“Don’t look back at the innkeeper’s door,” Goda said.
They were walking across the side of the yard, a space that was littered with empty pots and flower boxes filled with shriveled weeds. A fence made of dry wood encircled the garden, but it was tipped over in places and seemed to no longer serve any purpose. Some furniture was strewn about, fallen from the wind. Most of it was half-buried in the sand from what must have been months of disuse.
Kanna couldn’t fathom that they were sauntering around the grounds of what was supposed to be an inn. She had heard that the Outerland region was poor, but she had never imaged such squalor could be offered to members of the public.
Upon hearing some muffled voices coming from the cabin, Kanna tried glancing towards the entrance once again, but Goda wasted no time grasping the back of her head to stop her.
“I said don’t look. Give the woman time to rid herself of her visitor. We’re pretending we haven’t seen anything.”
Throwing Goda an annoyed glance, Kanna wriggled her head free. “What on earth are you talking about? Sometimes I wonder if you’re coming up with these random demands just to see if I’ll obey them.”
“You don’t know this culture, Rava. You can’t see the big picture yet, so you’ll have to trust what I say. If you cause the innkeeper to lose face, then she’ll be even more uncooperative, and we don’t have much of a budget to spare for different accommodations.”
“You’re telling me this? Isn’t it you who has already insulted her?” Kanna kept her eyes on Goda, but as she heard more commotion behind her and the sound of an unlatching door, she was tempted to look again.
“She knows me. I’m already aware of all the rules she breaks and I’m discreet about it, but if someone else were to see—especially an ignorant foreigner—she would worry that they would tell the priestesses.”
“Tell them what?”
Goda didn’t answer. Instead, she pressed against the small of Kanna’s back to hurry her along as they rounded the corner to the back of the house—but before the front yard was out of view, Kanna snapped her head back with the intention to disobey.
She caught a quick flash of a figure running across the sands—a delicate figure, unlike any Middlelander she had seen before. The person’s frame was small like Kanna’s own, draped in multicolored robes, and the stranger bounced with a dainty quickness that tousled the messy waves of their short hair.
Another foreigner? Kanna guessed, but she could not get a better look before Goda grasped her by her collar and sharply dragged her behind the cabin.
Kanna nearly fell over. The bucket that she was carrying slipped from her hands, spilling water across both their feet, splashing newly-formed mud onto Kanna’s ankles.
As soon as Kanna regained her footing, she shot a furious glance up at Goda. Out of some unconscious impulse, she thrust her hands out and smacked her palms hard against Goda’s chest—to push her back, to force her away—but the woman barely shuffled from the blow. It was as if Kanna had rammed with all her strength against a boulder.
“What the hell are you doing?” Goda asked.
“You can’t just yank me around, Porter!”
Kanna gnashed her teeth, and when she launched herself forward to push against Goda once more, Goda caught both her hands. The woman clenched her fingers tightly around Kanna’s wrists, and she held them steady even as Kanna tried to wrench them away. The lack of effort that it seemed to take only infuriated Kanna even more.
“Fight me, at least!” Kanna shouted up at her, trying to strike her fists against the trunk in front of her, but finding that it was futile. “Don’t just stand there like you’re a goddamn rock!”
Goda pulled Kanna up sharply by the wrists. Face to face, their breaths mingling together in the cool air, Kanna had to stretch up onto her toes just to avoid the pain of a dead hang. Goda loomed over her, eyes wide, mouth tight.
“That is what I am: a rock,” Goda muttered, so low and calm that Kanna could barely hear it over the whistle of the breeze around them. “I’m just a heavy rock that you have been tied to. Do you scream at a rock? Do you blame a rock? Do you fight a rock? Act like you have some sense and don’t waste your life resisting me. Accept your fate and you’ll at least be able to change it going forward.”
Before the tension in Kanna’s body had fully died, Goda let her go. Kanna dropped down into the sand and fell to her knees. She grasped at Goda’s robes in order to steady herself, but the fabric slipped from her fingers when Goda turned towards a steel door a few steps away and began fiddling with the lock as if nothing had happened. Seeing no other choice, Kanna rose up from the wet earth, brushing the grit from her clothes, listening instead to the silence.
“That person you saw,” Goda said as she finished breaking open the lock, “he’s a slave.”
She turned the handle and pushed her way into the shed. A gust of dusty storage room air rushed out against them, but Goda walked into it with no hesitation. It was dark. Kanna couldn’t make out every object in the room with complete clarity, but she could see that the place was lined end-to-end with wooden shelves and that there wasn’t much room as they both squeezed inside. Even still, Goda managed to crouch down to take off her shoes before pulling a match from one of her pockets. She used it to light a half-spent candle in a holder bolted near the door, beside a tiny glass window on the wall.
She closed the door. They were alone.
To distract herself from the sudden awkward feeling, Kanna peered down the rows of shelves crammed with boxes and avoided Goda’s gaze. “The innkeeper has a slave?” she asked, if only to break the silence. She had not yet met anyone in her same situation.
“No.” Goda plucked the candle from its holder and held it out, closer to a rack that had seemed to catch her interest. “Civilians ordinarily cannot keep slaves, and certainly not a low-class innkeeper like Jaya. The man you saw works at the monastery. He belongs to the head of the temple, which is currently Priestess Rem, the woman who took our money and gave you your new clothes.”
Kanna tilted her head. She tried to make out Goda’s face in the dark, but through the shadows, all she could see was the straight line of her tensed mouth. “Then why was he in her house?”
“Why, indeed.” The light wavered with Goda’s movements and painted her face with wild flickers. It was only then, seeing the edge of contempt that had come over her expression, that Kanna realized Goda was irritated. Nonetheless, the woman said nothing else and pushed past her to rummage through the contents of a box on a nearby shelf.
“Do you know him?” Kanna asked, inching towards her with curiosity.
“I’ve known him for a few years, yes. I see him when I come by here. Sometimes Jaya asks him to help her with chores, but I’ve never caught her alone with him in her cabin until now.” Seemingly unsatisfied with what she found in the box, Goda moved onto another right beside it. “This is why male slaves are normally segregated from women.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you probably don’t. Hold this.”
She offered Kanna the candle, and Kanna took the stick gingerly between two fingers, avoiding the hot wax that had started to dribble down the sides.
“Were they doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing?”
“Probably,” Goda said—but again, she didn’t elaborate.
Kanna could take a guess. She wasn’t entirely sure what the local stance was on adultery, but from what she had heard, Middlelanders took their marriages rather seriously because divorce was uncommon and there was no polygamy as far as she knew.
Either way, she couldn’t imagine that the person she had seen running off into the plain would be fraternizing with a middle-aged married woman, considering his apparent youth. He had been around Kanna’s size, and she figured that if Middlelander women were so tall, then a fully-grown man would have surely been gigantic. Perhaps he had been a foreigner after all, as she had first assumed.
It was only then that it struck her that she hadn’t actually seen a male Middlelander before. Whether it was simply a coincidence or a deliberate feature of the culture she wasn’t sure, but even the soldiers who had arrested her and the guards who had watched over her had all been women. She tried to think back to her childhood, to the bureaucrats who would visit her father or to the tutors who had come to teach her the Middlelander tongue, but she realized that they had all been women as well.
No, that couldn’t have been a coincidence, she decided.
“Why have I never seen one of your men before?” Kanna ventured to ask. “All of the Middlelanders I’ve met have only ever been women. Even at the confinement center where they held me for two weeks, every investigator who came to interrogate me was a woman, too.”
Goda looked over at her with a crooked smirk. “You expect them to leave you alone with a man?”
“Would that really be a problem? I can take care of myself.” It hadn’t occurred to her that Middlelander men might have been especially untrustworthy. She had found that the women were aggressive, so perhaps the men were beasts themselves, but she still thought that the degree of segregation was ridiculous. The fact that she had never even seen a Middlelander man, now that she thought about it, seemed increasingly strange, considering how far the culture had spread across the continent just over the course of her lifetime.
But Goda’s expression didn’t change. She was either unconvinced, or she had meant something else entirely. “You’re a criminal,” Goda said, crouching down towards a large box on a lower shelf. “It would be dangerous to leave you alone with a man. What if you took advantage of him?”
In that moment, an edge of wax slithered hotly down the back of Kanna’s finger and sent a trail burning across her skin. She cried out in surprise and let go of the candlestick on reflex.
The spark went out.
In the thin light that filtered from the dusty window behind them, she could see the outline of Goda’s hand grasping the candle and storing it somewhere out of sight. “Pay better attention,” she said to Kanna. “You’ve just arrived in a world that you don’t understand.”
Kanna tried to peer at her through the dark. She wasn’t sure what Goda had meant, but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with candle wax. Moments later, she heard the box jostling, and then a rustle of fabric.
When Goda relit the candle, they were both standing over a pair of sleeping mats that had been unrolled onto the floor. There was barely a hair of space between the two beds and they took up the majority of the narrow aisle, so Goda had to step all over them as she made her way out.
She slipped past Kanna and over to the next row of shelves.
“You really have slept in this dirty shack before,” Kanna said with a wry look. “You knew right where to find those.”
“I have slept here many times, yes, but that’s not what I was looking for. I usually sleep directly on the ground, but since they’re here, we might as well make use of them.”
Kanna stared after her, watching as Goda craned her neck and glanced into every aisle in turn.
“You usually sleep…on the ground?” Kanna pressed her hand to her face and let out a loud breath. “All right, I really don’t understand this. You work for the government—the Middleland government—a wealthy country that has taken over every single block of usable land in some way or another, with the exception of the savage-infested Lowerland perhaps. You can’t tell me that they can’t spare the resources to give us better accommodations. I won’t believe you.”
“Believe it. Most of our money went to the priestesses for the cleansing, and I don’t get paid again until I’ve delivered you to your new master.”
“Nonsense. Certainly they’ve given you some kind of budget. You’re simply being a miser and hoarding it for whatever reason. Otherwise, on such a slim allowance, how would they expect you to drive me halfway across the continent?”
“They don’t,” Goda said.
Goda ignored her confusion and continued to pace through the aisles, hovering over the rows of boxes, growing further away.
At first, Kanna didn’t know how to address such a nonsensical response, but it was true that half of everything that came out of Goda’s mouth made absolutely no sense, so she thought that she’d had better get used to asking lots of stupid questions.
“What do you mean they don’t expect you to deliver me?” Kanna tried, though she knew that this couldn’t have possibly been what Goda had meant.
“I mean exactly that.”
Kanna gazed at the woman in silence, but Goda seemed unperturbed by this and continued rummaging as she had before.
“If they don’t expect you to deliver me to a master, then what on Earth is the point of all of this?” Kanna said, raising her voice. “They must want something from me if they hired some brute to drag me around and waste my time, don’t you think?”
Finally, Goda acknowledged her—though Kanna quickly regretted it. The woman’s face was still cast in shadow, but it was close enough to the flame that Kanna could see her black eyes delivering an unnerving stare.
“It still hasn’t dawned on you, Rava,” she said. Something about her tone made Kanna recoil. “They don’t care if I deliver you successfully. They don’t care even if you live or die, or if I beat you while I drag you through the desert, or if I force myself on you at night. They don’t care. Your new master is the head of a government-owned motor factory, and she doesn’t care, either. You’re just a pair of hands to pull the levers. They arrested you to comply with the law and to keep you from your inheritance. Other than that, you’re a useless foreigner, a low-level criminal. That’s why you’re being taken across the continent by a low-ranking porter who can only afford to sleep in dirt.”
Kanna shuffled back on reflex, and her shoulders crashed into one of the shelves. She felt it teetering behind her, the contents rattling, but after a moment that stretched on far too long, it managed to stabilize.
She gritted her teeth. “You speak a lot of garbage, Porter. Wasn’t it you who told me that they pay you so much that I could never afford to bribe you?”
“They do. They pay me something that you could never hope to equal—but I didn’t say that it was money.”
Goda turned away and began searching through the shelves again, as if she had decided that the conversation was done, but even then Kanna wasn’t satisfied at all.
“Stop!” Kanna cried out. “Stop that for just a second and tell me what on Earth is going on!” When Goda ignored her, Kanna shuffled down the length of the rows until she had reached one aisle short of the woman. She didn’t have the courage to go further. Something about standing too closely to Goda still unnerved her and made her feel a strange emptiness inside. “What could you possibly be looking for anyway?”
Unexpectedly, Goda answered, “Fuel.”
Some of Kanna’s tension deflated with the abrupt reply. “There’s fuel in a place like this?”
“Yes, the innkeeper sometimes keeps fuel here, and sometimes I steal it from her.”
“She lends you fuel?”
“No. I steal it. Did you not hear me?”
Kanna made a face of disbelief. She wasn’t sure why she bothered to feel indignant about everything Goda said and did, when the woman clearly had no conscience.
Instead of complaining, Kanna shrugged. “The words for ‘steal’ and ‘borrow’ are the same in the Upperlander tongue, so sometimes I confuse the two in Middlelander,” she explained.
This time, it was Goda who looked perplexed. A strange smirk had come over her face. “Then how do you know when someone has stolen something or when they’ve borrowed it?”
“I don’t know. Context, I think. I always seem to be able to tell the difference in my native tongue.”
“Is that because you’re the one who is always stealing and borrowing, so you always know which is which?” The smirk had grown.
“You really shouldn’t accuse me of that when you’ve just confessed to me that you steal from your friend.”
“It’s nothing personal. To be honest, in a different world, I wouldn’t steal from her at all,” Goda said, pulling one of the boxes from the shelf and dropping it onto the floor with a thud, “but we live in this world, and I have a job to do.”
“Fine, fine. Don’t let something like integrity get in the way of your job,” Kanna huffed.
Goda looked up at her suddenly. “If you were lost in the desert with your best friend, hungry and fighting for survival because society had brushed you aside, and even the Goddess had abandoned you, what would you do?”
“I don’t know. Starve?”
“No,” Goda told her. “You would eat your friend. I promise.”
There was another strange silence after that, a pause that Kanna didn’t know how to fill. Goda took the moment to crouch down and pull a pair of lanterns from the box. She held one of them up to the light and pressed her thumb against a switch on the side.
A spark blinked to life. The filament gave off a warm, violet-tinted shine that made Kanna squint her eyes.
“Electric lanterns,” Goda said, smiling. “Batteries are expensive and scarce, so we’ll probably only be able to use them for a few hours, but they’ll be helpful if we need to walk around during the night. We might even take them with us when we leave, if the innkeeper doesn’t notice.”
With the lanterns in one hand and the candle in the other, she pushed past Kanna and made her way back to their sleeping mats. She dropped their loot nearby on the floor.
“I’d rather not be an accomplice to such trifling crimes,” Kanna complained. “You may not have any integrity, but I do.” Still, she followed Goda past their beds and towards the exit. She made no move to put the items back herself.
Goda pulled the door open, and the brilliant white light of the sun struck Kanna directly in the face. Even the shadow of Goda’s tall frame did nothing to lessen the blow, so Kanna shielded her eyes from it with her arm—but Goda stared straight ahead, as if she were used to gazing into it nakedly.
“It’s easy to have values and morals,” Goda said without turning around, “when your integrity has never been tested.”
They shuffled out into the sand. Kanna could see then, after her eyes had adjusted, that the sun was hovering much closer to the horizon than she had remembered.
Goda pointed across the plain, towards her truck in the distance. “Let’s get the rest of our supplies and settle in. Evening comes on faster than you’d expect this time of year, and soon it will be time to meet with the priestesses.”
Kanna followed Goda out into the open sands, but as they walked, she scanned the temple complex near the cliffs. She noticed the towers that had overwhelmed her before, and this time she found that they looked squat and unassuming in the distance. From where she stood, Goda loomed much higher.
* * *
Once the light began to wane less than an hour later, they headed out towards those towers again, and they met with the women in black at the threshold. As before, Goda knelt down in front of them, but she would not follow Kanna into the temple grounds.
“Don’t touch any of the priestesses,” Goda had reminded her as she had passed, but otherwise the porter had offered no instructions.
Kanna sat on the stone floor while one of the women in white—who was merely a temple assistant, she had now been told—crouched before her and examined her face. The woman tilted Kanna’s head to and fro, and Kanna bit her tongue and tried not to be offended at all the scrutiny. She took Kanna by the wrists, looked at her palms, prodded her arms in places that appeared random to Kanna’s eyes.
Before long, the assistant looked up towards the head priestess who had been observing over her shoulder. “I see no signs of Death.”
“None yet,” Priestess Rem agreed. She caught Kanna’s glance and smiled, though it was clear that the priestess had actually been staring at Goda at first—and that the porter had quietly fixed her gaze on the stone of the threshold, as if she were meditating about some distant place.
When they allowed Kanna to leave, she stepped back through the gate to find that Goda had pulled one of the electric lanterns out from under her robes. The glow of the lamp cast down brightly on the desert floor with the color of a sunset, and it was then that Kanna noticed how much the sky had dimmed. Across from her in the distance, the heavens were a weak pink, but when she glanced behind her, the cliffs were already disappearing into shadow.
Pebbles crunched with heavy footfalls. Goda headed off into the sands without a word, so Kanna quickly shuffled after her, ever mindful of the cuff’s silent threat.
“Do we have to keep seeing these people?” Kanna complained, still irritated from all the probing.
“Yes, every evening until your three nights of quarantine are over.”
“Why do they even care if I’ve eaten Death Flower? As long as I’m not smuggling any into the Middleland, what difference does it make?”
“That’s exactly how people smuggle it in,” Goda said. “They eat massive amounts of it and then they excrete it on the other side of the border.”
“They excrete it?” She wasn’t sure what that meant in a practical sense, and she couldn’t fathom how anyone could swallow large quantities of Death and survive, when she had heard that even eating a few petals of the flower was tempting fate.
Distracted with her morbid thoughts, Kanna did not notice at first that Goda had stopped for someone, and she nearly collided with a person who was heading in their opposite direction. Unconsciously, she stumbled around to avoid them, but because the stranger was politely offering the same dance with their own scraping sandals, both of them merely shuffled in place.
“Excuse me, uh…,” Kanna began to say, but when she caught sight of the androgynous face and the faint smile, she could not summon a title to call them with.
But she recognized the robes. They were made of the exact same spirals of color she had spied on the person running out of the innkeeper’s house, even if their brilliance was dampened by the dark. Goda’s light reflected in the young man’s eyes—and then Kanna watched those eyes widen with their own realization.
He bolted away, but Goda was quicker. She slid into his path and caught him by the arm, and once she had pulled him to her, he didn’t struggle. She hunched down until her face was close to his, their eyes meeting directly, their postures tense, frozen in mid-motion.
“Why were you in her house?” Goda asked. Her voice was low, but Kanna could still hear her.
“I was polishing the silverware.”
“You were polishing something. Did she threaten you?”
“No,” he said after a pause. “I came inside willingly.”
And then Goda let him go. There was a look on her face that Kanna didn’t fully understand, but she could sense a tint of relief in it.
“You get scarier every time I see you, Porter Goda,” he said with a tiny smirk that did not match his words. “All that time in the wilderness has turned you into a monster.”
Kanna stared at the both of them, baffled. Still, as she watched them watching each other intently, it occurred to Kanna that the young man had echoed her own private sentiment. Something about the woman kept Kanna on edge, and she felt like she was constantly on the verge of giving into her instinct and taking off running in the opposite direction.
Most of all, she hated Goda’s face. She hated the blank, insolent stare, the eyes that seemed open and empty like that of an animal.
“Where is this one from?” the boy asked suddenly, breaking Kanna out of her daze once again. He had fixed his glance on Kanna and was smiling pleasantly with curiosity.
“From the North-Western corner of the continent. Her family owned almost all the fertile grain fields in the Upperland, and all of the distilleries. She’s a member of the Rava group.”
“I see, I see. So this is one of the ruthless fuel barons, huh?” He tilted his head, craning his neck to seemingly get a better look at her. “They are an…interesting-looking bunch, aren’t they? Her skin is so pale. And what an odd shape her face has. Quite exotic!”
“Should you really be talking to a stranger in that manner?” Kanna asked him, immediately offended. “And I don’t know what fuel barons you’re talking about. You must have me mistaken for someone else. My family sold wine and spirits to the world. That is all we did.”
The young man turned to Goda with a touch of confusion, and his smile began to fade. “Is it typical to deny one’s crimes in Upperlander culture? Should I just play along with her, then?” He looked at Kanna with genuine concern. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention to be impolite. I can lie to you instead, if you’d prefer.”
Kanna’s eyes widened with a jolt of fury. “I’m not denying anything!” she shouted. “What is wrong with you people?”
“Oh my, she’s angry. Maybe we should start again: It’s nice to meet you. I’m Parama Shakka, a slave just like you.”
After he said that, Kanna felt no choice but to hold back her ire. A slave like me, she thought.
“Well, I’ve embarrassed myself enough, I suppose,” he said to Goda. “I really should get going to the temple.”
“You’re heading into the temple at this hour? Isn’t the work day over?”
“Sure, but I have some translations for Priestess Rem that I’ve been working on and she asked me to deliver them after nightfall. All week, we’ve been poring over the text we extracted from the cavern walls, and she’s been staying up all night studying them.” He gestured towards the expanse just East of the temple complex, and though it was too vague for Kanna to tell exactly where he was pointing, she could see some cliffs barely visible in the evening twilight, just beyond the hill that she had climbed with Goda that morning. “Wait, that’s right! You don’t know what we’ve found in there yet, do you, Porter Goda?” He grabbed a handful of Goda’s robe sleeve. “Please let me take you up to the caverns to see the serpents! They look even more brilliant at night!”
“Serpents?” Goda asked, looking as equally confused as Kanna for once. “I’m not sure what you mean, but if we can catch them and cook them up, then I won’t have to argue with Jaya about dinner.”
Kanna gaped at Goda with horror, but before she could object, the young man waved his free hand as if to dismiss the notion.
“No, no!” he said, tugging at Goda’s robes playfully, seemingly having forgotten all about his delivery. “They’re not actual serpents. It’s hard to describe, but you’ll see what I mean when we get there. I told myself I would show you as soon as I had the chance. Please come!”
“I can’t play right now,” Goda said, holding as steady as she always did, though a little smirk had shown up on her face. “I have a prisoner with me.”
“You can just bring her along. I’m sure she’s never seen something like this!” He was gazing at Goda with soft expectation, with passivity, with his eyelashes practically fluttering.
Kanna found it extremely uncomfortable to watch. He was clearly too grown for such antics—his voice well broken, his proportions mature—yet he seemed to not mind how weak it made him look to hang on Goda’s robes with that coy little smile.
To Kanna’s surprise, Goda was not bothered. In fact, his theatrics seemed to amuse her and she conceded with a sigh, “Fine, fine. But this had better not be the kind of serpent you tried to show me last time.”
At that he scoffed, smacking her arm. “As if you deserve a second chance with me after acting so indifferent!” Still, his smile grew wider as the giant in his grasp had finally budged.
Kanna made a face at them both. “What are you people talking about?”
But before Kanna could make any sense of it, the silhouette of a looming monster—being led by a pixie yanking her sleeve—floated into the desertscape, into the darkness.
* * *
As it turned out, Goda did find an actual snake on the way to the caverns. Both she and Parama chased it a few paces off their path, but quickly enough Goda dove down and seized it by the tail, then she swung it over her head and beat its face against a nearby boulder. Parama finished it off by stomping on it with his sandal-clad feet.
Once the snake was very dead, Goda draped its body over her shoulders like a limp scarf and kept walking as if nothing had happened. Kanna had no time to react. Instead, she followed along when they rejoined her, her expression frozen in stunned confusion. She felt like she had just witnessed a murder.
In time, they reached a crag that was not unlike the small cliffs that the monastery was built on. It was higher up than the one Kanna had climbed the night before to get to their shelter, but it had a gradual walking path—thankfully, Kanna thought—that seemed to twist all the way up to an entrance in the stone.
Goda’s light shined a small halo of clarity as they moved up the trail. This was how Kanna kept her bearings, though the light would flicker sometimes and it seemed a bit less bright than it had before. She worried that the batteries were already running low, and because the details on the ground escaped her, she tripped several times—but Goda somehow knew to pause whenever it happened, to allow Kanna to run into the back of her robes and catch herself.
Parama brought them to the mouth of a pitch-black cavern on a ledge. Kanna could barely see a few paces inside because the light didn’t reach, but when she groaned with exhaustion from the climb, the sound took longer than she expected to echo back.
Kanna raised an eyebrow. “How deep does this thing go?”
She could see the outline of Parama’s face as an edge of Goda’s light hit his cheek. “Deeper than anyone thinks it does,” he said. He was grinning with pride.
They entered in a single file with Parama leading—and somehow knowing his way through the dark—while Goda trudged behind him holding the light, and Kanna, who was most hesitant of all, straggled a few paces after.
With only a spot of light to guide them, they walked deeper into the unknown, the entrance growing smaller behind them. Crunching footfalls melded together, every step fusing with the next, until all Kanna could hear were a series of smeared echoes that disoriented her. Every sound seemed to bounce back from forever away. It made her head pulse with a strange discomfort.
Goda turned the dial on the light until it brightened so much that the glare made Kanna flinch, then the woman lifted it up high over her head.
The ceiling erupted in color. Out of nowhere, dancing neon spirals of bright blue and pink and orange rushed along the walls. The ribbons spread until they coated the entire arch of the cavern, and though Kanna knew it was impossible, to her eyes it seemed like they had not been revealed by the light, but had rather been birthed out of the stone the moment the light touched.
Mystified by it all, Kanna stared. The deeper they went, the more the ribbons seemed to coil and expand and diversify, until she was looking at what appeared to be entangled snakes made of infinite color, etched with infinite geometry.
And they were moving. Kanna blinked, trying to shake off the optical illusion, but no matter how many times she closed her eyes and reopened them, the snakes had begun to glow and swell in time with the pulsing feeling in her head.
“What…what is this?” she asked—but she heard only her own voice echoing back to her in the void. She could no longer even hear her companions’ footsteps.
Kanna staggered closer to one of the walls. Staring into those endless spirals had begun to nauseate her, but she could not look away. Between the tangle of glowing snakes, she finally noticed words etched into the stone. She didn’t know what language and didn’t even recognize the script, but as she pulled away, she realized that the words coated almost every inch of the walls. They seemed to shine with their own source of light, but she could only see them where Goda’s lamp struck directly.
“Goda…,” she whispered. “Porter, do you see this?”
“See what?” Goda’s voice reached her after what felt like a long time. “There’s nothing to see here.”
“How can you not see?”
But then some of the light reached that insolent face. She smirked at Kanna. “You must be losing your mind,” she said.
Parama started laughing.
With that small confirmation of her sanity, Kanna allowed herself to grow entranced. She followed the winding path of the snakes. The rest of the cavern seemed to disappear, and the more she stared, the more she noticed the intricacy of their design. Where at first she had just seen colored ribbons, she now saw tiny scales etched into the serpents, and tiny shadows where each row overlapped the other. The deeper she looked, the more she could see, until she realized that the lines that formed the snakes were themselves made of smaller snakes—and that those snakes were made of even smaller ones—forever, in seemingly endless detail.
After while, it felt like she had been drawn up into the serpents, like she had been swallowed into that infinity to become one of them.
But before she could come back to reason and remember where she was—before she could judge herself for becoming as insane as the woman who trudged in front of her—a deafening sound knocked her out of her trance. She wasn’t sure how loud it had really been, or if she had simply perceived it as a roar because it broke her concentration.
It came from the mouth of the cave. Goda snapped around to face it. A silhouette blocked some of the moonlight, a figure posed at the entrance far behind them, eyes shining straight towards them.
And then Goda’s light went out.