Even the greatest warrior can be defeated by hunger, thirst, and exhaustion.
— Kosobyo Takòji
When Rutejìmo started the rituals of the kojinōmi, he still had a measure of energy racing through his veins. The determination to serve Kiríshi and the declaration of war had kept him going strong for the first few hours. But as the night grew long, his strength fled, and he was left shaking with exhaustion.
He sat on the ground in front of the dying flames, his thoughts dipping into the abyss of unconsciousness, before he forced himself back to wakefulness with nothing more than his will and the desire to serve Kiríshi until the end.
In the long night, his thoughts drifted from one moment to another moment that occurred over the last few days. He had not had a chance to rest since he started off on the previous morning. Since then, he had been ambushed repeatedly on the route to the city, attacked at the gates, spoke for Mifúno, was pulled through solid rock, and then performed the ritual for Kiríshi. Each one would have left him exhausted, but all these events on top of two days without sleep tore at him.
One incident flashed through his mind, a half-remembered second that would have been forgotten if not for the long night. Just as he was trying to see if he could walk after being injured by one of his ambusher's spears, certain he had suffered a fatal wound, or at the very least a crippling one, he had momentarily seen sparkling yellow-green before his eyes were pushed away.
There was no such thing as magical healing in the desert. No clan had the ability to do anything other than mask pain, set bones, or stop bleeding. There was no true magic for healing.
He tried resting his hand on his thigh, right where the spear had cut into his flesh, but his hand struck against his knee. He frowned and tried again, lifting his hand pointedly and slapping it down. His body remembered exactly how to strike his leg, but his hand came down against the bony ridge of his hip this time. Twice more, he tried to touch his injury before the first whispers of the desert arose in the back of his head.
Hearing Mifúno at night seemed strange. The powers of Shimusògo came from the sun and ceased when it set. But Mifúno was always present, day or night. Her whispers recognizable through the chorus of a thousand voices he had sent to her. He heard Gemènyo's, the little girl who died near Kosobyo City, and even Kiríshi's. They spoke to him in maddeningly quiet whispers, the individual words only a hiss of sand but somehow the desert's intent slowly drifting through his mind.
Rutejìmo listened to them, wishing he could understand the desert's desire but letting his mind drift right on the edge of wakefulness and unconsciousness, in that moment when the whispers were at their clearest.
He tried to slide his hand up from his knee to his hip, to touch his wound, but the whispers rose sharply in a chiding tone. He stopped, hand trembling.
The voices of Mifúno pushed him back, like a parent correcting a child.
He obeyed, closing his eyes and sliding his grip back to his knee. If the desert wanted to keep secrets, he would listen.
She spoke to him again, in comforting voices and half-remembered memories. Images flashed through his mind, of a thousand times he had been stabbed, cut, thrown across the rocks, and even the time he fell off a cliff. Each time, he recalled grievous injuries, but each memory ended with the same pressure to look away and forget. Each time he obeyed and then forgot the severity of his wounds.
It was Mifúno's gift, the cruel touch of the desert spirit which killed with one hand and refused to let him see her comfort from the other.
If any doubt had remained of being Mifúno's champion, it was extinguished. She'd had her eye on him for many years, probably more than he knew. But, like the other warriors of the desert, there was only one fate for him.
Rutejìmo sighed. He was going to die at the end of this run, he knew it. The only thing he could do was run as fast as he could until Mifúno called him. It was going to hurt, he couldn't imagine it any other way, and it would be terrifying, but he would obey her will.
The acceptance of his fate pushed away the exhaustion. He finished his prayer and picked up the vase with Kiríshi's ashes. With a reverent bow, he closed it and felt the familiar scrape of rough pottery rubbing against itself. Using long strips of white cloth, he sealed it shut and then used wax to prevent water and insects from getting inside.
The world swayed around him. He clutched the vase tightly as he stood and blinked his bleary eyes. He lifted one foot, wincing at the sharp pain from a cut that had reopened, and then turned around.
It was almost morning. He could feel Tachìra rising in his heart. All he wanted to do was crawl into a bed and sleep until oblivion took him. Instead, he forced his feet to move forward away from the heated circle of ash that used to be a stack of seasoned wood, sacred incenses, and the body of Mapábyo's mother.
He made it less than a few feet before his leg gave out underneath him. With a groan, he sank down to his knees. The vase started to topple, and he clutched at it, holding it tight until his body stopped moving.
Ahead of him, he could see the silhouette of Gichyòbi and four members of the Tifukòmi clan with their backs to him. Even the dogs were positioned in a wide circle to avoid watching a ritual the living could not observe.
Rutejìmo heard sadness echoed in the whispers in his mind. His friends chose not to see what he did because death was a forbidden part of the living world. Ever since Atefómu pointed it out, he realized he wanted to share it with the others instead of bearing the weight of the dead in silence.
Crawling over to his pack, he stripped off his white clothes and folded them. He focused on pulling a fresh set of clothes out of his bag. They were all Shimusògo colors. Kidóri could have tried to hide him in Wamifūko fabric, but Rutejìmo would have refused to wear them. Even in times of crisis, one never lied about their clan. It was an unspoken law of the desert, to do otherwise would be to turn his back on his own clan's spirit. He never thought he would consider doing anything else, but that was before the Kosòbyo hunted the Shimusògo.
His ash-streaked hands shook as he dressed. Even pulling the tunic over his head was almost too much for him. Fresh blood patterned against the fabric as he settled it into place.
It felt wrong not to strip and start walking. For five years, Rutejìmo had performed the purification ritual even though it almost killed him every time. He dreaded it, but he still followed the ritual as it was written in Book of Ash. He could still feel the burns on his shoulder from the purification ritual he performed less than a week ago. It was a minor injury compared to the scrapes, bruises, arrow slashes, and cuts that had occurred since.
He stood up, panting with the effort. The rocks under his feet scraped together, and his joints felt the same. Swaying, he regained his balance and looked around again.
The others remained with their backs to him. They had their weapons drawn but Rutejìmo spotted no sign of violence or bloodshed. He sighed in relief. The allies of Kosòbyo didn't attack at night.
A moment later, he felt guilty for even thinking that the clan would violate one of Mifúno's laws. He did not exist when he wore white. He thought about keeping the clothes on for the run home, but he already knew that he couldn't do it. Unlike the young kojinōmi, Rutejìmo clung to the old ways. He would only run if he was running as one of the Shimusògo; he couldn't dishonor the desert by pretending.
Wind rose around him. It peppered his body with dust and sand from along the ridge of the valley. He looked down, to see if there were any patterns. Seeing none, he turned to the fire and bowed.
The ash and his clothes were gone, but he already knew they would be.
He turned back around and staggered to the circle of his protectors. His leg carried his weight, and he wondered if the desert continued to heal him. As he passed into the light, he rested a hand on Gichyòbi's shoulder while setting the vase into the armored man's palm with his other. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Gichyòbi stirred and looked down at the vase, his face hidden in the horse helm. For a moment, he didn't move. When he stirred, it was to take the vase from Rutejìmo and set it down. Slowly, he raised his gaze up to Rutejìmo.
On the other side, one of Kamanìo's gray dogs started to pant as it sat down.
“You are very quiet,” said Gichyòbi in a low voice. “I've never… heard you do this before.”
Rutejìmo winced at the voice and the fact Gichyòbi was talking about the ritual. But then he remembered the old woman's words. Maybe the kojinōmi needed to be talked about. He smiled. “Silence is a prayer.”
“Yet you moved constantly. Not even warriors fight the entire night and then charge into battle again.”
“I wasn't exactly fighting. It's just….” Rutejìmo held up his hand, unable to explain it.
Gichyòbi twisted his helm off. When he looked at Rutejìmo, there was a strange expression in the warrior's eyes, as if he encountered something new and terrifying. He was haunted. “You ran all day and then… that all night.”
“I… I can talk about it if… if you want.”
Gichyòbi looked startled before he turned away. His armor creaked.
Realizing he had gone too far, Rutejìmo looked down but caught one of the dogs looking at him. He smiled weakly to the hound. “Right now, the only thing I want to do is crawl into a bed and sleep.”
“You look exhausted.” Gichyòbi said without turning back.
“I feel like there is gravel in my joints and in my head.”
“You are still running, though?”
Rutejìmo didn't want to run. The euphoria of chasing Shimusògo would push away some of the exhaustion, but his body ached and burned. He wanted to scratch his nose, but it would only bloody his fingers.
He focused on the eastern sky, where the light was just beginning to brighten. One day. He could rest for one day and then run. But, he might be coming home to a slaughtered clan.
The idea of finding his children's bodies made his decision. He loved them with all his life. Weeks ago, he left knowing they were safe. And now, he may be the last chance of warning them before Kosòbyo attacked.
Gichyòbi cleared his throat. “Four clans, including Modashìa and Kokikóru, left for the southwest last night. In the cover of darkness. One of the clans was of the night.”
The words shook Rutejìmo. Fear prickled his skin, leaving behind a sensation of crawling insects underneath his bandages.
“They left right after sunset as we were starting the ritual. There was a Kosòbyo in the group, according to… the person who told us.”
Rutejìmo sniffed, his hope of crawling into a bed dashed. They were ahead of him, he had to run now. “Who told you?”
“A banyosiōu of the night, another runner with a dépa spirit.”
Five years ago, ostracized from his clan, Rutejìmo had become one of the banyosiōu. He was treated as one of the dead, someone who could not talk or attract attention without the fear of being killed. His time ended after a year, and he rejoined the living. For most, becoming a banyosiōu was a punishment for the rest of their short, brutal life.
Rutejìmo knew the courier. They both worked for the same person back when Rutejìmo had been kicked out of the Shimusògo for a year. They were as close as day and night could be, the common bond of chasing a dépa giving them solace. But, Rutejìmo was allowed to return to the living and the other man was not.
Rutejìmo bowed his head. “Can you… give him something? Anything? In thanks?”
Gichyòbi grunted. “I will arrange it.”
“Thank you. I have to run. Now.”
Kamanìo looked up, his eyes were bloodshot from staying up all night. “Are you sure? You are exhausted and injured.”
Rutejìmo looked around and saw his packs near some rocks. Padding over to it, rocks crunching underneath his bare feet, he scooped up the bags and slung them into place. His body screamed in agony with every movement, but he was determined not to let it slow him down. As he buckled the pack into place, he said, “My clan is out there, and my children need me. Would you stop at this point?”
“No, but I am a warrior.” Gichyòbi straightened and squared his shoulders.
“As am I,” came Kamanìo's response from where he sat.
Rutejìmo smiled as Tachìra approached the horizon. He gestured toward his home, across the familiar expanses of dunes and rocks. “I'm not a warrior. I'm not the fastest or the strongest. You have known it since the day we met.”
Gichyòbi and Kamanìo both nodded.
He dug into his bag and pulled out the Book of Ash. Both men inhaled sharply as Rutejìmo set it on the ground at his feet. He hesitated for a moment, caressing the rough pages that had kept him company for five years. He knew that he wouldn't need it anymore. Mifúno would find a new owner.
He stood up. “But, I'm not going to stop. It doesn't matter how tired I am or how much they hurt me. If I must run, there is only one thing I can do—run. And if that means I die at the foot of the valley, then I will die among my clan.”
And then the sun's power filled him, and the dépa raced past him.
Rutejìmo bowed once. “Shimusògo run. It's the only thing we can do.”
And then he sprinted after his clan's spirit.