Sand and Ash 32: Forbidden Words

Silence is the hallmark of banyosiōu. They do not speak nor are they spoken to. To do otherwise breaks the illusion and demands an immediate response.

— Roman Tomsin, Observations of the Desert

It was a beautiful day in the desert, and Rutejìmo wanted to sing. Everything was finally right: the breeze that licked his skin, the wavers of heat from the sun bearing down, even Opōgyo's thudding footsteps complemented the beat in Rutejìmo's heart. He made his way back home with a smile.

Mapábyo had come home late the previous night to a celebration. Her efforts with the other clans had earned the Shimusògo a decade-long agreement at almost twice the original contract price. It was also her last run before giving birth. Her bulging belly was already hampering her ability to race across the sands though it was still two months before the child would be born.

There was only two months left before Rutejìmo could rejoin the clan.

While missing her had taken its toll on Rutejìmo's hopes, Chimípu and Pidòhu were always there just when he thought he couldn't handle it anymore: they read poetry and told stories, brought warm food when he couldn't cook, and talked about how they missed him. For his birthday, which passed in silence, they brought fermented drinks and just sat near him. None of them said anything and neither of them made note when Rutejìmo couldn't stop crying.

Tearing himself away from his memories, he spun around and gave a little dance. Life had reached a peak and everything felt right. His despair over being a banyosiōu had faded. He cleaned and hauled and did the chores no one else wanted. Even the more horrific of duties, cremating the dead, had become a task of honor and something he cherished instead of dreaded. He spent his nights reading from the Book of Ash and learned how to be a kojinōmi. Sadly, he also added at least three more entries into the list of the dead near the back.

In his spiritual death, he had somehow found a place. And his role wasn't just among the Shimusògo. As if the other clans somehow knew that the old woman had given him the book, requests had begun to show up for him to tend to the surrounding valleys. Even traveling groups somehow knew about his decision. He had cremated a Ryayusúki warrior only a week ago, and a couple who died at night a few weeks before that.

No one besides Mapábyo talked to him, but the requests were just as clear as a shovel by the cave entrance. Instead of tools, he would find a small token of white or gold—the colors of death—and a strip of paper with the name of the dead. The book told him how to respond, both in approaching the other clan and the rituals that needed to be performed. It was poetic but concise, a beginner's guide to tending the dead.

It took him a day to bring up becoming a kojinōmi to Mapábyo. In their whispered conversations in their bed, she agreed. He thought about telling Tejíko when he could speak again, but then realized no words were needed. He would just do it, silent as the dead. The rest would understand and help just as they had since he returned.

A rumble drew his attention.

Rutejìmo looked up curiously.

A glowing shot burst from the lookout and streaked across the sky. He turned to watch it sail toward a flock of birds, but the burning bola sank too fast, and it slammed into the ground a quarter-mile away. It was almost a year ago when he had tried firing rocks off the cliff, and he smiled at the memory.

Light flashed in the corner of his eye. Rutejìmo frowned and turned toward it, already knowing it was Desòchu running around the valley. From the distance, Rutejìmo could see nothing but flashes of light ahead of a rapidly increasing plume of dust that rippled out in waves and rose into the air. There were very few who could summon enough of Shimusògo to burn so brightly, and Chimípu was a hundred miles away escorting some couriers.

Desòchu circled around and then came toward Rutejìmo. The translucent image of Shimusògo grew with every heartbeat, and Rutejìmo felt the rolling power despite the distance.

Bracing himself, Rutejìmo took a deep breath and waited for his brother to pass. Desòchu would cover the distance in just a few seconds, and there was nowhere Rutejìmo could hide.

The air sucked him toward Desòchu, and then held still as the warrior passed in a blur. Even though there was at least a chain between them, the air reversed and slammed into Rutejìmo. Sand and rock peppered his face from the passing wind.

Rutejìmo considered throwing something at him, but Desòchu was running too fast for either man to see the other clearly. By the time he managed to get a rock in his hand, Desòchu would be on the opposite side of the valley. Despite Rutejìmo's inability to do anything, Desòchu continued to rush past him as the warrior raced around the valley.

Choosing not to respond, Rutejìmo turned and watched his brother sprint toward the far end of the valley. When he saw Gemènyo and Faríhyo only a few feet away, he turned to them.

“I see Desòchu is struggling with his inner demons,” said Gemènyo while turning to watch Desòchu rocketing around the valley cliffs. “He's been running for over an hour now, hasn't he?”

It had been almost two hours, but Rutejìmo didn't say anything. He could still feel the passing wind from every lap Desòchu made.

Faríhyo murmured in agreement.

Gemènyo exhaled around his pipe, leaving a cloud of smoke. His bare feet crunched on the gravel. Both of them parted around Opōgyo and Rutejìmo, neither of them looking at the banyosiōu between them.

On the far side, Faríhyo said, “Mènyo, look.”

Rutejìmo turned to where she pointed. In the distance, Hyonèku and Kiríshi were chasing each other much like Rutejìmo chased Mapábyo in Wamifuko City. The winding paths and cloud of dust looked like a storm as they came together and parted with blasts of air. With each impact, all movement stopped for the briefest moments before they rocketed apart. The explosion of sand burst into the air as a monument of their touch.

There were other puffs of dust and sand surrounding the valley; other couples spent a few hours enjoying each other's company. Even the young were out, running after Desòchu in a pack that would never catch him.

“Just like a pair of kids who just fell in love,” grumbled Gemènyo. “Giving my wife ideas.”

“Their daughter is happy and very pregnant. A birth is always a time of celebration, more so when the father is dead.”

“I don't see how they can be that happy, Mapábyo is sitting all alone in her cave.” Gemènyo inhaled on his pipe before letting smoke rush out from the corner of his mouth. The scent rolled over Rutejìmo who fought the urge to cough. “Poor girl, all alone with everyone out here running like fools. It's going to be hours before anyone returns to the valley.”

Faríhyo made another agreeing noise and came back to Gemènyo. She slipped her arm around his waist. Together, they walked away. “At least we get some time alone,” she said to no one.

Another rumble of a fired bola passed them.

She looked over her shoulder, “Though, I wish those boys wouldn't do that while watching Nigímo. She's only two years old and still teetering.”

Following her gaze, Rutejìmo turned to see another shot rocketing from the lookout. It was a fast shot that exploded into two pieces before sailing to the ground a mile short of the birds.

Rutejìmo shook his head and smiled. Better than his own attempts to hit the birds.

“Don't worry, Ríhyo, they'll be responsible. They know better.”

Faríhyo stopped to pull Gemènyo's pipe from his mouth and kissed him. “Run with me.” She grinned, twisted the pipe out of his grip, and then exploded into movement.

Gemènyo chuckled and exhaled from his nose. It looked like a bull exhaling on a cold morning. “Yes, love.” And then he disappeared with a rush of sand and translucent feathers.

Rutejìmo jogged to catch up to Opōgyo who continued to move with a steady, shuddering walk. He noticed sand in one of the inlet vents and brushed it out, stinging his fingers against the heated metal. It was the last mechanical dog, and Rutejìmo had two months left before he could live again; he didn't relish spending those two months hauling heavy weights on his own.

Another shot burst from the lookout, this one high and flat. It left ripples along the sky as it sailed above Rutejìmo. Rutejìmo turned to watch it and was impressed when it almost hit one of the birds.

Gemènyo's and Faríhyo's suggestion was a good one. A little time with Mapábyo would brighten his day. He rarely got a chance to enjoy her with the sun up. He tapped Opōgyo, though the dog couldn't move any faster.

To distract himself, he focused on the lookout where another vortex indicated a shot about to be fired. He smiled, silently betting himself a pyābi that it would hit.

And then he saw movement. It was faint and barely visible from his position, too short to be an adult. He squinted, peering along the upper edge of the lookout. It was Nigímo, Gemènyo and Faríhyo's daughter. Growing up in the valley, she was precocious and fearless. If Rutejìmo could see her, she had to be standing on the edge of the lookout and waving to her parents.

Rutejìmo lifted his gaze to a vortex rising behind her. Translucent feathers swirled in the column of dust, and he could see the wind spiraling around them.

Ice water ran through his veins. Nigímo had moved too close to the edge. He remembered how hard an adult could be pushed by the wind when someone threw a bola. Unable to call out, he threw himself into running. Two steps later, Shimusògo appeared before him and streaked past. He accelerated rapidly after it, kicking up a plume with his racing.

The bola shot from the lookout in a blast of air. Sand and dust exploded around her, and Nigímo stumbled forward. Her right foot caught the edge. For a moment, she looked like she would remain standing, then she fell over the edge.

She plummeted.

Rutejìmo's heart skipped a beat.

When she landed in the safety net a few feet below, he let out his breath in a gasp. He didn't know if the people on the lookout noticed, but Rutejìmo knew the gaps were large enough that a toddler wouldn't remain caught for long. And there was nothing but a sixty foot fall below.

He wouldn't make it back; he wasn't fast enough. Skidding to a halt, he stared up at her and tried to think of something. He couldn't say anything—no one would listen to him. Desòchu's threat loomed in his head, warring with the sight of Nigímo thrashing in the net; it was quickly crushed by his need to serve.

Silence no longer mattered.

Spinning around, he looked back. Gemènyo and Faríhyo were dancing around only a few chains away. He dug his feet into the sand and sprinted toward them, putting everything he could into reaching them.

Seconds later, he slammed to a halt. “Gemènyo!” His throat tore from yelling after almost a year of whispering, he inhaled and screamed at the top of his lungs. “Faríhyo!”

The couple stumbled to a halt, their bare feet digging into rocks. They jumped out of the cloud that billowed around them and stared at Rutejìmo with dumbfounded looks on their face. Neither would have expected him to break the silence.

Rutejìmo gestured frantically at the cliffs. “Nigímo!” He couldn't think of anything to say.

As one, Gemènyo and Faríhyo lifted their gazes to the cliff. Two translucent dépas raced past them and around each side of Rutejìmo. Before he could blink, Gemènyo and Faríhyo both disappeared as they sprinted toward the clan valley. The wind caught Rutejìmo on both sides, and he was thrown back as Nigímo's parents raced for the cliffs.

He hit the ground hard and saw stars flowing before him. Surging to his feet, he started after them helplessly. Despite his desire to chase after them, helplessness prevented him from running. He would never catch up with them. Even if he did, there was nothing he could do to save Nigímo.

Rutejìmo stumbled to a stop and looked around for Hyonèku and Kiríshi. He could get their attention at least, and both of them were capable of catching up. As he turned, he spotted Desòchu coming out from around the far end of the valley. Rutejìmo's brother was only a speck of light, rapidly growing larger despite his route along a wide loop.

He knew Desòchu could save the toddler if the warrior knew of the danger. Rutejìmo dug his feet into the sand and started to run toward Desòchu.

He only made it a few steps before he realized he could never catch up to his brother; the warrior was running too fast to see Rutejìmo. Even if his brother did glimpse his way, Desòchu would look away: Rutejìmo was dead.

Rutejìmo came to a halt, silently cursing. The only way to force Desòchu to look at him was to be a threat, or at least draw enough attention that Desòchu would be forced to respond. Spinning around, he peered along the ground for something to throw.

A few rods away, he spotted the edge of a large rock sticking out of the sand. The dark ridge hinted that it was much larger than he could see. He exhaled hard and raced over to it. Kneeling hard on the ground, he ripped his shirt off and fashioned it into a crude sling.

He knotted his shirt, dropped it, and dug into the sand. His heart pounded as he fought the urge to look for Desòchu. Every second would count until his brother got close enough. His hand slipped and a sharp pain slashed across his palm. He pulled it up to see a deep cut across his hand. Blood started to well up, flowing around the sand clinging to his skin.

He fought back a whimper by biting his lower lip. He forced his hand into the sand and pried the rock out. It was a heavy hunk of sandstone, far heavier than he normally threw.

Rutejìmo was just staggering to his feet when Desòchu blasted past him. He fell back. “No,” he cried out. Hitting the ground, he scrambled to his feet. “Desòchu! Desòchu!”

By the time he could turn around, Desòchu was nothing but a plume of sand and glowing feathers.

Rutejìmo took a step toward him, but despair prevented him from taking another step. He would never catch up to his brother.

With a sigh, he stepped back and dropped the rock into the sling. He didn't know what to do, but he needed to do something. As he moved, he traced his brother's route across the sand with his eyes. The wide loop that Desòchu ran along was more oblong than a perfect circle. Desòchu would be coming back toward the valley in less than a minute but the nearest point to Rutejìmo was over a half mile away.

Rutejìmo looked down at the rock in his shirt. He had never hit anything so far away. If he missed, then Desòchu would be too late to help.

For a moment, Rutejìmo considered racing to the cliff himself, but he would never make it. The others were far faster and more capable of saving Nigímo. The only thing he could do was get Desòchu's attention.

He grabbed the knot with both hands and swung it around to throw it. He came around in a wide loop. When he saw Opōgyo walking toward the cliff, steam belching out of his joints, a new idea came to him. Biting down, he continued to spin in a rapid circle, but his attention focused on Opōgyo as the target instead of his brother.

With every revolution, he remembered how the last mechanical dog had exploded when it collapsed. The roar had blasted through the entire valley, and the rumble shook the sands for miles in all direction. If he could cause Opōgyo to explode, there was no way that Desòchu could miss it.

A small part of him worried that he would be too close to the dog when it exploded, but he pushed the fear aside. Pain wouldn't mean anything if he failed. As soon as the rock became a glowing ring of flame and light, he released it.

The rock shot across the short distance to Opōgyo. It punched into the side of the mechanical dog. Opōgyo staggered a step before tilting over with his metal skin ruptured by the explosion of rock and dust. Twisted curls of metal smoke traced the air before Opōgyo slammed into the ground.

Rutejìmo braced himself for the explosion, but only steam poured out of the gaping wound in Opōgyo's side. The dog shuddered and one leg shook.

“Damn the sands!” Rutejìmo screamed. He raced over and dropped to his knees to peer at the damage.

Inside the gaping hole, he found the metallic vase—a fire core—that fueled the device's movements. Rutejìmo's shot had dented the metal, and a thin flame jetted out from a tiny hole, but it wasn't nearly enough damage. He tried to reach in, but the intense heat pushed him back.

Despair rocked him, and he looked for another rock to smash the core. Only small rocks and sand covered the ground around him. He fought back a whimper. The heat pouring out of Opōgyo seared his skin.

Knowing Desòchu would be out of range soon, Rutejìmo steeled himself and braved the heat to look inside. He traced the foreign mechanical lines that spread out from the core. He vaguely remembered them from when Pidòhu had worked on them. His eyes caught sight of one of the vents that drew air into the dog. Thin streamers of steam from Opōgyo's joints were being sucked into a narrow line. The suction was labored, like a dying creature.

Rutejìmo stuffed his shirt into the intake vents of the core. Wind whistled around the fabric until he forced as much as he could into the narrow slot and silenced it. The whistle ended with a thump and a pressure gauge near the dog's ear began to rapidly rise.

He glanced up to see where his brother was.

Desòchu was coming back again. He was nothing more than a brilliant light with a plume of sand rolling behind him.

Rutejìmo gasped. Inspecting the gauge, he saw it would take too long for the needle to reach the yellow area, much less the red. Panicking, he reached into Opōgyo's side. He remembered when Pidòhu had fixed the core into place with wire. If he couldn't find a rock to destroy the vase, he would destroy it by firing it into the ground.

Heat seared his fingers, and pain shot up his arms. He felt around blindly for the wires until he found the first one. The thin metal cut at his hand, and the smell of cooking skin filled the air around him.

Gasping at the pain and peering through tears, Rutejìmo twisted the wires until he could pull it out. The vase shuddered and the jet of flame caught his skin for a moment, blackening it almost instantly.

The second wire hurt even more. By the time he got it free, he could barely feel his fingertips. His hands were charred up to the wrists. Blood and oil sizzled along the metal, adding to the steam that poured around him.

He had to feel around for the third wire. The angle was impossible until he stood up and leaned over the gaping hole. His hands brushed along the searing metal and his skin felt like it was on fire. He swore loudly, trying to keep his attention focused through tear-blurred vision and fingers he could barely feel. His throat seized up from the effort. When he found the wire, he ripped it out of the smoking body with a sob.

Rutejìmo clamped his shaking hands around the core and yanked it out. A fourth wire, one he missed, resisted for a heartbeat, but he slammed his foot against Opōgyo's chest and pulled with all his might. Something tore in his back, but then he was staggering back along the sand.

Without looking for his brother, Rutejìmo began to spin around as fast as he could. The vase was heavy in his hands, but his fingers were clutched around it. He could feel his skin searing into the metal, like raw meat on a grill. Knowing it would rip off later only pushed him to spin faster.

Shimusògo appeared around his feet and raced in a circle.

He chased the spectral bird and a wind sucked up around his legs before shooting up in a column of dust. Feathers flashed across his vision, blinding him to everything but agony and heat.

Between rotations, he saw his brother racing toward the nearest point. He could feel the core beginning to rattle and crack; even though Opōgyo had been in the valley for decades, the core was not made by one of the Shimusògo and it was responding violently to the proximity of his gathering magic. Flames shot out of the rent in the side, peeling back the flesh of his arm before being sucked up into the vortex of his power.

For the briefest moment, he felt the euphoria of magic fill him. It was a sensation of anticipation, like a held breath before jumping. And then, the power inside him demanded release. He peeled his fingers away from the burning core—patches of his fingertips remained, fused to the metal—and threw it with all his might.

The core burst into light and brilliant sparks as Rutejìmo's power interacted with its magic. Creating a high-pitched whistle that drowned out his ability to hear, it shot forward too fast for Rutejìmo to see, so he focused on the line of burning flames it left behind.

Behind the core, sand sucked up in a spear to follow it, riding the wake of power from the crackling shot.

He was going to miss.

The shot reached the line of Desòchu's run a second too early. Just as it passed, he started to drop to his knees in frustration.

The heart of Opōgyo exploded.

Running too fast to stop, Desòchu dove into the shock wave. As his magic struck the magic of the exploding core, a second explosion blasted out in all directions. Sand tore at Rutejìmo's face, throwing him back and digging into his skin and arms. He vainly tried to shield his face with his hands, the concussive wave pounding sand into his burned palms, stripping away more skin until blood poured down his arms. He screamed in agony.

Rutejìmo staggered to his feet. Swaying, he tried desperately to regain his senses.

Desòchu's fist caught him in the stomach, the force of the blow folding Rutejìmo in half.

Rutejìmo flew back, hitting the ground.

“Do you want to die that badly?” snapped Desòchu. There were cuts over his face and a long scratch down his nose that bled. He stalked over to Rutejìmo, his hands glowing with brilliant flames and a growl in his chest.

Rutejìmo staggered to his knees. He shot back. “If it saves Nigímo, then kill me now!”

Desòchu took another two steps before he stopped. He inhaled sharply. “W-What?”

Blood dripped from Rutejìmo's lips. He pointed angrily at the cliff, and more blood splattered on the sand.

Desòchu's head snapped up. The pupils of his eyes seemed to grow for a moment, and then he inhaled sharply.

On the cliff, Faríhyo was dangling over the edge, reaching for her daughter.

Gemènyo held her up while kneeling near the edge. The smoke from his pipe swirled around them, tracing out their frantic movements.

“Sands!” Desòchu threw back his head, exploded into an inferno of golden flames, and screamed. It wasn't the sound of a human that came out of his mouth, but the screech of a bird that echoed in Rutejìmo's head.

The sound crashed into Rutejìmo. It echoed beyond his ears and something deep in his heart responded. He had to obey it, had to do something. It was the cry of Shimusògo himself.

Rutejìmo felt the cry force his attention toward Desòchu. A need to do something rose up inside him, a command that came directly from the clan spirit. He stared into Desòchu's flaming form despite the pain of looking into the brightness. Tears burned in his eyes from the effort.

Desòchu shot forward and the world twisted violently around Rutejìmo. He was ripped off the ground from the blast of air and flipped over before he could brace himself.

Translucent wings spread out before Desòchu as he raced back to cliff. A boiling cloud of dust followed, obscuring everything around Rutejìmo. Streamers of sand rolled along the ground.

Power rose around him. Looking up, he saw the clan responding to Desòchu's cry. Every adult of the clan converged on the valley, each one leaving a trail of golden flames. The children who were playing were knocked aside by adults all sprinting toward the entrance.

Staggering to his knees, Rutejìmo tried to join but couldn't. His legs shook, and his arms couldn't take his weight. Blood dripped from his ears, and he couldn't hear through the ringing. He watched the rest of the clan racing back to the cliffs through blurry vision.

He focused through the haze and dust toward the cliffs. Faríhyo hung over the edge of the cliff, struggling to reach her daughter. Her hands flailed around as Nigímo dangled from the wires, her feet kicking out helplessly above the drop.

Desòchu reached the cliffs. He was moving too fast to stop, and Rutejìmo didn't know how he could turn fast enough to reach the top. Not even Chimípu could stop quickly when running so fast.

The answer came as someone rushed from the entrance of the valley. Even from a distance, Rutejìmo could see the bulge of Mapábyo's belly and the translucent feathers circling around her. He let out a strangled cry and limped toward the valley. She shouldn't answer Desòchu's call, though Rutejìmo could feel the overriding desire to do so rising in himself. It was Shimusògo's voice that called all of them, his pregnant lover included.

Desòchu's dépa accelerated straight for Mapábyo. The spirit bird she chased did the same. The two impacted in a flash of light and then there was only one spirit of Shimusògo shooting straight up in a streak of light.

Rutejìmo's cry caught in his throat, and only a wail came out. He knew what would happen if they struck; he also knew he was too far away to stop it, and too spent to take her place.

Mapábyo threw herself into a slide, her outfit fluttering behind her in a streamer of sand.

Desòchu leaped, covering two chains in an instant. The warrior landed on her, and a burst of energy exploded around them; their forward momentum grew fluid and transferred directly into Desòchu.

Rock and dust exploded in all directions.

Desòchu rocketed straight up and his body became a spear of gold. He punched through the net and both he and Nigímo disappeared in a flare of his magic. The line of flames sailed up and over the cliffs and into the valley.

Less than a rod away, Faríhyo was torn from the safety netting and thrown up into the air. She reached the apex of her short flight and then she came down, her arms and legs windmilling. Even from his vantage point, Rutejìmo knew she wasn't going to reach the cliff edge or the net. He cried out, holding out his hand as if he could stop her. If he had the power, he would have stopped time to save her.

Gemènyo jumped out on the net and grabbed her. He spun his wife around violently and then threw her back on the cliffs. The momentum drove Gemènyo further away from the cliffs and then into a curve toward the ground. His pipe smoke marked the plummet to the hard rock below.

Rutejìmo couldn't tear his eyes away. The body of his friend hit the ground in a cloud of dust. He forced himself to his feet with a sob and ran for the cliffs.

Instead of hearing the boom that rolled over him, Rutejìmo felt it vibrate in his bones. Though he was dizzy and could barely run straight, he had to return.

By the time he reached the cliffs, the rest of the clan were already there. One knot circled around Mapábyo who wailed in agony. It took him painful seconds to peer past the gathered clans to his love.

She was in a deep crater, the result of taking Desòchu's speed and launching him straight up. It saved Nigímo, but she was in pain from the effort. The ground packed hard from centuries of the passage of a multitude of runners had cracked around her.

And then Rutejìmo saw blood pooling underneath her. Most of it was pouring out from between her legs. He stumbled to a halt and stared, not wanting to believe what he saw. Mapábyo reached out for him but then dropped her hand before she slumped back.

Something cracked inside him, and he dropped to his knees. The words wouldn't come, he couldn't make a noise and he felt as if someone had ripped out his heart.

Noises came back, with Tejíko the loudest. “Don't move her. Pidòhu!” A heartbeat later, Rutejìmo's grandmother yelled. “Get the healer from Ryayusúki! Now!”

Pidòhu disappeared in a rush of wind and the massive wings of Tateshyúso, his spirit, shot out across the sands.

Rutejìmo stared without blinking. He couldn't move, he couldn't cry out. It was as if his mind had emptied out in an instant. He wanted to cry, but no tears fell. His emotions had been lost in the gaping chasm his heart had once filled.

He wanted to run to Mapábyo, but couldn't. Not with everyone circling around her. He was dead, he couldn't be seen and in that moment, he knew it was one thing he wasn't allowed to do.

Bearing down on the growing dread, he looked up at the other group. Faríhyo knelt next to her husband, screaming at the sky. Tears ran down her bloodied cheeks. Nigímo cried near her, cradled by Kiríshi while the others stood silently around him. Half of them stared with tears in their eyes while the others were looking away. The choked cries filtered through the crowd.

Desòchu stood in front of Gemènyo, his face twisted in a mask of rage and regret. His hands were bloody and waves of heat rolled off his body.

Gemènyo gasped for breath. He shook violently. Blood poured out from the side of his mouth and his legs were twisted unnaturally. Bright white of bones stuck out from his sides and legs. The ground beneath him was stained with blood and marred by the indentation of his impact.

The wind pushed Rutejìmo to move. He couldn't go to his love, but he could go to Gemènyo. Fighting against the agony that tore through his mind and body, he staggered to his feet. Shuffling, he stepped forward. It was one of the most painful steps of his life. As soon as his bare feet struck the cracked ground, he took another step.

The crowds parted around him, though no one looked to see him coming.

He came to a halt before Faríhyo and Gemènyo. His movement caused blood to run down his own neck and shoulders, reminding him of the injuries he continued to ignore. His ears still rang, yet he could hear the wails through the noise.

Faríhyo held Gemènyo tightly and screamed shrilly. There were no words, only tears and cries.

It was obvious no one could save Gemènyo with mere bandages or splints.

Gemènyo's eyes focused on Rutejìmo. It was the first time he had looked at Rutejìmo for almost a year. A slow smile cracked his lips. “J-J… Jìmo.”

Around him, the din grew instantly silent.

Faríhyo clutched him and wailed shrilly, her cry was the only sound in the silence. It scraped at both Rutejìmo's ears and heart.

Gemènyo stared at Rutejìmo and worked his mouth for a second. “I see you.”

“No!” screamed Faríhyo. “You can't see him! You can't! I won't let you!”

“Funny,” Gemènyo's breath caught and a large gout of blood burst out of his mouth. It splattered against his stained shirt and ran down his neck. “Because I should have told you I've never stopped seeing him.”

“No! No!” her scream was shrill, echoing against the walls. She clutched him tightly, squeezing with all her might. “You can't see him!”

And then Great Shimusogo Gemènyo was gone.