5-4 Shushou trudged along. At night she slept in the shelter of a boulder. At dawn she set off again, searching for the mounds and markers she’d left behind. Though like a cruel joke, doing so invited the likelihood she was only wandering further away from the road.
“What a fix I got myself into,” she mumbled to herself. “Whatever should I do?”
A shadow fell across her path.
She reacted before a conscious thought crossed her mind, dove for the cover of the nearest boulder and squeezed her body into the nook between the rock and the ground. Only after she’d hunched down did the possibility of an attack occur to her.
She heard a strange cry above her head and couldn’t help but look up.
She saw wings silhouetted against the sky. Nobody on the Shouzan rode a kijuu with wings. That big monkey must be dead. Other youma were flocking in to fight for its territory.
Rikou pointed out at the prairie. “Gankyuu. Look—”
Gankyuu followed his gaze and saw a pile of rocks. “A marker. Shushou’s?”
“Who else? See how logically they’re spaced out? How three of them together form a straight line?”
Rikou came alongside one and pointed to the next. The three together formed a single compass bearing. He squatted down to take a better look and saw that the stones were stacked on top of each other. It wasn’t a natural formation.
“The markers stop here. She came from that direction and doubled back. One more and she would have come over the rise and seen the campfire.”
Gankyuu glanced over his shoulder. Behind them was the slope of the bluff. Climb it and the remains of the wagon and the campfire would come into view. Following the markers further down the slope, they found the first perched atop a boulder, unambiguously decorated with a bough from a nearby bush.
“This must be the starting point.” The markers radiated out in five directions from the boulder.
“The girl’s still got her wits about her.” Gankyuu caught sight of the nearby shrub. “Rikou.”
He darted around the thicket. The sleeve of a kimono jacket was tied to a branch. Gankyuu looked around and scooted down into the pit on the other side of the thicket. At the bottom of the depression in the rock was a small fissure. Gankyuu ducked down. It was too tight a fit for him to turn around but he got a good look inside.
“She in there?”
“No.” Gankyuu crawled out of the fissure and took in his surroundings. “But she was in there and climbed out. It had to be Shushou. An adult couldn’t make it all the way to the bottom.”
“Which way did she go?”
“Can’t tell. There aren’t any holes in there or in the prairie grass, so she didn’t dig for water.”
“How long could she survive without water?”
“Three days at most.”
“It’s been day already.”
“A child’s stride couldn’t have taken her far, providing a youma didn’t grab her.”
Shushou napped beneath a rock. Towards evening, she set off again. She was hungry, tired, and thirsty. It all added up to feeling completely rotten.
Being on her feet was better than lying down, though she wasn’t sure what to do, where to go, or even if she could find her way back to the cavern. The savanna offered no promising landmarks, only broad swaths of prairie grass and underbrush interrupted by pale earth dotted with boulders. The complete lack of unique features only added to her confusion.
Shushou picked up a stone and scratched a mark on the rock she’d sheltered under and placed the stone as high up as she could reach, then broke branches off a nearby bush. This combination of signs would at least tell her if she started going around in circles.
She sighed. “I’m just going through the motions to make me feel better.”
Each time she stopped to rest, she pondered whether to keep sitting there and hope against hope that somebody would stumble across her or keep on walking. She kept on walking until she grew fatigued, at which point all that walking struck her as a stupid waste of her time.
I never should have left the cave in the first place. If nobody was going to find me there, they weren’t going to find me anywhere.
She said aloud, “Water under the bridge. I’m just going to end up hating myself.”
At this point, her only viable option was to make her way back to the road. Because of her empty stomach and the loss of her sleeve her legs weren’t eager to go along with that plan. The night breezes were cold.
Shushou tottered painfully across the savanna, her spirits dragged down by regrets and anxieties. Amidst her aimless wanderings, she’d slumped to the ground once again when she heard a human voice calling out to her.
Shushou jumped to her feet and scanned the dark savanna.
A man’s voice. Both joyous and on the verge of tears. Because someone had come looking for him.
The cry came again behind her and Shushou answered in turn. “Here! I’m over here!”
She ran towards the voice. Perhaps the lost man couldn’t hear her, for he only repeated himself. He sounded bewildered and alone. Maybe he’d run away with the monkey on his tail and like Shushou had lost track of the road. That’d be fine with her. Having a traveling companion would make hiking across the savanna that much more tolerable.
“Where are you? I’m here!”
“Where are you?”
So he must have heard her. Shushou glanced around as she ran. Despite her aching legs and how worn out she was, she felt like she was flying over the ground.
“I’m here!” she shouted as loudly as she could.
Far ahead of her, she caught a glimpse of a human silhouette slumped against a rock. He mustn’t have noticed her yet for his voice rang out from behind the boulder.
“Where are you?”
“I’m coming!” Shushou answered as she ran.
The man’s head popped up behind the rock. I’m here!”
She couldn’t make out his features from this distance. She didn’t recognize his voice. He must be one of the monkey’s previous victims, fleeing for his life and now lost, like her, in this empty wilderness.
“Are you alone?”
“I lost my way too.”
“My way too.”
The man raised his hand from behind boulder. The eyes in that unfamiliar face narrowed. He seemed to be smiling.
“Are you okay? You’re not injured?”
A gust kicked up. As if running into a strong headwind, Shushou slowed her stride.
“Um—you came with Shitsu-san?”
The man didn’t move from that spot, only peeked over the rock and thrust his arms in the air.
“What’s wrong? What are you doing?”
Shushou slowed her advance and stopped. She peeled her eyes. The man kept his arms raised as before.
“What—is your name?”
“What is your name?”
“You should already know that.”
“Should already know that.”
Shushou’s next move was in the opposite direction. She slowly started to back away. “Hey, you belong to Shitsu-san’s retinue, right?”
“So you’d know Shitsu-san’s first name, wouldn’t you?”
Shushou retreated further. “You didn’t forget, did you?”
A cold chill ran down her spine. Shushou turned back the way she’d come, twisting her body to keep the boulder in her sights. His arms raised, the man only watched her.
Something dreadful permeated the man’s voice. She stumbled, tripped over her own two feet, and tumbled to the ground. The man poked his head over the rock and waved his arms. Shushou planted her trembling hands on the ground and tried to get to her feet.
The man moved his arms. And then he wasn’t there anymore. He hadn’t disappeared, Shushou realized a moment later. He’d jumped into the air, cleared the boulder—as tall as he was—in a single bound and landed right next to her.
“Hey!” said the human face, a human face without a speck of human emotion.
He was at least half human. The thick neck and bulging shoulders and long, burly arms. Scales covered the lower half of his body down to a pair of clawed bird’s feet. Behind him the tail of snake thumped against the ground.
Shushou screamed. She instinctively raised her hand, then reached down and grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it at the face of the harpy. After that, a stone. She scooted backwards while hurling whatever she could lay her hands on.
She clambered to her feet and ran. The harpy caught her by the hair. She writhed desperately and managed to shake herself free and sprint away—right into the boulder.
She pushed herself off the boulder and dodged around it. The harpy jumped clean over Shushou and the rock. She tried to run but the thing had a hold of her head and dragged her back, lifting her feet right off the ground.
A big, vertical slab of stone was right in front of her.
At first, Shushou was sure the scream was her own. The stone charged forward. Her thoughts froze. She thrust out her hands. In the same instance a sharp blow sent her head reeling. She fell hard on her behind. But all she felt in that moment was blank amazement.
Another scream rent the air. The ground shook beneath her. She scooted against the boulder as a pale object tumbled out of the sky.
It took a long moment to realize what had happened.
The pale object was a well-muscled forearm, severed at the elbow. The same arm that had been holding her by the head. The youma had tried to swing her like a club against the charging stone but lost its arm first.
She raised her eyes. The harpy had its back to her. The creature writhed and swayed, its lashing tail smacking Shushou like a whip.
The harpy shrieked again. This time Shushou knew it didn’t come from her. A bellow, a shout of anger that could well be taken as human. It crouched over, waving its remaining arm. The tip of a blade jutted out of its back. The blade appeared to grow out of the skin.
At the same time, somebody darted in from the side and dragged her to safety. She glanced up to see Rikou looking down at her.
She’d barely savored the relief when the tail thudded against the boulder next to them, followed by the harpy’s body slamming into the face of the rock, bouncing off and crashing to the ground.
“Hey!” The silhouette standing at the foot of the fallen youma called out to her. “You alive?”
Shushou tried to answer but couldn’t speak. She nodded.
“Heaven help me, but you really are the luckiest girl ever.”
She wouldn’t disagree, so nodded again.
“What’s the matter? Something wrong with your legs?”
He shook the sword, like flicking off dew, and tucked it into the scabbard.
“I really am the stupidest girl ever.”
Gankyuu only raised his brows.
“I was so frightened—”
Words failed her. The rest came out as a sob. She hugged her knees and buried her face in her arms. Heavy footsteps plodded up to her. Gankyuu reached down, grabbed her by the back of her collar, and hauled her to her feet.
“Stand up. We’re getting out of here.”
Very much like a wayward kitten, Shushou couldn’t help thinking. Her eyes opened wide.
“Gankyuu! Your leg!”
“Yeah,” Gankyuu said with a chagrined smile. “I screwed up. That thing took a piece out of me with one of its talons.”