On the upside, there didn't seem to be a lot of supporters for the Sundlin Empire in Sanzumachi, so Xavier and his party were able to stay in the town rather than camping out in the desert. On the downside, virtually no one knew what the army was doing, either. There was certainly rampant speculation, and plenty of fear, but not a lot of useful information. The encampment appeared to be keeping itself pretty well to itself, aside from a show of force when it first arrived that devastated a few of the buildings on the east edge of town, and the residents of Sanzumachi were by and large fearing the worst. Rumors ranged from Sundlin staging an invasion of the Confederacy to a concerted effort to wipe out the bakuhito to developing some sort of crazy powerful weapon that would allow them to rule the world to founding a town so they could take over the desert trade routes as part of some sort of byzantine plot that would result in the end of the world.
The old bakuhito man who attempted to convince Sumiko of that last one had a surprising number of details to back up his story, but Sumiko had assured Xavier that even if crickets developed into youkai—or kami, as Orion insisted on calling them—that they wouldn't develop a hive mind and attempt to take over the world through a puppet state. They'd just eat their way through anything in their way.
Xavier honestly didn't feel that last bit was as comforting as Sumiko evidently thought it should be.
Thanks to the lack of useful information, the group had eventually decided that they had no choice but to try and infiltrate the Sundlin encampment and see what they could find.
This was easier said than done. Yukio, Sumiko, and even Kahina spent several days scouting out the camp, but it evidently had well defined borders, not a lot of options for cover on the approach, and primitive watch-towers spaced around the edges. Sumiko had a route that could get them most of the way, but was unsure if they would actually be able to penetrate the border of the camp. And of course if they did, they would need disguises, because even in the dead of night a camp this large had a fair amount of activity and was reasonably well-lit: soldiers keeping odd hours, since they had very little to do; people heading to the latrine pits that were dug a ways outside of the main borders; people working on preparing food for the next day.
To Xavier's surprise, when they discussed who should infiltrate the camp, he was on the short list. Aside from his humanity providing him with a basic built-in disguise, his status as a null might actually come in handy if there were any artifact-based security measures. The others may or may not be able to detect such things, but none of them had safe ways to disable them. After much debate, they settled on only Sumiko and Xavier making the first attempt to scout a way into the camp, since they were the two who would most likely be able to pass as Sundlins if they could get their hands on some uniforms. Meanwhile Yukio and Kahina would be overlooking the camp from the edge of the canyon in hopes that they could provide support if Sumiko and Xavier needed to suddenly make a run for it.
Xavier thought it was a terrible plan, but wasn't sure what else to suggest. He still hadn't been able to think up any good alternatives to seeking the help of the Society for Progress, and Guujin was watching. Besides, he didn't think failure was likely to result in anyone dying, at least. He was pretty sure if it were that kind of plot he'd have seen a casualty by now.
As Xavier carefully followed in Sumiko's wake as she stealthily approached the lit sand that signified the border at which the watchtowers would have the best visibility he found himself trying very hard to convince himself that this was definitely the case. His head was convinced; his nerves, not so much.
She paused in the shadow of a prickly-looking bush that rose slightly above Xavier's waist. Xavier crouched down next to her.
«This is the last of the good cover I was able to locate,» Sumiko breathed in the lowest voice she could without whispering. Evidently whispering carried farther. «We'll have to go one at a time for the next bit, unless I wave you on and then you run for me as fast and low as you can. Got it?»
Xavier swallowed. It didn't help. «Got it.»
Sumiko nodded and turned her attention to the nearest watchtower. They waited there for what seemed an eternity, before she suddenly launched herself out at a crouching, fast walk until she reached a low mound of rock that she lay alongside. She held up her palm in a clear signal for Xavier to wait, then rolled out from the rock and crawled to a bush much like the one he was hiding behind, but far smaller.
She stayed crouching behind the bush for several seconds, before waving at him. "This is awful," Xavier muttered to himself, and then did his best to replicate her fast walk to the rocks before throwing himself down behind them. His heart was hammering and he felt like he should be booking it away from here as fast as possible. He was not a stealthy person, damn it! Also, this was not a normal way to use your legs!
"You're doing great," Princess assured him. "I'm watching the Sundlins, too, and they're barely glancing this way. Sumiko came up with a smart approach."
They kept going moving in starts and stops, zig-zagging across the landscape until in a last heart-pounding moment Sumiko gestured urgently and Xavier found himself chasing after her and into a ditch that lay near the base of one of the watchtowers.
They had to step carefully once they were in the ditch, thanks to the intermittent wooden stakes. If Sumiko hadn't been there to catch him, Xavier was fairly certain he would have impaled himself on one in his mad dash after her.
They lay in the shadow of the ditch, Xavier breathing hard. Can't they hear us? he mouthed at Sumiko, but she just put a hand to his lips and shook her head. He wasn't sure if she'd actually understood or not.
"If they could hear you, there'd be a commotion right about now, don't you think?" asked Princess.
He supposed that was true.
They'd been lying in the ditch for long enough that both their breathing had evened out, and Xavier was starting to wonder if Sumiko would ever decide to move further, when the first whumpf of a distant explosion sounded, and debris fountained into the air farther up the valley.
"Well, that's as good an invitation as you're likely to get," remarked Princess, and then Sumiko had hold of Xavier's hand and was pulling him in a mad scramble up the ditch and into the camp proper.
There was no way he wasn't going to regret this.