Hey, kid. Its been a while. I'm sorry its been so long since I visited you. I've been out looking for her. The woman who did this. I've got a few good leads. Might even be able to stop her before everything goes to shit. But, I'm glad I got back in time to see you again. Because, well, I guess Ozpin's decided on your... successor. "Successor". Wrong word. Sounds like she's won something.
Its going to be tomorrow. Or the next day. There's no stopping it now. The girl hasn't given us an answer yet, but she doesn't need to. She's going to do what she thinks is best for mankind. Just like she's been trained to do. Just like you were training to do. Sure, you didn't have much choice in the matter, but its not like she does, either, you know? A girl who wakes up one morning and finds she wields power she never knew was possible, or a girl raised on stories of heroes and warriors, carefully written to foster self-sacrifice and hero complexes. No difference, really.
I guess I came down here to tell you, and also to say goodbye. Oz, Jimmy, Glynda, none of them know if you can hear anything, or if you're aware at all. But I needed to say it. Partly for you, but let's face it, I can be real selfish sometimes. I mean, maybe you'll come out of this and you'll still be you, but who knows? Your Aura could eat her's, or her's will eat yours, or the two of you will fuse, and maybe the girl who comes out of that tube won't be either of you. There aren't many scenarios where what we're about to do doesn't mean killing you. And since you're in there in the first place because I fucked up... well, I needed to get a few things off my chest.
I don't just mean when I was too late to save you in the road. I've been killing myself over that, with my thoughts and with every bottle of booze in reach, but it isn't where this started. Its my fault you were given this burden in the first place. I doubt Oz ever told you that. Probably gave you that old spiel about fairy tales. Told the story to you, or had you tell it to him. He just likes that story 'cause he's in it. Heh. Don't tell him I said that, okay?
You're a smart girl, Amber. I'm sure you always wondered why you got those powers. You heard they seek out someone new when their holder dies, and I'm sure you had to wonder who had to die for them to find you. Oz is a storyteller, and he's not above a bit of sugar coating, but he's not a liar. If you asked him, he'd tell you the previous Fall Maiden had been no older than you when she'd fallen in battle. But it seems like I'm the only one around here who doesn't love being cryptic for hell of it, so it's a safe bet he didn't tell you how it happened. Maybe he thought if you knew, you wouldn't be able to trust me as your bodyguard. I mean, you'd know you couldn't.
So, here it is. I killed her. The Fall Maiden who came before you. And I don't mean I failed to save her, either. I killed her with this sword, right here. It was about a year back. You know that, of course. She died, and you woke up the next morning, setting your own apartment building on fire. But it didn't start that night, it started three days before that.
We were in Vacuo, me and the Fall Maiden. Her, because it was the next stop on her little world-walking adventure, and me in tow, keeping a watchful eye from a distance. As watchful as you can be, staring through the bottom of a glass. Her name was Vermell Farad. She was... she was a good kid. She trained at Beacon, one of the best, just like, well, just like Nikos. With Ozpin, how he chooses "guardians", as he calls them, its not just skill. She was kind, she was committed to doing good. When he offered her the chance to become a Maiden, her only concern was whether or not she was good enough to deserve the responsibility. Its the way he makes people so eager to please him...
Anyway, it was different when she took on the power. Not like this... this horrific thing that Jimmy had made in Atlas. The Fall Maiden before her, Maria, did better than most. Made it into her late 30s before getting herself mortally wounded. Before you ask, that one wasn't my fault. At least, I don't think. So, anyway, Maria was slowly dying, and we needed to make sure the power passed to Vermell. The two of them spent a lot of time together before Maria passed. When she was on her way out, she almost went in her sleep, which of course Ozpin wouldn't allow. She could have been dreaming about somebody else. So, Vermell woke her, and held her in her arms, and sang to her as she went. And then the power transferred. And she kept on singing. Holding her like that, for over an hour. Just.. just fucking weeping as she sang. Hurt to watch.
So, Vermell becomes the Fall Maiden, and her and I go wandering the world, Righting wrongs, defeating evil, protecting humanity. That kind of crap. We wound up in some village outside of Vacuo, celebrating taking down a rogue herd of Goliaths. Most Maidens take a while to really reach the limits of what they can do. She was a Maiden not four months, and she was making it look easy. Called down a tornado of fire on the Goliaths. They didn't stand a chance. That night, the nearest village threw a massive party, on account of the herd getting wiped out by a freak storm. And we were in the mood to celebrate; her by joining in on the party, dancing, eating, playing with children, and me by getting so drunk I couldn't see straight. She kept trying to pull me away from the bar, get me to join with the others. She never stopped trying with me, you know? Like she saw something nobody else did. A man not too broken to fix. But I waved about the bar and said I was getting along just fine socializing with the other belligerent drunks. Eventually, she let it go, at least for that night.
Festivities died down eventually, and unusually, I was only just finishing my first bottle of vodka. Yeah, yeah, if you were awake right now, you'd laugh. I was basically sober, right? She was rubbing off on me, making me less afraid of my own thoughts. But still, I was ordering a second bottle when she came back in. It was one of those old inns with the bar being the first floor, and the rooms on the second. Always nice knowing that once you were done drinking, your bed was only a shambling climb up a staircase away. She comes in, on her way to bed, and wanders over to me to say goodnight.
I turn to her, and wave, and see she's got this girl under her arm. Maybe 18. She's got this long, dark hair, streaked with red. And she has a pierced eyebrow and lip. By the look of her, she seemed a bit tipsy, too. She's almost making a show of stumbling, and leaning on Vermell, and nuzzling against her. And Vermell tells me they're heading up to her room and that she'll see me in the morning. The girl looks confused and whispers in her ear.
"No, no," Vermell says, "He's not my father. He's just this drunk I hang out with."
"Hi," I say.
The girl gives me just the oddest look. Been telling myself ever since, I should have seen more in that look. She gives me a wave, and Vermell tells me to not drink too much, and then the two of them head upstairs.
I cracked into the second bottle of vodka. Time passed, I'm not sure how much. A few glasses. My mind wandered a bunch of places. It was that uncomfortable middle period when you're trying to drown your self-pity, but instead of blurring things, the booze brings everything into focus. I sat staring down into my glass, watching the ice cubes bounce around. I think that night was the last time I ever felt any sense of disdain towards my Semblance. The last time I pretended it was the one thing keeping me away from other people. Like if I didn't bring misfortune down on myself and everybody around me, maybe I really could be the kind of guy Vermell saw in me. Of course, thinking like that is just a way of telling the universe that you're due for a harsh reminder. And I was about to get one exactly as harsh as I deserved.
I tipped the glass to my mouth and took a long hard drink. I was just swallowing when the shot rang out. The abrupt crack of a gunshot, echoing down from the upper floor. I spat booze, coughed and sputtered. The denizens of the bar who were still awake jumped to their feet. I stared up at the ceiling, feeling dread wash over me. I wiped the booze from my mouth, and drew my sword. I collapsed the blade, arming the shotgun in the hilt. The bartender followed suit, drawing a revolver from beneath the bar. I ran for the stairs, and he followed. I took the steps two at a time, and ran down the hall to Vermell's room. There was no mistaking that that had been the source of the sound. As I approached, I saw a flash of brilliant orange light come from the crack beneath the door. I put myself up against the door frame, weapon at the ready. Bartender took the other side, aimed his revolver at the door, and nodded to me. I turned, busted the door open with a kick just next to the handle, and burst in.
There was Vermell, laying on the bed, the bed sheets and pieces of her clothing strewn around her. Her eyes were open, staring blankly at the ceiling. There was a hole blown in the side of her temple, spilling blood onto the pillow. I scanned the rest of the room. Nothing but an open window, curtains blowing in the evening wind. I tried to look back at Vermell's body, and found I couldn't. My stomach was starting to turn over. The bartender stepped in, saw the body, and cursed.
I forced myself to look at her. She was almost completely nude. Her skin was sweaty. There was a pistol laying on the bed next to the pillow. Low calibre, single shot capacity. An assassin's weapon. I wanted to puke, realizing what had just happened. Vermell's twin daggers were across the room, laying on the dresser. Why would she have felt the need to protect herself? It had been just the two of them. She wouldn't have had her Aura up. And who else could have been in her thoughts than the girl on top of her? Fuck, it was perfect. All the girl had needed to do was get past a bodyguard so damn stupid he couldn't tell she was faking being drunk.
I punched the wall. I swore. I choked back tears. I was so thrown for a loop staring at the dead girl who'd trusted me to watch out for her, it didn't occur to me for a full minute how big of a mess I'd just let happen. The girl, the assassin, whoever she was, had just stolen the power of a Maiden. And I'd just given her ample time to escape. The bartender had stepped back into the hall. I slammed the door, changed into my crow form, and shot out the open window. I flew upwards as fast as I could, and soared over the village, desperately hoping to see her. To see something. A glimpse, anything.
There was nobody left in the village square, where the party had been held. Most houses had already gone dark. The village was quiet. It should have been easy to spot one fleeing girl. I couldn't see a thing. It wasn't the booze, I'd sobered up pretty quick. Whoever she was, she was smart. She'd just stolen the powers, she wasn't going to risk a fight when she didn't know how to use them. She was sneaking rather than running, and I couldn't find her. It occurred to me that she'd need a horse if she planned to leave the village. I flapped my wings, dove, and flew towards the town stable. I was so off my game I burst back into human form without even checking if anybody could see me. Luckily, there was nobody there but the horses.
Vermell's horse reared its head and whinnied at the sight of me. I ran past him, checking the other stalls. They were all occupied. I hurried across the street, crouched down in a darkened alley, and stared at the stable, waiting. If she was coming there, I'd see her. My head was still reeling. Fate had shovelled this fresh pile of shit onto my plate not two minutes earlier. The questions were just starting to hit me. How the Hell had she known exactly what she needed to do? How did she track us down? What was worth murdering a girl who never did anything wrong except care about people? Questions like that, I could afford to wait for an answer. Hell, to this day, I don't understand everything, and never will. But the big question, the question that was scaring the hell out of me, was what exactly was she planning to do with those powers?
It was taking too long. If she were coming to the stable, she'd have been there by then. I was so freaked out, it didn't even occur to me until right then that she could have a horse tied up somewhere else. I put a hand to the broken cobblestones of the street, and listened. I exhaled and didn't inhale again. Even used my Aura to slow my heartbeat. Dangerous trick to pull. Then, I felt it. A distinctive vibration coming through the ground. Hoof beats.
I was in the air again in a second, tearing off in the direction of the sound. She'd gone for the south exit to the village. I shot over the walls and out into the wilderness. The village was in the northeast corner of the kingdom. You know, where the desert isn't so much sand as it is dirt, and decay, and patches of withered trees. I scanned the old dirt path leading away from the village, and I saw her. She was pushing that horse as hard as it could go, putting as much distance as she could between us. She couldn't match my speed, though. I took off after her. As I passed over her head, I looked down. She'd been in a hurry to get out of there, she hadn't taken the time to fully dress. She'd pulled her pants back on and thrown on a leather overcoat. Other than her bra, that was about it. She didn't even have shoes on. I dove for the path in front of her, turning back into human form as I landed. I spun, drew my sword, and held it at the ready.
Her horse reared up on its hind legs, stumbling back. She shouted in surprise, and leapt right off the saddle, propelling herself backwards. She thrust her hands forward and sent a wave of fire in my direction. I flipped backwards and the fire hit the road where I'd been standing. She landed, steadied herself, and the two of us faced each other. The horse went running off the road, into the field beside us.
"Why did you do it?!" I heard myself scream. I guess there wouldn't really be an answer that mattered. I just had to know what was worth Vermell's death. It was like I was- I don't know- screaming at the world for killing her, just as much the girl in front of me.
"You can turn into a bird?" She shot back, "Another of his gifts?"
She threw another fireball at me. I sidestepped it, and charged. She ignited the ground in a wave in front of her. It's always fire they figure out first. I guess you know that from experience. I leapt over the flames, swinging down at her. She jumped backwards, and when my sword hit the dirt, she charged, running up the blade and kneeing me in the face. I thrust my free hand up, got hold of her midsection, and shoved her down. Her back hit the ground, and the wind was knocked out of her. I raised my sword again. She sent out another blast of fire at me, and I stumbled back to avoid it. The second the fire dissipated, she came flying through the smoke, swinging a wild punch. I made a move to block it, and it caught me in the shoulder instead of the head. I thrust my sword at her, and nailed her in the face with the hilt. I spun, and caught her in the side with a slash. She was knocked back, sent rolling in the dirt. She wasn't injured, but the hit had taken most of her Aura.
I ran at her, sword at the ready. I knew what I needed to do. This wasn't the first time in history that a Maiden couldn't be allowed to keep the power. And there was only one way to take it from her. She struggled to her knees and flailed her hand at me. This time, instead of flame, a wave of freezing cold burst out of her, knocking me back and chilling me to the bone. She looked down at her own hands in surprise for a second, then sent another blast of ice at me. I shielded my face with my sword and jumped back. I had some frozen chunks of ice in my hair, but I was fine. But she'd given herself room to stand.
"Was it worth killing her?" I shouted, "She trusted you!"
"She was already dead, and you know it!" The girl screamed, "Ozpin! He killed her when he chose her to take the power."
I roared in anger, and sprinted at her. I unfurled my sword into full scythe form, and leapt spinning into the air. She dove, and I passed over her head. She threw a blast of frost at the ground where I was headed. The uneven dirt path turned into a slick patch of ice. I landed, slipped, stumbled, and fell over. She pulled herself to her feet, laughing.
"She was right about you, old man," She said, "You are a drunk!"
I collapsed the scythe into shotgun form and opened fire from the ground. A blast grazed her shoulder and she fell back, crying out in pain. Recoil sent me sliding backwards, which I turned into a clumsy roll to get back onto my feet. Laying on the ground, her body ignited in flame. She pushed herself off the ground and found herself floating above the road, clearly surprised by her own power. She rose further into the air, and held out her hand, preparing another fireball. I took aim and fired at her head. She whipped her hand forward and disintegrated the shot in midair. She was a fast learner.
"You can't win this," She said, "Let me leave, and I'll let you live."
She dropped down to the road, and dusted herself off. She put a couple fingers in her mouth and whistled. Her horse neighed in response, and trotted back towards the road to meet her. She was overconfident, but I wasn't sure she was wrong. I was drunk, I was tired, I was still freaking out over Vermell. I couldn't beat her there. Maybe I could die killing her, but even that wasn't certain. One thing I could do was slow her down. Stolen magical power or not, nobody travels the roads in Vacuo at night on foot. I raised my weapon, and shot her horse in the head.
Yeah, I know. I know how much you love horses. I didn't have much of a choice. God, when you're best course of action is shooting a horse just to inconvenience your opponent, and that's not even your lowest moment that night... That's how you know it's a bad day.
The horse screeched, and flopped over, kicking a few times before falling still. The girl stared in shock for a moment, then laughed. She threw another round of fireballs. I rolled left and right, the flames missing me by millimeters. She lifted herself off the ground again, lighting another fireball in her hands. This one she didn't throw, not right away. She just kept building it up, adding more energy to it. The flames grew so bright, I could barely see the girl for the inferno in her hands. Then she threw it at the ground. The explosion shook the ground, and sent a wall of fire in all directions. I did the only thing I could to evade it- switched to bird form, spread my wings to catch the blast wave of air, and was sent tumbling. The world turned itself over and over as I was thrown away, far away from the road. I realized I was about to hit the ground and changed back to human form. My side slammed into the earth, an impact that would have killed me in bird form, and I rolled along the ground, holding myself tight trying to avoid injury. I came to a stop, bruised and a little bloodied, but alive. I lay there for a while, dazed, hurting, my mind still screaming about Vermell.
Eventually, I got up, and looked around. There was a massive fire where the explosion had gone off. The dirt itself was burning, along with the withered old brush and trees that had been in range of the blast. I scanned the area, hoping to catch a glimpse of her in the light. She was gone. I couldn't afford to lose her, but I knew there was only one place she could go now. So, I started stumbling back to the village, with no idea what to do to fix this mess, and even less idea of what to tell Ozpin.
I got back to the village, and immediately limped my way back to the stable. I don't know what I was planning to accomplish if I saw her. Maybe if I asked real nice, she'd tell me how she'd tracked us down before she killed me. But, I got to the stable, and she wasn't there. One of the horses was missing. The rest were charred corpses. At that point, there was really only one place left I could think of to go. So, back to the bar I went.
Bartender had closed the place up, on account of the crime scene upstairs. He saw me outside and let me in. Told me local law enforcement was on its way from a village over, but he could tell them to stay put if a Huntsman was taking over the case. Who better to trust to clean up this shitshow than the dumbass who let it happen? So, the bartender was nice enough to open the bar back up on my account, and we drank, and he asked if there was anything he could do to help. I asked him if he'd seen the girl who Vermell had had under her arm. He said he knew everybody in the village, but he didn't know her. But maybe she looked a bit like a farm girl who lived out of town, closer to another village than this one, but she'd come by every few months to sell some excess produce. Seemed as good a lead as any.
While we drank together, I dialled up Ozpin. Took a few tries for him to answer, no doubt he was busy on some other mysterious task. He picked up, and the way he said hello... I don't know, it was like he somehow knew already. I told him Vermell had been murdered. I told him I'd had a chance to prevent it, and I'd fucked it up. He was quiet for a while, but eventually he asked if I'd seen the power transfer. See, Vermell had the same training you had. If you know you're about to die, think real hard about the next candidate in line. Can't remember who that was at that time. It wasn't Nikos, if you were wondering. Anyway, it didn't matter, because Vermell hadn't seen it coming. I told him how it had happened. What her killer had done to steal the power. He was silent a good long while after that.
You know Ozpin. You know he's a sort of, slow-to-anger kind of guy. Well, apparently not that night. He did his best to remain calm. He told me we could discuss my job performance later, and right now, I should focus on solving the problem. I asked what he had in mind. He said in no uncertain terms that this girl couldn't be allowed to keep the power of Fall. And from then on, my only objective was sending the power to a new host as soon as possible.
I considered spending what remained of that colossally shitty night in the village, but, I couldn't stay there. Not in the same building where Vermell had died just an hour before. So, freshly liquored up, with my Aura just barely regenerated after getting myself blown up, I said a few parting words to the bartender, and set off. Turned to crow form, and went flying out into the night, in the direction of the farm that the bartender had pointed me towards.
I got to the farm the next morning, just as the sun was starting to rise. First thing I did when I got there was down the rest of my flask. I'd take intoxicated and sleep deprived over hungover and sleep deprived even if I wasn't on the hunt for a murderous psychopath. I checked the front door, knocking for some reason. There wasn't an answer. I looked around the place a bit. First thing I noticed was that there was no horse there. If she'd come back here at all, she'd left again in a hurry. I kicked the door in, and stumbled into the house, looking for clues. Or answers. Something.
From the look of the place, she was living alone. Unusual, given her age, for her to be running an entire farm herself. The house was a mess, like she barely took care of it. After looking around the kitchen and the living room, and finding nothing, I headed for the stairs. On the way up, there was this picture on the wall. A young woman, holding a baby. Her mother, maybe. There was something familiar about her, something I couldn't place. Like running into someone from your childhood and drawing a blank on their name.
The girl's bedroom had a little more of interest, at least. A mattress laying on the floor without a frame. A bunch of scattered books on top of a desk, and strewn around it. Some on farming, and equipment maintenance, and stuff like that. But a couple were more interesting. Books about mythology and history, with dozens of page markers sticking out of each. I picked up one of the mythology texts and skimmed through it. She'd been studying the legend of the Maidens, alright. Its origins, and re-tellings through history. Lot of stuff has been lost from that story over the years, and a lot of stuff added. Even the version Ozpin tells now isn't quite the whole thing. I noticed another book on the edge of the desk. Seemed to stick out. Our own Professor Peter Port's book on Grimm behaviour.
I headed back downstairs. The only place left to check was the basement. I located the right door and found it was locked. I kicked that door in and headed down. Now I was in business. The first thing I found in the basement was a workshop, with a desk covered in tools, and partially constructed bombs. I was confused by the explosives for a second, until I looked at the map on the wall next to the desk. It was a map of that region, with a winding path drawn across it. There were marked spots along the path. I didn't understand what the path meant until I saw where it ended. It stopped on a village near the one where Vermell had died. A village that, just a few days before, had been destroyed by a rampaging herd of Goliaths. That attack had gotten Vermell's attention and, since we were nearby, she'd insisted we take the herd down. It was the whole reason we'd been in that part of Vacuo.
So, this girl knows we're somewhere nearby. Somewhere in Sanus, at least. She uses bombs to steer a herd of Goliaths- that was the marked spots on the map. Bombing locations. She drives them to destroy a village and kill over a hundred people, just to get our attention. And it worked. The timing required, the planning that had to have gone into this, not to mention waiting until we just happened to be in the area. This girl was dedicated. I moved further into the basement, and suddenly discovered just how dedicated she really was. In the next room, there was an entire wall, covered in newspaper clippings, pictures, lines drawn between them, little scribbled notes, the whole shebang. There were pictures of Ozpin, pictures of other headmasters, pictures of past Maidens. She'd done an impressive job piecing it all together. To any normal person, who didn't believe in magic, or insane conspiracies, it would all look like nonsense. But it was all right there. And down on one end, pinned over a bunch of older clippings like a recent addition, was a grainy picture of Vermell and I. Her marching confidently down the street, looking as bold and dramatic as an old portrait of a valiant Huntress. And there was me, sulking behind her, sticking to shadows and looking about suspiciously.
There had to be something else there. Everything I'd seen was just her quest to get the power. What did she plan to do with it? Where would she go? I needed something. On the other side of the room there was a desk, with a computer, and a bunch more scribbled notes and pieces of info she hadn't found a place for on the wall. I rummaged through them, looking for something of use. I looked right at the brochure and almost pushed it aside without a thought before it caught my attention. There, next to the computer, right in the middle of all this craziness, was a brochure for the Vacuo Peace Festival. They have that festival every year in Vacuo. I mean, I don't have to tell you about it. Bunch of treehuggers, hippies, and pacifists got together and started a yearly celebration of music, arts, and dance. Defeat the creatures of Grimm by spreading love to counter the negativity. Get together and think good thoughts real hard until all the darkness in the world just magically goes away. They've been doing it for over 50 years, so, it should kick in any day now.
The Peace Festival didn't strike me as being this girl's cup of tea. So why would she have a brochure for it? I turned the brochure over and found a list of dates and times for various performances. One of them was underlined. I realized in disbelief that the festival would be happening in two days. She must have decided on the festival purely on the timing. After stealing the power, she could head straight to the capital city and... do what? What was the goal? It hit me pretty abruptly that the Festival's performances were broadcast all over the world. Doesn't get the same ratings as the tournament, for whatever reason, but whatever she was going to do, the world was going to see it.
At that point, I guess I got a little pissed off. Maybe because I'd had two very different encounters with her, and she'd made a joke of me both times. Maybe I knew the whole mess came down to my failure just as much as her success, and I was a little sour about it. I just decided that I wasn't leaving there without one small win to my name. I went back and grabbed the rest of the explosives. I rigged them up and tossed them around the basement. There wasn't any need to be too precise. There was a container of Fire Dust in the workshop, too, so I spread that around for good measure. Then I walked out the door and turned the place to burning rubble behind me. She was probably going to kill me when I tried to stop her in Vacuo, and then she'd blow the lid off the whole masquerade on live TV, and then the mass panic would get thousands killed by the Grimm. But at least now she'd come back to her house burned down. If she was planning on coming back at any point. So, that would show her.
I had a lot to think about on the way to the city. I thought about Vermell. Ozpin had warned her that taking on the Maiden powers would be dangerous, sure, but he hadn't told her the whole story. He hadn't told her just how rare it was for Maria to have lasted as long as she did. Being a Maiden puts a pretty big target on your back. In the decade and a half she carried the mantle of Fall, the powers of the other seasons changed hands three times each. Her survival wasn't because she was any stronger, or smarter, and it certainly wasn't the skill of her bodyguard. She just got lucky, more times over than I could believe. Whether assassination attempts, or battles with Grimm even bigger than that thing sealed inside Mountain Glenn, she always came out unscathed. Then one day, her luck runs out. She got blindsided, and by the time I got to her, her spine was crushed, along with her kidneys and pelvis. An Aura can only heal so much. Hell, even as she was dying, she did better than most. Survived long enough for us to decide on a replacement. To decide on Vermell.
I could have done a better job of warning Vermell. I could have told her to go into hiding, keep the powers a secret. Maybe she would have listened, or maybe she would have gone down the same road. But at least she wouldn't have any crazy ideas about me being able to protect her, or about Ozpin having a plan beyond sending her out to the corners of the world, and hoping the enemy gives away their position by trying to kill her. Yeah, I know, I said it. I don't think he has a plan past that. Somebody new will get the power one way or another, right? Sometimes I can't help but wonder if he sees each Maiden as almost... expendable. I mean, he cares. He does. He has high hopes for every single Maiden, every single student. But, when a man is in charge of safeguarding incredible power, and he has an absolute belief that what he does with it is necessary? There are things he feels he needs to be willing to sacrifice. Shit, the attack that put you in that tube? This is the closest we've come to Salem's forces in years. I can't say for sure what Oz thinks is worth that.
The bartender- the guy who was with me when I found Vermell's body- he said something when we were drinking together that stuck out. Turns out, he was a Huntsman once. Graduated from Shade, fought in Vacuo for a few years, then chose a quieter life. I asked him why. He said it just wasn't what he thought it'd be. The team he had at the academy fell apart in just a few short years. Their personal conflicts, and all the death and violence they saw over the years... just broke 'em down until they couldn't stand each other any more. Eventually, he said, he looked in the mirror and realized what that life would eventually turn him into, and decided to put a stop to it. He said the world would be fine without him fighting for it. Better Huntsmen than him could do the job in his stead. I got to thinking, maybe if I didn't know about all this magic nonsense, maybe if Ozpin had never brought me into his little secret club- maybe I could have taken the same out. But knowing what's at stake, knowing what happens if we lose... I can't walk away anymore, no matter how much I want to. I'm in this until we win or I die. Those three days in Vacuo, knowing I was going up against a Maiden alone, it was feeling like it'd be the latter. But even if I were to live... that man he was afraid of turning into? I don't know if I'm becoming that, or if I've already been it for so long I can't remember a difference.
So, I got to Vacuo. The show where the girl was planning to put on her own performance was still a day and a half away. With the little time I had to prepare, I considered calling in back-up. Glynda, or Jimmy, or Oz himself. But I figured, a Headmaster or General showing up announced in Vacuo would get people's attention. If the new Fall Maiden got wind of it, she might back out of the one shot I had at her. As for Glynda, well, she wouldn't have blended in all that well at the Peace Festival either. Besides, even a new Maiden is a match for any Huntsman. If somebody else had to die for my fuck-up, it was going to be me. So I did what every irresponsible, self-pitying, self-punishing, arrogant idiot does, and deemed this to be something I would have to do myself. So, I found the nearest bar to the Peace Festival and waited it out there. Hey, this was no time for a dramatic change of pace.
Walking through that Festival was bizarre. Bunch of people all singing, and dancing, and doing drugs, and having sex. Everybody trying to defeat evil incarnate with happy thoughts. The whole shtick was to counter negativity with positivity, but, it wasn't positivity I saw. It was willful ignorance. I stuck out about as much as you'd expect. People saw me, saw my weapon, they knew who I was. Got dirty looks, got called a fascist a few times, you know the drill. You've gotten that too, right? You, and me, and every other Huntsman and Huntress standing on the wall between humanity and the end of everything. Still, it wasn't lost on me that the biggest contrast between me and them was that they all seemed so damn happy. Is there a word for pitying and envying somebody at the same time?
It was just a few minutes before the show was about to begin. I snuck backstage, figuring she'd be doing the same. The band that was going to play was some pop group from Mistral, one of those one-hit-wonder bands that play mostly covers while the crowd impatiently yells out requests for the one hit. Who knows why she picked this performance for whatever she was planning, maybe she figured they'd get the best ratings. Maybe she just really didn't like the band. I looked around for any sign of her. There were some people back there; maintenance crew, sound guys, janitors, whatever. I glanced over the equipment, under tables, and behind a few curtains. She might not have used all of her explosives redirecting the Goliaths, and maybe whatever show she was planning to put on involved some pyrotechnics. There was nothing that I could see, though.
Less than a minute before the show was due to start, and I turn a corner, and bam. There she is. She had her back to me, talking to one of the band members- the lead guy, I guess. His hair was all spiked up, and he had thick eyeliner. She was still wearing that leather overcoat. I couldn't see it from behind, but she had a shirt on this time. From the sound of it, she was putting on the act of some starstruck fan-girl. I stumbled backwards, back around the corner. Putting my back against the wall, I drew my weapon. Quickest way to finish this would be walking up behind her, hitting her while her Aura was down. It'd be a cheap, dirty move, but its not like she would have had any right to complain about it. I heard the band kid say he needed to get on stage, but she was welcome to wait for him in the green room. I peered around the corner. The kid walked off, headed towards the stage. The girl stood there for a moment, arms crossed. I quietly stepped around the corner, and inched towards her. I'd barely closed the distance when I saw the shimmer of her Aura going up.
I cursed under my breath. Slightly louder then I'd intended, as it turned out. She glanced over her shoulder, saw me, and her eyes went wide. She whipped around to face me, and got into combat stance. I raised my sword, and held position. I should have charged her right there, but I didn't. For some reason, I spoke.
"Why?" I asked, "Why did you do it?"
"You're too late to stop me," She said, "The whole world is going to know."
"Is that it?" I asked, "You're going to show the world that magic exists? What does that get you?"
"I'm going to show everybody what he's been hiding!" She said, "He doesn't get to be the man behind the curtain anymore! The world deserves answers for the lives he destroys!"
"If the world finds out, it'll cause mass panic," I say, "Grimm activity will skyrocket! All of history will be thrown into question! Religious wars that ended centuries ago will re-ignite. You'd be killing thousands, maybe millions!"
"Their blood will be on Ozpin's hands, not mine!" She said, "Just like every girl he curses with the Maiden powers, just like my mother, just like that stupid girl you couldn't protect!"
Somewhere in the back of my mind, something clicked. Her mother. The woman in the photo at the farmhouse. She'd been a Maiden. Not Fall, though. Spring, maybe. Suddenly it all made sense. Its not impossible for a mother to become a Maiden, but its rare. If she had a daughter after taking on the power, the girl wouldn't have been very old when her mother didn't come home one day. She'd have grown up alone, just looking for somebody to blame for taking her mother away. Looking for some sort of revenge that she could call justice. She almost reminded me of... well, anyway, I was pretty pissed at that point, so I guess I just didn't care who this girl was or what had happened to her. Her bringing up Vermell certainly didn't help her argument. I tightened my grip on my sword.
"Her name was Vermell Farad," I said, "You murdered her. Not Ozpin. Now I'm going to make you pay for it."
There was a sound of whining metal above my head. I glanced up just in time to see a water pipe in the ceiling explode. She'd been subtly heating it up since she saw me. Water splashed down on me, and she immediately froze it. I was encased in a thin layer of ice. Like I said, she was a damn fast learner.
"Enjoy the show," She said, and walked out.
I fought to break myself free. The ice couldn't hold me for long, but she didn't need long. I managed to click the switch on my sword, causing it to transform. The shifting mechanisms shattered the ice around it, and sent cracks through the ice encasing me. I tore free, shivering. I could hear the band starting on stage. I shook myself off, and immediately changed to crow form. I flew up, past the piping, up into the lighting fixtures. I flew out over the stage, and switched back to human form, landing on one of those big racks of stage lights. I looked down to see the band playing. The girl emerged from the curtains at the back, and strode out onto the stage. I glanced out at the crowd. God, it looked like thousands. There were massive cameras hanging from the ceiling, aimed at the stage. The whole thing was live all across Remnant. I clicked my weapon back into sword form.
Sounds of confusion were coming from the crowd at the sight of the girl on stage. The lead singer noticed her walking up behind him. He lowered his mic, turned, and raised his hands in a shrug. I noticed that his vocals didn't stop coming from the speakers. Were it not for the circumstances, I might have laughed at that. The girl held out a hand, and the guy burst into flames. I could feel the heat all the way up where I was perched. The kid was thrown backwards off the stage by the blast, and he was charred bone by the time he landed in the crowd. As you can imagine, that's when the screaming started.
The other band members freaked out, and scrambled to get off stage. The crowd broke into a stampede, running over each other to get away. I wouldn't find this out until later, but, over a dozen people were trampled to death. Grimm activity at the walls of Vacuo skyrocketed that evening. Worst it had been in years. I knew I had to put a stop to it right away. The girl grabbed the mic from where it had been dropped, and spoke.
"Everybody, listen up," She said, over the screaming crowd, "It's time you all learned the truth. My name is-"
I jumped, spun, and sliced through every wire within reach. Split the rack of lights in half, too. I fell towards the stage in a rain of sparks. As I dropped, I switched the sword back to shotgun form, and blasted the cameras, one by one. I landed on the stage, right in front of her. Boy, was she not happy to see me. I emptied the clip into the giant speakers on stage for good measure. There was smoke and explosions of sparks everywhere. The girl screamed in rage, dropped the mic, and sent a blast of fire at me. I dodged to the side, then launched forward. She braced for a blow, but instead, I flew over her shoulder. I grabbed the back of her collar as I flew past, then used the momentum to throw her at the back of the stage. She was thrown through the curtain and crashed through the thin wall behind it. I needed to minimize how many people saw this fight.
I charged backstage after her, jumped through the hole in the wall, and was immediately blindsided. She'd recovered faster than I thought. The fireball threw me to one side, singeing my clothes and taking a good chunk of my Aura. I rolled, landed, and charged her. She lifted off the ground and dodged to the left. I stabbed my sword into the ground to my side, redirected myself, then, quickly switched to shotgun form. I squeezed the trigger and heard a click. I was so pissed off I hadn't been counting. She landed, and sent a another blast of cold at me. I powered right through it, swung, and got her across the face with the edge of the blade. She was thrown back, and hit the wall, dazed. I reloaded, then switched back to sword form. Then I rushed back in. She sent out blasts of fire and ice, I dodged, weaved, fired back. She blocked the shots. I closed the distance and swung at her. She ducked under the blade and I sliced through the wall behind her.
She rolled past me, and I felt a freezing chill in my leg. She'd frozen my lower leg right to the floor as she went past. She popped up behind me and unleashed a massive gout of fire at my back. I pushed forward, tearing my foot free, and smashed through the wall. Her flames hit the wall and ignited it. I had pushed myself into the next room, my Aura taking the brunt of the fire. I would be able to keep taking hits like this for long. I turned, waited for the hole in the wall to be obscured by smoke, then dove through it. I fully expected her to block the incoming attack, but when I emerged from the smoke, she had her guard down. She'd stood to close to the burning wall, inhaled some smoke. She was in the middle of a coughing fit. My sword hit her in the belly, and she was thrown backwards. I followed up with a couple shotgun blasts for good measure. She crashed into the opposite wall, and slumped to the ground. Her Aura was still up, but it was getting weaker. A couple more good blows, and I could finish it. I walked towards where she was laying in a crumpled heap. She opened her eyes and saw me coming.
She screamed, and the ceiling exploded. She'd created a wind storm in a confined space. The whole building was coming apart around me. I was thrown off my feet, slashing wildly at her as I flew past. She sent another blast of wind at me, propelling through the massive hole she'd torn in the roof. I was being lifted up over the city, up into the night sky. I could see the horde of people stampeding out of the building. The girl launched herself into the air, flying up to meet me. As she tried to get through the hole in the roof, she was suddenly stopped. A length of wire hanging from the destroyed roof had gotten caught on her leg. She looked at in confusion and tried to tear herself free. I changed into crow form, got control of myself, then dove down at her. I spun through the air as I switched back to human, changing my weapon to full scythe form. She got herself loose just in time for me to hit her. She twisted in midair, the blade of the scythe just missing her. The staff got her in the neck, and We were both sent plummeting back into the building, and crashing into a wide corridor, shattering more of the ceiling and the walls as we went.
Just before impact, she let off another fireball at point blank range. She got me right in the gut. We slammed into the ground, and she cried out in pain. I felt her Aura breaking, and then mine. Another blast of wind threw me off of her, down the corridor. I landed, fighting to stay up. She levitated off the ground, righted herself, then dropped back down. We took a moment, staring at each other, breathing heavily. Our Auras weren't just down. We were bloodied, and bruised. The fight hadn't lasted long, but she'd hit hard, and so had I. She began forming a fireball in her hands, powering it up, like in our first fight. She was trying to say something, muttering and swearing under her breath. I inched my way backward, and she kept stumbling towards me. Maybe she thought I was trying to get away. I was waiting for my moment.
Just as she was about to throw the fireball that would kill me, she stepped on a piece of drywall that had been torn from the wall. It slipped on the floor, and sent her careening off balance. Her eyes went wide, and she struggled not to fall over. Her arms flailed, her fingers struggling to grip the ball of flame in her hand. I shot forward, sword ready. She saw me coming and threw the fireball wildly. I ducked, and it flew past my shoulder. I felt it singeing my hair. She was just steadying herself as I reached her. She raised her arms to defend herself. My sword cleaved clean through her right arm. The blade caught her left hand and took off a few fingers. The tip of the sword sliced across her chest, leaving a deep gash. She was thrown backwards, and hit the ground hard.
The girl lay there, on the ground, staring at her own massacred limbs. Bursts of flame were appearing in the air around her and instantly disappearing. She was still trying to fight back. I walked over to her, dusting myself off. She looked at me in dread, writhing in pain. She was on the verge of passing out. She again tried to speak. I changed my sword to shotgun mode a final time.
"Ozpin..." She whispered, "Doesn't deserve to control it."
"Probably not," I said.
I raised my weapon and blew her head off.
I dropped to my knees. I hung my head. I almost vomited. I'd seen my moment, and I'd taken it before I even had time to hesitate. She might have planned in advance who she'd think about if she was about to die. Just like we did with Maria. I might have ended up having to hunt down and kill some other girl. But if she was thinking about Ozpin... If she was thinking of Ozpin, it would be random. Somebody not connected to all this. Somebody we could find, and Ozpin could tell that old story to. The one he just loves telling. And then we could give that poor girl some spiel about saving the world.
A light grew in the dead girl's chest. A ball of brilliant orange fire burst out of her and hovered above her corpse. I stared at it as it hovered there, flitting about. As if contemplating. Rolling the dice. Then, it shot away, passing through the wall and disappearing from sight. You know where it was headed.
There were questions, after that. Police wanted to know what happened. How a man had been turned into charred bits in seconds. Why the girl who'd done it was lying dead on the floor in a building we'd taken less than a minute to destroy. Wasn't the first time I'd had to spin some story. I was just a Huntsman chasing a bounty. A criminal with an unusually powerful Semblance. Too dangerous to be taken alive. It was, at least, kind of true. I spoke to the organizers of the festival, and asked how much of what happened was broadcast. They said they broadcast on a 15 second delay, ready to cut the feed if anything happens. I hadn't even needed to shoot the cameras. Nothing got out.
I got back to Beacon eventually, and told it all to Ozpin. I may have left out my last words to the girl. He listened to the story, and he just looked... tired. Weary. Same way he looked after Maria. Same way he looked when you were attacked. Its a burden that weighs on him every time. It hurts him just as much as me, he's just better at hiding it. We talked for a while, about Vermell, about what she could have been, and what had happened to her. Then, we set to work, searching for the new Fall Maiden. Searching for you.
I asked Ozpin if any recent Maidens had had a daughter. He knew who I was talking about immediately. She'd been a Spring Maiden, from Atlas. Lasted five years. Ozpin never found her killer, but he was pretty sure whoever it was had been working for Salem. A less successful attempt to steal the power. Anyway, her husband, and their daughter, they didn't know. Not about the Maidens, or the magic, or anything else. So, of course, Ozpin couldn't tell them about how she died. The husband spent years begging Ozpin for answers, and never got them. Apparently it drove him a little crazy. He died a few years later. I never asked how. The daughter, well, Ozpin never heard from her again after her father died. I guess she went searching for answers on her own. Eventually, she found us. Her name... her name was Sylvia Sierra.
So, that's it. That's why you became a Maiden. I don't know why the power chose you, but I'm the reason it did. Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was just bad luck. You became Fall because I killed the last one to hold the title. And she was Fall because I failed the one before her. And now, whatever is left of you is trapped in this... horrific machine, about to be fused into the next in line. Who knows, maybe she'll have better luck. Maybe she'll come out of that tube the same as she went in, save for the powers. Maybe she'll kill the woman in red who killed you. She'll get the full power back, and she'll use it to protect the world. And she'll get to have a long life, protecting humanity. Probably end up marrying that blonde kid. Maybe everything will turn out fine for her. It could happen.
Yeah, Amber. I guess that's it. My flask is empty, and I think I've taken up enough of your time. If you are still aware in there, if you've heard any of this, well, I guess I won't bother you with any more of an old man's drunken ramblings. But it was good to see you again. I'm glad I got to see you again before... well. Like I said. It'll be tomorrow. Or the next day. The finals start in just a couple hours. She'll win. And then she'll come down here... and claim her prize. If I see you again, if the new Fall Maiden is still you at all, I hope you won't remember the pain I put you through. And if you're gone, I hope wherever you end up is peaceful. You deserved better than all this. Goodbye, Amber. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, for everything.