“Stop! Stay back!” Kanna screamed. Her voice echoed through the room, but the word cracked in her throat, and it sounded weak when it bounced back into her ears. She had stopped fumbling with the key; her fingers had stiffened with fear and she was afraid her ticket to freedom would slip from her grasp. She leaned into the door again, but her legs had seized along with her hands.
The giant sat up. The sheets slid down her chest as she crouched forward and peered through the room at Kanna. In the bright beams of moonlight that shot through the glass, Kanna could clearly see the look on Goda’s face—the gaze that had landed straight onto that silver key in Kanna’s hands, the eyes that had widened and added a bright, shining white to the bottomless darkness. The giant’s mouth was slightly parted. Her expression had lost its emptiness. It was full of something for once.
Kanna realized that it was the first time she had ever seen Goda genuinely shocked. But after only a beat to honor the confusion, Goda’s hand shot to the night table beside the bed, and she snatched the keyring that she had set there earlier in the evening. Her fingers pressed around the Maharan pendant that Kanna had seen many times before, but this time Goda’s thumb flicked against one of its sides, and the piece—which had seemed so solid before—snapped open.
There was a compartment inside. It was empty.
Goda looked up again, her eyes still pulsing with astonishment, her hand gripping the pendant in a fist so tightly that her arm was twitching. “How did you get that?” she said.
She didn’t wait for an answer. She ripped the sheets from the bed and began to stand up. Jerked into a primitive urge to flee as soon as she saw the naked woman stalking towards her, Kanna found her strength again and began pushing through the door.
“Drop it!” Goda shouted. In two long strides, she had rushed towards Kanna, a look of urgency replacing the surprise. The muscles of her neck flexed so harshly that Kanna could see the veins throbbing. “Drop it now! Now!” She reached towards Kanna’s hands.
But Kanna was shaking her head, stumbling over her own legs, looking around desperately for something to fend the giant off. She saw Goda’s satchel by the door. She grabbed it by its long strap and reached back to pop the handle of the door. She dragged the bag with her when she nearly fell backwards through the threshold.
“Don’t come any closer!” Kanna yelled. She tried to slam the door in Goda’s face, but Goda kicked it all the way open and it knocked Kanna backwards onto the ground. Kanna slid across the floor, struggling to not drop the key as she tried to undo the knot of the bag. “Stay back! I’m warning you! Stay back, stay back!”
Goda did not listen. She stooped down to emerge from the dark room like some beast stepping heavily out of a cave, but still the top of her head grazed the wood of the threshold with an unpleasant scrape. It made Kanna shudder. The bare rage that Kanna saw on the woman’s face sent her scrambling to her feet, but as soon as she did, a grating sound rang out through the hallway that made the both of them turn their heads.
Kanna found that yet another dark pair of eyes—the pupils stretched open beyond reason—had swallowed her up in an unwavering gaze. The boy was outside of his room. He was shuddering so wildly that he couldn’t walk without teetering from side to side against the walls, and his mouth was slack with the look of a man who had been stabbed in the gut. His body was ghostly pale, the bath of light from the electric hall lamps painting his skin in glowing patterns that had inexplicably begun to spin, to twirl, to writhe the more Kanna looked upon them.
Snakes. On this face, his hands, his chest. They were flowing and dancing like the ones on the wall of the cave. He was shrieking as they twisted on the surface of his skin.
Kanna screamed back at him, terrified out of her mind, and she shot through the hallway at full speed to get away. She dashed through the main room and then out the open back door without even looking over her shoulder to see what Goda had done.
It was only once she was halfway to the hole in the fence that she heard the heavy footfalls pounding in the dirt right behind her. It wasn’t Goda’s usual patient trudge this time; the woman was running.
“Stop!” Goda screamed at her. “Drop the key! You don’t know what you’re doing! Drop it!”
It was hard to sprint at full speed and unlock the cuff at the same time, so Kanna slung the satchel over her shoulder and slowed down at little to maneuver the tiny key. She knew she wouldn’t be able to run very far without ridding herself of Goda once and for all. Looking over her shoulder at the looming silhouette that grew ever closer, she jammed the key hard into the lock.
But when she tried to turn it, it wouldn’t budge.
“Shit, shit! Goddamn this piece of shit!” Kanna cried. She jiggled the lock as she ran through the break in the fence and began pounding as fast as she could down the gravel road, because she could feel the presence of Goda gaining on her.
This time, Goda had not slowed intentionally to make Kanna feel the shocks. She was hurrying just as quickly as Kanna was, just as desperately, as if they were both running for their lives together. Seeing no choice in the matter anymore, Kanna ripped the chord that held the satchel open, and she finally reached inside for the steel baton. One good blow to the head, she thought. If I can throw it from here, even better. Goda was merely steps away.
But when her hand grazed that cylinder, it was not the cold metal she had expected. Bewildered, she pulled it out just as Goda had reached her. She looked down. It was a long scroll made of animal hide.
She lied, Kanna thought with astonishment.
Having no time to think anything else, she turned and flicked it through the air at Goda’s face. The woman caught it before it made impact. She seemed to glance down at the scroll with some concern, as if she were scanning for damage, but when Kanna resumed jostling the lock, Goda dropped it onto the ground and hastened her stride.
“Don’t open that! Let it go!” Goda’s voice was already raw. “You don’t know what you’re about to do, you imbecile!”
Kanna turned her focus back towards the path. She broke out into a full sprint again. She ran faster than she ever had in her life. She closed her mind off to anything else besides the road in front of her and paid no attention to the scenery that whipped by faster and faster. She ignored the pain in her lungs. She ignored the pain in her bare feet as her skin cut against the rocks below her and reopened her wounds from days before.
She dashed across the landscape, feeling the distance finally start to grow between her and the giant. She put every ounce of energy into her muscles, though she knew in the back of her mind that she would have to be careful to keep things balanced; she could lead Goda on a chase, but she could only stray so far before the shocks would come and leave her helpless on the ground. The best she could do for the moment, she decided, was to try to exhaust the giant and then slip out of sight.
When they reached the edge of town, Kanna’s eyes snapped towards the ground and she made note of the tracks. She ducked behind a building near the railway line and weaved through an empty alleyway that seemed like it could lead to where the Bou twins had told her the station was.
She heard Goda’s feet still beating on the ground behind her, but the falls had grown slower. She’s a giant, Kanna thought, so she’ll tire faster than me. This small sliver of hope kept her going. She emerged from behind the building and look a sharp turn behind another—one made of glass and stone—hoping to lose the monster that was pursuing her.
She sprinted through this alley, too—but this time, it wasn’t entirely devoid of life. She had to push past a few confused civilians, and she nearly knocked down an old man as he emerged from a storefront nearby. She barely noticed. She didn’t have time to check to see who she had hurt as she cut through the crowd.
It was only when she saw the familiar sign up ahead that she realized where she had unwittingly led Goda in her haste. Paradise, it read. Even in the middle of the night, there were figures that she could see hovering behind the curtain. In fact, there were more than there had been during the day.
The whining buzz that she had now come to recognize as the shrine’s call rang in her ears. No! she screamed inside her mind. No, no, no! Not now! As the feeling of her inner body began to separate again from the anchor of her bones, she knew that she was faced with a choice: She could keep running, down through a dark alley that led into some unknown place she had never been; or, she could try to slip through the bath house before the shrine overtook her, and emerge from the other side as she had earlier in the day. In her mind, she could still picture the back doorway of the main pool, the opening that let out near the tracks.
She burst through the curtain of shadow puppets. What seemed like a hundred eyes turned towards her with shock, and a garden brimming with naked women filled the whole of her vision. She dashed towards them, broke through the crowd while brushing her skin against skin. She knocked her side against one of the trees and a few fruits fell down.
Goda was yelling something behind her, but she couldn’t hear it clearly anymore. The whine in her ears came louder and louder. She jumped into the threshold that led to the pool, and the cry of the shrine grew into a powerful rumble, like the sound of a rushing waterfall pounding against her eardrums—or the sound of a runaway train.
She sprinted through the spring’s chamber, barely having time to notice that the snakes on the wall were coiling and slithering against each other. She ran through the small corridor at the back, her eyes trained on the smudge of dim moonlight that she could see at the end. Footfalls vibrated not far behind her, and they seemed to even grow in number, as if they had divided into three or four sets of legs instead of just one. Still, she didn’t look back; she pushed forward.
She took one hard step onto the ground outside—and that was when the point of her awareness suddenly ripped back. She was no longer in her body. She was up, over herself, gazing at the back of her own head.
And then she was further back still. She was in another body, pain coursing through all her muscles—the pain of exhaustion and something else still—and to her complete bewilderment, she was watching Kanna Rava running just a dozen paces ahead.
On instinct, she tensed up. For just a fraction of a second, this twitch actually seemed to ripple through the body she was in, and the legs came to a halt. “Gah!” a deep voice burst from the chest.
In that exact moment, Kanna snapped back into her own body. She was running parallel to the tracks, her bones and joints and muscles moving almost automatically. Completely flabbergasted, she turned to look behind her and saw that Goda was staring at her, pausing in the middle of the road, with a similarly astonished gaze.
But Kanna kept running, and so the creature gave chase again. They ran through the main street, past boarded up food stalls and market tents that had been tied closed—all of which slowed Kanna down, but allowed her to weave through obstacles to evade the much larger Goda. This only seemed to make the beast grow more infuriated. There were no words anymore; its grunts and growls were those of an animal. It rampaged through the path and ripped through canvas walls and even broke its way through wooden panels to claw at her.
When Kanna found herself trapped between several carts that were too heavy for her to move, she tried to duck underneath one of them, but Goda was right behind her as she stooped down.
The giant caught one of Kanna’s ankles and jerked it back until Kanna fell face-first into the dirt.
Then Goda was on top of her, straddling Kanna’s back, her breaths heaving and ragged and husky, her angry grunts moving like waves down her body and shaking through Kanna’s own ribs. It felt more like the rev of an engine than the voice of a woman.
Goda snatched Kanna by the wrist. Kanna’s struggles were useless against those inhuman hands, though her writhing did slow Goda down, and the woman tried to steady the cuff so that she could pull the key out. She took it between two fingers gingerly, as if her movements had to be precise.
Kanna craned her neck up, with the full intention to bite as hard as she could into those fingers—but then a loud crack echoed through the little street. It was followed by a metallic ringing and a cry from the monster above her.
All of a sudden, Goda was on the ground next to her. The woman was holding onto her own head with her hands. A smear of blood had appeared between those fingers.
Kanna looked up. Two silhouettes—long like a pair of shadowy towers in the skyline—hovered over her. It took her a moment to realize in the growing cloudiness that they were human, and that they stared down at her with twin smiles. One of them dropped a heavy brass pot onto the ground. “Run!” the other urged her.
Goda was already getting up. She was reaching for Kanna again, but this time two pairs of arms had snaked around the giant’s torso, and two familiar young women were grappling Goda into the dirt.
“Go!” Noa called out to her again, pushing Goda’s head down with both hands as the giant snarled and swung her arms every which way. “She’s huge! We can’t keep her back for long! Stop staring and run, kid!”
Before Kanna had even finished crawling under the cart, Goda had already begun to stand, the twins sliding off her body like a drapery of old clothes. Noa stretched up to swing her arm around Goda’s neck and Goda sent her to the ground with a punch to the face—but Leina took hold of Goda’s leg, and this gave Kanna just enough time to escape to the other side and start running again.
She could see the trading building up ahead. As the path opened up more, she followed the tracks with her eyes, searching for that sanctuary she had hoped for. The moon by then had been covered up by a veil of clouds, which had drowned the street in darkness. When she finally saw the train station, it was like a beacon of light breaking through the haze. The train was parked beside a wide loading area, but because it was so close to midnight, there was no one else wandering about. It looked ghostly and she couldn’t tell if there was anyone on the other side of those tinted windows.
She bolted towards her goal with the last of her strength. When she climbed those old stairs up to the empty platform, she felt like she had reached the top of a mountain—but she was barely a step or two on solid ground before the first wave of lightning buzzed through her arm.
“No!” she screamed, collapsing onto her knees right on the spot. She gritted her teeth. She scooted back onto the steps, even though the pain had already faded—which she knew meant that Goda had grown closer—and she wrestled with the key to try to force the lock to turn. She pressed hard against it. She pressed so hard that for a moment she was sure she would break the key in half, but instead her hand slipped and rammed against the edge of the cuff. The new gash on her thumb started bleeding immediately.
“No, no!” She slammed her wrist again and again on the steps. “Work, goddamn you! Get off me! Get off me, you goddamn piece of Middlelander bullshit! Let me go!”
But the cuff had been suspiciously silent for too long, so she knew she had to move because Goda was close. She had to find somewhere to hide where she could work the cuff off her wrist before Goda could find her. She hopped off the platform, jogging around the station building and towards the back of the train, vexed by the question of where she could even stow away without being seen. She glanced around frantically and noticed that there were some freight cars at the tail end; she wondered if she could hide among the cargo.
Of course, that would be the first place Goda would look. Worse, if she wasn’t able to get the cuff off before the train started, the distance between her and Goda would grow quite rapidly and the shocks would start pulsing in no time. She didn’t know how much electricity was stored in the cuff and how long the shocks could go on, or even if the thing would kill her before it let up. She didn’t want to find out.
She glanced up at a huge clock that ticked away above a timetable display on the platform. It was exactly 17 minutes until midnight. She had to hide somewhere else and work fast to free herself, she decided—then, in the last seconds, she could make a final dash for one of the freight cars and hop into it just as the train was leaving. Goda was fast, but there was no way that the giant could outrun a train.
Shuddering with nervous energy, Kanna snuck as quietly as she could around the tracks, looking for a suitable hiding place. She heard trudging in the distance, not too far off, and when she glanced over her shoulder, she could see a naked woman with broad shoulders standing in the light of the platform. The woman was looking to and fro, blood tricking down from the side of her face, angry scratch marks all over her chest, but she did not seem to notice Kanna cowering in the darkness.
Holding her breath, Kanna slipped behind the other side of the train. The area around her was flat, and free of bushes, devoid of anything she could easily hide behind. But then she noticed what looked like a circle of bricks arranged on a little rise not too far from the back of the train. As she neared it, she saw that the hole it enclosed was dark, but it was way too small of a place for a giant to fit.
For once, Kanna thanked the gods for making the Upperlanders small, and she crawled legs-first into the old water well. Her movements echoed enough that she realized it was deep, which made her nervous, but shortly after lowering herself in, her feet pressed into a ledge on the side of the wall. She didn’t know if it had been built that way or if the bricks had settled and popped out over time, but she was grateful again that fate was on her side. Either way, the walls were narrow enough that she could press her shoulder on one side and keep herself steady by propping her foot on the other side.
She felt for the key in the dark. She forced herself to be patient this time, to be calculating. She tried turning the key with a little bit of tension, then a bit more. She thought she could feel some of the tumblers springing loose, though she couldn’t be certain.
A light flashed overhead. A low rumble followed. She ignored what she realized seconds later was thunder, and she ignored the gush of sudden rain as well, even as it pelted uncomfortably on the back of her head like an barrage of tiny bullets.
What she couldn’t ignore, though, was the presence. She had not heard anything. There was no voice, not even the sound of breathing. She hadn’t seen any shadows because there was no light to help cast them.
But she felt the presence.
Kanna slowly looked up. She could barely make out an outline, but she wondered if maybe it was a tall, faraway tree that only seemed close because of the angle. Lightning cracked overhead once again, flickering in the sky like a pulse of broken lamplight.
It was bright enough for her to see for one flash—for one half-second—the face that stared down upon her. Even after the light disappeared, those two inhuman eyes were burned into her mind.
She thought that maybe she should let go and fall into the well. She thought that maybe this would be a more painless end, because clearly the monster standing above her was meaning to kill her. She had seen it in the eyes, in the bared teeth, in the tense muscles of that strong chest.
Goda crouched over the well and reached down towards her. Kanna could see the shape of those fingers inching closer towards her face. She recoiled to avoid them. She covered the cuff’s lock with her hand.
“Don’t touch me, Porter,” Kanna growled, her voice low, no longer frantic. It held all of her resolve. “If you reach any closer, I’ll jump down the well. I’ll kill myself. You’ll have nothing to deliver to Suda, not even a body.”
Goda’s arm stretched closer.
“Do you think I’m joking?” Kanna screamed. “Pull back or I’ll jump! I swear to God I’ll do it!”
To her half-surprise, after a long moment’s pause, Goda did pull away. She stood back up from her crouch, she stared down at Kanna. Rain fell down upon them, and in the split-second light that would flicker here and there from the sky, Kanna could see that the water had come to coat every inch of Goda’s skin, had come to soak the woman’s hair. Goda was holding onto her own cuff with her right hand.
Kanna gritted her teeth and rammed her wrist hard against the wall a few more times, her frustrated cries echoing down the barrel of the well. Her foot nearly slipped as she moved, but she shuffled and caught herself. Her stomach dropped. She felt suddenly as hollow as the pit beneath her.
She didn’t want to jump. She didn’t want to die.
She felt the tears coming against her will. They forced their way through even as she fought them, even as she tried not to show Goda her weakness yet again.
“Why?” she sobbed, her voice sounding like a hiss against the walls. “For God’s sake, why do you even care, Goda? After all of this trouble, does your job really mean that much? It’s not like you’re in my pathetic situation. You’re always free to just quit. They hardly even pay you, but still you choose to chase me around like your life depends on it.”
The sky cracked in half and Kanna caught sight of Goda’s now blank face in the spot of light. Thunder boomed in reply. Kanna stared up at the woman, her mind very suddenly empty of self-pity. Goda’s stoic voice had stopped the thoughts. She wasn’t sure if she had heard right at first, but then she decided that she had—and that it had made no sense.
“Stop speaking in riddles,” Kanna told her, clenching her jaw. “What is that even supposed to mean?”
“It means what I said. If I don’t take you to Suda, then I haven’t complied with the terms of my sentence. The punishment for that is immediate execution.”
Kanna coughed and turned her head and spat into the hole beneath her because the water had come into her nose. She felt the rain flowing down in fat rivers from the top of her head and into her eyes as well, so she had to blink a few times when she looked back up and tried to make sense of Goda’s face. “I…don’t understand,” she said. “Your sentence? That makes it sound like you’re…like you’re….”
When another storm of light flickered through the sky, Kanna saw that Goda had lifted up her own cuff-clad wrist. The woman nodded once, as if to confirm the thought that Kanna had refused to voice.
“I’m a slave,” Goda said.