Akari's Missile wove through the trees, leaving pale blue streaks against the dark forest.
She'd come to Phoenix Park to train, but also to escape the Cliftons. Mazren had just returned from another trip, and he'd bombarded her with a dozen questions about her weekend away.
"Where were you?" he'd asked once they sat down for dinner.
"Oretin Falls," Akari lied.
"What were you doing there?"
"Hunting," she murmured into her glass. Oretin Falls was nothing compared to White Vale, but it still bordered the Contested Area, even if the Guild outpost was no bigger than this room.
Mazren slammed down his own glass. The table shook, and Akari flinched back. "You went beyond the wall?"
She shrugged, and the conversation was mostly one-sided after that. Mazren lectured her about mana beasts, and how he'd seen his workers dismembered and killed by raptors while they were repairing shield fragments.
Most days, she liked him better than Noella—he almost always took Akari's side when she got into fights at school. But then he had those annoying moments when he acted like a real parent. Akari could have lied about the hunting, but why sugarcoat it? If they planned to kick her out in Tresember, they should face the cold hard truth.
"And who are these 'friends' you went with?" Mazren demanded. "I don't even know their names."
"You never asked," Akari countered.
He ignored that. "Even if I did, you're only fifteen. You can't spend the night in other towns without telling us first."
This last lecture was inevitable. Her meetings with Kalden might have flown under the radar, but she couldn't hide a two-day vanishing act. His blue eyes bore into her, and she almost felt a tinge of guilt.
"And when I'm sixteen?" Akari asked. "Then it's cool if I join some brothel or street gang?"
His brow furrowed, looking more confused than angry. "Of course not."
"What's a brothel?" Elyna asked through a mouthful of salad. Needless to say, her foster sister wasn't the sharpest chopstick on the table.
"Nothing," Noella snapped, shooting Akari a glare.
Oh sure. But Mazren can talk about death by raptors, and that's all sugar and peaches? For Talek's sake, the girl was thirteen, not three.
Akari sat up straighter, turning back to her foster father. "Well, that's why I'm hunting and saving money now. Keeps my options open."
Mazren stared at her as if she were speaking Shokenese. "What brought this on? You want to leave?"
"That was our agreement." This time, Noella kept her voice calm and sensible. "She stays until she's a legal adult."
Mazren massaged his left temple, looking like he had a headache. Talek. He seriously didn't remember this talk? How should she feel about that? Happy that he wanted her to stay, or offended that he'd forgotten?
When Mazren looked up again, his eyes darted between his wife and Akari. "We'll talk about this later."
Noella raised her wine glass to her lips, glaring at Akari over the rim. Naturally, this was all Akari's fault, and she'd probably pay for it later.
As if she didn't have enough to deal with.
Focus. Akari gritted her teeth, pushing back the day's memories. Tonight might be her last training session. She had to make it better than her last memories of Kalden.
"Take the deal," he'd told her. "Make the smart choice for once in your life."
Well, screw you too.
Her Missile flew back from the trees, straight toward her open hand. She stepped to the side, pushing and pulling the mana until it reached equilibrium. The Missile swung around her body like a moon orbiting a planet, and she used the momentum to hurl it back toward the trees.
Nice to hear what you really think.
He'd called her impulsive many times. And reckless, and short-sighted. Hardly a stretch to call her stupid after all that. But he didn't understand—he couldn't. To him, safety was all that really mattered.
Akari lowered her center of gravity, and the Missile grazed the snow's icy surface. She stiffened her channels, and the mana grew more stable as it carved a trench.
A week ago, that mana would have shattered from the impact, turning to vapor in the air. Most Artists wouldn't bother making their mana this strong. If Kalden's Missiles broke, he could release forty more. For her, every molecule mattered.
But this training doesn't matter, a voice said inside her head.
Akari rose from her crouch and pulled the mana back.
You'll always be a Bronze. Nothing will ever change that.
She sidestepped again, and the mana orbited her body, completing several circuits as she held it in perfect balance.
Once again, she tried to force the feelings back. The Grandmaster's last videos had given her more than enough to focus on. Not just theory, but actual combat techniques. Her brain felt like an overfilled bucket of water, and her body struggled to sample everything on the platter.
The Missile lost its delicate balance, breaking from orbit and crashing into a nearby tree. Fragments of ice and bark erupted into the air, and Akari sank to her knees, exhausted and covered in sweat.
She forced herself to her feet, then stumbled over to the tree stump and pulled out a pint-sized bottle of liquid mana. She took a good long swig, feeling the cool mint flavor on her tongue. The taste always reminded her of that first afternoon in Kalden's basement.
Damnit. Sometimes she wished she'd never met him. Each memory was like a flame—filling her with warmth, then burning her before she could pull away.
Akari shoved the glass bottle back in its hiding place and followed the frozen river back toward the parking lot. There, a single payphone waited beneath the street lamp. She reached in the front of her backpack and pulled out three coppercoins. She also found Mrs. Trengsen's card in the pocket of her jeans. By now, it had crumbled a hundred different ways, and a web of white cracks broke up the perfect black surface.
She stood in front of the phone for several long moments, still panting hard from her training. If she did this, she could never take it back. Even if she didn't swear an unbreakable oath, Mrs. Trengsen had a hundred other ways to ensure her compliance. Bribes might have been her first resort, but threats would follow.
Despite all her dark thoughts about Kalden, he was right. Taking the deal was the only logical choice. She couldn't fight Clan Trengsen by herself. Especially not while she was homeless with no job and no money.
Akari slipped her coins into the slot and raised her fingers to the cold metal buttons.
Just then, a flash of light lit up the nearby trees, casting long shadows on the snow. Akari spun around, blinded by headlights as a black car pulled into the parking lot.
Kalden? Her heart leapt at the possibility.
The car stopped at an angle, taking up three full spots. The backdoor opened, and a flash of golden hair glimmered the street light.
Akari stiffened, still clutching the phone in one hand. Pulses of mana pushed against it as she cycled.
"Zeller." Emberlyn Frostblade spoke her name as if it were a curse. The girl stepped away from the car, and her long jacket billowed in the night wind.
Fight or surrender?
With Kalden's mother, the choice had been an overwhelming puzzle with countless pieces to consider. Here, with a real enemy standing in front of her, the choice was clear as glass.
Akari doubted anyone would care if she died. But if people told her story, let them say she never gave up. Let them say she risked everything to advance, and she'd done in a place where no one else could.
People could call her impulsive and short-sighted all they wanted. Safety wasn't the same thing as freedom, and this world would never change if no one fought back.
Akari hung the phone back on the receiver and turned to face her enemy. At the same time, two more Golds emerged from Emberlyn's car. One looked like her Metal Artist friend from the tunnels. She didn't recognize the other boy at all.
Rather than join Emberlyn, the pair circled around behind Akari, trapping her in a wide circle.
"What's the matter?" she said to Emberlyn. "Too scared to take me alone?"
"I see you still haven't learned how to talk to Golds." The other girl shook her head in disappointment. "Then again, we wouldn't be here if you knew your place."
Akari didn't reply. She only cycled her mana, preparing for the attack.
"They're here to stop you when you run," Emberlyn took two steps forward, and her palms shone with pale blue light. "Kalden's pet might have claws now, but I don't need help to put her down."