*Iru, I think the boy is ready to die.* Otu said wryly.
*Silence,* Iru reprimanded. *Ejani, it is time to end this. We can defeat the Ikure.*
Ejani shook his head, too tired to speak or think.
*We can.* Iru assured him. *Everything has a pattern. Look closely.*
Ejani tiredly glanced about, there was nothing but the corpses of a few bush dogs and black dust scattered about. He shook his head again.
*Let me help you.*
In an instant, Iru’s vision filled Ejani’s head and in his mind’s eye, he saw the insubstantial tendrils that connected the patches of black dust on the ground and he understood what Iru was trying to show him but he was too weak to do anything about it.
*We will grant you our strength.*
*We? I do not intend to let this baboon partake of my suru.*
*It would be wise to bury your grievances for a moment, Otu, we do not have much time. Now do as I say.*
Ejani felt the inflow of strength, like a sudden breath of fresh air. He was alert and he knew what to do; there was no time to waste, the Ikure would reveal itself at any moment.
*Azu!* He commanded just as the Ikure appeared, he had left Azu until it was absolutely necessary.
The Ikure swung its blade for a fatal blow expecting to separate Ejani’s head from his body but instead met the snapping jaws of Azu’s bushdog. The Ikure faltered, unbalanced by the dog’s lounge. Quickly it adjusted itself and sliced through the attacking beast before turning about to face Ejani but Ejani was nowhere. The Ikure looked about for the isunso but there was no trace of him. Then a shadow fell across him and he looked up just in time to see Ejani’s short blade come down upon his face, burying itself deep between the eyes of the mask. An explosion of unseen suru flung Ejani away, throwing him hard against the earth. He pushed himself up, ready to continue his attack on the Ikure but saw it gripping its head, thrashing about with the blade still stuck in the mask.
*The Ikuku’s suru flows uncontrolled. It shall devour him.* Iru said.
*Finish it, Ejani.* Azu said.
Ejani nodded and held both hands towards the writhing Ikure.
*Collect its thoughts, Iru”
Three shadows streaked from his feet and engulfed that of the Ikure. Its writhing stopped and then its body trembled once, twice and went still. The shadows withdrew back to their roots.
“Show me, Iru.”
*Eja, maybe it is knowledge best left with the dead.*
“Iru, show me its thoughts now.”
Once again, Iru’s sight filled Ejani’s head, bringing with it the memories of the Ikure. Images fleeted about, voices echoed off, feelings, thoughts, words drifted through his head and as suddenly as it had began, it was over and Ejani knew why. The elders of various villages had decided that the asiwaje were too much of an abomination to be allowed to live.
*Why do you stand shocked, boy?* Otu asked. *It’s no secret that people have always hated the asiwaje, abominations that wander across Mba with inconceivable abilities. Iga, nbe, isunso, esu, I cannot even name them all. It was only a matter of time until something like this happened. I’m surprised it took this long.*
Ejani’s shock did not wane even with the truth in Otu’s words. It was not enough that they branded them outcasts and drove them out into the bushlands but now they wanted to kill them all. Ejani felt hot angry tears well up in his eyes.
*Feeding off that Ikuku’s suru almost makes it all worth it.* Otu went on.
*Tactless creature you are, Otu.* Azu said.
Ejani suddenly remembered Nnali. “Where is she?”
*Her body lies a safe distance away from the stream,* Azu answered, Ejani made his way towards the stream even as he spoke. *She sleeps.*
Nnali lay sleeping, her back upon a tree. She seemed so peaceful and at rest if you looked past the pink bruises against her milky skin. Ejani walked up to the tree as quietly as he could and gently laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Nnali,” he whispered.
She stirred and then opened her eyes. For a moment she stared at Ejani’s face, disoriented, but slowly her memories returned and the pleasant look of recognition faded into one of horror. She slapped Ejani’s hand away from her, pushing herself away and backing into the tree.
“Don’t touch me!” She screamed, her eyes filled with hate and revulsion.
“Do not come close to me, isunso,” her voice trembled and her body shook. “You used your nso to posses me!”
Ejani stared at her in a daze, her face was contorted in anger and tears filled her eyes.
“Nnali, it was to save your life.” Ejani pleaded. “The caves were not safe.”
“You allowed your nso to take over my body!” She spat on the ground with revulsion, scratching against her arms hard enough to leave pink streaks on her skin. “How could you? You had no right to my body! You are the same as all men, isunso.”
“I couldn’t let you run to your death, Nnali.”
Nnali got to her feet and stared at Ejani through cold eyes. “I would rather die by the hands of a dozen Ikure than be possessed by an nso!”
She shoved him aside and ran for the stream, leaving Ejani pondering her shocking words.
*And that, foolish boy, is what you get for trying to be a hero.* Otu’s derisive laughter echoed in his head.
*Eja, she’s crossing the stream!* Azu warned.
“The Ikure!” Ejani started to his feet and ran in her direction.
*Fear not,* Azu spoke. *Iya stands high and bright in the sky. The Ikure only attack under Nda’s cover.*
Ejani ran after her, stumbling across the stream in his haste to reach the other side. He ran up the hill, through the shrubs and soon he was upon the dwellings of the asiwaje. He stood, frozen at the sight of the horror before him. Blood and ash colored the once green carpet of grass that covered the earth, tall piles of charred flesh dotted the hill still releasing thick streams of black smoke and, countless numbers of arms and legs were strewn across the ground as though the earth had suddenly and randomly sprouted limbs. It was silent except for the crackle of burning embers. Not a single soul stirred. The black wind of the Ikure had swept across the hill of the asiwaje and had left nothing but blood and ash in its wake.
Ejani threaded gently across the corpse-filled expanse towards the caves, looking ahead so he would not see the bodies, or worse, see a face he recognized. Agony weighted heavily in his chest.
“Twice.” He whispered.
*Twice what?* Iru asked.
*What is this baboon mumbling?*
*Silence, Otu, he mourns the loss of family.*
Nnali knelt before the mouth of the deepest cave, her shoulders fallen and her eyes staring blankly at the sky. Ejani did not need to go into the cave to know what she had seen.
“Dead,” She said, her voice barely a whisper. “They’re all dead. Children… everyone…” her voice trailed off as she turned to face Ejani.
“I am sorry Nnali,” Ejani put his palms up, afraid she might run again. “I could not let you die.”
“Maybe you should have.”
“Enough, Ejani. You might have saved my life but that life is worth nothing anymore. Just leave me be.”
Before he could speak, she looked away and did the one thing she could; she sang as only an iga could. She sang a deep and sorrowful song, a song for the dead, and as she sang, a gentle breeze swept over the hill, stirring to her melody, rising and falling to the pitch of her voice.
*Do you see them, Eja?* Iru asked.
At first he could see nothing but then he began to see the pale wisps that fleeted about Nnali.
*Esu,* Iru said. *Wandering spirits that will find no rest until, drop for drop, their blood has been avenged. The iga‘svoice calls them. She will be their anchor to this world until they pass to the next.”
Ejani stood listening for a few moments, watching the iku of the fallen asiwaje coalesce as esu around Nnali but when the weight in his chest threatened to get heavier than he could bear, he turned about and headed back in the direction he had come. Nnali’s voice followed him till he reached the stream.
*What do you plan to do, Ejani?* Azu asked.
Ejani remained silent as he walked over to the dead Ikure and picked up its blade and pulled the Ikuku mask off its face.
“Can this mask be used?”
*Ah, the baboon is not as foolish as I believed.* Otu said. *The Ikuku will heal itself once its suru returns, as to whether a baboon like you can wield it is yet to be determined.*
*What do you plan to do, Eja?*
“Amasena once told me that there were other asiwaje settlements to the east,” He finally replied. “The Ikure plan on wiping us all off Mba. I shall warn them and if I am too late, I shall decide wether to hunt down and kill as many Ikure until they number as many as the asiwaje they have killed or make the ones who sent them pay dearly. I swear this on my life.”
*Ha!* Otu scoffed. *The baboon feels a burst of courage, does he?*
“Call me a baboon one more time, Otu, and I shall bind you to the body of a snail for the rest of your days.”
For a moment, Otu was silent then he said, *Ah, the bab_, the boy begins to grow into a man. Eastwards and vengeance, it is then.*
*Haha, I wish you had said it, Otu,* Azu derided. *You would fit perfectly within a snail.*
Ejani looked up the hill once more, hoping to see Nnali, hoping she had changed her mind about remaining there but most of all, hoping she would look upon him as a friend again and not just an isunso. He saw no one.
*She will not watch your parting, Eja.* Iru said gently.
He nodded in sadness and painfully looked away, then hefting the mask and blade, Ejani crossed the stream for the last time and began walking eastwards. Already, the journey ahead weighted heavily on his heart.