If you read Chapter 43 before July 29th, 2020, you may have read a different version because I had to edit it heavily. It has a different ending now (I will explain why at the bottom of this post, if you’re interested) which changes its direction significantly. Sorry to have done this again, but it was the only way! Such is the way of the first draft sometimes.
On reflex, Kanna dove below the front console, though it only offered mild protection from the debris that continued to rain in through the cracks. She was surprised to find a huge hand stretching across the seat to reach for her.
“Rava! Rava!” The engineer dragged her out of the truck by her arm and they both landed into the mud in their shared haste. Together, they scrambled down the length of the rig and ducked behind the back doors. The woman pressed Kanna hard against her chest, so that the billows of her robes obscured the sea of soldiers from Kanna’s view, though she could hear the footfalls of dozens of military women rushing past them.
A heart pounded near Kanna’s face, bursting with snakes, oozing with fear and blood.
“What are you, cursed or something?” the woman screamed into her ear. “Why did you bring us up here? Did you know this was going to happen?”
“I…don’t know what’s happening.”
Kanna was more distracted by the woman’s emotions, which had begun to overwhelm her. She pressed her hand to the engineer’s chest, and without any effort the serpents began to rise through from the surface, and their shared breath grew more rapid, and their shared heartbeat danced like a wild drum. Kanna felt her inner body growing loose again; the whirring inside her ears began to overcome the chaos outside as the serpents wove together to create a hazy vision.
The image of familiar walls sprouted up around her. The side of her head throbbed with an explosion of pain, her agony made worse by the buzzing of one thousand cuffs.
She was on the floor of that infernal room, that electric chamber in the tower.
“Get up! Get up, you idiot! Are you going to let that thing run off with your dignity again?”
The shadow of an older woman in government robes stood above her, but Kanna could not recognize the half-grinning face, and the image dissolved just as suddenly as it had come—because the engineer had struck Kanna’s arm with a closed fist and forced a separation.
She pushed Kanna away, stared down at her with wide eyes. “Stop that!”
“Stop trying to possess me with demons, you witch!” The woman quickly wiped her face with the back of her hand, as if flinging off sweat, but Kanna could see that some moisture had settled at the corners of her eyes. “I don’t know if I’m still hallucinating or nightmaring or what, but I do know I was just fine before you showed your face and started infecting everything with black magic.”
She fiddled with the lock that closed the back doors and then yanked the cabin open. The torture devices that hung over the flatbed rattled with the force of the engineer’s scrambling. She grabbed a series of open cuffs, stuffed them deep into her pockets.
“Go find a hole to hide in, Rava. I have a duty to fulfill here and there’s no going back from it. The High Priestess is in that building right now. She’s supposed to be blessing the dead clergywoman’s body tonight, and if people just burst in, they may accidentally touch Her or see Her face uncovered. We have to keep order on the temple grounds no matter what.”
“You can’t hide the truth from them for long, especially since it looks like they’ve already figured you out.” Kanna peeked around the corner of the truck towards the masses again, but in the clash of Middlelander against Middlelander—in all the smoke and shuffling and suffering—she could no longer tell who were the aggressors and who were the victims. “Why not just open the temple doors and let them see?”
The engineer scoffed at her. She pulled the electric baton from the loop of her robes. “This is the central temple of all of the Middleland, the most sacred. The guards don’t allow commoners into the sanctuary without special permission, and certainly not at a time like this.”
“Maybe the people are tired of asking for permission to be with the Goddess. I’m tired, too.”
“Fine! They can be as tired as they want, but someone around here needs to keep the world from descending into chaos.” She held up the baton and pressed the trigger. A tiny storm of lightning crackled between the probes and lit up her face for a flash. “I can’t kill another Maharan, but I can make them stumble into compliance. Pain is all these animals know to respond to. Pain is the only truth to them.”
Kanna watched all of the engineer’s electric creations in the truck as they swung with the momentum that their master had left behind. The woman pushed herself into the throng of soldiers, who had already caused the hailing rocks to retreat with some success.
“Pain…,” Kanna said.
She followed the engineer’s pain. Because the woman was big and had broken a wide wake behind her, Kanna buried herself in the back of her robes and was able to hide her own body from the disorder. Still, she could not hide the rest of herself from it. With increasing intensity, a wall of anger and agony had begun to press against her skull as the screams of the people reached her.
“What the hell are you doing, Rava?”
The engineer was livid, but Kanna did not answer her. She had begun to lose her separate sense of self in the mass, and from the corner of her eyes, Kanna could see disconnected groups of people emerging over the edges of the hill all around her—both soldiers and civilians, on foot and on trucks—but because they were still far away, she could not see distinct faces.
The path grew ever more narrow. The bodies around her squeezed and pressed into her at a choking point just before the two incinerators, and the engineer’s robes could not protect her from the burst of searing heat that hit both sides of her face. It was the heat of fire and human bodies. It was like being shoved into the molten core of a forge and she could barely breathe anymore through the faint smell of her own spirits and the stronger smell of whatever sacrifice the flames had engulfed.
Those flames danced at either side of her path, barely caged by their enclosures. They looked like giant, open coffins that had been set ablaze. She could not see over the tall edges and into what might have been thrown inside, but at the end of one of the those raging hearths, a strip of black caught her eye.
It was a sleeve—the wide sleeve of a robe that had been mostly consumed already, but whose ends dangled over the metal wall to escape the heart of the fire. A slow-burning, stray ember was eating away at it like the wick of a candle, but even as the fabric was disappearing before Kanna’s eyes, she recognized it.
Kanna rushed towards the wall of the incinerator, but when she pushed against the crowd, they only resisted her movements. They had surrounded the rightmost furnace in droves. With rags wrapped around their hands, they shook that flaming coffin as if they meant to tip it over onto the soldiers who had already started retreating.
Kanna did not retreat with them. Disentangling herself from the engineer, she squeezed into a pocket of space closer to the fire, but the moment she made any headway, a smokescreen shot up from the ground to obscure everything around her.
The soles of her feet burned. She jumped back.
Until that moment, she had not noticed the hot metal grating that sat between the incinerators, but once the fumes had cleared and she looked down towards the source, she was surprised: Several pairs of eyes peered up at her. She could make out the dirty faces of women chained to machinery that rumbled just underneath the warring sides above. Even as debris and ash fell around them—ash that stung Kanna’s own eyes—one of the women smiled up at her quietly, brows bright with sweat, crisscrossing scars marring her neck and face.
There were dozens more behind that stranger, countless slaves hunched over the parts of a fast-moving generator, all of them caged just underground. That pit was also tightly packed with fuel tanks.
“My God,” Kanna whispered.
She looked up to find that the angry crowd had broken the bolts that held down the incinerator, that a pipe of Rava Spirits had burst open and a jet of fire shot out from its side. A handful of shouts echoed through the space, but all of the nearby soldiers ducked away from the burst, even as the mob still pushed to spill the hearth onto the last few guards—and the one engineer—who were standing their ground, aiming the lightning arcs of their batons at the faces of straggling civilians.
“Stop!” Kanna cried, running towards them, into the space that had so suddenly broken in front of her. “There are people beneath the grating! You’re walking on top of slaves, don’t you see? You’ll kill them, you’ll kill them! Stop!”
Just as she had finally captured the engineer’s attention, just as she had picked up enough speed that the heat of the grating did not bother her feet, another obstacle flashed across her path—but this one was made of impenetrable steel.
Spooked, the civilians all jumped out of the way of a hurtling military truck that cut between the incinerators. With squealing brakes, the truck came to a stop between Kanna and the teetering furnace, and one of the back doors whipped open.
Kanna had never been so happy to see that face—even if the brows were furrowed, and the pupils were wide, and the eyes were filled to the brim with pure wrath.
“Kanna Rava!” Lila screamed at the top of her lungs. “Get in here, child! Climb in right now! Move it!”
But regardless of the relief, Kanna could not draw her attention away from the dented pieces of the incinerator that burned close by. A slice of black fabric had fallen onto the ground and survived the blast, and her first instinct was to make for it.
“I can’t leave now,” she pleaded with Lila against the growing wind and the sounds of more fighting in the near distance. “If Goda is in that furnace, then I have to take her bones before they’re consumed. Let me have her bones at least, so that I can bury them! I need closure from her death. Please!”
“Wake up, Kanna Rava, wake up! What did I tell you about that woman? And still, you can’t hear me, no matter how loudly I tell you, no matter how much I waste my breath! Stop chasing her! Stop chasing her, Kanna! She is not her body and she is not her bones, and she will always run away from your grasping hand. Forget all this and get in the goddamn truck, you fool!”
Before Kanna could answer, Lila twisted her head in the other direction, towards the engineer who was already jogging across the grating to meet them. The woman’s feet pounded metal, smashed against a dozen eyes that still no one except for Kanna had noticed below.
“Eyan!” Lila shouted. At first, Kanna wasn’t sure who she could possibly have been addressing, but the engineer’s eyebrows flicked in recognition, as if Lila had uttered a magic word. “Eyan Mah! Stop harassing people and get in here, it’s an emergency!”
“Hadd, is that you?” The engineer squinted through the smoke. “What are you doing in there? Isn’t this one of the High Minister’s auxiliary trucks?”
“Just come with me and I’ll brief you on the way. Something has gone horribly wrong and the military has been looking all over for you.” Lila leaned over, as if to gesture for the woman to hop into the covered flatbed beside her. “The Mother needs you now!”
After hearing that, the engineer did not question her further; she climbed in right away, much to Kanna’s surprise.
But because Kanna did not want to leave Goda’s side, and because she could not see very far into the darkness behind Lila’s shoulders, she hesitated. Impatiently, Lila extended her hand.
“Stop holding onto all your old ideas, Kanna. Haven’t you seen enough of the truth by now to know that it changes every second? If you ever want to see her again—even just in your dreams—then you have to learn how to give in to the path and accept the Goddess’s gifts, don’t you?”
Kanna swallowed through the bitter taste of Goda’s ashes—and also through the sweet taste of the Rava Spirits that had fueled everything. She glanced beyond the incinerators and towards the Goddess’s temple and the stacks of fractals that seemed to vibrate with energy. If she stared hard enough, she could see the edges of writhing snakes along the winding columns, a rising and falling breath that made the solid stone feel alive.
Kanna glanced again at the coffin filled with fire.
“She’s not here anymore, is she?” Kanna asked, watching the tips of the flames. “Where has she gone, then?”
“Exactly where you would expect her to go, unfortunately. Follow me and I’ll tell you everything.”
Hesitantly, Kanna lifted a hand—but Lila caught it and yanked her inside and whispered to her before closing the door, “Be still now, Kanna. Trust and be still and do not let go of that empty presence that you found in our garden.”
“What? What? How do you know about that?”
Lila did not answer.
The back cabin of the truck was dim, especially since the image of the bright flames was still scorched into Kanna’s vision and they seemed to follow her everywhere she looked. There were a few other people inside already, but at first she could only make out Lila’s face as the truck peeled away from the incinerators, and she could not see clearly in which direction they were hurtling.
“Where on Earth have you been, Eyan?” Turning away from Kanna, Lila was calling out to the engineer through the dark. “Soldiers woke me up looking for you, frantically banging at my door. Your wife hadn’t seen you, so she told them you must have stayed over at my house, but I’ve been in my room all night and you never let yourself inside at the usual hour.”
“Does it matter? I’ve been sleeping in my truck lately. Don’t lecture me about it.” The woman rubbed her eyes and crouched down near one of the metal walls. There was someone else seated there already, but the engineer didn’t excuse herself—or even seem to notice—when the small shadow had to slide over to give her room. “More importantly, what the hell is going on around here?”
“An apocalypse, apparently.” Lila peered through the grated partition that separated them from the front of the truck. The only source of light was coming in from the windshield, with the jostling shadows of a pair of soldiers in the front seats. When Kanna followed her gaze, she could see that the truck was breaking through an ever-growing multitude. “We don’t know how it happened, but someone saw Rem Murau being transported to the temple and they must have witnessed her spasms. Word quickly spread through town after that. They think she’s alive now and they’re demanding to see the body. A temple assistant ran down to wake the off-duty soldiers in the bathhouse district, but in the meantime everything descended into chaos.”
“Oh? Well, it’s not like we don’t have hundreds of troops in Suda who can brute force them into compliance.” Just as the woman said this, though, the truck slowed its roll and shook back and forth, as if it were being tossed by an ocean wave. Kanna could hear the pounding of open hands against its sides, and the movement nearly made her stumble, but the engineer didn’t even budge. “Bar the temple doors with all the wood we’ve got, park all the trucks up against the entrance, and we’ll wait for reinforcements to show up so we can evacuate the body and the High Priestess without all these idiots touching them. I can’t believe how incompetently the temple guards have handled this. Who is in charge here? They should be fired.”
“Brute force and blame is not enough this time, Eyan. The situation has turned…unexpectedly delicate.”
“Delicate? What do you mean? Don’t tell me it gets worse than the dumpster fire we’re dealing with already here.”
“Oh, it gets much, much worse.” Lila’s body swayed together with the movements of the truck, so perfectly that it made her appear almost motionless, even as screams and vibrations emerged from the crowd around them. “An outsider found her way into the temple not long after the riot started. She was wearing engineer’s robes and claimed she needed to service a critical generator, so they let her into the external chambers—but now she’s locked herself in the inner sanctuary with the priestess. She’s crazed and ranting, hovering over the body with a knife, and they’re afraid she might desecrate the corpse right in front of The Mother.”
The engineer’s eyes widened. “One of my personnel? You have to be joking! Are you telling me an engineer has gone off the deep end?”
“No. I’m saying that there’s an imposter who has slipped into The Mother’s chamber—and she pretended to be you to get inside.”
“The young guards did not recognize her face, but because she was a robust woman and they had heard that the head engineer was the same, they let her pass through the gateway. That’s why the military has been looking for you. They realized all of it too late and now they can’t fathom how to disconnect her from Rem Murau safely without your input.”
“Oh, c’mon!” the engineer shouted. “If we can’t evacuate the priestess yet because of that stupid mob, then just break open the doors to the inner chamber and drag the lunatic out into the main hall! Why did you need to waste time looking for me first? Do it now, before she tries something crazy!”
“That’s just it. She already has tried—and succeeded.” Lila’s face twitched with a tiny expression that Kanna could not parse in all her confusion. “They can’t take the intruder outside without desecrating Rem Murau’s corpse. Goda Brahm has cuffed herself to the priestess.”
So basically, if you wanted to know…we were about to dive into the engineer’s backstory (which Kanna was going to force to the surface), and I actually wrote an entire chapter about it, but I decided it was too complicated and we needed to get on with the plot of Goda’s Slave, so here we are.
Maybe the engineer will have to have her own novel. It’s kind of funny because this is actually how Goda’s Slave started in the first place: It’s a prequel because Kanna’s backstory was too complicated to just tell in flashbacks in the story I was going to write originally. This novel itself was meant to be short. Like maybe 20 chapters.
*two years later*
But anyway, to make up for it, I’m posting two new chapters tonight. (Stay tuned. Next chapter in a few minutes.)