Akari sat in the darkness, surrounded by a ring of monitors. Her fingers flew across the keyboard as she tried to hack the Archipelago's most secure databases.

The Martials' mainframe was still off-limits, of course. That thing was ancient, and you had to go through a physical terminal in their Shoken Port office. No one had time for that.

Instead, she searched for weaknesses in their satellite offices. Jared Redwater had known about this secret prison in Mt. Khasa. That meant the other Martials knew too. And if they knew that much, then maybe she could find answers to their other questions. For example, how were they containing Relia's master? What cell was he in? What poison did they use? What about that 'classified' material they used in his cuffs?

They'd already been in this cabin for twenty-four hours, and they had another twenty-four before they launched their attack. Every answer she uncovered tonight might save lives tomorrow.

Relia had apologized for overworking earlier, but this was nothing compared to Akari's time in house arrest. She'd just spent the past two months feeling helpless and alone, with only a sliver of hope for her future. Now, she was surrounded by like-minded people, working toward a common goal. She also had unlimited access to a computer, and all the coffee and snacks she could want.

Eve of battle or not, things could be much worse.

And so she kept pushing for weaknesses, using a combination of Jared's entry points, and Relia's list of exploits. It was slow, monotonous work, but she'd take that over—

Akari jumped when footsteps echoed from the nearby staircase. Her eyes flicked back to the clock on her center monitor. Just past midnight. Must be Relia heading to bed. The garage took up most of the cabin's bottom level, and the two of them shared the only bedroom down here.

Still, Akari couldn't relax until she knew for sure. She rolled back her chair on the hardwood floor, peeking around the corner.

Sure enough, Relia stumbled down the stairs a second later. Weird. Was she drunk or something? Akari hadn't known Relia for long, but the other girl normally moved as gracefully as a dancer. Now, she gritted her teeth in pain, and she barely caught herself on the bar's granite surface.

Akari was about to go out there when Relia flipped open a small metal case, placing it on the bar. She couldn't see the contents from here, but a blue light shone from within, illuminating Relia's face in the dim lighting.

Mana. Some kind of alchemy pill?

Relia grabbed a glass from a nearby cabinet and filled it with water from the faucet. Then she eyed the open box as if torn between two tough decisions. Several minutes passed, but Akari couldn't pull her eyes away. They were all placing their lives in Relia's hands tomorrow, counting on her to handle most of the fighting. If these secrets endangered their group, that was her business too.

Relia pulled a glowing blue pill from the case. It must have been half as big as her thumb.

Yeah ... definitely alchemy.

Relia threw back her head and downed the pill in a single swallow. Then a gold-green light burst from her core, spreading through her channels until her body shone like leaves in the summer sun.

That was her Cloak technique ... the one she'd used back in White Vale to heal herself.

The glow faded a second later, and Relia closed the metal case. The only light source came from the two orange bulbs above the bar.

Akari chose that moment to step out of the office.

"Oh, hey." Relia stuffed the case into her pocket and grinned over at Akari. Her smile looked so real—as if she hadn't been struggling a few seconds before.

"What's up with the pills?" Akari asked.

Relia shrugged. "Nothing."

Akari raised an eyebrow. "You a drug addict or something?"

"Of course not!" Relia said. "They clear out my mana channels. That's all."

That's why you stumbled down here like a drunk person? Akari could have pried further, but she had more important questions. Best not to piss off the one person who could help her.

So she held her tongue, unclipping her mana watch and placing it over her chest.

Relia took a step closer, narrowing her eyes to make out the screen. Akari already knew what it said—that same number had been taunting her for the past thirty days, stubborn as a brick wall.

"You've been working hard," Relia when the watch finished measuring her soul.

Akari just shrugged. "There's more than one way to train."

"Did it hurt?"

Like hell, Akari thought. For the first few days of her house arrest, she'd tried pushing mana past the restraints, hoping she would break through with willpower alone. That was stupid in hindsight. Especially if these same cuffs had worked on Relia's master.

Eventually, she'd gotten creative and focused on other parts of her body. Hands and feet were the easiest way to release mana, but they weren't the only way. Unfortunately, she still had no choice but to cycle her mana through her limbs. That was the only way to gain momentum for a proper Missile.

It was painful, but she'd pushed through the pain. She'd trained under her blankets when she should have been sleeping. She'd trained while walking to school and while sitting in class. Despite her restraints, she'd trained several hours every day until she reached the peak of Bronze.

49/49, her mana watch said. One point away from Silver.

She should have broken through by now, but it hadn't worked. She'd removed her cuffs, but she couldn't shake these invisible chains around her soul.

Akari took a deep breath as she refastened her watch around her wrist. "I asked you about reaching Silver before. You called it effortless, but I've been stuck at this number for a month."

Relia winced. "I'm sorry. It is effortless in the outside world. But this island is different. I don't know why."

"How do you know it's the island's fault?"

"Viv has the same problem as you."

"Really?" She'd known Viviana was another Bronze Mana Artist, but Akari hadn't given the woman much thought beyond that. She hadn't had time with everything else going on.

"Jared's been training her," Relia said. "She hit forty-nine mana a few weeks ago."

Akari rested her elbows on the bar, considering the possibilities. Before, she'd worried that she'd been born defective, or that she'd somehow damaged her soul while training. Knowing that someone else had the same problem lifted some weight off her shoulders. Unfortunately, she was still no closer to Silver.

"How do I fix it?" Akari asked as a dozen new fears raced through her mind. What if a Bronze from these islands could never advance? What if they were biologically different from Relia's people, and this was as strong as she'd ever be?

"I don't know," Relia admitted.

Akari glanced down at Relia's pocket. "You said that keeps your channels clear. Do I need something like that?"

Relia shook her head. "Alchemy won't fix this."

"Says the girl who's popping magic pills."

"These don't help me advance," Relia said. "Any pill that gives you power will also shave years off your life."

Akari closed her mouth. Kalden had said something similar once: "All alchemy comes with side effects. The more you meddle with nature, the worse those effects are."

Relia reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out the container. "These are for a condition I was born with. Trust me—I wouldn't take them if I had a choice."

"Oh." Damnit. and Akari had just accused her of being a drug addict. "Sorry..."

"No worries." Relia shoved the container back in her pocket with her usual smile.

"Running low?" Akari asked. She hadn't seen inside the container, but half the light had vanished when Relia swallowed the pill.

Relia patted her stomach. "This one will last me a couple of weeks, and I have one more after that. If all goes well, we should be in Espiria by Talakday."

Espiria in just three more days? To Akari, Espiria was a continent from history books. Now, it was about to become a very real place. A place she could live, and study her Mana Arts at a school without restrictions.

If I can actually advance. That remained to be seen.

"Look," Relia said, "Whatever's wrong, it doesn't just affect Bronze. The Silvers and Golds can't advance either."

That made sense. Maelyn had once mentioned how her grandparents were trapped at the peak of Silver. Akari had known this from the beginning, but she'd refused to believe it applied to her.

"So you have no idea what's causing this?" she asked.

Relia gave a helpless shrug. "This isn't the only phenomenon I've noticed. You also have those dreams and missing memories."

So, Relia knew about that too. Then again, she'd spent several months with the Redwaters and the other families in this cabin.

"Let me guess," Akari said, "the dreams are another island thing?"

"Yes and no," she replied. "Memory loss is common here, but not everyone has it. And my master has dreams like the ones you guys have."

"Oh yeah? What's he dream about?"

"Old friends and students. He only sees bits and pieces, but those pieces became obsessions"

Like Mazren and her mom. He knew he loved her, but he didn't remember meeting her.

"It's another reason we came here," Relia continued. "He thought he'd find answers."

"So..." Akari began slowly, "these dreams show us our pasts? Memories we've forgotten?"

Relia pursed her lips, not answering.

"Because mine feel more like the future," Akari said. "I can't tell for sure, but I swear I'm older." If nothing else, she was certainly more powerful. Maybe even more power than Relia.

"It's complicated," Relia said. "My master can explain it better."

"What? Is he a dream expert or something?"

"Actually, yeah." Relia moved her hand across the bar and let it rest on top of Akari's.

Her muscles stiffened at the sudden contact, but she resisted the urge to pull away. A part of her mind still interpreted every touch as an attack, and it sent her heart racing, bracing for pain. But Relia's skin was soft, and her touch was gentle. It felt nice—like the night Kalden had held her in Phoenix Park.

"Whatever this is," Relia said, "We'll figure it out together."

Her enthusiasm must have been contagious because Akari found herself nodding.

Relia squeezed her hand, then pulled away. "Try to get some sleep. We have a big day tomorrow."


A note from David Musk

We've had a few slow chapters in a row, so I figured it was a good time for two chapters in one week. (I've also been picking up the pace again with writing, after taking some time to re-outline the ending of Book 1.)

Support "Web of Secrets [Modern Cultivation]"

About the author

David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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