Disclaimer: I own nothing of RWBY.
Jaune Arc repeated that phrase the longer he dwelled to count the infinite specks plaguing the massless night sky. All those gruesome, ghostly glows left haunted impressions on his innermost thoughts. Hn? Blake had a point. Dead, but not forgotten. Madness festered within frenzied his Lore to act out. Trembling digits gripped the hand railing with his shoulders shaking in nothing short of mini panic attacks. Jaune breathed, repeated Blake's words, and peeked up at the Milky Way Galaxy to count the deceased stars. Above they twinkled, they shined and glistened for others to see and enjoy. Compared to them, he existed nothing more than an insignificant speck, a tiny gear in the cosmos, but a gear nonetheless.
You don't have to carry on their dreams but never forgot about their legacy.
Countless memories flashed before him with his skin-losing feeling. Jaune closed his eyes, he counted to ten, and finally, he ended his numbers game and relaxed his grip. Sensation returned to his flesh. Lore's universal coldness, although lacking warmth, served as a far better alternative than the vacuum he felt evading his chest. He found his footing with a straightened spine and set jaw. Undoing his tie, Team JNPR's Fearless Leader tossed the article to the side and focused on the positives.
Don't let their deaths be in vain. That's what matters.
Exactly. Jaune squared each of his shoulders with a head held high. Amber or Penny's death would not be in vain. Their final wishes would be fulfilled. Pyrrha, Nora, and Ren were already tying up loose ends, so it stood as reason for him to follow suit. Acting as a distraction paid off. No one noticed his teammates missing, and with how rowdy the dance sounded, he confidently knew no one would discern him slipping out.
Fixing his cufflinks once more, the Arc enjoyed one final wisp of fresh air before detouring from the plan. Blake left minutes ago to rejoin her team on the dance floor, but only after forcing him to promise to return to the ballroom. What she said rang true. Dead stars never lost their light, not even in death. So he counted like old times, purposely losing himself in the act to think. Contemplation came easy to someone with a guilty conscience. Secretly he hoped for a story to unravel before him in the constellations above with a beginning, middle, and end.
Wishing never solved anything, though. Sooner than later, repercussions followed. Jaune only requested he had more time to prepare because the last person he wanted to find him found him resting his elbows on the balcony's edge with a spreading grin.
"There you are!" Ruby Rose whooshed over to his corner, bumping her butt on the railing. "So, this is where you've been hiding."
Ruby appeared exhausted with sweat clinging to her skin in that way only squarely packed bodies and a ranging dance floor accomplished. At some point, the ends of her heels snapped, turning into shoes with a blunt edge—her handiwork. Redness touched her cheeks, blossomed with her pearly grin and crimson dress and cup of punch. None of that took away from the fun radiating off her like glowing skin. If only she knew what her friend did. Jaune ignored the toxic thoughts and offered to sit beside her on the rail.
"You found me."
Ruby being Ruby made it doubly worse for him. "If only finding Penny was as easy. Have you seen her?"
Jaune aimlessly looked away. The terrace grew densely quiet underneath the roaring music. His fellow leader failed to notice, waving her feet while leaning back over the edge with all the fearlessness of a seasoned Huntress. He first breathed before opting to play the fool.
"Uh? Penny? Penny who? Who's that? I don't know that."
She bumped his shoulder as if the distance between the floor and the high terrace mattered not. "Hello! Remnant to Jaune! Redhead. Very curious. Overly trusting. You know, Penny!" Ruby paused to glare at the punch. "Duh! Maybe Uncle Qrow did spike the punch. How much have you had?"
"How much have you had?"
"Hey, hey! We're talking about you, not me, Mister." Ruby quickly downed the cup before he fulfilled his not-so-secret plan to sniff the contents. "So, yeah, have you seen her? She's a real stickler for being on time, so I'm surprised she's not here now."
Edges of his vision blurred from unwanted tears, swiftly, he blinked them away before Ruby so much as noticed or commented, feigning a grand deluded grin that came with a halfhearted shrug. "Nope. Couldn't tell you."
She stared at him as if expecting him to yell out surprise. Could she hear his thumping, thunderous heart? Keeping up his fake grin became taxing under the scrutiny, but she ultimately relented and tapped her fingers along the rim of her drink. "Oh. Okay. I hope she's alright. She's been looking forward to this dance."
He coughed and held it tight because, for the Oum of him, he could not properly breathe. He craved nothing more than for Ruby to go away. "I'm sure she's fine."
She jumped away from the railing. "Yeah. You're probably right. Maybe she got stuck with something. Penny loves doing fun things, but she's a bigger stickler for missions, but don't tell anyone I told you, okay?"
"Your secret's safe with me."
She playfully grinned, tongue way out, tossed her cup over the railing, and skedaddled back inside the ballroom to, what he oddly suspected, was to consume a few more punch bowls of punch. He almost deceived himself into dropping his guard from the way she took cautious, sideways glancing sips, but the pressure weighed on him. Enemies surrounded him in this ballroom, from random people he could not trust to General Ironwood's disdain to Headmaster Ozpin's indifference to any lackeys Cinder snuck into Beacon. Even that alcoholic Scarecrow had beef with Team JNPR. Things could come crashing down at a pin's notice. Going rogue sounded more feasible by the ever gruesome second. Ruby's constant questioning unquestionably affected his mental health in that regard.
Climbing off the railing, Jaune flinched from the exertion on his body and rubbed the spot between his neck and shoulder with a groan resembling his ancient grandfather. Ruby's endless questioning also benefited him for the simple concept that Penny's out-of-this-world personality attracted all sorts of attention. General Ironwood already knew she was dead, but he paled to think if someone less forgiving or more scatterbrained figured out that tablet of information or discovered the aftermath of their fight. He was not sure how Nora managed to carry all of them back to the infirmary, purely guts if anything, but he knew doing so probably left little time to clean up the battlefield.
If there was ever a time to deviate from the mission, now, with everyone conjured in one ballroom, was the ample time.
Instead of sneaking out the back, Jaune walked into the dance-crazed ballroom because he still promised Blake he would return, if only for a short recess. Frivolous bodies churned to the hippy-hop lingo playing through the surround sound speaker system. Some offered their arms to him. Ha. Ha-ha. More dancing? Jaune mentally said no to any more strenuous activity, muscles screaming for relief in his two-piece tux, and rocked toward the exit with a meager waltz. A few steps were how far he made it before a slender finger tapped his shoulder.
"You seriously did not think you could dance with both Ruby and Professor Goodwitch, show off, and not offer me dance, did you?"
Turning around, Jaune found himself at mercy's infinite doorstep as Weiss Schnee tapped her foot with her arms crossed and cheeks nearly puffed in that traditional Weiss-cream likeness Yang coined. She stood in her high superiority in the middle rustle-tussle of the dance floor, hair still very much in place in a chaotic ballroom. The sleekness of her dress suited her, matched splendidly with her choice of shoes—and Jaune suddenly loathed his seven sisters for making him learn all this useless junk about ballroom etiquette. Oh, how he longed for the fateful day when he thought something looked nice or okay with that being the end of it. Crises aside, he heard what his Dust partner-in-crime said. Any other day he would have jumped at the offer, but Jaune held his hands up and silently muttered I did.
She ignored his reluctance, inclining her heels a few inches for a readied sharp and steadfast kick to the shin.
"Well?" Weiss huffed with her wrist pushed out. "It's rude to keep a woman waiting."
Options, options. Jaune listened to the off-handed beat, far too techno for anything hair-raising or worthy of Weiss' attention. Telling Weiss that could potentially—and the music playlist just switched to something brutally slow and high-class snotty. Mostly violins with some cellos, and abruptly he figured out Weiss might have bribed the DJ because only couples remained on the dance floor to shake their tail feathers. Of course, her signature Schnee smirk added to the allure, second to the mischievous twinkle in her eye. She had one perfectly plucked eyebrow raised with her wrist still out, and Jaune Arc, worn out with a million-and-one things eating away at his subconscious, graciously accepted the universe's gift of a much-needed distraction. Plans went astray, after all, and he had far too many eyes watching him now to break away.
He couldn't help but smile when he clasped her hand. "It'll be my honor, Miss Schnee."
She humphed with the best roll of the eyes she ever managed, simpers and all.
Mercury Black dreamed of this rematch.
A blitzkrieg of bullets narrowly missed his body as metal collided with reinforced concrete. The ginger harlot wasted no time after shooting his Scroll, preferring actions over meaningless words. Mercury accepted the terms and ran a circle around her perimeter, switching to high gears with Betelgeuse preparing his air cannons. His boots loaded the first of his incendiary rounds. What happened to her all-mighty hammer? Mercury gave it an afterthought before taking into the air in a propelled movement with his shotgun recoiling boots granting him air-style dynamics. Without an audience, without the element of surprise, and with their cover blown sky-high, Mercury saw no reason to avoid casualties for the sake of the mission and propelled toward his opponent while dodging the strafing of bullets.
He spun midair, gaining momentum before turning his twirl into a horizontal dip that had his boot coming down with a magnitude of force for Nora's noggin. She blocked the downward arched kick with both her arms, withstanding the onslaught that sent a shockwave. Mercury followed up by planting his hands on the ground to push his legs inward before shooting them outward, critically landing a double-barreled barrage on her midriff. That double deuce sent her into the air. Whatever attack he had planned to retaliate with got shortsighted when she aimed StormFlower from up in the air, firing away in the safety of the sky. Unlike a conventional firearm user, Nora threw caution to the wind and blasted willy-nilly, impacting his ability to effectively repel any blow because her sudden height advantage made it tricky to keep his legs lifted.
So, he evaded bullets left and right as her inevitable descend tossed away her high ground. When she needed to reload, when those feet of hers planted themselves on the fountain's bench, Mercury fired a few shots that she blocked, granting him the access point to dash forward without the fear of threat. Then he forgot that those pistols came with sharpened blades at the tip. What turned into a mad dash quickly became a far lean back when he narrowly avoided getting his nose lobbed off by a mere inch, courtesy of her waiting for him to close the distance with a grin that belonged on a Grimm.
Nora went on the attack.
Jumping from her position, she attempted to double boot his still-leaning body, missing the thread when Mercury kicked his feet to somersault him backward. A costly mistake. That maneuver prevented him from taking in his surroundings, and she skipped forward, slicing and dicing with practiced swings that were not all that threatening, except for the insane strength carried behind them. He stumbled one foot back, she pushed one forward, throwing a hand haphazardly in a vertical curve to cleave, and this dance of theirs continued until his back hit a wall. That was when he noticed how much girth those strikes of hers carried, petrified from when the blades on those guns shredded reinforced concrete like butter, multiples times, without her slowing down or losing intensity. If anything, they continuously grew in strength, and when she managed to tear some of his outfit and hair by a breath's length, Mercury planted his feet on the wall, shot forward, and collided his body with hers.
They tumbled on the floor.
He managed to his feet by the shortest millisecond, grabbing her wrist right before she heckled that blade toward his chest. Smirking, Mercury held her in place right before her monstrous strength overpowered him, kicking her jaw, then her head, adding a gut punch before delivering a spin kick for her face. Trembling followed, Mercury almost rejoiced, except a haunting flashback of their last fight came into light, and Nora's grinning after receiving a series of kicks that crippled lesser beings. Somehow his wallops energized her. Again it happened. Maddening strength fueled her tendons. He thought he saw a brief current of electricity pass through her pupils before she dropped her weapons and grabbed his ankle with her freed arm. Any attempts of breaking free were laughable compared to her newfound strength, something that became increasingly noticeable when she lifted him with one hand.
"Hey! What are you—ah!"
Nora-Nora chuckled. Arm spinning soon ensued with her twirling him around like a lasso before smashing him into the ground repeatedly, generating fractures on the cement floor, resembling something of a hulk. One final smash later, Nora tossed him across the concrete jungle with a bloodied lip. Then she kicked StormFlower into her greedy hands and fired an entire clip onto his dizzied form. Deflecting a few with Aura enhanced legs came easy enough, but Mercury still yelped and ran full sprint into a diameter circling her. Midway he spat out some blood with a headache brewing. Halfway Nora gave up the gunfire, pointedly because she needed to reload, and gave chase for close-quarter combat.
Challenge graciously accepted.
As long as he avoided slashes and ankle grabbing, close hand combat should be her shortcoming. Mercury was not dubbed the Breakdance King by his peers for nothing. Betelgeuse reloaded itself. He humphed and sidestepped her downward slash, kicking upward with a propelled shotgun shell to increase his velocity and momentum by a Grimm's load. Steel boot connected with her jaw, throwing her up, but he brought her back down by grabbing her shirt and slamming her gut into his knee. Then he angled his body on the floor, spinning impulsive circles that allowed for a roundhouse kick to her side, then another, and a third, finished by a fourth that sent one of her guns flying away.
One gun down. One more to go.
A simple plan, one so efficiently derailed when she short-shifted his next kick by moving into his circle and clipping the momentum by more than half. Suddenly her weight pressed down on his body, a bruise already formed on her cheek, yet she smirked with literal sparks in her eyes. All that momentum, all acceleration, halted with a single arm and a tiny bit of mass. Mercury only realized the danger he was in when he found himself unable to break free from her electrifying grip. Flaying proved utterly useless when pinned by a shortstack with a shorter fuse and penchant for shrewd destruction.
While he refrained from betting, Mercury gambled his sock on a high-class plate that Team JNPR was related to the Qrow Branwen incident after witnessing her fervor firsthand. That little stunt put their trio on high alert, hence why Cinder ordered Emerald and him to escort themselves out of the dance, too, in case of an enemy ambush. Now, while staring at the barrel of a semi-automatic, he saw the folly in that nefarious plot.
"You lose!" Nora singsonged. "Come quietly. Or don't. Please don't. I really want to fire this bad boy."
"Over my dead body."
"That's the spirit!"
Betelgeuse unleashed all the incendiary clips onto the floor at his disposal with a slight tap of his boot's ankle. Avoiding backlash from the proximity explosion asked for the impossible, but it granted him the escape needed to avoid a bullet to the neck. Both of them flew back, scorched from the explosion that left ash marks on the pavement. He groaned in the air, twisted his body, and landed with a wobbly step, and all just in time to see Nora charging headfirst with both guns, arms crossed for a diagonal slash. Intoxicated Mercury acted as such, not knowing how she fought through the pain as if it granted her unsurpassable strength. Burn marks, too, covered her body, and still, she lunged with a hearty battle cry and penchant for chaos..
Hammer or no hammer, Mercury narrowed his eyes when she swung the bladed edges for his shoulders, sidestepping to the right to deliver a knee to her neck. She grinned. Nora lifted her arm to block his kick, turning a block into a grab that had his ankle held by her underarm as she loaded and aimed her weapon point-blank at his chest. Impressive. He responded quickly enough by firing an air missile to dislodge himself right as the bullets came flying. Strays managed to intrude his bubble, so he hurled a second volley to create distance and discombobulate Nora while in mid flight. If only that worked. That crazy monster flicked the air current away with the blunt edge of StormFlower's knife, a powerhouse of strength, and delivered a hell of a hail mary of spray-and-pray. Mercury used his legs to block the incoming projectiles, lunging behind the closet obstacle his way.
Nora never batted an eyelash and kept firing by alternating between pistols.
Dodging it was out-of-the-question, not with her creeping up toward his cover with that manic look of hers. So, he waited, watching her reload animation, and then repelled the next stray of bullets to blast a double air cannon between the half-second she needed to alternate. One, two, those hit her dead center on the chest, but of course, Miss Valkyrie fought through the pain, finishing her reloading to unleash a double-barrel of gunfire from midair. Some sign of damage got inflicted upon her midriff, yet Mercury had trouble believing this girl had pain receptors. For Brother's sake, she laughed while flying backward, a glutton for battle.
He clicked his teeth and lowered his head right as bullets passed overhead.
Shrapnel showered similar to a hailstorm of penetrating alloy, controlled by a thunderstorm so out-of-control that Mercury hid behind a nearby concrete bench for cover since she used the head of the statue as a vantage point for her volley. Tch. Useless cover. Reinforced pavement dented and crumbled from the onslaught of one trigger-happy Valkyrie. Comparing it to her juggernaut of a hammer, while lacking the pure destructive power, pushed him beyond his comfort zone because most opponents possessed tact and loathed battling for their lives. Nora? Her maniacal cackle only made things that much more hair-raising and heart-thumping. Based on the weapon's size and shape, the barrage of shells was the only projectile he had to worry about—!
"Think fast, slowpoke!"
Nora tossed a metallic object over her hailstorm in a wide arch meant to reach above his head. His heart dropped. A Dust grenade canister enclosed his field of vision in agonizingly slow motion. It turned midair, revealing the Fire Dust logo etched into the element before a stray Dust bullet collided and forced a chain reaction. His eyes swelled right as the explosion shattered his stronghold and threw him across the pavement and into a nearby wall. When he opened his eyes to groan, Mercury barely rolled out of the way of an incoming fist that left a sizable dent. He got to his feet quick enough, supporting a stance with his arms raised and glare entirely livid as embers of flames burned his clothing and cinched his hair. Her response involved holstering the second pistol to crack her knuckles with a broadening smirk.
"This is fun. I'm having a blast. You?"
"Fun?" Mercury repeated, rolling his eyes. "You bet. I'm having the time of my life. You ruined our plans, and now I'm stuck dealing with the wildcard of your pathetic team. What more could I ask for."
She shrugged, unclipping a second grenade from wherever she hid the first one. An Ice Dust logo appeared on the front, and with all the grace of a neanderthal Grimm, Nora juggled the canister in one hand, aiming StormFlower with the second, and maintained a magazine in her teeth. Mercury saw through her scheme a mile away, still didn't make it any less threatening. Even when they fought in a stalemate, knowing that his teammates were, too, battling, forced a bit of sweat to drip along his jaw. Having the element of surprise snatched away from them, from nobodies that they listed as minor nuisances, at best, struck a sour blow on his pride. Months of planning fell apart at the seams, and he got stuck dealing with the energized threat of Team JNPR that treated this as a game of tag.
Unshakable confidence like that needed realignment, an attitude adjustment because Mercury saw no other way out of this mess if his adversary saw stars and garters every time he managed a clean sweep along her jawline. Good thing he knew of one thing Team JNPR prided themselves on, a weakness that prevented the indomitable Pyrrha Nikos from battling him during that one class.
"After I've killed you, I think I'll visit that pathetic leader of yours. That should be fun."
She paused dead in her tracks, losing all form of playfulness in the blink of an eye. Stunned, that was the only seven-letter word Mercury found that described her stony expression. That grip on the grenade untightened marginally, alongside her hold on StormFlower and that magazine, and he bent his lips when she tilted her head. One blink two, the ammo clip fell out of her mouth, and this time the world flipped on its side.
Mercury Black prided himself on his threats.
Attacking sucker's moral compass always showed people what they were underneath all the bravo. Many cried, pleading with him to either show mercy and spare a weaker family member. Begging usually followed. A few knew the stakes firsthand and resorted to holding the frontlines with an aged look. Mercury respected the solemn ones. Those fought to their last breath and accepted their demise with an attitude fit for a soldier. Those he always silenced painlessly. Which one was Nora? He could not say after witnessing her unpredictable reaction.
Nora Valkyrie laughed.
All forms of defense, anything even remotely resembling a makeshift guard, fell apart with her boisterous laughter. All of it happened so left field that Mercury failed to capitalize on his opponent's incoherent state, far more irked over the troublemaker's need to throw fits of unending howling at his threat as if mere child's play. His legs locked with his fists gripped, pride wounded and all sense of satisfaction gone. What the hell? Had the world flipped on its axis, too? Stop. Laughing.
No, seriously, why, for Brother's sake, was she laughing?
He bared his teeth. "What's so funny!"
"You—you—you!" Nora failed to hold her sides hard enough. She threw her head back and laughed up a thunderstorm, pointing at the dumbstruck Mercury with a shaky finger. "You think you're a match for our Fearless Leader!"
Now he saw through her ruse and taunted her with a trademark smirk. "Ah. Playing dumb, I see, but have you forgotten that I was in your classes, too? Even if I barely paid any attention, I still remember how slow and weak your leader was. He'll be easy pickings after I'm through with you."
Nora did the impossible. She fell on her stomach amidst the battle and slammed her fist upon the floor. "Please stop talking! My sides hurt! Can't. Breathe."
He growled. "Stop. Laughing."
She settled somewhat to manage her feet under her, sucking a breath in to wipe away a stray tear. A few lingering giggles had her throat chuckling, but for all intents and purpose, Nora controlled herself to meet his hardened gaze with an expression he only described as merciless gloating. Her lips moved with sincerity, pretenses of jokes gone.
What she said astounded him.
Emerald Sustrai loathed the prosperity of fortune.
Qrow Branwen in the same vicinity she chalked up to circumstanced coincidence. Discrepancies occurred even in their line of work, a rarity for the Master Thief. Twice? Her grip on Wanderlust turned her knuckles nearly white from exertion. Chance had no play there. The Huntsmen before her, this Lie Ren she possessed no intel on, proved that by intercepting her and exposing her. What troubled her psyche the most, beyond getting caught redhanded or having the plan fall apart, was his loathful indifference to her appearance. He knew they defeated a fully powered Maiden in peak battle but showed little concern. He knew about their plan and acted like it was an inconvenience for him.
Lie Ren showed apathy where passion should be involved.
That forced beads of sweat to drip alongside her thumping neck.
Ren shifted most of his attention to toying with that returning butterfly by branching out his finger. It seamlessly blended into the threading of his light-defying clothing. Her finger twitched upon her trigger from the display. Dagger still in hand, he lowered the knife and shot her a sideways glare when she bore the tiniest of movements. Doubt plagued her thoughts, a cruel joke that he cared not for her uninvited presence. Even with Wanderlust's revolver aimed for his heart, she felt the odds stacked in his favor.
Emerald asked out of professional courtesy. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't appear particularly interested in this fight."
"That is correct." Ren favored her the rest of his attention, the ominous black butterfly an afterthought that clung to his sleeve. "Take my word for it... we're out of our comfort zone. Stopping criminals and playing heroes is more inclined with our sister team. Consider Team JNPR as a more passive bunch. Sideline characters, some call it.
He said more than she expected. So Mercury and Cinder had their hands full, too? "Some sideline characters you guys are."
Emotionless with penetrating pinkish hues, Ren dragged his feet forward and away from the safety of the aged trees. Her fingers cocked the firing mechanism of Wanderlust, waiting for him to stretch another step beyond the tall grass. Luck played on his side. He stopped short of her safety zone, draining the time with silence as the butterfly dislodged itself from his shoulder and brushed past Emerald. When he finally opened his mouth a second time, when that last word left his lips, she pulled the trigger.
"Don't blame us for your streak of bad luck. You forced our hand. And we can't just allow you to run around and do what you want. Someone has to stop you."
It surprised her not that he deflected her bullet with the compass of his dagger from this distance. Any Huntsmen worth his pelt should have the quick reflexes for such an uncomplicated maneuver. What got her skin to crawl was how he did so without flinching as if the distributed weight and naked eye velocity of her bullet paled in comparison to his mass. Wasting another shot from such a meager range counted as nothing short of worthless efforts and shells. So her teeth clicked in annoyance.
Plans went astray, a life-and-death lesson Emerald learned early on in her nitpicking, thievery way of life, but the person before her turned out to be an entire meltdown. Everything fell apart. She swiftly grabbed her Scroll to contact Mercury for backup—Ren showed no resistance—and received nothing but broken static on the other end. Reaching Cinder ended with the same flatline. Anyone else? Emerald had a couple in mind that only applied if they were around the vicinity, not overlooking the production at a faraway mountain.
She had no one.
"Busy?" Ren rhetorically asked with his lips still stuck in that same expression. "It appears that they have their hands full."
She shook her head and tossed her Scroll. "Screw it. Either you kill me, or I kill you."
He offered another option. "Surrender now, and I promise not to spill any blood."
"As if I'd believe a word you're saying."
For the first time, Ren's lips bent at the margins. "You're right. I'm lying."
Mr. Silent abruptly moved, going from zero to sixty in the period it took her to breathe. The collar of Ren's cloak closed during the speeding breach of her bubble, with Emerald ducking underneath an ill-lucked spin kick that swooshed the hair above her head. During that second meeting, pink locked with red, orphans with grim backgrounds shared the same glance of survivability, and she sped off toward the forest from where he had lurked.
Emerald dashed into the coverage of the forest. Crossing blades in the wide-open drew too much attention. If she suspected true, then Ren had no plans of letting her escape. Bingo. Lie Ren chased her shadow before separating into the foliage of vegetation. A Master Thief and a Ninja entered the undisturbed Land of Insects with the other vowing victory amongst the trees. Soon running turned into a snail's pace with stealth the utmost importance. Emerald knew this indefinitely. She thrived in the darkness, climbing a nearby tree to pivot her advantage point. Now, she quietly waited for the first sound of footsteps. Nothing but the chirps of crickets eluded to her ears. A gentle breeze tickled her senses. Then another one of those butterflies crossed her path. Instead of shooing it away, she sliced it cleanly in two, convinced the creature and Ren shared a common link. Her peripheral vision caught sight of a glint coming her way after doing so.
Ren's dagger flew through the air. It carried no weight at all, dropping midway toward her position. A transparent distraction, and now she had an inkling of his whereabouts, or at least she assumed so until he ran up the side of the tree and delivered a roundhouse kick supported by a tree growth he held. Emerald only saw the attacking coming because that branch happened to be within the boundary of her sight. Bark cracked from the intensity delivered by his kick that hardly looked anything special, splintering wood as she narrowly ducked to avoid such a wallop. She attempted to slice his forearm, but severing through the blackened fabric of his cloak required far more oomph than she gave, only cutting it skin deep. Emerald had no choice but to retreat to a distant tree.
He jumped down and retrieved his dagger before bringing his sleeve up. Linen acted like tendrils, sewing themselves up until it appeared brand new. Emerald wanted some of that thread. "Fancy clothes. Where can I steal one?"
"Handcrafted, I'm afraid. You won't find another one like it."
Wanderlust switched to duo revolvers. "That's fine. I'll take yours from your cold, lifeless body."
Dust-infused bullets spiraled downward. Emerald's nose creased when he sidestepped between her barrage of bullets, evading in ease for someone who made it look slow. Whatever angle she shot, his reaction speed proved faster. Splotches of earth dented from steel meeting dirt with his feet nimble. His momenta never slowed as the gap between them kept decreasing in size, with his dagger deflecting the odd one out. One shell turned into numerous, and soon she needed to reload, but she prepped her weapon with her actively spreading her Semblance around the battlefield. Firing blanks, the air turned into a blitzkrieg of metals that resembled something close to a machine gun. Imaginary casings sped viciously in the air. Anyone would have lunged out of the way of such destruction.
Anyone but Lie Ren.
Her throat coarsed. Pink eyes refused to waver at unimaginable numbers, running straight into a hailstorm of steel that passed harmlessly through his body. No emotion betrayed him. Emerald failed to react. Her opponent ignored the existence of her Semblance envisioned artillery, twisting his miniature blade into a backward stance meant to cleave. Then he lunged with the grace of an apex predator, moving as if gravity ostracized his being. Twenty feet turned into one, his feet used the nearby trees as stepping stones, and Emerald barely blocked the slice of his knife with the blunt edge of Wanderlust while deflecting a midriff kick with her weapon's other half.
Two things happened.
One, her muscles trembled from such an overwhelming force pressing upon her, practically denting her weapon's metal. A heaviness of unprecedented measure just bore down on her from a Huntsmen weighing an average build. Two, Ren released his knife, catching it again when it dropped underneath her sickle's blade to complete his strike.
First, he moved soundlessly, and now he ignored her lifelike illusions? Things like that never happened in her line of work. She overcame. She conquered. She thrived, but now her shoulder bled. Steady footwork turned a deep tissue slash into an ignorable one, yet the point remained moot. Invisibility from her Semblance quickly soothed her as she found a new hiding spot to recover and restrategize. Aura treated the wound without too much of a drain, a tap of her resources. Still, she gingerly grabbed her forearm with her teeth clenched so tightly that her eyes wavered.
Sideline character her bruised ego.
What the hell. Who the heck was this guy? All the data collected, along with all the information gathered and intel they stole, none of it told her of Lie Ren's fighting prowess. When he sparred with Ruby Rose, his style never mimicked the one he used now. Hitting hard was an understatement, an underachievement of what his precise strikes carried. Unbelievable weight compelled against her from someone too thin and agile for such blows, yet he made them as if gravity itself partnered with him, and Emerald clicked her teeth at the unfaithful thought. Everything about this guy, to his aloof posture and sloth-like interest, contradicted his speed and strength. Fib. Lie Ren was a walking, talking, and overall stalking epitome of deceiving. A fabrication. A lie.
Emerald Sustrai loathed the unexplained, scorned the unknown, despised the untold, and hated the unimaginable. Those things ridiculed a Master Thief because they deviated from the plan, and fighting the embodiment of all those boiled her Aura. For her opponent to be this guy of all things?
It was bloody, rotten luck on her part!
Whatever. Screw it. The connection to Ren's perception and her invisibility still worked flawlessly. Transparency still heeded her call, so tirelessly she peeked over the tree trunk and found him gingerly wandering through the forest floor without a sound or streak caution. She knew better. Those pinkish hues surveyed his vicinity with fine-eyed detail. One stumble, a crinkle of some grass or snapping of a twig, and he would react. Momentarily his sights spotted her with her breath held, but her clarity allowed for his mind to play tricks, and her illusion held. Opportunity of the situation with his back and front exposed called to her, so she switched her weapon into their sickle hybrids.
Emerald lunged from her hiding spot, hooking her arm in a downward slash for his neck without making a sound, only for Ren to lift his palm and intercept her brazen attempt with pink Aura acting as his shield, operating as if her camouflage meant nothing. For a fleeting moment in the heat of battle, during that split-second descent onto her feet and into untold madness, she noticed a wide-eyed symbol carved into his hand. She almost thought nothing of it, not until it blinked harmlessly at her in a pinkish hue, as if scrutinizing her and the steel sickle pressed against Aura-fleshed skin. All of that ensued so quickly that Emerald barely had time to sway back and avoid a swift kick that split a tree trunk in two. She forcefully used her momentum to plant her palms on the dirt, twisting backward to create a sizable distance.
Backflips saved her the trouble of formulating a decent defense, but she found her target missing once she reached that desired distance. Setting of her jaw ensued. Drat! She increased the grip on Wanderlust, scanning her environment for him. Only the trees and the darkness of the foliage greeted her, and she spun on her heels when leaves rustled overhead, demanding an onslaught of bullets. Nothing came from her panic but broken branches and her nerves breaking into a sweat. Shadows moved in the background. They danced in the shattered moonlight, tiptoeing in silence.
A black butterfly snuck up on her and offered a butterfly's kiss.
She missed cleaving the insect in two, far more troubled because her Semblance failed her a second time. Ren hadn't reacted to a change in air pressure or sudden shift in sound. He had blocked her strike because he plainly saw her coming a mile away. Occasionally her Semblance faltered. It happened, but twice pushed the boundaries of dumb luck. Emerald cursed his name between each building gasp. Somehow Ren saw through her illusions. All her tricks failed her. He didn't even act phased when he intercepted her blade with his freakish palm, calmer than a cucumber underneath the guise of a life-and-death battle. That showed the disparities of her delusions. When a shifting shadow hid behind a dream, she twisted so fast that Wanderlust's blade carved the nearest tree in her proximity. Quaint silence followed.
Then he spoke somewhere in the darkness.
"Are you afraid of the dark?"
She spun on her heels, grip on Wanderlust shaking. "What? What kind of stupid question of that? What Huntress worth their gems would be afraid of the dark?" Emerald scoffed with beads of sweat clinging to her skin. "I'm not! Come out!"
Emerald Sustrai smelled the refreshing fragrance of oranges before she heard his voice whisper so hotly into her ear.
When she sliced the empty air, her heart pounded so hard that the sound of bountiful crickets stopped ringing in her ears. "Stop screwing around! Come out and face me, you coward!"
Emerald scarcely dodged the dagger due to its glint reflecting off partial moonlight. She last-minute moved her head, creating a barrier between her and his weapon resting on the dirt. Now Emerald knew his direction, watching and waiting for movement. A shadow sparsely shifted. She mimicked, throwing and twisting her scythes to behave as a noose. Skilled hands maneuvered the metal chains to act as a lasso, pulled, tugged, and pushed to wrap around the tree, turning that spot into his executioner stand. An immediate weight pressed against her attempts, muscles strained to capture her target. Right at the point of pressing capture, Ren broke free, spun from the other end of the tree, and charged her by running along her metal chains.
How was his weight lighter than a feather?
A weighted palm aimed for her neck. Emerald slid to the side and curved Wanderlust to stab his shoulder blade. He maneuvered on one foot to not only dodge her sickle by limboing underneath the edge but also twisting his body to deliver a midriff kick to her torso that almost shot her outward. During that crucial time, Ren attempted to grab his dagger. Not again. Wanderlust shot forward while she glided in the air, turning into five Grim Reaper scythes with her Semblance acting as a buffer, but her attempt to wrap around his body failed when he flicked away the real one by the side of his hand without so much as blinking an eye.
Her teeth clicked once she landed gracefully. She pointed the bladed edge of Wanderlust at his direction. "Explain yourself. How come nothing is working against you? What's your secret?"
"Explain what? Your moves are easy to read."
"Exactly!" Emerald switched her weapons into revolvers. "I'm sure you know about my Semblance. At least by now, you do. So, tell me. Why isn't it working."
Ren tilted his head ever so slightly. "Isn't that obvious? Thieves are only as good as their ability to remain undetected. You said it yourself. Your bag of tricks won't work on me now that I've caught you red-handed. Plain and simple."
What? That was it? None of that made any lick of sense. Her finger itched the trigger. "How did you know I was a master thief?"
"Master thief?" Ren rolled his eyes. "I don't recall saying such a thing. I'm merely referring to your failed attempt at stealing the Maiden Powers. Your actual occupation was unknown to me. However, if that is the case, then that must be a self-given title."
Emerald chewed her lip. In her lifetime of thievery and manipulation, she heard every name underneath the sun. Every moniker. Every jab. If it meant something nasty, then she knew someone called her that. Over the years she grew a thick skin to it, sometimes carrying the names as personal keepsakes. Badges of honor that a Master Thief rightfully deserved. So why did his claim infuriate her so much? Self-given title? Why did that hurt worse than the wound on her back? Self-given title? Why did it burn hotter than the blood dripping down her spine? Self-given title? Her pride growled that of a Beowolf, demanding retaliation.
"Don't you dare judge me!" Emerald conjured up a layer of her Semblance to affect the entire area. "You have no clue what I've had to do to get this far. What could a spoiled child like you know what it's like to grow up on the streets."
Greater her Semblance's radius extended. She saw him waiver, scrutinizing as if a headache enveloped the side of his brain when the properties of her ability washed over his proximity like a hidden room. He staggered when she summoned clones to use as a game of musical chairs. An opening presented itself to her, possibly the first one she saw all battle. Maybe he saw through stationed illusions, ones that, as long as they never moved from their stationary position, ergo bullets or a thrown scythe, then they passed his depth perception without a moment's pause. She proved her point when, even battling a hemialgia, he dodged a stray bullet that was shielded by four illusioned ones, but distanced himself considerably when she threw a spinning scythe his way.
Emerald seized the opening.
Singular images had no effect. If Ren saw through such fable illusions, she only needed to expand her horizon to a vaster depth. She charged with twin scythes and her chain extended. Blood vessels in her head threatened to burst from the overabundance of pressure she put on her Semblance. Controlling a singular illusion to move in a natural state-required discipline, making four images react with move sets differing to the other, pushed her beyond her limits. Each one of her Semblance clones responded separately, but all retained the same goal in mind. One Emerald used the trees for her catwalk, while another dashed on the floor. Number three stuck to the shadows. Four chose the shattered moonlight, jumping high into the air. She, herself, focused on making sure each crinkle of grass and creak of a branch worked with her illusion's movements as she lunged forward midair with her sickles posed over her head and chain stalking her lingering ghost. Instead of using quantity to move a massive barrage of lifeless objects, she chose quality with lifelike clones.
All five moved for the attack.
That dagger aimed for the fake Emerald appearing out the woodwork. Bingo. She smirked, throwing her arms forward to cleave his head off his shoulders with the four clones reacting the same. Distance closed between them. The four remaining Emeralds prepared their scythes for different major body organs. Then he moved his feet apart, squared his shoulders, and slid deep hues of pink in her direction without any indication of panic. Enchanted metal changed trajectory with her stuck in midair, piercing the very atmosphere with King Taijitu precision.
Emerald Sustrai bitterly coughed up blood.
In the heart of the forest—camouflaged in the deception of light-blocking trees and chirping bugs, away from spying eyes—Emerald stood with a knife in her chest and blood leaking down her jaw. Aura prevented Ren's blade from stabbing too deeply, but it pierced skin and broke flesh. Each one of her counterfeits evaporated with her illusion of control shattered by the dagger dug into her beating chest. Neither of them noticed, having a staring contest between gem reds and endless pinks.
Ren leaned forward. "From one orphan to another, I know exactly how difficult life can be. I do understand, but your actions are inexcusable. They have caused my team a great deal of distress."
She shuddered. Out of cards, Emerald spilled a margin of blood, grip weakening on Wanderlust. Her prized possessions almost fell to the ground, too heavy in her hands, but she discovered an oddity with Ren's focus. Pinkish hues wavered and whitened somewhat, a strained effect if she ever saw one, proof that her Semblance fancies pressed on his limits. Whatever the reason for his ability to read her fibs showed weakness. A second chance presented itself as an opportunity. She never believed in luck in her line of work.
Emerald Sustrai created her own luck.
"Well..." Emerald's grip on Wanderlust renewed. Suddenly twin blades aimed for his neck. "Allow me to rain on your parade some more!"
She figured this guy out well enough to know he used his feet as both an attack and a barrier. She never expected for her first strike to land, sidestepping the close-range kick to free herself from his blade and slice the upper end of his calf. Success! Wanderlust cleanly operated on that leg's arteries, gushing favorable blood. Aura would heal that soon enough, just like the closing wound on her chest, so she used the golden distraction and his temporary immobility to break away. One or two shells slipped past his defense on her way out, inflicting a larger area of damage before she hid by a secluded tree.
Ren failed to follow.
Once she found her hiding spot, Emerald hacked out a few more droplets of blood, covering her mouth to prevent her unneeded coughing from exposing her location. Back pressed to bark, she panted with her legs almost giving out. Regardless of her injuries and disregarding the pain, Emerald used sufficient ceasefire to strategize and fret over the facts. When it came to knowledge, her opponent knew more about her abilities than she knew of his. Ren saw through her apparitions. That was an immediate given, but doing so strained him. How or why his Semblance worked, she never figured out watching him dominate that Ruby girl during combat class, but it supposedly played into a factor here and had limits. Those were remarkable facts to know.
Limits were exploitable.
She still maintained that connection to his five senses, and on any other given day, that warranted enough to annihilate her assailant, except today. Fable lies played no part. She crushed her lips together, interchanged Wanderlust into chained nooses, and thoroughly concentrated on her Semblance to create the most spacious room possible. Vehemence gathered at her scarring wound to expand out across the entirety of their battleground. Veins stretched alongside her scalp. She shut her eyes, breathed calmly, drowning out the sounds of the forest critters. The skeleton of her Semblance created a dome stretching far beyond the thresholds of escape.
All of that only affected her antagonist.
Her Semblance Make Believe allowed her control over the concepts of roleplay and versatility. Pushing its limits came with a double-edged sword level of side effects on her cerebral cortex, but limited options forced her hand, and thus she conjured up her forbidden land of Wonderland, the only place she called home.
Things took a turn for the weirder. All the trees came to life. Woodland animals became cartoonish, still bugged eyed with over exaggerated features. All of them wore adorable clothing. Few even danced and sang annoying numbers that years of practice allowed her to numb out. Not even the sky stayed safe from Make Believe, going from a starry night into a conclave of endless shooting stars. Not a bit of it was real, merely a conjuring of her Semblance, but what she saw he saw, and Emerald controlled Eureka to her thumping heart's content. Blades of googly-eyed grass grew under her watch with a neighboring tree warning her of his approach.
Once upon a time, Eureka used to be her home away from the harsh realities of the bitterly unfair world of Remnant. Now, it served her in combat for those scapegoats she deemed worthy of trespassing on her land of Make Believe. Few visited such a wholesome, joyous land. None ever left. Emerald reversed her grip on Wanderlust, taking to the nearby branches with her footsteps soundless under the onslaught of musical tales about a turtle and a hare. She spotted her target utterly confused, squinting his vision at the objects frolicking toward him and offering him candy. His leg must have prevented him from finding cover.
So, she observed from the safety of the laughing trees.
Inconsistencies existed. Every so often, Ren failed to respond and fell for her illusions. Like when he swatted away a bouncing frog, only for it to not exist, or when he bumped into a boulder because he figured it was not real. Those moments were brief. A strain appeared every time it happened, so suddenly that only her trained eyes allowed her to notice the split-seconds moments of vulnerability.
"Time for a little experiment." Emerald shifted one of her blades into a revolver. She shot a glance at the trees. "Ready?"
Telltale oak responded in kind, growing three sizes that day. Magnificent bark stretched to the moon. Happy-go-lucky faces giggled all around Ren as some of them used their branches as arms to reach out and capture him, and she fired a volley of Dust shells when he dodged those nimble fingers. Sometimes she scared herself because her bullets curved with rainbow streaks, dancing playfully in the air until they straightened back into reality. His cloak absorbed the cowardly lion's share of the shells, yet they landed between his shoulder blades and lower back. None managed to directly impact the few splotches of skin his sinfully out-of-place outfit failed to cover.
Emerald smirked because Lie Ren had not seen those coming. Oh, he turned around quickly enough. Unfortunately for him, she already moved into another position behind a grumpy toadstool that screamed bah humbug. This time she wanted her chains of hell to make an appearance. A flick of the wrist had the ground beneath Ren's feet open into an incomprehensible cataclysm with blinking eyes at the bottom. Mocking chrysanthemum taunted him for falling for such a ruse, twice his height with sharpened rows of teeth. The only thing freed from Make Believe's reality-bending manipulation was that mysterious cloak, as if it held his perception by a magnum optimum force.
She overlooked the petty inconvenience and tossed one of two Wanderlusts.
A fellow tree warned him of the incoming bladed chain. Ren ignored it. Humph. "Bad move."
Her iron cable curved in an overly large circle before she tugged it forward. Links lassoed his body, dragging him toward a nearby tree she used as a pin. Impressive weight pressed against her straining muscles, but luck favored the bold. His leg injury had not fully recovered, throwing his balance off just enough for her to drag him into the bark of the giggling tree. Once his back smashed against the coat, she wrapped a second cufflink around his body, turning that into a third before unclipping one of Wanderlust's handles from the alloy. Quickened thief reflexes had Emerald holding her scythe near Ren's neck before he so much as struggled in her hold with the other of her Wanderlusts dug into the dirt with both ends of the chains attached to that barrel.
Emerald missed the way he had one of his fingers crossed behind his back.
She only smirked in victory as all her woodland friends cheered with their cuddly arms thrown into the air in her world of Pure Imagination. Make Believe added insult to injury by turning her chains into tree branches, appearing as the bark itself held him. The diminished pink hues of his eyes glared back at her brightened reds. He maintained that slothfulness of his to the bitter end. Part of her felt inclined to remark on that astuteness of his.
"For what it's worth, you're a cloak and dagger type of fighter and an orphan. I respect that." Emerald readied her swing for his exposed neck. "Between everyone in this forsaken school and Mercury and even all the people I've fought, you were the most challenging. But all good things must come to an end. And don't worry, I promise to silence the rest of your team, starting with that leader of yours."
After learning of this man's capabilities, Emerald deceived herself in thinking he might beg for his life. How he reacted instead turned her children's world fairytale into an eye-opening nightmare. Ren scoffed. More of a snort, but Emerald heard the amusement nonetheless. He curled his lips with the base of his cloak's collar stretching open. All the critters of Eureka stopped their chattering laughter altogether.
Emerald chuckled. "What's so funny? From where I'm standing, there's nothing to be laughing about."
"You and your lack of awareness. You think you're capable of taking down my leader." Ren shared a look with her of utter bafflement. "Confidence is fine, but grand delusion is where I draw the line."
"Lying won't save him."
"I'm not lying." Ren blinked. "Trust me when I say this."
Trapped in her fantasy land, with all expectation of escape a fleeting will-o'-the-wisp dream, Lie Ren reacted with snips and snails and puppy dog's tails type of detachment. Evil Eyes circulated alongside the gloomy clouds sewed onto his cloak in her land of Eureka, and he uttered words that made no sense in her world of Make Believe.
What he said confused her.
Cinder Fall acknowledged Destiny's intervention.
Lifeblood collided with pyroclastic material.
Cinder Fall admitted she underestimated Pyrrha Nikos as she blocked a downward slash with more force than she estimated. All the reports and recordings she gathered on the tournament winner failed her. Whatever observation Mercury and Emerald shared with her was useless. Her opponent moved much faster, hit far harder, and reacted much quicker than the initial data suggested. The Pyrrha Nikos of yesterday paled in comparison to the Pyrrha Nikos of today. In other words, someone had been holding back against her peers.
Then came those irksome weapons.
Those she knew beforehand, but not to the scope of their ability. What fluid acted against her moved beyond her knowledge. She tested the outlandish substance. One minute it moved like formless liquid, only to materialize harder than iron when opposed. The art of the flexibility of changing from one state of matter to another spoke for itself. Nothing too outlandish, she assured herself, but Cinder found herself playing defense than more to her liking. Conventional Fire Dust only proved useless to its crisp properties.
So she resorted to Midnight.
Cinder rolled back from Pyrrha's airborne slash, throwing her off to collide with a terminal, or so she hoped. Spinning in the air, Pyrrha stabbed her weapons into the metal, balancing herself upright. She wasted no movement, extending her lance into something resembling a spiked whip. She had thinned it so impossible razor-sharp on the edge that Cinder flew into the air to avoid a slicing slash that scratched deep into the surrounding infrastructure. Cinder had hoped to use the opening to fire a volley of arrows, but that shield stretched outward, thinning in circumference but stretching in diameter to block each one. A few pierced the guard, only for the fluidity to mismanage their line of sight and prevent any from exploding. All the while, Pyrrha rematerialized her whip into that lance.
What annoyed her was the champion's ability to prevent any of her arrows from colliding on the floor, halting the explosion process. It was as if she knew about that reaction, but Cinder said impossible and propelled her flaming feet for close combat.
She flew overhead, landing on her feet with Pyrrha's back to hers. Quick movement allowed her to twist her body and ricochet Midnight for her neck, except Pyrrha bent slightly to the left and intercepted her blade with the blunt end of her lance, dulling that side to sharpen. Humph! The other half of Midnight aimed for her spine. She expected a block, not a dodge. Pyrrha had wrapped her spear around her scimitar, solidified the material, and used her weight as a support beam to spin, eluding her sword and then releasing her weapon to aim for a skull piercing thrust with a forming lancet.
Air rushed near her neck from when she tilted her head to avoid the sharpened end. A chilly frost kissed her skin, and Cinder stabbed the half of Midnight that missed her spine for her stomach, colliding with that shield. It was an uncomfortable position for both of them, so close together, practically dancing, yet she retreated. The stalemate forced her to leave behind a Devil's Footprint just as the guard morphed around her weapon, turning into a buffer of extending spikes. Pyrrha never faltered, alternating the lance to a precise point to close the distance.
What should have been a simple evade turned into a repressive crossguard. Ingenuity sparked creativity. Cinder expected imagination when it came to forging and reforging weaponry—Midnight was such an example—but even she never anticipated Pyrrha to add mass to that spear by using her shield as a supplier. The length doubled. The speed hastened. The imposing momentum struck her hard enough to force her back into the glass wall. Another stalemate, another amusing attack, Cinder pressed back an overwhelming intensity with the wall acting as a supporter. Then the fluid grew denser, applying weight. Some began wrapping around Midnight, turning into an iron-like grip. She looked behind her guard and found Pyrrha walking, shortening the distance, thus thickening the volume.
Cinder abandoned her seax just as spears developed and pierced the glass. She chuckled at the brutality while airborne. "My, my, I would have never expected such attacks from you. Not quite the innocent girl as you make the masses believe."
"For you? I'll make an exception." Pyrrha answered, summoning her weapon back with Midnight trapped in a mass of red. Compression cracked the volcanic glass. "And there's a part of me that has a score to settle."
Oh? Cinder shared a stretching smirk. She shattered Midnight with ease? Obsidian or not, Cinder knew of her weapon's tensile strength. That required intense pressure. Unimaginable for conventional Huntsmen. She glanced back at the holed glass, knowing bulletproof material when she saw it. A tugging of heartstrings allowed her to create another from her outfit's Dust, Crucible just added the finishing touches, and voila, good as new. She conceived her bow with three arrows, yet Pyrrha never batted an eye. Her guard raised, shield covering her midriff with that lance holding above her sights.
Three flew first.
Three more followed. Then another three. Then more. Cinder fired, not a volley, but a rainfall. She danced in the air, increasing speed with a higher flame beneath her heel, encircling her prey with a flurry of arrows raining down in nothing short of a thunderstorm. Pyrrha deflected some, blocked others, used the terminals as covers, and overall sidestepped them just as she predicted. The fluidity of her weapon shifted into two shields. A few nicked her body, but some she missed on purpose. Those were the ones she carefully coordinated, ever-so gradually creating a circle around her target as she used her Dust reserves. The larger the radius, the more arrows she needed to finish the ritual, and Cinder aimed for all the monitors.
Filling the floor with shattered obsidian was only a second strategy if all else failed.
Dust reserves hit their limit, Pyrrha went for the counterattack with another whip that she envisioned stretching in length with the shield's mass, and Cinder summoned a pillar of fire with her circle. What she saw, besides the glowing inferno underneath Pyrrha's feet, was how the champion was already looking down before the screeching sound appeared. An interchanging of mass occurred, but not for attacking. Light feet threw Pyrrha in the air, contorting that whip into widespread protection that blanketed the bottom half of her body, incredibly dense with a second layer of material. Shafted flames rose in the air just as she kneeled in the preserved barrier, a column within a column of thriving fires as her shield absorbed the entirety of her attack. Somehow, through the unconventional, Pyrrha used her weaponry as a platform.
A vein thumped violently from how easily Pyrrha evaded her attack, whereas Amber had been too slow to react to a much smaller scale circle. Cinder's only shining light came from when all the obsidian exploded alongside the inferno, creating a cloudburst of volcanic glass firing in all directions conceivable. Heat resistance from her half of the Maiden Powers, alongside her Dust outfit and Crucible, granted her the privilege of watching the CCT Tower erupting with an abundance of volcanic material. Occasionally, she deflected bits of her attacks, but she dodged most.
Aura-rich flames subsided eventually, leaving behind a black cast on the metal floor. Terminals got burnt. Systems crashed. Exposed wires discharged electricity. Everything burned. Everything came to fruition. Everything worked just as planned. So, after causing such mayhem and destruction on a grand scale, how was Pyrrha still standing on her feet? That gory platform she stood on, floating by the command of her hand, remained just as collected. No volume lost. No burn marks. Nothing. She didn't escape such a display unscathed, skin pierced from fragments, second-degree burns, not to mention blood dripping down her body, and still, she stood defiantly. Aura already healed her scrapes and gashes because she still possessed such reserves.
"How?" Cinder demanded. "How did you see that coming?"
Cinder twitched her fingers when Pyrrha walked off the platform and extended her right arm. A bluish Dust shard glowed between her digits, different compared to Ice Dust. The buckler stayed floating, losing mass and collecting upon her hand until it resembled her blade. The left hand stretched back, pressing upon the quantity until it wrapped around her palm. Solid then became liquids, wiggling around. Bit by bit, obsidian fell from her weapons. She kicked some away, flicked others from her hair, and glared at her with her head held high for someone looking up at her.
"Fool me once? Shame on you." Pyrrha singsonged in fairytale mischief. "Fool me twice? Shame on me."
Fool me—what? What! Pyrrha dared to mock her! Enough! Cinder abandoned all defense, conjuring up Midnight with her dwindling Dust for another bout of close combat. Blazing feet turned her into a firework. Where she acquired the knowledge of such an attack, she could not fathom, but she knew it took its toll. The drying blood only spoke for herself. She planned to bleed her dry.
Cinder then granted her a taste of despair. "Prepare yourself. You no longer amuse me, but before I take what is rightfully mine, know this. Due to your knowledge, your team shall suffer the same Fate, loose ends, you understand. And I think I'll start with that partner you hold so dearly."
It proved how out-of-control their plans came undone when Pyrrha huffed. Anger. Hatred. Resentment. Cinder waited for any of those emotions. Pyrrha neither glared nor growled, choosing instead to smirk. Amidst the heat of battle, the champion took her threat as child's play. It was laughable to her, a mere empty threat.
"What?" Cinder smirked. "Has the reality of the situation sunk in? Do you fear for your pathetic leader's life?"
"Fear?" Pyrrha shook her head and grabbed a shard of obsidian. She inspected the raw material with this whimsical breath of fresh air. "You know nothing of my team, Cinder. Team JNPR's leader is fearless. And do you wish to know something else?"
Cinder Fall opened her ears to the deluded tales of an idolized champion. Sparks filled her lungs, telling a tall anecdote older than time, and Pyrrha Nikos chorused such meaningless words as if merit held them up alone. Fear? None presented itself when her lethal lips moved, fueled only by praise and open-heartedness that made her sick to her stomach.
What she said interested her.
The fighting members of Team JNPR spoke in unison from three different battlefields in nothing short of astronomical odds.
"Our Fearless Leader doesn't have time to waste on you."
Nora huffed, wiped the dirt off her outfit, and held her temple with her lips curved so much that her canines showed. "You could never beat our leader. Not a million, billion years."
Mercury growled. "And why's that?"
She simpered at the dum-dum with the Dust grenade light in her hands. Jolts of electricity tingled her body and massaged her muscles. A tilt of the head, masked by her eyebrow lowering, and she used a maniacal amount of intensity to throw the canister directly at her prey's chest. Mercury dodged by curving to the side. Whatever. She already closed one eye to aim, point, and fire a single bullet for the airborne Dust carrier of doom.
Magnificent, breathtaking ice split into stalagmites that covered a quarter of the area. Each direction they sprouted with Aura piercing ends. A few managed to penetrate Mercury's side. Nothing too life-threatening. Spoilsport. Oh well, Nora had plenty more hidden goodies around her treasure trove of a battlefield. For now, she fired another barrage of bullets at her fleeing opponent, vibrating more than the shaking pistols in her hands.
Mercury flipped backward, dodging her bullets to use her ice sculpture as a last-minute shield. She devilishly smirked. Plowing through that with bolts could work, definitely fun, but she preferred more boom for her lien. Grabbing another canister from her hidden bag of goodies, Nora suddenly found herself pelted with air cannons from all directions. What and how? A quick peek upward showed a tornado of Wind Dust bullets encircling the battlefield. They came from the sky with an excess of more flying upward from behind the ice. Before she threw the Dust grenade, all of them rained down on her.
The Aura Jaune-Jaune gifted her took one heck of a beating, diminished quickly from a Dust fused projectiles. None of that stopped there. Once the barrage melted away, Mercury broke through the ice to beeline toward her, clasping her wrist before she managed to toss the Dust. The bottom end of his boots sizzled with smoke coming out of them, exhausted from whatever tomfoolery he contrived behind that ice structure. Then he kicked her considerately in the stomach, snatching both Ren's weapons and the shell from her hands.
Bam! Right into the fountain. Nora coughed up a lung upon getting up, panting from the haymaker of kicks that rocketed her Shock Absorption and drenched her in water.
"Who's laughing now, squirt?"
Oh. Right. Nora glanced over her shoulder and met eye-to-eye with Mercury, who held Ren's weapon and a Dust grenade with a bolt of thunder as its trademark. That cocky attitude of his made a triumphant comeback, fueled ever so graciously the second he tossed the Dust bomb into the water. A moment of silence, then he used StormFlower and blasted the Dust with a single bullet.
Lightning Dust discharged to life in Beacon's fountain as the statue's sword acted as a rod for some of the gallant streams of electromagnetism. Crisped water conducted electricity's path with Nora's body acting as the pathway to the ground, except it never made it that far. Every megawatt current clung to her body with galvanism, reminiscing that of the time she broke Qrow Branwen's arm. Fingers to her toes to the goosebumps kissing her skin twitched underneath the electrical discharge, vibrating the molecules from the air she breathed. Her irises adopted an extraordinary incandescent glow that brushed past the smoke caused by the Lightning Dust grenade.
Mercury Black took a step back when a crown of ever-changing lightning materialized on her head, dawned by a single, fizzing bolt as her crown jewel and bolts of lightning acting as her royal garbs.
Nora Valkyrie stared at him with an apathetic grimace.
His confidence swiftly returned. "Whatever. I'm the one holding all the weapons. You've lost."
He charged with the razor-sharp edges of StormFlower, impelled by Betelgeuse's air cannon velocity, and aimed for her neck with such little distance that few Huntresses would have the time to react in their situation.
Nora bent the corner of her mouth.
No more weapons?
Who decided that?
Lightning-fast reflexes not only allowed her to dodge his strike but turn to his blindspot with him joining her in the water. Electricity's effects were instant. All of his muscles went haywire from the electrical discharge, reacting to a weaker strain of short-circuiting compared to what that Scarecrow endured. Nora could only imagine how that affected his metallic legs. No matter. Her hand dipped into the water and retrieved another bit of richness from her royal vault, and Mercury gasped.
Crocea Mors gleamed brightly in her hands with watts of electricity.
He attempted to move.
She swung with all her might.
Compared to Jaune Arc and Pyrrha Nikos, when Nora Valkyrie gripped Crocea Mors in her arms, it felt one-hundred percent right because she used both hands, tossing tedious defense for an overwhelming, destructively offense. Iron fibered tendons powered her arched swing, not held back by qualms of not harming her fellow Huntsmen. Fast, too fast, Mercury raised his metallic foot to block the blow, thrown off balance when sharpened steel sliced through the metallic framework of his leg as if butter. Leg number two suffered a grandiose Fate, struck with the blade's edge. She twisted the handle to dislodge the inner machinations of Betelgeuse before ripping off that limb, too.
Then she booted his falling form in the chest.
Away he went, tumbling upon the pavement without a leg to stand on. By the time he stopped spinning, Nora had retrieved Ren's weapons and crushed his chest with her weight and stunning capabilities of her lightning-empowered body. Nothing remained except the crown, a mere fragment compared to when she swallowed a Queen's feast of Philosopher's Stones. Both halves of StormFlower got struck into the ground, around his wrists with Crocea Mors fitted near his neck.
Queen Nora Valkyrie passed judgment on the one who committed disloyalty to her precious kingdom with a tone filled to the brim with courageous bravery and undying respect.
"Whoopsie! You lose."
Mercury Black failed to comprehend the possibility of losing. She saw it from the way his mouth quivering into blinding madness. Pupils of a treasonous traitor shrunk with his teeth bared. To prevent whatever blubbering foolishness that came out of his mouth, Nora flipped Crocea Mors and smacked him across the noggin with the crossguard, knocking the villain out cold.
Lie Ren pressed his neck up to her weapon's blade. "I say that with the utmost certainty. As Nora would say, it's impossible."
Wanderlust nipped skin. "I have more power."
Ren said nothing.
He only showed interest in the depths of her ruby eyes.
An emerald, a gemstone of serendipitous significance, prospered under the falsehood of prosperity and destiny. Branwen's possessed red eyes that guided fortune compared to his misfortune. In other words, Emerald Sustrai's eyes, although gleaming in riches, were nothing fancier than ludicrous fakes. Lady Luck favored his outcome in this battle. He gambled his gut on that with maybe a hidden ace up his gravity-defying sleeve.
"Emerald Sustrai, you don't know the first thing about power. Or how to deceive others. For example, your analytic eye is..." Stab! "Great."
All of it happened so fast. Carnwennan stabbed Emerald below her lower spine, held by his glass clone. Aura prevented irreversible spinal cord injury, and she attempted to decapitate his clone, but Ren willed his Bad Luck to act. From when he stabbed her chest, Ren had left a tiny influx of Semblance lurking. It caused a sudden cough to spill out her throat, and his second body tossed Carnwennan right at Wanderlust. Dislodged her scythe became, followed by the illusionary bark holding him snapping apart.
She recovered posthaste, summoning walking playing cards to hide her from a counterstrike. Ren mimicked an earlier plot of hers, keeping near to her forgotten half of Wanderlust as his glass clone covered his blind spot. This cursed daydream scape of hers reacted with all the trees shouting in his ears. A Cheshire's cat grin overtook the shooting star sky, appearing as a creepy grin with two eyes watching his every move. Long ago, Ren stopped trying to see past her fibs, unable to with everything from the plants to the air itself covered in a pinkish glow that even his Evil Eyes could not discriminate. Too much input affected his vision, hence why he crossed his fingers and sacrificed a considerable chunk of his Aura for backup.
His doppelgänger was the only thing he trusted in this Looking Glass hell.
The technicalities of his Evil Eye doppelgänger thwarted his knowledge of how his ability worked, but he breathed a sigh of relief that it beckoned to his call with a mind of its own. An oversized ladybug then came into view, casting a shadow. His clone reacted by grabbing Emerald's weapon and using the chain to check for its authenticity. Harmlessly it passed through the dream, shattering one monstrous gnat into countless, tiny ones. All the trees and plants laughed with that cat's eye in the sky growing tremendously in size. Then a whirlwind of bullets fired in their direction, hidden amongst the bugs.
Neither knew which were reality due to some of the flying vermin turning into steel cases themselves, coming from all directions. Both Rens resorted to dodging, narrowly avoiding shells that caused the dirt to explode in overly the top cartoonish mayhem. If Emerald planned a distraction, it worked. The chained end of Wanderlust got grabbed by an invisible force. His clone found himself tugged forward and stabbed with the other half of Wanderlust. Emerald's invisibility shattered with her blade coming out the other side of his doppelgänger, only for it to break in numberless fragmented pieces of glass.
Ren ignored her stunned expression—as if she distinctly recalled such a sight—and used his doppelgänger's seven seconds of misfortune to his advantage. Nimble feet crossed the pitfalls of quicksand spikes, resorting to a weighted palm strike for her abdominal. Seven seconds of Bad Luck made her weapon's shifting gears malfunction, so she found herself unable to reattach Wanderlust in time before Ren kneed her in the groin and stabbed her stomach with Carnwennan. Steel squeezed through Aura protected flesh smoothly with Lore weighting his strikes. His second attempt she blocked, trembling from the deep gash. Breaking free came easy for her. Having the ability to alter her appearance made things troublesome, and Ren lost sight of her in the growing foliage.
He worried not and cleaned the blood from his mother's dagger with his Evil Eyes lingering over the namesake.
The name Carnwennan soothed him.
Carnwennan blended effortlessly in his shroud of shadows. Ren only noticed the moniker when Emerald's blood first touched the blade. There it smeared over etched metalwork, showing its name on the side of the edge. He craned his neck and whipped his hand to douse the remaining crimson liquid. Then he stepped around the playful environment of Make Belief with his grip reversed. Emerald's grand inquisitor of a fairytale utopia showed cracks. Trees occasionally reverted to their original form without all the singing and dancing. Vibrant colors returned to their brooding realism. That maddening rabbit phased in-and-out of existence. Whatever limits this cursed illusion held steadily shattered.
He figured as much.
Controlling such a disturbing universe put a seemingly tremendous strain on her Semblance. He understood such a sentient with his eyes aching from overuse, a side effect he only learned after dealing with so many false realities. A brushing wind passed overhead, something Ren might have overlooked if it was for the fact he could see it. That breeze turned out to be a chain, one that wrapped around his ankle and pulled him further into the derangement of a giggling forest. His back hit the floor. Then he clasped his arms together to catch Wanderlust from penetrating his chest as Emerald somersaulted from the trees. Her twisted glare gnawed at him, pushing all her weight into this one stab with the other end of Wanderlust embedded into a nearby boulder. More of the overhead illusion shattered until only two struggling Huntsmen remained in a relatively normal forest.
Nearer the blade got as his strength failed him. Emerald offered him a thief's respite. "Any last words?"
Ren said nothing. The Lore cloak opened up to expose budding canisters of Dust grenades hidden underneath. She gasped, he simpered, and the blade sunk into his chest as he stabbed one with Carnwennan. Contour lines of white overtook them, and she could not escape the blast radius since Ren held her ankle in place.
Emerald Forest stayed quiet until it didn't.
A spectrum blast of Dust caused trees to fall. All the harmless animals ran for cover from an earth-shattering cataclysm. Fires. Ice. Wind. All forms of Dust seeped into the night sky that sent a shockwave with enough force to shake the area, and it defaced Mother Nature's creation. Not a single soul saw the prism detonation. No one even felt the blast. Emerald only walked out minutes later, looking worse for wear with her heels soundly clicking upon the pavement, dragging a broken Wanderlust over her shoulder.
Burns. Blisters. Singed skin and frosted flesh. Emerald Sustrai limped out the gravesite with scorch marks all over her body. She gripped her tattered arm, hugging the nearest wall without Aura and a splitting migraine. That volatile combination of Dust burned a significant portion of her body, charring half her face. Nothing Aura couldn't fix over time, but what a doozy of an explosion. Felt like her nerves were on fire.
She snorted once she exited the garden, bitterly laughing. "Suicide, huh? Have to hand it to you. I didn't think you would go for it. And you almost got me. Better luck next time. What?"
A black butterfly fluttered past her damaged body. Reaching her hand out, Emerald attempted to grab the stunning insect with her one working arm, only for a leg to phase past her palm. In slow motion, her only opened eye swelled, growing with the pupil shrinking before a far reaching kick impacted her squarely between the eyes. Into the concrete wall, she went, crashing with enough force to create fissures and a dust cloud that rivaled a Grimm's strength.
In the background, a pair of feet landed gracefully on the floor.
When Emerald managed to pull away from the wall, wobbly on her feet, she squinted hard, vision fading in-and-out with spots overtaking her. Lines blurred, and she struggled to breathe. Lie Ren stood before her, damaged, too, missing his Lore cloak and dagger. Compared to her, Ren's injuries leaned on the non-threatening end of the spectrum. From the way her precious reds twitched, she could not believe it.
"How?!" Emerald choked. "You blew yourself up!"
Ren blinked with nearly white eyes. "What gave you the impression that I had only summoned one doppelgänger? You should know better not to believe everything you see with your eyes."
Yes. When Emerald tied him to that tree, Ren created two doppelgängers with the intention of one wearing his Lore cloak. Blowing up his doppelgänger was Nora's idea, a judicial pact that only he could achieve. Locating his cloak and dagger was the only drawback to this technique. She just fell for nothing but a simple white lie, the oldest trick in the book. That emotion became publicly known when her reds twitched as she dropped Wanderlust at his feet.
Emerald Sustrai staggered before she succumbed to darkness.
"You should've bled to death by now!"
Open wounds. Torn gashes. Deep cuts. Cinder failed to find the logic. Why was she still on her feet? She made sure to prolong the battle until she bled dry so she could drain the Maiden Powers out of her, but Pyrrha bustled like an ambitious hatchling. Cinder drew her sights closer to a closing injury, just now noticing how not a single drop of hemoglobin spilled out. A coincidence! She entered her opponent's space, crisscrossing her next attack to slice her shoulders. Pyrrha predictably blocked it with a crossguard, so Cinder broke her glass blades into daggers, willing them forward. All of them missed fatal wounds, but three of them cut deep. Two pierced her shoulders, embedded deep with charcoaled ends, while another cutting her cheek.
When Pyrrha mocked her fighting prowess and praised that so-called Fearless Leader of hers, Cinder took it as an invitation to deliver the champion to Jaune Arc as a charred corpse. Just like the rest of her night, nothing went as planned.
Pyrrha bashed her away with that ice-cold shield. Cinder allowed it, observing from the air. The glass daggers Pyrrha pulled out with her cheek showing the telltale signs of trauma, except only blood spilled out from the less severe cuts. Nothing seeped out her shoulders, and what trickled from her cheek crawled back inside. Then an insignificant portion of her weapons, a volume no less than her finger, broke away from her shield to infiltrate the cut on her shoulder before it closed.
She had to blink hard at that one.
A metal casing flew in her direction. She ducked to the side, narrowly avoided a collision to her head. More followed. Some her opponent forged into spikes. Others were electric wiring. She humphed, conjuring up heated blades to cut them cleanly in half. A few managed to injure her body, only because her mind was too distracted.
Pyrrha Nikos' had weapons crafted from blood?
Cinder Fall did not know how to process that information.
Remnant held secrets that made lesser souls crumble, with weaker-minded individuals weeping. A bloody weapon, although, became somewhat troubling to swallow. Whatever her Semblance was, an enigma now, she dropped all pretense of a mocking predator. Unknowns ruined plans. Their cover got blown. She had enough of her nefarious schemes blowing up in smoke. Focusing on the blood flowing through Pyrrha's hands was the least of her concerns.
Then came her opponent flying toward her by using a terminal as a launchpad.
Simple enough. Cinder readied Midnight to deflect the blow, doing so with ease, or so she thought before Pyrrha's blood snapped off and reformed midway into her swing, bypassing her blade to slice her across the cheek. That sneaky devil! Cinder's only saving grace came from her weapon cutting her opponent's arm. The quick exchange ended with Pyrrha landing on the floor, preoccupying herself with the wound Cinder inflicted.
"For someone who uses incendiary-based Dust weaponry, I expected it to be hotter." Pyrrha rubbed the wound as more of an afterthought. "Compared to Excalibur, this only burns."
Cinder stopped listening beyond the word Excalibur. Midnight fragmented into her bow with an indicator aimed for Pyrrha's back. Away her arrow went, spinning to keep its trajectory and immense stopping power from alteration. When Pyrrha tossed her shield to intercept her bolt, Cinder openly smirked. When her projectile rematerialized itself around the buckler, her nerves went ablaze. When the blood reached out and grabbed every single fragment before colliding against her chin, the half Maiden growled.
Recovering from the pride wounding blow, Cinder inflamed the soles of her feet beyond frustration. She willed flames to burst from her hands to block Pyrrha's vision before closing the distance and stabbing her Achilles Heel with a second arrow used as a sword. Close quarters shared its fair share of disadvantages. Cinder was well aware of the risks, meaning drawing out this battle worked against her. The clock ticked. Darkness overtook her arm as she used her feet to push Pyrrha against the wall. Those armguards held back Midnight as she held her wrist in a stalemate. None of which mattered to her anymore. The Fowleri Grimm crawled out her palm.
Cinder ultimately seized Pyrrha's neck and leaned forward to gloat.
"It's unfortunate you were promised a power that was never truly yours. But take comfort in knowing that I will use it in ways you could never have imagined." Pyrrha reacted in too late a fashion. Grimm energy devoured the layer of Aura protecting her neck with the tendrils seeping past the physical manifestation. "How does it feel to have your soul drowning in agony?"
Amber cried in torture when the Grimm infested her Aura system. Pyrrha Nikos acted differently to the subjectification. Corruption poured into her soul; it mixed within her Aura, corrupted with Grimm energies. Did she scream? Wither in pain? Collapse? No. Piercing emeralds stared at death's incarnate in the face with the embodiment of invincibility. Slivers of pain surfaced, her eyes did wince with her skin pinching, but compared to spine-chilling screams, it meant nothing. So many questions, Cinder had no witty comeback. Struggling ensued, so she searched for the disjointed Maiden Powers in posthaste.
Things took a turn for the worse.
Where? Cinder seethed. Where was it? The Fowleri Grimm found emptiness. It searched every crack within Pyrrha's soul, finding nothing of the Maiden Powers. She willfully demanded that it explored deeper, extending into Pyrrha's inner Aura networks. Darkness seeped into a wayward soul, only for it to freeze. What she found, what the Grimm unearthed, bittered her taste buds. The leftover taste left her dizzy. A blockage prevented her from gouging deeper. Pyrrha then gripped her wrist, snapping her arm back as if she possessed some ounce of resistance to a Grimm's power compared to Amber, antibodies even, yet she ignored her improbable immunity to growl.
"There's nothing left!" Cinder glared with the fury of a thousand suns. "What have you done with the Maiden Powers?!"
Pyrrha refused her question. Emerald eyes lingered over the parasite Grimm with something aligned to awareness. She even twisted her wrist to gather more data. Why? Cinder disdained unknowns! Pyrrha's gaze then snapped back to her, going from zero to sixty in a blink as she kicked her squarely in the gut. Glass blades materialized in Cinder's hands, halting the momentum with her feet and weapons dragging harshly onto the floor. Her troublesome opponent made no move to counterattack, checking her chest for any remnants of the Grimm's influence. No scarring lingered or a trace of evidence. Then she summoned her weapons when satisfied, tilting her head as if the answer was the most obvious conclusion in the world, and Cinder winced, hoping the dropping of the stomach wasn't a gut reaction.
"Isn't it obvious?" Pyrrha explained. "They're gone. Forever. What you're searching for can never be found because it doesn't exist."
"Why would I lie?" Pyrrha rolled her eyes. "You saw it for yourself. I had the powers, but not anymore. Not after we destroyed it."
Something snapped. Cinder's blade's handle broke in two from her overpowering grip. No. She sensed it. She refused—all this time? This whole battle, this entire scruffle, she fought for nothing but a lingering ghost? Embers of a dying fire! Then that meant her half of the Maiden Powers remained split, destined at half their strength, and nothing she ever did would change that outcome.
Abandoning her glass weapons, she took a few steps back. One finger cracked after another until she opened her palms. Ever so slowly, her skin took a darker shade of red. Finally, she abandoned her mission of infiltration and opposition and set her sights on the stubborn champion with one goal in mind.
Cinder Fall hated children. She despised those who stood in her way for power. She detested fantasies of heroism. Everything and anything that opposed her Dark Queen deserved only incineration fitting for an ash pile. Pyrrha Nikos, however, Cinder cursed from the lowest pit of her blackened soul. She loathed the Invincible Girl for ruining her nefarious plans. That dislike, the very fuel that ignited the embers wisping in her core, overshadowed her abhor until it left her in a blind fury with the ashes smoldering her fingertips, enkindling a second time. Her Aura reacted so violently to her inner fire that the Dust stitching in her clothing enkindled, and she stood before her enemy as a walking inferno.
Crucifixion prevented her skin from singeing.
Her entire frame just swallowed itself in a whirlpool of fire with only her intensified eyes visible. Pyrrha visibly winced when the flames resided from her arms. Blackened skin, cracked with what resembled molten veins, greeted her. The Broken Maiden recognized the reaction from the few victims ill-lucked to witness her in such a state. Her changed skin matched that of a cold-blooded Grimm, except the foolheartedly hope of a painful death lingered in the smoke. Any promise of victory she scorched. All chances of escape she reduced to ash. Parts of her hands sizzled when she formed a fist. Cinder moved them with all the flexibility any Huntress possessed, but even she still feared that one day taxing such a transformation would crack her flesh beyond repair.
None of that mattered now.
She scorned Pyrrha Nikos.
Lifting her hand at a leisure pace, Cinder pointed directly at Pyrrha with her blackened finger surrounded by volcanic veins. Most of the flames dwelled closer to her skin, with the tips of her hair covered in Aura-related embers. Now, her face remerged. Burnished eyes steeled so heatedly the very pupils resembled the shape of a predator, or, more closely, to that of a candle's flame. Her right eye glowed in the aftermath of the Maiden's gift, and that flame, above all else, burned hotter than any sun.
"I've allowed you to live long enough. Suffer." Cinder expanded the rest of her fingers. The thickness of the veins grew alongside the heat. "And die."
For a brief respite, nothing happened, then the air gradually grew hot. Embers danced in the air. More and more flickered, frocking playfully like fireflies. Pyrrha only dodged by the skin of her teeth when she realized her attack did not summon a column of flames but engulfed every square inch in her field of view with heat. Where her palm pointed, she agitated all water molecules with a vibration so intense that it ignited the air itself. Her most brutal and effective attack, one she preferred to avoid due to the carcass smell of burnt flesh. Cinder suspected that the champion's polarity-like Semblance must have alerted her to shifting temperatures. She saw no other reason. Pyrrha Nikos had once again proved beyond the realm of annoyance for being the first to survive such an attack.
Mercury and Emerald once offhandedly commented that this ability acted like an oven. She partially agreed and disagreed. From the untrained eye, Cinder saw how they forged that conclusion. It made sense. Charred remains became the only evidence left behind after such an attack as cooking everything with an ashy undertone became second nature. Her flammability to ignite the air reacted more like a flash fire—and with the surrounding flames and Dust stitched into her clothing—she seethed alive anything caught in the blast radius. Aura repelled none of it. It only prolonged her prey's suffering. The intelligent ones purposely held their Aura back.
Stubborn ones endured an agonizingly wayward death.
Superheating her arms was the basis of her Semblance. What blistered within her molten skin, she considered the primordial ooze of her Crucifixion. All material she touched melted, burned, or carbonized, including high-melting-point metals and liquid-based weaponry. Not even the atmosphere remained safe with her Semblance raising the temperatures at a stagnated rate. That was why she threw away defense for ultimate offense. Fire burned. It left burnt skeletons as a warning. Cinder only needed one direct touch for cremation. One crucial impression would incinerate her target into insignificant specks of ash.
Pyrrha Nikos did not know this, yet she charged with her murderous weapons and the braveheart of a fool.
Cinder allowed her to close the distance. Her target jumped, levitating a few Semblance-crafted stalagmites fashioned from burnt metals and threw them forward with her not far behind. Evading them with the barest of sidesteps, Cinder allowed Pyrrha to think she couldn't melt those fast enough. She moved one foot back for the illusion of defense. Predictable Pyrrha took the bait, materializing her blade into a lance. Dodging the spear with a tilt of her neck was child's play, and she threw a cracked fist forward. That bloody shield rose to defy her—useless—and the heat from her knuckles desiccated the blood before she ever made contact. A gaping hole rendered her defense ineffective as she came within inches of Pyrrha's forehead, but the champion recovered quickly enough. She limboed backward, no doubt magnetism affecting her crown, carrying the momentum for an upward kick that missed, but she only used that as a decoy. Somersaulting created a sizable distance between them, granting her the opportunity to inspect the damage to her interchangeable shield.
Cinder graced her opponent with a smirk.
Quick reflexes. Cinder commended her for dodging during a short time frame. Lesser fighters died. Sweat clung to her skin with her bloodstained weaponry steaming from evaporation. Draining Aura protected them both from the gathering smoke of nearby fires, but the air never tasted so appealing. Pyrrha huffed. Sharp eyes inspected the damage inflicted, testing the weight. She wasted no time in replenishing the crack in her defense with surrounding blood clothing the hole. The shield diminished in volume to compensate for the missing mass, yet Cinder never doubted the formidability. Shapeshifting weaponry posed a threat, not from the quantity but the quality of its user.
Sorrowfully, the user's Achilles Heel held her back. Pyrrha subtly shifted her weight to her more durable leg after pulling such an aerobatic stunt. A focal point that Cinder chose not to ignore. She flew to the back of the room before she threw both her palms out directly across the entire hemisphere of the CCT tower with her back pressed against the deepest part of the wall. The very metal beneath her feet turned molten red, fissuring from the intense build-up of heat in her core. Enough. Enough! Cinder Fall had enough of Pyrrha Nikos! The mission already failed. None of the machines functioned anymore to upload the virus, and with her cover blown, she saw no reason to stay any longer except to burn her alive at the stake of her marred pride.
Aura-rich veins developed more, substituting some of her soot-covered fingers with lava-shaped digits. Covering such a vast area, two palms or not, required time, precious seconds that she doubted her enemy granted her. Cinder saw little choice then and extended the period needed to cook Pyrrha alive by interchanging some heat for pillars of fires. It added seconds but provided suitable attack and defense. Fortunately, intense levels of radiation weakened all forms of polarity. She only needed to hold Pyrrha Nikos back long enough to end her life. So another pillar of flames burst from the ground, this time creating a firewall between her and the champion. Blocking her field of vision came as the price. Cinder worried not, upping the heat a few degrees. When her fingers itched at the very tips, the final nail to her coffin nailed shut.
Across from the Ifrit's spawn, Pyrrha sprinted with all the ramifications of burned clothing and skin an afterthought. Her pathway to victory roasted away. Eventually, she stopped. She stood in the center of hellish hellfire. Every corner she looked, the air had a red hue with flickering embers, and all pieces of metals melted into a thick sludge that resembled lava flows. Weiss' Dust shards could not prevent the remnants of Caliburn and Moirázo̱ from desiccating away. Tangents of the blood boiled between her slacked fingers even now. Her options dissolved away. The brimstone pathway to Cinder closed the longer she waited, so she contemplated underneath the rising inferno. The choices before her looked very unpromising.
Fire—fires everywhere. Maiden-infused flames danced around the tower. No escape. No chance. She managed to move her leg with the aid of her Semblance, substituting necessity over the luxury of healing. Oum! Her Achilles Heel ached. Cinder managed to strike her tendons. Moving was feasible, but running forward and dodging asked for the impossible. Pyrrha could not correlate her Aura for both defense and offense. Caliburn and Moirázo̱ hardly acted as shields in the face of overwhelming heat. She blessed Oum that Cinder no longer viewed her as a threat, overcome with the fatality of baking her alive. Very little remained of her weapons. The more they evaporated, the clearer she saw the tiny gemstones her leader crystallized just for her. Those stones sparkled, filled with lifegiving—?
The defender paused. Her grip on the Frost Dust strengthened. Some mysteries remained just that to her, a question to how, a query to why. Team JNPR was chalked full of them. One, in particular, troubled her, as in why didn't the blood surrounding her weapons suffer coagulation. She blindly learned not to question the ramifications, a topic probably suited for outside this battle, but that proved ignorant. As the heat rose, she only guessed the Aura shards acted as heparin. Maybe the life energy posed as a suitable substitute to the human body, or perhaps the layer of Aura fooled it into thinking it still resided in one. Even when she infused the blood into her wounds, backlash should have occurred from a foreign body invading, but nothing, almost as if the Philosopher's Stones alchemized the blood's properties to be the same with the dominant blood type due to its mysterious healing traits. Pyrrha shook her head. So many theories, so little time, but she knew one thing.
Aura's properties far expanded outside humanity's understanding.
Aura also reacted to Dust.
Most importantly, Aura reacted with the Maiden Powers, and the residual puddle inside her had ice properties if Amber's memories served her right. She only thanked Monty for the blessing. Whatever that parasite was, Pyrrha lucked out. It resembled Lore's neutralizing abilities but at such a weaker scale. Cinder found nothing because her Aura overpowered that bug's ability. Compared to her leader's Lore and its destructive force, she feared nothing from that Grimm. Pyrrha only trembled at the thought of the powers failing her.
Pyrrha Nikos shifted her weight to both feet. She had to fight—she had to win. Most importantly, she had to tell her team about Cinder's Grimm-infested arm. So many things awaited her team. Pyrrha had so much on the line. Either she defeated a monster, or she died fighting one. Her options were few, if not one, but she had a chance. Stubbornly glaring at the twinkles within the plasma, she made her only choice and risked her life on an all-or-nothing gamble.
Polarity acted upon her will, breaking the molecular link between the Frost Dust and the blood. Her blood-soaked weapons lost their forms and turned into a bloody sphere above her palm with her clutching Weiss' Dust. Droplets before trickles spilled over her hand, pooling around, escaping through her finger's crevices. Whatever touched the floor evaporated. Her corneas itched in the carbon dioxide as her lungs gasped for substance. Still, she managed to carry her voice across the restless plague of fire.
"Allow me to show you the difference between power that you've taken versus power that someone gifted to me."
All for one versus one for all!
The very last of the blood crusaded from her hand, revealing a treasure trove of glistening Philosopher's Stones hidden underneath the Elixir of Life just as the battlefield filled with an apocalyptic cataclysm.
Jaune Arc suffered the most dangerous mission of Team JNPR. It involved dancing in the palm of his enemy, surrounded by individuals with nosey questions as his teammates dealt with potentially three assassins.
"So, Mr. Tall, Blond, and Scraggly, where'd you learn to dance like this?"
"Short version? Seven sisters."
Weiss hid a laugh, favoring to dip her head into his shoulder. Most of the slow dance consisted of twirling, waltzing, and dipping, many things his body tormented him with retribution later. Unlike the grimacing pain his muscles suffered, Jaune grinned like a fool throughout the entire exchange between comfortable silence and amusing small talk. A younger version of himself might have glared with jealousy. Now? Now, he bounced to the rhythm without thinking of any undertones. They swayed as friends and nothing more.
"Just for your information, you still owe me multiple favors." Weiss narrowed her sights, following to his lead. "And I aim to collect after Team RWBY's mission."
"Favors, shamvors. Who's counting."
"I am. And for your information, your current tab is at..."
"Please keep it a secret. I prefer not knowing."
She playfully slapped his arm on the dip. Most of the song finished with the literal spotlight on them. Both of them suspected Yang since Ruby had her hands full with two more cups of punch and an underlying bridge of red across her nose. Weiss shook her head and preferred not to consider the ramifications of an intoxicated leader, choosing to poke and prod over lighter topics. When Jaune twirled her and pulled her in, she questioned.
"So? How's Pyrrha enjoying those Dust shards?"
His face lit. "Oh! She loves them. They're handy. Trust me. From what I've seen, she's just getting started with those. Soon you'll see her live in tournaments using your Dust to win."
"Oh?" Weiss blushed. "Ahem. I mean, of course. Dust made by me should be."
He raised a brow. "Not that I'm complaining, but why'd you make those, to begin with? Didn't take you for a Dust synthesizer."
Weiss acted deaf until he spun her around and tossed her up. She sighed upon coming down to rest her arms along his shoulders. "Because of the Dust robberies. People are left without Dust with supplies so scarce. So I thought of making Dust that could potentially last longer and be more versatile."
"Thought?" Jaune rolled his eyes. "You made them. That's a golden star accomplishment if I do say so myself, Miss Schnee."
"Sure... if you say so."
He slowed. "Hey? Hey, what's wrong? You should be happy. You created new Dust. Call me a dummy, but I bet that couldn't be easy."
"Exactly. So, why are you acting like it was no big deal? You almost seem disappointed in your achievement. What's wrong?"
She looked down at his chest, momentarily hiding there from the faceless crowd of onlookers. A fair chunk of the song ended when she finally came back up. Jaune never pried. He kept at the dance even if the rest of the song stayed in uncomfortable silence. Weiss Schnee, however, refused to allow guilt to eat away at her conscience. During the final verse of the song, her voice spilled over.
"They laughed at me."
"... Who laughed at you?"
She grunted. "My family's company's Dust scientists laughed at me because the Dust wasn't cost-effective. How are we supposed to make lien, they said. All they cared about were profits and not helping people."
He glared. All the drama he dealt with the past couple of days seemed unimportant compared to his friend's feelings. "Screw them, Weiss. They don't know what an amazing thing you've done. Sounds to me they're too thick-headed to see a good thing in front of them."
She paused their dance, going limp with a vulnerability he loathed seeing in someone so character-driven. "Really? You're not just saying that, are you?"
"Look at it this way. Pyrrha's using them. That's free publicity and a great way to get your Dust's name out there. Sure, it might not be cost-effective." Jaune air quoted with his eyebrows. "But it solves the Dust shortages. And that's more important than some bottom line. That's beyond important. That's amazing. Dare I say unbelievable?"
She looked away to hide the way her cheek's dimples showed. He pretended not to notice. "Pyrrha really enjoys them, huh?"
She had no idea. "Believe me. Your Dust is more than just helping Pyrrha beyond your wildest imagination. I promise you! It's going to change all of Remnant for the better."
Weiss blinked under the spotlight. The music stopped. "You think so?"
He stretched away from her with his fingers clapped tightly around her delicate hand. "Arc's word."
Cinder Fall twitched her molten fingers.
At first, when nothing but a wall of flames enveloped her field of vision, she smirked in victory, but when a gust of vapor touched her skin, Cinder had looked strenuously inside the incendiary combustion. More of the red and orange sheathed into an interchangeable hue of blue until a sphere of that color contrasted against the surrounding flames. All fires that dared enter that atmospheric layer got snuffed out alongside the massive heatwave. The only fiery representation that burned inside was the bloody Aura silhouette of her challenger.
Brimstone and fire, a sea of flames and Aura-related phlogiston, and burning in that pyroclastic furnace stood Pyrrha Nikos.
Coldness seeped gradually into the carbon-filled air. Cinder's forge cooled with Pyrrha's figure steadily coming into focus through her dissipating mist. When she stepped out of the fog and into the blaze without suffering second or third-degree burns, Cinder narrowed her heated glare with fury, and her teeth clicked with annoyance. Much of her inferno burned away at the tower, many of the metals had melted away with some glass shattering, some fires even tinged Pyrrha's feet, but the champion survived unphased. She drew a deep gasp, threw a hand out, and a layer of vapor revealed her newest form.
Pyrrha exhaled a hazy breath.
A thin layer of ice, eroded with splotches of thawed skin, embedded around her frame with the top corner half of her head overtaken by frost. Snowflakes contoured to her metals. Tips of blood hued hair resembled stalagmites alongside her boots. Where she stood, surrounded by the inferno, the ground matched that of a glacier. Pyrrha's scowl, frozen in place, pierced through the reddish afterglow of Cinder's furnace. Each end of her fingertips resembled that of verglas gloves, thawing into her still healthy skin, all the way to the edge of Pyrrha's forearms. The only evidence of frostbite came from her shoulders, around the edges where she stabbed Weiss' Dust into her flesh. Blackened muscles shared a similar view of Cinder, again protected by her Aura. Unlike her opponent, Pyrrha didn't have the luxury of time. While she felt the remains of her half of the Maiden Powers provided elemental protection to the icy tundra ravaging her body, she had no intention of believing it would last.
She stretched her limbs out and dashed forward. Consuming those leftover shards and injecting herself with Weiss' experimental Dust moved beyond the realm of risky gambles. Already her body temperature dropped. She saved herself from Ifrit's wrath. That was the first part of her plan. Now, with her Aura recharged and strengthened renewed in higher quality, Pyrrha went for the counterattack. Frost prevented any of Cinder's flames from scorching her body, while Aura only worked to circumvent frostbite and fuel her strength. The Invincible Girl doubted she would ever forget the footnote of this battle that led her to this risk.
In this life-or-death battle, she couldn't beat Cinder without putting her life on the line.
Right before the flames had enveloped everything, right as her blood unmistakably boiled, Pyrrha had stabbed herself on the shoulders, instantly feeling ice spread throughout every hidden crevice in her burned, riddled body. A flash of steam collided with the flames, and then, right as the Dust shards wavered beneath the onslaught, the Philosopher's Stones restored her physique, infusing the Dust with a second wind of Aura as her Semblance forcefully kept her blood pumping.
Cinder saw through her ploy.
Wisps of frost crossed her lips with eyes of steel glinting in chilly resolve. Cinder's fingers cracked further, turning all ten digits into slabs of molten magma, all the way down to her shoulders. Little igneous skin remained. A second solar flare headed her way, far higher in degrees. Not this time. Pyrrha used a melted machine as an anchor point, extending her arms out as pillars of fire spewed to life around her. Polarity's properties increased with coldness.
She used this knowledge and took to the sky.
Infused with Frost Dust and Philosopher's Stones, the mystic gems boosted her Semblance enough to grant her the ability to manipulate her metal outfit to such an extreme that she flew to her opponent. Backlash would be inevitable on her body. Her boosted effects were temporary, maybe a minute or two at best, already more crystal formed on her flesh, so she rushed with the intent to end this battle now.
Her antagonist ignited back.
Cinder's eye glowed with the Maiden Powers. An intense mast of fire shot from her palm, overpowering in combustion, but Pyrrha avoided any collision by spinning in the air. She danced near the excessive flame, whirling clockwise around the chasing inferno, approaching closer and closer to her target with ice melting and refreezing off her body. Even while stuck in permafrost, she sweated.
Descending closer to the floor, avoiding sludges of melted metal, she glided over the bubbling lava. Temperatures kept rising. Pyrrha used her stiffened forearms as a shield for her face. Then the degrees skyrocketed underneath her body. One sharp glance to her side had her lumbering backward with her momentum still carrying her forward. A second pedestal burst to life with her scarcely avoiding her body burning to a crisp by sliding against the floor, limboing underneath the scorching flames with the soles of her frost-covered boots merging against the lava flow. She never lost momentum, never lost speed. Pyrrha kept going, closing the distance with a layer of steam shadowing her.
Cinder gritted her teeth, eyes blazed. "I've grown intolerant to fools playing hero."
Pyrrha took the air when a firewall burst from the lava, expanding through the ceiling. Much of the ice melted away from her body, freezing anew at a slower pace. More Aura applied a second blanket. Her eyes then stretched when Cinder clasped her hands together and created a majestic whirlwind of white flames, encasing the entire half of the CCT tower in Maiden-fueled hellish heat. Metal pooled inside the lava, the air rose in skin sweltering temperatures. Cinder sweated in the scorching radiation with the ends of her Dust outfit burning away, leaving her mostly bare in the inferno.
Pyrrha closed her eyes with the upcoming flames surrounding her. Crisp blood pumped slower when she called upon her Aura to react violently on her shoulders, and her contour melted into the plasmas. Blinding white covered the tower, exploding the top half with life ceasing infernos, and Cinder rejoiced just as her furnace breathed life alongside the torrent. Beacons of pyro-combustion crisped everything in her path. A color wheel of smells filled the room alongside the endless smoke, only for Pyrrha's voice to cut through the rising chasm as her profile etched to life in the blaze.
"I'm not a hero."
Mistral's Invincible Girl dashed out of Cinder's erupting flames, covered in soot and ash with her hair partially inflamed. Ice clung to her arms. More hail soon overtook her body, turning her into the embodiment of the eye of the snowstorm. Cinder froze. The once dry air turned frigid. Pyrrha came in like a blizzard. She cocked her fist back, entered her bubble, and brought her once pierced foot down with enough force to crack the metal floor and burst away the surrounding flames with a bone-chilling breeze. Immediately ice spread over the ore, suspending Cinder's feet.
For one universal, ever changing moment, the dying embers of Amber's Aura flared to light, re-igniting the dwindling star with a burning corona that set Pyrrha Nikos' soul ablaze. Like the explosion of a Supernova, energy flowed through every cell of her body, and she released it all upon her left arm, coating everything between her wintry knuckles.
From the base of her knuckles to the end of her elbow, iron and sulfide atoms reacted to her Semblance and separated from the chemical structure of her skin, forging a bond of negatively and positively charged particles through survival instincts. A gold-like alloy refined around her arm, a nameless metal amalgamated. Alloy glistened underneath her paling skin like a hidden treasure. Cubes formed alongside the mini stalagmites along her flesh, and Pyrrha acknowledged the ability for what it was. Blood didn't have a magnetic trait, but it contained a charge manipulated by another force of the universe.
Not Polarity. Not magnetism.
Cinder Fall reacted to the split-second change of nature, having no time shield herself from an incoming golden, frozen fist. Her active Maiden eye only focused on hers, too stunned by its icy ring. A zealous shade of autumn fall, resembling that of the last Maiden, shined in Pyrrha's left eye. What caught her off guard the most was the iris' shade of chestnut. That distraction came with a high cost, and Pyrrha delivered a gelid haymaker.
A fist of encased dry ice hit Cinder squarely on the left side of her face, burning hotter than any fire that managed to pelt her skin.
"I'm a Defender!"
The Invincible Girl declared herself a Defender—a Champion—in the face of evil. All of the metal shattered in her arm, alongside the ice trapping Cinder's feet in place, unable to support the momentum, Semblance-fueled blow. Her opponent flew into the air, Pyrrha readied a second attack that used the surrounding metals as a collision iron maiden, but her assailant had other plans. The Maiden Powers in her left eye broke through the dry ice, sharing a scorching glare with her pupils shaking.
Cinder recovered posthaste, throwing her body weight around to shift her direction midair. Flying heads up, she aimed with her sights pointed downward, filamenting the bottom of her feet with her fingers outstretched. Pyrrha stilled. An approaching solar prominence came down like a fireball. Honed battle instincts reacted fast enough, interlinking her fingers with Cinder's before they managed direct contact with her neck. Near absolute zero digits opposed Aura-fueled thermodynamic ones. Magnetism challenged the undeniable raw power of Crucible! Frozen feet struggled to hold her from pushing her into the metal-mixed lava, slipping on a non-slip surface, and Pyrrha clicked her teeth, practically butting her head with hers. Both of them threw etiquette away to bare their fangs at one another.
Then Pyrrha headbutted Cinder with her meeting the challenge. "Your ambitions end here!"
"There's no stopping my ambitions!" Cinder roared. She smirked within the steam, curving her eyes upward. "Observe."
Cinder's molten left arm cooled until it resembled her usual flesh. Once again, Pyrrha saw her summon that stainless glove with the parasite Grimm crunching underneath her palm. Grimm energy festered around her hand, crawling up toward her tempest arm in a blackish, murky ooze that wrapped around her limb in an impossibly tight grip. Again, the four-time champion recognized the emotionally draining feeling as Lore. How? Why? She failed to comprehend, but Pyrrha held no fear in the wake of raw power. She learned to embrace this power for its protective properties, not for its Aura robbing one, and with that understanding, that priceless experience, she gladly allowed the Grimm to merge with her Aura. She welcomed it.
The pathway to victory opened before her.
Pyrrha held no fear in the face of her adversary. What Cinder sought, what she lusted for, was gone. That parasitical Grimm found nothing because there existed nothing left. Maiden Powers? Pyrrha squeezed that Grimm-infested hand tighter. The ashes of the Maiden Powers just devoured the overabundance of raw, lifegiving Aura. It amplified them, just as Lore consumed it.
Her iron-like grip hardened.
Her knowledge of the internal machinations of Aura fainted in comparison to her Fearless Leader's, but she studied The Constellations, too. The Philosopher's Stones offered a brief reprise, rekindling the embers of a dying spark, yet the fuel to sustain that flame got eaten away long before the abundance of Aura came, and in doing so, Cinder Fall had dropped her guard. She summoned what remained of her Aura to interact with the parasite, and Frost Dust followed the path. Icicles formed. Bone-chilling frost crept up her arm, following the pathway lurking with the Grimm, freezing her fingers and so on, not protected by the other half of the Maiden Powers' glacier properties, the influx of Aura, or Pyrrha's Semblance. A fatal mistake, one Cinder tried to rectify by re-igniting her limb, but Pyrrha acted on impulse with Weiss' Dust trapping the power.
She released Cinder's frozen arm, calling upon her Semblance to manipulate her armband and headpiece for fragmentation. Cold steel answered her call, breaking away to reforge a rudimentary design of Miló with the leftover chains wrapped around her wrist. With the upper half of Cinder's arm shrouded in frost, with it linked with that parasite, Pyrrha grasped the frostbite handle, confidently knowing one thing about a body encased in a Grimm's power.
"Aura can't protect your arm. It's Grimm."
Pyrrha accelerated through the first token of fear Cinder showed. She called upon the last vessel of the Maiden Powers into her next swing. Polarity bent the metal to its sharpest edge, with Cinder helpless to watch as Pyrrha held her fingers. Then it happened. Cold iron drew blood. A single cut appeared right as Miló exited the other end of the ice, melting ice and flesh with alloy. It took a second for the detachment, but when it happened, hovering helplessly in the air, the parasitical Grimm on the back of her hand, suspended in ice, wretched out a blood-curdling scream. Black fog oozed out the end that had Pyrrha sliced through. Cinder barely had time to process what happened, abruptly flung into the mildew floor by Pyrrha tilting her body back so that the momentum of her fire carried her forward. Headfirst she collided, rotated onto her front side with an iced knee pressed into her spine with her surviving arm twisted into place with Miló weighted against her neck. Pyrrha used her Semblance to apply more mass to her remaining armor.
Pyrrha's blade pushed closer to her neck.
All the resistance ceased. Pyrrha breathed a wisp of vapor. Cinder bellowed smoke. A sea of flames surrounded the battlefield, a melting pot of metals and circuitry, and only her small oasis provided any protection from the ongoing spew. Things grew eerily quiet for the shortest time—a pool of blood from Cinder's wound created a puddle around them before her voice turned frigid.
"It's over. You have no one else to blame but your lust for power." Pyrrha flicked one of Weiss' Dust shards from her shoulder with the end of her weapon. "Surrender."
"Inconceivable." Cinder's molten arm lessened with her skin returning. The last bits of her Aura focused on healing the wound done to her left arm. "No. I refuse to accept this atrocity. I had the greater power."
Pyrrha dug her weapon into the ground. "How little you understand. The Maiden Powers won't give you unsurpassable strength. You, of all people, should know that by now."
"Don't lecture me on power, child!"
"... Regardless. You're defeated."
Cinder huffed, forcing her head to glare at her dislocated arm. She formed a fist, conjuring up a last-minute flame. "D-Do it!"
What? Pyrrha whirled her head when Cinder's limb, exuding blackened fog, screeched out with the ice slowly turning pitch black. The insides boiled until they exploded in a flow of soot and ash. Pyrrha deflected any incoming projectiles with her xiphos, but she realized too late her folly. Cinder used the distraction to fire a single whip of flame toward her face, hitting her directly on her ice-covered cheeks. It was just enough forward momentum to roll out, pivoting away just as her fist smashed the underlying metallic ground. She refused to stop. Cinder grasped the bloody mess of her arm, seared the wound closed with agonizing flames, and propelled into the air right as her blade missed her stomach.
Cinder snarled one last time. "This isn't the last time we'll meet."
Pyrrha willed her weapon back for another strike, but Cinder took to the skies. Flames on her legs shot her away, faster than any locker, safe from the burning CCT Tower. Pyrrha aimed Miló, concerning its last-minute design, for all her faltered strength, Pyrrha hurled a Semblance controlled throw with a commanding trajectory. Spinning metal ignored any resistance, except for flares. Lacking fire, a candle's flame to that of Cinder's earlier wrath melted the ice holding some parts of the blade. Two sets of eyes locked into one another when the armament fell. Cinder winced. Pyrrha glared.
Then the Maiden thief turned into another countless star in the starry night.
Pyrrha Nikos breathed her first sigh of relief with the burning CCT Tower illuminating her silhouette. Her target escaped, although the achievement was anything but empty-handed. Putting a stop to Cinder's plans was the main objective. She accomplished just that with the spoils of her victory. In her hand, clutched tightly between thawing digits, she held the Scroll containing the virus with a Queen's image appearing on the front as the last droplets of her Maiden Powers evaporated.
Jaune Arc ached for the noise-filled, chaoticness, and utter randomness of the ballroom.
Without a distraction, without flimsy excuses, without a buffer of any kind, he loathed how loud his thoughts raged. Murderer. Hypocrite. Shut up, Jaune shushed, moving across crinkling blades of grass. His body ached from walking such a distance. Every muscle from his tendons to his ligaments stiffened or locked up when he moved too quickly, unknotting whenever he paused to use whatever limited Aura Jaune managed to conjure up, but he gritted his teeth through the pain and moved.
Momentarily he thanked his lucky stars that no one ventured and found their aftermath of a battlefield. Upcoming tests, missions, and the Beacon dance saved him the worrisome culmination of stragglers going on hikes. Out of sight, out of mind Nora always mentioned when it came to cleaning up messes. He attempted not to think about the implications of such a saying considering the reasons for his unintended visit. If only his brain worked that way. The further he traveled, the clearer and more concise their battle resurfaced in his thoughts, and he welcomed the pain of his tattered body, if nothing else, to distract him from the overwhelming guilt feeding his Lore.
Deeper Jaune stretched into the field. More and more, a battlefield exposed itself under the stargazed sky. Undisturbed soil turned uneven, agitated from a bout between an Aura User, an Android, and a Half Maiden. Countless fireflies, fluttering between smashed boulders and scorched earth, conjugated upward from his path. Remnants of the fighting filled the area when he crossed the threshold of the incinerated surface. For a hasty reprise, Jaune stood in the machine-created crater and just breathed at the destruction. Right in the middle, separated by paths of cinched ground, showed the traces of unburned grass from when Shooting Star diverted Penny's Aura compressed beam.
He recalled kneeling there with nothing holding him up but sheer willpower and the undeniable faith in his Aura creations.
All of it seemed so distant, a foggy memory from events in a storybook fairytale, just chapters in his life, but only a few days had passed, and yet it felt like a lifetime of events had derailed Team JNPR's plans. Heroes. Villains. Maidens. None of those were supposed to be their roles. They had their own problems to complain about—the tournament was only around the corner. Why? What deity loathed them? Jaune breathed before kicking some dirt and continuing his journey. Fussing proved useless because, as of right now, heroes, villains, and Maidens were their problem.
But that's what we signed up for. To go on world-saving missions. We're Huntsmen. If not us, then who?
World-saving missions? Humph. "Leave it to Nora to sum it all up with such simplicity. But she's right. If not us, then who?"
We can't just sit around and do nothing, not while they're here. And if we can't trust Ozpin, then who do we trust? Team RWBY?
His lips curled. Team RWBY? Rhetorical. When mentioned, not one of them defended their sister team's fighting prowess. Team JNPR had no faith in anyone besides themselves. A cruel analysis, but trust demanded sacrifice. That could not be any more obvious after Pyrrha created a failsafe and contingency plan for when and if the Maiden Powers corrupted her. She had believed in them, staked her life on her teammates and friends. Look at the destruction around him—the utter mayhem of garnered strength—that epitomized Team JNPR.
"No one." Jaune resolved. "We'll stop Cinder's nefarious plans."
A breeze brushed his cheek, bellowing further within the battlefield where the cluster of fireflies flickered. Arched lips thinned into impossibly solid lines, and Jaune dwelled between the cataclysms of Aura-related damage. More he noticed the carnage aftermath of his life-or-death battle. A slew of fireflies flew past him, a distraction. His foot struck a stranded shard of steel piercing out the ground. He discerned more soon enough and immediately recognized the partially fabricated insignia.
Penny Polendina's Strings.
Jaune grabbed the shattered one and dipped his head. String Theory. He recalled these weapons with a genuine fondness. Channeling Aura in ways he never fathomed, Penny's String Theory had controlled the process on how she unleashed her Aura. He rubbed his thumb along a scorched corner from where Excalibur had severed the connection. The inner machinations of the alloy eluded him, more so than its fundamental properties of Aura manipulation. Everything about the metal, from its Aura guidance to the way it granted immense power, acted like an extraneous material. A one-of-kind exotic matter he doubted existed anywhere else.
It fit his naming criteria. Simple. Easy to remember. What else would he call it? For all his Aura knowledge, his blacksmithing and metallurgy paled in comparison, Pyrrha might know more, but he doubted Penny's Strings counted as anything commonplace. In his searches for Aura-based weaponry, he never came across such material that reacted to Aura the way Penny's Strings did. Periodically Huntsmen applied their Aura to magnify or enchant their weapon's durability, never the other way around. For a singular moment, when his curiosity got the better of him, Jaune applied what little remained of his Aura to Penny's String, almost having the air sucked out his lungs from the intensity of his Aura conjugation.
He ceased his control just in the nick of time to prevent his muscles from expanding. Exotic Matter definitely fitted the description because what just happened left him stupefied. Raw Aura turned frugal. Weakness shifted into moderation. String's Exotic Matter reacted with his Aura in ways that had him second-guessing things. He still grasped the piece—an Aura scientist at heart—squinting his eyes hard at the Exotic Matter that just lightened the burden of Aura manipulation. Not entirely, but the lack of knowledge of its easement caught him off-guard. An amplifier? A buffer? Jaune fumbled the exact word.
"Calling it an amplifier sounds wrong. It reacts differently with Aura than anything else." Jaune surveyed the area. "Probably best I don't leave any behind."
Replacing his Aura weaponry never once crossed his mind, an unfathomable impossibility. Only the probability of someone stumbling upon this material, someone nefarious, prevented him from abandoning it. Excalibur still managed to slice through the Aura barrier manufactured by Penny's Strings, but he contemplated the possibility of it not. Pure Aura surpassed the counterfeit, yet his fingers squeezed around the Exotic Matter because he needed to see how far this replica could withstand. Scientifically speaking, Jaune Arc saw it as nothing more than a calculated risk and liability to discard it. Spoils of war, as his grandfather called it.
He frowned and collected the few pieces near him to create a pile. Bits of Penny's Strings stuck out the now tempered earth. Everything looked more miniature of a battlefield and more graveyard the deeper he wandered with the fireflies gradually overtaking the shattered moon's brilliance. The closer he got, the denser the lightning bugs flickered until he swabbed some away. A catacomb condensed at a singular point, and when he approached the point break, he dropped the scrap he collected, and his throat closed.
Penny Polendina's Stringless body rested there with her shoulders slumped and head lowered.
Fireflies used her lifeless, puppet frame as a source to rest within the hole in her chest. Together they fluttered, thumping in their glowing residence as an artificial heartbeat. Once Jaune found his footing and took one more step, they scattered and diminished the gentle light. Darkness seized them. It enclosed the atmosphere with a forceful hiccup thrashing out of Jaune's chest. His legs faltered underneath the weight of the situation, shoulders buckling, too. He dropped to one knee as his twitchy fingers seized fistful clumps of dirt and gravel. Trembling all over and unable to think, Jaune Arc's body refused to stop shaking, quivering before the Auraless body before him. A last-ditch effort, one fueled by hopeless optimism and a guilty conscience, had him summoning whatever bits of Aura that clung to his soul for Space.
Earth-deafening silence filled the Space.
No pulse. No gravitational weight. Nothing. Jaune refused to delude himself into thinking otherwise. Common sense clung to his shadow like a madman's lullaby, but he had foolishly wished for a glimmer of hope. Now, with oblivion glaring back at him with soulless pupils of green, Jaune held his hand out and summoned Supernova to illuminate the everlasting midnight. A blinding radiance stretched the scrapyard, but for once, for the first time upon convoking Supernova, coldness matching Lore overtook his nerves.
His body shivered in the warmth.
Supernova's brilliance breached every lingering adumbration over Penny's frame. Clumps of her clothing showed battle damage from conflicting strikes. Bundles of dirt clung to her attire, with lingering grit surfaced on her body from outdoor exposure. He almost lost control of Supernova when he inspected the gaping hole in her chest. Then he saw Penny's final expression, one of solemn realization as if she failed to close her eyes before her screaming Aura withered and died.
She was alive!
She was an abomination! A freak of nature! What you did to Pyrrha I can only imagine you did that to Penny, too, and it makes me want to throw up.
Part of his humanity wished he could take back those words. The other half praised him for putting to rest that screaming Aura. Conflict everywhere! Why! What happened? When did things turn so bloody complicated? He dropped his head to heave, pounding a weakened fist into the clay. One. Two. More he struck the ground, so flimsy compared to the version of him that fought Amber. He only stopped when a firefly crossed his path, floating upward toward Supernova and not just one. Many bugs had gathered around his sphere of Aura—around them—encasing Jaune and Penny in what resembled that barrier of Dust. A bountiful mass worshipped Supernova in flickering dances. So many. They reminded him of those specks he used to count when nothing made sense and everything about Aura butted heads with him.
Regardless of the problem that stood before, whichever complication, against the unspeakable odds, he fondly recalled counting until his eyes hurt. Space. Supernova. Excalibur. Aura. Lore. Gravity. Ragnarok. Roadblocks that forced him to suffer endless tottering until things made maddening sense. All obstacles he not only overcame but conquered and improved. Those tiny, insignificant specks started it all. Jaune watched those bugs now, counting the few that hovered near his Aura and the numerous that crawled into Penny's chest cavity. He absently followed their path with his arm, maintaining control over Supernova, only for his breath to hitch when both Aura and chest cavity came into alignment. It appeared as if the Aura had burst free from her heart from an overabundance.
I had no choice. Penny was an android with Aura stuffed into it. What I did was merciful for her crying soul.
His eyes grew.
I wouldn't have been able to wake her up. Even if I had wanted to help, what would I have done? Given her an Aura shard to refuel the Aura that was already there? Nothing would have changed. If anything I would've made her body worse by stuffing more Aura into it. You know that stuff's bad at excess. Look at me—look at Nora! We've both consumed way too much Aura."
His pupils shrunk.
It's mind and body, Jaune! Mind and body. No wonder you're like this! You're not balanced. There's too much of this!
Jaune Arc hiccuped. "No."
Ill-balanced? Stuffed into a machine? Screaming Aura? Aura shards? Too much Aura? He suddenly choked and belched an indistinguishable gargle. Concepts that once shunned him now showed bits of promise. Jaune took into consideration a few outliers he overlooked. Too much Aura wrecked the body, but Penny's framework was anything but conventional. What if her structure allowed her to bypass the negative repercussion of a superfluity Aura forcefully? If he considered that aspect, then Jaune thought of possible side effects to an unstable Aura generator, except not much came to mind besides one jarring characteristic. He grasped at straws with this one, a hypothetical in the strictest sense of the word, but Jaune believed it true.
When they fought, Penny had never shown loathing or despondency. Sunshines and rainbows, that was how Ruby described her. In the thickness of battle, Penny had begged him to give up. Wellbeing meant worlds to her, to a friend she hardly knew. Some called that unrivaled affection. Love. Tenderness. Warmth.
Jaune labeled that as a side effect from an excess of Aura.
Kindness. Compassion. In his wildest dreams, never did he ever suspect those as symptoms of a more all-embracing threat. He still denied it. Emotions had no place in Aura, yet they did. Everyone in Remnant knew emotions played a part in Aura, only they saw it through the lens of Lore. Grimm responded to negative emotions. Grimm had Lore. Lore represented the negative emotions, hypothetically meaning Aura embodied the positive attributes. Neither existed without the other, but any Aura or Lore oversaturation led to vaporization. Jaune questioned the morality of only having just one because too much of anything, good or bad, turned lethal from a high enough dosage.
Balance was needed.
Supernova vibrated from his wayward emotions. Control increasingly slipped through his grasp. It jolted. It convulsed, yet he barely noticed. Jaune focused squarely on the facts. Penny Polendina acted as a profusion of happiness and sympathy with her Aura screaming in agony. Instead of the backlash he and Nora received from too much, Penny's metallic body suffered no such thing. It shrieked in Space where no one could hear its cries. If she endured all that with her Strings that happened to amplify and regulate her Aura, and because only Aura got stuffed into her frame, then she did, in fact, suffer from a balancing issue.
Jaune blinked. Could a dosage of Lore have saved her tormented soul? Was the answer to saving her suffering soul that naive? That infuriating simple? He gritted his teeth with Supernova blinking. Lore protected Pyrrha's soul, but only after he got over his mistrust in it. It extinguished the blinding light and shielded her in soothing darkness, and two souls, two Auras battling for dominance, settled in the blight. Lore could have—no—it would have preserved her soul.
He betted his Arc name on that.
"I should've tried harder. I gave up. Aura's supposed to be my thing! And when it became too much, I saw an opportunity to ignore it, and I took it!" Jaune lamented as fireflies crawled into Penny's chest. He lost control as he wailed into the sky. "I should've tried harder!"
Fleeting emotions got the best of him. Supernova exploded into Quasar with illumination exceeding the darkest abyss. Heat spread all around the battlefield as the fireflies burst away from the scene. He quietly closed his eyes with the remnants of his Aura fading alongside the aftermath of Quasar's unfathomable flash, and right before the light ceased, Jaune touched his forehead to Penny's and sighed into the dazzling intensity.
It felt like a warm hug.
Salutations, Jaune! Allow me to introduce myself. My name's Penny Polendina. It's nice to meet a friend of Ruby's. I hope we can become friends as well?
Underneath the guidance of the Polaris, Jaune sobbed in the blanket of darkness. Tears made themselves known between each uncontrollable bout of a cry. Not a soul listened. Only the lingering fireflies floated nearby for companionship, acting as nothing more than specks floating in the air. A few drew closer to the source of warmth. Fewer touched his body. He continued to wail, drowning himself out until his voice went hoarse and tears dried. Quietness soon overtook the stagnant Arc. Almost the lightning bugs pushed onward, some braver than others, only to be thwarted in their advancements when a column of fire, half a mile away, exploded into a volcanic eruption that sheltered the surrounding area with another shroud of light beaconed by the CCT Tower.
In that brief instance of light, the blazing inferno revealed his eyes with scleras darker than twilight. He wore a hardened glare with dried tear markers running down his cheeks. That same calculated thinning of his lips followed, and he scoffed weakly when the flames ceased and cemented him back in star blessed darkness.
You can't save everyone, Jaune.
"Guess that's my cue."
Regardless of how you feel ethically, first Amber and now Penny, how does it feel to kill two humans? How does it feel to snuff out the Auras of two people? They're gone because of you and your team! I tried to help them for the greater good! You murdered them for your own selfish needs!
Wanting to save my partner's life isn't selfish!
He got to his feet and reached out for the stars. One day he vowed to touch one. "I could have saved you, but none of that matters anymore. It's too late, far too late to change that."
Too many what-ifs. Even if Jaune successfully materialized a way for Lore to interact with her body, and even if she only required Lore to soothe her soul, none of it mattered anymore. The past remained as such. Lingering helped no one. Only the present and future he still controlled, and right now, from the looks of it, his teammates must be near finishing up. Consequently, without anything keeping him tied anymore, Team JNPR's leader collected the pile of Exotic Matter and called for his weapons locker. Due to his distance, it would take some time to reach him, so he searched for any lingering pieces.
That was how he stumbled upon the few remaining fully functional Strings near Penny's feet. Rooted into the earth, he stopped himself from picking it up. Reflective alloy gleamed underneath the blanket of stars. Grabbing one felt disrespectful, a cursed promise waiting to entrap the first person to touch it. Jaune looked to the Polaris and the countless stars for guidance, recounting only the words Blake offered as reassurance.
Dead stars are like memories. As long as someone remembers them, they'll always exist. Only in the darkness can you see the stars. Try to be like them and remember them for whom they were. You don't have to carry on their dreams but never forgot about their legacy. Don't let their deaths be in vain. That's what matters.
Penny? A dead star?
A befitting title. Even when dead, others remembered Penny for being Penny. Jaune did. A stickler for being on time. Redhead. Very curious. Overly trusting. He had no clue if any of those described Penny's personality or overall quirks—their relationship consisted of minute meetings—but Ruby vouched for that. He only remembered her for her boundary-breaking character, screaming Aura, and unusual Aura techniques, but he remembered her. They shared an ilk in Aura. Aura users like him were a rarity in this monster-filled world.
He looked at her Stringless body. Many things he lingered over, a patron to the human philosophical morality complex, but not regret. Pity. Grief. Sorrow. Those conflicted him, those tormented his faith in his path, but not once would he repent over saying Pyrrha's soul. Lore shielded her wayward Aura from a blinding light, and for that, he thanked the everlasting darkness. Repentance, although, wasn't atonement. Atonement required sacrifice. She paid her penance in death by his hand, so he offered his with an unwavering conviction unequaled by no other Arc.
Jaune Arc pulled out Penny Polendina's String and accepted the responsibility of her blessed covenant.
As long as he breathed, Penny held a spot in his universe, dead star or not. The Constellations knew of her story. Jaune no longer cared that Penny had been a machine. She had also been a friend. Android or otherwise, her metaphorical blood soaked his Aura, and he had no desire to burn it off.
Only one thing mattered.
"We can still stop Cinder and her plans." Jaune rubbed his sore neck in that awkward way he did whenever he felt like laughing. "We won't let her get away with what she's done."
A whooshing sound echoed behind him. His weapons locker came into view.
His grip on the blade only tightened. "You complicated things. Everything was finally going smoothly, our team finally fell in sync, but then you showed up." Jaune twisted the uncharred metal, grimacing in the melancholy silence for more reasons than one. "At first, you were a mystery—you had a screaming soul for Oum's sake! And what was I supposed to do? You were trying to steal Pyrrha's body. But now that I know the truth, now that I know what Pyrrha went through and why she did it, I understand why you did what you did."
Fireflies crowded around an object on the floor. A quick inspection revealed another String that Excalibur had not cut, followed by another before discovering eight remaining intact. Closer the locker came, quicker he moved to create a pile with his shoulders unbearably heavy. When he found them all, courtesy of wayward fireflies, he stopped to chuckle upon inspecting the battlefield.
"Want to know a secret? I can't remember the last time I killed a Grimm. Once I discovered Lore, killing them took a backseat. We even have a pet Grimm in our room." Jaune wheezed from his chest hurting. "Honestly, I don't know what I'm fighting for anymore. Is it to be a Huntsman or what? I don't have a clue. At least, thanks to you, now I do. Thank you, Penny."
Impeccable timing. Jaune's weapons locker struck the earth with coarse and stony debris firing in all directions. A dramatic entry as always. He piled up the Exotic Matter into the storage container and sent it off. Only one thing remained before he met up with his team. It was not part of the plan, it might tear some of his tendons, possibly set back all his efforts to repair his body, but he owed it to her. Lore overtook his body and expanded him to the point before his muscles threatened to rupture. He quickly stretched before kneeling to shut her eyes and turn his back toward her.
"Come on, Penny, I'll take you home."
Firstly, he removed his jacket to cover the hole from the other side. He dipped backward once he clothed Penny's body, sliding into her area. Grabbing her limped arms, Jaune wrapped them around his neck. He positioned it so that her weight settled on his back with her legs anchored to his forearms. Weight pressed downward from Penny's unexpected mass, but he painfully smirked and concentrated.
A singular lone Gravity broke away from his palm, moving silently in the air with fireflies drawn to the massless object. It hovered over his shoulder, near his shoulder blades, before he willed it to peek underneath his jacket and envelop that hole in Penny's chest. Sudden weight lightened in his arms. He wasted no time, far too weakened to keep this up forever, and marched onward toward Beacon Academy with a bridge of fireflies lighting his way. A few lingered about, resting on Penny's hair with his feet dragging slowly through the debris.
Jaune tried not to think about how her synthetic skin felt unnaturally cold, a steep contrast to Lore's brisk properties. Lifeless. Destitute. Just overall astringent. He glared, pushing through the pain of strained muscles and unwanted thoughts. A singular object floating in the sky caught his attention. Fleetingly, he mistook it for a shooting star, only for him to notice that it wavered in the air with a streak of ash coming from the CCT Tower. It passed soon out of sight, beyond the horizon, but the Fearless Leader curved his lips all the same.
"For all that it's worth, I swear on the Arc's family oath that I won't let what you or Amber died fighting for be in vain. It's the least I can do for you."
Jaune Arc vowed that on his family's crest as he carried Penny Polendina away from her grave of the fireflies.
Ozpin felt a headache brewing.
The dance went off without a hitch. The aftermath had him putting the entire facility on lockdown. Whether or not it was an attack done by an enemy or freak wiring malfunction stayed in the air debate. In his line of work, sometimes he craved the uneventful. Days of rousing games of chess and throwing people off a cliff seemed so long ago. Who in their right mind blew up a building and the CCT Tower of all things. Both the facility and networks were down until further notice. Professor Port and Doctor Oobleck were already on the scene to put out the fires and write up a status report, so until such a statement landed on his desk, Ozpin exited the elevator of his clock tower and headed toward his office with Glynda, James, and Qrow following. Outside his window, they saw the flaming column while inside, James and Qrow bickered like children.
"For the record, I blame you for this, Qrow."
"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Hold the phone, one arm." Qrow pointed his thumb toward the melted candle wax of a building. "Why am I getting the short end of the stick for this?"
Ozpin quirked a brow at the one arm jab from someone sporting a cast. James missed the irony on point. "You spiked the punch."
He wiggled his finger. "Allegedly. And I don't see how that led to this! You're the one who lost—!"
Ozpin allowed them to shout until their voices ran hoarse. The Headmaster busied himself by forming a steeple with his fingers to rest his forehead against as Glynda offered her best sympathetic gesture. A touch on the shoulder. Somewhat soothing, Ozpin reluctantly agreed. A cup of chocolate milk would help ease the tension. Scanning the room for his mug, Ozpin paused when his sights settled on three out of four of the members of Team JNPR standing at the other end of his office looking like they wrestled a Goliath. He blinked once. They still stood there. He blinked twice with the same results. The third one ended with Miss Valkyrie waving enthusiastically.
"How long have you three been standing there?"
Glynda, James, and Qrow turned on a dime, spotting the same three troublemakers with their guards up. Glynda thankfully dropped hers, but the Tin Man and Scarecrow kept their wits sharp in front of teenagers. Children, he understood, that broke one of their arms. Ozpin chose not to press the matter, waiting for either three to explain themselves. Of course, Miss Nikos acted as the substitute leader and stepped forward.
"Long enough to know Qrow spiked the punch." Pyrrha answered.
"We brought you gifts." Nora gainfully added.
"Gifts?" Glynda asked.
"Yup-yup! We gift wrapped them, too!" Nora moved out of the way to reveal two of his substitute students. One of them was missing both his legs, the other heavily burned in an assortment of Dust. Both unconscious, both tied by unbreakable chains. "Here you go! Knock yourselves out!"
It came to no one's surprise that Miss Valkyrie kicked both their gifts over to them. Ozpin trailed his eyes downward at the beaten and battered students without showing any emotion because Miss Nikos allegedly found it all reasonable. In her hands, she held a customary Scroll with her looking like melted candle wax. The Headmaster offered the three of them a second glance, finding his burning CCT Tower explanation bearing fruit. Then Qrow added something to the mix, a turning stone that suddenly had him quirking his eyebrows. James and Glynda followed their colleague when he kneeled over their unconscious forms with a look of flawless clarity.
"Hey. Wait. I recognize these two. Yeah." Qrow snapped his fingers. "They were the ones who attacked Amber."
The clocktower struck twelve.
The echoing silence of the bell tower drowned out the thumping pressure building in the room. Now, Ozpin unlaced his fingers. All eyes shifted his way when he grabbed his cane and got to his feet. What a sound turn of events. Somehow this upstaged the exploding CCT Tower with an even bigger plot twist. He shot a glare toward his trustworthy companion in a rare display of seriousness most students never witnessed.
"Qrow? Are you sure?"
"Positive, Oz. These brats were the ones. Trust me, you never forget someone with green hair."
"What I'd like to know." James offered, openly pointing toward the three youngsters. "Was how'd they know? And what they're doing here."
Glynda quickly spared Pyrrha a look with the champion simpering. Ozpin did not miss that, nor the way his prized student walked up to his desk and handed him the Scroll in her hands. A closer look showed a Queen's chess piece as the wallpaper with the contents not belonging to any standard field agent or student. It was a sophisticated virus.
"I believe you may want this. It belonged to Cinder Fall, the current half Maiden." Pyrrha gestured toward the CCT Tower. "She was attempting to use that on the CCT terminals."
"And thus you confronted her?" Glynda asked. Pyrrha extended her smile. "You defeated her?"
"She escaped, but I managed to remove her arm." Pyrrha waved away the concern of both James and Qrow, who held their sides protectively. Her smile matched that of Ozpin's. "You asked me if I was still a Defender. I hope this answers your question."
Ozpin never had a chance to respond.
The elevator's door opened with this atmospheric fear that had Team JNPR's members the utmost drawn. On the other side, carrying Penny Polendina on his back with her arms limped and cheeks resting on his shoulder, Jaune Arc stepped into Ozpin's office. Tension rose in the gear-shifting room, many eyes slipped over to General Ironwood, except Jaune ignored them all. He moved past everyone in the room, not acknowledging his teammate's achievements for accomplishing their intended mission. He reacted as if he knew firsthand they would be successful in their endeavors and converged on the Headmaster.
Jaune Arc held no fear.
He glared right at Ozpin and the three other Protectors, meeting the Headmaster eye-to-eye with Penny's Stringless body appearing as light as a feather and all of Team JNPR standing by his side.
Don't let their deaths be in vain. That's what matters.
"Who is Salem?"
Author Notes: When I wrote Silver's first outline there was a king Grimm, but then Volume three revealed Salem and she fitted perfectly into the story. So far, my outline's coming along. All the scenes I wanted to have from the beginning are here (my notes are Volume two old), and I had only written about a fifth of this chapter before a week ago. After seeing what Jaune went through with Penny in the last volume, I felt the need to get back into it since Penny's death in Silver was always going to be a primary driving plot point for Team JNPR's role in the story.