Lily awoke when the sun was barely beginning to break the horizon, finding herself sprawled across the table on her workshop. There were a set of notes in front of her, accompanied by scattered bits of metal and wood across the table. Of these, some were inscribed with ManaScript, glowing glyphs flowing across their surface. Lily stretched out, chastising herself for having spent the night in the workshop again. Iris would scold her, certainly. She took another glance at the notes. She was attempting to make a magical forge that created fires of controllable temperatures for use in metalworking, using Iris’ shooters as a reference. It was going poorly. She had been able to generate a high-temperature flame, but the power supply was proving somewhat more frustrating: the forge required too much mana to be considered practical. Annoyed, she decided to take a break for breakfast, striding to the door of the workshop and throwing it open.
Lily shivered slightly as she left her workshop, the sudden change in temperature causing some discomfort. The leaves on some of the trees in the forest around them were yellowing, indicating the coming of winter. The cold was bearable, for now at least. Lily made a mental note to pick up more preserved food from Riasode on their next trip. She recalled the winter of the previous year with a wry smile.
Unprepared for the sheer cold of the season, Lily and her entourage had relied on Prei’s fire magic and Iris’ heat waves to keep warm as Lily desperately worked to inscribe ManaScript on the walls of their dwelling. It had been a difficult task, but Lily had eventually succeeded in imbuing the walls of their home with an inscription to keep the temperature at a comfortable level. As a result, the inside of their house and work spaces were cool during summer, and warm during winter. Unfortunately, when winter approached, with its heavy snows, it became nearly impossible to travel to Riasode as the terrain became too difficult for the wagon to traverse. If not for the abundant supply of food packs from the Wasteland that Lily kept in their home, the group would have starved to death. Hoping to avoid that, Lily was determined to properly prepare for the coming of winter this year. She mentally added preserved food and warm clothing to the list of things they would need to buy on their next shopping trip.
Walking the short distance from the workshop to the house, she heard faint sounds of exertion from behind the house, in the large courtyard. She smiled and changed course, following the sound.
As expected, she was greeted by the sight of Prei, wearing a white sleeveless shirt and a black pair of practical, thin pants. Her long white hair was tied behind her in a ponytail, jerking in the wind as she swung a one-handed sword repeatedly. Making sure to be as silent as possible, Lily moved a little closer, staying out of Prei’s field of vision. She watched Prei silently, with a loving expression.
Over the two years since they had begun living here, Prei had grown unnaturally quickly. Although she had the physical appearance of a 12-year-old when they had first picked her up, she now looked closer to 16, with the maturity of thought to match. In comparison, Tate had aged normally, thus causing Prei to look slightly older than Tate. That said, Prei still treated Tate like an older sister, and she was still as sweet a girl as when they had first found her.
Prei had taken a liking to the martial arts, and woke up at the crack of dawn each morning to train and keep herself in shape. Although the instruction Iris and Lily could provide was rudimentary at best, she had a natural talent for battle, using her magic in tandem with her martial abilities to pressure her opponents.
After several minutes, Prei put down her sword and wiped the sweat from her brow. Lily decided to speak up at that moment.
Prei jumped, surprised, and turned to face Lily, smiling. She walked over confidently and planted a kiss on Lily’s cheek.
“Good morning, mother.”
Lily smiled wryly. For some reason, Prei favored polite speech and had an unusual ritual of greeting those she loved with a kiss. The habit had developed in the last year, and had surprised all of them at first, but they quickly got used to it. Lily had tried to ask Prei the reason for the sudden development, but Prei had been unable to respond, only divulging that ‘it felt right’. Unconcerned, Lily had decided not to pry.
“Well then, shall we have breakfast?”
Prei nodded happily and walked by Lily’s side as they headed for the door. Entering through the back door, they walked through the living room, where Hina’s katana hung on hooks above the fireplace. As they walked past, Prei’s eyes glanced at the weapon, causing a look of unease to flash across her face, but otherwise she showed no other reaction. Lily smiled proudly. A year ago, Prei had requested that they display the weapon prominently, so she could overcome her fears. The first few weeks, Prei had broken into hysterics whenever she saw the blade, but over time, she grew accustomed to it, and could now walk past it normally, without fear. Lily cast a glance at the weapon. Even after all this time, Prei still had not yet regained her memories, and she herself did not know why she so feared the weapon. Lily was beginning to wonder whether this was a mystery which would forever go unsolved.
Fortunately, she did not have time to ponder upon it – they had exited the living room and entered the dining room, where Iris was waiting for them in a frilly pink apron, hands on her hips, a disapproving look on her face as she glared at Lily. Lily felt her face flush with heat. Despite the prolonged exposure over the last year since she had started wearing the apron, the image of Iris in an apron and kerchief was so unbelievably cute that Lily had to consciously resist the urge to cuddle her. As a result, Lily could not help but grin even as Iris scolded her.
“Lily! You slept in the workshop again. I told you, overworking yourself like that’s not good for you! You’ll catch a sickness!”
Lily laughed sheepishly and apologised.
“Sorry, sorry. I got pretty carried away with the device. I think I’ve almost got it, a way to provide magic power without causing too much strain on the user. It requires some specialised materials, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to set up a manufacturing process for them.”
“Oh, really? Providing magic power despite the capabilities of the user? So some kind of external power source, then? That sounds like a- wait, no, I mean, that’s no excuse!”
Iris’ face blushed red as she began to give in to her own love of learning.
“Anyway, you need to get your rest, too. I love the way you devote yourself to your work, but I worry about you, okay?”
Lily smiled and nodded.
“I know. I’ll try to control myself. Promise.”
Iris breathed out a sigh of resignation, then perked up and grinned.
“Well then, breakfast.”
Lily and her family sat around the table, which was covered in bread, butter and various cuts of meat. As they ate, Tate descended down the stairs, wearing a grey top and blue shorts. As Lily had predicted, barely a year ago, Prei had asked for her own room, and thus Tate slept alone in a room for two. It was a good thing, ultimately, because Tate often returned from the forge at odd hours, and so sleeping alone meant she did not have to risk disturbing anyone else. Over the two years, Tate had changed little in appearance. She looked for all intents and purposes the same as when they had first started living here, except taller, and with more well-defined muscles. She gave them a tired smile, then sat next to Lily, whereupon Lily reached over and patted her head gratefully.
Tate was easily the busiest of Lily’s family. Her name had spread far and wide across the continent, becoming a respected brand that was synonymous with sturdy, practical, and yet aesthetically pleasing defensive gear. She received such a large number of orders from all across the continent that she had been forced to implement a waiting list, and even had to refuse some orders. In addition, she was beginning to explore weapon smithing, so she looked to get even more busy in the future. That said, Tate’s works were the family’s primary source of income, so even though her work in the forge meant that she spent very little time with the rest of them, they all greatly appreciated what she was doing, and would do their best to make her mealtimes enjoyable.
If Lily’s work was successful, she intended to mass-produce and sell it, taking over some of Tate’s burden. Hopefully, without the heavy responsibility of shouldering the family’s financial needs, Tate would be able to relax a little.
With breakfast over, the family split up to do their own things. Tate returned to her forge to resume work, Iris adjourned to do housework, Lily cooped herself up in her workshop to continue trying to create an external power source. Prei usually spent this part of the day doing whatever she wanted. Sometimes, she would train by herself or with Iris in the courtyard. Other times, she would loiter around in the forge, workshop or study, either assisting Lily and Tate in their work, or conducting her own research. On this particular day, she had settled on helping out Lily in the workshop.
“Mother, what are you trying to do, exactly?”
Lily completed the inscription on one part of the device and looked up at Prei.
“A forge, with controllable heat. You know how blacksmiths need different levels of heat for different parts of the forging process?”
Prei nodded quickly, no doubt recalling the early days when she served as a makeshift forge for Tate.
“Well, I’m trying to make one that uses magic to regulate the fire generated to change the heat. So instead of relying on a bellows and instinct, the smith can just turn a dial. It’ll make things easier for them, I think.”
Prei nodded again, more slowly this time, wrapping her head around the idea.
“I see. That does sound useful. Have you made much progress, mother?”
Lily frowned slightly.
“Kind of? I have the forge built and working. But it needs way too much magical energy to use. Since this forge doesn’t use coal to fuel the fire, it draws from the user’s own magical store to create the fire. The problem is, it draws far too much. As it is, this item is unusable by anyone without a Fire affinity. I was thinking about using an external power source, but the problem is that I can’t seem to find a material that can hold enough mana to power the forge for more than an hour…”
Prei thought for a while, then held her hand in front of her, palm facing upward. A small, blue flame appeared above it, dancing in the air over her palm. As Lily watched, the flame compressed inward on itself, solidifying into a flickering red crystal. Lily’s eyes widened as she realised what Prei was suggesting.
“Of course! Using magic energy that’s already in the form we require will reduce the amount of energy expended in the conversion process!”
Lily’s mind raced. Although it was possible that Prei was the only individual in the world capable of creating pure fire crystals like the one she had just made, it was not beyond the realm of possibility to use ManaScript to create a tool that could manufacture lower-grade fire crystals. They would contain less mana than Prei’s crystals, but they would be more than enough to power the forge. By redesigning the conversion process, she would be able to make each crystal last longer, making full use of the magic power contained within.
Furthermore! Crystals as a power source could be used for far more than a forge! Lily excitedly took out a quill and began to write down all the possibilities that came to mind, as Prei watched on with a satisfied smile. The afternoon passed in that manner, in a flurry of inspiration.
When the sun set, remembering her promise to Iris, she left the workshop and headed back to the mansion with Prei. Following a satisfying dinner and a nice, warm bath, she lay in the double bed, letting the fatigue drain from her body.
She spread her limbs across the bed, stretching herself out. There was still room to spare. The bed was large, far too large to sleep alone. She turned on her belly and buried her face in the pillow, her fingers gripping the silken bedsheet. She turned her head and opened a single eye, looking at Iris, who was standing vigilantly by the door, watching Lily. Her mouth tensed, about to call out, then relaxed, bringing forth no words.
Lily knew very clearly that what she felt for Iris went far beyond friendship. It had taken some time, but she had come to that realisation over the last two years. And yet, while she wanted to call for Iris, to lay bare her feelings, a part of her, a large part, was afraid. How much of Iris’ response would be her programming? Even if Iris said she returned Lily’s feelings, would Lily be able to believe her? Lily did not know, and was scared to find out. This fear was what kept her from crying out. Frustrated, she closed her eyes and emptied her mind of thought, determined to get some sleep.
Several hours later, she jolted awake, fully alert. Something was wrong. Something had alarmed her subconscious probe. She turned to Iris, who was still standing by the door. Iris shared a worried look with her.
“Something’s wrong. Can you check on the others?”
Lily closed her eyes and focused on the people in the house, probing for the two holes in her web that she knew should be in their rooms. She found one. Panicking, she searched throughout the house. Nothing. No traces of the undetectable space that should have been there. Without saying a word, she dashed out of the room, Iris close behind her. She made a beeline for Prei’s room and threw open the door. There was nobody there. After waking Tate up, the girls ran throughout the house, frantically searching, but… Prei was nowhere to be found.