Rachel had taken one look at Xavier and known that if she didn't get him out of this world as fast as possible, he was never coming back.
"It's going to be a tall order, but your best friend is speed," Bill Brock had told her during one of their late night planning sessions. "Non-reincarnation isekai all follow the same basic pattern. The protagonist gets thrown in over their head, they get embroiled in some big conflict, and they pick up a few bosom pals. Then after enough time has passed that they've integrated into their new world, they might be given an opportunity to come home but they decide to stay of their own volition. You'll be in equal danger of that, of course, if things take too long, but Xavier's been there for longer than you, and if he's got protagonist status then the hooks will be a lot deeper. As soon as you find him, you need to disrupt his status quo and get him out of there as fast as humanly possible."
Bill had frowned, staring into the distance. "Honestly, Rachel, I don't think you have very good odds. This is one of those genres where you're not fighting just genre conventions, you're fighting a whole 'nother world. You sure you want to try this?"
"Yes. I—I have to try."
He'd looked away, eyes moistening. "Well. You've got the best shot of any of us."
Later that night, Hana Brock had drifted up to the doorway of the upstairs bathroom in that spooky way of hers while Rachel was brushing her teeth. "Rachel, we want you to know: if you manage to find Xavier and he cannot or will not return, but you have found a way to bridge our worlds…come back to us. You are a part of this family, too."
Feeling as if she were about to choke on her toothbrush, Rachel hadn't been able to do anything but nod. Hana patted her on the shoulder and glided back into the darkness of the hall.
She'd sworn then that she would find Xavier and bring him back or die trying.
Now here she was, facing those critical first moments that Bill had warned her about, and she could see the indecision in Xavier's face. He wanted to stay, and her stomach took a dive for her feet. He clearly had more friends than just this racoon girl holding him back, and the plant-thing was in constant physical contact with him; she hated to think what that meant. She held her breath, wondering frantically what she would do if he found some excuse to stay just a little longer, but then—
"I'm not a protagonist."
Sweet relief; she'd done it. She didn't even catch what he said next to the racoon; her mind was already calculating the quickest way out of camp. Should she try and find Bafubani and Malken? But no, that was a distraction. She felt awful about abandoning them, but they had good odds of making it past the camp and over to the Confederacy where they'd presumably be safer. They'd helped her, she'd helped them, and there wasn't any need to try and balance those scales further. She needed to get Xavier out of this tent, back to the Sundlin supplies, load up as much as they could, and then head back up the valley before the chaos died down.
The racoon was a problem, but—
«I'm coming with you,» said the woman—Sumiko, Rachel recalled.
Xavier blinked, obviously blind-sided. «What? Sumiko-san, no, you've got to let Yukio-san and Kahina-san know I've gone. And I'm sure we could at least help you make it to the command tent, couldn't we Rachel? I'm going home, but you still need to pass the Society's test.»
«I don't trust this friend of yours.» Sumiko waved toward Rachel. «I can duck into the command tent on the way, if necessary, but I'm going with you for at least a few days so I can be sure this kami doesn't want to simply eat your mononoke and leave you for dead.»
Rachel cocked her head. «You're being awfully blithe about that. If you think I'm so dangerous, why would you say something like that to my face?»
«I believe I know what you are,» said Sumiko, angry but more respectful than she'd been earlier. «Frank honesty is the policy that is most likely to keep me alive.»
Well, she's not wrong about that, said Sedgewick with amusement. For a snake who had been threatening the racoon girl moments before, he seemed oddly taken with her now. She has dealt with reasonably powerful kami before, I expect. We can usually tell when someone is lying, and so many people do it to save their own skins that frank hostility is worth leaving alone merely for the novelty.
Not now, thought Rachel in irritation.
Xavier had been trying to argue with Sumiko, but Rachel cut him off. «Fine, Sumiko can tag along until she's satisfied that I'm not going to snack on you or something. Look, we need to go; my distraction out there is dying down already.» This was unfortunately true. She'd been monitoring the nima flow, and it was obvious that the lesser kami were being pushed back out of the camp, and order was generally restoring. «Why do you want to visit the commander's tent, anyway?»
«We need to find out why the Sundlin Army is camped out here,» said Sumiko. Xavier appeared to still be processing the fact that Rachel was alright with Sumiko coming along.
Rachel shrugged. «I can tell you that; I've been traveling with an ex-Sundlin for the better part of a month. Let's go. We need to get out of here before Sedgewick is forced to cause a scene.»
Sumiko visibly paled. Huh. Rachel wouldn't have bet on that even being noticeable, given the fine layer of fur she was sporting across most of her face. «We don't want that. Lead on.»
Rachel had thought she'd never ask. Sedgewick?
Yes, I think it is about time for a final "diversion" as you like to call them. We should do this again sometime. It has been too long since I got to enjoy so many interesting reactions in such a short period of time. Sedgewick reached out through their feet, located the thin strand of nima that he'd woven to connect them to the other artifacts that she'd planted, and with Rachel's help send a burst of nima through that destroyed the connection but resulted in a satisfying series of whump sounds on each border of the camp.
«What the hell did you just do?» asked Xavier, staring at Rachel in consternation.
She shrugged. «Secured our ticket out of here. Let's go.»
The three of them ducked out of the tent, and advanced through the suddenly-expanded chaos.