For two days, Xavier and the others traveled south with the Mukade Cliffs looming to their left. Xavier was a little disappointed that the cliffs were inhabited by murderous, oversized bugs because they looked fascinating; from this distance they appeared to be nearly sheer and colored anywhere from a burnt sienna to a deep burgundy. He wasn't sure if the rocks were naturally so many shades of red or if it depended on the light or was a mirage caused by the heat of the intervening sand or some combination. When he watched a particular outcropping as they walked, he could have sworn that it gradually changed color over time, though at such a distance he couldn't be sure if his eyes were playing tricks on him.
Yukio was careful to keep the cliffs in sight while ensuring that the group never drew particularly close, which given the way the sand formed dunes and depressions that wended in unpredictable directions was more difficult than Xavier had expected.
Everyone kept a close eye out for centipedes, but the desert was devoid of life to the point that both Yukio and Sumiko were on edge as a result. Kahina, not being a native of the Tachigare, was unruffled, and as far as Xavier knew from his previous trek from the Deadlands to Henka the lack of wildlife was normal. Yukio and Sumiko both laughed at him when he shared that little tidbit.
Mid-morning of the third day, Sumiko happened to glance back and spotted several specks in the sky to the north.
«Yukio-kun!» she called up to him where he was surveying prospective routes from the top of the nearest dune. «Are those birds?»
Yukio, Kahina, and Xavier all peered in the direction she was pointing. «Shit!» exclaimed Yukio, and he partially ran and partially skid down the dune to join the rest of them. «I can't be sure without Tobi-san, but I think those are Sunda gliders. They aren't moving like birds.»
«Sunda…you mean the army followed us?» said Xavier.
«I doubt it's their full forces; there's no one out this way that would necessitate a force of any size.»
«Except for the small party that wiped out one of their squadrons and disappeared into the night,» rumbled Kahina.
«…right, except for them.»
«What's a glider?» interjected Xavier.
«It's an artifact; basically a set of wings that lets Sunda scouts fly for a short time,» said Sumiko quietly.
Kahina stared thoughtfully at the specks. «What are our options?»
Yukio kicked the sand. «If they are gliders, then the fact that we can see them means they've already seen us. Probably. If the forces on the ground have mounts of some sort, they might be moving fast enough to catch up before we get to the oasis, and I doubt we'll be able to lose them since we have no cover to speak of. If they've ventured into open desert, that means it's a larger force than what we encountered outside Henka, and they've got their eyes on us anyway, so an ambush is out even if they don't wildly outnumber us.»
«I'm not hearing a lot of options here, Yukio-san.»
«We don't have a lot of options! We were going to arrive at the oasis probably late afternoon today, which is just about perfect for our current water supply, but there's no way we'll be able to give them the slip before we get to a town, and at that point we're leading Sunda right to more victims!»
Sumiko spoke up. «They're following us, right? What if we get a little closer to the Mukade Cliffs?»
«That—might actually work.» Yukio didn't look like he was happy with the suggestion, though. «A larger force means more Vigor, so if anyone is going to be swarmed it would be them. And if that happened, we could very likely gain enough of a lead that they wouldn't be able to track us anymore. Depending on how far behind they are, though, we might be in serious trouble since we would need to approach the cliffs first. Getting caught between Sunda soldiers and youkai would be a real problem.»
«We've time yet,» said Kahina. «Those gliders mean we aren't likely to lose them, but it means we know approximately where they are, as well.»
«True. Alright, we'll keep course for the oasis, but start moving closer to the cliffs. If those are Sunda gliders we can lead them into the centipedes and hopefully escape in the confusion, and if not…well, we'll run the risk of running afoul of the youkai ourselves. Sound good?» The three nodded. «Sumiko-san, will you please keep an eye on the gliders? I'm going to focus on getting us closer to the oasis and the cliffs.»
«Of course, Yukio-kun.»
«Enough planning,» said Kahina. «Let's move.»
"Alright, I'll concede your prediction about encountering the centipede youkai at the last possible moment looks to be accurate," said Princess as the Mukade Cliffs loomed nearer. Over the past couple hours the specks Sumiko had spotted had drawn close enough that Yukio was confident both that they were gliders, and that they were tracking the four of them. Recently, Sumiko had reported she thought she could see a plume of dust in the distance, as well, indicating their pursuit likely had mounts of some sort. "Any further predictions for me to verify?"
"I'm not sure," said Xavier, panting slightly with the effort of their sustained force march over sand in the ever-increasing heat. "Not a lot else has stood out as likely foreshadowing recently, and I'm still not entirely sure what sub-genre we're working with. Running south means we've avoided one of the most obvious isekai plotlines, because we're not directly fighting the evil empire. I'm not sure if that will be enough to break genre, or if it will stabilize around the same thing but longer-term. The fact we're being pressured by Sundlin soldiers means that the break wasn't as clean as I had hoped."
"So your decision to flee was due to your desire to break with this perceived narrative of yours?"
"Well, at least partially. Also, I'm just really not suited to fighting, and although Henka did a lot for me I don't feel like I owe them my life for a few months of food and shelter. I lived in a part of the world where there just wasn't much violent conflict."
«If you don't mind my asking, what are you saying?» asked Kahina. She'd been striding ahead of Xavier, but had fallen back when he started conversing with Princess. «Are you talking to the mononoke?»
«Uh, yes, I was talking to Princess. She speaks in—uh—"English" so I tend to respond the same way.»
«That is your native language, correct?»
«Yeah. I don't even know if it's a language here. I might only be perceiving Princess' communication in my native language because she's doing some weird mental thing.» He pointed to Princess' omnipresent vine tucked away over his ear.
Kahina frowned. «It doesn't sound like any language I have heard in the Confederacy, at least, but I am not the most well-traveled in the Society. We can ask once we get out of this damn desert. But what—»
«I've lost track of the gliders!» called Sumiko from the rear of the party. «They were there just a minute ago, so I think they must have landed.»
«Shit. Yukio-san!» called Kahina. «We need to make for the cliffs. The gliders are down.»
"Great," said Princess, her tone communicating it was anything but great. "Get ready for squishing time."