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Emberlyn lashed out with two ice Missiles. Akari struck back with her own attack, moving her hand in wide circles so the mana flew in a corkscrew pattern. This knocked both her opponent's Missiles off course and continued toward her.

Emberlyn raised a hand, and a wall of solid ice formed between them—just like the ones her father had used to trap Relia.

Akari leapt to the side, pulling back her Missile before it shattered on that frozen surface. Her mana grazed the Construct, but it didn't break.

Thank Talek for today's practice session. She'd seen the Martials waste hundreds of Missiles against Relia. She couldn't afford to be so careless.

No sooner had Akari recalled her first Missile than she launched another blast of mana to the left of Emberlyn's ice shield. The first shield vanished as her opponent raised a second.

No surprise there.

Akari pulled it back, letting the pressure reach equilibrium until both her Missiles orbited her body. The Grandmaster had called this the Cloud technique, and the name fit. It reminded her of two electrons revolving around a nucleus.

A Bronze couldn't make true Constructs, but this was the next best thing. Emberlyn launched several more Missiles, but they ricocheted off her Cloud, fading into the forest like fleeing snakes. The girl's face was unreadable past the swirling blue lines, but Akari imagined her shock and smiled back.

The two exchanged several more blows after that. Akari hurled her Missiles outward and pulled them back into orbit. Emberlyn fell into a similar rhythm with her attacks and ice walls.

Still ... something seemed wrong. Emberlyn had shown up in a storm of bravado and undisguised rage. Now, her movements were slow and methodical—almost as if she were holding back.

Another trap? Like that day in the computer lab?

More likely, the girl was biding her time. Akari couldn't outlast her. No matter how efficiently she made her Missiles, they still took energy to move. Every exchange drained her mana a little more, tipping the scale in Emberlyn's favor.

Time to switch things up.

Akari released both Missiles from orbit, hurling them forward at maximum speed. Then she launched another to either side of her opponent.

Predictably, Emberlyn raised an ice wall to defend herself.

Kalden had once taught Akari how to play Crowns, and he'd explained the difference between amateurs and masters.

"Amateurs get tunnel vision," he'd told her. "They always worry about direct attacks—defending their pieces or moving them to safety. This makes them easy to control."

Akari's first two Missiles shattered against Emberlyn's Construct in flashes of bright light.

"But if you're playing not to lose, you've already lost."

Akari danced to the left, pulling back the Missile on her right. Then she mirrored the movement, recalling the left Missile. Both attacks slammed into Emberlyn's flanks, and her Construct flickered out.

Akari charged forward, kicking up snow and seizing on the girl's other weakness. Emberlyn was a decent Artist, but school tournaments were gentlemen's games. She knew nothing about real fighting—she'd proven that in the school bathroom.

Three more strides and Akari closed the distance. Emberlyn was still regaining her balance when Akari threw a punch at her right eye.

Emberlyn staggered back into a combat stance. She raised her left hand for another Missile, but Akari closed in again, catching her arm and redirecting her palm. Then she hooked her foot around Emberlyn's ankle, slamming the girl into the snow.

Movement flashed at the edge of her vision. Akari spun to see a flash of glowing silver mana. Clearly, she'd gone off script with that last stunt. Now it was three against one.

With no time to dodge, Akari dropped to her stomach, letting the Missile pass over her head. The metal mana rang like a bell as it rebounded off Emberlyn's car, smashing into the payphone behind them.

Emberlyn pushed herself up, readying another ice Missile in her palm. Akari threw a kick at the girl's chest, and she doubled over again.

Two more Missiles closed in—one metal, the other ice. Akari sprang to her feet, and they smashed into the ground with an explosion of dirt and snow.

Both enemies closed in, taking up positions on either side. The other Ice Artist was only a Silver, she realized. Not as dangerous as the Metal Artist, but those techniques could still immobilize her.

Talek. What she'd give for a proper Construct right now. Her Cloud technique was great when it worked, but it took far too long to set up.

Akari cycled her mana, feeling her reserves. Just over half full. No room for mistakes.

She launched a Missile at the Metal Artist, and he raised a Construct in response. Unlike Emberlyn's ice wall, his looked like a shield of transparent steel.

Akari dropped to a crouch, pushing her mana up and over the shield. She pulled it back just as it crested the top, and it curved down to hit the boy in the forehead.

Should have worn a helmet, Akari thought as he fell backward. She hadn't known she'd be ambushed tonight. What was their excuse? Keeping their hair nice?

The Silver attacked with another ice Missile, but his aim was off by several degrees. Akari stood from her crouch and let the mana pass harmlessly by her face. Then she thrust out her palm and shot a Missile of her own.

Clearly, the boy didn't know how to make a Construct, either. He tried to dodge her attack—a split second too slow. Her Missile took him in the solar plexus, and he doubled over with a groan.

Akari forced the mana to hold its shape, and she brought it back toward the Metal Artist. She didn't wait to see if the blow landed. Instead, she turned her focus back on Emberlyn. The girl had regained her footing, and a thin river of blood flowed out from a gash in her forehead. Her violet eyes looked angrier than ever.

Not good. Fighting a pissed-off Emberlyn was one thing, but her minions would overwhelm her if they kept joining in.

Despite her injuries, Emberlyn took on a graceful combat stance and released two more Missiles. Akari tried to counter with the same corkscrew pattern as before, but her opponent released a second pair of Missiles. Then a third pair.

Akari tried another corkscrew, but Emberlyn wove her mana through the gaps. Shit. She had been holding back before. Akari just had the one pattern, and she'd barely tested it against human opponents before now.

Emberlyn might be predictable, but so was she.

Akari's attacks grew wilder as true panic set in. Her channels screamed in pain as she pushed her mana past its limits, and pins and needles prickled every nerve in her body.

A Missile struck Akari's right shoulder, but her hoodie absorbed the blow. The next attack caught her left ear. Bursts of icy pain shot through her skull, and half her face went numb. She slammed back into the snow, losing her glasses as she fell.

Another ice Missile coiled around her wrist like a snake strangling its prey. More numbness followed.

Move, she told herself, while you still can.

Even as the numbness spread through her body, Akari forced herself to stand. The others were dark blurs, and she bolted past them in a random direction. Snow crunched beneath her boots until she felt something hard, hollow, and slippery.

Emberlyn shouted something as she ran, but Akari couldn't make out the words.

Another Missile struck her spine, and she staggered forward. The mana wrapped around both arms, securing them close to her sides. Akari hit the ground, and her cheek struck more ice.

The river.

Her right knee punctured a hole in its frozen surface, plunging into the icy water beneath. More water pooled around her cheek, and a dozen cracks formed beneath her. Finally, the surface shattered like a glass window, and the water rose to engulf her.

Akari struggled to break free from her bonds, but Emberlyn's mana gripped her body like a vice. Some primal part of her tried to scream, and water filled her lungs as she sank deeper.

Her boots found the river's bottom, and she kicked off with all her might. It was barely five feet deep at its widest point. She could probably—

Her head struck more ice when she tried to emerge. Trapped.

She struggled for several more heartbeats, looking wildly in every direction. Nothing but darkness. She could have felt the opening with her hands, but the ice mana kept those pinned at her sides.

More water poured into her lungs and stomach until breathing lost all meaning. Her insides burned like lava despite the cold.

Was this what dying felt like? Had her mother felt this helpless when they'd suffocated her?

Akari fought back again her bonds, slamming her forehead against the ice ceiling. She wanted to scream, but she had no voice. She wanted to unleash her power, but her mana was gone. The pain and panic reached a crescendo inside her, then and the world faded to black.

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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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