The first child emerged a healthy boy. The village rejoiced and Adenzi was so happy that he could almost forget his dark agreement with the Devil-Lion. In time, Emmaya gave him a second son and his heart grew heavy with worry that a third son was soon to come. He began to dread taking her to bed, making excuses that he wanted to show the boys how to string a bow or plant vegetables in their farmland, though they were only infants.
Emmaya’s belly swelled a third time despite Adenzi’s reluctance and he cried with relief when the village’s witch woman told him he would have a daughter soon. A healthy girl emerged from Emmaya, and three more followed in the coming years. By the time the fourth girl was given to Adenzi, the house had grown full with laughter and many in the village called the couple blessed for having so many healthy children, without a single miscarriage, abnormality, or case of crib death. Adenzi often caught his wife’s smiles, when he or she could spare a moment from their children, and they made love on as many nights as they could afford. It was no surprise to anyone that she became pregnant yet again.
“Seven children,” the witch woman said as she inspected Emmaya, tracing circles over the swollen belly and listening to the child within. “Your family is the prize of the village.”
“We wouldn’t be without my prize of a wife,” Adenzi said, holding Emmaya’s hand.
She kissed his hand softly and held her belly. “I think it will be soon.”
“Yes,” the witch woman said. “And it will be a boy. The gods have seen it fit to grant you another son after so many daughters, Adenzi. You’re a lucky man.”
Adenzi nodded curtly, but said nothing. His tongue numbed with fear and memory. The bargain with Bokoraru had been made so long ago, and the years had seen so many daughters in between, that he’d nearly forgotten he could have another son, let alone have to give the third boy away to the Devil-Lion.
“What’s one child to all our happiness?” Adenzi asked himself. “We’re run ragged with the six we have already. Emmaya will wear herself into an early grave and I can’t let that happen.” He steeled himself to hate the child, to think of the thing in his wife’s belly as inhuman, practically a devil himself for all the good it would do him in Bokoraru’s presence. They’d be better off without this creature.
Great pain rocked through Emmaya’s body and the baby slid from her once many hours passed. After enough wicked thoughts, Adenzi believed he could accept losing the child by the time the boy was born, and yet when he saw the child’s face, he fell in love with him as much as with any of his other children. He couldn’t give the boy up to the Devil-Lion.
“The creature is long-lived,” Adenzi said to himself. “He’s probably made a hundred such agreements since ours. What’s one child to him?”
A year passed, and then two, and the youngest boy, Onnel, became Adenzi’s favorite of all his sons and daughters. The little one followed him everywhere, wanted to be exactly like his father, practically worshipped him, and he even took the boy on his hunts and into the field. Onnel knew to be quiet when prey was close and when to fetch water for his father in the middle of planting seeds or cutting down crops. He wouldn’t do a thing his mother asked of him, but his father’s word was unquestionable law, and Adenzi adored him in turn.
Then Bokoraru appeared on the child’s third birthday. He didn’t emerge into the open, but he made his presence known—a puddle of blood pooled at the edge of the tall grass, and white eyes watched Adenzi. The creature said nothing, and Adenzi said nothing in return. They stared for a time until the Devil-Lion walked away. The same happened on the child’s fourth birthday, a long enough wait that Adenzi nearly forgot about the first time it had happened.
On Onnel’s fifth birthday, Adenzi didn’t see Bokoraru. Instead, he saw the blood, only it didn’t pool at the edge of the tall grass. It faintly dressed one wall of his stone house, forming a dry, brown trail toward one window. All the children were accounted for, to Adenzi’s relief, but Emmaya was nowhere to be seen.
“All of you stay here until I return in a day or so,” Adenzi told his sons and daughters, and hoped that he would return at all. Blood tipped the tall grass beyond the village and he followed the trail east. After a time, he didn’t need a trail at all. He knew where the blood would lead and where Bokoraru wanted him to go.
The temple of Death-Face stood as quiet and strong as it had when Adenzi first found it thirteen years ago. He didn’t see Bokoraru, fortunately, but he found something worse on Death-Face’s steps. His wife didn’t move one muscle, sprawled on her back as if she’d been carelessly tossed. No blood ran down the stone, as if she’d been dead long before she reached the temple.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
Adenzi fell to his knees a second time before the temple, clutched his wife against his chest, and shook tears from his eyes. No breath escaped her lips, no heartbeat thudded in her chest, and her eyes stared lifelessly into the distance. “She was innocent!” he shouted. “Emmaya, forgive me!” His eyes turned to the temple’s blackness, and then to the horned, unblinking mask above the entrance. “Why her? Why not me?”
Dry wind rustled from within the temple and Death-Face spoke. “I do not grant deaths. I only grant life. Your wife’s death was the work of Bokoraru. You should not have tried to cheat my friend.”
“I couldn’t give up my Onnel,” Adenzi said. “If he wanted the boy so bad, why didn’t he take him instead of my Emmaya?”
“Because you were supposed to give him the boy. That was the agreement. Submit and give him your child.”
“And what about Emmaya?” Adenzi had his own answer at the moment the words left his mouth. “I want her life. You can grant her life back to her.”
“Yes,” Death-Face said. “For three deaths. Bring three dead people to me and I will grant a life.”
Adenzi lowered his wife onto the steps and trembled. He didn’t want to kill anyone, but then he realized he’d already done so. Kattego’s blood was on his hands as much as on Bokoraru’s muzzle, and now Emmaya had joined him. Any three strangers’ deaths were worth less than Emmaya’s life. “I will bring you three.”
“And one of them must be your third son.”
“Why? It could be anyone!”
“Usually, it can be anyone. That was my way in the past. I want your third son because you owe him to my friend. When two others and the boy have been brought here, your wife will once again know life. No sooner.”
“But he’s my son. Do you understand?”
“No. I don’t understand you.” The temple seemed to grow with the loudness of Death-Face’s voice. “I am a god of life, but they call me Death-Face. It was you who forsook the gift of life. If you want it now, you must pay for it, or else you shouldn’t have asked for a death.”
Adenzi shrank back toward the tall grass, away from dead Emmaya. “I wouldn’t have had her at all if I hadn’t asked for a death.”
“Then be grateful you have something to lose,” Death-Face said, and then was quiet.
The presence wouldn’t argue the point any further and though Adenzi left the temple, he did not return home right away. He walked instead, toward a village to the north of the temple. The elders of this place had forbidden anyone from nearing the Gray Coast, the same as in Adenzi’s village. He’d been here between larger hunts, when the elders needed elephant bone and the herds had strayed this way.
He stood at the village’s edge, waited for nightfall, and watched the villagers until he found the right ones—a father, a mother, and a small child, sitting in a cart being pulled by an enormous cow. Better for them to die together, he reasoned. Better that none of them had to grieve. Better that the child didn’t have to cry for his mother’s milk when he’d never taste it again, that the mother didn’t have to wonder why her child should die, that the father didn’t have to hold his wife in his arms, her flesh cold when it should’ve been hot with life, believing he’d never see her smile again.
Thinking of Emmaya’s smile was the final push to get Adenzi moving, away from the village’s edge and into the village, into the open window of this family’s house. Adenzi had killed many animals, some asleep, some running, some pouncing to kill him, and so he knew how to end one’s life swiftly and without sound. He drew a bone knife from the strap at his ankle, found the bedroom of the mother and father, stretched one arm over both their necks, and slit both their throats at once.
The child was a greater challenge. He lay still, slept soundless, and had no means to fight Adenzi, but he was probably Onnel’s age and deserved death no more than Adenzi’s own son. Adenzi might have cried as he raked the knife over the boy’s tiny throat, but his eyes had run dry at the foot of Death-Face’s temple. The boy’s tiny body felt much heavier than those of his parents when Adenzi carried him to the family’s cart.
When all three bodies were piled in the cart, Adenzi whipped the cow and it obediently dragged the cart onto a path. In the middle of the night, Adenzi steered the cow off the path, briefly through the long grass where many predators lurked, and then to the coast, where the ground was less firm, but safer.
By dawn, they reached the temple. Adenzi hadn’t slept since Emmaya was taken and didn’t want to, not unless Emmaya’s arms could hold his head to her breast, imagining that would mean protection against the nightmares sure to visit him. His eyes were sunken, his hands were stained with blood, and he trudged slowly, dragging each body to Death-Face’s steps. The dry wind within the temple inhaled pleasantly, as if reliving a pleasant memory.
The father fell onto the steps below Emmaya. Then the mother dropped from Adenzi’s shoulders, her skull cracking against the stone. Last came the child, draped like chains over Adenzi’s arms, and his heart skipped a beat when the small body fell next to the boy’s parents. Fresh fluid spilled from the corpses and into the cracks in the stone.
“This is not your son,” Death-Face said.
“He is the child that came from my wife,” Adenzi said. “Perhaps she was unfaithful.”
“He is not your wife’s child either. A creature like you would have killed any man who touched her. Where is your son?”
“I couldn’t bring him. I couldn’t do that to any of my children.” Adenzi lowered his head. “Please, accept these—”
“Leave!” the temple’s voice roared.
Emmaya sprang up at the shout, her eyes darting every which way in surprise. Adenzi grasped her hands as another shout rang from the temple’s darkness.
“Leave me! Take this thing and be gone from my presence! Do not come again without the boy! Leave me!”
Adenzi ran, pulling Emmaya with him. He passed the cow and cart, dove into the tall grass, and hurried his wife away from Death-Face’s angry voice. When the two had run far enough, Adenzi pulled his wife close, and hugged her tight. She felt weak and frail in his arms, but her heart beat, her breath brushed his neck, and her eyes stared into his, so full of life that he ignored the guilt, despair, and anger over what he’d done to the stranger family. He kissed her, laid with her in the grass, loved her, and prayed they’d have more children.
“A dozen more,” he said. “However many children you want, for as much laughter as we can stand. I’ll build another house—two houses! Anything you want. I’ll make it all up to you.”