When the villagers saw smoke rising from the eastern horizon they were puzzled. Dry season had ended long ago and the sky was pregnant with thick clouds heralding the coming rains. The elders convened under the Great Tree, deciding to send a group of warriors to investigate the encroaching smoke. It could be nothing, or it could be a sign of others attempting to settle in their lands. Either way, it was a situation worth investigating.
Kotsi, their best warrior, was selected to lead the expedition. He chose his close friends Topwe and Popota to accompany him, two men whose skills and bravery he knew he could depend on. The hunters gathered their weapons, packed their supplies, said goodbye to their families then left their village to discover the source of the strange occurrence.
After traveling for a half a day, Kotsi squatted in the empty grassland. He wiped the sweat from his forehead then took a swig of water from his drinking gourd. Topwe and Popota remained standing, peering in the distance at the wall of thick smoke.
“Popota, what do you see?” Kotsi asked.
Popota shaded his eyes with his hand as he gazed at the smoke. The man was known for his keen eyesight.
“Nothing but smoke,” he said. “But this is not grassfire smoke. It is too dense.”
Kotsi stood beside his companions. He was not known to be a timid man, but something about this journey unnerved him. He reached for his gris-gris bag tied around his waist.
“Come,” he said.
The three warriors continued their trek toward the unusual smoke. They were almost there when Topwe spoke.
“There are no animals nearby,” he said. “This is a bad omen.”
The men tightened their grips on their throwing spears. This was no natural fire; someone was behind this, and they were close to discovering who.
They neared the gray wall and the clouds above them thickened. Thunder rumbled soon afterwards, bringing a smile to Kotsi’s face.
“At least the ancestors are with us,” he said. “They will help put out the fire.”
As if his words were heard the rain fell, clearing the dense smoke and revealing five separate fires burning close to each other. The fires swirled like small storms, defying the relentless rain.
“We’ve seen what we came to see,” Topwe said. “The rain will put the fires…”
The flames rushed toward the three men. As they advanced, they took the forms of men, their eyes burning like the flames they once were, their hands holding swords of fire. Topwe and Popota fled, but Kotsi threw his spear instinctively at the closest fire warrior. The warrior struck the spear and it burst into flame before falling to the wet ground as ashes. Kotsi had no time to run. He took out his sword, ready for a fight that would end in his death.
“Ancestors, if you hear me, help me,” Kotsi said.
Once again, he was answered. Lightning blinded him as it struck the ground before him, the force knocking him back into his fleeing brethren. The thunder soon followed, forcing the sprawled men to cover their ears. They recovered quickly, scrambling to their feet to run. Kotsi dared to look back; what he saw caused him stop and stare.
A massive warrior stood between the village protectors and the fire warriors, rivaling the lumbering tembos in height and girth. The warrior wore a helmet that resembled a faru’s skull, a single horn projecting from the front. His bare upper body was heavily muscled; he held a large war club in his right hand and a body shield in his left. A khanga covered his waist, with metal guards covering his knees to his ankles. The flame warriors hesitated, then let out a piercing yell as they continued their attack.
The warrior turned to Kotsi, Topwe and Popota then smiled.
“I am Kintu,” he said. “Go to your homes. I will quench these fires.”
Kintu ran toward the flaming warriors, his war club held high. The fire warriors merged, exploding into a massive fire. Kintu crouched behind his shield, deflecting a searing blast of heat. The warriors he had come to defend were not as lucky. Kintu turned to see their burned bodies surrounded by the charred grass. Anger fueled him as he turned back to fact a massive creature of fire standing before him. It opened its fiery maw, spitting a stream of flame that Kintu easily side-stepped. He charged the beast, shield high, orinka pressed against his body. The creature continued to spray flame as it ran toward Kintu, scorching the earth beneath its feet. They smashed together, both stumbling backwards from the force. Kintu was the first to regain his balance. He sprinted to the fire giant, hitting it again with his shield and knocking it onto its back. Black smoke rose from the ground as Kintu straddled the beast and pounded it with his orinka. Each blow diminished the beast, taking away its intensity. It tried to rise, but Kintu shoved it down with his shield while pummeling it with this club. The creature let out a mournful bellow as it lost the last of its strength, pushed into oblivion by Kintu’s shield.
Kintu hovered over the embers that had once been the creature, lingering to make sure it did not resurrect. He looked into the sky, raising his orinka. Gray clouds gathered over him; moments later a gentle rain fell on the scene, extinguishing the remnants of the fire beast. Kintu then walked to the remains of the warriors he had come to save. He placed his shield down then picked up each man and placed him within the shield. Securing his orinka in his waist belt, he lifted the shield over his head then made his way to their village. The sight of the giant warrior approaching the village sent the people into a panic. The women and children rushed into their homes, fear in their eyes. The warriors, just as fearful, pushed back their terror for the sake of their families and ventured forth, their weapons held by trembling hands. Kintu sensed their distress and understood. He stopped a good distance from the village’s thorn bush fence then lay the shield down. He sat cross-legged behind the shield, his hands resting on his knees and waited. A few minutes later the village elders approached. They reached the shield, prostrating before it.
“That is not necessary,” Kintu said. “I bring to you the bodies of the brave warriors you sent. Honor them. Their spirits dwell with the ancestors.”
The elders clambered to their feet then hurried to the shield. Sadness consumed their faces; they called the warriors forward, who climbed into the shield and retrieved the bodies. As they carried them to the village the women ran out to join them, wailing in grief. All the elders followed, except one. The gray-haired woman edged closer to Kintu, her eyes focused on his face.
“We thank you for saving us,” she said.
“What is your name?” he asked.
The woman bowed before speaking. “Belange.”
“Your people have remained respectful to the ancestors. You will always have their protection. When you call, I will come.”
“Where will you go now?” Belange asked.
“To find the sorcerer responsible for this.”
“I wish I could help,” Belange said. “But we do not know where such a person would be.”
“I know,” Kintu said. “I have no doubt I will find whoever did this at Nyiragongo.”
Kintu stood then picked up his shield. He secured it to his back, then ran in the direction from which he had come. Belange watched until he disappeared into the distance, then returned to her village to participate in the mourning of their slain warriors.
* * *
Kintu could have traveled the clouds to Nyiragongo, but he chose to run. Long ago he’d lived in the world, dashing across the savanna with his fellow warriors, fighting for honor and wealth. Though his homeland was far away, he still felt the connection. It was the reason he answered the ancestors’ call for warrior spirits willing to fight the sorcerous usurpers attempting to claim their power. To breath air once again, to feel hard ground under his feet and the wind blow against his umber skin were sensations he cherished despite the task of defeating the various creatures the powerful sorcerers had summoned. This task, however, would be different. Any sorcerer that could create a living being from fire possessed extraordinary powers. Kintu had no idea what to expect, nor was he certain that he would be powerful enough to combat it, but he would try. If he failed, the ancestors would resurrect him, full of the knowledge of what had occurred and why he had failed.
Three days passed before the sulfurous air of Nyiragongo stung Kintu’s nostrils. He slowed his run to a trot, studying the surrounding landscape. The land below Nyiragongo was a blessing and a curse to the people who chose to inhabit it. The unpredictable eruptions covered the surrounding fields with ash, at times destroying crops and triggering famine. However, the nutrients spewed from within the earth made the land fertile and easy to farm, supplanting those seasons of starvation with seasons of abundance. Kintu paid no attention of the farms and people he passed; his entire focus was on reaching the volcanic summit.
A few miles from the mountain the land was barren. Kintu’s sandaled feet crushed the long-cooled lava as he neared the steep slopes of Nyiragongo. As he began his climb the mountain shook. Kintu looked upward to see an avalanche of rocks speeding toward him. He raised his shield, realizing these were no rocks. These were beings formed from the lava, running down the slope in his direction. Kintu shattered the first group of rock beings with his shield. The second wave attacked him halfway up his descent, Kintu swinging his shield and orinka with deadly precision. The rock being came in such numbers Kintu’s progress was stymied, but his endurance was not. He bashed and crushed the continuous onslaught without fatigue, the remains of the rock men trickling around his feet and gathering at the base of the mountain.
The clouds overhead rumbled and Kintu grinned. The ancestors had come. Lightning flashed down, blasting the rock beings apart. Kintu fought his way through the diminished horde, finally reaching Nyiragongo’s summit. He peered down into the volatile crater. In the center was an island of granite surrounded by molten lava. Standing on the island was a granite temple, no doubt the home of the sorcerer he sought. Fire beings rose from the lava, skipping over the surface and coming in his direction. Kintu waited until they were almost upon him before crouching low then leaping over them all, landing at the base of the crater. Kintu sprinted to the edge of the lava lake then leaped again, landing on the island. He rushed into the temple and began a frantic search for the sorcerer. His search was brought to an end by a heavy throated laugh.
“The ancestors have sent their filth.”
Kintu faced the sorcerer. The woman was as tall and wide as Kintu, her muscled formed covered from neck to ankles by a form-fitting garment the color of lava. Large curved horns protruded from her forehead, a wicked grin on her hard face.
“Atasha,” Kintu said.
“Are you surprised, Kintu?” she asked. “You and the others thought I was dead. When will the Ancestors learn that their time is done. You cannot destroy what you did not create.”
Atasha and Kintu circled, Kintu's bulk hidden behind his shield, his orinka held high. Atasha was the most powerful of the sorcerers and the most skilled.
"Give your loyalty back to the ancestors and I'll spare you," he said.
Atasha laughed. "That will never happen. However, you've traveled so far to find me," she said. " Such effort deserves a reward."
Atasha pursed her lips as she raised her hand.
"A kiss, perhaps?"
She blew into her palm and Kintu's vision blurred with fire. His shield blocked the flame, but this fire was different that that of the fire beasts. Kintu’s arm burned as his shield melted. He flung the shield away as he leapt away, the heat from Atasha’s spew signing his braids. Atasha followed him with her flames, Kintu running to avoid them. In desperation he threw his orinka at Atasha. The sorcerer closed her mouth as she dodged the weapon. Kintu jumped, crossing the distance like an arrow shot from a bow. Atasha’s eyes went wide as he slammed into her, knocking her on her back. He clamped his hands over her mouth, pushing her head down into the granite.
“Give your allegiance to the ancestors and I will not harm you,” he said. “Refuse, and I must…”
Fiery limbs grabbed Kintu and dragged him from Atasha. The fire beasts had returned to their creator. They swarmed around and over Kintu, pummeling him with their appendages. The heat and force did not weaken him like Atasha’s power; instead, it strengthened him. Kintu pulled his arms to his torso then flung them out with a roar, tossing the fire beast in every direction. When he came to his feet Atasha stood before him, his orinka in her flaming hands.
“Time to finish this!” she said.
Atasha opened her mouth. Kintu raised his hand and the orinka flew toward him, dragging Atasha with it. Catching the weapon with his left hand, he slammed his fist across Atasha’s jaw. The sorcerer fell unconscious to the granite. Kintu tucked his orinka into his belt then cradled Atasha in his arms. Despite their rebellion, the Ancestors wished no harm to the sorcerers. Kintu disagreed with them, but it was not his place to question. As he walked to the temple entrance, the fire beasts gathered around him but did not attack. Without Atasha’s guidance they were harmless. He reached the edge of the island then crouched to leap out of the crater. Atasha eyes opened and a grin came to her face. She exploded in his arms.
Searing heat consumed Kintu. He tumbled through the air for what seemed like eternity then crashed onto the ground. He rolled for a distance before slamming into a tree stump. Kintu lay still; never had he suffered such pain since becoming the hand of the Ancestors. He managed to rise to his knees, waiting anxiously to regain his strength as he watched the volcano rim for the fire beings to attack, or worse still, Atasha. However, nothing emerged.
Kintu braced against the tree trunk then stood. He took a few steps toward the crater when the ground jerked under his feet. He fell and the ground continued to shake. Ash rose over the crater rim, moments later lava oozed out of the crater and flowed down the sides. There was no way Kintu could enter; Atasha had proven he could be killed by the lava flow.
“You are a formidable one.”
Atasha’s voice rang in his head.
“Unfortunately we cannot finish this now. There will be another time, warrior. You can be sure of it.”
Nyiragongo exploded, sending boulders and lava streaking into the sky. Kintu stood still for a moment, watching the spectacle with rage.
“Another time, Atasha,” he said.
The black clouds gathered over Kintu as the volcanic deluge neared. They spun and a tendril extended down toward Kintu. He lifted his arms high, his orinka in his hand and the tendril enveloped him, lifting him into the heavens.