About four years ago, Theora had stopped receiving new quests.

At first, she’d spent a few weeks in denial, thinking another one would appear eventually. That once more, the world would need her, and that she’d find something else to do for a while. But that salvation never came.

The System was fed up with her, and she knew it. ‘There’s nothing else left,’ the System may as well have told her, if it could speak at all, or had a personality. ‘Stop wasting my time and get on with it,’ it might have said.

Theora had ignored her Main Quest in favour of all kinds of side quests for too long. Thus, with a heavy heart, she’d set out on that final journey. North, the way had led her, always north. A year turned into two, village after town after natural wonder, none of what she saw could untangle that deep and heavy, darkened and muddied knot in her heart.

After all this time, she would finally complete it. The Main Quest she’d been dreading to touch for so long.

And she was almost there.

Step by step, she climbed up the largest summit, along the ice-cold stair path meandering relentlessly into thinner air.

They called this mountain range the ‘Zenith of the End.’ Being the very cusp of the continent, there was nothing to be found past this place. It was one of the most dangerous regions known to the world.

A myriad of snowflakes melted against Theora’s face. Wearing a thick and multilayered beige coat, red frills dancing in the wind behind her, she advanced like a betta fish manoeuvring across a mountainous calcite ocean floor.

It was a lonely sight.

Sometimes, perhaps, dark and deadly shadows would twitch and rush away far in the corner of her vision. Once in a while, something would jump up, launching itself into the air, and escape into the snow’s obscurity. Rare occurrences. Most of the time, all she could see were the white summits around her, the snow, the clouds. She would never be confronted, by anything.

Because the monsters were scared.

It was cold, but the cold didn’t matter. Nor did that she’d been on foot now for almost ten hours, or that the day was slowly nearing its end. This path, these stairs frozen into the ground, were the very last part of her journey. And with it, she felt the calm rumbling in her chest of subdued emotions she was too tired to name.

When she reached the top of the mountain, her coat was powdered deep in snow, her face was littered with flakes. And there, she saw it, on a stone altar, just the way it should be. The Cube of Solitude. The strongest cage in the world, impenetrable. One of the most incredible magical items ever created.

Millennia ago, the Ancient Evil had been put inside, after a vicious fight against the strongest heroes all peoples of the world had to offer. Sealed away, never to be seen again.

Until today.

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Theora stared at it for a while. All the pretend-determination that had led her here, it wavered in front of this foreign object, seemingly not part of this world. It floated a few fingerbreadths above the stone, untouched by weather, embellished in thousands of fine lines that paralleled and crossed each other in a masterful showcase of the finesse of its makers.

The first Skill Theora had ever learned was [Joyous Punch]. As a child, back when she’d received her initial Class — [Berserker], granting strength by way of her emotions, be they sad or angry, happy or solemn. As she’d been cheerful and hot-blooded, the Class had served her well.

That was a long time ago. Now, she was an empty shell, except for her futile reluctance to do what had to be done. Theora’s old self had advanced to dust. Her level risen to an obscene number, her Class evolved to [Hero], and all her Skills — offensive, defensive, passive — had fused and melted and converged into just a single one.

She drew her sword, and it activated automatically.

[Obliterate].

With an ear-rending short slash, the seal cracked in a glittering burst of azure and pink sparks, and with it, aeons of safety perished. The clot in Theora’s heart grew thicker. Now, there was no turning back.

Black goo oozed from the broken outer layer, dripping onto the stone altar, causing an acidic hiss. Hastily, Theora touched the viscous liquid.

With a violent twist, her body changed and warped in a way that would have caused pain if it happened to someone else. The goo exerted a massive gravitational pull and dragged the puddle of human she had become inside the sealed-off dimension.

Not something one would usually be inclined to survive, but it didn’t matter to her.

She regained her form inside a large and empty space. Her eyes needed a moment to adjust to the dark surroundings. Slowly, galaxies and nebulae appeared on the void’s firmament. An endless, reflective liquid was at her feet. It had no depth. She simply stood upon it.

Behind her was a crack in the air — a violent black rip in a beautiful night sky painting. It was the entrance she’d torn open by violently entering this space.

She took another, deeper breath.

It was time to face it. Hit by a wave of rare anxiety, she shivered.

There, just a few steps away, on the liquid filling this vast, isolated dimension, it stood.

The Ancient Evil.

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Not much of a creature in a monstrous form, it was instead cast in the shape of an anthropomorphic female with parts of its skin as white as ash, and others as dark as tar. It looked like a demon with short and messy black hair, dressed in a torn old cloak of muddy brown colour. The Ancient Evil glared at Theora with glowing amber eyes as it slowly approached, a golden grin on its face.

“Why, hello there,” it said.

Theora absently stared at it for just a second. Then, she sat down cross-legged, blocking the way out. The liquid making up the floor felt soft, like skin to the touch, despite the crystal clear reflections. Her movement shoved soft ripples across it, like on a calm pond.

She looked up at the creature. “Ancient Evil—”

“Dema,” the being interrupted. “Just Dema’s fine.”

“Dema,” Theora started again, unfazed. She steeled her voice for what she would say next.

“Please state your dying wish.”