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Finding Anansi (The Thousand-Day Journey: Mama’s Boy Series)

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[Finding Anansi
**]The Thousand-Day Journey
Mama’s Boy Series

Copyright © 2016 Abdul
All rights Reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the author.

[]Table of Contents

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3

4

5

6

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About author

Book One
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Dedication

To my parents

Chapter 1

I hear it.

It’s loud as the sound in my chest. Between still trees, I see the shadows gathered with brooding menace. I put a hand to the ground and listen, watch. I feel it. Not the footfalls. Not the wavering sights of the rising motes. The silence.

It hovers on everything that should stir and move, like a thick mantle of clay wrapped around a dead city. My eyes search for the enemy that lies within the stillness. He is elusive. After many years of tracking me, he has learnt to keep his distance and show up without my knowing. I let him live in his hidden hole and make my way down a familiar path.

The leaves have become one and the same with the earth after the light rains, and my footfalls leave no sounds. All is so quiet not even the trees shower me with the residue of water they collected, and I use that to my own advantage. I know enough of this forest to know its stink. The green tinge of the earth is not moss, but a strange nature of the rocks that are supposed to cover the dead people of many years ago. Straying from a broken tree that has blocked the path, I see his footprints for the first time.

There are struggle marks and blood prints from a small prey as well. That means though he has eaten not long ago, there is still a pit in his belly for more food.

Lost in my own thoughts, I do not hear him until I finally see him. He is proud as a mountain and fierce as the cat he is, his skin slick with smooth fur, water on black. His eyes are a pair of red slits with black flecks, his great jaws drooling with spit. It growls a warning, a blood-chilling sound that should make me run into the trees and wait for him to grow tired. Today is not such a day. I pull the sword from my back in a slow motion and make a cut of the wind. Father’s sword hisses. I smile at the narrowed eyes on the beast ad the ears that lie flat on its bulky head.

“Go away,” I tell him. I know he understands. They have lived with our people long enough to know man language. But he knows whom he faces; that one who was bitten when he was but a boy; the first Shark to be attacked by our animal brothers; the one who climbs mountains and gives him a chase around. And so he starts at me with furtive steps, then falls into a gallop. I stand my ground, father’s sword held at eye level before me as the distance closes in to a few yards. Silent as night, the black panther hurls itself from the ground, claws aimed and jaws bared. I step aside. The panther falls to the ground with a squeal as I turn to face it again. A bead of red blood drips from the edge of my sword. The black beast suffers to stand on its left leg.

“Go,” I tell him. A man should leave. A brother should turn away with his tale between his legs. But this is a beast bent on a pound of flesh. All I hear is the ruffling feet and it is coming again, eyes blazing with terror. This time it doesn’t lurch forward so quickly like it did the first time. I let him come till he’s only a few paces. I feign to go right and watch it jump to rip me apart, and then I change course, slashing another line across its haunches. It falls with a thud and writhes in pain, its eyes madder than I have ever seen them. I stand over the hapless beast with father’s sword loose by my side. I should plunge it into the heart and be done with it but I can’t. I fear I have killed enough already. I fear, if I should take the life of this innocent thing, my mad brother, then things might not be the same with me again. And so I leave the black panther and find my way to the west, baba’s cold sword leading the way.

Throughout the day, my mind plays out scenes of my life before I arrived and found mama kidnapped by the Vultures. I recall Bello pretending to save me after I’d been accused of his killing his brother. He ended up making me a fugitive with a handsome reward over my head. I recall Ghost. My heart burns at the image of her stealing fingers and magic fires. She had delayed my returned by stealing the Heartstone with which I had wished to save mama’s heart. A part of my flesh would have been all that was needed, and mama would be safe.

A change in the atmosphere causes me to pause and look about. Rows of Red Woods crowd the space about me, their thick green leaves dangling and whistling in the wind as it moves between them. Shafts of yellow sunshine rake the floors through the dancing canopies, and swift streams cut across the layer of thin undergrowth like white snakes crawling a green carpet. There are bird screams in the air, but beyond that, I perceive the lion calls deep in the forest to the north of where I am.

My hand goes instinctively to my thighs and I find the last of my stars hitched to a leather sheath. As I stare at the direction of their taunts, the white crescents of the sacred Olden Mountains catch my gaze. I regard the mountain tops now with longing, not sure if I will ever climb to those heights again. Almost, I hear my friends shouting and screaming at my desecration of those stones by climbing what is not meant to be climbed, and then I feel the joy that comes with being high up in the sky, touching the clouds, feeling their wetness on my face, and the burst of life that follows my trail down the smooth slopes of it, my feet firm on the board as I hurtle down and out of the groping reaches of bared fangs and tearing talons. I smile at the memory, and then I cradle it deep in my breast.

This southern part of Empire has not been inhabited for many thousand years since the Zinmor people fled from invading seamen. Talks about their kinds are sketchy and vague, and they mostly begin and end with an unknown facial feature and an unknown monster lusting after their heels. Even then, I perceive a bit of their civilisation whenever I make the trek beyond the sacred mountains. The green rocks are peculiar only to these parts, as are the oval shapes of their homes now lying in ruin in the shades of dense vegetation. Buffalos and deer crowd its landscape now since no human or animal predator stalks the lands. The sense of calm is almost magical, and I wonder how it is that Sharkney, our home just beyond the mountains, suffers from so much terror.

Only a moment after, I begin to wonder about the fate of our village. I have never understood why the lions and wild cats never attacked the Vultures. They would have saved father when the thieving men raided our lands ten years ago; they would have saved mama and all those women they stole and the others who died at the ends of their bloodied swords. But they didn’t, and I am on this cursed journey looking for the only one who would show me the way to the lair of the Vultures.

It’s after another day before I catch sight of the cave sitting at the end of the Dead Sea. The walls of my belly tighten at the thought of what Anansi’s descendant will look like. In many stories, Anansi has been characterised beyond human features. There are tales in which he is nothing but the name he bears; a thing, a conjuring of morals that today’s worlds have no care for, a struggling past in the unshaded lights of reality; a man or spider stuck to a tar-painted being; a prankster who put the ants into an eternal struggle of carrying crumbs in their little hands; a trickster who trapped the world’s knowledge into a gourd, and then lost it to a burst of rage upon realising his ineptitude at climbing a simple tree. Yet, there are stories when he is just a spider that hides in the corner of every house with an ear out for trouble.

With the wind shrieking between the trees below me, I begin to wonder if I am not being a fool after all. Could any of his descendants still be alive? Will he answer my questions of where the Vultures live and how to reach them in order to save mama, or will he be tricking me into some fanciful chase conjured by his tricks and whims? Even worse, I wonder if he is a real thing of flesh and blood rather than the embodiment of a story.

Standing on a raised cliff that overlooks much of the uninhabited south-western segment of Empire, I perceive the entire planes of the land in the distance. Blue clouds shroud the vast cave that sits like a monster’s jaw at the far end of the accursed land. How many of the people who ventured into your lands have you claimed, I wonder, staring at the faraway waves of the sea which approach and then flee the black lands without touching its rocky beaches. A cold hand dances up my spine, and I remain staring at the foul land until a realisation dawns on me: it is said that the cave is guarded by ghosts that rise at full moon and slay anyone trying to get inside, leaving me with less than two weeks to reach it and the secrets it holds.

The memory drags me out of my stupor enough to finally hear it; that the cry I had taken to be the whistling wind is that of a man in the throes of his death.

Chapter 2

I climb down the cliff as easily as I have climbed the Olden Mountains many times before. At the bottom, I creep through the tangled brush until I come upon a large clearing in the forest. Four men have another man tied up against a tree. His lithe body pulses with each whip on his back, his screams loud and quivering as dark blood streams down his legs. The lash looks to catch flame when it touches his skin and, leaving his body, a white smoky pattern trails its curling path. His two tormentors taunt him while another lies on his back and encourages his colleagues in a rough, throaty voice. He is a scraggly old man with withered limbs and a huge gear on his head. The last of them is gathered over a fire chanting an unfamiliar language that comes in hisses and spits. He has three marks on his forehead crossed by another single streak, a feature I have only ever seen among the northern tribes of Empire.

As he chants, the logs crack and spit purple fires. A dancing flame steals from the woods like a floating purple flower. It moves about as if pulled by the wind, and then breaks and merges with the floundering smoke till it becomes one great beast with dark wings and coal eyes.

The gasp leaves me before I know it. The chant stops, and the shape falls into the fire in a rain of dark soot. The image of the Deryndon brings back memories of a recent death-brush on the Red Road and I am swayed out of the thoughts that brought me down here: I can’t save this man, not with that kind of devilry they practice.

I turn to flee, but a branch swings and catches me in the face, knocking me to the ground. Grunting, I climb to my feet, and then a hand locks my wrist and hurls me out of the bush.

“I was leaving,” I mumble as I come to my feet.

“And I will help you leave,” the man says in a light voice, pulling a long blade from his back. His dress is a tightly-drawn hyena skin that would blend in the dark. He is tall and thin, and the way he handles the blade speaks of a man who will sever my head even with a drowsed mind.

“It was… it was a mistake,” I continue to tell them, backing away till all men are within my view.

“People pay for their mistakes, child,” he says with earnestness, his temples rippling with rage.

“What is he wearing, an Azubian garb,” the one with the whip asks with mock. “You better be quick and sure about it, Nodey.”

“I intend to, Krond,” Nodey says as he swings his long blade in a dizzying whirl. I pull out father’s sword from its sheath at my back. The man resorts to grinning at its short blade and doesn’t see the star leave my left fingers. It lodges in his knee cap. He falls down screaming and writhing, his long blade useless in the dirt.

Krond growls and comes forward, his blood-streaked flog unfurling like a striking cobra. I slash as I roll out of the way, cutting the lurching leather in two with one stroke. The cripple growls something in a foreign tongue, his voice gruff and mismatched to his small frame. Krond draws a sword with a wide blade from his hip.

“Now you are dead, boy,” he says, his sword high and falling.

Our sun-drenched steels meet with deadly clangour. I swivel out of the arc of his flailing sword. Blocking with my armadillo arm, I sink the blade into the flesh of his sword arm and tear it one way. The man howls and drops his sword. Blood gushes through his fingers despite his efforts.

I do not turn in time to see the arm that lashes at me. My vision is blurred when I rise again, and the next kick sends me crashing into a far-off tree. The man facing me flexes his large neck. He is a great man, fit for the wrestling pits, and he has a great axe in his hand. The blade burns in the sun like a side of silver, terrible and brilliant. He hurls it, and the axe turns in the air, catching the sun, hissing, and then it bites into the stump over my ducking head.

I scramble clear as the man pulls out the blade from the tree. His leather wear is black, his hair rising like a peacock’s crown: red, and a tinge bluish. He beckons for me to come. I stand my ground, and then he rushes into me. His pace belies his great stature, and the axe swings with a deathful dazzle that brightens in the sun and dims in the shadows. I meet the iron with a feeble attempt and feel the strain in my shoulder. His slash whistles a hair’s breadth from my face. The smell is of iron and fire.

I strike at his elbow. He grunts and throws his other hand, catching me full on the chin. I fall to the ground, my jaw snapped, my sword lost. His axe digs a trench as I evade its sinking blade. I kick his hand so he loses his weapon. The large man falls on top of me and sinks his teeth into my shoulder. He moans and writhes with delight. I cry out and crash his face with the armour of my other hand. He falls off. I pick baba’s sword with my weak left arm. The pain is maddening in my shoulder. He avoids my jab and punches me in the wound. I crash to the ground.

He licks his lips as he comes forward, his eyes dancing with glee. He looks more animal than man the way he is watching me with a red smile. I cut and slash. He grabs my hand and hits me hard in the face. I fall. The world is spinning. As I lie on the floor, dazed and hurting, he lifts his arms to the sides and begins to chant again. I perceive the flame enshrouding him as if a purple costume, and on his sides a pair of heavy wings sprawl like a death flower blooming. His large eyes sit as two discs of burning coals in his grim face, and as the world roils and the leaves and their trees swing and arch drunkenly about me, I feel the same cold fear I had when the Deryndon attacked me on the Red Road. The fear that grips me pervades even the pain in my shoulder, and I gawk at his morphing features, unable to move, and reminded no longer by the monstrous birds in their varying shapes, but by a man that once grew wings and a pair of twisting horns as he held me by the throat.

Then his head falls.

The gripping image falls like scales from my eyes. Blood spurts and gushes from his neck; he melts into the mud.

Behind him is the man tied to the tree. His eyes are a pair of coppery flames, his thick black lips reddened with blood. He starts toward me with a red axe, his body shivering, his words mumbling as if in a walking trance.

I try to stand and fail. Pushing myself on the ground, I try to make him see reason. “Listen, I was saving you,” I blurt. If he hears, his mechanic motion betrays nothing. He staggers forward miming words, his axe raised. The other men lie without their heads behind him.

“I am not one of them. Jella, I was going to the Dead Sea. I was –”

He halts. His eyes blink and become clear, and his tall head tilts as if he is seeing me for the first time.

“Dead Sea,” he repeats, tasting the words, and then he slings the red axe over a shoulder and pulls me to my feet.

Chapter 3

We sit in the shades of the large trees as smoke rises from a spitted deer on the fire. Dendo watches the flames lick the spice-scented flesh, his eyes flashing with red and with black smoke.

“The Dead Sea is not to be visited,” he says. It is the second time he has spoken those same words and in his face, I see a certain hardness that speaks of deep knowledge of the cursed land.

“I have to find Anansi,” I say, wincing from the wound on my shoulder. He has plastered it with herbs to hasten the healing but the pain has barely eased.

“I thought you were after his descendant.” He tastes the last word between his white teeth, his lips peeled apart.

I shrug. “A crab does not birth a pigeon.”

He looks at me. His eyes seem to be dancing with excitement but his face still bears its hard lines and stiff jaws.

“Do you know how it happened,” he asks. I tell him I don’t understand.

“Anansi, the stories… the reason you are going to see this descendant is because you believe, or you’ve heard that Anansi knew all things, that he had a magical gourd containing all the knowledge of the world and he will be able to show you where they are keeping your mother.”

I nod. “Yes; the Gourd of Wisdom, they call it, yes.”

“But do you know how he got it? Do you know how he became Anansi, the King of Stories, Anansi the Trickster; the God-tree that bears fruits of succulent moons every night, so that every story you pluck is a piece of legend whispering in your ears. Do you know this?”

I blink, and it is after Dendo has inched back into his place that I realise I have been holding my breath. I shake my head.

Grunting, he says, “This is going to be the death of you, child.”

I watch him as he stares at the flames, his eyes moving like one reading the words of fire. After a while, I ask him what I should have asked at the very beginning.

“What happened? Why were they trying to kill you?”

His muscles tense but he doesn’t look at me. His jaws ripple as if he is thinking of the events, the blood lines on his back, the chanting men and the folk; all of them hacked to death by him in a zealot’s possessiveness. He doesn’t respond.

“I…I deserve to know,” I say, uncertain.

His eyes flash at me, red and dark. “And why is that, Aldyn of the Olden Mountains?” His voice flows as if it will fill the world around us, thick and whole.

“I saved you. You—”

He looks from the wound on my shoulder to the red axe by his side. “Really, you saved me?”

I swallow my words and shift in my seat. He is wearing a red cloth over his right shoulder that is, at the same time, a pair of calf-length trousers. A black path that leads to nowhere is depicted on the cloth, and there are many half-hand shapes patting along the winding road. He has a long bald head, and his brows are the colour of ash. Around his neck is a ring of sapphires and rubies whose locket is hidden in the creases at his back. There is no sign of blood from his wounds.

“Eat. You will need your strength,” he says finally.

The worries disperse that moment, for his words remind me of my time in the cell in Kestabal when Bello tricked me into thinking he was saving me. He ended up turning me into a fugitive with 200000 gold coins on my head. For a short while I recall the dead man: Jawando. The good he did me comes rushing back to me, from the day he found a lost boy of seven years in a merciless city to the time he saved him in Kestabal merely days before his own murder. The charges laid against him were those of treason, but I know those were just meant to make sure his family never got the inheritance they deserved.

My thoughts wander till I see the Deryndon that rammed into the Bull Man again. There is a part of me that knows her face will never leave my memory: the beauty on her blue crown, the gilded armoury on her feet, and that look in her eyes that touched me in ways I could never ever forget. I smile at the memory of the monstrous bird, and then I laugh.

“The Dead Sea is not a laughing matter,” Dendo says to me.

Returning to the now, I realise how much I have starved myself. I gorge on the meat to the bone of it, washing everything down with the sorrel drink inside a deer skull. He offers me another portion which I gladly accept.

“This is good meat,” I say between bites. “Zunery men are a real wonder.”

“How did you know I was from Zunery,” he asks, curious.

I wave the comment away. “I have been to places, old man, many places. In fact, there is no patch of dirt in Empire that I have not been to. I know every tribe and every snake from north to—”

It comes to me like a cruel joke. The weight of my journey suddenly falls onto my shoulders anew, and I realise how little help all of my experiences have made. I swallow hard and let the meat fall, my appetite all but gone.

When Azkan murdered my father, I swore a silent oath to make him pay. But I knew I couldn’t leave mama. She became mine to protect after baba’s death, mine alone to love. And so I would leave my village every year for three months, sometimes four months, looking for work. The Vultures, they didn’t come back again. No, they were too kind. They let us be if only we would give them a token every year. And we did, each one of us, from their share of the farm that we till together as a people.

Every year I would journey around Empire, from the north to the south, working here, hiding there, trying to make a life for mama and Zangi, the girl who became my sister. I came to understand everything that was called people, forest, a river that runs through the eye of a horse, the land of Bhutu as it is hidden inside a great well. I came to understand the evil in an Ashkent squint, the stink in Kestabal’s smoking bars. Every night I dreamt of the unbound lands of Sandread, and the winds that rush along the four paths that lead to it. I know the length of the Red Road like I know my name.

Cold tears kiss my cheeks.

“I know every land except one place, one stinking, fish-rotten hole that mattered more than anything in this world. Everywhere I went, I asked till people pushed me aside. And so I stopped asking and started to listen. I listened while I worked. I listened while walked. I listened while I slept, but I never heard the answer I was after. Nobody knew where the Vultures lived. Their names were mentioned in silent voices, never beyond a whisper, never where the moon shone, or the sun breathed. And now—”

The words desert me. I turn to look at the Dead Sea through the trees. A sheen lies over its stretch. Jutting rocks and shapeless mountains litter its surface, like misplaced pieces on a draught game.

“It’s a poisoned place,” Dendo says to me.

I nod and wipe the tear from my face. Mama taught me things. She taught me to not mind even when people were speaking about me at my back. She told me the hundred names of God, and we sang songs that baba used to sing when he was with us.

“It was baba’s dying wish,” I say through the tears. “It was his last wish, the only thing he asked of me. Protect your mama, Aldyn, he said to me. Protect your mama, and I failed. But I will make things better. By the Hundred, I will make it better.”

Dendo’s eyes glisten as if from tears, and when he opens his mouth, I think that he is going to rebuke me. Instead, I do not hear his words. My mind is taken by the faint sound of a buzzing insect. A familiar fear settles in my chest. I have always had bad reaction to bee stings. I shift to the side, batting a large black insect away with my good hand. It swerves and comes at me again. My efforts are frantic, and I try to rise but fall in a tangle of roots.

“You should sit still,” Dendo says. The words are distant, like an echo to his true voice. I try to heed them but the thing is bent on leaving its mark on me.

“It is not… Jella, I have a bad reaction to bees,” I tell him between breaths as I finally smash it against a tree. It’s a wasp. “I don’t know…”

There is a noise coming over the wind.

“Do you hear that?”

“Yes, I do,” Dendo replies.

I peer into the darkness and feel my heart slam against my chest.

“Jella.” There is a cloud of them. I jump to my feet and try to get to the fire, but the swarm envelopes me before I get there. They sneak into my armour and I feel the first sting in my rib.

“Stop them… the fire,” I beg of him. I see only a shadow of the man through the haze of the gold-tipped insects. Another stings me in the neck, and then the pain is all over my body. I fall to the ground, my breath heavy and the world thinning into a blur.

Dendo walks toward me. He has logs burning with fire in both hands. He is speaking, but all I hear is the sound of roaring flames. My tongue is heavy in my mouth.

Dendo kneels over me, and I see the locket around his neck. It starts to spin. I feel myself drawn to it. My head spins as if I am a part of the silvery metal. Dendo speaks to me again. I hear his voice one last time, the fire in it.

Then my eyes close.

Chapter 4

I am startled awake by the sounds of snorting horses and shouting men. My face is swollen and my bones and joints still ache from the stings. A muffled groan leaves my lips as I try to sit up, but I realise I have been hidden inside a cluster of bushes for a reason.

Surrounding Dendo is a band wearing the blue loin-cloths of the Horned Panthers, a vigilante group that draws its powers from the ancient faith which once ruled the Northern lands of Ashkent and Jaipor and Nior’Ho. Their swords and staves are carved after the styles of Ashkent: a serrated edge close to the handle and a large, double-edged tip. Their naked skins are marked with a prancing blue panther with a horn between its eyes.

Dendo stands in their midst with no weapon of his own. His red garb is tight about him, his arms crossed at his back. He is faced by a large man with braids on his head like a pile of shit. His demon scar has nipples for eyes, and a ringed horn jutting through the meats of his breasts the way a pyramid shoots into the sky. His lips move in speech but nothing of their words reaches me.

Dendo suddenly leaps into the air, and it is as if he stays there in the midst of the leaves; all eyes turn to his floating figure. Then he is flying over a girl and her horse, two daggers manifesting in his hands, first shining with a slant of sunlight, then slick with blood. He lands expertly on the other side of the horse. The horse realises it then, and it jumps and whinnies, launching itself forward as the blood drips from the dead girl. Her head hits a low branch and she falls off. Her once-poised bow lies by her side, the string splintered.

The large man bellows a command, and his thick voice is all I hear before the ant pinches me in the neck. I grit my teeth and crash it between my nails. When I look again, two more people are lying at Dendo’s feet, blood spurting from multiple points across their bodies.

It is then I see Dendo in his death dance. He fights with the recklessness of a storm, shredding a path through the horde of fighters. Blood rains on the soil with each sweeping blow, and I watch with mounting disbelief as boys and girls fall to their deaths with severed limbs and smashed heads.

Dendo terrorizes them; his face is a terrifying scowl, his eyes dead as the scarlet domes of falling suns. He barges through them with blind fury, and between the groaning men and the sweat that drips from his face, I see the chain at his neck turn and twinkle like a disappearing star. Dendo breezes past them before they see the kick in their faces. It is as if there are two of them, then I see a third one, and then a fourth.

For a long while I watch Dendo and I remember baba in the way he dispatches the enemy. Only baba never was this brutal. Baba never butchered a man’s arm, never stabbed a man several times. He had the chance to kill Azkan but didn’t. He gave Azkan mercy and lost his life; Dendo trades their lives for their sufferings, and he lops their heads with the relish of a dead spirit.

I do not see the time the woman jumps at me and starts to pull me out of hiding. I try to stall my slide but I am too weak for her maddened grip. I hit her in the arm and feel pain explode through my elbows. She seats herself on me and begins to strangle me. I try to free my legs but she has her full weight on them. Darkness is closing in on me when I see the sword points; a dozen of them through her chest, blood-stained, gut-dangling. Her arms loosen from my neck, blood drooling from a gaping mouth. Then there is the last sign of the sword in a sweeping arc, and her head falls, and the blood squirts from her neck and splashes against my face.

I push the dead woman from me and struggle to my feet. About Dendo, the limbs of two dozen men are strewn as if a storm just walked through. His daggers are gone, his cloth still red and dry. His face is cold and stony; it chills the bones within me.

I gawk at the carnage and feel the bile rise to my throat. For a while, I am back in Sharkney and surrounded by the raiding clans. Dogs tear out the flesh of dying men. Dead-eating ravens mingle with my brothers. Azkan and his Vultures lay waste to our homes and steal the women from their huts. Children scream and squeal with blood-lined faces, boys hide in the large urns that are filled with water; fire, fire blooms like a night flower, red and blue, and with a tinge of dissolved flesh.

My heart beats so hard it hurts. I taste the death on my tongue. I fall to my knees into the blood-drenched earth. A shiver comes over me and the sword falls from my hand. Then I hear a grunt, then two, and then three men emerge from the bottom of a pile of bodies and flee into the bushes. Dendo flies after them, and their dying screams pierce through my memories. It is then I realise I have been screaming.

Chapter 5

“Why… what is this?”

Dendo watches me as if he smells shit in my breath. He snorts and turns to leave but I force him to face me.

“I asked you a question.” Words and spit crash through my teeth.

“You have been sleeping for two days, child. Your mind is not right.”

I bristle. “You will stop calling me a child, old man,” I say, wiping sweat from my cheek.

“Your talk is funny because your lips are all swollen, but I can see you are old enough to be stupid.”

“That is beside—”

“That is the point,” he screams for the first time. A thousand responses echo around the forest, and the screeching calls of birds and cats cease. The forest hushes, like the quiet of a carved tomb.

“You dare question me, Aldyn son of mama! You dare look at a soul survive death and ask him why he chooses life?”

He starts to walk about me.

“You know nothing about being hunted, mountain boy, but I will tell you. Yes, I will: The king of the jungle smells your life in the wind. He shakes his great head and purrs in his throat, a low moaning of anticipation and blood-lust. In those moments the hunt has begun without your ever sensing his furtive footfalls. He crouches in the bushes and watches you with eyes like slits of orange flames, and stalks you till you are ringed in among his pride. The golden bellies are low, inching soundlessly along the dewy carpet, the haunches firm and apart, with muscles poised as steel springs. Unfurled dagger-sharp claws sink into the ground. Moments of silence; your soul senses it, the hair is pricked at the back of your neck, and your gasps are short and chased out of your lungs as a snake pursues a rabbit. Yet, you see nothing, nothing but shadows that dance with the waving stalks of the tall reeds. Yes, your chest is tight and hammering, your glances quick and useless even under the silver of the bright moon. Your soul is gone before they come, pouncing with the blur of auric hide, a mane gathered like dark foams of a spectral demon. Imagine the roar of it, imagine a thousand thunderclaps sounded through a great horn, the heat of the breath whizzing as if steam from a cauldron, and you are frozen. Jaws of death close about your gullet, crashing it, and the beast wrings it to a limp, lifeless—“

He stops talking, and I turn to find him staring at my right elbow. He grabs my arm.

“Jella,” I scream, freeing myself from the pain.

“You do know what I speak of, child,” he says, his eyes wide. “That is a cat’s tooth mark.”

I swallow spit and try to recollect the day it happened. Again, like the many times since, I remember nothing of the incident. I was a babe in arms when I was taken out, per the tradition of our people, to meet our animal brothers. My mother had rushed me back to the house afterward, and it had been a game of hide and seek between me and the animals of our lands since then. Elder Aeldyn (elder of our village) never wasted a moment to remind me of that mark; that cursed mark that led to him talking about kittens and lions, gorillas and lizards, and him spitting at my feet as if I were some curse.

Looking at Dendo, I tell him the same thing mama always told me when I asked her.

“That was a mistake. It was not supposed to happen.”

“Oh, it was a mistake alright, child. It was a mistake that the lion attacked you and still you survived.”

“You will blame a child for a lion’s madness?”

“I will blame a boy who hasn’t learnt the meaning of survival. You spend the rest of your life running from them since that day and they have never left you alone. Those fleeing sons-of-shepherds would have regrouped and come back with a bigger army, but these…these are dead men, and I fear no ghosts.”

For a while, I remain leaning on my sword, my body aching from the welts as sweat streams down my face. I look about at the dead people, the many of them too young to have fathered children. In their deaths, they look innocent. The whites in their eyes stare up at the crowning trees, the green leaves dancing in their still half-showing pupils. They spent their young lives serving a deity that gave them the sword of justice, and in their last breaths, he gave them not even splintered shields to ward of death.

A low growl draws me from my reverie. Deep in the thick shadows of the trees, a dozen dark eyes glint. I have never seen Jackals or cats this far out. The beasts jump onto the human carcasses, shredding flesh from bones the way a knife leaves a tuber of yam naked.

“We can’t leave them like this,” I say, forcing the vomit down.

Dendo raises a brow. “Do not be greedy, Aldyn. Let the devils feed.”

“When a cat savours man flesh, it will go on a rampage attacking innocent people.”

“Innocent people have no business walking these paths.”

I stand my ground. Dendo coughs into his hand.

“You can bury them, mama’s protector,” he says, and then turns to the west. I follow his gaze and find the cliff on the Dead Sea. The sun is falling, and the black land is brooding with shadows and mysteries.

The jackals growl as they eat away. Two of them juggle a human skull between them. My hands roll into fists till the sword bites into my palm.

From the depth of the forest, I perceive another pair of eyes, red as burning coals in the night. A deep growl emanates from it as if from the earth. The other Jackals become jittery as the eyes get closer.

Dendo coughs and I turn to see that he is leaving. When I look again, it is only the stealing dogs I see. I limp behind Dendo, my heart heavy, my thoughts on mama.

Chapter 6

The wind is cold when I jump out of the water, and a mad ripple rolls through the stream. Wiping the wetness from my face, I am glad to realise the welts are disappearing after all. There are still a few below the two mountain marks on my left cheek and inside the nasty beard along my jaws.

A sudden tug at my heart spooks me.

I rush out of the water and put on the armadillo armour that covers my left arm and torso, my eyes glued to the tree tops. I tie the strands around my right side and cover my right shoulder with a leather pad before slipping my right arm into a vambrace. The familiar pain in my gut comes again. I search for the remaining stars and find the sheath empty.

Jella.

When I look back, Dendo is standing in the shade with his back to me. He is staring at the land where Anansi’s cave sits many miles ahead.

“Like I was saying,” he says, turning, “a king of their day is nothing without his garments and crown. Take it away, and you know…”

I follow him with the tug still in my chest. Only the Deryndons evoked such an effect in me, and my mind goes straight to the events on the Red Road. Dendo continues to tell me about a story he seems fascinated about, and I listen to him with only half a mind.

“… sought greater things, more power and fame, sacrificing more than many lives and trapping scores of human and animal souls. He wandered into lands nobody was supposed to enter—”

“The Dead Sea,” I ask to feign interest. He shakes his head.

“The Dead Sea is a wandering soul of another land; it’s a ghost. This land was far from the land you call empire. In fact—”

“It doesn’t exist,” I cut in, still looking about.

The man stops walking. I turn about and find his inscrutable gaze trained at me, the white flecks of his brows narrowed in disdain and then in pity.

I smile. “That was a joke.”

He nods slowly. “I know,” he says. “It wasn’t funny.”

I open my mouth to speak but feel the presence again. My eyes shoot up and I finally see the shadow swim over us. My heart slams.

“It is only a Deryndon. He will not hurt you.”

I look down to tell him of my experience with the wolf-headed Deryndon but I am distracted by the thing about his neck. The chain is a half-star, and it burns with flames of blue and red. It swings and spins with strange sounds that echo in my mind. For a time I feel myself one with the metal. A screeching sound cuts the connection.

I remain low, my body taut, and my eyes moving from the chain to the circling shadow. Something pricks my ears in the same manner it always does when the Deryndon is near. This time though, I feel its touch like a blunt pin scraping my skin. Yet, I can’t shake off the fright it strikes at my heart. Sweat is thick on my brows and streaming down into the dense bushes of my beard.

The shadow begins to circle in a wider arc until it disappears. I feel a crashing weight leave my shoulder. Dendo’s gaze doesn’t leave me while I sheath the sword at my back. He looks me up and down and I perceive the slightest wiggle in his nose. His eyes twinkle, and his lips purse in a thick black line.

“I wonder, and only few things cause me to wonder, Aldyn,” he starts. “Your people are Sharks, black as midnight and peaceful as week old kittens. They are a queer folk with awkward traditions – even compared with all the villages close to them – and they have a mountain nobody ever climbs.

“And this is where I begin to wonder, Aldyn son of mama; you stand here dressed in a fighter’s accoutrements, no doubt a warrior’s heart beating in your chest. By tradition, you should never have climbed those mountains yet here you are, a villager of not twenty, lithe as a ponderous panther whetted in the jungle of stones and high-limbed Jackalberries, your hair hanging in jet black curls with a glisten like living crystals. By fire, here is a Shark, hunted by his soul brothers and haunted by Deryndons who lust after no man’s flesh. Now, tell me how that makes any sense, mama’s boy.”

I begin to wonder whether this man calling himself Dendo is not the old, bitter Elder Aeldyn after all. That old man’s hollowed-out face returns to me as do his words of hate and his spiteful glares. He has never disguised his dislike for me nor my father who first wore these warrior clothes. Perhaps, he has earned some soul-shifting potion that has made him evolve into this lethal fighter. Even with my mind swirled with these thoughts, I am reminded of one thing: the Elder has never been a fighter. His cowardice had been laid bare before us the day his wife was taken by the Vultures ten years ago. But for his position in the Council that rules our land, only God knows how much of my wrath would have descended on him.

Bringing my mind back to this strange old man, I clean a bead of sweat from my cheek and tell him, with the straightest face I could manage, “I never said they hunted me.”

“No, you did not. But it is the truth.”

He smiles for the first time. His nose wiggles again, his eyes dancing with mischief. I avert his stare and start walking. Settling in by my side, he puts his arms behind him and continues his stories.

For a while, I lose track of his words. The fear of the Deryndon has all but vanished and I am left with a weird feeling in my gut. Although I had suspected it on the Red Road, it had taken brother Qaku’s words for me to realise that the Deryndon had been attempting to kill only me, even if it killed scores of innocent lives. Then, I had decided it the work of Bello, the guard who had wanted my head for the reward money. But Bello could not have survived our last fight. That dangerous viper was as good as dead when I left him in the forests of Doweenu.

The only explanation would be the sorcerer in Lodim to whom Ghost had sold my Heartstone. Yes, it had to be him. I feel stupid for having ignored the possibility early on. He must still be interested in getting his hand on me after I escaped from his tower with the stone. The thought brings a smile to my lips. The Deryndons should not be hunting men unless they have been forced against their wills by some evil forces. It is the only reason why I find them beautiful and gracious despite their thirst for my flesh; the only reason why the blue feather-crowned Deryndon would knock out the Bull Man, tear up his wing and carry him away to save me. And I remember the heart-breaking stare when one died in Kestabal, and the sadness I felt when my hunter was dealt a fatal blow by the guards on the Red Road. Nothing hunts me. No, mere awkward turns from normalcy. The thought disappears when I trip on a stone though, and my mind returns to Dendo and his story.

“…from a land beyond his unknown world, he receives a wearied visitor with nothing but the skin on his bones. His feet were blistered, and even his head had no hair.” Dendo ducks to avoid a looping branch. The wind grows cooler and the ground grows rugged as he leads me through the shadier parts of the track where mangoes and black berries are in bloom. When the wind stirs enough, I see the Dead Sea through the trees: a strait of black terrain cut from the mainland by a small lagoon.

“He was received by the great king as an honoured guest; no one had ever reached the king without his willing, and so he was excited to meet this one with, perhaps, more power than his. The king dressed him in fine prints and scented him like a bride on her wedding night. He fed this stranger red meat of the exotic tree-horned elk and sweet wine from the eternal palm groves, against the wishes of his confidant; a very wise confidant,” Dendo says, shooting up a finger.

“As they say, a guest is like fish. He starts to stink after three days. So the king went to his guest and sat cross-legged before him. The king said to the stranger: “Why don’t we declare our intentions to each other; what do you say?”” Dendo gawks and spits a wad.

“Can you imagine, let us declare our intentions! Well, what happened was, the stranger agreed. He offered the king a gift: a date from the king’s own farm. Heart-warmed from such a gesture, the king thanked his stranger and told him how he knew he wasn’t wrong despite the wishes of others, including… including his most trusted advisor. “As per my intentions,” said the king, “I would like to know what you are doing in my realm.” The stranger cleared his throat.”

Dendo looks at me. I look at him

“The stranger clears his throat. He straightens himself in his seat and watches the king straight in the face. He had the most sparkling whites in his eyes. His hair was short and trimmed to a levelness that revealed his black scalp, his ears pricked as a curious owl listens for the silent feet of her nocturnal prey. There was a mark over his brow that had not been there before. When he spoke, you could see from his eyes, even feel it in your blood, that he spoke from the bottom of his heart.” Dendo turns away.

“He told the king how much he was fascinated by great things, the beauty and the mystery of it. He would pray for the long-lasting life of this realm, for he knew no other king, born of men or spirits, who could ever grow a following as diverse and as great as this place. He very much worshipped the king with his words, blinking as a snake never does, exposing his smile in the beautiful ways reserved only for young girls.”

“He desired the king’s throne,” I say.

Dendo pinches his eyes and nods, speaking slowly. “Yes, it was that, though he never mentioned it. But yes, it was exactly as he meant it. The king, however, was not to know that. He was taken only by pride at those praising words, and he puffed and beamed as a superb bird dances in his desperate need for sex. He had been told that none outside his real world would know about him—”

“So how did he know it,” I ask. “How did the stranger find the realm?”

“That… that is not a part of the story,” Dendo says, a little irritated. “It just happened that it was, like once upon a time when tortoise and co flew, when the fowl and hawk were friends, when God’s words were a whisper on our necks… it doesn’t say how it happened and should not say it. It is beside the point.”

Dendo stops walking and plucks an apple from the bushes. He watches the green fruit for a long while, rubbing a thumb over it, his brown irises sparkling with deep thought.

“So the king says again: “Now, come, tell me your intentions.” The stranger smiles to the king, showing the whitest teeth ever allowed a once wearied traveller. His face was smooth as dark mud between a sculptor’s moulding hands. The king coughs and returns the smile, admiring, all the while, the pleasant features that was the generous stranger; the stranger who entered his realm without being noticed; the stranger who gifted a king with his own garden; the stranger whose words came from deep within his heart.”

Dendo bites into the apple. Juice runs into the grey-streaked stubble that has grown along his jaws. His steps within the shade is ponderous. He spits a seed and bites again at the fruit. I follow him with the sun over my head while he finishes the apple and swallows the middle of it. Dendo continues to walk, his sandaled-feet light on the green earth, the flowers thick in colourful sprawls, and with each step we get closer to the strait that leads to the cave.

At a point where the sun burns across the open grass, he turns to the strait and I see that his eyes are darker than they were. The browns are almost afire. He continues the story, his voice hard, his chest rising and falling as a shuddering keen rises on the wind.

“The king asked the question again. “Will you declare your intentions to me, for you can see I have been good to you?” Again the stranger smiled. His face was bright, as if a kind of life just descended upon his soul. The mark on his face deepened and revealed itself for what it was: There were stones etched across his brows, shining with the burn of naked flames in the night. His robe of white-gold flowed over his shoulders as water slithers down a pebbled floor, and his voice was of stone falling into a black pool. He said: “I just did, once noble king.””

Dendo’s eyes fall on me and I feel the drear sink into my stomach. His jaws are clenched, his body tensed and shuddering. The words force through his crashed teeth.

“And the wind came with a storm in the night. The sea rippled and boiled with mad waters. Howling foams rose with dripping fangs, and the world swirled and turned till it was a black space. The sky splintered and thundered. Stars fell, mountains quivered. The world fell into a terrible pit, far and away as history was from the sun. And there was a brooding monster in the hearts of men whose eyes saw the throne, and perceived the secrets lying in the ruins. They reached out with shivering fingers, and none returned who reached…”

A deep growl echoes from the shadows beyond. Two red eyes blink in the dark verdure behind Dendo. I lift a hand to tell him but the words choke in my throat. The thing emerges: a furry piece of the dark with knife claws and great chattering teeth. It leaps, all black clot of it, and then there is Dendo, once whole and shivering, now but a man sawed in half.

I trip and fall. A wordless cry escapes my lips.

The animal steps out of the shade and the sun breathes a sparkling hallo about its blood-matted pelt. The world seems to shimmy out of existence, leaving only those eyes before me, baleful, red as blood moons, those teeth, large as elephant tusks, with footfalls that shake the very heart in my breast.

I struggle to my feet. I turn. I run.

The beast starts after me. The ground trembles, the wind heats with the monster’s breath. The black earth seems an eternity away. The monster roars. I leap high, screaming, and then the water clutches me with cold, groping fingers. A huge splash rises and the tide half-drowns and half-carries me toward dry ground.

Finally, I look back to find the demon on the other side, the water silent between us. Steam dances from its jaws to wreath its eyes. Then it knocks its head back and screams a bloodcurdling howl. I step away, shivering. It licks a long snout and turns away, swishing a lazy tail. Stepping into the shadows, the beast becomes one with the dark.

Chapter 7

I stand beneath two arching pillars of stone with the black land they call Dead Sea panned out before me. The wind shifts between dark mountain shapes, drawing shadows from skeletal remains of men and beasts that lie in heaps on the barren ground. A turn in the wind leaves me with a nameless horror; the black wind gathers silt and thin bones in a storm and then splashes it against the cave of Anansi at the far end of the land. The cave, once looking like the gaping jaws of a black giant, morphs into something serpentine, fangs and coil and all.

I count the days in my mind and know I am a day away from full moon. And the sun is high. Yet, this shape-shifting of a world as desolate as it is black pokes me with fears at every feel of the wind. From south to north, the gale blows till it is a yard from the silent brine that surrounds the land. Then it vanishes into a trail before striking Anansi’s cave over and over again, leaving it with the bust of a wildebeest or a horse, or a thing I can’t put a name to.

Wiping a wet hand through my hair, I peel my sword from my back and step forward. Old bones crunch to dust beneath my boots.

A cackle.

I freeze, my body quivering with tensed muscles. The sound echoes through the world with a certain hilarity that makes the laugh boil in my stomach. A roll of laughter escapes my lips, and a shadow rises from the ground about me. Another cackle echoes across the land. I purse my lips to stop myself from laughing. Nothing of this place is funny yet the urge is there, roiling in my tummy and choking in my throat. A sound escapes me again, loud and terrible even to my ears. My voice reverberates about the land and cuts a spiralling path through the thick dark smoke that is engulfing the space. My eyes follow the journey till it disappears. Then the sun slides into a sheath of boiling clouds, and a queer evening descends upon the Dead Sea.

The world goes silent, the wind still between the mountains with their towering grim faces. The piles of bones are gone. The bare land opens up before me in an unending carpet of desolation. The silence deepens till I can’t hear the rhythm of my own heart. Nor do I hear the thing that slashes my torso bloody.

I gasp. Pain shoots through my right side as I wheel to, searching the crouching surfaces and the silent shadows that lurk within them.

It comes again, quick as a stroke of missed luck. This time it finds only my shielded left side and disappears.

“Come out and—”

I can’t hear my own voice. Fear grips me. Feeling for my ears, I am relieved to not find any blood, meaning this is sorcery rather than the onset of deafness. I set my teeth and crouch with one hand on the ground, listening, feeling.

I hear it.

And I wheel out of the way just in time. The dusk allows for only a glimpse of the tentacles flailing from its shadows. I hold my sword in a backhand fashion and keep my eyes on the shady mountains. Sweat stings my eyes. I dare not blink.

The thing breezes out of hiding and stings me before my sword lashes out. The shadow roars a soundless scream and halts, and the veil of illusion disappears to reveal a man dressed in rags. Mounds grow over my skin.

His eyes are pale green stones in an ashen rot of a face, with milk-white bone jutting from his chin. Snot spews from his nostrils, and a crown of red bandana flies behind the ghostly feature despite no wind stirring around us. He is neither tall nor short, nor is he large or small. His nature defies any depiction but I know one thing: this is a dead man come to life.

What do you want? It is his crackling of ring-bearing fingers that make me realise the thoughts are not mine.

The Jumper doesn’t trust his head. His voice is empty and echoing as the depths of a dry well.

It’s not full moon. You should not be here, I say.

He nods a head and smiles a toothless smile. The Dead Sea is not a laughing matter.

I remember hearing those words somewhere—

Yes, you do remember. But you are here, and you will be dead one way or the other.

I hesitate, realising finally that I have been walking, that we have been walking about in a mirror fashion, one leading, and the other following.

What do you want? Who are you?

He grins again, ear to ear. I am what you see and more, and I can give you all you want and more. Will you join my army? It will only take a short death.

Spooked by his words, I look about me. There is nobody but the two of us, in a world dead of sound and life. The land is grey, like the sky, like the space between the two.

I shake my head.

Well, you will die all the same, Deryndon-quarry! Yes, you will die, after the world has ended and your torture is over. Then will life leave you and your body brought to rest. He guffaws, filling my head with the sound of a rending hurricane.

I draw out baba’s sword. There will be no such thing.

The ghost king draws a long cleaver from his dancing robes. Its notched edges drip with bright red blood, his hand lost in the gaping mouth of a serpent which guards its hilt.

And then he is rushing to me in one gliding blur till our blades meet with a silent peal. A look of dismay colours his face. Where…who gave you this blade?

I force my own snarl. A dead man.

He thumps my chest with a foot and pirouettes away. His rags bite through the armadillo armour and into my skin. He grins and comes again, dancing a drunkard’s tip-toes, his blade weaving, his robes glancing and stinging through my defences.

I limp away as he swaggers toward me. His garb engulfs him in a shimmying glow. My escape is desperate, but my swing finally bites into decayed flesh and cuts a piece of his robe. It falls to the ground, its devilish sheen replaced by a deep green fabric with true golden seams. Then it crumples and disappears.

I see the evil in his eyes and grin at the understanding.

What happens when you kill a dead man?

He screams and attacks in a maddened frenzy. I slip through tight corners and behind rocks, and I slice at his robes until he is standing naked before me. The bush is thick under his armpit and between his thighs; his chest is a field of stab wounds. The ghost sets his toothless gums and glowers at me. Sweet-scenting blood streams down his lips.

You are a dead boy, Jumper!

I dip a knee and raise baba’s sword, my left hand raised parallel.

The ghost attacks; there is a riot of swords, and the blue fire that sparkles at each clash, and mama at the back of my head. I take my time to step away, skulk between the shadows, and never do I fall to the disgusting silence of a dead man, not even when he slices at my torso, or my shoulder. Not even when he pummels my head with the hilt of his sword and bloodies my face. I return as the shadow comes with the light, my sword a sharp edge on my arm.

I chase his death smell for the life it brings. I stoop at the waist and drive through his rib. He pushes me back but I return. Father’s sword sings a silent hymn, a dirge to the dead man who stands alive before me. I parry with sword and an arm. I taste my own blood. Feel his cold blood. I swivel, slashing his back. A painful yowl fills my head.

Do you give up? The dead man doesn’t give up. His red blood dots the ground about us but he still comes, limping, vengeful, and all I have to do is slash at his elbow.

The ghost stands before me, heaving, his pale green eyes burning with fire as his lips start moving. I hear words for the first time. Soft, they are, and then they turn hard. It reminds me of Azkan who murdered father. I remember the magic he did to deceive me in Kestabal. So I do not let him finish. I attack mid-verse, and the words scud into hiding with each jab and cut. His sword falls from his hand and bounces on the grey earth, a faint thud the evidence of his unsuccessful magic. He falls to his knees. In a swivel, I have his head. He collapses to the ground, very human, and very dead.

The next I see is the world splitting into a million shards. Bright light explodes over the horizon. And then there is a loud crash as if the earth has hit rock bottom. I fall, and then there is nothing but blackness.

Chapter 8

Popping sounds pull me out of my stupor. The Dead Sea is back to its former self with great steep-sided mountains towering into the darkened expanse. A smiling man-shape holds his hand aloft with a spear shooting through his chest.

As I struggle to my feet, I catch a glimpse of the cave. Surprisingly closer than it had been before, I realise the shape is of a fiendish spider with fangs framing its mouth and a large belly rested against the black earth. Eight long, wiry feet hold the stone-head above the ground, and a dozen torches gaze out at me like eyes from black crevices.

Another popping sound.

I jump, drawing my sword from the gaping jaws of a dead snake. A rushing wind brings a bone-dry coldness with it, causing a slight rustle in the ivory shells. Above me, the clouds peel to reveal a moon, and a dash of it envelops the man-shape with a devilish hue.

If my laughter raised that ghost king, then something or someone has cheated; that sleep had delayed me enough to meet the full moon. I quicken my pace toward my destination. More bones pop and explode, and it is almost too late before I see the spear. It misses me by a hair’s breadth, and the weapon turns to smoke just as it touches the ground. Turning, I find the man-shape a yard from me, drawing another spear from his chest. He swings it at me, and I block with baba’s sword. A deafening clangour ensues, and a stream of white light sprays into my eyes. The ghost sweeps me off my feet and follows with a jab. I just about roll out of the way and cut through his spear. The shaft splinters in his hand. He looks at me with a deep scowl, then he tilts his head up and calls to the moon. A shudder overcomes me at the echoing scream. High in the sky, the plump-bellied moon sits in a vast black heaven, and its rays cast the lands with white light. I remain on the ground gripped by its silvery spell as a dead army rises behind the lone ghost. It is when the ghost screams with pain that my gaze peels away. He twists his hand to his back and pulls out an arrow dripping with blood.

Springing to my feet, I sheath my sword and take to my heels. I roll on the ground to escape a wild cut. A giant shoots up before me, a huge club in his single arm. He slams it on the ground and the earth convulses and hurls me up in the air. I land with a painful groan, but I am back running, and ducking, and swerving through hoops of fire with bloodhounds in chase. Leaping over a wide gap in the earth, I cling onto a jutting stone from the cliff of Anansi. I parry an arrow with my left arm and kick at a ghost trying to climb after me. He falls and disappears into a black abyss.

My climb up is easy despite the steepness of the rise. At the top, I turn once again to see the devils poised in a battle of many armies. There are giants and men dressed in flowing robes, youths with bare chests and feet, women whose hairs harbour serpents and death-dealing spiders, and dwarves darting about in little clusters against all sides. Among them, I see a fire-breathing Deryndon, its scales of ivory lending it an even more ethereal feel. His tale lashes at an army of giants and burns their bones with white fire. Then the arrow finds his eyes and he collapses to the floor. It all begins again; souls die and souls rise, and an eternal battle rages on for another eternity.

I turn finally to face the cave. The entrance is framed with fangs of stone, and beyond it is pitch blackness. A warm wind sweeps from inside the cave, bringing with it the soft murmurs of people and the flute sounds of music. Pulling my sword out, I step to the cave’s mouth and peek through the dark. Nothing is visible but I perceive the sound has stopped. When I withdraw, it comes again, soft and inviting. Feeling for the ground, I step into the darkness, my heart in my mouth, sweat in my eyes.

A beam of light falls on me from the roof, leaving the rest of the cave still steeped in darkness. A voice startles me. I see a child tottering toward me. He is naked, and a single tooth grows on each of his gums. His black irises twinkle and his dark skin is smooth in the light when he reaches me. He grins.

“Want to come,” he asks, wiping drool from his lips.

I look from the melee behind to the impenetrable darkness that surrounds us. Uncertain, I nod, and he takes off into the darkness whence he came. I follow him with sword in hand. The ground slopes the farther we go, and I stumble over rock boulders before I see them. The child, though, strides through effortlessly, giggling and saying things my grown mind cannot understand.

A growl distorts the image of his words. I stand frozen, my grip hardening on my sword. The sound could not have been anything human. I spin to check if anything could have climbed up with me but there is only darkness. The child continues to prattle as he walks away.

“Hey, hey,” I call out but he can’t hear me. He sings and plods along, his feet growing heavy and distant.

I peer into the darkness with sword on the ready, breathing through my mouth. My body is clammy with sweat. I see the eyes first. Red. Burning. And then something snatches my sword. A shadow forms within the darkness: a hard black against the swimming dark. I see broad shoulders and a great neck. A large spear juts behind his massive frame.

I trip and I fall.

My back hits a wall. A massive hand stretches toward me. My heart thunders, my lips bloodied. Black claws flake my skin. I feel a stone, wield it, and am poised to hurl it when the child’s head appears.

“Boo,” he barks, cackling with gleeful abandon.

I lie down panting as he slides from the faceless beast and shoos it away the way a mother might do a pestering dog. The huge form turns and disappears, and when the last echo of his footfalls dies, the light floods the cave to reveal nothing like what I had imagined.

I am alone in a great hall with a ceiling decked in marbles of dazzling blues and greens. Pillars of gold and red-silver hold the domed roof high above me. The walls glimmer with rubies and sapphires, and a design is etched into each side the beauty of which is equal to a sky on a sunny afternoon. A spring bursts forth along one side of the wall, spewing cold water from the mouth of a blinking child. There is an elk with golden antlers drinking form the waters, its sheen a mesmerizing array of brown and white and black.

On the right wall, there are two murals: one shows an empty seat while monsters and warriors are locked in battle inside an arena, the other showing a man filling the seat with birds flying from his crown. The monsters lie dead at his feet, and the crowd cheers and throws him their children in sacrifice.

Suspended between two pillars is a large gourd adorned with gold and silver. I remember the story of how Anansi trapped the world’s knowledge into a gourd. He lost it, at least that was the story. Yet, there are a few other stories, told by drunkards and folk so old they were babies, which talk about his hiding it. He left it behind for his children, each one keeping guard on it till they too passed. And now it is in the keeping of the last of them.

“The Gourd of Wisdom,” a voice says.

I start. Beyond a lush carpet that turns gold as it leaves me, there is a tree throne with its knotted branches and deep green foliage. Fruit-bearing stems lean in an encircling embrace of sweet flowers and birds. Sitting in the throne is a beautiful man. His black skin is smooth as wet mud, a crown of stones tilted on his round head. He is sitting with his blistered feet draped over one side of the throne while picking at the seams of his crème-coloured garment. His toes are trimmed and polished.

“Who… you are—”

“Who am I,” he asks, his voice singing like a fingertip along a singing flute. “Who am I but the one alive? Mansa, Mansa asks. Left to rot and groomed by time. My eyes see beyond the world into the ends of it, and I taste little that I despise. Who am I, who am I, the Great, you will know. Oh, I know. I am a little riddle in a cave of black. Locked to the world and the dream of it. Whispered in darkness and feared in moonlight. Fear, I brood in their hearts, thirst, and lust, and a taste of the mystery, I spur them on. What am I, what am I? I am—”

“Anansi.” I blurt the word before I know it. The king’s head shoots at me, a wolfish grin playing on his lips.

“Right, very right. It could be many things too, Aldyn.” He accepts a drink from a lowering branch and tucks his legs beneath him.

“The love for your mother has brought you, am I right?”

I nod, unsure.

He twists his nose and regards me, the smile replaced by a pair of raised brows. His head moves in a way, and it takes some time before I realise he is following a white bug. He traps the insect in his cupped hand and admires it with a contented smile. Then he opens his hand and releases it, and watches the animal climb to the roof on a slim web.

“Shame, but I believe you mistake me for someone,” he says finally.

I look about to see if there is anybody else. We are surrounded by marvellous things and golden designs. There is nobody else, but Anansi has been known to be a trickster.

“I do not understand,” I say.

“What beats your mind, child?”

I hesitate. “You are Anansi, are you not? You are his descendant…”

He looks at me, squinting, and I perceive that he is sitting on a great throne looking down on me. I feel myself shrivel before him, my back arching till a cold touch causes me to shudder. I blink.

“You bother me,” he says. “It doesn’t please me to be bothered, do you understand?”

I swallow hard and wipe sweat from my face. Have I wasted my time by coming?

“Who…where is he? Anansi’s descendant should be here.”

The king points, and I follow his finger and find a man dressed in a long grey kaftan and matching slippers. His hair is streaked with grey, his dark face wearied and old, yet smiling. He looks like a happy old man.

“That is the one.”

The old man smiles at me and settles into a chair of woven canes, attacking a fat turkey at his table. When he tries to reach for the drink, he is restricted by large manacles.

“He is in chains,” I say, perplexed. “Why is he in chains?”

“Is it not obvious, Child of the Mountains,” the king says, looking away, yawning.

“He is your prisoner? But… how is that possible? This is supposed to be Anansi’s cave.”

“Well, since you have rocks for brains, I will tell you the obvious: somebody else has taken up residence.”

I am not sure of what to feel now. The old man swallows chunk after chunk of roasted meat. He licks the grease on his fingers and smiles at me when our eyes meet. He has large flappy ears and quick eyes. It must be him.

“You can free him though,” the king says. “You can free him with three tasks,” he adds, holding three fingers up.

Of course, there is no honey without bees. “What tasks,” I ask, desperate.

He pouts his lips. Raising his knees to his chest, he shakes his head and says, “I am not going to tell you what they are, Aldyn of the Mountains. You decide first if you wish to go on then we find out what the tasks are. If you refuse now, you are free to go and don’t worry, no ghost will stand in your path again. You have my honest intentions on that. Here,” he says, weaving his hand. A sword falls from the sky and plants point-first into the ground before me.

“A gift,” he adds.

I pull the sword out and realise it is mine. “You can’t gift a man his own sword.”

The king frowns. Turning away in a bid to avert his piercing stare, my eyes fall on the man gulping down wine. I remember mama, and sad thoughts about her plight rush through my mind. Have the Vultures fed her? Do they know she suffers a sickness in her heart, a sickness I had wished to cure with a piece of my own? Do they treat their prisoners with the care and luxury that I was treated to when I was arrested in Kestabal? Do they take care of her the way Anansi’s descendant is being served, like a king, even if in a house arrest?

I pray they do. Oh, I pray they do. For when I find mama and they have made her suffer, by the Hundred, the smoke of their pyres would lift the roofs of the skies.

“When I finish the tasks, he is mine.”

The prisoner nods, and pays me with a smile too friendly. “A wage of death.”

I accept it.

Chapter 9

I am led along a path that winds between dozens of cells. The prisoners inside are locked to their chairs with iron links, and each of them is attended to by a gaoler with a tall brush of hair slicing through the middle of his naked black scalp. The peacock-haired men carry a little knife and a sharp stick each, and a single ray of light from the roof illuminates the blood spots on the ground around each prisoner. The air reeks of human excrement and blood, and the prisoners stretch and fight against the restraints, a muzzle gagging their screams as they follow me with wild pleading eyes.

After a series of bends and corners, I look down at my guide, a dwarf with a crown of dried leaves, and ask him where we are going.

He looks at me with one gold eye and smiles. “Just like them all; quick to choose, quick to suffer. For the lucky ones, quicker to die.”

He gives a humourless chuckle and leads me on, his necklace of squirrel heads dancing against his little chest. His dress is a patchwork of straw and silk, dyed and splendid, gossamer threads and huge holes. He is blind in one eye and wears large olive boots that leave me wondering how he is able to walk in them at all.

Finally, we come to a place that looks like an outside world. There is an illusion of sunshine made possible by some white lights and many mirrors. A small fountain covered in mists sits in the middle of it crowded with one-eyed frogs and blundering blind birds. Black lions and huge hippopotami with lines of razor-sharp teeth wander about us. A huge mountain sits at the end of the city behind an avenue of acacia trees, forming a kind of boundary.

“Over here, quick one,” the dwarf says, beckoning with three fingers to the fountain. “You will pick one of the shiny stones and drop into the water. Whatever comes out, it is your job to bring back. A live one should do, but a dead one is equally fine. Now, any questions?”

I do not like this business of dead or alive. “What is it… what will I bring back?”

The dwarf king snorts and scratches his pointy nose. “Did he not tell you?”

I shake my head. “He only said I will know when the time comes.”

He lifts his small shoulders. “Shoo, go on then.”

He sees the hesitation on my face and sighs. “Look, child, there is no going back now. You have already come this far, and you know many things are not as they are supposed to be. You already chose this path, and I suppose there is something you hold dearer than your life that has made you make this choice, and you have seen that there are demons out there even when it is not full moon. So go on to whatever world it is you will be sent to. I am busy.”

I blink and look about me. “Another world? Where… how do I even come back?”

He steps back and begins to laugh. There is a moment when it seems he will go further, but then he stops, and his eye goes wild. He grips my hand with his three fingers, his fingers digging deep.

“Is there any sense in your head,” he demands. “Did you not see them? Have you gone mad?”

I pull my hand away. His fingers have left bruises.

“I need to find my mother,” I tell him. “Nobody knows where the cursed Vultures are and I need somebody with the knowing. The Gourd of Wisdom…the holder will show me.”

“Do not be a fool. Your mother is gone. No longer your responsibility.”

“She will always be my responsibility,” I scream.

The dwarf steps back. His shoulders fall and his head bows. When he starts to speak again, his manner is solemn.

“At the beginning, he would see to the ritual himself because he believed they would be able to return with the prizes. He would gift them strong bows and swords with which to fight whatever evils they saw out there. With time, he came to understand the futility. Even then, he has become a kind fellow, keeping the ghosts in check so they do not all fall on the traveller.”

He looks up at me and I see the scar wounds above both eyes. He was blinded before, I realise, in both eyes. Now, he has an eye of gold for his efforts.

“I will tell you the password, but I will also tell you what I told many others. Do not use it if you do not succeed. Stay there… live there till death takes you. You might not be able to fulfil the task, but do not try to come back empty-handed. It… it will be too much.”

I understand his advice all too well but I have no choice but to succeed. Mama’s saving relies on my success. The dwarf hesitates for a while. He purses his lips and then nods.

“Mansa the great; say it three times and you will be returned… he is of the old world.”

I turn to the scattered stones, and as I bend down to pick one, I begin to hear words.

Pick me. I am the one you need. Don’t let me stay here, please. Please come to my aid. Damn you, Luckster, you better choose me if you know what is good for you.

Then there is one of them; a whisper among the screaming lot. I fight through the cacophony of voices and let it come to me; a voice, a song, and nothing of it makes me doubt the words that come to me. How much do you love mama?

With my eyes closed, I reach out and pick a stone not unlike the others. The voices turn to a grumbling before they all quieten. The warm stone has a crack that divides it into two. There are stripes across it of varying shades.

I toss the stone into the pool and the mist disappears to reveal clear blue water. Bubbles boil over its surface and rise into the air, and then they burst open to reveal only air. One of them lingers. It becomes bigger, and a faint image forms inside it. I glimpse a series of golds and blacks.

“What is it,” I ask, not taking my eyes from the thing.

“You have till sunset,” the dwarf says.

The thing looks like a fly, a green bottle fly with black and gold stripes. And it is very huge. Its wings flap with dizzying speed. The sound. It’s so familiar I can feel it in my heart. The bubble grows. The image is clearing up. My palms become sweaty. My lips quiver.

“Jella. It’s a bee!”

Chapter 10

The world falls away in a blink, and I find myself in the midst of darting birds and a flowery valley. Mountains crash through the blue sky, spitting clouds that are white as floating milk. A swift river slithers through silent bends and pours rushing waters in a mighty fall, filling the valley with rainbow-imbued foams. The wind tastes of honey and flowers. Beyond a lone mountain to the west, the sun’s face bears a reddish glow.

The bee I saw was a great golden sting, probably the largest in any colony there is. To survive the first horde of attack from the workers, I will need to cover the naked skin on my right side and get enough smoke to drive away the other bees.

It doesn’t take long for me to spot another stream sheltered by Bushwillows on the northern side. I find a group of impalas drinking form its pool, oblivious to the large crocodile whose snout sits in the water like a dead log. I crouch and wait as the log floats toward the innocent animals. And it comes just as lightning strikes: there is a splash of water, an impala leaps into the air, squealing and thrashing, the jaws snap and close shut, and the pool, once green and still, ripples with red air bubbles. No sound is heard apart from the rushing hoofs of the frightened antelopes.

When they reach me, I strike with deadly accuracy, slashing through the neck of the closest animal. The valley becomes filled with a din of calling calls. Monkeys hoot and leap from mango trees, elephants scream into the air, and the birds squawk and shrill with deafening accusation.

I set to work immediately and skin the dead animal. Washing the blood at the shallow end of the stream, I stitch them to my armour and make my way to where the brightest flowers form a bed of gold and red.

Their stalks waver in the rushing wind, their movement lulling me with thoughts of home. As my gaze lingers at their slender stems and choreographing petals, one face remains like a burn inside my mind. I see Zangi with her mocking smile. Her hair is woven into black spires and cresting butterflies, her black skin embalmed by the orange sun as it enshrouds her. I hear her loud giggles in the bubbling waters and see her eyes in a dozen colours that flood the valley.

Zangi has been my sister since my father made her our family. That was long before we could speak or understand the world into which we had been born; a world where the man represents his family when marauders strike; a world where those without representatives are left at the mercies of evil men. With his passing, the responsibility of her protection fell on me. We’ve had wicked days together, Zangi and I. We’ve fought, we’ve made pranks, and we’ve eaten from the same bowl of the same pounded yam every night in mama’s hut. The thought of her safety brings a smile to my lips, and then the image is smeared by the face that is Kaenoldyn’s.

The usual flaring anger of meeting him is suppressed by a tiny fact that suddenly rears its head before me: a small black bee rises among its more colourful members, reminding me of why I am on this journey at all. It was my failure, the failing to protect mama and Zangi that has led me to this place. And whether I despise him or not, Zangi is now in the protection of Kae. He will protect her, I tell myself. Kae will protect her as much as I would. Well, almost.

I smile at the thought.

A sudden turn in the wind causes a rise in the honey scent. A few strides later, I am looking on a farm of busy insects. Darting from one red flower to a yellow one, their buzzing display appears like a charade. They fly from the shadowed groves beyond and go straight to a particular type of plant. None of them moves from one red flower to a yellow one, or from a purple to a green petal.

I make myself a low-burning torch from a stick among the shrubs. Walking cautiously through the beds, the insects struggle to escape the smoke spewing from the fire. A lot of them fall to their deaths as they flee, forming a death trail into a rock enclave hidden in the area south of the land. I follow a line of larger green-backed bees into the heart of the stone.

The roof disappears into the darkness above me, and the spaces, surprisingly, are large enough for me. My first quandary arises where the cave splits into six sections, each entrance just as large enough to squeeze through. I linger, unsure of which path to take.

A sudden buzz jolts me from my indecision. Panic grips me as I try to push a bee away from my shoulder. The bee glues to me, and I feel its hairy feet digging into the hide. I fall to the ground and roll over several times. It smashes under my weight and splashes a sour liquid against my face. My breaths are hard, and I lie down for a moment and watch the last wisps of smoke disappear into the high roof.

My mind goes back to the vision of the man the day I was attacked by the Bull Man. I try without success to put a reason on my seeing him. Even then, I recall seeing him in chains and guided into a prison of sorts. That means there is a world out there somewhere, a world that is not magical but as real as a Deryndon, and dangerous.

It is the whistling sounds of their wings that draw me back, and I spring to my feet and grab the torch. It has fallen to a glowing red-head, and an angry swarm of blue bees is rushing toward me. I blow hard and fast against the ember. It burns and dies. The bees come in an arrow formation. I retreat, tripping, falling, and jumping to my feet. They are on me when I swing the torch. A tongue of flame flares up, roasting a bee that had strayed too close. One by one they fall to their ends while the smoke steals through the cave.

While these ones come to their quick deaths, I realise a group that lurks only in the dark, retreating in slow deliberate movements. Their eyes glow in the dark and their wings, though almost black, are striped with a form of light that illuminates and dims in grades of silver. And they are large as swallows. Their brooding postures cause me to draw baba’s sword.

It’s as if they’ve been waiting on my making the first move, and one darts forward in a zigzag trail. My blade finds its belly in two swings. The others come through the dark, flapping large wings in a zipping speed, and I dispatch three of them in a go. I kick another into the wall, and duck in time to avoid a sting aimed at my neck. As I rise, I hear the sound of a bee stealing from my rear. I stay still and gauge with the corner of my right eye. When I swing my sword, I do it in a measured cut that doesn’t touch the animal’s head or belly. It slices the sting off, and the bee flies about in a mad trajectory before crashing into a stonewall.

The others retreat. Believing they will lead me to the queen bee, I jog after them. Their lighted wings lead me to a giant doorway with a dipping roof. There are two paths ahead now, one leading to a chamber on my right, the other heading leftward. The bees glide through the right and as I approach it, I begin to hear distinct muffled sounds. My instinct tells me I am not heading for the queen bee, and it doesn’t take long for me to realise it.

Before me are hundreds and hundreds of drones decked in grey-white wings. They hover in the air in a formation, spreading out like the many pieces of a monster-bird. A thousand death points hang behind them as the head regards me with dozens of blazing eyes. I swallow a loud gulp and step back. The giant bird-bee glides through the air, tilting in a manner to allow it passage through the doorway.

I stumble over dead bees in my rush, losing my torch in the process. Rising, I am met with another swarm of bees closing the path I had just come through. I jab and kill many of them, but the rest just stay out of range, attacking only when I come closer. To my side, the great shape approaches, singing with each cubit of air it covers. I am desperate in my flight, and I squeeze myself through the last small opening in the wall from which I perceive a stream of sunshine. The bees stop to form a curtain in the path behind me when I enter.

Falling stones hang from the domed roof in a place as large as the king’s palace. Bones litter the floor of the cave in disintegrated patches of limbs and skulls and ribs. Nestled among the skulls and bones is a colony of bright yellow pupae that give the chamber its glow. As if sensing my presence, they start a chorus of squeaks and cackles with their large pincer jaws. They rise from their eggs like yellow wraiths on faltering wings, each one armed with an oversized sting that rolls and thrashes behind it.

Wheeling around, I realise the blue drones have not moved. I set my teeth and rush at them, slashing with hard vicious cuts. Each fallen bee is replaced by another. And the surprise for me is that they do not attack me even as I stand in their midst and break their defences. They hover above the ground, one sliding into a vacated post with the silent buzz of a dedicated soldier.

I leave the protective curtain and turn to the little jaws that crawl toward me, my breath pushing hard in my chest. There is only way out of this place, and it lies at the very end of the chamber where hungry jaws are clamouring for my flesh. As I lift my hand, Baba’s sword scratches the wall. The familiar smell of cinder gives me an idea.

I search through a pile of bones and find the remains of a nest. I cover my lower face with it. The stench makes me gag, but I resist the temptation to take it off. Then I strike hard against the wall.

The fire leaps into the air like a sorcerer’s ball, orange, blue and a little tinge of green. It latches onto a crawling hatchling that gets too close. The bee writhes and screams an ear-jamming note as the fire eats through its skin. The struggle leads to another one catching fire, and then another, until the chamber is finally ablaze. When I look behind me, the iron curtain hangs its ground, unperturbed even as they fall to their deaths from the fumes. Their silent commitment irks me, and I hurl a ball of flames in their direction. The fire carries up to half a dozen with it, scorching through their ranks the way a wrecking fireball does. The hole is quickly plugged by more bees.

Back in the cave, the fire eats everything that lives, and the smoke chokes and stings my eyes. When the first boulder falls from the roof, I know it is my time to escape this place. With father’s sword, I lunge into the chamber and shred the nestlings that do not succumb to the blaze.

With scorched brows and heavy lungs, I labour through the poisonous fumes to reach the safe end. Beyond it, in a dim chamber, sits the Queen Bee and her guards.

Chapter 11

The Queen’s Guard is a crescent of flickering colours. Their stings hang like swords twisted to the air, death-dealing in their promise. Sitting in a throne of human bones and dead drones, the Queen Bee is regal and terrible. Her sting is black as death, her feet coiled with razor-lined hairs. There is a crown of antennas about her lofty head and a wicked bend to her fangs.

The first bee attacks before I take my eyes off the queen. The sting finds only my armour though, and I squash it with the flat of my sword. The next one, I slice through its abdomen and then turn to face the onrushing insects. Baba’s sword leaves my right hand for my left as I keep them at bay with a spin on my heels.

I am not through with the dozen when the Queen Bee stirs from her repose. She has skin the colour of a black-striped late afternoon sun. Her silent hyaline wings shred through her line of defence, shinning with faint, quivering crystals. They rain down in chopped slices, but the queen never takes her purple-burning eyes from me. The dark gems follow me with a malicious stare, her body stealing up toward me.

She hawks a slimy paste at me just as I back out of a trap in the wall. A hissing sound over my shoulder tells me I have been hit and sooner than I realise, the armadillo begins to melt under the foul liquid. I fumble with my sword and manage to peel off the disintegrating slab just as the first burns touch my skin. Another wad is shot at me. I duck, and it whistles over my head.

A chase ensues between the two of us with me stepping between pillars to avoid her acidic spittle. Using a jutting stone as leverage, I leap into the air and slash her on the side. The mother bee squeals and reels, and her flailing sting slaps across my chest and sends me crashing to the floor. I fumble through the hide and find to my relief that I have not been stung. She spurts another wad at me, and I lose my sword in my desperate escape. Hanging between the blade and me, she starts to wag the tail over her head. I stare at the spinning black length, hypnotized by its swirling motion until I feel the clamp on my sides.

Her jaws crash against my shoulders. Tiny pin-sized teeth snap at my flesh. A breath of hot air hisses through them, the stench causing me to hold my own breath. She tries to poke me but her sting is a head short. Her slit eyes focus on me, and they begin to swirl and whirl in circles, gripping me in a dark reverie. A pinch brings me back to life. Shutting my eyes, I shake my head to rid me of the trance. I force my feet on her lower fangs and try to keep them from closing. I pause, panting, my eyes closed. The bee rocks and swings herself to destabilise me but I keep my feet muscles tensed, never losing my grip. Perspiration and blood stream down my body. She crashes me against a wall. I scream as debris rain on me, the dust choking out my breath. Her fangs escape my feet and begin to clamp against me again. They cut through my armour and bite into my flesh.

Sucking in a deep breath, I force my vambrace against one fang, my covered shoulder backing against the other. And with a scream and body shuddering effort, I force the upper pincers wide till there is a snap. She squeals and hurls me to the floor. The released pressure causes a spasm of pain through my shoulder. The Queen Bee is on me again with her sting, digging holes in the ground in a desperate attack. Sweeping a hand over the floor, I grab my sword and swing it. The blade meets her sting in a metallic click. When she comes again, I let the sting slide off my left shoulder. Then I leap high and slash just right, catching a crystal-burning wing at the base.

She lands on her feet screaming and thrashing. Stopping to catch my breath, I watch her jump into the air. Her broken wing hangs limply to one side while the other beats at the wind without success. She hops again, hangs for a moment, and then collapses to the ground. Then, with a terrible cry, she hurtles toward me with an ominous glare in her dark eyes. Her knife-hairs strike out against my sword, fangs pinching and scratching across my face. Falling to the ground again, I scramble through her legs and slash out at her rear limbs. She screeches and lashes out with her tail, brushing it across my left shoulder. The bee is wobbly when she wheels about. She hawks and jabs at me, but her efforts are hindered by her wounds. I sidestep the danger with little effort.

As I watch her sway on her weak feet, I catch a glimpse of the dead drones lying about. It is a scene of butchered limbs and ended lives. The smoke, wafting over their dead bodies from the outer chamber forms a pall across the empty roof, and mother bee’s howls and thrashes cast a spectral relief over the motionless insects. It’s the picture of a ghost arriving at the ground of her massacred people, a reality I have lived with all my life.

For a while, I am back in Sharkney watching the dead among my brothers and mothers. Azkan’s men are gathering their loot and slaves to journey into unknown lands. As they march away singing and hooting, one of them turns to face me. Her hands are bound before her, her face smeared in blood and tears. The Vultures jerk at her hands. Mama stumbles and falls…

Then I feel it on my neck: a needle point digging into flesh. The sword falls from my hand, a gasp escaping my lips. My eyes bulge. I clutch my neck and pull the bee out. Heat rises to my chest. I lean against a wall to stop my fall.

A sting in my rib, through the impala hide. I cry out. My head pounds, my heart races. The world spins, shatters, and then merges into a pair of dark moons.

Jella. I fall to my knees, my breath heavy. My chest barely lifts, and it is with trembling hands that I clutch baba’s sword.

Her sting brushes my back. I try to lift my arm but fail. The needle-point pushes through the hide. A horrible tingle dances up my spine. I can feel her poison over my skin. It is warm. Burns. Tickles.

She pushes it through the skin.

I gasp.

It goes deeper. Deeper. My lips tremble. Tears roll from my eyes.

Further, the sting goes. The heat spreads across my chest. There is so much pain the cry chokes in my throat. The sword is at my fingertips, falling. I stare into her slit eyes and see a reflection of myself: a feeble boy in an oversized dress.

Mother Bee pushes further, slowly. Blood drools down my chin. Her wing is healing, and it is the most beautiful thing I have seen. The translucent surface unfurls into a round-edged sail, shimmering like sunlight through a blade of diamond. A smaller, half-leaf-shaped pennon spreads behind it, pulsing like the other with veins the colour of sprinkled gold. The brilliance of the sight grips me as the beating wings dissolve into a blur of flickering light, painting the air with crystals and gems.

Then she jerks me up and the pain distorts the view, lifting me so I hang as bait before her hungry, snapping jaws. The breath leaves me as new fears seep into my consciousness.

For the second time I have failed. I have failed baba in his parting wish. If I had any hope before, now I know she is gone. Jella, mama is gone.

A sense of emptiness fills me, crowding all my inhibition, blanking out the pain and beauty before me. It dashes my hopes and clouds my thinking. There is nothing before me but my own death, a brutal end that is pretty even as it gnaws at my life.

I embrace this end.

Hold it between my teeth with a fierce, trembling clench of my fist. I grab the death wish in my hand and lock it there, trapping it so there is no space for escaping air, or thoughts, or any such things that will make me plead for my life.

No, it’s over now. I jam the broken dream upwards with a force that tears the scream from my throat. Blood and juices squish and splash in my face, blinding me, and a shriek batters my ears and draws the blood from them, and I am hurled against a wall where I slide to the ground, my eyes closing…

“Mansa…”

Chapter 12

“You should be dead.”

…or on my way to death. Yet, here I stand before the man who sent me into the devil’s lair. My wounds have healed. The dented plates on baba’s armour have been replaced with full discs of armadillo hide. The armour glitters in the single bar of sunshine that streams through the roof, the leather trousers fresh as life. A long-sleeved leather shirt has been stitched to my bare right side, fitting seamlessly into a gilded vambrace. My hair has been combed and scented, my beard arranged in a shape I can only imagine.

“How did you do it,” he asks, fumbling with a drink from the serving branches. “How does one not die from the sting? Tell me, Aldyn, what are you?”

Funny that he would ask me this question now. “You seemed to know a lot about me.”

He shakes his head and bites into a thick mutton.

“Of course, of course, Aldyn. But I can’t understand how it happened.”

The last I remember is me falling after I’d pushed the sword into the Queen Bee. The mess that became of her head returns to me now, and I cringe. I draw out father’s sword at the thought and find its blade sharp and oiled. The runes on it flourish in the sun, the red hand ripe with black scriptures.

I look at the king and see his eyes wild with excitement. His breaths are quick and shallow and the way I see it, it’s almost a matter of time before he begins to rub his palms together with glee. He can barely sit in his throne, what with the wriggling of his toes like a cripple finally healed of his illness. But that’s not all; I sense some differentness about him. It’s as if he’s grown older… or younger. His skin has become smoother. His teeth are an impeccable set of ivories, but at the corners of his eyes, I see an age older than his boyish excitement. The crow feet are deep with unfathomed wisdom, or pain.

“What happened to her?”

The wizard pauses. He firms his jaws and scrutinizes me with bold eyes. Then his chin relaxes and he smiles.

“Stop saying her,” he says without humour. “You killed the bee; a thing with death in its spittle. You have succeeded in your very first action…”

He leaves the rest unsaid. Turning, I find the dwarf in a corner looking out with a wild eye.

“Come, come now,” he says, beckoning to the dwarf. “There are two more to go, and then you can leave.”

The dwarf pushes a spike-wheeled cart with a basin of frothing water into the wizard’s hall. A few stones have been ordered into a tray that is sitting next to the basin. The dwarf steals glances at me as he lifts the tray and offers it to me. I try to discern a manner in the way they are laid. My mind tries to recollect the previous pattern, the words, the sighs, but nothing comes.

“Take as much time as you wish, Aldyn,” the wizard says, squatting on his throne, grinning and panting.

And so I step up and draw a random rock from the lot and drop it into the water. It makes a splashing sound, and then the castle is gone and I am alone in another world unlike where I hunted the Queen Bee.

The image was that of a snake. Growing up in the forests of my home, snakes have hardly bothered me, not as much as the cats have. But given the size of the mother bee, I am certain the size of this one will be beyond my imaginations.

The plain before me is thick with bush and tall shading Marulas. A section on my left wavers in the thin wind and from inside it, I sense a brooding darkness that causes my skin to crawl. I steer clear of its hooded evil. Not far out, I find a colony of mongoose giggling among themselves. A few of them stand like sentries gazing up in the distance. As I come closer, they bare their fangs but quickly disappear at the sight of my sword. Everybody knows death, I tell myself as I watch the glint on baba’s sword. I have never been able to decipher its message. Once, I asked baba about its meaning and he told me, “A sword is meant to protect, not to record kind words.”

As I stare at the sun balanced neatly on the sword, my eyes catch a few broken twigs on the ground.

A track.

Following it, I come to a bend where a large entrance sits high above the ground. I put my sword between my teeth and heave myself over. When I look back, I realise the mongoose had been looking in this direction. Some of them are back, their excitement palpable as they watch me.

A faint glow guides me through the corners until I come onto a dozen eggs nestled in a bed of broken twigs and clay. Each one is as large as my head, with the hair. I run a hand along them and feel life moving inside them. The shell twinkles with strange shades of colour, giving the whole cave a star-lit night-sky appeal.

A slithering sound drags me from my imagination, and I know the snake is returning. I move away from the nest, causing as much noise as I can. Her hisses follow me into a large section where a giant tree sits with its canopy poking outside the rocky cave. When I finally see her, a smile breaks my face.

She is a great monster, spanning enough length to overwhelm my mind. Her skin pulses with crusted gems. She wavers with a gentle gait and leaves a shedding of sparkling stones in her wake. On her head there is a crown of green bone. It twists with the shape of her body, a glowing pearl nestled between the juts. There is deep concentration in her red eyes. For a long breath we stare at each other, my sword in hand, and then she props up from her slippery coils. She tastes the air with a forked tongue through hooked fangs. I blink and wait for the right moment to slay her, but she just watches me, tasting the wind, tightening her coils.

Her leap is swift.

All I get to do is twist my shoulder and she is whistling past me like a bolt of light. I pitch my sword as I somersault to avoid her lashing tail. There comes a terrible hissing sound, and the snake breaks into a wall and collapses into a crater. Cradled in a deadly grip is a spider the size of a bull. Thick slime oozes from its broken bones as the snake crashes it for the last time before relaxing into her own death.

I am speechless. The snake just saved me. I fall to my knees with a hand over my mouth while the stones dim with each drop of her blood. Another sound reaches me, and I understand it before I rush to the scene.

The cave is swarming with screeching mongooses feasting on unborn foetuses. They gorge on the little things with devilish relish. I chase them away but there are too many of them. As the last eggs are crashed, darkness descends inside the cave like a death-bringing cloud. It is not fear that makes me call out his name. Nor is it sadness or pity…

Chapter 13

“You… you look like you want to be angry,” he says through a mouthful of berries as I lift my stare from the sword at my feet. “Is there something you want, Aldyn? Here, have something to eat. Drink from the fountain that drives away all bits of pain. Sleep… yes, have a rest in the bed of ostrich feathers. No, you want a garden? There is a place I can take you, Aldyn; the wind never hisses nor howls. It flows only as the body requires, sweeping dreamily through the meadows with the smell of blooming flowers. Come—”

About me, the world turns and changes as he blurts the words. First, there is a table of exotic meats and drinks, then there is a bed of white feathers that stretches beyond the horizon. A sylvan bower overlooking a quiet waterfall springs out of nothing, shaded only by the high-arching trees with flowers and fruits and singing birds.

None of these excites me. If it were comforts I sought, I wouldn’t be here in a dreaded cave killing innocent lives. Before I can tell him my mind, the wizard raises a hand and points. “Are you trying to clean the marks,” he asks.

I pause in trying to clean the sweat from my face. Then, touching the two marks on my face tenderly, the furrows remind me of home, of a pair of slits in our bamboo enclosure through which we kept eyes on mama and baba while we picked meat from the soup. Everybody in Sharkney has one on their left cheek. But mama gave me two. The thought brings a smile to my face

“I can wipe it off for—”

“That is my business, wizard.”

He stiffens. His eyes become dangerous slits. “You will call me Mansa,” he roars. The walls tremble, the leaves of his throne rustle.

But I stand my ground. “I will call you what you are, wizard.”

He is amused when he speaks again. “You seem to forget where you are, child?”

I offer him a smile of my own. “And you seem to forget who I am.”

His brows lift. His smile deepens. “And what is that, mama’s boy?”

I pick my sword from the ground. His eyes dance as they follow me. I sheath the sword silently at my back.

“You should know that, wizard.”

He doesn’t get it at first, and so he allows himself to laugh. His voice booms and rolls against the marble walls. The wizard drools and rocks on his massive throne with its gay flowers and singing birds and fluttering insects. A certain breed of excitement permeates life within his palace.

But the effect doesn’t last. He finally looks up at me through tear-filmed eyes and sees me. Truly sees me. With twitching eyes and mounting disbelief. Now, I smile, a mere curl of my lips to the side to convey, without delusions, the certainty of my convictions. The mockery and laughter dissolves from the wizard’s face. Anger takes him the way a storm wrecks through a deck of cards. His throne withers about him, feeding him with even more rage, with even more fuel for this wretched turn his face has taken; a vein splits his furrowed brows in equal halves, and his lips peel into a snarl to reveal teeth filed into fangs. The birds flee his darkening throne as if from a nest-raiding serpent.

Jella, I taste fear in the air. I can hear the breaths whizzing in and out of his nostrils. He clenches his fingers around the arm rest. His jaws ripple, the colour of his robe changes from gold-white to something like the colour of congealed blood, and then he is truly angry. The wind about us is stale and a grim cloud settles over us.

“You bite more than you can chew, child,” he warns. His voice is grating, like a broken flute on the lips of a donkey.

I do not reply.

For a long while his eyes wander away from me. He scratches his beard with fingernails that have suddenly grown longer, stealing glances at me. He is panting, angry.

Finally, in a voice that is so quiet it seems he doesn’t want me to hear, he asks me, “What do you want?”

I do not hesitate. “I want to see them.”

His head snaps at me. A rumble flows through his bared fangs. I do not know when the tentacles grab me.

They squeeze tighter than the Queen Bee ever did.

A bone crunches in my rib. I cringe. But I do not fight it, nor do I let my eyes leave him. I let him watch the pain in me, let him see the life steal out of me. No screaming. No begging. Just silent suffering in plain sight of a desperate wizard.

The tentacles tighten.

They lift me off the ground. My vision blurs. My breath chokes. Coldness seeps into my chest till I begin to think if I will regret this. I begin to wonder if I said too much, showed more insolence than I should… and then he lets out a thunderous roar.

“Leave us.”

The ropes uncoil with a suddenness that causes me feel my chest will burst open. I fight to not appear desperate with my breathing while I crouch on the ground, my body drenched in sweat. My right arm is numb. The wizard’s eyes do not leave me, and his fingers weave from his chair till I feel my strength return to me. Climbing to my feet, I spit a wad of blood to the ground and wipe my mouth.

“There they are,” he says, pointing.

When I turn, I find myself facing three giant pillars in a cavern of a room. The Queen Bee and the snake are hoisted on two of the pillars with a strange fire hovering about them. Bits of flesh leave their skins and collect into another three-point star suspended in the air above them. Jerks in their bodies tell me they are still alive. They are being tortured while their souls linger at the throes of death.

“What is this,” I whisper to nobody in particular. But the boy is there again, and he hears. His face has the hard features of an angry man, his two baby teeth sinking into bloodied gums. When he talks, I sense a sizzle through my body.

“No ask, only do,” he says in a voice that is growing more like a child’s blabber. Then he turns and walks away, but not before he stumbles and strikes his head against the floor. He lifts himself up mumbling and cursing, his footing more tottering than they were when I entered.

I turn to the animals. My heart goes to them in a manner that shames me. What right have I got to be sad? I put them there. I have taken them from the comforts of their homes, their peaceful homes, and brought them to the edge between pain and death. Rather than let them slip away into death, they hang lifeless yet with life, powerless but with energy that feeds into something which could only be evil.

I should end their suffering. Yes, it is the right thing to do. Looking about at the cavern, I stop short at a sudden realisation: I want to see mama again. I want to find her and cure the illness in her heart. I wish to make her happy, protect her like I promised my father. This is unfair…

I close my eyes to shut out the thoughts but I feel no relief. My shoulders are heavy with the burdens of my past, and my murders, and a future I am not certain of. With my head bowed, I open my eyes and look down at my feet.

Father’s boots shine through my clear eyes. The leather pants clutch to my thighs, and the armadillo armour glistens along my side.

And my hands, they are clean. The fingers are trimmed and polished. Bad things have been done by them, but here they are without a speck of guilt. Without a scar. Bloodless.

The deadliest of evils are not the unsheathed swords and marauding giants. The vilest and unholiest are those that lurk among the innocent, silent, quiet, even pretty. In their own little unseen ways, they leave behind a litter of death and pain the size of the world’s oceans. It is this I see in my hands.

I close my eyes to the deceit of my hands and say a prayer. Baba used to say it whenever he was in doubt. I repeat the words in my mind, hearing baba say them while he put on his armour, hearing mama respond while she did his straps. And I speak to God with the hope that he hasn’t forsaken me. I pray I haven’t neglected Him enough for Him to leave me.

“God, disposer of our affairs, guide me in my steps. Choose for me the right course to follow. Wield my sword in Your mighty hands and slay the evil one. God who sits on high, make my choices a source of guidance.”

My eyes are still closed when the child tells me it’s time.

Chapter 14

The crisp green foliage of the Tree Throne is shaded a fervent yellow, and litters the lush carpet with fingers of a yellow plague. The branches are twisted and withering, the darkness on them peeling away to reveal a blacker trunk. The air is crisp with a bitter taste.

But the king…

His eyes jerk from here to there as if he is watching a game of mice. His lips utter words beyond my hearing. I watch him with mild worry, wondering if he somehow understands the doubts touching my own heart.

“You said it was time,” I say.

He peels his stare from where the Gourd of Wisdom is suspended and faces me. Above his eyes and between his light eye brows, there is a scythe-shaped bruise. It is a fresh wound, I realise when he touches it with a cloth and it comes back bloody. It is then that I understand what has been going on.

“It’s you,” I mutter.

He doesn’t understand.

“Jella, you are the child.”

He gives me a humourless grin and raises his shoulders.

“You are not a fool after all, Aldyn,” he says, “and it makes me wonder.”

He lies. The wizard doesn’t wonder. He is afraid.

His narrowed eyes might be scrutinizing me to know if I will hold to my word or usurp him. The wizard is scared of a mountain boy. I nearly chuckle, but his fear gets me thinking. I look from him to the floating gourd and see a thousand possibilities behind the golden cork. Is it possible? Could I use this power and the wisdom that comes with it to find mama? My mind journeys beyond the Dead Sea to lands I have never known. I fly across continents to the faraway world, leaving behind carnage in the lands of the evil ones who bring misery to poor people.

My mischief gets the better of me as I turn to the wizard. His teeth sparkle in the darkness taking over his throne. His sideburns form spikes digging into neat stubbles along his jaws. Firm shoulders rise and fall with his breathing. Strange stones glimmer across his brows, and rings burn with lively glints on his left fingers. He looks a king in the elements of his rein, yet there is something holding him back; an invisible barrier that is palpable in its hindrance lurks at the corners of this perfection, much like scratches on a bar of gold made visible under a magnifying lens. My roving eyes finally rest on the smoothened heels of his dangling feet.

I gasp at the realisation. “You can’t get out of the chair—”

The hand grabs my throat before I see the bear-faced monster. He squeezes and lifts me up, his stare burning. I claw and pummel his hand as the darkness encroaches my sight. He tightens, and I hang up there fighting for breath.

“As you can see, I don’t have to leave my chair to touch you, mama’s boy.”

For many breaths I begin to understand the pain the victims of my actions are going through. The grip allows me just enough air. He is not trying to squeeze the life out of me; he is punishing me for mocking him. I open my mouth to speak but manage only a croak. I pray he hears my thoughts and knows I am at his mercy. I would beg him, kiss his feet, carry him at my back even, if only he would stop. For I have my ways, and he has his ways, and between us, I understand it is better to stay alive than mock a desperate wizard.

Slipping from consciousness to darkness, I tap on the sturdy muscles of my captor and beg for mercy. Mansa gestures with his left hand, and the monster releases me, disappearing into an image at the far corner of the hall. I am breathless. The world swells and shrinks till it is just right. When I look up, there is Mansa standing on shaking feet.

The branches reach out to him with dying leaves. Veins shoot through his eyes as the skin on his face crumples and hollows out into an old man’s features. His gown thins into moth-eaten rags, and his limbs shrink till there are only stumps at the ends. He stares at me with the evil wink of secret-knowing eyes, carved out from the splintered skull that rests on a bent spine. He becomes nothing, nothing but the shadow of a skeleton, gnarled and battered by the ravages of time and dirt, a hoarse chuckle emanating from the depths of his empty throat. Then he falls back into his throne, exhausted, and there is the wizard again, whole and sparkling in his garb of woven silks and foul magic.

A breath passes.

“I trust…I trust you have enough sense to mind your thoughts,” he says, resting his head against the green-leafed pillow of his throne. His wrinkled face begins to heal as the tree holds him in a loose embrace.

“I am quick to remind you of our pact and how much I intend to stay true to my words,” he goes on. “On the other hand, should you choose to stray from your end of the agreement, no realm of man would hold back my vengeance. I will visit pain and illness upon you that would make your life a living casket.”

Chills run down my spine. Something in my heart tells me he is being truthful with his words. I am not just convinced of his visiting doom upon me, but that I will also get Anansi’s descendant to show me the way to the Vultures. On the other hand, I begin to wonder what all these sacrifices would lead to.

“What is the next task,” I ask, wiping sweat from my face.

He smiles. “This one is different,” he says, and I do not even get to cast a stone.

The first I feel is the familiar tug in my chest just as the castle disappears. I look about for a Deryndon in the deep darkness of the world into which I have been thrust. There is none beyond the mountain behind which I am located. Rather, among a group of singing children, and cast with the red tongues of a small fire, there is a frail man with braids of silver hair on his head, laughing and dancing with a calabash in his hand, unaware that I am here to kill him.

Chapter 15

The children clap and sing along, following the old man about like a long dancing tail. Their stomping feet raise dust clouds that smother the flames. When they finally calm, and the old man takes his squatting seat in their midst, his voice falls to a whisper.

As quietude falls upon the place, the tug in my chest asserts itself again. There is a Deryndon here and I can feel it. It is so thick I fear I’m standing in the presence of an army of them. The thought brings back memories of my altercation with the Bull Man and, without warning, I am watching through the eye of the man in my vision again.

I am in a great chamber with gold-dusted walls. A throne sits empty at the far end of the long hall. Surrounding it are rock-shapes of mighty Deryndons. There are fire breathers, fire reincarnates, and flying monsters as glorious as they are diverse. On one side of the wall, I see the image of the man splashed against a mirror; he has a bush of jet black curls, thick brows, and heavily-set shoulders and jaws. His sepia skin is crossed with terrible marks as from many battles or torture. The starkest among them is a scythe-shaped scar at the back of his neck. There are huge manacles on his wrists and feet, forcing him to walk in short strides. He is guided down the long hall and through a pair of lion-framed gateposts beyond which is only darkness. A great door slams shut that moment and the world disappears. The last image I see is of a towering Deryndon with a broken neck sitting in stone silence.

I suddenly become aware of my environment. My first impression from the mud houses is that this is not as magical a place as the others had been. The life here seems real, and the air is thick with the familiar smells of salted tilapia and dried okras. The taste of Dawadawa-spiced soups mingle with those of fermented corn. There is even the rhythmic bounces of pestles that mash cooked cassava into soft, starchy balls of fufu. Above all these, the Deryndon prickle is sharp as a needle point.

“It’s time to go now, children,” the man’s voice reaches me out of thin air. “I have a visitor from the Dead Sea.”

The image of food scuttles from my mind at those words. Jella, the old man knows I am here. I push my head back and try to keep my fingers calm. My heart is rampant. The children jump along as the fire casts shadows against them, cackling with songs I knew when I was younger.

Shuffling feet draw me away from those visions, and I run into hiding. The feet come closer till I have no choice but to climb. Only a short way up, I slip into a crevice and watch a young man emerge. He has two swords, and is dressed in an ankle-length red skirt with a sash across his shoulders that folds also about his arms like sleeves. His braids fly and clink with every shake of his head. After a while of searching, he grunts and walks away.

Still on the mountain, I climb sideways till I can see around the corner. The young man exchanges a word with the old man before running through the darkened doorway of a massive hut. Its thatch roof is held in a knot at the apex of a conical shape, and the reeds waver in the wind.

“We have a shy one,” the old man says, cackling into the night. “A scared dog barks to pretend to its master but a brave dog bites to protect him. You have succeeded where others have failed. Come out now, killer. I can smell his magic from a hundred lifetimes away.”

I jump from the mountain side to land ten feet on the ground. Except that he is frail, the man is barely recognisable with the yellow fire in his face. Still, I can make out a faint glitter from under his chin.

“What do they call you, son,” he asks in a light voice.

“Aldyn… my name is Aldyn.”

He grins and nods his little head. “And you are here to kill an old man—”

The young man springs into attack before I get to answer. His two blades strike and cut with deadly aim, sparking fires as they clash against my armour. I catch him in a twirl, but he comes like a thing reborn from the fire, the flames blazing in his eyes beneath the hair wreathing his face.

Certain that he means to kill me, I draw baba’s sword. His two blades twist and turn but I reply to them with tricks of my own. Then he trips and falls and loses his advantage and I am standing over him with the sword at his neck.

“Go on,” he demands, breathless. “Cut the head of the snake and finish it. Is this not what you came to do, huh? Go on and finish it, you cold-blooded hyena.”

I wipe the sweat from my face and turn to the old man.

There are shapes along his chin like half-leaf marks. He wears a simple cotton robe that reminds me of Jawando. He smiles at me with eyes that speak of deeper things, knowing things, and I do not like what I feel in my heart. It is said there comes a time in an old man’s life when he thinks he has seen enough. This man’s stare unsettles me.

Swallowing spit, I take one last look at the young man. I see the anger on his face despite the darkness. Whatever relationship exists between the two of them, I know he is right to hate me the way I do Azkan. Nobody should have to watch their loved ones taken from them. Not to war, not to poverty, and not to a boy’s neglect.

Without looking, I hurl the sword at the old man.

The young man’s eyes bulge. I watch him get mad and hear him scream. The wind turns, or the sword cuts its strings and leaves a slashing keen to its voice. It’s moaning, rising, and then there is a thump when baba’s blade lands point-first at his feet, trembling.

The old man coughs. He smiles.

“Come,” he says, “there is boiled plantain, and cocoyam leaves garnished in hot sizzling palm oil, and juicy crabs, and fish roasted on light fires, to be washed down with cold, gingered sorrel drink. You’ll love it.”

Chapter 16

“There is not just doubt in your eyes, Aldyn,” the old man says as he moves about the room, his pipe bellowing red smoke that hangs like fire wraiths in the room. “Something else bothers you.”

I look from him to where Qaino is reclined against a wall, his form hidden in the shadows. The Deryndon’s prickle has not died away like before, meaning at least one monster is idling about waiting to pounce on me. As I recall the time with Dendo when his chain glowed at the time of the Deryndon’s approach, my eyes catch a glimpse of the chain around Dartei’s neck. For a moment, I am sure his also changes colour, but then the red smoke disappears and nothing is there.

“Nothing,” I tell Dartei, not sure why I have lied to him.

The old man’s gaze remains on me for a while, and it leaves me feeling cornered like I was on the Red Road. Everything about him feels odd, from the energy in his old limbs and the fire in those eyes.

“Why does the wizard want to kill you,” I ask.

The old man blinks in surprise, then he falls into a coughing fit. His son brings him a calabash of red drink, patting him on back as he takes a sip. I see the look in Qaino’s eyes. He doesn’t trust me.

“Perhaps,” he starts between coughs, “perhaps, you are asking the wrong person…or the wrong question.”

“What would you have me do,” I say, fighting against a sudden prickle burning inside my ears. “I-I know what he wants me to do, but I can’t do it.”

“I would have you trust your heart, Aldyn,” he tells me. “Something bothers you, I can feel it, but a man’s heart is the steel of his body. The magic that affects the mind can be undone through reason, but that which settles deep inside a person’s chest is beyond any spell. It is where the soul resides; that spirit that is its own life. If there is something you feel, something you have felt greatly for, then that is your magic, and that is the strength with which to conquer this doubt. It is what you should trust.”

“I do not understand.”

“That is because you refuse to understand,” he says, his voice rising, and then in a whisper, “or that you are afraid to understand it.”

My mind replays the scenes of both Deryndons’ deaths, and I feel a pang of sadness. The feeling is the same I have for mama, and somehow, it weighs on my shoulders the same way mama’s protection does.

When my eyes find Dartei’s, I see he is watching me with eyes sharp as flint stones. His shoulders hang like the firm balance of justice. He stares at me, unblinking, and in that solemn pose, I finally catch the answer to his riddle. It startles me when I realise it. A part of me recoils from such thoughts, the other part uncertain as to whether I am even perceiving rightly.

“You want to kill him—”

The statement draws a smile from Dartei. Smoke waltzes through his teeth like slithering snakes, his eyes seeming to take fire. A sudden pain in my ears causes me to clench my teeth, and the smile disappears from his face. At the corner, Qaino tenses.

“You seem affected by the possibility,” Dartei says, his eyes saying more than his words.

The pain eases, and I force myself to relax. “How do you expect to do that?”

Dartei opens his arms. “Why, by completing your task.”

I don’t hide my worry. “I already told you I am not doing it.”

“Really, and what will you do, Aldyn? How are you going to find your mama? You are definitely not leaving his cave, if it is your intention to escape.”

My fingers make claws as anger burns inside my chest. I suddenly realise this has been a mistake after all. The words of the wizard return to me, and I begin to see the truth again. He has promised to let me leave, and there is no reason to not believe him. He saved me from mother bee, if I recall, and he healed all my wounds while he could have just ended my life.

“It is not possible,” I say.

“You mean you won’t help us.” Qaino’s words touch me like a bee sting. The young man though lowers his gaze and mumbles what could have been an apology to Dartei. Seeing them share a moment now, I realise there is indeed a way of ending this.

“And what prevents you from doing the killing?”

“You wouldn’t ask a man to kill his father, now, would you,” Dartei inquires.

“I have had enough blood on my hands. There is no way I will do this.”

“You started the tasks, and only you can finish it, Aldyn,” Dartei tells me. “Why do you think he saved you when the bee sting should have killed you?”

“Because it was the right thing to do?”

“Because he is at your mercy, Aldyn,” says Dartei. “He never expected you to fulfil that task, and when you did, he realised you were more than he estimated. He couldn’t let you die just like that, not after having escaped the death traps and succeeded at your very first attempt. And then you killed the serpent…”

Dartei’s words sail over my head because I already knew this.

“He looked—”

“Desperate?”

I nod.

“He promised you in one breath and threatened you in another?”

“Yes… yes, he did.”

Dartei’s smile broadens until he starts to cough again. Qaino is quick to his side.

“But why can’t he do it himself, send one of his creatures to fulfil those tasks?”

“He was cursed. Greed and ungratefulness put on him a curse no man has ever suffered. He is one person in two forms: a man and his soul. Even then, there is only so much his magic will achieve. Only pure souls, sent out on their own volition, can make it happen.”

“The boy?”

Dartei nods. “The tasks are supposed to make him whole and give him the power his intentions looked to assume many years ago. We cannot allow that to happen, Aldyn. Yet, even as I speak, you have alluded to seeing him return to his former self: sparkling teeth, a youthful yet wise posture, and his crown is finally fitting onto his head with those gleaming stones stolen from the farthest depths of the earth where magic shrouds all knowledge. He that beats the drum for the madman to dance is no better. You have helped him by fulfilling two tasks. Now is the chance to end it.”

That hits me hard, and I realise I have been sweating. I wipe a hand across my face and feel a wave of indecision. Dartei is quick on his feet.

“Try and sleep over it,” he says to me.

Qaino seeks permission from his father and turns to me. “Or, you can come with me to see the town. It might help you relax and clear your mind for a while.” It is the first time he’s smiled at me.

Chapter 17

Qaino has me dressed in a red and black patterned shirt and a pair of shorts with a large crotch. As I’d imagined, the town is not asleep, and many people are up and about despite the meagre light from a shrouded moon. We walk through the village following a path that winds about the square-shaped houses. The huts are raised from the ground by stone foundations and fronted by the moulded wide-fingered shapes of palm fronds above which rear tufts of dried weeds.

Qaino is silent by me side as he walks, regarding the place he has called home all his life with a certain hankering that is not lost in his smile. A bleating goat strays into our path from the bushes with her kid. He is a bundle of energy, leaping about and calling to the horned moon. Beside them is a billy goat with eyes a tad too knowing for my liking.

“That is Kweto, the Wise One,” Qaino says of the billy goat. “He has been with Nene, the Mother of All, since they were born together. They are the last ones left now.”

“The last one…you mean the last goats in this place,” I ask as we reach a small stream.

Qaino nods and stops to watch the people paddling little canoes. “The wizard kills them before they are old enough to bear little ones. This one is actually two days from his death.”

A man and his daughter dock their little canoe. They come out laughing as they are met by the girl’s three siblings and their grandmother. They show the family what is in their basket: a lobster and two fish.

“We live off our farms and the fishes we get from the rivers,” Qaino continues. “Toad-in-stone! Even those are rationed. It is his way of telling the people that he is watching them, and only his benevolence is keeping them alive.”

“He’s made himself a god?”

Qaino only smiles at the words. I turn and watch the families again. A group hauls in happily with a snare carrying two rabbits and a handful of locusts. Another has three fingers of plantain and an ear of corn. They all look happy, cheerfully happy. Between them, the goat family moves unperturbed. Everyone leaves a path for them as if they are royalty. The kid jumps onto his mother the way a billy goat would. The father knocks him off but he comes back again and again, crying. Once, he plants his feeble horns into his father and the bigger goat walks away.

“I don’t understand,” I say. “If he is able to do this, what prevents him from hurting your father? Why does he need me to do this?”

Qaino turns a curious face at me. “You sound like you would do this if you had the chance. Kill us, I mean.”

I start at his accusation. “Maybe, maybe I just might,” I reply. “Maybe my sword missed your father’s head.”

Qaino purses his lips and apologises, mumbling things about toads.

“Anyway, the wizard can’t destroy us. He can’t leave the cave himself. He put ghosts about them as a form of test. Whoever survives them has no doubt taken a big step toward undoing his curse. As for the thing about the full moon, it is only meant to add a bit of mystery. The ghosts live there whether it’s sunny or a moonless night.”

I am beginning to wonder how to accept my role in this when I notice the shades of colour in the east. The sun appears and begins a lazy stride up the heavens.

Qaino sees my surprise and nods. “A world of magic,” he says. “We probably see more suns in a day than we should, or there are more years in our lives…”

More people make their ways about us and I notice none of them speaks a word of greeting to Qaino. If any of them has noticed me, they haven’t showed it.

“You speak about the people,” I say after we have become alone again, “does that mean they do not know what is happening?”

Qaino sighs. “So far as they are concerned, they are the only people, and this is the only world. The wizard reveals himself to them in their sleeps, and they turn to him in prayer; prayers he answers by putting a hand on their children and making them speak in their cradles, turning water into milk rather than letting their animals live long enough to bear some. Here and there, he sends a witch, or a spirit, and they touch people with illnesses so they turn to him even more. Father and I hunt them and kill them. Man has always wanted to be god, Aldyn.”

“And they don’t know you are behind the killing?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” replies Qaino. “The way I see it he wouldn’t want the people hurting father anyhow. He is saving him.”

“And you, what do you call him?”

He scoffs. “A usurper. He steals things which don’t belong to him…people’s lives and their freedoms.”

Qaino’s words get me thinking of home. A home of magic this might be, but the same evil-hearts of men rule both worlds.

Mama used to teach me about God and all His names. All my life I have lived with the knowledge of God’s love for all souls, yet fear has followed me like a shadow. The Marauding Clans raid our homes and take our women. To stay their wraths, we have paid tokens all these while only for them to return. And yet, nobody knows where they live and I find myself asking the same question; to whom did we pay those tokens?

The sun is all but gone when Qaino leads me to a large cage hidden from view by a tree fence. Inside it, I find over a thousand sparrows chirping away at the receding sun.

“Every once in a while, we set some of them free. Somehow, one or two of them manage to find their ways out of the magical realm. The wizard lets only a few of them escape to spread the stories.”

“What stories,” I ask as I help him chase the birds around.

“All manner of stories, Aldyn. Stories of magic, of worlds not known but imagined. Tales of all the things we see in our dreams that would pique our interests enough to send us hunting for treasures or a man locked inside in a cave.”

I stop chasing after the birds. “What do you mean, a man locked inside a cave?”

Qaino chuckles and continues to run about. “What good would it be if nobody knew of Anansi’s descendant, Aldyn? And why should we not take measures to rid us of this place? You wouldn’t be here if not for the stories and yes, there was his descendant in there–”

“Have you stopped to think of your actions? You have sent dozens of people to an eternity of torture. Innocent men and women who would not be hunting for treasures if they didn’t know. Jella, do you know how many children your stupid stories have orphaned?”

“You have no idea how—”

“No, you don’t have any idea, Qaino. You and your father have drawn innocent souls into your tug of war. I wouldn’t be in this without these stories, and you know it.”

I storm out of the cage. Qaino follows with half a dozen birds locked in a cage.

“You have every reason to be angry, Aldyn, but that is why we should end this once and for all. We have to end it or some way or another, he is going to find somebody to fulfil his tasks, somebody without your conscience.”

Qaino becomes quiet again as he walks toward a small rise in the earth. Settling the cage down, he flips a stick to open the doors. The birds fly out in different directions. As they rise higher, a flurry of red-painted arrows sail through the sky behind them, from nowhere, and they rip through all but one of the birds. It heads west and north before being covered by the clouds.

Qaino’s face carries a wry smile when he returns to me. I recall his continuous calling of the wizard as a usurper and realise it was Dartei who got overthrown in Dendo’s story. The wizard had taken over Dartei’s realm and banished him to this place. In return, a curse was put on the wizard. Looking out at the sky where the last bird disappeared, I come to realise that Qaino has seen too many of these to let himself be disappointed too much. Yet, he has witnessed enough to put his trust in the only one that survived. Looking at the plaster of beard on his chin and the well-toned muscles of his chest, I begin to wonder how old he is. His braids are dark as the night.

“How long has it been,” I ask.

Qaino closes his eyes and smiles. “I was a child when it happened,” he says before falling silent for a while. Opening his eyes, he screws his face at the scene before us. “This place, this place is ugly. Now home was home. The sky was green, the wind—”

“Blue,” I correct him. “You mean the sky was blue, like the seas.”

Qaino laughs.

“The sky was green with leaves and red with sun. Whispers were upon the wind. Meadows stretched and shone brightly of flowers…” Qaino gasps.

He plucks a thorn flower as night settles and tells me of swift rivers and great walls. They nurtured wild fruits and built great ships, and men lived in opulence as if it was Eden and they were each one of them Adam and Eve. Love was there, sleep was peaceful, and before it fell and ended, the pain had wrecked his heart.

“The world was a great place once. With little sacrifices, we can make it great it again.”

Chapter 18

We are in the middle of an open air bar and the sky is brightening up for dawn. A dozen songs are being played at the same time and each one is attended to by dancers who switch between songs with the swiftness of a changed thought. The still air is rich with the scent of wild berries and fermented corn, and I sense too the leathery taste of coconut stew. Smoke wafts between the dancing couples as Qaino’s head bobs in rhythm to whatever song he decides to listen to. I steal glances at the sky when the wind turns only to find a thin cloud gliding across it.

The Deryndon’s prickle is so keen.

“It was two hundred years ago when it happened,” Qaino tells me over a drink, his eyes dreamy. “After banishing us from our own lands – a mercy, he called it – Ogboromojo soon realised there had been a curse on father’s kingdom, a curse that struck those from without who tried to take what didn’t belong to them. Stolen goods have no blessing,” he adds with an upraised finger.

Two hundred years, I mutter to myself. For two hundred years Anansi’s descendant has been a prisoner of Ogboromojo after he took refuge to keep his soul and body safe. For two centuries Dartei and Qaino have been alive, yet they look barely the age…

Qaino is drunk, that much I can see, but he is aware enough to say no to another drink. I sit there watching the people and wondering what would happen should things go wrong. The men wear a variety of skirts and sashes or pants with large crotches and patterned shirts as I am wearing. The women have long braids hanging over their shoulders and long, straight skirts folded into overlapping plaits. Their dresses are spare and sleeveless, some of them wearing theirs so it flows down to their knees.

“What happens to your land should the wizard be defeated?”

Qaino’s eyes bulge. He grips my hand. “Will you do it?”

I pull my arm gently from his and look away. He sighs, and then shrugs. “Who knows what will ever happen? I mean, we could emerge into the real world and people will hunt us as spirits coming out of nowhere.”

Qaino’s eyes fall to his jug and I am tempted to put a hand and comfort him. I hold myself back from giving him a sense of hope I am not sure of to start with. A man running after a woman trips and falls over his table, sending a chorus of laughter. Qaino’s head snaps at the sound and as he chuckles, he nudges me and points to another man sitting alone in the corner with the darkness covering him.

“Want to meet him,” he says.

I stare for a while at the figure drowned in darkness, not sure if it is his back that is facing us or his hooded face.

“No, I don’t,” I say, feeling the tug again.

“If you say so,” Qaino says with a big shrug. “I mean, it is not like they come here often. You might not see them again.”

I blink at Qaino. “You get visitors?”

“Well, they don’t come here like you.” He makes a gesture with his hand. “They fly. You haven’t heard of—”

“Deryndons?” I blurt the word.

Qaino pauses, and then nods. “Yes, you see them…”

I feel a pit in my stomach and stare back at the shadow. The man is not there. “We should leave,” I say, pulling Qaino.

He plants his feet. “Come on, relax. Nothing will bite you, Aldyn.”

I start to speak but catch myself at the last moment. I must have started believing in the goodness of the Deryndons the last time I was with Dendo, but the feeling I have now promises nothing but doom.

“Look,” Qaino says, “they are very shy creatures, but I could take you—”

“I do not wish it, Qaino.”

“And why is that,” a voice thunders behind me.

My heart slams as I wheel about to find a figure standing just beyond the glow of a lamp light.

“Ah, don’t mind him, Aldyn,” Qaino says, “nobody understands his mumbled words.” Turning to the figure, he makes gestures and says, “Go on, Aucho.”

I am not sure if it is the drink hampering Qaino’s thoughts but I am certain I heard his words, and understood them. They sounded foreign but were recognisable. He must have come from some city in Empire. That makes me more desperate to leave this place. He might be wanting a piece of my head for some reward.

I pull Qaino with me and change direction, but the man is up to block our paths. He is hooded, and now that he is close to us, I perceive a certain tinge in the smells that remind me of my escape from Kestabal; I sense the taste of turned earth and blood on my tongue, and imagine the sounds of pounding horse hoofs and trailing red dust.

“Very wise of you to come here, Sheno,” he says, drawing a short but broad sword from his back. Qaino breaks a jug in the man’s face and then I realise how silent the bar has become.

“Come, Aldyn,” Qaino urges and pulls me along. I follow reluctantly, the timbre of Aucho’s voice touching at something deep within my memory but I can’t manage to remember what it is.

“You can’t run from me, Sheno,” he screams behind us. Something catches my legs and I collapse to the ground. Qaino tries to help me up but I brush him aside and climb to my feet.

“That is the spirit,” Aucho says, flipping his broad sword.

“What is going on, Aucho,” Qaino says, gesticulating. Aucho ignores him and grins at me.

“A sheep must eat his grass,” he says, looking at me with an ugly grin. He swings his sword at me but Qaino catches his face with a vicious kick. He loses his sword as he falls, and Qaino urges me to make a run for it.

I am done running. I finally recollect the words, the pain of the slap, the choking hold of his strong arms; I remember the Bull Man, and I realise the same aura surrounds this one too. If he wishes to put me to death, then it is a mutual feeling we have.

“What are you doing, Aldyn?”

“Putting the sheep to slaughter,” I say, raising my fisted arms the way baba taught me. He draws a dagger from his boot and throws away his cloak. He has a flat nose and pinched eyes, and his lips are thin and pink.

He is a large man with a vicious dagger hand. His steps are quick and deceitful, his punches heavy as bricks. Even then, there is a manner to his death steps. I see it through baba’s eyes and play the game of dance with him. A feeling inside me tells me this is a natural manner of things; a lion shredding a hyena to bits; an Alfa wolf maintaining his status.

I spin on my heels and evade his knife, and my foot catches him in the knee. Nothing he does harms me, or touches me, and before the peering eyes of a rising sun, Aucho gets a piece of the hatred I have for the Vultures, for the wizard king, for all those people that have tried to hurt mama. Jella, I let him pay for his sins and the sins of many more.

Qaino screams for me to stop. He even grabs me but I throw him away. This might not be my land, but it is my fight. I claim this territory and I hoist my banners on his carcass. He is ugly even in death, this Shenandey!

The wind that comes is cool, but it carries with it a familiar burn. A shadow falls upon our world and I look up to see if the wizard king has come upon us. Jella, with the madness coursing my veins, I would slay him with nothing but my teeth. But the new sun is blotted by another thing, and the wind blows and the world roils with dust and twigs.

“I do not like this,” Qaino says by my side.

I grin. “Jella, I love this.”

The Deryndon makes a dive for me. I somersault and grab the dead man’s machete. The beast comes to its feet and beats its wings. This one has a long beak with burning green eyes. A crest of purple feathers sits behind his head like a fallen crown, his tail arching behind him with fluffy dark-green feathers. His legs are long and red.

“What is that,” Qaino asks of a medallion that glows at his neck. The lettering burns and pulses, and the words are written in a language that is both familiar and unfamiliar to me.

“The pendulum of death,” I say, and I do not wait for it to come. I do not wait for anybody to push me aside. With a leap I am on his side, slashing and cutting with the large blade. The Deryndon reels to avoid the blade. His flapping wings raise a torrent of dust and wind, and the beast is up above me, screeching a terrible death note that has me cowering and shivering. My body is cold and drenched in sweat, blood streaming from my ears. Fear grips me again, and through teary eyes, I see the monster fill the vast bluing sky, his avocado plumes shimmering with strange lights as of green fire seen through a fogged glass. Then there comes a moment when the scream is replaced with the thundering screams of a wild cat. My vision clears enough for me to see it.

It must be the largest tiger on God’s earth. The stripes on it are like tongues of orange flames, its fangs longer than my middle finger. The beasts fall to the ground in a heap and the dust rise in a pall that blinds me. The earth shifts and whimpers. The animals tear at each other, swinging tails and slashing claws. The Deryndon clubs the tiger with its massive head.

The cat slams into the ground.

Qaino screams.

I climb to my feet, and as the dust settles, I see that the Deryndon is standing over something that is no longer a tiger. It is a feeble old man with a burning chain about his neck; it is Dartei.

Chapter 19

“Go, you are free. Go now,” Dartei urges the monster. But the Deryndon glowers at him, his massive teeth trembling. His wings are half-opened, the crown gloriously green under the ripening sun. Dread fills my stomach as it takes a step towards the old man. Dartei drags himself back, the effort straining his muscles. There are claw marks on his bare, skinny breast, and blood drools from a gap in his temple.

“Go,” Dartei, says with a whimper. The Deryndon, seeming to hear and understand, shakes his head as if recovering from some blow to the face. A moment afterward, he steps back and lowers his head, his jaws slammed shut. A part of me understands it is a placating gesture.

Murmurs grow about us before I realise the crowd. The Deryndon retreats from the old man. He moves from here to there, eager for space and room to take off. It is when he is about to jump from the ground that our eyes meet.

A part of my heart stops. The machete falls from my hand, and I begin to move toward the beast. Qaino blocks me. Looking at him, Dartei’s son seems to have changed from all the drinking and running. He is all shrivelled up, as is Dartei, as are the men and women standing about us. When I turn, I see the Deryndon has walked up to us.

Eyes of green gems sparkle as he lowers his head. I am barely breathing. Our faces touch. I rub my hand under his neck and hear the same clicking sound I heard on the Red Road. I grab the head with both hands and smell his skin. It is the taste of nothing I have ever known, but it kindles within me an urge to do more. I wish I could ride the Deryndon.

The shove hits me before I know it. I fall flat on my back, deflated… and then I hear the gut-wrenching scream and there is blood all over my face. The Deryndon reels on long legs, screeching and flailing his giant wings, and then he collapses into the ground next to me, a dagger locked into a heaving breast.

I turn to find Aucho in his after-pose, a bloody smile on his lips.

“The war,” he says, his voice choking, “the war will soon be over, Sheno, and your world will be a forgotten lie.” He fumbles a spit before falling to his own death.

Blood gushes from the Deryndon’s stabbed wound and pools around his body. The sheen of the radiant feathers dulls as of night settling over a thick forest. Then the eyes close shut and deep in my heart, where mama and all the beautiful things reside within me, I feel a terrible pain.

It’s as if a part of me died.

Chapter 20

We burn them both.

The wind wails about us and whips the flames to produce dancing mists, and there is no telling which one is cloud and which one is fumes from man and beast.

Dartei comes to stand by me with a red collar in his hand. He is human again, but his fight with the Deryndon has left its mark on him: there is a wound that is healing at his neck, and his left hand is covered with a blood-soaked cloth. His face is covered in sores and bruises.

“There is power in stories,” he starts suddenly, staring out beyond fire and into the forests that ring the village. “There is power in stories, and only children have tasted its truth. Knowingly or ignorantly, our lives revolve around such knowledge and we seek it the way a child wants his mother. And, like all things that live on and on, they have a soul; one soul that gives them all life. It is the god-tree that bears fruit every night when children gather around a moon, or when they huddle close to a fire and hear one mischievous tale or the other.

“Long ago, when men were good and their hearts were strong, a young man wanted to change these stories, the way they were told, and about whom they were. There was peace and food, but the young man wanted something else. He yearned for much more than was his due. He sought to be the dark clouds that would herald the rain, the water that broke before a child was born. He wanted all stories to be about him.

“I call him a young man for want of a better word; for he was not a strong man. In fact, he was barely a man, if things were to be considered; scrawny, had a big family to feed, and was, perhaps, the laziest of persons. Yet, in the mind of one such as him, there lived this unstoppable urge to have more, even if he came to know that nothing was given out for free; not your life, not your death, and absolutely not your mother’s love.”

Dartei stops speaking for a while. I watch him and see the twinkle in his eyes as he stares across the fires. There is a firmness in his weak jaws; his hoary brows bristle and his breaths are calm and quiet. Even his silver braids are still. He continues.

“He was to present three things: a swarm of bees, a python, and a tiger. And that scrawny thing of a man they called Anansi fulfilled all three. He succeeded where everybody thought and expected that he would fail. He achieved the great feat without shedding a drop of his blood or toiling in sweat. Now, people say his names in a dozen tongues all over the world.”

I try to understand what it is he is telling me but find myself remembered of Dendo. He spoke of the god-tree and the secret behind all of Anansi’s stories. But what I do not understand is why anybody would need to be an Anansi.

“Why would Mansa be—”

“Do not call him that,” Qaino screams from across the fire. His father turns to rebuke him but this time, the younger man doesn’t even look at him. He turns away, frowning.

“You want to know why the usurper would wish to replicate such an old ritual, is that it,” Dartei says, turning to me.

I nod.

“That is very simple. First, he wishes to heal himself, which you have attested to when you saw him become better while the child grows smaller. Completing the ritual will make him whole again by fusing his soul into his body. Anansi had the secrets of the world, not all, but many of them. His descendants inherited them but somehow, Ogboromojo is not able to steal the secrets from them. The only way for him to get it is to repeat the ritual. What happens when you know people’s secrets?”

It doesn’t take me long to realise it. “They are at your mercy.”

The man nods knowingly. “You rule them. If that man steps foot from his throne with the secrets, nothing will ever stop him from bringing the world to its knees. Men will fall to his will; Birds will sing him to sleep. Even Deryndons; the fire-breathers and griffins and phoenixes will be his to control. That is why we have to do this: lull him into believing he is being healed, then we strike at the child – the more vulnerable of the two. It is risky but the world would be a better place if we succeeded. You can go on with the descendant to find your mother but you have to declare your intentions on this matter.”

I turn away from Dartei. If indeed this is the wizard’s intention, then I risk bringing the greatest destruction onto this world should this plan fail. There is so much at stake with very little room for mistakes. I can’t bring myself to fulfil this task. Perhaps, it would better to leave things as they are and accept that I have failed. Yes, I have failed mama and baba. Like Dendo told me days before, the Dead Sea was to be my death.

Dartei sees my hesitation.

“Here is a problem, Aldyn,” he says. “You are a stranger in this land. You were sent to kill me, and I have given you permission to do just that. But you have refused that. Instead, you have killed Aucho, for no reason.”

I start. “For no reason? Is that what Qaino told you? Did you lie to him Qaino?”

“I only said what happened, Aldyn. You have killed a man we host and caused the death of his bird. How long have you been here, Aldyn? Just a short while, and you have caused more deaths than the usurping wizard!”

“Do not be a fool, Qaino!”

“I am no fool, mama’s boy—”

“And I am no fool too, Qaino. I will not wait for a man who speaks of killing me to do so. Say all you want, but he’s dead, and God knows I fear no ghost!” It is like I am watching Dendo all over again.

Qaino walks over and I begin to regret not having my sword with me.

“Are you listening to yourself, Aldyn? You are a blood-thirsty boy with a lying tongue. You couldn’t even make a plausible excuse if your life depended on it.” Turning to his father, he says, “Everybody knows one thing: Aucho and his folk speak nonsense. No one has ever understood them. How does he claim to know their words?”

“How am I supposed to know what you know or do not understand? You’ve lived in a world surrounded by magic. Who is to tell if you understand any language other than Ogboromojo’s piss?”

An animal snarl comes from Dartei. His fingers grow claws and his face begins to take shape. I step back as the chain around his neck begins to glow, my hands folding into fists.

“You will watch your mouth, stranger,” he screams through bared fangs.

I hold my ground, unwilling to be cowed by their accusations. Just as it had begun, Dartei changes into normal again, and his face falls into a long relaxing pose. He releases his breath in a long sigh and closes his eyes. When he opens them, he is smiling again.

Qaino moves closer to his father, his eyes still on me. “I do not think he will help us father,” he says in what is supposed to be a whisper. “I fear he will betray us to the wizard. There is something else he is not telling us.”

Dartei’s smile deepens, crow feet encroach his face.

“I believe you have seen this here before, and that it tried to kill you,” he says to me.

I turn my eyes to look into the flames. I nod and tell them about the three Deryndons that I met in Kestabal and on the Red Road. The thought reminds me of Jawando. Even worse, I remember the Bull Man and begin to wonder if they are not from the same place. Why else would there be such a striking resemblance in their speeches?

“Who are his people,” I ask of Aucho lying in the flames.

Dartei and Qaino exchange glances. “I was hoping you would tell us,” Dartei says, “giving what you claimed he said. Did you two meet before?”

“No…no, we haven’t.”

I turn to look at the old man. He coughs into his sleeve.

“I wouldn’t want to bother you by asking how the Deryndon first tried to kill you, and then saved you,” he says. “However, I will tell you something else. In your eyes, I see the same doubts I saw when you first arrived. Something bothers you, but you don’t know whether to fight it or own it.”

I wipe sweat from my face and swallow spit. “There…there was another one,” I say. “He was different but the same anger seems to be pushing them. He attacked me for nothing until I was saved by… a Deryndon.”

Dartei’s brows rise curiously. “What did he look like, this other one?”

“Well, he had the head of a bull, wings grew from his mantle.”

Dartei stares at me in a way that reminds me of Dendo. His eyes squint and his head tilts. After many heartbeats, he puts his hands at his back and says, “Jondo. When was the last time he came here, Qaino?”

“Not two moons before,” Qaino replies.

“Yes, a rather short while ago. He is quite the thing; horns and wings and all. He is a powerful feat of nature, with a heart in his breast and the fury in his muscles. His people will soon be here, Aldyn, and they will realise that their brother has been killed. That would not be good for us, especially since he was killed by someone not from this land. You might be gone soon enough, but we will have to suffer for eternity.”

I understand the message behind his words. He will hold the killing of Aucho against me and force me to go ahead with their plans. The moment bites into me hard, for I begin to realise what good the Deryndon would have been in defeating or escaping the wizard. If Aucho could ride it, then surely, I too could do it. I can already imagine myself high in the clouds riding the winds, the earth far beneath me.

A sudden sound rents the air before I can speak. Everybody freezes. The wind is hot and cool in turns, and people are wailing and screaming. My thoughts go quickly to Jondo, the Bull Man, but Qaino and Dartei tell me otherwise.

“It’s the wizard,” the old man says. We rush out to a section of the town where pear trees have formed a dense cluster and find a man suspended above the ground. I recognise the gold eye and patched clothing of the dwarf king, but I notice also that he is not himself. His jaws are tight, and the gold switches from one devilish glint to the other. He is holding a knife to a boy’s neck.

“I have a message from the great Mansa,” he declares to the crowd standing within a fearful distance of him.

“You drop that boy this moment—” Qaino thunders.

The dwarf bellows a dark humourless laugh that seems to come from everywhere. Qaino stops Dartei before he can attack. “No, father. He will take you along and the plan will be doomed,” he says through his teeth. The dwarf is growing faint as the boy struggles, like a shadow slowly disappearing from a receding source of light.

“My message goes to the people. There is…there is one among you; a stranger with foul intentions. Remind him…remind him of his promise or there will be more of this.”

He lifts a dagger to stab the boy when I scream. The dwarf looks up. His gold eye scans the ground till he sees me. Something changes in his face. A tear falls from his eye. The boy in his hand struggles and frees himself before the dwarf realises himself.

But Qaino is already on his heels with two swords from his sleeve. The dwarf, shrinking into oblivion, throws daggers at him but Dartei’s son deflects them easily. The dwarf is merely a living thing when Dartei falls into dance with him, his arms quicker than a fork of lightning. When the sword leaves his chest, the dwarf shrivels into something charred and spent, and then his skeleton melts and the wind sweeps him away.

All eyes turn to me. They look at me as if seeing me for the first time. Their hatred is real, and the chants they make feel like thorns in my skin. I am stumbling in my retreat when Dartei holds me. His fingers bite into my skin.

“Come, child,” he says to me, smiling that knowing smile again. “It’s time to kill me.”

Chapter 21

“Deeper, a little deeper.”

Dartei whispers in my ear as his fingers bite into my skin. My hand is wet with sweat and his blood. He trembles as he pulls himself up to me, clutching me, forcing the blade deeper.

He gasps.

I feel the blood on my shoulder, the heat of his breath tickling my neck and rushing down my spine. I pull away. The blood is slick and oozing down his side. Qaino brushes me aside and sets down to do his work.

He spits herbs into his father’s wound and wraps it with a rag soaked with more blood. Dartei’s eyes do not leave me, nor do they blink as I watch with a mask of pain. I see the half-leaf marks glow on his face, and then he begins to turn. The claws are unsheathed, and then the fangs are bared, and all over his body, the golden stripes that were once bright and fiery look like the sun behind swarming clouds.

Dartei’s eyes close.

Qaino pulls a knife and stabs himself in the shoulder, close to his heart. I wince, and then I say his name: “Mansa, Mansa the great…”

Now more than ever, I sense the pretentious reasoning behind those words. He is calling himself an emperor before he has ever reached that throne. But that moment of resentment dies as I watch the two before me, father and son, playing dead, and then the light comes and the world dissolves into a thousand realms. We fly through a field of rotting corpses and into a land where broken men ride broken camels. Towering mountains tumble down into endless pits of white valleys. Single-winged ravens caw at the married shapes of the sun and the moon, the land both night and morning. There is a herd of marching black horses flanked by sinister wolf men. The trees dance in the still winds, banners of war arranged over corpses of fallen babies still clutching their swords and scimitars and sucking at flaccid breasts. The wraiths of the babies rise like scions of another generation, and instantly, they are giants and beasts with three unseeing eyes.

The explosion that comes is a terrible one. It spills light about us in wavering forms until the magic space disappears and the world becomes a vast cave with low-burning torches. I see the three towers.

Down on the floor, Dartei and his son are locked in their embrace, still as true corpses.

“Finally, it’s done,” the child blurts by my side, rubbing his sickly palms together with a childish glee. “Step aside, step aside.” He shoos me away.

The bear creature with a spear at his back emerges from the shadow and pulls Qaino from his father, throwing him to the side where the shadow is thick. Grabbing hold of the maimed tiger, he lifts himself on unseen wings till he is at the peak of the last tower. Dartei’s body suspends when he leaves it, and then it lowers till it lies within the space made for him.

A sudden shudder in the earth causes me to lose my footing. The wind pulses as if from a mighty explosion. Torches flicker and a cold wind blows over me. I cover my face as a blast of debris washes past me, filling my ears with a ringing noise. I shut my eyes till it passes.

When I open my eyes, I see Ogboromojo being led toward a black platform a way’s off from the pillars. His Tree Throne is a withering brown plant, dead and dying. His body is suspended, all cracked up and bony, his face folded into creases with half-blind eyes. The throne dissolves into crumpled mud and the wizard is dropped onto the black earth.

He starts to convulse. His body trembles as his lips whisper words as soft as a death-dealer’s curse. The child crawls out of hiding and stands on another platform of his own, red as clay. There is a tremor in the cave. The ground before the wizard falls away. Then something starts to climb out; a hissing creature that is black as the very depths whence it came. It slithers on slimy feet, cackling, tottering, and then there is a moment when it seems it disappears, and then it becomes one with the wizard’s stone. The platform begins to glow with an intricately designed web that clutches the wizard’s feet. A stray section attaches itself to the child’s.

The child laughs; it is a hollow sort of laugh, the one that seems to rise and fall with a cold, biting wind sweeping over a sea of yellow sands. The wizard climbs onto trembling feet as the silver rises up his body. I count and wait till I see that his thighs are fully fleshed. With my sword held firmly in my hand, I peer into the dark and find Qaino coming to his feet. The demon that hurled him away has his eyes locked on his masters.

Qaino sees me and nods. And then I swing at the child’s neck. It is blocked.

The monster’s unnatural speed is enough to shock me. He lifts me up and crashes me against the wall where the tentacles lock me into a prison wall.

Ogboromojo looks at me with disbelieving eyes. “You would betray me after all I have done, Aldyn?”

His words are like ice to my skin. He nods his head as the light feeds him life. When I smile, it is not because I have another plan, or that the tears stinging my eyes are those of hope. For, in the shadows, I see that Qaino has been made out and is now in the monster’s hold. The grip against his neck is unyielding. The wizard king sees it. He laughs. His is a terrible sound, the echoes like creeping insects and slithering serpents and growling dogs. It bounces and roils like death’s many shapes, and then it flows again with a sinister rumble that mimics the crashing waters in a terrible storm.

The child grows smaller and smaller until he lies on the ground like a maimed foetus. Life continues to feed into the wizard.

Hope all but lost and my head bowed, I see the sword lying at my feet. There is a weird glow of torchlight on its blade. But it is the handle that I aim at with my kick, and I watch the sword spin as it leaves the ground toward the child. Ogboromojo screams. He raises a hand to cast a spell that never happens. The sword misses. The monster turns a wrathful face at me. He growls a terrible warning.

Qaino takes advantage of the distraction. In a move, the two swords are out of his sleeves and the demon’s head is rolling on the ground.

The wizard turns to Qaino as if seeing him for the first time. His lips tremble.

“Don’t…don’t touch him,” he says through grit teeth while he steals glances at the baby. The webs reach his chest.

The son of Dartei drags himself toward the platform. Blood trails him, but he still holds his swords.

“What do you want,” Ogboromojo demands. “We can rule together. The world will be ours till we make it end.”

Qaino is quiet. His breaths are laboured, the blood pooling when he stops to take a rest. The wizard looks from him to the soul. There is still life in it thought it is now only a roll of flesh.

“Don’t touch him,” he hisses, spitting and shaking. “You will ruin it. Do not…”

The words choke him. Qaino stops walking. He watches the thing lying on the ground. My heart is rampant in my chest. Qaino is listening to him. He is being deceived by the wizard.

“Don’t listen to him, Qaino,” I scream. “He will destroy the world. Please, don’t let…”

The chains tighten against me. Qaino just stands there and watches, and then I understand what turns his heart before his sword begin to weave. His blood follows the trail of his swords, his feet mimicking dancing steps, or drunken tip-toes, until Ogboromojo is nothing more than a pile of man-flesh.

Dartei’s head peeps down from the tower for the first time. His eyes are slits, his face bleached of life. Qaino looks at his father. He looks at me with a mocking grin. Then he steps into the webs.

Chapter 22

The world is changing.

Dusk gathers and enshrouds everything that was once rock and earth. Shadows creep and swell about me till I feel the tentacles release me from the strangling agony. A coppery taste lurks in the wind. The moon reveals herself suddenly. She is like a thing wrought of red blood, her face stained from a lifetime of witnessed battles. Dark mists encroach her pockmarks like birds of doom. And then the ground starts to tremble.

I remain on my hands, the earth moving as if it is being pummelled by a giant. The first pillar shoots out of the earth a hair’s breadth from me. It towers into the sky, stabbing the red moon right through her belly. A hundred more shoot into the heaven as if to hold it from falling.

Soon, it is not a familiar world around me anymore.

Mighty elephants blow their trumpets and pull at monstrous boulders. Monkeys swing between trees and through the legs of the grey behemoths, wood planks and brown pots held aloft in their nimble hands. High above on a tree of golden leaves, honey streams from a hive into collectible golden tubes, dozens of bees creating fleeting golden clouds.

The city taking shape is grand and spectacular. Pillars of sparkling jewels raise its dome high beyond my vision. The rivers are swift and the wind is rich with perfumed flowers. Trees with great boughs line up the roads and shield the city behind white walls. Far beyond the fences, a new civilization is springing up from the brine waste of the seas. It is a world of birds, and snakes, and giants, all of them heeding to an unseen call. And there are peoples too, their faces marked or smooth, their hairs long and short, all of them harried by the pealing note that sounds as if a flute on the lips of the very wind. If their glazed eyes sense me, they are under too much duress to notice.

I plunge into the chaos, skipping past ostriches and bulls with dangerously-pointed horns until I finally see him. Qaino is standing before a mirror conjured from smoke, his head a crown of gleaming white stones worked into the thick black braids. His gown is a patch of gold-white crescents and black laces cascading across his breast and under his right arm into blood-red gossamer webs that thicken into a crimson drape about his feet. There is the same pair of sleeves along both arms, red and black in their colouring. His right shoulder is bare, and the earth brown of it glows as the torches spread golden light upon it, lending him and his features a fairness that stretches as deep as black is pretty.

A wicked smile plays on his lips when he turns and sees me.

“You have evil thoughts,” he sings as he dances down cloud steps, his arms at his back.

“What have you done?”

Qaino reaches the bottom of the stairs and turns toward a boy carrying red berries. The boy is dressed in a white suit and grey padded elbows, his forehead bearing a vertical mark. Qaino pops the fruit in his mouth before turning to face me. He speaks despite his full mouth.

“It is exactly as you see it, Aldyn. Like I told you before, the world was a beautiful—”

“What about your father?” I struggle to keep the urge out of my voice.

“He is dead. He was the one who lost this realm in the first place, and toads-be-stoned, but I was not going to let that happen again. It would have been stupid of me to let it.”

I shake my head and remember all the words his father had said. This was supposed to put an end to the wizard’s evil, give men a chance at choosing their own destinies. And your people…you left them—”

“The world is my people,” Qaino thunders. “And you think father would have destroyed this too? Huh, is that what you thought would happen? Do you know how he earned this in the first place?”

Doubts seep into my mind but I know they are his doing. I can feel his fingers in my head.

“You lie, Qaino. You are a usurper!”

“I am Mansa,” he screams. The city rocks at his words. Men cower to the ground and speak consoling words. An elephant rams into a stone wall, bringing a glass roof to the ground. Monkeys chatter nervously. Even the rivers overflow their channels.

When I turn, I find Qaino in an angry posture. This is new to him, I realise. He is still getting used to the power.

“I will not let you do this,” I say, not sure how I intend to stop a man with power over beasts.

Qaino laughs, and then he stops laughing and his eyes twinkle. “I will lend you a message from my wisdom,” he says with a malicious grin. “Your mother, she is dead.”

I start. I watch him and try to see the truth on his face. A wicked smile is all I make out. “You, you lie,” I stutter. “It is not true. I will not believe it.”

Even as I say it, I feel the tightness in my chest. A part of me goes cold. I hold on to a vine to keep my feet. My sword arm begins to tremble.

Qaino sits on the step and swallows a deep red drink. “I have no reason to lie,” he says. “Your mother died…”

“Shut up!”

His grin broadens. Beside me, a white goose passes by with her yellow chick.

“You refuse it at your own peril. I know everything. You know I know everything.”

I shake my head as I finally understand. “No, you do not know everything,” I tell him. “Anansi trapped the world’s wisdom, yes, but he never had everything. Nobody can know everything.”

The thought of it makes me smile, and my heart settles. “You are a child, Qaino. You are a child who stabs his father and jumps onto his mother’s back. You are a piece of abomination.”

“Enough!”

Chaos breaks out again among the workers. Qaino’s fury is palpable on his face. He slaps a mighty fist against a rock and crashes it to the ground.

“You will watch your tongue, Luckster.”

For a while, the word brings back memories of my time in Kestabal. I relive the chase all over again. The Deryndon returns, mighty and terrible with its gaping jaws to devour me. I see myself flying from the tenth floor, and then I am home and mama is not there. My eyes shoot to where I should find the Olden Mountains. We are too far away, and the city taking form is headed straight for the mainland. About me, the workers have settled into their duties; silent and diligent, just like the bees.

“What will happen to Zangi, mountain climber,” Qaino teases me. “Oh, I know, that one will marry her. Kae, you call him, eh? Kaenoldyn with the gentle voice, the protector. Kaenoldyn, the handsome one. You have lost everything, Aldyn. Accept it.”

I set my teeth and glower at him.

“You steal a crown—”

“I take it by right as it was stolen from us. Father will be proud.”

“Your father will piss on you from his grave.”

“He has no grave, you fool.”

“Oh, what dog-of-a-child! Your ancestors shit in your home, Qaino.”

Qaino leaps into the air with two gleaming swords in hand. I just about scramble clear. He leaves a deep gorge in the ground where I was. The animals fall into a frightened stupor again.

“Look at this one with fart in his armpit,” I continue to goad him. “What a pity. He stinks almost as good as shit.”

Qaino is taken by madness. He tries to ride a horse that is too scared to trot. The birds falter under his weight, and even the elephants refuse to rise despite all the spells with which he binds them.

“Oh, he has a crown. My ancestors! That makes your face only half as bad a donkey’s.”

The rivers froth. The land begins to revert to its former self. Before Qaino is able to bring himself to calm and put the pandemonium to rest, I sense another presence.

Qaino senses it too and freezes. His eyes blink severally as his fingers twitch. Along a path crowded with great baobab trees, I see the shape of a man swaggering toward us. For a while, I wonder if Dartei has not survived. Then I begin to fear that Ogboromojo has returned. As the figure comes closer with his walking stick though, I recognise the firm shoulders, the long head, and the deep-set eyes that are red as ember.

It’s Dendo.

Chapter 23

“I was wrong after all,” Dendo tells me in as cold a voice as I have ever heard.

I stare at him, speechless. There is no sign of his hurt or suffering. He is clothed in a long white robe with black chirping birds flying into a castle at the top of a hill. The torches cast a gloomy shadow of his to the floor that spooks the animals.

“I saw you die,” I manage to say, backing away as he comes forward.

Dendo smiles for the second time. Then he turns to Qaino and I see that Dartei’s son has not turned. He has his back toward the man. Dendo’s eyes flinch. They move from Qaino to the platform of a thousand webs, and I understand.

It all comes to me now. I remember his story and realise Dendo had been the protector whose advice the king had neglected. He was cast out by the new wizard, but he survived to secure his master’s freedom. And now he is back, and his master is no more. I do not know how I know this, but I know Qaino is afraid of Dendo. Perhaps, it is the fact that the monster that he killed has finally risen from its dead ruins and is standing near him, protecting him.

When he finally turns, Qaino’s brows are thick with sweat. His eyes are quick and low.

“It’s… it’s good to see you again, servant,” he says, a forced smile on his face.

Dendo regards him from over a high nose. “Still a child,” he says. “Now, where is your father?”

Qaino walks toward a spring and stirs its waters. “My father… you will meet him. We will all meet him. It’s good though, whatever you did. Aldyn has proven to be …a rather industrious child. Very hard to kill, apparently.”

“You can expect that from someone who actually loves his mother.”

Qaino stops smiling. The city darkens, the trees grow thorns ready to shoot.

A brow lifts on Dendo’s face. I gather the realisation there; he is surprised Qaino is able to affect the elements in such a manner, and he is wondering of bad things. Down on the ground, his shadow wavers despite the still flames. The animals flee.

“Stop playing, child. Where is your—”

“He killed him,” I blurt.

Qaino shoots a cold stare at me. “It was Aldyn,” he counters. “Aldyn killed him. He put the sword too far up father’s heart.”

I scoff. “Anansi was actually a better liar.” Turning to an angry Dendo, I tell him how it happened. “Qaino refused to save Dartei. Qaino watched him plead with pain in his eyes and let him die. He called Dartei careless, a thing with as much sense as toad in a stone. Can you imagine; a toad in a stone! He is nothing but—”

“Shut up,” Qaino screams. A thorn shoots from the brush. I duck.

Dendo trembles with anger. An animal snarl creeps into his voice and fills the city.

Qaino points to his beast. “Kill him,” he orders, backing away. “Kill him now.”

The bear bellows into the descended darkness. Landing on all four, it charges at Dendo, the spear scattering into an onyx armour over its body. I scramble up a tree for safety. A shadow stirs behind Dendo, and then a familiar black cat with blazing eyes leaps into attack. It catches the other with dagger claws that pierces the bear’s protection.

The bear howls as it falls, but the great cat doesn’t leave it to suffer.

Dendo swings his walking stick to reveal spear-points at both ends. He ambles toward Qaino.

“I was doomed in the Ifrit lands when Mansa Dartei saved me. My wounds were infested with sorcery spells, and my fire was cold as the night wind. Mansa healed me of my sickness, nourished my soul and fed me with his magic till my fire burnt. In return, I promised to protect his life with my own, and by the Maker of the Seven Heavens, I fought evil monsters and treacherous souls in fulfilling my duty. And if I were to fail, I would avenge his death till the last of my old blood. Thus I vowed to him, in blood and stone and before God who fashioned my soul and the fire in it. And now here I am, ready to spill his own blood to even the scales and free me of my oath. Draw your sword, child!”

Qaino weaves his hand after a fashion and reveals two silver-edged swords. Dendo doesn’t wait for him to be ready. He is elegant in his attack. He steps where he should. His blades cut like the double sides of a boomerang, blocking Qaino’s effort and sweeping his feet. The son of Dartei crashes to the ground and lifts himself up unnaturally. His bloodied face mends itself only to be slashed again. When he swivels, Dendo ducks and crashes the staff into his chest. He is merciless as he is lethal, and Qaino is left shuffling his feet to gain any leverage on his swings. Dendo’s cuts would shred an ordinary man, but Qaino is no longer an ordinary wizard’s son. Even then, the older one catches him in a powerful strike that sends him crashing into a wall. Cracks spider out of the place of impact, and the stone wall groans and tethers on the edge of falling.

The two beasts stop fighting as a certain stillness touches the city. Nothing moves, not the rivers, not the birds, and not a breath of clean air.

Dendo stands over his master’s son. “You are nothing of your father,” he says, lifting the spear above his head.

But something happens in a manner that deceives my eyes. In a moment, Qaino is not sprawled at the mercy of Dendo, but standing firmly on his feet a long way off. A surge of current rushes up his feet from the black earth on which he stands. The son of Dartei shudders and screams. The city’s walls crumble. I fall from the tree and cover my ears. Panic settles on the city again.

The calm that returns is cold with the wind, and Qaino smiles with a face that knows no fear. His crown fits like a perfect spire on a castle. He peels his lips further, and I see the white fangs. Behind him, darkness creeps like a wing.

“You are right, servant,” he says, looking up from beneath well-formed brows. “I am better than my father. I am Anansi.”

And when he falls into his dance, Qaino is no longer a man in motion. There is magic in his flow. His shadow wavers by his side as an ally, a thing that deceives, a voice that shrieks and pierces with fangs of ivory. The wind follows them both in company. Fire gleams in Qaino’s eyes. His sword-cuts weave burning silver into the night. There are webs from his fingers and venom in his teeth. He climbs and crawls, he flies and spins, and there is not a blow from Dendo that touches the gossamer of Qaino’s costume. He tells Dendo of his place within the ranks of the Jinns, down beneath the soles of his shit-stained feet, down in the pits of hell where he is destined. The monstrous bear lays his fangs into the shadowy cat as Dendo is showered with his own blood.

A clap of thunder brings my mind about and I realise Dendo’s fate will soon become mine. As I look about for a chance of escape, my eyes fall on the three pillars near the black stone. There are no bodies hanging from them but a certain energy pulses through them all the same. Breaking one might end the link and destroy the spell, I think. It has to.

I spot a lonely elephant among the beasts crouching about as if an audience at a theatre. Making a long rope out of the many vines, I tie one end to a hook on one of the walls. Then I steal some bananas from a monkey that is clapping at the ensuing battle and head for the elephant. The big animal doesn’t disappoint, and I have a moment’s worry about what I am planning to do. When I look back to where the men and beasts are fighting though, the thought leaves me, and I make a noose and draw the elephant further. As he feeds from my hand, I slip the noose around his head and guide him round the pillars toward his death.

The rope strains and halts his progress, but the lust for the fruit drives him further. The wall cracks and begins to give. The creaking sound reaches Qaino who turns to me with a furious glare.

Landing a blow at Dendo’s head, Qaino leaps into the air and glides toward us. His shadow pulses around him like a swirl of black water, and the wraithlike feature sends the elephant on its heels. He takes the final deadly step and plunges into the pit, trumpeting an echoing cry that chills my spine. The wall breaks and collapses against a tower.

Qaino is screaming. His swords spread out, his shadow forming a smoky wing behind him. As the tower collapses and shatters, the son of Dartei suspends for a moment in the air. I draw baba’s sword out and hold its point up. Qaino lands on it, skewered like sacrificial lamb. His shadow deserts him and he shrinks into something the size of an unborn foetus. Then he becomes even smaller and smaller and nothing of him remains before the world begins to collapse.

Chapter 24

The city is falling.

The animals and peoples have disappeared into wisps of dancing smoke and the marbled ceilings and great pillars are crumbling to ruins. Fighting through the ruins, I spot Dendo lying in his own blood and rush to his side. His breaths are faint.

“Go…save… save yourself. Leave me.” His words are blood-sputtered hisses.

I look around me, at the falling boulders and the splitting earth, and find a little aperture within the cave’s wall where the darkness is thick. Propping Dendo with my shoulder, I lead him to the small hole and let him lie down. A black cat sprouts from the shadow and blinks red eyes at me. It is a small thing, almost pretty, and it purrs like a meek kitten. Finding a huge slab of rock among the debris, I roll it to the entrance and seal it shut, leaving just enough space for light and air. Then I turn and save myself.

Running through a narrow corridor, I come up to the wizard’s huge hall. There is a gaping hole in its roof that reveals a starry night sky. A left path leads me to the prisons. The tormentors have long vanished with the disappearance of magic, making my releasing the poor souls easier than would have been the case. Haggard young men and women bow down to me in gratitude as they struggle through the still shuddering city.

I do not see Anansi’s descendant among them.

I call out Anansi’s name as I follow the long path, all the while trying not to fall into the deep holes that have formed in the ground. The last cell is open and empty when I find it, and beyond that, what I had perceived as the dwarf king’s realm is nothing but a mural of a great forest.

Back in Ogboromojo’s chamber, I find a figure lifting himself from the ruins. Gathering a sack over his shoulder, he reaches out to pluck something from the wall when I call out to him.

He turns, grimaces, and then he spins and flees.

“Hey, wait for me,” I scream as I struggle up the sloping floor. Old as he is, he manages his strides between the falling stones and shaking earth like a young life.

“Wait. You owe me—”

I dive away to avoid a rock smashing into the ground. The man rushes through the door and disappears into the night beyond. I claw my way around, jumping over chasms and skipping boulders. My body aches with fatigue. Dust and smoke choke the breath out of me as I make my slow way up the slope. Finally, the gate yawns before me and a breath of fresh wind soothes my face. Another tremor touches the earth, and the momentum carries me over the edge. My fall is awkward. My shoulder burns with pain.

The stillness of the earth is what makes me lie there, and I watch the columns of smoke rise till they blot the moon out. Anansi’s cave disappears into the ground, and a quietness settles over the world about me. It is when the deathly face appears over me that I find my senses. I jump to my feet.

I can’t understand why they still live; the death of Ogboromojo should have been the end of them yet here they are, forming a barricade to shield my escape. I draw baba’s sword and raise it. Pain shoots through my arm like a fired spike. I wince but am relieved it has an effect on the monsters. One of them lets out a hideous scream and slaps the ground, lamenting in an awful tongue as he backs away. The rest of them follow in his steps and open a path for me. I keep my sword up as best as I can and walk through the ghostly beings, my breaths painful in my chest, sweat stinging my eyes.

A section of the dead are holding the prisoners as hostages. Among them is Anansi’s descendant, his staff held up in defiance. When he sees me, he fights through the spears and falls whimpering at my feet.

“Please, please forgive me,” he begs. “Please, forgive an old man, eh. I will take you wherever you want, please.”

I pull away from his groping hands. “You ran. Why did you run?”

He looks up, and I see that he suffers to keep his eyes on me. “Why, but I thought you had become a wizard too.” The other prisoners cower under the deathful glances of their captors.

“What was I supposed to think, eh? You even have his locket too.”

I squint at him. “What—”

Then I see it around my neck. It is a three-point star at the end of a colourful system of chains. I do not remember putting it on. His pleas draw me out of my doubts and I look about and see that the monsters all have their eyes glued to the one thing.

“It is the power that holds them together,” he whispers. “They want it, even if they know it will be the death of them. It calls them like Mami Water lures a young man in his prime. There is lust, but also death and oblivion. You can live here, rule them…”

The ghosts waver before me as if tides of a white sea. They bear marks from their last fatal wounds, some still carrying the mattocks in their chest, others looking thin and spent from whatever magic took out their souls. Yet, in all of them, there is the single gaze from their sunken eyes that wanders and dances with the swinging locket about my neck. It sets them rocking, their fingers jittering and wriggling, and their foul breaths engulfing them in white clouds.

I yank the chain from my neck. There are a thousand gasps. The ghosts shrink back. Their lips tremble, their eyes fearful and lustful. Rolling the three-point star in my hand, I hurl it into the air above the teeming spectres. With a howl they launch themselves at it, climbing ghost steps and snatching and clawing to reach it. Giants roar as they leap, and a red-tailed Deryndon flaps its broken wing unsuccessfully. The locket tilts and catches the moon full on its face, and the glow of it wells and expands as the first ghost finger brushes against it. Then there is a scream, and a white light bursts across the Dead Sea, lighting up the plain of grim mountains and ghosts in their static, frozen forms. They remain there, a score of them hoisted into the night sky like a singular sculpture ravaged and chipped away by the biting fingers of time. Among them, there is the one with a red bandana. He bows his head at me from a place that seems to fill the heavens. And then the light disappears and there is nothing of the dead men or the locket; there is nothing save a lonely, mourning wind.

Chapter 25

I am sitting in a canoe and looking over a calm blue sea. The old man is playing a song with the cymbals at his fingers, his head bobbing at the rising sun over the waters. His eyes are quick, his fingers even quicker. He looks at me with a warm smile, miming words of a Golden stool that fell from the heavens and a Warrior queen who defended her people against invaders.

“How did you become his prisoner,” I ask. I sense the hesitation in his singing even though he continues to play. I notice the dimples on his face are almost perpetual. The look is vaguely familiar. I remain watching him till he stops playing, exasperated.

Turning to me, his brows furrow as he lifts a finger. “If we are going to be on this journey together, you will have to understand certain rules. One, never, ever, interrupt a singing man. It is rude, and a sign of poor upbringing. The fact that you can play with your mother’s breasts doesn’t mean you can touch your father’s testicles.”

A thin smile plays out on my face. “The old man forgets his place. Maybe I was wrong in saving him.”

His face relaxes and he lowers his finger, smiling. “Ahba! It has not come to that,” he says.

“How did you become his prisoner,” I ask again. “How was the wizard able to take over your cave and bind you like a pet?”

He puts his hands down and sighs. “Al, can I call you Al? Good, it is not right to believe anything of what you heard in that place,” he says, jabbing a finger behind him. “It was a place of magic and delusions. No word, no life, no death, was ever true. Everything was a big fat fake.”

I look over the bulging sea to where the cave once stood. A pall of dust now rests on the ground with the two-and-a-half pillars jutting into the air somewhere in between. He pretends to not watch me with the corners of his eyes, and I pretend not to see that the look in his eyes are those of a carefree spirit. I pretend to believe that he had been really afraid of the demons, of the wizard.

I smile.

The sea rocks against us. The scene is lulling; there is a gentle gait to our ferry; it moves as if to a destination of its own, guided only by the gentle waves in whose waters swim strange, marvellous fish; the birds, white-plumed and singing, skim the tides like white quills dipping into blue ink; and the end of the world is far off to the west where the sun will melt into a soft blaze of orange fires. The memory of the sight even before it is realised kindles tales of magic and stories that have no place in this world. It is not that there is a part of me that believes his words, or that I find his seemingly fearful, timid countenance any more believable than the giant fish that jumps out of the water and sends a frenzy among the flying birds. It’s just that, despite my yawning from a warm, fluttering breeze that seems out of place on this cold scene, I know enough of Anansi to understand his way with tricks and feigns. Anansi was a Luckster; one who scoured the four corners of the endless world to make a name for himself while breaking all the laws of the lands he visited. He was a man who trusted the sleight of his own hands instead of resorting to digging the wastelands to uncover boundless magic. Those antics that made him human made him vulnerable. He had a man’s heart and a man’s zeal. His knowledge and legend put him in a realm of his own, and people sought after him; to learn from him as well as to steal from him. All those deaths and destructions, the betrayals and tortured souls; all those bees, and life-saving serpents, and Dartei and Dendo; they were but machinations to achieve the ultimate: Anansi. Sadly, it is something that will continue to happen in one way or the other.

“You are wrong,” I say, looking back at the pillars. “There was nothing more real than the words uttered within those walls. If anything, the destruction proves the point why children sit under the moon and tell stories. The fire leaps into the air as if in dance to the songs they sing. The crickets whisper their secrets, and the owls steal glances and mutter curses in their fluffy night feathers while old women and men tell tales their grandfathers heard when they were children. For generations, the stories have endured. They have lingered and will continue to do so for people want a piece of it. Everybody wants to be a part of history, a part of important events that will continue to be related forever after their deaths. That… that is the legacy of Anansi.”

When I turn, he is no longer a singing man with cymbals on his fingers. He is a lean man with a great white beard and wisdom in his eyes. An old gourd sits idly at his hip. His golden Kente is wrapped over his left shoulder like the royalty it was meant for, and his long staff steadies the canoe and leads it to the quiet spots in the sea.

“Rest, child,” Anansi says to me in a singing voice as sleep comes to me. “Rest, our way is long.”

About Abdul

A Ghanaian living in Germany, I draw inspiration from my faith and write fantasy stories sprinkled with African imaginations. I lived for a year in Italy where I managed to grasp more than a few phrases before moving to Germany’s oldest university, Johannes Gutenberg University, to pursue an MSc in International Economics and Public Policy. Unlike many authors who were writing before they could walk, I did not start writing until long after my first degree in Ghana. And this was while trying to edit ‘Above the Law 360°’.

Since then, I have written and abandoned about a dozen blogs and novel ideas before finally settling on Faith, Football, and Fantasy.

Book One

Here is where it started:

Luckster: A Game of Life and Mama (The Thousand Day Journey (Mama’s Boy Series) Book 1)

At the foot of the Olden Mountains wreathed with ancient clouds, a bushy-haired village boy watches as a silver axe rents his father’s life to pieces. Since that night when panic and gore settled on the humble homes of Sharkney, the 7-year-old avid climber became his mother’s sole protector, traversing the vast lands of Empire to make a living and find the cure for her ailing heart.

Now, 17, Aldyn has wagered his life for the Heartstone to save his mama, but events bring him face-to-face with his father’s killer in the city of Kestabal. Aldyn’s thirst for vengeance and the twisting knots of fate lead to him being declared a fugitive after escaping a death sentence, and his journey becomes blighted by betrayal and strange visions of a man imprisoned by the mythical monsters called Deryndons.

Struggling for his life in the dark city of Lodim many leagues from home, Aldyn has worries greater than the ten-storey drop of the alchemist’s tower when he hears the Vultures are arming in ways never seen before. If he is to save his mother and the girl he conveniently calls sister, he will have to survive mercenaries and the mythical beasts that ride the high winds.

As the first novella in the Mama’s Boy Series, this fantasy/action adventure short story presents a fictionalised narrative of the true struggles of brave young men and women as they suffer to make a better life for their families.

Available on Amazon.

Free Book

The Trials: A Football Science Fiction

The atomic bombs have been destroyed in the wake of a massive war that destroyed too many lives. To sustain peace and foster healthy competitions, Football Incorporated has introduced an intercontinental competition that brings together each continent’s best players in a Football Series.

For 15-year-old Daru, being selected for the African Team will mean more than a dream come true. It would put food on the table and buy the drugs his sick niece needs so badly for her strange ailment.

For Jamal Appiah, his work with Football Inc. should not allow him to keep a football blog. However, when he is chased in the night by a group of strange, inhuman characters after witnessing a murder, he starts receiving messages on his blog from a stranger who might know more about him than he would like. The comments lead to doubts, and the death of a footballer at an exhibition match raises even more questions, or not.

Set in a re-imagined section of Ghana’s capital, Accra, The Trials is the first novella of the Football Series. It tells a story of a boy struggling with a family he had no hand in creating, and a world where nothing is what it seems.

Available here.

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Finding Anansi (The Thousand-Day Journey: Mama’s Boy Series)

When Aldyn returns home to find the Vultures have kidnapped his mother, he sets his mind on doing all he can to rescue her. But for years the Marauding Clans have been rumoured to live in unfathomed realms far from Empire, and nobody has ever known where to find them. Not to be discouraged, the boy from Sharkney embarks on a quest to find the mythical son of Anansi who lives in a cave at the far end of the Dead Sea. Anansi's last descendant is said to possess the knowledge of the world in his Gourd of Wisdom, and with it, Aldyn hopes to locate the raiders who murdered his father and have now taken his mother. After saving a strange man from death, Aldyn has to overcome a ghost king and his dead army to climb the steep slopes that lead into the cave. Inside, he might find what he seeks... and a wizard looking to unleash the vilest evil into this world. To find his mother though, Mama's Boy will have to help him reach his goal. Finding Anansi is the story of how far a boy goes to find the love that is mama. This boundless and endless craving for another soul will bring the oldest legends to life, while making new ones.

  • ISBN: 9781310687020
  • Author: Abdul
  • Published: 2016-02-28 20:20:13
  • Words: 37788
Finding Anansi (The Thousand-Day Journey: Mama’s Boy Series) Finding Anansi (The Thousand-Day Journey: Mama’s Boy Series)