was be careful."

She considered that for a moment. "You know, even a video file can carry a trojan—"

"I ran it through a scanner first," Kalden said. "The same one you used."

Akari opened her mouth again, but he pressed on, "And yes, I double-checked the extension to make sure it was a real video. I also checked the metadata. The codecs matched the other files in the series."

Akari closed her mouth. He'd actually been paying attention.

"Also," he said, "it had the same uploader as the other videos."

"Apprentice?"

"That's the one."

Her heart raced as she lowered herself into the plush leather chair in front of the monitor. Talek. She'd missed this.

"Apparently this video is number eight in the series," Kalden said as they navigated to the proper folder.

"Guess that's good news." Akari double-clicked the file to open it. Before, she'd worried they would never find the other videos. But if the Grandmaster finished this one, then videos five through seven must be out there somewhere too.

She increased the volume on the computer, and the two of them fell silent as the video faded in from black.

As always, the Grandmaster stood in a dojo, wearing a tight-fitting black t-shirt.

"Welcome back," he said through his voice modulator. "Today, it's time to talk about aspecting. That's right—the topic you've all been waiting for. After this video, I'll have you shooting balls of fire from your bare hands, healing your wounds with a thought, and soaring through the skies."

As he spoke, the video switched to stock footage of various Artists performing the feats he described.

There was a short pause before the Grandmaster spoke again. "Just kidding. I'm not teaching you any of that today."

Damnit. Kalden had warned her, and she still fell for it.

"But I will tell you why," he continued. "And I'll give you enough theory so you won't embarrass yourselves when you meet your next teacher."

Next teacher? Akari didn't like the sound of that either. These videos were all she had. Sure, she planned to reach Silver, but would people accept that? The cynical part of her knew it wouldn't be as simple as walking into the badge office and asking for an upgrade.

"I won't be teaching you a specific aspect today," the Grandmaster said. "But I will help you build a stronger foundation—stronger than ninety-nine percent of my university students. This foundation will let you learn any aspect, not just the handful of choices your local high school offers."

Her eyebrows rose at that.

"You see, once you aspect your mana, you can't take it back. It's a decision that no one should take lightly. And yet, people do it every day. Teachers tell their students they must choose immediately. Some are lying—most are simply ignorant themselves, echoing what their own teachers told them years before."

His voice became more passionate as he spoke. After a while, Akari stopped hearing the modulator and only heard the man behind it.

"Students like you make lifelong decisions at a young age. Or worse, their parents make the choices for them. They permanently alter their bodies and souls with little to no research, and many of them go on to regret this. Choosing the wrong Art will give you an unstable foundation. And without a strong foundation, you can only climb so high."

After a moment, the Grandmaster seemed to deflate. "But I digress. You didn't open this video to hear me ramble about the world's problems. You came here to learn about aspecting." He spread out his hands in front of him. "As a university professor, all of my students come to me with their aspects already chosen. It's too late to help them. I hope that's not the case for you."

The video faded out after that. Akari hovered her mouse over the progress bar, and it was just getting started. She expected it to fade back into the dojo like it always did. Instead, the screen remained dark, and several cartoon illustrations faded into view.

The five drawings formed a loose circle, and each one represented a common aspect. Fire, water, air, metal, and wood.

"In the distant past," the Grandmaster's voice said, "there were only five types of Artists. Our ancestors believed these five aspects made up the entire world. They were wrong, of course. They didn't know about molecules or atoms."

The screen zoomed out farther to reveal even more aspects. Gravity, ice, light, shadow, sound, and life.

"And more Artists emerged over time, proving that mana has very little to do with elements, matter, or even energy."

The screen pulled farther back, revealing even more abstract concepts. Space, time, knowledge, dream, and existence. More hovered beyond the screen's scope with unreadable labels.

"That's because aspects are not the building blocks of the universe. Rather, aspects are ideas that start in our minds."

A human-shaped figure formed in the center of the image. "Our bodies exist in physical space. Here, they move around and interact with other matter and energy. I can reach out and touch fire. I can even taste it if I want. I don't recommend this, however."

He cleared his throat. "My astute viewers will note that mana is not native to the physical realm. It only enters this realm through the doorways of our souls. The world beyond has many names. Here in Espiria, we call it the spiritual realm. In Shoken, they call it the Sea of Qi. In Cadria, they call it the cognitive plane. Older stories call it the Ethereal, and they speak of legendary beings who could walk there in their dreams.

"Regardless, we can't see this world with our eyes. We can, however, sense it with our thoughts. If you remember the video on Silver Sight, we can actually see the mana inside other peoples' souls."

Actually, she didn't remember that video at all. Thanks for rubbing it in, Grandmaster.

And ... Silver Sight? That was the first time he'd mentioned a normal rank. Maybe you had to be Silver to see mana?

"And as we train our mind's eye, we can see more subtle things like ambient mana gathering around objects. But listen carefully, because this is important. When ambient mana gathers, it doesn't absorb the physical properties of an object. Rather, it absorbs the idea of that object—the remnants of human thought that linger in the spiritual realm."

That ... actually made a lot of sense. She'd always wondered how ice and water were two different mana types, despite having the same molecular structure. It might also explain those abstract concepts like shadow and dream.

Akari shook herself when she missed part of the video

"... and a model proposed by Kaleb Salvatore refers to this place as a web rather than a plane or a sea. This makes more sense to us because mana doesn't gather everywhere. It starts in the souls of living things, and it extends outward to represent specific concepts."

The illustration moved with the Grandmaster's words, forming lines between the human and the aspects. As expected, the end result resembled a giant web.

"Keeping up so far? It's okay if you're not. Feel free to pause or rewind me. Unless you're watching this in captivity, then you have my sympathy. The next question is this—how does an Artist turn pure mana into aspected mana?"

The screen zoomed in closer, showing just the human figure and the fire illustration.

"It's quite simple on paper. With a light Missile technique, we release our mana while in proximity to our chosen objects. After that, we meditate, focusing on our mana, letting it absorb our chosen properties."

To illustrate his point, the white line between the person and the fire grew bolder.

"Finally," he said, "we re-absorb the mana into our souls, and it's changed forever. Your soul will see this as a blueprint, and it will continue to produce more mana of the same aspect."

The screen faded back into the dojo, and the familiar view of the Grandmaster's torso. "Now, I know your first instinct will be to meditate in front of a bonfire and hope for the best." He held up a hand. "Do not try this. Every aspect has a unique process that's been perfected over centuries. Indeed, many Arts are actually a combination of multiple aspects. You know those Missiles the police use to restrain people? That's a carefully crafted mix of ice mana and control mana. Two different aspects forming a single technique.

"In fact, I'd encourage you not to think too hard about aspecting until you're past the Foundation realm. You see, the faster you rush into this, the more limited your choices are. Basic aspects like fire or metal require almost no prior shaping ability. Air and shadow are more advanced, and space and time are some of the most difficult. You would need to master the advanced shaping techniques from Lesson Six to even scratch the surface of these."

Again, she hadn't seen Lesson Six, but what could you do?

"Yes, I know most of you would prefer quick rewards over long-term gain, but that's not how I teach. Since I'm teaching you through a screen, I can't actually stop you from doing something stupid. But I can implore you to be patient. As I said before, most Arts evolved over centuries. There were many failures along the way—people who permanently damaged their souls through trial and error. There's no reason for you to be one of them."

And to think, she'd been willing to let Magnus—a complete stranger—teach her an aspect.

"So, let me leave you with this final warning. Be patient, train hard, and the opportunities will come to you with time."

And then the video faded out.

Akari let out a long breath and rocked back in the leather chair. "Theoretical, huh? You weren't kidding."

"It's good stuff," Kalden agreed. "But yeah, guess we won't be learning aspects anytime soon. And based on his arguments, I'm not sure I'd want to."

If Akari was being honest, she might still take a basic aspect today over more power in the long-run. Sure, the Grandmaster's passion was contagious, and she liked the idea of laying down a strong foundation and climbing all the way to the top.

Then again, she wasn't aiming for world domination here. A part of her might dream of revenge and bringing justice to the people who'd wronged her. But at the same time, she'd seen her share of Mana Arts movies, and she knew revenge tasted more bitter than sweet. Two graves and all that.

Also, the Golds might just have her assassinated if she drew too much attention to herself. Like Maelyn said that day in the tunnels: 'If you get too greedy, you might lose everything.'

Then again ... why shouldn't she be allowed to strive for more? What was her life worth if she didn't try?

They watched the video a second time, then a third. Finally, Akari cracked her knuckles and started her search for the other lessons. If Kalden had already begun poking around the dark web on his own, then she'd have to up her game.

So far, they'd avoided the chatrooms except for that first day when she'd asked about Mana Arts resources. A few helpful people had pointed her toward the Grandmaster's videos, and she'd taken her search elsewhere.

Now, it might be time for a second round, especially if Kalden knew enough to browse the Omnipedia on his own.

Akari navigated the various channels until she found one labeled, "Trade." These rooms were filled with illegal offers, ranging from drug sales to assassinations. More often than not, these were clever scams designed to make people part with their credit card numbers. Fortunately, it was far easier to trade digital files, and honor among thieves came easier when both sides had nothing to lose.

The trade channel had a few dozen people online, but most of them were probably bots. Still, Akari typed out a simple message:

"LF Grandmaster's Videos: 5, 6, 7. WTT: 1, 2, 3, 4, 8."

Kalden read the message over her shoulder, guessing the last acronym, "Willing to trade?"

Akari nodded. "Probably a long shot though. We found the first four pretty quick..."

"Which means someone else could too," he finished for her.

They got several responses in the form of private messages. Most of these looked like bots or boilerplate responses, and Akari ignored them without a second thought. No use wasting her time on someone who couldn't find ten seconds to write a convincing reply.

However, one particular message caught her eye.

"Hey, I have the entire video set if you're interested."

Even the username was noteworthy: Apprentice. Wasn't that the same person who'd uploaded the other videos?

"Sure," Akari replied.

There was a short pause before the next message came. "I also have some more information you might be interested in. Information about the outside world."

"I only care about the videos," Akari typed back. That wasn't really true. The outside world did interest her, but there was no shortage of theories on the dark web. She wasn't about to follow one stranger down a rabbit hole.

The next pause was even longer than the first. "Mana Arts will only get you so far if you stay in the Archipelago. There's an entire world beyond that mana wall, and I can help you get there."

"Yeah," Akari replied, "I'd bet you'd like that. Just cut the bullshit. If you don't have the videos, I'm not interested."

"I have the videos," Apprentice replied. "I'm the one who brought them here to Arkala. But if you've been watching the news, you know things haven't been easy for me since I got here."

Akari actually laughed out loud. "If you're the fugitive, then I'm Talek."

And with that, she closed the chat window and turned to Kalden. "See, this is why I skipped the chat rooms before. The dark web is filled with a bunch of crazy—"

Another chat window popped open with a single message from Apprentice. Her blood froze when she read it.

"We both know that's not your real name, Akari Zeller."

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A note from David Musk

A part of me feels like this chapter was too info-dumpy. I don't know—I guess it depends on how curious people were about the magic system. Either way, thanks for reading!

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About the author

David Musk

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

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