Chapter 20:

Respite [Part 3]

Chained Regalia

“According to my sources, this trail should end soon, at a cliffside view looking down the mountain. Once we reach that point, we will make a brief stop, then turn back and return to town before it gets dark.” Lucia outlined the rest of her plan for today to me as we continued our trek after lunch. Realistically, all we’d done today was walk around a lot, but I found myself enjoying it regardless.

“Where’d you hear about this place, anyway? Or have you been here before?” I guess it’s not the latter, if she’s referencing ‘sources’, whatever she means by that.

“Many years ago, this area was well-known for things like this. There used to be dozens of popular hiking paths around, varying widely in difficulty to draw in everyone from ordinary travelers to experienced mountaineers. It drew in a modest amount of tourism at its peak. Around ten years ago, however, when the neighboring region became overrun and dangerous, the once quaint tourist rest stop that was Nerush quickly expanded into a defensive settlement, shifting to host warriors instead of sightseers.” As she often did, she began her long-winded explanation with a seemingly tangential anecdote.

“Huh. I guess it’s surprising how well maintained this trail still is, then, if the tourism kind of died out.”

Lucia shrugged. “Even warriors like to take breaks and relax, sometimes. It may not approach the volume seen in days past, but if our visit is any proof, there is still some demand. Besides, I was recommended this trail in particular by Selina. Apparently, she and Alwey visited this area long ago, and she has fond memories of it.”

I didn’t know exactly what those two did in their evenings once Lucia and I would separate from them, but unless they had an interest in late-night wilderness hiking, I doubted they would have had a chance to revisit this trail since arriving here. “Hmm… Should we have invited them to come with us? I feel kind of bad, now.” To be honest, while I was enjoying spending time alone with Lucia, I was the one responsible for taking up all of Selina and Alwey’s time, so I naturally felt guilty.

For the second time in this conversation, Lucia shrugged. “I tried. When I proposed the idea a few days ago, Selina turned it down and said the two of us should go alone. I urged her to reconsider, but she was very adamant, for some reason.”

Ah. So she originally planned this as a group outing… I guess that makes sense. I felt a slight pang of disappointment, even though it was probably selfish of me to feel that way.

“In a way, I’m sort of glad it turned out like this, though,” she muttered, quiet enough that I could barely pick up on what she said.

Since I wasn’t sure if she had intended for me to hear it or not, I decided not to reply.

After that, we continued our trek in relative silence until, only a few minutes later, we converged on our destination. Near the end, the path began to curve backwards on itself in a sort of crescent shape, widening as it approached a tall bluff which overlooked the forest from which we’d come.

It was only when we reached that cliffside that I finally realized just how deceptive the gradual, gentle climb of the trail had been to my senses. The bluff completely towered above everything in sight, and I could see not just the entire forest we’d traveled through, but even the rocky plains beyond them. In the far distance, although the town itself was concealed, I could even spot the forests that surrounded Nerush. It felt as if I was gazing upon the distant earth from the heavens.

To get a better sense of perspective, I turned around, trying to spot the summit of this mountain. The trees around this clifftop must have been removed at some point to allow for this view, which incidentally cleared the canopy enough to grant me line of sight towards the mountaintop in the opposite direction. We were still a ways from the top, but regardless, I was shocked to see how high we’d somehow come without me even realizing. I could only be struck for so long, though, before the allure of the picturesque landscape to my rear compelled me to turn back around and gape in awe.

Until today, I didn’t really consider myself someone who cared much for natural beauty, but maybe I appreciate this stuff more than I thought.

Only a few seconds later, however, my attention was torn from that spectacle and directed towards something else. The beaming look of amazement on my companion’s face as she gazed over at the horizon was, to me, far more dazzling than the sight itself.

You know what, maybe nature is overrated, after all.

If I could have, I would have liked to maintain my gaze, but I knew it’d make her uncomfortable to be stared at, so I returned to looking out towards the endless expanse beneath, an inferior but still impressive sight to behold.

Shortly after I had turned, I heard a soft sigh to my right, followed by a voice. “There are a couple of things I would like to talk to you about. Will you listen?”

I was caught off guard at first by the sudden topic shift, but I managed to nod a moment later.

Catching my nonverbal reply, she paused for a brief moment herself before continuing. “First, I need to ask you something. Something that has been eating away at me for a very long time.”

As our eyes met, I froze for a moment. They were filled with sincerity, and perhaps a hint of sadness. Whatever it was she wanted to say, she was serious about it. “Anything. You can ask me anything.”

Lucia had told me before that if something was ever troubling me, she would be willing to listen to my problems. I wanted to extend her the same courtesy.

She took a deep breath, then slowly asked a question I didn’t expect. “Are you angry with me about all of this? For asking you to be my Chain? For forcing you to fight? No matter what the answer is, please, be honest with me.”

Where is this coming from?

I wasn’t sure how to respond; things weren’t exactly that simple. But, still, I knew one thing for sure. After a moment of thought, I gave the best response I could think up. “I’m not mad at you for that. I made the decision on my own because I wanted to help you. You didn’t force me to do it. It was my choice.”

Lucia breathed a light sigh of relief and smiled a little. “I’m glad,” was all she said in response, but it sounded plenty genuine.

I smiled as well. That’s really been worrying you? You worry too much about me, I swear. “We’ve been working together long enough by now that I figured you’d have realized that.”

“I could assume so, but I wanted to know for sure. I wanted to hear the words themselves from you.”

“Is that so?” I mumbled rhetorically, suddenly feeling a little awkward.

She looked relieved to have gotten that off her chest, but soon, her pragmatism took hold, and she chose not to linger in the moment for too long. “Now then, on to the second matter.”

Without warning, she carefully slid the sword she always carried with her—the container of my soul—out from its sheath and held it out in front of her. As she stared into it, its brilliant sheen reflected her gaze back.

“Do you know why weapons are the near universal choice for Chain vessels?” she asked, cryptically.

To even my surprise, I actually knew the answer. “Oh, yeah, actually. Alwey told me about it, one time. The type of object used as a vessel affects the kind of soul it summons, right? So people use weapons, since they tend to summon warrior-types, or people who’d be willing to fight.”

Lucia blinked a couple of times in surprise. “Amazing. You never know anything. I’m so proud of you.” Much to my chagrin, her tone lacked neither genuine admiration nor sarcasm, so I didn’t know what the make of the comments.

“Actually, about that; I still don’t completely get it. I mean, I was really reluctant to help out in the beginning, so why did I get summoned? It’s not like I really have any warrior-like qualities, either. Was I just a defect, or something?” I laughed as I said the last part, but that possibility still scared me, even all this time later.

Lucia narrowed her eyes, and, as I probably should’ve expected, her voice was filled with irritation. “You undervalue yourself. You were clearly troubled when we first met, but, even in spite of that, you leapt into action when I needed you. That heroism alone is enough, at least to me. Not to mention how hard you work, and how you look out for me, too. I may have had uncertainties about you on that first day, I will admit, but I have not once wished someone else was summoned on that day. Not once. Do you understand me?”

There she goes again. Getting angry for my sake, scolding me when I say stupid things like that. What would I do without her?

“Yeah. Thank you, Lucia.” My voice was a little shaky, but I replied with as much confidence as I could muster. I felt awkward at the situation, but I wanted her to know, despite that, I appreciated what she’d said.

She smiled tenderly for a brief moment, then finally returned to the expression she’d had before we got off on this tangent.

“We ended up getting sidetracked more than I expected, but maybe that’s okay. I think we can leave this topic for another day, after all.” She sheathed her sword as she spoke.

I’d thought maybe she just wanted to talk about the weapon vessel thing, but apparently, she’d just intended that as lead-in. “Wait, tell me. I’m curious now.”

“Don’t worry. I will tell you in time, okay?”

“Fine, fine,” I grumbled.

“We should head back soon, if we want to make it to town by evening.”

She was right; we weren’t in a massive rush, but it was getting late enough that we didn’t have a lot of room to delay, either.

I took one last, long look over at the horizon, and readied myself for the trek back.
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