Chapter 13: Into the Lion’s Den
Onin flew low enough to skim the treetops that were barely visible in the moonless darkness. He pushed a hair more power to the servitors on his hands and looked back over his shoulder. Kasai glided along telekinetically behind him on his right. The servitor carrying Tannin was behind and to his left. Cerina and Saija followed behind him, each also suspended under a servitor. Onin still wished they’d taken the monorail. He’d need the energy it took to make those servitors if they ran into a Natas. Flying was worth the energy for the extra stealth, though.
The walls of the Matari Enclave came into sight. Onin waved to the others and they landed about four miles out. Onin re-absorbed all but one servitor, which provided enough light to see his immediate surroundings. Insects chirped overhead in the trees. The forest floor was almost completely black. Onin waved the servitor forward and followed it through the forest. Kasai reached out and took his hand. Comfort spread through him at her touch.
“Nice night for a stroll,” Tannin said.
“Shh!” Onin waved his hand at Tannin. “We’re supposed to be sneaking up to the wall.”
“Oh, yeah, stealth. Right, I forgot. ‘Cause the big glowing ball of light there won’t be spotted,” Tannin said.
Onin paused mid-stride. Tannin had a point. He hadn’t even thought about the light, other than he wanted to see where he was going. Not that he’d admit that to Tannin.
“I’m going to turn it off once we get closer,” he said grudgingly. “Right now, we’d never find our way through the forest without some light.”
“True, but why can’t we talk, then?”
Tannin slowed his pace and fell back to walk next to Saija.
“So, how’s the leg?”
“Holding up good so far,” she said.
“Uh, I never really said sorry.”
There was silence for several more yards.
“So, uh, I’m sorry I stabbed your leg.”
“It’s fine.” Saija’s speech was clipped. “Wasn’t just you.”
“Yeah.” Onin heard Tannin run his fingers through his hair. Either that or Saija had just scalped him. Probably the former. “I still had something to do with it, and I hadn’t apologized, so I wanted to.”
“It’s fine, okay, just drop it.”
Onin hoped that for once in his life Tannin would listen and let it go. Saija had obviously forgiven all of them, but the way she’d lost her leg was still just as obviously a sore subject. By some miracle they walked the remainder of the four miles in silence.
Onin leaned out from behind a tree. The forest ended and left about 200 yards of open grass between them and the wall. He couldn’t see any guards, but then the moon was only a sliver, and fog had started to set in.
Tannin leaned out from behind the tree right below Onin. “So, do we just waltz right up there and jump the wall?”
“I’d suggest more of a crouching run,” Cerina said.
“Nice one,” Tannin said.
“Will you two be quiet? They might hear us,” Kasai whispered.
“No they won’t. I’m making sure of that.” Cerina smirked. “I’ve been generating a sonic barrier around us.”
“Good.” Onin leaned back behind the tree. “Saija, can you portal all of us right up next to the wall?”
“So, why didn’t we just portal here from Dabrath?” Tannin said.
“Because—” Saija ticked off the reasons on her fingers. “Long-range portals use a lot of energy, and I might need that to either fight or get us out of here. We can gain valuable intel on defense or surveillance devices from a long approach. And, for the zillionth time, I CAN’T PORTAL TO SOMEWHERE I HAVEN’T BEEN!”
Saija spread her hands apart, and a portal appeared in the gap. She grabbed the edge and pulled it open wider. Onin looked over to the wall. He couldn’t see anything through the fog now. He stepped through the portal, Kasai’s hand still in his.
Onin stepped out of the portal and dropped to a crouch. The only sound was the footsteps of Cerina, Tannin, and Saija as they stepped through the portal behind him. He listened and heard nothing. He squeezed Kasai’s hand and nodded to her. The ground started to rise—wait, the ground was still, it was the five of them that were rising into the air, as though they were in an invisible elevator.
The top of the wall was about three feet wide and flat. He stepped onto it and looked around. The fog was too thick to see more than a few feet. Onin raised his hand and concentrated. A hot spot formed in front of him.
“What’s that?” Tannin asked.
“Infrared servitor.” Onin gave the invisible servitor a little more energy. “It doesn’t draw the attention a big ball of light would, and if they have infrared sensors, it should look like a bird.”
“Cool, I didn’t know you could do that. Why aren’t they all like that?”
“For one, I can’t see them. Makes it hard to keep track of them. Two, their combat abilities aren’t quite as high. Arcing electricity makes a lot of light.”
Onin sent the servitor down and over the wall.
“Nothing down there. Kasai?”
“I’ve got a telekinetic platform ready. Just step off,” she said.
“This part makes me nervous,” Tannin said.
“Why? If you fall, you can just strengthen yourself,” Cerina said.
“Reinforce. And that doesn’t make it not scary…”
“Come on.” Onin took a deep breath and stepped off the edge of the wall—and onto solid nothingness. He shuddered and resisted the urge to look down. “Okay, this is extremely unnerving.”
In moments they were on the ground.
“What now?” Tannin asked.
“We look around, see what we can find.” Onin pointed to the left. “The main gate is that way. If we head in that direction, we should come up behind the village.”
After fifteen minutes they hadn’t encountered anyone.
“Are you sure this is the right way,” Cerina asked.
“I’m pretty sure it is. Kasai?” Onin turned to face her.
“Positive.” Kasai nodded. “We should be almost to some of the buildings that are farthest out.”
“How big is this village, anyway?” Tannin asked.
“Fairly small.” Onin looked around. “If I remember correctly, there’s about three large buildings and, oh, around ten or so house-sized ones. They didn’t say, but I got the idea it’s used mostly for entertaining, and the Matari actually live deeper into the enclave.”
They should be close to the village by now, but Onin didn’t see anything. Of course, the fog made that more difficult. The servitor had gone on ahead, but it hadn’t reported anything either. He generated another infrared servitor and pulled it over his head.
The fog vanished. Trees and small animals lit up blue, yellow, and red in the infrared view. Odd. Most buildings gave off at least some infrared radiation. He should be able to see at least some kind of heater exhaust, or, even if the building was well insulated and didn’t have an active heat source, a body inside it would raise the temperature enough to show a slightly brighter blue outline.
“Hey, Kasai?” he said.
“Shouldn’t we be in about the middle of the village now, or is my sense of direction really off?”
“Hmm,” was all Kasai said.
He turned to look at her and his eyes widened. Tannin and Cerina had a normal infrared outline. Saija’s was normal too, except for her artificial leg, which was blue instead of the normal green. Kasai, however, glowed white all over. Apparently, the heat he felt whenever she held his hand wasn’t just because he found her attractive.
“It is foggy.” Cerina waved her hand in front of her face. “But I don’t see a village anywhere.”
Onin re-absorbed the servitor that was over his head. He thrust a palm up, and a regular servitor shot up into the air. The fog slowly started to dissipate. Onin ran over behind a tree and waved at the others to join him.
A few more seconds and the fog was gone. Onin gaped at the empty clearing. Not a building was in sight.
“So…” Cerina drew the word out. “You sure you didn’t dream all that after all?”
“It was here.” Kasai’s voice was barely audible. She took a few steps forward and turned to the left. “There’s the gate.”
The gate was just as Onin remembered it. Except for the lack of guards. And the lack of a path. And a village was missing. Weird would be an understatement.
“So, what happened here?” Onin spun on his heel. “The village was right here.”
“That strange quasi-kinetic feeling,” Kasai said.
“What about it? Could they have moved the entire village?” Onin said.
“I don’t think so.” Kasai bit her lower lip and twirled her hair around her finger. “It’s more like, I don’t know… an illusion or hologram or something. Like they were mentally and physically projecting it.”
“Can they do that?” Saija said.
“I’ve never heard of a hologram that realistic,” Tannin said.
“I still think you imagined it.” Cerina leaned against a tree.
“No. It was real,” Kasai insisted.
“So, now what? Do we just sit here, wander around some more, or what?” Tannin said.
“We’re here. I say we explore.” Onin pointed northwest. “When we were here, there was a trail that went off in that direction. I say we go that way and see if we can find anything.”
“Why?” Cerina looked over in the direction that Onin had indicated. “There’s nothing here now. If it was a hologram or something, it’d just be a fake path anyway.”
“But why have a fake path that led out of the village?” Saija looked over at Cerina. “If the whole thing was fake, why bother faking anything other than what they needed to? Besides, Onin and Kasai’s research indicated that the Matari might possibly be some kind of spectral being, kinda like the Natas. If that’s the case, the village might be real, sorta. Just not here, now, to our perceptions.”
“Tcsh.” Cerina rolled her eyes. “That’s a stretch. We’re supposed to find something we can’t see?”
Saija took a step forward. Tannin grabbed her upper arm.
“Let it go. We can’t convince her; she’ll have to see for herself.”
“Fine.” Saija took a deep breath and spun on her heel. “Let’s go.”
After an hour of wandering through nothing but more trees, Onin was even starting to get doubts. He and Kasai had seen the village. He was sure of it. He was less sure they’d find anything tonight. Perhaps the Matari could only be seen when they wanted to be seen.
“What’s that?” Kasai pointed ahead.
Onin generated a servitor and sent it up into the sky. He concentrated and could see from the servitor’s perspective. Something shimmered ahead. He sent the servitor in closer. A boulder was in the middle of a path that hadn’t been there before. As he watched, the boulder flickered. For an instant, a stone building was next to a paved road. The next, it was gone, and the forest was back, sans boulder.
“What the…” Onin blinked and was back to his own sight. “That was weird.”
“What?” Tannin asked. “Giant mutant rats?”
Onin blinked and turned slowly to stare at Tannin. “Where on Gesara did you get the idea that I saw giant mutant rats? Who even thinks up such nonsense?”
“You’re right.” Tannin nodded and clapped Onin on the shoulder. “What was I thinking? We’re in a forest. It’s much more likely to be mutant raccoons.”
“Seriously—” Cerina cocked her head to the side. “—is he brain damaged?”
“He’s just trying to lighten the mood,” Saija said. Then, in an undertone, “I hope…”
Onin shook his head and ran forward on the trail, Kasai right behind him. The boulder was in front of them, completely solid. Onin walked past the boulder, then turned to stare at it.
“So, what’s so weird? Rocks in the woods. That’s normal.” Tannin took a step forward and knocked on the rock. “Yup, solid.”
Tannin crossed his legs at the ankle and leaned against the boulder with his palm. “Yup, not going—”
The boulder flickered out of existence, and Tannin fell over on the ground. He jumped up and ran behind Onin.
“What the mutant raccoon was that?” he yelled.
“Again with the raccoons?” Cerina said.
“I like raccoons.”
Saija took Tannin’s arm and turned it over, looking at it. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
“I think I’ll live.” Tannin held his hand to his forehead in a dramatic posture. “I don’t know, though. You’d better make sure I didn’t get a splinter or pick up a poisonous insect.”
“Aww.” Saija ran her hand up and down Tannin’s arm, eyes glinting.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Cerina said.
Saija and Tannin both giggled.
“Would you two knock it off!” Onin glared at them. He wasn’t sure if they were flirting, or just trying to pester Cerina, but now wasn’t the time. “We’ve got to figure out what’s going on here.”
The boulder turned transparent, then faded away, to be replaced by the stone house with a wood door and a tile roof. A minute or so later the stone house disappeared again, and the boulder was back. Onin waited for the house to re-appear then ran toward it. As soon as he reached the area where the forest path turned into a sidewalk, the house disappeared, leaving Onin standing in the middle of the forest.
He turned and trudged back to the others. “Is it just me, or does it seem to change when we get close?”
“Yeah.” Kasai shifted her weight to her other leg. “That’s the same style of house we saw when we were here last time. Right?”
Onin stared at the curve of Kasai’s hip where her right hand rested on it. She had such a nice curve to her hip that flowed to a narrow waist—Onin blinked and focused on Kasai’s face. The tip of the index finger of her left hand was in her mouth, and she looked lost in thought. “Could it be another dimension, or something?”
“Could be, but how can we get in?” Onin said.
“I might be able to help with that,” Saija said.
“You can?” Kasai said.
“I said, ‘might.’ I don’t know.” Saija frowned and turned to stare at the boulder that had reappeared. “I might be able to portal us inside…maybe… If it is another dimension.”
“Worth a try,” Onin said.
“How long do we have to stare at this stupid bolder before the house is back?” Cerina said.
“I dunno. Go poke it,” Tannin said.
“No way!” Cerina glared at Tannin. “What if I get stuck or something?”
Onin sighed and generated a fingertip sized servitor. It blinked and shot out toward the boulder. The instant it made contact it disappeared in a shower of tiny sparks. The boulder faded out simultaneously. Saija lifted her hand and opened a portal. The other end of the portal opened next to the house.
“Wow.” Saija grunted. “Hurry! This is taking a lot more energy that it normally does.”
Onin ran into the portal. Kasai grabbed his hand as he was halfway through.
It was daylight. Onin froze in shock. The forest was gone. A handful of trees surrounded the old house, and a stone barn was where they had been standing moments before. The sidewalk Onin now stood on curved around the house—and up into the sky, supported by nothing.
Tannin and Cerina stepped out of the portal behind him, and finally Saija. She dropped to her knees and sucked in air. Onin grabbed one of her arms. Kasai got the other, and they led her over to sit on the steps of the stone house.
“Are you alright?” Kasai asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Saija took another breath. “Just used up a lot of power holding that portal open. Never felt anything like that before.”
Onin dug around in his backpack and handed Saija an energy bar.
“Thanks.” She bit off a large hunk and gulped it down.
“Easy there.” Kasai patted Saija’s back. “You don’t want to choke.”
“Mmm.” Saija nodded while she chewed. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve been this hungry.”
“That’s kinda got me worried. How are we going to get out?” Kasai said.
“Worry about that later. If this is the Matari dimension, or whatever, they might be able to help with that, seeing as we might have been here before,” Onin said.
“Wow. Floating concrete.” Tannin craned his head around as he looked up at the sidewalk. “Remind me not to eat the cafeteria’s mushroom lasagna ever again.”
“Shut up.” Cerina smacked Tannin’s arm. “That’s not funny.”
“No. ‘Surreal’ would be a better word.” Tannin scrunched up his nose and blinked at the floating sidewalk.
Cerina took a step towards Tannin. “Oh, look who can use big-boy words now.”
“The question is—” Onin stepped between them. “Where do we go from here?”
“Up.” Kasai pointed.
Tannin shrugged, Saija nodded. Cerina glanced at the curving sidewalk and shivered. Kasai slipped her hand into Onin’s and they started up.
The world turned around them. At least, that’s what it looked like. Onin kept his eyes on the stone house as they walked along the sidewalk. It felt like they were walking in a flat, straight line, yet, the house was now at a ninety-degree angle to the part of the sidewalk they stood on.
“This is weird.” Onin stared at the sideways house. Either he or the house should be falling over.
“I think I’m going to be sick.” Cerina hugged her stomach and kept her gaze on the sidewalk at her feet.
“I’m totally serious about those mushrooms,” Tannin swept his arm in the direction of the sideways house. “What else could explain this? I bet I’m going to wake up in a few hours in our dorm room with a killer headache, or whatever kind of hangover or whatever you get from ‘shrooms.”
Saija raised an eyebrow. “It’s not the mushrooms.”
“How do you know?”
“For one—” Saija held up a finger. “The cafeteria’s looked and tasted just like ordinary mushrooms. Two—” She held up another finger. “I had the same lasagna, so—”
“Ha!” Tannin pointed at her. “I knew it! We’re having the same hallucination!”
Saija’s eyes narrowed, and she jabbed Tannin in the forehead with her index finger.
“Again, knock it off, you two. We have to see if we can find the Matari,” Onin said.
The scenery didn’t change much over the next mile. Floating trees suspended in nothing, Two more stone houses set back from and on opposite sides of the path—and on different rotational planes from each other. Something flew past Onin.
“Did you see that?” he said.
“See what?” Kasai whipped her head around. “Wait… is that a fish?”
It was a fish. Swimming through the air several yards off the ground.
“I think—” Cerina slowly drew the words out as she stared at the fish. “—that we might owe Tannin an apology about his mushroom theory.”
Onin shook his head and kept walking.
Finally, they came to an area where everything looked normal. Or at least everything was on the same axis, and nothing was flying that shouldn’t be.
“Thank goodness!” Cerina dropped to her knees and laid down on her back to stare up at the sky. “I thought I was gonna spin off into the air any second there.”
Kasai took a deep breath. “It is nice to be back to something that looks as it should.”
“I wonder—” Onin looked around at the flat grassland. “—in here, are the normal parts normal, or weird?”
“Don’t care. As long as ‘up’ is the same direction for everything,” Cerina said
“So, what do we do now, boss?” Tannin looked over at him and raised his eyebrows.
“There are houses over that way,” Onin shrugged and pointed ahead of them. “Someone had to have made them.”
He walked up to the closest house. It was made of stone with a tile roof like the others they’d seen. Wood door, and clouded windows on the sides. At least this one wasn’t moving. Onin knocked on the door. No response.
“So…” Saija peered in one of the windows. “These windows are glazed or frosted or something, I can’t see anything. Assuming people of some sort live here, where are they?”
“My guess would be they’re hiding, or they’ve fled the area,” Kasai said.
“Scared of us or something else?” Cerina said.
“Good question.” Onin walked around to the back of the building. The others followed him. “I’d say it’s the Natas. That’d explain why the Matari cut funding to ABG, and why this place is deserted.”
“Could be a little of both. If the Natas did attack here, any survivors would be terrified of any other strangers coming around,” Kasai said.
They checked the surrounding houses without any results. All the doors were locked. Not a person or animal was in sight.
“Well, time to keep moving, I guess. There’s nothing here.” Onin said.
“But where?” Kasai looked around. “We could wander around here forever.”
Just then a branching path on the sidewalk shimmered into existence.
“How about that one?” Tannin gestured toward the new path.
“Oh, yeah.” Cerina rolled her eyes. “‘Cause that couldn’t scream ‘trap’ any louder.”
“It should lead us straight to whoever we’re looking for, then.” Onin raised his hand and generated a servitor, which zipped off down the new sidewalk. The servitor didn’t send back any energy, or telepathic echoes. It traced the path for a while and sent back a mental picture of a large wooden structure.
“Did it find anything?” Kasai asked.
“Not really.” Onin frowned. “The path spirals and turns and stuff, and there’s a building at the end that looks normal.”
He shrugged. It might be a trap, but he had a gut feeling that it was more of an invitation. Onin tapped a finger against his leg. The information from the servitor didn’t provide any hints. He’d just have to trust his hunch and hope he made the right choice.
Onin squared his shoulders and headed down the sidewalk. Everyone else trailed behind him. The trees started to get thicker. And… weirder. Before, they looked like normal trees. Well, normal in everything except the whole “growing in mid-air” thing. Now they looked like poorly rendered imitations of trees. Sharp, blocky green triangles where branches and individual needles should be. Onin peered at one of them. The trunk was square and flat brown.
“Uh, anyone else getting creeped out by this?” Saija asked.
“Come on.” Cerina jabbed a finger at Saija. “With your past, this can’t be the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen.”
“That’s why I’m scared. No, this isn’t the grossest or most… off… thing I’ve seen, but it is the weirdest.”
Kasai looked up at Onin, then over her shoulder at Saija. She let go of Onin’s hand, fell back a few paces and took Saija’s hand in hers. Saija flushed and looked at the ground. Onin stared at Kasai. He’d rather she hold his hand, but Saija obviously needed a friend more right at this moment. He smiled. Not many people could forgive a person who had tried to kill them not that long ago. Kasai was wonderful.
“Hey, what’s that?” Tannin pointed at the ground a dozen or so yards left of them.
A shadow floated over the ground. Only, it wasn’t a shadow. More like the reverse of a shadow, like someone shining a spotlight on the ground. Onin shaded his eyes with his hand and looked up. A giant cloud of light drifted through the sky.
“Just when you think this place can’t get any weirder—” Onin turned back forward and jumped. “What the—”
They stood in front of a large stone and metal castle. It looked like a spaceship had artfully crashed into something out of the medieval era. It was roughly circular and had twisting stone and metal towers rising out of the wall at irregular intervals. They stood in front of a raised wooden drawbridge.
Tannin frowned. “I swear this wasn’t here a minute ago.”
“It wasn’t.” Saija had stepped behind Kasai, and she was visibly trembling. “This is sickeningly familiar.”
“Oh?” Kasai said.
“Well, not—” Saija waved her hand around. “—this. But… I don’t know… this feeling. I feel the way I did when the Natas that occupied me was communicating with its master.”
“There might be a Natas nearby?” Onin generated a servitor and put it into sentry mode.
“I don’t know. The Natas are spectral beings. The Matari might give off the same feeling if they are, too. Or it might just be this place, if it’s some kind of spectral dimension or something.”
Another anti-shadow drifted overhead. Onin squinted up at it and watched as it came down and went through the door and inside the castle.
“Just what are those things?” Cerina said.
“I wonder…” Kasai let go of Saija’s hand and walked up to the drawbridge.
“Hello?” Kasai paused and took another breath. “Matari? It’s Kasai and Onin!”
No response. Did Kasai think that…
“If you’re the Matari, we’re here to help,” Kasai said.
Still no sign of a response from inside the castle.
“Maybe no one’s home here, either,” Tannin said.
“Wait,” Onin held up a hand. “Did you hear that?”
There it was again. Faint, but definitely a squeak. Seconds later it squeaked again, and the drawbridge started to lower. Kasai took a step back and grabbed Onin’s hand. She stretched her other hand out behind her and grabbed one of Saija’s.
The drawbridge settled onto the ground with a solid thunk. Onin crossed the bridge into the castle with the others in tow. The inside was nothing like what he expected. Which, given the nature of this place, didn’t surprise him. A yellow sidewalk ran from a clearing in a forest toward a group of stone houses.
“Whoa,” Kasai said. “Déjà-vu.”
“What? Sure, it looks a little like that first place with the houses where we were, but it’s not the same,” Tannin said.
“No, that’s not it. This is where Kasai and I were when we went to the Matari Enclave,” Onin said.
“Can’t be. That’s miles behind us,” Cerina said.
“I think that they brought us here that night,” Kasai said.
“Or reality isn’t a firm concept here.” Saija shrugged. “It could be that in this dimension, this place doesn’t have a fixed physical location.”
“So, where do we go? There are, what?” Tannin leaned around Onin and looked at the sidewalks. “Three different paths here. Which one do we take?”
“We took yellow last time,” Kasai said.
“Just because you took it last time doesn’t mean anything. You were here for a completely different reason last time,” Cerina said.
“I think we should stick to the yellow path,” Onin said.
“Don’t look at me.” Tannin shrugged. “I’m still voting this is all mushroom induced.”
“Knock it off with the mushrooms, already!” Cerina smacked his arm. “We’ve already established—never mind. Why am I arguing with an idiot? Lead on, Onin.”
Onin started down the yellow path. Everything looked exactly the same as it did the last time he and Kasai were here. The light started to dim the farther along the path as they went.
“Why not?” Tannin muttered under his breath. “We’ve had sideways houses, trees growing in mid-air, and low-res trees. Why not varying light levels?”
“It was just after dark when we were here last. I think they’re trying to recreate that visit almost the same as it was then,” Onin said.
“But why? What’s the point?” Cerina said.
“We’ll know soon enough,” Saija said.
The path ended at the same wood and metal building as last time. Onin glanced at Kasai, raised an eyebrow, and jerked his chin toward the door. She stared back at him and nodded.
Onin reached out and pushed the door open.