The Wamifūko are forbidden from traveling beyond a chain of their town, on the pain of destruction.
— Kosobyo Buhíchyo, Lord of the Second Kosobyo Army
The arrow slammed into the sand a rod ahead of Rutejìmo.
He tensed at the sight of the bright red feathers blossoming into flames.
The gravel around the arrow began to vibrate.
Knowing that it was about to explode, he closed his eyes, shielded his face with his arm, and raced past. A sharp crack shot out behind him, and the concussion wave shoved him roughly forward. He stumbled and continued along, chasing the dépa as he reached the long shadows cast by Wamifuko City.
The city had been carved out of the mountain by the Wamifūko. Massive stone claws, each one a mile in height, rose from the base. The clan had shaped them with their magic and used the outcroppings to form sixty-four gates that lead into the city. It was the promise of the Wamifūko that they would protect anyone within their boundaries.
Rutejìmo hoped he would survive long enough to find out.
He blamed himself for not expecting an ambush, but days of travel without incident had tempered his fear. If it wasn't for a chance wind that blew sand in his face, he would never have noticed the ambush.
That was six miles ago.
Another arrow slammed into the ground before him. The point of the head slipped from the gravel, and it fell to the side. The shaft rolled for less than a second before it ignited into flames. Another two arrows pierced the ground in a line. They were too close to outrace the explosions.
He threw himself against the ground, digging his feet hard against the sharp rocks. As his speed and Shimusògo's magic carved a deep furrow, he leaned back as far down as he could, using his momentum to keep him from falling but also building up a mound of rocks between him and the arrows.
Just as he reached the point where Shimusògo would disappear, the arrows exploded. Three rapid punches slammed into the gravel at his feet, kicking up stones and dust that smashed into him. Sharp edges of rocks tore at his legs, hip, and shoulder. He could feel more shards punching into his skin and scraping against bone.
The heat seared his face, but he closed his eyes and threw himself to the side, running before he even hit the ground. He accelerated in a flash, despite the agony of moving. His other wounds, an arrow in his right shoulder and gashes from near misses along his side, reported with sharp agony, but he couldn't stop.
Rutejìmo slapped his hand against the ground and shoved himself up. His feet caught the ground, the dépa already ahead of him. He shot forward and scanned the quarter mile remaining between him and the city.
Besides the four archers riding behind him, there were three other clans moving to block him. He didn't know them by their colors, but he couldn't imagine any other reason they would be racing to block the gates nearest to him.
He heard the twang of bows. Air rushed past him, and four more arrows hit the ground before his feet.
Rutejìmo raced around the first two, then turned sharply back toward the city before they both exploded. More rocks whizzed past him as others punched through his pack and grazed his arm. He winced from the impact and prayed he could make it before another one of the arrows struck him. He was already leaving a bloody trail behind him and didn't think he could take much more before falling.
The next set of arrows missed their mark, and he passed them long before they exploded. He panted for breath as he straightened his path and sprinted for the gate.
The other clans had reached their positions in front of each of the nearest gates. The gate that Rutejìmo had aimed for was blocked by a clan using spears. All their weapons were set to receive him, their red and white banners hung from short crossbars near the blades. Behind them, a rank of fighters waited with swords in both hands. Their blades burned with golden flames and sparkling letters.
Rutejìmo focused past his opponents, on the gate. The Wamifūko wore heavy armor and had highly stylized helms. In the desert, it would be dangerous to wear such armor, but they never left the confines of their city. He hoped to see a horse-headed one, his friend Gichyòbi, but the impassive guard standing at the entrance holding a massive spear in both hands wore a cat-shaped helm.
The Wamifūko were bound to not travel more than a chain from their city. It was common knowledge in the Eastern Desert, and his opponents knew of the clan's limitation. They remained a chain's distance from the walls and well outside of the city's protection.
Rutejìmo stared at the gate, trying to find a path through the warriors blocking him. He could barely breathe after the last few minutes of running, with all the evasive maneuvers. He knew that his injuries slowed him down, and he was just one man against a dozen. If he shifted direction, they would block him again. To outrace them, he would have to move closer to the walls, but then he would be more at risk from whatever killing magic they had.
He looked to the further gates, the ones that weren't blocked. Each one had a crowd in front of them, mostly merchants entering the city as the markets opened, and he had no doubt that Kosòbyo's allies were among them. He could try to find a less protected entrance, but he wasn't sure if he could survive the archers behind him long enough to find it.
Drawing out his tazágu, Rutejìmo bore forward. He had no intent of killing anyone, but it would be useful in parrying attacks. Taking a deep breath, he prepared himself for more injuries and charged forward.
A ripple of movement along the gravel warned him of another ambush. He jerked to the side as a stone-colored snake burst out of the ground and shot forward, missing him by inches. More ripples appeared, and he had to concentrate to wind his way through them as the snakes shot forward. He felt one fang catch his trousers. He kept running, but the snake had somehow latched onto his clothes and thumped on the ground before him. He could feel its body snapping with the wind and the weight slowing him down.
Rutejìmo slashed his weapon down, striking the snake and dislodging it. When he looked up, he was far closer to the spears than he realized. With a cry, he dug his foot into the ground and turned sharply.
One of the blades caught him across the cheek, cutting a line clear to his ear before he managed to accelerate away. The pain exploded across his face, and his right eye blurred with the agony.
Rutejìmo stumbled but managed to keep moving. He ran parallel to the city walls. Spears slashed at him, each strike leading a wave of force that extended past the end of the weapon. One hit him along the thigh, slicing deep into the muscle.
His leg gave out. With a scream, he threw himself beneath the readied spears and onto the ground. He pitched forward, twisted until he could dig his feet into the hard-packed earth. He slid along it until he jammed his feet harder, forcing them under the crust until the surface shattered from his speed. Ragged plates of stone burst out from both sides as he rapidly slowed.
Another spear swung over him, and he ducked back, narrowly avoiding it.
When he saw the other fighters racing toward him, he realized that if he stopped, they would kill him. He thought furiously and then realized he had a way to get past the line, but it would hurt more than he could imagine.
He winced but then rolled out from underneath the spears and shot away from the city. He couldn't regain his full speed; his leg injury resisted his efforts to run faster. After only a chain of distance, he circled back and charged the wall. His breath came faster and his heart slammed against his chest as he stared at the spears being set for him. Blood dripped down his side and his leg shook with the effort to keep running.
Just as he approached the spears, he jammed his feet into the ground to stop.
The blades lowered to pierce his body.
Rutejìmo held his breath and let his momentum pull him up. For the briefest of moments, he stood at the head of his own furrow, but then the inertia of his movement yanked him up off the ground and flung him up and over the spears.
Waving his hands, he could do nothing as the side of the city rushed at him. The sheer height of stone reached far past his vision, but then it filled his view until there was nothing else but wall.
He only had time to scream “Sands” before he hit it face-first. His nose cracked from the impact and stars exploded across his vision. The solid stone stopped his movement instantly, and he was crushed against it.
Rutejìmo let out a long, tortured groan. And then his body peeled off the rock and he fell. He was surprised that he didn't hear more cracked bones, but it was hard to sense anything past the pain of his fractured nose and the blood sheeting down his face.
He hit the ground, bouncing once before slumping against the rock. Blood poured down his face, smearing across his eyes and casting everything into a crimson haze. Agony seared across his body, reporting everything from his shattered nose to the wounds from the arrows. He could breathe, but each time he inhaled, a sharp pain radiated from a cracked rib. His leg burned with his injuries and he didn't know if he would ever run again.
Rutejìmo couldn't move. He stared up at the sky and the single stone claw that rose above him. He had made the city, but he was going to die in its shadow. There was no way any of the Wamifūko could reach him between the gates.
Footsteps rushed toward him. He tensed for the blow.
The first opponent jumped up, his body silhouetted against the sky. He raised a spear over his head and began to thrust the weapon downwards, aiming for Rutejìmo's chest.
Rutejìmo's held his breath as he waited for the end.
A second spear swung across his vision, the blade almost a yard long. It appeared to come from between Rutejìmo's feet, but they were pressed against the rock wall. The weapon caught Rutejìmo's attacker right below the ribs, slicing through cloth and flesh in a single slash.
Instead of a spear blade striking him, it was a rain of guts and blood that poured down. Striking his body in wet thuds, pounding into him before sliding off. The stench of offal and gore choked Rutejìmo.
A heavily armored figured stepped over Rutejìmo, walking out of the stone wall itself. Steel boots landed on both sides of Rutejìmo's head. A moment later, something heavy slammed into the ground and a wave of power radiated from the impact. It shifted Rutejìmo's body to the side, and his head thumped against one of the boots.
“I am Gichyòbi, and I defend Wamifūko!”
Rutejìmo sobbed at his friend's familiar voice.
Someone spoke up. “Give us the runner, Wamifūko, and we won't enter your city.”
Gichyòbi's voice boomed loudly over Rutejìmo. “You will have him when Chobìre shits in Tachìra's skull and not a moment sooner.”
Someone grabbed Rutejìmo and pulled him toward the wall. Rutejìmo let out a gasp trying to call out for Gichyòbi. He flailed around for his weapon but his tazágu slipped from his hand.
“Jìmo, Jìmo! It's Kidóri! Calm down, I have you.” It was Gichyòbi's wife.
Rutejìmo let out a sob of agony as she pulled him to her chest. She was a curvy woman with no armor, a stone tender of Wamifūko instead of a warrior like her husband. Rutejìmo didn't know how she reached him anymore than how Gichyòbi came to rescue him. Blinking past the stars and blood, he peered over her shoulder just as two more warriors stepped out of the stone.
One of them walked through the bloody smear that Rutejìmo's nose had left on the wall. The mark transferred to his chest as he stepped away from the stone and around Rutejìmo and Kidóri.
Someone away from the walls cleared his throat. “I am Chitàre and… I speak for Kosòbyo.”
Rutejìmo turned his head to see the speaker, pausing only as Kidóri held him tighter and pushed him down. He frowned, but the need to see the man responsible for this attack pushed Kidóri's behavior aside. He peered over his shoulder and tried to ignore the blood sheeting down his face and soaking Kidóri's arm.
The Kosòbyo man panted as he came to a stop in front of Gichyòbi. He wore the gold and green of the clan, but his button-down suit looked out of place so far from Kosobyo City. Sweat soaked the fabric around his neck and armpits. He held up his hand and gulped for air.
Warriors from at three others clans gathered behind him. There were at least thirty of them, all of them with drawn weapons or glowing hands. Rutejìmo spotted the archers that had chased him and the spear fighters that tried to block him.
Gichyòbi grunted and twisted his spear, digging the butt into the ground.
Chitàre took a deep breath and straightened. His pale brown skin shone with sweat. “Y-You don't want this fight, Wamifūko. Only a fool would take on Kosòbyo over the life of a single man.”
“Why do you want him?”
“The Kosòbyo don't have to answer that.”
Chitàre's allies finished gathering behind him. None of them were smiling, and more than a few were scratching at their joints. A haze of their resonance grew more obvious, bringing the sharp scent of contrary magic that cut even through the blood coating Rutejìmo's face. Sparks of energy hovered between the warriors. It wouldn't take much more before the sparks became arcs of power much like when Chimípu had used her power in Kosobyo City.
Next to Gichyòbi, there were only two other heavily-armored warriors. Three against thirty. Rutejìmo had seen Gichyòbi fight before but never against such extreme odds.
“Stay down,” whispered Kidóri. She tightened her arm around Rutejìmo, holding him close to her breast. She didn't seem to mind the blood soaking into her dress.
Gichyòbi grunted, his voice hollow in his metal helm. “In that case, Wamifūko will answer with the deepest respect to the greatest clan of the desert.” He bowed deeply before he continued. “The Kosòbyo can kiss each and every ass of the Wamifūko for their decision to bind us to the confines of our city because of our actions during Hizogōma's betrayal.”
Chitàre's lips tightened for a moment. “That was three hundred years ago.”
“Stones have a long memory.”
“Would you really fight us then? The Wamifūko lost the last time they went up against us.”
Behind Chitàre, his allies braced themselves.
Gichyòbi slammed the butt of his spear into the ground again. It shook underneath Rutejìmo, the stone rumbling from the impact. The other two Wamifūko warriors did the same, and power crackled in the air around him.
Rutejìmo frowned. He had never felt resonance from Gichyòbi before, but the rumble set off itching inside his joints. He ducked his head and winced at the pain from his movement. The blood seemed to have stopped, though he didn't know why. He reached up and touched his cheek. It came back covered in bloody sand.
His breath came out in a shudder. More sand blew across his skin, kicked up by a breeze he hadn't noticed before. It clung to his finger and stuck to his face. He could feel it gathering along his cuts and injuries.
Shifting, he peered down at his leg. Sand had gathered along the cut in his muscle, filling it and staunching the blood. More rolled over his thigh. At first, he looked for the pattern that said Mifúno needed him but it wasn't anything that he had seen before. It repeated itself, tracing rippling lines across his skin. It was something, but he didn't know what the desert was trying to tell him.
Rutejìmo stared in stunned shock as the desert tried to communicate, but it was hard to concentrate with the two warriors still speaking.
“—and you don't really have a mountain left to destroy, Wamifūko.”
Rutejìmo glanced up to see Chitàre pointing to the top of the city.
Gichyòbi grunted. “We can rebuild. We did it once before.”
Chitàre cocked his head. “You would risk destroying your city and your clan for a single man? Someone not of your clan?”
Kidóri tightened her grip on Rutejìmo.
“When it comes to the life of this man, I will send my entire clan to war against Tachìra himself.”
“And what makes this man so important?”
Gichyòbi paused. “Because Wamifūko tells me he is my clan. Because all clan spirits tell their warriors to protect him. Day or night—”
Chitàre paled slightly at the reference to the night clans, but Rutejìmo doubted anyone else saw it, not knowing the Kosòbyo's secret.
“—he is one of ours. Every clan, every warrior. He may wear the name of Shimusògo, but he is everyone's. You should be protecting him, not trying to kill him.”
Rutejìmo shivered. Gichyòbi once mentioned the need to protect Rutejìmo just as one of his own clan. He suspected that other warriors felt the same because many had come to his defense when they would have otherwise ignored a courier.
Chitàre snorted. He waved his hand casually, twisting his fingers around as he did. “No need for drama. I'm sure we can negotiate.”
“I've made my terms,” Gichyòbi snapped.
The ground rippled near Rutejìmo. He gasped as he saw a snake rising out from the rocks, slithering forward. With a whimper, he tried to crawl away, but Kidóri held him still.
“D-Dóri!” he cried.
Gichyòbi raised his spear, reached back, and slammed it down without looking. The butt crushed the snake's head into a smear of blood. Venom burst out from the creature's fangs and painted a smoking line across the rocks. The warrior twisted the spear in the remains of the twitching snake before returning it to his side.
An uncomfortable silence stretched out across the gathered men.
Chitàre's face twisted in a scowl. “Hand over Shimusogo Rutejìmo, or we will kill you.”
Gichyòbi chuckled. “In that case…” He took a deep breath and spoke in a booming voice. “I am Gichyòbi, and I speak for Wamifūko! I forbid the clans of Kosòbyo, Pochyogìma, Modashìa, and Kokikóru from entering this city.” He slammed his spear down, and a wave of power rumbled from the impact. “Ever!”
Chitàre's lip peeled back in a snarl. “Kill the runner.”
The two Kosòbyo warriors charged forward, followed by the thirty others. Their yells echoed against the stone wall behind Rutejìmo. Energy crackled around them, a haze of sparks and arcs coursing around their bodies.
Chitàre raised his hands, and a giant, translucent snake burst out of the ground before him. It rose high above the fighters as it reared back. Fangs the length of swords shone with green flames. Venom dripped to the ground, leaving blackened holes in the solid stone beneath. Two frills of green feathers fanned out from the back of its skull.
Behind Chitàre, the snake continued to roll out of the ground, stretching easily two chains along the hard-packed earth. When the tail came out, it was tipped with a series of rattles and a long needle-like tip.
It rattled loudly and the feathers matched the rapid beat of the spectral snake. Golden eyes burned with flames, and Rutejìmo felt his attention being drawn toward it.
“Don't look,” snapped Kidóri. She shoved him down. “Never look in the eyes of the snake.”
Rutejìmo turned away just as the other two Wamifuko stepped toward the charging warriors. They both swung their spears out in a long, wide arc. The heavy weapons whistled through the air before they impacted the first of the warriors. The steel edges burst into flames and sliced into bodies. There wasn't even a jerk as they cut through bone.
The blades cut through the first two ranks, including the Kosòbyo warriors. An explosion of boiling blood burst out in a cloud, splattering Rutejìmo in a heated mist of gore.
He flinched away from it. When he looked back, he caught sight of the spectral snake's eyes. Something gripped his heart, and he felt pressure pinning him in place. He tried to whimper, but he couldn't do anything but lose himself in the golden eyes that stole his attention.
Gichyòbi jumped in front of Rutejìmo and broke the line of sight. His leap had carried him over the charging warriors. He hit hard, swinging his weapon down toward the ground.
Instead of bouncing off the earth, the blade easily slid into the stone as if it wasn't there. Gichyòbi's gauntlet dipped into the ground as he swung forward. Rutejìmo followed the movement through Gichyòbi's shoulders before the weapon came up in front of him.
Gichyòbi jumped again. His spear cut into the spectral snake, affecting the translucent creature as if it was physical. The blade sliced it open, cutting upwards through it, but instead of blood, only golden energy poured out of the gaping wound.
The spear came out of the head of the spectral snake. His blade left a glowing curved line that sailed high above the snake, almost a chain from the ground.
Gichyòbi spun the spear around and brought the tip down in Chitàre's head. There was a meaty thunk, but Rutejìmo couldn't see it impact the man's head. He did see the blade as it punched into the ground between Chitàre's feet. Seconds later, a shower of blood rained down around the haft.
The power that pinned Rutejìmo crumbled instantly. He inhaled sharply, a sob of humiliation and fear.
Kidóri pushed him down, holding him tight to her body and close to the ground.
Gichyòbi bellowed over the fight. “I will defend Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo as if he was Wamifūko! Anyone who dares touch him declares a fight against the mountain, and will die!”
The fight sputtered for a moment. Among the sea of blood and guts, only half of the Kosòbyo allies remained. Most of them were looking nervously at their fallen comrades. They separated away from each other, giving Rutejìmo a clear view of Gichyòbi.
The Wamifūko warrior stood with his spear impaling Chitàre from skull to groin. He stepped away from the corpse and twisted his spear hard. The entire haft flashed gold and Chitàre's body exploded in a shower of blood. The wet splatter of body parts rained down on the battle.
Gichyòbi stepped forward, his steel boots splashing in the remains of Chitàre's brains. “Enemies of Wamifūko. You have one chance. Either you all drop your weapons and cease your spells or every single one of you will die. You bound your blood to Kosòbyo, and you are all dangerously close to painting the stones with your lives.” His bellow echoed against the wall.
A sword dropped to the ground. And then another.
Rutejìmo held his breath, watching as the warriors started to surrender.
One of the archers snapped up his bow and fired at Rutejìmo. The exploding arrow sailed the short distance, the feathers already glowing.
Kidóri yanked Rutejìmo to the side and threw her hand up. The ground boiled out from underneath Rutejìmo, rising into a shell that curved toward and above them. There was a loud crack and then a muffled explosion. The shell cracked and crumbled, falling apart amidst smoke and flames.
Rutejìmo gasped and clutched Kidóri's arm tightly to his chest. He could feel her shaking.
The three Wamifūko warriors responded as one. Their spears swung wide as they stepped toward the Kosòbyo allies. Three blades sliced through flesh and bone. They cut through glowing swords and spears as if they were nothing but paper.
Their attacks continued past the bodies, the speed and force of the blow too much for anyone to stop as they swung back into the path of the Wamifūko themselves. The blades swung toward the other warriors and Rutejìmo could see there was no way to dodge.
Rutejìmo cringed in anticipation of his friend's unavoidable injury.
The blades passed through the armored figures harmlessly. They stepped away from each other, again powering their swings to catch the warriors that were outside of the initial attack.
Bodies hit the ground in a wet shower of gore. A sea of red pooled out from the remains, soaking into the cracks and gouges of the ground.
“And that,” whispered Kidóri, “is why you stay down. The blades of Wamifūko cannot harm stone.”
Gichyòbi stepped over to Rutejìmo, his boots squelching in the gore. As he did, he spoke sharply to the other two warriors. “Seal the city, we are at war.”
Both men bowed their heads, brought their spears up above their heads, and then slammed the butts against the ground. Power burst from the impact, and a boom rumbled through the ground. They raised them up and slammed them down again. A beat of one, two, one, and then four. There was a long pause and then they repeated it.
More booms echoed from the gates. Rutejìmo turned to look at the nearest gate. The two guards were moving. One slammed his spear down in the same pattern as the others. The other guard blocked the entrance and pushed back the line of merchants entering the city. Further down the line, the other guards did the same.
At all but the nearest gate, stone doors closed behind the guards. Amid the enraged cries, the guards stepped back into the stone and disappeared.
Gichyòbi bent down in front of Rutejìmo. “Can you walk?”
Rutejìmo shook his head. “I-I don't think so.”
“Here, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo, let me help you.”
Without letting go of his spear, Gichyòbi shoved his gauntlet into the ground underneath Rutejìmo and pulled up. At the same time, Kidóri did the same and they balanced him between the two of them.
Rutejìmo cringed as his ruined leg thumped against the ground. He reflectively pulled at it, and to his surprise, it lifted off the ground. The wound burned but the muscles still worked.
He gasped and tried again, lifting his foot up and setting it down. It hurt, but then again—everything hurt. He pushed through the pain and set his foot down. His toe dragged against the ground where Gichyòbi and Kidóri were carrying him toward the gate. “S-Stop, please.”
Both of the Wamifūko stopped. Gichyòbi turned to him, the horse helm hiding his face. “Jìmo?”
Rutejìmo slipped his hand down and pressed it against his wound. He could feel the burn of the cut shooting up his leg, but it was no longer a deep slash. Instead, the sand had packed tightly into the wound.
He tried to look down at it, but a pressure rose in his head. It felt like the spectral snake which had drawn his attention, but instead of pulling his eyes toward it, he felt his gaze slipping away from the cut. Concentrating, he looked harder at the wound, tracing his hand down to the bloody cut.
For the briefest of moments, he saw sparkling yellow-green eyes in his leg but then the mental pressure tore his gaze away.
Gulping, Rutejìmo set his foot down again. His bare feet splashed against someone's intestines. He ignored the gore and put more pressure on it, using Gichyòbi for balance as he did.
When his leg held, he pulled away from the two Wamifūko.
“You can stand?” Kidóri sounded surprise.
Gichyòbi looked around, the metal of his armor scraping together with his movement. “We are exposed out here. Wamifūko will protect you for as long as you are within the walls.”
Curious and terrified, he made a hesitant step, and his leg held. He took another. Pain radiated from the wound, but the muscles weren't ruined.
He took a deep breath. He didn't know what Mifúno had done or how she did it, but he could keep moving. Gulping, he forced himself through the pain toward the open gate. He was thankful that he had allies in the city but dreaded the knowledge that Mifúno had taken a personal interest in the remainder of his short life.