“I figured I’d try to modify my armor a bit, install a couple wires in the outer frame so I can wear them over my outer arms without losing combat functionality.”
“…What would be the point of that?”
“Uh, aesthetics? I don’t know. But as is my arms kind of stand out from the armor if I don’t wear the full set with the vambraces, so it doesn’t look very nice.”
“…Lily, you’re telling me that you’re planning to wear armor, over your metal arms – which are probably equally strong as said armor and perhaps even stronger due to greater density – for the purpose of looking better.”
“…Pretty much, yeah.”
“Why not just fill in the armor’s vambraces and replace your arms with them when you go into battle? Wouldn’t that be way more efficient?”
“Uh, no. It’s a pretty painful experience to detach my limbs, which is why I try to avoid it if possible. It feels like having them cut off. Again. Which admittedly doesn’t feel as painful as I thought it would, but I’d still rather not have to put myself through that every time I want to put on armor. Besides, it’s not like the armor is entirely pointless, anyway! Tate overlaid strengthening enchantments in the plating!”
“Enchantments that you taught her how to make, that you’ve already included into your own arms.”
“Well, with more enchantments, I’ll get a stronger effect, no?”
“Lily, you know enchantments don’t work that way. You already tried that. Look, if you’re so adamant about matching the rest of your armor, why not just remodel your arms to fit the look better?”
“Eh, we don’t have the time for that. Besides, plating isn’t exactly a good look for everyday use. Would you want to be hugged tightly with arms that were that heavily armored?”
“Uh, my exterior is pretty well-armored, so I doubt it would bother me much.”
“You’re missing the point, Iris! Cuddling with plate-armored arms? That’s just so unromantic!”
Iris breathed out an exasperated sigh as she picked up a scone from the platter on the table and bit into it. The two lovers sat across from each other at the dining table, a platter of dessert pastries and an ornate pot of tea resting on the tabletop between them. The sounds of mechanical whirring and running water came from the kitchen as Iris’ Varia busied themselves washing the dishes from the dinner that had just ended. Although Iris had no need for food, over the last year, she had learned to appreciate tastes and the social value of eating together. They were financially stable enough to afford a bit of food wastage, and the act of eating together with Lily felt special to her. It made her feel human. She attributed her change in behaviour to Sarah’s memories and the unlocking of her core. Nonetheless, it was a change that she welcomed.
The casual banter that was currently taking place was due to Iris suggesting that Lily temporarily take her mind off the puzzle of Iris’ core by thinking about other upgrades she could develop for their group. It would let her recuperate in preparation for the next day, and it was a productive thought exercise that they could build on later if she managed to finish the main project early. The result was Lily beginning by expressing a desire to perform a completely redundant upgrade for the sake of keeping a consistent aesthetic, a notion which made the combat specialist in Iris choke back sputters of disbelief. Lily could get fixated on the strangest of things sometimes – it was a mark of her uniquely talented mind. Of course, Iris loved that part of Lily, as well.
“Well, Lily, let’s set aside the completely impractical and redundant upgrade you suggested for now. Do you have any idea for the rest of us?”
“It’s not impracti- okay, no, it is impractical. But it’s not redundant!”
Lily grumbled for a bit at Iris’ lack of appreciation for aesthetic congruence.
“Anyway. For Prei, well, I saw something really interesting in Tate’s workshop the other day.”
Lily described the special armor to Iris, going into great detail about the hidden blades and other assorted weaponry that was built into the armor. Iris raised an eyebrow.
“Armor that functions as a weapon? It’s not unheard of, but it’s pretty rare. Hard to get the right balance of hardness and flexibility that allows for the installation of weapons while still having protective capabilities.”
“Yeah. But if anyone can do it, Tate can. The girl is a genius.”
“Indeed she is. So are you going to make anything for her, or leave it to Tate?”
“Hmmm…” Lily frowned and tapped her chin. “I do kind of have an idea, but I think I might make Tate a little upset if I go ahead with it. I was thinking, a transforming weapon, using the same type of technology that we’re using for our armor. So that Prei can rapidly switch between weapons mid-battle. It would definitely fit her fighting style.”
Prei’s fighting style hinged on her uncommon mastery of numerous weapon types – she tended to alternate attacks between weapon-based and magical strikes, constantly changing her weapon and using her wings to reposition. It was a style that reacted quickly to changes in the battle situation and could be used to great effect for both duels and large battles. It was a style that minimised movements and avoided flashy attacks – she had her other form if she wanted to be flashy. If one had to state a weakness, it would be that it took time for her to switch weapons, leaving an opening. A transforming weapon, such as what Lily was proposing, would mitigate that. Iris understood Lily’s intention and nodded.
“That would certainly be very fitting for her style. But I can also see why Tate might get annoyed. I do believe she’s been working on something like that for some time.”
“Exactly. On her last visit she even asked me about switch mechanisms. I don’t want to invalidate her efforts. Besides, even if I made a weapon of that kind, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to the level of Tate’s weapons. Better to let Tate figure it out. On that note, I do have an idea for an upgrade I can look into.”
“Tate’s better at making weapons for cutting and stabbing. So I’ll leave those to her. I can, however, look into a device for amplifying her magic.”
“Ah. Similar to Tate’s device?”
“Yep. Something to amplify her natural proficiencies. Maybe a gauntlet, or a staff. I do recall staves being the favoured weapon of mages.”
“…A staff? When she’s wearing full plate armor? Lily, I do believe you’ve just lost your right to lecture me on aesthetic inconsistency.”
“…Valid point. Gauntlet it is.”
Lily and Iris giggled as they both imagined Prei, dressed in full plate armor, wielding a mage’s wooden staff. When the laughter had subsided, Iris then casually asked Lily her next question.
“And? What about me? What do you have for me? I think something to increase my range of attack would be good. Would let me clear out the enemies faster. Two hundred thousand is a big number, after all.”
Lily fell silent. She had been hoping to avoid this question. In truth, she did not want Iris to accompany her into battle. It was not a matter of danger – she was perfectly aware of Iris’ capabilities. Nor was it a matter of pride – she knew that Iris was someone to whom she had nothing to prove, she knew that Iris fully respected her as a combatant as well as lover. Rather, it was a matter of superstition. That recurring dream came back to her.
“Staying with that puppet of yours will bring only calamity. This shall be your only warning.”
That was what Vessel had said. Naturally, Lily did not believe it. She refused to believe that the girl she loved could cause any sort of calamity. It was probably just whichever god Vessel believed herself to serve fearing Iris’ abilities as an angel-killing weapon. The issue at hand was not whether Lily believed Vessel. It was whether Vessel herself believed what she was saying. The statement had clearly been intended as a warning. Since Lily had ignored the warning, it was only prudent to expect Vessel to take action. And if she was truly convinced that Iris would bring calamity, the natural implication was that said action would be to eliminate Iris.
That was the source of Lily’s worry. Prei’s report had stated that the army was being led by Vessel. If that was the case, Vessel would likely be somewhere within the massive army, in the midst of the battle, leading the charge. A war situation was chaotic – if Iris fell into danger, it would be difficult to send her aid in time. Vessel’s combat ability was unknown, but it was always the unknown which was the most frightening. But if, as Lily suspected, Vessel had single-handedly slain both of Prei’s parents, she was definitely a dangerous foe. That was why Lily had suggested the intimidation strategy – she had no doubt that between herself, Prei and Iris, completely wiping out an army of two hundred thousand strong was possible. Tedious and difficult, but possible. After all, each of them possessed abnormal levels of power. The issue lay with Vessel, the unknown. It was entirely possible that Vessel had the power to take on all three of them at once and emerge victorious. It was also possible that Vessel was powerless and would crumble easily under a combined onslaught. However, she was an unknown quantity, and that therefore made her dangerous. Lily wanted to keep Iris as far away from this danger as possible – and hence she wanted to keep Iris away from the battle.
However, she could not just say that she was worried about Iris – it would seem that she had no faith in Iris’ ability to protect herself if she did. Perhaps that was true. But something about Vessel scared her. Something about her inscrutability, her abnormality, was intimidating. She did not wish to admit this, so she scrambled for an excuse.
“Actually, I was hoping you could stay behind, Iris.”
Iris’ eyes narrowed. The uncertain tone that invaded Lily’s voice was too dangerous.
“Me? Stay behind? Why? Surely you need all the combat potential you can muster.”
“I think you should stay and protect the house.”
“Even while Prei’s home is under attack?”
“I’m just worried that the enemy might come here while we’re gone, or maybe bandits or something, and damage the house. This is her home too, and our home. I can’t bear to imagine it being destroyed due to a moment of carelessness. It’ll be nice to have a place to come home to, after all.”
“…There are no bandits around here. You know that. This place is secluded, and well-hidden. The path we cleared back when we were still using a cart has had its trees regrown. Literally the only way to find this house would be to either know exactly where it is, or stumble upon it completely randomly – and you know as well as I do that the latter is extremely unlikely. Besides, any enemies who might try to invade our home would pay dearly.”
“Still, I want you to stay behind, just in case.”
“Lily, what’s really going on? Why don’t you want me with you?”
“…Nothing’s going on. I just… I just think it would be better for you to stay behind and keep the place safe.”
“You know as well as I do that those justifications are flimsy. In addition, your heartrate is increasing exponentially and the air around you is moistening. You’re not telling me everything.”
Iris got up and walked around the table, placing her arms around Lily’s neck and hugging her tightly, whispering into her ear.
“Lily, tell me. What’s wrong? Please tell me. Why won’t you let me come with you?”
Lily grit her teeth. If she said it now, it would seem like she had no faith in Iris’ abilities – and she knew that Iris prided herself on her combat skills. It would be a cruel thing to say. On the other hand, if she said nothing, it would seem like she had something to hide, as if she felt Iris untrustworthy. Either case would hurt Iris. In the end, she simply whispered, barely loud enough for Iris to hear.
“…I’m scared. Scared to lose you.”
Iris froze for a second, then abruptly removed her arms from around Lily’s neck.
She briskly walked into the kitchen, casually waving her Varia away and taking over the washing of the dishes. Her teacup sat on the table, half-finished. Lily waited, staring at Iris’ working form for several minutes, waiting for her to return to the table. It quickly became apparent that she had no such intention. Lily stood up from the table and quietly stood in the kitchen entrance.
“Iris, are you angry?”
For a while, there was no response. Then, Iris spoke in a curt, sharp tone.
“Leave the cups on the table. I’ll get them later.”
Lily waited for her to say more, but as she waited, she came to understand that Iris had nothing more to say. Silently cursing her own weakness and fear, Lily forced herself to turn away from the kitchen and head to their bedroom, where she threw herself on the double bed. She covered her head with her pillow, silently screaming into it, regretting bringing up the subject. She made up her mind to apologise to Iris once she joined Lily in bed. She was going to hug Iris and apologise and beg for forgiveness, and it would be as if that conversation had never occurred.
She waited, and waited, and waited. Minutes turned to hours, but Iris never joined Lily in bed, never even entered their room. Lily curled up and hugged herself, tears starting to gather at the edges of her eyes. She had never realised that sleeping alone was this painful.