«This should be far enough for now,» said Rachel, and Xavier collapsed where he stood.
That has been the most miserable walk through the dark he'd ever experienced. The only light was from the moon, which although reasonably full didn't do much more than make the dips and hollows in the sand even more difficult to spot. He was fairly certain he'd twisted an ankle, but he hurt so much all over it was hard to tell the difference. Rachel appeared to be able to see in the dark, and he'd always suspected that Sumiko had far better night vision than he did. Now he'd definitively proven it.
Nearby, Sumiko and Rachel were talking quietly, like the whole trek had been no big deal. Damn them.
«Alright, Sumiko, what exactly is it that you're looking for? If you're planning to head back to the Confederacy, then this is about as far as you should go. That Sundlin camp is going to be more stirred up than a hornet's nest, so you'll want to go around through the desert proper to get past them, and that's not going to be easy. Especially with all the lesser kami out there.»
«I'm not worried about the Sundas. I'm worried about you.»
«Sedgewick thinks that's bullshit and so do I. If I were an out-of-control kami you and most of that camp would be dead. Look, I think Xavier passed out, so just spill. What is it you want, anyway?»
He wasn't passed out! But he was also completely unable to move. Would probably never move again. It wasn't worth correcting her, in any case. That would probably require moving. Princess had crawled up onto his chest and was sitting upright, flower turned toward the two women. Evidently she was interested, as well.
There was silence for a bit, and Xavier was just about ready to pass out for real when Sumiko spoke up.
«I feel responsible for Zabi-kun. When he arrived, he barely spoke a word of our language, and I helped him learn. Then he ran afoul of that mononoke, and well—I guess maybe I saw myself in him, a little bit. A mononoke infested me when I was younger before it jumped to—but that's really none of your business. In any case, ever since he arrived he's been leaning on me, and I suppose somewhere I started thinking of him like family. I—miss that. We've got a lot in common. We're both transplants, both have suffered because of mononoke. And then he offered me a way out of the desert. And I want that.»
She was quite for a few moments, before continuing almost too quiet for Xavier to hear. «He's a good kit. He shouldn't be haring back off into the desert with no supplies and a greater kami for company. So. That's my story, or as much of it as you're getting. What do you want?»
«Has Xavier ever told you where he's from? No, didn't think so. We're from a completely different world—different reality. That's why he's got that crazy nima deficiency. I did, too, before Sedgewick asked me to consume him. Oh, don't give me that look. See, it doesn't matter whether you believe me or not. The important thing is that I can get him home.»
«To a different world.»
«See, that's why he didn't mention it. Go ask the flower if you want a second opinion. I'll bet it figured out there was something weird about Xavier pretty quick.»
«You're not making a very good case for why I should trust you.»
«The thing is, Miss Racoon, I don't actually care if you trust me. Xavier and I are going home, and there's not much you can do about that. If you're so worried, I suppose you can tag along, but we're headed for the middle of this damn desert, and somehow I doubt that's somewhere you want to end up being stranded. Or, alternately, I can share with you what I know about the Sundlin army that's camped out over there, and you can head back to the Confederacy and whatever obligations you abandoned when you chased after Xavier.»
«I don't much like either of those choices,» Sumiko muttered. If Rachel responded, Xavier couldn't hear it. «Alright, say I leave you two alone. How exactly are you planning to travel to a completely different world?»
«Admittedly, that's a bit of a work in progress. Xavier and I both popped into your world in the middle of the area you call the Deadlands, and Sedgewick believes it occurred at the place where a greater kami tree used to live. Evidently reality is a little…thinner there, I guess. He's fairly certain he and I can tear a hole big enough to shove Xavier and I back to our original reality, but it's going to take a really big external source of nima to kickstart the process. So our two challenges are getting to the Deadlands in the first place, and then locating a big chunk of nima somewhere. I figure worst case scenario we'll have to try and wrangle up a bunch of the lesser kami out there, although getting enough juice from them is going to be a trick.»
«So you do have a plan, then.»
«Enough to go on. The narrative may fight us initially, but I suspect we can force it around.»
«Don't worry about it. There, I've been frank with you. Now return the favor already. Do I need to babysit you, or are you going to suck it up, say goodbye like a big girl, and head back while you can?»
Man, when did Rachel get so harsh? Xavier was feeling a larger and larger sense of disconnect. Granted, he hadn't seen her in months, and she'd apparently assimilated some sort of crazy powerful kami in the meantime—actually, nevermind, he supposed going from background character to OP isekai heroine probably explained quite a lot.
«I don't see that I have much choice.»
«Nope, you don't. So you want to know about the Sundlins?»
«I was traveling with a former Sundlin priest named Malken—by the way, if you happen to run into him, I would really appreciate if you told him good-bye for me. We were traveling with a bunny woman named Bafubani, too. You'd like her, she's prickly. Anyway, according to him the big state religion in the Sundlin Empire is the Children of Man, which basically preaches that kami are evil. They've been steadily losing power over the last century or so, but then Sedgewick sensed Xavier's entry into your world, and went looking for him. The world snake being on the move was enough to give them a solid political boost, and they organized a small army to come try and take him down. Since the easiest route to the central Tachigare is up the Keikoku Valley here, they stormed through every bakuhito settlement on their way, and left this force here as their primary rear-guard. I suppose they might have designs on the Confederacy eventually, but honestly, Sedgewick has no interest in them and would probably crush them if they managed to force a confrontation, anyway. I suspect they'll run out of steam sooner rather than later, especially since I doubt they can detect him when he's not making massive waves by traveling around in the center of the planet. That enough for you?»
«That will work. I'd love more detail, though.»
«Like I said, Malken and Bafubani were trying to slip around the Sundlin army while I raised a ruckus inside. See if you can find them, and you'll have all the info you want.»
«I'll do that. You really plan to bring Xavier home? And you need a large nima source to do so?»
«I have absolutely no reason to lie to you.»
«Very well. I might have an idea about that…»