As it had been the past four days, Donnyton was eerily silent. Perhaps double as many people were active as there had been previously, although it was only a few minutes past dawn, but they all moved with frowns and a cloak of purpose. Perhaps some would write it off as a function of the early hour, but Alana knew that the day would drag on and the silence would remain.
Seriously, if the challenge bothered you so much, just say something about it, Alana thought grumpily. Much better than reflecting on her own feelings, she could direct her ire outward and feel more like herself.
Had it been the Alana of a week ago, she would have been delighted in the increased focus. It would have been the perfect opportunity to push the Squaders harder in their training. With this united grim purpose, the efficacy of Alana’s guidance would have doubled.
But now that she had tried and failed for several nights in a row to conjure her own image…
Alana pressed her eyes shut. I’m making this too difficult for myself. All of these other concerns are secondary. Even if I don’t have an image, I can go out and fight for Donnyton. I am Donnyton’s spear. I’ll fight and I’ll fight, and I’ll be damned if I don’t manage to produce a powerful image for all the people who are relying on me…
Okay, okay, you are going to be talking to people other than Raina. Alana slapped her shoulders, deriving a certain pleasure from the sharp sting of her skin. They don’t… they don’t see me like that. I have to be myself. No more pity parties.
Alana wasn’t sure when it happened, but over the past several months she had grown to consider Raina one of her best friends. The two women were not alike at all. Basically, the only thing they had in common was the view from their bedrooms. And yet now they made a point to have breakfast together every morning.
As to why, Alana just shrugged. She enjoyed it. She didn’t need to make it any more complicated than that.
The Squaders that would be heading North with Alana knew their business, so she didn’t bother meeting with them prior to departure. Everyone had their own goodbyes to say. The challenge against Randidly had been a reminder of their own mortality. As such, and as this mission into Zone Eleven might last for several months, it was better to leave nothing up to chance.
Rather than just wandering around, Alana went directly to meet Mrs. Hamilton. Although her image was stubbornly refusing to appear, Alana’s vast amount of mental energy enabled her to now sense individuals who were quite some distance away. After about ten minutes, Alana climbed the bluff and stood next to Mrs. Hamilton, who looked down at the sinkhole with arms akimbo.
Alana followed the other woman’s gaze. The sinkhole remained largely untouched after Donnyton’s best stone mages had worked to reinforce the edges of it. And from the initial estimates, the hole was extremely deep. So much so that any serious expedition to plumb its depths had been put on hold for the moment.
Around the almost half-kilometer in diameter sinkhole, hundreds of Squaders trained furiously. From this height, their rapidly flailing limbs looked rather amusing.
But even from this far away, their determination was clear. The whole area was filled with the raw emotion that they poured into this effort. It was the same emotion that silenced them. It hung thick and clinging over the entire town.
It was a feeling that they couldn’t shake. More than the training itself, the suffocating feeling in the air, that mirrored the feeling in Alana’s chest a little too closely for her comfort, was created by a new addition that now sat suspended in the center of the huge sinkhole.
A thick web of roots snaked out from six points of the sinkhole’s edge, meeting in the exact middle. At that point, the roots wrapped around each other into a thick platform, allowing a tall wooden monolith to thrust upward toward the sky. Thick glowing runes danced across that monolith, throwing off an oppressive aura that was very similar to Randidly Ghosthound’s Cruel Indignation of Yggdrasil. Even from this distance, Alana felt a slight headache brewing as she looked at it.
Upon the one side of the monolith, there were also two phrases: “Here lies the pride of Donnyton. Do not forget this lesson.”
No name was associated with the phrases, but the with the context of the roots and that mental strain, very few people in Donnyton would question from whom the monolith had come.
Alana glanced at Mrs. Hamilton. “A little dramatic, don’t you think?”
“Anything less dramatic would have felt like an insult,” Mrs. Hamilton replied breezily, not even attempt to deny that it had been her who had made the monolith and framed Randidly. “Besides, it’s had quite the effect, hasn’t it?”
Shaking her head, Alana didn’t bother to continue down that track. It would remind her of her own struggles. Rather than being discouraged by the fact that her plans to defeat Randidly had failed, Mrs. Hamilton seemed rather invigorated in the aftermath. In fact, her cheeks glowed with healthy color. It was like the defeat had added ten years onto her lifespan.
Meanwhile, Alana felt like a stone rod had been inconspicuously slid into her ribcage. Every now and again her lungs would expand a little too far and the brush against that foreign stone would send a little jolt through her core.
Alana doggedly sorted away her emotions and spoke again. “And the Engraving? How did you manage to mimic the effect so closely?”
Mrs. Hamilton smiled at her. “I will tell you, but this needs to stay between us.”
After Alana nodded seriously, Mrs. Hamilton continued. “I… ate a fruit. A very dangerous fruit.”
“How dangerous?” Alana asked.
Mrs. Hamilton considered that. Some of the joviality left her face. “...if word of these fruits got out… I have no doubt that the other Zones would go to war for them. Maybe not yet. But soon, when growth begins to stagnate and the threat of monsters grows once more…”
Alana’s eyes narrowed. “There are more fruits?”
Mrs. Hamilton smiled sweetly. “Not for us, no. I think the biggest lesson I learned from this fight… is that Randidly wasn’t really worried about what we can do. No, it seemed that his gaze was far in the future… to the fight that our children’s great-grandchildren will fight. And that, I find, makes his concerns all the more salient.”
The two women looked down at the furiously training Squads of Donnyton. Alana cleared her throat. “I also hear that even our experts were unable to stabilize the area around the sinkhole totally. And quite a few of those mages have been working furiously to prevent it from expanding. Hopefully… their tasks succeeds.”
“Ha!” Mrs. Hamilton barked out a laugh. Then she playfully shoved Alana. “Sometimes you are too sharp for your own good. I’m sure that the efforts of our best mages will result in… fruitful results. It’s all a matter of laying the groundwork now.”
Alana shook her head, unable to keep the smile from her face. But then her expression turned extremely serious as she produced the sketch from her ring and handed it to Mrs. Hamilton. “Raina asked me to give this to you. Unfortunately, her wounds-”
“I get it, I understand that we are destined to never get along.” Mrs. Hamilton flapped her hand. Then she considered Alana. “But I’m endlessly fascinated by the fact you two get along so well.”
“Why?” Alana asked. “I may be Donnyton’s spear, but I do enjoy more sensitive pursuits as well. Her drawings-”
“No, no, not that.” Shaking her head, Mrs. Hamilton stored away the drawing. She patted her interspatial ring in satisfaction. “Because I have no doubt that she badgered you about your struggles with condensing an image. Likely she brought up Randidly as well.”
Alana coughed awkwardly. She wondered what sort of expression her face was making.
Mrs. Hamilton laughed awkwardly. “See? You can’t have thought we didn’t notice. Hide in your tent all you want, that energy you throw off shouts your mental state to the world. Honestly, I don’t know why you are so wound up over it. It’s only been four days. And although Paolo and Kayle can sometimes cause an image to appear when they are using Skills, it's still far from the raw strength you can generate with your orange wind.”
“But I’m Donnyton’s spear,” Alana said quietly. “Even if I know I’m putting too much pressure on myself… I cannot help it. I need to lead the charge. If not me, then who?”
Mrs. Hamilton sighed and then pointed toward the wooden monolith. “Careful. ‘Here lies Donnyton’s pride. Don’t forget this lesson.’ To quote a much pithier individual than me.”
“Your jokes are extremely aggravating sometimes.” Rolling her eyes, Alana turned away and looked toward the base of the bluff on which they were standing. Sam, sunburnt and carrying two heavy hammers, steadily ascended toward them. Noting with bemusement that Alana seemed done with this line of discussion, Mrs. Hamilton didn’t say anything further.
When Sam arrived at the top of the hill, he scowled at them both. “Well? Are we ready to leave? I don’t want to waste much time. I have a lot of work to do.”
Although Paolo and Kayle were the two that had made the most progress in terms of manifesting images, Alana secretly believed that Sam was the one that had benefited the most in the wake of Randidly’s challenge. The air around him positively hummed with his razor sharp focus. His will was becoming increasingly palpable.
“Hello, Sam, I’m glad to see you are in a good mood.” Mrs. Hamilton said dryly. Below them, the rest of the expedition slowly gathered, chatting and stretching. But as she studied the group, Mrs. Hamilton frowned. “Didn’t you add someone last minute? Who is it?”
Sam’s frown actually twitched into something resembling a smile for a split second. “Some girl of Ed’s. Apparently, she has made herself so indispensable to him that Bekany is getting jealous of all the time that they spend together. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have let her go.”
“Her name?” Mrs. Hamilton sharply asked. “Although this isn’t exactly a secret mission, I would prefer to know who she is.”
“You don’t think we can handle ourselves?” Alana asked sourly. But Mrs. Hamilton just gave her a suspicious look that left Alana speechless.
I may be struggling with images, but I can still lift a spear...
Sam thought about it for a second. Then he pointed to a slender figuring hurrying to join the casual crowd below. Out of everyone who had gathered, this teenage girl was the only one who didn’t store everything in her interspatial ring; she was wearing a rather large backpack. “I believe her name is Mareen. Ed recruited her out of the Orchard.”
Chuckling, Mrs. Hamilton nodded as she looked down at the young woman. “Ah… interesting. Very interesting.”
Then she turned to Alana and smiled. “Well, well, Miss Spear of Donnyton. Are you ready to depart?”