"Kalden!" Akari shouted his name across the quad. Salt crunched beneath her boots as she jogged on the slick concrete, weaving between her fellow students along the way.

Kalden spun to face her, and Darren and Maelyn did the same. Naturally, this drew the eyes of several opportunistic Silvers. Some glanced over their shoulders and seemed to step in slow motion as they watched. Others stopped walking entirely, gathering in a loose circle as if waiting for a fight.

Akari didn't give a shit about those people, but Kalden's eyes darted back and forth.

"Not here," he said in a sharp whisper.

"Then where?"

"We'll go inside."

"Can't talk inside. The guards tail me as soon as I walk in."

"Damnit," he said. "Then maybe we can—"

Akari took another step forward and whispered, "Your mom knows."

Kalden's eyes widened, but Darren spoke first, "Let's move it along." The blond boy turned to the crowd, stretching out his arms like a nightclub bouncer. Maelyn joined in, calling out specific people by name.

"You heard them," Kalden projected his voice louder than she'd ever heard. "Get going."

The Silvers flocked away like hens, but he might have done more harm than good. Now some Golds were watching too, including Emberlyn Frostblade.

Kalden led her over to his usual spot on the raised concrete platform. He brushed aside some half-melted snow from a bench and set down his sound suppressor construct. Darren and Maelyn stood like sentries outside the transparent dome.

"You talked to her?" Kalden asked. "This morning?"

"Yeah. So much for them getting back tonight."

"I'm sorry." He paced back and forth in the thin blanket of snow. "I should have driven you home."

"Wouldn't make a difference," Akari said. "She's known about this for months."

Kalden paused, and Akari told him everything, including the finer details of his mother's offer. Even if the older woman had told her to keep quiet—which she hadn't—Akari had to talk with him before she committed to anything. Kalden was the first friend she'd made in years. Not just that, but he was the only person in this world who might actually care about her.

That meant something, didn't it?

She hadn't realized it until this moment, but seeing his face felt like those first moments after waking from a dream. It felt like losing her Mana Arts and being taunted by memories of a better life.

Akari wanted to cling to him like a raft and stop things from changing. She looked up and pleaded to him with her eyes, hoping to Talek this played out like it had in her mind.

Kalden would tell her to refuse his mother's offer. He'd remind her they were friends, and how no amount of money could fill the void if they parted. They would learn Mana Arts together, even if they had to defy his parents and the state itself. Because that was the Mana Artist's path. If they wanted to be as strong as Relia, they had to risk everything.

"You should take the deal," Kalden said.

Akari blinked. "I should what?"

"I can vouch for her word," he continued, "if that's what you're worried about. A Gold's reputation is everything, and your rank doesn't change that."

Chills ran down Akari's spine, and she felt like he'd punched her in the stomach. "You heard her conditions, right?"

"You don't interact with me again, or do Mana Arts."

"Permanently," Akari bit off each syllable as if speaking to a child. "Not just for the next six years. This is forever."

"We both knew this wouldn't last." Kalden gestured back and forth between them. This is really the best-case scenario."

"Our goal was to learn Mana Arts!" Akari clenched her hands into fists, and her hope flared to anger. "This is the worst case!"

"Worse than dying?" Kalden countered. "You were learning Mana Arts to survive."

"This is why no Bronze advance to Silver," Akari muttered in a dark whisper. "They sell their souls before they get a chance." A gust of icy wind blew past her face, and her eyes started watering. She moved her glasses aside and wiped them dry on her hoodie sleeve.

Kalden's face softened. "You know I care about you. That's why I'm telling you to take her offer. This is your best chance at a better life, even if it's not the life you wanted."

Those first few words were like warm coffee on a winter day. Akari's eyes burned harder and she put her back to him.

"Why do you need to advance to Silver?" Kalden asked. "You realize that most Silvers don't even make six goldnotes per month? My mother can probably get you an apartment too if you ask her. This solves all your problems."

The Grandmaster's first video echoed in her mind, "To restrict this skill is to deprive people of what it means to be human. I'm talking about opening your mind to something greater."

She met Kalden's eyes again. "And what about everything Relia said? If we do this, we're part of the problem. We're trading freedom for safety."

Kalden let out a weary sigh. "My mother was right about that too. You can't fix this island overnight. Just look at Relia."

"I did." Akari inclined her chin. "She's fighting the whole island by herself, and she's winning."

"That's up for debate. One mistake, and she's done."

"At least she's fighting for something. You want me to roll over and give up."

"I want you to survive," Kalden said. "And surrendering is the most logical choice."

"Yeah," she muttered. "That was your plan from the start, wasn't it? Misery loves company."

Kalden ignored that. "You're trying to reach Silver, but what then? Even if your plan somehow works, no one will accept it. It won't really make your life any better."

Akari looked away, clutching her fingers around her backpack straps.

His voice rose, "What do you really want?"

She knew the answer in her bones, but how could she put a feeling like that into words? Besides, she shouldn't have to explain this to Kalden—he'd been by her side these past few months. He should already understand.

"I was on board with helping you survive," he continued. "But all you care about now is your pride. You want power for power's sake."

"Do you plan on giving up Mana Arts too?" Akari stared daggers at him. "So you can live a safe and cushy life until the day you die?"

Kalden forced out a long breath. "You're frustrated. I get it."

"At least one of us is." She clenched her jaw. "Your mom's scared of Mana Arts, so she stalks you and treats you like a child. How long are you gonna take that?"

"Mana Arts killed my father and brother. Her fear's not irrational."

"Yeah," Akari said. "And you're still alive because you're the only Trengsen man without a backbone."

"We're done," Kalden snapped as he went to retrieve his sound suppressor from the bench.

His hand lingered over the button, and he met her eyes one last time "Take the deal, Akari. Make the smart choice for once in your life."

A note from David Musk

I'd originally planned on making this the first advance chapter on Patreon, but then it ended up being one of the shortest in the book so far. Didn't seem right to make everyone else wait a week for it. :P 

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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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