Akari followed Kalden down the crowded train aisle. Puddles of melted snow covered the floors, and she had to grasp the rail to keep from slipping. Fortunately, she'd been wearing Hana's old combat boots all winter. Not only did those have better traction than her Traverse shoes, but they'd saved her from countless pairs of wet socks.
The first few cars were bursting at the seams with people. But of course, they all stepped aside when they saw His Goldship, Kalden Trengsen coming through.
Talek. He didn't even notice the special treatment. But why would he? People did the same thing at school.
At first, Akari had expected them to ride the free cars to White Vale. But Kalden kept on strutting toward the front of the train. He stopped in front of a private cabin, glanced at his ticket stub, then slid open the wooden door.
"You know," Akari said, "we could have just boarded up here."
"Sorry about that." Kalden threw his bag on the plush leather seat and sat down. "I don't travel by train that often."
Akari took the seat across from him. It was wide enough for three people, and she could easily stretch out and take a nap if she wanted to. "I thought your family traveled all the time..." She trailed off, remembering how fancy his car was. "Nevermind."
Some Silvers—like her foster parents—owned cars too, but they rarely used them for longer trips like this. Fuel-grade mana might be the cheapest type per ounce, but it would still cost you a few silvernotes to cross Arkala. Golds didn't worry about stuff like that.
"My mom usually rides with a private driver," Kalden said with a shrug. "We could have used one today, but then we risk someone tattling on us."
"Bet this cabin wasn't cheap though," Akari said as she glanced around. At this point, she half-expected an attendant to knock on the door and offer them wine and chocolate. She met Kalden's eyes again. "Did your mom finally stop snooping on your bank account?"
"Nah, I just told her about the trip upfront."
Her eyebrows shot up at that.
"I said I was going to White Vale to forage stuff for an alchemy project."
"And she believed that? I thought Golds just bought everything."
"Usually." He made a leveling gesture with his hand. "But most commercial ingredients are farm-grown, and farms aren't known for their ambient mana. Especially compared to the Contested Area."
Akari leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "So we can explore beyond the wall?"
Kalden hesitated. "Depends on what exactly Apprentice wants from us. But I did get a license just in case."
Well, that was a good start. Apprentice's last few messages had been vague, but he'd hinted at them going beyond the city limits into the wild. In his own words, he was more than capable of fulfilling bounties on mana beasts, but he needed someone to cash them in at the Guild Hall.
Akari had wanted to visit White Vale ever since their tunnel excursion back in Hexember. Assuming Apprentice didn't betray them, this was shaping up to be a great weekend.
"So your mom won't let you learn Mana Arts," Akari said, "but she's cool with dangerous trips like this?"
That woman made zero sense. She wanted him to avoid fights, which made sense—most mothers wanted that. But then, wouldn't she want him to defend himself from the fights he couldn't avoid? She let him carry a Missile rod for that exact reason.
"I told her I'd hire some hunters for protection," Kalden said. "So I wouldn't be in real danger. Otherwise, yeah. I could technically pay someone to forage for me, but she considers this an acceptable hobby."
"And what's so wrong with Mana Arts?" Akari pressed. "What does she have against it?" She never would have pried this hard before, but she and Kalden had known each other for a while now. And after what she'd shared with him last weekend, he owed her some juicy secrets in return.
Kalden didn't answer for a while. He just sat there with his brow furrowed. Eventually, the train started to move on its iron rails, and Elegan's skyline became visible out the window.
No sooner had they started moving than an attendant knocked on the cabin door with beverages. Kalden took a glass of water while Akari got coffee. It wasn't half as good as Jumpstart's coffee, but at least the cup would keep her fingers warm.
"I used to have an older brother," Kalden finally said once they were alone. "His name was Sozen."
Akari glanced up from the cardboard cup. He'd mentioned his father many times, but never an older brother.
Kalden glanced out the window as the city faded into farmland. "Sozen was training to be a Combat Artist like my parents. They even hired private instructors to train him. When he joined Elegan High's Mana Arts program, he was better than some fourth-year students. By his third year, he could beat the teachers in a duel."
Talek. Akari wanted to ask about his aspect, but she couldn't think of a tactful way. Obviously, Sozen wasn't around these days, which meant something must have gone wrong.
"He also had dreams," Kalden said. "Dreams about the outside world. He became obsessed with the idea of leaving the Archipelago."
"Dreams," Akari echoed in a soft voice. "Sounds familiar."
Kalden gave a slow nod. "He argued with my mom a lot back then. He said he wanted to join the next expedition to Cadria. Not just that, but he wanted both of us to go with him. He mentioned ranks beyond Gold—ranks we couldn't reach as long as we were 'trapped' here."
He rubbed his forehead. "It's been so long—I don't remember the details. I might be conflating these memories with the Grandmaster's videos."
Or maybe Sozen saw the same videos, Akari thought. Even if Apprentice had brought this latest batch from the outside, someone else could have done the same thing before.
"Needless to say, my mom thought the whole thing was crazy. And when she wouldn't let Sozen join an expedition, he went behind her back and funded his own. He found a boat, hired a crew, then just disappeared one night."
"How'd he get past the guards?" Akari blurted out. Probably another rude question, but she couldn't help herself. Some of the best Martials guarded the shield gate in Keylas. People like Emberlyn Frostblade's father.
Kalden shrugged a shoulder. "Like I said, he was good. We never found his body, but his badge washed up on shore a few weeks later. The Martials returned it to my mom." He took a drink of his water. "That was three years ago now."
Akari took a sip of her coffee and considered. "You think he's still alive?"
"The Inner Sea's always been dangerous," Kalden began. "Some of the tides can reach over a hundred feet high. But he had three Water Artists on his crew. Part of me wants to believe he's still out there, but I'm not getting my hopes up."
"And your mom blames the whole thing on Mana Arts," Akari said. "She thinks if you learn it, you'll run off too."
"More or less," Kalden agreed. "She also thinks Mana Arts caused Sozen's dreams. Not true, of course, since I've been having the same ones for years. But I never told her that."
They continued their journey west, passing miles of farmland along the way. Arkala was home to more than a quarter-million people, but most of the human-controlled space was just open fields. Most people lived in the bigger cities like Tidegate and Ironhaven, or the smaller towns between them.
After two hours of riding, the train turned north along Ironhaven's suburbs. A cluster of tall gray buildings dominated the horizon, and Kalden pointed out landmarks along the way. These were mostly buildings and factories his mother owned, along with the manaball stadium and the university where Hana went to school.
Apparently, Kalden had already been accepted into IHU's alchemy program for the following year. He didn't sound too excited about it, though.
"Guessing you'd rather do something else?" Akari asked, still watching the horizon roll by.
"Definitely," Kalden said. "As for what that is..." He trailed off with a shrug. "The more I learn about this place, the more I understand why my brother left. Seems like everything's a dead end."
"Humans are most human when we're improving ourselves," the Grandmaster had said in one of his earlier videos. He spoke about advancement as if it were as natural as breathing. And they'd all been denied that somehow. Not just Akari and her fellow Bronze, but the Silvers and Golds as well.
"What would you do?" he asked. "If you didn't need to worry about survival, I mean."
Several quick answers sprang to her lips, but each one sounded more childish and embarrassing than the last. But despite all her worries of the future, she'd spent plenty of time dreaming about the possibilities.
When Akari was younger, she'd dreamt of meeting her father. She'd imagined him as a legendary Mana Artist who would find his way back to her, then teach her everything he knew. Reality had set in by the time she was older, and her mother told her the cold hard truth. They hadn't been 'separated' from her father, and nothing kept them apart. He'd willingly abandoned them for his own life somewhere else.
If he wanted to come back, he would have done it by now.
Over time, the dream had shifted too. Rather than waiting for someone to come and train her, Akari had taken matters into her own hands. She still planned to meet her father someday. Not as the girl he'd abandoned, but as a powerful Mana Artist. And when he saw how far she'd come, he'd regret the day he left.
But that sounded far too dramatic to say out loud. And it was more of a daydream than a true goal. And like any dream, it was too hazy to look in the eye. The same could be said for most of her long-term aspirations. For now, all she could do was reach Silver and hope to Talek that made things better.
"Dunno," she finally said to Kalden. "Guess we're in the same boat."
As the train reached Ironhaven's northern border, she caught glimpses of glowing blue mana beyond the skyline. This wall wasn't half as tall as the one around the island, but that made sense. This was built to keep out mana beasts, not ten-story tidal waves.
Their surroundings turned to farmland yet again. But instead of flat fields, they passed terraced rice paddies that looked like giant white staircases beneath the snow. The mana wall grew more visible as they went, and Akari spotted smaller military outposts every five to ten miles. Mazren had explained these to her before—Ironhaven and White Vale were built around the richest mana spots because richer mana meant bigger predators. However, all things in nature followed the path of least resistance. If the humans pushed too hard in one spot, the predators would move on to the weaker links. This was why every town had its own military presence and guild members to keep the populations in check.
She and Kalden spent the remainder of the trip training. Once they'd hammered out their deal with Apprentice, he'd sent them the Grandmaster's advanced shaping video in good faith. Akari had expected this video to focus on Missile techniques, similar to how she'd been weaving her mana through the trees.
But that would have been too easy. Instead of Missiles, the Grandmaster had them moving physical objects with smaller bursts of mana. It was like their early lessons with the manaball, but much more precise.
Today, she and Kalden worked on levitating pencils above their outstretched hands. This was harder than a Missile in many ways. It was one thing to release a burst of raw power, but this required a slow, constant stream of mana. If you pushed too hard, the pencil would fly up and hit the ceiling. Too light, and it would fall back in your hand.
"I've said this before," the Grandmaster's voice echoed in her head, "but raw power will come with time. Meanwhile, precision is becoming a lost art."
And levitating the pencil was only the first step. After that, he had them use their opposite hands to release a burst of mana toward the pencil's head or eraser. This—combined with the upward pressure from the first hand—was supposed to make the pencil spin horizontally in midair.
Things got even worse after that. The third exercise involved using pressure bursts in both hands to spin the pencil vertically. That one gave her a headache just thinking about it.
Fortunately, Akari had seen plenty of Mana Arts movies, and she knew the drill here. Someday, these supposedly useless techniques would translate into badass combat moves. At least, they better. Otherwise her entire childhood was a lie.
They trained in silence for another hour until the train reached White Vale. The town itself was nothing special. Just some restaurants and tourist attractions that looked suspiciously like gift shops. What did they even sell there? Stuffed mana beasts? Figurines of famous Artists?
Only the Hunters' Guild Hall caught her eye. The massive wooden building looked like a cross between a hotel, a shopping mall, and a log cabin. At five stories tall, it towered over the rest of the town, including the mana wall.
The train stopped on a raised platform above the parking lot, and they stood and shouldered their backpacks. After spending almost four hours on a train, it felt good to stand on her own two legs again.
If only she could say the same about the weather. Bursts of icy wind stung her cheeks as soon as she stepped outside. Akari huddled in her hoodie and glared up at Kalden. Unlike her, his teeth weren't chattering, and he looked far too comfortable in his scarf and gloves.
They stepped through a pair of glass double doors into the main lobby. This shared the outside's aesthetic with polished wooden floors and rustic, log cabin walls. A brick fireplace filled one corner, surrounded by decorative weapons and hunting trophies.
A desk sat at the end of the lobby which was probably where people checked in at the hotel. She and Kalden ignored this for now and stepped into a busier corridor that looked like a shopping mall. Dozens of colorful shops lined the edges, selling weapons, clothing, and other Mana Arts-related gear. Each one felt like the Aftermath, but far more specialized.
They passed dozens of hunters along the way, ranging from teenagers to grizzled old war veterans. Most carried Missile rods at their belts and wore micro-Construct clothing. At least a third of them wore Gold badges, which was a higher ratio than she'd seen anywhere else on Arkala. The rest were all Silver, including the shop employees. Akari stuck close to Kalden as they walked, half-afraid someone would harass her if she wasn't with him.
More importantly, what would Apprentice think? Would he see her as weak and useless? This was someone who could mop the floor with Gold Martials. How could she help someone that powerful?
He didn't ask about your rank, Akari reminded herself. He would have asked if it mattered.
Maybe things were different in the outside world? Apprentice knew she and Kalden were beginners. If they weren't, they wouldn't need the Grandmaster's videos in the first place.
After another minute of walking, they finally reached the dining area. Once again, they'd modeled the style after an inn's common room, but it also reminded Akari of a food court. Various restaurants lined the far wall with a sea of tables and booths spread out in front of them.
Alright, she thought as they stepped forward. Time to meet the most dangerous person on this island.