Sand and Bone 14: Presents

All magic has resonance, which only responds violently when two incompatible forces are brought together. — Primer on Crystal Sphere Techniques

The merchant’s store was quiet and peaceful, lined with blank books and writing utensils ranging from simple charcoal to magical devices that never ran out of ink. The artifacts were in glass cases, marked with a thin yellow line to indicate their sensitivity to resonance. Those with little magic, such as Rutejìmo, could use them safely but the petabiryōchi, a word he didn’t know, would spark or explode if Chimípu walked too close.

Mapábyo led the way around the store, gathering up a few inexpensive gifts for Piróma, a blank book and some paper-wrapped charcoal. The pages crinkled as she ran her fingers along the other papers. She stopped at a wooden case and pointed out a dizzying array of metal tips inside.

Rutejìmo wasn’t sure what they were, but the ink-splotched paper with calligraphic writing suggested they were also writing devices. His gaze dropped to the price, two thousand. It wasn’t the most expensive item in the store, that was a five thousand pyābi pen that somehow had no resonance but could write for hours.

He sighed, and memories of the morning’s vote returned to his thoughts. The Shimusògo were not a rich clan and a hundred thousand pyābi would have gone a long way to letting him buy gifts like the fancy papers for his daughter and Pidòhu.

His son would still be happy with a new ball though, no matter how much money they spent on it.

Mapábyo glanced at him, a beam of sunlight dancing on her almost black skin. “You made the right choice.”

Rutejìmo smiled and gestured to the case. “It doesn’t feel like it now.” He looked at it. “Before I came here, I never knew about these things. But, seeing them, I want to get them for my daughter because I think she would love them. I want to shower the clan in presents because they have done so much, but I turned it down just because it felt wrong.” He sniffed. “Maybe I am a coward.”

Mapábyo’s eyes flashed in the sun as she stepped up to him. “Never,” she hissed, “use that word to describe yourself.”

He opened his mouth.

She held up two fingers, silencing him. “You were never a coward. You are not a failure. You are Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo, the man I married, the father of my children, and the blessed of both Shimusògo and,” she hesitated before lowering her voice to a whisper, “Mifúno.”

He shivered at her words.

“And realize that I,” she tapped between her breasts with both fingers, “didn’t marry a coward. I married you.”

Rutejìmo bowed his head. “Yes, Great Shimusogo Mapábyo.”

“Good, now let’s buy these things.” She held up the items she had selected “And then see if that meat merchant is ready for us to make her delivery.”

Ten minutes later, they were walking out of the butcher shop. Mapábyo held her travel pack loosely in her hand, the bottom only inches from the ground.

“Damn the sands,” she muttered.

Rutejìmo was also disappointed, but he tried to keep it from his voice. “She did say we would only get the job if they couldn’t find their usual runner. Apparently, they found her.”

“I know, but it would have been nice. This city is expensive.”

“You mean, the gifts we’re buying are expensive.”

She looked down at her bag. Her lower lip peeked out slightly. “Do we have to sell them back?”

Rutejìmo shook his head. “What if we camp out of town for the rest of the trip?”

“Your brother said that we have to put on the appearance of being stable. Cowering in the sands wouldn’t give the right impression.”

He sighed. “Damn, why can’t it be easy?”

Mapábyo leaned into him. She said nothing for a long moment, then kissed his shoulder.

He slipped his arm around her waist and tried not to think about the money.

“Shimusògo!” Byochína ran toward them waving a hand. Her speed wasn’t driven by Shimusògo’s speed, but she outpaced two horses trotting down the street before cutting in front of them and onto the wooden sidewalk. She stopped in front of the couple while looking around.

A prickle of fear ran down Rutejìmo’s spine and he took a step away from Mapábyo.

“Have you seen Nifùni?” she asked steadily, the run not even breaking her voice.

Mapábyo shook her head. “No, why?”

“I went in to ask about a delivery, and when I came out, he was gone. That was about twenty minutes ago.”

“Why did he leave?”

Byochína held up her hands. “I don’t know! He wouldn’t have just wandered off. What if something is wrong?”

Fear twisted Rutejìmo’s gut. There was an obvious answer why Nifùni would have abandoned his clan. “Maybe he found that woman. The one we voted on this morning.”

“No,” Mapábyo said firmly, “he wouldn’t go against a clan vote. Besides, how could he find her in a city this big?”

“Sorry,” Rutejìmo groaned, “I shouldn’t have said it. It was just my head getting stuck. Maybe he just found a bar serving free drinks?”

“Or a pretty girl?” said Mapábyo.

Byochína twisted her hands together. “Just in case, we need to find him. I don’t want him getting drunk alone in this city. Faster is better, don’t you think? Do you think we can speed?”

Mapábyo gestured to an intersection in front of them. “I read that the one-way streets allow some magic, but most don’t. If we stick to the one-ways, then Rutejìmo could race along the others. His power is much weaker than ours and won’t cause feedback.”

For the briefest moment, guilt slammed into him, but it was quickly replaced with determination. Even though he was the slowest of the clan, Mapábyo was right. At his top speed, he produced almost no resonance with artifacts. He swallowed his pride and nodded. “I can do it.”

Rutejìmo pointed at the front side of the butcher’s shop. “There are two one-way streets that intersect about a block that way, back where the writing shop was. We could check in there, say every ten minutes? If you two take the one-ways, I’ll circle around and look. A plan?”

Byochína bowed. “Shimusògo run.”

“Shimusògo run,” said Mapábyo and Rutejìmo.

Settling his pack over his shoulders, Rutejìmo cinched it down and then sprinted forward just as his dépa raced past. The world blurred for only a few chains before the dépa disappeared. He jammed his bare feet into the ground and skidded to a halt.

When he stopped, he ignored the cries of outrage and peered around. When he didn’t see Nifùni, he accelerated for another chain and looked again.

In minutes, the constant starting and stopping left his muscles aching and his feet sore. It felt like walking across the desert without food or the long runs keeping up with the rest of the clan. He wanted to slow to a jog, but the fear that he would miss Nifùni continued to twist his guts.

He kept going, one chain and stop. One chain and stop. The world became a blur of nothing but people yelling at him and a constant appearance of stores and houses.

Rutejìmo was just crossing over one of the one-way streets when he caught a flash of green and gold. He glanced toward it and spotted Dimóryo leading two other Kosòbyo guards away from him. She walked with purpose as she shoved her way through the crowds.

The feeling of fear rose and burned the back of his throat. He didn’t think her presence was a coincidence.

The moment passed, and then he was past the intersection. Swearing, he came to a halt, his bare feet scraping against the cobblestones. A few bricks pried free before he managed to come to a halt only a foot away from a metal light pole. Gasping, he turned and jogged back to the intersection to follow the three guards.

It only took him seconds to catch up to them and a second longer to determine their destination. There was a crowd of people five blocks ahead with more desert folk running toward it.

“Sands,” he muttered and accelerated past the Kosòbyo guards. He knew he was violating a law in front of them, but if Nifùni was in trouble, he needed to get there first.

The dépa circled around the crowd and Rutejìmo followed it. On the far side, it had disappeared so Rutejìmo came to a sliding halt and looked at the crowd’s focus.

A woman in Kosòbyo colors lay in a pool of blood that poured out of her ears, eyes, mouth, and between her legs. It stained her green dress and smelled both coppery and acidic. One hand clutched against her breast and the other had clawed into the paving stones until the whites of her bones were visible.

Bile rose in his throat. He had tended thousands of dying but something about how the woman died was unlike any other death. It looked closer to plague than a weapon, except she had died quickly and violently.

When he caught sight of a snake tattoo, he forced himself to look further. He had not seen the woman’s face in the cloak, but he remembered the tattoo on her cheek. He frowned and took a step closer. From his vantage point, he couldn’t see much with the blood coating her face.

He spotted just a hint of a tail in one of the few unmarred spots of her face. His gaze focused on her hand, also covered in blood, and he spotted another tattoo peeking out.

Rutejìmo didn’t know if it was the same woman or not, but she looked similar enough for him to worry for Nifùni’s life. Turning around, he looked for any sign of his clan member, but the crowds were gathering too quickly. He leaned to the side, looking past people covering their mouths and making faces as they approached.

Hissing through his clenched teeth, he shoved his way past the brightly-colored dresses and more somber suits. As soon as he could get clear, he sprinted a chain away and looked around.

The difference of almost seventy feet was stark. There were only a few people remaining and the street was almost empty. Proprietors stared out the doors of their shops, but otherwise everyone had gathered around the murder scene behind him.

“Come on, Nifùni, where are you?” Rutejìmo muttered to himself.

He spun around and scanned his surroundings. He was about to accelerate to a new position when he spotted one of the street lights sparking. Beyond that, about a block away, someone was picking up papers that had been scattered almost a rod’s distance in a straight line from the lamp.

Rutejìmo followed an imaginary line between the lamp and papers. He saw more signs of high-speed movement: torn up bricks, a cracked window in front of a store, and a smoking sign that he guessed used to glow.

Setting his jaw, he tightened his grip on his pack and accelerated into a sprint. Instead of following Nifùni’s probable path, he turned at the next intersection and headed back to where he was going to meet the others. He had to tell them before running off on his own.

He stopped at the crossroads where Mapábyo and Byochína were waiting. “Nifùni’s in trouble,” he said and spun around.

Three dépa raced past them, and Rutejìmo sprinted after them, knowing his wife and clan would follow. He wished he could also summon Desòchu or Chimípu, but they were on the opposite side of the city, also looking for Nifùni.

As soon as they reached the same path as Nifùni, Mapábyo and Byochína accelerated past him in a blast of air, running faster than he could see and covering the distance at twice his speed. With their passing, streetlights exploded into flames and glow lights above doors flared. Previously invisible runes on doors and windows shone out as alarms responded violently. A glass window of a store cracked around the runes before the entire window exploded into the depths of the building.

Even with them out of sight, he could easily follow their wake. Now there were fires on both sides of the road and the screams of outrage and anger echoed shrilly against the stone walls.

He caught up to the three of them in less than a minute. The two women’s paths ended by two gouges that tore up paving stones and cracked a gutter.

Nifùni stood at the entrance of an alley between two three-story buildings. He clutched the edge of the bricks until his knuckles matched his pale face.

Both women were yelling at him at the top of their lungs. Garbage and papers swirled around all of them from the dying remains of the wind of Mapábyo and Byochína’s speed.

Byochína punched his shoulder with every sentence, the steady impact keeping up with the rapid-fire questions that gave Nifùni no chance to respond.

Around the three, there were city folk watching with furious expressions. Signs of resonance damage were everywhere, including magenta sparks that poured out of a sign across the street and burning bricks along one sidewalk.

Rutejìmo paled and then stopped next to them. “Further in the alley. Let’s not attract any more attention.”

“What did you do!?” Byochína was screaming, her eyes flashing and her hands balled into fists.

“In the alley!” snapped Rutejìmo before shoving his wife further in. “Now!”

Mapábyo glared at him but then pushed Nifùni before her as Rutejìmo forced her out of the open.

Nifùni stumbled back, clutching the Kosòbyo woman’s bone case to his chest. His mouth was open to speak, but neither Byochína or Mapábyo were giving him a chance to say anything.

Rutejìmo focused on getting them further into the darkness, shoving more frantically with every passing second. He expected glares or resistance, but they were both focused on berating Nifùni.

He managed to get them to a junction where two alleys met in the center of the block. Piles of garbage obscured the four openings leading out, but he could see the street in each direction. The smell of urine and rot was overpowering, but at least the walls and trash would mute their voices.

“We voted!” screamed Byochína.

“It was a majority!” continued Mapábyo.

“You went against everything!”

“What was in your moon-damned—”

“Sun-dazed—”

“Blasted—”

Knowing that neither would stop, Rutejìmo tried to speak up. “Please, let’s be quiet—”

But both women continued to scream at Nifùni who was pinned against a crumbling brick corner and shuddering with every shouted word.

Rutejìmo looked around, nervous that someone would be attracted to their yelling even with the alley to shield them. He tried to rest a hand on Mapábyo’s shoulder, but she batted him away.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped in front of Nifùni and spun around to face the two women.

Mapábyo tried to shove him to the side, but Byochína’s attempt to move him came from the other direction. The slap across his eye hurt as much as the punch impacting his ribs. He felt one crack, but it was hard to see which one caused the injury through the sparks that floated across his vision.

Both women froze, the outrage on their face turning to shock.

“P-Please,” he groaned as his rib throbbed, “quiet down.”

“J-Jìmo?” whispered Mapábyo. “I-I didn’t mean—”

“Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo, please forgive—”

Rutejìmo held up his hands as the last of the sparks faded from his vision. “I don’t yell as loudly as Desòchu, and I know I have no authority, but we need to stop attracting attention. And that means not yelling.” He glared over his shoulder. “Even if he may deserve it.”

Mapábyo and Byochína ducked their heads. “Sorry, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”

Rutejìmo turned around. “Nifùni, did you accept that job?”

Nifùni, his eyes wide and his body shaking, nodded. “I… I thought it was going to be a simple run. And then I could just surprise everyone.”

“What happened?”

“I saw her w-when Chína was… was in the store.” Tears ran down Nifùni’s cheek. “And I thought I could just take her money and th-this…” He held out the bone case but Rutejìmo didn’t take it.

“And the money?”

Nifùni dug into his pocket and pulled out a blood-stained roll of pyābi.

Behind Rutejìmo, Mapábyo let out a gasp. “You killed her?”

“No! No, I swear, I didn’t. She said the message needed to be taken to someone who could defend themselves. Someone ran up and punched her chest. I saw a snake or something flash by, like Shi-Shimusògo does, and then she started bleeding from her eyes.”

Rutejìmo’s blood ran cold at the sobbing words.

“I-I ran,” sobbed Nifùni. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Behind him, neither of the women said anything.

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Rutejìmo forced the words out as calmly as he could. “We need to either go to the guards or run. That woman was a Kosòbyo.”

“B-but,” Nifùni sobbed through his tears, “the man who punched her was a Kosòbyo also. I saw the colors and the snake. There is only one snake spirit in town.”

“He’s right,” said Dimóryo from behind Rutejìmo, “they were both Kosòbyo, but she was a traitor.” Her voice was low and threatening.

Rutejìmo jumped and then turned to look at the guard. The easy smile he saw the night before had disappeared. Golden energy ran along her fists as she stepped into the alley. Sparks dripped from her knuckles, sizzling on the ground as she paced closer. He could also see spectral fangs peeking out from her lips.

His breath locked in his throat. Glancing to the side, he saw another of the guards approaching one of the other alley entrances. Like Dimóryo, his hands glowed with the same dripping energy, but no fangs were visible.

Mapábyo dropped her hand to the long dagger at her side.

Rutejìmo stopped her with a shake of his head. “This isn’t a fight yet.”

Behind him, he heard someone else trying to sneak up. He barely heard the scuff of boots over the heavy breathing from everyone’s yelling. There were three in Dimóryo’s group. Mentally he tried to plan his route down the fourth alley and spread his hands to start guiding the others toward it.

“We need you to surrender, Shimusogo Rutejìmo.” Dimóryo continued to stalk forward. Her hands continued to drip acidic magic, and he knew why she had no weapons. She was a hand-to-hand fighter, a relatively rare talent in the western side of the desert. He guessed that Kosòbyo’s talents granted poisonous touch from Nifùni’s description and the woman’s corpse.

His hand slapped against Byochína. She tensed when he touched her, but he smacked her hard without looking back. After a moment, she stepped into the alley he wanted them to go down and backed away faster.

“We have not opened the case, Great Kosobyo Dimóryo.” Rutejìmo was surprised by his own calm voice though he was screaming inside. “We are couriers and nothing more.”

Dimóryo stepped over a cracked bucket and through a puddle. Her dark hair fluttered around her back from the golden energy rising off her forearms. “You accepted the contract.”

“It was a mistake.”

“Yes, but the deal was made. You talked to Techyomása. You know that something is happening. That makes you a threat.”

“We are no threats.” Rutejìmo shoved his wife back into the alley but kept his eyes on the guards who pressed forward. He could smell the acidic energy wafting down the alleys, filling the air with a stench that overpowered the urine and foulness.

“You are westerners. You don’t understand when to be silent. You don’t know the real story.”

Rutejìmo glanced around to make sure the others were close to him. Sweat dripped down his face, and his heart pounded in his chest. It felt like the moments just before some brigand tried to kill him. “What are you going to do?”

She clenched her hands into fists, and a large glob of energy fell to the ground. It struck the ground and began to smoke. A heartbeat later, there was nothing but a hole. “You are a threat to Kosòbyo.”

Dimóryo charged forward and the tension snapped.

“Down the alley!” snapped Rutejìmo as he drew his tazágu. The fighting spike was a long weapon in a narrow alley, but it was his only defense. He managed to shove it into position before Dimóryo’s fist came for him.

The impact shook him to the bone, and the tip of his weapon scraped against the side of the alley. A splash of acidic magic splattered around the weapon, searing his face and shoulders.

“Jìmo!” screamed Mapábyo.

“Back!” he yelled, unable to look to see if they listened.

Dimóryo swung with her other hand, an uppercut.

He managed to rotate his weapon to catch it. The impact drove him back again, and the hilt scraped against the opposite side of the alley. He jammed it into place to stop her, but then had to yank it from the wall to parry another attack.

She kicked at him, but he caught it with his shin. Over a decade of running left his leg as solid as stone and she bounced from the impact.

Behind Dimóryo, both the other guards were running toward the ends of their alleys.

Rutejìmo yelled without looking back. “Get clear of this alley, they are coming around!”

Dimóryo yelled her own orders, using unfamiliar words and numbers. Her attacks didn’t slow. She pummeled at Rutejìmo, striking his weapon as he frantically twisted it to parry each blow.

One of her strikes missed him and slammed into the brick wall. It left her side open for an attack, but Rutejìmo used the respite to back away from her.

She frowned and twisted her wrist. Shards of brick flew everywhere as she yanked it free and charged forward.

Rutejìmo focused on defending himself, parrying as her attacks came fast and hard. His opponent didn’t have the speed of Desòchu or Chimípu, but the slender warrior was far stronger than she looked. He could barely keep up with her relentless attacks.

And then he missed. Her fist came underneath his weapon and caught him right in the chest, a solid strike against his sternum. The energy of the attack threw him off his feet. He shot backwards out of the alley and across the street.

“Jìmo!” screamed Mapábyo as he flew past her.

He landed on the far side of the street and rolled backwards. The far gutter caught his shoulder and flipped him before he smacked into the glass front of a store. The window shattered around him and rained down. Glass sliced his skin leaving shallow cuts.

Mapábyo’s scream didn’t end. It continued to rise into the high pitch of a bird in agony. He managed to get to his feet as a flash of golden power burst out from her. It resonated inside him, and he felt the urge to scream just like her, to call for Shimusògo for help. He knew the warriors had the ability to call for the entire clan, but he had never heard of a non-warrior using the spirit to scream.

Dimóryo ran out of the alley. “It’s a call! Silence her!”

Rutejìmo scrambled to his feet, desperate to defend his wife before the Kosòbyo warrior reached her. He cut his hand on the glass and tripped on a massive wheel of cheese to get out of the wreckage. He could see more large rinds around him, much of it with glass sticking out of the wax.

He stumbled out of the store with his weapon in one hand. When he saw Mapábyo frantically defending against Dimóryo, his heart almost stopped. There were already burns on her face and arms from the warrior’s attack. She sobbed as she tried to block the attacks, but she couldn’t keep up with the rapid-fire hammering.

She was also still screaming, the high-pitched scream echoing in his head as much as his ears.

Behind her, Nifùni and Byochína fought their own opponents. They were scorched by the acid magic, but their opponents were marked with bleeding cuts also.

Dimóryo jerked forward and kicked out, catching Mapábyo in the pubic bone. Before Mapábyo hit the ground, the warrior jumped up and clasped her hands together to bring it down on Mapábyo’s head.

“Jìmo!” screamed Mapábyo.

“Pábyo!” Rutejìmo sprinted forward using a burst of Shimusògo’s power to cover the distance. He caught the blow against his shoulder. The impact drove him down to his knee as the acidic magic splashed against his back. He felt something crack from the blow, but he used his fading strength to push back and swing his tazágu around.

The tip of the fighting spike swung around before he realized that Dimóryo was further back than he thought. The sharp tip was poised to slice through her neck. With a grunt, he yanked it back, spoiling the blow but leaving his side open.

Dimóryo’s fist hammered into his ribs, and the world exploded into pain as his lungs were forcefully emptied. She struck again and again before he could yank back from her attack.

Rutejìmo gasped for air, his vision blurring. Acid burned at his chest and he could smell his clothes burning.

“Why did you pull that blow, Westerner?” hissed Dimóryo.

Rutejìmo shook his head.

Byochína let out a scream of pain.

Rutejìmo almost looked but he caught Dimóryo tensing. He held himself still and tried not to think about the searing agony in his side, his ragged breathing, or the sweat dripping down his face.

The warrior straightened. She wasn’t even winded by her attacks. “Who ever heard of a kojinōmi who refused to kill?”

“The desert kills enough, she doesn’t need me to add to her tally.”

Any response she would have given was interrupted when two flaming disks sliced through the air between Rutejìmo and Dimóryo. A thump of an explosion slammed into him, followed by two muted screams.

Rutejìmo reflexively followed the shots with his gaze, too late to see the impact, but both Byochína’s and Nifùni’s opponents had been thrown chains away by the impact of the fighting bolas. He spotted Shimusògo’s name on one of weights as it burned away.

He turned back just as Chimípu stopped in front of him, her body vibrating with the sudden stop. Her weapon, a long sword, glowed with golden flames as she faced Dimóryo.

Energy cracked around her and Desòchu. Multicolored energy arced along the ground, tracing the gaps between the paving stones as it reached to the nearest artifacts. Streetlights, windows, and doors exploded from the violent response to the foreign resonance of the Shimusògo warriors. Two buildings began to smolder and a flickering light flashed from the interior of one store as something inside began to short.

A blast of wind slammed into them. Expecting it, Rutejìmo braced himself but Dimóryo stumbled slightly.

Desòchu came to a stop on his knees next to Rutejìmo. Even before the blast of wind passed, he was ripping the burning shirt from Rutejìmo and tossing it aside. “What happened?”

Rutejìmo gasped and looked at the others. “We need to run. Now.”

His brother looked at him hard, then nodded. He pulled Rutejìmo up to his feet. Stepping back, he looked around with the muscles of his body taut. “Chimípu, take the rear.”

Chimípu’s response came as the golden flames burst along her body, tracing every line of her form and igniting into a halo of power. A translucent dépa superimposed itself over her as she clenched her body.

Desòchu raced over to Nifùni and Byochína who were both staggering toward each other. He grabbed their shoulders and forcibly turned them so they were facing Rutejìmo.

Rutejìmo looked away to help his wife to her feet.

Mapábyo squeezed him tightly. “Are you okay?”

Rutejìmo started to answer, but then Desòchu raced past.

“Follow!” yelled his brother.

Dimóryo’s fist crashed against Chimípu’s sword. Flashes of golden power burst away from each impact of steel against bare hand, a concussive wave exploded out, tearing up paving stones as it expanded. The rapid blows buffeted Rutejìmo, like someone smacking him with an invisible hand. The stench of acid and burning hair filled the air.

Rutejìmo turned away from the fight and raced after his brother, trailing behind the others. Desòchu wasn’t leading them out of the city but along a route cleared by Chimípu’s and his passing. Compared to the damage that Mapábyo and Byochína left, the two warriors had created a wide swath of destruction. Entire buildings had caught on fire, the stones already melting from the feedback damage. There wasn’t a single intact window or standing stall.

The crowds that had normally filled the roads were gone, leaving a straight path to the edge of the city. However, groups of guards in Kosòbyo colors rushed past the burning buildings and into the wreckage. At first there was only a few warriors but more streamed in from both sides of the road until there were hundreds. Most of them appeared to be unarmed but their hands glowed with flames. He had no doubt that they shared Dimóryo’s acid magic.

At the furthest edges of the city, a pair of massive mechanical snakes burst through the roofs of two buildings. The brass shells of the snakes shone in the sunlight as they rose two stories above the buildings that housed them. Hunks of wood and chucks of rock bounced off the bodies.

To both sides, Rutejìmo saw more snakes rising out of the buildings.

Desòchu accelerated ahead of the others, far faster than anyone else could run.

Rutejìmo stumbled in shock and then tripped on a paving stone. He fell face first, but his speed flipped him over. The impact against the ground drove the air out of his lungs. He scrambled back to his feet and forced himself to take a deep breath while looking back at his brother.

Desòchu tore a large paving stone out of the ground. The surrounding stones cracked from the impact. He straightened into a spin, whirling the stone around until it ignited into a disk of flames.

He fired it toward the nearest group of Kosòbyo warriors. The burning shot left ripples in the air. Desòchu scooped up two more rocks and fired them before the first one hit.

One of the warriors stepped into the path of the flaming stone and planted her feet. Her hands increased in brilliance until golden waves spread out from her palms. The light was blinding.

Desòchu’s three shots slammed into her and exploded against the waves.

More warriors continued to pour in from the side streets, including a group of five only a block away from Rutejìmo. He heard their calls as they started to run toward him.

Rutejìmo gasped and turned back just as one of the mechanical snakes slithered into the street and started to work toward them. Fire dripped from its mouth, and a cloud of steam poured out from vents along its spine.

Desòchu picked up another rock and spun it around to fire it. As the stone became a glowing disk of flames, a vortex of power rose above him. Papers and glass blew away from him, clearing the ground at his feet.

When he released it, it wasn’t toward the Kosòbyo warriors or the mechanical snakes. Instead, he fired it back down the street, past Rutejìmo and toward Dimóryo. It ignited into golden flames and expanded into a sphere of pure power that sucked papers and small items in its wake.

Rutejìmo spun around before it passed and braced himself. The passing shot tore at his skin, ripping the remains of his shirt off. It arched over him almost too fast to be seen.

Chimípu, her body a blur as she fought three opponents, came to a sudden stop just as Desòchu’s shot reached her. As if she plucked something from the ground, she grabbed it mid-flight and threw herself into a spin on one foot. The ground underneath her cracked as a tornado burst out of her movement, spinning high in the air with a spiral of golden feathers and flames.

The force of the blast knocked Dimóryo and the other Kosòbyo warriors back.

Magenta lightning bolts traced along the ground from Chimípu’s body, shattering stone as her power rose. Any artifacts in the area had long since disintegrated, and the lightning raced for the nearby warriors, burning them as it arced between their bodies. The glow along their hands flared in response, adding to the lightning crackling between the four warriors.

The spinning disk continued to grow more intense until it was as blinding as the sun. Stones were ripped from the ground and spiraled around her, clipping Dimóryo as they blew past.

The Kosòbyo warrior staggered back, blood painted on her face.

Chimípu released the rock. It shot back down the street toward Desòchu and the gathering Kosòbyo warriors. It was low to the ground, but its speed tore up the street, pulling a cloud of broken glass, rocks, and debris into a spear.

Rutejìmo saw it coming but there was no way he could brace himself. He ducked his head and tensed.

The pressure wave crushed him against the rocks and yanked him off the ground. He was sucked after the sphere of brilliance as it rocketed down the street. It destroyed everything on both sides in a wave of power.

Rutejìmo screamed as he was tossed into the air, pummeled from all directions. He tried to find the ground, but he was spinning around too fast to orient himself. The impact could kill him, but he couldn’t stop screaming.

Chimípu’s hands caught him and yanked him down the road after the blast. There was nothing but a smooth trench where one of the main streets of Kosobyo City used to be.

Rutejìmo tried to catch the ground, but Chimípu’s speed was too fast. The earth was a blur underneath him and he couldn’t sprint fast enough. Instead, he flailed helplessly as she pulled him after her shot.

A blast of heat slammed into him as they raced through a wall of fire but it was gone before it could do more than suck the moisture from the back of his throat.

They passed Desòchu who had just gotten the others back to their feet. A heartbeat later, they were racing after him.

Humiliation flashed through Rutejìmo. He couldn’t keep up, he was being dragged. He knew that he would slow them down, but it didn’t help that he was being pulled along by Chimípu’s tight grip.

They passed through the wreckage of the Kosobyo warriors. One of the mechanical snakes laid across three buildings, the brass edges melted from the impact of Chimípu’s blast. The other snake was missing its head.

Then they were past the carnage and out of the city.