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Untold Stories

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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.

"Aye."

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.

"Okay..."

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.

XXVI

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.

"Thank you!"

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.

Chapter Text

 

It was strange to say the least, seeing their Highlander without layers of thick clothing and armour. Instead, she had sky-blue coloured cloth wrapped around her torso, which exposed a lot of her stomach, and a long teal skirt with three navy-blue stripes along the edge that entirely revealed her left leg. On her upper arms, thighs, and attached to two ponytails at the back of her hair were symmetrically patterned metal tubes, and she had a couple of bells attached to metal hoops around her wrists and ankles. Even her thick brown locks were free from their usual thick plaits, cascading all the way down to her knees.

She stood completely still on the round stage, eyes closed and breaths controlled. Above were the three boxes in which the spectators sat, looking down at her from their perches. Chieftain Visil himself sat in the middle one, on a throne-like armchair, high-ranking members of the Radha to his left, and the guild Seekers to his right.

"I've seen her sing and dance before," Raquna suddenly admitted.

"What? When?!" Arthur exclaimed angrily.

"During our week camping in the Primitive Jungle. I woke up for my watch on the first night to this beautiful singing. And when I opened my eyes, a saw her dancing"

"Why didn't you tell us?" Ricky asked the older woman dejectedly.

"Shizuka wouldn't have liked it if I did. Dare I say she was pretty embarrassed for having been caught!" Raquna explained to the younger blondes.

Simon pushed his glasses a little further up his nose, leaning forwards to look at her from across their row of seats. "And what was it like?"

The redhead grinned smugly, and tapped her nose. "Why don't you just wait and see, eh?"

As if on cue, the lighting dimmed, and the first sounds of bongos could be heard. The four members of guild Seekers leaned forwards to the edge of their seats, and all sounds of conversation ceased.

The normally quiet, stoic Highlander, Shizuka, started singing,

"Black as the night..."

To the beat, she framed her face with her hands, eyes snapping open, before opening her arms as trails of glittering azure light flowed from her fingertips--her life force.

"Is the path in sight,"

She turned sideways to the audience and thrust her hips out towards them several times, arms raised, accentuating the fast movements, and bells playing along to the rhythm.

"In the distance, the white throne abandoned,"

She fluidly undulated her torso, crossing her hands in front of her face, palms outwards, before revealing herself again, narrowed eyes framed by the streams of light. Her powerful voice filled the entire hall just as much as the amplified music.

"Then comes forth a blackened heart,
Who'll only damn us all...!"

She shimmied her hips as she walked backwards, spun and isolated her shoulders, the light following her movements and even pouring from her hair, before being reabsorbed into her body.

"By spinning a little white lie,
The sun, standing black in the sky,
Will soon meet its end...!"

She bent down, before quickly twirling her arms upwards as she stood straight again, the trails swirling. She isolated her ribcage, almost as if entirely detaching it from her spine, and rolled her exposed abdomen.

"Much like the start of the night,
You alone like the dark, kill the light...!"

She pirouetted, and the torches in the room went out. The only remaining source of light was Shizuka's life force, floating suspended around her at waist height, rippling like water.

"Bodies and souls of the dead,"

She threw her upper body backwards, arching her back and dipping into the pool of light. Her words seemed to bounce off the walls in the darkened theatre, echoing in the audience's minds.

"Bound by their blood, mirrored on the oceans ahead,"

She opened her arms to the heavens as she straightened. The light gathered into her hands, then stretched in between them, until it formed the shape of a glowing azure spear. She held it upwards for a moment, then slowly lowered the tip to the ground in front of her. When it touched the obscured floor, a single circle of light spread from the epicentre, like a gentle ripple on the surface of water.

"Rise with the traitorous tide,"

She violently spun, twirling the spear in her hands as the life force that had created it released itself from that form and spiralled around her, filling the entire stage with swirling, glittery azure light, with the woman in the centre.

"And in the end,"

The energy still twinkling in the air, Shizuka placed her right palm over her heart, glowing from the release of energy, and undulated her torso, left arm outstretched, fingers curling.

"You'll have nowhere to hide!"

She spun again, and reabsorbed all her life energy at once, leaving them in an almost palpable darkness, with only truculent tribal music as company.

The four members of her guild suddenly heard Visil groan harshly in pain on the other side of the partition. Alarmed, they stood up and ran out the door to assist the older man in whatever ailment was troubling him.

When they arrived beside the chieftain of the Radha, as Shizuka continued her spectacular performance, they heard Visil get dangerously close to screaming in pain. He had a white-knuckled, iron grip on his armrests, and his entire body spasmed as in agony.

"Lord Visil!" exclaimed Subaltern Quinn when he and the other Radha members entered the box. He turned to face Simon, face pale. "What's wrong with him?"

"I don't know," answered the medic. "But we have to get him to where I can treat--"

"That won't be necessary," interrupted a deep voice. They turned to see Visil slowly pushing himself up from the chair, as if nothing had occurred, and continue to watch the dance.

"Black as the night," Shizuka sang aloofly.
"Or bathed in white?
The choice falls to you and you only,
Look towards the sun, our chosen one,
Who'll doom or save us all...!"

He frowned lightly, then briskly turned to leave. Simon stepped between him and the door, arms apart, his own brows lowered.

"Forgive me, but I cannot allow you to even be walking in your condition," stated the man, stern even in his defiance of authority.

"Get out of my way," Visil growled. When the order was not obeyed, he roughly pushed the medic aside and left, slamming the door behind him. A pregnant silence stretched between the guild and Radha members, the music seemingly muffled in the distance.

"What was that all about?" Frederica whispered, but received no answer, as the performance that had grown dark finally came to a close.

. . .

The next day, the members of Seekers learnt from Raquna that the Highlander had not sung anything like that before. Her previous song had been soft, peaceful, and even elegant. The one they had experienced had been harsh and aggressive, the words leaving a portentous feeling in their wake.

Shizuka kept her silence on the matter.

The next day, after defeating the guardian bird Iwaoropenelep, Seekers came to find that Visil had disappeared into the Yggdrasil Labyrinth.

. . .

Deep down in the earth, in remnants of a past era, a man, whose eyes glowed crimson, could not banish the echoing words from his thoughts.

"And in the end, you'll have nowhere to hide!"

Chapter Text

Outside the windows of the mansion, it was dark, despite being the middle of the afternoon, as well as cold and humid like the Primitive Jungle stratum, the heavy rain pattering loudly against the windows. Seeing as they were going to take on the King of the Jungle, Cernunnus, the members of the Seekers guild had elected to rest up and prepare for the battle.

Simon was proofreading the notes and maps of all the floors they had explored, though not without keeping a sharp eye on Arthur, who was fiddling with his alchemical gauntlet out of boredom. Raquna was playing chess against Frederica, both of them about even, and Shizuka was sitting on the windowsill, her back against the frame, watching the water run down the glass and occasionally sparing their game a glance. Rosa was cooking a small snack Arthur had requested, so she was somewhere in the kitchen. The aroma wafting out was making the others debate if they should have asked for something themselves.

"Checkmate!" Frederica suddenly exclaimed, catching everyone's attention. Raquna slouched in her seat, a resigned grin on her face as she looked at the chessboard. She flicked her king over.

"Well done, Frederica," she congratulated. "You may become a master chess player yet."

"Yes!"

Arthur looked at the pieces skeptically. "Er... I'm no expert, but wasn't that a little TOO easy?"

Raquna's eyes widened, and she bit her lip as Simon inspected the board himself. "Arthur's right," he confirmed, turning to face the redhead.

"Wait, did you...?" started the blonde girl.

The protectress sighed loudly, leaning on the dining table, "Okay, yah. I let you win."

Frederica groaned and stood up. "Guess I'm not up to it after all..."

Rosa came walking in, a small plate carrying a shortcake with maple syrup in her hands. "Don't fret, Miss Frederica. I'm sure you will improve," she encouraged softly, as she placed it in front of where Arthur had been sitting.

Frederica nodded, "I suppose. Thanks, Rosa."

The purple-haired maid curtsied. "You're welcome."

There was a sudden knock on the door, and she quickly scurried to answer it. She opened the door to a soldier, who called inside, "Is the Highlander Shizuka here?"

Hearing the call, the androgynous woman in question stood up from the windowsill and walked up to the door, the other four members of the guild moving to see what was going on.

"I have a letter from the Radha to inform you of something...?" he stated more like a question, handing her a surprisingly small piece of folded parchment. He nodded and left, shutting the door behind him.

Shizuka walked a little farther inside, unfolding the notice. As she read it, eyes flicking across the writing, her grip slowly crumpled the edges and her brows furrowed.

"What's up?" Arthur asked. She didn't answer, but threw it across the room and into the fireplace, surprising the others with her obvious dissatisfaction. She closed her eyes and took deep, controlled breaths, silently counting up to ten to calm her nerves.

"What is it?" Simon inquired. She ignored the question and walked straight past him, taking long, brisk strides. Everyone else watched the scene play out in silence as she disappeared upstairs. A few minutes later, she came back down, fully equipped with her clan's plaid, armour, her spear holstered across her back and a dark cloak thrown over her shoulders. Striding quickly towards the doorway, she barely turned around to say, "Do not follow."

And then she threw her hood up, stepped into the heavy rain, and shut the door behind her.

A few moments of silence passed, the occupants of the mansion exchanging glances with each other, before the four remaining adventurers wordlessly agreed to suit up and follow.

It took them a bit of asking around, but they eventually located her in a back alley. She was walking around the area slowly, inspecting all the shady places, before she entered a seemingly abandoned storehouse.

Before the door shut completely, the other members of the guild burst in, the younger blondes upfront, the older two behind them.

"I told you not to follow," said their Highlander as she lowered her hood, eyeing them over her shoulder.

A male voice responded in a foreign language, which brought their attention to the three other occupants of the dark stone room.

The one who had spoken seemed to be the young man slouching against the left wall. He had dark brown hair tied into a loose, thick ponytail, a plait acting as a tie for it, and he seemed to be around the same age as Shizuka.

The one opposite them was leaning against the stone, had his extremely muscular arms that easily matched--if not surpassed--those of the Guildmaster, crossed and his head lowered, face mostly hidden by a short, messy fringe. His chin length, chestnut coloured hair was wavy, the front parts tied into four plaits, two hanging loosely, framing his face, and the other two pulled back on each side of his head into a small ponytail. A scar was visible, cutting across his left cheekbone, and he seemed to be in his mid-twenties. His shoulder guard was visible, with three grooves running along the edge, and engraved with the number III.

The third was sitting up against the right wall. His messy hair was extremely dark, almost black, and partially covered his right eye. The left parts were pulled back by a plait, which ended in a small ponytail at his nape. His face was marred with painful-looking scars, but they did not seem to have been made by teeth or claws, and he seemed to be the same age as the muscular one. Engraved in his shoulder guard, which had two grooves along the edge, were the numerals XIV.

They all wore the same general clothes as Shizuka, had spears holstered across their backs, and the same tartan, with the exception of the muscular one, whose also had thin sky-blue lines running through the navy check.

The man on the right stood up and faced the guild, arms hanging loosely at his sides, and posture relaxed.

"I see ye brought a bunch o' brats with ye," he said annoyedly in a thick yet recognisable accent--Lagaardian--directing it at Shizuka. He looked over the four imposters, his gaze lingering on Frederica. "Don't tell me this wee bairnie is going to be fighting with us!" he added loudly.

"Nay. You are well aware that none of them are," Shizuka responded sharply.

He cocked an eyebrow, before smirking. "I get it, now," he started slowly. "She's a wee toy ye carry around with ye."

There was a loud clang and a burst of flames as the two's spears clashed. The man's was the same general design as Shizuka's Highlander spear, only that his blade took up almost the entire length of the weapon, like a great sword. He had easily blocked her Flame Spear, the billowing fire continuing to light up his face, and the scars proudly decorating it.

He chuckled. "Well, goodness. I must've got quite close to the truth, huh?"

"No! And I'm not little either, so don't get all cocky!" Frederica responded harshly to his taunting. She did not know what exactly 'bairnie' meant, but she could assume it wasn't much better than what she had understood.

Another spearhead, much thicker and broader than the normal ones, appeared at his forehead, held by a calloused hand.

"Senge," a strong voice, laced with authority, commanded, "Watch that uncouth mouth of yours. You have not only offended Shizuka, but your superior, too."

The dark-haired man, Senge, scoffed, but he lowered his weapon nonetheless, returning to his spot against the wall.

The one who had scolded him was the muscular man. His dark eyes remained on Senge for a moment, before he looked at Shizuka with a much more gentle gaze, and even frowned slightly in worry. He switched his heavy spear to his left hand, before raising his dominant hand to the woman's temple.

Normally, she would have shrugged off such contact, but she surprised her guild mates by letting him run his thumb over the three scars she had earned in the battle against Fenrir. The scars from his claws ran above her left eye, the lowest cutting through her eyebrow, splitting it dangerously close to her eyelid. He slowly pulled her into a hug, smiling softly when she silently returned it, draping her arms around his broad chest and resting her forehead on his shoulder.

"How are ye, Sis?" he asked tenderly.

"'SIS'?!" exclaimed the members of guild Seekers.

The man glanced at them, and chuckled, "I'm Shizuka's older brother." He paused, smiling in a friendly manner. "I suppose proper introductions are in order, as well as an update on all our statuses." He let go of her, facing Senge and the other person. "I would also like to know if ye have any experience fighting a creature such as the one we are here to kill tomorrow."

He stepped back to where he had stood upon the guild's entrance, and gestured to Senge. The man nodded and stood a little straighter in response.

"My name is Senge, son of Narendra. My ranking is the number fourteen, and I have fought two such battles before," he summarised. The muscular one nodded in approval, and his gaze moved to the other male. He straightened in response, and twisted his shoulder to show the others his pauldron with two grooves and the numerals XVII, and presented himself with an easygoing grin.

"My name is Kundun, son of Narendra. I hold the ranking of number seventeen within our clan. I have no experience fighting such creatures."

"Ye can see it in yer face," Senge added.

"So, you're Senge's younger brother?" Raquna questioned, earning a nod in response.

Kundun looked Shizuka in the eye, smiling brightly. "I see ye haven't changed at all, ye daft lass! Ever the emotionless one."

Instead of answering, the woman looked to her brother.

"I am Ishwor, son of Boschay-"

"Also known as Mighty Ishwor," Senge interrupted.

"...My ranking is the number three," the man continued, letting the rudeness slide. "This shall be my fifteenth battle, and I am the commander of this mission."

The Seekers guild faced Shizuka, awaiting her announcement.

"My name is Shizuka, daughter of Boschay. I have fought one such creature before." She paused, tense. "I'm am the number twenty-six among the warriors."

A few small moments of stunned silence passed, before Senge burst out in hysterical laughter.

"Oh my gosh! I thought she just said she's the twenty-six!" He held his stomach as he doubled over in laughter, mockingly pointing at her. "What the hell was Chief Kalden thinking?!"

Ishwor seemed lost for words, staring at his sister in disbelief.

Kundun held a similar, but more sympathetic gaze. "Shizu..."

"Cut it out! What's wrong with her ranking?" Arthur brashly stepped forward, yelling at Senge.

"Oh, of course SHE wouldn't tell ye!" he answered loudly once he had calmed down a little. He breathed deeply and straightened somewhat, throwing an arm around Arthur's shoulders. The boy attempted to recoil, but ultimately failed.

"Allow me to explain: When we complete our training and become official, hireable warriors, we're each assigned a rank. This number depends on our sense of justice, our strength, and our ability for life force manipulation. Some other factors play minor parts, but it's mainly our sense of right and wrong. For example," he gestured to Ishwor, "our number three here is known for his outstanding physical strength, and he does, of course, have a sense of justice to match such a high rank. He isn't the best at controlling his life force, but that's extremely difficult to master, anyway. The Number One isn't much weaker, at all. He can rightly decide what to do faster than anyone else, and he has an unmatched ability to manipulate life energy."

He let go of the short blond. "Shizuka 'ere has a sense of justice almost equal to the Number One, and she can control pretty much all forms of bodily energy."

Raquna raised a hand, as if to cover her mouth, but dropped it. "Oh, no..."

"Ah, I see yer beginning to understand, but there's one more thing," he smirked, turning around to the unmoving brown-haired woman. "There are only twenty-six warriors in our tribe."

"No..." Simon gasped.

"That can't be! She can beat the toughest guys here!" Arthur exclaimed, but was completely ignored as Senge said aloud what they all knew.

"That's right. Out of all of us, Shizuka is by far the physically weakest warrior, hence her ranking at the bottom." He continued chuckling.

"That can't be..." Frederica subtly moved around to see the Twenty-six' reaction. There was no change in her facial expression, and nothing else that could indicate any stress, apart from how taut her muscles were, and that she stood ramrod straight.

Her arms were covered in lean muscle, suiting her lithe yet masculine stature. She could smash Raquna's sturdiest shield. She could beat any of the drunk bar fighters at their own game. They had defeated that Errant Camel, Fenrir, and the Coeurl with her as their leader. And yet she was the weakest Highlander? The weakest member of her tribe?

Frederica's gaze flicked up to the woman's shoulder guard, emblazoned with the damned symbols XXVI.

"What brings you here? You mentioned killing something," Simon reminded Ishwor.

The Number Three started, the medic's voice having apparently knocked him out of a daze."O-oh! Right, yes... We were requested by Lord Visil to slay the Great Dragon and, if need be, assist in the killing of Cernunnus."

There had been rumours of the Radha having discovered the Wyvern's Nest to have been taken over by an even more powerful draconic creature they named the Great Dragon. They had strictly advised all adventurers to avoid fighting it at all costs, as they had deemed it far too powerful for any of the registered guilds. The Wyvern had relocated to the next floor down, and the Radha had sealed off the room it had taken over.

"So the rumours are true," Raquna pondered aloud, and Ishwor nodded in response.

"We'll be working the same way as those other two...Ren and Tlachtga...?" he half-asked, and the others nodded. "We'll take down the Great Dragon, and assist those in need. That is our purpose here."

"Shizu..." Kundun suddenly started lowly. "You know what's coming now, don't ye?"

Her eyes widened a fraction. "Do not-"

"C'MERE!"

"Grgh!"

He threw his arm around her neck, pushing her down, and roughly rubbed her head with his knuckles.

"How d'ya like that?!"

"Get off," she retorted emotionlessly.

"Oh? I'm not going at it hard enough if ye're still in deadpan!"

"That's what she said!" Senge called, earning a few looks of disgust.

Ishwor shook his head and chuckled lightly, though his shoulders did not shake. "You were just waiting for the best moment to greet her yer own way, weren't ye?"

"Aye and aye again!" Kundun paused his harassment. "Although, in all seriousness, lighten up, Shizu. You've become so...dull since you revealed you were training..."

Raquna cocked a brow, looking to the commander of the gathered warriors. "'Revealed'? Why was it a secret?"

Ishwor sighed, "She used to be a sage, an extremely talented one, at that. Second in skill only to Hikari, the chief's own daughter. However--"

"Ishwor," Shizuka warned more loudly than her normal volume. He looked at her for a moment, and seemed to drop the subject.

"What must the sages do?" Simon inquired.

"They heal, pray, and purify. One of their practices is transferring their own life force into the person in need, speeding up the healing process. The purification rites are in song and dance, and their only form of self-defence is knife-throwing," the Number Three explained.

"Ishwor!" His sister's sharp tone pierced the silence that had formed, before she hissed something in their tongue.

"They have every right to know, do they not?" he replied calmly, arms crossed. She sighed lightly.

"Excuse me, but where are you staying?" Frederica decided to ask.

"We were going to stay at the Rooster Inn," Senge replied. "But Ishwor had a better idea!"

"Don't get yer hopes up," chided the other man, before facing the guild Seekers. "I was hoping we could perhaps stay at your mansion? It was highly spoken of in Sis' letters."

His sister's jaw clenched.

"I don't see why not," Simon answered. "Unless our leader were to disagree?"

The person in question closed her eyes briefly. "Nay. I do not mind."

Senge pushed himself off of the wall he had been leaning against. "Alright! Looks like we're bunking at yer place. I can't wait to see how big it is."

After arriving at the mansion, the guild engaged in questions and small talk with the other Highlanders. Arthur asked all of his less serious questions to Senge, Frederica occasionally budding in, whereas Simon and Raquna spoke a little more diplomatically with Ishwor whilst Rosa served them tea and biscuits. Kundun was talking animatedly with Shizuka, who feigned disinterest, but nonetheless answered any and all questions without her usual tense posture.

"Wait, YOU'RE the guild everyone's betting on defeating Cernunnos?!" Senge suddenly exclaimed from his conversation with the blonde alchemist, who nodded vigorously.

"I heard everyone thinks the leader could defeat it singlehandedly," Kundun piped in, then eyed his companion. "And that would be you, Shizu."

His older brother guffawed, "Hah! The day she defeats it all by herself is the day I stick me head between me legs, and kiss me own arse!"

"Then we all hope you shall not be wearing a kilt when that happens," Ishwor commented darkly, hitting Senge upside the head. Arthur winced, having become all too familiar with Shizuka's identical form of punishment.

Silence fell upon the group, until Ishwor grabbed his spear, and passed his younger sister her own. She caught it with ease, and stared impassively at him.

"Come outside with me."

They left out the back door, Senge and Kundun, after grabbing a handful of biscuits, quickly following and beckoning the others to come, too. When they arrived outside, they saw Shizuka and Ishwor facing each other from opposite sides of the training area in the back garden, clothes already drenched from the heavy rain.

"I challenge you to a sparring match," announced the man, weighing his spear in his grip. "I would just like get a grasp on how strong ye really are."

"Is my twenty-sixth ranking not proof enough?" Shizuka questioned, earning a frown in response.

"Honestly, I find that number hard to believe. To exceed in all but physical strength is odd enough, but when ye first entered that storehouse, I thought I was seeing one of the most powerful warriors before me. I may be far from the best in this regard, but I doubt such a feeling is entirely baseless." He took his stance, imposingly raising his spear to eye-level, legs apart and facing his opponent. "I shall hold back on me strength, but not my skill!"

With no more warning, he launched himself into the sky, spear raised above his head. Shizuka sidestepped the crushing attack, attempting to slash across his left shoulder whilst he was still vulnerable in his crouch. He blocked, easily pushing her back, and they began exchanging normal blows, lunging at each other from a distance, and both dodging the other's hits.

"Wow, they're really going at it, huh?" Senge commented, leaning against the wall of the building.

"Want one?" Kundun offered, opening his hand for his elder brother to choose whichever biscuit he wanted.

"Don't mind if I do." He grabbed four out of the five baked goods, immediately sticking one in his mouth, leaving Kundun with just a single, small plain sweet.

"I've never seen anything quite like them," Simon stated in awe of the siblings' match as they exchanged heavy blows.

Kundun sighed, suddenly sounding disappointed, "Don't get your hopes up--Ishwor is matching himself to her."

"As soon as he puts even a little effort into it, the fight's over," Senge finished, scoffing with a condescending frown in the female Highlander's direction.

With one powerful swing, Ishwor knocked his sister's weapon out of her grasp with the flat of his spear, her own piercing the ground behind her. She panted heavily, legs trembling as she watched her brother dismissively close his eyes.

"...It appears I have my answer," he finally announced in a solemn tone, dropping his stance. "You should rest, or you'll be in no state to fight tomorrow."

He turned his back to her and left the training area, heading to the door into the mansion.

"Oi! Don't tell me she's still fighting with us!" exclaimed the Number Fourteen, waving his arm at the young woman as her knees buckled beneath her.

"If it comes to a heavy battle, which it almost certainly will," Kundun started slowly, "she'll be in grave danger, and we shall be the ones doing all the actual fighting."

"She'll just get in the way," added his older brother.

Ishwor shot him a withering look, then heaved a sigh. "...She shall not be fighting the Great Dragon with us. She has her own mission, anyway," he stated, before shutting the door behind him.

Kundun leaned back against the wall, sheltered from the rain by the roof hanging over the edge. "Damn, that was cold, especially for him..."

They turned when the heard a dull splash. Shizuka had passed out and collapsed face-first into the muddy grass. Frederica gasped, and immediately ran up to her unconscious body, calling for Raquna to bring a shield they could use as a stretcher of some sort. The youngest Highlander walked up to them, and picked up the weakest warrior bridal-style with a solemn expression.

"Come on, let's get her inside..."

Senge scoffed, "The more I look at her, the more certain I am she couldn't have made it, anyway. There's no way she could defeat Cernunnos--the beast named after a god, of all things--by herself."

"Looks like your ass is safe," Arthur commented.

Kundun's cough sounded an awful lot like 'What a shame' as he followed them inside.

Rosa was coming down the stairs from the bedrooms when they came in, picking up her deep purple dress and rushing up to them as soon as she noticed the female Highlander's state.

"Mistress Shizuka!" she gasped, concern filling her body as she examined the woman.

"Don't worry," Kundun reassured. "She just overexerted herself. Would ye mind showing me to her room?"

She paused her fretting, and took a deep breath to calm herself. "Of course, Mr Kundun. Forgive me, but could you please explain why Mr Ishwor seemed so upset?" she inquired.

"He's offended that his sister is the weakest warrior," Senge answered scornfully, promptly followed by his brother kicking him in the stomach.

"The entire continent doesn't need to know," he chided, before stepping up the stairs to where Shizuka's room was, guided by Rosa.

"Is something like this really serious enough to be so angry about?" Raquna asked sceptically, fixating the remaining Highlander with a frown. Senge sighed in annoyance.

"It is, especially when ye consider that Ishwor's the Number Three, their father was the Number Five, and their mother the Number Six."

"...'Was'?" Frederica echoed.

His face suddenly fell. He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall behind him. "Aye. Half our tribe's last generation, thirteen out of the fourteen sent, did not return from a mission. The only one who did come back, the current Number Two, Saroj, confirmed their deaths."

"What happened to them?" asked the gunner.

"...No one really knows, not even him. All we do know is that many people lost their parents that day, something beyond unjust, including the children of Boschay."

"Shizuka and Ishwor?"

"And Maiya, only a year old when it happened. I lost my parents, too." He shuddered. "...It shook the entire tribe, and we cut ourselves off from outsiders for years after that," he admitted.

"How old were you at the time?" Raquna inquired.

"Fifteen. Ishwor sixteen, and Kundun and Shizuka were nine."

"Damn... Must've been hard..." Arthur sympathised.

"Shizu's always been pretty expressionless," Kundun continued as he came down the stairs. Rosa was nowhere in sight, most likely taking care of her unconscious mistress. "The day we were called, the day Saroj had to tell us of our parents' deaths, she clung to Ishwor with all her might, the same as the rest of us. All of us were crying. Without our mothers and fathers to support us, some went down different paths than they had originally intended."

He looked away briefly, and they could have sworn they heard him sniffle. He turned back with his face hardened. "Some gave up warrior training out of fear, others strived to become stronger, like Senge and Ishwor here, many among them seeking revenge for what was done. I was once truly dedicated to my training, but afterwards I...just lost all motivation. I felt more like I was working my way up to my own death. And Shizu...well..."

"She gave up being a sage and trained to become a warrior," Raquna stated.

"Not quite 'give up'," Senge corrected. "No one knew of what she was doing until she got her first field mission--this one. She kept up her efforts as a sage..."

"But she was training in secret the whole time," Kundun finished. "She won't admit it, nor will Ishwor, but they both strive to become warriors for some sort of closure on the matter..."

The eldest of the two shot him a knowing look, which made him appear a decade older. "The reason may not be that noble, you know."

The younger one stared at him for a moment, before he lowered his head with a grim nod.

Chapter Text

My alarm clock bleeped at me like a siren, and my hand reacted subconsciously when it hit the sleep button. Normally, I would have stayed in bed for at least a few more minutes before getting dressed, eating breakfast, then taking the bullet train to university, but that day demanded my full attention, and with little time.

I turned over in bed, groaning, and forced my eyes apart to stare at the bright blue numbers displayed on the hologram.

05:30

"Good morning, Ricky," a familiar voice greeted me.

I waited for my yawn to pass before answering him. "Good morning, M.I.K.E...."

The artificial intelligence would have probably been smiling if he could, but his synthesised voice remained in the same calm tone as he reminded me, "Today is the day."

I had both dreaded and impatiently awaited those words for a long time. Today was the day I would say goodbye to this polluted world and fall into a cryogenic sleep. As I got dressed in the outfit I would like to keep, I couldn't help but repeatedly glance at the photo displayed above the kitchen dining table in my small bunker. It showed me, my late mother, and my disappeared father. I couldn't remember her, but Dad had raised me on his own despite his demanding station as a leading researcher of the Yggdrasil Project.

Gungnir was not the definite solution to the calamity the human race would face in an estimated thousand years. He made sure I knew it was only a last minute solution if all else were to fail. Those of the future, with their far more advanced technology, would surely be able to figure out a better way. But until then, this plan would have to do.

"Ricky?" M.I.K.E. broke me out of my reverie. "You've been standing idly for a full minute now. Are you having second thoughts?"

I shook my head, moving to the bathroom to brush my teeth--the last time in a thousand years. "No, it's nothing, M.I.K.E."

As I brushed my teeth, I looked at the orange triangular rucksack leaned against the wall beside my front door. It carried all the things I would take with me to the future; guns, ammo, a first aid kit and a few changes of clothes.

I grabbed it as I opened the door. Outside, I hesitated. I pushed it open a little, taking one last look at the place that had been my home since my father died.

"Hey, M.I.K.E.?" I called.

"What is it, Ricky?"

"When I'm...asleep...could you please make sure nobody takes anything? I tidied this place up, and I'd like it to stay that way," I said, thumb running along the metal of the door pensively.

"Of course. I, too, will be put into sleep status before long, but until then, I will watch over your things," responded the artificial intelligence. Nodding, I shut the door, and walked down the corridor, the cold metal lit only by the neon lights running through it, to the lab.

I halted when I was about to pass a window, and looked outside at the Shinjuku district in Tokyo. The black rectangles of varying sizes which formed the skyline were lined with white and blue lights, flickering lightly, like tombstones with Christmas lights. The roads created a glowing grid throughout the technologically advanced capital. It almost appeared beautiful, if not for the dark clouds of pollution that were spraying acidic rain across the city, and across the deadened, infertile fields out of my view.

The seven Yggdrasil trees had been planted for this very reason--to cleanse the world's pollution and make it habitable once again. However, the pollution would not be lost, only concentrated in the roots of the trees. An estimated thousand years into the future, that high concentration of pollution would become a sentient being, with near infinite regenerative abilities. With no place in the food chain, it would try to find it, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

Gungnir units were now stationed at as many Yggdrasil trees as possible, to destroy each Yggdrasil Core. However, tests have shown that destroying only the Yggdrasil Core is impossible without destroying a large scale of land with it, obliterating millions. My dad had sworn to find a solution to that dilemma, one that provided true justice for all, and I have sworn to carry out his will.

"Miss Irving, is it?"

I turned to the female voice, seeing a woman, a researcher, judging by her lab coat. Her right arm was in a thick cast, and the other held a messy clipboard tightly against her chest.

"Yes, that's me," I answered her, eyeing the cast. There wasn't a single signature on it, nor could I identify the material.

"It's time. You should hurry to Area I," she stated, giving me a tight smile.

We turned when we heard hurried footsteps echoing down the hallway. The researcher cursed, before she briskly walked away, still clutching the documents with a white-knuckled grip. I watched her disappear around a corner, but was then grabbed and forced to face a male researcher.

"WHERE IS SHE?!" he yelled at me.

"I-I dunno!" I squeaked. He growled in frustration, but let go of me and continued away in a hurry.

"M.I.K.E., who are they?" I whispered, walking away from the scene.

"They're researchers of the Eurasian Yggdrasil station, which does not have a Gungnir unit," M.I.K.E. answered into my earpiece. "They both have high degrees in genomics, but I believe it is more noteworthy that my sensors detected an abnormality in the woman's bandaged arm."

I hummed in thought, but could not debate any further, as I had reached Area I.

The steel doors opened, revealing the cold, silent chamber that would be my home for the next thousand years.

"Visil was supposed to be here," M.I.K.E. stated, but then focused on instructing me on how to put on my suit and connect all the correct valves to the capsule. I watched with bated breath as the lid closed on top of me, and listened carefully to the artificial intelligence's explanations.

"Are you ready, Ricky? Start counting up in intervals of seven. "

I nodded, shuffling to make myself a little more comfortable, and started counting out loud.

"Seven, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight..."

"Commencing gas flow."

The sound of the soporific gas flowing into the capsule startled me a little, but I continued the numbers even as my eyelids started to grow heavy.

"Thirty-five, forty...three? No--two... Forty-nine..."

"Lowering temperature."

I felt goosebumps ride up and down my arms, making me shudder, but my eyes continued to close, my breathing became shallow, and I felt my heart slowing to a halt.

"Fifty-six... Fifty...no, sixty...sixty..."

"Sleep well, Ricky. I will be waiting for you to wake in a thousand years time."

I barely heard M.I.K.E.'s words, my eyes closed, my body frozen, and my heart motionless.

For a thousand years. 

 

Chapter Text

Simon: Ah, Shizuka. Would you mind if we talked for a moment?

Shizuka: Nay.

Simon: I noted over the course of our time as a guild that your healing rate is much quicker than the others'. So much so that a serious injury would take many precious seconds less time to fix. Would you happen to know why this is the case?

Shizuka: Energy manipulation.

Simon: Ah, yes. You have mentioned that before. Mind elaborating?

Shizuka: I move my own energies around my body. This either empowers different parts, or I can move it to an injury, thus speeding up the healing process.

Simon: I see. What exactly are these energies you speak of?

Shizuka: My life force, above all.

Simon: So...your own life and power?

Shizuka: Aye.

Simon: And every member of your tribe can manipulate it to such an extent?

Shizuka: Nay. Only those with the most training and the most talented. Only the sages and the warriors can truly master it.

Simon: So you must have trained a long time to master it so well.

Shizuka: ...

Simon: Well, thank you for explaining.

Shizuka: .....

 

///Simon and Shizuka gained Support Level C!

 

Simon: Idiot. You shouldn't be so reckless. That last blow nearly got you killed!

Shizuka: I withstood it.

Simon: This time, yes. But that won't necessarily be the case with the next F.O.E.!

Shizuka: I can handle it.

Simon: No, you can't! No man can survive being cleanly sliced in half!

Shizuka: ...Nay. I am well aware.

Simon: Then why, Shizuka, risk your life like that? Raquna is the most resilient, and she could have made it in time!

Shizuka: ...

Simon: .....

Shizuka: I have to become stronger. The more damage we take, the more strength build.

Simon: You mean Highlanders?

Shizuka: Aye.

Simon: How come?

Shizuka: By using our life force to empower ourselves and our spears, we become better at manipulation through experience. The best are able to steal the life force of an opponent.

Simon: That is...impressive.

Shizuka: ...

Simon: But still, know your limits! Highlander or not, your impulsiveness will bring you nothing but an early grave!

Shizuka: I am your superior.

Simon: Not in health. When it comes to the medical field, my word is law.

Shizuka: ...Understood.

 

///Simon and Shizuka gained Support Level B!

 

Shizuka: Hmph! Huh! Hurgh!

Simon: I see your wound is recovering nicely. And your spear techniques are improving, as well.

Shizuka: Hm.

Simon: However, I believe that's enough training for today. Rosa should be serving dinner right about now, so you should wash up before joining us.

Shizuka: I am not hungry.

Simon: Really? I find that hard to believe.

Shizuka: Do not make me repeat myself, Simon.

Simon: Don't make me, either.

Shizuka: .....

Simon: .....

Shizuka: ...I find you hard to understand.

Simon: Oh? What do you mean by that?

Shizuka: ...Why do you keep talking to me? I am no one of interest. I am just a newly registered warrior of a small tribe in the mountains of High Lagaard.

Simon: Ha ha! On the contrary! I believe you're quite an interesting person.

Shizuka: Oh? Explain.

Simon: You're not very expressive, nor do you outwardly show kindness, in fact you deny it at every turn. However, you are actually quite fond of us.

Shizuka: ...

Simon: You didn't injure yourself for no reason. You did it to protect Frederica and Arthur on the back line, who wouldn't have been able to protect themselves against a monstrous blow like that. If you need more proof, then the fact that Raquna was perfectly capable of protecting them, but that you still ran into harm's way, should relieve any further doubts.

Shizuka: ...

Simon: ...You were ready to give your life to protect them. No one but a close friend could find the courage to do that.

Shizuka: ...Nay. We must be ready to give our lives for a just cause, no matter the circumstances. I was merely fulfilling my duty and following our code. Nothing more.
///Shizuka leaves.

Simon: Of course, Shizuka, of course.

 

///Simon and Shizuka gained Support Level A!

Chapter Text

Shizuka: Hmph! Hurgh! Hah!

Raquna: Woah! I think that poor dummy's had enough, eh?

Shizuka: Does that matter? It does not possess feelings. It was made to train with.

Raquna: Well, I think both of you have had enough, don't you?

Shizuka: I train to become stronger. Nothing less.

Raquna: But isn't this going a little too far? Obsessive, even?

Shizuka: There is no such thing as too much training. Or are you simply too lax?

Raquna: Ouch. That tongue of yours can really sting! I just thought I could bring you some water--you looked like you needed it.

Shizuka: .....
Forgive me for burdening you.

Raquna: It's not a hassle.

Shizuka: Hmph.

Raquna: ...You know, I've trained with the spear myself, although I personally prefer the sword, but your techniques seem entirely different to those I'm familiar with.

Shizuka: They are those passed down for generations within my tribe. We spend years learning to master them.

Raquna: And what about putting your life force into your spears? How do you learn that?

Shizuka: We meditate for several hours every day. In doing so, we discover more about our bodies, minds, and souls. The strongest of us know more about themselves than you ever will.

Raquna: Sounds pretty deep to me.

Shizuka: 'Our souls are our spears, and our hearts our sheath.' Such is the lesson we learn.

Raquna: ...Twelve feet deep.

Shizuka: It is an ancient practice.

Raquna: Hmm... Mind if I put that ancient practice to the test?

Shizuka: If you intend to spar with me, I suggest not. We are forbidden to spar against our peers using our life energy.

Raquna: So, that makes me your peer, then?

Shizuka: Are you not?

Raquna: Not in defence, no!

Shizuka: ...We shall see. Hah!

Raquna: Gragh! A little warning would have been nice!

Shizuka: Hmph! How do you intend to simulate a battle when you know what is about to happen?

Raquna: Ha! Alright, then. Hurgh! Come at me!

 

/// Raquna and Shizuka gained Support Level C!

 

Raquna: *pant, pant, pant*

Shizuka: Have you had enough?

Raquna: Haaah... Not yet... You... You're brutal...!

Shizuka: ...Here. Drink it.

Raquna: *gulp, gulp* Hah... Thanks! I needed that. Ha! Despite what you look like, you can be pretty sweet when you want to be.

Shizuka:...I was merely repaying a debt.

Raquna: Oh, well, suit yourself. ...Actually, I'm going to take that break.

Shizuka: Hmph! Hah! Huh! Wha--!

Raquna: You okay there?

Shizuka: ...My form is a little lacking today.

Raquna: Does that perhaps have something to do with those dark circles under your eyes?

Shizuka: ...!

Raquna: Yah, I noticed. Everyone has. Your reactions are slower, your strength has decreased, and, as you just said, your form and attention span are sloppy.

Shizuka: Nay.

Raquna: Aye.

Shizuka: .....

Raquna: Why do you strain yourself so much? We aren't exactly a helpless bunch, are we? You should have more faith in us.

Shizuka: I do. That is simply not it.

Raquna: Then why are you so tired? Not getting enough sleep, eh?

Shizuka: ...Aye, but it is restless.

Raquna: Ah... Nightmares? Or maybe homesickness?

Shizuka: It is both.

Raquna: Well, I'm sure Rosa can fix you somethin' up! Her sleeping cordials apparently work like a charm.

Shizuka: I shall consider it. I thank you.

Raquna: Although, talking about problems usually helps solve them, ya know?

Shizuka: ...

Raquna: Sorry, you don't have to if--

Shizuka: I miss my younger sister...

Raquna: Oh... How old is she?

Shizuka: She is merely eleven years old, training to become a sage.

Raquna: Nice. I bet she's really sweet, too.

Shizuka: ...I-I... Enough.

Raquna: Huh? H-hey! Wait up!
...Heh, you're more honest when your tired.

 

/// Raquna and Shizuka gained Support Level B!

 

Shizuka: ...
...

Raquna: (What's Shizuka doing? Is she asleep?)

Shizuka: .....

Raquna: (Eh? What's all this blue wispy stuff? Life force?)

Shizuka: .....

Raquna: (Oh, she's meditating!)

Shizuka: ...*whisper*...

Raquna: (But then, why is her life energy just floating around the room?)

Shizuka: *whisper, murmur*

Raquna: ...?

Shizuka: *mumble, mumble*

Raquna: ...Hey, Shizuka? Are you...awake?

Shizuka: ...ma...

Raquna: Hmm?

Shizuka: ...Maiya...

Raquna: (Wait, is she talking in her sleep? That's adorable!)

Shizuka: ...Maiya...

Raquna: (So that's got to be her little sister. ...She seems kinda sad.)

Shizuka: ...Maiya...I shall...protect you...

Raquna: ...You won't get much rest sitting up. I'll lie you down.

Shizuka: ...Zzzz...

Raquna: Heh heh, some well-earned rest'll do you good. You're just a big baby, aren't you?

Shizuka: ...

Raquna: So you must be having nightmares about something happening to her... Is that it?

Shizuka: Aye, Raquna. That is it.

Raquna: Oh, crud!

Shizuka: ...

Raquna: I'm sorry! I really didn't mean to--

Shizuka: Curiosity is no sin.

Raquna: E-eh?

Shizuka: And I thank you for taking care of me.

Raquna: So, you forgive me?

Shizuka: Just speak of this to no one else.

Raquna: Whew... My lips are sealed.

 

/// Raquna and Shizuka gained Support Level A!

Chapter Text

Arthur: (Just a liiiiittle fuuuurther...)

Shizuka: ...

Arthur: (Aaaaalmoooost...!)

//Door creaking.

Arthur: (Aaaaaaannnnnd...!!)

Shizuka: !!

Arthur: PffAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Hahahahahahaha!!

Shizuka: Urgh...

Arthur: Haha! The water bucket on top of the door trick! Gwahaha! Classic!

Shizuka: Is there a point to this nonsense, Arthur?

Arthur: Heh heh...! Your eyes went the size of dinner plates! If that isn't you being surprised, I dunno what is! OW!!

Shizuka: ...

Arthur: Hey, I didn't deserve to be hit on the head!

Shizuka: I beg to differ. ...I shall take a shower now. The job is already half done, anyway. Do not do that again, or you will deeply regret it.
//Shizuka leaves.

Arthur: Challenge accepted.

 

/// Arthur and Shizuka gained Support Level C!

 

Arthur: (A few more steps...)

Shizuka: Hargh! Hurgh! Hah!

Arthur: (C'mon... Go to the left...!)

Shizuka: Huh! Gragh!

Arthur: Yes!

Shizuka: Waaah! URGH!!

Arthur: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!

Shizuka: Ugh... That hurt...

Arthur: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Shizuka: A pitfall? What is it with you and making a fool of me like this?

Arthur: GOLDEN! That was just GOLDEN!

Shizuka: ...Consider yourself lucky that I am down here and my spear is up there, Arthur.

Arthur: Heh heh!

Shizuka: Are you going to help me out now?

Arthur: Well... See, I kinda don't wanna end up stabbed several hundred times, so... Nope!

Shizuka: Arthur!

Arthur: Hey, not my fault you're too short to climb out! Oh, and I'll be taking your spear.

Shizuka: Arthur!

//Arthur leaves.

Shizuka: Arthur! ...*sigh* To be in such a position, at the hands of a teenage boy, no less... What a disgrace.

 

/// Arthur and Shizuka gained Support Level B!

 

Arthur: *groan* Why did Simon send ME out to get these stupid mushrooms? Don't we have a MAID for this?

Shizuka: .....

Arthur: ...Okay, yeah, so MAYBE I ruined his notes by knocking over the inkwell, but-- WOAAAAAHHH!! ...*pant, pant, pant* What is...? Why am I upside down?

Shizuka: You ought not have done similar things to me.

Arthur: What the--?! Shizuka?! How long have you been standing there?!

Shizuka: Long enough. Setting this up was quite a pain.

Arthur: *groan* I can't believe I didn't see that rope. Now, I'm hanging upside down by my foot! ...Wait, did you get Simon to send me out here?!

Shizuka: ...I know not what you are talking about.

Arthur: So, you did. How did you convince him?

Shizuka: ...I offered to teach him a little of my culture.

Arthur: Of course... Could you let me down now?

Shizuka: I could...

Arthur: Thanks!

Shizuka: But I shall not.

Arthur: HEY! The blood's rushin' to my head, here!

Shizuka: Fret not--Simon should arrive before you pass out.

Arthur: Wha? Hey, come back! Let me down, please!

 

/// Arthur and Shizuka gained Support Level A!

Chapter Text

The giant beast had the bodily appearance of a goat crossed with a human anatomy, fur and horny appendages on its back in addition to those on its head. It wore only a loincloth, displaying all its muscles as it stood almost as high as the canopy. It glared down at those opposing him, insects in comparison.

Those insects, however, had a nasty bite. The guild Seekers stood in their usual formation. The protectress, Raquna stood at the centre of the front line, the Highlander, Shizuka to her left, Simon, a medic able to wield a sword, to her right. Arthur, the pyromaniac alchemist, stood excited as ever on the back line, and the gunner who never missed a shot, Frederica, was on his right.

"You all know the plan," Simon called, preparing the medical equipment they would need in his messenger bag. "Is everyone ready?"

Three yells of agreement answered him, but Shizuka took a little longer to respond. Her fellow warriors' reactions to her abilities still weighed heavily on her mind, but she shook them off and responded with a curt 'aye'.

Upon the unspoken signal, they scattered apart. Simon and Arthur ran to the left side of the beast, fire immediately bursting from Cernunnus' shoulder. It roared, ignoring the pain and raising a fist to strike down onto them. The two humans rolled out of the way, and gunshots resounded.

Cernunnus refocused its attention on Frederica, who had attempted to bind its head. It stepped towards her, its heavy hooves shaking the ground, before stopping to punch her again much more powerfully than it had attempted with Arthur.

Raquna jumped in front of the gunner, steeling herself for the giant fist's impact onto her shield. When it crashed down onto her, Shizuka leapt and stabbed it with her spear, just above the wrist. She ripped her blade out, blood bursting from the wound, and jumped off, narrowing her eyes at it.

She concentrated on her energy flow, expelling her life force from her core and allowing it to manifest in her dominant arm for the moment. She immediately felt weakened, until the spell Simon yelled from the other side of the glade took effect, regenerating her life.

"It's more intelligent than our previous foes," he warned, dodging another boulder-sized punch. "And watch your step!"

Cernunnus roared when more flames exploded on its nape, its gaze moving to Arthur. It slowly knelt down, glaring at the alchemist, who suddenly felt his knees grow weak. The longer he stared into the beast's eyes, the more he felt his consciousness seep away, and the harder it became to look away. His knees buckled, and he collapsed sideways, unmoving and not breathing.

"Crud!" Raquna cursed, rushing to the lifeless body and using her shield to protect him from being crushed. Only this time, she did not ready herself for the crushing strength put into the hands slamming down onto her, and she was easily brought to her knees by the force of the strike as it landed, pushing her shield against her body. Her armour bent into her torso from the force, almost enough to reach the bone, but she scrambled up and stood her ground.

Frederica shot more paralytic bullets at Cernunnus' head, Simon rushing to aid the two injured warriors. The piercing attacks were ignored in favour of the beast grabbing the medic and throwing him away as if he were a toothpick. The beast felt some strange, cold liquid flow through its veins, scrutinising its left hand to see something akin to a paper cut. The only thing stopping the blood from flowing out was the medical syringe. It stared back at Simon, who smirked before collapsing headfirst into the ground, knowing his poison would soon start taking effect.

Shizuka opened a flask and poured the clear liquid all over her spearhead. Running up to Cernunnus, she scraped it across the ground, the sparks making the Blaze Oil catch fire just in time for her to deliver a fiery stab to the beast's hoofed heel. She yanked the blade out, and ran back to Frederica's side before it could counter.

"My bullets aren't powerful enough!" exclaimed the gunner.

"Move!"

She was suddenly kicked down onto her backside by Shizuka, and screamed in realisation when the gigantic fist crashed down onto the Highlander. The androgynous woman raised her spearhead to meet the knuckles, and they hit the metal. She was clearly struggling to keep her weapon above her head as the flames licked at Cernunnus' skin, her entire body trembling and haft bending under the strain.

Finally, the beast decided it had had enough, and slammed another fist on top. Shizuka rolled out of the way, but her flaming spear cut her under her shoulder guard, simultaneously burning the skin around the wound to the point of it turning white. Ignoring her injury, she pushed herself up, beads of sweat running down her face as she glared up at the titan. More gunshots resounded, the flaming bullets striking the wound the Highlander had inflicted, and it roared.

"Frederica..." she groaned, tilting her head in the direction of the two sets of footsteps hitting the ground. She felt herself be thrown over an armoured shoulder, and carried somewhere as red hair tickled her nose--Raquna. She was set down against a tree on the edge of the clearing that had become their battlefield. Raquna moved another body to her right. The silver-haired medic was still unconscious, and badly injured.

"I'll buy you time!" Frederica yelled to them from in front of the beast, taking her Volcan Stance, increasing the power of her shots.

"Right!" Raquna yelled back, fumbling with the lid of the Nectar II. Finally removing the seal, she tipped the contents into Simon's mouth, shut it and forced him to swallow. Once he started stirring, she got back onto her feet and stumbled to fetch Arthur.

Simon groaned, grasping his head. "What is...?"

"Cernunnus has taken us down. I need you to heal Arthur once he arrives," answered the Highlander. The alchemist would be far more useful once revived. She scrutinised the burns Cernunnus had sustained, and her eyes widened.

They were healing. The flesh was stitching itself beck together, the scorched skin peeling off, the white regaining its original colour.

Her eyes scanned the battlefield, and she saw them.

* * *

"Hmm hmm hmm! Have you ever heard of Healing Rollers?" giggled the Leggy Dark Hunter once Shizuka had treated her to a meal. She told herself she was simply paying an informant, and the knowledge gained from the small sacrifices was usually worth it. "Imagine what it would be like if they joined Cernunnus in battle? ...Actually, I don't want to think about that."

* * *

The worst had come to pass.

Every bullet hole was sealed. The poison was voided. Every sinew of the beast's body was being restored.

Had all their efforts truly been for naught?

Her brows lowered. She stabbed her spear into the ground, and pushed herself back up against it. "Nay," she grunted out, staring at Frederica, who was quickly running out of ammunition. "I shall not allow this to continue."

"Nor will I, Shizuka," Simon spoke firmly, but she did not face him.

She focused on her life force, removing every part of it from her injured left arm, deadening it, and moving it into her spear. She scraped it across the forest floor, igniting the Blaze Oil one last time. The Delayed Charge she had prepared at the beginning of the battle was still usable, and she kept the energy stirring in an iron grip.

She took a step forward, before feeling her trouser leg become taut. She turned to see Simon grasping it.

"I'm sorry, but going to fight in your state is suicide!" he said loudly.

"And Frederica's current situation is not?" Shizuka growled back, pulling herself out of his grip, and facing Cernunnus again. She needed to get his attention away from the gunner, and fast, but whilst still keeping effort to a bare minimum. She reached to her belt, then launched three knives, aimed at the beast's eye, at it.

It roared when the second stabbed its eyeball, and directed its malicious stare at her, a growl tearing from its mouth. Suddenly feeling unsettled by that stare, she shut her eyes.

Seeing as what had killed Arthur wasn't working, Cernunnus chose to hurl a fist at her.

"LOOK OUT!" Frederica yelled, then gasped.

Shizuka easily sidestepped it, then jumped over the swipe. She ducked beneath its second punch, then rolled sideways to avoid being crushed beneath its arm, and stabbed it, dissipating the flames of her spear.

All with her eyes closed.

Cernunnus roared at its accomplices, and two Healing Rollers charged at her, as fast as they could on their short legs, baring their fangs. The Highlander froze for a moment, then swung her spear horizontally as soon as they were in range, cutting them down. When their bodies hit the ground, she remained still for a moment, eyes closed, before slowly walking up to Cernunnus.

She hadn't released her Delayed Charge, and the strain of keeping her energy reigned in was gradually becoming unbearable. A migraine was already developing, but she ignored it in favour of keeping her senses sharp.

She kept herself calm, using as little energy as possible, and focusing on that which remained outside of her body. Not only the life force, but all forms of energy, including electric. She focused on the signals sent out from the brain, through the nervous system, to the limb about to be used for an attack. By the power of the energy, she could judge the strength of the attack, by the flow, the type. Her eyesight was redundant when experiencing the world as a plane of vitality.

And so, by concentrating on the signals, she could sense every move before it was made.

Jump back from Cernunnus' punch. Let it pierce the earth in the beast's frustration-induced power. Run up along the platform displayed by of life force--its arm--, ducking beneath a swipe of its other hand, and up to the largest concentration of energy--its central nervous system, the spinal cord.

She opened her eyes into slits, pumped her spear to the brim with her life force, and drove it through the bone with the most throaty, guttural, raging battle cry she could remember ever tearing from her lungs.

The beast's final roars of pain joined in the cacophony as its knees buckled and it collapsed onto the forest floor, Shizuka still attached to the back of its neck. They landed with a heavy thud beyond falling trees in volume, and the Highlander lost her grip on her weapon. She flew off the beast and landed roughly on the ground, an ominous snap resounding, before rolling to a stop, face down.

"Shizuka!" she heard Frederica shriek through the throbbing in her head. She felt warm liquid coating the side of her face, and belatedly realised she must have hit her head from her fall. Given the numbness in her right leg, a broken bone was also to be reckoned with.

However, it wasn't the gunner who picked her up. The arms she felt around her shoulders were bulging with muscle, and the thick scent of cattle and earth and home filling her nostrils meant she needn't have looked to know who it was.

For a moment, she felt comfort. But then, she remembered the dark, brooding, disappointed gaze, and gritted out, "Ishwor..."

Her brother hummed softly, and rested her head on his shoulder. She suddenly felt lethargic, and slumped against him "You've done well," he answered.

"She alright?!" Raquna suddenly yelled right beside the Highlander's ear. The siblings winced at the volume. As Ishwor answered her question, Shizuka looked around at her guildmates, only to see that none appeared to be injured beyond recovery.

"Hang on just a little..."

The last thing she heard was Ishwor sigh exasperatedly as she gave into the depths of unconsciousness. The last thing she felt was relief, and his warm, accepting hand holding up her head.

Vaguely, she remembered a time where he had done the same thing.

A sorrowful moment, surrounded by the wails of the orphaned and widowed.

The night that had changed everything.

* * *

"Seeeengeeee..."

"Shut up, Kundun."

"You know what you've gotta do now...!"

"I said, SHUT IT!"

* * *

A Study of Highlanders, by Simon Yorke

Acute Energy Sensitivity

The ability to detect energy throughout another's body, either life force or electric energy, which are not dissimilar, has so far been observed in only Masanori (I), son of Kaden, and Shizuka (XXVI), daughter of Boschay.

Once mastered, the warrior can detect the opponent's next move by excluding their own energies from their senses and focusing on what remains outside of their own body.

However, ignoring one's own life force, when they have been trained to be hyper-aware of it from a young age, requires the warrior to use as little energy as possible. In other words, acting results in a lapse of concentration, and therefore loss of sensitivity, as such a skill requires an immense amount of concentration to perform.

Shizuka first showed the skill during her battle against Cernunnus on B9F in Etria's Yggdrasil Labyrinth, 27th Stallion. She abruptly fainted shortly afterwards, presumably from the toll on her already weary mind and body. As of 3rd Aries, Shizuka does not yet show the ability to act offensively at the same time as sensing energy. This could cause severe difficulties in open combat unless she learns to either rapidly switch between sensing and acting or to detect life force whilst attacking.

Chapter Text

The first thing I registered in my half-sentient state was the pain. Pure, utter pain running throughout my body as though lava had replaced my blood. The second was the smell. Fire, ashes, burnt wood, hair, and flesh. I figured the last two could have been attributed to my own pain.

After lying in the hot dirt, face down, for who knows how long, I finally willed my sticky eyelids apart.

I just as soon wished I had not.

The scene could have only been described as 'red and black'. Red flames, red sky transcending into black, red blood, some of it dried black, everywhere. The collapsed blackened frameworks of so many buildings--once homes, schools, restaurants, inns--resembled the ruins of the ancient; empty and dead.

How could this have happened? All I had been doing was helping my elder sister clear the dishes, before the ground had erupted from beneath us. My eldest brother had helped me out of the ruins of our home, and I had then carried him as far as I could, since he could not walk with his calf impaled by a steel pole. I remembered collapsing from exhaustion and inhaling all that smoke, and then I woke up here.

I started, and looked at the weight holding me down. My brother's face was black and charred, eyes closed, hair mostly gone. He wasn't breathing.

That was the last straw. I had lost my entire family, my mother and father, along with my many siblings. And now the only survivor of the initial blast, the one who had ensured I came out unscathed beyond a few cuts and bruises, was lying on top of me.

As a corpse.

I couldn't see through my tears or hear through my cries. All I could find myself doing was pushing him off of me and wandering away. I couldn't bear the sight any longer. I had to get away. There was nothing left for me in my destroyed hometown, Gotham. All I could do was stare at the flickering flames, listen to the distant popping of explosions, and take in the smokey air.

I had to look for survivors, I thought vaguely. After the loss of my entire family, and still crying, I had no idea how appealing not being alone would be. The world felt too dark, ruined, and distorted for anything to not be depressing. I was numb with despair.

But even after hours of finding only the bodies of the deceased, and no one alive, I kept searching. Perhaps only for the smallest flicker of hope, of life, amidst the destruction.

Finally, after what felt like years of emptiness, a small head of blonde hair, the ends a little burnt and blackened, caught my attention. The small boy, more than a few years younger than me, was unmoving under a collapsed wooden beam, which was probably what had knocked him out.

I made my way over to him, stumbling over bits and pieces of rubble, and knelt down in front of him. I hesitated to check his pulse, certain I would find none, just like on all the others, when I heard rasping.

I looked again at his face, ashen from blood loss, then his slightly open mouth. The rasping was coming from there.

He was breathing. He wasn't dead.

As soon as the realisation sunk in, I stumbled to my feet and scrambled to get a good grip on the heavy-looking beam. With my hands firmly underneath it, I pulled it upwards with all my might.

The charred wood was surprisingly light, and I ended up falling backwards with it and landing on my backside from using too much force. I muttered a few curses under my breath, but abruptly fell into silence when a weak giggle, barely louder than a whisper, reached my ears. I looked, and saw that the little boy was finally conscious, coughing weakly at the smoke in the air and his lungs.

Slowly, so as to not startle him, I leaned down and grasped his shoulder. His half-lidded, pale blue eyes--the colour of a sky I found difficult to remember--met mine.

"Are you alright? What's your name?" I asked gently, pulling his limp, but nevertheless alive, body up against mine. Now that I could see him entirely, I saw that no joints or bones were at odd angles or the wrong length, indicating that nothing was broken, and he only had minor burns on his legs and forearms. He otherwise appeared unharmed.

"It hurts..." he mumbled, allowing himself to rest against me. He then looked around at the destruction around us from his head resting on my shoulder. "Where're we...?"

"Gotham," I tried to reply simply, but realised I was still choking on my sobs. "Once our hometown."

He frowned pensively, and it was only then I noticed that some of the blackness around his head was not ash, but blood. I asked the first questioned that came to mind then, "Do you remember what happened?"

After a moment, he shook his head.

Perhaps his amnesia was mercy. If only I had been granted the same bliss.

"Your name?"

It took him a few seconds, but eventually managed to say, "I'm Arthur... Arthur Charles."

"My name is Simon Yorke."

* * *

I had ripped strips of my clothing to cover his burns, lest they become infected, and shouldered most of his weight as we walked. Away from everything we had ever known. For a moment, I thought I saw a male, long-haired silhouette hobbling away in the distance. But when I looked, I saw no one.

* * *

As M.I.K.E. showed the glowing panel of red, all towns in the area marked with 'NO SURVIVORS', Arthur and I were both plunged into the memory of that day. The day of fear, loneliness, and despair.

"Dude! Is this some sick joke?! There... There's NO way we're letting that happen!"

"...And this is the best way?"

"Yes, Simon. No other method will yield better results. This is the correct choice."

How could the day we lost everything have been the correct choice?

Chapter Text

Frederica: Oh...

Shizuka: Is something the matter?

Frederica: Oh, it's nothing, I just...

Shizuka: You simply chose to sigh for no reason.

Frederica: No, I... Urgh, this is embarrassing, alright?! I, um... I don't know how to use the...facilities here. I mean, the bathtub is always so cold by the time I get to it!

Shizuka: Nothing will change that except going in first.

Frederica: What? Come on, there must be some way to warm it up again.

Shizuka: By adding more water? Aye. Does that risk flooding the bathroom? It does.

Frederica: So, in other words, "quit whining and deal with it".

Shizuka: ...

Frederica: Fine, I'm calling dibs from now on, then!

Shizuka: If it will satisfy you, we may switch order. You go in second. I shall go in fourth.

Frederica: Um, are you sure? Then you'll get it cold.

Shizuka: Unlike you, I am accustomed to it. Lagaardian climate is far from forgiving.

Frederica: Oh. Well...as long as you're okay with it, thanks...


/// Frederica and Shizuka gained Support Level C!


Valerie: Would you kiddos like something to eat?

Frederica: Um, a stir-fry, please.

Shizuka: Meat, and lots of it.

Valerie: Ha ha, coming right up!

Frederica: ...How can you eat so much meat?

Shizuka: Is is to stay strong. Why do you detest it so?

Frederica: I just don't like it that much. Won't you eat fish or some other vegetables at least once? The labyrinth has so many new plants, and the third stratum a huge selection of seafood. Surely you must be getting tired of the same thing all the time, right?

Shizuka: I do eat vegetables. And though there are plenty of lochs in our homeland, we deem fish a poor substitute for meat. We herd our own cattle instead.

Frederica: You're such a carnivore...

Shizuka: I eat what I need. And that does not include an excessive amount of ice cream.

Frederica: Hey! I don't eat that much...!

Shizuka: ...

Frederica: What? Stop staring at me like that!


/// Shizuka and Frederica gained Support Level B!


Frederica: Shizuka?

Shizuka: May I help you?

Frederica: I know this might seem odd... But you know how the phrase "true justice for all" strikes a chord with me? Well... I don't think I've asked your opinion on it before.

Shizuka: I...thought my standing was clear...?

Frederica: No, I mean, how do you interpret it? How far would you go?

Shizuka: I must be prepared to sacrifice my life for a just cause.

Frederica: No matter the odds?

Shizuka: Aye. So are our teachings, as strict as they are. Defiance is blasphemy.

Frederica: ...And if someone does defy this way of life?

Shizuka: They are few and far between. However, is someone were to commit an omission, they would be dealt with swiftly.

Frederica: "Swiftly"? I don't think I like the sound of that...

Shizuka: ...Do you remember what Arthur said shortly after we formed our guild? I believe his words were akin to, "I don't trust guys who say they're all pure and stuff."

Frederica: I suppose I can see his point. Not everyone can possibly be a saint.

Shizuka: Before our alliance with the Radha was forged, many foreign peoples' view of us was one of distrust.

Frederica: Huh? Why?

Shizuka: "Savages", "primitives", "redshanks"... Those have always been common names for us, and they all denote the same thing -- that we are feral, tribalistic warriors.

Frederica: A big difference from today! How did your new reputation come about?

Shizuka: We enforced our own laws and codes. No injustice is to ever be committed, no matter the reason. True justice for all. ...Yet to outsiders, our word is but a baseless claim, without enforcement. So, an old custom was reestablished.

Frederica: ...And that custom is?

Shizuka: To take of an innocent life, or to commit any other unjust act, accidental or otherwise, to humans or Forest Folk or any the like... That is punishable by immediate execution.

Frederica: E-execution?!

Shizuka: Yes. No matter the provocation, if I were to kill you, the Subaltern, or even a town drunk or minor delinquent, I'd be signing my own death sentence. I would be beheaded by the leading warrior of my tribe and given nothing more than the unmarked grave of my spear. No one would ever speak of me again. I would be estranged from all who ever knew me. Neither my brother nor my sister would mourn the loss of their criminal, unholy, unjust sibling.

Frederica: No...

Shizuka: That is hypothetically speaking, of course. Needless to say, I have no intention of breaking the code. I shall never have reason to.

Frederica: That's insane... How can you live like that? With your life constantly on the line?

Shizuka: We are warriors. The loss of limbs, or worse, is an occupational hazard.

Frederica: It doesn't have to be that way!

Shizuka: To protect our word, the word of the clan, our people and our ways, it is necessary. If not for this rule to reassure our contractors of our loyalty to our cause, we would have none left to reassure. The tribe is dependent on the generosity of our contractors if we wish to remain active.

Frederica: Surely not...

Shizuka: We have no heated baths like here, food does not grow easily in the mountains of High Lagaard, and our cattle is often sold or poached. There are no longer many tribes such as mine alive in this world. We stick to the "old ways", while other societies have moved on. We use energy gained from the lives of us and our ancestors to fight. You possess guns, canons, and catapults. Our ways have aged, yet we do not wish to abandon them, so we rely on the protection provided by alliances. People like the Radha we are forever indebted to, as they are to us for our services. They protect our word and codes, and we offer our lives so long as their cause is just.

Frederica: B-but...

Shizuka: There is no need to fret, Frederica. I am not willing to break the code. I will not die any time soon.

Frederica: I suppose there's no guarantee of survival in Yggdrasil, anyway.

Shizuka: So long as I can fight, I will not be felled. And if I am killed...then I shall ensure it is a noble death.


/// Shizuka and Frederica gained Support Level A!

Chapter Text

"So, you're 'Mighty' Ishwor," started the female ronin, Ren, as though expecting greater, "the Highlander Shizuka's elder brother."

Her straight cerulean hair framed her eastern facial features, and she wore a kimono as icy in colour as her sharp eyes, like frozen daggers. The scar across her forehead lowered a little as she frowned, the grip on her katana's hilt tightening.

"And who are...you two?" asked a soft-spoken young girl, Tlachtga, cloaked in pitch black robes. Her skin was sickly pale, starkly contrasting her flaming red hair and amber eyes.

Kundun and Senge had to listen closely to hear her, but I could immediately tell by their expressions that the inattentive brothers had not caught a word.

"They are Kundun and Senge," I answered for them.

"And how strong are they?" Ren asked. "Their ranks?"

"Seventeen and fourteen, respectively. I'm the Number Three."

"And...Shizuka?" Tlachtga queried.

"Twenty-six," I replied simply. The ronin frowned disbelievingly in response, but I pitched a question to her before she could ask anything else of me. "And you are Chieftain Visil's direct subordinates?"

"Correct," Ren answered sharply. "We are to aid you in the extermination of the Great Dragon."

I inwardly frowned, and I was certain the other two warriors were, as well, at the thought of working with them. It was not because I doubted their skill, nor was it the case that I did not trust them, but their boss, Visil, came across as a little shady to me. We had been requested to kill the Great Dragon alone. That was what we had been called for. And yet, in the end, he had decided to send them. And he had not informed any of us Highlanders of his intentions. Did he not trust us despite our oath, or did it run deeper?

I immediately repressed the thought. That cruel fact always occurred to me when a client seemed suspicious of us. A warrior tribe fighting to bring true justice for all? That sounded suspect, even to myself. Their wariness was justified, but not at all warranted, unless they aroused my own suspicions.

That aside, I noted her choice of words; extermination. Was she praising us, or herself and the hexer?

"An extermination it will be," I answered instead.

She nodded stiffly, and pushed open the great doors to the Wyvern's Nest.

Among all the things I have seen, none have ever been a greater sight.

It's scales were carmine, as though stained with blood, its long, twisted horns ebon, it's great wings larger than its body. The Great Dragon radiated suffocating heat, and there was only so much I could see around it, as the ponds of water had evaporated into steam, making the room feel even more like a sauna than the jungle already was.

Ren and Tlachtga seemed less perturbed by the heat, but my comrades and I were accustomed to the unforgiving cold of the mountains of High Lagaard. Needless to say, we were at a loss, even though we weren't wearing our fur cloaks and the plaid indicating our clan.

However, the first thing I noticed was our small size in comparison to the gigantic elemental dragon, that it could not hide anywhere, and it would most likely be quite slow. We humans, however, were small, and significantly swifter.

Ren had been correct. This would not be a battle, but an extermination. I was quite modest, but confidence in my ability and strength was no sin. Senge, despite his average rank, also possessed a unique skill that would serve him well.

Kundun, however, had absolutely no experience in the face of such fierce combat.

I clapped him on the shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly. "Be strong. Rely on your comrades, brother," I encouraged in our tongue.

He breathed deeply, meeting me with a hardened gaze. I nodded, and looked at Senge. Then realised I hadn't needed to -- his battle-scarred face was contorted with that usual arrogant smirk.

I sighed, and faced the chieftain's lackeys. "I suggest we us the steam as cover. Do you know aught about potential weaknesses?"

"It should be weak to ice attacks. I have that covered," Ren responded.

Tlachtga added, "I'll bind and curse it... Then it won't be able to injure us as badly..."

I nodded. "Senge, I assume you can pierce the scales."

He grinned and cracked his knuckles. "Leave it to me. You can break the bones."

I faced Kundun again, a small smile of my own teasing the corners of my lips. "Watch and learn."

The dragon stirred as we approached, a low growl escaping it. It lifted its large head and unfolded its wings. An imposing sight. I unsheathed my heavy spear, testing its weight a little, a silent threat. I made myself look as large as possible and met those slitted pupils with an even gaze, focusing sharply on its own.

"Come on!" I heard Senge roar, and turned in time to see him use his skill. His spear glowed a dazzling azure with his life force, and his arm muscles started vibrating, the spasms increasing in severity. His exceptionally long spearhead became a rippling, glowing, steel-coloured blur, like the end of a rattle snake's tail, threatening and deadly.

Unlike most of us warriors, he did not have a firm control over his life energy. On the way to his blade, much of it became lodged in his arm, causing it to spasm. By utilising what would otherwise be a disadvantage, his long spear may as well have been lined with teeth. The end result was devastating wounds. The technique had been dubbed the Rippling Spear. The Number Two, Saroj's technique had similar origins and power, but it was simply how unjust and disrespectful the Number Fourteen could be that pushed him down to an average rank.

We broke into a sprint, Senge heading straight for the abdomen, and I myself towards one of the wings. The dragon reared its head back, looming over us and threatening to unleash a barrage of flames. It cried out in pain when ice formed in its open maw, Ren living up to her name of the Ice Blade, and I chopped my spear, glowing from my Draining Thrust, through the wing, breaking the bone with the ease of a twig under the axe.

It writhed when Senge slashed across its abdomen, the sound of metal ruptured its scale plating blood-curdling, leaving a jagged, torn wound across its chest, bleeding profusely.

Roared and began to shake its head when Tlachtga blinded it. In a seething rampage, it spewed a torrent of flames, and I felt my heart stop as I watched them flow to the one on the back lines.

"KUNDUN!" I shrieked along with the boy as he was consumed by the fire.

"BROTHER!!" Senge roared, sprinting towards him as the initial burst of flames dissipated.

And Kundun was still standing. Breathing hard, heavily burnt, but standing tall.

Senge tackled him to the ground, somewhere between horror and relief, and I felt a shuddering sigh pass through my lips.

Of course, Kundun was not without his own tricks either. He was an average warrior in every way, except in one aspect; his sheer amount of life force was double that of his peers. He was no better at manipulating it than them, but he was unparalleled in his 'robustness'. He acted defensively.

I heard Ren mutter an incantation, and Kundun's injuries began to heal. Satisfied, I charged to get her with the ronin as she used an ice attack combined with my strength to pierce the dragon's paralysed torso, courtesy of Tlachtga, all the way through the heart. I used another Draining Thrust, and ripped my spear outwards through the entire left half of its abdomen until it burst out of the scales of its flank.

I heavily owed the blacksmiths of our homeland for making my personal spear so heavily reinforced, otherwise it would have broken at least twice during this battle alone. Experience told me that much.

As the Great Dragon fell, my priorities were redirected to the sons of Narendra. Neither appeared harmed, save for Kundun's burns, which were being treated by Ren's Breath spell. I felt a bit of the spell wafting towards me, recovering my life force and regenerating my strength as I neared them. I sheathed my spear across my back.

"Indeed. This was what I would call an extermination, and nothing less," I said flatly to Ren, who met me with a cold gaze. Perhaps she realised my distrust, but decided not to mention it. Good. I would have hated to spark what could potentially become an argument, especially with hotheaded Senge around. I was uncertain whether they had the same opinion of the chieftain or not, and Shizuka had yet to notice the oddity.

She was smart. I had no doubt it would show itself to her soon enough, just as she would prove herself to me.

"Hey, do you sense that?" Kundun asked his brother, head tilted southeast and downwards.

I closed my eyes and piqued my own senses just like Senge, focusing on what could have caught the young man's attention. Yet, whatever it was, it appeared to be beyond my sensory range.

"It's too far, Kundun," Senge mumbled my exact thoughts. "What is it you sense?"

The young man closed his eyes. "A battle, Seekers against Cernunnos."

"They're winning?" I asked hopefully.

Kundun's brows creased in worry. "No. Or...wait, I think they are! But what is she...?"

"What is happening?" Ren demanded sharply.

"It's Shizuka... She's... I don't know what the heck she's doing, but it's working! They're winning!" he exclaimed suddenly, eyes wide and bright.

"And Shizuka's leading?" I questioned, feeling my strength return.

"Yes!" Kundun replied, refocusing on the battle. "I can't be sure how, but..."

A smile tugged at the corner of my lips. "Let's find out, shall we?"

 

Chapter Text

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?

"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.

"Please, try."

"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..."

 

Chapter Text

"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.

"They're dead."

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.

"Hah!"

Too wobbly. Space feet a little further.

"Huh!"

Too little power. A greater swing. Whole body flowing into the attack.

"Hurgh!"

Repeat.

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.

And leapt.

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.

"Explain."

"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."