No plan survives untouched.
— Tarsan proverb
Rising bile woke Rutejìmo with a start. He clawed at the ground to pull himself up. Fingers dug into sharp rocks before he hauled himself into a sitting position. Sweat dripped from his face as he swallowed hard, desperate to avoid vomiting before he had even opened his eyes.
As he gasped for breath, he felt the cold night air prickle his skin. A warmth radiated along his hips. He cracked open one eye and peered down. At his side, Mapábyo shivered underneath their shared bedroll. His end of the roll hung on his arm and left her exposed.
He crawled out and carefully tucked it back around her. Mapábyo smiled in her sleep and curled up in the blankets.
Trembling, Rutejìmo stood up and knuckled the sleep from his eyes. It was light, but not quite sunrise. Most of the clan slept in a circle around the fire but Nifùni's roll had been moved about a rod away from the others. Two other rolls, Desòchu's and Chimípu's, had been set up, but the fabric was still smooth and they looked untouched.
At the thought of his brother, Rutejìmo inhaled sharply, and the bile rose again. He had claimed to be one of the Mifúno, spoken as an elder of a clan he had no right to speak for. For all he knew, there was no one who ever considered the desert to have a clan. And, to his surprise, he wasn't struck dead instantly for doing so. He didn't know what it meant or why he was still alive. He only hoped the whispered voices in the back of his head were not his imagination, and he didn't just commit suicide by saving Nifùni's life.
He glanced over at the younger man. Nifùni had betrayed them, putting all their lives at risk. Even though Rutejìmo stopped Desòchu from ostracizing him from the clan, Rutejìmo knew he had only stalled the inevitable. Was he driven to speak so the clan knew the full extent of the damage inflicted by accepting the contract?
“Jìmo?” whispered Chimípu.
Rutejìmo saw her and Desòchu sitting a rod away along the ridge of the rocky scree. They were facing the desert. He got up and padded over. Coming up to the ridge, he saw movement in the false dawn and came to a halt. His eyes scanned the horizon, picking out black dots swarming along the other dunes and rocks. It took him only a heartbeat to realize the flickering didn't come from the rising heat but from auras and magic. There were warriors across the desert.
“H-How many are there?” he asked.
“At least a thousand.” Desòchu muttered. “Five different clans, maybe more. They've been moving since light, probably settled in at night after it was dark.”
Rutejìmo could see horse riders and clans on mechanical spiders. Three of the massive snakes with Kosòbyo colors were slithering a few miles away. Outside of the city, they appeared to be hundreds of feet long.
Above him, he could see flocks of birds flying straight across the desert. Instead of a cloud or “V” pattern, the birds were arranged in an unnatural line that looked more like a search pattern than anything a flock would do on their own.
“Hawk clan of some sort,” Chimípu said quietly.
“At least two of them. But I'm worried about that,” he pointed to Kosobyo City, barely visible along the horizon. Above it a single black dot sailed around in lazy circles. “Anything that we can see from this far away has to be large.”
“A clan spirit?”
“Or one of Chobìre's raptors.”
Rutejìmo shivered at the thought. Tachìra had eight divine horses that ran the desert to influence his will. Chobìre, the moon spirit, had giant birds that did the same. They were all mounts for the champions of the two spirits in their endless battle over Mifúno.
He gulped and tore his gaze away from the distant bird. “Shouldn't we be panicking now?”
Both warriors shook their heads. “We were about to get everyone up, but we have a half hour before the sun rises. Those are all day clans, except maybe the raptor. None of them will attack until Tachìra wakes.”
“And then Chimípu will be running.”
Chimípu ducked her head.
Desòchu shook his. “We've been talking for a while now. Neither one of us thinks that plan will work anymore.”
“There are at least three speed clans out there and two jumpers. If Chimípu leaves us, then we either have to scatter to avoid being attacked or bunch up to be slaughtered.”
Rutejìmo sat down heavily. “Sands.” The rock underneath him dug into his buttocks, but the despair and frustration made it hard to do anything but look at the two warriors.
“Yes,” Chimípu grunted, “I believe we've both said that. Repeatedly.”
Rutejìmo looked at her. “Can't you do that shooting thing? You could….” He almost said “kill” but the word stuck in his throat.
She shook her head and gestured to the desert. “That only works if they are bunched up. I have one, maybe two of those until I rest. Everyone is spread out looking for us. There isn't any group large enough to hit. Maybe one of the Kosòbyo snakes, but I don't really know what they can do.”
“And if we get down there,” continued Desòchu, “we can pick them off one-by-one, but with that many, it's just a matter of how many we kill before we're killed ourselves. No one can stand against an army.”
“But you can break one if you do enough damage.” Chimípu said.
Desòchu looked at his brother. “So, we're trying to figure out how to save everyone. Or at least give us a chance to save some of us.”
Rutejìmo's stomach twisted. He knew that someone was going to die, but it was hard to say it. For years he had served the clan by treating the dead, and he imagined he would be there for the deaths of everyone he knew, but if they scattered, he couldn't be there when they needed him the most.
He forced his thoughts away from the sudden despair by clearing his throat. “With you and Chimípu protecting us, we could make it.”
Desòchu nodded and then shrugged. “Yes, but it would also make it obvious where we are going, which means they could set up a trap that even we couldn't survive.”
“You want us to split up,” Rutejìmo said.
Desòchu sighed. “It's an ugly answer. Shimusògo run together for a reason, except when it's safe. But, we all travel at different speeds and if our paths aren't obvious, maybe one of us can slip through the net they are spreading out. Easier to catch a rock than a sandstorm.”
Rutejìmo ran his hands along the rocks as he struggled with his emotions. He could feel their hesitation and fear. Knowing that one would die was one thing, but there was more. After a few minutes, he realized what it was. “I'm the most at risk, aren't I?”
Both the warriors nodded, neither of them looking at him.
“I'm the slowest and not always that bright.”
Chimípu shook her head. “Jìmo—”
“No, it's true, Mípu. The only way to give me a chance to get home in time is to send me in the straightest line, which would make me the easiest to ambush.”
With a sigh, he returned his gaze down to the rocks. He picked one up and rolled it in his palm, struggling with the swelling of emotions. He was going to die. Probably alone in the middle of the desert where no one would lead him to Mifúno's embrace.
Rutejìmo almost threw up, but he managed to keep it down. The answer was obvious the moment they mentioned it. But, it took him a few minutes to quell his fear to let the words out. When he managed to look back up, he could feel the tears burning his eyes. “Let's tell the others we're splitting up.”
He caught only a look of relief and sorrow in their eyes before he looked away.
Ten minutes later, all six of them were standing on the ridge looking over the gathered clans. There were thousands of them and even from the distance, their powers were evident. Rutejìmo spotted speed clans racing with clouds of dust and rocks, groups that appeared and disappeared among the sands, and even archers that seemed to be content to remain along the highest ridges despite nothing for miles around them.
“W-We can't do this,” said Mapábyo with tears in her eyes. “We can't survive this.”
“We can if we spread out,” said Desòchu in a low voice, “I'll have routes for all of you. Just make sure you never tell anyone the names and places. Not even each other. There may be clans that can hear from a distance.”
“Then how will we know where to go?” asked Nifùni. He stood a few feet from the others and a step behind.
Desòchu smiled weakly. “I've grown up with all of you. We've had so much time together that I can reference a location by what happened there, something that only we know. That way, we don't leave a trail for someone to catch. Never talk about it, never say where you are going. Assume someone is always listening.”
Rutejìmo felt a prickle along his side. He looked behind them and around, but saw nothing. Embarrassed, he turned back around.
“We'll split up the documents among all six of us.”
Rutejìmo spoke up. “And one stone each.”
“What? Why?” snapped Nifùni.
“Because if one of us makes it, then there will be a vote. Make your answer clear.” Rutejìmo didn't want to dwell on the reasons they wouldn't make it back to vote themselves.
Nifùni shook his head and stepped up. “No, I refuse to…”
Rutejìmo felt the prickle again. Ignoring Nifùni's words, he turned around and peered across the campsite. They had already packed their belongings in silence and eaten quickly. Their packs were lined up near the dead fire, ready to snatch at a moment's notice.
He silenced his thoughts and felt his attention drawn to the far side of the camp. Slowly, he turned around and walked across it, his bare feet crunching on the sand.
He felt Chimípu's presence more than saw it. She walked next to him in silence, but her body burned with pale golden flames. Unlike the couriers, the warriors could retain their powers at night for a short time. “Jìmo.”
“Something is here.” He spotted a straight, sparkling line a few feet away. Inhaling sharply, he rested his hand on Chimípu's shoulder. “Mípu, I think we have company—”
The flames around her grew brighter, and the muscles underneath his palm tensed. The heat rippled along his body, not burning but clearly present.
“—but it may not be an enemy.”
The line twisted, revealing the two-dimensional shape of Fidochìma, the old man Rutejìmo had met a few days before. The body blossomed into three dimensions as the man dropped to his knees and bared his throat. His outfit was dusty and blood-stained. Some of the arrows in his quiver were notched, and one looked stained with blood. “Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo, please forgive this old fool.”
Chimípu stepped back and drew her weapon with a hiss.
Desòchu appeared on Rutejìmo's other side, weapon drawn and body burning. A moment later, a blast of air buffeted Rutejìmo's back. “Jìmo, who is this?”
“I am Fidochìma, and I speak… for no one right now.”
The words brought up a memory for Rutejìmo. He had said the same thing right after he was cast out of his clan. He lost the right to speak for a clan because he had none. Fidochìma had lost his own clan recently.
Rutejìmo stepped forward, but both Chimípu and Desòchu stopped him by slapping their hands against his chest.
“It could be a trap,” said Desòchu in a low voice.
Rutejìmo shook his head. He could feel the breeze buffeting his back and the sand rolling along his feet. “No, it isn't. He's looking for me. He's a banyosiōu now.”
Both Desòchu's and Chimípu's hands dropped from his chest.
“H-How can you tell?” hissed Desòchu.
Rutejìmo stared at Fidochìma for a long moment, and the whispers arose in his head. “Because he killed a man that was already dead.”
Fidochìma shuddered but said nothing. A tear sparkled in his eye.
“Jìmo,” whispered Desòchu, “we are about to run for our lives. If this is one of the… kojinōmi things, we don't have time for this.”
Rutejìmo nodded and stepped forward, lowering himself in front of Fidochìma.
The old man, face covered in sand, looked up. “Forgive me.”
“I cannot, I'm sorry.” Rutejìmo sniffed.
“I hunted him down, I found him. He was sobbing in the corner of a cliff, terrified. He told me what you had done, and I knew I should have walked away. But, I didn't have the faith.” Fidochìma clutched Rutejìmo. “I didn't trust her to take care of it. I killed him because he killed my granddaughter of a daughter. I killed him because I was so angry.”
Rutejìmo rested his hand on Fidochìma's shoulder. He knew the need to talk.
“And then, I felt it. Something inside me died and withdrew. I felt… alone...separate from the world, and even my own family turned their back. I said nothing, and they turned their back on me. They knew before I stepped sideways.”
Rutejìmo nodded. “I know. It hurts in a way you can't describe, not to anyone who hasn't died already.”
“By my own brother's command. A year and then I could live again, but Tsupòbi had far more than a year. She,” he didn't name the desert, “is far crueler than my brother could be. I don't think the man you killed would have ever been forgiven.”
“And I think now I'm given his curse. The sands dug into my skin at the moment he died.”
“She is very vengeful. Someone must suffer the full measure of what she bestows.”
“Wisdom I should have listened to,” whispered Fidochìma, his voice cracked.
Rutejìmo chuckled dryly. “I'm not sure if I'm wise, but I can say this. She has a purpose in her actions. She is cruel and beautiful, but also loving. You can get back into her graces, but not by simple bribes or empty actions.”
He pulled Fidochìma in a hug, tensing only slightly at the thought of being stabbed. Embracing the older man, he whispered, “I can only give you the same advice I gave the man whose curse was given to you. Find a city or a place to live and stay safe. There are others who have also died, and they will help, but only if you remain silent and listen. The others see you, but they can't acknowledge you. Just be willing to see the way they can talk to the dead; it won't be with words.”
Fidochìma rested his head on Rutejìmo before pulling back. “Half my age and filled with wisdom. I guess I was wrong, there is greatness in the desert.”
“Thank you, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”
Rutejìmo nodded and then pressed his finger to Fidochìma's lips. “Silence. The dead are silent.” He sniffed as the tears burned his eyes. He wished someone had told him that when he was cast out, it would have saved him weeks of agony. But it would have set him on a path to lose Mapábyo.
Fidochìma, an old man of a night clan, bowed and then turned sideways, disappearing in a sparkle of light.
Rutejìmo stared at him, jealous that Fidochìma had a way of escaping in stealth when he had none. Then he pushed himself up, swaying before he regained his balance. The two warriors had left when Rutejìmo and Fidochìma were speaking, but Rutejìmo didn't remember their withdrawal.
He looked out over the desert, away from the city. There were fewer clans out there looking for him, just a wide expanse of rolling sands. The plumes from their run would be visible to anyone looking.
“Jìmo,” Desòchu said as he walked back up, his bare feet crunching on the rocks.
Rutejìmo turned to his brother.
“You're the last.” Desòchu handed Jìmo a heavy bone case, the original one. “I've already given routes to the others.”
Desòchu's lips pressed into a thin line. “Start with the bed that Byochína kicked you out of.” It was a campsite from a week ago. Rutejìmo had accidentally crawled into the wrong bedroll in the middle of the night, much to the amusement of the others and his embarrassment.
“And then to the place you died the first time.” Wamifuko City. “I would not normally send you anywhere like that, but you have more allies there than anywhere else.”
Rutejìmo nodded, the world spinning around him as he focused on his brother.
“And then to where your friend broke his leg.” A set of Wind's Teeth where Pidòhu, Chimípu, and his rite of passage started.
“Finally, to where I learned the true Shimusogo Way.” Home, right inside the entrance where most of the clan stopped Desòchu from killing Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo fought back the tears, but he bowed his head in acknowledgment. “Will I see you along the way?”
Desòchu jerked and then nodded. “Yes, but I won't tell you where.”
“Race you home?” It was a thin joke, and he couldn't force himself to smile.
“I'll give you a head start,” came the dead-panned reply.
“When do we leave?” asked Rutejìmo just as the sun rose above the horizon. A ripple of power coursed through his veins and all six let out sighs of pleasure and despair.
Everyone ran for their packs and scooped them up. Rutejìmo looked across at the others of his clan and felt a blackness fill his heart. The faces looking back at him were drawn and nervous, no doubt feeling the same thing.
They were going to die.
Desòchu cleared his throat. “Pábyo and Jìmo with me. Chína and Fùni run with Mípu. Mípu and I will create cover by kicking up a cloud, and you four run inside it, peeling away when we hit the first curve—” He pointed to Mapábyo and Byochína
“—and then the second—” His shaking finger gestured to Rutejìmo and Nifùni.
“—and we—” He finished pointed to Chimípu who took a deep breath.
“—will sprint from there. We have the longest routes since we are the fastest. Any questions?”
No one answered.
Desòchu wiped the sweat from his brow. “Shimusògo run.”
And then they were.