Lily’s party kept to the forests as they moved. It was the fourth day since they had begun walking, and they were making headway at a much faster pace than when they had just begun. Discounting Iris, who could not feel fatigue, and Tate, who seemed to have an abnormally high amount of stamina, Prei’s stamina had developed impossibly quickly; Despite initially constantly running out of breath and needing breaks, now, after a mere four days, she could trek the entire day at a decently fast speed without tiring at all. During their training sessions on the ship, they had established that she was an impossibly fast learner, but this journey proved that her body adapted quickly, as well.
Throughout the length of their journey, they had as of yet seen no signs of sentient life: neither human nor demon. This might have been due to their deliberate avoidance of the main roads, but it was still rather unsettling. As they continued their journey, they would rise with the sun everyday, and they would halt when it became too dark to see. Throughout the night, while most of the party slept, Iris would serve as the sentry, taking advantage of the fact that she did not require sleep, as well as capitalising on the fact that she could see perfectly well in the darkness.
The first and second nights, Lily had tried staying up to keep Iris company, but on both counts she found herself sleeping soundly in Iris’ lap in the morning, having passed out from exhaustion. After that, Iris insisted that Lily leave the watch to her, forcing Lily to sleep every night. The party’s journey passed like that, uneventfully allowing the days to fly by, until two weeks had gone by.
All of them, except for Iris, had become rather tan due to long exposure to the sun. All of them, except for Iris, had grown visibly thinner. Not to the point of malnourishment, but it was evident that they were getting barely enough of what they needed – and for good reason: many of the plants in the forests where they tread were poisonous. While Lily, with her academic background, could identify a few, and Iris could identify a small number by referencing her databanks, there were still a large number that neither could recognise. They had decided to only eat those which they could confirm were safe, so that severely limited their choice of food. In some areas, there were no edible plants to be found at all.
As for meat, on the occasions when they tried to hunt for food, they did manage to attain some. However, there were startlingly few animals around them. Despite the forest being alive with the sound of wildlife, the animals seemed to avoid Lily’s party by a wide margin. Adding that to the fact that only two of the party could hunt properly – Tate’s attacking method was unsuited for chasing prey, and Iris lacked any way to kill the creature that would leave enough of it to eat – their hunting expeditions were often frustratingly disappointing.
If there was one thing to be optimistic about, it was that Tate was as good a cook in the field as she was in the kitchen – if they did manage to bring back a small animal of some sort, after it was processed by Iris and Lily, Tate would be able to make fare that would rival any restaurant’s.
As the party forged forth, near the beginning of the third week, they eventually chanced upon a small village.
Lily was the first one to notice the columns of smoke rising into the air. Instantly alert, the optimism of possibility suffusing her mind, she hurried closer, trying to get a closer look. As she did, she saw the houses from which the chimney smoke originated. Moving even closer, she started to see movement between the houses. Movement, bustling movement. Movement meant life. Movement meant people.
A tear gathered at the edge of Lily’s eye as she stepped forward, out of the forest, prepared to dash across the open plain to see this miracle for herself. As she did, however, she felt Iris’ hand on her shoulder, holding her back. She turned to Iris with a pleading look, but Iris firmly shook her head and sadly informed Lily,
“Those people aren’t human.”
Lily could only stare blankly at Iris for a while as her hopeful optimism was shattered.
“Get closer. But stick to the forest. You’ll see what I mean.”
Lily blinked several times and turned back to gaze at the village. Then she wiped the tears from her eyes and retreated back into the cover of the forest. She had trusted Iris all this time. No reason to stop now.
The party crept closer to the village, sticking within the cover of the trees. As they approached, Lily began to see more details on the silhouettes of the people. As Iris had said, they were not human silhouettes. Nor were they Elven, nor Nekoi. Most of them had horns on their heads. Those that did not had some other distinguishing inhuman feature. Based on what Tate had told her back in Saphiz, she was looking at a town of demons.
As Lily took this in, she gritted her teeth in frustration. Her body trembled.
“Hey Iris. I really feel like going in and slaughtering all those monsters right now.”
She felt both her hands being lightly touched – Iris and Tate, one on each side. She felt a soft warmth pressing into her back. Prei. Iris spoke up quietly.
“Lily, let me tell you what I can see. I can see a woman. She looks like a human, but she has a horn on her head. That’s a demon. She’s looking at a smaller demon, a child, and smiling. I can see two demons, a male and a female, sitting next to each other, they’re holding hands. There’s a male demon bartering over a dead goat with another demon.”
Iris seperated her hand from Lily’s and stepped directly in front of her, obscuring her field of vision, using both hands to guide Lily’s face down as Iris looked up.
“You know I live for your sake. What you do, I’ll agree. Where you go, I’ll follow. If you want to kill all of them, I’ll help you. But not while you’re like this. Not while you’re in this state of mind.”
Lily felt Tate squeeze her hand, as Prei hugged her abdomen more tightly. Lily’s eyes remained locked with Iris’. She felt the rage drain out of her. If Iris was right, then these…demons were as human as Lily and her party. These were not soldiers. These were not monsters. The tension left her body, leaving her feeling exhausted. She turned away from the village and slinked back into the woods, following their original path, not saying a word.
That night, they made camp next to a stream. Since they had taken the chance to take a bath and wash their clothes, their garments were currently hanging out in the open to dry, and they were as such sleeping in the nude. Lily, leaning her back against Iris, looked around at the campsite, using the dying embers to watch the sleeping forms of her companions.
Tate was lying with her head propped up on her backpack, sleeping quietly. Prei was sleeping curled up on the dirt, her small chest rising and falling peacefully as she slumbered. The party had initially tried to get Prei to sleep on the backpack instead of Tate, but the girl had vehemently refused, saying she liked curling up in the dirt. Indeed, in her current position, Prei looked completely comfortable and at ease.
Lily tilted her head back and rested it on Iris’ shoulder, which Iris had elevated to accommodate Lily’s taller height, causing her to stay in an awkward position with her right shoulder raised while her back maintained a very specific curve to accommodate Lily’s back. Lily was briefly thankful that her friend was an inorganic and could hold this unnatural position indefinitely, but then her thoughts returned to the afternoon’s events, and her levity was dimmed, leaving her with heavy thoughts.
“…So the demons… are just like us, huh…”
If Iris was right – and there was no reason to doubt she was – the demons lived and behaved just as humans, Elves and Nekoi did. When Lily had heard Tate describe demons as intelligent monsters, she had not expected them to be so…human. It could be argued that they were closer to monsters than humans, given their physical features. But… Lily’s companions were a shield that could take human form, a girl made of metal, and a mysterious foster daughter that was clearly not a human. Lily herself had a body half made of metal. Could any of them be considered human by normal standards? Did the question of humanity matter? What did Lily intend to do on this continent? Reclaim it? Chase out the demons? And if she did, what then?
As she pondered many questions, she leaned further back into Iris’ metal back, feeling the sensation of the warm metal against the cold skin of her bare back.
“Iris… if… if… when we get to Azoria. If… something like that happens again, if I go crazy… If I go mad with misdirected anger… If you think I’ll do something I’ll regret… Please stop me again. Please.”
Although the metal back acting as Lily’s support did not move, Iris’ left hand reached behind her, rotating in various ways, taking a firm hold of Lily’s hand, and squeezing it in reassurance.
“I promise. Though I doubt you’ll fall into that state again.”
Iris suppressed a chuckle; it would have caused her back to move. But she permitted herself a small, warm smile as she heard Lily drift to sleep.
“The Lily I love is far too gentle for that.”