“And now in Derin. Abeni! Happy birthday!”
Her father grinned as he congratulated her again, lifting his daughter up with slight difficulty as he swung her body around in the air. They were currently walking down an underground tunnel. A narrow and dimly lit tunnel with rough rocky walls and unrefined sandy floors on the outer part of a mysterious maze. A tunnel as dry and barren as the path on the way here.
Abeni laughed as she and her parents switched to speaking a well-known language in the underworld they lived in called Derin. “Baba, you literally just said that in Yoruba!”
“I know I did, but it’s your thirteenth birthday today. You’re a teenager now. We have to celebrate this moment!”
“Ah~ Put me down!”
So, he plopped her back onto the gravel with a playful pout, making her giggle. While he still treated her like a child, she didn’t mind it too much. She’d always loved his hugs. Though, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t protest his kindness every time. “We really don’t have to celebrate it this much…”
“Tsk-tsk-tsk,” her mother tutted from beside her, carelessly rubbing Abeni’s tightly coiled white locks and messing up her hair. “There is no limit to how many times we can wish you a happy birthday, baby. As your baba said, you’re thirteen today.”
“Iya! My hair~ Do you really have to do that every time?”
But her mother, with similar white strands and dark-brown complexion, just laughed along with her father and the family continued to walk down the entirety of the dingy tunnel in five swift minutes, oblivious to the danger that awaited them at the maze’s centre.
This wasn’t the usual setting for them.
Ever since Abeni was born, they’d lived in a small stone hut in their village filled with food, warmth and board games. And every birthday, she hated how boring living in the same old village was, always closely accompanied by her Iya and Baba wherever she went.
Not that she ever expressed her frustration. They always said going outside of the village was dangerous anyway, so she had simply accepted it.
Until…this year. Abeni – after hearing about how some of the adults fight creatures in a maze of some kind – wasn’t able to keep her curiosity inside. Wasn’t able to hide how she wanted to explore the nearby labyrinth with outer, middle and inner tunnels all connected to a mysterious wide-open centre.
And so, after a small slip-up, her parents decided to let her celebrate her birthday this way. To make her happy.
When Abeni protested the plan – worried about the potential plant-like creatures lurking around the area that the villagers had been whispering about recently – she was brushed off. Her mother said things like, “But you’re our little princess,” and her father reassured her, “We’ll protect you with our abilities.”
That wasn’t it, though. Abeni was worried for them, not herself. Her parents who were always so attentive, who should be the ones to have a crown on their heads instead of Abeni, who was only good at playing board games. They didn't even bring anything with them except clothes and snacks they already finished. She didn’t want her desires to put them in danger.
But, to be honest, now that they were out here, it didn’t seem too bad. In fact, Abeni was beginning to wonder why she even worried at all. It was completely unlike the dull old village. There were no armed guards by the walls, no strange people with unreadable eyes, no places she should avoid. Here, she could just…be free. And she liked that.
Although…“Oh yeah! Baba! Iya! Why didn’t we take Uncle Ibrahim with us? He said he would help us find our way out if we got lost.”
Right now, Abeni was unsure about where she was. Under the dim light of one of the wall torches her parents told her their village maintained in these tens of tunnels, the walls all looked the same. The ground was the same texture and the personal space they got was identical. Just enough for five or so adults to walk together side-by-side.
Compared to her and her parents, Uncle Ibrahim – who had apparently been here countless times before – would have been able to guide them out of the maze easily. So, why didn’t he come with them? She wanted to know.
Her mother halted at the question, causing the other two to stagger in their steps as they stood at the entrance of one of the middle tunnels. The woman's face was turned away from Abeni’s grey eyes before she looked down at the girl with a smile.
“Oh, sweetie…oh…” Iya then looked pointedly at her father. “Oludemilade, why don’t you explain?”
“Ah…that. Well, he isn’t very…how should I put it?”
“Trustworthy?” The woman tried as she started walking down the slightly larger middle tunnel with them in tow.
“Yeah! Trustworthy. So, it wouldn’t have been appropriate for him to come along…unless you really wanted him to. In that case, I’m sorry, honey! We didn’t know.”
“Why not? What did he do?” What’s this about? Wasn’t he her parents’ only friend? He’s always been nice to her too.
“‘Do’?” Her father repeated with a chuckle, voice deepening with something she didn’t understand. “He hasn’t done anything…yet.”
What did that mean? So, he would do something to them? Why? Did he secretly hate them for some reason?
But before Abeni could even speculate, they seemed to notice her concerns and tried to quell them. Her mother, despite struggling for a moment, lifted the girl onto her back and her father leant in to kiss her little forehead and sighed. “…Look, baby, don’t pout. It’s your special day!”
“Well, now I’m confused. Isn’t everyone in the village amicable?”
Her father beamed. “Amicable? What a big word, aren’t you smart?” Before his features fall again. “They…well…Abeni. We’ve told you this before, but sometimes in this world, people get…mean.”
“What do you mean by ‘mean’?”
Causing her father to sigh. “It means they can get violent. They will take advantage of us if given the chance. Often it’s because the curse told them to. Do you remember those times when even just a little feeling of excitement spirals until you feel like you must destroy everything in your way? That’s not just your hormones that are making your veins show. The curse influences everyone in this world. Including Uncle Ibrahim. No, especially the people in that village...”
Her mother picked up where he left off. “And remember, it’s hard for him to control the curse. So, if your baba and I were ever occupied, because he hasn’t taken the time to control that sudden spiralling like we three have, he might take that opportunity to hurt you. We can’t let that happen. And besides, we have abilities of our own, baby. We don’t need his help.”
Despite how difficult it may be to exit this maze? Her mother continued without prompting. “We will still be able to get out safe and sound! Don’t you worry.”
“Yeah, enough about that! Let’s look at this cool inner tunnel!” And they let her down so Abeni could walk with her hands holding theirs’ again. Taking her through a tunnel with an enormous opening at the end. So...that must be the centre of the maze!
It was a beautifully long, well-lit tunnel. Compared to the smaller and barer middle and outer tunnels, this inner one was differentiated by the sky-high walls, little flowers growing in the cracks and her memory of how they got there. It was a whole new place to explore that she had never been to before. How exciting!
Oh! What’s that round thing over there?
“Is that a creature?” Abeni pointed to a weird-looking lamp-shaped plant with a large top and a rectangular bottom.
“No,” her mother giggled with warmth emanating from her eyes as she tightened her grip on Abeni’s hand. “That’s a fungus. It’s called a mushroom. Your father wants to start adding them to his stews.”
The white-haired girl gestured to a wet slab of dark green goop. What about that then? “Is that plant a creature?”
“No,” Her father teased. “maybe we need to check if your eyes are functioning properly, honey. That’s a piece of moss. The creatures you’re thinking about are much bigger than us. They are called ẹda. ‘Amon ẹda’ in Yoruba when we are talking about more than one. Not that you’ll ever see one.”
“I think she got her curiosity from you, darling,” her mother smiled, leaning in to kiss her father’s cheek before gently nudging Abeni forward to the group of plants in the cracks. “Go on, baby. Why not look one more time? This is probably as far as we’ll go, so you may as well learn about these plants while we’re here, right?”
“Hm,” Abeni sorted through the small collection of plant life with genuine curiosity. The free-growing leaves and the fungi that were clearly being nibbled on by the little animals before they got here. It was all so natural. Unlike in the village, where everything was bought and sold at a market stall.
Her mother was right, what better day than her thirteenth birthday to learn about the tasty food her parents always make...was what Abeni thought just as she spotted the eery sight of something peeking out of the darkness up ahead. A sight that she would never forget.
The sight of a deranged being, five times the size of her father, looking in from the open space at the end of the tunnel, baring its sharp teeth and nails at them. It was a sign of aggression, a sign of a fight, a sign that her birthday celebrations would be put to a halt. Permanently.
And in that moment, when Abeni watched her parents’ expressions fall with fear, she realised that that must be a creature.
[Current Total Beings In ‘Abeni’s Army’ – 3]