No one stopped Akari and Kalden as they left the city. Kalden got them a cabin on the next train, and they sat in silence as they pulled away from the platform. What was there to say? They'd both seen the same fight. They'd both seen dozens of people get shot and dismembered, staining the snow red with their blood.

Talek, she couldn't stop shivering. Mana beasts were one thing. As dangerous as those fights had been, they felt like a glorified video game compared to this.

Akari ordered water when the attendant stopped by. She was already shaking enough without throwing caffeine into the mix. In hindsight, the water was half ice, and that might have been even worse.

"Want a blanket?" Kalden asked from across the cabin.

"I'm fine," Akari said at once. Then she glanced around the small space. "Wait—they actually have those here?

Kalden stood and opened his seat cushion like a treasure chest, revealing a storage compartment inside. He opened a sealed plastic package, then tossed her the fleece blanket inside.

Akari unfolded the material across her lap, pulling it up to her neck. She wouldn't say it helped her calm down, but it was better than being cold.

Kalden just leaned back in his seat and stared out the window, watching the snow-covered hills roll by.

"Think he'll come after us?" Akari finally asked. Most of the Golds hadn't survived the battle, but she'd caught glimpses of Frostblade before they left. The healers were already tending his wounds.

"We should assume the worst," Kalden said. "Even if they can't prove we talked this morning."

Akari nodded. The Martials had been stalking Relia like raptors, and they knew she'd visited the Hunter's Guild today. Just being there might earn her and Kalden a spot on their suspect list.

If we weren't already at the top.

"They have bigger drakes to track right now," he continued. "But we'll stick to the plan if they come knocking. Cooperate with them, and they have no reason to screw us over."

"Unless they decide to watch us instead," Akari mused. "See if Relia comes back."

Kalden considered that for a moment. "Guess it's a good thing we turned her down.."

The hours rolled by as they passed the same landscapes from before. White foothills became jagged skylines as the train carried them south through Ironhaven. They turned east after that, passing nothing but empty farmland on the way back to Elegan.

It was just past two o'clock when they stepped through Kalden's front door. His parents wouldn't be home until tomorrow so they had the place to themselves.

"I'm already starving," Kalden said as he shrugged out of his jacket.

"Same." Akari knelt to unbuckle her boots. Some people didn't eat when they were anxious, but she was the exact opposite. If anything, she only got hungrier at times like this, and the train's free cookies didn't cut it. She'd checked for more food beneath her seat, but no such luck.

"We can get pizza," Kalden suggested.

Akari imagined the sauce, and Relia's fight flashed in her mind. "How about ... something not red?"

"That rules out most South-Espirian cuisine." He hummed in consideration. "Let's see if the cooks left anything in the fridge."

She followed him past the waterfall and into the kitchen with its fancy stone countertops and dark wooden cabinets. The center island was big enough for twenty people to stand around, even if they liked their personal space.

Kalden stopped in front of the fridge and pulled open a pair of stainless steel doors. Like everything else in this house, the shelves were perfectly organized, as if his servants had nothing better to do. He pulled out a few plates covered in saran wrap and placed them on the island. One plate had sushi on it, and the others held fancy-looking fish and exotic fruits she'd never seen before. The Golds probably grew this in a secret greenhouse so they could feel even more smug at dinnertime.

Kalden passed her some chopsticks as he turned on the TV. A pair of news anchors sat around a polished table wearing navy suits and silver badges. A second later, the scene cut to pictures of Relia in White Vale, just before her fight with the Martials. It would be impossible for her to walk around in public after today.

They gave the usual fugitive speech, reminding anyone with information to come forward. Akari had heard this a dozen times now, and she barely listened as she ate. The sushi melted like butter in her mouth, but the fruit tasted like sour, dry wine.

They cut to more footage of broken vans, and a crashed helicopter. Above it all, a single phrase caught her attention: "Twenty-seven casualties." Talek. She hadn't seen that many Martials this morning.

"How many are there total?" she asked Kalden.

"Martials?" Kalden picked up the remote and lowered the volume. "Only a few dozen agents at Frostblade's level, but there's hundreds in the organization. If not thousands."

In other words, Relia hadn't even put a dent in their ranks. But why would the Martials only send three-dozen people to White Vale if they had hundreds on staff? Had both sides underestimated the other?

"Maybe they'll stop being stupid and negotiate with her now," Akari muttered."Relia said it herself—she just wants to leave."

Kalden shook his head as he finished chewing. "I know Frostblade's style. Remember how those raptors kept throwing themselves at Relia? That's what will happen here. They'll let this island burn before they back down."

Akari glared back at the TV. "And those idiots will cheer the whole time." The news had already painted Relia as a dangerous killer, even when it wasn't true. What would they say now, when they had a pile of Martial bodies as ammunition? Never mind the fact that they'd started this mess when they'd captured her master. Not to mention drawing first blood this morning.

"Some skeptics will question it," Kalden said. "But they'll get called traitors."

Even the Golds. Akari remembered her first talk with Kalden in that supply closet. He'd implied he wasn't free, and she'd practically laughed at him.

"This is a prison," Relia had said that morning before they parted."If you want to get past Silver, you'll need to think beyond this place."

"You sure we made the right choice?" Akari wondered aloud.

"What?" Kalden stared at her as if she'd just conjured fire. "We never would have survived that fight."

"Relia never said we'd join her today."

"I understand that," Kalden replied. "But you really want to get involved after what we saw? I know that fight shook you up too."

"Relia can handle the Martials," Akari noted. "She blunted her Missiles, and she still won."

"Barely," he said. "And it only gets worse from here." He gestured back to her picture on the TV. "She'll struggle just to find food and shelter at this rate, much less win battles. I feel bad for her too, but there's nothing we could've done."

After dinner, they headed downstairs and plugged in the USB drive. True to Relia's word, all twelve videos were there.

They started with the Construct video. This was a more in-depth version of Relia's crash course, and the Grandmaster showed them how a Missile could mix with ambient mana to become a shield. He went on to explain how Constructs could take any shape. For example, domes started as flat circles, then you applied pressure to the middle, warping the shape into three dimensions.

Easier said than done. Just to keep it stable, you had to push and pull mana from your center of gravity until it reached equilibrium. Then—if someone attacked you—you had to continuously feed the shield more mana to recharge it.

And then there was the raw shaping skill required to even get started. The Grandmaster made it look so easy, but Akari knew how stable mana was. Getting a specific shape would be like using fans to organize dust and dandelion seeds. Not only had Relia done this faster than Akari could blink, but she'd done it while removing twelve inches of steel from her chest.

Of course, Relia had been studying Mana Arts for years, and this was probably like kindergarten to her. Having more mana helped too. The more you had to play with, the more you could brute-force your way through problems.

Next came the ambient mana video, followed by a series of shaping exercises. These later videos were longer than the first half of the series, and they formed the foundation for more advanced aspects. And like the aspect video, many of these were theoretical. In one video, the Grandmaster ranted for a full ten minutes.

"You wouldn't expect a happy ending with your high school crush," he explained, "and yet, this is exactly the age most young Artists choose their aspect. Or worse—their parents choose for them."

Strangely enough, Akari thought of her foster mother, Noella, and how she hated being a Healing Artist. Many times, she'd implied that her parents chose this career for her and that she'd never wanted it. Akari wouldn't say she sympathized with the woman or anything—Noella still had a better life than every Bronze she knew. Still, she could never become a Combat Artist, even if she wanted to. That was depressing in its own way.

"Most high schools won't share these techniques with you," the Grandmaster explained. "Instead, they funnel you down specific paths and regard everything else as a waste of time. They're wrong, of course. Finding your aspect is like finding your soulmate. It takes time, patience, and years of experience to get right."

The last video talked about the peak of Foundation, and how you prepared your body for the Apprentice stage. This involved opening smaller channels and preparing your cells for Cloak techniques.

Unfortunately, all of this was out of Akari's league. She didn't even have enough mana to form Constructs, and even Kalden wasn't ready to reinforce his body. These last few videos had felt like watching infomercials for stuff she couldn't afford.

Still, she took diligent notes, copying down every exercise. On top of that, she watched each video several more times, determined to commit each word to memory. Flash drives and notebooks could be stolen. Only her memories were truly safe.

She and Kalden sat there until well past midnight. Eventually, she found herself lying on the leather sofa, covered in two thick blankets. Kalden must have left the bar light on because the room had a faint orange glow. Thunder roared outside, and rain clattered against the windows.

Great. It was still winter, so that meant the sidewalks would be solid ice when she left.

Akari felt around on the end table and found her glasses folded up beside a bottle of water. Definitely Kalden's doing—she normally slept with those right next to her pillow.

Akari snuggled into her blankets and closed her eyes again. She hadn't meant to spend the night, but it had been a long and exhausting weekend. At least—

A female voice cleared her throat.

"Shit." Akari's eyes shot back open, and she glanced frantically around the room. A blurry form loomed in the chair just a few feet away. She snatched up her glasses from the table, scrambling to put them on.

When the world finally came into focus, she found herself face to face with Kalden's mother.

A note from David Musk

Sorry about the longer wait than usual between chapters. Fortunately, I only have the epilogue left to write on my other story, so this will be my main project soon!

Support "Web of Secrets [Modern Cultivation]"

About the author

David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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