"Alright, Princess," said Xavier, cringing inwardly at the name. "You were about to tell me why getting siphoned of Vigor would allow you to think for yourself instead of being some sort of parasitic killing machine."
"Right, yeah. Right. Um. Have you ever heard of Yggdrasil?"
"Yggdrasil? Isn't that Norse mythology or something?"
"Well, I'm not sure what this 'Norse' thing is about—"
«Did you say Yggdrasil, Zabi-kun?»
Xavier started. He hadn't heard Sumiko enter, but she was standing quietly near the wall just outside of his peripheral vision.
"Uh—" he paused to shift gears. «Yes, the mono—Princess was just saying something about it. I don't know what it is, though.» Aside from a mythological tree in his own world.
«You named the mononoke Princess?»
«Ah, well it—»
«—sorry, I mean she picked it.»
«You really are able to talk to it,» said Sumiko. She sounded almost…sad? Xavier wasn't sure what emotion he was picking up on, and he didn't get a chance to dwell on it before Sumiko briskly moved to join him at the table. «And what is the mononoke's relationship to Yggdrasil?»
«She hasn't told me what Yggdrasil even is, yet.»
"Was," said Princess in a quiet voice. "What Yggdrasil was."
«What do the bakuhito say of Yggdrasil, Sumiko-san?» Xavier started a second time and twisted in place to discover that Kahina had slipped into the room and was sitting on the floor near the doorway. «Zabi-san evidently is not familiar, and I have not had a chance to hear the bakuhito account yet.»
«The mononoke doesn't mind if I describe it?» asked Sumiko, with a look to Princess.
The flower bowed its head to her and waved a vine. "Tell her to go ahead. If I'm going to be coexisting with these late-comers, I need to know what they believe anyway, so that saves time."
Sumiko evidently understood without Xavier needing to relay the message. «Very well. I will try to describe it the way my mother did to me.» Sumiko closed her eyes for a moment, and then began. «Before the desert, before Ai-tousama walked the earth, before even the moon hung in the sky there was Yggdrasil. It is said that when a tree reaches its hundredth year it becomes a kami. When it reaches its thousandth year, it may become a great kami. And if it could reach its ten-thousandth year, perhaps it could become a kami such as Yggdrasil. Of the seven great kami, Yggdrasil was the strongest, and its roots reached to the center of the world while its branches held up the heavens.»
She paused, then scrunched up her face. «Honestly, I know lots of stories about Ai-tousama, but Yggdrasil doesn't really come up much.» She turned to Xavier. «The great kami was destroyed a little over two thousand years ago, and the first bakuhito weren't born until a few hundred years later when the area was already turning into the Tachigare Desert. Does the Confederacy have a different story, Kahina-san?»
«Well, it's maybe a little less lyrical, but no. I was merely curious if there were any differences, since you live right about where the tree was rumored to grow.»
«We've never been much concerned with trees,» said Sumiko, sounding wistful. «So, mononoke, how are you related to Yggdrasil?»
"We were the kami's offspring, of sorts. It created us to act as liaisons with trusted lesser kami, and grow its own supply of—what was it you called it? Vigor? That's not a very good name, by the way."
«She says that the mononoke were children of Yggdrasil who helped increase its Vigor.»
«Seeds of Gaia,» breathed Kahina, leaning forward with an intense look on her face. «I wondered, when I heard mononoke described by bakuhito if the two were the same thing. Guess I was right.»
«Yes, I've heard that term before,» said Sumiko with disgust. «We get a few insane kami-wishers every few years who think they actually want to find a mononoke. Idiots.»
«What is Gaia?» asked Xavier.
«Just another term for Yggdrasil,» said Kahina. «It's common in many of the southwest Confederate States.»
Xavier was curious about this Confederacy, but one problem at a time. «So why does my siphoning Vigor allow you to speak?»
"When Yggdrasil fell, we lost our outlet, our support, our reason for being," said Princess quietly. "After a few years, the Vigor built up to the point where it—well, I guess it just fuzzed out our brains a bit, yeah? We all of us got stuck with not much more than basic instinct pushing us on. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if Yggdrasil was maintaining some sort of low-level drain at all times, or maybe the years of channeling Vigor without any outlet physically changed us. You're such a glutton, though, that you actually drained off my excess enough that I regained consciousness."
Xavier paraphrased that as best he could for Sumiko and Kahina, although all this language context switching was giving him a headache.
«That's all very well and good,» said Sumiko, leaning toward Princess with a feral smile. «We've always known that mononoke benefit from their hosts, even if in this case your normal approach to taking hosts failed. But how does Zabi-kun benefit from having you around, mononoke? Why shouldn't I pay you back for all the bakuhito we have lost at the hands of the monstrosities you've no doubt ridden and save him the burden?»
Princess hunkered down on the tabletop and even Xavier pulled back slightly. Sumiko was generally a very peaceful person, so this sudden suggestion of aggressive violence was a huge surprise. Although— "She has a good point. What exactly am I getting out of protecting you?"
"You wouldn't hurt a helpless flower, would you?!"
"From everything I've heard and seen, it seems like mononoke have been the source of a lot of suffering and death. And for what, two thousand years? How old are you?"
"I already told you not to ask a lady her age!" snapped Princess. "And yes, I probably have caused a lot of suffering by elevating creatures to kami faster than their minds can handle over the years, but this is the first time since my world ended that I was able to think about it coherently enough to feel guilty! Please don't—don't make me go back to that. I really can't—I just—" Princess paused for several seconds, until the trembling that had overcome her central stalk died down. "Anyway, you're a fan of not dying, right? And I can certainly help you with that. Honestly, I'm a little surprised you survived this long without me."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Have you been siphoning Vigor from these animals frequently, then? Because I have to tell you, you are sucking down Vigor at an absolutely stunning rate. I've been watching the absorption levels, and I'm fairly certain you would die if you went for a couple days without siphoning off Vigor from someone. I've never seen anything quite like it."
«What is the mononoke saying?» asked Sumiko, who had been watching its every twitch.
«Ah, sorry. Princess says that I would die if I didn't siphon Vigor for a few days, and she can prevent that.»
Sumiko sat back, looking surprised. «Oh. That's a good point, actually. Mononoke do certainly increase Vigor.»
«Do you think maybe if I keep Princess around I'd be able to transfer heat from rocks myself then?»
"You want to manipulate Vigor? Are you crazy? There's no way. I've been pouring excess into you since you started trying to break my arms off, and the pull hasn't slowed one bit. But, uh, I'm still totally useful! Please don't let the scary tanuki girl kill me!"
"I already told you, she's a racoon. It's a good thing Sumiko-san can't hear you."
«If you can find a way to keep it secret, the mononoke could be very valuable to you if you ever visit the Confederacy,» broke in Kahina. «Some of my fellows would be very interested in communicating with a being that was alive for Yggdrasil's destruction, and there are always the kami-seekers. Although, revealing its existence to any of them would quite dangerous.»
Now that was interesting. Xavier had been wondering how he was going to be able to make his way in the broader world, since although the bakuhito had been very good to him, it was blindingly obvious that none of them would have the slightest idea how he might have arrived from another world or how me might go back. Perhaps someone beyond the borders of the desert might have a better idea, and having a living source of knowledge of ancient history could open a lot of doors. Assuming he could figure out a way to travel out of this damn desert, that is.
Plus the way this mononoke dropped into his lap, he was fairly certain it was an obligatory manga powerup. Maybe Princess would turn out to be wrong and he'd be working magic himself in no time…
"Yeah, uh, also talking to old guys," said Princess. "I can handle that like a total boss. Sooooo we all friends here? Yeah? Friends, definitely. Maybe tell the ta—racoon girl that she can stop dissecting me with her eyes?"
Xavier laughed. Yes, he could certainly do that. «Sumiko-san, you said something about dinner?»