Sand and Ash 18: Darkness
Decisions of the heart are rarely announced in public. — Fakinori Détsu
Rutejìmo raced across the sands, his heart pounding in time with each strike against the hard ground. Feathers and dust poured around him, solidifying the earth under his feet before exploding into a cloud that stretched for at least half a mile behind him. He knew he was in pain and he would suffer, but he had to catch Mapábyo. He had to keep running.
Shimusògo, the tiny spectral bird, was always three steps ahead. Unlike him, it ran effortlessly over the sand and rock. Rutejìmo would never catch it, but that didn’t stop him from trying. He knew if he could, then maybe he could finally run fast enough to catch Mapábyo before she ran out of his life forever.
He ran against the setting sun. He could feel it reaching the horizon. When it sank below, all the power would rush out of him, and he would be forced to run with his own strength.
Rutejìmo would also suffer the full brunt of his exhaustion and injuries. Over the day, he had felt blood drying in the wind but there was no pain. The power of Shimusògo kept it away from him while he ran, but that would all stop once the magic ended.
The knowledge that he would be in agony hung over him. Every few seconds of running meant a hundred less feet he would crawl in agony. He strained to keep moving, to avoid stumbling and losing precious seconds.
In the distance, to his right, he spotted a plume of colored smoke that marked a guarded oasis. Turning toward it, he pushed himself to run faster. His feet flew across red-tinted sand, and he fought back the discomfort beginning to push through the euphoria of running.
He didn’t make it before the sun dipped below the horizon. Between one step and the next, the power slipped away and he stumbled forward. He planted his feet to come to a sliding halt, his efforts leaving a rod-length furrow in the fine sand.
Rutejìmo crawled out of the gouge. When he reached the top, a wave of dizziness slammed into him. With a groan, he slumped to his knees. Agony throbbed in his joints, adding to the discomfort of the cuts, bruises, and scrapes that peppered his skin. The blow Mapábyo had made across his back still burned painfully. Underneath the injuries, the burn of torn muscles and the ache of fatigue throbbed.
He tried to push himself up, but his strength fled him and he fell forward.
For a long moment, he remained on the ground, breathing through his nose. The grains of sand clung to his nostrils. It would be so easy to remain there until darkness came. But then it would be too late.
Groaning, he forced himself back to his feet. He trudged along a dune, his bare feet digging into the sand. His entire body shook violently with the effort. Once he reached the top, he looked around for his destination.
Rutejìmo spotted it a quarter mile away, a glow in a haze of colored smoke. Without his magic, it was an insurmountable distance and one that he would have long since given up. He sighed and looked around for a closer shelter: a rocky outcropping or a cliff.
Shuddering through the agony that assaulted his senses, he shoved his hand into his pocket. When his fingers caught on the sharp tips of the tooth necklaces, he froze. He forced his fingers along the sharp edges and explored it. He looked back toward the oasis. It was a quarter mile of agony, but there was still a chance.
He groaned and turned to the oasis. He glanced down to the ground. Shaking, he forced himself to take a step. Agonies reported themselves along his senses, sharp pains mixed with deep aches. Wincing, he gripped the teeth tighter and then took another step. When it didn’t hurt as much, he took another.
“Please be there. Please, Shimusògo, please let her be there.”