"To live is to sacrifice. To sacrifice is to live," Benu whispered into the humid air as painted bodies shifted around him. The Igani Bawe had come again, earlier than expected, and the Seven Stones villagers were busy preparing for the war, which would begin at sunrise. The battles usually followed the change of seasons, but only a week had passed since the last Igani.
Benu sat with his back to the bonfire at the center of the village, pondering recent events and watching the shadow of his lean frame thrash as the flames clawed at the sky. Guwate'ka and the other high priests claimed that the spirits demanded the war in response to the actions of the heretic Five Hills witch doctor. Despite Benu's silence on the matter, word of Zuwadza and his wayward pupil had spread from the Five Hills like wildfire via the trade routes that existed among the umbaru in times of peace. It was said that the heretic had even slaughtered his own kin when they found him in the jungle. In the end, he and his master had disappeared into the wilds and had not been heard from since.
Rumors followed the stories. Some described the errant witch doctor as a madman who had massacred the Seven Stones warriors out of sheer bloodlust. Others told of the heretic eating the flesh of slain witch doctors and becoming a cannibal—a kareeb. Such an act was unthinkable, for those who committed it were denied entrance to Mbwiru Eikura. Benu dismissed these tales for the meaningless and unfounded gossip that they were.
"In this Igani, we will purify what has been tainted!" Guwate'ka bellowed from his place near the fire, ringed by the clan's other high priests. "We will assure the spirits that we remain faithful!"
The villagers around Benu roared their approval, but he remained silent. Gone was his pride in the Igani. Gone was the clarity of self and purpose that the ritual had once offered him. There was only doubt now, a heavy, gnawing unease that sat in the pit of his stomach. Even here, surrounded by his kin, graced with the songs of his people, he could not help but think of the confused spirits he had seen in the Ghost Trance. The memory of them haunted him in waking and in dreams.
Had it all been a figment of his imagination, or was it real? He felt torn between the urge to have faith in the high priests' words and the growing desire to question what they had said.
Benu closed his eyes and shook his head in disgust. What is this sickness in me? The spirits of Mbwiru Eikura are not upset. Why now, after a lifetime of clarity, do I question the ways of my people?
The young witch doctor turned toward the fire in time to watch Guwate'ka enter the Ghost Trance, azure light glowing across his features. Benu rose and joined in the dancing at the fire's edge, telling himself that everything he had seen was merely the remnant of a curse placed on him. The high priests were infallible. Their connection with Mbwiru Eikura was beyond Benu's comprehension.
Glistening with sweat, Benu gave himself to the song and dance. His worries faded. For a brief moment the ritual rekindled his pride, and he felt the longing for tomorrow's honorable combat.
Suddenly he felt the Unformed Land and the spirits within it summoning him again. The sensation was dire, almost frantic. Movement flashed at the corner of his eye, shifting among the shadows near the fire. What resembled dozens of dark spectral hands reached out toward him, grasping and clawing.
The spirits... come to take revenge for the lies they were told, Benu thought as he stumbled back, wild and anxious. When he looked at the fire again, however, he saw nothing out of the ordinary.
My mind is playing tricks on me, he tried to convince himself, but he could not shake off his unease. The world pressed in on him, the bodies, paint, and feathers blending into a suffocating sea of color and sound.
Benu staggered away from the fire and walked among the empty huts, gasping for breath. A cold hand shot out from the darkness and clasped his shoulder. With the speed of a corpse spider's strike, he turned, unsure of what awaited him. There, bathed in shadow save for her face, stood a woman. A beautiful woman.
"Benu," she said. "Strange that you avoid the ritual on this glorious night."
"Who are you?" he offered, his voice recovering from the startle.
"I am Adiya, wife of Guwate'ka."
Benu lowered his eyes out of respect. He was unworthy to look upon the wife of a high priest. Those of her revered position rarely left their huts, even in ceremony.
Adiya cupped her hand below Benu's chin, raising it until their eyes met. "You have my permission to look. I have come to see if the spirits spoke truly about you..."
"What—" Benu began, but Adiya gently pressed her fingers on his mouth, silencing him.
"They say something troubles you. An illness of sorts. I see it too."
Benu looked away, distraught that one of his kin knew of the confusion that plagued him.
"Be not ashamed. You are in good company here. The high priests believe me to be a healer. This poison that lingers in your mind can be purged," she said.
"And you would heal me?"
"I would," she assured him with an indefinable, loving energy. Adiya caressed Benu's arm with her hand and then grabbed his wet palm.
Benu obliged, enticed by the woman's confidence. Once the lit forms of the village had become no more than untouchable stars in the distance, Adiya stopped, beckoning for the young witch doctor to kneel upon a woven mat. There spread out before him were the tools of his trade: his body paint; his bejeweled dagger; his fearsome horned mask, adorned in feathers and wrought in the visage of an inhuman scowl; and an assortment of potions and talismans.
Adiya appeared only slightly older than Benu. She was alluring, strong yet with softness along her defined hips. Her sun-kissed face was rich in color like the bark of a healthy baree tree. The wind pulled at wild plumage attached to metal cuffs at her wrists and ankles.
"The paint," she said, scooping up a handful of the grainy paste, "from the marrow of the most fearsome jungle beasts. May it instill courage in you when you face your enemies." Adiya smeared the cool mixture over Benu's face.
"A claw dagger, lethal as the behemoth that shed it. Carefully and precisely will you guide its hungry edge." The woman slung Benu's weapon at his side.
The witch doctor froze as Adiya suddenly leaned forward. Her lips pressed against his before he could turn away. "A kiss, to show we are as one in this," she added afterward.
"A mask, bled from the nightmares of our forefathers," Adiya continued as she lifted the wooden visage and placed it on Benu, "to ward off the spirits that conspire against our good hunting."
Adiya stared intently at him. "Honor is more than a hollow death in battle."
Benu's eye twitched at the implication. "There is no hollow death in the Igani."
"Is that what you believe, or is that what you have been taught?" Adiya asked. "The spirits say you walk two paths and waver between destinies. One side, forever a child of the Seven Stones, seeking a grace the high priests can never give. The other, a wildfire, unforgiving and bright, bringing newness and life to these stagnant jungles. Tomorrow, you will be made to choose."
Her words bordered on heresy, but Benu could not ignore the fact that, in some small way, they reflected his recent inner turmoil. "Which is correct?" he asked. "What is the gain to be had by either?"
"To provide those answers is not my place. I only advise. But know this: the spirits are uneasy. They say we umbaru are no longer unique or worth celebrating. They say we lie to ourselves when we claim that our sacrifices are for the whole of our people. They say—" Adiya hesitated. "No. It is not my place. I am not a high priest."
"Speak. I will not judge." Benu teetered on the balls of his feet, enraptured.
Adiya whispered, barely audible, "They say we are blind."
Benu's pulse raced as memories of the heretic witch doctor flashed through his mind.
"The high priests act as if they speak to the spirits daily, but it is not so," Adiya continued. "Often, Guwate'ka and those of his station only glimpse the Unformed Land in passing. The Igani, the laws that rule our lives, they are there for the high priests to control us, to suppress who we are."
"I am sworn to uphold our ways," Benu replied, but his voice lacked conviction.
"You have seen evidence in Mbwiru Eikura that things are not as the leaders say, yes?"
Benu swallowed, unsure how safe it was to divulge what he had witnessed. "I have seen many things in the Unformed Land. Some are true; some are mere interpretations. Such is the nature of that place."
Adiya looked into Benu's eyes, narrowing her own. Her mouth stretched wide in a smile, and then she clapped her hands together. "Yes, yes. You have seen something. The spirits spoke the truth."
Suddenly they heard voices close by, echoing off the hut walls. Two men were wandering through the outskirts of the village. Adiya crouched low, and Benu mirrored her. His skin prickled with fear at the thought of being caught not only with a high priest's wife, but also questioning the revered leaders' teachings. After a moment, the speakers passed by and continued on their way.
"I know the price of station," Adiya said. "I know the burden you bear as a witch doctor." Her brow knitted in anger. "It is unspoken slavery. I have come to you in the hopes of liberation, that you might change our ways."
Benu regarded the dagger at his side and the carved mask on his face. "I do not understand. Why do you help me prepare for the Igani if you believe the ancient ways are wrong?"
"To see the right path, you must first look upon the wrong. At sunrise, you will perform the harvest as you have been taught, but you will do so with eyes open. This is what the spirits foretold."
Adiya stepped back and peered at her work. "Before me is not a man, but a witch doctor. A warrior of Mbwiru Eikura. A champion, not a servant. Never forget this."
Benu rose, his mind wild with thoughts of radical change. The possibilities of what he might soon learn invigorated him. He had a purpose. It was the most complete he had felt in days.
"Good hunting," said Adiya.