Author's Note: Alright, so, funnily enough, the next day after I typed and posted that short Need Her For Me, I ended up pulling out an old file that had managed to survive in my hard drive for…when did Nioh come out?
Brain: About a year ago.
Right, about a year ago. Anyway, this was an old thing I started shortly after Nioh came out. I played it, had fun, especially with friends, and I actually started on this thing shortly after. Also, I was watching those live action Rurouni Kenshin movies at the time.
Brain: Which were AWESOME!
Yes, yes they were. Anyway, last time I touched this, it was like…3k-4k+ words long? Well, for some strange reason I found myself opening this file up and adding another…11k or so words within the following week. I actually would've had this thing up a couple weeks ago but…uh…
…Yeah, Monster Hunter World came out. And for those who remember Dual Abyss and the massive delay on the finale because of The Division and Dark Souls…well I'm sure you understand. I'm actually still playing plenty of Monster Hunter and forced myself to stop and finish the last couple thousand words I needed to complete this.
Anyway, here we are: a Nioh AU for RWBY!
The invasion and subjugation of Vacuo was not only a greedy endeavor to acquire land and resources from a less-developed kingdom, but it was also a test of strength between the three invading forces: Mantle, Vale, and Mistral. Thus, the entire western half of Sanus became a competition ground. While the natives were forcibly driven out of their lands, their homes would be annihilated in the following skirmishes between the three armies that vied for control for as much of the land and their resources as possible.
The rules were simple: the stronger the force, the more they acquired.
Mantle's strength came from its technology, its soldiers outfitted with weaponry that exceeded those of the other kingdoms. For Vale, it was the strength of the warriors themselves, their reputation having always been highly regarded as being the best of the best. As for Mistral, the kingdom's technology did not match the heights of Mantle and their warriors were not of the same mettle as Vale. It did, however, have numbers and was able to more efficiently compete with the other two kingdoms on multiple fronts.
Yet it was Mistral that found itself lagging behind in the acquisition of territories nonetheless. Its eagerness to claim as much as possible with its larger armies extending so far inevitably resulted in Vale and Mantle focusing more on the one kingdom than each other. With its advantage of numbers lost and its forces weakening with every skirmish, there came the very real danger of Mistral being forced out of Vacuo. The Emperor of Mistral knew full well of not only the short but long-term consequences that could result in such a loss and display of weakness, so was willing to turn to whatever solution that could be made possible in order to win.
In the end, one did present itself: a discovery that had been made in Vacuo early in the campaign and was brought back to be researched - strange stones, much like Dust, but very different. Theories abound from either it being a new type of Dust or, perhaps, it was Dust that had undergone some sort of change in response to the battles much like how Vacuo's landscape had been corrupted from a beautiful oasis and jungles to the wastelands it would forever be known for.
Whatever the true explanation may be, the potential of these new stones resulted in the emperor hiring any mercenaries, smugglers, and pirates willing to brave into the battlegrounds of Vacuo and acquire them. Once obtained, the power of these stones managed to give Mistral exactly what it needed. Something that Mantle's technology could not contend with. Something that the mightiest of the warriors of Vale learned to fear.
Something that was truly, unquestionably terrible – on par with the creatures of Grimm.
In the end, having been on the verge of defeat, Mistral gained its fair share of Vacuo's territories that was divided up between the three kingdoms. And now, the emperor and his inner circle desired to keep what had earned them this victory a secret.
The secret of these stones known as Amrita.
Much like the mountains that they rested on, there were two sides to the city of Mistral. There were the refinements of the elite upperclassmen who lavished themselves with the fashion of aristocrats that enjoyed the finer things of their culture, and then there was the crooked lower class consisting of the ill-repute: the assassins, the thieves, the pirates, and other manner of villainy hidden beneath the illusion of high society.
However, there had always been a working relationship between these two. Nobles who desired the rarities and finer things of life – whether it be an item or, better yet, an individual - could open up their purses to the black market, while political opponents who required leverage over an obstacle or to get it "out of the way" only needed to visit the seediest den in order to find the right person for the right job at the right price. No matter how high Mistralians wished to rise on the mountains they conquered, many would always descend back down into the dark cliff sides that they came from when their needs suited it.
Such business was not without risks though, particularly for those who were taking the jobs. After all, although they were the nobodies with special sets of skills that could fetch quite the price, they were nobodies all the same. It let them disappear with relative ease, but for some clients who had a reputation that needed to be guarded at all costs, it wasn't much of a leap of logic to make sure that whoever they employed might need to go indefinitely after the dirty deal was over with.
And for clients who were of the royal court, there was a special place for those they needed gone, right at the bottom of those mountains that they themselves were situated so high on.
In the past, they had been fortifications built at the foot of Mistral when the city had been in its infancy. Small castles and forts, they were to act as an impenetrable barrier against the Grimm, bandits, invading armies, and other conceivable threats. As time went on though and Mistral's civilization managed to extend and settle the bulk of Anima, a direct attack on its capital city no longer seemed as threatening as it once did.
As a result, most of these forts were dismantled or left to fall apart on their own. As for the few that remained, they served a number of purposes that suited them at the time but, in the end, it was decided that they could make the perfect prisons. There had once been a name, some valiant title for these bulwarks of Mistral's defense, but no one could recall them now. And that was exactly what these leftover keeps came to be: places where anyone who was unlucky enough to be sent to would disappear and be forgotten.
On this night, one keep may as well never exist with how it nestled within a narrow valley alongside the river that twisted and curved down the peak. Located on the windward side, a chilly gale was blasting against the ancient stone of the towers while heavy rain fell upon them. Lightning would flash, white forks appearing to claw too close, and the walled silhouette of the keep would appear only briefly before fading back into darkness.
It was a miserable place, both to the prisoners and those who oversaw them, and its location kept it isolated from the rest of the city. No one could possibly know of the horrors that took place inside, slowly emptying cells one-by-one not long after they were filled. On one level of the main prison, nearly all of the dozen cells were vacant save for one.
There wasn't so much as a cot supplied. Each cell was an empty, stone square sealed off by iron gates. Windows were tiny and similarly barred and with the storm outside, the sole source of warmth and light were the torches far out of reach of the imprisoned.
The single prisoner sat slumped against a cold wall, feet pulled up to avoid the freezing touch of small puddles that managed to gather from what little of the significant rainfall that leaked in. Her long golden hair was a mess of grimy tangles, but given the scraps that she had been deigned to wear as clothing, it was probably the best thing she had in terms of covering, the golden strands draped haphazardly over a body that had seen a hard living – notable scars cut along toned muscles. Her imprisonment hadn't been long but, going by her situation, malnourishment was the least of her concerns.
She did not move, not even shivering in what had to be freezing conditions, and the one guard patrolling outside stopped to lift a lantern to her cell and squint to see if she was even alive. When still she did not give any sign of life, the guard moved on, disinterested.
What he was completely blind to was the creature that was out in the open, hovering at the shoulder of the blonde prisoner. Small, less than half the size of the woman if she had been standing, and surrounded in a silvery glow that radiated from her unusual form. She would appear as if a young girl, one with glowing silver orbs for eyes and dark hair. But other than those unusually bright eyes, one would immediately notice how the tips of otherwise black human hair gave way to red rose petals that fell over her face like bangs, thorns twisting and interweaving between them in a vague shape of a crown.
Her pale body was human with arms and legs, wrapped tight in what may be a red dress until it was noted that it was in fact a collection of rose petals around her torso that extended and flared out around her legs and arms like a flowing skirt and sleeves. Within both were more thorny briar, wrapped loosely around her limbs.
The hovering creature was watching the guard as he made his inspection, her silver eyes tracking him until he was out of sight from the cell. Switching to the slumped woman once he was gone, her lips twisted into an impish smile as she leaned over to an ear shrouded in messy yellow curls.
"Death comes for you," she whispered.
There was no movement, the prisoner perhaps as blind and deaf to the creature as the guard was. Then, after only a few seconds, the woman lifted her head, lilac eyes already swiveled to look at the floating rose girl. Her expression at first deadpanned, a grin much like the girl's slowly appeared on the woman's face.
"Really, Ruby?" Yang asked with a sigh.
A giggle was the response, the girl retreating a foot away but still regarding her with a smile. "I can't help it. It always sounds cool to me."
"The first few times, maybe," Yang relented, leaning her head back until it thumped against the wall. "But after ten years and hearing it over a hundred times, it's really gotten old."
"You have your puns, leave me my cool line. Besides, it's really your fault for giving me a hundred chances to say it."
Yang shrugged. "What do you expect? The privateering life has never been called a healthy one."
If she wasn't staring up at the ceiling, Yang would've witnessed the crack in Ruby's smile, the cheerful glow in her eyes dimming as she surveyed the scars of her nearly nude form. "You've made that pretty obvious."
Her tone did get Yang to glance over but by then Ruby had lifted herself up, her attention now on a section of the stone wall. Yang kept a stare aimed at her, but her sister either didn't notice it or was purposely ignoring it, instead gliding a small hand over the solid surface. "Find something?"
"It's weak here," Ruby revealed, her palm becoming flat and unmoving at a certain spot. "Most of the mortar is gone and the rocks have shifted. A good push will open a hole into the cell next door."
"So going into another cell would accomplish…?"
Ruby aimed a pout at Yang. "The cell next to you is open. The guards didn't close it all the way after they took the prisoner out."
It was hard to forget about that. Most of the cells had been full at one point, but throughout the day the prison guards would come down at regular intervals, taking a prisoner with them. They would never return with that captive, instead coming back to escort another one out. Halfway through, some of the remaining prisoners struggled and fought when they began assuming the worst. The prisoner who had been housed next to Yang offered the biggest fight to the point where the guards had nearly beaten him senseless before hauling him out together. He was a bigger prisoner, and it took all four guards to carry him away.
After such a battle, making sure an empty cell was closed and locked would've been the least of their concerns, and the sole patroller either didn't notice or didn't care either while making his rounds.
"There's really no other prisoners here?" Yang asked when she forced herself to stand, grimacing at the old pains from her rough treatment and the new ones from sitting on that floor for so long.
Ruby floated away from the wall to give her space while she shook her head. "No one's left, and they're coming for you next."
Considering that she was the only one here and that it's been a while since the guards last visited, Ruby's prediction would, to someone else, be stupidly obvious. However, Yang knew better.
Death comes for you.
It was more than just some cool line that Ruby liked to say. Whenever she uttered it, death was in fact coming for Yang at that moment. It was one of Ruby's 'special' abilities: sensing danger and when harm was about to befall her living sister. It wasn't perfect – far from foolproof as her current predicament could attest to -, but Yang could be sure that danger was coming soon. As in, the guards that had been making their runs may very well be on their way here right now.
With that in mind, Yang focused on where Ruby had detected the weakness of her cell. She pushed with her hands to test it and, just as she said, Yang was able to detect the slight give. Planting her bare feet the best she could, she pushed harder, growling to herself when the stone refused to budge any further. Pausing, she took a step back, rolled her shoulders, and then threw one against the wall. Something dislodged with the impact and Yang hurriedly drew back lest she get caught by the collapsing stones, one nearly falling on her foot while the rest tumbled into the neighboring cell.
"He might've heard that," Ruby warned.
Yang knew she was referring to the one guard. After giving her shoulder a soothing rub, Yang knocked out a few more loose stones to create a hole large enough to squeeze herself through, nearly twisting her ankle when she stumbled into the other cell while Ruby serenely floated in behind her. The iron gate almost appeared closed, but on closer inspection Yang saw that it wasn't quite flush and, with a gentle push, the door swung open.
"Nice," she whispered, taking her first step to freedom.
Ruby glided past her, heading towards the spiraling stairwell that the short hallway led to, and Yang witnessed her head perk up before she said, "He's coming."
Yang hurried over, taking a position off to the side of the portal with her back pressed against the wall. From the stairwell, light began to come through, growing in luminance as it drew closer. There were footsteps, Yang judging that they belonged to only one person and though the pace wasn't slow, it wasn't very hurried either. The guard must've heard something but not enough for him to be worried as, when he finally exited the stairwell, his hand was only resting on the hilt of the sword sheathed at his side.
Yang didn't waste time, striking out with her fist in a hammer-like fashion that struck the guard in the solar plexus. It wasn't the ideal position for such a hit, but the effect was to her satisfaction as the guard doubled over, the wind so quickly and unexpectedly knocked out of him that his hand fell away from his sword while the lantern fell and hit the floor. Yang grabbed him by the back of the head, bringing it further down to meet her knee which shot up and struck him in the face. He was down and out after those two blows, a mere second having passed since the first hit before he was collapsing at her feet.
"I hate watching you fight sometimes."
Yang had been kneeling down next to the body when she glanced up to see Ruby's scrunched up face of displeasure. "Hey, it worked," she defended.
"It worked but it was just…eugh." Ruby floated over to inspect the unfortunate guard. "It's nice watching most of the time but then you have these moments where it's just dirty."
Violet eyes rolled at her. "Would you have preferred me warning him and letting him get ready first?"
"Here." Yang unsheathed the sword at the guard's belt and laid it down. "Distract yourself with this for a few."
"Oooh!" Reservations gone, Ruby became delightfully distracted as she hovered over the weapon, silver eyes glowing with a renewed shine of interest.
While she fawned over it, Yang began divesting the guard of his clothing. Standard trousers and coat, but perfect for disguise. And warmth, she mentally added as she threw on the coat, the cloth heavy and padded. Her chilled skin appreciated it as she experienced a subtle shiver from the merging of temperatures. She hastily buttoned up the coat in order to quickly get to the trousers and boots, being sure to raise the collar to hide the line of bruises that went around her neck.
The ensemble was a bit loose on her, especially the boots, but she couldn't exactly be picky and settled with tightening the laces as much as she could. The size of the coat she actually used to her advantage as her biggest concern was her voluminous blonde hair. She had only seen a few guards, but neither of them had been women. That aside, her precious locks could attract attention so she stuffed most of it into hiding in the back of the coat.
I'll have to count on darkness and the rain to do the rest, Yang hoped, the heavy rainfall persistently remaining at a dull roar with how hard it was coming down. If she could get out of the prison block without bumping into anyone, crossing through the wards and avoiding attention would be a cinch.
After fastening the belt and scabbard around her waist, Yang rotated to Ruby. "So?"
She saw her sister's look of disapproval that was aimed at the sword. "Lame," Ruby described bluntly. Like before with the wall, she had been passing her one hand over the length of the blade, staring intently. "Secondhand, but even then the quality of the steel used to make it wasn't very good. It's got a couple nicks – not too bad but…" Retreating from the sword with a disappointed frown, Ruby declared, "Its junk. The only thing missing is some rust."
"Its junk that's still got most of a sharp edge though," Yang reasoned, grabbing the weathered handle to lift the sword, pointing it up to better visually inspect it herself. The blade had definitely seen better days and Yang wished that she had her pair of special cestuses, never having taken to swords herself. Alas, they had been confiscated shortly after she had been arrested. "I'm hoping to not need to use this thing anyway."
Despite her damnation of the weapon, Ruby had drawn closer for another look, slowly circling around the blade. "Even I could do better." Halting in front of Yang, Ruby raised her hand, appearing to be about to take it from the other's grip. "I…" She stopped just before her fingers could touch it.
I want to do better.
Ten years had gone by, and even with another ten Yang didn't think it would ever stop affecting her; this immense sense of guilt when she saw the sentence all but written on her sister's unnaturally glowing face.
Whatever higher power had been responsible for bringing Ruby back in her current form, Yang had never thought it to be out of benevolence, especially not with this openly cruel display of irony. Similar to her impeccable sense of life-threatening danger, Ruby could view and perceive the world on some mystical level that went beyond ordinary people. Discovering the weakness in the cell wall, able to appraise the quality of a weapon with a good look and a wave of her palm – they were only two of hundreds of other examples that Yang had witnessed Ruby perform with many of them being used to assist in getting Yang out of dire situations like this.
The wicked jest of it all was that no matter how advanced Ruby could see the world, she couldn't interact with it on any other level whatsoever. She couldn't grab the sword or lift it as Yang was currently doing, nor could she try on clothes like the ones Yang had just appropriated from her captors or taste the exotic foods that Yang had sampled during their adventures around the globe. She was a spirit – wandering unseen and unknowing to everything and everyone on Remnant. Everyone except Yang.
If she was still alive, Yang thought, far from the first and never to be the last, what would she have chosen to be? Given her fascination for the craftsmanship of weapons, maybe she would've grown up to forge swords such as these with the passion that could never be realized and pride that she would never be able to experience at creating something that could never be hers. Not ever. Not with the way she was now.
"You said death was coming," Yang reminded her, diverting her attention away from the sword that she hid within its scabbard. "We should get going with the weather still on our side."
"Yeah." Rather than float on ahead, Ruby's form brightened with a sudden burst of intensity before she vanished, dissolving into specks of silvery light and red-hued petals before they, too, vanished.
Yang visibly straightened at the sudden energy and warmth that came with the possession, her previous aches and pains not only being soothed but the privateer experiencing a boost in vitality as Ruby's spiritual essence filled and merged within her. She was instantly refreshed and awake, like taking a warm bath and a good, long sleep. She'd still love to have both once she was out of here of course.
Although they had yet to find anyone who could see Ruby, Yang would always feel anxious when stealth was needed and she had a floating, glowing, briar and rose-wreathed sister at her shoulder. Ruby knew the exact moments when Yang preferred it, but this possession, at times, was the closest thing that the two could have to privacy. Retreating into Yang's body was like Ruby going to her room: a special, closed off space that she could rest in and be left to her own thoughts while rejuvenating Yang physically and spiritually with her added presence.
And Yang knew that Ruby wanted to be alone right now. No matter how much Ruby tried to remain cheerful and put up the charade that her situation didn't bother her at all, there were moments when she couldn't keep it up such as right then when she looked at that junk of a sword with that half-disguised longing. She would always attempt to spare Yang from any more guilt by doing this.
But we know each other too well at this point. Ruby may be occupying her body right now, but Yang's thoughts were still her own and vice versa.
Leaving it be, Yang dragged the guard into a cell before retrieving the lantern he dropped. She was immediately stumped when, on closer inspection, she saw the now unlit candle through the transparent glass. Not Dust? she wondered. A small sprinkling of Burn Dust would be more than enough to power something like a lantern for quite some time. Wax and candle wicks were still in use, but in a kingdom like Mistral?
Yang looked down at her stolen uniform. The fabric had a few rips, undoing the quilted padding in some areas. The golden embroidery of Mistral's emblem was equally tarnished.
"Ruby," Yang spoke in a hushed tone as she entered the stairwell to descend down it. "We are still in Mistral, right? Or was I out much longer than I thought?"
Ruby's reply did not come as a sort of telepathic thought. Instead, it was like her words vibrated deep from within Yang's chest and climbed up to speak into her ears. "We are. Still on the peak, actually."
Yang had been certain, but the growing signs of decrepitude of her prison had been casting doubts about that. A place like this would seem more fitting in an outlying settlement at Mistral's borders or the rare few towns and villages that had been established even further beyond that. But on the same mountain as the capital city itself?
Then again, Yang thought, pausing to use a hanging torch to relight the lantern, this is Mistral. Looks nice and pretty on the outside, but plenty of ugly when one knew where to look on the inside. As a privateer, Mistral was where Yang got a lot of her business – much of it illegitimate. Most of her client meetings involved a seedy den possessing plenty of shadowed corners with the clients themselves taking a typical fancy to cloaks.
It had been the same for the job that landed her in this mess. A cloaked man, hands clear of jewelry or signs of riches, but too clean and too smooth to have been dirtied with misdeeds of the 'working class'. No name, but a hefty advanced payment to cajole Yang into a contract that led her into the middle of the warzone that was Vacuo with her crew.
It hadn't seemed suspicious, not at first. The payment had been quite generous, but why wouldn't it be when you were being asked to go into the midst of an endless desert during a three-way war? The client had been pretty shifty, but when was a client not shifty? Besides, it's not like there wasn't already a job market to loot the valuable resources or other exotics from Vacuo. Yang had thought nothing of it. That was until she actually got to Vacuo and saw for herself just what kind of cargo her client wanted.
But I hadn't thought that I was dealing with royalty. Not until her last rendezvous with her client to collect what she thought would be the final payment. Before she knew it, the meeting spot was being swarmed with the Capital Guard. She only got a couple punches in before a blow took her out. With that obvious setup involving that large a number of the Guard, someone high up in the hierarchy had to have been behind it.
Yang hoped that her ship and her crew made it out. She and Coco had developed contingencies in case of double crosses – which had happened in the past – but how well could they hold out against the command and reach of royalty if this had in fact been the case?
One step at a time. Her first step being getting down the stairs, the second to the courtyard, the third to find an exit, the fourth to get to that exit, and so on. Yang never saw the point of planning too far ahead until you got out of the current mess first. The thinking had worked well for her so far, though Ruby's contribution had proven to be essential over the years. …That and having people like Coco to do the long-term thinking but that's what first mates were for.
Reverting back to the here and now, Yang took note that the rain was still coming down hard enough that she could still keep track of its intensity through the old stone as she made her way down. Fortunate, and doubly so that she didn't encounter anyone else in the stairwell during the whole journey to the ground floor and the door that would take her to the outside.
This is going to suck, Yang silently complained as she gripped the iron handle. She was proven correct practically instantly, her needing to brace when the door nearly shoved her back from a violent, gusty blast powerful enough to manipulate it so forcefully. Yang pushed against the wind and the rain that immediately slapped at her, her one arm straining but succeeding in getting the door back in place.
"Alright, Ruby," Yang grumbled out, already feeling miserable with how swift the elements were soaking the clothing she stole. "What do you got on this place?"
She was just glad she didn't have to shout over the weather as, even when thunder took that moment to boom, Ruby was able to hear and respond to her easily. "This place has two sections: an inner and outer ward. There's a couple gates that you can get through to the outer ward, the closest one being to your right. It'll be guarded but…"
"Hopefully I'll be able to just walk on through," Yang finished, the bad weather urging her to already turn and begin making her way there.
"The main gate won't be much farther," Ruby continued, "and the outer ward won't have all the buildings like the prison and barracks here."
"But will they let me through the main gate?"
"Dunno. Better question is: how far will you get away from here before they catch up to you without a horse or something?"
Yang quietly groaned. "That is the better question, isn't it?"
She could feel Ruby's suppressed mirth. "Mhm."
One step at a time. Get to the outer ward, find the main gate, and think of how best to steal transportation and make off with it.
Yang valiantly pushed through the oppressive rainfall, lantern held in front of her to provide what illumination she could get out of it. Beneath her feet were all cobblestones, stubbornly withstanding the years and the elements, and she could make out the silhouettes of the buildings that she passed. Some she could guess at by their shape such as a barracks, but it was difficult for her to do the same to others, not just because of her debilitated vision but also because of what were clearly old designs. Like, very old.
"I believe you when you say that we're still in Mistral," Yang spoke as she caught sight of what she knew were the shape of sentries; forms that appeared human and holding lanterns ahead of her. "But are we really on the peak?"
"Yes," Ruby replied, cutely miffed. "We're actually on the other side of the peak, opposite to the city."
"That close?" Yang quietly hissed, ducking her head slightly when she passed the patrolling sentries. Neither of them took notice of her. "I could understand if we were more to the base, but the peak? Why would a rundown place like this be so close to Mistral's capital?"
Ruby hummed in contemplation. "I think this place may've been pretty important a long time ago. It's located in a valley, next to a river that goes down the mountain, and the paths beyond here can lead right to the city."
"Defensible," Yang commented, imagining the layout in her head. "Hard to get to, and a fort like this would make it impossible for Grimm or other invaders to go around and attack the city from the back." But when was the last time that the city ever had to worry about a threat like that?
"I've seen ruins like these before," Ruby intoned.
Yang nodded. "Yeah, same here, but that's just it: those may as well be piles of rock. This is one step above them. Why would there still be something like this with guards manning the walls and active prisons…" She trailed off.
Ruby grimly spoke the answer that she came to. "This is a place for people to disappear."
To two people experienced in Mistral's underworld, the answer was all too believable. The levels of decadence that the 'noble' class of Mistral could fall to possessed a very vast extent of perversions and depravities. Yang had been fortunate to not expose Ruby to some of the private hells that she knew were out there, but her spirit sister knew enough about the ones that existed to make the illegitimate help that Yang specialized in vanish from the face of Remnant.
But this is a damn fortress, Yang thought. The City Guard and now this? Even as someone who had made plenty of dangerous enemies in the past, Yang was internally balking as to whom she could've possibly managed to cross. Suddenly some of Coco's extreme planning doesn't sound so extreme anymore. This is reaching get-the-hell-out-of-Anima kinds of bad.
This was not something she could just shake off and Yang was uncharacteristically relieved when she saw the iron gate up ahead that had to be the checkpoint between the inner and outer ward. She quickened her pace.
The grave tone from Ruby got Yang to pause. "What is it?"
"To your right. That building."
Yang obeyed, and it didn't take her long to find that building that Ruby was talking about. Once again the age of the building's design gave her trouble, but she was sure that it had to be the fort's headquarters or something. A big, important place, almost like a barracks, but the standards of Mistral that hung from the buttresses and the ornate windows spoke of some kind of importance. It was built against the wall of the inner ward and close enough to the checkpoint that Yang could see guards that manned the walls. Not the cloth protection of the sentries that Yang had encountered so far. They were full-armored with a couple sporting large halberds standing at attention.
She failed to see why it had gotten Ruby's attention so. "What's wrong?"
"I sense…" Her sister's voice wavered. "I sense…something bad in there, Yang. Really bad."
Yang blinked at Ruby's description – and was that fear she could make out? "Bad?"
"Like…" She could detect her sister's struggle to describe it. "It's like the Grimm but…different. I don't know. There's something beneath that building. Underground. I don't like it. It scares me."
Before she could request Ruby to better elaborate, Yang caught the large doors at the front open. Two pairs of guards marched out, side-by-side. They didn't wield anything big and noticeable like halberds, just swords, and-
Yang was quite certain that these four guards were the same ones that had been slowly emptying out the prison that she had been caged in. As she kept watch, it was with grim confirmation when the formation, once assembled, began marching down the cobblestone roads in the direction that Yang had come from.
Dammit, if they're heading to the prison then I won't have much time. They'll find the guy I left behind and it won't be long before everyone in the fort comes looking.
"Yang, it sees me!"
Yang snapped to attention. "What?" She whipped her head around, trying to find a visible threat.
"It sees me!" Ruby hissed, frightened. "The building! Whatever is in there, it noticed me!"
Yang swiveled back to the building but didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. The doors had closed again, the guards at the walls were still there, motionless. No sign of any threat. No sign of anything that should be able to see Ruby. Nothing had ever been able to see her before whether it be man, beast, or Grimm.
But it wasn't stopping Ruby. The minute vibrations of her voice became erratic as they traveled to Yang's ears, and the living sibling experienced her skin prickling with goosebumps. "Yang, I want to leave. Can we leave now? It's looking at me. Yang, please!"
"Okay, okay!" Yang hissed, spinning around and speed walking to the checkpoint. There was a sentry at the gate and Yang did her best to appear casual when she lifted her free hand, grabbing their attention, and then making a sign of her intent to get through.
The guard didn't so much as ask her a question. Producing a ring of keys from his pocket, he sorted through them to locate the right one to open the iron gate.
"It saw me," she heard Ruby continue. "It was looking at me. It wanted me. I could feel it. Please, please, please, Yang, let's just go!"
"Let's go, Yang!" the small child whispered, a death grip on her arm which she desperately tugged on, tears of fright slipping from her silver eyes and traveling down to her trembling chin. "They're going to see us! I want to go home now! I want daddy!"
Yang unconsciously moved her hand in a way that was meant to lay on the head of the frightened child as it did back then. Of course, there was nothing there, only the wind and rain.
But she could still hear that same child begging her to leave. "Please, Yang, hurry!"
Fuck, come on!
There was a loud click and the screech of iron swinging open. It took all the control and sense that Yang possessed to casually walk through the entryway and not barrel on through the sentry.
"We're through, Ruby," Yang assured soothingly once she was clear, the iron gate swinging back shut behind her. "We're moving. You're fine. Nothing's going to get you."
It had been far too long since she last spoke to Ruby like this, yet the words and the role that Yang reverted back to were surprisingly easily. It seemed enough for Ruby, the spirit's begging quieting, but Yang felt what she could best describe as an unbalancing within her. Rather than Ruby's vibrating voice, Yang felt shivers run up and down her that had nothing to do with the chilling rain. A vivid picture popped in her mind: Ruby curled up in a ball, the flowing rose petal sleeves of her dress up and over her head like a blanket, attempting to hide from whatever had scared her.
What just happened there? Desperate to find out, Yang went to the base of the nearest tower she could find. The wind, she suddenly noticed, was finally lessening, taking a break from the typhoon-like gusts that it had been throwing out. The rain, too, was lowering in intensity. Heavy, but it was no longer the curtain of water that had limited Yang's vision so.
She shoved the wooden door of the tower open, quickly ducking inside. As luck would have it, there was no one stationed within. She still set aside a few seconds to check the spiraling stairwell that would lead further up the tower, waiting and listening to be sure that she couldn't detect anyone that would be in hearing distance. There was nothing, and Yang was not willing to delay anymore.
She reoriented to the empty space of the tower's ground floor. Plenty of room. "Ruby?"
Ruby didn't appear before her or make any kind of response.
Alarm snapped its way through Yang when her immediate thought was that something was very wrong. But, no, Ruby was still with her. She could feel as much.
Her sister was just scared.
"Ruby…" The number of people who had ever heard Yang speaking with such a soft, loving voice as she did now she could count on one hand. Yang could also count the number of times she heard herself speaking this way to Ruby on two. But, much like before, her previous role of the comforting elder sibling that she once had when Ruby was alive returned surprisingly naturally.
"Ruby," Yang continued with that delicate voice. "You can come out. It's safe. I want to see you."
Time lapsed with no change. When Yang was about to try again, she felt Ruby's spiritual essence suddenly leave her before there was the flash of silver light in front of her, rose petals flinging out before they and the light vanished, revealing Ruby.
Even as a spirit, Ruby could still get scared. She could still be afraid for Yang's safety, and that didn't have to be strictly in the physical sense. She could also be afraid for other people. Although Yang was the only person who she could interact with, she could develop a liking for people that Yang came across and made friends with. But friends have died, and after ten years and all the dangerous adventures that Yang went through as a privateer with Ruby right alongside her, Ruby was experienced enough to develop a defense. She would still get afraid and upset, but she became accustomed to it.
But not once in those same ten years had Ruby ever needed to fear for herself. She had no reason to. Much like how she couldn't interact with the living world, the living world couldn't affect her. While she had been in the presence of people who fought and feared for their lives, not once did she ever have to feel that same fear.
What had just happened a minute ago was the first time anything other than Yang had been able to notice her. See her. Want her. Scare her. Something that Yang had been unable to notice either, meaning that this was also a first for the reverse: something scaring Ruby and Yang not able to help her because of the separation that came with a spirit and a living human.
There was also one very important detail. The last time Ruby had ever been afraid for herself was when she had been alive. On the day she died, something had seen her. Chased her. Scared her.
And it got her.
Her sleeves were not over her head as Yang had mentally pictured earlier, but she was in her ball. Knees brought up to her chest, arms hugging them close, leaving a pair of silver eyes to peek over her knees, partially veiled in thorns and roses. The usual radiance that would be around her body had dimmed.
Yang would've traded anything in the world and whatever was in the realm beyond that for a chance to embrace Ruby at this moment. Anything that could've felt solid and real to the both of them. However, that was something that was impossible. Pain wrenched at her heart when she stood there, unable to do anything because she couldn't do anything.
Ruby's eyes had gone to Yang first before they flicked up and around at their surroundings and Yang instinctively did the same, trying to locate any sign of whatever it was that had scared Ruby. She couldn't, but it appeared to her that that was because it wasn't here as Ruby didn't see anything either, those dulled silver orbs settling back on Yang.
Yang was about to speak and ask what happened but Ruby got the first word out from behind her legs.
"I want to leave," she stated.
Yang nodded. "Yeah, obviously. We're getting there."
"I want to leave Mistral." Her voice was surprisingly firm for a being like her.
Again Yang nodded. "Yeah, we'll do that next. With what I've been thinking, we probably need to leave Anima for a bit." This was one of these rare instances where Yang started to think long-term. "If Coco managed to get our ship and the crew out, we just need to rendezvous with her. After that, it shouldn't be hard to sail away to some other kingdom where we'll be safe from whatever trouble we got ourselves in. Mantle or Vale, although I think Vale will be easier. We could go to some big town or village, but we will eventually need to start taking contracts-"
"I want you to stop being a privateer."
That stopped her. "Excuse me?"
"I don't want you to be a privateer anymore," Ruby repeated. Her eyes hardened behind her briar-wreathed bangs, a brief return of their former glory getting them to shine.
Yang was struck momentarily dumb by this Ruby that was looking to her so severely when they had previously been talking so familiarly with one another in the middle of breaking out of prison like usual. This was far from their first. "Where is this coming from?" Thinking to the obvious, she asked, "Is it because of Vacuo? I know that that was a rough one but that war's over now. We don't have to go there anymore and I don't think another war like that is going to come around anytime soon."
Out of the all the jobs she had, Vacuo was definitely ranked at the top when it came to the bad ones. Three-way wars of the mightiest kingdoms weren't exactly a common or pleasant occurrence, but Yang could admit that that conflict had been bad for other reasons, namely the underequipped Vacuans that got crushed in between along with their homes. Yang had gotten to the war when it was already several months in, but she had seen signs of what Vacuo used to be. The western half of Sanus was known for its harsh desert, but Vacuo and its citizens had found hospitality and a place to settle in the lush oasis that had been there.
It had led to an easy living, and one that left Vacuo unable to contend with the other kingdoms. With the people unable to defend themselves, Mantle, Vale, and Mistral had run amok, destroying vast portions of the oasis and claiming the remains. Even then, during Yang's last voyage when the treaty was basically signed and the war over, she had seen the start of the kingdoms tearing up what was left in order to make room for industry and mining. She saw Vacuans getting put to work too, although she doubted that a lot of them were doing so willingly.
No, Vacuo hadn't been pleasant at all. But the pay had been more than worth it thanks to the one advantage that Yang had unknowingly possessed.
"Vacuo wasn't fun," Ruby admitted. She sighed. "And maybe it is because of Vacuo, but I've been thinking about this for a long time. I just…never knew when the best time to bring it up was."
Somehow Yang found it in her to joke. "I don't think this is one."
Ruby shook her head and, for a second, Yang thought she caught a miniscule curve of a tiny smile. "No, it isn't, but there's been really bad things going on Yang."
Yang opened her mouth-
Ruby's eyes narrowed again. "And I don't just mean what I sensed earlier."
-Aaannd closed it.
"Those stones," Ruby revealed. "You remember them, right? The weird Dust crystals?"
"Kind of hard not to," Yang answered. "They were making us money." A lot of money, she silently added.
That was what their cargo had been. Crystals, like Dust, but different. Yang remembered her client calling them 'special'. During the job, she caught the name Amrita although what that name meant and who came up with it she didn't know.
Appearance-wise they were little different from Shock Dust although they were of a darker yellow and did not seem as clear or pure or flawless or…whatever that term was when it came to the quality of gems. They could glow though, even when not being used for spells. There was definitely power in them but different to Dust's elemental nature. Yang and her crew had never tried to use them. They were money after all, but – at least for Yang and some of her other subordinates – there was also something odd about them and they had never tried to use them themselves with the uncertainty of what to expect. They were rare, too, hence their price.
But Yang had found out early on that Ruby was somehow able to sense pockets of Amrita and lead her to them. Once she made that valuable discovery, there had been no way that Yang could refuse the contract. Throughout the war, although they occasionally had to skirt over opposing kingdom army lines, Grimm hordes, deal with unpleasant encounters with Vacuan guerillas, and so on, Yang always brought back a hefty amount of those crystals in her hold and got an equally hefty amount of money in turn.
"Those Amrita crystals or whatever." Ruby had finally extracted herself from her ball, hovering as she normally would now. It let Yang see her frown as she recalled them. "There was something really wrong with them, Yang. Even when we would find them in the ground they were doing something."
"I don't know! I mean, not at first. But when the war went on and we kept finding more of them, I could tell they were…" The small spirit threw up her hands in frustration. "They were just doing things! They were changing the ground, the plants, the animals that were near them. And it…it wasn't right. There was something wrong with those crystals and they were making things wrong."
"You never said anything like that to me," Yang pointed out, and was surprised to find herself disturbed by that. About Ruby not telling her this thing that had been troubling her. Was that how Ruby could find them?
Ruby's shoulders slumped. "That was my fault. I chose not to tell you because of the money you were making. I kept quiet because I thought that, after this job and with all that money, I'd be able to convince you to stop and we could go somewhere else."
"So we'll go somewhere else." That was still very much a part of the plan after all. "But, Ruby, why do you want me to stop? This was what we wanted, right? See the world? Go on adventures?"
That had been their dream. When Ruby came back as a spirit, able to see but unable to interact with the world, they had chosen to leave Patch, go on adventures, and see all that they could see. When Yang got into the privateering business, they had seen so much together, met so many people that became good friends, been to so many other places. That's what drove Yang to get her own ship, her crew, take on the jobs that they wanted together. They've done it for years with Yang believing that this was the best life the two could have together.
Yet when she mentioned it, she got a reaction she wasn't expecting. Ruby's head receded, her neck all but disappearing with how low her chin became. She floated over to hover at Yang's height and, when Ruby forced herself to meet her eye, it was to Yang's surprise to see her so sad.
"Yang," she quietly spoke, her pure eyes taking on a shimmering effect that Yang didn't recognize. "I don't like this world."
Yang's reeled back from her, shocked.
Ruby was visibly hurt at the reaction, shrinking back from Yang for a moment before she forced herself to remain steady. "I don't like this world we've been seeing," she repeated, still with that quiet voice. "Yeah, it was fun at first and Coco and some of the other people we've met are cool and we got our own ship and everything but…there's been so many other bad things we've seen – bad people too. But there's more than that."
She hesitated, then said, "You don't know what it's like to see the world like I do. When I said how I can see how the Amrita can change and make things wrong? The truth is that it's been like that all the time for me. The world has been changing over the years and the more we've seen it…the more I've come to not like it. That Amrita…it's like the Grimm: something that has been influenced by people. Whereas the Grimm could spawn and be attracted to the collected emotions of people…Yang, I can sense blood on those crystals. I don't know how, but it feels like that Amrita was created because of the Vacuo War and everyone fighting and killing.
"And even though the war is over, I feel like it's not over for Remnant. It's still changing, becoming more wrong, and I can just see how the world is twisting even further. To what, I don't know, but what I'm afraid of most of all is how you're drifting so close to the middle of it. All these years I've been with you, helping you and keeping you going, watching you get hurt over and over again and seeing you change like this world, I'm so afraid of what's happening to you."
Yang was speechless, and each sentence that Ruby uttered was like being repeatedly struck, keeping her stunned and silent. If Ruby's light had been weak before, it was all but snuffed out now, the ones at her eyes nearly vanishing, and Yang could see the shimmering effect had actually been due to tears gathering in them. Without her illuminations, she looked as close to what she had once been in life as could be, and Yang could plainly see how her lip trembled.
"This wasn't what I wanted for you when I came back," Ruby finished. She sniffed, a pair of clear tears leaking and trailing down her pale cheeks. "I love you, I always will, but I feel like I've been making a terrible mistake this whole time."
Yang couldn't overcome this paralysis, leaving her to keep looking to Ruby and witnessing everything that she had kept hidden. Regrets, fears, sorrow. None of which that Yang had seen before but here they were, clear as day.
Her mouth did eventually move but did so silently. She wanted to say something, so badly that her lips were vainly trying to do so before she could come up with any words to say.
But they never came. Not in time for when Ruby slowly looked to the door of the tower they hid in. "They know you're gone," she informed her. "It won't be long until the rest of the place knows about it and they'll all be looking for you." Her glow returned, brightening around her again, and though she was now refusing to look at her sister, Yang still caught her sad look before she burst apart into dissolving roses and specks of silver, the elder sibling feeling the merging of their spiritual essences.
Maybe it was just Yang, but it felt oddly heavier now.
"We'll talk about this later," Yang finally mustered.
Her tone cajoled Yang to insist, "A real talk, as soon as we leave here. And I'll listen. I promise."
Neither spoke, both aware of an approaching danger and closing window to be free of it, but too preoccupied to really care.
"So…" Yang started slowly. "Main gate's probably out." She tried, but it was hard to make her tone as upbeat as she wanted it to be in an effort to return to how they had been conversing beforehand. "Do you have a plan?"
"I do." Ruby was also trying and failing to lighten her voice, the vibrations that crept up to Yang's ears slow and weighty. "Something that you would probably like."
Yang's chuckle was weak. "Oh, yeah?"
"There's the river. And the tower we're in happens to be next to it."
"Say no more." It was when Yang hit the first step that she realized that she really didn't want Ruby to say any more.
While her feet sent her up to the top of the tower, her mind remained at the ground floor, stranded, with nothing but the recent conversation going through it over and over again. No matter how many times it did, it was still lost on what to think and Yang didn't know how to feel. Anger at herself for missing this burden that had been crushing Ruby? Anger at Ruby for keeping it to herself and not saying anything before?
And then there was the whole overarching question of just what had their lives been about then?
She got to the top in short order, flinging the door open and being reintroduced to the night sky. The rain had been ebbing some more, reduced to a manageable drizzle, but the storm hadn't completely passed as a bolt of lightning proved.
"To your right," Ruby advised. "All that you have to do is jump."
Yeah, no problem, Yang silently replied. Hop over the battlements, make sure she hit the water, and the currents would do the rest. The night's rainfall and the mountain itself should let the river carry her down speedily.
Not that she expected to be conscious during then. Yang oriented herself, already psyching herself up for the plunge. The low wall of the parapet was only waist high and her legs tensed, intending to make a running start before hitting it and then making the jump. Another strike of lightning flashed over the tower, Yang waiting for it to die down and her vision to readjust-
And suddenly there was someone standing right in her path.
Yang blinked in disbelief to make sure it wasn't some trick. The way had been clear when she was making ready, the roof of the tower having been empty save for her. Yet in that fraction of a second of blindness brought by the lightning, someone had been conjured from seemingly thin air to interpose themself between the privateer and her escape route.
"So, you're the woman with the guardian spirit."
Yang heard him, the words bringing her attention to the man's face and the first thing for her to note was the stone that was located where his left eye should be, glowing a sinister red. It cast his features in such an ominous display that the lines at his face were at first menacing before Yang realized that they were just aged wrinkles of skin and she soon made out the gray of his disheveled hair beneath the illusion of red luminance, the color having overtaken his beard and moustache just as fully.
It was an old man who stood in her way. Not a guard and definitely not a prisoner as he was wearing a clean long-sleeved coat, the fabric hanging all the way down to his ankles. His hands were currently clasped behind his back, invisible to Yang's view.
"Such a shame this almost was," the man spoke, a dark smile twisting into existence. "Had I not noticed you sooner, you would've slipped right on by. Such a shame it would've been indeed."
Yang tensed when the man initiated a slow approach. Old he may be, her instincts were nonetheless tingling with danger in no small part to that creepy eye and that creepier smile.
"Can't have that," the man continued. "No, no, no. For you see, I have need of you."
"Yeah?" Yang asked, her fingers of her one hand tightening around the lantern she still held while the digits of her other closed into a fist. "Sorry, pal, but I'm getting out of here, and I'm not above taking out an old man to do it if you make me."
The man paused, his smile dipping into a curious frown, and Yang got the unusual impression that he actually hadn't been talking her just now. Those prominent eyebrows lifted in understanding and the man shook his head, his smile returning. "Oh, forgive me. I hadn't meant that for you."
It was Yang's turn to frown, confused, until she heard a gasp from deep within her.
"Yang," Ruby suddenly said. "He sees me."
Yang's shoulders jumped in surprise. The old man saw it and was able to discern the reason behind it, his smile twisting further to reveal grinning white teeth. That abnormal eye was fixed specifically on her and Yang was sure that she hadn't seen it blink once.
"Yes," he confirmed. "That spirit." He tilted his head in examination. "I didn't dare to hope, even with the signs, but now I can see it for myself. To think that there would be something so fortuitous as finding a guardian spirit right here in Mistral. And with me having planned to set sail at dawn! Oho, such luck indeed to be able to have you in my possession when I reach Menagerie."
A shudder that was not her own coursed through Yang and she could feel Ruby's fear that was carried with it. It stoked an instant flash of anger that had Yang glaring darkly at the old man, her next words slow and threatening. "That's not going to happen."
She successfully broke his grin, agitation skipping across his weathered face as a result. Unfortunately, Yang couldn't take much out of that minor victory before he ridiculed, "I'm afraid that this has become far beyond you, young lady. You've just sailed into a realm that you have no hope of navigating. With that in mind, I must forcibly insist that you relinquish that spirit. My aspirations are far more suited for the likes of that treasure than some privateer. However…"
The man dropped into a bow, his right arm coming from behind his back to cross over his middle. "You have proven quite useful. First the Amrita you supplied in such abundance and now here you are delivering another rarity to me. Know that I, Merlot, thank you for your services, and deem you worthy to be sent off with a demonstration made possible by your hard work."
Yang was too busy staring at his arm to respond. The sleeve had slipped, and from mid-forearm to the tips of his fingers she could see that the skin was black and oddly pebbled. It also looked…cracked; lines of red crisscrossing onyx, pulsing with power eerily similar to Merlot's left eye. He lifted that arm high before swinging it out while he stepped to the side.
A second man appeared, almost like he had been hiding behind Merlot the whole time. He was younger though, and Yang's gasp mirrored Ruby's when they saw the state he was in. Nearly bare save for some torn trousers. He was shaking mightily in place, hugging himself with one arm, the other scratching at his bald head, fresh rivulets of blood dripping from where his nails were breaking skin. What appeared to be strips of flesh had been taken from his torso.
One of the prisoners? Yang wondered morbidly, thinking that the face – lost to wide-eyed fright and facial twitching – could've been one of the ones she saw getting dragged away from the cells earlier.
Merlot revealed his right arm, normal in appearance, and in his grip was a pale yellow crystal, darkness morphing and creeping in the crystalline interior. "Behold what is but a fraction of true power."
"Amrita!" Ruby cried.
Energy crackled and the darkness within surged to take over the yellow of the Amrita. The palm-sized crystal grew, lines of red breaking and twisting along the surface as it lengthened into the size and shape of a lance. Wielding it as such, Merlot turned and ran it through the prisoner.
There was nothing that either Yang or Ruby could do except listen to the prisoner's inhuman howl, the tip of the lance that impaled him breaking him out of his fright-induced trance. He dropped to his knees, hands seizing the crystal, and it was the malevolent energies stored within it that reached out to him. Circling around his arms first, the outpouring streams of energies looped around his shoulders and began spiraling around the rest of him. From within, starting at the edges of the hole in his stomach, burning veins of crimson extended out from his stomach and initiated the same twisting, crisscrossing patterns within his insides.
The man grew. His arms first, growing disproportionally to the rest of his body until it followed suit. His muscles bulged unnaturally, limbs expanding three times the size of what they were before while his middle swelled with increasing thickness. The crystal embedded in his stomach began to shrink, not because of his increasing size but because it was actually fusing into him, the Amrita being absorbed into his being. Yet while it disappeared into his stomach, his back and tops of his shoulders opened up, newly-grown Amrita exploding out and standing straight, all the while the man's skin was turning black.
It was here, with a creature double her size rising over her, that Yang remembered something near the end of the Vacuo War. Whispered rumors passed around by her crewmembers that had been picked up by the stories coming from the frontlines. Tales of men turning into monsters and besieging the battle lines of the Vale and Mantle armies with a viciousness matched only by the most terrible forms of the Grimm. She had never seen such things and never believed them herself.
But as she found herself being glared down at by the visage of a beast possessing a fang-filled mouth, bright red-orange eyes, and two Amrita-grown horns that sprouted from its forehead, Yang believed.
The monster reared its head back and let out a roar that eclipsed anything that the elements could produce, revealing the teeth that had grown and sharpened. Yang felt the shockwaves produced by it and she dropped the lantern to throw her hands over her ears. Deep inside her, she could hear Ruby's terrified scream.
The monster ceased roaring, bent down, and charged straight at Yang, the sharp tips of the pulsing crystals at its shoulder aimed right at her, the tower's roof quaking with each powerful fall of its enormous feet.
It was faster than Yang could anticipate, and with her still recovering from the headache-inducing roar, it nearly got her right there. At the very last instant she flew to the side, feeling the deadly tips of the crystals spearing past, close, and the monster's bulk even closer as it rushed by her. She landed clumsily and heard the thing crash into the battlements a half-second later. She dared to look over her shoulder to see it extracting itself out of the rubble that had once been one of the sturdy stone parapets, the corrupted crystals having not even sporting so much as a crack from the collision.
"Yang, the river!"
"No kidding!" Yang shot back at Ruby, switching to her previous escape route. Merlot had drifted off to the side to watch, leaving it clear, and she pushed herself up into a sprint.
The parapet was right in front of her but Yang could hear the renewed pounding of the monster's heavy feet and the crack of stone beneath them as it thundered after her. It had recovered faster than she expected, was gaining on her, but she ignored it as she reached the short wall, one boot hitting the top for leverage to vault her over it and she could see the rushing waters below her-
-a giant hand grabbed her.
"Sh-IT!" Yang yelped, her voice jumping when she was yanked back, the grip releasing her, and she was sent flying. All that distance she covered and more was lost as the privateer hit the roof and slid, her feet ending up touching the debris of the parapet on the complete other side of the tower when she came to a stop. She coughed once and then groaned when she saw the onyx-skinned behemoth already refacing her, its mammoth girth blocking her off once again.
"Okay," she muttered, drawing the sword at her side when she got back to her feet. "Fighting it is." At the very least, fight until she could get another opening to run.
The beast came at her again, but not as fast as its previous charge. It still managed to cross the distance between them in a few powerful strides nonetheless. It dropped its arm as it came close and then swept it up, vicious claws intending to slice her apart – and most likely send her over the edge of the tower too. Yang had a better idea of what to expect though, sidestepping the blow easily, experiencing a small gust as the huge limb swept past, and then finding the beast's side entirely vulnerable. Without hesitation she gripped the hilt of her sword with both hands and swung a hard swing into its ribs.
The edge of the blade sunk a couple inches into its hide and then halted.
Piece of junk! Automatically blaming the shoddy craftsmanship, Yang wrenched it free and immediately ducked low when the monster blindly swung the same arm back around, it going over her head this time. It also exposed what Yang hoped was its softer belly. Modifying her grip, Yang stabbed forward, this time with a strong thrust. The tip of her blade disappeared but her attack came to an abrupt halt after barely half a foot in. Blood – red, but with a bright intensity visually akin to magma – seeped out from the wound but it might as well be a tiny trickle to this giant.
Bodies of obsidian, resistant to blades, bullets, and even Dustcraft. Another passing rumor that Yang suddenly had a better appreciation for. She would've ran through an Ursa with this same attack. With the same sword, too.
Thick fingers seized her around her middle, Yang's breath coming out explosively when it squeezed and lifted her off her feet. Her vision became filled with that demonic countenance, a foul breath blasting across her nose when it snarled, those Grimm-like eyes alight with demonic fury and its horns drifting too close to Yang's liking. Having managed to maintain a grip on her weapon, she desperately stabbed into its trunk-like wrist and wiggled the blade, trying to bury it as far as needed for it to hurt the thing and make it let go of her.
Then a small silver sun ignited in the creature's face. It roared, proof that it could feel pain which resulted in it releasing Yang while it stumbled back. The privateer sunk to her knees, trying to regain her breath while white spots danced across her vision. She hadn't been looking at it, but such brilliance had dazzled her regardless.
Where did that come from?
"Yang!" Ruby's voice cried, but not from within the privateer. The spirit was hovering to Yang's right, a hand on her shoulder that she couldn't feel but the gesture appreciated, as was the look of worry that Yang could make out when the spots began clearing.
"Was that you?" she questioned, referring to that blinding attack.
Ruby's nod and words came quickly. "Yeah, thought it might work, looks like it did. No more talk time though. Kill now?"
Having gotten a face full of Ruby's light, the monster was still recovering, displaying a rather human-like action with its large hands pressed over its face. Its fingers slowly split apart, its infernal pits for eyes tentatively peeking out before wincing.
They didn't have much time. Yang brandished her sword and lifted a brow at Ruby. "Think we can?"
Her sister grinned in a way that did Yang proud. "Definitely."
Yang returned the expression and rose back to her feet. Ruby was already moving, circling around Yang, her silver aura steadily brightening, and when Yang held her weapon to her side, outstretched, Ruby veered towards it and literally dove into the blade. Going in headfirst, she disappeared into the steel.
The metal blade, nicks and all, vanished and was instantly replaced with flowing silver energies that fashioned themselves into the shape of what it was replacing, albeit wider and thicker, and possessing a smooth edge despite the ghostly, transparent substance. Yang felt the extent of Ruby's released powers through the grip of the spirit blade. Fittingly enough, this was the closest thing that they could have to a solid connection, Yang imagining it being Ruby's hand rather than a hilt that she now grasped, the two prepared to deliver the coming attack together.
Even the most fearsome Grimm had never been able to withstand a single blow from Ruby's power when Yang needed it. Death Stalkers, Goliaths, Leviathans – no matter how colossal their forms, none have ever stood against a single swing, always disintegrating and returning to wherever they came from. Yang doubted that even this beast would fare any better.
Only one way to find out.
The monster had recovered enough by then to see Yang coming when she sped right at it. It was still squinting, not there yet, but it lifted both of its enormous fists over its head, intending to smash down and get her that way as she approached. But Yang struck first, swinging across its middle. She felt a feather's touch of resistance and then she was past it, the power she had behind the attack getting her to spin on her boot in a full revolution where she came to a stop.
They had their backs to each other, the human with her spirit blade at rest while the demon remained standing with its fists seemingly stuck over its head. Its fangs were exposed, mouth open in the beginnings of a roar that was cut short, and its orange-red pupils alight. But then its jaw went slack, the lights in its eyes going out, and the burning designs that decorated its body were similarly extinguished. It fell over, and its body split apart in two halves upon impact from the impossibly clean cut that traveled the entire length of its waist.
Yang released the breath that she had been holding before straightening and looking back. To her slight surprise, she saw the shadowy wisps being produced from dead monster's body before it began disintegrating much the same way a creature of Grimm would. However, it didn't leave without a trace. The corrupted Amrita at its back and shoulders cracked and broke apart, several shards of varying sizes sprinkling the roof of the tower. When they hit, the dark power that they pulsed with vanished, reverting into that pale yellow coloring. Once the remains of the beast vanished, all that was left was a small pile of newly-formed Amrita.
The blonde became aware of clapping. "Aha, a splendid display! Far more than I could have predicted! You continue to exceed my expectations!"
Yang slowly turned, a threatening expression dominating her face that became leveled at Merlot.
The old man was unperturbed, casually lowering his arms once he was done and grinning widely. "Unfortunately, my demand remains the same: I want that spirit, moreso now thanks to that magnificent performance. If you would be so kind…"
Yang flexed her wrist, giving her sword a quick spin, still full of Ruby's power. Still plenty of time…
A worried resonance traveled from the hilt and up her arm. "Yang…"
"Won't even take a second, Rubes." Yang ran straight at Merlot.
He remained unphased even when Yang readied her sword with obvious intent. With several meters still separating them, his right hand abruptly shot up. It was closed in a tight fist, the separation of his fingers difficult with how tight they were pressed together. Or that was what Yang thought until the fist blinked at her with a pair of reptilian eyes.
Her vision suddenly became filled with a wide, stretched open maw lined with curved fangs, a high-pitched hiss emitting from within.
It was her reflexes that brought up her sword in defense in time. The maw snapped shut, the fangs latching onto the silver energies, and Yang could see for herself that it was a head of a large snake that she found herself wrestling with. It was frighteningly similar to the black head of a Taijitu. Though lacking the skull mask, its head and the length of its body was adorned with pulsing red lines that would be found on it.
Yang fought against its hold, twisting her spirit blade the best she could to let the edge rip through its fangs and split its head. To her shock, the serpent remained stuck. Ruby can't cut it?
The fangs appeared stuck to the ghostly blade as if it were a solid metal one. They looked as if they had sunken into the silver energies, seizing onto something deep within. Yang experienced a growing feeling of dread and with all her might she pulled to get it away from the snake.
She did, nearly toppling over when the snake was ripped away.
And with a shriek of shock and terror, Ruby, clamped in its mouth, went with it.
The fearful struggling of the spirit was short-lived, coils wrapping around her until Ruby disappeared in a mass of scales as the snake was reeled back towards its owner. In that time the mass hardened and smoothed itself out, the color becoming lighter and more transparent, crystalizing. By the time it returned to Merlot and the man held up his arm, as normal as it could be, it was with him holding a sphere made out of Amrita only slightly larger than his head.
And trapped inside was Ruby. The spirit inspected her prison with wide, scared eyes before immediately banging her smaller fists and body against it, mouth moving frantically but no noise being heard as she fought to no avail, the sphere not even shaking from her violent struggling.
"There we are," Merlot crowed with utmost pleasure, watching his prize uselessly fighting until he looked to Yang. "Thank you."
Yang's expression had become completely shellshocked, the events that she had witnessed so outrageous that she just stood there, unable to fathom at what just happened with her sword – back in its original form - ready to fall out of her grip. Then those fingers tightened around it and they both began to shake. The shock evaporated and darkness befell Yang's features.
"Let her go." The demand came quietly, but with something immensely deadly woven within it.
Merlot's grin widened and he presented the orb further out to her as a taunt. Within, Ruby was looking to Yang with desperation as she continued beating against the crystal. Her lips moved silently but the privateer knew it was her name that was being shouted.
Fury exploded within Yang, spittle flying from her mouth and her lilac eyes turning molten red as she shrieked, "LET HER GO!"
Snapping her sword up, she rushed at him, her shriek now a furious roar. Her vision narrowed onto Ruby and Merlot, then just Merlot and his smirking face, red descending over Yang's view, hate and rage filling her, leaving her with nothing but the commitment to reach him and cut off his head!
The thunderous crack of a rifle broke through, a bullet disturbing the air between them as it shot past. Without thinking Yang stopped and looked to the source to find the door to the tower roof open and sentries pouring in. A couple armed with swords and spears, but a few more dropping to their knees and taking aim at her with rifles.
Ignoring them, Yang refocused on Merlot. To her horror, all she saw was the empty space where he once occupied, him and Ruby gone.
Another round shot past Yang, this one much closer. She spun on her heel, knowing that there were too many and more had to be coming. They were cutting her off, the sword and spearmen forming a half circle while the riflemen were free to adjust their aim, leaving her with only one choice. She sprinted to the parapet, another bullet whizzing by her, then another, each one coming closer and closer. Yang hopped onto the wall but then stopped right at the edge, the river right below her.
Her hesitation cost her. Yang lurched forward when a bullet found its mark, hitting her high at her back and coming out through her chest, blood flying from the exit wound that was left behind. The hit had her losing her balance, tipping her over the edge, and she happened to catch the geyser of red coming from her stomach as a second bullet hit and went through.
Then she fell.
The numbness that followed the shock of being shot was already descending, Yang unfeeling to the air that rushed by her as she fell. What she did feel was a chill that she had become intimate with throughout her life. It crept from the holes in her chest, spreading, marking its claim, seeking to consume her, and already darkness was encroaching on her vision.
It was something that every human being feared and when it inevitably did come for them, the only thing a person could do was despair. Not Yang. Feeling it now, it was not despair but violent rage that was her response for she knew that as it came for her, as she fell further down, it meant that she was being separated further away from Ruby.
It was why her eyes remained filled with crimson passion, why she was screaming in fury despite the blood at her mouth, and why she was still screaming when she hit the river.
And why she continued to do so after that.
When she opened her eyes, nothing came to her. She was on the floor, lying on her stomach, her head turned to the side and giving her a view of the room she was in, but her mind was a complete blank. She didn't know where she was or how she got here. She was just…here.
And for some reason that just felt very wrong to her.
This is…home, she slowly recognized. This was her home; a wooden cabin on the island of Patch. Simple, ordinary, and the setup in front of her helped her recognize that she was in the living room.
Why was she here?
She eventually got the sense to move. Her hands slid beneath her, pushing her up, all the while this sense of there being something very wrong remained stuck in her mind. She…shouldn't be here. For some reason she felt very certain of that. Not just here in her house, but just…here.
Her neck hurt. She hadn't even settled herself into a comfortable position yet before a persistent ache had her lifting her hand to it, her fingers gingerly touching what had to be painful bruising that, given the soreness, felt like it went completely around her neck.
Then she felt the rope.
She froze, cold realization descending upon her when she felt the loose loop that was resting on her shoulders. Her fingers followed it, eventually finding the cord that was attached to it, and she held it up for her to see its length and the frayed end of where it had so obviously been severed. She was still on the floor, still holding that broken cord when she turned her head and saw the chair right next to her, tipped over.
She lifted her chin to look up and found the other piece of the noose hanging from the ceiling right above her head.
Before she even had a moment to remember what had happened – what she had tried to do – a sudden flash of light at her peripheral had her turning her head, lilac eyes immediately squinting in the face of an orb of silver luminance that had come into existence. The brightness was already ebbing and she made out a small human figure before her vision adjusted, making out details and other features. The red rose petal dress, the briar hanging from the arms and legs, that familiar hair.
And that face.
"No," she whispered, feeling nothing but absolute horror and despair when she saw that face. "No, no, no…"
The figure began hovering towards her, their bare feet floating several inches above the wooden floorboards.
"You're dead!" she shouted. She desperately slid back, hands and feet desperately pushing her away from the approaching ghost because that's what it had to be. "I heard…I saw…you can't! You're dead!"
Her back hit the wall, leaving her nowhere else to go, and the ghost drew closer until it came to a stop and stared silently down at her with glowing eyes. She met them, unable to believe it, and she had no idea as to what the reason behind the tears were that had come so quickly and were falling so fast from her cheeks. Fear? Sorrow? Denial? Despair? Shame?
"They're coming up now!"
"'Bout time," Coco muttered, lifting a hand to signal the crewmate that she heard before making her way across Celica's deck to its starboard side. "Now we'll finally be able to get out of here."
Though maybe not the most hectic week that Coco Adel had to endure, it had definitely become a runner-up for one of the top ten – and that was saying a lot. Sure, the beginning of said week - hightailing it out of port with authorities on their back- was nothing special. However, when the authorities were Mistral's City Guard that had attempted to rush in and seize the Celica, followed by a chase by two of their navy's frigates, then you did have something special.
Even with the preplanning and safety measures born from similar experiences throughout the years, it had been a close thing, and the Celica and her crew hadn't gotten out of it unscathed. There were casualties still recovering below deck and a couple bodies that had to be tossed overboard. Celica herself had a couple new holes but nothing serious. As it had been proven time and again, the ship's speed and its guns could be relied upon to either get them away from trouble, go right through it, or both.
As close as it had been though, Coco much preferred the skirmish over what came later: avoiding any further entanglements with Mistral's navy while dancing back and forth across the kingdom's borders, trying to find any sign of their missing captain and debating on just how long Coco was willing to commit to waiting before getting far away from Anima. She was loyal – they all were – to their captain, but loyalty didn't mean ignoring common sense, and common sense told her that they were in some serious trouble and needed to get far away from it.
All because of that damn job. The first mate had had a bad feeling about that whole business with Vacuo and that Amrita stuff, but she was no more immune to money than the rest of the crew. They were privateers after all, willing to take almost any job as long as the pay was right. And the pay was indeed right, especially with their captain's apparent sixth sense when it came to finding Amrita. Right enough that Coco had suggested to Yang that maybe she didn't have to go meet with their contact to collect the pay for their last haul. She wished she had fought harder when she said no.
But that's hindsight talking at this point. Once she reached starboard and was looking over the side to see the small boat and its occupants being pulled up, Coco was more than happy to let it go. Grinning crookedly, Coco extended her hand down. "Glad to have you back aboard once again, Cap."
A strong hand clasped her own and, with her help, Yang Xiao Long, Captain of the Celica, once more touched down onto the deck of her ship. Coco let her shades slip to better inspect her and already saw the telltale signs of another epic tale to add to her captain's reputation if the worn and torn uniform with Mistral's embroidery that Yang was wearing was any sign. What immediately caught Coco's experienced eyes were the two holes that were the located in the back and, when Yang orientated to her, it was to see matching pairs at her front.
Bullet holes. Nasty shots but Coco didn't see any blood and with Yang alive and standing fine on her feet, the first mate chalked it up as them having already been there. Not hard to believe considering how the rest of the uniform was, her nose wrinkling at the sorry state of it.
"Coco," Yang greeted but her attention occupied with a visual inspection of her surroundings. "How's my ship?"
"Got a couple new souvenirs, courtesy of Mistral's navy," Coco reported, pushing her shades back up. "Ship's plenty sailable though. We lost a couple mates though."
"Send me the names later. We're leaving."
The dark lenses did well to hide Coco's surprised blink. There was a startling lack of enthusiasm from her captain which included a rather harsh look that was unbecoming of her. As past experiences went, Yang would usually be pepped up with energy and ready to continue onwards after returning from another one of her close scrapes, no matter how bad of a condition she herself may return to her crew in.
Yeah but past experiences didn't involve making an enemy out of an entire kingdom. Guess even Yang can appreciate that. A rare thing, but Coco went with it. "Don't have to tell me twice. We'll be on our way as soon as you decide where to go. I did come up with some suggestions – not much else I could do while waiting to see how long it'd take you to get your ass out of this latest fire." The last Coco spoke with a smirk.
"I don't need them," Yang replied, brushing them off rather harshly. "I already know where to go. We're sailing to Menagerie."
Okay, something's wrong here. If not Yang's persisting downer attitude, it was what she just picked as their destination. "Wait, Menagerie?"
But Yang wasn't going to elaborate, already turning her back to her and walking away. "I'm going to change. Get a map and meet me in my quarters."
"Hey, Cap, hold on," Coco tried but failed to reel Yang back, her captain shutting her out and leaving the first mate to scratch at her head in confusion. That was another new one: get a map? Usually Coco would be retrieving – or ordering some other hand to do it - a barrel of whatever swill they happened to have in their hold.
A heavy thud got her to look back to see Yatsuhashi straightening up behind her after leaving the boat, having been sent to retrieve Yang in the first place. Cocking her head in question, Coco asked, "You got any idea what's going on?"
Celica's resident giant shook his head slowly. "Nothing good," he rumbled.
"Yeah…" Coco murmured, turning back in time to see the door to the captain's quarters slamming shut. "Sounds about right."
Menagerie? The home of the faunus? Why would their captain want to go to such a place that the gods themselves had forsaken?
The orange firelight that emanated from the other side of the green rolling hills told Blake that she was already too late. When she crossed over the last one and got a good view of the village, she saw what she expected: devastation. It had been set aflame with whatever structure that hadn't been torched expected to be so soon once the fires of its neighbors jumped to it.
It was just an ordinary fishing village, one of the many that dotted the shores of Menagerie. As history proved, that meant it was one of the many potential targets for a raid by outside forces. That was definitely the case here as, anchored at the docks amongst the smaller fishing boats, there was the dominating hulk of a human vessel that was responsible for this invasion.
So far out, Blake had to venture into the conflagration itself before she saw the worst of the results: the bodies. Her fellow faunus with their range of animal traits and all of them equally dead. A few she could see in the streets, cut down while trying to flee, but from the smells that she could pick up while she wandered, she was sure that a look in those burning homes would reveal others who had hid in the security of their meager houses, hoping they could hide from the invaders, only to be overcome from the smoke and flames as their havens burned all around them.
While her nose could detect several of those sickening scents – the charred wood, the blood, the scorched flesh -, her furred ears that twitched atop her head heard very little. Other than the crackling of flames, she couldn't hear anything else. No signs of potential survivors…nor were there any hints of the human invaders that should still be looting about what with their ship remaining anchored.
The cat faunus came to a stop upon coming to a body directly in her path. She lowered to a knee, examining, and saw all she needed with her first look. The body had fallen face up, driven to the ground with a spear or some other weapon that had impaled them in the chest and had them collapsing. It was a faunus, an elderly man with horns that extended and curved around like a ram.
Too old to be useful as a slave, Blake thought. Although with those horns, she wondered if the murderer had an additional thinking for slaying his victim. In her experience, horned faunus and others with more select traits tended to attract the worst of human violence because of those more 'demonic' traits.
The irony was and never had been lost to her with all her years in the White Fang.
A yellow glow that was not attributed to the surrounding fires had briefly illuminated at her shoulder during the examination where the voice had come from but Blake had paid no mind to it. It was the light and the voice only that would've let her know of the arrival of her companion as she felt none of the weight of the monkey that was perched on it.
For a monkey it was that had suddenly come into being. A bright, yellow-furred animal that was hunched over, taking a look at the same thing Blake was, its long tail curved half-around the faunus's head. However, the way its sparkling blue eyes visually searched the body and the unpleasant curling of its long face was oddly human. That and it was dressed like one. A short jacket lined with the same yellow fur that was left open, exposing an oddly-defined muscularity for a rhesus, and red bracers donned on its hands. Boots and wide legged trousers covered its lower half.
When it got no answer from Blake, the human-like animal regarded her expressionless face and inquired, "Think this has something with that whole Vacuo business dying down?"
"Most likely," Blake answered this time, remaining knelt with her eyes fixed on the dead faunus. "Pirates or privateers that had been making a profit out of the fighting. With the war over, this group probably thought to make a profit elsewhere."
With Menagerie, the only profits that humans saw were those that could be made by capturing and selling the exotic faunus into slavery. A race that was shunned by humans, and yet their animal traits and features were an attraction for purchase whether it be for labor or something disgustingly unsavory. This was one of the reasons why the White Fang was created: a group of highly-trained faunus warriors and mystics to repel the humans.
One of the reasons, but not the main reason.
Blake casually brought a hand over her shoulder that wasn't currently burdened with a small primate, fingers folding over the hilt of a sword that was sheathed at her back. She slowly slid it out, the draw silent with the steel quietly sliding over leather. Once freed, she held the thin but sharp blade in front of her before flipping it around, her free hand coming up to join the other to grip the hilt in reverse with the sword tip pointed down.
Sinister red-orange eyes had alighted and glared up at her. The dead ram faunus had been reaching up with his hands, aiming to grab Blake by her throat while his head lifted, a moan emitting from a mouth that was bearing its teeth with the intention to bite.
Blake stabbed her sword down, the rising hands halting with a jerk and the moaning cutting off when she hit true at its throat, and the savage twist of her blade that successfully snapped vertebrae put a more final end to her target, the ram faunus returning back to its limp state while the malevolent light of its eyes died out.
Unfortunately, it was only a second that passed before the monkey at her shoulder said, "More."
Blake rose to her feet, her sword spinning once at her side so she could grip it properly. "I know."
They came shambling out from between the surrounding homes, with one actually exiting from a flaming building. The cloth at his shoulders and the hair at his head were on fire, as was the spotted leopard tail that was dragging limply along the ground behind him. Yet the faunus paid no mind to it, his bright red-orange eyes focused solely on Blake even as the flesh of its face began melting.
The cat faunus calmly scanned the approaching dead. Six of them, with four being faunus. The other two, however, were human; sailors with meager patchworks of armor. They each also had a sword that they were brandishing awkwardly in her direction.
"Sun," Blake commanded.
"On it." With a brief flash, the monkey disappeared.
The shambling zombies had her surrounded with the circle closing. While the humans had their weapons, the faunus were reaching out with their hands - two pairs armed with claws. They were all moaning hungrily, each one sporting the injuries that had slain them and their clothing drenched in still-wet blood, but that wasn't stopping them from moving as they were with the clear intent of adding Blake to their ranks.
With less than a meter of space left, Blake's golden gaze landed on the closest: one of the human pirates, his sword raised and ready to bring it down once he reached her. She struck first, taking a step forward and sweeping her blade horizontally, the sharp edge hitting and slicing straight through his neck. While his head tumbled from his shoulders and hit the ground, his body following suit, the rest of the zombies kept coming closer.
If one was to blink, they would've missed it when five Blakes appeared and felled the rest of the undead. Leaping out from Blake and towards her foes were yellow, transculent outlines that were shaped like her with each one wielding a sword just like hers. In unison they struck, those swords delivering fast, precise cuts that split apart their targets in the same manner of how Blake dealt with the first. It was only for a moment and then they were gone, leaving behind the body parts of their kills to drop and litter the ground.
Blake stood there, waiting to see if there were more, and slowly relaxing when none appeared. She was about to move on until she found herself looking down at the now headless pirate at her feet and a burst of anger gave her an urge to kick the corpse. An urge that she barely suppressed.
Hate. It was not a word she wished to use, but she couldn't deny that she had a…dislike for humans. It was unavoidable. Being in the Fang for so long, this was not the first sight of human cruelty that she had witnessed. However, it was not solely these occasional attacks that made her dislike humans so as she believed herself to be sensible enough to not judge humanity as a whole by the actions of a few pirates.
Rather, her dislike of humans had grown because of how they as a whole have been bringing Remnant further and further into imbalance. And Menagerie was the perfect place to see how that was, with all the evidence Blake needed being all around her.
To the rest of the world, Menagerie was an out-of-the-way landmass from the human kingdoms and their trade routes. Though the small continent was a paradise in of itself with its territory made up of verdant grasslands and jungles with the surrounding seas providing plentiful fish for villages like these to survive, colonization had never been attempted by humans. Its location was one reason, the natives – the faunus – another, but then there was a third reason that was behind many of the superstitions and claims of supernatural evils that inhabited it.
In truth, Menagerie was a location where the boundaries of the mortal realm and the spirit realm were at their weakest. In the past, this had brought great prosperity to the continent, its abundance of life on land and in the surrounding waters due to the influence of the spirits that granted their blessings and protections here. There were even stories that spoke of how the faunus had once been humans that had first settled onto Menagerie and were later changed by those same blessings and given their animal-like traits.
Sadly, this relationship had its dangers. For whenever chaos would erupt on Remnant, the ramifications would extend into the spirit realm. And because Menagerie was practically a doorway between the two realms, that chaos would spill over and be given a more terrible, tangible form than what was typically seen around the rest of Remnant.
Namely, the dark, corrupting power known as Grimm.
What Blake had just dealt with was one terrible example. The Grimm, feeding on the chaos and bloodshed of humanity's wars, was growing powerful enough to influence and corrupt faunus and humans alike – enough to twist their departing souls, so full of fear, anger, and hate, and have their bodies rise as the hungering undead.
Soon, she came across another. As she forced herself to move on in the direction of the docks and to that ship anchored there, she came across something else in the streets. A small pile of sickly yellow crystals, their interiors tainted with darkness.
Tiny vibrations crawled up from deep inside Blake and towards her ears, morphing into one word. "Amrita."
"It's like the mystics said," Blake said gravely. "Unless you can tell me otherwise."
"No," replied Sun. "This stuff wasn't mined or anything. These came from a Fiend."
Fiends; the most horrible form of corruption that went hand-in-hand with those abominable crystals. While humanity was better acquainted with the forms of Grimm that were alike to animals such as wolves, Fiends were humans and faunus that became completely taken over by Grimm whether because the miasma was strong enough that it could possess and morph its victim into a monster, or because they were victims of the power of Amrita. If Dust was known as Nature's Wrath, Amrita was what happened when the Grimm's influence was so strong that it could overcome and pollute the power of Dust. Whereas Dust was a weapon to fight the Grimm, Amrita was a tool to spread the Grimm.
"If Fiends are involved," Blake continued, staring down at those deceptive stones, "then it really is worse than ever before."
"But those battles are done now, aren't they?" Sun asked. "That whole war in Vacuo is over."
"Something else must've happened. Maybe the war had been a tipping point and given the Grimm greater strength than we could've anticipated. Whatever the reason, there shouldn't be Fiends here."
"Well, this one isn't here anymore. Think those pirates managed to take it out?"
"Maybe." Based on the pair that she had seen, Blake doubted it, but she couldn't think of any other explanation. She did find it rather strange that, other than the crystals that were here, she didn't see any bodies around that could've indicated what she would've assumed was a costly fight if the pirates had encountered one. Could they have also been possessed and shambled off somewhere? She didn't think humans such as these pirates would care enough to take care of any of their wounded or dead. "If there was a Fiend here though, there could be another."
"This sounds like a good time to wait for backup," Sun suggested.
Blake shook her head. "We're spread too thin. Most of the other members and teams have been sent out on leads and investigations throughout Menagerie. I've even heard a couple who've left Menagerie on special assignments. Anyone to spare would be too few and too far out. We'll need someone here later to collect and purify the Amrita and any gatherings of miasma but until then…"
She felt Sun's sigh wash over her. "Right, all up to us then."
It was a bad reminder of the current state of the White Fang. The increase in Grimm activity aside, the tipping of the delicate balance that they were meant to protect because of humanity and their petty conflicts had reignited old arguments and debates. Much like the Grimm, those inner conflicts within their group had escalated like never before, leading to a divide that had seen many of their members breaking away from them.
Because of you, Adam, it's probably going to be Velvet or another acolyte that's going to be sent out here rather someone better suited for this. Blake regretted the thought. The mere mention of Adam was something she didn't need right now.
Sun, seemingly in tune to her thoughts, suggested, "The ship, then?"
"The ship it is."
It had been an ugly sight before when Blake saw it in the distance. Up close, she could say she despised it. The horrors that had been unleashed this night that had left so many dead and turned an entire village into a single blaze was all because of this vessel and the shadow it cast on these once peaceful docks.
That disgust she ended up setting aside when she saw more bodies. They weren't faunus though. The dirty tunics and trousers with poorly-conditioned armor thrown over it along with the discarded weapons, they were obviously more pirates.
"Think a Fiend or zombies got to these guys?" Sun asked once they came upon them.
Blake's answer was slow and admittedly uncertain. "I…don't think so." She paused at the start of the docks, taking note of a pair of what must've been sentries that had been placed to watch over the area.
She didn't think that they had been killed, turned, and killed again. Unlike the undead that she had dispatched with their bodies shredded and wet with a copious amount of their own blood, the two here were not in such a shape. What visible damage that Blake could see was at their faces, bloodied and bruised with their skulls having caved in to what had to have been powerful blows. There were a pair of discarded rifles – theirs, obviously – with one having been broken in half. There was a dagger on one body, the rifleman having probably pulled it out when he lost his gun, but that hadn't done him any good.
Someone had come through here. A faunus villager that had been able to put up a fight? Blake didn't see any sign of who or what could've been responsible. Not here, and not when she ventured further onto the docks and saw a third body. Another pirate who had come to see what had happened to the sentries? If so, he had met a similar fate with his nose having been smashed in before his neck had been broken.
Someone killed these pirates with their bare hands, Blake realized, the injuries of this one and the other two pointing to such. There was just one logical place of where they could've possibly went and the faunus unexpectedly quickened her pace.
Blake was unfamiliar with ships and the sea, but she was quite sure a vessel this large needed more than the half dozen crewmembers she found on the deck once she ascended the gangplank. More than likely, most of the crew had probably been sent out into the village where they had eventually been killed, leaving these men here to die to whoever had boarded.
"Looks like someone did our work for us," Sun spoke up, sounding a little impressed.
"I'd like to know just who it is though," Blake replied, more agitated than impressed.
Before she could begin to think of where to look next, the decking beneath Blake's feet rumbled in time with a loud crashing below in the ship's hold. Soon after, a loud, terrible roar echoed.
"Well that sounds pleasant," Sun commented.
Blake didn't respond, already crossing the length of the ship's deck in order to reach the stairs at the other end that would lead her down into the hold. She wasted no time, descending below as the sounds of a violent rampage continued.
As it turned out, what she found confirmed her initial suspicions. This was a slave ship. Other than a few barrels and crates, the entire space of the large, empty hold she found herself in was reserved for the numerous chains and shackles that hung from the walls and ceiling. Currently, none were in use.
Instead, the room was occupied by the demonic figure that dominated it; a giant of pure muscle that was stooped over out of necessity, unable to stand entirely straight in the hold. Its body was coated in midnight black fur, angry red lines cutting and curving through it to form unintelligible symbols. Though its large, clawed hands appeared human, gripping the chains that were wrapped around its arms, the feet it stood on were the paws of what would be more suitable for a bear. At its head, a gray, thick mane surrounded it, and its ugly face sported a pair of thick tusks made out of the familiar yellow of Amrita – the same crystals that poked through the links of the same chains that decorated its body.
This was no Fiend. Exuding from its form was a heavy, almost solid cloud of miasma that contorted the air around it. Even from where she stood, Blake could sense the malice that had given this beast its form.
It was a Yokai. Much like how Beowolves and Ursai were the walking mockeries of wildlife, a Yokai was akin to a Wyvern: a terrible creation from such a gathering of miasma that their forms were based more on dark mythicism and fantasy. This Yokai, Blake was sure, was the embodiment of the suffering and vengeance of the faunus slaves who had tragically found themselves chained and transported to a terrible fate because of this ship and its crew.
And like a Wyvern, if this Yokai was allowed to roam free, it would serve as a walking spawning pool, the miasma it was producing either possessing or giving shape to creatures of Grimm.
In its frenzy, the Yokai had apparently started a fire within the ship's interior. Flames lit the hold, slowly spreading, and they would undoubtedly consume the ship in due time. Unfortunately, Blake couldn't leave it and risk it surviving and spreading its taint through Menagerie. She had to make sure to kill it here.
Yet it was ignoring her, even as she was quietly going for her sword. Instead, its attention was at one corner of the hold, where the flames were at their strongest. Stomping its feet, it roared into the inferno.
Miraculously, the fires responded. They suddenly shot up, stretching to the roof of the hold, matching the Yokai's height. And then they roared back.
Blake was caught off guard and was left still when the flames transformed, tendrils curling and warping together to produce a shape. A long, serpentine shape with short arms that ended in curved, flickering talons. At the head of the flames, horns formed and another section stretched into an elongated snout complete with the subtle nostrils and visible teeth.
A dragon of pure flame hovered in place before the Yokai. Then, after a short curling of its long body, it leapt at it with talons and teeth bared.
The Yokai heaved as a hole was blasted through its torso, flames bursting out the other side before they spread, covering the monster in a fiery embrace from head-to-toe. Within, it howled in agony, but the noise died out as the fires did their job, eating away at its body, its chains, even the cloud of miasma it was producing as the golden heat incinerated it. Such an unbelievable sight as that was, Blake was instead focused on what else had blown through the Yokai.
She had hit the floor of the hold on a knee after flying clear of the monster with a cestus-armed fist having slammed down as well to help with her landing. The long leather tails of her coat settled around her hips and legs while long hair of curled gold did the same over her head and torso. At the same time as the remains of the monster fell and disappeared into the hellfire, the blonde woman stood to her full height.
Above the thick leather collar around her neck, Blake made out surprisingly smooth skin of a rather beautiful face. It was why those red eyes were so startling, their viciousness out of place. That was until the woman blinked, molten red turning into gentler but still rough lilacs.
Lilacs that became aimed at Blake when the woman turned to look at her.
"She's a human?" Blake breathed, not yet able to comprehend what she just witnessed.
A tendril of flame separated from the pyre that marked the Yokai's end, heading towards the blonde human. At her back, the tendril lengthened, once again taking the shape of the dragon. This time though, the shape was more defined, the flames solidifying and smoothing out into golden scales. At the human's shoulder, the horned head of the dragon peeked over enough so that jeweled blues could also look to the faunus.
"Annnd she's got a guardian spirit?" Sun added incredulously.
Author's Note: Alright, yeah, so that's done…
Brain: And we have virtually no intention of continuing this!
Yeah…we kind of don't. Kind of staying as a oneshot here. However, I did once have a long-term plan for this with a plot and everything. Yes, I would've turned Yang more or less into Samurai Yang with her and Blake members of the White Fang – which actually would be like the Huntsmen of this time -, investigating and fighting together, taking care of Adam and Grimm/Yokai and other enemies, and so on. And…you know…eventual Bumbleby but that's what you should kind of know to expect from me.
Now if you're worried about Ruby, never fear. She would've found herself in the hands of Weiss Schnee, her and Whitley having come on board with Merlot for his projects in Menagerie due to a secret deal with Jacques and while I didn't really have a good fate planned for Whitley, Weiss would've freed Ruby, have her as a partner, and there would've been White Rose there as the two learn to love this world and each other. How would there be love if Ruby is a guardian spirit? Well…there would've been things to happen is all I'll say.
I had some other interesting ideas such as what I thought were really good ones for the likes of Neo and Qrow, also would've thrown in some Velvet/Coco, and some other things here and there. And that mention of Menagerie actually being a cool place and not sucking? Well…might not have been the case later on. But, like I said, I don't think I'll be going through with it. This is yet another test to open me up a bit more to writing again and, though this may seem like an obvious success with a nearly 20k oneshot, I'm still nowhere near ready to be committed to a long-term project. I think, for now, if I do write some more, it'll be for short, fun things like this similar to how I first started in the RWBY fandom. Maybe some shipping, maybe some cool, fun stuff that I may feel the urge to do simply because I want to do them.
Brain: Like a Monster Hunter AU!
…Maybe. I don't know. For now though, I just want to play more Monster Hunter rather than write about it for now. That Vaal Hazak Great Sword is not going to get made by itself!
Until next time.