The Gate: A Before The Safari Story
Mombasa slumbered under a sliver of a moon, the eastern monsoons blowing a warm wind across the waters. The beaches were empty save the dhows, the baharia that sailed them either gone to their homes in the stone town or country town or sleeping below their decks. The stone warehouses bordering the beach land-ings were empty as well, all save one small warehouse near the water’s edge. In a cramped room on the second floor a wax candle burned on a writing table, illuminating the space with its wavering light. A heavy-set man sat at the table, reading numbers scribbled on the yellowed pages of his journal. He turned the pages with one hand while scratching his bearded chin with the other.
Changa closed the journal then leaned back, raising his chair onto the back legs.
“Belay, you taught me many things, but not every-thing,” he whispered.
The day Changa learned his mentor Belay had bequeathed his shipping business to the young BaKonga was a joyous day. Never before had a Swahili merchant done such a thing. It was well known among the other merchants that Belay favored Changa and treated him as a son. But to deny his blood sons the business for a non-Swahili was unheard of.
Changa’s joy soon became worry. Many of Belay’s old business partners were not happy with his choice and refused to do business with Changa. He still retained the ivory trade, but other business disappeared. He could barely pay his men and his bills, let alone afford the basic necessities for himself. Belay’s true sons circled him like scavengers, ready to pounce in and take the business if he failed. Changa was determined not to do so.
Still, he could not continue as he was doing. He needed to find new customers and he needed to find a new source of revenue. Creditors were out of the question.
Changa pulled open the desk drawer then removed a map, spreading it on the table. It was a map of the coast with each Swahili city-state marked. His eyes rested on one particular island to the south, close to the mainland city of Sofala and the Kilwa Sultanates.
“Kilwa Malikiya,” Changa said. “Could you be the answer to my troubles?”
Belay had talked often of the island. The legend said it was one of the few Swahili cities ruled by a woman, her name lost in the annals of time. It was said that she was the first to trade with the Benematapa, gathering a vast treasure of gold and ivory. After the mysterious queen died her son gained control of the island. His reign lasted only ten years. The people of Kilwa Malikiya abruptly abandoned their island, founding the cities that now made up the Kilwa Sultanate. No one knew why they left, but the rumor was that they left all their possessions behind.
Changa took out his instruments, confirming the route to the island. Belay’s map was the only map that revealed the location of the island. It was an heirloom passed down through his family and the last item the old merchant gave to Changa before his death.
Changa yawned. The night was finally getting to him. He would sleep, his mind finally made up. In the morning they would sail for Kilwa Malikiya.
Changa met his crews with the sunrise. The mabaharia went about their normal maintenance duties, with Yusef yelling at them every step of the way.
“Yusef!” Changa called out. “Gather the men.”
Yusef waved then hurried about as fast as his large bulk would allow. Moments later the men stood before Changa, curious looks gracing their faces.
“I don’t have to tell you that my business has not been well,” Changa said. “Many of Belay’s friends have chosen not to do business with me. Because of this I must forge new relationships. But that does not help us now. The dhows must be maintained and we all must eat.”
“What must we do, Kibwana?” Yusef said. “We will starve before we leave you.”
The looks on the others faces told Changa that they did not agree with his bulky friend.
“There is a place that may hold the answer to our dilemma,” Changa said. “Kilwa Malikiya.”
One of the baharia stepped forward, a short man as broad as he was tall.
“What’s on your mind, Niko?” Changa asked.
“Every man here has heard of Kilwa Malikiya, bwana,” he said. “It is not real. It is a myth.”
Changa reached into his bag then took out Belay’s map.
“I was given this map by Bwana Belay before he died. It is a map that shows the location of Kilwa Malikiya. I plotted a route to the island last night.”
The men gathered around him, staring at the map. Niko shook his head.
“Many maps are wrong, bwana,” he said. “Just be-cause this one shows the island does not mean it exists.”
Changa nodded as he rolled up the map. “I’m not asking anyone to come with me. I plan to set sail this afternoon. I would love to have my crew around me, but I will not ask you to risk your lives on a safari that may not bear fruit. Each man makes his own decision.”
“They say other things about Kilwa Milikiya as well, bwana,” Niko said.
“If you believe the city is a myth, why would believe anything else said about it?” Changa asked.
“I am with you kibwana!” Yusef announced.
Changa grinned. “Thank you, Yusef.”
One by one the baharia joined Changa and Yusef. Soon only Niko stood opposite them.
“I can’t,” he said. “I will not follow a myth.”
Changa approached Niko then placed a friendly hand on his shoulder.
“I understand, Niko. Go be with your family. There will be a place for you with my crew when we return.”
“I hope that you do,” Niko said.
Niko walked away, peering back at the others until he merged into the Mombasa crowds.
“Yusef, you will come with me to the market. We must gather supplies for the journey,” Changa said.
“The rest of you prepare the dhow. We set sail as soon as Yusef and I return.”
Changa visited his counting room before they visited the market. He opened his chest then frowned. There was enough for supplies to take them to and from the island. If there was no treasure on Kilwa Malikiya he would be ruined.
Yusef entered the room.
“Kibwana, are you ready?” he said.
Changa closed the chest then lifted it.
“Yes, Yusef. I’m ready.”
The two spent the remainder of the day procuring supplies from the market. When they returned they loaded supplies on the dhows then shared a meal with the men on the docks. Changa didn’t return to his counting room that night; instead he slept on deck with his crews, savoring the open air and the clear skies. There was a time in his life long ago when his view was that of a stone room to a small cell. His days were filled with training; when he wasn’t training he was fighting for his life. Since the day he fled his homeland twenty years ago his life had been one struggle after another. To lie on his back and gaze at the stars was truly a gift, a blessing he owed to Belay.
Niko’s doubts intruded on his musing. The baharia was always a contrary one, but for some reason his doubts seemed to linger on Changa’s mind. Changa had seen many strange and wonderful things in his life and he knew that nothing was beyond possibility. Kilwa Milikiya may be a myth, but he had to try. He had no choice.
* * *
Changa and Yusef stood at the bow of the Kazuri as it sailed into the harbor of Kilwa Milikiya. An unnatural stillness ruled the scene, the roaring waves lapping the landing beach the only sound. Sturdy docks lay empty as were the hard-packed roads leading from the shore into the stone city. No seagulls hovered overhead, the undulating fronds of palms trees the only motion. From a distance the warehouses seemed recent, but as they sailed closer the buildings revealed their neglect.
“This is not natural,” Yusef said.
Changa didn’t reply. He studied the shore, seeking a good place to land.
“There,” he said, pointing to a stretch of beach closest to the warehouses.
The navigator steered the dhow to the landing; the baharia dropped the anchor in deeper water.
“Let’s get the boats and go ashore,” Changa ordered.
Yusef hesitated and Changa glared.
“We are here,” he said. “We will get what we came for and we will leave. Don’t let Niko’s words haunt you, rafiki.”
Changa and the landing crew boarded the boats and rowed to the empty beach. Once aground they headed to the nearest warehouse. The white stone was barely visible, covered by thick vines as nature reclaimed what men had abandoned. Changa hacked away the vines blocking the warehouse entrance with his machete. Stale humid air filled his nostrils as he entered the abandoned structure. The others followed, their swords at the ready.
“We’ll start here,” he said. “Make sure you search every corner.”
For two hours they rummaged through the rotted furniture and decaying palm leaves but found nothing. They finally gave up, leaving the building, dirty, sweaty and empty handed.
Changa spotted Yusef and the other baharia coming from the warehouse opposite the docks. Yusef wiped his bald head with the palm of his hand then grimace.
“There is nothing here,” Yusef said. “I think bwana Belay was wrong.”
“Maybe,” Changa replied. “Let’s search the city. A few merchants may have left behind valuables in their homes.”
Yusef sniffed. “I doubt it. Swahili are very thorough and very greedy.”
“We have the time,” Changa said. “We might as well.”
They followed the road into the stone town. Like most Swahili cities the mosque occupied the center, and Kilwa’s mosque was an impressive site despite years of neglect. The main structure rose four stories high, the crown ringed by elaborately carved ramparts. The mina-rets climbed even higher, their copper domes green from exposure and neglect. Changa saw movement near the top of the mosques and minarets.
“At least something lives,” he said.
“Those birds are large,” Yusef replied. “Vultures?”
The creatures leapt into the air simultaneously then circled the minarets, their cries echoing through the empty city.
“Those do not sound like any bird I know,” Changa said. “They sound like…nyani.”
“That’s impossible!” Yusef said. “Nyani don’t have wings!”
The flock flew toward them descending as they came closer. As their features became clear Changa’s eyes went wide.
“They are nyani!” he shouted. “Run!”
The baharia sprinted for the nearest building. Changa was the first to reach the home, shoving open the door with his shoulder. He ran back into the open, waving his men to him.
“Quickly!” he shouted. “Inside!”
The men ran into the building. The flying nyani descended on the last two men, knocking them to the ground. Changa rushed to rescue them, sword in one hand, throwing knife in the other. He threw the knife; it struck one nyani in the head, knocking him off the clos-est man. With his sword he cleaved another nyani in two. Yusef appeared by his side, swinging his sword wildly. Together they drove the flying primates away far enough for two other baharia to grab their injured comrades and drag them into the building. Yusef and Changa stepped backwards, fending off the beasts until they were able to join their men in the building.
The primate attacked the house, tearing at the palm frond roof and beating at the doors. Changa and his men prepared themselves for the onslaught when the attack suddenly ceased, replaced by the rumble of a coming storm. Changa inched his way to the door then slowly opened it. A sky that once showed no sign of ill weather was now black with swirling clouds.
“We should not be here!” Yusef said. “This city is cursed!”
Changa looked at his friend and his men.
“Back to the dhow,” he said. “We’re leaving.”
Changa was answered by thunder. The nyani screeched and the rumble shook the house.
Changa dared to open the door. The nyani were gone. A sudden gust of wind pushed Changa back into the house.
“It seems we’re not going anywhere,” Changa commented.
“We should go to the mosque,” Yusef suggested. “This house will do little to protect us from the coming storm.”
Changa looked incredulous. “So, you wish to go to the nyani’s den?”
“Allah will protect us,” Yusef said.
Thunder shook the house and rain crashed against the roof as if dumped from a well bucket. The ragged thatch ceiling gave way and the baharia were drenched.
“To the mosque!” Changa said.
The baharia splashed toward the mosque. They were almost there when an ear-piercing screech cut through the storm. Changa grimaced as he hunched and cupped his hands over his ears.
“Look!” Yusef shouted.
The dark clouds rippled above them. Changa thought he caught a glimpse of something moving through the clouds but his view was obscured by the torrential rain. The undulating clouds made a path toward their dhow. It swirled above the craft, spinning faster and faster.
“No,” Changa whispered.
Bolts of lightning showered the ship, blasting the mast and deck.
“No!” Changa shouted.
Flames erupted throughout the dhow despite the rain. In moments the entire ship was engulfed in raging flames. The baharia stood stunned. Their only way home had been destroyed before their eyes. Changa’s shock was brief. His mission had changed. Instead of coming to Kilwa to save his business, he had doomed it. He had to save his men and himself.
“Go,” Changa said to his men. “Go!”
They ran to the mosque. Changa was the first to reach the doors, shoving them wide open. The winged nyani huddled in the center of the building. They howled at the baharia, bearing their sharp teeth. The baharia charged into the beasts, releasing their anger on them. In moment the beasts lay slaughtered. The men dragged the dead beasts from the building, tossing them into the streets. Their bodies seemed to anger the storm. It became more intense, the thunder and lightning battering the holy site. The walls and the roof of the mosque were much stronger; they held against the unnatural onslaught.
Changa slumped against the wall. Yusef sat beside him, crossing his legs.
“What will we do kibwana?” he asked.
Changa looked at his friend, his face grim.
“When the storm ceases we will go the beach and access the damage to the dhow,” he said. “We’ll rebuild it.”
“I’m not talking about the dhow,” Yusef replied. “I’m talking about this.”
He waved his thick arms around.
“None of this is natural. “Flying nyani, a storm attacking our dhow; this is sorcery!”
“You are probably right,” Changa said. He’d had his share of otherworldly encounters and this was very familiar. He tried to deny it, hoping the original reason for his safari would resurface, but this was no longer about finding a lost wealth. It was about survival.
There was movement at the door. Changa and the others leapt to their feet, weapons at the ready. The doors swung open and a woman entered, her wet clothing clinging to her body. She leaned against a thick carved staff, her head covered with a plain head wrap. She as she looked about Changa noticed her eyes. A milky white veil covered both orbs; the woman was blind, yet she looked about as if she could see her surroundings. She coughed, and then pulled herself straight.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Changa signaled for his men to keep their place. He approached the woman warily.
“I am Changa Diop from Mombasa,” he said.
“And the others?” she asked.
“My crew,” Changa replied.
“You should not be here,” she said. “He will come for you soon.”
“Our dhow has been destroyed,” Changa said. “We won’t be leaving soon. Was this your doing?”
“No,” the woman replied. “He has sent his herald.”
Changa looked puzzled. “His herald? Do you mean the nyani?”
The woman shook her head. “No. They are an annoyance, a side effect of his power. The impundulu is his herald and his warning.”
“We have encountered no other creature,” Changa said.
“Yes, you have,” the woman said. “You think this storm is natural? It’s not. It is the impundulu.”
“And who are you?” Changa finally asked.
“Sayidana,” she answered.
Changa lowered his sword. “Why is it that no one re-mains in Kilwa Milikiya except you?”
“I have not always been here,” she said. “Like you I have traveled from afar.”
“Where did you come from?” Changa asked.
Sayidana looked away. “Far away.”
“Sofala? Pemba? Mogadishu?”
Sayidana smirked. “Much farther.”
The sounds of the storm subsided.
“Listen to me, Changa. The one who claims this land is coming soon. If you and your men are here when he arrives he will kill you all. But with your help we can stop him and we all will have a chance to return home.”
“So be it,” Changa said. He turned to Yusef.
“When the storm clears survey the dhow and salvage what you can,” Changa said. “We’ll have to cut trees to repair the dhow. I’m going with Sayidana.”
“That is not wise,” Yusef said. “She may be the cause of our misfortunes.”
Changa glanced at the woman. “I don’t think so. I believe she is just as much victim as we are, but for a different reason. I plan to find out what that reason is.”
Yusef’s eyes said what he could not.
“If I don’t return by the time the dhow is repaired, take them home,” Changa said.
Changa turned to Sayidana before Yusef could reply.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“How many of your men are coming with us,” Sayidana asked.
“Only me,” Changa replied.
He grasped Sayidana’s arm then lead her out the mosque. She jerked her arm away.
“I need all of you!” she said.
“You’ll get only me,” Changa replied. “If I take my men with us I’m sure some of them will die. I didn’t bring them here for that to happen.”
“The two of us cannot stop him,” Sayidana insisted.
“I’m sure you haven’t survived this long alone with-out some skills,” Changa said. “And I am not easy to kill.”
Sayidana’s eyes seemed to glow with her sour mood. Changa braced himself for some type of attack, but the glow subsided.
“Let us go then. I hope for your sake and mine that we will be enough.”
Changa nodded. “We’ll have to be.”
The storm waned as Changa and Sayidana made their way north from the city. It did not dissipate or travel west as most storms do. Instead it traveled the same di-rection Changa and Sayidana traveled.
“The impundulu returns to its lair,” Sayidana said. “It thinks it has done its duty.”
“Will we see it again?” Changa asked.
“Most likely yes,” Sayidana replied. “But not in this form.”
They crossed from the ruined city into the surround-ing forest. There was a narrow trail leading into the bush which Sayidana followed. Changa trailed close behind, his eyes studying the foliage as they passed.
“Are we going to its lair?”
“Yes. The inpundulu’s lair is his citadel and his gate. We must stop him before he enters his citadel, before He can possess his full power.”
“So, we will wait outside to confront him,” Changa said.
“No. He will enter from within through the gate,” Sayidana said.
“From inside through the gate?” Changa was con-fused. “How can he enter the citadel without passing through the outside? Is there a tunnel leading from the shore?”
Sayidana smiled. “You do not understand, and I’m not sure I can explain it.”
Sayidana stopped by a coconut tree. A pile of coco-nuts lay at the base of the tree. Sayidana went to the tree then sat. She arranged the coconuts so they touched.
“What do see, Changa?”
Changa folded his arms. “I see coconuts.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure!” Changa replied.
Sayidana grinned. “Even though these are all coconuts, they are not the same. Some are bigger, some are smaller. If we were to cut them open we would discover that some are sweeter than others, and a few may be rot-ten.”
“What does this have to do with ‘Him’ and you?” Changa asked.
“The world you live in is not the only one, Changa,” Sayidana said. “Like these coconuts, there are others, many others. Some are very similar to this world, so similar it would be hard to tell them apart. Some are sweeter, yet some are rotten.”
Changa’s eyes narrowed. He wanted to dismiss Sayidana’s words but his experiences proved to him that many things existed beyond the senses.
“Just like these coconuts touch, these worlds touch too,” Sayidana continued. “These points of contacts are called gates. There are some who have the ability to travel through these gates. He is one of those who can; so am I.”
“So, when you told me you were from far away...” Changa began.
“I meant I am from another world,” Sayidana finished. “We are travelers.”
Sayidana stood then continued walking down the path. Changa followed, pushing away the questions flooding his mind. He knew better than to seek deeper answers. All he needed to know was what to do to keep his men safe and leave Kilwa Milikiya.
“Sayidana is not my true name,” the woman continued. “It is what I call myself here. My world is very different from yours.”
“So why did you leave?” Changa asked.
“I had no choice,” Sayidana answered. “Travelers are driven to travel. We are born with wanderlust. Passing through worlds also exposes us to different abilities. Some of us use them to help others, some to help them-selves. And then there are those who stay silent, content to travel and observe.”
“Does this adversary of yours have a name as well?” Changa asked.
“He does, but you could not pronounce it,” Sayidana said. “Besides, some say to speak His name is to summon his wrath. We travelers have our own superstitions.”
They crested a steep hill overlooking a deep valley sliced by a narrow river.
“We will rest here tonight,” Sayidana said. “It is a safe place and easy to defend.”
“We should probably sleep in shifts,” Changa suggested.
“That won’t be necessary,” Sayidana said. “You and your men killed the nyani and the impundulu must rest to regain its strength. Tonight will be peaceful. Our days ahead will be much more interesting.”
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 an-other way to redeem his losses. But he had chosen what he thought would be a quick way to clear his debts. His life and the lives of his crew were in danger now. Be-lay’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 impundulu,” Sayidana said. She squatted beside Changa, her hands working furiously.
“When the impundulu 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 impundulu 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 over-head, 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 impundulu 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 throw-ing 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 creature’s 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 impundulu 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 trans-formed, the grey stone emitting a faint blue light illuminating the corridor.
“What’s happening?” Changa shouted.
“The impundulu 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 col-lapsed. The impundulu 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.
* * *
Changa entered the outskirts of Kilwa Malikiya under a noonday sun. The abandoned city was quiet, but Changa knew his men still lived. He’d seen signs along the way of felled trees and animal remains which meant they were following his orders. His feelings were con-firmed as he neared the mosque; Yusef and the others emerged single file.
“I thought I told you to build a dhow, Yusef!” Changa shouted.
The big man jerked around so fast he almost fell.
“Kibwana! You’re alive!”
The baharia cheered as they ran to him. They lifted him off his feet, parading around the mosque three times before finally placing him down and smothering him with hugs. Yusef was the last to greet him.
“We thought you were dead!” he said. “We were sure Sayidana killed you.”
“As you can see that’s not the case.”
Yusef frowned. “Where is she?”
“She’s gone home as we should,” Changa said. “How are the dhow repairs coming?”
“There was no need for that,” a familiar voice said.
Niko walked up to Changa.
“My conscience would not let me rest,” he said. “I had to be with my brothers. I gathered a skeleton crew then set out a week after you. I see that it was more than guilt.”
Changa hugged Niko. “It’s good to see you.”
“Now we can leave this damned city!” Yusef said.
“Not yet,” Changa said. “You forgot why we came.”
Yusef raised his hands. “There is nothing here, bwana. They took everything with them!”
“Not quite,” Changa said. He looked about to get his bearing then set off at a trot. When he arrived at the third compound he entered the overgrown courtyard then walked up to the veranda.
“Does anyone have a shovel?” Changa asked.
Moments later a baharia arrived with a makeshift shovel. Changa dug through the sand and shell mix until he struck something hard. The others immediately set about digging, revealing a large mahogany box. It took the entire crew another hour to dig out the container. Changa broke the rusted lock with his sword hilt then opened the box. The container was filled with ivory and bags of gold dust.
“We are saved!” Yusef shouted.
The baharia broke out into a celebration dance. Changa sat and exhaled. He’d found what he came for. His business was spared. He looked up into the cloud stained sky then closed his eyes.
“Thank you, Belay for your teaching and wisdom. Thank you Sayidana for your gift.”
He opened his eyes, jumped to his feet, then danced with his men.
I hope you enjoyed The Gate. To read more, follow the link below to the Before The Safari anthology. Sword and Soul Forever!