Sand and Bone 28: Smoke and Honor

The desert promises someone in white will approach when needed. — Desert proverb

After a night of barely sleeping in the dark, Rutejìmo had found a second wind. Or was it his third, or maybe fourth? The entire day passed with him able to run without stumbling or faltering, though he knew he would be paying for his sprint when he stopped again. At a mid-day oasis, he risked stopping for fresh water and ended up leaving a bloody smear near the water’s edge when he slipped. When the clan protecting the oasis offered to give him shelter, he had respectfully turned them down and started running again.

Chasing Shimusògo also pushed away the fear and agony. He sank deeper into the run than he ever had before and lost himself in the euphoria of the wind rushing against his face, the peppering of sand and rock, and the steady drumming of his feet on solid ground.

His own worry focused on the end of the day, when his powers faded with sunlight. He had been staring at the sun for the last few hours, wishing that Tachìra would halt in his daily descent.

Rutejìmo’s desire had no sway over the sun spirit, and it continued to sink toward the horizon. Even though it was bright outside, despair darkened his thoughts and the world behind him.

He scanned the horizon as he looked for a place to stop for the night. Avoiding landmarks made it easier, he could stop anywhere, but he wanted to find a low outcropping to hide against or a rocky valley where he could use the alchemical flame without lighting up the darkness. A warm meal and a place to shield his back were his only needs just now.

Rutejìmo was afraid of the dark, and nothing in his life had eased that pain. Terrible monsters crawled the desert when the sun was down. There were also the night clans. Even though he had served them as frequently as the day, his clan was of the sun and very few saw beyond the bright red and orange of the Shimusògo before drawing their weapons.

Coming up along one ridge, he spotted a low-rising rock in the distance, about six miles away in the middle of a large wash of sand snaking between two rocky plains.

Rutejìmo whispered a prayer of thanks to Shimusògo and Mifúno before sprinting forward.

Less than fifteen minutes later, he came to a sliding stop near the rocks. The wind of his passing blasted past him, continuing up the dune before raining sand down in a wide pattern. The hiss of his stop was almost comforting.

He straightened and stretched. The aches had already returned. His arms and legs burned from running, and his injuries prickled along his skin. Gingerly, he touched his nose and winced at the flash of pain.

Shaking his head, he inspected the rock and was happy to find it would suffice for the night. He unslung his bag and knelt to open it.

Movement caught the corner of his eye. Tensing, he gripped the hilt of his tazágu and turned to look.

Twin columns of smoke rose in the distance, maybe twenty miles away. His heart sank as he saw the yellow and white swirling around each other. He closed his eyes before opening them again, hoping his services weren’t needed.

The smoke remained in the sky, lazily rising in two hazy lines that pointed down to where he saw a swirl of dust and a hint of movement.

Rutejìmo choked back a sob. He couldn’t take another night of rituals. Staying up all night only wore down his reserves, and he didn’t think he had much more. He had to get home and warn the others, to save his family from Kosòbyo’s attack.

Groaning, he stood up. He was also a kojinōmi and one of the few in the area. There would be no one else to tend to the dead. This close to home, he probably knew the clan in need. It was his duty, despite his fear and exhaustion.

He struggled with his dread of another sleepless night as he switched into his whites. For a moment, he considered leaving his supplies by the rock, but it would have been foolish to risk it being stolen, destroyed by animals, or simply lost in the sand. He shook his head and packed his clothes and his tazágu into his travel bag and slung it and Kidóri’s nearly empty one over his shoulder.

With a deep breath, he set off toward the smoke.

Less than an hour later, he came up the final ridge and looked out across a rocky plain. A crowd of warriors, all in yellows, whites, and bright colors, ringed the plain. He spotted bared weapons flashing in the rapidly fading light and the swirl of movement among runners and warriors.

They had surrounded a thick knot of black-clad folk, a clan of the night.

He froze as he stared at the scene. Even though he encountered an almost identical one near Kosobyo City, he had never seen it close to home. The clans in the western desert avoided each other or killed each other, not circled around like hounds waiting for someone to die. And when a fight did break out, the winner normally let the losing side escape and lick their wounds. He didn’t get the impression from the crowd ahead of him that they were willing to let the fight end without a slaughter.

Rutejìmo frowned, disliking how the eastern ways were already seeping close to his more traditional home.

Clutching his straps tighter, he jogged down to the rocky plain and then accelerated into a sprint.

Only a few seconds later did Tachìra dip below the horizon, cutting off his power and leaving him stumbling forward. He grunted and awkwardly slowed into a fast walk.

He approached the crowd and lowered his eyes. The smell of sweat and oil wafted past him as he threaded through the crowd, moving forward as the living parted around him.

It felt right to move with the living, where everyone knew their place. He took a deep breath and shifted forward, working his way past the crowds and into the cleared space between the two groups.

Just as he stepped away, he saw a flash of embroidered cloth from one of the circling warriors. Only a fragment and not even a complete name, “—kikó—,” but the cloth was the right color for the Kokikóru, one of the clans hunting him.

His heart began to beat faster, and his skin crawled. His footsteps faltered as he lifted his gaze slightly, trying to get some hint of the warriors surrounding him. He spotted red and green, Kokikóru’s colors. He also saw blue and white flashing to his side. Tilting his head, he spotted a name engraved on one of the many bared weapons: Modashia Chitōru.

Most clans named their weapons and possessions as part of the clan. Rutejìmo’s own weapon, his tazágu, had been named Shimusogo Migáryo after its original owner and his first shikāfu, Pabiunkue Mikáryo.

It was a trap, and his sense of duty had dragged him into it. He knew if he stopped, they would cut him down before he said a word. To give him a few seconds, he forced himself further into the knot of people and bridged the gap to the night clan. In his mind, he pictured the location of his weapon and prepared to draw it.

He continued to raise his eyes, focusing first on the black boots of the night clan before him but moving up as he fought years of tradition to look into the face of his ambusher.

It was a young man, in his early thirties, with pale skin and intense green eyes. They met Rutejìmo’s. The man was a warrior, with a bow slung over his back and five throwing knives at his right side. On his left, a long blade danced in the light, reflecting the name of his clan: Demuchìbyo.

The warrior jerked and his eyes widened. “No,” he said in a soft, lilting voice. He looked up and past Rutejìmo’s shoulder. “You did not say you wished to trap Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo.”

Rutejìmo inhaled sharply. He didn’t know the man in front of him, but he knew of the clan. They were scouts who made no noise in darkness when they chose silence.

“Why,” said a woman with a husky voice, “would one kojinōmi mean more than another?”

Rutejìmo shook as he turned around. The speaker was a Kosòbyo, a woman dressed in armored fabric striped with the serpent clan’s colors. She had a feathered headdress on her head which looked out of place in the harsh desert. Rutejìmo assumed that it was a weapon or a defense, he wasn’t sure.

The sanctity of the kojinōmi broken, he looked around at his opponents. There were easily seventy of them milling around. All their eyes were on him and they were smiling like a hound who had captured his prey.

The man near Rutejìmo spoke again, “For the kojinōmi of the day who slaughter my kind, I’m willing to sacrifice their lives to the desert. I’d risk the ire of the sands for that. But not Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo. He is one of the few who treat both night and day as allies and friends.” The warrior stepped up to Rutejìmo, who flinched.

He looked over at Rutejìmo and bowed. “Forgive me, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo,” he whispered. “You were there when my father and my grandfather died of sickness, and I could do nothing. I will not ruin their honor by sacrificing you for the promise of money.”

The warrior turned back and drew his sword. “I cannot do this, Kosobyo Tagéra.”

Rutejìmo trembled and fumbled for his tazágu. The hilt was icy in his palm as he pulled it out of the pack. With a shrug, he let the straps slide off and the bag hit the ground.

Tagéra shook her head and tilted her head. Her eyes were a dark green, almost black with the pupils too large for Rutejìmo’s taste. “You were willing to risk the sands when we negotiated two days ago.”

More of the Demuchìbyo came up around Rutejìmo.

He flinched as they passed but then stared as they circled around him. They were all armed as warriors. The runes on their weapons flickered with a pale blue glow as they braced themselves.

Rutejìmo glanced past them to where the smoke came. Two pots sat on a rock. Typically, there would be a body next to the pots along with small trinkets or sacred wood. Instead, there was only a pile of shit on the rock. He closed his eyes for a long moment and then opened them.

Hefting his weapon, he looked back at the crowds. There were only seven of the Demuchìbyo and ten times that of the day clans.

“Feeling foolish, boy?” It was Kosobyo Tagéra. Her insulting voice added to the use of a label instead of his proper name.

Rutejìmo turned back to her. Years of needing to be silent while wearing white clothes kept him silent. Even betrayed and ambushed, he found it hard to say anything.

“Those rituals of yours are meaningless, but you are too weathered to pull yourself out of the groove you’ve grown into. I knew you’d fall for this because you have never turned down a single request. Even with the Nyochikōmu, you abandoned your own clan to serve.”

Rutejìmo nodded, still unwilling to break his silence.

“You may be the first of the Shimusògo to reach this far, but you’ll also be the last.”

He flinched at her low, rasping words. He would have thought Chimípu would have passed him already. Mapábyo and Byochína were both faster runners than he would have ever been.

Tagéra smiled, her lips pulling back to reveal filed teeth. She straightened her head. “But, I wouldn’t want to think I didn’t respect that old desert spirit of yours.” A tic fluttered in her neck as she shook her head.

The Demuchìbyo warrior jumped in front of the woman. There was a hiss of something flying through the air, and then the warrior staggered back.

Rutejìmo gasped as the younger man dropped to his knees, his chest and face hissing with acid. It burned away the skin, melting it to reveal stark bone. There was no time for him to scream before he fell to the ground, a gaping hole burning through his chest.

Gasping, Rutejìmo stared down at the fallen man and felt fear pulsing through his veins. The needle had struck and, in less than a second, the unnamed warrior was dead at his feet.

Rutejìmo looked up just as another tic ran along the woman’s neck. With a cry, he brought his tazágu up to defend himself.

Four needles bounced off it, spinning into the air before landing to the ground. A heartbeat later, the rocks began to hiss and smoke.

She casually stepped forward, her cloth rippling around her with her movement. Ripples of golden energy flashed in the folds of her armor. She tilted her head again and then snapped it up.

Rutejìmo saw the flash of needles and brought his weapon to parry it.

But, the needles never hit as one of the other night warriors stepped into their path. He, like the first warrior, collapsed without a sound.

“How,” she said, “did you earn this sacrifice? You are just a poor runner who blindly follows the sun. You don’t deserve respect from anyone.”

Another warrior stepped into the path as she flung another needle. He groaned as he collapsed to the ground, a throwing dagger slipping out of his hand to clatter against the rocks.

“They just throw themselves before you. Why?”

Rutejìmo couldn’t answer, he didn’t know himself. He clutched his tazágu and shook his head, trying to stop the other Demuchìbyo.

Another needle and another silent death.

Rutejìmo backed away from her, tears running down his cheeks. He tried to hold the next one back with his free hand, but the warrior said nothing as he forced his way in front of Rutejìmo a full second before she flung the needle.

“Our reports indicate you are slow—” She flicked her head and more needles shot across the short distance.

He started to close his eyes to avoid seeing another death, but didn’t. The flash of black sank down, a woman this time, who closed her eyes as her face and throat began to hiss.

“—weak, and pathetic. You should have been the first to die but here you are, only a few days from home.” She smiled and her eyes flickered to the side. “And only one warrior left to protect you.”

Rutejìmo whimpered as he looked over at the last man.

It was a younger man, not even five years past his rite of passage. His skin was pale, and he sweated profusely. He looked at Rutejìmo as a tear ran down his cheek.

Rutejìmo could see the death in his eyes. He shook his head, praying the young warrior would run, not sacrifice himself.

“Let’s see how powerful this love is.”

Rutejìmo shook his head again. “No,” he whispered to the young man.

A needle flashed past Rutejìmo, close enough he felt the wind of its passing.

The young man jerked, gripping his weapon tightly. He looked at the Kosòbyo warrior and then back to Rutejìmo.

“No,” Rutejìmo said louder. “Don’t do this.”

Another needle and then a third.

“Die, Shimusògo,” said Tagéra.

Rutejìmo closed his eyes as the young warrior jumped forward. There was nothing he could do as he heard the impact of a dozen poisoned needles piercing flesh. And then the high-pitched scream as the young man fell to the ground.

Turning back quickly, Rutejìmo looked down into the empty, smoking eyes of the young man who sacrificed himself.

Sorrow welled up inside Rutejìmo, bubbling up through his throat and out of his mouth. He inhaled sharply. He wanted to yell at the woman who killed the warriors, but he couldn’t think past the flux of energy that burst out with his wordless scream. It rose to a high pitch, the screech of an injured bird desperately calling for help.

It ripped out of him and blasted away in all directions. He opened his eyes without realizing he had closed them to see a ripple of power radiating from him.

As quickly as the scream came, weakness crashed into him. Rutejìmo slumped forward, dropping to his knees. The sharp edge of a rock tore into his kneecap, ripping open fresh wounds as he slumped forward.

Snapping his hand out, Rutejìmo caught himself with the knuckles of his weapon hand. The hard hilt ground into his palm. He looked up at the Kosòbyo woman, and realized he was panting.

“The Call is exhausting, isn’t it? But there aren’t any warriors to protect you, are there? The nearest Shimusògo warrior is in your valley, a week away. No one can get to you in time.”

Rutejìmo inhaled and tried to cause the scream to happen again, to see if a second could reach the Shimusògo, but he felt drained and almost fell again.

Tagéra chuckled, her teeth flashing in the golden light that clung to her body. “You can’t call twice, even if there was someone to save you. And if you are hoping for Chimípu, she is just entering Wamifuko City tonight after failing to save the late Byochína.”

Darkness draped over the ambush, but then golden flames grew around the warriors. It clung to weapons and the folds of their bodies, lighting up the rocks as bright as a bonfire. Heat rippled over him adding to the stench of death and acid.

Rutejìmo watched his shadow dancing around him. He panted and drew a breath, digging into his exhausted body to try one more time. He needed help. He couldn’t survive without someone else.

Images of his body burning away from Tagéra’s poisons, or the warrior’s blades slicing through his skin, added to his fear. He felt it boiling inside him, tearing at his gut.

Blood oozed from where the wounds on his knuckles had reopened. He felt every one of his injuries tearing at his skin, reminding him that he had bled for this run, but he also survived.

Rutejìmo didn’t give up. He had almost died in the desert more than once, but he never stopped running. He died and kept going, plodding through life until he found his place. He walked naked across the sands when most kojinōmi had given up the ancient ways.

He ground his teeth together, determined to call again. There was a chance someone could hear the second one. It would hurt, he could already feel it clawing into his reserves. Blood dripped from his nose as he tensed, preparing himself.

Taking a deep breath, he held it for a long count and then yelled. It wasn’t the magical screech of a Shimusògo in danger, but a mortal voice ripping across his vocal cords.

Tagéra and the other warriors laughed, but Rutejìmo kept yelling.

His lungs burned and his throat tore, but he kept throwing everything into a yell.

And then, like a flame igniting inside him, he felt the energy burst up through his throat and his voice became a high-pitched scream once again. It burst out from around him, shaking the rocks and kicking up dust. It blasted out from him, pushing back the surrounding warriors and tugging on their clothes.

Rutejìmo felt the world growing dark, but he kept screeching. He clung to the ground beneath him, wrapping his fingers around the sharp rocks and squeezing down until fresh blood dripped through the gaps of his hands and pooled on the rocks.

And then more power was there, different but stronger. It was the voices of the desert whispering in his head, through his voice. He felt his vocal cords ripping, but the noise kept coming out, rising into the multitude of voices. He heard the children and mothers who died next to him, the cries of men sobbing without dignity. He heard a thousand dead echoing in his scream.

But, then the energy ran out. He slumped forward, crashing face-first into the rocks. He felt his broken nose cracking again, and flashes of pain danced across his vision.

He wanted to lie there and wait for the acid arrows. Every second, he waited for the attack but it never came.

Shaking, he planted his knuckles in the rock and pushed himself up.

No one was laughing. They stared back at him with pale faces and wide eyes.

Even Tagéra had paled and taken a step back. Her eyes were wide as she stared at Rutejìmo. The feathers of her headdress rippled with her movements.

Encouraged, Rutejìmo dragged his feet underneath him and pushed himself up. It took all his strength to stand, but he managed to do it in the stunned silence. He looked around at his opponents, as shocked as they were.

A single vulture’s cry echoed out in the silence.

“W-What,” gasped Tagéra, “was that?”

A moment later, a vulture landed on the ground between Rutejìmo and the Kosòbyo warrior.

Rutejìmo trembled as he stared at its sudden appearance. A breeze rippled around Rutejìmo from the bird’s wings as it peered around at the warriors.

Icy wind blew past him, leaving a smear of hoarfrost on the ground. He blinked at the sudden cold, and a woman stood to his left. She wore black and blue clothes, and steam rose from her body. A long, black whip hung from her hand and Rutejìmo could see glass shards glistening along its length.

The vulture cried out again. Rutejìmo turned to it just as it finished blossoming into a full-grown man armed with a long sword.

Neither of the strangers said anything as they stood there, looking out at the warriors who surrounded Rutejìmo.

“Who are you?” demanded Tagéra.

The vulture warrior answered by charging toward the Kosòbyo woman.

The ice warrior, a clan that Rutejìmo had only heard of in stories, dissolved into ice and speared in the opposite direction. There were screams as the front ranks fell clutching their ice-caked faces.

Confused, Rutejìmo spun around just as a pack of pitch-black jackals drove into the back of the gathered warriors. On the ridge behind them, lit by the moon rising in the sky, a pair of older men directed them with whistles.

Rutejìmo felt a prickle of danger and spun around, bringing up his tazágu as three poisoned needles speared toward him. He deflected two of them and managed to avoid the third as it flashed past into the back of one of the Modashìa. The female warrior screamed as her flesh melted away.

“How did you do that?” yelled Tagéra as she parried her vulture attacker with the back of her hand. Her fingers dripped with acid and poison. She flicked it toward her opponent, but he jumped the blow and sailed over her to land in the melee that had sprung up among the surrounding warriors.

Rutejìmo saw two other clans, both of the night, fighting among the attacking day clans. There was only one of each, but they were giving no quarter as they attacked their brightly-clothed opponents.

“What did you do? How did you do that!? That wasn’t a Call, only the Shimusògo would answer. What was that!?” Tagéra lunged for Rutejìmo and lashed out for his throat.

He parried her blow, wincing as the acid of her attack discolored his weapon. Twisting his wrist, he brought the tazágu down to block her foot which also glowed with magic. “I-I—” His voice cracked and he realized he couldn’t speak louder than a whisper. “—don’t know.”

“Damn the sands, you did something. These aren’t the Shimusògo! These are night warriors. They will not save you, not—!”

An ice whip wrapped around Tagéra’s throat, the shards of glass cutting into her skin. With a ripple of power, the runes along the whip flared a brilliant blue, and then Tagéra was sailing over the crowds. Rutejìmo heard her hit the ground with a muted thump.

The snow warrior stopped in front of him, her icy green eyes regarding him. “You called and I answer as if you were my clan. Day or night, I must protect you.” And then she was gone, disappearing into the melee with a flash of her whip and a burst of cold.

Gichyòbi’s words came back to Rutejìmo, about how the warrior felt the need to protect Rutejìmo as if he was one of his own clan. Rutejìmo had never questioned why, but hearing the dead calling out in his voice, he realized it was because of the desert. There was no Mifúno clan, because everyone was touched by death. All clans were hers, and all warriors would protect her champions. No, not all warriors. Gichyòbi had said it was a strong drive to help, not an absolute. Looking into the eyes of the attacking warriors, he could see them fighting the call with anger and greed.

There was no time to wonder as a Kokikóru warrior charged him, yelling at the top of his lungs, wielding a flaming sword.

Rutejìmo parried with his weapon and threw his weight into it to unbalance the man.

He failed, and the warrior slashed at him, the tip of his weapon slicing through Rutejìmo’s skin. A splatter of blood painted the ground.

Rutejìmo staggered back and slammed into someone else. He flinched back, parrying two warriors’ attacks as they came from both sides. He twisted between the two blows, using his tazágu to parry but not attacking on his own.

Even with his own life at risk, he couldn’t suffer the thought of killing another person.

He heard a scream as the vulture warrior fell under flashing blades. A heartbeat later, he heard a jackal cry out before ending sharply.

Rutejìmo fought for his life, parrying and balancing. He hoped that more would come to help him, and he knew if he just held on, he would survive.

The night warriors thinned out his opponents. He stepped over ice-rimed corpses and bodies torn apart by the jackals. Blood flowed across the rocks, but it was still lit up by the glow from dozens of warriors still standing.

His attackers, now three of them, were pressing him further back. He flinched from opportunistic attacks by passing warriors. Blood dripped down his face and side. He could feel hundreds of cuts, all near misses, burning along his skin.

Grunting, he hammered his weapon against them, parrying frantically as he tried to find some shelter or place to protect himself. Even one side would be better than standing in a crowd of enemies.

A needle flew past him. He spun to avoid it, bouncing off the burning blade of an attacker. He cried out as he felt the sharp edge drawn across his back, sliding clear to his spine but thankfully deflecting off the bone instead of cutting further.

Agony tore through him as he staggered forward, spinning awkwardly as he tried to regain his senses. He saw a golden light in the distance, coming along the edge of the plains, and let out a moan of despair. Allies of his opponents were approaching and he could barely hold off the few in front of him. Only warriors could retain their powers after the sun disappeared.

A blast of ice raced through the fight, buffeting Rutejìmo. He tensed against it, ducking his head as if it was the wind coming from his passing. He felt the ice plucking at his lungs and freezing the blood dripping from his nose.

As soon as it passed, he looked up to see the ice warrior falling. The surrounding men who killed her were nothing but shattered chunks of blood-flecked ice.

Rutejìmo panted in the silence. He looked around the fight. There were no more warriors of the night. The six strangers had taken out half of the other clans. Blood steamed off the ground and there were cries and the moans of the dying. He saw cut throats, broken bones, and disembowelings that turned the ground into a hellish world of ichor and gore.

“All that and you are still going to die,” gasped Tagéra as she staggered up. Blood covered the side of her face and dripped from her armored cloth. Gouges scored her neck and shoulders, and there was a shard of glass stuck against her collar. Her headdress had been ripped off leaving only a few feathers still clinging to her black hair. She clenched her hand and a fresh burst of energy gathered around her knuckles.

He gripped his weapon tighter and tried not to think about the point shaking violently. He couldn’t calm it down, nor could he stop the pulsing in his head as he fought dizziness and his injuries.

With a gulp, he held his weapon before him.

“You won’t give up, will you?”

“No.” His voice wavered slightly.

A translucent dépa blasted past Tagéra and disappeared into the darkness.

Rutejìmo gasped, the weapon almost slipping from his hand. Only one person could run that fast.

Tagéra opened her mouth to say something but before she could produce a sound, she exploded in a shower of blood that was sucked out of sight in a straight line following the dépa.

Pressure built around him, and Rutejìmo dropped to his knees. He abandoned his weapon and clapped his hands over his head.

A crack of thunder exploded around him, picking up rocks and dust and sucking it past. He planted his feet as the world screamed around him, crushing his ribs as the rumble rose to a deafening roar.

Silence.

Rutejìmo staggered as he stood up.

Around him, the other warriors were doing the same. Many of them bled from their eyes, ears, and noses. The golden flames around their bodies rose in response, glittering off their injuries.

In the darkness, a burning dépa blossomed into existence, towering over everyone, translucent and brilliant. It sank down, shrinking into a lone woman walking back. It was Chimípu.

The light of her passing lit up the blood smear of Tagéra’s body. There wasn’t a piece larger than Rutejìmo’s hand remaining.

Chimípu stormed closer, her eyes burning as bright as the sun. Sweat dripped off her body, pouring down her face and chest to soak into her shirt. Rutejìmo could see her limbs shaking, and he felt a new fear building.

In fifteen years, he had never seen Chimípu winded. She had never been exhausted from a run, ever since she gained power. And now, she was soaked as though she had run from one end of the desert to the other. If Tagéra’s words were true, she was just entering Wamifuko City that night. His call must have reached her, but that meant she had just covered two days of Rutejìmo’s running in less than an hour.

The ground hissed under her feet as she stopped two chains away from Rutejìmo. “That’s my little brother you attacked,” she panted as she lifted her hand. She had a short knife, no longer than a foot, and her clothes. She had somehow abandoned her pack and all her supplies. She looked at the gathered warriors and took a ragged breath. “I’m going to kill all of you.”

Rutejìmo sobbed with relief. He didn’t know how she got there, but he was thankful.

One of the warriors, a Kokikóru, managed to step forward. “There is only one—”

His words ended when his head thumped against the ground. Chimípu stood a rod past him, her knife still clean but a howling trail of wind dying around her. Blood hissed as it splattered against the ground, mixing with the shattered rocks and sand.

A murmur rippled through the remaining warriors.

“Jìmo.”

Rutejìmo jumped at Chimípu’s voice.

She wiped her brow with the back of her hand and it came away dripping. “Are you seriously injured?”

“C-Cuts and burns. I-I’ll live. Thank you, Great—”

“Good. Go to sleep.”

Another warrior snorted.

Rutejìmo stared at her in shock. “W-What?”

Chimípu looked at him, and there was sadness in her eyes. “You need to rest, and I don’t want you to see this.”

The warrior who snorted spoke up. “Just like that? Go to sleep in the middle of—” His torso thumped on the ground. “—a fight?” He looked up to where she had cut through him, severing his spine right below the ribs. He gaped as his organs began to spill out of his chest before his legs fell.

“Jìmo, go to sleep. I promise you will wake up in the morning.”

Rutejìmo shuddered as he obeyed, sinking to his knees and then curling up. It didn’t matter that he was in a pool of blood or there was a corpse a foot away from his head. He closed his eyes tightly, clamped his hands over his ears, and prayed he wouldn’t hear what would come next.

There was a blast of air and a scream. A splatter of blood splashed across him and he shuddered at the touch.

Sobbing, he curled up in a tighter ball.

More screams. He heard crunching of someone running toward him, but it ended with a crack of air and the thud of a body hitting the ground in too many pieces.

The stench of death surrounded him. But, despite the horror happening around him, he felt exhaustion yanking him down. Days of running and sleeping with one eye open clawed at his consciousness. Somehow, he felt more peace knowing Chimípu would save him from the warriors dying around him.

One of his eyes fluttered open just as Chimípu grabbed a warrior by the head with both hands. She grunted as she spun around. The man’s feet were kicked off the ground as she became a vortex of power and the warrior’s body became the disk of glowing light.

With a wet sound, he saw the man’s body ripped from his skull and fly off. There was a flash of a spine moments before Chimípu launched the man’s skull in the opposite direction.

Rutejìmo clamped his eyes shut and plastered his hands over his ears. Even through his fingers, he heard the thump of the body impacting another and the wet explosion of a skull fracturing against yet another body.

Shuddering, he prayed for sleep and, for once, Mifúno granted his request. Darkness yanked him down into unconsciousness.