The truth led her here.
But staring at the scaly hands of this lady who continually stirs a transparent pot of black tea and nurses a black cat in the crook of her other arm, she doubts she will ever find the truth.
The cat’s eyes flash ominously as it licks its owner’s wrist. Outside, a gong clangs. Outside, the chatter of children merges with the bleat of goats and the noise of a thousand other living creatures. But in this hut, the silence clouds every other sound.
Abike listens to the whir of the engines and shuts her eyes tighter. She reclines her head into the headrest as black clouds begin to block her senses again.
“This battle will probably be your last,” the woman’s voice jolts her back to that world. That body. She stalks closer and the brackish waters of the black tea seem to engulf Abike. The odour wafts into her nostrils, attacks her senses. Her world reels rapidly, then stops.
“But it would be a fair fight.”
Cold metal clasps her wrists and the bar to her cell room opens. A strong gust of wind pushes her through shards of consciousness, and she is hurled back into time, standing on wobbly legs. She staggers forward. The weight of her sabre feels foreign to her. It controls her. It propels her. Loud cheers tear her ear from its drums and vibrates in her heaving chest. The hall is dimly lit, but she can make out bodies. Bodies of foes lurking in the shadows — her contenders.
“This. This is a war of motion,” the announcer shouts, beating a hammer against the large bell in the auditorium. The crowd yips, throwing bamboo hulks at her. She shields her face with an arm, almost losing balance.
“Today we shall have our winner. The fastest takes the crown. The slowest takes the—” Again, she is snatched back to this hut. With this woman. Her fingers dig into the metallic arm of her confinement — a wooden chair with metal arms and legs. The manacles pierce her skin with red-hot magic and a scalding pain blinds her.
“This should be a fair fight,” the woman continues in a monotone. Pain flashes through Abike’s body and she screams. Red vapours seep out of every pore in her small frame. “This should be a fair fight,” the voice drifts closer. Swallowed in the conflicting buzz of black, white and blue emotions, Abike accepts the verdict as its formless eyes lock with hers.
“Your life for his. Your death for his sanity. Are. You. Ready?”
Shapes become a blurry mosaic of breaking reality—
“Time travelling again?” Her eyes flash open. Blinking rapidly, she heaves. All the oddly positioned mosaics straighten and Nedu’s face takes shape. He is standing across the room with a box of pizza.
“I… felt a little nostalgic, so yeah.” She lifts herself from the metallic confinement cautiously. A sharp twinge shoots through her body and she winces, touching her temple slightly. Her world reels for a second, then balances. “You’ve been watching me closely, haven’t you?”
Nedu shrugs and opens the refrigerator. “Your visits to these worlds are becoming more frequent.” He straightens and turns to her, “What exactly are you searching for?”
He sighs and balances a hip on the kitchen counter. “Abike’s case again, I presume.”
Abike nods and starts packing her equipment. Headsets. Pamphlets. She presses a key and her time-chair stops whirring.
“That is just history. Abike may be a fictional figment for all I care. She may be… the fabled heroine who got smacked by an alien. If the Legends are correct, a troll with magical powers ended Abike’s life.”
Water trickles from the faucet. Drip. Drip. Drip.
“Abike is me.”
Nedu jerks his head her way and frowns, “There is no way that is possible. You are a history aficionado, I understand. But confusing fantasy with logic? With reality? That’s not—”
“I know, I know,” she cuts, walking past him. “But then, what happened?” She taps her finger over her lips. “What happened on that battleground? Before that battleground? What happened to me?”
“It’s been centuries, Abike. Move on already.”
Abike ignores the sarcastic edge in his voice. “I was a warrior. I could have ended the troll’s life even before he had the chance to fight back But I only remember being killed. I remember dying. Not what happened before I died.”
The world operates in slow motion for a second that seems like forever. Again, she stands in that theatre, gasping. Her grip tightens around the sabre. The earth trembles with each step Omakinle takes into the ring and she squints against the sudden glare of sunlight. But the crowd still cheers.
“Darkness is when you succumb to glory. The black mists. The dark thrills,” the woman’s voice carries into her ears and she finds herself sinking into black waters. She is no longer in the ring but drifting through black tea. The woman swims past. Upward. “Death is the key to life. Eternal one. Death is the bright colours of darkness playing games with your senses. Darkness is being accepted regardless of who you are.”
The water grows sinewy arms. It reaches out with its tentacles and grabs Abike. She flails limp arms but drowns further.
Again, she is back in Lagos. 2027. Reeling. Gasping.
“You need to stop this research,” Nedu comes to stand in front of her in a bid to steady her. “You are pale.”
“I-I’m good,” Abike snipes and rushes past him, up the stairs. “The waters say something,” she says over her shoulder as Nedu bounds after her, concern pinching his brows. “Each time I see that woman stirring black tea, I see Omakinle, then murky waters. Black. Grabbing me and pushing me back to reality.”
“I understand your need for revenge, Jolene, but this borders on madness.” She halts. Jolene. Oh god. Jolene is her actual name. Not Abike. And madness. That is the reason for this war, isn’t it?
“Abike didn’t deserve that death. She did not deserve what got to her. She wanted to feel love.”
“I love you. Why fight for a lover who died of madness centuries ago and forget about us — about me?”
“That love was… important.”
Pain sears through Nedu’s chest. “So, this one isn’t?” She doesn’t reply. Her eyes are dry. Void of emotion. She rushes to her room. Nedu follows her closely, standing by the doorway.
“Abike loved a man from another tribe. Joromi of the Benin people,” Jolene murmurs as if in a trance. Maybe, it is because she is.
The past comes in bits. Joromi’s eyes are hollow. But inside its depth, demons swim. They submerge his sanity. His muscles bulge as he fights them off.
“They met during a war Abike had with the Benin people,” Jolene continues, flipping through a large book. Centuries ago, Abike led her people to war against humans who guarded the portal of lies. Jolene goes into that universe in Abike’s body. “They fought. At the end of the day, she won,” Jolene read, pausing to pinch her eyes closed every time she feels herself going into Abike’s body again. “Abike sensed his bravery. She wanted him in her army, but the villagers never gave him a chance. I think that was when the real war began.” She glanced over her shoulder, “But this was a personal war—”
“And she was captured by a woman in a mask? A woman who stirs black tea every time? You’ve said this tale so often, I remember every single line.”
Jolene smiles a little and nods appreciatively.
“I wanna tell you something”
Clasping her shoulder, Nedu nods tightly and says through clenched teeth. “Together, we’ll find the truth.”
Her feet crush the foliage as she ambles on the sidewalk, peering into her phone. A flock of bats scuffle up ahead and she looks up, adjusting her cardigan against the dampness around. Ekama’s home. The cottage towers over the rest of the buildings and revolves round and round and round. She scrambles up the stairs, tight-lipped and raps on the door. Waits. Fidgets with her device. Knocks one more time.
The door creaks open. Wide eyes flash from behind the darkness. The door opens a little more and a woman pokes her head through it, squinting up at her.
“You made it.”
Jolene nods and wipes her clammy palms over her bell bottoms. “Yes. I did. Can I —”
The woman heaves. “Come in…” Jolene follows her closely.
“Legend has written and passed many things to us and our children unborn,” the wise woman begins as Jolene enters. “But many believe these legends are not the truth.” She stops abruptly, making Jolene stagger. “What do you believe the truth is?”
Jolene shrugs, “I just started believing in reincarnation. I was a lover of history, yes. But I was… subjective in my views. It’s safe to say I was an atheist. Or an agnostic. To a large extent.” Ekama opens a large chest and motions her in. “I believe that a soul is a moving object that goes through different lives and bodies. It’s… accurate, right?”
“What made you change?” Ekama enquires and lowers herself onto a seat. She reaches for a transparent pot and pours black tea into it.
Jolene narrows her eyes slightly. “This change happened when I started having these… dreams. Recurring dreams of a black tea.”
“Like the one I’m stirring?”
Jolene nods, folding her arms over her chest. “What does it mean? Does this tea have spiritual significance? Does it affect one’s life negatively or positively?”
Ekama stops stirring and rises abruptly. Jolene raises a brow in question.
“Follow me,” she says, taking the pot of tea with her.
“Why do you need to take it along with you?”
“Quiet. Your voice troubles it. Now, sit here. The truth. Reincarnation. These are key words in your life. Words you wish to find meaning in.”
Jolene sits. This feels like déjà vu. “I have something like this at home. It’s a time machine. Strong. Powerful—”
Something pushes her through the worlds and again, she is on the battlefield, poised for battle. The manacles feel like lead — maybe it is because they are — and leads her forward. This time, she is battered. Heavily injured. Her side bleeds and she knows her end stalks closer by the minute.
“Do you see the truth?” Ekama’s binoculars are in her face. Large. Blinking rapidly.
“No,” she purses her lips. “I see the same thing. I’m almost dying.”
Ekama sighs. “I’m sorry, Jolene —” Her name sounds weird in her ears. Since her nightmares and search for the truth began, Abike became her name. Her identity. “The ride through your multiverse of identities will be—” Her phone beeps. She groans and thrusts her hand into her pocket. Ekama nods her permission and Jolene proceeds with the call.
“How is it going?” Chinedu asks over the phone. He seems to be in traffic.
She rubs the pad of her thumb over her nose wearily and sighs, “She keeps stirring the same black tea in my dreams. Says we’ll go through a multiverse of identities. I don’t know what that means.”
“Well… maybe a little faith will do this time?”
“Yeah? I’m here, okay? I know I’m not with you in the shaman’s cottage, but—”
“I love you.”
He pauses. For long seconds, silence drags on the other end. Only sounds of Lagos traffic taking up space. Two, three. But she knows he’s on the other end. His heavy breathing gives him away.
“Wow. It’s been a long time…” he mutters finally.
“I just want to let you know,” Jolene says quickly, “in case I never wake out of this one.”
“A little faith, Jolene. A little faith.”
She nods. And smashes the phone with her fist.
She is surrounded by men with grey loincloths and spears made from elephants’ tusks.
“We came here to get you,” one of them says, stepping forward. His hand remains on the handle of his sword. She glances down weakly. Her arms ache. They are suspended by the manacles held by a hook planted firmly between the rocks. She dangles, her bruised lips opening slightly.
“Who sent you?”
Again, the black tea snatches her and she is hurled into the hut. Back to the woman’s scaly hands, black cat, and pungent, black tea. And yes. The confinement.
“But first, you drink the tea. It’s—”
“Poison,” Ekama’s voice breaks through the universe, and she stands there. “The reason you have been haunted all these years is that what you drank is a spiritual nullifier. It was mixed by a powerful witch to kill powerful magic. That said, you had powerful magic that proved too dangerous for the entire world, and you had to go away.” Jolene blinks weakly. All the muscles in her brain tell her to stop. To stop time travelling. To stop moving. But her soul strains against its prison, swimming through the mighty tide of black tea to her freedom.
“W-who is this witch.”
“You shall find out.”
And again. Blackness. And the murky waters continue flowing in her as she drinks the potion. Soon, the wind in her blood loses its air and is smothered in the hot liquid breaking down every cell in her body.
“This is going to be a fair fight,” the woman sighs, pulling off her mask. Her white hair flows free. Her eyes take colour and her—
“Mother?” Jolene asks weakly as the darkness envelopes her.
“Darkness is the glory of traveling through bodies without knowledge of your previous selves. You are free, my child.”