Etherno

Chapter 11: Enough is Enough… Until it’s Too Much

The wind whipped around Onin and chilled him to the bone—and they had only reached the foothills of the mountains.

“Can I go back and get a coat?” Tannin said. He was still only wearing his t-shirt and jeans.

“We’re facing an ice giftling.” Cerina rolled her eyes. “You didn’t think to dress warm?”

Tannin stuck his tongue out at her.

“Why are we walking, anyway?” Tannin kicked a stone out of the path. “Can’t Saija just portal us there?”

“For at least the tenth time—” Saija spun around and poked Tannin in the chest with her crutch. “I can’t portal to an unknown destination.”

“Tannin, we’ve talked about this.” Onin sighed and stepped between Tannin and Saija. “You’re supposed to be looking for tracks or other clues about the kidnappers. If you whine one more time, I’m going to ask Saija to portal you a hundred yards above the ocean. Now shut up and look.”

Tannin was cranky today. Usually it was Cerina that complained. He looked up at the sun, frowned, and pulled out his phone. Oh. It was past noon. That would do it.

“Tannin, did you eat anything today?”

“Uh… no. I was going to get breakfast from one of those snack carts along the beach, but I fell asleep, and then all this happened.”

“Lunch break.” Onin shrugged off his backpack. “I think I brought some trail rations. Anyone else have anything?”

“Rations? Eww.” Saija made a face. “Wait here.” A portal opened beneath her, and she dropped out of sight.

“Where’d she go?” Tannin asked.

Onin ignored him. He looked around. The path they were on now was dirt that was starting to turn to stone as they progressed higher into the mountains. The trees had started to thin out—there were still lots of them, but it wasn’t the dense forest anymore. He spied a group of boulders off to the left, trudged over, and sat on one of them.

Tannin and Cerina sat down next to him. Onin pulled off his left boot and dumped the loose dirt out of it. He put the boot back on then rummaged through his backpack.

“Might as well get some ration bars out,” he said.

A portal opened above the trail at the same time Onin reached into his backpack. Saija dropped out of it. She had four Sandwich Masters deli bags tied onto her crutches.

“Sandwich Masters?” Tannin’s face lit up. “Are those for us?”

“Yup!” Saija untied a bag and tossed it to him.

“Sweet!” Tannin ripped open the bag and pulled out the sandwich. “Twelve-inch Meat Insanity. How’d you know?”

“Not that hard to guess. Here.” She tossed a bag each to Onin and Cerina.

Onin peeled the tap off the wrapper and unfolded it. Turkey and bacon, yum.

“Thanks, Saija. How much do we owe you for these?” Onin said.

“My treat.” Saija flashed him a smile. “You can pay for the next meal.”

Onin was about halfway through his sandwich when a servitor came zipping over the horizon and stopped in front of him. A few seconds later there was a warm blast of wind. Onin spun around. Onryo dropped to the ground and folded her wings to her back.

“Got any food for me?” Onryo said.

“Sorry.” Saija wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Didn’t know where you were, or when you’d be back.”

Onin broke off half of his sandwich and held it out to her.

She stared at him for a second before she grabbed the half-sandwich. “Thanks.”

“Find anything?” Onin said.

“Footprints, torn bits of clothing, the occasional broken boulder,” Onryo said.

“So Shanay’s putting up a fight,” Saija said.

“Looks that way.” Onryo shrugged. “I didn’t see anyone, though, so they’re either hiding, or they’re farther ahead of us.”

“So, what do we do now?” One corner of Cerina’s mouth pulled down. “It could take years to search these mountains. If we can’t find them, we might as well go home.”

“If it was you they kidnapped, would you want the rest of us to give up?” Onin said.

Cerina kicked at the dirt and shook her head.

“I didn’t think so.” Onin stood and grabbed his backpack. “I’m going to generate servitors for each of us who needs one, and we’re going to fly up and down this valley in a V-formation.”

“I thought we needed to walk to look for clues,” Tannin said.

“Onryo’s seen the stuff we were looking for from the air after all, and we’re pretty sure they’re ahead of us. If we all go up and look, maybe we’ll have a better chance of spotting one of them trying to duck behind a bush. Or something. Either way, we can cover more ground that way. Anyone have any better ideas?”

“Actually—” Saija raised her hand. “I might know where they’re taking her.”

“Now you decide to tell us this?” Cerina rolled her eyes.

“I was hoping I was wrong.” Saija shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. “Or that’d we’d catch them first. If they’re bothering to kidnap her instead of kill her outright, they want her for something. I’d guess either to ‘borrow’ her gift, or to turn her into a Natas.”

“How does that gift borrowing thing work?” Onryo asked.

“I don’t want to bring up a painful subject, but remember when you were fighting me, and I was using portals, fire, and ice against you?”

“We—” Onin gestured to Onryo. “Well, Kasai and I at least, think of it as fighting the Natas that was controlling you, not as fighting you.” He looked over to Onryo. She nodded.

“Huh. I’m not sure I could be so… forgiving…” Saija took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Anyway, there are areas in these mountains that make a person more… receptive… to a Natas. I’m not sure how that works. The kidnappers might be taking Shanay to one of these spots.”

“Let’s go check them out,” Onryo said.

“Wait. We need to plan. How many places like this are there, how far away are they, what do we do to stop whatever the Natas might do to her?” Cerina said.

“If that really is the Natas’ plan, we have to get there as soon as possible. These ceremonies are… messy.” Saija grimaced.

“We can always just force the Natas out, right?” Tannin said.

“Not really. You—” Saija paused and swallowed. “—and I, were extremely lucky. You have to do a lot of damage to a vessel to get a Natas to abandon it. I made one little mistake, or you wouldn’t have hurt me at all. You have to do that damage all at once because the bond between the Natas and the vessel has to be disrupted somehow… as I said, we got lucky.” She shivered. “I, more than you. Have I thanked all of you for that lately? And have I mentioned I’m the only vessel I know of that hasn’t died after the Natas left?”

Everyone was silent for a second. Onin swallowed. They had to save Shanay from that fate. He glanced over at Onryo and resolved not to let that happen to Kasai. Or any of the rest of his friends.

Onryo launched herself into the air. “Let’s go.”

Onin generated three servitors. They floated over to hover above Tannin, Cerina, and Saija. Energy tendrils descended from each one to pick up a different person. Onin generated four more for his hands and feet, and he ascended to join Onryo in the air.

“Saija, point where you want us to go,” Onin said.

Saija pointed north-northwest, and they flew over the landscape. They set down on top of a large boulder. No one was in sight.

“So, are we too late, or is this the wrong spot?” Onryo said.

“Is this boulder covered in rust stains?” Tannin leaned over and picked at the reddish-brown that covered the top of the boulder.

“No.” Saija’s face had a greenish tint to it. “No, it is not.”

“Well what is it? It’s like it’s been splashed on here, and it’s a dark red…” Tannin’s face drained of color. He jumped down from the boulder, scuffed his feet in the dirt, and vomited into a nearby bush.

“Huh, thought he was tougher than that.” Cerina’s mouth pulled up into a smirk, but her face also had a greenish tint to it.

“Cerina!” Saija hissed through clenched teeth.

“Next spot, let’s go,” Onin said.

They launched into the air and took off to the west this time. The next four sites hadn’t shown any signs of being used… recently.

“If they aren’t at any of these sites, where else might they have taken her?” Onin asked.

“I don’t know.” Saija pursed her lips and tapped a finger on the side of a crutch. “There’s a few more sites I know of. Let’s check those before we give up.”

Onin nodded. Saija led them to a tall mountain that rose above the other peaks in the range.

“There’s a place on the other side of that mountain.” Saija pointed to the peak. “We have to go up and over it to get to the spot.”

“Can’t you just portal us there?” Tannin asked.

“I could, but that’d dump us right in the middle of what’s going on. We want to sneak up on them, right?”

Everyone nodded. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped as they approached the summit. Saija led them around the mountain, and into a valley on the other side. Instead of getting warmer as the altitude decreased, the cold grew more intense.

“It’s freezing here,” Cerina said.

“Probably the right place, then,” Onin said.

“There.” Saija pointed to the entrance to a cave. “That’s the place.”

They landed a hundred yards away and slightly downhill from the cave. Two boulders were on either side of the entrance. No guards were in sight.

“Do we have a plan?” Onryo said.

“Saija—” Onin looked over his shoulder at her. “What are we likely to find in there?”

“Depends on whether they want to steal her powers or turn her into a vessel. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty. We’ll probably all want to barf. Lots of blood and evil. If any of the Natas are coming at her with some of those artifacts from the museum, don’t let them touch her at any cost. If any of them are, uh, in her… it’s too late, run away, and run away fast. We’ll probably be outnumbered—”

“How? Five of us, four of them,” Tannin said.

“The ceremony needs at least one more person but can use up to four more for ‘best’ results. Also, they’ve stolen those artifacts, which are going to boost their powers.”

Onryo nodded. “So we go in, grab Shanay, and get out as fast as possible, right?”

“Right.” Onin nodded. “Let’s go.”

dragon

Onin crept up to the cave. The entrance was dark and foreboding. Or perhaps that was just his imagination. The opening was about as tall as he was. Shadows filled the cave. Onin took a deep breath and tried to ignore the queasy feeling in his stomach. Still no sign of a guard. He crept forward past a shrub and peered into the cave. The darkness seemed to soak up all the light in the cavern. Onin generated a servitor, and the light it gave off helped a little. The tunnel extended about forty yards in before it either dipped down or turned. No guards were inside. Onin waved the others forward and led the way in.

The only sound was the water dripping from stalactites. The cave got darker as they made their way inside. It felt as though the darkness was sucking up the light from the servitor. Must be his imagination. Right?

They rounded the corner and the tunnel dipped down. The murmur of voices came from ahead. Onin reabsorbed the servitor, and they inched forward in the darkness. A few yards later, Onin stopped. A light shone from around another corner. He leaned forward.

Seven men in long black robes stood in a circle. They chanted as they shuffled around. The chanting sounded like the language of the monks, but the echoes in the cavern distorted it enough that the words blurred together.

The circle shifted, and Onin saw a stone table. A girl was laying spread-eagle on the table. Her hands and feet were tied down, she was covered with blood and she appeared to be completely naked. Occasionally, she twitched or moaned.

His gut twisted in horror. Onin ducked back around the corner.

“Well?” Onryo whispered.

“There’s a girl on a table. She—” Bile rose in Onin’s throat. He swallowed and took a breath. “She’s covered with blood.”

“Oh no.” Saija’s face paled. “The ceremony has already started. Did you see any artifacts or anything in or on her?”

“Hard to tell. There’s a circle of men in black robes around her. I could only catch glimpses of her between them.

Saija bit her lip and rubbed her palms together. “I don’t know. We might be in time, or we could be too late.”

They all crowded around Onin to peek around the corner. The circle of robed men had split into two, half of them clustered at the foot of the table, and the other half at the head. There was a lot of blood covering the girl. Onin’s stomach heaved. He swallowed and forced himself to watch. Were there any artifacts on her? Some patches near her breasts, neck, and legs looked like they might be a small artifact—or possibly just an extra bloody wound.

One of the men at the head of the table clapped his hands over his head. The girl started thrashing and screaming. One of the men at the foot of the table took a step forward, reached out and pulled something long and dripping blood out of the girl. She screamed again, louder this time. Another robed figure stepped forward, took the object, and held it aloft. It was a stake about a foot long. Hard to tell through all the blood, but it might be one of the objects from the museum.

“We need to go—now,” Saija said.

Onin’s leg muscles tensed. He sucked air rapidly and reached behind him to clutch Onryo’s hand. The room grew darker. The first man climbed up onto the table and lay down on top of the girl. She yanked at her bonds, and writhed around trying to escape. The person holding the stake said something, and another figure came around to the opposite side of the table. He reached across, and both of them held the stake. They yelled something and both slammed the stake through the man and down into the girl. She screamed loud enough to make Onin’s ears ring. The darkness in the room seemed to coalesce into a point above the stake, then it sank down through it and into the girl. Her entire body went stiff then she lifted her hands and feet up slowly. The cloth binding her limbs to the table snapped. The girl flung the dead man off from her and pulled the stake out from her chest. She handed it to one of the other figures.

“Save this. We’ll need it for the next vessel,” she said.

The figure bowed low, accepted the stake with both hands, and stepped back.

The girl stretched and looked around the room. Onin ducked back around the cave and flattened himself against the wall.

“We have visitors.” Her mouth curved up into a cruel smile. “They’re powerful. Bring them to me.”

Footsteps sounded in the cave. Onin stood. His legs shook so much he almost fell over. He took a shaky breath and ran for the exit. Onryo grabbed his hand and they ran together. Onin held out his other hand and generated a servitor. The servitor blinked and sped back into the depths of the cave.

They burst out into the sunlight and Onin threw up into a bush. He’d never be able to get that scene out of his head. That poor girl… He bent over again.

When his stomach was finally empty, he stood up and looked back at the cave. Their pursuers hadn’t emerged yet, but who know how long one servitor could occupy them. Onryo stood at the mouth of the cave, her body wrapped in flames. Tannin, Cerina, and Saija were each bent over a different bush.

“Please tell me this is just a nightmare.” Cerina wiped her mouth on her sleeve and coughed. “I really don’t want that to be real.”

“It’s real.” Onryo faced the cave and raised her fists. “And it’s coming for us.”

dragon

Four black-robed figures burst out of the cave. Onryo extended her hand and sent a giant blast of blue flame at them. The two in front were incinerated. The other two dropped to the ground and rolled around, shedding their robes and revealing black clothes underneath. They were up in seconds and had knives in their hands.

Onin generated two servitors and sent them after the men. The servitors engulfed them and rose up out of the way. Laughter rang out from the cave.

The girl from the cave sauntered out, and Onin got his first real look at her. Her hair was brown and hung down almost to her shoulders. Rivulets of blood still ran down her body; but if she had any wounds, they had already healed. She wore nothing but two star shaped boxes on her chest, and another one between her legs. Onin didn’t want to know what held them on.

“Wow, the Natas have a type, don’t they?”

Onin smacked the back of Tannin’s head. “Shut up and help us keep her from killing everyone.”

“Shanay?” Onin called out.

“I’m more than that now,” Shanay purred. She narrowed her eyes and smiled. “Come on back in the cave, and you can have more power than you’ve ever dreamed of.”

“No thanks.” Saija backed up a step or two. “Been there. Done that. Won’t buy again.”

“Ah, Saija, the failure.” Shanay smirked. “We’re surprised you’re still alive.”

“If that’s supposed to convince her to come back, you really need to work on your witty banter,” Tannin said.

Shanay sneered and thrust her hand forward. A blast of yellow energy shot out from her palm. Tannin knocked it away with the sleeve of his coat.

“You want to do it the hard way? All right.” She thrust her hands down, and they started to glow yellow. She spun on her heel, and energy blasts seemed to be everywhere.

Onin dropped to the dirt and rolled left. He popped out a servitor and rolled to a crouch. Tannin knocked away two of the blasts. Onryo jumped into the air, somersaulted over Shanay and blasted her with fire. An energy blast streaked at Saija. A portal opened just in front of Saija and swallowed up the whip. A second later, a portal opened behind Shanay and the blast shot out of it and into her back.

Shanay just smiled and absorbed the yellow blast. “I can’t be hurt by my own power. You’ll have to do better than that.”

Onin generated another two servitors and looked around for Cerina. She was nowhere in sight—wait, there, a blonde lock of hair stuck out from behind a boulder. Good, she should be safe there. Hopefully she’d remember to give them some support.

The three servitors lined up into a triangle formation.

“Oh, no, not that again,” Shanay said.

She raised a finger and sent a beam of energy at one of the servitors. It made contact, and the servitor exploded. Onin gulped. This could be a problem.

“How does she know what we can do?” Onin said.

“The Natas are… connected.” Saija bit her lower lip. “They can share information. I also have a nasty feeling that this might be the same one that possessed me.”

“Great.” Tannin shook a few flakes of ash from his coat sleeve. “Anyone got any ideas?”

“Run like crazy?” Cerina said.

“Works for me.” Saija glanced at Shanay. “If we can get away.”

Onryo shook her head. “We have to take it out now. Before it hurts anyone else.”

She flew straight at Shanay and let loose twin jets of blue flame. Shanay took a single step backward, braced herself, and held up her right hand. A shaft of ice formed and extended out, slamming into the flame. Fog filled the air, obscuring Onin’s view. Onin generated another servitor. It sent out a tendril of energy and sucked up the fog.

Shanay stood facing Onryo, a smirk on her face. “What now, fire giftling?”

“I crank up the heat.” Onryo put both palms out in front of her, one on top of the other. She took a deep breath, and a jet of white flame shot out of her palms and enveloped Shanay. “Let’s see if you can take a few hundred thousand Kelvin.”

Onryo was breathing heavy with effort. Sweat started to pour down Onin’s body. A servitor came over to him. Onin took a step forward. His skin tingled as he passed through the glowing energy field that was the body of the servitor. It was still hot inside the servitor, but bearable. He sent servitors out to Tannin and Cerina. Saija had disappeared. Probably through a portal to avoid being barbecued.

Onin couldn’t see anything of either Shanay or Onryo now, except a bright glare that was distorted by heat waves. The glare faded away. Pools of red-hot liquid rock covered the landscape. Onryo was on her hands and knees, her chest heaved as she sucked in each breath.

Shanay was encased in an ice crystal. It melted down, then shattered. Shanay stepped out.

“Is that all you’ve got, half-breed?” Shanay took a step toward Onryo. Liquid rock cooled and solidified with each step. “I’m going to enjoy bringing you into my master’s service.”

She lifted her hand. Fear lanced through Onin. He waved a finger at one of the servitors. It let loose a blast of lighting at Shanay that lifted her up and slammed her into the rock wall. She rose to her feet and cracked her neck.

“Just for that, I’m going to make it slow and painful.”

Shanay flung her hand out at Onin, and an energy blast streaked toward him. The servitor moved to intercept and popped when the blast impacted it. Shanay grinned and fired off two more blasts.

The servitors protecting Tannin and Cerina dropped them and moved between Shanay and Onin.

“Hey.” Tannin took a few steps closer to Onin. “Can you make those things cover my hands?”

“I can, but you won’t be able to control them.”

“Just put them in mitten mode or whatever. I just need something protecting my hands.”

“Got it.”

Onin generated two more small servitors and sent them over to Tannin. He shoved his hands into them, and they shrank down to just cover them.

“What?” Shanay laughed. “Are you going to hit me?”

“Yup.” Tannin took a step forward. “That’s the plan.”

Shanay laughed again and fired at Tannin. He swung and punched the energy beam, deflecting it. Onin stared at Tannin. The blast didn’t pop the servitor. Of course! Tannin was reinforcing it. So, he could use that brain of his once in a while. Onin grinned and generated another servitor.

The newest servitor floated over to Onryo and ran a healing beam over her. She jumped to her feet and ignited her hands.

“Okay, Tannin. Let’s bring it,” Onryo said.

She and Tannin both ran at Shanay from either side, fists raised. Shanay raised her arms apart and fired yellow energy blasts at them. Tannin and Onryo punched at the same time, knocking the blasts away. They both spun around and landed a punch with the opposite hand. At the same time, the two servitors in the air struck Shanay with twin lightning bolts.

Shanay raised her hands and deflected the lightning bolts with some sort of weird purple fire. Ice formed around her waist where Onryo and Tannin’s punches had landed. Her head snapped up. A frown spread over her face. She raised her hands, and they started to glow with building energy. Purple fire arched and criss-crossed over the increasing energy ball.

Fire flared up and covered Onryo in a protective wall.

“That won’t help, half-breed,” Shanay snarled. “You’re coming with me.”

“I thought your master didn’t think I was worth the effort,” Onryo said.

“He changed his mind.” Shanay shrugged. “You and your friends have become something of a nuisance. So he’s going to take you in front of their eyes, then kill them.”

Onryo threw another blast of white fire at Shanay, who swung her fist to block it. The fire bounced off, hit the rock wall and melted a hole into it.

Onin jumped when something touched his shoulder. He spun around, raised a fist, and generated a servitor. Saija and Cerina stood behind him. He blew out his breath and lowered his fist.

“You scared the crap out of me. Where’d you go, anyway, Saija?”

“She was with me.” Cerina wiped sweat from her forehead. “You were so busy fighting the Natas you didn’t notice the seven other guys sneak up behind us.”

“Oh. Sorry. Thanks for keeping them off us. Anything you can do here?”

Saija nodded.

“Yeah,” Cerina hummed, and the fire around Shanay flickered in sync with the sonic distortion.

Onryo grinned and launched another blast of fire at Shanay. A portal opened and swallowed the fire. Seconds later another portal opened beneath Shanay.

Shanay gasped, bent down, and blasted at the fireball—a fraction too slowly. The fire slammed into her chest. Ice formed around the wound, but Shanay stumbled. Tannin stepped in and slammed a servitor covered hand into her head. She collapsed into the rock and the energy around her hands disappeared.

“Well done.”

They all turned at the sound of the unfamiliar bass voice. The speaker was a heavily muscled man dressed in a black robe. Onin gulped. Must be one of the Natas from the cave.

“But unfortunately for you, it won’t be enough,” the man said.

He flicked a finger and Shanay jerked to her feet. Her eyes opened and she shook her head.

“Come. We’re leaving,” the man said.

“But,” Shanay looked around. “We’re not finished here yet.”

“We are now. You were dumb enough to let yourself become injured, and the master isn’t done with you yet.”

“But—”

“Shut up. These insignificant vermin can wait.”

Onin started to shiver. The temperature was dropping fast, and the strange man—it had to be another Natas—hadn’t even lifted a finger. Onryo’s fire flared again. The man looked over at her and sneered. He grabbed Shanay’s arm and the two of them rose into the air.

“Let’s go after them!” Onryo yelled.

Onin shook his head. “We can’t. It’s getting colder real fast. We’ve got to get out of here.”

“I can still stay and fight,” Onryo said.

“Yes, but Tannin, Cerina, and Saija can’t.” Onin turned to Saija. “Can you portal us out of here?”

Saija nodded and opened a portal large enough to step through. Tannin and Cerina ran through.

“Come on,” Onin said. “We’ve got to stay together. None of us are strong enough to take them on by ourselves. You first.”

Onryo growled and jumped through the portal. Onin jumped through right after her.

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