Etherno

Chapter 8: What’s a Matari, Anyway?

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Onin slouched on the couch in his dorm room. Tannin sat next to him. Cerina sat on the floor to their left, and Saija sat in one of the two chairs across from him. Onryo sat in the other. No one had said anything since they got back from the police station.

“Well, this is awkward,” Saija said.

“Yeah.” Tannin shifted his position on the couch. “So… are you going to burn us alive if we ask what’s the deal with you and Kasai?”

“Shut up, Tannin.” Onin smacked him. The last thing they needed was to anger Onryo. “You don’t have to tell us anything if you don’t want to Onryo, but we are really concerned about Kasai.”

“Really?” Onryo arched an eyebrow. “All of you?”

“Yeah.” Saija looked down and twisted the grip on one of her crutches. “Kasai was nice to me even when I was mean to her. I’m kinda new to all this touchy-feely crap, but I think I care about what happens to Kasai. It’d suck to lose a friend before I’ve even made one.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Cerina picked at her shoe and didn’t make eye contact with anyone. “Me, too. I hated her at first. Growing up in the Northlands, I’ve heard rumors about her… you… whatever. I’ve since learned that it’s actually the Natas that hunt her… you… both of you… that are the real problem.”

“I know what you mean about touchy-feely crap.” Onryo looked around the room and blinked away a tear. “Kasai usually handles this part.”

“So what is the relationship between you?” Onin asked.

“Here’s what I know.” Onryo folded her arms across her chest and took a deep breath. “Kasai and I are the same person, sorta.”

“Wait, what?” Tannin scratched his head. “Did I hear that right?”

Onin leaned back and blinked rapidly. How was that even possible?

“What’d’ya mean, ‘sorta’,” Cerina asked.

“From what I’ve been able to piece together, she’s half dragon.” Onryo wiggled her tail. “Thus the wings and tail. Apparently, she turns into me when she gets angry or threatened, or whatever. I don’t really understand it. She’s not aware of me and doesn’t even remember that she can transform. I guess a lot of the trauma of being hunted constantly and stuff made me as a defense mechanism, or something.”

“Why was she hunted all the time, anyway?” Onin asked.

“I don’t know.” Onryo shrugged. “I wasn’t around for the first several years. I think she transformed at will back then. Ever since then, we’ve been hunted by both people yelling nonsense like ‘kill the half-breed demon’ and the Natas. The Natas are the worst of the two.” She turned to Saija. “No offense.”

“None taken. I’m not a Natas now anyway, and I imagine they want me dead more than you.”

“I don’t even know what they want me for. Probably a super-powerful host. Or worse,” Onryo said.

“Probably worse.” Saija shuddered. “It’s always ‘worse’ with the Natas.”

“Yeah.”

They sat in silence again for a while, until Onin spoke. “So, what can we do for Kasai, and for you now?”

“I don’t know. Like I said, Kasai doesn’t know about me. She’s used to people screaming and running away after a lot less than you’ve all experienced. I want her to know all this and heal from the past, but I’m afraid that if I just go away now and everyone starts talking about it, it’ll make her worse.”

Onin drummed his fingers on his leg. How would Kasai react if they just told her about this? If someone said he’d done a bunch of stuff he didn’t remember, he probably wouldn’t believe him. Kasai would probably become even more withdrawn. She needed friends to help her get through this. Onin sighed. If he was going to be honest with himself, he liked Kasai and wanted to get to know her better, mental issues or not. Still, he didn’t know what to do about Onryo.

“I think everyone needs some time to digest this. How about we all go to bed, and discuss this tomorrow?” Onin said.

“Okay. But I can’t go back to Kasai’s dorm like this.” Onryo flicked her tail. “Her roommate is rather, ah… excitable.”

“Tell me about it.” Onin rolled his eyes. “How about you sleep on my couch, and Tannin and I can take Kasai home in the morning?”

Onryo nodded.

“What about me?” Saija asked. “The Inspector said I’m not supposed to be out unsupervised, or he’ll toss me in a jail cell.”

“Come on.” Cerina stood up and sighed. “You can stay in my dorm room. My roommate is gone most of the time anyway.”

dragon

Kasai was asleep on the couch when Onin got up the next morning. He sat in the chair next to the couch and poked her shoulder.

“Kasai, wake up.”

She mumbled something and cracked an eye open. She gasped and jumped up, her eyes jerked back and forth as she looked around.

“How did I get here?”

“Come on and sit down.” Onin moved over to the couch and patted the cushion next to him. “You’re safe here.”

Kasai sat, but drew her legs up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Onin lifted a hand toward her shoulder, then stopped and lowered it. He’d want a hug right now, but Kasai usually kept to herself. He didn’t want to scare her off.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Onin asked.

“We were at the archaeology building. The thieves broke in, we fought with them, it started to go bad, one of them swung a pipe or something at me, and everything went dark.” Kasai reached up and felt her head. She pulled her hand away and stared at it. “There’s not a bump or anything. What happened?”

“Has this ever happened before? Like say, the first time the thugs attacked us, or when we got into a fight with Saija?”

“No…” Kasai’s voice was low. Her eyes opened wide and she hugged her legs tighter. “Not you too…”

“Hey,” Onin reached out his hand. “I’m your friend. I’m not going anywhere. What’s wrong?”

Kasai slowly stretched out her hand. It trembled as she extended it to Onin. He took it and clasped it in both of his. Kasai took a deep breath.

“Did Onryo show up again?” she asked.

Onin nodded.

“This is what always happens. Whenever I’m in danger, or about to be killed, I black out. Sometimes for minutes, sometimes days. Apparently, Onryo shows up, destroys a bunch of stuff, and people blame me. After I wake up, people are afraid of me. They blame me for the destruction, and either kick me out of town, or try to kill me.”

“What about the monks?” Onin asked.

Kasai looked down at the floor. “When the monastery first took me in, everyone treated me kindly. After I’d been there a few weeks, a mob from a nearby village came to the monastery and demanded that the monks turn over the half-demon that burned their village down. The monks tried to hold them off, but they broke down the doors. I blacked out, and when I woke up all the monks except Brother Terrence treated me differently. They were still kind, but they didn’t smile when they saw me coming. Some of them even avoided me. Not even Brother Terrence would tell me what happened.”

She scooted over closer and turned to face Onin. “What happened to me? Please tell me.”

Onin stared into her green eyes. If he told her that she turned into Onryo, she might not want to have anything to do with him. But he couldn’t lie to her, either.

“Do you want the truth?” Onin swallowed. “Even if it’s hard to hear?”

She nodded.

“Okay.” Onin took a deep breath. “But remember, I’m telling you what I saw. I’m not making it up to hurt you, and I’ll be here for you and love you no matter what.”

Hmm. Perhaps ‘love’ wasn’t the right word, people misuse it so much. Hopefully Kasai knew what he meant.

Kasai nodded again and blinked a few times.

“So… How to say this the right way… You’ve kinda guessed that Onryo shows up when something really bad is about to happen, and you’re not aware of it, right?”

Another nod from Kasai.

“Well, when that thief swung at you, you rolled away, stood up, grew wings and a tail, and your hair and eye color changed.”

“You mean…” Kasai tried to pull away, but Onin held onto her hands. “I’m Onryo? I killed all those people?”

“No. You and Onryo are kinda the same person, but you didn’t kill anyone. The villagers were scared of something they didn’t understand, and it was the Natas that caused all the destruction.”

“So what am I? Some kind of half-monster, like everyone says? Insane?”

Tears started flowing down Kasai’s cheeks. Onin pulled her in and hugged her. Kasai clung to him as sobs shook her body.

“You’re not a monster. I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re one of the kindest, nicest people I know. You even won Cerina over.”

“I did?” Kasai looked up at him.

“Yeah. Well, she’s still a grump, but while you were… out… last night, she admitted that she unfairly blamed you for stuff that she now knows the Natas were responsible for.”

“So what do I do now? I don’t like not remembering things. How could I be her?”

“I don’t know. You can talk to me about it if you want to.” Onin took a deep breath. Kasai might literally and figuratively flee from this next suggestion. “Also, you might want to consider seeing a therapist. The whole not-remembering part makes me scared for you.”

Kasai’s body tensed up. What felt like an eternity later, she took a few deep breaths and wrapped her arms more tightly around him. “I don’t know. I’ve apparently got some issues, but that wouldn’t make someone grow wings and change their gift.” She jerked upright and looked into Onin’s eyes. “You won’t tell anyone will you? What if they want to dissect me or something?”

“I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to. I just want to help you.”

“Good.” She let out a breath and collapsed back onto his chest. “I know one of my issues is trust. I’m still afraid that you’ve already called someone, and they’re going to burst in here at any minute to kill me or something.”

Anger burned in Onin’s chest. “If anyone tries it, I’ll fight them off with you.”

Kasai was silent for a moment, then she sat up.

“So, if Onryo is part of me somehow, does she not remember about me?”

“She says she’s aware of you—”

“You’ve talked to her?” Kasai said.

“Yeah, last night. She was here the whole time you were unconscious. She said she’s aware of what you’re doing, and she comes out when you need to be protected. She was really quite concerned about you. Took forever to convince her she could trust us, and that we wouldn’t hurt you.”

“Wait, so she changed back into me right here?”

“No. Everyone else left, and Tannin and I went to bed, and when I woke up Onryo had changed back into you… or whatever…”

Kasai stared at the ground for a long time. When she finally spoke, her voice was so soft Onin barely heard her. “I don’t want to be broken. I don’t want to be a monster.”

“You’re not broken, and you’re not a monster.” Onin held out his hand and Kasai hugged him again. “Whatever happens, you’re not alone anymore. I’m here with you. I know Tannin and the others are, too.”

“Others?” Kasai pulled away, eyes wide. “Who all knows?”

“You… changed… right in front of Tannin, myself, Cerina, Saija, and Inspector Adamka. But I think the inspector was unconscious at the time. He never mentioned anything.”

“Saija saw?”

“Yeah. Surprisingly she was… unfazed… supportive… I’m not quite sure of the right word. In any case, she’s all for not telling anyone and helping you. She said that you were the first one to ever be nice to her, even though she was mean to you.”

A door closed, and Tannin shuffled into the living room a second later. He paused for half a second when he saw Kasai, then continued to the coffee machine.

“Hey, Kasai. Did you bring your history notes? I forgot to take any.”

Kasai smiled. “Thanks, Tannin.”

“Hmm?” Tannin poured himself a cup of coffee. “For what?”

“For pretending everything’s normal.”

Onin smiled. That was Tannin. Half the time he blurted out something stupid, and the other half he managed to say just the right thing. He stood and held out a hand to Kasai.

“Walk you to class?”

“Oh, right.” Kasai twirled her hair around her finger on her right hand and took Onin’s hand in her left.

Onin smiled as they left the room together.

dragon

Onin collapsed onto the couch. Physics class had been brutal. He didn’t need it for a criminal justice major, but figuring out how his servitors worked seemed like such a good idea when he’d signed up for classes. He was regretting that now.

He stood and got a glass of water from the sink, then pulled out his phone to check his e-mail.

“What?”

Onin read the newest e-mail again. It really was an invitation to come to the Matari Enclave for dinner. There was something about ‘both of you.’ He checked the address line. Kasai was also a recipient. What was going on? He punched in Kasai’s number.

“Hello?” Kasai sounded leery.

“Hi, Kasai. Got a minute?”

“Oh, hi, Onin!” Kasai’s voice sounded cheerful now. “Sure, what do you need?”

“Have you checked your e-mail?”

“No…”

“Well, check it quick, that’s what I’m calling about.”

The line was silent for about a minute.

“Huh,” Kasai said.

“So, do you know anything about the Matari?” Onin asked.

“Not really. Just the usual. They came to our planet a hundred years ago and keep to themselves. We don’t talk to them, they don’t talk to us, and everything you think you know is most likely a rumor.”

“Yeah, that’s about what I know, too.”

“So, why did they invite us to a formal dinner?”

“Formal?” Onin pulled up the e-mail again. How’d he miss that detail?

“So, are we going?”

“That’s why I called you. I’m really curious about why the Matari would invite us, of all people, for dinner, out of the blue like that.”

“Hmm.” Kasai was silent again. “Only one way to find out, I guess.”

“Yeah. Uh, meet me at the mall?”

“The mall?” Kasai sounded confused.

“Yeah. I have to rent a tux.”

“At the mall?” Kasai stretched the word mall out this time.

“Yeah. There’s a menswear shop there.” Onin held the phone out away from his head and raised an eyebrow at it. Where else would you get formal clothes?

“Jennifer says there’s a nice boutique downtown.”

“She’s there?” Onin felt his face flush. “How much did she overhear?”

“She heard ‘formal’, and she’s bouncing up and down with excitement. She’s been trying to get me to out to every social event on campus ever since I moved in. Reminds me of Tannin.”

Onin could imagine the look on Kasai’s face. She didn’t seem like the party type, and with her history, she had good reason to avoid the kind of ‘social event’ that most college kids would attend.

“Okay. I’ll meet you downtown, then.”

Onin stepped out of the dressing room. Kasai was still changing. They had arrived an hour ago, and Jennifer had whisked Kasai away to dress shop. Onin had tried on four tuxedos before he’d found one that fit everywhere. Eventually he’d figured out that he needed different sized pants and a jacket.

The door to the changing room across from him opened, and Kasai stepped out. Her hair was up and pinned in place. She wore a green low-cut gown that hugged her body, but still left something to the imagination.

“How do I look?”

Onin crossed the room and took her hand. “You look beautiful.”

She blushed. Onin held out his arm. She took it, and they left for the monorail station.

dragon

Onin and Kasai walked through the forest along the concrete path that lead to the Matari Enclave. They stopped at the guard tower outside the wall. The wall was at least a story tall, made of polished stone, and it stretched out as far as Onin could see on both sides. The guard tower was two stories tall, made from rougher stone, and set into the wall. A giant wooden double-door was set in the center of the tower, and gesaran guards stood on either side. Two windows were on the second story of the tower.

Onin approached one of the guards.

“Onin and Kasai from ABG.” He held out his phone with the invitation pulled up on the screen. “I believe we’re expected.”

“One moment, sir.” The guard pulled out a small tablet and poked at it. “Ah, yes, here you are. Please wait for the door to open and go right through.”

The guard held the tablet to his ear and said something into it. A moment later the doors swung open outward. A stone tunnel ran through the tower. Onin held out his arm for Kasai, and they entered.

The tunnel had lights set into the stone work at intervals along it. It ran for about a dozen yards, and ended with another set of double-doors. The area inside the enclave looked about the same as outside. Tall green pine trees, manicured lawn, and a path leading deeper into the forest. For some reason, Onin had been expecting something vastly different. Probably because little was known about the Matari. The doors closed behind them, and two guards stepped forward.

Onin’s breath caught in his throat. Now this was different. The guards were about the same size as a Gesaran, but they were covered with gray fur. Their heads looked more feline than Gesaran in appearance, with cat-ears and slit eyes.

“Greetings.” the one on the left inclined his head to them. “Welcome, Kasai and Onin, to the Matari Enclave. If you will follow the yellow path, it will lead you to the banquet hall.” He bowed and took a step back.

“Thank you,” Onin said.

Four paths branched off from the sidewalk in front of them. On one, the concrete was tinted blue, another red, the next green, and the last yellow. Onin and Kasai started down the yellow walk.

“Onin—” Kasai leaned in close to him and spoke in a low tone. “Something’s off with those guards.”

“Yeah, they’re not Gesaran.”

Kasai looked at him sideways. “You’ve been hanging around Tannin too much. That’s not what I meant.”

“Sorry. What’d you notice?”

“Well.” Kasai scratched the back of her neck. “Not so much notice as feel. I think I sensed some sort of kinetic activity.”

“They could’ve used telekinesis to open the doors.”

“I supposed that might have been it.” Kasai didn’t sound so sure.

“We’ll keep an eye out for anything strange. We don’t know much about the Matari. This strange feeling you’re getting might be normal for them.”

The yellow path ended in front of a large building. The architecture was as different as the building material. Various colors of stone and wooden beams were held together by sweeping arcs of a smooth of white metal. The building was roughly circular in shape, with a few arching protrusions that might be extra rooms. The whole thing looked as though it might be in flight. It reminded Onin of an artistic version of a spaceship.

Another Matari stood outside. He opened the door and bowed low as they approached.

“Thank you,” Onin said.

They stepped inside, and a single Matari was waiting for them. She was female—assuming they shared at least some anatomy with gesarans—and she wore a form-fitting white dress with a long train. She, like the three other Matari they had seen, wore no jewelry.

“Greetings. I fear my name is unpronounceable for gesarans, but you may call me Ambassador Miton. Come, dinner is waiting for us.”

She turned and led the way further into the building. The entryway they were in now was paneled in wood and had a bookshelf on one wall and a globe on a pedestal against the other. Onin glanced at it as they passed. The globe wasn’t Gesara. The continents were all wrong, and the ocean was much too small.

The next room had the same wood paneling. The floor was covered with tile arranged into a pattern. Onin couldn’t distinguish what the pattern was, as it was covered by the wooden dining table in the center of the room. The table had places set for three. A chandelier of different colors of glass dragons hung above the table.

Ambassador Miton crossed to the right side of the table and sat, leaving Kasai and Onin to sit next to each other across from her.

“Please, enjoy the food,” Ambassador Miton said.

The food was good, but nothing out of the ordinary. Grilled steak and steamed vegetables. Onin had almost expected to have some sort of oddly-colored alien dish. But then, the Matari had been here for quite a while, and if they didn’t bring any animals or plants, then of course they would eat the same sort of food as everyone else.

After everyone had finished eating, Ambassador Miton led them through yet another door into a sitting room. Wood paneling covered the walls here, too. The walls were lined with bookshelves. Two maroon couches were in the center of the room. The Ambassador took one, and indicated that Kasai and Onin should sit on the other.

“I imagine you’re wondering why you were invited here,” Ambassador Miton said.

“Yes, actually. The Matari have been secretive for so long, and then the two of us, out of all people, get an invitation out of nowhere,” Onin said.

“Allow me to explain. First, some history. Am I correct in the impression that you gesarans are not taught much of the history of how the Matari first came to this planet?”

Onin and Kasai both nodded.

“Ah, that is a shame, and yet it is partially our fault. The Matari were once a powerful force in the galaxy. We had a vast empire, and even more trading partners. Then, a species of spectral beings appeared in the galaxy. Some would call them spirits. Or demons. Their name for themselves is Natas.”

Kasai and Onin looked at each other.

“Yes, the very same as those that threaten you now.” Ambassador Miton inclined her head toward them. “They fought us. We were an even match for them, until they corrupted and made a pact with the guardians of a world called Alandra. With the help of these new allies, they broke our empire into fragments. We Matari were forced to flee our homeworld, and some of us found our way here. We enjoyed peace for a time until the Natas and their corrupted dragon allies found us. We had planned for this, however, and have helped your species reach its potential so you would have the capacity to defend yourselves against them.

“The Natas and their dragon allies are crafty, though. We have heard stories of a half-dragon, half-gesaran girl. Not knowing what to make of these stories, we have watched the Natas chase you, Kasai, and how you reacted to them. We have now determined that you are not working for the Natas, so we invited you here to interview you.”

“Me?” Kasai placed her hand on her chest. “You’ve been interested in me my whole life? Why haven’t you done something to help? The Natas chasing me has hurt hundreds of people.”

“We weren’t sure if you were working for or against the Natas. Some of us wanted to kill you just because of the possible threat you posed.”

Kasai flinched. Onin reached over and squeezed her hand.

“The majority of us, however, feel you are your own person and deserve the right to choose your own path. Will you follow Ard or the Natas?”

“The Natas are nothing but evil! And if you’ve been watching me, you’d know I was practically raised by monks of Ard.”

“The monks raise many, but not all choose the correct path.”

“So you’re just going to stand back and let people get hurt while you watch me?”

The Matari cocked her head to the side. “I think we are not communicating well. We Matari are still weak from our own war with the Natas. There isn’t much we can do without revealing ourselves to them and bringing destruction down on everyone on Gesara. If you had proved to be a threat, we could have eliminated you to prevent more death.”

“If you want to prevent more death, kill that Natas!”

“That is our intention. Such a thing is not easy, however. That is another question. How did you remove the Natas from the vessel you fought?”

“Saija?” Kasai looked over at Onin. “I, uh, don’t remember much of that.”

“We—all of us—injured the ‘vessel’, and the Natas left of its own accord, leaving her to die.” Onin shrugged. “That’s what Saija told us, and a monk friend of Kasai’s confirmed that was the case.”

“Ah.” Ambassador Miton’s ears lowered. “We had hoped a way had been found to eliminate the Natas without harming the vessel.”

“How do you kill a Natas, anyway?” Onin asked.

“If the vessel is killed quickly, the Natas will die. If the vessel is injured beyond repair and dies slowly, or if it is captured, the Natas can choose to leave. This process takes time, however, and weakens the Natas, so it is often a last resort.”

“If you will excuse me.” The ambassador stood and walked over to the door. “I must leave for a moment. We will contact you later to help you in your fight against the Natas. Someone will be along shortly to show you out. Goodnight, and be well.”

The ambassador stood, bowed, and left the room. Onin looked over at Kasai and raised an eyebrow.

He leaned over to stare at the door. “Is it just me, or was that weird?”

“Yeah.” Kasai shivered. “They ask us here, answer a few questions, and raise a whole lot more. It felt more like an examination than—” she shrugged. “Well, I don’t know what I was expecting from the invitation. What do we do now?”

“I don’t know.” Onin sighed. “Wait to be shown out? I don’t think we want to start a fight with them, too.”

Kasai pulled her mouth to the side and twirled her hair around her finger. “Yeah, I guess.”

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