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Moto snatched his glass and the small bottle of sake off the table just before the two individuals came crashing down, splintering the wood around them. He rolled his eyes and slid along the wall, skirting the edge of the brawl. The rest of the bar cheered on drunkenly. It was early morning, but Isa’s was full as always. The low-ceilinged, smoky room was a mix of bleary-eyed all-nighters and fresh faced thugs getting started on their hangover for the day.
Moto thought about climbing the rickety stairs and finishing his drink in his room. But Isa had forbade bringing drinks upstairs and he didn’t feel like getting an earful today. He downed the sake in his cup and pressed the rest of the bottle into the hands of a surprised patron. “Knock yourself out.” That would probably be taken literally.
The man gave Moto a suspicious nod, sniffing the contents of the bottle before taking a swig. He winced. It was meant to calm Moto’s nerves, not awaken his palette, after all.
Moto looked back to the two fighting in the corner. Otoya had yelled at a newcomer for taking his seat, a burly woman who didn’t need much provocation to pounce on the smaller, drunker man. Otoya struggled vainly beneath her. He’d keep on flailing until she knocked him out, probably.
Moto admired the dedication. Whenever he started something, he also felt obligated to finish it. But then again, he didn’t pick stupid fights.
He shouldered through the throng of onlookers, aiming for the door. At the threshold, Moto turned and gave one last look at Isa’s bar. It had been his home for the last two years. A significant chunk of his young life. He prayed to Tsukuyomi’s nine frosted tails that he would never see the dump again.
His eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light outside. Wide, moss-covered trees wove between the buildings, their roots spiderwebbed across the road like cobblestones. The trees of Koga blocked out the sky above, requiring torches at all times of the day.
Isa’s bar was a few streets off Koga’s main market square, but the ceiling of leaves meant noise travelled far in the town. The air was flooded with the sounds of people hawking their wares and haggling over prices a few streets over. Moto took a shaky breath of the cold morning air and blew it out quickly. “Today’s the day.”
He stepped into the press of traffic and angled himself away from the market. The streets were cramped and winding, weaving through a forest that grew heedless of those living within. But he’d walked this path many times before.
As Moto walked, he tightened his grip on the heavy coin pouch at his side. His eyes darted back and forth, interrogating every shadow. People knew today was Selection Day. And no one in Koga was above taking coin from a kid too fool to hang onto it. Moto drew his dagger and quickened his step.
After what felt like an eternity, Moto turned a corner and found himself looking at a thickly knotted stand of trees. They grew so close together that their limbs were interwoven and their trunks pressed into each other, deforming the bark. The Trial Grove.
Moto took the final stretch at a jog, coming to the Grove’s entrance and slamming his coins down in front of a bored-looking woman. She was dressed in tight black clothes with her feet up on a table. Moto let out a sigh and his shoulders dropped, releasing their tension. “One entry.”
The woman looked up from her nails, which she was cleaning with a dagger. She had spiky, close-cropped black hair and wore glasses. Her face was stern. “Name?”
The usual entry taker knew Moto on sight. But that was just for weekly pit fights. No one would be placing any bets on Moto or the other fighters today. Well, not legally, at least.
The woman looked over her glasses, eyes narrowing as she took a closer look at Moto. She leaned forward on an elbow, wiry muscles in her arm and shoulder showing under the tight clothing. She sat back after a moment, satisfied. “Forget it kid, don’t waste your money.” She pushed the bag of coins back towards him with her foot.
Moto blinked. “What?”
“It’s cute and all. Scrappy kid with big ambitious dreams. But you’re not gonna win.”
Moto frowned and his face went red. His fists clenched at his side. No, he wouldn’t let this woman stand in his way. He relaxed his posture and picked up the bag of coins. He threw them back into her lap. “I’m fighting.”
The woman caught the bag, smiling. “Good answer.” She pulled open Moto’s bag and looked at the coins inside. She made a note on a piece of paper before handing Moto a band of painted blue metal. “Put this on your arm and join the others waiting at the far side of the Grove.” She returned to cleaning her nails.
Moto walked through the wooden archway, stepping into the familiar ring of trees. A few trunks jutted into the grove at odd angles and formed alcoves, but the ring was otherwise a large, well-formed circle. It was littered with wooden barricades and elevated platforms to make the fights more interesting. To his right were the stands, woven into the upper branches of the trees that formed the Grove. They were already filling with people.
Many wore black robes similar to the woman at the entryway. Moto wondered if the man he was searching for was among them.
He forced himself to look back towards the competitors in the ring. He didn’t know what the man looked like. No point distracting himself right now.
A motley crew stood at the far wall. Three individuals huddled in a small group, chatting nervously. Two others stood on their own, sharpening weapons and tightening bindings on their arms. The individuals ranged from mid teens to Moto’s age. Each wore a painted metal armband. Two brown. Two white. Moto looked at his own arm. That probably meant…
Standing slightly removed from the group was a shorter man. His bright blue armband clashed horribly with his riot of tightly bound red and orange clothing. Like most of the fighters, he was lithe. His arms and legs were long, almost disproportionately so. Bright yellow silks wrapped around his wrists. They dangled from his crossed arms as though the ends were weighted.
The man was smiling at Moto. Long black hair hung around a handsome face. Moto took note of the long hair as a potential weakness for the future. The man beckoned Moto towards him.
As Moto approached, the man’s eyes travelled up and down his body. He didn’t make any attempt to hide his assessment of the new challenger entering the ring. His eyes settled back on Moto’s face and his smile widened as though he was satisfied with what he saw. Moto bristled.
Moto had always been scrawny for his age. But over the last three years he had made a point of improving his physique and training with his knives and fists. He would never have the perfectly sculpted muscles and balanced movements of most of the fighters in the ring, though. Lifting rocks and stabbing tree trunks was only so much of an education.
“It seems that we are teammates.”
Moto looked at the rest of the fighters. It did seem that way. His heart sank. The other pairs were tall and lean, with powerful looking builds. The man in red silks was barely five feet tall. “We won’t know for sure until they tell us the rules for this Selection Day.”
“No, we are teammates. I can feel it.” The man extended one of his hands, the yellow silks dangling from his outstretched wrist. Up close, Moto could see that they were in fact weighted. “I am Keta Gracetouch.”
“Moto Tidecliff.” Moto shook Keta’s hand. The man’s grip was surprisingly firm as he pulled Moto into a hug.
“It will be an honor to fight alongside you, Tidecliff.”
Moto stood, rigid with surprise. Keta was nearly a head shorter than him, which meant Moto could see the strange looks received from the other competitors. He could feel Keta’s hard-muscled arms wrapping around his waist, the man’s head pressed against his neck and collarbone. It was probably the most full-hearted hug Moto had received in several years.
Moto patted the man’s shoulder uncomfortably. “It’s… an honor…”
Keta stepped back, holding Moto’s arms and staring into his face with large brown eyes. He made a lot of eye contact. “We will have to work on those hugs, yes?”
Moto stepped back. He looked around the ring as he changed the subject. “Gracetouch… what does your family do then?”
Keta’s short stature and large eyes gave him away as a shapeling. Shapelings were a highly adaptive race, their bodies changing over just a couple generations to fit whatever duty they served in their community. Of the Five Races, shapelings were nearly as common as humans, though it was rare to see them in a setting like this.
Keta held his arms out to either side and bowed deeply. “We are dancers.” That explained the strangely long limbs.
“And how did a shapeling dancer end up in the Lurkwood’s Trial Grove? Seems like an odd backstory.”
Keta straightened, still smiling. “You will not think so once you have seen me fight.”
As they spoke, two more fighters entered the ring, sliding red metal bands onto their arms. Keta eyed them jealously. “Do you think they would trade us bands? Red would look so much more elegant…”
The woman collecting gold at the entrance followed along behind the newcomers. She stopped at the center and gestured impatiently for the rest of the fighters to approach.
She scanned the young people arrayed before her. “You lot ready?” One fighter made to answer but the woman held up a hand. “I don’t care. We’re starting.”
The woman turned away from the fighters toward the stands. The viewing section was much quieter today. The prohibition on betting meant only the more serious gamblers and bookies bothered attending. Those who did it as a job, not a diversion. The rest of the seats were filled with dark-clothed figures. Daggers from Iga.
The woman barely raised her voice as she spoke, making no attempt to whip the crowd into a frenzy or apply any showmanship. “I am Iruka, a Dagger of Iga. Today we honor the agreement between our two villages. Two of the fighters here will be chosen to join our ranks. If they are skilled, they will become Daggers themselves.”
Iga was a village nestled in the heights of the nearby Shatterspine mountain range. The entire village was a training academy for assassins and spies.
Iga’s proximity to Koga Forest had created tension over the years. Fighting over contracts. Not to mention a few assassinations of high-profile criminals taking refuge within the Lurkwood’s lawless borders. The agreement between the two villages was a way to mingle the ranks and ease the conflict.
It was also Moto’s best chance at finding the man who killed his family.
“The rules today are simple. Each fighter wears a colored armband, separating them into teams of two.”
Keta elbowed Moto. “You see? As I said.”
“Any fighter who collects one armband of each color passes the trial. Anyone who kills another competitor is disqualified. Fighters, please take your positions.” Iruka pointed towards four wooden barricades, each painted with a large slash of color.
The four teams split. As they walked, Moto thought through the implications of Iruka’s instructions. He and Keta both had blue bands, so they didn’t have to worry about each other. But Iruka didn’t say that teams had to win as a unit. Or that fighters were disqualified if they lost their band.
Moto glanced at Keta smiling beside him. Their teamwork would only last as long as they didn’t need the others’ color. Teams who could keep both of their bands would have a huge advantage over anyone who was forced to work alone. They should probably stay close then.
To win, a fighter needed all four bands. That meant there wasn’t any reason to rush. No one could win without coming to them. It would be best if they could stay out of the fight, letting the other three teams wear each other down.
But everyone would know that. Which meant the fight would start carefully, each team holding out until the others started brawling. Eventually, they’d have to split into two separate fights or they’d all converge in a four-way battle.
Moto looked at the other fighters. Many were bigger. And he remembered the group of three talking before. They could have an agreement to work together until the end, increasing their odds of success. A free-for-all would be too risky then. Better to isolate another team.
Moto tried to decide which team represented the smallest challenge. The two latecomers wearing red appeared to be sisters. They had the lowest chance of turning on each other if one of their bands was taken. That left white or brown. Brown would be on the far side of the square, meaning that engaging them would risk starting a free for all.
White it was then.
“Keta, listen. I know what we should do.” Moto spoke quietly as they reached their starting position. He kept his eyes on the other teams, trying to guess their plans.
“Oh?” Keta was bent forward, knees straight and palms flat on the ground, stretching before the battle.
“When things start, I think we should stay close together and aim straight for white team. If we can get one of their bands, they’ll probably turn on each other and it’ll be easier to get the second band.”
“Interesting.” Keta straightened and began rolling his shoulders and shaking his legs out.
With the four teams in place, Iruka wasted no time. She raised a hand. “Begin!”
As soon as she spoke, Keta dropped into a crouch, arms flared out behind him. There was a flicker as the two torches immediately behind the shapeling wavered and then went out. His body began to steam in the cold morning air. “Your plan sounds reasonable. But there’s hardly any showmanship to it. I’ll take brown and red, you take white.”
“That sounds like a terrible-“ Keta launched forward in a burst of speed, running faster than anyone Moto had seen before. He was a blur of red as he charged straight towards brown team. Moto cursed and started sprinting after. They needed to stay together or they’d be at a serious disadvantage.
Moto was barely a quarter of the way to brown team by the time Keta reached his opponents. The two opposing boys stood warily. They’d had plenty of warning from Keta’s straightforward charge. But as he reached the two men, each a good foot taller than him, Keta leapt.
The shapeling’s small frame flipped through the air, far higher than a normal person could have jumped. He twisted as he passed over the two men, striking out with his long arms so the silks on his wrists snapped outward. The man on the left barely managed to pull himself out of the way, stumbling backwards and falling onto his butt. The man on the right yelped in pain as the weight on the end of the silk crunched into his shoulder.
That was all Moto could see before he came skidding to a halt, his path blocked by two tall, well-built individuals. One was a boy with a shaved head, similar in age to Moto. The other was a girl who looked slightly younger, her body still gangly from recent growth. White team.
Moto glanced right and saw the two sisters of red team backing against one of the wooden barricades, waiting for the others to tire each other out before they engaged. Moto shook his head. At least someone would get to follow a decent strategy.
The boy and girl fanned out to split Moto’s focus. He couldn’t let the fight devolve into two-on-one. Should he take off his band and give it to them? Maybe they would take it and leave him alone. Or fight amongst themselves for it.
No, if they were smart they would just pick it up and keep coming. Better to make sure he was out of the fray before they turned their back on him. That only left one option.
Moto turned and bolted. He heard the two behind him curse and start chasing after.
Moto ran straight for the nearest platform, hoping the moment of surprise would give him enough of a head start. He took the ladder at a run, planting his foot on a lower rung and throwing his body higher before he started to climb.
He had just reached the top of the ladder when he felt a hand clasp onto his ankle. Moto kicked wildly, tearing his leg free and throwing himself up onto the platform. He rolled along the wood, coming to rest on all fours and facing the ladder. The boy’s head and shoulders appeared over the platform, scrambling to follow.
The boy had expected Moto to defend the top of the ladder. He sprang up quickly, minimizing the time his face would be exposed to easy kicks. Moto had counted on that. The boy’s quick jump left him landing flat footed, unable to move quickly in either direction. He clearly had not expected his opponent to dive-tackle him off of the 15 foot platform, sending them both careening into the air.
It was amazing how big of an advantage it was when you were willing to get hurt in a fight.
As they fell, Moto unwrapped his arms from the boy’s waist and twisted so his left shoulder pointed towards the ground, right over the boy’s stomach. Moto relaxed his muscles, preparing for the impact. The boy was too shocked to do much of anything besides flail against Moto’s shoulders.
They landed with a dull thud. Moto felt a couple pops as two of the boy’s ribs broke. A sharp pain blossomed in Moto’s shoulder as it took the bulk of the collision.
Moto rolled off of the boy heavily, eyes screwed shut and groaning in pain. The boy himself was wheezing and gasping for breath, the air knocked completely out of him. His eyes were wide and unfocused.
There wasn’t much time until the boy’s teammate dropped off the ladder and came running. Moto gritted his teeth and pushed himself to his feet, his left arm dangling, throbbing angrily. He pulled his leg back and kicked the boy square in the jaw. Not enough to break his neck, but enough to send his impact-addled mind fully off to unconsciousness.
Moto turned to face the platform. The girl had dropped to the ground and was approaching cautiously. No need to rush now that her teammate was out of the fight.
Moto’s left arm hung uselessly. He wiggled his fingers and felt a jolt of pain in his shoulder. Maybe it was just dislocated. He gripped his left arm and pushed up towards the socket.
The surge of pain was so great he nearly fell to his knees. White stars danced across his vision. Nope, definitely broken then.
The girl noticed Moto’s distraction and rushed forward. Moto jumped back, barely pulling his face back from her fist. She had angled herself towards his useless left side so he couldn’t raise his arm to block. Smart.
Moto continued stumbling backwards, barely keeping away from her blows. He turned as he moved, but she circled with him, always approaching from the left. Her movements were calm and careful. She jabbed towards his right side, coming in fast and hard so that he didn’t have time to get his good arm up. She threw haymaker’s towards his left, knowing he had no chance of blocking those.
Staggering backwards like this, it was only a matter of time until he lost his footing. She only had to wait. The girl was too close for Moto to do anything clever. He needed space to think.
Moto’s left arm was already useless to him for the rest of this fight. Who cared if this girl broke it more? He waited for her to throw another haymaker. This time, instead of pulling out of the way, Moto planted his feet and brought his left shoulder up to block. At the same time, he reached down with his right hand and grabbed the dagger at his belt.
He knew the pain would unsteady him, so he didn’t bother aiming. He just gritted his teeth and slashed in a wide arc in front of him. The girls fist knocked into his shoulder. He felt bones grating against each other in a way they really shouldn’t. His eyes screwed shut involuntarily. But he felt a pull of resistance against the tip of his blade.
Moto forced his eyes open, jumping backwards. The girl did the same, leaping back from his swipe. She held a hand over a shallow gash along her stomach as she drew her own blade.
Moto looked past the girl’s shoulder, hoping for aid from Keta. The dancer had finished off the two members of brown team and now engaged the red sisters. He stood between them, blocking one girl’s blow as he swung out towards the other girl’s leg. The girl jumped back, but Keta snagged her ankle with the silks bound around his wrist. Keta pulled hard towards himself, knocking the girl to the ground.
So much for help. But his opponent had her back to the other fight. She didn’t know whether Keta was coming or not.
Moto gave the smallest of nods, looking over the girl’s shoulder. She glanced backwards. Not a lot. She knew better than to take her eyes off an enemy. But it was enough.
Moto dashed forward, angling low. The girl turned back quickly, but her moment of distraction let him close the gap. She didn’t have time to do anything but step forward, trying to get to Moto’s left side again. Predictable.
Moto waited for the girl to commit to her swing at his side. Then he planted his foot and pushed off as hard as he could, throwing himself away from her. He twisted in the air and threw his dagger.
Normally, throwing your only weapon in a fight was a bad idea. If it was blocked, you’d be left defenseless. And even if it succeeded, you’d have nothing against the next opponent who showed up. The girl thought Moto’s nod meant others were approaching. She didn’t know they were alone.
Moto was counting on the surprise.
The dagger sank deep, lodging itself between two of the girls ribs. She crumpled to her knees.
Moto pulled himself to his feet, the pain in his left arm still sending tremors through his body. He moved towards the girl.
Seeing him, she pulled the white band off her arm, smearing it with bloody fingers. She threw it at Moto’s feet and tried to hold her hands up in surrender. She winced and put a hand to the dagger in her side. Moto bent and picked up the band, keeping his eyes on the girl just in case. He walked over to the unconscious boy and took his band as well.
Moto turned, steeling himself to rejoin the fight with Keta. But when he looked up, he saw the shapeling ambling towards him, arms covered in colored bands. The members of brown and red team lay on the ground behind him, moaning in pain. Besides a sheen of sweat, Keta looked otherwise unaffected. He smiled at Moto as he approached.
“You see? Just as I said we would. We were bold! We have made poetry today.” Keta frowned as he got closer, noticing the dirt on Moto’s clothes and the left arm hanging off-kilter. “Perhaps it was free verse, rather than a sonnet.”
Keta placed a hand on Moto’s shoulder, looking into his eyes and smiling. Moto was suddenly very aware of the shapeling’s body close to his. Keta radiated heat. His hand was almost too warm to bear. “It’s OK, now we have plenty of time to practice, yes?”
Keta continued smiling as he slid a brown and a red band onto Moto’s good arm. He took one of the white rings for himself and then turned to the crowd. He gave a deep bow and there was a smattering of applause from the Daggers in the stands.
Ignoring the pain for a moment, Moto allowed himself a smile. It wasn’t pretty, but that didn’t matter. Whatever Keta said, Moto knew life was more like a knife-fight than a poem.
One step closer.
Moto stood amidst a group of twenty kids his age. They were in a wide, rocky courtyard atop a towering mountain peak. There were no railings or walls near the cliff edges. Just a plunge several hundred feet into the clouds below. This high up, the air was frigid and strong winds came gusting from nowhere.
Moto stood as close to the center of the courtyard as possible, but the wide open heights still gave him vertigo. He wasn’t afraid of heights, but after two years in the dark, cramped alleyways of Koga, just seeing the sun every day was taking some getting used to.
The peak that Moto and the other kids stood upon was relatively narrow. Aside from the courtyard, the rest of the summit was dominated by a dojo nearly ten stories high. It was the tallest building Moto had ever seen. The dojo’s black-shingled roof was steeply angled with the lower portion flaring back towards the sky. Thick paper shoji doors barred the entrance, criss-crossed with a dense lattice of wood to hold against the wind.
Building such a structure this high in the mountains must have cost a fortune. Moto wondered how many contracts it had taken to pay for the construction. How many people laying dead beneath a Dagger’s blade?
Moto could hear the screech of metal mining carts, racing along the railways that connected the many isolated peaks. He had known that Iga was on a mountaintop, but the village seemed a little too eager to embrace the aesthetic.
Moto and the rest of the kids wore many thin layers of fur and leather to guard against the biting wind without restricting mobility. Keta, of course, wore only his bright red and orange dancer’s clothes.
“You really never get cold?”
“Not so long as there is flame nearby.” Keta nodded towards the large bonfire burning at the entrance to the dojo.
“Must be nice to have a resonance already.”
It had been a week since Selection Day. As was customary, the winners of the fight were taken away immediately. The life of a Dagger required you to leave everything else behind. Not much to leave in Moto’s case.
Moto was pleasantly surprised when someone healed his shoulder on the week long journey to the summit of Iga. He hadn’t been looking forward to climbing with a splint. Along the way, they had joined up with a few other kids coming from across Yosai to train. They had all arrived the night before.
Iruka, the woman who had overseen Selection Day in Koga, emerged from the dojo ahead of them. She walked down the steps and stopped in front of the new recruits, crossing her arms. Her fitted black clothes now bore a brown mountain emblazoned on the back of each hand and across the shoulders.
“Alright, pay attention because I don’t want to repeat myself. You lot have been chosen from around Yosai or from the houses here in Iga as the next class of potential Daggers.” Looking around, Moto noticed that some of the kids were already dressed in black with emblems across their back. He saw a few flames and crashing waves. Two backs had mountains like Iruka. One girl had a gust of wind.
“For those of you who are new, Daggers are split into four houses based on their specialty: fire, water, earth, and air. You’ll be placed into a house based on the element you eventually resonate with. Those kids who grew up in a house will be moved if they end up resonating with something different.”
Iruka turned back towards the dojo and began walking up the stairs. “Don’t fall behind.” The kids scrambled to follow.
“You’ll still do general training as a class, but your house will instruct you on the finer uses of your resonance.” Iruka slid open the doors to the dojo and entered. As Moto stepped inside he was hit first by warmth, then by the smell of sweat.
Inside, the entire dojo was a single towering room. The walls were lined with stairs and walkways. Thick ropes criss-crossed through the air. Dominating most of the floor was a small jungle. The right corner had a pond surrounded by open grasses. Trees covered the rest of the floor, with large rock platforms rising up like mountain peaks. Replica buildings were scattered throughout.
All over the interior landscape, kids in dark black clothing bounded. They sparred with each other, or raced up the mountain peaks. Some practiced throwing daggers at a target as they slid along the ropes strung between the walls.
Iruka gave the kids a moment to stare in wonder before she continued. “Daggers are broken into three levels: genin, chunin, and jonin. Genin and chunin practice here in the Playground.
“I understand that a few of you already have resonances?” Iruka looked towards Keta. A few other kids stepped forward as well. “Congratulations, you’re all genin. You should report to the correct house by this evening to get a room.
“The rest of you will take the entrance exam tomorrow. It’s designed to isolate and highlight some portion of your personality, putting you into close enough alignment with one of the elements to establish a resonance.”
One of the younger kids raised a hand to get Iruka’s attention. “What happens if we don’t resonate during the exam?”
“Then you won’t be a Dagger. We don’t waste our time training anything less than the best. Anyone without a resonance will join the support staff for the village.” The kid put his hand down, looking nervous. “What, you thought because you made it this far, you were guaranteed a spot going forward? Sorry, kid.
“Anyways, you’re all granted access to the Playground for the rest of the day. You can prepare any way you want for the test tomorrow. We’ll meet in the courtyard outside at dawn.” Iruka walked away without waiting to see if anyone had questions.
The kids all shifted about awkwardly in Iruka’s absence. Most of them had arrived in Iga from far-flung corners of Yosai just last night. A few friend groups had formed during the long treks to reach the mountain village, but for the most part they were all strangers to each other.
Some broke off and wandered aimlessly into the terrain below, uncertain how to prepare for tomorrow’s exam. A few others attached themselves to the groups that had already formed, especially the groups that contained kids wearing black robes.
Keta appeared at Moto’s side, biting into an apple. He held another fruit in his other hand, tapping Moto on the chest with it. “Mmm?”
“No thanks, I’m not really hungry right now.” It was a lie. Moto was always hungry. But he remembered how much he suffered three years ago. How hard it was to adjust to life on his own. He would never let himself get that soft again.
“Suit yourself.” Keta pocketed the apple and continued to eat his own. Each bite he groaned with exaggerated enjoyment, licking apple juice from his fingers and chewing noisily. Moto wasn’t sure if Keta was trying to tempt him to reconsider, or if the shapeling just really loved apples.
“Where did you even get that?”
Keta nodded towards a table by the doorway, full of food for the training Daggers. He patted a leather pouch at his side, which was clearly stuffed.
“Don’t you think we have more important things to be worrying about than stuffing our faces?”
Keta wagged a finger as he swallowed another bite of apple. “There is nothing more important than enjoying a delicious meal whenever you can. What’s the point of life if you don’t let yourself indulge?”
“Well, some of us need to make sure we don’t get kicked out before we can think about indulging.” Moto walked to the wooden railing that separated the entrance of the Playground from the interior landscape. He watched as someone ran along the surface of the pond, weaving to avoid bolts of flame thrown by another two individuals at the edge of the lake.
He knew about resonance. Most people did, considering how important the Tournament was in day-to-day life. But he didn’t know anything about how to make it happen. Which resonance should he even choose? He thought that this would be part of his instruction, not a prerequisite.
“Keta, how did you get your resonance?”
Keta walked up and placed his hands on the railing next to Moto, standing close as he always did. “My parents taught me.” Keta smiled as he remembered. “We have been fire dancers for many generations, so we are very familiar with the personalities of flame. When I was young, my parents taught me many philosophies, all of which were compatible with fire. I chose the path of passion, and they helped me to understand how to live my life by those principles.”
“But how did you actually make the resonance start once you were compatible?”
“I did not do anything specific. One day, I simply reached for it and it was there. I believe it is something you do instinctively in a moment of need.”
“Great, that’s helpful.”
Keta pushed him playfully. “So prickly. I am saying that the connection will just happen. You should focus on the compatibility. The more you embody the ideal that connects you to a surge, the more likely it’s power will come when you call.”
But Moto only had a day. He wasn’t going to be making any big changes to his personality in that time, so he was probably stuck with whatever ideals he had currently. He couldn’t think of anything that stood out at the moment, but there had to be a lot of newcomers in the same boat. And Iruka had said the exam was designed to heighten their ideals. He’d just have to trust that process.
What he really needed was to know more about the houses. If he had a choice about which ideal to strengthen during the exam, he wanted to know which house was going to give him the biggest advantage.
Standing near the entrance to the dojo was a group of kids wearing black. Those who grew up in Iga. “I’m going to go talk to those people by the door and learn more about the houses. Care to join?” Keta shrugged and followed after him.
Moto and Keta stood next to the group of three, waiting for a moment to interject. Two of the individuals, a boy with a crashing wave on his back and one of the girls with a mountain symbol like Iruka, stood listening to a girl who spoke animatedly. She was tall and thin, with long black hair that tossed back and forth around her head as she gestured. She laughed and slapped the boy on the shoulder.
After a moment, the group noticed Moto and Keta, turning towards them. The girl who had been speaking stuck out her hand to shake. “Hello! You’re two of the newcomers, right?”
Moto stared down at the hand for a moment, caught off guard. The girl’s eyes were scrunched up in a smile. He clasped her hand slowly. She shook vigorously.
“Welcome to Iga.” She turned to Keta and stuck her hand out again. Keta grabbed and pulled her into a hug. “Oh!” She quickly returned the gesture. “You were one of the people Iruka said already had a resonance, right?”
Keta stepped back, smiling at Moto. “She hugs much better than you.” Keta turned back to the girl. “Yes, I am a fire dancer. My name is Keta Gracetouch.”
“Shoot! Where are my manners. My name is Fumi Soundstealer. Nice to meet you Keta.”
Moto’s mind reeled. He didn’t bother to listen as the other two introduced themselves. Soundstealer was one of the most infamous Daggers alive. Most Iga fighters tried to remain anonymous for fear that a reputation might disrupt their work. But Soundstealer was known across Yosai for the high profile assassinations and sabotage missions they took.
Missions like singlehandedly wiping out Moto’s entire village.
Moto swallowed hard. “Soundstealer? As in… you’re related to the Soundstealer?”
“Oh yeah, it’s my dad’s name.” The girl deflated for a moment, but quickly brightened. “Someday I’m going to earn my own name, though!”
Keta chuckled. “Aren’t we supposed to be anonymous? Daggers in the night and all that?”
Fumi shook her head. “Not me. Everyone’s going to know me and my squad. Speaking of which! Do you want to be in my squad? We still need a flame.”
Keta held up his hands. “I’m sorry, I’m not even sure what that means. My friend and I are still trying to figure out how everything works here. I think he had some questions to ask, actually.” Keta elbowed Moto, nodding towards the group.
Moto calmed himself. One step at a time. He had known that Soundstealer was in Iga. Meeting his daughter wasn’t that big of a surprise. Right now he needed to prepare for tomorrow. “Right, sorry. I just got a bit distracted. I’m Moto. I was interested in the specialties of each house that Iruka mentioned. What are they?”
Fumi smiled, enjoying the attention. “Yeah, each type of resonance is good at certain things. So the houses specialize, training their members in specific techniques. Fire focuses on sabotage and support. Water handles disguise and spy work. Earth is close combat. And wind is infiltration and assassination.
“When you go on serious missions, you need a squad with members from each house so all the specialties are covered.”
Moto looked at the symbols on the back of Fumi’s hands. “So you’re in… wind house?”
Fumi nodded, her face lighting up. “My dad is the head of Zephys. I won’t be a full member until I resonate tomorrow, though.”
The group continued talking, but Moto didn’t pay any attention. He knew what he needed to do, now. Zephys specialized in assassination. And it’s leader was exactly the man he had been trying to get close to for all these years.
No matter what, Moto had to join Zephys.
Moto stood in the predawn chill, surrounded by the others waiting to take the exam. A faint light was spreading between the isolated peeks. Iruka stood before them, lit from behind by the large bonfire burning at the front of the dojo.
“Alright, the rules for today are pretty simple. Inside there are nine gold coins. Each is hidden or guarded by some sort of obstacle. Retrieve a coin and you pass. You can interfere with each other, but no direct attacks.”
Keta and three other kids already had resonances. That left 16 people fighting for nine coins. Not the best odds, but not the worst either.
The same young boy from the day before raised his hand. Iruka rolled her eyes. “Seriously? You’re training to be an assassin and you raise your hand? Just ask the question!”
“Didn’t you say we had to resonate to become a genin? What happens if we get a coin without resonating? Or if we resonate without getting a coin?”
“If you can get one of these coins without resonating, before someone else who is resonating, more power to you. If you resonate but don’t get a coin, tough. Coin equals advancement. Period.
“Any other questions obviously covered by the rules I just explained?” The kid shrank back, embarrassed. “Alright, let’s get started.” Iruka turned and walked into the Playground.
The interior landscape of the dojo had been changed overnight. The rock faces on the small mountain peeks were steeper. They seemed to shift at random intervals. There were shimmers of movement in the trees. Moto squinted and saw what looked like a large bear with the glint of a coin fastened along it’s back. Another coin was suspended in midair above the tallest mountain peek.
Iruka turned towards the group. “All nine coins are in this building, so don’t go rushing back outside to look on the roof. It’s not clever.”
Iruka reached into the folds of her belt and pulled out a gold coin. She flipped it in the air and caught it. “Otherwise, coins can be anywhere.” She smiled and jumped backwards, clearing the handrail without looking. “What are you waiting for? Go!” She turned and sprinted into the woods.
Several kids burst forward in surprise, chasing after Iruka. A few others raced towards ladders to get to a higher vantage point along the walls. Moto stood and thought.
What were his options? Iruka had a coin, but there were already several kids going after her. There was the coin he’d seen on the bear. Had anyone else noticed that? There was the coin floating above the mountain. There might be one hidden at the bottom of the pond. Definitely more in the forest somewhere.
But more importantly, what was each coin testing?
Moto had thought a lot about the traits of wind over the last day. He had decided that it was the trickiest of the elements. It could change directions on a whim, travel unseen, and change from a light breeze to an overwhelming gust in an instant. Flexibility and nimbleness. Those were the kind of tests he was looking for.
Catching Iruka and taking her coin would take speed and quick reflexes, but there were so many other kids to compete with. The bear might be the same, but it could also be a test of courage or strength. The coins that were more thoroughly hidden were probably testing things like diligence.
That left the coin suspended over the shifting cliff faces of the mountain.
Moto dashed forward, planting a hand on the railing and vaulting over it into the woods beyond. He wove through the trees, ignoring the kids fanning out around him. Eventually the crowd thinned.
By the time Moto reached the based of the mountain, he was alone. He looked around in confusion. He couldn’t have been the only one who saw the coin. Why was no one else going for it?
“I’ll race ya for it!” 30 feet away, Fumi came darting out of the woods, long black hair trailing. She reached the base of the cliff face, planted her foot on a stone outcropping, then launched herself nearly ten feet in the air, grabbing a ledge with both hands.
Moto cursed. Of course. This coin was the most obvious test for wind. No one wanted to compete with a Soundstealer. It was probably best to find a different coin to go for.
Moto set his shoulders and charged towards the cliff face.
Two rocks jutted from the wall, creating a chimney a few feet wide. Moto jumped, planting his foot on the right wall and pushing off. As he connected with the left wall, turning to repeat the process, he heard a loud grating sound. The stone shifted as he pushed against it, stealing his forward momentum.
Moto flailed through the air. Instead of landing easily atop the rightmost outcropping, he collided with it at the waist, knocking the wind out of him. Moto gasped for air as his hands searched for purchase. He found a crack wide enough for his fingers and managed to anchor himself before he fell. He pulled himself onto the rock, ignoring the pain in his hips.
His path had brought him closer to Fumi. He could see her stretching for a handhold ten feet up and a few feet to his right. One of the stones shifted under her foot and she let herself fall with it. She was completely separated from the cliff face before she snagged the wall with one hand, swinging with the momentum of the fall. She hooked a ledge with the heel of her foot that she couldn’t have reached before. She was directly above him now.
Moto needed to move like that. Working with the unexpected and building off of it. He needed to plan for the rocks to shift and use that to his advantage.
Moto moved quickly to catch up. He reached a difficult point, the handhold too far out of reach. Normally, he would move cautiously, re-centering his weight and shuffling his footholds higher. Instead, he pushed off hard with both feet, launching towards the handhold.
It was a risk. He’d be off balance with no place to put his feet. But he gambled that the rock would shift. It did. The grip slid several inches down the rock face under his weight, letting his feet touch down on a wide protrusion.
He flexed his legs and jumped again, pulling hard with both hands against the loose handhold. As it slid down, he brought his knees close to his chest, cramming his toes on the rock, between his hands. He used his upward momentum to lengthen his body, grabbing two handholds higher up and letting his feet dangle as the loose stone eventually broke free from the cliff face.
Moto realized he was in the same spot Fumi had been a moment before. He planted his foot on the same stone she had. It shifted beneath him, as expected. He let himself fall, aiming for the same handhold Fumi had. As his hands caught the rock and his weight began to pull against it, he felt a sudden lurch.
He wasn’t sure if it was because he was heavier than Fumi, or if the stone had been loosened by her swing, but the rock came tearing away from the wall. There was no way he’d reach the ledge where Fumi crouched.
Maybe this was it. The moment of need that Keta talked about. Moto focused on a sense of lightness and flexibility as he stretched his hand forward, reaching.
Fumi’s hand shot out and caught his wrist.
Moto swung wildly in the air. Above him, Fumi gritted her teeth and braced against his weight. Moto’s momentum came to a halt and he hung, clasping Fumi’s forearm.
Moto looked up in shock. “Why did you catch me?”
“Oh. You know.” Fumi was painting from the strain. “Maybe we can chat about it in a second?” She began to pull him up.
Moto didn’t understand. They were competing for the same coin. She gained nothing by helping him. Was she toying with him? So certain in her skill that she didn’t consider him a threat? Moto had never seen the infamous Soundstealer. But he imagined Fumi’s face, looking down on his family with superiority, treating them like insects as she cut through them.
Well, see if she dismissed him after this. Moto planted his feet against the wall and pulled hard. The unexpected surge sent Fumi skidding off the rock, launching out into open air.
Moto’s body lurched upwards from the pull, bringing him close enough to grasp the ledge. He looked down to see Fumi spinning in the air, her face a mask of surprise as she grabbed for a handhold. It was too late, her momentum had carried her away from the wall. Moto felt a surge of triumph.
Fumi’s expression shifted, her brow furrowed in concentration. She threw her hands towards the ground and a massive gust of wind erupted beneath her. Her hair whipped around as her fall was halted and she shot upwards, past Moto. She laughed as she flipped, landing softly at the top of the mountain.
“Finally!” Fumi was still laughing as she spoke. She flexed her legs and jumped again, sending another burst of wind beneath her. Moto was nearly blown from the cliff face as Fumi launched into the air and snagged the coin, using another gust of wind to cushion her fall back to the top of the mountain. She started shooting blasts of wind in random directions, everything else forgotten.
Moto looked on with dismay. Iruka was right. Once someone resonated he didn’t stand a chance.
He turned his back to the cliff and looked over the surrounding woods. Competing with Soundstealer had been a mistake. How many coins were left? Moto’s eyes darted across the landscape. Standing by the entrance to the Playground there were six kids. They laughed and clapped each other on the shoulders. Including Fumi, that meant seven coins had been found.
Moto could see Iruka, jumping from tree to tree ahead of a crowd of desperate kids. Not surprising that her coin hadn’t been taken yet. Iruka was heading towards Moto. Should he join the chase? It looked like most of the remaining kids were following. Maybe he should look for the other coin.
“Yes!” Moto’s gaze shot over to the pond, where a boy came launching into the air, propelled by a jet of water. A coin glittered in his dripping hand.
Well, that settled that.
Moto looked back to Iruka. The woman’s path would bring her close to the rock face, almost directly beneath Moto. There was no time to climb down and join the chase. That wasn’t working for any of the kids below anyways. He needed to catch Iruka off guard. Moto pressed a hand against the rock behind him, tensing his legs. It was a good 20 feet to the tree-line below. He’d only get one shot.
As Iruka passed beneath him, Moto threw himself into open air.
This was always his advantage. When all else failed. When he was cornered. When he faced a bigger opponent. Moto could take the pain that others flinched away from. Iruka said a coin was all that mattered. He would worry about the rest later.
Tree limbs whipped against Moto’s face, drawing blood as he broke the tree cover. He was pretty sure he felt a rib snap as he collided heavily with a tree branch. It didn’t matter.
It was a remarkably accurate jump. Iruka had no reason to look up, her focus on the kids trailing behind. Moto was positioned perfectly above her. He pushed against a tree trunk with his foot, changing his trajectory as the branch against his ribs gave way to his downward momentum. He reached out for the coin in Iruka’s hands.
At the last minute, Iruka’s attention whipped forward, drawn by the sound of snapping wood. Moto’s fingers were inches from the coin.
With lighting fast reflexes, she snatched her hand backwards and somersaulted over Moto. His hands closed on air.
Moto’s shoulder collided with the tree limb Iruka had been standing on. There was a crunch and Moto’s world spun, pivoting around the branch. His arm flared with pain.
Back now facing the ground, Moto looked up and saw Iruka leaping away. He saw his goals receding from his grasp. “No!” Moto reached out. He couldn’t give up. He wouldn’t.
There was a surge of energy within his body. His outstretched hand felt inexplicably heavy. Moto felt that weight pulling on everything around him, drawing it all towards his hand. Moto blocked everything else out. He ignored the pain in his body and the wind rushing past him. Moto focused on the coin in Iruka’s hands and pulled.
Iruka’s hand snapped backwards as the coin was ripped from her grasp. It shot through the air, glittering as it rotated. Moto felt a light thump against the palm of his hand and closed his fingers greedily.
Then he hit the ground.
Moto stood with the other twelve genin, waiting for their first instruction as Daggers. He leaned heavily against Keta.
His left arm was in a sling and his ribs were tightly bound, making breathing difficult. Apparently, there was a rule in Iga that Daggers had to live with the consequences of their injuries for one week before they could be healed.
Moto didn’t care. He looked down at his new black robes. A brown mountain was stitched along the back of each hand.
Keta tightened his arm around Moto’s waist. He nodded at the mountain emblems as Moto stared at them. “I am not surprised that you resonated with stone. Cold and rigid, just like your hug.” Keta looked at him with twinkling eyes.
Moto ignored the jab, enjoying the heat from Keta’s over-warm body in the cold mountain wind.
It wasn’t exactly according to plan, but he’d made it. He’d find another way to get close to Soundstealer.
Moto looked towards Fumi, standing on the opposite side of the group. She caught his glance and shot him an angry glare.
Keta noticed the exchange. “What did you do to make her angry? She was so nice the other day.”
“I tried to throw her off a cliff after she kept me from falling.”
“Ah.” Keta looked from Fumi to Moto’s badly broken body. “I can see who that worked out for.”
“I don’t get it. We were going after the same coin. If I had gotten to it first she might not have become a Dagger. But she tried to help me anyways. And if she hadn’t resonated when I threw her, I would have beaten her.”
“Perhaps she simply had faith that the wind would be there if she needed it. Or she did not want to see you fall.”
Moto shook his head, wincing at a twinge of pain in his shoulder. “She reminds me of my dad.”
“This is… a good thing, yes?”
“My dad was an idiot. It worked out for her this time, but that kind of blind faith gets people killed.”
Moto clamped down on the flood of memories. Now wasn’t the time for looking back. He could do that once his work was done. For now, it had only just begun.
You can read the next story in this series here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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