Chapter 115: No Way Back
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Content Notes for This Chapter:

Spoiler

Exposed Flesh (Heart)

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Theora was the strongest hero in the world. She was tall; her multilayered travelling attire was large and complicated; her piercing grey gaze beguiled attention. She was travelling the world together with the Ancient Evil — a most powerful being who’d spent millennia locked away in an everlasting prison, until Theora had shattered the unbreakable seal to defeat it.

As it turned out, however, the Ancient Evil was called Dema, was a person, and didn’t seem all that bad. Dainty, athletic, with pointed ears and a little horn on the side of her forehead, in ragged clothes and smirking, Dema appeared to be harmless. She’d offered to tag along, no violence necessary, in a cute and raspy, cunning voice.

Since then, Theora had opposed the world’s all-encompassing System and its strongest heroes to defend Dema from harm. Along the way, she had obliterated the Devil of Truth after he’d awoken from an age-old slumber, and she’d ended Umbra, the Ruler of the Seventh Sea, before it could flatten another harbour town.

Known amongst evils as the Roaming Blight, Theora left destruction in her wake. Currently, she was on a quest to rip the fabric between worlds apart and retrieve magical relics scattered beyond the horizons, to piece together a long-forgotten entity called Time.

Theora was immortal. Theora was invincible.

Theora was also crying.

“We’re gonna fix it,” Dema promised, softly dragging Theora by her hand, to get the two further away from the Grand Observatory of Fiction. It had long since disappeared from view, but that barely helped.

“I don’t think it can be fixed,” Theora murmured in response. “That’s the point.”

Dema shot her a pitiful glance, and grasped Theora’s hand a bit tighter. Theora pressed back.

“Why, but—” Dema shrugged weakly. “Then…”

Her words trailed off and she just gave a pained look, and kept pulling Theora further along. As far as possible as quickly as possible, hour after hour.

They’d spent the last few months inside of a story — a book called To Hell With the Author — and already, Theora wished they’d never left. Instead, step after step, they traversed well-trodden forest paths, to get away.

“It’s alright,” Theora eventually let out softly, and the words were a lie and hurt to say.

Dema slowed down to a halt, and nodded slowly. She took a look around — it was getting dark. “How ’bout we set up camp?” she asked, plopping Theora down on a rock stool she pushed from the ground with earth magic, then wiping the tears out of Theora’s face with her thumbs as she cupped her face. “Don’t gotta do anything, I’m gonna take care of it,” Dema said, and proceeded to fetch things from the folds of Theora’s interdimensional storage attire — a few blankets, water, tea ingredients and other things.

Theora couldn’t just let Dema to everything though, so she lit a small fire to brew herbal tea, and Dema used her magic to condense her own blood into a large, flat, crystallised basin for them to sleep in, then formed a rock roof above it to shield them from any nightly downfall.

“You never used to put in so much effort into shelters,” Theora observed, voice laden.

Dema smiled. “Why, it’s because this is much easier to cuddle in. And nowadays you let me cuddle you all night.”

“I see.” Theora placed one cup in front of Dema. “So that makes all the difference.”

“Sure does,” Dema went, smiling softly. “And, you’re not feeling well.”

Theora swallowed. That much was true. Hugging Dema tonight would help a lot. She took in a very deep breath.

Suddenly, Dema perked up, tea cup half-way to her lips.

“What’s wrong?” Theora asked, but Dema just shrugged.

“Nothing. Thought I felt something, for a moment. Maybe I made it up.” She sipped the tea, and her smile grew warm. “Can never get enough of this, y’know?”

Theora averted her gaze. “Thank you,” she muttered.

 

Theora woke up the next morning, still feeling like a part of her was missing. Tired and awful. Dema was no longer in bed with her, and instead tiptoeing along the forest floor.

“What are you doing?” Theora asked, pushing herself up.

“Didn’t make it up, after all,” Dema murmured. “There’s something. Kinda wanna check it out.”

Theora eyed Dema for a while — watched her turn her head in different directions as if trying to sniff something out, scratching her head in thought, and perking her ears.

“I’m seeing right through your scheme,” Theora proclaimed. 

“What? What scheme?”

“You are trying to find a distraction for me.”

Dema giggled. “Hey, now. That may be true but you don’t gotta say it!”

Theora shrugged. “Let’s check out what you found. We don’t have much time, though. Bell and Iso have been waiting. And we need to get to…”

The training grounds. Theora left that unsaid.

Dema nodded, and rushed to pack up, as if to make up for the time they’d lose on the detour.

A distraction was perhaps acceptable for now. Surely, the world could wait for a moment.

After about an hour of travel, Theora could finally feel it too, breaking through her dulled senses — there was a very faint presence, well within the western side of the forest.

Dema bobbed around on her feet. “Can’t wait to say hi!”

“Do you think it’s a person? Another traveller?”

“No clue.” Dema touched her bracelet. “But it’s making me nostalgic. Also, doesn’t seem to be moving.”

Nostalgic…?

Theora replied with a small nod. Even if Dema was only doing this to offer a distraction, it was working.

They went off-path, directly through the forest, stepping over brittle tree-stumps that were giving life to fungi and mosses. They navigated along limestone needle geography, climbing up and down small rocks or jumping over streamlets. Theora had never been in this region before, and didn’t remember maps showing much of anything here. This forest was not easy to traverse.

The presence remained stationary, but still fluctuated enough to be considered ‘awake’. It was also very faint. How had Dema even picked up on it? Dema’s own presence was a brilliant, bright beacon obscuring the auras of others around her.

“Woah,” Dema murmured eventually, pointing to red patches poking through between the small gaps in the canopies above. After a few more steps it became clear what this was: the flowers of a wide, gigantic scarlet tree as it towered far above all others, presumably rooting on the highest point of the shallow hillside forest. “That’s a big one. Gotta be magical.”

“It must be quite old, being that large,” Theora mused.

Dema giggled. “Hey, some remain small even after a long time,” she protested, playfully putting her hand on top of her head to show how tiny she was compared to Theora.

As they approached the top of the hill, the forest thinned into a meadow dotted with flowers and mosses, opening a small clearing cast in shadow by the red canopy.

“Love it,” Dema murmured.

The meadow was beautiful; soft orange blossoms peppered between rings of red poppies and rose periwinkles, butterflies and dragonflies hummed through the air and birds nested in the twigs of the tree.

There were many different flowers; some of them shouldn’t have been able to grow in this area, or at this time, or in these conditions. Isobel would probably love it here too — every step was gently muffled by soft flocks of green mossy carpet that stretched between grasses. 

They eventually reached the trunk of the tree. It rivalled the thickness of those incredible giants in the valley close to Fiantanne’s castle.

Dema patted her hand against the light and thin bark with a loud slap. “Amazing!”

She then walked around the trunk, Theora joining her at a slight distance. The backside of the tree was overgrown with thick ivy, and a bit further around, there was a large hole. As Dema pulled away the leaves, it revealed the inside of the trunk, and she poked her head in to look up. “So big,” she said, her voice echoing. “You ever thought about moving into a tree?”

“Into a tree?”

Dema pulled her head out and nodded. “Looks cosy, right? Nice scenery, shielded from rain… Kinda tempting, not gonna lie. Oh, by the way. Bun Bun. You gonna look at the flowers for a while?”

That question was sudden.

“I— yes?”

Theora did want to, but it was unlike Dema to suggest she busy herself.

“Then, could you take off your clothes?”

That jolted Theora right out of her dreamy state. She kept gaping at Dema way too long.

“What’s wrong?”

“I must have misheard,” Theora said. “I thought you asked me to undress.”

“Yeah, I did.” Dema pointed at Theora’s travelling attire. “If you’re gonna be looking at the flowers, I wanna go say hello to the Shade. Also have some super secret schemes going that you absolutely can’t know about, so I’ll do it inside.”

Ah. Alright, that made sense.

Theora hadn’t even considered the possibility of ‘visiting the Shade’, because the ‘interdimensional’ part of her travelling attire was meant for storage, not for people. It was a hostile environment. That said, the Shade wasn’t hostile. It had provided accommodations to humans inside it before, so if someone were to enter the interdimensional storage while the Shade was inside, it could gobble up the visitor and provide a cosy space to sit and drink tea.

Ideally, that was.

Theora gently grazed over the blood-bracelet on her wrist, and clicked it on and off, making it blink up.

“Gonna miss me?” Dema asked at the sight, smirking.

Before Theora could deny it, a little aura pulse rocked through the air.

Dema frowned.

Theora looked up the trunk. “I think it came from the tree? Did it notice us?”

“Yeah… Maybe?” Dema turned her head upwards as well, and kept staring, her frown getting deeper.

“What’s wrong?”

Dema shrugged. “It’s just odd. I thought it was a person first, y’know? But if it’s a tree, that’s kinda weird because —” She bounced her head to both sides, closing her eyes, trying to find words. “Like… Didn’t feel it on the way here.”

“Ah,” Theora let out. “Right. If it’s been here the entire time, you should have noticed the presence seven months ago.” 

Dema pointed her finger, nodding. “Yeah!”

“Well,” a sudden, husky voice said, “I must have been preparing for hibernation.”

Both Dema and Theora turned around. Someone was suddenly sitting cross-legged on the meadow behind them, flowers grazing her legs as if she’d been there all along. Her ears were pointed like Dema’s, her olive skin peeked out from large rips in her linen cloak. Her hair was a long patch of ivy reaching down her back, with deadwood branches growing out from beneath. She also, like the tree, was hollowed out; pieces of bark and rotten wood scabbed around a large missing chunk in her belly and chest.

In there was her heart; fleshy, beating, exposed. 

“Oh my.” Dema remained awe-struck for a moment, eyes glassy, likely reading a System prompt. “You a dryad?”

“Yes,” the ‘dryad’ said. She rubbed her skin gently, grazing her thumb over the hair on her arms, seemingly to pacify herself.

Theora crouched to her knees to level their eyes. “I hope we aren’t intruding. This is your home?”

The dryad tilted her head. “Home,” she repeated. “Rather, it is me.”

She appeared wary, had a frown on her eyebrows, and her eyes flickered between her ‘guests’, less with hostility than what seemed like apprehension and confusion.

“I’m Dema,” Dema said cheerfully. “And this little rabbit there,” — she pointed at Theora — “Is Bun Bun. I felt your aura and it made me sad so I thought I’d check it out!”

It made her sad?

“I don’t mind you ‘checking me out,’” the dryad said. “My name is Treeka.”

Somehow, Dema, a demon who had named her isopod daughter ‘Iso’, had the audacity to laugh.

Treeka shrugged. “The mage who planted and named me was an uninspired person.”

Theora still felt like an intruder and kind of just wanted to go away, but neither Treeka’s nor Dema’s behaviour was leaving her with a convenient out. In fact, some flowers in the distance were changing colours — a thick red ring was forming on the edge of the meadow, enclosing them like a wall. And the surrounding trees looked denser now.

“You seem uncomfortable,” Treeka pointed out, staring at Theora. “You look like you’ve been crying.”

Theora winced just enough for it to be noticeable.

“Oh,” Dema said. “Don’t remind her. She only just stopped.”

That wasn’t entirely accurate; Theora had stopped crying a while ago, but now she remembered the reason and was about to start again.

“What happened?” the dryad asked, seemingly uninterested in sparing Theora’s feelings.

Dema shrugged. “She made a big oopsie and blew up part of the Grand Observatory of Fiction. So they banned her from going back in.”

Treeka tilted her head. “That really means absolutely nothing to me.”

“Well, Bun Bun was crying because that means she can’t meet Lossi and Gonell and Fia and Skuld ever again.”

Treeka first shook her head gently, then nodded as if giving up.

Theora wiped her eyes. Her chest suddenly felt tight. “It’s alright,” she lied. “Dema said she can deliver letters from me.”

At these words, Treeka’s canopy suddenly fell much closer to the ground, now hovering almost directly above their heads.

“Yeah!” Dema confirmed, not paying it any mind. “Gonna bring all the letters, big time. And — maybe they’re gonna reconsider. I donated most of my mana to make up for it. I’m sure they’re not gonna be mad forever.” 

“I see,” Treeka said. Her exposed heart was beating a lot faster now, but she didn’t show any agitation on the outside. “So you lost access to all of your friends, and then came here to use me as a replacement.”

Dema blinked, eyes wide in surprise. Then, she cracked a smile. “Why, you wanna be our friend?”

“I’m not sure that’s what she meant,” Theora said. “I think we might be annoying her. Perhaps we should leave.”

Treeka let out a thoughtful hum. Her eyes glinted, but her expression remained strained and apprehensive. “I never said anything about wanting you to leave — in fact, let me make it clear.”

She snapped her fingers, and suddenly, the world shifted.

 

 

Hey y'all!!
Well, this took a lot longer than I was initially hoping for, but we're back. I'm aiming to post again every two days, more or less.

Also, shortly after posting the last chapter, I finished some art of Isobel/None. I'll put it into a spoiler since None looks insect-adjacent and may trigger phobias. People on the server may already have seen it, but here it is:

Spoiler

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