Clans declare domain over the oases of the desert, protecting each one as if they were the most precious of children.
— Nyochikomu Akómi, Our Homes
Rutejìmo ran because he was afraid to stop. The only thing holding back his exhaustion was Shimusògo's power flowing through his veins as he sprinted across the rocks. It didn't matter if his legs ached or his lungs burned. If he slowed to a walk, there was a chance he would pass out, and he couldn't risk even a minute of jogging, let alone walking, as there was a chance he would not be able to run again.
His feet had become a drum against the ground, a steady pounding that ate away the miles. No matter how fast he sprinted, he could feel the seconds slipping away. He wasn't fast enough. He wasn't strong enough. An endless litany of failures flashed through his mind and eroded the euphoria of the run.
Rutejìmo's destination was the Wind's Teeth where Pidòhu had fallen so many years ago. He considered trying to find a faster route, but he could not lose time to backtracking or risk ambush in unfamiliar terrain. He stuck to the path he knew.
He hoped Desòchu's plans included someone meeting him there. He desperately needed someone to run with and to share the night with. It was almost impossible to sleep at night with the fear looming over him. He couldn't rest as much as pass the time until the sun rose and he could run again.
With luck, Chimípu would be joining him for the last segment. As much as he would love to have his wife or Byochína along, having the warrior at his side would ease his fears. Chimípu could defeat anyone, he was sure of it, and she wouldn't stop until he was safe.
Guilt slashed through him. He should have wanted Mapábyo to be waiting for him. She was his wife, after all, and it would be better to race home to their children together. As he ran, he let his mind drift to reuniting with his boy and girl.
Kitòpi would be the excited one. He would pretend he was a warrior when he heard the story, and Desòchu's tale would only encourage him to fight harder and run faster. Already some of that spark lived inside him. If anyone was going to be a warrior, it would be Kitòpi.
In a stark contrast, there was Piróma. The rest of the clan didn't know what to do with her. She was quiet and curious, but with a strange way of speaking as if she was older than her body. Rutejìmo smiled and let the wind blow away his tears. She was destined to follow her own path, to forge a route of her own. She would probably end up one of the Tateshyúso, like Pidòhu. The shadow raptor clan made their home in the valley with the Shimusògo, but their powers were far different.
An unwanted picture flashed across his mind, Piróma wearing all white as she stood before a bonfire. A kojinōmi.
Rutejìmo stumbled and lost precious speed. He threw all his concentration on pushing past the flash of agony and regaining the steady beat of running. Tears burned in his eyes, but he bore the pain until he could run again.
He peered around the sands before him. It was easy to get lost on the endless sands, but there were landmarks and markers for those who knew where to look for them. To his left, he saw the dark blotches of a set of Wind's Teeth sticking out of the ground. The chain-high lengths were scattered throughout the desert, each one in a different arrangement, which made maps and navigating easier. The one he spotted was Five Fingers East, a popular location for traders despite the lack of water. He avoided heading toward that since it would be the most logical place for a larger group to stop. Or for an ambush.
His destination was a plume of colored smoke rising over the dunes. The thin smoke disappeared quickly in the winds, and he had to look toward it to find it. It marked a smaller oasis that the Shimusògo rarely used. When running to Wamifuko City, they used a much larger one to the south that had multiple clans protecting it.
He was avoiding the populated oases and stops. If the Kosòbyo could get word out, they would be waiting to ambush him on the known routes. That left him with the out of the way shelters. Which worked since he couldn't afford to stop for more than a few minutes while it was still light.
Rutejìmo bore down and continued to run. The dépa sailed before him, running always out of reach. He wanted to grab the feathers and let the spirit pull him along, but he couldn't run fast enough.
Concentrating on catching the dépa helped time pass. It felt like merely seconds later when he saw the oasis. Groaning, he started to slow as he approached.
Aches and burns prickled along his senses, increasing as the euphoria of speed ebbed. His broken nose throbbed as the wind and sand buffeted it, the whirls of pressure adding to his discomfort.
He almost stumbled but managed to keep running. Every moment of slowing down brought more pain across his senses: his cracked ribs burned, the arrow slashes throbbed, and his muscles ached.
Rutejìmo gasped at the onslaught of agony. A morning of running let him forget, but stopping would bring the full brunt of his injuries back. He could also add the ache in his thighs, the burn in his lungs, and his crippling exhaustion.
“No,” he groaned and accelerated. If he stopped running, he may not be able to move again. Even a minute's respite was too much.
He raced past the oasis and accelerated back to his limits. With a shaking hand, he reached back and pulled out his water-skin. He would drink along the way.
As he finished drinking and secured the skin, he spotted something different. It looked like the dépa was a few feet closer than before. He frowned, trying to remember how far away the spirit ran. But, after fifteen years of racing across the desert, he no longer could remember the exact distance.
Pushing the thoughts aside, he bore down and kept running.