When I first met Lillian Dance, she’d been the typical image of a paladin. Defender of the faith, all magical symbols and magical armor, holy blessings and miracles. We’d spoken a couple of times on her faith and religion. After all, I was supposed to be a Demon. Touching her armor used to make my skin sizzle. If she were to try healing me, it… probably wouldn’t have been pretty. Her church, her order, whatever, held the belief that the demonic was inherently evil, and their magic reflected that, and so did Lillian. It was only when I’d actively helped the people she cared about that her opinion towards me and the weird kind of soul-based magic I could do had started to shift. She always had wondered about the shape of her own soul.
Not a lot of that zealotry was there anymore. No armor, no scriptures, no holy book close at hand. Just a lantern, which she seemed to almost cling to. Clearly it was magical, because I couldn’t think of any fire that burned so white, but it was there for more than just illumination. As far as I could tell, it had burned by her bedside the past two nights, and it burned brightly now as she was getting ready in the living room. Well, she had been. She was looking for her boots.
“I put them by the fireplace,” I said. I’d been having breakfast and trying to wrap my head around some tome John had brought with him from the Black Castle. Magic, it turned out, was like algebra, in the sense that I was bad at understanding both but somehow managed to get the right answer most of the time, to everyone’s confusion (my own included). “They were soaked through when you got here, and I kind of figured you’d be leaving soon again.” Lillian shot me a grateful, if a little sheepish, smile.
“Am I that obvious?” she asked as she put her boots on, sighing at how warm they were. “Goodness, that feels nice.”
“You were,” I said, closing the book. “I’d offer to help you, but I get the feeling this is one of those ‘I have to do this myself’ kind of quests.” Lillian nodded as she put her lantern on the table to tie her boots. “Uh, do you mind if I ask you something, though?” Lillian caught me looking at her curio.
“Since we met, Liz,” she said, looking at the lantern, “I’ve had questions about my church. Questions that can’t be answered by scripture and dogma. Well, not without contradicting my lived experiences.” I nodded. That seemed to be a recurring theme across realities, although this church at least seemed to not really give a damn (heh) about queer people. Just species, then. “So I’m on a pilgrimage, of sorts,” Lillian explained. “I can’t really… It’s not undertaken lightly.”
“So what is it you’re… doing?” I asked, still trying to figure out how A led to B.
“I follow the light,” she said, as if that explained everything. I cocked my head, to emphasise just how much it didn’t. She picked it up. “The light guides. I follow. At the end of my path is enlightenment. Always.” She paused. “Enlightenment or death.”
“Pesky little caveat, huh?” I added. Lillian smirked and nodded. “You are aware that you’re the one holding the lantern, right?” Lillian held the lantern up and I watched its stark white light bathe the room in muted colours.
“Yes,” she said. “Funny how that works, isn’t it?” I was left to ponder that for a bit. Faith had always been something of a sore subject for me, but it had been a bit harder to be agnostic in a world where people could genuinely call down miracles. “You all are going to, uh… Earth soon?” She, like most people from Wydonia, felt a little weird about the fact that I came from a world that was essentially called ‘Dirt’, but they were going to have to put up with it, just like I had my entire life.
I nodded. “Sally’s up already, and we’re leaving once Kazumi wakes up. She’s always a little slower to get out of bed in winter.” I thought of her, coiled up in bed and snoring softly. The cold made it harder for her to get going, her snakey half requiring a bit more energy.
“And what about... presentation?” Lillian asked, looking demonstratively at my horns.
“John is going to see about getting some illusions. We won’t be long, so there’s no need for anything more involved.” I sighed. Illusions like that were annoying, because they changed my perspective dramatically. Four feet, in fact. Vertically. It was weird being shorter than everyone else when I’d been used to scraping the ceiling everywhere for the past half decade. And I liked my horns!
“Speak of the devil,” Lillian said as Kazumi slithered sleepily into the living room, already brandishing a mug.
“That’s offensive,” I joked, and Kazumi hissed a little laugh. “Morning, love.”
“Good morning, you two,” Kazumi said. “I see you’re already leaving us again.”
“Mm-hmm,” Lillian said as she put on her coat. “The light guides me on. I get the feeling I’ll be back before long, though. I get the distinct feeling you’re going to be spearheading us all into interesting times again, Liz.” She accepted the hug from Kazumi as she tightened her fluffy collar. I couldn’t blame her. The storm was gone, but it was still freezing out.
“Goodness forbid,” Kazumi says. “With some luck this will all be over tomorrow.” Lillian and I both looked at her; she rolled her eyes, and knocked on wood. “Regardless, take care, Lillian.” She held the door open as the paladin hoisted on her pack, and stepped out onto the fresh snow, the gentle crunch under her feet the only sound in the morning.
“You too, Kazumi. I’ll be seeing you -- both of you -- soon.” With a little wave, she was out into the snow again, holding her lantern forward, visible even against the sun-soaked snow, and it wasn’t long before she was out of view.
“Very flighty, that one,” Kazumi said, sipping a cup of what I figured was probably coffee. After Sally and I had figured out how to make certain recipes from back home, people here had latched on to some of them with a vengeance. Coffee had really made a splash with Kazumi’s brand of workaholic.
“M-hm. I hope she’ll be fine. She’s definitely pretty clever, but I wish she’d reach out to people more.” I heard stirring in the rest of the house, where people were waking up and shuffling from the guest rooms to the bathroom. “Faith is no substitute for in-person contact.”
Kazumi shrugged. “Perhaps for her it is.” Well, not wrong. It wasn’t my place to judge.
“Maybe.” We stood in (relative) silence for a bit as we heard Sally and Elena having some morning chatter in the kitchen. “Are you ready for today?” Nod nod.
“It’s going to be strange to visit your world for the first time,” she said. “You’ve told me so much about it, but it all sounds… surreal. And it’ll be educational to see where you come from.” I kissed the top of her head.
“This is my world,” I said, and it was true, especially if the lump in my throat was anything to go by. “You are.”
“You,” Kazumi said, coiling herself around me before nudging my nose with hers, “are such a sap.” She unfurled when the others began to slowly trickle into the room. “But the point still stands. You were born there, and it’ll be interesting to see the place that had you growing up so taken by… what did you call it?”
“Sailor Moon,” Sally said, chowing down on a sandwich. My face immediately went red as I spun around. She shot me a shit-eating grin and threw herself into the sofa, already fully dressed in her most human-looking clothing. While her wings didn’t seem to be getting in the way of her lying or sitting down, clothes had still needed to be adjusted for their presence. She couldn’t retract hers like I could mine. If Sally wasn’t around, I’d forget I even had another form to begin with.
“That’s not what I--” I began, stammered through seven different attempts at deflecting or changing the subject, and then giving up. “Fine. Sure.”
“It’ll be interesting to see the old place again.” She frowned. “It’ll be weird to see our old bodies again. I wonder if it’ll be the same for Lisa.” Yeah, I hadn’t even considered that. Five years ago, Sally and myself had been in a car accident. Well, we’d been in a pedestrian accident, more specifically. And both of us had woken up here. At the same time, Daniel the Hero and Eliza the Demon Queen had slain each other on this side of reality, and had woken up in the hospital in our bodies. It had been a whole thing of trauma and frustration for the others, all caught in bodies that had felt incredibly wrong to them, and something of an awakening for me when Lisa’s old Demon Queen body hadn’t felt wrong to me.
Some magic and, in Daniel and Lisa’s case, hormone supplements later, and everyone was a lot more comfortable with where they were. But it would still be strange to be face to face with a body that had once been mine. Would I recognize it? Back then, a lifetime ago, I’d barely recognized myself in the mirror (for reasons that had been obvious to everyone but myself, apparently), but even so, I’d worn it for decades.
“I hope it won’t bother either of you too much,” Kazumi said, who had seen first-hand how despondent Sally had been when she’d first arrived. She’d been in her mid-twenties, stuck in the body of a grown-ass man who had spent most of his life on the road, covered in scars and calluses and proud owner of a beard and receding hairline. It had been something of a shock, to say the least.
“We’ll be fine,” Sally said. “Last time we were in contact, they’d used the magic we sent to come home to help their transition along. We’ll barely recognize ourselves.”
“Speaking of which,” Elena said as she walked into the room, “John and I can get the illusions ready sooner rather than later, if you want. We’ll do the portal in the practice room, so we don’t accidentally tear the roof off this house.”
“How long have you been listening?” Sally asked with her mouth full.
“Not sure,” she said candidly. “Not long. I’ve been working to get things ready. Point is that I’m going to need the three of you to get those legs and scales moving, because I’d rather we not waste too much time.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sally said with a grin. “I love it when she gets all forceful like that.” Sally hopped to her feet and marched to the practice room, a part of the house that had been enchanted to be pretty much indestructible, a necessary addition considering my training. My capacity and power were inversely proportional to my ability to control it, and even after all these years, there were still some very strong barriers keeping me from accessing most of it. “Y’all coming or what?” Sally shouted.
“John has the illusions ready,” Elena said. “He’s made sure to use the same ones he did before your travels the first time around. It’ll be like old times.”
“Gods, I hope not,” Kazumi said darkly, but made her way out of the room as well. I understood her trepidation. Last time had gone less than ideally. We’d lost people. At least today nobody was genre-deaf enough to say something like ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ As it always turns out, something could, and something was going to.