This is part 5 of an ongoing story series. You can read the first part here.

The boy’s scream cut off, jarring like a missed step. His pain echoed off the walls before fading into silence.

Moto and Keta locked eyes. “Do you think–?”

A den full of spiders screeched in response, a knife-edged chittering stabbing at their ears. The chaotic drum line of approaching spider legs followed.

“The kid! We’ve got to get to him.”

Keta nodded, then turned to the people he had freed from the webs. “We must go now. Hide here until you hear fighting, then run.”

They ran from the room without waiting to see how the prisoners responded. They had already done more for the prisoners than they needed to.

Moto pulled the shuttered lantern fully open as they raced down the hallway. Their footsteps rang against the stone as they retraced their steps. There was a loud snap as Keta broke through one of the alarm webs stretched across the hall. No time left for caution.

What went wrong? They killed the spiders fast and quiet, just like Moto planned. Did a spider escape? But the scream began the instant he killed the light spider. The timing was too perfect to be a coincidence. Somehow the other spiders knew when it died.

This was revenge. They never should have sidetracked to help the prisoners.

He pushed the thought aside. There would be time for berating himself later. Focus.

Keta slid to a halt at the intersection they passed through earlier and looked towards the exit. The sound of skittering legs bounced down the hallway. A thousand dice tossed to decide their fate.

“I could collapse the tunnel.” Keta balled his hand into a fist.

Moto grabbed his wrist. “No. We don’t know what’s further in. We may need Iruka and Fumi’s help more than we need to hold off those spiders.”

They continued left, their strides lengthening out of control as the tunnel steepened sharply. Moto pulled on the tunnel behind him to keep from falling forward. Keta’s steps were a mixture of leaping and falling.

They took a sharp corner at full speed, Moto pulling on the inside wall and swinging around like a stone in a sling. Keta ran up the outside wall of the turn, diving off the stone into a forward roll.

On the other side of the bend, the way was completely blocked with webs. There was no time to stop. Moto threw his arms over his face and pulled on the walls in front, accelerating as he tried to punch through.

He felt the stuttering pull of webs clinging then breaking under his momentum. But the trap stretched further into the tunnel than he expected. There was a sharp tug against his shoulder as a web finally held, spinning him around.

He barely registered he was stuck before Keta crashed into him, arms wrapping around his waist. There was a final lurch as the webs gave way and then they were falling through the air.

They kept falling.

With a curse, Moto realized they had gone off another cliff. He pulled against the ceiling desperately, trying to stop their descent. But he had waited too long. He wasn’t strong enough to catch their full weight this far from the ceiling. All he could do was soften the blow.

Air wheezed out of Moto’s lungs as he took the brunt of the impact beneath Keta. His head snapped against stone and swirls of light danced across his vision. Keta bounced off, landing heavily a few feet away.

Moto groaned, panic taking his mind as he tried and failed to breathe. He rocked onto his side and vomited. A sharp pain in his side told him at least one rib was broken.

Focus. Moto gritted his teeth and pressed himself into a sitting position. He shook his head to clear it. That only set his vision spinning worse. He pressed his back against the rough stone wall steadying himself as he staggered to his feet.

They were standing at the bottom of another pit. The smooth floor and deep grooves running up the walls suggested running water long since dried.

A flickering light filled the room, sending shadows dancing across the walls. Their lantern had cracked open from the fall, igniting a patch of webbing near the edge of the cavern. The shifting lights heightened Moto’s instability.

A few feet ahead, Keta struggled against a clump of webbing stretched across the ground that held him fast. Moto took an unsteady step forward.

“S-Stay away!”

The whimpering voice drew Moto’s attention further into the cavern. A young boy scrambled backwards across the stone, one hand held to his head. His clothes were ripped and badly worn, hands black with dirt and dried blood. His short black hair was plastered to his head with grime.

Swarming around the boy was a herd of jorogumo. He hardly noticed as they skittered across his hands and legs, his gaze remaining fixed on Moto. He must have been bitten.

Moto turned his attention back to Keta. Before he could move to help, the webbing warped and the shapeling cried out as a large gash opened on his shoulder.

There was a hiss of steam as Keta ripped his other arm free and lashed at the air. His hand stuttered as it connected with substance. The air flickered and a giant light spider resolved out of thin air. It hissed and pulled back from Keta’s blow, preparing to strike again.

Moto took two drunken steps forward, swaying wildly. He fell back to the wall. There was no way he could walk in his current condition. He pulled a stone at his feet and launched it toward the spider. The world tilted beneath him and his aim went wide. The rock crashed into the ground at the boy’s feet, shattering.

The boy cried out in pain as shrapnel shot past, scoring deep wounds in his arms. He screamed again, his eyes wide as he reached out to the spiders swarming around him.

A blinding flash of light filled the room. Behind it, Moto could hear the spiders crying out as if being ripped apart.

When the light faded, the boy lay unmoving amidst a pile of broken bodies. But the spiders weren’t dead. They twitched across the ground as their skin stretched and ripped. Their forms grew grotesquely as they screeched in pain. A white glow emanated from the rents in their skin.

Slowly, five new light spiders pulled themselves from the ground. They hissed at Moto and Keta. Then they vanished.

Moto looked around in surprise. Without the spiders’ light, there was nothing but the red glow of the spreading flames to light the room.

Could the spiders teleport? Moto took another breath, willing himself to think through the fog in his head. The webbing around Keta had moved before the spider appeared. They were still there. Just invisible.

Keta groaned, bringing Moto’s attention back. The shapeling had pulled both arms free from the web and was holding the light spider’s fangs as they snapped at his neck. They were locked for a moment, both sides straining, before Keta’s arms flexed and he crushed the spiders’ head between his hands. The young boy twitched at the center of the room.

Keta still struggled to free himself from the web. Moto reached forward and pulled, but the sudden shift in weight almost took him off his feet. He held the wall to steady himself as Keta finally tore free and ran to his side.

Moto looked around, trying to form a plan. Echoes off the walls hid the creatures’ location. The stone floor prevented any footprints. He strained his eyes against the darkness, looking for shadows. Whatever the creatures’ ability was, it blocked any visual trace of their presence.

Moto pulled against the loose stones behind him and sent a scattershot through the room. Most of the missiles clattered against the far wall, but a few stopped dead in the air, bouncing off the invisible spiders.

That confirmed they were still there, but with his back this close to the wall he couldn’t accelerate his shots. He needed more runway to make them lethal. But if they moved away from the wall they would be surrounded.

Light flared as a spider appeared, fangs bared. Moto pressed back against the wall and slashed with his dagger. How had it avoided his scattershot?

He stumbled sideways as his dagger met no resistance. The spider’s shape flickered, then reformed. An illusion? There was a hiss to his right as another spider appeared, lunging toward him as he regained his balance.

Keta unfurled the weighted silks around his wrists and brought both down on the attacking spiders’ face in an overhead swing. There was a meaty crack. The spider pulled back and disappeared. But a direct hit from Keta should have caved its head in.

Moto glanced sideways. The shapeling was breathing heavily, the wound on his shoulder still bleeding.

“Are you too tired to pull fire?”

Another spider appeared, leaping through the air towards Keta. Moto reached out to pull it off course, but there was nothing there. Another illusion. Except, was there something behind it? Moto pulled further and felt real weight, flying behind the illusion.

“It’s not there! Aim behind it!”

Keta altered the angle of his strike mid swing and brought his silk across the side of the creature, slamming it into the wall. His other silk came down on its head in a sickening crunch. The spider twitched mindlessly. Four left.

Keta pulled back against Moto, scanning the darkness. “I still have some fire left, but I do not want to be defenseless if one of us is bitten. I can handle these creatures naturally for now. How did you know where it was?”

“My power had no effect on the illusion, but I could feel the weight of the real one behind it. It doesn’t seem like they can make the images very far from their body.”

He could test the illusions when they attacked, but he had caught the presence of the first spider by accident. His pulls were narrow and he wouldn’t have much time to find the real thing. Unless…

Moto closed his eyes and softened his focus. He sent his power in a broad pulse. Pulling softly in all directions. He felt a faint tug from Keta, then something more solid from the wall at his back. There was a flutter in front of them.


Keta swung, cutting a low arc with his silks that broke a couple legs on an approaching spider. It staggered, but managed to keep its feet.

It was something.

“I can tell where they are, but I can’t focus on anything else while I’m doing it…”

“That is enough. I will strike where you tell me.” Keta stepped forward, placing himself between Moto and the spiders.

He could only sense the spiders’ general direction, not their exact location. Anyone else would have been swinging wildly, hoping for a lucky shot. But Keta’s speed and control made it work.

Even without his power, the shapeling could shift his strikes mid-swing, turning glancing blows into solid hits. When he connected, he pounced immediately, landing several more hits against the vulnerable foe.

The spiders adjusted their strategy quickly. They started attacking all at once, snapping forward in a wave before retreating out of range.

Soon Keta’s body was covered in shallow gashes. One of Moto’s arms hung limply from a deep bite into the meat of his shoulder. At least the light spider transformation burned away the jorogumo’s venom.

A chaotic wave of clicks and scrapes caught Moto’s attention from above, near the entrance to the cavern. It was hard to hear over the sounds of fighting, but it was growing louder. Reinforcements. For who?

If it was more spiders, they would have to run. And if it was Fumi and Iruka, how would the light spiders react? They were focused on offense while they had the upper hand. But if things looked bad, they might attack the kid to buy time for an escape.

They needed to get to the boy.

But if they moved to the center of the room, Keta couldn’t cover every angle. Moto’s balance had mostly returned, and the extra space would let him throw lethally again. But that was useless if he couldn’t detect the spiders.

If only Iruka was here. They needed two stone-bringers so they could use their gravity on offense and defense at the same time.

At the same time…

Moto’s eyes snapped open. “I’ve got a plan!”

Keta laughed between ragged breaths. “It is about time! I was beginning to think that you were slipping.” He swung one of his yellow silks into the face of an onrushing spider.

“It’s going to take two bursts of energy from you. Do you have that?”

“Yes, but not much more. I won’t be able to heal us anymore.”

Moto looked at the blood covering Keta’s arms. The wound in his own shoulder was bad, not too mention his head from the fall earlier. But there wasn’t any other choice. If they made it out, they could bind their wounds until Keta recovered to heal them.

“We’ll have to risk it. On my mark we’re charging toward the boy. We have to reach him. Ignore everything else. Once we get him, I need you to pump me up with one blast. When I say so, use the second burst to jump as high as you possibly can.”

Keta nodded, no sign of doubt on his face. “I will be ready.”

“As high as you can. Go!”

Keta took off, angling low as he ran. His body rocked sideways as he shouldered past a spider. Moto kept as close as he could, ignoring the pain as fangs raked down his back. He pulled one of Seiko’s spheres from his pouch.

They reached the center and Moto turned, pressing his back against Keta. He waited until the shapeling had the boy in his arms. “Hit me!”

Fire spread along Moto’s back. It flared down his limbs and filled him with strength. It was almost too much to bear, like he was burning from the inside out.

They were focused on keeping the spiders away. But that forced him to choose between throwing stones or sensing the spiders. Offense or defense. So he did what Iruka taught him. He changed his goal.

He reached out, broad like he was sensing. No need to know where they were if he grabbed hold of everything. Then, with fire coursing through his veins, Moto pulled the world inside himself.

Even reinforced by Keta’s flame, he thought he might be ripped apart. The entire cave groaned and stuttered. A loud crack sounded beneath their feet. Keta groaned involuntarily as he was pressed flat against Moto.

Then four large, invisible masses were crashing through the air, out of control.

Moto released the pull before it really did rip him apart. He dropped Seiko’s sphere. “Jump!”

Another wave of heat as Keta wrapped his arm around Moto’s waist. The world lurched as they shot towards the ceiling. A heavy crunch sounded where they had been standing. Moto reached out and pulled the switch.

The spiders were visible for a fraction of a second before the explosion ripped through them.

A concussive wave of spider guts crashed into them from below. Moto felt the boy jerk violently beside him. He looked over in alarm, but the kid seemed unhurt as he hung, limp and unconscious, in Keta’s arm.

Moto pulled against the ceiling to slow their fall. Keta absorbed the rest, landing in a crouch. They stood in a small crater, covered in grime and their own blood. Laughing in disbelief, Keta pulled Moto close and kissed him. “Amazing!”

Moto allowed himself a moment’s pleasure, then pulled back. “We’re not out of it yet.” He turned toward the cavern entrance overhead. The approaching sounds were loud now.

His body felt like it had been trampled by a horse. Every muscle felt like lead. Keta was tapped out too. If it was more jorogumo, he could pull a few off the wall. Maybe the fall would disable them. But then they would have to run.

Moto’s heart sank as a mob of black, alien legs curled around the edge of the tunnel. But before he could act there was a heavy whoomph as air was forced into the cavern. The spiders at the entrance were thrown to the far wall, their bodies breaking against the stone.

Fumi followed, swan diving through the entrance. She did a flip in the air and landed in a crouch in front of Keta, air rushing out to cushion the fall. “Don’t worry. I’ll take it from here.” She paused for effect, then stood and looked around. She deflated when she saw the dead spiders littering the floor. “Oh, never mind.”

“Hey! You kids got the smaller kid?” Iruka stood at the ledge, shouting over her shoulder. The blade snap whirred around her as she shot it into the tunnel repeatedly. “Great. I’m sure the spiders thought your flip was very cool, but maybe lets focus on not dying?”

Keta gave Fumi a kind look. “It was a wonderful entrance.”

Iruka pulled Moto and Keta into the hallway at the top of the cavern. Fumi crashed down beside them in a blast of wind.

The tunnel was littered with the shredded bodies of jorogumo. The blade snap whirred around Iruka’s shoulders like a restless hummingbird as she looked them up and down. She ignored the sound of spiders approaching further up the hallway.

“How are you two doing?”

“Both our resonances are exhausted. I might have a little bit left in me but Keta is tapped. Otherwise we’re fine.”

Iruka raised an eyebrow. “At the risk of repeating myself, you look like garbage, kid. We need to update your definition of fine. The two of you stay at the back for now and let me and Fumi clear the way.”

Keta stood straighter. “I am still–.”

Iruka turned toward the onrushing spiders. “As much as I would love to sit here arguing the finer points of just how messed up your body is right now, I think we have more pressing concerns. You’ve done plenty to prove yourself. Time to trust the squad.”

Keta nodded, accepting the feedback gracefully. He shifted the unconscious kid onto his back. “I will carry the child, then.”

“Right. Stay close. Not that I’m giving you much choice.” Iruka grinned as she launched forward. A heartbeat later, all three of them staggered forward as Iruka pulled them behind her.

Moto adapted to Iruka’s pull the fastest. He’d had practice gravity running. But the others adjusted to the extended gait just a few steps after. Just in time for the next wave of spiders to hit.

They ran along the floor and walls and ceiling, clambering over one another in the rush to attack. Moto couldn’t tell where one jorogumo began and the another ended. There were more spiders in that first cavern than he thought.

“Don’t stop! We can’t take them all so don’t let them bog us down.” Iruka’s blade snap shot forward, slicing up one wall and back the other. The whole time her pull against the three of them never faltered.

Fumi stepped up to Iruka’s side and punched the air with both fists. A gust ripped over the floor, knocking spiders into the side wall and clearing a path. Then the spiders were around them.

Moto drew a dagger, pulling lightly in all directions to sense anything that got too close. He kept an eye on Keta, but the shapeling wasn’t having much trouble with the handful of spiders that made it past Iruka and Fumi uninjured.

Surrounded, Iruka caught the blade snap and used her power in earnest. Moto was glad his balance had returned from earlier, otherwise watching her might have made him sick.

Her body twisted through the air like a leaf on the wind, changing direction inches from snapping jaws, crashing feat first into spiders on the ceiling. As she danced through the air, spiders flew in her wake, snapping into each other and skewering on rocky protrusions. She wore an easy smile while she worked.

Fumi wasn’t nearly as casual, but her skills had improved since the last time Moto saw her fight. Her arms blurred as she made a small torrent of wind around them, picking up dust and rocks and focusing their flow into a saw blade. Her arms sliced through jorogumo like paper.

And then they were through. The monsters behind them turned, falling behind as Iruka pulled forward. More chittering greeted them ahead. They weren’t out of the woods yet. Moto kept his gravity sense up to catch any light spiders that might be sneaking up on them.

They reached the intersection and Iruka continued for the exit. There was a clattering of stones as Keta planted his feet and held against her pull. Iruka turned with a question on her face.

“What’s the matter?”

Keta was straining his eyes down the other tunnel. “Did you see anyone fleeing the cave as you entered?”

“What? No. Come on, we don’t have time to stick around here.” The spiders behind them were catching up.

Keta kept his feet planted, calling down the tunnel. There was a pause, then a muted response. Keta turned to the rest of the group. “There are still people here.”

The spiders behind came crashing around the corner, throwing themselves at Keta and the child he carried. The shapeling dodged the first, but a second and a third slammed into him. He was thrown against the wall, holding back the fangs of a spider. The boy fell to the floor several feet away.

Moto dove for Keta without thinking, burying his dagger in the side of the spider’s head as he shouldered it away. Another one leapt through the air and Moto pulled from his foot, slamming it to the ground. Keta pushed off the wall and brought his foot down in a loud crunch on the spider’s head.

“The kid!” Moto spun, scanning the floor. Spiders swarmed over the boy’s body. They lifted his unconscious form, carrying him away. Moto took a step forward but more of the monsters stepped in to fill the gap.

His heart sank. After all this, was the kid going to slip away? Were they going to fail?

Fumi came sprinting past, planting a foot against the wall and leaping over the front line of monsters, yelling dramatically as she came down on the spiders carrying the boy. She sliced through one with her hand, planting it against the ground as she brought her foot around on the other spider like a scythe.

“Sorry Keta, we don’t have time to wait around for more people.” Iruka was pushing back against the wave of spiders attacking from the front, but there were so many even she was stepping back. “They’re on their own.”

Keta snapped one of his wrist silks like a whip, breaking a spider’s legs. “I will not leave them!”

Iruka took another step back and the spiders rushed around the edges of the tunnel. They were about to be overrun. But Keta stepped forward defiantly, determined to hold firm. The sound of people running down the hallway was getting louder.

Keta would never leave those people behind. Not when they sounded so close. But what would they do with more people in tow? Pressing their luck was going to get them all killed.

Moto didn’t have a choice. He pulled against the ceiling, bringing a rock crashing into the back of Keta’s head. The shapeling crumpled to the ground. Moto caught him and pushed towards Iruka. “Let’s go!”

She stared at him for moment, then nodded and dove into the spider filled tunnel. Moto hefted Keta over a shoulder and pulled out the shield snap with his free hand. He pulled it open and used it to ward off snapping fangs aimed for his throat.

Keta got heavier. Moto looked up and saw a spider crouched on the shapeling. He watched helplessly as the the spider bit into Keta’s side.

“I got you!” A blast of wind ripped the spider off Moto’s back as Fumi came into view. She had the young boy thrown over her shoulders and was stepping forward methodically, clearing the path with blasts from her feet.

As they neared the other side, Moto heard a commotion behind them. The prisoners were throwing themselves at the spiders in the rear, clawing desperately as they tried to catch up to Moto and his squad. The monsters turned and descended on them. It was short work, but the distraction bought Moto and the others some breathing room.

They burst through to the other side of the creatures. Iruka slowed enough to grab Keta off of Moto’s shoulders and then began to pull them forward again.

“Last hurdle! Everybody get ready to jump.”

They were back at the first chasm. Thin, black legs curled around the edges of the tunnel. Moto pulled against the walls, accelerating as he leapt over the climbing spiders, following Iruka. He wobbled in the air, his resonance nearly exhausted, but he managed to land heavily on the far side of the chasm with Iruka’s help.

Fumi came up short, the spiders from the cavern blocking her way and preventing her from getting a clean angle on the jump.

Moto braced himself against the wall. “Jump! I can help pull you!”

Fumi looked up at him, then squared the boy on her shoulders and set her face. “It’s OK, I can do it on my own!” She jumped, planting her foot against the side of the tunnel, then pushing off with a blast of wind toward the wall of the cavern midway across.

It was going to be close. And her resonance had to be tiring out by this point. Moto didn’t want to risk it. As Fumi connected with the far wall of the cavern, coiling to make her final jump, Moto pulled against her for extra lift.

He pulled early, causing Fumi’s footing to slip. She managed a blast of wind behind her, but the jump was awkward. Moto cursed, pulling as hard as he could. It wasn’t much.

Fumi hit the stone hard, landing half in the tunnel with her legs dangling into the cavern. She scrambled for a handhold with one hand, trying to hang onto the kid with the other before Iruka turned and pulled her up.

“I said I had it! You nearly made me fall.” Fumi glared at Moto.

“I didn’t mess you up that much! You weren’t going to make it without me.”

They both slid across the stone as Iruka pulled them backwards. “We seriously need to discuss what counts as appropriate mission chatter with all three of you. Get moving for the exit!”

Moto shot Fumi one last glare, then lifted Keta onto his shoulders. The shapeling was hot, his body twitching as the spider’s venom coursed through him.

There was a loud crack and Moto’s head whipped around. Iruka stood at the end of the tunnel with arms outstretched. The muscles on her neck stood out as she brought her arms toward her chest with great effort. There was another pop and the rock around her shifted. She jumped back as the tunnel began to collapse.

She turned, making straight for the exit. “Don’t just stand there! I have no idea if this whole tunnel is coming down after that!”

Moto turned with renewed energy, his legs pumping as he moved to the exit. Light blossomed ahead. He threw himself through the exit, staggering to the ground as a loud thump sounded from deeper within. He rolled over onto his back, letting out a long sigh of relief as he stared at the sky. They made it.

They pushed into the woods as far as they could before they collapsed and made camp. It wasn’t very far.

Neither the boy nor Keta had woken, but the shapeling continued to twitch. They tied him to a tree in case he woke up, then set to binding everyone’s wounds.

Moto winced as he scrubbed his shoulder clean and rubbed a foul smelling ointment into the wound, he kept one eye on Keta. “Is he going to be OK?”

Aside from a bit of dirt, Iruka was unharmed. She tended to Keta’s bleeding arms. “He should be fine, so long as he doesn’t hurt himself while the venom runs its course.”

Fumi looked at the ropes around Keta. “Are those really going to hold him?”

“If his resonance has anything left, the metabolic boost will burn through the venom anyways. So the answer is either yes or who cares.”

Fumi lowered herself to the ground and started work on a fire. She sat normally, without her typical burst of wind. She had reached her limit too. Moto thought back over the fight. How many times had they all used their powers? He filed the information away in case those limits were useful later.

As he ran through the mission, Moto felt a growing sense of uncertainty. They had saved the kid, but only barely. This mission was crucial to his plans. So why had he had taken so many risks? Unnecessary risks. When the spiders were attacking Keta and the boy, he hadn’t hesitated to jump for Keta. He didn’t even think of the kid.

Most confusing, Moto didn’t feel like he had made a mistake.

Fumi looked up and met his eyes. “What’re you staring at?”

“Oh, nothing. Just spacing out. I’m pretty beat.”

“I’ll say. What happened down there? I didn’t see many spiders when I landed but both you and Keta were at your limits.”

Moto recounted the events, describing the light spiders and their strange abilities.

“I’ve never heard anything like that before. You said the jorogumo transformed?”

Moto nodded. “I’m not sure they did it themselves, though. It seemed like the change hurt. Their bodies weren’t in great shape afterwards.” Moto looked at the boy, lying by the fire as Fumi turned and tended to him. “It only happened when the boy touched them.”

“You think he had something to do with it?”

“I don’t know. It sounds crazy, but it seemed like he had some connection with them. Whenever we killed a spider, the boy looked like it hurt him too. It was hard to tell, though. He was probably just bitten or something. Should we tell his father?”

Iruka considered for a moment. “Probably best not to. People pay for Daggers when they don’t want questions. The dad may know what’s up with the kid or he might not, but I guarantee whichever way it goes he won’t be happy we noticed and started asking.”

Fumi looked up from her ministrations. “Are you sure they attacked him? Where did you see him get bitten?”

“I didn’t see it. Probably happened before we arrived. The kid had already lost it by the time we got there. Why?”

Fumi did one last pass over the boy. “Aside from a few bruises and these cuts on his arms, the kid is fine. Nothing that could be a bite.”

“That can’t be right. He seemed mad when we approached. And the spiders were all over him at the end, why wouldn’t they bite him?”

Fumi shrugged. “All I know is there’s no bite marks. Maybe it was just shock?”

There was a rustle as Keta stirred against the tree, his eyes flickering. They tensed and watched, waiting to see how the shapeling would react.

Keta’s eyes snapped open and he began to strain against the ropes, his feet scrambling for purchase along the ground. He groaned, his eyes white with fear. Moto took a step forward, his hand held out, but Iruka held him back.

“It’s OK, kid. Nothing you can do right now but let it pass. It shouldn’t take more than an hour. But right now getting close is only going to stress him worse.”

“I should have been paying more attention as we ran. I knocked him out, it was my responsibility.”

Iruka hesitated. “You did what you thought you had to, and made the best of the situation after that. Those kind of decisions are a part of life now. If you beat yourself up over every one, you’ll go crazy.”

Fumi stepped up beside them, looking down at Keta as he continued to pull against his ropes. “He’s not going to be happy when he hears how things went down.”

A pit formed in Moto’s stomach. “We don’t have to tell him. We could say the prisoners made it. A falling rock knocked him unconscious but we managed to pull everyone out and they went their separate ways.”

Iruka shook her head adamantly. “You can tell him what you want about how he got knocked out. That’s between you two. But he needs to know what happened to the others.”

“Why, though? It’s only going to hurt him.”

“If he thinks it all worked out in the end, he’ll take a crazy risk like that again. That’s fine if he’s making a calculated choice, but not if he’s blind about the chances. Rose colored glasses are the fastest route to winding up dead.”

Iruka turned to look at them. Her eyes rested primarily on Moto. “Overall, this went pretty well. Way harder than a first contract usually is, but you all adapted and made solid choices under pressure. But if this were an exam, I would fail you all.”

Moto blinked. “What for?”

“You can’t be debating priorities in the middle of a mission like that. I’m not saying either side was wrong. What was wrong was that we couldn’t act decisively. That left us down a man and fighting off the back foot. I want you to tell Keta what happened so you’re forced to talk and decide how you’ll handle a situation like that in the future.”

There was a crash in the woods behind them. They turned, hands reaching for weapons. The kid was up and away from the fire, fleeing through the underbrush.

Moto pulled the tangle snap from his belt, then realized he didn’t have the energy left to use it. He took a step forward, but came up short as the kid snapped backward, flying through the air toward Iruka. She brought him into her arms and held him in place as the boy struggled.

“Get away! They’re gonna hurt me! I need to run!” The kid struggled in vain against Iruka’s strong arms.

“It’s OK, you’re safe. The spiders are gone. They can’t hurt you anymore.”

The kid turned his head wildly, straining backwards. “They took the light. Made it dark. Took me away. Let go!”

Iruka continued to soothe him as she walked to the fire. “Hey, hey, everything is OK now.” She pointed his head towards the fire. “See? No more dark. Plenty of light.”

The boy calmed a bit as he looked at the fire, his fit subsiding to a background of twitches and muttering. His attention still skittered around the campsite.

“That’s right. We’re not going to hurt you. We’re here to save you.”

The boy relaxed into Iruka’s arms and she left his hands free so he could warm them by the fire. “You’re not gonna let them hurt me anymore?”

Everyone but Iruka sat in a small room inside the Bloodhall. The boy, whose name was Kashi, sat nervously in the corner of the room, picking methodically at the new robes he wore. Soundstealer was with them, leaning against the wall. It was the first time they had seen him since he gave the mission.

“You have done well.” He addressed Fumi. “Was there anything out of the ordinary?” Soundstealer’s gaze crawled over the group.

Remembering Iruka’s suggestion to play dumb, Moto spoke up before the others could reply. “Not really, sir. He was lucky not to be bitten, that made the extraction easier.”

Soundstealer watched him for a moment, his eyes probing. He held the stare just long enough to make Moto uncomfortable, then nodded.

Fumi let out a sigh and patted her hands on her thighs, cutting through the tension. “So, one mission down. When do you think we can get another?”

Soundstealer turned back to his daughter. “Whenever you’ve formed another squad, you may take another mission.”

“What do you mean? We already have a squad.”

Soundstealer shook his head. “I have told you this, daughter. Familiarity breeds attachment. Attachments to the other houses will weaken your resonance. You must pick a new squad.”

Fumi bristled. “I don’t want a new squad. I can be strong and still have friends.”

“I will offer no contract if you insist on keeping this group.”

“But we’re the strongest new recruits! This is the best squad.”

Soundstealer scoffed. “What does it matter who is the strongest squad of children? Your ultimate strength is more important.”

“Fine! We don’t need your contracts anyways. We’ll find our own.” She leaned back in her seat, arms crossed.

Moto sat with his mouth slightly open. What just happened? This mission was supposed to bring him closer to Soundstealer. But just like that it had fallen away.

He looked to Keta, but the shapeling’s eyes were down, his hand on his chin thoughtfully. Keta had been quiet since he heard what happened to the prisoners.

A knock came at the far door, interrupting everyone’s thoughts. Moto stood, but Soundstealer held out a hand. “That is unnecessary. I will take the boy inside and finalize the contract.” The boy gave one last nervous look over his shoulder before Soundstealer led him inside and closed the door.

As soon as he was out of sight Fumi turned to them. “Ignore him, guys. He can’t be stubborn forever. We just need to prove him wrong. Eventually we’ll be so strong he’ll be begging for us to help on contracts.”

Moto grunted noncommittally. He thought getting close to Fumi was a good way to get close to Soundstealer as well. But it seemed like the two were at odds. He needed to reconsider his plans.

A few moments later Soundstealer walked from the room alone, folding the contract and placing it in his robe.

Moto nodded towards the paper. “Does one of us need to sign that?”

“Unnecessary. I signed it myself.”

Fumi bounced forward, earlier confrontation momentarily forgotten. “Can we at least see it? My first contract!”

Soundstealer finished stowing the contract and made for the door. “Control yourself, daughter. This is nothing to be excited about.”

Was he hiding the contract? They already knew the contents. Unless there was something new on the final contract that he didn’t want them to see. Moto pushed his bag beneath the chair as he stood, leaving the room without it.

As they neared the exit, Moto slowed. “Ah! I forgot my bag. One second, let me go grab it.” He turned and ran back up the stairs before anyone could suggest otherwise.

Moto returned to the room and scooped up his bag. He looked around, then brought his ear to the door that Soundstealer entered before. Silent. He eased open the door and slipped inside, moving fast. He didn’t have much time before Soundstealer would get suspicious.

On the desk was a thick stack of paper in case contracts needed amendments. Writing utensils sat beside the stack. Moto grabbed a stick of charcoal and rubbed it lightly across the top sheet. Faint white lines appeared where the page above had been written on. He read some of the lines.

boy to be retrieved and returned to Jidoka unharmed. Soundstealer to

He smiled, snatching the paper and tucking it into his bag. He made his way out of the room and back down the stairs. If Soundstealer wasn’t going to give them more missions, Moto would learn about his clients on his own.

You can read the next story in this series here.