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Kalden blinked several times. He heard Relia's words, but his brain struggled to process them.

He'd already accepted that people might live outside the Archipelago. After all, what was so special about this place? What made them the only survivors? Sure, they had a mana shield, but so did every other island and coastal city. The whole narrative had always seemed too clean and tidy to be real.

But the entire world ... alive and well?

No way.

"We dropped off the map," Akari echoed with the same skepticism. "What does that even mean?"

Relia unbuckled her canvas satchel which sat on the chair beside her. She pulled out a manilla envelope and poured a stack of papers onto the table between them.

Akari grabbed a sheet at random, adjusting her glasses to read.

Kalden leaned over the table and began scanning the others. Most were encyclopedia articles, and they all related to the Archipelago.

One particular title caught his eye: 'Arkala's Destruction.'

The text went on to describe how Arkala's mana shield had failed on Quintember 58th, 850. Four years before Kalden was born. The failure happened during a storm, and that storm sent a devastating tidal wave from the northeast, destroying every city in its path.

His eyes settled on a few photos of Tidegate with its streets submerged underwater. Cars sat piled up against buildings as if someone had swept them against a giant wall. The buildings themselves didn't fare much better—just metallic skeletons of their former selves.

A chill crept up Kalden's spine as he took in similar photos of Ironhaven and Shoken Port. No survivors. It all looked so real. And yet...

"These pictures are fake." Kalden looked up from the article. "They have to be. I mean—these cities are still here."

"I know," Relia said in a gentle voice. "This is only the official story. My master wouldn't be here if he believed it."

"Still..." Kalden started to speak, but he found his mouth dry. He unscrewed his water bottle before he spoke again, "There are more than a quarter-million people here. You can't just cover that up."

"You thought the rest of the world was dead," Relia pointed out. "Which scenario is more likely? A storm destroying three tiny islands, or the entire ring of continents?"

Kalden narrowed his eyes as he continued to scan the papers. They weren't all about the Archipelago, he realized. Others described world events from the last decade—from bloody revolutions in Cadria to smaller countries breaking free from the Shoken Empire. They even covered entertainment, ranging from the latest movies to the last few manaball championships.

Beside him, Akari rummaged through the pile, revealing a list of technological breakthroughs. One Espirian company had invented a mobile phone that could fit inside your pocket and draw power from your mana channels. The next article described a thin, foldable computer that also ran on mana batteries. The list went on, from cars to airships to mana Constructs.

It was too much to take in, so Kalden looked away, taking a deep breath and considering Relia's last question. Despite the mountain of evidence, his brain still rejected these ideas. He'd spent his whole life believing this was humanity's last haven.

What now? It was all a lie?

He tried imagining this as an outside observer—free from confirmation bias. It did seem more likely for three islands to vanish as opposed to an entire ring of continents. However, he could also turn Relia's logic against her.

He looked up and met the red-haired girl's eyes. "You're saying that billions of people were fooled?" He grabbed one of the first papers and held it up. "You're saying they all believe this story?"

"Billions?" Relia shook her head. "No. This place is the whole world to you, but most people have never even heard of it. If they did, it's just one island out of ten thousand."

In other words, no one had been fooled because no one actually cared.

Kalden leaned back against the booth's cushion, feeling suddenly trapped. She was right—this had been his whole world. Now, it felt far too small.

"What really happened twenty years ago?" he asked.

Relia spread out her hands in a helpless gesture. "We don't know."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously. My master had some theories, but we had no idea what we'd find here."

"But something happened," Kalden pressed. "My mother remembers being able to pick up the phone and call people in Espira or Shoken. We used to see passing airships in the sky, and Spatial Artists could make portals to the mainland. That all stopped one day."

Relia took a deep breath. "You've got a mana wall around your island, right?"

Kalden nodded.

"Most coastal cities have the same thing," she explained. "Normally, these shields glow like Midwinter trees at night, and a passing boat can spot them forty miles away. But the night we came here—to Arkala—everything was pitch black. My master didn't see the shield until he was standing ten feet away.

"So there are more Constructs?" Akari spoke up for the first time in several minutes, then gestured to the sound suppressor. "If we can prevent sound from escaping, why not do the same for light and radiation?"

"Maybe," Kalden said slowly. "But think about how much mana we spend to keep the shield running. Not to mention the thousands of state employees who work to maintain it. Who's keeping these other Constructs from falling apart?"

Akari furrowed her brows at that.

"You guys might be on the right track," Relia said. "My master mentioned dream mana as a possibility. That could affect light and sound. As for how they've kept it running for twenty years, we don't have a clue."

"A better question is why," Akari said. "Wouldn't it be less work to destroy the island for real?"

"Good point," Kalden said. If you wanted to block all light and sound, you would need a dome that covered the entire sky. That would take exponentially more mana than a simple wall. Then there was the cost of converting it to the proper aspects.

Like Akari said, if someone could manage that feat, they could have killed everyone for real.

Of course, there were other possibilities. History was filled with tyrants who isolated their territory so they could rule unopposed. Was that happening here? Kalden didn't think so. Yes, Bronze were treated unfairly—Akari's story about her mother had proven that. But he doubted there was some evil overlord controlling things from the shadows. Their leaders were all elected, and they changed every term. Kalden's stepfather, Genkai, was one of them. What's more, anyone strong enough to trap them here had no reason to lie low.

"It makes no sense," Relia agreed. "And it gets weirder." She fingered the golden disc that hung from her neck. "You know these badges you all wear? No one's worn them since the sixth century."

The sixth century? Kalden could have sworn they'd worn badges more recently than that, but he'd have to double-check the history books to be sure.

"This makes it seem like you've been isolated for a long time," Relia continued, "but the rest of your tech isn't that far behind. Not to mention the fact that everyone here speaks Espirian without so much as a dialect."

"Speaking of badges," Akari broke in. "You said 'Apprentice' was your rank. How high is that? More importantly, how do we reach it?"

Kalden gave her a sideways look. After all those earth-shattering revelations, her main concern was advancing her Mana Arts?

On second thought, that sounded exactly like Akari.

"Apprentice is the first rank after Foundation," Relia said.

"And ... Foundation is?"

The other girl blinked in surprise. "You don't know?"

"Wouldn't be asking if I knew, would I?"

"The Grandmaster mentioned it in his videos," Kalden explained, "but he never described what it was."

"Right, sorry. Foundation is what you two are." Relia turned over a paper, then shoved the others aside. "Um—do either of you have something to write with?"

Kalden reached into his backpack and pulled out the pencil he'd been using for his shaping exercises.

"Thanks." Relia took it and sketched out a long rectangle—three times as long as it was tall. She wrote the word "Foundation" on top of it, then divided the shape into thirds. She labeled these thirds, "Bronze, Silver, and Gold."

"Every person is born somewhere in the Foundation realm," she explained. "If your parents were born with lots of mana, you end up over here." She tapped the Gold section of the rectangle. "If not..." She slid the pencil down to the Bronze section.

"But the terms 'Bronze' and 'Gold' are pretty archaic," she continued. "People used those terms when they thought your birth mana determined your soul's quality. Which is stupid, obviously. Foundation is technically three ranks, but we usually just number them these days. The word 'Bronze' has too much stigma attached."

"Tell me about it," Akari muttered.

Relia gave her a sympathetic smile. "If a Mana Artist's journey has a hundred steps, then Bronze to Gold is only the first. There's only one way Golds could rule an island like this..."

"They can't reach the higher ranks," Kalden said. His own father had been a general stuck at the peak of Gold for years. And yet, this eighteen-year-old girl was stronger. Something was affecting them all—preventing them from advancing.

What did that mean for Akari's goal of reaching Silver? Would more mana and training even be enough?

"So all those 'conspiracy theories' were true," Akari's voice cut like a dagger. "The state's been lying through their teeth all along."

"You're assuming they know all this."

"They must," Akari snapped back. "If you got in, the Martials could get out. Why wouldn't they try to leave?"

Relia pursed her lips, considering.

"And"—Akari gestured down to the stack of papers—"if we shared this stuff outside the dark web, we'd be snuffed out like a candle in the rain. We might even get arrested for 'disturbing the peace.' Then, if we kept at it, we'd turn up dead of 'natural causes.'" She made air quotes around her last few phrases.

"Even if you're right," Relia said. "It doesn't mean they know what's going on. Think about how a flock of birds flies in formation. Does every bird make a conscious decision to change direction? No. They follow what the others are doing, taking subtle hints along the way. And the more complicated a conspiracy is, the more likely it is to be false. Sometimes, the simplest answer is the most likely."

Kalden grimaced. "You're saying our government actually believes the world is gone?" If that's what she thought, then he was with Akari on this one. No way the Martials and council members were that incompetent.

"I can think of a simpler answer," Relia said. "Everyone else is just like you guys. They know something's up, but they can't prove it. They think it's in your best interest to keep you here, so that's what they're doing."

"Well, that's all sugar and rainbows," Akari said. "But if it's true, then why'd they try to kill your master?"

Relia deflated at that, reminding Kalden of just how young she was. Despite her ridiculous mana count, she was clearly just a college student echoing her master's own theories. She knew the arguments well enough, but she hadn't updated them for their current predicament.

When she finally spoke again, it came out more tired than before. "My master always said it's easy to fool people. But convincing them they've already been fooled? That's one of the hardest things in the world." She shook several strands of red hair from her eyes. "He should have known better than to walk through that gate alone."

Before they could say anything else, Relia glanced down at the stainless steel napkin holder. Apparently, she saw something in the reflection. "They're here."

Kalden glanced over the girl's shoulder to the food court's entrance. Sure enough, there stood a man in a sharp black suit with a gold badge around his neck. For a second, Kalden's blood froze. Was that Emberlyn's father?

No ... this man had a similar haircut, but it wasn't him.

Relia packed up her papers and stuffed them back into her open satchel.

Kalden raised an eyebrow. "You said none of the Martials have seen your face."

"And I'd rather keep it that way." She fingered her badge. "Besides, if they scan this, they'll realize it belonged to one of their own."

Ah. He wondered where she'd gotten that badge.

"Alright," Kalden said. "This has been ... informative. But what about the real reason we came here?"

"The videos for a favor," Relia said as she snapped her satchel shut. "Remember what we talked about before? There's a bounty office back near the lobby. I figure I can handle most of the fighting, but I can't cash in the cores without a license. That's where you two come in. Just grab me the most expensive jobs, and we'll go from there."

Kalden glanced at Akari who gave an eager nod.

"Sounds simple enough," he said.

"Great!" Relia stood from her seat. "Meet me outside the main gate in say ... one hour?" Her lips broke into a wide grin. "Then I'll show you guys some real Mana Arts."

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David Musk

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

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