Etherno

Chapter 33: Not Dead Yet

Purona sucked in more air and tried to stop her feet from shaking.

It’d totally super suck to trip right now!

The door shut with a bang behind her.

Purona jumped. “Eeep!”

Kasai wrapped a wing around her. “Are you okay?”

“Oh gosh, I was so nervous!” Purona leaned against Kasai. Her wing was surprisingly soft. “I’ve never seen that, but I’ve heard stories.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “When a Claal is challenged, it means a fight to the death, with the victor taking over the kinset.”

Cerina snorted. “That seems silly. What if the rest of the kinset doesn’t like the new guy?”

Purona blinked at her. “Then they’ll, like, challenge the new guy, duh.” No one can be that stupid—wait, they’re aliens, remember? Their government is, like, probably super different.

“Oh, we’re supposed to go check out that incident!” Purona pulled her phone out of her pocket. There was a message from Rala. Purona skimmed through it. “Okay, we’re supposed to go to the gaming district. The police have cleared the area.”

“All right, casino time!” Tannin thrust his fist into the air.

Purona twitched an ear. Tannin was so hard to figure out. Also, what’s a casino?

I’ll worry about that later. I need to get these guys over to the gaming district before Rala fires me! Purona shook her head.

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One subway stop and a transfer later and they were at the gaming district.

“Okay, we’re here.” Purona ducked behind Kasai. “Um, if more of those scary girls are here, uh, could you go first?”

“Wait.” Tannin looked around and scrunched up his eyes. “Where’s the casinos?”

Purona blinked. “What’s a casino?”

“You know, where all the games are.”

Purona scratched behind an ear. There was an e-dance palace to the left, and a retro-arcade to the right, and a sign for a modern holo-game arcade arching over the street in front of them that couldn’t be any brighter. Literally. They’d tried a few cycles back, and had caused a blackout in that section of the city.

“There, there, and there.” Purona pointed to each of the attractions.

“Oh.” Tannin let the word draw out. “THAT kind of gaming. Sweet!”

He darted off to the right, and Onin grabbed him by the collar. “We have a job to do first.”

“Aww.” Tannin’s shoulders slumped.

Saija patted him on the back. “I’ll play with you later.”

Cerina thrust a finger in Saija’s face. “You’d better mean arcade games!”

One corner of Saija’s mouth pulled up in a grin. “Oh? Why? Do you have plans for him?”

Purona’s glance darted between the three of them. Are they in some kind of relationship? Should I ask? She felt her ears start to get hot. Better not.

“Hey, cut it out you guys!” Onin rolled his eyes. “We’ve got a job to do here. Amaryllis or Kasai, could one of you please take point?”

“Sure.” Amaryllis winked at Kasai and led the way forward.

Purona had never seen the gaming district this empty. She occasionally visited the area on her days off, and it was usually crammed with people. Oh, yeah. Rala’s message said the police evacuated the area.

A shiver went down Purona’s back and her tail puffed out a little. It was creepy around here with no people, and no noise.

“Anybody else getting a weird feeling, or is it just me?” Saija asked.

“Yeah.” Kasai frowned, looked around, and fluttered her wings a little. “Maybe it’s just the lack of people, but…” She took Onin’s hand and walked closer to him.

Purona shivered and made sure she stayed between Onin and Kasai, and Tannin and the others.

Wait, what’s that? Purona sniffed. There was a slight salty tang to the air. Or was she just imagining it? “Does anyone else smell that?”

Everyone stopped to sniff.

“I got nothing.” Tannin said.

Saija shrugged. “Just the normal city smells.”

Amaryllis and Kasai turned to face each other, and spoke at the same time. “Blood.”

Something shuffled off to the left. Purona swiveled an ear in that direction. Sneakers on concrete. Purona slowly turned in that direction.

Dozens of white-haired, white-eyed women shuffled towards them.

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Dozens of footsteps echoed across the concrete. Amaryllis spun on her heel to face the sound. A large number of half-dead looking Nekotian women shuffled around the corner. Another noise behind her. More were coming from the other side, and behind.

“Back to back!” Onin yelled. He generated four servitors, which took up sentry positions above the group.

Tannin pulled rubber chickens from his pocket. “How do we handle this? Can we help them, or is there no saving them kinda like with the Natas?”

“Darned if I know.” Saija shrugged.

Cerina swung her guitar off her back and strummed a low repetitive tune. Kasai spread her wings and held her hands out in front of her. Purona slid into the middle of the circle. Her ears were flat back, and she was rubbing her hands together.

Amaryllis squeezed over next to Purona. “Do you know how to use any weapons?”

“Y-yes.” Purona nodded. “I’ve been taking lessons at the blaster range. I was supposed to get my certificate, like, next week.”

“Well. Time to get serious.” Amaryllis lifted her hand above her head, palm outward.

Is it ready yet?

Not yet. Ryogin-sa—no, Ryogin, her husband, sounded frustrated. You’ll have to use the old one.

“Artifice—full uplink.”

Blue mathematical symbols swirled into existence, opening an Artifice portal. The bottom of her shakujo started to emerge from the portal.

“Flerk, they’ve got knives!” Cerina shouted.

“I can hold them off for a bit.” Kasai held out her hands to either side and the air shimmered as a telekinetic force-field surrounded them.

“Purona!” Onin whirled to face her. “This is a bit more than we expected. Can you confirm if Claal-Deka wants us to bring them all in alive? With this many of them, that might not be possible.”

Purona nodded and tapped away at her phone. The mob pressed against the telekinetic field and stabbed at it with their knives.

Amaryllis frowned up at the Artifice portal. It was taking forever.

“Hey, Saija?” Tannin tapped on the force-field with a rubber chicken. “Can you portal me out there? I can hold them off for a while without killing anyone.”

Saija raised an eyebrow. “Can you hold that many off, though?”

“Oh, yeah!” Tannin pulled a handful of black fabric out of his pockets. “I almost forgot!”

Amaryllis smiled. What looked like black sweatpants and shirt was actually the carbon nano-fiber suit she and Ryogin had made for him a few months back. He pulled it on over his jeans and t-shirt, and gave Saija a thumbs up.

A purple portal swirled open underneath Tannin. He fell through it, and a moment later another portal opened above the crowd and dropped him in the middle of it.

Amaryllis’ staff was finally done. It dropped out of the Artifice portal. She grabbed it, twirled it around, and held it parallel to the ground. She opened another Artifice portal.

Kasai cried out. The telekinetic field wavered and collapsed. A dozen or so crazed Nekotians rushed toward Amaryllis. She reached into the portal, pulled out a blaster, and tossed it straight up high into the air. Amaryllis swung her staff around to point at the crazed Nekotians. The closest was only about a foot away.

“Ice wave!” Amaryllis shouted.

A blue ball of ice formed at the tip of her shakujo. It swelled to the size of a bus and undulated outward, throwing crazed Nekotians out and away from her and the others. Amaryllis looked up, reached out, and caught the blaster she had thrown earlier.

Amaryllis spun the blaster around and presented it hilt-first to Purona. “Do you know how to use this?”

Purona’s ears were flat back on her skull. Her tail was bushed out to twice it’s normal size, and pressed tightly to the back of her legs. Her hands shook when she took the blaster, however she checked the settings, flipped off the safety, and gripped the hit with her finger alongside the barrel next to the trigger guard.

A knife whizzed past Amaryllis’ face. She ducked and swung the point of her staff between her and the assailant.

“Multi-class: cryo-sleep!”

dragon

Aiden dropped into a crouch when the force-field dropped. She swept the legs out from under the first possessed Nekotian who attacked her. Well, ‘possessed’ might not be the right word, but she’d worry about that later.

Her hands started to tingle, and the next Nekotian she hit flew up and over the heads of several of the others.

“If I could control this…”

There wasn’t time to finish the thought. A dozen more enemies rushed her. Aiden swung out with her hands, deflecting knives and attempting to hit the Nekotians in one of the arteries in the side of their necks. There were too many. For every one she took out, two or more new ones rushed at her.

“Kasai!” Onin’s voice rang out behind Aiden. “Elevator, please!”

Aiden shot up into the air on an invisible platform. The possessed Nekotians below started to pile on top of each other to get to them.

“Well, that bought us some time, but what do we do now?” Cerina still strummed her guitar.

“I got a message back from Rala!” Purona waved her phone in the air. “It’s not just here, there are hordes heading out of the evacuated area as well. Also—”

Purona scrolled through her phone, and her face paled. “Alayis says she found an onicranium-based nano device embedded in the spines of the ones you brought in. She’s not sure if she can save them. Claal-Deka has authorized deadly force if necessary.”

“Mwahahahaha!”

Everyone turned at the sound of maniacal laughter coming from a rooftop behind them. Arjuketa sat cross-legged on the edge of the roof of one of the buildings across the street.

“Do you like my new puppets?” She uncrossed her legs. “These ones are permanent though. You won’t be able to stop them with just a little bump on the head.”

“What do you want?” Onin asked.

“Want?” Arjuketa held a hand to her chest. “Aww. Are you trying to negotiate?” Her voice took on a hard edge. “We want to kill you. Pesky lower life forms, daring to challenge the Natas. If you can’t accept your status, then die. Now, how about fighting each other?”

Cerina strummed louder on her guitar. “Not today, bi—” Her phone rang. Cerina ignored it. “I’m ready for you, this time.”

Arjuketa frowned and leaned over the edge of the building. “Well, this isn’t fair. They can’t kill you from down there.”

Arjuketa held out her hand, palm down, facing the street below. Nothing appeared to have happened, but Aiden shivered.

“What was that?” she asked.

Cerina made a face. “Nothing good.”

“Weeeeeee!” Tanin soared past, clinging to the back of one of the possessed Natas.

“Oh great.” Saija jumped out of the way of one of them. “They can fly now.”

“Bye!” Aiden looked over just in time to see Arjuketa drop into a black portal.

“Who here can’t fly?” Onin asked.

“I can’t!” Purona’s eyes were squeezed shut, and she clung to Kasai.

“Me either!” Tannin’s voice came from above them.

Aiden looked up. Tannin fell down toward them, an unconscious Nekotian next to him.

Onin sighed. “Might as well head back to ground. Kasai, Amaryllis, stay up here.” He turned to Kasai. “If you would, please?”

Aiden’s stomach felt slightly queasy as they dropped back to the street. It was like being in a glass elevator. When they reached the street, hordes of possessed Nekotians swarmed them again. Her hand started tingling again, and she was able to punch them away from her.

“Must be something of you still in there,” Aiden muttered.

“Shanay used energy blasts.” Amaryllis’ voice floated down.

Aiden looked up. Amaryllis hovered above her, riding side-saddle on her staff.

“Any idea how that worked?”

Amaryllis shrugged. “If you let me copy it later, I’d be able to tell you. Most gifts are triggered by concentration or emotion or such, though.”

Worth a try.

Aiden made a fist with her right hand and concentrated on it. “Stupid flerking host! Work with me!”

Aiden closed her eyes and put all her frustration, all her desire to partner with the host, and all her hate for the Natas into a punch. The smell of ozone filled the air.

Aiden opened her eyes. Her entire arm was glowing yellow, and there was a hole the size of a subway car in the closest building.

“Dang!” Purona gaped at the building.

Aiden blinked. Did she really do that? Another fist swung at her. Fight now, think later. Aiden’s arm continued to glow, and she was able to incapacitate foes with one blow. She wasn’t able to reproduce that energy beam, though.

The wave of possessed Nekotians was never ending. Aiden grunted. Her hand was starting to ache. She shook her hand in an attempt to try to relive the cramp.

“Wooo!”

Aiden spun around at the sound of Tannin’s voice—and did a double-take. He was crowdsurfing. Wait, that wasn’t quite right. He was riding on his back across the tops of dozens of possessed Nekotians. But they were stabbing him, not carrying him.

Aiden blinked. “Must be his gift, and the suit?”

“Weird when he does that, isn’t it?” A portal opened on the ground next to Aiden, and Saija popped up out of it.

“Uh, yeah.” Aiden blinked. This group of Gesarans is weird.

A possessed Nekotian jumped at Saija. She yawned and waved her hand. A portal opened in front of her, and the attacking Nekotian fell threw it.

Wait. Aiden looked around. Tannin was further down the street. She glanced at the surrounding building in between fending off more attackers. They’d been forced several blocks from their starting area.

“Hey!” Aiden spun around, searching for Onin. “They’re forcing us to the center of the city!”

“I know! Time to get serious, then.” Onin sounded reluctant.

Aiden didn’t blame him. These Nekotians were innocent victims, too. As of yet, they hadn’t found a way to save them, and if they were allowed to get past the evacuated area, a lot more innocent people would die.

“Options?” Onin shouted.

“I think I can freeze some of them.” Amaryllis said.

Kasai swooped down next to Amaryllis. “Can you get enough of them?

Amaryllis frowned. “No. Wait, buy me some time.”

Kasai nodded, and another telekinetic force-field shoved the possessed Nekotians away in a ten foot radius.

Amaryllis landed next to Aiden. “I think I have a way to stop them, but I’d need you to share your gift with me for it to work.”

“What?” Aiden blinked. “How?”

“Well—” Amaryllis bit her lip. “I have a theory that your gift at least partially amplifies your power. If that’s true, I can amplify my ice gift and I might be able to freeze all of them.”

Aiden frowned and drummed her fingers on her thigh. “There’s a lot of ‘ifs’ in there.”

“Yeah.” Amaryllis sighed and looked at the ground. “The only other option I can come up with is for Kasai and I to open up with dragonfire and vaporize all of them.” She shuddered.

Aiden frowned. “That might cause an interplanetary incident.”

Amaryllis nodded. “As well as being excessively cruel to those Nekotians, who are also victims of the Natas.”

“All right.” Aiden squared her shoulders. “What do I do?”

Amaryllis held out her staff. “Hold my staff and freely share your gift. Sometimes it helps to say something to that effect.”

“Uh, okay.” Aiden grabbed Amaryllis’ staff with her right hand. “I share my gift with you.”

I feel ridiculous. Can she really even copy gifts?

Aiden yawned. She didn’t feel anything, but she was a tad tired just now. “Did it work?”

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“Oooo!” Amaryllis shivered in pleasure. Such power.

Amaryllis let Aiden’s gift flow over her body. Nope, no extra power, but…

“One way to find out.” Amaryllis lowered her shakujo and pointed it at the crowd of crazed Nekotians. “Multi-class: cryo-sleep to the third power.”

A blast of white powdery snow the size of a train rushed out of the end of Amaryllis staff and enveloped half the crowd of crazed Nekotians. The snow settled down, and about one third of the enemy was frozen solid.

“The proof of concept works.” Amaryllis frowned at the end of her staff. Smoke—or was it water vapor—curled up from the tip. “I think I can freeze all of them.”

“Okay.” Onin nodded. “Saija, get the rest of us out of here. We don’t want to accidentally get in the way of that.”

“Wait!” Kasai flew over to Onin. “I’m going to stay behind. I can stay in the air above her, and knock down any of them that try to fly away.”

“Okay.” Onin pulled Kasai into a hug.

“Hey, hurry it up, I can’t keep this portal open all day!” Saija yelled.

“Gotta go.” Onin pulled away from Kasai, then paused, still holding her hand.

He glanced to the portal, frowned, then looked back to Kasai and leaned in to kiss her cheek. He blushed and ran through the portal.

Amaryllis smiled. Those two were so cute together. It made her think of Ryogin.

You can talk to me any time, you know.

I know. Amaryllis felt her own face flush with heat. Made me think of other things we can do when I’m done here.

Then you’d better hurry. Ryogin’s mental voice had a smile to its tone.

“Right.” Amaryllis twirled her staff around and rose up into the air.

Kasai still stood on the ground, face red as a beet, staring at the spot where Onin had walked through the portal. On the one hand, Amaryllis knew how her friend felt. On the other, they had a job to do. Amaryllis formed a snowball and chucked it at Kasai.

“Hey! What?” Kasai flew up and hovered next to Amaryllis. “Sorry.”

“Circle around above me and force any stragglers back to ground, please.” Amaryllis frowned. “Might be better if you were in your dragon form.”

“Uh—” Kasai twirled her hair around her finger. “I, uh, don’t exactly know how to do that. I’ve tried a few times since we fought that dragon, but I—I don’t know.”

“Hmm.” Amaryllis sighed. Figures, when she needs it the most… “Never mind, then. Do your best.”

“Sure.” Kasai pumped her wings and rose above Amaryllis.

Amaryllis took a deep breath. This should work, but she’d have to tap the Dragonfire gift that Kasai had shared with her to get enough energy to freeze all the crazed Nekotians. She bit her bottom lip. Also, she’d have to re-do all her macros to use the power amplification gift. Time for that later.

Amaryllis pointed the tip of her shakujo at the ground. “Multi-class: Dragonfire, restore, ice—to the ninth!”

White tendrils of swirling snow formed just in front of the tip of her shakujo. The arms of snow grew in size, and spun faster and faster until the blur of swirling snow was larger than a house. Amaryllis’ arms started to shake. Even using Dragonfire to power most of this wasn’t enough. Her own energy reserves were depleting quickly.

The swirling snow and ice storm filled the entire block now. Wind whipped Amaryllis’ dress around her legs, and her hair into her face. The storm doubled in speed, then hurtled down to the street below. Ice, snow, and wind blocked out everything.

In a few moments the wind ceased and the snow fell to the ground. Amaryllis drifted to the ground and sucked in air. It’d been a while since she’d overdone it like that.

“Are you okay?” Kasai landed next to Amaryllis and put a hand on her shoulder, steadying it.

“Yeah.” Amaryllis leaned against Kasai. “I’m out of energy, though. Nothing a good snack won’t fix.”

Let’s see, did I get them all? Amaryllis glanced around. The horde of crazed Nekotians was frozen solid. Looks like all of them—wait…

“Um, where’d Arjuketa go?” Amaryllis asked.

“Hmm.” Kasai shaded her eyes with her hand and looked around. She frowned. “I don’t see her anywhere. Last place I remember seeing her was on that rooftop.”

“Yeah.” Amaryllis yawned.

Kasai arched an eyebrow. “Are you going to be okay if I do a quick recon flight?”

Amaryllis nodded. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

Kasai bit her lip, sighed, then jumped up into the air, her wings stirring up some loose snow.

Amaryllis yawned again, then pulled out her phone to send a quick message to Saija.

If you need a ride, let the others know. Are you sure you’re okay? Ryogin’s tone sounded worried.

Ugh! You too? I’m fine, I just need a snack! Amaryllis rolled her eyes.

If it wears you out this much, is this gift safe to use?

Should be fine. Amaryllis stumbled over to the nearest building and sat down with her back against the wall. I just need to make a more detailed power-boost macro. Maybe Dragonfire, boost Dragonfire, then turbo-charge whatever.

You’ll need a new staff, too.

“Huh?” Amaryllis glanced at her shakujo, and did a double-take.

The top half of the wooden staff was splintered, and the main ring was blown in half. Each half was twisted around in an uneven spiral. Some of the smaller rings were missing entirely, and the remaining ones were warped and melted into what was left of the main ring.

“Wow.”

“Did the blast do that to your staff?” Amaryllis looked up at the sound of Kasai’s voice. Kasai settled to the ground. “I didn’t see Arjuketa anywhere.”

Amaryllis groaned. “Probably fled back through a portal.”

As soon as Amaryllis said ‘portal’, a purple one formed on the ground in front of them and Saija popped up in front of them.

“Taxi’s here!” Saija glanced at Amaryllis’ shakujo. “Holy sh—” She glanced at Kasai and clapped a hand over her mouth. “Uh, I mean, um, what happened to your staff?”

“Catastrophic failure due to excessive power load.”

“Huh?” Saija blinked and turned to Kasai.

Kasai shrugged. “Big bada-boom.”

Amaryllis struggled to her feet and fought off another yawn. “Anyway, could you drop me off at the Potato before you take Kasai back to the hotel, please?”

“Why the…” Saija jerked up straight. “Oh. That’s where Ryogin is.” She grinned, winked, and elbowed Amaryllis in the ribs. “More than one way to recover, eh?”

“No, I…” Amaryllis slumped her shoulders and focused on a clump of snow at her feet. Well, she’s not wrong. Wait, I’m married! What am I embarrassed about? Still none of her business, though.

“Well, let’s go!” Saija’s face was red, and she avoided eye contact.

Amaryllis furrowed her brow. Perhaps the lack of social awareness came from growing up possessed by a Natas? Amaryllis unsuccessfully fought off another yawn. Worry about that later.

A portal opened in the wall. Amaryllis waved, and stepped through.

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