Xavier stared numbly across the desert at the hazy red cliffs rising ahead of him, and wondered for the umpteenth time how he'd ended up agreeing to this crazy plan.
It had been almost a month since they'd fled up the valley ahead of Sundlin scouts—if he never saw another lizard or one of those weird desert rat-things that Rachel and Sedgewick thought constituted food, he'd die happy at this point—and despite trying to convince Rachel that there had to be a better way, he hadn't been able to come up with a good alternative source of large quantities of nima. Evidently Sumiko had told Rachel about the Mukade Cliffs at some point in their brief acquaintance, and they were going to need a massive influx of nima to jump start the process of getting home.
That wouldn't have been so bad if Rachel were the one who needed to go wading through youkai centipedes to try and tempt out one of the really big ones, but he and Princess had been roped into that task because evidently they would be able to get much farther without being detected. One of the few upsides to his voracious appetite for nima was evidently that creatures that relied on sensing nima to find prey were liable to overlook him. Normally that would make him happy, since avoiding being categorized as "prey" was always high on his list of priorities. Today, though, not so much.
On the plus side, he did have Princess. Rachel—or maybe more accurately Sedgewick—had been studying her on and off for the entire trip, and believed that she could be modified to prevent her absurd nima draw from turning into a mindless parasite. That was great news for both Princess and Xavier, but Sedgewick had refused to actually complete the modification because without her grounding the nima that she gathered into Xavier, she would be unable to approach the Mukade Cliffs with him and Rachel wasn't willing to send him into danger completely without backup.
So here the two of them were, advancing towards his least favorite place in this entire world, unwinding a trail of woven plant fiber behind them. Rachel had evidently squirreled away one of the Sundlin artifacts into her pack before they'd quit the camp, and they'd rigged up a way to allow her to detonate it remotely.
Xavier had serious questions about his life choices, that they'd lead him to trying to sneak past a horde of murderous giant centipedes in order to plant a bomb in hopes of luring out even bigger murderous centipedes.
"You know, I wasn't all that worried about this plan originally, but I've changed my mind," said Princess conversationally. "No, don't respond! We don't actually know that these things only hunt based on nima, and there's uh, a few of them around."
Xavier glared at Princess where she was perched at his waist helping feed out their fragile plant-fiber fuse from a pack secured to his belt. That was absolutely not helping. His nima senses were a lot better than the last time he'd been here, but he couldn't distinguish much beyond the fact that there was more nima around him than was normal for the desert.
"Steer clear of that clump of rocks ahead, would you?"
Xavier carefully began working his way further around the unassuming clump of rocks than he had previously been planning on. He remembered all too well what had happened when he'd gotten close to a rock outcrop with Kahina, Sumiko, and Yukio.
Twenty minutes later, they were getting increasingly close to the cliffs and Princess was running out of fuse. Xavier couldn't believe they'd made it so far, but perhaps it helped that they had waited until the hottest part of the day. He was guzzling the water he'd brought with him at a prodigious rate, but at least the desert remained quiet.
"Okay, hold up," said Princess and Xavier froze. Sweat dripped down his face. The sunlight felt like a weight sitting on his head and shoulders. "Yeah, I think this is about as far as we can go. I don't see any clear path through those rocks ahead." They were so close to the feet of the cliffs that the sand had mostly given way to rocks, and evidently there were some impressive swarms of centipedes sheltering under or around them. Strangely, Xavier wasn't able to spot any of the little monsters on the cliffs themselves. He recalled the last time when it looked like the cliff was red because of the centipedes, but this close it all looked basically like rough, red rock. Maybe there were a lot of holes sheltering the horrible things. They'd certainly come nowhere near this close last time.
"Alright, I think we have enough of this rope that if you lob the artifact up over those big rocks Rachel will still be able to reach it. Plus that will definitely stir things up a lot more than if we just let it go off in the sand here."
Xavier risked a whisper. "You're sure? The fuse won't break?"
"Nah, Rachel and Sedgewick really did a number on this part of it. I know those bits at the other end that you worked on would probably fall apart in a stiff breeze, but this bit's crazy strong."
Xavier shrugged, and pulled the artifact out of the bag, hefting it in his hand while he considered the throw. The thing was wrapped around with the vine-like ropes they'd created and tied up into a tight little bundle. It was pretty awkwardly weighted; it felt like one side of it had a lot more of the vines knotted than the other.
Nothing for it, he supposed. Throwing his arm out, he hurled it as far as he could. The artifact sailed over the rocks and he heard it hit the ground with a soft clatter, the fuse trailing behind it.
"Uh, we should head back. Maybe move a little quicker than you did getting here? But step softly. Yeah, that would be good."
Xavier immediately checked to ensure the fuse wasn't looped around him or still trailing out of the bag or anything, and when it was clear they were free of it he began speed walking back the way they'd come.
Princess climbed up to his shoulder and stared back behind him. "Yeah, that definitely riled a few up, but it looks like they haven't noticed you. Let's just keep moving, though."
Xavier didn't look back. He frankly didn't want to know.
At last they made it back to Rachel, who was kneeling in the sand with her hands on the fuse and her eyes closed.
"See?" said Princess. "No problem. We didn't even have to run from that big one that was sniffing around after we tossed the artifact."
"Everything good?" asked Xavier. "Because I am absolutely never doing that again."
"I think so," said Rachel, eyes still closed. "Yeah, I agree, Sedgewick. That makes sense." She finally opened her eyes, and looked up at Xavier. "You ready, Xavier? Things are going to get a little hectic when Sedgewick kicks things off."
"Wait a moment while I get my pack sorted." He undid the bag at his waist, and went to tuck it into his pack. "So we're going home today, then? Should you do whatever it is you're planning to do for Princess first?"
"No, we have to draw whatever kami we're able to attract to the Deadlands."
"Wait, what? You never said anything about that! You just said you needed a big influx of nima!"
"Oh, yeah. Sedgewick thinks that the place where you and I both entered the world has a thinner barrier between this and other realities. He's pretty sure that's where the great kami tree you told me about once stood."
"But that's days away! And you haven't seen those centipedes, they're crazy fast! How are we supposed to lead a pack of them all that way?!"
Rachel sat back on her heels. "Sedgewick doesn't think we'll have to lead anything. His plan is to ride one."
Xavier found himself utterly at a loss for words. "Ride…are you insane?"
"See, I knew he wouldn't like it," Rachel commented, evidently not to Xavier. "We'll be fine, Xavier. These things may be big, but they're still bugs. Sedgewick is reasonably certain that he can tweak their nervous system and make them think they're chasing us even if we're riding on their back."
Xavier stared at her. "Reasonably certain. He's reasonably certain. You do think that we're going to get home, right? I really don't want to get eaten by a giant centipede. They're…I can't describe it. I still sometimes have nightmares about the day that we ran into them."
"It'll be fine, Xavier. Trust me. You've got your pack in order? Good, let's get this party started." And she planted both hands on the fuse, shutting her eyes once more.
The fuse swelled under her hands, and then the swollen section rocketed away, the vines disintegrating behind it.
"What the…" began Xavier when the sand around them seemed to jump as chunks of rock went flying skyward near where he'd left the artifact. "What the hell did you do?! The explosions you caused in the Sundlin camp weren't anywhere near that big!"
"We've been working on our technique," said Rachel smugly. "Sedgewick figured out a way to basically make the artifact take on aspects of his original nima signature, so aside from exploding pretty spectacularly that should really draw the youkai in if they're as desperate for nima as your stories made them seem."
"That's great, Rachel, but we need to run, right now."
"Well, things certainly seem stirred up over there, but…"
"No, you don't understand, the last time I was here something exploded near the cliffs, but it was a lot less strong and it drew out a centipede that could probably swallow me in one bite. We need to go now!"
The dust was clearing from where Sedgewick had set off his nima bomb, and from this distance the desert surface there seemed to be boiling. Xavier desperately tried not to imagine why it would look that way. "Rachel…"
"Don't worry, Xavier, we're—oh. Oh, now, I admittedly wasn't expecting that."
Xavier's focus snapped back to the cliffs, which were…shivering? Flexing? It was like when that monster rose up off the top of the cliffs last time, except it was the whole cliffside.
Rachel grabbed Xavier's arm and started dragging him…toward the centipedes?! "The hell are you doing?!"
"We need our ride! Can't wait for it to come to us anymore!"
Rock cracked and fell as multiple inhuman screams rent the air.
Rachel charged toward the centipedes, Xavier reluctantly in tow, and the centipedes charged right back at them.