It only took a few days until it was all arranged. Gonell had found a fresh rift of the highest rank. They’d travelled to it, and prepared everything for a ‘showdown’. Theora felt slightly awkward, but in the end, there was no good reason to refuse; if she could somehow convince Gonell that she was actually strong, then that meant she would get to help out. And that was better than sitting around and waiting while the Errata wreaked havoc on this world.
On the other hand, Theora would wreak havoc on the plot of this book if she were to help out Gonell. Or, more specifically, if she continued helping out past the day Gonell was supposed to die, because from then on, everything was in the hands of the main character. As such, she half expected an outline-error to pop up any given moment.
Now, Theora stood on a wide meadow with the occasional tree. A group of deer made its way through the hip-high grass along a hill in the distance. A crow cawed on a tree with red leaves. Theora could feel the taps of a herd far away — large animals. Maybe elephants? Rhinos? Not the giant kind, though.
She’d pulled her sword, and stood on slightly wobbly feet. She’d not been tested like this in… probably ages? The rift was glinting up in the sky, at about twice or thrice the height of the highest tree. Dema was on one far end of the valley, her cloak dazzling in the wind as she was playfully chasing something in the grass.
And on the other side, far behind Theora, was Gonell, standing watch too. The both of them would make sure no stragglers made it out in this little exercise. It was not a very densely populated area in the first place — not densely populated by humans, for that matter.
The rift would soon open. Gonell had taught Theora the signs; it would start pulsating, until it collapsed upon itself, and then opened far enough for Errata to get through.
Five hundred per minute, from a rift of highest rank. That was the threshold Theora needed to beat for Gonell to consider herself beaten. It was, to some extent, an arbitrary number.
She imagined that Gonell could destroy any number of Errata in whatever given time, but she’d annihilate the continent in the process. Similarly, Theora could, if she went all out, destroy that many opponents in any given amount of time, but she might accidentally cut the book in half trying.
As such, reasonably, Gonell had chosen a number of Errata per minute that she’d be able to withstand indefinitely. An average, of sorts. Theora had no way to actually judge the number. Had Gonell given an accurate estimate? Or puffed it up, to make beating her a little harder? Or had she given Theora a little edge and was playing with her, like with Dema?
Ultimately, Theora’s plan was simple. She would wait until a thousand Errata emerged from the rift, and then she’d target them with a single use of [Obliterate].
And she’d use her sword for it; a blade with wind affinity, allowing the attack to carry over far distances. Obviously, [Obliterate] was not a Skill that cared too much about distance or contact. Still, Theora had the most control over it if she was touching the target. Her blade allowed for that kind of ‘touch’ even over a certain distance. And, since [Obliterate] was not meant to be cast with a sword, it would lessen the impact. Reduce any potential damage the Skill might cause, if gone awry.
After waiting for a while, the midday sun blazing over the meadow in a strength rarely seen in autumn, the first Erratum crawled out. Theora could not beat Gonell’s record if she dispatched every Erratum on arrival, so instead, she garnered its attention by waving and shouting at it.
It soared towards her.
Theora couldn’t fly, unlike Gonell. Her entire life, the one thing Theora really would have loved to be able to do was float indefinitely. Gaining flight was by far her favourite Wish from the Orb of Seven Wishes, although she wouldn’t use the last Orb she had left for a test like this. So, Theora was stuck trying to get the Errata to keep their focus on her by running around. If they did lose focus, they’d be stopped by Dema and Gonell, and it would mean a longer wait until a thousand had gathered.
The Erratum drifted down, large claymore in its arms, and proceeded with its assault. Theora blocked and dodged the attacks, and started regretting her tactic, because moving was effort, and effort caused exhaustion, and exhaustion made her want to sleep.
At least, there was a time limit here. She just needed to keep the attention of all Errata for a while, and then end them in one go. How long depended on the nature of the particular rift, although Gonell had assured Theora that it was unlikely to take more than three days.
She dodged another swing from above. The sword whammed into the ground, throwing up dirt. A second Erratum had appeared, and it tried to shove the blade into Theora’s back. She briefly considered just not dodging, but as tempting as it was, it would probably cause Dema to yell at her afterwards, so Theora decided to avoid the attack at the very last moment.
Flight would be so nice. She could just hover in circles around the rift, attracting attention, having a swarm of Errata hum after her. It was slightly unfair that Gonell had access to such an ability, considering she was also a [Berserker]. Apparently, choosing calm as her emotion had given her the ability to weave magic. And, she’d explained, flying was really easy. All Gonell had to do was lose all worldly attachments, to poise herself and find tranquillity, and she’d start floating through the air just like that.
It was so unfair. [Berserkers] were not supposed to be able to do that.
Theora sighed, her blade clashing with the Errata’s.
It really was a nice day, though. The sun shone brightly. Apparently, Lostina and Gonell had ended up talking to each other too. Maybe they were on good terms now? Lostina’s situation was rather complicated, and she had to leave soon after to fetch something for her plans. Theora imagined it must be awkward for her.
Fiantanne, Skulduggery and the plush dragon weren’t here either, for obvious reasons — being so close to a rift was dangerous, and so the rhino had agreed to watch over Fia, while Fia had agreed to keep the rhino from being lonely. That meant Theora could go all out, without needing to worry. The strongest person in the world was watching over her from one side, and the immortal Ancient Evil was chasing a rabbit on the other.
It was the perfect setting for Theora to completely lose her sense of danger and make a terrible mistake.
The one thing that could have, but didn’t, play a role in this was the idea that this was just a story. She considered the people living in here to be real, and thus, the prospect of getting to help out albeit only as a guest made her happy. Theora had gotten to feel so much happiness lately. She could cuddle Dema whenever she wanted, sometimes to the point of being called ‘lovey-dovey’ by Lostina. But neither Dema nor Theora had gotten to cuddle much in the past millennia. In fact, as far as Theora understood Dema’s past, neither of them had gotten to cuddle much, ever.
Right now, she really wanted to just lie in the grass and have Dema rest on her belly, gently patting her head.
Another Erratum attacked. The claymore whirred around, and cut off a single strand of Theora’s hair.
In the end, it turned out to be a very large rift. By now, Errata were streaming out by the dozens. Too many for Theora to all keep on herself, so some made off, but she would still get to a thousand very soon. If she managed to impress Gonell today, maybe they’d end up going to the dungeon together, and find the key, and then she could open the coffer and find out what was inside.
Theora had asked around a bit, too. Fiantanne said the coffer contained blackmail material that would aid in toppling the king. What exact kind of material that was, she couldn’t say, though. The box had been placed decades ago, at the start of the King’s reign, so it didn’t sound impossible. Maybe some secret about the founding of the realm?
A document outlining practices that would make the King lose power?
Others, like Gonell, said such a thing was unlikely, and that the ‘blackmail’ likely referred to an item of such power that it could be used against the Crown, and defeat it.
The plush dragon Laticula, however, had said something else — that inside the box might be something to close all rifts and end invasions. And when Theora asked a person in the tavern who’d appeared interested in the conversation, they said that they’d heard of the coffer before, and assumed that it contained a scroll to learn a Skill of one’s choosing.
A Skill of one’s choosing.
Like Flight, maybe. Or perhaps Theora could learn how to weave. She couldn’t stop thinking about the girl in the story Ulfine had told her about. Theora didn’t necessarily need a Skill to learn how to weave, but being able to infuse effects into clothing created by her sounded nice. Like with her tea, or the flowers she gathered. She could make a gown for Dema. Ever since seeing Lostina in that suit of hers, Theora wondered what Dema might look like in one. She still needed to find a keepsake too.
So, if there was indeed a Skill scroll inside, Theora couldn’t help but want to see it. Even if she would be reluctant to actually use it, since it didn’t belong to her just because she had found and taken the coffer. Ultimately, she hadn’t yet asked Dema or Lostina about it, because with Skulduggery, Fia and Gonell around, there hadn’t been an opportunity to talk about the story. The outline blocked any questions Theora wanted to ask on the topic.
With all these things going through her head, finally, after a few short hours, enough Errata had gathered on the meadow.
It really was an S-Rank rift, that much was clear. The Errata had caused destruction in their attempts to kill Theora. Dirt had been thrown up into heaps, animals had fled, and some Errata were much larger than the others. But Theora had tried very hard to absorb as much of their power as possible, and not let them destroy the area much.
In very specific situations, Theora could target multiple creatures in one go. It hadn’t worked with the Afterthoughts in Hallmark — the circumstances were not quite the same — but here, things were a bit different, more akin to the situation shortly after freeing Dema, when she’d fought some low-level Afterthoughts to rescue the [Mage] from her mistake of shutting down the System.
The swarm of Errata from the S-Rank rift, which appeared on the third day during the ninth month in the Meadows of Fragrance, that is attacking me right now.
It was a valid target.
Theora made a few long strides to get in position, and prepared for the attack. All in view. Like she had done so many times before. She cut.
A wide incision made its way across the world in particles of pink and blue, as was common when she used the Skill with her sword. It soared through the Errata as if through a sack filled with flour — except it hit a ball of iron inside with a vicious crack.
Her sword shattered in her hands.