by Somto Ihezue
“Of a brother untethered. Ten thousand at the stake. Of the living, the wavering, the gone. Of blood, veil, and knot. Of a son born again. Ekwensu, sentry of souls, darkness and song, come... Let the door open.”
For the Eziaghala sisters, their voices an echo through the burial grounds, the ritual was the only way. Two days ago, their only brother, Agadi, sovereign of the blood throne of Umukegwu, had died in his sleep. The sisters knew what was coming for them. A hundred and ten monarchs had ruled Umukegwu, and only three had been women. Oluchi, the Moon Queen, went missing on the sixth day of her coronation. Njideka, The Unbowed, died in the battle of prophets, her spear plunged in the heart of the usurper––her firstborn son. Batina, graceful and kind, was beheaded for treason. The trial and beheading of a monarch by their council was something Ebiware, youngest of the Eziaghala sisters, was yet to comprehend. But there was more.
The three sisters were witches born of kings. A witch-king once sat on the blood throne. Dimkpa. When the priestesses of Amadioha rebuked him for tainting the natural order with forbidden sorcery, and he set a pack of demon wolves on them, no one said a word. When he rained fire in the war of faith, scorching his enemies and half his own men in the carnage, the chiefs of Umukegwu decided they’d had enough. The blood throne was of bone, tears, and secrets. It was carved by the fallen, the ones who died screaming. The potency of its magic was unheard of. Witches––fragments of that same potency––found it impossible to resist the throne’s might, its corruption. It latched onto them, festering, driving them mad. It took twenty-five spirit warriors to defeat Dimkpa. It took their lives.
The sisters could neither abdicate nor denounce their royal birthright. No one would believe them. History bore witness to the terror they could unleash. If they fled, they’d be hunted down like dogs and hanged. The sisters had believed their brother would sire children before his passing. They were wrong.
Left with no choice, they sought to raise him from the dead.
“Are you insane!” Hasa panicked when Ebiware suggested it. “Nothing good ever comes of necromancy.” She let her voice whittle to a whisper, panic rising behind her eyes.
In the shrine of remembrance where they stood, the clay monuments of their ancestors lined the walls. The mold of Chukwuka, their great-great uncle, was hidden away in the shadows, and for good reason. In raged grief, he had pulled the strings of death and tore his daughter’s spirit from the abyss. The ritual cost him four brothers, it cost all his power. But his suffering had only scarcely begun. Chukwuka soon came to learn the soul he had resurrected wasn’t his child’s, but a demon. And so he watched his daughter die again, the blade in his hand gleaming with her blood.
“Witches from times past went about it all wrong,” Ebiware tried to explain. “One can’t just steal a soul from Ekwensu and not expect retribution.”
“What are you implying?”
“We make a trade upfront.”
“Why are we listening to her?” Hasa turned to their older sister Ugochi who’d been silent all through the exchange. “She’s always had these reckless unnatural ideas since we were children.”
“I don’t see you offering any solutions.” Ebiware stood from where she sat.
Hasa went quiet for a while, wiping the sweat that had started to collect on her forehead. “Well, I was thinking...” She walked up to Ugochi, taking their hands in hers. “What if——what if you changed back?”
“What?” It was Ebiware.
“Listen, we are witches, but we are also women. We cannot pretend that doesn’t make our situation more precarious.” Hasa stole a deep shaky breath. “If she changed back, they might... they will... be more lenient with a witch-king.”
“How can you suggest that.” Ebiware shoved her out of the way, coming to stand between her sisters.
“She is next in line, who do you think they’d behead first?” Hasa began to pace the room. She couldn’t control her fingers anymore, they shook with an odd tremble. “We should have fled a long time ago, but you two wanted to stay and protect our dear precious brother, protect the family legacy,” she scoffed. “And I stayed. I sacrificed everything, I stayed!”
“Our parents were murdered, we weren’t just going to abandon Agadi!” Ebiware let anger seep into her voice. “And even if Ugochi decides to live a lie, it wouldn’t change anything. Dimkpa was a man, and still, they executed him.”
“But they were lenient.” Hasa rushed forward, stressing her point. “Regardless of his many atrocities, they afforded him grace, up until the very end. A courtesy never extended to any queen, witch or otherwise.”
“It won’t be enough.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You spend your days caged up in here.” Ebiware gestured around. “But I’ve been out there, listening... they hate our power above all else, they——”
“We removed ourselves from the outside world for a reason. In here, they forgot our history, what we are capable of. But you,” she pointed a quivering finger at Ebiware, “you impulsive little brat, you exposed us over and over again, with your lust for adventure and power. You showed them our hand!”
“The Ebighebi storm. The market rain-fires that killed a family. That was you.”
“That was an accident.”
“We do not have such luxuries.” Hasa left her to face Ugochi. “Sister, we are out of time. We can’t keep our brother’s body hidden for much longer.”
“I can’t,” Ugochi spoke for the first time.
“I know this must be difficult for you but——”
“No, I physically can’t,” she said tightly hugging her arms, shielding herself. “The skin weavers... I made certain it was permanent.”
Hasa took two small steps backward. “We are finished.”
“Not if we bring him back.” Ugochi straightened up, joining Ebiware.
Feral and wide, Hasa’s eyes darted from one sister to the other. In small bursts, she fell into a fit of wild laughter. “Ugochi, your penchant for irrational decisions is starting to border on foolishness. First it was the scandalous affair with that soldier, and now you’ve sided with this raging lunatic!”
“Choose your words with caution.” Ugochi came face to face with her. It was not a request.
“And——and how do you intend to raise him?” Hasa inched away from her sister’s glare. “We were never tutored in necromancy, mama made certain of it. We should flee east and hope the sand tribes take pity on us.”
“Well.” Ebiware locked her arms behind her. “With our brother’s waning health, I had a feeling we’d require drastic measures, and I’ve been... preparing.”
“Of course you have.” Hasa threw her hands up in disbelief and resignation. “Can’t you see she’s teetering on the edge of madness and taking us with her!” She grabbed Ugochi by the shoulders, shaking her, probably hoping to shake off whatever spell Ebiware had over her. “She will be our undoing.”
“We are already undone.”
Ugochi discharged the entire royal household of their duties. When Agadi died, she had sent most of the attendants away, in a bid to keep his death a secret. Now they all had to leave. Necromancy rituals were famed for volatility. This one was bound to draw attention.
After Ugochi sent off the kitchen staff, she headed to the garrisons to oversee the exit of the guards. She had to be there in person, the soldiers weren’t the most compliant lot. Turning a corner, she crashed into a soldier, their leather outfit a dark contrast to the white fabric she was draped in.
“Ádà Ézē.” The man bowed, a knee to the ground. He stood, and his gaze held hers.
Ugochi cleared her throat, fingers clasped in front of her. “I was on my way to relieve your comrades of duty,” she started. “Our family would like to take this time to commune with our ancestors.”
“They’ve all cleared out,” the man replied. “Your sister already sent word.”
“Good,” Ugochi said but did not turn to leave. Neither did the soldier. They just stood there. “I——I heard you’d returned from Arondizogu. What’s it been, seven years?”
“Seven years, four months, and two weeks.”
“Oh.” She swallowed. “You look well. I guess the islands are as refreshing as they——”
“You had your brother send me away.”
Ugochi’s voice caught in her throat, her mouth bone dry. “Kan——Kanyin.” This was the first time she was saying his name in years. On her lips, it was something made of dreams. “I——I didn’t mean to——Kanyin it’s not something I can explain right now.”
“Try.” In his eyes was a resolve, an aching. “Was it my family’s affliction? The madness?”
“No. No.” That was all Ugochi gave.
“That day, you said you’d meet me by the udala tree. And I waited for you, and you never came.” Kanyin adjusted the neck of his uniform.
“And when the commanders dragged me away, when it dawned on me it was you who had me deployed... even then.”
Everything about Kanyin was beautiful. The words that found home on his voice, his skin, day surrendering to night. His eyes were silver coins in a storm, and his hair––wool and black fire. “Did you think of me?”
“Tell me, tell me you didn’t think of me, and I’ll stop.”
Ugochi said nothing.
“I thought about you every day.” Kanyin reached for her cheek. Unsure, he drew back his hand.
“Things are different, especially now,” Ugochi inhaled. “I have dire responsibilities, and I am not the person I was back then.”
“You mean back when we were sparring mates, and I’d let you win, let you touch me in all the warm places.” He drew close to her, his breath finding hers, and Ugochi stiffened where she stood. “When you said you loved me.”
“We were stupid——” Ugochi paused. “Children. We were stupid children.”
“Love me again.” Kanyin touched one of her fingers with one of his. “I want you to love me again.”
Ugochi shifted back. She looked at him, like she was seeing him for the first time, her eyes unblinking things.
“I want to show you something,” she finally said.
He consented with a nod, and delicately, she brought her forehead to his. And he saw, he saw her. On the day he was taken away, she had thrown four clothes in a bundle, and ran, all the way to the seaside. And when her feet blistered, when her throat parched, she did not stop. And when she made it to the harbour and found his ship had long sailed, she ran on the waters, till she could run no more.
“Kanyin.” Words weren’t what she needed.
And they lingered like that, forehead on each other’s, noses slightly brushing, their hearts a beat away.
“Sister.” Ebiware’s voice came first, her figure taking form as she stepped out of the shadows.
They both pulled away from each other. Kanyin hurriedly bowed, and when he stood, he whispered, “Find me tonight, by the Udala tree. Promise me.”
Ugochi nodded, going to her sister. And as they left, Ebiware looked back at the soldier, an eerie pitiful look.
Night fell, and once again, the sisters gathered. Standing in the resting place of their ancestors, their brother’s corpse laid on a slab, Ebiware explained what needed to be done. Rather than tear the veil between the living and the dead as most necromancers had done in the past, one of them had to become a door between both realms.
“A door?” Hasa interrupted. “Wouldn’t that require said person to be dead?”
“That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”
“Let her finish.” Ugochi hushed her.
And through the door, one of them would cross and lead their brother’s soul out of the abyss. The last of them had to stay and hold the spells in place. One door, one guide, one anchor.
“You’ve said nothing about what we are offering in exchange.” Hasa cut in again.
“That comes last. Trust me.”
Hasa rolled her eyes. And it was agreed. Ugochi was to be the door, Ebiware the guide, and Hasa would anchor the enchantments.
First, Ugochi was chained to a pole. Fledging into a door was certain to open her up to malevolent spirits. The chains were spelled to null her powers and keep her contained.
And under the glare of a full moon, the sisters, daughters of Eziaghala, crafted the ritual:
“Of a brother untethered. Ten thousand at the stake. Of the living, the wavering, the gone. Of blood, veil, and knot. Of a son born again. Ekwensu, sentry of souls, darkness and song, come... Let the door open.”
In that moment, Ugochi began to flicker in and out of existence. A foot in both realms. A door ajar.
“And for the exchange,” Ebiware said, angst finding her voice. She pushed the stone cover off a grave pit, and with great difficulty, dragged out the body of a man. Kanyin. His limbs were bound.
“What——what is this?” Ugochi charged toward them, but the chains clanged her back.
“Sister, wait——there is a reason I kept this from you, this——”
“What is this!”
“This soldier is a——”
“His name is Kanyin!”
“Alright, alright.” Ebiware attempted to calm her. “Kanyin is a descendant of the immortal bloodline of Azuka. One of the last surviving few.”
“What does that have to do with anything!”
“I think you know the answer to that.”
Ebiware was right, she knew. They all did. Ekwensu once walked amongst the living, wielding power beyond measure, leaving desolation in his wake. Then the Azukas rose against him. Defeating him in a battle that spanned decades, they cast him into the abyss for all eternity. A victory that had come at a price. Their sanity.
“So you intend to sacrifice him to Ekwensu as a peace offering?” Hasa chuckled, an angry and mocking chuckle. “Unlike the immortal members of his clan, the ones who actually took down Ekwensu, this one is just a man. Death will find him eventually.”
“We are done listening to you!” Hasa was furious. “What do you think will happen when his madness–stricken family comes looking for him? They took down a god——us they’ll crush like ants.”
“They won’t come looking.” Ugochi had figured it out. “She’s going to sacrifice them all... through him. End their lineage.”
“Ekwensu is vengeful. He will relish nothing more.” Ebiware was convincing, but Ugochi was unyielding.
“A linking death spell of that magnitude demands a lot of power, power you do not possess, power non-existent in our realm!”
“Well, good thing you’re a door to another.”
A silence fell on the grounds, one pierced suddenly by the shriek of a crow.
“It was you.” Ugochi’s voice was rain caught in a bottle. “You had Kanyin re-deployed, had him sent back here. You’ve planned this all along.”
“Our brother’s health had been deteriorating for years, I needed to be prepared for the inevitable.”
“You don’t think I know that!” Ugochi tugged at her chains. “Why do you think I had him sent away?” Tears split and waded down her face like a river escaping a dam. “If the time ever came that they gathered for our heads, I knew he wouldn’t leave me, and I knew it’d cost him his life.” Ugochi swiped at the tears, but they came anyway. “Sister, nwanne’m,” she pleaded, turning to Hasa. “Don’t let her do this.”
“We can’t stop now.” Ebiware ran to Hasa. “The ritual has already begun. We see it to the end, or we die for nothing.”
Hasa looked down at her fingers. She looked around at the littered bones of their ancestors, but she did not look at Ugochi. “I am sorry, I am so sorry.”
“No, please, no.”
Ebiware walked back to where Kanyin lay sprawled. She sat on the floor, propping his head onto her lap. Slipping a dagger from her robes, she brought the cold steel to his neck. “This one is of immortals, of love, of duty...”
“Wait, no, please wait!”
“...of fire and hail, of shrapnel and pillars...”
“Ebiware! Stop this, please!”
“...Ekwensu bia mmegwara...”
Kanyin woke, his eyes finding Ugochi like they’d always done when they were children. When he’d find her even in the darkest places.
Ebiware slit his throat. The blood splashed across Ugochi’s face, and she screamed, and screamed, and screamed. Like it was the last thing she’d ever do. On the floor, Kanyin’s blood pooled. Then it stilled, the wide spread receding as lines of blood trailed up Ebiware’s body, seeping into her ears, her nose, her eyes. And when the last drop escaped into her, Ebiware let go of Kanyin’s drained corpse. She staggered up, crimson dagger in one hand.
“What was that?” Hasa was shaken by the scene.
“There’s no time to explain.” Ebiware was visibly ebbing away. “I need something from you.”
“If you intend to murder me, you’ll find I’m harder to kill.”
“Not today nwanne’m,” she smiled weakly turning the hilt of the blade to Hasa.
“What are you doing?”
“To be a guide, to seal the bargain, I’d have to die... by the hands of someone who loves me.”
“Mother was always right, you are insane!”
“All I need do is walk out of the abyss with our brother and we’ll both be resurrected,” Ebiware assured her.
“This is untouched waters. If anything goes wrong, the consequences... we don’t even know what they could be.”
“Let’s worry about that tomorrow.” Ebiware squeezed the dagger into Hasa’s hand. “And if it all goes wrong, at least you’ll be rid of me.”
“I hate you,” Hasa said in between tears. “So much.”
And metal met flesh. Ebiware gasped staring down at where the blade pierced her heart. The wound leaked blood like crying eyes leaked tears. She slumped, and Hasa caught her, bringing her to rest in her bosom. And there they stayed. As the light left her eyes, the last thing Ebiware heard was Ugochi’s dying screams as the ritual overwhelmed her.
Ebiware found herself kneeling before Ekwensu. He was a boy, no older than ten. Whispers. She heard whispers. And there was a fog, like a damp stifling sheath, a disconnection from hue, from light. And in that whisper, in that fog, death sang. Souls infinite swam around the boy. An endless sea.
“Ebiware Eziaghala, you and your sisters have raised quite the dust.” The boy leaned forward in his seat. It looked very much like the blood throne of her family. “Thing is, something went wrong with your little sacrifice.” The boy drummed his fingers on the armrest. “When you eradicated the Azuka lineage, their souls came to me, but not the power and madness they’ve amassed over centuries. No one knows where it went. And without it, I’m afraid this barter for your brother will not hold.”
The boy arched a brow. “What. Did. You. Say?”
“I said keep him.” Ebiware stood. “I’m here for something else.” The spear of Ogbuchi, god killer––the same one the Azukas had used in defeating Ekwensu––materialized in her hand.
“Interesting.” The boy was unstirred, not a hair out of place.
“This is me claiming hell.”
“Foolish girl,” he giggled. “I have lived ten million lifetimes before the first of your accursed kind thought to breathe. You cannot begin to fathom my might.”
“Perhaps.” She walked up, the tip of the spear clawing the ground, igniting sparks. “But the Azukas defeated you once before. Now, all that they were... resides in me.”
Ebiware’s pupils were the scarlet of Kanyin’s blood.
“You stole it.” The boy’s eyes narrowed. “You are human, your frail soul cannot wield such power.”
A wry grin crossed Ebiware’s face and nested. “You cannot begin to fathom what my soul can wield.”
They stared each other down. A thing was certain, one of them was going to meet their end.
Demons brewed from elemental darkness poured from around the boy and scattered at Ebiware. Before they could skim a strand of her hair, she exhaled, and they all collapsed to dust. Then she made for the boy. She was upon him in a heartbeat. Grabbing him, he grabbed her back. In her grip, he shifted into a giant python thrice her size. And with a spiked tail, whipped her, sending her across the threshold, into a wall. From the wreckage, Ebiware pushed a boulder off herself to find the boy slithering up to her.
“You are a child!” he hissed, tongue forked in three. Stretching open his mouth, he doused her in lava.
When the steam cleared, when the lava cooled, Ebiware stepped forth, unscathed. The boy reared his serpentine head back. It was like he’d spattered water on stone. Ebiware rose into the air, till she was eye level with him. This time, when he lunged at her, fangs rattled, she slapped him into the ground. Coiled on the floor, the boy weakly writhed out of his python form. He made to stand, and Ebiware descended from above, her foot finding his head, slamming it into the dirt.
“Centuries without a worthy adversary has made you weak,” she said, raising her spear.
“Wait——wait.” The boy was muffled, debris stuffed into his face. “If you kill me, a new cycle will begin. All who have died before this moment will be erased from this realm of existence. Your brother, your sister Ugochi, they will be no more. No resurrection. No reincarnation. They will fade...into nothing.”
Ebiware cocked her head. “I feel like you’ve not been paying attention.” She pulled back the braids that had fallen over her face, the way she always did when she needed to lecture Hasa. “I have prepared for this day since I was nine. I murdered my parents for this. I cursed my brother with impotency, cursed him into an early grave. I betrayed my sisters... for this. The blood of Dimkpa courses through me. And now,” she raised the spear once again. “I will have dominion over death itself.”
© 2023 Somto Ihezue
About the Author
Somto Ihezue is an Igbo writer, filmmaker, and editor. He is an alumnus of the Milford SF Writers ’22, and Voodoonauts’22, and will be attending Clarion West’23. He is a member of SFWA (Science Fiction Writers Association), ASFS (African Science Fiction & Fantasy Society), BSFA (British Science Fiction Association), and BFS (British Fantasy Society), and Codex.
Somto was awarded the 2021 African Youth Network Movement Fiction Prize. A Nommo Award-nominee and finalist for the 2022 Afritondo Prize, his works have appeared or are forthcoming in Tordotcom: Africa Risen, Fireside Magazine, Cossmass Infinities, Poetry Magazine, Omenana Magazine, OnSpec Magazine, The 2021 Year’s Best Anthology of African Speculative Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Africa In Dialogue, and others. Find him on Twitter @somto_Ihezue