The next morning, Sumiko woke Xavier up bright and early to go meet the elders. Once again Xavier found himself on an uncomfortable wooden bench, but there was a big difference this time: the stands were absolutely packed. Despite the early hour, everywhere except the seats closest to Xavier were full to bursting with bakuhito.
Kahina, Sumiko, and about half of the wolf squadron that had been keeping an eye on him were the only ones sitting in the lower levels directly behind him, and aside from Princess—who remained on his shoulder—Xavier was the only one in the hotseat.
He kind of missed having Yukio there. Especially because the final difference between his first encounter with the elders and this one was that he understood almost all of what they were saying, and it was frankly terrifying.
«Who cares if the mononoke is supposedly talking to him?» shouted an old wolf. «He's probably just lying in hopes he'll reach kami before we can deal with him! Don't you see that this explains why he was in the Deadlands in the first place? He was hunting for a mononoke like every human who has come through Henka before him!»
«Kill the pair and be done with it,» growled a second wolf. «It's not worth the risk.»
«Idiots!» hissed one of the lizard bakuhito. «If it's true he can communicate with the monster, then he might be communicating with a creature that was alive in the age of Yggdrasil! I agree he's too dangerous to live, but we absolutely must try communicating with it before taking rash action. With the proper precautions—»
«What precautions could possibly work against a bonded mononoke?» broke in one of the goats.
«The wayhouse keeper insists that he isn't bonded,» interjected Sadao. «Which is unprecedented. Clearly something is unusual in this case.»
«Oh, well if it's unusual then by all means throw out two thousand years' worth of historical evidence of mononoke running amok,» said a bakuhito that appeared to be part bird of prey.
Xavier wasn't sure how long the shouting match would continue, but Princess swiveled her head towards the door behind him which made him realize that something was going on outside.
«—us through!» he heard a voice boom, and then the doors to the room were thrown violently open.
To Xavier's surprise, Hisao—the bear man who lead Yukio's company—strode through, all but dragging an exhausted-looking lizard bakuhito in his wake. Yukio and the rest of his comrades poured in behind him.
«What is the meaning of this?!» shrilled an old wolf bakuhito from the crowd of elders, many of whom had gotten to their feet. «We are in the middle—»
«This is urgent,» growled Hisao, brushing past Xavier with barely a glance at him and pushing the lizard he was accompanying forward. «Tell them,» he said to the lizard, much more gently than he'd been speaking to the elders.
«The Sunda—» began the lizard in an exhausted voice, but Xavier lost the thread.
He had twisted around on the bench to watch everyone come in, vaguely wondering if he would catch sight of Yukio. He finally spotted him amongst the last few bakuhito to make their way in just as Hisao passed him on his beeline towards the elders. However, as he began to turn back around the air in the doorway almost seemed to shimmer and it caught his attention.
Idly, he stared at the doorway for another second or so, wondering what he'd seen, and without conscious thought his eyes tracked down the stairs even though there was absolutely nothing there. It was the weirdest feeling, as if he knew there should be something to watch, except it got lost somewhere between his eyes and his brain.
Xavier shook his head to clear it, and as he did he caught the shimmer again out of the corner of his eye. It was directly beside his chair.
Without really thinking about it, he reached out and grabbed it.
Under his hand, a man—a human man—appeared out of thin air, Xavier's hand on his shoulder and a look of complete and utter shock on his face.
Everything seemed to freeze for a split second, the only sound in the room the exhausted lizard bakuhito continuing to speak with his back to Xavier.
«—advancing up the valley—»
"Well, that's a nasty piece of work," commented Princess, and at the same time as the man under Xavier's hand jerked his shoulder away and began to sprint toward the elders with his hand slapping towards himself, Princess whipped a vine out and knocked it against an intricately decorated wooden box strapped to the man's chest a split second before his hand crushed it.
Vigor cascaded into Xavier with a sudden rush, sending him sprawling off his bench and onto his back. As he gaped at the ceiling, trying to regain his breath, pandemonium reigned.
Xavier scrambled back to his feet, Princess crawling up his leg as he did so from where she'd landed on the ground. The lizard bakuhito was cowering behind Hisao, the strange human was lying in the dirt with his head twisted at a completely improbable angle, and numerous bakuhito from the elders to Hisao to the spectators were looking more than a little animalistic.
«Silence!» roared Sadao, striding through the elders and looking distinctly brawny. He crouched by the dead man and quickly inspected him. «Hisao-kun, you and your people will guard the door.» He pointed to the squad leader who had brought Xavier and Princess to the meeting in the first place. «Hachiro-kun, you and your squad send up the howl. I want all fighters in Henka on standby immediately.» The old goat bent down to the lizard Hisao had accompanied, who was a good head or two shorter than him. «Come, tell the elders your tale.»
Xavier, now completely ignored and doing his best to in turn ignore a dead body mere feet away, turned to find that Yukio had slipped up next to him.
«So you were the one getting grilled today, Zabi-kun? Good thing, though, since it meant everyone was right here where we needed them. How did you detect that Sunda?»
«What is a Sunda? What is going on?»
«A soldier from the Sundlin Empire.» Kahina had evidently drawn nearby. Huh, Sumiko had joined them, too. «The bakuhito have difficulty with the pronunciation, so they commonly refer to the empire as Sunda. But more important than what Zabi-san just did—Yukio-san, why is a Sundlin soldier here?»
Yukio's eyes went flat, his face entirely without humor in a way Xavier had never seen before. «The Sunda army is coming here.»
«What?» gasped Sumiko. «Why? What could possibly be of interest to Sunda in Henka?»
Yukio shook his head. «From what I've heard, I don't think it's Henka in particular. They've destroyed every bakuhito settlement from here to Tenshin. It's a crusade.»