"We're so far behind," Akari said as she watched the fight outside. Elend had just killed the enemy Artisan, and Relia had taken on three dragons by herself. Not to mention the ones she'd already killed in the alley.
Martials were one thing, but these guys were Apprentices like her. Probably older and more experienced too. For all that, Relia fought like a dancer, moving seamlessly from one technique to the next. Sometimes, those techniques were completely different aspects.
Meanwhile, Akari and Kalden had struggled to tag-team just one Gold. She'd scored several clean hits, but the dragon just shrugged off her mana as if she'd tossed a water balloon at him.
Talek. How long would it take her to catch up? Relia had started training when she was six. Akari was already sixteen. That put her at least a decade behind.
And her true enemy was far worse than some small-town thug. Even Elend couldn't comprehend this person's power. That might make him one of the strongest Mana Artists alive. She'd been so determined a few nights ago when they left the island. But now ... was this even possible? Did she have the grit to climb that high?
"Guess it's trial by fire," Kalden said with a slow nod. "But we can't keep this up forever."
Her thoughts exactly. They'd gotten lucky in all their previous fights, but luck wouldn't last. Elend had promised to start their training when they reached Espiria. That was fine before, but these dragons made the Martials look like playground bullies.
She and Kalden were weak now, but what if they had Constructs? Or what if they aspected their mana? Better to focus on those small goals rather than the impossibility of the task ahead.
Elend and Relia strolled through the front door a few minutes later, and a crowd bustled in behind them.
No one had spared them a second glance when they'd first arrived in this town. Now, everyone wanted to thank them, shake their hands, or buy them drinks. Several soldiers even pitched in to pay for their dinner, and this instantly brightened the bartender's mood. In the span of a few seconds, the man went from a grumpy Cadrian grandpa to a kid on Midwinter morning.
People definitely got hyped about dead dragons around here. Especially when those dragons were Artisan level. And they weren't even worried about retaliation. Artisans were rarer than Gold Martials in this country, and most worked for the Dragonlord directly. That meant they were too busy for small-town skirmishes like this.
Beyond that, Akari didn't pay much attention to the conversations. Local politics weren't half as exciting as the plate of tacos in front of her—spicy Cadrian sausage topped with onions and cilantro, wrapped in corn tortillas with salsa on the side.
Akari scarfed down three of them, then the bartender set a fresh plate in front of her.
"Can I try a beer?" she asked when she had his attention.
"Sure thing, shokita. What kind?"
Akari shrugged and gestured around the room. "Whatever they're having." She didn't know much about drinking. She'd been under house arrest when she turned sixteen, and the Clifton's had never shared anything with her. But she knew that real Mana Artists drank beer. Not those fruity cocktails that tasted like candy.
The bartender placed an open bottle in front of her. It was ice-cold to the touch, with bubbles fizzing at the opening. Akari raised it to her nose, inhaling a faintly citrus scent.
Relia snatched the bottle from her a second later.
"Hey!" Akari protested.
"You can't drink with a concussion," the other girl said, already passing the bottle to Hector.
"Who says I have a concussion?"
"You hit your head on the boat."
"Then you were unconscious in the water."
"I don't remember that." Akari vaguely remembered hitting her head, but that felt better as soon as Relia healed it.
Relia just nodded as if she'd expected that. "Memory loss is a sign of concussion."
Akari glared at her.
"So is irritability."
"She's right," Kalden said from her left. "Alcohol can make brain damage worse. It's smart to wait at least a week or two"
Akari just shrugged and took another bite of her taco. She'd gone the first sixteen years of her life without alcohol, so it wasn't that bad. Still, it sucked to be the only one without a drink.
To her left, Kalden had a short glass filled halfway with dark brown liquid. Probably whisky, scotch, or some other fancy Gold thing. To her right, Relia was sipping a light blue drink with a little umbrella in it.
"What about you?" Akari said. "You were just—" She almost mentioned the Martial ice chamber, then she thought better of it. "You were unconscious the other night."
She expected Relia to give some bullshit excuse about how Apprentices didn't get concussions. Instead, the other girl just raised the glass to her lips. "This is a virgin Sea Breeze."
"Oh." Akari closed her mouth. She had no idea what that meant, but she wasn't about to advertise that.
"Alcohol doesn't do much for me," Relia explained. "I trained my body to heal poisons on its own. That's useful most days, but it takes a lot of effort to get buzzed. Kinda defeats the purpose, y'know?"
Akari caught the bartender's eye and gestured a thumb at Relia. "Guess I'll try one of those virgin princess drinks."
"Speaking of biology," Kalden said, "can someone please explain these half-dragons?"
"Master-level dragons can shapeshift," Hector said from farther down the bar.
"Sure," Kalden replied. "But these weren't Masters. Did dragons and humans actually..." he made a vague gesture with one hand.
"Oh yeah," Hector said, "A few centuries back, there was this dragon who—"
"That's just a myth," Relia broke in. "Dragon DNA's not compatible with human's. Take it from a Healing Artist." She turned back to Kalden. "Two dragons mated while in half-human form. The mother stayed that way until she gave birth."
"Even that's just a theory," Hector said. "No one knows what the dragons did behind closed doors."
She shrugged. "Makes way more sense than your promiscuous dragon myth."
Relia and Hector continued bickering about the half-dragons, but Akari couldn't hear them over the loud music. Instead, she leaned over to Kalden. "How come we never learned about these in school?"
Mrs. Hansen had spent a good portion of last semester's biology class talking about dragons. These should have come up at least once.
"Seems obvious to me," Kalden said as he sipped his whisky. "Only the Masters can shapeshift. They didn't want us to know about the Master realm."
Akari chewed on that, taking a sip of her fairy princess drink. Could someone have erased this knowledge from the Archipelago? The same way they'd erased their identities from the outside world?
"Makes you wonder what else is out there," Kalden said. "And what else we don't know."
Eventually, they all met up with Elend at a quieter table in the cantina.
"Did you call your wife?" Relia asked as she sat down in a wooden chair.
"I tried." Elend rubbed at his temple. "Apparently, his lordship, Antano, blocks international calls."
"What about the internet?" Akari asked.
"Same problem," Elend replied. "Not that you'll find a computer in this town."
"But they can't block the dark web," Akari said. The Espirians had invented the dark web for this exact purpose—communication behind enemy lines. Then again, maybe she shouldn't have been so confident. Her own history books might be wrong. Hard to trust anything she'd learned back home.
Elend scratched the gray stubble on his chin. "Problem is, I don't know who to contact. And we lost our tech expert to the Martials."
"Doesn't matter who we contact," Akari said. "You're rich, right?"
"I'm well-off," Elend corrected. That was the same thing the Golds said back home.
"Right." Akari leaned forward. "So you post In a dark web chat room. Say there's a reward to anyone who gets a message to your wife. Payment on delivery."
Elend hummed in consideration, then his lip curled up at the edge. "Interesting. But where do we find a computer? This won't be easy as strolling into the library."
"Hector's an Unmarked," Relia spoke up. "He might know some useful people."
Elend fixed her with a look. "I trust you've been keeping our secrets close, Apprentice?"
"Of course," Relia said with a hint of annoyance. "I stuck with the story we planned."
"Aye," Elend said. "But the lad won't believe that story if he's smart. No one here will. Fighting alongside him was one thing, but let's not get too cozy."
"Don't worry." Relia rolled her eyes. "He still thinks you're my dad—the scary Artisan."
"If only things were that simple." Elend rubbed at the invisible cuff on his wrist. "I tried to hold back out there, but I might have revealed too much."
Akari glanced around the room. The music was still blasting on the radio, and no one looked close enough to overhear. Still, couldn't Sound Artists eavesdrop at long range?
Elend must have noticed her unease. "Don't worry, lass. I've got a sound suppressor around our table. They won't hear anything but muffled voices."
Talek. Was there anything dream mana couldn't do? It probably controlled their perception of sound rather than the sound waves themselves. But this seemed like a good aspect to learn.
Kalden cleared his throat. "The Unmarked?"
"Right." Elend took a long swallow of his beer. "Creta has two political factions—Liberta and Unida. One favors freedom, the other promotes unity between humans and dragons. The Grevandi are an extremist group inside Unida. Basically, they're a bunch of thugs who ride around enforcing state propaganda." He took another drink. "The Unmarked are another extremist group who fight back."
"They have territory in all the big cities," Relia continued. "And Hector knows some high-ranking members in Tureko. I'm sure one of them has a computer."
"I suppose it's obvious we can't stay here," Elend said. "So there's no harm in asking him about his friends."
"Great!" Relia clapped her hands together.
"Alright," Kalden said after a short pause. "Now can someone explain what's going on here? I just killed a dragon-person earlier, and I have no idea why."
Akari had been wondering the same thing. They'd mentioned political factions, but this felt more like a civil war.
Elend pulled a napkin from the middle of the round wooden table, flattening it out in front of himself. Then he began doodling with his index finger, forming ink out of thin air.
More dream mana shenanigans?
He held up his sketch a minute later. It was a set of sigils, like the ones used in permanent Constructs. It was also the same mark the Grevandi had tattooed on their foreheads.
"This," Elend said, "is the reason they're fighting."
Akari frowned at the design. She didn't know any sigils. Even if she did, sigilcrafting was about as complex as computer programming with all its different functions.
Elend gestured to a particular design in the center. "I'll spare you all the details, but this is a roju sigil. It creates a barrier that suppresses passive mana flow while letting high-energy bursts through. Basically, it's the opposite of most mana walls."
Okay, now she was really lost. How was this relevant to anything?
"And they put these sigils on their palms and foreheads," Kalden mused. "That stops mana leakage without hurting their techniques."
"Correct," Elend said.
Akari's frown deepened. "But what's the point?" She knew most people leaked mana from their bodies—especially ones who weren't trained to veil their souls. But wasn't that amount too small to matter? You needed Silver Sight just to see it.
Elend grabbed several objects from the center of the table—the napkin stand, the ketchup bottle, and the salt and pepper shakers. "Remember that storm that destroyed our boat? That's what happens when too much unshaped mana gathers in one place."
He arranged the objects like a city between them. Mana flowed out from his palms, creating a crowd of tiny people and cars between the buildings. "These storms start with ambient mana..."
Small wisps of blue light floated up from the crowd, gathering into a dark storm overhead.
"Go back a few centuries, and true Mana Artists were like four-leaf clovers. They kept their secrets close, and everyone else was stuck at the Foundation stage."
The clouds swirled and cackled with lightning. It almost looked impressive until she remembered the city was made of salt canisters and ketchup bottles.
"These days, everyone's a Mana Artist. Most aim for Apprentice at the very least. An Apprentice body can protect you from the leading causes of death—especially the ones you can't prevent with Healing Arts. Things like stroke, cancer, or heart disease. These benefits are permanent, even if you never train."
Akari didn't know anyone who'd died of those things, but it still made her blood boil, knowing someone had hidden this knowledge back home.
"Okay," Kalden said. "But what's that have to do with the dragons?"
"Getting there." Elend held up a finger. "Everyone's a Mana Artist, but most have minimal training. Koreldon City has over six million people. In theory, they're all releasing ambient mana into the air, letting it gather. Eventually..."
The clouds swirled faster, and the lightning struck the people inside Ketchup Bottle CIty. Akari thought she heard tiny screams, but it was hard to tell over the music.
"So the marks stop this from happening?" Kalden asked.
"In theory," Elend said.
"But that makes them sound like a good thing."
"True." Elend glanced at Relia. "How would Hector and the Unmarked respond to this?"
This was the second impromptu quiz he'd given her today, but Relia took it in stride. "Their logic is flawed. If ambient mana caused storms, then places like Koreldon City should have the most storms."
He shook his head. "Koreldon City has corporations who harvest the mana from the air. Besides, we know ambient mana causes storms. It's not a question of if."
Relia furrowed her brow.
"You're on the right track," Elend said, "but you can do better."
Relia sat up straighter in her seat. "Plants and animals release more mana than humans. That's why most storms start in nature." She started talking faster, gesturing wildly with her hands. "And some experts say too much harvesting can make a vacuum, attracting the storms to big cities."
Despite Relia's excitement, Akari felt her eyes glaze over at the last part. How did they go from civil wars to weather patterns?
"So suppressing all this mana might actually attract storms," Relia said. "But we don't know for sure because they skipped all the science stuff."
"The scientific method?" Kalden suggested.
"Right." She pointed at him. "That. No one's done any real experiments to see if these marks reduce storms or cause them. Both sides just assume they're right. If a storm hits a big city, it's always the other side's fault."
"Confirmation bias," Kalden said.
"Much better." Elend raised his glass to both of them.
"Still haven't told us why we're fighting these dragon guys," Akari said.
"It's the classic debate between freedom and safety," Elend said as he turned to face her. "Both sides are important." He held out his hands in a show of balance. "And debates can be productive. But when one side tries to silence the other..." He slammed his fists together.
Akari swallowed as she finally understood. The Dragonlord made the marks mandatory here in Creta, and he didn't allow any opposing viewpoints. She thought they'd escaped all that when she left the Martials behind.
"They're no strangers to tyranny in this land," Elend said. "They've seen how it starts with simple things. So the Grevandi ride from town to town, marking everyone they can. People fight back, and a disagreement turns into a civil war."
"Well, shit," Akari said. "The whole world is like this?"
Elend leaned back in his chair, draining the rest of his glass. "Things are better in Espira. We have democracy there, and the means to resist in more civilized ways. But it's good to see nations like this one. It reminds us how fragile freedom can be."