Onin set his test down and smiled at it. And they said college would be harder than high school. He started to scan back down the paper to double-check his work when he heard a huffing sound behind him.
“Uh-oh,” he said.
He turned in time to see Zinako close her eyes and draw her head back. Students around her scrambled to get out of the way. Onin started to lift his arm, but he was too late.
The sneeze erupted from Zinako’s tiny frame and flung her backward and through the wall.
“I’ve got her!” Onin yelled.
He raised his hand, palm out, and generated a ball of crackling white light twice as large as his head. It separated from his palm and flew out the hole in the wall.
At the front of the room, Professor Jekao stood and walked over to the opposite wall. He stood in front of a large paper with the number “29” on it. Underneath, it read “… days without a student Gifting incident.” He sighed and pulled the paper off the wall.
A low groan came from behind Onin. He turned around and stared at his roommate, Tannin.
“There goes our free doughnuts,” Tannin muttered.
“That’s what you’re concerned about?” Onin waved at the hole in the wall. “What about Zinako?”
“Eh, she’ll be fine. Your–” he waggled his hand “–thingy will get her.”‘
“I’ve told you before, it’s called a servitor, and that’s not the point!”
A hum filled the room and the ball of white light rose into view through the hole. Energy tendrils dangled from it and supported Zinako. The ball floated into the room, set the girl down, and dispersed into a thousand pinpricks of light with a slight pop.
“See, she’s fine,” Tannin said.
Onin slapped his forehead with the palm of his right hand.
“All right everyone, excitement’s over, back to your tests,” Professor Jekao said.
Onin walked out of his last class of the day and slumped against the wall. Six months into his first year on campus, and he still wasn’t sure if a full load was harder than dual-enrollment.
“Hey, Onin, did you hear about the party tonight?”
Onin cracked an eyelid at the sound of Tannin’s voice. “You know I have to work.”
“Bah, you scholarship kids!” Tannin batted a strand of blonde hair out of his eyes and leaned up against the wall next to Onin. “Always worrying about your grades. And what’s this ‘money’ thing you’re always going on about?”
Onin raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you have student loans?”
“Yeah, they pay me to go here, great, isn’t it?”
“You do know that’s not how it works, right?”
Onin shook his head, pushed off the wall, and headed to the doorway. Same old Tannin. The kid would get a massive shock when those loans came due. Well, knowing Tannin, he’d probably just ignore the bill.
Footsteps sounded behind him.
“So, are you going to the party or not?”
“Don’t you have to work, too?”
The footsteps stopped.
“Oh, yeah. Maybe I can call in sick…”
Onin kept walking. “I’m not making any more excuses for you.”
Onin shook his head and kept walking. Three hallways and two flights of stairs later, they arrived at the loading docks. Tannin had somehow kept quiet the entire way there. That was the longest Onin had heard him go without saying anything. Great, now he’d be brooding for the rest of the night.
The locker room was empty. Onin pulled his phone out and checked the time. Ah. They were a few minutes early. He changed into his work shirt and stuffed the backpack into his locker. He didn’t wait for Tannin. He’d done that his first day on the job and had been late clocking in by the time his friend had finished changing.
“Hey, Sam,” Onin waved to his boss. He swiped his ID into the time clock. “What do we have tonight?”
Sam grinned. “New countertops for the cafeteria.”
“Aw, come on!” Tannin’s voice echoed from the changing room. He entered the office with his shirt still unbuttoned. “You know what that means, we get to load the old countertops tomorrow!”
“Quit whining and get to work. The hover truck is already here and waiting,” Sam said.
He led the way through the double doors out to the loading bay.
“Oh, we’ve got more help, too,” he called over his shoulder.
Tannin was still whining about something. Onin ignored him and pushed his way through the doors. Curious. Despite the decent pay, most people didn’t want to work on the docks. He’d better get a quick look at the new guy before Tannin wanted to bet on how long he’d last.
He stopped short. A steady stream of packages floated out of the truck and into the bay. A girl in jean shorts and a black tank top sat in a chair a few feet from the truck. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her nose was buried in a book.
Onin gaped at her for a moment.
“Wait,” he said. “We can use our gifts to move cargo?”
Sam chuckled, and Onin thought he saw the girl grin.
“As long as it doesn’t wear you out.” Sam shrugged. “It’s not like it’s illegal or something.”
“Yeah.” Onin rubbed the back of his neck. “I keep forgetting that. Giftings aren’t as common out in the country. Sometimes it almost feels like it.”
The girl looked up. “You’re not from the city?”
Her voice had an almost lyrical quality. She had an oval face and the most beautiful green eyes Onin had ever seen.
He opened his mouth to say something. At that same instant, Tannin burst into the room.
“Hey, what’s a girl doing out here?” he said.
Onin reached back and slapped his friend upside the head.
“Outworking both of you slackers,” Sam said. He grabbed a clipboard off the wall and headed over to check in the already unloaded cargo.
“Oh, yeah,” Onin said.
He raised both hands above his head and concentrated. White spheres of crackling energy grew out of his palms and rose a few feet in the air. They drifted around in front of him and hovered there for a moment, as if they were listening to his thoughts. Both spheres suddenly shot out and into the back of the hover truck. They emerged a few moments later, each with a crate hanging from energy tendrils.
“Hey!” Tannin stopped next to Onin and punched him in the arm. “That’s cheating!”
Onin rolled his eyes. “He’s just jealous. Anyway, that’s Tannin, and I’m Onin.”
The girl glanced up at him again. “Kasai.”
She raised her book again. Onin stuffed his hands in his pockets. Was she the unsociable, loner type, or just shy? He shrugged and concentrated on unloading the hover truck.
An hour later, they had everything unloaded, and in another two hours the crates were unboxed and ready for the construction crew to pickup and install.
“Good work, people. See you here tomorrow night,” Sam said.
“Woo! Freedom!” Tannin yelled. “I’m gonna go see if that party’s still going on. Wanna come?”
“Nope,” Onin said.
“That’s what you always say. Why not?”
“You know I hate parties–“
“Yeah, yeah, too loud,” Tannin make air-quotes as he said ‘loud’ “–as if there’s such a thing.”
“And I have to study, and I have a morning class tomorrow.”
“Whatever. See ‘ya.” Tannin waved, and turned and winked at Kasai. “See you tomorrow, too, cutie.”
“Ew.” She shuddered. “Did he just…”
“Eh, ignore him.” Onin grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. “He’s an idiot. He’s a good guy, deep down. Somewhere. He just runs his mouth all the time without thinking.”
Kasia shuddered and wrapped her arms farther around her waist. They left the building and walked down the street.
“Um, you don’t really have to walk me home,” Kasai said.
“Hmm?” Onin turned his head to look at her. “Oh, I didn’t mean to… I uh, my dorm’s down this way. King’s Hall.”
“Oh. I guess I’m right across the street from you,” Kasai said.
They walked in silence for the next several yards. Around the corner, the wind picked up. Onin wrapped his jacket around himself. He glanced over at Kasai. She still wore the black tank top and shorts.
“Aren’t you cold?” he asked.
She shrugged. A few steps later she spoke again.
“Not really. I’m never cold.” She was silent for a few more steps. “They tell me I have a latent fire talent.”
Onin stopped. “Really?”
No one had more than one talent. Sure, some of them you could use in more than one way, but…
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” Kasai stomped on ahead of him.
“I’m sorry.” Onin ran to catch up with her. “I didn’t mean… anything. Forgive me?”
Kasai stopped and turned to stare at him. It was the first time the whole night she’d actually looked at him. For that matter, it was the first time she’d really looked anyone in the eye the whole night.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that…” Kasai’s voice trailed off, and she turned and started walking again. Onin matched her pace. “I grew up in the country.”
She stated it like it was all the explanation needed. For city dwellers, the statement would just be confusing.
“I did too,” Onin said.
She didn’t say anything, but she shot him a half-smile over her shoulder.
Something crashed into him before he could think of anything else to say. Onin landed hard on the concrete and rolled up into a crouch. A fist filled his field of vision with someone looming behind it.
Onin shoved his palm out toward it and pushed out with his gift. A ball of white light formed and slammed into his assailant. The thug hit the ground and rolled away. In the light cast off by the servitor Onin could see four black-garbed men spread out around him. Kasai was nowhere in sight. He held his hands out and generated two more, larger servitors.
“Find Kasai,” he snapped to the one on his right.
The ball of light condensed to twenty percent of it’s former volume, turned blue, and zipped off. The larger of the two remaining servitors arced a lance of energy over to the other, which grew to the same size. The two of them started to orbit around Onin.
All four of the thugs drew energy weapons and started to fire at Onin. The servitors zipped around to intercept each shot. The thugs spread out and laid down an complicated firing pattern. Onin dropped to a crouch to minimize his profile and darted around, dodging shots.
These guys weren’t ordinary thugs. Some of them were targeting his core, and others his limbs. They were trying to get the servitors to spread out so they could sneak a shot past them. One of the energy beams didn’t get intercepted and hit Onin on his left forearm.
A blueish-white healing beam arced out of the closest servitor and washed over his arm. Onin pointed his finger, and lightning erupted from both servitors, melting the thugs energy weapons. Onin was about to have the servitor capture the thugs when a blast of orange fire as large as a bus came out of nowhere and slammed into one of them.
Onin jumped back and looked around. A girl with flaming red-orange hair, and the wings and tail of a dragon stood off to his right.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Shut up pretty-boy, or I’ll barbecue you when I’m done with these scum.” She didn’t even look at him as she spoke.
“It’s her, fire!” one of the thugs said.
They turned as one, drew more weapons, and fired on the new girl. She jumped up and wrapped blue flames around herself. The energy beams from the weapons were soaked up and the flames flared. It was like adding gas to… well, a fire.
Motion in his peripheral vision distracted Onin. As he turned, the thug who’d been hit by the first fire blast raise to his feet. Fire-proof clothing. They knew this flame giftling would be here. What was he getting involved in? And where had Kasai gone? The servitor should have found her by now. He shook his head. Deal with these thugs first, then worry about all that.
The flame giftling was all over the place, jumping, rolling, and… was she flying? Onin had seen a few flame giftlings at school, but none of them with this girl’s power. She was soaking up energy blasts, and shooting fire everywhere. One of the thugs pulled out another weapon. He sent a servitor over, but the thug pulled the trigger first. A loud bang sounded. The flame gifting jerked her head up and white light exploded out of her. A heatwave radiated and knocked Onin to the ground. The thugs dropped their weapons and ran.
Onin felt the healing beam from a servitor wash over him. He stood, blinked his eyes and looked around. The thugs were gone. The flame gifting was lowering herself out of he sky to stand on the rim of a crater in the pavement that still glowed red.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She dropped to the ground and smirked. “What, you’re not going to run away from me, too?”
Onin shook his head. “Nope. Looks to me like they were giftling hunters. If you were a criminal, they would have identified themselves to me and asked for my assistance. More importantly, I have to find out what happened to the girl that was here before they attacked.”
She walked over and looked Onin over.
“You’re cute. I like you.” She smiled and took a step closer. “My name’s Onryo. Don’t worry, Kasai’s fine.”
She came even closer. “Be her friend. She needs one.” She leaned in and whispered in his ear. “But if you ever hurt her, I’ll burn you to ash.”
She kissed his cheek and stepped away. “Bye. See you around, cutie.”
A curtain of smoke blew out from around her and obscured the street. One of the servitors sent out a thousand tendrils of light and absorbed the smoke. The flame gifting was gone.
The blue seeker servitor zipped around the corner and stopped inches from his face. It flashed on and off, then drifted back around the corner. Onin skirted the crater and ran after it. A familiar looking set of arms and legs dangled out the top of a broken crate. Onin ran over.
“Here,” she said.
Onin grasped her hand and helped her upright.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Kasai looked down and brushed dirt and sawdust flakes off her shirt. Onin tried not to pay too much attention to her curves.
“I think so. What happened? We were talking, and then something slammed into me, and I woke up in a crate.”
Onin waved and a servitor ran a healing beam over Kasai.
“Well, you’re not injured,” he said.
“It can do more than carry stuff?” Kasai said, pointing to the servitor.
“Yeah.” Onin looked around. “As to what happened, a flame gifting named Onryo showed up and wasted the guys who attacked us.”
Kasai froze and carefully avoided looking at Onin.
“I need to go home. I’m really tired.”
“Okay.” Onin peered at Kasai. “Do you know something about this Onryo or those thugs?”
“I’ve never seen her. I need to get to bed. Thanks for caring about my wellbeing.”
Kasai gave him a stiff wave, and a smile that was stiffer yet, and walked off. Something else was going on here.