From the Sidelines
This chronicle details a campaign waged in the name of Paruside Kingdom, led by four brave souls who stood against evil.
As I, Atticus Hoyle, put ink to paper, I ask myself how this story begins. With the wholly unwarranted show of aggression from Valeway? With the Goddess's questionable intervention in the conflict? With His Majesty King Vander's assembling of this band of heroes?
But no, to start with such things would put focus on the wrong part of history. To take attention away from what is truly important.
Where it begins is where many great stories do: with the blossoming of love.
It was their first meeting. Their first proper meeting, at any rate.
Certainly, they had seen each other a good deal already. Why, he had selected her personally for this expedition. But in all the bustle of the first day of traveling, it was not until that first night, alone together in a tent, that they could finally talk.
Cyrus was a hero of great renown. His strength had laid low many a monster, solved many a dilemma, and these rumors had reached even the king's ears. He was a natural choice for the job - the only one bold enough to lead this crusade against the monster threat.
And Yulren of Adorna was not one to be bested even by such remarkable talent as his. For she had a pedigree, hailing from a great lineage of mages trained from birth to be the best of the best. The Mana Goddess herself needed look no further than the Adorna line when considering a successor, for they lived and breathed mana. And indeed, they said there was no wound Yulren could not heal.
But perhaps it may come as a surprise that when two such great personages came together, they appeared at first timid around each other.
"Yulren... uh, Adorna," Cyrus began. "Can I call you Yulren? Do you have a nickname? Like, Yul, or..."
"Yulren is fine," she sheepishly replied.
"Right," he nodded. "Uh, and I'm just Cyrus. No last name or anything. Kind of not used to you fancy types."
Yulren looked away nervously. "I have little experience with anyone outside of my own family, so... likewise."
"Oh, uh, great! I think." He scratched his head. "At any rate, we should get used to each other. We're going to be fighting these monsters together, after all, and your magic is gonna be invaluable to our party, I know it."
"I... appreciate your encouragement, Sir Cyrus - I-I mean, Cyrus," she corrected, tightly shutting her eyes and shaking her head. "But... even for one like myself, who has been given every reason to be confident in her ability, it did occur to me, seeing the other leading members of our troop..."
He looked at her quizzically. "What about the others?"
"Sir Atticus is... a sage, who would seem well-versed in magic himself. And Madam Courtney is... a diviner, I hear, deeply attuned to the flow of mana..." She lowered her head with a sigh. "My point is, it seems to me that, rather, we should consider your raw strength invaluable."
Cyrus let out a hearty laugh. "Hey, glad for your compliments too, Yulren. But if raw strength were all that mattered, I'd be doing this quest alone, y'know?"
"I... well, you have done many great deeds alone, I hear," Yulren mused. "Are we really so essential to this particular venture?"
"Absolutely. You know I picked you for a reason, Yulren."
She looked at him with stunned surprise, unsure how to respond. Ultimately, she only stammered out "I... I see," then fell silent again.
Cyrus smiled at her, then had an idea. He asked for a sheet of paper and quill pen, wrote something down, and folded it up. Then he handed it to Yulren.
He explained: "I'm hoping you won't - but if you start feeling like you aren't important to this party or anything again, just open that up for a reminder of why that's not true."
She stared at the folded paper in her hand. "You mean... you wrote down the reason you...?"
"Yep. But I'd like for it not to come to that," he said with a smile.
"Th... Thank you, Cyrus!" She stood up and bowed. "Um, I should really go get changed and prepare for bed, so if it's all right..."
"Already?", he said with a disappointed look. "Oh, fine. See you tomorrow, Yulren."
"Y... Yes." She bowed her head slightly and left the tent with her attendant.
What happened after that, I can't say for certain.
But I'm certain of one thing: much was on Yulren's mind as she clutched that piece of paper.
Tonight, we met. Actually met, I mean. As actual as I could hope for.
I'd seen her around, of course, unsure who exactly she was. As the chronicler for this expedition, I should know everybody - and yet she was important enough to come along, yet unimportant enough for nobody to mention.
Over the course of our first day of travel, it became apparent she was some sort of servant to Yulren Adorna. But it was as if I couldn't catch her in the act of, well, doing anything. She, like the rest of Yulren's entourage, just tailed her everywhere like some kind of Cat, but unlike the others, had no obvious role - not to say the others having roles made me question their presence on this quest any less.
I guess I'm not one to talk, though. I was pretty sure that she saw me in much the same way: just following Cyrus around everywhere and writing who knows what in a book. If she saw me at all, I mean.
But, well, I never imagined that tonight, I'd find out that maybe she was looking at me the same way.
After our long day of travel, we ended up alone together in Cyrus's tent. Me, Cyrus, Yulren, and... her.
Cyrus tried to start up a conversation with Yulren; I don't really remember exactly what it was, nor do I care to check. I remember her leaving him totally cold; that's all that matters, really.
Actually, one other thing mattered - mattered a lot, in fact. They were practically leaving the two of us alone.
I shot a glance her way, and she acknowledged it. Her eyes glanced toward Cyrus and Yulren, then back to me. I shrugged and held up the book I was writing in. Mortified, she bowed her head low and put her hands together in a mock prayer. I stifled a laugh.
Though I tried to pay attention to our "heroic" "leader" and write down the details lest I be chewed out later, I couldn't keep from glancing back at her, and hoping she took notice. For as expensively-dressed and admittedly pretty as Yulren was, she didn't hold a candle to this kind of beauty - to think nobody'd even spoken her name.
Getting an idea, I wrote down my name on the corner of a page, tore it off, crumpled it into a ball, and rolled it toward her. Cyrus and Yulren remained oblivious as ever.
She picked it up, read it, and nodded at me - but made a writing gesture in the air. Right, she didn't have anything to write with...
Suddenly, I realized Cyrus was looking right at me. I jumped in surprise, but it didn't seem he had noticed what I was up to or how distracted I was.
"Lemme have that," he said, indicating my pen. "And some paper."
I obliged, and once he turned away, could only offer a shrug to the girl across the room.
But before I could even observe her reaction, that clumsy oaf Cyrus, after writing whatever it was he was writing, knocked over an inkwell and spilled ink all over Yulren's extremely white robes.
And the moment that accident occurred, it was her who rushed to Yulren's side.
"S-So sorry, Yulren..." Cyrus apologized, flustered about his attempt to be suave completely backfiring. "You can, uh, get that fixed, right?"
"Yes," Yulren said with an exasperated sigh. "That's what my seamstress is here for." Suddenly, she recalled what Cyrus was doing before the mishap. "...Wh-What did you write, anyway?"
He scrambled to grab the piece of paper off the table and fold it up. "Oh, y'know, uh, why I picked you. And stuff." He awkwardly held it out to her. "Read it... if you feel like it. Uh, but you shouldn't have to read it to know you're important! Is what I'm trying to say."
"...Mm," Yulren acknowledged, barely able to entertain him any longer, but at least accepting the note. "Well, we should really get this mess taken care of, and I should get ready for bed..."
Yulren and her seamstress made for the exit of the tent. Cyrus expressed his disappointment that she was leaving already, and I have to admit I shared it, for a different reason.
However, as they left, I noticed something. The seamstress was carrying Yulren's stained outer robe - and it was not just Cyrus who had stained it.
Written on the side facing me was "Sophia."
And so it was Sophia who waved an ink-stained finger in my direction as she left.
The expedition had entered its second day.
Cyrus sat at the front of the cart, keeping an eye out for dangers. One must always be cautious in the woods, but that held especially true the closer we drew to the Valeway Territories - their armies could have been lurking anywhere for a surprise attack.
Yulren came out seeming entirely unconcerned for such dangers. "Er, Cyrus? What are you doing out here?"
"Oh, Yulren!" He hopped up and whipped around. "So good of you to join me. Care to have a seat?"
"S... Sure," she nodded, and they sat.
The two of them gazed ahead almost as if they were admiring the scenery of the woods, rather than probing their dark depths for impending peril. Then Cyrus spoke up.
"So... isn't there something you want to ask?"
Yulren nearly had to catch herself from falling off the cart. "A-Ask?"
"I know you're wondering about it," Cyrus chuckled knowingly. "You know... where the Horses are?"
"O-Oh... that. Of course you meant that." She sighed. "Er... well, I would assume -"
Cyrus slapped Yulren's shoulder. "That's the beauty of it - there aren't any! It all runs on mana. Pretty fancy, huh? Pretty sure even someone as prestigious and pretty and good with mana as you hasn't seen something like this before. That's cutting-edge Parusidian technology for you."
Yulren waited a few moments after he finished speaking. "Well, this particular application is somewhat novel, but it's really quite common to -"
"Oh yeah, that reminds me! Hey, Courtney!", Cyrus shouted toward the back. "Is the engine holding up okay?"
"Working like a charm," Courtney chirped back. "And don't forget to thank Atticus for his steering. Mana engines don't like a bumpy ride just as much as you wouldn't."
A pause. "Well, as much as Yulren wouldn't," she muttered under her breath.
Cyrus turned back to Yulren. "By the way, an "engine" is -"
"I think I know what it is," she bluntly interjected.
"If you say so." He put his arms behind his head and leaned back in relaxation. "I just think it's some great innovation. Never really liked having to depend on a Horse to pull you along. Can't tell what one of those things is gonna do. Even if you get it to do what you say, it's still a dumb monster who'll freak out at the slightest provocation. Then before you know it, your cart's on its side and..."
Cyrus trailed off, noticing Yulren was acting oddly beside him. "Uh, why are you sniffing the air?"
"FIRE!!", Courtney screamed. "There's a fire!!"
Cyrus whipped around and saw it - a flaming arrow had hit the cart, and Courtney and I were rushing to put out the flames posthaste. His gaze followed where it had been fired from, and there he found...
"Valkyrie," he growled.
Every Mana Goddess has fairies: divinely-created servants meant for various ends. But Goddess Hilda used hers for a rather peculiar purpose.
Hilda, the Wings of Steel. She was no lover of war - but she recognized its inevitability. She believed conflict would never subside, making way for peace, without war to show its folly.
And so to achieve such balance, she would send her Valkyries - offer up part of her very self - to aid the powerless whom war would otherwise wipe out.
A noble concept, but a nonsensical one. As anyone actually engaged in such conflicts could tell you, it only prolongs the pain of war. Without such meddling, it could all be over so much quicker, for a longer peace.
Let it be known that even the Goddess's judgement is not always correct - in more ways than one.
At any rate, this first encounter was easily dealt with. Cyrus took the fight to the Valkyries with Yulren right in behind, and Courtney and I provided further backup once the fire was taken care of. Our combined might soon sent the handful of troops running. Perhaps it was only ever their idea of a warning; not as if we would heed it.
Still, we were doubtlessly a bit shaken to be caught so off-guard. Courtney was making sure the engine wasn't damaged by the fire, I tended to my slightly-singed staff, and Yulren was in the corner healing Cyrus's few wounds.
"Sorry for being so careless," Cyrus said with a sigh. "In, well... all the ways. Not paying enough attention, letting them get some hits on me..."
Yulren, however, was known as a healer for a reason.
"...It's all right. At the end of the day, I know you're looking out for us all. I'll... be sure to look out for you, too."
Courtney put her arm around Yulren. "That's the spirit! If we let a little mishap like that get us down, we're done for, y'know?"
I nodded in agreement. "Indeed, this is only the beginning. If you want to be remembered as great heroes, let this go down as the first step in our coming together as a team."
Cyrus laughed nervously. "Uh, is that how you're gonna write it?"
"Well, we'll just have to see," I chuckled.
On this, the second day of the expedition... well, naturally we weren't just going to be handed another opportunity like the night before. Lightning only strikes twice if you cast it there.
And so, encouraged by last night's events, that's what we aimed to do.
Of the handful of carts our group was traveling by, I was stationed on the cart with Cyrus, Yulren, Courtney, and Atticus, while Sophia was on a different one specifically for Yulren's various attendants. I wondered if the Adorna family had specifically paid for it for that exact purpose.
I also wondered if Yulren had originally been meant to be on it herself, and if someone or another may have intervened. But I could wonder all day about such things, and I didn't care to. Sophia had given me plenty more intriguing things to wonder about.
The one that kept coming to the forefront of my mind was... her voice. It seemed absurd that I still hadn't heard her say a word out loud - though then again, how much had the other attendants talked during all this? How much had I?
But I had to keep pushing it down, waiting for an opportunity to arise where we could actually speak without putting our jobs at risk. Because for now, we were communicating through letters.
After learning Sophia was Yulren's seamstress, I'd figured out something else. There was a laundry basket for people to toss their dirty clothes in - those of us that had more than one change of clothes. And while I hadn't yet seen her collect it, it seemed a reasonable assumption, after seeing the cleaning of Yulren's stained robe fall to her, that Sophia was handling all our laundry.
And so, I decided to hide some spare writing implements in the basket underneath the clothes. If my thinking were wrong, well, I would've had to hope a lame excuse would keep me from any serious punishment, since it would be obvious they were mine. But fortunately, I was not wrong, and my delivery made it safely.
So we'd been exchanging letters since the day started, though that makes it sound like a lot more than it was. It wasn't anywhere near as quick as I would've liked. We could only perform a hand-off if we happened to be near each other, and while I could more or less write anytime, Sophia could only do so if she didn't have eyes on her.
And in spite of the lengths we went to just to write these notes to each other, I'd have to admit that objectively, their contents were utterly trivial. Sophia complained about Cyrus making extra work for her last night; I complained about his snoring last night. I questioned how a girl so seemingly sheltered as Yulren would fare on a dangerous journey like this; Sophia, being her servant, told me I had no idea just how sheltered she was.
Regardless, reading and writing those letters was an absolute blessing amid having to attend to my actual duties. Considering how she indulges me despite the hassle, I hope Sophia feels similarly.
Yet once we were back on the road (such as it was in these woods), on separate carts, exchanging letters became next to impossible. After being granted a short reprieve from accompanying Cyrus (after explaining to Atticus that I would only be writing "we kept driving through the woods"), I sat on the back of the cart pondering alternatives.
Sophia popped out of the back of her cart, noticed me, and glanced around to see if anyone else was paying attention. It seemed to be safe, not to mention it was getting dark. So without warning, she slung a long piece of fabric toward me, which I scrambled to grab. Holding the other end up, she slid a new folded note over to me, and gave me a cheerful smile. What a resourceful girl, I thought.
Suddenly, I heard Atticus approaching. Acting fast, I rolled up the fabric and stuffed it into my clothes along with the letter. I'd have to wait to read that one - it really was obstacle after obstacle.
"Yulren has decided to accompany Cyrus at the front of the cart," Atticus told me. "You had better watch, scribe."
I internally sighed and headed for the front. Cyrus was trying to impress Yulren with his knowledge (really? of all things?), and she wasn't having any of it.
As Cyrus rambled on, Yulren's gaze wandered, and found its way to me. Specifically, she seemed to be watching my hand as it wrote.
Suddenly, her eyes went wide with what seemed to be horror, and she shut them with an unmistakable shudder.
...Was she thinking about what I might be writing?
I didn't have much time to consider it then, because just a moment later, things started to happen rapidly.
There was a monster on the path ahead, a Rabbit facing away from us. By the time Cyrus, wrapped up in trying to woo Yulren, noticed that monster, they were rather close. He jumped with surprise, and knocked over a lantern. Our cart started to go up in flames, and the monster took notice and ran in terror.
And then, a voice rang out.
I turned to face it. Sophia covered her mouth wide-eyed, regretting having instinctively shouted. But amid the chaos, it was easily ignored by everyone else - and I was so glad for her mistake.
Fleeing the burning cart, I ran over to her, tossed her the fabric I'd hastily taken without thinking, and ran back toward (though not too far toward) our cart. But the fabric was thrown back at my head.
"I've got tons. Keep it."
I picked it back up bashfully. "Thanks, Sophia."
She looked surprised to hear me speak. "...Don't mention it."
Perhaps lightning hadn't struck twice, but lightning and fire was good enough.
Suffice to say, the cart didn't make it. The structural damage was probably fixable if you really didn't want to give up on it, but the fire had totally wrecked the mana engine, according to Courtney. And I doubt Cyrus was willing to stand in for a Horse.
Being down a cart, a representative of the Adorna family offered the use of theirs, distributing most of Yulren's attendants to various other carts. And through another miracle - though I'm unsure how the decisions were made - Sophia was one of the servants who stayed right where she was. Fire must have been my lucky element or something.
I'm unsure who else, if anyone, noticed who caused the fire. Even Yulren, the closest to the incident besides the one who caused it and myself, had been distracted in that moment (by me).
Maybe it was just that I'd subconsciously let my "inappropriate" feelings about the fire show on my face. But later, as things were settling down, Atticus gave me a glare.
"You'd do well not to write about this, scribe."
The next few days of the expedition were not especially eventful. Staying alert after last time, Cyrus and his cohorts fended off numerous other attacks from monsters.
They were not proper military units by any stretch; it seemed as if our advance was not being responded to as a serious threat as of yet. Or, I pondered, perhaps this was the most they could muster against us, even with the Goddess's backing.
But eventually, we reached our first destination: a major settlement of monsters, situated just halfway between Paruside Castle and Valeway's own stronghold. Our intel had informed us that this served as an outpost for rebel activity.
If Dyzel, leader of the monsters, had not yet realized we were here, he would now.
Some monsters took off running the moment we arrived. Others were more stubborn. And those who simply refused to leave... they left us no choice but to subject them to the flames that had ravaged our own homes.
We showed what mercy we could in consideration for the ever-compassionate Yulren and Courtney. Regardless, it served as a grim reminder for us all that this was war. These monsters had wronged us, and it was our duty to enact justice.
Once the dust had settled, we turned the settlement into an encampment of our own, and began resting and preparing for the latter part of our journey.
For it was only going to get more arduous from here.
These past few days have been simultaneously exciting and a complete mess.
The exciting part should be obvious: my opportunities to interact with Sophia have jumped way up now that we're on the same cart. And while I don't really like feeling too cramped, the packing of more people into one cart helps in this case, as it makes it a bit easier for us to talk unnoticed. I've also gotten to interact with some of Yulren's other attendants, who seem like decent people, just annoyed that they had to come out on a quest they had no business being on.
Unfortunately, it's ended up feeling almost necessary to have those boons, because meanwhile our party has been proving to be exceedingly incompetent.
We've had a number of other run-ins with monsters, and while none were quite as bad as "our cart burned down because Cyrus got startled," the breadth of issues our little band could exhibit has surprised even me. I'm familiar with Cyrus's buffoonery at this point, but the others have only amplified it: Yulren's very presence destroys what little focus he has, Courtney indulges his dumb ideas like "cast a fire spell on my sword," and Atticus encourages him every step of the way, talking him up as a hero.
The rest of our forces were as thrown-together as our leadership, and thus unable to coordinate to any useful end. Unlike our four leaders, though, at least I could imagine them being effective under some kind of guidance, so I don't want to be too quick to dismiss them, even if it was easy to do so in terms of actual contribution. Really, though - was anyone seriously expecting the Adorna family's taggers-on to be effective in a fight?
And looming above all of this has been a fact everyone's reluctant to admit despite its obviousness: Yulren is opposed to the very core of our mission. Not that I can really disagree with her.
Every time someone's about to kill a monster, she begs for them to show mercy. Even fighting the Valkyries, the Goddess's backup forces who practically exist to take the blow for the monsters, gives her pause.
Luckily, no one in those encounters was particularly aggressive, so it didn't have to come to that. But this is war, and we're coming for Dyzel's head. It isn't going to be like that the whole way.
All of this was something she should have expected and been prepared for before we even left. Things really came to a head when we stumbled upon something we hadn't expected.
"There's some sort of light up ahead," Atticus remarked with mild confusion. "Is there anything on the map?"
"Only trees, trees, and more trees," Courtney responded, shaking her head. "Y'know, I doubt these have really been updated since Valeway established itself -"
A voice echoed from the distance, followed by the sound of many doors slamming shut. The light we'd seen went out.
Pulling into a clearing, we found ourselves right in the middle of a decently-sized settlement.
Amid the eerie silence of the night, our cart was full of whispering. What should we do? Are they going to attack? Did King Vander give any orders for a situation like this?
Atticus cleared his throat to quiet them. "Remain calm, everyone. There is but one path forward here."
"What's that?", Cyrus asked cluelessly.
"I had hoped not to cause any worry, but... our supplies have been dwindling faster than anticipated. We must restock and recuperate if we are to reach Dyzel's stronghold." Atticus lowered his head. "Unexpected though it may be... this provides us an opportunity to do both."
Yulren was shocked. "Y-You want us to fight them in their homes...? To take their supplies for ourselves...?!"
"Not quite, Yulren. They went and hid at our mere approach; it should be a simple matter to just scare them off. And if some refuse to leave..." He sighed. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
"That's still just as awful," she sobbed. "Driving them out of their homes, taking their food... that's just killing them without having to see them die..."
"If they must die either way," he spat coldly, "surely that would be more preferable to you?"
"How can you -"
Her rare outburst was interrupted by a voice from outside.
There was a man standing out there. A human man.
"V... Visitors from Paruside... we'll give you whatever you want. Please, at least spare us..."
Atticus sighed with annoyance and gestured for us to go out and talk to him. We were all confused to see a human here; even Yulren's anger was somewhat subdued by it.
"And who are you, exactly?", Atticus asked.
"I... I live here," the man meekly answered.
"Here?", repeated Atticus doubtfully. "With the monsters?"
"W-Well... yes, with the monsters... though there are other humans too..."
"Something's fishy," Cyrus muttered, folding his arms. "They immediately go and hide, but then send one human out right as we're talking about -"
Atticus forcefully put his hand over Cyrus's big dumb mouth. "Yes, how can we trust you? Perhaps you're just a hostage the monsters are using to lure us into a false sense of security. Or worse yet - a monster putting on the guise of a human via magic!"
The man shrunk back nervously. "W-Why are you assuming we're going to hurt you? We didn't..."
Suddenly, Courtney grabbed the man's hand, to his great surprise. "Hey, what are -"
"Just hold still," she assured. "I'm gonna try to clear up one of those doubts."
Following a tense pause that felt much longer than it was, Courtney let go of his hand and sighed.
"He's human, all right. Not a trace of transformation magic." She glanced at the man. "...Tell me, are there any transformed monsters here?"
"...No," the man answered, seeming relieved to have earned at least a little trust. "Everyone is as they appear to be. We have no reason to deceive you..."
"Hmmm, a bold claim. Think it'd be worth checking every supposed human, Atticus? 'Cause if I find a single one who's not really human..."
Atticus scratched his chin. "If you can spare the time, perhaps. But if his claim weren't true, it would be all too easy to expose it as a lie and make his life forfeit, and he knows it. We can take him at his word for now."
"But, uh," Cyrus piped up, "even if there are actual humans here, it's still... I mean, our mission's to..."
"...Perhaps we might send a message back to King Vander asking his recommended course of action," Yulren said flatly. "This is his campaign, is it not?"
There were nervous looks. No one dared respond, either to affirm or deny the suggestion. Yulren smirked and gave a quiet, self-satisfied "hmph."
"Very well then," Atticus sighed. "Prepare lodgings for us and supplies for the remainder of our journey. That is all we ask... provided you do not give us reason to regret it."
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, myself included. As the tension seemed to ease up and humans and monsters alike started appearing from their abodes, I got back to writing.
When I next looked up, however, Atticus was standing there.
"Scribe - I nearly forgot you were there. When you write about this... hmm, let's see." He scratched his chin. "Yes, perhaps we should just say we killed them all."
I gawked. "...What?"
"Sorry, all the monsters, of course. You know what, don't even mention anything about humans. Who knows how His Majesty would respond. Our orders were only clear on monsters, so let's keep it to that."
"That's... not what happened," I quietly rebutted. "I mean, I know you've asked me to stretch the truth before, but that's really not what -"
"What happened is not relevant," he intoned forcefully. "It's what we can say happened, and what will most please the primary audience, ensuring our continued employment. You understand?"
In the distance, I saw Sophia looking my way with concern.
I sighed. "...I do."
But unlike him, I also understand there are more important things than that.
We knew our time at the reclaimed settlement would be short. Our goal yet lay at the end of a road far more dangerous than what had come before.
And yet this is not to say our party did not savor the opportunity for rest, and with it, advance matters of even greater importance.
This time, it was Cyrus who requested permission to enter Yulren's new private quarters. She granted it without a second thought.
"Hey," Cyrus greeted her. "You holding up okay?"
"I am... fine," Yulren replied at length. "Just... a bit shaken at what had to be done to procure this brief respite..."
"Hey, I can't say I don't get it," he shrugged. "But when you've been through all the stuff I have, you get a sense for what "has to be done," y'know?"
Yulren looked up at him. "...I'm unfamiliar what exactly you've been through, Cyrus."
"Whoa, really?" He chuckled. "Then shall I regale you with my heroics?"
"I was more curious... how you got your start, I suppose. I have been trained all my life to become someone great, yet... I take it you were not?"
Cyrus ruffled his hair. "Harsh, but accurate."
He crossed his arms and lowered his head in thought. "My start, huh... Can't really think of what that would be. I guess... I've just always wanted to do good. That right there carried me a long way - even got the attention of King Vander eventually. Of course, get into the details, and it's a lot of saving innocents and felling terrible beasts..."
Yulren sighed. "I don't really need to hear about your exploits."
"Oh, sorry," Cyrus apologized. "But, uh, why not?"
She clasped her hands together and bowed her head low. "Though I may be considered a great woman, in reality, I have little to my name save for... my name. My siblings may be no greater than I, yet they are also no lesser. And so, not only is this a mission which much depends upon, it is my first true opportunity to prove my worth... and I fear I am failing to. That I have contributed no great deeds of my own..."
"Yulren..." He put a hand on her shoulder. "You don't have to have done something great that people will remember to be a great person. ...Sorry if my boasting made you think otherwise."
She shook her head. "I know this, yet... I still desire to feel it for myself. That I am a necessary part of this endeavor..."
Cyrus pondered something. "I don't suppose you ever read that note I wrote you?"
"I... I have not," Yulren admitted bashfully.
"Then I guess I'll just say... I don't think I could've made it this far without you, Yulren."
She blinked. "Wh... What? Surely you've handled much more harrowing things than this before you even knew I existed..."
"Well, maybe," he shrugged. "...But I wouldn't want to do it without you."
"Um..." Yulren paused to think. "B-Because of the healing... right?"
Cyrus just smiled and left the room.
You might argue that, at half a week now, we've spent entirely too long sitting around at this settlement. I might even agree.
But even the most ardent members of this group surely have the same feeling we do: knowing what lies ahead, this "break" couldn't last long enough.
All told, this place is just... normal. Even I wouldn't have guessed how quickly it would become unremarkable to see monsters walking around, or how much I'd get why humans would willingly live here with them.
Well, though the risk of people like our group coming through and considering killing them all would be kind of a deal-breaker. But given how I can sympathize with the desire to live away from human society... surprisingly not that much of one.
Honestly, the fact that this place is so peaceful just makes it seem detrimental to our "mission" to stay here too long. But here we're staying, regardless.
Oh, and while it admittedly feels risky to mention it, even in here... Sophia and I have already caught a few monsters taking on human forms, and vice versa. But look, we're not snitches.
Anyway, after witnessing another excruciating conversation between Cyrus and Yulren earlier today, I felt the need to vent. Thankfully, Sophia had established the perfect place for privacy.
Early into our stay, she somehow managed to befriend an entire household of Cats despite the language barrier. And with the house where Yulren's attendants were staying being so crowded, she was able to get permission to do her laundry duties among that den of beasts, where no one else wanted to go.
As for myself... having been informed we "slaughtered" this peaceful village, there's officially nothing to write, and I'm mostly free to wander except on occasions where it's deemed I'm needed, like the aforementioned Cyrus/Yulren cartwreck.
Indeed, this "break" really couldn't last long enough.
I knocked on the door, and Sophia promptly responded "Come in, Harley," knowing I was the only person who would come visit. I wonder if she even considered Yulren a possibility.
I entered, took care not to step on any of the Cats' tails, and sat down across from her as she did the washing. "Sorry to come here and complain about work while you work, but -"
"If I had a problem with that, I'd have started ignoring you ages ago," she laughed. "That's all we do."
"I guess... it kinda is, huh." After a pause I hope wasn't awkwardly long, I continued. "Anyway, it's just Atticus again. He had me sit through another painful meeting between Yulren and Cyrus, then had the gall to tell me he "wanted a few details changed." Am I not here for the details? Why not just write it yourself if you're going to be picky about everything?"
"Goddess, what an ass." Sophia shook her head. "Forget him, Harley. You know you're way more observant than any of our so-called leadership - you see what's really going on. Have confidence in that."
"Too bad nobody cares what's really going on," I sighed.
Sophia's eyes darted up. She dried her hands, walked up to me, and put her still-kind-of-damp hands on my shoulders. "Hey. Don't you dare let those big-shots convince you that anyone besides them is nobody."
"...You're right," I admitted, looking away. "But it doesn't change that it's just not what this job is asking for. Hardly what I dreamed of doing with my life..."
She gently let go of my shoulders and sat down beside me. "Yeah, you can say that again."
Too curious to help it, I timidly asked: "Um... did you have a dream, Sophia?"
Sophia started fiddling with her dress. "I never had good clothes growing up. Or, you know... ones I liked. Like a lot of things, I had to reach out and grab it, which meant learning to make my own clothes."
She looked up toward the ceiling. "It was... a fun hobby, even with the sense of necessity behind it. But with so much of my time devoted to becoming independent and redefining myself as a woman, years down the line, it ended up being one of the only things I was good at. And the Adornas were looking for a seamstress, so... yeah." She closed her eyes solemnly. "I guess people might look at that and call it a dream come true, but... I do kinda regret it sometimes."
I nodded sadly. She'd alluded to her struggles with gender and family before - a familiar topic. But the fact that a fun hobby born out of that struggle transformed into a job she didn't much like... for all my own struggles, I couldn't say I'd ever been hit with something quite that cruel.
Sophia leaned back in her seat. "Well, enough about me. So what's your dream, Harley?"
"Who says I have one?", I replied, folding my arms.
"You have one," she prodded teasingly. "C'mon, you're literally the one who brought up dreams."
"Well, I hope you aren't expecting something surprising," I sighed. "I always wanted to write stories. Fictional, uplifting stories, about unlikely people making a difference."
"...Oh," Sophia replied meekly, as if realizing she wasn't sure what she expected.
"After a few attempts to make a name for myself, one of my stories got the attention of someone at Paruside Castle. But they didn't care about the story, exactly. They just thought the prose was good. So they wanted me to write speeches. I couldn't refuse that kind of pay, so I took the job, and gave my best effort doing something I didn't care about. And all that got me was a "promotion" to chronicling Cyrus's exploits."
"O... Oh," Sophia repeated, and she fell silent. "I'm sorry I even complained. Getting stuck doing the exact opposite of what you wanted, and everyone being a jerk to you just for doing that job... that's way worse than I've ever had it."
I shook my head. "It's not a competition. We can both be dissatisfied."
"It makes me so mad though!", she grumbled. "That's not even getting into everyone misgendering you, you know, when they do even acknowledge you exist..."
"I just have to accept that's how it is. No one ever asks, so..."
"Well tell them anyway!!", she shouted. "Like you told me!"
One of the Cats hissed at the loud noise, and Sophia sheepishly apologized.
She was right, of course. I often had myself to blame for my woes, for just going along with what others wanted from me. But I didn't have the kind of courage Sophia did; that's why I took a job I hated, why I couldn't correct people to say "they."
I didn't expect Sophia to successfully pass on that courage to me. But I was certainly glad to not need it with her - glad for the fact that she just wanted me to be me.
As she tried to think of something to say, she suddenly noticed the washing yet to be done. "Oh shoot, I got completely distracted! Sorry, no more talking for now, I gotta focus on this..."
"...Would it be a problem if I stuck around?", I asked hesitantly.
She smiled. "Not even a little bit, Harley."
A few days ago, I went to visit Sophia in the Cat house again. I knocked on the door, came in, and found her at work.
Crucially, however, I hadn't waited for her to respond to my knock this time. So she was startled by my presence, and stuffed what she was working on under a nearby cushion.
"H-Hey, Harley! Didn't hear you come in. Go on, sit down," she gestured, desperately trying to play it cool.
"What were you working on there?", I asked casually as I sat. "I thought you didn't mind me watching you work."
"Oh, i-it's nothing... Uh, so how's work going? Still getting away with not writing anything?"
I pondered. "...Were you making a dress for Yulren?"
Sophia smiled shyly. "Y... Yeah, ahaha, you got me. Yulren actually asked for a fancy new dress. Who knows why - with all her worries about being useful, maybe she wanted to make me feel needed too?"
"And you didn't want me to see you working on it because...?"
She sighed. "Dang it, Harley... could you be a little less observant this one time?"
I shrugged. "I think it'd be obvious to anyone something's up when you're reacting like that."
Sophia sat down, her shoulders drooping. "The truth is, our talk the other day got me thinking about my life choices. How I sorta regretted taking the passion out of my hobby. But then I was like, hold on - who says I can't still make clothes for fun?" She shrugged. "So that's what I'm doing. And when I noticed you come in, I reacted thinking you might be somebody else, and just didn't wanna have to explain why. Happy?"
I rubbed my chin. "And is that dress being for Yulren also true?"
"...Yulren, who you normally make clothes for as your job?"
Sophia froze, processing the error in her logic, then started flailing in embarrassed frustration at her own foolishness.
I patted her on the back. "Look, Sophia, it's perfectly fine if you have a crush on Yulren."
She looked especially wounded upon having it confirmed that I'd put it together. "I just..." She sniffled. "I dunno, I just didn't want you to know..."
"Why not?", I asked. "You didn't seem to have a problem telling me about your past or anything."
"I guess... I guess I didn't want to look pathetic. Having a crush on the person I serve who's way out of my league, that I'm not brave enough to bring up 'cause I know I'll be rejected..."
I glanced toward the cushion she'd stuffed the work-in-progress dress under. "Aren't you working toward that right now?"
"W-What, with that?!", she replied, bewildered. "No way, I couldn't... I just thought I'd give it to her as a surprise gift, that's all..."
"That feels like a waste," I remarked. "If you're putting those feelings into making it, I think it'd be better if she knows about them. Otherwise, it's just another piece of clothing you made for work."
Sophia put her head in her hands. "I mean... you're right, but... I'm just scared of her saying no..."
I shook my head. "You obviously know her better, but from what I know about Yulren, I'm sure she wouldn't mock you or anything. If you show her you're serious, she'll take it seriously, whatever that ultimately results in. You love her - can't you trust her to do that?"
She wiped her tears. "Yeah... yeah, I'll trust her. ...And I'll trust you, Harley," she smiled.
And so Sophia spent the next few days working on the dress. When the time came to deliver it, she had me accompany her.
"Oh, Sophia!", Yulren said with surprise as we entered. "What brings you here? And, er... I'm sorry, I can't recall your name..."
"They're Harley," Sophia answered for me. "You know, our chronicler."
Yulren slowly nodded, appearing curious about my presence here. "Yes, right... My apologies. I know I've heard the name, but I hadn't properly put it to your face."
She turned to Sophia. "So... did you have some business with me, Sophia?"
She reflexively glanced down and to the side as Yulren's gaze fell upon her. "Um, well, I'd actually rather not call it "business"... the thing is..." She shook her head and presented her the dress. "I have a gift for you. Here."
"W-Why... this looks wonderful!", Yulren said with delight - though a moment later, her smile faded slightly. "I'd certainly like to try it on sometime... although, you'll have to forgive me if I can't. As you well know, members of the house of Adorna have a particular image to uphold..."
Sophia bowed. "Y-Yes... I understand. But I hope it brings you pleasure, even if you're only able to wear it in private. You see..."
"...Is there something else?"
Sophia took a deep breath. "Lately, I've been thinking about the path I've walked in life. I always took great joy in making clothes for myself, and yet when I chose to become a seamstress professionally, it interfered with that passion I once had. It's a decision I've come to regret at times."
"But..." She exhaled. "The one thing I've never regretted about becoming a seamstress is that it allowed me to meet you, Yulren."
Yulren's eyes widened. She set the dress to the side, took a seat, and nodded at Sophia to continue.
"People always talk about the Adornas being interchangeable with each other, but from the moment I met you, I knew that wasn't true at all. You're stunning, impossibly kind, impossibly talented... and that's with everything weighing down on you. I hope it's not just me projecting, but... I know how it feels to be suffocated by expectations, to have eyes watching you all the time. I can't say I'm in any position to do anything about that, but I hope to see you shine freely someday, Yulren. Because... I love you."
Yulren nodded, a smile on her face. "Sophia... thank you so much for telling me your feelings. For your very kind words. I hope you can understand... why I can't accept them."
Sophia was startled, but quickly shut her eyes, holding back her emotions. I placed my hand on her back.
"I can only imagine the anxieties you've felt, picturing reasons why I might reject you out of hand. But please know this: it's nothing to do with your gender, nor your position, nor having no idea who you are. You've been very kind to me for as long as I've known you, and you're remarkably skilled at everything you do. And indeed, I've wondered if you might have felt this way for some time. It's simply that... I can't reciprocate that passion you so clearly feel for me."
"I... I see..." Sophia nodded solemnly. "And you're certain? It's not just that your heart belongs to another, is it...?"
Yulren bowed her head in thought. "...Perhaps that is part of it. But the heart feels what it feels... it is not so easily changed."
"I guess you're right, but..." Sophia sighed. "Him, huh..."
"...Hm?" She blinked with a blank look, then blushed. "...A-Ah, yes. Err... please don't write anything about that, though, would you, Harley?"
I nodded, even if I wasn't sure exactly what she was referring to there. Because I had no interest in illustrating the so-called "budding romance" between Cyrus and Yulren, and the powers that be surely had no interest in me including a part about what was, to them, a random servant's unrequited crush.
The two of them spent a bit more time talking, and I got a clear sense that even if Yulren didn't have romantic feelings for Sophia, this had been a positive move toward a strong, healthy friendship between them. If I played some part in that, I'm glad; Sophia hadn't specified why she'd wanted me to come along, but I wonder if I provided her the smallest bit of courage.
Above all, I'm glad to know now where Sophia's heart lies. Whatever my own feelings may have been... now, I can feel satisfied just supporting her.
Once we make it through this adventure, we'll figure things out from there.
The closer we drew to Dyzel's stronghold, the more frequent monster attacks became. Renewed by our time at the reclaimed settlement, we fought them off well, our bond as a team growing ever stronger.
Yet anxieties remained about our course of action once we reached the villain's keep. We intended to slay their leader, putting a decisive end to the war that even the Goddess would recognize, but Yulren's merciful heart still ached.
It was understandable; she had not seen for herself what they had wrought upon peaceful Paruside to warrant our retaliation. Even if she had, perhaps she might have believed there to be some sort of good reason behind it all.
Just before our arrival, she stated it outright. "I wish for us to have a dialogue with Dyzel. I know there must be a way to settle this peaceably."
Doubt filled the air, yet our great Cyrus cut right through it. "I'm as eager to lop off Dyzel's head as anyone, but let's hear Yulren out, guys. She's gotten us this far. I wanna trust her."
"With all due respect, Sir Cyrus," I appealed, "should this fail, we could not be in a worse position to fight back."
"Or could we not be in a better one?", Courtney chimed in. "It'll get us right in front of the guy. I'm sure he'll be on guard, but it'll be better than having to charge through the outer guards - I can defend the rear as they try to get in." She paused in realization, then gave an embarrassed smile. "Uh, plus I mean, who knows, peace might actually work!"
Yulren sighed. "I know it is risky, and warrants a backup plan... but I would appreciate if you believed more in the possibility. I truly feel this is the right thing to do."
"Then so do I," said Cyrus, taking her hand. "Whatever happens, I want you to be safe."
"...And you as well," Yulren replied, looking away.
And thus, the four of us approached the stronghold on foot with our hands raised. The monsters appeared confused, and we were unsure if they would understand our intention, but we were soon escorted to the so-called throne room where Dyzel resided.
"So," he uttered in a distinctly guttural voice, "you want to talk peace, do you?"
"That is correct," Yulren answered, bowing. "We have come from Paruside Kingdom to discuss Valeway's recent actions and come to a resolution."
"Actions such as?"
"The burning of several human settlements," I submitted. "If there was a justified reason for such attacks, I would be eager to hear it."
Dyzel laughed, well, inhumanly. "Who needs to justify wiping more of you humans off the map? You certainly don't feel the need to do that with us."
Cyrus glared at him. "Don't lump all humans together. Maybe humans in the past did, but we never did anything like that."
He scoffed, barely able to hide his hatred. "Never? You've been doing it recently!"
We looked at each other. All told, many of the deaths incurred by our expedition thus far had been Valkyries, and even the rest would surely count as self-defense. What nonsense was he talking about?
"All I want is for us monsters to have a fighting chance. To find common ground to unite us so humans can't crush us underfoot. Even the Goddess recognizes our cause and does her part to help."
He pointed a sharp claw in our direction. "And you come to me claiming to want peace, when you've been slaughtering every monster that crosses your path!"
"What?!", Cyrus shouted, in anger and confusion.
"I have eyes everywhere, fool - I know your true colors!" Dyzel stood and turned to his guards. "Lock them up! If Paruside doesn't accept our demands, we'll give them a public execution!"
"No!", Yulren cried out, rushing forward. But guards blocked her path and quickly seized her.
"Yulren... I'm sorry," said Cyrus, his head hung low. "But... this is the only way!"
Momentarily protected by my quick casting of a shielding spell, Cyrus charged through the guards holding Yulren. He raised his sword high, and brought it down upon Dyzel.
But that was far from the end.
The monsters were out for our blood now. Courtney could scarcely hold them off alone, so I came to her aid, but we soon found ourselves being backed into a corner.
"What can we do?!", despaired Yulren.
"It's... a backup plan of a backup plan, but..." Courtney produced something from her cloak: a mana engine. "This thing's packed with mana. If I set it on fire, it'll make a huge inferno... You guys can escape in the confusion..."
Yulren was distraught. "Wh... What about you?! We can't leave you here, Courtney...!"
"Atticus... you gotta live to tell this story. And Cyrus, Yulren... you've got a new one to live out."
But Cyrus knew what had to be done. He pulled Yulren away, and the three of us made for the exit.
There was a massive sound behind us. The flames burned hot, and once outside, we watched them ravage the structure from a distance. Soon enough, all had fallen silent.
And then, it was the end.
we tried to talk peace
but dyzel just wanted us dead
jumped in the way
who made it out with atticus
courtney went missing
and when it was just me and cyrus backed against a wall
he pulled out the broken mana engine
and he told me
"you think you're the one people want to come back alive?"
And so too do we arrive at the end of this record.
With the utter destruction of Valeway's stronghold and death of their leader, the territories fell into disarray. Monsters retreated from their open settlements back into the woods from whence they came. And the Valkyries, it seemed, returned to the Mana Tree, their rightful place in times of peace.
I would like to dedicate this chronicle to Courtney, our reliable diviner who stuck with us to her very last. Her loss is great, but even greater is the safety and security she helped win for Paruside Kingdom, and all of humankind. She is survived by no known relatives; thus, may her existence not be lost to the mists of time.
Yet let us also celebrate the safe return of our heroes Cyrus and Yulren. This journey was one of great importance for them both. I, myself, would love nothing more than to tell you what became of them afterward...
But that history has yet to be written.
(There's another side to this story... Return to the start and try dragging or double-tapping the pink bars on the side, or clicking the pink arrows at the end of each section.)
Harley lay in a pile of rubble, bleeding out. And yet they continued to write, as they always had.
Part of them felt they had to record the truth, to the extent that they knew it. Despite being far more certain about their coming death than whether anyone would ever read their words.
Another part of them was, of course, absolutely devastated at what had so quickly transpired. Perhaps it was needless to agonize over Sophia's loss when their own end was approaching. But why should that stop them? They mourned her, recognizing it as Yulren's loss as well. They mourned Courtney - lost sight of in the chaos, but no doubt caught in the blast. They mourned all the needless victims of this endeavor.
Atticus would get what he wanted: he would write this history after all. No doubt he would take credit for Harley's work while at the same time laying waste to it. The true chronicle of events would remain here with Harley, and even if it were miraculously found, it would hold no credibility against Atticus's version.
And that version would serve its purpose. It would give the people a clear-cut story about the righteousness of this endeavor with none of the excess. Cyrus and Yulren would be seen as heroes who came together in the process, facilitating a marriage to form ties with the house of Adorna.
If they hoped to gain favor with the Mana Goddess that way, however, wanting to elevate their standing by the time successors were being considered over a century from now, that part at least wouldn't go to plan.
Because I'm not nearly that ignorant.
Harley looked up from writing with a start, seeing movement in the distance. As I drew closer, their surprise changed to more of a quiet confusion.
"Is... is that you, Goddess Hilda...? Have you come to... take me away...?"
"I don't do that," I sighed. "I'm the Wings of Steel - I'm supposed to protect the weak before it comes to this."
They gave me a curious look, seeming to peer behind me at my wings. "Huh... they actually are steel... thought it was just a metaphor..."
"It is, but... look, that's not important right now. I'm here to... well, I came here to see what exactly happened. But seeing as you're still alive... I want to apologize."
"Apologize...?" Harley limply shook their head. "Basically everything that went wrong had to do with our own people... if anything, you sending those Valkyries saved us some headaches, since Yulren was a little less opposed to killing them..."
"That's just it," I insisted. "I was reluctant to take an obvious side and risk Paruside calling for my replacement. Yet all my Valkyries could do was temporarily stand in for monsters; I couldn't really protect them in the end. Now they're without a leader, and Paruside's likely been emboldened and will go on to do even worse things... I've failed to help anything."
Harley looked at me with confusion. "...Do you know something about Paruside? Everyone said this was retaliation against Valeway... but also, Dyzel said..."
I shook my head. "It's not worth explaining now. You see... I want to fix my mistakes. I want to turn back time."
Harley nodded. "Yeah, I've sure felt like that sometimes..."
We stared at each other for a few moments.
"...I mean, I'm the Goddess, and I can actually turn back time."
Harley almost injured themselves again reacting to that, which made me wince.
"S-S... Since when?", they asked, gawking. "Or is it even possible to answer that question seeing as you can turn back time?"
I put my palm to my face. "You've never heard about it because it's an absolute last resort. It's a heavy drain on my mana. And it's not as simple as you might hope."
Harley held their head low. "But... you think it's worth it for this?"
"I do," I nodded. "...But the problem lies with the interconnectivity of all things. Say you "just" wanted to send a person back in time. Simply rewinding time would, normally, rewind everything, and things would likely play out the same way. So you would want to exempt the person from this, to keep their memories and experiences."
"However, for every interaction they had with another person or object, you encounter a violation of cause and effect: you're making it not have happened even though they still caused it. With careful manipulation, this can be dealt with, but the complexity quickly becomes exponential, one thing interweaving with another..."
Harley scratched their head. "I think I got that, but... you're saying you can't just send me back in time."
"Not you, no. But I believe there's something that won't give me too much difficulty."
Harley looked like they were about to pass out, so I hastened my explanation. "The chronicle. The true record of events. It's generally only been in contact with you, correct? Aside from Atticus peeking at it on occasion."
"Uh, yeah, here -"
I held out my hands. "Don't even show it to me, that's unnecessary complication! ...You won't remember this, but: can you promise me that if I rewind to the start of the expedition with the chronicle as it is now, you'll be able to use it to change this fate?"
"I..." They looked unsure. "Even if I knew what was coming... what could I do about it? I'm just a chronicler... no one'd believe me... there's gotta be someone else better suited..."
"I'm afraid it's all I can think of, and the more time passes, the harder this becomes." I clasped my hands. "Please... You do have a strong desire to save Sophia, don't you?"
Harley looked up at me, eyes slowly widening. "Uh... w-wait, I just thought of something... uh, I won't show you, like you said, but..."
"What is it?"
They blushed and looked down. "Um... it's my diary. No one else has touched that either. I mean, it's not nearly as detailed about things as the chronicle... really, it's all about a bunch of trivial stuff..."
I pondered. "And yet, you brought it up for a reason. ...Though it is your diary, after all, so I wouldn't like to pry."
"Yeah, um..." They shook their head. "Sorry, never mind. It was a dumb idea..."
Watching Harley groan in pain, I sighed.
"It is you I'm counting on to make use of whatever it is gets brought back. So... I will leave the choice to you."
And so I put fate in this young person's hands.
I must have read it over a hundred times now, and I still couldn't believe it.
But how else could I explain what appeared to be a complete record of the next few weeks' events, in my own handwriting?
That on its own would be ominous enough. But when it got near the point of us arriving at Dyzel's stronghold... apparently all I had managed to scrawl out was the bare minimum about what terrible things would transpire there.
I could surmise how it might have come to that. But there was one thing I couldn't figure out.
Who was this "Sophia" who only came up at the very end?
All I knew was that she had - or would - apparently sacrifice herself to save Yulren. But despite having such an inclination, she was nowhere to be found in earlier events. Was this not really a complete record? Or did she only come into play at the stronghold, and I just hadn't been given enough time to explain who she was?
I shook my head. If I hadn't written about it, surely it wasn't that important. And even if it was, I could probably figure it out as things started to happen.
I made sure to prepare a second chronicle, to write events in as they happened. This one would remain absolutely secret. If I couldn't even trust Cyrus not to sacrifice me to save his own skin, I didn't want anyone else on the expedition having this knowledge.
I wouldn't waste this chance. I swore I would change this fate.
"...You're telling me I sent a complete chronicle of events that would occur back in time for you to read, and you still couldn't stop this from happening?"
"That... is what seems to have happened, yeah...", Harley groaned, clutching their wounded side.
I sighed. "I knew this was a half-baked idea. I mean... maybe I knew it was a half-baked idea when I did it, but now I know it was."
Harley hung their head thoughtfully. "Maybe... I should've told Sophia after all."
"A-About the future chronicle, I mean. I was so wary of everyone, knowing they'd ultimately leave me to die... but Sophia wouldn't have, if only she'd survived. If I'd told her, she would've helped me find a way to stop this. She... had the courage I don't."
I shrugged. "So what, you want to jot that down as a message to yourself and try this all again?"
"Actually..." Harley blushed. "Well, it's kind of silly, but I do have a diary, which only I've touched... uh, which you said was an important part of sending things back in time, right?"
I held my chin. "And is there important information in that diary? Something that could help you avert this?"
Harley looked down silently for a few seconds, then looked up at me with a smile.
"I think there is, yeah."
This is a story about people who loved each other, and the difference they made.
You could say this story begins in all sorts of places, and you'd be right. As with all the world's stories, everyone involved in it had their own lives outside of these events, and they mattered immeasurably. All those stories should be told.
But for now, I want to ensure this particular history is known. To focus on what's most important to me.
So I'll begin where it all changed - with the blossoming of love.
It was no longer our first meeting. Not actually. But it carried even more importance because of that.
It was just the four of us in one tent. Myself, the chronicler Harley. Yulren of Adorna, our healer. Cyrus, a well-known fighter. And last, but not at all least... a certain girl.
As Cyrus and Yulren sat to have a proper conversation for the first time - quite an awkward one, mind you - I carefully watched the girl across the room, hoping it didn't look too strange. She appeared to serve Yulren, but not in any obvious way. Throughout all our preparations and this first day of travel, no one had so much as acknowledged her, much less spoken her name.
It had to be her. But I had to be one hundred percent certain.
When it was her who ran to Yulren's aid after Cyrus spilled ink all over her robes, then I knew.
"Do you want some help with that?"
She looked up at me with confusion. "H... Huh?"
I ran over and extended my hand to her. "I'm Harley. Pronouns: they/them. And I love you, Sophia."
She blinked at me and shook her head. "Hold on, forget "I love you," how do you know my name?!"
Sophia looked to Yulren for an answer, but she just shrugged in confusion. Cyrus was also bewildered, then came to his senses and scrambled to fold up the private message he'd just written to Yulren.
There was an explanation, of course - though not one I fully understood myself.
The night before, I had opened my private diary to find, bizarrely enough, entries from the next few weeks, in my own handwriting. Many concerned my interactions with a girl named Sophia, a seamstress to Yulren who had also come along on this expedition. What these entries did not contain were any clues whatsoever as to why this future writing might have materialized... but they did clarify the feelings I had already begun to feel toward this enigmatic girl.
"I guess the simplest way to explain it is that..." I paused to consider it, even though I'd already decided what I'd say in advance. "The Goddess told me."
"Yeah right!", Cyrus exclaimed, looking angry and annoyed. "Aren't you our... note... taker... guy? You're supposed to be paying attention and writing, not talking out of turn. 'Cause the two of us are in the middle of something important here!"
"Are you?", I asked, looking toward Yulren.
She averted her eyes. "...Y-Yes, well. It would be hard to argue that any "something" there had not already been ruined before Harley's interruption."
"Aw, c'mon!", Cyrus protested. "Look, I'm really sorry about the stain, Yulren - I just didn't even get a chance to apologize before this weirdo butted in..."
"Everybody shut up," Sophia stated forcefully, holding up her hands. "Someone just professed their love to me and you're over here bickering? A girl's got feelings, y'know."
Yulren cocked her head to the side. "Didn't you not even know this person, Sophia? They might be some kind of stalker. You don't mean to say you're... considering their love for you?"
Sophia shook her head. "I didn't know Harley's name, and they didn't know mine - well, or so I thought. We haven't even talked. But that doesn't mean we didn't know each other. Or... already had feelings for each other."
Now it was my turn to be surprised. "Wh-What?"
"Yulren, tell Harley why I'm here."
She looked at Sophia quizzically. "Er...? Well, I thought only one attendant would suffice for a simple meeting with Cyrus, and you volunteered yourself, so..."
I stared in awe at Sophia, who had a smirk on her face.
My future self had written that this night made them realize that "maybe" Sophia had been looking at me the same way. But even reading the whole thing, I'd never let myself consider she might've been looking at me almost exactly the same way. I never, both now and "then," questioned why she would've been here by herself tonight, too distracted by the fact that it happened to align with my own hopes.
All those opportunities she made for us to communicate or be together... they weren't just for my sake. She wanted that time just as badly.
I swore then that I would carve out as much time for us as I possibly could on this expedition.
"Can we get back on topic now?", Cyrus whined. "Write about your little crush on Yulren's attendant, whatever. You're mostly gonna write about me, right? That's your job, right?"
I glared at Cyrus. "My job isn't to write about "you," it's to write about the details of this expedition." I eased my expression with a grin. "So just make yourself an important part of it, and you'll be fine."
"Phew," he said with oblivious relief. "Well, uh, here, then." He handed Yulren the folded note he'd written. "Yulren, if you ever feel like you aren't an important part of -"
"Yes, sure," she sighed, taking it and stuffing it into her robes - and grimacing upon noticing the ink stains on them again.
"Hold on! Second big thing that we're just glossing over for some reason!", Sophia exclaimed. "What was that about the Goddess telling you my name, Harley?"
"To explain that..." I put a finger to my lips in thought. "Well, if you're feeling that left out, I guess I'll pick you, Cyrus. You know about Hilda's Valkyries, correct?"
He groaned with derision. "Yeah, her backup forces for the evil monsters we're up against. Doesn't make any sense to me."
"Would it make slightly more sense to you if I said she was supporting both sides of the war?"
Cyrus almost fell out of his chair. "Whoa, you're a Valkyrie?! That's... uh, cool, I guess? If you're on our side?"
"Er, no, it's not like that," I replied, wondering in the back of my mind if there were nonbinary Valkyries. "I'm just... a conduit for her to provide us intel, more or less."
He looked far less impressed. "Oh. Well that's weird. Why you?"
That question gave me pause, this time genuinely. I didn't know why my diary from near the end of our expedition had apparently been sent back in time. Considering who could possibly have such a power, I suspected the Goddess might have been involved, in which case my justification wasn't even entirely untrue.
But without any further context, I had no confident answer for why it had been done, why it was me. What this diary primarily seemed to tell me was that I loved Sophia, even if I hadn't been willing to admit it.
So I just had to have confidence this meant realizing my love for Sophia was more important than anything else.
"I can't tell you that yet," I answered at length. "But I can predict something that will happen tomorrow to prove I'm telling the truth. ...Cyrus, you're going to be sitting at the front of our cart and see a monster on the road - a harmless Rabbit, mind you. You'll be startled by them, and knock over a lantern behind you. That will set fire to the cart, rendering it unusable and forcing us to reallocate our people to other carts."
I glanced toward Sophia. "Incidentally, thanks to Yulren being involved in the reallocation, Sophia and I will end up on the same cart." I smiled. "...But that part's hardly a prediction, now is it?"
"Well that sounds bad," Cyrus remarked. "Forget proving if you're telling the truth, we should let that not happen if you say it's gonna. I mean, "I" should? I guess?"
"A brilliant observation," Yulren sighed.
"Don't worry," I assured, "I've thought of a way to prove my prediction without having to actually burn down the cart. I just... can't tell you any more, or it won't serve its purpose."
Cyrus folded his arms. "Ugh. If you say so. I'm always super careful, you know...", he muttered.
Yulren looked wearily down at her ink-stained robes. "...I'm sure you are."
Sensing the conversation was done, Yulren abruptly stood up and took Sophia's hand to leave, much to Cyrus's disappointment. But Sophia glanced back.
"Yulren, is it okay if Harley comes with us?"
She smiled. "Of course it is, Sophia."
And so the three of us exited the tent, leaving a miserable-looking Cyrus to do... well, who knows what.
There was a monster on the path ahead, a Rabbit facing away from us. By the time Cyrus, wrapped up in trying to woo Yulren, noticed that monster, they were rather close. He jumped with surprise, and knocked over a cup of water. The monster noticed us and ran away scared.
The two of them quickly turned to look at the spilled cup. Then they looked up and saw me, holding up the lantern.
Cyrus sighed deeply. "Alright, I'll give in to your dumb demands. We'll move your little girlfriend over to this cart."
"Thank you, Sir Cyrus," I said with a smirk.
"So now what?", he shrugged. "Got any other "intel" for us?"
"Not for the moment. We might encounter a few scattered monsters, but..." I paused in thought. "Well, just try to scare them off, I'd say."
"What kinda farce is the Goddess putting us through?", he groaned. "Thought this was gonna be a real adventure... You better punch it up in your version."
I chuckled, and Cyrus rolled his eyes. Placing the lantern securely at a safe distance, I headed back into the cart.
As I passed by Courtney, our diviner, she called to stop me. "Hey, I've only heard what's been going around, but... sounds like you just kept the cart from burning down and the mana engine from exploding. So thanks for that, uh..."
"Harley," I said, shaking her hand. "This expedition's chronicler - and tasked by the Goddess to convey intel that'll help us through this war."
"A likely story," grumbled Atticus, a sage of high rank in our group. It seemed Cyrus had filled him in at some point. "I find the idea of her Valkyries foolish enough - for what possible reason would she want to help the other side as well? Are we to be her playthings?"
"You're being awfully grumpy about a welcome boon," Courtney commented.
"If I could be assured it was only a boon, perhaps I'd feel differently," he scoffed. "But I don't trust that it's not just a trick you're trying to play to escape your responsibilities, or worse yet..."
"Hi, Harley!", Sophia shouted, waving from the back of the cart.
"See you," I waved to Courtney as I headed toward Sophia. Atticus made an annoyed grunt.
"Gotta say, I'm impressed," Sophia remarked. "You struck me as pretty shy - wouldn't have guessed you were this good of a liar."
I coughed. "To be clear, I'm not exactly lying..."
"So not denying you're kind of lying, got it. Look, I'm just glad you're willing to go so far to get time with me," she said with a smile and a slight blush.
I scratched my head shyly. "...You don't think it's weird at all? That I just confessed to you out of the blue...? I did have my doubts about doing it."
She shrugged. "I mean yeah, it's weird. But at the same time, it's exactly what I would've hoped to happen if you took out the part of my brain that wants things to make sense, so I'm not gonna question it."
"Well, I'm glad you're not even concerned... even if that makes me a little concerned." I shook my head. "But I still think I want to tell you what's really going on... to the extent that I actually know."
I glanced around to check that no one was listening. "My own diary came back from a few weeks in the future. I don't know how or why. But something I learned from it was how against all odds, we would gradually build up a relationship on this expedition... though it seems I ultimately kept those feelings in my heart."
"Oh," Sophia replied, seeming to need time to process that, though accepting it entirely. "...Uh, and in this future, did I ever tell you about my own...?"
I hesitated, for much the same reason it seems I'd hesitated to reveal my feelings for Sophia in that alternate future. I knew about her crush on Yulren, but... did I want to bring that up?
Yet seeing my hesitation, it seems she figured it out right away.
"I hope..." She sighed. "I hope it doesn't feel to you like I'm just settling for someone more within my reach. In fact, if it's not too much to ask, I want to hold both of you in my heart..." She shook her head. "If anyone else heard me talking, I bet they'd think I was nuts for feeling this way about someone I only just met, especially compared to someone I've looked up to for years. But being with you, hearing you speak... even when you yourself only read about that love we shared... I feel like I know exactly how that Sophia felt, after those few wonderful weeks getting to know you. So I'll say it for her in case she didn't: I love you, Harley."
Sophia hesitantly opened her arms wide. I did the same, but before I could even move closer, she dove right into my chest.
After a long embrace, she looked up at me. "So... if that clears up any doubts there, let's change focus. How's this expedition gonna turn out?"
I shook my head and chuckled. "I think they're gonna need our help."
My future self had called our team incompetent. Clearly just thrown together without any thought, they were saved only by the fact that Valeway was not being particularly aggressive - and by Yulren always being there to heal their wounds, I'm sure.
I had also supposed that proper leadership could improve things somewhat. I probably didn't imagine Sophia and I would be the ones to take on that leadership, or how much it would help.
Yulren, Courtney, Atticus, and Cyrus all had their strong points, to be sure. Yulren provided much-needed support, Courtney was adept at subduing foes, Atticus knew some powerful spells, and Cyrus was perfectly good at whacking away if you pointed him in the right direction. Granted, he didn't seem to much enjoy the new blunt staff we'd given him.
See, it had been clear from my diary that, contrary to the mission we'd been given, Yulren wanted to take as non-violent an approach to things as possible. And going against the wishes of such a crucial member of the team was obviously unproductive. So we talked about it.
In response to me bringing up the subject, Yulren simply shook her head. "I just... do not see any point in killing monsters who themselves have likely done our kingdom no harm. Nor servants of the Goddess, no matter what their purpose may be. All the moreso if they do not truly have aggressive intents toward us, as Harley has said."
"Uh, well, it's more that their hearts aren't in it, I think... they will still come attack us, I'm afraid," I explained. "So we're going to have to be prepared for that."
She sighed. "And I suppose there would be no convincing them to stop unless we talk to Dyzel directly..."
"Vander was pretty clear about wanting his head, so that's gonna be tricky," Sophia commented, shrugging. "In the meantime though, I've got ideas on how to deal with anyone who comes to attack."
"Like what?", I asked.
"Courtney can detect upcoming enemies before they detect us. Then we can send Leon and Julie to go ahead and act as bait, 'cause they're fast runners. If we use them well, we might be able to split their numbers. Fran should have some bottles of disorienting fumes we can lob to give us an advantage. From there, pretty much anybody else can fight and wear them out. And the same way she always sneaks up on Yulren, Anrietta can come up from behind and send 'em to dreamland. ...With a sleep spell, I mean."
I blinked. "W-Who are any of those people, Sophia?"
"Yulren's attendants, duh!", she explained, throwing up her hands like I should have known. "Anrietta's a maid, Fran's... well, I guess that's not really important. But they're here and they've got skills, so we should make use of 'em."
Yulren was stunned. "My word, Sophia... I never would have considered that!" Her head lowered. "But in retrospect, it makes sense... they've complained about having been brought along, but I'm not sure it's the potential danger that's bothering them. It's that they don't feel "useful"... and you know just how to make someone feel useful," she smiled.
"Really? Did they say that to you? Have they forgotten their job is to help the prettiest and nicest woman in the world stay at her best?", Sophia snickered.
Yulren looked at her warmly. "I suppose it is... A job you always remember, and carry out splendidly."
Sure enough, Sophia's ideas worked out more or less as she'd drawn them up. Obviously Yulren and Courtney played key roles, and it wasn't as if Atticus and Cyrus didn't contribute too, but the Adorna attendants - now there was a real team, one that already had familiarity with each other. It wasn't surprising that no one else had recognized that potential in them before, just... disappointing.
We made good progress, leaving sleeping monsters and fairies in our wake. None of them ever seemed to come back after us; we would expect more attacks from behind otherwise. Morale was high - save for Cyrus's usual grievances, and Atticus still being bitter about me taking initiative - and our supplies were holding up well.
But I knew something was coming up. And I was unsure how it would play out this time... or how I wanted it to play out, even.
I'd decided to tell everyone about the monster settlement up ahead, so everyone was aware of it. When we arrived, the residents went and hid indoors, like I said they had in my diary.
Yet... the circumstances were different now. We hadn't suffered unexpected losses or trouble on the way here, so we didn't especially need the aid of their supplies. As much as my future self had been grateful for the chance to take a break and get closer with Sophia, I'd seized that chance on my own this time. So did we really need to stay here and intrude upon these people...?
I informed everyone that, "according to the Goddess," this was a peaceful village for humans and monsters alike that would offer us lodging and supplies. But for reasons like the aforementioned, no one thought it was particularly necessary.
Then Courtney spoke up.
"I dunno, don't you think it'd be good to stay a night or two?" She shrugged. "Show we really mean no harm, y'know?"
Sophia glanced at her. "Uh, and why's that matter? They're probably just civilians. I doubt that'd do us any good with the ones attacking us."
"W-Well, I mean..." She paused to think. "Yeah, maybe some of the soldiers have family here! And if they hear we were cool with their family, then, you know..."
Yulren looked at Courtney worriedly. "Courtney, if you're exhausted, it's perfectly fine to just say so. We could set up camp up ahead..."
She rubbed her neck. "C-Camp? Ahh, but I mean, turning down a perfectly good place to stay given to us by the Goddess herself... y'know?"
Yulren closed her eyes in thought. "Hmm... perhaps you are right. The Goddess must have informed us about this place for a reason. And it may do us well to learn more about how Valeway's people live before attempting to negotiate peace..."
Courtney smiled wide. "Exactly! Yeah, that's what I was trying to get at. You've got a real way with words, Yulren."
Atticus was unamused, however. "Might I remind everyone that our only assurance regarding the nature of this settlement comes from Harley? I think it ought to be my duty to do so, as the only one here still waiting to see evidence of their claims."
Sophia scoffed. "How else do you think they knew about the settlement to start with, genius? It's not on our maps."
"How about being a spy?", he bluntly accused.
The accusation was met with only blank stares and heads shaking.
He sighed. "Believe what you will, but I for one want a proper guarantee that we will be safe before lodging here pointlessly."
Suddenly, a man's voice came from outside.
"Err... excuse me, I couldn't help but overhear... d-do you want to stay in our village, visitors from Paruside?"
"Wait here," Atticus told us, stepping out to meet him.
He was a human man, and Atticus looked him over with suspicion. "Who are you, exactly?"
"I... I live here. The humans and monsters here, we just want to live in peace. You aren't going to hurt us, are you...?"
"Hmph. Humans, you say..." He shook his head grimly. "And how do I know you aren't a bunch of scheming monsters, disguising themselves as humans to catch us unawares? I can't imagine what human would willingly live out here."
"Hey!", Courtney shouted, running out to join him. "Don't be like that, Atticus. I'm a diviner - I can prove whether he's really human, okay? Will that clear up your doubts?"
He sighed. "Perhaps it might. Go on, then."
Courtney nodded, then faced the man. She grabbed his hand tight, and after a tense pause -
Atticus shoved the two of them to the ground.
Startled by the noise, the rest of us ran outside to see what was going on. And then we all saw what Atticus had.
Atop the man's head were the unmistakable ears of a Wolf. And atop Courtney's, spilling out from her hood, were those of a Cat.
"I knew I saw something twitching under there," Atticus growled with rage. "You can't hide them when you're focusing your magic, can you?"
"P... please..." Courtney's eyes welled up with tears. "It's not... you don't..."
"Understand? I think I understand quite well. You're a spy for Valeway. And that's why you were so eager to make us stay here. I can think of any number of reasons behind it. Perhaps you needed to send a report back to Dyzel. Perhaps you meant to lure us into a trap here. Perhaps we were progressing too quickly, and you needed to delay us..."
"Yu... Yulren... you gotta trust me," Courtney pleaded. "I admit it, I was gonna turn you guys in... but seeing how much you don't wanna hurt us... there's no way I could now..."
"Courtney..." Yulren's voice was sorrowful. "I want to believe you... but I must admit, it would be easier to do so if you had told us yourself..."
Courtney looked mortified. Then Sophia threw up her hands in frustration.
"Ugh, I can't take any more of this! Is nobody gonna help our friend up?!"
Glancing around at blank looks, she sighed, went over to Courtney, and helped her to her feet. She did the same for the Wolf man.
"People aren't obligated to tell you everything about themselves, you know," Sophia lectured. "They'll tell you what they want to, the way they want to tell it. So can we not take that as an opportunity to assume the worst? Even just from a few days knowing Courtney, I can tell you for a fact she had a good reason to -"
Sophia glanced in the direction of the voice, and saw a small pack of Cats approaching. Just about everyone reflexively backed away - except for Courtney and Sophia.
"Aww, well aren't you cute?" Sophia stroked the back of one. "What brings you out here in the middle of all this aggression?"
"They're... they're here to see me," Courtney said, sniffling. "And I... came here to see them."
She fell back to the ground, this time on her knees, and hugged each of the Cats tight, softly meowing at them. Everyone looked at each other with confusion.
"...Well, Atticus?", I said, breaking the silence. "You wouldn't deny a mother the chance to stay with her family for few days, would you?"
He glared at me. "Have you forgotten how that Wolf tried to lie to us as well? We cannot be sure if this place is safe! I propose we leave at once, and -"
He looked around and trailed off, seeing people already unloading their things from the carts.
Atticus sighed deeply. "She can stay with her family. But I'm reserving judgement as to whether she stays with us."
For all my uncertainty about the need to stay in the village, it was clearly the right choice in retrospect. It helped defuse the tension that had arisen from Courtney being exposed as a monster spy, a revelation I'd expected to deeply shake people's trust. It made all of us more comfortable around monsters, and more accepting of the ordinary humans who, indeed, chose to live here. More selfishly, it gave Sophia and I time to properly have the sorts of conversations about ourselves that should have preceded (and in another timeline, did precede) us admitting our love for one another.
And above all, it gave us a perspective we'd been sorely lacking.
Sophia and I stayed at Courtney's house, which, oddly enough, had been where we did a fair bit of hanging out "last time" as well, according to the future diary. It seemed to just be a coincidence owed to Sophia's affinity for Cats; though who knows, maybe they'd sensed Courtney's scent on her or something.
During our stay, Courtney told us all about what life was like in this village, and what her family had been through. They'd fled from place to place to get away from dangerous humans, finally finding semi-stable residence here in Valeway. Already having learned to take human form as a personal choice - as opposed to some like Dyzel who were simply forced to conform to human standards - she resolved to become a spy for Dyzel, to ensure the safety of the village and support his efforts to build a strong, united territory for monsters.
And it seemed having Courtney's complete trust earned us the trust of many others in the village, too. They came to us (though often needing Courtney to translate) with their hopes and their concerns about this war. They told us of numerous independent attacks on Valeway before our arrival. They questioned the Goddess's half-hearted intervention on both sides. They even expressed doubts about Dyzel's methods, regardless of how much they owed to his endeavors.
Yulren was right, as usual. We knew nothing about this war we'd been sent to end, and needed to hear from these innocents whom a less considerate group would happily trample underfoot.
And as we did this, we also took the time to relax. In Sophia's case, it looked like more work - but in fact, she was trying to rekindle her passion for making clothes, by making a dress as a gift for Yulren.
Alongside the gift, she intended to tell Yulren something. Of course, I had informed Sophia about Yulren's response to this something, as written in my diary. Regardless, she wanted to say it; she wanted everything to be crystal clear between them.
Once the dress was finished, I accompanied Sophia to Yulren's room. Yulren accepted the gift gratefully, heard Sophia's feelings about her (with added mention of myself), and responded with her own.
As the two of them talked pleasantly about how to proceed with their friendship, everything felt just as it should. Yet having read about these events already, one thing still felt amiss.
"Yulren," I interrupted. "When you said "the heart feels what it feels"... who did you mean?"
Yulren blushed and turned her head away. "As I said, Harley, I would prefer you not write about that matter... Do you really need me to say?"
"On that matter?" I shook my head. "No, your feelings for Cyrus are clear. You think he's a loser, and wish he'd leave you alone. The thought of people assuming you two are in love sends shivers down your spine. So what are you doing, lying to someone who actually cares about you that you love him?"
Her face burned up. "A... All right, yes, I have no fondness for Cyrus... I simply thought it the easier way to explain why I couldn't reciprocate..."
I sighed. "Sorry, but I couldn't help but notice you weren't even thinking of Cyrus when you said that. Rather, by saying "the heart feels what it feels"... are you actually trying to dismiss your own heart's feelings?"
"H-Harley, give her a break!", Sophia exclaimed, looking upset with me. "She's got no obligation to tell you about..."
Yulren leaned forward in her chair, closed her eyes, and clasped her hands in front of her. "No... Harley is right. I've been a fool, selfishly concealing important matters out of stubbornness..."
Sophia looked at her with confusion. "Huh?"
Yulren stood up, went over to a drawer, and took out a book colored a faint purple. Then she sat back down.
"In truth... I have a history with Valeway that precedes this expedition. I do not know how many are actually aware of it. Of the reason this expedition is of particular significance to me..."
"A history?", I repeated. "You don't mean... as a spy or anything, right? Or that you knew Courtney before this?"
She shook her head. "Not at all. Some time ago... I was kidnapped by Dyzel, and held prisoner."
"THAT'S where you were that one time?!", Sophia shouted in shock. "How did you not tell anyone?! How did nobody know this?!"
"Because... no one came for me." Yulren closed her eyes sadly. "It was an ugly truth that I had to keep hidden: that the house of Adorna cared so little for one of their own as to not notice her absence."
Sophia looked devastated. "I-I... I would have if I could've! If I knew that's where you were! Don't say no one cared, because they did...!"
"I know that now," Yulren smiled. She looked down at the book in her hands. "And at the time, too... there was someone who saved me from that despair."
"...Who?", I asked.
And she handed me the book.
I sat alone in darkness. From the moment I came to after being kidnapped in my sleep, to my arrival in the dungeon of this castle, I had seen nothing but darkness.
There was no Anrietta to wake me for breakfast. No Sophia to prepare my clothes. Even the other cells seemed unoccupied; it felt as if I might be the only soul in kilometers.
And as days passed, I grew more and more hopeless. Was I not a daughter of Adorna? Would they not negotiate for my release? Surely... surely they knew I had gone missing, didn't they?
Each new day confirmed moreso than the last: no one was coming for me.
But still there was a light.
A few times each day, someone would come down to the dungeon to bring me food. A lantern hung from their belt, and they said not a word; all I could make out was a frightful figure with imposing horns.
Terrified as I was whenever I heard them approach, it was nevertheless the only light brought to the dungeon each day, and accompanied by my only meals. Meager as it was, I prayed with gratitude to the Goddess for the fact that I had not been brought here just to die.
Then one day, after putting down my meal, the figure did not leave.
"...You know, Dyzel wasn't expecting you'd be here this long."
"Wh... What?" I was surprised by the gentle tone of the monster's voice - and then the hoarseness of my own.
"A big target like the Adornas - he thought they'd be here for you in no time. But they haven't even responded. He's kinda at a loss."
I attempted to get a read on the monster's expression, but it remained in shadow. "Do you mean to say... I've been taken as a hostage? For what purpose?"
The monster shook their head. "Not sure if he's thought that far. He just doesn't want to resort to the same violence we've been shown, so he's been taking hostages as bargaining chips. And so far, no dice."
Slumping against the wall of my cell, I hung my head. "I'm afraid I must be a less worthwhile hostage than you expected. I have siblings, after all... we have all been raised since birth to be interchangeable with one another."
"Yeah, that'd -"
The monster suddenly stopped talking. They took the lantern off their belt, crouched down to be at eye level with my sitting self, and held the lantern up.
"No. Don't you dare say that about yourself."
I stared in awe at the monster's face, finally seeing it clearly. She was a Cow, hence the horns, but was not nearly so fearsome-looking as I'd assumed - in fact, her face was oddly cute, which was not a thing I'd considered a Cow to be before. It's strange, but my first thought was... "what is she doing down here?"
I looked away bashfully, both from her stern command and from seeing her face. "If my thoughtless remark upset you, then I apologize. I know I should have faith in myself, as a daughter of Adorna. It is simply... difficult, at times."
"Don't say that either," the monster chided. ""Daughter of Adorna"... you're a person first, right?"
I sighed. "Yes, well... perhaps I have lost sight of that being locked up here."
She stood up. "Right, right, that's what I was going to talk about. See, I think we made a mistake here. You're not the kind of human who deserves to be subjected to these conditions. If it were up to me, I'd let you go..."
I glanced up at her. "But... it is not up to you, is it?"
"Nope," she sighed, shaking her head. "But I mean, I don't think Dyzel wants you to suffer either, really - he just thought you'd be out quicker than this, so he didn't prepare anything fancy. So I promise you this: I'll do whatever I can to make this lousy situation more comfortable for you."
"T... Truly?", I asked with amazement.
"Uh-huh. So hit me with it. What are you craving most?"
I was at a loss for words. Because, well... I felt that what I'd been craving most was precisely what I was getting right now: light, food, and above all, company.
After quite some time grasping for something else to say, I thought of one thing. "I think... I'd like to write about what I'm going through."
"Makes sense," she nodded. "Gotta work through your feelings somehow. Let's see, think I have a spare notebook you could write in..."
She dug through her pockets, produced a purple book and a writing utensil, and handed them to me. "There you go. I'll leave the lantern so you can see what you write, too."
"Thank you so much, er..." I shyly lowered my head. "Actually, what I crave next most is to know your name."
She snorted with a grin. "It's Milly. And yours?"
"A-Ah, I thought you already knew...! My name is Yulren of Adorna!", I replied hastily.
"Gotcha. ...Think you're all set for now?"
"Y-Yes, for the time being... Thank you very much, Milly!" I bowed to her.
She turned around and put up a hand to wave goodbye. "See ya later, 'Ren."
Milly walked off into the darkness. But the warm light remained right here with me.
The days have continued to pass by, but not lonesomely. Milly has made certain of that.
I've asked her for all kinds of different things as they come to mind, and she never fails to surprise me with what she's able to procure, and how quickly. The cell itself is much more nicely lit and decorated now, with a comfortable carpet beneath my feet. She's even provided me a handful of books to keep me entertained. It may not compare to my room at home, but did I ever need such an extravagant space?
Not to give the impression that room decorations were my first priority, of course. Actually, one of my early requests was clothing; my robes were beginning to get filthy.
Milly scratched her chin. "Well, I could just wash 'em. Might be hard to come upon robes of that quality here."
"I would appreciate that... yet I would also appreciate any other clothes you might be able to bring," I explained. "This is not the house of Adorna, after all; there's no need for me to maintain the same old look. And also, well..." I blushed. "Without something besides these robes to wear, I would have to sit here in the nude."
"...You want clothes picked by me?" She looked over her own clothes, perhaps for effect or perhaps unsure what she'd even put on today.
"By all means. Your style is oh so charming, Milly," I giggled.
The clothes she ultimately brought were certainly eclectic, and difficult to call an ideal match for my figure. But I treasure them nonetheless, as I would treasure a custom-tailored outfit from my own seamstress.
Incidentally, of note: I've yet to make any requests regarding my meals. I so rarely decide for myself what I'll be eating that I can't say I know my own tastes particularly well. Yet the meals Milly brings are always enjoyable and varied, so I've really seen no reason to even bring it up. I do wonder where they come from.
Tonight, however, I made a somewhat unusual request, though one I had been thinking about ever since she made her promise of making life more comfortable for me.
"Milly, could you possibly come down here more often than just for meals? Or at least stay a bit longer, if not..."
"...Sorry, 'Ren," she sighed. "I'm not a full-time jailkeeper or anything. Actually, I'm more of a janitor."
"And if I caused enough trouble," I grinned, "do you think Dyzel would make you a full-time jailkeeper?"
"I wouldn't try it," she snorted. "But thanks for the offer."
She seemed just as surprised by what she said as I was, once she realized she said it.
"...You wish you could spend more time with me too, then?", I asked hesitantly.
"I-I mean..." She coughed. "Look, it's a thankless job. And you give me thanks. 'Course I appreciate that."
"But you hardly needed to do... all this for me," I said, looking around the cell. "I can't imagine Dyzel asked that much of you."
"Well..." She scratched her head. "Guess that's just my thank-you to you."
I pondered. Living in the Adorna house, I had been taught, pampered, and waited upon by many servants, some of whom have had genuine affection for me as a person. Yet at the end of the day, they were servants of the family, so such kindness was only to be expected - regrettably, I might say.
Milly showed that same kindness to me, a hostage locked up in their dungeon, without it being remotely necessary for her job, hoping for nothing else but to see my smile.
It made tears well up in my eyes - all the moreso when I realized that by crying, I'd be denying her of that one hope.
"W-What's wrong?!", she asked. "Is there something I can get you?!"
"All I need is you," I bawled, unable to make excuses any longer. "The decorations, the books, the food, the clothes... they make me happy because you bring them to me, Milly..."
Milly looked deeply shaken. "'R-Ren... are you for real...?"
I sniffled. "But why is it I can't do anything for you...? You look so sad when you have to go... I'm a healer, yet I can't seem to heal that heartache..."
"Y... You don't have to worry about that," Milly replied at length. "I-It's true... I'm always happy to see you, 'Ren. But I'm fine with what we've carved out for ourselves. And when you get out of here..."
I finished her thought. "We'll both look for things to give each other... right?"
She lowered her head and averted her eyes. "That... would be nice."
We sat there in silence for some time. In a sense, my request was granted, but it pained me that it was accomplished by making the both of us sad.
Suddenly, Milly broke the silence. "Uh... hey, 'Ren."
"What is it, Milly?"
"You want me to bring some flowers?"
And at last, I was able to give Milly what she had been hoping for.
More days passed, and our happiness grew. As did the jail, as it happens.
Even back when I first arrived, according to Milly, there were other prisoners here I simply couldn't see from my cell. Eventually that became a fact I could observe for myself, as the dungeon became increasingly more bustling. Evidently Dyzel was redoubling his efforts - both Milly and I were unsure how to feel about that.
One aspect certainly made me happy, however. With more prisoners to look after, Milly's duties leaned further toward being a full-time jailkeeper, and I got to see more of her. She appeared to show her usual kindness to other prisoners as well, hoping to make their time here as comfortable as it could be. Yet it was clear she gave no one more careful treatment, and caring looks, than she gave me.
As I gazed lovingly at some beautiful lilies Milly had brought the other day, I heard her approach. And when she came up to my cell, she did something she had never done before.
She opened the cell door.
"Milly," I reprimanded, "if you do something as reckless as that, I'll be able to get out!"
She coughed. "That... is the idea, yes."
I looked at her blankly, then down at the floor, then back at her.
"Well, all right then."
I ran over and embraced her tightly.
She laughed, hugging me as well and patting my back. "I'm sure you wanted to do that anyway, but to be clear, this was Dyzel's idea. He decided that if no one comes for someone for long enough, there's no sense in keeping them here - they're free to go."
"Go... where?", I asked with uncertainty.
"Your choice. He was thinking he'd just send people back home, but... I think he's realizing some of these prisoners wouldn't want to go back home. Settling down here in Valeway might be more their speed."
"I see," I nodded. "I'm glad to hear that."
Milly shifted nervously. "So, uh... what do you wanna do, 'Ren?"
"Do you really need to ask?", I replied, taking her hand in mine. "I want to work here with you, Milly."
She shook her head. "Of course I didn't need to ask. Problem is... I actually kinda want you to change your mind."
"W-Why is that?", I asked, stunned.
She led me back into my cell so we could sit down, and firmly held my shoulders.
"Listen, 'Ren. Living down here, for this long... I know it's changed you. Overall for the better, probably - I'm betting you see monsters in an entirely different way. Uh... to say the least," she said with a blush.
She sighed, her grip relaxing. "But... I think it's done a number to your self-esteem. Sure, your family might've decided it wasn't worth getting you, but if you just show back up, no question they'll take you back. And you can't underestimate just how much influence you actually have. You're an Adorna, a family the Mana Goddess herself looks to for successors."
I looked away. "I'm afraid the odds there are slim. Even if I were somehow picked over my siblings... it is not my generation who will be under consideration. I'm unlikely to even be alive when the current Goddess's time comes. And all told... I have little interest in being the Goddess. All the moreso if it would separate me from you."
Milly nodded. "You're right, of course. Maybe that kind of influence isn't within your reach. But, well..." She smirked. "That was a bit of a gotcha. 'Cause what's more important is that you're Yulren. And so I know that you're going to do me proud, and try to give back for everything I've given you."
I cocked my head. "But... why would I need to return to my family to do that? As much as it feels I could never fully repay you, surely staying here with you would be the way to do so..."
"Because you can give me the one thing greater than what you've already given me," Milly explained. "You can help convince people that the world Valeway is fighting for is a worthwhile one, an achievable one. You can go out there and make a difference. And if you can see that through - if you trust my belief in you - then fate will bring us together again."
I could scarcely look at her without crying. But I knew she was right. The woman I loved was putting her unwavering faith in me... how could I possibly refuse?
I was free to go wherever I chose. And I decided: it was time to start paying Milly back.
I reached for my ear and took off one of my crystal earrings. As I held it out to Milly, she looked at it with confusion.
"It's for you, Milly," I explained.
"I... don't really do earrings," she said with embarrassment, seeming very reluctant to complain about my first proper gift.
"Wear it around your neck, then." Without hesitation, I ripped a strip of fabric off my robes, which made Milly wince. I looped it through the earring and tied it to make a crude necklace - big enough to slip past her horns, of course. And I put it on for her as she smiled bashfully.
"If you like that," I told her, "then trust me: there will be more where that came from. ...I take it Dyzel will arrange for my return?"
She gave me one last quick hug, then went up to inform him.
And that was the last I saw of Milly...
Sophia and I looked up from the book at Yulren.
"And you just... hid this? From everyone?"
She sighed deeply. "I really have failed Milly's faith in me, haven't I..."
"Look, don't beat yourself up about it, nobody wants that," Sophia consoled. "I've seen for myself how restrictive it is being an Adorna. Honestly, Milly had some nerve to ignore that and act like believing in yourself would just solve everything."
"True, but..." Yulren shook her head. "I came to even deny my own love for her. I told myself it had all happened too fast, that I'd latched on to the only person around in a harrowing situation. Despite explicitly recording my feelings here to keep them burning in my heart, at some point I became reluctant to even open this book..."
"That sure doesn't mean you gave up, though," Sophia retorted. "You still thought of her when I confessed to you. You've still got that other earring hanging from your neck. And you're still fighting to do the right thing on this expedition that otherwise would've had Milly killed without a thought."
Yulren smiled and nodded. "Yes... I'm glad for the reminder, all told. That I was so lucky to meet Milly, and even luckier to be given a chance to fulfill my obligation to her through this expedition. It truly must be fate, bringing us back together..."
I interrupted. "You say fate, but there's an entirely verifiable reason you were chosen for this expedition, isn't there?"
Yulren looked at me quizzically, not remembering what I was referring to. Then her eyes went wide, and she pulled something out of her robes.
"Cyrus... he said he picked me for a reason," Yulren recalled in stunned shock. "And he wrote that reason down, for me to read, should I ever be uncertain about my role in this quest... It couldn't be..."
She stared at the folded note, written by Cyrus, on a scrap of paper borrowed from me, which led to an ink spill that allowed me to identify Sophia, fall in love with her, and have the realization of that love sent back in time so that we could turn this expedition around and uncover this hidden past.
It couldn't be - could it?
"I... I'm going to open it," Yulren said with trepidation.
becuase you're cute (=
"Cyrus, you absolute -"
"All right, what's going on in there?!"
All of a sudden, we heard Atticus. He burst into Yulren's room, and she quickly hid the book - only for him to notice and snatch it out of her hands.
"Were you out there eavesdropping? For how long? C'mon, man," Sophia angrily spat.
"Long enough to become incredibly suspicious of you three," Atticus grumbled with a glare at all of us. "Who even is this "Milly" you've been talking about? I take it this book here will expose everything?"
"Th-That's my diary!", Yulren exclaimed. "Have some respect for people's privacy, Sir Atticus!"
"I'm afraid all that goes out the window when..."
He suddenly fell silent, and began reading the book much more intently. We looked at each other nervously.
After some time, he looked up at us with a worried expression.
"This... this isn't your idea of a practical joke or anything, is it?"
Yulren spoke first. "It... it's true. I fell deeply in love with a monster named Milly while being held captive in their dungeon..."
He raised an eyebrow. "You what? No, I'm not talking about that - if these truly are reports from a Valeway soldier, why in the world would you keep this information from us?"
"Wh-What? No, I told you, that's my..." Suddenly, something dawned on her. "Wait, you read Milly's diary, in the front?! You're horrible, Atticus!"
Atticus put his hands on his face in a mixture of frustration and disbelief. "You mean to say you had a logbook from the enemy and never read its entries out of respect for their privacy?!"
"You're talking about her girlfriend, dingus, read the room!", Sophia groaned.
"W-Well, forget about that, what does it say?", I asked, shaken.
"...Only things that change the very foundations of this war if true." He closed his eyes and shook his head, no doubt still frustrated by the accidental concealment of this info. "It makes mention of numerous unprompted attacks by Paruside upon Valeway, dated many weeks before their supposed aggression upon us."
"Supposed...?", Yulren repeated with surprise.
"...King Vander showed me the towns. They indeed burned. And yet... I have been given no undeniable proof that it was Valeway." He grimly put his hand to his chin. "The lack of mention here about such an attack around that time may not prove anything, either... but it worryingly agrees with my worst suspicions."
I scratched my head. "If anyone could confirm the truth of that, it would be Courtney... but if she knew, she would have told us by now, I'm sure."
"So, wait, Atticus..." Sophia looked at him. "Are you saying you believe us that we should make peace with Valeway?"
Atticus folded his arms and lowered his head. "I have always thought myself a man of great influence. A trusted assistant to a king, who could hold his own in battle, and even regale people with the tale. I strive to support, and let people know the stories of, great people who fight for justice."
He frowned. "In thinking myself that... I found it easier choosing to not question my position when it was challenged. I remained steadfast that my judgement had not steered me wrong. That the stories I focused on were the ones worth telling, that the people I supported were on the side of justice, and that I was subject to no one else's influence."
He looked at the book, then decided to hand it back to Yulren. "It seems I have been proven wrong on nearly every count in short order. I feel... used. Contrary to what should be the case, I have at this point been given far more reason to believe that Valeway means peace than that Paruside does not mean to take this land at any cost."
"So... peace with Valeway," I nodded.
Atticus glanced at me. "More than that, Harley. ...It may be our duty to join them in their fight."
With renewed purpose, we made preparations to depart from the village shortly after that. Some were reluctant to leave - but with the change to our mission, this village was in fact one of the things we would be trying to protect.
That said, we were careful not to speak openly about our change in plans. There was no telling how other members of the expedition would react, or how it could undermine us. It was a good thing we had already been dealing with Valeway's forces non-violently thanks to Yulren, as suddenly becoming averse to hurting our now-allies would raise too much suspicion.
Also fortunate was that we had Courtney on our side - specifically the "real" Courtney, so to speak. By simply having her stand at the front of the lead cart looking important in Cat form, Valeway was often quick to assume (correctly, I suppose) that we were with them. If they did get suspicious, then as a last-ditch effort, she'd try to claim she was bringing in new hostages... but our numbers were just large enough that it didn't tend to work. Our team was still plenty capable of safely handling that eventuality, of course.
And at last, we found ourselves at Valeway Fortress. It was clear in everyone's minds what our course of action would be.
...Though in some cases, that course of action differed.
"About time," Cyrus sighed happily, looking upon the fortress. "Talk about a boring journey - we even put our enemies to sleep." He chuckled and struck a pose. "But now that we're at the big bad's place and I've got my sword, this long con's finally gonna be worth it. Dyzel won't know what hit him when ol' Cyrus -"
"Sir Cyrus," Yulren interrupted coldly. "I really must remind you that you and the troops are not to take action until we give the signal. It is imperative that our deception does not go to waste."
He was taken aback. "R-Right, got it, Yulren. 'Course I didn't forget." Regaining his cool, he asked, "So what's with that dress, anyway? Doesn't look like your usual style."
"A-Ah... well..." Yulren blushed, unsure what excuse she could make that Cyrus would believe. Part of why she was wearing it was to show courage, so no doubt she was annoyed with herself for cowering away at the mere mention of it.
"Oh, I made her that; she didn't want to get blood splatter all over her white robes," Sophia laughed, coming to her rescue. "Why else would you bring a seamstress on a war campaign?"
"Gotcha," Cyrus nodded. Then he looked toward me. "Guess it's sort of the same reason you bring a writer - so they can tell my story. Don't go dying in there, got it?"
I didn't feel like dignifying that with a response. Thankfully, I also didn't have any need to.
Because this wasn't going to be his story.
Courtney spoke with the guards in their own language to let us in. "Us" being Yulren, Courtney, Sophia, myself, and Atticus. They showed us to Dyzel, who sat in his head office behind a desk.
"...Soldiers from Paruside, are you?", he asked bemusedly. "And you say you surrender?"
"For simplicity's sake, yes," Yulren nodded. "But do not misunderstand; this does not mean Paruside has surrendered to you. We -"
Dyzel laughed. "I know what it means, human. I wasn't born yesterday. You have your real soldiers stationed outside, and this is just a distraction. I'll be sure to greet them warmly."
As Yulren reacted with shock, Sophia moved forward. "Wait, that's not it! We left them behind because... we want to join you! We know Paruside's just greedily trying to take your territory!"
"Oh good, self-reflection," he remarked wryly. "How do I know I can trust you? To my eyes, you're just a bunch of humans."
Courtney coughed. "I'll give you a pass for not recognizing Yulren in a different dress, but... you should really recognize your own spy, Dyzel."
He raised an eyebrow. "Hm?"
Courtney stepped forward and pulled back her hood. Her face was fully in monster form, and while Dyzel was taken aback, we didn't blink an eye.
"You... you already knew her identity?", Dyzel realized in disbelief. "Yet rather than forsake her... you're saying you came over to her side?"
"It wasn't exactly like that," I said, shaking my head. "We believed our brief fellowship up to that point had been genuine, and that she'd become a spy for good reasons... but us changing sides began elsewhere."
"Right..." Courtney nodded humbly. "Really, it's more like I went over to their side. They decided early on that at the very least, they saw no reason to harm the common monsters coming after them. Honestly, I'd been planning to report to you that they were slaughtering monsters out there, 'cause I didn't think I could trust them. But after seeing the lengths they went to not to kill any..."
Dyzel rubbed his chin. "So you really haven't been fighting back...? But did Vander not send you here to kill me? Did he not deem us unforgivable?"
"He did," Atticus solemnly affirmed. "Yet ultimately, we decided not to follow those orders. It is all thanks to Yul -"
"It's all thanks to Milly," Yulren interrupted.
Dyzel looked Yulren over curiously. "Forgive my poor memory, but... you wouldn't happen to be..."
"One of your former hostages. The... the first that no one came for, I believe," she recounted with embarrassment. "But Milly, your jailkeeper, was there for me. We... formed a close bond. It pained me to leave her, but... she wanted me to use my influence as an Adorna to help advance the cause Valeway is fighting for. S-So... out of love, I had to oblige."
"And... have you?"
Yulren bowed her head low with shame. "I'm afraid -"
"What do you think you're looking at right now, Dyzel?", Sophia responded.
Yulren looked back with surprise as Sophia continued.
"As Yulren's seamstress, I'm lucky enough to spend a lot of time around her. And even if I didn't know the story of her kidnapping or the promise she was trying to fulfill until recently, I can tell you she was trying her damnedest to make something happen. But the pressures of society, not to mention of being an Adorna, kept her from it. Even someone as capable as Yulren wasn't able to overcome those hurdles - not when she was bearing it all alone."
Sophia put her hand on Yulren's shoulder. "But then, that changed. Maybe you'd just say it was fate - or maybe Yulren's cuteness worked in her favor," she said with a smirk. "She was brought on this expedition whose mission went entirely against what she really wanted. Which she might have still been forced to go along with... if not for a stroke of luck."
"There was someone else on this expedition," she noted, "whose heart burned with love, yet it wasn't "appropriate" to bring it up. Because their feelings weren't "important." Because they weren't the "hero" of this story."
She put her arm around me. "And they went and did it anyway."
Feeling my cheeks redden slightly, I continued the story. "No matter what anyone said, I believed my love for Sophia here was more important than anything. So I ended up coming to the forefront just to make it known. And, while I was satisfied just having done that, we found ourselves in a surprising position... one where we could change the course of this expedition."
"It was our decision to respect the wishes of Yulren, who Sophia loves dearly, that guided us toward wanting a peaceful resolution. Later, Sophia's love also led Yulren to reveal her deep love for Milly, and inadvertently, the lies Paruside has told us... and so we stand before you now, wanting to change sides."
Dyzel closed his eyes in silence for a while; I worried I had gotten a bit lost in the weeds going over the chain of events, and that was with the omission of my time-traveling diary. But eventually, he smiled.
"There are times I feel like I've lost sight of what I'm trying to accomplish. I worry about becoming something I hate - a monarch ordering others around just to satisfy his own selfish desires. I've fumbled around trying to find material things I can do to make a better world for monsters, and no doubt I've made mistakes in the process."
"However..." His eyes opened. "When I see people who share my cause, I'm reminded of the simplicity of what we're fighting for. ...Our love for one another."
"Th-Then...?", Yulren asked expectantly.
"I'll bring you to her now," Dyzel nodded.
Milly embraced Yulren, picking her up and swinging her around with joy. Sophia clung to my arm and watched them, happy tears welling up.
"You've gotta tell me everything," Milly said through tears and laughter. "Who are your friends? Where'd you get that fancy dress? Did you bring me anything?"
"W-Well, my seamstress Sophia over there made it for me, and I wore it special for my reunion with you. Does that answer everything?", Yulren said with a grin, sniffling.
"Good enough for now!", Milly guffawed. After some more rejoicing, she suddenly felt the eyes upon her, including those of the prisoners. "Uhh, shoot, I'm still on the clock, aren't I..."
"During this touching reunion? Not at all. I hope I haven't given you the impression I'm that cruel," Dyzel replied. "Though there is just one duty I want you to carry out, Milly."
Milly scratched her head. "And what's that?"
"I want you to open all the cells."
She stared at him blankly. "Uh, if I do that, everyone'll be able to get out..."
"That is the idea, yes," Yulren said, poking her teasingly.
"To put it simply... these people made me realize the foolishness of my methods," Dyzel explained, shaking his head. "I've been taking humans from Paruside thinking I was hitting them where it hurt, collecting bargaining chips with which to convince people that Valeway, and monsters, deserved their respect."
He sighed. "But I made a poor assumption: that Paruside was a place of love, where any given person's absence would be felt - by someone able to do anything about it, at least. Despite seeing that proven wrong, I stubbornly persisted... failing to realize that the only people I was hurting were those already ignored within their society."
He glanced back toward us, and continued. "Valeway will always be a place for monsters, and I'll fight to my last so that it can be. But of course, humans can be just as cruel to their own kind; either of us can feel unimportant, pushed out of their own stories, kept from the life the Goddess meant them to live. Rather than show indifference toward humans who have felt similar pain, I should've been following Milly's example, treating them with kindness."
"So to all my mistaken prisoners: you are free to go," he announced. "Of course we can take you home, if you have one to go to. But you are welcome here in Valeway. And if you are willing to fight for a place where both monsters and humans can live in peace... that is very much welcomed."
With that, Milly and Yulren went around the dungeon unlocking the cells. Many of the prisoners were surprised, but they seemed to be giving deep thought to Dyzel's words.
If they had been given up on by those who should have cared, like Yulren had, perhaps they didn't really have a home to go back to. Perhaps Valeway could be a true home for them. And perhaps they would feel motivated to fight to give others the chance they had been given.
I certainly was, after all.
As we sat together and relaxed near the entrance of the dungeon, Courtney spoke up. "Y'know, I'm really glad how everything seems to be turning out, but I feel like we're forgetting something..."
"What, like Paruside's response when they find out we defected?", Sophia supposed.
"Sure, but nah, it was like... something more imminent? What was it..."
Suddenly, we heard a clattering upstairs, and the thumping of numerous footsteps. They eventually got louder, coming down the stairs, and...
"You took WAY too long!", Cyrus yelled. "I didn't just miss the signal, did I?! I got worried something happened - or worse, that I was missing all the action!" He looked up at Milly. "Wait, who're -"
Then Milly swept him up off the ground and chucked him directly into a cell.
She turned to look at the remainder of our forces, Yulren's other attendants included, and gave them a shrug.
"War's over. You can go home."
They looked at each other with uncertainty, but soon began to disperse, as suggested.
Cyrus got back up with surprising quickness, I'll admit, but Sophia was quick on the lock. He rattled the cell door. "Yulren!! What's going on?! Open the door, I -"
"Sorry, Cyrus, but I asked her to do that to you. On sight," Yulren explained, putting her arm around Milly. "And you know, I think I have everything I need out here, so I'd rather not let you out."
"Wh... What?!", Cyrus spat with disbelief. "You'd rather have some ugly Cow over me?! Did you even read my note?!"
Yulren laughed hysterically, then went upstairs with Milly. Cyrus just stared with confusion.
"Cyrus, I think it might do you good to have some time for self-reflection for once in your life," I commented.
"H... Harley, right?" He gripped the bars helplessly. "You saw the whole thing, right? How did this happen? Why aren't we killing Dyzel?!"
"Don't worry, I'll let you read all about it soon. I think I'm going to go find a more comfortable place to write, though." I stood up to leave.
"S-Stop right there!", he shouted, seething with rage. "You can't do this to me! I'm Cyrus! I'm a hero of Paruside Kingdom! This was supposed to be my story! You can't just... ignore me!!"
I turned toward him and smiled.
"It's okay, Cyrus. If somebody really cares about you, they'll come for you."
And I haven't seen him since.
With that, we've finally reached the end of this record.
As much as I'd like to go on to tell you about, say, the overthrowing of King Vander, or how this was a historic step toward making a safer world for all - and yes, maybe I will someday - I can't. As I write this, Sophia and I, Yulren and Milly, Courtney's family, and all the others are enjoying a peaceful existence in this village that we've vowed to protect. But though we carry hope in our hearts, none of us truly know what might happen when this book is made public.
We'll be sure to send it Goddess Hilda's way, of course. Perhaps it'll encourage her to provide Valeway her full support, being something she can point to as justification, no longer having to be afraid of taking blame from a corrupt kingdom. We would certainly welcome her aid for any coming retaliation from Paruside.
But then again, weren't we the "retaliation" to begin with? With the loss of a trusted advisor, a former speech-writer, his most famous warrior, a daughter of the house of Adorna, and a fair number of soldiers, even Vander won't be able to strike for some time, I'm sure.
Which should go to show: "great men" are often propped up by invisible others - people whose contributions are downplayed, if not erased entirely. Some may be eager to present themselves as important, and others may have something to gain from promoting that idea. But remember: true importance is felt. Question the easy perspectives presented to you, because the real truth is what's in people's hearts.
And so I dedicate this chronicle to anyone who's ever been told that they're not important. That their feelings don't matter. That they should give up on what they want most. That their dreams are unrealistic. That this is not their story.
And I offer them the final thing I can say about these events:
There were people who loved each other, and that made all the difference in the world.