"Again!" commanded the lead sage to the two trainees worthy enough of her attention, Hikari and me.
At the chief's wife clapping the beat on the floor of the hut, we redid the move depicting a flower blossoming, before releasing a trickle of life force into our hands and spinning, letting the energy fill the room, before being reabsorbed into our position of prayer.
The ritual dance complete, we moved to kneel before her; obedience and submission.
The elderly woman was silent for a moment, before nodding. "That will do for today," she said, though her flat tone made it clear we had yet to meet her high standards. "I'll see you at dawn."
"Of course, High Sage," we chanted back, Hikari completely omitting their maternal relationship. Here, they were teacher and student, the same relation as the woman had with me.
Exiting the hut, the cold evening air bit at our cheeks. Hikari's ebon hair was loose, falling over her right eye and to her shoulder blades, apart from the front, her face framed by two plaits. Mine was much longer, to my waist, with the same plaits, and our matching kilt robes bore six shades between blue and green.
The air where we stood was particularly thick with the smoke from the weapon smith's forge, so we hurried to escape the smell, walking past stone, mud, dung, and straw huts up the rickety path to the residential area, following the light of the fire pit there.
"When do you expect your parents to return?" asked Hikari, dark eyes shining red as we neared the fire.
"They could not have arrived more than a week ago," I replied shortly, then cocked my head.
There was an unnatural amount of bustling ahead. Whispers floating about, some suspicious, some concerned, hostile, but clearly there had been news, originating from the chief's hut at the top of the mountain slope.
Hopefully this noise wouldn't wake Maiya when it was already dark. I wordlessly strayed from the path in the direction of my family's hut, shared with Abhirup's wife and son, Phelan, as Hikari continued on to her father's hut. I quietly pushed the door open, wary of the creak should I push it further than a hand's length. The still lump on the straw and fur bed indicated the two-year-old was still fast asleep despite the upset.
"Shizu, the chief's calling us." I turned to see my eleven-year-old brother, Ishwor, with a slight frown on his face. "I don't know why."
I glanced inside at our little sister again, and Ishwor shook his head at the unasked question, beckoning me. I couldn't help but notice the muscle he was developing, even in his prepubescence. His first few years of training were beginning to bear fruit, it seemed, and traces of his life-force in his arms only seemed to only speed up the process rather than inhibit his skill. I still kept that under strict observation.
When we entered Chief Kalden's hut, the first thing I noticed was the metallic smell of blood. The second was the amount of people — children, youths, men, and women — all gathered, including Kundun, Senge, and their mother, who we knelt next to.
The third was the source of the coppery smell. Knelt beside Chief Kalden was Saroj, an average warrior of long dark hair who had been sent to Gotham with our parents, Narendra, Abhirup and eight other warriors. While he sat straight, there were bandages across his torso, and a empty space where his left arm should have been but definitely was not, and his dark eyes were downcast with an eerie stillness.
As soon as Ishwor and I had sat down with Kundun and Senge, I gave into the urge to huddle between my brother and friend, who all too willingly let me in the portentous air.
The chief said nothing, letting Saroj speak first. He recited the names of the twelve other warriors sent to Gotham's Yggdrasil Labyrinth. Once he'd finished with Tora and Boschay, the two of the highest rank, he paused, taking a shuddering breath.
I remembered climbing the nearby cliffs once. A loose rock meant I'd taken a nasty fall that had knocked all the breath out of me, even with Mother catching me in time.
I felt that same breathlessness at that moment, only there was no Mother or Father to catch me. The rocks below would have impaled my chest, so I would never breathe right again. The silence that had taken up the room was suffocating.
"The ground itself seemed to open up beneath us, and everything was destroyed," Saroj was saying. We had never heard a warrior's voice tremble so much. "I alone survived. Without my arm. Tora... The Number Six, Tora...sacrificed herself to save me."
Kundun latched onto me tightly, and I reciprocated the hug, shivering without the warmth of my parents. I felt Senge wrap his arm around us, then Brother's usually strong presence feebly attempt to embrace us all, as if it would hide us from the words, shield us from reality.
Mother and Father were...gone. As were Kundun and Senge's father, Phelan's father... By the gods, Maiya would grow up without knowing a mother's protection, a father's reassurance, nothing of a parent's unequalled presence!
I could merely cry among them, and curse my incapability.
Maiya was mercifully asleep when Ishwor, Phelan, his newly-widowed mother, and I returned from the chief's hut. The woman excused herself from her son and the other children, telling us to get some rest.
"Gods damn it..." muttered the dark-haired boy, face still red with tear tracks. Any other time, I might have glared at him for swearing in the gods' names, but I could barely keep myself from crying. There was nothing to be said, anyway.
The gods were cruel. There was no greater injustice than the mass slaughter of innocents and righteous men and women.
I climbed onto the spread animal skins and furs that made our bed, taking my little sister into my arms and embracing her like Mother would me. Ishwor laid down opposite me, and cocked his head back at our housemate.
"Phelan," he called gently, seeing no need to explain.
The other boy wordlessly crawled over, settling into Ishwor's other side as he laid on his back, curling his other arm around my sister.
"What do we say when Maiya wakes up?" I whispered.
"I don't know."
I didn't know what I could do either. A sage prayed for justice. A warrior brought it where it wouldn't come. I wasn't a warrior.
"I can't do this," Kundun murmured as we herded our cattle closer to the tribe. "Becoming a warrior just means an early death. The good ones never live long."
"You're giving up training?" I hissed. It seemed too blasphemous to be spoken aloud.
He shook his head, then ran his hands through his hair. "I don't know. Have you seen the others? Ishwor's getting bigger every day. Senge's more brutal. Heck, even Phelan's more determined than ever. I just think I'll end up dead, like Father is..."
"It's..." I swallowed. "That was a year ago. It's too late to change now. Ten years old. Five years since we began training... I cannot fight at all..."
Kundun tilted his head back with an exasperated groan. "I'll finish it, don't worry. I just don't see the point anymore..."
"True justice for all," I recited, voice severe. "Our hearts are our weapons and our souls our sheaths. The sages pray to the gods for justice, and the warriors take it into their own hands by right of might."
And if a sage could not do that much...
A warrior I would be.
"No," was all Saroj said.
The Number Two's word was final. The Number One's, Chief Kalden's, would doubtlessly be the same.
"When will Mother and Father be back?" Maiya asked.
I paused from hanging cattle meat to dry into jerkies, and slowly turned to look at my four-year-old sister. The little girl bore the same resemblance as our brother did — wide chestnut eyes, unusually light hair for a tribesman, and a wild fringe. I knew this day would eventually come, though I hadn't expected it to last this long. Perhaps Maiya had become accustomed to our parents' absence during her younger years.
I looked away again. How to answer the question? How to deal with this? How not to frighten my baby sister? "I don't know."
"Are they dead?"
I gave up trying to hang the meat strips. Three words. That's all the question was.
"They are with the gods now..." I whispered back, shivering regardless of my proximity to the fire pit.
Maiya hugged me from behind, seeming to sense that I needed it despite my silence. Gods damn it, don't cry!
"It's alright, Shizu. I don't remember them, anyway. You can stop pretending you're not sad."
"No!" I growled in frustration, swinging the pole I used for practice. In the two years I'd been training after dark, I'd gained little muscle tone. All I could do was study the movements of actual trainees sparring and imitate them to the best of my ability.
Too wobbly. Space feet a little further.
Too little power. A greater swing. Whole body flowing into the attack.
I need not have trained life force manipulation. I was already on par with Hikari at that. And I had heard my sense of justice being compared to Masanori's before. The two elite siblings compared to one person, me.
But far from arrogant, I knew I was weak. Too weak. Kundun could crush my twig-like body with ease.
That didn't matter. I would do this. My parents were dead. Ishwor was well on his way to becoming a high-ranked warrior, which meant a lot of employment. Kundun was unfocused. Senge was obsessed with revenge. Phelan was also only average, despite his determination.
Someone had to protect Maiya, protect the justice my parents, Tora the Number Six and Boschay the Number Five without true graves, hadn't found, but died trying to.
If praying alone wouldn't work, if my voice was too quiet to reach the gods, I would forge my own path to justice.
Ignite the pole with life force. Swing. Stab. Step back. Repeat.
My hair was haphazardly pulled into a plait long enough to reach my hips, strands still blowing before my face, and I only wore a kilt and cotton top, for lack of a warrior's clothing, as I hid behind a rock on the cliff-face. I could not allow the ten meter drop to deter me now, focusing entirely on the deer halfway down.
I'd had to steal a spear from the weapons rack — and was reciting a prayer of forgiveness despite my just intentions — and move under the cover of darkness. But at eighteen years old, I knew that this would be the ultimate proof of my hard-earned capabilities. The killing of a deer from atop the cliff-side was seen as a rite of passage. If my bulky brother could do this, so could I.
I placed my bare feet carefully, focusing on each step in turn until it was firmly in place, spreading my weight as evenly as possible across the rocks. Any slight would alert even a resting prey.
I crept down onto another rock, allowing a little life force to seep into the spear, lighting it. I was barely my own height above my prey. I stilled.
My spear pierced the animal's side, tearing a distressed call from its muzzle. It flailed, tumbling us down the cliff side. I kept my grip with all my might, but only one edge of the spearhead had ruptured the body, and it easily slid out.
The ground slammed into my bruised back, and I felt as though my ribs would burst from my chest. The deer kicked and ran, crippled but still able, announcing my failure, leaving me feeling the same as that day.
The deer cried out in pain, and I heard the dull thump of its body hitting the browned grass. I pushed myself up, grasping my spear and lighting it with my life force. My hair had come undone, flowing into my face as the other warrior approached. The glow of my spear lit their face.
Saroj, now grey but nonetheless fierce, stared down at me. His face was unreadable, and I couldn't resist the urge to lower my head, letting my thick hair hide my face.
"Shizuka?" he asked after a while, disbelief clear. "Why would you...?"
I stayed silent, standing slowly and taking my life force back from the spear.
Saroj lit his. "Why try to become a warrior when you've been trained as a sage?"
"Isn't it obvious?" I snarled.
"Because a sage can do nothing! We pray and heal, but what does that bring with our friends and family far away on the battlefield? A warrior makes their own justice with their own hands!" I raised my head to convey my screams. Damn it, don't cry! "I prayed every day and look what that brought me! My parents are dead! Ishwor is not here to protect us. Kundun thinks he's just going to die. Senge's judgement is clouded by useless rage. Injustice was done and all we now fight for is revenge. I WON'T STAND IDLY AND ASK THE GODS FOR JUSTICE I COULD FIGHT FOR INSTEAD!"
I wept. I punched the grass. Again.
Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!
"Stand up," Saroj ordered.
I wordlessly obeyed, tensing in preparation for punishment. While I had broken no codes, this was unheard of. A sage trying to become a warrior did transgress the rule of opposing violence. My real verbal beating would come from the chief's wife when she found out, as well as Hikari, now that we were both fully-fledged sages.
And Ishwor, now the Destructive Number Three...
"Take your stance."
I blinked, brushing my hair out of my face to look at him questioningly. Did he...just ask what I think he did?
He crouched, back leg bent, front stretched ahead, spear at his side and parallel to the ground.
I gingerly mimicked him, trying to read his intentions.
My only warning was a blue flash of his glowing spear, and I quickly rolled to the side to dodge the downwards stab.
Saroj stared at me silently, having not moved since his strike. His back was exposed.
I lunged, only for his Flashcut to knock my spear out of my grip. It tumbled a little down the slope, leaving me on all fours behind the veteran. As if I'd ever stood a chance.
"Your form is good," he observed, "but it took you too long to notice that I was open. Your attack was also far too weak. You've never sparred in your life."
I lowered my head. "No, sir."
"Stand up and get your spear."
I did as told, knowing he'd decided mine was a hopeless cause. I picked up my spear, and moved to head down the slope.
"Aren't you going to continue sparring?"
His call gave me pause, and I cautiously turned back to look at him. Should he not punish me? This was unheard of, both my actions and his laxity.
"You have given me every reason to teach you the ways of the spear." His words took me even further aback, leaving me stumbling away almost drunkenly. This couldn't be real. "You have the determination and, clearly, the courage of a warrior. Enough to throw your untrained body down a cliff. You may have failed, but your will is strong and true. If your sense of justice is also as I have heard... You have every chance of becoming a strong warrior, with enough training."
I'd two tests to pass to become a warrior — Chief Kalden's test of knowledge, sense of justice, and morality using complex situation hypotheses and dilemmas, and his son, Masanori — who had too many titles and nicknames to be summarised as anything less than Godly —, sparred with me until I dropped. For once, I was glad for Brother's absence. He had not seen me in that deplorable state. Senge and Kundun were also gone on missions, so I would have neither mockery nor comfort in the aftermath.
The same could not be said for Maiya. At the tender age of eleven, she could only watch her sister be gradually rent asunder with absolute precision. I could dodge many, but never block a single one of this man's strikes.
His resemblance to his elegant sage sister, Hikari, belied his near-titanous might. His left eye being covered by his black mane did not inhibit his ability to perceive my strikes — Veni Vidi Vici.
Of course, no warrior was expected to succeed in this bloody trial. This was simply for him to evaluate me. But it was nonetheless humbling — humiliating, even. His dual-wielding of Highlander spears was a visible symbol of his might, if his piercing dark eyes were not telling of his raw power already.
Thoroughly beaten and torn to shreds, Masanori finally allowed his sister to wordlessly attend to my injuries. All warriors-in-training ended so. Only Masanori could tell were I would be placed in the ranks after conferring with his father.
"I can't believe I never noticed," Hikari said as she treated me, instructing Maiya simultaneously.
"Good," I murmured back. "You would have stopped me, would you not?"
"Your motives were never selfish. At least, not entirely," she responded as she dabbed herbal cleansers onto my largest wound. "Know that such perseverance is to be respected. I do not doubt it shall lead you to the answers you seek."
As Hikari then focused on closing my wounds with her life force, teary-eyed Maiya had to refrain from embracing me.
"You did this for my sake?" she whispered shakily.
For her. For our parents. For the Highlanders' justice a mere sage could not bring with her own hands.
The chief later appraised my sense of righteousness greatly, and his son spoke the obvious about my lack of strength, though it would surpass the average outsider only by the power of my heritage. Even so, finding out I was the Twenty-sixth was a devastating blow to my reputation and willpower. All I could do was have faith in Hikari's words.
When Chief Kalden summoned me to the Founder's Sword that morning, before sunrise, my only expectation had been demotion. Despite having been a warrior for hire for a year, I had not received a single mission. The lower ranks rarely did.
"We've received a request from a town called Etria."
The town well known for its fortune from the Yggdrasil Labyrinth.
"It seems they require a Highlander's aid."
I was to be the sage accompanying a much stronger warrior. The various Yggdrasil trees of this world were known to be incredibly hostile to all who entered. Only the bravest, or stupidest, dared enter their domains.
"This will be a dangerous mission..." he paused, prompting me to meet his gaze from my bowed posture. "But... I believe you can do it."
My eyes widened then, as he spoke to me not as a man to a sage, but a chief to a warrior of his tribe. His expression was unreadable as always, his bronze eyes watching me carefully, studying, dissecting.
He turned his gaze to the sunrise, shielding his eyes with his hand.
"You are bound to the far east, to Etria."
I shifted my eyes to the dawn, turning the sky from blue, to purple, to orange. The light to be shed upon me as I was given my first mission.
"Show them a Highlander's justice."