Ncheta27 min read


Chisom Umeh
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Death or dying, Violence

Ncheta does his best to help the man remember. He tries to connect the dots, pull strings of memories together, mend the broken web of long-held moments and cherished experiences. But even he, the spirit of the past and the present, cannot save his host’s mind. So he watches. He watches the memories of the man’s children and grandchildren become motes of dust in a whirlwind. He sees the family gather around his host’s bed, the daughter and her child, his mother and her sister. But the man does not know them anymore and would breathe his last not even knowing himself.

Ncheta drifts out before the man draws his final breath lest he be trapped in a decaying corpse. Because no matter how much a spirit loves their host, in the end, they must love themselves. It is the one thing the Benevolent shares with the Malevolent. But while the latter accepts this fact and easily moves on, the former often mourns as their host is interred into the ground.

Five moons later, Ncheta is in a tavern on the edge of Ana Mmuo. Beside this inn flows the interminable waters of River Mmirioma, stretching across the length of the realm, giving life to those who are beyond life themselves. This river is supposed to mark the boundaries between this world and that of humans, but rumors have it that these lines, in recent days, have begun to smother each other. Apparently, a virtual realm grows from the bowels of the sacred waters, reaching out, forcing its way into Ana Mmuo.

“I’ve seen it,” says Asiri, sitting across from Ncheta. “It exists, and it’s the humans who built it.”

Ncheta is barely listening, his mind wandering off to places far beyond the bicker and chatter of the numerous beings in the tavern. Ncheta can see his former host again, smiling at a woman, telling her she looks beautiful and that he’d like to marry her again. This woman, with her smile so soft and her scent so strong, plays along. To him, she stretches her finger and asks that he slides the wedding band on it. He searches his pockets for the ring, even though he never bought one. When he finds nothing, she laughs and says, “Daddy, just pretend you have one.”

“No such thing exists,” Ncheta finally says to Asiri, shrugging off the caressing touch of his memories. “Humans aren’t capable of building such a thing.”

“Oh, it’s been millennia since the First One created you,” Asiri says, “and yet you’re still naïve.”

“And you’ve been what, 700 years?” he retorts. “Yet you think yourself more knowledgeable than I am.”

Asiri lets out a wry laugh, and Ncheta can only wonder if it was just the gossip spirit laughing or everyone in the tavern. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. She does this thing where she speaks in many voices at the same time, and but for close attention, a listener would likely mistake it for the speech of a multitude.

“With you, age is really numbers,” she says and shakes her head, her droopy cheeks wiggling. “They call it virtual reality. They attach themselves to it and their minds wander off. They don’t know it yet, they often think they remain in their rooms even, but they’ve been intruding into the heart of our world.”

“I only just left my host several moons back,” Ncheta says, the initial confidence slowly escaping his voice. “So when did they advance enough to build such an impossible thing?”

Asiri leans in, her body mass tilting the table. Ncheta beholds her eyes—in every one of them, he finds a deathly seriousness. “You’ve been living in your head for so long,” she says, “that you’ve failed to see how things are changing. You’ve forgotten that a lifetime to them is but a moon to us. And in that time they’ve become more efficient at engineering their doom. It took centuries for them to build boats to cross seas, now they need only decades to build machines to cross worlds.”

Ncheta leans back and considers this for a second. Could it be possible that humans have built a machine that interferes with Ana Mmuo? Speculations of such a device did reach him before he left, but it was only a pipe dream even his host didn’t take seriously. But if Ncheta is being honest, he’d remember that through the innumerable hosts he has lived in, he has beheld them walk out of caves and lay waste to creatures three times their size. Then watched them do the same to lands and water bodies million times their size. He’s seen them spread even beyond the planet itself to touch the moon. If he is to attempt honesty, he’d admit that it was only a matter of time before this ravenous species found his world and sank their teeth into it.

This is why Ncheta used to hate them. Or, perhaps, how he justified his hatred for them. Because, something about these bipeds always reach for destruction, even their own. And, by Ana, Ncheta never understood this. And for a long time, it kept him angry—not at them, just their propensity to forge chaos from order.

“It started as a small spot on the far side of the river,” Asiri says, “like a tear in the fabric of our world. Then it began to grow. And soon it was twice the size of a human village.”

Ncheta stares at Asiri then takes a swig of his drink brewed from the essence of the river herself, feeling her energy course through him. Tainted by a foreignness, it is now extra bitter. Ncheta used to think it was a new flavor, or that the barkeep had lost his touch, or that something in the alchemic workings of Ana Mmuo’s breweries just wasn’t right. Only now is he learning that it is the river herself who is getting sick, infected by the meeting of parallel worlds.

“I can take you to see it,” Asiri says. “If you’re willing to leave your ego by the door.”

Ncheta empties his cup and is about to rise when an energy fills the tavern. Every other being feels it too, and the chatter seizes in response. An Old Deity manifests at the doorway, their aura vibrant and thick. They proceed slowly, their feet digging into the ground even though they can glide right over it.

Agwu likes to draw attention to themself and grows more arrogant with each passing moon. They do not walk around tables like sane beings do, rather, they move in a straight line from the door and tables are adjusted for them.

They are not here to have a drink though, just come to allow others to drink in their presence. Ncheta keeps his eyes focused on his empty cup as Agwu passes, sure enough that Asiri is doing the same, neither of them wanting any trouble, because with this deity as little as eye contact can bring fire and brimstone.

Agwu crosses the room and stands, and Ncheta feels their aura halt.

“I am the one humans thank when they have clarity of mind,” they say, “and the one they beg in supplication when their son is feeding from a dumpster. But humans are no longer praying, so you must forgive me for seeking attention elsewhere.”

The tension Ncheta feels breaks and a sliver of anger slips through the cracks. A memory takes him prisoner and in its dark cages, he sees a man. No, many men. They look sickly, their skins leathery and dotted with black spots. Ncheta sees them all, hands stretching from between iron bars, begging him to free them. Each of them he has once lived in, each he has taken something from. Watching them, he is tempted by their pleas, almost gives in. “Leave them be,” a voice says from behind and Ncheta turns to meet Agwu. “They have transgressed, so this is their fate. Come, Malevolent, there’s much work to be done.”

“These people rely more on their phantom world and tech, now,” Agwu continues in the tavern, their words calm yet powerful, quiet yet omnipresent. “And have left our worship places untended. I used to visit their children because they failed to pour libations on my altar, and sometimes after I was done, chains weren’t enough to shackle them.” The words rattle in Ncheta’s ears and he sees the rusty chains dragging on sand. To keep himself from hearing, he presses his hands to his ears, but Agwu has a way of making themself heard even if you don’t want to listen. The words pry Ncheta’s fingers apart and register themselves in his consciousness. They feed him grief and force regret down his throat till he quivers in his seat.

Agwu raises a wine-filled cup and says, “But now, not a single prayer has been offered in moons to replenish my power, and so I must drink this sour concoction with the rest of you lowly things.” The last words in Agwu’s sentence come off firmer and louder than the rest. The deity looks like they’re angry, their jaw tight and their face wrinkling, but you’d be ignorant of Agwu’s nature to assume their disposition from the arrangement of their face. Their clothes are not really clothes, just projections of Agwu’s aura wrapped around them like a halo. So the clothes change with each new decibel Agwu’s voice reaches, and, some even say, are a better reflection of the deity’s countenance.

Ncheta looks around the tavern and every being is pretending not to listen. Benevolents are bad at this game though, shifting and turning and fidgeting. Malevolents are better, their eyes following Agwu’s every movement. Ncheta wonders if any of the Malevolents would be valiant or stupid enough to take on Agwu. The deity did say that prayers to them have dwindled and supposedly their energy too, so it might not be entirely stupid for a Malevolent to push their luck. A mere spirit taking on an Old Deity would be a spectacle in these small corners of Ana Mmuo. Or it’d be an execution; a quick absorbing of an unfortunate spirit’s energy, boring and uneventful.

Agwu’s eyes catch Ncheta’s and the spirit looks away, at his table, tracing the jagged markings on the old wood. He shouldn’t have raised his head. He shouldn’t have taken his eyes from his cup.

“Some of you want to live like them now,” he hears Agwu say, “even though you had all the potential to walk beside us as gods. Right, Ncheta?”

Ncheta answers in a memory. An old memory. “Yes, Agwu.” He bows to the Old Deity and disconnects his host from his past, his memories, leaving the man an ember of his former self. The man, an illustrious merchant who had traveled across seas bringing back ornaments and stories, bales of clothes and the histories of the people who once wore them, now wanders the streets unclad, speaking tongues even the gods do not understand. He feeds from dumpsters and fishes with his bare hands. He is caught stealing from someone’s farm and judged to be a nuisance fit to be hanged among the village’s outlaws.

On the day of the execution, Ncheta prepares himself to drift out, Agwu standing beside him. “He saw too much,” the Old Deity mutters. “Began to convince people they no longer needed us. You did well, Malevolent.” Ncheta wants to question this deity, wants to plead mercy for his host. But they call Ncheta a Malevolent, so how can things like these bother him? How can a spirit war against his own spiritedness, the very same thing for which he exists? It’d be like a man engaging his chi in combat, a river drinking itself, fire burning its own flames.

The noose is inches from his host’s neck when confusion spreads among the crowd. They are watching a man about to wear his death like a neckpiece. Like the gold chains he once sold them. But now they seem to have found something more interesting. A slender woman with a wrapper on her breasts. She raises her voice above the din, yelling something.

“I saw them with my eyes,” she says, pointing two fingers to her bulged eyeballs. “Ananka, they are at the gates. Their soldiers can kill us with their stare alone. We need every man we can spare, even that one about to hang himself.”

Ncheta catches Agwu’s eyes, and although they hold no emotions, their flowing robe has taken the shade of a blood moon, fiery and thick. Ncheta sees the spirit in the slender woman, a Benevolent. The spirit sees him too, and Ncheta knows this young creature just made herself an eternal enemy of Agwu’s.

“Antibalance Season is here,” Agwu says now in the tavern. “The First One has seen it and we can feel its energy spreading fast through the aether.”

Ncheta checks again and now everyone is shuddering. Asiri’s eyes are starting to retreat into their sockets, hiding themselves in her face. She sees Ncheta looking and turns away as if her fear isn’t mutual.

“In a short while, you cretins will begin to feel it too,” Agwu continues. “So if you think we gods and goddesses are the only ones who should be worried about humans’ indifference about us, then think again, because when Antibalance comes, there’d be no place for you to hide.”

When Asiri leads Ncheta through the banks of River Mmirioma, passing over the waterfall and tributary where the water is both boiling hot and freezing cold, and the caves where the giants live, she is no longer chatty. They move quietly, each contemplating Agwu’s words. If Antibalance is here then it means only one thing—a mad scramble for bodies, frantic searches for human spaces to be tenanted in because unembodied spirits at this time will be removed from existence and their energies recycled.

Every 25th moon it used to show up and was due five moons back when Ncheta was still embodied, but recent happenings have made it unpredictable, and now it is here, like a man heading for his farm on the heels of dusk.

Ncheta and Asiri reach the burgeoning dome that is the new world. This high on a hill, they can see how the phantom realm sits on the southern shoulder of River Mmirioma. If they didn’t know this place very well, having existed for centuries and millennia, they wouldn’t have believed the river once passed through this road. The dome is 50 or 60 feet tall and stretches hundreds of kilometers across. It is from this river that the First One formed the first spirit beings before leaving it to Antibalance to carry on creation. From her depths came Ncheta’s essence. But now she is birthing something else, something strange and perplexing.

The skin of the dome is translucent, glowing aquamarine and lapis lazuli. Inside, small blob-like figures are flying around; the self-images of the humans. They fluctuate and dissipate. They move and halt and swirl.

“It was smaller when I last saw it,” Asiri says, “with only a couple hundred minds. Now … now … it looks almost like a city.”

“Can we get in?” Ncheta asks.

“No, we can’t. We can’t even inhabit any human when they are in this world, meaning surviving Antibalance would be twice as hard this season.”

“Can we at least get closer?”

They descend the hill and come within twenty feet of the dome. They see a being standing closer to it, watching from the outside. They move closer and stand beside her. Ncheta can see from his peripheral vision that Mmirioma is no longer shimmering as much as she used to. She’s still intimidatingly tall though, standing eight feet above Ncheta and Asiri. But her aura isn’t as domineering; it shifts and fluctuates like the human minds within the dome. The fact that they had to come this close to notice her is a testament to her waning powers.

“Is Antibalance season really here?” Ncheta breaks the silence.

“It is,” says Mmirioma without turning to look at him. Her voice is like the calling of a whale, loud and poignant, reaching the skies and back, compensating for her dying aura. Her apparel is luminescent liquid, flowing from her neck to her feet. Staying close to her feels like riding waves and drowning at the same time. “I can smell it now,” she says.

Ncheta and Asiri exchange glances. “Everything’s unstable now,” Ncheta says. “I can’t even believe this is happening to you.”

She turns, not a full turn, just enough to look at Ncheta, then she faces the dome again. “You spirits practically live inside the humans. You should be the least surprised about what they can do. How they can alter their world and ours.”

“But this has never happened before,” says Asiri.

“It has always been happening. Their actions have always been leading up to this. They corrupt everything they touch. Why do you think Ana never let them back on the moon?”

Ncheta remembers. Trash and junk and dirt on the First Mother’s hallowed grounds. The goddess later revolted and forced Agwu to sow discord and disinterest in their minds so that they never returned to the celestial body.

“Sadly,” says Asiri, “we still depend on them. The gods still need their supplication, and we still dress up in their skin.”

“Yes, yes. Very true.” She turns fully now and looks at them, her aura expanding beyond her, her hair billowing on nonexistent winds. “I must go now. Good luck with Antibalance. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. Or not.” She manages a laugh, weak and forced. But, coming from her, the incarnate of the endless river herself, it is reassuring nevertheless. With that, her aura grows and grows, then shrinks almost immediately. And she’s gone.

“Do me a favor, Ncheta,” Asiri says.


“The big A is going to keep getting harder as these people keep entering our world like this. If I don’t make it past this one and you do, try to convince them to stop.”

“I want to say yes,” Ncheta says, “but it is you who always says, ‘We’re Benevolents. We can’t even turn their minds away even if we tried.’”

Disturbed only by the gentle hum of the expanding dome, a silence passes between the spirits.

“You know,” Asiri finally speaks up, “you never told me what happened.”

“What happened with what?”

“You used to be a Malevolent.”

Even though there’s bubbling pain in his heart from memories threatening to claim him whole, Ncheta lets a small smile stretch his lips. “Maybe when you live as long as I do, my friend,” he says, “you’d understand that life isn’t as neat as we try to make it. Or as the gods try to arrange it so that we can be simple enough for them to control.”

Asiri’s multiple eyes dim, and Ncheta can see that she’s trying to parse his words.

“Those moons ago,” Ncheta says, “you knew I was a Malevolent, yet you chose to help me.”

“I wasn’t trying to help you,” Asiri says, looking away. “I just thought your host deserved better. He was a good man.”

“Either way, you knew helping him would mean helping me too, and also pitting you against a capricious Old Deity like Agwu.”

Asiri shrugs.

Ncheta casts his gaze high as if trying to take in the scale of the dome at once. “The line blurs most times, Asiri. Sometimes we become them, sometimes they become us. Sometimes we both become something else. If you carry on like that long enough, then someday you’d forget where you start and where they begin.”

When Antibalance comes, a wave of dark energy begins to spread across Ana Mmuo. It is a sweeping wall of black light, reaching from the skies to the ground, from one edge to another, menacing and all-encompassing. The spirits travel ahead of the wall, hoping to find a human body to inhabit before it catches up with them.

Ncheta has survived this event for millennia, each inhabitation strengthening him for the next. The more cycles a spirit completes, the stronger they become and the more their chances of getting embodied when next Antibalance comes. Ncheta holds the memories of many and has preserved the histories of generations. So he is easily summoned by someone, and even if he isn’t, can always find a mind yearning for him to fill. But it has been an unpredictable time these past moons, so finding a matching human has become tough even for him. The new world is now inhabited by billions of minds, and the dome can almost be seen from anywhere on Ana Mmuo.

They are fleeing in groups of tens and fives, all thousands of unembodied beings, spread across the vastness of Ana Mmuo. It helps to move this way because the added numbers improve collective energy and make their connection stronger. Each being’s energy bleeding into the next. But Ncheta and Asiri’s group has shrunk to eight spirits, two having found hosts within the last twelve hours.

There are Malevolents among them, but it hardly matters now. In a short while, if they don’t get embodied, the moving wall will restore equilibrium. But they do carry gourds filled with River Mmirioma’s essence from which they drink from time to time—this they must protect from the Malevolents, because more energy equals more time to flee, and more time to flee means more chance to search for a host.

Ncheta feels through millions of human minds, searching, querying, looking for a suitable host. He can hear them talk, see them walk, and feel the aura of those already inhabited. The spirits within them snare at him, warning him off. The humans, at such moments, would feel a surge of unexplainable rage and anger, suddenly talking back at their boss or punching a bus conductor in the face. Some of those humans need him, but Ncheta doesn’t intend to fight for space with spirits. But some other beings, desperate enough, would. Such duels often leave the human mind permanently harmed. But a Malevolent would hardly care; whether their host is in an asylum or a palace is of little importance.

Ncheta remembers his last host, a man who as a child could tell the names of the constellations in the night sky. The boy who was curious about everything, and whose quest for knowledge was insatiable. Ncheta sees him now, standing in front of a class. His uniform is torn in several places, and his hair is bushy. He is flipping through his biology textbook, trying to show his teacher why fresh and saltwater fish wouldn’t survive in a biblical worldwide flood. But the class and the teacher are having none of it, laughing uncontrollably till Ncheta’s host goes back to his seat hanging his head, defeated.

Ncheta rushes through memories till when his host has his first sex. The young man insists on not putting his mouth to his girlfriend’s pubic area, naming every type of germ that can be transmitted from her to him until the girl gets disgusted and storms out of the room. Ncheta watches his host beg her to stay, and isn’t surprised when the young man rushes into the bathroom to take his bath the minute she slams the door shut.

Then there’s this moment when Ncheta’s host is receiving an award for being part of the three-man team that finally mapped the nature of dark matter. He’s on the cover of magazines, hailed in science journals, and revered in the scientific community.

But he’s 68 now and he’s starting to forget things. He remembers with perfect clarity those moments when he first had sex, trying to wash the girl’s smell off him in the shower, but he can’t remember what he had for breakfast, and can’t recall his own daughter’s name. He gets worse by the year and soon starts to lose himself. Ncheta tries but can’t help him, shakes but can’t stir him. His body has succumbed to an illness from which even Ncheta can’t save him. So, against all odds, the spirit of the past and present reaches out to Agwu, the deity of mental acuity and madness for help, at least for old times’ sake. Agwu agrees, but does so on a condition; that Ncheta surrenders to Agwu’s whims and allows himself to be the tool of the gods once more.

“I can’t help him otherwise,” the Old Deity says, “because your host never believed in deities, much less prayed to us.”

Rather than go back to the way things were before, Ncheta resorts to letting his host go the natural way. “My host,” Ncheta tells Asiri, “if he can hear me will prefer to not keep his mind if doing so would mean he’s the reason many others will lose theirs.”

“I’m sorry,” Asiri says.

“It’s the price I must pay for all the harm I’ve done.”

So Ncheta watches and watches, till there’s nothing left of his beloved host to anchor himself to.

“They’re ancient spirits,” says Asiri now in Ana Mmuo.


“Those who just left. I hear some of them have been with humans since they walked on all fours.”

Ncheta looks at his friend. Her voice is becoming weak. Her tentacles are shrinking and most of her eyes have retreated into her face. She might not be able to make it. One Malevolent has left, disappearing without drama or consequence, as if they were never here in the first place. So that leaves seven of them, and the wall is gaining fast.

It is as if Ana Mmuo itself is conspiring against them, shrinking and pressing from all sides. Roads they used to travel no longer exist, and pathways they usually take are now dead ends.

Asiri is lagging behind now, struggling to keep pace with the group. Ncheta slows down and hefts her onto his back. She’s murmuring now and Ncheta tells her to stop, to use the energy to find a host.

They can see the wall now, five times as fast as it was when they took off from the other end of Ana Mmuo. Ncheta tries again, reaching across worlds. Using the remains of his energy. He finally sees someone who is neither plugged into the phantom world nor taken by a spirit. This boy feels a disconnect from his past and ancestral roots. He wants to return to the Motherland to trace his lineage and organize his family history. Ncheta reaches out and the boy’s mind is clean, ready for the taking.

But, Asiri.

How hard could it be to find someone who likes to know things they’re not supposed to know, and isn’t inhabited already? Ncheta leaves the boy he just found and widens his search. This is risky—the boy could soon be inhabited by another spirit who cares less about suitability and just wants to survive. But Ncheta can’t leave his friend behind. It’d be the last time he’d ever see her again if he does so.

He keeps searching, an eye on his potential host. Billions of humans are plugged in at this moment, reality no longer real enough for them. Antibalance is closing in. The wind it brings slows Ncheta and his group down. Their movement is now a slug. Like wading through quicksand. Ncheta feels the boy receding from him and Asiri slipping from his grasp, pulled back by the force that is Antibalance. He feels caught between this world and the next, between saving his friend and himself.

But, Ncheta knows he has to save himself in the end. Like he does before his hosts die. Like all spirits do before their hosts die.

The wall is here now, rampaging through the spirit world and taking every unembodied being with it. One spirit is sucked in and absorbed by the wall. Another follows. And another. And Ncheta lets go. He tries to connect with the boy but the human is now beyond his reach. He pushes with all his energy but it is like swimming against a tide. Like the world is a giant treadmill. Centrifugal force kicks in and he loses balance and is carried through the air.

Ncheta looks back just in time to see the wall swallow Asiri. His longtime friend now is no more. He shuts his eyes and drifts on the currents, no longer fighting, no longer struggling. The end will come soon enough. 6000 years of human history about to be wiped clean.

He lets it come. And the world goes dark.

First, Ncheta sees light. Bright, golden light expanding in all directions. Then, he feels solid ground beneath him, ethereal materials that have been molted into other ethereal materials until they became sturdy and dense. It shouldn’t be so. He shouldn’t be able to feel himself, much less anything else. But here he is.

There’s fog wrapped around him, but it’s lifting by the second and the world is becoming clearer and clearer. He’s in something like a throne room. The golden light from torches on the walls is the source of illumination. He looks up and the ceiling is made of clouds and stars and night. He tries to move but something is holding him back. He checks and sees his arms are spread apart, held firm by chains tethered to the walls on either side.

Strong energies suddenly permeate the atmosphere. They’re so powerful Ncheta feels like his insides are about to melt. In a second, there are gods and goddesses in the room. Amadioha, Ana, Ikenga, Ekwensu, Agwu, all stand before him. First, he can’t look at them without squinting. Then his eyes adjust and he can no longer avert his gaze. The shortest one among them is seven feet tall. The goddess is the least beautiful. And they all have fire in their eyes.

“Why didn’t you go?” Agwu speaks first. “We could have let Antibalance claim you and it’d be over.”

Ncheta stares at them, not understanding.

“He wanted to save the gossip thing, of course,” Ana says, and her voice is like metals clanging against each other.

“Still doesn’t make any sense,” Agwu replies.

“What is going on here?” Ncheta asks.

“We saved you if you haven’t realized,” says Amadioha.

“Why? And how? How can you save someone from Antibalance?”

“Oh we can do a lot of things,” Agwu says again, and Ncheta’s eyes flit across deities. “We can keep some of you pitiful things to ourselves as a source of energy since, you know, the humans are no longer responding.” Agwu holds their fingernails to the light and examines them as if they were recently manicured. The deity has a new shine about them too. Ncheta hadn’t met the other gods in a long while, but he can tell they feel as renewed as Agwu.

Unconsciously, Ncheta tugs at the chains fastened to his arms. There’s a fire cackling in his belly, reaching and clawing up to this mouth. He feels it stir his insides, and he knows the deities feel it too. “So why am I still here, then? Why am I still here when my friend and the rest of the beings who couldn’t make it have been used as food for you hopeless swine?”

“Watch your mouth, Benevolent,” Ikenga bellows.

“Is this what you’ve been doing all along,” Ncheta continues, “hiding behind the wall to siphon the energies of lowly beings like us? Did the First One approve of this?”

The gods and goddesses exchange glances and laugh. “Your friend is still with us,” Ana says, and Ncheta’s eyes widen. “We’re still keeping you alive because you’re of immense value to the humans. You matter so much to them, especially in times like these when they’re beginning to forget themselves.”

“I thought they don’t mean anything to you any longer?” Ncheta asks.

“We’d let you go now,” Agwu says, “but the next time you don’t embody during Antibalance, you might not be so lucky.”

“Where’s Asiri?”

“We’d keep her,” Agwu says, “so that when next you stand before Old Deities like ourselves, you’d learn to not speak out of place.”

Ncheta’s energies roil. They rise and fall like the tides of a sea, his entire being wrestling to keep them in check, fighting to rein him in. If he were still Malevolent, they would have broken free by now. But he’s supposed to be the personification of goodness and goodwill now, so his nature is his own enemy.

Part of his struggle is Agwu’s aura rubbing off on him, pulling him at the seams, finding weak spots and tugging at them, so that he becomes a paradox, a self-deprecating joke. They want to see him break so that they’d remake him in the image they choose. And they’re laughing. Watching him struggle is a source of amusement.

“I challenge you to a duel,” Ncheta says and the laughter seizes.

“Challenge who?” they ask in unison.

“You, Agwu. Let’s settle this the old way once and for all. I win, you give her back. You win, you take her and I become your servant forever.”

Agwu guffaws, but the deity is laughing alone. The other beings are quiet, trying to gauge Ncheta’s level of seriousness. The deities know that if Ncheta takes on Agwu, though the deity of madness and mental acuity is newly recharged, the fight wouldn’t be about energy. The Ancient Law states; If, for any reason, an Old Deity must engage a Benevolent spirit in combat, the duel mustn’t be based on strength of arm, but rather, strength of mind. And when it comes to mind, against the deity of madness and mental acuity, the spirit of the past and present has fairground.

Everyone knows this, and that is why they aren’t laughing.

“Come on,” Agwu says, “you don’t all think this vermin can beat me, do you?”


“Do you accept the challenge, Agwu?” Ana asks. Of course, Agwu can’t decline a fight with a lowly Benevolent. Their ego wouldn’t be this high above Ana Mmuo if they went about declining challenges from lowly spirits.

Agwu glances at Ncheta and their jaw tightens. Then, their lips spread into a smile. “When do we duel?”

The deity and the spirit are in Chukwu’s temple. Chukwu isn’t present, but if the spirit and deity are here, then it means the First One gave consent. The stone structure is set on the top of the highest point of Ana Mmuo, from which the entire realm is at a glance. All around them is rock, and a few pillars on the edges hold up nothing. They’re both standing facing each other. They can see themselves, but they’re not themselves. The other Old Deities stand around, bearing witness.

“I am the first thing that shines,” Agwu starts, “and the last thing that goes out. Who am I?”

“You are Anyanwu Ututu,” Ncheta says, “the Morning Star. Now riddle me this. I am the slice of yam that can feed a multitude. What am I?”

“You are the crescent moon,” says Agwu. “Now tell me, I am they that gather regardless of the position of the moon. Who am I?”

“You are the red cap chiefs. Now tell me, I am he that can make you gather regardless of when you want. Who am I?”

“You are the King,” Agwu says with a smile, and Ncheta wonders if he spoke in haste. Whether Agwu has backed him into a corner.

“Riddle me this,” Agwu continues, “I am the thing that makes the king lick ash. What am I?”

Ncheta almost hesitates. He wants to give himself room to weigh his options before speaking. But in this game hesitation means defeat. A few seconds of lag is all it takes, and you’re done. “You are roasted pear,” he says. “Riddle me this. I am the thing from which all pear trees grow. What am I?”

“You are the Earth,” Agwu says, “Ana herself, mother of all life.” Ncheta’s eyes cut to Ana standing on the edge of the temple and he sees her shift uneasily. A smile crosses his lips. He has thrown Agwu into defense.

“I am the life who formed the mother of all life,” Agwu says, launching another attack. “Who am I?”

Ncheta digs his heels into the rock, stands firm, and sharpens his mind. “You are the First One, Chukwu himself.”

Agwu enters into Ncheta’s mindspace. “Your host would have done better,” they say. “Give up now, and I might not make you suffer.”

“You let him die alone and unaware of himself when you could have helped,” Ncheta says.

“Of course, the fool thought he knew more than the gods. How do you think his madness began?”

“You had no hand in it,” says Ncheta.

“You can’t be sure of that.”

Ncheta feels his energies concentrating. The dregs of River Mmirioma in him are churning and undulating. He’s losing touch with reality. Time is unspooling, one second spilling into the next. There’s an abyss in his consciousness that he almost falls into. No. No. He pulls from the brink just in time to rebut Agwu. “I am the wind that restores balance to the universe. The force without which order can not exist. What am I?”

“You are Antibalance,” Agwu says, their face a combination of surprise and disappointment. “You are the opposite of life and destroyer of non-life. But I am that in which Antibalance exists, within which everything exists.”

“You are the universe itself,” Ncheta says. “The beginning and the end of all things. But then, I am that without which there is no beginning and no end, no past and no present, no now and no never. What am I?”

“You are … time …”

“And you are … out of time.”

Ncheta and Asiri are in the tavern. Some spirits have returned from their short-lived trips, their hosts either dead while being birthed or as infants. Antibalance has created new spirits and beings and some show up at the door looking clueless and brimming with energy. For some reason, the dome has stopped expanding, either because humans have grown tired of it, or someone has influenced lawmakers to put restrictions on the trillion-dollar companies. Some spirits speculate that it has shrunk a little too, but it can still be seen from the tavern without standing, its colors lighting up the room like an aurora.

“I hear Agwu became a spirit and entered into America’s president,” Asiri says.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ncheta says. “Isn’t it rather … lowly of him to possess a human?”

Asiri’s many eyes light up, expanding to almost merge into one big globe on her face. “Well, what can be more lowly than being humiliated by a spirit on Chukwu’s temple?”

Ncheta smiles and takes a sip from his drink which seems to be improving in taste too. Asiri takes her cup and stands, and Ncheta wonders what she’s about to do.

“Hey newcomers and returning spirits, listen up,” she says, speaking in multiple voices. “Raise your cups and let’s make a toast to the latest New Deity in town. The First One has deemed him worthy of deification, and henceforth he no longer would be running around with spirits when the big A comes.”

Ncheta looks around and the entire tavern has raised a cup, and at Asiri’s word, they pour their drinks on the ground in honor of Ncheta’s new status as the god of the past and the present.

  • Chisom Umeh

    Chisom Umeh (he/him) is a Nigerian fiction writer and poet. He holds a degree in English and literature. When he's not watching movies or writing about fantastical things, he's tweeting about movies and fantastical things at @izom_chisom. His short stories have been featured and are forthcoming on Second Skin Mag, Omenana, Isele, and Mythaxis.

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