Just as they'd planned the evening before, Xavier, Sumiko, Yukio, Kahina, and now Orion departed Yonaharu early the next morning. Now that they were out of the deeper part of the desert, there was an actual route to follow, albeit one that consisted of regularly placed markers rather than an actual road. Thanks to this and the lack of anything necessitating scouting, the party was able to move significantly quicker than they had previously.
Most of the morning Xavier spent withdrawn, only occasionally making small talk with Princess who was otherwise occupied with watching Orion like a hawk. For some reason, the man put her on edge. However, after catching up with Kahina, being briefed about the Sundlin forces that had invaded the bakuhito's territory and pursued them south, and extracting the story of their fight with the centipedes from everyone, Orion fell blithely in step with Xavier.
«So, boy, I'm dying to know how you ended up with a mononoke riding on your shoulder like a parrot instead of digging around in your chest cavity.»
Well, that was a lovely image. «Princess found her way to Henka, and I jumped on her when she tried to attack Kahina-san. After I siphoned enough Vigor off her, she came to her senses and has stuck to me ever since.»
«Siphoned? Princess? Vigor?» Orion looked at him blankly. «Oh, you've been hanging around these yokels too long. Look, 'Vigor' isn't a real thing. You're talking about nima.»
«Nima?» The term sounded vaguely familiar for some reason, but Xavier couldn't place it.
«Yes, nima. What the barbarian animals out here call Vigor. You shouldn't use colloquialisms like that. It's unscientific.»
Xavier was feeling a bit lost. He hadn't ever come across half the words this Orion person liked to use. «So what is nima, then?»
Orion gave him a hard look. «You don't know the word at all? Nima is the energy that ultimately makes up everything in the universe. It's the reason the sun emits light and heat, why plants grow, and why kami are dangerous. Calling it Vigor makes it sound like some resource you harvest to bulk up your muscles, but nima is much more than that. How have you not heard the term nima before? Have you been living under a rock? You can't have grown up in the desert; you're not an animal.»
«I only learned the language recently. I am still not completely fluent.»
«Hmm. Well, that can wait. What's this I hear about siphoning?»
«When I touch living things, I siphon off Vi—I mean nima. I can't help it; it just happens.»
«Is that right?» Orion dug through on of his pockets and pulled out a device that looked like a petrified, partially-sprouted flower bulb that had been sliced vertically in two. «Hold this for a second, would you?»
Xavier glanced at Princess. "Go ahead, that thing won't hurt you," she said, waving a vine at it.
Xavier took it, and with the familiar feeling of a quick intake of Vigor, the thing immediately turned gray and fell into pieces, scattering across the sand at his feet. «Ah! I'm so sorry!»
«What the—hold still,» said Orion, stepping away from Xavier slightly and pulling his goggles down over his eyes. He rotated something on the side of one lens, and brought yet another strange device from his pocket up which he held out halfway between himself and Xavier. This one looked like some sort of dowsing rod: two thin metal tines that met at the base in a Y shape, although Orion held it so that the base was at the side and the tines stretched sideways to frame one lens of his goggles.
After a minute, in which the rest of the party straggled to a stop to watch what was going on, Orion returned the device to his pocket and pushed his goggles back up on his head. «Well, aren't you just full of surprises. Kahina-chan! Did you know this Zabi-kun of yours is a null?»
«That was the term!» said Kahina in satisfaction. «It's been escaping me for months.»
«What is null?» asked Xavier.
«It's an incredibly rare disability. Most nulls die before they reach adulthood, so I've never met one myself. In any case, everyone naturally generates a baseline amount of nima, assuming you're not horrifically malnourished or something. Nulls, though, need more nima to keep their body up and running than they are able to cultivate from food and drink.»
«I've never heard of a null,» interrupted Yukio, who had walked back to them when they stopped moving.
«And I've never heard of a neko who would fight for his companions instead of laughing as they got brutally murdered by monstrous centipedes,» shot back Orion. «Guess we've all heard something new today. I'm pretty sure null bakuhito never make it past infancy. You're all such nima gluttons.»
Yukio gave Orion an expressionless stare and twitched his tail back and forth. Orion didn't spare him a glance.
Xavier spoke up, uncomfortable with the combative mood that had suddenly descended. «Orion-san, I'm really sorry I broke your device. Would you mind telling me what it was, though?»
«That? Eh, don't worry about it. I have another one lying around somewhere. That was a portable nima meter; it's a passive and quick way to measure where someone lies on the nima continuum. But, uh, please don't touch any of my artifacts without permission. I can think of a dozen ways your nima draw could be useful in a controlled lab setting, but I can't readily replace a lot of this equipment out here in the boonies.»
«You are something else, boy. Yes, my artifacts.» Orion gestured to the many gadgets and odds and ends poking out of his pockets. «Don't tell me I'm the first artificer you've met?»
Kahina chuckled. «He's been living with bakuhito, sensei. What do you think?»
Orion shook his head in dismay. «Before we get back to the society, I'm going to have to pry you out from under that rock you've been living, boy. But that said, we need to pick up the pace. Daylight's wasting.»
"Don't worry, there's plenty of that to go around," grumbled Princess. "Did the man not notice we're in a freaking desert?"