Darn, been a while. Life is life, got a job I hate but it pays good so oh well. I'm actually working on another full book, been taking forever. Writing your own original book is a pain in the ass. That one I wrote a few years back hasn't seen the light of day in a while, but I've got a lot of ideas for it so sometime eventually I want to overhaul it. Getting legit published is my dream, although I might self-publish before then. I do thank this fic and the feedback it's gotten for helping me with my skills and that.
Currently playing a lot of Hitman, working through both the campaign and freelancer mode, good times.
Another day, another deer that Orion had kindly hunted for them. A respectable dinner, even without and salt and paper. Make a quick fire, wolf it down and settle down. Orion's fresh game sustained the three of them as they trekked to the coast.
It reminded Jaune of the Wasteland, where you eat and drink what you kill and scavenge.
Dirty water from a polluted puddle that would make you sick but at least help stomp down the thirst tearing at your throat. Rancid remains of giant mole rat meat that you burn until it's hard rock just so you can be half-sure it won't give you a disease. Or a stew of radroach chitin. When you got some centuries-old can of SPAM, that was the best you could ask for. Or, and this was extraordinarily rare, a Brahmin steak. He had gotten one of those in Tenpenny Towers, when that rich old bastard really thought he could recruit the Lone Wanderer.
He had enjoyed the meal, then stabbed the man with the steak knife.
Of course, it all paled in comparison to the cafeteria and vending machines at Beacon. Cheeseburgers. Pizza. Balsamic salads. Vacuo-style green curry. Fresh watermelon. Mint chocolate chip ice cream. Milk and cookies. Rotisserie chicken. Hot dogs. Processed trash and diet fads. All of that and more.
That had been the good life...
And now here I am, moping again. Moping will get me killed.
He forced himself to scan the dark forest, the bushes and the trees.
He knew now how similar Remnant and Earth were. Two worlds on the edge of oblivion.
Sure, Remnant had clear skies, amusement parks and public pools. But look at Mountain Glenn. The brutal annihilation of an entire city in a day. Not unlike a town getting overrun by feral ghouls. Vale itself had nearly suffered that.
One day. One tragedy. That's all it takes.
Jaune looked into the forests around them, which at first seemed so lush and beautiful, unlike everything in the Wasteland except the mutated grove. But still, so dangerous. He saw threats; his brain whispered about things being able to hide behind every tree and rock.
He smiled grimly. Oh yeah, just like home.
With that, he stomped out the fire and went to sleep, Orion taking first watch.
The days turned into a week, but they eventually got to the coast. After that, it was just a matter of heading south. The trio steered clear both of the beach itself and also any villages in the forests. They didn't want to be seen. For one, Orion would have gotten quite a reaction. But Jaune himself was something of a celebrity, and didn't want to be recognized. Neo simply detested the thought of having to confront people.
Along the trip, Jaune and Orion generally strode next to each other, Neo further up ahead. She occasionally glanced over to them, and they occasionally glared back. Everyone spoke very little. Mostly to warn of a fallen log, or to assuage fears after one thought they saw something. Jaune and Orion chatted sometimes, but those died out before they could become conversations. Mainly because Jaune wasn't in a very talkative mood.
They trekked through hills and forests, days and nights, even pushing on through the rain—Neo in particular had had trouble sucking her boots out of the mud. But eventually, they reached their destination.
An old fishery, with a bumpy dirt road leading off into the forest for a town half-abandoned. You would be hard pressed to find this place on any modern map.
A long pier jutted out from a rusty warehouse; honestly, it looked more like a really big hut. A large logo was printed on the side of its corrugated steel with faded paint: a giant, smiling cartoon sardine kicking back in an opened can.
Neo had led Jaune inside, Orion staying back in the tree line for obvious reasons. Once in, they had come across a group of men busy at work stuffing crates with nondescript cardboard boxes, smugglers who-knows-what. The crew had looked surprised for a moment, before one of them—the leader of their little outfit—cracked a smile that had half as many teeth as it should have.
"Been expecting ya," he said. "We all have." He snapped his fingers. The moment that the smuggler boss had given the signal, at least a dozen more thugs stepped out from behind crates lined close to the walls.
Such was how Jaune and Neo found themselves in their current situation: surrounded and with twenty different guns pointed straight at them.
"We were starting to get antsy here," the Boss said. "Were thinking you wouldn't show. That somebody else got your bounty first."
Neo narrowed her eyes.
So it was true. Junior had dared to send her burner scroll one last message as they left Vale: A lot of money on your head now. A lot. Some rumors that people from the mercenary world set it out. I think we both know who that means. Stay away from me now.
With friends like that…
"Now I know you're some hotshot assassin, Miss Neo," the boss said, "but…" He swept a hand around the room. Shotguns, pistols and a couple hunting rifles trained on them. "I got my whole crew here, just to make sure you don't have any chances. So"– he pulled a pair of rusty handcuffs out of his pocket –"just put these things on.
"And your pal," he nodded to Jaune. "Can join us, too. You fought in the festival, right? Hot shot hero kid? Somebody somewhere will be happy to pay for you, right?"
Neither Jaune nor Neo moved.
The boss only chuckled. Beads of sweat formed at the top of his forehead. "Playing hard to get? Come on." He threw the handcuffs at Neo's face.
But she only smiled; and when cuffs hit her, she shattered.
She and Jaune both, actually. They splintered into a thousand shards that fizzled away before they hit the ground, leaving behind nothing but the faintest wisps of smoke.
The boss didn't get another syllable out before the corrugated steel of one wall crashed in, a huge shape driving effortlessly through it, obliterating a stack of wooden crates as it went.
Orion swept his claws and ripped off two men's heads in a second, splattering what remained of their skulls on the ground. He leapt for another, quickly striking out and impaling them on his claws, puncturing their heart and aorta.
The Lone Wanderer crashed through the wall on the other side of the hut. Armed with nothing but a hammer bought in a dollar store before leaving Vale. He threw himself into the fray, swinging left and right.
He smashed a man's arm with one strike, shattering his humerus and following up with a headbutt. Jaune had aura, his opponent did not. Jaune's forehead cracked the other man's skull open. Before the corpse hit the ground, he snarled and rounded on another foe, using the hammer's claw to tear a chunk out of her head with one swing. He dove for a third, opting not to use his hammer but his hand. One punch plowed through the thug's ribcage, embedding Jaune's fist in his lungs.
The boss looked in horror, but it didn't take him long to come to the right conclusion.
He turned to run—
Only for Neo to slash his throat open with a stroke of her sword.
It had been quick work, gruesome work. A slaughter more than a fight. It took hardly twenty seconds to clear just as many enemies. The poor bastards could barely even resist in that short time. Not many bullets were even fired, and those that were either missed or pinged off of aura.
"Thanks for the tip Orion," Jaune said, wiping off his bloody hammer on a corpse's shirt. "Being able to just sense people is pretty damn useful."
"I would have smelled them anyway," Orion said. He spat blood out of his mouth; dribbles of crimson seeped down between his sharp teeth. He had bitten someone's head off. "The wind blew their stink down to us as we approached, too many people all packed together."
"Well good job no matter what." Jaune wiped his hands off on his shirt, grimaced and examined the corpses for someone his size and not too bloody. He had easily shifted again into the Wasteland scavenger mentality.
"And Neo," he said, "if you're going to keep leading us into shit like this, eventually we might run into people who can actually put up a fight."
The assassin rolled her eyes. Then she snapped her fingers impatiently, drawing both of theirs attention. She pointed at a little office room nestled in the back of the warehouse. A desk and some cabinets sat on the other side of a scratched window.
"Yeah I saw him," Jaune said. "Orion knows too, right?"
The deathclaw nodded.
"But he ducked down the second we came in, so he must be smart enough or scared enough not to mess with us." Jaune leaned over and plucked a sawed-off shotgun—unfired—from the hands of a dead goon. He remembered how much easier it is to pull something out of a recent corpse's hands rather than an older one, when rigor mortis had set in. He spun the gun around, pointed it at the window and pulled one of the triggers.
A deafening boom! and the window shattered. A squeal of fear slipped out.
"Come out with your hands up," Jaune said. "If I don't see them empty, you're dead."
Shakily, slowly, a pair of hands rose up over the desk. The top of a head, covered in a ratty beanie, poked up after, eyes peering cautiously.
"I, I never did anything bad!" the man said. "Not, not like them! You—I mean, they weren't my friends or anything I just steered the ships! You all"– his eyes glanced to Orion, then couldn't bear the sight for more than a heartbeat and pivoted back to Jaune –"did real good here, haha!"
The man slowly rose, arms outstretched and palms empty.
"You steer the ships?" Jaune asked. "Well then it's your lucky day. I don't think any of us know how to sail, right?"
Orion shook his head; Neo didn't bother with an obvious answer.
"And we need to get to Mistral."
The man nodded furiously. "Yeah, yeah! I run stuff to Mistral a lot. Long haul trip, but no problem for me! Not a problem at all! Haha!" He glanced at Orion again, and again his look rebounded immediately. "I can take you wherever you want! Nice port by the Arch of the Rising Sun, that's my main route! I'll take you right there!"
"That's good," Jaune said. "Means we're not going to kill you."
"So," Winter began. "How did your talk with Sundown go?"
Sarah knew their meeting would be about this.
It is not every day that you are invited to the personal office of the head Specialist for your mission for 'a briefing on one's opinion of the current mission status.' As a former member of the Foreign Legion, Sarah doubted her opinion on anything was very valued. Yet here she was, sitting across from specialist Schnee's desk.
"It was pleasant," Sarah said. "It was kind of him to personally welcome me aboard." Sarah slipped a folded piece of paper from her pocket and slid it across the desk. "While we're here, I wanted to personally present a request for a couple days' leave."
"Hm?" Winter picked up the note and took one look at it.
"Your caution is appreciated, but not even Sundown would bug my office. That's a step too far, even for him."
She dipped the letter into a paper shredder beside her desk, which whirred and rumbled and ripped it all to pieces.
"And I also appreciate your loyalty; I've had specialists be coerced by him in the past." She scoffed and crossed her arms. "Sundown is undeniably skilled, not to mention unflinchingly loyal to Atlas.
"But he is paranoid beyond paranoid. The Atlas Intelligence Service is a beast unto its own. They are loyal to Atlas, yes, but you can't ignore their drive for self-preservation and power.
"For instance, their budget appears relatively humble, at least compared to the billions of lien poured into the army and navy. That said, we're almost certain that they rake in vast sums of many through other means. They have more agents and better equipment than the allotted budget would allow for. They absolutely have more illicit revenue streams, which lets them spend money on things without oversight."
Sarah peeled her lips back in disgust. "And we allow that?"
"Like I said, they're useful." Winter picked up a fountain pen and jabbed it down onto a notepad, idly tapping it. "We make a deal with the devil by keeping them around."
She looked at the dark blue ink spreading out from the pen's tip and into the paper. "Peddling drugs. Embezzling from companies. Smuggling stolen goods. The AIS, we're sure, is itself a bit of a criminal syndicate. Insofar as its fundraising goes. The worst part? We can't prove anything. After all, they are our chief investigators."
Sarah narrowed her eyes. "Who watches the watchmen?"
"Indeed." Winter drew the pen back from the paper, capped it and set it down. She sighed. "As distasteful as they may be, their methods help keep Atlas afloat. We need them. Especially for missions such as this."
"Of course," Sarah said, "that does not mean we trust them."
"Of course." Winter nodded. "You… my intuition was right about you, Specialist Pride."
Sarah bowed her head. "Thank you."
"Your loyalty matches your skills, and that is what I look for in those on my team. Play Sundown's game for now, make him think you're his puppet. Two can play this game." She smiled. "Stay by my side, and I think you'll find that Winter Schnee has just as much push and pull as Agent Sundown does when it comes to who can and cannot be rewarded for their merit."
She extended a hand.
"I look forward to working together."
Sarah shook with a strong grip.
"As do I."
In a dark room in the bowels of an Atlesian ship. Agent Moonlight, right hand of Sundown, hunched over a display of computer monitors. The room was cramped and bare, with only the PC and her notepads. Her clawed fingertips clicked against the keys.
She glanced at an alert that popped up on her side window.
"Well then…" She pulled on a set of headphones and listened.
"Not even Sundown would bug my office…
"And I also appreciate your loyalty…
"We need them…
"Two can play this game…"
Moonlight grinned her sharp-toothed smile. Not bad, Pride, not bad at all…
Viola Lavender's life was taking a turn.
She had spent most of her time recently training with the New Dawn protection force, especially with those also Hunter-level. She worked out almost around the clock; wanting to be tired; wanting the endorphins; wanting a distraction; wanting something else to focus on. And she did it with the only friends she had been able to make the last few years: others from the New Dawn. Most of whom she would not see again for a long time, if ever.
For she had received another letter. And she knew who it was from.
She thought of the crushed bodies at the collapsed coliseum and the mangled corpses of civilians slain by Grimm in the Breach. She remember the fury, the anger at such unfair things happening.
Now she sat in her apartment. Everything was packed up. It was a little place. She had been saving up for a new car. Now, she had taken out all her savings. Cash and valuable jewelry lay in the suitcase she held.
My life. My whole little life. Cleaned up so easily.
A mattress in the corner. A couple bags of cookware she wasn't going to use. She would be making runs to the charity thrift store to dump some of it off. For the rest, she had given some lien to the landlord to get someone to ship it off to the dump.
She looked out the window. Half of her block had been wrecked by an artillery shell that had missed that giant dragon. Atlas had taken it down, but the liberal application of explosives naturally had some side-effects. For instance, the convenience store across the street that she had used for many a midnight snack-run. Now a charred pile of shattered glass and crushed brick. Much of the city fared no better.
And I'll be working with all the people who caused it.
She closed her eyes. She could still taste the intoxicating mix of fear and hope that had filled her when she walked on down to the meeting place, an abandoned storefront. She had met a man there, a man with glasses who licked his lips oddly often. But he had spoken quickly, and his words had made sense.
A greater good. A greater world. A better world.
Purity of blood and mind.
Viola Lavender grabbed her bags and left the apartment.
"A cruise ship? Really?" Blake looked at the brochure in her hands, then back up to her partner.
Yang shrugged. "It's the thing that's leaving the soonest, and I checked over all the directories and asked around at the docks. Nothing else is leaving too soon except cargo ships that won't take us. This thing's first stop is in Mistral, at the Arch of the Rising Sun. From there, there's a few different roads heading for the city.
"And with everything going on, a lot of travel going to and from Vale is shutting down, so there's no telling when we might get another chance."
"Hmm…" Blake rubbed her chin and looked back at the brochure.
She and Yang sat side by side on one of the beds in the cheap motel they had all rented out. A week more of traveling and they had hit a coastal town that seemed relatively peaceful. Spared by Grimm thanks to a couple huntresses stationed nearby, the shipping town was mostly normal.
Mostly. People were quiet, and few were out and about even during the day. A film of greasy unease covered the town.
"Do we have the money for this?" Blake asked. "Looks like sort of a luxury thing."
The front of the brochure showed an idyllic picture of a white beach; smiles all-around as people held drinks and lounged in the sun by cute tourist shops stuffed with snacks and sunscreen. Jungle-covered mountains loomed in the background, among them being the famous Arch of the Rising Sun. A huge natural rock formation, this pale arch was so named because, sailing to the shore at dawn, the sun on the horizon would shine straight through it from a valley, encapsulating the sun itself.
"Guess it's a must-see," Yang said, "nothing else like it. I checked though and there are plenty of spots left, guess a lot of people canceled their travel plans. We might be able to haggle for even less." She sighed. "It'll take most of our cash on hand, but I'm sure we can do some off-the-books hunter work in Mistral to get some Lien."
"Indeed, in times like these, I don't think people will care too much that we're not technically registered hunters…" Blake said. She flipped through the brochure, eyeing the packages and amenities. "It just feels very strange to be going on a cruise in a time like this."
"Where Jaune's headed," Yang said, "we're headed." She slammed a fist into one palm. "We've got to knock some sense into that moron."
Blake rolled her eyes.
"Yeah," Yang continued, not noticing her partner's dismissiveness. "And he has to know something we don't. Whatever trouble he's getting into—no way we're being left out the fight."
Ozymandias stood at the prow of the airship. Ahead of him, the land of Mistral finally revealed itself.
It was hardly the best view. Brown cliffs emerged through the mists and low-lying clouds. The dark outlines of tall towers also peaked out of the mists, stretching high. Waiting before him was an airship port that handled most skyborne traffic from Vacuo.
"Landing'll take a little longer than normal," the pilot said, "cus of all this damn mist. Unlucky that we got here in the morning this time of the season—normally nice and clear."
"No problem at all," Ozymandias said. "Take all the time you need, best to be cautious now at the very end."
Ozymandias would be very disappointed if his journey and the vision was thrown off track by a freak landing accident before he even set foot on Mistral.
He closed his eyes, leaving behind the current world and recalling the images revealed to him back in Vacuo. Images of the world yet to be.
A huge arch amidst jungled mountains. The sun shone through it, glimmering over a blue scene. And there, a young man. His last task, his last redemption.
Breathe deep. Hold. Release.
Ozymandias sighed heavily. It was still a few thousand miles until the Arch of the Rising Sun, on the other side of the continent, so his journey was far from over. But there was nothing else he could do now.
Shorter chapter, just a transitory one to set up for the future. I also just wanted to put something out after so long. I want to pick up the pace with the story now and events. That said, a lot of the next chapter is just going to be on a boat.