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Styx: 051

Had she been told sneaking into a camp full of soldiers who would happily attack her was going to be fun, she would have assumed the person talking to her was nuts.

But Rachel had to admit it: she was having a great time. Unlike their first run-in with Sundlin soldiers, not only were Rachel and Sedgewick able to plan out their approach beforehand, but they'd had a month to acclimate to one another. Rachel was getting better at manipulating nima directly, and Sedgewick was much more confident in his memory of her actual body, which allowed them to work in tandem with both supplementing the other's strengths.

And it was a lot of fun. They'd slid into the river, which was surprisingly cold right up until Sedgewick tweaked her metabolism and then it just felt like another temperature. Not comfortable, exactly, but not inimical the way drastic temperature differences typically felt. As she swam downstream, Rachel barely had to come up for air since Sedgewick was pulling oxygen directly out of the water in small quantities, making her initial deep breath last much, much longer than she'd expected. Then they'd worked their way out, located a stash of unused uniforms in a tent near the river's edge that was clearly being used by the support staff who were managing the logistics of providing for a group of this size, and walked straight into the area full of supplies without being challenged.

At that point, the real fun began. Rachel carefully selected a group of devices that were small enough to conceal, but packed so full of nima that they were guaranteed to set off a nice reaction, and through a combination of walking as if she belonged and carefully slipping through the cracks in attention of the camp's denizens, she successfully planted them at the base of several watchtowers along the northern edge of the camp.

At that point, it was simply a matter of overloading one of them from a distance, and watching the tower explode outward in a raging blast of nima. Of course, soldiers came pouring out of the woodwork, but they never paid any attention to Rachel. Some of them were even kind enough to escort her away from the location under "attack". She took the opportunity to saunter over to a watchtower on the southern side of camp, plant another device, and happily exploded that one, too.

Chaos reigned. Evidently no one was having any luck figuring out how their watchtowers were being destroyed, and it kicked off a massive hunt for burrowing youkai, which Sedgewick thought was hilarious. He liked it even more when a pack of actual youkai descended the cliff where Rachel had set off her secondary distraction and punched through into the interior of the camp through the hole she'd left in its defenses.

As soldiers rushed every which way, Rachel walked westward, confident that Bafubani and Malken were even then creeping past the northern edge of the camp in the dark. She and Sedgewick both kept their senses peeled for artifact usage to the north, but the fortuitous youkai invasion evidently was enough to keep sentries on both sides of the camp sufficiently panicked that Rachel didn't even need to overload any more of the artifacts she was carrying.

It wasn't until she was halfway across the camp that Sedgewick commented, What a strange creature. I wonder what on earth a Sundlin is doing with it? and Rachel turned and found herself face-to-face with Xavier.


Xavier was hurrying through the enemy camp, hoping against hope that no soldiers noticed how poorly fitting his uniform was and desperate not to lose track of Sumiko, when a Sundlin staff member who had been hurrying the other way grabbed his arm, and said in disbelief, "Xavier?"

He froze. He hadn't heard his name—his actual name—since he'd gone to sleep in his own world. His eyes snapped to the face of the woman who had stopped him, and he almost didn't recognize her. She was tanned, dirty, hair brutally tied back in a dingy blob, and more than anything she just didn't belong there. It took him several seconds before his disbelieving brain could catch up to what his eyes were seeing. "Rachel? Wait, seriously, Rachel?!"

Her face changed before his eyes. The corners of her eyes crinkled up, her mouth turned up in a huge smile, and his doubts fell away. It was undeniably Rachel. "I found you!" she said, and bear-hugged him. He was so surprised he hugged her back without thinking.

"Ack! What are you doing?!" cried Princess, squirming where the satchel she was riding in had gotten caught between their hips. "Enemy camp, remember!"

Someone else felt the same way. «Zabi-kun, you idiot! What are you thinking?!» snapped Sumiko, and bodily dragged the two of them aside into the shadow of a nearby tent. She grabbed both their shoulders and forced them apart. «Who is this? What the hell are you doing?» This last was directed at Rachel.

«Ah, sorry! Sumiko-san, this is—» Xavier froze. He hadn't seen her move, but Rachel had a hand gripping Sumiko's forearm and an expression on her face like nothing Xavier had ever seen.

«Release us,» hissed Rachel.

"That can't be…" muttered Princess, but Xavier barely noticed.

«Uh, Rachel, Sumiko-san? Could you two please let go of one another? Look, Sumiko-san, this is Rachel, she's someone I know. She's not a threat, okay?» Wait, us? Oh, he had a very bad feeling about this.

Sumiko ignored him. «What are you?» she demanded through gritted teeth.

Rachel pushed upward, forcing Sumiko's hand off her shoulder. Sumiko's arm briefly shook from the strain of resisting, but as soon as she started to try to pull her arm back toward herself, Rachel released it. Sumiko went for the knife at her waste, and Xavier dove in between the two. «Stop it! Damn it, Rachel, Sumiko-san is a friend! Rachel, what do you mean—»

«Just what is going on here?» demanded a strident voice.

Xavier glanced over his shoulder to find a Sundlin officer staring at them in anger. "Shit."

He was looking the wrong way, so all he saw was the look on the officer's face shift toward surprise and alarm, and then Rachel had whipped past him, slapped a hand against the man's chest, and with a burst of nima the man collapsed like a rag-doll. Sumiko whipped past on Xavier's other side, caught the officer mid-fall, and dragged him quickly backward into the tent behind them after a cursory peek through the door.

Rachel stepped after the two, pulling Xavier along. "Inside, now. We can talk things over once we're out of sight."

"Xavier," said Princess as he started to follow Rachel into the tent. "You know this woman? She's from your original reality?"

"Yeah, she's a—classmate, I guess."

"Hmm," said the mononoke, and lapsed into silence.

Xavier had the sudden irrational impulse to run the other way. He just knew he was not going to enjoy whatever confrontation he was walking into, and they still hadn't found any evidence to show what the Sundlin army was up to.

And to run into Rachel. Here of all places, and wearing a Sundlin uniform. The narrative this time around was too cruel.

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About the author

EO Tenkey

Bio: Read all the things. Write all the things. Sleep? What's that? Does it taste good with chips?

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