Ruadhan’s prison room was empty, as was his office and bed chambers. Kiol finally stopped in the hallway, looking at the unconscious guard and trying to catch his breath as his mind raced. He didn’t have time to search everywhere in the city but he didn’t have time to figure out where they could possibly be either. Nirin could already be dead. There were the miles of tunnels, too. It would take weeks, maybe months, to go through it all.
He took out any guard or soldier who seemed even remotely interested in getting in his way. That was why he almost fought Caelin, too. All he registered was a person coming toward him. He backed off before Corva could even come to her aid, though she still pulled Caelin behind her.
“What are you doing, where are you going?” Caelin asked, clawing at her sister to make her move but Corva didn’t budge, glaring at Kiol.
Kiol just glanced at her and continued running. The twins followed. He made it easy for them, since he dealt with every challenge in front of him. He ignored them completely, not caring one way or another what they did, as long as they didn’t get in his way. They tailed him all the way to the cottage. Half a day’s journey, but better than half a year.
Creator looked up calmly when the trio burst through the door. She stopped tending the fire and stood.
“Ruadhan has Nirin,” Kiol gasped out the second she was in view, skidding to a halt and leaning on his knees.
“What?” She looked at the twins then back at Kiol. “How did this happen?”
“Si—sigils,” Kiol panted. “Just t—tell me where he is. I’ll deal with it.”
“I don’t know where he is,” Creator said gently, like she was trying to soothe a scared animal.
“Then what use are your fucking powers?!” Kiol spat.
Creator held up her palms. “Calm down,” she coaxed. “Does Ruadhan know I’m awake?”
“No? I don’t know! That doesn’t fucking matter right now!”
“If he doesn’t, he won’t kill Nirin. So calm down. I can think of a few places Ruadhan might have taken him but it’s no guarantee.”
“Just tell me!”
“Who are these two first?”
Kiol glanced back at Caelin and Corva looking utterly lost at their conversation. “They’re—” He hesitated. Well, Creator would know their intentions anyway. “They’re soldiers too. Nirin’s friends. Helping me.”
“Who are you?” Corva demanded.
Creator smiled. “The One True God.”
Kiol felt more than he saw the twins go still. They stared, flabbergasted. “What—what—what sacrilege is this?” Caelin managed to get out. “How dare you make such a claim!”
Creator sighed and opened her hand to show a little clay ball. Then she crushed her palms together and opened them to a jade pendant. She tossed it and Corva caught it on reflex. “Keep it,” Creator said.
“She’s telling the truth,” Kiol said, impatient. “But it doesn’t matter. I need to find Nirin.” He said the last sentence to Creator. But she didn’t even seem to be listening to him, her eyes trained on the twins. She looked a lot like Nirin, studying a subject with quiet intensity.
“Are y— are you really Her?” Caelin stammered. “You’re… You’ve come back? You’re back?” She looked between Creator and the pendant incessantly, as though piecing together a puzzle consisting of two pieces. Apparently no one was interested in listening to Kiol. He crossed his arms and glared uselessly at the group.
“I am,” Creator said. Even Kiol could tell Caelin wasn’t entirely convinced, let alone Corva’s look of contemptuous disbelief. Creator produced another ball of clay, this time making a strawberry. Red, plump, even glistening as though freshly plucked from dew. It was not something that could have been kept for a street trick. Creator stepped forward to hand it to Caelin. “Try it.”
“Don’t,” Corva barked.
“It’s not poisoned,” Creator said with a quirked smile. “But you don’t have to if you’d rather not.”
Caelin eyed her sister, then bit off the end. Her eyes widened and she covered her mouth with a hand so Kiol couldn’t see what she said. She pushed the strawberry towards Corva who reluctantly took it and bit into it as well. But her suspicious expression didn’t change, and she examined the fruit with the jade pendant.
“It’s impossible,” she murmured.
“Why?” Caelin demanded. “Why is it impossible? You didn’t think She’d return? I knew She would, I knew She would one day.” She turned to Creator, eyes shining. The next second she was on the floor, head bowed over her knees. Creator took a step back and lifted the girl’s shoulders up.
“I don’t want to be worshipped,” she said gently. “And I need you to keep this knowledge to yourself for now. I’m not yet at my full strength and there are those who would see me dead.” Kiol was glad she didn’t mention Ruadhan. He didn’t know how the twins would react; they hadn’t taken even a slight implication of killing Ruadhan well.
“No, they’re gone,” Caelin insisted. “We’ve gotten rid of the Cult of Envy.”
Creator’s smile didn’t fade a bit. “Promise me you will not tell a soul.”
Caelin’s eyebrows pulled together and her face fell, but after a long moment she consented, “I promise.”
Creator looked to Corva, but that twin crossed her arms and stared back defiantly. “Get off the floor, Caelin. Whoever you are, do you know where Nirin is or not?”
“As I told Kiol, I don’t know for certain. I know a few places Ruadhan might have taken him, that’s all.”
“Then where are those places?”
Creator looked her up and down, her gaze shadowed from her thoughts. Then she turned to Kiol and signed, “I will transport you to the first location, after that you have to find them with my directions.” Kiol uncrossed his arms and nodded.
If Corva truly didn’t believe before, she must have after watching Creator bleed herself and heal dozens of times over, until she made a sigil with an amount of blood that would have killed any mortal person to lose. Kiol stepped in without hesitation.
Every encounter with a sigil he’d had so far had been some form of travel. But this felt nothing at all like the others. It was like a wave crashing into his body with the force of a brick wall, swallowing him whole, tossing him about, suffocating him. Yet it lasted only seconds before he found himself stumbling on solid ground. Head still spinning, he leaned against the wall and just barely managed not to upchuck his stomach’s contents.
Caelin was not so lucky. Kiol’s dizziness and nausea had abated by the time she appeared out of nowhere and fell to the ground, vomiting. Corva appeared shortly after. Kiol ignored them and focused on what he had originally thought was a building wall. But it wasn’t a building— at least, not in any form he recognized. It was a series of long wooden rooms, connected by pieces of metal, and set upon metal wheels which themselves rested on a metal path. Nature had overtaken much of it; vines and leaves and roots, climbing over the top or strangling the bottom. Creator had said it was a form of transportation that she had helped build, one that didn’t rely on human or animal power to move. When it had worked, it went between two locations, though she had wanted it to reach every pocket of civilization there was. Kiol assumed she had become a remnant before she could realize that dream.
Many of the rooms were left wide open. Kiol walked the length of them all, peering inside. Carpets of dead leaves and even some skeletal remains of dead animals were the only occupants. All six of the rooms were empty. But Creator had said there would be more if they followed the path to the south. Not bothering to check if the twins were with him, Kiol set off at a jog.
The others were much the same. Overgrown, half off the path, some fallen boards, some rotting wood. Kiol tried the door of one of the few that were intact and closed. Instead of sliding open it wobbled and crashed down onto the floor, the force of it sending leaves fluttering into the air. Kiol paused in turning away and stepped into the box instead, brushing aside more leaves.
On the floor was a faded illustration. It was drawn messily, but still obvious that the artist was not novice. A man with a short ponytail, his ears scribbled over, and a man with long hair whose lips were scribbled over. Beneath it someone had written:
Lose twins. Kill Ruadhan. Serul lies. Trust her.
Kiol frantically pushed away more leaves but that was all that was written. Was it even meant for him? For this him, at this time? He piled the leaves back over it and climbed out to see Corva and Caelin approaching.
“Nothing here,” he told them. “Go back to the temple. I’ll continue by myself.”
“No way.” Caelin stepped forward, pointing determinedly. “He’s become my friend too, you know. I’m going to make sure he’s okay.”
“No need,” Kiol said. “You’re already in trouble. Go back now.”
“No,” Corva said this time. Kiol eyed her. He had expected her, if nothing else, to want to drag Caelin back. “Caelin’s right. It’s partly our fault, so we’ll help.”
“You’re not helping,” Kiol said. They stood, stubborn and immobile. He sighed into his teeth and started into the forest. If he ran at his fastest he could certainly lose Caelin, but not Corva, which meant he wouldn’t lose either. There was really only one solution.
Creator had said if they went north they would eventually hit the capital. And northeast of there was a dungeon caved in from the Thousand Night battle with an entrance hidden by a fallen pillar. Kiol followed the metal path northward at a sustainable pace, hoping that Creator had been right. If she wasn’t and Ruadhan would kill Nirin, it was likely already too late. But passing out from over-exerting himself wouldn’t help anything.
The path disappeared and Kiol used the setting sun as a compass. Almost a full day had passed. And what if it wasn’t Ruadhan who had taken Nirin? If Kiol was following a trail that led to nowhere? If he was simply wasting time…
He was getting close to the city, passing ruins he recognized. Outside the first farm field he stopped and turned to the twins still behind him. Even Corva looked worn down. “Just tell them I forced you to do it all,” he said. Caelin’s eyebrows pulled together but Corva didn’t take long at all to recognize Kiol’s intent. By the time she had raised her arms Kiol had already grabbed the back of her head and slammed it into the nearest tree. He lurched over her slumping body to grab Caelin. She put up a bit of a resistance, but of course she was no match for Kiol. He laid them upright against the tree and continued on his own.