The Ryayusúki are horse riders with the ability to pass through sand as easily as most run across the ground. They are fast, but not the fastest.
— Shimusogo Tokimòshi
At just past noon, Rutejìmo first saw Shimusogo Valley, just a dark blur along the horizon, a hundred miles away, but the shape of the carved-out valley was distinctive to those who approached it for most of their lives.
He didn't feel hunger or agony or thirst anymore, only the overpowering need to reach the valley before he stopped.
His feet slammed across the rocky plains for less than a heartbeat, and then he was past. He heard the wind howling behind him and knew a plume would mark his passing, but there was nothing he could do to hide his presence.
Ahead to both sides, he saw other plumes racing toward him. Flashes of power and lightning were visible even from this distance, and he knew they weren't Shimusògo. They were the clans the Kosòbyo hired to kill him.
Mouthing a prayer to Shimusògo and Mifúno, Rutejìmo continued to race straight ahead. He didn't think he could turn while running, at this speed he didn't have any choice. He wished he had his tazágu, in the hopes of parrying at least one blow.
He tried to shift to the side, but the power coursing through him drove him forward. He was going to charge straight into the valley or die.
Minutes stretched out into a tight ball of tension. He could do nothing but watch as the ambush approached him. They aimed for the path ahead of him, a perfect ambush with his inability to move to the side or dodge.
Then he saw a shadow of a massive bird sailing over the sands toward him. It was Tateshyúso, the spiritual ally of Shimusògo and the guardians of the valley. The bird spirit's wings spread over a quarter mile on sand as she approached. One moment, he was racing in the brilliance of Tachìra and then, in the next, he was in the darkness of the bird's shadow. Despite his speed, he didn't come out the other side; the shadow followed after him.
The air wavered before him, hazy as a figure appeared. It was Pidòhu. His body rippled with his movement, a translucent form that did little to obscure the ground behind him. The thin man wore only a loin cloth but he had a wiry build and his brown skin shimmered like the wind. His thin hair fluttered.
“Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo. Did your brother give you a head start to give you a chance to beat him?” Pidòhu smirked as he gestured back to the valley.
Rutejìmo opened his mouth to warn him, but the only noise that came out was a screech. He tried again, but his voice refused to make any other sound.
Pidòhu's smile dropped instantly. Rutejìmo watched as he took a second look at Rutejìmo, his eyes gazing down as the wind blew through his ethereal body. When he looked up, determination replaced the amusement on his face.
Turning around, Pidòhu let out a sharp screech of his own. It was deeper in pitch but just as insistent as any warrior's call.
A heartbeat later, two more shadows of Tateshyúso burst out of the valley and sailed toward them. They slammed into the darkness hovering over Rutejìmo, and two more figures, a man and a woman, appeared in the eye before him. They were both dressed like Pidòhu, with the woman wearing an additional white breast strap. All three of them hovered in front of Rutejìmo, their translucent bodies rippling with his speed.
Pidòhu turned sharply to the other Tateshyúso. “Rutejìmo is in danger. Tikói, check out the movement to the south. Menodàka, you—”
Both disappeared as their shadows burst out.
Pidòhu turned to Rutejìmo. He nodded curtly before he faded away, and then Rutejìmo was running in sunlight again.
He watched as the two shadow spirits covered the distance in a matter of seconds and then sailed back. The massive shadows swallowed dunes before they settled over Rutejìmo.
All three appeared before him. Pidòhu's back was to Rutejìmo but his voice was clear. “There are fliers coming up behind him. They are armed with arrows.”
Tikói shook her head. “Speed riders, lizard and bird. They are also armed and I don't know the clans.”
Menodàka said, “Archers and fast horses. I also saw disturbances in the sand in front of him, someone is hiding, and I don't think they are friendly.”
Rutejìmo gasped and tried to say something, but only a screech came out.
Pidòhu glanced at him and there was sadness in his green eyes. “I'm sorry, Jìmo. Keep running. I promise you'll make it home.”
“What about Desòchu and the others?” It was Tikói, the female in front of him.
Rutejìmo shook his head, unable to say anything.
“Damn the sands,” snapped Pidòhu. He pointed to her. “Summon the Ryayusúki in the next valley. Tell them we are in danger.”
“What about that?” asked Menodàka as he pointed to the message case around Rutejìmo's neck.
Pidòhu shook his head. “We can't carry that, it's too heavy. If you grab it, you'll lose the wind. No, Rutejìmo must deliver it. Now, you go get the Karāchi and remind them that we have a pact to defend each other. And there is no time.”
“Yes, Great Tateshyuso Pidòhu.” The other two disappeared as their shadows sailed off. One headed toward a valley just barely visible with Rutejìmo's good eye. He knew it was the Ryayusúki clan's valley, horse riders that had sworn to protect the Shimusògo as they swore to protect them in turn. The other spirit headed toward a mountain much further away, but it was the home to a bird rider clan who had the same pact.
“Rutejìmo, I will tell the Shimusògo. Can you run straight and fast?”
Rutejìmo nodded sharply, his vision blurring.
“Shimusògo run. Don't you dare stop,” whispered Rutejìmo's friend, and then he raced toward the valley.
Rutejìmo watched the spirit disappear into the valley and then focused on the approaching clans. They were going to intercept him in less than ten minutes, and he still needed twice that to make it home. He didn't know how he could stop before slamming into the cliff, his body refused to do anything but run.
A ripple of power exploded from the valley entrance. He watched as it expanded in a wide circle that flowed across the sands. At the same time, light shone as one of the Shimusògo warriors ignited into flames. It streaked toward him, racing in a straight line that kicked up a burning plume of dust and feathers.
As the ripple washed over the sands, and all through the valley Shimusògo dropped what they were doing and raced back to the cliffs. Small plumes of sand and dust followed their trails as parents and grandparents brought the children back to the shelter.
The ripple faded before it reached Rutejìmo, a screech to call the others. It was his turn to need help, but he knew they would be too late.
Tateshyúso's shadow raced ahead of the warrior and settled over Rutejìmo. Pidòhu appeared. “Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”
Rutejìmo opened his mouth, but then closed it.
“Run straight, run fast. Don't slow, no matter what. I promise that you will make it.” Pidòhu turned and then threw his hands into the air. Energy crackled but didn't burn Rutejìmo like the time in Gichyòbi's room. The two clans had compatible energies that let them use powers without feedback.
The sand around Rutejìmo exploded straight up in a mile-long wave of darkness. Only a rod-wide path remained clear, the same path that Rutejìmo raced along.
Pidòhu disappeared as his body was yanked back past Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo plunged into darkness. He felt the power beginning to ebb around him. Biting down, he dug deep and prayed he could keep running.
More sand burst before him, carving out both sides of the path.
Tornadoes of golden energy rose from the ridge above the valley entrance. At first, there was one, and then two, and then more. A dozen swirling vortexes of power. And near the bottom, bright discs of energy appeared before shots rocketed out from valley and sailed toward him.
The side of the storm cloud burst open as a runner, a dark-skinned woman with a curved knife, burst out in a swirl of sand. She snarled and snapped forward, charging toward Rutejìmo as her body blurred into the shape of a snake. Not Kosòbyo, but another snake clan that Rutejìmo didn't know.
He wanted to move to the side. But turning was fighting a storm. Both Shimusògo's power and the wind kept him along a straight line. He let out a scream as he prepared to break off his path.
Then the golden flame of the Shimusògo warrior caught up with the snake. A burst of black and gold flared as the two bodies impacted and disappeared into the storm cloud.
Rutejìmo gasped and stopped trying to move from his path. He had lost speed and tried to regain it, but the power was beginning to falter. He gasped as he realized he had slowed himself down. And death came if he stopped.
The burning shots from the valley reached him, disappearing into the sandstorm. Flames exploded inside the violent maelstrom, and he saw bodies of warriors and creatures shadowed by the bursts of light.
More shots rocketed out from the valley.
Suddenly, the ground burst open as a golden figure rose and slashed at Rutejìmo as he passed. The sparkling weapon caught Rutejìmo's arm and sliced through it. The blade caught bone, and he heard a crack as he sprinted past.
Agony snapped through his body, and he lost his rhythm. His foot caught against a dune, and he was pitched forward. With a scream, he held his hands before him as the ground came rushing up.
He caught the impact with both hands, and he saw his right arm snap in half and tear off when he slammed into the ridge. Before he could scream, he was flying through the air, flipping helplessly as blood sprayed out behind him. He barely registered that his arm had ripped off before he hit the ground and bounced again.
The fireballs shooting out from the valley rained down on his position. He knew they avoided the narrow path he raced along, but he had bounced out of it when he tripped.
Screaming, he saw one of the glowing shots streaking toward him just as he reached the apex of his bounce.
Wind blasted around him, and darkness surrounded him. Pidòhu appeared as Rutejìmo threw his remaining hand forward. Howling winds shot forward in a spear that knocked the shot away, tearing a chain-long path out of the sand.
Rutejìmo flew through Pidòhu, bouncing again. He felt his bones crack and ribs shatter, but his speed shielded him from the agony.
More warriors burst out of the sand before him, weapons drawn.
Half-blinded by the sand in his good eye, Rutejìmo saw the ground coming up again. With a grunt, he concentrated on running as soon as he hit the ground.
The dépa burst past, and the ground solidified into rock. Curling his body, he hit with his shoulder and felt his collarbone crack, but then he was on his feet and chasing the dépa. He accelerated, outpacing Shimusògo as he sprinted forward.
He approached the ambushers in their pits with a strange sense of calm. He couldn't take more punishment, but he wasn't going to stop.
The ground behind the ambushers swelled up and then two blood-red horses burst out of the ground. The Ryayusúki had come in their heavy armor. Both warriors held long spears in their hands, and they plunged their weapons into the backs of the closest men poised to attack Rutejìmo.
Grateful, Rutejìmo blasted past, outracing the screams.
Almost to the valley, he saw that most of the clan stood on either side of his path, hands outstretched as if they were going to catch him. In their other hands were slings with rocks swinging from the bottom.
At the end of the impromptu corridor was Tejíko, his grandmother and the eldest of the clan. She stood straight, her braid whipping back and forth as she yelled something.
Rutejìmo whimpered. He couldn't stop without hurting his grandmother. Pidòhu also said to not stop. He bore down and charged forward straight for his grandmother.
He reached the first ranks of the Shimusògo before he could blink. He felt two hands smack him, and then his body shuddered as part of his speed poured out of him, into the hands, and then into the slings. Transferring momentum was one of the Shimusògo powers, but he had never seen someone go from standing still to instant movement before.
In a burst of light, two shots fired back the way he had come, cracking the air.
More hands smacked against him, bleeding off his speed as they used it to create vortexes of spinning power. The cracks of the flaming shots burst behind him as his speed was turned into weapons for those who chased him.
He slammed into his grandmother weakly. She staggered back as he collapsed into her, dropping to his knees as blood splattered against her. More of it poured out the ragged end of his right arm, soaking into her dress.
The three Tateshyúso appeared next to him and threw their hands up. Wind screamed as it tore down the front of the cliff and then away from the valley. There was a rumble of power and then a crack of thunder.
“Jìmo!” cried his grandmother as she dropped to her knees.
The stench of blood and acid filled the air around him. He glanced at the stump of his arm and then looked away as nausea threatened to overwhelm him.
“What happened?” snapped Tejíko.
Hands were on him, holding him down as more people wrapped his arm to staunch the blood.
Rutejìmo ignored them as he looked at his grandmother. His mouth opened, and he tried to say words, terrified that only screeches would come out. “K-Kos…” Gasping with relief, he realized he could talk. “Kosòbyo are… coming to kill… us.”
He fumbled for the case, hoping that she could understand it.
Tejíko snapped the strap off his neck and tossed it to another Shimusògo. She gripped Rutejìmo. “Where are the others?”
“Dead. Kiríshi… also dead. They are hunting us. Ambushed. Hyonèku is hurt… with the Wamifūko.” He was desperate to speak before the poison killed him. He could already feel it burning the back of his throat.
Tejíko's lips pressed into a line. She looked up. “That merchant who showed up yesterday without warning?”
“Yes, Great Shimusogo Tejíko,” said one of the Shimusògo warriors.
There was a blast of air as the woman disappeared.
Pidòhu knelt next to Tejíko. “Great Shimusogo Tejíko. There are siege weapons coming in from the south. Metal scorpions and snakes. Fast clans come from the side, and they are armed for war.”
Tears sparkled in Tejíko's eyes as she shook her head. “Why?”
Rutejìmo clutched her with his hand, sobbing as he felt the poison tearing at his insides. “Kosòbyo… is going to Chobìre.”
A stunned silence.
“Please, Grandmother… I promise, it's true.”
Tejíko clutched him. “I trust you, Jìmo.” She lifted her head. “They obviously are trying to stop the message before it goes out. And we never fail to deliver our message.”
There was a blast of air as the warrior who had left for the merchant came back, her hand dripping with blood. “Done.”
Rutejìmo gasped for air.
He jerked when he heard his children. He looked up as they raced toward him, but then Tejíko held up her hand. They didn't slow until two elderly Shimusògo caught them and picked them off the ground.
Kitòpi screamed. “That's my papa!”
Tejíko snapped at him. “Not now!” She turned around. “We need to save the children. They can't be in this war. Where can we take them?”
“The Ryayusúki will take them,” said an older man. He was the elder of the horse clan. Rutejìmo had tended to his second wife when she died of a rotted wound.
Rutejìmo groaned as flecks of crimson began to dance in his good eye. He watched his son struggling to free himself from the elder. Two others joined in to hold him.
Piróma stood still, her eyes locked on his.
A heavily armored man knelt next to Tejíko, bowing. “The Ryayusúki will protect them with our lives.”
Tejíko nodded. “We have to deliver this message.”
“As did the Karāchi.” It was a woman. She landed on the ground. Her cloak of feathers settled down as she bowed deeply, her forehead touching the ground. Rutejìmo saw a mark on her forehead, but didn't recognize the symbol. “Who will you deliver it to?”
“Everyone,” growled Tejíko before she spoke up, “If you can run, run. Ràchyo and Záji, we were waiting for Desòchu to return for your rites of passage. Decide now if you are a child or an adult. If you stay with us, you'll find Shimusògo in battle or die.”
The two teenagers gasped.
“Shimusògo!” Her voice echoed against the walls. “We are abandoning the valley. Children go with our allies. Warriors go out to protect the ones on courier runs. All contracts are burned as of this point! The rest of you, take what you need and run. Find shelter but deliver this message: Kosòbyo is abandoning Tachìra.”
Air exploded around them as the Shimusògo raced back into the valley, leaving the children and teenagers standing behind. The girl about to become a woman ran after them, not using magic but racing on her bare feet.
The other, the boy, shook his head. “I-I can't. I'm not ready.”
Tejíko bowed her head. “Then protect the children. They'll need you.”
“Shimusògo will lead.”
“Papa!” Kitòpi ran toward Rutejìmo, but stopped at the widening puddle of blood. “Papa? What happened?”
“Boy,” snapped Tejíko, “turn around!”
“No, he's my papa! Where's Mama!? What happened to Mama?”
Rutejìmo opened his mouth, but the words wouldn't come out. Blood bubbled out of his mouth and he slumped forward as he vomited on his grandmother's dress. It came out black and foul, hissing in the air.
“Ràchyo,” yelled Tejíko, “turn him around!”
The teenager ran over, tears on his face and grabbed Kitòpi. The younger boy screamed and fought, but he was forced to turn around.
Rutejìmo saw the others doing the same. He was dying, and even in that moment of his greatest need, they couldn't look at him.
Tejíko leaned into him. “I never thought it would come to this, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo. You have become something I never expected, and I'm so proud of you.”
Rutejìmo sobbed and covered his mouth, trying to stop his insides from pouring out. It bubbled out of his mouth, nose, and ears. His stomach and insides twisted violently as the poison reached for his heart.
“And I pray that we will have a home to return to. But somewhere, sometime, I promise your vase will be Shimusògo's finest. I only wish there was someone to tend to your—”
She lifted her head at the armored man's voice.
Rutejìmo looked to the valley entrance, drawn by sudden whispers in his head.
Piróma stood at the entrance, bare-footed and wearing one of Rutejìmo's white shirts. It hung over her shoulders, the loose cloth barely catching on her neck. The end of it dragged through the dust with only her toes visible.
“Oh, Tachìra,” whispered Tejíko sharply.
Rutejìmo gasped as his daughter stepped forward, bowing her head as she walked along the ground. The gathered children stepped aside as she made her way toward him.
There were blasts of air as the Shimusògo returned from the caves. Seconds later, gasps filled the air as they grabbed the children and yanked them around once again. Tejíko let out a soft sob as she stood up. Tears splashed on the ground as she turned away herself.
Rutejìmo sobbed as he reached for Piróma.
Piróma didn't stop at the puddle of blood. She padded through it, splashing as she came to his side and knelt.
Rutejìmo smiled and pulled her into a tight hug. “Great Mifuno Piróma.”
She clutched him tight. “I… I don't know what to do. What do I say now?” Her voice was a whisper, felt more than heard.
Rutejìmo closed his eyes as his vision faded. “Listen, just listen to me.”
He held her tight as he began to whisper into her ear. He didn't have a Book of Ash to give her, but he could tell her about the patterns of the sand, the feel of the desert, and the path she had just stumbled on.
When he realized that he couldn't feel her anymore, he kept on whispering everything he could, giving her the things he'd learned and the rituals to follow. He didn't know if she could hear him, but he wasn't going to give up until the last breath left him. He kept speaking until there was only darkness.
And then Great Mifuno Shimusogo Rutejìmo was gone.