Kalden leaned on Akari as they stumbled toward the shore. Well, he stumbled. She acted like a coiled spring held down by his body weight. They'd made a few bandages with scraps of clothing, and Kalden kept pressure on his shoulder with his free hand. A makeshift tourniquet stopped the bleeding in his leg.
"We don't have time for that," Akari had said while he twisted it in place. She'd taken the time to find Frostblade's keys and unlock her cuffs, but that was the extent of her patience.
He glanced up at her. "You don't know much about injuries, do you?"
"I've already lost too much blood. What will you do if I pass out? Carry me like a rescued princess?"
Akari glanced back toward the sea. "We'll need someone to carry us both if Elend sails away."
Kalden nodded as he worked. Infection was another concern, but he couldn't do much about that now. Plus they'd have Relia once she woke up. Her healing techniques seemed several times stronger than Maelyn's.
They reached the bottom of the ridge, but the forest was empty in every direction. No sound but the wind in the trees, and the distant sound of breaking waves.
"What happened to the soldiers?" Kalden asked. "I saw at least ten head this way."
"I only saw six," Akari muttered. She almost sounded guilty, which wasn't very Akari-like. He read between the lines, though. Not just in her tone, but in the tension in her muscles. She'd fought those Silvers the same way she'd fought Agent Frostblade. Killing was never easy, even when it was necessary or justified. He'd learned that same lesson tonight.
They limped on, and the scents of gunpowder filled his nostrils. Bodies lay in the undergrowth a dozen paces to their right, and he saw splatters of crimson against the trees.
Akari kept her eyes focused straight ahead, and Kalden squeezed her shoulder.
"Thanks," he told her.
She nodded, still pulling him along. It was hard to keep up with his wounded leg, but he forced down the pain.
You can rest on the boat.
"So..." Kalden kept talking to distract himself. "Silver, huh?" Hopefully, that was a safer subject.
Her lip curled up at the corner. "Must be some invisible Construct around the island. Advancing was easy once we got far enough away."
Easy. Relia had always said that, too. In her world, even children could advance within the Foundation realm.
"Only the Golds had clearance to come out here," Kalden mused. "That's why they never figured it out."
Advancing in the Foundation realm might be easy, but the Apprentice realm was another story. You had to rebuild your entire body, digging new channels into every cell. Someone had erased that knowledge here, along with anything else regarding advancement. No doubt their "benefactors" were responsible. They let the Golds rule as long as they didn't leave, or ask too many questions.
He and Akari reached the shore a minute later, and they let out a long, collective sigh of relief. The boat still floated in the cove's shallow waters, rocking back and forth in the tides.
Four more Martials lay in the sand. Unlike Akari's victims, these were still breathing, with no visible wounds. Definitely Elend's work.
Kalden turned to Akari, but she looked just as surprised as he felt.
"Hey," Elend waved from the boat. "Glad you kids could join us."
Relia climbed down the short staircase on the back, wading toward them in the water. She looked a little unsteady, but her face was full of life again.
"You guys okay?" she asked as she took Kalden's other arm.
Kalden forced out a smile. "I'd take some of that life mana if you're offering."
"Still recharging." Relia patted the center of her chest. "But I found a first-aid kit on board. That'll have to do."
They waded through the cold water until it reached their knees. Relia held the boat in place while Akari and Kalden took turns climbing the back staircase.
The Grandmaster offered them each a hand when they reached the top, pulling them the rest of the way.
"Thanks for waiting," Kalden said.
"Better get below deck this time," Elend replied with a grin. "The tides are a lot nastier than the Martials."
"No arguments here," Kalden said as Akari and Relia grabbed his arms again. Elend returned to the helm and grabbed the steering wheel. The motor roared, and the deck shifted beneath their feet.
Kalden felt the wind on his face as they finally sailed toward the horizon. Toward their freedom.
Akari raided the pantry as soon as they were below deck. There wasn't much down here, but she did find some protein bars and water bottles.
She wouldn't call the rooms large, but she was surprised how much stuff they'd crammed in such a small space. The kitchen was barely big enough for one person, but they had an oven, a microwave, a sink, and a mini-fridge. The bathroom was even smaller. If Akari stretched out her arms to either side, she could almost reach both walls with her elbows. Most of the furniture was bolted down, and everything else lay in piles on the floor, including a few lamps and pillows in the living room.
Kalden lay shirtless on the room's only sofa while Relia cleaned his shoulder wound. Akari definitely didn't stare as she handed him an open water bottle.
"Thanks." He accepted the bottle and downed half of it in one swallow.
Akari nodded as she turned to Relia. "I saw some liquid mana in the fridge. Might help get your techniques back."
"Thanks," Relia said, "but I've never liked the taste."
Akari raised an eyebrow. "You're a Mana Artist who doesn't drink mana?"
She shrugged as she applied some translucent gel to Kalden's shoulder. "Not this kind, at least. Remember my mana counts? I'd have to chug the whole bottle just to squeeze out one Missile. My stomach would hate me for that." The boat rocked to the side, and her lips pulled back in a grimace. "It already hates the sea."
Huh. That made sense. They probably had much stronger liquid mana on the outside. If the people were stronger, then maybe the plants and animals were too?
Grandmaster-level mana beasts ... now there was some nightmare fuel. She'd finally reached Silver, and now she was going to feel weaker than ever. But that was okay. On the mainland, she'd have allies and resources to help her along the way. She wouldn't have to train in secret or cross national borders to advance.
They spent the next half-hour catching up. Relia apologized several times for getting caught, and they filled her in on the journey between Mt. Khasa and Keylas. She barely batted an eyelash at the story, even when Kalden described the boat flying through the mana wall.
Maybe this was just another day with Elend Darklight, after all.
The conversation died down after a while, and Akari made her way back on deck to see the Grandmaster.
The sun was a haze of fire on the horizon, and the waves sparkled like a plane of broken glass. Akari had seen sunrises before, but never like this. This one felt so much closer— practically level with her eyes.
"How's your boyfriend?" Elend asked when she crested the staircase.
"Nonexistent," Akari replied. "But Kalden's fine."
"Good to hear," he said. "Grab a tether if you're sightseeing."
"Huh?" She glanced around, then noticed a mess of ropes on the floor near the gravity Construct generator. They'd used those to tie Relia down before.
"Attach one to your belt," he said. "Can't have you falling in."
She grabbed the nearest one and clipped it to the belt loop on her pants. Hardly seemed necessary with how calm the sea was, though. Speaking of which...
"I thought the waves were like skyscrapers out here."
Elend chuckled and shook his head. "If we're talking world records, sure. But your average tides don't get much higher than a few hundred feet." He pointed a finger to the north. "See that chain of islands?"
Akari squinted at the horizon. She didn't see anything but clouds and water, but she nodded anyway.
"The tides come in patterns from the sea's center. Those landmasses can protect us like a shield."
Akari frowned. "Who needs Water Artists if it's that easy?"
"It's not a foolproof plan," he said, gesturing to an open map beside him. "Plus we'll have to cross some unguarded spots between here and Cadria. Don't worry—you'll see some bigger waves before the trip is done. Then you'll wish you hadn't."
Akari nodded as she sat down on the bench near the helm.
"You should sleep," Elend said. "Little Silvers like you need at least ten hours per night."
She narrowed her eyes. "Thought you didn't use terms like 'Silver' on the outside."
"Who told you that?"
"It's not politically correct," he agreed. "But neither am I. Especially at sea, when I'm the captain."
Akari snorted. She would sleep soon, but first, she had a question that couldn't wait. Well, technically, she had about a thousand questions, but only one that would keep her awake.
She took a deep breath. "You called me 'Emiri.' when you first woke up."
"Apologizes," he said with a dismissive wave. "Must've been the ice chamber loosening my tongue. You know how it is."
"Did you know someone named Emiri?" Akari pressed.
"Sure. I've been a professor for twenty-two years. I've known plenty of Akari's too."
Damnit. But she couldn't blame him for being tight-lipped about this. Despite everything they'd been through, she'd only known the man for a few hours.
But maybe if she showed her hand first...
"Emiri was my mom's name. Emiri Zeller."
"Zeller..." he tasted the word, then shook his head. "Sorry. That one doesn't ring any bells."
"Oh." Akari stared down at her boots on the wooden deck. So much for that.
"But you do remind me of another young woman I knew. Her name was Emiri Clifton."
"What?" Akari snapped her head back up. Her mother's first name, and her father's last name? What were the odds of that? She searched Elend's face, but he seemed more interested in the sea.
"Was she married?" Akari asked.
"Aye. She married a student of mine. A boy named Mazren."
"What the hell?" Akari blurted out.
"I agree. It's a strange name. His friends called him 'Maze runner.'"
"Mazren Clifton," Akari repeated, feeling suddenly dizzy. "That's my father's name."
Elend shifted in his seat to face her. For the first time, she actually had his full attention. "Your parents were Mazren and Emiri Clifton?"
"Yeah," Akari said. "I mean, no. My mom never took his name. They weren't married. And they never left the Archipelago."
Elend considered that for a moment. "How do you know that?"
"I..." she trailed off. "Which part?"
"Emiri was Shokenese, right? Short black hair—skinny, with glasses? Kind of like you?"
"Sure," Akari said. That sounded right, but it could also describe thousands of other Shokenese women.
"And Mazren is Espirian," he continued." Brown hair, blue eyes? Hand or so shorter than me?"
"Yeah." Again, that described tons of Espirian men, if not most.
"And they were both Mana Artists," Elend said.
"No." Akari deflated. "Mazren's a Construct technician. My mom just waited tables at a diner."
"And yet ... you also claim to be a novice at Mana Arts. But Relia tells me you fight like someone with years of experience. And your actions tonight seem to prove that."
"Those weren't fair fights," Akari said. "I got by with—"
"No such thing as a fair fight," he interrupted, leaning forward. "Those soldiers might have been weak, but so are you. Tricks or no tricks, they shouldn't have lost to an untrained civilian."
Talek. He wasn't wrong. She'd gotten lucky tonight—especially with Frostblade and the gun. But she'd also been calm and clear during the fights themselves. Despite the whirlwind of emotions in her brain, her body had known exactly what to do. You didn't get those results without years of training.
Elend scraped the gray stubble on his chin. "You weren't born on this island, were you?"
Akari blinked. Was he even listening? She'd just told him her parents had never left this place. Hard to be born somewhere without your mom around.
Then again, she'd seen Espiria several times in her dreams, and Mazren's words came back to her.
Sometimes this life feels like a lie, and the truth is something I can't see.
They'd lied about Mana Arts and advancement. They'd lied about the outside world, and they'd lied about Relia and Elend. Why not lie about this too? If they could destroy centuries of science and culture in that prison, then why not destroy the prisoners' memories?
"I don't know," Akari finally said.
"You don't remember leaving," he said, "but you have dreams. Dreams of being a different person, in a different place."
Chills raced up her arms, and she hung on every word he said.
"Mazren and Emiri had a daughter," Elend continued. "I don't recall ever meeting her. Then again, my memories of them are hazy enough. And I've spent decades searching through my own dreams."
That's right. Relia had mentioned this back at the cabin. People on the island dreamt of their past lives, and everyone else dreamt of the friends and family they'd lost
"But why?" Akari blurted out. "If we're from Espiria, then how did we get here? And how did we forget?"
"I only have theories," Elend replied. "That's why I came here—to learn, and to help whoever I could." He raised his left hand, shaking the black cuff on his wrist. "Didn't go so well."
"I'll take theories," Akari said.
Elend hummed in consideration. "I believe someone forced you here against your will. Powerful Knowledge Artists could have altered your memories of the outside world, making you believe it was destroyed. They could have done the same thing to us, making us forget about you."
She and Kalden had shared a similar theory once, but they'd dismissed it as improbable. Once an idea got that absurd, it seemed easier to believe the dreams were just dreams.
"Can Knowledge Artists really do that?"
"Not at that scale," Elend said. "We can make people believe things that aren't true, and forget things that are. But on a global scale?" He shook his head. "I doubt even a hundred Mystics working together could pull that off. Even then, there should be more evidence left behind. Records, photos, recordings, possessions ... you can't erase everything."
"You can make illusions," Akari noted. Changing some words on a page seemed a hell of a lot easier than making helicopters from scratch.
Elend raised a finger. "Temporarily. Each technique requires a constant flow of mana to sustain itself. And these techniques are never permanent. They weaken with distance and time."
Akari chewed on that. "And if someone took memories, then what's up with the dreams?"
"Aye." Elend nodded. "Here's the thing about memories—they aren't just sitting in a vault waiting to be retrieved. Memories are recreated each time you access them. A Knowledge Artist can place blocks in your mind to prevent certain neurons from firing, but your subconscious can find ways around them. Especially when you let it wander, like when you're sleeping, or in the heat of battle."
That part made sense, at least.
"And when your subconscious realizes what's going on, those lost memories might manifest as obsessions."
"And that's why you're here," Akari said. It was the same reason Mazren had found her and taken her into his home. The same reason she and Kalden had become Mana Artists. They'd all known in their bones that something was wrong, even if they couldn't explain why.
Elend nodded. "If my theory were stronger, I might have brought an army to liberate this island. My dreams were my only evidence. Until now. We don't have all the answers, but several things are clear. You and your family were once Mana Artists, and someone stole that from you."
Family. The word left her feeling dizzy, turning her blood to ice. Akari had already suspected she'd been a Mana Artist in some past life. But this?
If the Grandmaster was right, then her parents had once been married. They'd loved each other, and they'd loved her. They'd been a real family, and someone had ripped them apart.
Akari and Mazren had been living a lie with a barrier between them. What if he'd never chosen to marry Noella? What if 'their' daughter wasn't even his?
And her mother ... Talek. Emiri had been a Mana Artist once too, but someone had stripped her of her power, sending her to a place where she'd be murdered by thugs.
Her eyes burned, but she didn't stop the tears. The memories of her family were gone, but the feelings were all she had left.
Worst of all, they hadn't just done this to Akari's family. There were over a quarter-million people in the Archipelago. How many of them were victims, caught in the same web as her?
The ice turned to fire in her blood, swirling into a raging inferno. She'd felt guilty for killing those Martials in the forest, but those were just ordinary soldiers following orders. Akari might have been one of them if she'd been born Silver or Gold.
But somewhere out there, a powerful Mana Artist lurked in the shadows, stealing their power, their memories, and their very identities. Why? She couldn't say. But one day, Akari would return to this island. She'd free Mazren and all the others they'd left behind.
But she wouldn't stop there. She would find the Mana Artist who did this. She would train for every waking moment until she was strong enough to defeat him.
"Well." Akari let out a long, shaky breath. "Too bad you're no closer to finding the truth."
Elend's look was sympathetic as he took in her pain. He didn't pry, but she assumed he could read between the lines.
"That's not true," he said. "I have you and Kalden now."
She shrugged. "Sounds like we know even less than you."
"Oh, I disagree. You have your dreams, and those dreams are the key to all this."
Akari frowned, not bothering to hide her skepticism. "But dreams aren't memories. How do we know we're not just making stuff up?"
"Because," Elend said. "My mana is good for more than just party tricks. I can help you unlock your mind, and the memories you've lost. Separate the fact from the fiction. Then, perhaps we can untangle this web of secrets once and for all."