The pounding on the outside of the truck grew louder and louder, until Kanna could not even parse the individual beats, until it all seemed like one huge, roaring sound. The soldiers at the front revved their engines to try to break up the crowd and push through, but this drowned out the voice of the engineer, who had shot up to her feet and seemed to be hurling blasphemies in Lila’s direction.
Overwhelmed, Kanna pressed her hands to her ears. Though the presence that had followed her from the garden—and the faraway drumming—had receded more and more, the snakes were surging. She could feel hundreds of them around her, bursting from the bodies that jostled against the thin sheets of metal that separated her from the crowd.
“Lila!” Kanna shouted. “Make it stop! Please!”
Lila pushed past the engineer and knelt in front of Kanna, pressed her hands to Kanna’s face. “It’s all right,” she said in Kanna’s native tongue. “This is temporary. Listen to your breath. Calm their snakes the way you know how to calm your own. They are you, so there is no difference. Breathe into them. Love them the way the Goddess has loved you. We will pass through this in a moment.”
“What happened to me in your garden, Lila? Why is it all like this?”
“You are bigger than Kanna Rava right now, so it is overwhelming you. Once it starts, it won’t stop until it has run its course…though it looks like it has almost worn off already, if you’re even able to open your mouth to complain about it.” She smiled. “This was only a small taste of the fullness of who you are—but it’s a taste you asked for, isn’t it?”
Kanna looked deeply into Lila’s eyes, but in there, too, were writhing snakes. She could find no clarity. “Who am I?”
Before Lila could answer, the engineer yanked at the woman’s shoulder and shouted over the sound of the mob, “How the hell are we going to unravel this, Lila? If what you say is true, an incident like this could set back the Chainless Cuffing Program politically for years, decades even. We can’t get shut down now. We’re on the verge of fully reverse-engineering those wireless controllers. We’ll be able to produce infinite chainless cuffs after that; we’ll be able to give The Mother infinite control. We can’t let one psychotic criminal destroy that vision for the rest of us.”
Kanna could not see Lila’s face when she turned towards the lesser giant, but she could hear the irritation in her tone when she replied, “Is that all you care about in this crisis, Eyan? Your wife was right about your unhealthy obsessions.”
“With all your nagging every day, I swear sometimes I forget who I’m actually married to,” the woman huffed, but as the truck revved hard into the crowd and finally seemed to make some headway, she stooped down to stare through the crack between the back doors. She made a face. “There are more coming; it’s an endless flow! I didn’t even know so many people lived in Suda, for crying out loud. Go home!”
A blunt force hit the side of the truck, as if the crowd had delivered a collective punch, and it rattled everyone inside the cabin. Somehow, that seemed to send energy into the wheels below them, too, because the truck surged forward faster. Kanna glanced up towards the dented windshield and could just barely see civilians diving out of the way.
“We’re approaching the back of the temple,” Lila said. “We’ll have to break the drainage grate in the rear garden and use the underground utility corridors to get you inside—but we’ll have to escort you, since the generator rooms are full of unsupervised slaves. You’ve cuffed many of those prisoners, and they will surely rip you to shreds if you’re by yourself and even one of them recognizes you.”
The engineer’s jaw grew tighter. “I’m not crawling through a ditch like a slave. Bring me up to the front steps of the temple. I’ll fight my way through the crowd and drag that monster out by her hair.”
“There is no way we’ll be able to open the front doors without the crowd storming the building and possibly breaking into the sanctuary. This is especially problematic because the High Priestess is alone in there with the Rem Murau. Her dedicated helpers were blocked off by the mob and we certainly can’t try passing Her through the utility hallways or She might be touched by slaves. You will have to go in through the back and remove Goda Brahm. Once that emergency is neutralized, we can work on a proper evacuation plan.”
“And how did I end up like this, taking orders from a foreigner?”
“They are not my orders, Eyan—they are orders from The Mother, and I am nothing but a messenger. Even still, you should watch your forked tongue. Come tomorrow, I’ll finally be a citizen, same as you.”
“Oh, congratulations!” This time, it was the voice of a young man that rang out—not a robust woman, as Kanna was beginning to be able to tell—and as he tipped his head in a bow, his face emerged from the group of shadows at the back of the cabin. Kanna instantly recognized him.
“Parama Shakka?” Kanna blurted out.
She didn’t seem to be the only one who was bewildered, however. Though he had been sitting close to the engineer the whole time, the woman had not paid him any attention until that moment, and as the faint light filtering in from the cracks in the door finally colored his eyes, she was squinting hard with sudden interest. The engineer tilted her head to and fro, as if she were trying to make out his features from every angle. She leaned closer, but when a pair of protective arms came up from behind and tried to pull him back into the shadows, the engineer grabbed him by the neck of his robes and yanked him roughly.
“What the hell are you doing in a military truck, boy?” she shouted in his face. She reached for the baton at her belt loop. “You know what? I don’t even care. Give me back what you took from me or I’m shoving this baton straight into your teeth!”
“Eyan!” Lila grasped the woman’s hand and tried to wrench her stiff fingers from the boy’s clothes. “What on Earth has come over you now? Do you know this slave?”
At that, the engineer grew quiet. She dropped her grasp on Parama’s collar. Her face melted into an expression of total confusion. “A slave?”
“Yes, from the desert monastery. He is under Temple Assistant Finn’s care for now.” Indeed, as Kanna followed Lila’s gesturing hand, and she focused carefully, she could just barely make out the familiar image of Assistant Finn behind Parama Shakka’s eternally smiling face. “I ran into them in the bathhouse district on the way here. It seems that after she came down to rouse the soldiers when the riot first started, she lost the boy somewhere near the baths, but being a clergy member, she was too squeamish to either search for him inside or to try to shock him out. I had to go in myself.” Lila threw Kanna a wry glance. “Let me tell you, he had made lots of friends by then.”
Cautiously, as if she were about to uncover a venomous viper, the engineer lifted the edge of Parama’s sleeve, sliding the cloth up until it passed the middle of his forearm. Even in the faint light, his bonds—the cuff that the woman herself had certainly designed—let off a shine that made Kanna’s eyes uncomfortable.
“A slave…,” she whispered. “Why didn’t you tell me, boy? Why would you deceive me like that?” Her voice was so faint that Kanna had to strain to hear her.
“Tell me, Eyan, how has this slave deceived you?”
But the woman cleared her throat and turned to Lila with a louder voice, “He…he hasn’t. It is only the dim light that has deceived me. It’s dark, so I mistook him for someone else, but now I see that I was wrong. Why would I associate with a male slave, Hadd? Are you trying to accuse me of something?” As the truck began slowing to a stop, and Kanna could see that they were facing another swell on the hill, the engineer turned away from him and would no longer look at his face. “Anyway, it occurs to me now that I’ll need to bathe before I enter the temple, due to…certain impurities I’ve acquired.”
“What?” Lila let out a sigh of exasperation. “Fine, then drench yourself in the back fountain before we enter, but we must hurry.”
When Lila pushed open the doors, a flood of torchlight filled the cabin. They were facing the back of a thickly-hedged garden that obscured the rear facade of the temple. The mob was much sparser, though even there it was starting to grow, and Kanna could see groups spilling over the edges of the hill in the distance all around them.
“Come, we’re all getting out,” Lila said to Kanna, jumping down off the back of the flatbed. The truck jostled as the soldiers in the front cabin dismounted on either side, and the engineer joined Lila on the wet Earth. Assistant Finn and Parama followed. “This area will be overrun soon, so we’d do well to hide the temple hand and the boy somewhere underground.”
Parama paused next to the engineer, and when the woman glanced at him with a look of distaste, he held out his arm. “You dropped this,” he said.
At first, the engineer looked confused, but when she saw that it was a small coin purse that he was offering her, she snatched it out of his hand with a burning face and not a single word of thanks. Her anger switched targets soon enough, however. A smattering of civilians sprinted nearby, so she brandished her baton once again and pushed past Lila to step into the garden.
“Stay close to me, Hadd. Keep behind. There could be troublemakers in the bushes up ahead.” When the woman reached back, Lila took her hand and allowed herself to be led.
Kanna raised an eyebrow at the soft touch between them, but she thought it best not to comment—especially since her brain had grown distracted by the faint drumming once again. She could hear it in the distance this time, beyond the hill, beyond the city center towards the South woods where the shrine had been. For all she knew, it was yet another illusion, though.
As they advanced, the two soldiers flanked them on either side, but once they had entered the tall labyrinth of hedges, the path narrowed, and there seemed to be no civilians to push against them. They took a right, a left, a right, another right, until Kanna could not tell what direction they were facing. The tiny green leaves on the perfectly-hedge topiaries swirled with similarly-colored serpents—though sometimes the glow of the torches on the columns colored them with rainbows of light.
The serpents were growing more faint with every step, but Kanna could still see their complexity. She could see that every serpent was made of other serpents; she could feel that each of those was made of more serpents still. Every few moments, the infinity would nauseate her, because she realized that they made up every part of the world that she could see—they made her up—and every time the solid Earth disintegrated into serpents, she too broke into a hundred thousand little pieces.
“Why are there so many of me?” Kanna said. She had slowed down because it felt like she was about to purge more snakes.
Though Lila’s face was sympathetic, she hurried her along. “It’s wearing off, it’s wearing off. Sometimes the come-up and the come-down are the most difficult parts because now you have to put yourself back together again. But remember that it is temporary, always remember that. Keep breathing, Kanna Rava. This was not the ideal night for you to have tasted Death, but it happened anyway, so now you must finish giving birth to yourself before you rejoin us in this mundane realm.”
“But why did it happen now? I don’t understand. Why am I like this?”
Lila paused for a long moment, a few expressions that Kanna could not catch quickly flickering across her face. “Girl, don’t tell me you don’t know that you’ve consumed Flower. Your eyes are as big as a pair of cast iron pans.”
“I can’t imagine she would have given it to you without your knowledge. She’s not exactly the most responsible person I’ve ever met, but even she knows better than to slip someone Death without warning them very clearly of what it does first. Did you misunderstand her and think she meant something else? Did you drink something you weren’t supposed to drink and she didn’t stop you? Thankfully, if you’re able to converse with me like this, it’s not likely that you’ve had very much—but it’s a miracle no one has seen you and arrested you for swallowing.”
“I haven’t swallowed Flower! Why do you people keep accusing me?” But the snakes painfully surged before they nearly disappeared again. Lila was right: Whenever a wave would recede, Kanna felt closer to normal, but the oscillations were making her stomach turn. “I haven’t seen a single petal of Flower tonight, not since Goda’s truck was raided this afternoon. Even if I had, I would never put that poison into my mouth!” She leaned over to heave, but nothing came out.
“Hey, what’s wrong with her?” one of the soldiers asked.
“This Upperlander slave is sickly. It’s why she’s not cuffed, or else the shocks would make her faint. She’s harmless, but she gets disoriented and is prone to wandering around in confusion, so she got away from me briefly. My own fault.” As the soldier leaned in to look at Kanna more closely, Lila waved her away. “Be careful to keep your distance or she might vomit on you. She’s prone to that, too.”
The soldier made a face, but quickly retreated.
“Why do you have to tell so many lies about me?” Kanna said.
“Are they lies? Or are they the Middlelander version of the truth? I’m only giving them what they want and expect. I’m only adding to the story they’ve already engineered for themselves.”
Because this reminded her of the earlier awkwardness, Kanna’s eyes wandered to where Lila’s hand was still clasped with the engineer’s. Their fingers were interlocked. “So what’s the story there, then?” she finally asked.
Lila followed her gaze. “I’m impressed. You’ve just walked barefoot over the hot coals of Hell, and yet you’re in the mood for gossip already. Maybe you’re more recovered than I thought.”
“It’s not gossip. This woman is an awful person and the air between the two of you is extremely weird, and earlier you made it sound like she sleeps over at your house. It’s one thing to have to be around her at your job, but I can’t fathom how you could willingly allow her to—”
“And now you’re ready to make some judgments! Splendid, splendid, you’re almost back to your normal self. Well, hold off on your verdict a little bit, Kanna Rava. Your throne is actually inside the temple. Once you’ve fought The Mother for your place upon it, then you can tell the rest of us how to live our lives.” Lila’s grin was good-natured, though. She gestured towards the exit of the hedge maze. “Until then, face forward and not to either side of you. We’re almost to the end.”
“What a strange way to tell me to mind my own business. Now I know where Goda gets it from.”
When they turned the corner, a huge fountain bloomed into view. Like the temple itself, it was divided into many swirling layers, and though it had a geometric logic to it, Kanna did not know what angle to look at first. It was still running, undisturbed. The water flowed down from level to level, then trickled into the shrubbery surrounding it, after which a grated metal drain absorbed the excess. It was pressed into the ground and was not unlike the one Kanna had set foot on near the incinerators. In the hole beneath it, just beyond the thin curtain of falling water that was so pure it looked like glass, Kanna could see another half-dozen eyes as she had earlier. They were inside a tunnel behind the tiny waterfall.
“All right,” the engineer said to the soldiers. “Let’s pull it up. It looks like I won’t have to go out of my way to wash the serpents off after all, but my clothes will have to get drenched along with me.”
The three robust women wrestled with the grating. It must have been heavier than it looked—or else rusted shut along the base of the fountain—because it took much grunting and effort to slide it off. In the meantime, three or four slaves had emerged from behind the waters below, making ripples in the glassy stream.
Their expressions went from curious to hostile in mere seconds.
More and more slaves arrived from the depths of the underground corridor, and the moment the top of their prison was cleared entirely from above their heads, one of them lifted her chained hands up to the edge of the drain.
“Who the hell are you?” she asked. She looked up towards the engineer, but something in the way her tone had changed mid-sentence made Kanna think that she had figured it out already.
“What are you people doing, having a party in there? Step out of the way, all of you! We have urgent business inside the temple.”
“Only slaves come down here.”
The engineer’s face twisted with confusion. “Yes, I know. Or have you forgotten who put you in that hole in the ground already? Disperse! Disperse! Move out of the way, or I will make you. I’m the head engineer in Suda and there’s an…electrical malfunction that I need to address.”
But the slave didn’t budge and neither did any of her sisters. In fact, more of the women with dirty faces emerged, as if they had heard the commotion from above. “Only slaves come down here,” the woman repeated. “Only slaves are allowed. Get back!”
The look of complete non-understanding on the engineer’s face made Kanna wonder if her authority had ever been questioned at all. “Do you know who I am? I’ll break your skull with my baton for this. I’ll have you arrested. Move out of the way!”
“We know exactly who you are,” another one of the women piped up, “and we’ll tell you exactly where you can put that baton. Leave! We’re busy down here.”
“What? Do you think that just because there’s a riot going on, now you won’t face any consequences for insubordination? This is no time to stage a slave revolt; it’s an emergency! Do you want to be executed for causing injury to The Mother?”
Suddenly, the woman directly below leapt up, her fists clenched—but her chains limited how far she could stretch. She only managed to graze the side of the engineer’s knee, but that was enough to send the lesser giant into a fury. The engineer pounced towards the hole in the ground, pressing the trigger of her prod, sending a loud buzz through the air that made Kanna cover her ears.
But before she could make the swing, Lila caught her arm.
“Calm yourself, Eyan. Use some common sense. They have nothing to lose now, so what would keep them from killing you?”
“We need to get through!”
The two soldiers had also crouched down near the opening of the drain, but unlike the engineer, they kept a safe distance and their eyes seemed to follow the slack on the chains that shackled their aggressors.
“The Outerlander’s right,” one of them said. “Just these few that were able to wind their way over here outnumber us already, but there are countless more inside. If they’ve all decided to turn bloodthirsty, then we’ll have to figure something else out.”
“They’re breaking the law!” the engineer shouted through gritted teeth.
Kanna blinked. She met the engineer’s gaze quite accidentally, but then she said, “Where is the law, Engineer? Show it to them so that they can take a look at it before they beat you to death.”
Parama—whom Kanna had totally forgotten about—laughed so loudly that the courtyard echoed. The engineer’s eyes surged with rage at Kanna’s backtalk, but Lila stood between them before the woman could lash out.
“Relax. The girl doesn’t know what she’s saying. It’s only that she’s delirious from the freezing wind. She’s prone to winter chills, you see.”
“What is she not prone to?” one of the soldiers asked.
The other was shaking her head. “The Upperlander’s also right, though. Sure, we can arrest and execute all of them later, but what leverage do we have in this very moment if they won’t cooperate? There are dozens of them down there, Engineer Mah. We’re going to have to wait for backup.”
“We don’t have time! That lunatic is in there right now and we have to get her out one way or another! Even as we stand here babbling, more people are showing up and soon even this garden could be captured by delinquents.”
Throughout the exchange, Lila had grown quiet, ever more pensive—but then she leaned towards Kanna and whispered in the Upperland tongue, “How do you feel?”
“Better. Closer to my usual self…but still, everything is different.”
“It will never be exactly as it once was. The pieces of you that broke away will fall back into different places after every cycle of rebirth, even if you collapse back into the same identity again.” She studied Kanna’s face. “Now, I hate to do this to you while you’re still finding your feet in this new world and relearning to walk, but we don’t have much of a choice: I will have to tell another one of my stories, and you are the main character this time, I’m afraid.” She tipped her head towards the hole in the ground and called out in the Middlelander tongue, “How many of you are there?”
“Many,” one of the slaves answered. “Legions, in fact. We are at least forty strong.”
“Hm, that’s not too many. You could stand to have forty-one, couldn’t you?”
Everyone looked towards Lila with equal confusion, not the least of which was the slave who peeked over the edge of the drain. “What are you talking about, lady?”
It was then that Kanna caught on, because Lila pushed her towards the opening.
“You said that only slaves are allowed down there, no? We have two: a woman and a man. We’re not going to feed our man to a horde of robust women, but you can take this Upperlander and let her through. She has done nothing to you. She is one of you, and she’s on a mission that benefits all of us equally.”
The slave huffed. “As long as she’s cuffed to you, she may as well be you. You can control anything she does.”
“Oh, but she’s not, see?” Lila lifted up Kanna’s arm to show that she was free in her bondage and this seemed to pique the slave’s curiosity.
The woman studied Kanna’s face. “Who are you?” she asked.
After having asked herself this same question what felt like a thousand times since she had been arrested, Kanna felt a little uncomfortable being asked by someone else. Nevertheless, she sighed—and a few snakes dissipated with her deep breath—and she answered truthfully, “I am…everyone.”
“She is Goda Brahm’s consort—her lover,” Lila said over Kanna’s shoulder, speaking over the beginnings of the slave’s bewildered response. Kanna was shocked at her bluntness. “That infamous criminal has broken into the sanctuary to threaten the High Priestess, and this girl is the only one who can tame the monster that Brahm has become. No matter what you’re up to down there, surely you can do this last great deed to keep your beloved Mother safe. Rebel if you like, but let the Upperlander into the main chambers to lure out this impurity before another priestess becomes a casualty. There are no tricks here. You can see for yourself that the girl is harmless to you; her seething love is only poison to Goda Brahm.”
The engineer and the soldiers looked speechless. Assistant Finn herself appeared deeply uncomfortable and even Parama’s smile had faded.
But the slave reached up and grasped Kanna by the front of her robes. “Then she can come down and be one of us.”
Kanna gasped, but found that she could do nothing. Her bones had gone slack, as if some external force had smoothed all of her resistance, and she found herself being dragged into a huge, gaping metal mouth with dozens of faces to serve as teeth. She wanted to fight, but there was nothing to draw from.
She could only obey her master because a voice inside of her had said, Let go. Let everything go now.
Outside of her, another voice shouted: “Get her out, Kanna!” Though the words were in her native tongue, it took her effort to understand them as they rang harshly into the metal of the walls that were quickly encasing her. “Do whatever it takes, tell her whatever she wants to hear, but get Goda to surrender! Only you have any shred of power over that giant anymore!”
Within moments, Kanna could no longer hear Lila. She could not even hear the murmur of the growing mob outside.
She had been swallowed back into the Goddess’s womb with her forty sisters.