The children laughed and cheered when Adenzi stepped through the stone house’s doorway with their mother, though none of them knew the ordeal he’d been through. He had no intention of ever telling them, or of even telling Emmaya what had happened to her. He wanted to forget all this business with Death-Face and Bokoraru, and bodies from another village, and go on having a happy, blessed life.
Yet the better their lives seemed, the less this was true. Emmaya flashed smiles at Adenzi more frequently than before and she seemed to take more time away from the children to do so. On some days, he’d return home from the crops or from hunting to find the younger children crying in hunger, and the older boys fumbling to prepare food for them. Emmaya lay in bed, not sleeping and not awake, but simply staring the way she had when she lied on the steps of Death-Face’s temple.
“There’s no telling what she might have been through, to be dead and then alive,” Adenzi reasoned to himself. The witch woman might have known, but he didn’t want to consult her. That would lead to questions he wouldn’t answer. “I must give her time.”
Emmaya’s patience drained away with each passing day. She swatted at the younger children when they clamored for food and chased Onnel with her fists held high for his disobedience. She took to her bed more and more, scratched and snapped at anyone who bothered her, even Adenzi. When he slept with her, she took him harshly, and no longer held his head to her breast or bothered to smile at him.
“What’s happening to you?” he asked, but he received no answer. “I want my old wife back.” Emmaya would stare at him as if she didn’t understand, and then return to staring at the wall. Adenzi began to wonder if she knew something she didn’t want to tell him. Perhaps she’d learned secrets while she was dead. Perhaps she’d learned about Kattego and couldn’t accept it. Perhaps that knowledge had changed her.
“I must confess,” Adenzi said to himself while out hunting. Onnel had run ahead and couldn’t hear him. “If we talk about it, that will help. She’ll come to understand that she wouldn’t have had any of this happiness with Kattego. She couldn’t regret our children so much as to want him alive again.” He was terrified to tell her anything. He didn’t even want to remember it all himself. Just the same, if confessing would bring his wife back to her old self, then the shame was worth it. Their family was intact, after all, and Onnel was safe. That was what mattered.
Onnel shouted for his father and Adenzi went running into the brush. He found his small son atop a withered tree, clinging to the only thick limb, and he pointed in the direction of the village. A thin line of black smoke coiled into the sky like a rising snake. Adenzi took Onnel onto his shoulders and raced back to the village. The smoke ran from the mouth of his home and many villagers crowded nearby, though none would enter. Adenzi set Onnel outside, warned him not to follow, and then hurried inside, hoping Emmaya and the other children had left.
Then he heard the screaming. It came from the back of the kitchen, where Adenzi and Emmaya often cut meat from his hunts. He found his children being cut up now. The older boys had been killed first, their bodies splayed over the floor, while all but one of the girls hung from ropes hooked to the ceiling. A thick fire burned under their feet, but the roof hadn’t been opened, and the smoke spread through a window and the front doorway. The last girl thrashed and shrieked in her mother’s arms, a deep bite wound blemishing her neck, and bright red blood caked Emmaya’s nose, mouth, cheeks, and chin. She flashed a smile at her husband, and red spit slipped through her teeth, across her tongue, and onto her youngest daughter.
“Put her down!” Adenzi shouted. The sight of his dead children kicked at his mind and squeezed at his heart. He saw severed fingers and limbs. He saw bones torn from flesh, lying scattered and cracked on the floor. He saw Emmaya’s nails digging deeper into the only living girl’s skin. “Emmaya, put her down!”
Emmaya slowly lowered the girl, still gripping her tightly, and then her arms twisted, cracking the girl’s neck.
“No!” Adenzi screamed and he hardly knew his own actions. The pain filled his heart too much for thoughts to stop him. He lifted his spear and struck Emmaya’s shoulder with the shaft. She fell to her hands and knees, leaving bloody palm prints on the floor, and then Adenzi struck her back, splitting the clothes and skin down her spine.
He staggered back, expecting fresh blood to run down his wife’s back, but instead coarse black and white fur emerged from the open wound. Tendons snapped, muscles tore away, and Bokoraru slipped out of Emmaya’s skin, as if shedding clothing. Blood stained parts of his white fur and painted his teeth, but his white eyes shined as clean and furious as before.
Adenzi grasped his spear again, his rage overtaking his pain. He ran roaring after Bokoraru, swatting the walls, the floor, his hanging daughters, but his hands missed the Devil-Lion as he leapt through the nearest window and out of the house. Adenzi hopped over the window in pursuit, howling and aiming his spear. Then he heard the cry of his youngest son—now his only son. He turned away from the tall grass where Bokoraru had disappeared and swept Onnel into his arms. The boy said no words, only crying into his father’s shoulder.
“Easy, my son,” Adenzi said. “Stay strong. We’ll have revenge. And then we’ll get our family back, no matter what it costs.” He hurried into the long grass, his son clutched to his chest, and followed after Bokoraru. The beast left a trail of fresh blood and matted grass, but Adenzi didn’t need to follow those signs. He knew where Bokoraru would go. He and Onnel stopped to rest twice in the night, but by noon of the next day, they reached the temple of Death-Face.
“I want your friend!” Adenzi shouted.
“He is his own,” Death-Face said.
“You can’t protect him. I’ll find him and kill him, and no one will be frightened of that devil ever again. And then I’ll have what’s mine! I want my wife back! I want my children back!”
“The wife will be paid for when we have your youngest son. The others … Six children will mean eighteen deaths.” The dry wind sighed with satisfaction from the temple’s darkness. “Bring them. Anyone. You’ll have your children.”
“Will I?” Adenzi left his son at the foot of the temple and charged up the steps, over the decaying corpses he’d left there weeks before. “Or will I have your devil in disguise?” He held his spear above his head, ready to strike any moving shadow. He prodded shelves of dusty coffins and piles of broken bones. Nothing living dwelled in the crypt as far as Adenzi could see, and his rage boiled over when he reached the back wall without finding the black and white lion. Screaming in fury, he slashed his spear wildly, breaking the homes of the dead and their bones right after. A cloud of white decay poured across his body, into his lungs, and he coughed his way out of the temple with tears stinging his eyes.
“Damn you!” Adenzi rushed back down the steps and glared up at the expressionless mask. “Damn your gifts, damn your friends, and damn Death itself!” He hefted his spear over his shoulder and threw it hard. The spear tip struck the clay mask of Death-Face’s temple, knocking it loose, and it fell onto the bodies resting on the temple’s steps. Adenzi snatched it quickly, placed it over his face, and raised his fists over his head. “Look, Bokoraru! I am your friend now! Come, obey me! Take the people I want you to kill and do as I command! Kill for me! We’ll drag a hundred people here and I’ll have my family again!”
Bokoraru pounced from the temple’s darkness, his fur still red, and he slammed the man to the ground. Lion’s teeth dug into a thin throat, Adenzi jerked harshly, and then his blood joined the blood of his children on Bokoraru’s body.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
Onnel crept close and peered at his father’s stiff face. When he realized Adenzi wouldn’t move anymore, the small child fell to the ground and his head touched his father’s arm. Tears dropped on his father’s skin.
The Devil-Lion’s teeth freed the man’s throat and his burning eyes fell on the boy. “There you are,” Bokoraru said. “He finally brought you. He finally submitted.” Then the Devil-Lion fed.
“My temple is desecrated,” Death-Face said. “The dead here have been safe for many generations before his birth.”
“We must find you a new temple,” Bokoraru said when he’d finished his meal.
“I will show you.” The Devil-Lion pawed open Adenzi’s mouth and he showed Death-Face how a skin was worn.
The day passed quietly on the Gray Coast. No dry wind carried a raspy voice from within the temple’s stone walls and nothing living stirred until the evening. As the sky glowed red with dusk coming over the sunset lands, Adenzi’s body stood. It breathed and bled a little, but the bleeding soon stopped and blood pumped through the body from a beating heart, as should happen with the living. His hands wandered curiously over his body, like a child who had only now discovered he had limbs, a torso, skin, and a face.
Bokoraru stood in the smaller body next to him. “He caused quite the trouble.”
“All for a few children. He could have had more at any time. There are millions of people in the world.” Adenzi’s hands patted at the mask. “Mortality will be strange.”
“You will not be mortal,” said Bokoraru from Onnel’s mouth. “You will be Death-Face.”
The two left the structure, stepping side by side into the tall grass. An earthen cry echoed across the Gray Coast, and then the heavy stones that had held together firmly for over a hundred years slipped away from each other. The temple that had seen moments of peaceful visits, decades of bloody war, and a hundred years of solitude caved in, its walls and roof collapsing as if something inside had propped them up, and now that crutch had been stolen away. A cloud of dust swept up from the pile and clung to a dry, westward wind, sweeping from the Gray Coast, over the tall grass, and off to Adenzi’s village, where the fire had been put out in his house and the bodies had been set near his field. The elders intended to wait a couple of days, giving Adenzi the chance to return and decide how his family should be dealt with.
The dry wind whistled over the village and many villagers shuddered as if someone had walked over their graves. Among the rows of dead children, some whole, others in pieces, Emmaya’s breath swept through her lips, into her lungs. She bled a little, but the bleeding soon stopped as her skin melded along her back, and blood pumped through her body as her heart began to beat, at first weak, and then more fiercely as her eyes took in the scene around her.
Her hands, crusted with dry blood, pressed against her face, and she closed her tearful eyes, wishing to return to the sleep of Death. She didn’t understand exactly what had happened. A few fragments of the truth flickered through her mind, from some unknown place she’d been to recently, of dark deals and Kattego, of the Devil-Lion and a thing called Death-Face. She only understood that Adenzi had done something terrible and all that remained were the terrible consequences surrounding her. Not one of her children’s mouths echoed with laughter.
She never smiled again.