Turn around!" Akari shouted as their boat hit the waves. "We lost Kalden!"

"I know." The Grandmaster's breathing came out rough and ragged. His eyes were weary as he gazed at the sea ahead.

"Then turn around," she repeated.

A brief silence followed as the waves smacked against their hull. "The Martials were right behind us," Elend said through clenched teeth. "These cuffs were worse than I thought. I can't—"

"Can't, or won't?" Akari broke in.

She understood the pain of these cuffs better than most. They'd brought her to tears several times in her training, and she hadn't even forced any mana through. Not only had Elend fought through the pain, but he'd performed impossible feats of Mana Arts. They'd just broken through the mana wall on a freaking boat.

Akari cycled as she paced on the wooden deck. She'd felt like a caged animal this past hour, unable to fight or change the tide of the battle. The Grandmaster had taken charge the second she released him, and everything had passed in a blur.

She hadn't complained before. Why would she? She was getting what she'd always wanted—freedom, and a chance to advance. But now Kalden was gone.

Elend gave her a serious look, gesturing a finger between them and Relia. "If I turn around, I'd risk all three of our lives."

"You'd still be an ice cube without Kalden," Akari snapped back. "You owe him."

"I did everything I could." Elend kept his voice annoyingly calm. "If I push myself harder, I'll damage my soul permanently. The tides will destroy us without my Arts."

Damnit. She wanted to call him a coward, but she couldn't argue with his logic. She'd seen Elend struggling during that last fight. He'd nearly crashed the boat after they passed through the wall. He'd also dropped their shield too early, which was the whole reason Kalden got hit.

If he doubted his ability to keep them all safe, then he was probably right.

Still... Akari glanced over her shoulder to see the retreating island. How could he give up so easily? Why weren't they at least discussing their options?

"Maybe we don't have to fight," she said. "Maybe Kalden got away and—"

"He took an ice blade to the shoulder," Elend said with the same even voice. "It pierced his armor. Do you think Kalden would want us to die trying to save him?"

No. He'd tell them to keep running, no question about it. But Kalden was also her friend—the best friend she'd ever had. What would he do if their places were reversed?

Akari turned to Relia who lay strapped down on the larger seat. "Can you wake her up?"

"Probably," Elend said. "But she's in no state to fight. She used the rest of her mana healing herself, and that chamber damaged her channels. She'll recover, but it will be a few days."

"What about those fancy pills?"

Elend shook his head. "Her pills won't solve this."

Damnit. Akari kept cycling. Her mana felt like it was bursting at the seams, and a part of her wanted to hurl a Missile over the water's surface.

Kalden was right there on the beach, less than a quarter-mile from shore. This shouldn't be so hard.

Akari finally gave into her soul's demands. She gathered the mana in her palm, then released it off the side of the boat. It parted the waves like a cannonball as it flew. No sooner had she released the Missile than a sharp pain twisted in her chest. She grimaced, pressing a hand to her sternum. Talek. What was this? It felt like her soul was being ripped apart from the inside.

Akari stopped cycling, and the pain faded to a dull ache.

But no ... that felt wrong. This wasn't the sort of pain you avoided. This was a pain you faced—something you leaned into. Some pain caused permanent damage, but other pain made you stronger.

Akari began cycling again, and the pain returned in full force. It felt like the first time she'd felt her mana. Like taking a breath of air after drowning. Painful, but necessary.

She released more mana from her hands, and the pain reached a crescendo in her chest. It spread in waves through her arms and legs, and up into her face. Her vision went dark, and she tasted mana in the back of her throat. She collapsed on the deck, dizzy with a thousand sensations.

The Grandmaster stopped the boat, then he pivoted in his chair to face her.

Akari drew in several deep breaths. "What the hell was that?"

His lip curled up at the edges. "That, my dear, is advancement."

Akari's vision blurred, then she saw a web of blinding light. Elend sat in the chair beside her, and mana glowed from the center of his chest. It twisted like a Missile with its infinitely complex patterns. His channels extended throughout his arms and legs, blocked only by the collar and cuffs he wore. Smaller channels broke off from the larger ones, reaching every inch of his body.

She turned to Relia and saw a fainter glow, then she examined her own body to see something fainter still.

Could it be...

Akari focused her eyes again, and the world snapped back to her ordinary vision. She rolled up her sleeves and glanced down at her wrist.

50/50, her mana watch read.

"Silver," Akari said. "I'm Silver now." She glanced back at the island. Relia had been right before. That place was a prison, and all she had to do was leave. But now she had to go back. Elend and Relia might be drained, but they weren't the only Mana Artists here.

"Turn around," she told him. "I'll fight the Martials myself."

Elend considered that for a moment. "I know you feel invincible right now. Trust me, I've advanced five times. But you've been training for what—four months? That's nothing in the grand scheme of things."

Four months. Thirty-nine weeks. Two-hundred and seventy-three days.

"We can come back for Kalden," Elend told her. "With a few years of training, you could be as strong as Relia."

"If Kalden's still alive."

He'd aided the two biggest public enemies, and he'd helped them destroy half the Martial's numbers in a single day. Even if they didn't kill Kalden tonight, they would charge him with high treason. Even Golds could get the death penalty for that.

Besides, she and Kalden weren't like the average Mana Artist. Relia had said so that day in White Vale. They learned quicker, unlocking skills that should have taken months.

This felt right. She knew it in her heart, the same way she'd known to become a Mana Artist.

"This is what I want," Akari said. "And I know the risks. Been fighting Golds my whole life."

Elend shifted the boat forward again, then turned them back toward the island. "I'll wait for you as long as I can, but no promises."

Akari nodded. "I'll take what I can get."

Her heart pounded as they neared the shore. Elend was right—she had felt invincible earlier. Now that feeling faded at the prospect of fighting so many Martials.

Fortunately, Akari had a plan. If she was right, then one of Frostblade's missiles had hit Kalden back on the boat. She couldn't beat the Martial in a fair fight, but she didn't have to. She had something he wanted, after all.

The island drew closer, but there was no sign of civilization from this side. The mana wall stood over a hundred feet high, and its blue glow should have been visible for miles. Instead, she saw nothing but the starry night sky.

Akari checked her weapons and armor. She still wore her hoodie beneath her Shadow Artist's jacket. That should stop at least one bullet or Missile—maybe more if she recharged it quick enough. As for weapons, she had the stolen Martial pistol, a portable shield Construct, and a ten-inch blade enhanced with metal mana. She'd tested all of those back on the helicopter, and they seemed to be in working order.

Finally, she pulled out the Shadow Artist's headpiece and slipped it over her head. It clung tightly like a ski mask, pulling at her hair from half-a-dozen awkward angles. No wonder Viv had always worn her hair in a tight braid. Akari's hair was still too short for that, though.

Her advancement also hadn't fixed her eyesight, which meant the goggles pressed against her glasses. Oh well. She'd met enough near-sighted Silvers and Golds to know it wouldn't be that easy.

Supposedly, only a Shadow Artist could charge the stealth Constructs in this armor.

A Shadow Artist, or...

"One more favor." Akari gestured down at the black bodysuit "Can you charge this?"

Elend raised a silver eyebrow. "Why me?"

"It runs on some fancy light mana," she said. "Your mana has some light in it, right? That's how you make those illusions."

He held up a finger from the steering wheel. "You don't need light mana to craft illusions. You're better off manipulating someone's perspective. Their mind fills in the gaps that way."

"That wasn't a no," Akari said.

He shrugged, drawing his lips back in a thin line.

"I know those cuffs suck, but this is pocket change for you."

Another short pause as the island drew nearer. "This better be the last favor."

"Promise," Akari said.

He nodded, then held out his hand.

Akari stepped closer and offered her arm. They clasped wrists, and the Grandmaster sent a burst of power into the armor. He winced as the mana left his body, but it barely took him a full second.

"I'm no expert," Elend said. "But I doubt that will last longer than twenty seconds. Better make it count."

They reached the shore a minute later. Elend brought the boat toward a rocky cove near the spot where they'd left. That was good—the Martials wouldn't see her coming from here.

Akari jumped out once they reached the shallows, then she headed inland to save her friend.

A note from David Musk

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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