by Koiwa Shishiko (小岩 獅神)
He dreamed that she was running free through the green fields that led to the beach just to the west, her claws throwing grass torn from the earth and then sand. She turned and stopped to look back at him; she was holding a dead snake in her jaws.
“Avi, come back,” he called. But she play-lunged in the direction she was so keen to, the snake flopping ridiculously in her mouth, and so he followed.
She went to the edge of the dry sand where it became wet, and to his alarm she kept going. She ran to meet the next wave and leapt over it, and then she was swimming out into the low tide. He called for her over and over, his voice growing hoarse, and before he lost sight of her entirely he took a deep breath and ran into the water after her. He was not a great swimmer, but the sea was kind to him, holding him up to the surface instead of flinging him back to land.
They came to an island. Avi trotted up onto the wet rock and shook herself out, and then she carefully laid the snake down. She sat back on her haunches and stared at it intently. He stared too. It felt natural, expected, when the snake relaxed and uncurled its death-stiffened body and flicked its tongue at them. The three held their strange secret council, and he saw that Avi was looking at him now, her soft eyes wide and eager.
Set woke where he had fallen, exhausted from the grief that had drawn his entire body into his sobbing. He stared at the violent gash of the stars above him, and he understood. He groped for the loose soil underneath him with hands still dirty from laying it; he dug like a dog himself. Several feet down he found her, and he carefully, so carefully, pulled Avi free. He brushed the dirt from her fur and pulled off his coat to carry her in.
“I’ll find it,” he said. He was crying again. “Thank you.”
Avi had granted him a vision. He knew the beach he had seen, and he knew that the snake was important. A firmament to an adamah with aspects of the snake was not known, but Avi, the greatest pointer who’d ever run the earth, was as clever and as loyal freed from the bounds of her flesh as she had been when she’d rested at his side.
The walk to the shore was much longer than he’d remembered. The beaches were treacherous and no one but experienced ferrymen were supposed to pick their way through them, but of course the boys did so all the time. Set and Avi hunted birds; they’d only gone to the ocean once so he could say that they had been. When he finally caught glimpse of light on the water, it was the long pour of the sun setting beyond it. It was another two hours before he found the crags he’d seen Avi run past. The sand was crusty with undisturbed salt; there were only the footprints of seabirds.
He squinted through the thin starlight. He couldn’t see anything over the horizon, neither an island nor an absence of one. Avi lay cold in his arms; her body was stiffening, though her eyes did not yet show the pinprick sign of her return to the earth. There was time still, yes?
The foamy edge of a wave licked his toes, and the water was so cold it sucked the breath from him.
He gasped down into the very depths of his lungs and clutched Avi to his chest, and he ran at the water at full speed. He fell to his knees when the next wave crashed into him, and the water ripped him in while he was off-balance. He didn’t try to swim; he held Avi with all of his strength and tried to keep his legs in front of him, should the water chose to cast him against the rocks. Within moments he lost which direction the water was rushing, other than away, away, away.
Avi was always first to leap into ponds and paddle merrily across to grin at him from the other side. She would have struggled and insisted on swimming on her own even in the sea; she was still waiting for him to catch up. Her wet fur clung to his neck and moved only with the water.
They went under, once and then again, until he couldn’t tell which way was up, either. The water was merciless and deeply cold. He wasn’t sure if he passed out; he clutched Avi’s frozen body in a deathgrip to his breast, but after some endless stretch of time he raised his head and found that the waves were only in his skull now. He lay on a flat stretch of black rock. He released his arms and tried to sit up, but dizziness forced him to lie down again. There was no hint of dawn yet to show him the shoreline.
“We’re here,” Set said to Avi. But being here wasn’t enough. No adamah could ever leave its firmament; finding one was treacherous work, and they didn’t always want to be found.
The only one he’d ever seen in person was the adamah Ipaisis, a reed of a woman with long black hair and skin that never saw sunlight, and a crown of a dozen bulls’ horns framing her head and jaw. Some belonged to cattle that no longer existed here; her regalia was as old as she, and no one knew how old that was. Access to her was guarded ferociously, for she decided the outcome of war.
His family had gone to plead on behalf of his enlisted brother, but he could only see the horns. The hooves of some ancient creature had been cut apart to be her fingers and the soles of her feet, so she clacked and echoed with every step. Her cloak was thick bull’s hide belted at her waist; she should have looked ridiculous under the weight — she looked no older than a girl — but she raged within her stone walls. Her voice could bring down the mountain her firmament was set within. Set had never seen a more terrifying creature in his life.
Whatever sacred space was carved out here was within the rock. Set looked around himself for any indication of human hands, but there was only a broad pool in the center of the stretch that was filled with water level with the tide.
“Even now,” he said, “you care only for glory and none for fear.” He pulled himself to the edge of the pool and touched the surface with his palm. It felt warm after the sea, and it settled still soon after he drew his hand back. His reflection was visible where it blotted out the stars.
He had nothing with which to build a devotional fire and no way to keep such a flame safe anyway, and so he laid down beside Avi and waited for the tide to go down.
If she really had discovered something new, he wondered if they would be famous for it. That would be better than vanishing from the earth, leaving nothing but an empty grave behind. Though, honestly, that wasn’t such a bad story, either.
Far to the north there was an adamah called Padarisea, who was bound in bright feathers and a lion’s skin. The adamot were all relics of the same long-forgotten age (it was generally agreed), but memory of Padarisea went back further than that for any of the rest. He controlled the weather. His firmament was set in a marble cave, and a stunning white palace had been built around it that was as open to the elements as a bird cage. Armies had grown and collapsed again and again over the centuries to keep him secure within it. Whatever lived in an undiscovered pit guarded only by the sea would be his opposite, Set supposed. Set had never seen Padarisea, but despite his storms he had always imagined he was kind.
When Set woke again, the stars had all set, but the sun hadn’t risen. The sea had fallen away below the surface of a fog; water still sat like a mirror within the pool, but the predawn murk revealed that it had fallen twice the length of his own body to reveal a deep pit in the rock. The walls of it gleamed and felt textured and oily.
He gathered Avi up and swung his legs over the edge, and he jumped in. It was deeper than it had looked from above. His feet didn’t meet any rock when he plunged into the water, but once he surfaced he could see diffuse light below him somewhere in its depths.
“I don’t think the tide goes out any more than this,” he whispered; the pit took the hint of his voice and amplified it into a hollow echo that his startled gasp only extended. He froze like a rabbit. From down here, he could see that this pit would make a temporary prison for anyone who could tread water long enough for the tide to come back in.
He felt along the wall with his toes. There were carvings, maybe writing, spinning down the whole surface, but they were deeper and more concentrated on one side. He found enough purchase for his free hand and pushed himself below the surface of the water to follow them down.
Fighting his buoyancy with just one arm was hard, and after a few moments he had to let go of the wall and surface to gasp for air. “I can do it,” he said, more to Avi than himself. He swallowed and willed himself to stop trembling. “I can do it.”
Set took several deep breaths, stretching his lungs with them, and then one to fill them completely. He pushed himself down again with Avi tucked under his chin, and he gained enough purchase on the wall of the tunnel to start climbing down it. It was impossible to gauge his depth when it was too dark above the surface to see it from below, so he focused on following the light, which sharped and grew more distinct the lower he went. It oozed in from an opening in the wall and dissolved into the water as a warm glow. He pushed himself down until he could hook his feet into the top edge of it, and with a great yank of his legs he pulled himself level with it. It was a tunnel that led straight forward with a great light at the end of it; his heart pounded even as his lungs burned.
There was a noticeable current here, and he was glad to stop fighting the whims of the water and follow it. He pushed himself along the ceiling of the tunnel with growing haste; he couldn’t guess its length at all. When his vision and his grip on Avi were both beginning to grow weak, the wall he was pressed against suddenly gave way to a wide circular opening, and he surfacing gasping like he’d been half-drowned. This place was very brightly lit, and it took long minutes for his sight to adjust to it. He sat on what was now the edge of another pool and shuddered with the force of his breath.
The first thing he took conscious note of was how wet everything was. The rock here had been ground down to a flat floor, and it gleamed with water; he could hear seawater constantly dripping everywhere. The room was lined with sodden torches that burned as brightly as dry kindling. He sat at the edge of the receiving stage, though there were no doors behind him to allow worshippers entrance. Before him, the pool bordered a firmament stage. There was nothing else it could be.
Set pulled himself up into his half of the room warily. Where his floor was unadorned black rock, the stage across the water was lined entirely with the inner surface of seashells carved down into tiles. In some places they appeared to be bricks. The torches gave it light that danced constantly, lending it a sense of movement that tricked Set’s eyes constantly into darting from one corner to another. But there was no reason to search it out; at the center of its stage, the adamah’s throne rose up from the rock. It was paneled with the same seashells, and it was framed by a pair of massive ivory tusks set into the floor so they swept upward grandly parallel to the arms of the throne. Black rock made up its hood; the adamah sat in its shadow, masked and dormant. All these, too, dripped with water from the tide that had gone out.
Set stared around himself in wonder. He had never heard of any firmament like this; they were surely the first to lay foot here in centuries. Whatever race had created the adamot had placed them very carefully, hiding them at times with great cleverness, but most people believed that the nine that had been found were all that there were. And yet, here, as Avi had promised him, there was a tenth. As he laid Avi within his coat carefully on the floor beside him, he could hear the adamah beginning to move. Its fingers flexed on the arms of its throne with sharp little taps, and its knees draw up so it could stand. Set moved away from the edge of the water and watched.
The adamah took a single careful step from its throne and raised its arms to remove the wooden mask. It was male. His cloak gleamed in the torchlight as though it was scaled, but the surfaces the light played on were too broad to have belonged to any earthly snake, and Set couldn’t quite identify what color it was. It was lined with feathers that were similarly dazzling and yet nondescript. The adamah had the same colorlessness in his hair and sun-starved skin to match the pearls and the snake’s fangs that made up his diadem. As with all the adamot, his eyes were a cat’s flat yellow, and they fixed on Set.
Set stood and tried to remember how a greeting should go. It was usually the work of attendants. “Please,” he said. “Grant me your name so I may pay respect to you.”
The adamah tilted his head a little. His voice was soft and shadowy. “Why did you come?”
Set swallowed. “I had a vision.”
“You were lured here?”
“I wouldn’t… say I was lured. I was led.”
His expression was still. Set noticed that there were snakes’ teeth bound to his fingers with wires that cut into his skin. It bloodied the teeth: an impressive effect for a curious price. “Then,” the adamah said, “why did you follow?”
Set’s hand on Avi clutched the coat that covered her, and Set was silent. The adamah narrowed his eyes and said, “Do not hide over there. Come closer.”
“No,” Set said.
The adamah walked forward with clicking steps — his toes were adorned as well, but they looked like claws or perhaps talons — to the edge of the pool, where the tiles stopped. He could come no closer. “I can’t see what you’ve brought me.”
Set swallowed and took his eyes away from him to unwrap the cloth. He hated to see Avi so; she looked now as though she had drowned. His throat ached and he looked away at neither of them.
“A dog?” The adamah said.
“Avi,” Set said.
“She is dead.”
“She’s four years old. Her death is untimely. Four years is not her allotment.”
“You’ve come on behalf of a dog?”
“Yes!” Set looked up fiercely. “I come here because Avi came to me and told me where you hide!”
To Set’s credit, the adamah looked taken aback. “And you wish for her to be returned to you?”
He nodded as though this was a perfectly reasonable thing to ask, and Set’s heart leapt. “You must bring her to me. I can do nothing from here.”
Adamot did not grant favors carelessly; Set knew very well from Ipaisis. “What is your cost?”
“The cost is the cost,” the adamah said. “You should ask for the price.”
“How are they different?”
“I can do as you ask: that is the cost. But I have a price for myself.”
“…Then what is it?”
The adamah folded his arms and tapped the fanged fingers of one against the other. “I haven’t decided.”
“Then decide and be bound by your word.”
“To reunite the living with the dead, I ask for submission. I don’t know if I should ask so much for a dog.”
Bound in their earthly prisons and removed from the effects they laid on the world, the adamot craved things that were material and base to a degree that was almost pitiful. Sometimes the offering was a ridiculous amount of food. Sometimes it was just something pretty that they could touch and look at. Very often they asked for women. Even Ipaisis often demanded men and women to be delivered to her, and she left them in very sorry shape. Set didn’t know if the others were more kind.
Set had no food or treasure, and the continued slight on Avi made him angry. He wasn’t a woman, but he still bore the beauty of youth and its arrogance. “If not that, then what?” he asked.
The adamah was silent. Hesitating? “Then nothing,” he said. “You will submit to me.”
Set swallowed hard and nodded, and he gathered Avi up and slipped back into the water to cross the pool.
There was no shimmer or shock when he crossed over into the firmament. Truthfully, he had no idea what kept the adamot within them. But it was a very strange feeling to step up onto the tiled stage and face one so closely. The adamah watched wordlessly as Set laid Avi down on the gleaming floor, and then he crouched beside her. He lifted her head and examined her clouded eyes, careful not to prick her with the fangs, and then stroked her fur with surprising tenderness.
“Very well,” he said, and he stood and faced Set.
Set nodded again and pulled his sodden shirt off over his head. His clothing clung to him stubbornly, but he peeled it all off and stood before the adamah with something bordering on defiance. Of course Avi was worth the same price he would ask of anyone else!
The adamah circled him wordlessly as his cloak whispered over the floor; apparently satisfied, he unbelted the cloak and laid it on the ground with the feathered side up. He removed the diadem and set it on the seat of the throne. Even without the regalia, there was no illusion of normality in his bared limbs. They were the same height and looked to be the same age, but the adamah’s presence was enveloping. This cave barely contained him. He stood before Set like he was facing him down. Or perhaps he was just waiting to see what he would do.
Set knelt on the cloak, turned so he didn’t have to look at poor Avi, and waited. The adamah stepped forward and brushed his fingers through Set’s hair, and Set felt the barest prickle from the fangs. “Can you take those off?” Set dared to asked.
“No,” the adamah said. “They are fixed.” He turned his hand over and showed him. The wires entered his skin just below the pad of each fingertip.
Set wanted to hiss in sympathy. He said, “That seems very cruel.”
The adamah said, “It’s what I am.” He stroked Set’s cheek with the backs of the hollow little teeth. “You would do better to pity yourself.”
“I don’t,” Set said.
The adamah smiled a little. There was nothing terrible tied to or embedded in his prick, and with no further instruction forthcoming he offered up what any unmarried youth could play at. Hoping there was no trap in this, he delicately lowered his head and pressed his lips to the head of his prick. It seemed a little silly here, but the adamah did not stop petting his face to demand something with more substance, so Set opened his mouth for him.
He tasted like seawater. His prick stirred from its vague interest into full arousal swiftly; with his hands holding either side of Set’s face, his erection pushed into the back of Set’s mouth. Set tried to pull away to breathe, but the teeth in his hair and his jaw sank into his skin when he drew back.
“Do it correctly,” the adamah whispered. He pushed his prick into Set’s throat, forcing it open. “Like that,” he said, and removed his hands. Set flopped backward, gasping, but he nodded. He took several deep breaths. Submission. Fine. He took him in again aggressively; the adamah didn’t move, allowing Set to do this under his own power.
His prick wasn’t of extraordinary size, but it felt huge testing Set’s throat. The salt taste was intense now. He worked his mouth down to the flat skin of the adamah’s pelvis and felt him shiver. It urge to cough or gag was terrible, but he controlled himself and slid his lips back a few inches and forward again.
The adamah rested his hand on the back of Set’s head. “Stay there,” he said. “Don’t move yet. Hold your breath.”
Set grunted a little but complied. The adamah stood like that, stroking his hair, for what felt like ages, and Set could feel his prick growing harder in his mouth. After a time he couldn’t even taste the salt anymore.
“That’s good,” he finally said. “Now… bring it forth. And swallow all of it.”
He was so hard now that it felt like the core of his prick must have been the same rock as the walls. Maybe it was. Set moved quickly, getting into the spirit that he felt when he did this with his friends. They found it a fun diversion on boring afternoons between bragging stories of their adventures. Set would have the best story of them all now.
The adamah whispered, “It’s coming. Remember, swallow it.”
Set did, drawing back enough that it wouldn’t choke him, but what flooded his mouth wasn’t the normal result but actual seawater. It was the same as the water that had filled his mouth when he had cast himself into the sea. He swallowed it, drinking it mouthful after mouthful, feeling gritty sand accumulate between his teeth and his tongue.
Finally the adamah pulled away from him. He stepped back and retrieved his crown, fitting it over his hair carefully. The colorlessness of both swallowed each other up. “It is done,” he said.
“Done?” Avi still lay on the ruin of his coat, her fur soaked, but when he turned to her she lifted her head for a wide, whining yawn and then grinned. “Avi!” he cried, and she sprang up and tackled him, still on his knees as he was.
“Thank you,” he said. He didn’t know until he was speaking that he was sobbing. “Thank you. Let me be your priest. Let me lead everyone here to protect you and give you your offerings. You’re the greatest of the adamot — you surpass even Padarisea. Let me tell everyone!”
“You will do none of those things,” the adamah said. He seated himself on his throne and picked up his mask. “I thank you for your journey. But I will never be found.”
Set was puzzled, but he nodded. He stood and picked up the cloak. “Then please have my gratitude alone.”
“You may keep it,” the adamah said. “It’s cold.” He set the mask over his face again and said nothing more.
Set stood holding the cloak dumbly. He looked down at Avi, wagging her tail and grinning endlessly. “Well,” he told her, belting the cloak around his own waist, “we need to get out of here.”
She jumped into the pool with him without hesitation; she was skeptical of diving under to the tunnel, but she followed when he went. They came up to the pit that had brought them here, but the tide had not risen, and the carved marks in the stone were too shallow and slick to climb. And though they waited — hours, and then days — the water in the pit never rose again.
Set knew there were other tunnels, as the tide had risen and fallen before, so they dove down deeper into the water to find them.
They found many tunnels together this way. They found ruined cities and forgotten libraries. They claimed countless treasures and hunted strange beasts. They never found the way that led back home, but it didn’t matter. They sang their own songs and told their own stories, echoing beneath the sea forever, for each other alone.