Flowering Winds, or something like that.
It was a Tuesday afternoon when the front door exploded. Aya just finished a consultation job, unable to fully process why the engraved mahogany gently removed itself from its hinges and applied itself to the back of her shop.
Today’s client was a Monoeye from the Near East. She had come at the behest of a recommendation, desperately seeking aid for her dry eye. But the first thing the girl did was march up to the counter and stare wordlessly at Aya.
Aya, a Lamia who thinks herself to be trained in basic social etiquette, didn’t quite know how to react to this. She hadn’t seen many Monoeyes before, and there certainly weren’t many around these parts. This one had white tribalistic tattoos carved into her mocha skin — she looked like she travelled a great distance to arrive in Port Jasington. Her eye took up nearly a third of her face; the sclera had visible red bulging throughout — Aya withered underneath that slightly terrifying gaze. Several minutes passed before she broke the awkward silence.
“Um,” she tried, “can I help you?”
The Monoeye animated as soon as Aya accidentally made direct eye contact. “I heard you concoct the strongest potions, potion seller,” she said, aggressively taking Aya’s hands and holding them tight.
Maybe a bit too tight. The alchemist leaned back, trying to avoid that horrifically large stare and finger crushing grip. “I-I don’t think you can handle my strongest potions.”
But this did not dissuade the foreign girl. “Potion seller, please. I am afflicted with a terrible fate — I require only your strongest potions.”
“No, seriously, I don’t think you have the required ether concentration to handle the side effects.”
“Potion seller. Enough of these games.” The girl gripped even tighter — the rough calluses of her palms ground against Aya’s rather delicate skin. “You must help me. I seek only the strongest potions…!”
Unlike her peers, Aya thought her series of life decisions may have been poorly made. The others in her class became grand alchemists working for the Crown, mad scientists working to advance arcane theories, famous and influential individuals known throughout the land.
What did she become? A merchant. A merchant who has to deal with customers directly. Retail armageddon.
As the Monoeye leaned over the counter and began shaking her by the shoulders, she lost a little glimmer of hope she didn’t even know she had.
“I should’ve become a wizard,” she thought, mentally leaving this world behind.
Like many who stumble into Aya’s Elixirs and Apothecary (patent and trademark pending), this girl had a problem that could be solved without the strongest option. After a bit of testing and analysis, Aya confirmed that it was not a curse that was causing bleary vision, itchiness, and inflammation. It was allergies.
Of course, that was a given. It was spring, a time of revitalization, of flower blooms, of the rebirth of the green world, and unfortunately, a time of ether blooms. Long story very short, this part of the world had a higher mana concentration due to the flora and hypergeometric spirals carved into the weave. For folks unacclimated to the local conditions, it’s not a pleasant time. Common conditions include, but are not limited to: Nausea, rashes, insomnia, shortness of breath, facial swelling, moulting of feathers and scales, loss of hair, loss of appetite, voracious appetite, spikes in libido, decreases in libido, rebellious hair, rebellious feet, unwilling discharge of arcane abilities, difficulty concentrating, neuroticism, and last but not least, itchy eyes.
The last one was an easy fix. Aya rummaged in the cupboards for her supplies of mineralized slime and honey humectant. All this Monoeye needed was a simple 2:1 mixture to cure her ailments. She returned to the counter with an eyedropper filled with the medicine and smiled as she—
Wait. No. She looked down at the tiny, thumb sized eyedropper, and then at the Monoeye.
“Ah,” she realized out loud. “Riiiiight.”
The Monoeye tilted its head, a questioning look on her face. “Is something the matter?”
Quietly, the Lamia slithered back to her cabinet, grabbed two jars of slime and one of humectant, and just dumped the contents of both into a bigger jar.
That was supposed to be the day’s end. The Monoeye was happy to pay full price for the ‘actually-just-two-jars-of-slime-and-one-of-honey-for-eye-application’ (name in progress), a sizable chunk of around ten gold coins. Aya happily flipped a coin up and down, getting five whole tosses before the coin was so very rudely snatched from the air.
She pawed at the empty air, scowling ever so slightly at the darkness that had flashed across her vision. “H-Hey…”
The gold coin was now in the lavender fingers of a young girl in a grey cloak, who merely shook her head in disappointment. “Master Aya, you should not risk the value of your earned coins. Remember the last time you flung them into a vat of acid?”
“That was an accident, I swear. I, uh, didn’t get enough sleep that night.”
Silvery-yellow eyes peered out from underneath her hood, and similarly shaded studs across her garb all seemed to stare at Aya with the same, disapproving expression. “Although your eating and exercise habits have improved, you still remain a slovenly woman.” The girl crossed her arms, sighing listlessly. “What will Svilia do with a hopeless woman like you?”
Aya hung her head and exhaled through her nose. Although this girl was supposed to be her assistant, she was anything but. She was a controller. A tyrant. An ever-looming horror, always watching over her, an inescapable threat. She was an eldritch manifestation that defied the laws of physics, alchemy, reality, and magic themselves just to make sure she went out for her daily slither-runs.
In hindsight, trying to resurrect your dead best friend using occult rituals, not checking if the ritual was successful or not, then erasing your memories to avoid the guilt was not the brightest of Aya’s ideas. But that was a story for another time.
“A-Anyways,” Aya muttered, twiddling her thumbs, “I think that was the last request of the day?”
Svilia nodded, taking the rest of the gold off the counter. “Indeed. Today has been a good day for business. Praise Svilia for her genius marketing and advertising campaign!”
“Yes, yes,” she huffed, patting the girl on the head, “you did very good. Maybe a little too good…”
Before that whole debacle, the apothecary was one of Port Jasington’s lesser known shops; a place which spread only by word of mouth, run by a slightly depressed Lamia who came from abroad. But after Svilia returned, things changed. Her go-getter attitude mutated into pathological capitalism; a stern, all-controlling desire to maximize their combined welfare.
This somehow ended in a marketing campaign, brochures, merchandise, signs, and other silly things. Svilia herself turned into the store’s mascot: a cheerful, slightly creepy girl who was able to deliver requests in five minutes or less, “or your time back!” she claimed.
“Or your time back!” was a very dangerous policy to actually maintain. There was one man who was caught in a time-loop for a total time of around a month, but Aya managed to hide all of that before the Paris association could show up on her doorstep.
The store became very busy, as well. Aya used to spend most of the day sitting at the counter, basking in the sun, reading books, and occasionally dealing with a customer. She can’t even get a blink of rest these days — she thought about hiring more staff, but social anxiety from dealing with another person would kill her. Even worse if it was a young, handsome man with dashing looks and muscular build; the bullying from her acquaintances would become unbearable. She was one of the few at her age without a romantic partner, and she intended to keep it that way.
But Svilia was blissfully unaware of the behind the scenes logistics. She closed her eyes and purred, bouncing up and down under Aya’s palm.
This was the exact moment where everything went terribly wrong. As Aya was about to pull back her hand and mention how they should close for the day, an earth-shattering explosion rang through the apothecary. Her snake’s reflexes allowed her to duck for cover as the door graciously ignored gravity and sailed directly towards the back side of the room.
Svilia was quicker. She nimbly vaulted over the counter, and her arm transformed into a wall of inky black that bit down on the wooden projectile.
Aya curled up on herself, hugging her tail, cowering behind the register. A sonorous, metallic voice echoed through the shop, a sound that did not belong to the living.
“Breach clear. Entering objective site.”
There was a bang. Sounds of wood splintering, metal on metal. Probably a crash, too, but Aya tuned out for most of it.
She was never exactly a combatant. A Lamia’s tail does not lend itself well to the high movement, magic-infused fights of the world; it’s one of the main reasons she avoided the path of a mage. Mandatory military service is scary, and even the ratfolk delivery knocking on her window at night is enough to scare her into a coma.
After a few seconds of cowering and shivering in her scales, Aya poked her head over the counter.
The battle was over. A scene from a nightmare had inscribed itself into her shop — runny liquid shadows seeped from the walls; disembodied mouths and stark yellow bead eyes emerged from the ceiling and floor; smells of ozone and putrid sweetness — sound itself had abandoned the room, giving way to little sucking and popping noises, distant clicks, and chitters that somehow travelled without noise.
But by now, Aya was already used to this kind of thing. After many months of living with Svilia, she’s basically been conditioned to accept horror. Can’t be any worse than getting poked by things you can’t see during a nap, or not knowing if a fork is steel or protoplasm when you put it in your mouth. She was much more interested in knowing what manner of creature could delete her front door.
Suspended in a web of viscous, living ink was a porcelain doll, a white silhouette clad with armoured plates of copper and gold. It’s limbs were stretched taut like a marionette’s, and deep purple eyes struggled to break the darkness setting in. A single spike hung above its head, a wicked sharp chitin point that threatened to skewer it at a moment’s notice.
Svilia stood on a little crate stool, holding the thing by the neck — dollops of bright cooling fluid and mana concentrate dribbled down her arm, lurid blue. “Aya, Aya, A~ya~, just say the word and I’ll get rid of this nui~sance~.”
Aya really didn’t know what to say. The mind has a tendency to shut off when confronted with something extraordinary ridiculous, and this was one of those times. She merely took a deep breath and called out to the doll.
“What… are you doing here?”
“Objective: De—liv—ery. For. Magi—ster. Aya.” It’s voice was strained and muffled, as though coming from underwater.
Aya hadn’t noticed it until now, but there was a crisp envelope in the doll’s hand. It had a red wax seal of a chisel and wand, and by some magic greater than whatever Aya was capable of, had not been crumpled in the fight.
She asked for Svilia to put the doll down and recede before anybody could call another priest. The doll crumpled to the ground, landing in a small heap of metal and circuits — and before anybody could hurl another lawsuit at her, Aya rushed off to the local tinkerer’s shop and paid for a full repair.
By late evening, the situation was smoothed over. More or less.
Svilia ran a real number on the doll, which was supposedly called an ‘Automaton.’ They had a code of EM-12Y on her neck, but no other defining properties.
“This’ll take a few hours,” the green-haired mechanic said. She looked up at Aya and crossed her tiny arms. “Whatever mangled this bot couldn’t have been normal at all.”
“Ahahangrhnhngrhgr,” Aya had said, slithering in front of the slightly conspicuous Svilia. “…Listen. I’ll pay you extra if you don’t tell anybody about this.”
That was all the mechanic needed to hear. They flipped their goggles on and shot a thumbs up. “Deal.”
At a nearby cafe — an aerial-themed cafe meant for harpies and their ilk — Aya finally got around to reading the delivered note over a cup of coffee. Took a while to get the seal off, since it was all magic and crud, but it went something like this:
Faithful, yet forgotten companion, I greet ye well.
Many fortnights and moons have passed since the time of our parting, and many more since the beginning of. As I am not sure when this letter will arrive, or if it will at all, forgive me for the most vague address.
You may remember me from your brief involvement in the Rentonkark Conflicts, or more likely, such a minor campaign may be forgotten by the public eye. I admit, such a conflict occurred many years ago, and the details remain vague to me at the time of writing. But for the sake of brevity (because I remember your preferences!), let me cut directly to the chase.
I own a plot of land deep in the heartlands of the new world, an apple orchard, a getaway from all the hustle and bustle of the main cities. Granted, compared to the Talmaii, hardly any new world city could compare. But this remains a getaway from the getaway city: I promise you a land of untouched fields, rolling green hills as far as the eye can see, pure blue skies, and blessed winds. Being there makes you feel like the only person in the world. But by time you arrive, the orchard may fall into a slight state of disrepair. There are many factors at play here, but I’d like to call upon your alchemy expertise to help grow this season’s harvest to its full potential. I believe you may be the only one who is capable of growing what needs to bloom.
I trust you well, Aya. I’ll see you soon.
Aya stared at the note for a while. Then, with a sip of smooth, cinnamon-hinted coffee, she turned to Svilia and scowled. “Who the hell wrote this? They want me to stay for an entire harvesting season!”
Glancing at the blue-feathered waitress flapping about, Svilia pointed at the paper. “There’s writing on the back.”
P.S. If you have flipped to the back side, then you may remain unconvinced. To that end, I have secured a financial incentive for your cooperation to be delivered at the end of this season. Check the attached note in the envelope.
Aya dipped her fingers into the envelope. There was something hard and metal inside; she brought it up with a flick of her nail.
A silvery, impossibly light plate of metal fell on the table. There were streaks of black flecking the piece, winding about like a complicated circuit.
A capital guarantee plate. Aya’s eyes widened — these were the types of things that nobles and entrepreneurs would flick around. Money backed by raw mana and guarantee of the Crown. She never thought she’d see one in this lifetime, let alone in a letter from a random delivery bot.
And, most importantly, there were a lot of zeros inscribed into the plate. She continues reading the page.
P.P.S. I may have realized that you probably have also forgotten my name. It was Lymia von Dukescorn. You remember Liddy, right? From Prometheus? Right?
P.P.P.S. Her name is Emmy. She knows where to go. She has manarail tickets.
“Lymia,” Aya muttered, testing the name. “Lymia… Liddy. Hmm.”
Her memories of life before Jasington and Svilia were foggy at best, and that was probably for the best. During her stay with the Prometheus sector, Aya ran into many eccentrics. The name faintly tugs on a sensation of arid air, of sandstriders and many nights of heat-induced hyperactivity. It was a very embarrassing period in Aya’s life, a time before she learned humility. In fact, that was probably why she suppressed it so well in the first place.
“I can help jog your memories,” Svilia said, smiling a bit too wide for liking.
Memories of very aggressive brain-plucking. Aya shakes her head, leaning back in her seat.
“You su~re? Svilia knows everything about Aya — she knows every desire, every sadness, every happiness in Aya’s life. Every. Single. One.”
“E-Er, haha, right, yeah…” Aya mumbled, covering up her embarrassment with a sip. She took her mind off her companion’s consistent creepiness by thinking about the money, those big golden zeros embedded in the metal. That much would set Aya up for several lifetimes — she might be able to afford importing high end reagents from around the world!
Granted, there was still the issue of property rights and taxes. Leaving town for such a period comes with its own set of challenges and hurdles, especially leaving her shop unattended. “We’ll need to find somebody to take care of the shop while we’re gone…”
“Aha. Svilia saw that fantasy of Aya’s as well…” The girl sat up and twirled, grinning like a demon. The air itself seemed to distort, crack, and reform as she took a small hop through the air.
When she landed, there were two slightly smaller Svilias — one was dressed in travel gear, while the other was dressed in the shop’s uniform. The others in the cafe somehow didn’t notice, probably due to some cosmic dimensional muckery. Or something like that.
“Svilia will stay,” said the uniformed Svilia.
“And Svilia will go,” said the new Svilia, who was now in a cute scarf, cool jacket, and a small beret that seemed to accent her short hair.
That solved that problem. Assuming ‘Emmy’ didn’t hold any grudges for what happened earlier in the afternoon, they were set to leave. Aya could probably just set her leynet status to away — it wasn’t like anybody sent her any important messages while she wasted her evenings browsing forums, anyways.
For the first time in a while, Aya was fired up. She was determined. She was resolute. She was mostly motivated by monetary gain rather than any lingering friendships or sentimentalism or benevolence, but hey, as long as the results were the same, it didn’t really matter. Probably.
She drained the rest of her coffee, slammed it against the platter, then put her fist in her palm. “Alright. We’ll leave tonight!”
Somewhere nearby, a harpy squawked — they were screaming bloody murder. Aya quickly turned and saw that her tail grew a mind of its own; it had coiled around a waitress and was currently in the process of flailing her around harmlessly in the air, shaking blue feathers onto tables. People were looking at her. A lot of people.
Social anxiety came down on her like a warhammer.
Maybe she got a bit too fired up.
The repair was done by nightfall. EM-12Y, or Emmy came out of the shop’s operating tables, practically completely operational — or so the mechanic claimed. Her eyes were functioning properly, but they gained a faint metallic sheen in the evening glow.
“Apologies about earlier,” Aya began, “There was, uh, a lot of miscommunication. Forgive us.”
She forced Svilia to bow with her, but the Automata had no major facial reactions. “Opinion: Emmy, as named by her previous commander, is indifferent about the matter. She was instructed to not attack Magister Aya or any of her associates, no matter the situation.”
Her voice was a liquid thing, a monotone ooze that seeps from an unseen speaker near her mouth. She merely regarded the apology with a bow, then continued to stare at Aya, blinking every so often.
The mechanic came out soon after, a wild-eyed smile permeating every fibre of her being. She was practically vibrating like the tiny caffeinated creature she was. “That was the best four hours of my life,” she said, reaching up and patting Emmy on the thigh.
While Aya wasn’t on a first name — or any name — basis with the green-haired mechanic, she came here often enough to know about her, generally speaking. Never before had she exhibited such abject excitement.
But she seemed like the sort to take any drugs found in strange places. A mechanical doll would have many places to hide a secret stash. “How so?” she tried, cautiously.
“Alright, so you know how most of the civilian golems are boring, right? They’re all, like, fiddly inside. There’s nothing interesting about them. They’re all lovey dovey, peace loving, only occasionally hurting dudes that are basically just people, but more inorganic. Even got all the lovey-dovey bits required for lubbing-dubbing, if you catch but drift. But not this one.”
“Uh-huh,” Aya said, barely processing the speed at which the mechanic was talking. “How… so?”
“Hooh boy. Ho oh boy. She’s a beaut.” The mechanic clung to the Automata’s leg, bouncing around like a small child on a sugar rush. “She’s a killer, I tell you what. None of that lame spirit core bullshit — Emmy, right here, is all heavy metal, no kilter, no brakes. I bet she could kill all of us here in three seconds flat without remorse!”
That seemed like a very concerning thing to get excited about at the time, but Aya kept her mouth shut.
“I’d like to see her try to hurt Aya again,” Svilia said, baring a sliver of her fangs.
The Automata had no reaction to Svilia. Instead, the mechanic just kept chattering with a big lop-sided grin on her tiny face. “This gal might be from another time, another place. Every single one of her limbs, her torso, her pelvis, even her godsdamned head — they’re all weapons. Her skin is bolt, bullet, and ray-proof. Literally an one-girl army — no idea why she has slightly breast-shaped torso plating. I was able to secure semantics for all of the stuff, even made myself something neat based off her while I was fixin’ ‘er up.” She took out a small gun-shaped weapon with dark purple streaks and hit a switch; the projectiles, little purple bullets, floated outside of the gun, slowly rotating. “Neat, eh? Eh? Eeeeeh?”
“Y-Yeah, that’s, uh… really cool!” Aya said, backing towards the door.
Emmy took all the chatter about her surprisingly well. But she also hadn’t looked away from Aya for a single second. Had Svilia not been giving her the same treatment for the past half year, she might actually be frightened. So maybe Emmy was just very good at pretending to not hear things — or she didn’t hear them at all.
Either way, it was time to go. Gods forbid the mechanic getting cozy enough to deliver an honorary degree in magitech engineering. Finding a gap in the conversation, Aya retreated outside with Emmy and Svilia in tow, waving goodbye to the mechanic.
“Bring ‘er back, ya here?” the mechanic called from the balcony. “I’d love to work on her any time, baby! Hells yeah!”
Now free of the tiny engineer’s rambles, Aya sighed into the worked stone and stardust evening. It was a particularly nice early spring night; the auroras had taken on a certain pinkish twinge, as though flower petals had saturated the night. Slithering to the side of all the foot traffic near the port, she got a proper look at the Automata.
Emmy was a doll-like woman in every sense of the word. Balled joints connected every part of her being, and her legs ended in digitigrade prosthetics with no feet. Plates of unknown, copper coloured alloys barely concealed weapons on her arms, and rivets ran across her body and face. There were barely visible veins of… something running underneath the porcelain coloured ‘skin.’ The veins were definitely magical, but Aya couldn’t tell what they did at the time. She wasn’t a wizard or mage — she just drew symbols and threw ingredients together until things happened.
Her face was a barely emotive mask, a receptive where two solid purple eyes stared with diligence back at Aya. The hair on her head waved gently in the sea breeze, and her lips seemed to move — they had to be made of living steel or something of the like. An intricate, overwhelmingly complicated design.
Most war machines are barely recognizable as living creatures. To go this far to pretty up a single machine of destruction seems ludicrous.
“—Magister Aya. Is there something you wish to request of me?”
Seemed like Emmy was autonomous enough to acknowledge her analytical stare. Aya nodded, noting this down in her mental notebook.
“Would you prefer to be called Emmy, or by your designation?” Aya asked.
A single blink. “Preference: None. This model will respond to both names with equal impunity.”
“Emmy it is, then.” She smiled to herself, resting on her coils. “I read the letter. It says you know the way and that we have to attend an orchard, but… what did the letter mean by that?”
Two blinks. “Conditions satisfied. Running: Exposition skip subroutine.”
The Automata straightened up — her eyes flashed with streaks of green light. Strange grinding noises came from her torso; she leaned forward and opened her mouth slightly. Out from her lips came three monorail tickets, freshly printed, steaming slightly in the evening. Silvia reached up and grabbed them, smirking at Aya.
“You don’t see that every day,” said the eldritch abomination.
The Newlands flew by through the tempered crystal windows; rolling grasslands interrupted by obelisk-like mountains and imposing half-arcs of stone, unkempt pine forests that stretched high above, exposed cliffs of slate and glossy obsidian, sonorous valleys and yawning rivers, floating islands tethered by age-old chains — it was the sort of sight that can get anybody in a poetic mood. Aya, despite spending the better part of her life reading tin-standard throwaway romance novels, felt a little bit eloquent today. It was just that pretty.
The name ‘Newlands’ was probably named as such because nobody could agree on a single continent name. With six different nations and cultures clamoring for a piece of the relatively newly settled lands, there’s bound to be some culture clash. Lots of arguing and sword-swinging. Really, if they couldn’t agree on a name more grandiose than the ‘Newlands’ of all things, then putting together the first stage manarail network cooperatively should’ve been impossible. But here she was — here they were — watching the land underneath the technicolour sky from the comfort of a furnished cabin.
They rode for twelve hours, hurtling across self-forming air rails, bouncing between relay stations spread far above the ground. Aya spent most of the trip just sleeping in the extra-large bed cuddled up against Svilia, occasionally venturing out to acquire sustenance and intoxicants. She engaged in some awkward menial chatter with other passengers, dealt with Svilia’s usual creepiness, and came back several times to check up on their temporary Automata companion.
But not once did Emmy move from her seat, eyes locked on the shifting realm outside the windows.
They arrived in the frontier town of Yoris shortly after noon. The manarail continued on its way, zipping off with a trail not unlike yellow stardust, leaving them stranded at a booth-sized station above the center of town. There was a small sea of quaint red-tiled roofs, slanted at a design reminiscent of Far East architecture. Prayer flags fluttered by as they descended worked stone steps to street level, colours to the near-intoxicating blends of spices, steamed savory buns, and fried meats hanging in the air.
Svilia led the charge, happily hopping from stone tile to tile, arms spread as wide as her grin. “Aya, Aya, look!” she shouted, “Everybody looks so… fluffy!”
“D-Don’t say that so loudly…!” Aya tried to calm the girl down, but she was an unstoppable roiling ball of mirth. The Aeuslin bumbled from person to person, poking aggressively at their fluff and horns, complimenting various absurd traits. Aya chased after her, apologizing to as many people as she could, trying to make sure nobody tripped over her trailing purple-scaled body.
Svilia careened into the proximity of a fruit stall, nearly vibrating with fragments of her former personality. “Hey, hey, heyheyheyhey…! Can I buy one of everything?”
The stall owner, a perpetually startled looking Soldier Beetle, stared down at the girl. Her dark eyebrows twisted into a confused knot at the eagerly bouncing girl. “U-Uh—”
“Dooon’t worry about her!” Aya said, throwing her arms over Svilia. She managed to cover Svilia’s mouth—
“Peaches! Apples! Pears! That’s a star-shaped melon! Wao!”
But that didn’t really stop her from talking. Svilia kept rattling off conversation with the unwitting shopkeep, causing him to sink further and further into himself — it looked as though he would disappear, collapsing into a singularity of some sort. His eyes pleaded with Aya.
“Please… just take our money,” she mumbled, taking out her purse.
He did. Before either of them could be subject to more embarrassment, approximately fifteen paper bags found their way into the group’s collective arms. One of everything translated into many fruits when faced with a great variety. Even with Svilia sprouting tendrils from her back and Aya hanging a few bags off her tail, they were swamped.
“I think this was a bad idea,” Aya said, barely able to look over her fruit bags.
“Nonsense!” Svilia said, smiling over her shoulder. “Svilia will make a fruit medley, a fruit salad, fruit pie, fruit salsa, fruit… fruit! Yay!”
“We’ll need to carry all of this stuff first…”
Thankfully — or not so thankfully — the Automata was still following with; an emotionless doll with dull purple eyes. She held out her hands and took some of the paper bags. “Escort protocol loaded. Engage at will.”
They rented a drake-pulled carriage out of town and rode past farms, barnyards, open fields, and dewdrop lakes. Dirt roads wound between new agricultural settlements, a barely treaded path marred only by clawprints and specks of rain.
The carriage dropped them off at Emmy’s coordinates; a plot of land only marked by a copper plaque on a crumbled stone wall. PLOT #27 — LYMIA VON DUKESCORN & EMMY DUKESCORN read the sign in bold, imperial letters.
There was not so much as a gate that guarded the cobblestone path to the house on the hill. Emmy led them up the path, instructing them in a steady tone. “As per the new contract, you, Magister Aya, have been registered as my temporary commander until the return of Commander Lymia. Instruct me as you see fit, but I shall follow my instructions until then. Goodbye.”
The Automata veered sharply from the path, tossing a pair of keys that Aya caught. She watched Emmy walk into the fields, disappearing past the natural curvature of the land.
“What a weirdo,” Svilia said, poking her head out from behind Aya. She was already getting to work on the glut of fruit she bought. Her face was streaked with pink and bits of crumbly flesh, a watermelon in her hands.
“The front sign had Dukescorn as her last name,” Aya muttered to herself, turning to her companion. “What do you think that mea—”
Although she intended to have a serious conversation with Svilia, the girl was crunching on something very loudly.
The watermelon in her hands had several large bites taken out of it. That is, the striped green exterior of the watermelon had several gashes taken out of it, exposing raw, bleeding fruit flesh underneath.
Whatever coherent thoughts were in Aya’s head disappeared. She merely stared at the girl, completely flabbergast.
“What,” Svilia said, talking with her mouth full, “you don’t eat your watermelon with the peel?”
The house on the hill was immaculate, yet that was all it was. Aya noticed the strange melancholy staining the air as soon as she unlocked the front door; a cloying, almost stale sensation of old air.
Nobody had been in this house for a very long time. She knew this sensation well — it was the same aura that haunted her shop after the first death of Svilia for many years. It was clean, spotless, and practically picture-esque, but not a single soul had lived here.
In the hallways hung oil paintings of golden deserts and bright blue oceans, of crystalline kingdoms, of armoured knights riding into battle on drakeback. Aya picked through the two-story house, opening as many blinds as possible, but not even sunlight could cure the stagnation.
Whatever the case, Aya swallowed her complaints. This would be their new home for the next few months, and she didn’t have to fear any secret horrible monsters, terrible secrets, or terrors haunting the shadows. Just one of the benefits of having an eldritch monster at beck and call.
A vacation, she told herself. This would be a nice, quiet vacation, a time where she could just let her mind relax and spend some quality time with the open skies and her own mind.
There was a particular study that attracted her eye, a library office on the second floor overlooking the main road; a vista of grassy seas that stretched far and wide. It only ended in the distance; Aya whispered a small incantation and enhanced her vision as she acquainted herself with her new room.
Her mana-flecked vision glimpsed of bovine forms and clouds of smoke — past that, the glimmer of the ocean peeking over the horizon. There were strange figures clad in puffy white suits she had never seen before in her life moving amidst the smog; she made a mental note to avoid any trouble and keep to herself in the orchard.
“Svilia,” she called out to the empty room, “can I count on you to manage the household?”
The aforementioned girl slinked out from a nearby shadow, rising up as though emerging from a puddle. She had a faintly amused, yet disappointed expression. “Of course Svilia will. She needs to take care of a helpless and hopeless woman like Aya, after all.”
Over time, Svilia had slowly regressed back to her former personality. While it was only a matter of time before she would literally pick Aya up by the tail and drag her outside to socialite events, it was a welcome change. It was the first time since her youth that she had truly felt like she was awake. “Thank you,” she said, bowing her head. “It means a lot to me.”
But the girl only grinned at the sentimental statement, sticking out her tongue jovially. “Oh, I know. A real girl doesn’t die when she’s killed, you know?”
While the house proved to be in workable condition, the orchard itself was another story all together. From a distance, the rows of trees grew vibrant green leaves and shook gently in the wind — a tranquil, undeniably beautiful sight. But Aya was still an alchemist, a Lamia unseduced by mere surface level beauties. By her fingertips and sharp mind, the mysteries of the world around here unravel and break down to their raw components, and with the right tools and ingredients, miracles beyond beauty, love, hope, and despair will reveal themselves and grant power beyond knowing.
Recently, Aya came to a realization that this mindset was the exact thing that kept her from getting invited to parties and social get-togethers. Or ever getting a romantic partner. But that was beside the point — there was some serious gardening to do.
Up close, the branches of the apple trees were all gnarled and misshapen; unpruned and infested with splotches of powdery, grey mould. By all means, the trees were mostly healthy, but they would hardly make a good harvest in the fall. They clumped too close together: some of the younger sprouts had taken root and grown beside the older trees, presumably apples from last season. It was the work of an amatuer.
Emmy was between orchard rows three and four, carrying around bags of mulch. Her left arm cannon had been modified to fire gentle blasts of nutrient enhanced waters; her right, a blade shaped like a spade. She moved between trees in early bloom, taking care of tiny white flower buds so tenderly that Aya thought it perverse to interrupt such gentle affections.
“Transfiguration runes,” Aya muttered to herself, watching from afar. “That’s… not something normal people have.”
It was one of the decipherable parts of the Automata. Somebody had taken the time to modify her weapons with a mode dedicated to gardening — that cannon could fire beams of mana, fire, and ice just as well as it could water plants. Couldn’t have been cheap.
Gathering her thoughts, Aya slithered close, a meek smile on her face. She reached out to wave greetings to the Automata, but a voice interrupted her before she could make any pleasantries: “Magister Aya. State your business.”
“Oh, uh, right, hey…” Aya withdrew, coiling up on herself. She fiddled her index fingers together, desperately trying to find a way to make normal conversation. “H-How’s it going?”
“Routine: Daily status check,” Emmy answered. “Nutrient application: 47% completed. Health evaluation: 100% completed. No abnormalities detected.”
Aya bit her lip. “No abnormalities, huh…”
“This concludes the report of day 2,431 of the campaign taking place on these premises. Goodbye.” With that, Emmy turned away and continued on her way, moving from tree to tree, even watering those that had to be removed.
2,431 days, just under seven years. If she had been alone for that much time, then why did she bring a letter to Aya only now?
“Wait!” Aya called out, keeping pace with the Automata. “Where’s Lymia?”
“Commander Lymia has been away for three hundred and sixty-six days. Emmy has followed her second directive: delivery of note three upon one Sol year of absence to those who it may concern.”
This Automata had been alone for over a year now, Aya realized. She had seen this sort of thing play out in her novels — it didn’t take a genius to put two and two together.
“Note three? What are the other two notes?”
“Unknown: the location of notes one and two are not known to this model. Inquire with Commander Lymia for further information.”
A missing person scenario. This must have been Lymia’s plan; she handed off all responsibility and loose ends to Aya in case of some certain event. A poorly thought out plan, considering Aya barely knew Lymia — but also a very effective plan, seeing as Aya came anyway.
“W-Well, anyways, this orchard could use some work. Everything is perfectly taken care of, but… there are too many flowers on each tree, and lots of plants crowded together. Also, some bad bugs eating away at the bark of some. Since all the energy and nutrients will be spread over an extreme amount of apples, you’ll end up with a lackluster harvest.”
“Request: propose plan of action,” Emmy said, stopping briefly to look at Aya.
“Well, first off, you’ll need to get rid of the parasites. I can concoct a few tinctures to deal with that. Next, prune some flower buds and uproot some of the new sprouts — you have to do this to maximize your harvest quality.”
The Automata didn’t respond. She just turned and kept watering plants, occasionally touching flower buds, emotionless as ever.
Aya was wise enough to know when she was being ignored. She kept pace for a while, wondering what she said that ticked off Emmy.
The Automata had been on her own, waiting for Lymia to return, presumably. But she didn’t seem to particularly mind her “commander’s” absence, only citing the occasional name.
The process Emmy was following wasn’t entirely incorrect, either. She was expertly performing the tasks she wasn’t blatantly avoiding — she watered and fortified each tree in a matter of seconds. Seemed like some sentimental defect in her programming was causing her to act up.
Aya reached out, calling out the first thing that came to mind. “D-Do you miss her?”
But Emmy only cocked her head at Aya, empty eyes reflecting the clear blue sky. “Undefined Error: Usage of word ‘miss’ in current context is not in lexicon module. Notion discarded.”
Without another word, she turned away and left the current orchard aisle, disappearing around a corner of pale white apple blossoms.
Aya tried to convince Emmy with reasoning and carefully calculated facts, but it was in vain. She just didn’t want to listen, a first from a mechanical creature. Eventually, Aya gave up, took all the measurements required for an alchemical solution, then called it a day. The Automata didn’t even bother coming to the house: she locked herself in a shed marked #38-C near the orchard.
Dinner was fruit. Just fruit, diced, chopped, sauteed, beaten, fried, and baked into all sorts of different things.
Aya sat in front of what was at least twelve different dishes, her spirit already both revitalized and crushed by the promise of nice food. Lamia’s require either extra mana or raw sustenance due to their preposterous size, but this was just too much. She would have to eat pie for the entire week — and as much as she loved pie in all of its varieties, it was definitely not a breakfast-lunch-dinner-snack-and-desert affair.
“The pantry was low on perishables,” Svilia explained, standing over Aya’s shoulder. “Svilia will make a restocking run tomorrow in the morning.”
The Lamia explained the situation with Emmy as she ate, stopping every so often for water. She talked about the inconsistencies and circumstances of the notes, the Automata’s erratic behaviour, and the state of the orchard.
“If you can,” she continued, “keep an eye out for those ‘notes.’ They may give us more insight as to what’s going on.”
“Svilia can always beat Emmy into submission. Again.” The girl grinned as her right arm morphed into a blackened spike.
Aya looked up, shaking her head. “P-Please don’t do that, she seems nice enough.”
“I’ll try my hand at fixing the problem, we’ll see where it goes.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Svilia said. “Svilia will explore more tonight.”
Aya ate for a little while longer before she realized that her companion was not partaking in any sustenance. Usually, she cooked extra large portions just so she could devour them in record time. “Are you not going to eat tonight?” she asked.
“Svilia is saving room for desert.”
Aya looked at the table, which was populated by arguably all deserts. She furrowed her brow. “Which one? I’ll try to avoid it.”
The Aeuslin looked from dish to dish, tapping her chin with her index finger. She made several visual rounds before her coy gaze settled on Aya herself.
“We are on vacation, yes? Svilia will treat herself tonight,” she said, leaning in way too close, tracing a finger on the Lamia’s elongated ear.
Aya intended on doing some research and wandering done tonight, but her entire body shivered involuntarily at the warm, silky touch. Her evening was going to be completely and utterly booked out.
The next morning, after cleaning up and getting her head back on straight, Aya ventured out to the orchard with shears and tinctures in hand. Last night was a mess, but she managed to squeeze out a preliminary mixture for parasite eradication before things got really messy. But when she approached the field, Emmy was already there to stop her.
The Automata held her arms out, as though to protect the trees from the Lamia.
“Emmy? Is something the matter?” Aya asked, lowering her shears.
“I can’t let you do that,” Emmy said, her expression completely unreadable.
Aya tried moving past her, slithering side to side, but the Automata only matched her movements.
It was a textbook case of miscommunication. That’s just what happens when two sides of a conflict, deal, or exchange fail, or are unwilling to communicate the necessary information to each other.
“Why can’t you?” Aya tried, backing off. “Lymia asked me to help you with the harvest…”
“Your course of actions conflict with EM-12Y’s first directive.”
Progress. At least she had some sort of tangible reason. “May I know what that first directive is…?”
“That information is… classified.”
There is a brief hesitance in the Automata’s voice, a strange pause of doubt. She averts her gaze from Aya, staring at the ground somewhere to her left with a conflicted expression.
It was the first show of emotion from Emmy. Slowly, Aya merely nodded and tried an uneasy smile. “I… don’t really get it, but I think I also understand. I’ll try something else.”
It wasn’t something worth fighting over. With due haste, Aya went back to the house, following the cobblestone path.
The wind today was a gentle breeze that ruffled her skirt and hair, a refreshing spring wind. It made a melodic sound as it whistled through the grasses and trees.
She couldn’t be sure at the time, but she swore she heard quiet, broken words, hanging faintly on the threads of wind:
Since she stopped working very early today, Aya had the entire second day to herself. She wandered around the house, noting just how large the hallways were. Her body fit comfortably through the halls, and even the stairways had gentle slopes built in. Very convenient.
Overall, the house was closer to a vilia than an ordinary abode. There were entire rooms Aya completely missed, namely a swimming pool and sand bath. Both facilities had been constructed with foreign fineries — the brickwork and tile layout were reminiscent of modern Thasian civilization; the culmination of many desert tribes over a thousand years. After putting aside their differences, they formed cities of flowers in the harsh deserts of the south and built monuments to commemorate their unity.
But that was basically communism, the absolute rat bastard bugs. As a Talmaii born scholar, Aya couldn’t just sit around and tolerate a bunch of desert hippies like that. They didn’t even have leynets or manarails, so what was the point of sticking around?
Lymia seemed to have the same idea. After Prometheus’s and Aya’s involvement, she probably immigrated to the Newlands with her wealth in tow, then lived a nice few years before disappearing off to do whatever. They probably worked together on a super secret project or something, which is why Aya’s memory of her time there was nonexistent. The mandatory memory wipes were a little painful.
What really attracted Aya’s attention, however, was an opening outside the house. There were two sets of double doors that led into a cellar — the lock gave way to the normal house keys, so it probably wasn’t something super secret or anything.
She lit a lantern and ventured downwards into a spacious stone storage basement. There were kegs stacked to the roof in piles of three, all marked with different dates and numbers. Dust had formed into a thin layer here — Aya rummaged through her coat and dug out a vial with two blue stripes. Then, with a small smile, she poured the light green liquid onto the ground.
The liquid quickly evaporated into a faint green mist, then swept through the cellar, cleaning everything like a hyper efficient duster. Technically this was a war-crime as it used reagents harvested from a still-living creature, but nobody could report her to the Paris association here. Plus, the sylph actually agreed to spare a lock of hair. Not her fault.
That aside, Aya plucked a crowbar from the wall and began to pry open some kegs. Most of the kegs marked with a designation of 3P-X contained with various varieties of cider; hard cider, sweet cider, tart cider, non-alcoholic cider, and more that Aya couldn’t identify. But that was expected from an orchard. Ciders are made from off-prime most of the time, so the rejects of the harvest could still be used in something wonderful.
What Aya didn’t expect were the kegs that were simply labelled the number 2. These ones were marked with some runic inscriptions on the iron bands. Aya took special care to not trigger or agitate these, since runic inscriptions are almost-always a sign of something terrible. It took her a good few minutes to work up the courage to approach one of them, but she managed to pry open a lid without jumping or flinching.
There were dried flower petals inside the kegs. Not just any flowers, but white flowers that had been painstakingly pickled and salted over what the course of many months. All one would have to do is add a dollop of water to restore said petal back to its original state.
“Apple flowers,” Aya whispered, letting a handful of petals fall from her fingertips.
There were barrels upon barrels, the preserved remains of many seasons of pruning. Lymia went through a mind boggling amount of effort to make sure not a single pruned blossom went to waste — a level of dedication that put even Aya’s alchemy to shame.
On the inside of the keg lid was a message written in plain character, clear as day, bright as the clouds.
“ALL LIFE IS SACRED, NO MATTER THE SOURCE.”
Like many other Thasian sayings, the one on the keg was utter hogwash. Claiming that all life (including things like parasitic bugs, horrible mosquitos, terrible prana-scourges) is sacred is a fool’s folly, but thankfully, Aya never studied philosophy or political sciences. She was an alchemist — a person who gets things done. Therefore, she could safely disregard all the implications and musing and whatever the hell and jump directly to finding a solution.
Or, at least, that’s what she told herself.
Like any terrible mentor figure, Lymia had instilled an unsustainable ideal into her student before disappearing to do Gods know what. It wasn’t something abjectly ridiculous and vague like becoming a hero of justice — everybody already knows how that ends. As much as Aya wished to, going back in time and slapping her would not be a very advisable option.
So she spent the next few days coming up with alternate solutions.
If Emmy was unwilling to deal with the parasites, then Aya would have to compensate with additional nutrients. She concocted a elixir that could temporarily bolster a tree’s fortitude by tapping into the soil’s nutrients.
“Are you sure that’s going to work?” Svilia asked, watching Aya from a nearby bench.
Aya threw the elixir up and down, smiling at her genius solution. “In theory!”
“Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” she said, injecting the elixir into the ground.
The worst happened. In a matter of seconds, the roots of the tree Aya was experimenting with grew three sizes, bulging and displacing the nearby soil and sprouts. It looked like a success — until Aya felt something clenching her body. She looked back, dumbfounded, watching dark green tendrils curling around her scales. They were slowly dragging her into the ground.
The roots had unwittingly animated towards the most nutritious source. That happened to be Aya herself.
There was a lot of screaming and crying. A lot of cursing, too. Svilia pried Aya free before the situation could devolve into complete disaster, but that attempt was a failure. The others went just as terribly, with some variations on the exact level of awful.
Nutrient packets. Artificial pollination sprites. Systematic prana reallocation. Nada. The alchemical solution turned out to have a whole scroll’s worth of unintended consequences. Emmy didn’t even want to dig up and move the sprouts to somewhere they could flourish or trim any of the blossoms, which was arguably the stupidest sentimental crud Aya had heard in her entire life.
During one of her architect sessions, something snapped in Aya’s head. She stared at the pen in her hand, the marbled afternoon sky, the crumpled up parchment scattered around the room and ink stains all over her hands, then thumped her forehead against the table.
“This is impossible,” she moaned, banging her head rhythmically, “Apples are hard. Why are apples so difficult?”
Svilia patted her on the back as she cleaned up the study, gently introducing a pillow to rest her forehead on. “There, there.”
Aya rested her mind, reevaluating the situation. There wasn’t much she could do with Emmy on her irrational protection routines — she had already tried the first things that had come to mind, and any other of her usual techniques would probably end in horrific unintended consequences. Lymia was completely missing in action, the absolute ungrateful prick. Aya didn’t even have anybody she could directly vent her misgivings at; without leynet access, she couldn’t make angry anonymous posts on her favourite messageboard.
“You know,” Svilia continued, “the real problem here is Emmy herself. Her habits are of no fault of your own.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Aya grumbled. She propped her elbows on the pillow and stared hard out the window. “Still, there’s gotta be a way to get through to her. I don’t think she’s entirely mindless…”
“If they’ve been here a while, then there must be people who knew them. Do you remember how all those people looked at Emmy in the village?”
Frankly, Aya did not. She was too busy cleaning up Svilia’s trail of carnage and social tomfoolery to notice anything at all. “I was a bit preoccupied,” she said, casting a sidelong glance.
“We could go asking around. Plus, this is supposed to be a vacation, isn’t it?” Svilia put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “You can’t just spend all your time working. Come on, live a little!”
She had a point — breaks were good for revitalizing one’s problem-solving skills. The nearby frontier town was certainly an oddity, waiting to be fully explored. It was a Far East settlement populated by primarily Ursus, Alpes, and a select few of the scaled species native to the east. Perhaps she could chase after one of those things the normal folk called a ‘social life.’
“Alright,” Aya decided, “Let’s go. A night on the town sounds quite nice.”
There was a bit of a problem with actually getting to town. Plot 27 was stuck in the middle of farmlandia, meaning a very long walk. There was a garage and stable on the premises, but there weren’t any vehicles to use.
“Why don’t we ask the neighbors?” Svilia suggested, clamouring to the top of the stable. She put a hand over her eyes and peered in both directions. “They seem nice enough.”
Aya slithered up to see what she was looking at. To the east, the mysterious smoke-filled horizon. To the west was a much closer glimmer of water — there appeared to be some sort of aquatic farming facility set up. Boats occasionally sail to and from the river, dropping off large bales of kelp and other dark green sea-growths.
She narrowed her gaze at the western farm and crossed her arms. “Weirdos and bloody fish.”
Svilia perked up, raising a brow. “Hm? Does Aya not like fish?”
“Long story,” she muttered, slithering back to the ground. “I’ll explain some other time.”
The smoke clouds grew more insidious the further they traveled to the east. From tiny grey wisps they grew and grew, twisting into long dragons that stained the blue skies. By the time they reached the front path to the industrial-warehouse-looking facility, it had turned into a thin miasma. Aya flicked her tongue through the air, testing the general composition. It wasn’t proper smoke, but some amalgamation of mana vapour, caffeine, fruit oils, and vitamins.
There was something coming down the walkway — one of the white suits. It looked like plate armor made from pale white cloth, interrupted by a one-way black visor. Aya felt herself cowering a little at the eerie sight, stopping in her tracks.
Likewise, the white suit also stopped. It stared in their general direction; Svilia slowly stepped in front of Aya, raising her arm.
Then, just as suddenly as it came, it quickly raised its arms and popped off its head, revealing a small puff of pure white smoke.
Aya recoiled. “What the—”
“Heya, neighbor! I’m assuming you’re a neighbor, since you’re pretty neighbor-shaped!”
Before she could figure out how to react, a friendly voice emerged from the mist. It was bright and bubbly, almost too much for somebody like Aya to even hear. Still cowering behind the much smaller Svilia, she watched a cheery faced Ursus emerge. She had short unkempt purple hair, damp with beads of sweat, and two circular ears twitching on top of her head; she extended a hand out to both Aya and Svilia without hesitation.
“Name’s Eliya,” she said, beaming. “What’s yours? Ain’t seen either of you around, but, y’know, Uras hospitality, no matter the place!”
Svilia shook both of Eliya’s hands, which Aya was infinitely grateful for. The Lamia straightened out and smiled, bowing in greeting. “Erm, hello.”
They took turns introducing themselves, which Eliya grinned wider at. “Aya and Svilia, eh? Names that ain’t from around here.” She stepped past them, rolling her shoulders. “While I’d love to chat some more, I’ve got me some business in the town. Tea next evening?”
“A-Actually, we were… uh… looking to bum a ride,” Aya muttered, averting her gaze in shame. Once again, Svilia reached up and patted Aya consolingly.
“Well, boy howdy! Finally getta put my six seater to good use!” She stepped back and grabbed them by the wrists, dragging them along. “Ain’t this day a blessed day!”
“I’m an insect famer, see,” Eliya said, tapping her hands on the steering wheel. “Ain’t that much, but it’s honest work.”
They rode in what was practically a glorified metal box with wheels that rattled hard on every bump. Aya couldn’t fit in the front seat, so they shoved her into the back. She took up three seats anyway.
“Been here for a dang-nab long time,” the Ursus continued, “so you can call me your neighborhood friendly bear! Ha!”
She had yet to leave her leaky mist suit, somehow handling the steering wheel through thick black rubber gloves.
“No thanks,” Svilia said, who was riding in the so-called ‘shotgun’ seat.
“Aw? C’mon, partner. I am the friendly, neighborhood bear, yes yes.”
There was a two front, one-sided ramble directed at Aya during the trip to town. Aya learned Eliya’s entire life story against her will, and also learned many things she did not want to know about insect farming, vapour concoctions, and watching insects breed. She vowed to remove that last one from her conscious memory later.
Eliya’s meandering rambles soon came back to the topic of old neighbors with a little conversation steering. “Lymia? I knew’er. Bit of a recluse, if you ask me. She was the local weirdo who, instead of getting a sensible pet like a owl or cat or drake, ended up raising a metal person. Strange, huh?”
“Pretty strange,” Aya mumbled.
“Right? Real paranoid type — always kept making backup plans and stuff. She even told me to instruct a girl named ‘Magister Aya’ if she ever showed up. What kind of person has a first name of Magister, even?”
Aya puckered her lips. She didn’t know if she had the heart to break the news to the Ursus. In almost all modern civil centers, ‘Magister’ was a title, not a name.
“Svilia would like to inform Eliya that Aya is ‘Magister Aya.’” Svilia said, slightly bemused.
“Wait, really? That’s your actual first name?”
“Well,” Aya stammered, “That isn’t exactly the—”
“Well, ain’t that a kick! Never heard of anybody with a name like that in this life of mine!”
“Here!” This time, Eliya interrupted with a toss of a set of keys. They landed somewhere in the seats which Aya was mostly sprawled out in. “Told me to hand these over. What they do, I have no idea.”
Aya had to dig around for a while to find the keys. They were between two seat cushions underneath her scales, the most optimal position for rousing frustration and anxiety. “T-Thanks,” she muttered, fishing the keys into her palm.
Rather, keys were a bit of an exaggeration. What Eliya tossed was not a key proper, but a pair of coppery circular disks marked #38-C and #38-B. The discernable ‘key’ portion was an entirely smooth bore, a seemingly random jut of metal rod that served no purpose whatsoever.
“Did Lymia say what these were for?” Aya asked, turning the disks over in her fingers.
“She definitely did at some point, but I totally forgot,” Eliya said with a laugh. “Got the memory of a harpy, I do! Think she mentioned something about a shed in her backyard, but since she had, like, multiple copies distributed around, couldn’t have been that important. Maybe she was just laid back, though.”
Faintly, Aya recalled the first time she saw that designation. Her mind regurgitated the shed marked #38-C in the orchard, but that didn’t really make sense. Why would somebody give their neighbours keys to a random shed? She gave it some more thought, but couldn’t come up with anything less ridiculous. Years of research among conspiracy mongers can do that to one’s mundane problem-solving skills.
She held the keys up as the ride continued, watching the engraved numbers catch and reflect beams of gentle afternoon light, but they refused to yield their secrets.
Eliya poofed off into the town’s crowds, citing some ‘doggone-honey-hammed sprayers’ as business. But she may as well have claimed that she was off to go write some bug heliographics.
Aya held onto those disks as she wandered around with Svilia, fiddling with them for most of the trip into town. At some point, in between browsing tea herbs and local clothing, Svilia noticed the keys in her hands.
“By the way,” she muttered, “Svilia is not sure if Aya has realized this, but Svilia thinks the orchard was a poorly disguised metaphor.”
They were sitting in the shade of a bakery, waiting for loaves that Svilia specially ordered several days prior. Aya treated herself to some mashed fruit and cream while Svilia tossed the key around; both of them bathed in the smell of freshly baked bread and foreign spices.
“You don’t say,” Aya sighed, covering up her annoyance with a sip of tea.
Aya had read enough emotionally-charged romantic schlock to know how most situations develop. This one was falling into the potentially cliche, but cliches were much harder to solve when they were personally happening to you. She ran a hand through her hair, formulating her musings into words.
“Really, more people should be more straightforward with their desires. Was it really that hard to just ask for some engineering advice? Plus, I’m not even qualified for this…”
Svilia shrugged to that. She was drawing a picture in a notepad, amusing herself while they waited. “If everybody was as straightforward as Aya, we’d live in a much less interesting world. Is that not what life is about?”
“Not everything needs to be complicated,” Aya said. “I don’t see why Lymia couldn’t just leave everything in a one-and-done Automata training request. Instead, she laid a dumb, cryptic trail…”
“Wasn’t Aya the one Svilia had to confiscate several stashes of romanticism-themed furnace kindling?”
“That… was different, okay? That was for entertainment. And research.”
“Svilia is formally contracted to believe whatever Aya says, yup, yup.” The girl crossed her arms triumphantly, smiling to herself.
Aya grumbled into her newspaper, quietly explaining the importance of the mass production of novelty novels, but eventually her thoughts drifted towards the other notes Emmy had mentioned prior. If the initial letter she found was the third and the Thasian saying the second, then there must be a note left somewhere. The only place neither of them had searched yet was Emmy’s shed itself — arguably the most dangerous spot in the orchard. Whatever the case, the harvest depended on Emmy’s cooperation; a direct confrontation with the Automata herself.
“This situation sure is familiar,” Svilia said, turning the notepad for Aya to see.
“Aya did something pretty stupid when she was left by herself. Isn’t the situation the same?”
A scowl warped Aya’s expression. She narrowed her eyes in protest and crossed her arms as well. “It wasn’t the same at all. It was your fault for being so silly that I had to get attached to you.”
“Sounds like an Aya problem.” Svilia broke into conniptions, clasping her hands together with glee. “Svilia doesn’t get it at all, but Aya should, right? She knows what it’s like to spend those years alone and saddened — you two are similar.”
She had a point. Loss and devastation were not new to Aya. It took her a very long time to get over one particular tragedy in her long life, but she eventually did. Even if it took a literal miracle to kickstart that recovery.
Aya nodded, then slumped her shoulders in resignation. “I’ll try talking to her, then…”
“Emotions bring people together,” Svilia chirped. “Listen to them once in a while, Aya. They brought me back to you.”
Slowly, Aya looked down at Svilia’s notebook. Drawn on the creamy white pages was an early sunrise rising behind a blooming apple tree, a scatter of white petals flowing across the page like droplets of rain.
Early that evening, with the help of a distraction from Svilia, Aya approached Emmy’s shed with the supposed key in hand. Compared to the house itself, the shed was overgrown with vines and pale red flowers. While not quite pink, they captured a light shade of red that seemed to oscillate faintly in the winds, growing brighter and darker depending on the angle they were at.
There was a circular lock on the door, a place for a malform coin to slide into. Eliya’s key fit perfectly into the lock; it twisted thrice on its own, then disappeared. Aya opened the handle in a minor panic and saw the key was waiting to be taken on the other side — probably some fancy metallomancy or something like that.
The shed was a miniature greenhouse. Various multicolored grows belonging to flowers and mushrooms alike had taken root, having already commandeered the desk and chair inside. Aya slithered inside, brushing away overgrowths and ticklish feathery vines from her vision. By a small nest, she found two items of note: a toolbox sized lockbox, and a framed photograph.
The photograph was a preserved image of Emmy and presumably Lymia. They were both dressed in ceremonial steel and enchanted cloth armor, two dangerous figures clad in white. Lymia wore a second layer of cloth over her exoskeleton — despite having beady black eyes and tiny mandibles, her face radiated a level of mirth that Aya was most certainly allergic to.
The lockbox, on the other hand, contained a sliver of azure crystal and a slightly crumpled letter. She rolled out the paper as well as she could and skimmed over the note.
This is the sixth time I’ve written this letter, so let me start off with admitting that this wasn’t the most coherent plan.
If you’re reading this, you either a) found this in a shed after being summoned, or b) broke into my room. In the case of option b), please put this letter away and pretend you didn’t see anything. If you received this letter, I implore you to please read on.
This was all concocted in much of a rush. I had hoped to finish up Emmy’s neural network by the end of my stay, but it seems like my predictions were off.
In short, during some of the conflicts in Thasia after our ventures together, I had captured and subdued an unknown creature known as an ‘Automata.’ Our unit thought it wise to reprogram and utilize the unit to fight against the machines that opposed us. In hindsight, it was a very silly venture, but I have no regrets.
As you’ve probably heard, the War of Lilacs came to an end a great decade ago. I know you Lamia live for aeons of time, but us Kaenirs don’t have such a blessing of a long lifespan. That goes double for me, for reasons that shouldn’t be recorded in print.
After the war ended, it was already a bit too late for me to raise blood descendents. EM-12Y, who we came to know as ‘Emmy,’ was basically all the family I had — at least, the only family willing to travel with me. The Paris Association wanted to scrap and study her, but I ended up fleeing across the seas with her in tow.
To be very frank, I think Emmy has only recently begun to exhibit things that could be considered emotion. She has a very long way to go, but if you’re reading this, then she still might need an extra push to cross that line.
I’m calling out to you because I know of your former involvement. You’re an actual, genuine miracle-worker. Although I know it might just be a stupid, sentimenal thought, I want Emmy to go on, even after I’m gone. She isn’t like us at all, but I want her to see all the things a living person should.
I want her to smile. To laugh, to love, to live a normal life far away from the bloodshed. I want her to be more than a weapon. And most importantly, if anybody comes back to her, I want her to have the strength to say ‘no.’ I want her to see the skies and smile.
But should that fail, I have a solution that will probably work. This is the earliest prototype of a ‘soul’ I could get, but I’m afraid that it might reset her memories to nothing. If you insert it into the slot over her reactor, it might work. I’m not sure. Even though we’ve spent a long time together, I guess I could never really do much other than treat her normally. I wasn’t smart enough to fix the problem.
I know I messed up, so I’ll leave the rest to you, trusted compatriot. Don’t worry, the money is real. Sorry about waiting this long to cash in a favour.
Lymia Von Dukescorn.
Aya looked at the sliver of crystal, back at the note, then gnashed her teeth at the absurdity of the situation. “You rat bastard, leaving all the difficult choices to somebody you barely knew. Have you no shame?”
But the photograph of Lymia merely smiled, the only answer left behind.
A casual observation with Aya’s manaworking tools revealed that the ‘soul’ crystal was basically a spirit core — the thing used to power golems proper. If Emmy didn’t have one in the first place, then her consciousness would stem from a different place. Inserting this spirit core would be no different than putting a different soul into a body and expecting them to be the same person. Although a nice thought, it just didn’t work that way in reality.
She took a breath and pinched her nose, looking up to the starry skies. Smart as she may be, the workings of another’s heart are a terrible, unsolvable puzzle. But if it had to come down to a direct confrontation, then she could only do her best.
That night, Emmy was standing on the moonlit porch, staring at nothing in particular. She was here every night at the same time, but Aya hadn’t gone out of her way to attempt a conversation. But now, the gap between her shifts was a perfect conversation time — now that they actually had something to talk about.
The Automata barely acknowledged Aya as she approached, affording her the slightest gaze. She only spoke once it was made very clear that Aya wasn’t going anywhere. “Do you require something, Magister Aya?”
To Aya, who had spent the last two hours preparing herself mentally for social interactions, this direct question was an elbow to the stomach. She reeled back, already a little dizzy. “Uh, nothing really… I just wanted to stand around and watch the front porch. Yeah. Something like that.”
“I shall be here for another ten minutes before continuing with my shift. Allocate your conversation accordingly.”
A time limit. Aya shrunk further, steeling herself for a difficult conversation. “Ten minutes, huh…?”
There were too many approaches to this conversation, and none of them were easy for a hermit like Aya to say out loud. Did you know your guardian died and left me to deal with their unfinished business? Did you know she wants you to leave and do your own thing? People didn’t say these things out loud, lest they desire a short life.
She calmed herself by looking at the almost-full moon, a disk of white backed by constellations and long brushstrokes of aurora. Eventually, her mind returned to the first thing she thought of when she came here: the harvest itself. Just like how they saw the same sky and same moon, both of them were working towards a harvest. It was a conversation topic she could work with, at least.
“How do you expect the harvest to go?” Aya said, making an active effort to stop fidgeting.
“Data inconclusive: Emmy cannot predict the outcome of the current harvest.”
“Eh? You can’t?”
“Trend broken. One inconsistency has disrupted the pattern despite no changes in behavioural routine. Cannot conclude with additional results.”
The facts and ideas began to coagulate in Aya’s mind. This must be Emmy’s second harvest by herself — assuming she had spent last season alone and realized a failure. If she followed the same pattern as before, then she would end up with another harvest of many shoddy apples.
“Was it because you followed that saying? ‘All life is sacred, no matter the source?’”
The Automata nodded, slowly. “Yes. Commander Lymia said it was a ‘rule to live by.’”
“A rule to live by,” Aya echoed. It was quite a ridiculous notion in and of itself, but Aya has seen stranger vows in her time. “Wait, how did Lymia do all the pruning and parasite handling before?”
“She did it herself. Because she know the ‘weight of life.’”
The weight of life. What an inane notion it was — the experts in Aya’s field had already deciphered the weight of life to exactly a handful of ether stones. Whatever metaphorical solution Lymia came up with was nothing more than philosophical riff raff.
Then again, a little vague philosophical riff raff could change a person’s life.
“Why don’t you do the same thing?” Aya tried. “The harvest would go much better if you prune the flowers and adjust things a little…”
Emmy looked away, a brief expression of pain appearing in her eyes. “I do not know the weight of life. Therefore, she cannot do the same tasks as Lymia.”
Even though she knew the literal weight of life, whatever metaphor Lymia was referring to was mostly lost on Aya. How exactly was one supposed to measure an intangible weight like that? Such a vague, almost-meaningless statement only had value in the eye of the beholder — the weight of life was different for each person. Who was Aya to impose her ‘weight’ on the conclusion that another’s heart had decided?
Still, she had to try something. The conversation and, ultimately, Emmy’s growth would go nowhere without a conclusion.
“What do you define the ‘weight of life’ as, then?” she said, trying to maintain a steady voice.
“Lymia never defined that. I intended to watch by learning, but the results were inconclusive. I couldn’t figure out anything.”
“Maybe she wanted you to figure it out yourself?” Aya suggested, hopefully.
“I don’t know what that means.” Something close to anger warped the Automata’s face as her fists clenched. “That is what everyone has said since Lymia disappeared. Think for yourself, they said. What… what does that mean? I cannot compute such variables — why did everyone keep suggesting the same unreachable solution?”
So that was the mental roadblock. It wasn’t an easy one to tackle at all; Aya barely knew how to answer it herself. She was a woman of science, not a poet. The ‘reset’ crystal became heavy in her pocket. It would be much easier to just reset and call it a day, but she already knew the worth of her own memories — Svilia forced her to remember.
“Well,” she began, “To define the weight of life, I suppose you have to define life first. I hate to be so morbid this early in the evening, but… the weight of a corpse and a living body are the same, yes?”
“That is correct.”
“Following that, then you would consider the mechanisms that kept the body alive are life itself. The palpitations of a heart, the muscles that propel one forward, and the emotions that glue everything together. I might be looking at it a bit too objectively, but that may be what life is.” Aya tapped her chin, then snapped her fingers. “You could narrow it down to the mind, then.”
Emmy nodded, bracing against the nearby railing. There was something going on in that head of hers — she frowned, but seemed to be still listening.
“The problem,” Aya continued, “then comes with the definition. Honestly speaking, I don’t think Lymia wanted you to learn the value of exact life. She wanted to teach you the weight of your life.”
“But I’m not alive,” she said, as though it was a matter of fact statement. “I do not grow, reproduce, or die — how could I be alive?”
“Growth isn’t just a physical thing, mind. I think the fact that you’re feeling all of these things is proof of it.”
“I don’t have feelings,” Emmy said, turning to face Aya. “Feelings don’t have a definition.”
The Automata almost seemed angry at the time; not in the genuine offense sense, but she was someone who failed to understand a problem they were presented with. Aya was started to get fired up herself — one of her own primary motivations was helping others understand. That was the role of an alchemist, after all: to decipher the mysteries of this world, wherever they may occur.
“Exactly. Why else would she want you to understand the weight of life, yet follow that saying at the same time? She left it open for you to define, because you were already beginning to understand.”
The Automata took a small step back, shaking her head in disbelief. “B-But I…”
“Work with me, here,” Aya pleaded, taking Emmy’s hands into her own. The Automata’s fingers were cold, but twitched as Aya gripped them. “You watched Lymia preserving flowers as she cut them, what then? What sensations did you feel when you spent time with her?”
It was impossible for Aya to see into the Automata’s mind, but she prayed. She hoped desperately that her current working thesis would hold up; if Lymia wasn’t lying and did all the groundwork, then Emmy would already have a preliminary understanding of emotion. All Aya would have to do was give the final push.
And it seemed to be working; Emmy shied away and looked to the side. The wind picked up and ruffled her hair, throwing it over her eyes.
“You felt something, right? And now that she’s gone, you feel something even worse, right?” Aya channeled her emotions into speech. She pushed Emmy against the railing, warming the Automata’s hands with her own. “There’s a hole in your chest, and you keep going day to day, hoping the same routines can bring them back. But nothing works. You start missing them so bad that it starts to physically hurt, like some part of you is being torn away. That’s what it means to miss somebody — that’s proof that you’re alive.”
Then, as she finished her miniature ramble, she took out Lymia’s letter and handed it over. Aya could more or less see the Automata’s conundrum — she wanted to follow the same patterns, hoping to return to ordinary old days. Emmy did a half decent job of facilitating emotional growth — she better have done something after what was at least a decade of training.
It took a few moments for Emmy to read the letter. The paper crinkled as she read, bunching up around her fingers. When she came across the openly presented soul crystal, her eyes widened.
“She wanted you to move on,” Aya continued, watching her reaction. “You’re practically immortal, so she wanted you to learn what it means to live. If you’re hesitating now, that must mean your memories are worth something to you — that’s the weight of life, right there. It’s a start, but you’ll have to learn the rest on your own.”
The weight of life still had a technical definition, but Lymia probably meant how much people can affect one another, or something to that effect. Though Aya had a fully developed code of conduct, she could easily imagine the situation Emmy was in.
The Automata had spent her life as a weapon, following orders without thinking about them. Though Lymia tried her best, she wasn’t able to fully teach Emmy; the golem ended up as a half-arsed tin can with a barely functioning awareness of herself.
But that was enough for Aya to work with. She held Emmy by the shoulders firmly, then spoke softly. “You miss her right now, don’t you? Don’t look away from that feeling… it’ll be alright.”
“I miss her?” Emmy said, looking down at the letter. Her hands shook a little as she repeated herself. “I miss her. I…”
The Automata broke down, then. Without the ability to sob, some unintended reaction within her mechanical body caused her limbs to shudder. She kept repeating the same thing over and over, looking quite lightheaded as she collapsed into Aya’s embrace. And as the letter fell, the crystal bounced off the wooden porch and rolled into the grass, fading out of sight.
“Don’t worry,” Aya muttered. “You’re not alone. It’s alright to feel this way — it’s the weight of life… I think.”
The moonswept fields danced as she consoled the Automata through the night, swaying to the song of distant winds and memories that were gone too soon.
In the days after that night, Emmy was much more receptive to constructive criticism. Aya went on several long tangents about how trees can be moved without killing them, how flowers technically aren’t alive, and how parasites need to be eradicated. She justified it with some mumble-talk since she couldn’t actually think of a reason to not qualify parasites as living creatures, but Emmy seemed to buy it.
Together, the three of them worked on properly pruning and cleaning up the orchard. The Automata was still hesitant to cut any flowers, but Aya reassured her.
“It won’t be the exact same,” Aya said, gathering up fallen branches, “but we’ll preserve these flowers. No matter the season, they’ll be as pretty as they are now.”
The Automata nodded to that. There was a new expression on her face as she hesitantly snipped apple branches, a quiet, unsteady smile.
That incident with Emmy was not the only road bump on the path to harvest. A pack of escaped electro-bees took over the orchard for a week. The neighboring farm flooded, causing a small torrent to sweep some of the trees and waterlog the road for several days. Several more of Aya’s concoctions ended in catastrophic failure and required around five new solutions each to repair. They inadvertently tortured the timid Soldier Beetle shopkeep almost every single time they passed by her — Aya didn’t know how that happened, but they got free fruit every single time.
Since Aya wasn’t the most socially competent person in the first place, she offloaded most of the socializing to the nearby tolksfolk, Svilia, and Eilya. All of them accepted Emmy without much complaint, which was a huge relief. She initially thought she would have to do a bit where she would have to engineer a situation for the townsfolk to trust the Automata or something equally ridiculous, but it never came to that.
Despite the shenanigans, months of uneventful, blissful days passed. Aya lent some of her old book collection to Emmy, which caused her to disappear for many days at a time. Day by day, both Svilia and Aya would edge out more and more of Emmy’s latent emotional learning. One fine evening deep into the summer, as they walked by a gentle orange sunset, she turned and smiled.
“Thank you,” she suddenly said, standing against the purple-creased summer sky. A simple white summer’s dress covered enough of her mechanical plates that she could almost pass for an ordinary inorganic person.
At the time, Svilia and Aya were engaged in mostly menial conversations about what to make for tomorrow’s lunch. Both of them were equally shocked by the sudden gratitude.
“What’s this coming from?” Aya asked, tilting her head.
“Yeah, what gives?” added Svilia.
“This was Lymia’s favorite sight,” she said, wearily turning towards the half sun on the horizon. “I might come here by myself more often…”
Svilia saw this an opportunity; she raised her hands and wiggled her fingers eerily. “What, not scared of the big scary monsters that come after nightfall?”
Emmy looked at her feet, hands clasped in front of her stomach. Then, with a tiny smile, she nodded. “This is what my heart decided. One day, I’ll wander and see what lies beyond that sight she favored so much. I think Lymia would agree… I hope she does.”
Svilia lowered her hands, dejected. “What’s gotten into her?” she muttered, sulking near Aya.
But to that, Aya could only smile.
On the night before harvest, they gathered once more to watch over the orchard from the balcony. What was once barren poured an ocean of colour, promising a gathering of many expectedly grown apples. Red, green, and even some golden and blues had worked their way into the trees; the result of no small amount of alchemist tomfoolery.
Placed on the balcony’s table was a single apple partitioned into six pieces. The usual golden innards had somehow been warped with streaks of luminous red and black — not the most trustworthy apple. As one of the undying creatures with no regard for sickness, Svilia took a nibble out of a slice.
Her eyes widened as she chewed. Then, with an almost repentant look, she lowered the apple and looked at the sky.
“H-how is it?” Aya asked, holding her hands together, anxious as ever.
“Svilia thinks it would be a crime against nature to eat something so delicious,” she said, staring hard at the slice. Not even two seconds later, she popped the entire thing in her mouth and chewed triumphantly.
“We’ve done it,” Aya said. She leaned back into her seat, then cheered a quiet cheer. “W-We really did it!”
And although Emmy wasn’t very loud, she raised her hands to her chest and cheered as well.
Soon, bright blasts of colour swept the sky, exploding like blossoms. Emmy and Svilia seemed to perk up at the same time, staring upwards. “Harvest festival fireworks!” they both said.
Aya looked at both of them cluelessly, tilting her head. “Eh?”
“Can we go together?” Emmy said, purple eyes gleaming with light. “I’ve only been to a few before… I want to see it again.”
“I don’t see why not.”
That was all the answer the Automata needed. She started walking away, a visible pep in her step. “I’ll meet you two at the door. I can’t wait!”
Her departure left Svilia and Aya staring up at the night brimming with light. They simply sat together, watching the same moon.
“What now?” Svilia asked, turning her head slightly. “Assuming the hold goes through, Aya will be rich enough to retire. Maybe she could return to the big cities and become the professor she once wanted to?”
“What now, indeed…” Aya stared at the moon for a while, losing herself in the pale red disk. She thought to her alchemist shop. Her customers; the eccentric faces that would come tumbling in from time to time. Then, to Emmy. “I think… just traveling around like this is nice. I can help tangible people out here. Maybe not as complicated as Emmy’s case, but… this is nice.”
Svilia nodded approvingly. “No matter what Aya chooses, Svilia will be there. Whether you like it or nooooot.”
“I’ve already taken responsibility for you. C’mere.”
In a rare burst of dominance, Aya reached over and pulled Svilia into a surprise hug. Svilia fought back mirthfully for a while before they settled in a comfy mess on the nearby bed. And they stayed like that until a realization fell into Aya’s head.
“What… is a harvest festival?” she asked, still clueless many seconds later. Without a word, Svilia dragged her off, leaving only the apple on the windowsill.
One afternoon in late fall, the winds suddenly turned for the harsh. Svilia had to hold on to her beret as a current buffeted the buildings, sending prayer flags into a fluttering frenzy. Aya nor Emmy were faring much better — their dresses and skirts only settled down once they reached the suspended manarail station.
In all directions, the sloping red roofs of the town. Before she knew it, Aya was already back, ready to return to her much-less mundane life. She turned to the Automata and gave a small hug of farewell.
“If it isn’t too much of a problem, come visit us sometime in Jasington, would you?” she asked, patting the Automata on the shoulder.
Emmy nodded, returning Aya’s hug in full. “I will. I’ve been thinking about doing some travelling like you two some time — if Lymia wanted me to see the world, then I will. I might even find her, somewhere.”
“Best of luck,” Aya said, parting with a shake.
“Svilia recommends not looking too far. Emmy might end up like Aya and waste many years of her life.”
Emmy only smiled, dismissing Svilia with a wave of her metallic hand. “I won’t, I won’t. But I’ll see you two soon, for sure!”
The manarail departed the same way it came, a bolt of blue lightning across the skies. Aya saw the town of Yoris fade away into grasslands, watched the hills transform into tree-filled valleys and great fractures in the earth, and witnessed the day turn to night. But Emmy’s smile never quite faded from view.
Heya. I’ve been busy trying to make money off writing a book. It’s coming out soon. Please check out Weave Point Null, vol 1. whenever you’ve got the time. It’s got monster girls and cyberpunk in it.
I wanted to write more shorts, but alas, Kojima brain struck. Now I’m stuck writing novels and working on VNs, maybe a few contracts with other dudes. Stay tuned, I guess. Turns out I don’t suck.
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