Chapter 113: Lost and Found
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If I told you, you would try to stop me.

Those had been Lostina’s words.

An hour had passed since Fiantanne had explained what the Frame of the Lost does.

Theora wouldn’t have objected to sealing Gonell away, if it was to save her life. Of course, she would have preferred to tell Gonell about it beforehand, but in the end, she would have accepted it, albeit feeling bad. Theora was in this world now, so in the worst case scenario, she could take on Gonell’s role in destroying the strongest Errata during her absence, and that was likely what Lostina had referred to when she’d asked for help.

This alone probably wouldn’t have caused Lostina to think Theora would stop her.

Gonell had to die, so the only way to seal her without breaking the outline would be to fake her death. Lostina had also mentioned that Gonell’s death itself had significance, so a solution that wouldn’t end in an emotional moment for the readers from the perspective of the main protagonist was out of the question. Lostina had shown capabilities to shapeshift in the past. The frame containing Gonell had been given to Theora by someone who looked like Gonell, but couldn’t have been her.

The leaves scuttled in the wind outside the open window, a soft breeze weaving through Theora’s hair occasionally. Every now and then, a scent from the oven carried over, and after a while, it smelled burnt.

By now, Lostina was probably dead.

You will try to stop me.

Theora had promised that she wouldn’t. And now she was sitting here, unable to do anything. It was devastating.

It crushed me, because it reminded me of the fact that, in my world, people like us are not meant to exist.

The oven started to smoke. Theora wanted to obliterate it, without even getting up. She’d gone and entered a random book she didn’t know, and then decided to let the original story play out, and now she reaped what she had sowed. She got up, pressed on the button that would turn off the engineered heating mechanism, opened the lid, and took out the baking plate. Her fingers sizzled at the touch. Of course, the bread was ruined. A piece of coal now.

A cold sob came out of her throat, and she went outside to put the plate on a rock to cool off.

And now, she had to wait, potentially for years, to tell Gonell. 

 

Half an hour later, Dema found Theora sitting on the roof, a crying mess. She went up too and put an arm around her back. Dema was still tired and recuperating mana; her movements were slower than usual, and her breathing heavier.

“I thought coming here for a date and to relax would be a good idea,” Theora said, swallowing snot. “I’m so sorry. I messed it all up. I messed it up so bad.”

Dema pulled her a bit closer. “I’m sorry too. I… liked the climax of the book, although I never read the epilogue. But looking back, we messed with everything so much, I don’t know if it all ended the same way. And just… Perhaps we should’a given it more thought.”

Theora continued, “I figured that it might work out, somehow, if we tried hard. I thought the same for you and me. But it won’t work out, will it?”

“I don’t know,” Dema murmured. “Sometimes things don’t work out, and that’s a bummer. But we’re still gonna try, right?”

“She should have told me. I would have wanted to say goodbye.” 

“Yeah…”

Over the entirety of those seven months, Lostina had only lied to Theora once.

I can just tell her myself.

The idea of being lied to by her in that way had just been inconceivable. And yet, it was the final lie that had given Lostina access to her Ultimate Skill — the last thing she’d needed to finish her plans. And Theora had given it to her like that, by believing her. How much experience had she received for that? How crucial had that one lie been, for her to make it in time? If Theora had been a bit more sceptical, would Lostina still be alive?

She couldn’t help but feel that way.

 

Two weeks went by and not much changed.

Theora spent most days trying to refine her baking, to distract herself somehow. Skuld found a new place to rest in the garden every day, with Fia hovering around her most of the time, working on concoctions.

“Here,” Theora said, laying a large plate with a freshly baked loaf in front of Skuld’s large head. Fiantanne had bought more clothes for them in a nearby city, but Theora was not used to wearing short dresses, so she had some effort crouching down. Then, she made two steps back. The rhino gave a thankful hum, and devoured the bread in one go.

“You know, you should turn into a person so Theora needs to bake less bread to keep you fed!” Fiantanne said playfully, as part of her ongoing efforts to finally convince the large animal to show off her other shape.

“Same amount,” Skuld rumbled.

“What! You eat just as much in person? Wow.”

Skuld huffed, scratching a foot through the grass. “No shaming.”

“Yeah, no shaming!” Dema chirped from her perch on Skuld’s back. “Gimme something too, Bun Bun!”

Theora’s knees turned wobbly. She’d still not managed to get used to that new name, even after a week. She also didn’t understand it. Was it because she’d taken up baking?

“Haven’t started the next batch yet,” she said, eyes on the ground.

“Aw, bummer! Lemme help you, then!”

Saying that, Dema jumped down, losing balance on impact, and knocking herself into the grass. “Whoops!” she let out, got back up with a stagger, and made her way inside the hut. Theora scuttled after her. “Looks good on you, by the way,” Dema said when Theora entered the kitchen. “Green’s your colour.”

The velvety dress exposed a large portion of Theora’s legs and arms, which made her feel rather vulnerable, but other than that, she had to agree — it was a rather nice piece of clothing. Light green with white heart shapes bleached into it.

After Dema had taken a closer look, she took Theora’s hand. “You alright?”

“Ah,” Theora let out. “That noticeable?”

“Your eyes are a li’l red.”

Theora instinctively rubbed over them, although that probably just made it worse. “It’s fine,” she said.

Dema let her arms fall. She bit her lip. “You know,” she murmured. “I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should leave?”

Theora didn’t respond.

“Like… Plot’s over,” Dema continued. “We didn’t get to see how it ended, but… Fia and Skuld seem to be fine. If it hurts too much… Isobel’s waiting for us, too.”

“I think we should stay,” Theora let out. “We don’t know when Gonell will wake up, and they might need help now that she’s gone. Also, Lostina asked me to take care of her while sealed.”

Dema nodded, and came closer for a hug. “Alright, gonna stay then. Was just worried about ya.” When she broke it, she gave a shy smile. “So… Bake? What do we need?”

Theora pointed at her travelling cloak, hung on a wall so it was easier to reach. Most of her baking ingredients from Hallmark were stored inside. “Flour.”

Dema ran over. “Flour!” she yelled, then randomly reached inside one of the folds, and pulled out a bouquet of red roses. Theora blinked. With a frown, she tried to remember what fold she’d put the ingredients in exactly. “No!” Dema complained. “F-l-o-u-r! As in, ground wheat!”

She reached inside again, then pulled out a paper bag of flour.

Theora couldn’t believe her eyes. “What are you doing?”

“Hm? Oh, that? Found out a while ago, if you announce to your attire what you need, it’ll be the next thing you pull out!”

What? That made absolutely no sense; her attire was an object. It was not sentient. It had no way to reply to requests. That was why Theora kept losing stuff inside. Though… Now that she thought of that, hadn’t this significantly improved lately? That moment from seven months earlier popped back into her mind, when she’d needed a health potion to help after a small settlement was attacked by an Erratum. Back then, she’d also found exactly what she needed remarkably quickly.

Frowning, she walked over to the cloak. “Orb of Seven Wishes,” she murmured, then grabbed inside. To her surprise, that was exactly what she got out. She immediately put it back, though, because she didn’t need it. “Sorry,” she apologised to the attire. “Was just testing.”

A puff of flour came out of a fold, shot directly at Theora’s face.

Dema snorted. “Dang, kinda deserved that one!”

Theora didn’t even bother to wipe it off. She just stared, her heart melting. “I missed you. I thought you were gone. Why did you not tell us? Were you shy?” She reached inside again, hoping to find something to stroke, and felt fabrics nuzzle against her hand.

“Huh?” Dema came closer. “Who’re you talking to?”

“Our Shade,” Theora said. “Must have moved in with us when we left the bath house.” Turning her head back to the coat, she added, “If you need food, please feel free to eat my magic items.”

“Oh!” Dema grinned, then faced the coat as well. “Why, welcome! Hope you’re having a nice time in there. Lemme know if you need anything.”

Before the Shade could react — if it was even going to react — there came a knock from the open door. A moment later, someone stepped in. Theora’s heart skipped a beat, eyes wide. At the same time, Dema waved a greeting.

“Sorry it took so long,” Lostina said, a bit out of breath. “Skill ran out before I could fly all the way back.”

Dema beamed. “We thought you were dead!”

“Yeah, same,” Lostina said, laughing. “Things didn’t work out the way I planned. For the better, I suppose.”

Theora still couldn’t say anything. She just swallowed heavily, her eyes welling up again. Lostina’s eyes darted to her, then she bit her lip. “Should have said goodbye,” Theora let out, voice already breaking. “Goodbye. You have to say goodbye.”

“Oh god, I’m so sorry.” Lostina went up to wrap Theora in her arms. “I’m sorry.”

Theora hugged back weakly. “You lied to me,” she muffled into Lostina’s shoulder.

“I did.”

“You left me.”

“Sorry…”

“You died.”

Lostina let out a dry laugh. “Well, technically, that I did not. Fair point though, because I tried. Also, you are spreading flour and snot all over me.”

Theora broke loose. “So, it still worked?”

“Yeah. Don’t know exactly what happened. If you ask me, author got scared of Gonell and ran away.” She huffed out a laugh. “I got to talk things out with her, though. And she wanted me to transfer the memories to her original. We ended up meeting Wallace too. Told him the truth about the King. Now that his strongest Messenger is defeated, there’s not much that he can do. Wallace said he’d sort stuff out, and I’m here too in case it’s needed. We also got to the asylum in time while she was still there. Now, we just have to wait for her to wake up, and everything will be fine.”

“So, you can’t release the frame early?”

“Nah. Wouldn’t try to mess with it either, since I don’t want to harm her. I talked it out with her; she said to blow it up early in case we need her; that she’d bear the damage, but that it was fine to wait it out.”

Theora let out a huge, voice-breaking sigh that ended in a half-laugh, putting her hands on her eyes to calm herself down. 

“We just decided we were gonna stay for a while longer,” Dema chirped in.

“Oh!” Lostina put a finger against her chin. “Well, you are not strictly needed here. Things will be taken care of, as I said. So, if you have to get going, that’s okay. But you’ll come visit?”

Theora nodded.

“That’s good then,” Lostina said with a smile. 

“I still want you to tell me that secret, though,” Theora pouted.

“Secret?”

“I wish to know what’s in that coffer.”

“Oh!” Lostina laughed again. “I mean, it wasn’t a lie when I told you I can’t tell you. The truth is, nobody knows.”

“What!” Dema went. “But everyone in the story went all in on it? It was never opened?”

“I mean, it was opened, a few times,” Lostina said, slowly. “Just never on-screen. And every character who knew what was inside made big insinuations. As the story went on — after Gonell’s death, I mean, this is all just what I heard from others — fan theories went through the roof for what it could be. Author never revealed it, though.”

Dema tilted her head. “Why not?”

Lostina shrugged, patted the flour from herself, then started doing the same for Theora. “Because they completely overdid the hype. At that point, nothing could have possibly lived up to it. Like… there really was no way to resolve it in a satisfying way, so they just kept it a secret. And I mean, it makes sense? Something that can blackmail the king and topple the crown. Something that would cause Trilla to promise her hand to Wallace if he ever found it. Don’t worry, you don’t know her. Something that could have been put into the coffer dozens of years ago and warranted a castle built around it, that would make Ferdinant shiver with fear… Don’t worry, you don’t know him, either. The insinuations went on for years and were so wild that it became a bit of a meme.”

Theora shuddered.

“Which is why,” Lostina went on, “It’s probably not a good idea to open it, either. Could lead to some paradox or inconsistency. I mean, other people inside the story can look at it, probably, just not us.”

“Oh, yeah,” Dema added. “Person at the Observatory warned us of that too. That there might be limitations to the world of the story, and that things could get really messed up if we start looking beyond them.”

“I know what’s inside,” Theora murmured, and she wished she didn’t.

“What?”

Hidden in the implication, only to reveal itself at last. An impossible object. It was no coincidence that Theora had procured it; that she’d carried it with her for months and been so curious about its contents. The item had called out to her, those months ago, in the treasury. Of course it would call out. It had been a Scry for Help, from beyond the horizon.

Theora had to open it.

“Lodestone,” she murmured, turned to the interdimensional coat and grabbed inside. “Please,” she added when the Shade was reluctant to give it. Finally, she pulled out the coffer, and plopped it onto a table. She held her finger against it. All she needed was a small cut where the membrane was thinnest. A surgical incision to reveal what was stuck between worlds. A tear only she could open.

Obliterate.

The tiny lock broke apart with a soft click. Theora flapped the lid open.

“Sheesh,” Lostina let out. “Some people went through hell to find a key for that, you know?”

Indeed, it was not meant to be. A multitude of glitchy lights and errors and black letters and distortions billowed out; it was beyond what this world had to offer. Theora downed her arm deep into the mess; much deeper than the coffer should have had room, and she exerted her will to make sure her skin and bones were not shredded apart by that impossible nothingness, until, finally, her hands got a hold of something.

She grabbed, and pulled it out.

That same moment, a little mote of the System, carried through from her home world, activated itself, and issued a single prompt before fading out.

 

Congratulations! You found the first Fragment of Time.

INFO: Re-establish connection to the System to roll for partial quest rewards.

 

However, Theora barely paid attention to the message. Instead, she stared at the object she’d procured. It was larger and heavier than she’d imagined the Fragments to be, for some reason. It hung from her hand loose and lifelessly, made of some smooth and hard white material. Some kind of ceramic. Porcelain? Several joints held it together and it clattered with soft movements.

“Wow.” Lostina frowned deeply. “That makes absolutely no sense.”

“Damn,” Dema rasped, voice in awe. “Looks like an arm!”

 

Thank you for reading! The next chapter will be the last of book one. I'll probably post it tomorrow. c:

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