Even the most insignificant person is a lead in their own play.
— Stomker Disan
Mikáryo chuckled. “After that, Hūni refuses to talk to Bàyo again.” She drank from a wine bottle.
Rutejìmo was cradled by the same arm and the movement ground his cheek against her breast. He took a deep breath of the faint perfume of oil and dust that permeated her clothing. His eyes fluttered close with his exhaustion and the ache in his sockets.
She relaxed and released him. A second later, she tapped his thigh with the bottom of the bottle. If it wasn't for the poison, it was a light touch but it felt like she was punching his leg.
Forcing his eyes open, he looked up at her. A sad longing filled him. For ten years, he had a shikāfu for her, a flame for the only woman in his life. Only when Mikáryo cast him out in his moment of need had he found his true love, Mapábyo.
Sorrow bubbled up, and he leaned back against her. She wasn't holding him like a lover this time, but as an anchor. He needed something to keep him going on through the night. With each passing hour, he could feel Mifúno rising in the darkness, the force that avenged his wife's and his clan's death expected her due.
He closed his eyes.
“No,” whispered Mikáryo in his ear. Her warm breath tickled along his lobe. “You can't sleep.”
He forced his eyes open. “I'm not.”
“And don't think about that either.”
“They all died.”
“Yes, but you are still here. You will see them soon enough; don't rush to her breasts. Focus on today and your run, nothing else.” She squeezed him tight.
“And then what?”
“Just run. It will—” Her whispers stopped sharply.
Fear prickled Rutejìmo's skin. “Káryo?”
Mikáryo lifted her head. “Bàyo?”
Tsubàyo was standing up. “It's time.”
“Time?” Rutejìmo looked around and then stood up as Mikáryo pushed him to his feet. “Time for what?”
Standing up, he saw a sliver of brightness along the eastern horizon. The sun would not rise for another half hour. He swayed from hours of inactivity and the burn of the poison began to creep back into his senses. It burned at his nostrils. He pressed one finger to his nose, but the bleeding had not yet begun. “Káryo?”
Mikáryo hurried over to her horse. The black stallion no longer breathed, but she still circled to kneel in front of it. Her dark skin, covered in tattoos, seemed to crawl as she rested her hand on the dead animal. “Thank you, Great Pabinkue Datobàpo.”
Standing up, she sniffed once. “Rutejìmo, the rest of the Pabinkúe know you're here. They come from all directions and will be here in less than ten minutes.”
Rutejìmo gasped and then grabbed his only belonging, the message case. Slinging it over his shoulder, he looked around. “I… I need sunlight to run.”
She gathered up her own clothes and quickly dressed in less than a minute. He focused on her two weapons. Both were tazágu, one was unnamed and the other glowed brightly. “No, you only need feet to run. Bàyo?”
Tsubàyo tugged his shirt over his head. He reached backwards just as one of the black horses stepped out of the darkness, seemingly out of solid stone. Rutejìmo knew that the Pabinkúe's magic was to move through darkness, but it always terrified him when he saw a horse appearing from nowhere. Without a noise, Tsubàyo turned and swung onto the horse's back.
Mikáryo clicked her tongue. “Who is out there?”
Tsubàyo lifted his head. He nodded and the horse silently tapped its foot against the rocks. “I feel Fín's, Gìbi's, Óchi's, Pòja's, and Káki's herds. Just under a thousand head. They are all coming in at my limits. Hūni is out there, but she's just riding Dāpa.”
Rutejìmo frowned at the unfamiliar names. He had heard some of them in Mikáryo's and Tsubàyo's stories. None of them were there to save him.
Mikáryo shook her head. “I can stop Hūni, how many can you handle if you start with Fín?”
Tsubàyo looked at her, the scar on his face dark in the pale light of their dying flame. “All of them.” He smiled grimly.
A smile stretched across Mikáryo's face. “My little horse thief. I always said you could steal Pabinkúe herself.”
Turning to Rutejìmo, she grabbed his shoulders and looked at him. “Jìmo… Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”
Rutejìmo swallowed and trembled. Mikáryo had never used his full name before.
She opened her mouth and then closed it. Shaking her head, she let out a short, bitter snort. “I've been spending all night trying to figure out how to say this. And everything I can think of just comes off as insulting. I'm sorry, I just don't have the words.”
Rutejìmo glanced away to avoid showing his tears. He wished he could say something himself, to thank for her risking her own life to save him from the night.
The burning in his nose increased and he felt blood trickling down his lip. Sniffing, he wiped it away and caught sight of Mikáryo's horse. An idea blossomed and he dug down to see if he had the energy to thank her properly. After a moment, he decided he would simply try. Slipping from her hand, he headed for the corpse.
“Jìmo,” said Mikáryo, “what are you doing? You don't have time to do anything for Bàpo.”
As he approached, he prayed to Mifúno. The wind rose around him, peppering him with sand but also giving him strength. She would help him, he knew it, even though she demanded his death. With a trembling hand, he pressed his palm against the cool body of Mikáryo's companion.
The horse didn't move, but suddenly ash poured out of its body. The corpse dissolved underneath his hand, flesh becoming a fire's ash with no flame to create it. It swirled around him in a black cloud before the wind blew it away.
Weakness drove into him as the power faded. He struggled to remain standing as the burn of poison and the ache of his injuries ignited. Turning around, he struggled to walk back.
Tsubàyo and Mikáryo stared in shock, their eyes focused beyond Rutejìmo. He could feel the wind blowing behind him, and knew the desert took the ash away. He didn't have to look back to know Mifúno had accepted the horse's spirit.
Mikáryo's jaw dropped as she turned her head to him.
Rutejìmo fought a wave of dizziness and struggled to keep it from his face. He wanted to thank her, and passing out wouldn't let him do it. “You're right. I am a Mifúno.”
A tear welled in her eye. She stepped into him and hugged him tight. Her lips caressed his and drew back bloody. “I was wrong, Jìmo. You aren't pathetic.”
There was a brief pause, and then she nodded.
Rutejìmo bowed to her, but said nothing.
A black horse stepped out of the darkness. It was a stallion but one Rutejìmo had never seen. Mikáryo grabbed his mane and pulled herself up. She nodded once to Tsubàyo and then clicked her tongue.
The horse jumped forward, diving into the shadow Rutejìmo cast on solid rock. Even as Rutejìmo winced, she disappeared from what was left of his sight and out of what remained of his short life.
Gulping, Rutejìmo shivered and then turned.
Tsubàyo motioned for him to follow and turned his horse, not diving into darkness but walking to the southwest, toward Shimusogo Valley.
Rutejìmo followed, jogging to keep up. Every step was a struggle, with the poison coming back in sharp waves of agony.
The minutes stretched toward the moment when the sun rose above the horizon. Rutejìmo could feel the anticipation growing.
“You're going to die.”
He looked up at Tsubàyo who continued to stare forward.
“No matter what happens, you're going to die as soon as you stop running.”
Rutejìmo nodded. “I-I know.”
“They have a word for that, don't they? The Shimusògo?”
“Ryodifūne. The final run.” Rutejìmo shivered at the name. It was the noble death of the Shimusògo, to die serving the clan. “But I can't do the ryodifūne. I don't have the power… or the ability.”
Tsubàyo finally looked at him. “Are you really that stupid? Of course you do.”
“I don't, Bàyo. I don't know how they do it. They talk about the death at the end, not how they started their run.”
“Jìmo. I've hated you most of my life. But, as the years went on, I realized I could never amount to what you've done and what you've become. You've earned your ashes on that damn bird's statue. You, of all the Shimusògo, belong in the shrine in a place of honor.”
Rutejìmo sniffed and struggled to keep up. He had to turn his head to watch Tsubàyo from his one good eye.
“And today is a good time to find out exactly how fast you can run. Because you have almost a thousand miles to go before you die. If you don't make it, the setting sun will steal your powers and your family is going to die.”
Rutejìmo ducked his head and mulled over the words. He didn't understand the ryodifūne. It was supposed to be the climax of a runner's life, the point where all their magic comes down to a single run. It also took their life at the end. He glanced behind him.
The wind was already gathering, and he could feel the desert spirit's hand reaching for him. He already had death following him.
He shivered and focused on the horses around him. When they started the run, there were a few dozen black horses, but in a matter of minutes their numbers swelled. As he watched, more horses burst out of the shadows of the ones already there, adding to the black mass of silent horses surrounding him.
Rutejìmo turned back and concentrated on moving. Tsubàyo had sped up and Rutejìmo had to shift into a run to keep up with the herd.
“Look over there.” Tsubàyo gestured but Rutejìmo could only see movement. He turned to look where Tsubàyo pointed. In the distance, he spotted black dots moving around fires. “There is a speed clan up there and most of the Pabinkúe. The Pabinkúe will be panicking because they just lost their herds,” he smirked as he spoke. “The speed clan is riding giant lizards and I couldn't steal their mounts.”
He gestured ahead of him. “I was listening through the horses while you rested. The Kosòbyo said that they've hired at least four other speed clans to ambush you further along, mostly around the home valley. If you get there, be ready for an ambush. I suspect one of them hides underneath the sand.”
Tsubàyo pointed further to the west. “Up there, past that ridge are the Madashikóme. They are snipers from the south. Not exactly allies of the Pabinkúe, but a small band of them were in the valley when the Kosòbyo hired us.”
“They specialize against speedsters and fliers. And the moon will be above the horizon for about an hour after Tachìra breaches. Which means that for an hour you have to find some way of outrunning them.”
Rutejìmo gulped. “H-How? I can't run that fast. I never could.”
Tsubàyo swept his hands forward, and the black horses charged. Hundreds of them galloped past and moved to the side, forming a thick wall of darkness.
Lowering his hands, Tsubàyo clutched his mount's mane and leaned over to him. “You have a quarter mile to figure that out. And then if you don't, your clan is going to die.”
Rutejìmo glared at him.
Tsubàyo favored him with a sad smile. “Shimusògo run, right?”
Rutejìmo nodded, and a splatter of blood from his nose splashed on his thigh. His vision blurred and he felt the acid tickling the back of his throat.
“And one more thing…” started Tsubàyo.
When Rutejìmo looked at him, he gave him a deep bow from on top of his horse. There were tears glistening in Tsubàyo's eyes. “I… see you, Great Mifuno Rutejìmo.”
The sun burst over the horizon, and Rutejìmo felt energy pour into him. The translucent bird shot forward, and he burst into movement after it, throwing himself into running fast enough to keep the poison from killing him.
One of the horses stumbled. A splatter of blood burst out of the side of its body just as Rutejìmo raced past it. He spotted the flash of an arrow, but then the blood sprayed against his face.
He winced as more cracks followed, piercing through the shield of horses as he raced along with them. He couldn't see his opponents, but he could feel their arrows as they slaughtered the horses obscuring him.
He shuddered with every scream as they dropped.
Rutejìmo concentrated on the dépa, trying to push himself, but he knew his limits. He glanced up and saw the horses thinning. It had been less than twenty seconds, and he was almost at the end of his shelter.
Memories of Desòchu's and Chimípu's death burst into his mind. He remembered the sorrow of losing his wife and seeing Nifùni's decapitated corpse rotting in the sun. More memories came, of the deaths that he had witnessed over the years. They flashed past him, and he imagined himself in their position.
And then a single moment, frozen at the beginning of his nightmares: Karawàbi. He was one of the boys who failed the rite of passage. Rutejìmo and the others had found him at a campsite, his throat cut and his body abandoned. The worst way to die, rotting in the sands with no one to care for him.
Unless he could run faster, that would be Rutejìmo's fate.
Rutejìmo sobbed and screamed. He had to run faster, but his body wouldn't move.
He thought about his children, Kitòpi and Piróma. Their bodies would rot in the sun if Kosòbyo invaded the valley. The snake clan wouldn't give them peace or a proper burial. There would be no kojinōmi to guide them and their spirits would be abandoned to the winds.
“No!” His voice cracked.
An arrow pierced his arm but then snapped as he brought it down to his hip. The pain flashed through him. He saw a cloud of more arrows rise out of the horizon, sailing in a wave of darkness he knew he couldn't avoid.
With a scream, he pushed with all his might.
“Shimusògo!” He heard the voices of the dead echoing in his throat. Energy flared around him, and there was a crack of thunder.
The world blurred around him, the sands turning to haze as they whipped by.
The arrows never struck.
He gasped, but he couldn't turn away. He couldn't do anything but run. The world blurred around him, moving faster than he thought possible. He could feel the ground solidifying underneath his feet, but he was no longer riding in the plume of Shimusògo but leading it.
The translucent bird, a constant companion for fifteen years was no longer in front of him.
It was beside him.
He had caught Shimusògo.
Sadness bubbled up but was burned away by an intense rush of power that poured through him. It tore at his senses and his body, destroying him as fast as the poison would have. But Shimusògo wouldn't let him die while running.
If he stopped, it was over.
But he would make it home.