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Akari's arms felt like jelly as she crested the prison wall. As if sprinting across the field wasn't bad enough. She should have trained harder these past few months. She'd done plenty of pull-ups on the Cliftons' swing set, but no one told her she'd be wearing half her weight in armor.

Viv offered her a hand. She accepted it, and the older woman yanked her over the metal parapet.

Akari fought down the urge to collapse and catch her breath. Her eyes darted around the courtyard, taking in the sights. The prison itself was a long, brick building—four stories high, with cylinder-shaped chimneys protruding from one side. Akari wasn't good with sizes, but it seemed about as big as her high school. Just older and creepier.

A gravel road led through the main gate, and the cars had to pass through a cage of razer wire and protection mana. Aside from that, the inner courtyard was as barebones as the outside. Most prisons had yards for the inmates, but not here.

Then again, the Martial databases had mentioned ice mana chambers, so they might not be doing much of anything.

A few bodies littered the walkway around her feet. Akari clutched her Missile rod, expecting more to leap out from the shadows.

Silence greeted her instead.

She glanced up at Jared and Viv. "Where are the rest?

"Hiding," Jared said with a shrug. "Reinforcements will be here any minute. No sense in playing hero 'til then."

Right. They still hadn't faced the worst of the Martials. The prison guards were all Silvers with minimal Mana Arts training—not full Martial agents like the ones Relia had fought in White Vale.

Viv helped Kalden up next, then she retrieved the rope and wrapped it back around her torso.

"Alright," Jared said. "There's another machine gun farther down. Kalden and I will commandeer that—see if we can help Dawnfire and avoid any surprises." He gestured two fingers toward Viv and Akari. "You two get the main gate open."

He and Kalden jogged off down the wall, and Akari helped Viv search the bodies for keycards.

Looting corpses was far more unsettling than attacking living opponents. Despite their wounds and lack of pulse, they still felt like people. Warmth radiated from their skin, and Akari half-expected a hand to grab her as she searched their pockets.

One of the sharpshooters carried a pistol for his sidearm. Interesting. Bullets were faster than most Missiles, but they had a harder time puncturing armor. Still, another surprise never hurt, so Akari unhooked the holster and attached it to her belt

At one point, she reached into a dead officer's pocket and grasped what felt like a plastic keycard. She tried to pull it out, but the man's leg twitched.

A scream escaped her lips, and she staggered back.

Viv glanced up with a smirk. "Oh yeah. They do that sometimes."

Akari cleared her throat, lowering her voice to the lowest octave it would go. "I felt a card in his pocket." She pointed a shaking finger at the shaking corpse.

Viv's smile widened. "Too scared to get it yourself?"

Akari retracted her finger and raised a different one.

"You're adorable," Viv said with a laugh. Then she reached over and pulled out the plastic keycard. "Yeah ... this should work."

They found the nearest staircase and followed it down into the inner courtyard. Viv found the security terminal, swiped the card, and flipped a few switches.

The mana barrier flickered out, and Relia joined them inside.

Unlike the rest of them, she wore her usual flannel shirt and jeans. There was only so much armor to go around, and she'd claimed her Cloak techniques were stronger anyway.

"Anyone need healing?" She asked as she stepped through the open archway. Her hands were already glowing with golden mana.

Viv shook her head. "We lost two soldiers outside, but the rest of us are fine. Jared and Kalden are upstairs."

Relia gave a grim nod. "A land-mine destroyed our truck. I was the only survivor."

Akari swallowed, feeling a wave of ice wash over her. It always happened this way in movies too—the Bronze soldiers died first while the stronger ones pushed on. It never bothered the audience much. They were just background characters, after all.

But in this case, Akari was one of those Bronze. If that first grenade had landed a few inches closer, she might not have cleared the blast.

Jared and Kalden regrouped with them a few minutes later, and the four of them stepped toward the prison's entrance where two metal doors impeded their path.

Viv tried her card on the terminal, but it gave her a red light, followed by an annoying beep. She tried again. Same result.

"They'll be in lockdown mode," Jared said as if he'd expected this. "But that's okay. Dawnfire's got the master key." He stepped aside, and the others did likewise.

Relia placed her feet in a wide stance, gathering pure mana in both her palms. Instead of releasing it right away, she let the mana double in size, glowing brighter than every light in the courtyard. The wind tugged at her clothes and hair, and she looked like something from a movie poster.

Finally, she released the pair of Missiles. Both doors caved like aluminum cans, snapping off their hinges and flying a dozen feet into the corridor.

"Nice trick," Akari said as she released a breath.

The five of them continued inside, stepping from the concrete path onto the sterile white tile. Relia took point, followed by Kalden and Akari with their mana shields. The two Shadow Artists held up the rear, following more than five paces back.

The interior walls were half brick and half poured concrete, all covered beneath a layer of thick white paint. Cold air blasted from the vents, and fluorescent lights flickered from the ceiling above.

Talek. Why did these places always have air conditioning and fluorescent lights? As if they weren't cold enough already. If hell was a real place, it probably followed the same design scheme.

"Take a left up here," Jared said when they reached an intersection.

As usual, Relia deferred to the ex-Martial without complaint, and she led them down another corridor with numbered metal doors. Akari counted as they walked, watching the odd numbers on her left. Seven ... nine ... eleven.

"This is it," Relia said. "Cell thirteen!"

They all paused while Relia pressed her hands to the door. Unlike the door outside, this had no handle, no lock, and no hinges. Its surface was solid steel, polished to a mirror shine.

"Can you blast through?" Akari asked.

Relia shook her head. "I wish. But they're called 'blast doors' for a reason."

"There's a security booth down the hall," Kalden said.

Akari followed his gaze to a smaller office surrounded by glass on three sides.

"Maybe one of those computers opens the door?" he suggested.

Relia nodded, and they set off in that direction. Viv swiped her keycard on the next terminal, and the door popped open with ease.

Akari eyed the glass as she passed through. It looked thick enough to stop a bullet or Missiles. Good to know. They might need a place to hunker down when those reinforcements showed up. She also noticed another switch to override the card terminal and lock down this booth.

So why hadn't the Martials done that? They'd probably figured Relia could break through, the same way she'd done at the main entrance.

Jared sat down at one computer and turned to Kalden. "You've got those usernames, right?"

Kalden nodded as he pulled out a piece of paper from his bag. Akari had thrown that together last night when she'd found a list of the prison staff.

"Good," Jared said. "Now we just need a password."

Akari began rummaging through the file cabinet drawers, hoping to Talek that one of these guards had a bad memory. Her search was rewarded a second later when she found a yellow sticky note with a string of letters and numbers.

"Got one," she told Jared as she sat at the station beside him. "I'll start from the bottom of the list."

"I'll take the top," he said with a nod.

After a few dozen failures, they finally matched the password with a username somewhere in the middle. Akari and Jared each logged in with that account and began clicking around, opening the various Martial applications.

On one monitor, she pulled up the outdoor security cameras, revealing a courtyard full of black, unmarked vans. The doors slid open to reveal dozens of gold badges.

Surrounded again.

Her hands moved faster as she found another program for controlling the cell doors. Each cell had a value of '1'. Akari switched the value to '0'and pressed save.

Metal ground against metal as the blast door opened down the hall.

"That's it," she said.

Relia bolted out of the room, and Akari followed.

They both paused when they reached the doorframe. The room was far larger than she'd expected. At least ten feet wide, and half again as deep. A steel cylinder loomed on the opposite end side, stretching all the way from the floor to the ceiling. Gusts of icy air blew out into the hallway, and it felt like an open freezer.

"Stay here," Relia told her as she stepped into the cell.

Akari nodded, shooting a wary glance at the main entrance. The reinforcements should be inside here by now. What were they waiting for?

Relia reached the ice mana chamber in three steps, and she pulled a heavy lever on one side. A series of metal clamps snapped open, and a burst of white fog escaped the opening.

Akari squinted through the mist, struggling to see the Grandmaster over Relia's shoulder. But the chamber was ... empty?

Oh, shit.

Footsteps echoed from inside the cell. The light warped, and two Shadow Artists appeared.

"Behind you!" Akari shouted, raising her hand to launch a Missile.

Too late. The ceiling opened, and a metal net fell around Relia. In the same moment, a Shadow Artist ran his blade across the back of her neck. Her body went limp, and they threw her face-first into the chamber.

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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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