The shop was frozen in a state of confused silence.
“I belong to her now!”
Tate’s declaration left everyone speechless. Even Tate herself seemed confused, clamping her right hand over her mouth.
On the floor next to the blinking Jeremiah, the ornate shield – the one he’d called “Jeanne”, began to glow a bright white, its colourful center shining, emitting a strong light. As Lily and Iris watched, the shield began to float above the ground, seemingly of its own volition, and stopped once it was at Lily’s chest height, shining even brighter. Iris stepped in between Lily and the shield protectively, watching it warily.
The light from the shield wrapped around it and condensed behind it, slowly forming a silhouette of a person – a woman – holding the shield. The silhouette gradually gained depth and substance, shaping itself, before the light dissipated all at once with a flash.
Standing behind the counter, next to a smiling Jeremiah, was a woman of Lily’s height. She had long, flowing white hair with blue streaks, accompanied by brilliant violet eyes and ghostly white skin. Her body was clad in a grey tunic, and her mouth was currently wide open in a big yawn, displaying pristine teeth against thin lips.
She stretched extensively and sleepily rubbed her eyes.
Jeremiah stood up and planted a kiss on the woman’s cheek.
“Good morning, Jeanne. You woke up just in time.”
“…huh? What’s going on?”
Jeanne slowly looked around the shop, eyes settling on Tate, then Lily, then Tate again. Then she broke into a wide smile and clapped her hands excitedly.
“Oh! Tate! You finally found one! I’m so proud of you!”
Tate looked at Jeanne with confusion.
“Found one? Found one what? Mom, what’s going on? Why does it hurt so much? And why do I keep feeling like calling this woman my owner? Mom?”
Jeanne smiled and climbed over the counter, beckoning Tate over, bending down and holding out her arms. Tate ran over to Jeanne and buried her face in her mother’s shoulder. They stayed like that for a while, then Jeanne broke away.
“I knew this would happen some day. I thought you would be a little older when it did, however.”
“Mom? Do you know what’s happening?”
“Yes, I do. And I’ll explain it to you shortly, as well as to these nice people.”
Jeanne stood up, making eye contact with Lily, as Tate hid behind her mother.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Jeanne, Jeremiah’s wife.”
Lily took Jeanne’s extended hand.
“I’m Lily. This is Iris. Now will you explain? It’s not every day a girl appears and tells me she belongs to me. In fact, I think I’ve only had it happen once.”
As she spoke, Lily snuck a glance at Iris, who was quietly giggling.
“Ah. Well… where to start… I suppose… hm. Yes. You should be aware by now that I’m not human, yes?”
Lily smiled dryly.
“Naturally. I don’t know many humans that can turn into shields. So, what are you?”
“I’m a shield spirit.”
Lily cocked an eyebrow. Ghost stories and stories of the supernatural were a part of her life growing up, but the woman before her looked very corporeal, and – considering the fact that she had a daughter – very alive.
“A shield spirit. When an exceptionally powerful magical item has existed for centuries, it begins to develop a will and existence of its own. Given enough time, it can manifest an alternate physical form. That is what I am. I am a magical shield, created over three hundred years ago. I only managed to manifest a physical form twenty years ago though.”
Lily nodded slowly. Ordinarily, she would be disinclined to believe Jeanne’s words, but it was an irrefutable fact that she had been able to materialise from within a shield. Additionally, it was hardly the first time she had come across a sentient manmade object. In fact, she had a theory, which she would probably run by Iris later on. For now, though, she had to find out more.
Jeanne blinked in surprise.
“That’s all? You believe me, just like that?”
“Well, yes. It’s not the strangest thing I’ve heard… More importantly, what’s going on with your daughter?”
“Ah, well, you see… Tate here is, of course half-human, but she’s also half-shield.”
Jeanne brought out Tate in front of her and bent down, placing one hand on Tate’s cheek.
“Tate, show her.”
“Eh? But… You know I’m not very good at it… I keep trying, but…”
“Tate. Just try. Go hold that woman’s hand, it’ll be easier.”
Tate slowly, hesitantly, walked over to Lily. Driven by curiosity, Lily held out her hand, palm down. Tate, glaring at Lily, tentatively took Lily’s hand in hers and closed her eyes. Immediately, she was wrapped in a bright white light, that snaked its way up Lily’s arm, dissipating and coalescing into a rounded disk shape along Lily’s forearm. With one final flash, the light dissipated, leaving a deep onyx buckler made of some unknown material. It was about half the size of Jeanne’s shield, but did not lose to her in beauty. Its rounded surface was overlaid with golden trim and precious gems, and it felt light but sturdy.
Lily tried to extend herself into it, but found her tendrils repelled. A girl’s voice sounded in her head.
[Uh… What was that…? Oh, uh, I think you can reply by focusing on me and thinking.][Like this? And ignore that feeling just now.][Huh… More importantly, your arm, it’s…][Let’s keep that a secret for now.][…Mm.]
The buckler on Lily’s arm shone brightly again, white light wrapping around it. The light detached itself from her arm and reformed back as Tate, standing next to Lily. Tate turned to Jeanne, who was smiling with a contented look, nodding as if she had confirmed something.
“Mom…? The pain… it’s gone…”
“I knew it.”
Jeanne looked Tate in the eye.
“Tate, you’re a shield. And shields…?”
“…exist to protect.”
“That’s right. A shield with no master has no purpose. And Lily here is the master you’re destined to protect. Your shield half yearns to be used by her, and that’s causing you pain.”
Lily stepped in and interrupted.
“Wait. Wait. Wait. Why me? How did she end up desiring me as a user?”
“It’s your souls. Your souls are compatible.”
“That’s just strange, isn’t it?!”
“As far as I can tell, that’s just the way it works.”
Lily wanted to argue more, but Iris tugged on the back of her shirt. Stealing a quick glance, she saw Iris shake her head ever so slightly. Her lips subtly mouthed, “Later”. It seemed she had an idea of what was going on. Returning her gaze to Jeanne and Tate, she saw Tate looking at Jeanne with trepidation.
“Wait, mom. So, what does this mean?”
“It means you’ll have to go along with Lily here. You’ll have to follow her, protect her, stay with her. It’s where you belong.”
Tate began to tear up. She clung tightly to Jeanne’s waist.
“What? No! Why? I don’t want to leave!”
Jeane bent over and placed one hand on the back of Tate’s head, bringing her closer. Her other hand embraced the crying girl’s torso.
“And honestly, I don’t want you to go. But if you don’t, if you dont stay by her side, it’s going to keep hurting. It’ll hurt, and hurt, and hurt, until all you can think of is the pain and the urge. That happened to me, and I don’t want it to happen to you. You belong at her side. Besides, it’s already happened. Search yourself and answer honestly. Who’s the most important person to you right now?”
Tate said nothing, burying her head deeper into Jeanne’s embrace.
“…It’s Lily. It’s… Lily…”
Tate choked out an answer in between sobs. Jeanne smiled sadly and stroked her daughter’s hair.
“Good girl. I love you.”
Jeanne looked up at Lily.
“As such, would you kindly allow our daughter to accompany you on your travels?”
Jeremiah, who had remained in stoic silence with his arms crossed up to this point, spoke up.
“Wait. I don’t want her to go. Don’t I get a say in this?”
Jeanne shot him a glare, causing him to shrink into himself and cower.
“No. We agreed I get priority when it comes to her shield half.”
Jeremiah grumbled and sat down without further complaint. Turning back to Lily, Jeanne tilted her head, waiting for an answer.
Lily thought about it for a while. While she neither desired nor scorned the addition of Tate to their party, there was no clear benefit to bring her along, especially since she would make it that much more expensive to pay for meals and lodging.
“Well… I don’t really mind, but… I can’t bring along a girl if she’s just going to be dead weight; we’ll be going dangerous places, and I won’t have the time to take care of her.”
Tate abruptly broke away from Jeanne’s hug and stormed up to Lily, eyes still red from crying. She glared at Lily, tears still forming at the corners of her eyes.
“I’m not dead weight. I can prove that, at least. You’re adventurers, right? Take me into the Dungeon tomorrow. I’ll show you.”
Lily cocked an eyebrow. This could interesting. Tate showed indignation at Lily’s insinuation of her being a burden. Perhaps it was her innate desire to be of use? And no signs of fear, and that confidence… perhaps she did have some measure of ability.
“Alright. I’ll come by here tomorrow morning to pick you up. I won’t guarantee your safety, though. I definitely won’t be going out of my way to protect you. So make sure you can handle yourself.”
Tate’s glare hardened, a touch of anger invading her eyes.
“I don’t need your consideration. I’ll show you I can pull my weight.”
Lily smirked as she turned and walked out the door, Iris tottering along. Behind her, she heard Tate begin sobbing, accompanied by the voices of Jeanne and Jeremiah comforting her. Just outside the door, she tilted her head back and spoke, loud enough for Tate to hear.
“I look forward to it.”
A/N: Yes, yes I did name a shield spirit “Tate”. My creativity knows no bounds.