Very few can speak for Mifúno, the desert spirit. She does not tolerate her name used for anything and death usually follows as soon as the words pass a fool's lips.
— Kosobyo Fidokùki
Rutejìmo groaned as he crawled out of unconsciousness. Every breath and twitch became agony as he fought the dreams of oblivion. He tried to reach out for the ground, to dig his fingernail in to pull him out of the hole, but instead his palms slapped against someone's hand.
Fingers tightened around him and held him in place, comforting and strong.
“Jìmo,” someone whispered. He knew the speaker but their name refused to come to his thoughts.
He gasped for air, thankful when the icy coolness sank into his lungs. It helped clear his thoughts and he remembered how to open his eyes. Cracking one and then the other, he stared into the incomprehensible world and tried to remember how to see.
Images came slowly into focus, first the stars in the sky and then a woman with black skin who bent over his body. There were others watching him, men and women. They were bloody and burned, but they were his.
Their names came to him and his thoughts settled back into place, but he felt raw and empty. “P-Pábyo… Chimípu.” He groaned and they helped him sit up. Everything wavered for a moment. For the briefest moment, in the space between two blinks, he saw their bodies as thin and translucent. But, when he blinked again, they were once again the familiar people he grew up with.
He gulped and Byochína pressed a water skin into his hands. He brought it to his lips, each movement as raw as a child's. He gulped and the warmed liquid ran down his throat to ease the dryness.
When he finished, he pulled it away. “W-What happened?”
“You passed out,” Chimípu said with a smile, “right after you managed to surprise us all.”
“Did Desòchu hit me? I was disagreeing with him, right? W… Why was I?”
Desòchu knelt at Rutejìmo's feet, a strained smiled on his face, looking more like a teenager who had just been caught by one of the elders. “No. And after what you just did, I don't think I could ever hit you again.”
Rutejìmo held Mapábyo's hand and wiped his face with his other. A smear of dried blood darkened his palm, and he stared at it. “Remind me not to do that again.”
Raising an eyebrow, Desòchu said, “You mean, you should never disagree with me?”
Still staring at the blood on his hand, Rutejìmo shook his head. “No, letting my brother open his mouth.” He glanced up, afraid that he had somehow said something wrong.
Desòchu chuckled and patted Rutejìmo's knee. “You did the right thing, little brother.”
Rutejìmo looked around. “Where is Nifùni?”
“Safe,” said Desòchu as he stood up. He walked away and Chimípu and Byochína joined him as they sat down around a small alchemical fire and a pair of blue glow lights.
The rocks crunched as Nifùni came up from the darkness. His head was bowed as he knelt next to Rutejìmo. “Great Mifuno Rutejìmo, I—”
Nifùni looked up. “What?”
“I am Shimusògo.”
“You are also Mifúno, and you saved my life.”
Rutejìmo felt a pang of sadness. “No, no, I didn't.” He held out his hand and rested it on Nifùni's shoulder. “Your body is still moving, and you still breathe, but you have already been killed. Mifúno's attention has a price, and,” he thought about the warrior who he cast out, “it isn't a pleasant one. We will make it home, but… it would be best if you come to peace with the fact that she will take what is hers.”
Nifùni sniffed, and a tear splashed down. “I didn't mean it.”
Rutejìmo pulled him into a hug. “Neither did I, but it still happened.”
Nifùni held him tight as sobs tore through his frame.
The pressure on his cuts and burns hurt, but Rutejìmo remained silent as he comforted Nifùni. The young man had a dire future for his life and scratches seemed like the least of either of their problems.
Mapábyo got up and joined the others, leaving the two alone.
After a few short minutes, the tears stopped, and Nifùni pulled back. “I'm sorry, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”
Together, they got up and headed to the flames. Sitting heavily next to Mapábyo, Rutejìmo took an offered piece of cooked meat and chewed on it.
Desòchu let out a long sigh. “We need to know what to do.”
“Run home?” asked Chimípu.
“Maybe, but from what?” he said. “Are we just fleeing the Kosòbyo? Or is this something bigger?”
Mapábyo spoke up. “The case?”
Desòchu nodded. “I think we should open it.”
Sharply inhaled breaths answered him.
“I know we don't ever look at the message, but they almost killed us, and we just left a large, smoking hole in the center of town. So, if this is a trivial note, then we need to go back and offer our throats in forgiveness. If it isn't, we may be running faster than ever.”
No one said anything for over a minute.
Rutejìmo cleared his throat. “We vote? I say open it.”
The others chimed in. When silence draped across them once again, Desòchu nodded. “Then we open it.” He pulled the bone case into his lap and broke the seal with his knife. He twisted it open, keeping the end aimed toward his lap.
Coils of paper slid out. They were different types and colors, some aged and some crisp with newness. All of them were covered in writing, correspondence, and diagrams.
Desòchu frowned as he looked at the papers.
“Good thing,” Rutejìmo said, “that Pidòhu taught all of us to read.”
It was a poor joke, and only Mapábyo gave a nervous chuckle.
Desòchu passed around the papers. “Start reading, just scan over things. We need to figure out what this is about.”
Rutejìmo's papers were old, and the edges crumbled when he touched them. He carefully puzzled through them, struggling with the unfamiliar way the eastern clans wrote their words. The first was a letter written in a rough hand of someone barely able to write, a Kosobyo Mioráshi. It talked about the birth of her daughter, Kanéko.
A few pages later, there was another letter from Mioráshi. Her daughter had shown no signs of Kosòbyo's power. The response was copied in a letter, ordering that Mioráshi let her northern husband take the daughter and train her. Rutejìmo felt sick to his stomach, the idea of a desert woman mating with a northerner disgusted him. It spat on the face of the spirits.
“What is a gyotochizōmi?” asked Byochína, “I don't know that word.”
Rutejìmo frowned and peered at her. “Is it like a chyotechizōmi, a dragon spirit?”
“Here,” Mapábyo held out a page to Rutejìmo. “This is Pikomìro's legend, isn't it? When he trapped the zōmi in the Wind's Teeth and then threatened the entire desert with it?”
“Yeah, that's the legend.” Rutejìmo frowned and took the page. “But they call it a gyotochizōmi here. They are probably the same thing.”
“But there are no more chyotechizōmi left in the world.” Nifùni looked pale as he held his pages in a shaking hand.
Desòchu cleared his throat and held up a page filled with dense, neat writing. “Not according to this. Some Kosobyo Kanéko is allied with a chyotechizōmi and they are luring it to Kosobyo City to capture it.”
“But,” Nifùni said, “Tachìra forbids the zōmi souls. After the Wind Teeth, he and Mifúno,” he glanced at Rutejìmo, “declared that no sand would ever bind one again.”
Chimípu held out a page. “But Chobìre didn't. These are letters to the southern smiths of the night, asking for help.”
“That can't be.” Desòchu shook his head firmly. “The Kosòbyo are the bastions of light. They are one of the greatest clans of Tachìra. They would never ally themselves with the night, never. That's why they have a month named after them!”
“Hizogōma turned to the night,” added Rutejìmo. It was one of the legends that all of them had grown up listening over the fires. When one of Tachìra's staunchest allies turned to their enemies and betrayed everything, it had started a war that killed millions. He sighed and set down his papers. “If this is true, then this would be a greater blow against the sun. If they can tap into the power of zōmi, then they would become great allies of the night.”
“It would be a war,” whispered Mapábyo.
“No,” Chimípu said, “it would be a slaughter. When Hizogōma became the night, it set off a war that burned this desert for a decade. But, if Kosòbyo could do it before anyone could stop them, and they had the chyotechizōmi's power, then there would be no one stopping them. They are already the most powerful clan in the desert.”
No one said anything.
The tension grew until Rutejìmo had to break it. “What if we're wrong? What if we tell everyone this and these are all lies?”
Desòchu looked at him. “Then Kosòbyo will wipe Shimusògo from existence. If we are lucky, it will be only a slow death. But the Feathered Snake has not been known for forgiveness or mercy. You've seen how they responded to us and to this.” He held up the case.
Rutejìmo swallowed and nodded. “What do we do? Do we vote?”
“No,” Desòchu said. “This would risk all of Shimusògo. We six can't make this choice. Not for our families, our children, and our home.”
The others nodded, and there was the glistening of tears in the blue light from the glow spheres.
He cleared his throat. “We have to bring it home. Let everyone decide, let everyone vote. And then we follow that decision.”
Rutejìmo spoke up. “Whether this is a lie or the truth, Kosòbyo is going to do everything they can to stop us.”
“Then we run fast.”
“I can't run that fast, Desòchu.” Rutejìmo felt the tears filling his eyes.
Mapábyo grabbed his hand.
“No, I won't leave you behind.” Desòchu shook his head and then again. “What if we give everything to Chimípu and she runs. She is—”
“No,” snapped Chimípu, “I won't abandon our clan.”
Desòchu looked at her with a pleading look. “You are the fastest runner the Shimusògo have ever had. If anyone deserved his power, it is you, and he gave it to you for a reason. I can't think of anything more serious than making this delivery, Great Shimusogo Chimípu.”
Tears ran down Chimípu's face. “But, if I leave you, you may die.”
Desòchu looked down. “I will die for my clan, and I will fight for them to the end. Even if it means the five us will perish, this is something that must be done.”
“I-I'm,” said Nifùni, “already dead…”
There was an uncomfortable silence as Nifùni struggled with his words.
“… but I agree. Send Chimípu, and we will chase after her. We are slower, but we won't abandon Rutejìmo. She can come back for us as soon as the vote is made.”
Chimípu sniffed and shook her head.
A dark realization came to Rutejìmo. He dug in his pack, looking for a pair of bags. He found both. One was orange and the other red, Shimusògo's colors. He also pulled out his voting stones and poured them into the red bag.
“Jìmo,” started Chimípu, “What are you—”
He held up the red bag. “My vote for telling the world.” He held up the other. “A vote for keeping it a secret. We vote now, and you deliver it. Even if we can't make it, you will speak for us.”
“No,” her voice came as a soft wail.
“Chimípu, I will not pay you to make this delivery, but I will ask you to carry these for me and return them when you get back.” It was almost the same thing Pidòhu had told both of them when he, Rutejìmo, and Chimípu were trekking across the desert during their rite of passage.
“Damn you, Rutejìmo. Damn you to the sands.” She got up and came around the flame.
He sniffed and handed the bags to Mapábyo.
Chimípu knelt next to Rutejìmo and hugged him tightly. She pressed her lips to his ear. “Damn you, little brother. I won't let you die.”
He smiled and hugged her back. “Then run fast. When the sun rises, run fast.”
“Shimusògo run,” came the broken whisper.