This is part 4 of an ongoing story series. You can read the first part here.

“Let me get this straight. A mountain tried to kill you? And the only thing it managed for the trouble was that little scrape on your arm?” Seiko cocked her head sideways. Her tangled, red hair dangled past her shoulder as she looked at the bandage on Keta’s bicep.

Keta sat on the ground, legs outstretched and leaning back on his long arms. He shrugged. Somehow the move looked graceful. “It was not a particularly fast mountain.”

Moto laid on his back, his head in Keta’s lap. “Don’t forget the wind and the trees. They tried to kill you too.” He was only half listening to the conversation. The rest of his attention was admiring the way the shapeling’s face caught the afternoon sunlight. He was glad Keta was back.

Keta smiled as though remembering a fond childhood memory. “The wind was much faster.”

Seiko threw up her hands. “I’ll never understand you weirdos. That sounds like a bad day. But look at him. Smiling like he won a toy at the fair.”

“You’re just mad he didn’t bring you back some part of the monster to tinker with.”

Seiko uncrossed her arms and flopped onto her back like a stocky, red-haired starfish. “Is it so much to ask? The Gearhouse doesn’t trust me with any fun toys.”

Keta’s eyes scrunched closed as he laughed. “It has been how many walls that you’ve blown out since we met? Three?”

“Only two! The third one was before Moto and I met.” She was a sulking starfish now.

Keta ran a hand through Moto’s hair. He frowned and looked down at Moto. “What is this? Your hair is like a bird’s nest.” He pulled his hand free and his frown deepened. “A greasy bird’s nest.” He wiped his hand discreetly on the grass.

“What do you expect? Iruka’s got me working non stop outside class, I can spend time with you two or I can take a bath. Can’t do both.”

“Baths are for lazy people anyways.” Seiko took a stick from the ground and used it to pick at a knot in her own hair.

Keta sighed and shook his head, immaculately combed hair swaying behind him.

Before he could protest any further, a shadow stretched across him from behind. A surge of heat poured off Keta’s body as his arm shot up to block an open palm flying toward his face.

“Damn! I thought I had you.” Fumi walked around and threw herself to the ground in front of them. A burst of wind cushioned her as she fell.

Seiko spluttered, wiping her face and sticking out her tongue as she sat up. “You got dirt in my mouth! Honestly, doesn’t anybody ever teach you Daggers about manners?”

“Whoops! Sorry.”

Moto sat up as Fumi came into view. His body tensed reflexively, but he forced his shoulders to relax. He needed to be more social. “Don’t mind her, she just enjoys the opportunity to be snarky.”

“I wondered why anyone was hanging out with you. I guess even prickly people gravitate to their own kind, eh?” Fumi was almost comically tense as she waited to see his response. Was she holding her breath?

It turned out to be warranted, since Moto still prickled. He ignored the petulant reaction and stuck his tongue out instead. Fumi exhaled.

Keta looked back and forth between them. “You are friends now? I was only gone a few weeks!”

Provisional friends. We’ll see if she keeps pushing her luck.” Moto kept his voice light.

“Even so.” Keta turned to Fumi and smiled warmly. “I am proud of you for looking past the two times Moto nearly killed you.” Moto and Fumi looked at each other awkwardly. “Ah… too soon for such jokes? Perhaps later.”

Seiko cleared her throat.

“Oh, right! Sorry again. My name is Fumi.” Fumi held her hand out to Seiko. The glimmer woman shook it, her red eyes appraising.

“Seiko. I work in the Gearhouse.”

“Nice to meet you, Seiko. So what were you all talking about?”

“Keta was telling us about the mission he got back from yesterday. And how he didn’t bother bringing me any exciting souvenirs.”

“Oh! How was it?” Fumi’s eyes lit up and she leaned so far forward Moto wondered how she didn’t topple over. “What kind of mission was it?”

“It was very simple. One of the Woodheart’s nature spirits made its home near a village. It was attacking the farmers and hunters that went outside the walls and we were hired to take care of it.”

Fumi sucked air through her teeth and groaned. “Oh man. A nature spirit! Ripping holes in the earth, creating whirlwinds. What a cool first mission! I bet the fight looked awesome. Sure would’ve loved to go on that.” She shot Moto a look that was mostly teasing.

“Yes, it was rather impressive. All the rubble was an excellent stage to perform. Though sadly there was no one to watch except the other Daggers. I did learn a few new tricks from the squad leader, though.”

Fumi wrestled her jealousy into submission and then continued. “Well, speaking of missions, I’ve got another one if you’re ready.”

Moto perked up. “You found a good one?”

“Well, I haven’t necessarily found one yet, but I convinced my dad to let us take one of his lower offers. I came to get you two so we could go take a look.”

Keta held up a hand. “What are we talking about?”

Moto’s stomach was a mix of excitement and anxiety. One step closer. “Iruka says I’m ready for a mission. Fumi and I figured the three of us could form a squad.”

Fumi nodded. “We’re the top three new recruits. Teaming up is a good way to get the senior Daggers’ attention. And I convinced my dad that the three of us are strong enough to take on one of his contracts.”

“Apparently Soundstealer gets a stream of missions directed especially to him. Fumi had the idea that we could look through the ones that he wasn’t interested in. They’re bound to be higher quality than the scraps that normally get handed to new recruits at the Bloodhall. Are you interested?”

“I am interested. You two will need a teammate with experience to look after you, anyways. And to make sure you properly bathe.”

Moto rolled his eyes, but Fumi took the bait. “You just wait! I’ve learned some new tricks of my own. If you’re not careful, I’ll be looking after you.” The two locked locked eyes and smiled. Competitively.

“Weirdos.” Seiko stood and brushed dirt from her legs. “Well, if you three are heading out then I’ll get back to work. Without any new toys.”

Keta stood and hugged the woman. “I will remember next time.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Moto stood and Seiko clasped his wrist in farewell. Her grip was strong and calloused.

“By the way, Moto, I was thinking about your training with Iruka and I had an idea for some pretty sweet weapons for the two of you. Stop by and pick them up before you leave.”

“Oh. That’s great, thank you. I’ll swing by.” Moto watched Seiko walk away, wondering what she wanted in return. Maybe it was an investment, hoping he would bring her interesting materials from his missions.

He turned back to the other two. “Speaking of Iruka, should we grab her before we head over to Zephys?”

Fumi shook her head. “I ran into her on the way here and asked. She said she was busy.”

After what he saw in the Bloodhall, Moto wasn’t surprised. Something must have happened between Iruka and Soundstealer to break up their squad. Maybe she could be a future ally in his plans.

Moto filed the thought away for another time and the three set out for Zephys.

They stepped out of the rail cart onto the Zephys spire. After a few months, Moto had accepted the metal deathtraps that rattled along the spiderwebs of railway connecting Iga. But acceptance didn’t mean enjoyment.

Fumi watched him as they walked up the slope. “Why do you look so green?”

“The rail carts make him uncomfortable. He is afraid of heights.” Keta rubbed Moto’s back.

“What! You can control gravity. Why would you be scared of heights?”

“I’m not scared of heights! Not normal heights, anyways. But ridiculous heights like riding a little box out into the clouds with miles of open air beneath me, well… I’ve been able to control gravity for a few months. I’ve been falling for 19 years. It takes a while for my brain to catch up.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is.” Fumi turned and continued up the spire with a carefree step. Maybe solid ground would create a similar effect on Fumi as the spires did on him.

The buildings of Zephys were more distributed than any of the other Iga houses. They had only hiked a hundred feet up the mountain before Moto started to see isolated huts and platforms cut into the stone, positioned to catch strong mountain wind from every side.

It looked like seniority bought you a higher position on the mountain, with the Daggers appearing older as they hiked toward the summit. They also got surlier. About halfway up, Moto and Keta started getting looks from everyone they passed.

“Have we done something wrong?” Keta had noticed the looks as well.

“Hm?” Fumi looked over her shoulder as she continued walking up the trail.

“Everyone is staring at us.”

Fumi waved a hand. “It’s nothing. They’re probably just surprised to see non-Zephys this high up the mountain.”

Moto took a step closer to Keta and kept his eyes on the people around them.

They heard Soundstealer’s home before they saw it. A chaotic mix of jingling chimes and bells, undercut by an incessant whine, emanated from above as they scrambled over the final hurdle of rocks.

It was, unsurprisingly, at the top of the mountain. The narrow, three story structure looked like an extension of the spire, with balconies wrapping around each level. The entire building was festooned with instruments that clattered in the wind or channeled it into tunnels that acted like horns.

They reached the front door and a guard barred their path. “My lord, who are these people you’ve brought with you?”

“They’re my new squad.” Fumi tried to step past the man but he remained in her way.

“Why are they here?”

“Does it matter? Let us through.”

The guard was not dissuaded. “You know the master’s feelings about unexpected guests.”

Fumi stamped her foot at the man. “I’ve already talked to my dad. He gave us permission to come here and look at contracts. Now let us through. I won’t have them saying Soundstealers mistreat their guests.”

The guard stared at Fumi for a moment longer before his resolve broke and he stepped aside.

As soon as they crossed the threshold, Moto was slapped in the face with silence. The door behind them was still open, but the cacophony of wind-blown instruments did not penetrate the building.

“Sorry about that, guys.” Fumi turned to face them, her cheeks flushed as she rubbed the back of her head. “Dad’s a bit– What? Why are you both looking around like that?”

Moto rubbed a finger in his ear. “The sound of the chimes outside completely stopped. Is that normal?”

“Oh yeah, it just means dad’s home.” Fumi made a face. “It sucks when he’s gone on long missions, the inner rooms are the only place you can get any peace.” Fumi turned and bounced down a hallway before they could ask more.

Moto surveyed the house as he caught up to Fumi, making an effort to memorize as much of the layout as he could. He noted stairways, windows, and guard positions. He saw with dismay that nearly every floorboard was a nightingale. It was impossible to move without making noise.

The entire building was one giant training space. The walls were covered with weapons heavily worn from use. The floors were littered with sparring dummies and small terrain obstacles.

Suddenly, Moto didn’t feel so bad about his extra training sessions with Iruka. Being at the top didn’t leave room for anything else.

Fumi stopped in the only non-martial room they passed. It was filled with paper instead. Stacks of it covered every table, accompanied by ink pots and sealing wax. Sitting amongst the neatly ordered stacks, working through a pile in front of him, was an older man with a bald head, hunched back, and thick spectacles.

“Toru!” Fumi skipped toward the old man like a small child. He looked up at her approach and smiled. “Do you have the contracts ready?”

“Ah yes. I was just putting together what I thought were the best options.” Toru’s voice quavered in time with his hand as he passed a stack of papers across the table.

Fumi snatched them greedily and began flipping through. A frown appeared, then deepened as she read through the stack. “These are all assassination contracts, Toru.”

“Yes lord, that is your father’s specialty.”

“Not mine, though. I asked for no killing.”

Toru began to squirm. “Well, yes lord. But I thought perhaps when you saw these you might reconsider…”

“I don’t want to reconsider. Nobody likes assassins! I want cool missions. Like all the Heroes in the Tournament.”

“But lord, assassination contracts pay much better. And there are far more of them…” The discussion was taking on the tone of a well-worn trail.

“For now! Not once we show people that they can come to us with more than just their dirty work.” A very well-worn trail.

Moto felt a hand rest against his shoulder as a deep voice unfolded behind him like silk. “In this case, daughter, your eccentricities dovetail nicely with my interests.”

Moto felt blood slam through his veins as his body cranked into high alert. He spun, reaching for a dagger at his belt. He hadn’t even heard the hint of an approach. How had someone gotten this close?

Behind him was a tall man rippling with muscle. His long black hair was held in a knot on top of his head. He did not wear the usual Dagger uniform, opting for a sleeveless vest and loose pants instead. His hands and forearms were wrapped in cloth and covered in small bells.

Soundstealer spared him a sideways glance. Moto forced his hand to freeze. Keta’s reaction was less restrained.

A wave of steam filled the room as the shapeling twisted, aiming a roundhouse kick at Soundstealer’s head. Soundstealer leaned back casually, dodging the blow as he brought his palm up and hit Keta with a tight pulse of wind. Keta took the blow on the chest and backflipped to absorb the momentum.

The entire exchange was silent, every movement somehow muted.

Keta straightened and relaxed his body. “You caught me off guard.”

“Yes, that was the point. You should have aimed for my knees. Not as flashy, but harder to dodge.” Soundstealer’s face and voice remained impassive as he spoke.

“Dad! Why can’t you just welcome guests like a normal human being?”

“Why have you brought these two here?”

“They came to look at contracts. Like we talked about, remember?”

Moto struggled to follow the conversation with his pulse beating in his ears. This was the man who had killed his family. His entire village. Standing no more than two feet away. He could strike now.

Or could he? Soundstealer had swatted Keta like an annoying fly.

“I did not think you would bring them directly into our home. I have told you to keep inter house fraternization to a minimum outside of what is needed on missions. You do not wish to weaken your resonance, do you?”

“No, but–.”

“Then do not bring these distractions here again.”

Soundstealer wasn’t doing anything threatening. He didn’t sound hostile. But something about his presence put Moto on edge. Even without his obvious reasons to hate Soundstealer, Moto felt like he would have been uncomfortable around the man. Keta was obviously unsettled too.

Soundstealer pulled a small, rolled up parchment from his belt and tossed it to Fumi. “This is your mission. I believe it should satisfy your requirements. It’s a rescue. Very ‘heroic’. And no killing. It’s useless to me, save that the requester is a very important client.”

Fumi unrolled the contract and summarized it for Keta and Moto. “A wealthy merchant was bringing his family from Matsuri to his new home in Jidoka when the convoy was attacked by monsters. They took the merchant’s youngest son prisoner. We find their lair and get the kid back.” Fumi rolled up the contract and nodded to her father.

“Good. Now escort these two out of the building and come upstairs for training.” Soundstealer turned and walked from the room.

Fumi escorted them outside, offering her apologies. “He’ll warm up after we do a couple missions. He’s just a bit standoffish at first.” She shut the door and left them standing outside amidst the din of wind chimes surrounding the house.

“Well, I guess she takes more after her mom. Something about that guy gave me the creeps.”

Keta nodded. “He is like a ghost, moving through the world but not existing in it.”

“Yeah, do you think Fumi can kill sound the same way?”

“It was not just sound. When my foot passed by him, it did not even stir up a breeze. The air felt completely dead around him.”

The new squad sat in a clearing as the sun went down. Keta and Fumi were relaxing around the fire as Iruka continued teaching Moto how to use the stone cloud.

It was a strange feeling, being back in the wilderness and not being on high alert. Before he’d made his way to Koga and joined the Daggers, Moto had spent a harrowing year wandering north through the overgrown pine forests, running and hiding from every sound that came from the mists.

“Good. Now try to shift the orbit. Bring the stone over your shoulder.”

Moto tuned out Keta and Fumi’s chatter and focused on the stone circling around his waist. He pulled against the rock, alternating from his shoulder and his knee. He smiled as it slid into the new trajectory.

It hadn’t been easy to master the constant modulation of gravitational strength needed to hold an orbit. But the hardest part had been learning to exert that level of finesse from anywhere on his body, not just his hands and feet. And it still took all of his attention to maintain a single orbit. Even listening to Iruka’s instructions caused the trajectory to waver.

Iruka raised her arm with the palm facing Moto. “Now stretch it out, bring it to my hand.”

Keta and Fumi clapped politely as the orbit shifted to a long ellipse that passed just a few inches in front of Iruka’s palm.

Moto pulled the stone back to his hand and turned to Fumi and Keta. “It’s not as easy as it looks! Not all of us have had a lifetime of training.”

Keta and Fumi exchanged a look. “We did not mean to make fun of you.”

“Yeah! I’m impressed with the progress you’ve made in just a week. I spent my whole life around stone-bringers and I’ve never seen anyone fighting this way.”

He had to train in front of Keta and Fumi while they were on the mission if he wanted to keep improving. But he didn’t like it. Their praise felt patronizing. Like a parent proud of their child’s first steps.

Moto forced a smile and tried to play his frustration off as sheepishness. “Really?”

“Yeah, kid. You’re learning faster than I did.” Iruka’s arms were crossed, the corner of her mouth twitched up in a smirk. “But then again, I was also inventing the technique while I learned. So don’t let the compliment go to your head.”

Moto turned back to Iruka and tossed the rock toward her. She pulled it into orbit with ease. “If you’re so great, why don’t you try to hit me?” Moto shot a smirk back at her.

Iruka put the back of her hand to her forehead dramatically. “Such disrespect for your wise, honorable sensei.” The stone shot under her arm toward his face.

Moto was ready. He pulled a rock from behind and intercepted Iruka’s shot in midair.

“Nice.” Iruka held her hands out and the two falling stones moved toward her. Moto did the same.

There was a brief moment of struggle. Iruka looked surprised that he was able to put up some resistance. Then she ripped the stones away. “Can you block two though?” Her smirk returned.

Iruka’s stones did a loop and shot toward him. She knew he didn’t have enough precision to intercept two missiles at once. But he didn’t have to. Moto reached into the pouch at his back, pulled out one of the metal spheres Seiko gave him, and threw it.

He waited until it was right in front of the onrushing stones, then he used his power to pull on the lever at the center of the sphere. It flattened, flaring into a circular shield in mid-air.

The two stones clattered into the new barrier and fell to the ground. Moto pulled the shield back as internal springs snapped it back into shape. He caught the sphere easily. Iruka looked dumbfounded.

“Beautiful!” Keta clapped with glee.

“Alright kid, I’ll give you this one. I’m surprised. What was that?”

Moto felt a flush of pride. “One of the glimmers at the Gearhouse made it for me. I have different types.”

Iruka walked over. “Can I see it?”

“I was hoping you could help me figure out the best ways to use them.” Moto held the weapon out to her. “If you pull on this lever it releases the metal plates that make up the sphere. And the lever is attached to the front, so pulling on it stops that plate and makes the others collapse forward.”

Fumi and Keta approached to look as well, but both lost interest when they learned the weapons only worked for stone-bringers. They walked further into the woods to spar.

“I’ve never seen anything like this.” Iruka started whipping it back and forth, smiling each time the sphere flared with a satisfying kachink. “What’re they called?”

“I dunno. Seiko just invented them. We could come up with our own name.”

Iruka thought for a moment. “How about slip shots?”

“That’s pretty good.” Moto pulled out three more spheres. “But Seiko wired up a few different effects to the lever, so it might be good to have a shorter name. So we can say the effect with it.” He tossed one of the new balls in the air and pulled. Blades protruded from the sides as it flattened. Another split into three parts connected by rope like a bolo.

“Hmm. How about snaps? That’s kinda what it feels like when they open. This could be a shield snap. And that’s a blade snap.”

“Yeah, sounds good enough to me.”

“What do those do?” Iruka pointed to a few that Moto hadn’t thrown.

“Seiko said these were single-use. There’s a smoke bomb, an explosive, and spring-loaded darts.”

Iruka whistled. “Sounds like I need to make myself a friend in the Gearhouse.”

Moto hesitated for a moment, looking at the weapons jealously. “You can have some if you want.”

Iruka took the blade snap and pulled it from both sides. It hung in the air between her hands, flat with blades out. She frowned for a second and the disc began to spin. Slowly at first, but faster as she got the hang of it. Soon it was whirring like a saw.

Iruka whipped her arms and sent the spinning blade through a nearby tree trunk. It popped back into a sphere as she caught it. “Really? These are are something special.”

Moto shrugged. “Seiko said she’ll make me more if I bring her back exciting things.”

“Maybe I’ll borrow this one then. Thanks, kid.”

“Well, it’s not totally free. How about I get one question in exchange?”

Iruka looked over her glasses at him. “Depends on the question…”

This might be too direct. He had no idea if Soundstealer was a touchy subject for Iruka. Or was their partnership even common knowledge? Asking might give him away.

Moto let out a sigh. He needed allies. “I heard you used to be on a squad with Soundstealer…”

Iruka blinked. “Yeah, what about it?”

“I was just wondering what happened? He seems like a pretty prestigious partner, and you’re really strong. So how did you end up getting stuck teaching the new recruits?”

“I didn’t ‘get stuck’ teaching the new recruits. I chose to do it. Turns out it’s a lot more interesting than dealing with the politics.”

“I spent less than five minutes near Soundstealer and even I know that ‘not interesting’ isn’t one of his flaws. You don’t have to tell me what really happened if you don’t want to.”

“Oh yeah? And you’ll just let me keep this fancy new toy even if I don’t talk?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Iruka laughed and pushed his shoulder. “You’re too big for your britches kid. You do know I’m your sensei, right?”

“What, am I supposed to be running some kind of charity over here?”

“Alright, fine. But only because this thing is so cool.”

Moto sat down by the fire and waited for Iruka to continue.

“I joined Soundstealer’s squad, what, eight years ago? Yeah I think that’s right. Wow, it’s been a while.” She stared into the fire for a moment before she continued. “He was older than me by a few years, and definitely up and coming.

“Back then I was ambitious. I thought I had my ticket made when I got onto his squad. And for a while, it seemed like that was true.

“Soundstealer had a partner. A water-eater from his year named Sugi who was also a big deal. And as you are obviously aware, I was awesome too. The three of us were unstoppable.

“It was really fun, too. We threw everything into our missions. And competing with each other. They were my best friends.”

Moto’s stomach dropped. That didn’t bode well for alliances. “Were…?”

Iruka shook her head. “Yeah, ‘were’. One day Soundstealer got offered a big contract. From Hisoka directly. It basically guaranteed he’d become head of Zephys. But we already had a mission, and Daggers never drop a contract.

“Hisoka absolved Soundstealer, but Sugi and I were still on the hook. We probably could have begged off, saying the contract was too big without Soundstealer. But Sugi didn’t want to look weak. He worried everyone would think Soundstealer was the only reason we were strong.

“So we took the mission anyways, with a weaker replacement. I was the only one who survived.”

Iruka was staring into the fire. Moto placed an uncertain hand on her shoulder. “Don’t tell Fumi, but Keta and I thought Soundstealer was a creep.”

Iruka snorted and wiped at the corner of her eye. “The worst part was Soundstealer didn’t even come to the funeral. I tried to tell myself he felt too guilty, but honestly I think he was just too busy climbing up the mountain. After that, all the political games just seemed pointless.

“So does that satisfy your curiosity, oh nosy pupil?”

Moto nodded. “I’d say it was a fair trade. I never knew him, but I’m sorry about Sugi.”

Iruka stood, tossing the blade snap up and down. “He was a good guy, but he had nothing to blame but his own ego at the end. Thanks again for the new toy. You said a glimmer named Seiko made it?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Just wanted to know who to seek out when we get back to Iga. Maybe she’s in the market for a cooler, more attractive friend than you.” Iruka winked and walked over to her tent.

They crouched atop a rocky hill, overgrown with moss and pine trees. Below them, a dark rent in the rock marked the entrance to a cave. Thick webs coated the rock face and obscured part of the entrance. There was no sign of movement, but they stayed far from the edge just in case.

The trail had been easy to follow this far. Most monsters weren’t known for their subtlety. The ones that were had much more expensive contracts.

Fumi spoke in a whisper. “Judging by the webs and the weirdness of the tracks, I’m going to guess spiders. Big spiders.”

Iruka nodded. “Probably jorogumo. One of the Woodheart’s monsters.”

Keta smiled. “Ah, another! My last dance was with one of the Woodheart’s spawn. Do you think I will gain a reputation?”

Moto rolled his eyes. “Have you fought any jorogumo before, Iruka?”

“None personally, but I know a bit about them. Big spiders with venom that drives you mad, makes you attack anything around you. Their vision is pretty limited since they mostly sense through their webs.

“They like to hunt by setting traps, biting a few people in a group, then letting them take care of each other.”

“OK, so don’t get bitten. How big are we talking?”

“The size of a dog, I’d say.”

“Nice!” Fumi was bouncing with excitement. “You know, people say Sakuya’s never been the same since she fought the Four Seasons, but you have to admit she knows how to make a good monster. Giant spiders? Classic.”

Keta nodded. “My last fight was quite the spectacle as well. Sakuya has the heart of a dancer. I can tell.”

Moto looked between them. “Seiko was right. The two of you are weird.”

Fumi soldiered on. “So what’s the plan? Take the place by force? I can drop down and blast away the webbing with some wind. That should open up a shot for the two of you to chuck some stones and crack some skulls.”

Moto shook his head. “Our mission is to get the boy home alive. Assuming the monsters haven’t killed him already–.” He paused and turned to Iruka. “It has been a couple weeks. Haven’t they probably killed him by now?”

“The kid will be alive. If they took him hostage then that means he’s bait. They won’t kill him until they’re sure no one is coming to the rescue. It’s how the gods made them.”

“Right. Then he’s only bait until the spiders know we’ve bitten. They might just kill him once they know he’s served his purpose. Even if not, I don’t want to fight through a heard of giant spiders while also worrying about a hostage.”

“So… stealth mission?” Fumi thought for a moment. “I guess that’s pretty cool too. So long as we tell people about it afterward, of course.”

Moto looked at Iruka. “What do you think?”

She shrugged. “Not my decision, kid. I’m just here to make sure things don’t go off the rails.”

“Alright, stealth mission then, like Fumi said.” She beamed at the credit. Predictable. She wasn’t going to like the next part, though. “But I don’t think we should all go in. If there’s a trap, we don’t want everyone springing it together. Fumi and Iruka, I think you two should wait outside.”

“What!” Fumi pushed the bounds of what could be called a whisper. “No way am I playing back up.”

“Not back up. Look, there’s two ways I see this ending. Either we spring a trap or we find the kid. Either way, we’re not going to make it out as quietly as we made it in. Whoever goes in first is going to find the kid and then try to make it as far back as they can before the jorogumo find them and pin them down.

“At that point, the outside folks need to come blasting in as fast as possible to get us out. The strongest people should stay outside so they can come in the fastest.” Play to her ego. “And like you said earlier, your wind blasts are probably the best way to blow past the webs.”

Fumi looked thoughtful. “So Iruka and I get to go all out?” Moto nodded. “And we rescue everybody at the last minute. Just like the stories.” She was speaking to herself at this point. It took a significant effort for Moto not to roll his eyes. “Alright, you can count on me.”

“Keta, are you in?”

The shapeling had been sitting cross-legged, eyes closed while they planned. He opened his eyes. “We are done talking now?” He stood and stretched. “Yes, let’s begin.”

“Great, let’s circle back and find an approach that–.”

Keta jumped off the cliff and landed beside the cave. Moto stared after, dumbstruck. Iruka chuckled behind him.

“I don’t know why I expected anything different.” Moto sighed and jumped after Keta.

The cave entrance led to a narrow tunnel with rough walls and a damp, mossy floor that made walking on the downward slope treacherous. Thin filaments of thread stretched randomly across the hallway like trip wires to alert the spiders of any clumsy guests.

They reached a bend in the tunnel and the way ahead was completely dark. Moto put a hand on Keta’s shoulder to stop him. “I guess there aren’t any other exits nearby.” He lit the small travel lantern and left if hooded so the light spilled no further than a few feet ahead.

As they crept forward, the incline steepened until they had to hold onto the wall to stop from slipping. Moto had a brief vision of Fumi trying to inch painstakingly forward. Scanning every step for trip wires, making sure every footing was secure. They would have been found in seconds.

Keta didn’t move with the same caution as Moto, but his ridiculous balance and dexterity seemed to make up for it.

An alien chittering made them pull up short. It was accompanied by a series of clicks and scraping as too many legs moved across stone. The sounds were uncomfortably close, echoing off the hard walls so they came from all directions. Or maybe there were spiders everywhere.

The five foot bubble of light was very claustrophobic.

The skittering sounds faded and they eased their way forward again. A few seconds later there was a sharp, wet sound like a butcher’s blade cutting through meat. It was followed by a series of flatter slurping sounds. The pattern repeated itself. Sssk. Schlup, schlup, schlup.

A steady patter began. Moto was uncomfortably certain it was blood dripping to the floor.

Keta’s foot shifted sharply as a patch of moss tore free under his weight. He hopped forward, trying to recover. Except that forward fell away into open air. Keta’s hand snapped to the wall, trying to catch his weight before he dropped.

The stone broke free and Keta continued over the edge.

Moto took two steps and fell forward. He anchored his feet to the stone wall for balance, then pulled with all his strength against the cave ceiling and his falling comrade. A few rocks pulled free from above under the combined weight of two people.

Keta’s body came to a halt and he spun without hesitation, snatching the falling rocks from the air before they fell into the webbing that stretched below them.

Sitting on the webs at the edge of the lantern was a monstrosity. Moto didn’t know what kind of dogs Iruka had when she was growing up, but the hairy black spider in front of them came up to their waist easily. The creature’s back was to them as it dissected a bloody carcass.

Moto held his breath, waiting to see if the spider would turn toward the light. When it continued eating undisturbed, he slowly pulled Keta into his arms and then both of them back onto the ledge.

Moto pointed to the two stones in Keta’s hands. “Nice catch.”

“You as well.” He smiled easily.

“That thing didn’t react to the light. Considering that this cave is filled with surprise cliffs, I say we risk a bit more illumination. What do you think?”

Keta nodded and they raised the hood on the lantern by a fraction. Enough to spread dim light across the cavern in front of them. They stood at the top of a lopsided pit, carved from the stone by whatever river had once flowed through these tunnels.

Below them, the pit dropped into blackness, strung across with so many webs they wouldn’t have been able to see the bottom anyways.

The criss-crossing silk was dotted with angry welts of red. Some old, some fresh. An alarming number human sized. Large shadowy masses moved amongst them.

On the far side of the wall, 20 feet away, there was a small opening where the cave continued.

Moto pointed. “Can you jump that?”

“Yes, but not quietly.”

“OK, hold on and I’ll give you a boost. Jump as hard as you can without making a sound.”

Moto eased himself out onto the rock wall. He pulled against the stone and walked to the center of the ceiling, hanging like a bat. A small cloud of stones hung a few feet below him where he had caught the debris dislodged by his passage. He pulled the rocks into his hand and tucked them into a pocket.

Moto gave Keta a thumbs up and the shapeling crouched. Moto’s torch flickered as steam rose off of Keta’s body. He leapt forward.

Moto pulled on Keta’s shoulders. Not enough to hold his entire weight. Moto didn’t want to test the strength of the ceiling again. But enough so that Keta floated through the air with a disorienting mix of weightlessness and forward speed. He touched down in the far opening without a sound.

Moto padded along the ceiling and joined him. When he stepped back onto normal ground, Keta gave him a hug, his cheeks flushed. “That was wonderful! I am enjoying our first dance together. You are an excellent partner.”

Moto blushed. The compliments were easier to take when it was just the two of them.

The tunnel on the other side was dry and more gently sloped, allowing them to move more confidently. They continued at the faster pace until they came to a split in the tunnel.

Moto dropped to the ground and looked at the floor. Both paths were solid stone, so there wasn’t much in the way of tracks, but he looked for other differences.

The trail to the right was littered with loose pebbles and gravel, while the left path was more clear.

“I can’t tell for sure, but I’m going to guess the left tunnel.”

Keta nodded and started to walk in that direction.

Moto blinked. “Wait! Don’t you want to know why?”

“I trust your judgment. If it was important to know why you would have told me.”

“Well, sure, but I think it was a pretty smart observation. There’s no loose stones to the left. Like someone was dragged–.” Keta was already at the edge of the lamplight. Moto sighed and followed.

The tunnel widened into an oblong cavern. Clusters of webbing covered alcoves and blocked part of the path. They heard skittering ahead and shuttered the lantern, cutting off its light.

Something else was illuminating the cave. A pale white light emanated from the floor, shifting erratically across the walls and ceiling . It took a second to shift perspective and realize what the light was.

There were another two of the black spiders from earlier. But moving across the cavern floor between them was a spider that made them look like toys. It stood well over head height, with long delicate legs and dull grey skin that was mottled with chaotic patches of shining white.

The light spider was moving between several human-shaped clumps of silk, running its forelegs across the bundles. One of them shifted weakly as the creature approached.

Moto grabbed Keta and pulled him away from the cavern. “That is not the kind of spider Iruka was talking about.”

“Certainly not. What should we do?”

“Those clumps of web were too big to be the boy. My guess is that’s the rest of the convoy. I say we leave this place and check out the other hallway. The kid’s gotta be down the other way.”

“Some of the people in there were still moving.”

“Yeah, but they’re not our mission. If we alert the nest that we’re here they may kill the boy.”

“They may also kill these people when we rescue the child. I won’t leave them here to die.” Keta planted his feet.

If the boy died, Soundstealer might never let them take on more of his missions. He said this client was important. What if it was the same person who hired him to attack Moto’s village? Success here might be his best shot at finding out.

“Keta, we’re already doing a lot of good here. We’re going to save this kid. If we try to save everyone, we might end up saving no one. Our chances are better if we stay focused.”

“I understand what you are saying, but I will not do math with people’s lives.”

Moto tried to think of a convincing argument. Keta’s face was set, his arms crossed defiantly. He was so confident in his abilities. Determined to help everyone he could.

Did Moto really want to convince him? What would it do to Keta to leave people behind in the name of caution?

Moto shook his head, angry at both sides of the argument. “Alright, fine. We’ll give it a shot. But you have to wait for me to make a plan.”

Moto drew his dagger and placed the blade against one of the web tripwires. Keta held the silk on either side, heat radiating off his body as he increased his physical control. Moto cut the thread, holding his breath. Nothing happened.

He exhaled while Keta eased the bisected ends to the ground and rooted them to the floor. They repeated the process with the other two alarms stretching out of the cavern.

They stalked back to their targets and Keta dropped into a crouch, his arms thrown back. “Like this?”

“Yeah, perfect.” Moto leaned his chest against Keta’s back, extending his arms over the shapeling’s shoulders. Keta slid his feet forward to brace. “Ready?”

A faint hiss of steam and Keta was nearly too hot to touch.

“Don’t forget to stay low.”

Moto grabbed both of the black spiders with his power and pulled as hard as he could, throwing his arms backward like he held them on a rope. As he guessed, their bodies weren’t particularly heavy. But pulling both at once caused him to slam into Keta. The shapeling held him easily.

The spiders jerked sideways, careening through the air toward Moto. Once they were in motion, he let them fly on their own. Keta shot forward as soon as the pressure on his back eased.

Moto pulled against the loose rocks that he had laid on floor behind them. He arced his hand high so he wouldn’t clip himself in the back of the head. The stones zipped past in a blur.

Keta reached the first flying spider. He planted his front foot and threw a haymaker toward the creature. With the combined momentum of Keta’s punch and Moto’s pull, the spider evaporated on impact.

He let his momentum carry him forward, pushing off with his front leg into a flip that ended with his heel in the second spider’s face. Another cloud of dead spider.

The light spider’s head shot up just as Moto’s shrapnel cloud cut through it’s face and abdomen. It’s twitched on impact, then fell limply to the ground.

The whole thing was done in an instant.

Moto took a deep breath and stood straight. He walked toward Keta, who was already wiping spider guts from his hand. The shapeling turned and smiled. “You see? You worry for nothing.”

“Yeah, yeah. You were right.”

Keta’s eyes shifted over Moto’s head and his smile disappeared. His legs tensed and he shot forward.

Moto didn’t hesitate, he pulled against the wall, trying to get away from the ambush. Idiot! He’d been so focused on the creatures in front he hadn’t thought there might be more above the entrance.

Pain lanced through his shoulder as the spider’s fangs sank deep. There was a hot pulse in his face as the venom entered his veins. The spider’s weight disappeared as Keta’s knee collided with its midsection, crushing it to a pulp.

Moto stumbled away, his vision blurry. His balance felt off.

“Are you OK?”

Moto turned and cried out in alarm. Keta was ripping apart. Large, black spider legs emerged from his back as his mouth filled with fangs. Eyes began to sprout all over his face. Moto took a step back as the creature hissed at him.

He shook his head. This was just the venom. Iruka said it messed with your head.

The creature lunged at him and Moto couldn’t help himself. He fell back, pulling on a rock and launching it at the creature. There was a spray of blood from its thigh as the shot hit its mark. It kept coming.

Moto scrambled backward as he drew his dagger and lashed out. Another spray of blood as the humanoid spider blocked the blow with its arm. It grabbed Moto in impossibly strong arms, lifting him into the air as it brought its fangs toward his face.

As they caught him, a flush of warmth spread across Moto’s face. His vision flickered, then cleared, and his rational brain clicked back into place. He was pinned against Keta, held in place as the shapeling kissed him. He could feel the muscles in Keta’s arms and chest, tense as they kept him from flailing.

He melted into the embrace as his heart rate slowed. The tension in Keta’s arms eased as Moto’s body relaxed, allowing Moto to bring his arms around Keta’s waist. Heat was pouring from the shapeling’s lips.

They separated, red faced and breathing fast.

“How did you do that?”

Keta smiled. “You are not the only one who has been practicing. The master who led my last mission was also an eater. He taught me how to transfer my power to others through touch.”

“You sped up my metabolism to burn off the poison?”

Keta nodded. Then he winced at the wounds along his arm and leg. “You have gotten much faster.”

“Ah, I’m so sorry. Are they bad?”

Keta took a deep breath and the bleeding stopped. The wounds didn’t close though. “I am fine, I just need a bit of rest before I’ll have enough energy to heal completely.” He pulled a bandage from his pouch and wound it around his leg.

“Why didn’t you just grab my hand or something?”

A smile spread across his face. “A kiss was much more dramatic, no?”

Moto rolled his eyes. “You’re such an idiot. Come on, let’s get these people free so we can get back to the actual mission.”

Keta walked up to the human-shaped bundles of silk and began cutting them free. He eased the people to the ground, reassuring them as they came around. Keta had to knock one out who had clearly been bitten.

While Keta worked, Moto took a closer look at the light spider. It was even more grotesque up close. It bore a vague resemblance to the black spiders, but its skin was stretched and torn like it had outgrown itself. The patterns of light were exposed flesh, glowing innards where the skin had ripped open. The skin was gray from the light shining through underneath.

The light spider twitched and lunged feebly toward Moto. “Ah!”

Keta turned. “What’s going on?”

“Looks like this thing had a little bit of juice left.” Moto pulled a dagger from his belt and stabbed it between the eyes. The creature slumped to the ground and the light in its body went out.

Back in the hallway from where they had come, echoing up from deep within the nest, a child began to scream.

You can read the next story in this series here.