The feeling was kinda like the taste of bad tequila sticking in her throat. No matter how many times Alana released a breath, she couldn’t shake it. Her instincts informed her matter of factly it was a bad feeling, but it was really just… tight. Alana’s iron control bound it in place, keeping it from being a big deal.
In the predawn light, Alana used even strokes to brush Reina’s hair. The filtered sunlight from the tall windows caused the other woman’s locks to glimmer, revealing the rich and complex color that belied her dark hair. While it was calming, the even motions weren’t giving her the usual sense of no strings attached bliss.
Alana was careful to keep her breathing soft and quiet, even though she vehemently attempted to activate her diaphragm and expunge the peculiar knot of tension that constantly nagged at the edges of her attention. Part of her thought that the lack of success meant she should stop trying to force it. Yet she still clicked her teeth together and ruthlessly expanded her ribcage in fruitless attempts to dislodge it.
What is wrong with me? Alana wondered. This… this isn’t me. I’m Donnyton’s fighter. Even if images aren’t simply another battle… why am I losing so badly? This is so stupid.
Raina’s been rubbing off on me. I’ve become practically maudlin around her.
Raina sighed and looked meaningfully up at Alana. “Do you really have to go?”
A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of Alana’s mouth as she felt Raina, consciously or not, activated some of her charm when she asked the question. At the moment, it was a welcome distraction from the unstable and contradictory currents of emotion that Alana’s mind had devolved rapidly into over the last four days.
If nothing else, it was a good sign that Raina’s mental trauma from the challenge against Randidly was slowly starting to heal. Very few things had pierced through Alana’s own funk, but how strongly Raina had been affected had grabbed her attention. The long shadow cast by Randidly was starting to fade. “Of course. If not me, I can’t be sure that we will be able to help Zone Eleven. Besides… this will be good training for myself. I’ve been feeling a bit… restless the past few days.”
“And what about your oh so precious training sessions?” Raina asked.
Alana waved her hand while trying to keep the motion light and careless. “Paolo and Kayle will manage without me. Even if they don’t want to, their competitive edge will make them go all out.”
After nodding meekly, Raina said nothing further. The two women remained silently in their positions, Alana brushing while Raina sat, for the next ten or so minutes. Alana gritted her teeth and forced herself to enjoy it. She should be savoring it. It would be the last time they had this small comfort for several months, after all.
Alana was not currently upset that she hadn’t been able to face Randidly in the prior challenge. No, she was quite proud of her ability to force three blows out of him while he was in that hyper-powerful state. The problem started the night after the challenge.
No, even that was wrong. The night after the challenge she furiously inscribed into her soul the feeling of channeling all those hopes and images fed into her by Donnyton. That experience of transcending… she memorized its every corner. She was like a wide river basin, prepared to bring a vast flood of water toward the sea.
When she woke up the next morning, the only feeling that remained was a metaphysical dehydration. No more spiritual fluid flowed into Alana from Donnyton’s people. She was… empty. The feeling had vanished. It had left her so aggravated Alana had to consciously relax her jaw several times over the past four days in order to not grind her teeth to dust.
After being the most powerful person in Donnyton for so long, this struggle made her feel weak.
It was a dumb thing to panic over. The past four days without any progress in the area of images exacerbated that foolish panic. It was even more foolish to expect to master something in four days that Randidly took months, at least, in which to grow proficient. Her current progress was more than enough.
But without a solid counterfactual, that seed of panic had grown fat and poisonous in the back of her mind. Her anger and frustration was a vicious cherry red poker prepared to burn away the rot, but she couldn’t pin the emotion down enough to eliminate the remaining panic. Some always seemed to squirt away.
Until she could finally get the knack of making an image down, Alana suspected that it would remain as slippery as a muddy eel.
Getting out of Donnyton… might be good for me. Alana thought.
Later today, Alana would depart with Sam and a group of fifty elite individuals from Donnyton to head toward Zone Eleven and assist with their rampant monster problem. The request from Zone Eleven could be considered a godsend, for both parties. Zone Eleven needed help to prevent the greatest monster horde Earth had ever seen and Donnyton needed a way in the wake of their public draw with Randidly to prove their strength.
Both to the world and to themselves.
Alana was quickly selected to lead the expedition. She took the news stoically when she had been informed, and then returned to the darkness of her tent. Very rarely over the past four days had Alana left her tent. For training reasons. She was the peak of Donnyton strength, its invincible spear, the teacher that led them all.
Yet since those light-headed hours in the early morning after facing Randidly, an image had refused to manifest for her. That truth was an unavoidable plague upon her mind. While Kayle, Paolo, and Dozer all slowly gathered their strength and created more and more detailed images, Alana found… she could create nothing.
It’s only been four days, Alana rumbled at herself. Yet her thoughts continued to scurry around the reality of the situation.
She was an empty riverbed. The substance of her Soulspace became dry and rutted. That dark panic whispered that this would become a long term problem. If she didn’t solve it immediately, there would be consequences.
Again… It’s been four days… Alana thought tiredly as she set her brush down. What can one person accomplish in four days?
Randidly took only a single day to break the spirit of Donnyton and leave without a backward glance.
Donnyton needed her, more than ever, and she could do nothing. So in some ways, it was a relief to leave Donnyton now. In other ways, it felt like she was running away.
While Alana’s body continued to sit in silent struggle, Raina interrupted the quiet between them. “... You know, these days have been such a nice break for me. This was the perfect excuse to take some days off of work. I’ve even made some recent sketches. It’s one of the few things I can safely do as an ‘invalid’, teehee. Would you like to see them before you go?”
“Of course,” Alana said simply with a completely even and neutral breath. Although she knew that it was likely the fear and pressure itself that had kept her from being able to condense an image from the abundant mental energy she produced, it was difficult to simply be rid of it.
Even now, my mind is running around in circles, Alana sighed inwardly.
Raina hopped up enthusiastically and rolled across her bed to the desk at the far side. When she reached it, she pulled out a long drawer and produced several thin pieces of sketch paper. With an easy smile, Alana accepted them and began to look through them.
The first, to Alana’s embarrassment, was a portrait of her staring meaningfully out a window. Even more strange was the fact that she was not wearing her armor or carrying a spear. At the moment, she was currently wearing the exact clothes that could be seen in the sketch. She looked… fragile. Vulnerable.
Alana looked at Raina and curled up the corner of her lip. “Only you would dare depict me like this.”
“Well, you so rarely try to be anything but a spear,” Raina said as she rolled her eyes. She picked up a lacy pillow and flung it at Alana. “Are our breakfasts the only time you relax? Both you and Donnyton would do well to remember you aren’t just a fighter.”
Shaking her head, Alana looked at the next picture. This one gave her pause for a long time.
It was a picture of just a silhouette glancing back over his shoulder toward the viewer. In the background to the figure’s left was a giant tree that was so large it couldn’t be contained by the thin paper. To the man’s right was a twisted monster with hideous claws. Of the silhouette, no details were provided; he was simply done in shadow. All of the detail was given to the two images in the background.
For all that, it was immediately clear who the figure was. It was a man who cast a very long shadow.
Alana released a breath. “Have you shown this to Mrs. Hamilton?”
Raina shook her head. “No, but I’d heard she was scrambling to find anyone who could capture the feeling of Randidly’s two images. I sorta did it on a whim. When I’m feeling well enough, I’ll visit and give the sketch to her.”
Sighing, Alana put the sketch into her interspatial ring. “...’when you are well enough’, huh. Maybe it’s just better that I give it to her before I leave today.”
Laughing, Raina didn’t bother to argue. Both knew that Raina’s avoidance of Mrs. Hamilton wasn’t something that could be overcome by mere whims. Only at official Donnyton events would the two cross paths. Feeling rather helpless in the face of Raina’s straightforward dislike of Mrs. Hamilton, Alana continued to look at the other sketches.
The third picture showed dozens of bodies, reaching toward the sky and waving their fists in their fervor. The energy captured in the sketch was palpable. As Alana looked at it, she felt the familiar tingle of pride as she remembered all of that hope and belief flowing through her body to fight against Randidly. That same feeling she spent at least an hour every night trying to capture since then-
Focus. Don’t let it distract you. It will solve itself.
It has to.
And the last picture…
A Valkyrie and a monster crossed spears in a vast and war-torn battlefield. It was a moment frozen in time from her memory, somehow made perfectly manifest on the page. And it felt so incredibly distant.
Alana’s breath hitched in her throat. The sour abscess of panic became just a small amount more swollen, giving her internal organs less and less room to breathe.
“You don’t have to hide it, you know,” Raina said softly. “We all know… or we can guess. You were the one closest to Randidly. So the fact that he abandoned Donnyton… it hurt, didn’t it? There’s no shame in that.”
Alana kept her mouth shut. Her current emotions weren’t about that at all. It had hurt, sure. But right now… it was hard to feel any pain. If she felt pain, wouldn’t that make finding her image easier? She wished for pain. The finally she could just force the image out and be done with all of this disgusting self-pity.
If her mouth opened right now, nothing would come out. Her tongue would just sit there. This wasn’t about Randidly. It was just the constant irritation that she was missing something to do with images.
After coughing and licking her lips, Alana refocused on the sketches and said. “...you are getting much better. Your lines are smooth and flowing. Honestly, this is good enough to be featured in an old Earth art museum.”
Raina watched Alana, who kept her gaze fixed on the sketches. Then her expression softened, and she said nothing about the abrupt change in topic. Instead, Raina laughed softly and said. “Thanks, but I know I’m not that good. There are several people in Franksburg who can produce even better artwork than me. Singing is still where I do my best work.”
“You definitely are a phenomenal singer,” Alana said, easing quickly into the task of talking about someone else. “But I’m not kidding. Although you might not guess it, my undergraduate degree was in art history. I was going to finish my Doctoral thesis, if not for the System arriving. So when I say you are good… you are good.”
Raina blinked. “Alaina… we’ve probably had breakfast together for the last six months? Ever since we discovered we were neighbors?”
Alana nodded slowly, wondering where this was going.
“...and in that entire time, you have never talked about your past. This calls for a celebration! You majored in art history? Why? Was it due to a dare? Ooo, was it about chasing a boy?” Raina laughed.
With a grimace, Alana realized she had somehow walked right around toward talking about herself again. But she supposed this wasn’t a very dangerous subject. “Yes, the grand spear of Donnyton, an art history major… No dares, no boys. Ha! That’s a pretty accurate description of my childhood... I grew up in a very strict household. Both my parents worked for the military. My father for the marines, my mom at the pentagon. Pretty typical conservative family. So when I was finally independent…”
Alana shrugged. What had she thought? “It was… just my way of rebelling I guess. I wanted to be more than the same tired justfications of my parents. Social issues… they didn’t come up very often in our house’s political discussion. And the more I saw of the world the more questions I had that neither of my parents were willing to answer.”
Raina blinked and studied Alana for a split second. It was clear from the softening around her eyes that she was about to shift the tenor of the discussion. For which, Alana was very grateful. “So the reason you are so good at training… was that because of your family?”
To that, Alana laughed. “Unfortunately so, yes. Until I was 18, I ran four miles every morning with my father. In all weather conditions, no matter what else was going on in my life… I could always count on him softly knocking on my door at 5:30.
“After I moved out… we became more distant. I volunteered, got more involved with groups on campus, registered as a Democrat…” Alana looked toward the window. “By the time the System arrived, we were barely on speaking terms. And my mother got transferred away from D.C., so although I looked, I didn’t find any trace of them when Zone 1 arrived… It sucks, but sometimes you just need to accept that relationships change. And not always for the better.”
Then Alana shook her head. “Ah, sorry. I have no idea why I said that.”
Raina reached up and gently touched Alana’s shoulder without saying anything. Unsure of what to do, Alana shook her head and offered the three remaining drawings back to Raina. She took the first two but pressed the final picture of the final clash against Randidly into Alana’s hand. “Keep it.”
“I’m not this… valkyrie you drew.” Alana said stiffly.
The smile Raina flashed in return was radiant and kind. “Of course you are not. You are Alana. But Alana… you are also the only one of us who could ever fight him like that. That hasn’t changed. You are really, really strong.”
Am I? Alana wondered. The rest of their goodbyes faded to a soft buzzing, and as Alana rested her chin against Raina’s shoulder during their hug, her eyes were clouded.