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Moto’s squad lounged at the edge of the Playground’s rocky spire. The massive building, with it’s dark forest and the constant din of training Daggers, dominated the isolated mountain peak. Its dragon-scale roof thrust a hundred feet in the air, carving through the endless winds of Iga.
The only other buildings were a few small sheds where rail carts from the four houses let off. Metallic rails twisted out from them like spider webs, disappearing into the clouds surrounding the spire.
Even on good days, it was difficult to see more than a vague outline of the nearest spires. Today, it felt like the training grounds were trapped in their own world.
A fresh wind tore across the spire, pulling everyone and everything toward the steep cliff edge with greedy fingers. Only the small village that supported Iga had any kind of approach from below. Every other complex stood on vertigo-inducing fingers of stone.
Fumi leaned over the edge of the cliff, laughing as an updraft held her. Just the sight of it made Moto inch back, his butt planted firmly on stone and his shoulders small against the wind.
There wasn’t any risk of falling. Not with his resonance. But 20 years of normal gravity was hard to forget.
Fumi staggered forward, the updraft shifting unexpectedly. Moto tensed to catch her, but she shot a blast of wind to steady herself. The grin never left her face.
“So, who do you all want to be paired against? I feel like Haiyu would be interesting, but I’m worried it won’t be very exciting. His power is just being heavy.”
Fumi puffed out her cheeks and held her arms wide, walking with exaggerated steps as though she weighed a great deal.
Keta chuckled, but Moto’s frown only deepened. Hako’s squad had qualified for the one-on-one combats even after Keta took their coin. They had caught another squad near the edge of the forest and overwhelmed them at the last minute.
Beside Moto and Hako’s squads, only one other genin had qualified. Yoku Whitefire, the flame-bringer with a powerful family in Ignis, lead the squad Hako ambushed. At the last minute she had broken off, leaving her teammates to fail the exam.
Out of 20 recruits, only seven were still Daggers. Moto wondered how much further their numbers would be reduced. He wondered if he would make the cut. Two days since the group portion of the exam, but his confidence was still shaken.
He’d never been the strongest. All these Dagger children had been trained since birth. Even Keta had a big head start before he came to Iga. Moto had always been the runt of the litter. He was always playing catch up.
But he was the smartest. He saw the world with the clearest eyes. Where others let emotions cloud their judgment, he was cold and rational. At least, that’s what he thought.
But in Jidoka he had acted without thinking. The guard made him angry, talking so casually about destroying a village. Now Soundstealer might be on to Moto’s plans.
Hako had goaded him, controlling his reactions as surely as a puppet on a string. He should have seen through their formation. At the very least, he should have waited before taking Haiyu’s coin. But he thought he could see through Hako’s plans with ease. If not for Keta, that foolishness might have gotten him killed.
Moto let his head slump against Keta’s shoulder. The shapeling raised a hand and twirled his fingers through Moto’s hair, enjoying the closeness.
Keta hadn’t said anything. He hadn’t berated Moto for his mistake. He hadn’t even tried to gloat about singlehandedly defeating Hako’s entire squad, though Fumi had done a lot of the boasting for him.
Moto had judged the shapeling so harshly. He told himself he loved Keta, but he had always looked down on the way the man did things. He thought Keta was a fool with no sense of what had to be done. Someone who was going to get himself and others killed.
But Keta was at the top of the rankings. He had won the obstacle course. He saved Moto’s life in the spider cave. And they were still Daggers because of him. Moto still had a chance at his revenge because of Keta.
And Keta was happy. Fumi and Iruka were too.
That was supposed to be a weakness and a distraction. Better to charge forward, throwing every ounce of fuel onto the fire of revenge. Victory to those who were willing to sacrifice the most.
But maybe he had too much faith in his ability to know where those sacrifices were needed. He thought Keta couldn’t stop Hibana and catch Hako. He was wrong, and they were better off because Keta refused to accept that limitation.
He thought he could outsmart everyone, no matter how much stronger they were, if only he was ruthless enough. But where had that gotten him? He had nothing more than a hunch that the warehouse in Jidoka was connected to the destruction of his village. And he couldn’t even outwit another genin recruit.
He couldn’t give up on his revenge. He had thrown too much of his life into that fire to walk away completely. But maybe Iruka and Keta had it right. Maybe he should focus on building a life - making friends, getting stronger - and let his revenge advance as it would.
It took a second to realize Fumi was talking to him. She had her hands on her hips, tapping a toe. She didn’t like being ignored. Keta looked at Moto with concern, doing his best to give an encouraging smile.
“Sorry, I zoned out. What was the question?”
“Who do you want to be paired against?”
“Oh…” Moto thought for a moment, but too many failures filled his mind to muster much enthusiasm. “I don’t know. Just not either of you, I guess.”
“What! How do you not have an opinion? This is where we get to show our stuff. A bad matchup, or even just a boring opponent could leave you looking like a dud to the senior Daggers.”
“Does it matter though? We can’t change the pairings.”
Fumi threw up her hands. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You’re more listless than noon time on a summer day.” She stalked toward the Playground in a huff.
Keta gave Moto’s shoulder a squeeze. “Don’t mind her. I think she’s just nervous about proving herself to her father in the tournament.” Keta shook his head and laughed. “It reminds me of my first solo performance. I was so worried I would mess up in front of my parents, I nearly lost my lunch before I went on stage.”
The shapeling’s warmth managed to bring a smile to Moto’s face. He reached up and held Keta’s cheek, pulled him down and kissed him softly. “You know, I’d like to hear that story.”
Keta blinked at the vulnerability in the gesture. “Really? You have never asked before.”
“Maybe I should have.”
Keta poked Moto’s forehead. “Fumi is right. Something is wrong with you.”
Before Moto frowned, but before he could respond, Iruka appeared at the entrance to the Playground. “Alright kids, get the rocks out of your shoes and get over here. Pairings are ready.”
Moto sighed, reluctantly disentangling himself from Keta as the other remaining recruits made their way to the Playground as well. Yoku stared venom at Hako.
Inside, Moto was only dimly surprised to see that the senior daggers had used the last two days to raise a massive, 30 foot mountain at the center of the forest. It’s top was flat, with a plain square platform from edge to edge.
Iruka gave Moto a smile when she saw him holding hands with Keta. Then it was down to business.
“Good news. You lot are all chunin. Yay, congratulations!” She waggled her fingers in mock celebration as the recruits looked around with surprise.
“Think of the rest of this tournament as your audition. Or your debut. Whatever metaphor you want to use. But don’t slack off. How you do here sets the tone for your whole career as a Dagger.”
Iruka pointed to the raised platform at the center of the forest. “From here on out, it’s single elimination, one-on-one, fighting up there. Hako, let’s hear it. What’s your question?”
Hako’s face had just turned down in a thoughtful frown. The preemptive attention caught him off guard. “Oh. I was wondering how much time we have between rounds. Will there be a chance to recover, or is managing our strength part of the test?”
“You won’t have to fight more than once a day, and there will be a few days before the final match. I’ll explain the rest of the rules before the first fight, but for now let me just get these pairings up.”
The kids crowded around the paper she pinned to the wall. Fumi pumped a fist in excitement, then made way for others. When Moto reached the front, he was momentarily confused. He had already advanced to the next round.
With only seven people, it was unavoidable that someone wouldn’t have an opponent. But why him? Yoku had the highest average from the group phase, followed by Hako’s squad.
Then it dawned on him. If these fights were a chance to show off, then losing out on a round was a punishment. They had decided he had the worst performance in the first phase.
The realization stung, but it was quickly overshadowed by another. Assuming he won in this round, Keta was Moto’s first opponent.
Moto leaned against the railing of the Playground’s perimeter walkway. He and the other new chunin were clumped on the fourth story, with a clear view of the combat ring a hundred feet away. The ring itself looked to be fifty feet square.
Keta sat at one corner of the ring, legs in a wide V as he touched his toes. At the opposite corner was Yoku, standing with arms crossed and a scowl on her face. It seemed Hako had put a lasting dent in her mood. She still tossed her hair imperiously, but it was tinted with an edge of something to prove. Moto felt a moment of sympathy.
He shook his head, chagrinned. Now he was empathizing with someone he had never even talked to. Next he would be charging into burning buildings like Keta.
Iruka stood at the center of the ring, speaking loud enough that the spectators could hear as well, but not bothering to raise her voice or incite the crowd.
“The match continues until someone concedes, can’t stand, or touches ground outside the ring. You are no longer expected to hold back. It’s up to your opponent to keep themselves alive, though you must give a downed opponent the chance to concede. We aren’t aiming for a fight to the death. Unnecessary lethality will be seen as a lack of control.”
Iruka turned to each of the competitors, nodding to acknowledge that they were ready. Then she stepped to the edge of the ring and raised her hand. Moto felt a thrill of anxiety, but it quickly faded at the shapeling’s confident smile. Iruka dropped her hand and the match began.
Yoku shot both fists forward and two jets of flame shot forward, twining about one another to form a pillar several feet wide. Keta barely managed to dive to the side of the blast, rolling into a crouch.
Yoku pivoted, sweeping the flames after him as she sidestepped in the opposite direction. She was keeping her distance.
Keta jumped, limbs outstretched with lazy elegance as he backflipped over the pursuing column of fire. His back nearly brushed the flames.
Moto’s brow knitted in consternation. Keta could have easily cleared those flames. The dancer’s devotion to showmanship was unbelievable.
Keta made a three point landing, one hand thrown behind him while the other splayed across the ground. Fumi cooed appreciatively to Moto’s left.
The shapeling surged forward, but Yoku had already cut off her jet of flames and sent another across his path, forcing him to swing wide. She was fast.
But she wasn’t that fast. Keta should have been running circles around her, using his increased speed to tax her reflexes and incrementally gain ground until he could force things hand to hand. But it didn’t seem like Keta was using his resonance at all.
The dancer yelped and leapt backward, though he hadn’t been hit. Suddenly he was keeping his distance, running in wide arcs as he dodged the flames.
It took a moment for Moto to see the shimmering air low to the ground around Yoku and realize what it meant. Her blasts of fire were just buying time so she could superheat the ground all around her.
Keta needed to close if he wanted to win. Why had he given Yoku so much time? He should have leapt straight for her.
Keta grunted again, pulling back from another spot of burning ground. The heat was expanding, constricting his movement. The shapeling limped into the corner, favoring the foot that had stepped on the heated stone.
Limping? Why hadn’t Keta healed?
Moto inhaled sharply. The shapeling had pushed himself far past his limits to take down Hibana, Haiyu, and Hako in the group phase. Usually a night’s sleep was enough for someone’s resonant strength to return to full, but was it possible that Keta still hadn’t recovered?
Seeing the dancer’s weakness, Yoku brought her hands together and yellow flame erupted between her fingers. Her hands flexed and the flames focused to white hot intensity. A tight beam of fire lanced toward Keta.
The shapeling had nowhere to go. Keta crossed his arms in front of his face and the flames connected.
Steam pooled off Keta in heavy waves, his muscles momentarily flaring. He fell to one knee and placed a hand on the ground to keep from falling over. His breathing was ragged.
Next to Moto, Fumi gasped. Moto wasn’t sure why.
“What? What happened?”
Fumi’s voice was low and tinged with awe. “To think the difference would be so huge…” A low murmur had risen around the stands.
Moto pushed Fumi’s shoulder. “Hey! What’s the big deal?”
“It’s possible to absorb your element from your surroundings in place of drawing on your own strength to fuel attacks. But usually you can only pull in a stray gust of wind, or a nearby torch flame. Anything actively manipulated by another resonant is too hard to control. If Keta can absorb Yoku’s flames, it means the strength of her bond is like nothing compared to his.”
Yoku took an involuntary step backward. She shot another flame, without the concentration of the previous blast. It barely reached the edge of the ring, but Keta still dove clumsily to avoid it. The superheated ground was starting to recede.
The shapeling rose unsteadily and ran forward. His body began to steam again, absorbing what remained of the rapidly fading heat in the ground. Each time his muscles flared, he missed a step and had to catch himself.
Before Keta reached halfway, Yoku dropped to her knees with sweat pouring down her face. For the first time, Moto realized she was gasping for breath. Yoku had exhausted herself.
Moto felt another pang of sympathy for her. On any other day, her strategy would have been her best shot of keeping Keta back. Starting hard and trying to pin him down for one big shot made sense. Everyone knew how skilled Keta was in combat.
If she had only known how tired he was. She should have kept things small, focusing on a battle of attrition rather than going all out from the beginning. Forcing everything into a battle of wills rather than one of stamina was exactly what Keta needed.
“I concede.” Yoku’s eyes and voice were hollow. More than just exhaustion. The difference in resonant strength between her and Keta had shaken her badly.
Keta turned to the crowd and bowed, throwing his arms behind him. Moto could see the shapeling’s hands quiver with the exertion of staying upright, even at this distance.
Hako and Haiyu were the next to compete. As they made their way down the ladder and toward the ring, Fumi began to stretch. She had the final match of the day, against Hibana. After that, she would face the winner of Hako’s match, while…
Moto’s stomach clenched when he thought of fighting Keta. He didn’t want to strain their relationship so soon after making up. And what if Keta still hadn’t recovered by tomorrow? Knowing the shapeling, he might push himself too hard if the fight was intense.
Maybe he should just throw the match.
The thought surprised Moto. As did his ambivalence toward it. If this was their audition to the senior Daggers, then doing well would increase his access to missions. Maybe if he won, he’d have another chance at working with Soundstealer.
Maybe. Or it might just draw unwanted attention, or absorb all his time desperately trying to keep up with the jonin.
Did he really know what was best, or was his resonance making him think he knew? Was he confident enough in the answer to throw so much away in pursuit of that path?
Hako and Haiyu had entered the ring and Iruka had finished reviewing the rules. She stepped back, slashing her hand through the air to start the match.
Haiyu ambled to the center of the ring, while Hako stood and watched. Odd. As far as Moto saw it, the matchups that pitted bringers like Hako against eaters like Haiyu were all about positioning.
Hako wanted a ranged fight, while Haiyu wanted to close and make use of his enhanced durability. So why wasn’t Hako contesting the approach?
Haiyu stopped and lowered his head. It was hard to tell from this distance, but it looked like he closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and spread his stance.
There was a loud crack as the ground buckled beneath his feet. Haiyu threw his head back and flexed his arms at his sides. The cracks spiderwebbed further out. He took a deep breath, his chest heaving, then raised one foot in the air and brought it down.
The ring nearly split in half.
Hako dropped to a knee, ice springing up around his hands and feet to hold him in place as the ring buckled and warped. Moto heard impressed whispers spread through the watching Daggers.
Moto’s eyes snapped back to Haiyu, standing in a crater of his own making. The boy brushed dust off his uniform as he walked toward the edge of the ring. Hako nodded, the ice around his body turning to water as he rose to follow his teammate.
Iruka looked between the boys, the confusion on her face mirroring that of those in the stands. After a moment’s hesitation, she raised her hand to signal Hako as the winner.
Fumi whistled. “Do you think Hako’s really that skilled? If Haiyu’s as strong as that and doesn’t even want to try and fight, that’s pretty scary.” Her smile looked more excited than scared.
“I don’t know. It didn’t seem like Haiyu was afraid.” Moto rubbed his chin. “Isn’t it weird that Hako’s squad is suddenly full of contenders? They weren’t on our radar at all before this. Haiyu certainly didn’t show this kind of strength during the obstacle course.”
“Maybe they’ve been training really hard to catch up.”
“Maybe, but then why not fight? That display of power was impressive enough to get the senior Daggers’ attention, but it was just enough. He could have shown more if they fought.
“The three of them always seem to do the bare minimum to move forward, without giving off anything extra. But I don’t think it’s to avoid attention. Everyone is going to talk about how weird it was for Haiyu to concede. So why don’t they want us to see them fight?”
Fumi pushed off the railing and started toward the ladder. “Maybe they’re just doing it to get people talking. Create an air of mystery.”
“Maybe…” Moto’s brow furrowed deeper.
Keta put his hand on top of Moto’s and smiled. There was a surprising amount of weight behind the hand. Keta was leaning heavily against the railing for support. “You forget to be grumpy when you have something to to puzzle over.”
Fumi grunted as she stepped onto the ladder. “Yeah, and he forgets to wish his teammates luck, too.”
“Oh, sorry. Good luck.”
Fumi waved a hand as she disappeared over the edge. “Don’t need it. I’ve got a plan. Just cross your fingers Hibana doesn’t concede like that. So boring!”
“Be careful, Fumi. She’s colder than–.”
Fumi had already disappeared.
Fumi and Hibana stood on opposite ends of the destroyed ring. It seemed that later fights received whatever terrain was left over.
Fumi was bouncing on the balls of her feet, antsy to start. Hibana stood like a panther watching a deer, somehow looking relaxed and tensed to move at the same time.
Moto hoped Fumi really did have a plan. Humility was not her strength, and she tended to think having a trick or two up her sleeve was the same thing as being prepared. Defeating Hibana would require more than a gimmick.
Iruka dropped her hand to start the match.
Hibana bounded forward, muscles visible beneath her uniform as she closed the distance in two massive strides. Fumi drove forward to meet her, accelerating with a blast of wind.
The minute Hibana’s foot lifted off the ground in her second leap, Fumi dove, shooting wind above and behind to send her like a rocket toward Hibana’s feet.
Hibana coiled, trying to strike Fumi as she passed below. But it was futile– the flame-eater’s mobility was limited once she left the ground. A sphere of wind ballooned between the women, pushing Hibana higher.
Fumi landed in a roll, coming up in a crouch and sending two blasts of wind punching into Hibana’s helpless airborne form. The range was perfect for Fumi, close enough to keep her blasts focused.
Hibana grunted at the two hammer blows, then went bouncing toward the edge of the ring. Her hands flexed, tearing up stone as she brought herself to a halt at the edge of the ring.
Moto was impressed. Surging forward to meet Hibana was counterintuitive, but it maximized the time Fumi had to punish Hibana’s leap.
Using the tactic early also ensured that Hibana would move cautiously throughout the match. It might have been tempting to hide the trick until Fumi could win with a single strike, but that would let Hibana close the distance several times before an opportunity arose. Safer to slow the woman down for the whole match.
Hibana came forward again, keeping her strides short and her body low. Her new gate was safer, but slower. Fumi had ample time to pummel the woman at mid range, where her blasts were strongest.
A blast hammered into Hibana’s shoulder, jerking her backward. The woman landed in a back handspring and kept racing forward, her body lower to present a smaller target. Fumi sent a slower, heavier blast toward Hibana’s left side.
She was playing this well. Getting in a fast, concentrated hit as Hibana approached, then switching to something more dangerous but easier to dodge to force Hibana right while Fumi went left. If she could keep it up, she could chip away at Hibana’s strength without taking on too much risk.
Hibana grunted as she took the heavy blast against her shoulder, diving through it toward Fumi as the wind-bringer ran toward the space she thought blocked off by the attack.
A jet of wind launched Fumi skyward as she avoided Hibana’s claw-like strike. But only barely. And now the distance was closed. Fumi was on the back foot.
Hibana’s left shoulder hung at a bad angle, clearly broken, but she pressed forward like a starving beast. Just like that, Fumi was absorbed with fleeing, her earlier strategy broken.
Even in such a desperate situation, Fumi kept her senses. Consumed with getting space between them, she still threw punches when she could, putting forward a tight offense to cover her retreat.
Hibana took a blast to her chest, then her leg, then another against her broken shoulder. She ignored the blows, healing any serious damage and forging ahead. The pain must be unimaginable. Not to mention the impact on her body. Relying so much on healing would shorten her lifespan.
Hibana caught the front of Fumi’s shirt, holding her in place as she sent a devastating blow into the wind-bringer’s stomach. Hibana punched with the broken shoulder so she could hold Fumi with her good arm. The woman had no care for pain.
Fumi doubled over, blood spurting from her mouth. She pushed wildly against the ground with a blast of wind, launching herself upward, but Hibana caught her ankle and slammed her to the ground with savage force. Moto could hear bones cracking even at this distance.
“Concede.” Hibana loomed over Fumi.
Fumi pushed backward, a dent in her hip that had to be a fracture. She winced against the pain and spoke through bloodstained teeth. “No.”
She pulled a mote of wind around her arms, gathering dust and swirling it into the saw blade Moto had seen her use in the spider cave. She slashed toward Hibana’s leg. The woman took the blow while she kicked with her other leg, sending Fumi bouncing along the stone.
Fumi’s slash opened a gash down to the muscle of Hibana’s thigh. The wound didn’t heal completely, but the bleeding slowed as Hibana stalked forward.
Fumi pulled herself upright, holding her broken leg off the ground. Moto watched with dread as she spit blood and readied herself as best she could. The blur of wind around her arms intensified as she steeled her resolve.
She was going to get herself killed. There was no way she could match Hibana’s self-destructive style. Moto had never seen a flame-eater use healing as a weapon, but it was devastatingly effective. The fight had ended once the flame-eater closed.
Hibana shot forward, hands out like a panther’s claws. Fumi launched herself forward on a blast of wind, roaring in pain and defiance.
At the last moment she threw one hand to the side, sending a jet of wind that snapped her trajectory sideways. With Fumi’s injuries, that kind of sudden shift had to be agony. But she was willing to match Hibana pain for pain.
Hibana hadn’t expected the sudden shift, thinking Fumi’s wounds would immobilize her. She threw a backhand toward Fumi’s head, but it was too late.
The wind saw whirred around Fumi’s fist. She had won. But she had to strike a lethal blow. Fumi didn’t like to kill, but anything less and Hibana would keep coming.
At the last minute, Fumi dropped her strike, sinking into Hibana’s side instead of her heart. Hibana’s hand came on like a landslide, cracking into Fumi’s head. Fumi bounced along the ring like a ragdoll.
“No.” Keta’s hands flexed against the railing.
Moto was halfway to the ring, pulling himself between the trees before he realized what he was doing. He didn’t know what he planned to do, but he knew one of them had to be there.
By the time Moto reached the ring, Iruka was by Fumi’s side.
“Is she OK?” Moto dropped to his knees beside his friend. Fumi was laying at an awkward angle, her broken hip twisted too far. It looked like her skull was broken. She wasn’t moving.
A rattling breath, far too weak, escaped her throat. Moto’s hands were shaking. Iruka was calling to the flame-eaters for healing.
Dimly, Moto was aware of Hibana limping to the edge of the ring. Maybe she was too exhausted to help, but he knew she hadn’t tried.
Rage filled him, and it was all he could do not to throw himself at her. That wouldn’t help Fumi now. He turned his gaze away, forcing himself to calm.
He saw Soundstealer pull back from the railing where he stood. The man shook his head in disappointment, a frown on his face as he turned to walk away. There was nothing the man could do, but he should have been here anyways. New anger filled Moto.
Two men appeared at the edge of the ring, the flame of Ignis along the back and arms of their uniforms. Even in his exhausted state, Keta was only a few steps behind.
Moto turned back to Fumi and was shocked to see the large pool of blood that had spread around his feet.
There were limits to what could be healed. He looked at Iruka and saw concern in her eyes. All they could do was hold Fumi’s shoulder and hope she hadn’t crossed that line.
You can read the next story in this series here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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