*You know you can let me take over your body, Ejani,* Otu said coyly, *Wouldn’t you want to move that fast and effortlessly, let your mind rest for a few moments. You are exhausted, are you not?*
Ejani felt a sudden heaviness come upon his limbs and he stumbled for a moment, almost falling over. The near fall jolted him out of the lethargic feeling and quickly he clamped his will over the nsojida’s suggestions. For a moment he had almost succumbed to Otu; a terrible mistake he could never allow happen again. Reining in a nsojida as malevolent as Otu was a task he had vowed never to relive.
*You did well, Ejani,* Iru’s voice encouraged him, *I shall lend you some strength.*
*Would you crawl back into your tiny hole, Iru. Were we in Wajida, I would have you as a lowly minion.*
*You had your try, as is your right, Otu, I did not interfere. Seize your bickering.*
Ejani understood it was an nsojida’s right to scheme against man as it was Otu’s right to attempt to outwit its master. He felt Iru’s suru fill his limbs and his tiredness disappeared. Wondering, not for the first time, if Iru was really an nso, he ran to catch up with Azu. It was more than a few moments before they reached the edge of the stream, by then Iya’s first light had just began to brush the treetops.
*We must cross through the deep end.* Azu said, pointing with Nnali’s hands to the part of the stream with stronger currents.
“Why?” Ejani frowned in confusion.
*It is the only way to be sure of escaping the Ikure.*
“I don’t understand.”
*Well if you had a brain bigger than a baboon’s you would, stupid boy.* Otu’s anger had not subsided. *Whether you crawled into the deepest cave or climbed the highest tree in all of the Obasi Kingdom, the Ikure would sniff you out. If they can smell an ant passing gas, how much so the stench of a stinking baboon like you, boy? The water would hide your scent long enough to fool them.*
*Enough, Otu.* Iru admonished. *Save your childishness for later, we have no time for this.*
Ejani looked back at the hill, thick clouds of smoke painted the skies above black. He thought he could hear screams coming from the hill. Perhaps he was imagining it. He pulled his gaze away and moved towards the stream. Already, Azu was waist-deep and threading through the water. Halfway across the stream, he submerged Nnali’s entire body long enough to allow the currents wash over her and then he made his way to the other side.
*Quickly, Ejani.* Azu beckoned from across the stream.
Ejani ran to the edge of the stream but froze the moment his leg touched the water. He felt it more than he heard it. The whistle of a boku dart as it missed his neck by a hair’s breadth. Ejani spun around, docking as more darts wheezed past him. There was a gentle rustle of leaves and then a black figure launched itself out from the covering of foliage to land softly before Ejani, not a sound, not a single puff of dust was raised. His heart almost burst into a hundred pieces. It was the same Ikure from before. Or did they have the same markings? No, it was definitely the same one. He recognized the cold look in its eyes. The Ikure must have followed them, cruelly allowing them a false hope of escaping.
“Take Nnali somewhere safe, Azu!”
Azu nodded once through Nnali and disappeared into the trees across the stream. The Ikure barely glanced her way. It cocked its head and looked at Ejani’s feet. Three shadows lay at his feet, one extending across the stream in the direction Nnali had gone, the other two rested on the ground like normal shadows cast by Iya’s light. It glanced at the short blade he held and a cold smile spread across its blood red lips as it dropped into a stance; the same one it had used against the nbe. A shiver ran down Ejani’s spine but he remained calm. He had an advantage over the Ikure, he knew the hillside and what was in it. He remained still and waited for the attack.
The Ikure launched itself at the knife-wielding Ejani, blade raised and gleaming red.
“Now!” Ejani shouted. The shadows that were Iru and Otu extended from his feet, faster than the eyes could follow and disappeared into the bushes. Before the blade could descend on him, a pack of bushdogs leaped out of the bushes, lunging at the Ikure in midair. Faster than Ejani thought was possible, the Ikure spun about and sliced through the nearest bushdog. It was quick but not quick enough to avoid the snarling jaws of another as it bit deep into its shoulder. The Ikure’s blade cut through the bushdog’s jaw in a blur. It landed on its hunches and somersaulted backwards, away from the ring of dogs that now surrounded Ejani, connected to him by shadows that looked like the many branches of a tree.
The Ikure squatted before Ejani, blood trickled down its left shoulder and down its arm. There was no sign of pain on its face, instead it smiled again and this time Ejani felt himself shiver with fear. His surprise attack had only bought him more time. His death was inevitable.
*Be calm, Ejani.* Iru instructed. Even Otu had no snide comments this time.
The Ikure, still smiling its cold smile, reached behind it and brought out something Ejani had assumed was just a tuft of dried raffia.
*I think our time in this world has come to an end,* Otu said, there was an unmistakable tremble in his voice. *Being trapped in this baboon, torture as it has been, it was infinitely much better than being trapped in Wajida. I bid you farewell Ejani.*
It was one of the fewest times Otu had referred to him as anything but an animal, and definitely the only time he had ever used his name. Ejani’s fear intensified as he watched the Ikure mutter at the object it held. A wooden mask, its eyes and mouth dark and hollow, trailing a thick mane of raffia dyed black with red streaks,
*Iru, what is going on.* Ejani thought to his nsojida. *What is that?*
*The single thing that sets the Ikure beyond all other killers. It is an Ikuku mask. The suru in it increases their abilities beyond measure. Be alert, Ejani, do not let your guard down for a single moment. We will not die on this day.*
*Hmph!* Otu scoffed. *Make peace with your grave, boy.*
The Ikure donned the mask and the transformation was instantaneous. A wave of suru erupted from the mask and the air around the Ikure trembled like heat rising from hot coals. The red markings on the Ikure seemed to acquire a life of their own, writhing and stretching.
*Prepare yourself, Ejani, he comes!*
The Ikure launched itself again at Ejani, this time he could barely follow its movements, it blurred across the distance between them leaving Ejani barely enough time to send the dogs after it. The Ikure’s red blade went through the dogs, slicing through bones and sinew as easily as it would through air. Ejani leaped away just in time to avoid a swing aimed for his head. He looked in horror at the deep cleft the blade made in the sand and the image of that being his head flashed through his mind. The Ikure spun about, swinging the blade like a deadly acrobat, each time barely missing Ejani. Iru and Otu hurled the dogs at it and each time, they were cut down in midair like flies unworthy of unnecessary effort, the Ikure’s cold eyes all the while fixed on Ejani from behind its terrible Ikuku mask.
Ejani stretched his nso, reaching for more bushdogs from the base of the hill but there were only so many of the canines left, and soon, only a meager handful formed a feeble wall between the Ikure and himself. Ejani’s vision swooned and his legs shook with exhaustion and fear, a multitude of cuts covered his body, slowly seeping blood from where the tip of the Ikure’s blade had touched him on numerous occasions. He was running out of strength and resolve.
Calmly, the Ikure regarded Ejani. He could tell it was smiling. It brought its blade to its free hand and cut across its palm, blood pooled around the cut. In one quick gesture, it flung its hand open in an arc, splattering blood upon the bushdogs between itself and its quarry.
*Unbind the dogs!* Otu shouted. *Quickly, you baboon!*
Ejani unbound the dogs immediately. The urgency in Otu’s voice didn’t afford him the chance to doubt the nso. He heard the Ikure mutter lowly and watched in horror as dark voids grew from its blood to engulf the dazed dogs completely. In mere moments, there was nothing between Ejani and the Ikure. The dogs were no more.
*What happened?* Ejani panicked.
*The Ikuku mask gives him access to Ikumbawa, the land of the dead. Those dogs are no longer in this realm, Ejani*
*What else can the mask do?* He asked silently.
*They can step in and out of Ikumbawa as they please.*
As if to prove Iru’s point, the Ikure stepped to the side, disappearing, leaving nothing but some sort of black dust behind. Ejani whipped about, brandishing his short blade that suddenly began to feel like a twig compared to what he found himself facing.
The word drifted out of the empty air.
Isunso… I shall free you of your nso…
Ejani spun about trying to locate the source. He knew the Ikure’s taunting was only to unsettle him but he could not help being unsettled.
…carve out your nso-infested iku and wring the blackness from it…
*Behind you!* Otu warned.
Ejani spun out of the way in time to feel the tip of the Ikure’s blade brush his neck and just as quickly as it had revealed itself, it stepped out of sight again leaving the same black dust behind.
*He’s toying with you.* Iru said.
“What do you mean?” Ejani looked about frantically.
*You should be dead a thousand times over, you little baboon. The only reason you’re alive is because this Ikure’s blade has no boku on it.*
Ejani knew the nso spoke the truth. He had seen a cruel coldness in the Ikure’s eyes. It was merely prolonging the fight with him for the simple pleasure of it.
Ejani raised his blade fast enough to parry the Ikure’s attack, falling to his knee from the force of the strike. The Ikure disappeared again. Moments that felt like seasons passed and the Ikure stepped in and out of Ikumbawa, attacking Ejani from different directions until exhausted, Ejani knelt in the sand, slashing desperately at the air in random directions. He felt drained, of both strength and will.