Etherno

Chapter 1: New Girl

Onin

Onin set his test down and smiled at it. And they said college would be harder than high school. He started to scan back down the paper to double-check his work when he heard a huffing sound behind him.

“Uh-oh.” His muscles tensed.

He turned in time to see Zinako close her eyes, scrunch up her nose, and draw her head back. Students around her scrambled to get out of the way. Oh, not again! Onin started to lift his arm to generate a servitor, but he was too late.

“Ah-Choo!”

The sneeze erupted from Zinako’s tiny frame and flung her backward diagonally, over two rows of tables, and through the middle window.

“I’ve got her!” Onin yelled.

He raised his hand, palm out, and generated a ball of crackling white light twice as large as his head. It separated from his palm and flew out through the broken window.

At the front of the room, Professor Jekao stood, crossed in front of the digital display board, and trudged over to the opposite wall. He stopped in front of a large paper with the number “29” on it. Underneath, it read “… days without a student Gifting incident.” He sighed and pulled the paper off the wall.

A low groan came from behind Onin. He turned around and stared at his roommate, Tannin.

“There goes our free doughnuts,” Tannin muttered.

“That’s what you’re concerned about?” Onin waved at the hole in the window. “What about Zinako?”

“Eh, she’ll be fine. Your—” he waggled his hand “—thingy will get her.”’

“I’ve told you before, it’s called a servitor, and that’s not the point!”

A hum filled the room and the ball of white light rose into view through the hole. Energy tendrils dangled from it wrapped around Zinako’s arms and waist, suspending her. The ball floated into the room, set the girl down, and dispersed into a thousand pinpricks of light with a slight pop.

“See, she’s fine,” Tannin said. “Your what-do-you-call’em’s even healed her scrapes.”

Onin slapped his forehead with the palm of his right hand. As usual, Tannin missed the point.

“All right everyone, excitement’s over.” Professor Jekao sighed and plopped down into his chair. “Back to your tests.”

Onin walked out of his last class and slumped against the wall. The halls were busy this time of day. Onin leaned his head back against the wall and waited for foot traffic to die down a little. The hallway was painted white like most of the building, with the same beige industrial tile covered the floor. The opposite wall was solid glass with a few interspersing stainless steel supports. Onin stared out into the courtyard. It was a beautiful spring day. Maybe he’d study underneath one of the trees in the courtyard instead of heading straight back to his dorm room. Onin closed his eyes and mentally reviewed what he had to go over before his next class tomorrow. Six months into his first year on campus, and he still wasn’t sure if a full load was harder than being dual-enrolled in high school and college like he had been last year.

“Hey, Onin, did you hear about the party tonight?”

Onin cracked an eyelid at the sound of Tannin’s voice. “You know I have to work.”

“Bah, you scholarship kids!” Tannin batted a strand of blonde hair out of his eyes and leaned up against the wall next to Onin. “Always worrying about your grades. And what’s this ‘money’ thing you’re always going on about?”

Tannin never seemed to study. He was tall, athletically built, and his blonde hair stood out amongst the more common brown and black. He was always either going to a party, or talking about a different girl.

Onin raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you have student loans?”

“Yeah, the bank pays me to go here. Great, isn’t it?”

“You do know that’s not how it works, right?”

Onin shook his head, pushed off the wall, and headed to the doorway. Same old Tannin. The kid would get a massive shock when those loans came due. Well, knowing Tannin, he’d probably just ignore the bill.

His friend’s footsteps sounded behind him.

“So, are you going to the party or not?” Tannin asked again.

“Don’t you have to work, too?”

The footsteps stopped.

“Oh, yeah. Maybe I can call in sick…”

Onin kept walking. “I’m not making any more excuses for you.”

“Aw, man!”

Onin shook his head and kept walking. Three hallways and two flights of stairs later, they arrived at the loading docks. Tannin had somehow kept quiet the entire way there. That was the longest Onin had heard him go without saying anything. Great. Since Tannin would miss his party, he’d be brooding for the rest of the night. He seemed convinced that everyone else needed to relax in the same way he did. It was irritating, but Tannin did care for people… in his own way.

The narrow locker room was empty. Onin pulled his phone out and checked the time. Ah. They were a few minutes early. He changed into his work shirt and stuffed the backpack into his locker. He didn’t wait for Tannin. He’d done that his first day on the job and had been late clocking in by the time his friend had finished changing.

Onin stepped out of the locker room and waved to his boss who sat in the office across the hall. “Hey, Sam.” He swiped his ID into the time clock that hung on the wall just outside of the entrance to the office. “What do we have tonight?”

Sam, the short, broad-shouldered second-shift dock manager, looked up from where he sat behind his desk. One corner of his mouth pulled up in grin that reminded Onin of an anime villain. “New countertops for the cafeteria.”

“Aw, come on!” Tannin’s voice echoed from the changing room. He entered the office with his shirt still unbuttoned. “You know what that means. We get to load the old countertops tomorrow!”

“Quit whining and get to work.” Sam jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “The hover truck is already here and waiting.”

He led the way through the double doors out to the loading bay.

“Oh, we’ve got more help, too,” he called over his shoulder.

Tannin was still whining about something. Onin ignored him and pushed his way through the doors. Curious. Despite the decent pay, most people didn’t want to work on the docks. He’d better get a quick look at the new guy. Onin rolled his eyes. Tannin would probably want to bet on how long he’d last.

Onin stopped short. A steady stream of packages floated out of the truck and into the bay. Presumably via telekinesis, as there wasn’t a hover jack in sight.

A well-endowed girl in jean shorts and a black tank top sat in a metal folding chair a few feet from the truck. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her nose was buried in a book.

Onin gaped at her for a moment.

“Wait—” Onin glanced from the girl to the packages and back. “We can use our gifts to move cargo?”

Sam chuckled, and Onin thought he saw the girl grin.

“As long as it doesn’t wear you out.” Sam shrugged. “It’s not like it’s illegal or something.”

“Yeah.” Onin rubbed the back of his neck. “I keep forgetting that. Giftlings aren’t as common out in the country. Sometimes it almost feels illegal.”

The girl looked up and her eyes widened. “You’re not from the city?”

Her voice had an almost lyrical quality. She had an oval face and the most beautiful green eyes Onin had ever seen, and a nicely curved figure. Onin felt his face flush, and he focused on her eyes.

He opened his mouth to say something. At that same instant, Tannin burst into the room.

“Hey, what’s a girl doing out here?” he said.

Onin reached back and slapped his friend upside the head.

“Outworking both of you slackers.” Sam grabbed a clipboard off the wall and headed over to check in the already unloaded cargo.

“Oh, yeah,” Onin said.

Well, since he could use his gift…

He raised both hands above his head and concentrated. White spheres of crackling energy grew out of his palms and rose a few feet in the air. They drifted around in front of him and hovered there for a moment. Onin sent a silent mental command for them to take the crates out of the truck. Both spheres suddenly shot out and into the back of the hover truck. They emerged a few moments later, each with a crate hanging from energy tendrils.

“Hey!” Tannin stopped next to Onin and punched him in the arm. “That’s cheating!”

Onin rolled his eyes and turned to the new girl. “He’s just jealous. Anyway, that’s Tannin, and I’m Onin.”

She glanced up at him. “Kasai.”

She raised her book again. Onin stuffed his hands in his pockets. Was she the unsociable, loner type, or just shy? Or maybe she just didn’t like him. He shrugged and concentrated on unloading the hover truck.

An hour later, they had everything unloaded. In another two hours the crates were unboxed and ready for the construction crew to pick up and install.

“Good work, people.” Sam lifted his arm in a lazy wave. “See you here tomorrow night.”

“Woo! Freedom!” Tannin yelled. “I’m gonna go see if that party’s still going on. Wanna come?”

“Nope.” Onin changed out of his work shirt and grabbed his backpack.

“That’s what you always say. Why not?”

“You know I hate parties—”

“Yeah, yeah, too loud,” Tannin make air-quotes as he said ‘loud’ “—as if there’s such a thing.”

“And I have to study, and I have a morning class tomorrow.”

“Whatever. See ‘ya.” Tannin waved. Then he turned, leaned in, and winked at Kasai. “See you tomorrow, too, cutie.”

“Ew.” She shuddered. “Did he just try to come on to me?”

“Eh, ignore him.” Onin grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. “He’s an idiot. But he’s a good guy, deep down. Somewhere. He just runs his mouth all the time without thinking.”

Kasai pulled her mouth back into a disgusted expression and wrapped her arms more tightly around her waist. They left the building and walked down the street.

“Um, you don’t really have to walk me home,” Kasai said.

“Hmm?” Onin turned his head to look at her. “Oh, I didn’t mean to… I uh, my dorm’s down this way. King’s Hall.”

“Oh.” Kasai blushed and looked down. “I guess I’m right across the street from you.”

They walked in silence for the next several yards. Around the corner, the wind picked up. Onin pulled his jacket around himself. He glanced over at Kasai who was a half-pace behind him. She still wore the black tank top and shorts.

“Aren’t you cold?” he asked.

She shrugged. A few steps later she spoke again.

“Not really. I’m never cold.” She was silent for a few more steps. “They tell me I have a latent fire talent.”

Onin stopped. “Really?”

No one had more than one talent. Sure, some of them you could use in more than one way, but that was it.

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” Kasai stomped on ahead of him.

“I’m sorry.” Man, she was touchy. Onin ran to catch up with her. “I didn’t mean… anything. Forgive me?”

Kasai stopped and turned to stare at him. It was the first time the whole night she’d actually looked at him. For that matter, it was the first time she’d really looked anyone in the eye the whole night.

“I’m sorry, it’s just that…” Kasai’s voice trailed off, and she turned and started walking again. Onin matched her pace. “I grew up in the country.”

She stated it like it was all the explanation needed. For city dwellers, the statement would just be confusing. But Onin got it. In the country there were fewer giftlings. He was all too familiar with the suspicious looks and the distrust. Being ostracized out of fear and jealousy.

“I did too,” Onin said.

She didn’t say anything, but she shot him a half-smile over her shoulder. Onin felt his face flush. She had the most beautiful smile.

Something crashed into him before he could think of anything else to say. Onin landed hard on the concrete and rolled up into a crouch. A fist swung into his field of vision with someone looming behind it.

Onin shoved his palm out toward the person and pushed out with his gift. A ball of white light formed and slammed into his assailant. The thug hit the ground and rolled away. Onin blinked in the light cast off by the servitor. Four black-garbed men stood in a loose circle around him. Kasai was nowhere in sight. Onin held out his hands and generated two more, larger servitors.

“Find Kasai,” he snapped to the one on his right.

The ball of light condensed to twenty percent of its former volume, turned blue, and zipped off. The larger of the two remaining servitors arced a lance of energy over to the other, which grew to the same size. The two of them started to orbit around Onin.

All four of the thugs drew energy weapons and started to fire at Onin. The servitors zipped around to intercept each shot. Onin took a step backward. His heart pounded in his chest. Where had these guys come from, and why where they shooting at him?

The thugs spread out and laid down a complicated firing pattern. Onin dropped to a crouch to minimize his profile, took a few shaky breaths, and darted around, dodging shots. His servitors spun around him in an erratic orbit, intercepting the blasts.

These guys weren’t ordinary thugs. Some of them were targeting his core, and others his limbs, forcing the servitors to spread out to shield him. They were trying to sneak a shot past the glowing balls. This had to be more than just a mugging. Regular muggers would’ve just run away from an armed victim. Onin racked his brain trying to think a single good reason for this attack. Maybe it wasn’t him they were after. But who?

One of the energy beams skimmed past a servitor and hit Onin on his left forearm.

“Ow!”

A blueish-white healing beam arced out of the closest servitor and washed over his arm. Onin pointed his finger, and lightning erupted from both servitors, melting the thugs’ energy weapons. Onin growled in frustration and waved the farthest servitor forward to capture the thugs. A blast of orange fire as large as a bus came out of nowhere and slammed into one of the thugs before the servitor could reach him.

“What the—” Onin jumped back and looked around. Off to his right stood a girl with flaming red-orange hair, and the gem-like scaled wings and tail of a white dragon.

Onin took a deep breath and tried to keep his hands from shaking. Was she here to help him or just attack everyone?

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Shut up pretty-boy, or I’ll barbecue you when I’m done with this scum.” She didn’t even look at him as she spoke.

“It’s her! Fire!” one of the thugs said.

They turned as one, drew more weapons, and fired on the new girl. She jumped up and wrapped blue flames around herself. The flames flared and soaked up the energy beams from the weapons. It was like adding gas to… well, a fire.

Something moved in his peripheral vision. Onin glanced toward it. As he turned, the thug who’d been hit by the first fire blast rose to his feet. He wasn’t burned, and his clothing wasn’t even singed. Fire-proof clothing. They knew this flame giftling would be here. What was he getting involved in? And where had Kasai gone? The first servitor should have found her by now. He shook his head. Deal with these thugs first, then worry about all that later.

The flame giftling was all over the place, jumping, rolling, and flying. Onin had seen a few flame giftlings at school, but none of them with this girl’s power. She was soaking up energy blasts and shooting fire everywhere. One of the thugs pulled out another weapon and aimed at the girl. Onin jerked his hand forward, and one of the two servitors orbiting him shot out toward the thug, but he pulled the trigger first. A loud bang sounded. The flame gifting jerked her head up and white light exploded out of her. The heatwave radiated and knocked Onin to the ground. The thugs dropped their weapons and ran.

Onin coughed and winced. Must be a flash burn from the heat wave. He sent a thought out to the closer servitor and felt a healing beam from it wash over him. He stood, blinked his eyes, and looked around. The thugs were gone. The flame gifting was lowering herself out of the sky to stand on the rim of a glowing red crater in the pavement.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She dropped to the ground and smirked. “What, you’re not going to run away from me, too?”

Onin shook his head. “Nope. Looks to me like they were giftling hunters. If you were a criminal, they would have identified themselves to me and asked for my assistance. More importantly, I have to find out what happened to the girl that was here before they attacked.”

She walked nearer and looked Onin over.

“You’re cute. I like you.” She smiled. “My name’s Onryo. Don’t worry, Kasai’s fine.”

She came even closer. Onin swallowed. Beautiful women didn’t get this close to him, and this one had just taken out a squad of trained hit men. Onin clasped his hands in front of him and looked her in the eyes.

“Be her friend. She needs one.” Onryo leaned in and whispered in his ear. “But if you ever hurt her, I’ll burn you to ash.”

She kissed his cheek and stepped away. “Bye. See you around, cutie.”

A curtain of smoke blew out from around her and obscured the street. One of the servitors sent out a thousand tendrils of light and absorbed the smoke. The flame gifting was gone.

The blue seeker servitor zipped around the corner and stopped inches from his face. It flashed on and off, signaling that it had found something, then drifted back around the corner. Onin skirted the crater and ran after it. A familiar looking set of arms and legs dangled over the edges of a broken crate. A mixture and fear and relief washed through Onin.

“Kasai?” Onin ran over to the crate.

“Here,” she said.

Kasai lay on her back. Onin grasped her hand and helped her upright. “Are you okay?”

Kasai looked down and brushed dirt and sawdust flakes off her shirt. Onin kept his attention away from her chest.

“Um, I think so…” Kasai’s voice trailed off and she looked herself over. “What happened? We were talking, and then something slammed into me, and I woke up in a crate.”

Onin waved. A servitor ran a healing beam over Kasai.

“Well, you’re not injured,” he said.

“It can do more than carry stuff?” Kasai raised her eyebrows and pointed to the servitor.

“Yeah. They can do a number of limited tasks that involve energy manipulation. It actually took a while to figure out how to get them to physically carry things.” Onin looked around. “As to what happened, a flame gifting named Onryo showed up and wasted the guys who attacked us.”

Kasai froze and carefully avoided looking at Onin.

“I need to go home. I’m really tired.”

“Okay.” Onin peered at Kasai. “Do you know something about this Onryo or those thugs?”

“I’ve never seen her.” Kasai pulled a lock of hair down over her eyes and twirled it around her finger. “I need to get to bed. Thanks for caring.”

Kasai gave him a stiff wave, and a smile that was stiffer yet. Then she walked off, still avoiding eye contact.

Onin frowned. He had a gut feeling that something else was going on here. Kasai obviously didn’t want to talk about it, and just as obviously knew more about what had happened than she let on. Maybe giftling hunters had been after her for a while? That would explain the attack. If that was the case though, she should tell someone. That kind of thing was illegal even out in the country; but depending on where exactly she was from, it might still be fairly common. If so, she’d need time to get to know who on campus she could trust.

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