Kahina came and fetched everyone for the evening meal, looking amused when she found them all in Xavier's room. Xavier had been hoping to be able to scope out more of the members of the Society for Progress, but unfortunately they were still evidently being treated as outsiders: the meal was delivered to a small room clearly set aside for serving guests and with no one there beyond Kahina, the two bakuhito and Xavier himself. On the plus side, the artifacts in display cases around the edges of the room were fascinating—though Xavier was careful not to get close to the ones that had active nima flowing through them—and they were able to pepper Kahina with questions about Guujin. She was still unwilling to say very much, but she did confirm that he was originally created in the Sundlin Empire. Evidently he was indeed the source of the rumors that Sumiko remembered from her childhood. Xavier wondered how many of them were true.
When they'd finished eating, Kahina led them back to their rooms where Xavier spent a restless night.
The next morning, after being invited by Hinata to break their fast in the same guest room they had eaten the previous evening, he led them to the room they originally encountered Guujin where they found the sentient artifact waiting. This time, however, some drapes had been tastefully pulled across the displayed weapons, and a selection of chairs were provided in a semi-circle. Kahina was there, as well, occupying a larger-than-typical chair to Guujin's right.
«Welcome,» said Guujin. «Please, take a seat. The senior members of this chapter house and I have debated your admittance. We have decided to offer you some temporary benefits of membership, but require a further test prior to extending full acceptance. As we have been unable to reach consensus on an acceptable method of testing within the bounds of the chapter house, we have opted for the atypical step of combining your first field mission with your final admittance test.»
«What does that mean?» asked Yukio. «What's a field mission?»
«Under normal circumstances, members of the Society for Progress are vetted over an extended period of time. Once they are admitted to the Society, they typically are sent on a field mission within the first year or two, often to other chapter houses. This encourages building wider bonds across the society, helps broaden views constrained by past geography, and serves as a further evaluation for which members are most suited to long-term field work as opposed to internal research. Based on the feedback from Orion and Kahina, you are uniquely suited to fulfilling a field mission for which we were only recently contracted, which will serve also as your final admittance evaluation.»
«What does this field mission involve?» asked Xavier. «And who will be coming with us?»
«To answer your second question first, Orion, Kahina, and myself will accompany you, although I will mainly be present in an advisory capacity.»
Princess grumbled something unintelligible, shifted on Xavier's shoulder, then subsided.
«The mission itself involves traveling east to an area just within the border of the Tachigare Desert, past the bakuhito trading post at Sanzumachi. A semi-permanent Sundlin encampment has been established there, and numerous interested parties have approached the Society in an effort to lease our services to determine the exact purpose of this staging ground. Additionally, we have numerous parties within the Society itself who wish to investigate the nima readings that indicate activity on the part of one of the great kami. Given some abnormalities surrounding Zabi's abilities and relationship to this mononoke, we wonder if he may be uniquely suited to those aspects of the investigation.»
Everyone tensed up at that. Xavier felt like kind of an idiot, but… «What is this greater kami?»
Guujin tilted its head. «Kahina tells me you have encountered lesser kami several times. The centipedes you fought when fleeing the Tachigare, for instance.»
«I thought those were youkai?»
«An inaccurate term. Youkai is merely a synonym for kami with a human value judgement attached. Useless for scientific discourse. Nima manipulation falls into two broad categories: channelers take nima into their bodies and manipulate it directly to various effect, often changing their physical makeup. The bakuhito are almost universally channelers, and Kahina's size is the result of ancient, permanent channeling techniques now lost. Artificers manipulate nima using external tools. A kami is a channeler that has greatly exceeded its normal capacity for holding nima, to the point that it is no longer recognizably the same creature. A greater kami holds several orders of magnitude more nima than other kami, and is incredibly dangerous.»
«You remember, Zabi-kun,» rumbled Kahina. «Orion met us because he was looking for me due to a widespread recall of Society members thanks to the movements we had detected being made by the Great Worm.»
That's right, Xavier did vaguely recall Orion-san saying something along those lines.
Guujin nodded. «Indeed. The 'Great Worm', as it is colloquially called, is an exceptionally old greater kami that many believed to have died or grown quiescent many years ago. When we detected that it was moving toward the Tachigare there was a great deal of worry.»
«And I can help with this why?»
«Scholars generally believe that mononoke—such as the one on your shoulder—are intimately related to an extinct greater kami known as Yggdrasil.»
«Oh, yes, that's true. Princess says she is something like a child of Yggdrasil.»
Guujin leaned forward. «Fascinating. The creature lived that long ago? The historians will pay anything for access to you.»
Evidently noticing Xavier's distress, Guujin sat back. «In any case, you may be uniquely suited to any attempt to communicate or derive meaning from the greater kami's actions, in the unlikely event arise that we run into it. If nothing else, this mononoke could perhaps grant us insight into its movements, should need arise. This is a very unlikely scenario, you understand. We have not had any readings to indicate movement on the part of the greater kami in nearly a month. I merely mention it for completeness sake.»
«And if we do this, we will be accepted into the Society?» asked Sumiko quietly.
«Pending a review of your performance on the mission, yes.»
«May we talk about it? Maybe with Kahina present for the first part so we can ask her questions?» asked Xavier.
«Of course. I will give you the day to consider this, and we will meet again in the evening after you feed.» The artifact stood, nodded to them, and exited the room.
It presumably did not need to "feed" in quite the same way.