As Xavier and party made their way south on what promised to be over a month-long trip towards the lands of the Confederacy, the Sundlin Empire's army at last reached the edge of the Deadlands just as the sun began to set and a nima storm built in the distance.
Malken found himself arrested by the sight, pausing midway through setting up the tent he and the acolytes would be sleeping in. He had served the Children of Man as an acolyte and then lesser priest for most of his adult life, and although he had seen some impressive feats of artifice in that time, this was his first exposure to one of the natural wonders of the world: the nima storm that gave the Deadlands their name.
Though no one was quite sure why, the Deadlands at the center of the Tachigare Desert suffered from the worst known nima storms on the planet. Malken had heard them described in seminary, but the brittle old monk who had taught the class hadn't remotely done them justice.
Like the sandstorms that sometimes kicked up in the broader desert, the nima storm that was steadily building on the horizon was a mass of sand, rock, and high winds. Unlike a typical sandstorm, however, this one was driven by pure, surging nima. To Malken's sight, it was like watching whitewater eddies in a violently surging river spread across the sky; nima surged and flowed, and even at this distance he could sense the pressure and power in the air. Word around camp was that some of the scouts who had been caught by the leading edge of the storm vanished without a trace.
«Fool boy!» shouted one of the elder priests, cuffing Malken's head. Malken tore his gaze away from the fascinating, horrifying majesty of the building nima storm and did his best to school his expression into deference despite the fact that the priest had barely ten years on him. «Stop staring at the storm and properly secure that tent! Do you want to get yourself killed?»
Malken bowed, hoping to hide his expression. «No, Father. Of course, Father.»
«Good; get to it!» snapped the priest, and stalked away.
Malken stole a final, regretful look at the storm and then forced himself back to work. He understood the reason church doctrine decried things like the nima storms of the Deadlands, but he couldn't deny that he also understood why channelers might be tempted to seek out and brave such wonders. Seeing something so all-powerful and utterly unconcerned with human endeavors was a little like seeing a small peek of the divine.
With a shake of his shoulders, Malken thrust his own heretical fancies to the back of his mind and leaned into his task once more.
Ten miles north-east of the Sundlin army, Bafubani cursed herself for deciding to cut into the Deadlands in an attempt to catch up. She'd been so close! And then in a fit of impatience she ventured farther into the Deadlands than was probably safe, and now here she was blinded by flying sand and fighting not to let the nima raging around her tear her apart. Her long rabbit ears—the most obvious part of her bakuhito heritage—were plastered back against her skull as she fought her way through the sand and wind. And this was just the edge of the storm; what the hell was wrong with this part of the desert anyway? The closer she got to her goal, the more it seemed like the desert itself was trying to kill her. Youkai and dehydration and nima storms…she'd ask herself what could possibly go wrong next, but she was desperately worried that there wouldn't be a next.
Damn it damn it damn it damn it!
On the plus side, all this free-flowing nima did make some things easier. A ripple in the nima around her alerted her at the last second, and she desperately swung the oversized battlehammer that she'd been dragging through the sand behind her in an arc. With a resounding CRACK the head of the hammer collided with a rock the size of her chest and sent it spinning away to disappear in the swirling dust. That one would have certainly left a mark. Or possibly a hole where her chest once was.
Dropping the hammer back into the sand, Bafubani trudged onward. If she survived this, she was never going against Mani's advice again.
And then it finally happened: the suffocating sand, the battering of the nima, the constant stress and fear built to the point that she stumbled and just as the hammer slipped out of her grasp she felt the telltale ripple through the nima around her that heralded another incoming rock. As Bafubani desperately threw herself backward in an attempt to dodge the deadly projectile everything seemed to stop for one perilous moment…and then the nima that had been violently cascading around her sucked inward toward the interior of the Deadlands, disappearing so fast that Bafubani was pulled completely off balance and landed on her face. Around her sand and small rocks cascaded down, pelting her back as the wind died completely.
Bafubani pushed herself painfully up, groped around until she found the handle of her hammer, and used it to lever herself to her feet. The desert was as still as if the nima storm had never been.
What by her seven great ancestors just happened?
In the very middle of the Deadlands, at the top of one of the ever-shifting dunes, the air rippled and flexed as if in a localized heat haze. Nima spiraled and tore through the sky, seeming to be sucked down to a single point at the center of the haze.
As moments passed, the amount of nima in the surroundings dropped precipitously and grew ever more concentrated above the dune. The distortion in the air warped, bent, collapsed…and with a whumpf the remaining nima shot inwards so fast that some of it bled off as a flash of visible light and sent dust cascading upwards in a shower that obscured the point of impact completely.
When the dust fell, pattering onto the surrounding dunes like a parched rain, it revealed the strange haze and excess of nima had vanished. In its place was an oddity: a mattress, dressed with white sheets containing a light blue floral print, within whose covers slept a girl, her blonde hair scattered across the pillow and one arm thrown above her head.
As Xavier bedded down the for the night, Princess spoke up. "You know, boy-o, I've been thinking about what you said about coming from another world and I'm still a little skeptical. I don't think you can actually prove that one unless someone else from your world crosses over to back up your story. Any chance of that happening in this grand story you're convinced you're stuck in?"
He gave it some thought. "Well, having a classmate or something show up in the same world is a pretty standard plot twist, I suppose. But no, I doubt that would ever happen."
"Yeah," said Princess. "What would be the odds? Guess we'll have to find some other way for you to prove your origins."