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This is part 2 of an ongoing story series. You can read the first part here.
Moto raced towards the wall, jockeying for position amongst the other twelve students. No one wanted to be last. As usual, Keta was first.
The long-limbed shapeling ran ahead of the pack with steam trailing off his body like a cape flapping in the wind. He reached the base of the wall ahead of everyone else, moving with a speed even the other flame-eaters couldn’t match. He tensed his legs and jumped, continuing up the stone with a few bounding strides. As his momentum slowed, Keta snapped the bright yellow silks on his wrist towards a post at the top of the wall. The silk wrapped tight and Keta pulled himself over. Just like that, he was out of sight.
Moto shouldered another student out of the way and reached for his bond with the mountain. A peculiar sense of weight entered his hands, tugging on everything around him. Moto focused the energy forwards, pulling on the wall. His body lurched forwards, the added speed giving him some breathing room from the rest of the pack. He reached the wall and jumped.
Unlike Keta, Moto jumped a normal human amount. He brought his knees to his chest, focusing gravity into his legs. He landed feet first and began running up the vertical stone.
The movement was awkward. To keep his feet attached, he had to pull hard against the wall. It felt, and probably looked, like walking through mud. The weight of his upper body pulled him backwards. Several kids passed him, shooting jets of flame behind to propel them. Moto saw Fumi clear the wall in a few gust-powered leaps.
Moto cursed under his breath and pulled on the top of the wall, lessening the downward pressure so he could move more easily. He crested the top of the wall in time to watch as those who passed him approached the next obstacle.
On the other side of the wall, a wide ravine had been carved into the landscape of the Playground. Moto was still amazed at how quickly the master Daggers could change the main training facility. He knew the stone had been chosen carefully for its ease of shaping, but still. Yesterday there had been a small hill there.
Moto jumped from the wall at the same time as a couple of flame-eaters. The heat they pulled into their bodies supercharged their muscles, letting them take the heavy landing in stride. Whatever minor damage their muscles took, it would heal quickly thanks to their enhanced metabolisms.
Moto had to settle for pulling against the top of the wall to slow his descent.
By the time he reached the ground, Moto was only ahead of three students whose powers were particularly ill-suited for the obstacle course: two stone-eaters and the lone flood-bringer. Moto charged forward, determined to beat more than just the losers at the back of the pack.
The ravine was deep, filled with large wooden beams jutting at random angles like the chaotic insides of a colossal geode. The pit looked like a giant-sized patch of thorns. It was too wide to leap, even for wind-bringers like Fumi who could summon gusts to propel her. She was only midway across the chasm, jumping from beam to beam.
Moto scanned the pit, plotting the fastest route to the other side. He could get a running start for his first jump, but after that he would have to rely almost entirely on his power. He took a step backwards and leapt into the ravine.
He collided with a pole, gripping tightly. Moto felt stupid, limbs wrapped around the beam as he shuffled to the other side of the pole to continue forward. It was slow going, hopping from one pole to the next. Thankfully, it seemed like most of the students were facing similar problems.
After several laborious minutes, he managed to clamber over the opposite ledge of the chasm, breathing heavily and covered in sweat. He hadn’t managed to pass anyone.
Moto took a deep breath and sprinted into the woods on the other side. He picked up speed as he moved through the forest, pulling against the trees to increase his speed and maneuverability. The tight quarters were ideal for his gravity pulls. Moto whipped past one kid.
At the speed he was traveling, navigating the treacherous forest floor was a challenge. Moto considered slowing down to avoid falling. But another recruit was just ten feet ahead. Moto pushed harder.
The forest made a good counterpoint, snagging his foot with a root and sending him sprawling. He hit the ground hard, skinning his right elbow and knee. Moto slid to a stop just a few feet from a river running through the forest.
He pulled himself to his feet, groaning and cradling his now bleeding arm. The recruit ahead of him had continued out of sight. He pulled on the trees carefully this time, increasing his speed but keeping a more manageable pace.
Moto came bursting from the forest, hoping to make up time on the next obstacle. He came up short as he saw several students standing in a group ahead of him, gathered around Iruka.
Iruka noticed Moto and gestured. “The finish line will be a bit further back when you run the race for real, but that’s it for now.”
Moto blinked, the tension leaving him. He counted the students standing around Iruka. Eight. He’d only managed to pass one person after climbing the wall.
He clenched his fists as he approached the group, his head hanging.
Fumi was talking with Keta, her long hair flying wildly as she gestured. She dropped into a crouch dramatically then jumped, shooting her hands above her head. A gust of wind spiraled around her, ruffling the clothes of everyone in the group.
“Whoops! Sorry.” Fumi turned back towards Keta, jumping around with a bit more reservation. Keta stood with arms crossed, smiling warmly. He said listening to Fumi’s stories was like watching a play put on by children. It took Moto a while to realize the shapeling meant this as a compliment.
Moto felt a flash of jealousy watching Fumi bounce around without a care. Wind was the most flexible resonance, useful in almost every situation. She didn’t appreciate at all how lucky she was. She took it as a given that things would just work out in her favor.
Keta noticed Moto and raised a hand, motioning him to join. As soon as she saw him approaching, Fumi’s gestures ceased. “Oh, hey.” She gave a small wave with her hand.
“Hey.” Moto looked towards the buildings under construction behind Iruka.
Keta looked between them and rolled his eyes. He placed a hand on Moto’s shoulder and pulled him closer, rubbing his back for a moment. Keta looked down at the blood along Moto’s arm and tsk’ed. “Always you come away bleeding. You know that is not a requirement of practice, yes?”
Moto waved a hand. “It’s fine, I just tripped and skinned my elbow. What were you two talking about?”
Keta nodded towards Fumi. “She was just telling me her strategy for beating me when we run the full course.”
Fumi took the bait eagerly. “I will beat you! I was just sloppy getting across the ravine. And I’ve got some ideas for new tricks.” She smiled.
“These tricks sound wonderful. Do you think I’ll get a chance to appreciate them from so far ahead?” They were both smiling. Fumi seemed to enjoy the challenge posed by Keta’s seeming invincibility. Keta just liked teasing everyone.
“You just wait.” Fumi and Keta clasped hands and then she walked away.
Moto extricated himself from Keta’s arm, turning so he could look at the shapeling while they talked. Keta wore tight black clothes emblazoned with his house, just like the rest of the students. He had protested for the first few days, insisting on wearing his vibrant red dancer’s clothes. Eventually he had relented to the pressure from the master Daggers, but he still wore the bright yellow silks around his wrists in rebellion.
“I don’t know why you insist on calling me over when you’re talking to her.”
“Ah, you two will be friends, I know it. Besides, I do not want to waste my time telling the same stories and hearing the same jokes twice talking to each of you separately. Things are boring enough with this endless practicing.”
“Some of us actually need the practice, you know.”
Before Keta could respond, the remaining students joined the group and Iruka called everyone together.
“This course is going to be our focus for the next couple weeks.” The two stone-eaters and the flood-bringer, the students who had just finished, groaned.
One of the stone-eaters spoke up. “Shouldn’t we be practicing things that suit our resonance? I’m going to be a fighter, not an infiltrator.”
Iruka sighed audibly. Moto still didn’t understand why the woman was in charge of training the new recruits. Maybe it was some sort of punishment.
“Where exactly do you think you’ll be fighting? Outside the castle walls? You’re just going to challenge all your targets to duels and hope they show up?”
The boy who asked the question melted back into the crowd, his face red.
“Motion is the basis for all Daggers. There are plenty of Heroes and Villains who have similar powers to you. But the ability to apply those powers in unexpected places, unnoticed, and in unpredictable ways is what makes you different. Every one of your powers can improve the way you move through the world. This course will help you find the pattern that works with your ability.
“I want you all to spend the rest of the day practicing on your own. Starting tomorrow, you can ask me or your house for advice. But it’s also important that you get in the habit of analyzing your abilities and identifying ways to improve on your own. Sometimes circumstances will change in the middle of a mission and you’ll have to adapt.
“I will give you one question to focus your initial explorations. What is the biggest difference between Eaters and Bringers?”
Moto hit the ground with a dull thud. He slammed his fists in the dirt, cursing loudly. The wall loomed above him, mocking his attempts.
“How does climbing a wall feel harder after I learned to control gravity?”
Moto pulled against the wall, bringing himself to his feet. How many times had he brushed the dirt from his back, now? He walked away from the wall, his movements stiff, and steeled himself for another attempt. He was alone. The other kids had returned to their houses to seek advice or had moved on to other obstacles. It didn’t matter.
Moto didn’t have much progress to show for the last two days. He needed to work harder. He sprinted towards the wall again.
Pumping his arms, Moto reached out and grabbed the earth, pulling himself forward by invisible ropes of force. Each stride was twice as long as normal. When he reached the wall, he focused gravity into his feet to give himself traction. He pulled on the wall above.
What was the difference between Eaters and Bringers? On the surface, the answer was simple. Eaters could pull power into their body. Bringers could manifest the energy in the world around them. But there was more to the question.
Eaters were durable. The energy in their bodies allowed them to create and withstand massive forces. Keta could leap ten feet in the air. Stone-eaters could jump from great heights, hardening their legs before they impacted the ground.
A Bringer’s body still broke normally. They had to use smaller, more frequent bursts of force. If Moto was always pulling against the ground in front of him, he could reach the same speed as Keta. But it required constant focus.
During the first run, Moto had used too much gravity at once, making it hard to lift his feet. It was better to hit the barrier at high speed, using gravity to provide just enough extra traction to continue upwards.
Moto ran easily, all awkwardness gone from his stride. He was getting better at the constant focus. As he neared the top of the wall he pulled on the ground below, slowing his run so that he would come to rest on top of the wall. He increased the gravity in his feet to compensate for the decreased momentum.
Moto’s foot slipped. His hand slapped the smooth surface of the wall, just a few inches below the ledge. It was such a hateful ledge.
Moto pulled against the wall to slow his descent, but he let himself drop the last few feet onto his back, feeling his own inadequacy.
Moto forced the hopeless thoughts out of his mind. He pushed himself upright. Even if he had to drag himself every inch along the way, he would master his ability. He hadn’t gotten handouts in the last three years and he didn’t need any now. He allowed himself one last spiteful glance at the top of the wall, mentally taking a sledgehammer to it.
As he looked, Iruka’s head appeared over the ledge. “You’re wasting your time practicing here, kid.”
“I’ll figure it out eventually.” Moto turned and began walking away from the wall.
“Oh yeah, the dirt all over your butt really screams steady progress.” Iruka jumped off the wall, one hand trailing above her. She slowed at the last minute, allowing her to land easily. The teacher was a stone-bringer like Moto. “Want some advice?”
“No. I need to figure it out on my own.”
“Well, as much as I admire your dedication to not wasting my time, I do have to stay here until you all finish practicing for the day. So maybe I could offer a tip just to speed things up?”
“I don’t need a tip. I figured out your question. The difference between Eaters and Bringers is durability. I need to apply my ability in smaller amounts more frequently. It’s just taking time to master.”
Iruka pulled on a tuft of her spiky black hair thoughtfully, head cocked to the side. “Huh, I guess that’s one way you could have taken the question. It’s true enough I suppose. It’s the wrong answer, though.”
“What do you mean? It’s making me better.”
“Better at copying Keta, you mean.”
“He’s the best, shouldn’t that be my goal?”
Iruka shook her head. “If you just try to copy Keta, he’ll always have an advantage over you. You have to take a different path.” She paused for a moment, thinking. “Here, I’ll show you.”
Iruka walked around the wall, not looking to see if Moto followed. He considered ignoring the woman and continuing with his current training.
But his back probably could use a few minutes break from absorbing his falls.
When they reached the other side of the wall, Iruka stopped and pointed at Fumi, who was standing a few feet back from the ravine. She had a look of concentration on her face, smiling slightly.
Fumi took a running leap into the pit, blasting air behind her. She managed to travel a fourth of the way across the chasm before she grabbed on to one of the poles. She was off course, though. Instead of landing square against the pillar, she just barely hooked a single arm around it. The awkward catch sent her swinging around the pole.
Instead of waiting for her momentum to stop, Fumi threw her free hand behind her and shot another blast of wind. The force sent her rocketing around the pole. She let go at the height of the spin and went launching into the air. She caught a beam three quarters of the way across the chasm. Twice as far as her initial jump.
Iruka laughed at Moto’s dumbfounded expression. “Running up that wall for two days straight feels pretty dumb, doesn’t it?” She clapped him on the back. “For Eaters, power comes before they move. They start at high speed, but they’re slowing down until they hit the ground again.
“For Bringers, the power comes while they move. Don’t just copy the straight lines of an Eater. Find a pattern that lets you build more momentum.” Iruka walked away, waving over her shoulder. “I think you can figure out the rest.”
Moto stood in the cavernous stone entry chamber of Terran House tying off a cloth satchel filled with his dinner.
The chamber was carved from the mountain, an echoing cave large enough to hold several buildings. Originally, the entry chamber had been completely smooth. But over the years stalactites and stalagmites had formed, helped along by stone-bringer residents who felt they added to the cave-like ambiance of their home. Pathways had been eroded into the floor, weaving around the more precarious stone spikes, detouring towards the artistically painted walls, and eventually plunging into the ant-hill of subterranean tunnels that led to the rest of Terran.
Moto threw his dinner over his shoulder and made for the exit. The other kids of Terran didn’t interest him much, so he usually bundled his food and took it to the Playground so he could eat with Keta. Tonight, though, he had another destination in mind.
He’d made a lot of headway in the last week of practice. It took a while to adapt Fumi’s air spin into something that felt right for his own ability, but Moto was satisfied with the result. Satisfied enough that he felt okay taking a break from training to pursue another goal.
Moto emerged from Terran and immediately cursed, shielding his face as the setting sun stabbed daggers into his eyes. Many features of Iga, like Terran’s west-facing exit, had been created to heighten one’s experience of the mountain’s rugged beauty. Moto did not appreciate the aesthetic.
Eventually, his eyes adjusted enough that he could lower his hand, though thin tears still rolled along his cheeks as he looked down the rock face. The metal mining cart that he usually took to the Playground was immediately to his right. In front of him was a steep, switchbacked trail leading down the mountain. The other three houses were on isolated spires, but Terran House was situated within the largest source of stone in Iga, which meant it shared its squat mountain peak with the main village below.
The village was huddled in the crook of several upthrust spears of stone. The rock formations blocked the wind and hid the massive drop into clouds on all sides. The village was where those who supported the normal functions of Iga lived, so it was a bit more welcoming.
Moto set off down the trail. He let his body lean forward precariously, pulling on the stone behind to steady himself. Occasionally, his focus would slip and he would stumble forward, coming alarmingly close to the edges of the trail. But Moto pushed himself to use his ability constantly. He wanted it to be as easy as breathing.
Besides, it made every hill feel like a flat surface, which was a huge advantage amidst a village of mountain-crazed architects.
Moto made it to the base of the mountain and passed between the modest wooden buildings of the village, watching as shopkeepers stood on ladders, lighting paper lanterns for the evening. Many of the lanterns were painted with a nine-tailed fox, ready to pounce. The image was repeated in stone statues all over Iga, paying tribute to the god Tsukuyomi. The Champion who protected Iga, Hisoka, was aligned with the fox god.
Beyond the village, Moto crossed the raised walkways passing over the fields. At this altitude, Iga imported most of its food from Koga, but the village made sure to produce enough to last a while on its own, just in case.
On the other side of the fields was the Gearhouse. The building shot out from one of the stone outcroppings that surrounded the village. It was six stories tall and as wide as five houses. From this side, the building looked dull. It’s unadorned square lines and small windows hiding the chaos that rang within. The Gearhouse was where they maintained the mechanisms that powered the steel railcarts of Iga. It was also where new weapons were invented and tested.
The opposite side of the Gearhouse, which protruded from the far side of the rock outcropping, was a web of railways and open-air rooms for testing projectiles and explosives. Not all of the rooms were open-air by design.
Moto entered the building and approached the railcart hub. The Gearhouse had a connection to every spire in Iga, which often made it the fastest way to get around.
A short, young woman with bright red hair and ruby-colored eyes sat at the barrier in front of the tracks, drumming her fingers against the railing and looking into the distance absently. A notebook lay open in her lap. From his viewpoint, Moto could only make out a series of figures and numbers scrawled haphazardly across the page. He tapped the woman’s shoulder.
She yelped in surprise, throwing her notebook into the air as she leapt from her seat and spun. Moto managed to pull the notebook through the air and into his hand before if crashed to the ground.
The woman stood with her hand on her chest, breathing heavily as she looked up at him. “Mother’s Scales, what’s wrong with you? You can’t say something a few feet away like a normal person? You scared me half to death!”
Then the woman gasped and looked around the ground frantically. “My notebook! Have you seen–”
Moto held the book out to her, still too caught off guard by her reaction to say anything. The woman snatched the book from his hands and sat back on the stool in a huff. She eyed his tight-fitting black clothes.
“All you Daggers are so creepy, moving around without making a sound. Well? Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
“I’m uh– I’m sorry? I thought you could see me. I walked straight towards you.”
“Apology accepted. Now, what can I do for you? I’m a little busy, in case you hadn’t noticed.” The woman waved her notebook in front of Moto.
“I wanted to take a cart to the Contract House. Could you bring one over?”
“And why would a youngling like you have any business at the Bloodhall?”
Moto bristled. The woman couldn’t be more than a few years older than him. “Why would a glimmer like you be manning the railcarts?”
Most of the mechanical work and weapons research in Iga was overseen by glimmers. The race’s supernatural affinity for crystals and metallic alloys gave them an innate proficiency with tinkering. Most made new tools and technologies for society. The less scrupulous ones invented weapons for Iga. None operated railway carts.
“Hah! Fair enough. I’m on probation.” She said it like it was a badge of pride.
“What for?” he prodded. Moto hoped she would forget about her earlier question.
The woman rolled her eyes, tilting her head to the side and imitating a high, nasally voice. “Unauthorized demolitions work.” She threw a hand in the air. “Like no one has ever blown a hole in the building before. I mean look at the cliffside wall.”
She did have a point.
“You’re a demolitionist then?” It made sense, the woman’s red hair and eyes meant she was a gemstone glimmer. She would specialize in infusing gems with energy to be discharged later. And rubies held fire.
The woman sniffed. “No, I’m an artist.”
Moto smiled. “I think my friend would like you.”
“Oh? And is he the chunin-ranked individual waiting for you at the Bloodhall?” She looked at him knowingly. So much for distracting her.
Moto rubbed the back of his head. “Iruka told our class that the top four recruits in the obstacle course next week get to join a D-rank contract. I wanted to look at the contracts and see what some of them might be.”
It was a lie. He wanted unsupervised time amongst the records. He was very curious to know who had funded a specific contract from three years ago.
The woman sat silently, having none of it.
“Alright, alright. I was going to sneak into the jonin training area.” Moto pretended to look at the ground guiltily. “I wanted to use the cooler weapons.”
It hadn’t taken much time living on his own for Moto to learn that the best way to lie was to let the other person catch you in a smaller one first.
“You know no genin are allowed at the Contract House without an escort who’s chunin or higher. If you got caught–_especially_ if you got caught in the jonin area–I’d be stuck here for weeks!”
Moto looked up from the ground, doing his best to sound conspiratorial. “You could come along too! That way you could keep an eye on me. Plus you could try out some of the higher grade explosives yourself!” It didn’t sound like she was very senior, so she probably didn’t get much time with the more powerful explosives.
The woman looked tempted for a minute. But then she waved her hands in front of her as though physically batting away the rebellious thoughts. “I’m in too much trouble already. Sorry, friend.”
Moto sighed theatrically. “Ah, you’re probably right anyways.” He slumped down on the stool next to the woman.
He knew he wasn’t going to stroll into the Contract House on his first attempt. If he won the obstacle course next week, maybe he’d have a chance to slip away when Iruka took them to choose their first mission. At the very least he’d have a chance to scout the building a bit. He could wait.
Moto turned his attention to the real reason he had come.
“Well, so much for a night of adventure. Do you mind if I eat my dinner here?” He pulled open the satchel of food.
“Doesn’t bother me.”
Moto sat and pulled apart a loaf of bread, eating it quietly as the woman returned to the figures in her notebook. He waited a moment, then leaned over her shoulder. “What’re you working on?”
She waved a hand distractedly. “You probably wouldn’t find it that interesting.”
Moto slid his stool a bit closer, trying to sound curious. “No, try me! It looks cool.”
The woman turned towards at him. “You really wanna know?” Moto nodded. “Well, how much do you know about the discharge rates of the resonant gems?”
Moto shook his head. “Not much. But hopefully someone can teach me more.” He smiled.
“Hah. Sure, why not? I wasn’t going to get much work done without my tools anyways.” She closed her notebook and set it on her lap. “It’ll be nice to have some company. Let’s start with the basics…”
While the glimmer woman talked, Moto tore off a chunk of bread and offered it to her. “My name’s Moto, by the way.”
She spoke through a mouthful of bread. “Nice to meet you Moto. I’m Seiko.”
He wasn’t getting into the Contract House tonight, but it didn’t hurt to make friends with the person who held the keys.
It was strange to see the Playground filled with people who weren’t training. The lower walkways around the edge of the building were filled with people. Senior Daggers came to watch new students run the obstacle course, looking for promising candidates to recruit onto their squads.
While the crowd was mostly Daggers, there were also regular individuals from the town, sitting in small clusters along the railings. They carried small boxes full of snacks and chatted happily. The villagers contributed an almost festival-like atmosphere.
Moto wasn’t the only one who was unsettled by the cheery ambiance. His classmates milled about in the grass around the starting line, quiet and stealing furtive glances towards the walls of spectators. For a bunch of loners, training in the secret arts of stealth and assassination, the biggest challenge for all of them was the smiling townspeople bouncing babies on their knee and pointing towards the recruits.
Well, it was the biggest challenge for everyone except two of them. Moto couldn’t tell who was working the crowd more, Fumi or Keta.
Fumi was, as always, loud and brash. She threw herself into the air on blasts of wind, flipping and twisting. She was especially fond of landing in a crouch, head down, one hand pressed against the ground, the other thrust out behind her. She held the position several times, breathing heavily. Then she spun, gripping a handful of grass and blasting it at the crowd. Her antics had earned her a boisterous crowd of fans among the villagers, cheering and clapping appreciatively after every move.
At first, Keta had tried to get the other students involved entertaining the audience. He tried pulling people towards the stands, or taking their things and playing keep away. He had almost gotten a girl to forget the crowd as she chased him down, screaming for him to give her shoe back. But a pointing toddler had sent her walking back to the starting line, red-faced and shoeless. Keta had given up on recruiting anyone after that.
Instead, he stretched his body into incredible poses and walked about on his hands. At one point he lifted one hand and brought it to his side, supporting his weight with a single arm. He raised onto his fingertips, then lifted his ring and pinky fingers so that he held himself with only three digits. Appreciative sighs from starry-eyed women accompanied each of his three-finger pushups.
Fumi turned to the crowd after each stunt, hyping up their applause. Keta hardly spared them a glance, but it was clear that he positioned himself to be seen. He waved warmly at any of the children who called out to him. His audience was caught in a state of quiet awe.
Moto approached Keta and crossed his arms. “Having fun showing off?”
The shapeling flipped onto his feet, knocking dirt from his hands. His cheeks were flushed with exertion. “I am not showing off, I am performing. This audience has taken from their day to come see us. These are precious moments that they will never get back. It is our duty to make the day memorable.”
“I don’t think you have many allies in that opinion.” Moto looked over his shoulder at the other recruits, all of whom seemed to be in progressive stages of mental breakdown. They’d all snap together once the contest started, but it was funny seeing them so nervous.
Moto caught himself. These were kids training to be killers. Some day they might descend on an actual festival, blades slick with blood.
“Yes, well I will have to speak with Iruka about improving everyone’s stage presence.” Keta noticed Moto’s frown. “What is wrong?”
“Nothing. Just running through the course in my mind again.”
Keta smiled. “Always so serious.” He poked Moto’s forehead lightly. “Living in your head instead of your body.”
“Keta, why do you want to be a Dagger? You seem to love performing. Why willingly adopt a life in the shadows?”
Iruka dropped from one of the walkways along the wall and moved towards the recruits. It was almost time to start. Keta grabbed Moto’s hand and started walking to the starting line. Moto was amused to see several girls’ faces fall.
“I love my family. And my dance troupe. I miss them all, it is true. But we spent our entire lives moving between a tiny set of towns. It was too dangerous to journey any further.
“For most of us, this was not a problem. It is simply how the world works. But my mother has always wanted more. She yearns to see the world. To share our dancing with all the people of Yosai. You can see the fire in her eyes when she talks about it.
“I joined the Daggers so that I could make the world a safer place. I hope that some day my mother can travel freely across Yosai. After everything she has given me in life, it seems that giving up the stage is a small enough sacrifice.”
Moto was silent for a moment, appreciating the feel of Keta’s fingers laced between his own. Moto was surprised to find that he worried what Iga might do to Keta and his warm smiles. “But not every contract will be about making the countryside safer.”
“Then I will not take those contracts.” Keta spoke matter-of-factly. As though it really would be that easy.
Moto didn’t bother arguing. Now wasn’t the time. And he knew the odds of changing Keta’s mind on just about anything.
By the time Keta and Moto reached the starting line, most of the other recruits were already in place, focusing ahead. Fumi was walking backwards, waving and bowing.
Keta squeezed Moto’s hand one last time before letting go. “Besides, it is not like I have lost all opportunities to perform. I will have fun today, I think.” He flashed a mischievous grin.
Everyone was in place now. Iruka walked to the front of the group and spoke quietly. “Alright, you all know what’s going on, so I won’t waste anyone’s time repeating things. The only difference is that you’re allowed to interfere with each other this time.” Iruka looked up at the audience along the walls. “But attacks should be meant to slow your opponents down, not hurt or disable them. If we see any– oh, for crying out– what?”
Moto looked to his left and saw a young boy holding his hand up, wincing at Iruka’s outburst. He was on the younger side of the recruits, 15 years old at most. His long hair was tied back in a ponytail and he wore circular glasses. The lone flood-bringer in the group.
Moto had to strain for a moment to remember his name. Hako. Man, that kid faded into the background.
Hako had a look of honest curiosity on his face. “What’s the difference between slowing our opponents down and disabling them?”
It was a pretty reasonable question. Somehow, this seemed to bother Iruka more.
“Anything that causes more than a few bruises or prevents another student from finishing the race is too aggressive. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution. There are little kids watching.
“Any other questions?” Iruka looked at Hako. The boy stared back earnestly.
Moto considered the new rule. The ability to attack other recruits was unexpected. He could see a ripple through everyone as they processed that information. It changed the nature of the contest dramatically.
Taking an early lead would be dangerous now, making you a target for everyone behind. Moto glanced at Keta, wondering what he would do. The shapeling stood calmly, smiling confidently as always. He’d be fine.
But what should Moto do? Pulling ahead seemed risky, but so did getting caught up in the pack, where attacks could come from all sides. Getting hit by someone’s ability would probably be a huge setback, more than simply slipping on the wall or traversing the ravine inefficiently. Avoiding others would be the top priority.
Moto felt a moment of frustration. He’d spent the last several weeks perfecting a run through the course, but this change turned everything on its head. That was probably the point, though. They wanted to see how the kids adapted. That didn’t make it any less annoying.
Iruka smiled at everyone’s uncertainty. Seeing no more questions, she turned and walked out of the way. The crowd along the walls grew silent in anticipation, tension permeating the air. Iruka raised her arm. Then let it fall.
There was a surge of motion as recruits shot forward. They shouldered one another, trying to make space for themselves. A few kids were knocked aside by a burst of wind as Fumi launched herself ahead of the pack, taking the lead.
Moto didn’t move, waiting for the other kids to push forward. His ability relied on momentum. He couldn’t afford to get hit by others. So he waited for the field to clear.
He was surprised to see two other individuals standing at the starting line as well. Hako was there, which made sense to Moto. But so was Keta. He gave the shapeling a curious look. “I would not have expected caution from you…”
Most of the kids had reached the base of the wall now. The stone-eaters were unexpectedly faring better than most. They had originally seemed poorly suited to the contest. But now, their ability to increase their density and thus harden their bodies was proving a valuable tool for ignoring the attacks of others. Moto watched as one of them absorbed a shove from another recruit, then reached out and clubbed them off the wall with a heavy fist.
Fumi had managed to avoid most of the conflict, reaching the top of the wall unscathed.
Keta turned to him, smiling. “Caution? No, friend. Showmanship.” He dropped into a crouch and threw his arms back. The muscles on his body flared as a massive gout of steam came hissing off his body. Moto felt a surge of heat hit him, forcing him to take a step back. He gasped as Keta launched himself forward.
Keta was the most skilled amongst the new recruits. He won every competition set before them with an effortless grace. Moto thought it was because the boy had more experience with his abilities than everyone else. That was certainly true. But watching Keta right now, watching him really try, Moto realized just how far ahead the shapeling was.
Keta cleared the 20 feet from the starting line to the wall in a single jump. He flipped in the air, landing with his feet against the wall, parallel to the ground. The stone cracked beneath the weight of the impact. Keta pivoted on the wall, sliding his feet along its surface as he spun. He flung his arms out and knocked two kids off the wall with the weighted silks that dangled from his wrists.
His forward momentum gone, Keta fell back towards the ground. He landed in a roll, spinning to face the wall. He took three short steps parallel to the wall and jumped, landing with both feet against the shoulders of a stone-eater. Keta kicked off in a backflip. Even with the stone-eater’s increased weight, he slid several feet down the wall from the force of Keta’s push.
Tumbling through the air, Keta whipped out with his silks and snagged the ankle of a girl nearing the top of the wall. He used her as an anchor to swing himself towards the top of the wall. The motion sent the unsuspecting girl toppling backwards.
Keta landed on top of the wall lightly. He turned towards the largest wall of onlookers and bowed, then dropped off the other side to a thunder of applause.
Moto watched with a mix of pride and jealousy.
Moto pushed aside his envy. Keta’s ascent had helped him, clearing out the wall sooner than he expected. He wouldn’t have to wait as long to get started. Besides, there was only one way he would catch up to Keta’s skill. Time to act.
Moto took off at an angle to the wall. As he ran, he pulled on the ground to his side, sending him into a wide arc towards the wall. He felt the weight of the acceleration, like his insides had all shifted to the right. His stride lengthened as his speed increased.
Instead of meeting the wall head on, Moto reached the base traveling almost parallel. He jumped, releasing his current anchor and latching on to a point above him. He let his feet become heavy, gaining traction along the wall’s surface.
Before, Moto had been running at the wall directly, working against gravity the whole way up the barrier. But now he ran along it’s surface in a semicircle, letting his speed build before he moved directly upwards.
Moto grabbed onto the same boy that Keta had flipped off of, using him as an anchor to change directions. The stone-eater cursed, straining against Moto’s momentum. Poor kid, used as a stepping stone twice. Should have thought more before rushing towards the wall.
Moto was moving fast now. Almost too fast to process. He shot over the barrier, clearing it by a good ten feet. He pulled against the top of the wall hard, slowing his momentum as he arced through the air.
Landing was the tricky part. He could get himself moving fast, but he needed to survive the landing. Moving horizontally, he could always pull on the ground behind him. But if he started falling with nothing overhead, or if the only objects were too far away, he wouldn’t be able to slow himself down.
Moto managed to pull himself back into contact with the smooth stone of the wall. He ran straight down the opposite side, pulling behind him. He dropped the last ten feet, landing in a crouch.
Moto passed several stragglers still climbing the wall, but a number of kids were already well across the pit. Moto saw Keta as he landed on the opposite side of the ravine and ran towards the woods. A blast of wind shot from the trees, aiming to knock Keta backwards into the chasm, but the shapeling rolled to the side easily, laughing.
Moto ran forward, focusing back on the path ahead. He reached the edge and jumped, pulling against a pillar and arcing into the ravine. At the peak of his swing, he released the pillar and immediately grabbed onto another. No time to fly through the air freely. The ravine was where his ability shined above everyone else. He needed to make up a lot of time here. With every swing, his speed increased.
The densely packed wooden columns whipped past in a blur. Moto moved on instinct, his body remembering the twists and timings after countless hours of practice. A few kids tried to disrupt his path, but he streaked past them so fast they couldn’t track him.
Moto straightened out his path. He needed to hit the gate perfectly for this to work. As he approached the opposite edge, Moto let himself drop deeper into the ravine.
Towards the bottom of the pit there were two wooden beams crossed in a large ‘X’, forming a gate. Traveling up at the proper angle, there was a relatively unobstructed path out the other side. At the speed Moto was traveling, he couldn’t really pull on anything directly ahead for fear of slamming into it. But the crossed beams were an exception.
Moto grabbed onto the ‘X’ and pulled as hard as he could. He pushed his feet out in front of him, traveling like a knife through the air. He was moving so fast, even the slightest bit of extra wind resistance would send him crashing into one of the pillars. Moto felt like his head was going to explode with all the blood pressed to the top of his body by the acceleration.
He passed through the gate, releasing the pillars as he shot upwards. He squeezed his eyes shut. He wouldn’t be able to respond to anything in time anyways. At least if he messed up he would smoosh very quickly.
Moto heard a kid scream in surprise as he passed by them. Their cry was weirdly distorted by the speed with which he traveled. He felt himself begin to slow and snapped his eyes open.
His goal had been to exit the ravine fast enough that he could enter the forest without wasting any time covering the ground between. He had gotten close while practicing, but he’d never tried the move at full force. He didn’t want to tip his hand to the other kids. That was probably a mistake.
Moto soared through the air, his clothes snapping against his body. He travelled so fast, his neck stung where his ear lobes whipped against it. The good news was that he was definitely going to make it to the tree line.
But he was also a good six stories up, careening towards the center of the thick forest with no way to slow himself down. Moto began to fall.
He forced himself to think. He would survive the landing or he wouldn’t. He could only try to increase his odds. He would have to overcome this kind of danger sooner or later to achieve his goals.
He had two problems. He was moving too fast down and too fast forward. Either momentum would be deadly on impact. Right now he didn’t have any way to slow down in either direction.
Once he got into the trees he would have anchors, but the forest was only 30 feet tall. He wasn’t going to have much time. Pulling straight up might stop him the fastest, but he wasn’t sure his body could take so much force at once.
Moto crossed his arms against his face as he crashed through the tree line. He felt a biting sting as deep gashes were cut across his forearms. He immediately began to pull.
He pulled above and in front. It would be softer on his body if he gave the downward momentum somewhere to go, converting it to forward momentum in a hard swing. Of course, then he’d be moving even faster forwards. One problem at a time.
Moto pulled on the trees in front of him, clenching his jaw against the acceleration. It felt like his bones were being pulverized. He could hear the tree limbs groaning as they bent towards him, absorbing the force of his fall.
It was a narrow thing. One of Moto’s feet skipped along the river that ran through the woods, nearly sending him into a chaotic midair spin. Thankfully he saw it coming and counterbalanced by pulling on a tree in the other direction. Eventually he began to rise off the ground.
Moto wanted to pull on the trees behind, slowing his momentum, but he was moving too fast. It took all his focus just to pull himself out of the way of onrushing tree trunks or to counterbalance as he was slapped by stray branches. His clothes were covered in bloody rips from the glancing collisions.
The forest brightened as Moto ripped through the trees. He could see daylight. The end of the forest. Which meant the end of any anchors to slow himself down. Moto angled himself towards an opening as best he could and turned his attention towards pulling backwards. He’d just have to hope his aim was good.
Moto pulled softly at first, thinking to protect his body. But his momentum was so great that he hardly slowed at all. He pulled with increasing force until he was straining with all his strength. He felt several branches snap behind him as he burst from the tree line.
Moto continued to pull against the forest behind him, but the further away he got, the weaker his pull. He was still moving too fast. He needed a new plan.
He looked at the field around him. The finish line was only a few hundred yards ahead. The intervening space was empty accept for two individuals. Keta and Fumi sparred as they raced towards the finish. After a few quick interchanges, Keta managed to extricate himself and pull ahead. Fumi shot a blast of wind after him, but the shapeling managed to keep his feet and carry on.
There was only one thing Moto could think to do. He released the nearly-useless anchor behind and pulled desperately towards Fumi.
As he screamed through the air towards her, he managed to yell a word of warning. Both Fumi and Keta turned, their eyes widening in surprise. Fumi planted her foot and made to jump out of the way, but Moto dropped his hold on the ground and grabbed onto her directly. She wasn’t braced against it, so she lifted in the air towards him.
Seeing she was trapped, Fumi brought her hands together in front of her, shooting a powerful column of wind in Moto’s direction. It felt like a hammer slammed into Moto’s chest. Just as he had hoped.
Moto slowed dramatically, but his momentum still carried him through the blast of wind. He collided with Fumi as she was pulled through the air towards him.
There was a crowded flash of sensory awareness. Fumi’s hair whipping in his face. A sharp pain in his ribs as they collided with her knee. Her arms flailing around his shoulders.
Then they hit the ground hard and Moto blacked out.
Moto woke in the infirmary, unsure which part of him hurt worse. One of his legs was splinted. His arms, ribs, and temple were wrapped tightly in bandages.
He looked around and saw Fumi lying in the bed next to him. She was in better shape than he was. Only one appendage was in a sling or bandages.
When she noticed him looking at her, Fumi grabbed the curtain between them with her good arm and drew it across the space violently.
It was a fair reaction. He had used her as a landing pad, killing any shot she had at winning an early spot on a mission. There was a grim satisfaction knowing that he had managed to cause a Soundstealer problems.
Moto sat in silence for a few moments, thinking back to the race. After a while, the door to the infirmary opened. Moto turned, hoping it for Keta. He felt a sting of disappointment when Iruka walked through the door.
“Oh yeah, a teacher just loves to see her student’s face plummet when she walks into the room. Well, at least you’re awake. I was afraid the trip would be a waste. How are you feeling?”
Moto was confused. Why was Iruka coming to check on him? Was he in trouble somehow? “I feel fine.”
“Well you look like garbage.” Iruka grabbed a chair from the wall, sliding it towards Moto’s bed and sitting in it the wrong way forwards. She crossed her arms across the back of the chair. “This seems to be a pattern for you.”
Moto shrugged. “They can just heal me in a week.”
Iruka shook her head. “You know Moto, that healing has a cost. Sure, you heal quickly. But they do it by speeding up your metabolism. You’re paying with time off the end of your life.”
“I don’t plan on growing old anyways.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” She used her power to pull against his bandaged arm, making him wince. “Don’t waste my time saying stupid things like that.”
“Not to be disrespectful, but why do you care? It’s my choice.”
Iruka let out a sharp sigh and looked at Moto. “Well, that’s not true anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“Somehow, that self-destructive show managed to impress some of the higher ups. They think you could have potential, assuming you don’t turn yourself into a smear on some wall beforehand.
“So I was tasked with teaching you better control. Before you kill yourself. Which you will do if you keep being so reckless.”
Moto felt his cheeks flush with anger. “I don’t need special treatment. I can take care of myself.”
Iruka laughed. “Oh yeah, totally. Look at your body. Picture of health and self-preservation right there. Look, I’m not happy about losing my weekends either, kid. But until you can show a bit more control, it’s extra lessons with me.”
“Fine.” Moto turned towards the wall in a huff. “When do we start?”
Iruka stood and walked to the corner, where she grabbed a pair of crutches. “Glad you asked. Now.”
Moto looked at his heavily bandaged body. “Shouldn’t we wait until I’m healed?”
The corner of Iruka’s mouth twisted upwards in a wry smile. She raised her voice in a mocking tone. “‘I don’t plan on growing old anyways.’” She thrust the crutches towards him. “Where’s all that tough talk now, kid? If you’re determined to break your body every chance you get, you can deal with the consequences. Besides, the pain will be a good motivator not to mess up.
“Get up. Let’s go.”
You can read the next story in this series here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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