His day started off normally enough. Yukio was out of town investigating a youkai sighting, so Xavier's morning of helping Sumiko around the wayhouse was uninterrupted. After refilling yet more baskets full of rocks from the storage shed in the southwest corner of the building and dozing lightly through the early afternoon, Xavier set out alone through Henka to meet Kahina. While he was still apt to get lost in much of the town, he was comfortable finding his way to the town square and back as well as making his way to and from the oversized one-room building that Kahina was living in.
Today they were heading over to the north edge of the town, where the townsfolk were working to rebuild some of the homes that were wrecked by a wandering youkai. From what he could gather, rather than build walls, the outermost homes in the town were simply unoccupied aside from a token contingent of warrior hopefuls who lived on the edges of town and performed the task of sentries. When a youkai inevitably smashed some of the houses up, they would be rebuilt a few weeks later.
Kahina was often invited to help clear buildings, since with the help of someone who could easily reach the top of a wall it was a lot easier to shore up walls that were otherwise likely to collapse, or to move large chunks of adobe without needing to break them up first. Xavier had accompanied her on a couple similar excursions in the past; although he was even less use for shifting rubble than the bakuhito, he was able to help Kahina work longer and with less pain.
As usual, Kahina was waiting near the well that Xavier had learned was only a few houses away from the building the elders had given her to live during her stay.
«Good morning, Zabi-san,» Kahina greeted Xavier in her basso rumble.
«Good morning, Kahina-san,» said Xavier, and without prompting approached her and grabbed her right hand. As usual, he felt a sudden indescribable rush of Vigor, and Kahina sighed deeply. «Shall we go?»
No matter how many times he did it, walking hand-in-hand with Kahina was always a strange experience. She was so tall that her regular sized arm only hung down to around the level of his head, so Xavier always felt like a little kid walking with his parent; a feeling that was exacerbated by the fact that she took one stride to every two of his. He'd been desperately uncomfortable and embarrassed the first time she'd taken his hand and strode off, but despite making a doubtless comical duo, the bakuhito that they met were always universally friendly and respectful, often going so far as to make way for Kahina and bow to her as she went past.
Xavier wasn't entirely sure yet what was going on there. He'd tried to ask Yukio, but it had sent him off into a half hour rant about politics in the greater world—as far as Xavier could tell, anyway. He only caught about one word in fifty. He'd also tried asking Sumiko, but was unable to get his point across; perhaps because she had never met and simply wasn't much interested in Kahina. Or perhaps she just misunderstood what Xavier was asking, since she ended up telling him a story about Anteans. Evidently they were a famous race of giants living on the coast somewhere to the west.
Perhaps Kahina was a princess or something. Finding a princess in an unexpected place would certainly be standard manga fare.
The two arrived at the edge of town to discover a medium-sized work party already assembled. The buildings had already been cleared of rubble, so Kahina and Xavier were put to work carting adobe bricks and mud for mortar from a shallow pit about five minutes' walk further into Henka.
The howling started on one of these trips when the two were partway back to the perimeter from fetching building materials. Xavier froze in place as the first sounds rose on the air. The howling was eerie; clearly lupine, but with a timbre that was ever-so-slightly off. Clearly these were sounds coming from bakuhito throats rather than actual wolves. The howls started from ahead, but quickly spread deeper into the town.
«What is that?» Xavier turned to Kahina, but found her stock still, face serious as she stared hard enough that he could almost believe she could see over the roofs of the houses, although he knew she wasn't quite that tall.
«That alarm started near the construction site. Zabi-san, get to safety.» Without further explanation, Kahina lay the cross-bar of the wagon she'd been dragging down and sprinted toward where the rest of their team was working.
Xavier hesitated for a split second, but then took off after Kahina. He'd never heard anything like this, even on days when he had later learned that a youkai had attacked the town. Odds were good he wouldn't be any help, but trying to run the other way would just get him lost.
Plus Kahina had said something about safety, and she was the safest person to be around he knew.
The Antean swiftly outpaced him, and for almost a minute Xavier found himself running alone as the howling around him continued. Oddly, he didn't pass any bakuhito but with his adrenaline surging he didn't think anything of it.
A little over a minute later, he hurtled around the final corner and the edge of the town came into sight. He almost ran into Kahina, who was backing up toward him fast.
«Mononoke!» he heard someone scream. «Get back!»
As he dodged right to avoid running straight into Kahina's back, the scene snapped into startling clarity.
The workers and Kahina were fleeing back into the town, their gazes locked on what appeared to be some sort of plant writhing in the middle of the open space immediately in front of the house they had been working on.
As Xavier emerged out from behind Kahina, he saw the plant's tendrils flex and he somehow knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was going to hurl itself at Kahina.
There was no time for thought; Xavier threw himself forward at the same moment that the plant-thing did, and they collided a foot or two in front of Kahina in a tangle of thorny vines and flailing limbs.
For the next few moments Xavier and a plant waged furious battle. Its limbs or vines or roots or whatever they were lashed around him and he in turn tore them off his arms, legs, and torso leaving bloody scratches behind where small thorns on the thing dug into his exposed skin.
«Help me!» he yelled, but no one was forthcoming.
Although the plant's vines were whipping all over the place, there did appear to be a limited number of them, and when Xavier's left hand found the central stalk of the thing, he was able to pull the bulk of its body away from his chest, giving him leverage to break and tear the vines that were stuck to his clothes and skin. When he was able to apply pressure near the stalk of the plant and twist in opposite directions, the vines tended to snap, and soon he was almost free, the fight seeming to go out of the plant-monster.
He was about to try hurling the whole thing to the ground and see if stomping on it might free him of the last few clinging vines when he heard something that stopped him dead in his tracks.
"Wait, please wait!" called a plaintive voice, and Xavier immediately froze in shock.
That was English.