Nnukwute-ehis were the largest animals of the wild known across most parts of the known and explored lands. For the Ukani people, like other neighbouring tribes, the Nnukwute-ehi were revered as cultural symbol of defence and justice. It was never killed for either sport or meat, and the vast number of fauna around the jungles and forests about them made sure those thoughts never crossed anyone’s deranged mind.
They were considered terrible beasts for their sheer size. Many were caramel as mud and others black as night, over thirteen feet tall and weighed over thirteen tons. The animal can be as large as a thrice an overfed, conjoined twin rhino with visible differences, with its lower jaw were strong as a hungry man’s will for survival, and its tusks large, white and with a downward curve.
However, while all these were so, this magnificent being still was just an animal, and like every animal known to man, they were meat to others like them, and they had deadly predators. It was a magnificent creature to behold, although none had been sighted for decades, leading to the belief they might have finally gone extinct. And after centuries, the valley became a graveyard of large bones and rotten stench with boiling heat from the ground.
The horse neighed, almost visibly reluctant to go any further to where it was being led. It was getting dark and they had finally arrived. Udeji stared at the entrance of the valley. The stench filled the air and the bubbling sound of a hot steaming ground water scattered across the graveyard could be heard all around from where they stood. The pass was blocked by a large rock now taking the shape of an Nnukwute-ehi skull with its jaw spread apart as a passage with one of its tusks broken off and lying on the ground, over hundreds of years old. Every other place was bones upon bones, alongside lairs of wildlife.
“You will have us all killed,” Ala said. Her fright had become apparent and she already regretted agreeing they embark on this suicide mission. The smell, the heat, the eerie feeling and the discomfort of her horse was all she needed to know they had arrived. She heard a pitching sound of a sword next to her. It was Kali. As usual she was readied for the worst.
“To be honest, it is you who will get us all killed. Had you talked my brother out of this, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Kali huffed, kicking the horse to move forward irrespective of its fear, and it was trained by her enough to know that forward meant forward, even in the face of death.
Udeji came off his horse. His senses all were hyper, listening, perceiving, breathing, taking note of his surrounding, the noise, the wind, the point the dying sun’s rays hit from, which stone was where. With his staff in one hand and bare feet on the dirty, warm ground, he could feel and sense everything around him, likewise where each were.
He turned to the two. “How is she?” he said to Ala.
“Asleep. Her eyes are closed and her breath is unsteady,” she said with unrestrained worry in the tone of her voice.
He walked up to her horse, ran his hand around its body, the baby, then held Ala. He kissed her, and his eyes remained resolute with conviction. “Nothing will happen to us. I will move in first and scout.”
“I’m as good at that as you are, plus face to face with
an agụikeọnwụ, a kaiji, or anything as dangerous as those two, you’d need me
more than your intuitions to stay alive,” Kali pointed out.
Udeji knew of this. In fact, during hunts for meat, or scouts for land or new settlements while he was considered the best amongst his kindred, no one assisted him better than she did, and she was near as efficient as he was on his good day.
Yet this time, he shook his head. “You’ll stay with Ala and my child, watch them both. Send a whistle if there’s trouble, and I’ll do same if ever I need you.”
Kali scoffed hearing his footsteps head away from them and towards the stone-skull entrance, into the graveyard. She knew he was never going to whistle if at all he got into danger. So long as Ala and the child were outside, nothing would make him call her in for assistance. And if ever he did whistle the cry of hurt and she dared go in, Udeji would have her head for coming in. Soon his scents died, leaving nothing but just distracted usual bubbling hum of water and fade.
“I hate letting him go in alone,” she muttered to herself, yet audible enough to be heard.
“Not as much as I do,” Ala hissed in annoyance, something emerging in her mind which was disturbing. “No sane woman lets her husband do any of the things I just let him do in one day.”
“This is why I dislike staying around the married. You
make me jealous of a blissful madness I do not wish to be entangled with.”
A smile stood on her warm face as she came down her horse, letting her feet
touch the earth. This way her senses heightened, large enough to sense any
movement within the range she could cover. Ala kept quiet, bottling up her
discomfort, knowing this would help Kali focus.
Kali stopped, feeling something in the air. Like something somewhere watched them. This was a usual feeling which came right before her intuitions took forms of real threat. She felt discomfort. Even with other fighters with her, this was the worst place to fight any person or creatures. The ground and its sand were loose and made her senses vague. The smell was deceitful and thick, thus was hard to identify new scents if any approached. The wind was heavy and hot, picking sounds from too far off usually was limited. She had not been here, this far before, but she had been in places and situations similar to this, and had blood not been thicker than reason, she would never have walked the walk with Udeji, even if it was to save the only living human in existence.
A crumble of stones came down from not too far from where they stood, from the hillside. Likely, she thought, something was watching them, something which bothered her. The sound came again, this time closer than the first. Whatever it was, was moving, and slowly. It was observing. One thing she remained certain of was that a wildlife which was subtle in movement, usually was a hunter and part of a social pack of more awaiting its scout report. All wildlife she knew around this vicinity were nocturnal, yet also good to hunt during the day. While she was certain of giving a good fight, she wasn’t a cretin to believe she or even Udeji could win.
Her face dried of blood as a growl echoed through the quiet air and space. They were subtle, coordinated, unwavering, but she could hear them. She counted her guesses, in the blind, she could sense little. They weren’t down the ground. Not yet. But they soon would be. A loud screeching snarl shook the walls of her chest. Something huge and monstrous leaped off the darkness cloaking it, jaws wide, incisors long and hungry for blood, plunging straight down for the two anxious preys, so fast they missed it.
Udeji walked through the darkness, seeing nothing but what he had always seen except very rare times he perceives dreams. His ears and what it told him, guided him through the bleak, hollow and unnaturally warm graveyard. From the inside, one would rarely see anything on the outside, yet it no way had a covering above it. From what he had always known, it rarely rained around the graveyard, and year after year, nothing new changed within it other than the addition of bones and foul stench of dead and decayed carcasses dragged into it by creatures that made it their den.
He walked with heavy stomps, letting the sounds of his steps show him the way. His hands touched the walls in haste, running a mental picture of what he felt. He needed somewhere further in yet safe, safe enough for them all, warm enough for the baby and with less stench for his wife. One moment he paused, pondering. Maybe this was a wrong move. He had put everyone in harm’s way all for something he could not see. For an intuition he could not explain, yet which pushed him. Maybe, he thought, it was not worth it.
He made to turn but froze where he stood, eyes wide in shock, thoughts spiralling, limbs numb. The slimy fluid, thick as blood and stinking as the cold saliva from a morbid kaiji, coiled down the side of his face from above. It came down upon him, the wind around it speaking nothing of malevolence and death. He raised his head up, staring into the darkness, into nothingness. Yet he knew that somewhere up there in the darkness which resembled his blind abyss of darkness, hung a kaiji: a creature of the dark, with breath cold like ice and limbs thick and muscled like those of large reptiles, only four feet the size of a well built man. Its speed was unprecedented, its fluid paralytic, teeth as sharp and jagged as anything of its species. And in the dark as this, it was god to its prey. All needed to be dead was for Udeji to flinch as much as a limb.
Ala’s screech followed just behind a loud, vicious cat-like roar just outside the entrance of the graveyard. Udeji’s heart sank where he stood. Involuntarily he turned in fear for his wife. The kaiji emerged from the darkness that was above it and lurched down for the distracted prey before it.