Step one: find the system that controls the cuffs.

"Alright." Kalden clapped his hands together as he paced in his basement office. "What do we know so far?"

Maelyn sat up straighter on the sofa. "Akari's handler is a junior agent named Canin Stormspear. He works at the Martials' office here in Elegan."

Kalden wrote the agent's name on the blackboard. Stormspear ... why did the old Espirian clans get all the cool-sounding names? Trengsen meant 'blood poem,' hinting at his ancestors' strategic battle prowess. But most people wouldn't know that unless they spoke High Imperial Shokenese.

"He handles her day-to-day movements," she continued. "For example, she had an optometrist's appointment last week. That's three miles outside her radius, so her foster parents cleared it with Stormspear in advance. He can temporarily increase her range, or disable the cuffs entirely."

Kalden wrote a list of bullet points under Stormspear's name, getting all the intel in one place. More than a month had passed since the fight with Emberlyn, and he hadn't spoken to Akari once during that time. The Martials were watching around every corner, and so was Kalden's mother. This put any direct communication off the table, including meetings or phone calls.

Instead, Darren and Maelyn had handled everything through proxies. Kalden also hid these movements through a web of obscurity, sending letters and phone calls to dozens of others, asking for irrelevant favors or items along the way.

He'd been careless before, and Akari had paid the price several times. That might still happen again, but she knew the risks. This whole plan was her idea, after all.

"And we're sure these cuffs are controlled from a computer?" Kalden asked. "I thought they ran on mana and sigils."

"They run on the wearer's mana," Darren spoke up. "But the sigils only handle the location functions. All the data is sent through radio signals, then processed digitally."

"Plus," Maelyn said, "Stormspear can control the cuffs from his home if he needs to. That implies remote internet access."

"Does anyone else have control over her cuffs?" Kalden asked. "Other agents?"

"Probably their HQ in Shoken Port," Darren said slowly, "but that place will be locked up like a fortress. Agent Stormspear's the weakest link."

Kalden tossed his chalk between his open hands. "So there's a website out there somewhere. Something Akari can hack into."

"In theory," Darren said. "But we'd need a starting point. Their Elegan branch doesn't even have a public-facing site."

"What about their main site? Do they have a page for Elegan?"

"They list the address and phone number," Maelyn said. "That's it.

"No staff directory?" Kalden asked. "No department numbers?"

She gave a helpless shrug. "Akari says we might need to social engineer this step—fish for info the old-fashioned way."

Great. Impersonating the IT staff might work on the gullible old ladies at school, but that wouldn't work on the Martials. Then again...

"Do you still have that burner phone?" he asked Maelyn.

"Sure." She retrieved the black device from her purse and set it on the coffee table. "You really think you can fool a Martial agent though? Even the junior ones are no pushover."

"We don't have to fool the agents. You said Stormspear is the weakest link, but that's not true. They'll need more office workers to keep the wheels spinning."

Maelyn wrinkled her nose. "They won't have access to anything important."

"This is only step one," Kalden replied, underlining that part of the blackboard for emphasis. "We'll worry about access later. But the Martials aren't web experts. They probably contract with a third party. If we can get a name—"

Darren snapped his fingers. "Pretend to be an account auditor—someone who already has access to these records. We can say there's a discrepancy with the billing. That should be enough to finagle some basics from them."

"Sounds like a plan." Maelyn slid the phone toward Darren.

"What?" Darren said. "Not me!"

"You're the accounting major."

"I also sound like a thirteen-year-old," he said without a hint of shame. "Your voice is so mature and refined."

She snorted. "If it's mature you want, then why not have Kalden do it?"

Kalden shook his head. "I might sound mature for my age, but I won't pass for a scary auditor."

"I'm not scary!" Maelyn protested.

"Unless you're mad," Darren said. "Then you look like a pissed-off librarian."

"Librarians are scary?" Kalden asked.

Darren nodded. "Have you seen Mrs. Kamoto?"

"You're an idiot," Maelyn deadpanned.

"There!" Darren slapped the table. "Do that voice for the Martial accountants. They'll give you whatever you want."

They spent the next few minutes hammering out the details of the script. Then after bouncing between a few departments, Maelyn finally got the name of the Martials' web development firm.

The battle was all downhill from there. She called the firm later that afternoon, posing as a prospective client. The salesman was all too happy to discuss their government contract, and how they'd built the interface on a system called Crosshair. After some more prodding, he even sent them a non-indexed URL for the control panel.

Everything was password-protected, of course, but that wouldn't matter for long.



Step two: discover a weakness in the system.

"The CMS is called Crosshair," Kalden messaged Relia in the chat room. He'd been worried about finding her again after the battle in White Vale. Fortunately, she'd retrieved her computer from the Contested Area, and she continued using the dark web for recruitment.

"Coming right up," she responded. Then she sent him a zip file filled with dozens of exploits and scripts.

Kalden had already researched this software before messaging her. Apparently, it had been developed in Espiria a few decades back. No one used it in the outside world these days, so those exploits were all strictly academic. But software engineers were rare on Arkala, and hackers were even rarer. Even if they'd fixed many of these exploits over the years, he only needed one to work.

"Can you guys test these yourselves?" Maelyn asked as they poured over the list.

"No way," Kalden said. "This is all gibberish to me. We'll need Akari." He trailed off, turning away from the monitor to face his friends. "Things only get riskier from here. If Akari and I get away, we'll be free. But you two..."

"I'm staying," Darren said. "You can't pull this off by yourself."

"Same," Maelyn said. "We'll see this through to the end."

And that was the extent of their explanations. They still didn't believe him about the outside world, and he couldn't share any specifics about Relia without implicating them in his crimes. Still, they risked everything to help him get there.

Kalden hadn't chosen his first friends any more than he'd chosen alchemy as a profession. But their loyalty to him was far stronger than his loyalty to his family.

Maelyn cleared her throat. "I don't mean to be Captain Obvious, but what can Akari do without internet access?"

A fair question. Her foster parents didn't own a computer, and she was still banned from the lab at Elegan High. Security guards followed her at all times, and her teachers were told to call the office if she missed a single class.

To make matters worse, the Martials knew her exact schedule, and they would investigate any discrepancies. This meant sneaking back into school was out of the question.

But school was the only place they could pull this off without drawing attention. They just had to find a time when no one would miss her.

"Don't worry," Kalden said after a long silence. "I have a plan."



Step three: get access to a computer.

Akari stood under the hot spring sun, roasting with a hundred of her peers. They'd all gathered in the quad for graduation day, and the end couldn't come fast enough.

Unfortunately, when your clan name was 'Zeller', you really were the last one to walk.

Her sixteenth birthday had come and gone, and she'd stayed with the Cliftons that entire time. Not that Noella had made it easy. Her foster mother had taken a page from Emberlyn's book these past few months, taunting her to either use her Mana Arts or run away.

As if it's my fault your husband cheated on you.

Akari had endured it for more than a hundred days, biding her time for this moment. If she and Kalden failed today, the Martials would put her in prison until she was old and gray.

If they succeeded, they would never be safe again. But she would have her Mana Arts back. More importantly, she and Kalden would leave this island together and have a chance at real advancement.

The hours rolled by, and Akari shifted in her seat, sweating beneath her blouse and blazer. Waiting was the worst part of any fight. Nothing to do but imagine all the ways she might fail.

"Darren Warder," the announcer said into the microphone.

Darren rose a few seats to her left and stepped toward the stage.

"Rina Watase."

A Shokenese girl stood up next, and the wind caught her long black braids.

"Folan Yacksbane."

A red-haired Espirian boy followed.

Seriously? His clan name was Yacksbane? How had she gone to this school for three years and never heard that? And what in Talek's name had his ancestors done to that poor yack?

"Akari Zeller," the announcer said, pulling her from her thoughts.

She stood and followed the others. Darren had accepted his diploma by now, but he didn't return to his seat. Instead, he vanished into the shadows behind the stage.

With so many eyes on her, Akari's restraints felt twice as heavy as usual, rubbing against her ankles and wrists with every step. She'd spent the last few months wearing long-sleeve blouses with leggings or tights beneath her skirts. Most days, these kept her cuffs out of sight.

PE class was harder—Elegan High's uniform was just a simple blue t-shirt and a pair of matching shorts. Mazren had gotten her some athletic tights and a compression shirt, but the other girls had still seen her change every day in the locker room. After that, it hadn't taken long for the rumors to start.

They said Akari was a Bronze tramp who'd tried to seduce Kalden. Why? Well, that depended on who you asked. Some people claimed she wanted to get pregnant so she would have a Silver child. Others said she just wanted his money.

No one knew the exact story from Phoenix Park, but they knew Emberlyn and Akari had dueled there. Apparently, Emberlyn had nobly fought for Kalden, declaring her love for him.

Akari was the violent one in every version of the story. People said she punched and kicked at Emberlyn, using dirty street fighting tricks rather than real Mana Arts. Others said she got her hands on Kalden's Missile rods and used those.

Some more 'outlandish' rumors claimed that Akari had learned a secret Bronze version of Mana Arts. However, these powers came at a cost. They eroded away her sanity and self-control, making her attack people in fits of primal rage. The cuffs stopped that from happening.

Well, at least they knew the cuffs blocked mana. Somehow, most people ignored that fact.

Akari wondered if she could have drawn less attention by wearing the restraints as a fashion statement rather than a shameful secret. Kalden could have pulled that off. Then again, Kalden didn't even take PE classes. He spent most of the day off at Elegan Community College, and she only caught glimpses of him in the morning.

As usual, it was easy to act cool and composed when the rules didn't apply to you.

Akari took ten more steps toward the front of the stage, trying to hold her head high rather than shrinking back from their gazes.

Even the other Bronze had turned against her. Sometimes, a small act of rebellion could earn you some notoriety. Not this time. The others all kept their distance—probably so they didn't end up in the crosshairs themselves. They'd given up on life a long time ago. And if Akari had been more like them, she wouldn't have these restraints weighing her down.

But careful people didn't change the world. She would have to change it for them.

Akari accepted her useless piece of paper, then she followed in Darren's footsteps behind the stage. Here, the security guards stood in front of the various school entrances.

"Look for Alec," Kalden had said in his last message. "He's the same guard who took you to our first meeting."

She spotted the lanky man near a side entrance and tried to walk past him.

The guard held out a hand as she approached.

"I need to use the bathroom," Akari told him.

He shook his head. "Can't let you in there without an escort, Miss Zeller."

"Seriously?" She crossed her arms. "School's over. I graduated."

"It's still the rule."

"Well, I've been holding it for two hours already. Any longer, and—"

"I can escort Miss Zeller," a female voice said. Akari turned to see Maelyn standing right behind her on the sidewalk. She smiled at the guard as she stepped toward the door. "Won't let her out of my sight. I promise"

Akari grinned as she followed Maelyn into the school. At first, she'd assumed Kalden had paid off Alec to escort her and look the other way. In hindsight, that would only get the guard in trouble, and that wasn't Kalden's style.

After stopping at the bathroom (she hadn't been lying about that part) they made their way to the computer lab. Maelyn looked both ways, then knocked in a rhythmic pattern.

Darren opened the door a second later, gesturing them inside. Kalden was already sitting at a computer, and he spun around in his chair to face her. After months of sneaking around and exchanging notes, seeing them all together again felt strangely surreal.

"Hurry." Kalden gestured toward the other computers. "My guess is we have thirty minutes before someone misses us."

Thirty minutes. Akari had dealt with worse time constraints when she'd snuck in here between classes. In many ways, she'd spent an entire semester preparing for this exact scenario.

A note from David Musk

So, we just jumped ahead two months in just a single chapter. Some readers might find that jarring, but hear me out! In my original outline, I'd planned to show another chapter of content between these last two—sort of a "return to the familiar" beat. But once I actually got to this point, I realized we've been beating Akari down for the last 5+ chapters already, and we didn't need any more of that. I also felt like Akari and Kalden both had clear enough motivations to skip ahead (although Kalden's motives will be expanded more in future chapters.)

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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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