Chapter 23:

A Lamplit Gathering

Chained Regalia

Mahle was a quaint little village. Although there were likely a handful of farmhouses and barns scattered deeper in the surrounding farmlands, no more than two dozen buildings stood within the village’s heart. A communal well decorated the center square, and roughly cobbled roads branched out to connect each building, creating a root-like network by which one could navigate the space.

Though certainly more rural than a large town like Nerush, even a remote settlement like this had a few mounted oil lamps stuck periodically beside the road veins. The sun was setting as we approached from a distance, and I could see a small boy running from lamp to lamp to light them before the darkness finished its descent.

The next few minutes were a blur in my head. I vaguely understood what was going on, but for the most part, my body operated unconsciously while my mind was elsewhere. Maybe even that wasn’t accurate; it was more like my mind was nowhere.

We’d stopped at a stable of some sort and paid a man there to keep our horses overnight, but that was the extent of the details I’d absorbed in my daze. The next thing I knew, we were taking a cobblestone path connecting the stable to the village square.

It was only then that I realized I was fidgeting with my hands, and in a peculiar manner, no less. I was conjuring up a small table knife with my manifestation power, flicking it lightly into air as if flipping a coin, then banishing it from existence once it achieved the apex of its arc; I repeated that cycle again and again ad nauseam. I’d developed this little game when I was first learning to manifest objects, but at some point, it’d become an ingrained habit that I did occasionally without thinking.

A wave of panic washed over me as I recalled our conversation from a mere hour or so ago. With each knife I manifested…

I’m slowly killing myself.

I felt an overwhelming chill envelop my entire body, and I shivered in spite of the mild weather. I knew I was being irrational; creating these tiny little knives would be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and I’d recover the energy I’d expended on them in a mere day or two, but each one suddenly reminded me of my own mortality.

No matter what I tried to do to take my mind off of things, I was always reminded of what was quickly approaching.

Why isn’t anyone else scared? I don’t get it. I don’t underst—

“Ow, ow… that hurts! Stop it!” When I came to my senses, I felt something tugging down on my ear. Or, rather, I came to my senses because of that tugging.

“I did not intend for it to hurt. I apologize.” Lucia mercifully released me after hearing my cries, much to my relief.

“Why’d you do it so hard, then?” I complained. “You could’ve just said something.”

From my other side, Selina spoke up. “We tried, but you ignored us. It made Luci sad, and she gets violent when she’s sad.”

My gaze bounced from Selina back to Lucia. “You get violent when you’re sad? You realize how deranged that is, right?”

Lucia’s expression seemed half annoyed at my accusation and half relieved that I was in good enough shape to tease her. I was honestly a little relieved myself.

“Anyway, anyway,” Selina called for our attention. “Look alive, you two. We’re meeting up with our crew!” She gestured dramatically towards the well in the center of the square, and I noticed four individuals standing beside it.

Four lamps sat at the edge of the (actually circular) village square, but the fact that each was equidistant from the center meant that none properly illuminated it. Because of that, I couldn’t get a good look at the people standing there.

Erm, wait a sec…

“You mean… we’re meeting up with other people!? We were going to have backup this whole time and you never told me!?” Nighttime was rapidly approaching, so I was definitely being too loud, but I couldn’t contain myself.

“Huh?” Selina seemed surprised. “Luci didn’t tell you?”

“I am not to blame,” Lucia shot back. “The last I was told, we were still uncertain if others had answered the call for assistance.”

Alwey, who had been taking the lead, suddenly stopped his advance and slowly turned to face the rest of us with a harsh glare—a glare which soon rested upon Selina alone. “This morning, I told you to update them on the latest developments while I readied our horses,” he hissed quietly, apparently not wanting to rope the others, still standing a short distance away, into our drama.

Selina met his glare with a look of confusion, then one of deep thought, then one of understanding, and, finally, one of apology. Each expression in the sequence appeared progressively less showy and more authentic than the last. “Haha, so, I totally remember now, but, uh, yeah, I completely forgot. Haha… so, um, I-I’m sorry, Alwey.” She lowered her head a little at the end as if to give an apologetic head bow. I’d seen a lot of new things out of Selina today, and this, too, was something I hadn’t experienced before.

In response to her uncharacteristically serious apology, Alwey’s glare quickly eased, and…


It was only for the briefest of moments, but the ever stone-faced man had placed a tender, caring smile on his face.

“Raise your head, Selina,” he whispered, just barely loud enough that I could hear. As he said it, he gently placed his hand on her chin, tipping it upwards to meet his gaze. “I overreacted, and I am the only one at fault here. Please, smile again. It pains me to see you sulk.”

… Huh? There’s no way this is actually happening, right? I’m hallucinating… I have to be.

Selina grabbed his hand and lifted it up so that it held her cheek. “I know, I know. Your eyes may have looked scary, but I’ve known you long enough to tell you weren’t really that angry about it. I just felt bad for forgetting, is all!” Her usual beaming smile returned, and then she started giggling. “Hehe, but Alwey… you totally forgot that Luci and Layn are watching us, didn’t you? I bet they heard all the cheesy stuff you said, too.”

He snapped his head in our direction, immediately removed his hand from her cheek, and took a step away from her for good measure. A slight quiver in his voice, he said, “A-anyway, we will fill you two in momentarily, then. Let us join up with the others and begin our briefing.” He got back to business so easily that I almost thought I’d imagined the whole thing.

Since coming to this world, I’d seen monsters; I’d seen magic; I’d even learned how to manipulate reality with my own power. But none of those fantastical things were as confounding to me as the scene that had just unfolded before my eyes.

I shot a look at Lucia, praying she could give me the answers I sought, but she just had an inexplicable, nostalgic smile on her face. Before I could ask her anything, a voice I didn’t recognize spoke first.

“Sir Abraf, I was beginning to worry you wouldn’t make it in time. I know your company has just arrived, but are you prepared to begin the operation soon?” A tall woman with short, dark purple hair approached our group. A much smaller woman with long, unkempt brown hair hurriedly tried to keep pace with her, and a few steps behind them, two men casually followed.

Before Alwey could answer, both men let out exclamations that interrupted the conversation.

“No way! Miss Lucia?”

“Eh? Can’t be. Is that really ‘er ‘ighness? We weren’t told the other pair’d include ya!”

Evidently, the two men had met Lucia before. She didn’t seem to recognize them at first, but as they stepped out into the lamplight, her expression shifted. “I see. It is nice to run into you two again, Mason, Cliffe.”

The man with the slight accent, apparently named Cliffe, pointed at me of all people as he continued to address Lucia. “It can’t be… so Sir Abraf finally cracked and let ya do it, did ‘e? Ya got yourself a Chain o’ your own, didja?”

Upon hearing this, the other man, Mason, gave me a light glare through the glasses he wore. His expression quickly relaxed, though. I can’t make heads or tails of anyone today, apparently. What did I do to this guy? Or… did I do nothing? He doesn’t even seem annoyed anymore!

Mason removed his glasses and tossed them off to the side. They disintegrated in the air long before they hit the ground. Which means… “Nice to meet you. The name’s Mason. I’m Cliffe’s Chain.” He extended a hand towards me, which, after a moment of hesitation, I shook.

“Uh, hi everyone. I’m Layn. You already figured it out, but I’m her Chain.” I pointed with my thumb towards Lucia.

“L-Layn?” The small girl spoke up for the first time. Her voice was squeaky and tinged with hesitation. “Y-you mean like… n-never mind. M-my name is Allie. My Ch-Chainbearer is named Ollania.”

Desperately hoping I wouldn’t forget anyone’s name, I nodded to indicate I got everyone’s introduction. I was glad that, recently, I had finally managed to get the movements of Osfen’s spell down properly. This conversation would have started off way more awkwardly if we needed to ask everyone else to cast it before they could talk to me.

“We are running short on time, so, if you will allow me, I would like to begin our briefing,” Alwey took charge, and everyone quickly stood to attention.

He gave us a succinct overview of the situation, which I was already mostly familiar with (besides the news that two other pairs would be joining us, which we had apparently only received word of late this morning). We’d arrived later than expected, and our plan required specific timing, so we needed to act quickly. After his short overview, then, our group of eight began their short trek to the abandoned farmhouses in the eastern woods which would serve as the battleground for our upcoming skirmish.

Lucia, for some reason, strayed just a little bit behind everyone else as we walked, and I naturally chose to keep pace with her.

“Hey, Layn.”

“Hm? What is it?”

“Are you ready?”

“I don’t know if ‘ready’ is the word I’d use, but… I guess?”

“If you choose not to fight, I will accept that.”

“H-huh? Wait, what?” It wasn’t like I was necessarily coerced into this mission, but I still didn’t expect her to explicitly offer me an out at the last moment.

“Will you fight?” she asked again.

I sighed a little. “Even if I said ‘no’, you’d just go in to fight alone.”

She nodded. “I would. But even so, I will not force you to join me.”

I sighed again, but much heftier this time. “Lucia.”


“I’m never leaving your side for as long as I live, got it?” Immediately realizing how that sounded, I awkwardly added, “L-like, I mean in the cool warrior way, you know?”

Lucia chuckled a little. “Of course, of course.”
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