Fourth Crusade (Part Three)
We don't believe in accomplishing the impossible.
Until the time comes when we no longer have a choice.
Then we move the mountains and skies.
Then we move Heaven and Hell.
I always wondered where I went wrong that fateful day.
Raven was angrier than any time I'd ever known her. Qrow and Tai also.
I should have said something—done something. There was a point where I was afraid they might start fighting each other.
Some team leader I was.
Raven said Temujin was going to die and all her old friends faced the same danger, or worse.
She wanted to leave.
Qrow and Tai called her selfish and irresponsible.
And as I stared down at Yang cradled in my arms, I agreed.
But part of me wanted her to stay for my own selfish reasons.
And that was the last day STRQ Team would ever be together.
I was their leader, and when they needed me to lead them most, I failed.
I watched my team tear itself apart in front of me, and didn't lift a finger to stop it.
It's only now, I know what I should have done.
What we should have done.
We all wanted the same thing, but bringing that truth to the surface is always difficult. I guess that's the same for everyone.
I have this thing… this ability.
With it, I can see people's dreams, even walk through them. I can glimpse what they wish for the most.
There was never stopping Raven from leaving for Vacuo. She wanted our support, our understanding. Even though, she pretends not to care what we think. It broke her heart when none of us took her side.
Qrow wanted to help the Faunus cause too, but Ozpin and even Shepherd asked him not to interfere. He wanted to stop Raven from leaving more than any of us—and he blamed himself more than any of us. Qrow saw himself as a failure, when all he wanted to do was watch out for his big sister for once.
Tai loved Raven, but love can turn to hate so quickly. I don't think he'll ever forgive her for abandoning him and Yang. All he wanted was for us to stay together as a team. He wanted us to stay one big, happy family.
He probably wished for that more than I did.
I wanted to be with Raven above everything else.
She was my partner, my best friend, my…
I loved her.
I'd dream forever about how that day could have ended differently. We all did.
The right word or the right sentence. Raven stopping at the front door. Her turning back, and deciding to stay in Patch. Still a sister to her brother. Still a mother to Yang. A member of STRQ Team forever.
And always the one by my side.
But that's all they were.
We can get lost in them if we're not careful, or worse, they can be taken advantage of.
And we can't stop having them, either.
I think a big part of a lot of us is we wish we could want less. Feel less of that hurt when we don't get what we so sorely need.
But I also think that's a part of what makes the human soul—our dreams.
That's why the only thing we can try to do is bring them to life with our own hands.
I searched a long time for the answer to that day, to what we should have done.
And after all this, I finally know.
It's a bit late.
But I found a way to make our dreams come true.
All it will take is a little bit of luck,
A little bit of determination,
And just a little bit of courage.
"Thank you for lending me your help, Knives," Summer spoke to the girl, whose body she currently possessed.
You don't have to thank me, the small voice replied.
You're helping me save Temujin.
And I was the one, who reached out to you in the first place.
"Yeah. But without your Semblance, none of this would be possible. So I felt like I should say thank you one more time."
…You're welcome, Knives replied shyly. But you should save your thanks for if we actually manage to change the future.
Summer grinned inwardly.
"Such a good girl."
The small thought made her dig her feet deeper into the stone floor. Summer tightened her grip around the daggers stopping Camlann's claymore from running her through to Temujin. The Grimm knight's strength and stamina were practically limitless, but still, the little girl managed to hold on.
Temujin was behind, straining her Semblance. Gravity, atmospheric pressure, even the chemicals in the air bent to her will. And still, Camlann withstood the hostile environment collapsing around it. Its massive body pushing forward one step at a time, inching its blade closer to its mortal enemy's neck.
The stalemate brought the world around them to a halt. A density filled the throne room of the Hanging Gardens.
Meanwhile, Blake and Adam watched the war of attrition from a distance. The dark-haired girl showing a particularly conflicted expression.
"It seems Titan's death affects me more than I realize. Else, I'd never find myself hesitating to such degree. Or is it the freshness of this new vessel?" the Witch's speech fell from Blake's lips. "My apologies for letting this drag on."
Blake brandished Gambol Shroud and pointed its barrel between Summer and Temujin. She knew a simple pull of the trigger would be enough. The two couldn't afford to divert their attentions elsewhere. They were completely vulnerable.
Still, when the Witch willed her finger to squeeze, it would not.
"…Blake," she said to herself, like lecturing a child. "How long do you plan to resist? Temujin's suffering only prolongs until her Semblance inevitably exhausts. We are performing a mercy."
The Witch sighed, paying no attention to the rest of her body, which was now trembling uncontrollably.
"The past will not repeat itself. Titan destroyed my previous vessel. Salem is no more. You are the Witch now. Do you understand? You will kill who I want you to kill."
Blake's arm shook so hard, the gun almost fell out of her hands. But no matter how much the host fought, the sights of her weapon eventually tracked back to Temujin. The trigger was now being pulled. Only a few more ounces of pressure, and it would all be over.
The Witch sighed.
"Unbelievable. Your stubbornness is frustrating, but admirable. I've chosen a very good vessel this time around."
Blake let her arm drop to the side.
"Adam," she snapped.
But nothing happened.
"Adam." Blake ordered more firmly.
When she turned around, she saw the young man had stabbed his sword through his own leg. Blood trickled freely from the wound. Adam collapsed to one knee.
"…Truly inconceivable," the Witch mocked in awe. "Blake, I can more or less understand. But you, Adam. Temujin treated you like a disgrace when you grew beyond her control. She hated you for stealing Blake away."
"She…! Could have ended me whenever she wanted…! Even now!" Adam answered with pained breaths. "Temujin has always put our people above all else…! This is the least I can do!"
"A noble sentiment. You are hereby ordered to consume Bane."
The Witch's command sent a lump down Adam's throat. He knew what the action entailed, but despite his inner protests, his hand went to the pocket of his coat. A polished shard of obsidian quality drew shakily between his fingers.
The Bane would rob Adam of his reason. Only a beast would be left, a beast driven by nothing but his baser instincts. A hound that would follow the Witch's orders to its letter.
With his last trace of sanity, he looked to Temujin. He didn't know what to expect.
There was only warmth in the old Faunus' eyes. An understanding and acceptance of what would come next. She bore no ill will towards him. A pre-conditioned forgiveness transcended the wordless stare.
Adam felt tears swell, right before his whole world reeled back into nothingness. Only the sharp cuts of crystal on his gums could be felt. And then, rage rushed out from the pits.
The berserker ripped the sword from his leg, no thought spared to worsening the wound. On the contrary, once the blade was free, the opening in the muscle tissue closed rapidly. Bane increased his healing factor, as well as cause Adam's features to grow more bestial. His Aura began to overflow like a broken faucet.
The young man's katana was returned to its sheath and his body lowered into his signature iaido stance.
At the same time, Camlann abruptly changed the angle of its sword. Displacing the blade up, the Grimm pressed close to Knives' significantly smaller body and swiped its elbow in an upper cut motion. The girl's guard broke, her daggers sent flying in different directions.
Not giving her a chance to draw replacements, Camlann brought the point of its toe to her midsection. Knives' was able to bring her hands to catch it in time, but the kick sent her flying to the roof.
Summer was out of the way. Adam had a clear line of sight on Temujin, and Camlann was ready to follow through.
Knives' Semblance flashed a future coming to fruition. The veil draped over events yet to happen was being lifted. A familiar blade piercing Temujin.
You have to stop them! Knives cried from within.
"This… will have lasting consequences."
DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO! JUST SAVE HER!
As Summer's feet met the ceiling, a burst of silvery Aura enveloped her.
The moment Adam launched his attack, a ghostly afterimage appeared in his way. Its figure obscured by a white, misty cloak. Beneath its cape, a pair of chakrams flew out. The cyclic blades caught Adam's with perfect timing, putting a stop to it, while almost breaking the katana itself.
As quickly as the apparition appeared, so too did it evaporate.
"If I wasn't used to seeing Raven's techniques, that could have gone a lot worse," Summer thought to herself.
At the same time, Camlann attempted to cleave through Temujin, but a triple strike from a descending Knives forced the claymore into the floor just short. With the weapon imbedded, the little girl landed on its spine, trapping the weapon deeper into the foundation.
"Temujin!" Summer shouted.
There was a slight reluctance, but the elder dismissed it. The activating of her Semblance increased the gravity of Camlann's arm, holding it firmly in place.
Knives expelled a short breath. Just as the host and its possessor were about to let relief sink in, a small fluctuation in their connection occurred. Almost like the two personalities were being ripped from one another.
What is this? Why is this happening?!
"I used my own Semblance with your body," Summer answered. "It was too much to force through our connection, and you might wake up soon."
I can't! We need you to fight!
"It's alright, our bond should hold for now. Also, we managed to buy enough time!"
Just then, Blake's ears twitched in the direction of the throne room's entrance.
"Hmph. Unwanted guests of the most annoying variety," she said without a hint of worry. "Adam."
The berserk swordsman moved next to her, and together, they disappeared in a tuft of black smoke.
The instant they were gone, a man with short blond hair appeared at the entrance door. With him, flew a bird which quickly turned into a human upon landing.
The moment they passed through the archway together, Blake and Adam reappeared just above. Their blades poised and ready. Gravity guiding their ambush towards unsuspecting prey.
"Sanctuary!" Summer called.
Though the voice was Knives', Taiyang reacted to the keyword and the authority of its tone like it was second nature. The man planted his feet. A solid stance rooted his core to the earth. As he channeled his Aura through his immediate surroundings, Chinese trigrams interposed the floor. The tattoos of his Semblance's activation appeared all over his skin, as well as on Qrow's.
Blake and Adam's swords struck the pair's necks, but only managed to cause sparks to fly, as if they connected with solid steel wall.
"Yellow Jacket!" Summer gave the following order.
Qrow and Taiyang moved. While Blake blinked out of harm's way, the blonde martial artist circled Adam. Ducking below a wide-arcing slash, Taiyang took the swordsman's back, putting him in a body lock.
With Adam's limbs trapped, unable to defend himself, Qrow leveled his sword and thrust. The young man's abdominal was pierced clean through. Qrow's blade only stopping when it met Taiyang's body.
As the old partners finished their combo, Knives shared another Precognition with Summer. The prediction of the future shifted slightly for a moment before returning to its course. In the changed timeline, the manner in which Temujin was killed was different, but it was a deviation nonetheless.
We can do it! Changing the future is still possible!
"Yes, but the price might be too much." Summer said doubtfully.
What do you need?
"…More. More than what I've already asked."
Then, take it!
" If I do, the damage will be irreparable. It will be the worst-case scenario."
I don't care!
Please! Temujin is everything to Mouse and me. If there's a price to pay for even one chance at saving her, I'll pay it! I don't care what it takes!
"…I understand," Summer acknowledged with a solemnness. "It's probably why I was able to bond with you."
There was movement beneath her feet. Then, Camlann freed its blade from being stuck in the ground. And with a speed that belied the Grimm's mass, swung its claymore at the girl who once stood on it.
Just as the edge cleaved the side of Knives' arm, the visage trailed away. Dissipated, like a mere mirage. Only a sliver of wisp left behind, before that was gone too.
A light ring from a wind chime could be heard. It was both gentle, but piercing. And like a ghost, a figure in a bright-white cape landed next to Qrow and Taiyang. A disturbing likeness to one they knew so dearly was shining through.
"Hey, guys. Did you miss me?" Knives addressed the two.
They could see the girl's irises shimmer silver under the familiar hood. A ceaseless discharge of power flowed from them, like a force trying to break through. It was causing cracks to develop in her pupils.
"Summer? Is that really you?" Qrow murmured in disbelief.
"It is," Summer nodded. She brandished a faint image of her chakrams—a pair of circular blades. Their diameter was the length of her legs, decorated like wreaths of thorns and roses.
"Shrike," she ordered, before taking off at a run.
Qrow matched his movements to her. Taiyang conjured tattooed characters to blanket both their skins.
The dashing pair flanked Camlann with light-footed maneuvers. Countless strikes rang out from the knight's armor. Because they were reinforced by Taiyang's Semblance, their attacks cut deeper grooves than they would otherwise.
If the situation continued, the Grimm might have been brought down by a thousand small wounds. But Blake realized what was happening, and intervened.
She appeared at the Grimm's side. Her fast bladework danced in Summer's mirror opposite. A lightning chain exchange between light and dark rippled the air. Every collision made the atmosphere scream with the clashing elements.
"You're killing her," Blake commented. "You're forcing your Semblance through whatever connection you have, and it's killing her."
The Witch observed the fissures in Knives' eyes, like flaws growing in shattering glass.
"No!" Temujin yelled. "Summer! Stop using Knives this instant!"
Summer realized the Witch's words weren't meant to taunt her, but to incite Temujin.
"This is what she wants!" she cried out. "Knives decided this herself!"
"I don't care!" Temujin protested. "I won't let either of you put her life in danger any longer…"
"She will not die on my behalf!"
But it was too late. Temujin activated her Semblance and emptied the air around Knives of oxygen. The girl could only keep what breath was still in her lungs and retreat, or risk losing consciousness.
"Finally," Blake smirked.
The Witch immediately double teamed her assault with Camlann. A flurry of vicious strikes cut Qrow's Aura to ribbons, and almost did the same with his flesh. But the veteran Huntsman backed off just as his defenses were giving out. The tattoos across his and Summer's skin pulsed with a yellow burn.
As soon as Summer was out of Temujin's territory, she parted her held breath.
Qrow unfolded his sword into its scythe form. He swung it around once to generate momentum. On the second return, Taiyang leapt onto its edge.
A fiery sonic boom lit the chamber as the fighter was catapulted at Camlann. The once glowing tattoos on his comrades reappeared on his skin. The damages they took transferred to him, awakening the strength that was previously dormant.
Blake tried to intercept, but her attack only seemed to amplify Taiyang's strength, as he blew passed her.
Camlann stabbed its sword-arm into the ground. It dug it in like an anchor to withstand the oncoming force. The Grimm's shield went up, large enough to cover its whole body.
Taiyang pulled his elbow back in preparation. When he reached the optimum distance, his hand thrusted out. A firm stance was taken at a zero-point distance.
For a brief moment, the world came to a strenuous halt.
And then, Taiyang's palm connected with Camlann's aegis. The martial artist interposed trigram formations onto the bony surface, and the characters erupted.
An explosion of fire sundered the Grimm's shell off its wielder's body, and with it, a number of scales from Camlann's armor. The previous attacks from Qrow and Summer's Shrike combo set up enough damage for the bone to rupture.
Taiyang had to concentrate a majority of his Aura into the blow, but the result was irrefutable. He was about to finish the Grimm off, when Blake almost severed his arm with both her blades.
A low chime resounded, and Taiyang was shifted back to his comrades' side with Summer's hand wrapped around his.
"Honestly, must I do everything?" the Witch rolled her eyes and scowled.
She drew a number of Bane shards from her pouch, and knocked them to the back of her throat. Taking so much of the substance led to a thick mist engulfing her body. Only a pair of haunting amber spheres with thin slits was visible through the fog.
Suddenly, nine shadows of giant cats erupted from the clouds. Their yellow eyes mimicked their original, as they pounced at Summer, Qrow, and Taiyang from different directions. The attack not only distracted them, but obscured their vision. And it was there, Blake found her opening.
"A bit underhanded. But one shouldn't really concern themselves with foul play when carrying out one's destiny."
Blake's actual body turned to the wounded Camlann, and reached out.
"And so, the wheels of fate resume their turn."
Summer and Knives shared another vision of the future. This one, more vivid than the others. Its events overlapped the present with exact likeness.
With a callous motion, Blake grasped the base of Camlann's sword-arm, and ripped it from its shoulder.
"GRAAAAHHHHH!" the monster wailed in pain.
The Witch paid the creature no mind, as she held the Grimm's torn limb weightlessly in her hand. Within the same breath, she threw it with a flick of her shoulder.
The point of the sword made-javelin, soared towards its target with frightening speed.
"Ah…" Temujin exhaled.
"So, this is how my story ends."
The moment she closed her eye, Temujin felt a symphony of echoes cascade around her.
"All I wanted was for Raven to stay."
"Vacuo will not die!"
"Where is Temujin?!"
"I have to get back to Cinder!"
"Is Yang alright?"
"Blake's here! I need to see her!"
"The world will start over."
"How will the Strongest survive now?"
Her conscious slipped deeper into the darkness. Her corporeal sense homed in to the figure floating before her. A woman cloaked in ghostly white whispered.
"I know your dreams, too."
Summer's smile could barely be gleaned beneath her hood.
"You do, do you?" Temujin questioned.
"Temujin, the fabled Fang of Vacuo and Great Khan. Hero of the Third Crusade and Savior of the Faunus people."
"I am a plague and a tyrant. The worst kind. One that is championed by the people."
"That's not what you are."
"I've sent countless to their deaths, and have taken the lives of countless more. Do you know what I feel after all of that?"
"Nothing." Temujin chuckled mockingly, as if to accost herself. "Nothing."
"That's not true. You and I know that. If you didn't, you wouldn't be trying so hard to find a way to die."
"My death will serve as small recompense, and it is all I can offer."
"Like I said, I know your dreams—your wish."
"It hasn't changed since the day you were reborn in the desert. It hasn't changed since you were a little girl. And it's no different from your brother's, from Raven's, or from any of your people's."
"I was a tyrant, or I was very much close to becoming one."
"You wanted prosperity. You wished for your people to live free, strong, and with pride. You taught your loved ones to take charge of their own destinies. That's the opposite of a tyrant."
"I sacrificed them without regret."
"You wanted to save them at any cost. And you always regretted…You just never allowed yourself to face it until now."
Temujin felt something prick her heart. It hurt more than any wound she suffered in battle. It spread and overwhelmed her with a sickening nausea.
Several cries echoed around them. Voices of many she recognized. They were reaching out for her with all they could, with every desperate measure.
"Can you hear them?" Summer asked. "Will you really ignore them?"
"They're willing to do anything to save you, like you would for them. They don't care what Grimm they have to face, or fight whatever the Witch brings, or even if an army of immortals stood in their way."
"They'd break any rule. They'd ignore whatever the fates wished."
"All of them…idiots," Temujin worded with a shiver.
"Yes. We all are."
"I wish I could deny them."
"You can't. That's the nature of wishes. Sometimes they're the same, sometimes they're different and they conflict with each other. And they all vary in strength."
"Your wish to die a noble death?"
"It's actually pretty weak," Summer grinned. "There are two especially who are really stubborn and good at fighting yours and fate's wishes."
"I wonder who that would be?"
"You can make a guess."
Temujin opened her eye to the sound of shattering glass. Somethings or someones had broken through the windows of the throne room. And a pair of familiar figures rushed into her field of vision. Their outstretched hands trying to stop Camlann's sword from piercing her.
The worry on their faces was something she felt guilty about cherishing. It was a sight she would engrave into her memory for the rest of her life.
Not bad for the last thing I'll ever see.
Summer and Knives watched the prediction play out, and then diverge into two clear paths. The culmination of all their efforts led to this single crossroad.
Summer activated her Semblance along with her Maiden's Inheritance. The consequences of forcing her abilities through a proxy would exact an unbearable price. But a price Knives would have paid a hundred times over.
Her shade flickered to Raven's side. Summer's hands grasped the sword at her waist and cast the Grimm sleeping within to a deep slumber.
That should nullify Salem's contract for a little bit.
Now, do what you need to do.
Raven and Yang launched themselves from Ilia's airship, through the windows of the throne room. They watched the claymore fly towards Temujin in slow motion. The mother and daughter willing everything to reaching the elder woman in time.
They were close enough to see the peaceful expression on Temujin's face. The expression of one that accepted their fate as sealed. A spirit of resignation.
But they would never allow such a thing.
As Temujin opened her eye once more to see them rush to her aid, she could tell what they were thinking without them saying a word.
The Grimm blade pierced its mark and blood was spilt. Yang and Raven caught its edge with their barehands, and ripped it away before it could bore any deeper into Temujin's skull. The monstrous arm was flung to a nearby wall, while the two caught the old Faunus on each side.
"Temujin! Speak to me! Don't you dare die on me, you old bat!" Raven shouted desperately.
"Hey!" Yang also cried with tears in her eyes. "Come on! You don't get to die just like that! This is bullshit! Wake the hell up, grandma!"
There was only silence.
"Mmm…!" Temujin grumbled incoherently for a moment. "Damn it."
She lifted her hand to check what used to be her remaining eye.
"Bastard took the other one."
"You stupid, old bitch!" Raven pressed her head into Temujin's chest, sobbing uncontrollably. "Who gives a fucking damn about your eye! You're still alive!"
"I give a damn. It was my last one…"
"Well…! At least you can't make fun of how I look right now."
"Yes. But I don't think I'll ever forget how you and Yang had the same sniveling noses when you thought I was going to die."
"You're the worst!" Yang said with tearful laughter.
"You really are," Raven agreed.
Raven and Yang turned to the source of sarcastic applause. Their tempers instantly flaring with unquenchable hate.
"Bravo," the Witch ended with one more clap. "I do love theater."
"Salem…" Yang snarled.
"Oh, no. Not Salem," Blake corrected. "Salem is no more. I am the Witch now. Not merely a host, but the legitimate article."
The girl smirked, and gave a flick of her wrist. A dark grimoire appeared aloft in her hand.
"And with it, comes all my immortal capabilities. I'm sure you must understand what that means, Raven."
The swordswoman only glared silently.
"You are now outmatched. And in the process, failed to stop me from taking Miss Belladonna's body," the Witch glowered. "You, as well, Yang Xiao Long. You failed your former partner and lover. Like mother, like daughter, I suppose. Tradition as old as rhyme."
"We'll see if you're still singing that same tune, when I rip you out of Blake like the leech you are!" Yang roared. "I'll save her!"
"Oh, I'm sure you believe that, dear. But then again, how will you save this girl when you can't even save yourself?"
Blake's nine clones assembled beside the original. From the grimoire, a number of emblems flew from its pages, and engraved themselves into the replications. Each lent a certain special characteristic to its wielder.
Blake's shadows then, leapt to attack. Multiple unique Semblances were activated in tandem. Every one of them with an ability previously recorded in the Witch's grimoire.
"Nightingale!" Summer called out.
Raven's body moved almost of its own accord. The blade of a katana grew from the underside of her wrist, like an extension of her forearm. She moved in concert with her partner. Traces of Summer's Aura within her soul sang in harmony with her beloved's.
The pair's figures blinked in and out intermittently across the throne room, parrying the various strikes of Blake's clones. A melodious song weaved through the wind of their every step. A lethal duet they had not performed in years, but a rhythm they comfortably fell into.
In the meantime, Taiyang snapped to a responsibility only he could fulfill. He rushed to Temujin's side, dodging the apparitions of the Witch along the way, while protected by Summer and Raven.
Once he reached the elder, Taiyang laid his palm across her bleeding eye socket. The glowing characters of his Semblance transposed onto her. The blood stopped and the wound cauterized.
"She'll be fine for now," he said to a worried Yang. "Right now, we need to—"
His words were cut short, as Adam's blade was barely blocked by Yang's gauntlet. A slash that would have otherwise cleared Taiyang's neck.
"Damn…! Could you give a girl a break?!"
Adam only frothed at the mouth, not seeming to understand anything.
"You no longer have the resources to fight, Yang Xiao Long," all of Blake's clones said at once. "Your soul is spent."
"That's fine, though!" Summer interrupted. Her pair of rose chakrams fending of the rapid flourishes of Gambol Shroud. "Our team will take it from here."
"Hmph. The illustrious STRQ Team. A shadow of an exaggerated legend. It wasn't so long ago you were at bitter odds with one another. Do you truly expect to work under such faulty pretenses?"
As soon as the call went out, Summer withdrew to conserve Knives' strength, and Raven and Qrow dashed shoulder to shoulder.
"Still remember how to do this, littlebrother?"
"I can take the lead if you're feeling forgetful."
"Just make sure you keep up."
As the Branwens flew to their targets, they left a trail of black feathers in their wake. Raven saw the Death in their enemies. Thin red threads outlined the fatal flaws in Adam and Blake's bodies, guiding her blade. Her movements, in turn, paved the path for Qrow's.
The younger sibling's Reaper Semblance synchronized with his sister's. Each fall of Raven's attack was followed by Qrow's scythe. The lethal one-two combo decimated the shadows of the Witch. But as her clones fell one after another, the main body only paid attention to Camlann's sword-arm embedded in the wall.
Blake ripped it from its spot, turning it over in inspection. She then, paid the wounded Grimm with a pitiful look. The knight was still on one knee, leaning on its broken shield for support.
"Do not worry, Camlann. Your wish will be fulfilled yet."
Blake held out the dismembered limb towards its owner. Dark tendrils sprouted, connecting the two with an eerie Magic. The grotesque sinew pulsated and crunched, until the knight's body was devoured into the sword. A new cursed artifact was born.
"Hm," Blake marveled, holding the claymore upright. "This may be one of my finest works yet."
Dark lightning traveled up and down the artifact's edge. An ominous bloody glow irradiated its hilt to its ridge. One test swing made the wind roar with a murderous storm.
Perhaps, Yang Xiao Long?
Temujin would also make a fine test.
The Witch loosened and retightened her grip on the new version of Camlann. She also rechecked the control over her body.
The assimilation is progressing smoothly.
Enough of it seems complete, in that Blake can no longer interfere.
The girl bolted for where Yang and Temujin rested.
"Summer!" Raven shouted upon noticing.
"Don't worry," Summer whispered within her. "We won't let anything happen to either of them. We're with you."
Raven stopped in her tracks, and felt a familiar Magic swell within her. It was an ability she used only a handful of times. Like the Magic Ozpin granted her and her brother, which let them transform into birds, Salem granted Raven something as well.
It was in no small way one of the reasons Temujin was able to overcome the Third Crusade and go blow for blow against the previous Spring Maiden.
"Onimaru!" Summer called.
Raven's form warped and twisted. The core of her soul was drawn out from within, while her physical body retracted in its opposite. The purest derivative of her Semblance and personality was borne in the shape of an Odachi.
Raven's alternate form shone with the deepest black steel. A thick, viscous smog drifted along its spine, like oil floating in water. Simply keeping still, its ink painted the canvas of the atmosphere. Beautiful, ceremonial threads of crimson decorated its handle, while tassels weaved from its end like a tail.
At the same time, Summer's figure blinked in Blake's path with a low ring. Raven's sword form flew to her partner's grasp. As the two made contact, their wills and strengths became one. The braids of the Odachi wrapped Summer's arm, fusing their Auras.
A rush of chaotic energy exploded from the godly blades meeting each other. Camlann's wrath electrified the air around them. Raven's brushstroke reaped death with each breath.
"I can't believe you're here, Summ."
"Really? I can," Summer replied to the echoes of the sword.
"How did you know this was going to happen?"
"Cause I knew we could make it. Because I knew this was what we wished for."
A shockwave caused the pillars in the room to crumble slightly. Blake and Summer traded blows with their greatswords an immeasurable amount of times. Each exchange rippled the fabric of reality, bringing forth influences from the Never Realm.
The lightning from Camlann intertwined with the fiery ink of Raven's calligraphy. Summer felt her hand guided by her partner's embedded technique. A devastating horizontal slash and reverse was performed like the flight of a swallow's return. Meanwhile, Blake thrust Camlann with a force culminated from the wrath of thousands of fallen Crusaders.
The roof tore open and the combination of thunder and brush streaks scarred the sky.
"This is what should have been," Summer said. "This is what we should have done all those years ago."
In spite of the clash of cataclysmic proportions, or perhaps because the situation demanded the partners' inner hearts to unite, Summer and Raven's inner thoughts were shared.
"We should never have left you alone."
"It's not your fault, Summ. I made my choice to leave the team. I needed to save Temujin."
"And I'm saying we should have gone with you. It doesn't matter the reasons. We all wanted the same thing in our own ways."
"But it's today we do it right."
As Summer finished the thought, Raven realized what she meant. A warmth she hadn't felt for so long brimmed like a mad joy.
Taiyang, Qrow, and Summer were here with her. STRQ Team was reunited, here in Vacuo. Together, they were saving her home and helping her protect Temujin. It was like a dream come true.
"…I love you, Summ."
"Hehe! I love you, too!"
"Hey, Tai? You get the feeling we're missing something important?" Qrow appeared.
"Dunno," Taiyang shrugged. "But I'll tell ya, I haven't enjoyed a fight like this in a long while!"
Synchronizing their assault with their leader, the two men joined their teammates on each side. The complete onslaught of STRQ Team became an overwhelming contest against the Witch, who's hands were failing to keep up.
It was then, Blake felt heat tickle just above her shoulder. She ducked the sneak attack, vanishing to an empty space of the chamber. The fist of a blazing gold narrowly missed her.
"Damn it! If I wasn't running so low on fumes, I would've gotten you!" Yang complained.
In the break from her opponents, Blake made a quiet assessment of her situation. Temujin was barely hanging on to her life. STRQ Team were a formidable threat, but they were approaching their limits, especially with Summer possessing Knives. And Yang was in the worst condition of them all.
On the Witch's side, her only ally in Adam was overdosed on Bane and crippled by fatal injuries. Her strength, complimented by Camlann's artifact, could overwhelm STRQ Team over time. The problem was the newness of her vessel.
Blake was strong. The Witch had been preparing her body for some time now, but the demise of "Salem" came earlier than expected. Contrary to her earlier bluff, the young Faunus wasn't completely capable of harnessing all her Magic yet. If the battle continued, she would risk the same long-term damages Knives was accruing from Summer's possession. It was too early for the Witch to sacrifice her new vessel. That is, unless the benefit outweighed the penalty.
And then, there was still the previous host trying to break control.
"…Yang!" Blake cried.
"You have to end me!"
Yang recognized the tone as her former partner's. There was no questioning it. Whether the Witch was letting the personality surface on purpose didn't matter.
"No." Yang shook her head. "I'm not killing you, Blake. Not ever."
"Please…! You have to!"
"Did you really just expect me to say, 'Sure! No problem'?" she flashed a confident smile. "I'm going to save you no matter what."
"…Really? After all that's happened?"
"You'll never stop being important to me. Things change, but that never will. I'm coming for you."
Yang lowered into a fighting stance. The engines of her Ember Celica gave a violent sputter before firing its afterburners. Red painted her eyes.
It wasn't just Yang, but STRQ Team also readied to resume their desperate battle. Haggard or not, they held the same unwavering determination as the younger. The idea of taking Blake's life never crossed their minds.
"Hm," the Witch remarked with amusement. "I can use that. If you're not willing to destroy this body to defeat me, then I won't have to worry about—"
The young girl's ears perked at hearing the familiar voice. It felt like her heart suddenly stopped beating, and her breath was taken away. The Witch couldn't force the body to move the way she wanted.
"Blake, you promised me, right?" Ilia approached. "You remember? You still in there?"
"…Illy. D-don't…!" Blake staggered back, clutching her head. "Don't come near me…!"
"Blake," Ilia stepped closer. "It's time to come home. It's time to come back to me. I'm right here."
"Stop! I can't hold her back!"
"Yes. You can."
"She's too strong!"
Ilia was now close enough, and grasping Blake's hands. The sword of Camlann fell to the side.
"I love you, Blake."
The lines in the girl's face knitted with anguish, while the black in her eyes warped. Two souls within the body warred for influence. The yellow glow in her irises shimmered with change. Then, in a tone that was completely genuine,
"I love you, too, Illy. I haven't forgotten our promise," Blake nodded tearfully.
Her soft expression hardened, as she turned to her former partner. A quiet determination burned there.
"Yeah, Blake. I promise I'll bring you back to Ilia."
"I'll see you soon."
Blake smiled, and returned to Ilia with a meaningful look. She leaned in to leave a soft kiss on her lips, before stepping firmly away.
"It'll be a little longer, I think," she said apologetically.
"Don't keep me waiting too long," Ilia replied with a sorrowful grin.
"I'll try not to."
A thick black smog swirled Blake's body, and engulfed the entire throne room for a moment. When it dissipated, the girl was gone.
Ilia looked to Yang.
It was no secret she harbored a lot of resentment towards her. But it was in this moment, the two completely understood one another. The determination to save the same cherished person was a bond a long time coming. A wordless vow was shared.
"So," Yang started awkwardly. "Does that mean we're friends now?"
And just as quick as the understanding formed, so too did it break as Ilia clicked her tongue with annoyance.
"Not on your life, Xiao Long."
"—Not until you get Blake back for me."
Summer's strength abruptly left her and her grip on Raven with a sudden jolt. Her small body went limp, like it was struck with instant paralysis.
Raven dropped to her human form and caught her.
"Summer! Summer, what's wrong?!"
The misty visage of the woman evaporated to reveal Knives heaving heavy breaths. Her sweating chest raised and fell, like her tiny body had just been freed from carrying an impossible burden. The Silver in her irises pale—before cracking open completely.
"Summer…" Temujin groaned. "What have you done…?"
"It's the price for channeling my Semblance and the Maiden's Inheritance," Summer's voice came distantly from Knives' lips. "It's supposed to be impossible under any other circumstance. But Knives is a very exceptional girl, Temujin. You should be proud."
"She'll be blind from now on. Her Semblance is gone, too."
"Knives understood what it would take from the beginning and the risks that would come with me possessing her. And she did it, anyway. If you want to blame me, I'm fine with that."
"Knives…" Temujin wept. "Knives, why for someone like me?"
"The same reason you would do anything for her."
"Damn it…! Stupid girl!"
"Love and stupid go together a lot," Summer gave a small, deprecating chuckle. "Raven?"
"Yeah," the woman clutched the girl's hand, while she stared blankly into nothing. "I'm here, Summ. We're all here."
"Sorry, I kinda sprung all this without warning. I'm sure you all have questions."
"Only about a thousand of them, but what's new?" Raven gave a stifled chuckle.
"I missed you. All of you. But like all things that are too good to be true—"
"They don't last."
"Nope. No, they don't."
Summer sat up with painful effort. Although she was blind, she seemed to sense where everyone was, as she turned to each as she spoke.
"Qrow, Ruby needs as much training as possible before the final battle. It's only half, but she needs to learn how to use the Maiden's Inheritance too."
"Seriously? You appear out of nowhere, possessing some girl, and that's all you have to say to me?"
"Your leader's orders are absolute."
"Heh!" Qrow wiped his eyes. "Haven't heard that for way too long."
"And don't forget to give Yang the Relic."
"How do you—never mind. Of course, you know."
"Tai, once I leave Knives' body, I won't be able to regulate her Aura. Use your Semblance to keep her from dying."
"Yeah, alright," Taiyang sighed. "You got it. Leader's orders."
Summer produced Raven's old sword, and handed it to its rightful owner.
"The Grimm inside it will wake once I leave Knives. Once it does, your contract with the Witch continues."
"I figured as much," Raven answered bitterly, as she took the sword. A familiar dread bound her soul to the accursed weapon once again.
"We'll talk more when the time is right," Summer promised all of them. "I'm not supposed to be here in the first place, so I'll hold off on hearing all your complaints for the moment!"
The rest of STRQ Team chuckled at their leader's words.
Yang swallowed hard as she stepped towards her.
"I'll see you and Ruby in Menagerie."
"…Alright, mom…" she answered uneasily. Yang tried to control the emotion rising in her throat, but it only made her hiccup painfully.
"I'm so proud of how far you've come. Just a little bit longer now. I know you can do it."
Summer smiled fondly. The edges of her lips then, relaxed and her eyelids drifted close. Summer's presence receded, and the original host of the body became its only occupant.
"Well," Raven nonchalantly stood with a huff. "That didn't go as terribly as it could have gone."
"You mean, us being a Team again?" Taiyang clarified.
"Mostly because Summer was here. You two bozos were extras."
"Of course," Qrow rolled his eyes. "Would it kill you to just say something nice to us once in a while?"
Raven opened her mouth, and then closed it.
"…Thank you. Both of you. For coming."
Taiyang and Qrow blinked with surprise, before breaking into embarrassed smiles.
"Oh god," Taiyang massaged the back of his neck. "I feel old."
"You, too, huh?" Qrow chuckled.
The three shared a quiet moment together. A small rewrite of history. The day STRQ Team disbanded was overwritten with today's reunion, no matter how brief.
"Qrow, Tai," Raven spoke. "You look better. Less drunk and depressed than I've seen in a long time. Make sure whoever's looking after your sorry asses keeps doing it."
""Uh huh…"" they both groaned, looking away.
"And just in case you idiots get any dumb ideas, know that we're still enemies after this. The same goes for you too, Yang."
"I know, mom," the daughter rolled her eyes. "I'm coming for you too, you know. Blake's not the only one I'm dragging back home."
"…Don't get cocky. Well, then. I guess I'll see you all on the full moon."
Raven turned and was about to leave, when she stopped.
"Take care of yourself, you old prune."
"As much as a blind woman can," Temujin waved vaguely.
"And don't," she paused. "Don't do something stupid like trying to kill yourself again! Or I swear, I'll stop you just so I can kill you myself."
"Oh ho ho! Who taught you to speak that way?"
"…I really thought I lost you this time."
"…I'm sorry, Raven."
"The most stubborn old woman in Remnant apologizing. This really is the end for Vacuo."
Raven drew her blade, and sliced open a portal.
"Get out of here, while you still can."
With the battle in the Hanging Gardens finished, Yang made her way to the throne room's balcony.
Dusk was now setting in, as she saw smoke stacks rising from the North, West, and South. The armies of Grimm were still launching their endless assault on the capital despite their master's retreat. From the looks of it, it was only a matter of time before they broke through the Walls and Vacuo was lost.
"Really can't catch a break," Yang sighed into the wind.
She basked in the somber moment, while Qrow joined her side.
"How are ya, kiddo?"
"Are we talking physically, mentally, or emotionally? Not that the answer isn't the same for all of the above…"
"I hear that."
"How's Knives and Temujin?"
"Your dad's making sure they're stable until medical teams arrive."
"The Bane's taken its toll, but he'll live."
"Ilia bringing the airship around yet?"
"Soon enough. You sure you still wanna do this, kid? Don't know how much good you can do in your condition."
"The war goes on," Yang gave a tired shrug. "My team's still out there. And I need to make sure there's something here when the Atlesian Fleet arrives. I can't just let Vacuo fall like this. Not after everything."
"Yeah, I figured as much. You know, we might actually die before we see Summer again at this rate," Qrow commented, while observing the continuous swarms of Grimm in the distance.
"Since when is anything in life guaranteed?"
Qrow reached in his pocket, and pulled out a chess piece.
"Ozpin wanted you to have this."
"The Relic from Beacon's exam?" she cocked her head. The Maiden Inheritance within her resonated with the object's appearance. "What…is it?"
"It's a memento from the Old One. Titan's last gift to the Children of Remnant."
"It's not going to take over my body, is it?"
"I will admit, it's similar to the cane Ozpin left. But no, you're not going to be the next vessel for anybody. Titan's gone. I'm pretty sure, as a Maiden, you felt that."
"Yeah…" Yang took the chess piece in her hand and examined it.
Without a second thought, she channeled her Aura through, and felt something funnel back. A wealth of information flooded her brain, or more accurately, an insight. Her very concept of the world shifted ever so slightly, but nonetheless significantly.
"Yang?" Qrow checked.
"I think… I just learned Magic," Yang muttered in disbelief.
"Kind of. I can't…use it exactly, cause I've never done it before but…" Yang was in the process of organizing her newfound thoughts. "They're more like instructions, but not?"
"Anything in there to help us out at all?"
"One specific thing, as a matter of fact. But I need some time."
Yang tapped her in-ear communications.
"Em! Minerva! Nai! How long will the Walls hold out the Grimm?"
"Yang?! I guess from the sounds of it, Temujin hasn't bit the dust!" Emerald replied.
"Wait, what do you mean? Temujin was in danger?" Minerva questioned in surprise.
"We can talk about that piece of drama later," Yang cut them off. "How are the Walls?"
"We are holding defenses here in the Northern theater," Minerva answered.
"We are somehow also managing the Southern Walls," Nai checked in.
"Looks like the West is where it's gonna fold," Emerald said. "Bean's doubling down over here. There's more Grimm being committed to this sector. It's probably gonna hold for another hour, maybe two tops. Then, we're fucked up the ass."
"Damn it! That's not enough time!
Yang slammed her fist on the guardrail. Her mind was quickly thinking of ways to prolong the battle. Minerva and Nai could move to assist Emerald, but they would take too much time. Their respective areas could also fall in their absence.
They needed more. More time, more people than they had, more resources, but any resemblance of anything like that was still too far away.
They needed a miracle.
Yang's radio suddenly crackled, followed by a voice from one she didn't expect to hear.
"Do not lose heart, Yang," Cinder's words resounded confidently from the other end.
"Immediate reinforcements are inbound."