Kalden's stomach growled as he inhaled the scents of the food court. He and Akari passed more than half a dozen restaurants as they walked, and each one smelled better than the one before it.
The first three were the usual food court fare. Jumpstart was an Espirian chain restaurant that specialized in coffee and breakfast foods. Interlude and Elements were similar, but with a focus on sandwiches, soups, and salads.
They also passed two Shokenese places he didn't recognize—one sold ramen while the other specialized in stir-fry dishes. Kalden's stomach protested even more as the scents of sesame oil and garlic hit his nostrils.
Whose idea was it to schedule the meeting right at lunchtime, anyway?
He hadn't eaten since his protein bar on the train, and that was two hours ago. He'd actually packed two bars for the trip, but then Akari had eyed his first one like a sad puppy, and one thing led to another.
After making a quick lap around the tables, Kalden noted the placement of the cameras and found a corner booth out of range. They each removed their backpacks and slipped into one side.
No sooner had they gotten settled than his stomach growled again.
Great. Was that hunger or nerves this time? He tried convincing himself they'd be fine, and they weren't doing anything illegal. Sure, they'd talked about helping Apprentice, but potential crimes weren't crimes. He'd even researched the laws to be sure. If the Martials closed in right now, he and Akari wouldn't get more than a slap on the wrist.
And if Apprentice meant them harm ... well, that was the real benefit to meeting in a crowded room, wasn't it? The Hunters' Guild didn't allow fights inside, but every member had the authority to stop them. Judging by how this crowd carried themselves, most would jump at the chance to test their skills against a troublemaker.
They waited in silence for a few minutes before the clock finally struck noon. When it did, Kalden unclipped his badge from its silken ribbon and re-clipped it backward with the smooth side facing out. Akari did the same beside him. They'd all agreed on this pre-arranged signal beforehand, which made it the first doorway of no return.
Kalden's eyes continued scanning the crowd as he waited. No one knew what the fugitive looked like. If they did, they never could have risked a public meeting.
A young woman approached the table with her gold badge twisted around. She was a bit older than Kalden, but probably no older than eighteen. She had pale skin with a cluster of freckles that ran across the bridge of her nose. Her long red hair was curled in a thick braid that fell over her left shoulder.
She smiled at them both, resting her hands on the chairs opposite their booth. "You know, empty seats are so hard to come by around here."
That's the passphrase, Kalden thought. But who's this? The real Apprentice, or a proxy?
He eyed the girl for several seconds before answering. She didn't look dangerous. In fact, she was unarmed, which made her one of the few people in the Guild Hall not carrying a blade or Missile rod. She had a confident smile, but her green eyes betrayed a hint of desperation and uncertainty.
Surprisingly, that combination matched the person they'd messaged.
"This one's all yours," Kalden said, repeating the end of the passphrase.
"Oh, thank the Angels." A sigh of relief escaped her lips and she fell into the nearest chair. "You had me worried there for a second."
Akari cleared her throat to Kalden's right. "So you're—"
"Just one second." The girl reached into her jacket and pulled out a palm-sized device. Shaped like a small dome, it had a shiny metal surface. "You guys familiar with this?"
Kalden leaned forward, and it didn't take him long to recognize the sigils. "It's a sound suppression Construct." His mother kept these between most rooms in their house. They weren't cheap, but they kept the staff from eavesdropping.
The girl pressed the button in the center. One minute, Kalden's ears were filled with the sounds of music and the low roar of conversation. But as soon as her finger touched the device, everything snapped into a sudden silence. He felt Akari jump beside him, and his own heart skipped several beats.
"Yes," the girl said to Akari's unspoken question. "My name's Relia, but you know me as Apprentice. Or the Fugitive, depending on who you ask."
Kalden and Akari exchanged a glance.
"You seem surprised," Relia said as she fidgeted with her red braid. "It's not like I ever claimed to be a forty-year-old man, you know."
True. The media had described the fugitive that way, despite having no evidence. Like everyone else, Kalden had latched on to that narrative without a second thought. Even so...
"You don't look like someone who's been living in the wild," he said. Aside from her freckles, her pale cheeks were smooth and unblemished. She was also wearing lip gloss, and Kalden thought he'd caught a faint whiff of perfume when she first sat down.
Nothing about her screamed 'power' either. Despite her gold badge, she wore a red flannel shirt, blue jeans, and an olive-colored military jacket.
Relia actually laughed at that. "I'm not trying to convince anyone that I'm the fugitive." She gestured around the food court with one hand. "Quite the opposite, in fact."
"Fair enough," Kalden said. Anyone who showed up in White Vale dressed as a barbarian would be high on the Martials' suspect list. The same went for anyone who looked too armed, or even too competent.
"Wouldn't turn down some proof though," Akari said.
"Look at me," Relia said, "and I mean really look."
It took Kalden a second to catch her meaning, then he relaxed his vision, letting his Silver Sight overlay the physical world. Immediately, a sea of mana sprang to life around the room. He saw hundreds of Silvers and Golds throughout the food court, their souls shining like moons in the night sky.
Then, Kalden stared down at Relia's chest. She'd given him permission which hopefully made it less weird. At first, he didn't see the glow of mana he'd expected. If anything, she had even less than a Bronze. Then a faint light blossomed from her soul like water shooting from a geyser.
Over the next few heartbeats, the light's intensity grew from Silver to the peak of Gold. Before, it had been the size of a marble. Now, it must have been as wide as Kalden's fist. His father's soul had been this deep, but most Golds never reached this height. Supposedly, it took decades of training.
Her soul widened further until it exploded like a supernova. The light burned Kalden's eyes, and he had to look away.
"What are you?" He finally asked as he blinked away his growing headache.
Relia just smiled. "Apprentice isn't my name. It's my rank."
Chills crept up Kalden's arms. So, there were ranks beyond Gold? The Grandmaster had implied something similar with his own title, so this wasn't a complete shock. Kalden had also heard these titles in old stories and legends.
Still, it was one thing to hear about Mana Artists this powerful. Quite another to find yourself sitting in front of one.
"Wanna let me in on the secret?" Akari asked. "Can't see a thing over here."
Kalden looked again, and the light in Relia's chest dimmed to an ordinary level. Did that mean she could veil her power?
"Her soul ..." Kalden began, "It's more than twice as bright as most Golds."
Akari grimaced. She still hadn't gained the ability to see mana, so he understood her frustration.
Slowly, she undid the strap of her mana watch and slid it across the table. "I prefer numbers to flashy lights, anyway."
Relia didn't hesitate before unbuttoning the top of her flannel shirt and pressing the device to her chest.
The LCD screen lit up and showed: 1454/1454.
"Shit," Akari muttered.
Kalden wouldn't have phrased it that way, but he shared the sentiment. His own mana count was just over two hundred, and six hundred was supposed to be the max for humans.
Akari closed her mouth, then opened it again. "How the hell—"
"Let's step back for a second." Relia slid the watch to Akari across the table. "You've got your proof now. We all know I'm the strongest person on this island, but I still don't know your names."
"Sorry," he said with a quick shake of his head. "I'm Kalden."
She raised her thin eyebrows. "Just Kalden?"
"Just Relia?" he retorted.
She grinned, giving him a nod of concession. "Relia Dawnfire."
Dawnfire. That was an older clan from Northern Espiria. As if her pale skin and red hair weren't already a dead giveaway. Did that make her a Fire Artist, the same way Frostblade hinted at Emberlyn's ice techniques?
Kalden wanted to ask, but he owed her his own clan name first. He hadn't wanted to give this away, but he and Akari had also rejected the idea of false identities. Better to build trust where they could.
"Kalden Trengsen," he said, returning the girl's smile.
She nodded and turned to Kalden's right. "Guess that makes you Akari?"
"That's me. Thanks for the scare last week, by the way. Really helped me sleep at night."
"Oh." Relia winced. "Yeah—sorry about that. I just didn't know how else to get your attention. I've been on this island for a while now, and no one else will listen to me. The news has everyone convinced that I'm a dangerous killer."
Kalden blinked. At first, he'd assumed the media found out about her by accident, but this made even more sense. If Relia was trying to talk to people, then the media was the quickest way to turn the population against her.
"But you are dangerous," Akari said. "Right? You didn't get that strong by planting flowers and raising chickens."
"I can handle myself," she said with a small shrug, "But we didn't come here to fight."
"We?" Kalden asked.
"Me, my master, and the rest of our crew. We came here to investigate your island—to talk to people, and try to help them. We knew it might be hard, but we didn't expect to get backstabbed so soon."
Kalden gave a slow nod, still trying to fit all these pieces together in his head. "What happened to your master? Where is he now?"
"Or she," Akari offered
"He," Relia confirmed. "You should know. You've already seen half his videos."
Kalden's eyebrows shot up at that. "The Grandmaster? He's here? On Arkala?"
"He's here," Relia said, "but we got separated the day we arrived. See, he's been researching these islands for years—trying to figure out what happened. We set out from Espiria three months ago, and our boat landed on the beach in Hexember. It was on the northwest side of the island, near the place you call Keylas. My master went into the forest by himself and talked to the guards by the gate. That's when they attacked him."
"If he went alone," Kalden began, "then how do you know what happened?" Kalden had a hundred other questions, of course, but this one seemed the most relevant.
"He was wearing a body camera on his jacket," Relia said, gesturing to a spot on her own shoulder. "So the rest of us watched the whole thing from our computer on the beach."
Kalden struggled to imagine a camera small enough to fit on someone's jacket or a computer that worked on a beach with nowhere to plug it in. Maybe they had more advanced technology where they came from?
"My master told the Martials about the outside world. They pretended to care at first, then they lured him into a room with some kind of toxic gas." She bit her lip before continuing. "We lost the camera feed a few minutes later. That's when me and Moreno—the Knowledge Artist I mentioned before—went after him. We tore that whole place apart, but we couldn't find him anywhere."
She wasn't exaggerating about tearing the place about. Kalden still remembered the damage reports from the news. Not only had their Missiles torn clear through the chainlink fences, but the reporters had hinted at hundreds of goldnotes worth of property damage.
"A few days later, we realized we were too slow. By the time we attacked the gate, they'd already escaped with him inside an armored truck. Probably unconscious."
"Wait," Akari broke in. "You said you could mop the floor with Gold Martials. Now you're saying they captured your master?"
A flash of color rose to Relia's cheeks. "They took him by surprise!"
"Still," Akari said. "Not so smart to turn your back on an enemy."
Kalden wouldn't have phrased it so bluntly, but Akari made some good points. If the Martials brought down the Grandmaster, then they were a much bigger threat than Relia pretended.
Even Golds had a higher resistance to toxins than the lower ranks. That much, Kalden knew from his alchemy classes. If people like Relia and her master had mana counts in the thousands, they should have been immune to most poisonous gas. Clearly, the Martials had anticipated that and prepared accordingly.
The other girl let out a long breath. "See, that's the thing—we had no reason to suspect them, or treat them as enemies. We came here to rescue your people."
"Rescue us?" Kalden furrowed his brow. "From what?"
"Yeah, about that..." She tapped her fingers on the wooden table, considering her next words. "That's where things get complicated."
She paused again, and the only sounds were their breaths echoing against the invisible walls of their sound Construct.
"As far as I can tell," Relia said, "everyone here thinks the outside world is gone. But you all have it backwards. Nothing happened to Espira, Shoken, or Cadria—they're all alive and well."
She raised two fingers to point at them. "You guys are the ones who dropped off the map."