Akari cycled her mana as she sprang forward. Skyscrapers surrounded her on all sides, stretching into the gray mist above. The buildings themselves were all weathered brick with ornamented windows and balconies.
She’d seen this place in her dreams before. The roads went on for miles in every direction, forming a massive urban labyrinth.
Her opponent stood farther down the street. A young woman, clad in white armor from head to heel. Black stripes separated the pieces, and her visor was black as well.
Sanako. Gravity Artist. Thirteen years old with four-hundred mana. She’s a long-range fighter who plays a support role in team battles, using the environment to her advantage. Better to close the distance quickly.
The thoughts all flooded Akari’s mind. They seemed like her own, but they couldn’t be. She’d never even seen this girl before.
Still … four-hundred mana was almost twice what Kalden had. That put this girl halfway between Gold and Apprentice.
Akari vaulted over parked cars as she ran. Mana flowed through her channels like a rushing river, strengthening her muscles and bones. This was more than just ordinary cycling. She felt more solid with each step, as if she could smash the cars beneath her boots. A Cloak technique? Was this how Relia felt all the time?
Sanako released two transparent Missiles from her palms, lifting a nearby car off the ground.
Yeah, definitely a Gravity Artist. No other Gold could lift something that heavy. Not even with Mana Arts.
Akari jumped off a truck and landed on the road less than ten paces from her opponent.
Sanako still held the car in midair with no apparent effort. She shot another Missile, and the car flew straight toward Akari.
Mana flooded Akari’s legs as she moved to dodge. Her jump carried her three strides to the right, and she landed on the sidewalk.
Metal and glass shattered behind her as the car broke against the road. Akari heard the crash, but she kept her eyes on her opponent.
Sanako hurled another car straight at her. This one came too quick to dodge. Talek. The girl had predicted where Akari would land, and she’d lined up her shot accordingly.
Akari gathered two Missiles in her palms. For the first time, she felt the strength of the mana in her own soul. It was far denser than her real soul. She wondered how much—
The answer came to her at once: 510 mana. Practically the peak of Gold, and over ten times the amount she had in real life.
Akari launched both Missiles at the approaching vehicle. Then—before the first two even left her palms—she shot two more. Metal warped as the car caved in from the roof. The windows broke beneath the impact, and glass flew in every direction.
But still, the car flew forward.
Fortunately, Dream Akari knew what to do.
She flooded her channels with pure mana and threw herself forward. More Missiles left her hands, but these formed into Constructs around her, shielding her upper body from the impact.
The front of the Construct sharpened like a blade, severing the car like a paper bag.
No sooner had she landed than her opponent closed in, launching pure Missiles of her own.
Apparently, the girl had double-aspected her mana, but Dream Akari didn’t seem surprised by this.
She drew a blade from its sheath, two feet long and enhanced with metal mana. Then she strengthened the weapon further, sending mana from her channels into the blade itself. It shone with pale blue light as she slashed through the air, knocking Sanako’s Missiles aside.
Akari tried to close the distance, but the other girl kept her on the defensive, hurling pieces of broken metal with her gravity mana.
This is bullshit. This whole arena favors Sanako.
Wait … whose thoughts were those? They weren’t Akari’s, but they still appeared inside her head. Those must have come from her past self.
She continued exchanging Missiles with her opponent, dodging debris and weaving her own mana through the gaps.
Talek. Dream Akari knew so many fighting moves—things the real Akari had only scratched the surface of. But the more she thought about this dream, the stranger it seemed. Akari felt in control of her body—like each movement was a conscious choice on her part. But that couldn’t be true. She didn’t know these techniques.
But if she wasn’t in control, that made her a prisoner in her own skin.
No sooner had the thoughts taken shape than time slowed to a crawl. The battlefield blurred around her like broken dream mana, and the sounds grew faint and distant.
“You might realize you’re dreaming,” Elend had told her last night. “Ignore those thoughts. Get lost in the moment. If you think too hard, you’ll wake up.”
Right. She was here to observe her past, not to control it.
“Think about the sensations. Soak up everything like a sponge. Not only will this ground you in the moment, but it will help you remember more when you wake.”
Akari took several mental breaths and focused on her surroundings again. Her breath felt warm inside her helmet, but each inhale brought a rush of crisp winter air. She wore armor like her opponent, but hers was black instead of white. She caught glimpses of the sleeve with each Missile she fired.
Despite the armor, her opponent looked young, with barely any curves. Her memories told her the other girl was thirteen, and so was Akari.
But why would two middle-schoolers be fighting in an empty city? This didn’t feel like a friendly duel, either. For Talek’s sake, the girl had just thrown a freaking car at her.
Focus, Akari scolded herself. Stop thinking.
The fight had continued even as she’d mentally checked out. It reminded her of the times she would walk to school on autopilot while she was practicing her Missiles.
Kalden would be terrible at living in the moment like this. He had to analyze every detail, asking questions until he understood something inside and out. If he didn’t understand, he refused to move—
The dream blurred again, and she caught herself. Damnit. Okay, so maybe she sucked at focusing too.
Akari slashed forward with her blade. Her opponent leapt back, using her gravity mana to jump higher. Akari grinned as the other girl flew backward. Gravity mana was great for mobility, but it left you exposed mid-battle.
Easy as shooting a balloon.
She lashed out with a volley of pure Missiles, sharpening the edges into spikes. Sanako raised a Construct between them. Akari ducked and sidestepped in quick succession, altering her center of gravity and arcing her Missiles around the shield.
Her mana struck her opponent several times, hard enough to poke holes in her pretty white armor.
Sanako smashed into the sidewalk, and Akari landed on top of her. She readied a Missile in her palm, putting more pressure in the center, sharpening the edge to a deadly point.
So that’s how Kalden does it.
Akari had struggled with this technique before, but it was so effortless here. Could she really bring this skill back to the real world?
She struck forward with her palm, aiming for her opponent’s windpipe. The other girl countered with a Construct. Mana struck mana as their techniques broke in a blast of pale blue light.
Akari readied another attack, then the two of them flew upward.
Shit. More gravity mana. This time, she couldn’t tell where the thought had come from. Was it Real Akari or Dream Akari?
The ground retreated beneath them, and they flew several dozen feet in the air. Her opponent grabbed her by the front of her armor and twisted them both around. Their bodies spun as they fought, and the city became a whirlwind of gray sky and stone buildings.
With a sudden burst of strength, Sanako threw her straight toward the nearest building. Akari looked up to see a brick wall closing in. Her head would shatter like an egg if she hit that.
Instead, she twisted her body in midair, reinforcing her legs and spine. Then she kicked off from the building, aiming for her opponent again.
By now, the other girl had already hit the ground. She shot pure Missiles at Akari, but she deflected them with bursts of her own mana.
In real life, this level of fighting would have taken her full concentration. But for Dream Akari, this was like brushing her teeth. The mana flew back and forth, and her eyes scanned the battlefield. Her blade lay on the ground a dozen feet away.
Akari shot a Missile toward the fallen weapon.
Time seemed to slow as the mana wrapped around the blade. The movement was almost gentle, wrapping around it like a hand.
Akari pulled the mana back to her. The weapon moved with it, soaring through the air. She timed it perfectly, and she caught it by the hilt. Then she adjusted her grip as she soared back toward the ground, blade aimed for her opponent.
As expected, the girl raised a Construct between them.
Akari’s weapon became an extension of her body, and she flooded it with more mana. The steel was already enhanced, and channels ran through the blade itself, strengthening it beyond a Gold's weapon.
Sanako’s Construct shattered into blue mist when it met her weapon. Akari continued downward, and she plunged the blade through her opponent’s chest.
The girl’s body went limp, and crimson rivers flowed down her pale armor. Akari almost collapsed on top of her, but she caught herself at the last second.
Instead of finishing off her opponent, she gazed up at the horizon as if she expected something to happen. Thoughts of an audience floated through her head … but why? There was no audience here. They were alone on this city street.
Another second passed, then the city faded around her. It faded the same way Elend’s dream mana did when he dropped an illusion. The sky changed colors from dull gray to pale blue. The buildings faded to lush green mountains, capped with snow.
She blinked, and she found herself standing in a wide, circular arena, more than fifty yards in diameter. A man’s voice announced her victory over a megaphone, and the massive scoreboard confirmed it.
Hundreds of applauding people sat in the surrounding audience. Akari tried to make out faces in the crowd, hoping to see her parents there. She hadn’t seen her mom’s face in almost three years, and she ached for a sight of it.
But Dream Akari didn’t care about that. Instead, her eyes fell to where her opponent still lay in the dirt. Seconds before, she’d been laying in a pile of broken glass and metal, bleeding from her chest. Now, the wound was gone, and her armor was unbroken. Even Akari’s own weapon had vanished to mist.
She reached down and offered her opponent a hand. Clearly, it had been a game this whole time. Relia had mentioned combat arenas at her university. Could this be something similar? Did the whole area run on dream mana?
The girl clasped Akari’s wrist, and Akari pulled her back to her feet.
“Good fight,” Akari said as she removed her helmet. Her voice sounded so young that she wanted to cringe.
“Yeah,” the other girl said. Her voice sounded young too, but also familiar. She pulled off her white helmet, revealing the face of a young Shokenese girl with silver glasses. Most of her hair was pulled back in a tight black bun, but her sweaty bangs clung to her forehead.
She looked just like Kalden’s old informant. Akari still didn’t believe it until she glanced back at the scoreboard and saw the name opposite hers.
Once again, Dream Akari wasn’t surprised by this revelation. She’d known her opponent the whole time. She just hadn’t thought of her by her first name.
As for Real Akari, she tried not to think too hard. There would be plenty of time for that later.
They went their separate ways, each girl exiting the area from a different side. Akari stepped down a short hallway into what looked like a remote mountain village. The roads were all rough cobblestones, but the buildings looked clean and well-maintained. Shokenese pagodas loomed on either side of her with curved terraces, tapering with every tier as they stretched toward the clear blue sky.
The city’s name came to her a second later. Last Haven.
This was no ordinary city. It was a sect—the sort of place where Mana Artists lived away from the rest of the world, dedicating their lives to training without distractions.
And Akari actually lived here? With her family?
She walked through the streets, passing dozens of strange faces she didn’t recognize. Her route took her to a residential area with rows of small houses. The road was less busy here, but she eventually caught sight of Maelyn walking down the street beside her.
A boy walked with her—Darren Warder. He was slightly thinner in this world, and blond bangs covered his forehead.
Akari barely had time to react before a third person joined them on the street, carrying a bottle of liquid mana in each hand. While Darren and Maelyn both wore matching combat suits, this girl wore a simple dress and jacket. Her golden hair hung back in a pair of braids, and her eyes seemed to sparkle as she laughed.
It was all too much. Seeing Darren and Maelyn here was one thing, but Akari couldn’t suspend her disbelief about this. Time slowed, and the dream blurred around her. This time, she made no effort to stop it.
Akari’s eyes shot open, and she sprang up in her bed. Sweat covered her body, and her heart still thundered from the battle.
She grabbed her glasses and tossed the blankets aside. The sun rose in a haze of orange on the horizon, making jagged silhouettes of the city skyline. Relia breathed softly in the other bed, resting her cheek on her hands.
Talek. That felt so real. Elend had warned her, but a part of her hadn’t believed him.
She moved her fingers, surprised to find herself in control again. Hundreds of images remained burned in her vision, from the area to the sect itself. And that fight … Talek. She’d known she was a Combat Artist in her past. That was the only thing that explained her fighting instincts.
But this … was Relia even that good?
Her feet found the wooden floor, and she fell into the same combat stance from the dream. She threw several punches at the air, and memories flooded her mind with each movement. She knew exactly where to place each punch, from the timing to the position of her fingers.
Akari thought about trying the mana techniques too, but she thought better of it. Elend had specifically told them not to break anything in the hotel rooms.
Instead, she grabbed her mana watch from her nightstand, pressing it to the back of her wrist.
51/51, the screen read.
Damnit. She’d hoped she would keep her mana from the dreams, but of course it wouldn’t be that easy.
Still … she’d been Gold for a short time. Not just Gold, but less than ninety points from Apprentice. Could she use this somehow? Could she leverage it as a shortcut? She’d have to ask Elend tomorrow.
“What’s up?” Relia asked from across the room.
“Uh…” Akari froze. At some point, she’d started punching the air again. “Sorry. Just … trying something.”
She crawled back under the blankets, resting her head against the wall and retrieving the notebook from her nightstand. Elend had insisted they record every detail of their dreams, preferably as soon as they woke up.
Akari relaxed over the next few minutes as she wrote down what happened, from the combat area to the strange sect in the mountains. Her aspect had been strangely absent the entire time. But why? Had she been holding back? Maybe she didn’t need it to beat Maelyn.
Finally, her thoughts drifted to the end of the dream.
Maelyn Sanako, Darren Warder, and Emberlyn Frostblade… all together in the outside world.
What the hell was that place?