Prei paced back and forth, her face twisted into an expression of anxiety. The sound of the gravel being crushed under her greaves gradually grew softer as she passed the same spot for the umpteenth time, the small pieces of concrete and wood crushed and trodden into a fine powder under her powerful strides. Every few seconds she glanced at the strange amber crystal that stood in the midst of the clearing, and each time she would find that it remained unchanged, unbroken. She would grit her teeth and continue her pacing, scolding herself.
How long had she been pacing? She had no clock on her, so it was difficult to say for certain. But the evening had turned to night, and night had turned to morning, and morning had turned to morning again. Yet still there was no reaction from the amber crystal. Frustrated, she tried attacking it again, striking it fiercely and repeatedly with Myriad. Yet it refused to shatter. Just as it had refused to shatter the first several hundred times she had tried it. She released a primal scream of annoyance and collapsed on the ground, leaning against the crystal. She buried her head in her arms.
She chastised herself. She had let Lily do something so foolish, so rash – even though Iris had explicitly told her to keep Lily safe. Tears came to her eyes as her thoughts turned to Iris. So gentle, so kind. So devoted. Iris, her other mother. She recalled their training sessions together, back when she had first woken up. She recalled Iris teaching her how to do housework. She recalled Iris teaching her how to cook. She recalled confiding in Iris about her feelings for Tate. She recalled the understanding and patience with which Iris had listened to her worries, how she had quietly comforted her and helped her understand her feelings. She recalled Iris, dying, holding her hand while Lily tried desperately to patch up the hole in her core. She recalled Iris’ last request – that she stop Lily from doing anything reckless, to take care of her.
Clearly, Prei had failed in that mission almost immediately. She cast another glance at the amber crystal, as if staring at it hard enough would cause it to shatter and release its prisoner. Suspended within the crystal was Lily, her eyes closed and her posture relaxed. Iris’ body was hugging her from behind. The two lovers were thus frozen within the crystal, frozen in time. Prei placed a hand flush against the surface of the crystal, feeling the magic circulating beneath her fingertips. While she knew nothing about the crystal specifically, it was clearly a mass of hyper-dense mana, coagulated into a crystal form around her mother.
She could not believe that Lily had actually tried Extending into Iris. Lily should undoubtedly have known that it was unsafe, that it was too big a risk, that the possibility of success was miniscule. Yet she had done it anyway. Prei had been taken completely by surprise. She had known her mother to be a coolly rational person under pressure, and so it had never occurred to her that Lily would do something so irrational. Though, thinking about it, she supposed that even geniuses were prone to emotional breakdown, especially when their precious other had been so suddenly taken from them by an enemy.
The thought of Vessel made Prei’s frustration transform into anger. This was the second time her family had been taken by the angel. She had never truly received confirmation about it, but if what the humans in Riasode had recounted regarding the fall of Azoria was accurate, it was highly likely that the person who had killed her parents was Vessel. After all, she appeared out of nowhere, from the depths of the labyrinth. She appeared shortly after the seal was broken – the same time her parents were killed. It took no mental leap of logic to make the assumption that linked Vessel to her status as an orphan. Still, in their defence of Riasode, she had managed to cull her urge for vengeance. She had a new family, and she had a new home to protect. She had managed to cull her hatred, and fight Vessel with a cool head.
But now Vessel had, once again, taken family from her. And this time, there was no holding back her hatred. Her anger arose twofold, her rage over Iris’ murder compounded by the lingering hatred generated by the killing of her birth parents. A low, guttural growl sounded from her mouth as her knuckles whitened, her fingers tightening around Myriad’s shaft. The next time she saw Vessel, she might not be able to hold back. She might not be able to stop this hatred. She would fight Vessel, would corner her, pin her down, claw at her, rip her to pieces, crush her within her maw, tear her and devour her bit by bit until nothing was left but-
Prei caught herself, forcing herself to stop thinking about Vessel’s destruction – as enticing as it was. Her wings stopped twitching, her tail relaxed. She had been on the verge of returning to her draconic form due to pure hostility. While she did want to rip Vessel to shreds, she had other duties for now – duties that Iris had left her. She glanced at the crystal again. Lily looked so peaceful. So calm. It made a pretty picture, Lily sleeping in the arms of her lover. But what if it was an eternal sleep? What if Lily were to remain in that crystal for an eternity, never to wake? What would Prei do then? Would she remain here, for an eternity, guarding her mother, hoping for her mother to one day leave her slumber?
Prei mused that such an outcome would not be entirely unwelcome. She briefly recalled her parents – her birth parents – telling her bedtime stories about their ancestors, ancient dragons who ruled the skies and shook the earth, dragons whose roars split the clouds and whose majesty inspired songs and poems. Of course, knowing now about the origins of her species, and of monsters in general, Prei knew for a fact that these ancestors never existed. Her only ancestors were perhaps failed experiments, in a research facility populated by humans. Nonetheless, the stories remained vividly within her consciousness. In particular, she recalled many about great dragons who spent their lives guarding some treasure, annihilating all who dared to attempt to steal it, protecting the treasure for its own sake. She briefly wondered if she might join the ranks of those dragons, spending the rest of eternity protecting this amber crystal that held her mother captive. It was a romantic tale, to be sure.
She touched the crystal again and pressed her face against it.
“Mother… I still desire for you to wake up. To wake up, and break out of this crystal, and ruffle me on the head like you always do. It’ll take a while, but I’m sure you’ll eventually be able to move on. I mean, I know that’s what Iris would have wanted. She even told me so. You can wake up, and we can cry together, and then we can go exact vengeance, and then we can start to rebuild our lives again. But… Even if you never wake up… Even if you don’t want to leave the serenity of that crystal… I won’t leave you. You’ll be my treasure, and I won’t let anyone else defile you. I… I will protect you, even if nobody else will. Though Tate might be angry at me for saying that…”
Having thus expressed her resolve, Prei touched her cheek against the crystal and closed her eyes, feeling the gentle warmth of the magic against her skin. Then she heard a crack. Eyes widening, she took a step back. There was a small crack in the crystal, just above Lily’s face. As Prei watched with overwhelming relief, the crack spidered out, spreading, until the entirety of the crystal was covered in cracks. Then, from within the crystal, Lily’s eyes snapped open, and the crystal instantly burst into light, a light so intense that Prei had to avert her eyes.
When it finally became reasonable to look up again, the crystal was gone. The amber light still filled the clearing, but it was emitted by numerous small, luminescent orbs of mana that flitted through the clearing. Standing in the midst of it was a woman Prei vaguely recognised as her mother. Prei took another step back in shock, her mouth agape.
Lily stood within the clearing, basking in the light of the amber orbs. But she was different. Her hair, while still predominantly its original shade of verdant green, now turned white near the tips. Her armor, the armor that Tate had made for her, was gone. In its place was a strange set of armor. It bore only the slightest resemblance to traditional plate mail. It bore the same shape and general form, but it looked far more mechanical, almost reminiscent of the Warden they had dismantled in the Wasteland. It shone with a metallic sheen – the metallic sheen that had coated Iris’ body. The pauldron on Lily’s left shoulder was adorned with a girl’s face – Iris’ face.
Lily took a deep breath and opened her eyes – her left eye red, her right eye pulsating with a myriad of colors. She arched, gritting her teeth, her face contorting into an expression of pain. Without warning, a pair of jet-black, metallic wings – skeletal wings, with metallic plates for feathers – erupted from her back. Panting from the exertion, Lily straightened herself and glanced over her shoulder, examining her new wings. She stretched them out and tested them, a thin mist of amber emitting from the metal feathers. Satisfied, she looked at Prei with her unnaturally mismatched eyes and spoke with a voice that sounded like two separate voices overlaid with each other.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, Prei.”