The Winds Teeth are mysterious rock formations scattered throughout the Mifuno Desert. The type of rock is unknown, as is the purpose
— if there is one. — Tosomi Kadokíchyu, Stories of Sand
By the time Rutejìmo arrived at the Wind's Teeth he could no longer remember how long he had been running. The three jagged rocks had been there from the beginning of his adulthood. His eyes automatically rose to the one that Pidòhu had fallen from, breaking his leg, and setting off the chain of events that led to him becoming a man despite all the odds.
He came to a halt, his feet digging a long furrow into the sand. When he stopped, the wind blowing behind him died and grains rained downed on him. He stepped forward and headed straight for where Pidòhu had fallen many years ago.
There was a small poem carved into the rock. Pidòhu had ventured out of the valley to follow Rutejìmo as Rutejìmo gave one last apology. He knelt by it, rubbing his fingers on the faded letters that sand and wind struggled to erase.
He smiled to himself and leaned his head against a nick in the rock that he had made the day Mapábyo became his wife. While against Shimusògo tradition to hold the ceremony away from the shrine, Desòchu had insisted Rutejìmo choose his own way.
Remembering his brother brought tears to his eyes, but the sorrow quickly faded. His brother had died saving the clan. Chimípu had done the same. He was poised to follow in their footsteps unless he could survive the last segment home.
He thumped his head against the mark on the rock. Five years ago, he had tripped during the ceremony and cut his hand on the Tooth. Later, Chimípu had returned and cut a line along the rock to memorialize the occasion. Now, it was just a quiet reminder of his life. A good life. A happy one until recently. He ran his hand down the rock. He hoped that Kitòpi and Piróma would add their own marks when they became members of the clan.
Realizing he was falling asleep, he pushed himself from the rock and started around the other Teeth, looking for signs of anyone else. The Shimusògo frequently camped among these rocks, as did a number of other clans, but it was far enough away from the normal routes that only a few knew about it. It didn't stop him from looking, just in case yet another ambush waited for him.
He yawned as he circled the rocks a second time. He didn't want to stop, fearing he would fall and never get up. Every second that he wasn't running was one second longer that he struggled to remain standing.
Two days of running with no sleep, food, or water had ruined his body. His lips were swollen and bleeding. When he touched the rock, he could feel tremors coursing along his muscles and a searing ache that refused to subside. Dehydration and starvation gnawed at his insides and a piercing headache burned in his skull.
He looked out to the horizon and listened to the gentle hiss of sand rolling across the dunes. It was a clear day with blue skies stretching out in all directions. In three days, he would be home, maybe a little less if he once again walked through the night.
Rutejìmo circled back to the poem and hesitated. It was hot and windy, but he didn't dare stop. He yawned and started another lap around the rocks. He didn't know how long to wait. There was only one person who could be waiting for him, Mapábyo. Desòchu may have not planned on anyone meeting him at the Wind's Teeth like Nifùni had met him earlier. Or, even if he did, it could have been Byochína or Chimípu.
He closed his eyes and continued to pace around the rocks. He prayed Mapábyo had already made it to the valley. Their children were going to need them both in the coming war. Fights among the clans were bloody enough, but going against the most powerful clan of the desert would be suicide for the Shimusògo.
Rutejìmo jumped at Mapábyo's voice as it came past the rocks. He turned on his heels just as she came around the far end. Her black skin shone in the sunlight, almost drinking it in.
She wore one of her favorite running outfits: red trousers with an orange top cut low enough he could just barely see the black dépa tattoo on her shoulder. Her bare feet crunched through the sand as she stood away from the rock and looked at him.
“Pábyo,” he whispered hoarsely.
She took a hesitant step toward him. “Is it you? Really you?”
He nodded, but then hesitated. It felt like he was about to fall off a cliff, a sense of vertigo tugging him forward. He stepped forward, and the sensation passed. Stumbling, he opened his arms and pulled her into a tight hug.
Her body pressed against his, just as it always had. He could feel the heat of her skin and the familiar way her curves caressed his skin. She pulled back to kiss him, her lips almost as cracked as his own.
She looked him over and then gasped. “What happened?”
“I was attacked… a few times.”
“A few times? You? How?”
“The last time,” he said bowing his head, “was two days ago. Chimípu came, but she… she…”
Mapábyo sniffed and pulled him back into a hug. “I'm sorry, love. It isn't fair.”
Rutejìmo's skin crawled for a moment but he pushed it aside. He held her tight. “Just like Desòchu and Nifùni. They are taking us one by one.”
“But they didn't get us.”
And then it hit him. Mapábyo always said the same thing in the quiet moments of their lives. A single phrase that came when the rest of the world had refused to look at him, a greeting passed her lips every morning they woke together and every time they parted. There was only one reason she wouldn't have said it.
He held her against his chest, knowing it was already too late. “I see you.”
“I'm right here.”
And then a pause.
Rutejìmo closed his eyes.
The knife slid into Rutejìmo's side but somehow missed his lungs. He felt the burn of it as it pierced deep into his body, cutting through organs before the hilt smacked against his skin and the point broke through the far side. A flash of black washed over his vision.
She whispered in his ear. “How did you know? I said the right things.” It was his wife's voice and her face, but the tone was wrong.
He shook his head and pulled back.
She withdrew the dagger and let it drop to the ground.
Rutejìmo clutched his side as blood seeped from the wound. The dagger had cut deep and left a very small opening. He squeezed down on it to hold it shut.
He started to say something, but then the taste of acid rose in his mouth. He coughed and blood coated the back of his throat. Trembling, he lifted his hand to his gaze and saw it waver.
“It's poisoned. You have minutes, maybe an hour at most.” The woman sounded almost sad.
“Because I defend my clan against all enemies.”
“Even if they are betraying Tachìra?”
She nodded and then held out her hands. “You are an enemy, Great… Shimusogo… Rutejìmo.”
The pause and the unfamiliar cadence of his name identified the speaker. “Great Kosobyo Dimóryo.”
She gave a short bow. She didn't smile.
“I thought you were just a guard,” he groaned.
“I am. Just not second rank.”
“What are you?”
“Champion. One of the four greatest warriors of Kosòbyo.”
Rutejìmo felt a trickle coming from his nose. He swayed as he tried to reach for it, but the blood dripped down into his palm. He stared at the crimson splatter and gulped. “M-Mistress of the Streets?” Gichyòbi had a similar title.
Her smile broadened. “Yes, actually.”
“What happened to Mapábyo?”
He nodded and then stumbled back from the effort. The burning in his stomach spread out into his guts and he could feel them twisting as the taste of acid bubbled up to tickle the back of his nose.
Dimóryo sighed and stuck her hands in Mapábyo's pockets. “We caught her outside of an oasis. She was in a hurry to get there and failed to notice our trap.”
He took a step back from her. When she didn't follow, he took another. “D-Did she know about her parents?”
“Yes, we needed information from her and a fear for family makes it easier to get it. She was told you died also. That finally broke her.”
Rutejìmo's eyes blurred and he shook his head. He started to stumble, but caught himself. He kept backing slowly away from the Kosòbyo warrior. “H-How do you… have her—”
“Y-Yes,” he slurred.
“I needed information and thought her skin would be useful.”
He froze at the hard words. “Y-You tortured her?”
“Less than a day, but she told me enough to pretend to be her. And that's all we need. Though I obviously missed something. The people around here trust Shimusogo Mapábyo, which we will need in the coming days.”
Anger grew inside Rutejìmo. He dug his hands into his side to hold his wound. “You killed her?”
Another bow. “Very few people live long after being skinned. It would have been cruel to make her one of them. I ended it before the pain grew too much.”
A wave of darkness crushed Rutejìmo, and blood dribbled out of his nose. He swayed as he tried to find some way of lashing out at the warrior. He had nothing but speed and the desert. He could outrun her, but he didn't know how she had reached the rocks. She may have some way of moving quickly through rocks or sand.
Except for in that moment, Rutejìmo had never wanted to kill anyone in his life. He reached out for the desert, desperate for some weapon.
The wind rose around him, peppering his skin. He glanced down for the patterns. There were lines he had never seen before on his skin, but they were as familiar as the sand around him. The desert had marked him for death, but there would be no kojinōmi to tend to his soul when he died.
Gulping at the blood staining his throat, he whispered to the sand around him. “Please?”
“Please what?” asked Dimóryo.
Rutejìmo shook his head and knelt down. “Please, give me something,” he whispered to the desert.
Wind buffeted his back, and he felt a prickling of power. The patterns clinging to his body were clear, he was going to die.
“Please, let me fight.”
“You aren't a fighter, Rutejìmo. The only thing you can do is die.”
Rutejìmo looked up sharply. “Yes, but so can you.”
Dimóryo snorted. She shook her head as her hands began to glow. “Choosing the sacrifice. A good way to die.”
Groaning, Rutejìmo pushed himself into a standing position. “No… I can do this.” He tried to speak for Mifúno, but he couldn't. The energy wouldn't rise inside him, as if the desert resisted him.
He pulled with all his mental might, knowing he might die before he finished.
The wind grew stronger, ripping at his clothes. He felt all the aches and pains slam into him, but he continued to pull harder, drawing on the might of the endless desert.
And then there was no more resistance. In a single moment, he became one with the desert, an endless expanse that was too large and too powerful for his mind to comprehend. Sadness and joy crashed into him, a million people fighting and loving on the sands, rocks, and stones. The intensity burned him from the inside, withering his organs as if he had jumped into some endless pit of fire and ice.
The wind rose to a howl and then stopped instantly. In the silence, he found his voice. “I am Rutejìmo, and I speak for Mifúno.”
“You aren't dressed as a kojinōmi right now.”
“No, but in this moment, I will gladly trade my life to kill the one who harms my family and broke the laws of this desert. You are dead to me, Kosobyo Dimóryo.”
“You are dead to the desert and the sands.” Power burst along his body, and his voice took on a strange echoing tone, like the voices of the dead speaking through him once again. “You are dead to Mifúno until the end of time.”
Around her feet, the sand began to blow away, forming a depression. She looked down at her feet and then clenched both of her fists. Golden power exploded around her fingers and then dripped down. Acid burned at the sand crawling away from her.
With a snarl, she jumped out of the pit and over to Rutejìmo, bringing both hands together to crush him. The fire in her hands left a wave of poison trailing behind her.
Rutejìmo prayed that the words rising in his throat would have the power needed. “You are dead to Tachìra!”
The flames surrounding Dimóryo's hands snuffed out instantly, and she plummeted to the ground. Her impact shook the earth. The sands instantly crawled away from her, digging a hole around her body.
Rutejìmo coughed and blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. He fought against the urge to curl up and die. He could feel Mifúno waiting for his death, the looming of the spirit ready to claim him as her own. But, he fought against it. Gasping, he forced the words out. “You… are dead to Chobìre and the wind and the spirits of the desert.”
The hole grew faster, and she sank rapidly. She clawed at it, but the sides peeled away from her hands, and she clutched air. He could see her trying to scream out, but no sound came from her throat.
She clawed at her face, and it peeled away to reveal the woman Rutejìmo saw before. Bloody strips fell to the ground only to dissolve into mist as they struck the sand. She lashed out at the hole around her, but the shifting rock slid away once again.
Rutejìmo's hands shook as he held them up to the sun. “You are dead to all the spirits of land and air and you will never,” he screamed through a torn throat, “never find peace again!”
Dimóryo looked up, her eyes wide with fear, and then the earth collapsed around her, filling the hole instantly.
He expected to feel her life fade, but it didn't. Instead, it sank deep into the ground as more of the sand and rock boiled away from her. In his mind, he felt as she fell to solid rock far beneath the surface and then stopped. But, even there, far away from the sky and air, her life continued to pulse, trapped in some grave far beneath the Wind's Teeth.
He dropped to the ground as the power, memories, and senses fled him. He sobbed bloody tears as he thought about Mapábyo being tortured. In the rapidly fading memories from the desert, he saw his wife's last breath well up. It was a single terrified scream as she begged for Rutejìmo to save her, a single phrase he never thought he'd hear. “I can't see you!”
Icy claws gripped his heart, squeezing down until he could feel every pulse beating through his body. It burned along his left arm and he couldn't breathe. Everything shook around him as he stared at the sand marking the Kosòbyo warrior's living grave.
He had lost everything.
His stomach heaved, and he vomited. Black ichor poured out of his mouth followed by crimson blood. He clutched his heart as he started to topple forward.
Finding strength, Rutejìmo caught himself. The desert had his heart, but he couldn't give up. Not yet.
He pushed himself to his feet and turned away from the rocks. He had to warn the others. He shoved one foot forward but dropped to his knees. More blood ran from his nose and mouth, splashing on the ground.
Rutejìmo still had family. He had a boy who called him a coward and a daughter who walked her own way. A clan unaware that the Kosòbyo was poised to slaughter them. They were in the valley, and they were helpless if he couldn't run fast enough.
He jammed one foot into the sand and staggered forward, barely keeping his balance until Shimusògo ran past. Then, he reached out for the clan spirit and threw everything he could into running. A heartbeat later, he felt the burn of the poison fade under the euphoria of running.
It would come back, he knew that, but only when he stopped.
As long as he kept running, no more of his family would die.