In the blackness there was nothing.
No ground, no air, no up, no down.
In the blackness, Lily floated.
In the blackness, Lily saw.
Black hair. A sword.
Teeth. Sharp, gnashing, teeth.
Pain. So much pain. So much pain.
Metal. A world of it.
Metal. Becoming a part of her.
Metal. A giant thing, made of it.
Heat. Dust. Bright lights.
Heat. Warmth. An egg.
A small girl.
A small girl, made of metal.
A metal girl who could turn human.
Hair. Soft, smooth, flowing.
Eyes. Beautiful eyes.
A pair of matching rings.
Iris smiling gently.
Iris extending a hand.
An inviting, warm, hand.
Lily took hold of that hand.
Grasping it, pulling it, pulling herself.
Up, and up, and up again.
Further up. Beyond this blackness…
Lily’s eyes snapped open, seeing the ceiling of their room in the inn. She was lying in her bed at the inn, comfortably tucked into her blanket.
“Lily! You woke up!”
Seated on her right, seated on a chair, watching over her, was Iris, who had traded her elaborate dress for a more practical set of sleeveless blouse and plain trousers, with a kerchief tied in a triangle atop her head, keeping her hair back. Focusing on her worried face, Lily could see two faint trails on her cheeks, leading from her eyes. Tear stains.
Lily raised her head, but quickly let it fall again when she was struck with a wave of nausea. Hurriedly, Iris held Lily’s neck and head, supporting her as she slowly rose into a sitting position. Lily opened her mouth and tried to speak, but all that came out was a hoarse croak. Iris quickly picked up a glass of water on the table next to her and helped Lily to drink it down. As the liquid invaded her parched throat, Lily coughed and hacked several times, at which Iris stopped the flow, then slowly eased it in again.
Three cups of water later, Lily was feeling well enough to speak. She experimentally tried to make a few sounds, and no croaking resulted. Satisfied, she brought her right hand to Iris’ face, tracing the tear stains.
“…I didn’t know you could cry.”
At this, water seemed to well up in Iris’ eyes, threatening to spill over.
“Of course I cried! You kept slipping in and out of a fever, and you were asleep so long… I had to give you water through a tube at one point… I was so afraid… if I lost you… I would be so lost…”
A single tear dropped from Iris’ right eye as she began sobbing. Lily put her right arm around the girl bending over her and hugged her close.
“It’s okay. I’m okay now. I’m not going anywhere.”
Iris stayed in her embrace for several seconds more, then nodded and pulled away. Wiping away her tears, she looked Lily straight in the eye and broke into one of those gentle smiles of hers.
Lily decided to clarify the situation.
“So, what happened back there? How long have I been out?”
Iris’ eyes flared with anger as she recalled the scene.
“You were unconscious for five days. After the <<Phantom Knight>> diverted its attention to you, I was able to get enough time to charge up enough energy and destroy it in a single shot.”
Five days. It was no wonder her throat felt dry and her limbs refused to cooperate fully with her multiple fine movements.
“<<Phantom Knight>>? Is that what it’s called?”
“Yes, apparently. I heard about it from some other adventurers. It’s apparently the Floor Boss for the 25th floor. The guild has been attempting to defeat it and move to the next floor for weeks, but never succeeded. It’s classified 15 star difficulty, with a recommended party size of 10, all Platinum Class and above. Its omnidirectional phantom swords can’t deal physical damage, but can render a target unconscious by targeting their mind, as you’ve experienced.”
Lily grimaced as she recalled the feeling of being pierced by those illusory blades.
“…wow. And it happened to spawn when we were there. I’m not sure if I should feel lucky or unlucky.”
“Unlucky. Definitely unlucky. The thing cut you open; you would have bled to death if not for the fact that one of the other parties on the floor contained a healer.”
“…Huh. So that’s why…”
Probing around her belly and chest, Lily could feel no scar or damage, though there was an area where the skin felt newer and more supple. As she did, Iris’ eyes narrowed and she began to speak in a stern tone.
“And speaking of wounds like that, the moment you get better enough to move around, we’re going to look into getting you some armor.”
Lily had been avoiding armor. Not because she disliked it, but because it was heavy and clunky, and could potentially hinder her movement. In addition, armor was usually far more expensive than weapons, and it was an expense she felt was unnecessary, given the advantage of her <<Probe>>.
Iris, sensing her hesitation, placed a finger on Lily’s lips to stop her objection.
“No “eh”s allowed. We’re getting you armor. At the very least, something for your torso. Your arms and legs might be made of sturdy metal, but your torso is still just vulnerable human skin.”
Lily frowned. Just the torso was slightly less cumbersome, but the added weight might still affect her balance and speed.
“Look, I don’t think it’s all that-”
“Yes, it is necessary, Lily.”
Iris cut her off in the midst of her attempt at persuasion.
“The only reason you took those phantom swords was because you were preoccupied with your wound. If you had armor to prevent that wound, you wouldn’t have been taken by surprise.”
“That’s not true! The reason those swords hit me was because-”
Lily’s attempt at justification was promptly cut off by a startled jerk, her reaction to a bright light shining from Iris’ eyes. The mechanical girl tilted her head up at the ceiling, causing a series of images to appear on the surface of the ceiling, creating a moving portrait of the scene at the time Lily had fallen. She saw herself land on the ground, and she saw herself lowering her head to check her wound, providing the opening through which the Phantom Knight had attacked with its phantasmal swords.
Lily was too busy being ashamed to question how Iris was able to perfectly recreate the scene of her failure on the ceiling. Iris was right. Armor would have protected her from falling into that situation.
The light from Iris’ eyes cut off and she looked straight at Lily, eyes gentle yet pleading.
“Please, Lily? Could you wear some armor? Do it for me?”
Lily sighed and nodded. She knew better than to insist on her own preferences, especially when Iris so clearly spoke with Lily’s well-being in mind. Seeing Lily’s acquiescence, Iris smiled.
“Thank you. Now just stay there and don’t move, I’m going to go make you something to eat.”
Iris turned and started walking towards the adjoining kitchen.
“Oh, and Iris?”
The mechanical girl stopped in her tracks and glanced over her shoulder at Lily.
“I like the whole “village girl” look with the kerchief. It’s not as striking as your usual appearance, but it has a certain rustic charm to it.”
Lily let out a giggle, watching Iris’ face turn bright red even as its owner turned and continued heading towards the kitchen wordlessly. As she laughed, Lily felt warmth and energy returning to her body, breaking into a smile. Iris appeared to be the best medicine for Lily’s ails.