We’ve been walking for hours,” groaned Star as she hopped over a FanYogo wrapper. “When are we getting there?”
Coal stifled a retort.
They’d been walking for all of thirty minutes and not a single second went by that he didn’t think of strangling the girl, running away and thinking of a new plan. She had guts, though, and even he had to admit that; death magic was obscure for a reason. Only the very stupid or the very stubborn sought that kind of knowledge, and Coal suspected — and equally dreaded — that this Star girl was a violent mix of both.
Yaba market today was hectic.
Though, it was hectic on every other day, it seemed especially hectic today. Customers rushed in and out of the market place as women and men shouted from their stalls, boasting of cheap prices and good products.
“Small girl! Come and see these new tomatoes I have. They’re the best here oo.”
“Ayce, girl, you! Come and get the best catfish in Lagos, you will search ehn, but you won’t find anyone like this!”
“Soon,” said Coal, holding her shoulder tightly. “The entrance is nearby.”
“Where exactly are we going?” Star asked.
Coal began to answer, stopped himself and then decided to start again. “The Underground,” he answered.
“We’re going underground?” Star asked, looking at the earth beneath her feet suspiciously.
Coal moved out of the way as a man selling recharge cards bustled past him. “No, no, not underground. The Underground.”
Star made a face at him and Coal sighed.
“Many centuries ago,” he began, “through some way that I can’t tell you by some way that nobody knows, magic was first seen on earth. Some say that the gods brought it down as a gift but some others say that it’s always been here, like an undergrowth, feeding, waiting. Anyhow sha, it was here and we saw it and for a while, everything was good.” He rubbed his tattooed arm absentmindedly. “Then, we found that humans could use it too — it connected us to something greater…greater than you could ever believe.”
“What?” Star breathed as a woman in a suit on a call bumped into her, swore and walked on.
“The world, the universe, the Seekers — don’t ask me who they are — call it Ndụ, some people call it other things,” he said, eyeing the vendors as they walked. “After many wars, after all the bloodshed, we decided that it was better for our worlds to be separate, and so, The Underground was formed: a hidden world of magic and wonders, with entrances all over Nigeria and, luckily, one is close by.”
He eyed her and he was almost shocked; she seemed to be taking this all in stride. “But, who are Seekers?”
“I told you not ask,” Coal said, pausing at the woman sitting on a mat, selling fish. He put his hands in his pockets as he stooped to her level, staring into her eyes. The woman stopped cutting the fish but she didn’t cry or raise alarm, she just gazed back into his eyes, like she was in a trance. A moment passed and Coal cut the stare and mumbled something about the wrong one as he led Star away, leaving a very confused woman in their wake.
“I know, I know,” She said. Then, “But who are they? And are you one of them?”
Coal smiled a smile devoid of any humour of its original purpose. “No. I’m not and it doesn’t matter who they are, hopefully we don’t run into them.” He looked skittishly at a man selling gala on the road before walking on.
“So, someone in ‘The Underground’,” Star said, “can help me bring my mother back?”
“Some people,” he corrected, “if you can call them people anyways, they’re witches.” He looked at her face and waited, but if he was expecting Star to be shocked and scared, she disappointed him by simply nodding.
“They’re the Witches of Auchi,” he continued, “and they’re one of the most powerful witches in the Underground.”
Star looked at him as went to a stall that sold chickens, scaring off the birds and pissing off the vendor.
“What are you doing?” She hissed as he walked on. “You keep staring at everyone we pass.”
He mumbled something about the gatekeeper and it always changing before he sighed a sigh of relief and ran to a young woman with short hair in an empty stall held together by dark wood, charms hanging from the beams.
Star cursed him as she ran after him, pushing anyone that was unfortunate enough to get in her way. By the time she caught up to him, he was engaged in what looked like a staring match.
“Good evening,” the woman said, smiling at him. “How may I help you?”
Coal didn’t return the smile. “We…” he said, gesturing to Star as she came to his side panting.
“Hate…” she said in between breaths, “…you.”
Coal ignored her. “… want to enter the Underground. Let us pass.”
The woman’s smile remained but Star saw a glimmer of malice there. She did a cursory glance around as she brought a brown sack from under the table, dipping her hand in and coming out with cowries.
Coal hissed. “Commune with the gods is forbidden.”
The woman still smiled at him as she shook the beads in her hand and Star felt like the world was shifting a little bit, the air twisting and turning with the woman’s hands and she felt this feeling of vertigo pin her down.
She gripped the table and fought the urge to vomit.
“Dark Seeker,” the woman said in a low voice, and now the smile dipped and turned into something violent, something dark, something malevolent, “son of the dead, bringer of misfortune, herald of darkness. I do not think you are in the best position to say what is forbidden, and what is not.”
Coal looked at Star as if for the first time and turned back to the woman. “You’re hurting her,” he noted.
The woman shrugged. “Do you care?” She asked.
Coal was silent, but his look lingered on Star as she clutched the table.
And just when it felt like Star’s head would explode and the sky would fall on her, the woman let the cowries fall on the table and the world straightened.
“You don’t pose any danger to us,” she noted with the beads, “at least not yet. You two may pass.” She walked to the back of the stall where a door had appeared and she opened it, beckoning them forward. Coal scowled as he passed through, and when Star was about to follow, the woman grabbed her arm.
Star was about to shout when the woman shushed her. “Don’t talk, just listen,” she whispered. “In this world, there are demons and angels, warriors and kings of centuries old, creatures that only exist in the world of dreams. There are devils, witches, wizards, cursed and blemished. There are manners of unspeakable evil here and things of unspeakable wonder.”
She looked at the door that Coal had just passed. “And in this world, this world of darkness, there is not a single person I can tell you who trusts that man. Whatever you seek girl, pause and ask yourself if it is worth it.
“It is never too late to walk away.”
She looked at Star and waited. It was a wait for common sense, for the realisation of what she was doing to finally hit and take hold. But Star had come this far and she knew what she wanted. And she would go to the ends of the earth, the depths of hell itself, if she could just see her mother one more time.
You didn’t leave when things got hard, her mother had taught her that.
The woman stared at Star and Star stared back, and it was like they both understood each other. The woman sighed and let go of her. “So be it,” she said. “May the gods be with you, girl.”
Star nodded and hoped they would be with her too; she felt she’d need them.
And so, she walked through the door
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