“They’ve found Shuri and she’s safe and sound,” Ce’Athauna said, as M’Baku’s woodmoth flit back into the dark. Okoye and Nakia were staring at her. “What? You people never seen a moth before?”
“Not people using moths as… as messengers, no,” Nakia said, blinking. Somehow she hadn’t seen that in the few days where she’d been a guest here. How much more was there to the Jabari? It felt like they weren’t just a distinct tribe, they were a completely separate people. Different philosophy. Completely different technology. Had centuries driven the Jabari so far apart from the rest of Wakanda?
“Telepathic moths?” Okoye looked skeptical.
“Wow, magic moths! Now that’s an interesting idea,” Ce’Athauna said, and smirked when Okoye muttered something darkly under her breath. “M’Baku, T’Challa, and Shuri are going to keep tracking Tetu above ground. The rest of us will just need to keep searching the Arteries.”
“We should regroup with the King,” Okoye said, clearly unhappy about being underground and separated from T’Challa.
“They’ll be fine,” Ce’Athauna said, patting the hump of a tree root that arced out from the wall beside her. “The Vault won’t let anything happen to M’Baku.”
“What do you mean by that?” Nakia didn’t quite share Okoye’s unease. T’Challa and Shuri were both wearing Shuri’s Panther armour, after all. They were about as protected as they could get.
“M’Baku is an avatar of Hanuman,” Ce’Athauna said slowly, as though trying to speak to someone purposefully obtuse, “and this is Hanuman’s forest.”
“You speak as though the forest is sentient,” Nakia said, jogging to keep pace with Ce’Athauna.
“Not the forest,” Ce’Athauna said. She looked as though she wanted to say more, frowning to herself. Finally, she said, “We bury all our people here. Without exception. It is a sacred place. A memory place. A living vault, where death feeds new life.”
Nakia glanced at Okoye, who returned an impassive stare. She did always admire Okoye’s single-mindedness. For as long as there was something to work towards, Okoye would not be distracted by anything, be it sentiment or culture. “Where are we headed?” Okoye asked. “This tunnel network feels immense.”
“We’re mirroring M’Baku’s route underground. We think we know where Tetu might have been headed, judging from Princess Shuri’s tracking signal,” Ce’Athauna said, grim.
“Not good?” Nakia asked, careful to sound unthreatening.
Okoye had no such compunctions. “We’re walking blind here. What’s wrong?”
Ce’Athauna grumbled a word Nakia could not catch. “Right. As you both might have guessed, you’re both down here in the Arteries because we don’t want outsiders trampling around the Vault and damaging things by accident. The place where we’re heading towards is extremely sacred. If the Godkeepers knew we were taking more than the King there… they won’t make it comfortable for M’Baku.”
“We’ll be careful,” Nakia promised. “My word on it.”
“Mine too,” Okoye said. She sighed. “I know we haven’t been on speaking terms for very long. But I agree with T’Challa. The Jabari are part of Wakanda. We respect your customs as much as we’d respect any of the other tribes.”
“Good talk,” Ce’Athauna said, with a wry smile, “but we’re still going to get in trouble. There’s a tree here that we call the Ancestor Tree. It’s near the centre of the Vault, one of the biggest trees you’d have ever seen. And the oldest. The Godkeepers say it is the oldest living thing in the world, older than some of the stars.”
“Is Tetu planning to do something to it?” Nakia asked, horrified. To even think of damaging something like that…
“I hope not,” Ce’Athauna said darkly.
“Or something with it,” Okoye guessed. “This Ancestor Tree, and Kuvele.”
“Probably. You’d know when we get close. Vibranium reacts strangely there. Vibranium-based technology stops working, or has a different reaction. It is from the Ancestor Tree that the Godkeepers learn how to be Godkeepers.”
The air began to grow warmer as they headed deeper through the tunnels, winding this way and that until even Nakia’s training was confused. They could only trust Ce’Athauna to know the way, and even then she occasionally stopped, inspecting roots. Occasionally a moth would alight on her bangle, which she’d stare at before sending it on its way.
Okoye sucked in a tight breath. Her vibranium bracers were glowing with a pale blue fire, as were the chips in her armour and her spear. Nakia’s ringblades were dull, though the chips in her boots glowed an odd shade of lime green. Both their Kimoyo Beads lit up in shades of cherry red, icy cold to the touch. “Resonance,” Ce’Athauna said. Nakia backed off a few steps, and the glow on her boots and beads faded.
“This Tetu can somehow channel this? Over long distances?” Okoye asked, skeptical.
We’re still waiting for the Godkeepers to explain that,” Ce’Athauna admitted. “If you want to come, come.” She walked down the narrowing tunnel, to where roots thickened out of the earth, crossing the tunnels in thick jags. At one point, they had to crawl to get through, twisting under unyielding roots. The tunnel bent at sharp angles, then, just as abruptly, opened downwards into a well-lit space. Ce’Athauna blinked, then squeezed herself against the wall to allow Okoye and Nakia to have a look.
Below, there were Wakandans from different tribes, walking around, studying readouts on consoles, tending to odd, organic-looking machines that blended wood and vibranium both. The chamber was well-lit, and banks of light had been suspended over hydroponic booths of various plants. Including a tell-tale plant with waxy leaves and bright yellow flowers.
“That’s gelsemium,” Nakia whispered, pointing. “The poison that killed Anathi.”
“Right.” Ce’Athauna pressed her palm to her bangle. The moth emerged, antennae flicking for a moment before it flit over Nakia’s shoulder, resting on a tree root several feet away. More moths emerged out of nowhere, from other roots, until they became a small swarm, twisting on the wood in tight circles. Then they flew off, scattering into the tunnel behind them.
“They’re all trained?” Nakia tried not to gawk.
“Train? Insects can be trained?” Ce’Athauna said, with mock innocence.
“Shh. Look.” Okoye gripped Nakia’s elbow. A tall man with an ascetic face and silver sideburns in Jabari armour was limping across the floor, cradling a familiar vibranium and gold case, etched with the royal crest on the lid, and cicada patterns along its flank. Kuvele.
“We really should wait for backup,” Ce’Athauna said, though she grinned wolfishly.
“But we’re not?” Nakia asked dryly.
“Eh, I hear General Okoye here is the best warrior in Wakanda. Me, I think I am the best warrior in Wakanda. So why don’t we test that out? First person to knock Tetu out wins.”
“Is this really the time?” Nakia hissed, even as Okoye nodded and said, “Done.”
“Here.” Ce’Athauna passed Okoye a dagger, and Nakia a boot knife, which she turned out from hidden sheaths. “Not sure how the resonance might work down there, but just in case. That’s Jabari wood. I made them myself and I expect them returned.”
“A fine weapon,” Nakia said, admiring the piece. It was beautifully balanced, the edge somehow as fine as her ringblades.
“For a fine woman,” Ce’Athauna said, and winked as Nakia hastily stifled a laugh. “You know, you could do so much better than that panther king.”
“Tell that to the Great Gorilla,” Nakia said, though she had to stifle another chuckle, flattered despite herself.
“I have, believe me.”
“Whatever T’Challa and I had is in the past.”
“Good to hear.”
“Can you both please do this later?” Okoye asked, though she smiled. “We have a matter of pride to settle.”
There were cries of alarm as Ce’Athauna dropped down, rolling with the fall and coming up swinging with her spear, clubbing a Border Tribesman with its shaft, knocking him off his feet and out cold. Okoye was next, Ce’Athauna’s dagger in her belt, opting for her own spear for now, letting out a war cry as she charged quickly out of sight. Taking in a breath, Nakia dropped.
They were in a large open space, larger than she’d thought, with the hydroponic banks of plants on one side, some sort of laboratory on another, living spaces curtained off with patterned cloth on the left. Great roots bisected the chamber, sinking from ceiling to floor at uneven intervals like pillars.
People were recovering from their shock. Some fled out of the chamber with yelps. Most grabbed their weapons. Nakia counted six still standing, including Tetu, past the roots, turning around to stare in surprise. She grabbed a metal pipe from the workbench beside her, bouncing it off the forehead of the closest person in an overarm throw, dropping them unconscious to the floor. Okoye tripped up a Mining Tribesman with her spear, leaping high, spear upraised.
Tetu brought up a palm. Okoye’s spear glowed a bright yellow, freezing in the air for a second, then twisting about, earthing itself in the nearest root. Okoye kicked off the root in mid air, arresting her fall and turning it into a graceful leap, plucking the dagger from her belt. Tetu sidestepped her swipe, bringing up the box to deflect a strike.
Nakia shoved the workbench beside her into the belly of a charging Border Tribesman, knocking the wind from him, leaping up and skidding along the table to bringing him to the ground with her weight as the fulcrum, bouncing his head off the dirt. Ce’Athauna stabbed a Jabari Tribesman through the shoulder with her spear, kicking him back against the wall. A slice of a scimitar caught her across her back, ringing against her wooden armour, and she snarled, reversing her spear, ramming its base against her attacker’s throat.
Tetu. Nakia darted quietly behind roots, trying to get behind Tetu as Okoye drove him back. As Okoye stepped between two overhanging roots, Tetu raised his palm again. Root tendrils burst forth, tangling over Okoye’s arms, twisting towards her neck.
“Okoye!” Nakia scrambled over, but Ce’Athauna was there, landing a sharp blow from the shaft of her spear against Tetu’s elbow. He dropped Kuvele with an oath, wincing and scrambling back, grabbing a Jabari staff resting against the wall.
Okoye cursed as Nakia sawed her free, pulling roots off her shoulders and thighs. Once free, Okoye lunged for Kuvele, only for Tetu to bring up both his hands. Her bracers glowed, skidding her back as though hauled by an unseen force. Roots burst out of the ground, tripping Ce’Athauna into a sprawl, then jabbing into the earth as she rolled hastily clear.
Kuvele’s lid snapped open, revealing a large string of custom-made Kimoyo Beads, inset over an amplifier. Tetu picked it up even as Nakia sprang on him with a war cry. He raised an arm to deflect Nakia’s first strike with his bracer, then doubled over as she kicked him in the groin. As Tetu stumbled, Nakia buried her knife in his throat.
Tetu gasped, drowning in his own blood. He staggered back against the wall, still clutching the inset beads to his chest. “You are… a true warrior,” he gasped, choking the words out somehow, “but you are already too late.”
“You’re dying,” Nakia shot back. “Surrender and we’ll get you to medical care, Tetu.”
“Tetu?” Tetu started to laugh, hacking, coughing blood onto his chest. “Tetu is a God, one that the Jabari know by another name. It is not mine.” He sank against the wall, grinning through bloodied teeth, as roots curled over his body, pulling him slowly into the earth, Kuvele and all. Then he was gone.
Slowly, Nakia turned on Ce’Athauna, who looked visibly stunned. “What did he mean? The Jabari have another God?”
Ce’Athauna shook her head. “Only Hanuman. And I don’t think that’s what he meant—” She yelped as a tremor shook through the ground, bowling her off her feet and into Okoye. The ceiling shook, fragments of earth flaking loose.
“Now what?” Okoye said, hauling them both up.
Ce’Athauna was already running for the exit. “The Tree!”
“What’s happening?” T’Challa yelled at M’Baku, but M’Baku shook his head, just as confused. The Ancestor Tree was… flowering. Pale flowers were blooming in sudden profusion over the branches, like snowflakes, and as the Tree groaned, shuddering, pollen shook loose in a torrent, flooding the air, plastering over their skin.
“Our beads!” Shuri’s note had a high note of wonder and fear. The communications bead was lighting up on the royal band, turning a deep purple. The dirge rang from it, broadcast on all their beads, then Shuri was doubling over, sinking on her knees, coughing and choking. T’Challa too, clutching at his throat.
M’Baku breathed in. The cloud of pollen before him drifted away instead of being sucked into his mouth, despite the lack of a breeze. “T’Challa. Shuri! Your suits, activate your suits!” He grabbed Shuri’s wrist, pulling off her beads and tossing them aside. Then T’Challa’s. Shuri curled up, gasping, the panther suit ebbing over her skin. T’Challa was coughing wetly, his eyes rolled up in his head, unresponsive even as M’Baku compressed his chest and breathed into his mouth.
“No. No.” M’Baku breathed for T’Challa. One, two. Again. Again.
That voice. M’Baku stiffened. He looked up, into a different world. The forest, silent, the sky above a thousand colours of blue and purple. The Ancestral Tree stood still, its pollen translucent in the air, barely visible. Perched on one of its great roots was Ngozi, light of feet as she leaped off, approaching with the grace that his childhood remembered, a grace that had been stripped from her at the end as her sickness drowned her.
“Grandmother.” M’Baku looked down. He was cradling T’Challa still, and for a moment it looked like T’Challa wasn’t breathing. Hastily, he pressed a palm to T’Challa’s throat. There. A pulse, but weak.
“So the panther has come,” Ngozi said, kneeling down beside them, “and you hold its life in your hands.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time. Grandmother, why are you here?”
“You know why.” Ngozi said, gesturing to her right. Yes, of course. Her tree was close by. In the halfway world that opened for would-be Godkeepers, who came to the Ancestor Tree to dream deeply for the truth of the world, the spirits stood with one foot here and in the next.
M’Baku had a hundred things to say. About saving T’Challa, about the pollen, about Tetu and shamanic magic, but what came out of his throat was a whisper. “I missed you.”
“I know.” Ngozi reached over, ruffling his hair playfully, the way she had even when he had grown so tall that she had to reach to do it. “I miss you too. Even though I know that one day, you will be here with me. With everyone.” In the halfway world tenuous within the Vault, everyone who died Jabari was here. He could sense the weight of their presence beyond the trees, watching. Death for the Jabari was the great equalizer, the counterweight in the cycle.
“One day,” M’Baku said, and added reluctantly, “but not yet.”
“I know that too.” Ngozi glanced down at T’Challa. “Huh. I thought he’d be taller.”
Despite himself, M’Baku started to laugh. The laughter shook from him, torn from his throat, and he laughed until there was no laughter left within him, the sound shredding into a hoarse sob. He’d missed her, Gods, he had missed her. “I thought so too. When I first saw him.”
“Pretty, though, if that’s what you like.” Ngozi grinned slyly, and laughed as M’Baku coughed, looking away. “I see Hanuman has not yet granted you wisdom. Life is short.”
“Grandmother. A shaman is poisoning the world. I think he’s using the royal band on the Kimoyo Beads, somehow, to reach all of Wakanda.”
“Singing to all of Wakanda,” Ngozi agreed. “A good song has a special kind of magic in itself, to move minds, change hearts. A song sung by the Ancestor Tree, though, by the land itself, now that is something beautiful. Something terrible.”
“The land itself?”
“Would one man have convinced people from all Tribes to follow him, so devoutly?”
“I don’t understand.”
“For centuries we have buried our people in the Vault. This forest is thick with spirits. Rich with the love that we feel for Wakanda. And the fear. I know the fear, I have seen it. Even when I was alive.” Ngozi reached over, pressing her palm over M’Baku’s chest. “The Ancestor Tree speaks to the Godkeepers, but they do not listen. So the land had to find others. Its own avatars. All this is Tetu, the equilibrium, the arbiter.”
“So how do I change its mind?” M’Baku asked, off-balance. How did you change the mind of the land itself?
“This is the Vault and it is also still Hanuman’s forest,” Ngozi said, poking M’Baku in the chest. “Who are you?”
Who was he? The Great Gorilla of the Jabari. The grandson of Ngozi the Undefeated. A son of Wakanda and its servant. M’Baku breathed out. “As Jabari I am also the land, and the land is me,” he said slowly. “And so I am also an arbiter. As you were. As we have been. We watch Wakanda and the panther.”
“Wisdom at last,” Ngozi said, grinning broadly. She leaned over, to kiss him on the forehead. Then she was gone.
M’Baku sat back. He rubbed his eyes, composing himself. Then he bent, to breathe the air of the halfway world into T’Challa’s lungs, to take them elsewhere within it.
T’Challa woke with a start, scrambling to his feet, and nearly balancing off the edge of the cliff with a yelp. M’Baku steadied him as he looked around wildly. “What? Where are we? Where’s the forest?” T’Challa paused, looking around more slowly. “That sky. This is the Ancestral Plane? Isn’t that Birnin Zana?”
M’Baku nodded. “What do you see?”
“M’Baku? What is all this? I was choking on pollen… Shuri? Where is Shuri?”
“What do you see?” M’Baku repeated. The land itself was listening. Quiet. It had fed on M’Baku’s memories, on Ngozi’s, and it knew to wait.
T’Challa stared at him for a while, frowning as M’Baku stayed impassive. Then he looked away, back at the golden city. “Birnin Zana.”
“What do you see?”
“M’Baku…” T’Challa trailed off. Then he straightened up. “The city of my birth.”
“You are a son of Birnin Zana.”
“I am a son of Wakanda,” T’Challa said. He looked behind them, into the swallowing dark, then forward, at the lights of the city.
“You are a panther. And it is the nature of the panther to want to eat the world.”
“That is not what I am doing. I love Wakanda. Deeply. For me, there is no other home. My blood was shed here. I will be buried here. But there is a world beyond Wakanda, one that I want to help. Wakanda cannot be separated from the world, not when the whole world is being poisoned. The world is growing warmer. All over the world, creatures are going extinct. People wage war over the land, creating suffering on an immense scale. How can Wakanda look away?”
“The panthers will destroy us all. One has already tried.”
“And I stopped him. He was my blood and I stopped him. I wish that none of it happened. He was maddened by his pain. But it was still his hand on the blade. There is a difference to us. We are wealthy by chance. But how can you enjoy wealth at the expense of others? To do so blindly, to do so despite everything we could do for those without our wealth, that I now know is evil. And evil will poison us more quickly than the dying earth.”
Ah. It was an impression, fed through M’Baku like the woodmoth’s whispers made large. On the halfway world there was only enough room for the truth. T’Challa began to fade, though he blinked and tried to speak, raising his palms. When he was gone, M’Baku was in the heart of the Vault again, alone but for the Tree.
“We have not forgotten,” he told the land, as it stayed silent, “and if you wanted my life it has always been yours.”
no more panthers, the murmur came, through M’Baku’s bones, weaker now, no more great gorillas, no more people, no more people
“What would come in our wake would be worse. You’ve made plans for a long time. Sourced a secret cache of vibranium. Built your own army, across all of Wakanda. I can see that. And I know why you did it. The fear. T’Challa was right. The Jabari withdrew from Wakanda because of fear. Fear of change.”
and now change, whispered the land, it is here and we have died
“And so you made your move. You hoped that removing Anathi would turn my people against me. When it didn’t, you tried something else. War between the tribes would have withdrawn the Jabari to the Fastness. Unrest in Wakanda at large would have withdrawn T’Challa to Birnin Zana. No more threats.” M’Baku sat down, stretching out his legs. “Yet you’ve now seen the truth of T’Challa’s words. As have I. I think we are stronger than our fear. We can meet the world, without changing who we are.”
the panther, said the land, the panther is the shadow of death
“Death is part of the cycle. The panther is a son of the land as well. And he will learn to love the land the way we do. I promise you that.”
The Tree fell silent. The sky above was waking into a normal even blue, and as M’Baku blinked, he felt someone anxiously shaking his shoulder, fingers pressed to his throat. Groaning thickly, he swiped at the hands, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. The forest was still, the pollen swarm gone.
“I’m not sure what just happened,” Shuri said, wide-eyed.
“I think I know,” T’Challa said, his eyes intent on M’Baku’s face.
“We’ll talk some other time,” M’Baku told T’Challa, getting to his feet. “You should get your people home.”
“Our people,” T’Challa corrected, and after a moment, M’Baku nodded. Beneath them, the land lay quiet.