There are constant pressures to excel. The slowest and weakest are singled out to perform demeaning chores to encourage the strong and humiliate the weak.
— Funikogo Ganósho, The Wait in the Valleys
Six Shimusògo ran across the shifting sands of the desert. The ripples of power from the lead runners, Chimípu and Desòchu, spread out across the grains and solidified to give Hyonèku, Kiríshi, Mapábyo, and Rutejìmo a solid footing. It was exhausting to be the lead, but Rutejìmo always wished it were him in the front instead of being the one in the back.
Their speed created a plume of dust and rocks over a mile long. Flashes of golden feathers rolled in the cloud, bright as they streamed from the two warriors, but quickly fading as they passed Rutejìmo.
Chimípu and Desòchu could cross a hundred leagues in a day and then fight at the end. Rutejìmo, on the other hand, could barely run a tenth of that before falling over with exhaustion.
Even Mapábyo, who had found Shimusògo a year ago, raced a few yards in front of him. He strained to keep up, knowing they were running painfully slow simply to keep him near. A heartbeat of sprinting and they could have abandoned him. In ten years, they hadn't, but that didn't stop them from running ahead of him. The clan always ran at the speed of its slowest runner, Rutejìmo.
As much as he hated the constant back and forth between the Kidorīsi and Mafimára clans, it was a safe enough route that he could run it alone. While racing along the familiar route, there was no one else to remind him of his failures. He was just a courier there, faster than any mundane runner.
A set of Wind's Teeth, large towering rocks sticking out of the sands, rose along the horizon. Rutejìmo recognized the jagged shapes and his stomach twisted at the sight of them. Ten years before, the clan had taken him and four others to the rocks and had abandoned them to the desert to see if the stress and terror would open the gateway to Shimusògo's power. He survived, but he bore the scars.
Rutejìmo tripped on a hidden ridge and stumbled. With his speed, he pitched forward and slammed face-first into the sand. His impact left a long gouge across the ridge before he flipped over and bounced off the next dune to twist back onto his front. Small rocks cut at his face and hands until he landed hard on his stomach and face.
Humiliated, Rutejìmo remained on the ground and took a deep breath. The grains of sand tickled the back of his throat and the heat rolled over him. The ache of a day's run burned at his legs and back.
He exhaled, and the sand blew away from his face. He crawled to his knees. The searing heat burned his hands, and he brushed himself off to ease the discomfort.
Looking up from his landing, he saw that the rest of the clan members had reached the Wind's Teeth. The fluttering feathers of their run faded, and the plume of dust rushed forward, swirling around their bodies and the rocks before cascading to the ground.
He knew they would be waiting for him. He forced himself to his feet and started walking toward the rocks. Wincing from the burning sand, he crawled up to the top of a dune and then followed the ridge as it swept toward the rocks.
Ahead, he saw two people race off in separate directions, neither of them toward him. A few steps in, a large translucent bird appeared over both of their forms and faded away. Both runners accelerated with a crack of air. An explosion of sand rocketed out in all directions, but was quickly sucked into the wind behind the runners. Less than a minute later, they were a league away.
It was Chimípu and Desòchu, the only ones who could run fast enough to crack the air. Rutejìmo's speed wasn't enough for them to sate the euphoria of running at top speed. Like the rest of the clan, they ran to relax and to mediate, which meant they sprinted around the camp while waiting for Rutejìmo to catch up.
The sour twisting in his stomach increased. If he had more speed, they could run further. But after so many years, he couldn't get any faster even though he tried. No matter how hard he pushed and strained, he couldn't speed any faster. With dark thoughts, he trudged along the sands, cutting across the dunes to cut down on the time for others waiting on him.
He was a few chains away when a third runner sprinted away from the rocks. He frowned and glanced at the two other dust clouds. Chimípu and Desòchu were circling a few leagues away from the rocks. Their bodies were invisible in the plumes of sand and flashing feathers, but the brilliant light at the tip of the clouds marked their presence.
Rutejìmo turned back to the rocks with growing curiosity. When traveling with such a small group, they usually didn't let more than two runners relax at a time.
To his surprise, the runner was coming for him. He stopped in shock and stared until he could identify the figure. It was Mapábyo.
He was still staring when she slid to a halt next to him. The cloud of dust rolled over him, peppering his face with sand and wind, before blowing past. He blinked to clear his eyes and stared at the rod-length furrow that her braking created in the ground.
“Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo? Are you okay?” Mapábyo wore dark red trousers and a white top. Both the shirt and the pants were cut tight to her body to avoid resistance from the wind. It also revealed a generous amount of her dark skin from her wrists and ankles. Small triangles of sweat darkened the fabric underneath her arms and between her small breasts. She had left her travel pack behind and her slender body seemed to waver in the last of the dust cloud.
He wiped the grains clinging to his sweaty forehead and shrugged. “Yeah, just needed to walk a little.”
“You fell,” she said. She stepped out of her trench and up to him. “I saw you.”
Rutejìmo gulped. “You were watching?”
She smiled and her teeth flashed. “Why wouldn't I? Aren't we supposed to watch out for our clan?”
“No one ever does.”
She looked sharply down at the ground. “They should.”
“They don't have to. I know the rules, last runner in serves everyone. It doesn't matter if I run or walk the last few chains.”
“But, Jìmo… Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo,” her voice cracked, “I know that I've never run with you before, but every night on this trip you come in last. We've been running for three days and no one questions why.”
He nodded and sighed, his eyes rising to look at the jagged rocks ahead of them. He still could remember Pidòhu falling from the tallest of the Teeth.
Rutejìmo couldn't answer. He didn't want to tell her how slow he was or how weak. He shook his head and walked toward the rocks. His bare feet left a trail in the burning sands.
A few seconds later, Mapábyo rushed up and matched his pace. Her dark skin seemed to flow through the heat shimmers as she walked next to him. A loose part of her shirt fluttered against his arm, tickling his skin.
They walked in silence for a few minutes. Rutejìmo tried not to think about the twisting in his stomach or the sick feeling that rose up when he contemplated the rocks. He wanted to keep running past them, but being alone in the desert was suicide, and the others wouldn't follow.
“Why?” she asked again, breaking the silence.
He closed his eyes and slowly opened them. “I'm not the best or the fastest. I never will be. You, Chimípu, even Hyonèku will always outrun me. So I don't really worry about coming in last. It's a constant, like Tachìra rising in the east and Gemènyo teasing me.”
“So? Generations ago, Great Shimusogo Tsudakìmo was the slowest. And then he had to outrun the sun to save Myobùshi's spirit from the scorpion clans.” She smiled and tapped his shoulder. “Maybe someday you won't be the slowest?”
Rutejìmo shivered at the sudden electrical touch. He cleared his throat. “But that was his ryodifūne, his final run. When he stopped moving,” he sighed, “he died.”
He gave her a playful grin. “I'm pretty content with living slowly.”
Her hopeful smile faded. She pulled her hand back, her fingers leaving trails in the dust clinging to his sweat. “I don't want you to die.”
He bumped her. “Me either. Breathing is good.”
She pushed him back with a soft giggle. Her hand was soft against his, though he knew she had a mean right hook when she needed it.
“Besides,” he nodded toward the rocks, “have you had your father's cooking?”
Mapábyo pulled a face, the bridge of her nose wrinkling. “I think he poisons us on purpose. At least Mama is a good cook, though,” she bumped him again. “You are too.”
“I've been cooking out here for ten years.” Rutejìmo reached the top of a dune and straightened. “I'm probably the best travel cook there is. I do it enough.”
Mapábyo giggled and stopped next to him. She pushed her long hair from her face and behind her ear. “Then why don't I cook tonight?”
Rutejìmo stared at her with surprise. “Really?”
Her eyes twinkled. “Yeah, but you've to run to the camp.”
He shrugged, but when she beckoned to him, he froze.
Mapábyo smiled and gestured to the camp. “You run, I cook.”
“Shimusògo run,” she said in a whisper. And then she jogged down the far side of the dune. He held his breath while he waited for her to accelerate in a flash of air and dust, but it never came. Instead, she ran down the slope of the sand without magic or speed.
Rutejìmo let out his held breath with a rush. He swallowed to ease his dry throat and raced after her.