The first Fragment of Time was an arm. An arm like that of a life-sized doll, to be more precise.
As Theora kept it in her hands, she received a second System prompt — but not from her home System. Instead, it came from the System of this world, with the same decorations, typography and muted colour palette her [Baker] Class had, as well as the outline errors.
Skill learned: [Flatten a Mountain].
Received from [Fragment of Time]; available as long as the item is held.
Mana Cost: 10.000
Cooldown: 15 hours
Description: Level target area.
Theora could feel this Skill edge itself onto her being.
It became part of her like learning a new Skill in her home world, and felt different from her [Baker] Class Skills. As such, she assumed that the Fragment would have given her the same Skill had she received it at home; and also, it pained her a little, because it pointed towards the fact that she would lose the [Baker] Class upon returning.
Theora went to her travelling cloak, put the Fragment inside, and sat down on a chair, gazing into nothingness. Lostina was staring as if she’d just seen someone open up the fabric of reality, while Dema had shrugged and gone to fetch more baking ingredients.
Theora tried to process to the best of her ability what had just happened. There was just too much at once. For one, there was the fact that the System had just revealed a vulnerability to Theora; but she had no reason to exploit it for the moment, so she filed it away for later. Maybe she’d talk to Isobel about it.
Also, the magical weapon capable of destroying the world that Ulfine had warned her about was apparently a person. That said, there was no telling what kind of shape the other Fragments would have, so maybe that assumption was a bit premature. For example, Theora could abstractly imagine these items to be an assortment of things that carry memories, like children’s toys.
On the other hand, there was the issue of the Scry for Help, that had apparently led Theora to this coffer in the first place. The only way to find out what all this was about was to find more Fragments.
Lastly, though, and that was perhaps the most salient aspect of this, was the [Flatten a Mountain]. Would every Fragment impose a Skill on its keeper?
This was obviously a combat-related Skill, and not a weak one, either. In fact, it was gruesome. One of the most vile Skills Theora had ever laid eyes on, excluding [Obliterate]. And that also made some amount of sense, considering what Ulfine had said — if the Fragment of Time was an ancient weapon of incredible power that had been split apart across universes to contain the destruction it could impose, then it might dispense some of that power during the gathering process. Maybe, once all of these Skills were combined, they would make the collector one of the strongest threats in existence.
If that was true, it was good news.
Because that would mean it was a good side quest. Theora still harboured some suspicion that this side quest had been assigned to her as another ruse; as a scheme to kill Dema, or get Theora out of the way. But this? It made some sense. Theora’s [Obliterate] had the inherent property of absorbing all combat related Skills Theora learned, given enough time. So, if Theora held on to the Fragments, these Skills might be absorbed, and thus, the weapon diffused.
The drawback was, of course, that her [Obliterate] would sadly gain even more power, but overall, at least it made everything fit together nicely. Theora was uniquely predisposed to collect Fragments of Time from across worlds. Not only did she have different ways accessible to herself to enter different worlds, she also could tear down the fabric of reality, and had received a cuckoo Skill to help locate them. And she potentially had the ability to diffuse them too.
If all of these assumptions were true, then this quest could have conceivably been given to her in good faith. Of course, it was too early to tell for sure. Theora sighed, and rubbed her eyes.
Lostina was alive. Gonell, albeit still sealed, had survived her scheduled demise. Soon, Theora would get to meet back up with Bell and Iso. And, maybe, she’d been given a good quest. All was not bad, despite the anxiety that finding the Fragment had placed on her. She simply needed to compose herself and find some respite.
“So, what was that?” Lostina asked and with that, startled Theora a little.
“The item I needed to find in this world,” Theora said. “You mentioned it might have been hidden in an implication, so I figured that coffer would have been a good place. It also spoke to me before.”
Lostina glanced at the cloak, then to the opened chest. “Who the heck put it inside that thing?”
“Nobody,” Theora said. She got up and closed the lid as it was still violently oozing errors and multicoloured glitches. “The Fragments were apparently dispersed in a magical way through a powerful ability. There were maybe even several different ways to find the piece in this world, this is just the one I happened across. As I understand it, the only constraint is that the item must be rather difficult to obtain, and there can only be one per type of reality. I had to make a special cut to get it out.”
“Damn, that’s spooky,” Lostina said.
“Poor baby’s gonna get rescued!” Dema chimed in from the kitchen counter with a smile. She was mixing flour with water and she was doing it all wrong. Theora jumped up to come to help before it was too late.
Lostina frowned. “What do you mean, ‘poor baby’?”
“Why, Bun Bun’s got a knack for breaking people out of containment! She’s gonna piece Time back together. Oh,” she went, turning to Theora. “Gonna be another companion?”
Theora felt a little overwhelmed, adding more flour to get the right percentage back. “I don’t know,” she said. “It might not even be a person. There are some things that seem suspicious.”
“Their name is Time?”
Dema’s eyes widened at Lostina’s question, and her mouth stood agape for a moment. “That’s right!” she said. “They might have a different name!”
“This is just an arm,” Theora said. “Of a doll, no less. We have no idea who that person is, if it even is a person, if they can speak, or… if they are nice.” She thought of that awful Skill.
Flatten a Mountain.
Level target area.
It sent a shiver down her spine.
Dema and Theora stayed for another two days, before finally deciding it was time to move on. They said their goodbyes, although with the constant promise that they would return for visits. Fiantanne started crying, her dragon tried to console her, and Skuld nuzzled her head against Dema, nearly knocking her over, but this time Dema gave way and did not get impaled.
Lostina accompanied them to what she said was a good location for a date, from where they could then return home once night broke.
“Thank you,” Theora said, after they’d crossed a long-abandoned stone bridge into a small crevice inside a pine forest. Thick moss stretched over stones and fallen trunks, until they navigated around a mammoth tree, revealing a sight onto a stretch of foggy marshes.
“Woah,” Dema let out, beholding the view, then dropping down onto a root, leaning against the tree’s soft bark.
Theora gave a goodbye hug. “Meet you soon?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Lostina said. “We’ll be waiting! Good luck with your companion. I’d say give me a call but you probably don’t even know what that is.”
She waved goodbye, the gesture reciprocated by a cheerful Dema, and then left. Dema immediately patted the moss next to her to ask Theora to sit down.
“Gonna miss her?”
“Yes,” Theora said. She looked to where Lostina had disappeared. “Already do.”
“Aw! Damn, you really got attached!”
With a few short steps, Theora made her way over, and sank down. She let out a deep breath. For a while, they listened to a swallow sing in a canopy above.
“So, you think Bell and Iso were having a good time?” Dema asked at some point, her hand gently grazing a bit of moss beside her. She looked up in alarm. “They didn’t forget about us, did they?”
“I don’t think they forgot us,” Theora replied. “Isobel wanted to use the time to pursue a Skill she needs. I assume they might have done that.”
“Think they found it?”
Theora hummed in thought, pulling her legs closer. “Matter of luck,” she said.
“You look good again, by the way,” Dema said, and managed to coerce a blush from Theora, who pulled her bare legs even closer.
Yet another one of the dresses Fiantanne had gotten for her; this one was a well-crafted linen black one with lots of little ribbons and a larger one at the front. It had a wide neckline, showing more than the green dress had. Theora felt incredibly self-conscious, although not in a bad way. She’d wanted to dress up for this, after all, and she even put her hair together in a ponytail, revealing even more of her neck, to a dizzying amount.
She really wanted to feel vulnerable in Dema’s presence, though. Wanted to be seen, in a way, even though it was a very new and overwhelming desire. She still couldn’t forget that one day, when Dema had cornered her against a wall, scolding her for breaking a rule.
If Theora was lucky, maybe she would one day be scolded that way again. And on that day, perhaps she wouldn’t be wearing her thick travelling cloak, so that Dema would be able to come yet a bit closer.
“You alright?” Dema asked. “Looking a bit red.”
Theora jolted her eyes away. “I am alright,” she answered. “It’s a little hot today.”
Her brain tried to jump to a distraction, and finally found one, buried in the depths of her brain. She twitched and reached for their travelling luggage where Theora’s cloak was wrapped up in, and luckily received the item she’d asked the Shade to provide beforehand in this situation.
She kept it in her fist, then turned back to Dema.
“When—” Theora started, but her voice immediately gave out, so she tried again. “When I woke up in this world, I was sad you weren’t here. So, I thought, it would be good if we could have a keepsake of each other.”
She opened her hand, showing two little earrings in the shape of small black birds. “I know we both don’t really wear such trinkets, but…”
Dema’s eyes went wide, and she started beaming. “Birds!” she let out, reaching for one of them, but holding herself back at the last second to look at Theora for permission, who then nodded.
“It’s from Skuld,” Theora said. “I talked to her about what kind of keepsake to get, a while ago, and… Well, she said she doesn’t use them anymore, because she always stays in rhino shape nowadays. She said we could have them.”
Without hesitation, Dema clipped one of them on her ear, and showed it off. “Dang, I didn’t know. Gonna give her big thanks next time I come here.”
Theora felt her heart lurch. Dema, too, had dressed up for today. She wore a crimson red shirt, too large for her but since it was a short cut, it still revealed part of her belly. She also had a pair of short black pants, showing off her legs of ash and coal colour; her hair was braided in gentle spirals, probably by Fia.
Usually, Dema only wore torn and old clothes, barely even patched, with muted colours and stains. She’d really put in a lot of effort into today’s outfit.
Theora clipped on her earring as well. She stretched her neck and turned her head to show it to Dema, who simply let out a soft “Oh my,” although Theora could not ascertain what she meant by that. Was it perhaps too much for Theora to be wearing jewellery?
She turned back to her, but Dema was still giving somewhat of a mesmerised stare. She swallowed, then caught herself, and took a deep breath. Finally, she broke into a shy smile.
“I got something too,” she said, and somehow, sounded nervous. Answering Theora’s curious look, she held out both her hands in a bowl, then started sweating blood. The little red pearls all over her palms got larger and larger, until they rose up from the skin and swirled into several rings, slowly taking on a more intricate shape, as the strands of blood weaved around each other.
“Had people in Hallmark help me out with that,” she said, while it was still being summoned. “Harrik took a look too, giving me some last pointers. Wanted to finish and share it with you a while ago, but I kept finding things to improve.”
Finally, as the blood condensed and crystallised, it formed into a wide, scarlet bracelet made of an intricate myriad of strands and bands, some thicker, some hair-thin. Little gem-shaped, polished blood crystals of brighter and darker red shades glimmered across it. With a snap, she pulled the trinket apart into two smaller, much simpler bracelets, segments of it moving around each other to produce a more elegant shape.
“One for you and one for me!” she said. “May I?”
Theora held out her hand, heart beating wildly. Dema had made something so pretty, for her? For them?
Dema’s soft fingers grazed across Theora’s skin, and then made a turning motion to click the bracelet firm. “There!” She then put the other on herself, although her arm was much thinner, so the bracelet ended up a bit smaller. Afterwards, she pushed onto one of the gems on each of the trinkets, and they started glowing in amber.
“The closer they are to each other, the brighter they glow!” she said. “Can find each other when we are lost. Ah! And, I’ve put some of my regeneration powers into it. Hallmark artificers have some technology to place parts of Skills into magical items. So, when it breaks, it will regrow where you had it on!” She showed off the glow-effect by moving her arm very close to Theora’s, the bracelets blazing up in response. “Won’t regrow if you take it off voluntarily, though,” she said. “So, don’t lose it!”
“I won’t lose it,” Theora murmured, staring at it in absolute awe. This was probably the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Maybe except for Dema herself. She opened her hand and gently wrapped her fingers around Dema’s thin arm, then pulled her closer, into a sudden hug.
“Wah!” Dema let out at the sudden gesture, then giggled, and returned the embrace.
For a moment, they just sat there, holding each other, Dema buried against Theora’s shoulder. Theora felt nothing but that warmth for a while, embedded in the sounds of birds and rustling leaves, her head empty. No thoughts. Just bliss. Then, suddenly, Theora heard a soft click, and the breeze carried a hint of cold over a spot on her neck. She froze.
Had Dema just kissed her?
“Sorry!” Dema let out in a bit of a panic. “Got carried away… Your neck…” She trailed off.
Theora tried very hard to contain the sudden fireworks in her belly and the shivers that came over her skin. “It’s alright,” she said, voice dry. “You can kiss my neck, if you want to.” It was much easier to speak such daring things when she couldn’t see Dema’s face directly, even if they were still hugging.
“Got permission!” Dema cheered, and pecked the same spot again, and Theora immediately started to regret her words upon realising how unfathomably sensible that area was. She’d never even been touched much on her neck before, much less kissed, and this almost made her lose it.
In fact, it got much worse as Dema just kept going, placing more little short kisses after another, until Theora finally had to peel her off herself and plop her back down, in order to survive. Dema yelped and giggled, and Theora was burning hot.
“Cooldown,” Theora softly gasped. “One hundred years.”
“Damn, that’s so long!” Dema laughed.
That was not long at all! With how Theora was feeling, a hundred years were cutting it rather close for recovery. Oh, this was too much. She became aware of all her skin again, as the wind grazed over her knees and her arms and cooled off the sweat that had broken out from her. Her heart beat wildly, and she soothed herself with controlled breaths — as controlled as she could make them with the shivers seeping through.
“That was good,” she said.
Dema gave a mischievous smile. “Why, can do it all night, whenever you want to.”
“Yes,” Theora said, blushing up again. “I will keep that in mind. For now, let’s rest.”
“Rest it is!” Dema cheered, throwing up an arm, and Theora felt the very short urge to taste Dema’s vibrantly salty skin, but fought it down, because she really needed a break.
Maybe once they were back home.
A moment later, Dema pulled out their lunch from her bag; sandwiches she’d made from Theora’s bread. She offered one, which Theora gladly took, even if just to distract herself.
“Gotta eat so you recover,” Dema hummed cheerfully, and bit into hers.
“I’m not sure food will help with that…”
“Alright, fine,” Theora relented. “Are you feeling better now too?”
After Theora’s mess-up, Dema had exerted a lot more effort that she’d been letting on. For mages, mana was not necessarily a hard constraint; they could draw from less future-proof sources in emergencies, and even though Dema was probably more suitable for these kinds of exertions than people without her strong regenerative abilities, it was quite obviously not something she liked to do unless necessary.
Wrapping up such a massive hole was not an easy task, even for someone like Dema.
“All good, yesh,” she said, mouth full.
Theora looked at her own sandwich, still not having taken a bite. Her eyes then fell on her new bracelet, beaming in soft pulses.
“Sho,” Dema added, “Any idea where we go neksht? We should leave in a bit, it’sh getting dark.”
Theora winced a little at that question.
Where to go next.
Twelve Fragments of Time were left. Scattered across universes, hiding a truth she could only unveil by pursuing this task. And, they were on a timer. That side quest would run out eventually. Which meant that, if Theora wanted to solve it, she’d have to stop putting it off.
If she wanted to solve it, there was only one place she could go to next, because it was her best attempt.
She would need to revisit her training grounds.
That thought tensed a knot into Theora’s stomach, giving her flashes of when she’d failed to assert the size of the Messenger. It was, however, the only way forward — she would need to address that past.
“Do you think,” she murmured, “That it’s a good idea for us to pursue these Fragments? I won’t if you don’t want me to. There is a chance I got assigned this quest as a weapon against us.”
Dema swallowed. “Won’t know until we try!” she said, smiling, and bowing forward to place her head on her knees. “That person called out for you, right? From the coffer, with your Skill. And…” She raised her brows. “You didn’t regret saving me either, did you? Or do you?”
Theora sunk her forehead against her palm, scratching her hand through her hair, scrunching up her eyes. “I don’t — but, I didn’t save you. My Main Quest is still the same. I’m still a threat to you, and will be forever.”
Dema gave a mirthful smile. “That’s good then,” she whispered. A butterfly passed behind her, landing in a mossless spot on a rock.
Theora stared in confusion. “How is that good?”
“Why,” Dema went, “Because you said ‘forever’.”