Chapter 7:

the city of sandstone

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest

Just outside the perimeters of the city, Halie took Orion on a sharp detour straight into a section of collapsing buildings without an explanation. As he looked around somewhat nervously, she pointed out a crumbling wall ahead with part of a window still attached. The face of a small child was pressed up against the glass, with wide, teary eyes.

"What's some random kid doing here?" Orion asked Halie, as she hoisted herself up against the wall and reached out a hand to the kid.

"It's ours," she said, without missing a beat. "Kidding. This little girl went missing last night and her parents have been worried sick. Orion’s supposed to rescue her here."

"Oh," he said. Magnaolia was such a noble guy, huh.

“However, he collapsed from dehydration before he could do that,” Halie said dreamily, scooping up the child into her arms. “So don’t worry about it, ‘cause the heroine’s supposed to help out anyway. We can head into the city now.”

Uh, that guy was starting to sound pretty unreliable?!


The township of Arkose—formerly an unnamed city in the villainess webcomic—was one of the last strongholds that had lasted against the great floods. Once, it was surrounded by sandstone barriers erected against the floodwater. The singular freestanding slab of rock marked the last vestiges of that time, and now only served as an unofficial gate between the orange wasteland and a grey metropolis.

They dropped off the kid there, to “help the council of incompetent folks save face”, Halie told him. The council served as the city’s unofficial governing body—ha, finally something that was explained in the comic. They were sort of an antagonistic organization headed by an enigmatic mayor, and several of Eilah’s narrow escapes from a bad end were indirectly caused by them.

Not to be one-upped, Halie then giddily hinted that the Mayor Mahogainy was relevant to the otome game’s overarching plot, but refused to give him more spoilers.

Well, whatever kept her happy.

The shape of the city was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Unevenly paved streets spilled out from behind what was once the perimeters of a fortified shelter. Orion saw the shape of wide, angled roofs on every building—he recognized them from the comic. Like the sandstone wall, these too, were relics of the past—from back when the contamination had spread to rainwater, too.

But these days, rain was the only precious source of freshwater, slow to dilute the last traces of contaminated runoff for decades.

“Still, it’s hard for the locals to break old habits,” Halie said, raising a hand into the sky to catch the first droplets of falling rain on her gloved palm. “Let’s take shelter, quick.”

As if out of habit, she reached over Orion’s shoulder, pulling up his hood over his head for him. Suddenly, he was reminded of preflight briefings on a plane, when passengers were told to put on their own oxygen mask before assisting someone else. WIthout giving him any time to react, Halie pulled down her own hood and skipped ahead.

More rain began to spill from the sky, forcing him to pick up the pace too.

“Affection levels have increased to 12%.”


The streets were emptying out by the time Orion and Halie set foot into the city. Hooded figures disappeared into buildings in droves to keep out of the rain. A few remained behind, watching the rainfall from under the awnings. Orion was staring blatantly at them, a little awed at seeing the living, breathing people of this world up close for the first time.

And no, Halie and that kid didn’t count.

“Stop staring at people like a tourist, this is embarrassing for both of us,” she muttered under her breath, elbowing him hard in the ribs. Then she grabbed his arm and dragged him to follow the crowd heading into the town hall.

The building was unimpressive by modern standards, but it could fit the entire population of Arkose back in the day. In the webcomic, Halie Viriadian paid a visit to this very place when she first entered the city. This was also where she encountered the love interest and council member, Aries Buragandy. Their first scene together, what was it again—

And without warning, that was when the Entity shoved some visuals unceremoniously into Orion’s brain. A text box, a very plain-looking girl with brown hair, and a blurred out crowd against the backdrop of the town hall interior.

“Halie: I wonder if the council knows of my brother’s whereabouts.

Halie: But if not…I don’t have any other leads.

Halie: No, now isn’t the time to think about that. I’ve gotten this far already.

???: New girl.

Halie: (Eh?!)

???: You’re from out of town, aren’t you?

Halie: (Holy shit what am I supposed to say?!)

[Tell him you’re looking for your brother.]

[Remain quiet.]

[Tell him to #$%^ &*@]”

The scene was a clip from the otome game, materializing in Orion’s head like a false memory. It felt invasive—too clear and too vivid to be his own, and too unlike how he remembered it.

He supposed it didn’t come as a surprise that the exchange played out differently from the webcomic. Halie Viriadian was kind of different, too—not quite the sweet, naive girl that he remembered. Orion could get behind that third option.

But enough about the heroine. The only thing that mattered was that she wasn’t here, in the end. Orion was realizing now that there was still a part of him that clung desperately to that hope. The spaces where she didn't exist felt so empty, without even a shadow of the static antagonist character that she’d brought to life with her charm.

Because in Villainess’s Love Interest, the scene had played out like this:

Eilah had known that the villainess was supposed to rudely bump into the heroine. This would’ve caused the girl to lose her balance and fall into Aries’s arms. Of course, Eliah didn’t want to cause trouble, so she tried to leave quietly instead. That backfired, however, because she ended up tripping over her long jacket and crashing straight into Aries—inadvertently taking Halie’s first scene with the first male lead for herself.

Worried that she would affect the flow of the story, Eilah then tried to set up a chance meeting between Halie and—

“Hey! What are you spacing out for?”

Orion felt a tug on his arm. There was something about reality being the exact same scene he was seeing in his mind’s eye that made him feel a little out of it. There was a tug on his arm again—it was Halie, and she was pouting at him.

Not cute at all.

“Affection levels have increased to 15%.”

“What?" he said dryly, noticing that she was blinking rapidly at him and mouthing something unintelligible. But Orion wasn’t good at reading lips, so he had no idea what she was trying to say. Her grip on his arm tightened, but he just shrugged helplessly.

“Ha, you seem to be quite the charmer, Orion. She won’t say a word to me, but she’s clinging so tightly to you.”

The new voice was unfamiliar, and deeper than Orion's own—specifically, deeper than the capacity of his current vocal cords. Orion had been so focused on trying to decipher Halie's confusing body language that he hadn't realized that someone else had broken off from the rest of the crowd to join them.

When he glanced up, he found himself meeting a piercing, ice-blue gaze.

Aries Buragandy wasn't much taller than Magnaolia, but there was an air about him that made him seem like a celebrity. He looked as if he stepped out of a panel of Villainess's Love Interest, deep burgundy hair and charming smile and all. He wore a long cloak over his shoulders instead of the standard-issue raincoat, fastened by several belts (of course) across his broad chest.

Orion's first thought was that he should get this guy's autograph. One of the receptionists back at the office liked him a lot, enough to hang a dozen keychains of the exact same dude on her bag.

But he couldn’t do that, partly because he’d died in that world, and partly because Halie would be extremely unimpressed. Also, if his knowledge of the webcomic carried over here, Aries and Magnaolia were acquainted—

Ah, that explained Halie’s bruising grip on his arm.

“Uh…yeah,” Orion said lamely. “I guess so.”

Was this what he would’ve said? He should’ve studied Magnaolia’s scenes more diligently when he still had access to the webcomic. And hell, why wasn’t the Entity giving him choices like he saw from the game interface when Halie was put into this situation?

“Halie Viriadian is the protagonist.”

What did he expect from some weird voice in his head that hadn’t given him a single useful piece of advice since the beginning? Aries was giving him this bemused look, but thankfully he wasn’t flipping out like Halie had done, probably because he was just a normal, fictional guy. Orion didn’t want to glance over at Halie right now, because from how she was in the middle of trying to discreetly rip his arm off, he could only imagine what her expression was like.

(Who was the one that said she’d get him up to speed once they reached the city, huh?)

Lucid Levia
Steward McOy
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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