Heofen made Theora nostalgic of Hallmark.

It loved to rain in Hallmark, and it loved to rain in Heofen. The difference was that Hallmark had felt like home, while Heofen felt like drowning.

Theora’s hair was sticking to her head, and after sitting here for many hours, the wet had drenched her clothing, wrapping her undergarments around her in a cold embrace. Her thick boots were filled with water after she hadn’t changed her position once.

She was sitting on one of Heofen’s highest vantage points — the small roof of a library tower overseeing the entirety of the very small settlement of at most a hundred buildings in total, as well as the northern wheat fields. Theora was too tired to move. Every now and then, she considered leaving, but then her legs felt so heavy and the rain so cosy and the way down was so long.

At some point, she heard the click of a hatch, and the shuffling of someone emerge from the little roofed shaft leading up. She did not look who it was.

“How is the view?” the vaguely familiar voice rang. Theora perked up.

Steps of light footwear clapped through the noise of the rain, and someone clad in a thick jacket sat down next to Theora, giving her a smile. “So, how did that mission to find the Fragment go?”

It was Ulfine. Her black had grown a chunk since they last met, though most of it was hidden in the shadow of her hood, while her eyes still looked tired but curious.

Theora made a little frown. “You are here.”

“Yes,” Ulfine said, indulging in the statement of the obvious with amused patience. “I heard they were going to get rid of you. Many people from the guild made their way here, and I thought I should too.”

“Will you be helping out with the mission?” Theora asked with a tilt of her head. She hadn’t assumed Ulfine’s expertise to become helpful here — an assumption which Ulfine shortly affirmed by shaking her head.

“I’m here because of the Fragment of Time,” she said. “Come on, I’ve spent my whole life researching them. You think I’d let them oust you to the moon without asking what you found?”

Theora swallowed. That was an extremely good point. And yet, Ulfine’s words only brought a pang of pain to Theora’s chest. “I made you dedicate your life to these Fragments on a whim,” she said.

Ulfine laughed. “I could have stopped pursuing those theories whenever I wanted.”

“But you didn’t.”

“Of course not. Just too interesting a subject. I suppose you won’t let me see it?”

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“It’s at home,” Theora said. In her travelling attire, still hanging in a library wardrobe.

“Oh, I see. Your blood house? That’s where I come from. Didn’t even know. Guess I’ll have to go back.”

“How did you find me?”

Ulfine chuckled and pointed down at the streets. “You realise people can see you? I heard you’ve been spending all of last week here, just glaring down at everyone.”

Theora swallowed. Was she acting like a looming threat again?

Ulfine pursed her lips and rubbed her hands. “Won’t you come back down with me? I heard they’ll share the final route with you soon. So, depending on when you leave and how busy you’ll be… If you get stuck up there somehow, this might be the last time we meet.”

Theora nodded. “Thank you for coming here.” Then, she got up, feeling the wobbly sloshes of the water in her boots. She straightened her wet clothes and offered Ulfine a hand.

Ulfine’s hands were still small. Just like when they first met.

Then, they made their way down together.

“This is quite the remarkable item,” Ulfine eventually mused, back in Dema’s house, looming over a blood-desk, looking at the readouts of what Theora assumed to be a one-time identification spell scroll. She slowly grazed through her half-wet hair as she studied the results. “I wonder if the pattern will continue.” The pattern of the Fragments of Time being parts of a body, that is. She looked up at Theora. “I’d love to have known. I know I must sound a little whiny, but really, I can’t tell you how amazing it is to finally see it, and how sad it is that I might not get to see it put back together.”

“I will do my best to return,” Theora said. “The item also gave me a destructive Skill. I assumed it would be swallowed by [Obliterate], but that has not yet happened. Perhaps too soon to judge. Some of my old Skills were a tad resilient too.”

The first Skill she’d ever learned, [Joyous Punch], had also been the last one to disappear. Theora had recently checked the logs. A testament to her old stubbornness.

“Ah,” Ulfine let out.

Theora nodded. “It is a truly gruesome Skill.”This tale has been pilfered from Royal Road. If found on Amazon, kindly file a report.

“So, you are meant to diffuse them.”

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Theora shrugged. She looked outside the window, into the fake grey sky the Shade had made for them. “Maybe. Time will tell.”

Literally, [Head in the Clouds] supplied the moment it had the chance. Oh and while I’m here — you should talk to Dema.

That sudden meddling made Theora flinch, and Ulfine shot her a questioning glance, but for a while, neither of them said a word.

Finally, Ulfine sighed. “Sad you have to leave?” she asked. “I figure you’d not spend so much time up there if things were fine down here.”

Oh, god. That Head in the Cloud of hers had really done it now. “Maybe,” Theora murmured. “Some things have been on my mind.”

“Care to share? It’s about the Ancient Evil, isn’t it?” Theora’s glance shot sideways, capturing Ulfine’s mousy eyes, who shrugged, and added, “That adorable Isobel was here earlier, and we talked. She’s worried.”

Theora rubbed her eyes, pulling out a chair, to sit on. Helpfully, the Shade was supplying heavy fake rainfall to platter against the window. “It is,” she said, taking a deep breath.

Ulfine nodded, folding the identification scroll back together and gently placing the Fragment of Time back into the shared storage drawer Theora had fetched it from. She sat down on a chair the wrong way, placing her arms on its back. “And?”

“Are you sure you want to hear about this?” Theora asked. “We barely know each other.”

Ulfine laughed. “Ouch, that hurts. I suppose it’s true. I have to admit you probably occupy a lot more time and space in my mind than I do in yours. And I’ve been in your employ for… a while.” She spoke that last word with weight and a smile that wrinkled her entire face.

Theora’s gaze jerked to the ground. “That’s exactly it,” she murmured. “I never value people’s time. I made a shallow request, then went on to other business for a moment, and before I could blink, decades had passed and you’d spent your life on it.”

Ulfine folded her eyebrows, shaking her head in confusion. “And how would that relate to Dema?”

Theora shrugged, still looking at the darb stone floor. “My life was dedicated to the task of ending the Ancient Evil. But after seeing some dubious quests issued by the System, I became unsure. I didn’t know much about what I might find at the end of my Main Quest. I just couldn’t do it, so I put it off.”

Ulfine nodded. “That’s understandable.”

Theora shook her head. “It’s really not.”

“What? You mean, you should have killed her?”

With a frown, Theora looked up. She pressed her feet to the ground, squeezing out water. “Dema was eighty-six when she was sealed. For some misguided reason, I assumed that she must have been older back then, but — she was extremely young.”

Ulfine snorted. “That’s older than I am.”

“She was a baby,” Theora insisted. “And I left her in there my entire life. I should have gotten her out the moment I was strong enough to break the seal. Instead, I left her stranded for millennia. The thought of freeing her never even occurred to me. The thought that someone with feelings might be stuck there, someone with an inner life, who’s lonely.”

Theora buried her fingertips into her clothing, feeling them scrape against her numbed thighs. “And even if she wasn’t so young. Even if she’d been sealed after thousands of years, I still should have gotten her out. I knew she was in there, and I left her to rot. I am, without a doubt, despicable.”

Ulfine broke the gaze, and rubbed her fingers. She didn’t say anything for a while, and Theora remembered a hint of the young girl that had, back then, been told off by her old grumpy superior. She swallowed hard. She shouldn’t let her anger out on—

“I see,” Ulfine interrupted Theora’s thoughts with a contemplative tone. “Well. My situation is very different from Dema’s.” She paused, looking at the drawer the Fragment was in now. “Personally, I don’t have regrets. Again — it was my choice, every day of my life. You never value other people’s time? Don’t be ridiculous. You would have let me abandon my research the moment I voiced any doubts whatsoever. You offered to cancel it immediately after asking me to do it. Do you not remember?” Theora blinked, but Ulfine didn’t give her time to answer. “Well, I do. In the span of the first day, you offered to abandon the project several times.”

She got up and stepped closer, coming to a halt right in front of Theora. A bit softer, she continued, “Things we say or do may influence the trajectory of other people’s futures, that’s just life. It perhaps appears more salient to you because you see more futures, and seem to experience less time. I cannot judge or comment on your regrets concerning Dema — that’s not my place — but at the very least, please don’t use my fate as another weapon against yourself.”

With that, Ulfine patted Theora’s head, leaving her hair even more of a mess. “And,” she kept going, “while respecting other people’s time is important, you should also respect their wants. I wanted to help you, so I did, and it was fun. So much that it breaks my heart that they will shoot you into space, and that I will probably never see you put Time back together. And, what does Dema want? Does she want you to spend your last days on our planet hiding in the rain on top of a roof so that you can’t feel how much you’re crying? I’m sure she is well aware that you could have let her out earlier. Perhaps she’s even bitter about it. But I take it you haven’t asked her, have you?”

Theora shook her head.

Ulfine gave a nod. “I suggest you do that then.”

For a moment, they fell silent, and Theora was trying to come up with a way to apologise for making Ulfine angry, when the sound of the entrance door of the house swinging open clashed through the room, much louder than Ulfine’s voice or rainy pitter-patter.

“I’m home!” Dema rasped into the corridor, and after a bit of shuffling, her barefoot steps on stone slabs came through the door.

Ulfine shrugged, and packed her stuff together.

They saw a blink of Dema running past the door. A blink of Dema, undressing, that was.

A moment later, Dema poked her head back into the frame, pulling the cloak back over her body. “Oh!” she let out. “Hey there. Thought I was alone. Sorry! Was gonna get dressed-up big time for Ortal’s coming-of-age ceremony.”

Theora had no idea who Ortal was, nor what ‘dressing up’ would look like for Dema.

“I need to go now,” Ulfine said, looking at Theora. “I might visit again, but in case we don’t see each other — farewell. I hope things will go smoothly up there.”

Dema looked at her with wide and curious eyes, and waved her hand when Ulfine made it past her. The sounds of steps down the corridor were eventually drowned by the rain against the windows.

“Right!” Dema then let out awkwardly. “Guess I’m gonna leave you some room? You already look like you’re about to cry… Time to not make that a whole lot worse.” With that, she shuffled out of the door frame, and made a soft yelp, accompanied by the sound of her tripping over nothing.

“Dema?” Theora called after her. She took a deep breath as the sounds outside the room stopped. “Could we talk?”