Chapter 18:

Respite [Part 1]

Chained Regalia

The dirt path ahead wound unevenly, careful to avoid any of the frequent, sharp elevation changes offered by the countless steep hillsides dotting the area. Though the trail gradually ascended as it delved deeper into the mountainous territory, it was clearly made to take the path of least resistance, with ease of traversal prioritized over efficiency. Of course, that was only natural; this was not a road connecting settlements nor a route carved through the wilderness to facilitate trade. Rather, it was intended for leisure.

I was on a hike. For fun. It wasn’t exactly the first activity I’d think of while on the topic of ‘fun’, but now that I was actually here and doing it, it wasn’t all that bad. It felt nostalgic, almost. Maybe I was wrong, and I had actually enjoyed this kind of thing in my previous life.

“You must have begun to feel the tedium of our daily routine by now,” was what she’d randomly said to me this morning. “I would like to avoid burnout or an excess buildup of mental fatigue, so… would you like to do something else today?” She’d paused for a brief moment before extending the invitation, a small yet noticeable hint of bashfulness in her voice. It almost felt like she’d just asked me out on a date.

I’d found it cute, so, in true pushover fashion, I was ready to agree to pretty much anything she might propose. It was Lucia, after all; I didn’t need to be all that worried, and it wasn’t as if I found it difficult to enjoy her company.

Of course, it would’ve been way too embarrassing to say any of that out loud, so I’d opted for a simple, indirect acceptance. “Sounds like you’re the one getting bored and wanting a change of pace. That’s fine with me, though.”

“Of course I’ve gotten bored. Watching you bumble about week after week with little improvement grinds down even my patience,” she’d snapped in response, the cute bashfulness she’d had a moment earlier wholly eviscerated.

A second later, the look of irritation she’d held vanished, its place taken by a sweet smile. “Stop pouting like that. It was a joke. Your progress has been very impressive, especially since bringing in the others to assist. But I will not deny that this proposal was made, in part, for the sake of my own sanity.”

That conversation had been what led us to this outing through the forested mountain trails south of Nerush. It was the opposite direction of the frontier—the former Allion territory still overrun with Lishkarn—so this area wasn’t particularly dangerous. In fact, with how well maintained and defined these trails were, they must have been traveled upon at least semi-frequently.

In contrast to our first long hike on the day we met, I was properly keeping pace with Lucia this time. We idly chatted about nothing in particular as we took in the soothing natural world surrounding us. After being stuck in a monotonous-looking urban town for so long, even ordinary scenery like this was a refreshing sight, and it seemed like Lucia felt the same way. Perhaps that was why she’d suggested it in the first place.

“How are you feeling? Physically, I mean,” she asked me after a lull in our conversation. Considering how out of shape I’d been in the beginning, it was a logical thing to wonder about.

“Perfectly fine. I could go on for hours!” I flashed an exaggerated, cocky grin to complement my assertion.

“Taking a casual walk for a few hours without passing out from exhaustion is not the impressive feat you seem to believe it is.” As usual, she immediately shot me down.

I jokingly clicked my tongue and whined, “I never get any respect from you. It’s horrible. I really work my ass off every single day for this treatment?”

She simply shrugged, completely brushing off my comment.

I’d said all this as if I’d accomplished it through sheer effort, but that was only partially true. While an ordinary human body could develop their muscles and become more athletic through exercise, my manifested body didn’t naturally change over time like that. Ultimately, though, what was or was not ‘genuine’ was irrelevant to a Chain; all that mattered was what I tricked my mind into believing. And after weeks of intensive physical training, I felt like I should be more athletic, and that was all it took. I wasn’t at a level where I could consciously control these things like Selina could, but my subconscious naturally adapted for me.

I wasn’t human; I could only imitate one. For a long time, that fact had scared me, but at this point, I’d started getting used to it. I didn’t have much of a choice but to accept it, anyway.

It was then that I realized Lucia was waving her hand in front of my face, trying to get my attention.

“Stop zoning out on me. You have a bad habit of doing that, don’t you?”

“Huh? Oh, sorry.”

Once she’d dragged me back to reality, she soon resumed her advance, and I was quick to do the same. “Only a little farther ahead, and then we can stop for lunch,” she explained.

Looking at the sky, I guessed it was around midday, so we’d been walking for a while already. I didn’t know where she was taking me, but I supposed I would find out soon.

We continued following the curves of the trail for a little while. As we got deeper into the mountains, the density of vegetation increased, and very quickly we transitioned from rocky plains to thick forestland.

The overhead canopy of the forest’s conifers was just thin enough to allow sufficient sunlight to penetrate through and illuminate our path, while also being just thick enough to blanket most of the route in a comfortable, light shade. Perhaps it was because today’s temperature and weather happened to perfectly complement it, but everything about this environment felt pleasant and calming.

Basking in the relaxing atmosphere, I hadn’t even realized we’d hit a large clearing until the direct sunlight suddenly struck me. Caught a little off-guard, I analyzed our surroundings. A shallow, crystal-clear stream ran straight through the glade, and on either side of the water sat multiple large, partially smoothed logs lying on their sides. Dozens of stones were packed beneath the logs to keep them stable, creating a handful of natural-looking makeshift benches. The setup was quite charming, even to me.

On the other side of the stream, two branching trails continued up the mountain in different directions. I assumed this clearing, though, would serve as the stop Lucia had mentioned earlier.

All of a sudden, I heard Lucia let out a sound somewhere between a grunt and a moan, and it startled me bad enough that I instinctually flinched away from her. She was stretching her arms above her head, which I guessed explained the groan. She had one eye closed, and the other was open, glaring playfully at me.

“Am I really that scary?” she asked, a smirk on her face.

“Yes,” I replied meekly, without an ounce of sarcasm in my voice.

Her one-eyed glare sharpened, but she said nothing in response.

That’s exactly why! Your glares are scary!

She finished her stretch and let out a sigh which could have been directed towards any number of things, including but not limited to me. Then, she pointed towards one of the log-benches.

“Sit. We should eat and take the chance to rest up.”

I took a brief moment to stretch myself as well—regardless of the fact that doing so did nothing for my body—and took another look at the cute arrangement around us.

Heh. This actually is kind of like a date, I mused idly to myself. Maybe I’ll tease her about that, later. I wonder how she’ll react…

Lucia snapped her fingers right next to my ear, causing me to flinch again. “Tsk. You got lost in thought again. What ever will I do with you…” she murmured, seemingly more to herself than to me.

Unsure of what to make of that, I simply decided to abide by her original command and took a seat.
MyAnimeList iconMyAnimeList icon