Theora couldn’t focus much as Bell led them from barrier to barrier; she assumed those were routine check-ups. Bell’s tentacle didn’t let go of Theora’s hand the entire time; she seemed determined to send the message that Theora really belonged here, and scarily enough, it seemed to be working.

Theora wanted to dismiss it in some way, to find reasons why Bell was wrong. But if Dema, Iso, and Bell all wanted Theora to be here — if people had themselves frozen in time to meet Theora again, for centuries — then any and all thoughts of defiance rang hollow.

They’d come to fetch her from the Grand Voids. They could have just decided not to, that it was too risky, or not worth it — but they didn’t. The meaning behind these actions was both difficult to accept and impossible to argue with.

So, Theora put them in a box in her mind. A very precious box, ornamented with stars and glitter. It shone so bright when opened. But it needed to be in a box.

They traversed the region for the entire day, and then, through the night, until Bell led them back towards the village with Dema’s house. However, instead of returning, she veered up a hilly path, up to the top of a cliff.

Bell sat down on a little stone bench overseeing the village. The world was cast in a dull morning orange, illuminated by the Rains of Fire.

Bell seemed to be looking at System prompts. “Now we wait.”


Theora sat down beside her, still holding the umbrella.

“I appreciate that you joined me, by the way,” Bell mumbled, averting her gaze when Theora glanced at her. “I don’t really like to do these alone, but most of the time I don’t have a choice. So, thanks.”

“I wasn’t aware that you…” Theora frowned. “You don’t like being alone?”

Bell shrugged, with her body and tendrils, though it was only a weak shrug. “I’ve never been alone. I grew up at the Cnidarian Tower, and we were… a community. And… I became a Support-Class hero, so I never did anything on my own. I was always a member of a party. Even if I didn’t always…” She cleared her throat. “Get along with them.”

Theora had never really seen Bell as an outgoing person. But it made sense. Bell might be insensitive at times, but she also understood people and complex interpersonal situations rather well. Meanwhile, Dema had been sealed away all alone for millennia, Isobel had been dead for millions of years, and Theora had spent her entire life in solitude. Bell was the only one of them who had notable experience interacting with people.

And yet, whenever they were together, Bell was distancing herself and made it clear that she didn’t consider herself a part of the group. The discussion about who should open the alliance had made that clear.


But she also hadn’t made any attempts to leave.

“I polyped three times, you know? You expressed earlier that you wanted to know what happened while you were gone, but I can’t tell you everything, because I wasn’t always there. I lost a few decades to that.”

“I heard that mentioned,” Theora said. “But I’m not sure what it means. Polyping.”

Bell gave a dry smile. “Well, I’m a Medusa. We are immortal in the sense that we have means to recover from heavy damage, and don’t die of old age. If we are wounded, we polyp.”

“Oh… You mean like… When you collect a ‘pop’? That statistical age metric your people have?”

Bell shook her head. “Nah, that’s when we die for real. Polyping means we survive, though only barely. I’m just saying this because I think I wouldn’t be the best source to recount what you missed. When I properly came to, a long time had already passed. I went to meet Treeka first, who was luckily still alive after None had treated her. Also, by then, a new generation of heroes had grown, inspired by your sacrifice, and I wasn’t even in the top fifty any more. It took a while for me to get back near the top. I was questing on my own while Dema failed to teach None how to perform earth magic. And then, I was tasked with defeating the Singularity.”


Theora’s head turned in surprise. “What?”

Bell nodded. “The System put me on a quest to destroy it.”

Trying to wrap her head around the information, Theora’s brain slowed down.

The Singularity. The oldest and likely strongest Afterthought in existence, isolated on a faraway island. It, like the one they’d just met, seemed peaceful, so Theora had never seen a reason to dispatch it.

“Of course, I’m useless on my own, since I am a Support-Class,” Bell continued, “So we formed a group of heroes to face it. The Singularity didn’t want to fight, but… we engaged anyway, and it wiped the floor with us. Said some appropriately rude things too. I’m honestly wondering if it’s sentient. It shouldn’t be, considering it’s an Afterthought, but…”

This was confusing. “Why did you try to kill it when it didn’t do anything?”

Bell tilted her head. “Because we received a System quest. At the time, we rationalised it by assuming that it was planning to go rogue. To attack. Since that’s why the existence of the Singularity is taught to heroes, right? So they know that one day, it might… break out.”

“You are treating it like a silent volcano,” Theora murmured.

Bell nodded. “Well, in any case, it let us live and get away. Looking back, I think the System was stretched thin because of all those new heroes, and tried to reap the Singularity to get some data to turn into rewards.”

Theora nodded. That sounded plausible; if the Singularity was as old as the myths said, then it was likely binding a large portion of the System’s data. And if the System used data to materialise rewards and experience, then having so much data tied up in a separated Afterthought was likely not ideal.

“But you couldn’t possibly have won,” Theora said. “The System should have known that.”

“Yeah,” Bell murmured. “The reason it’s gotten so old is because it’s so strong, after all… I asked Dema for help before we went, but obviously, she said no. But I wonder. If the Afterthought had killed me…”

“Oh,” Theora let out. “You think the System was using you as bait to get Dema and the Singularity to fight each other?”

Bell snorted, defeated. “Yeah, right? Makes no sense. Dema would have never cared if I died. Especially not if I was killed in self-defence. But I can’t help but wonder if that was the System’s flawed plan. Sacrifice us to give the new generation of heroes a better shot. The System has access to a lot more information than we do. Maybe it had a good reason. Perhaps if I knew everything, I’d have agreed to its plan.”

Theora had a lot of trouble imagining that. From her experience with the System, she very much shared Isobel’s opinion; the System was a brat and often did things on a whim, without much thought.Unauthorized tale usage: if you spot this story on Amazon, report the violation.

“In any case,” Bell went on, “I was out cold for a while after that, and then we went to the Land of the Dead. None and I received a quest there. A big one. Took years to complete. Dema came with us too. And then… Well. We had a bit of a fight. None wanted to be the one to use the Orb to come and save you, because they thought they’d be less affected by the violence of the Grand Voids than Dema.”

“Iso wanted to teleport to me?”

Bell nodded. “They really do see you as a parent.”

Isobel could find love for almost anything.

“That’s most of what you’ve missed,” Bell said. “The relevant parts I was there for, anyway.”

There were still a few things left unclear, but Theora decided to ask the others to fill in the blanks. “Thank you. So what are we up here for?”

“Just my last task for today.”

“A System quest?”

“Hm? Ah, no. None of these are System quests since they don’t concern immediate danger. I’m just using the Interface to measure the time, and to keep notes.”

“What are you going to do?”

Bell pointed down to the village. “It’s almost time. Dema and None will use it to get back. So we can expect them to return tomorrow.”

Down there, one light after the other started burning in the windows, and people shuffled along inside.

Bell got up and walked a few steps towards the centre of the overhang. She sat down cross-legged, her tendrils pulled up into thick braids, and closed her eyes.

“Do you need me to do anything?” Theora tried her best to keep her covered with the umbrella, although Bell didn’t seem to mind catching some drops.

“You’ve already done so much, Theora. Please rest. It’s our turn now.”

Bell summoned a few mana potions from the System shop. They clinked and clattered to the ground beside her. Within a few seconds, she became a bioluminescent beacon, her aura growing to match it.

Then, Bell suddenly activated an ability so strong it rivalled a Legendary Skill. Theora almost blinked.

Bell’s mana was gone, so she wrapped a potion into a tangle of tendrils, crushing it to absorb the contents. A pulse of blue light went through her braids, and the mana drained from her body just as quickly as it had entered. Soon, all potions were gone.

Upon releasing it all in a massive burst, the light turned night into day. A few seconds later it faded.

The rain stopped.

Bell was holding back the Rains of Fire with a gigantic golden barrier stretching beyond the horizon. It was segmented into domes leading the rain through little tubes at the fringes, where it gushed into rivers and lakes, crevices and ravines. Additional, smaller fields protected the areas around where the Fires splashed onto the ground, to keep it from causing a flood.

Doors jumped open in the valley.

Bell panted, beads of toxic poison sweat trickling down her forehead. She weakly held herself up with her arms, trying not to collapse to the ground.

No wonder, judging from what she’d just done.

A soft squelching sound issued as Bell tried clumsily to stand back up. She finally managed, and proceeded to limp down the cliff.

“All done,” she wheezed. “Let’s go home.”

Theora hurried to Bell’s side to help her walk, the toxins searing themselves into Theora’s skin at the touch. “How did they know?”

Bell tapped ahead, looking like she really needed a bed. “It’s the last day of the month,” she murmured. “Last of the month. Day free of rain.”

“Day free of rain,” Theora echoed in a low voice.

Bell nodded. “To make visits and important errands.”

Giggles were carried up the mountain with the soft wind. Eventually, a child came into view, eyes bright upon seeing Bell, as if he knew exactly where to find her.

Bell gently pushed Theora off while the boy jumped. She quickly coated herself in a thin and dynamic barrier, and then caught him in a hug, shielded from her toxicity.

Judging from the pained frown on her face, this type of Skill was difficult to maintain. And yet, she smiled through it, even when four more children joined the fray and hugged Bell into a ball, also diligently shielding them from her tendrils with a thin layer of half-transparent barrier skin.

“I told you all, I need rest after summoning the barrier.” Her scolding voice was void of any real judgement.

“But we can never see you otherwise,” one with a particularly thick scarf said.

“Such is life, Xin,” Bell answered. “Seeing me is not important. Didn’t your mother read you my messages?”

An older girl pointed a finger at Bell’s face. “If it’s not important, then why are you smiling?”

“Yeah! Bell’s a big liar. She’s smiling ’cause she wants to see us.”

“Can we play with your hair?”

Bell moved her thick braid in front of her body. “You can play with my hair.”

A few adults trickled in soon-after, some of them had the courtesy to seem embarrassed at the forceful behaviour of the young ones, while others just grinned like Bell deserved it.

Bell was too tired to move, but she let them disentangle her braids and use the tendrils as jumping ropes and for other games the tendrils seemed very unlikely to be designed for.

“Hey, can I wrap this around your arm?”

Theora looked down into the eyes of a very little child with dark eyes, pale skin, and long, brown hair. They were holding the end of a tendril in one hand — the rest of it floated in the air, suggesting a trace of prior movement.

“Of course.” Theora sat down, pushed back her thick travelling attire, and offered herself to be played with as well. She was soon asked to play dead whenever they managed to hit her in the face with one of the tendril ends.

“Glad you were able to make it again,” an older woman said, talking to Bell. “I’m in contact with someone from the coast. They’ve been able to ferry in patients. Big undertaking, but it worked last month.”

“Glad to hear,” Bell said as her head got lightly tugged to the side from someone pulling a tendril.

It went on for a while; the adults chatting among each other while the children exerted far more energy than should be present in their little bodies. The gathering dissolved when it came time for some to take their midday naps. Theora watched them return to the village, while Bell had slumped on the ground from exhaustion.

“Do you want to go home and sleep, too?” Theora asked, kneeling next to her.

“Just give me a moment.” Bell seemed to be done for. Keeping the barrier up must have been just as exhausting as summoning it in the first place. She was still keeping up the shielding around her skin, so Theora gently poked Bell’s shoulder, saying, “I think you can turn that off now. They are all gone and safe.”

“Oh, right. Forgot.” Bell deactivated the Skills and took a deep breath in relief.

She didn’t make any attempts to get up, though, so Theora gently wrapped her arms around Bell’s shoulders and legs, acid burns steaming.

“What are you…”

“Do you mind?” Theora asked.

“N-No,” Bell let out. “But… you don’t have to…”

Bell seemed a bit too overwhelmed to speak properly, so Theora lifted her up to carry her down the path. Bell was trying her best to squirm and bend in a way to make the skin contact as light as possible, but it actually made carrying her more difficult. Theora had never realised it before, but Bell really did feel a lot like a gelatinous sack filled with water. She was bouncy and wobbly and soft.

After a while, Bell finally gave up. She properly tensed her body and hugged against Theora’s chest.

“Thanks,” Bell murmured.

That pretty much proved Isobel’s words true, from back then. You just have to cuddle all the worries out of her.

Slowly, they made their way down, passing by a glowing honey stream of rain being led into a river. Theora looked up; the funnel towered far above them, thick and strong and reaching the sky. There were dozens of them, as far as the eyes could see.

“How big is it?” Theora asked as she failed to discern the limit.

“Hm?” Bell asked. “What? Big, what?”

“The barrier. How far does it reach?”

Bell shrugged. The motion echoed through her body.

“Everywhere,” she said.


Theora pulled Bell a little closer, and got a mix between moan, sigh, and yelp in response.

“I hope you won’t have to carry me all the way back home.” Bell bit her lips. “I might be able to walk again soo—”

“Bell,” Theora said, gently squeezing her into silence, “I will carry you everywhere.”