Etherno

Chapter 12: School’s Out Forever?

Onin sighed and collapsed onto his couch in the common area of his and Tannin’s dorm room. He hurt all over. He yawned and struggled to keep his eyes open.

Onryo took a few deep breaths and sat on the edge of the couch. She closed her eyes. Her wings and tail shrank in size until they disappeared into her back. Her hair faded from red to brown, and Kasai now sat there. She flung herself into Onin’s arms, sobbing.

“It’s okay.” Onin put one arm around her and patted her on the back. “Um, do you remember anything?”

“Yeah.” Kasai nodded. “It’s kinda like a dream, but I remember it all. Can’t we do anything to help Shanay?”

“Not to my knowledge.” Saija’s voice came from somewhere behind the couch. “We tried our best, then that other Natas showed up. He was a lot stronger.”

“So we take him out first?” Tannin cracked open an eye and looked up from the chair across from the couch that he sprawled across.

“How?” Cerina slouched in the other chair next to Tannin. “They’re just going to double-team us again.”

“We could get some help…” Tannin didn’t sound so sure.

“Who?” Kasai asked. “The Dabrath police have their hands full with the attacks here. Have you forgotten about them?”

Onin stroked her back. “I think Tannin’s point is that the attacks would cease if we took out the source.”

“Yeah.” Tannin slouched into the couch, then he sat back up. “Ooo! What about the military?”

“No good.” Saija waved her hand dismissively. “Their job is foreign gesaran threats. The giftlings have never been large enough in number to pose a national threat—a small, local force of other giftlings can keep most troublemakers in line. Also, you need another chair in here.”

“Yeah, ‘cause that’s working.” Cerina rolled her eyes.

Onin chose to ignore her comment. “ABG is probably the largest gathering of giftlings on the planet. We’ve got people from every nation here, I believe—”

“We can’t ask them to fight,” Kasai said.

“No, we can’t. Most giftlings aren’t combat oriented, and most people at ABG, ourselves included, are really just kids,” Onin said.

“Hey, I’m twenty!” Tannin jerked upright in his chair.

Onin’s eyelid twitched. “My point was that if you told the army that you wanted to fight a full-out war with the Natas, they’d call you a kid and tell you to go home. None of us, well, except possibly Saija, have the training for this.”

“Why not just give up, then?” Cerina said, her face weary.

Onin opened his mouth to reply, but Kasai beat him to it.

“Really? You saw what they did to Shanay. Do you want to just sit here and hope someone else can stop it? All while the Natas are taking everyone on campus, until they come to make us their vessels.”

Cerina shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. “No. But what can we do?”

No one said anything. What could they do? If they could get the Natas to fight them one at a time, they might be able to win. But what kind of idiot would fight five-to-one willingly? After that last fight with what used to be Shanay, they’d fight with at least two to one, so trying to ambush a Natas when they attacked another giftling wasn’t going to work.

“Maybe Professor Jekao has an idea?” Onin said.

“Eh,” Cerina waved her hand in front of her. “He’ll just tell us to leave it to the professionals.”

“Who we already know aren’t powerful enough to stop them,” Saija said.

“What about the Matari?” Kasai said.

Everyone turned to stare at her. Saija lifted herself up on one arm from behind the couch.

“Are you insane?” Saija’s eyes were open wide. “The Matari! They’ll probably just possess you for themselves and use you against the Natas.”

“We don’t know if they can even do that,” Onin said.

“Actually, we don’t know much about them.” Cerina frowned. “Even after all that research we did. I say we sneak into their compound and poke around.”

“That might be a good idea.” Onin leaned forward and rested his chin on his hand. “But what if we get caught? Let’s keep that as Plan B. For now, we should work on teamwork and combat skills.”

“Yeah.” Tannin rubbed his shoulder. “We did pretty good when we were all working together. If we get better at that, the ‘surprise a Natas’ plan might work.”

“Especially if they think we’ve run away scared,” Saija said.

“I still think we should tell Professor Jekao.” Kasai twirled her hair around her index finger. “The police and military might be too big, and each of us might not be able to do anything on our own, but if we all work together…”

“What are you going to do when he tells you to sit down and leave it to the pros?” Cerina said.

Onin sighed. “If that happens, we tell him the truth. I’m not going to sit here in terror, jumping at every shadow and squeaky door hoping it isn’t a Natas come to violate me in ways I don’t want to think about.”

“All right!” Tannin jumped to his feet. “Let’s go!”

“After a nap,” Onin said, “I’m exhausted. I don’t think I can make it to my room.”

“And then possibly some food,” Saija said.

dragon

Professor Jekao had covered his mouth and nose with his hand part way through the recitation of what had happened. His face grew a sickly shade of gray as they continued. Onin looked around. Good, a trashcan was at the end of the desk. The professor might need it. Professor Jekao shuddered and leaned forward, resting his head in his hands.

“That’s… that’s…” Another shuddered rippled through the Professor’s body. “I… I have no words. What do we do now?”

“We were hoping you’d have some ideas, sir,” Onin said.

“I don’t know.” He ran a hand through his hair. “My first thought would be to hand this over to the police, or military, but they’re not equipped to handle this sort of thing.”

“That’s was our thought, too, sir. We thought, perhaps, if we worked together with them?” Onin said.

“Hmm. Possibly, but I’m afraid we have bigger problems.”

Cerina slouched in her seat and raised an eyebrow. “How is that even possible?”

“Forgive my phrasing.” Professor Jekao leaned back in his chair and took a few big breaths. “I meant we have bigger problems than trying to convince the military to work with a bunch of college students. In addition to what’s been on the news, I have other information that I’m not supposed to make public yet. Can I count on all of you to keep this quiet?”

Everyone nodded.

“I’ve received word one of the major sponsors of ABG has cut their funding. This might be the last semester for everyone.”

Onin’s breath caught in this throat. He had to have heard that wrong.

“That is bad.” Kasai pulled her legs up onto her chair and wrapped her arms around them. “Will everyone just have to leave?”

“The college board is looking into several different options, and they’re in talks with the sponsor. They might come to some kind of resolution. Due to the nature of the sponsor, I’d like all of you to look into the situation as well.”

“Uh, I’m not much of a salesman,” Tannin said.

Professor Jekao grinned. “Not like that, Tannin. I’d like you to dig around behind the scenes. This sponsor cutting funding just after what happened in the mountains is rather suspicious. I think you’ll agree after I tell you who the sponsor is.”

“Well, who is it already?” Cerina said.

The professor looked grim. “First, I need to tell you that this mission is strictly voluntary, off the books, and could have serious repercussions for all of you if something goes wrong.”

“I think we’re all in, sir.” Onin glanced around the room at the others. Not even Cerina raised an objection. “ABG means a lot to all of us. Not to mention a lot of people could die if we’re all sent home and can’t work together to stop the Natas.”

Kasai, Tannin, Saija, and Cerina all nodded.

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Professor Jekao took a deep breath. “The sponsor in question is the Matari.”

Onin blinked. Was this all just a bad dream? Tannin’s jaw hung open, and his eyes practically bugged out. Onin imagined he looked just about the same way.

“What, now?” Cerina blinked rapidly.

“Wait, can you say that again… the Matari? Um, they’re kinda one of our suspects,” Kasai said.

“Suspects?” Professor Jekao’s head jerked to attention. “The Matari have been advocating for giftling rights and supporting better opportunities for giftlings since they got here. That situation in Caradan is much more suspicious.”

“Caradan? What’s going on there?” Onin asked.

“Have any of you watched or read any news reports either while you were on vacation, or since you got back?”

Onin and the others shook their heads.

“I didn’t even watch it before we left,” Tannin said.

Professor Jekao lowered his head and rubbed his temple. “Tannin…” He let his hand fall down onto the armrest. “This is important. A group of giftlings attacked the Caradan capitol building. Three senators are dead, and they’ve said this is only the beginning. From what you told me, this happened at about the same time you were in the mountains.”

“Sounds like the Natas are responsible.” Saija frowned and crossed her arms.

“My theory is that you’re a threat to them.” Professor Jekao leaned forward. “In response, they do something to get our funding cut to scatter all the giftlings here in Rogim so they can’t mobilize against them. At the same time, a group of Natas vessels, puppets, sympathizers, or whatever attacks in Caradan. This keeps the Rogim military occupied at the southern border, leaving them free to operate here.”

Tannin raised his hand. “I have a question.”

“This had better not be bathroom related,” Cerina said.

“No.” Tannin stuck his tongue out at her. “I’m confused about what a Natas is. Those guys in the mountains that we fought, for example. Some of them like Shanay are really powerful, and others seemed like regular gesarans. Then there’s the guys at the museum, who are like regular giftlings with no morals.”

“There are different levels. The Natas themselves are a kind of spectral alien that can only partially interact with this plane of existence, dimension, whatever you want to call it. They can occupy a gesaran vessel—” Saija shuddered and her face paled. “They can also control gesarans without occupying them, kinda like Onin does with his servitors—sorta. The gesaran has to be willing for this to happen, though. The last group are just really stupid or really desperate people that serve the Natas. Some worship them as gods, others serve them as slaves, or whatever else.”

“Sheesh.” Tannin rolled his eyes. “Even I’m not dumb enough to willingly follow a Natas around.”

Everyone groaned, and Saija reached over and smacked the back of Tannin’s head.

Onin turned in his chair away from Tannin. “So, what crisis do we want to tackle first?”

“Funding.” Professor Jekao leaned forward again. “The military is watching the border, and that situation seems confined to Caradan for the moment. We can’t take on the Natas head-on right now. If ABG’s funding is cut… Well, we’ve already talked about that.”

“So, what can we do? We’re not diplomats or solicitors,” Kasai said.

Cerina snorted. “Yeah, I can just imagine what would happen if Tannin, Saija, or I asked them to continue funding ABG.”

“Eh, it’d work out. We could beat it out of them!” Tannin pumped his fist.

“I hope you’re kidding,” Professor Jekao said.

Tannin shrugged and smiled.

Professor Jekao frowned and stared at him.

“No,” Tannin rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t attack someone just because they cut the college’s funding.”

“Good.”

“So, Professor, what do you suggest we do?” Onin said.

“The college has people working on the diplomacy and paperwork aspects. My suggested mission is to try and find out if the Natas are threatening the Matari somehow.”

“We can’t just walk up and ask them,” Tannin said.

“I’ll leave the planning to you. Just run it past me before you do anything,” Professor Jekao said.

“Okay, I’ve got some ideas on where to start. Is that all, Professor?” Onin said.

“That’s all I’ve got for now.”

Onin stood and filed out of Professor Jekao’s office with the others. They made it all the way down the hallway before anyone spoke.

“So, what is this grand plan of yours, Onin?” Cerina said.

“It’s not a plan, so much as a few ideas we can talk about and see what comes of them. Step one is to watch the news and see if we can spot any other activity that the authorities might not connect to the Natas.”

“Like the riots in Caradan,” Kasai said.

“Yeah, ‘cause that one wasn’t obvious.” Cerina rolled her eyes.

Onin pushed open the door, and they stepped out into sunlight.

“You’ve got to remember most people have never heard of the Natas. Most of the ones that have just think of them as a myth,” Onin said.

“The Natas prey off that.” Saija frowned and shifted her weight to her right crutch. “They like to, ah, ‘recruit’, from among poor rural villages and use that myth and superstition to control the people.”

Onin turned down the sidewalk that led back to the dorms.

“Who wants to dig through the news reports with me?” he asked.

“I will,” Kasai stepped closer and smiled up at him.

“Big surprise there.” Cerina rolled her eyes. “I’ll check back with you later. There’s some stuff I gotta do first.”

“Sorry, I have another appointment at the hospital for my leg,” Saija said.

“Tannin?” Onin jabbed Tannin in the shoulder. “You coming?”

“Actually, I have an idea.”

“Really?” Cerina stopped and put a hand on her hip. “I don’t see smoke coming out your ears.”

“It wasn’t that good of an idea.” Tannin shrugged. “If it’s okay with everyone else, I want to go down to the police station and talk to the Natas we’ve captured. They probably won’t willingly tell me anything, but hopefully if I talk around the subject enough, they might let something slip that might help us.”

“No, that is a good idea,” Kasai said.

Onin nodded. “How about we meet up in me and Tannin’s dorm in about three hours?”

“Better make it four. My appointment might run a little long,” Saija said

“Okay.”

Tannin, Cerina, and Saija split off in different directions. Onin held out his hand to Kasai. She glanced over at it, then reached out and took it.

“Uh, since it’s just the two of us—” Onin scratched the back of his neck. “—would you feel more comfortable going to the library?”

“No, I trust you.” Kasai paused mid-step. “That reminds me, I forgot something inside. Wait here for me?”

“Sure.”

Kasai blushed and let go of his hand. Onin watched her run back into the building. What could she have forgotten in the professor’s office? He didn’t remember her bringing anything else inside. Oh well, she’d tell him later if she wanted to.

A few minutes later Kasai was back. She didn’t say anything, but she did reach for Onin’s hand again. A folded piece of paper stuck out of her back pocket. Onin opened his mouth to ask about it, then changed his mind. She’d tell him if she wanted to.

Halfway back to the dorm, Kasai stopped and turned to face Onin.

“Do you think I’m broken?” she said.

“Huh?”

“You know, I didn’t have any friends before I met you and the others. Cerina still barely tolerates me—”

“Cerina barely tolerates anyone.”

“Well, that’s true, but you know what I mean.”

“Yeah.”

“And then there’s the Onryo thing. Is there something weird like the Natas and Matari going on there, or am I just crazy?”

“I don’t think you’re crazy.” Onin took both her hands in his. “We’ve all got problems. You more than most, possibly, but you’re dealing with them and you’re still able to achieve great things.”

“I don’t know.” Kasai looked down at her feet. “You know how I was when we first met. I could barely talk to people, didn’t let anyone get close…”

“And look at you now.” Onin put a hand on her shoulder, and she stepped forward to hug him. Warmth spread through him. “You’re sharing deep emotional stuff, and you’ll even allow social touching. And I’m pretty sure you don’t feel terrified.”

“I did the first time you held out your hand to me.” Kasai looked down and kicked at a tuft of grass in a crack in the sidewalk. “And that’s just with you.”

“It’s a step. And you’ll joke with Tannin,” Onin said.

“Everyone jokes with Tannin.” Kasai rolled her eyes and laughed. “You can’t help it with him. He’s just a big, friendly goofball.”

Onin put an arm around her shoulders and started for the dorm again.

“Hey, no matter what happens, I care about you, and I’ll always be here for you.”

“Thanks.” She blushed and brushed her hair back behind her ear. “So, uh, we’ve got some news to catch up on, right?”

Onin let Kasai into the common room of his and Tannin’s dorm. Kasai sat on the couch while Onin grabbed his tablet from his bedroom. He sat next to Kasai and pulled up the news headlines on the tablet.

“Let’s see…” He flipped through several stories. “Hover car accident, politicians call for more funding, Sandwich Masters celebrates fifty years in business—”

“Don’t let Tannin see that one. We’ll never get anything done,” Kasai said.

Onin laughed. “True. I don’t see anything. Oh, wait, here’s an article from yesterday about the situation in Caradan.”

Onin tapped the headline and a video popped up. A young woman holding a microphone stood in front of crowd of people who were assembled on the steps of a large stone building.

“Ella Font with IDNN here. I’m here on Gesara in the country of Caradan, just south of the border with Rogim. Protesters from across Caradan have assembled on the steps of the capitol building. The protesters are demanding more government regulation of giftlings after last week’s attacks. The protesters feel that increased regulations will prevent further attacks like this one.

“Multiple news outlets have received a notice that a group of giftlings calling themselves Natas are behind the attacks. The notice states that further attacks will continue until unfair discrimination against giftlings ceases. The Caradan government has not yet released an official comment on the Natas. More on this story as it develops.”

“This is worse than the professor said.” Onin set the tablet down. “Why are the Natas being so open about this? They’re usually low-key and sneaky, from what we’ve seen.”

“Do you think we should go to Caradan to help the people and fight the Natas there?” Kasai said.

“No, I think the professor is right. This is a distraction or setting the stage for something larger. Either way, they’re definitely trying to draw attention away from what’s going on here in Rogim.”

“Yeah…” Kasai scrolled down the list of news stories. “Wait, what’s this?”

She pointed to a headline farther down. Onin picked up the tablet and tapped it.

“’Three Missing from Small Town’.” He skimmed the article. “It says that three people went missing last week from a town out in the mountains close to where we were on vacation. The reporter speculates as to whether they’re connected with other disappearances from small towns scattered over Rogim over the past few months. All of them have gone missing with no clues, and no notice, no history of depression or debt or anything. Oh, there’s a picture—”

His hands started shaking, and he turned the tablet to Kasai.

“Are those—” she grabbed the tablet and stared at it.

“Some of the Natas that attacked us in the mountains?” Onin nodded at the tablet. “I didn’t get a good look at all of them, but it looks like them to me.”

“We’d better show the others when they get back.”

dragon

A few hours later the door opened. Tannin came in and flopped into a chair.

“So, you kids been behaving?” he asked.

Kasai blushed. Onin closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath. If he said anything, it’d only encourage Tannin.

“We found a few things in the news of interest. What’d you find?”

“Not much.” Tannin sighed. “We might as well wait until everyone gets here so we don’t have to repeat ourselves.”

“Good point,” Onin said.

The door swung open and Cerina entered.

“Hey.” She slid her bag off her shoulder, tossed it to the floor, and sat in a chair. She slid down to lean against the headrest. “Find anything in the news?”

“They claim they did. Just waiting on Saija,” Tannin said.

“Know when she’s gonna get here?” Cerina yawned. “Sorry. Really tired.”

Kasai pulled out her phone and tapped away on it. She paused, then tapped something else and looked up.

“She’s almost here.”

They sat in silence waiting. Tannin pulled out his phone and started fiddling with it. Cerina looked exhausted. She laid back in the chair and didn’t say anything. In fact, she hadn’t been snippy, or even made a single sarcastic remark when she came in. Was she sick? Onin stared at her. Her skin wasn’t off-color, but she was breathing heavier than usual. Perspiration dotted her forehead. It almost looked as though she’d been exercising. Whatever, Cerina had always done her own thing.

Kasai was still fiddling with her phone. That was unusual. She looked over and up at him, smiled, put her phone back in her pocket and leaned up against his arm.

“Anyone want anything to drink?” Onin said.

“Nah,” Tannin said.

“Water,” Cerina said.

“Me, too, please.” Kasai stood. “Do you want help getting everything?”

Onin considered it. He didn’t really need help, but it’d be a great excuse to spend more time with Kasai.

“Sure,” he said.

He got three glasses down from the cupboard and handed them to Kasai. She filled two of them from the sink and handed the third back to him. Kasai took one of the glasses over and handed it to Cerina.

Onin sat back down on the couch. Kasai started to settle in next to him when someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Tannin yelled.

The door cracked open and Saija stuck her head in.

“Is everyone here? I don’t want to intrude…” she said.

“You’re not intruding.” Kasai patted the couch cushion next to her. “Come on in.”

The door opened and Saija stepped inside. Onin just about dropped his water. Saija didn’t have her crutches with her. She wore pants, and two shoes.

“You like?” Saija said.

She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. She clasped both hands behind her back and posed with her right leg in front of her.

“Nice,” Tannin said.

“I didn’t know you were getting an artificial leg!” Kasai jumped up and hugged Saija. “That’s great. How’s it working for you?”

“It’s so nice not to have those crutches anymore.” Saija pirouetted, then bowed. “It’s not as maneuverable as my real leg, but it’s better than hobbling around.”

“Come have a seat.” Kasai pulled Saija over to the couch. “Onin and I found a few things that might be helpful, and Tannin says he found some information, too.”

Onin, with occasional comments from Kasai, filled the others in on what they’d found in the news.

“Not much more than we’d known before,” Cerina said.

“I’d say that it confirms that the Natas are trying to keep our attention away from what’s happening here in Rogim.” Tannin shifted around in his chair and leaned forward. “It looks like everything they’re doing is focusing on Caradan, but it feels like a diversion to me. Especially after what I learned chatting to our Natas guests.”

“What’d you find out?” Onin said.

“That Natas are cranky, mean, and unhelpful,” Cerina said.

“Well, that too.” Tannin gave Cerina a sharp nod. “But also, that they’ve been planning this for a while. As we suspected, the Natas that we’ve captured are all grunts. They don’t know much. But they do know that those bases in the mountains haven’t been used in ages, and now the grunts are being sent out to kidnap giftlings from all over and bring them back to those bases. They’re almost as afraid of what goes on there as we are.”

“Makes sense. The Natas aren’t going to waste the most talented of their people in their ceremonies,” Saija said.

Onin shuddered. Kasai gripped his arm.

“Don’t remind me.” Tannin’s face took on a greenish hue. “So, yeah, there’s more Natas vessels than ever before, and from what the grunts know, only the low levels, a few of the ones that can be controlled, and mostly followers, are being sent to Caradan. Again, according to the limited knowledge of the people we’ve captured, only a few Natas vessels are in Caradan.”

“Leaving lots of the newly made vessels here. Wonderful.” Saija said.

“They’ve got to be plotting something. But what?” Onin said.

“I wonder…” Kasai pursed her lips and sat still for a moment before she spoke again. “The Natas hate the Matari. The Matari withdrew funding from ABG. The Matari are on the other end of the continent from Caradan. Perhaps it has something to do with the Matari…”

“Professor Jekao seems to think so,” Onin said.

“Yeah!” Tannin jumped to his feet. “But now we’ve got more to go on than a hunch. I say we go and see if we can find anything!”

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