Etherno

Chapter 10: Sun, Sand, and… Snow?

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Something heavy landed on Onin’s chest. He jerked up into a sitting position, generated a servitor, and looked around.

“Rise and shine, sleepy-head!” Tannin was inches from his nose. And he needed a breath mint.

“Gah!” Onin flung himself backward. “What are you doing in here? Never mind that, how are you up before I am?”

“It’s summer break, and we’re going to the beach for a few days!”

“We’re taking classes year-round.”

Tannin nodded. “Yes, but there’s two weeks of sweet, sweet freedom between the end of winter classes, and the start of the summer doldrums.”

“Summer dol—whatever. Why are we going to the beach?”

“It’s the beach,” Tannin said, as though that were all the explanation anyone needed. For Tannin, it probably was. He was already dressed in a loose-fitting t-shirt, swim trunks, and flip-flops.

“I have to study.” Onin yawned. “I don’t have time to go to the beach. Besides, we haven’t got any new leads on the attacks on giftlings.”

“That’s because they’re at the beach,” Tannin said.

He certainly had a one-track mind.

“Who’s at the—never mind.” Onin sighed “Go without me, then.”

“No can do.” He turned to face the door, put his hand next to his mouth, and yelled, “Backup!”

Onin’s bedroom door cracked open. Cerina poked her head in.

“Kasai wants to know if he’s decent, first. Ow!” Cerina looked over her shoulder. “What? You were worried. I asked!”

Onin rolled his eyes. “Tannin, get out. I’ll be out in five minutes.”

“Beach!” Tannin raised his fist triumphantly into the air.

Onin sighed and fell over backwards onto the bed.

Tannin, Kasai, Cerina, and even Saija were waiting in the living room for him. All of them were dressed in shorts and tank-tops and had a duffel bag next to them.

He looked at Kasai. “You, too?”

She shrugged. “I like to swim.”

Hmm. There wasn’t actually much to do on campus during the break. And he could study at the beach just as well as he could here. As well as see Kasai in a swimsuit.

“All right, all right, I’ll go.” Onin slumped his shoulders.

“Sweet!” Tannin clapped him on the shoulder. “I knew you’d come around!”

dragon

Tannin had already made reservations. The hotel he’d picked out wasn’t the fanciest place, but the rates were reasonable, and it was within walking distance of the beach. He and Tannin had a room, and the girls shared the room next to theirs.

“Let’s get changed and get in the water!” Tannin yelled.

Onin blinked and shook his head. “That was loud. I guess I should be used to you yelling—” The bathroom door swung shut. “And now I’m talking to myself.”

Onin rolled his eyes and changed into his swim trunks. He waited a full minute before he knocked on the bathroom door.

“Tannin, are you done changing yet?”

“I’ve been done. Waiting for you, man.”

Tannin exited the bathroom and sprinted for the door. Onin walked across the room and stepped out into the sun. The girls apparently weren’t ready yet. Onin leaned up against the wall in the shade to wait. Shortly, the door opened and Cerina stepped out Saija limped out after her, using only one crutch.

Saija’s hair was down, and she wore the skimpiest blue bikini Onin had ever seen. Kinda like that outfit she’d had on the first time they’d met her. Did she like to flaunt her curves, or did one just lose their sense of privacy after being a vessel for the Natas?

Cerina had her hair in a tight ponytail. The halter-top two-piece she wore covered up a lot more than Saija’s suit, but still showed a lot of skin. Onin looked away and tried not stare.

“Is Kasai done yet?” Cerina glanced back at the door to their room. “I’m ready to swim.”

“Eh, give her a second.” Saija stretched her hands over her head. “She’s shy. Not sure why. She’s built a little better than you are.”

“Are you trying to start something?” Cerina took a step toward Saija.

“Me?” Saija put a hand to her chest. “Just stating facts. Well, that and it’s fun to tease Onin. I bet if I wiggled I could get him to faint.”

Onin felt his face flush, and he stared at the ground.

“See.” Saija chuckled.

“Oh yeah, you’re so sexy with that crutch.” Cerina poked Saija’s crutch. “Why only one today, anyway.”

“’Cause crutches aren’t sexy,” Saija said in a small voice. “Hard to swim with, too.”

The door opened again, and Kasai stepped out. She wore a green one-piece swimsuit that really brought out her eyes. Her hair was loose and covered her shoulders. Despite her conservative swimsuit, Onin still thought she looked better than Cerina and Saija combined.

“Last one to the beach has to eat sand!” Tannin said.

He and Cerina took off for the water at a run, dodging various sunbathers. Saija took one step and almost fell over.

“Screw it,” she said. A portal opened underneath her, and she dropped out of sight.

“Uh, mind if I walk you to the water?” Onin winced. That was really smooth.

Kasai nodded. Onin reached out and took her hand in his. Kasai blushed and smiled. She walked with her head down, and her hair fell forward, hiding her face.

Tannin was hooting and splashing through the waves. Cerina and Saija were both splashing him. He grabbed Saija and threw her farther out toward the water. She laughed and managed to enter the water in a respectable dive. Tannin grabbed Cerina and threw her next. She shrieked as she plowed sideways into a wave.

“Looks like they’re having fun. Want to join them?” Onin said.

Kasai shook her head and looked away for a moment. “Wanna walk along the beach?”

“Sure.”

Kasai headed off to the right, still holding Onin’s hand. They walked in silence until they’d made their way past the swimming area and onto a grass-covered dune.

“I thought you wanted to go swimming? Don’t get me wrong, I like walking with you, but you seemed excited to go swimming the other day.”

“I did?” Kasai pushed her hair behind her ear. The light breeze swirled it back over her face. “Sorry. Yeah, I like to swim, but the waves are a little too big.”

“Big waves are fun to play in,” Onin said.

“Everyone else is too—” Kasai sighed. “I should loosen up a little. It’s just Cerina and Saija are all hanging out, and Tannin’s wild.” She stopped and took a breath. “I shouldn’t blame them. It’s just that that’s not the way I am. I’m not that open. I’m sorry, I’m messed up. You can go have fun with everyone else.”

Onin stopped and brushed the hair away from Kasai’s face.

“I understand. You’ve been through a lot, and it hurts to open yourself up.”

Kasai nodded, her lip trembling.

“Don’t ever change who you are for someone else. Change who you are because you want to make yourself better.” Onin scratched the back of his neck. “Wow, that sounds cheesy, doesn’t it?”

“No, It’s nice to have someone accept me as I am,” Kasai said.

Whatever had happened in Kasai’s past had obviously been more than just teasing. Would Onryo react the same way?

Onin cleared his throat. “Hey, this is probably bad timing, but, uh, how’s it going with remembering your past and Onryo and stuff?”

Kasai clenched his hand, and her whole body tensed up. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I’ve done some thinking, some journaling, and some research. I should probably see a therapist, but I’m still afraid of—” Kasai lifted a hand, then let it drop back to her side. “—stuff. I drew some of my own blood and looked at it under a microscope. It’s different than all the anatomy books show. I don’t know what that means, but there might be some truth to the half-breed rumor.” She sighed. “What does that make me? Am I a monster?”

“No.” Onin stepped closer and Kasai rested her head on his chest. Onin closed his eyes. She was soft, and it felt nice to have her that close to him. “You’re not a monster. You might not be entirely gesaran physically, but you’re still Kasai. You’re still my friend, and I care about you a lot. I don’t care if you turn purple or something, it’s what’s in your heart that I love.”

Uh-oh, the l-word. He didn’t mean it like that… well, maybe he did, but right now Kasai needed a friend, not romance. Kasai was quiet, but she didn’t run off screaming or crying. Perhaps she’d taken it the way he’d intended it.

“Hey, uh, let’s head back, huh?” Onin said.

Kasai nodded and they started to retrace their steps.

“You know I’ll always help you in any way I can, right?” Onin asked.

Kasai nodded again.

dragon

Onin yawned from where he laid on a beach towel next to Kasai. Tannin, Saija, and Cerina had either calmed down or worn themselves out playing in the water yesterday. They were stretched out in the sun on the other side of Onin.

“So—” Onin shielded his eyes with his hand and looked over to Tannin. “What do you think the Natas are up to?”

“Aw, come on.” Tannin yawned. “We’re on vacation. I’m too tired to think.”

“They seem to by laying low for the moment,” Cerina said.

“You have any ideas, Saija?” Onin said.

“Nope. I was told, ‘go here, attack them.’ Not very helpful, sorry. Hey, can somebody rub some suntan lotion on my back?”

Onin looked over. Saija was lying on her stomach and had untied the back of her bikini. Onin heard Kasai gasp.

“Saija! Put your top back on!” she said.

“What?” Saija lifted her head up. “I’m not showing anything.”

“It’s indecent! There are people around and stuff.”

“So? I’m not breaking any laws or anything. Besides, I look hot. What’s wrong with showing off? You can’t shove your beliefs down everyone else’s throat, you know.”

Kasai stood, walked around, and sat in front of Saija. “That’s not what’s it’s about.”

“Huh?” Saija blinked.

“Well, Ard gave us rules.” Kasai twirled her hair around her finger and stared down at the sand. “But, you know, it’s not just about following them. They’re for our own good.”

Kasai squirmed around where she sat in the sand and looked over at Saija. “Um, I don’t know the right way to put this. I don’t want to tell you what to do. You know, people should like you for you are, not just for how much skin you show and stuff.” She sighed and brushed her hair back behind her ear. “Sorry if I sound preachy.” She shrugged. “Raised by monks and all. I guess I just don’t like people looking at my friend like she’s a piece of meat, or something.”

Saija blinked a few more times. Then she tied her top back on, sat up, and pulled Kasai into a quick hug. She sat back down, blushed, and stared out over the water. “No one’s ever called me their friend before.”

Saija shivered and cleared her throat. “Uh, is it just me or is it getting colder?”

“Cloud front moving in.” Tannin pointed off to the north. “That would do it.”

“That’s weird.” Kasai stood, shaded her eyes and looked off to the north. “The weather report didn’t say anything about clouds. It’s supposed to be sunny for the next week.”

“Eh.” Tannin shrugged. “They’re always wrong anyway.”

Everyone nodded at that, and Kasai lay back down next to Onin. A few minutes later the cloud front was directly overhead, and the temperature had dropped a few more degrees.

“That’s odd.” Cerina frowned as she stared up at the clouds.

“What,” Tannin said.

“I’ve seen clouds like this before.” Cerina’s voice trailed off. “Nah, can’t be.”

“Can’t be what?” Onin looked at the clouds again. They looked like normal clouds. Perhaps a little darker, but not dark enough to be rain clouds.

“They look like snow clouds,” Cerina said.

“This far south, in summer?” Saija looked over at Cerina and raised an eyebrow.

They all stared up at the clouds. Something hit Onin in the nose. He held out his hand, and a snowflake landed in it and immediately melted.

“Snow?” Onin stared at his hand. Another flake landed in it. “How could it be snowing?”

“It’s not supposed to snow at the beach!” Tannin looked up and yelled, “Knock it off!”

The snow immediately started falling faster and heavier.

“Now look what you did,” Cerina said.

“We’d better get inside.” Onin looked around. Everyone else on the beach started to run for cover.

“You guys go get changed.” Kasai pulled a pair of shorts and sandals from her beach bag. She pulled them on, then rolled her towel up and put it away. “I’m going to stay here for a while. Something feels… familiar… about this.”

“Are you sure?” Onin reached out and touched her arm. She was burning hot. “I’ll stay here with you.”

“No.” The snow was falling even faster now. It turned to steam as soon as it landed on Kasai. “I’ll stay here. Go change and come back. There’s something… wrong… with this snow.”

“Ya think?” Cerina muttered.

“This feels like…” Saija shivered. “It feels like my old master. Weird. It used to exhilarate me when the Natas would take control and channel power like this. It feels dirty now.”

Onin turned and ran for the hotel room. He thought the others were behind him, but he didn’t look. He didn’t want to slow down, didn’t want to leave Kasai out there alone.

He changed into pants and a shirt as fast as possible, and almost ran into Tannin on his way out the door.

“I’m right behind you,” Tannin said.

The beach was covered in a light layer of slush now. Onryo stood at the water’s edge. There was a clean circle of sand around her feet. She lifted a flame-covered hand and waved at him over her shoulder.

“Are you okay, Kasai?” Onin asked.

“I’m Onryo.” She spun around to face him.

“Okay?”

“We’re working on it. It’s… confusing. Anyway, Kasai can deal with that crap on her time. We’ve got bigger problems right now.”

She pointed up into the sky. Onin shaded his eyes and looked where she pointed. Something that looked like a man floated in the clouds.

“Is that…” Onin asked.

“A Natas,” Saija whispered.

Onin turned around. Saija, Cerina, and Tannin stood behind him. They had already changed out of their swimwear. Good, if they were going to take on a Natas, they could use all the help they could get.

“Hey, wait—” Tannin pointed up at the sky. “Is it just me, or did he disappear?”

Onin looked again. The figure in the clouds was gone.

“Well, what do we do now?” Cerina said.

“Onin, come with me.” Onryo spread her wings. “We’ll do some recon. The rest of you patrol the area. This could have been a distraction. See if any giftlings are hurt or missing.”

“Right.” Tannin turned and ran off, and the others followed.

Onin generated a small servitor for each of his hands and feet and rose into the air. Onryo jumped up and pumped her wings. Flames erupted from her feet, and she shot up past Onin on a pillar of fire. Onin rose to join her.

“What are we looking for?” he asked.

“That Natas.”

“I know that. I was wondering if there was any sort of sign, or something he would have left, that we should be looking for.”

“Beats me.”

They burst up through the cloud layer. No one here. Onryo growled and dropped back down below the clouds. Onin followed her and looked around. There wasn’t a sign of anyone. Maybe they’d imagined the whole thing. They flew several miles out to sea, then made a large circle back to the hotel. Tannin was waiting for them. His shirt was rumpled, and he was frowning.

“Find anything?” Onryo asked.

“Where are the others?” Onin looked around. The other girls weren’t anywhere in sight. One of the potted plants outside the hotel door was tipped over on its side. “No one’s in trouble, are they?”

“Well, Saija and Cerina are fine,” Tannin said. “But when we were on the beach, a group of giftlings got attacked. Two of them were hurt, and the third was carried off. Cerina and Saija are with the two that got hurt. Come on.”

Onin and Onryo followed Tannin down the street to a coffee shop. It was nestled in a row of tourist shops that lined the street. A decorative fence partitioned off an area in front of the shop that had umbrella covered tables for patrons to enjoy the beach air while they ate. Most of the tables were turned over.

A small crowd had gathered out front. Tannin pushed his way through to the front. Police tape barricaded off the entrance. The coffee shop had a hole blown in the front of the building where the door used to be. Two people, a man and a woman, sat on the steps and had blankets wrapped around their shoulders. Saija and Cerina knelt next to them. Saija was talking softly to the woman, and Cerina awkwardly patted the man’s shoulder.

Tannin waved his police badge at one of the officers, who lifted the tape for Tannin, Onin, and Onryo to go through. Onin squatted down in front of the victims. Both of them appeared to be about his age. Made sense. There were a lot of college kids at the beach this week. If it was the Natas that attacked them, and if they were giftlings, these two fit the profile. The one on the left was a male with black hair, brown eyes, and a crooked nose. The girl had blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.

Onin nodded to them. “Hi, I’m Onin. We’re with the Dabrath police. Are you two okay?”

“I’ll be fine.” The male took a shaky breath. “Just scared. Do you know where they took Shanay?”

“Why are the Dabrath police here?” the blonde girl asked. “That’s a hundred miles away.”

“We’ve had some attacks happen there at ABG that match the profile.” Onin smiled in what he hoped came off as a friendly way. “Can you tell us what happened?”

The man shuffled on the step. “We —Shanay, Tina and I— came up to relax and swim for the week. Then this freak snow storm hit. The three of us decided to sit it out in the coffee shop. We were sitting here talking when three guys dressed all in black blew a hole in the front of the building and walked in. They looked around, grabbed Shanay, and tried to leave. We put up a fight, but…”

“What kind of gifts do you have?” Onryo asked.

“Not anything helpful.” Tina, the blonde girl, shrugged. “I can help plants grow a teeny bit faster, and Rob can influence micro-magnetic fields.”

“Comes in handy fixing electronics.” Rob sighed. “No good at all in a fight. These guys were using fire and ice powers—”

Onin and Onryo exchanged looks. Fire and ice meant it was probably the same Natas that had attacked them.

Rob looked up them. “I thought that someone only had one gift?”

“Ordinarily, yes. What gift does Shanay have?” Onin asked.

“She’s really powerful.” Tina looked up. “She can generate energy beams and stuff.”

“She put up a good fight.” Rob’s voice dropped to a whisper. “But these guys were scary good. They took us down pretty fast and carried her out of here.”

“Did you see which way they went?” Onryo asked.

“North.” Rob and Tina spoke at the same time.

Onryo nodded and jumped into the air.

“Onryo, wait!” Onin said.

She ignored him and flew north. Onin growled, generated two large servitors, and sent them after her.

“Is she going to look for Shanay?” Tina asked.

“Probably. We should go after her.” Onin stared up at Onryo’s rapidly shrinking silhouette, blew out a breath, and turned back to Rob and Tina. “If there’s anything else you remember, please let an officer know about it, okay?”

They nodded.

Onin turned to face Tannin, Cerina, and Saija. “Well, guys, let’s go after Onryo.”

They ducked back under the police tape and headed back in the direction of the hotel.

“We should pack some supplies.” Cerina wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “Those mountains look cold.”

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