Sand and Ash 20: Waking Up Alone

Footsteps on a beach are quickly forgotten during a storm. — The Shadow King’s Lament (Act 3)

Rutejìmo crawled out of unconsciousness with a groan. He struggled to place himself, the nightmares still swimming through his head. Gulping, he looked around at the darkness surrounding him and tried to calm his rapidly beating heart. While his hands reached out for one of his lights, he relived Desòchu’s and Chimípu’s brutal punishment and Mikáryo’s rebuke. But instead of a blanket underneath his hand, his fingers brushed against cold sand. A sharp edge of a rock scraped his palm and he yanked it back. He rolled away from it, trying to force his mind away from his nightmares and focus on the world around him.

He cracked open one eye and stared ahead of him. It was morning, a few moments before the sun rose. There was nothing but waves of sand as far as he could see through his bleary vision. He blinked slowly and tried again, his eyes slowly coming into focus. Still, he saw nothing but sand and rock.

Rutejìmo closed his eye and pried both open. He blinked and stared at his surroundings, hoping to see something besides the desert. When he didn’t, he rolled back over and stared in the other direction, his mind somehow struggling to take in the miles of barren land.

And then it struck him. He was alone.

Completely alone in the desert.

Images flashed through his mind: of Karawàbi with his throat cut, of the bodies he had stumbled on over the years, and the sight of the massive snake that Mikáryo killed when he was sleeping. There were horrors in the sand that preyed on loners.

His heart began to beat faster and he felt ice drip along his spine. There was no one else with him. He could picture faceless men coming up to cut his throat, or creatures burrowing under the sand only inches away from slaughtering him.

Crying out, he scrambled to his feet and fumbled for his tazágu. Yanking the weapon out, he spun around and waved it in front of him, scanning the horizon for attackers. He didn’t spot any, but that didn’t stop him from turning around frantically and brandishing his weapon.

After a few rotations, he was sure he was alone. The anticipation of danger continued to itch and he spun around again to make sure.

Groaning, he came to a stop and used one hand to shake the sand free from his black hair. It bounced off his bare chest before cascading to the ground.

His injuries still ached along his body, but the scratches had managed to scab over and a few of the bruises didn’t hurt as much as they did before he slept. Sleep, he decided, had done some good, though he berated himself for closing his eyes.

He didn’t need to look to know the sun rested right below the horizon. In a few seconds, he would feel it breach the horizon and the familiar rush of excitement would course through him. He felt sick, though, as if he questioned if he still deserved the powers that Tachìra and Shimusògo granted him. Another part of his mind wondered if he would lose his powers with the new day. Or would it take longer before the sun punished him for his transgression?

Memories of his mistakes slammed into him and he fought the urge to crawl back into the sand and cry. Clamping his mouth tight to avoid whimpering, he knelt down and brushed off the two packs before hoisting them over his shoulder.

He grabbed his water skin and shook it. The light weight and faint sloshing brought a fresh surge of despair. He had precious little left. He could survive for a few hours by running fast enough to lose himself to magic, but he only had enough for a single stop.

Frowning, he tried to picture the map of the area. Like most of the couriers, he knew the areas he ran intimately, not only to avoid dehydration in the sand but also to find alternative routes when storm or bandits threatened his run. But Rutejìmo didn’t know Mapábyo’s mail run any better than Hyonèku’s or Gemènyo’s routes. It took six days, that much he knew, which meant there were still four more days of running before he reached the destination.

He turned back the way he had come. He couldn’t see Wamifuko City, but he knew how to trace his steps back. He shook his head and turned his back on the city, he couldn’t return there for days. Even if he did, there would be no shelter waiting for him.

Turning around, he scanned the horizon until he spotted the southwest road that would eventually take him to Monafuma Cliffs. The cliffs were on a river, but they were four days from here, enough time to die of thirst before reaching water.

His other choices weren’t any better. Shimmering waves of sand and rocks surrounded him. To the north, he spotted a dark line that could be cliffs, mountains, or a sand storm. To the southeast, nothing but gravel and rock until the horizon.

As he pondered his choices, he gathered up the ring of travel lights he used to push back the darkness and stuffed each one in his pack. The pale light wouldn’t keep larger predators at bay, but he didn’t dare spend the night in darkness. He growled to himself, he didn’t plan on sleeping either, but exhaustion had taken him when he wasn’t expecting it.

Standing up, he looked around in hope of a path before him. There was none, only faith and hope; he didn’t enjoy a large share of either.

Rutejìmo took a swig of his water and held it against his tongue before swallowing. Closing his eyes, he faced the sun and whispered prayers to Tachìra; the whispered words felt more precious than ever before. He knew he was begging for his life and a second, or third, chance. Not that Tachìra had any reason to ever give Rutejìmo anything.

He ended with a whispered plea. “Please, don’t let me die out here, Tachìra. I beg you.”

The sun peeked over the horizon. When the light struck his body, he felt a shiver of power and the rush of heat. The sun felt good again his skin, and for a brief moment, he no longer felt ashamed.

With a tear in his eye, he gave the sun a deep bow before turning to the southwest and the Monafuma Cliffs.

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