The wind blew past the faces of the party, a biting chill pushing against their skin as they sped through the air on the large back of Prei’s true form. Due to the speed they were flying at, Lily and her party had to hold on tightly to Prei’s back, a feat made even more difficult by the slippery yet irregular surface of her scales. Tate, who did not possess the metal legs of the other two and therefore suffered the most from the chafing, had since reverted to shield form and was resting on Lily’s arm.

When they finally landed, Lily got off shakily, while Iris was completely unaffected and nonchalantly leapt off Prei’s back. The journey had taken only fifteen minutes, in contrast to the several hours which they had spent getting to the clearing on foot. As if to punctuate her statement, the sun began to rise over the tips of the mountain ranges, heralding the dawn.

While Tate reverted to human form, Lily glanced at the mid-transformation Prei, deep in thought. If they could travel on Prei’s back, they could certainly get around much faster. However, that ride was far from comfortable, and was rather unsafe as well. If she were to seriously think of getting Prei to ferry them around, she would need to find a way to make the journey more comfortable. An image of the draconic Prei with a saddle on her back briefly flashed through Lily’s mind, causing her to giggle. Prei, having completed her reversion to human form, looked at Lily and tilted her head in curiosity. Lily, forcing down her laughter, shook her head and gestured for Prei to go ahead, into the house. As she did, her wings bumped against the doorframe, preventing her from entering, a sight which caused another round of stifled giggles to erupt from Lily. Tate was already within the house, and therefore missed the opportunity to witness this truly amusing sight. Prei blushed and folded her wings closer against her body, allowing her comfortably pass through the doorway.

As Iris and Tate adjourned to the kitchen to prepare breakfast, Lily sat at the dining table across from Prei, upon which Iris emerged from the kitchen with a pot of tea and two teacups, which she then set in between Lily and Prei. They thanked her, then Lily leaned forward and asked the question she had been wondering about for three years.

“So, why were you and your parents in that dungeon, and what happened after I was teleported away?”

A shadow of grief crossed Prei’s features as she narrated.

“My parents were placed in that dungeon a long time ago, I don’t know when. I don’t know who left us there, either, but my parents had orders to protect two things: the seal of the demons, as well as something called a gate; You already know about the seal, but I’m still not entirely sure what the gate was. I think it might have been the thing that teleported you out of the dungeon.”

“Oh? There exists someone capable of ordering even dragons around?”

“Seems that way, yeah. I don’t know who it was, though, and they’re probably long dead by now. Anyway, from what I was told, the gate leads to another place – they called it a “pocket dimension”, though I don’t know what that means – where they would throw criminals. A prison of sorts, I guess. My parents’ duty was to prevent anyone unauthorised from entering or leaving that place. After several years of that duty, I was born. They raised me in the dungeon, teaching me verbally what I would need to know to survive if I ever left the place. After all, I was not bound to it like they were. And about seven years later, the week after my birthday, in fact, something big happened on the surface. We were told that it was an emergency, that we would have to be placed in a magical sleep, only to be awoken if either the seal or gate were breached.”

Lily raised an eyebrow. Following conventional magical theory, a conditional spell able to put such large creatures to sleep for so long was far beyond the limits of human ability. That said… she glanced at Iris, and was again reminded of the immense potential of ManaScript. She turned her attention back to Prei, indicating that she should continue.

“We woke up a few years ago, when the seal was broken, as you’ve probably guessed by now. My mother’s orders were to eliminate trespassers, and that’s why you were her main target. When that loud sound happened, the screaming sound, I got scared, and backed off further into the corridor. Behind me, my father told me to stay back, and he went ahead to join my mother in the main room. For several hours, I was cowering in another chamber – I’m not very good with loud noises. But when my parents didn’t come back, I got worried, so I went into the main chamber to find them. And when I got there… they were dead.”

Prei paused and hung her head as her eyes started to water again. Lily reached out across the table and grasped Prei’s hand, squeezing it reassuringly. Prei took a deep breath, then nodded, ready to carry on.

“I don’t know who killed them. When I got there, they were lying on the ground, dead. Whoever killed them was gone, but that sword,” Prei glanced pointedly at the katana which hung over the fireplace as she spoke, “that sword was on the ground, soaked in blood. Of course, I was confused and scared. I knelt next to my parents and tried to talk to them, but when they didn’t respond, I came to realise that they were dead.

Afraid, uncertain, I did what they taught me to do in the event of an emergency: I took on human form and ran out of the dungeon. I don’t remember much from when I was running through the city, it’s all a blur. I think I was crying the whole time. Somehow, after some time, I found myself in a secluded part of a nearby forest, where I returned to my original form. After that, I flew, I think. I think I flew in a random direction, like I did earlier. I suppose I was trying to run away from the fact that my parents were dead. I don’t recall having any destination in mind. I just flew, over the forests, over the mountains, over the ocean. But of course, I can’t fly perpetually. Somewhere over the ocean, I eventually ran out of energy, and fell into the water. My next memory was meeting you for the first time.”

Prei closed her eyes, her tale evidently finished. Lily tapped her chin in thought. She had hoped to find out more, but she was still content with this much information. Now, at least, she understood why the dragon had been so fixated on her, to the point where the rest of the party had become afterthoughts. The reason why she had been in the Serpent’s core was also now clear, when this information was considered in conjunction with Iris’ hypothesis. Furthermore, based on Prei’s account of the katana, it was likely that Hina had somehow, miraculously, been able to kill two dragons on her own. The question, then, was what had happened to her afterward? Lily decided to raise the question.

“Prei. Think back to when you found the bodies of your parents. Among the human bodies on the floor, was the black-haired, twintailed girl one of them?”

“Eh? Um… hmmm…” Prei furrowed her brow, trying her best to remember. “I don’t… think so…? No. I wasn’t really in a very calm state of mind, so my memory might be failing me, but I don’t remember seeing anyone like that among the corpses.”

“…I see…”

Lily narrowed her eyebrow. If she had not died, just what had happened to Hina? She knew her friend would never have willingly left her katana behind. Lily ground her teeth in frustration.

“…Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

Prei’s sincere apology jolted Lily out of her state of annoyance. She quickly shook her head and smiled.

“No, not at all. You’ve already given me a lot to think about. Thank you.”

She reached over and ruffled Prei’s hair. As she did so, she shoved thoughts of Hina and her past experiences to the farthest recesses of her mind. That was all in the past, and that was all over. Thinking about it was futile. She had other things to focus on. She had her little family, which included her sweet daughter, the girl who sat in front of her. She smiled wryly. Perhaps several years ago, when they had first met, learning Prei’s identity would have sent her flying into a vengeful rage. However, at that moment, she could not bring herself to feel that way about Prei. She could only see the girl as her gentle, loving daughter. Lily removed her hand from Prei’s head and picked up a teacup, setting it in front of Prei.

“Well then, Prei. Pour your mother another cup of tea, would you?”

Prei glanced up, holding Lily’s gaze. An expression of happiness and relief graced her face as she smiled and nodded, moving to pick up the teapot.

“Yes, mother.”