He was floating.
Somewhere soft. Warm.
No, not floating. He was in a bed. And someone was with him, pacing back and forth. Nirin recognized the presence, warm and comforting even in its frantic worry.
He opened his eyes, blinking as they adjusted to the sunlight streaming down on him. The bed was pressed against the window to allow some space in a tiny room, space enough for Kiol to take two strides before turning and taking two back. Even though Nirin made no other move, Kiol sensed a gaze on him and spun around to look.
“Nirin!” He rushed over and gripped his arms. “Are you okay? How do you feel? Does anything still hurt?”
Nirin smiled, more in amusement than reassurance. Kiol’s protective concern was just too endearing. He shifted his hands out of the blanket, but when he tried to sit up Kiol stopped him.
He was worried Nirin would hurt himself, though all Nirin felt was a bit of grogginess. Still, he humored the boy and remained horizontal.
“You got me back to the cottage,” Nirin observed.
“Well… Caelin did, really. Hold on.” Kiol rushed from the room. When he returned he had a water pitcher, and Serul was following.
Kiol poured water and Serul took the glass from him to give to Nirin, helping him sit up before sitting on the edge of the bed and feeling his face.
“Does anything hurt?” she asked gently. Nirin shook his head. The familiarity of it was like deja vu. Sitting in a soft bed, being coaxed to drink, Serul’s careful hands prodding his body for injuries. But Kiol had never been there before, watching over her shoulder anxiously, his sharp worry punctuating Serul’s gentle concern like a knife.
“I have made another home,” she signed. “We will move there soon. But for now you must rest, and tell me immediately if anything feels wrong, uncomfortable, or painful. Okay?”
“Okay,” Nirin signed.
Serul smiled, satisfied, and walked out with determination. Kiol sat in the chair beside the bed.
“She’ll bring food,” Nirin signed. “I hope you’ll eat. I don’t think you’ve eaten in a while.”
“You’re worried about me?” Kiol asked, astonished. “You didn’t answer me. Do you feel okay?”
“I feel fine.”
“You almost died, Nirin.”
“I know.” It wasn’t easy to forget the feeling of a sword crunching through your chest, the frigid stone floor turned sticky and warm with your own blood. “How did you save me?”
Kiol sighed and rubbed his face. “I didn’t. Caelin popped out of nowhere. Creator had sent her, and showed her how to make a transportation sigil, which… she used your blood for. There was certainly enough. We brought you back here and… Creator…” He was uneasy, a strange expression to see on the usually unshakeable Kiol. “She healed you, I guess.”
Nirin knew what that meant. He supposed Kiol had not been prepared for Serul’s form of “healing”. It wasn’t some magic wave of the hand like it was made out to be in old stories about Creator. Serul healed from the inside out; if someone needed a repaired organ, she had to get her hands on that organ.
“Ruadhan no longer has reservations about killing me,” Nirin signed. A cord of anger snapped through Kiol, but it faded just as quickly. He was too tired for emotions.
“Corva told Ruadhan about Creator,” he signed. “That she’s awakened. So now he knows the remnant is gone and Creator is back.” Nirin bit his lips and his gaze drifted down to the blanket. His guilt was not lost on Kiol. “What?”
“It’s not gone,” Nirin signed. “Remember?”
“You weren’t lying just to get me to that temple? You really think it’s out there somewhere?”
“Yes. Tori said she moved it. She knows where it is.”
“So it really is the thing keeping Creator’s powers inhibited,” Kiol signed, confident.
Nirin’s guilt had a new pang. “That was… that was the other thing I wanted to tell you. I don’t think she…” He braced himself. “I don’t think Creator is Creator.”
“What?” Kiol hissed. Nirin looked up and gestured for him to be quiet. Kiol glanced around, but the door was closed. “Then who the hell is she?” Kiol signed.
“I’m not sure, but I believe it’s just… Serul.”
“I killed Serul.”
“She has Creator’s powers.”
“How could she not be Creator?”
“That message you found. It mentioned Serul by name. ‘Serul lies.’ Though… I’d already suspected before you told me about that.”
“It mentioned her name?” Kiol asked in disbelief. Nirin could almost hear the scoff through his signs. “So what?”
Nirin sighed. Kiol could be so smart when he actually tried, yet he refused to even attempt critical thought when it wasn’t forced on him. “The only other person he ever mentioned by name was Ruadhan,” Nirin explained. “Because he knew Ruadhan, by name, even decades ago. Everyone else he’s had to describe. ‘Twins.’ ‘Mute boy,’ ‘Storm-eyed stranger.’ Just because he sees them doesn’t mean he can predict their names.”
“But he knew Serul’s name,” Kiol signed slowly, comprehension finally, slowly, dawning. Nirin smiled. “Meaning she was alive even back then.” Kiol stared at him, shocked. “She’s like Ruadhan. She doesn’t age. Does that mean she connected herself to Creator, like Ruadhan did to Envier?” Kiol shook his head. “But if Ruadhan had powers too, wouldn’t he have used them? Especially when we fought. What was Envier capable of?”
“Destruction,” Nirin signed.
“Right but… so are humans,” Kiol signed back. “That’s nothing special.” Nirin watched him silently mull over why Envier was a god in the first place.
“Serul never had powers before. It was her death that triggered them,” Nirin reminded him. “Ruadhan won’t have powers until the sacrifices are complete.”
“Ah,” Kiol mumbled. It was not that he’d forgotten, he simply never cared to know in the first place.
Nirin moved the three layers of blankets off his lap, looking down at his robe. He was still wearing the one stained with blood, a jagged tear down its torso from the sword.
Kiol watched in confusion until Nirin began to lift himself off the bed, and at that he grabbed Nirin’s shoulders and pushed him back down. Nirin let him. “Hey! Don’t get up! You might hurt yourself more!”
“I’m not hurt,” Nirin signed. “Serul healed me.” He tried to sit up again but Kiol kept him down.
“It doesn’t matter. You almost died! You need to rest.” When Nirin struggled more, Kiol climbed onto the bed so he couldn’t slide away like he was trying to. “I mean it, Niri!” he said sharply. But Nirin kept struggling. Kiol had strength advantage but Nirin could predict his every move, and it was easy enough to squirm out of his hold so that Kiol was constantly having to pin down new limbs. Even with his strength, he gripped Nirin carefully, as though afraid to break him, which was another reason it was easy to get away.
The door opened and Nirin knew it was Caelin immediately. He went still. Kiol followed his gaze to the door to see Caelin standing there with a tray of food. “Uh—I’ll… come back,” she stammered.
“Wait, it’s not—!” Kiol started, but she had already fled. He exhaled and looked back down at Nirin, who was grinning. If he’d been paying attention, he would have noticed long before then that Nirin wasn’t actually trying to wrestle away and was just having fun with him. Kiol scowled and got off the bed.
“You’re cute,” Nirin signed. That deepened Kiol’s scowl, but Nirin knew he wasn’t angry. He was flustered.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Kiol muttered, and stalked out. When he returned he set the tray Caelin had been holding firmly into Nirin’s lap. “Eat.”
Nirin was too hungry to argue, and he knew arguing would do nothing anyways. The soup was a mild vegetable broth with only a few small pieces of vegetable floating in it. Serul wouldn’t let him eat too much before he could prove he could keep this down.
Not long after, Caelin came back in with another bowl she handed Kiol. Then she turned to Nirin.
“Did he tell you?” she asked. Based on her shame and sorrow, Nirin knew what she referred to. He nodded and she lowered her head. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t… I would have never imagined Corva would betray the One True God.”
“What exactly happened?” Kiol asked.
“Apparently Ruadhan had personally given her an assignment to keep track of you and tell him anything you did.”
“Me?” Kiol asked. More surprise. More hurt. More anger.
“So she’s been telling him about everything we’ve done?”
Caelin must have seen the fury on Kiol’s face. “I didn’t know!” she pleaded. “I would have stopped her if I did! But when she told him about Creator she saw emotion in Ruadhan. Real emotion! She had a gut feeling something was wrong and she made us sprint all the way to the cottage to find Creator. She never wanted anyone to get hurt. She was just doing her job!”
Kiol opened his mouth, then closed it. He could not be pissed about such an excuse when he used the same to reconcile all his own actions. Kiol looked at Nirin still eating soup and pretending not to be paying attention. “Did you know?” Kiol asked.
Nirin put his spoon down. “No,” he signed truthfully. “I could tell she was hiding something, but so is everyone.”
“And you don’t care? You don’t care that she almost got you killed?”
“She isn’t a bad person.” Nirin tilted his head at Kiol. “She was doing what she thought best. That’s all any of us can do.” He looked up at Caelin, her distress blaring at him even as she tried to keep her face neutral. “What’s wrong?”
Kiol looked at her too. She didn’t understand Nirin so Kiol repeated in his flat way, “What’s wrong.”
“We got in a fight. We— we argue all the time but this was… it was different. She left.”
Kiol stood up. “She what?” he hissed. “What if she brings Ruadhan here?!”
“She won’t! She wouldn’t!”
He shoved the bowl back into her hands, spilling some down her front, and ran out of the room. Caelin started to follow, realized it was futile, and rushed out to tell Serul.
Nirin set the tray aside and finally got out of bed unobstructed to change into clothes that weren’t stiff with blood. He still had so much to tell Kiol, so much he had kept from him. He didn’t know how to begin. Instead, once he had changed, he began packing. Caelin joined him without question.
Serul brought Kiol back quick enough. Nirin wondered what she had said to him to make him acquiesce, because the boy was still angry and anxious. And Serul looked exhausted.
“You should rest,” Nirin told her.
She set her face. “You are the one who needs rest. I am fine.” Nirin caught her hand before she turned away. She met his gaze. She was exasperated, thinking he didn’t understand. He did understand, and he knew she could not keep pushing herself without consequences. There was no telling whether those consequences would come about the moment they needed her most. Her stubborn tenacity did not fade.
“If you feel okay, we need to move now,” she said. She was paranoid, which meant she knew something they didn’t.
Nirin gave up and let her go. With all four of them working, it didn’t take long. They only needed to pack up the food stores and the few garments they had. Then Serul cut her arm, over and over, until they had enough blood for a transportation sigil.
“Do you feel pain?” Kiol asked.
“Yes,” Serul answered as she painted the sigil. “I believe that is universal, god or not.” She finished and stood back, gesturing for one of them to go first. Nirin stepped up, carrying a single bag of clothes. It was the most Kiol had allowed him to carry. He was the one with four bags of food tossed over his back, and another two in his arms.
The new cottage was spectacular. It took up Nirin’s vision as soon as he was transported. A red door, clean stone walls, and a black tiled roof. It was nestled in a small field, which would likely have been green and flower-full if it hadn’t been almost winter. As it was, the grass was yellowed and brittle and the trees surrounding the meadow were bare, showing the gray-blue sky through their skinny arms.
Nirin opened the door without waiting for the others. It was bigger than the cottage with three separate bedrooms, a kitchen with its own hearth, a parlor, and a sun room.
Kiol came in next, dumping his six bags onto the floor of the parlor and looking around in awe. When Serul finally showed up after Caelin, Kiol watched her sit and lean heavily against the wall. After learning she wasn’t a god, he couldn’t help but examine her every move, putting it in the new context.
“Were you making this…?” he signed. “This entire time?”
Serul nodded without opening her eyes. Kiol looked at Nirin and didn’t have to speak his thoughts for Nirin to know them. All those times Serul was mysteriously gone and they were suspicious, she was here preparing for their benefit.
“Now what?” Caelin asked. Serul didn’t reply.
“She needs to recover,” Nirin signed. She had made two transportation sigils in less than a week, had healed Nirin, and likely hadn’t rested a minute the entire time. That she was still conscious was surprising. He started helping her up and Kiol joined him immediately. Together they brought Serul to one of the bedrooms.
“Thank you boys,” she murmured, sinking onto the mattress. “Silly, isn’t it, a god needing rest?” Kiol resisted glancing at Nirin.
“As long as you get better,” Nirin signed. “We’ll put everything away, please rest well.”
Caelin was despondent too but Nirin knew there was no consoling her. Her sister and best friend had betrayed her, fought with her, and run off without her. Still, she helped them store everything in its place, disinterestedly choosing her own room to put her few things away. The food was put into the kitchen pantry, and the few potted plants into the sun room. Then they placed bedding over the beds and put the big coil rug in front of the parlor hearth.
That was the last thing to do, and they sat on it immediately. Perhaps Nirin was not as recovered as he thought, because just that bit of exertion had exhausted him. Caelin sat hugging her knees and staring into the fire as Nirin and Kiol signed behind her.
“What now?” Kiol asked. “Do you really think the remnant is out there somewhere?”
“Yes,” Nirin replied. “I think we should find it.”
Nirin smiled. It should have been obvious. “We’ll ask Tori.”
“Isn’t she in the city?”
“Yes, but not all cultists are. We can have one send a message.”
“No, it’s too dangerous,” Kiol signed obstinately. “And you only just recovered. We need to stay here for a while.”
Nirin shook his head. “We might not have a while.” There was no telling what Ruadhan knew or would attempt.
“How do we know Tori will even show us, if she does have it?” It was less of a question and more Kiol trying to prove a point. He was more paranoid than Serul.
“We don’t know, but we must try. We cannot risk Ruadhan finding it. The remnant has answers, I just know it.”
“I don’t care about answers,” Kiol signed angrily. “I care that you’re safe and healthy.”
Nirin bit back a smile. It was so hard to argue with Kiol’s adorable, grouchy affection. “Okay,” he acceded. “We will rest a while.” Serul and Kiol certainly deserved it.