The fireflies lead me to the clearing where my lover waits patiently.
I can see her illuminated by the light of the moon. She stands under the udala tree, an image of perfection, her dark skin glowing in the silvery moonlight. The warmth of excitement spreads in my chest as soon as I see her.
She runs forward and traps me in a hug. “My darling Fela,” she says.
I hug her tight, trying to make up for all the hours we have spent apart. If I had my way, we would never be apart for the slightest minute, but it cannot be helped. She is weaker during the day and I cannot allow myself to be seen slinking out of the city anyway. The witches at the Academy wouldn’t understand our love because my lover is a forest sprite.
We pull away from each other and walk to our rock, holding hands. The rock has a flat surface, and every night we just rest on our backs and stargaze while talking about random things. Tonight, we settle on the rock and just try to share the peaceful moment.
As usual, I am mesmerized by her beauty. She is more beautiful than all the women in the city. More beautiful than any woman I have ever seen. Perhaps it is because she isn’t exactly a woman, since she’s not human. There is something otherworldly about her features. Her face is not perfect, no, but every freckle only amplifies her beauty. I caress her face with my hand and she smiles.
“So, will you tell me about your day?” I ask, as I slide a hand around her waist, pulling her closer.
“It was mostly quiet,” she breathes. “The forest thrives.”
I nod and nibble her gently on the lip, provoking a sharp intake of breath.
“What about you?” she asks.
I shrug slightly. “Chaotic,” I say. “The coven had a meeting I could not attend because—you know.”
I do not say it out loud. We both know that the coven won’t allow someone like me into their meetings. She touches me through my blouse, her thumb rubbing against my nipple. It is a simple motion, but it is greatly arousing nonetheless. I resist the urge to make an undignified noise.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” she says, softly. Her startlingly blue eyes fix me with a steady gaze that makes me feel like I am the only person in her world. She looks at me as if she would never look away, and I feel as though I’m sinking into those beautiful eyes.
I feel tears rising to my eyes. How can she say that when she sees her own reflection in streams and rivers every day? Yet I know she does not lie. She simply cannot lie. It is against her nature.
“Will you say my name tonight?” she whispers, her breath warm against my cheek.
I close my eyes, getting even more excited. Her name is in the Old Tongue, and names are powerful. This is one of the first things young witches are taught. If you know someone or something’s real name, you can do all sorts of things with them. You can kill them, bend them to your will, whatever you desire.
My lover told me her name shortly after we met. I didn’t ask, of course. She just said it, and the air was exceedingly warm for a moment and I saw her in all her glory. That was the night I knew she trusted me.
Now, my face is inches away from hers. Her lips are slightly parted. Her eyes are focused on me. Of all the things she could admire in the world, she has chosen me. I move my lips to her ear and speak in a whisper because the night has many ears and I don’t want the wrong ones to pick up her true name.
“Ewayiwunmi.” I whisper.
She shivers, and all around us, the night air is suddenly supercharged. Her lips meet mine, hungry and restless. I lose myself in the kiss and let her push me back so I am resting on the rock. She is blocking the stars, but I don’t care. Why gaze at distant suns when I had a true sun in my arms?
I let myself be lost in the moment, and my lover takes me right there, under the view of the night, the distant stars and the ever silent moon.
We are lying on our backs on the grass, breathing heavily. Well, I am breathing heavily. Ewa doesn’t look like she has just made love for hours. In fact, she looks like she could do it again. I know I couldn’t. I am thoroughly sated and tired but in a good way.
“Have you ever hurt anyone with your magic?” Ewa asks, breaking the comfortable silence.
I turn away from the stars. She has never seemed interested in my past and doesn’t particularly like talking about magic. Magic users and forest sprites don’t particularly get along. I think about how to answer this question. I cannot lie, of course. She’ll know. Besides, I don’t want to lie.
“Not intentionally.” I say at last.
Ewa is quiet for so long that I think she’s not going to say anything else. Then she speaks again.
“If the other witches find out about us, what will happen to you?” she asks.
I prop myself up on one elbow and look down at her. Her hair is fanned out on the grass, darker than the night around us. I resist the urge to brush away the errant strands from her face and instead look into her depthless eyes.
“They won’t find out.” I tell her, hoping my voice carries the confidence I do not feel.
“I use a cloaking spell when I leave the city every night. Nobody sees me. I get back to my house before dawn. Nobody notices my absence,” I say, trying to assure her.
Ewa doesn’t look convinced, but she doesn’t press me further. I wonder if there is something on her mind, but I do not ask. I could read her thoughts of course, but I’d never do that to her. Thought reading is extremely intrusive, and she would see too much about my own mind in the process. I know she’ll voice her concerns in time, so I brush back her hair and lean down to kiss her.
The city of Surulere is one of the smallest cities in the empire. At least, in comparison to the bigger cities in the West and North. There are fewer people on the streets of Surulere, and sometimes I like to argue with Moṣhe, the kindly librarian back at the Academy, that Surulere should be classified as a town rather than a city. Perhaps the reason why the city feels so small is because half of it is unpopulated. Unlike most cities, there is no physical wall surrounding Surulere. The only real wall is the one behind the main market, dividing the city from its dark past. From my studies at the Academy, I know what lies beyond the wall.
Long ago, there had been a powerful witch who wanted more power, for some reason. She had come to Surulere, which had been a bustling city at that time with a greater population than it has today. The witch, Ajẹ, had come to the secluded city to perform her most dangerous act: a summoning. There, far from the capital city and the influence of other powerful forces, she etched her circle to surround half of the city.
The books aren’t clear about what she had been trying to summon from the other planes, but what is recorded is the fact that as soon as she completed the summoning, something emerged from beyond and took half of the people in the city as its sacrifice. Before Ajẹ could kill it, a demon, and harness its great power, it broke free of her circle and destroyed her. It turned on the rest of the city and would have devoured them as well if a group of witches hadn’t arrived. They had scryed and foreseen what Ajẹ’s lust for power would cause. The witches combined their power and cast a binding spell, trapping the demon and sending it back to its plane of existence. Then they raised the wall to demarcate the living city from its dead half. In appreciation, the people of Surulere had given them land to build the Academy, a place where witches could be safe from the persecution they often face in other cities of the empire.
There are no governors in Surulere, and the emperor doesn’t collect tax from the city. Some claim he is scared of the witches in their towers. Others say he doesn’t tax the city because it has no ports and doesn’t participate in trading. Surulere receives few visitors, due to the distance between it and the other cities and due to the rumors that outsiders believe about it.
Some people believe Surulere is a city of ghosts; that the demon had actually devoured all the humans here and controls their bodies. Others believe that the witches have enslaved everyone in Surulere and anyone who visits will be enchanted as well. Like the rumors about the emperor, these ones are baseless as well.
Surulere may be somewhat downcast, and sometimes we may hear the howling of the restless spirits of the dead on the other side of the wall, but it is a pleasant place to live. Witches are not burnt at the stake here and are actually respected. There are none of the locomotive machines that move on the streets of the capital city of Àgùdà, expelling smoke into the sky and poisoning the air. Here, the surrounding forest is verdant and full of life. Here, anyone can be anything they desire. Here, I could finally feel at home.
Or so I thought.
I grew up on the edge of the city, in a small house without windows. I never knew my father. My mother, a quiet woman who seemed to always be somewhere else, never explained what happened to him. I learned self-dependence at a young age and took care of myself and my mother whenever she fell into her melancholic moods. I never went out to make friends, mainly because the other children said unkind things about me and my mother but mostly about me. They made fun of the way I walked and spoke, made fun of my face, called me names like girly and threw little stones at me when I went to get water from the well.
I preferred to stay indoors with the few books we had at home—my mother’s old cookbook and a hunter’s guide that had probably belonged to my father. I read both books so many times that I wore them out. I knew about how to cook rare delicacies like ẹfọ riro and how to trap the elusive long-eared hare, òkété, but I knew nothing of the world, and when I was twelve, I saw my first Vision. It is one of the few times I remember my mother ever being agitated. She rushed us to the Academy and asked to see the witches. She explained what had happened, but they didn’t believe her.
Your son cannot be a witch, they claimed. Men cannot see Visions.
I wanted to tell them that they were wrong about me. I wanted to say that most days I did not feel like what I looked like. I wanted to tell them that my true self was trapped somewhere underneath my bones; that I felt like I was wearing a false identity. But I said nothing, and my mother took me away. The next time I was at the Academy, my mother was dead. I was sixteen and had been picked up by the witches themselves after I lashed out at the catcalling boys in the city and used my untamed power to hurt them badly, making sure the worst and loudest of them would never walk again.
I was admitted into the ranks of the witches, but I have never truly belonged, not even when my body started changing. The only place I am sure I belong to is in my lover’s arms in the clearing where we can watch the stars and get lost in each other, our names falling from our lips into each other’s ears while the night pretends not to hear.
I met Ewa on a cold winter morning in my eighteenth year. It was two years after I joined the Academy, and I was already disillusioned with life at the towers of the witches.
My body was still hard and angular, and my chin was bushy with an unwanted beard. The witches hadn’t truly accepted me even though I outperformed all the other young witches. The senior witches who worked as our instructors gave me the most difficult tasks in a bid to make me fail, but I always performed the best in every test.
None of my fellow students spoke to me. I was treated like a subhuman, like someone that shouldn’t exist. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, like I could do nothing right, I liked to step out of the city and walk around in the woods.
I had cast a heating spell on my body that day so I wouldn’t have to wear any thick clothing. I wandered in the forest, enjoying the silence and imagining a future where my body had changed to match my self and I was finally accepted by the witches. I didn’t know when I stepped into the clearing with an udala tree at its end. The tree looked very green, as if the season was summer instead of winter. Curious, I stepped closer to it and placed my bare hand against its trunk. Without warning, the tree trunk split in two and a beautiful dark skinned girl stepped out. I recognized her at once, remembering my studies at the Academy.
...dryads are some of the rarest spirits... immensely powerful and skilled in forest magic, they are extremely territorial and have been known to attack entire towns with magic if they think their forest is in danger... should be killed on sight...
I stumbled backwards, a killing curse on my lips. But somehow, Ewa showed me she meant no harm. She told me she was only interested in the forest’s growth. Somehow, when the witches had bound the demon that Ajẹ had summoned, Ewa had been locked in the udala tree as well. My magic had awakened her and set her free when I touched her tree.
The next day and the day after that, I returned to her clearing, eager to learn more about her. In the passing weeks, we learned a lot about each other. I told her how much I was struggling because of the difference between who I was on the inside and how others perceived me, and she told me about how she felt lonely and empty inside, despite her power. She looked at me without suspicion or judgement, like most people did, and when I was with her, I felt peace in my heart.
It took me only those few weeks to realize that I had fallen in love. When I told her, she smiled and kissed me. That was her way of saying she knew. It was her way of saying she had fallen in love too.
Senior Witch Zena is waiting for me in front of the potion shop. I curse under my breath as I approach her.
“You are late again. What’s your excuse this time?”
I open my mouth to speak, but she’s already turning away.
“Set up the shop quickly and join me in the meeting room,” she says, without looking back as she marches to the Academy. I watch her go, stunned. The meeting room is where the coven hold their meetings. Perhaps the witches are finally accepting me. Perhaps I will finally undergo my initiation. I feel my hope grow as I grab a broom and start sweeping.
The potion shop is located outside the Academy and is where I’m mostly posted. Among other things, I am a skilled potion maker, and so I was ordered by the coven to sell potions to the city people. This is one of their subtle ways to tell me I’ll never truly belong, that I’ll never be a real witch, but I don’t care. I like working with potions. There is a small room behind the shop where I make and mix new potions. Of course, the potions I sell to the citizens aren’t too powerful. They are mostly medicinal in nature, used to treat headaches and other minor discomforts. However, there are potions I make in the small room that nobody knows about.
I step into the room and say a single word. The candles take flame, and I reach for a vial full of the dark blue liquid I have consumed every day for the past year. I uncork the vial and drink its contents. I can feel the cold liquid running down my throat. The calendar on the wall tells me I have six doses of the potion left. Six doses between me and the body I want. Six doses between me and my true self. Once my real self is in its true vessel, I will no longer have to hide who I am or fight for the right to express myself. I replace the vial in its rack and leave the room. It will be full of the liquid again tomorrow due to the spells I have etched on the vial. After locking the shop, I walk into the Academy. Built with blackstone imported from the east, its silent halls are dark and somewhat foreboding. I have to rely on my magic to lead me to where I want to go.
I find the meeting room easily and wait outside the door nervously. I can’t believe they’re finally letting me in. I suddenly wonder if Zena had been playing a trick on me. Perhaps I would step into the meeting room and be sent out. Perhaps this was their newest plot to get rid of me completely.
I take a step back. I could give an excuse later and say I forgot. Yes, that is exactly what I’ll do, say I had a potion brewing or an incantation that had to be completed—
The door swings open. Zena stands on the other side, one hand on the doorknob.
“Stop dawdling. We’ve been waiting,” she says.
I mutter my apologies and step into the meeting room.
The meeting room of the coven is a large circular room with an oval table in its center and the flickering flame of candles lending light for illumination. I can see all the members of the coven seated around the table. I am aware of their eyes on me, and I suddenly feel self-conscious, as though all of them can see how anxious I am. I bow respectfully and take the only empty seat, the one beside Zena.
No one speaks for a moment. Then the witch seated at the head of the table, High Witch Shewa, the most powerful witch in the world and one of those who had vanquished Ajẹ’s demon, speaks.
“Junior Witch Fela. Thank you for joining us,” she says.
I nod in what I hope is a dignified manner.
The high witch turns to the others and clears her throat.
“We gathered here a fortnight ago to discuss a dire situation. However, there are new developments, and it seems things have become more dire,” she says.
I look around the table. Most of the witches look afraid, as if they don’t want to hear what their leader has to say. I wonder what could be so bad that witches who have faced persecution all their lives would look so scared to hear about it.
“Senior Witch Jeline had the vision once more. Again, she saw the end of this city and of the empire. But this time, she saw what caused it. She saw that this destruction would come from this Academy.”
Murmuring breaks out among the witches, and they trade uneasy glances. I focus my attention on the High Witch, trying to understand what she’s saying. After silence has been restored, she continues.
“One of the witches of this Academy, maybe one of those in this room or the younger witches, will bring about this destruction, while working with a nonhuman that has somehow found its way into the forest around us. A witch who has no compunction breaking the rules of witchcraft to consort with nonhumans. If this witch is found, I will make sure they burn at the stake along with the demon they brought into this world.”
This time the murmuring is louder, but I can’t hear anything. My blood is pounding in my ears. My vision is blurry. I try to shield my thoughts like I always do when I’m in the Academy. I try not to think about Ewa. It can’t be her. No.
I jump at the mention of my name. Everyone at the table is watching me.
“Y-yes, High Witch?”
“I asked if you’ll be able to lead a group into the woods tomorrow, since you’re the only member of the coven who was born in this city,” she says.
“Member of the coven...”
The High Witch smiles and turns to the others.
“I think it’s time Fela became a Senior Witch. They have been with us for years and have developed tremendously. I vote that they be initiated, after we have hunted down the demon in the woods. All in favor?”
I watch, dumbstruck, as the hands go up. Beside me, Zena rolls her eyes at the surprise on my face as she also raises her hand. I don’t know how to react. The High Witch used the correct identifier for me: they. She didn’t say he or him. I am finally being accepted into the only place I have always wanted to belong to more than anywhere else.
All I have to do is to hunt down my lover and watch the witches kill her, taking from me the first person who accepted me without question.
Ewayiwunmi is waiting under the tree as usual. Tonight, her hair is tied back in a ponytail, revealing more of her face. She smiles when she sees me, and it breaks my heart, that smile, because I know it will fade away once she hears what I have to say.
She hugs me, breathing in deeply. I hold her too, wishing I will never have to let go, but I am the one who pulls away first and looks into her eyes.
“Fela, what’s wrong?” she asks, studying my face as though she sees my troubled thoughts.
“They know,” I tell her. “They found out about us.”
A cloud passes over her face. “How?”
“I... I don’t know, someone scryed or saw a vision. They know you’re in the forest. They know a witch is helping you. You...you have to flee.”
She guides me silently to the rock, and we sit.
“Fela, I cannot leave this forest. I am bound here. You know this,” she says.
I clutch her hands, trying to convey some of my urgency. “Then I’ll look for something in the books at the Academy, someway to undo the pact that holds you here—”
“You don’t understand. I am the spirit of this forest. I will die if I leave. The forest will die as well.”
I feel the sting of tears in my eyes. This is the place where she belongs, just as I have long wished for the Academy to accept me. This is her home.
“What shall we do then?” I ask, holding back sobs.
“I will trust you to save us,” she says with a hopeful smile.
I can feel my hands trembling. I don’t know why she is so sure about me. What can I do against the combined might of witches more powerful than I am? How will I protect my lover?
“I trust you,” she says again, before drawing me close for a kiss. I let her, wishing again that I knew a spell to stop the forest growing or slow the stars in their paths and let us stay in this moment, in this breath, forever.
I know I cannot help the witches kill her. I would rather be lost with her than continue to fight to be seen by them. Somehow, I will escape with her, even if it means the end of the world.
We leave at dawn.
I walk in front of the group, beside Zena. Six witches follow behind us in pairs. The sky is still dark, but we do not carry torches. Instead, each of us holds a ball of light over our outstretched palms. The light is bright enough to light the path in front of us but not bright enough to pierce the darkness that surrounds us.
I’ve been given shared command of this mission because I am the one who is most familiar with these woods. I try my best to mislead the witches as much as possible, leading them in circles and taking care not to get too close to the clearing where Ewa’s tree stands. But I can’t keep this up forever, and I know it.
Zena suddenly points to the left. A couple of fireflies are dancing in the air there.
“Let’s check over there,” she suggests. I freeze and open my mouth to say something, but she is already walking towards Ewa’s clearing. I hurry after her, and the other witches follow.
We step into the clearing and see the udala tree. We see the flat rock. We see Ewa, in her true form.
She has been waiting for us. I realize that I have never seen her in her true form because she has never had reason to be angry with me.
She stands before her tree, arms outstretched. A robe spun from dark vines wraps around her. Her eyes glow eerily, and a wind from an unknown source blows her lustrous hair.
“Demon!” Zena screeches. Before I can stop her, she points to my lover and casts a binding spell.
Ewa deflects the spell with a simple wave of her hand. Then she says something in the Old Tongue, and Zena is lifted off her feet by an unseen force and tossed roughly to the side. I hear her hit a tree and fall. She doesn’t stand again.
“No.” I step forward, aware of the witches behind me readying their spells. I cannot let them cast.
“Don’t do this,” I tell Ewa in a low voice.
She tilts her head. “If I don’t, how will we be free?”
I step closer to her, ignoring the yells of caution from the witches behind me. I reach out, despite the wary expression on her face, and hold her hand.
“If you attack anyone else, you’ll only prove them right,” I tell her.
“Fela is the one working with the demon!” someone yells.
I don’t have time to turn around and see who it is. Instead, I point to the ground and pour all my anger and desire into a sundering spell.
The earth rumbles in response, and I can hear the witches yelling behind me as they stumble. I tighten my grip on Ewa’s hand and let her lead me away from them and deeper into the forest.
It is morning.
We have been running for hours. I know that the witches back at the Academy must be aware of what had happened by now. If we stayed in the forest, they would find us, so we didn’t stay in the forest.
Ewa led me to a darker part of the woods that turned out to be the other side of the city. I can see the wall from here, and the dead half of the city is laid out before me. There are no ghosts or demons in sight, and I can see that the forest has started to spread into this part of the city. In a way, this place is an extension of the forest. I am certain that Ewa will not die due to losing contact with the woods.
There are wards on the border of this dead part of the city, but they do not hold us back.
I know the witches will never follow us here. They have trapped a vengeful demon in a portal somewhere below this place. They believe that the smallest hint of magical energy here will be enough to bring it back, similar to how I had awakened my lover.
I glance at her. The rising sun is weakening her, and I know we must find shelter quickly. We walk hand in hand into the city of ghosts, aware that everyone on the other side of the wall hates us now.
We do not care. Even if our presence here will bring about the end of the world, we will be together at the end. That is all that matters.