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The insistent call of the Unformed Land returned a thousandfold, nearly forcing Benu to his knees.
"With this you can remake the Teganze!" Adiya howled. "Never again will life be thrown away without meaning. Never again will lies poison the hearts of our people!"
Staring at the faces of the Clouded Valley villagers, Benu was filled with a profound sense of clarity. These people were wrong in their ways—that was clear—but they were not his enemies. He had no desire to fight them, for such was not the path of truth. He wished only to enlighten them.
"I cannot," Benu said.
Adiya crushed the heart in her hand, her body shooting bolts of energy in a tantrum, casting Benu with great force to the earth.
"Filth!" she cried. "Coward!"
As Benu struggled to his feet, his head dizzy and his vision blurred, he could no longer deny the spirits' summons. Death was coming, and the ancestors demanded audience. It must be a sign, he thought.
Shaking with concentration and gritting his teeth, Benu willed himself into the Ghost Trance. Milky azure tears fell from the stunned warrior's eyes. With each droplet, the veil of the shadow realm tore away, revealing the empyrean topography of the Unformed Land. His heart began to thunder. His gaze was directionless, but then he saw in the soft light thousands of chalky white eyes on humanlike beings of pure darkness.
At the center of the gathering stood a solitary figure, its shadowy arm beckoning Benu. A thought formed in his mind—an impression.
Benu trembled in apprehension as he stepped toward the spirit.
You are Benu, this I know.
Benu remained motionless. The spirits had never before spoken to him, never before communicated with such clarity.
You stray far from the truth. What is true is this: the Unformed Land is not as the high priests teach. The one you call heretic knew this. That is why he defied law.
Images swirled and flashed before Benu like smoke and lightning. He glimpsed the so-called heretic wandering through strange lands the young witch doctor did not know. A falling star blazed in the night sky, and Benu followed it to where it crashed on the earth—a small town beset by evil.
"If he knew, then why did he leave? Why did he not teach his kin?"
All umbaru walk their own paths. No two are the same. He will teach in his own way, and you will teach in another. You, Benu, straddle the world of shadow and the Unformed Land as if you were born at the border between them. It is this connection that will prove to be your greatest tool.
"What is it that you wish me to teach?"
Life in the shadow world is precious. It should not be wasted. The umbaru wars do not benefit the Unformed Land. Mbwiru Eikura is a land eternal, this is so. But there is sorrow as well as joy here, just as there is in your world. These are the truths you will teach.
"This I saw when I gazed upon the spirits sacrificed during the Igani," Benu replied.
You saw, but you did not believe.
Benu was speechless. The words were sharp and true.
There is another truth as well. The phantom motioned over Benu's shoulder. There, the veil between worlds softened, and Adiya in her ascension stood frozen in time.
"She is Adiya," Benu said, "wife of our clan's eldest high priest. She is a kareeb, and in being so, a god."
She is no god. The figure's orblike, unchanging eyes somehow showed disapproval. This is a demon.
With those words, Adiya's body melted and, in an act that defied the laws of reality, reconstituted to reveal another creature entirely. Before Benu writhed Adiya's naked torso atop countless limbs of tentacles, each covered in hundreds of bile-rimmed mouths. Three horns rose through her ratty hair. In lieu of a jaw, a gaping orifice pulsed at the bottom of her head, slavering in anticipation of a meal.
"Demon..." Benu shuddered. He had heard of them, ancient evils born of the ages and beyond understanding. Never had he seen one.
The demon sensed your doubt and was drawn to our sacred jungle.
"To what purpose does it haunt me?"
The spirit raised its arm, conjuring new images. Benu saw himself eating of the heart. Despite Adiya's claims, it did not grant him godlike powers. It did nothing. The spectral vision transformed again to show Benu cast out from the Seven Stones, left to wander the Teganze a kareeb, alone and destitute, consumed by sadness and shame. All the while, Adiya followed close by.
It would have made you eat of the heart and abandon everything that you are. Only afterward would you have realized how grave a mistake you had made. In the years to come, the creature would have gorged on your tormented spirit, as it has countless others. But when tempted by the demon, you refused its offer. Why?
"We umbaru are not weak or fearful, as the demon claimed. We follow the old ways out of honor and pride. Fighting those who hold tight to custom will accomplish nothing. I must teach them.
This time, the thoughts came from all the figures as if they were communicating in unison.
Yes. Blind you were, but no longer. Before us stands a teacher. A spiritual leader and a healer. A warrior who defends life but knows the necessity of death. Before us stands a witch doctor.
"What of the demon?" Benu asked. Only the lead spirit replied.
It was you who led it here. It is you who must drive it away. Great is that task, but remember always that the spirits are here to guide you. We are bound eternal to you by the Unformed Land.
Benu bowed his head. "I thank you—"
Without warning, the Unformed Land disappeared in a stunning flash of light. Benu opened his eyes as if awakening from a dream.
He could hear Adiya approaching, a slithering sound like that of snakes squirming through mud. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed her true form as it had appeared to him in the Unformed Land.
He leapt backward as one of the creature's tentacles whipped out in a low, sweeping arc. The appendage screamed through the air, slicing into the torsos of two nearby umbaru. As the other villagers turned and ran, the demon wailed, sending waves of energy rippling out from its body.
The barrage knocked Benu off his feet, and he slammed into a rock outcropping. His head swam from the trauma as he rolled to his side. A few villagers mustered a defense, firing darts or jabbing with ceremonial daggers. Adiya, unstoppable in this form, easily swatted the attacks away.
The villagers were going to die. He was going to die.
The demon tore through the defending villagers. Waves of violet energy cascaded off its body, leveling huts and tossing umbaru into the air like mojo dolls. Adiya's tentacles wrapped tight around necks, legs, and torsos. The bile-rimmed mouths devoured flesh and bone.
The witch doctor marched toward the creature, lifting the elder high priest's abandoned blade and a spear from the ground. "Demon!" Benu roared. "Leave this place!" He hurled the spear, and it sailed high, barely nicking Adiya's shoulder. But it was enough to draw the demon's ire.
Adiya tossed aside the lifeless bodies held by her tentacles, and turned. The Clouded Valley defenders risked glances from behind the huts where they had taken cover. Just as Benu had hoped, they slowly trickled away, disappearing into the safety of the thick jungle.
Benu ran the blade across his open palm and then formed a tight fist, drawing more blood from the wound. "I am Benu of the Clan of the Seven Stones. In me flows the power of my people!"
"Your people abandoned you." The demon's otherworldly laugh echoed. "You are alone."
"I am bound eternal to the Unformed Land. I am the living bridge to Mbwiru Eikura! At my side stand the spirits of the realm beyond. Always they guide me with their wisdom. And sometimes..."
The witch doctor opened his palm and cast the blood in front of the demon. Adiya's many mouths frothed with saliva at the scent of their next meal.
—"They aid me with their strength!"
A pool of pale green energy erupted around Adiya. In an instant, a hundred unearthly arms rose, reaching through the veil separating this world from Mbwiru Eikura. The angered limbs grasped and clawed at the demon, robbing the creature of its flesh.
Before Adiya could be ripped apart, magic exploded from its body, dissolving the spirits' arms into wisps of jade-colored smoke. A tentacle coiled around Benu's neck and dragged him forward until his face was inches from the pulsating mouth on the demon's head. Its putrid breath washed over him.
Benu thrashed as the tentacle's maws began chewing at his neck. The mouths tore deep, devouring whatever flesh and blood they touched. The witch doctor's hands went limp from the pain, and he was dimly aware of the sickle slipping slowly through his fingers. Mustering the last reserves of his strength, he tightened his grip. Benu kicked hard against the demon's chest, and the creature briefly recoiled... enough for the young umbaru to find his opening.
He thrust the blade into his enemy's brow, pushing it through the back of the demon's head. A look of disbelief flashed across its inhuman eyes before its body shuddered like a baree tree caught in a violent wind. Tentacles flailed in the air, hurling Benu aside.
The thing called Adiya withered and crumpled to the earth, lifeless.
The world around Benu seemed to slow as he lay on his back, blood cascading from his neck. Trees at the village's edge swayed with a light breeze. The calls of birds and beasts echoed from the wilds. The sun disappeared below the horizon, signaling an end to another Igani.
Death took him shortly afterward. Initially, he struggled against it, confused that fate had led him here and afraid that nothing he had learned would reach the ears of his kin. But just before his heart beat for the last time, he remembered the words of the spirits...
You, Benu, straddle the world of shadow and the Unformed Land as if you were born at the border between them. It is this connection that will prove to be your greatest tool.
... and was at peace.