The giant fell back into the earth. She sunk into the slick grass and the weeds. Her head fell onto a patch of moss and her hair tangled with the green. She pressed both her hands to her face and the crazed laugh evolved quickly into a series of shudders, deep groans that burst out of those huge lungs and vibrated against the ground and faintly touched the tips of Kanna’s feet.
Kanna had no idea what she was seeing. She had no idea how to react, but her body reacted for her and she collapsed beside the giant. On instinct, she crawled through the dirt and pulled herself onto the giant’s stretched legs and pressed her face hard to the inside of Goda’s thigh. Kanna felt the quaking of those bones against her as if they were her own. The tears had not dried and she didn’t suppress them. She wrapped her hands around Goda’s calf; she felt the muscles flexing and unflexing with discomfort.
The ground had started moving. Kanna could feel it at first as a tiny disturbance, but as the seconds passed, she realized that the solid earth beneath her had begun to rise and fall like tiny waves, like the ripples of a pond. Convinced that she had knocked her head and not realized, she jerked her face up from the giant and she looked at the ground around them in the dim light of early dawn that had started to come down from the trees.
But the space beneath them was brighter than the weak sun leaking out from the horizon. The ground was teeming with life, flashing brightly with a multitude of colors and spirals that glowed in the twilight. Kanna held her breath. She saw the snakes dancing, coming up out of the earth. They would contract and relax against each other, and slither up and through the cracks between the fallen leaves.
Her eyes had scrolled through countless lenses in order to see them, but somehow she knew that they had always been there even when she could not perceive them. They flashed brighter and moved wildly the moment she realized it.
She held onto Goda and she tried not to be afraid. She stared into the light of the snakes, but she didn’t recognize any of them, and none of them seemed to notice or approach her. Even still, she could not force herself to look for long, so she turned to hide her face against Goda’s clothes once again—and it was then that the writhing scales of a dragon caught her eye.
Kanna froze. It was right next to her face. The huge serpent had coiled up along the giant’s other thigh, and its head rose up from between Goda’s legs, and it was tasting the air near Kanna, hissing with aggression and curiosity. Kanna turned her gaze down, too terrified to look it in the eyes, because she realized that it had been the snake she had seen spiraling along Goda’s body in the shrine.
Kanna felt Goda stirring. Cautiously, she looked up and past the snake, over at the giant who peered at her through the weak light. Goda had lifted her head up; she had let her hands fall to her sides.
“You can see it?” Goda murmured. She looked surprised, but her eyes had narrowed as well. “Don’t look at it. It’s not your burden.”
From the corner of her eye, Kanna could sense the monster rising some more, sprouting up from the place where the giant’s legs came together. Kanna dug her fingers into Goda’s thigh. She steeled herself. She shook her head.
With some effort, she deliberately turned her head to look at the side of the creature’s body, at the scales that pulsed with dancing light. The colors shifted to match the forest, and then to contrast it, and then a conspicuous array of rainbows shot down its body. Kanna stared into its skin, mesmerized. She found that her thoughts slowed, that her mouth seemed to move on its own. “No,” she whispered. “It’s beautiful.”
The snake seemed to hear her and it flashed its display faster in response, though Kanna still would not look at its face. She lost herself in the color, in every little dot, in every fiber that writhed between Goda’s legs. Without thinking, Kanna lifted her hand and reached out.
Then she pulled back slightly. She felt her heart beating faster. She knew what she needed to do next, even though she could not believe it.
“Can I…touch it?” she asked. She had grown breathless.
Goda did not answer, but when Kanna glanced back up at the giant’s face, there was no overt gesture of disapproval. There was merely a woman staring down with astonishment, with concern.
And so Kanna did not ask again. She reached between Goda’s legs and pressed the tips of her fingers gingerly against the serpent’s skin. The contact made her shudder. It awakened something in her, an energy that seemed to shoot through her own legs—an energy that was not unpleasant.
The snake slithered against her open hand and she felt the scales moving past, scraping her own skin with a faint sensation of both pleasure and pain. This made Kanna grow bolder, so with a light grip, she wrapped her hand around the thick body of the snake, and she felt its throbbing, rolling muscles; she felt the heat and power that radiated from its flesh; she felt Goda’s gasp when she squeezed.
The serpent slithered between her fingers and crawled towards other places, but as it did, Kanna felt her awareness of every sensation heightening. She felt the whining in her ears. She felt her body becoming loose in her skin as it had near the mouth of the shrine, and then suddenly she burst through into a different world.
* * *
The giant was sprinting through a forest that was bathed in rays of light. She dashed between shadows and sun so quickly, that it pulsed against her eyes like a strobing lamp, and it blinded her sometimes, and it made her head hurt other times. The satchel around her shoulder slammed hard against her chest with every stride.
Kanna could feel that dull pain the moment she had found herself in this new body. The pain grew as her ears rumbled with a startling noise that was blasting through the trees at unpredictable increments, accompanying the strobing of the light.
It was a loud scream of agony, and it was growing ever louder. Kanna did not know if this was because the giant was growing closer to the source or because the source was gushing stronger. At any rate, the giant’s heart pounded as loudly as her feet; she clawed through branches in desperation; Kanna could feel the giant’s own pain matching those disembodied cries, as if they were the giant’s own suffering, as if the giant were carrying a splinter in her chest that dug deeper with every scream that reached her ears.
Finally, when the noise had grown so loud that Kanna prayed the giant would cover her ears, she burst through the brush and into a clearing, and there lay a young woman pressing her face against the dirt. Goda fell to her knees; she reached for the woman, the sleeve of her long robes rustling with her panic.
But the woman pulled away. Her hands were pressed to her temples; her face was twisted with pain; her brow was lacquered with sweat. Even still, she managed to shout at the giant:
“Don’t touch me!” she said. “You know you can’t touch me!”
She groaned into her hands and collapsed the rest of the way onto the ground. Goda watched helplessly as the woman writhed and dug her fingers into the earth and breathed in the dust that flew up from her struggles. Goda watched until the young woman had grown limp and the screaming stopped. Her cries turned into whimpers, then the whimpers into heavy breaths. Very suddenly, Kanna noticed that birds had been singing in the trees above, but she hadn’t been able to hear them before.
A long moment passed, enough for one of the birds to change his song. Because the now silent woman wouldn’t move, the giant leaned down and gently slipped two arms beneath her body and picked her up. There was barely a struggle, but the woman did open her eyes as she began to sway with the giant’s stride.
“It’s not your place to carry a priestess,” she murmured with little resolve. Nonetheless, she curled her head into Goda’s chest, the way Kanna had on the trip down from the cliffside.
“I haven’t touched you,” the giant said—and it was true. The woman was covered from head to toe in Maharan robes and wore a pair of thick gloves, and so no part of Goda’s skin had so much as grazed her.
“You know why a layperson can’t touch a priestess, don’t you, Goda?” Her voice sounded a bit muffled with her mouth lightly pressed against the giant, but Kanna could still see the very faintest of smiles emerging with her shuddering breaths. “It’s because you’ll smear me with your snakes.”
“Snakes don’t exist.”
“That’s the kind of denial I would expect from a long-necked swan like you.” The woman’s tone had turned a bit delirious.
As they hovered slowly through the trail, the giant’s gaze fell more intently on the priestess, and Kanna had a chance to finally notice that the woman had Priestess Rem’s face.
But this woman was not Rem. She had her features, though not her essence, and with a new context now—a new lens—it all became obvious to Kanna. She wondered how she had not realized it before: In all the dreams, in all the images from the shrine, Kanna had not been seeing the past life of Priestess Rem at all, but rather of Rem’s twin.
She had been seeing the life of Taga Murau—and her relationship with Goda Brahm.
Once they had reached the cottage at the mouth of the trail, the giant had to swing her satchel back and stoop low to unlatch the gate of the fence; her bare hand nearly brushed the priestess’s head in the maneuverer, but Goda caught herself just in time, and she was able to step through the garden and push through the front door without further incident.
She dropped the priestess onto a bed with pure white sheets. When the priestess looked up at the giant—her hair messy and smattered against the pillows, a few drops of sweat still on her brow, a faint blush now having settled on her cheeks—the giant jerked her gaze away quickly. She busied herself searching for a chair, and when she found one, she dragged it over to the bedside and sat.
She dropped her bag onto the floor. She looked once again at the priestess, but this time with wariness. Kanna could feel the giant’s heart pounding still; she could feel the bashful warmth rising up to the giant’s face.
“We’re playing with fire, Goda,” the priestess whispered. The pain had worn off from her expression, but her breaths still came in hard, and her eyes were trained on the giant intently. “Rem told me to keep away from you, and now I’m apt to agree with her. You know better than to try to rescue me. You feel too entitled now.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You do.” Another faint smirk came to life on the woman’s face as she seemed to recover. “Even as you sit there and look at me, it’s obvious. And it’s my fault. I’ve burdened you. I shouldn’t have encouraged this friendship between us, knowing where it might have led.” When Goda refused to reply, she broke the gaze and let it wistfully fall out the window, towards the garden. “What to do, Apprentice, what to do? You’re enamored of me. This has become increasingly clear.”
The giant’s body stiffened, but there was no reaction in her voice when she said, “That’s none of your business.”
The priestess turned back to her and laughed. “So typical of you to give me such strange answers. You’re so young and yet you brush aside my flirtations like an old man. How coy of you. You must be trying to seduce me.” She huffed with amusement when Goda’s glance fell towards the floor in response. “It’s working, you know. I like you, too.”
Kanna could feel Goda’s surprise, the conflict in her emotions when she looked back up helplessly. The giant felt naked; Kanna felt naked for her. The glance of the priestess undressed her in many ways.
“I see you have all the layers of your robes on today,” Taga said, as if she were reading both Kanna’s and Goda’s thoughts. “That’s unusual. You typically have on less. You tend to run a bit hot, don’t you? I’ve seen you bathing in the cold waters of the stream many times. Or is it the snakes you’re trying to be rid of, even if you don’t believe in them? I noticed once that you have a snake of your own, but that one doesn’t wash off, does it?”
Goda’s blush deepened until her throat pounded with the rushing blood. “That’s also none of your business.”
“There’s no shame in it. I already knew anyway, since your body shape is on the obvious side. It’s just so strange that a second kind of woman would be a gardener instead of a soldier or a porter or something more common for your type. Everything about you is strange. It’s why I’ve grown to like you. It’s why I find you so tempting. Indulging curiosity is my secret vice, but I didn’t spend years fighting to join the priesthood only for a handsome face to be my downfall, hm?” The priestess was grinning at her as if she were only playing, but she remained motionless on the bed and seemed to watch Goda’s reaction carefully.
The giant shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I was headed down the mountainside to the valley before I heard you in the woods,” Goda said, changing the subject not very subtly. “That’s why I’m wearing my full robes. The wind is strong today.”
Some irritation finally flashed onto Taga Murau’s face. Having seemed to regain control of her limbs, she pushed herself up on the bed until she was sitting. She offered Goda a very serious expression. “Don’t tell me you were out there hunting for Flower again. I told you to abandon that idea. I’ll have none of it.”
“Your fits are getting worse.” Kanna could feel that anguish from before rising up in the giant’s chest. It was a dull ache of panic that oozed through every muscle. “Be logical about this. Have some sense of self-preservation. I’ve watched this disease progress in you even in the months since we first met.” The giant’s words started spilling out faster, even though Kanna could feel a tight restraint trying to hold back the desperation. “Rem admitted to me that in all your years no one has ever come close to a solution. It’s time for more radical measures. I can’t watch this happen to you. I can’t watch you in pain every day. I can’t watch you inch closer to….” Goda stopped. Some heat had risen to the backs of her eyes. The word on her lips was death, but she had not voiced it. “I’ve heard rumors that Flower can cure many things. It’s worth it to at least—”
“And who, I wonder, put that notion in your head in the first place?” the priestess interrupted, raising her voice. “Or is that also none of my business?”
Instead of answering, Goda reached down and undid the tie of her bag. She pulled out a leather scroll that looked immediately familiar to Kanna and dropped it rudely onto the priestess’s lap.
Taga looked bewildered at first, but as soon as she recovered, she unrolled the cylinder with curiosity and her eyes seemed to scan its contents. “It’s written in the Old Middlelander script. What is it?” Her voice had nearly returned to the softness of before in the midst of her confusion.
“I have no talent for languages like the rest of you do,” the giant said, “so I could only decipher the first part with some difficulty. It’s a recipe. There are three other sections, and going by the illustrations, it looks like they’re detailed instructions on how to use the product of the first section—but I can’t tell what they say. It’s gibberish.”
The priestess squinted at the text and her eyes seemed to dart between the rows of carefully-placed glyphs that were etched on the scroll. “That’s because only the first part is in Middlelander. The second part looks like it might be a phonetic transliteration of the Upperlander tongue in Old Middlelander script. It was a common practice before they had a script of their own. The other parts, I can’t tell what language they’re in.” But then she closed the thick scroll and threw it onto the floor with a thud, as if she had just noticed that it was on fire. “It hardly matters, anyway. This document is blasphemous. May the Holy Mother forgive me for even looking at it, the way she’s forgiven me for looking at you. Where on Earth did you find it, Goda?”
“It showed up on my bed after I came back from some business at the temple a few weeks ago.”
The priestess raised an eyebrow. “‘Business’? Even asking you to show up to morning meditation is like asking you to pull out your own teeth. What might have lured you willingly to the presence of the Goddess, I wonder?”
“I was…praying.” Goda’s jaw tightened. “I had racked my mind for solutions and my mind had come up short, so I thought I’d try something else.”
Taga seemed even more taken aback, but then her gaze fell towards the scroll on the floor and she appeared to make a connection that Kanna had missed. “I see,” she murmured. “And so you think this is how the Goddess answered your prayers, do you? Well, even you know better than that, Goda. The Goddess would never encourage you to brew some ancient Flower recipe, no matter the reason. It’s against the law. You know that, don’t you? I shouldn’t even be listening to you talk about it.”
Goda stared at her for a moment in silence. “The seeds I planted in the woods have already blossomed,” she mumbled after the pause, ignoring everything the priestess had said, “but I didn’t know if it would be enough, so I was going back to the valley to find some more. In the meantime, consider it at length. The Flower is more potent in its brewed form. Going by the recipe, it should not take me long to prepare it for you and it should be easy to hold down. Maybe it will even be painless.”
Taga’s hands had fallen onto the bed, and she was gripping the sheets tightly with her fingers. She sighed, conflict evident on her face. “Look, Goda, just get out,” she said, her tone suddenly empty of emotion. “I will not blaspheme the Goddess. It is one thing to be tempted by carnal emotions and another thing entirely to entertain swallowing the Samma Flower. You’ve grown much too familiar with me. It ends now. Leave and don’t come back.”
Goda shot up to her feet so quickly that the chair almost toppled back, but she did not step away from the spot. She stared down at Taga with gritted teeth. “You and your religious delusions. You’re going to die because of this nonsense you believe in!”
“Oh, and you’re my heroic savior, Apprentice Brahm? How noble of you to offer to shove a Samma blossom down my throat and send me to hell in order to save my life! For what? So that you can keep me around for your own selfish happiness?” She sat up straighter. Her eyes narrowed with fury. “Have you ever considered that maybe I don’t want to live? I’ve tolerated this pain almost all my life, long before you ever showed up with your arrogance. It won’t kill me. The hammers will pound and pound inside my skull, but I won’t grow any closer to death because of it. If only I should be so lucky! If only this sickness could actually kill me, then maybe there is some mercy in this world! Instead, I have to watch you slaughter all the rabbits in my garden while I stand by licking my lips, begging the Goddess that I should be next!” Her voice buzzed against the walls of the cabin as she cried out with renewed pain. “You want me to live like a normal person, and you want to walk alongside me, and you want to reach out to touch me—all childish fantasies. Don’t deny it. I can see it in your face every day; your intentions are transparent. Even someone as stoic as you is not immune to youthful passion. I’m sorry. It really is my fault and it’s not fair to you—but if you ever do touch me, I only pray that it’s those inhuman hands clasped around my neck, stealing my last breath!”
Goda had stumbled backwards, nearly tripped over the chair. Her eyes had grown wide. Her head was throbbing with the waves of her pulse. Kanna could hear the gushing deep inside her ears. It nearly drowned out Taga’s voice.
“Why are you saying that?” Goda shouted. “I would never hurt you. Never. I love—” But the giant stopped because she was about to reveal too much.
Taga grew quiet. She stared for a long time into the giant’s face. Twin streams of tears suddenly fell from her eyes, but that was all. She seemed to blink the rest back. She stared at Goda with a gaze of confusion, of shock—though Kanna couldn’t tell what had struck her with such force.
The silence in the cabin grew for a long moment and almost became its own entity. Kanna could feel it flowing and shifting uncomfortably against the two of them. The wind blew outside. The birds chirped faintly.
“If you really feel that way about me,” Taga finally said, “then you’ll offer me what I ask. It’s the only thing I want from you. It’s the only medicine that will surely end my suffering, and I can’t deliver it myself without sinning against the Goddess. What do you care? You don’t even believe in Mother Mahara, so what kind of hell would you have to fear?”
Goda stood frozen in place, in the midst of a step back, her hand clasped to her chest. Her fingers were digging into her own skin with nervous tension, and Kanna could already feel that she didn’t know her own strength, that she was drawing blood without fully realizing. The giant was shaking her head. Kanna could feel the denial, the effort to interpret Taga’s words in some other way.
“No,” Goda said. “No. I won’t do that. You’re insane if you think I’ll do that.”
“Insane,” Taga huffed. “People have called me insane all my life because it’s only me who can feel the inside of my head breaking in half, even when it looks whole from the outside to them. But I know what I feel. It’s as real as anything else, and by now I know that it will never go away.” She turned to face the window, to look out at the expanse of trees. Her breath had grown shaky. After awhile, she murmured once again, “Get out, Goda.” There was no energy in it, which made it sound worse to Kanna, and it seemed to startle Goda, too.
The giant turned and ran towards the door. The chair toppled over with a smack as she staggered past it and she forgot the scroll in her rush to escape.
Kanna found that body sprinting through the woods again, those huge lungs huffing with exhaustion and pain, those long limbs crashing against tree trunks, the switches of low-lying branches whipping against her face. A wave of heat had settled in the giant’s eyes, and the giant took a deep breath to suck it up, and the tears still would not fall.
She ended up at the bottom of a steep staircase made of stone. She gazed up at the wide open doorway of the building that sat at the summit, and Kanna could just barely see down the hallway at the image of the Goddess. From where Goda was standing, the Goddess looked smaller than She had looked as a tiny idol in their hosts’ house in Karo, but Kanna could tell that the statue in the temple was actually just far away and massive. It was lit from all sides by candles, and below the altar, some steam rose up from what seemed like a pool, but Kanna could not see how deep or shallow it was from the angle.
Goda spat onto the staircase and dashed back into the trail.
Just as before, the light flickering from the canopy above flashed in the giant’s eyes—in Kanna’s eyes—but this time, the image of the forest had started to morph and change. The trees rustled. Some of the branches looked fuller. Some of the leaves began to give way to flowers. Time seemed to rush past her just as the trees did.
She heard more gasps, more screaming in the distance. At first, it was peppered throughout the experience, timed with the rising of the sun or the chirping of the birds. Eventually, though, it grew more frequent. The voice of Taga grew louder and louder. It grew until it was all she could hear echoing deep in her ears.
She thought she saw herself inside the cabin a few more times, or out in the priestess’s garden, or crouching in a clearing with a pot held over a fire, but those moments flashed by so quickly that she could not hold onto them. Only the screaming held on—and the suffering that Goda felt as if it were her own, the suffering that was becoming unbearable.
Kanna couldn’t tell how many days had passed, but the images before her eyes flickered faster. Eventually, it grew pitch dark and then her vision was flooded with blinding light.
Time seemed to stop. Kanna felt her stomach knotting.
She was in the cabin again. It was midday, and the rays streamed in warmly through the windows. The curtains swayed back and forth with the light gusts of wind. She looked down at her hand.
It was not her own, but she didn’t feel as separate from it has she had before. She was clasping a piece of polished metal.
On its surface, she could see just the edge of her reflection—of the giant’s reflection—the same way she had seen her own face on the side of her cuff.
The point of the knife was pressed against a patch of skin, some skin that danced with a gushing pulse beneath it, some skin near a collar that was decorated with a four-sided pendant that Kanna recognized. The breathing of the throat was quick, too, like the ecstatic breaths of a tiny rabbit.
Kanna tried not to, but she had no control. Even though her hand trembled, it pushed forward. Even though she could feel a sharp breath, a shudder of resistance and pain coming from her own chest, she buried the tip of the knife into the pulse point of that neck until it had thrust all the way to the hilt.
She was careful not to brush the skin directly with the edges of her fingers because it was blasphemy.
The eyes of the woman below her had been closed, but then they opened. They stared. Kanna cried out in an agony that welled up all at once inside of her. She dropped the knife, and from the void that it left behind, a rush of blood spurted out at her and painted her hands and arms and clothes.
Then there was more—a few spurts, and the pressure died and the blood began to ooze out, dripping from its source down the side of the bed. The white sheets were coated in bright red. The air was smeared with the smell of iron.
All the while, the woman stared. She stared without saying anything, and when she eventually closed her eyes again, Kanna collapsed onto the floor and covered her face with her soaked hands.
Those eyes, those eyes.
They were so burned into Kanna’s mind that when she snapped back into her own body, she let out a loud gasp that echoed through the emptiness.
* * *
Kanna screamed. She cried out and clawed at the ground and screamed in horror at the images that still played in her mind. She was grateful for the feeling of the dirt underneath her, for the feeling of her own legs kicking against the forest floor, but the burden of what she had just done still racked her with guilt. She buried her face in her arms and sobbed. She could not control it; it was merely a wave that passed through her, as if the guilt were its own entity using her body to live and move.
“I’m a killer! I’m a killer!” Her mind was churning with a hundred thoughts, a hundred snakes.
But the sun had begun to blossom in earnest, and the early rays leaked in through the crook of Kanna’s arm. She lifted her head. She sniffled and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand without the barest sense of decorum. She looked at Goda just in time to see the giant serpent diving into the ground and disappearing below the crust of the Earth, as if to escape from the light. The other snakes had also gone, but Kanna knew by now that they still vibrated beneath the surface, that she had merely fallen back into a state where she could not see them anymore.
Instead, she could see Goda’s wide, black eyes. The giant stared at her with shock, with breaths that came quickly and seemed to jerk her whole body, to make her muscles tighten and writhe like the forms of the snakes.
Goda’s mouth was already partly opened in astonishment, but it opened some more. Her chest heaved with effort when a rasp finally emerged from her throat:
“How did you do that?”