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Akari scarfed down her soup in record time. Kalden didn't talk much as they ate, which suited her fine. They'd just had a shitload of stuff dumped on their lap, and she needed time to process it all.

If nothing else, this 'outside world' sounded interesting. No badges? No judging people by their birth mana?

Yeah, she could get behind those ideas.

Of course, that didn't make this world all roses and rainbows, either. Knowledge was still hoarded, and governments still told people which Arts they could learn and when. The Grandmaster had said so in his very first video.

"Today, there are more Mana Artists than ever, and each one is a threat to the world's power structure."

In other words, they used the same tactics as the Archipelago. Probably for the exact same reasons, too.

Human nature never changes.

Her foot tapped against the wooden floor as she waited for Kalden to finish his own lunch. Unlike her, he took small bites like a proper little Gold, always dabbing his mouth clean with his napkin.

Every once in a while, she glanced over at the State Martial who sat by the entrance. The middle-aged man scanned the crowd far more often than the average patron. He and his peers had come to White Vale to find the 'fugitive' and they didn't bother pretending otherwise.

Fortunately, he hadn't spared Relia a second glance as she left. That seemed like a good sign.

"You sure about all this?" Kalden asked in a low voice.

Akari shifted her gaze back to their own table. They'd lost their soundward when Relia left, so she kept her next words as vague as possible, "Of course I'm not sure."

"It's not too late to back out, you know."

"Do you want to back out?"

There was a short pause as Kalden considered that. "No ... I just wish we had some more reassurances. That's all."

"We knew this would be risky," she said. "Nothing's changed."

If anything, things were looking better than before. Relia might be a little cocky, but she'd also lasted several months in the wilderness, dodging Martials and mana beasts along the way.

What's more, her mana count was off the charts, despite only a few years' difference between them. Hopefully, she'd spill her secrets before the end of the day. At the very least, Akari planned to ask her more about reaching SIlver.

Kalden gave a slow nod. "And if she's telling the truth, that means my brother was right all along."

"Yeah," she agreed. "We won't know for sure unless we stick with this."

Then again, what was Relia's end-game? To escape the island? To free her master from the Martials? Akari didn't know how high the Grandmaster rank was, but it sounded like several levels above Apprentice.

If the Martials could detain someone at his level, then getting him wouldn't be easy, no matter how much money the girl saved. Escaping the island might be out of the question, too. Her master had taken the Martials by surprise, and they'd still been ready for him. What sort of defenses would they have now, with two months to prepare?

Akari drew in a deep breath, pushing those worries aside. "For what it's worth, I do think she's telling the truth."

Kalden cocked his head in a question.

Akari glanced around before continuing. No one sat in the surrounding booths, and the music was loud enough to stop her next words from carrying too far. "You know about my side business, right?"

"With the grades," Kalden replied. "Yeah, Darren told me."

"Ever wonder how a high schooler pulled that off?"

He shrugged. "Figured you were some computer prodigy or something."

Akari snorted at that. "You've been watching too many movies."

"Well, I don't know much about hacking."

She leaned closer. "I got lucky one day, that's all. I was on a hacking website, and someone leaked all the tricks I use—code injections, password decryption—stuff like that."

"Alright," Kalden drew out the word, not bothering to hide his confusion, "but how does that prove her story?" He made a vague gesture to where Relia had been sitting.

Akari cleared her throat. "The page said those tricks were decades old. Apparently, modern-day passwords can't be decrypted, and all those software holes have been patched up. But that's not true. Not here, at least."

A spark of understanding flashed in Kalden's eyes. "You think that information came from somewhere else."

"Somewhere with more advanced technology," Akari added. She'd always known people lived outside these islands, but she'd imagined them all struggling to survive in some barren world. But why had she imagined the world as a wasteland? Because her teachers and politicians had all said so? Relia had given her more evidence in ten minutes than she'd gotten in ten years of public education.

Still, she refused to believe their government was simply ignorant. That page with the hacking information had vanished the next day—probably seized by the Martials. They'd done the same thing with hundreds of other sites over the years.

No matter how many secrets Akari unveiled, the Martials would always know more.

 


 

The bounty office was a corner shop tucked between two different weapon retailers. The room itself was barely bigger than her bedroom at the Cliftons' house, and shelves of colorful booklets lined the walls.

Akari snatched up a booklet at random, flipping through the sheets of glossy paper. The cover showed a photograph of a six-legged reptile called an ironscale basilisk. The next few pages listed the creature's diet, dimensions, and hunting patterns, along with its strengths and weaknesses.

That's useful.

She returned the booklet when she caught Kalden eyeing the A-tier bounties nearby. Following his gaze, she spotted several subspecies of dragons among this collection, ranging from raptors to drakes.

The raptors weren't that large, but the booklet explained how they hunted in packs of six to ten. And like most dragonkin, each one was a Fire Artist, capable of forming basic Missiles and Constructs. That, combined with their speed and cunning, made them one of the most deadly creatures in the Contested Area.

The drake caught Akari's eye next. Specifically, the reward price below the picture

Two goldnotes? For a single core?

Akari doubted that even her foster parents made that much in a month. Of course, you would probably need a whole team of Mana Artists to take down a full-sized drake.

Which begged the question...

"Won't this draw attention?" Akari whispered the Kalden.

"What?" he asked.

"Taking the best bounties. Won't it be suspicious?"

"I think we'll be fine," he said. "I'd worried about that, but I did some research before we left. It's common for well-off Golds to fund expeditions. In theory, I could have five veteran mercenaries waiting for me outside, and I'd still make a profit."

Huh. That actually made sense. For a Silver hunter living paycheck-to-paycheck, it might be less risky to take a Gold's money, even if you missed out on the profits. At least that way, you could put food on the table no matter what you found.

"Besides," Kalden said, "even if—"

"You in line?" A gruff voice cut in from behind them.

Akari and Kalden whirled to face a tall Gold with a full gray beard. The man was a few inches taller than Kalden, and his biceps looked wider around than Akari's waist.

She glanced back at the counter and realized they'd been slowly wandering in that direction as they talked. Now, they stood directly between the hunter and his destination.

"After you," Kalden smiled and gestured the older man forward.

The hunter eyed him suspiciously. It was strange to see someone look at Kalden with anything but deference, but this guy was also a Gold, not to mention three times Kalden's age.

"It's my first time here," Kalden explained. "So I might be a while with my questions."

The man seemed to accept this answer, and he strode forward with a nod, pressing his license on the wooden counter. "I'll take four B3s and a B8."

"Comin' right up," the woman replied. She was a hefty Silver with chin-length hair the same color as her badge.

Akari craned her neck to get a better look at the chalkboard behind the counter. Those codes each corresponded to a specific bounty on the board. In this case, four wolves and a basilisk, all from the B tier.

"Don't forget," the woman said, "it's open season on raptors right now. We'll take every core you bring in." Then she gestured back to the board. "There's even a bonus for taking down a full pack."

The man only grunted his acknowledgment, and she began subtracting numbers from the bounty list

It was smart of Kalden to hold back. Not only did this let him see how the checkout process worked, but the other hunter wouldn't hear him order the most expensive stuff on the menu.

"Which ones were you getting, anyway?" She leaned over to see the booklets in Kalden's hand. As expected, he'd grabbed the drake, along with a black panther, and some giant insect called a zylusk.

"Any objections?" Kalden asked.

Akari shook her head, but her chest tightened at the thought of facing those creatures in battle. Of course, she wanted to get stronger, and every fight would help with that. Still, she had almost died that day in the tunnels, and memories of claws and mandibles bubbled up to the surface of her mind.

Another part of her was even more eager to see Relia in action. The girl still hadn't explained her aspect, but it must be good if she could fight A-tier bounties on her own.

Metal clinked against wood as the Guild employee placed a stack of tokens on the counter. Kalden had explained this part to her on the train ride up here. It was illegal to carry a mana beast's core in White Vale without also having these tokens.

"So what if someone stumbles on a dead one in the forest?" Akari had asked. "Or if they kill one in self-defense? Do they just hide the core until they have the tokens?"

"I'm not sure," Kalden said. "Probably something like that."

"Sounds like a stupid system to me."

He shrugged. "That's bureaucracy for you."

Akari's focus snapped back to the present moment as the older hunter left the shop.

Kalden stepped forward, setting down his license on the counter along with the small stack of booklets. "We'll take these," he said. "Plus an A4, A5, and an A6."

"Sure thing, hun." The lady swiped up Kalden's license before turning around.

Kalden seemed to stiffen at the name, and Akari couldn't help but snicker.

As she worked, the Guild employee gave Kalden the same reminder about the raptors. After some consideration, Akari ran back and grabbed the raptor booklet from the shelf, adding it to the pile. You could never know too much about your enemies, after all.

Kalden must have agreed because he gave the cover an approving nod.

The lady returned with the tokens a second later, then she rang up the booklets one at a time. "Total comes to one silver and fifty."

Talek. Guess that's one way to stop people from hoarding all the bounties.

"These expire next Azulday," the lady said as she passed Kalden his tokens and change across the counter. "Good luck out there."

 

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A note from David Musk

Thanks for reading, everyone! Especially for sticking with the story during these less eventful “in-between” chapters!

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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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