“Keep your eyes away from the 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 them, 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 gardens of what was supposed to be an inn. She had heard that the Outerland region was poor, but she had never seen such squalor offered to members of the public, though it was true that she hadn’t traveled much outside her family’s territory. She began to turn to look back towards the entrance to the innkeeper’s quarters, but she immediately felt Goda grasping her by the back of the neck.
Goda jerked Kanna’s head forward.
“I said don’t look,” she said. “Give the woman time to rid herself of her visitor. Pretend that you haven’t seen anything.”
Kanna gave Goda an annoyed side-glance and tried to wriggle her head away. “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 some commotion behind her and the sound of an unlatching door, she was temped to look again.
“She knows me. I’m already aware of this particular vice of hers 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 plain. The person’s frame was small like Kanna’s, young-looking, draped in multicolored robes. A short mop of brown hair on the back of their head fluttered in the wind.
This was all that Kanna saw before Goda grasped her by her shirt and sharply dragged her behind the cabin. Kanna nearly fell over, and 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 towards 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 like a rag doll!” Kanna gnashed her teeth so tightly that she felt her jaw pop, and she stepped forward to push against Goda once more.
Goda caught both her hands before she made contact, clenched her fingers tightly around Kanna’s wrists, held fast even as Kanna tried to wrench them away. “If you don’t like it,” she said, “then act like you have some sense so I don’t have to do it.” Goda’s tone was firm—but she didn’t raise her voice, and her air had such detachment, that it only infuriated Kanna even more. “Stop resisting.”
“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 tightened.
“That is what I am: a rock,” Goda muttered, so low that Kanna could barely hear it over the whistle of the breeze around them. “You do this to yourself. I’m just a heavy rock that you have been tied to. Do you scream at a rock? Do you blame a rock? Accept your fate and you’ll at least be able to move forward with it.”
Before the tension in Kanna’s body had fully died, Goda let her go. Kanna dropped down into the sand, fell to her knees, reached up to grasp at Goda’s shirt in order to steady herself.
But the fabric that Kanna was grasping slipped out from between her fingers soon enough, and Goda turned towards a steel door a few steps away to fiddle with the lock as if nothing had happened. Seeing no other choice, Kanna rose up from the wet earth, brushed the grit from her robes, listened instead to the silence.
“That person you saw,” Goda said as she finished freeing the door of its 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 for them 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, Kanna peered down the rows of shelves crammed with boxes. Dozens of questions arose at once into her mind—but one of them nagged at her a bit more loudly than the others. She found it in her to once again look at Goda directly.
“The innkeeper has a slave?” she asked. 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 typically cannot keep slaves, and certainly not a low-class innkeeper like Jaya. The slave 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?” Kanna asked.
“Why, indeed.” The light wavered with her movements, 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 said, shuffling towards her.
“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.”
Kanna raised an eyebrow at her, but Goda either couldn’t see it or chose to ignore it. “I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you probably don’t. Hold this.”
She offered Kanna the candle, and Kanna took the stick gingerly with 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 overt polygamy.
Either way, she couldn’t imagine that the person she had seen running off into the plain was old enough to be fraternizing with a middle-aged married woman. He had been around Kanna’s size, and she figured that if Middlelander women were typically so tall, then a fully-grown man would have surely been gigantic.
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 youth, 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 ever met—besides that teenage boy that I just saw—have only ever been women. Even at the confinement center where they held me for two weeks, every investigator who came to interview me was a woman.”
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 at all that Middlelander men might have been untrustworthy. She had found that the women were quite 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 male, now that she thought about it, seemed increasingly strange, especially 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, then 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 skin against fabric. She sensed movement, but couldn’t make out what it was.
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, watched 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 country that has taken over every single block of usable land in some way or other, with the exception of the savage-infested Lowerland perhaps. You can’t tell me that they can’t spare the money 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 to deliver me. 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?” She lifted her hands up, and she gestured towards the space around them, but really she had meant to wave her hands at the entirety of the world.
Finally, Goda looked over at her. Her 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 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 took a step 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, made her feel a strange emptiness inside. “What could you possibly be looking for anyway?”
Goda glanced at her. Unexpectedly, she answered, “Fuel.”
Some of Kanna’s tension deflated with the renewed confusion. “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, but soon enough it faded. She didn’t really know what to say in response. She wasn’t entirely 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 and wandering in the desert with your best friend because society had brushed you aside, and even the Goddess had abandoned you, and you found that you had nothing to eat, what would you do?”
“I don’t know. Starve?”
“No,” Goda told her. “You would eat your friend.”
There was a 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 out here, and soon it will be time to meet with the priestesses.”
Kanna followed Goda out into the open sands, but as they walked, she slowed to scan 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 seemed to loom 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 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 behind her. “I see no signs of Death.”
“None yet,” Priestess Rem agreed.
When they allowed Kanna to leave, she stepped back through the gate to find that Goda had produced one of the electric lanterns 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.
Priestess Rem caught her glance. She smiled at Kanna as soon as they met eyes, but it took Kanna a moment to realize that the priestess had been staring at Goda initially—and that the porter had already begun walking away into the plain. She quickly shuffled after her.
“Do we have to do this every single evening?” Kanna asked, a bit irritated.
“Yes, 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 to them?”
“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.
Because she was perplexed and far away in her thoughts, Kanna didn’t notice that Goda had stopped until she had walked a few paces ahead without thinking. She nearly collided with someone who was heading in the opposite direction—towards the temple behind them.
She only just managed to stop short. Her sandals scraped against the gravel and she found herself staring into a young, androgynous face that gazed right back at her—but the details were cast in shadow because Goda’s light did not entirely reach.
The eyes were large, though, and they carried a faint smile in them, and there was something about the way the person stared at her in bewilderment that made Kanna think she was gazing at an innocent child. She recognized the robes suddenly. They were made from spirals of color, though she couldn’t see the full extent of their brilliance in the dark.
It was the boy she had seen fleeing the innkeeper’s house earlier in the day.
His glance appeared to wander from Kanna to the figure behind her. Kanna saw Goda’s light reflected in his eyes, and then she watched those eyes widen with realization.
He bolted to the side—but Goda was quicker. She slid over to block his path and she caught him by the arm. Once she had pulled him to her, he didn’t struggle. Goda hunched down until her face was close to his. They shared a tense moment, their eyes meeting directly, their postures frozen in mid-motion.
“Did she force you?” Goda asked. Her voice was low, but Kanna could still hear her.
The boy said nothing for a moment. His gaze wavered, though soon enough he looked back up at her. “No,” he said. “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.
The boy began to turn, to head wordlessly back towards the temple threshold, but then he stopped again after a few steps. “No matter how many years we’ve known each other, no matter how many times you come and go, Porter Goda,” he said, without looking directly at her, “I always have to get used to you all over again.” He gave her a tiny smirk, something that seemed completely opposed to his words. “You frighten me every time. You’re like a mountain lion crouching in the dark.”
“Thank you,” Goda replied.
Kanna looked at the both of them, completely baffled. Even still, as she watched them watching each other intently, it occurred to Kanna that the boy 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 said 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.”
The boy raised his eyebrows, as if what Goda had said meant something to him. “I see, I see. So this is one of the ruthless fuel gougers, huh?” He tilted his head, craned his neck to seemingly get a better look at her. “They are an…interesting-looking bunch, aren’t they? Her eyes are so small. Her skin is so pale.”
“Should you really be talking to a stranger in that manner?” Kanna asked him, immediately offended. “And I don’t know what you’re talking about. My family sold wines and spirits to the world. That is all we did.”
The boy turned to Goda with a touch of confusion, and his smile began to fade. “Is it typical to deny ones crimes in Upperlander culture? Should I just play along with her, then?” He looked at Kanna again, this time 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.” A bit of panic came over his face. “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. She sighed and the anger deflated somewhat. A slave like me, she thought.
“Well, I’ve embarrassed myself enough, I suppose,” he said to Goda. “I really should get going.”
“You’re going into the temple at this hour? Isn’t the work day over?”
“Yes, but there are still a few things to do. I was going to deliver some transcriptions to Priestess Rem before they close up, since I’ve been working in the caverns most of the day.” 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 she had climbed with Goda. “Ah, that’s right! You don’t know what we’ve found yet, do you, Porter?” The boy named Parama smiled with a sudden burst of girlish excitement. “Please let me take you up to the caverns to see the serpents! They look even more brilliant at night.”
To Kanna’s surprise, he reached out and took a handful of Goda’s robe sleeve. He was gazing at her with meek expectation.
“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. He tugged at Goda’s sleeve playfully. “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 saw them. Please come!” He stepped away from the temple, seemingly having forgotten all about his delivery, his hand still clasped to her robes.
Goda smirked at him. “I can’t play right now,” she said, holding as steady as she always did, “I have a prisoner with me.”
“You can just bring her along.”
Goda seemed to pause, to finally consider what he said. “So you really do have something to show me this time?”
“Yes, yes. It is definitely something.” The boy’s gaze fell bashfully towards the ground. He kept the smile, though. “Next time I have nothing to show you, I’ll make sure you’re alone.”
Kanna looked at them both blankly. “What are you people talking about?” she asked.
But neither of them answered, and before long the silhouette of a looming monster—being led by a pixie grasping her sleeve—floated through Kanna’s field of vision.
* * *
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 larger 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 lead all the way up.
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, that she might find herself shrouded in darkness without warning. 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 cavern on a ledge. Kanna could see nothing special about it, could barely see a few paces inside because the light didn’t reach. She had already grown tired from the walk, so she let out a huff and the sound took longer than she expected to echo back towards her from the pitch-black hollow.
Kanna raised an eyebrow. “How deep does this run?”
She could see the outline of Parama’s face as an edge of Goda’s light hit his cheek. “Deeper than any of us think it does,” he said. He was grinning.
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. Kanna, who was most hesitant of all, straggled a few paces from the tail-end of Goda’s robes.
They kept walking into the unknown, with only a spot of light to guide them. A strange smell overcame Kanna’s senses, and the crunching of the footfalls in front of her melded together, and every step began to fuse 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. The front of her head began to pulse with something like pain.
Then Goda lifted her light high and the ceiling erupted in color. Dancing neon spirals of bright blue and pink and orange rushed along the walls as they walked. The ribbons spread until they coated the entire arch of the cavern that surrounded them.
Kanna stared with bewilderment. 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.
They were moving. She blinked, to try 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 pulse in time with the ticking 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.
She stumbled closer to one of the walls, and she saw that between the tangle of glowing snakes, there were words etched into the stone. She didn’t know what language and didn’t even recognize the script, but as she pulled away, she saw suddenly that the words coated almost every inch of the walls. They seemed to shine with their own source of illumination, but she could only see them where Goda’s spotlight struck directly.
“Goda…,” she whispered. “Porter Goda, do you see this?”
“See what?” Goda’s voice reached her after a moment. “There’s nothing here to see.”
Kanna stared ahead at the woman’s figure, her mouth open with mystification. “How can you not see?”
But then Goda turned to look at her and some of the light reached that insolent face. She smirked at Kanna. “You’re the only crazy one here,” she said.
Parama started laughing.
Kanna tilted her head up towards the ceiling and followed the winding path of the snakes. She grew entranced. 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, and tiny dots of translucent color along the edges of each shadow, forever in seemingly infinite detail.
After while, it felt like she had been drawn up into the snakes, like she had been swallowed into that infinity, like she had 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, and so Kanna turned shortly after. They could barely see the entrance to the cavern anymore, but a silhouette blocked some of the moonlight, a figure that seemed posed as if it were staring at them.
And then Goda’s light went out.