A warm glow emerged from the back doorway of the house, and it filled the disheveled yard with a flickering bath of light. It made the twisted branches of the trees look alive, like they were moving over Kanna’s head. It also made the skin of Goda’s face swim, her expression looking soft and hard in turn.
There was a shadow in the door, backlit by the candles inside. Kanna was hiding beside Goda, tucked into the corner of her master’s robes, both her hands tightened along the neck of the sack she was carrying.
They had just walked in through the hole in the fence, and Goda had stopped suddenly, and so Kanna had stopped with her. At first, Kanna hadn’t been afraid of the form in the doorway ahead of them, but then she had noticed Goda’s reaction—one that reminded her of an animal stiffly sniffing the air—and she had grown wary.
It was a new person, a person who was stepping into the yard to join the two of them, but Kanna could not see their features until they passed through a patch of moonlight.
A woman with large brown eyes and a hardened face stared at them through the dark. “Are you the priestess?” she asked. She was looking at Goda; she did not even seem to notice that Kanna was there.
It took a moment for Goda to answer, but rather than confirm the woman’s assumption, she replied just as she had earlier in the day: “What do you want?”
“I’m Kahm Marahn, Mia Marahn’s wife.” She flicked her head back, as if gesturing towards the door behind her. Kanna realize then that she hadn’t heard their host’s name the whole time they had been there. Perhaps Goda had asked while Kanna had been avoiding the house. “Is it true that you’ve come to help our son?”
“We’ve come,” Goda said. The tone made the sentence sound finished, but Kanna still emerged slightly from her place under Goda’s wing to give the woman a questioning glance.
Nonetheless, their host seemed satisfied with the answer. She turned and seemed to expect them to follow, but her movements were slow, exhausted. “There’s dinner inside,” she said. “We can eat, then discuss the…details.” Kanna could sense a resistance in her along with the resignation.
When they sat at the wooden table near the kitchen—which was decorated with a centerpiece of candles surrounding an image of the Goddess—Kahm Marahn slid over to be next to her wife. She propped her elbows onto the table; she rubbed her face with her hands.
“He’s worse now,” she said. “Much worse. I really don’t know how much longer we can keep this going. We can’t even force-feed him anymore.”
There was food already served in front of them, but no one was touching it, and though at first Kanna’s hand had hovered over her plate in desperation, she forced herself to pull back. She thought that her hunger was too ravenous and that she’d be unable to politely pick at the sausage and cheese and yaw in a way that honored the gravity of the conversation.
She dropped her hands into her own lap. Her fingers brushed Goda’s thigh accidentally on the way down, but the woman didn’t seem to notice.
“Has his breathing grown ever more shallow?” Goda asked. “Eyes dark? Veins on his forehead pulsing?”
“Yes,” their original host—the woman who was apparently named Mia—answered. Her hands were folded and resting on the tabletop, and she too had yet to touch her food. “But you knew this. You suspected that he would get worse, didn’t you, Priestess?”
“At his stage, it only gets worse. He may not survive the night.”
Kanna was taken aback by Goda’s bluntness, but she held her tongue, and she glanced at the two women to see if they had been offended. She had to force herself not to turn away once she saw their faces; their paired streams of misery washed over Kanna, and she stiffened against it because she felt that this was no time to feel a rush of empathy. It was uncomfortable; she had never felt it quite so raw before.
Kahm was gritting her teeth, wringing her hands. Her stare had fallen on the Goddess at the center of the table, but her eyes were glazed over and unfocused. When she finally replied, it was little more than a whisper, “Then…we’ll leave it to you, Priestess.” She briefly exchanged a glance with her wife, and by their mutual expression, they seemed to be coming to a silent agreement. “We’ll have nothing to do with it. We won’t watch. If anyone ever asks, we know nothing. But if this is the only thing that will save him, then we’re really out of choices. We can’t lose our son.”
The woman named Mia looked up, her jaw set, a small edge of her sorrow transforming into something harder, more determined. “What do you need from us?”
“Only silence,” Goda said. “The bigger issue here is that you must understand what this means. This could be the beginning of greater troubles for you. If he lives, it’s probably because he can carry Flower—and if anyone finds out about it, that could be the demise of your entire household.”
Kahm turned away from the image of the Goddess. “Yes,” she said. “We know.”
Goda let the woman’s words hang in the air for a long moment, but eventually she nodded with acceptance, with finality. “Then go to bed tonight like any other evening. The girl and I will make the preparations outside, and then I will cast out the demons myself. If you hear anything, ignore it. The snakes do not unravel without a fight.”
Kanna—who had become ever more distracted by the plate in front of her—jerked her gaze up towards Goda with a curious glance. The snakes, she thought. She wondered if this was yet another one of Goda’s metaphors, or if the boy had been afflicted with the same hallucinations that Kanna had seen for herself.
The sound of scraping on wood brought Kanna’s attention back to the present moment quickly, though. She looked over to see Mia Marahn’s hand clasped over the head of the Goddess. She had dragged the idol off the table. She was pressing the Goddess’s face against her chest, as if to shield Her from some blasphemous sight.
* * *
Without any explanation, Goda had allowed Kanna to eat all of the food. Once their hosts had arisen from the table and gone to bed early without touching even a single morsel, Goda had loaded everything onto Kanna’s plate and told her to come outside.
As they wandered back into the yard, Kanna lost all sense of decorum in the dark, and she shoveled handfuls of her dinner into her mouth with no discrimination. She did not savor the meat or wince at the yaw. They had become the same. She ate every edible gram she could feel against her fingers, and her plate was empty by the time Goda pushed her down to sit in the dirt.
Just as she had done in the innkeeper’s dry garden, Goda was pulling twigs off the ground and stacking them in formation. Because the air smelled wet, though, Kanna thought to look up at the sky, and she saw that the moon was obscured by clouds.
“It looks like it might rain,” Kanna said. “Maybe you should find a stove inside if we need a fire.”
“The smell is too strong to make this potion in a house. It will linger in the walls, and this may be enough to attract unwanted attention if any soldiers wander in. Out here, it will dissipate.”
Kanna set her empty plate down and noticed that she was sitting near the spot where she had dropped the pouch of Flower earlier that day. Goda had only just picked it up and stuffed it back into her robes.
“What are we making, then?” Kanna asked. She had her suspicions; she had just never imagined she’d find herself in such a situation, sitting at the back of a stranger’s house, in a strange country, next to a giant who was aiming to brew some drug she had been warned against all her life.
Goda didn’t answer at first. She was distracted, already crouching over the pit she had built and lighting some tinder beneath the wood. “The Flower on its own is hard to consume without passing through a vessel,” Goda finally said after the fire had grown enough to sustain itself. “Almost everyone vomits the raw plant before it has any effect. But there’s a way to consume it by extracting its essence into a brew with distilled spirits. It’s not ideal, but the substances that carry the purging effect will mostly evaporate away, and it leaves just the medicine…and the poison. In some ways, this makes it more dangerous, but at least he’ll be more likely to keep it down.” She reached for one of the sacks that they had been carrying around town, that they had dropped in the yard before dinner. She untied it, but Kanna could not see inside, and Goda’s hand disappeared into its mouth, until she had pulled a metal pot out from its dark gullet.
In the light of the fire, the steel of the pot looked cheap, thin.
“Where’d you get that?” Kanna asked.
“Same place I got our first round of fuel. Underneath the tavern where I left you, there’s a bootlegger who lives deep in the cellar. He lent me this as well as some other things. He owes me a few favors.”
“Underneath…?” Kanna remembered their adventure in the alleyway. She scratched her head. “But isn’t the source of the spring under that tavern? You said there was a shrine there.”
Goda smirked, rubbing the bottom of the pot against the fabric of her robes, then turning it over to flick off pieces of rust. “Why do you think I made you wait for me? The cellar is too close to the shrine. You were already acting like you could feel it when we were above ground. We didn’t have time for another one of your breakdowns.”
Kanna made a face and sat back. She was annoyed enough to cross her arms, but when she thought about it, she hadn’t been in the mood for another weird experience, either. “It’s all the same,” she muttered. “I ended up going to the shrine near the pool in the bathhouse and being tormented there.”
“That was no shrine. What you saw were just modern religious carvings over some tourist-trap pool. It’s the ancient pre-Maharan shrines that the government hides from people that have the power to torment you; you were feeling the one that’s underground.” Goda ripped a piece of fabric from one of the sacks and began wrapping it around the bare handle of the pot.
“But why is this even happening?”
“You’ve grown sensitive. That underground shrine is sealed off and it’s very far away from where you were, but still it reached you somehow. The range seems to be widening. I wonder if it will try to contact you even after we leave town.” Goda dug her hands into the mysterious bag yet again, and she pulled out a small jar of fuel. She looked over at Kanna finally. “For your sake,” she said, “I hope that’s not the case. An aggressive message from a shrine is not a pleasant thing to receive. It’s always bad news, and sometimes it’s better not to know one’s fate.”
“But it wasn’t telling me about my fate,” Kanna murmured. She hesitated for a second, not sure if she should confess what she had seen, or even if she could articulate it. “It was telling me about you.”
Kanna stared at Goda quietly, but there was no reaction. When the woman turned back towards the fire, Kanna slid closer to her, reached out to rest her hand on Goda’s back.
“I’m not sure why, but I saw another piece of your life—or I think that’s what I saw. Why would it show me that?”
Goda’s eyes were trained on the root of the flames. “Because you asked for it, whether you intended to or not. As I told you, the shrines are picky. They will only offer visions to certain people, and even then only in times of conflict—then they will offer to lead you to a solution, though the meaning of the images may not be obvious at first.”
“Yes.” Goda looked at her again. Her eyes were blank, an endless void of darkness framed by the presence of a flickering light. “You are conflicted about something. You are full of indecision. The shrine is giving you advice—but the kinds of solutions it provides are always painful. Even the few people who are accosted by messages will usually not listen to them. People rarely have the courage to follow the instructions because the path always requires surrendering a piece of the self. You already know this is painful; it’s why you won’t surrender.” Goda pulled the sack even closer, but this time she arranged it behind them, and she came to lie down propped on top of it, as if it were some kind of pillow. “We’ll wait for the fire to grow a bit cooler, then we’ll brew,” she said.
Kanna turned to stare at Goda. For awhile, she examined the features of the woman’s face; she saw things that she liked and things that she found ugly—but both of these extremes attracted her just the same.
“It was you who pulled me out of the water, wasn’t it?” Kanna asked. She was sitting close enough, so she brought her hand over and laid it lightly atop Goda’s fingers. “You stopped me from drowning.”
Goda looked down towards the dirt at their joined hands, but she didn’t comment on it. Instead, she shrugged. “The pool was shallow. It was easy. You could have brought yourself to the surface just as easily once I was back in range and the shocks had stopped.”
“But I didn’t.”
Yes, Kanna thought then. I’m conflicted. As she lay down to join her master, and she rested her head on Goda’s shoulder, she knew what the problem was.
It was the only problem she had with Goda.
Goda was always here and now—and she wanted that here and now to last forever.
I want to stay with her, Kanna admitted to herself. She winced and pushed her face harder into Goda’s robes, until her mouth was pressed against the edges where the woman’s chest met the bones of her neck.
But I can’t.
To her shock, she felt Goda’s arm sliding out beneath her, coming up to encompass her, coming up to hold her. Kanna took in a sharp breath, but she muffled it against Goda’s skin and hoped that the woman hadn’t heard that small sound of weakness.
“Why do I feel this way about you?” Kanna murmured aloud, her voice vibrating against those solid bones beneath her. It wasn’t the first time she had asked this.
“Because you don’t know anything about me,” Goda said. “You only know the way I look and the way I smell, which is pleasing to you. But you want more. You want the story of Goda Brahm. She is not who I am—she’s only a story—but the shrine will nonetheless tell you. It appears that it wants you to know, and once you catch even a glimpse of this, a new clarity will come and you’ll almost certainly feel differently than you do now.”
Kanna reached across and grasped Goda’s hand again. She pressed it against the left side of her own chest, where the tops of her ribs peaked out from the collar of Parama’s robes. Goda’s hand felt warm. “I don’t care what your story is,” Kanna murmured. “I only want to hear it so that I can know you. I won’t judge you for it, whatever it is. I’m not Priestess Rem.”
“You’ve judged everything else you’ve seen so far. Your head is swimming with judgments for every new thing you hear about. Most of your energy is spent on resistance. You won’t make an exception for me, I promise.”
“Then you don’t know me very well, either,” Kanna said, growing annoyed. Her hand still wrapped against two of Goda’s fingers, she moved the woman’s touch lower, and she felt it brush past her ribs and onto thicker flesh. She looked straight up at Goda’s face fearlessly.
Goda did not pull away. Her gaze met Kanna’s in the dark. Her breath flowed in a warm rhythm against Kanna’s mouth.
“Maybe I don’t,” she said.
When Goda finally did get up to stoop over the fire, Kanna had closed her eyes. She lay back against the rough fabric of the bag and she watched the silhouette of Goda Brahm conjuring Death in an old steel pot.
* * *
Kanna didn’t complain when Goda made her stand by the closed door of the boy’s room. She was terrified, much too afraid to even approach. She tried her best to tap into some feeling of compassion for the boy who was lying on his deathbed and heaving barely audible gasps, but the scene was so horrific that she could barely watch. His suffering made the room seem eerie and haunted, like it was indeed infested with demons.
It reminded her of her own death, she realized—and that was when a new feeling suddenly passed through her.
I’m selfish, she thought. For just a second, she felt it flowing coldly through her bones, like a starving, needy snake that twisted and turned and gnawed around every muscle beneath her skin. It slithered through her quickly and was gone, and it left her bewildered in its wake.
She pressed a hand to her face. She remembered what Goda had told her that morning about Middleland boys and how they often didn’t survive even their own birth. She forced her gaze up to look closely at the young man. Instead of a wince, this time a warm rush came up to the bottom of her eyes.
Of course his mothers are desperate. Kanna swallowed. She wondered why it hadn’t occurred to her before. Just that morning, she had been so distracted and annoyed at the idea that Middlelanders lived so differently from how they were supposed to live—from what she was used to—that her mind had completely glossed over the fact that they only lived like this because people often died before being born. People die, she thought, and I’m simply bothered that they don’t live like Upperlanders. Who knows how many sons these women have lost before him? Am I really this self-centered? Perhaps Goda is right; I spend almost every ounce of my power on judgments and opinions.
What she felt wasn’t exactly shame. It was only empty space where her judgment used to be. She still wasn’t sure what it meant, but it was unpleasant, so she tried to shake it off and turn her attention back to the drama unfolding before her.
She watched Goda standing over the boy, watched how the woman touched his face with her bare hand. Now that the parents had turned in, it seemed that the theatrics of playing a priestess were no longer necessary.
Goda stared down at him with full attention, with a raw look of concern. She had pressed her fingers against both sides of his jaw, had pinched his mouth open. With her other hand, she was holding a vial of the Flower concoction over the boy’s lifeless face. She tipped it slowly. It dribbled into that loosely opened mouth for a few seconds with no reaction.
Then quite suddenly, the boy was not so lifeless anymore.
He screeched so loudly that Kanna jumped up in surprise, hitting the back of her head against the wall. The crack was loud, too; it echoed along with the rumble from the writhing on the bed, and even through the pain Kanna worried that they were about to wake someone up.
But she remembered then what Goda had told the boy’s parents about the noise. She rubbed her head and turned her gaze back towards the bed, and she saw that Goda had ignored everything else in the midst of her utter focus. In fact, she had climbed onto the bed, and her knee was digging against the boys chest, and she had come to press her hand hard against his nose and mouth.
“Swallow it,” Goda commanded.
The boy fought her. His chest jerked, as if he were about to heave.
“Hold it in!”
One of the boy’s arms seemed to abruptly gain some strength, and it shot up to smack Goda’s side. Goda snatched his wrist. She forced her weight on him some more. She pushed him down with both her legs and did not let up on his mouth.
Kanna watched, entranced, that familiar sensation of curiosity and fear oozing into her body. She was repulsed by her own reaction. She was repulsed when she realized that something in the boy’s gaze when he looked up at Goda had reminded her of herself.
In time, the boy’s body gave in. He swallowed Goda’s gift when it seemed he could not stand to live another second without a breath. He sunk limply into the bed and appeared to fuse into the mattress while Goda still hovered on top of him.
Kanna forced herself to look down at the messy lines of the floorboards beneath her. She did not look back up until she felt Goda’s approach, until she saw a large pair of feet padding in her direction.
Goda was wiping her hands against the front of her own robes. “It’s done,” she said, “but we won’t know what will happen for another few hours yet.”
Kanna watched as her master opened the door. “What do you mean?” She glanced back at the young man in the bed with the soaked sheets, the young man who was now gasping, taking in shallow breaths in rapid succession. Kanna realized for the first time that she was worried about what would become of him. She didn’t like it; she tried to brush the feeling off automatically, since on the surface it seemed like a new burden on top of all her other ones.
“I mean that he will either be dead,” Goda replied, stepping out of the chamber, “or we will have awakened another vessel.”
Kanna blinked and stared. She followed Goda down the hallway, struggling to keep up with the woman’s quick strides, her concern transforming quickly into outrage. “We’ll have awakened a what?” She gazed furtively over her shoulder, at the door she had left open just a crack in her haste. “Wait, wait! You knew this the whole time? You knew he was a potential…vessel, or whatever it’s called?” Kanna grabbed the back of Goda’s arm. “Tell me! What’s going on? Did you know?”
When they had reached an unfamiliar door where Goda had stopped, Goda turned to look at her. “He has all the signs of a vessel on the verge of wakefulness. It’s not a beautiful sight—it’s similar to physical death, and indeed many of them do not survive the transformation—but he’s on the edge of cracking open. It’s obvious.”
Again, Kanna did not understand what it all meant. “But isn’t that a bad thing?” Kanna cried. “Why on Earth would you want to turn someone into a vessel? Couldn’t they get into huge trouble? Couldn’t we get in trouble for doing it? If these vessels get executed like you said, I can only imagine what happens to people who ‘awaken’ them.”
Goda shook her head. “Once they are infested with snakes, vessels don’t have a choice but to awaken. If they don’t have Flower, they’ll die.”
“And his parents know this? They asked you to do this knowing that he might be a vessel and that he’ll be persecuted for the rest of his life?”
“Even if they hadn’t asked, I would have given it to him anyway. This was why we came here, after all.”
Kanna’s face twisted; she gave Goda a look of complete incomprehension. “What are you even talking about? We came here because I accidentally crashed into their garden.”
“No,” Goda said, her gaze matching Kanna’s, her tone sounding as if everything she had said was something Kanna should have already known. “You crashed into the garden because in the future, we had come here to awaken a vessel.”
Before Kanna could fashion any kind of stuttering retort to this newest piece of nonsense, Goda had pushed against the door. A small room lined with stone on every side opened up before them. Because of the light that leaked in from the hallway, Kanna could make out a few details: a drain on the floor that seemed to lead outside, a water spigot coming out from the wall, a bucket tucked into the corner.
So this was where Goda had cleaned herself in the morning, Kanna thought.
“I touched him, so I have to wash the serpents from my robes,” Goda said, already starting to unfasten the front of her outer garments. “Go to our room and wait for me there.”
Kanna looked at her, as if to catch sight of these mythical snakes, but instead she saw flashes of skin above the collar of Goda’s shirt. She felt some heat rush up to her face, even though she had already seen Goda’s body many times, and much barer than what she was seeing then.
When she didn’t move, Goda smirked at her. “Unless you’d like for me to cleanse you, too, snake. The water is plenty cold enough.”
* * *
Kanna sat on the marital bed with her back against the headboard, her legs bent and open, her arms resting on her knees. She had tucked a pillow behind her shoulders. She appreciated the luxury of it because it felt like she had not lain on a real mattress in ages, even though she had just fled the comfort of her own bed only weeks before. From a military cot, to hard stone, to the floor of a storage shed, to the back of a truck, and then finally to a normal bed that she would share with Goda—she wasn’t sure which prospect had caused her the most discomfort. Her heart was beating faster. It competed with the ticking that droned on like a metronome through the room.
She had noticed the clock on the wall not long after she had entered the room by herself. It was mechanical, driven by a weight that inched down towards the floor with every swing of the pendulum. Middlelanders kept time with a different system of hours, but Kanna had learned about it from her tutors years before, and though it took her longer than it would have with an Upperland clock, she managed to decipher what the ticks and tocks of the dial meant.
The time was around two hours before midnight—or, rather, what the Middlelanders called “midnight,” which was a lot closer to dawn than she was comfortable with.
She knew that she’d be able to run into town fairly quickly, but to err on the safe side, she’d have to leave at least an hour early. On the other hand, she also didn’t want to leave too soon and have to loiter near the train station and risk getting caught.
She had an hour to decide how she would escape. An hour was enough.
The clock on the wall ticked and tocked. She turned away and instead stared at the door that was framed by her open legs on either side of her. She was waiting for Goda to appear in the doorway between those legs. When Goda appeared, she thought, she would look at the woman’s face one last time and then start plotting her escape.
The door creaked open just as she was thinking this, before she had time to prepare herself, before enough seconds on the clock had ticked by and lulled her into the trance she had been hoping for. Instead, she gazed up at Goda with the raw vulnerability of full awareness and surprise.
Goda was naked.
Kanna’s face burned, though she knew she should have expected this, too. What else would Goda wear if her clothes were still wet? It was just that Kanna had never seen the woman naked inside of an actual house, and for some reason this seemed unspeakably lewd. She grew only more uncomfortable when Goda closed the door behind herself, when she walked past the clock and began casting shadows against the walls in the flickering candlelight.
It was the abrupt sensation of intimacy that scared her, Kanna realized. She was alone in a room with a naked woman who was supposed to be her new wife. Even though Kanna knew that the only reason they were there was because of the stories she had spun, a small part of her still played along with the lies, and that part of her saw Goda as some eager groom wandering in shamelessly on their wedding night.
The only thing was that Goda’s face was blank as always, disinterested, not eager at all. As she approached the bed, she dropped her keys—and the pendant along with them—on top of the night table. She picked up the sheets and started peeling them off the bed with a yawn.
Kanna couldn’t take it anymore at that point. She slammed her hand on top of the quilt just as Goda was opening it. She looked up at Goda with a sneer on her face and Goda met her glance with only a light shade of curiosity.
“Why are you naked?” Kanna demanded. “Always naked. Even in a stranger’s house, you saunter around the hallways in the buff as if bathrobes don’t exist. Who are you trying to show off to? I can promise you that no one here wants to see your body.”
“Then don’t look,” Goda said. The smirk was not on her mouth, but it was in her eyes.
Kanna crossed her arms and allowed Goda to slide in next to her. In spite of every crazy thing the woman had said to her, every veiled threat that sent alarm bells ringing in her mind, Kanna’s body had seemed to not get the message at all. Even just the warm feeling of the woman beside her sent her blood rushing to unhelpful places, made her brain start losing touch with the past and the future and any plans she had laid out for herself.
Goda was now.
And Kanna had an hour to be with her. She looked at Goda’s face and saw that the woman was watching her, too. Some tense potential energy—like the violent flow of a river being pushed back—vibrated between them and through the bed, and Kanna was suddenly aware of it more than anything else in the room. She could feel it now more than she could before. She looked at the smirk that still remained on Goda’s face and realized that it held the smallest edge of effort, of resistance.
Goda had not been ignoring her, she realized. Goda had been holding back.
Kanna reached for her across the bed. She leaned hard into Goda’s body; her hand fell onto Goda’s thigh and her fingers dug into the skin; she stretched herself up until her face matched Goda’s, until her mouth brushed lightly against the side of Goda’s bottom lip.
Their gazes hadn’t broken, even with the awkward closeness. Goda looked down at her, but made no move to either encourage her or discourage her. She said nothing. Her face was blank.
“It’s not just me. I know it isn’t,” Kanna whispered against Goda’s cheek.
“Then do it. I’m right here.”
Goda stared at her for a long time, but the empty expression in her eyes did not dissolve. Eventually, she reached up and pressed her hand to Kanna’s chest—but rather than caress her, she pushed her back. It bothered Kanna how little effort it seemed to take the giant to brush her off, to send her gently back to the other side of the bed.
Then Goda turned to huff the candle out, and it was only by the moonlight coming in between the curtains of the window behind them that Kanna could see the room. Kanna gritted her teeth and clawed at the sheets with frustration. It was over. It was done. The candle had been blown out, and she would never have the chance to see it re-lit.
She looked around the room, trying to distract herself from the burning in her face and other places still. Her gaze fell towards the floor near the exit, where their few belongings were stacked together. Among them, she noticed Goda’s satchel, as she had many times before. The last ounce of her frustration fueled her enough that she lingered for awhile on the outline of the cylinder inside.
A steel baton.
She wondered again if she would find herself using it against Goda after all. She swallowed. She decided that she would leave so quietly, that she would never have to even consider a fight. In an hour’s time, she would slip out of the room with a face as stoic and emotionless as Goda Brahm’s.
So she turned her attention to the clock and waited. It ticked along as before, its pendulous tail swinging back and forth against the wall near the door. Kanna wondered if she was only hearing things, but the seconds seemed to come slower sometimes and faster other times. After awhile, it had relaxed her enough that her eyes began to droop and the tension began to diffuse from her bones as long as she didn’t look at Goda.
Before she had even realized, the room flickered and fused into the pitch darkness behind her eyelids. She had fallen asleep.
* * *
A forest formed itself overhead. Kanna was staring up through the trees and at the white light that showered down on her, and this time she wasn’t surprised at all to find herself on the wooded trail. The surprise came when she realized that she seemed to be in her own body, that she could feel the texture of the leaf litter as she dug her small feet into the ground.
She walked down the path. It was early autumn, she thought. The air seemed as if it was just starting to cool and she could smell the beginnings of fall. The forest was a little dim, a bit unsettling with the way the trees seemed to rock and loom over her, but her curiosity tugged her further into the trail.
There was a voice that seemed to emanate from the pores of the leaves on all the branches around her. She wasn’t sure how this was happening, but she decided that it didn’t matter because it was all an illusion in her head. Though she wasn’t Goda this time, she followed the call anyway. She pushed on, deeper into the woods, straining to hear what the trees were saying to her.
Goda…Goda, what…? Goda, what did you…?
The voice had grown a bit stronger, and it sounded familiar all of a sudden. She could tell that it belonged to a woman and that the words were in the Middlelander tongue, but the murmurs dissipated eventually into the brush.
The call had led her to a river. It was at the shore that Kanna finally found what she had no idea she had been looking for.
A tall, lanky form stooped over the edge of the waters. She knew who it was without even having to stare for every long. She knew that shape, even if it looked a little younger, a bit less built, a bit more innocent and less menacing. The young woman was naked from what Kanna could tell, and she was shivering—sobbing—which immediately put Kanna on edge.
She had never seen Goda cry before. She couldn’t even fathom it.
As quietly as she tried to approach, the leaves crunched lightly beneath her, and she was sure after every step that the woman would turn around. She only wanted to have a quick look at the woman’s face, to know that it was Goda, and to see that moment of vulnerability as fully as she could.
She wanted to see the true face of Goda Brahm—the face Priestess Rem had warned her about, the face even Goda herself had told her that she didn’t want to see. It wasn’t only curiosity that fueled her; it was that force that seemed to connect her to Goda, something she felt growing stronger all the time.
When she reached the giant, she found that the water of the slow-moving creek in front of them was filled with a pinkish tint and that the sun shone too brightly on it for her to be able to catch sight of Goda’s reflection discreetly. A set of clothes were strewn along the bank.
Kanna sighed. She sucked in a breath for courage. She whispered to the back of the woman’s head, “Goda?”
But the woman carried on as if she hadn’t heard a thing. She kept erupting in sobs that she seemed to be trying to hold back. It made her body appear completely strung with tension. Her muscles seemed like they wanted to burst from her skin. The woman seemed to be looking down at her own hands.
Kanna reached out and touched her shoulder. “Goda?”
Then the woman finally turned—and Kanna recoiled. She snapped her arm back. She gasped.
It wasn’t a woman at all.
The eyes that stared back at her were jet black, even in the brilliant sun. It was like they had absorbed every ounce of light, like they belonged to some nocturnal beast who had wandered out of its cave in the middle of the day. The teeth were exposed, sharp, gritted with pain. The short hair dangled over that hostile face like a veil, and it was the only thing that softened the shock enough for Kanna to not immediately take off running.
And then she noticed the smears of dark red—almost black—that coated that creature from the bottom of its neck in a dripping trail down its chest. It was the same red that coated the beast’s hands.
It was only when the metallic smell of it reached Kanna’s nose that she fully realized what it was. She froze. The monster stretched up onto its impossibly long legs. It growled behind closed teeth and crouched over her until both the canopy and the light were blocked from her vision.
It screamed in her face. It screamed so loudly—with such rage and anguish, with a fully-opened mouth—that its breath felt like a wave of acid on her skin.
Kanna’s muscles unfroze and she took a shaky step back, the first step that jolted her towards the trail once again and sent her off in a full sprint. She ran for her life, forgetting that she was in a dream, losing that bit of wakefulness that might have quelled some fear in her.
Her chest heaved. Her heart throbbed more loudly in her ears than it ever had in her entire life. Still, it did not drown out the creature’s cries. She felt its pounding footfalls coming up behind her. Its screams bellowed in waves that accumulated in the air and seemed to burst out in a thousand tones at the same time. When she glanced over her shoulder on reflex to see how close the beast had come, she regretted it instantly.
The monster had grown taller, ever taller. It knocked trees down with the force of its thumping feet. It was crying and screaming and clawing at the skin of its own neck and chest, until it had torn its own throat out, its own breast, its own heart. Streams of blood had joined together to gush in torrents on the ground.
It followed Kanna and throatlessly screamed. It wanted her to hear. It ripped away at its own flesh until Kanna had run out of strength and she stumbled onto the ground in front of it. She looked up at the looming giant, more fear welling up inside of her than she had ever felt in her life, blood raining down in warm and cold spurts on top of her.
The monster gripped a handful of Kanna’s clothes and tore them apart with one jerk of its hand. It next reached for her body, dug its nails deep in her flesh, and the pain radiated so hotly that Kanna wished instead that she had been struck dead all at once.
Goda! The voice that had whispered before grew louder in the clearing. Goda! The screams overcame the growls of the monster as it began ripping holes into Kanna’s skin. Goda, what have you done? Goda! Goda!
She realized now whose voice it was. As her vision grew hazier, as her head fell back into the dirt and the pain from the beast’s hands morphed into a mere sensation—not good, not bad—she noticed then that they had fallen together on the trail just down from a tiny cottage.
A woman stood in the doorway, her eyes wide, her body nearly collapsing where she stood. It was the unmistakable face and voice of Priestess Rem. “Goda!” she cried. “Almighty Goddess, what has she done? Goda!”
The beast brought its hand to Kanna’s face. The forest above faded into nothing, and all Kanna could feel were the writhing snakes twisting back and forth underneath her skin. They seemed to have come up from the forest floor. They were buzzing with a hatred that burned holes through every part of her, a hatred and judgment that she somehow knew was meant for the monster—but it had come from Rem, and from the rest of the world, and even from the monster towards itself.
She could hear Rem shouting still. Other voices joined. There were thousands upon thousands of them, screaming in some hellish void, until they had all smeared together into one intolerable rumble that seemed to crack open the crust of the Earth itself—that seemed to crack open every layer of Kanna’s skin.
She felt her insides spill out through the faults.
* * *
Kanna choked. Her first conscious thought was that she couldn’t breathe. The moment she had awakened, it felt like a heavy body was pressing hard against her chest, and the weight didn’t lift until the strength slowly returned to her hands and arms and legs. When she finally took her first breath—much too sharp, much too loud—her senses raced back to her, and she turned to her side to see that Goda was still there.
She recoiled at the sight. She couldn’t help it. The woman was asleep and normal and human, but the fear had still not left Kanna’s bones and her heart was still pounding. Kanna stumbled out of the bed and hit the nearby side table, which sent it scraping hard against the wooden floor.
Goda stirred. Kanna stifled a gasp and staggered back some more. The incessant ticking in the room—the sound that seemed to grow louder, to scream for her attention—was the only thing that managed to make her tear her eyes away from the sleeping giant.
She looked at the time. A ray of moonlight hit the face of the clock exactly where her eyes had zoomed into the dial. It was forty-nine minutes until midnight.
And so Kanna bolted towards the door. She leaned against it, allowing her weight to trip the handle, to let it start swinging open. She threw Goda another furtive glance, watching in horror as the creature began to slowly roll over.
Her hand reached reflexively in her pocket for the cuff key. She couldn’t stay tied to that monster for a moment longer. She would rip off her bonds that second; she would throw the cuff on the floor and run for her life.
She grazed the key against the hole, but her hands were shaking and it was hard to keep herself steady. She jerked and jabbed against the metal in the dark, but then she froze when she heard a low grunt echoing through the chamber.
She looked up.
A pair of empty eyes stared back at her. They glowed with the eye-shine of an animal.