When my consciousness started returning, I felt strong arms holding me upright. Even with my eyes closed, everything seemed slow, hazy and out of focus to my other senses. I was leaning against someone whose torso was covered in cold metal plates. I couldn't grasp any feeling in my numb fingers and toes, which was why I could not stand on my own even though I was mostly sentient. I struggled to open my sticky eyes, and weakly looked up at the person holding me.
Their narrow eyes were a deep coffee brown, their skin tanned, wild chestnut brown hair fell across their soft, yet impassive face, and they had three thin plaits on either side of their head. They were wearing a shawl of thick fur, and a teal and navy blue tartan kilt, acting as a belt for their brown woollen trousers. They seemed young, and weren't much taller than me (making them short). Whatever the case, I didn't exactly recognise them, and yet they somehow seemed familiar.
"...Who are you?" I managed to whisper with my raspy, dry voice. Their eyes widened briefly, before we heard cracking, and the sound of glass shattering. I felt myself being hoisted upwards and dragged away by the person holding me, hearing the voice of a young boy yelping and the dull thud of something hitting the ground.
"Arthur!" called a voice. I looked from behind the person securing me to see a young man wearing glasses, dressed in a white lab coat with long silver hair running up to us--no, to the blond boy in the red tunic who had fallen through the ceiling. A red-haired woman in heavy silver armour was close behind him, shield raised and acting as the rear guard.
The woman's crimson eyes caught ours as the silver-haired man, presumably a paramedic of some sort, inspected the boy for any potential injuries. She gasped, "An explorer!"
"Huh?" The boy, still with a hand against his head from the fall, turned and looked at us, just as the sound of heavy banging that shook the ground itself became audible.
"It's back!" exclaimed the medic, helping the boy up and the woman moving towards us. The person I woke up to suddenly shoved me behind them, letting me see the thick plait that cascaded down to their thighs. Given that evidence, I was pretty sure I could guess that person to be a woman, albeit a very masculine one.
At that moment, a roar that sounded almost human echoed in the metallic chamber we were in, and the wall to our right was blown apart by the creature making the noise. It seemed to be a two-legged camel-like creature, having the long tail and body structure of a dinosaur of sorts, minus the reptilian scales.
It stood imposingly in front of us, rearing itself up and roaring again. The brown-haired woman had her spear unsheathed and raised in front of her in a flash, an arm protectively held before me.
But I knew, I was not some damsel in distress to be protected. Not on my watch!
"So, they've managed to get inside," I heard myself mutter curtly, and I moved beside the woman. I turned the valve on the outfit that reminded me of a spacesuit without a helmet, and it burst apart. Underneath, I was wearing a white shirt under a denim dress, which doubled as overalls, and a small red tie around my collar. The creature roared at me. I took out my black pistol and shot it in the head. It screamed in pain, but otherwise didn't show much of a reaction to the high-speed bullets.
"Who ARE you?!" asked the medic. I ignored him.
"We'll talk later! Here it comes!" the redhead warned.
They took a battle formation around me, the short woman moving to the front with them. The redhead was beside her, and the medic opposite. I was on the back line, next to the young boy, who I now noticed had some strange chunky metal gauntlet on his left hand.
The man placed his hand on the shoulder of the woman with the shield, murmuring something, the redhead smirking confidently as he did. The shorter woman took a low, crouching stance, eyes closed and seemingly focused on something. The boy's gauntlet whirred, and a burst of fire exploded on the creature. In response, it threw its head down at the still woman, but the redhead protected her with her large shield, then countered with a lunge from her broadsword.
"You alright?" she asked.
I shot the beast again, but with minimal reaction. An idea started to form, and I decided to aim for the head. It screeched in pain and shook violently. My gun clicking loudly, I quickly replaced my previous bullet with one containing a paralytic neurotoxin, the shot it again. Its neck went rigid and cramped. It tried to turn, but it might as well have been restrained by a steel cage.
"Well done! You've bound the head!" congratulated the medic, slashing at the beast with his rapier in turn.
"FIRE!" yelled the boy beside me. His gauntlet whirred electrically, and scarlet flames burst from one of the three slots and raged towards the beast. The fire licked away at its flesh, but it could not even roar with its tetanoid paralysis.
The androgynous woman, who barely moments earlier had been completely still, suddenly launched herself at the monster and impaled it through the chest. The crimson tip bursting out the other side, before she twisted it, then forcefully slashed outwards, partially slicing the beast in half. It fell, a dark red puddle rapidly growing underneath it.
She stood up straight and slashed her blade through the air, ridding it of the blood and spraying it along the cold, metal floor, crimson hitting azure. She turned back and picked up the leather sheath for the spearhead, sliding it on as if that blade had chopped nothing more than wood.
She faced me, face unreadable, and I vaguely noted the other three newcomers examining the beast. I lowered my head, the wearing away of adrenaline letting the haziness return with a vengeance.
"What is your name?" I heard a low voice, with a strong accent I recognised as Scottish, ask me. I looked up to see the masculine woman staring at me, but not in a way that seemed impulsive. Her posture, turned away from me, actually indicated rude disinterest.
"I'm... Frederica," I eventually murmured in reply, the name appearing out of my fuzzy mind. I looked at her again. She acknowledged my reply with nothing more than a curt nod, but at least her body was completely facing me now.
"...I feel like I know you," I continued tentatively. "I was with you before, when..." I trailed off when the throbbing in my temples increased, blurring my vision. I was vaguely aware of calloused hands lowering me into a sitting position on the cold floor, until my back was leaning against a metallic wall.
"Do not strain yourself." The tone in which the woman said that was hard to identify, if there even was one. I nodded stiffly, pulling my legs up against my chest.
She watched me for a few moments, then stepped away and back to the others. The medic started a conversation, thanking her for helping in that battle even though it had not been hers to fight. That was odd. I had assume they had come with her, but, as I listened in, I realised her manner of speech seemed too formal for that. He explained that the beast was a part of the camel family, but that it inhabited tropical areas, and also that he and the other three were investigators from the so-called 'Midgard Library'.
"Is something wrong with her?" I heard the man say. I looked up in time to see him gesture towards me and look at the woman questioningly. "She seems a little pale."
Was I? I honestly felt a little lightheaded, nor did anymore information on any matter return from the fog clouding my mind.
"I've remembered my name..." I told him. "But that's it. Nothing else. My mind feels foggy..."
I tried to think back again, with more determination this time, but I yelped and doubled over in pain, clutching my head. It was as if thousands of bug larvae were wriggling around in my head, munching away at my skull and finding their way out through my ears.
"Didn't she come here with you?" asked the medic, and I felt a hand wipe sweat I had not noticed before off my forehead.
"We met here. I have never seen her before," the woman answered, voice farther away. I looked up at the man in front of me as he fixed his glasses. He looked between me and a pod-like device on the far side of the room. I noted a bowl of glass laying in front it, then compared it to the collar of the suit I had been wearing when I woke up. The two fitted together. Had that thing been over my head? Had I been sealed in that pod?
The man hummed pensively. "So she was inside this ruin, eh...? Amnesia can be serious. But if her confusion is temporary, there's still hope. Seeing places or things she knows might help jog her memory."
"Things I know...?" I mumbled, and looked up at the woman. "I don't know what kinds of things I know. But I feel like I know you, at least..."
With her left side facing me, I noticed one more piece of armour. It was a patterned, flat shoulder guard, mostly hidden by her dark fur shawl, with two lines engraved along the edge. Above those, I could just see the bottom half of Roman numerals carved into the metal.
I stood up, my balance finally matching what I would have expected in good health. "Hey, could you tell me your name...?" I asked her quietly, gaining no reaction. For a second, I thought I would need to prompt her again, when she finally responded in deadpan,
"I am Shizuka, a Highlander."
I muttered her name to myself several times, pacing as I did, but nothing new appeared from my empty mind.
"No good. That doesn't do anything for me..." I looked down at the floor dejectedly, faintly seeing my silhouette on the metal. My blonde hair was in thin pigtails, and my aqua-blue eyes looked back at me sadly. "But I feel like my mind is clearing up, slowly..."
I heard light clinking, and watched as Shizuka picked up a small pouch, most likely filled with small bottles or money, and looked as if she was about to set off again. A feeling of dread filled my gut, and I quickly grabbed onto her fur shawl.
"Wait! Please let me come with you!" I pleaded as she looked down at me. She didn't say anything for a long while, and I felt myself squirm under that blank gaze, before she finally answered.
"I came to investigate this ruin, as requested by the Radha in Etria. It will be dangerous. If you insist, you may follow."
Despite her phrasing, I smiled brightly.
The man chuckled quietly. "Well, it seems like you two have come to an agreement." After mulling over something, he gestured to himself and the two others, who stood up in response. "As I said, we came to investigate this same ruin. I believe we could be of use to each other, so would you allow us to join you?"
Shizuka, as seemed the usual for her, thoroughly thought the proposal through, before acknowledging them with a nod.
The man smiled and held out a hand. "My name is Simon. I act as the leader of this investigation team." She curtly nodded her acknowledgement, and they shook hands.
The red-haired woman grinned and stepped forward, greeting us cheerily, "Well, hello there! I'm Raquna. It's nice meeting you, Shizuka. It'll be good to have a Highlander along. It's not been easy with just the three of us."
The blonde boy scoffed with his arms crossed behind his head, "Well, if Simon says, I guess it's okay." He smiled at us. "Hey, I'm Arthur. Sorry you got dragged into that." Despite his words, that cheeky grin he wore didn't seem very apologetic at all.
"I'm Frederica," I greeted.
"My name is Shizuka, daughter of Boschay," the Highlander formally introduced herself.
"Dude, the way you killed that thing was just epic!" Arthur complimented, pointing behind his back at the beast, but was met with a blank stare. "What?"
Raquna shook her head exasperatedly, her hands on her hips. "You really are dense. She said, 'DAUGHTER of Boschay', you moron!"
It took a few seconds to register, before Arthur blurted, "Wh-wha?! You're a girl?!" An indifferent stare. "It's just an expression, right? You understand, don't you, Shizuka?"
She walked up to him, calmly and slowly, and hit him upside the head.
"Ow! Crud, that hurt!"
. . .
The carriage ride to Etria was through the night, and there wasn't enough room for anyone to lay down, so it was going to be a long night. The envoys from Midgard sat on one bench, deep in conversation. I sat in the corner, opposite Arthur, but I didn't feel like joining in. Shizuka sat on the other side of our bench, one of her legs tucked up to her chest and her elbow resting on that knee. She just stared out into the night, watching the black outlines of the trees pass by.
"Hey, Shizuka?" Raquna started, earning a light grunt in response. "Why were you so...cold when you killed that beast back there? I mean, I get that it was trying to kill us, but I've never seen someone kill anything quite like...that."
"How does your food arrive on your plate?"
The redhead jumped in surprise at the sudden answer. "Um... What do ya mean by that?"
The Highlander turned and looked her in the eye. "In there, it was either us or the beast. I do not know about you, but I would prefer to live, not become dinner myself."
After a moment, Raquna nodded in understanding, and Shizuka faced outside again. The Etrian soldier directing the horse called inside and suggested we sleep, to which we complied.