The clans understand the masculine powers of Tachìra and Chobìre. They have no subtlety compared to the feminine whispers of Mifúno.
— Korechyoki Baroshìko
A screech filled the air, radiating away from the sharp cliffs that surrounded Shimusogo Valley. Even ripped from a human's throat, the sound traveled further than a mere cry could ever match. It rolled along the sand dunes and past the short ridges of rocks peppering the desert around the valley.
Rutejìmo froze when the sound slammed into him. The screech demanded action, forcing him to focus on the cliffs that framed the home valley. The sound continued past him, but he heard it repeating in his head like a memory refusing to be forgotten. He clenched his hand, and the leather ball he was about to throw slipped from his palm and landed on the ground with a muted thud.
A rod—just over sixteen feet—from him, Mapábyo turned to look toward the valley. He could see her from the corner of his vision, her nearly black skin hard to miss against the brown sand. He wanted to look at her, but the screech pulled his attention to the valley where a crowd already gathered around a golden flame.
“J-Jìmo?” whispered Mapábyo. “What happened? Who called us?”
Rutejìmo couldn't tear his eyes away from the cliff. At the entrance of the valley, between the two large banners that declared the Shimusogo Clan's home, the fire continued to stretch up until it became a vortex of flames and wind. Tiny motes of light spun around it; if he were closer, he knew he would see translucent feathers. “Chimípu,” he answered. Only the clan's warriors were capable of displaying such power, and all but Chimípu were out protecting the clan's couriers.
“Papa?” asked Kitòpi, Rutejìmo's son. The small voice of the five-year-old carried over the sands.
Rutejìmo forced himself to look away from the valley, struggling against the need to run home. His son was over a chain, sixty-six feet, away—holding his hands up while waiting for the ball. Unlike Rutejìmo and Mapábyo, he didn't seem affected by the screech still echoing in Rutejìmo's head.
Curious, Rutejìmo glanced over his shoulder to Mapábyo. His wife stood on her toes to look over the dunes to see into the valley. Her orange skirt fluttered in the breeze except where Piróma, their three-year-old daughter, clung to her leg. The little girl's black hair snapped in the wind, bouncing against the orange fabric. At the far end of her braid was a small metal ring that prevented it from flying up.
“We should go,” Mapábyo said, “the others are already heading back.”
Rutejìmo turned back to the valley. Coming in from all directions were the couriers of the clan. They all ran after translucent small birds, the manifestation of Shimusògo; the speed of their sprints kicking up long plumes of sand and dust.
Mapábyo took a step toward the valley. “Jìmo?” She used the shortened form of his name, a name only used among friends and family.
He hesitated as a different pressure arose in him. A command far more subtle than the screech. He shook his head and held his breath, straining to hear something over the breeze and shifting sands.
A flicker of movement shot out from the valley. His gaze caught it, and he watched as it sailed across the sands, leaving no footprints or dust behind. It was a shimusogo dépa, the small birds that the clan chased, but it moved far faster than the others. It covered the mile between Rutejìmo and the valley in a matter of seconds.
He spun as it passed, watching it sail across the sand. A prickle of fear surfaced as he felt magic gathering along the path the dépa took. With a gasp, he spun around. The small bird always ran just as fast as the runner who chased it, which meant that Chimípu would be passing soon. Stepping toward Mapábyo, he called out. “Get Tópi!”
Mapábyo frowned at Rutejìmo and clutched Piróma. “W-What!?”
“Shield Tópi! I can't get to him fast enough!” he yelled just as another translucent bird ran past him. He could feel the energy grip him, and he sprinted after it. He accelerated into a blur and covered the distance to Piróma in a heartbeat.
When he dropped to his knees to sweep up his daughter, Mapábyo was already gone in a cloud of sand. The wind of her passing whipped at his face until he bent over his daughter.
“R-Rutejìmo?” whispered his daughter, her soft voice loud in the space between his arms.
“Close your eyes,” he commanded and pulled her tight to his bare chest.
She buried her face into the black curls that dusted his pectorals and sternum. Her tiny arms wrapped around his side and she clutched tight.
“Hold on,” he whispered into her dark hair and held her tight. “She's going to—”
A woman sprinted past. She moved in a blur faster than his eyes could focus. She disappeared from sight before he could blink, leaving only an afterimage of golden flames behind. It was Chimípu, one of the clan's warriors and the fastest runner in the valley.
Rutejìmo tensed just as the wind of Chimípu's passing punched into him. Rocks and sand slashed into his back. The impact tore through flesh and gouged his shoulders and sides.
Piróma cried out and yanked her hands against his chest, trying to shield them more effectively. He saw blood welling up from many small scratches on her dark skin, abrasions from the sand blasting past them.
His stomach twisted with frustration.
Wind continued to slash past him, slicing through his trousers and leaving more cuts along his back and neck.
Rutejìmo grabbed Piróma's head and pressed his palms to her ears. “Wait for—”
The second blast struck in an ear-shattering crack. Unlike the first, which only cut his back and left him bloody, the second struck with the force of a steel hammer and the roar of the air being ripped apart. The sound burst across his vision, turning sound into agony and blindness. The force tore open his back, stripping furrows in his skin and ripping flesh.
As soon as it came, the wind faded. Rutejìmo shuddered as he lifted his head and stared at the desert behind his daughter. A shallow ravine had been scoured out of the desert, the force of the wind sucking it clear from the bedrock. A few miles away, the gouge in the desert continued through a field of rock and gravel. There was no sign Chimípu had slowed.
When blood began to drip down his back, he groaned.
Moments later, more dépas raced past them. All traveled slower than Chimípu's, but the flock of translucent spirits still sailed past in a wave of rippling power and translucent feathers.
A blast of wind struck him and he looked up as Mapábyo appeared next to him in a cloud of dust. The sand sailed past them before quickly settling in new patterns on the ground.
“Jìmo, I need to go with them,” Mapábyo said as she slipped Kitòpi from her hip. She looked up again and pursed her lips.
Kitòpi brushed the sand from his face. Like his father, he wore no shirt while they were playing. He stepped away to peer at the ravine left by Chimípu's passing.
Air pressure rose rapidly, and then wind blasted past with the first of the runners. More of them quickly followed, each one kicking up winds that tugged at their clothes. Rutejìmo braced himself and watched as they passed, a sick feeling growing in his stomach. He saw brandished weapons and angry faces.
When the last one raced by, Mapábyo turned to Rutejìmo. “Where do you need to go? With us or back home?” She rested her hand on a fighting knife, one finger on the hilt and the other on the sheath.
Rutejìmo glanced down the path left by Chimípu and the others. He felt a tugging on his attention which drew him back to the valley. He bowed his head for a moment, then gestured to Kitòpi and Piróma. “I'll take them home.”
Mapábyo slipped up to him, her slender body fitting in his arms. She kissed him on the lips. “I see you, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.” Her whisper barely rose above the wind swirling around them. The phrase “I see you” had carried them through the darkest part of their lives and into the light of happiness.
He smiled and kissed her back. “I see you.”
She stepped back as her own dépa raced behind her. She turned on her heels and sprinted away, accelerating out of sight as she chased after the others.
“M-Mama leaving?” asked Piróma in her high-pitched, delicate voice.
Kitòpi looked at Rutejìmo for a moment then said, “She's going to help the others.”
Rutejìmo's skin crawled at the disappointed look his son gave him. He shook his head and held out his hands. “Come on, we need to go back.”
Piróma rushed over to Rutejìmo, but Kitòpi sulked slowly after her. Rutejìmo scooped them both up and jogged toward the valley. A few steps later, a dépa of his own raced past, and he pushed himself to run after it. The world blurred as he accelerated faster than he could without Shimusògo. He reached the valley in minutes.
When he saw a crowd of teenagers, elders, and children, he came to a shuddering stop. They were gathered around two people on the ground. One of them, Rutejìmo's grandmother, cradled the body of a man, her long white hair draped over her shoulder and the heavy ring at the end swung with her movements.
Without taking his eyes off of the two on the ground, Rutejìmo knelt to release his children. They slipped away and he stood up. He said nothing, but the crowds parted around him as he walked up.
His grandmother was holding Bakóki, a courier who had come home that day. He lay on his back, his mouth gaping wide as he tried to breathe. An arrow stuck out of his chest, the broad head dripping a crimson pool beneath his torso. Where the shaft met ruined flesh, bright red bubbles formed and popped with every gasp.
Tejíko, Rutejìmo's grandmother, looked up as he approached. She said nothing, but her piercing green eyes focused sharply on him. Her yellow dress, one of her favorites, had been stained from throat to knee with Bakóki's blood.
Bakóki groaned and slumped forward, his dull eyes focusing on Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo stood there and looked back at Bakóki. The rest of the world faded away until he could sense only two people. He let his own thoughts quiet with the rest of the world until he heard nothing but Bakóki's labored breathing and the whisper of sand rolling across the dunes.
The sounds of the desert grew louder. The wind blew across Bakóki and deposited swirls of golden grains across his face. It clung to his wounds and formed ragged lines along the ridges of blood-soaked fabric. A second breeze scattered more sand across his body.
Years ago, Rutejìmo learned the world gave the answers if he remained quiet. The requests came in subtle movement and gestures, a token left by his door or a tool resting in his path. Eventually, he learned that humans weren't the only source of knowledge.
More sand draped over Bakóki's body, settling into his wounds and hair. Rutejìmo watched as they rolled into the furrows of his clothes and the wrinkles of his skin. A few seconds later, a stronger wind blew more against his body.
When Rutejìmo saw a familiar pattern, he let out his breath in a quiet gasp. The same pattern had draped over countless bodies of the dead and dying, identifying the ones that he needed to tend to while others cared for those who would survive. He wasn't sure which spirit marked the bodies with sand. It couldn't be Tachìra, the sun spirit and source of Shimusògo's power. The sun spirit was more concerned with the glory of warriors and the endless fight against the clans of the night.
Rutejìmo believed Mifúno, the mother of the desert, spoke to him. It terrified him to think she did; there were hundreds of stories of fools who claimed to channel her power that ended in their death. The desert didn't suffer fools. Of the three great spirits, though, she was the only one who could mark the sand during daylight, moonlight, and the darkness when neither of the other spirits were in the sky.
The world around him came back into focus. He heard the ebbs of conversation around him, ripples of whispers and quiet words from those who couldn't race after Chimípu. Teenagers and children were too young, their minds not strong enough to see the ghostly birds or to understand the clan's powers. The elders were too weak to keep up with the clan's powers, nor could they survive a fight at the end of a run.
Rutejìmo glanced at his grandmother who looked back with a silent question. He shook his head and stepped back.
Tejíko's jaw tightened, and she clutched Bakóki tightly.
“Damn—” gasped Bakóki.
Silence shot through the crowds, all conversations stopping instantly as Bakóki choked out the words.
Bakóki's words finished in complete silence. Green eyes, the mark of the desert, rose to stare at Rutejìmo as he backed away. There were tears in the people who stared at him along with looks of despair and sadness.
No one said a word as Rutejìmo turned his back to his clan and walked into the valley. He wasn't running after the others, he wasn't going to fight. He needed to fulfill his other duty, the one that didn't come from Shimusògo or his clan, to serve the desert mother who had just claimed Bakóki.