Chapter 38: Down and Dirty
Kasai hummed to herself as she nibbled at her oatmeal. Yesterday had been so perfect. Hopefully, today would be just as great. Onin entered the kitchenette, made himself some toast, and sat down next to Kasai.
“Any news on the Natas?” Kasai asked.
Onin shook his head. “Nope. I checked the news this morning. There’s been more looting in the kinless lands. Apparently just about anybody that delivers locally is getting held up.”
“That’s horrible.” Kasai poked at her oatmeal. “Purona said the locals were poor.”
“Yeah. Weird thing is that it doesn’t look like it’s the kinless that are stealing the stuff. The news holos showed a bunch of half-dressed kids, and the adults saying they couldn’t buy anything because deliveries to the stores were stolen before they arrived.”
Cerina stomped into the kitchenette and plopped onto a stool. “Sounds like the Natas all right. I’m not sure exactly what they’re up to, but hurting people is what they like to do.”
“Could be.” Onin chewed on a bite of toast. “We just don’t have any evidence yet. Also, I’d like to figure out what they’re up to so we can stop it.”
“Have your servitors found anything?” Kasai asked.
“Not yet.” Onin sighed and took another bite of toast. “We’ll just have to wait, I guess.”
Aiden sat on a relatively flat rock in the center of the bomb range. She closed her eyes and drew in a long breath. There still wasn’t a sense of the host personality, but she could almost feel older memories floating around at the edge of her consciousness. She quieted her mind. Perhaps, if she was lucky, one of the host’s memories would wander over for a visit.
There was nothing for a while. Aiden let her mind wander. The breeze blew around her, insects chirped in the background. Eventually that faded away. The memory of a blue sky and puffy white clouds filled Aiden’s mind’s eye. A series of images—memories—flashed past; her, curled up in someone’s lap by a fire; laughing with friends; eating a warm, gooey mouth-watering cinnamon roll in her favorite shop; her discovering her gift, using it for the first time to light a campfire with her parents.
The memories slowly faded away. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. Aiden smiled and hugged herself. The host personality was there—some of her at least—and it was starting to trust her.
Aiden focused on that memory of lighting the campfire with an energy surge. What had Amaryllis said earlier, focus on feelings? What had young Shanay been feeling? Aiden ran back through the memory. Love. Love for her parents, love of the outdoors, the smell of woodsmoke, eating over the campfire, times with family and friends; and a desire to help, to contribute, to give something back to those which had given her so much.
That was it. Over-pouring emotion. That was how to trigger her gift. Aiden pointed her finger at a fist sized rock in front of her. She concentrated on her feelings of wanting to protect, well, everything. The other Matari, the Kagoshi, her new friends. That resolve flared to life. A yellow energy blast zapped out of her finger and obliterated the rock.
Aiden smiled. The next battle with the Natas, she’d be able to pull her own weight. For now, more practice.
Ailah watched Tannin as he went through some sword forms. He’d obviously had training. She grimaced. Her own form could use some work. She’d learned the basics, but that was a few years ago, and more for sport than actual fighting. Wait. Ailah did a double-take. Was he holding chickens?
“Wha?” Tannin stopped mid-form. “Did I miss a joke somewhere?”
“Chickens.” Ailah pointed.
Tannin shrugged. “Long story.”
Ailah dug her toe into the carpet. “Um, actually I was wondering if I could spar with you. I’m a little rusty.”
Tannin’s face broke out into a huge grin. “I’d love that!”
Tannin tossed Ailah a chicken. She caught it and flipped it around a few times. It didn’t quite flop over if you held it straight out…
Ailah frowned at it. “So, how do you fight with this?”
“Oh, yeah.” Tannin grinned and scratched the back of his neck. “My gift is reinforcing things.”
“Yeah. That’s what we Gesarans call our abilities.” He smacked his chicken in the arm of the couch. “I can make things I touch stronger.”
Ailah bit her lower lip. The Natas that had captured her mentioned something about Gesaran DNA. Maybe that explained why she was so crazy-strong and could pull ginormous swords out of mid-air now. She shrugged. There’d be time to worry about that later.
She tossed her rubber chicken into the air, caught it by the feet, and swung at Tannin’s head. He swung his chicken to deflect hers, and lunged in for a jab.
The door to Cerina’s room opened. She stopped, mid-stride, and blinked. Cerina rubbed her eyes and blinked again.
“Oh great, now there’s two of them.” Cerina shuddered and ran down the hallway to the kitchenette.
Ailah looked at Tannin and shrugged. He shrugged back, then swung his chicken at her head.
Purona frowned at the stack of paperwork on her desk and sighed.
“What again?” Nisha’s voice came from the other side of the cubicle wall. “You’ve, like, totally been sighing at that stack of papers since you got here.”
“Sorry.” Purona stood and leaned her elbows against the top of the cube wall. “It’s just after meeting new people, running around, and getting in fights, this paperwork is super boring.”
“Yeah, I, like, totes get it.” Nisha spun around in her chair and pushed a strand of blue hair out of her eyes. “But it’s part of the job. And, like, if you don’t get it done, Rala might not let you go back out to field work.”
“That’d totally suck.” Purona flopped down into her chair and sighed again. “I guess I’ll just have to suffer through.”
Most of the paperwork was just filling out forms about where she’d been. The government wants to know that I haven’t just been slacking off, I guess.
Those took forever to fill out. There were so many of them. Then there were expense reports. Those were super boring. Math and numbers, bleck. And she even had to cross reference them with order and payment numbers. Everything went on the division’s account. Why couldn’t the computer just automatically pull that information and just have her confirm it?
Wait a minute. Purona’s jaw dropped open. Why was all this actual paper on her desk in the first place? It was probably just going to go to another division to be scanned back into the computer. Come to think of it, all of her schoolwork had been on the computer. She’d just accepted that this was the way the government did things. Purona growled low in her throat at the memory of all the papers she’d filled out over the past year.
“Now what?” Nisha asked.
“Why do we have all this paper?” Purona thrust a random sheet over the cube wall. “We look everything up on our phones or a holodisplay. What’s the point?”
Purona crossed her arms over her chest. “Why are you laughing?”
“Welcome to government work, kid.”
Purona let her head fall down to thump against her desk. She sighed again, which elicited a giggle from Nisha, and cracked an eye open.
“Wait.” Purona jerked upright and snatched the paper off her desk.
“Find something interesting?” Nisha asked.
“Yeah.” Purona leaned over the cube wall again. “The dates here. We’ve seen Natas activity here and there, then after the Gesaran’s battle with that one super crazy Natas woman, activity ceases. And then all the issues in the kinless lands start.”
“So.” Nisha popped a piece of candy in her mouth. “Probably just a coincidence.”
“Could be.” Purona shrugged. “But it’s a super big one. I gotta go show this to everyone.”
Purona snapped a photo with her phone and bolted for the door.
“Hey, I’m not doing that paperwork for you!” Nisha shouted after her.
Onin leaned back into the chair in his room and closed his eyes. He reached into his connection with the servitors that were in the kinless area. Images came back, slightly blurry from the distance. Roads were barricaded off everywhere. Trucks were being stopped in other areas and looted. Beyond that, deeper into the kinless territory, half-naked children cried and clung to their mothers skirts. Their bellies were bloated, and their bones were starting to show through their skin. In the towns, store shelves were empty.
Onin re-focused on the servitors nearer the raiding groups. Most of them were Nekotians in old, worn clothing with angry expressions, but a few were smiling. Not happy smiles. Malicious. Like they enjoyed what they were doing. That didn’t fit.
A flash of black caught Onin’s attention. He directed that servitor higher to see over the crowd. There was man in a black suit. A Gesaran. Onin’s eyes snapped open and he leapt from the chair.
Onin yanked his door open and ran out into the common room. And stopped short. Tannin and Ailah were dueling with rubber chickens.
Onin smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand.
Cerina leaned around the corner out of the kitchenette. “Hey, what’s with all the… Oh. They’re still at it.”
“Guys, I think I found something,” Onin said.
“Oh?” Tannin lowered his chicken and turned away from Ailah to face Onin.
Ailah bonked Tannin on the head with her rubber chicken, making it squeak. She giggled, then cleared her throat and also gave Onin her attention.
“So, spill it already,” Cerina said.
“One of my servitors spotted Suit-man in the kinless lands!”
“What!” Kasai popped out of her room. “Where?”
“I don’t know, in the middle of one of the looting parties.” Onin pulled out his phone and sent a quick message to Purona. “I had it look around to get some street names, and hopefully we can track them down.”
“Okay.” Cerina waved her phone in the air. “I’ve sent a message to Amaryllis and Ryogin, and—”
There was a popping noise, and a blue portal swirled open. Amaryllis and Ryogin stepped out.
“I got your message. We’re ready to go,” Amaryllis said.
Onin frowned and looked around. “Has anyone seen Saija?”
Kasai and Cerina looked at each other and shrugged.
“I’ll go check her room!” Kasai ran off down the hallway.
The doorway to the hotel suite flew open and banged into the wall. Purona burst in and ran down the hall, almost bumping into Kasai. Purona darted around her and waved her phone in the air.
“I think I’ve got something!” she yelled.
“Woah, tone it down, we’re right here.” Cerina winced and dug at her left ear with her index finger.
“Oh? I did, too,” Onin said.
“Really?” Purona’s ears drooped.
Onin leaned over to look at her phone. “What’d you find?”
“Oh!” Purona pointed to the picture of what looked like a bill on her phone. “Well, admittedly it’s not much, but there’s some correlation in Natas activity. I think this might be enough evidence to let the government allow us to go there to look for them.”
“That’s great. My servitors saw Suit-man there, too.” Onin grinned. “I know it’s hard for them to just take my word for it, but do you think it will help your case?”
Purona nodded. “Super! Between both of those, I think Rala will let us go.” She bit her lower lip. “She might have to check with Xironi, though.”
“Shouldn’t you, you know—” Cerina gestured with her hand. “Ask her?”
Purona gasped and her ears and tail stood straight up. “Oh no! I have to get back the office before it closes!”
Onin raised an eyebrow. “You couldn’t just call her?”
“Hmm. I could.” Purona pulled the corner of her mouth to one side. “But this is super important, so I should ask in person.”
Amaryllis hid a smile behind her hand. “I’ll open a portal to just outside the office for you.”
“Super!” Purona bounced on her toes. “Thanks!”
Kasai re-entered the common room, dragging Saija along behind her. Saija’s hair was down and sticking out all over. She wore a t-shirt, and not much else, and her eyes were mostly closed.
“Just wake up?” Cerina asked.
“Yeah.” Saija yawned. “What’d I miss?”
Tannin and Ailah filled her in. Onin sat down on the couch, and brought up a map of the kinless lands. If he could find those street names, or one of the buildings his servitors found, they’d know where to start looking.
Onin closed his eyes and concentrated on the connection to the servitor. There’d been a street sign near Suit-man… The servitor was still in the area, though it looked like Suit-man had left. The servitor moved around until Onin could get a good look at the street sign. Fourth and Second? What crazy city planning let those intersect?
Onin opened his eyes and shrugged as he tapped at his phone. Sure enough, the intersection did exist.
“I think I’ve got something.” Onin held his phone up to the others.
“Sweet, let’s go!” Tannin ran for the door.
Cerina grabbed the back of his t-shirt as he passed her. “Hey, hold on there. We’ve got to wait for Purona.”
Tannin frowned and his shoulders drooped.
Kasai bit her lip and glanced at the door. “Couldn’t we wait out in front of her office building?”
Amaryllis and Saija nodded at each other. They both gripped her staff and blue portal swirled up from the floor.
Onin blinked as the portal faded away. He and the others stood in front of a building painted an eye-meltingly bright shade of neon something. He blinked and looked away.
“Oh, for the love of…” Cerina sighed and pointed at Saija. “Did you forget something?”
“Hmm?” Saija looked down at her over-sized pink unicorn t-shirt and bare feet. She swore and disappeared in a purple flash.
“That’s great!” Ailah laughed and slapped her thigh. “Can you imagine the look on the faces of the serious raiders when they get attacked by that?”
Tannin laughed and high-fived her.
Onin rolled his eyes. “Come on, guys. Be serious.”
Kasai nodded and leaned against Onin’s shoulder. “How long do you think Purona will take?”
“I’m not sure, she’s in a hurry, but it still could—-”
The door flew open and Purona sprinted out. A fully-dressed Saija dropped out of a portal at the same time. Purona’s ears perked up when she saw them, and she skidded to a stop.
“Super, everyone’s here!” Purona brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “I found Rala, and she said to go!”
“Sweet!” Tannin pointed a rubber chicken in the air. “To the Natas!”
Saija turned to him and raised an eyebrow. “More like, to the train station, as that’s the only place in the kinless lands that I’ve been.”
Ryogin cleared his throat. “I’ll head back to the Potato and monitor everyone from there.”
Amaryllis leaned in and kissed Ryogin on the cheek. She stepped back, and everyone else huddled around her. Saija gripped Amaryllis’ staff, and a blue portal swirled up around them. When it disappeared they were at the train station.
Purona glanced around. “Okay, so, uh, now where?”
“Fourth and Second.” Onin pointed down the street. “There’s nothing there now, but that’s the last place my servitors saw the Natas.”
Onin led the way down the street. The place was deserted. No one was on the street and all the shops were closed.
“Hmm.” Saija looked around. “So, is it just me, or is this kinda creepy?”
“A little.” Tannin pointed a rubber chicken at a store front. “For example, that sandwich shop still has all the glass in its windows, chairs and stuff inside, and it looks clean. Why aren’t there any people in it?”
“He’s got a point.” Cerina looked up and turned around, her hand shading her eyes. “Doesn’t look like there’s any people around. Do you think they’re hiding or something?”
Onin frowned and glanced up and down the street. The servitor had shown Suit-man and a group of ruffians gathered around a truck filled with crates. The truck had been facing the direction to his right. He headed that way for a few paces. Nothing. Onin tapped his finger against the side of his leg. The Natas had to have left some trace, right? He held up his right hand, generated a servitor, and pulled it over his head. Tire tracks glowed a faint blue in the servitors infrared vision. They headed off down the street.
“Hey, guys!” Onin waved a hand in the air. “I think I found something.”
Kasai was at his side in seconds. Her soft fingers curled around his, and she leaned up against him. The rest of her was even softer…
SQUEE! A rubber chicken bonked Onin over the head. He whipped around and took a step toward Tannin. “What was that for?”
“Don’t tell me they’ve each got roles now.” Cerina jabbed Tannin’s shoulder. “What does that even mean, anyway?”
“You said you found something.” Tannin poked Onin in the nose with a chicken. “Then we get over here and you’re staring off into space with this glazed doughnut look.”
Onin slapped the chicken away and cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, uh.” He pointed to the pavement. “Fresh-ish tire tracks.”
Cerina bent down, peered at the pavement, straightened up, and raised an eyebrow. “Suuuure there are.”
“Infrared.” Onin followed the tracks down the lane and around a corner.
The tracks led out of town to a highway. That was covered in a few sets of tracks from an assortment of vehicles. Onin frowned and pulled the servitor off his head. It floated up a few feet and cloaked.
“Lose the trail?” Tannin asked.
“Yeah.” Onin flicked his fingers toward the road. “Too many other tracks.”
“Hmm.” Tannin got down on his knees and pressed his right ear to the pavement.
Cerina prodded Tannin’s hip with the tip of her shoe. “Now what are you doing?”
“Listening for traffic.”
“Let me guess.” Cerina put her hands on her hips. “You learned that from some game.”
Tannin lifted his head and raised an eyebrow at her. “Don’t be ridiculous.” He lowered his ear to the pavement again. “Saturday morning cartoons.”
Cerina took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. “How are we still alive?”
Onin stepped away from Tannin. Probably best to ignore those two. He looked up and down the road. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and brought up a map of the area. To the left, the road lead back to the Deka kinset’s territory. The right led further into the kinless lands.
A hand touched Onin’s arm. He jumped, then blushed. It was Kasai.
Kasai glanced down and twirled her hair around her finger. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Sorry, didn’t see you there.” Onin brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Kasai cleared her throat. “So, which way do you think they went?”
Onin shrugged. “Not sure. My guess would be further into the kinless area, but who knows?”
“Ooo!” Amaryllis called out.
Onin glanced over his shoulder. Amaryllis stood on tiptoe and waved her hand in the air.
“I could go scout ahead. If I find anything, I can come back and portal us all there.”
Onin glanced down at Tannin, who still had an ear to the pavement. “Well, it sounds like a better plan than our current one.”
Amaryllis held her staff sideways, hopped up to sit side-saddle on it, and flew off down the road.
Purona looked back and forth at everyone in the group. “So, uh, we just wait here?”
“Yup.” Onin, with Kasai at his side, returned to the sidewalk to stand with everyone else.
Tannin waved a hand at them. “Shh! I think I hear something!”
Saija raised an eyebrow, then looked up and down the road. “Sh—” Her phone beeped. “Tannin, get out of the road, a car’s coming!”
She grabbed Tannin by the shirt collar and yanked him back onto the sidewalk.
“Hey! That hurt, what’d you—” Tannin went pale as a truck roared past. “Uh, I mean, thanks.”
“Hmm.” Saija glared at her phone and jabbed at the screen with her index finger. “Dang thing’s always ringing when I’m trying to say something important. And it’s always a telemarketer!”
Onin took an involuntary step backward, he and Kasai looked at each other, then back to Saija.
“Wait, what?” Onin stepped forward and leaned in to look at Saija’s screen.
“I know!” Saija tilted the screen so Onin could get a better look. “I mean, how am I even getting signal out here?”
Saija’s phone showed three bars of signal. Onin frowned at it for a second, then pulled out his own phone. Three bars.
“Huh.” Onin poked the screen. “I mean, I think Amaryllis said something about setting something up on the Potato so they’d work, but I thought she meant so we could talk with each other and the ship, not back to Gesara.”
Aiden leaned in over Saija’s other shoulder. “That is weird.” She turned to Purona. “What carrier wave do you use here?”
Purona blinked and her ears flicked back and forth. “Uh… KAT5e?”
Cerina face-palmed. “Really! An acronym is all you’ve got to explain all this weirdness?” She whipped around and pointed a finger at Tannin. “I swear, if I wake up tomorrow back at ABG with a mushroom hangover…”
Tannin pointed at her.
“You said ‘ABG’. That’s another one of those letter thingies you were ranting about.”
“I wasn’t rant—”
There was a loud pop, and a portal formed in the air above the sidewalk. Amaryllis dropped out of the portal and it snapped shut.
“Hey, I think I found something, there’s this broken down stone church a few miles out and…” Amaryllis’ voice trailed off. She looked around the group. “Why does Cerina look like she wants to murder Tannin this time?”
Onin rolled his eyes. “Never mind them. What’d you find?”
“Come and see.” Amaryllis pointed her staff at an empty space and a blue portal swirled open.
Kasai stepped out of the portal into a churchyard. She couldn’t put a finger on it, but something felt vaguely familiar about it. A waist-high crumbling stone wall surrounded the property. Rubble around the path that led out to the road suggested an arch once stood there. The building had a peaked roof. A pointed tower stood at the far left corner of the building. Piles of stones at the other corners were at each of the other corners. A large round hole was in the center of the front of the building, right above the door.
“Wait…” Kasai took a few steps forward and peered up at the hole.
The hole was surrounded by an iron frame. A few shards of multi-colored glass still clung to the edges of the frame here and there.
“It’s a window.”
“Wha?” Saija leaned in front of Kasai and looked up at the remains of the window.
“Yeah.” Kasai pointed to the glass shards. “It used to be a stained glass window.”
Kasai looked down. Onin and Amaryllis stood in the doorway of the building. A young woman that couldn’t be that much older than Purona was with them. She was dressed in a black robe with a white inner bodice and white coif on her head. A black veil covered her hair, but left her face exposed. She wore a simple leather necklace with a carved wooden ‘A’ around her neck.
Onin waved them over. Kasai bit her lip, twirled her hair, and stared at the young woman. Saija sighed, grabbed Kasai’s arm, and dragged her over to join everyone else.
Onin jerked his head at the young woman. “This is Sister Vera.” He pointed to Kasai and the others. “Kasai, Saija, Tannin, Ailah, Purona, Aiden, and Cerina. Can you tell them what you just told Amaryllis and I?”
Sister Vera held up a hand. “All in Ard’s time.” She stepped closer to Kasai and looked her in the eyes. “Something troubles you, sister?”
Kasai twirled her hair some more. “Not ‘troubles’, exactly.” She picked at her nail. “More confused.”
Sister Vera smiled. “Yes.”
Saija glanced back and forth between Kasai and Sister Vera. “Yes, what?”
“Her question.” Sister Vera inclined her head toward Kasai. “We, well, I, am a Nun of Ard.”