Current status of this novel:
All twenty-one chapters have been posted!
I don't consider the novel completed yet; I'm still working on significant edits to the earlier chapters, which aren't quite up to my standards after everything I've learned by writing the rest. So the existing chapters may change unexpectedly. I know some of you may want to read (or reread) the story after it's no longer in flux, so I'll update this message with the current status as I make progress.
Also, Sarah Fensore and I are still hard at work on the illustrations! Most of them aren't complete yet, but our sketches are included in the story for now, and I'll replace them with the completed drawings as we complete them.
Chapter Twenty-one: Change
Content warnings for this chapter:
A character with PTSD coping with feelings of guilt.
If you see other material that should be marked (such as common triggers or phobias), e-mail me. I am serious about web accessibility, and I will respond to your concerns as soon as I can manage.(hide content warnings)
It would have been so easy to just go back to sleep again. It was so much work to push through the weight of sleep over me, and so easy to just let go and sink back in. But this was like the seventh time I’d drifted awake, and it was getting more and more uncomfortable each time. My arms and legs were full of pins and needles. My mouth felt like it was full of fuzzy cloth. And I needed to pee real bad.
I stubbornly clung onto consciousness.
I tried to sit up. It didn’t work very well. I just sort of twitched like a dying fish. Getting up was a huge pain. I wanted to just go back to sleep. But I really did need to get up. I needed to pee.
This sucked. I never had trouble getting up in the morning! And this wasn’t even my familiar bed back at home. Wait a minute, where even was I? I decided to ask that out loud, in case Mom or Dad or someone else was listening. “Ooeauuhhh uaaahhhh,” I said.
The floorboards creaked. I heard the thump-thump-thump of a heavy shape rushing to my side.
I tried to sit up again. A heavy hand pushed me down. “Shhhhh. Shhhhh. It’ll be okay,” said a soothing voice.
“Yaaaaaallllllleeeeeeeehhhhhhhh,” I moaned with relief.
“Shhhhh. The potion I gave you is still in effect. You’re probably not in good enough shape to stand yet. Even if the healing is completely finished, the effects on your soul are, are, are, you might not be fully conscious yet, so your control over your body might not be complete. It’s better to relax while…” Yali kept explaining the details for a while, but it all turned to fuzz when it went into my ears.
When she paused for breath, I forced out the words, “Yeeeeaaaaaahhhhhhhh, but, I need to peeeeee.”
“Oh. I – I could –” She looked around. “Well, if… don’t try to move anything too quickly, but, how’s your shoulders?”
I slowly tried flexing my shoulders in all directions. It was an effort, and one of my arms flopped around out of my control, but the shoulders didn’t seem to have any problems. “Guh azzz new,” I slurred.
“That’s good. That means the healing has finished like it was supposed to. So, so… just keep being careful… let’s see what we can do.”
Yali knelt down next to me and pulled my limp arm over her shoulder. Once I locked my arms in place, she slowly stood, carrying most of my weight. I stumbled my feet over each other, bouncing randomly against Yali’s body as we walked towards the bathroom.
“Where ahhhh we?” I said. It was, like, a regular indoors room, but not one I’d seen before.
“I took us to a hotel. I told them you passed out drunk at an early Unravelling Week celebration and needed a place to stay.”
I almost laughed, but it hurt and I sort of choked instead.
“Wait a minute… wait a minute!!! We’re back from the Otherworld?? Oh duh, if I need to pee then – wait, how –”
“I’ll explain everything in, in a minute,” said Yali, in between trying to keep us both balanced on our feet.
Together, we stumbled into the bathroom. In front of the toilet, Yali paused awkwardly. “I can, can, give you your privacy, if, if you think you’ve got, got, –”
“I mean, you’ve seen me naked before –”
“Not consensually!” said Yali quickly.
“Oh gods, I’m sorry about that, I totally wasn’t thinking about –”
“What?! I meant not consensually for you! You weren’t, weren’t, weren’t in a sound state of mind when I put the Eye on you! And now wouldn’t be consensual either, you’re clearly under duress because –”
“Whatevaahhh,” I said as I dropped my pants. I wriggled out of her arms and collapsed onto the toilet seat. She tried to look away, but immediately had to support me to keep me from falling over.
“Ahhhhh…” I moaned with relief. “I feel like I haven’t peed in weeks!”
I hurt myself laughing again. It was a pretty comical situation, me letting go on the toilet while Yali was stuck holding onto my shoulders to keep me balanced. “This is gonna be a hilarious story someday…” I said.
Yali smiled despite herself. “How very Waiting of you,” she said.
Yali kept taking care of me for the rest of the day, while my body slowly started working again. She constantly hovered over me, helping me balance and find comfortable places to sit. I was probably a real handful for her. I kept trying to get up and move around when I wasn’t ready yet, then smacking into things and bruising myself. But I couldn’t help it. Somehow, I was both half-asleep and incredibly restless at the same time.
“And it itches,” I complained. “It actually itches inside my arm, this is such bullshit –”
Yali look something up on her phone. “It looks like that’s a common symptom when people are getting better from magical healing… Yeah, it’s nothing to worry about, it should be all better in four to eighteen hours –”
“Haha, hope you’re ready for another eighteen hours of Rinn!” I smacked the table for emphasis.
Yali smiled. “I’m used to it.”
I spent the next few hours blabbering about anything that came into my head, just to pass the time while I wasn’t allowed to move normally. Yali just kept smiling and nodding along. It was a big help to have her there to distract me from the itching, and the fuzziness in my head, and this uncomfortable feeling that had showed up in my stomach, and…
At first, the feeling in my stomach was just another weird feeling along with the all the others. But when I realized what it was, I laughed out loud. “Oh my gods, I’m hungry! I actually forgot what it feels like to be hungry!”
“I’ll get something for you to eat,” said Yali. “And for me, I mean, I took you straight here and I haven’t eaten since, so I should probably get something…” She looked around, patting her pockets.
“Do we get room service?” I laughed.
Yali pulled a fistful of cash out of her pocket.
“Nice,” I said.
Yali counted through the bills absentmindedly. “It’s not enough for overpriced things like room service, though,” she muttered. “I need to make this last until we take a taxi home. They might have frozen my account when I went missing, and if I try to use it, the monks might get notified… I mean, I’ll have to tell them I’m back eventually, I just want some time to adjust… Anyway, I know the stores around here. I’ll go get something. If you’re okay on your own…” Yali examined me again, then checked a few more things about magical healing on the Internet. Eventually, she was satisfied that I wouldn’t die if she left me alone for a few minutes. She didn’t let me come with her, though. She made me stay at the hotel and rest.
Before long, she got back with some prepackaged meals in a bag. They weren’t anything special, but the way I was feeling, they all looked delicious. Yali set them down on the table and started getting one ready. Normally I would have ripped into it as soon as it wasn’t frozen, but my head was still a little fuzzy, so I let Yali do it her way, checking it every thirty seconds as it heated up in the microwave.
At long last, she set it down in front of me.
“Hang on, what do I eat this with?” I said.
“I think it came with a plastic fork…” Yali fiddled with the packaging.
“Whatever,” I said, manifesting a fork-shaped Blood Blade and digging in.
“Is that –” said Yali, astonished.
I held up the fork and we both stared at it.
“Uh…” I said, belatedly realizing what I’d done. “I thought… um… there’s no way we’re still in the Otherworld, is there?!”
“No…” Yali took the fork and snapped it in half with her fingers. I didn’t feel anything through the fork, either. “Manifested matter is weak here, even if you’re a god. But, but, you know what this means?!” she said loudly.
“No, I don’t, I’m, like, completely bamboozled.”
“It means that when the Blood God rejuvenated, when it took some of your threads – it left the threads for summoning Blood Blades with you. It thinks it doesn’t need them anymore!”
“That’s… wow.” I said. “But, like, what if it does need them? I mean, did we really stop the…”
“Let’s, let’s, let’s talk about that after you’ve eaten.”
“Works for me.” I made another fork and ripped into my food, flooding my taste buds with sensations I’d almost forgotten.
After my stomach settled a bit, we finally got to talking about the Ravelling. Yali carefully explained how she’d tricked me. How I’d been unconscious all the way from the fight to the final portal. How both the Blood God and the Waiting God had rejuvenated. How she had worked to influence the Waiting God to change its mind. I listened and asked a few questions, but it all felt like something that had happened a long time ago, maybe in a previous lifetime.
“You’re not… not bothered by this?” she said carefully. “By how I, how I, deceived you?”
I shrugged. “I mean, it was pretty smart. We don’t know what the Blood God would’ve done.”
“I thought you, you, you, sort of became one with the Blood God.”
“I…” I reached out for the part of me that was the Blood God. Nothing happened. “I guess it’s gone now. That kinda sucks, I was really starting to enjoy it. But, I mean, it did try to kill you for ages, so… Huh. When I said that, I was, like, subconsciously expecting that it was going to, like, be frustrated in my head. But it really is gone, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” said Yali somberly. “Mine’s gone, too.”
“That’s, uh, that’s good, right?”
Yali hesitated. “It should be. I should be happy that we both got out alive and now I can live my life without the Waiting God looking over my shoulder, any more than it always does for everybody.”
Yali’s eyes moved slowly, staring at the table. “I just wish I knew if it worked. If, if, the Waiting God is even thinking anything different, because of what I did. But I guess we won’t really know until next year’s Ravelling. I don’t remember anything after the god started taking me apart.”
A thought drifted into my head. It was only half-formed, but I felt like I should say it. “I… remember something,” I said.
“What is it?”
“From when I was unconscious. I must’ve been in the portal, because I… I was the god.”
Yali looked at me intently.
“I could feel the other gods all around me. Not just the other four gods, but all the gods from all around the world, too. But the five of us, we were all, in… our own, special space. And I was, like… I really wanted to know what the Waiting God was going to feel like. And I, looked, or, not looked, but, you know. And it felt like… something. The Waiting God felt…”
Yali leaned forward, her eyes drilling into me like she was hanging on every word I said. That made me kinda nervous, because I wasn’t that confident about what I remembered. It was all hazy and unreal. But Yali needed me to do this. I struggled to put the memory into words.
“It felt… uncertain,” I finished.
Yali slumped a little. “I guess I shouldn’t have hoped for something clearer…”
“Are you kidding me?!”
“What? You can’t just say ‘Are you kidding me?’ all the time, I literally don’t know what you’re –”
“How can you just sit there like you didn’t just do the most amazing thing anyone’s ever done?! You made the Waiting God uncertain?!? Not just any god, but the Waiting God?!?!! That’s like… you wrestled with a mountain, and the mountain fell over! And now you’re kicking yourself because you couldn’t make the mountain beg for mercy! That’s – that’s like –”
“I just don’t know if it was enough.”
“It was more than anyone could possibly have expected!”
“That doesn’t mean it was enough.” Yali stood at the window and stared out, looking over the Waiting Temple and all the old-fashioned buildings arrayed around it. “What people expect from you, and what’s enough… they’re nothing close to each other. What’s the best that people expect from a kid who’s being abused by their parents? Maybe to tell a trusted adult?” She grinned viciously.
“I’m sure some of the people out there still hate me because I spoiled their fun, because they can’t go to the Dalners’ parties anymore. They all just want to pretend that everything is fine. Like if you just go to school and do what you’re supposed to, and then get a job and do what you’re supposed to, and maybe give to charity a little, then you’ve done enough, and everything will be fine. But it’s not fine. It won’t be fine. And they don’t even want to imagine what it would take to fix everything. So if I don’t do it, no one else will do it for me. And so, no, I can’t afford to say I’ve done enough just because I did something no one else did. If I’m the only one doing it, I have to do it perfectly, because if I make a mistake, there won’t be a second chance to get it right.”
“That’s dark,” I said.
“That’s the truth. And you can say you don’t like the truth, you can try to change it, but you can’t just –” Yali took a breath, then slowly exhaled, turning back from away the window towards me. “Sorry. I don’t need to lecture you about this. You get it. Whenever you see a problem, you’re like, ‘I’m going to put a stop to this right now, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks’.”
“Fuck yeah,” I said. It came out a little weaker than I intended it. Guess I still wasn’t recovered all the way yet.
Yali padded over and sat down next to me. Somberly, she said, “If there’s one thing the Waiting God was right about, it’s that humanity needs to change. But maybe, with people like you and me… maybe we’ll be able to change it.”
I held her hand, intertwining my fingers with hers. “We totally will. Think about it, we already changed the world once! We did so much to love and protect each other, we even made the gods closer to each other! It’ll be, like, ‘here comes Yalkatura – changing the world with the power of love!’”
Yali smiled. “I like how optimistic you are. But I think we might need a different slogan.”
“What’s wrong with the power of love? I figured you’d like that better than ‘listen up or we’ll kick your ass’ –”
Yali smirked. “‘Listen up or we’ll kick your ass’ does have a certain appeal… But no. I just don’t want to say that love is going to fix everything by itself. I meant what I said to Alchemist, I wasn’t just trying to scare them. If you hide from the truth, if you don’t have a plan, love will do nothing for you. Our love was very important, it was part of what gave us the power to stand against the gods, but it wasn’t the only part. We also had a plan for how to take that love and –”
“– and make it have meaning,” I finished.
“– and use it to make sure we got the outcome we wanted,” finished Yali. She gave me a sidelong look. “I guess you said it the Blood way.”
“What’s wrong with that?!”
“Nothing’s wrong, it’s just, it’s just, it’s still hard for me to get used to. This idea that your feelings have a meaning, instead of just… being feelings. I think maybe it’s more of a goal, like you want your feelings to have a meaning, so you keep trying to think of them that way until you find a meaning that fits.”
That was nothing like how I thought about it, but I could tell that Yali was trying to meet me in the middle. “Sure, let’s go with that,” I said.
“The problem is, how do you know what’s the true meaning? People are always saying their feelings mean things, but half the time, it’s actually bad, like the ‘meaning’ actually hurts people. Like –”
“Oh yeah, like when people are like, ‘I gotta protect my children, so that’s why I called the cops on that homeless guy who was just minding his own business’. Those people are assholes, the Blood God would definitely say that’s not be true meaning –”
“– Or when people are like, ‘well, we love each other, so everything is going to work out’, even when there are actually huge problems in their relationship. Like… Love is never going to protect you from an abuser. An abuser might talk about love, they might talk about trying to be a better person, but they’ll never stop abusing until they know they have something to lose. When did Morrow say ‘I did something wrong’? Only after his powers were gone and he couldn’t hurt us anyway. And Justicar in the fifth layer… She ultimately didn’t listen to me anyway, but she didn’t even start listening until I had physically taken her sword out of her hands. That’s what I know. That’s what the Waiting knows. If I want someone to stop what they’re doing, I have to know how to force them to.”
“But…” I began. “Okay, I see what you mean. Like, fuckin’ Morrow… I mean, I care about him, but he never listened to me when I just told him he was fucking up. At some point, I had to be like, ‘this is where I’m gonna stop you’, or he would have just kept making things worse for everyone. But I don’t think that’s the whole answer. There was this thing in the second layer, where we were stuck in a room, and I technically did stop him from hurting himself, but I don’t think he was any better afterwards. The only time I really had an impact on him was in the fourth layer, when I got the power to hear his true feelings, to connect with them –”
“But the main reason you could help him was because you got your soulfire and he couldn’t hurt you –”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying! It’s both. Like, remember how you said the Blood God values power? The first thing you need is the power to protect yourself. It’s no use telling people what to do if they won’t listen to you. But once you have the power, you also need to think about what kind of impact you want to make. And for Justicar, that was… you know… because we couldn’t get through to her, and we had to protect ourselves. But with Morrow, I could get through to him. At least a little. Gods, I hope he gets better somehow…” I trailed off, thinking about how he’d been feeling when I’d last seen him, when we were leaving the Broken God’s world… “Wait a minute! What happened with Morrow and Alchemist?! I was so busy thinking about – shit, I don’t even know Alchemist’s number, how are we gonna –”
Yali gave a little smile. “Yeah, about that…” she said.
Hey!! It’s Rinn!!
back on earth and feeling great, your healing magic haha
how are you doing?? Back with your folks I hope?
how is everyone? Did Niemah pass her exam??
Oh and have you heard from Morrow? Gods I hope he’s okay
and and and
sorry for all the questions haha
it’s just I’ve got nothing to do because Yali is making me sit still so I don’t overexert myself
btw what should I call you now? Unless you want to stick with Alchemist but we have regular alchemists here it could be confusing
It took about twenty minutes before Alchemist texted me back. When they did, I was treated to a whole flood of emoji.
“Oh thank gods, Morrow’s okay,” I said.
Yali peered over my shoulder. “How did you get that from… that?”
I grinned and held up my phone for her to see better. “See, it’s one line of emoji for each of my lines! Look, the ‘100’ emoji matches up with my line about the exam, and –”
I ended up texting back and forth with Alchemist off and on for the whole day. It turned out that they were way more talkative over text than they were face-to-face, it was great. They mostly wrote in emoji and reaction gifs, and they kept having the perfect image for the situation, totally emotionally expressive and wholesome. It made me feel like Alchemist was right there in the room with me. Yali didn’t always understand what they meant, but to me, the meaning was obvious. And even when Alchemist was writing actual text, they seemed more clear and confident than they had in the Otherworld. It was like they were back in their own element. I couldn’t help being happy for them.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get to visit Alchemist right away. They lived with their family in the second ring, but it was on the opposite side of the rings from where me and Yali lived. I was definitely planning to meet their family someday, after I’d heard so much about them, but for now, it was pretty far out of the way.
Alchemist even said they were going to pick out a new name for me to call them, but they’d need a while to think it over. They wanted it to be special, not just to use Raylie, the name Morrow called them, or Heibe, the name their family called them.
Towards the end of the day, Alchemist told me that they’d invited Morrow to their place, and he was about to show up. I was eager to hear all about it, but I couldn’t stop myself from sharing everything with Yali, and Yali absolutely did not want to hear live updates about Morrow. So Alchemist and I agreed to leave off until another day. But even as I put down my phone, I was just so happy that they were still going to be part of my life going forward, back here on Earth. And just a text message away at that.
Early the next morning, Yali pronounced me ready to travel, and called a taxi. She still insisted on helping me climb into my seat, but it was more of a “just in case” thing, not like I actually needed it.
It was a long, quiet ride to Yali’s house, because we still couldn’t go really talk about stuff in front of the driver. By the time we got there, I was super stiff, itching to move. As Yali finished paying our fare, I flung open the door, then ran and flopped on the couch. I leaned back luxuriantly, pressing my neck into the soft cushions. “Ahhhhh… I’ve sure missed hanging out in the best house in the world.”
Yali closed the door quietly behind her. “What makes this the best –”
“Because you live here, obviously. C’mere.”
Yali lowered herself onto the couch next to me. She leaned in, putting her big arms around me. I basked in her warmth, closing my eyes as she ruffled my hair. Before long, I felt her gently nuzzling into me, slowly kissing the side of my neck. I let myself melt away into an endless, relaxed comfort. We had been through so much together. And now, we were home again.
Time passed. After a while, Yali lay back, too. We both stared dreamily up at the ceiling together, with Yali softly holding my hands in hers.
“So, this is a small thing…” Yali said quietly, stroking my hand. “But, I’m very grateful that you didn’t, didn’t let me… In the Broken God’s world, when I was…”
I was confused for a moment, then realized what she was talking about. It was about when she had sort of come on to me sexually. “Of course!” I said, embarrassed. “I mean, there was obviously something wrong! If I’d have had sex with you in a situation like that, that would make me an asshole!” I didn’t mention how close I had felt to just… letting things happen.
“Now, when we eventually do have sex, it can be something beautiful, instead of, instead of, desperate.”
“Eventually…” I echoed, a little disappointed.
Her face darkened. “I know what you’re thinking. And there’s about 40% of me that wants to just throw it all to the Seeking and, and, do it, right now. But…” She paused. “I always knew my trauma wasn’t going to go away overnight. I had a plan for it. And if I don’t stick to that plan, if I try to have sex before I’ve dealt with the trauma, it, it, things will happen, that, aren’t what I want. That hasn’t changed. In fact… when I think about it, I probably have even more trauma than when we started.”
“I succeeded. We both got through the Ravelling alive. But there was probably a cost.”
“Uh, so, I don’t mean to, like, doubt you or anything –”
“Go on, say it.”
“You keep saying ‘probably’… and you seem pretty calm about all this…”
She smiled ruefully. “I’m okay now, because I’m filling up my mind with taking care of you. But pretty soon, you won’t need me for everything, and then… other things are going to come back. You’ve only known me while I had the Seeing, and the memories. Now that those are gone… I only have my own memories to live with again. I might need… a lot of, of, emotional support, from you, soon… if that’s okay…”
“Of course,” I breathed.
“Although I’ll understand if you have… other duties…”
“Duties? How the fuck am I going to have ‘duties’??”
Yali got a weird look on her face. “If you… if you become the new High Priest of Blood.”
I was completely blown away. I probably would have literally fallen down if I wasn’t already sitting. There were so many things that were impossible about that, I didn’t even know where to start.
“Wh– wha– how do you even become a – there isn’t even a Blood Temple!!”
“I didn’t think I was going to say this,” began Yali. Her hands pressed tight around mine, I could tell this was deadly serious. “I thought, for this entire time, that once we got home alive, I was going to say it was over. That we could be safe, that we could finally just live our lives together. But… but… someone needs to rebuild the Blood Temple. Even if it’s against the law. Even if we don’t know how. Because, if the Blood Temple had been here… if the Waiting God hadn’t destroyed it… then nothing from my past would have happened the way it did. And that makes me so, so, angry…”
“Woah,” I whispered. “You actually said you were angry.”
“Yeah,” she said heavily. “I did. I guess I learned something from the Blood God after all.”
“Oh gods,” I said, sinking further back into the couch. “If you’re actually serious about this… about me being a Blood priest for real…”
“I’m not asking you to decide on anything right now!” she said quickly. “But you… you’re the one who knows the Blood God inside and out. The only person alive who does.”
“Oh gods,” I said again. “I know I was talking about changing the world, but… okay, it sounds awesome, but… gods, I need a nap. I need to take a nap for, like, a whole month, before I can even think about temple stuff.”
“That’s fine. In fact… that’s a relief, actually,” said Yali. She smiled wistfully. “I’ve got all these notes… stuff I learned about the old Blood Temple when I was still in the Otherworld. And I’m not sure if I want to look at those notes anytime this month, either. I mean, other than to email them to myself so I have a backup. And I already did that while you were still unconscious. Yeah. No need to look at them again anytime soon. We’re going to have enough to adjust to from just… just being back, and we’ll have to go back to school soon, and you’ll need to go home to your family, and… Oh, I think we can put that off for another few days at least.” She seemed to relax a little.
“Yeah,” I said. I pulled Yali back towards me. She flopped over on top of me, pleasantly squishing my body into the soft cushions. And under Yali’s weight, all my worries vanished blissfully away.
It wasn’t a long time before I got to see what Yali’s trauma looked like for myself.
We had spent another couple days just relaxing at Yali’s house. We didn’t talk much more about the gods or the temples. We spent half the time flopped on the couch, or on Yali’s bed, just cuddling up to each other, taking the time to just enjoy each other’s touch, with no need to put anything into words. I would normally have been more restless, but something made me happy to let the time slip past. It was like we were in our own cozy little world.
We didn’t even have to leave the house to get food, because Yali had stocked up on nonperishables before the Ravelling. “I can’t believe it,” I said, in between chomping on a granola bar. “You actually planned for this?”
“I told you, I planned for both of us to get back alive,” said Yali smugly.
Amazingly, when the time came to sleep, Yali even let me sleep in the same bed with her. “I’m going to have trouble readjusting to my original bed anyway,” she said. “Why not get used to you at the same time?”
“Way to make it sound less romantic,” I laughed. Yali just smiled indulgently.
It was still pretty awkward, just like it had been the first time in the Otherworld. But eventually we both got to sleep. And when I woke up the next morning, and realized the love of my life was sleeping right next to me… I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.
But as wonderful as everything was, it didn’t last forever.
One morning I woke up early and noticed that she wasn’t in bed. She wasn’t at her computer, either. I found her sitting on the kitchen floor, leaning her face on the wall, stiff and unresponsive.
“Hey, anything I can help with?” I said, trying to sound gentle. She didn’t react.
I knelt down next to her and reached out to her. I picked up her hands in mine and gently squeezed. She weakly squeezed back.
“I’m here,” I said. “Come on, let’s go somewhere more comfortable?”
She didn’t answer. Not sure what to do, I just stayed with her and kept holding her hands. Time passed. I couldn’t tell if I was helping. But I loved holding her big soft hands, I could keep sitting here forever. But knowing she was feeling like this was breaking my heart.
Finally, she shifted a little. With a hoarse voice, she choked out a few words.
“I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to tell me not to blame myself. Even though I almost got you killed by telling her. But she died. And you almost died. Because of what I told her.”
I tensed up. “Who in the – wait, you can’t mean Justicar?? Are you seriously blaming yourself for what happened to her?!”
My words didn’t seem to get through. Yali kept muttering into the wall. “If I just hadn’t made you stab me… If I just hadn’t told her…”
“Come on, it was literally 100% her own fault she got killed! You literally gave her a chance to back out when she was in the middle of trying to kill us! Not to mention you literally saved my life, so –”
“Rinn,” said Yali heavily.
She turned her head halfway towards me. “Can you honestly tell me that she’d still be dead right now if I hadn’t told her what happened?”
“You can’t think like that! It’s not your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong!!”
“I’m not… disagreeing with you.” Yali took a ragged breath. “But… think about it… can you honestly tell me she’d still be dead right now if I hadn’t told her what happened?”
“Stern take it…” I thought about it. “Yeah! I can!” I said aggressively.
“Yeah, YOU think about it! So let’s pretend I don’t stab you and we all get to the Broken God’s world just fine. What happens then? Morrow! It’s not like he went off the rails just because I was screaming for help, he was going to lose control no matter what! And there’s no way Justicar wouldn’t have heard about it, and then she’d be trying to kill Morrow until one of them was dead. He might have even attacked her first! So unless you’d be happier if Morrow was dead than Justicar, you can just shut right up about blaming yourself, it’s hot bullshit!”
Yali stared at me blankly.
“Oh my gods, if you’re gonna say you would be happier if Morrow was dead than –”
“It’s not… that.”
“Then what is –”
Yali waved me quiet.
“Okay, at least let’s go somewhere more comfortable?”
Yali allowed me to give her a hand up. I was probably completely useless – she was way heavier than I could lift. But she stood up and let me lead her to the couch. Once we’d both sat down, I put my arms around her shoulders and tried to pull her to lean into me, but she just leaned straight back and stared past me into space.
She exhaled, long and shakily. “I shouldn’t be dumping this on you… You were there too, you, you, did it just as much as I did…”
“Yeah, but I don’t feel guilty about it,” I said. It felt a little weird being so casual about that. “I mean, if I killed someone now, I’d probably be pretty freaked out about it. But when I remember it, it’s like it’s the Blood God’s memory more than mine. It doesn’t feel like killing somebody, it feels like, I guess… righteously cutting through a tangle of, uh…”
“Good! Don’t think about it too much. Leave the memory how it is.”
I blinked. “That sure isn’t what I expected you to say.”
“Why not? We can’t change what happened. I just don’t want you to feel bad about what you had to do.”
I gaped at her.
“What? I really don’t.”
“Are you kidding me!! That’s what you say to me, but for yourself, you’re all ‘it’s all my fault’ and –”
“I…” Yali took another breath. “I suppose I should learn to take my own advice. I deserve to be happy.”
“FUCK YES you do!! You literally fought the gods themselves to keep me safe! You fought an invincible swordswoman with your bare hands –”
“That’s enough,” she said, smiling slightly.
“– You did SO much for us! I don’t know how I would have made it if it wasn’t for you! And not just me, even Alchemist –”
“I said, that’s enough!” she snarled.
Yali’s face froze up, her body tense next to me. Shit! Had I fucked up again?? I squeezed my arms around her shoulders, but she didn’t react at all. I felt like I had been locked out. I just hung onto her while she shook, waiting for her to find her way back.
Finally, looking down, she mumbled, “How do you know what to say, when, when, when you feel bad? You always have something to say… How do you do it…?”
I wanted to help, but I wasn’t sure how. “I mean, I don’t know, I just say what comes naturally?”
“Like… what? Just, what’s something you might say if you were, if you were…”
“I dunno, I guess if I was upset I’d be like ‘I can’t stand this, this is all too much’…”
“This is all too much,” whispered Yali. “It’s too much. It’s too much. It’s too much. It’s too much. It’s too much. It’s too much. It’s too much. It’s too much.” She breathed again. “Thank you.”
Yali sat there for a long time. I kept cuddling up to her, feeling her heavy breathing through my body, as it steadily got slower and more relaxed.
The sun slowly rose, filtering through the blinds. The light made me realize what time it was and how long we’d been just sitting there. I offered to bring Yali some breakfast, but she just patted my hand and got up to get it herself. I followed her as she plodded around the kitchen, gathering up a meal for both of us. I was kinda hungry myself, and I wanted to jump ahead, but this was the time for me to take care of Yali. I stayed back and let her go through her process.
When we were done, Yali gathered up the dishes and brought them to the sink to wash. She scrubbed each plate with practiced movements, like she’d done this a million times before.
“You want to know something?” said Yali wistfully.
“The whole time I was in the Otherworld, there wasn’t a single moment when I felt bad about killing Justicar. She was just, just… someone who was in the way of my goals. So I knew I had to get her out of the way, in whatever way was practical.”
“That’s the Waiting. It’s what the god is, and it’s a lot of what I am, too. When I think back to how I made the Dalners suffer, and Morrow… what I remember is, I succeeded. In the end, the only thing that matters is if you accomplished your goal. Your feelings don’t matter – unless your feelings are part of the plan, I mean, your feelings mattered because of the whole Blood God thing, and my feelings sometimes mattered because I had to manage them in order to –”
“But your feelings always mat–”
“I know. I know.” Yali held up a placating hand. “And now… I think I’m a little more Blood. It… it hurts…” She gave a hollow chuckle. “Justicar tried so hard… And also, I… I hate her and I wish I could have made her suffer more before she died… oh, I don’t know.” She laughed again. “I guess I’m more Broken now, too.”
Watching Yali try to make sense of her feelings… it was tearing at my heart. It was such a simple thing, something I had known how to do since before I could walk, something that Yali was still trying to learn. Tears welled up in my eyes. Everything had been so hard for her. It was bad enough that she’d had to handle her abusers all by herself. If there was any justice, that would have been the end of it. But on top of that, the gods – the gods, who were supposed to watch over us all, to guide and protect us – had used her life as a prop in their feud. And then she had had to solve their problems for them, too! I couldn’t take it. It was just so unfair.
Yali noticed my tears. “You okay there?” she said distractedly.
“I’m fine…” I halfheartedly wiped away a tear. “You just got me thinking about the gods. Why did they have to be like this? They could have just all worked together, and then none of this would have happened. We could have just been… Rinn and Yali.” I swallowed. “You know how when you’re a kid and they’re teaching you about the gods, it’s always, ‘the five gods watch over the city’, like they’re all out there together, all being wise together, except maybe the Blood God – and now we know even the Blood God was supposed to be good. It’s like they’re all supposed to be some sort of… ideal, but then the real thing is so much more messed up. Like the Blood God is supposed to love and protect everyone, but it got twisted until it was nothing but revenge. And the Seeking God is exciting and creative, but it ended up walking all over everyone just to see what would happen. And –”
“And the Waiting is supposed to be wise and farsighted, but it couldn’t see when the other gods had something worth saying, too.”
“I just wish we could go back to how the gods are supposed to be.”
“Go back…” muttered Yali. She slowly rinsed the last plate and stacked it in the drying rack with the others. “I’m sorry, Rinn, but I don’t think there’s anything to go back to. I don’t think there was ever just one true way the gods were supposed to be at all. Remember… when I was the Farseer, I saw across all of history, and I never saw the gods being a perfect ideal. Or maybe they’re a perfect ideal by their own principles, it’s just not perfectly good for us humans. Or maybe they’re not that either, I don’t know. But what I did see is, is people wanting them to be. I think… I think we teach kids that the gods are perfect because we want them to be perfect. We want to think we live in a world where things make sense, where good ultimately wins against evil. But we don’t. We live in a world where good wins if you can make it win. And the principles of the gods… they’re not automatically good. They’re like, like, a half-finished idea, something that’s not good or bad until you write down how you’re actually going to use it in your life. Like the Waiting wants us to make plans, but you can have a good plan or an evil plan, and either one is just as sacred to it. And the Blood God wants us to value our feelings, but you can feel like helping someone or you can feel like hurting them, and either of those is just as sacred to it. So if we want the gods to be good… then we have to figure out how to finish the idea. It’s up to us humans to interpret the principles in a way that makes them good. Otherwise… They’ll just go on being… being what they are.”
Her words settled over me like a heavy shroud. I didn’t want it to be true. After everything we’d been through… after everything Yali had had to fight through, after all the pain the gods had left her with… I didn’t want everything to still be left open-ended. I wanted them to finally give us a simple answer, something that would let everything be healed. But it was true. When the Blood God was inside me, it hadn’t given me just one answer to everything. In the Seeking God’s world, it had had three different opinions about Justicar. In the Stern God’s world, after it made me stab Yali, it had actually been conflicted, struggling with what to value. It wasn’t just me-against-it. And even after we finally joined together, in the Broken God’s world… when I was helping Morrow… even when I had felt like all the right answers were flowing into me from the Blood God, I was still thinking, still making my own choices. I could have taken the other form of the Blood God, the form of anger and vengeance. And then it would have given me all the right answers for that, a transcendent, godly way to unleash my rage onto Morrow’s body. Soulfire had never felt like the Blood God pushing its own will through me. It had felt like the best version of myself, like it was bringing the truest form of my own will right to the tip of my tongue.
“We can do it,” I said gravely. “I’ve just realized… that’s what I did with the Blood God. There were ways it could be bad, and ways it could be really good, protective and healing. Even its anger – it could be the helpless kind of anger that just makes me lash out, or it could be the powerful kind of anger that helps us fight against injustice. And once I really got to know it… I could tell how we could steer away from the bad ways, and turn its power into something that was good for both of us. So that’s… it was really something. And when it worked, it felt soooo good. And you… You had that thing with the Waiting God, too. We can really do it.”
“And maybe if we do it long enough, maybe the gods themselves will change into something better.”
I felt the long road stretch out ahead of me, the endless struggle to face the gods and shape something good out of their avalanche of power. I knew I had the strength. But it was hard to face it and not feel a little overwhelmed. “It’s just so much,” I said. “It’s just… so much. I didn’t want us to have to fix the gods, or rebuild a whole Blood Temple, or… I wanted us to just be Rinn and Yali. I just…”
Yali stepped close to me. She put her hands on my shoulders, holding me firm and looking deep into my eyes. “I know,” she said. “It was hard. And there will be hard things again, time after time, maybe as long as we live. But…” Her expression softened into a half-smile. “But we don’t have to fix the gods today. Because… you’re right… now’s not the time to worry about what we couldn’t do, it’s the time to feel good about, about… We won. We both got back alive and, and, generally in one piece. Gods know we deserve a break. And so we really do have a chance to, to, to be what you said. To just be Rinn and Yali, at least for a while. So… Want to go back to doing that?”
I melted in her hands. “I’d like that more than anything.”
Eventually, Yali decided to tell people she was back.
“Already?” I laughed. But it had been, like, a whole week, and I was ready too. Being with Yali was still amazing, but I felt like I had been slowly waking up from a long dream, and it was getting to the point where I was getting restless, thinking of my old friends again. So we both agreed to let it be over.
Yali called the monks who were responsible for her. It was a short call, just setting up a time for them to come visit and really get things sorted out. Then Yali said she was tired and hung up.
“What are you going to tell them?” I said curiously.
“Well, I need to go back to school, and in case there’s anything that needs sorting out –”
“I meant, what are you going to tell them about why you were gone?”
“Oh.” Yali put down her phone and sat back on the couch. “I’m going to tell them the truth.”
“Woah! That’s big, you always said you didn’t want the Waiting Temple to know about –”
“I did say that, didn’t I. But, I mean, I mean, things are a lot different now. People need to know about what the Waiting God did. And I can’t really tell them about that without telling them about me. And, and, at first, I thought that would be a hard decision, but now that I’ve thought about it… I think I always assumed that if I admitted I was the Farseer, it would be like admitting that the Waiting God was right. But now it’s kind of the opposite, isn’t it? And if I really did make Waiting God stop…” She gave a little smirk. “I think I might want some of the credit.”
I grinned. “Nice,” I said.
And at last, it was time for me to go home.
At the door, I pulled Yali close to me again, for one last, long, sloppy kiss. It felt so final, even though we were probably going to see each other at school the next day. I leaned into her, my arms clinging around her warm body. As she kissed me, she ran her hands up the back of my neck, ruffling my hair. I felt like I was floating away, my eyes drifting half closed, tears sliding happily down my cheeks.
“I love you,” I whispered. “I love you so much. I love you so much I…” I couldn’t even find the words.
“I understand.” Yali patted me on the head. “I love you too.”
We stood halfway out the door for what felt like hours, arms wrapped around each other. Until, at last, Yali gently released me. At arm’s length, she gave me one last pat on the shoulder. “See you soon,” she said.
“Yeah. See you soon.”
With an enormous effort, I turned away and started the long run home.
My feet pounded on the street, carrying me fast and steady down the old roads. I had been away for months, but now, everything was so familiar. I breezed past the Duvidi’s where I had first talked to Yali about what made me angry. I sped down Draegel Street, habitually slapping the flagpole that my friends used as the finish line in our races.
On my right, I passed the road leading to Layo’s house. It made me want to turn and run that way, to hug him and tell him I’d made it. But I would see him soon enough. There would be time enough to tell all my friends about my adventures. For now, I was going home.
Finally, I reached the gate into the fifth ring. The ring that was my home. The ring of the Blood God.
The feeling was hazy at first. I wasn’t the Blood God anymore. I didn’t feel that same sense of wrongness I had felt when I thought about the Stern Temple ruling this ring. I was Rinn, who had grown up with all of this being normal. But I remembered. And I couldn’t see anything in quite the same way anymore.
When I ran past the old basketball court full of trash, my old self remembered a place where random assholes dumped their trash and spoiled our fun. But now, I also saw the temple who watched over them. A temple who wouldn’t help anyone take away their trash, who wouldn’t fix the potholes or the broken streetlights, but who always had time to sic the police on homeless people, to cart random people off to jail.
When I ran past the store where Pèi stole her jewelry, it made me think about Javin, about what the Seeking God had taught me. If the Stern brought harm to those who stole, it was not just a fact of life. I had friends who stole. Friends who got high in the alleyways. Friends who did sex work and called themselves trash and wanted to die. They were a people starved of their blood, trying to claw back their rightful power from a world that had taken it away. My heart beat in time with theirs. They had been trampled over, and it was not right to let them be trampled over again.
And when I ran past the supermarket near my house, I remembered something Yali had told me. This was where one of the Blood temples had been, before it was demolished. Before the Stern Temple had sold the land to build this parking lot here.
For just a minute, before I ran the final distance home, I turned and stood in the parking lot, trying to imagine what had been.
I knelt down, pressing my hand against the cold pavement.
“This was a temple,” I whispered. “A temple.”
And I knew that one day, I would raise up a new temple to take its place.