Chapter 10:

the tutorial segment

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest

After the heroine finished carving her brother’s name into the tablet, the plot of the otome game went something like this:

The town hall was closed for requests by then, so she decided to wander aimlessly around the city since she had nowhere else to go. That led her to a street market that was in full swing—something she’d never experienced before back in her hometown. Intrigued, she found herself exploring the market and festivities and peering curiously at the vendors’ wares.

However, she was so distracted that she accidentally bumped into Leonis Coabalt, who was also a newcomer to the city. This resulted in both of them dropping their belongings, scattering everything across the road. Leonis was rude about it and insulted the heroine instead of apologizing ("Tsundere,” said Halie), and hurriedly retrieved his fallen things. This was where they went through a cliché scene of unknowingly swapping tablets.

The next morning, the heroine brought the tablet back to the town hall to submit her request. But she found the council in an uproar and in no state to assist her—something major had happened. Eventually, she caught bits and pieces from the commotion and was able to piece together what was going on.

Someone had come by with a taboo request for information on Actaeus Viriadian, a wanted criminal.

Her brother? A wanted criminal?

The heroine’s thoughts were reeling, because that was news to her. Thinking about the events from yesterday, it suddenly occurred to her that she had accidentally swapped tablets with the guy from the market! When she heard that he’d been detained since morning, suspected of colluding with Actaeus, she was horrified…

This was her fault.

But just as she came forward to try and fix the misunderstanding, Aries appeared to stop her. As it turned out, the tablet in her hands—though carved with messy, unfamiliar handwriting—had the exact same request as hers. Nothing had changed. From the start, Leonis was looking for Actaeus too.

There was no need to turn herself in as well, Aries said. He warned her to leave the city. When asked why he was going out of his way to cover for a near-stranger, he said that she reminded him of her brother, and that he’d only help her just this once.

That led to more questions than answers, but he refused to elaborate. The heroine also couldn’t stop feeling that this all had to be her fault, somehow. Not only that, Leonis was her only key to finding more information about her brother, and he’d been locked up by the council (“Lol,” said Halie).

If that info was taboo here in the city of Arkose, then he was her only lead now.

With Orion (“!!!”) as her only ally, the heroine managed to concoct a plan to rescue Leonis—or at the very least, break into the council’s detainment quarters to see him and hear what he had to say. But she felt bad for leaving him there, so they rescued him anyway.

It turned out Leonis didn’t know much about Halie’s brother, only that he was the leader of Caeruleum, an extremist group hell-bent on bringing the world to ruin (“Hold onto that thought,” Halie noted). That didn’t sound like the Actaeus that she knew (“Lmao,” said Halie), and the heroine refused to believe it.

But they had no time to dawdle. Forced to leave the city, the three of them narrowly managed to escape from the council’s pursuers. Aries covered for them so they could leave safely, despite saying earlier that he’d only help the heroine just this once. He said he owed the brother a favour, an apology, and a drink someday. He then bid them a dramatic farewell.

(“I always tear up at that CG,” Halie said, sniffling)

Once they were a safe distance from the city, Leonis mentioned that he’d heard the council namedrop a certain someone named Gideon Obisidian (“He’s still an info broker in the game, kinda, just…outside of the city.”). He was a part of the extremist faction within Caeruleum (“Not actually true!”) and working closely with the heroine’s brother to destroy Arkose (“Okay, that one’s kinda true…”).

“So tomorrow, I’ll check out the street market,” Halie finished, abruptly ending the story there.

Orion had almost forgotten that this wasn’t just the plot of the game—it was a road map of what was to come next. Some parts were familiar from the webcomic because…well, Eilah had been present when Leonis and Halie bumped into each other. But the story diverged pretty dramatically after that.

There was no jailbreak scene in the comic, and Gideon had been present in the city as a mysterious figure that sold information on the black market. With all of Halie' insistence, Orion already expected that the story was quite different, so it didn’t come as that much of a shock. It was straightforward, at least. There was nothing insane in there like some of the other otome titles Halie had described to him—at least not yet.

Silently, he begged the Entity to keep it that way.

“And as for you,” Halie was saying, pursing her lips. “I guess you can just hang around at the market too. Or you can go to the clinic to build character.”

Orion Magnaolia often volunteered at the clinic, he remembered. He wouldn't know any of the staff there, and he was pretty sure his first aid certification expired over five years ago. There was only one logical choice.

“I kind of want to go see the mar—”

“Go to the clinic.”

Orion scowled, thinking about how free choice was a common lie. “The clinic, then.”

“Affection levels have increased to 28%.”

Fine, he’d take that.

Surprise flickered across Halie’s face at the response that the Entity had forced out of him. The good kind of surprise, hopefully, because he was sacrificing a trip to the street market for this.

“That’s unexpected,” she said. “You were so jealous when I was talking with Aries that I didn’t think you’d let me meet Leonis alone.”

Orion’s mouth dropped open.

“I wasn’t jealous,” he said hotly. “You can do whatever you want.”

“Oh really! But you know,” Halie said, lowering her voice conspiratorially even though there was no one else at Magnaolia’s house except the two of them. “If I happened to pick another route instead of yours, then you’ll never find out what happens after we leave the city. Never.”

Yeah, nice try.

“You’re just trying to get me to say that I’m jealous with Magnaolia’s face.”

“Nooooo, how did you know?!”


They ordered takeout for dinner.

It might be by far the single weirdest thing Orion had experienced since entering this game, by virtue of how normal it felt. Styrofoam boxes and bamboo chopsticks littered the dining table, and he was wolfing down food like he hadn’t eaten in a week. Halie had instructed him to grab the clay pots collecting rainwater outside, and then boil them for drinking water. He scalded his tongue on the first sip, but it was the sweetest water he’d ever drank in his life.

Generally in an apocalyptic-type setting, Orion would’ve thought livestock and crops would be a rarity. There were no trees, right? So he really thought they’d be subsiding on nutrient cubes or freeze-dried stew or something like that. Because of that, the fried chicken and freshly-steamed vegetables on the table felt jarringly out of place—not that he was complaining though.

According to Halie, the countryside was littered with self-sufficient farming villages that had been recovering for the last decade to get to this point. It helped that the clay was nutrient-rich and good for crops, and Orion tried not to think too hard about the connotations of that.

The city still had access to plenty of technology, too—anything that wasn’t completely destroyed in the first wave of floods. Orion was pretty sure it was just lazy worldbuilding for a post-apocalyptic game to have working air fryers and not a single scrap of paper in sight, but he was grateful for it. Fried chicken had never tasted so good.

He didn’t think he’d ever get to enjoy a meal like this again, and it tasted just like unwinding with takeout of questionable nutritional value after a long work day.

Only this time, he had someone to share the meal with.

Across the table, Halie caught him staring at her when he zoned out, and she stuck her tongue out at him. It was so unexpected that all Orion could do was laugh, feeling some of the tension weighing on his shoulders subside somewhat. Sure, he’d died and came to a weird place, but at least he could still enjoy a meal.

That was, until he tasted something foul on his tongue and spat out a piece of soggy, orange bell pepper onto the table. Halie raised an eyebrow at him when he took a swig of water to wash down the rotten flavour. Some of that water went down the wrong way, and he spent the next several minutes coughing and hacking and trying not to die.

“I think these went bad,” he croaked finally, wiping the corner of his mouth with his sleeve.

“I think it’s just you,” she said, plucking a piece of bell pepper from the takeout box and popping it into her mouth. She chewed once, and then nodded smugly. “Yeah, it’s just you. Orion can’t stand these things, so you probably got that from him.”

It wasn’t until that moment that he realized he had gotten used to being Orion Magnaolia now, like he’d grown into the unfamiliar skin of someone else’s body. He didn’t know if he liked that, but the alternative was an eternal crawling discomfort, his field of view feeling all wrong, and hair in his eyes.

(There was still hair in his eyes, but he’d gotten used to it.)

Lucid Levia
Steward McOy
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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