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Akari leapt to the side, getting out of sight. Steel clasped against steel as the ice chamber sealed shut.

Silence followed, and her heart pounded like war drums in her ears. She barely had time to process everything before she heard a familiar voice.

"We've got her," a man said into his transceiver. "Move in and kill the others."

That was Akari's cue to run. She bolted straight down the hall, back to the open security booth.

Pale blue light flashed behind her. An ice Missile.

Akari dodged left, letting it pass her head by a hair's breadth. Then mana changed course in midair. Her head slammed against the brick wall, and stars flashed in her vision. Waves of ice coursed down her spine as her entire body went numb and unresponsive. Her legs buckled beneath her, and her back struck the tile floor.

Footsteps echoed down the corridor as a black-clad figure approached. Akari raised a shaking hand to her face, adjusting her glasses and bringing the world back into focus.

Agent Frostblade loomed over her, readying another ice Missile in his palm.

The light warped beside the Martial, and Jared appeared out of thin air, slashing his dagger toward his throat.

Frostblade pivoted his head, and an ice Construct formed between them. Jared's dagger struck the wall of mana, but he might as well have struck solid stone. He lost his grip on the weapon, and it clattered to the floor.

Frostblade shoved the Construct back, slamming Jared against the wall. His bones broke under the pressure, and Akari closed her eyes just before his face caved in.

Strong hands seized her, pulling her to her feet.

"Come on," Viv said in a shaky voice. "We've gotta run."

Akari still couldn't feel her legs, but they moved on their own as the older woman pulled her away.

Kalden appeared beside her a second later, meeting the Martial's Missiles with his own. Chunks of stone flew off the walls as their attacks collided. Akari kept running with Viv. Her body braced for the impact of another attack, but none came.

Kalden and Frostblade exchanged several more attacks as they neared the safety of the security booth.

Ten more steps.

Five steps.

Three.

Two.

A blade of ice mana soared past Viv, striking the glass in front of them.

Talek, that was close. If he'd—

Viv let out a cry of pain, and they both collapsed near the booth's doorway.

Akari scrambled back to her feet as more mana flew around her. Several paces back, she spotted a pair of black-clad legs.

Just legs.

She followed a trail of blood to where Viv's torso lay face-first on the tile floor.

Kalden shoved her into the booth, locking the door behind them. A web of cracks covered the thick glass, but it held for now.

Akari collapsed against the file cabinets. The scent of blood clung to her nostrils, and bile rose in her throat. She threw off her helmet and took a deep breath, barely stopping herself from puking.

They were all dead. Relia ... Jared ... Viv. He'd killed them all. So fast.

"Akari!" Kalden's voice sounded distant, as if she'd fallen under another frozen river. "Stay with me."

"They're all gone," she muttered. "It's my fault."

The Martials had known she was a hacker. They couldn't stop her from hacking their databases, so they'd planted false information instead. They'd left this booth open, and they'd planted that password in the drawer. They'd even held off the reinforcements to give Relia time.

"Stop it," Kalden snapped. "You can feel sorry later. We need to focus."

Akari remained silent. Mana struck glass as Frostblade tried to force his way inside.

"It's just us now." Kalden shook her shoulders. "But this isn't over."

She glanced up to see more Martials enter the hall behind Frostblade. This was over. Their three best fighters were dead. And for all they knew, the Grandmaster wasn't even here.

Even if he was, they were pinned down in this room with no escape.

"You didn't give up before," Kalden said. "If we're going to die, then let's go down fighting."

Akari blinked up at him, wiping her eyes dry. How the hell was he so calm? How had he gone up against Frostblade and lived? That hadn't been part of the trap. The Martial had wanted them all dead.

Akari glanced down at his hands, and she realized they were shaking just like hers. He just pretended to be brave. She could do that, too.

"Okay." Akari rubbed at her nose but forced herself to stand straighter. "Got a plan?"

"Same plan as before—we find the Grandmaster. He's our only way out."

Akari stumbled over to the computer and collapsed in the chair. Her hands were still shaking, so she pushed her back against the cushion and took several more deep breaths. A part of her still doubted whether the Grandmaster was even in this prison. But no ... that line of thinking wouldn't help. They had to start somewhere.

"Ice chambers require a constant flow of mana," Kalden said. "And moving him would be risky."

True, Akari thought as she opened the cell control application. He could escape if they tried to move him. They'd also risk someone seeing the armored truck in Mt. Khasa.

How many chambers could they have here? Maybe two or three at the most? The others were probably close to Relia's, too. Ice mana didn't travel through wires like electricity. It was slow, and it would lose its potency along—

An explosion shook the room.

"Shit." Akari jumped back, almost falling out of her chair. A wider crack formed in the window.

"That glass won't hold for much longer," Kalden said.

Yeah. They needed more time. Akari brought her attention back to the monitor and the list of cells. She scrolled to the bottom and found the options she'd ignored before.

'Open all prisoner cuffs.'

'Open all prisoner cells.'

She'd seen the list of prisoners last night. These weren't serial killers or rapists waiting to destroy society. These were powerful Mana Artists who had pissed off the Martials.

In other words, they were exactly what she needed right now.

A few more clicks and the corridor burst into chaos. Prisoners in blue jumpsuits emerged from every cell, colliding with Frostblade and the other Martials. Mana flashed in shades of blue and orange. She brought up the security cameras and found similar things happening on every floor.

"Nice work." Kalden leaned over the monitors. "Now what about Relia's master?"

"Here." Akari pointed to one particular camera from the next hallway. The blast door had opened with the others, but four Martial agents stood guard outside, fending off any prisoners who drew near.

"Cell thirty-seven," Kalden muttered. "That's the cell right behind thirteen."

"But how do we get there?" Akari glanced up at the war zone outside the window. Relia could have forced her way through, but they wouldn't last ten seconds without her.

"Above you," Kalden said as he extended a finger toward the ceiling. Akari followed his gaze to the open ventilation shaft.

"Hell no," she snapped back. "We can't fit in there."

"I can't," Kalden said.

"Neither can I!"

"You'll fit," he said. "It might be tight, but it's our best chance."

"You don't know where that vent leads."

Another blast shook the booth, but the glass held.

"It connects to the next hallway." Kalden pointed to the schematics he'd unrolled from his bag. "Keep your transceiver on, and I can guide you there.

Akari ran both hands through her hair, pacing back and forth in the small office. She still didn't like it, but Kalden had a point. No matter how dangerous that vent was, it was still safer than charging down the hall with nothing but hopes and wishes.

"Fine." She removed all her armor, including her leather boots. That left her in just a black t-shirt, jeans, and socks. She also kept her belt with her stolen gun, her transceiver, and a few vials of healing potion and liquid mana. That might still slow her down, but it was all too important to leave behind.

Kalden boosted her toward the ceiling, and she squeezed into the narrow space. It was about as small as she'd imagined—barely two feet wide, and half as high. She had to crawl on her belly with both elbows tucked at her sides. The path ahead was dark, but that didn't matter. She barely had enough room to lift her head.

Static crackled in her ear, followed by Kalden's voice, "Can you hear me?"

"Yep," Akari grunted as she crawled over a sharper section. Talek. Why couldn't this be smooth and shiny like the air vents on TV?

"You should have an intersection coming up. Take a right."

"Got it," she replied.

Back on the ground, it had only taken a few seconds to run the length of the hallway. Now, she had to crawl for several minutes to reach the first intersection, and that was barely half the trip.

Hopefully Kalden could hold out that long. She wasn't ready to lose him too.

 


 

A blade of ice mana broke through the glass. Kalden activated his shield and forced it back with all his might.

Frostblade retracted his mana, leaving a thin hole in his wake. A few more holes like that, and the whole window would collapse.

Their eyes met, and a look of surprise flashed across his enemy's face.

"Kalden?" The older man took a step back, raising the visor on his helmet. His agents formed a protective barrier, raising their own Constructs against the prisoners.

Kalden didn't reply. He just held up his shield, prepared to deflect the next attack.

"Where's the other Bronze?" he asked.

"Dead," Kalden said.

The older man eyed the booth with clear skepticism. Fortunately, Kalden had closed the vent behind Akari, so there wasn't much to see.

"This is over," Frostblade said. "It's time for you to surrender."

Even now, Kalden got special treatment. No one else had gotten the chance to surrender. Not even Jared—a fellow Gold.

"You'll have to kill me too," Kalden said.

"You think I want that?" Frostblade took a step forward. "To tell your mother her worst fears came true? And for what?" He spread out his hands, gesturing to the surrounding chaos. "Because you believed a terrorist and her lies?"

So ... Relia was a terrorist now? Well, they couldn't exactly call her a foreign invader. Still, if his enemy wanted to talk rather than fight, Kalden wouldn't stop him. Akari was already on course for the Grandmaster's cell. Nothing but time to kill until then.

"What did she tell you?" Frostblade asked. "That you'll find some utopia beyond the sea?"

"She brought proof," Kalden said. "I know the outside world exists. The state has been lying this whole time."

"Don't be naïve," Frostblade said. "Yes, there are still people beyond the sea, but that's a world hardened by war. A world where the strong dominate the weak."

"Sounds familiar."

"It's worse than here," he said. "Far worse. These islands might not be perfect, but we're doing our best. Everything I've done, I've done to protect it."

Kalden raised an eyebrow. "How's your advancement coming?"

Frostblade's eyes hardened.

"You're a prisoner too," Kalden said, "just like the rest of us."

"There are different types of freedom," Frostblade replied. "You can't even leave this room. Even if you do, I already have Darren Warder and Maelyn Sataro in custody. I'll make sure they suffer for the rest of their lives."

Kalden showed no reaction, and he remembered the advice of his ancestors.

Never give in to an enemy's threats. If you give in once, and they can threaten you again, doing more damage in the long run. Instead, show them they can't hurt you.

The advice seemed cold, but he'd always agreed with it. He couldn't back down now just because the temptation was real. This was how the Martials had maintained control for so long. This was how they'd stopped hundreds more from leaving.

"Dawnfire is still alive too," Frostblade continued. "But I can kill her right now. All I have to do is overload her chamber."

Kalden just smiled. "I've seen you try to kill Relia once. I'd love to see you try again."

"The Martials have powerful benefactors. Far stronger than Dawnfire or her master."

Kalden had figured as much already. They'd clearly been prepared for their arrival, and even Jared hadn't understood how they'd captured the Grandmaster. Still, whoever these 'benefactors' were, they weren't involved with the day-to-day activities. Relia had killed scores of Martials between White Vale and here. If they cared, then why hadn't they revealed themselves yet?

No ... Frostblade couldn't kill her tonight. Not while Kalden and Akari kept fighting.

 


 

Akari released a burst of mana from her palm, destroying a fan in a single blast. Two months ago, her Missiles never could have broken something so sturdy. But wearing those impedium cuffs had been like running with a weighted vest, forcing her to exert more force through her channels.

She gritted her teeth as she crawled through the rubble, then she squeezed around another corner. Corners were the hardest part of crawling through vents. She'd nearly trapped herself the first time, curled up halfway into a ball, unable to go forward or backward.

Now wouldn't that be a sad way for a Mana Artist to die?

Akari reached the next vent after a few more minutes of crawling. She spotted two black helmets through the grates. Mana flashed from their hands as they engaged the escaped prisoners.

She thought about waiting to see how the fight played out, but that was too big of a gamble. If they killed the prisoners, she'd be worse off than before. Besides, Kalden's life was on the line too.

Akari cycled her mana, then began raining Missiles on her enemies.

Her mana struck its targets, and both men dropped their shield Constructs as they stumbled forward. Another pair of fire Missiles tore down the corridos, leaving red craters on the Martials torsos.

Footsteps drew nearer, and Akari backtracked inside the shaft. The prisoners probably wouldn't attack her, but why risk it?

They paused beneath the open vent, but they seemed more interested in looting the Martials' corpses than anything else.

The footsteps faded a second later, and Akari lowered herself to the floor. It wasn't the most graceful landing, and she hoped Kalden wasn't watching her through the cameras.

Actually, scratch that. If he was watching her, that meant he was still alive.

She glanced to her left and saw another cell that looked identical to the last one. Another ice mana chamber sat against the wall opposite the doorway. She hurried inside before someone else spotted her.

Talek. There better not be more Martials hiding in the ceiling. No sense in worrying about that now, through. If they'd set another trap, she was screwed no matter what she did.

Akari stepped forward and pulled the lever on the ice chamber. White mist shot out from the pressure valves, and the steel casing slid open.

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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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