"That's Emberlyn's car," Darren said as they pulled into Phoenix Park.
Kalden followed his gaze to where an 870 Noble sat almost parallel to the sidewalk. She must have left her driver behind because no professional would park that badly. And as Darren drove them closer, the empty front seats confirmed his suspicion.
The scene was dark but for a single streetlight shining down on the clearing. A trio of figures stood near the frozen river, and their body language suggested an argument.
"That's Alton Tusk," Darren said. "He's a Metal Artist. Can't tell who the other guy is."
"Kazo Shiro," Maelyn said from the backseat. "Ice Artist, and Emberlyn's retainer."
The three figures stopped arguing as soon as they spotted Kalden's car, and they all spun to face him.
"That's great," Kalden said. "But where's Akari?"
A short silence followed as Darren shifted the car into park and turned off the engine.
"Her usual spot is farther in," Maelyn said. "Maybe they haven't found her yet?"
"Maybe." Kalden opened the car door, stepping out into the frigid night air. His hopes died as he took in more of their surroundings. Emberlyn's car sported a dent near the back passenger's door as if someone had hit it with a Missile. Directly across from that sat a damaged payphone. Half the metal keys were shattered, and the phone itself hung in two pieces with exposed wire between.
Things got worse as he closed the distance between Emberlyn and her friends. A hundred footprints disturbed the snow, along with wider imprints where people had fallen over. A river of blood poured out from an unseen wound above Emberlyn's hairline, and another red gash ran vertically across her eyebrow. Her two friends didn't look much better.
Alton Tusk stepped forward, crossing his thick arms. The Metal Artist was a few inches shorter than Kalden, but he outweighed him by at least forty pounds. He had a pale Espirain face and sharp features that were made for glaring. "What do you want, Trengsen?"
Kalden ignored Tusk and turned to Emberlyn. She looked on the verge of tears, and she refused to meet his eye.
"What happened?" he asked her.
"Exactly what it looks like," Tusk said. "We're training."
Right. Emberlyn's father had the best dojo in town. But sure—why not go to a public park where you risk hitting your own car? Not to mention their lack of armor.
Kalden could have said this out loud, but that line of conversation was unproductive. Instead, he kept his gaze on Emberlyn. "Where's Akari?"
"Who the hell's Akari?" Tusk spread out his hands and gestured at their surroundings. "It's just us, Trengsen. And you still haven't told us what you want."
A better lie than the first, but his delivery was too forced.
"Emberlyn?" Kalden's voice rose, forcing her to meet his eyes. "What the hell did you do?"
Emberlyn rubbed at her cheek with a shaking hand. "I have nothing to say to you."
Damnit. She'd been upset when she left his house, but this was different. Was that guilt in her eyes? Panic?
He turned back to Tusk who stood between him and the frozen river. The Metal Artist wasn't just trying to intimidate him—he was blocking his view.
Kalden shifted his weight to the other foot, catching a glimpse over Tusk's shoulder. Another trail of footprints led to the frozen river, ending at the shore as if someone had tried to walk across. But the trail didn't pick up on the other side. Instead, he spotted a hole, just big enough for...
Kalden relaxed his vision, viewing the world through his Silver Sight. He couldn't see under the ice from here, but Tusk and Shiro were both cycling their mana—preparing for a fight. At the same time, Kalden realized that he'd been cycling too.
He ran a hand over his left ear, giving Darren a prearranged signal. Then he took another long breath to steady himself.
"Alright," Kalden said as he turned to leave. "I'm sorry to bother you."
It wasn't much of a feint, but he'd take any advantage he could get.
Kalden spun back around, gathering mana in his right hand, striking at Tusk's face.
As expected, a wall of transparent steel appeared in front of the boy as he fell for the second feint.
Kalden moved his other arm across his body, releasing the Missile away from Tusk and Shiro. No sooner had the mana left his palm than he recalled it. Then he hurled his body forward, slamming straight into the two Artists. This put Tusk in a direct path between Kalden and his Missile, and the technique smashed into the larger boy's side.
By now, Darren had already drawn his rod and shot them both with ice Missiles.
Kalden didn't stop to see the results. He bolted forward onto the frozen river, hoping to Talek he wasn't too late. As he drew closer to the opening, he caught a faint blue glow under the ice, just a few paces beyond the hole.
Kalden threw off his jacket as he ran, but there wasn't time for anything else. He lowered himself through the opening, and the world became pitch black as he submerged his face. The icy water stung his skin, close to burning. His feet found the ground easily, and he broke into a crouch as he moved toward the light source.
Kalden reached out with both hands and found something that felt like a leg. He followed that to Akari's torso and wrapped both hands around her waist. Her body hung like a ragdoll as he pulled her back toward the opening.
They emerged together a second later, but the winter air brought no relief from the cold. His movements were stiff as he lifted Akari from the water. His jaw chattered uncontrollably, and he had to cycle his mana to keep the feeling in his hands.
He placed her gently on the ice, then pulled himself out next. The path behind them was already half-shattered, so Kalden picked her up and moved toward the river's other side.
"Maelyn!" he shouted as he set down Akari's limp body in the snow. Damnit. How did she even get under the ice like that? She'd lost her glasses, but he didn't see any obvious wounds.
Unfortunately, she wasn't breathing either, and her face was as pale as the surrounding snow.
Maelyn had already begun making her way across a thicker section of ice downstream. Kalden didn't wait for her. He pressed both hands to the center of Akari's chest and began pressing down with several quick pulses. He vaguely recalled something in health class about counting.
What was it again? Twenty? Thirty? Either way, it was too late for counting now.
Kalden leaned down in front of her face, using his left hand to tilt her chin upward. He used his other hand to pinch her nostrils closed, then he pressed his lips to hers and breathed enough air to make her chest rise.
Nothing happened after that, and a wave of panic ran down his spine. His eyes burned as he realized he might be too late. He'd known they were lying. He should have attacked at once, but he'd hesitated.
Now, his friend might not survive.
Maelyn reached him a second later, and Kalden moved away to get her space.
Emberlyn followed the other girl across the river, looking even guiltier than before.
"What the hell were you thinking?" Kalden said.
"This wasn't me! It was Shiro!" She pointed a shaking hand across the river to where her friends struggled in their ice mana bonds. Darren stood guard over them both, aiming his Missile rod at Tusk.
"You brought them here," Kalden said.
Emberlyn wiped at her face again, pointedly not looking at Akari's unconscious body. "I told them not to attack. They ignored me."
Sirens echoed in the distance, and they seemed to be getting closer.
"You called an ambulance?" Kalden asked. But even as the words left his mouth, he realized how unlikely that was. If they actually cared about Akari, they wouldn't have let her drown in the first place.
"Police," Emberlyn muttered with a shake of her head. "Meant for them to catch her."
To catch her doing Mana Arts, Kalden realized. It was the same scheme she'd used back in Hexember when she'd gotten Akari banned from the computer lab. If Emberlyn had pulled that off, things would get even worse for Akari. The state would take her Mana Arts, and Kalden's mother would get her way without bribes or threats.
"Well"—Kalden glanced back at her unconscious body—"You messed up."
Talek. How could she be so stupid? The plan itself was classic Emberlyn, but she should have realized when things got out of hand.
"How long was she underwater?"
Emberlyn shook her head, not meeting his eyes.
"Five minutes?" Kalden pressed. "Two?"
"Somewhere in between."
Kalden clenched his fists and began pacing back and forth
Maelyn unzipped Akari's hoodie, then pulled out a pocket knife and sliced through her t-shirt in two quick cuts.
Kalden averted his eyes, but he looked back when a flash of green formed in Maelyn's right hand. Unlike her usual mana, this sparked with electricity.
Maelyn slammed the hand into Akari's chest. Her body lurched, and a geyser of water erupted from her mouth.
Kalden sank to his knees beside them, feeling waves of relief wash over him. Akari's eyes snapped open, then she rolled over on her side, vomiting up half the river.
"Deep breaths," Maelyn said as she began removing her own jacket.
No sooner had Akari regained consciousness than she flinched away. Her eyes looked wild around the edges.
"Akari?" Kalden leaned closer. "It's me and Maelyn. You're safe now."
"She's not safe yet," Maelyn said as she removed her own sweater. "Her heart could still fail without dry clothes."
Kalden nodded as he sat Akari up with her back against him, then Maelyn helped her change into her dry sweater and jacket. With that done, she went back to her purse and uncorked a small bottle of liquid mana.
"Drink this and cycle," she told Akari. "It will help warm your blood."
Akari let the other girl pour the mana past her chattering teeth. Some color returned to her face a few seconds later.
As an alchemist, Kalden knew all about the ways mana could speed up the body's natural healing process. There were even special potions that worked without cycling, and most ambulances carried them for this exact purpose.
But Maelyn was right. You could still get many of the same benefits without expensive potions. And if cycling alone could save someone's life, then why wasn't every child trained to do this? It should have been a requirement in public schools rather than a secret program.
But no one profits that way, Kalden realized.
And that was his real problem with alchemy. People like Akari were injured and killed like this every day. Not only did Golds ignore it, but they profited from it, selling them cures they shouldn't even need.
All the while, they denied them the most basic human right—the right to help themselves.
Kalden couldn't go back to his old life like his mother wanted. If he became a part of this system, he'd be more at fault than the rest.
Akari clung to Kalden as they followed Maelyn across the frozen river. The world was a blur without her glasses, and she felt the ice crack and groan beneath their weight. Her lungs burned at the memory of drowning, and her body still hadn't stopped shaking.
"It's alright," Kalden whispered. "I've got you."
Akari gave a shaky nod against his chest. Her brain was probably half-frozen right now, making her fears anything but rational. But knowing Kalden, he had a dozen equations floating around his head, calculating the exact weight this ice could hold.
Plus, he could actually see, which wasn't fair at all.
He kept one arm around her as they walked, almost like a hug. Akari did the same to him, digging her hands into the fabric of his jacket. It had been years since anyone had touched her so gently. She'd almost forgotten how good it felt.
What's more, Kalden had jumped in a freezing river to save her. Maelyn had healed her, then given her the clothes off her own back.
They actually cared. Akari wanted to take back every dark thing she'd ever thought about Kalden. Even if she died tomorrow, this feeling was worth more than a hundred more years of life. Even Mana Arts paled in comparison.
"Here." Maelyn's voice pulled Akari from her thoughts, and her blurry form dashed toward them. "Found your glasses."
"T-thanks." She tried to articulate the word, but it came out in several jagged syllables. She spent a second getting the glasses on her face, then the world came into focus again.
Darren stood over Emberlyn's allies, mana rod in hand. Both boys lay on the ground, trapped in cords of pale blue ice mana. But where was Emberlyn? Had she gotten away? Did the others even know what she'd done?
"We're leaving," Kalden said to Darren as they approached "Get the car running."
Darren holstered his rod and jogged toward the parking lot, shooting one last look at the restrained Mana Artists.
Akari pulled away from Kalden when they reached the car. By now, she'd regained feeling in her legs, and she didn't feel half as shaky as before. She took one last look around the park, then found Emberlyn standing just a few steps behind her.
"You." Akari took a step forward, gathering mana in her palms. The sight of her enemy brought back all the memories of the fight, and chains tightened around her burning lungs.
"Akari!" Kalden lunged forward, putting himself between them.
"She almost killed me," Akari snapped as she tried to push past him.
"I know." Kalden held his ground, immovable as a stone wall. "But more fighting won't help. We can deal with this later."
Akari ignored him, aiming her hand over his shoulder.
Kalden grabbed her wrist, redirecting her aim toward the ground.
"You're not thinking straight," he said.
Flashes of blue and red light danced across the trees. This dragged other memories to the surface of her mind—older and even more painful. Sirens. Ice. All the pieces of a perfect nightmare, together in one place.
Akari continued to struggle forward, facing the only enemy she could see.
"I know you're angry," Kalden said. "But this will only make things worse. You need to trust me."
Akari stopped cycling. Kalden wasn't right all the time, but he probably knew something she didn't. Maybe—
Silver light flashed at the edge of her vision. Kalden lurched back, gritting his teeth in pain. A Missile had torn through his shirt, and a line of red appeared across his stomach.
Kalden fell backward into the snow, clutching the wound.
Akari raised her hand, releasing her own mana. The blow took Emberlyn head-on, and she staggered back into a nearby tree.
More silver light closed. Akari snapped her head around to see the Metal Artist had gotten one arm free from his bonds. She sidestepped his Missile, then Maelyn let out a cry of pain as it struck her thigh.
Shit. Akari dodged his next two attacks, gathering more mana in her right hand. Maelyn's vial only gave her enough for one more attack. She had to make it count.
The sirens grew louder and brighter, freezing her in place. Akari barely saw the uniformed officers exit their vehicles. The Metal Artist had stopped moving too, and Akari realized how bad this looked. Emberlyn and her friends were down, and so were Kalden and Maelyn.
Akari was the only one still standing.
Ice Missiles flew toward her in an unstoppable volley. They coiled around her legs, chest, and even her face.
Her body went numb for the second time that night, and she hit the ground with the others.