Akari sat in the front passenger seat, watching the farmland roll by. They'd been driving for almost fifteen minutes now, and the sun fell like a dying flame on the horizon.
Kalden's knuckles were white as he gripped the leather steering wheel, but Akari couldn't blame him for being scared. Her own heart still pounded in her chest, and her eyes darted in every direction, half-expecting a squad of police cars to pop up in the rear-view mirror.
Or worse—a Martial helicopter.
How long would it take them to realize what happened? What if Headteacher Grandhall had put the pieces together? Would he report her to the Martials? How much time would Maelyn's diversion buy them?
Their destination was more than an hour away. If even one Martial saw them leave, they'd never make it in time. Sure, the parking lot had looked empty, but what about Shadow Artists? What about—
"I'm sorry," Kalden's voice yanked her from her thoughts.
"What?" Akari blinked. "Did I miss something?"
"For what I said last time."
"Outside school," he clarified, "the morning after you met my mom."
Talek. That was their last conversation? Kalden had pulled her from the river, and they'd exchanged plenty of notes over the past month. But he was right ... they hadn't really talked since that day.
"I told you to take her offer," Kalden began.
"Yeah," she said. "I remember now."
"A part of me thought money would fix things," he continued. "But Emberlyn and Tusk proved me wrong. This sort of thing has been happening to Bronze everywhere, and I've ignored it."
Akari just shrugged. "And I'm sorry for saying you don't have a backbone. After what you did today..." She bit her lip before continuing. "You're the most badass Gold I know."
He grinned at that—an amusing mix of pride and embarrassment. "Hey, I'm not the one who hacked the Martials."
"They didn't put slave cuffs on you either." Akari rubbed at her wrists, still enjoying her newfound freedom. "You could have walked away."
Kalden shook his head. "When I was younger, my parents told me stories about our ancestors, and how they sacrificed themselves on the battlefield. I never understood back then. I couldn't imagine how any cause was worth dying over." He tore his gaze from the road to meet her eye. "But I get it now. How much is your life worth if you don't believe in something?"
They drove in silence for a few more minutes before Kalden spoke again. "Did you talk to Mazren before you left?"
"Not much," Akari said as she leaned back against the soft headrest. After how tight-lipped he'd been about their relationship, she didn't feel too bad for leaving him in the dark. "What about you? Say anything to your mom?"
"I would have, but Sozen already tried talking to her about the outside world. She's only doubled down on her stance since then."
"Yeah," Akari muttered. "I know the feeling." She'd never brought up the outside world to anyone before she met Relia—that would earn her the title of 'crazy conspiracy theorist.' However, she hadn't kept quiet about Bronze Mana Artists, especially when her teachers spewed their propaganda in class.
They'd practically called her a heretic after that. As if science were some old-world religion and not a system of knowledge that was meant to be questioned.
"It's easy to fool people," Relia had told them before. "But convincing them they've already been fooled? That's one of the hardest things in the world."
"I left her a note in my alchemy lab," Kalden continued. "Someone should find it eventually."
Damnit. Why didn't she think of that? Mazren had been there at the graduation ceremony, and he'd even talked about helping her find a job. He wasn't perfect, but he was trying to make things better between them.
After all that, it felt a little heartless to leave without a word. But she and Kalden would come back here someday. When they did, they'd be strong enough to tear down this whole society.
They continued talking over the next hour, sharing all the things they couldn't share in their months apart. Finally, Kalden pulled off at a seemingly random exit outside of Ironhaven. The sky was dark, lit only by the moons, and the pale green light of the auroras. They took a right when they crested the offramp, turning north into a cavern of tall trees.
"It should be here somewhere," Kalden muttered as he drove. "Relia said she hid it by the first speed limit sign..."
Akari kept her eyes open, for all the good it would do. Kalden's vision was way better than hers, even after she'd updated her glasses last month.
"There." Kalden put some pressure on the breaks, then stopped the car next to a white sign that read, "65 MPH."
"Weird place to hide a note," Akari said.
Kalden shrugged as he opened the driver-side door. "Even rest stops have cameras. No chance we'll be seen this way."
Akari eyed the pitch-black forest. There could be Martials hiding just behind those trees.
You're a fugitive now, she reminded herself. Get used to it.
She'd never be safe again, not even once they found Relia.
Akari grabbed the Missile rod from under her seat and opened her own door. Gusts of cool night air blew through the corridor of trees, tossing strands of hair across her face. She clutched her weapon and followed Kalden off the road.
He knelt by the base of the speed limit sign, shining his flashlight on a pile of damp leaves. Several long seconds passed as he searched with no results. Great. They probably had the wrong sign or even the wrong exit. This would be a long night if—
Kalden reached into the dirt and pulled out a black cylinder-shaped container, about as long as her outstretched hand. He unscrewed the cap, then unrolled the paper he found inside.
Akari stood on her tiptoes to read over his shoulder. Unfortunately, the entire note was gibberish. A block cipher, maybe?
"I have the key in the car," Kalden said as he made his way back. "You can interpret as I drive."
Akari followed him with a nod. A few months ago, she might have rolled her eyes at all this secrecy. But she'd seen the people they were up against. Not just Martials like Frostblade, but even the other Golds like Kalden's mother. They all had their spies.
"What about my hoodie?" Akari shivered as the wind picked up again. "Is that in the car too?" She'd given that to Maelyn just before the graduation ceremony, along with her mana watch.
"Oh." Kalden's face took on a guilty look. "You wanted that?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Not funny."
He grinned as he unlocked the trunk and popped it open. More than a dozen bags had been crammed inside, along with enough armor, Missile rods, and liquid mana to fuel an army.
"Talek," she muttered. "Where'd you get all this?"
"Emptied my savings account last week," Kalden handed her his flashlight and began rummaging through the bags. "My mom's monthly statements won't matter once I'm gone."
True enough. That would also explain this extra car. It wasn't as fancy as the one Maelyn had taken to Tidegate, but it was still nicer than what her foster parents drove.
"Anyway"—Kalden pulled out a black backpack from the pile and handed it to her—"Maelyn packed this bag for you. Your hoodie should be inside. You can blame her if it's not."
Akari accepted the bag and unzipped the largest pocket. Sure enough, her things sat right on top. She threw the hoodie over her shoulders and attached the mana watch to her left wrist, ignoring the number that had been taunting her for the past month.
Kalden pulled out the cipher key from another bag, and Akari made quick work of it once they were on the road. The note had them drive north for another twenty miles, taking a series of winding back roads. Akari traced the route on the map, and it put them somewhere in the mountains between Ironhaven and White Vale. Basically, they'd be in the middle of nowhere, but that seemed like the point.
Akari rummaged through the backpack as Kalden drove, taking stock of the things Maelyn had left her. She pulled out a pair of black combat boots, along with several black t-shirts and dark wash jeans. Everything was the right size, of course. Even the bras had her exact measurements.
It was kind of creepy how Maelyn knew stuff like that, but Akari wasn't complaining.
Their route took them deeper into the wild, and Akari did her best to navigate. Unfortunately, she'd spent most of her life riding trains, and she had no experience with cars or maps. It didn't help when the road signs were hidden behind trees or bushes. More than once, they had to backtrack and find a street they'd missed.
Thank Talek the Martials weren't chasing them right now, or this would be a really short trip.
Finally, after what felt like hours of driving, they found the intersection from the note. It was pitch black in every direction, and they hadn't passed a driveway or street light for several miles.
"Great," Akari said. "More dark forests. This is how horror movies start, you know."
"Never seen a horror movie," Kalden said as he shifted the car into park.
"Seriously? What do you do on Angel's Eve?"
"Homework," Kalden said. "Same thing I do every holiday."
She blinked. "I can't tell if you're kidding or not."
"We should split up," he announced with a straight face. "We'll cover more ground that way."
"Yeah," she deadpanned. "You're definitely—" Just then, Akari spotted a flicker of movement ahead. Almost as if the air were rippling—warping the light from Kalden's car.
She'd seen that effect in White Vale. Akari opened her mouth to warn Kalden. Too late. The air distorted further, revealing two black-clad figures.