“When I suggested we take a walk, I really meant to walk, not climb,” I said as we finished scaling the northern hillside of Cragstead. My hands gripping a rock on the top of the steep hillside and my foot lodged in a steady foothold, I pushed myself one last time and reached the top. There was nothing up here on the hill aside from some snow-covered rocks and a few scraggly looking trees. Unprotected by the wind at this height, it whipped wildly all around us. My skin prickled, and I immediately wished I had brought a warmer cloak.
Alena tossed her staff up to the top and ascended the last steep step. She placed her hands on her small hips. “I know, I know,” she started to reply between labored breaths, “I just wanted to make sure that no one gets sent to rejoin the eternal alchemy. Just in case.”
Resting a hand on my axe’s pommel, I flashed her an exasperated glance. “Why would you say tha-?”
“At least not intentionally,” she interrupted.
“What do you mean by that?”
A look of panic flashed in Alena’s eyes for a moment but then it was gone. “I mean I haven’t seen you use your abilities much, if at all in the past, and it got me thinking.”
“About what exactly?”
“About why,” Alena replied. “Why don’t you use your abilities?”
“They sort of frighten me a little,” I confessed, and then quickly added, “don’t tell anyone I said that.”
Alena’s eyes grew wider than I had ever seen. “O-oh, I see. Well, if I can be perfectly honest, in the cave when you,” she made a gesture with her hand, “I was a little scared too. I’d never seen you use your abilities so intensely before. But when I had time to think about it, I realized my fear stemmed from never having been exposed to your blood magic before.”
“I never had any training. No one to guide me,” I explained. “I don’t understand how I can do what I do. It’s like I have this gift, but no one gave me the manual, and I’m a little hesitant to read it. Besides, I’m having these weird panic attacks-.”
“Panic attacks, eh?” Alena planted her staff in a deep pile of snow next to a small boulder. “Well, we don’t always get a manual, and when we don’t, it’s time to test and reverse engineer!” Her ears perked up, she clasped her little hands together and rubbed them eagerly.
I narrowed my eyes at her, a little unsure of this new side I was seeing. “I’m not sure I like being referred to as a test subject.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” Alena assured me. “So why don’t we start with the panic attacks. What happens?”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Besides feeling like my heart is going to burst from my chest and run all over Tyria?” I uttered a wry chuckle. “I get really cold. Not like being out here in the cold Shiverpeak air. It’s a chill deep down in my bones.”
“Interesting.” Alena made a thoughtful noise as she studied me. “And what do you do when that happens?”
“I take a little time to steady my breathing and meditate,” I replied.
“I see,” the asura replied as she strolled around the hilltop and taking in the surroundings. She hopped up on the small boulder and sat down cross-legged. As she sat smiling at me, there was something pulling at my attention: a simple shift in the air that sent shivers down my spine.
Spinning around, I reached for my axe. I hadn’t pulled it from its holster before I was met with a hulking mass of frosted muscle and sinew. I was face to face with the golem for half a moment before it knocked me onto my back. Even though there was ample snow on the ground, it did nothing to break my fall.
Wiping snow from my face, I scrambled to my feet. My legs shook from the surprise attack, as if the ground was quaking. “What the– Alena,” I managed to get out between labored breaths. I clutched at my chest, my heart taking off into a sprint as an icy chill build up underneath. “What in Grenth’s name are you doing?”
Alena didn’t reply, and instead reached over and pulled her staff from the snow.
I didn’t have a chance to repeat the question. Her golem came back for me, its huge, blunt limbs raised and ready to strike. Finally pulling my axe free from its holster, I swept it upwards to meet the creature’s meaty limb. The golem was surprisingly strong, and I was forced to let his attack glance off the side of my axe so I could maneuver out of the way.
A sharp pain tore up the back of my left leg and I let out a cry. A bone minion had sunk its unearthly sharp teeth deep into my calf and blood began to soak through my leggings. I swung my axe downward, lodging the blade in its skull. It let out piercing shriek as I pulled the blade from its skull, and with the flat side of my axe, swatted it away.
“Why are you doing this,” I demanded, reaching for my wound. When I pulled my hand away, it was smeared with blood. The cold bit at me from inside at the sight of my own blood. Anger and fear took hold, pulling me in different directions. I wanted to lash out and fight, but I was also afraid and wanted to run.
“I’m trying to induce a panic attack. I want to see what happens,” Alena explained in a tone so matter-of-fact, that it borderlined on creepy.
“But you already asked me what happens!”
“As the subject in the middle of the problem, you may not be able to detect what’s going on in its entirety. A scientist needs to be able to study its subject’s reaction to tests and extrapolate date from the results,” she said before sweeping her hand in my direction. A large sigil appeared under my feet, so I tucked into a roll and dodged out of the way, but not soon enough. The sigil area exploded into a low cloud of green, and pain shot up through my right foot. I let out a cry of pain laced with frustration as I tried to get to my feet.
Two more bone minions made their way towards me, kicking up snow behind them and leaving a cloud in their wake. I struggled standing on my crippled leg. As the golem resumed its attack, I readied to counter, but I nearly fell over. An experiment or not, this was crazy, and for a moment, I reconsidered my decision to bring Alena back.
“Watching this is hurting me a lot more than it’s hurting you,” Alena tried to assure me.
I shot her a murderous glance and grumbled, “I doubt that.”
Despite the cold in the night air, I felt a sharp cold take root in my chest and spread, and immediately I knew I was having another attack. There was no time to stop and try to calm myself. I had to keep fighting, and once things were over, Alena and I would have serious words.
“Alena, stop this, please!”
“We need to see this through,” she insisted.
Alena’s minions surrounded me and they leapt up, baring their teeth and swiping at me with their claws. I could barely stand on my wounded leg and was growing weak from the energy I had already spent, and I feared it would only be a matter of time before they overcame me if I didn’t do anything. I decided to give in and like a bursting dam, I let my senses loose as I threw my axe towards the charging golem. Claws of green energy tore into its flesh, but did not stop the beast. Unable to get out of the way in time, I called to the energy inside and felt myself retreat into the shadows. I reached out, inflicting fear upon the golem, and it retreated, giving me an opportunity to finish off the other minions.
“Ah-ha!” Alena exclaimed from the rock she was perched on. “C’mere Gordo,” she said aside to her golem. The creature turned its attention from me and took its place at its mistress’ side.
“Ah-ha?” I mimicked, flashing the asura a pained glance.
“I believe I was successful in triggering an attack,” Alena pointed out, clapping her hands together. “How did you feel when it happened? When did you feel your stress levels start to spike? What was going through your mind when it was happening? Any unusual tastes in your mouth?”
I pushed my battered self up and managed to get to my feet. Every part of me hurt, even parts I didn’t know could hurt. “Unusual tastes? Alena what in the Underworld was this all about? Was this really necessary,” I pressed, as I secured my axe back on my hip.
“Yes, this was very necessary. I wanted to see if I could induce a panic attack and then see if you could break through it without the need for meditation. Let’s face it, your opponent isn’t going to give you an opportunity to gather yourself,” Alena said. “Oh, and as far as unusual tastes, Plixx, a friend of mine, claimed he tasted purple for the first few years while he was getting used to his new elemental abilities. It was worse when he bottled them up.” Alena hopped off of the rock and gestured with her staff as she spoke. “I think that’s part of your problem. Once you let go, did you feel better?”
I thought for a moment as I sensed my own heartbeat start to slow and the cold recede. “You know, I think so.”
“That is definitely worth noting,” Alena said as she gestured to me with her staff.
“But– purple?” I must have had a mask of confusion plastered on my face, because Alena assured me it was the truth.
“I swear by the Eternal Alchemy,” she said.
“So,” I began, gesturing lethargically around us, “was this all really in the name of science?”
She nodded and flashed me a toothy smile. “And friendship.”