Sleeping alone in the desert is dangerous. Even in a time when no one has magic, there are always creatures hunting for a quick meal.
— Janithin Vans, Fear of the Dark
Rutejìmo sat alone, surrounded by nothing but the icy blanket of his nightmares. His eyes ached as he stared into the black that surrounded him. The moon wouldn’t rise for a few more hours, and only a few stars sparkled in the sky.
It was the safest time to sleep in the desert, when no clan had powers, but Rutejìmo couldn’t close his eyes. Every time he took too long to blink, or his thoughts sank toward unconsciousness, the nightmares blew across his mind. It was the same thing, Desòchu’s final fight. Nothing could tear his mind away from those last few seconds of his brother’s life.
He sniffed and fought a sob rising in his throat. He clamped both hands over his mouth and nose, shielding them as he shuddered with the effort. He couldn’t make noise; someone might find him. Something might kill him. It didn’t matter if it was a creature, nature, or human. He was vulnerable and alone, a weak man with a weaker heart.
Tears rolled down his knuckles. He gripped his face tighter and forced his eyes to remain open. He couldn’t save Desòchu. He watched his own brother charge into battle, and he just stood there. He did nothing. In his mind and fantasies, he tried to play out a world where he ran after Desòchu and they both survived. But, even as he clutched to the hazy fantasies, reality crushed his hopes.
Rutejìmo was not a warrior. After so many years, there was no doubt about it. He was weak and slow. He hadn’t killed anyone, at least not with a physical weapon, and he couldn’t—even in his dreams. He tried to change his fantasies, to be the brave warrior with glowing feathers. It only lasted a few seconds before Desòchu became the hero in his dreams and then died, his blood splattered across the sand and the light fading from his eyes.
The tears ran faster, dribbling down his arms, soaking into the sand. He trembled as he dug his hands into his jaw, preventing it from opening. Only the wheeze of his breath rushing through slick fingers filled the night around him.
His stomach gurgled around the cold pit of food he managed to shove into his mouth a few minutes ago. It sat in his gut, a cold weight that refused to ease the discomfort. He couldn’t risk an alchemical flame to cook it or even a glow light to push back the night. In a moonless night, even a spark could be seen for miles.
Rutejìmo drew in air through his fingers, choking on it as he tried to force himself to breath. He managed to draw in one breath, and then another. Each gasping shudder took all his will just to bring air into his lungs. He concentrated on it, trying to push away the waking nightmares that bubbled underneath his thoughts.
After a few minutes, his mind drifted away from the endless loop. He remembered another time he was alone in the night, sitting helpless. Someone came for him, a Pabinkúe rider named Mikáryo. She had threatened to kill him in exchange for her sister’s death and always called him “pathetic,” but she saved him that night. It wasn’t until morning that he knew how much she had done, when he saw the giant snake she had killed.
He wished she would come back, stepping out of the darkness with the single word that defined everything about him: “pathetic.” Mikáryo didn’t appear to his silent wish. No pitch-black horse stepped across the sands. There wasn’t even the hiss of someone walking. There was nothing around him but the impenetrable black marred by a few stars.
Fear bubbled up, a thousand images flashing through his mind. After a few minutes, he had to risk even a flash of light to push away the darkness. With one hand over his mouth, Rutejìmo reached for one of his glow lights. Three of them rested in his lap. He fought the key at the bottom, picturing the effort to twist it around until the mechanism inside began to produce light. His mind continued forward knowing that someone would see it.
His breath grew faster as he played out the horror in his mind, of a warrior attacking in the middle of the night. His thoughts rewound and went down a different path, of being killed in his sleep. And then another, each one more horrifying than the others as he experienced a hundred deaths just because he needed light.
The globe slipped from his finger and clinked loudly against the other two. He flinched, and the unbidden horrors arose again. It wasn’t the light, but the sound that drew his death. Scene after scene burned in his mind until he sobbed into his palm.
He knew how it would end. In five years, he had seen the worst ways people could die. He had seen disease, old age, and injuries from fights, falls, and crushing. He saw the pain painted across naked faces and shared them in his heart. A thousand deaths hung in his memories, unwritten on paper but still willing to remind him that he would not die in a bed or with comfort. It would hurt, and he would scream. And there would be no one to guide him to Mifúno’s breast.
Rutejìmo inhaled sharply and lifted his head to feel the wind, but there was nothing. The air had grown still and suffocating over the last few hours. Not even the hiss of a breeze interrupted the silence that he filled with his weak cries.
His hand stroked along the glow lights and over his hip. He stopped when his palm rested against the hilt of his knife. He knew how to die, that much being a kojinōmi gave him. He could picture killing himself and his body tensed with the anticipation of the one strike he needed.
But then he would be abandoning his clan and family. Two children waited for him in Shimusogo Valley. In a few years, Kitòpi would grow into a fine young courier, maybe even a warrior. He had the right attitude, the drive to push forward even when he got hurt. Chimípu was the same way, a spark that pushed her beyond the limits of just running. She had become Shimusògo’s greatest warrior because of the spark.
Piróma, on the other hand, was as different from her brother as Rutejìmo was from his. She was quiet but observant, following a path different from the others. In many ways, she resembled Tateshyuso Pidòhu. Pidòhu had been weaker than the others but more intelligent than Rutejìmo could ever hope for. He and Piróma already shared a common interest in reading, writing, and drawing.
The tears started to dry on his knuckles, but he still felt the ache in his eyes. He couldn’t kill himself, not when there was even a slight chance he could see his two children again.
Trembling, he pulled his hand off his knife and reached over to dig into his pack. He found the Book of Ash and his pen, but he couldn’t see the pages. He set the glow lights aside and fumbled with the book to set it in his lap. Blindly, he oriented it correctly using the rough binding as a guide and then flipped to the back where he knew there was a blank page.
His body aching and exhaustion plucking at his senses, he took a deep breath and let the nightmares flow. As they did, the images still sharp in his mind, he began to write. Not a single line to document Desòchu’s death but everything he remembered, every grain of sand and horror he felt. He switched to poetry when he couldn’t write straight, and then back to detailing the scene. He poured his despair and helplessness onto the page, trusting that years of writing in the dim light would keep the words legible in the morning.
He wrote down his nightmares on a page he couldn’t see, because it was the only thing he could do.