Ejani jerked awake, eyes wide and disoriented as his mind struggled to become fully aware.
“Wake up, Eja!” Small arms grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him violently. “You must wake up now, Eja. We have to leave the hill.”
Ejani brushed the hands off his shoulders irritably and pushed himself off the mat, rubbing at his eyes.
*Wake up child!* A voice echoed deep in his head.
*Leave him be, Azu* another said wryly,* Let him stand open mouthed like a confused baboon. They will cut his tongue out and chop him to pieces soon enough.*
Ejani jumped, startled by the sound of screaming and running. He looked about, recognition reducing his confusion but only slightly. He was in his dwelling on the hillside, where he had lived for the past three seasons since seeking refuge with the asiwaje. Nnali stood before him, her hands back on his shoulders and her pale eyes wide and wet with fear and tears. Her milky iga skin was covered in angry pink blotches in places where she had been bruised. Ejani looked from her skin to her face, his confusion quickly returning.
“We must go Eja, we cannot stay here any longer.”
“Go?” Nnali’s fear and panic were beginning to grab hold of him. He looked past her and out the doorway; it was chaos. Fires burned all over the hill, thick black smoke hung low, thick enough to seem tangible but not too much that you could not glimpse the forms of people running about frantically. “Go where? Nnali, what’s happening?”
“The Ikure are attacking. They are killing every asiwaje!”
The Ikure? Ejani’s eyes widened and the fear that had begun creeping up on him totally engulfed him. If the Ikure were attacking, there was no point running. They were already dead.
Nnali grabbed his hand and dragged him towards the doorway. She looked about trying to decided which way was safest.
“The Ikure?” Ejani whispered in a daze. “Why?”
“We are asiwaje, Eja, outcasts,” Nnali shouted, getting exasperated with Ejani’s slowness. “Do they need a reason?”
*The reason is of far less importance than your life, child,* Azu’s voice came again. *survival comes first.*
*Ha, what does he know about survival?* the other asked. *Dying might be the only thing he may actually turn out to be good at.*
*If he dies, Otu,* a third and calmer voice said, *then we all do.*
*Yes, yes, Iru, I know,* Otu admitted grudgingly, *It is one thing to be an nsojida and it is another to be saddled to this useless boy. Tell her to go east, you little baboon, head for the stream.*
“Go_go left.” Ejani whispered to Nnali. *Go left towards the stream.*
Nnali turned around, her brows furrowed in confusion. “Left? Why, there’s noth_ was it your nso that told you that?”
Ejani nodded and had barely opened his mouth to speak when Nnali yanked him eastward, he had enough presence of mind to maintain his balance and join her as she broke into a run. Once outside the cave, the screams and smoke and the sound of angry flames descended upon his senses, filling his mind and lungs as he ran alongside Nnali. What was happening? Why were the Ikure attacking the asiwaje in their own lands? He squinted into the smoke but could barely make out the Ikure as they flitted in and out the shadows, swift and ruthless like asans, beasts from beyond.
Nnali stumbled on a charred stump and fell to her face, something soft and wet gave way with a squelch beneath her weight. Quickly, she struggled to push herself up, her disgust and fear barely contained, and was about to resume her run when she froze, her eyes widening as she stared at the thing she had stumbled over. Ejani barely avoided running into her but she paid no attention, her gaze was transfixed on the ground.
“Nnali,” Ejani tried to catch his breath, glancing from her terror-filled face to the ground. “What_
He had the sudden urge to empty his stomach and felt the bile rise in his throat. A few bodies had been heaped upon each other to form a small pile of tattered flesh, their blood mingling freely as it trickled down the pile to soak the earth in a collective pool. An iga lay closest at their feet, his white skin torn up like so many blood-soaked rags, as though a wind full of blades had descended upon it with a sudden furry. It had been ripped and shredded leaving only a glimpse of an agonised face. Nnali’s breathing came out in panicked rasps and for a moment her legs trembled.
*Keep moving, boy!* Otu scolded. *Let the dead worry about the dead, or you both shall join them!*
Ejani reached forward and pulled out a short blade, which was impaled, he guessed, in its owner’s chest, then grabbed Nnali’s arm and urged her forward. Dazed, she followed reluctantly, her legs stiff with fear.
“Do you want to die, Nnali!” Ejani shouted. It seemed to snap her out of her daze and she resumed running towards the stream.
Ejani’s mind raced almost as fast as his heart. Why? Why now?
*The Ikure are hired assassins boy, if they are killing the asiwaje, then it is because they have been paid to do so. Unless you want to personally meet and ask one of them, I suggest you focus on running, baboon.*
From the darkness ahead, an nbe bound towards them brandishing a blade, his short stubby legs and wide feet pounding the earth with each step. Ejani could almost feel his rage and anger and for a moment, he was afraid the nbe might mistake them for enemies. The nbe broke his run and stopped before them, his chest rising and falling like floating barrels.
“Why do you still linger?” He demanded, standing no taller than Ejani’s waist, though he was more than ten seasons older. “Why are you going this way?”
“We’re running towards the stream.” Ejani managed to stammer.
“The stream? There is no safety there. The safest place is in the deep caves under the hill. Now run!”
The nbe had barely finished speaking when a dark shape blurred into focus beside them. The nbe’s reflexes were fast, faster than even Ejani had known them to be. A sudden clash of metals rang through the air as two blades met. One clean and gleaming, the other red and dripping with fresh blood. Ejani stared at the figure before them, skin black as night with red paintings that formed patterns all over its body. The patterns were like nothing he had ever seen and they seemed to gleam like the blood dripping from its blade. Ejani looked up at its face, red paint the shape of a skull and two pitiless eyes stared back, its pupils large enough to almost cover all of its whiteness; the face of death. It was hard to tell whether it was male or female, its limbs were slender and wiry enough to be mistaken for either, and the wrapping about its chest gave nothing away.
The Ikure launched itself at the nbe. Clang! Clang! Clang! It struck with such force and ferocity that Ejani did not find it hard to imagine a person being sheared in half by a single strike.The nbe barely kept up with the speed with which the Ikure attacked, parrying and blocking more than he attacked. For a moment that seemed like a season, Ejani and Nnali watched the exchange, transfixed and terrified.
“Run, you foolish children,” The nbe shouted as he avoided a blow long enough to notice them. “Go to the caves! Go now!”
*Yes, run you baboon, but not to the caves. Nothing but death awaits you there.* Otu’s voice filled his head.
Ejani fumbled for Nnali’s arm and dragged her away, breaking through a clump of low shrubs that covered that side of the hill.
“Eja, he said the caves,” Nnali said between gasps. “Why are we still going this way?”
“Trust me, Nnali, we must go this way.”
“Are you sure, Eja, it’s not that I do not trust you, but how can I take the word of an isunso. All nso are devious, you know that.”
Ejani winced. She had called him an isunso. True, that was what he was, a vessel of dark spirits, but being called that by Nnali saddened him.
“Yes, but an nso will do any and everything to preserve its host. Keep running, Nnali.”
“Eja, I’m not sure ab_”
A loud scream came from behind them, a scream that was abruptly cut off. Ejani had the sudden image of a severed head flash through his mind. There was no doubt the scream had come from the nbe they had just left behind. Ejani’s heart beat even faster and louder. Nnali yanked her arm away from his grip and staggered a few steps backward.
“I can’t go with you, Eja,” she stood hugging herself and trembling as tears stained her face. She was terrified. “It’s not that I don’t trust you… I just… I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Nnali spun around, stumbling over the shrubs as she ran blindly.
“No!” Ejani reached out in protest. “Nnali, stop!”
He stared at her back as she ran, barely visible in the darkness. What could he do? If she died, it was her choice wasn’t it? She should have stayed. Oh, Nnali! Ejani panicked in confusion. Nnali, who he thought was his closest friend, could not trust him with her life.
*Trust is hard, Ejani,* Iru’s calm voice came. *Especially for one whose kind is continuously sacrificed by family and kinsmen. Trust is a dangerous thing for her.*
Ejani nodded to himself. He had made a decision; he would not let Nnali get herself killed. He reached out again in her direction and summoned his will.
A shadow streaked out from under his feet, faster than a striking snake, weaving through the shrubs and rocks until it latched onto and engulfed Nnali’s shadow.
Nnali went rigid with a barely audible gasp, then she stood slowly before turning about. She smiled wide in a way unusual for her, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. She stretched her form, luxuriating in her slenderness and then she bound back towards Ejani.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “It has been a while since I did not share a body with Otu! A woman’s body nonetheless!”
*Keep your voice down, you worthless heap of dung,* Otu shot back. “Go on like that and it will be but a very short experience.*
“Your jealousy drips heavy.” Azu spoke through Nnali. “Let us go, we don’t have time to spare.”
Ejani followed behind as Nnali bound ahead, Azu’s warrior-like instincts already evident in her movement.
*Why would you allow him possess her and not me, foolish child* Otu protested.
*You are too reckless, Otu, Ejani was wise in his decision.* Iru reprimanded.
*Of course you would say that, sterile creature that you are. It is a wonder that you are an nsojida created by the almighty Odajida!*
Together they ran through the bushes on the hillside, faster as they descended downhill towards the stream at the bottom. Ejani’s sides ached and his breathing was fast and shallow with fatigue but fear compelled him further and so he ran. Nnali under Azu’s control showed no sign of fatigue, she bound and leaped and wove through the bushes as though she was a forest person, much to Ejani’s envy.