Solemnity was all Benu could muster as his captors led him toward the encroaching dusk. Before them lay the home of the Clouded Valley. To his eyes, it looked exactly like the village of the Seven Stones. Thatch-roofed huts crowded around an open central area, where a bonfire raged. Blood-stained jugs sat nearby, yearning for the offerings that would soon fill them.
Benu did not celebrate Te Wok Nu'cha, for Adiya's desire for life had penetrated him deeply. Even now, her longing stare called him to defy his heritage and strike against his captors. Such an act was forbidden, unthinkable.
The takings for the Clouded Valley were a meager three heads: Benu, Adiya, and an elder witch doctor known as Edwasi. As the party neared the bonfire, it was welcomed by ceremonial attendants, and other villagers were chanting, beating drums, and dancing in observance of the ritual.
Stripped of their masks and weapons, the three were laid upon low tables within a grass-walled hut, then lathered in oils of citrus. The captives were smeared with a seeded ichor, an agent that would protect their bodies from the rot of death in the hours to come. At the far end of the room, the silver-haired Edwasi breathed deep to soothe his anxiety.
From the table next to Benu, Adiya stared at him with a look of helplessness, stretching her hand toward him. He suddenly felt ill.
Having completed their work, the attendants departed and opened the hut's door to a large, muscular man wielding a crescent jawbone sickle. Benu did not know his name, but his impressive headdress signaled that he was an elder high priest. At his back were the others of his caste, decorated in colorful feathers and clutching mojo dolls in their hands.
The lead high priest gestured with his chin and then stepped back, away from the hut. Two skirted men entered the room and gripped Edwasi's wrists. The elder witch doctor gave no resistance to his escorts as they led him outside and presented him before the high priest. Edwasi embraced his fate.
Through the hut's open doorway, Benu observed the ceremony as if he were seeing it for the first time. The participants went through the same actions that he had witnessed at Iganis throughout his life. Words were spoken. Edwasi's blood was spilled. Attendants collected his organs in jars as the other villagers continued their singing. The ritual and all its pageantry were as they had always been. But to the young witch doctor, they seemed devoid of any substance.
"We umbaru hide our senseless violence with rousing melodies," Adiya spat.
By now, Benu surmised, Edwasi's vaporous spirit had retreated from this world. The young witch doctor thought suddenly of the confused phantoms he had seen in Mbwiru Eikura, shattered by the realization that things were not as they had been led to believe.
"A life cut short, for what?" Adiya hissed. "We need not follow his path. There is another way out."
Benu's heart raced. His mind whirled. "They are many, and we are two. What way is there?"
"We willingly offer umbaru flesh to the spirits, but we are forbidden to eat of this bounty. Have you ever questioned why?"
Benu reeled at the suggestion. "Kareeb are damned by the spirits!"
"More stories crafted by the high priests." Adiya waved her hand in dismissal. "I have heard secrets in the company of my husband. He spoke of legends that say eating witch doctor flesh unlocks the forbidden path to godhood. Lies were created that the truth might never be discovered. But you, champion, are wise and would harness this power for your own. With it, you could reform our broken culture. No one could stop you."
Benu stared at Adiya, her eyes commanding and sincere.
"As our killers draw near, meet them with defiance," Adiya whispered. "Follow me, and the umbaru will flourish in an age of true enlightenment, not darkness."
As expected, the skirted men returned, their arms and chests smattered with gore. They reached for Adiya's wrists, but—unexpectedly—they were met with bestial wrath.
The woman jumped on the table and dove, catching one of the men by his head and turning it as she rode the momentum of her attack. A hollow snap revealed her success. Before the remaining escort could react, Adiya's cold touch grasped the back of his neck, and she pushed his head down as her knee drove up into his nose. He fell to the floor, motionless.
Benu could not believe what had just happened, nor could he fathom the speed and precision at which the kills had been performed. Never had he seen or heard of such ferocity. Grabbing his hand, Adiya pulled the stunned witch doctor to a run as they burst forth from the hut's doorway.
The Clouded Valley villagers were outraged. Pushing past the elder high priest—who, despite being armed, could only look stupefied—Adiya lunged for the jars holding Edwasi's organs. One by one she pulled off the lids while the crowd backed away, cursing the woman's actions but unsure of what to do.
"See how pathetic and dependent on rules they are?" she asked. "Umbaru are so flawed. We kill and die not for honor, but for fear."
In a blue earthenware jug, Adiya found the prize she had been searching for: Edwasi's warm, still heart. Raising it in the air, she said, "Greater are we than the injustices we have weathered."
She bit the tender meat as if it were ripe fruit, the heart gushing blood as though it still delivered life. Screams broke out from the Clouded Valley villagers, for never before had they witnessed such sacrilege.
Adiya swallowed a mouthful, further upsetting the onlookers, and she smiled at their discomfort. She began to tremble, and then without warning a violet light erupted from within her, illuminating the gray sky and the simple structures nearby. Those closest to her scattered, frightened and desperate for the security they had enjoyed moments ago.
Gazing angrily upon the fleeing tribe, Adiya screamed, driving the elder high priest to abandon his blade and clumsily attempt his own escape. Pleased for the privacy, she veered toward her would-be lover, fixed in his place. The woman's form remained unchanged, but she bristled with power.
"Join me," she said, her voice amplified and echoing. "Kill the servant within you!"
With that, she raised her radiant palm and offered the bitten heart to Benu. This, he understood, was the moment Adiya had spoken of.
The Clouded Valley members shouted from all sides, their temporary shock wearing off. Benu knew they would attack soon. Many of them were armed with daggers and spears.
He hesitated. This was the promise of a new life, free from lies, free from senseless wars and the burdens of custom. He recalled everything he had seen and felt: the tormented spirits in the Unformed Land, the warning, the pleas from Mbwiru Eikura, the heretic witch doctor who had rebelled against the old ways…
But that man had not been a kareeb, nor had he welcomed the fight. It was Benu who had attacked first, making the bloodshed inevitable. The heretic had defied the laws to spare his master—to save a life—not to become a god among men.