"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest fear is fear of the unknown."
Howard Philips Lovecraft
Cinder couldn't help but frown. Everything had gone according to plan. The Fall Maiden power was where it belonged, the city of Vale had been abandoned and claimed, Ozpin had been dealt with and would soon be begging for the mercy of death, his champion had fallen, and all of Remnant was living in a state of fear because of a handful of strings had been cut half the world away. There had been a minor snag, the Dragon Grimm was frozen in place with no way to undo it, but in the end it had turned out to not be that big of a problem. It was still attracting Grimm and no Huntsman or Huntress was brave enough to try and approach it, even in its current state. They had accomplished everything they had set out to do.
So why were they back? There was nothing left for them in Vale. Salem had ordered it however, and Salem had yet to lead her astray. She still couldn't help but wonder though. Salem had been acting very oddly of late. The strange woman had never been particularly sociable, but she had somehow become even less so. She had spent entire nights standing alone outside of their hideout, staring unblinkingly at the shattered moon. An indescribable look had been in her eyes every time Cinder had seen her like this. Then, out of nowhere, she had ordered them to head back to Vale.
The Bullhead that they were in lazily cruised over what was left of the city. Atlas' warships didn't dare prowl in this area but they flew without any harassment. Nevermores and Griffons steered clear of them. Even if the Grimm wished them harm, they could feel the Fall Maiden's power. They would not pick a fight they knew for certain that they could not win. They would attack a prey that they had the smallest of chances of defeating, but ignored that which they could never prevail over. That didn't matter though. Salem was with them, and Salem was their kin. Grimm did not kill their own.
Even then, something seemed strange about the Grimm. A quick glance out of the window and Cinder realized that their flight patterns was out of the ordinary. Grimm normally didn't go out of their way to adjust where they flew, but they seemed to be actively avoiding certain buildings. They weren't just making minor adjustments to avoiding colliding with them, there was one skyscraper nearby that all nearby Nevermores and Griffons were making massive detours around. It was only with select buildings too, with others they had little issue with passing within a hair's breadth of it.
"So, what's the plan here?" Mercury asked. He was lying with his legs stretched out and crossed over three seats, his hands behind his head. He didn't look like he was capable of caring less if he tried. "Reliving the old memories? If we wanted to do that we should've waited a little longer. You need more than a few months to make them old memories."
"If Salem didn't tell me, what makes you think you need to know?" Cinder asked. Her voice was level, but the meaning behind the message was quite clear. Mercury noticeably stiffened, looking at Cinder warily. He swallowed. Cinder smiled. A healthy dose of fear was good at keeping people in line, so long as she didn't overdo it.
"Hard to believe people were living here not too long ago," Emerald said. She was staring out of the window, a conflicted expression on her face. She bit her lip. "One of the capitals of the four kingdoms. Gone in a day."
Mercury let out a laugh. "You know what the funny thing is? They all tried to stuff the Fanus onto Vital, and now they're all running for it. The island reserved for sub-humans. Man. When people lose it there's just no dignity left." Cinder felt a warm feeling inside of her chest as he spoke. That was the whole point. The plan. Break the pride of the haughty.
Emerald glanced at Mercury. "Well, more of them are heading to Patch." There was conflict in her eyes. Cinder focused her gaze on her. She had been forced to keep Emerald in line once before. She might have to do it again soon.
Mercury waved his arm dismissively. "Yes, the fact that some went somewhere else negates the irony. Everything ok? You're more boring than usual today." Emerald looked like she wanted to slap him, but said nothing. Instead, she turned back to the window, wringing her hands. Cinder wanted to roll her eyes. Emerald had known from day one what they had been working towards. Had she not been paying attention or did she just not realize that her actions had consequences?
"We're here," a soft commanding voice said from the front of the VTOL. Both Mercury and Emerald stood up straight, backs rigid as Salem walked out of the front of the aircraft. She had a relaxed look about her, but at the same time she radiated pure power. The kind of power that demanded respect. Even with the Fall Maiden's power, Cinder wasn't sure she could hold her own against her. Not that she would ever want to.
"Um. Salem," Emerald said nervously. Emerald and Mercury had never actually met Salem before this. Cinder had been her sole contact until now. "What…what are we doing here? Are we finishing what we started or something else?" Salem gave Emerald a simple, piercing stare, but did not say anything. Emerald seemed to shrink under the glare, and said nothing else.
The VTOL's automated system guided them towards their final destination. Cinder wasn't surprised when she glanced out of the window and saw that it was the CCT tower. The Dragon Grimm was still coiled around it, a strange shimmering glow surrounding it. The handiwork of Ruby Rose, Cinder thought bitterly. She had no idea what that girl had done, nor had Salem offered any explanation. All she knew was that Salem got very angry whenever Ruby was brought up, and had once said something about "silver eyes." Whatever Ruby had done, Cinder knew one thing. The next time she met that girl, she would drive an arrow through her heart.
The airspace around the tower was clear, allowing them an easy landing. It took Cinder a few seconds to realize how odd this was. Airborne Grimm should've been swarming around the Dragon, being driven into a frenzy by its presence. For some reason though, they were keeping their distance. Something was wrong here. They should be feeling right at home here, but they were acting in a way Grimm had never seen before.
"Ok, I get it, we're here for a picnic," Mercury said dryly as the door to the door to the VTOL slid open. "Well I hope someone remembered to pack food, because I didn't. I take my ham on wheat." Emerald muttered something about what Mercury could do with a ham on wheat sandwich that made him laugh.
Cinder, however, did not laugh. She was watching the skies. Nevermores and Griffons were circling a hundred or two feet above the tower. They were giving the tower and the Grimm Dragon a wide berth. If Cinder didn't know better, she would've said that they were afraid. But what could possibly terrify Grimm in the city they ruled? As the four of them made their way towards the center of the tower, Mercury walking with a lazy swagger while Emerald was more tense, both of them took notice. "I'm going to take a stab and say that this isn't a mating call for them?" Mercury asked, looking up at the ring of flying Grimm.
"Do they even-oh just shut up," Emerald said.
Salem ignored them, walking ahead of the rest of the group with a firm, dedicated posture. Then, without warning, she came to a stop. Cinder and the others mirrored her moves. Mercury and Emerald looked at Salem in confusion, and even Cinder wondered what the point of this was. Salem ignored the world around her, looking into thin space, as if there was something there that only she could see. She spoke. "I request an audience."
Cinder shuddered. Something had changed. The very air itself felt heavy. All of her senses were being pressed on from all sides, everything felt so much sharper. Then she heard the voice. A voice was responding to Salem, a voice that she couldn't understand. It was a deep booming roar, and it was a tiny whisper, it was saying many words yet only a few. It took Cinder a few seconds to realize that she wasn't hearing the voice with her ears, it was within her mind. The voice was coming from the back of her skull.
Mercury and Emerald were taking it even worse than she was. Emerald was clutching her head, moaning in pain, while Mercury's eyes were darting from left to right, his calm, cocky posture falling away. "What the," he muttered, "what is this?"
Cinder took a deep breath, composing herself. She cleared her mind and focused, ignoring everything except for the sensations pulsing through her body. The words became more focused, but she could only understand a few of them. The rest were far longer, more complex and she could tell, had deeper meaning than any words a human had ever spoken. Salem, she noticed, was completely unaffected.
"I am Salem," she said to nothing. That wasn't right, Cinder knew that she was talking to something, but to what? Then, the words answered.
"…Oedon." That wasn't what it had said. Its reply had been long, a detailed and complicated response, but the only thing that Cinder had understood was that last word. Oedon. The rest of it had been something far too greater and otherworldly to simply be a different language.
"Oedon," Salem said. "I felt your presence. This realm is not yours, but it has drawn your attention nonetheless. Tell me. What is it that you seek? Our goals may be in alignment."
Again Oedon replied to Salem. The voice seemed more focused now, instead of simply reverberating around the top of the tower, it seemed to gravitate towards Salem. It did, however, still echo through her mind, and judging by their reactions of increased panic, Mercury and Emerald's minds as well. Cinder desperately tried to grab onto the words, to make sense of them, but she only managed to understand a handful. "Child" and "mother" and were both said a couple of times, but there was one that was stated only a single time. "Paleblood."
Oedon continued to whisper. "I understand," Salem said, and to Cinder's surprise her voice was kind and gentle. "Yes, I do. You gave gifts and were repaid with cruelty. And even now you only desire what is rightfully yours."
There was a noise that seemed to make the very air crack, and Cinder felt as if a powerful blow had struck in the stomach. The noise, which sounded like reality itself was slowly beginning to buckle under the strain of a great force, felt like razors being scrapped along the inside of her skull. Mercury and Emerald were both on their knees now, Mercury furiously looking around for the source while Emerald was quietly sobbing. "Make it stop, please make it stop," she blubbered. Cinder could barely take in what was going on, but she could understand one thing. Oedon, whatever it was, was furious.
"Even as we speak they wrong you," Salem said, using the same voice a mother would use to comfort a crying infant. "They continue to squander the gifts that you give them, like spoiled children. They are not worthy of the kindness that you show them. You gave them everything and asked for very little in return, but they are unable to do even that for you." She held her arms wide open, as if inviting Oedon to hug her. "I won't squander your precious gifts," Salem said gently, "and I can give you what you desire."
Cinder was trying to make sense of the conversation when the tower shook underneath them. The assault on her senses lessened and new noises echoed through the air. The sound of metal clanging on metal, wet splashing, the unmistakable sound of a baby crying. She glanced around, trying to find the source of these new noises. All she could see were Salem, Emerald and Mercury.
"Ah," Salem said. "That is why I can feel you so well. Your anger. Even now, they attack you, lashing out in petty spite." Salem seemed completely oblivious to anything that wasn't part of her conversation with this mysterious force. The other noises became louder and louder. Now she could make out someone screaming in rage along with the rest.
"Tell me, how many have suffered and died because of their selfishness?" Oedon's answer came not in words, but in feelings. A sharp, piercing pain tore through the back of Cinder's skull. She was able to bite down a cry of pain, but Emerald and Mercury did not have such restraint, and whimpered on the ground. Her eyes began to water, and she clamped them shut.
When she opened them again, what she saw confused her. She saw two contradictory things. In her left eye, she saw Salem and the others on top of the tower, the way they had been when she had closed her eyes. In the other, she saw something completely different.
It was still a tower, but not the CCT tower. It was made out of cobblestone, the edges surrounded by stone arches and worn iron gates. An empty cradle was in the very center of the circular arena the edges formed. It was empty, but the cries of the baby were louder than ever. Then Cinder saw the source of the clangs, the splashing and the screaming.
Two figures were fighting at the far side of the tower. The first was a woman about her height, a longsword with a jeweled hilt that sparkled white and red in one hand, and a rather large and old looking pistol in the other. There was a sheath to the sword on her back that was marked with silver engravings. It was ridiculously huge for the average sized longsword the woman was wielding, and it made her look rather absurd.
She wore a black waistcoat that was covered by a long cloak of the same color. Her head was topped by a tricorn hat and her face covered by a cloth that were also identical shades of black. At least Cinder assumed they had been black at one point, it was hard to tell at the moment. The woman was drenched from head to toe in blood. Whether it was her blood or someone else's, Cinder couldn't tell.
The other figure was much more intimidating. Shrouded in a long, billowing cloak of grey, it had massive, twisted wings growing out of its back, was three times as big as the woman and wielded a grand total of six blades. That was all there was to it. Cinder blinked, trying to bring it into focus. She thought she might not have seen it clearly, but there simply wasn't anything else to see about this creature. She could see the blades it held, as well as its wings and cloak, but she couldn't make out anything else about it. All of those parts seemed to be floating in mid-air, yet Cinder knew that there was more to it than that.
The woman darted forward, slashing at what seemed like thin air before darting away. Judging by the blood that pooled on the ground, she had cut the invisible creature. The large figure retaliated, two of its blades lashing out, and just managing to nick the woman. The baby was crying even harder now.
"I see," Salem said sadly. There was an odd stiffness to her noise, and Cinder wasn't entirely sure if she was being genuine. Salem was a woman of many mysteries, and it was hard to tell if she truly felt sorry for Oedon. "Even now, they lash out, attacking those who are most vulnerable. If I might, I shall make a suggestion."
She turned on the spot, looking down at the city of Vale below them. "This world is just like yours. Filled with ungrateful children who think themselves the masters of the world. Petty and selfish. But perhaps they still have a use. I think this world might be able to offer you what yours failed to."
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the sound of steel on steel and the continuing cries of the baby. The woman was circling around the figure, her blade a blur as she tore at the unseen creature. The six blades darted out at her, the majority of them missing but a handful finding their mark. There was a muffled cry of pain and the woman stumbled, but she continued to press on.
Then Oedon spoke again. Cinder tried to grasp the words, but only made out one. Kos. Or was it Kosm? "Perhaps she will succeed. But there have been so many failures," Salem said sympathetically. "Why take the chance? You don't need to only choose one solution."
Oedon replied. Unless Cinder was mistaken, the voice sounded rather pleased. There was still an edge to it and there was one word that Cinder heard that made her shudder. Salem smiled. "A contract? Very well. If that is how it must be, it shall be done." So Salem had heard the word as well. A contract? What were the terms of it?
"Cinder, come here." For the first time since she had spoken to Oedon, Salem looked at Cinder. She took a quick glance at Mercury and Emerald before she obeyed. They were still on their knees, but they were no longer whimpering in pain. They were looking right back at her, their expressions ones of confusion and concern.
Cinder turned away and approached Salem. She trusted Salem. Salem was the one who had made what they had done so far possible. Even then, she still had the spirit of the Fall Maiden raging inside of her. She grinned as she felt the pleasantly warm sensation in her chest. So much power. Almost as if she was reading her mind, Salem said, "Do you want more?"
Cinder blinked. Was that even possible? Did Salem plan on attacking another one of the maidens? Could one person even hold the power of two Maidens? She was about to say no when an old feeling stirred in the pit of her stomach. A feeling of hunger, of need, for more. She needed more. She had thought that feeling would have disappeared when the power of the Fall Maiden was made whole again, but it had persisted. She wasn't complaining though. It felt good, as if it were giving her a purpose. "Always," she said.
"Good," Salem said. "Because Oedon and his kind can give you power that makes even the Maidens pale in comparison. I promise to tell you everything about them in due time." Cinder gazed at her. She was about to ask why Salem couldn't tell her now, but once again, the white faced woman was two steps ahead of her. "I'm keeping you in the dark for your own protection," she said. "Do you feel the pressure Oedon's mere presence puts upon you? How it has affected your companions? It is merely the tip of what they are capable of, and the very truth about them is dangerous."
There was a light in Salem's eye that Cinder had never seen before. Cinder could see excitement in her eyes, excitement mixed with longings. "They are so far humans that it's impossible for me to properly convey it. You wouldn't understand. But you will. In time. We just need to sign the contract with Oedon. His medium is blood. He needs some of yours. Please. Your hand."
Cinder processed what Salem has just told her. Beings beyond her comprehension? Was that even possible? It was true, Oedon had a presence more overwhelming that anything she had ever experienced in her life, but what did that mean? What was Oedon? How was it speaking to them? How was it something that stretched beyond the Maidens? How was it from another world? Was the existence of other planes of existence even possible?
The battle was growing even more intense. A thick, black fog had enveloped the woman and her invisible foe, to the point where Cinder could barely see them. The figure kept swooping forward from the deeper, darker parts at the fog, and at one point Cinder could've sworn that she saw two at the same time.
The woman, on the other hand, was growing more and more violent. She was swinging her sword with a newfound ferocity, each blow looking like they were made to end the find here and now. Her black outfit had turned a bright crimson, being absolutely drenched in blood. Though the fog, it was impossible to tell who was winning, and who the blood belonged to. The baby's crying had reached an almost unbearable level.
"Who are-" Cinder began, but Salem silenced her by raising her hand. She then turned it so that her palm was facing upward, as if asking for something. Understanding, Cinder slowly placed her own hand on top of Salem's.
"Grimm rule this city now," Salem said, a firmness in her words. "And I speak for them. The old inhabitants have left it behind." Raising her other hand, she swiftly drew one of her clawed fingers across Cinder's palm. She barely felt it as her palm burst open, the blood trickling down over the side of her hand and onto the ground below. The clawing at the back of her mind intensified, and she had to grit her teeth to keep herself from shouting out in pain.
"I offer the city of Vale to the Formless Oedon," Salem said solemnly, still not affected by Oedon's presence, "as well as this blood. May they be-" she was cut off. Oedon let out a roar that surged through every nerve in Cinder's body. She felt white hot pain and somehow she knew that Oedon was furious. Its anger was so intense that she could feel it rising. Mercury and Emerald were now sobbing in agony, and even Salem winced.
Cinder soon realized what had caused Oedon's anger. The black fog had vanished, and the woman was standing on top of her foe. She was plunging her sword into the prone invisible body with unrestrained viscousness. She nearly lost her grip on her sword at one point, stumbling off of the bloodied creature before resuming her attack. Judging by the way the cloak, wings and blades did not react, the woman had slain her invisible enemy.
Eventually the woman stopped, breathing heavily as she pulled her sword out for the last time. Taking a step back, she looked around. There was a frantic, almost desperate nature to the way she was moving. As if there was something vicious hiding nearby and she could not find it. For a solid minute, her eyes darted all over the top of the tower, looking for something Cinder could not see. Then, without warning, she relaxed. She sighed visibly at slid into a sitting position, looking up at the sky. It took Cinder a moment to realize what had changed, and what had apparently caused the woman to relax. The cries of the baby had stopped.
"Murdered," Salem said sadly. "Only a child." Cinder looked at the bloodied yet still invisible body. Was that was the children of Oedon's kind looked like? Had it been the one crying? "Oedon, when our contract is complete, I promise to rectify this. The guilty will be punished."
A flurry of words erupted in the back of Cinder's mind, enough to make her feel physically sick. Fighting back the urge to vomit, she struggled to make out the words, and understood more this time. "Mergo," "Hunter," "Yharnam," "Cainhurst," and once again "Paleblood."
Salem nodded solemnly. "Very well. Thank you Oedon. You will not regret this. Whenever you are ready." Oedon spoke a single word in response, one that Cinder could not understand but she could feel that it was not a simple word. There was power behind it, and she felt something emanating from it. It hung in the air, echoing in her mind.
The next thing that she knew, a blinding light had consumed her sight, and the feeling of her senses being overwhelmed tripled in strength. She barely managed to remain on both feet, the urge to fall to the ground and weep were overwhelming. Standing, forcing herself to not give in, she endured the feeling, trying to see through the light that was obstructing her vision.
When it finally faded, she blinked in confusion. She was still on the CCT tower, but it had changed. The Grimm Dragon was still coiled around it, but the very structure of the tower had changed. While bits of metal still covered it here and there, for the most part it was now made out of cobblestone. Metal gates and stone archways now lined the edge. A crib was placed in the very center. What struck Cinder most of all however, was the woman and her foe. She could no longer see them out of only one eye. They were on top of the tower with her.
It took the woman a few seconds to realize what had happened, but as she did she sprang to her feet, sword and pistol in hand. "Who are you?" she asked, aiming her pistol at Cinder.
Cinder fought back the urge to snort. Now that she had a clear view of the woman, she saw that her pistol was pathetically antiquated. A single shot flintlock, something that had been cutting edge technology centuries ago. "Perhaps you should introduce yourself first," Cinder said, taking her hand away from Salem, blood still flowing freely from her palm. "We were the ones peacefully making arrangements with Oedon. You intruded on us."
The woman's eyes widened. It was then that Cinder noticed them for the first time. They were a cold, piercing blue. A much darker blue that seemed natural. "Oedon?" she whispered. "A Great One? You're…what did you do?" The woman seemed to have realized that her environment wasn't what she was used to. Glancing up, she let out a gasp. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?"
Curiosity getting the better of her, Cinder looked up as well. Although she kept it hidden, she was just as shocked as the woman. The moon was high in the sky, it's shattered fragments trailing off behind it. It was not the only moon in the sky though. There were two. The second one was much larger, and was a bright, almost eery, blue. Cinder felt stunned. What had they just done? Oedon done to the world?
"Welcome to Remnant," Salem said to the woman, her voice now cold. "It's a world rather different from your own. We made a contract with Oedon. You see, we are much better equipped to deal with its needs than your people were. You, who have failed time and time again to utilize the gifts given to you. However, for reasons known only to Oedon, it decided to bring your wretched city with him. I cannot fathom why he has not given up on you."
Once again, Odeon's voice crackled in the back of her head. "Paleblood." It was fainter this time however, and within a few seconds, it was gone entirely. Cinder felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her chest, and her senses returned to normal. The very second that it left, the cold tone left Salem's voice, a more neutral expression filling it now. Cinder's suspicions were confirmed. If Salem was invested in whatever Odeon wanted, it wasn't as deeply as she had made it out to be.
Cinder glanced over the side of the tower as Salem continued to speak, wondering what she had meant by Oedon bringing the woman's city. Her question was quickly answered. Vale had been completely altered. While she could spot the occasional rectangular skyscraper that she recognized, all of Vale's infrastructure had been shuffled around to seemingly random locations.
That wasn't even the most startling thing. Thousands upon thousands of black, twisted and gothic buildings were now coating Vale, forming a city on their own. The layout of these new structures was cramped, but flowed naturally, while the buildings of Vale seemed to have been forced into the pack of new buildings. This new city had taken Vale's place, with Vale becoming an afterthought.
Cinder turned her attention back to the woman, who was gaping at her and Salem in disbelief. "A contract with a Great One?" she said with disbelief. "Are you out of your minds? Do you have any idea what they did to Yharnam? Do you think you're the first one who tried? Provost Willem did the exact same thing you're doing right now! It destroyed his mind, and brought THEM here!"
The woman shook her head in disbelief. "You're just like that idiot with the cage on his head," she muttered. "Chanting nonsense to yourself and not listening. Thinking that it'll work different when you try it." She looked around, taking in Remnant's moon along with the alien one. She let out a tired sigh as she peered out over the edge of the tower, taking in the urban sprawl below them.
"That's Yharnam all right, but it looks like another city was merged with it," she said bitterly. "It wasn't bad enough that Yharnam had to suffer their presence, you had to pull another city into it. Do me a little courtesy, what's the name of this one?"
"Vale," Cinder said simply. "Not that you've ever-"
"WHAT!?" the woman shouted. For the first time, her angry and withdraw expression vanished, replaced with surprise in panic. "Vale? That can't be. Are there other cities in this world? Ones called-" she paused, muttering under her breath for a second. "What were they called, what were they called…Mistral? Atlas?"
Cinder felt surprise wash over her. This woman was familiar with the cities of Remnant? How was that possible? Her glass bow appeared in her hand, an arrow nocked and ready. "How do you know about that?" she asked coldly.
In response, the woman raised her pistol, her thumb pulling back the hammer. "That's a yes then. As for how I know, frankly I'm more concerned that little contract you made. The Great Ones and I don't exactly see eye to whatever they have on a lot of matters." She gave the invisible, bloodied corpse a mess as she spoke. "So I get the feeling that whatever you're after, I'm not going to like it."
Cinder didn't say anything. She still wasn't sure exactly what Salem was planning, though she had no intent to let this woman know that. Salem, however, was smiling softly. She was staring directly at the corpse near the woman's feet. "I should thank you. You made our job so much easier," she said softly. The woman blinked in confusion, her eyes lingering on Salem before following her gaze to the body. The second they landed on it, her eyes widened in horror.
"Three thirds," she whispered. Her sword hand darted out and grasped something from the top of the corpse. Her index and middle fingers still holding onto the sword, she pulled back. An odd, small object was pressed between the sword's hilt and her ring and pinkie fingers. It was black, thin, and seemed to coil around itself. Sliding it into one of the pouches on her side, she withdrew a withered piece of paper that she made to place on her forehead.
Cinder was too quick for her. Whatever she had planned to do with the paper, she was unable to do it. The arrow tore through it, ripping it out of the woman's hand as it soared onward, pinning itself against the far wall. "Cinder," Salem said calmly. "The cord she just took. We need it. Make sure you don't destroy it." Cinder nodded, nocking another arrow. She wouldn't be able to use full potential of Fall Maiden's power if the goal was to ensure that the cord wasn't destroyed. It didn't matter. Her semblance and aura would be more than enough.
She took a quick look to the side. Oedon's presence had taken its toll on Mercury and Emerald. Both of them were barely conscious, struggling to get to their feet. She would have to do without them. The woman fired her pistol, but Cinder merely had to raise one of her fingers for a flaming barrier to swallow the bullet up. She loosed her second arrow, catching the woman in the stomach. Cinder had three more arrows at the ready, waiting for the woman to dart to the side after being hit.
She did not, however. In fact, she doubled over in pain, blood spurting out of the wound the arrow had made. Cinder wanted to laugh. This woman didn't even have aura, and most likely no semblance. Her world might not even know that they existed. This was almost sad. She hadn't expected the woman to be a true threat, but she had thought she would put up a little bit of a fight. "Don't worry, I won't make you suffer," she whispered.
Three more arrows flew forward, all of them finding their mark. The woman's chest, wrist, and throat soon all had her arrows protruding from them. The woman gagged on her own blood as she staggered back, dropping her pistol and barely keeping a grip on her sword. Cinder idly walked forward as her foe's knees gave out and she fell. The only thing keeping her from falling flat on her back was the corpse of the creature she had killed.
"Whatever this is, I promise you," she said, superiority in her voice as she fished the cord out of the woman's pocket. "I'll put it to much better use than you ever could." The woman glared up at her, weakly attempting to pull out the arrow in her throat. She tried to speak, but only blood spilled out of her mouth, staining and seeping through her mask.
"Cinder," Salem said, self satisfaction plastered all over her face. "Crush it in the palm of your hand." Turning away from the dying woman, Cinder did as she was told. The tiny black cord crumpled easily in her grip, disintegrating into dust. For a moment, Cinder wondered if that was all. The tiny dust fragments of the cord were tinkling out of her hand, but nothing else was happening. Then it hit her.
A powerful, pulsating feeling in the back of her mind. It reminded her of when Oedon had spoken to them, but it was much stronger. She heard whispering, words that she could barely catch, in the very back of her mind. She heard things, things that she knew had to be impossible, things that she didn't WANT to be possible. It was slowly becoming unbearable, but not as bad as the scratching. Something was in the back of her skull, trying to claw its way out. No, no it wasn't. It just wanted to torment her, it was enjoying scrapping the inside of bone.
Cinder grabbed the sides of her head in anguish, her dust formed bow clattering to the ground as she did. She forced herself to remain calm. She called upon the powers of the Fall Maiden to suppress the voices. After what felt like an agonizingly long time, the voices became softer. It was at the point where she could still hear them, but could ignore them.
"Small," they said quietly. "Insignificant. The only reason your race still lives is because others don't consider you worth their time. You are unimportant. Beneath them. The true masters of existence. You live in blissful ignorance. Ignorant of how little you matter." Cinder gave one last push of the Fall Maiden's power, and the voices were quieted.
"Idiotic," she said to herself. "They call me insignificant? They have no idea what I've done. What I'm capable of doing." She shook her head, trying to forget about the voices. She felt a little cold and clammy from the experience, and there was a niggling feeling of doubt in the back of her mind. Were the greater powers the voices had talked about Oedon and his kind? Were they really so powerful that the only reasons Grimm and humanity lived were that they didn't consider them worth killing?
"No," Cinder said simply, forcing the negative feelings from her mind. "They don't know what they're talking about. The effort Salem and I had to put into bringing Vale to its knees. No one else could do that, no matter what they are." She took a step forward, heading back to Salem. She would ask Salem what the purpose of the cord was and what effect it had had on her, and then they would leave. At least that was she planned to do before she was caught off guard. Something thick and heavy slammed into her back. Her aura protected her from harm, but she was still forced forward from the blow.
Barely keeping herself from falling over, she spun about as she recovered. To her great surprise, the woman in black was on her feet again, a massive sword in both hands. With a grunt, she swung it again, catching Cinder in the side, before following it up with another blow. Knocked back by both swings, anger pulsed through Cinder. This woman was supposed to be dead, she had put and arrow through her throat. How was she still alive?
With a thought, she disassembled her bow into tiny glass shards and summoned them to her. They reformed in her hands, a glass short sword now in each one. She crossed them, just in time to block and overhead strike from the woman. They stood there, the woman viciously pushing down in an attempt to break Cinder's guard, and Cinder holding the giant two handed sword back.
Slowly, she pieced together happened. The wounds her arrows had made on the woman were closing at an accelerated rate. It was taking some time, but she could see the hole in the woman's throat closing right in front of her eyes. The sheath had also disappeared from the woman's back, and the sword she now held in her hands had very similar engravings on it, though the hilt was identical to that of her longsword's. Cinder now understood. It hadn't been a sheath. It had been an extension.
"Who are you?" the woman hissed, still trying to force her weapon through the glass shortsworda. "What do you want with the Umbilical Cord?"
Cinder blinked, certain that she had misheard the second to last word. Choosing to ignore that part, she said, "I'll tell you my name if you tell me yours. Cinder."
"Atla," the woman grunted. "Now then. The cord. I think it's safe to say that you didn't just want your eyes to be mismatched." This woman was raving. Cinder was starting to get annoyed with her nonsensical ramblings, and now she had no reason to hold back. Summoning up the power of the Fall Maiden, she pushed herself backwards and then upwards with winds. Caught off guard, Atla's sword fell forward and onto the ground, cracking a few stones open.
Reattaching the swords into their bow form, Cinder fitted another trio of arrows and sent all of them directly at Atla's head, firing one at a time. Atla reacted by lifting her sword up, her free hand bracing the flat, far side of the blade, and putting it between her and the arrows. Two of them clanged off, and one narrowly missed, splitting Atla's cheek open as it sped past.
"I said that I wouldn't force you to suffer," Cinder said, "but you're making it very difficult for me to keep that promise. Just so you know. You brought this on yourself." Her bow broke into a hundred tiny shards that proceeded to float around her, freeing up her hands. Extending her palms outward, glowing orange runes appeared in a pair of circles in front of her. "Burn," she said simply.
A small ball of fire shot out of one of the circles, Atla barely ducking it. It soared past her, whistling as it went, and struck the far wall. It exploded with the force of a small bomb, singing the rock. Atla took in the force of the attack and looked up at Cinder, fear apparent in her eyes. Cinder allowed herself a smirk. "Good," she whispered. "Let her be afraid."
The runes glowed brightly as she intensified her assault, sending ball after ball of fire at Atla. Atla abandoned offensive movements and desperately darted back and forth across the tower, avoiding the projectiles at all cost. Cinder hated to admit it, but the woman was very fast, as well as quick on her feet. She seemed to be very good at realizing where Cinder's attacks were going to land, and she constantly changed direction and speed as she dodged, making getting a bead on her hard.
Dozens of fireballs blackened the top of the tower, and only the edge of Atla's clothes were singed as a result. The black clad woman took no visible pleasure in this, however. In fact, she seemed a little frantic, and Cinder knew she was worried that she would slip up soon. Deciding to make her fears a reality, Cinder sent out two balls at the same time. A larger, more obvious one, and a smaller one in its shadow.
Atla easily dodged the larger one, dashing forward, well underneath its path. The smaller dove downwards, aiming for the top of her head, and forced Atla forward yet again. Now she was directly under Cinder. Exactly where Cinder had wanted her. She dove down to the ground, the glass shards around her reforming into her swords. The second they had solidified, she swung.
Atla realized happened a second two late. She tried to throw herself to the side, but all that did was shift where the blades landed. Cinder had planned to cleave her skull open. Instead, the edge of her swords tore into Atla's right arm at the shoulder. The passed through with little effort, slicing through the bone only sending a small jolt through Cinder's body. It was over in an instance, Atla let out a shriek of pain as her arm splattered onto the ground, her sword clattering on the stones next to it.
Cinder felt a sense of satisfaction as Atla stumbled backward, clutching her openly bleeding stump. This woman had no idea how the world worked. She was arrogant and thought she knew better despite knowing so little. She reminded Cinder so much of Ozpin. No, that wasn't quite right. Atla was an adult, but not nearly as old as Ozpin. Not nearly old enough that she should know better. More like Ozpin's little champion.
A delightful thought occurred to her. The red haired girl had struggled so hard to stop her. Much like Atla was struggling to stop her now, although Ozpin's champion had put up a much firmer fight. Both had been futile, but the young girl had at least been much more impressive to watch.
Still, Cinder thought that it would be fitting if she suffered the same fate. She took a few idle steps forward, her glass heels clacking against the stone, as she changed her swords back into a bow. She knocked one last arrow before dashing forward, drawing on the string and intended to shoot Atla at point blank range. Atla took her hand off of the stump and stretched her hand forward. A last, desperate resistance, Cinder thought, as she made to loose the arrow.
However, just before her fingers released the arrow, something happened. A small, blue portal opened just in front of Atla's hand. Cinder had no time to wonder what it was before dozens upon dozens of tentacles forced their way out of it. They all pummeled Cinder in unison, hitting her from every side. She gasped in confusion, her arrow slipping out of her hand as she stumbled under the assault. The woman had no aura, but she was able to regenerate and do this?
Eventually, the portal snapped shut. The tentacles were severed as it did and disintegrated as they fell, vanishing into nothingness within seconds. As they did, Cinder attempted to recover, only to realize what Atla had done while Cinder was distracted. Ducking low, she had charged forward, her remaining hand rising up in a fist.
Cinder's mouth opened wide as it hit. She had not been expecting the pain. For some reason, even though her aura had not been depleted, the fist had made contact with her flesh, and pain pulsated through her body. She had been wounded before she had become the Fall Maiden, and now the damage didn't hurt as much. There was still agony however, too much agony for her to have simply been punched.
Looking down, she wondered why she couldn't actually see Atla's hand. Then she realized why. Atla was wrist deep in her stomach, blood oozing out and onto Atla's already blood drenched sleeve. Cinder felt blood trickling out of her mouth and glared at Atla. "You," she whispered, her voice shaking with anger.
Atla returned the glare. Her unnatural, eerily blue eyes staring into Cinder's. Then, with a loud grunt, she pulled back viscerally. Against her wishes, a small gasp of pain escaped Cinder's lips as Atla withdrew her fist, showering the floor below them in blood.
Cinder looked down at the gaping hole in her chest. She blinked. Most people would die from something like this, even Huntsmen and Huntresses. They relied on their auras to keep wounds like hers from happening in the first place. She was different though, it would take much more to kill her than this. Already the wound was beginning to close. Very slowly, it would take hours to fully heal, but it was closing. The bleeding had already stopped.
Clutching it gingerly, she looked back up. Atla had scrapped her severed arm off of the ground and was pressing it against her bloody stump. She was smearing Cinder's blood all over her shoulder in the arm. There was a soft squelching noise as she did. "No," Cinder growled, realizing what she was doing. Sure enough, sinew, muscles and tendons all darted out from the shoulder and into the arm, pulling it back over the stump. With a loud, wet squishing noise the arm reattached, all the damage that had been caused was gone. "No," Cinder said again, hate flowing through her.
Darting forward, Atla scooped up her massive sword again. Letting out a roar, she bore down on Cinder and thrust it forward. Slightly dazed from the blow she had taken, Cinder was unable to dodge or block the stab, and her aura was forced to take it. When Atla pulled back for another swing, this time Cinder was ready. Forming her swords from her bow, she barely blocked the sideways swing. Once again, the two clashed blades.
Atla's mask had come loose during the fight, giving Cinder a good look at her. Her skin was a very dark color, but Cinder barely noticed that over the look of pure rage on her face. Her teeth were bared, her nostrils were flaring, and she looked as if she was one step away from trying to bite at Cinder. "Who are you?" Cinder asked viciously. "A huntress? A huntress of this Yharnam?"
"Not a huntress," Atla replied. "A hunter." Snarling, Cinder broke the clash and took a swipe at the other woman. The hunter hissed as the sword opened her side, but pressed on, swinging her sword from below. Cinder moved to block it, but learned quickly that Atla's goal had not been to wound, but disarm. The blade struck at the hilt of Cinder's sword and sent it flying.
Atla made a move to decapitate Cinder, bringing the entire length of her blade up to her throat. Cinder idly held up the index finger of her free hand. The same slamming barrier that had protected her before appeared, easily blocking Atla's attack. A dozen more blows rained down, Atla cursing under her breath as she did. Cinder idly moved her finger to match Atla's movements, and each time the wall of fire blocked the sword.
With a swift, fluid movement, Atla placed the massive, two handed sword on her back before drawing it again. This time though, the thin longsword was drawn out of the larger sword with a loud clank. Cinder was easily able to block the overhead blow Atla made with it, only for Atla to reveal why she had switched to the smaller sword. Her pistol was in her other hand, cocked and loaded and aimed at Cinder in point blank range. The shot rang out, and Cinder's aura trembled as the bullet shattered on it.
Cinder lost her patience with his woman. With a single, powerful thrust, she drove one of her swords into Atla's chest. The hunter had been so committed to her assault that she had been left vulnerable. The glass weapon was buried up to the hilt, and was forced in with such ferocity that it forced Atla back a couple of steps. Cinder saw the dark skinned woman look down in shock and agony as she let go of the glass sword, extending both of her hands. The circles of runes appeared again, and twin balls of fire flew towards.
Atla was sent sprawling backwards, directly into one of the iron gates. She hit it with such force that she left a sizable dent in it before sliding to the ground, blood pooling on the ground around her. Cinder stepped forward, her swords returning to her, Atla gasping as the shards were pulled out of her chest, and formed her bow. "Now," Cinder said, feeling satisfied as she looked at the broken woman in front of her. "Your little display is over. You were amusing, but your time has ended. Sadly, I very much don't feel like keeping my promise anymore. You hurt me you see. Now I'm going to hurt you."
Atla tilted her head up. The flames had burnt away a good chunk of her face, exposing tendons and the inside of her jaw on one side. Judging by the way she was hesitant to move the rest of her body, much of it had suffered a similar fate. "No," she said simply.
Cinder let out a laugh. "No? You don't-" Atla raised her pistol. A silver bullet was pressed against her palm, one that she flicked into the gun with her thumb, cocking the hammer right after. Cinder raised her hand, ready to block it, but that turned out to be pointless. Atla pressed the abnormally long pistol against her own temple. She pulled the trigger.
The bullet exploded out of the far side of her head, bits of brain splattering on the nearby wall as Atla's lifeless body slumped where she had been sitting. Cinder felt a pang of annoyance as she watched, but it passed quickly. Her need to make Atla suffer the same fate that Beacon's greatest huntress had had been a fleeting one. The important thing was that the little thorn in her side was gone now.
That being said, she was caught off guard by what happened to Atla's body. It shimmered, as if reflected in a pool of water, before slowly growing fainter. Within seconds, it had completely vanished, along with her weapons. Cinder stared for a moment before looking away. Compared to everything else she had seen today, that was positively mundane.
"Well done Cinder," Salem said in a neutral tone. "She proved to be a more difficult than expected foe."
Cinder nodded, wincing as the wound Atla had managed to leave on her throbbed in muted pain. She was frustrated that she had not been able to force her to suffer for this, but it was a small feeling. In the end, Atla had proven to be little more than an ant. A momentary inconvenience that had been brushed aside. Tomorrow, Cinder doubted she would even remember her name. "Now what?"
"She wasn't wrong. Three thirds," Salem said. "That was one-third of a full Umbilical Cord." So Cinder hadn't misheard Atla. That thing she had crushed was an umbilical cord? "A byproduct of Oedon's kind. Atla called them the Great Ones I believe? A crude term for beings like them, but not inaccurate. When they reproduce, the cord is created as a by-product. It is an artifact of great potential, potentially allowing audience with them. And more."
"More," Cinder said, her breath growing short. Three thirds of a cord. "What do they do when brought together?"
Slowly Salem turned and looked out over the edge of the tower. "Look," she said, pointing.
Taking a few more steps towards the edge, Cinder saw that Salem was pointing at the Grimm Dragon. Only now Cinder could see why the Grimm had been keeping their distance. Dozens of creatures were covering it, swarming over its body like insects. Cinder had never seen anything like them before.
They were all massive, pale as the moon and each had nearly a dozen limbs, giving them a spider like appearance as they scuttled up and down the Dragon. Their heads, however, were what drew Cinder's attention the most. It looked almost like a dead beehive, except it had the hardened texture of a skull, and thick foot long hairs were growing out of the hundreds of holes.
They seemed fascinated by the Grim Dragon. A trio of the otherworldly creatures had crawled onto its wings and were attempting to stretch them, while a duo had made it to the far end of one of the Dragon's claws. One had reached the Dragon's face, and were attempting to prod at the Dragon's many sets of eyes. They were all unable too however, the silver cloak that was consuming the Dragon kept them from touching it, but that did not deter them in the slightest.
That wasn't all. Cinder now realized why the Grimm had been flying oddly. More of the alien beings were perched on top of skyscrapers, watching the Grimm flying by. One Nevermore had swerved to avoid it, but it was too little too late. One of the countless arms had grabbed its tail from behind.
Screeching, the Nevermore snapped its beak, biting at the thing holding it. It clamped down on the limb that was holding it prisoner. A deep, echoing roar emanated from the creature. Where it had come from, Cinder had no idea, as it had no visible mouth. Dozens of sickly yellow blobs of flesh erupted out of the multi-limbed monster's head, pus colored liquid dripping down as they did. With a feeling of shock and revulsion, Cinder realized that they were eyes.
There was a single spot on the monster's head where eyes had not burst from. From that bare spot, a pale white beam shot out, arcing diagonally through the Nevermore. At first, Cinder thought that nothing had happened. There was no visible sign of damage. The Nevermore had flapped its wings in an attempt to escape the beams range, but as it vanished, it resumed its old tactic of trying to free itself. At least it tried to.
As its beak opened again, a chain of explosions rocked its body. One after another, a line of balls of fire tore through the giant bird, tearing its body in half. A line that had followed the path the beam had carved. The eyes retreated back into the creature's head as it pulled what was left of the Nevermore towards it, ignoring the half of it that was falling to the ground. The Grimm dissolved in its hands, however, before it could do anything. It looked down at its now empty hands, as it not understanding just happened.
"Are those the same as Oedon? Great Ones?" Cinder asked quietly. Something felt different. She felt like she should be afraid of these things. She wasn't. She felt awed. Looking at them caused the whispers in the back of her skull to grow louder, but she didn't care. She had thought the Grim Dragon had been one of the most inspiring and overwhelming things she had ever seen. That had been before she had seen them.
"Yes, but at the same time no," Salem said. "They are Oedon's kin, but they are different. They are Amygdala. No two of their kind are the same. The ones you see are part of the same being. Yet at the same time they are not, each of them capable of independent thought. But not of thinking what they others do not."
"That doesn't make any sense," Cinder said softly, still watching the Amygdala. "Or are they Amygalas?" she thought
"For now," Salem said. "You will understand soon. You've already come so far. I can see it." Salem looked at her, smiling knowingly. Cinder was about to ask her what she meant by seeing it when she remembered something Atla had said. " I think it's safe to say that you didn't just want your eyes to be mismatched."
Forming one of her swords, Cinder focused it so that its surface was smooth and reflective before she looked into it. Her face was the same that it had always been. There was one exception. Her right eye was the same, bright gold and glowing like a burning fire. The other had changed color however. It wasn't gold anymore, but blue. An unnatural shade of blue. They were dark, piercing and unnerving . The exact same color as Atla's eyes.
"Did that woman use a cord too?" Cinder asked. Now that she realized what Atla's eyes had meant, a spark of curiosity had been lit at the forefront of her mind. Atla seemed to know about Oedon, and others who had made pacts with him before. Why had she been on this tower? she been fighting? How had she gotten the cord that she had consumed?
"Without a doubt," Salem said. "But it was wasted on her. She died so easily. Only someone like you can truly use the cord to its full potential." Cinder looked at her reflection more closely. At her mismatched eyes.
She felt the burning hunger again, the hunger for more power. She had crushed the champions of Vale under her feet, the best of them had fallen to her. An entire kingdom had been reduced to a band of refugees because of her. That had been before she had all of the Fall Maiden's might, and now she had new heights to reach.
She smiled in the reflection, a wide, toothy smile. Who had Atla been? It didn't matter.
Author's Note: I would like to thank my Patrons, SuperFeatherYoshi and xXNanamiXx for supporting my work via . I would also like to thank SuperFeatherYoshi for being my proofreader, even if he was unavailable for this chapter. Just a reminder that I am on , and that I am offering bonuses such as early previews and submitting topics for one shots for those who pledge. Everyone will be allowed to see the final products, I am only offering bonuses here. Every dollar that I get is a great help to me. Even one dollar a month is a huge help to me. Of course, if you can't help, I understand, and the stories will continue to flow.
When From the Ashes is done, keep an eye out for my next story. Two Cities, Two Moons, One Nightmare. This is a preview that should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect. Taking place in the same continuity as Culture Shock, it should go some way to setting up the plot of 221. I hope you enjoyed it.
I'm mixing the Wizard of Oz, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and Goldilocks with Call of Cthulu, the Dunwhich Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and the Dream Cycle. Seems legit. Then again with the volume 3 finale, RWBY certainly is getting rather bleak…maybe Hatsur popping up is part of future storylines
In memory of Monyreak "Monty" Oum.