The skies were moody and grey, with dark clouds that made a forlorn promise of precipitation. Already the familiar earthen smell of impending rain lingered about him. Dembei was certain he would be drenched by the time he returned to the shelter of his quarters, the prospect of which he did not find particularly appealing. It was a long way back from whence he came. A journey that winded through rising hills and plunging valleys.
But the rain would at least bring with it one comfort. It offered welcome relief from predators and other such creatures he’d prefer not to stumble upon. The Outlands teemed with dangerous wildlife, from vicious wild dogs to stalking leopards and slithering snakes. To emerge from these perilous lands unscathed was only by the mercy of the Light Mother.
Beyond a hill rose crowned with white columns. Dembei had at last arrived at his destination. He sighed, dreading his ascent up the steep hill, a tapering yellow-green mound dotted with trees and shrubbery. It towered above the other rolling hills about it. To the native dwellers of the Outlands, it was known as Kainala, the holy mountain of Pangora. A hundred years past, the Maasin would take a sacred pilgrimage to the summit of Kainala once every year, where they worshipped the Twin Gods, Manu and Monu, for a night and a day. This was so both gods were observed, as Manu and Monu were the gods of day and night respectively, manifesting as sun and moon. The tradition died when the Maasin faith, among many others, was outlawed by the Prime Covenant. The white monoliths were all that remained of it, a skeleton of a bygone era.
Wearily, Dembei began his clim, wending his way up the incline. By the time he neared the hilltop, his protesting legs burned with fatigue. His laboured breaths plumed in wisps of white as they met the crisp chill of the breeze. It seemed Dembei had underestimated the journey. In theory, the logic had been sound. Kainala was more or less central to both parties, and it was conveniently remote, well away from inquisitive eyes and ears. But getting there had proved more of a challenge than Dembei had anticipated. Another reminder that he was not a young man anymore.
Staggering up the summit, Dembei came at last upon his company, three shadows looming silently at the centre of hilltop. For a moment, the very sight of them made him forget his pain, his fear and awe numbing his senses. Though not a man easily frightened, there was a sinister energy that emanated from their presence. Their leader most of all, Prince Gora of the Zanga people, who stood encased in weathered black amour. He wore a menacing full helm with downward facing horns, symbolic of his clan name, Nguru, the Zanga word for buffalo. Prince Gora quickly rose to legend when he became the first monarch in the Outlands to don a full suit of armour in battle. A feat which garnered him his infamous moniker, the Iron Prince.
A Zanga warrior of hefty build towered to the prince’s right, his sleeveless garb baring two heavily muscled arms. A stretch of cloth covered the lower half of his face, revealing only two hooded brown eyes and a cleanly shaved scalp. This was Prince Gora’s most fearsome and trusted bodyguard, Mboka. His fingers were tightly coiled around the neck of a mysterious brown sack.
To Prince Gora’s left stood the lithe albino woman, Nyasha, garbed in the same mask and uniform as Mboka. Dwarfed by both the prince and Mboka, Nyasha nonetheless appeared as intimidating and formidable as either of them. Though Dembei could not see much of her face, her eyes were deep and merciless. Her demeanour that of an efficient killer. Her hair was pulled back and braided into a tail, a golden serpent slithering down her spine.
Dembei swallowed, starting towards the imposing trio. He feigned a smile and squinted at the grey clouds stirring above them.
“Looks like rain,” he said as he passed through the massive whitewashed pillars. It was a wonder how these absurdly large obelisks were erected. Or how their immense weight was somehow hefted uphill. Most Southland natives agreed that it was probably the work of giants, though Dembei was not sure he believed such talk. No one alive had ever seen a giant, and there was little proof that they had ever existed at all.
The Iron Prince tilted his full helm skyward.
“Dare the heavens weep for fallen devils?” he muttered, cryptically, his voice seeping through the breathing slits of his helm in a reverberating drawl that made him sound as inhuman as he appeared.
“Then it is done?” Dembei asked, his expression darkening.
“You almost seem disappointed,” the Iron Prince replied, a hint of amusement in his tone. “Or did you so greatly doubt my capacity to deliver?”
Dembei swallowed, sheepishly. In truth he had not expected the Prince to be successful, it seemed a suicide mission, yet here he stood. Seemingly unharmed.
“Mboka,” Prince Gora called out, without turning to face the man at his side. Mboka obediently shuffled towards Dembei and held the bag open in his massive hands, remaining as still as a statue as Dembei peered inside.
Tentatively, Dembei reached inside the bag and withdrew a bloodied golden hoop. Its surface was flat and inscribed with unintelligible characters. There were several more such hoops inside the bag. Astonished, Dembei felt a cold wave of awe surge through him.
“I never thought I’d one day hold one of these in my hands,” he mused, more to himself than anyone else. He looked up at Prince Gora. “The princess will be pleased.”
“Take it to her. As both a gift and testament that our plan moves forward.”
The Iron Prince ambled closer to Dembei, metal clinking as he advanced. Though he did his best to hide it, Gora’s proximity unsettled Dembei. There was a darkness that wafted from him like thick black smoke.
“Tell her my retribution has only begun. Tell her my thirst for blood will only be quenched when the False God himself lies dead at my feet.” The Prince was now so close that Dembei could peer into the eyeholes of his helm. He saw the charred flesh around the white of his eyes. Saw the hatred burn in his gaze, as the flames once had when they consumed him.