Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Iron Hut

I.

When they unearthed the mysterious shard, a sense of excitement rippled through the archaeological camp. They were onto something staggering. Professor Leopold Watson arrived first and examined the shard with reverent care. Kilwa Kivinje had disappeared into antiquity with no clues as to its whereabouts. Despite his colleagues’ skepticism, he was certain that the forgotten city was here—not far from the Olduvai Gorge—and this shard was the first evidence he’d seen that he was on the right track. Though anxious to send a report to the Associated Press, he opted to hold off until they knew what they were dealing with.

Leopold removed his broad-rimmed hat long enough to wipe the sweat from his scalp then tucked his few gray tufts of hair back under its protection. Small-framed glasses fixed to the bridge of his nose. Leopold possessed a thin face with weary creases radiating from his deep-recessed eyes. Miskatonic University, a small—though storied—university, couldn’t finance the expedition without the aid of the Nathaniel Derby Pickman Foundation. Dealing with the Foundation meant suffering their representative, Stanley McKreager. His crooked smile, as if he never quite got the hang of it, greeted the slow approach of his colleague.

“You know what this means?” McKreager puffed, his severe girth impeding his movements. The mere act of walking caused him to break into a sweat. Leopold wondered if the trek from the camp might be McKreager’s final undoing.

“Of course I know what this means.”

“The first extra-folkloric proof of Kilwa Kivinje.”

Leopold sighed and adjusted his glasses. He opposed this expedition—this “intrusion,” he called it. He suspected that McKreager dreamt of gold mines and the opportunity to plunder the city in the name of science.

McKreager scrutinized the shard. His oval face reminded Leopold of a soft-boiled egg with a bulbous nose. His heavy head, like a turtle without a shell to withdraw into, craned about, feigning something akin to academic perusal. Leopold hated the way McKreager pulled the strands of his hair into a ponytail. A ponytail, for God’s sake.

“Do you see these markings?” McKreager puzzled over the shard.

“You are quite the fount of rhetorical questions today.” But Leopold couldn’t begrudge him his brand of excitement. He, too, felt the swell of pride.

“Can you make them out?”

Leopold took the shard and felt the press of McKreager’s eyes on him. For a moment, Leopold fantasized about the shard being the earliest known inscription ever to be discovered, written in an archaic proto-Bantu. “The shard will require intense examination. And carbon dating to be sure.”

“To be sure of what? Still being confounded by the indigenous myth cycles?”

“Mount Kilimanjaro features heavily in local mythology. One of these legends, told by the Chagga people, has it that an ancient chief called ‘Mawenzi’ convinced his younger brother Kibo to fetch him coals from a mighty fire to light his pipe. Besides the fact that Mawenzi and Kibo are the names of the peaks, the legend could be a possible reference to volcanic activity, maybe as far back as the Stone Age.”

The peaks of mystery loomed above them, their shadow always felt. Leopold lamented that there was not much left of the ice caps now. Within fifty years they might be gone entirely, though they must have been magnificent centuries ago. Returning his attention to the shard, he flipped it in his palm. The strange markings on the crystalline piece made him nauseous if he held it or stared at it for too long. There was simply no earthly way the markings of the shard could be real. The weight of age enshrouded it. He knew without the tests that the words, and they were words, of a tongue long dead and not quite human, pre-dated the written word.

McKreager snatched the shard with a near-mania. “I say we announce that this is the work of the artists of Atlantis,” McKreager pronounced, obviously impressed with the quality of the work.

“Atlanteans? And you say that I spin tired tales.”

“If not Atlanteans, then who?” McKreager couldn’t return to the Nathaniel Derby Pickman Foundation with news of African Negro artisans producing such exquisite work. Not before Europeans.

“Perhaps Portuguese artists,” Leopold started, his stomach turning at the thought of indulging such a ruse. Still, he needed the funding. “If dated four or five centuries ago. Or natives trained by the Portuguese.”

“Yes, yes. You may be onto something.” McKreager’s heavy eyes locked onto his. “Maybe you ought to lie down. You look positively dreadful, my dear boy.”

On the walk to his tent, Leopold’s mind brought to bear thoughts of those Elder Things. He suddenly regretted the long hours spent poring over the arcane papers of the Miskatonic University Library and the favors burnt in order to peruse that damnable book. Creatures of Prehistoric folklore that McKreager took special pains to dismiss, tales long whispered in dread. Leopold fidgeted in his cot, falling into a troubled sleep, and dreamt of ancient times and ancient warriors.

II.

What price friendship? Dinga focused on that single thought, his fingers groping for the next handhold in the rocky crag. The piercing gale tore through his heavy fur and hammered nails of ice through his body. His thickly muscled legs grew heavier with each tenuous step up the treacherous mountainside. Cursing the rocks that shifted underfoot, Dinga moved with the practiced ease of a hillman, his soft-booted foot finding purchase. The tempests blew torrents of snow and reduced the peak to a smoking cone.

He had been promised that his journey would be easier, not that he trusted the laibon who had sent him on this fool’s errand. Dinga had followed the narrow ridge, a kind of ramp that wound its way along the mountainside at the outset of his journey. He rested at shambas along the way and refreshed himself with the bananas and vegetables that grew in the small holdings. When the passage turned more arduous, he pressed on, heedless of the grim peril hidden by the white immensity.

Climbing coursed in his Nokian veins, as did bloodlust and the need for vengeance. Nothing, not the remoteness of the pinnacle, not the rarified air, not the gnawing cold, not whatever unfathomed mysteries awaited him, would stop him from reaching his destination. The hilt of his dagger jabbed him in the waist with each step, a gentle plea to be unsheathed in battle. The weight of his sword pressed against his back—he preferred an enemy to fight and a mountain in whose shadow many villages chilled would not suffice.

The forest roof looked like a verdant mat below him. A rolling ocean of green that only stirred longings in him to revisit the coast, a desire compounded by the sense of unease he experienced whenever he stared too long at the looming slopes and their irregular peaks. Drifting snow carpeted the shelf before he had finished his ascent to the snow-denuded summit. A sudden gust of wind nearly unseated him from his lofty ice shelf. In his scramble, he latched onto crystalline outcroppings.

No enemy to fight, only an immovable mound of earth and ice—the thought galled him. He’d put his blade to any foe. Yet, Onyame damn him if a rock bettered him. This mountain was a beast like any other he’d faced and it needed slaying. Remembering that his time drew short, that a friend’s life was weighing in the balance, he pressed on.

• • • •

The Berbers, wandering barbarians that they were, prepared to set upon Dinga as if he were some unassuming cattle herder. They were ready to make off with whatever valuables he might have. A gold ring dangled from his broad nose and he wore a brass armlet. A tattoo covered the left half of his body, lines like a maze, broken by dots. Little did they know that he valued nothing as much as his weapons. Their numbers gave them false confidence, nine of their barbarous horde to his one.

He had them right where he wanted.

Dinga traveled Azania, the little-known country south of Kush, not expecting to see anyone this far into the interior. His restless nature often got the better of him, roaming without searching for anything in particular. Berbers were fierce, worthy to join with him in worship of Onyame. Lanky figures, able-limbed with knots of muscles poised to spring, their mad glares focused on Dinga. He sensed the impending attack and had tensed himself when an approaching figure distracted them all. The swagger of his stride had a familiar bearing. He was giant in stature, even compared to Dinga’s not-inconsiderable height. The man’s muscles rippled gracefully with each step, more dancer than warrior.

“What have we here? A lamb beset by a pack of jackals?” Naiteru spoke in a Bantu tongue, despite being Masai. Dinga also spoke Bantu, a good thing since he knew none of the Nilotic tongue of most Masai. Naiteru was not most Masai. Dinga knew loneliness as his primary companion, though, on occasion, he encountered a friend that he had made along his journey. Naiteru stared at him. A familiar admiration danced in his eyes.

“There are no lambs here, wayfarer, save for the gentle thing dangling between your legs,” Dinga said.

“You have a funny way of asking for help.”

“I never asked. My worship is a private affair, saved for these mongrels.”

“Come now—allow me to commune with your god. Is your heart the only one that beats to the sound of the ancient drum?”

Dinga knew the Berbers had planned to converge on him in the midst of the upcoming clearing. Instead, the pair of warriors plunged into the barbarians’ swarming formation. They crashed through the branches and hurtled into the nearly dozen men. Dinga had sinewy shoulders and a lean waist. His belted loincloth held a dagger hilt jutting from one side, with the belt supporting a short, heavy sword.

Dinga killed the first two before they knew they could bring their weapons to bear, then ducked the wide arc of the blade path of a third. Quick on his feet, Dinga moved toward the empty swish of sliced air. He parried the next slash and then cut off the Berber’s choking cry at his throat by severing him from ear-to-ear. A weird inhuman call announced another Berber, who crashed through the dense forest wall like a rhinoceros crashing through saplings. Dinga clubbed him with the flat side of his heavy sword and the barbarian’s brains poured from his split skull.

“What say you?” Naiteru said, engaged by two Berber himself.

“When I need the help of a stray bamboo reed, I will shout.”

“Heh.” The Masai sidestepped a thrust, then moved in close and snapped his foe’s neck with a quick twist. Another Berber attempted an attack from the rear, to trap him between himself and another approaching barbarian, but Naiteru caught him by the wrist, twirling him around into his companions’ thrusting spear. Naiteru let the impaled corpse fall to the ground and caught the spear. The Berber’s partner lunged forward, but the Masai tripped him with his spear, then spun it and plunged it into his foe’s back. He ran his spear through the Berber’s spine and breastbone. Naiteru smiled as the Berber coughed out bloody foam and spasmed in death.

Naiteru’s height and skinny build belied his strength. With an elegance to his movement, he wheeled like a panther on cords of muscles, hard like steel rope. His wild and arrogant eyes measured the course of the fray. A lethal whirlwind, his combat was beauty to behold, an honor to Onyame. A Berber, through more luck than skill, managed to slice Naiteru along the side. The Masai reacted immediately. An upswing of his spear caught the Berber in his gullet and sent up a shower of red rain. Blood surged over the Berber’s hands as he clutched at his belly in a futile bid to contain his innards.

And then it was finished—the forest was still and silent except for the sound of two men breathing heavily.

“The wound doesn’t look too bad. It should heal well.” Dinga studied Naiteru’s side.

“It could be worse.”

“How?”

“I could be you.” Naiteru glanced at the wound. “AKilwa lies not too far from here. Maybe a maiden or two could speed my healing?”

“If it is a wet nurse you seek, who am I to prevent it?”

They moved deeper into the thicket, the tangled copse growing ever the more impenetrable. The dark wood felt even darker in the cool penumbra of the mountain.

III.

The swirling drifts of snow erased any trace of Dinga’s trail, the sound of his footfalls swallowed by the encroaching gloom. He pulled his fur hood low upon his head. Layered clothes shielded the worst of it. The terrain held few surprises for him—his wanderings had led him through more than one mountain pass and even the biting wind was more familiar than foreign. A white, long-dead world with the feel of being older than life. Doubt gnawed at his insides like icicles ground into him. He had reached what passed for a plateau among the ice peaks and searched for any hint of where to go next. It had been a few days since his last real meal. He soothed his parched throat with mouthfuls of snow, praying for Onyame to take him before he lost all feeling throughout his body. Still, his limbs kept moving, determined to survive. He spied a shallow shaft in the distance and staggered toward it, relieved to find anything close to shelter.

The subterranean passage was like a gaping wound in the earth. The jagged aperture hid the black recesses of the shaft. The sounds of the storm flaying the mountainside reverberated through the shaft. The peculiar howl of the wind, heightened by the darkness, unsettled him within the horrifying enclosure. He lost all sense of direction, only knowing that he felt as if he climbed down the throat of a giant creature in a tight, downward-angled shimmy.

A faint amber light glowed in the distance. As Dinga got closer, the chute yawned like a ravenous mouth, spitting him into a high roofed cavern. Luminous markings along the walls possessed the air of the sacred about them. For the first time, it occurred to him that the whole mountain might be holy. The walls bent at strange angles, cold but not freezing. Stones jutted from them, fangs, covering branching tunnels. A menacing maze, but Dinga knew that the trick of mazes was to always stay true. He kept to a path that always wound left. The winding path took him deeper into the belly of the mountain.

After several interminable hours, the staid air gave way to moving air currents. His ears perked to attention at the sound and smell of trickling, fetid water. His animal instinct bristled inside him. Waste run-off, like bait—it was meant to draw him in.

The violent gale assaulting the mountain took on the sounds of disquieting music. The ground appeared as if it had been undisturbed for ages. He could make out an odd geometry of shapes from the unearthly glow that emanated from whatever grew on the cave walls. Cones and pyramids piled upon one another like a city with an architecture no man designed.

Upon closer inspection, he noticed a familiar pattern inscribed upon some of the stones. The designs were similar to those that had been tattooed onto him. He couldn’t hazard a guess as to what it meant, though he knew it to be a mystery for another time. More troubling were the bones of fallen warriors scattered all about the cavern. A large, oblong shape drew his attention. As he approached, he slowly made out the features of the object before him: a man encased in ice. At first, he feared that the nude corpse was a mirage, little more than the heat-induced fever of when he crossed the great desert alone. Mummified, the man’s grimace reminded him of one privy to an ancient joke, a nomad much like him. Scars and open wounds laced the man’s body. Only the face disturbed him with its calcified eyes of a madman.

Only then did Dinga realize that he wasn’t alone.

He stilled his breathing and waited for his heartbeat to slow. No sound, not the slightest shuffle betrayed any movement—yet he knew lurking horrors surrounded him. First, a strange call answered from deep within the cavern. Then came the sound of nails scraping stone.

Dinga raised his sword.

• • • •

The pair’s progress proved slower than Dinga would have imagined. Two stout warriors such as he and Naiteru should have traversed the short few miles within the hour. Yet, the sky pulled on its night cloak, held up for it by a forest of ancient trees. They tarried as if robbed of the will to move. The throb along his ribs alerted Dinga to his own wounds. The steep cliffs of Oldoinyo Oibor, the white mountain, rose from the jungle, looming over the brooding primeval forest. The entire valley lay in its shadow. The silence of the journey troubled him. No birds, no telltale rustling among the lush undergrowth.

Naiteru’s wound kept bleeding, to Dinga’s dismay, though he gave no sign of it save the occasional grunt. He hadn’t lied to assure Naiteru earlier: The wound was slight and should’ve closed on its own. He thought of Naiteru as a brother, one he didn’t always have occasion to like, but a brother nonetheless. Not like that Spartan dog Gerard who vexed him on occasion by way of misadventure.

Though they were an easy-going people, Dinga also knew the Masai to be more fierce than the Berbers. It was said that to them, “No one else matters except the Masai and their cows.” That wasn’t entirely true. Naiteru’s father had taken him in for a time soon after Dinga left his home village.

“You will have many adventures and great days ahead of you,” Naiteru’s father often opined. Dinga never said anything to that. He only knew that he had to wander the four winds, the rite of Onyame, before settling among his people. “‘Happiness is to lie on one’s back surrounded by many sons.’ I could always use another son.”

Often, he thought that Naiteru’s father said such things to stir up Naiteru, instill in him the threat of a rival for his father’s affections. Instead, it stirred an unrealized yearning for an older brother. They competed, sure, but not as two vying for their father’s approval.

They staggered to Kilwa Kivinje’s gates well into the evening. Dinga expected a collection of dark-skinned men and their scattered huts—huts of mud and wattle, thatched with brush. Instead, he found a palisaded city, with sweeping stone walls that enclosed it and hugged the terrain. The walls were built from the very stone of the mountainside. Impressive hill terracing served to grow grains. Magnificent houses dotted the landscape. Near the center of the village, cone-like blast furnaces with bellows worked their iron smelting. The tall men milled about in their ease postures, standing on one leg, and stared with grim curiosity at the two men staggering toward them. The women were exotic beauties: tall, buxom, strongly built, with burgundy cloths fastened at the waist by jewels draped around their wide hips, and with shaved heads and the middle teeth of their lower jaws pulled out. Rumor had it, so Naiteru said before his wounds silenced him, the women did everything that needed to be done in the village since work was beneath the men’s dignity.

Dinga collapsed with Naiteru. A cadaverous man with a nose too narrow to trust ran to them and waved the others back. Dinga reached for his sword, but Naiteru’s hand stayed the blade.

“Bring food and drink for our weary guests!” the man shouted.

“We . . . ,” Naiteru said.

“Hush now. We’ll talk when you are refreshed and strengthened.”

Naiteru gorged on wild game, refusing any fruits or vegetables. He requested fresh cow blood mixed with cow milk, a staple of his warrior’s diet. Dinga ate from all that the maidens brought and his goblet overflowed with wine. He observed the tender ministrations of the maiden that flitted about Naiteru, noting the lingering caresses to her otherwise efficient work. He dreamt of returning to Ifriquia’s tender embrace and felt a dull ache whenever he thought of her, like a peace he didn’t deserve. However, she was in Wagadugu and that country was in the distant north.

“And what would your name be?” Dinga asked.

“Esiankiki.” The young woman averted her gaze. She carried herself like a woman with strength. Dinga’s eager eyes drank her in, reminding him of a thirst in need of slaking.

“Your spirits seem lifted. I am Kaina, laibon to the Chagga people.” The medicine man’s voice was the low, deep rumble of a threatening storm. The laibon reminded Dinga too much of the dwellers of Kawkaw, the land of magicians.

“I am Dinga of the clan Cisse, a Nokian.” His pulse quickened with pride. He knew how his people were thought of: a barbaric, war-like tribe, intelligent but uncivilized; an ancient and proud people who kept their old ways and secrets to themselves.

“Naiteru,” he muttered between gulps of blood-milk.

“I know you, Naiteru. We were saddened to hear of the death of your father.” Dinga cut Naiteru a terrible glance. “We fear more such deaths.”

Dinga listened carefully to the story the laibon spun—tales of a river sickness infecting the land, killing cattle and weakening the people of the village. What devil’s secrets laibons didn’t keep to themselves, they spread only in dark whispers. He hinted of necromantic magic and strange creatures called from the Night, searching for any reaction on Dinga’s face. He found only boredom.

“Does anyone know the mysteries the jungle conceals? This is none of my business. I will take my leave and you can keep your concerns for yourself.”

“Stay. Let us show you the hospitality of the Chagga,” the laibon said.

Dinga, despite his youth, cast a wary eye at the laibon. He spoke with a general amiability that bothered Dinga. However, the sport of drink was new to him and the effects far more debilitating that he remembered. His concerns about overstaying his welcome curdled into something approaching apprehension. “No, the horizon calls me. Show me to my chamber so that I may be fresh tomorrow.”

“That’s fine. Let none say that the Chagga do not know how to treat their guests. Esiankiki, more wine.”

The light of warning reflected in her eyes as she refilled his goblet. At least that was the cast of her countenance once he reflected upon it. Far too late.

IV.

Before seeing the obsidian outlines, he reckoned the number of beasts at five. His innate hunter’s skill guided him, sensing a conscious malignity all about him. He moved with a reckless speed, barely avoiding the charge of the first creature. Dinga had never encountered an animal like them before. They resembled a kind of bat, with their large, membranous wings lined with a serrated edge. The folds of the unsturdy frames of their wings, like bamboo shoots, hid short, muscular arms with long, taloned hands. Star-shaped heads sat atop their squat bodies. Each had a slit in the center of the top of their heads, the center opening guarded by thin, raking teeth. Bowl-like eyes the color of old wine scanned for movement in the steep night. Dexterous tentacles, like undulating fingers, radiated from their bellies.

Dinga remained motionless, his skin twitching, eager for combat. He held his dagger in one hand and his sword in the other. The arms of the nearest creature thwarted his initial efforts at a clean stab. In fact, the brute’s skin proved nearly impervious to the casual slicing of his blade. Great, hammer-like blows sent Dinga sprawling to the cold ground. He recovered quickly and leapt at the beast, but was quickly ensnared by it. Its hide reeked of deep earth. Dinga plunged his dagger into the inviting ball of an eye. The creature let go immediately, but not before Dinga tore into the opposite eye.

Another creature reached for Dinga. He grabbed the outstretched arm and threw himself forward along the icy pathway. In one fluid movement, Dinga wrapped his powerful legs around the creature’s body, entangling its wings as the two of them tobogganed down the trail. The beast retaliated by raking its nails across his shoulder. The entwined pair slid toward the wall of jutting ice spires that mirrored a collection of spears, until Dinga turned at the last instant so that the beast withstood the brunt of the impact.

Dinga ran his hands along the nape of his neck. A familiar slickness greeted him as he muttered imprecations to himself. The scent of fresh blood stirred the remaining fiends’ passions. In such close quarters, the creatures did more damage flailing at each other than at him. Two of the beasts tore into each other until they both fell dead. The last creature pummeled Dinga with a flurry of fierce punches, and sent him face first into a wall. He clutched at its neck as the opening in its head frantically tried to bite at him. His dagger pierced the soft flesh of its underbelly. Dark-green fluid answered for blood and sluiced in a streak against the rock. Dinga sealed his lips shut, fearing that its taste might match the gamy smell. The blood pooled in a viscous curd. Dinga’s neck and shoulder felt numb. He piled the corpses in the center of the chamber, settled into them and warmed himself in their cooling flesh.

• • • •

Dinga opened his heavy eyelids, still groggy from what felt like an evening spent in a wineskin. Or five wineskins. Images slowly coalesced from some sort of sinister dream. Bits of the scene he recognized. When he attempted to move his arms, he realized that each was bound to a wooden rack. The flames from the iron works danced before him, fighting the chill of the strange mountain’s shadow. Naiteru lay still, barely conscious on the gentle lap of Esiankiki. She met Dinga’s stare then turned away quickly.

“What madness is this?” Dinga pulled against the ropes, testing them.

“The madness is yours, thinking you could come into our village to watch your handiwork in action,” Kaina said. “We still live and to our last breath we defy you.”

“Naiteru?”

“His arrival was an omen. He is known to us, a friend of this village. Yet, he, too, has succumbed to your blight upon us.”

“Then your madness threatens to consume you all. I am a warrior. Servant of Onyame, the god above all others.”

“Eng-ai trembles before no other god. Even the red god of drought and the black god of the rains serve Eng-ai. And Eng-ai sent you to us for a reason.”

“And that reason is what?” Dinga asked.

“You were the one sent to destroy us.”

The villagers stared on, dull-eyed and weary. Dinga could believe that they were beset by some malady. The laibon—a desperate figure responsible for their physical and spiritual well-being—had latched on to any belief that might relieve his charges. His supposed powers of divination prophecy and healing availed him not.

“Either give me a chance to prove myself or else let me die on my feet. A warrior’s death.”

“We shall. You shall undergo the Trial by Ordeal.”

“What is that?” Though Dinga suspected torture, which he was prepared for.

Kaina nodded toward Esiankiki. Gently, she slid Naiteru’s head from her lap to the ground, then brought Kaina a bowl. She held out her hands and he slit her palm with a small dagger. He collected some of the blood in the bowl then lofted the bowl skyward as if offering it to an air spirit. Turning to each of the four directions, he similarly prayed before attending to Dinga. Kaina shook a powder into the liquid and held the bowl to Dinga’s mouth.

“What is it?” Dinga asked.

“Fresh cow blood mixed with the blood of a virgin. And ground tenga root.”

“The poison?”

“So it is. One that burns in the veins. Should you be innocent, your life will be spared. Otherwise, Eng-ai will consume you in his fires of judgment.”

“I serve ‘He Who Roars So Loud that the Nations are Struck with Terror.’ If I have done this cowardly deed, may Onyame strike me down now.” Dinga spat. He had little faith in the dark arts and found the whole matter distasteful. Magic was too removed, made combat impersonal. It was too easy, almost civilized, to inflict harm from a distance. However, to physically engage your enemy—to watch and feel his lifeblood ebb from his body—that kept the value of life, the true measure of worship in Onyame’s name, firmly in one’s mind.

Kaina forced the mixture into Dinga’s mouth. Dinga threw his head back, taking in much of the foul liquor. The liquid burned his throat and gullet—waves of liquid flame coursing through his blood. The blood-fire bulged his veins to near bursting. Dinga pulled on the ropes and snapped the supporting beams. He let loose his death scream, to alert the guardians of the afterworld that a warrior would soon join their ranks, and fell to his knees. His skin bristled like seared flesh in the cool morning. He crawled toward Naiteru. Kaina, Esiankiki, and the on-looking villagers moved out of his way. Dinga pulled himself toward Naiteru’s head. Sweat poured down Naiteru’s face, his eyes bloodshot and tired—the picture of a man trapped in a fevered nightmare.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill them where they stand,” Dinga whispered hoarsely.

“I’ll give you two. Onyame saw fit to spare you, but you look so weak a foal could topple you. And . . .” Naiteru glanced toward Esiankiki. “If she was a virgin, she certainly wasn’t when she left my chambers.”

“Heh.”

“Dinga. Son of Cisse. Eng-ai has judged you and found you worthy,” the laibon said in a congratulatory tone. Dinga felt for his dagger, hoping to rid the world of one of its medicine men, only to realize that it had been stripped from him.

“If this is the hospitality of the Chagga, Onyame take you all.”

“Truly, you have my apologies,” Kaina said. “We are a desperate people. I had to be sure that you were not one of the Brotherhood of the Higher Ones.”

Naiteru moaned. A troubling rattle settled in his throat.

“What troubles him?” Dinga asked.

“He is not long for this world. It is the work of the Brotherhood. They spin their magics. Their ways poison our land, our livestock, and our people.”

“Why haven’t you done anything about them? Performed another of your rituals?” Dinga scoffed.

“The legends say that the Brotherhood of the Higher Ones abides in an iron hut high atop Oldoinyo Oibor. Guarded by their servant creatures. None have returned to tell the tale of the hut’s master.”

“Who built the hut?” Dinga asked.

“The Iron Hut was ancient when we settled the land.” Kaina turned his attentions to the now-groaning Naiteru. “He doesn’t have much time. I fear that none of us do.”

“Then I suppose someone must go and ask the Brotherhood to stop their magics. I will ask them as nicely as possible.”

“If you take up this quest, the Chagga people will remember you in our songs.”

“I’m not doing this for you,” Dinga said.

“Then at least with the rainy season ended, your journey should be easier.”

V.

The silence was so perfect, so profound, that Dinga thought he had passed through the veil into the next world. He only had to traverse two chambers from the site of his ambush to reach the iron hut. Thick and stout, the door of a palace’s keep, it stood three heads taller than him and broad enough for three men of his size to pass through at the same time quite comfortably. A sense of foreboding rippled through him. Though he knew that the massive door was set correctly, it had the illusion of being crooked. It canted first to the left then, in his next glance, to the right—a back-and-forth sensation that inspired a sense of seasickness. He reached for one of the iron handholds and pulled the door open.

The door opened into a dark cavernous hallway, though light danced at the end of it. The glow wavered like heat lines from desert sand. Through the wavering ebon murk of the desolate hallway, Dinga made out wall paintings depicting a story he could barely comprehend. Decadent art depicted people at worship to the mountain, of creatures rising from the oceans. Blocks of ancient carving, like stone corpses, in an off-kilter arrangement induced more of the nauseating vertigo. The sensation abandoned him immediately if he didn’t look directly at the art. The sounds of prayerful murmurs half-heard, almost like music played in a dream, echoed from the end of the passage.

Dinga stood outside the room and peered around the corner at the strange scene. Half a dozen naked men knelt dumbly in a half-circle. Each had rings through their noses, large enough for them to be herded like a favored cosset. Each man had been crudely castrated. Judging from the burn scars radiating from the emptiness of their groins across their thighs and bellies, their wounds had been cauterized by torch fire. Like living scrolls, the men had words—old words not meant to be pronounced by human tongues, carved into their flesh. Rough leather cords ran through their lips, sewing their mouths shut. Their sounds had the dissonant quality of cries from a gagged mouth. The vacant expression each wore gave them the semblance of being kin.

A white-skinned woman, not pale like the Spartan, but possessing an unhealthy pallor of color having been drained from her, milled at the center of their entranced ardor. Her head wrapped in a cloth, she doted on them like some horrible mother. Down-turned slits passed for eyes on a face with sagging jowls and endless folds. She squatted before them, rearing back on her haunches, her body like a rotted pear. Rows of what appeared to be gelatinous eggs lined the wall behind her. On an altar of bones, candles in golden holders reflected light onto jewels on the far wall, a thousand gleaming eyes. Incense wafted from bronze bowls.

Suddenly sensing the presence of an intruder, she met Dinga’s eyes squarely. Red froth escaped her lips. If she said any words, Dinga was already moving and didn’t hear them. The men stirred to somnambulance and scrambled after him. Dinga ran the first man through; the next swipe of his sword severed another man from his shoulder-bone to his breast. Pity was the closest thing that Dinga felt. These were no warriors; there was no honor in this slaughter. No, these were mercy killings. Their littered bodies were like fallen leaves. The last man turned to run away, but he was cut down in an instant. The man left a bloody smear, a red snail’s wake, as he crawled toward the woman.

Her merciless eyes followed Dinga. What he thought was an ancient story writ into the ice-scarred veins of her skin, upon closer inspection, was the scale-like quality of that skin. She had dwelt with her Higher Ones for so long that she was no longer quite human. The air in the room became stagnant, growing hot, as if heat was generated within him, slowly cooking him from the inside. A sickly yellow-green glow emanated from a split in the space between them. The witch-mother began to laugh uncontrollably. Terrible and maniacal, her laughter was more unsettling than if she had started screaming.

“You are too late,” she said in her queer, flat tone. “The vitality of such a fine warrior may finally prove enough to call them forth.”

The pale green light, accompanied by a strange buzzing, revealed black spots, which soon split and opened into mouths. It was as if the hut itself attempted to give birth to an old and hungry power. Dinga could feel it coming. His mistake, he realized, was believing the woman to be the owner of the hut. No, she was its priestess and the hut its temple. It. That which dwelled outside, and that was how Dinga knew it—the Dweller Outside—neared. Over the tittering of her age-dimpled face, her fat tongue lolled over her teeth. She began to chant.

His heart pumped madly. He had no knowledge of the dark arts. He knew no ritual to undo the opening that she wrought. All he knew was the sword and the blessing of Onyame. He ran the cold iron of his blade through her heart. Her half-closed eyes sprang open, terribly bulbous, distracted but still standing despite the hunk of metal protruding from her chest. Unaware, her arm drifted into the fissure she had created. The burning light of a terrible sunset blistered and charred her arm to a fleshy red ruin. She continued her atonal drone, forming words he almost recognized—all despite her life quickly draining from her. With her life ebbing, the doorway she opened started to close. A bestial howl cried from beyond. With a last gasp, an ebon tentacle lashed out, a taloned finger carving into her flesh. Before Dinga had a chance to study the words, the tentacle withdrew, just as the crack in space sealed itself. Her vacant eyes congealed, then hardened. Her entire body appeared to gain the sheen of ice, her skin transformed to crystal. Dinga could still feel the steady pulse of energy building.

The throb of power intensified. The altar tore from its perch on the wall and revealed a shaft that led further down the mountain. Dinga dove for the tunnel and scrambled madly, as fast as he could, praying for passage through the honeycombed mountain. He turned his head, only to see arcs of lightning crackling throughout the room. A few moments later, a terrible explosion roared in his ears.

• • • •

Dinga re-traversed the course of the mountain in much shorter time, his route now much more direct. He noticed the lights dancing around the mountain the moment he emerged from the tunnels and trekked back along the ridge of forest. The first smell of smoke alerted him to trouble. By the time he reached the village, all that remained was the smoldering ruins. The great houses were smashed to rubble, the walls scorched to screes of pebbles. The ironworks lay topped and aflame. The cloying stench of burnt flesh choked the air. He imagined the screams of the poor souls now silenced. Numbness washed over him, not the dreadful cold stilling his body’s warmth but more a chill of the spirit. The scent of death was heavy in the air, though no bodies could he find. Shards of crystal littered the area.

“Victory comes at a great cost,” Naiteru said from behind him. Dinga whirled at the sound of his voice, disturbed that he had never heard the man’s approach. He rested his hand on the hilt of his dagger.

“The village?” Dinga asked.

“Her will bound the land,” Naiteru said. “The . . . witch-mother.”

The man that stood before him wore the face of his childhood friend, but his bearing, his manner, was that of a stranger, not the warrior he knew.

“Who are you?” Dinga asked.

“You are perceptive, gentle warrior. You may call me Naiteru-kop. I have been touched by the Old Ones. I will usher them into this plane when the time comes.”

Dinga drew his dagger. Naiteru-kop stripped it from him, with the effort of a parent taking away a child’s plaything.

“We will meet again, young Dinga,” Naiteru-kop tossed the dagger aside and turned to walk away. “For your sake, let it be later rather than sooner.”

Dinga watched him for a time then turned to the horror of the village. With nothing left to keep him there, he searched the camp for what he knew remained. After a few minutes, he found it: Naiteru’s spear. Dinga used it as a walking stick and headed out of the village, his eyes forever fixed on the horizon.

VI.

The incessant howl of the wind stirred Leopold to wakefulness. His clothes were clammy; the coppery taste of fear filled his mouth. He was quite aware of his heartbeat, but his dream had the eerie clarity of memory. And prophecy. At first, he thought it further excitement at some new discovery. He had gone to bed with the men re-doubling their efforts at the dig. The stone ruins of many buildings, the acropolis, the elliptical temple. The certainty of their expedition having awoken something seized him.

Possessed of the singular notion to flee, and to leave all of his things and run. Neither the direction nor the destination mattered, only the fact that he needed to leave this dead, cursed city, lest he re-live the terror of the original denizens. The desolate summit called to him, hidden by the Stygian shadow of the leering mountain.

Leopold had an irresistible urge to glance back, maybe to gauge the pace of the pursuit of whatever stalked him. Maybe it was the same bit of regretful longing that caused Lot’s wife to turn back toward Sodom and Gomorrah. Regardless of the reason, he looked back and what he saw rooted him to his spot every bit as much as if he has been changed into a pillar of salt.

McKreager staggered toward him.

Whatever damnable fervor in which he had taken to the shard still possessed him. Wearing a loose cloth around his head, he still clutched the crystal. His hand appeared white, as if the color had drained from it, his vessels a network of blue bulges. Terribly sloth-like, with sweat streaked down his face, he huffed with each step. Watching him had the prescient cruelty of watching him give birth. Tenebrous power curled about him. The hastily-thrown-on cloth slowly fell from his head. McKreager’s skull splintered and protruded, the jutting bones pointed in five directions. He opened his mouth. His words had a musical quality to them.

And Leopold began to laugh. A terrible, cold laughter.

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Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus

A community organizer and teacher, his work has appeared in Lightspeed, Weird Tales, Apex, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and many more. Some of his stories have been collected in The Voices of Martyrs. He wrote the urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court. He co-authored the play Finding Home: Indiana at 200. His novellas include Buffalo Soldier, I Can Transform You, Orgy of Souls, Bleed with Me, and Devil’s Marionette. He is the co-editor of Dark Faith, Dark Faith: Invocations, Streets of Shadows, and People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror. Learn more about him at MauriceBroaddus.com.