Styx: 020

Xavier trudged through the desert, anxiety gnawing at him. Having slept on it, it seemed to him that Sumiko's story from the night before was some of the most ham-fisted foreshadowing he'd ever had the misfortune to experience. Had he miscalculated when he pushed for fleeing Henka? Granted, man-eating giant centipedes were still a step down from a genocidal army, but if he'd given it a little more thought maybe he would have realized that of course there had to be disincentives to leaving the Evil Empire to do its worst without valiantly fighting back. Then again…

Ugh, indecision when he was locked into his current course wasn't doing him any favors. He needed to find something constructive he could do to affect the situation. It was a little late in the game to try and affect the genre itself; that die was well and truly tossed and he would need to hit the next big plot marker before he could properly reassess.

If he were the reader, what would he have advised the protagonist? Don't get yourself transported to another world! Gee, yeah, that was helpful. You're not alone! Talk to the people around you, you dimwit! That…was actually excellent advice. The first time around, he was able to escape the rom-com harem so quickly because he had the support of his family members. Obviously here his family was completely out of reach, but aside from desperately clinging to a small group of people as he tried to establish a foothold in this world, he hadn't really opened up to anyone. Come to think, he hadn't even had an opportunity to discuss the fact that he came from a completely different world. Which was kind of weird, now he thought about it. Granted, his first couple months were a desperate scramble for basic communication skills. He was fairly certain multiple people had tried to induce him to spill where he'd come from in the early days, although given his level of panic and inability to understand anything beyond the most basic verbs, nouns, and sentence structure he couldn't be sure. But Sumiko had never once brought the topic up, despite being the person he had talked to the most.

Huh. Now he was really curious what his companions would say if he told them the truth of his origins. He doubted trying to convince them they were fictional would be at all productive, but he didn't really have any reason to keep his otherworldly status a secret.

But he was getting off track. Trying to broach the whole "other world" topic might be really good for his long-term goal of getting back home, particularly before they reached Kahina's Confederacy. Short-term, though, he needed to, you know, survive murderous giant centipedes. Damn it.

Though come to think, he did have an under-utilized resource who could probably help with that.

"So Princess," Xavier said, prompting a strange look from Sumiko ahead when he started talking in English. "What's our game plan when a horse-sized centipede tries to eat our faces off?"

Princess turned her petals toward Xavier from her perch on his shoulder where she'd been sunning herself. "Uh, you remember that we're going to avoid the Mukade Cliffs, right? Also, I don't have a face. Not sure if you've noticed."

"Uh huh, and given the crazy foreshadowing Sumiko delivered last night, that's definitely not going to work out for us."


"What happens when you read a story where someone tells the main character about some ancient evil that used to cause trouble nearby? They run into it 100% of the time."

"Well, I'm not a big reader, you understand, but I've heard a few epics in my days, and yeah that would be a valid concern if we were characters in an epic. Lucky break, though! This is reality, bub."

If only she knew how close fiction and reality actually were…

Princess stiffened, her vines tightening around Xavier's upper arm uncomfortably. "I didn't quite catch that. Could you maybe vocalize the thought you just had?"

"Shit, are you reading my mind?"

The plant-monster slapped him lightly on the cheek. "Don't get weird on me Xavier. Of course I'm 'reading your mind,' if you're inclined toward massive oversimplifications; how do you think we're able to communicate without me having, you know, vocal chords? Now run that one by me again, please."

Well, that was fair. And Xavier was honestly curious what a 2,000+ year-old alien plant monster might say about his predicament.

"This is certainly reality, but my reality and that of the people around me is part of a fictional story. I'm currently stuck in an other-world fantasy plotline."

Princess was silent for a few of Xavier's trudging steps. "That does not align with my past observations. Reality is messy and lacking the cohesion necessary to form a compelling narrative."

"Eh, yeah, but that's all backstory, as far as my personal narrative is concerned. This is my third genre, and the first two both incorporated real people into circumstances that drove the story through standard genre tropes. As long as their motivations and backstory provide the semblance of what the genre needs, it doesn't really matter if a side character cleanly fits. Backstory is mostly just implied, anyway."

"Xavier, you have always struck me as reasonably rational for a member of a species suffering under the effects of a limbic system. So why do you believe so strongly in this nonsense?"

"Reading my mind, eh?"

"I have a good sense for when you are joking or dissembling, yes. Answer the question."

Xavier shrugged, jostling Princess and making her reflexively tighten her hold on him again. "I believe it because it's true. I read a lot of manga growing up—that's illustrated stories—and when my first story started I accidentally broke through the fourth wall and saw my life illustrated on a page. My mom and maybe other members in my family have been through the same thing, too. I don't really understand the capabilities or limits surrounding the whole process, but my life is definitely being influenced by narrative conventions. Hell, I don't even originate in this world, which is a trope all on its own."

Princess shook her petals like a person shaking her head. "You being transported from another reality does align with one of my more outlandish predictions, so I will provisionally accept that as truth. However, one unbelievable occurrence does not mean your life as a whole is fictional or governed by narrative constraints."

Xavier looked askance at the flower on his shoulder. "Who are you and what have you done with Princess? Have you always been this analytical?"

Princess twitched her vines in gesture surprisingly reminiscent of a shrug for a creature with no shoulders. "Eh, it's growing on me."

Xavier groaned.

"Man up, Xavier, a little plant pun won't soil you," said Princess cheerfully.

Xavier didn't dignify that with a response. "What would convince you that our lives are in fact under the control of a narrative?"

The mononoke gave that some thought. "I suppose if you were able to predict future events with a higher than normal success rate, that would indicate potential truth behind your claim."

"Here's my first prediction, then: we are going to do everything right, but we'll still run into these centipede youkai, if not the oumukade itself because Sumiko's story last night foreshadowed it so heavily. I'd also lay good odds that at first things will go swimmingly, and as soon as we think we're out of the woods the centipedes will attack or something will force us into the Mukade Cliffs. So that said, what can you and I do against a bunch of evil, oversized insects?"

"That depends a lot on how much truth there is to Sumiko's story last night, and how large and numerous the insects are as a whole. Insectile or otherwise animalistic youkai behavior is easy to predict: they'll head for the largest source of Vigor and try to eat it. So that means you'll largely get ignored, because when it comes to Vigor you're barely noticeable on a good day, and Kahina will be the most popular girl at the dance."

Xavier was really curious why Princess knew modern terms and idioms from his world, but he opted to ignore it for the moment in favor of hashing out a survival strategy for the immediate future. "So while Kahina-san is getting swarmed, what am I doing?"

"Depends on the size of the bug. Little ones? Squish 'em. Preferably with something that doesn't expose your skin, since based on Sumiko's story this brand is likely poisonous. If the human spit thing has any truth to it, you could try spitting on them, too. You never know. Weird little details like that sometimes survive in oral traditions for a reason. Or it's just nonsense that somebody's grandfather added when they were drunk as a skunk. Kind of fifty-fifty on that one."

"And if they're not little?"

"Well, that's actually better for you, in a way. They'll still be fast, and they'll be correspondingly stronger, but the bigger these things are the easier you'll find it to predict their movement, and their ability to maneuver will be negatively impacted. So if a big bastard is going after Kahina, you slip around the side, I'll siphon off a chunk of Vigor and stick it in that bottomless pit you call a soul, and you can do what you do best when you're panicking."

"You mean run like hell?"

Princess shook her petals in the negative. "Don't you remember what happened when we met? You break the shit out of its legs and let Kahina handle the squishing."

«Xavier,» said Sumiko, causing him to stop when he realized that he had drawn even with her without noticing, focused as he was on his conversation with Princess. «Look.»

He looked where she was pointing, and there they were, floating like a heat haze above the sand in the distance: the red rocks of the Mukade Cliffs.