Akari passed through a wooden archway, stepping into the outdoor practice dojo. The fighting ring was thirty yards in diameter—the exact size of Last Haven's arena. Wooden platforms surrounded the ring on all sides, complete with benches for spectators. Beyond that stood a forest of tall bushes and evergreen trees.
Finally, another dream.
She hadn't dreamt once during the car ride to Tureko, but that was no surprise. They'd all been jumpy after the fight, and her instincts had told her to stay on guard.
Sleeping next to Kalden had been a treat though. She wasn't sure if she'd like that sort of thing, but it made her feel stronger—more alive. And he'd been cool about it rather than stammering or blushing. Blushing Kalden was cute sometimes, but she liked Stoic Warrior Kalden the best.
Focus on the dream, she reminded herself. Don't mess it up.
Elend had warned them about this before he left. If she wanted her old power back, she had to synthesize her mind with Dream Akari's. That meant letting go of the present and embracing the past.
Dream Akari had hoped to find an empty dojo, giving her peace and quiet to perform her pre-fight ritual. Instead, half a dozen of her classmates gathered on the short wooden platforms.
Figures. The new kid hadn't fought any ranked matches yet, but he'd challenged Akari the previous day, claiming he wanted to test himself against the sect's top Foundation duelist. Of course the others would want to watch.
She paced back and forth on her own platform, pulling ambient mana through her palms. She cycled that same mana through her channels and forced it through her soul.
Huh, that's new. Real Akari had heard about this technique for aspecting, but that involved retrieving your own mana. Dream Akari seemed to be expanding her soul while spending no mana of her own.
A door opened from a nearby building, and more students joined Akari on her platform—Maelyn Sanako, Darren Warder, and Emberlyn Frostblade.
Maelyn didn't wear her silver glasses in this world, and Darren was slightly more fit. Probably because they were both Combat Artists.
Emberlyn looked the most like her usual self, with the same golden hair and face full of makeup. And while the others wore combat suits, she wore a floral dress with a dark denim jacket.
Emberlyn waved as she sat down on the wooden bench. "Hi, Akari."
Akari glared at her and turned to walk the other way. "Don't talk to me, Frostbimbo. I need to focus." Talek. She looked like a mashup between a doll and a street hooker. No one wore that much makeup unless she had something to hide.
Those had been Dream Akari's thoughts, but Real Akari couldn't help but agree. Maybe this whole "synthesis" thing wouldn't be so hard, after all.
"Have you guys seen him yet?" Emberlyn asked the others. Akari had missed the beginning of this conversation, but she could guess who they were talking about.
"Sure," Darren said. "Mae and I used to be friends with him."
"What about now?"
"He's too busy for us," Maelyn grumbled.
"I blame his parents," Darren said. "Especially his dad. Apparently, he makes him train twelve hours a day."
Emberlyn sipped a blue beverage from a clear tumbler. "I heard he spent the last three years in Shoken. He learned his parents' bloodline aspect there—something about blade mana."
"Same," Maelyn said. "But I don't get it. What's so special about blade mana? I mean, how's it different from metal?"
"It's nothing like metal mana," Darren said. "The Blade Artists are the best duelists in the world."
Akari listened closer as she paced. She'd rarely talked to Darren at this point in her life, but the boy had a knack for separating rumors from fact. She couldn't miss a chance to learn more about her opponent, especially now with so many people watching.
"But how?" Maelyn pressed. "How is a sword different from the metal that makes it?"
Darren made some comparison to gravity mana, but Akari missed his exact words as a gust of mountain wind blew through the dojo.
"Gravity mana's not abstract," Maelyn said. "It either affects something, or it doesn't. You can't get any simpler than that."
"Gravity ranks tier three on Salvatore's aspect scale," Darren said, "so you can speak for yourself."
The exchange had a familiar feel, like the way Maelyn and Darren used to bicker back home. Funny how they'd lost these memories, but they still acted the same way together.
"Anyway," Darren said, "Metal mana is just one part. I'd bet there's knowledge mana in there too. Like ... the idea of a sword, and the idea of a duel. He has the skills of all the sword-welders who came before him."
"Makes sense," Maelyn said. "I've heard he can see things before they happen."
"Ooo," Emberlyn said. "I thought you weren't fangirling over him?" Akari wasn't facing the group, but she could practically hear the stupid grin in the girl's voice.
"I'm not fangirling," Maelyn said. "But I like to know my opponents."
"Okay," Emberlyn said. "Serious question—do you think I have a chance with him?"
Darren groaned. "False modesty, Em? You know you're the hottest girl in our grade."
"Gee," Maelyn said, "thanks a lot."
"You're in the top eleven," Darren replied without missing a beat.
Dream Akari bristled at their conversation, turning to see her own reflection in a nearby window.
Talek. She looked so different from Real Akari. First of all, she wasn't wearing glasses. Her hair was pulled back in a dark braid, and that braid was even longer than Relia's.
And ... was that eyeliner? Seriously? After she'd just given Emberlyn a mental lecture on wearing too much makeup?
Her eyes fell to her dark combat suit, and the vanity continued.
Get over it, Real Akari thought. She'd still be this skinny at sixteen, so there was no sense in whining now. Besides, this physique was more practical for combat. Clearly, Dream Akari had mastered Mana Arts then she'd gotten greedy for more.
Her thoughts continued judging her former self, and the dream started to fade.
Right ... synthesis. Judgment would bring her further from the dream, and further from Dream Akari's power. Better to focus on the stuff they agreed on.
"But he's so focused on his training," Emberlyn said. "His whole life is Mana Arts. You think he has time for—"
"He'll make time," Darren said.
"He's right," Maelyn said. "You'll never know unless you ask him."
"Okay. I'm gonna do it." Emberlyn actually fanned herself with her hand. Seriously. Who the hell did that outside cheesy romance movies?
Akari's annoyance grew, and she cycled her mana harder as she stepped down the wooden platform. Emberlyn took another drink from her tumbler, and Akari released a small Missile from her palm, too quick to see. It struck the bottom of the tumbler, spilling the blue liquid over Emberlyn's dress.
"Oops." Akari glanced over as if she'd just noticed. "Sorry, Frostbitch."
Emberlyn let her cup sink to her lap, looking more sad than annoyed. "Wow. Never heard that one before. What's next, a blonde joke?"
"I don't need to make fun of your hair," Akari said. "Those bangs practically mock themselves."
Her frown deepened. "Seriously, what'd I ever do to you?"
"I don't like you," Akari said. "Never have. I don't have to explain myself."
Okay, so Dream Akari was kind of a brat. The first insult had been funny, but this was downright cringe-worthy. One taste of power, and she was as bad as the old Emberlyn from back on Arkala.
"Here's an idea." Darren snapped his fingers. "Try not assaulting people for once. Then you won't have to explain yourself."
"That would require self-control," Maelyn muttered.
"What was that?" Akari snapped.
Maelyn gave her a flat look. "Don't eavesdrop on us then pretend your ears don't work."
"It's okay." Emberlyn pulled out a cloth wipe from her purse and started scrubbing at her dress. "She's probably just nervous about her duel. It happens to everyone."
Unlike the others, her tone sounded perfectly sincere, and this seemed to piss off Dream Akari even more. Fortunately, her retort was lost as Battlemaster Grandhall stepped into the dojo.
Students could technically spar outside of practice, but only Battlemasters could activate the dojo's dream Constructs. Without the Constructs, they wouldn't have access to their weapons or armor.
Akari lowered her backpack on a nearby bench where she unzipped her hoodie and untied her black and white Traverse shoes. She threw these into her bag, but the bag didn't seem to get any heavier.
Finally, she glanced down at her watch and unclipped it from her wrist. The watch was surprisingly fancy with a gold band, gold strap, and multiple dials inside the crystal. It was a stark contrast to her simple outfit and her old, torn-up backpack.
With all that done, Akari stepped over the dream sigils into the fighting space.
The floor was cold beneath her bare feet, but she'd have her boots once the match started. Her combat suit contained the macros to generate those, along with her armor and weapons.
She joined the Battlemaster in the arena's center, stepping into one of the two starting circles. The circles themselves weren't visible yet, but she'd done this enough times to memorize the spots.
No sooner had Akari taken her place than her opponent appeared beneath the wooden archway.
Dream Akari compared him to a neighbor boy she remembered—the boy who'd first taught her how to fight. He and his parents had left the sect four years ago, and she hadn't seen him since.
He'd only been nine years old then. Now, at thirteen, he had the look of a much older boy. He stood straight-backed and dignified as he walked, and his face betrayed no emotion. Staring at him was like staring at the surrounding mountains with their icy indifference.
Real Akari was less impressed, especially since she'd known an older version of Kalden. Earlier, she'd been thinking how she liked Stoic Warrior Kalden, but this was all too much. His face betrayed none of his usual thoughtfulness—just cold hard focus.
Battlemaster Grandhall tabbed a device in his hand, and two circles of light appeared in the arena's center. The first one formed directly around Akari.
The second circle appeared twelve feet ahead of her, and Kalden bowed as he stepped inside it. "Nice to see you again, Miss Clifton."
"Yeah." Akari bowed back, but her own voice sounded rough and unrefined compared to his. "You too."
Kalden hadn't dueled in this sect before, so the Battlemaster walked him through the rules, explaining how the duel would end when someone took a lethal or decapitating blow. Everything else was simulated, from their mana techniques to their weapons. The dream mana would simulate pain, but the wounds didn't last. It also suppressed full-contact attacks like punches and kicks,
"Do you understand the rules?" the Battlemaster asked.
"I do," Kalden replied formally.
"Good." He turned to Akari. "Trengsen challenged you, so you pick the arena."
"Forest," she said at once. Akari hated this arena, but so did everyone else. More importantly, the terrain was unforgiving for newcomers, filled with hidden trenches and fallen trees in the undergrowth. Her experience would give her an advantage, and the obstacles made things harder on close-range fighters.
Grandhall gave a curt nod, pressing his tablet again.
Everything blurred around them as the dream sigils sprang to life. The dojo faded, along with the buildings of Last Haven and the snow-covered mountains beyond. The terrain shifted beneath their boots, forming a series of hills and trenches she knew by heart.
Several dozen trees shot up from the earth. Some were as thin as twigs, while others were too wide to wrap her arms around. Even the sky changed hues from pale blue to twilight. The audience would only see the forest, but it would look far smaller from the stands. For the contestants, it seemed to stretch on forever in all directions. Only the faint shimmer of dream mana marked the arena's boundaries.
Finally, Akari's black armor formed around her body. Her boots increased her height, a visor darkened her vision, and she found a katana hilt in her right hand.
"Prepare," the Battlemaster said. His form had vanished, but his voice echoed through unseen speakers of dream mana. It was everywhere at once—practically inside her own head.
As if she needed more voices in there.
Akari began the ritual of checking her armor and weapons, ensuring everything was correct. Problems were rare, but not entirely unheard of. Sometimes, the dream mana would interfere with her clothing if she wore something too bulky. Other times, there were glitches in the rendering process if a contestant's sigils interfered with the arena's. In these cases, the responsibility fell on the contestants to recognize problems.
Real Akari was already wondering how she could exploit these glitches when she started competing in her own time. Not that she'd ever cheat in a friendly match like this, but not every match was friendly.
Kalden's armor was dark green, blending in perfectly with the surrounding forest. Talek. Had he known which arena she'd pick? No way. Even she hadn't known until now.
No weapons formed for her opponent. Instead, he gathered mana in his palms—silver in one, and blue in the other. A dozen Missiles formed around him in perfect orbit. Slowly, the silver Missiles became Constructs in the shape of swords. Not just simple blades, but actual weapons complete with hilts and guards.
Akari finally saw the power of this aspect. Metal mana made sturdy Constructs, but those were limited to simple shapes for anyone below Apprentice.
Meanwhile, Kalden conjured actual swords from thin air. And how the hell were they still moving? He must have encased those pure Missiles inside the Constructs. In that moment, Akari couldn't tell if the shock came from her present self or her former self.
But one thing was clear to both of them: Kalden Trengsen was a serious threat.
The preparation phase ended, and the Battlemaster began the countdown.
"Three ... two ... one."
She shifted her boot in the soil, feeling the dirt shift. She brought her other foot forward and felt the familiar crack of dry leaves.
Akari sprang into motion, weaving through the trees to confuse her opponent.
Kalden's swords swirled around him with impossible speed, forming a protective barrier on all sides. Those blades could stop bullets, and they'd slice her to bits if she tried to get through.
Fortunately, he also sacrificed mobility and range. That made him—
A blade broke out from the formation, lashing out as quick as a whip.
Shit. Akari leapt right, missing the blade by a hair's breadth.
The movement brought her straight into a second blade. Kalden had known exactly where she would move and when.
With no time to dodge again, Akari formed a Construct between herself and the projectile. Her shield cracked beneath the impact, and she released a Missile at the last second, knocking the blade off course.
Akari lost her balance and fell back-first onto the forest floor. Too close.
Twigs snapped in the undergrowth as Kalden approached. Two more blades passed over her face, but he seemed to have trouble aiming in the vertical axis.
There's one weakness. She rolled for cover behind a nearby tree. Kalden probably couldn't aim up or down without messing up his whole formation. That took valuable time to set up. And probably more than half his total mana, judging by the density.
The blades also spun in a cylinder rather than a sphere. That left the top exposed.
Just need to get above him. That's where the trees come in.
Akari made her way towards a lower-hanging branch, eight feet off the ground. From there, she shot bursts of pure mana from her feet as she jumped.
Apparently, she could shoot mana through these boots? Nice.
Akari wrapped an arm around the tree branch and hurled herself up.
Silver flashed in her vision as more blades closed in. She barely formed a Construct in time. Even then, Kalden's technique sliced through it like paper, cutting through the branch beside her.
Shit. How was he only Foundation? She'd gotten used to her peers having stronger mana, but this was ridiculous.
Kalden's blades soared through the forest, curving around like boomerangs and landing back in orbit. It was clear now he had no trouble aiming upward. Things just kept getting worse.
Akari leapt between branches as quick as a jungle cat. Kalden continued his attacks, but she knocked them aside with Constructs of her own. Others, she barely avoided, leaving more broken branches in her wake.
Her opponent tried to stay mobile, but he didn't know this arena like she did. Akari closed the distance in mere seconds, landing on a branch above him.
Kalden hurled all six of his swords on the base of the tree, slashing them back and forth until the trunk broke free from the stump.
The world shifted beneath Akari's feet. She fired several Missiles as she fell, but none struck their mark. Mana flooded her legs as she leapt for the next tree, but Kalden was two moves ahead. His mana stretched out in a web of blades, cutting more trees to splinters.
She wove through the chaos of falling wood, somersaulting through the air from one branch to the other.
Stop dodging, she told herself. Close in for the kill.
Facing a Blade Artist at close range seemed like suicide, but so was this. Besides, she knew her classmates would root for Kalden. They wouldn't call her a coward on top of that.
Akari landed on the forest floor in front of her opponent. Kalden pulled two blades from his orbit and struck. Then he pulled back the other four, attacking from every angle at once.
Akari parried and dodged, too quick to feel her own body. Silver mana blurred around her, but she met each strike with her own blade. Mana flowed from her arm to the hilt, enhancing the weapon with every strike. At the same time, she released Missiles from her free hand, closing the gaps in her defenses.
For one perfect moment, Akari held her own against this Shokenese Blade Artist.
Two more blades swept to either side. Akari jumped just before the first one cut off her knees. Then she flattened her body in midair, letting the other pass over her head.
Akari landed less than two paces from her opponent, slashing for his throat.
Time slowed to a crawl and Kalden combined several blades into one. This new weapon shone like the sun as he moved to parry.
Akari's blade shattered from the impact. Fragments of steel flew in every direction, and her fingers loosened from around the hilt. She arched her back, letting Kalden's blade pass over her face.
She straightened as he followed through on the swing, gathering more mana in her palms. He couldn't defend himself with just one weapon. She could—
Kalden's boot took her in the stomach, and she stumbled back into the nearest tree.
When she looked up again, she saw a volley of silver blades closing in. With no time to move, Akari poured every ounce of her mana into one final Construct, forming a protective layer between them.
But as Kalden's swords closed in, she knew it wouldn't be enough. His own Constructs were sharp, dense, and perfect. And despite her pure mana's versatility, it could never compare to his aspect. Her parents had held her back for too long, and now she finally paid the price.
Kalden's blades tore through her shield, and hot lines of pain ripped through her body. The mana cut her skin, muscles, and bones.
Akari jolted awake, hard enough to shake the mattress on its metal frame. Two lines of searing pain remained in her torso, and her stomach churned as if she might vomit.
She tossed aside the blankets and leaned over the bed's edge, prepared to do just that.
But no ... she brought a hand between her breasts, feeling her unbroken sternum. The pain wasn't real. She was still alive.
"Talek." Akari collapsed back on her pillow, feeling a strange mix of relief and terror. Dream Akari might be used to simulated pain, but no one had prepared her for that.
Her eyes adjusted to the darkness, and she took in the sight of the women's barracks in Tureko. Rows of bunk beds filled the room, and she spotted Relia's red hair in the faint light of a nearby window.
Akari hadn't lost her focus that time. Quite the opposite—she'd been engrossed in the dream, letting Dream Akari take over. But the pain must have jolted her awake. The sheets were soaked with sweat, and her muscles felt hot and ready for action.
Akari pushed the blankets aside, reflecting back on the rush of new information
Even in those days, Kalden had been years ahead of her. Dream Akari would be pissed about his flawless victory, and Real Akari felt the girl's pain mingled with her own.
Served her right, though. The little brat had been far too cocky.
Back on Arkala, she'd only fought with the Golds and Silvers who'd bullied her. But Emberlyn had done nothing to her in the dream. Akari had instigated that fight. And for what? She'd been the best Foundation Artist in her sect, and she was still jealous of Emberlyn Frostblade?
Maybe Emberlyn had deserved some of it. The girl had tried to kill her back on Arkala, after all. Not to mention the time she got her suspended from Elegan High's computer lab.
Still ... she was supposed to become more like her former self? That idea seemed more terrifying by the minute. Dream Akari had been powerful, but she'd also been lonely, and just as unhappy as she'd been as a Bronze. She cringed to imagine Kalden seeing her like that—she cringed so hard, she thought she'd turn herself inside-out.
Akari shook her head to clear it. Stop thinking about her personality. Thirteen-year-old Akari had been an unbearable little shit, but that was probably true for most thirteen-year-olds. Most just didn't relive their memories in such vivid detail.
Focus on the Mana Arts. That's the priority. Kalden had beaten her, but Akari had still put up a fight. Not just that, but she'd held her own without an aspect.
Akari stared up at the wooden rafters in the ceiling, almost close enough to touch. She raised a trembling hand and released a Missile, reigning it back in.
Akari had formed dozens of Constructs in her dream, and her muscles remembered the feeling. She remembered the way she'd pulled her Missile into perfect balance, and she felt the contrast with her practice sessions on the playground. She remembered the way it felt, as easy as balancing a pencil on her finger.
The Construct stretched over the bed, becoming a protective shield. Blue light flooded the world, and she smiled.