A tired sigh escaped from parted lips, eyes pursed shut, and brows knit together from a reclined head. One hand had a bag of ice which was placed over the left side of a woman's face, and dabbed lightly to ease the colouring bruise.
"So then…get on with it. Do your worst."
Raven unceremoniously plopped herself down onto a worn reclining chair; her feet kicking up to rest on a low center-table laden with miscellaneous Dust shells, snack wrappers, and junk which she quickly swept aside with her foot for more space.
Across from Raven, Shirou watched the languid action, and suddenly felt he understood where some of Yang's bad habits had come from despite Raven's lack of involvement in Yang's life. It was genetic. It had to be. One look at Yang's room back in Patch was all it would take in order to make the connection.
No one in the Branwen tribe would dare to brazenly enter Raven's private lodgings, making it unnecessary to keep up any sort of appearance. Therefore, she clearly didn't bother with the current state of the place. Maybe if she was expecting someone she would have cleaned up, but on such short notice, there wasn't really much to be done. Hence, it was good enough that she cleared a small space on the low table which she then kicked towards him as a make-shift bench.
He politely declined.
At least she was trying to be accommodating despite cursing Ozpin and Qrow under her breath for the entire duration, but Shirou wouldn't mention that.
At least she was being accommodating.
For a second, Shirou had the image of Yang stuffing the mess of her room under her bed, just to try to make her room look better.
Shaking his head to rid himself of the image he'd seen too many times to count when Yang had friends over, he focused on the matter at hand.
"So then…get on with it? Do your worst?" He echoed Raven's words in disbelief. "Why are you making it sound as if I want or need something of you?"
"Isn't that why you're here? To seduce me? Make me a compliant bitch?"
"I recall that you were the one to invite me over to get away from all the yelling. Now can you be serious about this?"
Raven idly glanced at Shirou before grimacing and sitting herself up. Placing down the pack of ice, she rested her elbows over her thighs while she clasped her hands together in front of her.
"When you're helpless, you tend to realize you don't give a shit about the small things anymore," she gave him the stink eye. "If I wasn't already over half certain that you're stronger than me, then we wouldn't be having this conversation to begin with."
"You were free to test it outside," Shirou pointed out, much to Raven's chagrin. "But I guess I can understand why you didn't. How's the bruise?"
Raven scowled, disgruntled. "You cheated," she accused. "I know my own daughter. I may not have been involved in her life, but I was there. She shouldn't have been able to land a single punch on me."
"I gave advice," he replied evenly.
"You pointed out a flaw that even I was unaware of in my swordsmanship."
"Take it as something to work on, then."
"It's not nearly as simple to fix something so complex, so ingrained into habits."
Shirou shrugged matter-of-factly. "You would know, wouldn't you? Story of your life, isn't it?"
Raven shut her eyes, her feet shifting as she stretched an arm out towards a half-consumed bottle of alcohol in the room and took a swig. Shuddering, she sighed. "Suddenly, I can see what Qrow sees in these things," she muttered before downing the rest without hesitation.
Shirou watched silently, remaining standing with his arms crossed and back leaning on the far wall of the office.
A clear glint of frustration flickered over Raven's features, a hand idling over the hilt of her sword which she didn't end up drawing. After a moment, she thought better of it and twisted her expression at him.
"Of the many people who've been this direct with me, you're the only one whose been able to get away with it since Summer and Tai."
"Qrow is an exception since I've had to put up with him since childhood, but that's not the point. What is, is whether or not you're just another Ozpin to me."
The room went silent, Raven tossing the now empty bottle across the room into a bin where a few others were already haphazardly scattered about. They clinked together, the sound the only noise in the quite din of the office space.
"Are you probing me?" Shirou queried.
"Take it as you will, but what makes you think I'd suddenly trust just anyone?" She laughed derisively. "As you grow up in life, you learn that the only real person that you can trust is yourself. Friends? Family? I had those too. So, where are they now? In the end, one small disagreement in perspective is enough to sow discord and ruin everything just because you don't want to be another's chess piece."
Raven didn't know whether to feel flattered that she was worth Ozpin and Qrow misleading her back into the fold, or infuriated to the point of spitting on their faces. At least in some manner, she had a better impression of Shirou for clarifying things where they stood. Therefore, at the moment, he stood a tad higher than Ozpin in her personal evaluation.
She blinked at Shirou with scrutiny, but all he did was hunch his shoulders.
"You sound defeated," he pointed out.
An empty can came sailing swiftly overhead.
Shirou shifted his face a tad to the side, and the can clanged hollowly beside him before clattering to the ground.
"Fed up then," he reconstrued.
"You're welcome to walk out that door anytime," Raven snorted open-endedly. "The way I see it, it would be better for both of us to mind our own business. Since someone's trying to frame my tribe, I will handle it myself. We both know that you're not here for my sake to begin with, so why pretend?"
"Because unlike someone who's given up on personal relationships, I'm acquainted with someone who's both too stubborn and soft to leave things as they are despite growing tensions."
Without the need for explanation, Raven suddenly appeared tired, having understood whom was being referred.
"How stubborn…" she muttered to herself.
"It's Summer," Shirou all but clarified. "She may not say it, but beneath the hostility between the both of you, it shows that she still cares. If she didn't, why bother getting frustrated at you?"
Raven recalled memories from her days in Beacon Academy before matters with Ozpin got so twisted with conspiracies and paranoia. Summer was all too optimistic, cheerful, and buoyant enough to keep the team lively despite her and Qrow's stunted social skills from growing up in a bandit tribe.
Comparing then and now, it was as if Summer hadn't changed at all. Still so driven by her own emotions and ideals that she'd never considered doubting those she trusted. In the end, by trying to play mediator between her teammate and Ozpin rather than take a hard stance, team STRQ fractured.
"Her frustrations are misplaced," Raven said after a moment. "I'm strong, so it doesn't matter. I'll make my own way."
"Then why make excuses?" Shirou countered, knowing full well the type of character Raven was from the history he'd gleamed from her own sword. "You're beating around the bush. You called me in here because we both understand that you know something about this case, and that consulting with you is better for me rather than going in blind."
Just as he'd thought, his words quieted Raven down quickly.
"You're right," she admitted readily. "But I'm still trying to decide where you stand in this all."
"Right here, clearly."
"You know what I mean. What's your stake in all this? As unforthcoming as Ozpin can be, he adheres to his own principles making him predictable in a way. So long as it has something to do with maintaining the status quo, Ozpin is sure to have his hands in it. Summer, Qrow, and Tai as Ozpin's extensions are the same, but you, I can't see it. Don't say that you're only in this for Summer's sake. You have to have some sort of motive. It wouldn't make sense otherwise to get involved in something that you obviously have no business in. So, what is it, and would you still stick to it if you knew what you were up against?"
From the look in Raven's eyes, it was evident that she was testing Shirou's sincerity. In regards to Ozpin, Raven had done a similar thing prior, but instead, she'd asked him for his plans to defeat Salem. The only answer she'd received was ambiguous at best; the man trying to play down the surety of the task by assuring her that his passivity was already a means of attack. She knew right then and there that Ozpin had nothing against Salem's immortality.
It was a losing hand, but what truly irked Raven the most was Ozpin's continued assurance knowing that it was all a hoax.
No more misunderstanding and deceptions.
Ozpin had no control over Shirou.
With Shirou in 'Archer's' persona, she wanted to hear a definite answer. From what she'd gleamed from the stories she'd once heard Shirou impart to Yang, he knew of some sort of magic weapons that could kill immortals.
Raven found her mouth dry while waiting for Shirou's answer. He'd yet to reply, and Raven didn't know if this was a good or bad thing.
"You're overthinking things," Shirou eventually answered. "A person doesn't have to have any sort of motive to offer a helping a hand. If you see someone in trouble, is it not an obligation to offer support?"
"No one's that stupid."
"Maybe for you it seems that way. I don't blame you considering the type of people you hang around and grew up with, but it wouldn't be the first time I was called stupid or foolish. All the same. I've learned to no longer waver at the face of adversity or doubt. You asked if my resolve would change should I come to learn what I'm up against? My answer is simply to overcome it."
"You can't overcome something that can't be killed."
"People die when they're killed."
"Not this one."
Raven gave Shirou a hard look, searching for something that she ended up finding through the clarity in his eyes.
It was the confidence of the strong.
"It won't be a problem."
Raven hesitated, her teeth biting down on her lips before she unclasped her hands and settled her palms over her thighs.
It was at this moment that Shirou approached and extended his hand out to Raven.
Honestly speaking, for the longest time he'd been feeling left out of the loop. Even Ruby was hiding something from him, and of that, he was sure. In which case, it was better to be more proactive and get a better understanding of everything.
Raven was a good choice, not only to see if the tension between her, Summer, Tai, and Qrow could be mended, but with her involvement, Ruby, Yang, and Emerald wouldn't have to stay in Anima for as long.
"Let's make a bet," he said with full understanding of Raven's character and hardships gleamed from her sword. The best way to deal with her wasn't through manipulation or deception of any kind, but through simple blunt honesty. "Whoever it is that you're so wary of, I'm the bigger threat."
Raven mulled the words over, but in the end, she stared him straight in the face. "I want proof."
"And you'll get it, alright? You help me here, and I'll help you later. A trade if you will. By helping me, you'll be able to see for yourself what I'm capable of, and if it's truly worth it for you to push me away."
The benefits were piling.
Considering the proposition, Raven had to take a moment to contemplate. This bet was obviously a gamble, but with how it was worded, she would have the leeway to judge for herself whether 'Archer' had the capability to defeat Salem or not.
However, this would mean getting Archer involved in Branwen Tribe affairs through a Rose Mercenary contract. It was likely that Archer was only getting involved because people from his own Mercenary Group may be put in danger. That, and the fact that he was friends with Summer who may have influenced the decision.
What a bleeding heart…yet these types were the easiest to trust.
"On one condition," Raven hesitantly relented.
"What do you mean I'm supposed to just sit here?!" Yang nearly threw her hands up in the air.
"I told you that you weren't cut out for the Rose-" Emerald gasped as Ruby elbowed her on the side.
"Don't listen to her Yang," she said. "There must be some other reason."
"Right," Yang quipped, unenthused when her gaze swept over an indifferent Raven standing with fingers over her sword's hilt, back leaning on the wall. "It couldn't possibly be because someone's holding a grudge."
Yang balled her hands into fists, but Raven didn't even bat an eye.
Shirou inwardly sighed.
Raven's only condition had been to keep Yang out of things, and it wasn't as if he couldn't relate to what she was feeling. Raven was never the sentimental sort, choosing to believe in her own abilities and opinions before considering the thoughts of others. No matter how much she may deny it, there was still a part of her that truly cared for the well being of her own daughter.
She'd be damned if she'd ever show it though. Thus, she'd show her considerations in her own way, and this was it.
Yang could listen and all that, but Raven would make sure that she wasn't allowed to get involved. Whether or not Yang accepted this decision, well, mothers always had a way of getting into disagreement with teenage children and getting their way. This could count as Raven's first time implementing such actions, and Yang was left helpless when Shirou seemed to be in agreement.
Desperate, Yang began pleading her case while pointedly ignoring Raven for calling her childish.
"Ruby, c'mon help me tell them. You know me best! I can help!"
Yang turned to Ruby for support.
Ruby flummoxed at the sudden development, hairs raising over her arms when Yang was suddenly in her face and shaking her shoulders. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that Ruby couldn't even meet Yang's eyes being that she was in agreement with Raven and Shirou on the matter.
For the past few hours, she'd been desperately racking her brain for a solution to keep Yang from getting involved. Considering the warning in her future diary, she found it prudent to adhere and trust in her own future self who wrote it.
Something would happen to Yang in Anima, and now that she and Shirou were here, they could prevent that by not allowing her to participate.
She was doing this for Yang's own good, Ruby convinced herself inwardly. Outwardly though…it was a work in progress.
"Yang, maybe you can sit this one out?" Ruby batted her eyes, flushing from the look of betrayal Yang shot her.
"R-Ruby?" Yang gasped, losing strength in her grip and taking a step back, aghast.
"Y-You know just this once…?" Ruby stayed strong while weakly lifting up her finger and cringing.
"I can't believe this! My own little sister's, against me!"
Yang cradled her head with her hands in denial and quickly realized a lack of support from anyone presently in the room. She didn't bother even glancing at Emerald though. She knew that no help would be coming from there regardless.
A hand suddenly placed itself on Yang's head before adding pressure and turning it into a noogie.
"Don't overthink things," Shirou chastised. "You're plenty strong, but this is the one condition Raven asked, and it even keeps you out of danger. Remember what I had you promise before? You weren't supposed to get involved in things like this anymore in the first place."
"I don't need protection," Yang scowled, glancing at Raven before shooting her gaze to her feet. "She's just being petty. Besides, I'm different from before, better."
"At being a criminal?" Emerald quipped.
Yang glared. It was only one time. It was just stupid that a bunch of rich snobs misinterpreted her just intentions.
"Yang," Shirou dragged out the name with a long and tired breath.
Yang pouted and walked unresigned to the corner of the room, venting by kicking at a crate near Weiss who indignantly rolled away from the moody blond. No one had yet to free her from the rum barrel that was constrained around her torso, and as such, her mobility was quite limited. It just so happened that after Raven and Shirou came to an agreement, they had returned to the very tent Weiss was being held captive within.
At first, she was elated that they finally saw reason and were going to free her, but she grew mute when Raven walked in, and the rest showed no intention of undoing her restraints just yet.
Were priorities really this backwards in the boonies of Anima?
"Alright, Raven. What do you think that we're dealing with here?" Shirou got straight to the point.
Under his lead, Emerald, Ruby, Vernal, and even Yang grew quiet, shifting their gazes to stare at Raven who pushed her back off of the far wall and walked before all of them.
Weiss perked her ears up, noting the sudden change in the air, but more than anything trying to gleam anything useful in order to escape these loonies.
"I don't know what Summer's told you, but you should have a basic idea of what Maidens are, right?" Raven began pointedly.
"Sure," Shirou said without pause.
Vernal didn't look surprised at the topic, but Ruby, Yang, and Emerald who were listening in were confused. Then again, Ruby was more into Hero comics and stories, while Yang never really got too into Remnant's lore. As for Emerald, stories were the least of her concerns when hashing out a living on the streets. However, one person was different.
"All this suspense for some stupid children's story?" Weiss blurted out incredulously.
"Who took the banshee's gag off?" Vernal sneered.
Weiss retched, dry heaving as her countenance paled from the memory let alone recalling the taste. Shutting her mouth, she remained obstinate in standing her ground despite appearing defeated. She looked on the verge of tears when Vernal started approaching her with another sock.
Shirou ended up standing between them.
Vernal scowled, muttering something about ruining her fun under her breath.
Weiss finally acknowledged that 'Archer's' reputation wasn't for nothing.
If not for the situation as it was, Shirou would have freed Weiss already, but he hadn't due to the risk of running complications. Judging from her wronged expression and simmering indignation, there was no way she would be cooperative, let alone not try to cause problems in the Branwen tribe while everyone was away.
"What did she mean by children's story?" Ruby perked up.
"The story about four maidens governing magic power over nature," Raven said simply. Considering how the Huntsman of Red, and even Archer himself had show cased to Remnant the existence of magic, Raven saw no need to skirt around the topic. "They're real, and each maiden has the potential to wreak havoc across any kingdom on their own."
Shirou mused over the information, and quickly grew solemn at the prospect of meeting actual magic users in Remnant. "What do these maidens have to do with framing the Branwen Tribe?" He asked.
Raven furrowed her brows and lamented her own softness. A Maiden had once come to the Branwen tribe seeking training to grow stronger and utilize her power, but the woman didn't have the capabilities to make the cut.
It would have been a mercy to put the woman out of her misery, and end her, but Raven hadn't done so, as she spent too long in Patch in bird form.
To be fair, she'd been shaken the first time she'd met 'Archer' all those years ago, and her judgement wasn't as cold as it used to be. Grudging as it was to admit, she'd mellowed out in her time spent as a raven in Patch. It could have just been the familiarity of it all, or the homely feeling of seeing and living in the lodging that she and Tai had built with Qrow and Summer's help.
Nonetheless, it didn't change what happened.
Perhaps Raven's intentions had caught wind by someone and disseminated through camp. By the time she'd returned to settle issues in the tribe, the Maiden was gone, and maybe with a grudge.
"A maiden once came to the tribe," Raven directly admitted. "She had control over lightning, and could create storms on a whim. Unfortunately, she was incapable no matter how hard she was pushed. Regardless, what matters though is that the damage done to the settlements was likely the work of a Maiden. To frame it on the Branwen tribe reeks of familiarity."
"That just means this is your fault!" Yang accused.
Raven shrugged. "We're bandits. It's how we eke a living, but don't be so hasty to accuse."
Raven narrowed her eyes. "Out here in Anima, people can go to any lengths if it means keeping themselves alive. I reckon if this Maiden is attacking settlements, then its to procure provisions."
"Then why would she destroy the entire settlement? It makes no sense," Emerald pointed out, still digesting the concept of four maidens harnessing the power of the elements. "If I had that kind of power earlier, I would have just gotten people to give me what I needed."
"That's why I'm not fully certain if its who I'm thinking," Raven shrugged. "It could also just be some new type of Grimm, and someone here just might have the magic tools to verify it."
Raven glanced at Shirou, motioning to him expectantly, but a voice couldn't help but interject again.
"Impossible," Weiss blurted out. "They're just hoaxes the media uses to garner attention to put value in old antiques."
Weiss had perked up at the mention of magic tools. Don't even mention the legend of the Four Maidens, she didn't buy it at all; hence a lack of reaction. Magic tools however were different. There was 'proof,' Weiss noted this in the loosest term, in the videos recorded from Mt. Glenn about the existence of such magic objects.
As the heiress of Remnant's Schnee Dust Company, Weiss had her speculations and doubts pertaining to what amounted to far-fetched special effects- Smoke and mirrors or something, and yet the gorge carved out from the Huntsman of Red's swing spoke otherwise.
In the end of the day, it was still hard to believe though.
Weiss had had enough though when discussions tilted towards the 'magic bow' Archer used, and the premise of other magic weapons being superior to Schnee Dust based weaponry.
"Quiet," Vernal glowered over at Weiss.
Unlike Weiss, Vernal was quite excited about the prospects of finding some useful hidden magic relic. Better yet, Archer was clearly the go-to, as the Huntsman of Red was an existence too far out of reach from the common Remnant citizen.
"You want a demonstration?" Shirou saw right through Raven's intentions. Then again, he did agree to prove himself earlier.
Raven merely nodded. Regardless of who she thought was pinning blame on the Branwen's, it would mean nothing if they couldn't be tracked down. This was where Shirou could come in.
"Fine then, a demonstration it is," Shirou relented. It would mean a lot for Summer if Raven could have a change of heart.
Discreetly opening the side of his coat, he reached a hand inside and discreetly Traced a Black Key into existence.
He had to be subtle here, as the power to create swords out of nowhere was too firmly rooted with the Huntsman of Red. Yang may have seen him create swords before, but she hadn't made the connection yet, as she didn't want to compare Archer with the Huntsman of Red in a debate with Ruby who didn't know that 'Archer' was Shirou at the time.
"This is a 'magic' weapon known as a Black Key. It doesn't serve the purpose of tracking the attacker of the settlements, but it should work for a demonstration about the existence of other such items I have access to."
"What does it do?"
Emerald was curious, Vernal staring fixedly, as magic weapons were all the rage in Remnant after Mt. Glenn.
"Black Keys are weapons used against evil. They have a sharpness that can cut through Grimm with relative ease, but more than just that, is one other unique property."
Glancing around him for a suitable demonstration target, he ended up stabbing the Black Key into Raven's shadow. She stared dubiously at him, but it all changed when he told her to try moving.
"Boss?" Vernal called out, realizing something wrong when beads of sweat began forming over Raven's forehead.
"What is this? Acting?" Weiss scoffed to herself on the side, but after several seconds, Raven still showed no signs of movement despite her expression darkening.
"I can't move," Raven ended up admitting with a grimace. Veins popped over her skin while she idly stared at the Black Key in shock.
"Indeed," Shirou nodded before Tracing out a couple more Black Keys and passing them out to Emerald, Ruby, and Vernal. By the looks of things, they would likely tag-along, so it would be safer if they had this sort of insurance. "With these we can catch the assailant without harming them. Once these swords stab into a shadow, it effectively paralyzes the shadow's owner."
"What sort of joke is that?" Weiss remained unconvinced.
However, it wasn't long before Vernal got the idea of first stabbing Weiss's shadow with a Black Key before then taking off Weiss's restraints.
"H-Have you all finally seen reason?"
The relief couldn't be hidden from Weiss's tone.
"?" As she made to get up though, it was an all too different story. Red flushed over her delicately white complexion, and heat burned over her cheeks as she exerted all her effort to move to no avail. Vernal loomed over her with an amused grin, and Weiss felt her preconceived notions shattering ever so slowly.
Magic objects were actually real?
Her mouth opened and closed, but no words would come out.
Meanwhile, Shirou pulled the Black Key he'd stabbed into Raven's shadow out, and gave the Black Key to her as a sign of cooperation. Panting from the exertion of trying to move, it took a moment for Raven to steady herself and the examine the Black Key now in her hands. The usefulness of a tool such as this wasn't lost on Raven in the least when she considered just how Maiden powers were transferred.
This would prove a safer option if they really were up against a Maiden.
This solved the issue of what to do with the perpetrator, but there was still the issue of finding her.
One look at Shirou, and Raven felt an unknown feeling of assurance when he merely nodded towards her. In truth, it's been a long time since she felt as if she could have anyone to actually depend on.
"I have a few other magic weapons that can track others under certain conditions," Shirou revealed. "It shouldn't be a problem to wrap this matter up shortly. If anything goes wrong, I should also have other magic weapons to rely on."
'What are you an armoury? Where did you get all of these?' Mutedly, Raven refrained from asking. She had the distinct impression that Shirou seemed a lot more reliable than Ozpin ever was. She shook her head, and refocused herself.
"Lets just get this over with," she motioned for Shirou to continue and reveal what magic weapon he'd use to track the perpetrator, but grew distracted a mere second later.
Raven's ears perked up as a familiar flapping noise alerted her to a black crow that swooped into the tent's fire ventilation opening.
Raven narrowed her eyes, staring piercingly at the red-eyed bird that nervously hovered in place the moment that it saw both 'Archer' and Raven together in one room.
"Is something wrong?" Shirou asked.
Raven's lip twitched at the dumb bird, indignation giving way to irritation. The bird immediately turned around and escaped back from where it came from.
"If you'll excuse me for a moment," Raven said darkly to Shirou before hastily running out of the tent.
There right outside, and perched skittishly on a tree branch, was the same bird who'd swooped into the prior tent.
Raven said not a word, silence pervading the distance between the two.
The bird tried, feigning ignorance by pecking at the tree bark as if it were a woodpecker.
The silence continued to stretch.
The bird's tone sounded nervous as it tried again only to find the tip of a sword protruding from a portal directly next to it.
Beside Raven was an identical portal in which the sword was pushed into.
The appearance of the portal however, meant only one thing: Confirmation.
"Qrow. Get. Down. Here."
"Oh, Fuck you too."
Alright, not too much going on in the chapter, but the set up should be complete from here. This is going to be a short arc primarily for foreshadowing purposes before the Beacon Arc begins right after, so thanks for putting up with me.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to my newest patrons: Alex R, and Ethan B!
Next update: Fate Parallels (Won the poll by 1% margin over A Tale of Two Swords)
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