Lily’s party stood facing Ragneil on the shore, the Atonement docked next to them. Lily held out the pouch containing the remainder of the 300,000 Pars they had promised for the journey, but Ragneil shook his head and refused to take it.
“Nay, lass. You repaired my ship and fought off that creature. That’s worth far more than those 150 gold coins.”
“And you let me stay in your cabin, so consider this the payment for accommodation. Besides, I doubt I’ll have much use for Saphiz currency here.”
Ragneil made a troubled face, then decided to compromise. He took 100,000 Pars and returned the rest.
“There. That’s the most I can accept with a clear conscience.”
“Well then, I suppose I’ll have to be burdened with this money a little bit longer.”
She stowed the bag of coins and returned to Ragneil.
“Well? I suppose you’ll be returning to Saphiz now?”
“Nay. I’m going to go visit my wife’s grave, first. Do you need me to await your return?”
Lily thought for a bit. It was true that if Ragneil’s ship left first, they would have no way of leaving the continent. Still, Lily did not know how long it would take her to reach Azoria, nor did she know whether she would return. Under those circumstances, it would be unreasonable to ask Ragneil to wait. Still… if she said no, she would be losing what was essentially her only way off this continent. This was a question she had to consider carefully. What was her intention here? First, she wanted to confirm with her own eyes if Azoria had truly been destroyed. But what then? If, by whatever chance, it was truly gone, what would she do? This was a question Lily could not answer. It was not a question she wanted to answer, not until that moment in time. On the other hand, if the rumors were false, and the city was fine, she would undoubtedly want to stay there. If she did, would Ragneil not be waiting for nothing?
Lily decided to be positive and work under the assumption that the city was fine. If it turned out to be a wrong assumption, she would deal with the consequences of her naivety when it came. Besides, if she really needed a way back to that continent, the <<Link Conduit>> should still have that lake in the forest set as its waypoint, though she knew not if she would be able to bring everyone along. With that consideration, there was truly no need to ask Ragneil to wait.
“No, it’s fine. I know not how long I will be here. I don’t intend to return, anyway.”
Ragneil regarded her silently, then nodded once.
“I don’t know why a group of young ladies like yourself want to come to this deserted continent, but it’s not my place to ask. You three are certainly far more than you appear to be, and all I can do is wish you luck, whatever it is you intend to do.”
He held out his hand, which Lily shook as a gesture of friendship and appreciation. Then Lily turned away and started walking away from the ship. Iris bowed deeply before following Lily. Tate and Prei waved happily at him as they walked. When the girls had reached the edge of the treeline that lined the shore and disappeared from his sight, Ragneil returned his attention to the ship, gazing at it fondly.
Lily did not know where in Jin-Asalys they had moored, but Azoria was located directly in the middle of the continent. It had been a symbolic choice, indicating that the Academy City was the centre of all knowledge. While Lily had never quite approved of such an egoistic decision, it nonetheless proved helpful now: They simply had to keep moving inland, and they would eventually reach Azoria.
The vegetation around them thickened as they trekked, going at a normal human’s pace. They had initially moved at a much faster pace, owing to Lily, Iris and Tate all being able to move at speeds far beyond the limits of a human, but Prei had quickly fallen behind. It appeared that, as monstrous as Prei’s innate mana was, she was physically the direct equivalent of a 12 year old girl. The first time she had fallen behind, Lily had not noticed until they were almost two kilometres ahead. They had quickly turned around in a panic, spending close to an hour searching for her, until they finally found her crying while crouching next to a tree. When she saw Lily, she had immediately jumped into Lily’s arms, and refused to let go for a good ten minutes.
In consideration for Prei, they therefore moved at a suboptimal pace. Several times, Lily had a fleeting thought about leaving Prei behind, but she found herself immediately snuffing those thoughts out. For some reason, she could not bear the thought of abandoning the girl. Due to their slower pace, by the time night fell, they were unable to leave the forest. Lily briefly considered continuing through the night, but she noticed that Prei was panting hard, so they stopped and set up camp.
Iris cleared some of the trees around them, forming a sizable clearing. Using some branches from the fallen trees as firewood, Lily had Prei start a fire. From her pack, Tate pulled out a packet of dried meats that she had received from the cook of the Atonement and handed it over to Prei, who accepted it thankfully. Tate passed some to Lily, and the three sat around the fire, nibbling away at their meagre meal. As they ate, Prei started to cry. Startled, Lily shifted next to her and took the girl’s head in her hands.
“What’s the matter?”
“I-I’m sorry… Because of me… We had to go slower… and… Hauuu!”
Before Prei could apologise any more, Lily flicked her forehead with a metal finger, making very sure to control her output. Prei rubbed the reddening spot on her forehead, looking at Lily through teary eyes.
“Don’t be silly. I’m your mama, aren’t I? I couldn’t possibly let you push yourself. Now stop worrying about it.”
Prei’s eyes swam even more, before she buried her face in Lily’s chest, choking back sobs. Lily patted her on the back, waiting for her to cry all her tears. As she did, she caught Tate looking at her with an amused smile.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Mom.”
Lily sighed as Tate giggled away. It was a fact that she could not seem to leave Prei alone. Trying to take her mind off the implications of this, she turned to see what Iris was-
“…uh …Iris? Why are you naked?”
Iris was completely stark naked, staring at the dress she usually wore in regret. She turned to look at Lily with a frown.
“No reason, it’s just… this dress is wholly unsuited to moving around in this kind of terrain.”
Lily focused on the dress, noting that it had several tears and was muddied in various places. It was nothing that a bit of patchwork would not be able to fix, but Lily had to admit that it seemed a shame for such a cute dress to go sullied like that. She turned to Tate, who wordlessly began rummaging through her pack. Lily had initially berated her for bringing so much luggage, but who knew a change of clothes could have turned out to be this helpful? Tate handed Iris a simple shirt and a pair of shorts, which she happily took and put on. She folded the dress and placed it into the compartment that opened on her back, next to Hina’s katana. As she did, Lily caught sight of the katana for a brief second and frowned. They had decided to leave it inside Iris to stop Prei from breaking down again, but they had ultimately been unable to discern the reason why Prei had such a strong reaction. Even Prei herself could not explain why she had reacted in that way – all she could tell Lily was that the katana scared her.
As Lily pondered the possible connection between her lost friend and her adoptive daughter, she felt a warm breeze upon her neck. She looked down and noted that at some point, Prei had fallen asleep. Seeing the girl’s peacefully sleeping face, Lily smiled and leaned against the tree at her back, careful not to move Prei too much. Resting her head on the bark, she looked to the sky. It had been years since she was last on this continent, but the stars were just as she remembered. Looking between the familiar constellations, feeling Prei’s soft breath, she closed her eyes. Worrying about Prei’s past could come later. For now, she was content to simply drift to sleep.