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Orange light flooded her vision as the fire mana closed in. Akari blinked up at the volley. Her instincts told her to run or take cover. But where? There was nowhere to hide on this ridge, and she couldn't get away in time.

"Hold still!" Relia stepped forward and raised both her hands skyward. Blue light shot out from her palms, flashing through the air like lightning.

The two colors collided as Relia's Missiles knocked the others off course. One of the fireballs crashed into a nearby maple, leaving a dark crater in the broken bark. Another hit the ground near her boots, melting the snow and blackening the leaves beneath.

Idiot, Akari scolded herself. She could have done that. Maybe not as well, but anything was better than standing there waiting to get hit.

No sooner had the raptors released their volley than the entire pack charged forward. They ran close to the ground, and their tails slithered back and forth like snakes.

To her left, Kalden fired his own Missile at the lead raptor. The creature snapped its head up, piercing Kalden with its reptilian eyes.

"Solid form," Relia hollered. "But you'll need more speed against these guys."

The raptor jumped at the last second, soaring a good five feet into the air. Meanwhile, Kalden's Missile landed harmlessly beneath it with a soft puff of snow.

"Shit," Akari hissed under her breath. "They can do that?"

"Be ready to adjust your Missile's path if you can." Relia's voice was still cheerful despite the circumstances.

Kalden nodded as he fired another attack, far faster than the first.

Akari turned her focus back on the pack and fell into a combat stance. This time, she didn't hesitate before lining up her shot and releasing her mana.

The raptor saw her Missile, its leg muscles tensing as it prepared to dodge left. Akari stepped right as the Missile flew, altering her center of gravity. At the same time, she moved her dominant hand in a quick circle, and the Missile spun in a corkscrew pattern. She felt the impact as it struck the creature on the side of its feathery head.

Unfortunately, her attack only served to annoy the raptor. Talek, these things were strong. Despite their lack of exoskeletons, they seemed even tougher than the arkions back in Elegan.

Kalden's next attack caught a raptor on its side. This one stumbled over a log before leaping to its feet again. Their Missiles weren't strong enough to kill from this range. You probably needed an aspect for that.

Then again, wasn't Relia just using pure mana a second ago? Did that mean she didn't have an aspect either?

Eventually, the pack reached the bottom of the ridge where they stood. The center was too steep to jump, so their group split up, attacking from either side.

"Alright." Relia cracked her knuckles. "Stand back."

Akari and Kalden each took a few steps backward, letting Relia put herself between them and the enemy. The red-headed girl stretched out her arms to either side, releasing two more torrents of blue mana.

Akari had expected her to dominate the field with a sudden display of raw power. But the other girl's Missiles were sharp and narrow like flying bullets. Every step and technique looked precise, but effortless, like a dancer moving on a field.

Relia struck a raptor's windpipe, and the creature's head snapped back. Another raptor took a Missile between the eyes, and it collapsed face-first into the snow.

Akari gaped at the display, afraid to blink and miss something. In less than a minute, the pack had gone from an unstoppable force to a helpless mess.

Two more raptors struck with their fiery Missiles—one on each side. Relia took a single, unhurried step to her left, letting the fire pass mere inches from her face.

Kalden raised his palm and fired at a raptor on Relia's left. Akari followed his lead and aimed for the one on her right.

Relia pierced the right raptor through the eye, stealing Akari's chance. Orange and blue flashed back and forth as she exchanged more blows with the left two raptors. It didn't take long until the pair got clever, finding cover behind some thicker trees.

Then a second pack of raptors appeared on Akari's side of the ridge.

This time, instead of attacking with her own mana, Akari unzipped her backpack and pulled out the Missile rod. Relia had said they could keep any raptor cores they killed themselves. She didn't say anything about how they killed them.

The weapon vibrated in her hand as she pulled the trigger, releasing several fire Missiles at the approaching pack.

No one dodged this time. Instead, the closest raptor raised its claw, forming a transparent Construct between them. Akari's Missile broke against the shield like water on a rock.

Damnit. Fire Artists could repel fire.

Kalden and Relia shifted their attacks on the new group. For a second, Akari could've sworn Relia's Missiles were gold rather than blue, but she might have imagined it.

Most of the pack focused on Relia, but the closest one broke off and hurled a fire Missile toward Akari.

Akari pulled the trigger on her rod, and fire met fire in midair. An explosion followed, and heat stung her face as she staggered back.

Her opponent charged through the haze of orange mana, swiping at her with claws and teeth.

Akari pulled a lever on the left side of her rod, releasing the spring-powered bayonet at the weapon's tip. Then she swung, meeting the raptor's claws with the rod's steel shaft. Her swing hit the creature's face, forcing it to bite down on the weapon. Its claw scraped against her hand, and she drove a kick into its exposed belly.

The raptor staggered back, narrowing its yellow eyes into a promise of pain.

Akari aimed the Missile rod in her left hand, then formed a pure Missile in her right. She fired both attacks at once.

Like most animals, the raptor moved entirely on instinct. It blocked the fire mana with another wave of its claw, but Akari altered her own Missile's course and struck the creature on its right cheek.

She hurled another Missile before it recovered. This time, the raptor leapt into the air, launching a technique from above.

The blow took Akari straight in the chest. She flew back into the nearest tree, and the impact forced the air from her lungs. The raptor landed a few paces ahead with a crunch of snow beneath its fanged feet. Before it could finish her off, a wall of solid mana appeared between them. The raptor slammed into the Construct like a bird against a car window.

Relia. She'd been watching Akari even as she dealt with the rest of the pack.

Akari checked herself for wounds, but the Missile hadn't broken through her hoodie's defenses. At least that's paying for itself. She cycled more mana into the fabric, recharging the micro-Constructs.

The shield between them faded, and Relia looked ready to finish the raptor with another Missile.

"He's mine," Akari said as she fell back into her combat stance.

Her opponent prepared another blast of fire between its front claws. Akari cycled her own mana as she charged forward to meet it.

The raptor hurled its technique forward, but Akari knocked it aside with her own Missile, the same way Relia had with the volley.

Her opponent swiped a claw toward her face. Akari raised her forearm to block, trusting her hoodie to absorb the damage once again. She threw another Missile at its legs, knocking it off balance. Even after the impact, she forced the mana to hold its shape rather than turning to vapor. It wasn't easy, but she'd gotten plenty of practice hitting trees in Phoenix Park.

Akari spread out her arms, pulling the same Missile toward her and hitting the raptor several more times before it hit the ground with a bird-like shriek.

Finally, she grabbed the fallen Missile rod and plunged the blade through its eye.

She sat there on her knees for several long heartbeats, breathing hard. Sweat coated her forehead despite the winter air, and her hands shook as they clutched the rod.

Relia and Kalden stepped forward, and Akari grinned down at her fallen opponent. "That counts," she said.

"You got him!" Relia agreed.

"Akari," Kalden said, pointing downward. "Your hand..."

As soon as he said the words, she felt something warm and sticky on her weapon's handle. She flipped over her hand and saw a thin red line that ran all the way from her thumb to her pinky.

Shit. That's not good. Akari rolled up her hoodie's sleeve to keep the fabric from getting stained. The adrenaline of the fight wore off, and a wave of pain struck her like a hot stove.

"Hang on." Kalden unshouldered his backpack and unzipped the top. "I've got bandages."

"No worries," Relia said, "I've got this." The other girl raised her arm and a sphere of glowing mana formed in her palm. Akari couldn't tell if it was green or gold. Maybe both?

The Missile left Relia's hand, drifting slowly between them like a leaf on the wind. Another wave of pain shot through her arm as the mana touched the wound. Akari gritted her teeth, fighting the urge to flinch. But when she opened her hand again, the skin was sealing itself back up.

"You're a Healing Artist?" Akari blurted out. No. That couldn't be right. Noella and Maelyn each needed physical contact to heal someone. Relia had done it from three feet away. Then again, she was two ranks higher than them. Maybe that made a difference?

"Life Artist," the other girl corrected. "It's like restoration, but way more versatile. You'll see what I mean later."

"Didn't you just use pure mana against those raptors?" Kalden asked as he returned the bandages to his backpack. After that, he climbed to his feet and took a few steps toward Akari, glancing down at her freshly healed hand.

She held it out for him to see, using her other hand to unscrew the top of her water bottle. Killing dragons was thirsty work, after all. Even little ones like these.

"Sure," Relia said. "I have pure mana too. You saw my master's video on aspects, right?"

"Yeah." Akari took a long drink before continuing, "He said you only get one aspect."

"Pure mana doesn't count though. If you wait long enough, you can aspect half your mana and leave the other half pure."

"What?" Kalden sounded as surprised as she felt. "I've never heard of that."

"Me neither," Akari said. "Must have slipped your master's mind in the video."

"Maybe I'm thinking of a different video." She brought her index finger to her chin, considering. "It's not a popular route, especially among the casual crowd. It makes you more balanced in the long term, but you miss out on the fun stuff early on."

Balance made sense for a healer. Kalden's friend, Maelyn, had no Constructs or offensive techniques to speak of. Meanwhile, Relia could do everything she and Kalden did plus more.

She'd also seen the Grandmaster use pure mana in the first few videos, so he'd probably aspected half of his mana too. Just one more reason to wait rather than rushing into an aspect.

"Anyway," Akari said. "How was our form? You never said."

"Yeah." Relia rubbed her chin again. "About that—I thought you guys just started a few months ago?"

Kalden nodded. "We started learning in Hexember. Around the same time you showed up."

"But that doesn't make any sense," Relia said.

Akari perked up at that. "You're saying we're good?"

"More like confusing. Seriously, no one's that good in two months."

"You might be underestimating how much we train," Kalden said. "I've put in several hours per day since we started. And Akari's probably done twice that."

"Would have trained even more if I hadn't run out of liquid mana," Akari said.

"And this wasn't easy," Kalden added. "It took us weeks before we even formed our first Missiles. That fits with what your master—"

"You don't get it," Relia interrupted. "I saw you switching your mana's direction in midair."

"You told us to do that," Kalden noted.

"But I didn't think you'd pull it off! I remember being a beginner, and no one in my class could do that for a year." She rounded on Akari. "And you—your mana held its shape even after you hit that raptor. That's even more advanced."

"I practiced that for weeks," Akari said.

"A few weeks is nothing..." Relia trailed off, then began again, "Do either of you play an instrument?"

Akari shook her head. That sort of thing cost time and money she didn't have.

"I play the violin," Kalden said. "Plus I took a few years of piano lessons, and one year of drums."

Talek. Of course he did.

"Okay," Relia said, "A few years of piano. How well could you play Nohira's Fourth Symphony right now?"

"Not well," Kalden admitted. "I'd need at least a few months to brush up on my skills."

"And that's my point," Relia said. "Even for a semi-experienced piano player, that sort of thing takes a long time. You don't just sit down and do it after a few weeks of dabbling. No one can move mana that well in just a few months."

Akari stood a little straighter. "You saying that we played the Mana Arts equivalent of what's-his-name's Symphony?"

Relia held out a level hand, tilting it from side to side. "I mean, these aren't Master-level skills or anything. I've seen eight-year-olds who can do them, but they start learning when they're three."

"Oh." Her shoulders slumped again.

"Does everyone learn that early?" Kalden asked. "Where you're from, I mean."

Good point. Maybe people learned faster if they started later in life?

"I started early," Relia said. "Otherwise, no. People start at all ages. It all depends on their family, what they want, and what they can afford. But for high school students at your level, I'd expect you to have a few years of experience. And a good teacher."

Weird. Maelyn had also mentioned their skill level too, but Akari had assumed it was the Grandmaster's videos that made them better.

Kalden gave a helpless shrug. "I don't know what else to say. We didn't even know where to start until we found those videos."

"I believe you," Relia said, but her green eyes were distant.

Akari's frown only deepened at that. If she and Kalden were really so good, then why did Relia believe them? Wouldn't it be more logical to assume they were lying? There was something off about Relia's expression too—like she wanted to tell them something, but couldn't bring herself to do it.

Relia turned to face them again. "Do you ever dream about Mana Arts?"

Akari hesitated. She had, of course, but saying it out loud felt like admitting some deep dark secret. Not just that, but her dreams had been the source of her online screen name, Space&Time—a name that Relia had known before they'd even met.

Before they could say anything else, something shook the ground beneath their boots. Akari felt the vibrations in her chest as well as her ears.

The other two turned their gaze north to where the raptors had first appeared. This time, the pine trees shifted aside as if to make room for something.

Something big.

"Hold that thought," Relia said. "Looks like the drake is here."

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A note from David Musk

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Thanks for reading, everyone! FTR, I'll be moving into a new house this weekend so I might not be able to respond to as many comments. (But at least I managed to finish this chapter first!)


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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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