Etherno

Chapter 4: Bandits? In MY City? (It’s More Likely Than You Think)

Onin looked around. It didn’t seem like Saija was coming back. Good. He let out a sigh and spun in a circle—all the thugs had disappeared.

“Well, looks like they all got away. No prisoners to interrogate. Anyone injured?”

“No,” Cerina said.

“Aww, man!” Tannin held the tattered remains of his shirt out in front of him. “This was my best shirt!”

Cerina smirked at him. “You wore your best shirt when you knew we were out here to be bait? You are an idiot.”

“Onryo, are you hurt?” Onin asked.

“Mmm, hot and compassionate!” Onryo gave him an appreciative look. “Too bad I have to leave.”

“Uh…” Onin’s face heated. “But are you—“

“Yes, I’m fine. See you around.” Onryo winked and took a step backward.

“No, wait!”

It was too late. Onryo had already taken to the air. There was a flash of light, and she was gone. Onin frowned at the space where she had been. Could she teleport too? One day, he’d get some answers from her. He sighed and sent a servitor out to search for Kasai. Something fishy was going on between those two girls.

Onin ignored Tannin and Cerina’s arguing and strode off in the direction he’d last seen Kasai. For an S-class, she seemed to have a knack for getting knocked out of a fight. A second later the servitor came back and blinked at him, indicating that it had found Kasai. The servitor dimmed and popped, dispersing into pinpricks of light as it used the last of its energy.

Kasai sat behind the next tree, her hand to her forehead. Onin squatted in front of her.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Just a headache.” Her eyes stayed focused on the ground. “Sorry. I wasn’t much help tonight. Is everyone okay?”

Onin frowned. If she had been hit hard enough to be unconscious, she should get that checked out instead of brushing him off. He stood an offered her a hand.

“No one’s hurt, but the bad guys got away.”

Kasai took his hand long enough to pull herself up, then released it.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated, her voice soft enough that Onin had to strain to hear the words.

“Well, maybe if you’d worn something sensible,” Onin heard Cerina say. She stood with her nose inches from Tannin’s face. She stopped and turned to look when Onin and Kasai emerged from the woods. “Found the klutz, huh? You know, if you’d come back here and, you know, helped…”

Kasai burst into tears and ran off to her dorm.

“Cerina!” Onin glared at her. “Kasai’s hurt! And you don’t need to criticize everything! The two of you report to Professor Jekao. I’ll get Kasai.”

Onin ran down the street. He paused at the first intersection and peered down both streets. He didn’t see footprints, or any other signs that anyone had taken either route. He didn’t hear crying or pounding feet. He sighed and sent out another small servitor. It was back in seconds. It blinked at him and floated of to the right. Onin followed the servitor down the right-hand street. Kasai sat with her back against a building and her legs drawn up against her chest with her arms wrapped around them. She sniffed and wiped her eyes.

“You don’t have to come after me,” she said.

Onin sat beside her, pulled a tissue from his pocket, and handed it to her. He opened his mouth and then shut it again. He should say something, but the only thing that came to mind was, ‘I wanted to come after you’—nah, that’d sound stupid. Besides, she seemed to take everything he said wrong anyway.

“I’m sorry,” Kasai said after a few minutes. “You’ve been nice to me, I shouldn’t snipe at you. Actually, I shouldn’t be that way to anyone, but it’s hard when everyone eventually turns against you, you know?”

“I do. I was the only giftling in the village where I grew up. Small town, only about a hundred people, so everyone knew everyone. My parents were farmers that lived a few miles out from the village, so that already made me an outsider. It got worse when my gift developed early.”

Kasai looked up. “Yours developed early, too?”

“Yeah, I was about ten when I made my first servitor. And all the first one did was glow and follow me around. Suddenly, everyone was afraid of me, and all the other kids made fun of me constantly. Got called freak, weirdo, demon-spawn. You know all the names.”

Kasai nodded. She’d probably been called all the same things. Maybe worse.

“My parents weren’t stupid like the rest though. They pulled me out of school, taught me at home, and I got accepted to college a year early.” Onin poked at the ground.

Kasai didn’t respond. She stared at her shoes and looked lost in thought. Or old memories.

“Well, enough about me.” Onin stood and held out a hand. “We should go and report in to Professor Jekao.”

Kasai took his hand long enough to stand. They walked back to the admin offices in a companionable silence.

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Professor Jekao pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned forward in his office chair.

“So, what you’re telling me, is that you successfully engaged the people we’re after, every one of them got away, and you didn’t learn anything?”

“Um, that’s not quite true.” Onin shifted in his chair. “We learned they appear to be organized, they might be targeting Kasai, and some weird giftling with multiple powers appears to be leading them.”

“Uh, I thought a person could only have one gift?” Tannin said.

“She said she was cheating, you moron.” Cerina huffed. “Don’t you pay attention to anything?”

“The only thing that tells us is that we have to be very careful.” Professor Jekao looked at each of them in turn. “As far as we know, a person only has one gift. So we need to be extremely cautious until we figure out what’s going on. I’ve notified the police about what you’ve learned tonight. Right now, they want us to lay low while they investigate and see if they can find out anything about the unknown giftling. Stay inside while possible and don’t go out alone.” He stood and walked around the desk to stand directly in front of Tannin. “If I hear any rumors about this, you all will be back in this office, and I might even haul you down to the police station.”

Professor Jekao leaned forward until he was inches from Tannin’s face. “Understood?”

“Yes, Professor.”

Onin stood and left before Tannin gave some smart-aleck answer that would get him in trouble.

Again.

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There were no incidents on campus over the next few days. Onin sat in the mostly empty cafeteria and poked his spoon into his oatmeal. He almost wished something would happen, for a few reasons. One, he was worried that the other students might be attacked. Kids like Tannin, Kasai, and even Cerina could take care of themselves. Some people thought all giftlings were like that, but Zinako? She couldn’t fight. Well, not unless she got really lucky with where a sneeze was aimed.

On a more personal level, if something happened, Onin would have a legitimate excuse to miss the ethics test coming up. He smiled. That would be nice.

The clinking of silverware interrupted his train of thought. He looked up to see Kasai sitting across from him. Her hair was down today and draped over her right shoulder. She actually seemed to be enjoying the oatmeal. He made a face. She couldn’t really be enjoying the oatmeal. Somehow the cafeteria had managed to make it lumpy and watery at the same time.

“Am I disturbing you?” she asked.

“Oh, no, not at all—”

The bench creaked as Tannin flopped down onto it. “How can you eat that stuff?”

She shrugged. “It’s not that bad.”

“I don’t know.” Onin wrinkled his nose. “I’m gonna have to agree with Tannin on this one. Today’s batch is bad even for university oatmeal.”

Kasai’s brow creased as she took another bite. She took her time chewing. “No, it’s okay.”

Onin and Tannin exchanged looks.

“What on earth have you been eating before you came here that makes you think this stuff is good?” Tannin asked.

“The monks were good cooks.” Kasai crossed her arms. “They just liked bland food, that’s all. Oatmeal was a special treat. They even made an exception for me and let me have fruit in it.”

Tannin leaned over and sniffed Onin’s oatmeal. “If they made it like this, it’s a wonder you aren’t dead. And I can’t imagine a food more bland than oatmeal.”

“Knock it off.” Onin punched Tannin’s shoulder. “Quit bugging her. The oatmeal’s not quite that bad, and you don’t like it even if it’s made right anyway.”

“Sheese, I’m just teasing.”

“Well, quit it.” Onin glanced over his shoulder and motioned for Tannin and Kasai to lean in closer. “Have either of you heard anything more about those thugs that are harassing the students?”

Both of then shook their heads.

“I hope they’ve left for good. A lot of students can’t defend themselves like we can,” Tannin said.

Kasai choked on her oatmeal and stared at Tannin. “What?” She turned Onin. “He can pay enough attention to others to not clown around sometimes?”

Onin chuckled. “Yes, he does care about stuff other than partying.”

“You don’t have to stare at me like that, Kasai. You think this straight-laced four-point-average here—” Tannin jerked his thumb at Onin. “—would tolerate me if I didn’t have at least one redeeming quality? Just don’t spread it around. I’ve got an image to maintain.”

“As what? An idiot?” Kasai said.

“No.” Tannin frowned. “I’m the happy-go-lucky, non-threatening guy that everyone likes to hang with.”

“And share study notes with,” Onin added.

“That doesn’t hurt,” Tannin muttered.

Kasai giggled.

“Ha! I made you laugh! Yes!” Tannin pumped his fist in the air.

Onin shook his head and stood up from the table. “You ready for the ethics test?”

Tannin stopped laughing and sat up straight. “Wait, is that today?”

“Yeaaaah…” Kasai said.

The color drained from Tannin’s face. “Uh-oh.”

“I’ve been trying to get you to study for that for the past few nights.” Onin grabbed Tannin’s arm and pulled him toward the door. “Come on, slacker. Time to face your doom.”

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Professor Jekao waved them over in the hallway. “Ah, good, three of you are together. I need you to come to my office right away.”

The professor wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t frowning either. Onin couldn’t tell from his expression if this was bad news or not.

“Can it wait? We have an ethics test right now,” Onin said.

“Don’t worry about that.” The professor pulled three slips of paper from his pocket and handed them over. “I’ve already arranged for you to take the test later.”

“Yes!” Tannin pumped his fist. “Saved!”

Onin rolled his eyes and shook his head. “You still have to take it, you know.”

“Aw.” Tannin’s face fell. He sighed and trudged after Onin.

Onin sank into a chair across from the professor’s desk in his office.

Professor Jekao frowned and picked up the phone. “Cerina was supposed to be here. I found her before I found you. If you’ll excuse me for a moment…”

Tannin leaned over to Onin. “So, do you suppose we’re in any kind of trouble?”

Onin stared back at him. “I’m not. What’d you do this time?”

“It’s probably about those guys that attacked us,” Kasai said.

“Oh yeah, that.” Tannin stretched out in his chair. “I’d almost forgotten about that.”

Onin looked over at Kasai, and both of them rolled their eyes.

The professor hung up the phone, and a few minutes later there was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” the professor said.

Cerina stepped in and slipped into a chair. “Sorry I’m late.”

Cerina dropped her backpack on the floor next to her chair. Onin frowned. She didn’t look flustered or upset about being late, but her usual haughty expression was absent as well.

“I’ll get right to the point.” The professor frowned at Cerina and leaned forward in his chair. “The city has had a handful of robberies over the past week. All the victims have been giftlings, and all of them have been injured.”

Kasai gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “Are they alright?”

“Most of them were attacked from behind and can’t tell us anything.” The professor’s face was expressionless, and his voice was flat. “Only one of them was seriously injured, and he’s stable now. I want you four to go talk to him. See if you can find any connection between these attacks and the criminals that assaulted you.”

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Onin kept glancing over at Kasai as they walked the six blocks to the hospital. She had her arms wrapped around her chest despite the warm spring day, and she stared at the pavement for the whole walk. She’d been that way since Professor Jekao had mentioned that multiple giftlings had been attacked. Did she know anything about these attacks? Cerina had said something about destruction in the Northlands or something the first time she’d met Kasai. Could these incidents be connected?

Kasai didn’t seem like the kind of person who would ever hurt anyone. But that Onryo girl seemed to follow Kasai around. She did seem like the type who didn’t care about collateral damage. How were they connected? He wanted to just ask Kasai about it, but she closed up even tighter whenever the topic came up. Onryo was right about one thing. Kasai did need a friend.

“Hey, Kasai…” Onin stepped closer to her. “Are you doing okay?”

She glanced at him for just a second before she returned to studying the pavement. “Yeah.”

“You’ve been awfully quiet, even for you. It’s horrible that other people are getting attacked now, isn’t it?”

Kasai’s head snapped up and she glared at him. Her mouth opened, then closed. She took a deep breath and dropped her gaze again. “Yes.”

Kasai twirled her hair around her finger and stared at the sidewalk. Was she still feeling guilty about those attacks? Onin stepped in front of her. Kasai stepped to the side and Onin touched her shoulder.

“Look, I’m sorry if I said something to offend you. I didn’t mean too. I really do feel bad that other people are getting hurt, especially if it’s because I let those guys escape.”

“It’s not your fault. It’s mine,” Kasai said.

“No, it’s not.” Onin looked her in the eye. “We were all there. Those people choose to try and hurt someone, not you. And now they’re picking on giftlings with less power. I have the power to stop them, and if I choose to not do anything about that, then it’s my fault.”

Kasai smiled. “Now you sound like the monks.”

Onin grinned. “Is that a good thing?”

“Yes. The monks were the only people in my life that didn’t end up trying to kill me.” They took a few more steps and she sighed. “I have a hard time trusting people. You’re right, people at ABG seem to be different.” She frowned in Cerina’s direction. “Well, most of them anyway.”

“Friends?” Onin held his hand out to her.

Kasai nodded and blushed as she took his hand.

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Onin was the first one in the hospital room. The others filed in behind him and stayed clustered near the door.

“Mr. Tonoda?” The nurse squeezed past everyone to stand next to the bed. “The people the police asked you to talk to are here.”

Onin estimated that Mr. Tonoda was about thirty-something years old. His leg was in a cast, and a few shocks of black hair poked out through the bandages wound around the top of his head. His entire chest was also covered in bandages. Despite that, he still managed to look alert.

“You have five minutes.” The nurse slipped back out into the hallway and closed the door behind her.

“You were attacked, too?” Mr. Tonoda asked.

“A few weeks ago. What did the guys who attacked you look like?” Onin asked.

“I don’t know. They wore all black and had masks.” Mr. Tonoda spoke slowly and his voice was a high tenor. “I just got home from work and was putting groceries away when they appeared in the kitchen. I know I locked the door, so I don’t know if they picked the lock or what.”

“Did they say anything?”

“I don’t think so.” Mr. Tonoda drummed his fingers on the armrest of the bed. “Three of them started beating me while the other three ransacked the house. I don’t remember much after that.”

“Six of them. Dressed all in black. Same as the ones we fought.” Kasai said.

“Sounds like it, but it could be a coincidence,” Onin said.

Tannin and Cerina started to protest, and Onin raised his palm. “I said ‘could be.’ We can’t jump to any conclusions. Mr Tonoda, do you remember if anyone else showed up at any point?”

“No, I’m sorry, but I was unconscious for most of the time.”

The nurse poked her head into the doorway. “Time’s up.”

Suddenly the window exploded into a thousand fragments. Onin jumped backward. Where did that come from? Kasai raised her hand and generated a kinetic field that blocked the glass shards. Onin crept over to the window. If someone was trying to kill their only lead, Onin had to stop him.

“Stay here to keep him safe. I’m going out,” Onin said.

He leapt out the window and generated small servitors that attached to his hands and feet covering them with a transparent golden energy bubble. He pushed out power to them. They glowed blue and his rate of decent slowed. A black hover car floated a few stories directly below him. Onin flew toward it, and the hovercar banked off to the west. Onin followed it. After about a half-mile, the driver of the car apparently decided that he couldn’t outrun Onin and started weaving between buildings.

Onin spread his arms and feet out wide so he could use the thrust from the servitors more efficiently. The hovercar wound around, under, and over buildings, billboards, and anything else in the way trying to lose him. Onin grinned. The driver did his best to lose Onin, but Onin was way more maneuverable.

The hovercar pulled up and started a vertical climb. Booster jets with after-burners flared to life. Onin pumped more power into the servitors on his feet. The servitors left a blue energy trail as they put out more thrust.

“How high’s he trying to go?”

Onin struggled to breath. Ah, higher altitude, that’s his plan. Onin frowned, sucked in another breath, and generated a servitor around his head. He took an easier breath as the servitor recycled his oxygen. The car leveled off and put on more speed.

“Not gonna work,” Onin said.

The servitors on his feet flared and left a longer energy trail behind him as they increased speed. Was this guy ever gonna give up? Hopefully, he’d try to run and show Onin where he came from or something.

The car started to bank again, then flipped around and headed straight at him. Onin jerked to a stop and hovered vertically. The hovercar charged at him. Onin held out his right fist. The servitor covering it changed from translucent blue to solid gold. The hovercar got within a quarter mile and started firing lasers. Beams from each servitor reached out and sucked up the laser beams. The hovercar veered off at the last second—within yards of Onin.

He launched himself forward and punched at the belly of the car with the servitor that covered his right hand. Something exploded and sent shrapnel flying out in every direction. Energy tendrils sprung from the servitors on Onin’s hands and twirled around him, deflecting the debris.

The hovercar was making a run for it, heading away and slightly down from Onin. Only one afterburner was lit now. Onin stretched out his arms and sped after it. Something popped up from the top of the car and spat energy blasts back at him.

Onin banked into an erratic spiral and returned fire from the servitors around his hands.

“Ow, screw this. This guy’s too smart to lead me back to his boss. Time to end it.”

The servitors on his hands grew to three times their size, and two servitors split off and chased after the hovercar. They took positions on either side and arced a lightning bolt between them and through the hovercar. The car smoked a little but kept flying. It must have pretty good shields.

Onin generated four more servitors and sent them to assist. The servitors regrouped into two triangle formations above and below the front of the car. The triangles started to counter-rotate, and white dots appeared in the center of each triangle. A white energy beam sprang to life and connected the triangles now. It lit up the night sky to daylight. The hovercar’s momentum carried it through the beam, and half of the car fell to either side.

The servitors broke formation and dropped after the pieces of the hovercar, catching it in a net of energy. Onin followed them down to the ground. Three police cars waited for them. He reabsorbed the servitors on his hands, legs, and head, then walked over to the gathered policemen.

“Onin?” One of the officers called out to Onin when he touched down.

“Yes, Officer?”

“We’re supposed to relay a message to you from Deputy Jekao. You’re to meet the rest of your team in the Itachi district. We’ll take care the rest here.”

Onin frowned. The Itachi district was a crime-filled cesspool. Why was the rest of the team there?

“Thank you, Officer,” Onin said.

He generated four more servitors and shot up into the darkening sky.

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Everything in the Itachi district looked peaceful—but then a plasma beam shot up into the night sky off to his right. Okay, so it wasn’t so peaceful. Onin flew in closer to his friends. Four figures dressed in all black were clustered back to back in a circle in the middle of an alley that lead between two dilapidated brick buildings. Tannin, Kasai, and Cerina surrounded them. Tannin had some kind of metal stick in either hand. Kasai had an array of junk orbiting around her. Cerina didn’t look like she was doing much, but she had a tuning fork in each hand.

Onin generated two servitors and sent them into the fray.

“It’s him,” one of the thugs said. “Now!”

They threw something on the ground, and a forcefield sprang up around them. All four of them concentrated their blaster fire on him. White energy tendrils arced out from both servitors to soak up the beams. Onin grinned. This was going to be too easy.

All four thugs dropped to the ground simultaneously, and a black portal opened above them. The energy tendrils from the servitors were sucked towards it like metal to a magnet. The thugs opened fire again. New energy tendrils arced out from the servitors—and were also sucked up by the portal.

Onin’s jaw dropped. Crap. This wasn’t good. He twisted around to the right and managed to dodge most of the beams. One of them hit his leg, and he screamed as fire shot up his leg. A healing beam came out of the servitor on his foot, and that too was sucked into the portal. None of the other beams from the servitors would disengage.

Onin kept trying to dodge the blaster fire, but the beams from the servitors were like ropes, tying him to the portal and limiting his maneuverability.

The rest of the team just stood there, poking at the force-field that separated them from him.

“Hey, help,” Onin yelled.

“I’m trying,” Kasai shouted back.

“I’ve got problems of my own here,” Cerina said.

Tannin just saluted him and slammed a flurry of attacks against the thugs’ shield.

The ground was getting closer. Onin looked around. The black portal pulsed every few seconds, and with every pulse it sucked in a foot or so of the energy streamers from his servitors. Onin tried again to get them to disengage, with no success. He sent a burst of energy to the servitors and was yanked a few yards toward the portal.

What was with that portal? He’d always been able to control his servitors before. Was the portal from that girl from before? He looked around. No mostly-naked women in sight. Could it be some kind of technology?

There… a small blue light blinked on the ground below the portal. It could be generating the portal, or focusing it, or whatnot. A burst of energy from a servitor might take it out—if it wasn’t all being sucked inside.

“Guys,” Onin yelled. “There’s some kind of device on the ground under that portal. Try to destroy it!”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, one of the thugs took off running.

“I’ve got him!” Tannin took off running after the thug.

“No, come back and help,” Onin yelled.

Tannin either didn’t hear him, or didn’t listen. He was out of sight in seconds.

Another thug pulled out something, and a cone of flame shot at Kasai. She spiraled her array of debris into a shield but had to keep it around her to keep the fire from burning her.

They seemed to ignore Cerina. Onin waved to her and pointed to the device.

“You don’t need to tell me what to do.” She twirled the tuning forks in her hands. “I’ve got this.”

The forks vibrated, and she sang a high note. Pain lanced through Onin’s skull, something exploded, and the world went dark.

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