The Sunda troops were arrayed in groups, each containing perhaps 100 soldiers moving in formation, although Rachel didn't have the vantage to tell if the formations were square or in some other shape. When Rachel and Bafubani crested the edge of the depression, they found eight of these formations spaced apart in a rough crescent shape and slowly approaching the depression, with four to their immediate front, one slightly to their right, and three farther off to the left. It appeared the formations had largely traveled around the feet of the dunes; although there were small companies of soldiers visible on the nearest dunes, the bulk of the soldiers were snaking around the sides of the nearest dunes.
Thanks to the dunes, Rachel couldn't be sure how many soldiers there were, but given that she could see at least 15 of the formations it had to be a couple thousand, at minimum. The soldiers that she could see clearly were all dressed in some sort of tan uniform with green accents, and when they saw her they uniformly went down on one knee and raised some sort of—were those wooden staffs? They certainly weren't guns—to their shoulders. The soldiers in the rank immediately behind the first raised identical staffs and with a sudden flurry of shouts the formations further back began to move forward much faster.
Bafubani crouched, hand clenched on the shaft of her hammer, while Rachel simply gaped. She hadn't been sure what she would discover on her first day in a new world, but facing off against a literal army was definitely not something she or Bill had predicted.
«Bafubani?» said Rachel quietly, not making any sudden moves. «What do the…Sundas want?»
«Best I can tell, they're here to have a go at killing the world snake,» returned Bafubani, equally quietly.
«That's what you called the giant snake that I ate, isn't it?»
Bafubani inclined her head slightly.
«…well, shit.» Snake?
I am unsure why we would be targeted by a group of humans. I have been isolated at the core of the world for almost a millennia.
One of the groups of soldiers on the top of a dune suddenly burst into frenetic activity, with several different soldiers scrambling to raise and wave red flags. At the signal, cries rang out in a ripple across the army.
I will need primacy.
Damn, Rachel figured as much. She wasn't going to enjoy this. Keep us safe.
Unlike when the snake had emerged to face down Bafubani, color didn't swiftly bleed from the world; it snapped out of it and Rachel briefly fell into cool, scale-filled darkness.
Concentrated nima bloomed from the artifacts held by the front lines of soldiers facing them, shrieking across the desert in a wash of heat and noise. As the rabbit dove to the sand and huddled behind its oversized hammer, the snake lifted one arm and twisted it viciously. The flying nima suddenly arced in all directions, much of it slamming into the sand and sending huge fountains of dirt and grit into the air to obscure the view of the human soldiers. None of the nima came within thirty feet of the pair, although with a thought the snake pulled a solid chunk of it through the ground, quickly transmuting it through the intervening soil and extracting the elements it needed for a physical shaping. As a second wave of nima came flying toward them on the tail of the first, the snake flicked its fingers upward to send it all whistling upwards to dissipate harmlessly in the sky. The action was barely worth a thought. All of the snake's attention was focused on embedding the pattern for its human body within its mind even as it simultaneously remade everything from the waist down into a more familiar shape. Its experience with the rabbit had proven that it was not yet acclimated enough with this form to walk on two legs naturally, particularly not with Rachel so deeply withdrawn.
As the snake's legs fused together with matter from the desert into a snake's tail as thick as Rachel's waist and easily four times her height, a third volley came flying towards them. This one the snake largely left alone; the vast majority of the weaponized nima was off-target thanks to the still-falling screen of dirt. It did, however, siphon off enough from the shots that were on a direct course for it to cause them to dissipate harmlessly before impact, feeding the resulting energy inwards. This situation was dangerous enough without Rachel sleeping through everything. The snake was devoting quite a lot of effort into recalling and maintaining her form, but it would be much easier if she were consciously affirming her own physical identity.
Rachel had never been a particular fan of being tightly confined, but she found the warm, dry scales snugged tightly around her oddly comforting. However, some—thing pulsed briefly through the coils, shocking her into wakefulness. As she groggily regained awareness, she remained in a semi-dreaming state.
It seemed she had transformed, at least partially, into a snake. This didn't particularly upset her, for some reason. She supposed the snake had a good reason for it, and her emotions were strangely blunted. But it felt uncomfortable, like the lower half of her body had gone to sleep and was now just on the cusp of feeling massive pins and needles. Her vision was in shades of gray, as it had been when the snake had been intimidating Bafubani, although this time she was able to see something akin to color. She wasn't sure how to parse it; was she detecting heat? The blobs that she could see forward were somewhat humanoid in shape, at least. There was another non-color that was flashing through the air around her in brief, shrieking streaks, as well. Somehow, she instinctively realized that was nima.
Was the army firing nima at them out of those staff-things? Wasn't nima basically magical power of some sort? Who fought giant magical beasts by throwing raw magic at them? Wasn't that sort of self-defeating? Maybe she was missing something here.
While she dreamily pondered the mystery of nima-based warfare, the snake brought her torso low to the ground, covered her eyes with her arms, and began slithering forward at break-neck speed. Huh, she could still "see" the colors that she was reasonably certain were heat and nima. Guess those weren't actually vision, or at least weren't something she was doing with her eyes. What a strange sensation.
It turned out throwing raw nima at a being over a millennium old was, in fact, not a smart move. As the next wave of concentrated nima blasted toward her, the snake twisted her in a sharp circle and with a feeling of pulling as she turned into it followed by a massive shove as she wove her way back out the nima in the air torqued around her and blasted back through the formation to her right with so much force that it left behind little more than a light mist as it chewed through two additional formations behind the first and finally destroyed the majority of one of the dunes upon which yet more soldiers had been feverishly working to setup some sort of emplacement.
The abrupt and total destruction of an eighth of their visible fighting force caused a lull in the firing, the last few nima bursts sailing harmlessly past well away from Rachel's current position. The snake canted her upright, balancing on the coil of her tail to peer about the battlefield. In the stillness there was a WHUMPF as Bafubani landed nearby, hammer in tow.
«Looks like you're helping me after all,» she said, somewhat smugly.
The snake turned a cold eye on the rabbit. «I take it the prey wishes to be a hunter? If you would be of some use to us, the artifact being constructed there could cause us some discomfort.» The snake pointed to one of the further remaining dunes sporting soldiers scurrying about its top.
Bafubani squinted that way, evidently eyeballing the distance. «Not sure I can make it quite that—»
«Just jump already,» snapped the snake, dragging nima up from several hundred feet below the surface and shoving it into the surprised rabbit's legs. Bafubani winced in pain, crouched downward, and absolutely exploded into the air, arcing far higher and farther than Rachel had yet seen her jump. Before she was out of range, the snake negligently nudged her trajectory slightly to the left to ensure she actually landed on the dune.
As it began to turn Rachel's eyes away Rachel saw Bafubani reach the peak of her arc and as she rocketed downward towards the dune, she whipped her massive hammer up over her head, sending her into a front-spin until she landed hammer-first on the dunetop with a giant explosion of sand.
That was all Rachel had time to notice, however, because almost at the same instant that Bafubani impacted the dune the entire army charged.