For years Ellis Royal had hated the word. But over time, he had come to see that it wasn't really a pejorative term after all, not an insult, but a guide to his true nature. Remnant's moon called down to him from the night sky, its fragmented, broken form like his thoughts. Sometimes its light showed only its plain, serene face, while other times, when it turned, its shattered depths had to be revealed instead of covered up.
During the daytime, when the moon was hidden, Royal's thoughts were dull, sluggish, mundane. But after dark, when it came out, he seemed to draw its light into himself. When the moon was full and pure, so was he—charming, energetic, vivacious. But when the broken side showed...
Looking down at the long, keen blade of the knife in his hand, at how the shattered moonlight pooled and danced on its mirrored edge, Royal was certain that he liked these times the best. Anticipation burned in him as he made his way stealthily through the wooded park, the lights of the building complex off in the distance just pinpoints compared to the moon-drenched darkness. The time when the gleam on the steel would pool and mix with the hot red running over it drew closer and closer...
He could see her up ahead of him: a slim, female figure walking among the tree-boles. She had long, dark hair tumbling in waves down her back, deep and glossy like a slice of the night itself. Royal's breath came faster as he followed the glimpses of white clothing as the two of them wove their way between the trees, the game of cat and mouse continuing as he drew closer: fifty feet, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, until he was coming so near that he could almost taste it. His hand was trembling, already anticipating the sensation of resistance as the knife pushed into flesh, the blade penetrating her body...
She circled around one last tree and Royal took a step to his left, then ahead, ready to meet her coming the other way so that in the very last minute she could see, could know, and he thrust low, driving for her belly...
...and found nothing but empty air, as there was no one on the other side of the tree. He went stumbling forward, leaves rustling under his shoes as the stab into space left him off-balance. His shoes slipped, and he fell squarely into the dirt and muck.
As he stood up, wiping mud from his face and cursing under his breath, he took no notice of a single leaf drifting down from the tree above, or the smirk that accompanied how two amber eyes, gleaming like a cat's in the dark, took in his discomfiture.
A few minutes' walk brought Royal to the edge of the tree-line and into a more open, park-like area through which stone paths wound. Probably due to the late hour, there weren't many people about, just dark silhouettes off in the distance.
He was still a bit disturbed by the incident in the forest. It didn't seem right—he was the predator, he was the creature of darkness, and for his prey to escape vexed him. Had he been tricked—deceived—been overcome by her, somehow? Or had it instead been a trick of the moonlight, shifting and confusing? That might have been even worse, for he was its creature; for it to turn on him like that was a cruel betrayal.
But then again, perhaps it was not a betrayal after all. Perhaps it was the moonlight's way of guiding him. Perhaps she had not been fit prey for Royal. Perhaps he was merely being directed away from the flawed to a situation where he could properly let free the urges that had been driving him.
Then, as if to verify the truth of his thought almost in the moment it had crossed his mind, he saw the second girl. She was sitting out by herself on a stone bench, a number of what looked like textbooks set out beside her, another open on her lap across her plaid skirt. She had short, dark hair flaring to red at the tips, a kind of red cloak or cape flowing down behind her (why? It wasn't that cold a night...) and was munching on a green apple as she read.
And she was wearing headphones.
It was perfect! There was no way that she had any awareness of her surroundings at all! The girl in the forest, come to think of it, she had been a little too knowing, too aware of the shadows and the pale night. But the red-cloaked girl, between the music and her studies, the only way she'd even notice there was a world around her would be if the lamp above her went out or she caught on fire. Royal could all but taste her surprise, her fear to come when he burst in on her serenity.
He licked his lips as he began to creep forward. As he drew closer, he could hear the crunch of her teeth biting through the skin and flesh of the apple, and even the faint traces of the music, the hard, driving chords of the guitar leaking from under the headphones.
Suddenly, the girl set the book aside and stood up. She flipped the apple core up into the air even as her other hand slid back under her cape. It came out with a kind of carbine-looking weapon, and while Royal was still boggling at what a girl sitting and studying would be doing with a gun, it seemed to come alive, extending and unfolding into a giant scythe. The blade whirled through the air, severing the apple core, and then the girl spun it back around into a firing position against her hip, unleashing two quick shots. The throaty boom of the sniper-scythe seemed to merge with the percussive beat of the music, and the two chunks of apple exploded into showers of readily biodegradable bits.
Royal turned away and decided that the girl's obliviousness to what was around her didn't so much leave her vulnerable as it left those in her vicinity safe. Valuing his own safety highly, as only a man who had found his purpose in life could, he slipped away through the night in search of less volatile encounters.
It was not long before came upon another girl. This one was strolling along one of the stone-flagged paths without a care in the world, eating an ice cream cone while she sauntered. She looked to be almost the polar opposite of the first two girls, which at this point had to be a positive omen. Her clothes were skimpy and tight-fitting, and there was absolutely no way that she could be concealing some giant weapon.
What was more, Royal found that her appearance itself drew him on. Her clothing was all light-colored, from pale browns to bright yellows and oranges. Her hair was brightest of all, a wild, tumbling mane that fell to her waist like a waterfall of sunlight given form. Royal's hands trembled, and he was forced to close one over the other to steady his grip and keep from dropping the knife.
Sunlight was Royal's greatest enemy, sunlight that drowned his mind and soul in its brilliance. Only by the light of the moon did he truly come alive. In that way, this golden girl was his enemy, his natural prey above all others! He would strike her down, would not only give the burning needs within him what they so craved, but he would go farther and blot out forever this fragment of the sun on earth. She would not merely be a victim, but a victory. A conquest for the power of the moon!
Slowly, stealthily he crept nearer, but as he did the whispering silence of the moonlight was disrupted, its clarity broken by a shrill, harsh buzzing sound, a grating corruption as jarring as a morning alarm was to the silence of sleep. At first Royal thought that it was a trick of the senses, that the sound was in his own mind, but it soon became clear that the girl heard it too, as she started looking around herself. Royal shrank back, seeking the concealing shadows away from the lighted path in case she should cast her eyes his way.
It was soon made clear what was causing the sound, a cluster of rapier wasps. Not a whole swarm, but seven or eight of them, nasty, oversized insects with inch-long stingers like tiny swords and a pretty unpleasant venom that in most people caused painful, saucer-sized swelling around the injection site. The wasps were well-known to be attracted to sweet things.
Sweet things like an ice cream cone.
The golden girl swatted at the wasps with her free hand, and jerked her head from side to side to dodge their swoops, but they weren't chased off.
Don't worry, Royal thought with a trace of actual sympathy. You won't have to suffer through the effects of the venom. His knife's kiss would be a kindness to both of them.
"Aargh!" the girl howled angrily as one wasp nearly collided with her cone and another bounced off her shoulder. Her hair began to shimmer...wait, was it actually glowing? "You stupid bugs, this is my ice cream!" she shouted.
And then she gave new meaning to the phrase "explosion of temper."
There was the dull boom, the whump! of rushing air, and the shimmer of a heat haze as what looked like a blast wave expanded outwards from her. The world rippled, even the ground seeming to warp and bend, and the swarming rapier wasps were reduced to ash. The only sound for several seconds was the girl's rasping breaths, and the crackle of flames from the literally burning hair, become a trail of golden fire down her back.
Royal observed to himself that the reason the sun was the enemy of the moonlight he loved was that when the sun was out, its light overwhelmed the moon's with its vastly superior brilliance. He swiftly moved off into the dark before this fact of natural law decided to make another example of the principle out of him.
He'd only gotten a few dozen feet away when a high-pitched, girlish scream thrilled through him. The sound of feminine terror sang to him, and he burst into a run, zipping through the darkness like a shadow flitting across the face of a building. He darted through the park, finding the shadows along one columned walk, and came out in a small, partially secluded courtyard. Royal raised his knife, ready to strike at the innocent, vulnerable maiden he anticipated seeing. Some part of him knew that since she'd screamed, she was already in trouble, perhaps even still facing the threat, but the sound of her fear was simply too delectable to resist! He was sure that whatever the situation proved to be, he would be able to—
Royal's jaw sagged open, slack and numb.
There wasn't just one young girl. There were, indeed, two of them. One was a tall, Amazonian redhead in scarlet and bronze armor, carrying a spear and a round shield. The other was a petite brunette in pink and white, carrying a giant hammer across her shoulders, the haft being longer than she was tall and the hammer's head bigger than her own. Both girls had their backs turned to Royal; they stood at the lip of a crater in the ground, looking down. The crater was obviously fresh; the dust was still settling, and in its center was a blond boy in jeans and an armored chestplate, holding a shield with both hands while a sword lay next to him.
"Geez, Pyrrha, I know that you're trying to help me with my Aura training, but how am I supposed to train it if I have to use it all up in the first attack?"
"I'm sorry," the redhead answered him. "I asked Nora to launch a power strike to test how you could quickly raise your defenses and block. I didn't expect her to do a spinning hammer drop off a third-floor roof."
"Seriously, Pyrrha? Because I could imagine that coming, and I'm not that good at the whole 'see disaster on the way' thing."
The brunette stuck out her tongue and giggled.
"It's fun pairing with you, Jaune! Ren's too squishy to just haul off and nail him. And he keeps dodging out of the way when I try!"
The boy flopped back onto his back.
"All part of being a leader," he groaned.
Royal was already scurrying well, well away.
His brain was whirling as he staggered away from the buildings, down the main path. What was going on in this place? Girls who vanished into the shadows of the forest, who casually wielded a giant scythe, who blew holes in the ground or were made of living flame—this was not normal, not what he expected at all! One such incident, well, it was a big world full of varied strangeness, but four in a row?
Then, as if sent to guide him, a cloud drifted across the moon, so that only a single ray of light shone down, falling upon a large sign. Royal went up to it and walked around to the front.
"Of course!" He actually laughed out loud, all but shaking with relief. No wonder the girls had extraordinary capabilities; this was the elite school for training Huntsmen and Huntresses. He felt foolish for his mistake, having blundered so far off his hunting grounds to reach the campus, but it made things fall into place with perfect clarity.
In under an hour, Royal was back in the city of Vale, prowling the streets of the urban jungle. Here, he was the master, the king predator, and everyone else trembled in his wake. He could even imagine he shivers, the frisson of fear that ran down the spines of those he casually passed by on the street. Though of course he gave no sign of what lurked beneath his facade, their subconscious minds knew, their rudimentary powers of Aura enough to let them know that danger was near.
And then he saw her.
She was perfect.
Royal couldn't believe his luck! She looked like she was fresh off the farm, new to the big city. As she walked through the streets, her head constantly swiveled left and right, taking in everything as if she'd never seen an elevated monorail or a Dust shop or a three-story building before. Her auburn hair, her freckle-spattered cheeks, even the lopsided bow in her hair combined to give her an air of innocence, and the wide-legged trousers and overall-like tan jumper absolutely screamed "country fashions," as if anything else was needed.
Why, he'd be doing her a favor, he thought. His way was quick and clean, at the least, and not slow and vicious the way some other predators seeking out her type were.
His knife glittered in the moonlight as he slipped it from under his coat and charged, already savoring the moment of the kill in his mind.
After all, there was no way that this country hick could possibly be combat ready.