Rachel had assumed the hard part would be avoiding patrols or sentries, but with Sedgewick's senses both Sundlin soldiers and the rare beast person stood out against the darkness like a torch in a cave. She was able to see them coming from the other side of buildings, and the better-equipped ones carried an aura that shone above the roofs to the point she could avoid them from multiple streets away.
It also didn't hurt that many of them were carrying actual torches.
Rachel had worried she'd need to go crawling around or scaling sheer walls or something, but she just strolled along and kept her eyes up.
Things got a little bit trickier as she drew closer to the main Sundlin camp, because the whole thing was so packed with people and artifacts that it polluted the air around it with heat and light to the extent that individual sentries were more difficult to notice. Thankfully, Henka's slapdash layout of buildings made staying out of sight straight-forward. There simply weren't enough sight lines for the sentries to completely cover their border.
When she'd made it past the outer cordon, Rachel discovered the interior of the camp was going to be more difficult.
The bulk of the army was evidently camped out just outside of the south-western corner of town, although they were also making use of buildings within the town proper. It appeared the animal people had been trying to push the Sundlins out of the town completely, but with limited success. Mostly the clash seemed to have reduced a number of buildings to rubble without shifting the army much at all.
Rachel crouched in a partially destroyed building at the very inside edge of the area that looked to have suffered the most in the fighting and surveyed the camp beyond. While the bulk of the army appeared to be sleeping or bedding down in neatly arranged rows of tents, there were still soldiers and non-combatants up and about—mostly clearing bodies away to the south—in addition to the sentries and occasional patrol of soldiers who entered the camp from the town proper.
As she scanned the area, carefully creeping about the in the shadow of the half-destroyed house she was lurking in, she consulted with Sedgewick. Any ideas for locating Bafubani?
Try south. They are taking the dead in that direction, and I suspect they are more likely to house prisoners near corpses than soldiers.
That made a certain sort of sense. And of course if Bafubani hadn't survived the fight that was likely where she needed to start, regardless.
Rachel dashed from her hiding place to the next closest cover, quickly looked around for watching soldiers, and then hurried to the next, staying as low as she could. Sedgewick grumbled wordlessly, evidently disgusted with the human body's inability to properly slither.
She made it to the south-western edge of the town successfully, though progress slowed painfully as she got closer to the main bulk of the army and had to be more judicious about dodging the people carting corpses out. There was a large lit space just beyond the edge of town that was serving as a staging ground. Bodies were carried in, stripped of equipment and most of their outer clothes by a group of individuals wearing clothes vaguely similar to those Malken had worn when she first discovered him under his wagon, and then were dragged off on crude sledges constructed of fabric and rope into the darkness. Beyond the crude pavilion under which the corpse-looting was going on, Rachel caught sight of a number of large cages. Bingo. Now she just had to figure out how to get over there without being spotted.
In the end, she had to work her way south of the charnel pits the army had dug, slipping through the sentries to come up on the cages from the south-west. The area was simply too heavily trafficked.
By the time she took cover behind the outer cages, Rachel was getting worried about running out of time. It had taken the better part of two hours to creep around the southern edge of the camp, and she wasn't sure how much longer the darkness would last.
Fortunately, there weren't a lot of prisoners and no guards to speak of, and Rachel found Bafubani in one of the central cages after prowling through them for a few short minutes.
The rabbit woman was in pretty awful shape. Blood matted her hair, and the skin on her chest and stomach was red and irritated as if she'd suffered some sort of burn. Numerous small cuts were scabbing over on her legs, and her left arm was clutched tightly to her body with a rough cloth bandage tied around her fore-arm that was stained dark red. Rachel could see the edges of the cut it was securing, and it give how far it spanned her arm it had to be quite deep. Her hammer was nowhere in sight.
Rachel stood as high as she dared—the cages only came up approximately to her chest—and looked carefully around. The traffic of Sundlin soldiers clearing corpses had died down to nothing in the time she was circling their camp, and although it was a little hard to tell from the glow being thrown off by the prisoners scattered through the cages she didn't think there were any sentries nearby.
«Bafubani,» said Rachel quietly. When the rabbit woman didn't so much as stir, Rachel strained to reach through the bars of the cage and shook her leg. «Bafubani!» Still nothing.
One moment, said Sedgewick, and Rachel tried to relax as he briefly took control of her body, lifted one arm to the lock on the cage and sucked a bit of nima out, sending it spiraling through her body and into Bafubani. «Wake.»
The rabbit woman jolted in place, moaned, and her eyes fluttered open. She looked around in apparent confusion before her gaze locked onto Rachel. «Who's there?»
Oh, right. The only actual light was moonlight and residual glow from the main camp behind her and a few dying torches near where the army had been sorting corpses.
«Not so loud.» Rachel withdrew her arm, and Bafubani struggled to sit up, shoving herself up against the far side of the cage while she did.
«You! What are you doing here?»
«I came to find you, obviously. We need you, Bafubani. The other animal people are—not exactly friendly towards random humans in Sundlin uniforms.»
Bafubani shifted, suppressing a groan as she did so. «Bring me my hammer, and we can talk.»
Rachel's stomach sank. The deranged rabbit could barely move, and she clearly wanted nothing more than another shot at the Sundlin army. «I have no idea where it is, and there's no time!» Damn it, she still found Bafubani nearly impossible to read, and she didn't think debating about the rabbit's weapon was going to do either of them any favors. Time to try her only gambit. «Listen, Bafubani. I'm going to open this cage. I'm going to pull you out of it. And then you have a choice to make: will you come with me, help me find my way out of this damn desert, and live? Or will you go crawling after your hammer and die pointlessly trying to kill Sundlin soldiers?»
Bafubani opened her mouth, but Rachel cut her off. «Before you decide, though, I want you to answer me one question: what would Mani want you to do?»
Rachel held her breath. She had no idea who Mani was, but she remembered Bafubani mentioning the name when they first met, and she'd caught it again a couple of times when the rabbit woman grumbled things to herself on their trip across the desert. That was an awful lot of repetition for someone not present, and given Bafubani's fixation on killing Sundlin soldiers coupled with Malken talking around the fact that it sounded like the army had razed its way across the desert from the Sundlin empire…Rachel had some suppositions about what had probably happened to this Mani.
Bafubani froze, the muscles in her arms and legs suddenly standing out in sharp relief. «Damn it,» she whispered. «Damn it, damn it, damn it!» She crawled across the cage, and thrust her face up close to the bars. «You never mention Mani again! You know nothing! Damn it!»
Rachel watched her, trying her best to seem implacable.
«Fine!» snarled Bafubani. «Get me out of here, and I'll take you south. You and that damned Sunda! But first we find my damn hammer—»
«I already told you, I have no idea where it is, and anyway I can carry you, or I can carry your hammer.» She leaned forward, forehead gently coming to rest on her hand where she held to the bars as some of the stress bled out of her. «And the hammer can be replaced. You can't.»
«Damn it.» Bafubani sounded closer to crying than Rachel had ever witnessed.
Sedgewick? The lock?
As her hand moved of its own volition to the lock, ripping nima out and transferring it into the nearby sand as heat while the mechanism inside disintegrated into dust, Rachel looked back to Bafubani where she now slumped at the front of the cage. «Come out,» she said gently. «We have a long way to go yet.»