Once they'd finished their business in the Guild Hall, Akari and Kalden stepped back out into the cold. The wind blew strands of hair across her face, and her teeth chattered with every step. She zipped up her hoodie as high as she could, then shoved her hands into her pockets, curling them into fists.
Once again, Kalden didn't seem half as bothered by the weather. His jacket probably had some built-in heating Construct, or some other bullshit like that.
They passed a few shorter buildings as they walked. There was an infirmary to their left, a core processing plant to their right, then a military barracks beyond that. Basically, places you'd expect to find with so many mana beasts around.
The mana wall loomed above everything else, separating civilization from the Contested Area beyond.
Talek. She'd seen mana walls before, but she'd never been this close to one. The wall itself stood over a hundred feet high, and it stretched on for hundreds of miles in both directions. Like all pure mana, the surface emitted a pale blue light, rippling like water on a windy day. The sight drew her in, demanding to be seen. It was the same way she might get lost staring at storm clouds or stars in the night sky.
Kalden stopped walking ahead of her, and she almost slammed straight into his backpack.
"Sorry," Akari muttered as she staggered to the side. Up ahead, a dozen more hunters waited in line.
Her teeth chattered again, and Kalden shot her an amused look.
"Shut up," she said.
He raised his hands in mock surrender. "Didn't say a word."
"You were thinking it."
"Here." Kalden unwrapped the brown scarf from around his neck and held it out.
"I don't want your scarf," Akari said.
He shrugged, not retracting his hand. "I'm getting warm, and I'm sick of carrying it."
"Sucks to be you."
"Sucks to be you," he countered. "I bought you lunch, so carrying it for me is the least you can do."
Akari rolled her eyes and accepted the scarf, wrapping it around her own neck in the same way he'd done. She couldn't pull it up too high without fogging her glasses, but her cheeks immediately felt warmer. It also had a faint cedar leaf scent which she didn't actually mind.
Up ahead, a dozen soldiers worked to open the shield segment. Whether they were state military or Guild members, Akari couldn't say. A few more minutes passed, then they followed the others through the newly created opening.
How often did Relia come through here? If she was sleeping outside the wall, then it wouldn't take long for someone to notice. Then again, maybe she hid her face? That might make her look more suspicious, but—
"Hey," a voice snapped. "Lower your scarf."
Akari glanced up to see a bald man in green camouflage. He gestured to the nearby camera.
So much for that idea, Akari thought as she lowered the material below her chin. Was this always a rule, or did it just start when the 'fugitive' showed up?
They passed through the wall without incident after that. No one even asked to see Kalden's license. A snow-covered field stretched out in front of them for about a quarter-mile, and she and Kalden followed a trail toward the forest's edge.
There, beneath the cover of the trees, a thin, red-haired figure waited for them.
"Hey!" Relia gave a cheerful wave as they approached. "How'd it go inside?"
Kalden held up the booklets and passed them her way. "You sure you can handle these things?"
"No problem," she said as she leafed through the glossy pages. "I've already taken down a few zylusks that tried to get cozy in my cave. Selling the cores was the real headache. Didn't realize how strict things were at first."
"Speaking of cores," Kalden said, "you know it's open season on raptors, right?"
"Seriously?" Relia's eyes snapped up, and she seemed offended by the news. "Since when?"
He shrugged. "That's what the lady at the bounty office said."
"Azul above. That would have made things so much easier."
"How so?" Kalden asked.
"I've tried selling zylusk cores out here before, but everyone thinks I'm trying to scam them. I've had better luck with raptors, but no one told me why. This makes sense though."
"Everyone hates raptors?" Akari guessed.
"Raptors threaten the wall itself," Relia said with a nod. "They're smart enough to attack the weak points from range. Drakes are obviously way stronger, but they only attack stuff they can eat. Raptors like the challenge."
Or they just like to piss people off, Akari thought, remembering her biology lessons. Despite being carnivores, raptors didn't always eat the humans they killed. That made her feel less bad about putting them down.
"But this is good news." Relia clapped her hands together in a sudden show of enthusiasm. "These guys love to ambush hunters. That means we'll probably run into a pack or two along the way."
"Sure," Kalden said with obvious reluctance. "Good news."
Relia glanced back down at the booklets, nodding to herself as she read. "Okay, I say we start with the drake. Their territory's not far, and we can stop by my cave on the way back."
Apparently, 'not far' still meant three or four miles of walking. If not for all that time she'd spent training these past two months, Akari would have been doubled over and gasping for breath by now.
Still, she'd hardly call this a leisurely stroll. Hiking through snow used different muscles than walking on pavement, and her calves protested with every step. She tried cycling her mana, but the exertion offset any physical benefits it might've given her. It would be that way until after the Foundation realm, according to the Grandmaster.
That might explain why Relia always had a spring in her step. If Akari had supernatural strength, then she'd be spunky too.
Up ahead, Kalden was asking if they ever had strangers show up on Espira or Cadria's western shores. She'd missed his exact words, but he was obviously fishing for news about his lost brother.
Relia didn't have much for him, though. Apparently, the outside world had billions of people, so one stranger wouldn't make international news. And despite her master's interest in the subject, he couldn't research it too publically. Professional reputations and all that.
Their conversation dwindled, and Akari seized the chance to ask her own question. She wasn't good at small talk, so she just blurted it out, "How do you advance from Bronze to Silver?"
"What do you mean?" Relia glanced back over her shoulder. "There's not much to it, really."
"Your master said nothing about advancement in his videos," Kalden clarified for her.
"There's a reason for that," she said. "Going from Foundation to Apprentice is a headache and a half, but the smaller jumps are simple. Literally, all you do is increase your mana supply and widen your channels. The rest takes care of itself."
Akari frowned. "If it's so easy, then why hasn't anyone done it before? On this island, I mean."
"Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe they have done it, but they kept it quiet? Or maybe something's blocking them? I'm the only one here beyond the Foundation realm, but I've seen plenty of Golds with their mana maxed out."
In other words, she was still flying blind until she hit the peak of Bronze. Still, a mystical barrier sounded like something the state would want her to think. Just like how they said a Bronze could never be a Mana Artist. She'd believe it when she saw it for herself.
"Could it be something else?" Kalden broke in. "Your master's methods seemed a lot different from the stuff they teach here. Maybe these lessons are stunting people's growth?"
Relia seemed to consider that, but she still didn't look convinced
"Or what if it's the badges?" Akari suggested.
"The badges are harmless," she said with a dismissive wave. "I pulled one apart, and it's just metal and mag strips. No anti-mana sigils." She glanced over at Kalden. "It's technically possible to stunt your growth with bad habits, but that would be more unpredictable. Even if everyone followed the same training program, they'd get different results."
"Bad habits?" Akari asked.
Relia nodded. "To give an extreme example, some people use elixirs to force more mana through their souls. That sacrifices long-term growth for short-term gain. You could probably brute-force yourself to Apprentice that way. Maybe even Artisan. But you'd never reach my master's level."
Artisan. Was that the level above Apprentice? Unlike the terms 'Master' and 'Grandmaster', Akari hadn't heard that one in the old stories. Probably because the naming system had changed over time.
"Good form makes a difference too," Relia added. "And bad form can make you plateau."
Akari thought of gym class, and how the teachers corrected nitpicky things about her body placement, all the way down to the angle of her fingers. Mana Arts was a hundred times more complex. And yet ... there was no one to tell her when she was messing up. Unless she counted Kalden, but he wouldn't know proper form any better than she would.
"Mind looking at our form sometime?" Akari asked.
"Sure." Relia paused, glancing at something in the distance. "In fact, I found the perfect target practice."
They all came to a halt when they reached the top of a ridge. From there, they overlooked a valley filled with snow and bare trees.
"You guys see them?" Relia asked.
Akari frowned, scanning the distant treeline. "See what?"
Relia gestured more insistently with her head. "To the right, behind that cluster of pine trees."
"Raptors," Kalden said in a low voice.
Akari continued to squint. Damnit. She really needed to update her glasses prescription.
A few more seconds passed, then she spotted dark green feathers beyond the pine needles, rising and falling in rhythmic breaths.
"They've been following us for a few minutes now," Relia said, "waiting for the perfect time to strike." She turned to Akari. "Alright, let's see that form of yours."
"What?" She couldn't help but glance around. "You want me to attack A-tier mana beasts?"
"Might as well do it while we have the high ground."
"That's not what she meant," Kalden broke in. "You said you'd take care of the fighting."
"Yeah, and you wanted me to critique your combat forms."
As they talked, a full pack of raptors emerged from their hiding spots. Apparently, they'd abandoned subtlety once they realized they'd been spotted. Dark scales covered the lower half of their bodies, and green feathers covered the top, from their snouts all the way to their long tails. The creatures blinked up at them with their pale yellow eyes.
"Tell you what," Relia said, "We'll make a game of it. If either of you takes one down, you keep all the profits. And don't worry, I'll protect you if things go badly. Which they probably will."
Akari pushed aside her fears and fell into her Missile stance, cycling her mana through her limbs. Kalden did the same beside her.
The raptors hurried forward with impressive speed. Their leader stopped a short distance from the ridge and gave a bird-like battlecry. The others raised their claws in eerie unison, forming a half-dozen spheres of red mana.
Another shriek from the leading raptor, and they launched their Missiles in a volley.