Act 3: Chapter 8

"Tadaaaa!" The curtain pulled aside triumphantly.

"Too big, try the other one." I tried to sound unimpressed by Ruby's antics. In fact, the speed of which she switched from ruthless killer to cheerful dolt was amazing. We had the store for ourselves now, the place was a mess – no police had shown up, and no White Fang for that matter.

The demon hung her arms. "Oh man, how many of these do I have to try?"

"At least until we find one outfit that doesn't fall off you."

She glanced at the t-shirt that barely covered one of her shoulders and completely failed to hide the other, and groaned. Then she grabbed hold of the bottom of the shirt.

"Curtain!"

"We're the only ones here!" But she closed the curtain anyway. Really, this girl had no qualms about showing off her body at all! A bathhouse was one thing, but I was starting to believe that Ruby would fight naked if it came down to it, and not care one bit. Did she never learn modesty or something?

"So we know there is in fact a protest tonight, the White Fang will be involved, and they are expecting trouble," I said out loud in an effort to gather my thoughts. "Also, you've eaten, and are less likely to go on a rampage out of nowhere."

"Ehehehe~" she giggled from inside the curtain. Soon, she pulled it aside again, smoothing out the fabric of her latest outfit. A black pair of shorts with red lining, black stockings and a black sweater with a red heart. This could work, I guess, although the heart was a bit too sweet.

"Is it good?" Ruby asked.

"…it's acceptable." I gave the cape my best disapproving glare. Aside from bathing and sleeping, I don't think I'd ever seen her without it. Maybe I could accidentally hit it with one of Myrtenaster's discharges.

Ruby lit up, and skipped past me with newfound glee. "Sooooooo what do you wanna do now? Should we go to the protest thingy?"

"Perhaps." I'm not yet sure what I wanted to achieve by going there. Randomly killing off some White Fang sure might be a great stress reliever, but what would the consequences be? I was fairly sure Ruby could handle those pesky beasts. If she couldn't, well… that was it.

I shuddered at the dark path my mind was heading down. So my choices were to kill or to die, and I did not feel anything about either option. I recognized that this was a dangerous place for my mind to be, but that was all the reaction I managed to muster.

Ruby rocked back and forth on her combat boots. "Ooooor do you wanna do something else first?"

I blinked out of my thoughts. "Like what?"

"Well, I dunno, like, something fun?"

I narrowed my eyes at her, and she probably got the meaning behind it, because she elaborated: "You know, like… catch a movie or, watch the stars, or something."

Okay, that's not what I expected.

"Why in the world would we do things like that?"

"I mean, that's what people do on dates, right?" She said, looking right at me with a tilted head.

"...What?"

Now, she was the one who looked confused. "Isn't that what we're doing? I thought—"

"Don't! Don't think! Oh my god, Ruby, this isn't a date!"

For a second she just looked confused, but then she actually hung her head. Like a beaten puppy or something, the girl just kind of deflated. I heaved a deep breath, and pinched the bridge of my nose.

Why was this happening to me?

"Alright. What made you think this is a date?" I mean, if this is what her definition of a date is, I dread to think what a wedding looks like in her head.

"Well," she drawled, "we've been doing all these datey things," which things!? "and you showed me that binder, and I thought that meant you wanted to, maybe, have something more than the partnership we agreed on, or something?"

My face was slowly heating up beneath my hand. I did show her that binder, full of silly relationship rules. But I'd thought – I don't know. I'd just tried to bring some sense of normalcy into this crazy situation! It was a stupid idea to begin with, and the entire thing was an idiotic thing my father had introduced anyway. I just didn't know what else to do!

"Y-You kissed me." I stared through my fingers at the heart on her chest and immediately decided it was too childish. Skulls, flames and thorns seemed more Rubyish. Too bad this place had nothing like it.

"I – that was – I was—"

"Okay stop stuttering, this is insane! Ruby, what are we really? Do you – do you want to have that sort of relationship?"

"Do you?"

"I'm asking you."

"But Weiss, you're the boss!"

Really!?

"No! If we're doing this, it's going to be because we both want to. I refuse to be straddled with all of the responsibility. We're partners, yes, but you're the one who took it all a step further back at the convention. Did that mean nothing to you?"

"I, uh, don't really remember it that well," Ruby said, unknowingly aggravating me even more. She was so interested in everyone else, but I wanted Ruby to hunger for me, to want me, and it was the strangest feeling I'd ever had, and not only because it was most likely the unhelathiest thing I could want ever.

"Then start remembering, you fool." I pushed all my anger and disappointment at her. Like particles in the air or something. Maybe if she breathed in my foul mood, something would change.

"Well, I do remember parts of it… I mean, I really remember, um, your taste…" her voice trailed off and my ears began burning hot. Grinding my teeth, I walked over, stopping just inches from her face. She fidgeted like a trapped cat, and when I grabbed her shoulders and pushed her into the changing room, she didn't resist. Her back hit the mirror, which shuddered on impact. Our eyes locked on each other.

And now what? Kiss her? Tell her to kiss me? I guess what I really wanted was for her to make a move, to claim me like she did back then. I wanted a clear and defined answer as to what the term partner covered.

But before any of us could make another move, the door to the store banged open and three masked faunus poured inside the store.

"Yohoooo! Let's get going already, boss is waiting!"

Of all the terrible times to interrupt something! I had halfway turned to give the interrupter a piece of my mind when I caught Ruby's expression in the corner of my eye. Her attention had snapped to the newcomers and her eyes glowed with eager.

Sigh.

"Go on then." I resigned myself to picking up this topic at another time. As soon as I spoke, my hands ceased to hold onto anything solid. Ruby was gone, and within a second's time, the faunus in the white mask slammed into the floor with a scythe bisecting half his torso. Ashes swirled into the air around Ruby as her latest victim vanished.

"What the hell!?" The other two backed away from the demon and raised their weapons. Seemed like our helpful shop owner hadn't been entirely truthful about how involved she was after all.

The air around Ruby throbbed with eager, nearly coating the store with tangible hunger. The two remaining White Fang faunus looked at each other.

And bolted.

Ruby looked at me as if asking for permission.

"After them!" I called, already moving. Ruby burst out the door, throwing the entire thing off its hinges. The White Fangs shrieked and fired at her, but nothing seemed to hurt that cloud of ashes. Suddenly Ruby was between them, the scythe catching one around the hip. His scream echoed through the street as the massive weapon pulled him off his feet, only to crash into his startled companion. As they both tumbled to the ground in a heap, Ruby deftly adjusted the scythe's angle and slammed the biting edge into a chest.

The unlucky sacrifice shrieked in pain while hot blood pooled around him. The second faunus hiccupped and scrambled away on his hands and feet, mask askew and weapon abandoned.

So, even White Fang recognized a superior predator.

I raised Myrtenaster and focused. I'd done this before, with Winter, and lately in my own training. A glyph appeared beneath my feet and the second I moved, a new one appeared in stride. Faster and faster. I dashed forward while my semblance worked in the back of my mind, summoning the glyphs I needed as I moved. Within seconds I overtook the man and pierced!

Like it was mocking me, Myrtenaster merely brushed past his neck as if I'd meant to gently caress him. My speed had been too high for me to hit a small target like his throat! I stumbled past him, luckily he was too panicked to try and lash out at me and just scrambled away. I heard giggling and turned furiously towards Ruby.

"Don't laugh!"

"But you're so cute!"

"Shut up!" Flushing brightly, I readied Myrtenaster again and faced the White Fang. He'd gotten to his feet and stumbled along the street, away from us. I gritted my teeth and spun Myrtenaster's barrel.

One blue glyph appeared before me and launched a blue lance of ice dust after the man. Bigger target this time: His back. Aiming with dust was hard though! It exploded against his ankle instead, but it was enough to trip him. With his foot encased in ice he fell, shrieking in fear.

Finally. This was already far too embarrassing. Hitting immobile targets in an empty backyard was really different from fighting a real person. Well, faunus. Well… fighting. It was more like lowkey hunting.

He struggled to pull his foot loose from the frozen ground, so I didn't try to speed over with glyphs again, taking to walk instead. As I stood over him with Myrtenaster at the ready, he looked at me with tearful eyes – young, maybe in his twenties, and whiskers like a cat.

Disgusting.

"Please don't!" He begged pathetically.

I slashed his face. A bloody red line down his cheek, reminiscent of my own throbbing wound. He yelped, and I slashed again. Ripping new wounds in his skin; face, shoulders, arms, neck, he was soon bleeding from several gashes. No aura to shield or heal him.

How dare he. Join an organization whose only purpose was to hurt. And not even having the skills to fight. My slashes grew angrier, harder. His yelps and sobs grew weaker as he curled on the ground. His clothes in tatters. His skin gaping. I didn't stop, not until someone grabbed my hand and I looked up in fury, meeting Ruby's silver eyes.

"What!?" I snapped.

She leaned in. I jerked at first, but her hand raised to hold my head, keeping me from moving too far. Her lips caught mine and her sharp canines nipped at my skin. Eager. There was an anxious energy behind the intimacy, as if she tried to breathe and taste and devour me all at once.

Heat radiated from her body and melted my insides. Deep thrums pulsated within my guts, spreading like oxygen through my blood. I kissed back, angrily, almost hissing into her mouth. She responded with a growl, as though we were animals conversing over a kill, and I pushed her away as hard as I could.

"I wasn't done!"

Instead of protesting my abrupt rejection, Ruby looked flushed, breathing heavily, and the glow in her eyes flickered like the flame of a candle. Hunger and bloodlust thrummed in the air around us. Whispers and fear.

I finally realized we weren't alone. We'd gathered an audience, however reluctant, watching us from street corners and from within windows and doorways. The thick fog hid us from eyes, not ears, and finally, we had their attention.

Well then, let's reward their curiosity. I stepped forward and stabbed Myrtenaster into the faunus's chest, pushing the blade past ribs and muscle with a grunt. His pitiful crying turned to hacking gasps, and he stared up at me as though he couldn't believe his eyes.

When I yanked Myrtenaster back out, a gush of blood followed. Soon, ash did too.

I see. If I end someone, it counts as Ruby's kill. It was as if my blade spread some kind of infection.

The reaction of our crowd was unmistakable. Unsettled whispers, fearful retreat into the fog. The woman in the window above us closed the curtains, as if that would stop us from getting inside.

It would be so easy to let loose and just kill them all. To hear them scream and plead and—I shook my head, disturbed at the sudden eager I found within me.

"Ruby, we need to go."

Never mind a few grunts, but if some higher ranking members were to come our way, we might end up at a disadvantage.

But Ruby didn't move, still staring at the spot where our latest kill had been moments ago. I swear I could feel her hunger inflate by the second.

"Ruby." When she didn't immediately respond, I grabbed Ruby by the hand and pulled her along. We ran down the narrow streets, ducking past the onlookers too slow to move out of the way. Soon the fog swallowed the scene behind us, leaving only those perplexed by the screams they'd heard. And after a while, nobody around us seemed to have noticed anything wrong. It was only a matter of time.

I stopped at a crossroad to gather my bearings and turned towards Ruby to check if she were okay. Instead I crashed into her, when some passerby bumped into me harshly.

"Hey!" Ruby growled.

"Huh?" The gruff voice of a woman answered. I looked up; an entire group of people had stopped to watch us. Oh wonderful, another pack.

"You bumped into her, so you should apologize!" Ruby held me tightly, almost too tight. I grabbed her wrist and eased her grip off of me before something snapped.

The woman snorted and her friends laughed. They all wore telltale miner's clothes completely full of black dirt and was that dust stuck on the fabric? Did they have no safety regulations? Some of them carried hatches and helmets, even ropes and tool belts, as if they were on their way to work. The woman herself wore a ragged dirty miner's jacket, and must have been three times Ruby's size. On her head was a couple of curled horns that looked like they could smash rock.

Beneath them, her eyes widened as she looked at me. "Hey, aren't you the Schnee girl? Wow, you've got guts, walking around in the open with your dog on a leash after what happened to your father."

I was about to answer when there was a whizz, and suddenly a spark. The woman's jacket burst into flame.

"What the—!?" She yelled and tore it off, tossing it to the ground where it continued to burn out harmlessly. Nobody tried to put it out; dust fire wasn't handled that easily.

I didn't need to look at Ruby to know her eyes were glowing.

"I suppose safety regulations are failing if you walk around with dust residue on your clothes. I will have to report this to the board." I allowed a small smirk into my voice.

"Shut up!" She snarled at me, only to take a step back when Ruby growled right back. The demon's arm trembled beneath my grip, but the miner scoffed. "What, is this supposed to scare me?"

Ruby's voice was just a hiss. "Leave. Weiss. Alone."

Even my neck hairs stood on end now.

The woman clicked her tongue.

"Not worth my time." Strategic, if nothing else, the woman threw one last look at her burning jacket, grimaced, and turned to leave, pulling her little group of friends with her. They kept casting a few looks back at Ruby and her flecked teeth, until they vanished into the fog.

Ruby still bristled, glaring after the faunus. I touched her shoulder and she twirled around, eyes alight with fury.

"She didn't even apologize!"

"I'm sure she's more than willing to do so if you rip off her horns first."

Ruby's expression turned thoughtful. Before she could get any ideas and run off on me, I grabbed her hand.

"Think they're going to the miner's guild event?"

Her eyes lit up with glee and I took that for a yes, pulling her along.

"Let's follow them."

Behind us, a noisy banter was growing. I had my suspicions that our little show back there had finally attracted enough attention to actually have someone come for us, though I'm sure explaining the total lack of bodies was difficult even for eye witnesses.

Our objective lay ahead however, not back there. We followed the direction the miners had taken. As we walked, the streets became wider, less occupied, though still framed by steep cliffs and mountains. It was like walking through a tunnel with no ceiling. At least it kept the freezing winds out.

Soon, the creaks and crevices opened into a wide open space cluttered with worker barracks, machines with massive drills and shovels, storage facilities and containers with the SDC logo. There was even a landing pad for transport ships. In the very middle of all the spectacle that made up Mantle's main source of income, a crater vanished into the earth's innards. It was the entrance to the mine, which spiraled down into the depths of Remnant. These days you had to go quite a bit down to even find any dust.

A large crowd had gathered by a makeshift podium that consisted of a rickety staircase and an empty container. Around it, buildings rose up and created an array of makeshift alleyways. There were even press folks present.

With the dwindling light and the thick fog, the place looked like the perfect place for a murder spree.

"Any sign of the White Fang?" I murmured in Ruby's direction. Her silvery eyes flicked back and forth, a crease forming between her brows.

"I can't tell. They all smell the same."

"What an awful thing to say."

Her lips pulled into a grin. "Doesn't matter what they smell like, I'll just let Crescent Rose eat them for me~"

Her childish glee was both exasperating and welcome.

Behind us, the crowd grew even larger. Given the amount of faunus gathering here, I could only imagine how many watched from the safety of their own homes. There was a camera team recording the happenings on air.

But no SDC representatives. Why would they neglect showing up at something like this? They must have lost their touch along with father, and it was annoying as hell.

After a while, a woman climbed the rickety staircase to stand on the container, calling out in order to gather everyone's attention. Below them, a couple of masked faunus walked up to stand like silent statues. Large and muscular, mostly for show but I bet they can put up a fight too. Not like the weaklings back there.

"Thank you all for coming!" the woman atop the container spoke, attracting the attention of the onlookers as well as cameras. "As you may all know, we spent most of yesterday trying to get in contact with the SDC's board of directors. We're gathered here today because… well, we failed."

Quiet murmur spread among the listeners.

"After the death of Jacques Schnee, the company has only increased the pressure on their workers, demanding longer shifts on the floating islands and fewer hands in the underground tunnels, both of which are safety regulations we worked hard to implement in the first place. We in the Miner's Guild has sworn to uphold our rights and demand better treatment, but now they refuse to even meet us. Therefore, we need to show our will in other ways. They cannot continue treating us like slaves!"

A rumble of general agreement spread among the crowd. Ruby nudged me, pointing my attention in the direction of one of the alleys between the barracks. Two more masked faunus, not as imposing as the ones up front, but clearly armed. On the other side, too. A few of them looked at their scrolls and began scanning the crowd.

Word travels fast, I suppose.

"They're looking for someone." I didn't feel particularly worried. So far I'd seen nothing that could possibly stop Ruby. Said girl grinned in response, scanning the crowd which continued to show their support to the Miner's Guild representative. The faunus around us seemed riled up, angry and worried. Of course Ruby would enjoy herself.

"What should we do?" Ruby asked.

"Can you take out a few masked ones without raising suspicion?" I asked, eyeing her and trying to gauge her stealth ability. "Actually, nevermind."

"What? I can totally do that!" She responded, indignant.

"With that giant fork of yours?"

"I can do a lot of cool things besides that," she insisted, jutting her lips out in a pout.

"Don't pout."

"But—"

"Okay, show me then. What cool things can you do, aside from cleaving people in two and setting off fire dust?"

Ruby lit up, and vanished in a puff of ashes. Alright, I guess that was an order from my side. We could take out any White Fang members here and now. Most likely, it'd lead to us becoming a target for the rest of the organization and subsequently leading us even deeper into the depths of their ranks. Perhaps not their main commander, but in time…

It came with a risk, but at this point, that didn't really matter.

I waited for Ruby's cool things to happen when a static sound cut through the air, and a voice boomed from above.

"This is Blue Two, Atlas fleet. Protesters, please dissolve the riot in a calm and orderly manner! I repeat, this is Blue Two…"

A riot? A woman speaking to a bunch of ragged miners from the top of a container? Sure, there were White Fang guards, but calling this a riot was too much.

The voice droned on, but nobody really reacted, as if they didn't know what to do. Then, the droids dropped down through the fog. All around us, Atlesian Knights landed, clunky machinery screeching and whizzing as they moved to aim their firearms at the crowd.

What in the world are they doing? This was military forces!

"This is your last warning!"

KLAAAAAANG!

My head snapped around towards the podium. A massive construction had just dropped from the sky. Like the knights, it was a mechanized combat droid, but far bigger and controlled by a pilot from within. It was crude, inelegant, naked wires and joints glaringly exposed, and the pilot himself protected by a cockpit made of metal plates and glass. I'd seen something similar at the fateful convention a while back.

An Atlesian paladin. Here?

It marched forward, right through the crowd with its mechanical movement.

"What is that!?" Now the reaction came. Panic, pure and uncontrolled, as the White Fang raised their weapons and fired, and the mechanical knights moved in to intercept.

What in the world were they doing? Why was the military here? These were miners. Miners who'd wanted to express their wants for better treatment by the SDC!

This was far too much for a simple faunus protest. Could the reason they brought in the paladin and other forces be that they wanted to draw out the White Fangs? Of course, the White Fang would be set on protecting the miners; most of them probably were miners themselves or had family as such.

"This is your last warning," the voice from the sky boomed. "Stand down!"

One White Fang pulled out a dust cocktail and lit it, but he never got as far as to throw the thing. The knights nearest to his position reacted to the threat as expected – by shooting him down. Within seconds he was peppered with gunshots, and both he and the cocktail went down in a hail of bullets.

Then it exploded.

Then the rest of his cocktails exploded.

Body parts and flames struck out in every direction. Cold and ice didn't matter – dust would burn no matter what. The explosive force washed across the grounds and flung people off their feet, scorching exposed skin and lighting clothes on fire. Even from a distance the heat pulled at my freshly healed wound and stung against my skin, but my aura held, at least long enough for me to summon a glyph. With gritted teeth, I stepped onto the white circular symbol, and summoned one more, just a little higher. It took all I had, but soon, a staircase of glyphs helped me up and over the flames, on top of a barracks.

I stopped to catch my breath. I still couldn't see the airship above the fog, but below me, everything was in chaos. People shrieked, some caught by the flames, some by stray bullets, others fleeing or huddling behind containers and barracks, nursing their wounds. Dead and dying White Fangs attempted to escape the inferno, and Ruby – where are you!?

The panic around us sweltered. It pushed and thrummed against my mind. Each breath scathing, filling my lungs with the air of despair. My hand shook as I clenched Myrtenaster tighter.

This is ridiculous…

Fwooosh! A wind of ashes blasted out of the flames towards the makeshift podium – and the paladin. I jumped across the barrack's roof to another, anxious to keep up. Down below, Ruby launched herself at the paladin, skewering the flimsy metal plates protecting the pilot and probably him, too. Using her scythe like a can opener, she forced the metal to bend apart, revealing the cockpit with the dying pilot. As he vanished to smoke, Ruby gleefully slid into the driver's seat instead.

"Weiss!" She yelled, somehow steering the paladin to swivel around and knocking a bunch of knights off their feet in the process. The paladin swung its arm forward, which popped open and let loose a flurry of rockets, all which exploded into the ground and sent knights and miners flying.

I used another glyph to launch myself in her direction, planting Myrtenaster into a joint on the paladin.

"This. Is. Awesome!"

"You idiot! What are you doing?! Now they're all going to attack us!"

"Come on Weiss, let's play!" She shouted up at me and yanked at the controls. The paladin jerked and I shrieked again, flung along on the wild ride. Gravity dust, don't fail me now. I summoned a black glyph at my feet and felt my body stabilize, thankfully. There was no control, no plan, just impulse and childish glee. The machine jerked this way and that, smashing into the podium and buckling the metal, scattering the faunus like mice. Ruby laughed and giggled, and somehow moved the machine into a run. The one faunus she'd set her sights on wailed and cried, but didn't get far before he tripped in his panicked flee.

"Aaaaand smash!" Ruby triumphed as the paladin stomped down on the faunus's waist, crushing him beneath the metal foot. His cries magnified, and Ruby's shoulders shook with mirth. She swirled her head around to find a new target. From behind, some of the White Fangs moved closer to us. One of them raised a rocket launcher.

Before I could even open my mouth, three Atlesian knights bashed into them, knocked them down with their guns, and then, as if they couldn't agree who should get the kill, the knights proceeded to shoot at each other.

"What in the world is going on? The robots are attacking themselves?"

"Hehehehe!" Ruby's gleeful giggle told me everything I needed to know.

"You did that?"

"I messed with their panels a little! Oooh, I see the woman with the horns! Aw they're so cool!"

Ruby turned the robot around and gleefully tore through throngs of people. The grumpy miner we ran into earlier had picked up a weapon too; though not wearing a mask, she joined the White Fang in firing at us while screaming profanities.

"Rude!" Ruby yelled, and the woman's yelling ended in a gurgle when the paladin's massive hands slammed into her from either side. Crushed like a nut, guts and goo exploding out of every opening in her body. Then tossed aside like a used rag. Her body began disintegrating before it hit the ground.

"Wait, what?" I asked, staring as the rude woman vanished into thin air. Neither Crescent Rose nor Ruby's teeth had killed off that one – nor me, for that matter. "Why are they disintegrating?"

"Cause they're dead!"

"Yes, but – wait, is this…?" I remembered something from a book I'd studied as part of my huntress self-education. For someone whose aura was unlocked, it would extend to their weapon as well, protecting it from harm and empowering it.

What if Ruby's worked the same way? Right now, this massive thing doubled as her weapon!

A whining noise alerted me to the incoming missiles.

"Watch out!" I ducked, but the paladin's arm rose to block the explosive force and only the heat washed over me. Concentrating on keeping my aura up, I grit my teeth and hung on.

The flames had spread to cover the barracks around us, confining us within the heat. Slowly but surely the structures weakened under the dust-based fire, but at least the ground itself was no longer a death trap.

White Fang, civilian faunus and Atlesian military forces, nobody was saved from our rampage with Ruby's new weapon of choice. Even if she didn't know the controls, Ruby made quick work of anyone approaching, either by stomping or slamming them down or even accidentally knocking them aside. I covered her blind spots as best I could, but in truth there wasn't much to do. Most of them were busy fighting each other.

When actual human soldiers started dropping from the sky, my ears already pounded with adrenaline.

"Ruby! Incoming above!"

"Gotcha!" She pulled a lever and the paladin swung its arm up, letting loose another volley of missiles. Several soldiers were blasted out of the sky before they could even land. I couldn't even tell if they disintegrated or not – right now it didn't seem like Ruby cared. Her inhuman eyes glinted with glee and exhilaration as more and more destruction spread around us.

The paladin jerked around again and I nearly toppled over, my glyph breaking under the slip of concentration. The only thing holding me on was my own death grip.

"Ruby!" I chastised, flushed from exhaustion and anger, "Keep this thing on its feet!"

"It's not me!" She pulled some levers and pushed some buttons and suddenly, the paladin lunged forward. With a cry I fell to the ground. Almost immediately, a faunus jumped at me, mouth open in an animalistic snarl and eyes wild with rage. I reacted by pulling my arms up. His leap missed – or rather, he never finished the attack and simply sailed on past me, hitting the ground with a heavy thump.

Confused, I sat up and looked at him, deciding he was either dead or dying, judging by the blood pooling from his neck.

"I need you to come with me now, Weiss Schnee."

My head turned so fast it nearly gave me a whiplash. In front of me stood another Atlesian military personnel – but this one was a cadet, a student, not a fully fledged Specialist. A small knife vanished from her hand with a flick of her wrist. She wore a marina blue skirt and a hat I vaguely recognized.

"You're…"

"Ciel Soleil, at your service." She bowed formally. "And Penny Polendina. We are here to escort you back to Atlas."

"….." I clenched Myrtenaster, but rather than fight my head turned to find Ruby. A massive clamor pulled our attention. The paladin – with Ruby in it – was wrecking its way throughout the area, trying to smash her new opponent: The orange-haired girl with the swords.

My veins froze over.

It wasn't a fight, it was a tease. Just when it looked like the paladin would smash the little girl to pieces, she simply smacked the giant arm away. Then the swords whipped around and spun around the paladin's legs. When the girl yanked her arm back, the entire thing tripped and toppled over.

While the paladin smashed into the ground, the swords gathered in front of Penny and began spinning. The hairs on my arms stood on edge; the force in that thing was immense. It glowed a sickly green and its hum shook the ground.

Ruby vanished from the cockpit just in time. The greenish beam of power exploded forth and all but incinerated the massive metallic robot. Blinding us with the intensity. I blinked desperately, and saw Ruby reappearing behind Penny with her scythe at the ready. She swung – and was parried by one of the swords.

An intense exchange of blows followed, speeds the likes of which I'd never seen. But, impressive as it was, there was no doubt as to who would emerge victorious. My aura was already straining, flickering across my body as if it were taking the heavy blows directly.

Beside me, Ciel looked at her wristwatch. I could try and stab her, make a run for it. And what good would it be? That gingerhead would just follow and there was no way I could fight her off.

Ruby was struggling, and what was I doing?

I got to my feet, raising Myrtenaster despite the sweat running from my brow.

"What are you going to do to us?" I asked, feeling the tugs of my aura as Ruby used everything she had. Strike, slash, clang of metal. The girl in front of me had no visible weapon, but I knew better than to assume she was unarmed. I'd seen that knife earlier, and she probably had more than one.

"That is for the General to decide," she answered.

General Ironwood was behind this?

"You did all this just to catch us?"

She didn't even blink. It creeped me out. "You believe we would go to these lengths to get to you? No, this was for the Schnee Dust Company. As you may know, the Atlas government has seized control of the company."

Cold ice pooled into my stomach. "What?"

"With your sister Winter at the head of the company, it was a simple matter of negotiations. Of course, no one wants the Miner's Guild to disturb the process, so we were sent out to set an example. Finding you was just a bonus."

No way. Winter wouldn't do this. Winter wasn't like father!

"So, will you come with us now, Miss Schnee?"

"You know," I said, trying to sound steadier than I felt, "this is not how I imagined my entrance exams to play out."

She was not amused. Me neither, really. And I was getting nowhere, and real fast. I had to decide. Ruby was at her limit, parrying and deflecting more than attacking, getting caught by cords and pulling out of it while the swords struck at her face and arms. She might have loaded up on energy, but soon enough my aura would run out.

Penny was simply too strong.

With a cry of defiance, I swung my weapon and lunged, only to be brutally knocked down. Ciel didn't even attack, just ducked under my slash, knocked my weapon aside with her arm, and drove a fist into my cheekbone. It hurt.

"Weiss!" Ruby's voice reached me, seconds before a clamor of metal against metal. Using the cords on her swords and her ridiculous strength, Penny yanked the scythe from Ruby's grip. It span through the air like a deadly fan and hit one of the burning barracks, digging itself into the wood. Now Ruby was grappling with Penny bare-handed, trying to get closer to me. Penny's swords hovered around her, ready to strike, and trapping her limbs in the cords.

We couldn't win this fight. If they wanted us dead, we'd already be.

They'd just do whatever they had to to get to me.

I made a decision.

"Ruby, scatter!"

Her eyes widened, lips pulling into a snarl, and Penny's grip on her arms tightened. I expected her to defy me, to fight tooth and nail until she was ripped apart once more, but as our eyes met… Ruby's gaze burned into mine, a silent promise. Then, she vanished in a puff of ashes.

"Oh!" Penny blinked twice.

I released a gasp of air, sweat drops rolling off my skin.

"A tactical retreat," Ciel stated.

"I won't let you murder her." Again. I couldn't risk end up in another situation where Ruby wouldn't be by my side. At least now, I knew she was safe.

As for me? If I knew what to expect, I may have reconsidered my decision then and there.

XXX

Board meetings were oddly reminiscent of the battlefield. If there ever was a war to be waged using wits and sharp tongues, they'd be better off sending board members and business men off to the frontline.

Whether or not weapons were deployed, Winter was trained in confrontations like these. In many ways, the board meeting offered a more intricate and interesting challenge than the mere action of stabbing an opponent. They weren't out to kill each other, but to outsmart.

And they'd already been one step ahead of her.

Twelve men and women in sharp business suits eyed her from their seats at the table. Twelve people with quite personal interests in the entire SDC scandal.

"Miss Schnee, we are happy to have you onboard, however there are a few worries we have to address before going onwards."

"Jacques's passing is a terrible tragedy; naturally there will be repercussions from such a dramatic change in the company. People expect us to act in accordance."

"We need a strong and secure leadership role in order to keep the company together. Also, we need to show our employees that the SDC is in sure hands for many years to come. Seeing what can happen to heirs and leaders, people are getting worried that we are too vulnerable."

"Which is why, after our last emergency board meeting, we've spoken to James about a governmental takeover."

"What?" Winter felt like she stood naked before them, completely stripped of all impact. "General Ironwood?"

"He didn't tell you?" Their eyes bore into her.

He hadn't mentioned it at all!

"There is a general consensus amongst this board that we should perform a vote on whether or not the Schnee Dust Company should cease to be a private organization and allow the government to take more direct control."

"This is to secure the company and will open for more direct trade agreements with the other Kingdoms, as well as access to more security forces now that we know the White Fang is a real threat. Jacques fought against this for years; I assume you're not of the same position?"

All eyes were on her, and Winter felt the slow, cold realization seep into her.

She was trapped.