As Randidly dropped toward the ground, Mrs. Hamilton continued to weave a web of razor-sharp wires around the spot where he would land. She was somewhat nervous witnessing his strange monstrous image take over his body, but even so, he was bound by Beryl’s Isolate. This was the best chance for them to strike, and Mrs. Hamilton wouldn’t let a chance of this magnitude slip through her fingers.
Even without any more aces up her sleeve, she could-
With heavy footsteps, Alana moved to stand beside Mrs. Hamilton. For several seconds, she was silent. Then she grinned and looked at the slowly falling form of Randidly Ghosthound in his new form. “You know… sometimes I wonder who tricked who with this fight…”
Mrs. Hamilton looked up sharply. “You think we will lose? That this form of his means he has broken out of Beryl’s Skill?”
“No, he’s still trapped,” Alana replied, almost helplessly. “But… yes, I think we will lose. You probably can’t feel it. Your understanding of images is still growing. Instead of working at it, you’ve been orchestrating every twist of this fight.
“But after being submerged in Helen’s image for so long… I can feel it. How something about him just changed. All this time, Randidly still saw us as Donnyton. The Donnyton he founded and nurtured. Perhaps unconsciously… he held back. Or his most dangerous instincts were sleeping. But now you took away that sight. His limiter was removed. All he sees now are enemies.”
For several seconds, Mrs. Hamilton considered Alana. Perhaps forcing her to the task of wearing down Helen was more mentally exhausting than Mrs. Hamilton had anticipated. Finally, Mrs. Hamilton spoke to the other woman in a rather dry tone to try and draw her back to concrete issues. “…you know he can’t see anything at all, right?”
“Is that so?” The corner of Alana’s mouth twisted upward. Then a wave of orange light exploded outward from her. Impossibly bright silver armor condensed around her body, illuminating the surrounding area. The wings on her helmet grew longer and more lifelike until they were beating softly over the two women’s heads and producing dozens of pearly feathers that fluttered down around them.
Before Mrs. Hamilton could even process the fact that Alana had been able to successfully manifest an image, another change dragged her attention sharply upward: the head of the monster version of Randidly snapped downward, locking onto Alana’s position. Even as he fell, his gaze remained fixed upon her.
“He can feel the image,” Alana said softly. “You can cut out everything else… but the power of the human spirit can invent things that aren’t even there. It’s magical, really.”
Narrowing her eyes, Mrs. Hamilton considered how to reply to this. Ultimately, however, she let the implicit criticism in Alana’s tone pass so she could focus on the positive. “You created an image. Excellent. While I distract him, you need to-”
“I understand why you are still missing it, so I’ll say it bluntly: you don’t have the capability to interfere in this last part of the fight. His kid gloves are off. If you attempt to interfere…” The incandescent valkyrie turned and regarded Mrs. Hamilton steadily. “…I will not be able to protect you.”
As Mrs. Hamilton froze, Alana continued to speak.
“I do not believe in fate or destiny. But I think part of what Randidly was trying to tell us was that images become a self-fulfilling prophecy: once they exist, they spread themselves endlessly and warp the world. Once he made this challenge about images, all of us would move toward that end… even if we struggled to avoid it.”
That finally shattered Mrs. Hamilton’s shock and gave her something to hold onto. “Great as he is, I believe we both know that Randidly Ghosthound doesn’t have the patience or the interest in manipulating such a large scale event to such a fine degree. He had no plan.”
Sighing, Alana turned back toward the accelerating monster. “Of course he didn’t
to do it. But what he was showing was that images infect everything; they speak with a universal language that we implicitly understand. They move through lines of emotion, culture, and symbology to exist. By seeing them, we are shaped. Which shapes the world, which shapes the image. We step into an endless cycle. Without owning and understanding our own image we propagate… we are destined to be victims.”
Mrs. Hamilton just looked at Alana. “This is surprisingly philosophical stuff, coming from you.”
“I had a lot of time to think, wasting time with Helen for so long.” Alana scratched her head. “Ah, hell, it’s hard to put into words. I’ll just say this: I think that there were a lot of lessons in this fight. You learned that tricks and shadow plays sometimes weren’t enough. Donny learned that he cannot protect everyone. The Cortez siblings probably learned how far they really are from being able to stand at the pinnacle of Donnyton. I bet their confidence will be shaken by how casually they were knocked out.
“Clarissa saw some hope of her dream of utilizing the elements. Decklan saw that Randidly could truly bleed, just like the rest of us. Paolo and Kayle both learned that the other isn’t invincible.”
“And you?” Mrs. Hamilton asked.
“This, obviously.” Alana gestured at herself in her brilliant splendor. “Which is the strangest of all; I could not have formed this image without spending so much time under the pressure of Helen’s Domain. Was it inevitable that I fight against her this whole time to maintain my strength?”
Then she shook her head. “Or is this just me wishing to be have been chosen, and that this all was just a roll of the dice? Either way, please step back. Take Beryl with you.”
“But his Skill-”
Alana’s eyes were a brilliant tangerine as she fixed Mrs. Hamilton with a sharp stare. “This isn’t your fight. The time limit of the Isolate Skill won’t become relevant. I doubt… this will last longer than a single clash. Two at most.”
Mrs. Hamilton wanted to say no. She wanted to deny what Alana was saying was true. But also, Mrs. Hamilton was tired and running low of Stamina and Mana. The ground beneath her feet was cracked in pitted. And the brave young man she had sought to protect for so long had already on this day been betrayed and now fell from the sky wearing a guise of a monster.
It was a mask they had given him. A mask of envy and awe and isolation.
Sometimes, it’s okay to feel old,
Mrs. Hamilton thought sadly. Then she turned away from the fight and used her wires to pull away the remaining wounded from the fractured arena.
When Randidly hit the ground, the arena proper collapsed into a pile of pale rubble. It also set off a chain reaction on the island in the middle of the quarry, sending bits of stone tumbling into the water. Alana stumbled from the impact, righting herself almost instantly as she prepared for his attack. But he hadn’t moved.
The dust cleared and revealed him standing on a platform of densely woven roots amongst the fractured arena. Even as the ground continued to shudder and give way, Randidly simply looked over at her. The monstrous black hole that functioned as his mouth curved into an arc.
His monstrous gaze made his reaction to her clear. And it was an accusation that Alana couldn’t deny after today. Now that she had felt the edge of what an image was, she could sense the depth of time and emotion that Randidly had put into refining this monster he now displayed. How he managed to move through his daily life without breaking under this weight was beyond Alana.
In addition, Alana admitted that it was also true that the brilliant image she was currently displaying wasn’t truly hers; much of the emotional weight she wielded to craft her shimmering armor and her wings were borrowed from Donnyton’s sorrow. Tens of thousands of individuals had clasped their hands tight and wished for Donnyton’s victory. That was the blade she now wielded.
Even as the watchers fled, they sent her their hopes and prayers.
A Valkyrie was born of that emotion, burning with the raw power of their belief. She raised her spear, considering the twisting and hideous visage in front of her.
Perhaps the most shocking part of this all was that even with her Perception Skill Hawkeye, Alana was unable to find any flaw with the illusion that Randidly had created. His image had become him, and it was out for blood.
We weren’t the only ones to learn in this challenge, were we?
Alana thought sadly.
Sometimes, things must be broken for us to grow. So let’s finish this. And hope that afterward… we can still speak as friends.
Above all, Alana had learned to rely on the basics while fighting. She had spent hours polishing her abilities in Donnyton, repeating the same seamless motions. Every blister was a hundred thousand thrusts, bound together and given a physical presence on her body. That was the reason that she had reached the apex of Donnyton. Alana Donal would not take shortcuts on the road to power.
So as she surged into motion, she combined her most reliable three Skills into her bread and butter attack: Heavy Blow, Herculean Strength, and Sun Strike. The spear became a flare and exploded into motion.
As though he was a terrifying inverted image of her, the grey wraith-like form of Randidly raised his left arm and met her attack directly on top of the of rubble the arena had left in the wake of its demise. At that moment, image and reality stopped mattering.
The terrible monster hated by nature was real. The determined valkyrie was real. Then those stopped mattering too, as they smashed into each other. What was left was only the thin boundary where their two existences encountered each other. The Valkyrie roared and the monster howled.
Both craved victory. But only one seized it.
Alana survived the first strike simply because the ground beneath her feet gave out almost immediately as they crossed spears. Instead of actually challenging Randidly directly, what ended up happy was she had thrown herself toward him like a baseball and he had smashed her backward.
As she straightened, stone support pillars collapsed around her. Even with her wings slowing her speed, it hurt to smash into the stands. Luckily they were completely abandoned at this point, but Alana rapidly realized that the hole she had created in the middle of them destabilized the structure more than she had anticipated.
Rather than ceasing after her momentum was dispersed, it appeared that the collapsing was accelerating. Soon, huge chunks of stone fell down toward her position.
Worse, when she blasted her way out of that death trap by rapidly expanding her wings, she found herself faced with a sliding and fractured battlefield. The concussive force of their meeting had cleared out a wide space that seemed relatively stable, but the rest of the island was suffering for it.
Behind her, the ground where the stands had pressed against the edge of the pond was already sinking into the water of the quarry. Cracks as thick as her fist crisscrossed the area in front of her toward that central area. Perhaps even more disturbing, the water of the quarry was… disappearing. The water level was falling at a visible pace.
Alana gritted her teeth.
We aren’t just sinking this island. We opened up a fucking sinkhole below the whole arena.
But for now, she ignored this impending crisis. Instead, she lowered her spear and rushed forward. Energy began to howl through the connection Randidly had established with her all those years ago. As she advanced, Alana felt a Skill forming around her, coming into being fully formed: Valkyrie’s Charge.
Her arms began to glow with bright orange power. The layer of wind and dust around her thickened as she strengthened her image, bit by bit.
Their spears clashed again. The Valkyrie ran up the hill and cut with the broken wind of a wasteland while the crowned monster coldly regarded her approach. The dark hole of its mouth widened and tasted her fear and Stamina. Then it struck.
Alana survived the second strike because her spear snapped like a twig after only a split second of pressure from the wickedly long claws of Randidly’s hand. Both were surprised by this and sped past each before they could recover.
Or at least Alana had assumed so. The speed at which they were operating was far beyond any fight that she had participated in previously.
Yet as she straightened, her glowing armor flickered and shuddered. The thickness of her image dropped to the level that it only maintained its power a small distance away from her skin. In horror, Alana looked down and realized that her left shoulder had almost been torn off. The jagged marks of Randidly’s claw made it look like a shark had taken a giant bite out of her.
Thin lines of blood wound up the choppy ridges of her flesh and flowed down toward her twitching left hand.
Alana’s mouth firmed into a line. Even as the image she had inherited from the people’s will began to fall to pieces, she smashed those remaining prayers with her will and created a gleaming spear. Before she could regret it, her gaze found Randidly’s. Tangerine eyes locked onto dark empty sockets.
As she pressed further and further, the image around Alana recovered. A Valkyrie, but one questing with a very specific purpose. To guide the king who refused to die finally to Valhalla. The Skill she had previously used reacted immediately, rising to her need. After it evolved, she used Blitz of the Wayfaring Valkyrie.
Their spears met in silence this time.
If Helen’s image was the sea and Alana’s image was a suit of armor, Randidly’s image was a sharp blade bared to the sky. He had condensed it into a physical form. As they moved again to strike at each other, he easily cut through her orange winds and met her spear.
The Valkyrie started this journey at the behest of her duty, but now she simply sought to give this cursed king peace.
The monster was a child crying alone in the dark as the world burned to ash around him. The force of the impression hit Alana like a physical weight.
Randidly’s image was simple and vast. The child and the ashes of a collapsing world. There were no true answers in the image, but there were not questions that needed to be answered so that it could be understood. It simply was.
In the face of that powerful image, Alana couldn’t help but soften.
Is bearing this horror the price you had to pay for your power? Randidly, I… I would…
That softness was the reasons Alana survived the third strike.
The quarry did not soften and therefore did not survive. Land and water were split in half and then sucked into the deep darkness of the Earth’s embrace.