The sky spilled open. Not long after they had stepped beyond the threshold of the garden gate, dozens of hailstones began to patter the ground, to sting the back of Kanna’s shoulders and the top of her head. Dozens quickly turned into hundreds—then to thousands—but Kanna trained her eyes on the distant flames and blindly led the engineer through the dim streets.
In her focus, she barely noticed the rumbling of another wave of military trucks ambling by, though the headlights broke through the haze and reflected against the windows of the empty shops around her. She didn’t allow herself to be too distracted by her own luminous image in that emptiness, but even with a quick glance, she caught the sight of writhing snakes on her face. They had returned, though their presence was more distant, more integrated into the surroundings, more like a hallucination. They appeared and disappeared; they constructed and reconstructed Kanna’s world; they undulated beneath the surface and danced with the Earth’s breath beneath her feet.
They also carried her onward. It was effortless.
But the engineer behind her had begun dragging her feet, resisting the chaos of the world that Kanna was creating. “Rava!” she shouted over the cacophony. “Rava, have you gone insane? We’ll be stoned to death out here!” Though it took much tension, much fighting against momentum, the woman manged to yank Kanna under the awning of a nearby house. Her hair was mussed and covered in quickly-melting ice pellets. She heaved and shuddered in Kanna’s face as a haze collected around her bare skin. “Look, Rava, look! Do you want to be impaled by the Goddess’s arrows? Or else run over by all these idiot soldiers? My truck is parked up ahead in an alleyway. I don’t blame you if you’re hesitant to trust me to lead you into the dark, but if you do trust, I swear I’ll take you where you ask.”
Kanna turned towards the curtain of hail again. Beyond the loud stream that pounded all around them, she could hear the faint sound of drums all of a sudden. She wasn’t sure what to make of it, but every time another flock of trucks ambled through the slush, the noise grew harder to distinguish from everything else. The wheels of those monstrous cars loudly kicked up mud because the ground had grown soft enough to break apart. Moreover, they were standing at the bottom of a steep incline and the rain and hail had begun to flow downhill towards them.
Indeed, it would be hard to fight the current by herself, Kanna decided, especially if it became a torrent. Because the Goddess was on her side, she nodded towards the engineer and followed the woman past the vague light of the streetlamps. She let her enemy take her into the shadows of an alley. She could feel that the snakes were unfolding in this direction, so she let go of the fear.
As the woman had told her, the dim shape of a metal beast emerged next to a building with shuttered windows. The truck was tall and fully-enclosed with walls that reminded Kanna of the sharp angles of a razor blade. Through the iron bars that covered the back windows, she could see ropes and hooks hanging from the ceiling, and all manner of electric cuffs and steel batons and other torture devices dangling over the flatbed.
Even still, she trusted. She squeezed the engineer’s hand. Out of that trust, a glowing serpent had crawled out of Kanna’s sleeve and wrapped itself around the engineer’s wrist. Kanna winced from the sensation of is scraping scales, but she did not squirm away. Instead, she asked, What is it that you want?
The constrictor squeezed harder, glowed against the other woman’s skin. Though at first it was hard to see, scorch marks on the engineer’s forearm revealed themselves one by one. Kanna hadn’t noticed these scars before. They were old and had healed over with discolored flesh, and they were not dissimilar from the ones that Kanna now carried on her own wrist—but they were much more numerous.
“Ah, I see,” she whispered. “This explains a lot. Thank you for pointing them out.”
The snake relaxed and receded into the background until Kanna could barely detect its presence anymore beneath the surface of her awareness. By then, the engineer had tugged her to the driver’s side of the truck and wrenched the door open against the pressure of the wind.
“Get in!” she shouted, wincing from the battering of ice. Because the seat was so high up—much higher than Goda’s truck had been—and Kanna could not reach it, the woman scruffed the back of Kanna’s robes with both hands and hoisted her inside.
The momentum of the throw sent Kanna sliding across the leather seat into the passenger side of the front cabin. She finally allowed herself to breathe deeply. The smell reminded her of Rem Murau’s gloves—and of the death shroud they had used to suffocate the priestess. When the engineer climbed in and slammed the door behind her, the scent of human sweat soon joined that of the tanned corpse beneath them.
It was quiet. Besides the pelting of the hail on the steel roof, they were insulated from the noise outside. The windows had already grown hazy with their shared breaths. The silence and privacy felt odd to Kanna, so she lifted her head to gaze through the faint light at the engineer and found that the woman looked uncomfortable.
“I’m not going to take advantage of you, so stop looking at me like that,” the engineer said. “I’m not interested in hurting a slave.”
“I didn’t think you were.” In truth, it hadn’t even occurred to Kanna in the first place. Her brain had been strangely empty of its usual chatter since she left the garden, and most of her fears had reduced to less than a murmur—especially once she had glimpsed who the engineer actually was without the uniform as a disguise. “Why would I hurt myself? I stopped being a masochist about an hour ago.”
“Yeah?” The woman smirked. “Well, if you’re not a masochist, then surely you’re an idiot. Why the hell did you get into a truck with me? Who knows what I could have done to you? I am not a good person. You should be able to surmise that much at least. You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
Kanna looked towards the small opening in the partition behind them. A few of the dangling metal batons gleamed in the back cabin, though most of the sharper probes manifested as shadows. “I know exactly what you’re capable of. That’s why we’re here together now. You have to face her before she dies—just like I do.”
The woman had already begun rummaging in a compartment beneath the driver’s seat, pulling out a set of black, wrinkled robes. She threw the uniform over her head and began closing the fastenings as soon as she had snaked her way into her new skin. “What are you even talking about, Rava?”
“Seriously?” The engineer popped up her collar. It was bright red and set high on her neck, just as Kanna had remembered it from earlier that day in the cuffing room. “I should have known that’s who you were chasing around in the dark. Well, let me tell you that it’s a fool’s errand. It doesn’t matter what god you pray to or what sacrifice you throw into the temple incinerators, Brahm isn’t going to magically appear. If she has any sense at all, then she already left town this morning.”
“If you think that anything she does makes sense, then you don’t know her after all.”
“Oh, and you do? You met her—what—two weeks ago?” The woman scoffed and reached under the console in front of her. She pulled back hard on a crank until the engine exploded to life. The seats beneath them shook, the windows vibrated—but because they were sealed from the outside world, Kanna could not sense the sweet taste of Rava Spirits in the air this time. “I’ve known Brahm since before she was a criminal and I helped design her custom cuff after she was arrested. I engineered her life and death within certain boundaries, and she knows very well what those are. She’s a lot of things, but she’s no imbecile. At the very least, logic will tell you the woman has a basic sense of self-preservation to have survived this long.”
“Not anymore.” Kanna stared out towards the mouth of the alley as the engineer took hold of a pair of levers and whipped the truck around. “She wants to kill herself. She’s about to swallow as much Flower as possible so that she can bleed herself into a priestess.”
A loud scrape rang against the truck’s frame. The engineer had grazed a brick wall as she turned, and the sound made her clench and let loose a few blasphemies that Kanna recognized, along with a few more that she didn’t.
“What in the hell are you babbling about now, Rava? I swear to God, you’re the one who has swallowed Flower,” the woman said through gritted teeth as she aimed the truck towards the street. She jerked the speed lever. They slid straight through the mud and nearly collided with oncoming traffic, as the road had filled end-to-end with military trucks. “Mahara’s Blessed Womb, why are there a million soldiers heading towards the temple complex at this time of night? The funeral march isn’t until morning, as far as I know—and at any rate, it’s a mock procession, so it’s not like we need this much personnel for it.”
“A mock procession?”
A few vehicles swerved to make space for them and the engineer forced herself into the throng. When she noticed Kanna’s questioning glance, she shrugged. “What did you expect, Rava, that we’d let people desecrate a clergywoman’s body like they almost did at the train station the other night? After that riot, the High Priestess and the High Minister ordered the corpse to be cremated in secret before the public funeral. The common people are animals, fueled by primitive emotions and morbid curiosity. Don’t be shocked that we have to deceive them from time to time with elaborate fakery.”
“What is it that you are faking, exactly? The priestess’s death? I saw her in the tower and she was still breathing.”
“Stop being ignorant. Bodies can move even after they’re dead. Trust me, I’ve made plenty of corpses dance while testing my cuffs. Muscles run on electric pulses—it’s only that they’re charged with food instead of Rava Spirits—and sometimes they keep firing even after there’s no soul left. Just because she’s twitching doesn’t mean she’s alive.”
“Maybe all of that is true—but she is alive. If she wasn’t, then I doubt her death would require so much explanation. Is it really that important for you people to spare her dignity by taking her life?”
“Some things are worse than even death, Rava.” So the woman would not answer her directly. Instead she gazed up towards the hilltop, though they were blind to what lay at the peak. “All right,” she said, “I’m making good on my promise, so don’t test my patience with such nonsense. The two incinerators are just across from the South Temple up there. One side is for impure sacrifices and the other for pure ones. Let me know which side you want and I’ll leave you there if the coast is clear enough. Just keep away from the temple itself. Some preparations are taking place for the funeral before sunrise and security will be tight in the temple proper, so unless you want to get Lila Hadd into trouble, be discreet about your demon-summoning rituals or whatever it is that you want to do.”
The engineer smirked. “You’re a witch, aren’t you? Besides, you said you were looking to call on Goda Brahm. Close enough to a demon, if you ask me. Luckily, I don’t believe in demons and I don’t believe in Brahm. Just leave me out of it and I’ll drop you off. Pretend you never saw me.”
Kanna peered through the foggy windshield and up towards the apex of the hill they were climbing. The flames had momentarily disappeared from their vantage point. The swarm of engines around them were revving to crawl up the slush, but the engineer’s high-sitting truck seemed to have an easier time wading through the flood, so they pushed ahead of most of the soldiers.
“What about you?” Kanna asked.
The engineer leaned forward—seemingly unconsciously—and pressed deeper into the speed lever. The truck rumbled and rose higher against the flow of gravity. “What do you mean?”
“You’re helping me cross through here, but what will become of you when you leave me? Aren’t you looking for Goda, too? You dreamed about her. The Goddess is leading you to her.”
“Well, I’m not quite so sure I’m awake from that nightmare yet, so even if your delusions are somehow true and she really is wandering around the city with a death wish, I’ll keep my distance. I trust the cage I built for her. My cuff will do its work and I’ll do mine. I’m looking for someone else, anyway.”
The woman’s face took on a dark expression. “When I woke up in the bathhouse,” she said, “the young man who was keeping me company was gone—along with my uniform and my house keys and all the money I had in those pockets. The little bastard robbed me in my sleep and left me naked, can you believe that?” She opened a compartment on the console to pull out a steel baton with a pair of sharp metal probes that jutted out of the tip, and the sight alone made Kanna grimace. The truck slowed a little from the engineer’s momentary inattentiveness as she slung the rod into a loop of her robes. “I always have spare uniforms, but my wife will quarrel with me for weeks if she finds out I was scammed out of so much money—so I’m going hunting to recover what I lost.”
Since the woman’s sleeve had slid back in all her manipulations of the levers, Kanna studied the scars on her forearm yet again, though she could barely see them anymore in the dim light. “What’s the use of hunting anymore, Engineer? Everything you thought you gained will be lost and everything you truly lost will be regained. Tonight, the world ends.”
The engineer laughed at her, but she kept her eyes ahead because they were nearing the top of the hill. Edges of light were bleeding over that horizon, even through the curtain of rain and hail. “And now you’re relaying apocalyptic fantasies! You’re quite entertaining, Rava, I’ll give you that. Your funny accent only makes your ranting and raving all the more amusing. If you weren’t a slave—and if I wasn’t half-sure that you’re filled to the brim with Flower right now—I’d take you back home with me to hear more.”
Kanna made a face. “But I haven’t touched any Flower.”
“You don’t have to pretend. I’m no soldier, so it’s not my job to care what—or who—you’ve put inside your body. We all do what we need to cope. I don’t blame you for wanting to escape your harsh reality for a bit, even if I don’t plan on being responsible for whatever insanity you’re walking yourself into. I have bigger things to worry about.” The woman gave Kanna a sympathetic look, though she was still chuckling. “Good luck out there, kid. I hope you don’t end up dead. If you do, though, put in a good word for me with the Goddess if you find yourself in paradise.”
“This is paradise, Engineer. We’re here already.”
Indeed, they had arrived. With a deep revving of the motor, they had crested the top of the hill, and though the engineer had been giving her an odd look, she quickly grew distracted by the sight that had emerged on the mount. She yanked the truck to a stop. The sound of screeching wheels echoed behind and around them.
“What in the…?”
Kanna followed the woman’s gaze towards an expanse beyond the windshield. The space was flat, with a main gravel pathway leading out, and just as the woman had told her, there were two open furnaces glowing on either side. Steel overhangs kept the dissipating rain from falling in, but the flames were free to dance fairly high, and they were colored with impurities as if they had recently been fueled with sacrifices.
Beyond that, the pathway led into the temple complex. The building was huge, adorned with elaborate beasts carved into its stone walls and topped with a roof made of solid fractals, geometry that appeared to bloom infinitely like a giant flower. Kanna had never seen anything like it before, but she realized quickly that the engineer was awed by something else entirely:
Hundreds—perhaps thousands—of people were packed into the courtyard in front of the temple. There were so many of them that they had burst through the stone fence of the complex in some places, spilling out between the toppled rocks. Other people had climbed the pillars of the temple facade and still others balanced on the wide fountainheads in the front garden, stopping the flow of water. A sizable crowd had also lined up along the stairs near the entrance of the temple, where the tall doors looked sealed shut and a chain of soldiers appeared to be trying to fend off the crowd. Dozens of hands nonetheless pushed past the guards and pounded on the wood that had closed off the sanctuary.
When the engineer kicked open her side of the truck, Kanna could finally hear the screaming:
“Show her to us! Let us see the priestess!”
“Open the doors! We want to see Lesser Goddess Murau’s twin!”
“Why was she moving? Is she alive? Open the doors!”
The pelting of the hail had died down, but this sound was replaced by the beat of a new drum. More and more of the mob picked up pebbles, and chipped pieces of plaster, and cracked stone that had crumbled from the fence. Some of them launched their rocks at the wooden doors of the temple, but soon enough a handful had turned in Kanna’s direction.
Startled at their posture, Kanna frantically looked around. Military trucks were coming to a screeching halt to either side of her. Packs of soldiers unloaded in droves. The rage in the eyes of the people who stared at her from across the path reached her even through all the smoke of the incinerators.
The first rock hit a nearby soldier in the face and sent blood spraying—but the second smashed through the engineer’s windshield. Glass exploded in a shimmer of colorful light.
To be continued…