Shock weakened his muscles. A split second after their eyes met he toppled head first to the ground. Ignoring the pain and dizziness he shot back up to his feet, sword in hand. On the other end stood Nirin, gripping the windowsill, half-leaned over it to see Kiol before he had jumped back up.
It was familiar, too familiar a scene; staring down the wide, dark eyes at the end of his blade. Kiol dropped his arm back to his side like it was suddenly made of stone. The Cult Leader continued to stand by the counter, wiping her hands on a towel and watching the two like she was watching a conversation between friends. Kiol took a step back and Nirin waved his hands in panic for him to stop, so Kiol froze again. When Nirin pointed he followed the finger to the ground and saw that below his feet, already slightly trampled, was a vegetable garden.
Kiol stared at it. And couldn’t stop staring. His mind seemed to have given up working. A vegetable garden. He was facing a person whose life he had brutally ended, who had created the most dangerous regime in the world, who was talking jovially with a boy Kiol knew but didn’t know and inexplicably needed to know, and he was worried about stepping on some plants.
He looked back up, mouth and lips dry. The Cult Leader offered him a smile. It was warm, caring, sweet. “Why don’t you come in, Kiol?”
Nirin was still leaning out the window looking at him, but his eyes told Kiol nothing. He looked worried, but that was leftover concern about his fall.
Careful to avoid the rows of vegetables, Kiol walked around to the door at the back of the cottage. The woman was already there, holding it open. She looked exactly as Kiol remembered. Curly hair tied back but still unruly, full-figured, and as tall as Kiol—an impressive height for a woman even if not for a man. She raised a palm before he came closer and looked pointedly at the sword still in his hand. He also glanced down at it, then reluctantly put it away. She had no weapons on her person and save for the kitchen knife he didn’t think the room held anything either. But she had been a hard match for him and, unlike almost every other person Kiol met, he had doubts he could take her without a weapon in hand. But she didn’t insist he give up his weapon belt and moved aside for him to enter.
Nirin was at his side immediately, which for some reason made Kiol feel better. He shook it away and stayed on guard, warily watching the Cult Leader shut the door and go back to the counter. She lifted the pot and brought it into the other room. After some time, when she hadn’t returned, Nirin’s fingers wrapped around Kiol’s wrist. The touch and chill startled him, and he looked down. Instead of being amazed like he should have been that someone other than Ruadhan had surprised him like that, Kiol only felt concern. He pressed his other hand over Nirin’s.
“Cold,” he said, brows furrowed. “Are you okay?”
Nirin smiled and nodded. Keeping hold of his wrist, he led Kiol into the other room. For some reason Kiol kept his hand covering that delicate one, though it had already warmed up from his body heat.
The cult leader knelt by the hearth, stirring the pot that she had set over the fire. It was such an innocent picture that it unnerved Kiol all the more.
The last time he had seen her she had been collapsed on the ground, an arm cut off, her sliced stomach staining the floor with blood and organs. Now she was before him like none of it had happened, equipped with both arms and, Kiol assumed, all her organs. She said something Kiol didn’t catch and Nirin’s fingers loosened. Kiol caught his hand, keeping it in place before the boy could break away. Nirin looked up at him but before Kiol had a chance to think about his own actions, let alone explain them, Nirin smiled and patted his arm with such caring reassurance Kiol let him go just to put an end to that.
Nirin took the woman’s place by the fire while she faced Kiol. Her hands moved. She knew sign-speak. Of course.
“Does your head hurt?” she signed. It did, but Kiol said nothing, did nothing. He watched her without reaction. “I can make it better,” she continued.
“Don’t touch me,” he said, voice level, unaffected. She nodded, lifting her palms to show that she would listen.
“I know you must have questions—”
“No,” Kiol interrupted. She stopped and blinked at him.
After some consideration she started again. “You gifted your hearing to the remnant.” He clenched his jaw at that. The only ones who knew were Ruadhan, the Archbishop, and himself. But apparently, also her. His eyes swept subconsciously to Nirin. “He knows,” the cult leader signed, drawing his eyes back. He narrowed them at her. “As I’m sure you know by now, have known, that he is the one who gifted his voice.”
“And?” Kiol asked, steadying his expression back to disinterest.
“A voice. The second to last sacrifice. What was the last?”
A life. Kiol had taken many that day. But from his understanding, they had to be near the remnant in order to gift it. He had been in every room of that base and there hadn’t been any statue. The woman seemed to read his mind.
“The last gift did not have to be given directly like the others. Without your help it may not have been given at all.”
Kiol scoffed and turned away. “You’re wasting my time.” Before he could return to the kitchen, something was thrown at him. He spun and caught it between three fingers. It was a dagger. But the woman stood in the same spot, arms crossed, not a hint of violent aura about her. He looked closer and his breath caught in his throat.
It wasn’t a dagger. It was his dagger. The one she had broken in their fight—not just broken, but shattered. It was not something that could be fixed, but even the rune seals on the blade were the same. Fate - Break - Soul. It had been his favorite companion that he had trained thousands of hours with, had fiddled with in his boredom, had meticulously cleaned every night. He would know a replica from the real thing. This was not a replica.
“How?” he asked.
“You’re missing a crucial piece of information, Kiol,” she said. “Something that you haven’t thought to question.” His eyes widened involuntarily. If you can question. He grit his teeth as the woman continued, “Or perhaps you had, and just didn’t want to. You know both Creator and Envier were turned into remnants. Did you really not doubt, not for a second, whether the one below the Society temple is Creator? That you hadn’t been lied to?” Kiol took deep, even breaths through his nose, watching her, face flat. “That remnant, the one you gifted your hearing to, is Envier. But you knew that this whole time, didn’t you?”
Kiol stayed still and silent, as though if he didn’t move this reality would somehow pass by him and he wouldn’t have to face it.
“You also helped gift the last sacrifice, Kiol, and now I’ve woken.”
He blinked and lifted his gaze to her face. He stood, and she stood, watching each other. If she was looking for a reaction she would be disappointed. But inside his head he struggled to hold on to sanity and reason.
“Why should I believe you?” he finally signed.
“Is my standing here before you not enough?” He shook his head and she puffed a laugh. “Very well.” She drew something from her sleeve. In the glimpse Kiol got he thought it was a ball of clay, but he couldn’t be sure. She pressed her other hand over the top, her face growing solemn as she concentrated. She pulled her hands apart and the clay grew with them, but she was not pulling on it—and it was no longer clay. It was… stone. A glittering brick of gold-speckled red stone, the very kind Creator had made so many buildings from before she vanished and took the material with her.
The woman held it out. Kiol paused, not a hesitation so much as a drawn out resistance, before he stepped closer to take it. It was heavy and large, the length of his forearm. He had watched closely and it hadn’t been some street trick. Those never fooled him anymore.
“Ruadhan is trying to awaken Envier. I can’t let that happen.”
“Why?” Kiol asked, still inspecting the stone, but he kept an attention on her hands. He saw her pause, likely trying to figure out which statement he had questioned. She settled on answering both.
She signed, “If Envier wakes I need not tell you the destruction that will fall onto humanity. You, your society, all your creations, will be wiped out. As to why Ruadhan desires that, I do not know. Perhaps you can ask him yourself.”
“I thought Creator was all-knowing.”
He looked up to see her quirk of smile. “No,” she signed. “I’m not and never was. I can see results of human actions far in advance, decades, but even that is useless. It is branches of consequences in an unimaginably large tree. Following a branch to its end is impossible, because it can diverge into another course at any moment and there is never truly one ending, but thousands—millions.”
Kiol didn’t quite understand what she meant but he got the gist. He set the stone down and shrugged, then signed, “So you don’t read minds.”
“Then how do you know Ruadhan’s intent is bad?”
She paused, taken off guard. It lasted only a second. “Whatever his intent, whatever heroic deed he has convinced himself he’s doing, it does not matter. Envier’s return will only lead to devastation. That Ruadhan tried to stop me, the only one able to subdue Envier, from awakening is proof enough of his ill-intent, don’t you agree?”
Kiol shrugged again. He saw the sigh that accompanied the shake of her head.
“We need your help. I’m not yet at my full strength and it cannot be known that I have returned. Ruadhan, especially, cannot know. But I need to stop him from waking Envier. I need to dismantle that whole corrupt Society. Until I have the strength and allies to do so from the outside, I need someone on the inside to weaken their hold and tell me what they are doing. People are dependent upon the Society and the Archbishop, and humans dislike change. Even faced with the truth they may not listen. They will want things to remain the same.”
“They worship Creator,” Kiol signed. “If that is you, they will follow you.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy.” Her face fell from its calm confidence, eyebrows knitted together and teeth worrying at her bottom lip. “Especially with Ruadhan. He’ll manipulate them to believe his lies, to spit in the face of my truth, to try and cut me down before I’ve had a chance to stand. He is a cunning and dangerous man, Kiol. You know that already, you don’t need to take my word for it.”
Nirin stood, bringing Kiol’s attention. He tried to see what the boy thought of all this, but his expression was only locked in that unyielding smile-not-smile. He gestured to the pot and signed, “Another fifteen minutes and it should be ready. Will you eat with us?” He directed the question to Kiol.
Kiol shook his head. “I need to go back,” he signed. Nirin’s face fell, just a little, but enough. Enough to stab a tiny needle into Kiol’s heart. But the boy nodded acquiescence.
“What will you do?” the woman asked. “Will you help us?”
“I don’t know,” Kiol said.
“Will you at least keep all you’ve learned a secret?” she asked. “If you tell Ruadhan any of this, you’re putting the world in danger.” When she saw the absolute zero reaction Kiol had to this, she added, “And you’ll be carving Nirin’s gravestone.”
That tensed his muscles. He hated that it did, and hated that she saw, and hated more that she knew as much to use it against him. How dare she know. How dare it work.
Once again, despite claiming no capability of it, she seemed to read his mind and smiled. “You’re both god-gifted. You have a connection no one else on earth can understand.”
“Shut up,” Kiol said, and despite his words coming out sharp and harsh, her smile softened. He opened his mouth, decided against saying more, and turned around. This time, though, he was the one who threw the dagger. The woman didn’t move, didn’t even flinch, as it struck her in the center of her chest. She pulled it out and blood followed, but only for a moment. The next, her skin was sealed shut again. Kiol had not even seen it happen, it just… was. Save for the blood staining her robe, it was like the wound had not existed in the first place.
Creator proffered the dagger to him, holding it by its bloodied blade. He took it and stalked out of the cottage.
Once in the depths of the forest, out of that suffocating warmth and light, Kiol washed the dagger in a stream and examined it. Studied it. He could find no fault. He hid it inside his vest then made his way quickly back to the city without stopping for sleep. He didn’t return until mid-day. The second he stepped inside the temple grounds, the guards halted him.
“Ruadhan needs to see you.”