Seals of darkness

Chapter 7 ; Hopes

Drums were still beating even though they had been doing so for more that two days without rest now. Every Sal'sarene was at the point of collapsing, their ritual garments sticking to their skin with sweat, yet the spirits were inexorable. Dust was glued to the feet and legs all the way to the knees and somewhere, the skin on feet and shins was bleeding from strain caused wounds. Nm'bopo knew that already even before he came near enough to see the huge fires and hear the continuous drums and singing. Such a monumental shift in the Spirits' balance did not go unnoticed and many villages throughout Africa were in the similar state of emergency.

Nm'bopo sighed with exhaustion of his own. Placing his palms on his knees, he allowed himself a small moment of respite. He had been running all night across the planes and through the jungle, and the dawn was already splitting the horizon in two. The village of Zumbossi was just up ahead, with the glow of their huge fires and the sound of all the commotion reaching him as a welcome. Almost there. Swallowing down his exhaustion, he stood up and ran on. He had to do this despite the dangers. There was no other way. The dance of the Sal'sarene encouraged him with their ominous calling, their feet beating in time with his. Only a desperate need could call these sacred dancers forth to ask the spirits for assistance.

He ran on, to certain death, for Ms. Barker, for her friends and for himself. It had been years since his exile, and he wowed to abide by the chief's words, but this was too important. The drums echoed the beating of his heart. Just a hundred or so more paces, and he'd be there. He could feel the heat of the ritual fires now. They were stretching their golden tongues into the sky, spewing out great clouds of black smoke and pillars of fire that were replacing the still fallen sun. And he could make out the shapes of the dancers spinning around these flames, immune to the roaring heat in their ritual frenzy.

Exhausted, and on the brink of his endurance, Nm'bopo stumbled the last few feet and crawled on the rest of the way, until strong arms grabbed him by his shoulders turning him on his back. He barely recognized the angry warrior now towering above him :

" You should not have come, traitor !"; Kaheina came into his view

He was strong, with tight muscles and many earrings in his ears. His black hair was very short with the exception of his two thin brides that fell from the right side of his scalp to his shoulder, and he held a spear and a big leather shield. Once long ago, Kaheina had been a friend. But not any more. There were no friends left for Nm'bopo here.

" I could spear you where you fell, and be done with your disgrace… "; Kaheina spoke while Nm'bopo panted :" …but I won't. At least we'll get the chance for a fair fight when you recover. "

Seeing his old friend like that was everything Nm'bopo was expecting it to be and more. His heart was tearing inside with guilt and burdens for his past misdeeds. He thought he had hardened himself for it, but it still hurt like a festering wound. But past sins were in the past, and the future promised worse. He had to stay strong, no matter what.

" Kaheina… "; he breathed in a silent whisper :" … I've… found it… I've found it !"

Those words hardened Kaheina's face. Without further hesitation, he whistled a pinched call, thus summoning his fellow warriors to help carry Nm'bopo to the chief. Nm'bopo didn't know them, but they knew him ; the whole tribe knew him, and they treated him with all the disdain and contempt Kaheina had to offer. Likely, any one of them would leave him to starve rather than carrying him. And instead they were carrying him to the chief !

His knees and thighs burning from the run, Nm'bopo took a look at his former home. The village of Zumbossi was big for an average tribe of Africa. Big and empty. All of its people were at the sacred place, calling to the spirits to avert the anger while the sal'sarene circled around the fire in their ritual dance. Huts of mud, straw and wood with hides for curtains and doors stood dark and discomforting, screaming at him that he didn't belong here any more. Everywhere he'd turn, he found only rejection, even from the ground his feet were dragging on. Here and there, baskets of twigs or clay pottery lay scattered about, all forgotten left behind in the time of emergency.

They swiftly approached the sacred place, the burial ground of their exalted tribesmen, where the ancestral spirits would gather to watch over their descendants. Offering a silent prayer to the spirits of his ancestors, Nm'bopo rose his sight towards the crowd of his former people. They all backed away before him as the two warriors carried him by the huge fires, even the sal'sarene stopped their ritual dance. Some of them collapsed on the ground with exhaustion and more tribesmen had to carry them away. Others looked ready to fall, too. Garbed from head to toe in long tufts of grass with the ritual paint of red and white outlining the ancient runes on their faces, the female dancers, despite their ailing feet, stood proud and defiant, ready to spill out their last ounce of strength for the safety of their village.

The drums ceased. The people quieted. Only the crackling flame gave off any sound, furiously devouring wood and coals and whirling hot air into the sky. They placed Nm'bopo on the ground before the seat of his former chief Ungala who gave the same welcome which everyone did ; a cold angry glare.

Ungala was a mighty chief. The tribe flourished under his rule, and his people respected him. His word was the law above anything else. His return here was Nm'bopo's second time he had disobeyed that word, and angry murmurs started to rise in the crowd. Ungala was clothed in leopard skin, with hide for the cloak and the head of the great cat for his crown. In his hand he held a carved spear of the chiefs, and was sitting on the throne of his ancestors, a chair of bone and wood, strapped together by leather bonds. Standing up, he observed the kneeling Nm'bopo with cold eyes which held no mercy in their depths.

" Was it not enough to you, nameless-one, "; Ungala spoke :" that you have to come back for more ?"

" Hate me… for my sin… "; Nm'bopo panted, still tired :" … but don't… deny my aid… "

" Your aid ?"; the chief's lips pulled back before a snarl coming closer, and than he thundered out the same words for all to hear :" Your aid !? You should be bond to the Tree of Pain to have the vultures peck on your foul guts ! And you would have been… You would have been, had you not been like a son to me !"

Nm'bopo shut his eyes, unable to gaze at his chief any more. He had to come back. He had to, no matter how it would hurt.

" I've found it. "; he finally spoke:" I've found the dark one. "

Women and children gasped in a pinch and men drew closer to hear more clearly. It was the chief's stare that quelled them before he looked back at Nm'bopo :

" You are certain it is so ?"; he asked in somewhat restrained voice, his anger held back :" The evil which spells doom of all men ? The evil of ancient times, when we were not free under the sky ? You… claim you have found it ?"

Nm'bopo found the strength to meet Ungala's eyes :

" Yes. "; he nodded. And his expression left no room for doubt

Someone started to whimper silently, and children hugged their mothers more tightly. The bane of all men had returned.

" That is why you came back… "; and old voice spoke further back, and the people gave the newcomer room to approach with bows of respect :" … It is aid you seek, not for you, nor for the world, but for a woman… "

An old mother, older than any living in the tribe, slowly came forth with the aid of her huge carved staff. She was cloaked in a gray rag bound with raven feathers which glistened pure on the huge flames, and her hair, white with age, was entwined with tufts of dry grass. Oldmamah, as they called her, had a mask of chard wood over her face, with only her blind, glassy eyes visible to the others trough mask's eye-holes. She was the village medicine-woman for many generations, and she herself didn't remember her name any more. Oldmamah was the only name she had.

" Yes, nameless-one ; I have seen much of the fate that hounds your tracks. "; she spoke and her voice was heavy with age and exhaustion :" Sean, and heard even more of the fate which will now descend upon us. "

" Oldmamah… "; Nm'bopo lowered his eyes on the ground in a gesture of respect.

" What once was, shall come again !"; she rose her voice as much as she could, weak and withered, for all the tribe to hear :" And there will be no freedom, no places to hide ! All who rise to fight, will be swept like dust on the wind, for the evil of the ancients has bean reborn !"

Men and women and warriors alike fell to their knees and wept to the sky and to the spirits of their ancestors for salvation, and mothers clung to their children more tightly, as if to shelter them from the cold. But the wailing stopped again as the chief spoke :

" Have the spirits, our salvation ?"; he asked the old one :" What can we do against such a threat ?"

And Oldmamah pointed at Nm'bopo :

" He knows the way. "; she said :" You have done well in coming back, nameless-one. The beast is still week. His strength will grow quickly, but he is week yet. You must bring the woman here, before he devours her from within !"

" Here ?" Ungala asked strongly. " You want me to let the beast within the domain of my tribe. "

" Yes, Chief. " Oldmamah nodded vigorously. " Into this place of power. Here, where it will be surrounded by the spirits of our ancestors. It is here that we stand a chance against it. "

Ungala frowned. He clearly did not like the idea, but he nodded.

" Tell Kaheina who to seek. "; the Chief told Nm'bopo :" You are too tired to go back. He and his warriors will bring this woman to us. "

But Nm'bopo rose to his feet with defiant and determined stare :

" The others will fail without me. "; He said.

" Don't disobey me again, Nm'bopo !"; Ungala grated threateningly, but Oldmamah placed her palm on the chief's shoulder :

" The truth, he speaks. "; she said :" It is the will of the High Spirits, for him to go. "

" If I bring her to you, "; Nm'bopo faced Oldmamah :" will you help her ?"

She just turned around and slowly started to limp towards her hut, feeling the way with the aid of her huge staff :

" I will do what I can. "; she spoke, tired, slowly lumbering :" Both for her, and for us… for all of us… "

Tonight, yet another offering had been brought before her. She was sitting on her throne of alabaster stone, sculpted and carved to appear like a pile of human skulls. Her throne room was a tall, long chamber of solid granite blocks with barely a few torch holders, but enough for slaves to see. Numerous stone columns, dressed in a fat layer of marble cast long shadows over the fine hand-sown carpets depicting flame and devastation, as well as the naked parts of the black floor. And but a bare few of her strongest children were present ; they had their duties and she didn't need more than a few. Not for this meeting in any case.

The humans were frightened. She could see it. She could smell it… He could smell it. He ; not She ! Their eyes were submissively stuck to the floor as she stood up and observed the gift that willingly walked into their midst. The most beautiful of peasant girls and the strongest of men ; a price to be paid for the safety of the village. All ten in total, they were on their knees before their new masters, garbed in silk, gold and lace to enhance their value. The smell of them was delicious. She could feel the hunger ebbing in the back of his mind, but he quelled it with iron will. He ; Not She !

Approaching closer, he let himself feel their thoughts. A jumble of chaotic threads through their feeble minds. Stopping before a young girl with long blond hair, he placed his palm on her chin, lifting her face to meet his. She had green eyes full of fear and despair, which met his reluctantly. Yes, she seemed fitting enough to please his… other… appetites. As the patriarch of the clan, it was his right to have the first pick of the crop.

" Sinks and falls the hope which is dead… "; he whispered to her, and she shivered, restraining her sobbing :" … in the arms of the god who is dead. Has died that which could have, but for pains that cannot, yet. "

The girl's soul was bathing in fear now. It was a wonder she didn't try to flee yet. But he knew she would. He knew, and didn't want to kill her for it. Extending his will upon her, he dominated her mind, and like a puppet on his strings, she stood up and walked to stand by his throne. She was his choice. As for the rest they would become slaves to his children. Such was the deal. Every three months, ten must come from the village to serve and obey, so their home would be safe. And there were many surrounding villages. Neatly sorted throughout the year, the clan would receive their due twice in a week. And considering the hunt that was more than enough blood to go around. Slaves were often killed, but most slaves managed to last for months.

A movement caught in the corner of his eye made him act by grabbing the long dagger aimed at his heart. It was an insolent male, standing in the back of the group, trying to get revenge, or justice or whatever he thought he might accomplish. His companions screamed and started to flee like mindless rats, all but the golden-haired girl who stood motionless by his throne. He didn't bother with them, leaving them for the sport of his children. Instead he focused on his attacker.

This human was strong, for what ever good it could do him. One swift blow, and he fell before her, gasping for air. She felt the fire of thirst grow stronger, urging her on. There was nothing like a good fight to open up the appetite. Despite his broken ribs, the man stood up and lunged his blade at her again. This time she welcomed it on her chest, shattering the knife like glass. It was a pleasure to feast after that, as the human floundered weekly in her arms… She had never tasted anything so sweet. She wanted more of it… she wanted all she could grasp… All the red, all the blood…

... bright light assaulted her eyes and she squinted against the glee. It was day time, but the sun was too bright and too hot, a cruelty she was not prepared for. Pain in the back of her head was a dull throb of memory as she strained to collect her thoughts. Eidolon… Yes, that was her name. Eidolon Barker… It was an effort to get to her memories. Somehow, she didn't feel like herself at all. Something was trying to pull her down, to take over her. She fought it with all her strength, but it just laughed like a beast. And than it simply receded, just like that, as if casting her away. She did feel cast away after that.

" I'm… not you… "; she whispered :" I'm me… I'm meeee… "

" She has woken. "; someone said close by in a strange accent… It didn't sound like English at all, but that was all she could understand with the light burning at her. God, she felt thirsty. Somehow, she managed to get on her hands and knees, and lift herself from the floor. Her thick black hair fell like a curtain over her face as she dropped her head in panting, providing a merciful shroud against the brutality of the light. Even than she had to squint to catch some glimmer of sight. Instead, she started to rely on her touch to feel her surroundings. Wood on the flour… Yes, these were planks… And than her hand felt the cold surface of metal. Bars. She was in a cage. She felt them all around her in a square, rising above. Even crouching, she could feel the low ceiling. Trapped. Her sight got a little better, just well enough to see the iron bar she was holding. Oh, why is it so bright out here ?

" Out here ?"; she heard that voice again, and realized she had spoken these last words aloud

" Eidolon, are you all right ?"; a distant echo got to her… Yrona ! It was her ! She wanted to see her, but any effort to sharpen her visage resulted in pain. The best she could do was to catch a glimpse of the man next to the cage. He was a soldier in a strange uniform… No he was a German…

And than, it came back to her ; The expedition. The knight and her medallion… The attack on the camp, and the… She groaned under the effort of these memories.

" What have you done to her ?!"; someone shouted. It sounded like Jack, but he sounded different… hurt, or something.

" Close the tent flaps. "; the command came from the man close to the cage

As the brightness diminished, she managed to lift her gaze. A tent ? She was in a tent ? It felt more like a room full of spotlights. What kind of a tent was this ? She was trying to remember…

" Good morning, Frauline Barker. "; she herd the man say with a cold snicker :" I trust you've slept well ?"

Those words roused beastly anger in her and the desire to grind her teeth made her clench her jaw. No, she wanted to plunge her teeth in his neck. It made no sense at the time, but she was too enraged to contemplate it. Instead, she just growled.

The man before her pulled back a bit, but now she could see him more clearly. His green uniform was decorated by high ranking marks of the German army, a loose silver string, entwining around his left shoulder and under his arm, a cross-shaped medal on the right of his chest, and he had a monocle over his scared left eye. A pin in the shape of a metal eagle with spread wings glistened almost too brightly to be discerned. She also made out his officer's cap covering thinning grey hair, high black boots, and red strips which were sown in both sides of his trousers. A high ranking officer. She felt such anger towards him, she could barely think straight.

" But, where are my manners ?"; he grinned :" My name is Field Marshal Gunter Von Hanner, and you will be my honored guest… from now on. "

" What… Where… ?"; words were still an effort, yet she forced them out :" Why have you come… ?"

" A lot of questions, Frauline. "; he snickered again. She wanted to tear his face off for these snickers :" But, if you must know... We've come for the same reason you have ; to find some lost artifacts. Thanks to you, we have. "

At once she reached for the medallion, but there was none. Her medallion was gone. The Nazi frowned at her, and she slowly backed away from him, hitting the back grate of her cage. How could she let them take it away from her ? It was hers ! It was… Memories surged into her again. The medallion ! It was evil ! It took over her, and since than, she was torn in a constant struggle for control. Again she felt helpless and lost, but didn't let that show on her face. She had to stay unambiguous before the Nazis.

" Eidolon, what happened to you ?"; those words got trough her anger, dispersing it almost instantly

" Jack ? Jack, are you all right ?"; she shouted, still not able to see very far. God, it was as if she was blind !

" A bit battered, but I'll live. What hap… "

" Oh, make him shut up !"; Gunter waved his hand and Eidolon heard a dull sound of a punch. It made her anger flare up again, almost as bright as these cursed lights. Somewhere to her left, Yrona screamed, and Eidolon found herself growling. She was but an inch away from tearing trough these bars and killing every last one in this tent ! Somehow, she restrained herself, though she didn't know how. She was too week to stand up, let alone do something as absurd.

" That cage becomes you. You are quite interesting, growling and behaving like a wild animal. "; Field Marshal Gunter told her walking to a nearby writing desk. Yes, she could see a bit better now… Growling ? What was he talking about ? She did not growl ! He reached his gloved palm, taking up a familiar necklace on a cord and dangling it before his monocular :" It seems that your connection with this trinket extends beyond physical contact… "

Whatever anger she had before, seemed like a pale candle next to what was infesting her at this moment :

" Give. It. Back. NOOOOOOOOOW !"

She herd Yrona's attempt to suppress a scream and smelled the turmoil in her heart. Why was she frightened, all of the sudden ? It was stark terror that bloomed within her. Even Gunter stepped back. Yes, she could see clearly again. She could see him and Jack and Yrona, and many soldiers in the tent. They were all frightened, all terrified, staring at her, frozen like wax figures. Wax figures filled with blood. Blood… within them…

The entire tent was red to her now, all the colors different shades of sweet crimson, and what the others saw was something more disturbing. They saw a pair of amber-burning eyes, framed by a face twisted in anger and a jaw full of sharp teat, somehow gaping more than it was humanly possible. Eidolon was oblivious to that. All she cared about was getting the necklace back from Gunter, but the brightness returned again, and she was forced to cower in the corner of her cage.

Gunter closed the tent flap once more :

" You persist, Frauline, and we'll see what other ways we can find for taming you. "

Despite the pain of light, she met his eyes :

" Mark my words, "; she whispered to him in such a cold tone, her breath misted with frost :" I shall yet eat your heart out. "; and with a sharp hiss, she ducked behind her crouched knees to shield herself from the glee.

" We'll see, Frauline… "; he spoke, leaving the tent with the necklace in his hand :" We'll see… "

As he left the tent, Field Marshal Gunter went back to his thoughts. At first he thought this task was a worthy challenge, but now he was beginning to question his eagerness. This had become one of the few experiences he had that managed to shake him, and in such a short time too. No ; doubt could kill more easily than a man. He swiftly dismissed it from his thoughts. For now, the daylight kept Frau Barker in check, but the sun was to set eventually. Hopefully, the electric lights they brought would have the same effect, and if not, than they would probably have to kill her.

Taking his monocle off, he rubbed off some numbness from the corners of his eyes. This continent was too warm and dry for his liking. Fortunately it would all be over soon. Power was always dangerous, but it was also worth the effort in the end.

Once more he glanced at his prize. Who would have thought that a big sharp tooth in a bunch of strange feathers on a cord could hold such power. He'd have to find a way to tap into that power for himself somehow. It still surprised him of how well it was preserved, but then again, it was the legacy of an Arian race ! He was almost starving to get his hands on these gifts, yet, despite his efforts, it was still infusing the woman. Even unconscious, she had been clutching it so tightly in her fist, it took three men to pry it away from her.

" Have the prisoners closely watched. "; he gave an order to the guard at the tent entrance :" If there is trouble I'll be in my tent. "

" Jawohl mine Field Marshal !"; the man saluted.

Yes, in his tent where his personal occult library was. Maybe he could find some clues to unlocking the artifact.

" Hail Hitler !"; he left for his task, followed by the same reply and the clicking of the soldiers heals.

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