Chapter 57: Lonely Shrine
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We’d hardly walked a hundred meters down the road when I saw a path intersecting ours. Perhaps it was a road once as well? Stones had been laid along it, rather than the packed earth of the trail we were following.

Still in the new growth of short, dense trees, I couldn’t see past a bend down the other trail.

I looked at Seyari. “I—”

“Fine,” she cut me off then sighed. “But stay careful, and if we fight, I’m calling the shots this time, Lana.”

“Deal.” I beamed. “Besides, if there’s more of those wolf things or their maker, I don’t want to leave them be only to get followed and ambushed in the night.” I turned and started to walk down the stone-lined path.

Seyari followed close behind, hand on her weapon. “How much fiction did you say you read as a child?”

“It could happen!” I protested.

“Yes, but… ugh. Never mind. We should keep quiet for now.”

I turned my head and nodded. Seyari looked tired, understandably so. I felt a pang of guilt at the selfishness of my request to follow trouble.

“Hey,” I, stopped, bent down and whispered. “We could rest and go when you’re healed.”

My partner shook her head. “No. I want to see too. I’ll sleep better if I know.” She paused a moment, looked me in the eyes and added, “Thanks for asking.”

I gave Seyari a quick side hug on her good side. She squeezed my hand gently.

Together, we followed the path as quietly as we could. I shifted my eyes and ears to give us the best chance of sneaking up. Around us, gentle wind swirled from Seyari’s magic. She’d evidently saved some just in case. I hoped we wouldn’t need it.

However, as we walked, I began to feel a creeping, itching discomfort. I felt like someone, or something was watching me. I put up a hand for us to halt. Around us, Seyari’s wind kicked up slightly.

“What?” She asked in a whisper quickly scattered by the wind.

“I feel off. Something’s up.” I tried to find better words, but I couldn’t really describe the sensation. “Like an itch? But also like I’m being watched?”

“Well shit,” Seyari closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Wait. I know this feeling.”

“What is it?”

Seyari smiled sadly. “There’s a consecrated place up ahead, probably to Dhias.”

I relaxed with the knowledge the road led to a consecrated place. Even if I wasn’t welcome, the twisted wolves and whatever made them wouldn’t be either. Then I thought some more.

“Wait, I react to holy places? But I’ve definitely been…” I trailed off, realizing I hadn’t stepped foot on, or even near, holy ground to Dhias since I became a demon. “Why?”

“If I had to guess,” Seyari replied carefully. “It’s because of the holy aspect of the consecration.”

“We passed plenty of holy places in Navanaea and I didn’t feel a thing,” I replied indignantly. Then I thought back to what Isidore had said about the nature of demons and angels. “Didn’t Isidore say ‘angelic’ instead of ‘holy’?”

Seyari furrowed her brow. “They could be less strong, or more concentrated. But what you just said could be why, too. I know Dhias favors holy, or angelic, magic. I think one of the Eight Navanean gods, Aena, favored earth magic.”

I tried to keep my voice low. “Okay, so different aspects for different deities. That makes sense. I’d bet we’re not the first to come to that conclusion either. But!” I put up a finger. “Why do you, as a walking fountain of angelic mana get an uncomfortable itching feeling like a demon?”

Seyari covered her mouth and laughed darkly. “I never said I had the same feeling, just that I knew the feeling. I don’t itch, but I don’t think Dhias would welcome a mass murderer all the same.”

I frowned at that. “That’s never who you were. You were used and then you fought back. Even if that were true, that’s not who you are now,” I chided in my best lecturing voice.

Seyari looked away. “…Thanks.”

“Don’t just ‘thanks’ me! Believe it!” I carefully took her hand in both of mine and squeezed lightly. “Please.”

Seyari was silent for a moment. The wind faltered, then resumed. “I’ll try.”

“Good.” I let go of her hand. “Now let’s go see this shrine. I, uh, won’t desecrate it with my presence or anything, will I? Will it hurt me?”

Seyari clenched and unclenched her hand and replied absentmindedly. “You won’t desecrate it just by walking in and I don’t think it’s strong enough to do much to you.”

“Good.” I turned, then hesitated and offered my hand for her to take.

She took my hand and the wind died back. Together, we continued down the winding, overgrown path.

The itching feeling worsened. Soon, the source of my discomfort came into view. It was a small open chapel, intact, but slouching in disrepair. I could clearly see a statue of Dhias at the back. A few older trees stood uncut around a clearing that had only partially overgrown. A few wooden benches still sat facing the statue.

Cautiously, I led the way into the clearing. The feeling immediately doubled. For a moment, I felt my transformation slip, but I held on. The amount of mana I was spending to keep myself in human form swelled from a hardly noticeable trickle to a solid stream.

Seyari squeezed my hand. I looked down at her. She was biting her bottom lip nervously, an expression I’d never seen on her face before.

“Hey,” Seyari said softly. “Do you mind if I take a minute?” She pointed to the statue.

“Not at all. I’ll be in the back.” I followed her into the shrine.

The feeling was discomforting in a way that made me want to squirm. I kept myself as still as possible and lowered carefully onto the bench. I heard the bench strain under my weight and quickly jumped up. Ahead of me Seyari had reached the statue and made to kneel before it.

I dusted a space in front of the seat and sat down cross-legged on the floor. Seyari knelt down. I felt it was rude to stare, so I closed my eyes and listened.

Around us, the forest was nearly silent, but not like before. I heard a single bird call from up in one of the older trees. An answer came from across the clearing, then the chittering of a squirrel shut them both up, and returned this small place back to calm silence.

I felt uncomfortable here, but I could tell the quiet of this place different from the unnatural stillness of the lumber mill. It felt almost reverent. In both of my lives, I was never terribly religious. My father was a devout follower of Dhias, but my mother less so. Abby’s family, particularly her nan, had never been devout.

I thought back to my relationship with the Church of Dhias and frowned. I thought of the Church again. What of my relation to Dhias? I frowned in thought.

How did I actually feel about Dhias?

Would he accept me if I had stayed alive as a human and sought to make my body fit me?

Well, why not?

I couldn’t come up with a good answer. I wasn’t the most knowledgeable about this sort of thing, but nothing I’d read explicitly forbade it. I’d heard plenty of people condemn the actions of people like me, saying that we were spitting in Dhias’ image.

I’m in a shrine. Why not ask?

So, I did.

While Seyari knelt in front of the statue to Dhias. I asked my questions as best I could. I didn’t ask him to accept me as a demon. I didn’t ask him to accept the people I’d killed, regardless of circumstances. I didn’t apologize for those things either. I just wanted to know if he’d accept me. There were plenty of other gods to follow: Navanaea had shown me that much. But Dhias, however faint, still meant something to me and I wanted to know.

Perhaps predictably, I didn’t receive an answer. Nothing but silence, broken once again by a squirrel with a grudge against birds.

I opened my eyes and looked toward Seyari. Her head was bowed, but her shoulders were shaking. Quietly, I got up and sat next to her, close enough to where I knew she knew I was there. Again, I closed my eyes and listened to the calm.

Eventually, when my legs should have long gone numb, Seyari raised her head. I looked at her and gave a halfhearted smile. Seyari’s eyes were red and puffy and her face held a complicated expression.

She surprised me by leaning over to hug me. I let her and she collapsed onto me. I held her silently while she cried. My eyes grew wet, too.

Seyari surprised me by being the first to speak. “He… *hic* Dhias was so faint. Before, I could feel something big. Now, it’s like the last thread that hasn’t been cut is all that’s left. But-but what I felt across it, I’m sure. I’m sure Dhias doesn’t hate me. How? Why?”

“Hmm.” I hummed in response and rubbed her shoulder. “Maybe Dhias thinks you’re a good person, too, Sey.”

“Renna…” Seyari pulled her head from my chest to look up at me.

“Let’s stay here tonight, okay?” I looked out at the fading light. “If there are more twisted creatures, I don’t think they’ll bother us here.”

Her blurry eyes met mine. “But you’re—”

“Fine.” I waved a hand. “Really, I’m okay to stay here. Either I’m getting used to it or the feeling’s less intense. I hope I’m not corrupting the place, though.” I added the last part even though I knew it wasn’t true. I really did feel less discomfort than I had. Less, but not none.

“Sure, then. And you’re not going to corrupt anything by accident.” Seyari exhaled and leaned back into me. “Can you set up the tent?”

“Of course,” I replied, and, gently, moved to stroke her hair. “In a bit.”

The sun had set by the time our tent was set up. We didn’t start a fire, but the cold dinner of rations was the best I’d had in weeks. Seyari insisted she could take second watch. By the time I had made the difficult decision to wake her, the sun was coming up. I never agreed to let her take full watch.

Announcement

A bit of a shorter, more introspective chapter. Honestly, I'm very happy with how this one came out.

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