Styx: 034

It turned out the Sundas had indeed brought supplies, and although they had also been in the process of evacuating them, the defenders had not been ready for Bafubani. The area immediately around the wagon she had targeted was surprisingly empty of anything beyond the occasional splash of blood on the ground. The smashed corpses of former soldiers scattered in an arc up to thirty feet away told another story.

By the time Rachel caught up to her, the tail edge of the Sunda force was in full retreat around the furthest dune, their remaining wagons trundling along with them, and Bafubani was leaning on her hammer near the remaining wagon watching them go with a look of regret on her face. One arm was bleeding from a shallow cut across her shoulder, but she otherwise looked merely exhausted.

If Rachel hadn't just experienced what sort of pain the snake could dish out, she would have thought Bafubani was a total monster. As it was, she wondered why the rabbit woman hadn't bothered healing her scrape with some of the excess nima that she could sense dissipating through the air.

The snake stirred in the back of her mind, and Rachel realized there was someone cowering underneath the wagon. The snake's instincts were telling her whoever it was seemed more like prey than ambusher, though, so she ignored them in the short term in favor of finding herself some pants. Hopping up on the back of the wagon, she began digging through the various supplies. There was a lot of water, a sizeable cache of food, some things that she figured must be weapons, based on the vague sense of nima she felt inside of them, and thankfully a small cache of uniforms. They were all a bit baggy, but Rachel selected the smallest of them, and with the aid of a piece of rope as a belt successfully clothed herself. She also replaced her bloody jacket with one of the jackets the Sundas wore, though she didn't bother with any of the bandoliers or other accoutrements. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything that resembled undergarments that she could find. Her bra was still serviceable, but she was certain she was going to regret the lack of panties after trekking through the desert in what felt like canvas pants.

Clothing sorted, she hopped down from the wagon, checked on Bafubani—still staring off into the distance and pointedly ignoring Rachel—and leaned over to peer under the wagon. The horrified face of a Sunda stared back at her.

«Come on out of there,» said Rachel, as gently as she could.

«What do you—oh,» said Bafubani, swinging around and repositioning her hands on the shaft of her hammer to allow her to swing it freely as the soldier slowly crawled out from under the wagon.

Scratch that, Rachel decided he probably wasn't a soldier. Although his clothing was broadly similar in style, he wasn't wearing one of their uniforms, and bore no weapons that she could see. Maybe the person who was in charge of driving the wagon? Though how he ended up underneath it when the horses or whatever mount that was supposed to pull it were long gone was a mystery to her.

The man was evidently terrified of Bafubani, which Rachel supposed made sense, but although he was backed right up against the wagon in an attempt to stay as far away from the rabbit woman as possible, the bulk of his attention was solidly on Rachel. She couldn't be sure, but it seemed he was regarding her with something akin to awe.

«Can I kill him?»

«Back off, Bafubani!» snapped Rachel. «Does he look like a threat?» She turned her attention to the man. «What's your name? Why were you hiding under this wagon instead of fleeing with the rest of your army?»

«I am Malken,» the man said. «I…missed my chance to escape. I had strayed from my post to watch—ah—in any case, by the time I made it back to the wagon, someone had cut the horses free, and that akuma was on my heels. I hoped you would pass, and I could—but, ah.»

He fell silent for a moment. «If you're going to kill me, please make it quick. I would rather you than the akuma.»

Rachel glared over her shoulder at Bafubani, who was practically bristling with aggression and bloodlust. «Back up, damn it, Bafubani.» She turned back to the Sunda—Malken, she reminded herself. «Are you planning to try and harm me? No? Then I have no reason to harm you. My name is Rachel, and if you show us the direction that army of yours is located so we can avoid it, we'll go our own way and you can go yours.»

Malken stared at her for a long moment, and Rachel shifted uncomfortably. She'd always thought she was skilled at reading people, but ever since she'd somehow ousted the snake from control of her body, she'd been having trouble telling what Bafubani and now this Malken were thinking.

Finally, he spoke up. «I could never…that is to say—» He paused, again, and took a deep breath. «Please, take me with you. I—don't think I can go back to the church. But I can guide you around the Sundlin army, and I can carry supplies.» He gestured vaguely to the wagon at his back.

Well, that was unexpected. «Why would you want to come with us? We—um—just killed quite a lot of your people.»

«I am—I was a priest of the Children of Man—» Rachel heard Bafubani hiss behind her «—but I can't—I've lost—after seeing—I can't go back to that. Please take me with you. I swear, I'm not a threat, and I don't think I can survive the Deadlands on my own.»

The sun that was beginning to pound down on all of them decided her. «Fine. Bafubani, Malken, grab as much water as you can carry. We're getting out of this damn desert. Malken, you can come with us to the first town we find and can figure out where you're going from there. Bafubani, cut the death glare and grab a water container already!»

Suiting actions to words, Rachel hopped back up into the wagon, grabbed two heavy canteens, and slung one over each shoulder before jumping back down. «I know you two are deadly enemies or whatever, but I'm really not in the mood to care. Let's go.»

Surprisingly, they went.