Goda glided across the desert and Kanna followed her strides much less gracefully. She didn’t know where they were going at first, but then when her eyes adjusted to the darkness outside, and she saw that Goda had turned straight in the direction of the caverns, it all fit together in her mind.
She knew that the next morning, they would be heading out of the desert and into the Middleland; to be able to even set out on that journey, they would need fuel. But she couldn’t fathom that Goda would try to steal from the priestesses—or from Jaya, rather, since technically the temple couldn’t keep fuel—especially after having been caught wandering in the caves only two nights before.
Goda explained nothing. When Kanna fell behind a bit, Goda glanced briefly at her, but otherwise she seemed to expect her to keep up. In no time, they passed by one of the military trucks—the one that had been parked close to the garden—and Kanna saw a soldier peek her head out the door. It was the same woman she had seen the evening before, when they had been coming back to the storage room from Parama’s shack. She had a cigar stuffed in her mouth again, and the glow of her match as she lit the tip of it was the only thing that allowed Kanna to see her face.
Perhaps it had only been the dim light, but Kanna thought she saw a dark circle under the woman’s eye that hadn’t been there before.
The soldier took one look at Goda and recoiled into the truck, slamming the door behind her. Kanna raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment. By then, she had grown used to all the negative reactions that people had towards her master; she herself had them still.
Kanna caught up to Goda and kept close to her as they walked through another patch of trucks. “Are you sure this is a smart thing to do?” she asked. “What if we get caught? Priestess Rem already knows that we’ve been in there.”
“If we get caught, then we get caught. The caverns are our best option now.”
Kanna glanced around at the machines that surrounded them, some of which were rumbling conspicuously, wasting their precious fuel. “What if you steal from the soldiers?” She was a little surprised at her own suggestion, but it was true that she didn’t think much of the military, perhaps because they had been the ones who had driven her family out of their own lands. She wasn’t a thief herself, but if she had been, stealing from other thieves seemed to be the most reasonable strategy.
Goda shook her head without turning around. “No, I tried that already,” she said. “Earlier this evening, when you were hiding from me, I went into the back of that nearby truck and rummaged around for some spare fuel. The soldier inside the cabin heard me and confronted me. It was then I learned that none of the trucks are carrying extra fuel. They plan to refuel in the Upperland where all the product is, so their fuel tanks are half-full and tightly locked. It would be unlikely that I would be able to siphon from one of them without breaking the tanks open and causing a scene.”
Kanna glanced back towards the truck that stood near the garden, and she watched it grow smaller in the distance. She could just barely see the small point of orange cigar light through the dark windows of the cabin.
Then something connected yet again.
“You hit that woman, didn’t you?” Kanna said. “The soldier. You punched her in the face. She had a bruise on her eye.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“She didn’t like that I was looking through her things. That’s understandable—but I was in a hurry and I didn’t have time to deal with her emotions. She swung at me and she missed.”
“And so I swung back at her and I didn’t miss.”
Kanna felt her heart race a little harder, so she crossed her arms over her chest. She wasn’t sure what she was feeling. It was that mix of fear and curiosity together again. It was some kind of response that her body had when it became aware of any edge of Goda’s power, a sensation that was still mostly unpleasant to her, but not entirely so anymore. It was just unpleasant enough that it made her want to turn away and look at the ground for awhile.
When she looked back up, they were much closer to the crag where the caverns lived. Goda began leading her up the winding trail of the cliff and Kanna watched where she stepped to avoid slipping on the gravel. Just as before, she could only see where Goda’s lamplight shined, so she stayed close and she held her hands out so that she could catch herself on Goda if she stumbled.
“I thought that lamp had run out of batteries,” Kanna began to say—but then she remembered that Goda had found two lanterns in Jaya’s storage room that first afternoon.
“This is the other one,” Goda replied. “Hopefully it will stay alive until we’re done. There are no spare lanterns or batteries, so it’s our last resort.”
“Why don’t we just light a candle, then?”
Goda paused for a long moment, but since she was facing forward, Kanna couldn’t see her expression. “Why don’t we smoke some cigars while we carry the fuel out, too?”
It was only a few paces later that it finally dawned on Kanna, but still she huffed with irritation. “I can’t imagine that engine fuel is so flammable that we can’t even have a tiny light,” she argued, even though she actually agreed with Goda and wasn’t too keen to test her own argument. It was just that she still couldn’t tolerate having anything in common with the woman—even a meaningless opinion.
“You can light a match when we get there and see for yourself if you want,” Goda offered. Kanna could hear the smile in her voice.
They reached the mouth of the cavern a few minutes later, and Kanna felt the impulse to turn away again and look towards the plain below. The desert was bathed in the bluish glow of the moon, but here and there she could see the points of a few white and orange lights among the military trucks. A bonfire flickered near the middle of that maze; she noticed the tiny shapes of countless soldiers crouched around it. They looked like a swarm of ants.
“How does a country with such a small homeland have such a huge military?” Kanna murmured. “I heard that a hundred years ago, you people had barely enough to even eat, and now you’re bursting out of the seams of your original borders to the point that you have to conquer everyone else.” Kanna turned to see that Goda was standing at the entrance of the cave, looking at her with a strangely amused expression.
“What we’ll find in here is the answer to your question.”
Kanna shook her head. “Engine fuel? But any of the kingdoms can use that.”
“And yet none of them use it the way we do. On its own, any technology just sits there and does nothing. It’s human intention that drives the motors more than the fuel.” Goda stepped into the cave’s mouth. The glowing lamp swung by her side, lighting the first edges of the colorful snakes on the walls.
Kanna didn’t want to go inside. The snakes unnerved her almost as much as Goda did—but she knew that wherever Goda went, she had to follow. “Human intention,” Kanna echoed as the walls of the cavern began to swallow her up. “You mean the intention of the Middlelanders? What intention is that?”
“To be evil. To be selfish. Just like you.” She turned back around to face the void and Kanna stared after her.
Distracted for a moment by the growing tangle of serpents above her and to the sides of her, and the garbled script on the walls that glowed in response to Goda’s light, Kanna did not protest at first. She felt that pressure in her head returning, and that whining pulse from the last time she had seen the snakes growing louder in her ears.
Kanna let out a breath, pressing her hands against her eyes. The snakes had become too bright. “I’m nothing like you people,” she said finally.
“What are you babbling about, Kanna Rava? You’re exactly like us. In fact, you may as well be one of us. It is you and your family who fed us, and now you complain that we’ve grown strong and fat and insatiable along with you. How silly.”
“You’re full of nonsense. All you ever say is nonsense.” Kanna gritted her teeth against the vibration in the air that seemed to grow only higher in pitch. It made her feel like her brains were buzzing inside of her skull. Once she felt that she could hardly take another step, a nauseating sensation came over the whole of her: She could suddenly sense an inner ghost floating in her body, one that was separate from her bones and muscle and physical frame, one that hovered loosely just underneath her skin.
Her body was resisting it, resisting everything—the ghost inside her, the environment outside of her, even just the way the air played against her flesh as she moved. She couldn’t stand any of it. She had the intense feeling that her body was about to burst open, that the ghost inside of her was fighting against its container so that it could spread beyond her skin and fuse with the cave itself. She had no idea what it meant. An insistent pulse rushed up her spine and through her head, as if to crack it open.
Kanna’s panicked steps echoed loudly until she stopped dead in her tracks altogether. “What’s…happening? What is this, Goda? Is it the serpents? Why are they doing this? Stop them!”
A hand clasped against hers. Some force pulled her forward into the darkness—and with every ounce of effort that she had left, she refused to give in to the serpents, and she allowed the hand to lead her quickly down the cavern until they had reached a fork in the path.
To the right was the tunnel where the snakes flowed, the tunnel where she and Goda and Parama had hidden themselves that first night; to the left was the cavern where the assistants had carted off the fuel. Goda pulled her to the left, further into the void, into the path that was free from serpents.
Within moments, the feeling of conflict inside of Kanna’s body dissolved. She felt her spirit collapse within her body, so that they became the same again, so that she could no longer sense any separation between herself and her other self.
And then she wondered—but only for a split second, because it brought up a new kind of pain to even think about it—that perhaps the resistance between the two was always there, but she could not always feel it. She had never experienced that kind of discomfort so directly before. It had been a pain without a source, like every atom of air that surrounded her had been a threat.
She pressed herself against a wall of the cave and gasped and tried to fight the tears, but the water was already falling in thick streams from her eyes. “Goda, what was that?” she asked between heaving breaths. “What on Earth…?”
Goda was staring at her intensely. The light from the lamp made her black eyes glow. It was terrifying enough that Kanna had to fight not to look away.
“A wave of death passed through here. You were able to sense that?” There was fascination in Goda’s tone. “The cave is aroused by our presence tonight, so it agitated our snakes to try to kill us.”
Kanna stared back at her with bewilderment. “That was real? It happened to you, too?” But she couldn’t comprehend how Goda had felt the same thing and continued to walk seemingly as if nothing had occurred at all.
Goda stared back down towards the main part of the cave, where some of the lamplight still reached, where the outline of a few of the snakes was still visible. “It’s not real,” she said, “but yes, it happened. It seems to have passed mostly through you instead of me, so maybe you were the one meant to receive it this time.”
“You act like you’re not even surprised by all of this,” Kanna huffed. Her senses felt like they were returning to normal, even if her mind couldn’t completely let go of that feeling of dread and hollowness that had emerged under the snakes.
Goda released Kanna’s hand, began advancing again down the path. “That’s because it’s not too surprising. I’ve seen it before, in other old shrines that I’ve explored, though most people don’t notice it because the shrine is picky about who it will kill, and it has its favorites. This is just a feature of these kinds of places. The first time you die, it’s unexpected, but after awhile you grow more and more used to it, so you just let it happen.”
“But I didn’t die!” Kanna pressed her hands against her own body, as if to feel whether her flesh was still there, even as she began to follow Goda once again.
“No, you didn’t. You resisted, so you survived.”
Though they appeared to agree, Kanna had no idea what the woman was talking about. Goda had made it sound as if she herself had died many times, and that it was no big deal, just a minor inconvenience when taking a stroll through a cave. Of course, that was complete nonsense, Kanna thought, just like everything else that came out of Goda’s mouth. After all, if Goda had died, then naturally she would be dead and not leading Kanna deeper into some pitch black hole.
“Is this what Death Flower does?” Kanna asked suddenly, as soon as the thought bolted through her mind.
Goda laughed. At first, Kanna thought it was a laugh of derision, a dismissive gesture—but then she heard the edge of pleasure in it. “Yes!” Goda told her, glancing behind her, a smile spread on her face. “That is exactly what it does. It works differently—it’s much more potent than any shrine—but this is essentially what it does. It kills you.”
Kanna’s eyes widened. “You’re telling me this is why people eat Flower? Why would anyone ever want to do that?” she cried. “That was the worst thing I have ever felt in my entire life! I’d rather be shocked a hundred times by the cuff than feel my soul dissolving into infinity like that for even a minute!”
“Of course. Death is many things; pleasant is not one of them.” Goda’s strides grew longer as the cave stretched further in front of them. “But there’s more to life than pleasure.”
Kanna stared into the darkness. She shivered as she felt herself getting sucked in, but she willingly continued to follow because she had no choice, and because she had grown curious of what she might find in the void.
When they reached a dead end—a pit, a belly—Kanna only noticed because the echoes of their footsteps bounced back towards them quicker, and so she could tell that the walls were closing in around them. The chamber was large enough that the tiny lantern could not light up every side at once, but from what Kanna could see, there were no etchings in the stone.
“Thank goodness,” she muttered, pressing her fingers against the pores of the rock. “No snakes.”
“Actually, the snakes are here, too,” Goda told her. “They’re everywhere—even outside the caverns. It’s just that you normally can’t see them. If you see them, then you start to die.”
“Again, your riddles are tiresome.”
“Then go back to sleep.”
As they moved deeper into the chamber, a familiar smell began to fill Kanna’s nostrils. “There’s…fuel in here,” she whispered. The smell triggered a vague memory again—one from long before her first night in the caverns, one from her childhood—but she could not piece it together into a stable image. “Why does the smell seem familiar to me?”
“Did you ever spend time near your father’s work?”
Kanna sighed. “No. Not really. My mother always thought that brewing spirits was unseemly and she kept me away from all drugs—including the booze my father produced. She never even let me visit the factories. It seemed like everyone in the world had tasted my father’s product except for me.” Kanna kept her eyes on the spotlight, but only saw an endless gravely floor below it. The source of the smell was still not apparent. “Even after she died about a year ago, and I was alone in the house and old enough to drink, I didn’t seek it out for some reason.” She paused, a bit bothered by Goda’s question. “Why do you ask?”
“Because what you’re smelling is the blood of your father’s victims.”
Kanna reached out and struck her open palm hard against Goda’s back. “You know nothing of victimhood!” she yelled, her ire rising hotly up into her head. “You’ve never had to live what I’ve lived through!” A metallic clanking rung through the space as she shuffled forward and her foot scraped against something in the dark. She nearly tripped over whatever it was, and it felt like she had knocked it over.
The smell grew immediately stronger.
Goda stopped walking then. “Look to your left. I think you’ve found it.”
But the light didn’t reach. As Goda placed the lantern on the ground nearby, Kanna could see a bit better, and she noticed that there was a crowd of large steel canisters in the middle of the space. One of them had spilled over, and as the liquid—and the smell—of pure fuel came rushing out of the spout, she crouched down quickly to stand the container upright.
There were words written on the side. At first, her brain was pleased, because catching sight of the cozy, familiar Upperland script gave her a sudden rush of comfort—but then she noticed what it said:
Kanna blinked. She turned her head slightly towards Goda in confusion, but the woman was conspicuously quiet, as if she were waiting. Kanna could no longer see Goda’s face. All the light was spent shining on the two words that made up the seal of her father’s company name on the side of the canister.
Curiously, Kanna ventured to dip her fingers in the puddle of fuel close to her knees, and she brought the liquid up to her nose. She recoiled at first, because the smell was strong, but it triggered her memory again, and this time the image was a bit more solid. This time she remembered her grandfather’s breath, one day when he had come to visit her mother’s house.
“This…this is grain alcohol,” Kanna whispered in realization. Her hand shook in front of her face. “This is a canister of distilled spirits.” She looked up at Goda again, even though she could not see her. “But why?”
“Why indeed.” Goda’s voice emerged from the dark, and it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. “It’s fuel, Kanna. Ethyl alcohol. Ethanol. Our trucks, our factories, our soldiers—this is like blood for them, and your father was the only producer. You should already know.”
“I don’t know anything….” Kanna pressed her hand into the puddle of alcohol again. She felt the substance seeping into the tiny cuts and scratches on her palm and making them sting. “I don’t….”
But very suddenly, she knew. Exactly because she knew, she shook her head and backed away, as if the canister of fuel had been on fire after all. She stumbled back against the dirty floor, sending gravel shooting in every direction.
“No…,” she said. “No! That can’t be true! Stop toying with me, Goda! We didn’t—!” She pulled back far enough that the light no longer touched her, and she ran straight into one of the walls of the cavern. “No, we didn’t make fuel for you wretched people! That isn’t even possible. If we did, then that means we’re the reason that you…!”
Goda laughed. It was the most horrifying sound that Kanna had ever heard. It made her feel hollow again, as if the laugh were coming from inside of her own self instead, as if it were echoing against the very core of her.
“So now you know,” Goda said.
“I don’t know anything!” Kanna shouted—but it wasn’t true. This time, for the first time, she knew. She pressed her hands hard against her face. “This can’t be real! I’m not going to help you drag cans of fuel out of this place—fuel that was made by the hand of my own father—so that you can use that same fuel to drive me to the place of my slavery, so that I can work in a factory powered by this very poison! No! That’s too perverse for me to even comprehend!”
“Oh, you will do it.” Goda stepped into the light and stooped down to grip the handles of two of the containers. “You will do it because you’re my slave and you have no choice.”
“No! I won’t even touch that! You can’t force me!”
“I don’t need to force you. Life itself has forced you already.” Goda turned to look at her. Her eyes were smoldering with fire reflected from the light, but otherwise they were empty. “Just as your father and his father and his father greedily deprived your countrymen from the grain that would have fed them, and instead used your precious mok to make fuel and line their pockets with our money, you too will help me greedily steal this fuel from the people who actually deserve it. Just as your father was too blinded by money to notice that he had helped us grow strong enough to finally take him over—that he had been digging his own grave out in those fields—you too will blind yourself to what all of this means, and you will become an accomplice in your own slavery.” Goda approached her, stretching her arm out to offer one of the canisters. “Take it. Take it. This is what you must face. It is your own doing. You must live the life you’ve created.”
“No! I didn’t create any of this! It isn’t my fault! How could I have known? How could I have possibly known?”
Goda shook her head. “It’s not what you knew. It’s what you didn’t know. No one would ever do this consciously. You and your family have done this out of ignorance. But your father has yet to awaken, and probably never will. It is up to you to awaken in his place.” She offered Kanna the fuel again, more insistently this time. “Now take it. You have no choice. This fuel is yours—you’re the rightful heir to it—and you will use it to drive yourself into slavery. That is your fate.”
Kanna shuddered, a screaming breath emerging from deep inside of her. It shook the very center of every bone in her body. The presence of the snakes returned in that instant, as if her cries had been a call meant for them, and though Kanna could not see them, she sensed those serpents pouring into the room in droves. It felt like her skin was about to rip open from a fire that exploded through every particle of her flesh.
It burned from her ancestors’ fuel, the fuel that had spilled in front of her. The specter of death loomed over Kanna’s head, and she realized that it was the shadow of Goda Brahm.
She ran. Rather than face it, she ran.
She didn’t know where she was or where she was going, but she only knew that she needed to run away from Goda. Her footfalls echoed loudly in the void and it only reminded her of the hollowness within. Every hole on her face oozed with warm water and made it hard to breathe and made her cough the faster she ran.
When she reached the main cavern, she thought she felt the snakes following her. She looked up to see that some of them had started to light up, even where the moonlight could not have possibly struck.
“No!” she cried out, and she pushed forward to the exit, where the first wave of electricity pulsed through her body.
Perhaps the cuff had been shocking her the whole time, and she had only noticed just then, but it felt stronger than before, like the throbbing pain reached into her marrow. She fell to the ground just outside the cavern, writhing in the pain of the shock and of the emptiness that was washing over her. She writhed like the snake that Goda had crushed to death in the desert.
“No!” she croaked out as her face smashed into the dirt. It was all that emerged from her mouth, but in her mind, a hundred thousand thoughts had raced to the surface. I am Kanna Rava! It’s not my fault! It’s not my father’s fault! The Middlelanders, they made us do it! I am Kanna Rava! I am—
A cold, dry hand pressed suddenly to her face. It covered her mouth, as if to silence her gently. It reeked of the tanned hide of a dead animal.
“Quiet now,” a voice whispered in Kanna’s native tongue. “The time has come for me to free you from her.”