From the Sidelines

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."

"Hmm?"

"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."

A group of people lined up together in the woods. In the center are Harley and Sophia, glancing at each other. To their sides are Yulren and Courtney. Somewhat obscured on the far ends are Atticus and Cyrus. Behind them all are silhouettes of three more people.

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 are 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."

"Hmm?"

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 -"

"...meow?"

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 was 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 apparent to me as well, 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...

...for now.

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 (=

Silence.

"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 not to 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.

"'Ren!!!"

"Millyyyyy...!!"

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 looked 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.

- Harley

Story List