Xavier bolted upright, heart pounding as he gasped for breath. He involuntarily shivered; the air was the bitter cold he associated with late night or early morning in Henka.
"Ah, maybe that was a bit overkill," mumbled Princess. "But whatever, did the trick! We have to go. Right now."
Xavier all but fell out of bed. "What? What's wrong?" Shit he was in complete panic mode. What was even going on?
"That army we thought was a couple days away? Yeah, they're a lot closer than that. Go get the others. We're leaving."
"How can you tell?"
"You can't sense those flares? Yeesh, I'm going to have to work on that. Look, there's been some flares of Vigor that aren't remotely natural a few miles to the west and—it doesn't matter! Go wake up everyone and get them moving already!"
In the state he was in, Xavier didn't need any more prompting. He bolted out of bed, grabbed the rucksack he'd packed with Sumiko's help the night before, and all but sprinted out the door.
An hour later, the group was quickly making its way through the quiet streets—Yukio grumbling about false alarms and forsaken hours of the morning—when a howl went up from the west.
«Shit, your mononoke was right?» said Yukio.
«Move,» said Kahina, and for the first time since Princess showed up she grabbed Xavier's hand with her normal-sized arm and took off at a lope as he scrambled not to fall.
As they ran, bakuhito began to emerge from their houses looking bleary and panicked.
«Gather at the town hall, and prepare to evacuate the town!» Yukio called to people as they charged past.
The howl was quickly spreading across the town, and more and more people were calling panicked questions to Xavier's fleeing group, when a large silhouette stepped directly into their path, forcing them to skid to a halt.
«Yukio,» said Hisao. In the dim pre-morning light, he looked more like a bear reared up on two legs than a human. «You're running the wrong way.»
«Damn it,» swore Yukio. «Hisao-san, I'm sorry. I'm throwing in my lot with Kahina-san. You know I've always wanted a way out of Henka. I hate to abandon you after all you've done for me, but this is my one chance.»
For a few moments, Hisao loomed silently. Kahina dropped Xavier's hand, and took a step to the side, flanking Yukio, as Xavier tensed and wondered just where the hell he could run if Hisao attacked them. Sumiko quietly moved up against the building across the street, and Xavier belatedly did the same. He'd seen Hisao fight; there was no way he'd be able to siphon him before the bear had ripped his arms off. He'd only be a liability if things came to blows.
At last Hisao sighed with disgust. «Neko.» The way he said it, the word sounded like a curse word. «I don't have time for this.» He leaned toward Yukio. «Don't come back.»
As Hisao loped off down a side street into the dark, Yukio let out a sound that was practically a mew of distress.
«So you didn't tell Hisao-san,» said Sumiko quietly. «Idiot.»
Yukio for once didn't have a response.
A faint sound like hundreds of shouting voices was briefly audible before the howling that had been resounding across Henka redoubled.
«Run now, regret later,» grunted Kahina, and Xavier once again found his hand captured as she towed him along.
Yukio and Sumiko followed, this time in silence.
Just as Xavier was starting to wonder if he'd ever catch a full breath again, they cleared the southern border of Henka. He was definitely the weak link in this group physically. Kahina let go of his hand, and everyone dropped to a fast walk. Running on open sand in the pre-dawn twilight was a great way to break an ankle.
Xavier didn't even see the Sundlin soldiers until Yukio was flashing past him to plant a dagger in one of their necks. As the man fell backward and Yukio ripped his weapon free in a spray of blood, a shout went up, and everything went to hell.
Sumiko launched herself at Xavier and brought both of them to their faces in the sand. «Crawl,» she said, and after a breathless moment Xavier forced himself to follow her on his hands and knees while Yukio darted around them, kicking sand up into their faces.
Nearby, Kahina dropped her pack and charged forward with a roar.
«Antean!» Xavier heard someone shout in a panic, and a series of lights flashed through the air over his head, leaving streaks in his vision.
Sumiko snagged Kahina's pack as she went by and dragged it behind her.
"Three to the left," said Princess. "Three to the left! Call it out!"
"Three—shit!" «Three on the left!» called Xavier. Yukio disappeared into the dark in that direction, another light streaked above Xavier from where the cat had gone, and there were several screams and shouts followed by silence.
Xavier's hand landed on a warm body. He swore, swallowed bile, and scrambled to catch up to Sumiko.
As they neared where Kahina had charged off, a Sundlin soldier flew bodily over them, landing several feet beyond Xavier with an awful-sounding crack.
«We're clear!» Kahina bellowed. «Run!»
Sumiko was upright in a flash, she pulled Xavier to his feet, and the two took off as fast as they could on the sand, half sliding backwards every step.
Kahina loomed out of the dimness and Sumiko shoved her pack into her hand. Yukio, still deathly quiet, slipped up from the left.
«More will be coming,» said Kahina. «We need to move as fast as we can.» She grabbed Xavier's shoulder and he felt an unusually strong rush of Vigor as Kahina sighed in relief. «Sumiko-san, guide Zabi-san. His eyesight isn't as strong. Yukio-san, scout the perimeter. Zabi-san, the mononoke detected those three flanking us? Call out again if it senses anything else.»
Yukio spoke up for the first time since their brief encounter with Hisao. «Fifteen minutes. If we go much longer than that without orienting ourselves properly we'll be in trouble.»
«Good. I'll keep a count and call the stop. Move everyone. And Zabi-san, stay as quiet as you can.»
The four of them frantically took off through the desert, shouts pursuing them from behind.