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Kalden pushed open the door behind the Cantina, stepping out into the cool morning air. There wasn't much back here—just a narrow parking lot with few overflowing dumpsters. A battered car sat in one corner of the lot, and a chain-link fence ran along the opposite edge, keeping a jungle of bushes and palm trees at bay.

Akari stood in the middle of it all, guiding her mana through the morning haze.

Kalden watched her Missile spiral around the telephone wire's wooden support. Then she lowered her center of gravity, sending it around the wire itself. When it finally returned to her, Akari stretched out her hand and reabsorbed the mana into her skin.

When did she learn that? He'd seen that move in the Grandmaster's videos, but neither of them had pulled it off until now. Kalden's mana always broke against his palm when he tried.

She must have seen him standing there, but she didn't slow down. Instead, she fell back into a combat stance and fired another pale blue Missile. This one soared straight for a row of plastic milk cartons which she'd lined up near the dumpsters.

At first, Kalden expected her target to fly across the parking lot, crumbling beneath the impact. But she sharpened her Missile into a blade, slicing straight through the plastic without moving the carton itself.

Okay, she definitely hadn't known that move yesterday either.

Akari raised her hand and stepped to the side, retrieving her Missile before it flew too far. It cut through a second milk carton on the way back, and her lip curled in a self-satisfied grin.

Even her movements had changed. When he'd first met Akari, she'd walked with a slumped posture, either avoiding eye contact or glaring at people. Even when she'd started learning Mana Arts, she'd moved too aggressively, as if she always had something to prove.

Today, she moved with quiet confidence and grace. More like Relia than her old self.

Akari caught him staring, then she crossed her arms, still looking as proud as a cat. "Let's see the dragons shrug that off."

Kalden nodded his agreement. Mana that sharp could definitely break armor, even without an aspect. "How long have you been out here?"

She shrugged. "Longer than the sun."

It was almost nine o'clock now, so that must have been at least two hours ago. Sweat glistened on her neck and collarbones, and her chest rose and fell with rapid breaths. Kalden felt his own breath increasing, but for entirely different reasons.

"Thought you weren't a morning person without your coffee," he said.

"The dreams worked," she replied, clearly eager to share the whole story. "I learned a bunch of new skills last night. Still can't do a Construct yet though, and I never got to see my aspect in action." She frowned as if she'd honestly expected to learn everything in one day.

"Come on." Kalden waved her toward the door. "We're having breakfast inside."

 


 

Akari followed Kalden back into the common room. It was far quieter now than it had been last night. The radio played some Cadrian folk song, and a dozen locals sat scattered around the long bar. Akari thought she recognized some of the border guards from last night. Did they hang out here whenever they weren't working?

Elend was talking to Hector in one corner, and Kalden led her to another table where Relia waited.

"Morning!" the other girl said cheerful wave. "Hope you don't mind, but I ordered for everyone. They only had one breakfast thing on the menu."

Kalden sat across from Relia, and Akari took the seat between them, glancing down at her plate. It looked like someone had thrown a bunch of sausage and potatoes into a skillet and then cracked some eggs to fill the gaps. Still smelled good, though.

They ate in silence for the next few minutes as Akari inhaled her food. She hadn't realized it until now, but she'd worked up quite an appetite with her morning training. The food tasted as good as it had last night, but the coffee surprised her the most. It was smooth and light with hints of citrus—even better than a Jumpstart Storm's Eye. Was that because Cadria had a tropical climate? They had to use greenhouses back home, but these beans probably grew outside on some old volcano.

"Alright," Kalden said. "Now let's hear your dream."

"What?" She furrowed her brow. "Why don't you go first?"

"You're done eating," he noted with a grin. "Plus, I'm pretty sure yours was more exciting."

Akari glanced down at their plates and realized that Kalden and Relia had only eaten half of theirs so far. Damnit.

She drew in a deep breath. At first, she'd assumed they would wait for Elend, but she'd already shared her dream with him that morning. Apparently, Kalden had too.

So Akari eased into the story, doing her best to be descriptive. She'd never considered herself a good storyteller. She always talked too fast, eager to be out of the spotlight. Still, she managed to slow down for the big ending reveal, and it paid off when she got a gasp from Kalden.

"Then I woke up right after that," Akari finished.

"I don't get it," Relia said. "Who are those people?"

"They were my friends," Kalden said. "Well, our friends, I guess. They helped us escape the Martials."

"Except for Emberlyn," Akari added in a dark voice. "She's the reason I got arrested."

"So," Kalden said. "Maelyn was the Gravity Artist you fought?"

"Yeah. Weird, huh?"

"Not that weird, actually. Her grandfather was a Gravity Artist—CEO of Sanako Inc."

Sanako Inc. She'd seen that logo on the generator they'd used on the boat when they were escaping the island. She hadn't made the connection before.

But this was good to hear. Despite the progress she'd made with her Mana Arts, a part of her had worried that her whole dream was some crazy hallucination. Especially after she'd seen Maelyn, Darren, and Emberlyn. That part had seemed too weird to be real.

Akari took a drink of her coffee. "So, her grandpa kept his aspect, but Maelyn got switched from gravity to healing?"

Kalden gave a helpless shrug. "High school students back home didn't learn advanced aspects. Maybe they changed it to fit the narrative?

She frowned. "Mazren lost his Mana Arts too. So did my mom."

"It makes sense in your mom's case," Kalden said. "She was born a Bronze."

And that definitely went against the narrative. "But what about Mazren?"

"Maybe it's like the half-dragons," he said. "Maybe he had some advanced abilities that didn't fit? Or maybe they needed more technicians on the mana wall?"

Talek. The more she thought about this, the crazier it all seemed. The Archipelago had over a quarter-million people, and someone had altered each of their lives to fit a massive lie. No one could have crafted every detail by hand, but it wasn't random either. It almost felt like the work of an algorithm.

She turned to Relia. "Are there, like, evil AIs in this world?"

"Huh?" The other girl cocked her head to the side.

"Artificial intelligence. Computers that can think."

"Oh." She shook her head. "No. I think that just happens in movies."

Well, that was good, but it still didn't disprove her algorithm theory. Maybe there was a way to mix computer processing with Mana Arts? Or maybe Knowledge Artists could recreate the same things in their own heads?

"What about Emberlyn?" Kalden asked, interrupting her thoughts. "Was she an alchemist in your dream?"

Akari shrugged. "I guess she gave Maelyn and Darren some potions."

"And they were wearing combat suits," Kalden said. "But she wasn't?"

"Sure. But who cares?"

Kalden shoveled a bite of food into his mouth, taking the pause to think. "Emberlyn once said she had dreams about being an alchemist. Her father pushed her into Mana Arts, but maybe things were different in this world. If Golds weren't considered special..."

Akari ignored that. She couldn't imagine Emberlyn having dreams the way she and Kalden had. She also couldn't believe Maelyn and Darren were actually friends with her.

Kalden asked a few more questions about his friends, but Akari didn't have any clear answers. The whole experience had been surreal, and she hadn't thought to look for details.

"I think it's your turn," she finally said. "What was your dream about?"

Kalden cleared his throat. "It was actually about you."

"Ooo!' Relia clasped her hands together.

Kalden continued quickly. "We were kids—I was nine, and you looked about the same age."

Wow. She'd assumed both dreams would happen in roughly in the same timeline. But there was no real reason for that in hindsight.

"We were neighbors," Kalden said, "living in the same sect you described. Our houses were back-to-back with a short wooden fence between them. My brother and I were in the backyard with a punching bag. Sozen eventually went inside, then you jumped the fence and asked me to teach you how to fight."

Akari leaned forward, hanging on every word. She hadn't seen Kalden in her own dream, but it hardly surprised her that he'd been there.

"We practiced on the bag," he continued, "and I gave you some tips. Then we had to stop when your mom called you in for dinner."

"You saw my mom?" That hardly seemed fair. Why hadn't she gotten to see her parents?

"Just a glimpse when she stuck her head out of the doorway. She looked a lot like you, actually.

"Yeah." Akari didn't know what else to say, so she reached for her coffee cup. Unfortunately, that was empty, so she threw back her water glass and crunched on an ice cube instead.

"What else?" Relia asked.

"That's about it," he said. "I'm not much of a storyteller, but I took a bunch of notes." He leaned over and pulled a bundle of papers from his bag. "There's a whole transcript of our talk."

Relia whistled as she accepted the pile. "Somebody was a good student."

"Number one in our class," Akari added, not missing a chance to embarrass Kalden. But her grin faded when she saw the extent of his notes. Her own notes had been a single page with several lists of bullet points.

Kalden, on the other hand...

The first page was an estimation of the sect's population. He even showed his work, including the estimated square footage for each house, and the number of houses that could fill the available space. He'd also consulted the memories of his past self and discovered there were two more neighborhoods in the sect.

She found the number at the end: three thousand people. That seemed large, but maybe it shouldn't have. Hadn't there been a few hundred people just in the arena?

The next page described the sect itself. The descriptions matched hers, but his notes were far more detailed, going so far as to note the species of plants and the materials used in the houses. Another paragraph made note of the climate, the season, and the surrounding mountains. Based on all that, Kalden put their position somewhere in Northeast Espiria. More paragraphs explained his exact reasoning.

Akari fell back in her chair, feeling suddenly useless. It was easy to forget how freakishly smart Kalden was.

Finally, she found the transcript of their conversation.

"Don't punch your target," Kalden told her. "Punch through him. One foot in front of the other like this. Fist aligned with your forearm. Exhale."

She'd heard those exact words before. This whole time, Kalden had been the boy from her memories. The one who'd first taught her to fight.

She found her mother's words at the end of the page, and her breath caught in her throat. She wanted to go back to sleep and see this for herself.

"Good news," Elend said as he returned to their table. "The Unmarked have a base in San Talek with internet access. Hector and I leave in ten minutes."

"You and Hector?" Relia looked at him like an abandoned puppy.

"This place is dangerous," Elend explained. "The two of us will draw less attention. It's a three hour drive, but we should be back this afternoon."

"Can we use these dreams to advance faster?" Akari asked. If Elend was leaving them behind, she didn't want to twiddle her thumbs the whole time. Especially now that she'd used up her mana.

Elend blinked at the sudden change of subject.

"I was Gold in my last dream," she said. "Feels like there should be a shortcut to get back the lost mana."

"I don't want to get your hopes up too much, but it's possible..." He trailed off, seeming to gather his thoughts. "Consider this—how did you lose your mana in the first place? I'm sure you can guess after last night's lecture."

"Intention," Kalden said. "A powerful Mana Artist wanted us to become weaker, so we did."

Elend nodded. "I don't know what specific techniques or aspects they used, but that's not relevant right now. Intention can always be opposed, the same way you made Whiskers disappear last night."

Kalden's lips made a thin line. "Can we oppose someone that strong?"

"Directly? No. But you're only opposing a small piece of this person's power. You also have the laws of physics on your side. Just as the cat wasn't really there..."

"I'm really a Gold right now," Akari finished in a low voice. It felt strange to say, but she'd felt the truth of it in her dream.

"Aye. You've lived a lie for the past few years, and you carry a piece of that lie with you still. You need to synthesize who you are now with who you were in the past. You refer to 'Dream Akari' as if she's a different person. Move past that. Get inside her head. Feel her thoughts as if they're your own. If you can become her again, then you might gain her power."

He turned to Kalden. "The same goes for you, lad. Once you have some more dreams, of course. With a sect like that, I wouldn't be surprised if you reached the peak of Gold."

They both nodded. Elend rose from his chair, and the rest of them followed suit.

"Before I go, I have a parting gift for everyone." Elend stepped toward Relia and took her hands in his. Mana flashed in the space between them. Then he pressed another hand to her forehead.

When he pulled it away, she had a mark like the Grevandi's.

"Don't worry." Elend made his way around the table, taking Kalden's hands next. "These are illusions. Even if the Grevandi catch you, they won't bother someone who they think is marked."

"I thought the dragon guys weren't coming back," Akari said.

"Probably right." Elend took her hands. "But I'd rather prepare for the worst." Mana flashed between them. The sensation was painless, just like when he'd put the dream Constructs in their heads.

"These draw power from your own mana supply," he explained. "Stop cycling for about ten seconds, and the marks will vanish" He gestured to Relia, and all three of her marks faded away. Then she struck a victory pose as if she'd done a trick.

"Start cycling again, and the marks should return."

As if on cue, Relia's marks came back.

He gave an approving nod. "That should stop the locals from burning you at the stake."

"How long do these last?" Kalden glanced up at his own forehead as if he could see the sigils there.

"Not to worry, lad." Elend gave a dismissive wave. "Those should last for weeks as long as you cycle every day. The same goes for the other Construct in your head."

He made as if to move toward the door, then he paused again. "Oh, almost forgot. I arranged for our food and lodging for one more day. You'll just need to help Marco with some chores—laundry, dishes, things of that sort. Turns out the man can negotiate after all."

And with that, Elend strode toward the door where Hector waited. "Best of luck! Stay out of trouble!"

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A note from David Musk

Hi everyone! I finally have a full continent-level map for this world here:

https://davidmusk.com/photos/web-of-secrets-world-map

This is much rougher than the original Archipelago map we saw for Book 1 (no nations, states, cities, etc. yet) But it should give you an idea of where all the major continents are! (For reference, Book 1 took place on the islands off the northeast coast of Cadria, and our characters are currently on the lowest peninsula in northeast Cadria.

I'll obviously come back to this with more detail in the future, but I expect this geography to stay mostly the same throughout the series!

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About the author

David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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