Kiol didn’t know how much time had passed when Nirin stirred. He sat up, rubbing his face and squinting up at Kiol in the darkness. Kiol bit back a smile.
“I’m awake,” he said. He opened his arms and let Nirin climb out of his lap, leaving empty, cold air behind.
“I have to check something,” Nirin signed. “Stay here.”
“It’s too dark, you can’t go on your own,” Kiol protested, starting to stand. Nirin pressed his shoulder, gently pushing him back down.
“I’ll be okay,” Nirin signed. “I promise. Wait here.” Kiol watched him wander off, deeper into the temple. He gave a sharp exhale, but let him go. He’d checked over the temple thoroughly and there was nothing dangerous here. He leaned his head back against the wall and watched the slants of light peaking through the boarded window.
He didn’t mean to fall asleep, but he wasn’t guarding against it either. A pressure on his arm woke him and he jerked upright, though this time with enough awareness not to strike out at Nirin.
“Did you find it?” Kiol asked.
Nirin shook his head. “Not the remnant. But I have something to show you.”
“Show me?” Kiol muttered, tousling his hair. He pulled the tie out and re-tied his hair into a ponytail, then stood and followed Nirin through the halls. It wasn’t pitch black, but it was dark enough that Kiol was impressed with Nirin’s navigation. He stopped inside a mostly empty room. From its size and location, Kiol had assumed the other day that it had been the head priest’s bedchamber. There were faded patterns on the walls, indistinguishable, but not so different from the layers of charms that priests hung on their walls in current days.
The large window on the far wall had been boarded up when Kiol last entered, but the boards were pried off now. He realized it wasn’t a window, but a doorway. On the other side were cells.
“A prison?” Kiol asked. “They had prisons in their temple?” Kiol wasn’t devoutly religious but it rubbed even him the wrong way. There was no place for suffering inside a place of worship. Well, aside from boredom. He stepped up to it but Nirin grabbed his arm before he could go inside.
“I need to borrow your dagger,” he signed. Kiol blinked at him. Nirin’s lips pressed into a line. “No matter what happens, I need you to trust me.” He stared into Kiol’s eyes, though he could not have seen them well. Kiol reached into his vest and took out his dagger. He placed it hesitantly into Nirin’s palm. “Thank you,” Nirin signed. “Ruadhan will be here soon.”
Kiol’s heart dropped to the bottom of his stomach. Nirin paused, his eyebrows pulling together. “What are you talking about?” Kiol demanded.
“That charm… it tracks you. Ruadhan knows where we are.”
“What?” Kiol hissed. He reached into his vest and pulled out the charm that Hida had given him. “No. The Archbishop gave this to me. He’s a rebel, he’s working against Ruadhan. He wants to—”
“Whether he does or not, Ruadhan put a tracking seal on that charm.”
“What? How do you know?”
“The messages that have been helping us. It doesn’t matter now,” Nirin signed. “Go back to the front of the temple. When Ruadhan arrives, you must lead him here.”
“Are you going to kill him?” Kiol asked. “Give me the dagger. I’ll do it. You shouldn’t.”
“No. Trust me, Kiol, trust me. Please. I’ve been keeping some things from you, but after this, if… if I can get answers from Ruadhan, I’ll tell you what I know.”
Kiol’s heart sunk even further. For a second he couldn’t breathe. He reached out and gripped Nirin’s arms. “Tell me now.”
“No, not now. You have to go to the front hall.”
“Why should I trust you if you’ve been lying to me?” He saw the surprised hurt on Nirin’s face and had to swallow down his guilt. “Is that all my life is? Lies? Ruadhan, Creator, Hida… even you? Or is this all a lie, and you’ve been manipulating me this whole time?”
“No! I promise, I haven’t.”
“Then why do I feel this way?!”
“You felt it on your own!” Nirin signed furiously. “From the moment you saw me, didn’t you? I did nothing, I said nothing, but you felt it. We’re connected somehow. Maybe Serul was telling the truth, it's because we’re both god-gifted. I don’t know if it’s the truth! I don’t know what is true out of the things I’ve realized. I couldn’t tell you theories that would just prove false and ruin everything. I can’t— I truly can’t tell you now. It’s too much. Kiol—”
“You’re lying!” Kiol shoved him. Nirin stumbled back, bumping into the wall. He stared at Kiol, eyes wide. “You’re using me! I know who I am, Nirin! No one likes me, they don’t willingly spend time with me, they don’t go out of their way to keep me around! You wanted to get close to Ruadhan, this whole time you knew I was the one who could lead you there.”
“Stop, stop it, Kiol!” Kiol did stop, chest heaving, glaring at Nirin. The boy blinked sadly at him. “I’m sorry I’ve confused you— I’m sorry this has all confused you. You don’t know who or what to believe, I understand. Ruadhan means a lot to you, I know. I know you don’t want it all to be true. When Ruadhan captured me he threatened to kill you to get information from me, and he meant it. He would have done it. But I saw something else. Whether he killed you now or not, he will kill you eventually. He has to. And I won’t let that happen— I can’t.”
“I don’t know why! All I know is what I saw in him.”
“No, why do you care?” Kiol demanded. “Why do you care if I live or die?”
“Because you’re my friend!”
“We barely know each other!”
“I like you!”
“True God, Kiol!” Nirin stepped forward and Kiol stepped back. “Why do you think of yourself this way? Just because you don’t like yourself doesn’t mean others can’t like you! You’re genuine and honest and practical. Isn’t that enough to like you? You’re the first person in my life who didn’t expect anything from me. You don’t see me as a tool, or an opportunity, or a means to an end. Isn’t that enough to like you?!”
Kiol grit his teeth, fighting back anger and tears. He stared down Nirin, trying to see a crack in his heartfelt expression, trying to piece together everything that had happened in the past few weeks into a cohesive whole. Before he could finish, Nirin threw his entire body weight into Kiol, knocking him off balance and into the prison room.
His tail bone slammed into the floor and Nirin’s weight slammed on top of him. Even with the breath knocked out of his lungs, he flung Nirin off without a second of pause and jumped to his feet.
A movement in the first room drew his eye and froze him in place. Ruadhan stood there, framed by the doorway. He was watching them with cold, unfeeling eyes, but something about the tilt of his head screamed ‘murderous.’ Without a single thought Kiol switched his purpose, stepping in front of Nirin and blocking him from Ruadhan’s view.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
Ruadhan looked down and picked some dust off his tunic, then took a few more steps into the room. Kiol mirrored him, stepping into the doorway to give him no access to Nirin at all. He reached into his vest but his hand grasped nothing. Right. Nirin had his dagger, and he didn’t have his sword.
“Why are you protecting him?” Ruadhan asked. “I’ve let you run around with him in hopes that you’d learn for yourself. But it seems you haven’t.”
Kiol waited for him to continue on his own but he didn’t. He only stared back at Kiol like stone. “Learn what?” Kiol prompted coldly.
“That he’s using you.” Kiol’s blood turned to ice. “That he’s ruining your life. He’ll leave you broken, with nothing, and no one. He’s turned you against me, hasn’t he?”
“You hurt him,” Kiol spat. “You gave me your word that you wouldn’t. Why should I trust a single fucking word from your mouth, then?”
“What haven’t I given you, Kiol? Your life, your skills, answers to any questions you ask. And you still don’t trust me?”
Something pressed into Kiol’s back. He stiffened, but it wasn’t sharp. Nirin wrote with his finger, “Need to get to other door.”
Kiol moved further into the room. “Who are you?”
Ruadhan shook his head. “Like you said. I’m Ruadhan, Temple General.”
“Fine, who were you?”
Ruadhan smiled. “Are you going to make a run for it? Or force me into a cell?” Of course Ruadhan would notice Kiol slowly inching around him. Kiol hadn’t thought otherwise and was prepared to defend, but Ruadhan made no move to stop them. “You don’t have to protect him, Kiol, or help him.”
“I don’t have to listen to you, either.”
Ruadhan shrugged with his hands. “I didn’t say you did.”
“What’s so evil about him, then?” Kiol asked.
“You’ve met Creator, haven’t you?” Kiol stopped walking. Ruadhan knew. “Or, the one who claims to be her.”
“She is Creator,” Kiol growled. “I saw with my own eyes.”
“No, she has Creator’s powers. But she’s not Creator. I know that, because I know Creator is dead.” Kiol’s eyes widened. “She’s been dead for centuries. And while I toil to keep the world together, people like Nirin are plotting to tear it apart.” After the last syllable was out of his mouth, without a beat between voice and action, Ruadhan lunged. Not at Kiol, but towards the doorway. Kiol jolted forward to stop him but Ruadhan needed only that split second of advantage.
Though Kiol had stopped halfway through the room, Nirin had continued to the entrance.
“Nirin!” Kiol shouted.
Nirin dodged out of Ruadhan’s attack and the man’s short sword sparked against the stone wall instead. Kiol was sure Ruadhan hadn’t landed a hit, but his nose still caught the metallic tang of blood. He dashed towards Nirin but Ruadhan was once again quicker, spinning and continuing his attack on the boy. Nirin narrowly avoided another hit, stumbling back. The two of them had to see through darkness, and Nirin should have had an advantage with his gift. But somehow Ruadhan seemed to have the advantage no matter how Nirin moved.
Kiol caught up and grabbed Ruadhan’s arm, yanking it back. Ruadhan started a maneuver to escape, Kiol tried to counter, and Ruadhan easily countered the counter. Ruadhan had taught Kiol everything he knew. Even in the dark he knew exactly what Kiol was doing.
Ruadhan shoved him off and Kiol changed tactics, deciding to grab Nirin and run. He turned around to see Nirin at the doorway again, sliding his finger across the wall. A streak of blood was left behind. A seal. Kiol realized for the first time that the markings on the walls weren’t runes, but seals. Nirin was completing one whose edge had been scraped away.
Nirin turned around just as Kiol reached him and the boy ducked out of his hold.
“We have to go!” Kiol burst out. Nirin’s eyes flit past his shoulder and Kiol looked as well to see Ruadhan walking leisurely over as though he hadn’t just attacked them.
“Do you think you’re safe now?” Ruadhan asked. Nirin gripped Kiol’s arm. “You think a holding seal can trap me?” The hand on his arm tugged. Kiol took a step back with Nirin.
“You promised you wouldn’t kill him,” Kiol reminded him; futilely, he knew. Ruadhan’s steps did not pause at all. Kiol spun but before he could haul Nirin out, the boy dodged behind him.
Kiol’s breath went still in his lungs. He turned back around, as fast as he could, knowing it was not fast enough, and caught the boy as he fell back into his arms. A blade was thrust through Nirin’s abdomen.