The urgency in Prei’s voice spurred Lily to immediate action, granting no time for doubts. Lily nodded and stepped back, allowing Prei space to transform back into her dragon form. Prei touched her hand to the pendant-like object on her neckguard, causing it to reform around her head as a helmet. Then a white light engulfed her as she changed form, growing larger and more majestic.
As Prei changed, Lily focused on a similar pendant-like object embedded in the back of her right palm, which in turn unfolded and reconstructed itself around Lily’s body, forming a sleek metallic breastplate, carved with intricate lines and flowery patterns, the motif of a lily clearly visible along its sides and over the curves of her chest. The technology which Lily and Tate had jointly created for the purpose of making Prei’s armor was revolutionary, but impractical – the amount of mana needed to trigger the transformation was too large. A Paragon would have no problem doing it, but it was beyond the capacity of most humans. It was also an amount beyond the storage capacity of Lily’s mass-produced mana crystals, making the mass production of this technology near impossible, especially when considering the amount of work Tate had to put in to forge the composite plates properly. That said, Lily had employed the technology to make her armor easier to carry around, which allowed her to be quickly ready for battle without having to struggle with the hassle of straps and clips.
As the formation of the plate completed, so too did Prei’s transformation. Just as her humanoid form armor had been enhanced and refined over the years, the armor which covered her dragon form had evolved as well. Having originated as a saddle, the armor retained this purpose, but now covered most of Prei’s body. The metallic plate lined the entirety of her back and underbelly, ending slightly below the tip of her tail. Her head and snout were protected by a layer of metal, designed to be unobstrusive and comfortable while providing protection to her brain area. The word which best described Prei’s appearance was perhaps “warlike”. Standing before Lily, body lowered to the ground, radiating majesty and power, was a muscled, momentous, beautiful, deadly, living weapon… that loved sweet food, grumbled while eating vegetables and called Lily “mother”. Lily allowed herself a quick chuckle at the dissonance between Prei’s appearance and her adorable little quirks, then quickly leapt up on to Prei’s back, followed closely by Tate.
Remaining on the ground, Iris spoke up.
“Then, as usual, I’ll stay here and hold the fort.”
Lily nodded in thanks, but Prei remained low to the ground. She spoke up.
“No, Iris, you need to see this too.”
Iris blinked, surprised. Lily raised an eyebrow at Prei’s uncharacteristic insistence, then tilted her head in concession.
“It’s fine. Jump on.”
“But the house…”
Lily looked back to Tate pointedly. Tate nodded and jumped off Prei’s back, yawning widely. Perhaps it was better this way – the hardworking girl needed to rest.
Seeing Tate leap off Prei’s back and head back into the house, Iris nodded and quickly jumped aboard the crouching dragon.
With Lily and Iris in place on her back, Prei brought herself to her full height and pushed off the ground, taking to the sky.
As they travelled, they moved at inhuman speeds, speeds which caused Lily and Iris to press themselves close to Prei’s back. They flew high, among the clouds, such that Lily could see nothing but white mist around them. As Lily began to shiver from the cold, Iris hugged her tightly and began to radiate a strong heat, keeping Lily warm. After some time, Prei’s voice resounded in their ears.
Lily blinked, startled. At the speeds they were travelling, there was no way Prei’s voice could have carried – it should have been blown away in the wind. Then she felt the lingering magic in her ears and smiled. Prei had used her magic to direct the wind carrying her words into their ears. It was a technique which implied a high degree of control over her magic. Iris raised an eyebrow, impressed. Her eyes tinted slightly purple. Her student had shown remarkable progress. As Lily and Iris locked eyes, sharing in their pride of Prei’s growth, Prei continued speaking.
“I was flying home from Riasode – rushing, since it was getting late. There was one particular new recruit who had a lot of trouble with the weight of a sword, so I tried to teach her the basics of using a dagger instead, since it was lighter and easier to work with, but daggers need a very different form of fighting style that’s more speed and precision-based than stance-based, so it took a while to teach her the basics, and – wait, that’s not important.
Anyway, I was flying home, and figured I should bring home some meat or something, as apology for being so late. So I took a detour, flying a bit North of my usual route, to try and hunt something different from the usual deer and rabbits we catch, but as I was searching, I felt something; a faint throbbing of mana, coming from within the mountain range. I went to take a look, but what I saw was… there, it’s coming into view right now. Hold on tight.”
Prei cut her account off midsentence as she banked hard to the left, breaking out from the clouds, then slowed down. A quick glance downward revealed the three girls to be currently above a section of the mountains which lined the forest, cutting it off from the ocean. The faint moonlight was not enough to illuminate the mountains completely, shrouding the mountaintops and the valleys between them in darkness. Lily squinted, searching for whatever it was Prei wanted her to see.
She felt it before she saw it. A hint of mana – not very powerful or prominent, but undoubtedly present. She focused on it, trying to identify its source, and used that information to guide her line of sight. What she saw was a large, glowing, greenish circle of light, set into the sides of one of the mountains. What was interesting, however, and what undoubtedly had caught Prei’s attention, was not merely the presence of the circle. Rather, it was the pattern of lines traced by the glowing green lights, within the circle. As Lily laid her eyes upon them, she took in a sharp breath as she was struck with a wave of familiarity.
Sitting behind Lily, Iris blinked rapidly as her emotional emulation core went into overdrive, producing emotions of confusion, anxiety, fear. Without saying a word, she released the optical texture on her right arm and held it up, comparing the patterns traced by the green lines on the mountainside to the identical patterns of the ridges that ran along her own metallic arm. If she had a physical heart, its beating would undoubtedly have increased in speed. She was assailed by a sense of confusion, familiarity, fear. Mainly fear. Somehow, buried somewhere deep in her core programming, she had a set of protocols identifying what the mountainside markings were, and how they were meant to be interacted with. She knew what to do next, and yet some irrational part of her supposedly perfectly rational mind struggled against the decision. Something in her feared proceeding forward. She had never felt fear before. It was a decidedly uncomfortable emotion.
Iris leaned forward and touched Lily’s hand, her synthetic fingers trembling. She was afraid.