Willow’s family had never been particularly religious. She had been in a decent number of churches over the years and listened to more than a few sermons, but no one in her family belonged to a particular congregation. Personally, she did not consider herself to be a believer, not just in religion but in much of anything. It took meeting Yuri and getting caught up in the craziness surrounding his life for her to accept that her family was not, in fact, a bunch of frauds. Faith just was not something that came easily to her.
A lot of people around where she grew up were believers in one thing or another, but no one seemed to expect the same from her or her family. Even if people did not entirely know or understand what they did—considering she went most of her life not knowing she doubted her neighbors understood—they knew enough to consider them different. Being different came with slightly different standards. Like most aspects of her life, it was a blessing and a curse. No kid wanted to be different, but she had to admit there was a certain freedom that came with no expectation to conform.
Her lack of experience with religious institutions rarely became an issue in her day to day life, but now that she was in a temple and there were monks all around her she felt more than a little out of her element. She had plenty of practice with those feelings these days so she did her best to act normal. Even so, she found herself sticking a bit closer to the guys than she had on the street. Out there she felt safe looking around a bit. In here she was afraid to touch anything or to speak up. If she touched the wrong thing or spoke out of turn she was afraid to find out what the consequences might be.
They climbed up and up a multitude of stairs, which only cemented the idea that she was trapped in here with no idea what to expect. Asa seemed to be taking the lead in this place, which was more than fine with her, but it left her with only Yuri to stick to like glue. That worked perfectly well for her until it stopped working altogether.
Once Asa explained what they needed to the priest in the library, all attention turned to her. She recoiled as soon as all eyes were on her. She knew this trip was all about her finding a way back home, but she somehow managed to convince herself that she would just be along for the ride.
She was not even sure whether the old priest could see her or not. His eyes appeared to be riddled with cataracts, but he seemed to have no problem working in a room filled to the brim with books so she assumed he had some way to work around his failing eyes.
“So you’re from the other side,” the old priest said.
She squirmed a bit under the priest’s intense scrutiny. “I am,” she finally managed to squeak out.
“We don’t hear about too many people crossing over from your side, but we lose almost all of our people that cross over,” the old priest said. The more he spoke, the more apparent it became that his voice was as dry and dusty from disuse as the many stacks of books kept in this room.
She felt the priest’s attention slide from her to Yuri. “You’re Yuri, the one he was looking for the last time he was here.”
Yuri nodded, looking a little uncomfortable now that the priest’s attention had shifted him. Willow wanted to feel bad for him, but she was honestly just glad to get a break for herself.
“You managed to come back. That’s exceedingly rare.”
“Yeah, well, we were trying very hard to get me back here.”
Willow felt attention shift back to her and the full weight of his scrutiny caused her gaze to dart around the room. She did not know how to address this priest. Was she showing the proper amount of deference? How much respect did she need to show to a priest if she was not a believer?
“I wasn’t exactly planning on coming here originally. It just seemed like the best option at the time.”
She was not sure why she was saying all this, but she just had a feeling in her gut that she should be completely honest with the priest. She was not sure what the consequences might be for lying but she was not in the mood to try her luck and find out.
The old priest let out a long, sigh-like exhale. There was not much to him so Willow found herself worrying that he might faint if he let out even a bit too much air.
“And you’re asking for help getting back to where you came from?”
She nodded. “I am.”
The old priest tilted his head in Asa’s direction. “Am I to assume that the copy of the ritual I provided to you is lost?”
He nodded. “Highlord Erramun used it. I haven’t been able to find the instructions for the ritual or the priests he found to perform it.”
Willow knew now was not the time to try to figure out what everyone was talking about. A million questions were fighting to be blurted out, but she held her tongue instead. Derailing the conversation now to demand to know details from the past would only prolong their visit. More than anything she wanted to finish up this conversation and get out of this place.
“Writing up a new copy of the ritual won’t be a problem for me, but you’ll have to find priests to perform the ritual on your own,” the old priest explained brusquely.
Yuri stepped forward, “But don’t you think you could put the word out—”
“No,” the priest cut him off. “I won’t have a part in asking any of my brothers to perform a forbidden ritual.”
And that was that. Willow did not think she ever saw Yuri drop an idea that quickly. She was not sure what would happen now. This was all too complicated and she did not understand nearly enough of it to begin to guess what might be the next step.
Her gaze darted around the room, looking around for something, a book, perhaps, that might contain the answer to all their problems. This was her fault, after all. She was the one asking to go home. Everyone was bending over backward to help her do just that, and it only got more complicated at every turn.
At some point, it would just be too much to ask of the others. They needed to get on with their lives with or without her. The idea of distracting so many people from important work just for her did not sit well with her.
“Are you interested in studying lore, Miss?” the priest asked.
She almost shook her head before giving the question any thought. What good could the books here do her at this point? Then she realized she might be able to help if she learned more. She had a bit of training thanks to Alenna’s intervention, but she knew there was a lot more to know. If she could learn how to perform the ritual herself, maybe she could go home without being any further inconvenience to anyone.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I never gave it much thought. I didn’t think I’d be of much use—studying those things.”
That got a knowing smile from the priest. “Don’t underestimate just how often arcane lore can be applied to everyday life.”
“Even so, I think I should focus on helping Yuri and finding a way back home rather than taking on more hobbies.”
The priest coughed. “Very well.”
He was disappointed. She could feel it. For some reason, she knew he wanted her to study the lore found in these books. Now that she could at least read the language used in this country, she was intrigued, but she it just was not near the top of her list of priorities at this time.
She wanted to be normal. She was never really normal back home, but she could at least pretend most of the time. Sometimes she even managed to fool herself. Here, she felt painfully ordinary one moment and like a freak of nature the next. It was infinitely more difficult than fooling the neighbors into thinking she was just like them. Going out of her way to know more and be stranger than she was now ran contrary to her instinct to blend into the background.
Right now she needed to wait and see. She wanted to go home without making herself any less normal than she was already. She did not want to go home as a stranger, more dangerous version of herself, not after she did so much to try to learn how to get keep her abilities better under control.