Rachel and Bafubani made their way south past the corpse pit, walking out far enough into the desert that they were unlikely to run across any sentries, but close enough for Rachel to still be able to keep the buildings of Henka in sight.
As they limped along, Rachel's shoulder wedged under Bafubani's good arm, Bafubani spoke up. «I don't understand you. You're the world snake, right? Why are you begging me for help? You could have left me with the Sundas and just eaten anything that got in your way.»
Rachel pondered for the space of a few steps. Aside from when they first met, this might have been the first time Bafubani had actually started a conversation with her, and she didn't want to waste it.
«I'm not the world snake. I just…have the world snake inside of me. He can save my life in a pinch, but our connection is a little more tenuous than you seem to think. We're both still new to this relationship, so drawing on Sedge—the snake's help too often puts us both at risk. He's only able to stay here away from the core of the world because of me, and obviously I don't want to permanently turn into a giant snake, so it's in both our interests to lay low.»
Is sharing this with the prey wise? interrupted Sedgewick.
Trust goes both ways; given how hostile she's been since you stopped her from flattening us when we first met, I suspect showing a little vulnerability will make her more likely to help us.
Bafubani grunted, though Rachel had a hard time interpreting what that meant exactly. Maybe she'd jarred her injured arm. «What is it you're after, anyway? You said you were looking for someone, right?»
«Yes. This may be a little hard to believe, but I'm not actually from this world. My friend was pulled into your world, and I followed to bring him back.»
«Like I'd have trouble believing any crazy thing you say,» Bafubani grumbled. «You swallowed the world snake. You think that sort of thing has ever happened before? Great kami like that are beyond natural disasters. They either ignore you, or you die. You don't eat them.»
«Well. I didn't have a lot of options at the time.»
Bafubani snorted. «If you say so.»
Rachel let the conversation lapse as she scanned the horizon and adjusted their path to take them a little closer to Henka. She wasn't actually sure where Malken might be, but she figured they would need to get closer for Sedgewick to detect him. Once she was happy with their course, she turned her focus back to Bafubani.
«What about you? What is it you want, Bafubani?»
Bafubani eyed her. «That's asking a lot.»
«You don't have to tell me your life story. I just want to know what it is you're living for. I want your help because it will make it easier for me to get through the desert and find my friend, and because I thought it would be a total waste of your talents to see you commit suicide by army.»
Bafubani grunted again. «Suicide by army. Well, maybe that's not wholly off the mark.»
She fell silent, and Rachel kept her peace. Unlike most of their previous interactions, it didn't seem like Bafubani was silent because she wanted to shut her out this time.
«I want to kill as many Sundas as I can reach with my hammer,» she finally said quietly. «And I guess I did that, thanks to you and the world snake. But here you are, dragging me out of a cage and away from long term imprisonment or execution, and my hammer…I don't know. What do you want from me, anyway?» She practically snarled the last question. There was the Bafubani Rachel knew.
«I don't know what your story is, and you're under no obligation to tell it to me. But back where I come from, I never really had a family. I was constantly getting passed between more and more distant relations. It wasn't a hard life, especially compared to trying to get by in this damn desert, but I think to stay anchored people have to be needed by others. When you don't have anyone who needs you, it's so easy to just—drift off in unhealthy directions.» Rachel stopped walking, and turned her head to Bafubani. «I need you, Bafubani. I need your help finding someone who I need in my life. And maybe once you've done that you'll have a chance to go find whoever it is that you need. Or if that turns out to be heading back here to kill off more Sundas…well, at least you'll have decided on that with a cooler head.»
Bafubani had averted her gaze, and looked extremely uncomfortable. «Fine, okay. I already said I'd help you out. Can we get moving, maybe?»
«Yes, we should. It's about time we made our way back to Henka so I can see about finding Malken. I really hope he was able to find a well. And avoid getting killed.»
The two lapsed into silence as they drew closer to the edge of Henka. Following Sedgewick's instructions, Rachel left Bafubani in one of the near-ruined buildings and took a quick walk through the edge of the town to try and cross paths with Malken.
Stop, said Sedgewick after Rachel had wended her way around several. The ramshackle way in which buildings were laid out made it really difficult to keep an even distance from the desert.
Rachel came to a stop, and turned slowly in place. There, ahead and to the right, Sedgewick directed, and when Rachel investigated the building he'd directed her to she found a shivering and disheveled Malken inside.
«Finally!» he grumbled. «I see you didn't find the rabbit. Well, at least I managed to get water, although let me tell you—»
Rachel cut in before he could really get going. «Actually, I did find Bafubani. She's holed up in a house a little way west. Do you think we should sleep through some of the day?»
«As much as I hate to say it, no. No I do not. I was almost caught three times by those damn animals, and I overheard a pair saying the last time they'd wait until light to track me down. I really don't think we should stick around any longer than possible.»
«Damn. I was afraid of that.» Sedgewick, are you doing something to keep me alert? I don't feel nearly as exhausted as I should after staying up all night, but these two are dead on their feet.
I am passively cycling your nima to allow you to function for slightly longer without sleep, yes. I do not believe we could safely help your human or rabbit friends, unfortunately.
«We'll just have to push through,» said Rachel. «Here, give me most of the water. I'm feeling a lot better than you at the moment, and if what you overheard is right, we need to get out of here as soon as we can.»
Malken climbed to his feet and began redistributing the canteens and jugs in and attached to his pack. «Very well. I have another few hours in me.»
«You're not the one I'm most worried about,» Rachel muttered.
After redistributing Malken's load, the two tracked down Bafubani, woke her up from the doze she'd fallen into, and the three trudged off through the sand toward the valley that ran away from Henka to the south-west, the sky lightening behind them.