No one knows what organizes the kojinōmi, only that one is there when someone dies.
— Whispers of the Desert (Act 2)
The steady drum of Rutejìmo’s feet against the solid ground was almost peaceful. He chased Shimusògo as he always did, the dépa sprinted a few rods in front of him no matter how fast he pushed himself. Rutejìmo didn’t feel an urgency to race, only a need to approach the smoke, so he ran at a comfortable pace that would carry him just under thirty miles in an hour.
His feet always struck solid ground. One of the powers of the Shimusògo clan solidified shifting sands and rolling rocks before his foot came down. As soon as he ran past, it crumbled back into sand in time for the wind of Rutejìmo’s passing to rip it from the ground and send it flying in the air. Even at his relatively sluggish speed, the plume of sand and dust stretched a mile back on a still day.
Alone, he could lose himself in the euphoria of running. The power of Shimusògo was a pulse of pleasure and at the same time an ache, while running for hours at a time. But, for Rutejìmo, it was always a struggle. And as his run stretched into an hour, his thoughts turned inward.
As much as he couldn’t admit it in front of the other Shimusògo, Rutejìmo was thankful for being pulled away from Kosobyo City. Even his brief view of the city disturbed him. Cities needed walls for protection, not wide open rows of endless buildings. He couldn’t imagine how the Kosòbyo protected their homes with so many exposed entrances. The only thing he could imagine was that no one would ever risk destruction by going against one of the most powerful clans in the desert. The Kosòbyo were known for their grudges.
Given the size of the powerful clan, Rutejìmo hadn’t expected a call from the desert. There were other kojinōmi. No doubt there were at least a few in the Kosòbyo.
Even though he had only met one other kojinōmi in five years, the Book of Ash indicated they gravitated to places they were needed. In a city as large as Kosobyo City, there had to be those who needed someone to hold their hand while they died or to tend to the bodies after it happened. Why had the desert called on him so far from home?
Lost in thought, he blasted past a figure without realizing it, only catching a flash of white in the corner of his eye. With a gasp, Rutejìmo dug his feet into the ground. His sole cut through the solid rock, and he decelerated rapidly. Jumping to the side, he shot out in a wide circle to come around and chase after the figure walking away.
He reached the figure quickly, and he jammed his feet back into the ground to stop. His passing left a deep furrow in the ground, the impact of rock shattering underneath his feet nothing more than a tug and scrape against his hardened soles.
Rutejìmo remained crouched on the ground and held his breath. The wind that followed him blew over his body, peppering his back with rocks and sand. It slowed in a choking cloud before raining down. Moments later, he stood in a teardrop-shape of upturned sand and rocks.
It was a young man with pale brown skin and no hair. He drank from a skin when Rutejìmo stopped and he turned with the skin still held in his hand. He wore a white tunic and trousers. The rough fabric was almost identical to Rutejìmo’s outfit.
The young man looked surprised. “Kojinōmi?”
Rutejìmo nodded and then stepped back in surprise. For five years, Rutejìmo had remained nearly silent when he took on the mantle of white. When he raised his voice, he was beaten until he learned not to make a noise. But the stranger had spoken at full volume, as if they were talking in a room together.
A frown crossed the other man’s face. “I haven’t seen you before.”
Rutejìmo shook his head.
Rutejìmo shook his head again, unwilling to break his own silence despite the kojinōmi speaking to him.
The other man turned and headed toward Rutejìmo. The frown deepened for a moment, then he stopped with a scoff. “You are one of those provincial types, aren’t you? Live out in the desert somewhere near Tachìra’s asshole?”
Uncomfortable, Rutejìmo didn’t respond.
“Well, you can ignore that smoke,” the young man gestured toward Rutejìmo’s destination.
Rutejìmo glanced over his shoulder at the dual columns of colored smoke rising. They were close, less than a mile, but the kojinōmi was walking in the wrong direction.
“No one to save, just a bunch of Chobìre scum. And even the rest of them won’t be needing help in a few hours. As soon as the moon sets, they won’t last seconds.”
Chobìre was the name of the moon spirit and Tachìra’s rival. Legend had it that the two spirits fought for the affections of Mifúno, the desert, but neither ever took her hand. Instead, the clans who gained their power from the moon and sun fought just as the spirits did—but the mortals’ battles frequently ended in blood and death.
Rutejìmo stroked the hilt of his tazágu. Unlike the rest of the Shimusògo who wore orange and red, his weapon was decorated in black and blue, the colors of a night clan. A woman in his past had given it to him before she disappeared into the night with one of Rutejìmo’s former clan mates.
“Don’t bother, kojinōmi. Your sand-blasted, sun-burned traditions won’t help you here. You probably still do the purification rituals. Walking naked across the desert?” At Rutejìmo’s hesitant nod, the young man scoffed. “Those ways are dead, Mifúno hasn’t abandoned any of us when we gave up those rites.”
A prickle of discomfort ran along Rutejìmo’s body. The casual words were nothing like the rituals in the Book of Ash. He could still remember the old woman who gave him the book, right before she stripped naked and headed out on her own purification. He never saw the wild-haired woman again, but her silent lessons had carried him for half a decade.
The kojinōmi scoffed again. “Go on, waste your time. Maybe you’ll end up dead like those night scum.” He turned, drained his skin, and headed back toward Kosobyo City.
Rutejìmo didn’t need to look at his feet to feel the wind blowing around his toes. If the young kojinōmi’s words were any indication, he knew why Mifúno called Rutejìmo and not the others. Despite following a clan of the sun, Rutejìmo served everyone who needed it, night or day. He was never given a choice, nor wanted one. If it wasn’t for the clans of both sides, he would have died in the desert years ago.
Turning on his heels, he raced away from the other kojinōmi.
Less than ten minutes later, he came up to a crowd of warriors circling around a gray and green wagon. The wagon stood in the middle of an empty space about a chain across. Outside, forming a ring, were at least three different clans wearing bright colors. A horse clan whooping and circling made up the outer ring. They all had short wooden bows in their hands, and their horses wavered like heat, slipping between the others easily despite the large bulk.
The other two clans were foot warriors. One carried a curved sword and the other appeared to favor a wide-bladed spear. Most of their weapons were out and brandished, but they made no effort to approach closer to the wagon.
As he walked, Rutejìmo focused on the painted wagon. The clan name, Nyobichóhi, was clearly painted on the side but two of the letters were speared with red-feathered arrows. There was also a smear of red along the wood. Ripples of green circled the wagon, moving like a cloud of noxious fumes that moved against the breeze that blew the sand.
Rutejìmo lifted his head to confirm that Chobìre was still in the sky. He was, but the moon was only a pale disk of white partially obscured by the horizon. In less than an hour, it would be out of sight and the clan in the wagon would lose all of their powers.
He didn’t need the wind blowing against his back to know he was needed. He let out his breath and started toward the crowds. He focused his eyes on the ground and trusted that he would walk straight. It was how he approached a crowd while wearing white.
The noise of horses and talking grew louder as he covered the last few chains to the edge of the crowd. People stepped away from him, creating a path through the din. He knew that most of the warriors were aware of him, poised in case he simply pretended to be a kojinōmi. If he drew a weapon or became a threat, they would cut him down before he took a breath. But, as long as he remained silent and unobtrusive, they would ignore him.
The crowds continued to peel away from him. He walked slowly and steadily while being careful to keep his hand away from his weapon.
Conversations quieted but didn’t die away. He could hear the whispers and murmurs as he passed. The muscles in his back tightened as he continued through the crowd of strangers, wondering if there were other differences with the clans in the northern desert.
When he saw feet blocking his path, he almost slammed into someone. With a soft gasp, he froze and stared down at the ground. He couldn’t interact with the living, the warriors, but normally they stepped out of the way.
The man blocking Rutejìmo spoke. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Rutejìmo tensed. It sounded like the man was talking directly to Rutejìmo. Rutejìmo wanted to look up and confirm it, but he couldn’t. That would require him to interact with the man in front of him.
“Hey, Tsupòbi,” called one of the warriors to the side, “who are you talking to?”
Tsupòbi snorted. “No one. Just a stupid ghost without the sense to get out of the sun.”
Laughter rippled around Tsupòbi and Rutejìmo.
Rutejìmo stepped to the side.
Tsupòbi’s blue and gold boots moved to block Rutejìmo.
More laughter around him.
“No, there aren’t any ghosts needed here,” said Tsupòbi.
The wind rolled over Rutejìmo’s feet, kicking up more sand. Streamers of grains rolled around Tsupòbi’s feet as it headed toward the wagon. Rutejìmo felt a sparkling sensation pouring down his spine before it spread out through his body. The pressure to approach the wagon increased and he knew that someone was about to die.
The world seemed to fade away until there was nothing but Rutejìmo and the wind. He watched the familiar patterns roll across the sand.
“Go away, ghost.”
And then Rutejìmo could sense Tsupòbi. The man was before him, visible in Rutejìmo’s mind as clearly as if he had looked up. He saw a middle-aged man with a shaggy beard and broad shoulders. He wielded a curved scimitar and had a short knife on his back.
Rutejìmo’s heart began to beat faster. He was seeing something he had never seen before.
As if to respond, his toes and soles tingled. Before he could inhale, the sensation crawled up his legs and spine, spreading out across his skin. Whispers tickled his senses, the inaudible words of the desert just outside of his comprehension.
The wind increased behind Rutejìmo, and it buffeted his back. He watched as it swirled around him, painting more patterns around his feet but not around the warrior blocking him. The sand didn’t touch or even bounce off of Tsupòbi, as if the man didn’t exist anymore.
Rutejìmo tried to push his senses out. To his surprise, he could sense the others. They were lifting their hands or turning their backs against the wind that peppered them. Rutejìmo could feel how the sand bounced on their faces and arms, how it lodged into the folds of their fabric. There were no patterns of death, but they still responded to the desert.
A flash of insight slammed into Rutejìmo. The desert no longer acknowledged Tsupòbi existed.
Rutejìmo lifted his gaze. He took in each part of the man before him, from the sword on his side and the clan name proudly displayed along his belt and clothes.
As he dragged his gaze up, the wind rose to a howl. It swirled around Rutejìmo, depositing sand against his face and skin. It stuck to the sweat that glistened on his dark skin and clung to his hair. He could feel more of it shifting into his clothes and lodging against the sensitive parts of his flesh.
The man before him remained untouched by the sand and wind.
Rutejìmo finally brought his stare directly into Tsupòbi’s eyes. He had never stared at anyone in public before, and the very act terrified Rutejìmo. He waited to be cut down but no blows came.
Tsupòbi stepped back and raised his weapon. Sweat sparkled on the warrior’s brow when his face twisted into a mask of rage. The killing edge of the sword glowed with an inner light. It wasn’t flame, but it wavered in the air around the warrior and sparkled along the name engraved along the metal.
A thousand options flashed through Rutejìmo’s head as he stared at the glowing weapon. He could pull his own weapon and parry—he was good enough to survive at least a few seconds, but then the other warriors would easily overpower him. He could dodge out of the way, either to run or to charge forward.
And then an option he had never considered: he could speak. Right before he had become a kojinōmi, he learned that the dead never spoke to the living. It was beaten into him and he almost lost his life when he broke the silence. Now, after five years, he had forgotten that it was even a possibility. As he considered it, he felt a tingling boil up inside him, driving him to react and respond.
The warrior’s blade came down in a high, overhead blow. It left a streak of golden fire behind it.
Rutejìmo opened his mouth and the wind died instantly, plunging the world into silence. In the brutal quiet, his words carried clearly across the crowds. “You are dead to her.”
Tsupòbi tried to abort his swing, but the glowing blade came down. It caught Rutejìmo’s shoulder, slicing through skin before bouncing off the bone. The warrior dropped his weapon and the blade cut another deep gouge out of Rutejìmo’s flesh before falling to the ground.
Pain ripped through Rutejìmo’s senses and it took all his effort not to cry out from the agony.
Tsupòbi panted frantically and his face was pale. “Y-You can’t speak! You aren’t allowed to!”
Rutejìmo said nothing. Hot blood rolled down his chest and back, soaking through the sand before slowing.
Turning to the surrounding warriors, the man cried out. “He can’t talk! He can’t say that!” There was desperation and fear in his voice, the same feeling echoed in Rutejìmo’s heart.
Rutejìmo turned and followed Tsupòbi’s gaze. As he did, he saw the flashes of fear in the surrounding warriors before they quickly looked away. A strange feeling filled Rutejìmo as he circled around, watching as the warriors were the ones to look away from him.
When he came around again, Rutejìmo found that the only one willing to look into his face was the man who tried to block him. Tsupòbi stood shaking in front of Rutejìmo, his hand clenching empty air.
“Y-You can’t talk,” he said in a broken whisper.
Rutejìmo took a deep breath and spoke the words he finally heard in the silence. “She will never welcome you into her arms, and you will die alone and forgotten.” The words came rushing out, half formed by the whispers in his head but he filled in the gaps. “There is no clan under sun and moon that will ever welcome you again. You are—”
“No!” The warrior staggered back. “No, you aren’t allowed—”
“—dead to Mifúno forevermore.” The final words burst out of Rutejìmo’s mouth. He felt power rush out of him, leaving him drained and shaking.
In the silence, no one moved.
Tsupòbi looked around. “Please? Someone?”
Rutejìmo followed his gaze again, his thoughts dull from the sudden emptiness inside him. He felt as if he had run for ten hours solid, but the exhaustion came from only a few words that had broken a man.
Only a few feet away, the nearest warrior turned around so his back was facing Rutejìmo and the dead man. Rutejìmo saw sweat pouring down Tsupòbi’s face and fear in his eyes. The other warriors joined suit, turning away in a wave of movement that rippled through all the warriors.
The world spun around Rutejìmo as he watched their response. He had never had any force speak through him. The overwhelming sense of power quickly faded but it left behind only terror that he had done something forbidden.
As he stood there, the rest of the bystanders turned their backs on them. Even the horses turned away. In a moment, no one looked at Tsupòbi, the former warrior who had just been cast from society.
The rush turned to sadness as Rutejìmo regarded the former clan member. When Rutejìmo was declared dead, it was only for a year. But for the man before him it would be for the rest of his life. No clan, night or day, would talk to him. He couldn’t find shelter at any oasis or in the cities. The news of his spiritual death would travel faster than he could, and soon he would be alone and abandoned. Just like Rutejìmo was five years ago, but for the rest of his life.
“W-What do I do?” Tsupòbi dropped to his knees, his voice cracking. “What?”
Rutejìmo stepped forward and the warrior flinched. With a sigh, Rutejìmo rested one hand on his shoulder. “Be silent,” Rutejìmo whispered, “and learn to watch. Find a city and remain there. There is no more salvation in the desert for you. No oasis will shelter you. As long as you are dead to the sands, none of the living can look at you. If you force them to acknowledge your presence, they will kill you.”
“I have nowhere to go.”
“The city. There are other banyosiōu there. They will help you, if you help them.”
Rutejìmo had received no such help when his tribe had cast him away. He spoke from experience, and he couldn’t help but remember almost dying of dehydration in the middle of the desert as he chased after Mapábyo.
Tears ran down the man’s face. He shook his head. “I-I can’t.”
“Then you will truly die.” Rutejìmo let his hands slide off the shaking man’s shoulder and stepped past him.
This time, no one stopped him as he crossed the distance to the lone wagon. The noxious cloud dissipated in front of him, blown away by a breeze that rolled past him. As he approached the back, the door cracked open and an older woman peeked out from the crack. Her one visible green eye widened and she opened the door.
At the sight of her surprised face, Rutejìmo glanced over his shoulder. The surrounding warriors were walking and riding away. All the anger and hatred of the mob had faded with Rutejìmo’s words.
The old woman hesitated for a moment before opening the door to let him in. He walked up the wooden steps and inside.
The travel wagon could have comfortably fit seven; instead, a dozen crowded within. The stench of blood and death filled the cramped quarters.
Rutejìmo ignored everyone but a young girl on the floor. A pool of blood surrounded her as she clutched her stomach. Blood oozed from a sword cut that sliced her from her right hip to the bottom of her ribs of her left side. Coils of her intestines bulged around her fingers, and one loop was caught on her thumb.
She looked up at him with glistening eyes. “I-I’m scared.” Her voice was a broken whisper.
The rest of the wagon emptied as Rutejìmo knelt in the blood and drew her close. Her skin was cold, and her blood colder. He rested his cheek against hers. He said nothing, he never needed to.
“Can y-you help me?” she whimpered and dug her fingers into her stomach. “I-It hurts. It hurts so much and it won’t stop. All I did was try to greet him… and… and then he cut me.”
Rutejìmo rested one hand on her stomach, not to hold her insides in but to cradle her hand. In her shimmering eyes, he saw his reflection. His eyes had turned gold and white, the color of death. He shuddered and closed them, resting his chin against her forehead.
He didn’t have to say anything.
A moment later, she began to whisper. The words weren’t important to him, but they were to her. She apologized to him for stealing her brother’s dagger and praying to be born into one of the sun clans. She told him of her dreams and fantasies, the places she wanted to go. She let go of the things holding her to the world, the weight heaped on her young shoulders. Between the tears, she spoke until her voice faded in a choking gasp.
Moments later, she died in his arms.
When Rutejìmo looked up with tears in his own eyes, a stack of perfumed wood sat inside the wagon, along with some small trinkets of gold and white, gifts for the kojinōmi who would guide the fallen girl’s soul to Mifúno’s breast.