Kahina frowned. «The Sundlin Empire hasn't issued a crusade in two hundred years. When I left the Confederacy, the Children of Man were barely relevant to Sundlin politics.»
Yukio shrugged. «Well, something changed, because they're practically at our doorstep. We sent Tobi-san to scout their vanguard after we picked up Asahi-san—» Yukio pointed towards the elders, who were currently surrounding the lizard bakuhito «—and as best she could tell they had completely sacked Keikoku and were on their way up the valley.»
«Shit, they might be only a day away,» growled Kahina. «How is this the first we've heard of this?»
«Asahi-san said the army is moving absurdly fast; evidently they hit Keikoku hard, but didn't seem interested in holding it. Just destroyed as much as they could and moved on.»
«That's insane. What could they possibly be trying to accomplish?»
«Does it matter?» interjected Sumiko. «If there's a hostile army that nearby, then it's not like we have a lot of options.»
«It matters to me,» grumbled Kahina.
The discussion was interrupted by Sadao. The old goat bakuhito shoved his way out of the group of elders and stepped up next to Kahina.
«Sadao-sama,» said Yukio in the most respectful tone Xavier had ever heard him use.
Sadao grunted before turning his attention to Kahina. «The Society for Progress. You had any contact with them lately?»
«No, sir,» responded Kahina. «I have not heard from them in several months, and so far as I know I'm the only member this far outside the borders of the Confederacy at the moment.»
«Damn.» His attention shifted to Xavier. «You and your pet mononoke are off the hook for now, Zabi-kun. That trick you pulled with the suicide trooper there. I've seen those types of artifacts before, and you and the mononoke defused both of them within seconds. If not for you, we would have a whole passel of dead and wounded right now. Thank you.» Sadao bowed deeply to Xavier. «Will you fight with us? Your ability to detect and destroy artifacts would be incredibly helpful against the Sundas.»
Kahina shifted her weight, but said nothing.
And Xavier felt the plot spool away in front of him like a red carpet being unrolled. A desperate situation with the people who fed and supported him until now in need of his help. A mysterious power that only he could use. The army of an evil empire bearing down upon them.
Henka would be destroyed, but with Xavier's help hope would not be lost. He and the bakuhito would find themselves in a desperate guerrilla fight against a superior force, and thanks to his otherworldly knowledge and innate abilities he would quickly transition into a leadership role, simultaneously headlining the charge and directing the resistance effort. With the help of Kahina, he would eventually pull this Confederacy of hers into the struggle, and through blood and struggle they would emerge victorious only to discover that this attack was but a harbinger of a greater disaster still to come. Perhaps at this point he would be offered a choice: find a way home, or continue to support the people he had come to care deeply about in their ongoing struggle for the livelihood of their world. Regretfully, he would put off his search for a way home but the payoff would be victory and a deep and abiding set of relationships with the survivors, along with a place to belong unlike any he ever had back in his own world.
On the other hand… «A few minutes ago you were debating whether to kill me out of hand.»
Sadao shrugged. «That was then. This is now. And in between you and that mononoke saved a bunch of our lives.» He glanced back toward the bickering elders. «Think about it. We could use your skills. All of you.» He nodded toward Kahina, before wading back into the crowd of elders.
When Sadao was likely out of earshot, Xavier turned to Kahina. «I've thought about it. You're planning to leave, aren't you, Kahina-san? Would you take me with you?»
A look of relief broke through the guarded expression she'd had on her face the entire time Sadao had been talking. «With pleasure.»
Yukio draped his arm across Xavier's shoulders. «I do believe you're free to go, Zabi-kun. How about we go talk about this whole 'leaving Henka' thing back at the wayhouse together?» He turned his attention to Kahina. «You know, I'm a reeeal handy cat to have around. Fast, quiet, a good scout, quiet.»
«Yukio-san…?» said Xavier, surprised.
«Enough of that,» said Sumiko, whacking Yukio on the head. «Everyone back to the wayhouse for now.»
«Yes,» said Kahina, with a single glance at the still-arguing pack elders, and the four of them exited the building through the front doors.
After working their way through the gathering crowds of fighters, Xavier and the others arrived at the Isei Wayhouse and Kahina immediately lit into Yukio. «What is this about accompanying me, neko?»
«Aw, don't be that way!» replied Yukio. «Look, I've been surviving in this desert almost as long as I've been alive. You're not going to be able to flee back down the valley, and odds are good you'd run into trouble with the Sunda army if you headed north. That means you're headed south, which means crossing the desert and for that you're going to want someone along who knows what they're doing. No offence, Zabi-kun.»
Kahina's eyes narrowed. «You're a cat.»
«And you're Antean. How do you like it when people judge you by your size?»
«Yukio-kun is not like other neko,» broke in Sumiko. «Please don't judge him as one.»
Kahina eyed the two bakuhito for a moment. «Very well. What is it you want, Yukio-san?»
«Oh, that's easy!» said Yukio brightly. «I'll help you through the desert, and you introduce me to possible work in the Confederacy. Then I'll be out of your hair, and out of the Tachigare for good.»
«Life is not always easy for bakuhito, even in the Confederacy.»
«Hey, I'm a cat. I always land on my feet.»
Kahina turned toward Xavier. «Are you alright with this?»
«Yukio-san was the one who saved me,» said Xavier. «I would love his company.»
«Very well. In that case, the sooner we are away the—»
«If you would,» said Sumiko. «Take me with you, as well. I may not know the desert like Yukio-kun, but my family were traders and I am well acquainted with the villages between here and the Confederacy borderlands.»
«Yes! Sumiko-san!» Yukio shouted, and tried to hug her but ended up stumbling past when she adroitly dodged him without taking her eyes off Kahina.
Kahina ignored his antics. «What is it you are looking for from me, then?»
«My life has been this wayhouse for the past few years. I don't want to see Sunda destroy it, and I already know that my friends here in Henka will stay and fight no matter what I say. I don't—some things can't be properly fought. I don't want anyone dying to protect me.»
Kahina leaned forward. «I know some people at the Society who would likely be interested to talk to you. You are welcome to come, Sumiko-san. Now, unless there's anyone else hiding nearby who wants to leave with us, I suggest you all pack as quickly as possible.»
"Great! Peachy!" said Princess. "That sounds like a fantastic idea, because let me tell you if these Sundlin folks have anything worse than what that saboteur was packing, I really don't want to be hanging around here when they arrive. Hey, Xavier, don't forget your toothbrush, eh?"
"How do you even know that word?!"