Chapter 14: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
A bright light filled the center of the wood-paneled room. Onin shaded his eyes and took a step inside. “Hello?”
“Onin and Kasai. You have returned.” Ambassador Miton’s voice came from the light. She sounded puzzled. The ball of light condensed somewhat and floated closer. “What is your purpose for coming here?”
“We heard you might be in trouble,” Onin shielded his eyes and looking at the ball of light. “You cut funding to ABG, and the Natas are multiplying and running around loose all over Rogim and Caradan. We came back to find out what’s going on and to see if we could help.”
The ball of light—which Onin thought was the Ambassador’s true form, or at least as close as a gesaran could perceive it—changed color to a soft blue. Tiny flashes sparkled all throughout it. Finally, the Ambassador spoke.
“We never considered asking gesarans for help. Your gifts are for your own protection, not our fight. Yet since the Natas have possessed gesarans, they could be helpful in the current situation. Please come in, and we will discuss this.”
The cloud of light floated farther inside and passed through the door on the far wall. Cerina leaned in close to Onin and Kasai.
She lowered her eyes and looked contrite. “Sorry. I didn’t believe what you said about the Matari.”
Kasai smiled faintly. “That’s okay. I wasn’t quite sure it wasn’t all a dream myself, for a while there.”
Onin tugged at Kasai’s hand. “Let’s go. We don’t want to keep them waiting.”
“Uh, what’s behind the door?” Saija said.
“If it’s the same as last time, it should be a conference room. There was food last time.” Onin glanced over his shoulder at Tannin. “I’m not sure if there will be any or not now, so don’t get your hopes up.”
Onin pushed the door open. The large table in the center of the room was now covered in charts, maps, and stacks of paper. Ambassador Miton, in her feline-ish form sat at the head of the table.
“Please, come in,” she said.
Onin and the others filed in and sat along the left side of the table.
“The Natas captured one of us.” Ambassador Miton slid a map over to them. “This is the area she is being held in.”
“Hey—” Tannin pulled the map over and tapped a finger on in. “—isn’t this the same spot where they— ah— ‘captured,’ Shanay?”
Onin leaned over to get a better look. Narrow pass through the mountains, about an hour or so northwest of the beach.
“Looks like the same spot to me. Or, at least, very close to it,” he said.
“Shanay?” Ambassador Miton looked back and forth between Onin and Kasai. “Who is Shanay?”
“A gesaran giftling captured by the Natas.” Onin looked down at his feet. “We didn’t get there in time to rescue her.”
He and Kasai quickly filled the Ambassador in on their adventures in the mountains.
“More Natas.” Ambassador Miton lowered her head and her ears drooped. “This is troubling. And dangerous. We can combat the Natas in their natural state with little difficulty. It is when they take a vessel in the physical world that they are truly dangerous. We can only fight them then with great difficulty and much loss of life. That is how they defeated us on our homeworld.” She looked up. “But that is a story for another time. Now, we need to rescue the Matari that the Natas have captured.”
“Excuse me, but how did they capture a Matari?” Kasai said.
“In much the same manner as they captured your friend Shanay, only the reverse.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow.” Tannin tilted his head to the side. “They un-possessed someone?”
Ambassador Miton lowered one ear. “No. One of the gesarans that willingly follows the Natas volunteered to become a container. They then use the same ceremony that allows a Natas to enter a gesaran, only with a different relic to force a Matari into a willing gesaran host.”
“Who in their right mind would volunteer for that?” Cerina shuddered and crossed her arms.
“There is much about both the Natas and gesaran behavior that we do not understand,” the Ambassador said.
“So—” Onin pulled the map away from Tannin. “We’re going to rescue the Matari that’s trapped inside a gesaran body, get them away from the Natas, and then what? Saija says they’re really hard to get out of a body.”
“We will be able to free our kind from the physical prison. The Natas are only hard to remove because they do not want to leave,” the Ambassador said.
“Can you remove the Natas from Shanay?” Kasai asked.
Ambassador Miton looked away from the table. “It is possible. But much more difficult. The trapped Matari is your first priority.”
Onin drummed his fingers on the table. He understood why the Matari would want to free their captive first, but he was concerned that they didn’t seem to care about Shanay. Was she a lost cause? In any case, he and the others needed to work with the Matari, or they wouldn’t be able to do anything. He glanced over at Kasai, then back to the Ambassador. “Prioritize the hostage that we have the highest chance of safely removing. Got it. Well, then—” Onin stood and pushed his chair back. “Let’s get going.”
Ambassador Miton lead them outside and down a short red path that ended at the wall. She pushed a block, and a stone slid aside revealing a small tunnel. Onin bent over and entered the tunnel. Kasai was behind him, then Saija. Cerina followed her, and Tannin brought up the rear.
The tunnel seemed to stretch on forever, but it was probably only about a hundred yards or so. Eventually, Onin saw a light, and soon he stepped outside into brisk air. Pine trees surrounded the exit of the tunnel, and grey mountains filled the horizon all around them.
Onin shivered. The mountains were colder than he remembered. Onin generated a servitor and put it in sentry mode.
“Anyone have any idea where we are?” he asked.
Tannin came out of the tunnel and rose to a standing position. His back cracked audibly as he straightened out. “Thought that’d never end. Wait—” Tannin looked around. “Where are we? This is nowhere near the Matari Enclave—is it?”
“I don’t think so. We seem to be somewhere around where we fought the Natas,” Kasai said.
“So how do we find the captured Matari in this mess?” Cerina waved a hand to indicate the entire mountain range. “She could be anywhere, and we have no idea what she even looks like!”
“Cat-like.” Tannin paused and put a finger to his bottom lip. “Or, some kinda… shadow-ish thing.”
Cerina smacked him upside the back of the head. “Weren’t you paying attention? The Natas forced her into gesaran form. She could look like anyone.”
“Oh.” Tannin rubbed the back of his head. “That could be a problem.”
“We should start by trying to locate the Natas. After we find them, we look for someone they’re holding prisoner,” Onin said.
“Yeah. It should either be the Matari or, worst-case, some gesarans they’re going to turn into vessels. Either way they have to be freed,” Kasai said.
“But where do we start looking?” Cerina waved a hand at the mountains. “We’ve got a lot of area to cover here.”
Onin looked up at the servitor that floated above them. He sent it a mental command to look for other people. The servitor blinked then zoomed up and out of sight. He held out his hands and generated two infrared servitors. They took off in opposite directions.
“We’ll start with that. They’ll let me know if they find anything. In the meantime, we hike around and see if we can find signs of a camp, or something,” Onin said.
Saija shrugged. “Works for me. Lead on.”
Three hours later they had found precisely nothing. No footprints, no campfires, and no caves that looked occupied. The servitors that Onin had sent out hadn’t returned yet either. They should’ve found at least an animal or something by now.
“So—” Tannin plopped down and leaned up against a tree. “How about a supper break?”
“How about we set up camp for the night?” Cerina wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “It’s getting colder, and dark too.”
“Good point.” Onin leaned against a rock wall and glanced around. “Does everyone think this is a good spot?”
Kasai, Tannin, and Cerina all nodded.
“We could just portal back to dorms for the night,” Saija said.
“We could.” Onin looked over the mountains. “But if we come back tomorrow and portal into an ambush, you’d have less energy to fight with.”
Kasai took a step closer to him. “What if the Natas attack us during the night?”
“First—” Onin held up a finger. “—we don’t know that they’re here. Second, we’re trying to draw them out anyway, right?”
“You’ve been hanging around Tannin too much.” Cerina pinched the bridge of her nose. “This plan is stupid, but effective.”
Onin and Tannin each pulled a tent out of their backpacks. In a few minutes they were set up. By the time they had finished staking them down, Kasai and Saija had a fire going and rations cooking.
Onin woke to something shaking the tent.
“Wake up, sleepyheads!”
Saija’s voice came from outside the tent. Onin groaned. How could it be morning already? He quickly changed clothes.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he said.
“What about Tannin?”
Onin looked over at Tannin. He was on his back with his arms spread out above his head, and he was snoring. Onin shook his head and climbed out of the tent.
“It might be easier to have a servitor carry him around until about noon or so.”
“Really?” Saija poked her head into the tent. “Wow, he’s really out.”
“Yup.” Onin sighed.
Saija’s eyes glinted bright pink. “I wonder if he’d wake up if I went and tickled him?”
“I wouldn’t. He’s not really a morning person. I’m serious about that servitor,” Onin said.
“Huh.” Saija shrugged. “Oh well. Kasai and Cerina almost have breakfast ready.”
By the time everyone else had finished eating Tannin had managed to crawl out of the tent. His hair pointed in every direction, and his eyes were squeezed shut. He shuffled over and plopped down in front of the fire. Onin and Kasai got the tents folded and packed up and they started off up the ravine.
“Should we have heard back from the servitors yet?” Kasai said.
Onin concentrated on their locations. The regular one was still up in the clouds watching. It hadn’t seen anything yet. The infrared ones were skimming along at high speed at tree level running a search pattern across the entire mountain range.
“They haven’t found anything yet,” he said.
“Then, what’s the point of hiking through the mountains?” Cerina said.
“The servitors aren’t sentient.” Onin frowned. “They look for certain things and can miss some stuff that might seem obvious to us.”
Cerina snorted, but she didn’t argue further.
For the next hour they wandered through the mountains, checking caves and overhangs for any sign of activity. Tannin found a single footprint, but not much else. They couldn’t even find the cave they had fought Shanay in front of.
Onin trudged up the next ridge and stopped at the sound of a low hum from up ahead. He took a step backwards.
“Did you hear that?” he whispered.
“Hear what?” Cerina edged up to the crest and poked her head over for a second before she rejoined the others. Her eyes were wide. “Wow, there’s people down there!”
One of the infrared servitors zipped over the hill and hovered above Onin. He looked up at it as it relayed information to him.
“There’s a large heat source in a cave down there. Possibly about six to ten more people,” Onin said.
“So, what do we do?” Tannin cracked his knuckles. “Rush in, beat everyone up, and rescue the Matari?”
Kasai shook her head. “We don’t even know if the Matari captive is here. Besides, if Shanay and that ice giftling are here, the two of them can probably beat us.”
“So, what, we cower in the corner?” Tannin crossed his arms over his chest. “Fighting them is a better plan than just sitting here.”
“I’m sending the IR servitor in. I’ll see if I can find anything else,” Onin said.
He linked with the servitor and directed it over the ridge. Three people stood next to a wall of rock. One of them was Shanay. The other two were dressed in dark cloaks. Onin moved the servitor down to rest on the rocky ground. One of the cloaked figures turned to face the rock wall. Another cloaked figure emerged from between the rocks. The three of them apparently had a short conversation, then turned and walked down a trail leading farther into the mountains.
Onin unlinked from the servitor and instructed it to follow them at a high altitude. “Three of them just left, and it looks like there’s a hidden cave. No one’s guarding the entrance. Let’s go check it out.”
They climbed over the ridge and down the other side to stare at the rock wall. Onin pointed at the cave entrance.
“Wow, that blends right in.” Saija took a step to the right, and then back.
“Let’s go in.” Tannin poked his head in and looked around. “Looks clear so far.”
Onin generated a servitor for light, and they made their way inside, looking around for anyone. A few feet in, the cave made a sharp turn, and they were in total darkness.
“Hey. Is it just me, or are the walls a, uh, familiar, shade of red?” Cerina said.
Kasai shuddered. Onin stretched out a finger to rub at the colorant but thought better of it and put his hands in his pockets.
“I don’t want to know.” Saija grimaced.
“Yeah. Probably best if we don’t.” Onin said.
Several dozen turns later Onin had no idea what direction they were facing or how far down they’d gone. Hopefully, the servitor would be able to lead them back out. He started to ask if anyone else was as turned around as he was when he heard a cough from up ahead. He held up his hand and crept forward.
Two people sat in front of a fire in a large cavern. Beyond the fire was a large wooden cage. The cage appeared to be empty. After a moment some rags in the corner moved. They shifted again, and a hand stuck out.
Onin backed up and reported what he’d seen.
“The Matari or another potential vessel?” Kasai said.
“Either way, we have to rescue them.” Saija glanced at the cavern and took a deep breath. “We can’t let them do that to anyone else.”
“Agreed. But what about the two in there?” Onin frowned and glanced over his shoulder. “If they’re normal gesarans, not a problem. Even if they’re giftlings, we could take them. But, if they’re Natas, we might be in trouble. We barely defended ourselves against one.”
“I have an idea.” Cerina stood and took a step toward the cavern. “If this doesn’t work, get ready to fight, run, or both.”
She took a deep breath and opened her mouth. Onin couldn’t hear anything, but he felt a little queasy. The two people in the cavern shook their heads, then held their stomachs. They stood and stumbled off to the side of the cave, where they fell over.
“What was that?” Tannin worked his jaw and held his stomach. “That felt like bad mushrooms must feel like.”
“Again with the mush—” Cerina pinched the bridge of her nose. “You know what, I’m not gonna go there. I used low frequency sound to knock them out. It won’t last long. Let’s grab whoever’s in the cage and get out of here.”
“Good plan.” Onin sprinted into the cavern. “We can sort it out later. Kasai, can you smash this cage open? Tannin take a defensive position. Saija, cover our rears.”
Tannin and Saija nodded. Kasai raised her hand. The front of the cage ripped off and flew over into the far wall. Onin scooped up the person inside, threw him or her over his shoulder, and ran for the outside. The person didn’t struggle, and they were awfully light. What had the Natas done to them?
Five turns later he heard shouting from behind him.
“Let’s move!” he yelled.
They followed the servitor through all sorts of turns and side-paths that Onin didn’t remember from the way in and finally emerged into daylight. The regular servitor that had been on watch in the clouds streaked down and blinked at Onin.
“Incoming!” Onin held up his hand and generated two more servitors. “Shanay and the other two are on the way back, let’s get out of here!”
Tannin was right behind him as he ran up the hill.
“Wait!” Saija yelled. “I can… portal… us… out of here…”
Onin skidded to a stop. “What?”
“Portal.” Saija sucked in air in big gasping gulps. “I can portal us out. If I catch my breath.”
“You should keep it on a leash,” Tannin said.
Saija smacked him. She took another shaky breath.
“Hurry!” Cerina pointed to the hill. “They’re almost on us!”
Saija held up a hand and opened a shadow portal. Onin grabbed Kasai’s hand and leapt through.
Onin emerged into a patch of thick fog. There was a large wall a few feet to right. He couldn’t see anything else through the fog. Moments later Cerina, Tannin, and Saija fell through the portal, and it winked closed.
“Can they follow us?” Onin asked.
Saija shook her head from where she laid sprawled out on the ground. She was still breathing heavy. That couldn’t be good.
“Are you okay?” Onin knelt down next to her and generated a servitor.
“I’m… fine,” Saija said between gasps. “It just took a lot of energy to make a portal and all, and I was out of breath from running up that hill.”
“Okay.” Onin waved the servitor over. It ran a healing beam over Saija. “Where are we?”
“And can the Natas find us here?” Cerina added.
Saija pointed to the wall while she kept sucking in air.
“Wait…” Kasai ran a hand over the wall and turned back to Saija. “This is the wall to the Matari compound, isn’t it?”
Saija nodded. “Yeah, we should be on the inside.”
“Shrooms!” Tannin pointed to something behind Onin.
Onin turned around. There was an open drawbridge to castle that he could’ve sworn wasn’t there a moment ago.
“Idiot.” Cerina glared at Tannin. “For the last time, there’s no mushrooms involved.”
Onin sighed. He turned and carried the rescued—hopefully Matari—prisoner inside the castle. Ambassador Miton met them just inside the door. She took the rescued prisoner and gently laid her on the floor.
“Zia? Are you well?” the Ambassador asked.
“I will live.” Zia coughed and blinked her eyes a few times. “The host is confused and extremely frightened—”
“We’ll get you to recovery right away,” the Ambassador said.
“No,” Zia grabbed her arm. “I have important news that can’t wait. The Natas are constructing a gate in the land to the south.”
Ambassador Miton’s eyes grew wide. “Not…”
“Yes, they seek to bring the dragons here.” Zia coughed and wiped at her face. “Their plan is to farm this planet for hosts to use to conquer the rest of the galaxy. You must hurry, the gate is nearly completed!”