A loud, metallic clang hit the floor of the pit soon after Kanna had landed. It was the only sound she could hear over the trickling of water and the rumbling of generators. Some piece of debris had followed her down, but because it had dropped in the tiny, spiraling rapids of the waterfall, Kanna could not make sense of what it was.
She looked up. She was behind the rushing glass-colored curtain now, and though the cool water spattered her eyes, she could still see the dancing, distorted image of Lila Hadd up above. Lila was pressing one hand softly to the engineer’s shocked face, the other hand hard against the engineer’s chest. Their gazes were locked like a pair of lovers about to pounce on each other any second.
And Eyan Mah’s bright red throat-collar had been ripped open.
Kanna’s eyes widened with realization. Reaching into the waterfall, she snatched the iron key that had followed her down and she buried it deep in her soaked pocket. It felt heavy. It was much heavier than her own cuff key had been—but this time, she was happy to take on the burden.
When she turned around, it seemed that she had more of an audience than she had expected. Dozens of eyes stared at her with curiosity, and the slave who had first yanked her into the pit was still kneeling beside her.
“Is it really true that Goda Brahm broke her way inside this temple?” she asked, fascinated. The electric lights that lined the walls flickered against all the players that surrounded her, made the walls dance with shadows. “The slave-master? The priestess-killer?”
Kanna gave her a wry look as she struggled to stand up—but the woman eagerly helped her to her feet. “You can call her a lot of things, I guess,” Kanna said, trying to dust herself off, but finding that all the dirt was sticking to her soaked robes. “I’ve called her a few special names this past week myself.”
She glanced over her shoulder briefly at the rushing water, but now that she was standing, she no longer had the angle to see the outside, so she faced the long corridor instead. It was lined with tubes and wires and heavy machinery that vibrated like the groaning truck engines that lived on the surface. Exhaust pipes jutted out from these generators, snaking their way to the ceiling, breaking through the stone and flowing into places that Kanna could not see.
The hot air that had settled around her made her feel like she had stepped into a humid oven.
“How do you even breathe down here?” she asked.
“With difficulty sometimes, with ease other times,” the woman said, but she was smiling. “You get used to it after awhile. It’s kind of relaxing, like a sauna.”
Kanna shook her head, but allowed the woman—whose ankles were also shackled, she noticed then—to lead her past the curious onlookers. “You remind me of this boy I know,” Kanna said. “He’s a slave, but he makes everything about pure hell sound like it’s paradise. Maybe he’s the one who should have descended instead of me.”
“Oh, really? We don’t get a lot of visitors in here, so it’s always fun to have outside slaves show up, but you’re extra interesting because you’re a foreigner, too.” The woman stopped near a rusted metal cabinet on the wall and began struggling to get it open, but then another slave came to help her. “I know you must be overheated in here, since you’re an Upperlander—but if you’ll wait just a moment, I have a present for you that’ll help you get to the sanctuary in one piece.”
It was then that Kanna noticed the whole group had followed them, tugging hard on the slack of their respective chains.
“Tell me, what’s the Upperland like?” one of them asked. “I heard it’s cold up past those mountains, that you people live on meadows that used to be covered with ice eons ago. Is that true?”
“Well, it didn’t seem cold…at the time.” She hadn’t thought about the Upperland in so long, she was having trouble remembering what the air had felt like. As she watched the two women in front of her rummaging through the steel cabinet, she furrowed her brow and tried to picture her home town, but it all felt vague, like it had happened in a dream. “I actually don’t remember it that well. It’s been a long time since I’ve been.”
“I heard that your ancestors used to live in caves in the mountains before the ice melted on the grasslands,” said another one of the women who was staring at her with what seemed like morbid interest. “And I heard that it was so cold and dry that every dead body would turn into a mummy, and so you would keep them preserved in the caverns to eat later. Is that true?”
Kanna blinked. She had never heard of such a notion in her life and it caught her off guard, but strangely enough, she wasn’t offended. “Uh…well, I wasn’t alive back then,” she said after a moment. “Your guess is as good as mine, I suppose.”
“Hey, hey, enough with those racist comments, all of you!” The first woman—the one who had led her down the corridor—turned around with a lantern that she had pulled from the storage space and handed it to Kanna. “Upperlanders are just like us. They don’t eat people, for goodness sake. It’s those dirty, snake-charming Lowerlanders that are the real cannibals.”
Kanna heard murmurs of agreement all around her, and then the slave beside her, who had retrieved what looked like a bottle of fuel and a match, poured some Rava Spirits into her lamp before lighting the flame.
“Kind of funny that this fuel made it all the way down from the Upperland, just like you, huh?” she said. “You could call it a family reunion.”
The glow warmed Kanna’s face even more, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. “Thank you. I don’t know what to give you in return. I’m sorry that my spirits are burned to forge your chains and to make electricity for the soldiers’ batons, but I’m happy that they help you keep the lights on at least.”
“Oh, don’t apologize!” The woman took her by the hand and began leading her along the wall that was twisted with warm, snaking pipes. “It’s not like you’re a member of the Rava clan or anything. They’re the ones who are at fault for all of the Middleland’s problems. If one of them had come down here, we’d rip them to pieces and burn them up with their own poison for sure!”
Kanna couldn’t help but grimace, though her companion didn’t seem to catch the expression. The woman’s chains ran out of slack quickly, so she passed her onto a curious onlooker who had wandered over from further down the path.
“Take her down to that ladder that goes into the ventilation system. She’s probably small enough to fit inside, and that would be the fastest way for her to go up.” She glanced down at Kanna, but the woman had stopped crouching as they entered a spot where the ceiling was higher, and it struck Kanna then that the slaves in that tunnel were all near-giants. “We usually have young male slaves do maintenance on the air shafts here, truth be told, since we built them really narrow in the temple for security reasons. Most people can’t squeeze in at all. One time, an engineer’s apprentice had to reach something in there and she got stuck.”
“Why didn’t they just send a male engineer?”
“A male engineer?” someone shouted. “Imagine such a thing! You’re funny, Upperlander!”
All of the slaves laughed as they passed her down, but Kanna didn’t know how anything she said could have been that amusing. Hand after hand pressed into her shoulders from either side, and it made the walls of the corridor seem to undulate with the rhythmic whoosh of the generators, pushing her deeper and deeper towards the dark.
Finally, they reached some rusty bars that hung down from an opening in the ceiling, but as she squinted into this dark corner, she realized that it was a ladder. She lifted her lamp over her head to light the first rung, but it was too high for her to reach. One of the slaves nearby—the one with the most slack in her direction—picked her up before she even had the chance to ask.
“Keep going up and once you get to your first dead end, take a right. It’ll be easier after that because you’ll just have to crawl horizontal for a few paces, then you can push up the first vent and go into the bottom floor of the temple.” She helped Kanna rise high enough that she could steady her feet on the bottom rung and hang on with her free hand. “Be careful, though. The temple corridors are much more confusing than any of our tunnels or even any of the air shafts. It’s built that way on purpose to make it hard to use anything but the front entrance to get into The Mother’s chamber. Good luck.”
“You’ve really helped me,” Kanna called down one last time. “Thank you for not ripping me to shreds.”
“Oh, not a problem! If you survive, just send word later on how it turned out. After all that embarrassing stuff that one lady said about you and Brahm, I’m really curious—and besides, love stories are everyone’s guilty pleasure, right? We don’t get to hear scandalous stuff like that a lot down here!”
Kanna wasn’t quite sure how on Earth the woman had heard what Lila said, but perhaps the echoes through the tunnels reached further than she had thought. Her face burning with the hot light of the flame, she set her gaze to the opening above, and began to carefully ease her way up.
She couldn’t decide if ascending was harder than descending, and the pipes that looped around her as she rose up made her feel a bit claustrophobic. She tried not to look down at her feet, but when she glanced once or twice, she could see the ring of light beneath her growing ever fainter. She could see the circle of giants who peeked up and waved at her growing ever smaller, too.
In time, she was alone, with only the glow of her spirits to light her path.
“You know,” she said to the liquid fuel that waved and rippled next to her with every movement as she sped up her pace, “I used to hate you. I used to wish you had never existed. Like my slave-driver, you were the reason I could live just as much as the reason I could never escape. But now I think maybe you’re not always bad. It’s just that people like me use you to light themselves on fire.”
Her clothes were too wet at that moment to have been able to serve as a wick, though, so any notions of self-immolation dissolved. She decided that she would have to rescue Goda instead—and at the tail end of that thought, her head bumped into the ceiling.
It was done. A pair of tunnels broke open to her left and right. She would have to crawl if she wished to rise any higher, so she took the rightmost path as the slave had told her and she dragged herself to where she could sense fresh air coming in through some slits. She punched her hand against the thin metal of the vent, but it had much more give than she had expected, so it popped clean off and clattered loudly onto the floor above her.
She winced, hoping no one had heard her—but then she wondered if there was any sense anymore in being discreet. After all, she was about to saunter right into a place that everyone had implied was deep and sacred and untouchable.
Like the inside of Goda Brahm.
Kanna paused mid-motion as she reached for the interior chamber. She had in fact never touched that part. She had been so distracted by everything on the outside, that it hadn’t occurred to her that anything else could have existed.
But after all, Goda was a woman. They had a few things in common, both inside and outside.
Kanna’s face burned warmer, so she placed the lantern on the floor above her, but this only made her realize that it made no difference. I’ll worry about all of that stuff later, she thought. If she’ll even let me try that. If we even survive this situation in the first place.
It was true that the odds were stacked against them. They would probably both be killed in the end. She felt strangely peaceful about it as she lifted herself through the tiny opening of the vent and wrested her hips when they were briefly caught. Indeed, as the slave had said, there was no way an adult Middlelander woman—let alone a robust woman like the huge engineer—would have ever been able to take the easiest route, even if the slaves had let her through.
It looks like I was born to wrestle a giant after all, Kanna thought. When she reached the surface, she took a heaving breath because the air was cooler and much more plentiful, but she wasted no time in picking up her spotlight and heading in the first direction she had faced.
Her new friends had not given her much detail, and she figured that no matter where she went, it was better than staying still. With this in mind, she hurried so that she could make all her mistakes faster, placing her hand against the wall so that she would not easily lose her place, because it was dark and she could not see much more than the polished stone walls that the spirits lit up on either side of her. Her fingers brushed against carved figures, but she was too focused on the path ahead to see them.
She reached a staircase to her left, a door to her right, and a corridor that continued to stretch far into the unknown. She whistled into the hallway and heard the sound carry further than she could calculate, but the floor seemed to dip downwards, so instead she ducked past the threshold that led to the stairs, so that she could climb again.
As long as I’m going up, then I’m closer to the Goddess, right? she thought, raising her lantern to study the abstract carvings on the walls, to see if they could give her some hint, but finding that they were strange glyphs that she could not read.
The strangeness that the slaves had implied to her was already evident as well. She had only climbed twenty or twenty-five steps before she reached two gateways, both of them with stairwells heading down. It made no sense because the landing she had reached didn’t seem to go anywhere else. Why did I even go up, then, just to have to come down?
She didn’t have time to question the Goddess’s logic, though. Both of the doorways were shrouded in the same darkness, both stairwells made of the same black-gray stone, both twisted in a winding spiral, and she needed to decide right away which one led closer to her end—or whether she needed to retreat.
But then she heard an odd sound pulsing between her ears again. She thought it was her blood at first, but the beat was too steady to be her own chaotic heart. She could not tell exactly where it was coming from because it was faint, though it grew louder as she tipped towards one of the gateways—and moments later, she thought she heard a gasping breath.
“Goda?” Kanna shouted, only to hear the same name echoing in reply.
Fueled by those few clues, she rushed past the threshold and dove into the dark. She raced around that stone screw, turn after turn, the walls rippling and breathing around her. It felt like she was drilling her way into the ground forever, descending much deeper than where she had even started her journey. As she descended, the throbbing roared in her ears louder with each step. It gushed like the rapids of river—like the beat of a drum—and so she pushed herself faster until the sound mixed and melted with her own pounding pulse and she couldn’t tell the difference anymore.
It drew her further into the dark until it overwhelmed the screaming of her rational mind—and fueled her panic as well.
Where am I? she thought. How far does this go down? Surely I’ve made my way into the core of the Earth by now?
Just as she was ready to turn back around and retrace her steps, she reached a narrow threshold. This new, short hallway led to yet another stairwell, and though the base was surrounded by many doors, she could suddenly hear the pulsing outside of her, as if it were coming from somewhere high up in the other chamber. It had grown even faster, too, and the sound of a loud breath joined in with it. It was the ragged huff of someone trying to keep their lungs steady—like a woman enduring her birth pangs, like a man giving up his last death rattles.
Kanna rushed upstairs, this time on a staircase made of cracked, white stone.
Her legs were aching, but she pushed. The stairs seemed endless, as if the spiral were a treadmill that twisted all around her and recycled her every movement. Because the walls were so far from her at either side, and she could not see any sign of the top, it felt like she was running on a spindle that turned and turned infinitely in empty space forever.
But she could hear the breath. She could hear the breath.
She could see it, too. In the darkness in front of her, she could see the rising and falling, like a light burning through a waxing and waning dose of fuel.
She was so focused on the image of those swelling lungs and that beating heart that she did not see the one, singular missing step in the unbroken chain above her. She tripped and slid down many stairs. She landed hard onto her knees and barely caught her light before it hit the ground.
“For the love of God!” she shouted towards the ceiling of the chamber—which she still could not see. For all she knew, she was facing an open, black sky. “How many times must I go up, only to go down, only to go up, only to go down? Are you sending me to Heaven or am I destined to Hell after all? Just decide already! Which direction do I have to go? How many steps must I run just to reach her in the end?”
Angry tears burned her face, but she pushed herself up and kept going, even as she noticed that her spirits had grown dimmer.
“If I die down here, I doubt anyone will ever find me. It feels like a place no one has ever reached before.”
“Well, I’m here,” a thick voice murmured from above, underneath the breathing of the building, underneath Kanna’s own echo.
Startled, Kanna nearly tumbled back towards the core of the Earth.
To be continued…