“There are so many fragile things after all. People break so easily, and so do dreams and hearts.”
Derek moans and opens his eyes. A bittersweet memory lingers. A strange dream. Taïga…
But it wasn’t a dream. Everything comes back to him, in waves.
He had been on his way home after having made sure his parents were safe. In Egypt.
Oh my God. The plane…
He is sweating profusely and the feeling of freshness from having washed earlier is long gone. The temperature must be way above the 90s and, judging from the impenetrable dark outside the little window, the night doesn’t bring any solace from the day’s heat. A warm, soft breeze makes the curtains flutter, bringing with it unknown scents of dried out earth and foreign plants. And goats. Definitely goats. Lots of them.
He tries to fill his lungs with warm, humid air, but only manages to take small shallow breaths. He has to get rid of the bandage squeezing his chest. He’ll breathe easier with it gone.
‘I have to get out of here…’ he mutters to himself, sputtering from the effort of sitting up too fast. A sharp pain shoots through his lower abdomen, followed by a strange heat. He looks down at the thin red streak spreading over the bandage. Cautiously he slides back until he’s leaning against the wall. He closes his eyes and tries to gather his thoughts, willing the pain to go away.
The people he has seen so far seem friendly enough, but he knows that someone who has kept him drugged for God knows how long can’t be trusted. He fumbles under the thin mattress and withdraws the long blade he has kept hidden. The airhead little girl had left it along with some big leaves and strange looking roots the other day when she came checking on him. He had faked sleeping, not in the mood for her incessant chatter. She had left in a hurry when her mother called for her but she came back only a few seconds later to pick up the forgotten plants. It had been long enough for him to steal the knife.
It is very quiet, everyone must be asleep. He doesn’t know what time it is, but he’d better hurry if he wants to explore the surroundings. You never know when you have to get away fast, and having an idea about an escape route is necessary – the stunt at the sanatorium had taught him that.
‘We must not be exposed! There will be soldiers everywhere – raping our wives, killing our children!’ Abedi stands up. He holds his head with both hands in a desperate gesture, wailing. ‘Mzungu’s arrival was an ukorofi mbaya,’ he adds, searching for a sign of approval from the great priestess.
The little congregation acquiesces muttering, throwing furtive glances at each other.
‘Ndio. Bad omen.’
They all think about the secret they share by birth but no one is daring enough to say the forbidden words out loud.
Jina looks at the scared faces of the men in front of her. As the village’s kuhani mkuu, high priestess, she will have the last word in mzungu’s destiny, but she also knows she can’t go against them all or she will lose their trust and thus all credibility as the most powerful member of their little society.
‘Spring ya vijana.’ The shared thoughts are so powerful the words seem to hang in the air like an invisible whisper. After a brief silence everyone starts talking at once.
‘His presence is a danger to us all.’ Kamili Balala looks at his fellow villagers for support. The help comes, not unexpectedly, from his clients who owe him money and who are eager to stay on his good side.
‘He must leave!’
‘Send him away – Kumpeleka mbali!’
Kamili has planted the seed, now he just has to watch it grow…
The very old and respected brothers Amana and Djimon don’t seem to agree with Kamili and his followers. They look at each other, mouthing and gesturing helplessly but the younger men are concentrated on Kamili and their excited voices drown the two elder’s intervention in a sea of noise.
The rich merchant hides a triumphant smile. He throws a furtive glance at the High Priestess. Even old Jina, who always treats him like he’s still the little boy who stole corn from her garden, will have to bow to his importance in the future. Maybe that day has finally come.
Jina follows the debate in silence, taking advantage of the Council’s attention being focused on someone else than herself. She coldly calculates her next steps. It is important not to make any mistakes on how she should interact if she wants to get her way in this matter. But there doesn’t seem to be possible to make them all see reason. She is distressed to discover that each one of the elders present seem to agree on mzungu leaving.
‘We can’t! You must surely see that?’ Bewildered, Kamili Balala interrupts the heated discussion. ‘There is no way we can authorize him to… to just leave!’
‘Kamili is right. Our secret must be kept a secret for as long as our village is called Kijiji kilichofichwa.’
The assembled men nod, each one of them repeating the words in an approving murmur.
Kijiji kilichofichwa. Hidden village.
‘We can’t just throw mzungu out into the jungle.’ Djimon’s trembling old man’s voice finally breaks through. He has sat silent during the whole meeting, and the others quickly hush when he speaks up. He looks at them, waiting for complete silence. ‘Fisi. Hyenas.’
‘Ndio,’ Kamili mutters. He’s not ready to let go of his idea. There might still be a way to turn the situation around and get vengeance for his lost profit. ‘Let the hyenas take care of him!’
‘Ndio! Yes! A dead man doesn’t talk.’
‘Kwaheri, mzungu. Goodbye stranger.’
A few men has sided with Kamili, but they rapidly grow silent when Djimon speaks up again.
‘We are no murderers…’
The men shuffle their feet and look down, ashamed. Jina sends the ancestors a thankful thought. Here is her break.
Djimon continues, ‘We are the guardians of the spring ya vijana. We must keep the secret at all costs-’ He shushes the audience with a gesture. ‘-but mzungu has eaten with us. We have welcomed him to our village. We have healed his wounds-’
‘-brought him back to life from the dead, actually,’ Jina breaks in. It can’t do no harm exaggerating a little if it makes them fear her capacities even more. To her satisfaction they seem to get the message.
‘The elder have spoken. So we shall keep mzungu in the village. Forever,’ Jina says ominously with her High Priestess gravelly voice, raising her eyes to the sky in a definitive gesture.
‘Mzee… I’m begging you all to be realistic! When I said we can’t let him go I didn’t mean we should let him stay!’
The rich merchant tries to get the discussion going again, but he can see that the others’ minds are made up. Mzungu will stay. Forever. And he, Kamili, the richest man in the village, will have to accept that.
Derek feels a little lightheaded when he stands up, but he manages to walk across the floor to the far wall where the open door beckons. He stops and stares at his disheveled appearance in a little mirror. His pale, hollow cheeks are darkened by the shadow of a stubble that makes him look worn, older. His hair is definitely longer and both looks and feels dirty. He must have been here for weeks…
So why isn’t he healing?
‘What are you doing?’ Hami’s heavily accented voice makes Derek jump. How come he hadn’t heard the man approach?
‘I need to use the bathroom,’ he mutters, discreetly sliding the knife under the bandage on his forearm. The man, who he remembers as Hami, is effectively blocking the issue. His muscular arms are crossed over his chest and a worried frown is shading his black eyes. Derek hesitates, but he’s not ready to make a run for it. Not when he hardly could stagger this far…
‘You must stay in bed,’ Hami says curtly and points to the bed.
‘Yeah… But I need to, err…Pee.’ Derek looks hopefully at Hami, hoping he will accompany him outside, but he is quickly disillusioned when the man simply calls for his daughter who appears with a bucket so fast he suspects she must have been waiting with it ready.
‘Oh, crap,’ he mutters under his breath, but accepts the handle with a nod and an embarrassed grin. ‘I can deal with this on my own. Ahem. Yeah, that’s right. Just go away…’
He puts the bucket on the low stool under the mirror and waits for the little girl to disappear before relieving himself. He would never have thought it was so nice to stand up on his own feet and pee. Talk about small victories. He chuckles, quickly stopping because of the pain in his chest. He must concentrate on healing.
On getting stronger.
So going straight back to bed seems like the best option. But there is something he has to verify first.
He staggers over to the doorway and peeks into the night. Hami doesn’t seem to be around anymore. It’s not as if he needs to be watched over, he probably couldn’t outrun a toddler in his current physical condition.
He can see the railing from where he is standing, and decides it is not too far away. Holding on to the wall with his left hand, his right pressed tightly against the bandage on his stomach, he moves stubbornly forward. His stomach seriously feels like it is threatening to spew his intestines out.
A few yards that seem like miles and he is outside, the lukewarm air brushing his feverish cheeks with welcome coolness. He leans against the railing and looks into the dark night, trying hard to see more than the even darker shadows.
What on earth has happened to his eyes? There’s no way the night can be as dark-
Could it be his eyes are affected after all and he’s on his way to lose his eyesight? Will he need glasses?
And why hasn’t he transformed at the full moon? It would surely have healed him. But…Could it be less than a month since he got here? He hopes so. He scrutinizes the sky for a clue, but there is no sight of the moon. He would never have thought he would welcome a transformation, but if it’s the only way to recover the powers he seems to have lost he’ll readily embrace the pain and the loss of memory of the horrors he’ll commit…
He tries to wrap his mind around his situation. He has learned to combat the lycan inside of him, but he has no idea about what happens with his body when he is unconscious and unable to fight the transformation. He is not supposed to stay unconscious. He is supposed to heal even faster when he’s sleeping…
Or could it be something else? Magic? The bitter concoctions the old woman makes him swallow at least three times a day might have something to do with this sudden inability to heal…
‘What do you want?’ he mutters absentmindedly to the little girl who has sneaked up on him and is shifting her feet uncomfortably from a few feet away.
Her English is hesitant but fully understandable and he changes his mind about telling her off. He wants her to go away, but he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. And he might need an ally. Especially one who is as air headed and just might forget something useful within his reach again. Like a bigger knife, maybe.
But before even thinking of undertaking the journey back to “civilization”, he has to heal. And to do that, he has to turn. Weak as he is, he’ll need the full moon to take over his body and mind and for once, he won’t fight it.
‘Pity you can’t tell me when the next full moon is due,’ he murmurs. A flash of light catches his eye and he can see a fiercely blinking star through a tear in the rapidly shifting clouds.
Polaris? His heartbeat quickens and suddenly he feels hopeful again. It will lead him home, one way or the other. Maybe not as soon as he would like it to, but it will… So, where’s the dang moon?
He concentrates on a patch of clouds with a faint, silvery outline, rapidly moving west.
And the elated feeling instantly dies.
Darkness falls, clouds shift and the same waning gibbous rises over Bayou Oaks Mansion on the other side of the planet, over 6,000 miles away. The old wooden structure lies eerily dark and quiet, the only light coming from the attic and Taïga’s room.
Junior puts his thumb in his mouth, feeling ill at ease. Everyone is always so silent and serious when they come here, and he doesn’t like seeing Taïga sleeping all the time. She is no fun at all anymore. He’d rather play catch with the cat.
‘See? Hiding the pacifier doesn’t resolve anything,’ Missy says triumphantly over her shoulder to her husband who just huffs and puffs in an unintelligible manner that could mean both yes and no.
‘I reckon it’s time to leave, there’s a storm a brewin,’ he mutters, glaring at his wife’s back. ‘It’s already rainin’ so hard it sounds like a cow pissing on a flat rock.’
‘Mind your language, dear. Junior picks up on everything you say. Oh, I think she’s running a fever – again,’ Missy adds to herself.
‘Or she’s just too bundled up in all them blankets. Makes me sweat just lookin at her. ’
Minuit hovers on the landing, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into Taïga’s room. She’ll make a go for it as soon as the little annoying child gets out of the way. He has a habit of trying to catch her and in doing so usually only gets hold of her tail and it hurts. Better steer clear. Valkyria pushes past her and sits down, eagerly waving her tail and looking at the humans waiting for a caress of acknowledgment. Curiously the child doesn’t even try to touch the dog, he’s just staring fixedly at their human in the bed, thoughtfully sucking his thumb.
‘You might be right.’ Missy uncovers Taïga and pats her back. ‘At least she’s sleeping normally, she doesn’t look unconscious anymore… She might even wake up soon.’ She struggles to her feet, massaging her aching back. Just a few weeks left before she’s due… ‘I’ll tell Baba Yaga to put the blanket back on if she seems to get cold-’
‘I reckon they know what to do. They been taking care of business since Tara vanished, after all.’ Juan ushers her through the door, grabbing his son’s little hand and closing the door shut in front of Minuit.
‘Don’t talk like that! She’s not vanished.’
‘She’s not here, is she?’
‘No. But that doesn’t mean she won’t come back…’
Their arguing voices disappear down the stairs.
Valkyria whimpers and jumps up onto the bed, inching as close to her mistress as she possibly can without touching her. Taïga moans slightly and frowns. With a gasp she curls up in fetal position, her respiration accelerating.
She is floating in warm, red darkness, filled and surrounded by a steady, muffled thumping. Low and insistent. Soothing. Reassuring. She knows she is supposed to feel safe and protected in this red cave. Loved. Precious.
But there is only sadness. And dark, bottomless despair.
Part II – End of Chapter 49