Challenge Twenty Two: Xavier
**A chant within the storm. Leggo**
“A CHANT WITHIN THE STORMS? I HAVE SEEN DEATH…!!!”
It was cold.
The winds were fierce.
Shonekan was dying. His sight wavered through a sheen of rain water trickling in from his brows, threatening to obscure his eye sight as he beheld the ‘howlers’ before him floating on insubstantial air, diabolical relics of ancient magic gone ‘very’ wrong. Their ragged cloaks whipped to and fro; the inky blackness of which seemed to suck in whatever scarce light was left by the darkened sky. He observed that their spindly arms stripped of almost any mortal flesh, hung dramatically, outstretched, ending in a palm bulging curiously from which six fingers grew, fingers that were in a constant state of motion like those of Okafor the flutist as he strummed his ‘Opi’. Their faces were distinctive wooden masks, each a reflection of a life trapped in agony, carved from the bark of a tree Shonekan had heard the fables say blocked the pathways of Oku mmuo, from the eyes of the gods in their celestial rest in Eli-Igwe.
Lightning flared. The panic in the fleeing people of Bili Ocha seemingly rose an octave higher as Shonekan tasted blood in his mouth; it was like raw egg, whisked and slightly rancid with a metallic tinge. Already he was way beyond disheveled; dreadlocks a messy mat of mud and twigs, drenched wet beyond redemption to his skin as shivers ran down his spine in continuous tremors. Lightening flared again, and caught up in their flash, the surrounding huts appeared like the giant domes of ‘Ebele’, mother tortoise when she slept. He tried to move for his new hunting dagger; a gift from an old beggar he had helped shelter in a cave during the early drizzle of the rain, but screamed wordlessly as the shocking reality of pain piercing through his left side, apparently from a fractured rib, left him bereft of any restraint or self control. Try as he might, he could go no further. What more could a boy of twelve do against such insurmountable foes, such malevolent array of fiendish hosts?
Thunder clapped. He saw a howler move lithe as a feather borne in the winds, zigzagging towards a fleeing woman, its twig like arms outstretched as the creature keened an unearthly wail. Quick as thought, the creature bore down on the woman who stumbled and fell, slipping upon the all too slippery earth. The creature hesitated for a moment, like a child uncertain of taking its first steps, its dozen fingers dancing slowly, appreciating the feast to come, before reaching out to touch the unfortunate woman, delicately, deliberate like a comforting lover. But were it should have met the resistance of her skin, the howler’s arms passed through her, as if her skin were immaterial, nonexistent. Immediately, the spot on her skin its groping fingers passed through turned a pale icy white, spreading throughout her body, at a rate too alarming and ominous for Shonekan’s mind to contemplate. An unearthly howl issued from her mouth, her breath coming forth in tendrils of pale mists, in a thin swirl that snaked into the buccal openings of the howlers mask. Soon, her lifeless form crumbled upon the wet dirt, flaking immediately it touched the earth into bits that looked like ash to the untrained eye. Shonekan had witnessed firsthand a howler give its fabled ‘death-wish’.
The villagers of Bili Ocha were doomed, their fates sealed since the mysterious summoning of the howlers. What priest in his rightful mind would dare summon those ‘things’, Shonekan thought. In a flash his mind wondered where ‘the Masquerade’, enforcers of the ancient pacts of the Immortal Ndi Mmuo and their brothers in the gburugburu nso, the holy circle of gods, stationed in Bili Ocha were and how they could let such massacre go undeterred. Then he coughed, an involuntary action on its own, but in that instant he wished he hadn’t, for the arms of the howler upon the woman’s ashy remains jerked sharply, bird like, spraying wet ash in its path as all dozen fingers were for a moment at a standstill as slowly the creature turned its wooden head to behold its new quarry and Shonekan knew he had seen death.
The howler’s fingers resumed dancing. Shonekan’s heart thudded in his chest like the ceremonial drums wailing at new yam’s festivals. Screams of the dead and dying seemed suddenly strangely muted as he tried in vain to reach his dagger. He extended his right hand as far as they would let him go amidst the nerve racking pain, but still he barely grasped the dagger’s runed blade. If only he could just reach further, he thought in misery. The howler howled low, like a broken flute. Shonekan registered vaguely in an aspect of his fear beclouded mind that at such distance of about 50 yards he shouldn’t be able to hear that. He could perceive movements from the blind spots of his vision; something ominous was lurking just outside the fringe of his sight. He tasted his salty sweat in the trickling rain water flowing from his face as he lay near motionless upon a slowly forming pool of rain water, blood and urine. Another howler floated in from a crumpled shed to Shonekan’s left, and another flew in from a wooden pile just as close, hovering above the sleek mud, all three howlers feeling the air around them with outstretched hands, floating around, howling strangely, dancing in the winds, slowly towards Shonekan.
The winds picked up, coursing through the floating howlers, throwing them like dried leaves, and like dried leaves, they scattered and where once floated three howlers hovered nine. Shonekan said his prayers to the gods of his father, what was this he saw? The winds picked up again, and there were well over two dozen howlers, all floating to his direction, drawn towards him like iron fillings to a magnet. In an instant they gathered round him, a great host and as fear threatened to drive him insane he wondered, ‘why always me?’.
The dozen or so howlers closest to him stretched forth their hands, an arm each, fingers dancing rhythmically, an unholy pattern no child would have to witness and then Shonekan saw it. An eye each was fixed in the depth of the creature’s palm, huge, reddened and limned in tears… ‘no, rain water’. Those things had no feelings Shonekan thought as fingers closed in, hairs breath from his skin, for a moment he beheld a ghostly sight; chains, glowing with strange runes running down from each howler’s wrist, sinking into the earth, voices screaming in agony, seemingly coming from each chain link and then just as quick as the vision came, it disappeared. Shonekan accepted his fate. Death as a parable of his fathers went was not the problem neither was the manner in which one died. The life one lived was all that mattered, but by his estimates, his was still like a new oil lamp snuffed out cold yet to burn. He prayed in Igbo, the only language he had come to know and wished in thoughts not words, yet knew no answers could possibly come. The cloaked figures closed in on him, blotting out all light. Shonekan closed his eyes. A note rent the air.
A scream of sorts that could be the winds changing the music of the dancing trees to a bird like screech, sounded, distant growing. But Shonekan knew better, all evening memories of his as far as he could recall were spent listening to that voice tell him tales by moon light and ‘akuko ihe gbasara chi omenala’, the chronicles of the gods under the Udala tree, he had heard that voice slowly sing him his favorite lullaby, ‘Egbe’, to dim his eye lids to sleep at night or chastise him when he strayed from the path of wisdom. He had known that unique timbre, that fond texture of voice and he called it, ‘FATHER’, and father screamed…
First there was a huge bang as of a thunder clap. In unison, the howlers outstretched hands recoiled by reflex, away from the boy, in search of the origin of such brazen disturbance. Then the expected shock wave followed as a slight tremor shook the earth, knelling in the air, tossing the howlers like rags away from Shonekan as he bounced on the ground. The pain Shonekan felt could not be estimated, but never in his life had he been so glad to feel pain, a sign that he was still alive or to hear the voice of Ikenna, his adoptive father. Then fire broke loose, deep blue, violent, one that only a gifted elemagi could conjure, whipping outward around Shonekan who now lay momentarily safe, within a mysterious protective translucent bubble. Blue flames swirled around as the howlers scattered before him, some smoldering already to a dark pile of ash and then Shonekan saw, a figure, shirtless, slightly bald, clear white hair grey with age, slick with rain, right hand stretched backwards, to balance his landing and his famous famed strange gold metal left hand glowing a deep cerulean buried deep into the earth, kneeling within a small crater, rise up slowly.
Ikenna’s characteristic shock of blue Akwa Omuma, the only piece of cloth he had on flapped in the winds as he stood, slightly stooped at his full height of about six foot, to relight his pipe trembling on the edge of his wrinkled lips with his flaming gold hand. From where Shonekan lay, he smiled, the ‘aka chi’, god hand, of all Ala-igbo, Dim Ikenna the second was in Bili Ocha, all hope was restored. All would live.
Ikenna however was afraid; his lips always trembled whenever he felt unsure and smoking pipe always helped calm his nerves. At sixty, playing the hero ‘Masquerade’ was not something he could do, that was another Ikenna, not him. The Ikenna whose left arm, ‘aka chi’ was crafted by IKENGA, the god of steel and fortune and a gift of OKUCHUKWU, the flame god, husband of ANYANWU the sun goddess, not him. The Ikenna who laughed in the face of Ikotun ‘the demon-eyed’ jackal before dealing him his ruin, not him, same Ikenna, Kelechi had loved and was lost to, not him, not this wrinkled aged mass of flesh whose heart quivered like the string of a strung bow. Already Ikenna had done the unthinkable, he had nearly expended all of his ‘Obi Ike’, his energy reserves for controlling the elements when he activated his greatest offence known, the ‘Aka Chukwu’, hand of God, and the little he had left he used to erect a shield around his son and forty other villagers alike. Why did the boy attract trouble like honey calling to the bee? Ikenna mused as he took a deep drag on his pipe and felt the unique herbs calm him.
The winds picked up again, Ikenna noticed the howlers were birthing already, splitting at an alarming rate, as they swirled rising into the skies like ravens. This was not good. Where were the masquerades of Bili Ocha, why would the fates bring him such an untimely end, he thought. Better start attacking them he thought before they came to their senses and did something far worse than a death-wish and so he ran, smiling. He was a worst kind of gambler, one who always lost, so he thought to gamble one last time before his end. He bet against fate that he was sure to die and if fate won, he would abstain from Nkechi’s palm wine for a good forth night and giving his kind of unique gambler’s luck, he hoped he lost.
Ikenna activated OKUCHUKWU’s torch, his ‘aka chi’ flamed red. He tapped into his meager reserve of obi-ike, broke it in three parts and channeled one part of it through his god-hand, pushing the growing flames downward, and leapt, streaking into the air to meet the converging howlers. To one not used to the gift of the gods, this magic, he appeared to fly, not that he couldn’t if he had enough obi-ike, just that it would be foolish to do so at the moment, for doing so would be death by expending obi-ike. Those who had survived that ordeal likened it to death by suffocation, only worse. He increased his pull on OKUCHUKWU’s torch and reduced the general ‘difficult-to-burn-gases’ in the air with obi-ike, letting only pure breathing air flow into his god hand. His aka chi flamed blue. Using IKENGA’s fortune, he pushed the flames outwards, burning a host of the howlers who flying, circling him, looked for an opening over him. There were so many Ikenna thought, in all his two score years with the masquerades, he never faced a brood this large. The part of the obi-ike Ikenna relied on for his jump was totally burnt; all that he had left were two parts, one he used for the shield of the villagers and Shonekan, the other he used to keep himself alive. Soon he would fall, he thought as he fought off more howlers. Suddenly Ikenna felt something cold pierce through his back and whirled around just as his obi-ike for flight finished, behold a howler danced behind him as his body grew limp and he dropped from the sky, the last thought on his mind was how he had won his first bet since the death of kelechi.
Shonekan watched in fear as the ‘aka chi’ of Ala-igbo, his father dropped like a pebble falling from the sky before him. The panic within him surged, renewed to newer heights of pain and a foreboding sense of tragedy, tears welled up in his eyes. His right hand clamped around something cold, something metallic. Shonekan watched his father fall with a dull thud on the protective bubble around him, bouncing like a rubber ball before rolling to the side, he did not stir, did not move.
The panic around Shonekan’s heart gave way to something alien, something deeper, and something profound. He clenched his fists in anger, a new pain pierced his palm, a new song broke with an ancient melody in his heart, whispered, distant in his ears. Shonekan looked at his right hand, warm blood flowed freely from his clenched palm, bathing his new dagger he held by the blade in it. Apparently the tremor of his father’s landing earlier could have forced it towards him, or when he bounced as a result of the resulting shockwave, he could have been pushed towards it, but those rationalizations were lost to Shonekan as he stared in defiance to the swarm of howlers streaking like hawks for a chick towards where he and his father lay. Rain once more touched Shonekan’s face again, the protective shield was failing. How many deaths would he live through? He was a boy who had no recollection of his true parents and his one source of joy lay dying or worse still dead, all because he left home against his father’s wishes. Shonekan screamed, the blade in his palm tore deeper through more flesh, the dull metal humming, glowed a bright deep gold. Heat suffused through his entire being and for a moment, the world seemed to be at a standstill; Bili Ocha, Ikenna, the howlers, the rain, his pains, all seemed to be no more and he let himself bask in this glorious tempestuous torment for a moment, letting the wave of voices cut through his innocent soul, lifting it in a chant of a flood of wistful medleys. In unison from every pore of sweat, from within every fiber of his being, countless voices sang as Shonekan let go of his fears. The voices seemingly held the core of his being and plucked it like a string, making him vibrate with heat like a mighty limitless wave of obi-ike. He could not tell whether he yet lay on the wet earth or floated in the stars or had his head up in the screeching winds as his lips resonated in sync with the voices piercing his entire being, and they seemingly shifting, broke into a cry, ancient, solemn in a chant that said…
Abu n’ime ebuli mmiri… A chant within the storms…
A hu na m onwu… I have seen death…
N’ime anya onye ike… In the eyes of a warrior
Agalaba ahu… That cold steel
Nkpebi na ike agaghi agwu… The resolve to never give up
A biala na ndu…
And then Shonekan screamed.
Ikenna turned from where he lay, weak, weathered but alive, towards the sound of the war cry. In an instant his eyes popped open, the remnant of his broken smoking pipe falling from his agape mouth as he stared in shock at the sight before him. Shonekan floated few inches from the wet earth, the tip of his leather sandals barely bruising it, his arms outstretched outwards in embrace, in one hand he held a strange gold dagger by the blade, his eyes glowing a deeper shade of gold like a broken oil lamp aflame, his entire body radiating a softer shade of the same color as his scream rent the skies, borne in the howling winds. The ominous brood of descending howlers crashing into him, wave after wave turned immediately to grey ash, but still they kept coming. Then Ikenna realized that they didn’t keep coming, somehow Shonekan drew them in, every single one of them like a mighty twister whose foot was Shonekan, only this time the twister reduced in size as each deluge of howlers hitting Shonekan turned to ash. Strangely, Ikenna could swear he saw white mist like smoke snaking in from the pile of ash, seeping into his son, but he was old and the old saw many untrue things. As the ash beneath the boy piled to a huge heap, the boy floated higher and higher until his cry ended with a sudden flash of light radiating from his entire being, flaring all of Bili Ocha in a brief glimpse of pale gold. A spray of ash fell continuously from the skies, the boy collapsed on top the heap of ash beneath him and the clouds opened forth her eyes to wail anew again.
And so it rained.
The chill bit deep.
The winds renewed its race.
But somehow for Ikenna staring in shock, all was silent, peaceful and still. Ikenna had lost a bet again.