Sand and Ash 4: Corrupting Influence

The rules of society are not set down in sand or rock, but in the minds of everyone watching. — Melanin Som, Sunlight Dances (Act 2, Scene 2)

Rutejìmo and Hyonèku chased Shimusògo across the desert, racing after the bird they could never catch. The dépa’s magic solidified the shifting sand and their bare feet slapped against rock no matter what terrain they crossed. As soon as their feet picked up, the rock crumbled into a dust plume that stretched far behind them.

Home was only a mile away. Rutejìmo could see the two pillars with massive banners hanging from each one. In the middle, he spotted flashes of oranges, reds, and yellows. He didn’t know why there were so many of the residents of the valley outside of the valley.

A massive shadow sailed out of the valley. It was a giant raptor, a bird of prey that stretched chains across. It didn’t matter, but he still looked up into the clear blue sky. No natural bird could create the shadow, and nothing blocked the sky. It was a shadow without physical form, Tateshyúso.

Hyonèku laughed. “Pidòhu must have an announcement.” Even though the wind whipped across their faces, they could easily hear each other while running.

Rutejìmo grunted and continued to run in a straight line. He didn’t dare slow down, lest he lose both the speed from Shimusògo and the rapture that came with his closeness to the spirit.

The shadow circled around them and then came up behind them. As it did, the heat against their skin cooled in an instant. Cold winds buffeted them from all directions, disrupting the constant pressure against their faces. The plume of dust and sand broke apart, scattering in the shadow.

Rutejìmo almost stumbled without the constant pressure pushing him back. He caught himself and forced his feet forward. The power of Shimusògo remained strong in Tateshyúso’s shadow, but without the wind and choking dust.

A mirage rippled in front of them. It looked like the shadows spun a humanoid form from the strands of darkness.

Both Hyonèku and Rutejìmo continued to run.

The shadow grew thicker and darker until it was a dark burn in the world. Peeling back, a translucent figure of a frail-looking man appeared in front of him. He remained in front of them, floating across the sands a respectful distance ahead of the Shimusògo.

“Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.” He bowed deeply before turning to Hyonèku. “And to you, Great Shimusogo Hyonèku.”

Hyonèku laughed and shook his head. Proper etiquette demanded Pidòhu address Hyonèku first, but among friends, occasionally other relationships took precedence. And while Hyonèku was one of Rutejìmo’s friends, Pidòhu shared a bond with Rutejìmo that was far closer.

The shadow of the frail man bowed again. “Just so you know, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo just arrived home.”

The use of “Great Shimusogo” spoke volumes. Hyonèku stumbled and then laughed. “Yes! Bless the sands!”

“She is injured though, so be—”

“I don’t care!” Hyonèku jumped and spun around before racing to catch up with Rutejìmo. There was a huge grin on his face.

“And, Jìmo?”

Rutejìmo looked at Pidòhu, his eyes trying to focus through the translucent man.

“Your brother is quite annoyed with you.”

Rutejìmo frowned. “What? Why?”

Pidòhu bowed deeply with a smirk. His body wavered, and then Tateshyúso’s shadow shot forward, taking Pidòhu with it. The sun bore down on them again, the wind buffeting Rutejìmo’s face.

Rutejìmo glanced at Hyonèku. “What was that about?”

The dépa they were both chasing shimmered and split in two with a burst of golden feathers. One of them grew accelerated and headed straight for the entrance of the cave. It grew translucent and difficult to see; Rutejìmo knew that Hyonèku would follow it while the one in front of Rutejìmo would disappear from his sight.

Hyonèku raced forward, a broad grin on his face. His casual speed reminded Rutejìmo how quickly the rest of the clan could outpace their slowest runner.

Rutejìmo glanced at the rapidly approaching valley. In the few seconds of running, he could easily see dozens of folk running and dancing between the two pillars. Burning rocks launched into the air in random patterns, bouncing when someone caught the flaming shots and threw them back up. Each time the rocks were tossed, they glowed brighter. Even from his distance, he could identify some of the warriors because their rocks shot ten times higher and were brilliant stars that arced high above the valley entrance before plummeting.

The clan was celebrating.

Rutejìmo needed more time before he joined the celebration. The idea of everyone talking, dancing, and celebrating didn’t appeal to him. Taking a deep breath, he slowed down and let Hyonèku shoot out ahead of him. The wind behind the older man slammed into Rutejìmo, peppering his face with sand and rocks.

He ran alone for a few minutes before coming to a stumbling stop.

Shimusògo faded from sight, and Rutejìmo’s feet sank down in the gravel of a stretch of scree. The heat bore down on him and he took a deep breath to clear the searing sensation from his lungs. When he wasn’t running, he felt the aches and pains that Shimusògo’s magic pushed away. It was the price of walking when he could be running, but Rutejìmo couldn’t bear to accelerate again. He headed up the ridge of a dune and then followed it while dark thoughts clouded his mind. Sooner or later, they would move the celebration into the valley.

By the time he reached the entrance of the valley a half hour later, there was no one waiting. He used the back of his arm to wipe the sweat from his forehead and padded inside. It was quiet in the narrow gap between the steep rocks, but the noise of a party echoed loudly when he reached the entrance.

He kept to the side and headed up one of the paths leading to the home caves. As he walked, he peered into the floor of the valley. Someone had built up a bonfire, and the flames burned green in celebration. Many of the younger folk were dancing around the flames. He noticed that Desòchu was right in the middle, swirling around everyone and keeping spirits high. For now, he had most of his clothes on, but there were others already stripped in celebration.

His brother inspired everyone but Rutejìmo. Everyone loved him, just as they loved Chimípu and the rest of the warriors. Coming around the fire, Desòchu pulled nervous children into a line dance with an easy smile and infectious enthusiasm. He was showing them the way of becoming part of the clan, not by lectures, but by example. He loved everyone in the clan and would protect them until the day he died.

Rutejìmo turned away and trudged up the trail. He made it to his cave when he realized there was a cloud of pipe smoke around the entrance. Slowing down, he called out for Gemènyo.

Gemènyo stood up from the side of the entrance, the smoke wafting around him. “I thought you’d be sulking.”

“I’m not sulking, I’m just…”

“Avoiding your brother?”

“I’m not in the mood to get yelled at, and I don’t even know why yet.”

Gemènyo chuckled and gestured for Rutejìmo to approach the edge of the trail.

Rutejìmo stepped up to it and looked down at the celebration. Mapábyo stood on the platform with a smile larger than her father’s. She wore her red ceremonial outfit, heavily embroidered and tight around her hips. Rutejìmo was surprised she could wear it with her shoulder bound up in white bandages from her elbow to her neck. Her left eye was swollen shut, and there was more gauze around her other hand and across her forehead. He noticed more bandages on her legs, barely visible with the swirls of her dress when she moved from one person congratulating her to another.

Gemènyo rested his free hand on Rutejìmo’s shoulder. “We led her over to a Wind’s Tooth and told her to run home.”

Rutejìmo shook his head. “Is the answer to all of life’s troubles to throw someone in the middle of the desert and see what happens?”

“Pretty much, though when Hyonèku and Kiríshi were having trouble with their marriage, we actually chained them together.” Gemènyo’s teeth were a shock of white when he smiled. “But Mapábyo here ran into a pack of wild figaki tòra.”

Remembering his own encounter with the wild sand hounds, Rutejìmo cringed. They were nearly hairless dogs with large teeth. Mostly they traveled in large packs at dusk and dawn. They were tenacious and always hungry in their short, violent lives.

“She outran them pretty well, but then she missed the signs and fell into a mizonekima chyòre pit. It was a big snake too, a female. We were all lucky that she wasn’t protecting any eggs, otherwise we’d be bringing back a corpse.”

Rutejìmo stared at Mapábyo with shock. “And she only broke her shoulder?”

“Yeah, girl had some smarts to her. She used her trousers as a sling and was firing the bones around the pit into the chyóre’s mouth.” Gemènyo switched to the feminine accent to refer to the female snake. “And when the tòra joined in, they went after the snake. Normally, it would just leave the bodies, but Pábyo started throwing the bodies into its mouth until eventually,” he laughed, “it choked.”

“That’s… better than me.” Rutejìmo watched her celebrate. He smiled to himself. She earned it, both in finding a way to listen to Shimusògo but also proving herself in the clan’s eyes. He never had a doubt that she would be able to listen to Shimusògo.

“No, Jìmo, it isn’t better. Just different. You saved Pidòhu when he fell off a cliff, despite a broken arm and almost being killed by Tsubàyo. You found your strength too.” Gemènyo patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t belittle yourself. You found a path and so did she. Mapábyo won’t be a warrior, but she’s a good strong runner.”

Rutejìmo nodded. He started to turn away, but Gemènyo’s hand gripped his shoulder tighter. Frowning, he looked at the older man. “What?”

“Look at her neck.”

He turned around, a strange feeling running along his skin. Desòchu was pulling her off the stage while being both gentle and excited. As he set her down, he pulled her toward the fire.

Around her neck was a leather thong with a broken-off tooth hanging at the center of her almost black throat. She ran up toward the fire and joined in with the circle of dancers, the necklace was a shock of white that bounced with her movements.

“W-Why?” Rutejìmo shook his head. “Why did she make a necklace out of that?”

“We’re wondering about that ourselves. You know, because you’re the only other person who wears a necklace. One might say,” Gemènyo’s voice grew quieter but deeper, “it is more of a night clan tradition instead of the Shimusogo Way.”

He felt thin and drawn. “I-I didn’t tell her that.”

“Really.”

Rutejìmo jerked at the strange tone from Gemènyo. He peeked over but the older man just smirked.

“Your brother thinks otherwise.”

Rutejìmo glanced back down.

Down in the valley, Desòchu was looking up at Rutejìmo. There was a dark look in his green eyes and a frown furrowed his brow.

Rutejìmo stared into his brother’s eyes and a ripple of fear ran down his spine. They were a hundred feet apart, but he could feel the icy gaze even from there.

Desòchu’s hand slipped from around Mapábyo’s waist and the older man stepped out of the ring of dancers. He slipped around a group of men and women chatting, moving more like a creature than a man. His eyes glowed for a moment before the darkness swallowed him.

“Jìmo,” Gemènyo said in a soft voice, “do you want me to stay?”

Rutejìmo opened his mouth to speak, but then Desòchu ripped him from the edge of the trail and slammed him back against the stone wall. The impact drove the air out of his lungs, and sparks exploded across his vision.

“What did you say to her!?” Desòchu yelled, punctuating his words by slamming Rutejìmo against the stone. “What!?”

Rutejìmo gasped for air, unable to draw in a breath. His back burned from the impact against the rock, and he could barely focus on the furious face of his brother.

Desòchu’s passing brought in the heat of day and a howling wind. It blew past quickly, and the sand draped over both of them in a thin blanket.

Gemènyo stepped up to the two brothers. “Great Shimusogo Desòchu, isn’t that—”

“Choke on sands, old man!”

Gemènyo stopped with a surprised look on his face. And then, a flicker of a harder emotion ran across his face. “No.”

Rutejìmo stared in shock at Gemènyo. The older man had never stood up like that before, not to Desòchu at least.

Desòchu’s lip pulled back into a snarl. “What?”

“You heard me, Great Shimusogo Desòchu. If you are going to castigate Rutejìmo, then I’m going to have my say. You are angry—”

“Damn the spirits, of course I’m angry. Mapábyo wouldn’t have come up with that foolish idea on her own! It had to be him!”

Desòchu slammed Rutejìmo against the wall, the impact cracking Rutejìmo’s head against the rock. “Shimusògo don’t wear hunks of our enemies on our bodies. We are runners, not hunters, and not sands-damned horse bitches from the night!” His bellow echoed against the walls.

With a wrenching sensation, Rutejìmo’s lungs drew in air. He gasped for breath. His chest hurt where Desòchu was holding him against the stone.

Golden flame rippled along his older brother’s body. It was thin and wispy, like a mirage, but the heat rose around both of them. Desòchu growled and thumped Rutejìmo against the stone. “Why!? Why are you trying to destroy this clan!”

“I-I—” Rutejìmo could barely speak. “I didn’t tell her to do that.”

“Sands!” Desòchu yanked Rutejìmo off the wall and slammed him back. Energy flared from his body, briefly lighting up the rocks.

Rutejìmo’s head hit the rock hard, and more sparks of pain washed over his blurred vision. He slumped but Desòchu held him pinned to the stone.

A blast of air slammed into both sides of Rutejìmo. He wasn’t sure if he was falling but rocks peppered against his chest and arms.

“Boy,” snapped an older voice, drawing Rutejìmo’s gaze to the speaker. It was Tejíko, their grandmother and clan leader. She ruled with a hard fist, and everyone was terrified of her but respected her commands. Her long, white hair cascaded down her back. It had broken loose of her braid and plastered against her wrinkled skin.

Desòchu snarled at Rutejìmo, not looking away from him.

Tejíko stepped up and grabbed Desòchu by the shoulder. Her fingernails dug into the muscular skin. She twisted and pulled him away. “I mean you, Desòchu!”

Desòchu stepped back. “You saw the necklace she was wearing!” He gestured down to the valley. “Shimusògo don’t do that! Night clans do! Horse bitches do!”

Rutejìmo slid to the ground, clutching the back of his head. It was sticky and hot. He pulled back his hand and stared at the bright red on his fingertips.

Chimípu knelt down next to him, and he jumped when he noticed her. Without a word, she tilted him forward to look at his head. He could smell perfume and sweat from her.

“I know,” Tejíko said in her cracked voice, “Shimusògo don’t, but Shimusogo Rutejìmo does. He has—”

“He’s been holding that shikāfu for ten years!”

Rutejìmo’s grandmother lifted one hand, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Yes, but we all have our own path.”

Desòchu balled his hands into fists. He glared at his grandmother; his flames flickered and wavered with his emotions. “He’s a poison to this clan, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.”

“You tolerated it for a decade.”

“I can live with his obsession with that bitch, but when it starts to affect the others, I cannot. He brought night into this valley, and I,” he thumped his chest, “can’t allow that! None of us can! We are Tachìra’s children, not Chobìre’s!”

Chimípu slipped off her embroidered jacket and folded it twice. She rested it against the rock and gently pushed Rutejìmo back. “Hold it here, Jìmo,” she whispered, “The scrapes are shallow, and it should be enough to stop the bleeding soon.”

He looked up at her feeling helpless and humiliated. He knew his brother was angry about Rutejìmo’s tooth, but he never guessed at the intensity of the response from a single necklace.

Tejíko bowed. “Then why don’t we ask Great Shimusogo Mapábyo?”

“Ask her what?” snapped Desòchu.

“If she will take it off willingly.”

“Why would she—”

“Because!” snapped Tejíko, “She is an adult in this clan now. And she has that choice.”

Gemènyo bowed. “I’ll get her, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.” He stepped back and disappeared in a cloud of dust. Rutejìmo couldn’t see the valley, and it was long moments before Hyonèku and Mapábyo appeared in blasts of wind and rocks.

Joining them was Kiríshi, Hyonèku’s wife and Mapábyo’s adopted mother. She wore her ceremonial outfit like her daughter, but the fabric had been sun-bleached to match her closely-cropped hair that had turned white in the last few years.

Mapábyo saw Rutejìmo, and her mouth opened in surprise. She gasped.

Tejíko stepped forward. “Mapábyo?”

“Y-Yes, Great Shimusògo Tejíko?” Mapábyo spoke in a low voice.

“Desòchu has taken offense at this,” Tejíko, rested one finger on Mapábyo’s collar, next to the white bone dangling at her throat. “Could you tell us why you did it?”

Mapábyo paled, though it was hard to see on her dark skin, and glanced at Rutejìmo. “I-I liked it. It was a sign that I made it, that I survived.”

“Wh—” Desòchu stepped back when Tejíko glared at him.

“And did Rutejìmo tell you to do that?”

Mapábyo clutched the necklace, and she twisted her hips. “No, I thought…” She peeked up at him and then away sharply.

“Rutejìmo is…” His grandmother struggled with her words for a moment.

Rutejìmo tensed with growing fear.

“… slightly different than most of the clan. He is cherished and loved,” she glared at Desòchu, “and is dedicated to all of us as we are to him, but he still runs his own path.”

Mapábyo’s green eyes shimmered. After a second, she nodded.

“That also means that he does things that aren’t quite the Shimusogo Way.”

Rutejìmo closed his eyes. He felt more alone than ever before, despite being surrounded by family and friends.

Chimípu’s firm hand released him, but then she patted him on the shoulder.

“Yes,” Mapábyo said, “I know, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.”

“I know that you are very proud,” Tejíko said, “and we are all very proud of you, but this,” there was a soft tapping of Tejíko’s finger against Mapábyo’s collar, “isn’t Shimusògo.”

Rutejìmo opened his eyes and saw a tear running down Mapábyo’s cheek. It tore his heart to see her in pain. He wished she would just take it off and throw it away.

The young woman nodded and drew in a shuddering breath. “I understand.”

Sniffing, she reached up and wrapped her fingers around the tooth. Closing her eyes tightly, she yanked down and snapped it from her neck.

Rutejìmo jerked at the noise, his stomach twisting and the world spinning around him. He wanted to crawl into his cave and forget the world, but he couldn’t flee.

Desòchu held out his hand.

Mapábyo reached out to drop the necklace in his hand, but then pulled back. “I-I can use them for my stones, right? To vote?”

Desòchu’s face darkened into a glare, but Tejíko spoke first. “That would be a wonderful choice. It is personal and intimate, just like everyone’s. And I’m sure that both Desòchu and Chimípu,” she looked at both warriors, “will be honored to help you find more before your second year.”

There were more tears running down Mapábyo’s cheeks, but she nodded. “Thank you, Great Shimusògo Tejíko.”

Tejíko pulled Mapábyo into a tight hug. “Now, go on a short run with Chimípu. Maybe around the outside of the valley? Your parents will be down at the fire when you come back. You don’t have to tell anyone about this, if you don’t want. And remember, we are very proud of you.”

Chimípu stood up and gestured for Mapábyo.

Mapábyo gave Rutejìmo one last, tear-filled look. And then, to his surprise, she gave a short bow before racing away.

Chimípu disappeared after her in a blur of movement and wind blew past Rutejìmo.

Desòchu stepped forward. “Great—”

Tejíko held up her hand to interrupt him. “You, boy, got what you wanted. Now, be gracious and go on a run.”

His body tight with anger, Desòchu bowed deeply. He straightened and glared at Rutejìmo. “I should have never stood with you when that bitch’s life was in our hands.” His voice was a growl that shook Rutejìmo.

He disappeared in an explosion of dust, the speed ripping the rocks and sands after him. Wind and sparks of sunlight flowed in the wake of his passing. A rumble echoed against the valley.

Tejíko nodded to Kiríshi and Hyonèku who both disappeared in a rush of air.

When they were gone, Tejíko limped over to Rutejìmo.

He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Great Shimusogo Tejíko. I didn’t mean for her to,” he gulped, “follow my path.”

Tejíko leaned against the rock and tilted Rutejìmo’s head forward to inspect his cuts. Her body smelled of spices and perfumes, a familiar smell that reminded him of growing up in her cave. After a moment, she clicked her tongue and eased him back against Chimípu’s jacket. “You were always trouble, boy.” She chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. “But we also let you get this far. I know that you still hold a shikāfu for the Pabinkúe. While I don’t like it, it is not our place to dictate your heart. I can only hope that someday you’ll set that aside and realize that your life is here in the valley, not out there chasing some horse.”

He let his fingers slip from the necklace.

“How is your head?”

Rutejìmo felt the back of his head. It was tacky but not bloody. “I’m not bleeding anymore.”

“Then it would be nice if you joined us at least for a little. You don’t have to dance but be present. Just for an hour?”

He nodded. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Tejíko.”

“And smile. Mapábyo seems to have a high opinion of you, and I would rather her have her attention entirely on her accomplishments instead of slyly looking at your cave in hopes you will join us.”

Rutejìmo stared up at her in shock. A blush burned on his cheeks. “W-What?”

Tejíko smiled broadly. “I’m still proud of you, boy. You’ve grown up. And even though Desòchu doesn’t always say it, we all love you.”

Before he could respond, she was gone in a cloud of sand and a rush of air.