Star: Chapter 4- The Underground

and the world became a kaleidoscope of colours, lights and flying shadows. It was like a thousand voices speaking at once, haggling, selling, wandering. Star spun, but the door was no longer there and she bumped into a man with eyes made of light. She was in the middle of apologising when a hand grabbed her sharply by the elbow and tugged her away.

“Don’t talk to anyone here,” Coal hissed, dragging her away. “And do not, under any circumstances, tell anyone your name.”

Star was busy gaping at the stalls around, it was like Yaba market but…more. There were men and women advertising bright potions with spells that were guaranteed to make any man, or woman, or animal, fall in love with her. A young girl around Star’s age was selling bracelets that could make you fly, and for half price as well. An old man with only one arm was shouting through the air, advertising his candles that could stay lit forever and, for a bonus, they could also levitate in the air, following the holder.

“How come there’re no prices?” Star noted. “How much are these things?”

Coal was looking around, trying to find the path to the Witches of Auchi. The Underground was always shifting, always moving, like a large stubborn creature that…oh, the girl had asked him a question.

“You don’t pay for things in The Underground with money,” he said absentmindedly.

Star looked at the potions. “Then what do you pay with?”

Coal looked at her. “Money is…good, I guess. But how valuable is it?” he asked. “There are tons of it in the economy. Your self is the most valuable thing in the universe; there’s only one of it. That’s what you pay with in The Underground: your lust, pride, anger, drive…even memories. You pay with a part of your self.”

Star looked at him and then the stalls but she didn’t say anything, the words had buried themselves in her throat.

A creature that looked like a large bird with bright red and white wings flew down in middle of the walkway, nobody paid attention to it and just continued with their business. It observed the ground and looked up at Star.

“What’s that?” Star asked, pointing.

Coal sighed and pulled her hand down, “and definitely don’t point. Tell me, are you trying to die?” He looked up with cautious eyes at the bird. “That’s a Yezulu, they’re creatures of darkness with lightning in their wings. They guard the Seekers’ Havens, it’s odd to see one outside like this, though.

“It’s said that they can see the future in a person’s soul, and appear at moments of great change.”

“Is that good or bad?” Star asked. The Yezulu was still staring at her. There was something in the dark eyes it used to look at her, something in the swathing colours of hell on its wings. It felt dark, it felt dangerous but it also felt glorious, and beautiful.

“Change can be both,” Coal said, slowly dragging her away as he kept a steel eye on the Yezulu.

The bird, unimpressed, cawed, flapped its wings and flew into the air, disappearing in a boom of thunder into thin air.

“Wow,” mouthed Star.

She shook herself back to the present as they walked, Coal expertly manoeuvring them around the thick crowd, dodging bystanders and hagglers alike, and there were many of them. Almost too many to count, it made Star wonder how the place had so many people and still managed to smell like they were still outside. Fresh air blew from an unseen place and she was glad for it, some of these people looked like they hadn’t had a bath in years.

As they walked, they were approached by sellers who, rightly assuming that Star was new to the scene, wanted to make a quick killing. They tried to offer her more bracelets that would make her fly, earrings that would allow her hear for hundreds and hundreds of miles, a magic potion that would make her taller and be twenty-five for a hundred years. And it was fine if she didn’t have any of her self to pay, one man with dirty teeth and ravenous eyes had said, she could also pay with other methods.

The way he looked at her chest made her walk faster with Coal.

“Where are we going?” She asked.

“I told you,” Coal answered. “To see witches.”

Star was trying her best to accommodate this new world in her mind but it was getting harder and harder with each moment and her head felt like it was splitting in two. And when things were getting too much, she just remembered why she was doing it and her heart cooled into a solid resolve.

Coal was watching her, she realised, and she denied him the pleasure of her reaction.

He shrugged as they turned into a corner with more stalls but less people, if they could be called that. The people here had a certain shiftiness in their motion, an air hung about them that she couldn’t quite place. “They’re the Witches of Auchi, one of the most powerful covens there are,” Coal said, “If anyone can raise the dead, it’s them.”

“And before,” Star recalled, “you said I shouldn’t tell anyone my name, why?”

“Names are powerful,” Coal said as he walked faster. They were close. “A powerful enough witch or wizard could take everything you know and love just using your name. Your name contains your essence, your spirit, and down here, where it’s currency, you have to guard it.”

“Are you sure the witches will help me?” Star asked, wringing her fingers together.

They rounded to a dark wooden door with no handle, next to a stall that a woman sold serpent eggs in. She spared a glance, realising they weren’t interested in business, and continued advertising.

Coal touched the door, and looked at it. Then said, “Wazi,” and the tattoos on his arm glowed an angry purple as the door, without any push, creaked to the other side, opening to show nothing but murky darkness.

Coal flashed Star a confident smile as he held her through the door. “Don’t worry, they will,” he said. “I’m here with you, and they love me.”

“Coal, you stupid fool.” One of the witches hissed without turning to them as they entered. They were in a circle surrounding a woman kneeling in the middle, her head down.

They were all dressed in dark blue gowns with white marks on their bodies except one, a woman swathed in blue shadows that curled and waned, though there wasn’t any wind.

“Wait for us while we finish with this one,” the witch said focusing on the ritual at hand.

The woman in blue shadows spoke in a raspy old voice, though her face didn’t betray that age. The witches all looked like they were in their mid-thirties. “Sandra,” she said. “You came to us with a picture of your ex-boyfriend. What do you demand from the Witches of Auchi?”

The woman in the middle answered meekly, “I want him to love me again,” she said, sobbing. “He broke up with me last month and since then I haven’t been able to eat, or even sleep. He said I was acting like a crazy woman, but what should a woman do when her man is out there, speaking and talking to other women.

“Six weeks ago, I even saw a girl hug him, and the idiot…he hugged. Her. Back.” The witches all hissed, shaking their heads in sympathy. One muttered, “Scum,” as she clasped her hands. “I just…I just want him back,” she cried. She sniffed and one of the witches offered her a handkerchief, she thanked her quietly and blew her nose. “That’s why I have come o. Please, witches… help me get my Nwachukwu back.”

The witch in blue-black nodded in understanding. “We have heard your cries, sister, and we shall help you.” She looked at the picture in disgust as she beckoned to another witch to bring the potion. “For this one, sister, we’ll do it for fifty thousand Naira and… a piece of your lust.”

Sandra’s head sprang up. “Fifty thousand?” she exclaimed. “You did Bisola’s own for thirty thousand nau.”

The witch considered this. “Okay, forty, last price. And how is that your friend even? We didn’t see her again.”

“The spell worked well,” Sandra nodded. “Now, she’s married with five children.”

The witches all smiled and clapped. “That’s good for her, it’s always nice to hear how happy our customers are,” said the woman in black. “So, my dear — forty. Take it or leave it.”

“I’ll take it but…” she said, patting her empty pockets, “but I didn’t bring that much money with me.”

The main witch snapped her fingers and an acolyte shuffled in and gave her a machine in the awaiting hand. “Don’t worry, my dear,” she said, holding the device, “we have POS now. Savings or current?”

Coal and Star waited patiently for the proceedings to end. And when all was done and Sandra had her potion and had lost some of her lust, the witches waved her goodbye and wished her a happy day. As soon as she left, they all turned to Coal and Star.

“My fellow women,” the main witch said, bringing out a seven-inch dagger from her robes as the blue-black shadows receded to reveal a sky-blue gown, “it looks like we have two new sacrifices that have been brought to us today. Praise the gods!”

“Praise the gods!” The witches echoed with an unnatural hunger in their eyes.

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Anthony Azekwoh is a Nigerian-based author and artist. He has written five books so far, and is now working on the sequel to his fourth book Ṣàngó, Oya.