Akari ducked her head as she crept over the rocky ridge. She didn't engage her armor yet, but she didn't need to. Even without the Constructs, this fabric was made for skulking in the dark.
Four Martial soldiers scoured the beach below, examining the trail of disturbed sand between the forest and the sea. Silver badges gleamed on their vests, catching rays of moonlight as they moved. Some carried assault rifles while others had Missile rods.
No Golds? Maybe they were all dead. Now, wouldn't that be a treat?
More likely, they were too scared to show their faces beyond the mana wall. Good news for her either way. After what Frostblade had done to Jared and Viv, she wasn't eager to fight more agents like him.
Akari licked her lips, considering her options. Gusts of salty wind blew in from the Inner Sea, shaking the trees beyond the dunes. Somehow, this felt more real than the wind she was used to. She hadn't noticed it on the boat, but this was stronger—more tangible. The same way her dreams felt more real than reality.
Her teachers had claimed the mana wall didn't block small particles. But what if that was just another lie? What if she'd never felt real wind until tonight?
She turned her gaze back to the trees, and she spotted more Martials hiding in the shadows. Talek. This was a trap. They knew someone might come back for Kalden.
Kalden ... What would he do if he were here? Probably something smart and strategic. But what? She obviously couldn't fight those soldiers on the beach, even with her Constructs active. They'd see her footprints in the sand. She might take one or two by surprise, but the rest would overwhelm her.
The forest it is, then.
Akari crawled along the dune, taking cover in the trees. She'd still have to fight the guys on the beach, but she'd deal with that problem later.
The trees glowed as she relaxed her vision, with rivers of blue light racing through their branches. This would take some getting used to. Of course, most plants didn't have this much mana, but the trees were stronger out here by the sea. They had to be, or else the tides would turn them to kindling. She ran a gloved hand across one trunk, and the bark felt more like stone than wood.
Akari kept walking until she spotted two human souls in the forest of light. She swallowed hard, then sent a pulse of mana into her armor. Her legs and boots vanished beneath her, revealing her own footprints in the soil. Her outstretched hands became blurry images of the forest beyond.
It wasn't true invisibility, but it was still trippy as hell
Alright, enough playing around. The clock was ticking in more ways than one. Akari charged the two soldiers, dodging trees as she ran.
Both men spun around with raised rifles. Too slow. Akari drew her blade, slashing in two quick arcs as she passed between them.
Her weapon bit the first man's throat beneath his helmet, releasing a spray of blood. She followed through on the swing and plunged the blade into the second soldier's windpipe.
Before, she'd always denied the difference between Bronze and Silver. But something had changed when she passed that threshold between ranks. Her body wasn't stronger, but she moved with more grace and agility. And when she slashed her blade, it was as if she'd been training with it for years.
Maybe she had been.
Bullets rang against the trees as a third soldier charged in from the beach. Akari raised her palm and sent a Missile toward him.
Her opponent dodged left and kept firing. More bullets ricocheted off the trees, sending up smaller chunks of the stone-like bark.
Akari ran serpentine, using the smaller trees for cover as she closed the distance. At the same time, she pulled back her Missile and struck the back of her opponent's head. The impact sent him staggering forward.
Akari seized her advantage, slashing her blade at the man's face. He raised his rifle and blocked with his left forearm. Her weapon glanced off his armor, and he shoved her back with his rifle.
He swung the weapon again, hard enough to smash her face in. Fortunately, her armor was still active, throwing his aim off by several inches. He probably saw her mana through his Silver Sight, but that wasn't enough.
Akari moved as quick as a cat, circling around the man and burying her blade beneath his left arm. A scream escaped his mouth as he fell.
She pulled the blade free, and rivers of blood soaked the leather hilt. Akari fought down a wave of nausea as she adjusted her grip. She'd never considered herself squeamish, but ... Talek. Why did it have to be so warm?
The Martial kept thrashing and swinging at the air in a blind rage. She grabbed his head with her left forearm and slashed the blade across his throat.
And just like that, he stopped moving, collapsing on the ground like a fallen tree.
Her armor faded in the same moment, bringing her hands back into focus. Shit. That was thirty seconds? It felt more like five. She tore off the gloves and mask and cast them aside. Those would just slow her down without the Constructs.
She was about to remove the jacket when she caught a blur of motion ahead. Three more Martials charged in from the beach. Their flashlights shone between the trees, casting long shadows in the undergrowth.
Akari knelt by the nearest soldier and unsnapped his vest pocket. He had a frag grenade inside, just like the guards outside the prison. She searched her other victim's pockets and found more of the same.
Kalden's words came back to her as she worked. Four seconds after I pull the pin.
Akari pulled all three pins, rolling the explosives into the undergrowth on either side of the path.
The cluster of soldiers moved in, closing more distance with every heartbeat. Akari ran the other way.
Gunshots sounded behind her. Good—that meant they were slowing down.
Akari ducked behind the nearest tree and unclipped the shield hilt from her belt. She pressed the button on the side, forming a long oval of protection mana between her and her pursuers. Several bullets struck her shield, and the surface rippled like ocean waves. Then she raised her right hand and sent a Missile toward them.
The Martials raised Constructs of ice mana, clustering together to form a barrier.
The explosions shook the ground beneath her feet, mingled with the screams of dying Martials. Akari felt the impact in her bones, and she saw the clouds of dust and debris through her shield.
A fourth explosion followed the three grenades, and something struck her shield. A bullet? Akari squinted her eyes through the ripples of blue mana. Several seconds passed, then she spotted a survivor in the smoke.
Several more bullets struck her shield until the mana flickered out. There goes the battery. Akari scrambled for cover, but the next bullet slammed straight into her stomach. The impact forced the air from her lungs, and she doubled over on the forest floor.
Waves of pain ran through her body, from her head torso to her toes. She raised a shaking hand to her wound and found a hole in her jacket. Panic followed as she braced for blood. But when she unzipped the outer shell, she found her hoodie unbroken. The skin beneath seemed fine, too.
Thank Talek. This hoodie was the best ninety-nine coppernotes she'd ever spent.
Her enemy limped out of the smoke, still clutching his handgun.
Wounded, huh? She could work with that.
Akari sucked in a deep breath, releasing a Missile straight at the man's right knee. He doubled over with a satisfying crack.
Akari grabbed her blade and forced herself back to her feet. Her stomach still felt like a pounded nail, but the pain was easier to ignore now.
Still kneeling on the ground, the man hurled a pair of ice Missiles toward her.
Akari threw a Missile of her own, moving it in a corkscrew pattern, knocking his attacks off course. Her mana struck the man in the face, shattering his visor and caving in his nose.
Shit. Maybe she had gotten stronger after reaching Silver. Her muscles might be the same, but her channels were definitely wider, letting her pack more mana into each technique.
Akari approached the man with her blade, prepared to put him out of his misery. Fortunately, his body went limp, and he didn't move again.
Silence followed, and a sigh of relief escaped her lips. The coppery scent of blood filled her nostrils, and she stared at the mess of bodies around her.
Akari hadn't killed anyone back in the prison. Not even from the helicopter's machine gun. Now, she'd taken several lives in the span of a few moments. It wasn't even an accident, or an act of self-defense. She'd chosen this. The thrill of battle had surged through her veins as she fought, reaching a crescendo with every kill.
Now, the flame had flickered out, replaced with more waves of nausea.
For the first time, she understood Relia's reluctance to kill. She felt stained in more ways than one—as if she'd lost a piece of herself she could never get back. True, it had been necessary to save Kalden. Hardly made her feel better, though.
Akari made her way deeper into the forest, following the trail of destruction left by their boat as they'd flown through. Her route took her up the side of a rocky stone ridge—the same spot where Kalden had fallen less than twenty minutes before.
She'd removed the rest of her Shadow Artist's armor and unzipped the front of her hoodie. Her mouth was dry, and her limbs felt like wrung-out rags. Even the rush of reaching Silver had faded. Now, she felt like curling up into a ball and sleeping for the next two days.
Damnit, Kalden. Where are you?
She answered her own question when she reached the top of the ridge. Kalden lay in the dirt, bound with metal cuffs and cords of ice mana. Blood pooled out from his shoulder and leg.
"Who's this?" a man's voice said from the shadows. "The Bronze?"
Kalden rolled over, turning to face her. "Akari?" His eyes widened with shock. "Run! Get out of here!"
"She won't get far," Agent Frostblade said as he stepped forward into the clearing. The man looked like an older version of Emberlyn, with the same high cheekbones and piercing violet eyes. He raised a glowing palm toward Akari, preparing to unleash his bloodline technique.
Akari dropped her blade and threw up her hands. "I surrender!"
The mana faded from Frostblade's palm, and he narrowed his eyes in suspicion. Several heartbeats passed, then he pulled a pair of cuffs from his belt, tossing them toward her.
Akari caught them, never taking her eyes off her enemy
"On your wrists," he said.
She swallowed, considering her options one last time. If she wanted to fight him, then this was her last chance.
But no ... she could never beat the Martial in a fair fight. Not only was he the better fighter, but his mana reserves were probably full. Meanwhile, she barely had enough left for one more Missile
Akari pulled the cuffs apart and attached each one separately to her wrists. They were impedium like the ones she'd worn during her house arrest. Only these were solid metal without the cushioned interiors. She had to force herself to stop cycling before the pain hit her. Chills ran up her spine instead, along with memories of feeling weak and helpless.
Frostblade tossed her a second pair. "Ankles."
Seriously? She was wearing boots for Talek's sake. She'd probably break her foot if she tried to shoot a Missile that way. Still, Akari complied, fastening each one in place.
Frostblade just stared at her as if she were a fascinating insect. "Where are the others?"
"Gone," Akari said.
"Gone?" he raised an eyebrow.
"They left us behind when we fell out."
Kalden seemed to wilt from the corner of her eye. Meanwhile, Frostblade seemed more skeptical. Her story wasn't that big of a stretch, though. No one else on Relia's team had survived, and he might have even seen the boat leaving.
"Then you're useless to me," Frostblade finally said.
Funny how he waited until after she put the cuffs on. Bastard.
Akari tried to swallow in her barren throat. "How about a trade?"
"You have nothing I want."
"Look at me." She took a slow step forward. "Really look."
The Martial relaxed his eyes, then they widened in pure, genuine shock. "Silver."
Talek. He really hadn't known. This part of her plan had always been a gamble. Emberlyn had claimed her father was obsessed with advancement, but she could have been wrong.
Then again, if he and the other Golds knew the secret, they would all be Apprentices by now.
Frostblade stepped forward, closing the distance in three long strides. Akari shuffled back until she hit the tree behind her.
"How?" He grabbed her by the arms and squeezed. "You were still Bronze back in the prison."
Akari held her tongue.
"I've been out here before." His voice rose as he gestured to the surrounding forest. "I've even been on the sea. Nothing has worked. What did Dawnfire tell you?"
What? He'd actually been out to sea? Maybe she had nothing to trade after all. But then why had advancement worked for her and not for him?
Then again, Relia had called the first two advancements 'effortless,' but the jump from Gold to Apprentice was more complicated.
That's why the Golds never figured it out. They'd come out here themselves, but they'd never tested it on the lower ranks. If they had, then maybe they would have seen this prison for what it was.
"Let us go," Akari said, "And I'll tell you—"
"No," he interrupted. "We're not negotiating."
Fine. Akari drew in a deep breath and began cycling her mana.
Frostblade's palm glowed blue again. This time, he pointed it at Kalden. "Tell me what you know right now, or Trengsen dies. That's the deal."
Never hesitate, Jared's advice echoed back in her head. No warnings. No second chances. Frostblade had said it himself—this wasn't a negotiation. This exchange only ended one way. She'd known that from the second she'd stepped off the boat.
Akari cycled harder, and each iteration sent waves of pain up her arms and legs. She didn't bother hiding it. Pain was expected when a man twice your size pinned you down
Faster. She brought the currents back to her chest. For two months, this had been her only means of releasing her mana. It took more skill than an ordinary Missile, but she'd had nothing but time during her house arrest.
Akari pushed the Missile straight from her soul, releasing her mana in a powerful burst of blue light from her chest. The technique struck Frostblade in his stomach, knocking him back into the dirt.
Frostblade fired his own Missile as he fell. Akari was quicker as she dodged to the side and pulled the pistol from its holster behind her back.
Akari squeezed the trigger. The gun recoiled, and the bullet took Frostblade in the jaw.