The sounds of the streets were muffled. The images of passersby faded into blurry silhouettes. The world fell away, giving way to another world, one which held only Lily and one other person. Lily held in her hand the weapon that once belonged to the girl that had been her best friend. She felt her fingers tightening around it as she regarded the other person, the woman with the armor she now knew was forged out of dragonscale. The other person’s wings were folded up behind her, but their majestic, tawny appearance still drew the eye. Lily found herself making comparisons with Prei’s wings – a flawed comparison, but she disregarded that. She decided that although Vessel’s wings looked more beautiful, Prei’s wings seemed more powerful, and were certainly more practical.

Vessel opened her mouth, but the constant hammering of the rain masked them, reducing her words to a muffled, incoherent mumbling. Rain? Was it raining? That seemed… odd. Like it didn’t quite match up to the scene in her memory. However, she heard Vessel’s words, clear as the water which fell on her head, just as she had heard them the first time. As if Vessel were speaking directly into her mind, with no need for actual sound.

“Staying with that puppet of yours will bring only calamity. This shall be your only warning.”

With that, Vessel turned around and jumped, her wings beating several times to carry her further into the air. Lily broke into a run, determined to have Vessel clarify her meaning. She launched her wires from her arm, attempting to ensnare the escaping woman’s leg, but Vessel kept flying higher, and higher. Attempting to match her climb, Lily’s wires, too, extended up, and up, and up…

Lily woke up from her rest, her arm outstretched toward an unfamiliar ceiling. She blinked twice, recollecting herself. She was in Tate’s room, in Tate’s bed, in Riasode. She touched her forehead, checking for sweat, but there was none. She slowly sat up, looking to her left, where Prei’s bed was empty, neatly made, with a pile of books in a neat stack on it. It seemed like Prei had already left for the barracks. The life of a soldier was hard indeed. Lily slowly got up off the bed, heading over to Prei’s bed and placing a hand on the pile of books. They were all books that Lily had sent her. She was glad to know that at least Prei was keeping up a habit of bedtime reading; it was a good practice.

Lily strode over to the windows, where the light of the morning sun was filtering in between the gap between the curtains. She didn’t exactly need light to see – the constant probing of her surroundings through Extension had become second nature to her. However, it still comforted her to be in the presence of warm, natural light. As such, she drew back one curtain just slightly, enough to allow light to enter in unintrusive amounts. She glanced over to the hook by Tate’s bed, where the buckler still hung, quiet and unmoving, though Lily could feel the strong concentration of mana in its vicinity.

Lily sat down by the dresser, next to the window, casually glancing out on to the street. As she did, she thought back to that dream. It was not a new dream – she had seen it numerous times over the years. However, it had not resurfaced since that day when she confessed her love for Iris. The words that Vessel had left her with, outside that weapons shop, had stayed with her for the last seven years. Each time she saw this dream, she found herself wondering what Vessel meant.

Naturally, “that puppet” referred to Iris, though it grated on Lily’s nerves to hear her lover referred to as such. But what did she mean by calamity? Lily had experienced – well, to say nothing but happiness would be an exaggeration, but her happiness certainly outweighed any unhappiness or misfortune that had befallen her during her time with Iris. Of course, there was no reason to take anything Vessel had said at face value. After all, this was a woman who was the leader of a major religion – few people attained such a position without a penchant for manipulation. Still, no matter how much Lily tried to reason it out, those words made her uneasy. She couldn’t bring herself to completely disregard the warning, as much as she wanted to. If nothing else, it was a statement that might have carried an implicit threat.

Then there was the question of just who Vessel was. Over the last seven years, even as she sought to live a peaceful and fruitful life, this question had plagued her thoughts on multiple occassions. Over time, Lily had formulated her guesses. Based on her reaction to Lily’s purchase of the katana, the origin of her armor, as well as that startling sense of familiarity that washed over Lily every time they met, Lily was reasonably confident that if she were to remove Vessel’s helmet, she would see the face of her childhood friend Hina looking back at her. But that made no sense. Vessel’s posture, her manner of speech, and even her choice of armor type were different from Hina’s. More to the point, why had she not said anything? While it was entirely possible that she was attempting to keep a distance due to anger over Lily’s carelessness and its result, that was not a pattern of behaviour that was consistent with Hina’s personality. This led Lily to come to a simple conclusion: Despite all the signs to the contrary, Vessel could not be Hina. Even if she was, it was no longer the Hina that Lily could claim to know.

Although the grief over causing the entirety of Hina’s party to die still weighed on Lily’s mind, it had been relegated to a corner of her psyche for the last seven years. She had other responsibilities, other people to look after. She had a daughter to raise, and she had a lover to protect. With that consideration, it made no sense to compromise her ability to watch out for her living family for the sake of mourning dead friends. Iris was just more important to her. She had locked the pain of loss away in her heart, and had lived for the sake of replacing that pain with the happiness of her life. She had made a conscientious effort to distance herself from her guilt. Lily smiled wryly. If Vessel was truly Hina, perhaps she was coming back in her dreams to punish Lily for being so callous.

Lily rested her chin on her palm as she looked down at the street, watching the citizens milling around, occasionally separated by a young messenger, running through the crowd on some errand or other. Disregarding the mystery of Vessel’s identity, what puzzled her most was the sudden re-emergence of the dream. She had assumed it to be a manifestation about her insecurities regarding Iris, and that had initially seemed to be the case, with the dream having disappeared after she confronted and overcame these insecurities. But now, after being happily married for a year, this foreboding dream had returned. Why now? Was it a sign of things to come? She couldn’t shake a sense of unease, as if something bad was going to happen.

Just as she turned this thought over in her head, on the verge of dismissing it as meaningless superstition, she spotted a familiar figure: Prei, in full armor, running down the street toward their home. Lily’s sense of unease deepened as she heard Prei’s armored footsteps striking against the steps that led to the room. Something was wrong.

Prei swung the door open with a bang, her superhuman strength causing the wall holding Tate to shake, dislodging Tate from her stand and causing her to fall on the floor with a dull thump. Tate assumed her human form and looked questioningly at Prei, fingers rubbing away at her sleep-filled eyes. Prei reached up to her head and tapped the visor, causing the helmet to open up, revealing her serious-looking face, lined with worry and urgency. Lily immediately stood up from her seat. Tate’s eyes immediately lost their lethargy and she narrowed her eyes, fully attentive. Prei looked to Tate first, before turning to Lily.

“Humans have landed on the coast. A massive army, easily two hundred thousand strong. They’re being led by Vessel, and they’re headed inland.”