The girls stood in a circle, hands joined. Lily’s right hand held Prei’s left. On Prei’s right was Tate. Tate linked hands with Iris. Iris completed the circle by grasping Lily’s left hand, which bore the <<Link Conduit>> on its fourth finger. Lily had already registered their current location as a waypoint, so all that was left to do was to shift to the Wasteland. Prei looked at Lily with uncertainty. Lily offered her a reassuring smile. Tate’s eyes merely shone with curiosity. She had heard of the destination from Lily’s recount of her circumstances, and was eager to see for herself exactly what the wasteland Lily had spent three years in looked like. Lily felt that such enthusiasm was rather misplaced, but she decided not to voice this opinion.
Iris squeezed Lily’s hand tightly. Lily closed her eyes and focused on the <<Link Conduit>> on her finger.
A bright white light burst forth from the <<Link Conduit>> and engulfed the girls, enveloping them and folding around them, then dissipated. Even with her eyes closed, Lily could feel the sudden change in their surroundings. The signs of vegetation had disappeared, the soil took on a coarser composition. The gentle breeze which had whispered through the forest was gone. The air around her felt drier. She opened her eyes, greeted with the familiar sight of the wasteland of scrap metal. Prei was jerking her head around in bewilderment, as if wondering where all the trees had gone. Tears started to form in her eyes, so Lily knelt down and hugged her, patting her back. She wrapped her arms around Lily and hugged her tightly. Lily turned to the rest of the group to confirm their reactions.
Iris was standing next to her indifferently, her gaze cast upon the broken half-spherical container a few meters away from them. A small smile spread across her face. No doubt, she was recalling the day they had met. Tate was surveying the area around them with a pained eye. She was the first to speak.
“…This place is rather dreary.”
Lily let loose a laugh at the statement. From her experience, “dreary” was an understatement for the state of this world. It was completely barren, with no life other than Lily and her party.
“Now imagine spending three years in here. Well, not that I knew it had been three years, anyway.”
“Ahhhh… you did mention that. The sun doesn’t go down, right?”
“Yep. And I don’t know whether time passes the same here, either. For all we know, we could return now, and end up in the same place we left, but a year later. I mean, I hope that isn’t the case, but it’s a possibility.”
“…Right. Then we shouldn’t spend too much time here. What are we looking for, again?”
Lily had decided to reinforce the foundations for her new house with metal. Unfortunately, refined metal was not a naturally-occurring material, nor did they possess the tools needed to refine metal. Therefore, the most easily-available source for it was in this Wasteland. While most of the metal around them was useless, the kneeling form of the Warden was still largely intact, with all the material needed for Lily’s arms and legs having been salvaged from but a single section of one of its arms.
“…Alright, let’s get to work.”
Lily peeled Prei off her chest and looked the young girl in the eye. Lily cast her glance around, settling on a single, green box. The box that contained the liquid and food which had sustained her during her first trip here. She pointed at it, causing Prei’s eyes to align with the direction in which she was pointing.
“See that box there? I want you to go find as many of those as you can and bring them back. Don’t go too far though. Make sure you can always see us. Can you do that?”
Prei nodded confidently. Lily smiled and patted her on the head. Lily stood up, and Prei promptly ran off in the direction of the first box. Lily turned to Tate and pointed at the remains of the Warden.
“Well, we’re going to need enough metal for four bars, about fifteen meters long and half a meter thick. We’ll also need eight bars of about twenty-five meters in length, and eight bars about twenty meters in length, each about a quarter of a meter thick. All in all, it should require… most of the Warden’s lower body.”
Tate raised an eyebrow.
“Just the lower body? I know it’s big, but it’s not that big.”
“That’s what I thought at first. Lift the skirt.”
Bearing a look of confusion, Tate lifted the metal skirt of the giant construct. Underneath it was a veritable armory of oversized weapons, as well as a pillar that extended into the ground.
Lily knew from her initial <<Extension>> that said pillar reached deep into the ground, burrowing far beneath the surface. Iris had explained that the pillar served as a stabiliser, allowing the machine to disperse shocks into the ground, which in turn made it harder to forcefully unbalance.
“In any case, we’ll need most of the lower torso, so we should get to work.”
“Actually, Lily, I have another question… How did you make your limbs the first time? I don’t see any casting moulds here, and the shape is too smooth to just be cobbled together from random parts.”
Lily smiled. As expected of an aspiring blacksmith.
“Well… It’s easier to show you. I’ll be moulding all the metal into bars before we transport it, so we should at least gather up the metal first.”
“Mmmm, okay, got it.”
With that, Tate, Iris and Lily set to work removing the parts of the Warden. Since the Warden’s body was made of solid blocks of metal, this process involved slowly removing the external plating, allowing Iris to slice away chunks of the metal, then setting it aside in a growing pile on the ground. About halfway through, Prei returned, carrying three boxes of supplies in each hand. Lily decided to take a break for a drink and some food. Iris volunteered to keep working, needing no rest. Lily frowned slightly at Iris’ tendency to do far more than her share of work, but decided to respect her intentions. As such, the rest of their party congregated by the boxes, leaving Iris to continue shaving away chunks of metal.
She opened the box and handed out the packets of food substance. Tate and Prei looked at the packets in confusion, alternating their glances between Lily and the packets. Lily chuckled and ripped open her own packet, placing the opening at her lips and squeezing the contents into her mouth.
Tate and Prei looked at each other with faces full of doubt, but they both obediently followed Lily’s actions and squeezed some of the food substance into their own mouths, allowing it to slide down their throats. Prei displayed a confused expression, then pressed her finger to her open mouth and felt around inside, as if to confirm that the food had indeed gone down her throat. Closing her mouth, she blinked in confusion and stared at the packet in her hand. Tate’s response was slightly more subdued. She blinked several times, looked again at the packet, then looked back to Lily.
“…This is food? It doesn’t taste like anything.” “Mama, it feels weird.”
Lily giggled. The first time she had consumed this apparent meal, she had been driven by desperate hunger, so she had no chance to think the same thoughts which her companions were having. Watching their reactions brought a smile to her lips, as though she were having the same experience through proxy.
“Well, I don’t know if you can call it food, but it certainly fills the stomach. The water doesn’t taste or feel like water, either, but it’ll keep you hydrated for several days on end.”
She took out two hydration tubes and tossed them to her companions. Prei looked at hers with distrust, then threw it back into the box. She scrunched up her eyes and held out her hand, like she usually did when she was trying to create a ball of water. Lily watched for a while as nothing happened, then Prei’s eyes opened and she pouted, her face a mix of frustration and confusion. Lily gently spoke to her.
“There’s almost no water in the air here, so you won’t be able to gather enough of it up.”
Lily held out her own hydration tube to Prei. Her foster daughter reluctantly took it, uncapped it with her teeth, and drank it. Lily frowned at the use of her teeth in this manner, but patted her on the head nonetheless.
Next to them, Tate had also finished her hydration tube. She grimaced uncomfortably, trying to get used to the feeling of the strange fluid flowing through her mouth. Lily grinned as she grabbed the tube Prei had thrown away and emptied it.
“Well, back to work then. Prei, you can help too. Just pull off the pieces of metal from everywhere below that giant metal woman’s waist. We’ll handle the rest.”
“Leave it to me, mama!”
Prei enthusiastically nodded and ran over to the Warden, beginning to tug on one of the plates. Iris, momentarily surprised, quickly recovered and showed Prei the easiest way to remove said plates. Lily and Tate watched them for a while, and both broke out into smiles when Prei applied her new knowledge, her face lighting up with excitement as she managed to pull away one of the plates. In the periphery of Lily’s vision, Tate crossed her arms and watched Prei doing her best to pull away the plates, and smiled warmly.
Then Lily realised something.
Ever since Prei appeared, she had been dividing most of her attention between Prei and Iris. She paid attention to Prei because she felt a degree of responsibility over the girl, from the moment Prei had called her “mama”. As for Iris, well, Iris was a very special existence to Lily. It was Iris who had been there for her in her time of need, and it was Iris who was the closest to her. It was only natural she should devote more of her attentions to Iris.
But where did that leave Tate?
The aspiring shieldsmith had abandoned her home and her family to follow Lily, and was now helping Lily to find materials to build a new home, despite the fact that Lily had taken her away from her own home. Tate’s maturity was surprising, making her seem far older than her actual age of thirteen. She shouldered hard labour without complaint, she earnestly faced any obstacle. She was a rock, dependable and steady. And yet Lily often found herself taking Tate’s presence for granted. She turned towards Tate. Tate, noticing her movement, inclined her head curiously in Lily’s direction.
“Tate…thank you. For everything. I should have said that earlier, but I didn’t. I’m sorry.”
Tate blinked, surprised. Then she took a step forward, smiling, gaze fixated on the Warden.
“No need. Does a shield ask for thanks? A shield only protects. A shield doesn’t wish for you to notice it, because paying attention to your shield means you’re in danger. But even though it hopes to go unneeded, it will always be there when you need it. That is what a shield is. That is what I am. I’m your shield, Lily, and that’s enough for me. Anyway, it’s not like I’m getting nothing out of this. I took a look at some of that metal, and I can’t wait to see what I can make with it!”
Tate started walking in the direction of the Warden, her arms clasped behind her head. “Weren’t we supposed to be getting back to work? The faster we finish, the faster I get to see how you shaped this metal!”
Lily closed her eyes, whispering another phrase of gratitude before striding forward, following behind Tate. She had never been a believer of the gods, but at that moment, she could not deny that she felt blessed.