Lily ran, and ran, and ran. Deeper into the forest, away from the truth. Pushing her inhuman legs to their absolute limit, she ran. With speed beyond human conprehension, she ran. Any direction, any way, just away. She ran. As her legs cycled beneath her, tears streamed from her eyes, sobs escaped her throat. A single line repeated in her mind.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no!

Lily did not know how long she ran, nor how far she ran. When she finally stopped, the sun was sinking slowly over the horizon, casting an orange glow upon the surroundings. Lily came to a stop, the will to keep running draining out of her. She collapsed to the ground, sinking to her knees, as she stared upward at the darkening sky with a hollow look in her eyes. At some point, her tears had dried up. She had none left to cry. Her body losing its strength, she allowed herself to fall backwards, letting her head nestle into the lap of a waiting Iris. Behind her, Tate and Prei caught up to the two girls, panting heavily as they held onto the trunks of nearby trees for support. Iris exchanged glances with them, whereupon they nodded and silently set about starting a small fire.

Iris stroked Lily’s forehead quietly. Lily closed her eyes and allowed herself to indulge in the smaller girl’s gentle warmth. The she spoke up, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

“What do I do now?”

Iris, without ceasing her gentle caresses, responded immediately.

“Whatever you want to. Those demons were soldiers, not civilians. Do you want to go back and kill them all?”

“I do. I do, but…”

But what then? Lily certainly felt the burning desire to avenge her home. It consumed her body, urging her to enact bloody vengeance on the trespassers that had turned her home city into a training ground. But her rational mind kept afloat amid her violent thoughts, buoyed by Iris’ presence. If she were to return and raze everything to the ground, she would certainly feel momentary satisfaction, but what would happen after? It would not cause Azoria to raise itself from its ashes. Even if it could, there would be nobody to populate it. Its residents had all fled the continent. Only demons remained on this land.

What did Lily want to do?

She had two options.

The first was to revenge the past. She could carry out her heart’s desire, running back to the remains of Azoria and slaughtering the demons there. She would figure out the rest after. Perhaps she would try to rebuild the city, perhaps she would live trying to replicate the city just as she remembered it, and maybe, just maybe, people would hear about it and return.

The second was to forget the past. She could accept the city of Azoria as lost, relegate it to nothing more than a memory. She could give up on this painful past, and try to face forward to greet an uncertain future. She could try to discern for herself a new purpose, a new dream. She had no home, nowhere to return to. She could try to forge a new path. She could try to forget Azoria. Or, if not forget, at least try to think back on it fondly rather than with the gut-wrenching grief which currently seized her body.

To enact vengeance for a lost past, or to take a risk and try to create a new future?

What did Lily want to do?

Every bone in her body screamed for vengeance. Her soul demanded that she annihilate the demons that had destroyed her home. As her conviction grew, her scale of decision tipping rapidly toward the option of revenge, her eyes snapped open. Iris’ glowing green eyes stared back into hers with a gentle anticipation. Lily hesitated. Her conviction rapidly ebbed.

She had no way of knowing how dangerous attacking the demon encampment would be. She had never fought demons, she knew not the upper limit of their strength. There were too many unknowns involved in trying to enact a bloody vengeance, it would be dangerous. The risk of death was certainly very high. If it had been just Lily’s life, she would have been willing to stake it. After all, she had no home, no family, no place where she belonged. She had little left to lose. But…

Lily tilted her head and glanced over at Prei and Tate, who were prodding at the embers of a small fire, with Prei occasionally creating small bursts of flame to grow the fire.

Lily was no longer responsible solely for her own life. The moment she had allowed the energetic shieldsmith and her foster daughter to follow her, she had assumed the responsibility of keeping them safe. Could she toss this away, and selfishly pursue revenge?

Lily angled her head back to glance at Iris again. Iris’ lips cracked into a gentle smile. Lily felt a fluttering warmth suffuse her, chasing away her conflicting desires.

No. She could not.

The past, or the future. What did Lily want to do?

Lily made her decision. She forced herself out of the comfort of Iris’ lap and straightened up into a standing position. Tate and Prei turned to look at her, their faces filled with concern. Iris tilted her head up to watch Lily’s, awaiting her answer. Lily took a deep breath, sorting her emotions. Then she spoke.

“I’m hungry.”

Her companions blinked for a moment, confused. Then Prei and Tate broke out into laughter, while Iris’ covered her mouth with a hand, giggling softly. Lily smiled wryly before sending out her <<Probe>> net, quickly snaring a pair of roosting birds, which Tate and Prei then started to prepare.

By some coincidence, or perhaps driven by some subconscious desire, the place where Lily had ended her flight was next to a crystal clear lake. Determining with <<Probe>> that the water was uncontaminated enough to drink, Lily knelt down next to it and cupped some of it in her hands, drinking it, slaking the thirst that had accumulated after running and crying. Then she washed her face, washing away the twin trails of dried tears. She sat down next to Iris, placing her hand over the mechanical girl’s. Iris blushed slightly, then upturned her trapped hand, interlocking her fingers with Lily’s. The two of them sat in silence while Tate roasted the two birds Lily had captured.

Once the meal was done, Tate and Prei walked over and sat across from Lily and Iris, handing them each half a roasted bird. As she handed the meat over, Tate smiled and asked the question Lily had been waiting for.

“So, what do we do next?”

Lily gratefully accepted the skewer and took a hearty bite.

“I’m going to create a new future.”

At this answer which told them nothing, the other girls displayed looks of confusion and curiosity.

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do from here on. I’ll think of something. Will you all stay with me when I do?”

Prei, Tate and Iris giggled at the absurdity of the answer. Then, faces adorned with grins, they all replied at the same time.

“Of course I will!”

“Naturally. I live for your sake, Lily.”

“I want to stay with mama!”

A tear of a sort Lily was unused to gathered at the edge of her eye. She hurriedly wiped it away, and answered their smiles with her own.

After they had cleaned up the remains of their food and placed fresh firewood on the campfire, they prepared to sleep. Unlike previous nights, where they had slept separately, today both Prei and Tate insisted on sleeping next to Lily for some reason. Unable to refuse, Lily had acceded to their request.

As such, Lily currently sat against the trunk of a thick tree. Tate was sleeping while seated next to her, head resting on Lily’s shoulder. Prei was quietly sleeping with her head stationed comfortably on Lily’s lap. Iris stood next to the bundle of girls, keeping watch on their surroundings. As Lily stroked the docile Prei’s head, rewarded with the girl burrowing even further into her lap, she began to slowly drift to sleep, letting her thoughts wander.

Earlier, when trying to decide how to proceed, she had reminded herself that she “had no family, no place where she belonged”. She realised now, watching the quiet rise and fall of her adoptive daughter’s chest, that she had been wrong. She did have a family. They were right next to her. As long as they stayed by her side, she needed nothing else.

Lily slept, and while she was unable to dream, her slumber was filled with pleasant thoughts.