The Fourth Stratum's relentless heat had taken its toll on every member of Seekers. Arthur and Simon forwent their coats, Ricky dropped her denim dress overalls, leaving her in only her polo shirt and combat trousers beneath, and Shizuka neglected her fur shawl, trousers, and boots, leaving her lower half with only her kilt and improvised shin guards, feet bare. Unfortunately, Raquna could do little without taking off her armour and forsaking her primary role to the guild.
The maze of shifting sand, Medusa Trees, and one-way passages left them permanently on their toes. Entering an apparent clearing, Arthur exclaimed,
"What? How many of these trees are there?!"
The Seekers were immediately disillusioned of the first impression of this "clearing". In reality, the dried trees filled the place, the animate ones indistinguishable from the truly dead.
"We'll just have to make sure to sneak by them quickly," Raquna groaned.
"Are you alright?" Shizuka asked as the protectress wiped sweat from her forehead.
The redhead sighed, planting her shield in the ground and leaning against it. "Got any water?"
Ricky unclasped her flask without a second thought and handed it to their companion. She greedily gulped it down, but spared a little for the others.
"Are you alright, too?" Simon asked the Highlander as they began moving again, keeping their distance from the trees. "Lagaard is also known for its cold. I can only imagine the mountains would be even worse."
Once they'd slipped by a Medusa Tree reaching out its claws to them, Shizuka gave as exhausted a sigh as Raquna had moments ago.
"Aye. I am more accustomed to burning cold, not burning heat."
"How can freezing burn?" Arthur asked, eying her as if the heat was making her delusional.
Perhaps it was. She certainly held no interest in answering the question now, Simon noted. Arthur would simply have to experience a blizzard for himself. The Highlander simply shook her head and moved on at the head of the group.
And stopped, readying her weapon. The others followed suit at the silent command, looking ahead at what she saw.
An elderly man, a little more aged than Chieftain Visil, was walking towards them, right past a Medusa Tree reaching for him with its spindly wooden fingers.
"Look out!" Raquna cried out to him. "That tree's--"
Its wooden arm suddenly tore apart, an explosion of wood, splinters raining down on the sand. The animated tree flailed in panic and rage, before its entire stump body split and seemed to be chopped apart in thin air, leaving the entire thing as less than firewood.
"...What just happened?" Arthur asked as the elder approached them.
His long, silvery hair was parted at the centre, two plaits framing his slightly wrinkled face with his dark eyes and a hooked nose. A cloak covered his shoulders and arms, but beneath, Simon could just see a lean build protected by steel plates and a plaid kilt above woolen trousers. He also carried what could only be a spear strapped across his straight back.
This ageing man, who carried himself with the authority of a war veteran, was a Highlander.
Just as he stopped a couple of metres before them, Shizuka gasped as a gash appeared along her exposed thigh out of nowhere, then another, and another.
Until there was the clash of her spear against another, her eyes shut.
The aged Highlander pressed his spear against hers a moment longer, then loosened the force, eyes glinting with interest. He stepped back, eying her closely as she dropped her weapon and tentatively opened her eyes.
"You are slowing," she said. Then, she lowered herself to a respectful kneel before him, head lowered and spear in the sand.
"What?" Raquna murmured, lowering her broadsword.
"It seems what Ishwor reported upon his return holds much merit," said the elder, still eying her critically. "Stand."
As she did so, Ricky intervened, "Could...one of you please explain what's going on here...?"
"And what did you do to that tree there?" Simon asked the elderly Highlander. "You didn't move a muscle."
He finally looked each of them in the eye, speaking slowly, "My name is Saroj, the Highlander of the Number Two ranking. I have come to discuss matters with the Number Twenty-six, Shizuka."
The Highlander woman's brow furrowed a little. "I thought you would be here to monitor me. Or that you came to discuss our treaty with the Radha."
The now-named Saroj shook his head. "If possible, I would discuss this with you at your mansion. Unless you are busy now?"
"We're running a little low on curatives, anyway," Simon offered, glancing at Raquna from the corner of his eye. "I think it would be best we return to Etria."
Shizuka hummed in agreement, drawing an Ariadne Thread from her pack. Holding it out before her, the others all made contact with each other. Saroj rested his palm against her shoulder as she coiled the Thread around her fingers. She snapped it.
A blink, and they all stood before the entrance to the Emerald Woodlands, on the path connecting the Labyrinth to Etria.
Saroj looked about to lose his balance, unlike the relatively eased explorers. He straightened up a little stiffly, letting his hand fall from his tribesman's shoulder.
"Are you alright?" she asked, a lilt of concern in her voice.
"I wouldn't recommend that Ariadne Thread to others my age," he commented, and silence broken only by the footsteps of leather shoes, steel-toed boots, and bare feet followed the guild to their mansion.
Rosa hurried to prepare some treats for their guest despite his declinations, and Austin came down the stairs to scrutinise Saroj, pensively fiddling with his unlit pipe. Seekers gathered around the table after taking off their armour and putting away their weapons, Raquna greedily gulping down the water she was given, Shizuka showing only a little more control. She hadn't taken her eyes off the other Highlander since he'd ordered her to stand.
"I'll get straight to the point," Saroj started, staring at Shizuka with an unreadable expression. "It is beyond doubt that the Number Twenty-five is no longer your superior. You've gained greater strength, and the uncanny ability so similar to the Number One's -- acute energy sensitivity."
At the pause, Shizuka questioned, "You came here to tell me that?"
A gruff exhale, and the elder shook his head slowly. "Far be it for me to lecture one as single-minded as you. In many circumstances, that characteristic can be a disadvantage. However, for what I come here for, it could be your greatest asset. Determination and focus tip the choice of who to teach this greatly in your favour."
Chair creaking, Shizuka stood slowly, eyes wide. She said nothing, but her stunned silence expressed more than words.
The corner of Saroj's mouth curled into a smirk, deepening wrinkles. "I've come to teach you the Flashcut."
Just as Simon was about to ask what that technique was, Shizuka explained, "That moment in the Labyrinth, when Saroj rent those trees asunder in the blink of an eye... That was the Flashcut."
At the guild's stunned expressions, the veteran nodded slowly in turn. "And Shizuka was right in saying I've become a little rusty of late. So, as my final act as warrior of our tribe, I will teach you that same technique."
"Wait, Shizuka'll be able to do THAT!" Arthur exclaimed, grinning widely. "Awesome!"
"That would be so useful!" Ricky agreed with an equally bright smile.
Simon added, "To obliterate something like that in a split-second..."
"Can't wait to see how the other guilds would react to that," Raquna chuckled.
To their surprise, however, Shizuka lowered her head. "Why me? Why not Masanori, the Number One?"
Saroj frowned. "You realise how the Flashcut works -- lingering life force in my arm agitates the muscles and causes them to spasm. Controlling that fit and turning a defect into a powerful technique is the essence of the Flashcut. The same goes for Senge's Rippling Spear and your brother's unnatural strength. And for those, Masanori actually has too much absolute control over his energy. He can isolate perfectly, but does not know how to let go of that focus. You, however, have that much control that is not total. And with your focus, concentration, and determination, I believe you can do it. Do not doubt my judgement."
Eventually, she nodded gingerly. "I assume we start now."
Saroj stood, grabbing his spear from the weapon rack. "But of course."
Simon gave up trying to add details to the Monstrous Codex less than two minutes into the Highlanders' training, making his way downstairs to the source of the endless metallic clashes. Saroj's training had taken up every spare second of Shizuka's time outside the Labyrinth. Raquna, Ricky, and Arthur were out completing requests instead, so Simon could get away with observing the training without reproaches.
Saroj commanded what Simon had long figured meant 'faster' in Lagaardian, though how Shizuka was supposed to do that he had no idea. Her spear -- not the wooden practice weapons -- was practically a steel-coloured blur, and the Number Two's was invisible with the speed it moved at. Saroj's face was severe but showed no effort, yet Shizuka's teeth were gritted and bared in a silent growl.
Again, Saroj yelled for her to speed up, despite all the shallow cuts on her face, arms, and legs -- they'd long given up on her wearing full armour during this training. She was dressed in only her kilt and a sleeveless top, whereas he still had the cloak Simon had never seen him without concealing his body. She was doing all she could to match her mentor's Flashcut, but even the most casual observer could tell she didn't stand a chance.
Shizuka collapsed in the middle of the relentless assault, dropping her spear and breathing heavily.
"That's enough for today. Rest up for tomorrow," Saroj commanded, lowering his lightly bloodied spear.
Simon remembered she'd defied that order once, only to find herself unable to stand another beating, literally. She hadn't resisted his advice since. Shizuka stood shakily and dragged herself over to the mansion's back door.
Simon placed a hand on her shoulder and whispered the Cure incantation, getting a small thanks for his troubles. He clapped her on the back as she went inside.
He looked to Saroj, about to ask what he would like for dinner, until he saw the glazed look in his eyes as he stared at where his trainee had just stood.
"Saroj?" called the medic.
The man blinked, shaking his head. "Sorry, Mr Yorke. Just an old man's nostalgia." A pause. "This mission has had a good effect on her. She seems more talkative, more than ever, since..."
Simon debated the strange pause, before his eyes widened. "Ah, you were the one to bring the news of her parents' death... Right. I can understand that pain."
Saroj's severe mien faltered. "I can remember that destruction, the screams of my comrades, and then their children...will probably forever haunt me, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I often visited the sages' hut to seek healing for these ghosts."
What could he say to that? "I'm sorry."
Saroj took a deep breath and shook his head. "Don't worry about that. It's not your burden to bear. Just focus on your mission."
Simon felt like he should say more, but could see the conversation was over. "Right. We leave for Gladsheim Area IV tomorrow."
"Then, prithee, allow me to join you. I would like to see these ruins of the Ancient Civilisation for myself... If it's no problem, of course."
"Not at all," Simon answered. "I'm sure we could use the extra hand."
'The correct choice'? 'A necessary sacrifice'?
Simon couldn't even stare in horror anymore. Not speak. Not scream. He could do nothing but hold Arthur in a loose grip and try not to cry.
Gungnir, the weapon they'd been striving to activate, was responsible for the chaos of Gotham. The destruction of innumerable lives. The obliteration of all Simon had ever known and Arthur's memories.
"Not on my watch!"
Everyone turned to see Saroj, red-faced, chest heaving with rage, bearing his lance with a white-knuckled grip. "They did this...!" he hissed, eyes glowing with anger just as his spear did with life force. "I won't allow any more of this injustice!"
"Saroj, wait!" Raquna yelled, as the most level-headed person at that moment. Yet the Highlander turned, barked a command, and Shizuka followed him out of the terminal room with equal wrath contorting her features.
"Activating defensive measure, Gimle," M.I.K.E. droned coolly. "Objective: Capture Frederica Irving, and eliminate all targets that interfere."
"Shizuka!" Ricky cried, storming after them as the doors shut.
"C...come on," Simon encouraged Arthur meekly, moving them to the entrance behind Ricky and Highlanders, hearing the clanking of Raquna's armour behind them.
As soon as the door shut, flames exploded to their right, and enraged cries followed.
The giant red machine, Gimle, had moved forwards and was being bombarded by Saroj's Flashcut and Shizuka's most developed techniques. The two warriors had their faces twisted with wrath, growling and roaring, their centre of gravity low and movements as predatory as any of Yggdrasil's fiercest beasts.
Somehow, Simon managed to think tactically, "We need to retreat to Etria, see what we can do..."
Ricky shook her head, pigtails flailing. "No, Gimle can easily follow us there."
"That thing?!" Arthur cried.
"So we have to destroy it here," Raquna muttered, readying her shield. "But Shizuka and Saroj are really going at it."
An explosion of fire was closely dodged by the Highlanders, as Gimle suddenly retreated on its mechanical black wheels. The two charged after it, Shizuka clearly channelling energy into her legs and overtaking the veteran warrior, despite the exhaustion she showed as soon as she stopped to lunge at the machine.
"Shizuka, stop! You're being unreasonable!" Simon yelled across the hall.
The Highlanders either didn't hear or didn't care, screeching baleful commands to each other, along with throaty, tribal war cries, and attacking in turn.
"Let's watch Gimle's patterns to approach and attack. Volt should work well, but watch out for fire attacks," Ricky spoke, clipping a Volt Shot magazine into her gun. She sighed, "If M.I.K.E. won't listen..."
Arthur groaned, his elemental gauntlet whirring as it fired up. "Guess we'll have to knock some sense into 'em."
The one guarding Gladsheim and the Highlanders, both apparently just as uncooperative in the states they'd entered. This was the power a Highlander's sense of justice held over them?
As they hurried to approach, occasionally taking shelter behind the mounds of collapsed ceiling, Gimle shot projectiles into the air, seemingly powered by the fire spewing from their ends -- missiles, if Simon remembered correctly -- aimed at Saroj.
Shizuka placed herself before him, spear raised to block the missiles, yelling a chant they recognised as Spirit Shield. The missiles blasted against her spear, the flames curving around them as though stopped by an invisible dome.
"Shizuka!" Saroj growled, then added a string of other words that left her frozen. He moved before her, wielding the Flashcut and destroying Gimle's strange wheels on the left side.
Shizuka yelled at him, defiant, but he seemed to ignore her, preferring to bombard Gimle with more of his particular technique, this time reinforcing it with life force drained from his teammate.
"Dilution!" Arthur yelled, Raquna bashing the red demon with her shield.
"Firing Volt Shot!" Ricky warned, pulling the trigger as Arthur released an electric spell.
Shizuka grabbed her mentor's collar and pulled him back in time for the two electric attacks to land safely, then stabbed the beast again. Simon quickly healed her before all the energy she'd spent took a greater physical toll on her.
That was all it took for the medic to see the tears running down both their cheeks. Was that still just because they were faced with great injustice?
"Again!" Raquna yelled, and the two blonds released more voltage attacks. "Again!"
Gimle tilted its "muzzle" back and spat more missiles.
"Fire Wall!" Ricky commanded, Raquna raising her shield in response and the rest of Seekers hiding behind her. Shizuka readied herself for the impact, the Spirit Shield still active about them. Saroj also guarded himself in time for the strike.
As soon as the flames dissipated, Saroj launched himself up with a furious battle cry, wielding the Flashcut. The deafening clanging of his spear against Gimle rattled their bodies, his teeth gritted until he destroyed the machine entirely.
The red metal collapsed and M.I.K.E., somehow still in his calm tone, expressed his confusion. Ricky answered him, but even she could hardly pay attention with the Highlanders' incomprehensible cries of rage and grief overpowering the ancient being's voice.
Saroj struck his spear down on the metal again, and again. They didn't need to know Lagaardian to know he was screaming blue murder. Shizuka also had tears streaming down her cheeks, but her screaming had long stopped. No sound escaped her, a silence far graver than her usual. The look in her eyes was despaired as she shut them and shook her head, tears dropping to the metal floor.
"Gotham, you said," she whispered to Simon when he was just close enough.
"Where Boschay, Tora, Narendra, Magnall, Abhirup, and many other warriors were felled!" Saroj screeched, ripping his spear from Gimle and his cloak from his body.
A body missing a left arm.
"These people, Frederica Irving and M.I.K.E., are responsible for the greatest injustice our clan has ever seen -- the mass destruction of a flourishing town of INNOCENTS!! Innocents and the JUSTEST OF HIGHLANDERS!!"
Shizuka looked up sharply. "Saroj--"
Saroj bore his teeth, feral, and moved towards Ricky with a gait reminiscent of a Coeurl. He raised his spear to strike her, his single arm seeming to disappear into thin air --
His Flashcut met Shizuka's spear, coming to a complete stop as he froze, her body shaking with the force of the single strike.
"ENOUGH!" she roared, eyes gleaming with rage and her spear with life force ready for unleashing. "SHE IS INNOCENT! Ricky herself is unrelated to the destruction of Gotham! You know that just as I do, yet you would break the code for your REVENGE?!"
Ricky stumbled away from the two Highlanders, towards the rest of Seekers. Shizuka pushed him back, placing her spearhead against her frozen mentor's neck. Tears still flowed down both their cheeks.
"I know your pain, but I will not allow myself to be blinded to the truth! The culprits for Gotham's destruction are long gone -- there is no one to be sentenced!" Her aggressive stance wavered, her head dropping. They seemed to be more leaning against each other then, rather than at each other's throats. "All we can do is stop this suffering before Etria is next. Finish the Yggdrasil Project, destroy the Yggdrasil Core, without using Gungnir," she continued softly. "There is no justice in revenge when no one is responsible. Number Two, Flashcut Saroj, Survivor of the Great Felling... If you understand this...drop your spear..."
His eyes were wide, but somehow still unreadable. He stared into nothing ahead, mouth agape at the raw authority in her tone. No one in Seekers had ever heard her say so much in one go, either, and couldn't bring themselves to interrupt.
Eventually, the spear slipped from his slack grip, clattering to the ground.
"You sound just like them..." he whispered. "Tora and Boschay..."
A sob tore from him, wracking his entire body. Shizuka lowered her spear from his throat, the weapon also clattering to the ground. He leaned into her heavily, wrapping his one arm around the young woman as he wept, names falling from his lips like pleas and prayers. Shizuka cried with him, two relatively similar words possibly meaning "mother" and "father" constantly leaving her lips, along with the names of her siblings, Maiya and Ishwor.
Eventually, Saroj composed himself a little, taking a few shuddering breaths and seeming to physically shake haunting images from his mind.
"Forgive me, Mr Yorke, Mr Charles," he muttered to Simon and Arthur, not meeting their eyes. "I alone have no right to cry when you lost all you'd ever known that day, and when I was the one who'd let my emotions cloud my judgement. So, I also ask your forgiveness, Ms Irving..."
Simon somehow gathered enough will to shake his head.
"It's okay, man," Arthur said, though he lacked his usual upbeat tone.
"No, I'M sorry," Ricky answered the Highlander. "I completely understand. You had every right to be angry. Let's just find a way to destroy the Yggdrasil Core without resorting to Gungnir." She raised her head slightly. "M.I.K.E., I'm sorry, but this is how we'll do it. We'll find a way."
"There is no alternative. To activate Gungnir is my sole purpose," M.I.K.E. replied.
"There is no alternative. To activate Gungnir is my sole purpose."
And no matter what they said afterwards, he only repeated those same words.
"Are you alright now, Survivor of the Great Felling?" Shizuka gritted out as she attempted to speed up her attacks against her mentor's Flashcut.
"You know not to call me that, Shizuka," Saroj snapped back, increasing the severity of his attacks. Before he slowed to a stop. "Although... You were right to use it then. It certainly shocked me from the path of injustice, and my death sentence."
He didn't wear his cloak anymore, bearing his single arm to the world. He lowered the spear, scanning Shizuka as she caught her breath. She awaited his verdict patiently, stretching her muscle to preventatively work out cramps in the cool evening air.
"With your concentration and calm demeanour, I thought you would be the perfect candidate for the Flashcut." Saroj sighed. "Yet it seems you, too, find it difficult to relinquish control over your life force."
Shizuka gasped and made to object, but the veteran held up a hand. "Do not be upset. This has been ingrained into you since you could only count on with your fingers. It's only natural for someone as gifted as you to face this problem. The twenty-sixth rank is far beneath you." He paused, staring at his arm. Then, he looked to Shizuka. Then each of her limbs in turn. "Still, while you may never learn the Flashcut, I believe we can still work in that direction..."