Hours later, the war parties of the Seven Stones had fanned out through the thickets and vines of their jungle home. Benu forged ahead alone, hoping that solitude would grant him clarity. He commanded a pair of gaunt, naked hounds. They were unearthly creatures, vicious and exact, born of carrion and old umbaru magic.
Each season, after the Igani, the emptied husks of tributes were carefully sewn together in the shapes of dogs, their bodies filled with herbal composts and dried leaves. A boiled skull of a beast was used as the head, attached just above a mane of feathers. With the blessing of the spirits, these zombified beings served as loyal minions at a witch doctor's beck and call.
The high priests had gifted two to Benu before his first Igani, but he had not used them. Pride had made him face that ritual war armed with his wits and his strength alone. Now, he thought only of survival. He had named the dogs Chena (which meant fever) and Owaze (meaning flight). Through the dense and wild undergrowth, they wove flawlessly in tandem, racing to the beat of phantom hearts.
A laugh, high in pitch and haunting, exploded through the leaves from an unknown source. Chena and Owaze froze, anxiously throwing their glances in all directions. Skidding to a halt, Benu spun to find the origin of the sound. He clasped the dagger on his belt, hearing the familiar shrill as he drew it.
The voice cackled. In the jungle gloom, the shadows had a way of hiding things. Suddenly, a small pouch no bigger than a child's palm fell from the canopy above. Benu instinctively edged away, for he knew to fear the thousand curses that could be contained within.
His dogs, however, did not. Darting for the object as though they were fighting for a fresh bone, they tore into the bag with their fangs, releasing a sickly green cloud of dust. The hounds stumbled as if disoriented from vertigo. As they struggled to catch their bearings, Benu could only watch and wonder what fate had befallen them.
The unseen voice screamed a quick incantation: "Gowaia fen! Bo'ta!" The hiss of a small-grained rattle accentuated the call. This shook Benu into understanding. Together, the spell and the pouch were a sloppy attempt at mind control. It would have failed on Benu or any other able witch doctor, but the dogs were simple creatures, weak of will.
"Coward!" Benu yelled into the jungle.
Chena and Owaze growled with their fleshless mouths. They pounced, and with tooth and gnarled claw they swept at the exposed flesh between Benu's ceremonial vestments.
Dodging their savagery, the witch doctor grabbed a skull attached to his belt, treated with incendiary oils and magic. He hurled the object at his servants, and it ignited on contact. The pained effigy of a man flared to life, engulfing its targets. The hungry flames enveloped the beasts, but they pressed on nonetheless, their corpse bodies unfeeling and undeterred.
Benu evaded their advance. He cast a melodic counter curse, forming motes of blue energy from his mouth that he tore away and threw at the hounds like ghostly rags. This proved ineffective against the unseen voice's spell. Even if Benu could avoid the dogs, he knew that his enemy was preparing another attack.
To surrender would make everything as it should be, as the umbaru had practiced for thousands of years. But he could not comprehend yielding willingly.
Life in this realm should not be given up so easily. There is no need for this sacrifice... this Igani, the heretic had said. The words did not sound as dishonorable as they once had.
Benu strengthened his grip on his dagger, desperate to find an opening. As Chena and Owaze wailed with each step, the voice above them laughed, pleased with itself. Benu's throat tightened. His chest heaved with labored breaths. He sliced with his dagger, cutting through Chena's hide just as Owaze leapt toward him. The witch doctor dove to the ground, narrowly evading the assault. The hounds circled him, ready to strike.
Without warning, the emerald undergrowth behind Owaze broke, revealing a daughter of the Seven Stones. She was frightening to behold in her full feathered dress. Four gnarled horns rose from her mask, crowned by deep crimson plumage. The newcomer extended her palm before her lips, which were visible through a wedge cut in the bottom of her wooden guise. Then, with a long, guttural cough, she vomited a swarm of locusts that roiled into the trees above.
The hidden witch doctor screamed, and the hexed dogs slumped to the ground, their bodies still ablaze.
Within seconds the insects had found their target, stealing from him his camouflage and balance. A fall. A pained shout. A man's lifeless body upon the vine-covered floor. The many-toothed locusts, assured of their victory, scattered in a thousand directions like smoke.
Benu, although thankful for his life, could not help but feel guilty as he looked upon the corpse. His enemy's skin was swollen with welts, red boils that had formed after the hungry bites of the swarm.
"Do you see? Another umbaru killed without reason," the masked woman said. "Though we are not made for this shadow world, we must do what we can to survive it."
Benu recognized the voice immediately. "Adiya?" he replied, both shocked and horrorstruck. "You are not a witch doctor! Why are you here?"
"The spirits urged me to follow you, and it is good I obeyed." She cocked her head.
"The rules of the Igani forbid killing the witch doc—"
"Rules?" Adiya growled. "You talk of rules after everything you have seen? Mbwiru Eikura is not an earned thing; it awaits all umbaru. This you know. The high priests set these games in motion. The heretic from the Five Hills, he saw the truth. Why do you deny it?
"I..." Benu began, but he had no argument to offer, at least not one that he truly believed. She was right. The heretic was right.
Overwhelmed by a flood of emotion, Benu embraced Adiya and her words. It was more than just desire; it was the thrill of disobeying the stringent laws of the high priests. As Chena's and Owaze's remains lit the small enclave, Benu removed Adiya's mask and gently traced her lips with his finger. Without caution he kissed her, then pulled back and said, "To show we are as one in this."
Adiya grinned knowingly. She closed her eyes to invite further indulgence, and Benu leaned in. When their lips met, he was surprised to hear shouts and howls as a band of masked tribesmen leapt out of the surrounding jungle. In the wonderment of their distraction, both members of the Seven Stones had failed to recognize the danger.
The enemy's death wail and the flares that were once Benu's loyal hounds had summoned the witch doctors of the Clouded Valley tribe.