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This is part 7 of an ongoing story series. You can read the first part here.
“What are you doing here?”
The warehouse behind Keta let off another percussive chain of explosions. The blasts were getting closer together as more of the building caught fire. Glass windows lay in pieces on the street. Even a block away, the heat could be felt.
“I wished to… apologize for my words earlier. I was harsh.”
Thoughts of the burning warehouse left Moto. His mind raced. What should he tell Keta? How could he explain this? “How did you…?”
The shapeling turned, overcoming his own surprise. He dropped to a crouch and Moto felt a surge in the heat around him. “We will discuss later! There may be those who need our help.”
“No! The building could collapse any second. Let the guards handle it.”
“The guards are not here. We are.” Keta shot forward, leaping into the burning warehouse without a moment’s hesitation. Moto groaned and followed.
The explosions had been contained to the back half, allowing most workers to flee without difficulty. There was a handful who had been trapped when the dividing wall collapsed, but with Keta’s strength they were quickly freed.
Moto swung from the ceiling in a quick circle to confirm that the large room was empty. He landed next to Keta with a furnace on both sides. “It’s empty, let’s get out of here!” He had to shout over the roaring flames.
Keta pointed to the collapsed divider. The room on the other side was completely engulfed. “We have not checked there.”
Moto looked at him with jaw dropped. There wasn’t a patch of ground larger than a few feet that wasn’t on fire or exploding. Keta couldn’t be serious. “Are you crazy? It’s an inferno that way. There is zero chance anyone is still alive and a hundred percent chance we’ll die.”
“How would you feel if it was you? Trapped and knowing that no one would come.”
Moto shook his head in disbelief. “I would feel dead. Just like anyone trapped in there!”
This was suicide. Even if it wasn’t, whatever time they had until the guards showed up was nearly gone. He couldn’t let them get linked to this. There would be too many questions. But Keta had the same determined look he had in the cave.
“Keta, there’s no one in there. I’m sure of it.”
“How can you be certain?”
“Because… I was in there when the fire started. The only people inside were dead before I ran.” It wasn’t entirely true. One of the workers and their prisoner had been alive. But it might as well be. They were trapped and there was no way they could still be alive.
Keta narrowed his eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Please, just trust me. We have to get out of here!”
The shapeling took one last look across the warehouse, then nodded. Moto led the way back to the entrance and peered outside, looking for guards. There were none. Moto thanked his luck for how little the city guard cared about the Icepackers Ward.
They ran across the street and into the winding alleys.
The pair moved in silence until the roar of flames was a distance din. Moto was curious how Keta had come to the warehouse, but he was consumed with other thoughts at the moment.
Did he leave any clues? Would Soundstealer make the connection to their presence in Jidoka? Had anyone seen him? Moto thought of the woman he paid to guide him. She was a loose end. Should he try to slip away and take care of her?
They were turning onto the main road to Frost Gate when Keta grabbed Moto’s wrist and pulled him back into the alley. His big eyes were stern as he looked up at Moto.
“Why were you in that warehouse?”
Moto winced. He knew these questions were coming, and he knew he didn’t have any good answers. “I was walking by the lake trying to clear my head. I saw a bunch of thugs causing problems at the side of the warehouse and I tried to intervene. Things got out of hand.”
Keta stared without blinking, searching Moto’s face for a few seconds. The shapeling shook his head and turned away. “You are lying. When I came looking for you, I overheard a women complaining about someone who sounded like you. She told me you paid her for guidance to a warehouse on the Mud Docks. She said you were looking for someone.”
Moto’s stomach tightened. Not even a few hours and that woman was already running her mouth. There was no telling how far word might have spread. He could only hope that no one important walked by that woman. This day was a disaster.
“I see by your face that you have no intention of telling me. If you cannot be honest with me now, when I have caught you in the lie, then I suppose my words earlier were not too harsh after all.” Keta began to walk away.
Keta was on the verge of giving up. If he caught him in another lie, or thought Moto was holding something back, that would be the end of things between them. Maybe that was for the best. He knew this relationship was a distraction. Pulling him away from his goal.
But maybe if Keta knew what was going on, if he understood what happened to Moto’s village, he might understand why Moto did the things he had to. Moto caught the shapeling’s arm.
“I was trying to investigate. The merchant who owns that warehouse is one of Soundstealer’s clients. But his guards caught me and things obviously got out of hand.”
“Why were you investigating this merchant?”
Moto would need an airtight story to avoid suspicion. A few careless words from Keta could give everything away. The shapeling would have to know at least some of the truth to go along with the story.
Moto tried to convince himself that was the reason motivating him as the words spilled out.
“Before I joined the Daggers, I lived in a Hero’s village with my family. But a few years ago we were attacked. Someone hired the Daggers to wipe us out. My dad saved me, but I was the only person who survived.
“It was Soundstealer who attacked us. He killed everyone. Not just the Hero, or the fighters who served her. All the families who lived there too. I’m…” Moto looked away, his breath catching before he rushed forward headlong. “I joined the Daggers to kill him. To find out who hired him and to kill all of them. I was trying to find out if this merchant was the one who ordered my family killed.”
Keta was silent when Moto finished, his face solemn and unreadable. Moto could feel his heart beating in every inch of his body. He couldn’t make eye contact. Had he said too much? What would Keta think?
The shapeling pulled him close and hugged him. “Thank you for telling the truth. It is not easy to share such painful memories.”
Moto let out a sigh of relief, not worrying about how hungrily he returned the embrace. He hadn’t felt Keta’s arms around him for weeks. The shapeling stepped back, running his hands down Moto’s arms and entwining their fingers as he looked up at him. “But you must let this revenge go.”
Moto wasn’t surprised. But at least the shapeling was looking at him with warmth again. He squeezed Keta’s hands, more for himself than anything else. “If I let this go, then Soundstealer will keep hurting others. So long as people like him are alive, they squeeze the good things out of the world. I know my motivations aren’t selfless, but the world will be better off without people like him.”
“Even if you manage to stop Soundstealer, vengeance will only make things worse. What do you think Fumi will do if you betray her and attack her father? If you cannot find a higher path, then should she? You see? The dance repeats with you as Soundstealer in another’s performance.”
Moto kept his voice level, trying to maintain the newfound peace between them. “I know there are costs. But what about the cost of standing by and doing nothing? What happens to Fumi if we let Soundstealer continue to control her life?”
“I do not need to convince you of the methods now. It is enough for me to know that your actions are born from your heart. I am not asking you to let Soundstealer go free. What he did was wrong, and I will help you stop him.”
Moto blinked. “You will?”
Keta smiled warmly. “I will. But we do not need to harden ourselves. If we can expose him to the Daggers, you can have justice without sinking to his methods.”
Moto’s eyebrows came together in consternation. He still didn’t understand how Keta had so much optimism about the Daggers. “They’re assassins. The Daggers aren’t going to care what Soundstealer did.”
“Even the worst performance can be saved if the dancer’s passion shines through. If we stand for what we believe in, we can turn the hearts of the Daggers and they will bring justice to Soundstealer. Think of the good Iga could do, if it had more of a conscience. It is a far more ambitious goal than vengeance.”
Moto shook his head, trying to contain his frustration. “When my dad saved me on the night Soundstealer attacked, we both made it out of the village. But he made me wait amongst the trees as he turned back and tried to save others. He didn’t save anyone. All he did was get himself killed and leave me to fend for myself. Sometimes the noble thing just doesn’t work.”
Keta looked at him, eyes filled with sadness, then hugged him again. “I am glad you have shared this pain with me. I feel as though I understand so much more. I will show you that you don’t have to lose yourself to find justice.”
Moto thought for a moment. There might be the seed of a good idea buried beneath the hopeless idealism. Forget a conscience, but if he could turn the opinion of the Daggers against Soundstealer, that might be enough to take him down.
It was a long shot, but if it brought Keta along, he was willing to give it a try. Perhaps the shapeling would accept the need for harsher realities if he saw they had tried their best to avoid them.
“I’m willing to try, so long as we’re careful. But what about Fumi?”
Keta rubbed his chin. “I do not want to lie to her. But… perhaps it is OK for a short time. If we can find evidence of misdeeds between this merchant and Soundstealer, it might help our case when we tell her.”
Moto sighed again, letting out the last of the tension he had been holding. It wasn’t ideal. But considering everything that had happened, it was probably the best he could hope for. At least it gave him time to change Keta’s mind. To make him see the danger in blind idealism.
He lead the shapeling by the hand back into the street. Keta knowing his plans made Moto nervous. It was another variable beyond his control. But try as he might, he couldn’t ignore the tiny surge of hope. Maybe he could take Soundstealer down without having to be alone.
Two weeks later, they rounded the corner on a rocky mountain trail and Iga came into view. The village leapt into view suddenly, its buildings strung between isolated spires and connected by vertigo-inducing rail carts. Iga gave no sign of its existence along the entire switch-backed trail up the mountain. The builders felt it echoed the life of stealth adopted by the Daggers.
A vermillion torii gate stood before the village’s scraggly fields. A raised walkway snaked from the gate through flooded plots that shone like polished copper in the early morning sun. Several of the farmers unbent from their work in the rice paddies, pulling back conical straw hats to wave at Moto and the others as they entered the village. A small smile crept to Moto’s face as he returned the wave.
It was strange, feeling at home. Moto had spent two years in Koga as he prepared to take the Dagger exam, but he always left his bags packed, ready to move if he ever ran afoul of a particularly violent denizen of the Lurkwood. He had never had friends. Or even acquaintances, really. When he wasn’t training or working some job for money, he had been sleeping.
Moto shook his head as he entered the village. Many of the shops had their storefronts open to catch the stiff mountain breeze that found its way around the large stone talons shielding the lower village. Everything seemed so normal. Besides the extreme location, there was nothing to suggest that Iga served the most deadly band of assassins and rogues in all of Yosai. The carpenter caught Fumi’s attention and waved her over. Fumi smiled, bouncing up to the woman with a laugh as she shared her latest exploits.
In that moment, Moto could almost share Keta’s hope for the village. But none of the senior Daggers walked about the buildings. The problem with inspiring change was that the only people you could reach were those who had no power.
Fumi’s story somehow stretched to fill the entire time the rest of the group was unloading their packs, returning equipment to the nearby shop keepers and paying their share of the contract fee. As usual, she reappeared once the grunt work was done.
“Nice work team! Can’t wait for the next one.” Fumi held out a hand for her portion of the reward with a smile.
Iruka counted out Fumi’s share and dropped the gold into her outstretched hand. “You might have to wait a while, kid.”
Keta paused as he was lifting his empty pack back onto his shoulder. “Why is that?”
“What, suddenly I’ve gotta have a reason? I’m a jonin, you know.” Iruka leaned forward and flicked Keta’s forehead. “I’ve got books to read and other genin to torture. I mean to enjoy my hard-earned seniority, not grind myself to the bone playing chaperone to a bunch of overeager baby Daggers.”
Keta stepped back, rubbing his forehead with an air of dignity. Fumi’s face dropped into a pout behind him. Iruka chuckled. “Only teasing.” She jerked a thumb in the direction of the Gearhouse standing at the far edge of town. “When I was picking up this contract, I saw that the last batch of your recruits was out on their first mission.”
Fumi gasped, clutching her hands to her mouth. “So soon! Why didn’t you tell us? I haven’t started preparing at all!”
Moto and Keta shared a look of confusion. “What’s the big deal?”
Fumi threw her hands out to the side. “What’s the big deal? The chunin exam is starting soon! And I haven’t learned any exciting new moves. What am I going to show off?”
“Calm down kid, you’ve probably got a week or two until the last squad is back. Plenty of time to learn some new tricks.” She turned her attention to Moto and Keta, who were both lost. “Once all of the new recruits have completed their first mission, we test you to see who makes it to chunin level.”
Moto felt a pleasant thrill of surprise. Chunin were considered full Daggers. They no longer needed supervision anywhere accept the jonin training ground and they had access to a wider range of missions. “I didn’t think we’d be able to advance so quickly.”
Iruka gave a disapproving grunt. “The Daggers do not tolerate rookies for long. They don’t want you getting comfortable. But don’t get too excited. It’s up or out. Anyone who fails the exam joins the lower village or leaves, so you should take preparation seriously.” Iruka looked at Fumi with her final line.
Keta smiled. “Will it be like the obstacle course? I look forward to another performance.”
Iruka rolled her eyes. “Yeah, there will be a crowd. But it’s only Daggers watching this time. You’ll compete in your squads at first, then individually, so I recommend you practice both. I can’t say too much more though.”
Try as they might, they couldn’t get Iruka to share any more details. She seemed to enjoy their frustration. Eventually, they gave up and all started back toward their houses. Moto and Iruka walked toward Terran together.
Iruka was watching him out of the corner of her eye. “Seems like you and Keta made up.”
Moto shifted the strap on his pack uncomfortably. “Yeah… what about it?”
Iruka pulled against his pack with her gravity, causing him to stumble. “I’m just happy for you, idiot. Not everybody has ulterior motives.” They walked in silence for a minute before Iruka continued. “He’s good for you, I think.”
Moto blushed, looking away. Why was Iruka so interested in his love life?
“You’re gonna have a choice soon, kid.”
“What do you mean?”
“The chunin exam is when the senior Daggers really start to pay attention. Some might have taken an interest during the obstacle course, but now is when they can actually start recruiting.”
“So, it means people might ask you to join their team. There will be two kinds of offers after the exam. Jonin who want their own squad will be looking for entire groups that they can lead. And existing squads will be trying to fill one or two empty slots.
“The existing squads will be more intense. They’ll have higher-level contracts and more senior members. In terms of ambition, getting onto one of them early is a big step. But it’s a tough life.”
“You don’t think I should do it if I get the chance.”
Iruka tossed her hands up. “I don’t care either way. Dumb as you are, you’re a big boy who has to make his own decisions.” She walked for a second in silence, then carried on. “I know this is going to bug you, which is partially why I’m saying it, but you remind me of myself when I was new. I chose to join a senior squad then. I don’t think I would again.”
Surprisingly, it didn’t bother him when she said he was like her. He seemed to be picking up attachments left and right. “But you liked that squad until Soundstealer left and Sugi…” Moto trailed off awkwardly.
“Got himself killed. Yeah, I did. But at the top, the only thing that matters is results. I’m not saying you won’t find things you like up there, but once you buy into that mindset it doesn’t leave room for anything else. Everything in your life is contingent on doing more, faster, better. There’s no room to breathe. If you try to step back and enjoy what you’ve built, you’ll just get left behind.”
“Only if I can’t keep up.”
Iruka barked a surprised laugh, then shook her head. “It’s like talking to a mirror. Except it’s a stupid mirror that shows you how clueless you were as a kid.” She messed his hair and Moto pulled back, waving his hands. “I know I can’t convince you. But just… think about what your life was like back in Koga, and think of what it’s like now with Fumi and Keta.”
“I can still spend time with them, even if I join another squad.”
“Sure. But what do you think you’ll do when everyone on your squad is jonin, spending every waking minute training or making political moves. Do you really think you’ll accept being worse than them? Knowing that you could catch up if you made the same sacrifices?”
“No… I’d probably join them in training.”
Iruka nodded. “That’s what happens to most. And it’ll be even harder for you because of your resonance.”
Moto nearly missed a step at Iruka’s words. He hadn’t thought about that part of his power for a long time.
Iruka chuckled humorlessly. “Judging by your reaction, I’ll wager that part slipped your mind. It’s tough, kid. I warned you it takes constant vigilance. I wondered, actually, if part of your fight with Keta wasn’t because you were being stubborn. Or should I say unreasonably stubborn, since you’re about as accommodating as a rockslide even on the best of days.”
Moto played back his recent discussions with Keta. He thought he’d been perfectly logical. Even now he felt like his position was the right one. But would he be able to tell if his resonance was clouding his thinking?
Moto shifted his pack uncomfortably, looking to redirect the conversation. “So what are you saying? I should just give up on having ambition?”
“Sort of. You’re lucky, kid. Keta and Fumi are strong. You’ll probably go far even if you choose friends over ambition. The difference is priorities. If you put achievement in the top spot, if you insist on never missing an opportunity, it won’t leave room for anything else. No matter how hard you try, the sacrifices will sneak in without you realizing it. You’ll wind up dead or lonely. Probably both.”
Moto leaned against a boulder beside the lake in the Playground. Daggers darted above his head, running across the tethers stretched from wall to wall. The air was filled with shouts as team members called to one another in their training. Periodic cracks and thuds punctuated powerful new moves being honed. The smell of sweat and dust filled the air.
Keta and Fumi stood together on the opposite side of the lake with their heads close in discussion. Fumi’s hair was plastered to her head, dripping with lake water.
The two of them nodded and stepped apart. Keta dropped into a crouch and held out his hand. Fumi rolled her shoulders, then gripped his wrist.
Keta’s muscles flared. His heals dug into the hard packed earth as he spun, while Fumi lifted her feet and shot a blast of wind from her free hand, adding speed to the rotation. The two became a blur.
Moto reached back for a stone the size of his torso. His body pressed into the rock wall behind as he accelerated the stone forward, sending it racing across the lake directly toward his teammates.
With a final grunt of exertion, Keta launched Fumi towards the rock like an arrow. At the last moment she flipped, thrusting her feet forward and shooting a condensed blast of wind into the projectile. A shockwave ripped out from the force of the collision, distorting the surface of the water into a bowl beneath her.
The stone cracked but did not break. It deflected upward, glancing off Fumi’s wind blast and flying into the distance. Her momentum absorbed by the collision, Fumi fell to the water, skipping once before she sank below the surface. She reappeared a moment later, wiping water from her eyes.
“It still isn’t concentrated enough!”
Moto’s mind wandered as Fumi swam toward Keta for another go. His mouth turned down in a frown.
Since his conversation with Iruka two days earlier, he had worried over his arguments with Keta like a jaw full of teeth knocked loose in a bar fight. He was almost certain his resonance wasn’t clouding his judgment. Almost. At the very least, he couldn’t find any holes in his logic.
So why was he still so uncomfortable? Moto shifted against the rock, his face dark and cloudy.
He couldn’t explain the attachments. He loved Keta, though it still scared him to say it. He looked up to Iruka, juvenile as that felt to say. He was even starting to like Fumi. Fumi!
Connections were a liability. He learned that the moment his father threw his life away. Loneliness hadn’t been a problem in the three years since. But now he had friends. And a life. Or at least the chance for one.
Iruka was right. He had a choice. He wasn’t going to give up on his revenge against Soundstealer. But now he had two paths toward that goal. He could continue as he had, discarding anything that held him back. Or he could try to work with Keta, maintaining the shapeling’s ideals even if it lowered their chances of success.
He knew the way he felt and he knew the way he thought. But what was the source of the gap between the two? Did the emotions represent weakness? The final challenge to test his resolve? Or was he stubbornly refusing to accept that he had found something more to live for than revenge? Was his resonance blinding him to other paths?
A pulse in the gravity behind him pulled Moto out of his thoughts. Constant practice had made the gravity sense almost second nature. A little more time and he thought he’d be able to keep it up even while focusing on complicated tasks.
“That’s a powerful move. Do you mean it as a shield breaker?”
Moto gave a start as though he hadn’t felt the squad of young Daggers coming. No need to advertise his new senses right before a major competition. “More or less.”
The trio were all new recruits. Moto recognized the one on the left as a fellow member of Terran house. A slender boy in his late teens. With short black hair, delicate features, and a small mouth and nose, he didn’t look like a brawler. But the boy was a stone-eater.
On the right was a tall girl with blocky features and a thick scar running down her left cheek, continuing along her neck. The sides of her head were shaved, with long, salt-and-pepper hair on top that fell to one side. Her frame was well-muscled, yet somehow she moved the most quietly of the group. Like a big cat. Moto had seen her sharing a cart with Keta on their way to Ignis, so she was some sort of flame resonant.
In the middle was a tall, gangly looking boy with big hands and feet, still growing into his height. He had the same blocky features and salt-and-pepper hair, held in a long ponytail. He and the girl both had the look of northerners. The boy seemed to be the squad’s leader, despite being the youngest.
Moto struggled to remember any of their names. After a moment he recalled the stone-eater was Haiyu and the young boy was Hako. He couldn’t remember the girl’s name.
Hako pushed his circular glasses back up his nose with an over-large hand. “Interesting. It solves your speed problem while providing a more versatile first strike. Very creative.”
Keta’s strength and speed made him good at closing with enemies and breaking through defenses. But he had to move fast so he wasn’t exposed to counterattacks while he approached. Too fast for Moto or Fumi to match, which meant Keta spent a lot of time outnumbered. The shapeling didn’t mind the risk, but it was bad strategy.
Meanwhile, it was hard for Fumi to keep her wind attacks focused at a distance. This new move helped her close with enemies quickly. And her wind would give her more options to block projectiles and disrupt the enemy than Keta’s hand-to-hand style. It also made Keta’s speed an asset, helping him catch up and support.
Moto’s eyes narrowed. Had Hako been watching them train? Or had he put things together that quickly just based off their powers and seeing the move once?
The boy smiled, giving off an air of earnest curiosity. He didn’t seem like the kind of person to go sneaking around spying on others. Of course, the best thieves never gave a sign until they’d robbed you blind.
Moto shrugged. “I’m not sure what you mean. We just thought it was a good way to train Fumi’s wind blasts.” No need to confirm the boy’s guess. “Are you training for the exams now too?”
Hako nodded. “We got back from our first mission a week and a half ago. Luckily, it was nearby and brief, so we’ve had a good amount of time to prepare. Not like you three. I hear you’ve been busy.”
Fumi waved her hands and shouted from the other side of the lake. “What are you waiting for? Give us another throw!”
Moto gestured at the squad and Fumi brought Keta over. She nodded to each of the newcomers, water dripping from her nose as she greeted them by name without hesitation. Fumi was good at remembering people’s names.
Keta nodded to the tall girl, whose name was Hibana. Moto nearly jumped when she nodded back. Hibana had stepped into the shadow cast by the boulder and he had almost forgotten she was there she stood so still.
“Are you sure we need to practice this? It’s so frustrating! I don’t see why we can’t just leave it to Keta to strike first.”
Moto flinched internally as Fumi gave truth to his lie from earlier, but Hako’s face didn’t change. “It seems like a good idea to me. But things would probably be easier if you struck more than once instead of shooting one big blast.”
Hako held out his hand and a thin stream of water materialized, snaking through the air until it connected to Fumi. The water thickened as it siphoned liquid from Fumi into a swirling ball between the boy’s hands.
Hako spun, shooting the water in three jets that hardened to spears of ice. The first spear found a crack in one of Moto’s boulders and the other two spears followed up, striking new cracks that appeared from the first. With a pop, the boulder fell into pieces.
“Thanks for the tip.”
Hako nodded demurely, happy to have helped. “Of course. I was just telling Moto how we’ve had a bit more time to practice, so we’ve been able to learn some tricks like that. But you’ve probably learned more useful things out on your missions. Keta, haven’t you been on three already? That’s amazing.”
Keta nodded graciously, a satisfied smile at the corner of his mouth. Fumi frowned at Moto. If not for him during the obstacle course, that would have been her praise to bask in.
Hako continued, though his eyes darted between the two of them. It was hard to tell what he made of the interaction, but Moto was sure he had caught it. “You three are definitely going to be favorites in the exam. Did you really go on a mission for Soundstealer?”
Fumi beamed as she nodded.
“What was it like?” Hako’s face never lost that shine of simple curiosity. But the hairs on the back of Moto’s neck stood up. He seemed too eager.
Fumi’s voice took on its storytelling tone. “It was deadly! There were these giant spiders holding a boy captive in a creepy cave. Moto and Keta snuck in first to find the kid, but they were discovered. Iruka and I had to come charging in to break them out!”
“You mean jorogumo? What was the fight like?”
Moto realized why the group was making him uncomfortable. They should have all been looking at Fumi while she spoke, but each one in the trio was looking at a different member of Moto’s squad. They weren’t here for a friendly chat. They were gathering information.
Moto cut in over Fumi before she could continue. “I think we’ve taken a long enough break. We should get back to practicing.”
Fumi looked at him with frustration. “You’re the one who made us stop. I was in the middle of my story!”
Hako nodded, eyes on Moto. “Of course. We’ll let you all get back to practicing. I didn’t mean to distract.”
The trio said their goodbyes and left. Moto assumed they would be watching from afar.
“What was that about? I didn’t get to tell any of the good parts!”
“They weren’t here to talk. They were researching us.” As he watched them go, Moto wondered how much they had given away.
You can read the next story in this series here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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