Akari admired her watch the next morning as she got dressed.
44/44, the screen read.
That was three points higher than yesterday morning, and she'd gained it all in the Contested Area. It would have taken at least a week to earn that much over Midwinter break, even with all those hours of constant training.
Everyone said ambient mana was richer beyond the wall, but Akari hadn't realized what a difference that would make in her growth. It made sense, though. Humans and mana beasts had evolved together over the years. Civilization brought barriers, and barriers brought consequences.
Then again, risking your life came with its own share of problems. You could simulate hardship through training, but that didn't compare to a proper battle. Unlike training muscles, your soul knew the difference. It knew when you were safe, and when your life was on the line.
Apparently, even scientists on the outside hadn't fully explained that one yet.
Just six more points until Silver, Akari thought as she zipped up her hoodie. And with her sixteenth birthday a month away, that goal didn't seem so crazy anymore. With regular training and another bottle of liquid mana, she should reach it with time to spare.
The whole 'barrier' thing still weighed her down like an overstuffed backpack, but there was no sense in worrying about that now. Relia had called the transition to Silver effortless on most days, and she seemed to blame their surroundings. Maybe she was right, and Akari really was the first Bronze to try it in decades? That still didn't explain all the Silvers and Golds who got stuck, but Akari would eat her Missile rod if the schools weren't somehow to blame.
Her daydreaming ended a few minutes later when she and Kalden rode the elevator back to the ground level. After a quick breakfast at the Guild's dining hall, they headed over to the bounty shop to cash in their tokens. Frostblade and the others would have already seen yesterday's core records, so no sense in sailing around the storm here.
With that done, Kalden led them over to the next shop where he spent five silvernotes on a portable sound suppression Construct. It looked almost identical to Relia's.
"I should have bought one of these before the trip," Kalden muttered as they walked back toward the hotel lobby. "I wasn't thinking."
"Would have made things a lot easier," Akari agreed. He'd still been paranoid after his chat with Frostblade, and they'd resorted to whispering and code talk all night. That sounded cool in theory, but it got old fast.
Maybe now, they could finally make a real plan.
They'd already checked out of their hotel room, so they stepped into the eastern stairwell instead. This place didn't get much traffic judging by the concrete stairs and dim lighting.
Kalden sat the Construct down on the floor, pressing the top button to activate it. Almost immediately, the hum of the hotel faded away, replaced with the sound of their own breathing.
"We can't go through with this meeting," Kalden said as he turned to face her. "Not with the Martials watching."
Akari frowned. "I thought your talk with Frostblade went fine?"
"That's what I thought," Kalden clarified. "But interrogations aren't graded. For all I know, Frostblade decided I was guilty, and now he's waiting to see what we do next."
"The Martials can't follow us outside the wall," Akari said. "We'd notice if they tried."
"No," Kalden said. "We wouldn't. A skilled Shadow Artist can move through the forest without being seen. Someone could have followed us yesterday for all we know."
Well, there was some nightmare fuel. Akari's eyes darted around the stairwell, half-expecting someone to jump out at any second. She'd never heard of Shadow Artists outside movies. Then again, advertising them to the public would probably defeat the point.
"If I had to guess," Kalden continued, "that's how they figured out what Relia looks like—someone spied on her after a fight. It wouldn't be the first time she underestimated them."
"All the more reason to warn her," Akari said.
"Unless warning her does more harm than good. What if the Martials follow us to the meeting?"
"Why bother with that if they already knew what she looked like?"
"I've been thinking about that," Kalden said. "Frostblade could've been bluffing last night—throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks. Just because they saw someone on camera doesn't mean it's the fugitive."
Akari groaned. "You seriously think that?"
"No," Kalden admitted after a short pause. "Relia's a prime suspect at the very least. But I don't think Frostblade would share his plan with me for no reason. He's moving us like pawns on a Crowns board."
"Do you have a better idea?" Akari said. "Let me guess, you want to take the money and run."
He ran a hand through his hair. "Given the circumstances, it's probably the safest thing."
"And what about Relia?"
"She can handle herself," Kalden replied.
"Not if the Martials use that toxic gas again. She's powerful, but she's not unstoppable. Besides, don't we owe her for helping us?"
"Technically," Kalden said, "We only agreed to one thing—the videos for the bounty money. She hasn't given us the videos, so we owe her nothing."
Talek. One minute, Kalden was all smiles, then this cold, ruthless Gold took over. She didn't completely disagree, but she'd hate to be on his bad side.
"Look..." Kalden's face softened. "You can keep the money. All of it."
"You think I give a shit about money?" Akari snapped back.
"I thought your goal was to survive after you turn sixteen. Those goldnotes can help."
If he thought this was all about survival, he didn't understand her at all. Every stray dog fought to live until the next day, but hoarding food just made you a bigger target. Her experience in Tidegate had etched that lesson in stone.
"It won't matter long-term," Akari finally said.
"Neither will getting caught by the Martials," Kalden retorted.
"We could go early," Akari suggested. "What time is it now?"
Kalden checked the black and gold watch on his wrist. Unlike hers, it actually told the time. "Almost nine-thirty."
She nodded. "If we leave now, that's a full hour before the meeting. We can bury the money for Relia, along with a note that explains why. If she can't find it on her own, we message her on the dark web. Then she can send us the videos, and everyone wins."
Kalden actually seemed to consider that. "It's still a huge risk. We have no idea what the Martials know, or how close they're watching."
"I don't like it either," Akari said. "But if Frostblade knows more than he said, then we're screwed anyway."
Light flooded the stairwell as the door opened behind her. Akari's heart leapt as she spun around, prepared to see another Martial in a dark suit.
Instead, a red-haired figure stepped forward, passing the barrier of their sound Construct.
"Morning," Relia said, cheerful as ever.
"What are you doing here?" Kalden snapped. "We said we'd meet at ten-thirty.
She cocked her head to the side. "You didn't hear?"
"Didn't hear what?"
"They aren't letting people outside the city today—something about maintenance on the wall. I had to come to you instead."
"Shit," Akari muttered. "That was their plan all along."
Relia frowned. "Someone wanna tell me what's going on?"
Kalden pulled out the envelope of money and shoved it into her open hands. "You need to leave. Now. The Martials know what you look like."
"You talked to them?"
Kalden gave Relia the bones of last night's events, explaining how Frostblade had shown up in their room and hinted at a plan to capture her. The words all poured out in a rush, but she didn't blame him for hurrying. The Martials might show up at any second, and the three of them couldn't look more suspicious if they tried.
Akari cleared her throat before Relia could leave. "You brought the videos, right?"
"Huh?" Relia blinked in her direction, then seemed to remember. "Oh yeah. They're all here." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a black and white USB drive, about the size of her thumb.
Akari pocketed the drive, and Relia turned back to Kalden. "I'll have to fight the Martials anyway when I break out my master."
"So that's your plan," Kalden said. "To take on the entire organization by yourself."
"I could do it alone." Relia paused for several seconds as if mustering her courage, "but I'd much rather do it with your help."
And just like that, the pieces clicked together. This was why Relia had shown them that pile of evidence about the outside world. This was why she'd shown off her skills, and why she'd started training them in Mana Arts.
These last twenty-four hours were one giant sales pitch designed to recruit them.
"I can take a dozen Martials in a fight," Relia said, "but it takes more than one person to stage a prison break. Moreno already started hacking the Martials' files before he died. He downloaded the prison's schematics and guard schedules, and that was just the start."
Akari perked up at that. Another hacker? She'd known Relia's partner was tech-savvy, but no one told her he was that good. Her thoughts raced as she imagined how much damage an experienced hacker could do here, especially with his own computer and years more experience.
"Akari could pick up where he left off," Relia continued quickly. "I still have his computer and all his files." She held up the envelope of goldnotes. "We can take this money and buy better weapons, armor, mana potions—whatever we need."
Kalden crossed his arms. "Remind us again what happened to Moreno."
That took all the wind out of Relia's sails. She slumped her shoulders, lowering her voice to just above a whisper. "He wasn't even an Apprentice yet ... we never meant for him to fight."
"And you couldn't heal him?" he pressed.
Relia shook her head, gazing down at her boots. "The Missile went straight through his skull. I can heal a lot of wounds, but..."
Kalden let out a long breath. "I get why you're set on saving your master. But we barely even know you. You're asking us to drop everything—our entire lives—for this. You're asking us to fight the most dangerous organization in the Archipelago."
"I know what I'm asking," Relia said. "But if you help my master, he'll set you up for life." She turned to meet Akari's eyes. "He can get you into the world's top university. You'd be treated fairly there, and you could be more powerful than any Mana Artist you've ever heard of."
Her gaze shifted back to Kalden. "And once we leave the island, we can help you find your lost brother."
"None of that matters if the Martials kill us first," Kalden said.
"I can keep you safe."
Kalden raised his eyebrows, letting the obvious question go unspoken.
"I would handle all the fighting," Relia said. "I promise. It wouldn't be like before."
"I'm sure you mean well," he said, "but you can't guarantee that."
Relia bit her lip and looked away. "Guess that's a no?"
Kalden hesitated, shooting Akari a look. "I'll understand if you want to do this, but I have to draw the line somewhere. This is it for me."
"So?" Relia turned to face Akari next. "You've been quiet this whole time."
Despite the thoughts swirling through her head, Akari didn't answer right away. She wanted to help Relia. These past few days had been everything she'd ever wanted out of life. Training ... using Mana Arts to earn money, and reinvesting that money into her own growth. She could have stayed in White Vale forever, and Relia had promised her far more than just hunting.
But of course, this world was just a dream, and that dream had ended the moment Frostblade showed up at their hotel room. One look from him, and she felt more like a child than a Mana Artist.
"Kalden has a point," Akari said. "This is way out of our league."
"You said you wanted to get stronger," Relia said. "This is what it looks like. You have to take risks if you want to advance."
"How much mana does your master have?" Akari asked.
Relia blinked at the sudden change of topic. "I don't know. Fifty-thousand, at least."
Talek. He wasn't just 'stronger' than Relia. He was more than twenty times stronger. And the Martials had been ready for that. Not only had they captured him in Keylas, but they'd held him for several months.
"The Martials only had the one trick," Relia explained. "I broke through once I realized that. I can do the same with their prison."
"One trick that you know of," Kalden corrected. "And that just proves how resourceful they are. Why don't you go for help instead?"
"People won't believe me," Relia said. "Ships go missing in the Inner Sea all the time. Maybe his wife could get another crew together, but that would take months." She shook her head. "No. I'm not leaving without him."
"Is that what he'd want?" Kalden said. "For you to die trying to rescue him? I don't know the guy, but most teachers would rather see their students live."
"Maybe I am being reckless," Relia admitted. "But someone has to be. This whole place is a prison for Azul's sake. Not only are you too scared to leave, but you're denying it even exists."
When Kalden didn't reply, the other girl turned back to Akari. "I've seen the way Bronze are treated here. The others aren't allowed to learn Mana Arts, but that hasn't stopped you. You've gotten this far because you're willing to break the rules. If you want to get past Silver, you'll need to think beyond this place."
Akari's heart raced as she imagined getting on a boat and leaving this island forever. But her mouth didn't move to accept Relia's offer. Whenever she tried to speak, images of that night flashed in her mind's eye.
Fighting the Martials wouldn't be like fighting mana beasts. They'd have to be on guard every second of every day. And Akari's life was nothing to her enemies. One stray Missile, and her story ended forever. She'd seen it happen before
"Sorry," she finally said. "I hope you find your master."
Relia sighed as she turned to leave. Her footsteps faded as she passed the sound Construct's boundaries, then she opened the door and passed back into the lobby.
Akari and Kalden climbed the stairs a few before taking the elevator back down to the lobby. From there, they walked across the parking lot in silence.
Even now, Akari couldn't say whether or not she'd made the right choice.
You've made it this far, she thought as she squeezed the thumb drive in her pocket. She and Kalden could keep training together. They could learn Mana Arts the right way, without fighting impossible odds and opposing the state itself. It wouldn't be easy, but she'd take that over a suicide mission.
They were halfway to the train station when a pair of black and gold helicopters soared down from the morning sky, close enough to ruffle her hair.
Kalden lowered his sunglasses as they sank closer to the ground. "Martials," he said in a low voice.
Akari followed his gaze to where they hovered over a grass clearing outside the Hunter's Guild. Half-a-dozen dark vans closed in on the same spot.
Most of the civilians cleared away, but a few braver ones gathered around to watch the spectacle. Akari fell in with them, and she felt Kalden keep pace beside her.
Amid the chaos, a red-haired figure stood her ground.
The vans formed a circle around Relia, trapping her inside. Their metal doors slid open, and dozens of Martials spilled out. Armor covered their bodies from head to heel, and they carried blades, assault rifles, and Missile rods.
One of the Martial's stepped into the circle. Akari couldn't see his face, but she recognized his voice from last night.
"Dawnfire." His words echoed through the clearing, sending shivers down her spine. "We need to talk."