Title: Beasts Made of Night
Author: Tochi Onyebuchi
Publishing Date: October 31st 2017
Number of Pages: 304
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
In the walled city of Kos, corrupt mages can magically call forth sin from a sinner in the form of sin-beasts – lethal creatures spawned from feelings of guilt.
Taj is the most talented of the aki, young sin-eaters indentured by the mages to slay the sin-beasts. But Taj’s livelihood comes at a terrible cost. When he kills a sin-beast, a tattoo of the beast appears on his skin while the guilt of committing the sin appears on his mind. Most aki are driven mad by the process, but 17-year-old Taj is cocky and desperate to provide for his family.
When Taj is called to eat a sin of a royal, he’s suddenly thrust into the center of a dark conspiracy to destroy Kos. Now Taj must fight to save the princess that he loves – and his own life.
A gritty Nigerian-influenced fantasy.
I make sure to sit where they can’t see me.
From where I’m perched, tucked just out of sight on a pile of rubble, I have a pretty good view of the other sin-eaters, the aki. They’re gathered in the small clearing below, ringed by the rubble of what used to be someone’s home.
If they knew I was here, they’d probably get all self-conscious, stop playing, and start trying to talk my ear off. Sky-Fist this and Lightbringer that. Whatever lahala they’re calling me these days in the Forum. Seems like barely anyone still remembers my name is Taj.
This group of aki are young, some of them just kids. But there are a few who look close to my age, including one girl with a big, easy smile that catches my eye. They wear jewel studs in their ears, gemstones to remind them of family members or loved who they abandoned or who abandoned them when their eyes changed and it was clear that they were aki. Others wear coal where gemstones would go. Jewels for the living. Coal for the dead.
I grin as I watch that girl who smiled at me show off for her friends, doing a backflip off a piece of broken balcony. She sticks the landing, her tunic flipping up a bit to expose a patch of light-brown thigh. I catch a glimpse of a fresh black mark wrapped around her leg—a tattoo of a snarling wolf.
Flashing another smile, Wolf Girl holds up her hand to get everyone’s attention, and the aki form a circle.
They begin to clap, slowly and in unison, their bodies swaying with the rhythm. Arms wide, then clap. Arms wide, clap. Faster. Faster. Even faster.
Now the aki begin to stomp their feet in rhythm with each clap while they sing a familiar song.
One stone, two stone, three stone, four,
Sound of Arbaa aki knocking at your door.
One stone, two stone, three, four, five,
Khamsa dahia aki set your street on fire.
One stone, two stone, and one makes three,
Aki from Thalatha climbing up your trees.
One stone, one stone, one stone please,
So the pretty aki girl can then see me.
I mouth along, careful not to let out a sound. I can’t remember the last time I joined a circle of young aki like this, but I haven’t forgotten a single word.
As the last words of the song die down, one of the youngest kids enters the circle and bounces on his feet, twirls, till he’s got everyone’s attention. Then he really goes at it, bounding to the left of the circle, darting to the right. He spins. Flies through the air. And the little aki around him cheer and clap.
Another girl breaks away and dances toward him, clapping in his face. She matches him leap for leap, and now we have ourselves a fight. The two aki kick and dodge while the circle sings about the kid who steals the pearl and has to leave town, climbing over the massive Wall that surrounds our city of Kos and escaping into the forbidden forest on the other side to whoever is waiting to welcome him home.
I notice most of the aki, except for Wolf Girl, appear to have unmarked skin. But if I look closely, I can spot a small lizard tattooed along the collarbone. A griffin marking one’s shoulder blades. Black ink on red skin, brown skin. Most of them are too young to have Eaten much sin, their skin largely unblemished by the animal markings earned by a successful sin-eating. The same markings that label us as pariahs, that earn us nasty looks and shoves in the Forum. These aki are lucky. I tug my sleeves down over my own arms and legs. They’re covered with beasts.
I could be inside sleeping like I deserve to, preparing for my next Eating, but it’s nice out. Not so dry that the dust’ll choke you into a coughing fit in two steps. And not so humid that the air feels heavy.
I even catch myself swinging my legs to the rhythm of the song as it echoes all the way up to where I’m sitting. As I watch the aki laugh and dance, it’s easy to forget that some of them are gonna get spit on as soon as they leave our dahia, our neighbor- hood, and walk through the Forum. Some of them are gonna get kicked, maybe even beaten by the Palace guards walking up and down our streets with their cutlasses and their gloves and their complete and total lack of humor. Here, they’re happy and unbothered. Here, we are happy and unbothered.
A shadow passes over me.
I flinch, ready to strike, but it’s just Bo.
“Don’t do that, brother; I nearly dusted you,” I huff.
But I’m glad to see Bo, even though I know now it’s just a matter of time before the other aki notice us. My friend is easily four or five hands taller than most people in the city of Kos. He’s hard to miss.
I make room for him, sliding over so he can sit down, too. But Bo just stays standing, his freshly marked arms crossed over his large chest, face as blank and serene as always.
“Taj, we’ve been called to the Palace,” Bo says, then clears his throat to make sure I’m still listening instead of looking at Wolf Girl. I smirk. That means he noticed her, too.
“Jai was called to Eat a sin. He failed.”
My smile fades. “So he has Crossed.”
“Yes.” Bo’s voice is quiet but steady. “The inisisa ate him. It’s still loose. They need us to take care of it.”
I stand up and brush the dust off, ignoring the small shiver that creeps down my spine. I didn’t know Jai well, but we’d lift our chins in greeting any time we crossed paths. The aki respected him. And now he’s dead. Worse than dead. Eaten.
Already, I’m trying to size up the inisisa, the sin-beast, in my mind. How big is it? How fast?
I check to make sure my daga is snugly tucked into my armband, even though I know it’s always there. First thing I do every morning is slip my knife into my armband. I’d feel naked without it.
“Is the Mage already here?” Nobody makes it to the Palace grounds without an escort.
“Yes, he’s waiting.” Bo lays a heavy hand on my shoulder as I pass him. “Careful, Taj. Jai was good. The inisisa shouldn’t have beaten him.”
“Did that ruby-licker Mage say how big the inisisa is?” I try to shrug off Bo’s grip.
Bo shakes his head. Apparently saying no would be too much effort.
“Well, don’t worry, brother.” I pat Bo’s hand. “If that inisisa even dreams about beating me, I’ll wake it up and make it apologize.”
I lift Bo’s hand off my shoulder and continue making my way into the street, where I find a Mage in a black robe, waiting to take me to my next engagement.
As we make our way to the palace, I run my fingers through my nappy hair. It’s starting to grow out, and I like the look, like a massive, cushioned helmet, but it takes way too much effort to maintain. I have to wash it right. And sometimes, when it gets hot and humid, my hair falls all the way down over my ears so I look like a donkey. I don’t know—it doesn’t seem worth it. But when it’s good and upright and all puffed out, I love it.
I hate when they keep me waiting. The more time I’m left alone with my thoughts, the more the nerves start to get to me. I play with my daga, flipping it up and catching it again and again, careful to catch the handle and not the sharp tip. I try to keep from wondering what’s waiting for me behind the closed doors.
I’m sitting on a bench on an outdoor balcony, waiting to be called into the Palace where the royal family resides. Even the wealthiest folks can only afford to hire one of us aki to Eat their sins and absolve them maybe once, twice a month. The royal Kaya family calls an aki every few days. Here in Kos, the purest, those most free of sin, rule everything. For the Kayas to main- tain power, it’s necessary for the royal family to absolve them- selves of every little sin, down to the last white lie. For being so supposedly pure of soul, our leaders sure keep us aki busy.
Outside the marble balustrade, there’s green everywhere. Green grass that stretches on forever, a few trees, shrubbery that lines stone walkways that curve out on the Palace grounds. I’m so used to the reds and browns and blacks of the Forum that the green almost seems too bright, hurting my eyes. Even the breeze that whistles through this entryway feels like a luxury. We barely get any wind down in the stifling heat of the Forum.
On the balcony, it’s just me and some of the Palace guards. Their uniforms are decorated with the royal Kaya crest. The Kaya crest is supposed to be some sort of dragon, but to me, it’s always looked like one of those pesky common lizards that are constantly scurrying over walls, popping up in bags of rice, and scaring children.
One of the Palace guards glares at me as I tap a rhythm on the marble floor with my foot. I hold his gaze and grin as wide as I can while twirling my knife around my fingers.
Finally, the door to my left opens and four Palace guards emerge, carrying what is unmistakably Jai’s body wrapped in a blanket. His arm hangs over the side, and I can see the markings covering it. Lizards and sparrows tattooed on fingers, a dragon whose wings circle his wrist. For a second, I wonder if his unpurified spirit, his inyo, still walks the Palace halls, preventing him from entering into Infinity. Sins weigh us down, and if you carry them with you past death, the earth and the sky both will reject you. They say that’s why the aki poison the ground where they are buried, so that nothing good grows where we’re laid. I say plantain trees grow just fine over our dead bodies. Although I’m not into all that superstitious lahala, the Palace still gives me the creeps, and I mutter a quick prayer to the Unnamed, hoping to send Jai’s inyo on its way.
Before they put him in the ground, someone’s gonna have to cut his throat. He’s Crossed but not fully dead, the worst that could happen to us. It would be too cruel to bury him alive.
Jai had never mentioned family before, but I hope he has people, so that they don’t just toss him in the shallow pits where they bury our sin-heavy bodies, far from the mines.
Even as I shift my glance away, I see that Jai’s skin is blue beneath the tattoos. I know if I were to get up and look into the aki’s face, I’d see his eyes glazed over, the color of ice, so unlike their usual brown. The bright stones studding his left ear would be dull as coal now. His face would be frozen in the same expression as when the sin-beast consumed him, sucking out his spirit and leaving only his ruined body behind.
But I won’t let myself look, not even to say goodbye to Jai, because that’s how the fear sneaks in. As fast as a lizard scampering right into my ears, if I give it that opening. Then it nestles there and grows. It makes me dull and slow, and when it comes time to fight the sin-beast, I won’t be able to move as fast as I need to. Maybe that’s what happened to Jai. He let himself get scared.
I stare straight ahead as the Palace guards carry Jai’s body out of sight. A Mage walks out in a dark robe, and I hide my surprise when I recognize Izu, the head Mage. Back in our slum, we aki joke and call him Big Chief behind his back, but he’s stood in the street before with Palace guards while his men ripped us from our families or snuffed us out from our hiding places. Other Mages will call us out for jobs, but Izu is the only one I’ve ever seen do the recruiting. Very dark coal burns in the chest of a man who can do that kind of work.
It’s Mages who have the power to pull sins from people’s bodies. The sins take the form of beasts, the inisisa, and the Mages then sit back while we aki risk our lives to kill those monsters.
Izu lifts his chin at me and jerks his head at the door. It’s time.
I push myself to my feet and follow Izu as he leads me inside and down the corridor. The doors shut grandly behind us. Everything here needs that extra weight. There isn’t a single gesture that isn’t laced with self-importance.
My worn shoes track dirt onto the plush red carpet as we walk down an endless hallway. I begin to hear a faint clanging sound that grows steadily louder. By the time we round a corner, the sound is deafening. We approach a door that’s nearly bent in half at the middle, bulging from something inside striking it repeatedly. Whatever’s inside sounds big. And angry.
I shoulder past the two Palace guards standing at the door, backs as straight as their pikes. A smirk twists my lips when I see their hands trembling where they grip those staffs.
I close my eyes and steady my breathing. There’s always the temptation to wonder whose sin I will Eat, whose guilt I’ll be taking into my soul and onto my skin. But I can’t think about that. Because then I’ll start to think about smooth-skinned Kaya princesses and princes. And I’ll start to think about how they get to walk around pure and bathed in light, while I have to slip through the muddy Forum, spat on and ridiculed for my markings, proof of crimes I didn’t even commit.
But I can’t let myself go there. Which is why I don’t wonder anymore. I don’t ask questions. I’m just here to Eat and get paid.
Suddenly, the clanging noise stops. Izu is at my side, and I look to him for permission. He nods, green eyes glinting beneath his hood. The Palace guards step forward, open the door, and I launch myself into the room, brandishing my blade. I don’t even hear the doors close behind me, because the sin- beast rears up and roars in my face.
I stare up at a massive lion, one of the biggest I’ve seen. The inisisa is formed of shadows so dark that it seems to suck all the light out of the room, even taking the glow from the daga in my hand. Its claws, inky tendrils of black, click against the floor tiles as it settles back on its enormous haunches. Sin made into living, breathing flesh by dark magic.
Let’s see how long it takes for me to do what Jai couldn’t. I shut my mind down so that it’s just me and my body. No room for emotions, for anger or fear or even joy. The beast raises a massive paw and swipes at me.
I duck beneath the first swing. Another paw comes at me and I leap back, but not far enough. Its claws tear at my shirt, the shadows as sharp and lethal as any true claws.
I scramble backward onto the wreckage of what must have been a lavish bed, catching splinters of wood in my palms. The room is a mess. Rugs lie scattered over the floor. There are smears of nearly dried blood everywhere. I’d like to think Jai put up a fight.
The beast rushes after me, and its paw comes up again. I hop just out of reach of its swipe, then launch myself at the beast. I land on its left shoulder and push myself upward so I can scramble onto its back. The lion roars, but I clamp my thighs on either side of its immense neck. It bucks once, twice, trying to throw me off. I plunge my daga into its neck.
The room shakes with the beast’s scream, and it bucks again and again, but I hold on tight. I stab and stab and stab. Finally, its legs collapse beneath it, and the beast slumps to the ground. Breathing hard, I jump off its back.
Three and a half minutes. Uhlah. No record today.
I dust my hands off and turn to face the dead sin-beast. Slowly, it turns to mist, dissolving bit by bit, limb by limb, until it’s a black pool of tar on the marble floor. The inky substance begins swirling, faster and faster, until it rushes toward me.
I hate this part.
I crouch down and open my mouth as the remains of the inisisa swim right down my throat. It burns. I have to close my eyes against it. Every time. And every time it feels like it’ll last forever. The sorrow that rakes my skin. The guilt that grips my mind. The cold that pierces my bones and freezes my mar- row. And I want to cry out, but my throat is full of sin, and the moment stretches out like a piece of rubber being pulled and pulled and pulled until finally it snaps.
And I’m back.
Bits of shadow dribble down the sides of my mouth, and I wipe the rest of the sin away with the back of my hand. I hear echoes of the sin in my mind, but I quickly shake my head to keep them from taking hold. I don’t need to know who did what to whom. What’s done is done. I’m just here to Eat the sin and get paid. In the beginning, I’d lie on the floor for half an hour after Eating, shivering until my teeth were ready to fall out of my mouth. Now I’m up in less than five minutes.
I walk over to the locked doors and pound on them once, twice, to let Izu and the Palace guards know that I’ve finished. I Ate the sin, the sin didn’t eat me. I did what Jai couldn’t do, what no other aki except me could do.
When the doors swing open, I see the fear and horror on the faces of the Palace guards as they take in the room behind me. Only Izu’s face remains impassive, looking at me like I’m something disposable. Like a rusting hammer or a nail that’ll eventually bend.
I’ve gotten used to it.
Next to Izu stands a golden-haired princeling that I recognize with surprise as Prince Haris. Probably sixth or seventh in line for the throne, but still royal. I bow my head quickly, but not before catching a glimpse of his cold stare. He must have arrived when I was in there battling the sin-beast. His sin-beast.
Coins jingle, there’s a flash of gold, then a metal tab is shoved into the palm of my hand. I get a second to look at the marking on it. It’s not enough time to tell how much I’ve been paid, just that I’ve been shorted. Before I can say anything, the guards are on me and I’m shoved back outside, nearly losing my tab in the process.
I spit a few times to try to forget the taste of the sin in my mouth, then walk down the path to the Palace’s front gates, where Bo is waiting to walk me home. A rare smile splits his face, the only sign that he thought I might not return.
By the time I reach Bo and he slaps me on the back in greeting, I feel the tattoo burn itself into existence on my forearm. This lion etched into my skin will be with me forever now, a marker of Prince Haris’s sin. Now he can walk around pure and noble and free while I carry the evidence of his crimes in my head and on my body. For a moment, I feel a heaviness. Anguish and despair from the sin wash over me, but I concentrate and push them out of my head like I’ve been taught to do, like I’ve been doing since I was nine years old.
With my redeemable tab between my teeth, I fiddle with my hair. I need both hands to fix it, to get it to puff out the right way.
Turns out Jai doesn’t have immediate family left, so it’s up to us to bury him. A bunch of us aki walk up to a ledge that sticks out from the earthen wall that surrounds the northern Ashara dahia like the rim of a bowl. Just beyond the wall are the mining pits, and even in the heat of midday, I see the men, black as obsidian, working the land. With coal-darkened cloth wrapped around their noses and mouths, the men climb out of the mine shafts or hand up baskets filled with what precious stones they’ve been able to find. The metallic sound of their hammers banging against stone fills the air. It’s a different kind of noisy here than in the Forum.
Stone dwellings dot the base of the bowl, but it’s mostly huts and a few shacks with tin roofs. I can barely see the people below, small specks that dart in and out of the huts, but I know that somewhere, a goat roasts over a fire and the women are preparing to dust a young girl’s forehead with precious metals to commemorate her coming-of-age. Somewhere, her younger sisters are pounding yams and grumbling about it. Somewhere, in shadowed alleys, stone-sniffers crush rocks and sniff the small bits off the backs of their hands to forget their troubles, just for a moment. Over it all towers the massive statue of Malek, the mythic figure who, long ago, battled the arashi, the demonic monsters that descended from the sky and attacked the dahia. The sculpture is red-brown when the sun’s at this angle, and Malek’s sword arm is flung back, ready to swing a crushing blow against an invisible enemy. He’s looking skyward.
As one of the eldest aki, Bo presides over Jai’s burial. After the aki lay Jai down next to his empty grave, it’s Bo who cuts Jai’s throat, with Jai’s own daga, and delivers him from his mind-death. I’ve got my slammers in my hand and no heart for burials, but I figure I owe it to the aki to at least be around. It doesn’t take a miner or farmer to tell where the earth in this part of the dahia has been recently turned. No grave markers signal where aki have been put into the ground, but the grass avoids them. Avoids us.
We bury Jai with his dull stones in his ear.
Inyo flit through the air like black bursts of wind, then vanish, and I feel Jai among them.
Bo begins singing in a loud, clear voice, but I can’t catch the words, only the rhythm. He starts the dance, and the other aki join. Jai’s inyo dances with them.
The lion on my wrist burns, like all new marks do. I feel a pang in my stomach, and at first I think it’s because I’m watching another aki get buried, but then I realize that I haven’t eaten all day.
As the burial ends, I scrabble up over the edge of the Ashara wall in search of pepper soup.
Balance is supposed to be the principle that governs us. Sin and sacrifice. Night and day. Death and life. I get to the top of the ridge, and there’s a kid standing there with his eyes closed, almost like he’s waiting for me.
There’s no expression on his face, but there are tearstains on his cheek. His clothes hang off him: a robe full of holes, billowy pants, all the color of mud. Must’ve been on the streets for at least a week. Probably twice that, by the looks of it. He looks like he’s dreaming. His arms are folded tight around his chest, and his eyes are closed.
“Ay!” I step to him. My shadow looms. “You lost?”
This snaps the kid out of his trance, and he starts to shiver. He doesn’t even look like he has a home to run away from. Maybe there’s a place for him with Auntie Sania and Auntie Nawal at the marayu with the rest of Kos’s orphans.
“Hey. What’s your name?”
The kid opens his eyes, and that’s when I see it. White pupils. His irises are brown, but right in the center of each is a flaming sun. He’s an aki. I don’t see a sin on him, which means his eyes have changed only recently.
Whenever the preachers in the Forum talk about Balance and the Unnamed and sin and purity, it’s all lahala. But we barely finish burying Jai and then this kid suddenly shows up. Maybe this is what they’re talking about when they talk about Balance. One leaves. Another one arrives.
“Omar,” the kid says. “My name is Omar.”
I hold my hand out, palm up. “To you and your people, Omar,” I say.
It takes the kid a moment, but then he slides his hand over mine. It’s coated in dust, and dirt clings to his fingernails. “To you and yours, sir.”
“Taj,” I tell him. “The name’s Taj.” Without thinking, I put my hand to his head and rustle his nappy hair. “You’re aki now. Let’s go meet your brothers and sisters.” I turn back and lead him down the hill.
The pepper soup isn’t going anywhere.
Tochi Onyebuchi is a writer based in Connecticut. He holds a MFA in Screenwriting from Tisch and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. His writing has appeared in Asimov’s and Ideomancer, among other places. Beasts Made of Night is his debut.