||TW: body horror, gore||
Kiol was inside an empty temple. It was one room but it was cavernous, bigger than any hall on the Society grounds. He turned around but there was only a wooden wall behind him. Hadn’t he just been in a dirt tunnel? He pressed his hands to the wall. Nothing happened.
Incense smoke wafted around the room so heavily it obscured his vision. The ceiling couldn’t be seen either because thousands of dried lavender, rosemary, and other floral herbs were hanging upside down from it. Huge red pillars were spaced evenly across the room, disappearing up into the sky of herbs. Despite how empty the place was, Kiol didn’t think it was abandoned. The red paint wasn’t old or chipped, the floor was clean, and while there were no windows or lamps, it wasn’t dark either.
He felt he had no choice but to walk around. As he walked he realized there was a corridor, similarly closed off from the outside with red walls. If ‘corridor’ was the correct term for it; it was nearly as big as the hall itself. Something itched at the back of his mind, like this place was familiar. But he knew he’d never been anywhere like this before. He examined the wood of the walls and floor, trying to see any runes or sigils or secret passageways. Was this even really a temple? There were no Creator statues, no candles, no charms, no disciples. Even though he could see and smell incense smoke, he didn’t actually see any sticks.
He stopped walking. That was the familiarity; he’d smelled this before. The intense, numerous incense, the dozens of different herbs. It was the smell of whoever slipped the charm into his room. He reached into his vest and pulled it out, looking it over. When he put it back, he brought out his dagger in its placed. Unsheathed and in hand, he continued down the corridor. It still hadn’t ended.
He must have walked for minutes when he noticed. Someone was crying. Not just crying, sobbing. His pace quickened. He strode, then jogged, then ran. The stupid corridor had to have an end, didn’t it?
He finally burst into another chamber and skidded to a halt. It was smaller than the one he’d first been in and absent the columns. A woman knelt on the floor with her back to him, wearing dirty robes that were almost too big for her skeletal figure, slipping off one of her shaking shoulders. Her whole body trembled as she cried, hunched over her lap. Her hair was long and shiny, pooling onto the ground. He took a few steps closer.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s wrong?” Another step. The woman hadn’t even acknowledged him. He realized the shine in her hair wasn’t from light, but the result of being coated in blood. Her hair was thinned out unnaturally, and huge spots on her scalp were bloody and hairless. He froze to the spot.
It took a minute of steeling himself to say more. “Are you hurt?” he managed to ask. “I want to help.” He took a deep breath and walked in an arc so that he could see her from the side and not just her back. She was gripping something tightly in her lap. It was a lock of long, black hair. At the top, it was attached to a chunk of bloody scalp.
He had to stop again, drawing each breath harshly but feeling like he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. The woman looked up then and turned her face.
Kiol sat upright, gasping for breath. His hands scrambled numbly around himself, not fully comprehending where he was or what he felt. He was mostly focused on getting his breath back. When he had calmed down he realized he was sitting on a slab of stone. The room was made of stone too, but it wasn’t a cave, it had been cut and carved that way.
He swung his legs off the side and reached into his vest, pulling out the charm. He lifted his hand, ready to throw that horrid thing as far away from himself as possible. But he didn’t finish the movement. After a long minute of gritting his teeth, he lowered his arm again and squeezed the charm tightly in his palm. It didn’t smell like that overload of scents anymore, having long dissipated and been replaced with his own smell. He stuffed it back into his vest and stood.
On the surface of the slab was the same sigil he touched in the tunnel. Even though he’d just been sitting on it, he pressed his hand to it for good measure. Nothing happened.
There was one exit carved into the rock. Beyond it was more cave.
Kiol wandered this new tunnel, keeping an eye out for traps or sigils or other paths. But it was just one empty tunnel. He didn’t have much choice but to keep going forward. Eventually, he saw light. It vaguely framed a rounded archway, dim and distant. Kiol took out his dagger but didn’t pause as he walked through.
He knew instantly where he was.
Compared to the cramped tunnel, the sudden space was uncomfortably large. The cavern was about as large as the temple in his dream with an even higher ceiling. Most of its floor was taken up by black, depth-less water reflecting tiny orbs of lantern light that just made it look bigger and darker. The enormous remnant, coiled in on itself, stood in the center. And kneeling in front of it was the Archbishop.
Kiol walked across the stones to the remnant dais. Only when his feet were on the center platform did Hida open his eyes and look up.
“You’re awake,” he signed. “Now we can talk.”
“Are you the one who brought me here?” Kiol asked.
Hida stood slowly and brushed off his robes. “If you had listened to me we could have had this conversation long before now,” he signed. “We needed to have it away from Ruadhan.”
“Where are the others?” Kiol asked. “If you hurt them I’ll kill you.”
Hida chuckled and shook his head. “Set aside the ‘angry killer’ act for a moment, Kiol. I haven’t done anything to your friends.”
“And this?” Kiol threw the charm onto the ground between them. “Why are you forcing tainted charms on to me?”
Hida’s eyebrows pulled together and he stared at Kiol for a second, as though examining him. “What makes you think it’s tainted?” he asked. Kiol pressed his lips tighter together. When he didn’t reply Hida continued, “I gave it to you to protect you.”
Kiol snorted. “From what?”
His face fell at that. He watched Hida carefully but the man was looking back at him with all sincerity. “What are you talking about?”
“I wanted to explain this to you earlier but you stubbornly refused all my attempts. Ruadhan is going to kill you. After he uses you to murder me, and anyone else close to him. You saw the painting, didn’t you? Eleon knew Ruadhan would have him killed either way. He sacrificed himself willingly to get a message to you, so you could see for yourself. So you would know to be wary. Ruadhan isn’t who he says he is.”
“I know,” Kiol interrupted, then impatiently switched to sign-speak. “I know all this crap already. He’s been alive for some centuries, used to be a priest, whatever. Why would he kill me? Or you?”
“Because it’s what he does every generation. Kills anyone who knows or is close enough that they would question his unchanging appearance, lays low for a few years, then starts again and surrounds himself with a new assembly of loyal companions.”
“So what? You’re going to kill him first?”
“I don’t know. Whatever I must do, I’ll protect myself. And you.”
“Why?” If Ruadhan had assigned it, Kiol would have killed the Archbishop without remorse. That the man cared enough for him to do all this was ridiculous.
“Because you’re valuable, Kiol. God-gifted. Deadly. We could use you.”
“Yes, we. A… coordinated counteroffensive against Ruadhan’s tyranny.”
Kiol’s exhale caught in his throat. He narrowed his eyes. “So you are a rebel. Was Domora working under your orders?”
“No,” Hida said quickly, his expression growing dark. “We worked together briefly but then she decided to go off on her own. And look where it got her. We have to stick together if we’re going to survive. If we want to succeed.”
“I’m not part of this,” Kiol said.
“You already are whether you like it or not. You don’t have to take orders from me, but sooner or later you’ll have to decide between your life or Ruadhan’s.” Hida picked up the charm and held it out. “Keep it, please. Stay safe.”
“That’s not going to keep me any safer,” Kiol signed, fed up.
“You saw for yourself the power runes have. One brought you here, didn’t it?”
“That was a sigil, not a seal,” Kiol said, too confidently for the fact that it was something he only vaguely knew from an off-comment Nirin made once.
“Sigils are made of runes, combined strategically. So they’re stronger, yes, but runes do have power themselves.” He pushed the charm closer. “Plus, if you have this and another rebel sees it, they’ll know you’re on their side.”
“I already told you I’m not,” Kiol said, an edge of annoyance creeping into his voice.
“Whether you are or not doesn’t matter. It means they won’t bother you. They might even listen to you.”
Would those families have followed Kiol if he’d shown them the charm? He grabbed it from Hida, clenching his teeth. “You should have said something earlier.”
“I tried! You refused, remember? I couldn’t say all this in public or in front of Ruadhan, could I? But you know now. So be careful.”
Creator, Domora, Hida, Tori. So many against Ruadhan, yet how many had managed to touch a hair on his head? Even if they all worked together Kiol wondered if it would be possible. Even Creator, the one Kiol would have thought guaranteed to win against anyone, refused to take him down.
Kiol gestured to the remnant. “This isn’t Creator.”
Hida’s shadowed gaze turned up to the statue and fell to sorrow. “I know. One more reason Ruadhan needs to be stopped.”
So he knew that, too. But he had let Kiol sacrifice to Envier anyway. Why? So he could use Kiol for his stupid cause? Kiol scowled. It was one thing to be Ruadhan’s sword, but Kiol wasn’t going to put himself in service of any- and everyone just because they had some self-righteous justice to enact.
“And the tunnels?” he asked.
Hida raised his eyebrows. “What about them?”
“Where did they come from?”
“They’ve been here far longer than you or I.”
“Does Ruadhan know about them then?”
“Likely. But there are so many covering so many miles even he cannot keep track of it all.”
“And the—” Kiol hesitated. He could not call them ‘monsters,’ even if that’s what everyone else would see them as. “The creatures,” he finished.
Hida nodded sagely. “Creator’s first attempt at humans.”
“But she killed them,” Kiol said.
“Not all of them. She couldn’t. Creator loves all Her creations… even the failed ones.”
The image of Creator sitting on the floor surrounded by petals came to his mind. She hadn’t seemed to love those. “So you’re harboring them?” Kiol asked.
“Yes. Because it is what She wanted. For them to be alive.”
“Alive?” Kiol scoffed. “That’s not alive. Stuck in a pit with no light?”
“They’re too dangerous to be anywhere else.”
“Death would be better than that.”
“That’s not a decision for you or me to make.”
“It’s not a decision for a dead god either,” Kiol said. Hida bristled at that.
“She’s not dead, which you well know.”
“She’s not alive either,” Kiol lied. “And you’re her representative in the world. So make the decision.” Hida stared him down and didn’t reply. When it became obvious he wouldn’t get a response, Kiol brushed past him and started across the slippery rock path, up the stairs he’d descended all those years ago. He returned immediately to Hida's private worship hall. The statue was back in place and once inside the tunnel he saw the footsteps leading out. Only two sets. He followed their trail through the tunnel until he reached the sigil on the wall. There was another half-finished beside it, and splashes of blood on the ground.
He didn’t even bother closing the statue behind him. He sprinted through the temple and would have sprinted right out onto the grounds, guards be damned, when he saw the twins tucked into a corner of the hall. They appeared to be in heated discussion that they were trying very hard to keep under wraps before they spun in surprise at his arrival.
“You’re alive!” Caelin said, rushing forward. Kiol recoiled from her touch at the same moment she seemed to realize better and took her hands back.
“Where the fuck is Nirin?” he demanded.
“Keep your voice down!” Corva reprimanded.
Kiol glared and both the girls shrunk back. “Where is he?”
“We don’t know, he disappeared like you d—!” Caelin cut herself off at the last word and looked dubiously at her sister. “Well, kind of. A… a hand came out of the wall and pulled him in. That didn’t happen to you, did it?”
“Whose hand?” Kiol asked, his blood rising. Caelin looked at him with a lost expression. He growled and ran out. It was a mix of luck and subconscious knowledge that kept him from running into anyone. He vaulted back over the wall and sprinted full speed to the martial temple.