They spent the day doing chores around the Cantina. If this were a movie, they would have breezed through the work in a quick montage, then skipped to the cool parts where Relia taught them Mana Arts.

But their lives were more like a comedy at this point. Kalden was completely helpless when it came to chores. He'd never dusted a day in his life. Or vacuumed, or washed dishes.

"How have you never washed dishes?" Relia asked as they gathered around the massive steel sink.

"His maids did that for him," Akari said as she unloaded a bus tub of glasses.

Kalden gave her a look, but he didn't correct her. Then he glanced back at the dishes as if they were a nest of venomous snakes.

"Here." Relia shoved him aside and grabbed the rough-looking sponge. "It's not that hard. Just add some soap, and scrub until the food comes off."

Relia had lived on her own for several years, which basically made her a real adult. As for Akari, she'd done her share of chores around the Cliftons' house. Especially dishes. So many dishes.

To Kalden's credit, he gave Relia his full attention as she worked, probably taking mental videos with his photographic memory.

"Wait"—Relia stepped away from the sink, drying her hands on a nearby towel. "Then how come you're so good at making beds?"

Good question. He'd even tucked in the corners on the sheets and blankets. 'Shokenese corners,' he'd called them.

"We made our own beds every morning." Kalden picked up the sponge, mimicking Relia's exact motions. "It's an old daily ritual with Shokenese Blade Artists. Something about starting your day with a small victory."

"Huh." Relia rested her chin on her thumb. "I never made my bed at all."

"Me neither," Akari said. She'd never been a morning person, so why make the routine harder? And waiting until the evening seemed to defeat the purpose.

They moved on to the laundry after that, tossing several loads of sheets and towels into the massive washing machine. This would have been nice to have last night when they were washing their clothes in the bathtub, but what could you do?

A steel door loomed in one corner of the room, sealed with three different locks.

"What's that?" Akari asked Marco when he walked by. "Got a pet dragon locked in the basement?"

The old bartender shook his head. "That's not a basement, shokita. That door leads to the catacombs."

"Catacombs? Seriously?" They'd never had anything that old back on Arkala.

Marco nodded, gesturing a finger behind him. "They start at the church and snake out through the city."

Well, that sounded like a cool place to explore. And what if they had some arkions down there, like the ones in Elegan's subway tunnels? Akari wouldn't mind testing her skills against those. Unfortunately, Marco hadn't unlocked the door in years, and he didn't feel like starting today.

Once their work was done, they ate a late lunch in the common room, then headed outside for Mana Arts practice. Relia led them several blocks down the street until they found a playground near an elementary school. It wasn't much—just a worn-looking jungle gym with a few slides, a swing set, and a set of monkey bars.

"Okay." Relia kicked up sand as she spun around to face them. "So you want to learn Constructs? Let's see what you can do!"

Akari fell into a wide stance, one arm forward with the other curled up at a ninety-degree angle behind her. This let her cycle her mana straight through her body, gaining momentum along the way.

The Missile flew from her hand in a burst of pale blue light. Constructs didn't have to start as Missiles, but that was the simplest way to get the mana out of your body.

The tricky part was making it sit still once it was free. Her mana flew faster than she could sprint, and she gritted her teeth as she tried to pull it straight back. Retrieving a Missile was easy if you sidestepped and let it curve around naturally. But it would always be a Missile that way. It only became a Construct when you reached a balance between pushing and pulling.

In Akari's case, the opposing forces ripped the mana apart, turning it to vapor in midair.

"Damnit," she snapped. It had been so effortless in her dream. Not only had she formed Constructs faster than blinking, but she'd done it while flying in midair.

Relia nodded. "Good start, but you're shooting your Missile way too quick."

"I thought Missiles needed speed?" Then again, Elend had never actually said that in his videos. She'd discovered it herself through trial and error.

"Nope." Relia held out her hand, releasing a Missile with deliberate slowness. It was like watching a loading bar on a dial-up connection. It looked far more solid and opaque than Akari's Missile had.

"You need either mass or velocity," she explained. "The more of one you have, the less you need of the other.

Relia's Missile stretched and flattened, forming a shield as wide as her shoulders.

"You started with low mana counts," she said. "So you probably needed the speed boost back then. Not anymore. Try to slow your cycling, then force out more mana than you're used to. Pack it tight like a snowball, and it should work."

Akari followed Relia's advice, unleashing a Missile with twice her usual potency. It still came out like a charging raptor, but she reeled it back in. This time, it lasted several more seconds before it broke.

Relia gave her a quick thumbs up. "Keep practicing. You'll get it soon!" Then she turned to Kalden. "Your turn!"

He widened his stance the way Akari had. But instead of one hand, he used both at once, combining two smaller Missiles into one.

Not a bad idea. Two hands meant more control.

His mana came out slower than her second attempt, hovering a few feet from his open palms. Then it flattened into a shield the same way Relia's had.

Talek. Even with her combat dreams, Kalden was still ahead of her. She'd rescued him back on the island, but that didn't put them on even ground yet.

Several more fears flashed through her mind as Kalden's shield widened. What if he unlocked his old mana, but she didn't? It took most people twelve years to reach Apprentice. What if she only slowed the others down? What if they left her behind?

The Construct turned to mist a second later, and Kalden dropped his hands.

Stop moping, Akari told herself. Focus on your training. Kalden might learn quicker, but he'd never outwork her. Neither would anyone else.

Relia gave Kalden some more pointers, and they threw themselves into their exercises. Unfortunately, these heavy-duty Missiles drained Akari's soul far faster than usual, and she was out of mana within the first twenty minutes.

"What about Cloak techniques?" Akari asked when they all took a break.

Relia strolled over to the swing set and sat down. "What about them?"

"I think I did one in my dream."

"No way." Relia started pumping her legs, swinging higher. "You've gotta be Apprentice for that."

Akari frowned. "But my mana made me stronger."

"That's different."

"Different how?"

"All techniques start small. Remember when you first learned Missiles?"

Kalden nodded. "We used our mana to pass a ball back and forth."

"And we moved pencils around," Akari added.

"Right." Relia pulled herself up on the swing so she was practically standing. Then she launched herself upward on the next round, landing feet-first on the steel bar. Her body wobbled slightly, but she kept her balance.

"Shooting mana isn't the same as a real Missile," she said. "Cloaks are the same way."

Kalden stepped forward, craning his neck to face her. "So we can make ourselves stronger?" Even at Silver or Gold?"

"Sure," Relia said, "why do you think we came to the playground?"

Akari and Kalden shared a look, then Relia lowered herself from the bar, hanging from one arm between the two swings.

"First, you need to work your muscles to fatigue." She did several one-armed pull-up repetitions, raising her chin above the bar each time. Akari didn't keep count, but it must've been at least twelve.

She hung there for several long seconds, heaving in deep breaths. "Then you feed your muscles some mana when they're tired." Her bicep glowed with blue light, and she pulled herself back up and over the bar. "It's easy for me, but your muscles will resist at first. That's why you train to exhaustion—give them no choice but to use it."

"Why do they resist mana?" Kalden asked. As usual, he had to understand every detail before he could move on.

"It's inefficient." Relia hopped down from the swingset, dropping a full eight feet into the sand below. "Our bodies hate wasting energy, and converting mana into oxygen is a bad trade."

"Oxygen?" Kalden asked. "You sure it's not ions?"

Relia looked at him, and he continued, "Muscles contract when you have the right balance of sodium, calcium, and potassium. That causes the proteins to lock together."

She hummed in consideration. "Yeah, that's probably right. Been a while since I learned this stuff."

Well, at least you didn't need to know biology to be a good Mana Artist. That made sense though. Mana Arts predated microscopes by several thousand years.

"Anyway," Relia said, "this is step one. Once your cells get used to your mana, you can reinforce them at will. It's not a real Cloak technique, but it paves the way.

And with that, she led them over toward the monkey bars where they started doing pull-ups.

Relia had made this look easy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Pull-ups were one thing—she could manage five or six of those. But flexing her muscles while cycling? Talek. This felt like being a beginner all over again.

Something told her that feeling would never fully go away.



Elend reclined in the front seat of Hector's truck, watching the jungles roll by on either side of the highway.

The truck was even older than its owner—an 845 Titan unless Elend had suddenly lost his wits. A web of cracks covered the leather seats, and the scent of burning mana crystals drifted in from the open windows.

Most people hated that smell, but it made Elend nostalgic for simpler days. His father had always kept old cars as a hobby, and their garage had harbored that sweet mineral scent for years.

In fact, it still smelled that way to this day.

The jungles eventually gave way to urban neighborhoods with hundreds of small houses crammed between the ocean and the hillside. The traffic grew thicker too, and it wasn't long before the cars sat bumper to bumper.

Hector tapped the steering wheel nervously. The poor lad probably wasn't used to chauffeuring Artisans around town. If he only knew...

"What day is it?" Elend asked. He hadn't asked anyone since he woke up from the Martial's ice chamber. It hadn't mattered on the island, or out at sea.

"Irinday," he said. "Tresember 56th."

Irinday. Well, that explained the lunch hour traffic. And Tresember was almost over? Akari had told him he'd been frozen for half a year, but that was still strange to hear.

What would his wife think? He'd gone on long trips before, but never like this. In fact, he'd never gone more than a week without contacting her.

Their route carried them into the heart of San Talek, and the houses rose into towering offices and apartment buildings. It still seemed tiny compared to Koreldon, but it was bigger than he'd expected.

Hector took the next off-ramp, driving two more blocks until they reached a five-story parking garage. The hideout wasn't far from here, but they'd have to walk the rest of the way.

The sidewalks were as busy as the roads, and they passed an equal number of humans and dragons along the way. Elend also spotted several more Espirians in the crowd, so at least he wasn't the only one.

He'd considered a disguise, but the cuffs made it difficult to gather enough mana. It might have fooled the average pedestrian, but anyone over Artisan would see through it. In that case, he'd be better off just looking like himself.

He'd still hidden his cuffs, but that was a calculated risk. Just like coming here in the first place.

They'd only been walking for a few minutes when a black 870 Noble appeared at the intersection ahead. It was the most expensive car he'd seen in Creta, and it stuck out like a dagger in the sand.

The car slowed as it approached them in the opposite lane. The other pedestrians ignored it, so Elend did the same. That was the key to surviving in dangerous countries like this—watch the locals, then do whatever they did.

Unfortunately, the car didn't ignore Elend. It pulled into the opposite lane, driving against the flow of traffic. His heart beat faster as he sensed the Artists inside.

"Keep walking," he told Hector, "Don't look at me. Don't turn around."

Hector stiffened beside him. Poor instincts for a guerrilla fighter. "Whats—"

"No time for questions, lad. Go."

Hector quickened his pace and Elend slowed down, putting distance between them.

The car stopped on the curb next to Elend. The streets were too narrow to park, and they held up a long line of traffic in front of them. No one honked, though. No one dared.

Slowly, Elend pivoted to face the vehicle. Every window was tinted, and the black surface was smooth enough to show his reflection.

The back door swung open, revealing a male and female dragon. Their skin was the color of tree bark, and their pale green eyes seemed to glow as they caught the afternoon sun. They'd veiled their souls just as Elend had, but they couldn't hide from his senses completely. These were Masters—the Dragonlord's Wings.

"Elend Darklight," the man said. His voice sounded far clearer than the Grevandi—more like a human with a refined Cadrian accent.

Elend forced himself to smile as he approached the car. It was a smile fitting a Grandmaster—someone who could rival their own leader in terms of power. Someone who could freeze this entire city with a wave of his fingers.

Even if they saw his cuffs and collar, would they recognize the material? No. Even Elend had been fooled the first time he saw them. He'd thought it was ordinary impedium—something he could escape with ease.

He'd been wrong, of course. But he doubted these dragons would see something he hadn't.

The man's eyes drifted past Elend's shoulder as another woman emerged from between two buildings. She wore a long black dress, and her hair fell in braided cords past her shoulders. A black dragon necklace hung from her neck.

The Cult of Solidor? Elend eyed her soul through his Silver Sight, and that confirmed his suspicions. There was power there, yes, but she wasn't an ordinary Mana Artist.

The woman smiled as she approached Elend, eying him from head to heel. Then she addressed the dragons in the car, "Not to worry, General. He can't escape those cuffs without help."

She continued forward until they stood less than a foot apart. "Do you know what those are?"

Elend let out a long breath. "I have an inkling."

"Etherite," she said with a self-satisfied smile.

He'd been afraid of that. He'd felt the power the first time he'd tried to break free. Each fragment had a soul of its own—an energy that pushed against his mana with equal force.

For all that, Elend hadn't truly believed it. Etherite was harvested from the souls of dead Angels, making it the strongest and rarest material in the universe. How had the Martials gotten their hands on it?

He turned back to the car, already knowing what happened next.

The man's reptilian smile widened. "Dragonlord Antano would like a word with you."


A note from David Musk
This will be the fifth book I've written, but it's definitely been the slowest one to kick things off plot-wise. I'd meant for this scene with Elend to happen in the first 10% of the book. But now here we are—closer to the 20% mark in terms of word count. As you can probably guess, Elend gets separated from the others, and this was why I had to cram so many "info dump" scenes with him in the first 1/5 of the story while the characters were all together. These info dumps also slowed down the plot in ways I hadn't predicted.
In hindsight, I probably could have re-organized the scenes to get to this point sooner (Maybe Akari's first dream could have waited until later, and maybe Elend's lectures could have been given by different characters.) But I guess it is what it is for now. Just wanted to let everyone know that I'm normally more cognizant of pacing issues like this, and Book 2's plot should finally be picking up speed!

Support "Web of Secrets [Modern Cultivation]"

About the author

David Musk

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

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