T’Challa had been dreading what he would find. They emerged from Mena Ngai station into chaos. The Mena Ngai garrison looked like it was fighting people from every Tribe, all at once: T’Challa picked out Merchant Tribesmen with stinger bows, other Border Tribesmen, River people with their ringblades, Mining Tribesmen wielding staves, even a scattering of Jabari. The air was thick with war cries and screams.
Mosa glanced at W’Kabi, who nodded, then at T’Challa. “You take General Okoye, find the Princess. The First Shield and I will handle this.”
“Try to minimise casualties,” T’Challa said. It was hard to watch. His country, turning on itself. Because of his decisions? Or because of who he was? Perhaps there were no decisions he could make that weren’t paved in someone’s suffering. Gods, it ached.
“Just go,” W’Kabi snapped. At his gesture, the garrison that had deployed with them arranged itself into a defensive wall, advancing forward in a shielded phalanx. Later there would be time to grieve. A time for questions. T’Challa nodded as Mosa clapped him on the shoulder before falling into step with the garrison. He kept close to the wall of the station as the garrison advanced over the sprawling underground station platforms.
There was a shout as he was recognised. A Jabari Tribesman lunged over, trailed by a couple of Rivers; Okoye swung her spear in a tight arc, deflecting a stinger bolt. “The King!” she snarled. The Dora Milaje took up a defensive perimeter, spears out, the line barely buckling under the clash. Glowing Kimoyo Beads—the People were fighting with enhanced strength and speed. T’Challa tapped his communications bead on habit, to tell Mosa to focus on the beads—but the bead remained dark.
“The shieldcloaks!” one of the Dora Milaje exclaimed. The shieldcloaks weren’t activating. Whatever was suppressing comms was also suppressing Border tech. Incredibly, while the survivors of the Mena Ngai garrison were regrouping behind W’Kabi, the combined garrisons were being slowly pushed back.
“I need to get to Shuri’s lab,” T’Challa said, even though it hurt him to give the order instead of trying to stay and fight. Another Shieldguard fell, choking on a stinger bolt in his throat. He was quickly dragged behind the defensive line, which closed behind him. Okoye grit her teeth, looking away from W’Kabi. She called another order, and the Dora Milaje started to move as a unit, clearing T’Challa’s path to the closest platform exit.
“Wakanda First!” The cry bubbled somewhere in the centre of the platform and spread into a rumbling roar, reflected in the eyes of the Rivers who attacked them with new fury. Wakanda First! Okoye swept out the legs of one of them, cracking him smartly on the temple with her spear. Another grabbed her spear, yanking her off balance with superhuman strength, but T’Challa darted forward, landing a precise punch that threw the attacker back into a Merchant Tribesman.
Mosa howled. It was a deep throated wolf-sound, a pack cry. T’Challa recognised it. Okoye, picking herself up, tensed. Anyone who had graduated from the Academy would know the sound, from the play-days, the cross-class ‘pack’ games that Mosa liked to coordinate, to build friendships. Respect between packs. Okoye, Nakia, W’Kabi, and T’Challa had been a pack. One of many. The Border garrisons firmed up, actually pushing back against the assault. Some howled in response, a joyous keening. Some of the Border Tribesmen in the People’s ranks visibly faltered in their attack, hesitant. Regretting. Look! Many of us went to the same school! T’Challa wanted to shout at them. Why are we fighting each other? ‘Wakanda First’? Listen to yourselves!
He was at the platform exit. “Hold the line,” Okoye told the Dora Milaje, and they fell into an arc around the archway.
The lifts weren’t working, so they took the stairs. It was unsettling to see Mena Ngai so empty. Thankfully, there wasn’t any evidence of carnage: the People hadn’t come here to kill civilians. The sprint to Shuri’s lab was a painful blur. He’d gone ahead of Okoye, pushing himself to his limit. A security check, the doors left open. Another untended security post. Then, finally, the clinical corridor with its barred lights.
T’Challa burst into the top floor of Shuri’s lab. The lab was in disarray, workbenches overturned, tools and half-finished gear strewn everywhere. There were screams as he leaped down onto the next floor, then gasps of “The King! King T’Challa! Oh, we are saved!” as Shuri’s assistants slowly lowered weapons they had clearly grabbed off workbenches. They’d been clustered around consoles plugged to a generator.
“Shuri? Where is Shuri?” T’Challa demanded. Everyone tried to talk at once. “Zintle?”
Zintle pushed forward. Dressed in her usual stark white robe-jackets, she was Shuri’s chief aide, also a young prodigy, only a few years older than Shuri. Her eyes were red with tears, her hands shaking. “Your Majesty! Oh Bast, your Majesty—”
“Calm down, Zintle. Breathe. Where is my sister?”
“She’s gone! She hid us in the new chameleon coating in the storage fridge and she said she wasn’t going to hide, she was going to do something, she couldn’t just let them leave with Kuvele.”
“What? Went where?” Shuri. “Zintle, start from the beginning.”
Zintle took in a deep breath. When Shuri had realized they’d been hacked, all the systems in the lab went down and the security doors all opened. There’d been some sort of attack? The Dora Milaje had gone out to check. They hadn’t come back. Instead there’d been a man in wooden armour and gray robes, accompanied by many guards of different Tribes. Shuri and the other scientists had hidden in the medical pods until they’d gone. Then they’d realized that the armoured man had taken Kuvele, the royal family’s server-pod. Kuvele didn’t just host the encrypted royal band where holders of royal beads could speak privately, it also had a direct link to everyone’s comm beads, for emergency purposes only.
“He only took Kuvele?” At Zintle’s nod, T’Challa frowned, just as Okoye slowed to a stop at the top of the stairs. She glanced at them, then turned around, checking the corridor.
“We’re up!” One of the scientists crowed. Zintle and the others clustered around the console as she typed furiously.
“The invaders somehow shut down vibranium-based technology in Menu Ngai,” Zintle explained, “but we had some things we confiscated from Agent Ross that were low tech enough that they weren’t affected. I think the outsiders call it ‘a phone’? It is big and ugly. We dug up this old pre-vibrachip console from storage and uplinked it to their ‘internet’.”
Audio patched in. It was Shuri, hissing, “Well that took you guys long enough!”
“Princess!” Zintle cried out in relief. There was a constant snarl of wind in the background, as though Shuri was in mid air.
“Shuri? Shuri, where are you?” T’Challa shouldered through.
“In another castle!” Shuri started giggling, her voice nearly stolen by the wind.
“What? What castle?”
“You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to say that,” Shuri said gleefully. “Is this what it’s like to be you? I’m wearing some prototype spare armour. Eh, it’s actually very warm in here even with my mods. Kind of tight around the hips. I’m going to have to install more upgrades after all this.”
“Shuri. Where. Are you.”
“I’m under a warbird. I think this Tetu person is flying it. We’re heading towards the Jabari lands? I got on when he took off. He’s got some sort of jammer on board. I think once we get out of range the systems in Menu Ngai will come back online. Around. Now.”
The dimmed emergency lights in the lab flickered, growing brighter. People were now pinging T’Challa’s bead. Khosi, Palesa, even M’Baku. T’Challa ignored them for now. “Looks like we’re up,” Zintle said, scurrying over to the main consoles.
“Activate suppression turrets. Shoot to stun,” Shuri said. There was a scraping sound, barely audible. “Okay. I’m going to try and stop this thing. We’re getting close to the mountains.”
“Relax, I know what I’m doing.” There was another scraping sound, then Shuri yelped. “Wah! I think he just realized I’m here. Trying to throw me off. Access panel. Access panel!” Something clanged dully, then the sound of claws ripping over metal. Then only the wind, whistling, and a loud crack.
“She must have dropped the phone,” Zintle said, typing furiously, “but we can track its last known location. I’ll twin the location to your map and open access to the warbirds on the top floor. Lifts are back online.”
“Right.” T’Challa gathered himself, bounding from the floor up to the stairs in a leap. As he charged down the corridor to the jaunt lifts, followed by Okoye, he pinged W’Kabi. “Status?”
“Under control. Turrets are back up. Shieldcloaks back online. Shuri?” W’Kabi asked.
“Not here. I’m going to follow her.”
“Go. Mosa and I will handle things here.” There was a pause, then W’Kabi said, his voice edged, “This time, don’t let them slip away from you.”
T’Challa swallowed his first retort. “I don’t intend to.”
“We’ll spread out. Tetu’s probably headed towards the Vault of the Sky. There’s a few ways he can get there from here. I’ll have some prowlers check overland routes. The rest of us should take routes in the Arteries. I’ll go with Nakia and a Prowler can go with General Okoye,” Ce’Athauna said.
“I’ll go overland with T’Challa,” M’Baku said. At T’Challa’s nod, Okoye and Nakia dispersed with Ce’Athauna and a handful of Prowlers. Other Prowlers started spreading out over the rocky slopes.
Enhanced by the Herb, T’Challa at least didn’t seem affected by the thin mountain air or the chill, keeping up easily as M’Baku picked his way in a tireless jog towards a hidden pass. “Nakia debriefed us on the way up. I’m sure Shuri is fine,” M’Baku said.
“I’m not looking for comfort.”
“I’m not offering any. Just stating an opinion.”
T’Challa glanced at him, the seamless mask an unsettling look before it faded away in a ripple of vibranium chips, revealing his face. He looked tired. “I don’t know how Tetu or the People managed to get around Shuri’s systems.”
“Jabari shamanic abilities revolve around Jabari wood,” M’Baku said, struggling to find the words to explain. “Which is in turn naturally infused with vibranium. Jabari wood doesn’t break against vibranium because it’s resonant in turn with vibranium. It has a kinship. Used in certain ways, it can even manipulate vibranium. Especially unstable alloys.”
“Any vibranium,” T’Challa said, grim again.
“Can your Godkeepers do this?”
“Is that relevant to what we’re doing now?”
“Obviously,” T’Challa bit out, then made a visible effort to moderate his tone. “Perhaps they’d be able to contain whatever Tetu is doing to our equipment.”
“The Godkeepers have never faced something like this before. They don’t even understand it. They say it’s almost as though Tetu is channeling the powers of the land itself. They’re trying to see what they can do, but I wouldn’t rely on it,” M’Baku said, as delicately as he could. Thankfully, T’Challa didn’t push, continuing to follow M’Baku down towards the ravine.
“I’m surprised your Primes aren’t here,” T’Challa said, as they descended down to a narrow ledge. A mountain stream cut a deep chasm next to it, at a bonebreaking depth below, steep and loud.
“Prowlers are more familiar with the Vault. Besides, we actually have a limit on the number of people permitted per month into the Vault. The Godkeepers aren’t happy about this as it is.”
“A quota? Why?”
M’Baku shot T’Challa an incredulous look. “Because it’ll disturb and damage the forest?”
“Oh. Yes. Of course. That’s laudable, but isn’t this an emergency?”
M’Baku snorted, annoyed despite himself. He knew T’Challa was stressed. His sister was lost somewhere in the Vault, facing someone with powers T’Challa didn’t understand. “The Jabari don’t place the welfare of ourselves above the welfare of the land,” he said, neutral. “We think the two are intertwined.” Unlike Wakanda at large, he did not add.
“That’s why you sent Okoye and Nakia underground,” T’Challa said, reflective now. “You didn’t permit me to attend the funeral in the Vault before. It’s closed to outsiders, isn’t it?”
M’Baku nodded curtly. “You are the King of Wakanda, which includes the Jabari lands. Even if my people might not like it. You may enter the Vault, especially if you tread with care. General Okoye and Nakia have no such special dispensation from the Godkeepers. In the unlikely event that we’ll need their aid, Ce’Athauna will take them to the surface.”
“Shuri and Tetu may be in the Arteries.”
“A happier prospect.”
“Birnin Bashenga must have been a trap.” T’Challa thought out aloud as he followed M’Baku along the narrow ledge. “Menu Ngai is highly secure. He must have needed a way in. He knew we’d investigate the resonance in Birnin Bashenga. Somehow he used his Jabari shaman affinity to infect Shuri’s security. But why take Kuvele?”
“That thing links you with all Wakandans who have Kimoyo Beads, doesn’t it?” M’Baku gestured at his wrist, where T’Challa’s bead was tied with a simple string.
M’Baku picked up the pace. “Jabari shamanic powers get stronger around Jabari wood. Stronger yet, if it is still a living tree. If he can amplify his resonance with vibranium, even normal vibranium…” M’Baku trailed off.
“What else can your shamans do?” T’Challa asked. “Nakia said she saw your Godkeepers compel two men to speak the truth.”
“And yours can give and take away the powers of a Goddess. Cause a living person to visit the world of the dead.”
“The Ancestral Plane.”
M’Baku sniffed. “If it is an Ancestral Plane, then why are Panthers all that you see, O King? Where are the rest? Those of your blood who never took the Heart Shaped Herb? All other people who have come before you? The place you people think of as the Ancestral Plane is not quite what you think it is. There, you’ll see only what you are willing to see. Africa, with the Panther Ascendant.”
Visibly stung, T’Challa said, “How did you even know about that?”
“We’ve been watching Wakanda for a long time. And its panthers.”
“Nakia was right, wasn’t she? The Jabari have their own agenda.”
M’Baku’s mouth quirked, but he said nothing. The ledge rose into a sharp climb, one that M’Baku made with no effort. This was his world after all, where he belonged. T’Challa, to his credit, handled the climb with careful grace as well, light on his feet, and if the situation wasn’t so grave, M’Baku might have liked to take the time to admire it.
The ledge squeezed through a narrow crack within sheer rock, where they could only walk one apace. “Keep close and watch your feet,” M’Baku said, as he took them through.
“The ground’s unstable?”
“No. But kill nothing here, if you can help it.”
The passage opened from rock to forest in a shock to the senses. The Vault of the Sky swept down from the slopes in a a wealth of beautiful, massive trees, each wider than T’Challa was tall, their leaves in rich verdant hues of green. There was a earthy, loamy scent, cut across the crisp air, and close by, something brilliantly coloured flashed through the branches with a liquid, warbling cry. Above, the sky was an unbroken blue, bisected by the crowns of ancient trees. Here was Wakanda too, living, older than cities.
M’Baku watched T’Challa closely. T’Challa looked overwhelmed, his eyes wide and growing bright as he looked slowly from tree too tree, breathing in deeply. It took a moment for T’Challa to collect himself, then he said, “Thank you.”
“Your trust. The Vault of the Sky is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
M’Baku let out a short laugh, turning away to look at the trees. “It is, isn’t it.”
“Why do you laugh?”
“A long time ago, when I was young and unwise, I looked on Birnin Zana and thought the same thing.” M’Baku started to head down the slope.
“It’s a different sort of beauty.” T’Challa followed, careful of where he set his feet. He stopped as M’Baku raised his wrist, then stared in surprise as a moth alighted on a wooden bangle. M’Baku pressed his palm to the bangle, staring intently at the moth as it fed him snatches of impressions. After a moment, the moth took flight.
“The others haven’t found Shuri or Tetu yet, but some Prowlers stumbled on another cell of the People and subdued them,” M’Baku said.
“How… what? Your people talk to each other with moths?”
“Moths? What moths? That’s crazy. Who talks to other people using insects?” M’Baku said, and started to snicker when T’Challa scowled at him.
“… Nevermind.” T’Challa tapped his bead again. “Shuri’s not responding. Either she’s turned off her Kimoyo Beads or…” T’Challa shuddered. “Let’s keep moving.”
They walked for a while, deeper into the Vault. Then there was a crack ahead, like something stepping on a branch, and a thumping sound, a low, loud hoot. M’Baku stiffened. “Wait here,” he told T’Challa, jogging on ahead. M’Baku heard T’Challa hesitate behind him, then follow, annoyingly enough.
They came to a tree, surrounded by silver gorillas, young and old, the adults as huge as Anathi. They were gathered around a tree, glancing up, and turned to look at them with gentle curiosity.
“I told you to stay put,” M’Baku said, without looking over his shoulder.
M’Baku sighed. He raised his palms up. Then he walked over, slowly, until he was at a respectful distance, waiting. Eventually, one of the largest gorillas ambled over, looking at M’Baku with the same mild curiosity. Great fingers touched M’Baku’s head, tentative, then the furs over his shoulders. The gorilla bent, to look M’Baku straight in his eyes. Satisfied, the gorilla turned away, the troop dispersing silently into the forest.
Looking up now, M’Baku could see the scratches on the trunk, disappearing into the leaves. “Shuri,” T’Challa said dryly, “you can come down now.”
There was a long pause, then, Shuri said, “There are some seriously giant animals here. Sorry M’Baku. I didn’t want to accidentally hurt anything, so I thought I’d stay in a tree until they went away.”
“Just come down,” M’Baku said, resigned.
“I um. Actually don’t know how to? Wow, this is a long way up.”
M’Baku rubbed a palm over his face. “Didn’t you crash out of the sky along with a warbird?”
“Ooh, don’t remind me. Right. Uh, here goes.” Shuri dropped out of the tree, landing hard with a yelp, the suit rippling in pale orange colours, absorbing the impact. Once on the ground, Shuri hugged her brother tightly, her suit ebbing into a large golden necklace over her shoulders, her arms encased in vibranium bracers.
“I managed to hurt him, I think. He was limping? I chased him into the forest and then I don’t know how, but he just disappeared. Before I could triangulate his position, the giant gorillas appeared and well. They’re cute, just really big. Sorry M’Baku.”
M’Baku shrugged. T’Challa frowned down at Shuri. “Why didn’t you answer your Kimoyo Beads?”
“He did something to them.” Shuri gestured at her wrist, where the beads lay dark. “Think he tried to do the same to the suit, but it didn’t work. Possibly because I made the suits out of a new alloy. A liquid mesh.”
“Don’t worry me like that again. I think I aged ten years,” T’Challa said.
She made a face at him as she stepped back. “What was I supposed to do, just let him go?”
“And where is he now?”
Shuri grinned. “I tagged him with a micro tracer when he was leaving the wreck. He’s still in the forest.”