Akari froze when those last two words appeared on the monitor. Her eyes scanned the message countless times, certain she'd misread.

"What the hell?" Kalden blurted out.

"I—" She ducked her head, feeling her cheeks grow hot. Her hands shook even as she clutched the mouse between her fingers.

"How does this person know your name?" He demanded. Kalden was normally so calm, even when they'd fought side-by-side in the tunnels. Not today.

"I don't know," she admitted.

"You don't know?"

She shook her head. "This is impossible."

"Clearly it's not." he raked a hand through his hair. "I thought you knew what you were doing. I thought we took all these precautions so no one could find us."

"Just let me think." She removed her hand from the mouse and wiped it dry on her skirt.

Plenty of people could hack circles around her, sure. But this? This really was impossible. There was nothing resembling a webcam or microphone in this room. She'd checked multiple times. The VPN obscured their IP address and showed them connecting from Shoken Port—a city down in Zoron that she'd never even visited.

They'd wiped everything from the hard drive before they started, and connected through a virtual machine. In fact, even if someone did find her IP address or hack them, their findings should point to Kalden, not her.

The name 'Akari Zeller' wasn't written down anywhere on this hard drive, even before they wiped it. A skilled hacker couldn't find her name any more than a skilled mathematician could add two plus two and get five.

No ... something else was going on.

Akari's eyes settled back on the screen. Her heart continued to race as she considered the possibilities.

Her own username was Space&Time. She'd never used that name in school. It was based on a reoccurring dream she had—a dream she'd never shared with anyone. Only Kalden knew the username.

She turned her attention back toward him. "What else did you do on the dark web without me?"

"I sure as hell didn't give anyone your name," Kalden retorted.

"Well, someone did. Do Darren and Maelyn have my username? Are they pulling some prank on us?" As unlikely as that seemed, there weren't a lot of other options.

"Of course not. They know we're using the dark web to find Mana Arts videos. That's all I told them."

And Akari had been careful too. Aside from Kalden and his informants, not a single person knew she'd been learning Mana Arts.

She swallowed and glanced back at the screen. Her first instinct was to shut down the computer and run, but that would just make her look more suspicious. She'd have to take the bait.

Her fingers were still numb and shaking when she placed them back on the keyboard. "Who's Akari Zeller?" she asked. "Is that some clever reference I'm supposed to get?"

She'd briefly considered misspelling her own name to something like 'Akira.' It drove her crazy when other people did that. That might oversell the lie, though. Most people just copy-and-pasted unfamiliar names.

No reply.

Akari waited for a full minute, then two. Still, Apprentice didn't send another message.

"Talek." She gritted her teeth. "Now he leaves us alone?"

"He has our attention," Kalden said. "And he knows it. Nothing will strengthen his position more than silence."

Sneaky bastard. If she acted too desperate, she would only prove Apprentice right.

"Drop the name thing for now," Kalden suggested. "But ask about the videos again. He already knows we want those, so we have nothing to lose."

Akari nodded as her fingers flickered across the keyboard. She could always come back to this conversation later. That way, she could shrug it off as an afterthought and not something that would keep her awake all night.

This time, Kalden helped her wordsmith the exact message. Apprentice had raised the stakes, and they couldn't treat it like a casual conversation anymore.

"Look, sorry about questioning your identity, but I'm not going to believe you're the fugitive without proof. A lot of people around here are claiming to be him."

That last part wasn't true, but it seemed like a plausible lie. People pretended to be celebrities all the time online.

"But I'm still interested in the Grandmaster's videos," Akari continued. "Can we work something out?"

Still no reply. After a few minutes, Akari worried that Apprentice had moved on to terrorize someone else.

Finally, Apprentice sent another message. "Like I said, I can give you the full set of videos. All twelve of them, plus more info about Mana Arts and the outside world. But I need your help with something in exchange."

Akari was still considering her next reply when another message followed. "I know you don't believe I'm the fugitive. I also don't care. The fact is, I'm stuck here on Arkala. I'm alone, and I don't know who else to ask."

Well, that was interesting. Where was the confident and cryptic person from before?

Again, she and Kalden spent a minute composing their next reply. "You want to work together? That might be an option. But first you need to drop the mysterious act and tell me the whole story."

"I came to the Archipelago with two more people," Apprentice replied. "One of them is dead, and the other is missing."

Three people? She'd been following the news, and they'd never mentioned more than one. Then again, maybe the Martials had killed the other two and kept it quiet? They might have tried to cover up the whole thing if the media hadn't seen those broken gates in Keylas.

"My partner was a Knowledge Artist," Apprentice continued. "The Martials killed him a few weeks back. Before they did, we logged into this chat room, and he used a mana technique on everyone's username. Yours returned the name, 'Akari Zeller.' He was looking for help, and he thought you were our best option."

Akari let out a long breath at that. So ... they didn't really know who she was. They just had a name. Still ... a Knowledge Artist? She'd heard legends about those, but there weren't any alive on Arkala. If there were, they'd probably be ruling the entire Archipelago.

"I'm sorry about your friend," Akari sent back, "but that's not a good enough answer. You're messaging me because of some hunch?"

She'd read a bit about knowledge mana. It let you make intuitive leaps that were beyond most humans. However, all Knowledge Artists followed one important rule: they couldn't pull information out of thin air.

"I'm not trying to be difficult," Apprentice replied. "I don't understand how knowledge mana works. If my partner were alive, I'd ask him, but he's not. He thought he knew you before though, as crazy as that might sound."

Actually, that was hardly the craziest thing she'd heard today. Lots of people dreamt of what felt like past lives. Even Akari had dreamt of people she'd never met before. If a skilled Knowledge Artist knew how to interpret information from his subconscious...

Apprentice might still be lying, but this explanation seemed more plausible than anything else she could imagine.

"Alright," Akari said, "let's say I believe you. What do you want?"

"I think we should meet in person," Apprentice typed back. "I know that's probably setting off a hundred alarm bells right now, but there's an army of Gold Martials hunting me. You might be one of them for all I know."

Well, so much for trusting his friend's hunch.

"That sounds like a good reason not to meet in person," Akari replied. "What would it prove, anyway? Either of us could be an undercover Martial. Seeing faces won't change that."

"If you meet me," Apprentice said, "you'll realize that I can mop the floor with any Gold. Martial or not. For the same reason, I'm not worried about you betraying me."

Akari's lips curled up at that. She only aspired to be that confident. "Unfortunately, that doesn't help me at all. The fact that I want some basic videos should already prove that I'm not some Angel-tier Artist."

"No, but the Martials aren't after you. As far as I can tell, it's a crime to distribute Mana Arts resources, but it's not a crime to look for them. You aren't doing anything illegal here."

True enough.

"I'm near White Vale now," Apprentice continued. "I've been hiding in the Contested Area for a few weeks, but I can make my way into town and meet you somewhere public. If either of us gets spooked, we have a chance to back out."

White Vale was about three and a half hours away by train, and trains were free with her student badge. Getting there would take some time, but it wasn't impossible. Especially on the weekends when her foster parents were used to having her gone.

Kalden rubbed his temple as he read the last message. "Tell him we need time to talk this over. If he's as desperate as he pretends, he can wait a while longer."

Akari typed back a quick message, then spun in her chair to face him. "I want to go to White Vale."

He blinked. "Seriously? Just like that? Five minutes ago, you were ready to hang up on this guy."

"Yeah, well, I thought he was some loser trying to scam me."

"We've literally gotten no evidence to the contrary," Kalden said.

"He knew my name. And that story with the Knowledge Artist is the only thing that makes sense."

"Actually, I can think of several."

She crossed her arms. "Such as?"

"Maybe the Martials are building a profile on you. Darren figured out you were a hacker interested in Mana Arts, so why couldn't they? When he dropped your name, he could be throwing mud at the wall to see what stuck."

"That's a stupid plan," Akari said.

"It's working, isn't it?"

"Barely. Apprentice dropped my name because he's a desperate amateur. Professionals don't waste their time gambling on stuff like that."

To be honest, though, Akari didn't know that much about the Martials. She continued before Kalden called her out on that too, "Do they really care about some random girl sneaking in extracurriculars? The fugitive is the most dangerous person on the island. Shouldn't they be focused on him?"

Kalden furrowed his brow. "By your logic, they should also abandon their prisoner transport and witness protection duties."

"But even if they're after me," she said, "they have my address on file. If they don't have enough to arrest me already, then showing up in White Vale won't change anything."

"Fair point," he said. "They'd play all their cards for nothing. Still, you're the one who lectured me about online safety. You said, and I quote, 'people get raped and murdered when they're not careful.' What's the point of all these precautions if we walk straight into the dragon's lair?"

"Yeah," Akari said, "it's definitely a risk, but so was going into those tunnels back in Hexember."

"I almost regret that too," Kalden said.

Akari closed her mouth. "Wait, what?"

"We almost died down there," Kalden snapped. "We would have died if it hadn't been for Emberlyn. That whole thing was reckless. At the very least, we should have practiced for a few more months before—"

"I don't have that long," Akari interjected.

Now it was Kalden's turn to look confused. Great. She just had to open her mouth, didn't she?

"Nevermind," she said with a dismissive wave.

"No," Kalden said. "Tell me."

Akari didn't answer, and he let out a long sigh, "I'm just trying to understand. You're always so cautious, but you have a blind spot when it comes to Mana Arts."

He should know. He'd taken advantage of it when they first started this little alliance.

"You act like we're still living in the distant past," Kalden continued. "As if every day is some life and death struggle. But it doesn't have to be like that."

"Of course you think you're safe," Akari replied. "You literally have stone walls around your house."

"Elegan's still a safe city," Kalden said. "I wouldn't be scared to live in a neighborhood like yours either."

She turned to look him in the eye. "You know I'm in foster care, right?"

"Of course."

"Well, I turn sixteen in Tresember. Less than two months away. When that happens, the Cliftons will kick me out."

Kalden blinked several more times, as if he couldn't imagine something like that happening.

"That's how this works," she said. "The state doesn't pay families to take care of foster kids once they're over sixteen."

"But ... they can choose to keep you, right? At least long enough for you to get a job?"

"Won't happen," Akari said with a shake of her head. "Noella made that clear on day one. Apparently, it was Mazren who wanted me there, and she didn't. Talek only knows why. The whole thing is weird."

"I'm sorry," Kalden said. "I didn't know."

"Don't apologize," she said with a shrug. "I don't expect a free handout from anyone. I just want to help myself.

He stared at the computer monitor for several long seconds, re-reading the message chain in the chat window.

"So that's why you're so determined to learn Mana Arts."

"It's not the main reason," Akari said. "But yeah, the clock's ticking." She shifted her sleeve to reveal the mana watch on her left wrist.

40/40, it read.

She'd used the last of her liquid mana toward the end of Midwinter break. Between that and all the time she spent in school, her growth had plateaued. Before, she was gaining multiple mana points per week. Now, she was lucky to squeeze out one every ten days.

What if she plateaued even more over the next two months? And what if the jump to Silver was bigger than what it seemed like? She needed more liquid mana or another conflict to force her to grow faster. Preferably both.

Akari shrugged after a while. "That's my problem, though. If I had a cushy life like yours, I might not risk it either."

Kalden considered that for a moment. "So ... what's your plan?"

"You already know that. I'm learning Mana Arts to stay alive."

"This might be a stupid question," he began, "but is it really that dangerous?"

"For a sixteen-year-old girl to sleep outside? Hell yes."

"But you've already learned some basic Mana Arts," he pointed out. "You're probably stronger than most people on this island."

"I'm not worried about most people. There's always someone stronger out there."

"Sure, but what are the odds of them attacking you unprovoked?"

Talek, he really didn't understand, did he? Then again, why would he?

"Look," Kalden said, "I'm not saying it wouldn't suck to be homeless. That's a terrible thing to have looming over you, and I won't lecture you on how to solve it. But I don't want you to make reckless choices today just because of what might happen tomorrow."

"It doesn't matter what you want," Akari retorted. "If you don't want to meet Apprentice, I can go alone. I'll even share the videos with you when I get back."

Kalden grimaced. "But why? Why are you willing to risk everything?

"Do you know why I'm in Foster care?" Akari blurted out.

Kalden hesitated. "I know your mom died in an accident a couple years back. And your dad's out of the picture."

Akari drew in a deep breath. She'd never actually put this story into words before. The school counselors had tried to make her talk, and she'd resisted on principle. When she finally realized she wanted to talk about it, it was too late. She'd chosen to break rather than bend.

"It happened just below the A16 overpass," she told Kalden. "Not far from downtown Elegan. My mom just lost her job the month before, and we got evicted from our apartment. Some guy snuck up on us while we were sleeping. I don't know if he was trying to steal from us, or ... something else. Doesn't matter now."

Her hands shook as she spoke, but it was nothing like the rush of adrenaline from before. This was an icy numbness that froze her in place.

"My mom fought back," Akari said. "She stuck a knife in the guy's shoulder. He was already screaming when I woke up. "

Akari wet her lips before continuing. She'd thought talking about this would be easier, but she had to drag out each word as if they'd been buried in a vault. The memories weren't really buried, of course. Parts of them came back whenever she saw ice mana. Even the smell of it was enough to trigger flashes from that moment.

Still, each flash was like seeing it happen in her peripheral vision. How long had it been since she'd faced the entire memory head-on?

Her eyes started to burn, and she closed them. When she did, she saw her attacker crying in pain. Her mother's blade stuck out from his right shoulder, and a red pool gathered around it. He tried attacking her mother again, but she pulled the blade free and stabbed him in the other shoulder.

"What happened next?" Kalden prodded gently.

"There was a payphone nearby, and my mom told me to call the police. But they showed up before I could."

Once again, Akari closed her eyes and saw the blur of sirens. To this day, the sight was enough to send shivers down her spine.

"They pulled up in the road next to us. No one said anything. They just hit my mom with ice Missiles. One wrapped around her neck, and she couldn't breathe. I tried to help her, but they shot me too."

Akari had planned to say more, but tears threatened to burst from her eyes. She clenched her hand into a fist and cycled her mana. The burst of power made her feel stronger. More importantly, it let her focus on something else.

"So no," she said after a long silence. "Elegan's not a safe city. And if I die in White Vale, at least it was my choice to go."

Kalden gave a slow nod. "I'll go with you."

Akari rounded on him, narrowing her eyes into a question.

"My family wants me to be an alchemist," he said. "Something safe, where I can pretend the world is a better place than it really is." He shook his head. "I can't fix everything, but this is one thing I can do."

A note from David Musk

Support "Web of Secrets [Modern Cultivation]"

About the author

David Musk

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

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