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The war began at sunrise, as it always did.
Benu and ten other witch doctors from the Clan of the Seven Stones stalked into the heart of the Teganze as swift and silent as panthers. Only the faint rattle of bone and iron charms dangling from their tribal masks warned of their presence. Striped in white, yellow, and red paint and decorated in bright bokai feathers, their bodies blended with the vibrant jungle around them.
Soon the emerald canopy grew thick, leaving the undergrowth in perpetual gloom. Benu pricked up his ears at every sound, listening for any hint of movement... any hint of his human prey.
The Igani Bawe, the Harvest of Souls, had come.
It was Benu's first ritual war, and his heart thundered like a drum in anticipation. Elsewhere in the wilds, perhaps close by, rival witch doctors from the Five Hills and Clouded Valley tribes were hunting as well, called to action by their high priests just as Benu and his kin had been.
The Seven Stones war party stopped to rest within the borders of the Five Hills. Two witch doctors slipped through the trees ahead to scout for signs of their enemies.
"Do you tremble at the battle to come?" Benu's elder, Ungate, whispered at his side. A single ivory horn, crowned by violet plumage, extended from the top of his fearsome wooden mask.
"I do not," Benu replied.
"Show me your hand."
Benu breathed to calm his nerves before obeying. He was pleased to see that his hand was motionless.
"Do you fear the battle to come?" Ungate edged closer, lowering his voice.
"All men fear. Such is the way of this world of shadow. My hand is still because I know this truth. If I hide from it, that emotion will control me," the young witch doctor responded.
Ungate lightly gripped Benu's shoulder in approval. The latter sighed in relief. He was not afraid, but he was anxious. He had longed for this day throughout the years of his training. There was no greater honor than to battle in the Igani. It was this ancient ceremony that had allowed his people and their faith to endure for generations. By sundown, when the hunt drew to a close, Benu would either return home in triumph or die at the hands of a rival tribe.
Each outcome was honorable in its own way. If he captured tributes, he would earn the praise and admiration of his kin. If he himself was taken, his spirit would be freed from this shadow world and ushered into the true reality of Mbwiru Eikura, the Unformed Land.
Such was his destiny as a witch doctor, a guardian of umbaru heritage and a living bridge between this world and the other. So it had always been for those of his station. So it would always be.
"To live is to sacrifice." He raised his head as his chest swelled with pride.
Ungate completed the old umbaru words. "To sacrifice is to live."
A scout glided out of the surrounding jungle, using hand signals to relay what he had seen: a Five Hills witch doctor. Alone.
The warriors sprang into action. They forged through the undergrowth, stretching out into a tight semicircle. The jungle thinned until they emerged into an area known as the Hills of Mist. Before long, they found the man shrouded in the low-lying clouds: an elderly witch doctor, his tribal mask as scarred and weathered as his skin.
Ungate kneeled, pulling a dart blower the length of his forearm from his belt and placing it through an opening in his mask. He sent a dart laced with the poison of the uapa toads whistling toward the enemy. It pierced the man's back before he even knew he had been found. The paralysis was swift; the elder sank to his knees in moments. That was the limit of the poison's effects. The intent was to injure and capture. Killing opponents in this stage of the Igani was a deplorable taboo.
Clearly outnumbered and defeated, the enemy witch doctor yielded as custom dictated.
"Seven Stones..." he said. "You come far into my lands."
"To find a worthy tribute," Ungate replied. "You are the great Zuwadza, yes?"
"It is so." The old man bowed his head.
Benu watched the exchange from afar, taking in the movements of his more experienced kin. He had studied the rules of battle well, but seeing them unfold before his eyes filled him with a sense of completion, of culminating everything he had ever learned and believed was right.
"You are a greater warrior than I." Ungate stepped forward and embraced Zuwadza. "Here we are enemies, but in Mbwiru Eikura we are brothers eternal. I await my chance to meet you there."
Zuwadza rose on his own, the poison's effects already dwindling. Benu tipped his chin down out of respect as he drew near. He envied the elder. Tonight the high priests would end his suffering. The elder's blood and organs would be offered to the spirits of the Unformed Land not only to nourish that realm for those who would come later, but also to strengthen this world. Healthy crops, the change of seasons, and the very lives of the umbaru depended on his sacrifice. He was a hero in Benu's eyes.
The war party set out toward home. Zuwadza observed well Te Wok Nu'cha, the Final March. He held his head high, at peace with the fate that awaited him.
"Leave him!" A voice cut through the mists just as Benu and his kin reached the jungle's edge. The entire party, Zuwadza included, whirled in confusion, searching for the speaker.
"Leave him and go. There is no reason to end his life. He has much yet to teach." A witch doctor emerged from the low clouds, adorned in paint, feathers, and mask as all participants of the Igani were. From the markings scrawled on his body, Benu learned that he was of the Five Hills.
"I am theirs by law," Zuwadza said. From his tone, it seemed as if he was not surprised by the turn of events. "They are only acting as they have been taught."
"The spirits do not want your life, master," the other Five Hills witch doctor replied.
Ungate pointed a ceremonial dagger at the rival. "You are wrong to interrupt Te Wok Nu'cha."
"So the high priests tell you. They command these wars, not the spirits. Life in this realm should not be given up so easily. There is no need for this sacrifice... this Igani. It is a tool of fear and control."
Benu's kin hissed in disapproval. Rage filled him as well. He had never heard of someone defying the sacred laws of the Igani. It was clear this man had been taken by madness.
"Begone!" Ungate roared.
The younger Five Hills witch doctor ignored the call, walking forward with his open palms held in the air. "I offer all of you life. Return to your village. Ask the high priests what they have truly seen in the Unformed Land, what the spirits have said. I wish only to spare my master."
Overcome with anger, Benu drew his dagger and lunged at the heretic. The foe swiftly thrust out his hand, and a wisp of bluish-green energy exploded from his palm. The spirit bolt was carefully placed; it glanced off of Benu's shoulder with just enough force to knock him to the ground, momentarily dazed.
"Release my master. That is all I ask!" the man pleaded.
Ungate and his allies charged forward in unison. Eyes heavy with regret, the Five Hills interloper slashed his hand downward and shouted a lethal hex, which was forbidden in the Igani. The Seven Stones warriors stumbled to their knees and clutched their throats as pale violet foam boiled out of their mouths. After only a few seconds, Benu's kin lay lifeless on the ground.
"You are young." The heretic loomed over him. "Truth will come easier to you."
Benu reached for his dagger where it had fallen, but the other witch doctor kicked it aside. Far off, voices drifted through the mists. Shouts and calls no doubt drawn by the battle.
"My kin..." the enemy witch doctor said. "If they find you, you will be sacrificed."
"A death to be proud of!" Benu yelled. Tears welled up in his eyes at the massacre he had witnessed, at the dishonorable deaths of his kin. "Something you know nothing about!"
"No. You have barely tasted life. You do not see its blessings. You are blind."
The last words rang in Benu's ears. A hex. His vision dimmed, and he thrashed wildly.
"You adhere to the commands of the high priests. You bow to fear."
Another curse took hold of Benu. His deepest fears roiled up from his soul, filling him with uncontrollable terror. Although blind, he sensed his body moving, racing through the jungle, and somehow he knew where to set his feet. All the while, the voice of the heretic, the man who had defiled Benu's first Igani, whispered to him like a phantom at his side.
"Go. Run home. Look in places unseen. Ask questions unanswered. Seek truth."