Styx: 037

Three days later, and Rachel was coming to the conclusion that Bafubani was a problem Rachel would be unable to solve. She'd tried talking to the rabbit woman numerous times, but nothing drew her out of her shell. Wordless kindness did nothing to dent her reticence. Giving her space failed to improve her mood.

At this point, Rachel was wondering if perhaps she should simply bid the ornery woman good-bye in Henka, and good riddance.

Both Malken and Bafubani seemed to think that moment was fast approaching. They'd evidently gotten slightly lost—not surprising, given the complete lack of landmarks—and eventually had to fall back on following Sedgewick's guidance toward what he called the greatest locus of nima in the vicinity.

Rachel really hoped they weren't headed straight back into the arms of the Sundlin army, as she'd gleaned it was actually called through conversations with Malken.

She'd had a chance to chat with Sedgewick during the endless walking of the last few days, and the snake had urged her not to rely on his intervention, particularly when a little caution ahead of time could prevent them coming into conflict with armed soldiers. Rachel had told Malken she would like to avoid the army, to his whole-hearted agreement. Bafubani hadn't been interested in discussing it.

As the sun sank in the sky, a haze that had been sitting on the horizon ahead of them for some time at last resolved into a dilapidated line of buildings. It seemed they had reached Henka at last.

By unvoiced agreement, all three picked up the pace, slogging their way through the wending small dunes with renewed vigor. The sky had darkened considerably by the time they finally drew close enough to Henka to make out any details, and when they did, what greeted them was not promising.

The closer they had drawn to the town and the darker it had gotten, the more pronounced had grown a blue-white glow from somewhere within the town. As they drew close enough to the leading edge of houses to see the disrepair and in some cases utter ruin that afflicted the buildings, sounds of shouts, screams, and explosions made it to their ears.

They'd made it to Henka, but it seemed the Sundlin army—or at least some part of it—was there, as well.

As it became increasingly obvious that the noise from within Henka was due to fighting, Bafubani's ears perked up more and more. At last, she whipped herself around to face Rachel.

«Alright, I got you to Henka. Time to part ways, Miss Snake.» She was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet in her apparent eagerness to rush off towards the fighting.

«Ah, yeah,» said Rachel, feeling awkward and off-balance. «You're sure you don't want to keep traveling with us?» It would be undeniably useful to have someone native to the desert along. Malken had admitted his lack of knowledge of the animal-people's lands between here and the south himself.

«You feel like helping me kill off those Sundas?» Bafubani shot back.

«No. But—»

«Then that's all we have to say to one another.» Before Rachel could gather her thoughts, Bafubani gripped her hammer, crouched, and hurled herself through the air toward the border of the town.

"Shit!" said Rachel. What would a manga protagonist do here? Probably rush off into action after Bafubani, who was likely supposed to be some form of dere personality; Rachel could never bring herself to care enough to remember the various prefixes. Getting embroiled in the vendetta of a short-term companion without even knowing what the vendetta was about definitely sounded right for the various isekai she'd read at Bill's insistence.

But she doubted that would get her any closer to Xavier.

Malken timidly stepped closer. «What would you like to do?»

Rachel turned away from where Bafubani had disappeared into the town. «Come on, we need to get under cover. I have no interest in fighting your former compatriots today.»

The town seemed fairly deserted, the buildings in a poor state of repair even as they penetrated their way deeper in. Darkness continued to fall as Rachel and Malken carefully made their way from street to street, peering between houses before crossing any intersection. It was nerve-wracking, not least because the whole town was laid out so randomly that there were no proper roads. It was rare that Rachel could see more than the lengths of one or two buildings.

Knowing that there was active fighting, she would have preferred to avoid the town entirely, but they needed water. She only hoped they could find a well or similar that was unguarded.

They were passing by the doorway of yet another seemingly empty home, when a sudden, «Hsst!» made Rachel and Malken both jump. «This way, hurry! The Sundas don't patrol out here often, but they could be along at any moment!»

Rachel and Malken shared a glance, and then Rachel ducked through the door, stepping aside to avoid leaving a silhouette in the doorway. «Who—» she began, but was interrupted.

«No time! Just follow me, and stay quiet!»

The two slunk after the indistinct shape in the gloom, which lead them through a pair of rooms to the back of the house where a window had been enlarged enough to slip through. Outside, the figure stood on a ledge just outside the window and hoisted themselves onto the roof.

When Rachel and Malken followed, they found their mysterious benefactor maneuvering a wide board into place to cross to the roof of the next building over. Malken stepped forward to help, but with a grunt and a slight rush of nima through his arms and legs, the stranger swung the board to bridge the gap. He placed his hands at its base, holding it steady. «Go, go! I'll be across after you.»

The two carefully made their way across the board. It was nerve-wracking. The space between the buildings wasn't terribly large—just big enough to be impossible to jump—but the board still swayed and bent alarmingly. Rachel found herself crossing crouched down, practically on all fours.

Once Malken and Rachel were both across, the stranger retracted the board and stashed it, before leaping across the gap in a move reminiscent of Bafubani, right down to the powerful surge of nima Rachel could sense cycling through his legs.

«Right, next—» he said quietly, turning their way and stopping dead. The twilight was less deep on the roof out of the shadows of the buildings, and Rachel could see that their benefactor was another animal person; this one maybe part sheep? Or perhaps a goat, judging by the horns. His tone of voice completely changed, going hostile in an instant. «Wait, you're human

Off the roof. Now!

Rachel didn't bother trying to process what Sedgewick was sensing. She just turned, shoved Malken backward, sending him stumbling, grabbed the edge of the roof, rolled her legs over the edge, and dropped.

She landed hard and awkward, stumbling to the side and almost colliding with the wall of the building. There was a hiss of something slicing through the air above, and then Malken was tumbling backwards off the room, landing hard on his huge pack with a cry before rolling over and gasping for air. Rachel grabbed his shoulder, hauled him up through sheer adrenaline, and forced him to scurry down the street along with her.

Behind and above them, she heard the animal person curse, and soft thumps as he retreated across the roof away from them.

«Come on come on come on,» she muttered to Malken, who was stumbling along with difficulty. «We have to go!»

The two hurried between buildings in the dark, caution thrown to the wind as Rachel desperately tried to put distance between them and their erstwhile benefactor. She wasn't sure what it was she'd heard, but from what she could pick up from Sedgewick it had probably been some sort of weapon. Things were bad if she was going to get attacked simply for being human. Damn Bafubani for abandoning them, anyway.

Keeping an eye behind her, Rachel led the two towards the glow that seemed to be originating near the center of town. She was reasonably sure the Sundlin soldiers would attack on sight, as well, but given how invested the animal person had been in getting away from them, she figured they were less likely to be pursued in this direction.

After several twists and turns, and with the sound of fighting growing ever nearer, Rachel finally stopped in front of a seemingly-abandoned building. Sedgewick, you think anyone is inside?

One moment.

Briefly her vision twisted, as Sedgewick borrowed her senses, but it passed quickly.

I believe the building is empty.

Good enough. Rachel dragged Malken through the door, and shoved him down to the side before crouching down next to him.

«Malken, are you hurt?»

«No,» he murmured, out of breath. «At least, I don't think so. That akuma would have taken my head off if you hadn't pushed me, but I don't think I'm bleeding.»

«Good.» Rachel stood, and leaned over just far enough to peek out the small slit of a window that was nearby. Nothing was moving outside that she could see. «What do you say to staying here for a bit and trying to get through town once whatever fighting is going on over there dies down?»

«That seems sensical,» said Malken faintly.

Rachel forced herself away from the window. She was just as likely to give away their hiding place as she was to see anyone coming. «Let's move a little deeper inside, if you can.»

«I'm…alright.» Malken laboriously climbed to his feet. She couldn't be certain in the gloom, but Rachel thought his jacket was hanging strangely. He'd better not be lying about being injured.

Nothing she could do about that just at the moment, though. Frustration and fear coursing through her in roughly equal measure, Rachel led the way further into the darkness.