Iris neatly sliced through one of the trees, felling it in an instant. Moving quickly, she shaved off the rough exterior of the bark, leaving a smooth, perfectly round log. She cut off eight rings of wood from this log, each exactly 5cm thick. The rings each had a diameter of 65cm and were perfect circles. She left the remaining section of bark on the ground and carried the four large rings in a stack over to Lily, the wood towering over her head.
Lily turned and nodded her head in appreciation, then returned her attention to the task at hand. She was using metal wires to lash a large rectangular open-top wooden box to a rectangular frame made of metal. A good number of metal bars crisscrossed along the length of the frame. From the longer sides of the wooden box, four metal rods – two per side – were peeking out. A closer inspection of these rods revealed that while they were cylindrical for most of their length, the sections of the rod which emerged from beneath the wooden box were slightly smaller and block-shaped, meant to fit a square hole. Additionally, the last 2cm of each rod was separated from the rest by a thin line. This 2cm of metal was thinner than the rest of the rod, and cylindrical in shape. Around it ran a spiraling screw-like thread.
Shortly after Lily had shared her decision to engage the demons in trade, she had returned to the Wasteland with Iris, where she had painstakingly made the frame currently on the ground at her side. It had taken them all of five hours, with the night having fallen by the time they returned. Prei had been fast asleep, but Tate had shown the presence of mind to keep awake and alert. Her relief when they returned had been palpable. While Tate and Prei had slept, Lily and Iris had continued working, building the wooden box. It was made from a number of felled trees, and had required a significant amount of planning and coordination. Since they had no access to nails, they had relied on building the box as an interlocking structure, with Iris cutting the wood into various puzzle-like pieces with grooves and protrusions, meant to fit together to form a singular box with many overlapping layers. On the base of the box were various grooves meant for securing the box to the frame. Lily had thought of the idea and design, while Iris had done the legwork to execute Lily’s design. With their combined efforts, they managed to create a wooden box that supported itself and held itself together, a result that Lily took no small measure of pride in.
Naturally, the object that Lily was attempting to create was a wagon. The protruding rods were to function as the axles for the wheels. While the goods they intended to sell – the golden coins – were considerably light and easy to carry, the goods they intended to buy were heavy and bulky. The wagon would allow them to move these goods with greater ease. Lily had initially thought to use metal wheels, but had quickly given up on the idea once she realised that the metal made a grating sound against the ground which was unpleasant on the ears. The four discs of metal that were intended to be wheels currently lay neglected at Lily’s side, in front of the frame. These discs were all 7cm thick and about 60cm in diameter. A perfectly square hole adorned the center of each disc. Lily had eventually decided on a design that could still use these discs, but would cushion the sound.
Sitting nearby, Prei was playing around in the lake near their campsite, splashing around in the water and forming ice flowers in the air. Tate was keeping an eye on her, but occasionally snuck glances at the half-completed wagon. She had offered to help, but Lily had declined. Tate’s expertise was in metalworking, so she had no experience working with anything other than weapons and armor. Lily, due to her training as a machinist, was more familiar with technical blueprints and designs, so Tate would probably not have been of much help. The thought made the girl slightly bitter, but she accepted Lily’s reasoning and took on the task of watching over the youngest member of their group.
With the box securely fastened to the metal frame, Lily looked to Iris. Iris took two of the wooden discs and used a high-precision mana beam in her finger to carefully carve out a square hole in the middle of the discs, identical in shape and size to the holes in the metal discs. She passed these discs to Lily, who first took one of the wooden discs and slid it along the length of one metal axle. It came to rest snugly at the end of the block-shaped portion of the axle, with a small gap between its edge and the side of the box. Lily then slid one of the smaller metal discs along the shaft, followed by the second wooden wheel. The result was a disc of metal sandwiched between two larger discs of wood. Since the wooden discs were larger, they stopped the metal disc from touching the ground, while serving as a dampener of impact. On the outermost side of the wheel, the smaller, cylindrical section with the screw threads protruded, beginning exactly where the wheel ended. Lily reached behind her and picked up another metal piece she had constructed in the Wasteland – a half-spherical lump of metal with a hole in the center that was lined with screw grooves. Lily placed it over the protruding section of the axle and screwed it on, tightening it enough to make sure that the wheel would not face the risk of falling off.
Lily repeated this for all four axles, then stepped back to admire her work. The sides of the cart were about a meter high. On the interior, lining the sides were two flat wooden protrusions, meant to function as seats. While most wagons would have a yoke at the front to attach to a beast of burden, Lily had excluded this from her design as it was unnecessary.
With the wagon completed, she turned to Prei and Tate.
“Alright. Let’s not waste time. Iris and I will start heading to the nearest village we can find, so you two stay here and keep watch over the site. It might take us up to a week or more to get back, so try to hold out till then, okay?”
With those words, Lily vaulted over the side of the wagon and sat down on one of the benches built into the cart. However, her plans were interrupted by a loud voice.
Tate had stood up and was striding over to the wagon with conviction.
“Take me with you instead. Leave Iris here.”
Lily cocked an eyebrow, surprised by Tate’s sudden assertiveness.
“Well, I’m okay with that, but… why?”
Tate took in a deep breath and explained her rationale, holding up her right index finger.
“Two reasons. First, in the event that our campsite gets attacked, Iris can do more to protect it than I can. All I could do is create a barrier, and even that wouldn’t last forever. Iris has way more firepower than me, so she’s a better candidate for keeping the place safe.”
Lily nodded in agreement. She had anticipated this reason, but had decided that the risk of the remote campsite being attacked was low enough that she could afford to bring Iris with her instead to fulfill her selfish desire to spend more time alone with the girl. Still, now that Tate had pointed it out, Lily could not very well insist on carrying out her selfishness. She was prepared to concede to Tate, but to her surprise, the shieldbearer continued speaking, raising her middle finger to join her upraised index finger.
“The second reason, is because I’ll be more useful than Iris on your visit.”
Lily was momentarily stunned by this confident declaration, but she motioned for Tate to carry on.
“Neither of you have ever done any business transactions, have you? The kind between merchants, the kind that’s full of double meanings and power plays.”
Lily shook her head. It was true. She had experience negotiating with people in power and other academics, but negotiations that centered around money were alien to her. It was easy to negotiate with people when they were attempting to attain an advantage in the present and near future, but merchants had a reputation for always thinking ten steps ahead, constantly evaluating future profits. In truth, Lily was not ready for such an opponent. Lily scratched her head in embarrassment. This possible problem had not crossed her mind at all, preoccupied as it was with the very prospect of trading with demons.
“Well, I’ve been watching my parents do these negotiations over the counter all my life. I’ve even done a few of my own for several long-term contracts. I may not be the best at it, but I’m definitely more ready for it than either you or Iris.”
Lily nodded slowly as she easily accepted Tate’s words. She patted the area on the bench next to her. Tate’s eyes lit up with excitement as she ran and leapt into the box, seating herself comfortably beside Lily. Lily turned to Iris.
“Well then, Iris. Change of plans. Look after Prei, will you?”
A complicated expression briefly flashed across Iris’ face, delaying her response. Then the mechanical girl gave a smile and nodded. Lily felt a tinge of concern at Iris’ strange reaction, but shook her head and focused on the task to come. Iris stepped in front of the wagon, facing one small section of the trees. Iris’ earlier scouting had revealed this point to be the closest to the edge of the forest, making it ideal for an exit. She retrieved a large blaster from a compartment in her torso, then aimed it at the trees and fired. After a large, blinding blast of mana, a three-kilometer path straight through the forest, opening onto the plains, was created, the trees along the path completely obliterated.
Lily and Tate, by now used to the sight of Iris completely destroying vegetation in an instant, gave no reaction. Still knee-deep in the lake, Prei started clapping and laughing. Two large disembodied hands made of water floating above her began to make a clapping motion as well. Lily watched Prei’s response with an affectionate smile, then Extended into the wagon beneath their feet. Envisioning the wheels of the vehicle as her legs, she moved the cart along the path Iris had created, slowly picking up speed, constantly accelerating, until they were moving at speeds no horse-drawn carriage could hope to match. The wind against their skin, they kept moving and broke out of the forest, onto the wide, open plains of Jin-Asalys.