"Speak of this to no one," Guwate'ka commanded. The eldest high priest of the Seven Stones stood over Benu, his feathered headdress rising a full three feet above his wrinkled brow. He was lathered in white paint from head to toe, prepared for the ritual sacrifices that were soon to come.
"The spirits know you acted with honor, Benu. This is not your fault," another high priest said. In total, five of the Seven Stones' eldest leaders had crowded into the hut. Benu had sought them out immediately after he had returned to his village, recounting the heinous events he had witnessed.
Benu nodded in agreement, but the anger lingered within him. He felt soiled, and he wondered if the spirits truly understood that he had tried—with all his strength—to stop the heretic.
"Come." Guwate'ka turned toward the hut's exit.
Outside, a bonfire roared at the center of the village. Witch doctors swayed at the inferno's edge, stomping their feet in time to steady drumbeats and a haunting, rhythmic chant voiced by a crowd of watching villagers. Elsewhere, torches flitted among scattered huts like bloated fireflies, carried by men and women who were readying empty blood-stained jugs for the night's offerings.
Benu noted the witch doctors who had returned and those who had not. In addition to the rest of his ill-fated war party, ten of the clan's warriors were missing. He imagined them in the villages of the Five Hills and the Clouded Valley, being smeared in ritual oils and prepared for their journey to Mbwiru Eikura just as his own clan's tributes were.
The entire village entered into a song of respect and admiration as ceremonial attendants led the first captive to the bonfire. Guwate'ka approached the tribute, an ornate metal dagger clutched in the high priest's hand.
"We celebrate you!" the high priest bellowed. "We give you to the greater tribe, where all umbaru are one people. In the hours to follow, we will sing in honor of your sacrifice, for it is great."
"And when you too arrive in the Unformed Land, I will be there to greet you," the tribute calmly stated.
Guwate'ka's arm sliced in a lateral motion, cutting the witch doctor's neck with practiced care. The tribute did not scream or twist in agony. He died with honor as he should have. What was the pain of this world compared to the glorious eternity that awaited him in the realm beyond?
The high priest tipped his head skyward and outstretched his arms, his body trembling violently. Before long, a breathtaking azure aura formed around him and illuminated his features.
Benu watched as the elder entered the Ghost Trance, a state of mind that allowed some umbaru to look upon Mbwiru Eikura. The young witch doctor knew the ritual well. Like all of his calling, he had been born tethered to the Unformed Land. His connection was stronger than most, but it paled in comparison to that of the high priests. In the other world, Benu saw only impressions. The leaders of his clan were said to commune with the spirits directly, gleaning insight and commands.
Ceremonial attendants rushed forward to collect the tribute's blood in earthenware. His body was eviscerated, and his organs were carefully—even lovingly—removed and placed in jars.
Guwate'ka emerged from the trance shortly thereafter. He gazed out over the breathless villagers with unfocused eyes as if he had to reacclimate himself to the physical world. Time in the Unformed Land, Benu had learned, was different than it was here. A trance could last for minutes in the realm beyond, while only seconds would pass in this world.
"This tribute has reached Mbwiru Eikura, and he sings his song of thanks!" Guwate'ka announced.
The villagers clapped their hands in jubilation. Tears streamed down some of their faces.
It was midnight when the last of the tributes had been liberated. The villagers shuffled off to long wooden huts to feast and talk of the witch doctors whose lives had been given. The celebration would continue into the morning. Benu lingered by the fire as his kin dispersed.
Something troubled him, a distant unease. Although hours had passed since his encounter with Zuwadza's pupil, still the fool's voice echoed unwanted in his head.
Look in places unseen. Ask questions unanswered.
Benu clenched his fists. It was not the rival witch doctor's words that bothered him; it was the thought that he had been cursed by the heretic, despite the assurances of the high priests.
There was something else as well. Somewhere, he sensed a clawing at the veil between worlds, beckoning him in unheard whispers.
The young witch doctor wandered to the edge of the village, far from the chatter and the chorus of songs thrumming from the feasting huts. For those of Benu's station, entering the Ghost Trance following the Igani was prohibited. The high priests said it disoriented the souls of the recently sacrificed tributes. But Benu wanted—he needed—to know his standing with the spirits.
He willed his spirit to detach from his flesh. Warm milky tears raced down his cheeks. With each drop, the world around him faded away, revealing the formless topography of Mbwiru Eikura. Energy blazed across the sky, although it did not illuminate the shifting land below.
"Do I remain in your favor?" he called out.
In reply, a dozen figures with chalky white eyes and bodies of pure darkness appeared before him. Their features were indiscernible, but due to Benu's rare connection with the Unformed Land, he recognized their identities. They were the spirits of the sacrificed tributes, the men and women who, according to Guwate'ka, had entered Mbwiru Eikura filled with peace.
Except they were anything but serene. The specters reached their shadowy arms toward Benu.
Although he could not hear their words, their confusion pierced his soul like spears. The Unformed Land was not what the apparitions had expected it to be. They writhed in uncertainty. It was as if their whole worldview had shattered.
It was as if everything they had ever believed was a lie.
Benu dared not linger. Before he withdrew, a single thought reached him, emerging like a drifting fog from much deeper in the shapeless realm. It proffered to him a warning.