Chapter 8 ; A Blood Omen
Though his feet were aching with strain, Nm'bopo led Kaheina and six of his warriors to the human camp, many miles to the east. The day had long since begun, yet the sun still had some time to reach its peek. Kaheina was swift to depart for he counted on Nm'bopo slowing them down, but to his surprise, the man was the one who was running the fastest as if the very Ancestors gave him haste. For his part Nm'bopo was actually glad for his former friend's actions, for a swift departure meant earlier arrival. He didn't allow himself to dwell on thoughts of failure. As far as he was concerned, Miss Barker would live because she had to live, and that was the width and breath of it.
The land was different as they ran across it now. None knew what was amiss, but there would be a tingle in the air, a whisper in the water, or a feeling in the earth which would bring chill to their bare feet along with the sense of things being not as they should be. Other creatures felt it too ; the caribous were increasingly aggressive, even the females, and the small band had to keep distance from the few herds which they came across. Most of the animal herds were in the same condition, and even the pack animals and predators were fighting each other more than it was common even for a mating season. The whole continent smelled of madness.
They didn't speak as they ran. Kaheina had few things to say to Nm'bopo, the others even less, and Nm'bopo said what he had to say long ago. Besides, any conversation would only spark more hostility between them, and as much as the others disliked the company of the Nameless-one, they had to restrain their temper. Too much was at stake for personal grudges.
With the pain in his feet and chest, Nm'bopo was speeding on eastward, always at the front of the party, minding to avoid the aggressive beasts which now roamed the earth. Fortunately, they were well armed for anything that would cross their path ; each warrior had a leather shield and a spear, but their main weapons were peashooters with a supply of poisonous thorns, saved for the end of their journey – silent and deadly. Kaheina even had a bow and a quiver of arrows ; it was not common in their tribe next to the peashooters, but he was an expert marksmen with the weapon.
Thus the small party moved across the plains of Africa, and by the time the sun reached its apex, they were already beyond the borders of their tribe.
Noon was almost upon them. As the sal'sarene were to be replaced by others, chief Ungala retired to his cottage to wait for an emissary from the nearby village of Makutu. Nm'bopo's return was most untimely, now that the relationships between the two tribes were beginning to restore, and frankly, he was glad to see the man go before the emissary arrived. To have the man see the Nameless-one back would be a disaster.
The Chief was exhausted with worry and sleepless nights, but he couldn't rest yet. Despite his exhaustion, the village still needed him. Maybe after the messenger had departed he'd be able to get some real rest, but as for now, he just needed to get out of the sun. As he entered his home he found a skinny, dust-covered figure waiting for him cross-legged on the floor. It was Mitadre, another of the village's medicine men. He was covered in white dust from head to toe including his very short hair and beard, and was holding a short stick with a pair of dried agama-fruit dangling on the leather strips bound to the top, and around his head was a wreath of leaves. He was Oldmamah's apprentice medicine man for the day when she would be called to join the village's Ancestors, which would not be soon, Ungala hoped.
Bare few people had the right to enter Chief's home uninvited, but Mitadre was one of those few. The cottage was large and decorated with wooden carvings and figures to protect all who dwelt in it from evil spirits – slender and tall for the most part, they represented people, animals, even masks, arrayed along the shelves on each wall. Some of these figures were filled with metal nails to nail the evil entity within the figurine so it wouldn't bother the living again until the nails would fall out. The center peace of this collection was a support beam of charred wood that rose from the center of the floor to the ceiling's crest, sculpted to resemble faces and heads one atop another. The floor was covered with an old sag in blue color laced with silvery threads, and there was a second, more comfortable throne in the corner in which Ungala could relax after a hard day.
The medicine man didn't make any gestures as his Chief entered, but his silence made the notice and the courtesy almost whisper in the air.
" What do you see. "; Ungala asked him. Mitadre had the gift of far-sight, almost as strong as Oldmamah's, but he didn't often go along with her interpretation of the events. What ever the differences between the two, Ungala was willing to listen to them both, even though advice he would receive were sometimes contradictory.
The medicine-men spilled a handful of bones in the dust just off the rug, and with his eyes fixed on them, he spoke :
" A time of great change is upon us... "; he whispered. Some of his teeth were missing and his voice was hissing because of it. He had put those teeth out himself as an offering during one of the rituals. :" And its herald is a woman… a white woman, the Bearer of the Seal of Darkness. "
She was a whiteskin ? Nameless-one didn't mention that :" Will they reach this woman in time ?"; Ungala asked. There was no need to tell who he meant.
" Yes. "; Mitadre spoke, louder this time :" But she won't reach us in time. With each passing moment the Beast gains in strength and her spirit is fading quickly. "
" And your advice ?"; the Chief asked :" Send more warriors to meet Kaheina as he returns, and have the woman killed ?"
It was then that Mitadre met Ungala's eyes :
" The Beast thrives upon the blood of others. It shall follow blood like the child follows mother, for it shall feed it like the mother feeds her child. Still, for all its cunning and unearthly intelligence, it is dominated by raw instinct. Lure it. And kill her. Without the woman for its vessel, the beast would be caged again. "
It made sense to the Chief , except for one thing :" And what of Kaheina and the Nameless-one ? They went to save the woman. "
" Her salvation is beyond all of us. "
" Oldmamah believes otherwise. "
" And might even be able to help her, if the woman reaches us in time, but that will never be. "; Mitadre gathered his handful of small bones and stood up :" Kaheina and all who went with him are rushing to their death. Your only choice, Great Chief, is to save who you can and sacrifice what you must, or to learn how to worship Night Everlasting. "
Ungala tried to think as he placed his leopard cloak and crown on the hook on the wall. He really tried, but having no sleep for two days made his reasoning really slow. A life of a white woman was nothing next to the safety of his village and all the villages in Africa, and yet it didn't seem right to simply walk out on her even though she was a blank face in his mind's eye. Further more, he was unwilling to simply abandon Kaheina and his party – most of all, the Nameless... Nm'bopo – and to hold them for lost. But was it necessary ? For the safety of all ?
" I shall consider your words. "; he said finally, adding more quietly :" Even the wisest can not see all endings from afar. "
" Consider quickly, Great Chief… "; restrained horror was at once tainting Mitadre's voice and the dried agamas started to rattle against his stick as he tried to still his arms :" … For our own endings are not as far as we've hoped… "
Ungala had an instant to ponder the ominous meaning of Mitadre's words before a scream reached him trough the leather flap of his dour, joined with countless other cries and woes. Mitadre simply closed his eyes, dropping his head in sorrow and still shaking in fear, before Ungala cloaked himself in the Leopard once again and rushed out to see the source of the commotion. It would not do to have his people see him without the Leopard.
The entire tribe that had been gathered upon the Sacred Place, was now fleeing past him, running away from the ritual fires. Pottery that broke and shattered in their frenzy was the smallest result of this chaos. Fear painted every face as their feet filled the air with fine dust stirred up in their running, blurring Ungala's vision. It was only after the mob got thin enough that he managed to stop a passing warrior by grabbing him for his shoulders and facing him :
" What is happening ?"; he yelled to be heard trough the commotion, but it seemed to frighten the man even more. He was the look of terror itself, almost crying with the immensity of it.
" Th… Their s-s-skin… "; the man stammered in a wailing tone, with eyes as big as they could be :" Th-they all just… b-b-burst… "; and with that he run off, calling for his Ancestors.
Slowly, Ungala turned to the direction from which they fled, and as the dust cleared, he saw the cause of the commotion ;
The sal'sarene were no more, and in their stead, a bunch of bloodstained bones was dancing in a circle. Skeletons, with their ribs and limbs still baring traces of their former flesh, all dripping with blood, were dancing around the ritual fires that wafted char-black smoke straight into the sky, resisting the African winds. Not black – that color was darker than black – and it rose to the unseen heights all the way to the noon sun, devouring it in its shroud. The apparitions were dancing around this immense black pillar with their feet trampling bits of skin and body parts which was all that remained of the ritual dancers.
Ungala could only stare at what was left of the dancing women. Their bones still hopped, trampling remnants of their flesh in a ring of spraying blood, around this… this Altar of Darkness. It was very hard not to bend over and empty his stomach.
Gradually he became aware of Mitadre standing behind him and, his eyes still on the gruesome sight, he whispered to him :
" …what… is that ? "
" I don't know… "; the man gulped. His voice shook as well :"A taste of things to come… A message… A seed of chaos to be planted among us… "
The further the running people got, the more clearly could Ungala hear those skeletal feet splashing in ponds of blood and chunks of shredded flesh. With each step, it would spray in the air like a crimson fountain, clearly visible on the bright ritual fires. It took all his strength to whisper the order :
" Dispatch men to meet up with Kaheina… And tell them… Teach them how to kill the thing. "
Oldmamah was patting Tengam's neck as the creature swiftly carried her across the plains. The animal was something no one in the tribe had ever seen before, but it had strength in its four legs to carry a person swiftly wherever they needed to go. Tengam was the name she gave him, for in the tongue of their Ancestors, it meant 'Faithful'. Now more than ever, she needed someone she could trust.
" Hurry, dear Tengam. "; she whispered in a voice rasp with age :" I need your speed more than I need your sight. "
Despite the wind which rushed by, the animal heard her, and swiftly like a great gazelle Tengam carried her on his back, yet gentle enough to ensure she remained on top of it. Faithful was a good name since she had to trust him with their path ; the best her blind eyes could make out were formless shapes of trees passing around them trough thick gray fog, but even so, she had no doubt they were speeding the right way.
Behind her, she could still hear the screams in the village and sense the evil which was now tainting the Sacred Place, but she didn't stop to go back. That path held no aid for her tribe. This was the only choice left. She needed Nm'bopo's strength. He alone held the power to banish the Beast, although he still didn't realize it, and she feared that he might have to die to see the deed done.
Screams in the village didn't diminish, nor did the stench of evil. Soon now, they would discover she was gone from her tent and Chief Ungala would be most upset. She wished she could have told him of her plans, but men were always overprotective. He would not let her endanger herself, and there was no time to argue him out of it. What ever the cost, she had to reach Nm'bopo before he would get close to the Beast. If only the spirits had told her before he left… There was nothing to do now, but to ask for the Ancestors to welcome the dead sal'serene among them and put the faith of all on Tengam's legs.
She felt like her skin was burning, and it was a surprise she didn't hear the sound of it cracking as her fists clenched. By now she expected to have five-degree burns on her skin, but it was still whole and unmarked under her touch. It produced a flash of relief before she took the next breath. Thirst was pressing her again. Though she couldn't even squint against the brightness, she could clearly hear the sound… BOM-bom … BOM-bom … BOM-bom … She thought the others spoke to her a couple of times by now, but she couldn't pull the memory to the surface, next to that rhythmic beating.
It was hard to think. Eidolon thought she had to do something, but she couldn't recall what that might be… Jack and Yrona. She had to… had to do… What ? Something with them. She had to do something with them, but it was too much of an effort to remember. God, it was hot in here. God, she was thirsty. And that sound of rhythmic beating kept taunting her… It kept provoking her…
BOM-bom … BOM-bom … BOM-bom …
Next to the brightness around her, the glaring heat of rage in her heart made her fell like she was on fire. They had dared to cage her ? They thought to torment her into submission ? A lunatic laughter tore trough the inside of her scull, and her own lips parted before a grin. She was Time itself ! She was a God amongst insects, and they thought to bring her to heel ?
" You are beginning to see more clearly… "
A familiar voice addressed her amidst her thoughts. She couldn't remember him ether, but she knew he was… important… somehow. It didn't meter now, for his words were gently ringing in her head, offering protection from the brightness.
" The light is almost at the sky's peek… Do you know what that means ?"
For all the distractions she had until now, this memory came to the surface so easily it was hard to believe she could ever do that. It was easier than remembering her name… Her name… What was it again… ? Before she had time to consider it, her mouth spoke on their own, compelled by the force of the new reminiscence :
" It means… we get to fight it… "; she whispered trough that stretched grin :" Lords of the Night get to kill the new day… bring forth the shadow in the reign of light… "; on their own, her words got loud and booming, overwhelming even the rhythmic beatings :" Kill the new day ! Kill the old hope ! Curse the Light's way ! Fear your Lord's scope ! "
The last was a growl, she realized, as the ground shook slightly beneath them and frightened shouts and even screams started to reach her from outside the tent. Men's screams. The light was getting dimmer…
Eidolon didn't need to see to know what was happening ; a pillar of black was climbing into the sky, raising to the sun and swallowing the cursed ball with its high top. Pure extasy enveloped her as this power surged trough her. The power of Darkness ! She felt it with all of her being, as if she was the source of it ! Eidolon… Yes, that was her name… This dusk was so appealing it was an effort not to sink back against the bars as if into a hot bath, and a sigh of relief passed trough her curved lips. The light got dimmer still as the pillar climbed higher, and by the time it reached the top of its limits, the noon seemed like a cloudy sunset.
Red forms were all around her now, running here and there in their compelling heat, laced with red veins… all over… Whatever comforts the darkness offered, the stench of fear brought her pleasure to the boiling point. It was indescribable. The very scent made her wild with need, gluttony and hunger. She had to taste it, just a taste, even though she knew she wouldn't be able to stop herself once it would touch her lips.
" You want it… "; he whispered :" …I want it… We want it… "
" … we want it… "; she spoke, drooling and shaking, as she crouched on the wooden floor of her tiny, fragile prison. The red form before her was seeping with terror. It was sitting in a chair, emanating with beatings… Drawing her towards it…
BOM-bom … BOM-bom … BOM-bom …
" You may have my powers again… If you beg for them !"
" I… "; suddenly the form before her became less enticing. She frowned, trying to see beyond… beyond the smell and the sound… She knew she had to, though she didn't know why. Forcing her self even harder she pierced the red veil, and at once recognized the woman she was facing, bound in the chair in the corner of the tent – Yrona !
The sight of her shocked Eidolon to the bones. She wanted to kill… She wanted to… Before she could even begin to feel revolted, a scream of rage tore trough her thoughts, ringing her head like a struck gong. The presence of another fled and she was alone again. It was a chilling sensation, but at least she could think more clearly again... She wanted to kill Yrona !
By the sight and smell of her, Yrona knew that too. Concern was mixing with fear in her eyes as she stared at the creature in the cage. The creature… Eidolon couldn't find a better term. Fortunately, Jack was on the other side of her cage, and could not see the hunger burning in her eyes... the hunger for Yrona's blood. A small mercy, not to have to meet his gaze as well. All she could do now was to try and harden the borders of her fragile sanctuary. Somehow, in her mind, she managed to erect walls of images of her friends and her former life, merging them together with what remained of her will. But she knew it wouldn't last much longer. This time he had almost broken trough. And next time…
She wanted to scream in rage as men ignited new electric lights around the cage, burning her almost as strong as the sun, and she wanted to weep as she heard his voice inside her whisper :
" Soon, now… Soon… "
BOM-bom... BOM-bom... BOM-bom...