I had the weirdest dream last night where I wrote this chapter entirely in rap format. Not that I can rap (I absolutely cannot), but somehow everything in bars, with little rhymes and verses. I then woke up thinking;
"You know, a story fully written in rap that is both readable normally and something you could listen to as a rap without any loss in quality, would be amazing! I should write that!"
And then realised I know nothing of rap at all xD
Ah, they always say inspiration strikes in dreams. It's good to know my inspiration pays no attention to my own limitations. Real convenient, brain. Good job. Have a cookie.
Beta: College Fool
Cover Art: Dishwasher1910
Book 6: Chapter 5
There were plenty of good aspects about our new team member, not least of all being his knowledge of the Grand Desert and survival in it. With Sun guiding, often poring over the map with Blake, we were able to make good progress from camp to camp, and were even able to stop outside without fear of storms for Sun could read the signs and warn of any encroaching. Although the endless dunes and sparse pockets of vegetation looked the same to me, Sun appeared able to pick out minute differences in the shape or size of a dune, and chart our progress by stars and distant mountains. He was even able to keep us away from most Grimm, invaluable when we needed to sleep for the night.
"You can't just make camp on the sand," he'd explained on our first night. "The tribes know the lay of ruins and ancient settlements. Finding one of those and settling atop a dwelling is the only hope. The buried foundations prevent the sand from swallowing you, and Grimm from burrowing underneath."
True to his words, we'd faced not a single Grimm through the night.
He got on with the others, too, chatting about this and that with an irreverent air and easy camaraderie. Not for Sun the awkward silences where no one knew what to say. He filled it with stories of the desert, or by asking for stories in turn about Vale and Mistral. Even Blake relaxed around him, coaxed out of silence to talk about how Rogue-type Classes were treated in Vale.
He didn't eat much, didn't complain and never shirked his duty as a sentry. If he had, I could have at least felt a little more justified in disliking him. As it was, I couldn't hide the truth. Sun made me feel jealous; bitter, ugly jealousy that I tried not to show, lest Blake roll her eyes or get angry in turn. It wasn't like we were together, and even if we had been, Sun wasn't doing anything untoward.
It left me feeling like Remnant's biggest asshole, so I did my best to ignore it. What made it worse was how nice Sun was with me, too, happy to walk beside and talk if the silence grew too great. A part of me wondered if he'd noticed the jealousy and sought to alleviate it, and that possibility only made me feel worse.
"The line is getting darker," Blake said from the head of the group. Yang hurried up to take a look at the map over Blake's left shoulder, and Sun did the same for her right, one hand on Blake's arm.
"That's definitely getting closer to a red," he said. "I don't suppose the guy who made it explained what kind of red it would be? Dark, bold, light?"
"The Archmage doesn't play with his words," Weiss said. "It will be a bold, flat red. Nothing more."
"Then this is a reddish-purple," Blake explained, "Though it seems to get a little more towards block purple at the edges of the map. I wonder if that means Torchwick is further inland." She turned the map around to show the rest of us, and true to her words the colour did seem a little more blue the closer to the coast it got.
"Sun, do you know of anything inland from here?" Pyrrha asked.
"There's stuff all over the desert if you know where to look. There are two ruins down that way, but there are ruins dotted around everywhere."
"I guess Torchwick and Watts need to check each and every one," I said. "We should head there and see if we can't catch them."
Sun stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. "Or we could head them off," he said with a grin. "Hear me out. Those ruins are on my Sept's territory, which means I know them like the back of my hand. I can tell you right now they're opened already, and there's nothing down there of any risk."
"Those ruins are empty?"
"They are, not that our quarry knows that. They need to check them out just in case, but we don't."
"We can use that time to catch up," Weiss realised. "We've always been a fair way behind them while they travel westward. If they're delayed on a fruitless endeavour, we should keep moving. The problem is where we go."
"Further west?" I guessed. "We know that's their direction."
"West encompasses a lot of land. Do we go west, north-west or south-west?"
"Might I make a suggestion?" Sun chimed in. Weiss waved for him to do so. "You guys are trying to catch these three, and they're going to have to check each ruin one by one. That's going to take time, and when you're in the desert the biggest danger is time. Water and food are scarce and the more they stop to look at ruins, the scarcer that's going to get."
"Didn't you say they would be robbing tribes?" I asked.
"Sure, but only if they find any. If we use this time to get ahead of them, we can warn off anyone that we see – leaving them with only one option; to resupply at a settlement."
"And once we know where they're headed, we can set up an ambush," Ruby said. "That's perfect!"
It really was. Sun was good at this. Better than I was, at any rate. I tried to tell myself that shouldn't matter – because it really shouldn't. Sun was helping us and the main goal was just to stop these guys – but it somehow still irritated me.
Stop being a jealous idiot, I snapped inwardly. If you want to do better, do better. Don't just complain about it.
"It is a good plan," I said, feeling like I had to compliment him, if only to pay him back for my ill thoughts. "But I can't see any nearby settlements on the map. It doesn't actually help us much if they die in the desert. We need to catch them alive."
"That's because you don't know the area like we do. There is a settlement nearby."
"Would Torchwick know of it?"
"He stole one of our maps after killing our people. It's how he's finding the ruins," Sun explained. "Our maps contain all the knowledge of the desert and are worth more than the parchment they are inked upon. It will tell them where to go, and without tribes to subsist off, they will need to head there for food and water."
And we would cut them off and catch them.
There was no telling how long it would take Torchwick's group to get through the ruins, but Sun felt we had a day at least. A combination of the size of them, the need for Torchwick to check every nook and cranny, and the fact they'd have to rest, fight off Grimm. We marched through that time, eschewing sleep on the first night to keep moving, taking only a three hour nap in the hottest hours of the next day.
We went straight west where Torchwick had deviated south. That allowed us to cover more ground, and at one point Blake declared that we were actually directly north of their current location – although the map suggested we were over a day's travel to the north.
"Cinder's map has started to move north, too," she reported. "She's noticed."
"Perfect. It'll be a pincer movement."
The temptation to head south was almost overwhelming, but we stuck to the plan. The time we wasted going south would surely be enough for them to finish exploring, at which point they'd head due west and we'd be behind them again. We had to get ahead and cut them off, and by the time the second night came, the map dutifully reported that we were.
We came across two tribes as we travelled. Or rather, we came across a single family of four – a mother, father and two children with a single caravan and an ox, and then we later came across a small trading group of twelve or fourteen with three caravans between them.
Both were friendly – almost too much so. We shared news, water and food, and Sun passed on the warnings of Torchwick and the threat the travellers might face. With how quick they were to trust and aid us, I could easily see how the Wukong Sept had been tricked. I confronted Sun on it once the final caravan had moved on.
"The way of the desert has always been to help those in need," Sun explained. "When the land itself wants you dead, people naturally band together. It is people from your land that come here to pillage and kill."
"I know that, but surely people should be at least a little more cautious of armed travellers."
"I would be more cautious of those unarmed, for they must be dangerous indeed to traverse the desert. Grimm aren't exactly rare around here."
"But this level of trust is just naïve. What about bandits or criminals?"
"The people of Vacuo are simply like this. We have to work together to survive. The only reason we attacked you was because our tribe had just suffered under those you chase, and we thought you allied with them." Sun tapped his staff into the sand and leant on it. "As for bandits, we don't have that many, if any. Banditry comes to life in areas of wealth and plenty, of which you'll be hard to find any in this land. People travel light, often without gold or jewellery or any other symbols of wealth. If anyone here decided to become a bandit, they'd be better served catching a boat to any of the other Kingdoms, where their skills could net them actual rewards."
It was a brutal assessment of his home, but it made sense. It said a lot about a Kingdom's prosperity when even the criminals were going elsewhere for work. The general need for people to work together to survive might have also had something to do with it. Bandits in Vale could stop at a river for water or any little village to trade for food or supplies, but we'd been travelling for almost a week now and the only settlement we'd ever seen was Alair.
Vacuo just didn't have the infrastructure, and if the tribes were as well-connected as Sun suggested, any criminals would be known by all in a matter of weeks. There was a lot about Vacuo that didn't make sense to me, not least of all how the people could be so happy with so little.
We crested the next rise in time to spot and deal with some Grimm. There weren't enough of them to slow us down and Sun held his own, twisting his staff about him as he weaved between chitinous legs and stingers. Wherever he struck, bone shattered. The Grimm were too weak for me to get an idea of how strong he was, and once they were dealt with, something else caught our attention.
"Look!" Ruby cried happily. "It's an oasis!"
"Sure is," Sun laughed. "Go on. It's safe."
Ruby didn't need to be told twice and rushed on ahead, Yang trying to catch up in case her sister got in trouble, while the rest of us approached at a more sedate pace. It was an actual oasis and not a mirage, with a large spring in the centre that looked crystal clear and all too inviting. Trees and grassland spread out from it like a pocket of life struggling to survive, and although there wasn't enough of it to class as farmland, it was still a welcome sight, with birds flying high above and bright flowers in hues of red and gold dotted around the water's edge.
Perhaps the oddest thing about it was how perfect it seemed. There was a strict edge where grass gave way to sand, with not so much as a single blade of grass encroaching beyond the point. Even in the distance, looking out over the water, there was an immediate transition from beautiful greenery to fine sand and giant dunes.
By the time we reached it, Ruby was flat on her back and spread out, running her hands through the soft grass and laughing happily. Yang was sniffing a flower nearby and sat on her knees. My own bag dropped from my shoulders and I sat down a little more carefully. The ground was much more solid than the desert, but also slightly spongy underneath, damp from the oasis and whatever ground-source of water it came from. The grass was wet as if from due. Taking Ruby's example, I laid down and breathed a sigh of relief as my hair dampened.
"An oasis is the lifeblood of the desert," Sun laughed, shirking his pack. "It is a rare jewel of life. This is also the only place your friends can come for water."
I leaned up lethargically and looked to him. "I thought you said it would be a settlement."
Sun smiled mysteriously. "It will be."
"I don't see any houses. Or people."
"Oh, you will soon enough." The Monk stooped to collect some flasks from our packs. "The water is sweet but not always potable. Animals come here and their habits are not always cleanly. It will need to be boiled."
"Just leave it out in the sun," Yang griped. "That'll do it."
Sun laughed and went to fill up. A part of me knew I should help him but the relief of the cool grass was too much to ignore. Nora was face-down and spreading her arms and legs in it, while even Weiss was sat, robes splayed beneath her as she resisted the urge to be as childish as we.
"This is beautiful," Pyrrha marvelled, playing with a crimson-coloured flower. When she tapped it, the petals shook, releasing some fragrant pollen that was soon caught by a warm breeze and whisked out over the water.
"It's nothing better than what we have back home. All over the place, I might add." Blake pointed out.
"It's the context that makes it beautiful," Pyrrha said, refusing to relinquish the point. "The desert is so devoid of life that it makes spots like this all the more incredible."
"I'm surprised there isn't a settlement here," Ren said. "It seems like the obvious place for one."
"Most villages are created near sources of water," Yang said. "Would make sense for there to be."
"It's not quite as easy as that," Sun said, on his way back and having overheard. He dumped the water down and drew some out to splash his face. When Ruby made a whining sound, he also splashed a little her way, earning a giggle.
"What do you mean?" Weiss asked. "This looks like the perfect spot for a small village. The only spot we've ever seen."
"It is and it isn't. The problem here is that the water comes from an underground source, likely a river. It's slow and steady and trickles to the surface to fill this pool, but that takes time. There isn't enough to support a village all year round, let alone for multiple years."
"It gets drained?" I asked.
"Not as it is, but it has once or twice before. When the water drains, the plant life dies back and the desert reclaims it. Then, over a few months, it comes back and blossoms once again. That makes it pretty unsuited to being a fixed settlement, but it's a lifesaver for travelling groups like the tribes."
"But I thought you said there was a village," Pyrrha said.
"Not a village," Sun corrected. "A city."
"I don't see a city."
"Then look over there," he said, pointing.
Ruby was already on her feet by the time I'd turned, following Sun's finger to a dune in the distance. No, it wasn't a dune at all, nor was it a sand storm en route. It was a cloud of dust kicked up and getting larger, with hazy shapes distorted by the heat visible at the front. At such a distance I couldn't make out much, but it looked like a column of people, almost like an army on the march.
"Are those… people?" Yang asked.
"It can't be," Pyrrha said. "There has to be hundreds of them."
"Well over two thousand," Sun quipped, laughing at our shock.
"Is it a tribe?"
"It's the City of Vacuo. The Roaming City."
It took less than three hours for the deluge of people to reach us, and somehow less than two more for them to set up tents, building and more. They were not of a solid construction, but rather long wooden poles set into grids, between which they hung cloth and leather stretched out and attached by pieces of string. Some were small, more akin to tents, while others were far larger, the size of a tavern back home, though rarely reaching up to a third floor.
Walls were erected – a great, snaking thing that ran around the circumference of a city being built before our eyes. And it was a city; for all that it had not existed two hours earlier. Already small rafts had been pushed out into the oasis and territory had been claimed. The people worked around us, not even bothered by our presence. They left us the small patch on which we lay, and just like that we'd claimed prime real estate in the centre of the city of Vacuo.
A city that roamed the desert.
"This is incredible!" Ruby practically gushed. I couldn't disagree. "You're telling me the city moves around the desert!?"
"Sure does!" Sun laughed the laugh of someone who'd played a practical joke on the unaware and was now revelling in it. "Vacuo is called the Roaming City or the Wandering City because it moves from oasis to oasis, draining each for several months and then moving on to another. There are eight on its path, which means they'll stay here for three months or so, and then not come back for another two years."
"A sustainable method of allowing the water to repopulate," Weiss said, nodding. "It's ingenious, if a little hard to organise. I can't imagine the logistics involved in telling everyone to pack up, move, and then rebuild a city every three months."
Neither could I, but the fact that Vacuo – an actual city – had sprung up before our eyes in two hours alleviated that doubt somewhat. It was obvious this was a dance the people had done a thousand times before. And to think, many of them had started building straight after a trek of miles and miles through the harsh desert. Most of them were now relaxing, either on oddly shaped chairs or in the shallows, but the fact they'd been strong enough to work at all was truly amazing.
It also explained why the map we'd been given had Vacuo being a long way away from here. Ironwood must have copied it from an older map, and unless you knew the city uprooted and moved itself four times a year, you wouldn't think to re-write it. Sun would have known their route, though, living as he did in the desert.
The city still wasn't as big as Vale was, not even close, but it was so much more than what we'd seen before that it felt like a city nonetheless. I caught sight of a bazaar built up of brightly coloured tents in hues of white, red and rich purple, and already people were trading there. More clouds were visible on the horizon, either more citizens on the way, or perhaps just the local tribes coming to trade now that the city had settled.
"The line is still red-purple for now," Blake reported, map in hand. "I think it'll take a day or two for them to arrive yet. Maybe less if they head straight here."
"And Cinder?" I asked.
"At least four days out. They have to cover a lot more ground."
"We might as well take a load off then," Yang suggested. "Might be good to catch a break while we can, right?"
Somehow, despite the fact I wasn't in charge, everyone looked to me at that. More than a few of them, Ruby, Yang and Nora included, were shooting me pleading looks, like they expected me to actually deny them the chance to have some fun.
I shrugged. "Sure. Whatever."
"Yeah!" they cheered.
"I'll go and speak to some of the other tribes and locals," Sun offered. "Someone needs to warn them about what's going on, and no offence but I'll be trusted a lot more than you will."
I nodded gratefully to him and he wandered off with a wave. Nora and Ren were soon to follow, though in the opposite direction and with one dragging the other. Pyrrha went to sit with Weiss and chat, while Blake moved over to start erecting her tent.
Ruby slid over to me.
"You want to explore together?" I asked.
For some reason, Ruby looked a little guilty. "Maybe you should ask Blake that before me."
"Ah." She had a point there and my eyes flicked towards Blake, whose ears were turned in our direction. I knew she'd overheard even before she turned. To my relief, her smile was patient and the roll of her eyes suggested she was more amused than upset.
"You two can go explore," she offered. "I think I'm going to take a nap."
"Y-You're sure?" Ruby asked cautiously.
"I'm sure. Dark clothing and the desert doesn't mix well," she said, pulling at her top. It clung to her a little and she let out a sigh. "I'm going to wash off in my tent and sleep while it dries. I doubt I could handle being out in the sun for much longer, but thank you for asking."
"I'll keep an eye out for any lighter clothing for you," I offered.
Blake nodded and flashed me a little smile. "I'd appreciate it. Have fun, you two."
The Assassin finished her tent a moment later and collected some water, slipping into it and tying the fabric shut. I was both disappointed and relieved; the former for her not accepting and the latter because I couldn't sense any dishonesty in her words, which meant the decision not to come along wasn't anything related to me.
"Are things still not good between you?" Ruby asked as we wandered through what might generously be called the streets of Vacuo. In truth, they were nothing more than spaces between tents, though some had been marked with stakes driven into the ground, past which no tents or buildings strayed. It had some strange carnival-like sense of order.
"I think they're better," I said. "We're talking again and we're putting our problems behind us. Why?" I asked, suddenly nervous. "Does it look bad to you?"
"No, no, no, it looks fine. I'm just…" Ruby made an odd motion with one hand. "I'm not very good with social stuff, right, so I can't tell what's normal or not. It was easier to understand when Blake was sneaking into your room at night."
My cheeks heated up. I didn't need to know that she knew about that…
And seriously, Blake, the one time your natural stealth has to let you down, and it did so in front of just about every member of the Guild. Truly, she was an Assassin for the ages.
"Well, maybe things will go back to that," I said.
I hesitated to ask. "You don't think so?"
"No, no. It's none of my business. I was just… I was just thinking you never know, right? I didn't know if you'd like the single life more. Or change your mind."
"Change my mind…?"
"N-Never mind, I was just worried. I told you I'm not good at social stuff." Ruby's eyes lit up before I could ask any more on that topic. "Ooh, look, a weapons store!"
Ruby didn't drag me so much as sprint off and leave me to tiredly follow, slowly realising what it felt like for Yang the whole time. The store Ruby had found was less a store and more a wooden table set between four vertical poles driven into the ground, between and around which hung a purple and yellow tent, open only at the front. On the table lay numerous weapons, most in good condition with a few chests in the back for more.
"Welcome, welcome," the woman behind the table said. I was surprised to see she was a Mage. Why would a Mage be selling wares in a bazaar? "Travellers, I see. Welcome to the Roaming City. Is this your first time?"
"It is," Ruby said, still inspecting the weapons but answering without missing a beat. "It's so cool!"
"Ha ha, it warms my heart to see you think so. My name is Chanelle. If there's anything that catches your eye, feel free to let me know."
"Do you work here?" I had to ask.
"The stall belongs to me, as do my wares."
"Oh, sorry." Chanelle waved off my apology with a light laugh. I still thought it was odd to see a Hero working as a shopkeeper, but since no one else thought it odd, I chose not to think on it and instead looked at the weapons.
They were high quality, but none stood out as something I'd need for myself. Crocea Mors was still forged from material taken from the magical breastplate I'd taken from the Vault in Beacon. I didn't expect to find much better than that being sold in a store.
Ruby, on the other hand, had a lot more room to grow in her weapon – seeing as how she was still confined to Crescent Rose, which I'd made for her back in our first month of Beacon.
"Do you have any scythes?" she asked nervously.
Chanelle cocked an eyebrow. "A farming implement? In the desert?"
"I mean as a weapon." Ruby brought hers out to show the Mage, and although a few people looked surprised to see a weapon drawn, no one bothered to comment on it. "See, it's not really a farm tool if it's like this."
"No, I suppose it is not," Chanelle said, running a finger over the metallic haft. "I've never seen the likes of it." Her face fell. "But I apologise. I have never in my long life seen a scythe used as a weapon before this, nor do I have any in stock."
"O-Oh, it's fine." Ruby's face fell a little but she bit back the disappointment and smiled once more. "Thanks for having a look, though. Do you know if anyone else might have one?"
"I'm afraid not. It's in my best interest to keep an ear out for what the competition stocks, and I've certainly not heard of anyone finding or selling a scythe. Your best bet might be to find someone who can make you one as a custom job. A Blacksmith, perhaps."
Sheesh, was she trying to out me? Did she know? Of course she didn't. That much was obvious from how neither she nor Ruby so much as glanced in my direction, the Mage being too busy explaining where Ruby could find said Blacksmith in the city, and Ruby nodding along as she tried to memorise it.
I guess I should have expected Ruby to want an improvement at some point, and I didn't feel any sorrow for her wanting to be rid of the weapon I'd made for her. It was good for its time, but she'd grown since then – as had we all. Yang and the others exchanged their weapons regularly, with only Weiss and Ruby sticking to the same ones, but even then, Weiss did so for sentimental reasons and it didn't really impact her ability to fight. Ruby was a different matter, and while she'd changed her outfit a little from when I first met her, replacing the trousers with a skirt for better movement, she was still without a weapon upgrade.
Even when she'd been allowed to enter the Vault and pick for herself a piece of equipment, she'd returned with boots. Though it was possible she'd liked those more, I doubted it, and was fairly certain she'd just not found a single scythe in Beacon's vault.
"Ugh, just my luck," Ruby complained once she was done and we were walking through the bazaar once more. I'd found some store selling cloth and purchased several pieces in white for Blake. Not the kind of Assassin fare she was used to, but it would do for when we weren't fighting and hopefully earn me some brownie points.
"Is it always this bad?" I asked as I handed over the lien required and accepted the carefully folded items.
"Not for anyone else. Yang has her choice of whatever weapons she wants. It's just me."
"Well, I can always help."
Ruby's eyes shot to mine. "How?"
"Dad is a Blacksmith. If you got some material for me, I could send it home to him and he could forge you a new scythe. I did the same for Blake with a pair of daggers a while back, and he upgraded my sword, too." I held Crocea Mors out for emphasis, even if it was me and not my father doing all the work. "It wouldn't do you much good now, but once we get back to Vale we can do that."
"Really? You'd do that?"
I laughed. "Of course."
"Thank you, thank you!" Ruby wrapped her arms around my neck in a strong hug. "You're the bestest friend ever!"
"Bestest friend because I provide deadly weapons?"
"That's what only a bestest friend would do," Ruby said seriously, before she burst into excited laughter. "Can you help me pick out some material when we get back? You know more about it than I do and I want it to be a really strong weapon."
She probably assumed I knew from growing up with my father, or maybe she'd heard me offer advice to Blake before on what material to make her knives out of her. "Sure thing. Just remind me when we get home." I rubbed her head, my eyes drifting up to the words above her. "It must be hard to be limited to one type of weapon, especially when it's so rare."
"It is," Ruby grumbled. "Stupid Reaper Class. Why couldn't I just be a Warrior like Mom?"
I tried to imagine Ruby in plate armour swinging a sword and shield and couldn't.
"How did you become a Reaper, anyway? Was someone in your family one in the past?"
I opened my mouth to ask more but noticed Ruby looking around nervously and kicking the back of one heel. I didn't have to be a master of the unspoken to know this wasn't a conversation she was comfortable with.
"You don't have to tell me," I said. "Sorry for asking."
"No, it's fine. It's not exactly… it's not a terrible secret…" She slumped a little. "Do you want to go sit on the water's edge?"
The oasis had been entirely surrounded by the Roaming City, so there wasn't exactly a spot where no one could overhear, but we found an area where we could both rest out feet in the water, any guilt at the act assuaged by the children playing in the deeper parts, swimming around and splashing water at one another. To my amusement, Sun was among them, more than twice their age and acting very much unlike it.
Ruby and I settled beneath a leafy tree, enjoying the shade as the sun began to set in the distance, torches flickering to life atop long poles as the Roaming City began to light up. Ruby kicked some water with her bare feet.
"You know, you don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to."
"I know." She smiled weakly. "I know that. if I didn't want to, I wouldn't have brought it up. I want to tell you – I've wanted to for a while; wanted to tell everyone – I'm just… not sure how to start. It's complicated."
"Are you in trouble?" I asked.
"No, no, I've not done anything illegal."
Then whatever she was going through was less a problem than my truth, I felt like saying. I'd broken the Caste Laws in pretending to belong to Caste greater than my own. Some might have seen it as disobeying the natural order of the world, not to mention endangering several Heroes in doing so. But this wasn't about me and I waited patiently for Ruby to gather herself.
"Dad's a Brawler and Mom was a Warrior," Ruby eventually began. "That means I should have been one or the other, but there's always a chance for a freak occurrence, either a distant Class coming through a bloodline, or sometimes a different one altogether. Some people say it's more the first than the last," she explained, "And that even if you end up with a Class you think your family never had, it probably just means you forgot it – or someone had an affair." Ruby eyed me quickly. "Which mom didn't."
"I didn't say anything!"
"Just saying," she grumbled. "A-Anyway, most people just deal with what they're born with, right? It comes easily and people know what to do. If you're a Warrior, you're going to go hit stuff and be a Hero or a Soldier. If you're a Priest, you can become a Hero, Soldier or join the College of Healing and be somewhere in the middle. If you're a farmer, you go farm."
"And you were born a Reaper," I guessed. I waited for her to nod before I continued, "What does that mean?"
Ruby shrugged. "I don't know."
"No, I mean what kind of Class-"
"I. Don't. Know." Ruby repeated, putting particular emphasis on each word. "No one does. And I can't find out, either, because there has never been a Reaper before."
"W-What? Surely not. That just means your family history doesn't go back far enough."
"Then it also means the history of Vale and Atlas doesn't, either," Ruby said glumly. "Or any of the Kingdoms at all. Everyone else knows what to do with their Class because they have other people they can look to. Farmers know how to farm because they learn it from other people, and we know what Warriors do because we've had Warriors for hundreds of years. No one knows what a Reaper is. Not even the King of Vale and all his advisors."
"The King…?" I stammered.
"I met him, you know…" Ruby laughed bitterly. "When I was ten, I think, and again before Beacon. I'm the only Reaper in the world, the first, a new Class, and no one knows what to make of it. Mom and Dad kept it hidden, Yang and Uncle Qrow, too, but sooner or later they had to tell someone and I was summoned to the King. He and people from the Noble Caste looked me over, tried to figure out what I was or what I was supposed to do." Her eyes narrowed. "They tried to figure out what to do with me."
"What to do…?"
"Classes fit in Castes," she pointed out. "It's the way the world works and everyone has their place. But what do you do when a new Class appears? How does that work? There are no other Reapers to base it on. I'm basically running blind, hoping I'm doing the right stuff."
"Being a Hero?" I asked.
Ruby drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "Yeah. They didn't want me in Beacon at first."
"The Nobles said it was too dangerous for me to go to Beacon. I was a new Class. I had to be watched and studies so that the Kingdoms would know what to do with the next Reapers who appear, either my children or any others that come out like I did. But to do that, they needed to know what I was good at it. They needed to know what Caste I should belong to."
"The Hero Caste," I said instantly. "That's obvious."
"Is it? I use a scythe, Jaune. That's a farmer's tool. It's not even a weapon… and surely you've noticed that no other scythes drop anywhere. None other than the one you found." She touched Crescent Rose and drew it closer to herself, balanced above her knees. "When they found out I could only use a scythe, they almost put me on a farm then and there. I… I almost broke down crying when they said it."
Hesitantly, I wrapped an arm around Ruby's shoulder. She didn't resist it and instead leaned in a little. I caught her sniffle as she drew some breath but she hid it in rubbing her nose and carried on like she hadn't.
"Dad and Uncle Qrow convinced them I could be a Hero. They said since both my parents were Heroes, it wouldn't make sense for me to be part of the Labour Caste, an NPC." She growled the term, and I suddenly realised why Ruby out of everyone had been so quick to adopt and accept my desire to avoid that disparaging acronym.
"And the Nobles listened?"
"I think they couldn't decide," she said. "Or it wasn't unanimous. Some wanted to give me a chance while others didn't. Eventually, the King and Ozpin stepped in. Ozpin said that I could always be knocked down a Caste, but moving up would be harder, so I should start at the top. As a Hero. That's why I was allowed into Beacon two years early, because they wanted to deal with this before people started to find out. If I failed the First Quest, I could be thrown down to the Soldier Caste, and if I failed training or couldn't hold my own, I'd become part of the Labour Caste. Me and every other Reaper to come after me…."
Ruby drew a deep, shuddering breath.
"Do you know how that feels?" she asked. "If I make a mistake, it's not just me who gets relegated, but every other person unfortunate enough to be born with the same Class as me. I'm the first Reaper, I'm the baseline they'll compare everything to for the rest of time. No matter what I do, I'll go down in history, and it might be as the girl who failed."
"It won't be," I assured her. "Ruby, look at everything you've done. There's no doubt in my mind you're good enough to be a Hero. No, you're already a Hero. You were the one to strike the killing blow in the Dungeon. You beat that Ranger outside of Eldon in single combat. You fought on the walls of Magnis."
"And are you telling me someone from the Labour Caste couldn't do that?" Ruby asked. Her eyes met mine and held them. There was something under the surface, something that tore the breath out of my lungs. "Someone who is an unusually high level for being in the Labour Caste," she whispered.
Someone like you, her eyes seemed to say.
My breath caught in my throat.
She looked away, and just like that the spell was broken. Did she know? How… No, when? I could barely breathe, but Ruby either didn't notice or chose not to call me out on it.
"I can make a mistake in the other direction, too," she said. "What if I'm being selfish? What if I try my hardest to make the Reaper Class something that it's not supposed to be, and I get people killed as a result? What if it's not designed to be a Hero? What if every future Reaper – my children included – is forced into fights they can't handle? Is that fair?" she demanded. "Is it far that I make that choice for them?"
"I… I don't know," I admitted, still shaken. "But you're able to fight. It's not like you're faking it."
Ruby didn't respond.
Her face pressed into her knees.
"I wanted to be a Hero so badly," she whispered, voice barely audible. "Mom was a Hero and told me stories all about it, and when she died I wanted to follow in her footsteps. Being a Hero was everything to me. It still is. It's just… is it fair for me to decide the fate of future generations based on what I want?"
"Ruby," I began cautiously. "How suited are you to fighting…?"
"I… My Stats are not… ideal…"
Her Constitution came to mind immediately. The first time in the Dungeon, she'd all but died. On the walls of Magnis, she'd been carried away bloody and beaten. She'd noticed the different in Constitution in a Rune I'd given her, a Rune that only granted an additional four points.
No single stat made a Hero, and I was the last person to say what did, but Constitution influenced how long you could keep going and how much damage you could take. While some Stats could probably be worked around if they were low, you couldn't do anything to escape a poor Con score. It could get you killed.
To ask about them would be rude, invasive, even, but Ruby had brought this up for a reason and a part of me knew she wanted me to ask. She wanted to tell someone. The secret must have been digging away at her.
"What are your Stats, Ruby?"
She withdrew a little further. "D."
"On the Atlas Scale? Which ones is a D? Constitution?"
"Strength. Dexterity. Intelligence. Wisdom. Charisma. Resilience."
My eyes widened with each one. But that was six out of eight. "What about the others…?"
"I have… I don't know for sure, but the Nobles called it an S in Agility."
"No one has ever had an S before. It means my Agility rises faster than anyone else's on Remnant. Sometimes I get ten or more Agility per level."
Ten or more per level? That… That was hard to even imagine. I'd thought my Strength high reaching a hundred, but it was very possible that Ruby had between two and three hundred Agility. Little wonder I never managed to land a blow on her when we sparred.
But also, what would have happened if I did? I could well have taken her head off. It all depended on her Constitution, and as I met Ruby's eyes, she smiled bitterly.
"My Constitution is ranked X."
"What does that mean? It must be low, but how low is it?"
Ruby's eyes scrunched shut. "It means I've never gained a point of Constitution since I was born. I started life with five Constitution, and I still have five Constitution."
F-Five!? That was… How was she still standing? How could she march at all, let alone fight? My Class might have been all wrong for being a Hero, but at least I had the Stats required to take a few blows. Ruby, if she was so much as breathed on by a Grimm, would assuredly die.
And little wonder that she could feel the influence of my Rune. It almost doubled her Constitution.
"It means I'm broken," Ruby gasped, face in her knees. "It means the Reaper Class is a broken Class. It's useless. It's less than useless! Something not even Tier-3 because it doesn't work properly!"
"Ruby…" I touched her shoulder and cringed at how badly they were shaking. I could feel her tremors through the arm I'd wrapped around her, and desperately wished I could somehow do more. I was shocked to the core, however, and no words came to me.
I was the last person on Remnant that deserved to tell Ruby what she should and shouldn't do with her life, but even at my worst, at my most vulnerable, I'd never been as close to death as she. As our enemies grew stronger, she would only grow faster. A single missed dodge. A single instance where she was trapped or pinned down…
Ruby would die…
But if I were to tell her to stop being what she'd always wanted to be, then wouldn't it be the same? Being a Hero was everything to her. If I told the Guild, they'd all side with me out of concern for Ruby, but in doing so I would crush any trust she had in me. A part of me, a selfish part, said that was fine. All that mattered was keeping her safe.
But wouldn't I rebel against that in her place? Blake could have neglected to help me time and time before to keep me safe but she didn't. She knew my dream and helped me achieve it. Shouldn't I do the same for Ruby?
Even if it killed her…? Was I prepared to go that far?
"B-But there's something else," Ruby said, sniffling now, wiping the tears she hadn't been able to force back onto her skirt. "When it was discovered I could only use a scythe, Dad tried to find me a good one. Ozpin helped, and so did the King since they wanted this experiment to work. They wanted to know if I was supposed to be a Hero or not. They sent messengers out across all four Kingdoms to find a battle scythe or someone who could make one. There were none. There are no scythes in any of the Kingdoms that aren't intended for farm use."
"What do you mean?" I asked. "Then why would you ask Chanelle at the weapon shop earlier?"
"B-Because I keep hoping something will change. That they'll discover one and everything will be okay – that it won't be more evidence I'm not supposed to be a Hero. Because if a scythe weapons drops, it's proof Reapers are supposed to exist."
"And that's why…" Ruby tightened into a ball. "That's why…"
She broke off. I leaned into her, hoping to offer what comfort I could. "That's why what?" I asked carefully. "What's wrong?"
Ruby took a deep breath.
"That's why I know you didn't just find Crescent Rose! That's why I know you're lying!"
My heart froze.
And then OBVIOUSLY the chapter ends. Because fuck you, that's why! No, seriously, sorry but sometimes a cliff hanger is just the way to do things. I feel bad because I get accused of it a lot (not incorrectly) but it's often cliff hangers split across different stories. Forged Destiny hasn't had one for a few chapters.
Anyway, le gasp, secrets are revealed at last. I'd been sitting on Ruby's since book one, hence all sorts of things such as Yang's defensive nature over Ruby's Class (trying to cover for her), Ruby's shutting down whenever stats are mentioned and also Yang being so OVER THE TOP in trying to keep Rubaby safe. It's because she is literally a walking piece of glass.
No reveal on her Passive yet, of course, but the official Reaper Stats are D's across the board with an S for Agility and an X for Constitution. She is a Remnant-first for that, and there are no recorded S or X stats elsewhere. I know if people look into it, they'll say "Wait, but how did she do damage in fights…?" Well, I'll just say it's the missing ingredient mentioned above. Not a plot hole.
Next Chapter: 16th July
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur