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Kalden rubbed the sleep from his eyes as they pulled into a fuel station. They’d driven for most of the night, stopping only to switch vehicles at the safe house. They were in Hector's cousin’s car now—an old, four-door sedan with leather seats. The station’s lights were almost blinding after spending so long in darkness, but Kalden also glimpsed the sun rising over the jungle.

Hector opened the driver-side door and began filling the car with a fresh tank of mana crystals.

The sign said, Foundation crystals: 4.53 cretens per pound.”

Fuel-grade crystals on Arkala had been more than twice that price. Then again … a creten could be worth twice as much as a coppernote for all Kalden knew. He also spotted a higher price for Apprentice-level crystals. What was the difference there? Did Apprentice crystals last longer? Were they only for certain cars?

Still so much to learn about the outside world.

Relia opened the passenger side and headed inside the station’s convenience store. She and Hector had both taken some rough hits during the fight, but they’d made a full recovery with Relia’s life mana. Talek only knew what they’d do without a healer.

Akari lay with her head on Kalden’s shoulder, squeezing his forearm with both hands. She’d been like this after she’d killed Frostblade too—a curious blend of confidence and insecurity.

Kalden thought he understood. Killing that Artisan had been necessary, and she’d done it to save Relia. But it was one thing to understand that logically. It was much harder to escape the sense of wrongness that came with taking a life. Akari sought reassurance now—to remind herself that she was more than just a fighter.

Then again, he could never truly understand Akari Zeller. Sometimes, she’d act shy and quiet. Other times, she’d do whatever suited her, regardless of what people thought.

Her frame had felt small when she’d first curled up beside him, but every inch of her was tense and shaking like a coiled spring. Kalden hadn’t said anything to reassure her. He’d just squeezed her shoulder and pulled her closer. It seemed to be the right thing because she’d eventually relaxed and fallen asleep.

Kalden might have dozed off once or twice, but he’d never been good at sleeping on the road. The recent fight hadn’t helped, and neither did the novelty of the sleeping girl on his shoulder.

A few minutes passed, then Relia returned to the front seat. “You guys awake back there?”

“Mm.” Akari muttered. “Is that coffee?”

Relia removed a cup from the cardboard tray and passed it back. Akari perked up immediately, grabbing the cup and bringing it to her lips.

After that, they all stretched their legs outside and gathered around the hood of the car. Relia also passed out breakfast burritos, which turned out to be eggs and sausage wrapped in flour tortillas. Kalden had never eaten fuel station food before, but it was better than he’d expected. That seemed to be a theme with Cadrian food in general.

They ate in silence while Hector paced back and forth around the parking lot. He had a radio clipped to his belt with a headset over his ear. Apparently, he used that to listen to other Unmarked members.

“Any news?” Relia asked when he came back.

Hector nodded as he tossed the radio through the car’s open window. “They took your dad to Tureko—straight to Antano Tower…” He trailed off and gave Relia a chance to explain.

She leaned against the car and took a good long breath. “You should know that Elend’s not really my dad. He’s my teacher—my master.”

“Okay,” Hector said. “So why all the secrecy?”

Relia shot a quick glance at Kalden and Akari, but neither of them objected. The dragons already knew about Elend, so the damage had been done.

She glanced back at Hector, “Because he’s a Grandmaster.”

This time, Hector’s eyes widened in genuine surprise. “I knew he was somebody big, but I never thought … santo merdo. There was a Grandmaster in my truck?”

“What gave it away?” Kalden asked.

“Aside from the kidnapping?” Hector gestured to his forehead. “These.”

“The fake marks?”

He nodded. “We’ve tried for years to make these. They always look fake. Or they’re too fragile. And they never last more than a few minutes. Then your teacher just waves his hand and makes these appear?”

Well, that made sense. Not only had Elend made these with little effort, he didn’t even seem to realize how hard it should have been. Only the truly powerful were that out of touch.

“Plus it converts my mana into dream mana,” Hector continued. “And they last for weeks. And we can hide them at will? This must be like twenty Constructs in one. It’s like coding a whole computer program inside your brain. In less than ten seconds.”

Hector seemed to mull something over, then he brightened. “Wait, does this mean he got captured on purpose?”

“No,” Relia said. “Pretty sure that part was real.” She went on to explain how Elend was stuck with a small fraction of his power. She didn’t mention the cuffs specifically, which was for the best. Even if they weren’t a secret, they might invite more questions, like who had overpowered Elend, and where they’d been before Creta.

“So what now?” Kalden asked.

“I think we should head for Tureko,” Hector said.

“Tureko,” he repeated. “As in, the Dragonlord’s city?”

“I know, I know. It sounds crazy, but the Unmarked control a full quarter of the city.”

Akari furrowed her brow. “But there’s a Grandmaster dragon right there? Can’t he, like … rain fire from the sky?”

“It’s complicated,” Hector said. “The Unmarked aren’t really rebels. The laws say we can’t be employed, go to school, or engage in trade, so we carved out part of the city for ourselves.”

“Same question,” she said. “Why doesn’t he stop you?”

“International laws,” Relia spoke up. “A Grandmaster can’t attack people that much weaker. Not without a good reason. Same rules apply to warfare.”

“Right.” Hector gave Akari a strange look as if he’d expected her to know this.

Oop, Kalden thought. Just one more basic thing they hadn’t learned yet.

“The Grevandi are a loophole,” Hector said. “They attack smaller towns, but they’re not strong enough to take on the Unmarked. That makes it the safest place for you guys.”

Kalden glanced at Relia for confirmation, but she only shrugged. She knew a lot about the outside world, but not specifics like this. He couldn’t blame her, though. Creta was a relatively small nation in the grand scheme of things, and she hadn’t known they’d end up here.

“So why didn’t you just bring Elend to Tureko?” Kalden asked.

“I tried,” Hector said. “He insisted on San Talek. But I guess it makes sense now. Antano could sense a Grandmaster from miles away.”

Kalden’s eyebrows shot up. “Seriously?” He’d heard things like that in stories, but he still couldn’t imagine real Mana Arts working on that scale. Then again, he’d still only seen Elend at a fraction of his power.

“It’s true,” Relia said. “Masters can sense a lot more than we can. Comes with the territory.”

So, Elend had picked the safest odds but he’d still lost.

They spent the next few minutes hammering out a plan. Rather, they picked up the old plan where Elend had left off. They’d find the Unmarked in Tureko, get access to a computer, and contact Mrs. Darklight.

Hopefully, she could work out this mess with Elend and the Dragonlord.

 


 

They drove for several more hours, passing long stretches of jungle behind walls of protection mana. Apparently, Creta had its own version of Arkala’s Contested Area, complete with Apprentice drakes and raptors.

Finally, the jungles gave way to an urban skyline when they reached Tureko. The city sat on Vaslana’s eastern border, and a five-story mana wall marked the division, stretching across the horizon like a second sky.

Relia and Elend had described Creta as a poor nation, but Tureko was the biggest city Kalden had ever seen. The skyscrapers stretched on for miles, even as the highway carried them through the suburbs and closer to the city proper.

The highway ended at a barricade that looked like a converted toll booth, and another mana wall loomed behind it, far shorter than the one on the border. A row of Apprentice-level guards stood on either side of the wall, dressed in sand-colored combat fatigues. Traffic flowed quickly through the other lanes, but a few cars had pulled over for inspection.

“Everyone hide your marks,” Hector said as they approached. “These guys will call bullshit if I say they’re fake.”

Kalden stopped cycling his mana. After half a year of Mana Arts training, it felt as unnatural as holding his breath. A few seconds passed as he watched his forehead in the car’s rear-view mirror. His mark faded, just as Elend said it would.

They drove through a massive scanner, but Kalden didn’t recognize the technology. It probably scanned the car for other mana sources, making sure they weren’t smuggling enemy troops in the trunk.

Hector rolled the windows down as a pair of guards approached. Their stances and postures marked them as ex-military. Hector exchanged some words with the first man while the second made a lap around the car, checking their hands in foreheads.

The guards cleared them through, and their route took them straight down the neatest offramp. Hector explained how the highway used to crossover to Unida’s territory, but now they’d barricaded the bridge over the river.

The cars sat bumper-to-bumper on the streets, and crowds of people bustled through the sidewalks and intersections. Many buildings sat behind locked gates or mana walls, and armed soldiers stood on every block, giving the city an air of martial law.

 


 

They reached Kyzar’s base three hours later.

Hector hadn’t been joking about their fake marks drawing attention. Even his friends hadn’t believed it, and they had to bring their own Dream Artists to analyze them. Once they’d confirmed the marks were dream mana, they’d wanted to spend all day reverse-engineering them.

They seemed to think Elend was a genius, and this ‘project’ was the result of his life’s work. Clearly, they’d never met a Grandmaster before. They didn’t realize how easy this was for him.

Kalden tried explaining that, but that only piqued their interest further.

“What else can he do?” the Dream Artists had asked. “How did he reach the Master realm?”

Evidently, the Master realm was a big secret here in Creta. But of course it was—Antano couldn’t maintain control if everyone had an equal chance. It was just like his fellow Golds back on Arkala, hoarding all the secrets for themselves.

Human nature never changed, even with dragons.

The Unmarked leader held court in the loft of an old apartment building. It was an open space with dozens of people working on computers and telephones, and the tall windows offered a view of the city skyline.

Kalden spotted a middle-aged Artisan sitting behind a large wooden table at the room’s far end. Half-a-dozen Apprentices gathered around.

“That must be him,” Hector said when they crested the staircase. “Good luck.”

“You’re not coming?” Kalden asked.

He shrugged. “This one’s on you, shoko. I’ve never met the guy before.”

“Great.” Kalden wove his way through the other desks, and Akari and Relia followed a few paces behind. They clearly expected him to be their spokesperson, too. When did that happen? They’d spent some time planning what they’d say, but they never decided who would say it.

Damnit. This was like his high school group projects all over again.

“Ah,” a gravelly voice said. “You must be the foreigners.”

Kalden whirled to see a dragon standing beside him. He looked just like the Grevandi they’d fought in Costa Liberta—the same green skin, the same reptilian eyes. He took a step back, cycling his mana faster.

The dragon gave him a flat look. “Relax, shoko. I’m not gonna eat you.”

“Sorry,” Kalden forced himself to slow his breathing “You just surprised me.”

The dragon looked older than the Grevandi they’d faced—probably in his forties, at least. He wore a white linen suit, and a pair of black glasses hung from his shirt collar.

“Not all Libertas hate dragons.” the man gestured a clawed finger toward the window. “That’s what he wants you to think.”

Kalden nodded. He was actually relieved to find dragons and humans on both sides of the conflict. He’d never liked the idea of fighting in a race war.

“Now,” the dragon continued, “You must be Kalden, Akari, and Relia.”

Kalden gave another nod, opening his Silver Sight, taking in the light from the man’s soul. He was an Artisan—stronger than the Fangs who’d attacked their hotel. Even stronger than the man behind the desk.

“You must be Kyzar,” Kalden said.

“Nice save, shoko.” He smiled, showing his fangs. “Now to business.” He paced toward the floor-to-ceiling window, turning his back to the skyline. “I know you came here with a Grandmaster named Elend Darklight. I know he was captured yesterday, and some Fangs came for you too.” He paused, shooting Akari a knowing look. “Nice one, by the way. Never met a Silver with your cojones, shokita.”

Akari grinned back, standing a little taller. Apparently, she was done feeling bad about that?

Kyzar tapped his claws together, eying them each in turn. “It’s a nice story. Question is, what do you want from me?”

Kalden swallowed. “We need to get a message to Elend’s wife in Espiria. I’m sure she’ll pay you back if you help us.”

“Got plenty of money, shoko.”

Kalden blinked. He’d prepared for skepticism, but … plenty of money? Kalden’s mother had been among the richest people on Arkala, and even she’d never made that claim.

“Mrs. Darklight will send the Espirian military for Elend. That’s trouble for the Dragonlord, and good news for you.”

“The Espirians will do whatever suits them, “ Kyzar said. “Maybe they’ll drop Missiles on the Dragonlord. Maybe they’ll hit me instead. Flip a coin. They’ll get their guy, but they don’t give a shit about us.”

Kalden wished he could promise otherwise, but he knew nothing about Espirian politics. Relia knew more, but even she couldn’t make promises on their behalf.

He asked the obvious question. “Then what can we offer you?”

Kyzar turned to face the window again. “You see that river?”

Kalden followed the dragon’s gaze to see a blue line snaking through the urban labyrinth. “The Motago?”

“It divides the city in two—separates our side from the Dragonlords’. We have the essentials here, but you can’t slice up a whole city and expect the pieces to work independently. They sell things over there—weapons, medicine, and alchemy. Things we can’t buy without marks.”

Kalden saw where this was going. What good was money when you couldn’t spend it?

“This makes smugglers a valuable resource,” Kyzar eyed their foreheads. “And those marks are masterpieces.”

“You don’t have your smugglers?” Akari asked. Her tone seemed to say, ‘some rebellion this is.”

“Of course we do, shokita. But business is slow, and strangers make the best smugglers.”

Not to mention the most disposable.

“Unless you can offer me something better?”

Kalden considered that for a moment. Relia’s life mana seemed far stronger than restoration mana, and she might be able to heal something they couldn’t. Kalden was also a skilled alchemist. Maybe he could make the medicine and pills they needed?

Then again, Kyzar’s territory had more people than Tidegate and Ironhaven combined. There could be hundreds of alchemists here more skilled than Kalden. As for Relia, even the locals in Costa Liberta hadn’t needed her.

Kalden glanced back at his friends. Relia looked anxious about something, but she’d looked that way ever since Elend was captured. Akari just shrugged as if they were deciding where to go for dinner. She never complained so long as they kept moving forward.

“Alright.” He turned back to the dragon. “Let’s talk specifics.”

“Later,” Kyzar said. “I’m busy, and you all look like shit. Even for humans. I’ll get you some rooms downstairs, and we’ll hammer out the details tomorrow.”

Kalden nodded. He chafed at the delay and he knew Relia would complain about it too. Still, it’d be far easier to negotiate after a good night’s sleep. Kyzar was actually doing them a favor there.

“Excellent.” The dragon stepped forward and held out a clawed hand. “In the meantime, welcome to the Unmarked.”

 

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David Musk

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

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