By the time evening had fallen, Malken had fully proved his worth, and despite his apparent inability to speak coherently to her and evident terror of Bafubani Rachel had no regrets in accepting his company. When they'd needed to take shelter in the hottest part of the day, Malken had expertly constructed a small tent that he had packed out from the supply wagon. Bafubani had scorned it, opting instead to shelter in the scant shadow of a nearby rock, but Rachel had dozed inside with Malken awkwardly huddled next to her, feeling surprisingly pleasant despite the oppressive heat. Perhaps a side effect of her bond with Sedgewick. He'd certainly seemed happy with their choice to stop and bask.
When the temperature stabilized, Malken had packed the tent away without any fuss as Bafubani grumpily tried to groom sand out of her hair. Of the three of them, he'd also done the best job packing food and water, so when it came time to eat something in the evening, the main reason their diet was more than just hard-tack was thanks to Malken and the oversized pack he'd been lugging about all day. Even Bafubani reluctantly accepted some dried fruits and jerky.
As the twilight deepened and they finally made camp, Malken proved his worth once again. Rachel watched with fascination as he laboriously worked his way around the periphery of their encampment, channeling nima from a strip of sand as he went and forcing it into a number of random rocks that he'd dug up, causing the rocks to emit a cool blue glow. Thanks to Sedgewick, Rachel could sense how he was drawing the nima in, roughly shaping it, and then using it to force the rocks toward luminescence. It was somewhat similar to some of the things Sedgewick had been doing earlier in the day, except smaller in scope.
Although she was certain Sedgewick would tell her what was going on if she asked, she couldn't pass up her first good opportunity to try and entice some conversation out of Malken.
«What are you doing?» Rachel asked, approaching Malken as he neared his original starting point.
«Ah! Uh. This? Um. This is a simple pest deterrent. And the light helps, because…um…it's dark. At night.»
Bafubani snorted, and Malken flinched.
Given that Malken was kneeling on the sand, Rachel squatted down to avoid looming over him. «How is that a deterrent?»
«Ah, well I deplete the nima in a wide and deep enough patch, see, without taking so much that the sand collapses. So it lasts most of the night until it can equalize again, and in the meantime will exert a small drain on anything that crosses over it. Bigger animals won't care, but smaller pests and insects will avoid it by instinct.»
Rachel sat back on her heels. «Huh, that's clever. I didn't know you could draw only a small amount of nima out of something like that, especially not something as small as a bunch of grains of sand.»
«Well, uh. It's not that big a deal.»
Bafubani spoke up from where she was leaning against her hammer. Rachel was beginning to wonder if the rabbit woman was ever not touching her weapon. She'd even dragged it off with her to pee while Malken was setting up the tent. «Well aren't you the talented little heretic. I heard good little Sunda boys and girls used artifacts for that sort of thing.»
Malken glared down at his hands, and Rachel impulsively spoke up. «Say what you want to say, Malken. Bafubani isn't going to hurt you.» Bafubani snorted, and Rachel shot her a look. «She's not.»
«Channeling isn't heretical,» said Malken softly. «It's just…unsafe. I told you I am—was—a priest of the Children of Man. We learn to channel safely so that others do not have to.»
«So they have half a chance of understanding and killing real channelers, he means,» said Bafubani.
«Bafubani—» began Rachel, but Malken cut her off.
«She's not entirely wrong,» he said quietly. «The Children of Man are not at all friendly with—people like her. Channelers are all threats, because they are all at risk of becoming a kami. We clergy put ourselves at risk to protect everyone.»
«Put yourselves—» exclaimed Bafubani, before snapping her mouth shut. «Then why are you here with us, Sunda? Hoping to murder us in our sleep like you did—» She forcefully ceased speaking yet again. Rachel could practically feel the rabbit woman's glower, and realized with a start that what she was actually sensing was Bafubani actively cycling nima through her body.
Malken hadn't moved from his original position, arm stretched out to caress the sand, though he wasn't making any move to complete his barrier. «I am not a warrior-priest. I just served the church, but ah…did you see the nima storm yesterday? I'd never seen anything like it, and it was just—nima. Awe-inspiring, but impersonal. So much bigger than us. Like the ocean. Not good, not evil, just…deserving of respect. When the high priests told us the great snake kami was moving, that it was time to fight it, I had to see it. I volunteered to help with the supplies, then slipped away.» His eyes slid over to Rachel, but then he instantly averted his gaze. «You were terrible, but—we sought you out. And I realized that even if you were as great a threat as the high priests said, you weren't evil, just…overwhelming. I don't want to die. I don't want my people to die. But fear and hatred were only serving to keep the old priests in power. They weren't the right response. I guess my faith in the church itself just—broke.» He straightened up, turning toward Bafubani for the first time. «I may be a child of man, but I'm not your enemy.»
Bafubani kept cycling nima for a moment more, until Rachel sensed her abruptly let it drain away. «Tell that to the dead,» she muttered and rolled over, pulling the handle of the hammer beside her to the sand with a thump.
Malken paused for a moment before turning back to his pest deterrent with a virtually inaudible sigh. Rachel smiled at him, and left him to it.
She needed to talk to Bafubani soon, but now was not the right time. From the things she'd said, Rachel was certain the Sunda army had destroyed something—or someone—precious to her.
Rachel sighed to herself as she crawled into the tent and curled up in one corner. She wasn't sure how she was going to deal with a rabbit woman on a revenge quest, but one thing was certain: she was glad it was her problem instead of Xavier's.
There was no way he wouldn't have mucked this one up somehow.