Ala screamed, hit the ground with the baby clasped around her hand. Kali roared at the beast atop her voice, drawing the animal’s attention from the mother and child. The knife glittered with a metallic flash and through sheer force tore through the ground, freeing her hold as she pulled and lined her bow and arrow. She fired without thought, without sight but fast enough to not have missed.
The arrow brushed past Ala’s neck by two inches, slightly cutting through her skin. The beast lurched for Kali, jaw wide and incisors ripping through her arm. Her cry followed her hurl across the air and into a rock resting by the corner. Her blood drooled down her injured arm, soaking her clothing. Her face let the same crawl down.
The creature spun around, fierce and fast, its growl dark and thick. Blood, black as spoiled berry liquid, gushed down below its neck where Kali’s knife hung, having stabbed it a moment earlier before the throw. It staggered and slumped. Struggling for life where it lay. Kali groaned, trying to take in the rush of fresh pain fed to her by her deep injury.
“Kali,” Ala called out to her. Her voice was tensed, an arm on the ground, eyes wide in terror.
Kali heard it. Deep as the first, this time more. The steps were scattered, more of them. The pack had surfaced. She scowled as she forced strength into her muscles, staggering to her feet. Her fears were true after all.
“Ala, where are you?” she called out.
“Here.” She heard Ala whimper clouded with terror. “There’s more of them.”
Kali knew this. She took in the pain and walked forward. At least both legs and left arm were not badly injured, and her right arm though sore could still move about. One of the horses had made run for its life, but instead ran into awaiting death. She could hear its neigh and fruitless struggle as the creatures tore it into munching shreds, and she was certain that definitely wasn’t her horse. It wasn’t that stupid. She walked past the beast lying on the ground, backing and shielding Ala and the baby, hand stretched and her shorter knife drawn, coated by the blood which crawled down her injured arm and onto it. Definitely she was going to die, but an order was an order.
“Take a run into the graveyard, find Udeji. If you can’t find him, find somewhere safe and hide. I’ll come to you once I’m done here,” she said to Ala, serious in tone, watching the animals get closer, taunting her with their growls and graceful steps towards her, taking their time because maybe they knew she was dead anyway.
She drew mental pictures of them, what they ought to look like. Large and feline-like, muscles thick and strong as dried bones, yet enabling them the flexibility they were known for. Their bones strong enough to withstand the worst blows and falls, skin and thick and furred no more than a lion’s, yet stronger to protect them from cold as well as enable them regulate internal heat. Their teeths sharp as newly forged knives with two edges, and two upper incisors dragging all the way down to their outer lower jaw, which was for gnawing and cutting with perfect precision.
She sighed. Those were a pack of Agụikeọnwụ. And if they were mature ones, then her death would be quicker and spontaneous.
Run. Ala knew this was a bad idea. She would have helped but her child would pay the price. Unnecessary movements would wake her, and her cry was bound to draw more of these animals here. She had to leave, yet couldn’t afford leaving Kali to her death. She heard the low growl just behind Kali. It was still alive, the stabbed Agụikeọnwụ, and Kali wasn’t attentive to it.
The injured Agụikeọnwụ slowly made to its feet, no sound, eyes locked and broken by rage. It crouched and lurched into the air for Kali. Kali turned rather late on sensing the danger. It was too late; it made for its last bite for her head. Ala snarled, her staff sharply coursed through the air. The Agụikeọnwụ fell to the side, the long sharp headed staff torn through its eyes and out the other. Its blood making a bedding where it lay.
Kali panted, saved by Ala’s quick thinking. She turned to the sprinting creatures. She couldn’t count all the steps thus couldn’t tell how many they were. She yelled for Ala to run into the graveyard. Ala turned and made a run for it. One of the beasts leaped past her and in pursuit for Ala and the child. Kali docked the other beast’s assault, hurling her staff for the other headed her way in seconds. She missed, and it went for her neck, gnawing down at the fresh feminine skin stained by dirt, blood and sweat. Kali swerved to her side, dodging her death, hit a wall and groaned. As the beast hit the ground, missing its attack, it turned its sight back, its body moving along with its eyes, then ran in with the second creature.
Ala ran in through the entrance, into the darkness which waited to embrace her. The creature followed right behind her, its hops shook littered bones and raised dust into the darkening night. Its victim was in fact running into her own death, because darkness was an ally of its monstrosity. Something whooshed through the air, cutting past the tensed wind. The creature whimpered midair, hit the ground and toppled back with its left eye gorged by a spear-staff. Udeji emerged from the dark entrance, taking a charge forward, tossing a smoke ball in, as far and fast as he could articulate. It exploded into a smoke of pepper and thickened gas, enveloping the creatures and Kali’s location.
Kali heard the burst of smoke, she knew what it was: a tool to torture and distract an opponent but also to device an escape by blinding them momentarily. The smell burnt her nose as she inhaled it. And her senses were tampered with. She made a run out of the chunk of smoke, headed to where she could no more tell.
“Follow my voice!” Udeji yelled, and she made for where she sensed it to have come from, coughing. He led her into the graveyard, with her cough unending.
“Tell me ahead next time before you use that thing,” she coughed. “Who even mixed that concoction? Too thick. My face burns.”
“That would be Chidi,” he said, letting her go as she found her balance again.
Knowing the creatures in only a few moments would come darting into the graveyard with morbid rage and savage hunt for them, Udeji hurriedly led them towards where he’d found.
Ala stood right behind him. That smell from him, she was too familiar with it, and she hated it. Smelt like sulphur, fluid and fresh. The same smell you got when a knife was put through the neck of goat or lamb. The same feeling she had when someone around her had injury freshly imprinted on them by whichever deity was in charge of circumstance. Her face twisted, first with disgust, then worry.
“Is that blood? Udeji, Are you hurt?” she said.
“It’s a mild cut. I’ll be fine. Just follow me,” he quickly dismissed.
Kali could hear the strain in his voice. She could hear his difficult breath even. That was definitely no mild cut. She sighed, “What attacked you?”
Udeji said nothing. He had no time for what such answer would lead too. This, to him, certainly was no time for petty levity. If his hunch was right and his dreams were true, the unknown was going to come. Before then however, he needed to get them a place to stay till whatever it was, came.
The further down they walked, following all of Udeji’s movements and the echo from the feedbacks his steps gave them, alongside the rocky walls Kali felt implied they were approaching a place with more moist, more heat and definitely a habitat of something else. This had to be the home of whatever had attacked Udeji. Likely, he killed it, cleared its given territory and determined it conducive for them. She knew he was fast in thought and faster in combat, but she felt maybe she was growing to underestimate why he was called Udeji, The Swift .
He stopped, breath deep and paced. They had arrived at where he had found, very far from the graveyard’s entrance. It was an unnatural hole carved in by a Scroul, the creature that had attacked him, likely for breeding. It was younger, female and not as aggressive as its outrageously large and fearful male counterparts, and for this he was grateful to providence. This lair had a narrow entrance, wide enough to fit them through, yet small enough to prevent any hasty rush in. This way he could kill any senseless animal which brought its head in. The inside was spacious, walls slimy and greased with liquid marked around by the Scroul. The ground was littered with crushed bones and withered leaves. He led Ala to the farthermost part of the hole away from the entrance. When she sat, worried, tensed, the baby began to cry. She fed her.
“How deep is the cut?” Kali said to Udeji as they both sat next to each other, closer to the entrance but directly away from it.
Udeji was tired. He had lost quite a lot of blood. At this rate there was no need deflecting the question. This time Kali was only going to get mad, and when so, it was harder to calm her down than it was with Ala. He winced when he squirmed. “Fairly deep.”
“What was it? This is a Scroul’s nesting lair. Was it a Scroul that did that to you?” Her question was direct and accurate. If it were a Scroul, then he definitely was poisoned, one which needed attention else he’d die in hours.
He made to speak but the movements headed towards their space took his attention. They were sharp, multiple, full of intent, and regardless of their distance, albeit the sense of closing in, came with clearly defined purpose. They knew where they were headed to. Likely, he thought, they perceived his blood and knew exactly where he and the others were. He groaned, rising to his feet. Kali rose too, her knives already freed from their slumber.
“Strike them down only if they show signs of slipping through that hole,” Udeji said, feeling Kali’s movements and how offensive they already were.
She turned to him, momentarily. “And if they don’t?”
“Then leave them to lurk. That is the aim. They’d guide us.”
Ala looked up to the two, particularly at Udeji. She had no clue what he was talking about nor his plans. “Protect us from what?”
“What is coming,” he said, taking in air, leaving it for a short moment, then letting it disperse from his lungs. He hoped for all intents and purposes he was right in his assertion. He had to be.
After fruitless efforts to get in with no success, the Agụikeọnwụ in their numbers growled, burning with rage and lust for blood, lurking about the entrance of the hole, waiting for that window of opportunity.
Ala handed the baby to Kali once she went to sleep and went to stay with her husband. She avoided his face as though she could see it for what it really is, as though she could see the cuts and bruises on them. She could feel them anyway, and what you can feel, you could vaguely picture. This was how sound and perception worked for them. Like bats, they depended on sounds, echoes and vibrations to see, so far it was as efficient as anything. But Udeji was here because he said their child was able to see. A feature which somehow was ten times, no, twenty times better and more efficient than what they had. It made little sense to her, but here she was with him, upset, worried off her skin that she had played into a reckless madness she easily could have avoided.
“I gave you the chance to decline coming, Ala,” Udeji sighed as she mixed herbs and tried to stop his bleeding. The liquid on his wound was sharp and stung like the eyes exposed to fire. He winced to the pressure she put on his side. “I’m not really sure this would work. I only feel it is true.”
“You always said that intuition was as powerful as reasoning. And a blend of both was necessary for survival,” she said, her tone gloomy, upset.
“This choice of mine wasn’t a blend. Just intuition. So was your choice. You could have—”
“Only a fool let her husband come here all alone. If I insisted we stay back, that possibility of being right would haunt you forever. I know it, and I can’t afford it as much as I can’t afford losing you to this place.”
He scoffed, wincing at the strain something small as that caused him. His hand went to her face. Touch her skin and moving his fingers across it, he could picture the oval shape it took, the large size of her lips, the sadness in her eyes. Times like this caused him to consider himself fortunate by providence to have been favoured with her.
Moments like this Ala knew exactly what ran in his mind. She didn’t need to hear him say it. His silence spoke so much, and a long kiss locked to her lips always was enough to drown everything around her.
Kali shook her head where she sat with the child. If they were quiet, they were misbehaving again, all even in the face of death. She was jealous of such madness, but she feared it too. She would say no one survived in their world with such sense of naivety and dependency, but her brother and his wife seemed to be doing perfectly fine, stronger in fact. Many others too. She was just twenty-five, what did she know, she thought.
Udeji turned to the entrance, his heart thumped. The Agụikeọnwụ roared and their movements disorderly just outside. They were agitated, not at them but something outside. He sat up, listening. Snarls, then barks of savagery from farther outside the hole followed. More footsteps could be heard. He shuddered. It strangely felt cold, not like harmattan, but frozen in ice sort of cold.
“Udeji, what’s happening?” Ala said, hurrying back for her child, leaving Kali to make to her feet, knives armed to hands. Her body felt dry and her limbs quivered with coldness.
Kali placed her hand on the floor, listening. Her brows furrowed in curiosity as she turned to the entrance. “Something else is out there. And it’s moving for us.”
This was it, Udeji thought. The Unknown was coming.