Kalden eyed the figures as they emerged. They were both Espirian—a man and a woman in their mid-thirties. The woman wore her hair in a tight brown bun behind her head. The man's hair was cropped in a short military cut, about the same length as his beard.
A Martial with a beard? That was new. This guy might be undercover, but still.
Kalden relaxed his vision, seeing the world through his Silver Sight. Neither of them cycled their mana, which seemed like another good sign. The man was definitely a Gold, judging by the glowing light in his chest. Not as strong as Agent Frostblade, but still several hundred points beyond Kalden's level.
The woman, however...
"Step on it!" Akari said. "Those are Martials."
"They're not Martials," he replied. "The woman's a Bronze."
"Relia never said she'd meet us herself." Her messages had all been vague, but he couldn't blame her for that. The Martials had already ambushed her once.
Akari ignored him, adjusting the grip on her Missile rod.
"Think about it." Kalden held up a hand. "Why would they ambush us here? Why tip their hand so early when they could follow us to Relia's hideout?"
She let out a long breath, coating the windshield with a layer of gray fog. "They're still Shadow Artists. How do you explain that?"
Kalden glanced forward again, and the man raised his hand in a friendly wave.
Akari was right, though. They definitely wore Martial armor. Shadow Artists didn't have Cloak techniques—no one in the Foundation realm did. Instead, they relied on micro-Constructs in their clothing to refract the light.
However, this armor was far from pristine. The material showed signs of wear near the pockets, and the hems were frayed around the leg openings. Their leather boots were equally well worn, with layers of mud caked around the rubber soles. You couldn't fake that without spending some time in the wild.
"Let's ask them," he said as he opened the car door.
Akari pushed open her own door, muttering curses under her breath.
"Kalden and Akari?" the man asked as they approached.
Akari pointed her rod straight at the man's face, diplomatic as ever.
They both displayed their open palms without a hint of unease.
"That's us," Kalden said.
"I'm Jared Redwater," the man said. "This is my wife..."
"Viviana," she replied with a wave. "We work with Relia."
A Gold married to a Bronze? No—he must have seen that wrong. Kalden looked through his Silver Sight again, but the evidence was clear as an empty vial The woman's soul was no brighter than Akari's. Closer to SIlver than most Bronze, but Bronze nonetheless.
"Cute," Akari said without lowering her weapon. "But where'd you get the armor?"
The man cleared his throat. "My previous employer."
"The Martials?" Kalden guessed.
He nodded once. "I was a Shadow Artist. Not all of us agreed with how they handled things."
"So you deserted?
"Retired," he corrected. "Four months ago. We are allowed to leave, you know."
"Sometimes," the woman muttered.
Akari didn't relax at that, and Kalden felt his own worries rise. Relia had proven herself as a Mana Artist, but she had blind spots when it came to judgment. If she was recruiting, then what stopped the Martials from infiltrating her ranks?
He'd need Darren and Maelyn to look into this 'Jared Redwater' and find out—
But no, he'd left his friends back in Elegan. It could be years before he saw them again.
Focus. If the Martials had planted a spy, then why hadn't they attacked by now? Relia was gathering more recruits and resources by the day. Meanwhile, the Martials were as prepared as they'd ever been.
Maybe they were trying to lure out more 'traitors'? No. They'd be fools to give Relia any wiggle room. What's more, her advice had been invaluable in their escape. She'd been certain that disabling Akari's cuffs would be enough, and that the Martials wouldn't predict that level of hacking.
When he'd asked her about this, she'd responded with a vague, "I have my ways."
A Martial informant would explain a lot, in hindsight. But that wasn't enough for Kalden to follow these two blindly into the forest. You didn't chug a potion just because it probably wasn't lethal.
"How did Relia end up trusting an ex-Martial?" Kalden finally asked.
Redwater didn't miss a beat. "We met in Keylas the night she and her master showed up. The Martials had protocols for dealing with invaders—especially powerful Mana Artists like them. But this guy—Relia's master— cooperated with us at every step. It seemed like he wanted to help, but the others lured him into a gas chamber. No one told me why."
Well, that seemed to fit Relia's story.
"They took him to Mt. Khasa," Redwater went on, "after they cuffed and poisoned him."
"Cuffs and poison," Akari echoed with clear skepticism. "That worked on a Grandmaster?"
A fair question. As far as durability went, impedium ranked somewhere between aluminum and copper. Maelyn's hacksaw had broken through it in mere minutes. Meanwhile, they'd seen Relia's master break stone with his bare hands.
Even Relia had survived that gas with her Cloak technique. Sure, her aspect made her more specialized, but her master was supposedly several times stronger than her.
"These cuffs weren't the same ones they used on you," Redwater explained. "They were mixed with another material. Some kind of unbreakable crystal."
"I've never heard of anything like that," Kalden said.
"Neither had I. And everything about it is classified."
Interesting. but that was a tangent. They had to make a decision—preferably in the next few minutes.
Redwater cleared his throat, "Relia went on a rampage a few minutes later. I couldn't blame her—she'd seen the whole thing on camera. She knew we struck first. When she got to me, I threw down my weapons and stepped aside. She let me go, and I found her again after White Vale."
Kalden nodded, turning to face the Bronze woman. "And you?"
"I was Jared's CI for a couple years," she said with a grin. "Things changed when he finally woke up."
CI? Kalden wasn't up to speed with Martial lingo, but he thought the 'I' stood for informant. The 'C' either meant 'criminal' or 'confidential'—he couldn't recall which.
Still, he could read between the lines. A Martial had fallen in love with a Bronze, and she'd helped him become disillusioned with the system. That night in Keylas had just been the final straw.
"We want to leave this island," she continued. "Same as you."
Kalden shot a glance at Akari. She still seemed skeptical, but she'd lowered her weapon at some point. Good enough.
"Alright," he said. "How's this work? We follow you guys back to Relia?"
Redwater nodded. "Our car's parked a mile up the road. If you can give us a ride, we'll go from there."
After driving the Redwaters to their own car, Kalden followed them deeper into the mountains. They eventually broke off the main road into a long, single-lane driveway. The car rumbled on the gravel, and every pothole made him cringe inside. He'd never driven on a dirt road before, but he'd gotten a flat tire outside the school parking lot. Never a good way to end the day.
Several trees hung over their path, and some looked ready to collapse. At one point, their route carried them around a cliff edge with hardly any railings between them and the drop-off.
How did people live out here in the middle of nowhere? Did they drive an hour to get groceries? Who plowed the snow?
Both cars stopped when they reached a massive iron gate. A pair of guards stood on the battlements above, holding what looked like Missile rods or rifles.
"Okay," Kalden muttered as the gate slid open. "Relia's not messing around." He'd thought things would get harder for her after White Vale. Apparently not.
Once the gate was open, he followed the other car beneath the archway. A log cabin greeted them on the other side.
Well, calling it a cabin made it sound modest. The structure was at least half the size of Kalden's own home—three stories high if you counted the garages on the bottom. The façade was a mix of logs, flagstone, and tall glass windows. Dozens of warm lights shone from within, making it glow against the surrounding trees.
A pair of garage doors opened on the bottom level, and the Redwaters' car drove straight inside.
Kalden hesitated at first, but then a familiar redhead stepped out the cabin's front door and gestured him into the garage. His muscles relaxed at the sight of Relia. She wore a red flannel shirt and a pair of light blue jeans. Amusingly, she was barefoot despite the cold night air. Did Apprentices even get cold, or did their Cloak techniques fix that problem? He'd have to ask her sometime. There were so many mysteries beyond the Foundation realm—things he couldn't learn from books.
Kalden pulled into the next available stall, and he heard the gravely sound of the garage door close behind him.
"Hey!" Relia said when they opened their doors. "Glad you made it."
Kalden forced a smile as he glanced around the garage. "You seem to be doing well. How many drake cores did it take to buy this place?"
"Who says it's mine?" She shrugged, tossing her braid over her shoulder. "Did you guys think you were my only recruits?"
The Redwaters exited their own car, and Kalden shot a questioning glance toward them.
"Nope. Believe it or not, this belongs to another Bronze family."
Kalden raised an eyebrow. He knew wealthy Bronze existed, but he'd never met any. Unfortunately, that made a lot of sense when he considered what happened between Akari and the other Golds. Not only had they tried to kill her, but they'd gotten away with it.
Clearly, this family wanted to be as far from his kind as possible.
"Sorry for not meeting you myself," Relia said as they headed for the door. "Jared's been doing the pickups for a while now."
"True." The ex-Martial stepped up and clapped Relia on the shoulder. "This one might be a powerhouse, but subtlety's not her strong suit."
"Or patience," she added.
He nodded. "Speaking of patience..."
"Yes," Relia answered his unspoken question. "We saved you all dinner."
She directed them all toward the kitchen where they feasted on leftover pork, rolls, and potatoes. The cabin's interior was far cozier than the outside. It actually reminded him of the Hunter's Guild with its rustic walls and wood plank floors.
Relia gave them the grand tour afterward, introducing people as they went. Only one Bronze family lived here, but Kalden counted multiple generations, ranging from grandparents to teenagers. Most were dressed for battle, wearing leather vests over their clothing with Missile rods or handguns on their hips.
Akari always complained how her fellow Bronze were too scared to fight back, but this painted a very different picture.
They were halfway through the tour when Kalden realized he was the only one wearing a badge. He took it off when no one was looking and stuffed it in the pocket of his dress pants. For most of his life, that metal disc had been an easy source of respect, but these people considered Golds the enemy. They seemed to respect Relia, but she'd earned her notoriety in battle.
Kalden would have to do the same.
"Sorry," Relia said as they approached the main floor's bedrooms. "This is awkward, but I never asked before." She gestured a finger between Kalden and Akari "What's your status?"
"Tired." Akari moved her glasses to rub at her eyes. "Long day."
Kalden nodded his agreement. He'd been too anxious to sleep last night, and he felt that now. Adrenaline could only carry you so far.
"No!" Relia shook her head. "I mean—are you guys a couple?"
"What?" Kalden blinked at the absurd question. "No. We're just friends" Seriously—how had Relia not known that? They'd spent an entire day together in White Vale
"Oh. Well, this is really awkward then because we already made some assumptions." She paused as if for dramatic effect. "We have you two sharing the last bed down the hall. "
"Ah." Kalden cleared his throat, feeling his ears go hot as their talk drew more attention from the other soldiers. "I'll just sleep on the floor or something. It's no big deal."
Akari just snorted. "She's messing with us."
"I am." Relia's grin widened, and several of the Bronze soldiers broke into laughs.
Damnit. Kalden resisted the urge to cover his face. He was normally better at reading people. Then again, Darren and Maelyn were the only ones who ever joked with him, and even they kept things professional most of the time. Akari clearly had far more experience.
"Kalden can bunk with the other guys in the loft. Relia pointed up to where a wooden balcony overlooked the living room and kitchen. "Akari can stay with me downstairs. That's where the computers are, so I figure you'll want to be close to those anyway."
Their tour took them into the basement where he noticed two billiards tables, a bar, and a walkout porch with a hot tub outside.
So, this place hadn't always been a secret rebel base.
"And here are the computers," Relia said as they passed through another door.
Kalden followed them into the office where three desks sat against three walls. The station in the middle had multiple monitors, including the thin, portable computer that Relia had brought from the outside world.
"We'll get you set up on one of these tomorrow," Relia said to Akari. "Maybe there's still time to work your magic against the Martials."
Finally, she took them to a balcony that wrapped around the front of the cabin. They had a clear view of the iron gate from here, and he realized that both sides stretched into a ten-foot-high wall of solid stone. Between that and the narrow driveway, this place would be a nightmare to attack.
The Martials would need explosives or grappling hooks to get past the wall, and either option would leave them too exposed. Even helicopters were no match for Relia's Missiles.
So we're safe for now.
Unfortunately, the Martials already knew their target. Why send a few dozen soldiers here tonight when they could have three-hundred waiting for them at the prison?