Xavier had forgotten how much he hated walking through the desert. At least this time, he wasn't in his pajamas, but the unrelenting heat coupled with the sand's ability to make its way into every possible nook and cranny led to a persistent feeling of low-level misery.
Fortunately, there were no signs of pursuit from the Sundlin army, so after their frantic travel throughout the early part of the first day they were able to relax their pace and spend an uncomfortably hot couple of hours dozing under a quick canvas shelter that Yukio threw up during the hottest part of the day. Yukio rousted them at last, and they continued southward into the cooler evening. As the sun dropped below the horizon, Kahina and Yukio began discussing their route.
«Normally to reach the Confederacy we would want to travel down the Keikoku until we got to the river. I imagine that's how you reached Henka, right?»
Kahina nodded. «Yes. I visited a few other towns initially, but they all agreed the bakuhito in Henka were more likely to help me, so I joined a merchant caravan and traveled with them. Have you traveled south of Henka outside the valley?»
«Yes, although we rarely needed to hunt youkai more than about ten days out. Fortunately, we have a few days' worth of water; I have to admit, you Anteans are handy to have around. Even so, the first stint is going to be the roughest for us, especially since there's so few of us and we're lightly armed.»
«Our lack of weapons is an issue?»
«It might be. See, we can subsist on the water we can draw from dew traps and plants for a bit, but we have to refill our supply at least once before we're in range of another township. There's an oasis almost dead south of Henka, but it's small and crazy easy to miss. The only way to find it reliably that I know of is to follow the Mukade Cliffs, but that's a hotbed for centipede youkai so it's a balancing act: stay close enough to the cliffs that you can follow them to the oasis, but not so close that you get swarmed.»
«Hence our lack of weaponry being a potential issue.»
«Exactly. I've only ever been as far as the oasis twice, and we ended up needing to fight off a small horde both times.»
«Wonderful,» grumbled Sumiko. «Swarming centipede youkai sounds delightful.»
Xavier piped up. «Why haven't those cliffs been cleared? If they're close to Henka, wouldn't that have been something you and the other fighters should have taken care of, Yukio-san?»
«If the ocean were a youkai, would you fight it?» said Yukio. «There have been a few efforts to subjugate the Mukade Cliffs, but the last one was years before my time and the squad never came back.»
«Those cliffs are the home of the Oumukade,» said Sumiko. «At this point, the best way to deal with it is probably just to avoid feeding it.»
«Oumukade?» questioned Kahina. «I haven't heard the story behind that one. Would you tell it?»
«It's as good a way to pass the time as any, I suppose,» said Sumiko, and began.
Long ago there lived a man who was jealous of his neighbor's success. When his business faltered, that of his neighbor thrived. When he courted the woman who lived across the street, his neighbor married her. When the rain fell on his house, the sun shone on his neighbor's.
As the months and years passed, he grew more and more bitter and angry, for every success of his neighbor's seemed to come at his detriment.
Now it so happened that a traveling curios merchant visited their village. Rebuffed by the man's neighbor, the merchant was welcomed by the man who discovered that among his wares he had a rare and dangerous live centipede. Noting the man's interest, the merchant waxed poetic about the centipede's virtues: it's paralytic venom, voracious appetite, and horrifying speed.
And why did the merchant carry such a deadly animal with him?
Why, because in the land of its origin it was considered a delicacy, for despite being venomous in its own right, human saliva in turn was to this insect a deadly poison that would melt away its carapace and render it defenseless. Properly prepared, these centipedes were considered one of the greatest delicacies in their country of origin, sought after far and wide by the rich and the brave. Sadly, though the merchant had gone to great trouble to procure one, no one in this country was willing to buy it.
The man hemmed and hawed, and bargained the merchant's price down. An hour later the merchant left with a heavier purse, and the man was left with a poisonous centipede and the resolve to kill his neighbor.
His neighbor's wife being away with family that evening, the man lost no time in slipping the centipede through the shutters of his neighbor's window that night and the insect, half mad with hunger, disappeared into the darkness.
The next day, the man's neighbor failed to emerge from his home, and the man spent the day gloating over his cleverness and anticipating the reversal of his fortunes.
The day after that, the woman he had once thought to marry returned, went inside her house, and did not emerge.
The man grew worried. He had planned to try his luck with the widow once his neighbor was dead, but could the centipede have possibly killed her, as well?
On the third day, the centipede—now the size of a small horse—burst through the door of his neighbor's house and devoured the man along with every other inhabitant of the village it could catch.
Far from having unnatural luck, the man's neighbor was a life-long channeler of Vigor, and the centipede struck him down when he was just at the cusp of ascending to kami. The neighbor's Vigor went to the insect, and as it fed on him it swiftly grew into a youkai of fearsome power.
The blood of the slain villagers stained the cliffs upon which the village was situated red, and ever since the Oumukade has made its lair there.
«Wait, is that story true?» asked Xavier when he saw that all three of his companions appeared to be taking what had sounded like some sort of horrific fairy tale at face value.
«Well, no one has seen the Oumukade in a few decades, that I know of,» said Yukio with a shrug. «But the Mukade Cliffs are definitely swarming with venomous centipedes, so it's pretty likely it's still there.»
«Princess? Have you ever heard of such a thing?»
"Eh, this Oumukade creature must have come around significantly after my time. That sort of thing wouldn't have been left alone long enough to become a threat before—well, before. And I'm pretty sure a centipede couldn't have grown to the size of a horse in three days without dying. But otherwise, yeah, story checks out."
"What the hell," muttered Xavier. Were all the youkai in this world giant creepy insects? Or was he just unlucky?
Yukio slapped Xavier on the back, making him stumble. «Don't worry, Zabi-kun! We won't go any closer to the cliffs than we need in order to keep them in sight. We have enough water that we don't have to travel too late at night when we're near the cliffs, so it should be pretty easy to stay safe. I think.»
«You're not exactly inspiring confidence,» grumbled Xavier.
«We'll be fine!» said Yukio cheerfully. «Besides, last time I ran afoul of the Mukade Cliffs I got away with barely any scars. And this time we've got Kahina-san along! You heard the story; we'll just have Kahina-san hock a fat one on any giant centipedes we run across, and problem solved!»
Xavier eyed Yukio. The sad thing was that he couldn't tell if the cat-boy was messing with him or not. Yukio grinned back with perfect innocence until Sumiko cuffed him on the head. «Cut it out, Yukio-kun. Zabi-kun isn't going to be able to sleep tonight. And Kahina-san will probably flatten you if you keep being that crass about her.»
Ah, so Yukio was screwing with him.
«You're the one telling stories about giant, man-eating centipedes devouring entire towns!»
Although Xavier wasn't entirely certain if it was bickering or bantering, Yukio and Sumiko continued to verbally spar until Kahina at last called a halt for the night.