hushou opened her eyes.
She drew a breath and felt a fierce ache in her chest. But she was able to sit up so she couldn’t be injured that badly. The only illumination in the dimly-lit cave came from high overhead.
“At least I’m alive,” she said, staring up at the sliver of light leaking through the crack in the massive rock walls.
Although she spoke in barely a whisper, her voice echoed off the surrounding stone. She must be at the bottom of a fissure in the shoulder of the bluff. She could speak and see. It hurt when she moved, but she could move. Her injuries were confined to scrapes and bruises.
“That is a surprise.”
When the youma, turned into a raging ball of fire, faced her and raised its forelegs, Shushou was sure she was finished.
On one side of the cavern, a big round boulder slanted down from the stone wall. Opposite it, two boulders piled atop each other to form a stepped slope. Beneath the slanting fissure formed by the two walls of rock, wisps of dead, dry grass had collected over the eons, forming a thick carpet over the damp earth. The space was a bit wider than Shushou could stretch out lying down.
She got to her feet, placed her hand on the sloping wall, and peered up. The crack in the ceiling was bigger than she’d thought at first. The protruding boulder continued without a break, meaning it emerged above the ground. Water running beneath the boulder had carved out the opening.
“Huh,” Shushou exclaimed, and climbed the stone staircase. The boulders were smooth and mossy and dusted with dry grass but she made her way to the top without falling once.
She poked her head out of the hole and was bathed in warm sunlight. Right outside the hole, the base of the boulder was hollowed out like a big grinding mortar, the pit overgrown with weeds. Shushou grabbed a thick clump of grass and hauled herself out of the hole.
Lying on this circular patch of wild lawn, her spirits lifted. She looked up at the blue sky, took a deep breath, and stood up. She hoisted herself out of the depression and pushed through a thicket of bushes. The broad savanna reached out before her.
It was a scene she’d become well-accustomed to the past several days: the undulating land shimmering beneath the sun, parched patchworks of white rock and earth interrupted by great expanses of shrubbery and grasslands. Far in the distance she could make out the edge of a forest.
She scanned her surroundings and didn’t recognize a thing. Not a human being. Not Kiwa’s abandoned wagon.
What to do? Shushou thought as she clambered atop the big boulder. The apex formed a flat shelf of rock perched not very high above the savanna. From that vantage point, the wrecked wagon was nowhere in sight.
The youma had somehow snagged her with its claws and carried her off to who knows where. One sleeve of her kimono jacket was torn all the way up to the shoulder. So the youma must have caught her by the sleeve and taken her along for the ride until it ripped free.
She fell into the pit and tumbled down into the gap between the boulders and the earth. That was the only thing that made sense.
“What a stroke of good luck—for the time being, anyway.”
That stroke of good luck surely saved her, except that right now she had no idea where she was. Or where the rest of the Shouzan was—or rather, the servants left behind by those going on the Shouzan. Not to mention that she didn’t have any food or water. More reasons not to be so upbeat about the situation.
She tore a strip of fabric from the ripped sleeve and tied it to the bush. With the pitted boulder so marked, she decided to do a little scouting around.
“I couldn’t have gotten so lucky if that youma was still alive. It definitely must be dead.”
She was additionally fortunate that every other youma so feared the monkey demon they’d think twice about wandering about these parts. She could put worries about youma out of her mind for now.
Her shadow stretched out on the ground. She didn’t feel like she’d slept that long but evening must be approaching. After memorizing the shape of the boulder, she walked straight away from it. She still couldn’t see the wagon.
Any further and the boulder would sink out of sight beneath a knoll. She kept going until it was barely visible and using that distance as her radius, traced a wide circle around it. The wagon remained out of view. She tried calling out and craning her ears for a response. There was no answer, nothing like a human voice.
“I might be in more trouble than I thought.” She should go back to the road, if she had the foggiest idea where the road was. “Everybody always says when you get lost, you should stay right where you are.”
The problem was whether anybody was searching for her in the first place. She’d been carried off by the youma. It’d be logical for them to conclude that she was dead, give up, and keep going. That’s what they’d been doing so far. Anybody who went missing was considered long gone by the time anybody noticed. Sticking around waiting for them to show up was the dumbest thing they could do.
“I guess the only thing I can do is go as far as I can.”
She examined the arm exposed by the torn sleeve. Though it hurt, she wasn’t bleeding anywhere. The flesh wasn’t torn. More evidence that the youma’s claws had snagged only the fabric of her kimono. The beast carried her for miles like that. It was hard to believe.
If she could only get back on the road again she could surely catch up with the rest of the caravan.
“There’s nothing left for me to do but try.”
She nodded to herself. After making her way back to the big boulder, she piled up some rocks, stripped a branch from a nearby bush, and planted it in the rocks like a flag.
“I should be able to keep this boulder in sight.”
As long as she didn’t lose sight of it, the cavern would never be out of her grasp. The bottom of the cave was damp enough that if she dug down, she might hit water.
Based on the position of the sun and the shape of the land, she started off in the direction that struck her vaguely as the most likely to yield results, counting her steps as she walked. With the boulder still in view, she heaped some rocks into another mound.
She walked further, gathered more stones and built another mound. By leaving these markers along the way, she could make her way back to the boulder. The shadows grew longer. The sun was setting. She built her fourth mound, her fifth, and walked as far as she could keeping the last one in sight—
And gave up. She must be headed in the wrong direction.
She trudged back to the boulder. This time she headed out along a line exactly opposite, doing the same thing she had before. And with the same depressing results.
The sun had set by the time she returned to the boulder. The gray veil of evening settled across the savanna. But she didn’t have a way of starting a fire and had nothing to eat or drink.
“If I abandon hope now, I’m dead,” she said aloud, doing her best to convince herself as she sat on the boulder and rested. She waited for the crescent moon to rise and set off walking again.
Searching for stones in the moonlight presented a vexing challenge, not to mention the difficultly in seeing the way ahead, which meant she had to build the mounds all the more frequently.
It was nighttime now and her current direction was yielding her nothing. Neither did her next attempt. On her third try, having walked as far as she could from the fifth mound, she spotted the outlines of Kiwa’s wagon off in the distance.
Shushou didn’t see any campfires and didn’t sense any people in the vicinity. “What a heartless crew,” she grumbled to herself.
But her steps quickened. She darted across the savanna, ran until her breathing grew ragged and her sides hurt. She stopped.
The only thing in front of her was an ordinary outcropping of rock, not a wagon. From where she was standing, there was nothing resembling a wagon in view. She whirled around, but the last mound had vanished into the darkness behind her.
“Oh, wonderful. Now I really am lost.”