Trees parted for the drake as it emerged from the forest. Emerald green scales covered its body from head to tail, and a column of jagged spikes ran along its back. The creature had the mouth of a crocodile and the body of a raptor.
But this 'raptor' was over twenty feet tall.
Akari and the others stood in its shadow as it blocked the late afternoon sun. Talek. She'd seen drakes in movies, but movies didn't do them justice. No amount of suspenseful music or camera angles could re-create this feeling. Her legs shook as she met its yellow eyes, and her head spun with a sudden sense of vertigo.
The ground shook as the drake took another step toward them. Fire sparked between its front claws, and the creature released a flaming Missile.
Talek. That thing was wider than a boulder.
Akari froze in place. This time, it had nothing to do with her lack of combat experience. She wanted to run, but Relia had kept them alive so far.
Now, the other girl spread her legs in a wide stance, hands loose at her sides.
"Relia?" Kalden's voice shook as the unspoken question hung between them.
Well, at least Akari wasn't the only one with doubts.
The Missile reached them a heartbeat later, and Relia thrust her right arm forward. Pale blue mana flowed out from her palm, forming a protective shield in front of them. The Missile struck her Construct in a flash of bright light. The sound that followed was like a clap of thunder.
Akari shielded her eyes as she took an involuntary step back. When she opened them again, the drake's Missile was gone, and so was the shield.
"How?" Akari blurted out. "How do you do that?"
"Oh, that's right." Relia gave a small chuckle. "You guys haven't seen the Construct video yet, have you? Well, I'm not my master, but I guess now's a good time for a crash course."
The drake took Relia's defense in stride, conjuring another flaming Missile between its claws.
"Rule number one," Relia spoke in a casual tone, like a teacher in front of a blackboard. "When you're blocking a Missile, the applied energy should equal your opponent's. Too little, and you won't stop the attack. Too much, and you're pouring mana down the drain."
To demonstrate her point, Relia raised another shield as the drake's Missile closed in. The Construct didn't budge when the two collided.
"And here's a slightly weaker Construct," Relia said as the next Missile shot forward. "Might wanna take a few steps back."
Akari and Kalden followed her advice, needing no more encouragement.
Relia's first few shields had taken shape in front of her palm, but this next one formed five or six feet away. When the drake's Missile struck the surface, the entire Construct flew toward them like a tidal wave pushing back a bus. Relia ground her boots into the snow as she struggled to hold it at bay.
Slightly weaker. Right.
In other words, Akari had no chance of blocking a Missile that strong, no matter how much mana she used.
Not yet, anyway.
Relia let out a sigh of relief. "And that's why we don't do that."
The ground shook again as the drake stepped closer, firing more Missiles.
"Rule number two." Relia still didn't sound winded. "The more time you spend forming the Construct, the longer it will last.
Two more Missiles closed in, and Relia's shield flashed and faded like a strobe light. "These are what you want in most fights. Not only are they adaptable, but they're way more mana efficient. But sometimes, a quick flash won't cut it..."
As if dancing to Relia's tune, the drake charged up the hill.
Relia spread out her hands in a pose Akari didn't recognize. Mana poured out from her palms in two streams of pale blue light. At first, these came out narrow like Missiles, then they flared out at the ends, turning to vapor in the air.
Slowly, that vapor crystallized around them, forming a transparent dome.
The drake slammed into the dome a second later. First with its mouth, then with its front claws. Still, Relia's Construct held over the next few seconds, and she continued to recharge it with her outstretched palms. She must have poured more mana into that single Construct than Akari held in her entire soul.
"Now what's the plan for taking this down?" Kalden asked as the drake shoved its entire body into the shield.
Relia's expression went suddenly solemn, and her Construct lifted several inches off the ground. "Remember what I said about life mana? About how it's more versatile than other healing types? Here's why."
Even as she held the Construct with her right hand, a stream of green-gold light emerged from her left, drifting toward the ground like falling ribbons. Relia lowered her center of gravity, directing the Missiles beneath the dome, then up toward the drake's face.
"Fire Artists don't just make fire," Relia began. "They're the best at opposing it. It's the same with other mana types."
Her techniques settled around the creature's neck, then its entire body collapsed like a massive ragdoll. A wave of snow splattered against the shield, but there was no blood or broken bones. It didn't even cry out in pain as it died.
"Talek," Akari muttered. "What did you do to it?"
"I'm no expert," Kalden said, "but I think she broke its spinal cord."
"What he said." Relia pointed a finger toward him. "It's the quickest way to kill most animals."
Including people, Akari thought. She was all for killing mana beasts quickly, especially if it spared them the pain. But she shuddered to imagine what else Relia could do. Could she make someone drop dead of a heart attack? What about a stroke, or cancer?
The shield faded around them, and they stared in silence at the drake's massive body. Even laying dead in the snow, it was still taller than Akari.
"Is this aspect legal where you're from?" Kalden asked.
Relia winced at that. In all the time they'd spent together, this was the first time she looked even remotely uncomfortable. "It's not illegal to use life mana. But it's also not the most popular aspect. Schools don't teach it, so you need a private teacher."
Huh. Did that mean the Grandmaster was a Life Artist too? Then again, Relia might have had multiple teachers over the years. She'd also mentioned a Knowledge Artist in their group, so he clearly had other students with different aspects.
Relia's eyes darted back and forth between them. "Before you ask, I've never killed another person. Not even here on Arkala."
That was true. The news kept talking about how dangerous the 'fugitive' was, but no one had actually died fighting her. Just a lot of hurt feelings and broken bones.
The three of them set to work removing the cores, which took the better part of the afternoon. Raptor hide was even tougher than ordinary leather, and Akari's hands ached from sawing through it with her knife. Even Relia had a hard time with the drake's core, and her blade was made of twice-tough steel, strengthened by Metal Artist sigils.
They chatted more as they worked, mostly about Constructs and how she and Kalden could take the first steps toward creating them. Apparently, you needed well over a hundred mana to make one with any real combat utility. That meant that Kalden could start any time, but Akari would need to wait until mid-Silver at the very least.
"But you're off to a good start," Relia told her. "For now, keep working on your shaping exercises. Constructs are all about moving mana outside your body. The better you can do that, the better off you'll be."
The sun had already set by the time they made it back to White Vale. Fortunately, the core processing plant didn't close until midnight, and she and Kalden dropped off their findings for the day—one drake core, and thirteen raptor cores.
Relia had tried to give a zylusk core too, but Kalden wasn't fond of that idea.
"You tried selling these to other hunters?" he'd asked when they reached her hiding place.
"That's right," Relia replied.
"And what if they told their friends? What if word got out that a strange girl is selling A-tier mana beast cores in the Contested Area?"
"I already thought of that," she said, "but I wore a disguise that day. They won't have enough to track me down."
"Still, I'd bet the Martials are watching zylusk cores, waiting to see who sells them. And you can't get much more suspicious than a couple of inexperienced high school students."
Akari gave a slow nod. She wouldn't have thought of that, but it made sense. Kalden had his cover story with the mercenaries. He'd even paid a small group to give his mother a paper trail to follow. But that story wouldn't hold up to a Martial interrogation.
"Okay." Relia deflated and tossed the core back on the ground. "Point taken, I guess."
By the time they'd processed all the cores, their total came to seven goldnotes. Or seventy silvernotes, depending on how you looked at it. Most of that money would go to Relia, but Akari would get three silvernotes for the raptor she'd killed. That would easily buy her enough liquid mana to reach Silver before her sixteenth birthday. Between that and the videos Relia promised them, things were finally looking up.
Unfortunately, the processing station could only exchange one set of bounty tokens for another. They'd need to visit the office to cash them out, and they'd closed at five o'clock.
That meant she and Kalden would need to spend the night in White Vale.
"Bad news," Kalden said as he stepped across the lobby. "All the apartments were booked." In hindsight, he should have reserved a room before they left. They'd packed spare clothes just in case, but they hadn't known how long they'd be here.
Akari frowned at the keycard in his hand. "What's that mean? Is that different from a hotel room or something?"
He nodded. "Depends on the place, but apartments normally have multiple bedrooms, plus a living room, kitchen...." He trailed off, holding up the plastic card. "This only has one room. It has two beds, but..."
"What's wrong? Akari rolled her eyes. "Doesn't live up to Gold standards? Can't sleep without fountains and waterfalls?"
Kalden furrowed his brow. "No. I'm just saying—we'd have to share a room."
"So?" Akari crossed her arms, clearly eager to get moving. "We're staying here one night. Not like we're hunkering down for the winter."
"It doesn't bother you at all?" Kalden asked as he led the way toward the elevator. "You were timid as a squirrel when we first met."
"Yeah, well, I don't trust Golds. Still don't trust most of them. Besides, I lived in a couple shitty foster homes when I was younger—way worse than where I live now. Think I got any privacy there?"
They stood side by side in the elevator as the steel doors snapped shut. Glass walls surrounded them on three sides, giving them a clear view of the snow-covered parking lot. As the elevator car lifted, that view expanded to include all of White Vale.
"Why?" Akari asked as they climbed the first few floors. "Does it bother you?"
Kalden coughed as he considered his next reply. He'd never actually slept in the same room with a girl his age. Not even Maelyn. She'd slept over, sure—so had Emberlyn. But his family had more than enough guest rooms.
Apparently, Akari took his pause as a confirmation because she let out a small laugh. "You're such a girl."
"That's sexist," Kalden protested as he met her gaze in the reflective glass.
She raised her eyebrows as if to say he'd proven her point.
"And no," Kalden said, "it doesn't bother me. But it's different for Golds. Our lives are more public, so we have all these standards for propriety."
"That's because you all backstab each other."
Well, she wasn't wrong about that.
"Don't worry," Akari said, "if anyone asks, I'll tell them your virtue is intact."
"Perfect," Kalden said. "And if they pry farther, we'll say you tried to seduce me, but I nobly resisted."
She rolled her eyes at the last comment, but her cheeks colored as she turned away. Well, served her right for picking on him.
The room was about what he'd expected. The sink and mirror sat in the entryway across from the bathroom which contained only a toilet and shower. Two queen-sized beds sat in the larger room beyond, along with a TV, and a slider door that led out to a balcony.
They each threw their backpacks on the beds, and Kalden opened the room service booklet on the nightstand. The restaurants were still open downstairs, but they'd both agreed this was better. Not only had it been a long day, but there was no reason for unnecessary public appearances. He didn't expect someone to recognize him here, but you could never be too careful.
"I'm gonna take a shower," Akari said as she pulled a handful of fresh clothes from her backpack.
"Wait." Kalden gestured to the menu. "Do you know what you want?"
She shrugged a shoulder. "Whatever you're having."
"Really? How do you know I'm not getting chocolate?"
Akari gave him a flat look. "Chocolate for dinner?"
"Alright." He chuckled. "As long as you don't have more allergies I don't know about."
She shook her head as she headed into the bathroom. "Just the one."
Kalden ordered the room service, and Akari emerged from the bathroom ten minutes later wearing a black tank-top and sleep shorts. Kalden watched as she leaned in front of the mirror and brushed the tangles from her wet hair. She was actually kind of cute when she wasn't glaring or snapping at people.
On second thought, she was still cute when she was glaring at people.
Kalden's heart threw itself against his ribcage, and he averted his gaze. Funny how it did that sometimes. He wasn't into Akari as more than a friend, but sometimes his body disagreed with that decision. The same thing had happened with Emberlyn when they were younger.
Someone knocked on the door, causing Akari to jump and drop her hairbrush in the sink.
"Must be the room service," Kalden said as he hopped off the bed.
But when he opened the door, he didn't see a hotel staff member he'd expected.
Instead, he stood face-to-face with Emberlyn's father, Zedall Frostblade.