This is a sample of the second chapter in the serial illustrated novel, Mark of the Cloven, and is part of the Horsemen comic book universe created by Jiba Molei Anderson and published by Griot Enterprises. The first several scenes of this issue are posted below for free. The entire chapter is available in a physical print comic book, digital download, and on Amazon Kindle.
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Oshun found Shango contemplating Akebulan.
Floating in the open air above the Aperture, he had assumed a lotus position despite the fact there was nothing to sit upon. The wind had a chill at this height and ruffled his white shirt incessantly. Blue electricity flickered off of him now and again, sparking out in tiny lightening coils. His eyes were closed.
Oshun rose up on a trail of golden light and hovered at his side. Like him, she could sense Akebulan nearby, even though it wasn’t visible. It was their sister realm, home of Olorun. Of course she could feel it. Gaia and Akebulan were were adjacent worlds, conjoined dimensions, and here, above the Aperture, the barrier between them was thin. But while she sensed it, and knew of it, Akebulan did not capture her attention the same way it appealed to Shango. She had more pressing worries right here and now, in Gaia.
“Shango. Am I interrupting?
He didn’t open his eyes when he responded. “Of course not, Oshun. Join me.”
Oshun didn’t bother assuming a sitting position. She wasn’t here to meditate. “There’s something going on, Shango. I think it might be serious. I can feel it, building.”
“Of course. Yemaya, attacked by Ahura’s children. Ogun manipulated by the daughter of Quetz. It’s not a difficult puzzle. I suspect the Deitis’ offspring are just trying to make a name for themselves.”
She shook her head. “No, it’s not just that. I don’t feel the truth in it. There’s something more going on.”
Shango sighed. “Whatever it is, we can handle it. It’s not worth worrying over.”
Oshun folded her arms. “How can you possibly believe that? You don’t know what’s coming or what shape the future holds. Are you seriously too arrogant to imagine a problem you can’t solve?”
Shango turned and looked at her for the first time. His eyes were solid blue and simmered with electricity. “You’re mistaking arrogance for confidence. Whatever comes, we can defeat it.”
“Really? Because that woman who played Ogun got what she wanted and very nearly killed him in the process.”
“Ogun survived it. She didn’t. Whoever she was working with, if they use it against us, then they’ll get the same.”
Oshun rolled her eyes. “I’m curious, do you have any tools on that belt other than a hammer?”
Shango straightened out, uncrossing his legs and assuming a standing position with Oshun. “Did you come all the way up here to give me crap or did you have something to say?”
She pointed at him. “You need to spend more time thinking about Gaia and less time staring at Akebulan. This shit is real, and it’s not just a couple of attacks. You need to take it seriously.”
“What do you mean, more than a couple attacks?”
“Have you seen Eshu lately? Me neither. Something’s wrong with the underground railroad out of the States. We haven’t had anyone successfully get out since those folks Yemaya saved over a month ago. And it’s not like that batch had an easy time of it. You put any thought into how those three knew where the ship was? Eshu left more than a week ago to see if he could figure out what was going on. Nobody’s seen him since.”
Shango shrugged. “Eshu comes and goes all the time. It’s nothing to worry over.”
“Are you sure?”
Shango narrowed his eyes. She continued.
“Eshu’s not the only one. Oya is planning on heading out to find Dr.Utella’s boys. These ‘Cloven’ still have them.”
“Oya’s a big girl. I’m sure she can handle it.”
“Again with the unshakable confidence. You should learn to recognize bait when you see it.”
“I’m not stupid, Oshun. I recognize. I just don’t think there’s a hook out there big enough to catch Oya. And if she does get in trouble, we’ll help.”
“If we can. Whatever this is, it’s stretching us thin. There’s more. I’ve got almost two dozen Manifest missing from the Assembly in the last month. No warning, nothing, just gone.”
“You have people drop out of the Assembly all the time. It’s hard to deal with new powers from the spark. They’re not used to being Manifest. It’s inevitable that some quit and leave. You know that.”
She shook her head. “Not like this, Shango. Sure, some go, but you can usually predict who. These people weren’t quitters. They were committed, willing, and working with us. They just vanished. Left their families, homes, everything, with no trace. Are you hearing me? Something is going on. Something big.”
“Okay, let’s say you’re right. What do you expect me to do about it?”
She glided over to him, crossing the distance between them, and took his chin in her glowing hand. “Turn around. Stop looking to Akebulan for answers. Focus on Gaia.”
His temper flared up. “Why do you think I’m studying Akebulan? They’re ready. We’re not! I’m trying to learn how to keep Gaia safe!”
“Their path aint our path. They’ve got nothing to teach us. You’re wasting time.”
She chuckled. “Please… like that happens.” She pivoted in the air, turned toward the ground, and sped back toward the Aperture leaving a wake of light behind her. She called back over her shoulder. “Come on down when you realize I’m right. We’ll be waiting.”
The Manifest Assembly was a sprawling complex on the Northern bank of the New Jabi Lake. It was distanced from the city proper and, looking out across the water, boasted the best views of Lumumba’s growing skyline. In a lot of ways it seemed like a college campus; multiple structures, common areas, and athletic fields. The grounds were interspersed with small gardens, trees, and stone fountains. The buildings themselves were as high tech as anything in Lumumba, but they’d been given a more traditional veneer of wood. All in all, it could have passed for a tropical resort. It was anything but.
The Assembly was a support facility for the largest population of the Manifest on Earth. People, with powers reignited by the Spark, came from all over the world to learn how to use their new-found talents. They trained, honed their skills, and learned to live with the changes. The Assembly not only helped with the transition, it served as job placement, plugging people with lesser abilities into the best places to help Lumumba grow. Personality, desires, and strengths were evaluated and people were guided to the places they could do the most good. Much of the rapid progress of Lumumba could be attributed to the Assembly connecting the right people with special skills to the perfect tasks.
Combat training was hardly the primary function of the Assembly, but it was a facet. Ensuring that the Manifest were ready, and able, to defend themselves was important. As such, there were several facilities on the grounds for exactly that. The Hussle was one of them.
Bhadra was waiting for Oshun when she touched down.
“Are you ready to taste bitter defeat this morning?” he asked.
“Why? You sharing?” she responded.
“Funny, funny lady.” he flashed her a smile. “No, today is the day. I can feel it.”
“I seem to remember you ‘feeling it’ last time I beat you too, Bhadra.”
“That may be so! But what can I say? I’m full of confidence.”
Bhadra was her chief of security at the Assembly and their primary martial arts instructor. He wore a simple armored vest, with a sash across his chest, and kept his arms bare. A wide belt circled his waist and held his weapons; a pair of scimitars, a set of kunai daggers, and a couple of circular throwing chakram. He spread his legs and bent, stretching. Oshun joined him, pulling a leg up behind her and pulling on her calf.
“Any word on Sheng Li?” she asked.
Bhadra reached for the sky, straining. “I’d rather save that for after…”
“Bhadra. Sheng Li?”
He sighed, relaxing his pose. “There’s no sign of her. We contacted her parents in Tailand. They’ve heard nothing.”
“What was her ability again?”
“Plants. Manipulation and hyper-accelerated growth.” He bent into a crouch, resting on his laurels and extending a leg.
“Damn useful, that. We’ve got to find them.”
“We will, Sony, we will. I’ve got people on it.” He jumped up, bounced a few times, and shook his arms. “You ready?”
She cracked her neck and stepped to the starting line. Five feet in front of them was a wall. It looked like they were about to race nowhere. “Always.”
Bhadra joined her. “Remember, no flying, full contact, target hits subtract two seconds from your time.”
He reached out and clicked the panel. “Setting the door timer. Ten seconds… now.”
“Good luck.” she said.
“Save your luck, you’ll need it.”
The wall dropped, revealing the course, and they bolted from their starting positions. The Hustle changed every time they ran it. The massive obstacle course had over fifty challenges, each built on movable platforms, and was re-arranged weekly. There was never any knowing which dozen it would string together. Today, the first challenge was a series of cement orbs, suspended on chains, swinging wildly and knocking into each other with thunderous impacts. Oshun charged into them fearlessly, weaving left and right, dodging. Bhadra took a different approach. Without touching them, his scimitars drew themselves. As he ran past a swinging stone, the blades drove into it’s side. Grabbing hold, he swung onto the top, taking hold of the chain. From there, he jumped from pendulum to pendulum, moving quickly. His blades followed, hovering near him in the air. He reached the edge moments before Oshun.
The seemingly empty field ahead sprouted a barricade of fire. Neither of them broke stride and flipped over it. Like surf, the flames rolled in waves. They timed their jumps and moved ahead. Out of the corner of his eye, Bhadra saw a bonus target. One of his chakram, untouched, spun from his hip toward the circular mark. Moments before it struck, a bolt of light disintegrated the target. The chakram flew through the empty space where it had been.
“Too slow!” shouted Oshun.
He snarled and telekinetically launched his second chakram at her. She knocked it out of the air with a blast of energy and fired a handful of shots back at him in retaliation. He flipped, curling into a ball, and narrowly avoided being struck. They left the inferno behind them.
Evenly matched, they raced through the challenges. Oshun gained the lead on the rotating balance beam. Bhadra hit two bonus targets and caught up on the climbing wall, despite the falling sandbags. Tightropes, pressure traps, and a series of motion detectors rigged to trigger net guns. Nothing slowed them down.
They approached the final challenge. It was a maze of zip lines set high up on tall poles that rose from a pool of churning water. Pegs in these poles served as ladders and tiny ledges provided places to jump and catch the lines. Oshun was ahead and it looked like she was going to chalk up another victory. She scurried up a fragmented ladder to a narrow platform in order to determine the best route. It was complicated, but if she…
She stopped. There was a woman standing at the end of the course, watching them. Even from this distance, after almost a decade, she recognized her instantly. Same wild hair. Same wide smile. It was Delphine.
Her delay cost her. Both of Bhadra’s boots struck her square in the back as he leapt from one of the lines. She was knocked from her position, somersaulted in the air, and landed in the pool below with an enormous splash. Bhadra caught another line as he fell, flipped onto it, and ran down the tightrope length. Before she’d swum halfway to the edge of the pool, he landed in the end zone and smacked the victory button.
“Ha! I knew today was the day! Finally!” He kicked out a roundhouse and punched at the air, grinning. Both his kunai and his scimitars floated over his head and twirled in arcs. “That’s how you do it!” He sauntered over to the edge of the pool where Oshun was and offered his hand.
She took it and let him help pull her out of the water. “About time! Stop swinging those things around already. You’re going to poke someone’s eye out.”
“As you wish, my dear, as you wish.” The blades, guided by invisible hands, slid back into their scabbards.
“I need a minute, Bhadra.”
He glanced over at Delphine. She hadn’t approached, or said anything, since they’d finished the race. “Oh, sure. I’m going to go have a drink and tell everyone how I just out-Hustled you.”
She smiled, proud of his accomplishment. “You do that. And when you do, enjoy it, cuz it’s never going to happen again.”
“So you say.” He bowed, barely containing his smile, and headed out.
Oshun slicked her hair back. She was about to take on her aspect fully, and become light, so that she could quickly dry off her clothes, but stopped herself. It wasn’t something she wanted to do in front of Delphine. It had been a long time and she didn’t know how she’d take it. Better to play it safe and stay wet, even if she was soaked to the bone.
Delphine was standing by the exit, quietly waiting. Oshun padded over to her, leaving a trail of puddles.
“You certainly know how to surprise a girl.” she said.
“I’m sorry if I distracted you. I didn’t mean to.”
“No, don’t be sorry! I’m glad to see you. I’d hug you, but, well…” Delphine tilted her head and gave a shrug.
“Sony, I’d survive a little water.”
“Oh my god, Del!” she wrapped her arms around her.
She returned the embrace, despite the wet. “It’s been far too long.”
There was something different about her. Up close, like this, Oshun felt it. Delphine had the Spark. She was one of the Manifest.
“Worlds ago. I’m so happy you’ve come.” Oshun stepped back.
“Well, I would have visited sooner, but I thought you might be upset.”
Oshun shook her head. “Never. Ancient history. And after all this time and you still look great!”
“Thanks. So do you, considering.” she wiped at the wet spots on her blouse.
“Yeah, I can see that you’ve changed. Sparked. Are you okay? I know it can be rough sometimes.”
She flushed. “Oh, I… no. I mean, yes, I’ve changed, but it’s not a big thing.”
“Oh, I thought you must be here for the Assembly, since you’ve got the spark.”
“No. I came to see you. I was hoping we could talk.”
“Of course! We’ve got years to catch up on.”
Delphine hesitated. “It’s not just that. I want to be honest with you. I need help with something. I don’t know who else to ask.”
This didn’t sound like Delphine. She’d always been a strong do-it-yourself type. If she was asking for help…
“Of course. If I can, I will. Right now?”
She shook her head. “No, no, not that urgent. But, it’s important.”
“So, how about we have dinner tonight? You tell me all about it, and then we can catch up after.”
“Well, I’ve been dying to check out Glaze. Now I’ve got a good excuse.”
“Perfect.” She reached out, squeezed Oshun’s hand, and left. After she’d gone, Oshun didn’t dry off. She just stood there, for a long time, thinking.
Sony Kilgore, commonly known as Oshun, Goddess of Light, was surprised how nervous she was. She fiddled with her silverware as she waited. It was made out of glass. She rolled it in her fingers and it picked up different neon colors in the tines as she did. She found a green and, by slowly tilting, tracked the reflection back to the glass table. From there she could tell, by angling her head, that it was coming from off the bar. It too, was glass. Everything at Glaze was. Well, glass or water. And there were no lights, only the reflections of lights, cleverly hidden out of sight. It was all crisp rainbow painted on almost black glass, shadow, and silent sheets of waterfall. The colors slid around the dark room incessantly and rippled on the water. Whatever their light source, it must have been shifting constantly.
Sony hoped that, with all the atmosphere, they actually knew how to prepare a good meal. Even if she was only likely to nibble at it on account of her nerves.
Her relationship with Delphine had still been a fresh young thing when it died, but it had held potential. She’d never much planned on falling in love with her, but then, it shouldn’t have been too surprising. She’d never had an issue with that sort of thing and hadn’t shut out the possibility. More like, it was an open door she’d never paid attention to and Delphine just happened to walk through it. It was wonderful, for a while. But the Orisha changed everything.
As much as she tried to insist that becoming nearly divine wouldn’t ruin things, it was too much. It didn’t work. Delphine left, and Sony went on, half girl, half goddess. But Delphine had the spark now. As one of the Manifest, there was something of the divine in her now too. Maybe the distance between them wasn’t as great as it used to be.
It was that sudden, irrational, hope that filled her with anxiety. The goddess had already been worried about plots in the city and against her family, now the girl had to worry about her heart too? She flipped the fork for the hundredth time and took a deep breath. It was a relief when Delphine walked in.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“Nope, not at all.” She stood, they hugged, and sat down in glass chairs. “Although, I’ve got to admit, you made me curious this morning.”
“I wouldn’t expect any less from you.”
“How long have you been in Lumumba?”
Delphine looked down at her knees through the table. “About eight months now.”
“Eight months! And you took this long to come see me?”
“I didn’t think it was appropriate. You’re important and busy.”
Oshun shook her head. “Ridiculous. I’ve got lots to do, sure, but so does everyone who’s working in the city. I still get to have a life.”
“So what have you been up to? If you didn’t come for the Assembly.”
“I’ve been working with the Idafa.”
Oshun leaned back in her chair. The waiter came by, poured them wine, and vanished into the shadows. She took a drink.
“Just to be clear, you’re talking about the cult that worships us?”
“It’s not a cult.”
“So that is what you’re talking about.”
“Sony, it’s not what you think. It’s not worshipping you and the others. It’s supposed to be about understanding the better principles in humanity and encouraging them. The Orisha rose from man’s best attributes. It’s principles are meant to to guide us back onto that path.
Oshun took another drink. “But I am safe to assume that the problem you need help with has something to do with them?”
She looked uncomfortable. “Sort of, yeah.”
“How about this; you explain what’s going on, tell me exactly what you need so we can move past it and have a nice evening.”
“Most of the church is good. The people are good. I’m sure of it. But, beneath it… There’s something going on. Something bad.”
“The church is run by the Grand Brother, Altar. He’s very focused on making converts and spreading the message. He seems okay, but if you scratch the surface, there’s something off. Too many private meetings. A lot of secrecy that you have to ‘work up’ to be a part of. It’s normal, in a church, to work your way into positions of trust, greater responsibility. But usually, you can see where you’re going. You don’t normally get promoted and move somewhere secret.”
“Unless it’s a cult.”
“Right. There’s also this man, named Nan. He’s a radical Orisha worshipper, and I absolutely don’t agree with what he believes. Nan and Altar had a major falling out after he accused Altar of being a fraud. He claims the whole religion is a front working to hurt the Horsemen. A bunch of people believed him and they split off.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. There’s definitely something off about Altar. He seems to make sense when you listen to him, but after, when you think about it, it just doesn’t add up. I’m worried Nan’s right.”
Something about it all seemed far-fetched to Oshun. The list of people bold enough to try something subversive, right in the heart of Lumumba, was short. “It sounds a lot like a power struggle. One guy badmouths the other, someone branches off. This is how denominations start. Does Nan have any evidence?”
Delphine shrugged. “He claims to. He says they’re putting drugs in the sacraments, to create parishioners through addiction. He says they track their Manifest members, but I can’t confirm that, I haven’t told them about me. And supposedly Altar’s got equipment, in the churches, some project they’re working on. Cloven or something.”
Oshun put down her drink. Cloven. The woman who’d attacked Ogun had claimed to be part of something called the Cloven. She was one of the Deitis kids, just like the trio that had attacked Yemaya. Oshun didn’t believe in coincidence. She stood up.
“I’m gonna need you to take me to Nan.”
“Right now? But, the food’s on its way…”
Oshun took her hand and pulled her to her feet. “Right now.”
Delphine didn’t know exactly where Nan was. Evidently, he was worried about retaliation from Altar over his defection and had gone into hiding. She knew he and his followers were squatting in one of the abandoned towns around the Abuja Crater. As soon as they’d gotten outside, Oshun had put away her insecurities about using her powers in front of Delphine and had taken on her aspect. Her skin roiled like a time lapse of dark clouds dissipating as the sun burst through. It was too bright to look at, burned away her clothes, and then dimmed. Delphine didn’t say anything. In the past, it had always made her uncomfortable. Oshun wondered if it was less so, now that she had a power of her own. But since she refused to talk about it, there was no telling. It didn’t matter either way though, she had to find Nan and, hopefully, some answers. She picked up Delphine and, for the first time, lifted her up into the sky.