In the Shadow of the Fall

Read an Excerpt From Tobi Ogundiran’s In the Shadow of the Fall

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from In the Shadow of the Fall, the first volume in an epic fantasy novella duology by Tobi Ogundiran—out from Tordotcom Publishing on July 23.

Ashâke is an acolyte in the temple of Ifa, yearning for the day she is made a priestess and sent out into the world to serve the orisha. But of all the acolytes, she is the only one the orisha refuse to speak to. For years she has watched from the sidelines as peer after peer passes her by and ascends to full priesthood.

Desperate, Ashâke attempts to summon and trap an orisha—any orisha. Instead, she experiences a vision so terrible it draws the attention of a powerful enemy sect and thrusts Ashâke into the center of a centuries-old war that will shatter the very foundations of her world.

Alone in the heart of the Sacred Grove, Ashâke lifted her torch and peered into the darkness.

The trees here were old — hundreds of seasons old, their huge white limbs draped in moss. The priests said these trees had been old back when orisha had roamed the earth, and still they stood. Ashâke found it hard to shake the feeling of being watched, as she did whenever she came here, and spent a moment wheeling about, straining to see into the darkness beyond the trees. But if there was something there, if there was someone there, she couldn’t see them.

Ashâke licked her dry lips. Perhaps it is the orisha who watch me. Waiting for me. The thought sent chills down her spine. Surely they knew what she was soon to do…

She approached the biggest tree, a Great White Baobab leaning over the river. It stood some eighty feet tall, with bark so wrinkled that it looked like an old, withered face had been carved into it. One could tell a White Baobab’s age by how many leaves it had; this one was leafless, limbs oddly naked as they stretched out from a massive trunk. Ashâke dug her torch into the soft soil at its roots. Next to it, she dumped her pouch—which was heavy with her divination board and cowries, and with the tome she’d pilfered from the library, the one that had shown her how to do what she planned to.

Ashâke shivered. It was mad, building a idan to summon and bind an orisha. But it was their fault. All their fault for refusing to speak to her, for refusing to choose her when they’d chosen her peers, chosen the others.

A gust of wind howled through the forest. Ashâke looked up to see rainclouds lit by intermittent flashes of lightning. Shango is striking his axes, she thought. A few heartbeats later, an ear-splitting thunderclap cracked through the air, and from somewhere in the forest came the frightened caws of ravens. An omen? Ashâke hoped not. Shango was quick to temper, but it was not him she wanted, not him she sought to summon. She was desperate but had no death wish.

Shango would smite her at the first opportunity. She could almost imagine her fellow acolytes, their faces full of wicked derision when they learned of her fate. And the priests, would they tut and shake their heads, muttering about poor Ashâke whose inability to hear the orisha had driven her to such extremes?

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In the Shadow of the Fall
In the Shadow of the Fall

In the Shadow of the Fall

Tobi Ogundiran

Ashâke gritted her teeth and pushed the voices from her mind. No use dwelling over unfavourable thoughts. She turned her attention to the tree, and the gaping crevice between its roots. It looked ordinary to the casual eye; a bough dammed up with the rot of several seasons, but that was because Ashâke had made it so. Grunting with effort, she began to pull away the dirt—rotted palm fronds, dead leaves and twigs and soil—to reveal—

Eshu, lord of roads and crossroads, messenger orisha, stood before her. His effigy, at least. The Greater Orisha all had effigies in the temple—towering bronze structures that lined the walls of the Inner Sanctum. But this was no such effigy. For one it was made of white clay, which Ashâke had painstakingly retrieved from the bottom of the river, diving into the cold water night after night, carefully sifting the riverbed, then stumbling sopping wet through the forest, freezing to her bones as she tried to make it back to the temple before the rousing bell.

Moons and moons of dedication had led her to this moment, to the idan before her, carved with the language of binding. And once she performed the final ritual, at last, it would hold Eshu’s essence. She would ask her questions and he would have no choice but to answer.

Why then, did she hesitate? Why did her hands tremble, her heart flutter? Eshu’s blank eyes regarded her, and it seemed to Ashâke that his lips were upturned in the suggestion of a smile.

You’re frightened, Simbi’s voice rang loud in her head. What you seek is dangerous. It is not too late to turn back now.

And then what? Turning back would mean accepting defeat, condemning herself to… how many more seasons of ridicule? Her own peers were five seasons into their priesthoods. Yet here she was, stuck as an acolyte, suffering the jeers of the little runts who had come up behind her and now thought themselves her equal.

No. She had to know why the orisha refused to speak to her, where she had gone wrong.

“Ok,” she said, taking a deep breath to steel her nerves. “What needs doing must be done well.”

Ashâke placed two bundles of loudh in the idan’s outstretched hands and lit them. The incense burned, its faintly sweet smoke tickling the back of her throat. Next, she took her knife and drew it across her palm. It stung, and she bit back a whimper as blood bloomed in the fresh cut. Once her hand was full, she poured it over the flames, which hissed, the smoke turning black and pungent, the bitter smell of copper sharp in the back of her throat.

“Eshu Elegba,” she intoned. “Messenger lord of the orisha. The one whose path is two hundred-and-fifty-six. The one whose path is uncountable. I bind you with ashe that gives me life. I summon you with the breath of Obatala. Come. Come forth.”

The wind wailed in the trees, nearly snuffing out the fire. Ashâke waited… but nothing happened. Why wasn’t it working? The glyphs she’d etched into the effigy should be aglow.

Instead, they remained dull white. Ashâke blew out a frustrated breath and squeezed her fist over the fire again, but it had stopped bleeding. She grabbed the bloody dagger, choking back a whimper as she worked it deeper into her palm, until the blood flowed anew, hissing into the flames.

“Eshu Elegba. Messenger lord of the orisha. The one whose path is two hundred-and-fifty-six; the one whose path is uncountable. I bind you with ashe that gives me life—”

Her hand moved of its own accord, slamming down on Eshu’s outstretched arm. It broke off and tumbled to the ground, the burning loudh snuffing out.

“What—?” She gasped, even as her hand swung for Eshu’s second arm. It flew off, spinning fast into the darkness, until it splashed into the river.

She stood there, blinking, struggling to understand what had just happened. A heartbeat passed; then two, then three…

The statue erupted in flames.

Ashâke yelped, leaping backwards. She tripped on a root and flailed desperately to stop her fall. Twisting at the last moment, she landed with such jarring force that her jaw snapped shut and arrows of pain shot up her arms. She howled. The entire sculpture was ablaze, the flames climbing high, high, licking the Great White Baobab. It was an unnatural fire, and in it she saw—

She saw a burning hall, every inch of it wreathed in golden flames. She saw a table, and seated behind it were shadows, voids in the shape of men, which even the raging fire did not consume. She heard voices, all of them speaking her name, calling her. Hands reached out of the dark, grasped at her, seeking to wrench her apart. Ashâke felt stretched, as though there were things in her head, things that shouldn’t be there.

“STOP!” She screamed. “STOP! I’M SORRY!”

She pushed to her feet and fled, running from the voices, from the things grasping at her. She had overreached. Who was she in her hubris to bind an orisha? Now she had angered Eshu, angered them all, and the orisha were nothing if not vindictive in their vengeance.

The ground vanished beneath her, and then she was falling, tumbling head over heels down the steep riverbank, slamming again and again into the slope. She splashed into the water, cracking her head on a gnarled root.

The darkness took her.

Excerpted from In the Shadow of the Fall, copyright © 2024 by Tobi Ogundiran.

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