Styx: 005

The village was a large collection of rectangular buildings made out of what appeared to be adobe bricks, arranged in a rough circle. Xavier's first sight of the outermost buildings gave him the impression that the buildings were arranged without any rhyme or reason since they were all composed of perfect ninety-degree angles individually but at completely odd angles compared to one another. The approach the group of animal people took brought them past several buildings with wrecked walls and shattered ceilings. Xavier glanced curiously inside as they passed, but aside from rubble the buildings were completely empty.

As they wended their way toward the village center, curious animal people of all different species began to emerge, and a gaggle of children tagged along and generally got underfoot, shouting excited questions at the group that Xavier couldn't interpret.

A set of three young wolf people—or dog people? He still wasn't clear on that—were the first to notice Xavier. He'd been walking wrapped in his now-thoroughly dirty bedsheets, but had let them drop away from his head in order to look around.

«Neko-kun, what's that? Did you capture a human?!» shouted the most boisterous of the three, and although he was still far from fluent that was one word that Xavier had definitely learned to pick out.

«Yes. I am human,» he responded.

The three wolf cubs shrieked and scattered, sending Yukio into a fit of laughter when they immediately circled around the goat people and began stalking Xavier from the side.

«Zabi-kun, you're the first human they've seen in their whole lives,» said Yukio. «Give them a smile and a wave, why don't you?»

At this point, Xavier had finally landed on the proper way to deal with Yukio. Smile and agree. «Yes. I am human.»

That cracked up Yukio for a second time, so evidently he hadn't picked up on what was going on as well as he'd thought.

The group arrived at a large open space in the center of the town after several minutes of walking, at this point trailing quite the entourage of diverse animal people. When they arrived, the group gradually began to spread apart as individuals socialized with the townsfolk, although Yukio kept close to Xavier. Since he was only catching about one word in a hundred, Xavier used the time to study the town he'd ended up in.

At the center of the open space in which the animal people had congregated was a large wheel whose teeth were engaged with a chain that looped over its top and down into the ground. Attached to the chain were a series of what appeared to be buckets, and Xavier assumed the contraption was some form of well. There was a trough wrapping around from one side of the well, but the other was an open area dominated by a vertical post.

Beyond the well was the largest building Xavier had seen in the town yet; it stretched across a good portion of one side of the open space, which resulted in its overall shape being like a rounded bowl laid on its side: flat on the top and round elsewhere. The rest of the buildings around the square seemed to be private dwellings, based purely on the number of individuals and families emerging from them.

The townsfolk were even more diverse than the group that had rescued Xavier. He spotted a sizable number of wolf or dog people, but there were also numerous types of birds, a scattering of lizard people with scales visible on their faces, more goat people including a sizable pack of children cavorting around without apparent supervision, a wide array of people with various mammalian features Xavier couldn't place, and even one individual with chitinous skin and a scattering of shiny globules across their forehead that Xavier was fairly certain were eyes.

«Zabi-kun, Zabi-kun!» said Yukio, pulling Xavier's focus away from the crowd. «The elder says you can stay in the wayhouse. C'mere, let me introduce you to Sumiko-san. Uh…Zabi-kun. Come with. Over there.»

Oh! Yukio wanted him to go somewhere. Man, that might have been the first time he actually understood the irrepressible cat boy. He dutifully followed Yukio through the crowd to a girl with rounded animal ears and what was clearly a raccoon mask across her eyes. Wait, what was the Japanese animal that manga were always translating as "raccoon" or "raccoon dog"? Tanuki, wasn't it?

Yukio pointed to the girl. «This is Sumiko. Zabi-kun, Sumiko.»

«Hello, it is nice to meet you. My name is Xavier.»

«Pleased to meet you,» said the girl in a quiet voice. «Ekusu…Ettsu…»

Yukio let out one of his strange coughing laughs. «Don't hurt yourself, Sumiko-san. I just call him Zabi-kun. He barely understands anything, anyway. He's a human we found just outside the Deadlands, of all places. Well, really he found us; stumbled right into the middle of our showdown with that youkai!»

«Is it alright if I call you Zabi-kun?» asked the girl, with a small smile toward Yukio.

«Uh,» said Xavier. He wasn't quite sure what she'd asked him. Something about speaking? Ah, maybe she was asking what to call him. «Yes, yes, Zabi-kun. Uh, Sumiko-san?» Ugh, why could he never remember how the damn hierarchies worked in Japanese? Hopefully "san" was polite enough; it was weird how no one had used a surname with him so far. He'd thought referring to people by their surname was the Japanese thing. «Is…uh…tanuki?»

Yukio sounded like he was coughing up a hair ball he was laughing so hard. Evidently Xavier messed that one up somehow.

Sumiko looked embarrassed. «I'm a raccoon bakuhito, Zabi-kun.»

«Geez, dude, you just met her and the first thing you do is call her a tanuki? What's next, gonna ask Rokuro if he's a dog? Oh, I would pay to see the look on his face!»

«Don't listen to Yukio-kun,» said Sumiko, whacking the cat boy upside the head in a lightning-fast move that made Xavier jump. She turned her attention to Yukio. «I take it Zabi-kun is staying at the wayhouse?»

«Yep! We've got ourselves a human. Would you get him settled? I have to go debrief with the elders, and Zabi-kun is dead on his feet. Oh! And if you touch him, he'll probably siphon Vigor. It feels a little funny, but it's totally harmless. He can't seem to get ahold of anything beyond reserves, and best we can tell it's involuntary.»

«Siphons…?» Sumiko shook herself. «I'll ask in the morning; Hisao-san is looking for you.»

«Ah, you're right! Alright, Zabi-kun, go with Sumiko-san for now, 'kay? I'll see you in the morning! No, you need to stay. Stay! Uh, with Sumiko-san!»

Xavier watched Yukio scamper off through the crowd and tried not to dissolve into panic. The cat boy was almost entirely unintelligible, but he was one of the few familiar faces Xavier had in this world. A touch on his arm brought his attention back to Sumiko, who removed her hand and flexed her fingers.

«Yukio-kun wasn't kidding. How strange. Zabi-kun, please come with me. Mm, food, sleep. Come.»

On the other hand, Sumiko seemed nice, and Xavier caught just enough of that to understand that she was offering somewhere to sleep and something to eat. With a final backwards glance after the cat boy who had already slipped out of sight through the crowd, Xavier followed Sumiko across the  open space and back into the warren of buildings.

After a walk that was just long enough to leave the sounds of the crowd behind, Sumiko led Xavier to a building that was larger than most of the other dwellings.

«Welcome to the Isei Wayhouse. After you.»

Xavier entered to discover a moderately-sized entry room with three hallways branching off from the far end. As Sumiko led him down the rightmost hallway, she pointed to parts of the house and quietly named them.

«Common room. North wing. Cactus, or plant.»

Xavier liked her better than Yukio already. He remembered the grammar for Japanese, but was severely lacking in both vocabulary and any exposure to forms of address that weren't ultra-polite. Sumiko's running quiet commentary on their surroundings was far more useful than Yukio's endless nattering.

Plus she fed him the first real meal he'd had since arriving in this world. When she got out actual bread, Xavier almost cried.