Etherno

Chapter 7: Natas? Not Again!

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The door slammed shut. Onin looked up from his history textbook and huffed. He really needed to study for this test.

“You should’ve come, Onin.” Tannin waved at him and flopped on the couch. “There were about a hundred people there. It was so much fun!”

“You do know we have a history test tomorrow, right?”

“Eh.” Tannin stood and got himself a glass of water. “History is the past. I’d rather live in the future.”

“You might not have one if you flunk.”

“Whatever. Hey, did you and Kasai go visit Saija again today?”

“Nope. She’s busy studying, too.”

“Bah. There’s more to life that studying. Say,” Tannin reached over and closed Onin’s history book. “You and Kasai have been spending a lot of time together lately. Is that the real reason you don’t want to go to parties and meet girls? Got a crush on our introverted little kinetic?”

“We’re just friends.” Onin felt his face heat up. He pulled his history book away from Tannin and flipped it open again. “I don’t think she’s interested in me, anyway.”

“Oh, please.” Tannin pulled a chair around so he could sit facing Onin. “Haven’t you noticed that she talks to you all the time? If she has something to say, she says it you. And every once in a while, she’ll touch your arm to get your attention, or take your hand or something.”

“Everyone does that.”

“See, this is why I want you to get out more. Haven’t you noticed? Kasai doesn’t touch anyone. Ever. Yet she’ll touch you. Yeah, it’s little things, and I probably ‘touch’ you more than that, what with friendly punches, slapping your shoulder, and whatnot. But Kasai doesn’t do any of that with anyone.”

Tannin leaned back and looked fixedly at him. Onin shut his history book. Kasai had touched his arm with one finger to get his attention a few times over the past day or so. And she had held his hand during a few of those team building exercises. Of course, Tannin had his other hand on those same occasions, so he hadn’t thought much of it at the time.

“Huh.” Onin picked up his history book and stood up. “I’m going out.”

A girl with blonde hair wearing bunny pajamas opened the door to Kasai’s room when Onin knocked on it.

“Hi, I’m Onin. Is Kasai here?” Onin asked.

“Holy crap!” The blonde turned and hollered into the dorm. “Kasai, some hot guy’s here. To see you.” She turned back to Onin. “Come on in. I didn’t know Kasai had any friends. I’m Jennifer, Kasai’s roommate.”

Onin stepped into the dorm suite and looked around. It was laid out almost exactly like his and Tannin’s rooms. Central common area with a couch, coffee table, and a small counter with a sink and microwave. The doorway to the right probably led to two small bedrooms and the shared bathroom.

Kasai poked her head around the corner. She bit her lower lip, and her eyes darted around the room. Her face lit up and she smiled when she saw Onin.

“Hi.” She walked up to within a few inches of Onin. “Anything wrong?”

“Holy crap!” Jennifer’s jaw dropped open. She looked back and forth between Onin and Kasai. “I didn’t… um, ah, I’ll leave you two alone.”

She leaned in toward Kasai and loudly whispered, “Go Kasai!” before she left the room.

Kasai’s face turned red, and she stared at the floor. Was she attracted to him, or had he just embarrassed her?

Onin looked down and ran his hand through his hair. “I was, uh, just wondering if you wanted to study for that history test together.”

Kasai nodded, her face still beet red. She ran out of the room and was back in seconds with her history book.

dragon

Something beeped. Onin rolled over and tried to ignore it, but it beeped again. Onin glanced at the clock and groaned. It was almost time to get up anyway. More beeping. Onin fumbled around on the nightstand until he found his phone.

“Hello?”

“Good morning, Onin. This is Professor Jekao. I was wondering if you and Tannin could drop by my office before your history test this morning.”

“Sure, I’ll be right there.”

Onin pulled on his clothes, went over to Tannin’s room, and knocked on the door.

“Tannin, get up!” Onin knocked again. “We’ve got to see Professor Jekao before class!”

Five minutes later the door opened, and Tannin shuffled out. His jeans and t-shirt were rumpled, and Onin could’ve sworn he’d worn them a day or so ago.

“Whatever.” Onin rolled his eyes. “Let’s go.”

Kasai— and for once, Cerina— were waiting in Professor Jekao’s office when they got there.

“Had some trouble with the zombie?” Cerina jerked a thumb at Tannin.

“He’ll resent that in a few hours when he wakes up,” Onin said.

“I’ll make this quick, since you have class in a few minutes.” Professor Jekao pulled a screen out of his drawer and held it so they could see it. “A museum here on the ABG campus was robbed late last night. The thieves were caught in a partial frame on a security camera, and they look like the ones that have been attacking the giftlings around Dabrath. Also, the items stolen were all Matari artifacts.”

Onin sucked in a breath. Why would the thieves want objects related to the Matari? The secretive aliens had kept mostly to themselves in the hundred years or so since their ship had crashed on Gesara. As far as he knew, they didn’t have anything particularly valuable, except possibly to an archaeologist.

“The thieves also stole objects related to the history of giftlings. After your classes, I want you to go to the museum, and see what you can find out.” The professor stood and gestured to the door. “Dismissed.”

“Yes, sir,” they all said.

dragon

The entrance to the museum was cordoned off with police tape. Onin walked up to the officer near the door, and when he explained why they were there, the officer let them inside. The main lobby of the museum looked fine. Well, except for the door to the History of Giftlings section. There, a small hole was cut in the glass door next to the handle.

“I don’t get it.” Cerina looked up at the security camera in the corner of the ceiling. “How’d they get through the lobby without being caught on camera?”

“That’s what we’d like to know.”

Onin turned around. The speaker was an older man with hair that was just starting to turn grey at the temples. He wore a long blue overcoat that had an inspector’s badge pinned over the left breast.

“I’m Inspector Adamka. The thieves broke in last night sometime around three in the morning. Other than that, we don’t know much. Deputy Jekao suggested that you four take a look around and see if you spot anything that can connect this robbery to the recent attacks on the giftlings.”

Inspector Adamka lead them into the History of Giftlings section. Almost every case was smashed, and displays were scattered everywhere. Men and women in white lab coats were spaced throughout the room, taking pictures and making notes on clipboards.

“The museum staff is still working to find out exactly what was stolen,” Inspector Adamka said. “There’s a few cases that look to be cleaned out, but stuff is scattered everywhere. Feel free to look around.” He handed them each a pair of nitrile gloves. “I’ll be right outside if you need me for anything.”

“Where do we start?” Onin asked.

“It’d be helpful if we knew what was missing.” Cerina picked up a stick with some sort of carving on it. “I mean, what could they want with any of this junk?”

“It’s not junk!” Kasai narrowed her eyes and placed her hands on her hips. “That, for example—” Kasai pointed to the stick. “—is a prayer stick. The monks carve prayers into them during the winter months when there’s not much else to do, then they give them out to children during summer festivals. It helps the children learn how to pray to Ard.”

“And why would thieves want that?” Cerina said.

“They didn’t.” Onin slowly turned and looked around the room. “That’s why they didn’t take it. The question is what was here that they did want and why.” He pointed to one of the interactive panels in front of the first display case to their right. “Let’s start at the beginning, see what was here to start with, and try to find something they might have been interested in.”

“And if we see something from different cases, we should pile it together to help the museum staff,” Tannin said. Everyone turned to look at him. “What? I get good ideas sometimes.”

They spent the next two hours going through displays. Apparently, the thieves had a thing for ancient Natas relics, and first dynasty artifacts from various monasteries. All of those items were missing.

“So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that our thieves are either Natas, or working for one or something,” Onin said.

“But what’s the connection to the guys attacking the gifted?” Tannin asked.

“Saija,” they all said at once.

“Tannin, go ask Inspector Adamka to have Saija brought here, please,” Onin said.

“Sure!” Tannin dashed to the door and was back in seconds. “He says he’ll have her brought right over.”

Half an hour later the door opened and Inspector Adamka walked in. Saija walked in on crutches behind him. She was escorted by a policeman on either side. Today she wore jean shorts and a fitted t-shirt. Much less distracting than her usual outfit.

“Wow.” Saija looked around the room and whistled. “What a mess.”

“Know anything about it?” Inspector Adamka asked.

“Who me?” Saija put a hand to her chest. “I was half-dead in the hospital, remember?”

“We think some friends of yours might be involved.” Inspector Adamka pulled a tablet computer out of his coat pocket and showed it to Saija. “Recognize anyone here?”

Saija steadied herself on her crutches and took the tablet from the inspector. She studied it for a moment, then pointed to the screen. “I recognize him. I don’t know his name, but I know he works for my old master.”

“We’ve compiled a partial list of the stolen items.” Onin pointed to one of the display screens. “Do you know what he might want with any of this stuff?”

Saija made her way over to the screen and bent over to examine it. She pointed to one of the pictures.

“He’s been collecting these from all over. I’m not quite sure what they are, other than some sort of Natas artifact.”

“Does this master of yours have a name?” Inspector Adamka asked.

“I don’t know.” Saija shrugged. “I never saw him or talked to him directly. The Natas that possessed me communicated with him somehow—” She scrunched up her nose into a disgusted expression. “Oh, that’s not good.”

“What?” all of them asked.

“I know what that one does.” Saija pointed to a picture of a small star-shaped box. “You don’t want to know the details, but if you have two of them they can increase a Natas’s power.” She pointed to a four inch long stick. “That one strengthens the connection between the Natas and the host body. I’m not sure about the others. Wait—”

Saija took a deep breath and pulled up an image of a wicked looking dagger. “I’m pretty sure that’s used in the ceremony to create another Natas.”

“Great, more Natas.” Tannin grimaced. “That’s just what we need.”

“Can we find your old master before he makes another Natas?” Onin asked.

“I don’t know.” Saija brushed her hair back over her ear and bit her lip. “I’m not even sure he’s on this planet, or in this dimension, or whatever.” She pointed to the picture of the star-shaped box. “If you know where another one of these are, I’d lie in wait for them there. They’re going to want both of them.”

“Let’s check with Professor Jekao, he might know where it’d be,” Onin said.

Onin turned and headed for the door, Kasai, Tannin, and Cerina close behind him.

“Wait,” Saija hobbled after them. Onin and Kasai stopped and looked back at her. “Can I come with you? I know more about the Natas than anyone here. We really don’t want another one of those things loose… I should know.”

Onin looked over at Kasai. She nodded.

“Come on,” Onin jerked his head, indicating that she should follow them. “We can at least ask Professor Jekao if it’s okay with him.”

Professor Jekao was seated at his office desk. He looked up from the paper he was holding when Onin and the others burst into his office.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

Onin quickly outlined what they’d been able to find, with Saija’s help, at the museum.

“Another Natas? That’s not good.” Professor Jekao leaned back in his chair and whistled. “Let’s see, I believe the archaeology department has a collection of Natas artifacts that aren’t open to the public.”

He turned in his chair and started to dig through a stack of papers.

“Yes, it’s here in the college newspaper.” He flipped open one of the papers and handed it to Onin.

“ABG Museum to highlight religious collection,” Onin read. “It says here that over two hundred items, about a third of the collection, from the first dynasty will be moved from the ABG archaeology department to be put on display for the public to see and read about for the first time.”

“That explains how they knew that stuff was in the museum,” Cerina said.

“And it’s a big clue that they’ll hit the archaeology department soon,” Onin said.

“You’d better get over there right away,” Professor Jekao said. “I’ll have a policeman meet you there.”

Onin and the others ran out the door. The thieves could strike at any moment. They’d barely been able to defeat Saija, if the Natas was able to make more people—vessels, Saija had called them—every giftling in the city would be in trouble. Onin ran faster.

The archaeology department wasn’t hard to find. It looked more like an ancient ruin than it did an institution of higher learning. Marble columns lined the entire structure, and what looked like two-hundred steps led up to the front door.

A police car pulled up to the steps just as Onin and the others arrived. Inspector Adamka got out of the car, and it drove off.

“Professor Jekao called me,” he said. “We’d better get inside as quickly as possible. Wait, where is the prisoner that was with you?”

“Saija?” Onin looked around, she was nowhere in sight. “She was right… oh no.” He slapped his forehead. “We ran all the way here. She’s on crutches there’s no way she could keep up.”

“I’ll go get her.” Kasai turned around and took off running—then skidded to a stop.

A black portal opened six feet off the ground just in front of her. Saija slowly descended from the portal. It snapped shut, and she dropped the remaining foot or so to the ground. She landed gracefully on her one leg, spun her crutches around, and lowered them.

“You ran off without the cripple,” she said.

“Sorry about that.” Onin winced. Running off without the prisoner was the kind of thing Tannin would do. He made a mental note to remember the bigger picture. If someone didn’t, the Natas could cause all sorts of trouble.

“You’re lucky I didn’t hobble off and hide somewhere,” she grumbled. “Not that I’d know where to go, or anything. In any case, you’re lucky I don’t want Natas running loose, either.”

“We really are sorry we ran off without you.” Kasai walked over to Saija, lifted her hand to her shoulder, but hesitated and dropped her arm back to her side. “Do you want help getting up all these steps?”

Saija looked over at the archaeology building and did a double-take. “Dang! What kinda sick sadist designed this? Screw walking up that.”

A portal formed under her and she dropped into it. A second later another portal formed above the top step and Saija dropped out of it. That worked, too. Onin shrugged and ran up the steps. They all filed into the lobby.

Inspector Adamka waved them over to him. “This situation could get quite desperate. You’ve all proven yourselves to be powerful giftlings, and you’ve upheld the law beyond what’s expected of you. I can’t make you stay here and help me tonight, and in fact, it would ordinarily be out of the question for me to even ask it of you. However, given the nature of the opponent, I’d appreciate your help. To make it legal I’d have to deputize all of you except Saija, no offense.”

“None taken.” Saija shrugged. “Don’t want to get that involved anyway.”

“Sweet!” Tannin pumped his fist. “Do I get a badge?”

“Hold on.” Inspector Adamka held up a hand. “This is a serious matter. If you do become police deputies, you’ll have additional responsibilities. And I shouldn’t have to warn you about the danger.”

“I understand.” Kasai gave a sharp nod.

“Me too.” Onin stepped closer to Kasai, and she smiled at him. “We have these gifts for a reason, and from what Professor Jekao very carefully did not say, the giftlings in the police department aren’t up to taking on a Natas.”

Inspector Adamka smiled. “It’s not common knowledge, but we only have one S-class, and two A-class giftlings working for us.”

“This city’s in trouble,” Saija said.

“No, it’s not. We’re here,” Kasai said.

Saija raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything else.

“Tannin, Cerina,” Inspector Adamka stepped over to stand in front of them. “Do you want to become deputies and fight for the citizens of the city? Remember, no one’s forcing you. You can go back to your dorm right now and no one would think lesser of you.”

“I do,” Tannin said.

Onin raised an eyebrow. For once, Tannin didn’t say something stupid, and he even had a serious expression on his face.

Cerina squared her shoulders and looked Inspector Adamka in the eye. “Yes.”

Onin blinked. He’d really expected some sort of sarcastic comment at the very least from Cerina.

“Very well. All of you raise your right hands, and repeat after me,” Inspector Adamka said.

Onin, Kasai, Tannin, and Cerina raised their right hands, and Inspector Adamka led them through the oath of office.

dragon

Onin covered his mouth to hide a yawn. He and Kasai had been crouched behind this stupid statue for what seemed like hours now. He should’ve known. The last robbery had happened at three am. This one probably would too. If they even came tonight.

“Think they’re coming?” he whispered.

“I don’t know. If so, it’ll probably be a while before they show up,” Kasai whispered back.

Something across the room clicked.

“Or it could be sooner,” Kasai whispered.

“Probably just Tannin going to the bathroom again.”

The clicking sound repeated, and a beam from a flashlight shone through the door. Four figures in dark clothing crept into the room. Onin rose to a half-crouch and tensed his muscles. The lead figure shined the light around the room, then each of them split up and started rummaging through a different drawer, apparently chosen at random.

Inspector Adamka stepped in front of the door and flicked the lights on.

“You’re under arrest!”

One of the thieves laughed and thrust his hand out. A metal spike extended out at the inspector. Onin raised his hand to generate a servitor, but the inspector raised his forearm, and something that looked like a leather shield sprouted from his arm. The spike glanced off the shield and embedded itself into the wall behind the inspector. He grabbed the metal rod with his left hand and pulled. Simultaneously, he grabbed the shield with his right hand and threw it at the thief.

Onin generated two servitors and sent them after the thieves. Tannin was fighting one of them. Cerina wasn’t anywhere in sight.

“I’ve got a kinetic barrier around the whole room. Cerina’s got a sonic barrier up too.” Kasai pointed to Inspector Adamka. “Go help the inspector. That one’s stronger than he looks.”

Onin nodded, jumped up, and generated a servitor as he moved. The servitor followed above and slightly behind Onin. The thief facing off with the Inspector now had metal spikes emerging from each of his fingers, and some from his forearms, shins, and back as well. The inspector generated two more shields, and ran at the thief. Onin sent in his servitor and generated another.

The thief threw one of his spikes into the ground. It anchored itself and grew up at the servitor faster than Onin could blink. The end of the metal spike penetrated the servitor, and it popped.

“Uh-oh.” Onin frowned. He hadn’t instructed the servitor do disperse. “Inspector, watch those spikes, they’re not normal metal.”

The inspector nodded and threw one of his shields at the thief, who easily batted it away. In the split second that the thief was distracted, the inspector grabbed the remaining shield with both hands. It elongated out and flattened into a sword. The Inspector tossed it into his right hand, and another shield sprang from his left arm.

Onin generated two more servitors. They joined the other one and formed up in a tight triangle linked by energy bands. Onin generated three more servitors. They formed another triangle and stacked under the existing formation of servitors.

“Let’s see how much he can handle,” Onin said.

He generated three more servitors, and they joined the formation, making a stack of triangles three deep. A circle of white light formed in the center of each triangle, then a larger circle formed above the top of the servitor stack. A high-pitched hum filled the air and grew in volume. A beam of light shot up through the center of the servitors. As soon as it hit the hovering ball of light, a blinding arc of lightning curved across the room and slammed into the thief. Thunder shook the building.

Onin blinked as the glare from the lightning faded. Only a large pile of molten metal was left where the thief used to be. The first two servitors that Onin had generated floated over. A prisoner was suspended beneath each of them.

“A little excessive, but good work.” The Inspector pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. “Let’s get these—”

The inspector was interrupted by the pile of metal being thrown into the air. It caught him in the chest and knocked him over. The thief, who was, unfortunately, very much not dead, kicked Onin in the throat, grabbed something and ran for the door. He threw two metal rods over his shoulder. They popped the servitors, and the two other thieves also ran for the door.

Onin coughed. His throat was sore, and he struggled to suck in air. He looked around. Tannin was still fighting the last thief. Saija and Cerina were nowhere in sight.

The metal-generating thief was at the door now. He reached out with his hand and swore as it bounced off the force field that Cerina and Kasai were generating. A metal rod with a split end came out of his palm. He grabbed it with both hands and slammed it into the door. A visible shockwave rippled out. Cerina screamed and fell out from behind a cabinet. She collapsed onto the floor.

The thief sprouted a dozen rods and threw them into the floor at various points along the wall. They expanded out and pressed against the forcefield.

“Onin, do something! I can’t hold this for long.” Kasai’s voice sounded panicked.

Onin held up his hand. Nothing happened. He must have used up all his energy already. He smacked himself in the forehead. He was going to have to remember to keep some sort of snack on him at all times. The kinetic field around the room flickered, and the metal rods punched through the walls. The thief pulled the door open—and took one of Saija’s crutches right in the face.

The thief stumbled back into the room. Saija spun on her crutch and kicked him in the face with her left foot.

“You!” The thief took a few steps backward. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

Saija smiled. “Apparently the Natas aren’t as all-powerful as they led us to believe.”

The thief snarled and pulled out a staff-sized rod. Saija threw down one crutch and spun the other one around to block the blow. The thief circled around, trying to find or make an opening in Saija’s defense.

Saija was remarkably agile for someone with only one leg. She ducked, hopped, and spun around on the crutch. She was the better fighter, but the thief was more maneuverable. He attacked with the staff, threw a punch, and kicked out at Saija’s good leg. She managed to block the punch with her arm, and block the staff and the kick with her crutch, but it threw her off balance. She landed hard on her back and the crutch flew across the room. The thief grabbed his staff and thrust it at her like a spear.

It stopped inches from her. The thief grunted and shoved at the spear, but it didn’t move. He spun around. Kasai stood facing him from across the room.

“Ah, the half-breed kinetic.” The thief sneered and took a step toward Kasai. “The master is interested in you.”

He reached down and touched something on his belt. A loud noise vibrated around in Onin’s skull, and his vision darkened for a second. He blinked. The thief stood over Kasai, who was huddled on the floor. He pulled out another metal rod and swung it down at Kasai’s head.

“No!” Onin yelled.

He tried to generate another servitor. His palm glowed, then dimmed. Still out of energy. Kasai rolled away at the last second. She kept rolling and came up in a crouch, her hair covering her face.

“I’ve had just about enough of that.” The voice was Onryo’s, but it came from Kasai. “You made things happen too fast, and now you’re gonna die.”

As she rose to her feet, her hair turned red. Wings and a tail sprouted from her back. Onin took a step back. What was going on here? This did explain why Kasai always ran off whenever Onryo was around, but… Did Kasai know about this? Was that why she didn’t let anyone get close?

Onryo took a step forward. She moved so fast she blurred. She grabbed the thief by the neck and his collar started to smoke. The thief grabbed Onryo’s wrist. He immediately let go and cried out. Blisters covered his hand.

The thief shoved a metal rod out of his palm. Onryo burst into blue flame. The rod bent and started to melt. The thief grunted and encased himself in metal.

“You’ve been watching too much anime if you think metal beats fire,” Onryo said.

She gripped the metal shell with both hands. The metal started to turn red.

Worry and a sense of dread filled Onin.

“Onryo, don’t kill him,” he said.

“Stay out of this, lover boy. This little punk has got me in a very bad mood. Not to mention that he’s put Kasai into a rather awkward position.”

“Yeah, about that, who are—”

Onryo turned and glared at him.

“Never mind.” Onin held up both hands. “We need this guy alive so we can find out who’s behind the attacks on the giftlings. Also, if his boss is hunting you and Kasai, you’re gonna want some information out of him, right?”

It seemed like forever until Onryo spoke.

“Fine.”

She dropped the metal coated thief. The fire around her puffed and went out. Onryo held out her index finger and a tiny flame sprung to life. She pointed at the encased thief, and the flame turned blue and hissed.

“Come out, or I’m cutting you out,” she said.

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