For an instant he was suspended in frigid, airless space, but before he could even comprehend where or what it was, he fell.
He managed to twist himself to land on the back of his shoulder and not his head. He crashed down onto a table, which collapsed and dropped him onto solid ground. He didn't have time to be disoriented, looking up and immediately on guard. But instead of the two women he was expecting there were two families. Grandparents, women, men, and children, thirteen in total, the lot of them clutching each other and backing away.
“Don’t be scared,” he said. “I’m here to… save you.” He looked around. The room was cozy, stuffed with cushions and blankets, its wooden walls lit with lanterns. There were some children’s toys in one corner, games and cards, even some food. It did not look like a prison, and certainly not like a cavern beneath the earth.
He glanced back at the group. They were whispering to each other. “—a soldier.” “Where there’s one there’ll be more.” “—can overpower him now, let’s do it quickly.”
Kiol stood up and brushed wood splinters and dirt off his clothes. “You can’t beat me,” he warned them. “And no more are coming.” They saw his onyx gem and went quiet, pressing even closer to each other and shooing their kids behind their skirts. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said slowly. “I want to save you.”
“Save us? From what?” a man demanded.
Kiol hesitated. “Domora,” he replied. The adults glanced at each other. They weren’t speaking but their meaning was clear in their eyes—we have to get out, away from this man. He held up his hands but the motion made them clutch each other again. He sighed. “I won’t imprison you. Domora was going to kill you. Still might. You have to get out.”
“You’re the one who has to get out,” a woman said, stepping closer. She shook off a young man’s attempt to stop her. “You think we’re dense enough to believe such lies?”
This was already more than Kiol had bargained for. He really did just want to leave. But there was no door here. In a show of good will, he sat on the ground. “The Temple General will want you imprisoned but I—” He grit his teeth. “I’m a rebel too,” he said. Well, it was true enough now, wasn’t it? “I want to help you. Is one of you Lerina?” They all froze at that. Kiol continued. “Your husband sent me.”
A woman who’d been quietly consoling a crying girl stared at Kiol, almost breaking into tears herself. Lerina, Kiol supposed. The fiery woman spoke again.
“Meaning you captured him and tortured our location out of him!”
Well, that wasn’t entirely a lie. Kiol shrugged. “Honestly, I’ve tried really hard to find this place…” Harder than he tried to do most things because he really did want to help these idiots. Why was everything always so difficult? “Why are you here anyway?”
“Why are we here?” the woman hissed. “To stay safe from the likes of you!”
“Is that what Domora told you?” Kiol asked. The woman scowled and crossed her arms. “Were there more families here before?” Another exchange of glances. Kiol understood. Domora told them they had been found out as rebels or some such, and brought them here to keep them “safe.” When those men refused to obey her she took some of them away on the pretense of finding a more permanent location for them to hide. Likely did the same for the families of the soldiers Ruadhan had killed. Hopefully she actually took those families somewhere safe.
Kiol pressed a finger between his eyebrows. “How did Domora get in and out of here?” he asked. They stared stubbornly at him. “I’ll go,” he told them. “You don’t have to follow.” Lerina pointed a shaky hand to one of the walls. A man beside her slapped it down and she hugged both to her stomach. “Thank you,” Kiol said, and rolled to his feet. The cut on his arm had dried over so he cut again and began writing the sigil. Halfway through, a body emerged from the wall beside him.
Kiol stepped back and to the side as a man in guard uniform came through. Another was following. When the first noticed Kiol he tried to push him into the wall but Kiol was faster, ducking out of the man’s reach and behind him to slam him into the wall instead. He grabbed the other who had just come through and, using his shoulder as leverage, tossed them over and slammed them onto the ground. Even more were coming through. Kiol hurried back, ready to fight. The families, on the other hand, fled towards the guards.
“No! Don’t go with them!” Kiol was ignored. Six guards in total came through, five of which attacked him. The first guard had recovered and was herding the family out through the same wall. Kiol killed the five guards with ease, but it still took up precious seconds. By the time he had the last one down, the people were gone and the guard was stepping through the wall. Kiol sprinted after, running headlong into the guard and toppling them both to the ground on the other side.
They were in a tunnel of dirt. Kiol stabbed the guard through the neck and jumped to his feet. There were two dozen guards staring at him and another ten grabbing the families. Somehow they must have realized something was wrong, because they were struggling against the guards. All at once the two dozen rushed forward. Kiol drew his sword and had his attention entirely taken up with dodging, blocking, and killing. When a hill of bodies lay around him, the rest were gone.
Kiol ran down the tunnel, swearing under his breath. The tunnel was long and twisting and dark. Twenty-three people gave off significant smell and disturbed even the packed dirt enough that when he hit a fork he never needed to pause. Kiol had no idea if he was still under the city—he couldn’t believe such a tunnel system would be under them all and Ruadhan hadn’t known.
Kiol stopped short and stared. The tunnel he had gone down ended at a dirt wall. He pressed against it, inspected all around, but there was nothing. He returned to the last fork but everything indicated the group had gone that way. Using his blood yet again, he made another sigil on the wall. But this time when he pressed his hand to it, nothing happened, he was just touching dirt. He paced around, then tried the same on the ground, and the other walls of the tunnel, but nothing. And he really couldn’t continue bleeding himself.
He went back to the room. The wall outside it had its own sigil, different from the one Ruadhan had drawn. Kiol studied it for a long while before he tested his hand against it and as he expected, it went right through. He slipped back into the room. It was a mess from his fighting, the five cadavers still bleeding out over the floor and bedding. Kiol stared at the wall, then stuck his hand again where the sigil was on the other side. It passed through. A two-way portal.
He stacked up the table he hadn’t broken and the bedding to reach the ceiling he’d fallen through, but unlike the wall it didn’t give way. Ruadhan’s sigil was either one-sided or one-time use. He couldn’t use the blood from the guards without climbing up and down a bunch of times. With a sigh, he cut his arm yet again and painted Ruadhan’s sigil. Then he climbed back through.
He scared some bathhouse workers as he popped up from the ground. They had been standing around inspecting the first sigil he’d drawn but they fled when a man dragged his body from solid earth.
When he crawled out he tested the first sigil again. It didn’t work. One time use. Kiol wasn’t sure if his dizziness was from blood loss or the new impossible reality he’d literally fallen into. He staggered to his feet and left, but once on the street he didn’t know where to go or what to do. Thirteen people. He had let thirteen people be taken to their deaths. But how could someone like him have saved them in the first place?
He found himself outside the inn without realizing he had walked there. Holding himself up with a palm against the wall, he knocked on Nirin’s door. When nothing happened for a few seconds he slid the door open to an empty room.
“Nirin,” he said, as though that would magically make the boy appear. Had he already left to help the cult? Kiol walked into the room, intent on finding some clue of where Nirin had gone. He only managed a few steps before the world spun around him and he felt his knees connect with floor. He reached for his water flask but his senses were scattered and he couldn’t orient where his body was in relation to everything else.
He opened his eyes. He was staring at a ceiling. Which meant he was lying down? He didn’t remember lying down or closing his eyes. He jerked upright and looked at Nirin sitting composed and proper at the table, drinking a cup of tea. A paper lantern lit the room in a dim, steady glow but with only the side of a building to see outside, it was impossible to tell the time.
He looked down at his bandaged arm, then twisted onto his knees and leaned against the table. Nirin had poured another cup and placed it before him. “Sorry,” the boy signed. “I had to leave you there. You were too heavy to move.”
“Did you really go help that cultist?” Kiol signed. Nirin nodded. Kiol grit his teeth and slammed his palm onto the table, shaking the tea cups. Tea spilled over the top of Nirin’s but Kiol’s was jostled off the edge and shattered on the ground. “Don’t leave without me next time! I don’t care if you trust them, no matter what I have to protect you!” Nirin looked at him and the rest of Kiol’s anger caught in his chest, thrumming painfully. Nirin watched him with too much compassion, too much understanding. He knew too much. Kiol looked away. “I couldn’t save them,” he whispered. “I really tried.”
Nirin stood and went to the linen closet, bringing back a cloth to mop up the mess. Kiol grabbed his arm to stop him and took the cloth to clean it up himself. He picked up the porcelain shards carefully and lay them on the table. “Promise me,” he said after a long minute. “Let me stay by your side.”
He looked up when he saw no movement. Nirin was still crouched in the same spot, immobile. Only after another few seconds he signed, “Okay. But you must promise to protect yourself, too. I can’t always do it.”
Kiol couldn’t help his half-smile. He was going to say that his protection didn’t matter until that last sentence dissolved his stubbornness. “Sure, kid,” he said. “I promise.” Nirin looked at him solemnly, not matching his smile at all. Of course, he knew Kiol’s true feelings on the matter. But he didn’t argue. He turned back to the table and pushed his own cup towards Kiol.
“Drink. You lost too much blood.”
Funny, how things had come back to this, only it was Kiol on the other side now. He obediently drank up the tea and even held it out for Nirin to pour him some more. They got another cup and more tea and chatted through the night. Nirin wouldn’t tell Kiol what he’d done for Emalen, but Kiol filled Nirin in on the rest of his day and their conversation turned to nothing and everything. Since they had time now, and Kiol remembered, eventually he asked what he’d been thinking for a long time that had been pushed to the back of his mind by everything else.
“That grandma said a blind man told her to write that note… decades ago.” Nirin nodded without the least hint of surprise. “How is that possible? Did you… do you know him?”
“Then why did you say you trusted him?”
“Because I do.” Nirin met Kiol’s flat expression with his smile-not-smile. “You gifted your hearing. I gifted my voice. But do you know what is gifted between those?”
Kiol actually had to think about it. He’d never paid attention to all that nonsense. “...Sight,” he finally remembered. Nirin nodded. “Are you saying… the person who gave a sacrifice before you is leaving notes for me?” Out of everything that had happened this past week it honestly wasn’t the most implausible, but it did sound nonsensical.
“They’ve left notes for me too,” Nirin signed. Kiol wanted to hear more about that but Nirin continued. “I think they were gifted premonition. Like Creator’s.”
Kiol scoffed. “If they can see the future, why not just tell us? Why leave such cryptic messages?”
“Remember what Creator said?” Nirin signed patiently. “It’s not exactly seeing the future because there is no set future. Just possibilities. He’s trying to steer us towards the better possibilities.”
“Or the worse,” Kiol pointed out. “How do you know you can trust him? I wouldn’t.”
“If Creator accepted a sacrifice from him, I trust her judgment.”
“Oh.” Kiol hadn’t thought about it, but Creator must have remembered all the people she was given sacrifices from. “Did you ask her?” Nirin stared down at the table and said nothing. Kiol didn’t know what to make of that reaction but he got the feeling Nirin was uncomfortable. He clumsily changed the topic. “How long have you played the flute?” ….
The lantern had extinguished itself and pale light leaked, barely, from the window. Kiol was used to ignoring exhaustion but Nirin could no longer hide how heavy his eyes were. Just as Kiol was about to suggest he leave so the boy could sleep, Nirin stood. “Let’s go,” he signed.
Kiol blinked up at him. “Go where?”
“I have to report to Creator.”
Kiol’s expression darkened. “You can’t. Ruadhan will know if we leave the city.”
“So? Then he’ll want to know where we went.”
“Then don’t tell him.”
“He’ll ask. I can’t lie to him.” Nirin looked down at him and said nothing. Kiol sighed. “Isn’t there a magic rune for this? Moving long distances in an instant?”
“There are sigils for many things,” Nirin signed. “But that one is… difficult. And I am better at rune seals.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” Nirin shook his head. Kiol sighed and leaned his elbows on the table. “You need to sleep, anyway. Let’s go tonight, we might be able to sneak out.”
Nirin’s expression flitted between conflicted and pensive. Finally he signed, “Alright.” Kiol nodded and stood but hadn’t made it to the door before he paused. He turned back around slowly.
“Actually, I’ll stay here,” he signed.
Nirin tilted his head. “You don’t trust me.”
Kiol had known Nirin would be able to tell, so he didn’t know why shame burned his collar. “You might do something rash,” he signed. It wasn’t exactly a yes or no answer, but Nirin knew already anyway. Before he could move, Nirin went over to the string on the wall.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting more bedding for you,” Nirin signed.
“No!” Kiol said before he could pull it. Nirin looked at him blankly. “I don’t need anything,” he signed, annoyed. “Don’t tell anyone I’m staying here.” Especially don’t clue them in that he’d stayed the whole night. Plus, Kiol had spent nights sleeping outside the inn on the ground; sleeping on a straw mat inside a warm room was already an improvement.
“If we’re being watched won’t someone already know?”
“Well they won’t spread rumors!”
Nirin smiled. “Why do you care about rumors?”
Kiol grit his teeth. “Just… you… just come back here. I don’t need bedding.” He could breathe easy only when Nirin did as he ordered.
“Then you take the bed and I’ll sleep on the mat,” Nirin signed.
“No,” Kiol said, exasperated, bringing another smile to Nirin’s face. He switched to sign-speak. “Didn’t I just sleep on the floor? I’ll be fine.”
“I didn’t have a choice then,” Nirin replied. “But if you stay now you will have a bed.” Kiol stared him down but his intensity was no match for Nirin’s gentle patience. Kiol knew he wouldn’t win such a battle.
“You can’t sleep on the floor either,” he muttered. Nirin nodded. Heaving a sigh, Kiol pulled off his boots and threw off his vest, then dumped himself down on top of the covers with his back facing Nirin. After some time he felt the slight pressure of Nirin slipping under the blankets beside him. It wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind when he asked to stay by his side. Usually Kiol could fall asleep in an instant but for some reason he couldn’t, even with his exhaustion holding his eyelids down. All he could do was focus on the warmth and weight of that person behind him until he fell into a restless slumber.