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The genin milled about near the Playground’s entrance, casting nervous glances into the wild forest that dominated the building’s interior. After a week of constant training, Moto could see the woods below in his mind’s eye with near-perfect detail. He scanned the trees one more time to be safe.
The Playground’s size still awed Moto. The roof vanished in the torchlight, well over a hundred feet above. The edges of the dense forest stretched even further away than the roof, several hundred feet in each direction.
A small lake took up the right corner closest to the entrance. Rocky pillars, like miniature mountains, thrust from the vegetation at irregular intervals. The ropeways that usually crisscrossed through the air above had been removed.
A din of crickets filled the relative quiet. A light fog had coalesced between the close, moss-laden trunks. The primeval forest sprang forward quickly to reclaim itself, reveling in the rare moment of calm when no Daggers stalked it’s shadows. The resurgence would be brief.
Older Daggers stood against the wooden railing, watching from the raised walkway around the perimeter of the building. Senior members held positions higher up, where the view was better.
There were no townsfolk cheering along the sidelines this time. Keta and Fumi looked to the sparse, stern-faced spectators with disappointment.
Moto’s heart lurched as his gaze found Soundstealer. The man stood out even amongst the house leaders. Tall and muscled, hair pulled into a severe topknot, he wore loose pants and a sleeveless vest. His arms were tightly wrapped, with small bells woven into the cloth that never made a sound. He leaned against the railing several stories up, looking in Moto’s direction.
Moto averted his eyes, palms suddenly sweating. Two weeks of travel from Jidoka, then back in Iga for a week, without mention of the warehouse fire. Moto thought it hadn’t been traced to him. But was Soundstealer watching him? Did he know?
Moto nearly jumped out of his skin as Fumi clapped his shoulder. She gave him a reassuring smile before she waved to her father. Soundstealer frowned and turned to one of the Zephys Daggers standing beside him.
Of course. Moto forced his breathing to slow. Just watching his daughter prepare for the exam.
Fumi dropped her hand, only frowning for an instant before her smile returned. “He’s just nervous to watch me compete. You wait, he’ll crack a smile when I win.”
Fumi threw her arm around Moto’s shoulder and turned him back toward Keta. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “They’re watching us. Like you said.”
Moto didn’t bother looking. He had already noticed. Hako and Hibana were leaning against the wall, with Hako’s gangly frame a sharp contrast to Hibana’s thick-corded muscle and catlike grace. Taller than most of the other recruits, with the salt-and-pepper hair of those from north of the Fox Fangs, they should have stood out. Yet somehow they faded into the background. Haiyu, the third member of the squad, knelt as he retied his boots with delicate fingers.
They were looking everywhere, just like the other recruits, but their focus always returned. Watching. It seemed they had chosen Moto’s squad as the biggest threat. And they weren’t the only ones.
No one looked with the same intensity as Hako’s squad, but it was hard to miss the glances from the other recruits. Moto had expected it for Keta, who had always been out in front. But it seemed the extra missions, not to mention special attention from Soundstealer and Iruka, had put a target on all three of their backs.
It surprised Moto that the other genin were aware of him, keeping track of what he was doing. He scanned the recruits clustered in their squads and struggled to remember most of their names.
He recognized Yoku Whitefire, a tall, proud-faced woman who tossed her hair like a warhorse. She was the eldest daughter of a prominent family in Ignis. And he knew the bronze glimmer in her squad, a squat man with coppery hair and eyes. He was a stone-eater named Seido. But Moto didn’t know their third member, a woman with straight black hair down to her shoulders.
The fourth squad Moto didn’t know at all. One was a human woman with a broad face and a flat nose. Another was a short shapeling woman with large eyes and a perpetually sour expression. Both looked suspicious, eyes constantly darting between the other recruits’ faces.
They were the two flood-eaters. It made sense he didn’t know them, since they had been trained separate from the others. But their third member, a stern-faced shapeling man, was just as unfamiliar.
Moto told himself that he didn’t know these people because he’d made the conscious choice not to get close so he could focus on what needed to be done. But after his talk with Iruka, he wasn’t so sure. Wouldn’t it have been useful to get to know the others, at least to know their names? How much of his myopia was his own, and how much his resonance?
As he frowned at the other recruits, Moto grunted in surprise. “Aren’t there supposed to be 13 of us? I only see 12.”
Fumi looked at him with a mixture of sadness and surprise. “Joyo didn’t survive his first mission. I thought you would have heard since he was Terran.”
Moto shifted uncomfortably. From his own house and he hadn’t noticed at all. “I… I’ve been spending too much time training this past week. I haven’t had a chance to talk with anyone.”
Iruka’s spiky black hair was followed by gleaming glasses and a smirk as she climbed the ladder from the forest floor below. All of the recruits went quiet and turned to face her. She held a sack of jingling coins that reminded Moto of the entrance exam.
Hand on her hip, Iruka cocked her head sideways and smiled, waiting until an nervous mumble of greeting rose up from the recruits. She crossed her arms and donned a mocking pout. “Hardly a warm welcome for your beloved sensei.”
She hefted the jingling bag and her wicked grin returned. “Well, I’m a busy lady and if you lot aren’t going to shower me with appreciation, then I’ve got better things to do. Let’s get down to business.”
Iruka opened the bag and started tossing leather armbands to the kids. Each band had a fist-sized medallion of smooth iron held firmly in place. “The rules are pretty simple. Each recruit gets an armband with a medallion. On the back side of the medallions is a unique number. Each squad’s numbers add up to zero. Make it out of the forest with a positive total and your squad advances to the one-on-one combats.”
She paused for a second to let the instructions sink in. Moto thought she gave him a nervous glance before she continued. “You can split from your squad if you want, but there’s no joining back up after that. You’re on your own. There’s a max of eight spots in the next round, so be quick about it. Your pairings will be determined by the average score for your squad. A higher number will make the next round better for you. Any questions?”
Iruka rolled her eyes theatrically as Hako’s hand went up. Moto remembered a similar interaction at the entrance exam, but somehow it didn’t seem quite as immature. Maybe it was the growth spurt, or a new hardness in his eyes from their first mission. Whatever it was, Iruka didn’t complain this time. Audibly at least.
“If all we need is a positive number, why can’t we just throw away our negative coins and be done?”
The fact that it was a reasonable question only seemed to make things worse, though Moto wasn’t sure if it was because Iruka couldn’t give Hako a hard time, or because it meant she had to spend more time giving instructions. “The only way to get rid of a coin is to have it taken from you. Any other way, and it still counts toward your score. And no forcing other recruits to show you their coin before you take it. Anything else?”
With no further questions, Iruka finished handing out the armbands in silence. When she got to Moto, she looked into his eyes, searching for something. She gave a small nod and carried on.
Moto’s squad walked toward their starting position in the far left corner of the Playground. As they moved, they pulled their medallions from the armbands and looked at the numbers. Fumi had a three and Keta had a negative five. Moto had a two.
Was that why Iruka had given him that look? Did she think he would split from the group because he had a positive number?
Moto rolled his shoulders in frustration. Just because he was pragmatic didn’t mean he wanted to abandon his friends. People thought a willingness to make sacrifices meant you must be a jerk all the time.
He still wanted to do good things when he could. To have friends and a happy life. When he could.
Moto put the medallion back into place. He would do his best to help the squad. But a small voice at the back of his mind started planning for if things went wrong.
Moto realized that Fumi and Keta were staring at him. “What?”
Fumi shrugged. “Just waiting for the plan.”
Keta nodded. “We follow your lead.” The shapeling’s smile was only slightly tinged with uncertainty. The two of them hadn’t talked about Soundstealer since leaving Jidoka. There were surely more arguments to be had, but neither of them wanted to break the peace.
“I didn’t say anything about leading! He’s the plan guy. That’s different. The wind hasn’t blown one way or the other on who’s the leader yet.”
Moto smiled. “How about a bet?”
Fumi arched an eyebrow.
“Whoever wins the tournament is squad leader.”
Fumi clapped and a burst of wind ruffled everyone’s clothes. “You’re on!”
Keta sniffed, inspecting his nails theatrically. “If you wish me to be the leader so strongly, you could simply ask. There’s no need to wait for the inevitable.”
Moto pushed him and they all laughed. None of them considered the odds that the winner might not be one of them.
As they neared the far corner, Moto pulled himself back to the task at hand. He stroked his chin as he thought out loud. “We have to be careful about the negative coins. Each squad’s numbers add up to zero, so we can’t take every armband. And choosing wrong is really bad. This challenge is about intelligence gathering more than anything else.
“If the other squads are smart, once the tournament starts they won’t discuss their medallions. If they do, we should assume it’s meant to deceive us. The real truth will be in how they fight.”
Keta nodded sagely. “It is always so.”
“Ideally, we’d watch two squads battle and make some deductions from how they engage.” Fumi and Keta both frowned. Moto had expected they wouldn’t like sitting on the sidelines. “But realistically we won’t have the luxury of observing from afar. We’ll have to watch our enemies for information as we fight. We need to pay attention to who’s reckless and who they protect. If we can, we should disengage and strike a few times in different configurations so we can spot patterns in how they move.”
“Won’t we be giving away the same information?”
Moto thought for a second. “We could try to bluff, coming up with a formation that looks like we’re protecting Keta even though he has a negative coin.”
Moto thought back to Iruka’s warnings from their very first sparring session. People were more predictable than they thought. “But we haven’t had much time to practice anything like that. We’d probably give up the lie subconsciously. We’d be putting the positive coins at risk and waste focus on maintaining the misdirection for a marginal advantage. We have the most real world experience. I think we should focus on offense.”
They had reached the starting point, a clearing at the base of a small mountain. Fumi pulled her wild hair back into a bun as she responded. “If we’re going to fight like normal, maybe you and I should swap coins, Moto. Iruka never said we couldn’t take each other’s. And you’ll be the furthest back.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s a good idea.” And an obvious one. But Moto had been focused on the arrangement of coins as they were originally given. Just an oversight, or his resonance again? Now that he was looking, it felt like there was room for doubt everywhere.
Fumi beamed as she handed him her coin and took his. Keta had a foot planted on the mountain beside them, leaning forward in a deep stretch.
A loud gong rang and the chunin exam began.
Moto moved through the woods in silence, darting from one rough-barked pine tree to the next, lingering in the heavy pools of mist and shadow beneath the branches. He staid low, keeping his head beneath the thick underbrush as he searched with his gravity sense.
It was hard to sift through all the objects around him. Tree trunks, underbrush, and lichen-covered boulders were so closely packed they blocked sight more than 20 feet out in every direction. But if he paused for a few breaths, he could separate movement from the stationary vegetation. So far nothing stirred.
Fumi was crouched out of sight ten feet to the left and Keta rested in the trees above. Close, but not so close they could all be hit at once. Moto tugged each of them lightly. The signal for all clear.
Moto rose, his muscles tensed to dart forward, when a sudden weight crept in at the edge of his awareness, 30 feet out. He reached back to Keta and Fumi, tugging sharply to bring them to a halt. He fell to his stomach in the underbrush, knowing they were doing the same.
Three weights, arrayed a few strides apart, were hiding in the shadows, keeping to moss-laden patches that deadened footsteps. Even knowing where they were, Moto couldn’t see or hear any trace of their passage. If not for his gravity sense, they would have been undetectable. Daggers were an entirely different kind of enemy.
As the party approached, Moto pulled on Keta and Fumi, signaling the enemy location. Three pulls, three enemies. Right shoulder, approaching from north west. A long pull, hold. He couldn’t believe he had ever been jealous of Fumi’s wind.
Moto finally caught sight of one of them. Her large, muscular frame stalked through the underbrush like a panther. Hibana.
Hako and Haiyu appeared from the underbrush soon after, regrouping around Hibana. Hako and Haiyu took the outside flanks, leaving Hibana with her back to a tree. Protecting her? Keta said she was a flame-eater like him, so her natural position was on the flank. He filed the observation away.
The enemy squad was going to pass right by Fumi. Moto figured she had probably seen them by now, but he signaled just to be safe.
Hako’s squad spread out again, keeping Hibana at center position. As they passed Fumi, Moto reached past and grabbed hold of a branch, careful to choose one with a clear line of sight so he didn’t pull on any intervening plants as well.
The branch made the barest whisper of movement. Just enough to hint at unseen assassins in the trees. A loud crack would have been obvious. Hako’s squad reacted instantly, pulling tight around Hibana. Definitely protection.
Hako spread his hands wide, shooting a cloud of ice needles toward the sound. Hibana crouched, getting ready to move. Haiyu stood with his back to both of them, watching the rear. Their movements were precise and disciplined, like they had been working together for years.
A swirling sphere of wind erupted from Fumi’s hiding spot, pushing dust and debris toward Haiyu. At the same time, Fumi leapt sideways, planting a foot against a tree and throwing herself at Haiyu from an unexpected angle. The boy coughed, raising slender arms to shield his face from the dust.
Fumi connected, bringing her heel down against the boy’s shoulder. Haiyu didn’t even flinch as he sent a blind fist in her direction. Fumi crossed her arms and a cushion of air blossomed to absorb most of the blow. The impact sent her sprawling backward, though she caught herself with a tight flip, landing in a crouch.
Keta dropped from the trees between Haiyu and Hibana, sending a flurry of jabs into the slight boy’s ribs before spinning, aiming a kick at Hibana’s head. The jabs should have left Haiyu gasping for breath, but his hardened body ate the strikes with only a grunt. Hibana caught Keta’s foot, muscles in her arms flaring much like the shapeling’s.
Hibana lifted Keta into the air as Hako sent a fist of water toward his chest. The water scattered as Moto shot a rock to disrupt the attack. Keta unfurled the weighted silks around his arm and sent them cracking into Hibana’s arm, forcing her to drop him.
Hibana’s wrist hung at a bad angle as Keta leapt back, but she took a deep breath and it popped back into place. The two squads faced off, Hako’s standing back-to-back as Moto and the others circled a few paces out.
Hibana was definitely holding back. The center was no place for a flame-eater, and she hadn’t made a move until she was directly attacked. When the ambush began, it looked like she was getting ready to evade, not leap into the fray. Either she had a positive coin or that’s what they wanted people to think.
They were smart enough to think of switching coins. So why would they choose an arrangement that hampered one of their members so dramatically?
Hako’s squad was careful. Even now they were watching and waiting, rather than striking out to get free. Maybe they wouldn’t mind taking a hit to their offense in order to leave their biggest positive coin in the hands of the fastest reflexes. But it seemed like too big a sacrifice.
Unless that was the point. Hibana’s position was so obviously suboptimal, it couldn’t help but draw attention. Moto thought back to the way Hako’s squad observed them during training, thinking no one would notice. They were smart, but they didn’t put much stock in the intelligence of others. Exactly the kind of mindset that would lay a trap and make the bait obvious.
Moto grabbed a stone the size of his head from ten feet back and accelerated it toward Haiyu. Taking his cue, Keta and Fumi raced forward, aiming for Hibana. They had noticed her strange position as well.
Hako stepped close to Hibana with his arms out to the side. He brought them together and two walls of ice traced the path of his hands, protecting them on either side. Haiyu stepped forward and punched the stone flying through the air, his hardened fist cracking the rock into a thousand pieces.
The slender stone-eater closed his eyes against the shrapnel. Just like with Fumi’s dust cloud, the boy didn’t protect his visibility, trusting in his heightened durability instead. Moto grabbed the trees behind Haiyu and pulled, hurtling himself toward the boy.
Moto brought his feet up, slamming into Haiyu’s chest at high speed. The boy staggered a step, but it felt like drop kicking a mountain. The impact sent a jarring shock into his ankles and knees.
Haiyu brought both hands down in a blind hammer fist, but Moto was ready. Keeping his feet planted on the boy, Moto pulled against the surrounding trees to dodge the strike. He reached past the stone-eater and grabbed Hibana with his gravity. Moto’s legs flexed against Haiyu’s immovable frame as Hibana was pulled backward and crashed into her ally.
Moto dropped to the ground, sliding past Haiyu toward Hibana. The boy’s vision had returned, and Moto made sure the stone-eater was watching before his hands snapped forward, reaching for Hibana’s armband. The boy staid in place.
That was the last confirmation Moto needed. Hibana was a flame-eater, she should have been able to react before Moto swung around to her. And twice now Haiyu had chosen not to defend Hibana.
Moto pulled against Haiyu from his palm and the boy’s weight caused Moto’s hand to change directions rapidly. Haiyu blinked in surprise as Moto grabbed the stone-eater’s armband and pulled it free.
Moto tugged against a tree behind, pulling clear. Keta had broken through Hako’s ice wall and was engaged with the lanky youth. Fumi had thrown herself over the wall with a blast of wind to reach Hibana.
Moto pulled the silver medallion free to check the number and his stomach tightened. Negative four.
Moto cursed as he realized his mistake. Iruka said each coin was unique. With a negative four, the only way two positive coins could balance it was with a one and a three. But Moto had the three coin.
Their actions suddenly clicked into place. Hako’s squad had to have two negative coins.
Hako wasn’t falling back to Hibana to defend her. She was watching his back. While Haiyu served as a decoy that made it seem like Hibana was at the center.
When he saw Moto with the coin, Hako smiled. It didn’t last long though as he struggled to keep Keta away. Clever as their plan was, Hako’s squad was outmatched in terms of combat reflexes. But Haiyu and Hibana were regrouping. They were getting ready to flee.
Moto cursed again, more violently this time. “They had two negative coins. Go for Hako!” Hako wasn’t going to beat him. Moto grabbed the trees ahead and shot like an arrow, flying past Hibana and Haiyu as he closed on his target.
Moto’s only warning was the sound of cracking stone. Then it felt like a fully loaded cart rammed into his chest. He lurched sideways, slamming into a tree and breaking through a branch the width of his wrist. There was a sharp pain as several of his ribs cracked.
Moto scrambled to recover. White hot agony in his side and his breath coming short, he barely managed to get his feet under him before Hibana was on him, gripping his shoulders and pulling him in for a head butt. Her eyes were cold and lethal.
Moto knew he couldn’t stop her. He flared his resonance and pulled against the ground as hard as he could. Hibana’s eyes widened marginally, surprised as Moto slipped free. But the pull was hard enough to slam him against the ground. The pain in his ribs took his breath away.
Hibana pivoted smoothly, pulling back for another strike, but a blast of wind pushed her against a tree and gave Moto enough time to break free.
Hako had nearly disappeared into the woods, with Haiyu standing at the edge of the clearing to guard his escape. Fumi stood with her hands thrust out as she held Hibana at bay with her wind.
For the third time, Moto cursed. Only Hako had planned to run. The minute Moto turned his back on Hibana, she had changed gears and the sudden shift to offense gave them the upper hand. That mistake was going to let Hako get away.
Moto couldn’t let that happen. He was in no shape to go sneaking through the woods, let alone to fight another squad. If they retreated and tried to find another target, they would be at a huge disadvantage. And that was assuming they could even find another group before the contest was over.
Moto couldn’t catch Hako in his condition. But if he could hold Hibana and Haiyu here, maybe Fumi and Keta could overtake the boy. Moto wiped blood from the side of his mouth and squared his stance. “You two go after Hako, I’ll take care of these two.”
Fumi looked concerned. “But you’re–.”
“Go! We don’t have time to debate, this is our best shot.”
She nodded reluctantly, dropping her wind blast as she and Keta turned to follow Hako.
As soon as the wind vanished, Hibana’s legs flared and she launched at Fumi. Moto was ready. He dove to the side of the flame-eater and pulled. He couldn’t halt her momentum, but he could throw her off course, sending her crashing into the woods.
The woman adapted quickly, refocusing on Moto. If he was going to get in her way, it seemed she had no qualms taking him out first.
Moto pulled back, holding his distance. She couldn’t change direction once she leapt. If he could keep dancing to the side, maybe he could avoid her.
At the edge of the clearing, Haiyu threw himself between Hako and the others. Moto had no doubt the other two could make it past, but they didn’t have time to slow and deal with the slender stone-eater.
If only Moto could pull the boy out of their way so they could keep moving. But with Haiyu’s resonance active, he was too heavy. Moto needed more leverage.
Hibana threw herself at Moto, her speed increasing with her frustration. This time Moto didn’t dodge. The minute Hibana hit, he latched on to Haiyu, pulling as hard as he could.
Darkness played around the edges of Moto’s vision. It felt like he was being flattened by a boulder. But he held firm. Hibana grunted, surprised that she connected and surprised that Moto seemed so hard to move. Haiyu’s eyes widened as he was dragged sideways.
Hibana and Moto sprawled across the forest floor. Some of their momentum had been absorbed by Haiyu, but they still had enough speed to land heavily. Expecting the impact, Moto recovered first, managing to get a bit of space before Hibana regained her feet.
Moto took a step back. The anger in Hibana’s eyes spoke of murder. All thoughts of covering Hako’s escape seemed forgotten.
Moto needed to get away. He glanced over the woman’s shoulder. If the others had made it past, then he could turn and run.
Seeing the collision, Keta stopped. Uncertainty colored his face as he looked between Hako and Hibana. Moto coughed into his hand and ignored the blood that splattered across his fingers. “Keta, go! We need Hako’s coin.”
Keta turned to face him, dropping into a crouch. “No.”
Hako slipped between a stand of trees, out of sight.
“This isn’t the time to be noble, that coin is too important. I’ll be fine.”
“I won’t leave you. I won’t leave anyone I love again!”
Keta’s muscles flared, his loose fitting pants suddenly tight around his legs. The heat from his body was so great the grass at his feat began to smoke.
Keta was nearly 20 feat away, while Hibana was only a few steps from Moto. Her face contorted in a snarl as she pounced. Too fast to dodge for her prey to dodge.
Heat blasted Moto’s face as Keta appeared in the air, driving his knee into Hibana’s side. The woman’s eyes widened. The shapeling had covered four times her distance in the same time.
Then she was slamming through a tree, breaking the trunk in half.
Moto didn’t even see Keta’s feet touch the ground before his body changed direction. It seemed like he was skipping the space between where he was and where he wanted to be.
Hibana dragged herself up just in time for Keta’s axe kick to throw her back to the ground. She hit so hard she bounced.
Keta was behind, catching her ragdoll form before it fell to the earth. He threw her so hard she broke through two trees. She did not rise.
Keta was a furnace. The heat from his body raised a fierce wind around him. It whipped through the trees, their branches blowing back with a low roar.
Keta turned to Fumi. “She will be on her feet soon. Get Moto out of the forest. I will get the coin from Hako.”
Haiyu squared himself, ready to intervene.
In the blink of an eye, Keta was coiled in the air in front of him. His legs shot out like lightning, connecting with the boy’s chest. Haiyu crashed backward into a tree, his feet leaving furrows from his heavy weight.
Then Keta was gone into the woods.
Moto staggered, but Fumi caught him on her shoulder and hefted him to his feet. She supported him as they ran, increasing their speed with her wind.
Moto faded in and out of lucidity. But he was aware enough to be frustrated, replaying every detail he had missed. He had played into Hako’s traps again and again. Had he cost all of them their chance at being Daggers?
The pair made it to the edge of the Playground and Fumi set Moto up against the wall. They waited together, watching the forest as they waited. Neither of them was accustomed to feeling helpless.
Had Keta found Hako? Did he retrieve the coin? With every minute that passed, Moto worried more. Hako had proven he was not to be underestimated.
After what felt like ages, Keta appeared at the edge of the woods. He raced forward, staggering twice before he made it to the raised walkway around the Playground. When he stopped in front of Moto and Fumi, his knees buckled and he thumped roughly to the ground. He opened his hand to show a coin with a seven on it.
Keta gave a lopsided grin, his usual grace gone in his tired state. “You see? Sometimes it is best to–.” He slumped sideways, giving way to exhaustion. The shapeling was unconscious before his shoulder hit the ground.
You can read the next story in this series here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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