Phobos didn’t know how to feel when she was dragged away from her research by her implacable husband. He didn’t even let her put a bookmark in that complicated tome on mana theory she had been studying. Partly, she was irritated by the interruption. They’d made a lot of progress while burning the midnight oil, Ceres and her. The foxgirl’s input based on the kitsune clone technique was particularly valuable and it had provided several mentalities to her. She felt like she was making doing something. That horrible helplessness that had plagued her these past few days was being kept at bay…
But then again, another part of her – the utterly exhausted part – was professing undying affection for its lord and saviour. That part of her just wanted to sleep, and as they rounded a corner and approached their shared bedroom and a rich aroma wafted into her nose setting her stomach rumbling, it decided that it wouldn’t mind some breakfast as well. By the way Ceres’ eyes shone, she held the same opinion.
Phobos relaxed, letting Mars pull her along by the wrist with one hand while he gripped one of Ceres’ hands with the other.
Pulling them into the room and kicking the door shut, Mars pushed them gently onto the sofa and indicated towards the sumptuous spread of dishes laid before them on the table.
“This, ladies, is what you’ll be filling those empty stomachs with. And once you’re done, you are going right to bed. Am I clear?”
“But –” began Ceres.
“No buts,” he said, cutting her off. “I outrank you both and this is a direct order from your superior officer. You’ll do as you are told, without question. Am. I. Clear?”
“This isn’t the military,” muttered Ceres under her breath as she sniffed disdainfully before picking her fork up anyway. Phobos couldn’t help but smile slightly at Mars’ posturing before picking up her own spoon. “As you command o great Lieutenant,” she joked before digging in.
The taste of the food lived up to what its aroma promised. The omelette was fluffy, dissolving in her mouth and the strips of caramelized bacon had the perfect crunch. The best part was the fish fingers that had been fried to perfection – the accompanying curd and herb dip plying her palate with a most delectable blend of sourness and spice.
Shooting a glance at Ceres, she found the girl lost in a world of culinary satisfaction with one hand covering her mouth as she struggled against her urge to just eschew all manners and stuff her face. Phobos had no such compunctions as she swept through her plate like a whirlwind, not even leaving a single crumb behind.
She sank back into her seat, patting her slightly bulging stomach, utterly sated. Through half-lidded eyes, she glanced at Ceres’ remaining fish finger covetously before the exhaustion of these days past finally caught up with her as her spirit relaxed.
Suddenly, it felt like her eyelids were holding up two mountains. She just couldn’t keep them open.
She sank into the blissful embrace of a dreamless sleep.
Ceres retracted her mana and the purple smoke that wound around Phobos paled and then vanished as it dispersed.
Stepping in, Mars raised her limp body up in a princess carry and walked up to the bed, gently laying her down there, covering her up with the duvet and tucking her in. Straightening up, he watched her peaceful expression as she slept, the permanent frown that had marred her face smoothed out by the power of dreamless slumber.
Reaching down, he tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear before stepping away to let her rest.
Walking over to Ceres, he sank down into the sofa beside her.
Polishing off the last of her breakfast, Ceres leaned her body into him resting her head against his shoulder. Wrapping an arm around her, he gently scratched behind her ear and her tails twitched in response.
“How far along are you?” he asked.
Ceres shook her head. “We have the form but not the substance. At its heart, the clone technique is a matter of mana manipulation, mana shaping to be more precise.” She stretched out a palm and formed a sphere of smoky purple mana in it. The smoke swirled and rolled in hypnotic patterns and Mars found himself feeling sleepy as he stared at it. Tearing his gaze away, he shook his head to rid himself of the effects.
“Did you promote?” he asked in amazement.
“My realm promoted in the Aspect of Sleep. I’m an Adept now,” replied Ceres, pride tinging her voice.
“Yeah… what can I say? Congratulations.”
“Hehe. Anyway, mana shaping needs constant attention from the mage.” Ceres let the smoky sphere loose and it wobbled a little before falling apart dispersing in all directions. Mars blew out and a breeze carried the soporific smoke out of the window.
Ceres continued, “But the basic condition of the clone technique is that it needs the clone to have a bit of self-awareness. Enough, at the very least, for it to maintain its own shape. For a smoke clone, the Novice stage is for the mage to remain connected to the mana construct with mana threads and manipulate it like a puppet while maintaining its shape. The Adept stage would be when the puppet can maintain its own shape so the mage only has to manipulate how it moves. The Mastery stage is when the clone has some special instructions embedded in it, like stroll from one end of this bridge to another – or something like that. The path after that is a stretch of flat land where you try and make the instructions more and more complicated with branching logic structures like: if this happens do that; else do that other thing… you get the gist?”
Mars nodded. “That’s clear enough. Then, I suppose, a Doppelganger is basically one step further where you link your very consciousness to the clone so you don’t need to program such complicated instructions into your puppet.”
Ceres nodded. “Exactly. That’s the problem we are facing. At its basis, a clone is fundamentally different from a Doppelganger. There is no link between the mage and the construct and that link is what we need to transfer Vita’s consciousness from Phobos mother to the clone.”
Mars’ heart sank. This was really bad news… but he soon recalled the stimulated expression on Phobos’ face. She wouldn’t be so positive if this was all they had found. “Then?” he asked.
Ceres grinned. “Then? Then, sister Phobos found a workaround. She’s really brilliant. I was totally stuck upon the fundamental differences between the clone and the Doppelganger and totally discouraged. I didn’t even think about the fact that smoke and shadow are different elements and that she has different Aspects at her disposal.”
Mars suddenly saw the light and he patted his forehead. “Ah! The Aspect of Manipulation!”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Ceres, excited at the prospect of creating an entirely new spell – one that might just be able to solve an age-old problem that had plagued all of society since the beginning of the post-apocalyptic era. “Sister Phobos’ mother can create the clone and then connect to it using her Aspect of Manipulation. And there you have it, a budget Doppelganger. One which doesn’t differ in essence with the original technique but can be used an entire Tier lower.”
She turned to Mars, her eyes shining. “Husband, we’re making history.”