Chapter 22:

A Matter of Life and Death

Chained Regalia

Mahle, the name of the village that served as our destination, was located just beyond the mountain pass, and, by my estimate, we were nearly there.

If I was going to ask, I’d need to do it now. I didn’t necessarily want to know, but I probably needed to.

Taking a deep breath and ignoring the lump in my throat, I called for the attention of my intended recipient. “Hey, Selina. Can I ask you something?”

She’d had her eyes clenched shut, but she opened them as she responded. “Yeah. What’s up?”

Barely managing to muster up enough courage, I asked a question I’d been wondering about for a long time. “What happens when I—or we, I guess—get injured? And… how exactly do we die?”

From the very beginning, I had known Chains could die; after all, Lucia would have had no reason to protect me at her expense in our first encounter with Lishkarn if I wasn’t in danger. Still, I had no idea of the exact mechanisms at play; it wasn’t as if we would die of blood loss or organ failure like a regular person might, so it had to function differently.

Somehow, I could tell that Lucia tensed up a little when she heard me ask the question. Neither of us wanted to imagine that scenario, but I felt I needed to know.

“Ah,” Selina mumbled, then sighed. “I’m kind of glad you asked. It’s pretty important, and I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that all day today, but, well, I was worried you weren’t in the mindset to hear about it.”

I was a little taken aback. Her tone sounded genuinely serious, and I’d never heard her sigh like that, either.

But still… “… It’s kind of hard to take you seriously when you’re bear hugging Alwey like that. Actually, it’s just hard to take you seriously no matter the situation.” What I said could easily be interpreted as a joke, but I was voicing my genuine thoughts at that moment.

“Am I that unreliable, Laynie? You’ll make me cry…” she whined, pouting in an exaggerated manner. Ah, yeah, that’s the Selina I’m used to.

“Sorry for derailing you. I’ll shut up now.”

She took a deep breath, then thought silently for a little while as if organizing her thoughts. Eventually, she began her explanation.

“You already know this, but manifesting things into existence is our special power as Chains. We can do a lot with it, but it has its limits. You can think of it like… getting tired. Our souls get tired the more we use our power, and if we try to do it too much without resting… that’s how we die. It’s like the soul dies of exhaustion, I guess.”

Although what she’d just told me was something I’d suspected for a while, it helped to have a hypothesis directly confirmed. That would explain why everything seemed to reset every night; I was subconsciously purging anything exceeding the bare minimum to conserve my limited pool of energy.

Selina continued, “Our bodies are a super special kind of manifestation, though. Even though we’re not human, our souls only know what it’s like to live in a human form. That’s why we manifest a body automatically, right when we’re summoned. Our souls will always try to keep the body manifested, no matter what. That’s why we can live a lot like regular people, but…”

She hesitated for a moment before finishing the thought.

“It’s also the reason we can be killed.”

She gave me a look that seemed to be asking if it was alright to keep talking. I must have looked pretty awful right then if she was that worried about me. But I need to know.

I nodded slowly. “You can keep going. I’m fine.”

She looked reluctant, yet another expression I’d never seen from her before, but she decided to proceed anyway. “O-okay. I don’t completely get how it all works, but to be as simple as I can, our souls kind of… freak out if the body gets damaged too badly. Surface level stuff doesn’t really matter, but anything that changes the shape too much is pretty bad. Deep cuts, broken bones, that kind of thing. Our souls hate it when our bodies aren’t right, and they try to fix it as fast as they can, no matter what. Even when they shouldn’t.”

At first, I didn’t really understand. Honestly, it sounded like a good thing. But then, after thinking for a few seconds, I put the pieces together. “Oh. ‘No matter what.’ So even if you don’t have enough energy left, your soul still tries to do it anyway?”

In a situation where I was too low on energy, the way to survive would logically be to not repair the wound right away; instead, it would be better to first rest for a while and recharge. Our subconsciouses weren’t that rational, though, if what Selina had said was true. My soul would try to fix the damage right away, even if doing so would inadvertently use up the last of my energy and kill me.

“That’s completely right. So you’re kind of left with no choice: either you heal the wound yourself manually, or your soul desperately tries to do it anyway, all on its own. But the second one is a lot more dangerous, so it’s always better to try to do it yourself.”

“More… dangerous?”

“It’s like… you know how you have to focus when you create something? We do that because it makes the result more accurate. We’re less likely to mess it up, basically. When you’re just trying to do it automatically, though, you’ll probably mess up that manifestation a lot. Those failures still drain your energy, and you’ll just have to try again and again until it finally works.”

“Ah. So it’s a question of efficiency, you mean. You want to get it right the first time to conserve as much energy as possible.” Selina’s explanation was a little less focused and straightforward than I would’ve preferred, but, at the very least, I was putting things together.

“Oh, yeah, like that! You’re smart, Laynie!” Her voice briefly took on her usual jubilant tone, but it quickly returned to what it had been like before. “Even though our bodies aren’t as accurate and complicated as real ones, they’re still way more complicated than anything else we manifest, and that means it takes a ton of energy to fix them, even if you do it manually. It’s especially dangerous when you’re starting out, since newer Chains just aren’t that efficient with how they use their energy, and they end up wasting a lot of it without meaning to.”

Of course, that meant me.

“A long, long time ago, when I first started out, someone used an analogy to explain it to me. Um, wait a sec, I kind of forgot how it goes. It was, um, something like, there’s a big fire, and, I think, like, there are people in the fire, and—”

Alwey loudly cleared his throat, interrupting her increasingly incoherent ramble. He hadn’t inserted himself into the conversation before now, but he had surely been listening.

“Allow me to relay what she was intending to say.” His voice was tinged with exasperation.

“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t that far off, but fiiiiiine. I guess you can tell him, Alwey.”

As if he knew the whole thing by heart, he began succinctly explaining the setup without a single pause before, after, or during. “Imagine a small fire—this represents the wound on your body. Then, imagine yourself standing before the fire, holding a bucket of water—this bucket represents your soul, and the water within it, your pool of spiritual energy. For a Chain as old as Selina—”

“Don’t call me old!” Selina pouted and squeezed Alwey even harder than she had previously. His face twisted in pain briefly before she eased her grasp.

“You and your double standards,” he quietly mumbled in annoyance, before quickly getting back on track as if nothing happened. It was either a testament to his resilience or to how badly Selina had him wrapped around her finger. Probably both.

“As I was saying, for a Chain as skilled as Selina, the process of extinguishing the flame—in other words, mending the wound—is as simple as pouring the proper amount of water onto it. Neither an insufficient nor excessive amount, but precisely enough to quench the flame. For a Chain as inexperienced as you, however, the scenario differs slightly. Imagine the same situation, except you are blindfolded. Unless proper caution is exercised—”

It was clear to me where this was going, so I cut him off and finished the statement. “—I’ll waste a lot more ‘water’ than I need to. Worst case scenario, I’m guessing I could use all of it without even putting the fire out.” In other words, I could easily waste everything in a panic and die.

My interruption was probably rude, but I wasn’t in a good enough mood right now to care about how impolite I was being. Alwey didn’t scold me or anything for it; he simply nodded with a solemn look on his face—though I supposed that look was the norm for him.

“What’s super-duper extra important to remember, Laynie, is that you need to stay focused. If you let your emotions go haywire—if you throw the water around carelessly—that’s when it could be deadly. I know it’ll be hard to ignore the pain, but if you can fight through it, calm down, and focus, then even if something terrible happens, you’ll still be fine.”

Right. It’s not like I’m any more fragile than a regular human, just a little different. And besides, it’s the exact same as manifesting anything else. If I concentrate, I can do it.

I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.

I. Will. Be. Fine.

For the first time since I’d begun talking with Selina, Lucia added something. “Remember, Layn, this only matters in the event of catastrophe. I will have your back, and you have trained extensively for this moment. In all likelihood, we will come out completely unscathed.”

Even if it would’ve been a blatant lie, I would’ve preferred it if her reassurance came with a little more certainty than “in all likelihood”.

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