Changa remained awake long after Sayidana slept, worry and guilt refusing him rest. His decision to come the tainted island revealed his inexperience. Maybe if he had studied his situation long he could have found another way to redeem his losses. But he had chosen what he thought would be a quick way to alieve his debts. His life and the lives of his crew were in danger now. Belay’s sons were right; he was not fit to be a merchant. When…if they returned to Mombasa he would sell the business to the sons then hire himself out. A man should know his place, the saying goes. Changa had discovered his.
He finally slept. A warm breeze rustled the coconut canopies, the occasional call of an animal in the distance breaking the silence. Changa was awakened by a gentle touch to his cheek. He opened his eyes to Sayidana hovering over him. She straddled him, her nude body almost touching him.
“It has been so long since a man has touched me,” she said, her voice echoing in his head. “You can have me, if you wish.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her body against his. Changa reacted instinctively, his arms embracing her waist and pulling her close. She nuzzled against his neck, nipping his skin with her teeth.
The shrill cry pierced his ears. It was Sayidana’s voice screaming from a distance, yet she lay atop him.
“Changa! It’s not me! Free yourself!”
The gentle grip around his neck became a painful hold. He felt pain as the thing pretending to be Sayidana bit into his neck with a snarl. Changa gripped the thing’s neck then forced its head away. He rolled until he was on top, pushing it further away. It thrashed under him, its face transforming into that of a bird-like visage. With a cry it shoved Changa away. Changa scrambled to his feet, ready to defend himself. The being continued to transform into a giant bird, resembling the money eagles of the interior. It jumped upward then with a snap of its wings ascended into the dark sky. It let out another blood chilling cry as it flew north.
Changa’s neck wound burned like fire as he swayed then fell to the ground. The real Sayidana rushed to him.
“What…what was that?” Changa said, his energy waning with each second.
“It was the inpundulu,” Sayidana said. She squatted beside Changa, her hands working furiously.
“When the inpundulu is weak it must feed,” Sayidana said. “If its master cannot feed it, it fends for itself. It prefers human blood.”
Changa fell to his back, the burning more intense.
“Yes,” Sayidana replied.
Something cool pressed against his wound and the burning subsided.
“You are lucky. The inpundulu wasn’t able to inject a full dose of venom. This poultice will take most of it away. I’m afraid some had entered your system. You’ll be weak for some time. We’ll stay here until you’ll ready to travel.”
Changa could only nod. He closed his eyes and let the darkness take him.
When Changa awoke his energy had returned. Sayidana sat beside him preparing a meal of coconuts and bananas. It was noon, the warm sun shining from overhead, its heat coaxing the moisture from the forest which gathered on his skin. He grunted as he sat up; Sayidana turned toward him then smiled.
“Good,” she said. “I was beginning to worry.”
“How long did I sleep?” Changa asked.
“Two days,” she replied. “One more day and I would have had to continue without you.”
She handed Changa the fruit and he ate voraciously.
“I thought you said you could not do it alone.”
“I can’t,” Sayidana replied. “I was going back to the city. Your big friend seems a worthy companion.”
“Yusef? He’s good enough. Not as good as me, but he’ll do.”
“You are a man with pride,” Sayidana commented.
“You must be to be a merchant,” he replied.
“And a warrior,” Sayidana said.
“Pride can kill the best warrior,” Changa replied.
Sayidana smiled. “Then I chose the right person. Come, we must be on our way.”
They finished their meals then continued their trek. They worked their way down into the valley then crossed the broad yet shallow river. The climb up the opposite slopes was taxing but they continued without rest. As they emerged from the vale a large compound rose over the trees a short distance away.
“That’s the gate,” Sayidana said. “We must hurry to reach it before dark.”
“Why before dark?” Changa asked.
“If we are not within those walls before dark we are doomed. There is much worse than nyani and inpundulu protecting the gate.”
They ran the entire distance, Changa’s attention vacillating between the looming compound and the setting sun. As they neared the compound’s door the sound of breaking branches reached his ears. A nauseous pang welled in his stomach; he pulled his sword and a throwing knife then turned toward the sound.
Sayidana stopped at the gate. She approached Changa, a puzzled look on her face.
“There is something coming,” she said. “It feels different. I do not know this threat.”
“I do,” Changa replied. “Go inside.”
“What is it?” Sayidana asked.
“Something from my past,” Changa said.
The tebo burst into the clearing in the form of a massive gorilla, dragging a small tree in its right hand. It slammed the tree against the ground as it grunted and bared its large fangs. Changa swayed from side to side, bracing himself for the charge.
“Changa!” Sayidana called out. “I can help!”
“No you can’t!” Changa shouted back. “Get inside!”
The tebo roared then charged, the tree rose over its head. Changa roared back then sprinted toward the beast, his eyes on the descending tree. He waited until the last moment before leaping to his right, throwing his knife as he dodged the tree club. The tebo howled as the knife struck its neck and the tree slammed into the dirt. Changa rolled on his shoulder to his feet then ran at the beast again, another throwing knife and sword at the ready. The gorilla-beast yanked the knife from its throat, flinging it into the woods. Changa threw another knife; the beast smacked it away. The distraction gave Changa enough time to hack the back of the creature’s left leg, severing its hamstring. The creature struck out, its huge hand crashing into Changa. His sword flew from his hand as he rose from the ground, landing in the forest’s edge. Changa blinked in pain, trying to regain his eyesight when the tebo grabbed his arm then lifted him high. Changa reacted, snatching a dagger from his belt then plunging it into the beast’s hand. Changa fell; the tebo shook its injured hand as it staggered backwards. Changa clambered to his feet, limping to his sword. He followed the tebo, determined to end the fight. He took a deep breath then ran at the tebo again. With a yell he jumped, smashing into the tebo’s chest. Gripping the beast’s hair with his free hand, he pulled himself upward until he looked into the tebo’s malevolent eyes. The tebo’s arms wrapped around Changa, but before the beast could crush him Changa plunged his sword into the beast’s throat. A garbled cry seeped from the tebo’s mouth, its fetid breath washing over Changa’s face. Changa pushed his sword deeper until it protruded from the back of the tebo’s neck. He twisted the handle then yanked it free. The tebo’s head jerked back, its arms falling limp as it fell backwards onto its back taking Changa down with it.
Changa lay on the dead creatures torso for a moment as the pain in his ribs subsided. He sheathed his sword then rolled off the tebo, barely landing on his feet. When he looked up Sayidana gazed at him, a slight smile on her face.
“You are hard to kill,” she said.
A sharp cry from above caught their attention. They looked up to see the inpundulu circling, dark clouds spreading from its wings.
“Inside! Hurry!” Sayidana said.
Changa and Sayidana ran to the entrance. Changa grasped the handle then jerked the door open, surprised it was unbolted. They entered as a barrage of lighting descended from the black clouds, pummeling the stone structure. The walls shuddered as Changa and Sayidana ran down the wide corridor in darkness. Another deluge of lightening hammered the building. The walls transformed, the grey stone emitting a faint blue light illuminating the corridor.
“What’s happening?” Changa shouted.
“The inpundulu is opening the gate. We must hurry!”
The long corridor led to a wide cylindrical room. In the center of the room the granite floor shimmered like the surface of a lake, its color the same as the walls. The surface began splashing violently. A human like head emerged; pitch black with eyes that burned like the sun. It rose from the liquid like surface, the figure of a man made of blackness and stars.
“Sayidana,” it said. “I should have killed you.”
Changa stood motionless as Sayidana walked onto the wavering surface. Her clothes and head wrap merged into her skin as she became like the man standing before.
“Yes, you should have,” she replied.
They attacked each other, the force of their clashed creating a shock wave that flattened Changa onto his back. He scrambled back onto his feet then watched as the travelers battled each other with an alacrity that made them seem as blurs. Then they stopped, the male being grasping Sayidana by the throat as he lifted her off her feet.
“I will finish you this time,” he said.
Changa threw his knife. He acted on instinct; sure his mortal blade would make no difference in this celestial battle. But he was wrong. The blade bit into his shoulder and he dropped Sayidana, turning his attention to Changa. He yanked the blade from his shoulder.
“What are you…?”
Sayidana appeared behind the man. She grasped his head then twisted it hard. The crack echoed in the chamber; the man slumped then fell into the waves. His form dispersed, tainting the water, then retracted, pooling around Sayidana’s feet before being absorbed by her. Changa’s throwing knife floated by her feet.
Sayidana picked up the knife then strolled to Changa as she transformed into the woman that he knew. Changa stepped away, his hand going to his sword hilt. It was a foolish move; he doubted if he could protect himself from what he just witnessed.
Sayidana extended the knife to him. Everything about her was the same except her eyes. The cloudy film that once blocked them was gone. Her sepia eyes regarded him.
“You were right,” she said. “You were enough.”
The building shook, then the ceiling behind them collapsed. The inpundulu struck the simmering stone the slowly sank into the shrinking pool.
“You must leave,” Sayidana said. “The gate is closing.”
Changa took his knife from Sayidana.
“I believe there was much you did not tell me,” he said. “I’m beginning to believe you are the one to be feared.”
Sayidana smiled. “It doesn’t matter now. He is dead and I will go home.”
She grasped Changa’s face between her hands then kissed him softly. Changa felt a surge of desire that dissipated as quickly as it appeared. He could tell without looking that his wounds were healed.
“There is a compound three streets west of the mosque,” Sayidana said. “If you pull up the floors in the veranda you will find what you seek.”
The building shook again.
“Time for you to leave, Changa. I hope you live a long life. Maybe I’ll see you again in my travels.”
“I am no traveler,” Changa said.
Sayidana smirked. “You could be.”
She turned then followed the pool as it shrank to a small circle. Sayidana faded as the circle disappeared. The compound walls became translucent, the surrounding hills and forest becoming visible to Changa. And then it was all gone. Changa stood in the middle of an open field. There was no sign that the building ever existed.
“I could be?” he whispered. Changa knelt where the building had once stood. He touched his hand to the ground and the grasses shimmered like the floor of the compound. He jerked his hand away as he shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I am Changa Diop, merchant of Mombasa.”
He stared at the space a moment longer, then turned and walked away.