Nirin walked deeper into the forest, away from the cottage, away from the city. Kiol followed without question. They did not talk. The trees grew sparse until they were replaced with grasslands, their autumn-yellow stalks cast with silver tones from the moonlight. Kiol craned his neck to look at the waning moon, still nearly full. A scattering of stars could be seen through the drifting clouds. There were so many of them that the night sky beyond did not seem dark at all. Only full of more stars.
He bumped into something and jerked back. He hadn’t noticed that Nirin had stopped walking to look up at the sky too.
“I used to stargaze with my mother,” Kiol reminisced. He didn’t know the last time he had actually stopped to look at them. “Even in the city where lights made them harder to see. She told me the names of constellations but I think she was just making them up.” He felt the corner of his lips lift and he forced it back down.
“I didn’t see the stars for a long time,” Nirin signed.
Nirin glanced at him. “We should continue. We’ll get too cold standing still.”
Silence accompanied them another few minutes before Kiol remembered. “Oh— Nirin.” The boy looked over his shoulder in acknowledgment. Kiol continued in sign-speak, “I found a message. From— from the blind god-gifted, I think. In a… place Creator sent me to, like a wagon caravan that wasn’t pulled by horses or anything at all.”
“What did the message say?” Nirin signed.
“There were crude drawings of… us? I think. It said to kill Ruadhan. And that Serul lies, but to trust her.”
Nirin stopped walking. Kiol slowed until he was beside him and watched the conflict that scrunched the boy’s face. “It named her?” Nirin signed after a minute. “It named Serul?”
Kiol nodded. “’Lose twins. Kill Ruadhan. Serul lies. Trust her.’ That’s what it said. Why?” Nirin didn’t respond, his head tilted in thought and his brows still furrowed. “It might have been for you, maybe you were supposed to find it years ago,” Kiol suggested.
Nirin shook his head. “Why would it mention the twins? And I had no way to kill Ruadhan or even come close to it.”
“Ah,” Kiol mumbled. “Right. Then what’s wrong?”
“Nevermind,” Nirin signed. “We still have far to go.”
“Where are we going?”
Nirin paused again before he’d even begun walking. He signed with some difficulty, as though not quite believing it himself, “The remnant.”
“Remnant?” Kiol repeated, surprised. “Envier’s remnant?”
Nirin shook his head. “Creator’s.”
“Creator’s—” Kiol burst out, even more surprised, but he cut himself short. “What are you talking about?” he signed furiously. “Creator is awake, isn’t the remnant gone?”
“I don’t think so. It may be why her power is weakened, because the remnant still exists.”
“You told Ruadhan where it is,” Kiol reminded him. “We can’t go there.”
“No, I told him where it was,” Nirin emphasized. “Tori had it moved after you…”
Kiol would rather not bring that up again. “Moved where?” he redirected the subject.
“I don’t know,” Nirin signed. “But I have a guess.”
“Is it safe?” Kiol asked.
“Depends on what’s there these days.”
The meadows changed to roads. They wandered through farms and villages and farms again. Halfway through the day, when Kiol’s hunger was becoming unbearable again and he’d realized he hadn’t thought to pack any food, Nirin pulled a steamed bun from his pocket.
“It’s still warm,” Kiol said, the heat emanating from it made more obvious in the cold air.
“I bought it from a vendor in the last village.”
“I took it and left money. You can eat it. It likely has meat.” Kiol could smell it and it definitely had meat in it.
“If it has meat then why did you take it?” he asked, plucking it from Nirin’s hand and taking a bite. It was possibly the best thing he’d ever eaten.
“For you,” Nirin signed nonchalantly.
“You need to eat, too, kid,” Kiol said, annoyed.
“I’ll find something.”
Kiol frowned. He grabbed Nirin’s arm and dragged him back the way they’d walked, finishing the bun on the way. When he spotted the farmhouse they had recently passed he strode up to the door and knocked on it.
The woman who answered saw Kiol’s vest and was immediately on guard, closing the door to a slant. “What do you want?” Even though Creator had made Kiol civilian clothes, the vest was a dead giveaway of his occupation. Former occupation, he supposed.
“Can you spare some food, ma’am?” he asked. Even trying to be polite he sounded rather bored and fed up. “Just a fruit, maybe, or some corn?” Nirin stood beside him, hands clasped, prim and proper. The lady looked them both up and down.
“One minute.” She closed the door. When she returned she held out an ear of roasted corn and half a roasted potato with a smear of butter on it. Kiol looked at Nirin, who nodded approval, so Kiol accepted the items.
“Thank you,” he said. She had relaxed a bit, seeing that he wasn’t barging in or trying to arrest anyone, and she gave him a smile and nod in return.
“Be careful, won’t you? It’s too cold these days to travel, and without food? You’ve got another twenty miles either way to a village.”
Kiol blinked at her, then turned and left.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Nirin signed. Kiol held out the ear of corn with precarious looseness and Nirin took it with a small smile. “Thank you.”
They sat close to the small fire Kiol had made and Nirin fed it another piece of wood. The silhouettes of bare branches framed the cloudy sky. Kiol gave up trying to see stars and turned to Nirin. “Won’t Creator know what we’re doing?” he asked.
“She might,” Nirin signed.
“Then will she follow us?”
“Do you know what she’s lying about? If that message was about her, anyway, and not really Serul.”
“Not exactly. Most of what she says seems to be a lie but… also the truth.”
“That’s not possible,” Kiol said. Nirin smiled at him.
“You see the world as black and white. But it’s not so simple.” If anyone else had said the same thing, it would seem patronizing. But Kiol only nodded and felt that Nirin was not wrong about him. He supposed a god could be both wrong and right, lying and honest. Or maybe because she was a god, Nirin’s gift didn’t work as well with her.
Kiol propped his arm on a bent knee and stared into the fire, watching the rim of stones around it to be sure it didn’t spread. He was glad he couldn’t hear the crackle of it. “I’m guessing you don’t know where she goes at night,” he said.
“She doesn’t usually leave the cottage,” Nirin signed with a frown. “That she has two days in a row is rather strange. But I did not ask her.”
“She is a god. She can do what she wants.”
Well, fair enough.
“So Tori moved the statue, Creator can’t find it, she can’t get rid of it and regain all her powers,” Kiol signed. Nirin nodded. Kiol tucked his arms behind his head and fell back, using them as a pillow. “Maybe she’s been looking for it.”
“Maybe,” Nirin signed.
They started traveling again before the sun had come up. Kiol had only traveled this far once, as a young kid, to get to the capital city. He barely remembered it, and certainly the direction they went now was hardly a well-traveled path. But Nirin seemed as confident and at ease as usual.
The wild meadows turned to barren crop fields, large square plots that were only dusty soil. It was obvious nothing had been grown in them, not this past year, nor years before it. The village that the fields surrounded was not too small, it could almost be considered a town, and it was so far out from any city center Kiol wondered how on earth it subsisted. That was answered when they got closer and Kiol saw that the village was as abandoned as the fields. The run down wooden huts were surrounded with rotting buckets and refuse just left outside. Occasionally Kiol caught a glimpse of a dog or other critter slipping away into the shadows on their approach. They wandered through the empty streets to the temple in the middle of the town. It was one made before the Thousand Night Battle, but seemed to be untouched by the gods’ violence. It stood grand and tall and shimmering with its specks of gold.
“What happened here?” Kiol asked, side-stepping a half-eaten carcass of a rabbit. “Do you know?”
Nirin nodded, eyes forward. For a long while he didn’t reply. Kiol was about to ask when he raised his hands to sign. “This was an old, old settlement. The land was farmed for centuries, maybe longer. But the soil couldn’t keep up, and crops began to fail. Even then, the people here forced crops from the ground with charms and seals. When those stopped working, they were finally forced to desert the town or risk starvation.”
“It doesn’t appear to have been abandoned for too long,” Kiol noted. “When did they leave?”
“I don’t know. Sometime in the last seven or eight years.”
Kiol glanced inside a house whose door hung open on broken hinges. Some old furniture, wildlife feces, spider webs, even a bird nest was tucked above a cupboard. But no weeds were growing over anything, inside or out. They really must have killed the soil that even after seven years not even weeds would grow.
Nirin tested the temple doors. Like all ancient temples, they were made of thick dark oak and iron and, unlike the rest of the town, hardly looked abandoned. The iron could have used some shine, but other than that. Nirin pushed his weight into them but they didn’t budge. Kiol stepped up and Nirin stepped aside.
Unless it was barricaded from the inside, it was likely that the hinges were so rusty they weren’t working. With that in mind Kiol threw his weight into one of the doors a few sharp times before he felt it give a little. Another few shoves and it cracked open enough for him to slip inside, meaning it was definitely large enough for Nirin.
It was dark and damp inside. No animals had come in here. Only some mildew and fungus grew along cracks in the stone floor and up the walls. Kiol put an arm out to stop Nirin from walking in any further. “It’s too dark, you won’t be able to see,” he said. “I’ll look around.”
“It won’t be anywhere obvious,” Nirin signed. “It’s a large temple.”
“Well I’ll look closely. Stay here.”
Kiol walked through the halls, his heel occasionally skidding on slimy mold. There were windows, but they were high in the walls and boarded up. Some half-burned candles or incense were scattered around every so often, their metal and porcelain stands gone. Of course things of such value would be the first priority when leaving for good. The statue of Creator was less easily moved, and so it remained. Kiol examined it closely, but he really didn’t think it was the remnant. It was nowhere near the size of Envier’s remnant, and it was a typical pose, Creator sitting with her hands resting on her knees and her face peaceful. Not what Kiol would expect someone to look like in the midst of endless battle. He checked around for any secret passageways but found none of that either.
When he finally made his way back to the front of the temple, night had fallen again, and with it, frost. Nirin stood outside on the stone steps, watching the village, his breath pluming into the air. Under the white moonlight, the frosted ground and houses shimmered like crystals.
“S’cold,” Kiol muttered. Nirin was rubbing his arms and shivering. There wasn’t even anything to make fire with. “Let’s go inside at least.”
Nirin pried his gaze from the village with reluctance and followed Kiol back inside. Kiol didn’t want to close the door again, afraid he wouldn’t be able to open it. So instead they walked to the inner chamber. It wasn’t much warmer and the air was intolerably stale, but wind chill wouldn’t reach them.
Kiol sat on the moldy ground without care. “Here.” He reached up, hooking his arm around Nirin’s waist and pulling him onto his lap. Nirin fell into it, looking only mildly surprised. “It’ll be warmer like this,” Kiol explained. “And it’ll keep you from the cold floor.”
“Not you though,” Nirin signed.
Nirin pressed his lips together. After a second of thought he took off his outer robe and draped it around Kiol. It was warmer than Kiol would have expected. After some hesitation, he gripped the edges and wrapped his arms around Nirin, enveloping them both into the makeshift blanket.
Nirin always looked so small, but on Kiol’s lap, in his arms, he didn’t feel too small. He tucked into the space with perfect fit. Kiol focused on his thoughts, desperately trying to control them and his heart so Nirin wouldn’t know how it pounded out of control. The boy shifted and rested his cheek against Kiol’s shoulder and Kiol’s concentration broke entirely. All he could do was try to breathe normally.
“Are you warm enough?” he asked gruffly.
Nirin nodded. Kiol tightened his arms anyway, squeezing Nirin to his chest. “I’ll look again tomorrow,” he said. “Even if it’s not here, I’ll make sure without a doubt.” Nirin nodded again. He did not bother trying to sign, though he knew Kiol could see it. Kiol assumed he must have been tired. “You can sleep,” Kiol murmured. “I’ll make sure we stay warm.” Another nod. Kiol stopped talking then. He had only Creator’s pensive face to look at, and he quickly grew bored of that. With nothing to see or do, his only option was to focus on the warmth in his arms and Nirin’s soft breath against his neck.