Step four: disable the cuffs.
Akari lowered herself into the familiar cushioned chair. Her fingers stretched over the mechanical keyboard, and it felt as surreal as seeing her friends again. She hadn't touched a real computer since that last night in Kalden's house—the night everything started going wrong.
"I already logged into my home computer," Kalden said from the seat beside her. "Hopefully I did it right."
Akari nodded her approval at the open terminal window. They'd definitely be screwed without his VPN.
Speaking of problems. Her gaze flicked to Kalden's monitor, and she remembered the security cameras. She and Maelyn had already passed two to get into the computer lab, and they'd have to pass another one to get out of here.
Akari reached down the front of her blouse and pulled out the login info she'd hidden there. "This should still work," she told Kalden as she slid the paper toward him. "Grandhall caught me in the lab, but he doesn't know I hacked his account."
Kalden's hand flicked across the keyboard beside her, and she saw the North Elegan Security page pop up.
"Got it," he said. "Pausing all recording for today."
As he worked, Akari opened Relia's folder of exploits. "Try to overwrite today's footage with yesterday's," she told him. "Harder to get it back that way."
Of course, they might still recover the footage if they kept redundant backups, but Akari didn't expect much from that firm.
The Martials, on the other hand...
She scrolled through the list of Crosshair exploits, considering her options. Bruteforcing the passwords was off the table here, and they probably guarded against basic code injection. Akari had learned those tricks on the dark web, which meant her enemy could learn them too.
She found a few scripts that ran server-side code directly from the address bar. Huh, that's new. The scripts themselves were far beyond her skill level, but that didn't matter. All she had to do was modify the variable with an admin's email address, then she bypassed the login screen.
Akari pulled out Agent Stormspear's card and typed in his email. The control panel opened a second later, and she released a long breath. She'd only been gone from the awards ceremony for five minutes, so this was perfect timing.
The control panel was a barebones page with only three options. The first two let her disable the cuffs' alarm feature or extend the radius for a specified amount of time. The third option disabled the alarm and unlocked the cuffs.
Her heart thundered in her chest as she hovered her mouse over the final option and pressed the button.
Nothing happened at first, but a progress bar began filling in the browser's bottom right corner. Akari held her breath, bracing herself for the feeling of freedom.
A bright red error message flashed across the page: "Unapproved IP address. Please request approval by clicking the link below."
"What?" Her blood froze as she stared at the message. Kalden had printed out Crosshair's documentation, and she'd spent the past few weeks pouring over every detail. This wasn't a native feature. In fact, she'd never heard of this happening on any system.
Akari tried clicking the top two options. Disabling the alarm wasn't ideal, but it might give them enough time to remove the cuffs manually.
The same error message.
Kalden leaned closer. "What's wrong?"
"We're screwed." Akari wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt and scrolled back through Relia's list of exploits. Everything here revolved around getting past the login wall or reading the database. The Martials knew they couldn't patch every exploit from the outside world, so they invented something new.
If Akari were a real hacker, she could have improvised a way around this. Unfortunately, she wasn't a real hacker. She liked to boast in front of strangers, but she knew the truth in her heart. She stood on the shoulders of geniuses, but she never could have written these scripts herself.
"We still have time," Kalden said in a surprisingly calm voice. "You can do this. Just relax. Focus."
If only it were that easy. But he was right about one thing—this wasn't over.
Akari clicked the link in the error message, and it took her to a simple form where she could request access. A quick source code inspection revealed three email addresses—probably the site admins. She copied the addresses to a separate text file, then backtracked to the login page. Running the same script as before, she entered the admin's email in the variable field rather than Agent Stormspear's.
Success. Another version of the control panel popped open. This one had far more options than the first. Feeling a surge of hope, Akari navigated to the same page as before and found her name from among a list of hundreds.
She clicked the button, and...
"Unapproved IP address. Please request approval by clicking the link below."
Damnit. Even the site's admins weren't immune.
"Where are the IPs stored?" Kalden asked.
Akari shook her head. "Probably some file on the server. There's no way I'll reach it."
"Can you use the VPN to trick it? Make it seem like you're connecting from the Martial's office?"
"No." She clutched the mouse so hard she thought the plastic casing might break. "It's not that accurate."
Kalden went silent, clearly out of ideas.
The door creaked open behind her. Akari immediately glanced up, having flashbacks from the last time she'd been caught in here.
"Someone's coming," Darren whispered as he stepped inside. "Headteacher Grandhall, plus three guards."
"Damnit." Kalden rose from his chair. "We need more time."
"Sure," Darren said, "I'm sure they'll understand if I—"
"Help me move the furniture," he interjected. "We're gonna barricade the door."
They set to it. In less than a minute, they had three wooden desks barring the room's only exit.
On Akari's left, Maelyn reached into her purse and pulled out a ten-inch hacksaw. "There's always Plan B if we need it."
Akari bit her lip and turned her eyes back to the monitor. If they broke the cuffs, they would alert every Martial on the island. She and Kalden would never make it out of this school, much less the city.
The boys moved more desks, and Akari clicked frantically through the pages. The admin users had hundreds of options, but most were irrelevant for her current problem.
However, one section caught her eye—a set of uploaded code files that interfaced directly with the cuffs. She copied the files over to her local code editor, reading the lines one by one.
The door rattled behind her, and muffled voices echoed from the other side. Kalden and Darren piled another desk on their wooden mountain.
Focus, Akari told herself. Just like Mana Arts. Keep fighting until the end.
One function triggered the alarm if someone tampered with the cuffs. Disabling that was useless, though. The alarm would still trigger in other places outside of this website.
Two more functions executed the code for disabling or removing the cuffs. Unfortunately, she had no way to trigger that without access to the site's codebase. Only those control panel buttons fired it, and those were locked behind the IP checker.
But if she copied the second function's code and put it inside the first...
"Alright." Akari rolled up her leggings to reveal the cuff on her left ankle. "Start cutting."
Maelyn's eyes widened as she knelt down on the short carpet. "Seriously?"
Akari nodded, gesturing at the code editor. "I'm gonna re-program this."
"Great," the other girl said, "so why—"
"I can't run the code from the server." Akari began combining the two files. "But I can modify this first function. It's supposed to trigger an alarm when someone breaks the cuffs. I can make it trigger the unlock function instead."
Maelyn began sawing at the small control box. "You sure that'll work?"
Hell no. The Martials might have a failsafe to prevent this sort of thing. What if they got the alarm before the server code fired? Or what if she made a syntax error somewhere?
"Of course I'm sure," she told Maelyn. Then she saved the code adjustments and prayed to all the Angels this actually worked.
Two more cuts from Maelyn's saw, and the control box snapped open. The compartment was no bigger than her watch head. With the insides laid bare, Maelyn wasted no time exchanging her saw for a screwdriver. Her movements were precise as she worked—she'd probably practiced this before. Maybe Kalden had ordered a practice set for them?
The second screw popped out of its hole, and the cuff loosened around her ankle. Akari tightened every muscle in her body, waiting for the alarm.
Instead, her other three cuffs clicked open and clattered to the floor.
Oh, thank Talek.
Mana raced through her channels in a strange mix of pain and pleasure, and she had to stop herself from forming Missiles in her palms.
"Nice job," Kalden's voice pulled her from her reverie. "Now let's move."
He jumped on top of the nearest desk and began shifting the ceiling tile inside. Maelyn gathered up Akari's fallen cuffs into her purse and climbed up on the desk beside him.
After clearing her trail and shutting down the computer, Akari followed.
Kalden boosted Maelyn up first, then he turned back to Darren who was still holding the mountain of desks against the door.
"Someone has to stay behind," Darren said through gritted teeth. "Never liked narrow spaces, anyway."
Kalden nodded at his friend. "Thanks for everything. You were—"
"Yeah yeah," Darren said. "Let's not get all sentimental. Just say hi to Sozen for me, alright?"
Akari reached for the ceiling next, pulling herself into the crawl space without help. It was far easier now than it had been last year. Her Mana Arts had hardened her muscles, making her feel twice as strong. And while her limbs hadn't tasted mana in several months, that just gave her more time to build the muscles themselves.
Kalden climbed into the ceiling next, and they moved the tile back into place behind him.
Almost free. Just a little farther.
Akari drew in a deep breath to calm her shaking hands, then she led the others through the dark crawl space.
Step five: get out of Elegan.
Kalden followed Akari through the crawl space, dodging pipes and wires along the way. It still felt wrong to leave Darren behind, but they'd known this might happen. His friends had helped him escape, but they had no desire to leave Arkala themselves.
Understandable. They hadn't heard Relia's story about the outside world, and Kalden couldn't tell them without serious consequences. The less they knew now, the less they had to lie when the Martials came knocking.
Even Akari hadn't wanted to leave until they backed her into a corner. As for Kalden, he'd been preparing for this since his brother left. But these last few months had tipped the scale in earnest. It wasn't just about how the state treated Akari, but the way they chose ignorance over knowledge.
Akari had become a Bronze Mana Artist—something they'd claimed was impossible. And how did they react? They ignored it. They didn't even try to deny it or reason it away—they knew that would only fuel the fires. Instead, they'd hidden her away without a trial, just like Relia's master.
How many more discoveries had they buried? What happened to the scientists of the past who sought to prove themselves wrong?
If this was the world they lived in, then Kalden wanted no part of it. But he couldn't expect his friends to find that same drive so quickly. Even if they didn't, who wanted to brave the hundred-foot tides of the Inner Sea? Not to mention all the fights between here and the shore.
I'll come back for you, he thought as he crawled over another pipe. He and Akari would train until they were strong enough to oppose these unseen enemies. They'd become stronger than Relia—stronger than her master, even. Whatever it took, they would free the people they'd left behind. Not just Darren and Maelyn, but all their friends and family. Everyone they'd ever known.
After another minute of crawling, Akari stopped and perched on a wooden support beam, gesturing to a particular ceiling tile on their left.
"Girls' bathroom is down here," she whispered.
The bathroom wasn't the only exit, but it was definitely the safest. The toilets gave them an easy way to climb down without damaging the ceiling tiles. They also reduced their risk of being spotted here.
But if he'd realized that, then so could others. What if Grandhall had placed a dozen guards beyond the door? That seemed a little dramatic for a high school, but Kalden was done underestimating his enemies. He still didn't know why they'd closed in on the computer lab. Had they gotten a tip from Emberlyn or Tusk? How long would Darren keep them busy?
"You're up," he whispered to Maelyn. "Scout ahead, and radio us what you find."
Maelyn gave him a half-salute as she shifted the foam-like tile aside
"And whatever you do," Akari said, "don't drop your glasses in the toilet."
"Speaking from experience, are you?" Maelyn grinned, but she took Akari's advice and held onto her silver frames as she lowered her head.
"So far so good." She placed both hands on the support beam and climbed backwards through the opening.
Kalden moved the tile back into place behind her and pulled out his handheld transceiver. If this went badly, they'd have to seize Maelyn's distraction and make a run for it.
"All clear," Maelyn said through the radio a few seconds later.
"We'll be right down," Kalden replied as he moved the tile again.
The corridors were empty like Maelyn said. He couldn't even hear the guards banging on the doors anymore. Hopefully, that meant Darren had bought them more time, and not that they'd given up and started looking elsewhere.
They went their separate ways when they passed the school's main entrance. Once Maelyn got a head start on the road, she would re-enable Akari's cuffs and draw the Martials' attention toward the east. If all went according to plan, she'd be halfway to Tidegate by then.
Meanwhile, he and Akari would head west toward Ironhaven.
Kalden held up a hand when they reached the school's back door. Unlike the sliding glass doors in the front, this one was made of hollow steel, and it would trigger an alarm without the proper keycard.
He reached into his pocket and produced the custodian's card they'd copied earlier that week. The light turned green when he swiped it, and the door popped open on its own. Kalden pushed it open several more inches, then he used a pocket-sized mirror to peak around the corner.
This side of the school was empty as usual—just a few dumpsters and recycling bins. But a white van sat parked directly across the street.
"Martials?" Akari whispered.
"Can't tell," Kalden replied, "but it's too risky. We'll never get out of town if they spot us."
"Great," she muttered. "Any ideas?"
Kalden considered that for a moment, then reached for the transceiver he'd clipped to his belt. "Maelyn? You still there?"
In hindsight, they should have invented codenames in case the Martial's tapped into their channel. He'd always wanted his own codename—how had they forgotten that?
"Still here," came her voice among bursts of static. "Just admiring your car."
"We need a distraction," Kalden said. "There's a van parked across Timber Street. Could be the Martials—we're not sure."
"Need me to turn the cuffs back on?"
"Negative," Kalden snapped back. "That's a last resort. For now, just be as conspicuous as possible."
Thirty seconds passed, and the only sounds were the echoing voices from the quad's closing ceremonies. Finally, Kalden heard the familiar purr of his car's engine. Maelyn pulled behind the school, straight toward the white van. Then—as if she'd just noticed it there—she did a U-turn in the road before tearing off in the other direction.
Not bad, Kalden thought with a grin. He could practically see the gears turning in his opponents' heads. Was this group of teenagers smart enough to make a diversion, or were they dumb enough to run away?
They must have chosen the latter option because the van started moving.
Once it was out of sight, Kalden and Akari headed for the real getaway car.