Compared to Henka, Yonaharu was little more than an outpost in the desert: a single-well town with barely 20 buildings to its name. The party was spotted well before they arrived at the town, and by the time they passed the first building what felt like the entire population had come out to gawk at them. Unlike Henka, there were no obvious majority types of bakuhito; it was a hodge-podge of birds, a few lizards, and various mammals. Yukio immediately sought out the leader of the town—a middle-aged bakuhito with floppy dog ears—and after he weathered the woman's obvious suspicion, a few urgent words sent the two indoors to share the news that the Sundlin Empire was on the move, and Henka quite possibly fallen.
Meanwhile, Kahina made enquiries from some of the wide-eyed townsfolk, and led Sumiko and Xavier to the south-west edge of town where a run-down, low-lying dormitory served as the town's wayhouse.
«Thank goodness,» sighed Sumiko as the wayhouse came into sight. «Finally some rest in an actual—»
She was interrupted by an older man storming out of the front door of the wayhouse, muttering under his breath.
He was the strangest person Xavier had seen in a long while. For one thing, he appeared to be human: he saw no obvious traces of bakuhito ancestry. For another, the man was absolutely festooned with devices. A pair of thick-lensed goggles perched on his forehead, one lens clear and reflective and the other matte black. His beat-up leather jacket was covered in pockets, out of which poked countless wires, carved bits of wood, even what appeared to be a medium-sized statue. Across his chest was what looked like a giant bandolier, also covered in packets and pockets out of which stuck handles, metal instruments, and what appeared to be a scroll dangling precariously off one shoulder. His hair was mostly white with a few brown streaks here and there.
«Cursed attention-deficit animals,» he was muttering as he stalked out of the building. «Run off at the first sign of—Kahina-chan?!»
«Orion-sensei,» said Kahina, in evident surprise. «What by the earth's shoulders are you doing here?»
«Kahina-chan?» said Sumiko under her breath.
Kahina and Orion took no notice. «What am I doing here? What are you doing here? I've just spent the last several days arguing with these hidebound ingrates to try and get someone to guide me to Henka, and suddenly here you are, not in Henka—which, I have been assured, is across an impassable swathe of desert—but here on my doorstep.»
Kahina flashed a wry grin. «I just crossed an impassable swathe of desert. Why are you trying to get to Henka?»
«I've been looking for you, you ungrateful girl. The Society is calling in its members, and given everything, I didn't trust that you'd make it back on your own.»
«Calling us in? Why?»
The old man—Orion-san, Xavier reminder himself—stared at Kahina, obviously nonplussed. «Why—? Have you been living under a rock? The Great Worm began to move a couple months back, and as best we can predict its course, it's headed straight for the Tachigare. This whole area is in for massive upheaval, and just about everyone is either running towards it or away. That's why I ended up in the ass-end of nowhere; the usual routes into the deep Tachigare are swarming with kami seekers.»
«How would I possibly have known that? Research societies and delicate analytic equipment aren't exactly thick on the ground here.»
«—Well, you have a point there,» said Orion gruffly. «Now you know, though. We'll leave tomorrow. So who are these people?» And he turned his attention to Xavier and Sumiko.
«Zabi-san and Sumiko-san,» said Kahina, gesturing to them in turn. «Zabi-san has been helping me with my pain and Sumiko-san—along with a neko bakuhito named Yukio-san who will be rejoining us shortly—were guiding us south in hopes of finding a new life in the Confederacy.»
«Might we all be so lucky,» muttered Orion. «I'm Kahina-chan's senior from the Society for Progress. But what I am aching to know isn't your names but rather what is that.» He gestured to Princess.
"Ah,» said Xavier. He shot a look at Kahina but she just stared blandly back. Great, ball was in his court. He hadn't planned on meeting anyone other than bakuhito and hadn't yet figured out a good way to either hide or explain Princess's presence. «Um, don't freak out, okay? This is Princess, a mononoke.»
«A mononoke,» said Orion flatly. «You carry a mononoke openly on your shoulder as what, a fashion accessory? Zabi-kun—it was Zabi-kun, yes?—are you an idiot? Kahina-chan, is this boy an idiot? Ah, I mean he's clearly a fine specimen of youthful integrity, and would you mind if I studied that creature?»
«Uh, I'd have to ask her about that—»
«Ask? You can communicate with it? Kahina-chan, I see why you brought Zabi-kun with you. He and I are going to need to have a nice long chat. I'm looking forward to it.»
«That all can wait, Orion-san,» said Kahina. «We will happily leave tomorrow morning with you and you can talk to Zabi-san all you want while we walk, but for now we need to rest. We've had—a trying few days.»
«Yes, yes, of course. By all means. The sooner the better.» Despite his words, Orion didn't move at all, his gaze still keen on Princess.
«Orion-san,» said Sumiko softly. «We ran afoul of a powerful youkai several days north and east of here. Would you be able to tell if it pursued us?»
«You—ah, you mean a kami, my girl. The decrepit colloquialisms I've had to suffer on this trip—but you are correct, if it was in fact powerful I may be able to gain a reading.»
«It could have killed me in a single bite,» said Kahina.
«…rest well! I will go look into this youkai of yours!» And with a cheery wave, Orion headed off at a fast walk towards the north.
«Well done, Sumiko-san,» said Kahina softly.
Sumiko gave a short shrug. «I've met his type before. Zabi-kun, you should bathe and clean your things while you can. I believe that is a bathhouse just over there.» She pointed to a much better-maintained structure peeking around the corner of the wayhouse.
That sounded so divine that all questions of Great Worms and societies and the sudden appearance of chauvinist old men flew straight out of his head. «I am doing that right now!»
«Let them know we'll all need the water,» said Sumiko. «I suspect in a town this small, they are unlikely to waste any, but it can't hurt to be sure. Enjoy!»