Had a lot of good movies lately. Just saw Blue Beetle, flawed but liked it. Barbie and Oppenheimer, of course, fantastic. I watched Oldboy too in theaters for its anniversary and dear lord that one is messed up
Ozymandias, hunched over with age and injury, used his sword as a cane and marched down the dirt backroad. Trees loomed high on either side of him, their roots trying to trip him over, their branches swinging for his head. Leaves brushed against the hard steel lines of the lion mask covering his face, a perpetual snarl.
He held half the body of a coyote, flies buzzing around the raw meat. Chunks had been ripped out of the creature—blunt, strong teeth. This reduced the animal to a tangle of blood-matted fur clinging to meat and bone. It would do.
The old master continued along. His myriad wounds, bound by crude bandages, still groaned and shuddered like a host of leeches that refused to let go.
He stopped for five minutes to catch his breath, then shouldered on. For an hour. For another hour more. He would trudge on like that until it got dark, just as he had the day before and the day before that and so on and so forth.
At least he would have, were it not for a violent break in the monotony.
Ozymandias stepped into what he hoped was a pile of mud. Looking down at it, he muttered some indecipherable and wildly inappropriate curses to himself. And then an arrow whizzed by head.
He shot to attention and saw a gang emerging from the forests. Human and faunus alike, they all looked unwashed, unshaven and unkind. Most wielded swords, one a crossbow. That seemed to be their leader. He counted five in all. None impressive enough to raise his heartbeat.
"Hey there buddy," said the leader. Poorly done and scarred tattoos of snakes ran up her arms "To think we've been waiting around here all day to ambush people and all we got was some weirdo." She spat onto the dirt between her feet, methodically began rearming her crossbow.
"I don't want any trouble," Ozymandias said. He leaned off of his sword
"Well sorry, cus you got it." The boss shrugged. "Listen, just empty your pockets and move along"– she grimaced at the sight of his dead coyote –"and just do… whatever."
"With pleasure," Ozymandias said. He dropped the dead animal and pulled out his pockets: they were empty. His bag back at the cabin held most of his supplies, and what lien he had kept on him was given to the innkeepers for their help. "I have nothing for you. I'm sorry."
"Oh come on!" she pouted. "Really? Nothing? Raven sends us all the way over here and we just pick up fucking nothing?"
Ozymandias tightened his grip on his sword's handle.
"Nah," the bandit said, "we're getting something." She looked him up and down, sneering at his filthy rags. Settling on his mask. "Gimme your weird helmet. Looks sorta cool, could put it up on my tent."
"What do you mean, no?"
"You cannot take this."
"I require it."
"Oh do you now?"
The boss smiled. She leveled her crossbow at him. "Well then, guess I get a little action after all."
"You don't want to do this." He sounded like a tired grandfather warning his granddaughter not to jump on the bed. You've already fallen so many times, he could say, and now you're going to crack your little skull open. "Just let me be. This mask is of no use to you. It wouldn't even fit, and there are better decorations."
"Nah," she said, grin obscene and cocky. "I want it. So gimme." She put her finger on the crossbow's trigger.
Ozymandias looked at her through the dark eyes of his lion's mask. "You're so little."
"Raven thought so little of you that she sent you to a random trail, likely just to get you weaklings out of her sight."
"Oh you…" She snarled and pulled the trigger. The crossbow bucked in her grip, its cord whipping and launching the bolt out in a blur—
Ozymandias caught the bolt mid-air; he broke it in half with one flex of his strong hand.
The little bandits' eyes widened. Their jaws slackened. Ozymandias drew his sword. He spoke:
"If this is how you wish to die."
Jaune didn't know how to describe what he felt; in fact, he wasn't sure that he had ever exactly felt this way before.
It was comparable only to the time he returned to Vault 101 after his long adventures through the wastes. A deep sense of deja vu, combined with a sharp anxiety. His synthetic heart twisted up in his chest.
The lighthouse. The beach. The place where he first awoke and saw Remnant. It was months ago, but it felt like years. It felt like a lifetime.
Breathe deep. Hold. Release.
He swallowed a stone, then noticed how weak his legs felt.
Jaune jumped off the cliff, landing with a splash of rock and gritty sand.
"There's a lighthouse up ahead," he said quickly, without looking his companions in the eye. "I know this place. There are stairs leading up to it from the beach, so let's just keep walking." He didn't wait for any answer before he marched out.
"Here it is," Jaune said. They stood at the base of the rusty, corroded staircase that clung to the cliffside and crawled up to the lighthouse. It looked even worse for wear than when he had last scaled it, whole sections having collapsed and crumpled to the beach, or barely hanging on by twisted joints. Like a dead strand of ivy clinging to a wall.
"You can climb on my back," Orion said. "I can go up the cliffside easily."
"You can?" Jaune asked. "And you just let me go up the last one?"
"Hm. You volunteered and then did it quite quickly."
Jaune looked down at his still-sore hands. Then he glanced at Orion's massive claws. Then at the deathclaw's tree trunk, muscled legs.
Neo meandered over to the stairs. She preferred rejecting help. Even now, she prepared her own meals, slept apart from them and still seemed half-awake when it wasn't her time to stand on watch.
Their only interactions were her teaching Jaune sign language, which was both practical and—Jaune had a hunch—something relatively interesting for her to do when she had nothing else but a scroll with solitaire loaded on it to pass the time.
She eyed up the staircase, hands on her hips, mapping out how she could get up there herself.
"Hm." Orion growled in thought, examining the cliffside for the route of best climbing.
"This is where I first woke up," Jaune said quietly, so that only Orion could hear.
"How do you mean?"
"This is where I first came to Remnant."
Jaune looked along the beach, but could not see his abandoned suit of power armor. The tide must have slowly dragged it back in, where it was rusting among the rocks. Or something like that.
He had never forgotten how vividly blue and endless the ocean seemed back then; it was the most real thing he had ever seen in his life. Nothing else had ever come close.
Now it was grey and choppy with wintry energy. Cold wind scratched his face. It looked as unkind as the sludgy, fetid waters of the Potomac that he remembered from Earth.
"You landed in the ocean?" Orion asked.
"Yup. Lucky I didn't drown." It had been such a clear, bright day. Now fog smothered the horizon, and the world was claustrophobic. "But damn do things change."
A shiver ran up his back when he looked away from the sea, like cold fingers.
"Someone's getting a head-start," Orion said.
Neo was scaling the precarious staircase. She hopped from one broken step to the next, gripping and flipping along the railing where the stairs had collapsed. The rotting steel shuddered under each step, but she weighed as much as a sack of feathers and moved as quickly as the birds they were plucked from. With relative safety (but not very much ease), she made her way up.
"Guess we should get going," Jaune said.
"Hm. We can take a moment," Orion said. "If you need it."
"Why would I need it?"
"In case you want to ruminate."
"I don't even know what that word means."
"Think. Ponder. Reflect."
"Yeah," Jaune said, "if you don't mind me getting on your back for a sec, that would be great."
"I remember a village," Jaune had said, "so just follow me. Once we get there—"
"Holy shit," Jaune said.
The village was burned to the ground.
Charred rubble mixed with dirt and fallen leaves lay in plots where once houses might have stood. The remains of corn and potato fields, now overgrown with weeds. Deer wandering through the abandoned agriculture bolted as soon as they sighted Orion. The destruction reminded Jaune of a scene from Earth.
He clenched his jaw.
"This place…" He wandered out into what once had been the town's main street. He had fought the bandit leader here, dodging explosions and gusts of wind.
He had fought that guy to a standstill, until…
Jaune looked into the sky. Qrow had swooped down just in time to save him—
And I repaid the guy by bashing a gun into his skull.
He winced at the memory of that night in the warehouse. Qrow's confrontation. The reveal that he was part of the Brotherhood. Qrow's unconscious body. His mentor, attacked.
Jaune shook his head, quickly. It cracked his neck. He saw a few dancing sparkles at the edge of his vision for a second.
"This…" He swallowed. "I saved this place. Guess that was for nothing."
He looked up again. He saw the bandit leader brought low. He saw Qrow intervening in his attempted execution. He saw the Grimm. He saw the sky, bright and blue like a robin's egg, as he was powerless to stop the blood gushing from the wound in his gut.
Except now the sky was grey, choked with clouds and rumbling with cold winds. Simultaneously dull in color and sharp with a chill that he felt again his face and hands.
How could he ever forget that insane rush when his aura was first unlocked? He had never taken Jet, but it must be a comparable—if somewhat healthier—experience.
Jaune didn't feel like standing, so he sat cross-legged in the middle of the ruined town. Wind and scavengers had rendered the long cool embers into flat beds of garbage. He felt as empty as the village.
"What happened here…"
Jaune was very still as the others wandered around. Neo kicked at the dust; Orion rummaged through wreckage with his claws.
"No bones," the deathclaw said.
"I don't see any bones," Orion repeated. "People either got away, or the dead have been taken off. I don't imagine the raiders would have helped with the bodies. Whatever happened here, it's been resolved."
Jaune snorted. "Resolved?" He ran his hands back through his hair. They came back sweaty, and he only then realized that drops of sour sweat were running down into his eyes. He wiped it away, but not before they stung his corneas.
"All for nothing," Jaune spat. "All for fucking nothing."
"I saved this place. I saved this fucking place, first day here I saved this place from bandits and Grimm." With Qrow. "But now it's just gone. Just like that. Peach told me so many times to look at the good impacts I've had and make myself be proud of them…
"But no impact at all.
"And it's probably the same thing back on Earth," he grumbled under his breath, quiet enough for Neo not to hear but for Orion's keen senses to engage. "Probably some more raiders or supermutants swung by and killed everyone in DC and pissed in the water to make it radioactive again anyway. Cus war never changes."
"We shouldn't stick around here anyway," Jaune said, hauling himself up. "There's a bigger town down that way, another day or so. Not sure where to go from there to get to the Arch of the Rising Sun… hell, we probably shouldn't even bother going there anymore if there's a faster way to just start heading to Mistral inland." He whipped out the map and focused on it and it alone.
Orion noticed how the paper shook slightly in his grip.
"I still don't even remember the name of this place… map is useless."
"But we'll know where we are once we get to the other town."
"But that place might be destroyed, too. Who knows? It seemed better defended but there's no way to guess—"
Orion laid a claw on Jaune's shoulder.
The Lone Wanderer flinched. "What?"
"Do you want to take a moment to slow down? We don't have to get right back to work if you need—"
"Bishop is out there, and the Enclave is out there, and staying here is useless."
"Finally," Jaune said, "I can figure out where we are. He peered through his binoculars at the far-off town named New Rest. At least, that's what the old wooden welcome sign said. He hadn't bothered learning the place's name last time.
They had trudged through forests for a day and a night. Jaune had really thought the walk would be faster, especially since he had set a faster than normal pace the whole time and insisted they cut off several hours of sleep.
It made Neo grumble; it made Orion worried.
"We can't all go in looking like this," Jaune said.
"I didn't suppose I could," Orion said. Even at this distance, he stayed behind the two humans, muscles tensed to dart into the forests.
"Not just you," Jaune said. "Me. I'm… I'm a damn celebrity." He spat out the word like it was covered in rotten fish oil. "I was on every TV screen on Remnant for a little while there." It still made his skin crawl. "And just trying to have some privacy only made people more curious about me. And apparently I'm a meme, too."
"What's a meme?" Orion asked.
"You don't want to know. Apparently some pictures of me looking awkward got popular or something. But also Neo—"
He looked down at his deadly companion, then started back.
The girl who stood next to him was not Neo.
She was the same height, of course, as her semblance couldn't add on a few inches and get her past five feet. Everything else, though? Her eyes now shone blue; her hair, a dirty blonde that straddled the line with a soft brunette, tied back into a lopsided ponytail. Her combat outfit had turned into a hoodie emblazoned with a cartoon cat tilting its head curiously, a question mark over its head. She wore green crocs.
"Damn… you look like you're twelve or something."
Neo responded with a middle finger.
"Oh don't tell me that's not what you're going for," he said. "Smart, nobody will think you're a threat."
Neo beamed with pride.
"Because you look to silly."
Another middle finger.
"But for me"– Jaune raised a middle finger of his own –"it's not as easy. I got an idea, though." He unslung his duffel bag and let it thump against the ground. He rooted around, pushing past rations and guns until dragging out his prize.
"I took this from the ship," he said.
And he lifted the gas mask for all to see.
It felt comfortable and uncomfortable simultaneously.
His hot breath clouded around his face. The dark, circular eye pieces restricted his vision around the periphery. The plastic stench plugged his nose.
But the gas mask also covered his face. Combined with the hood pulled up over his head, he was completely anonymous. Sure, he would get some looks—glances that were curious and concerned—but that could be tolerated. In a world with huntsmen and huntresses in their bizarre dress, seeing someone with a gas mask was odd but not completely out of place for this world.
He was well aware that it still looked suspicious, but hiding his face in any way would be, including the classic of wearing a bandana with sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled down. He also couldn't play the hypochondriac and wear a surgical mask, not having any on him. This would just have to do, as being a sketchy, anonymous guy with an old gas mask on was better than being recognizable Jaune Arc.
He marched into New Rest, Neo by his side. He had forgotten the name of the town, but he still remembered the look of it. Squat brick shops and storefronts that were half empty not for being sold out, but rather for being half-supplied. The roads needed repairs, with gaping potholes that undoubtedly spelled hell for every traveler hoping for a smooth ride. Cramped apartments loomed over flat, boarded up buildings.
It had been rundown when he first remembered it, but at the time it seemed like the peak of civilization. People with clean water, electricity, green trees and a road that lead off to some bigger city and airships that lead off to even bigger cities than that. A place of promise.
Now, after so much time spent in Vale, Jaune realized that this was a place where promises went to die. Rundown and poor, the kind of place that had lost its livelihood and was now sustained by the fumes of whatever meager economy had managed to sprout up around that original purpose. No one quite had the opportunity to leave. Except he had.
The streets were rather empty. Jaune ignored the few people that were out—a couple holding hands and an old man having trouble with his bag of groceries—and continued on through the middle of town.
When he spoke, his voice came out rugged and inhuman through the mask. "There's a train route from here to the next few towns," he explained to Neo. "That's what I took last time I was here."
If Neo was curious about his history, she didn't bother asking for it.
"We can maybe sneak Orion onto one of the back cars of the train."
She arched an eyebrow. Really?
"Yeah, I know, but it's worth thinking about. We're not just going to leave him here or make him sprint after us.
"We can take the train to Lake Matsu, then a ferry across it and hike to Mistral. At least, that looks like the best route from the maps."
Last time, he had taken the trains and ferry to the airship stop outside of Mistral itself. Qrow had given him money and directions, then told him about a friend who owed him a favor at the skydock so he could get a flight. Qrow had really set everything up for him.
Jaune readjusted his gas mask on his face. It had started feeling uncomfortable, like it didn't fit very well.
The pair found themselves shortly in the quiet town square. An old woman threw seeds at some birds, although they didn't seem hungry and instead flapped away.
There was the infirmary down the road, where he had first looked out and seen the shattered moon that told him once and for all that he was no longer on Earth. And a bar named The Leaky Bucket. There, he had spoken with Qrow, chose his current name and agreed to go to Beacon.
My name is Jaune Arc.
What a funny thing to make up. It had taken him just a second to think of it.
It's amazing how much can change in just a moment.
"Come on," he told Neo, "there's a train station over on the other edge of town. We can see the times there."
He took a few steps, stopped. He looked over his shoulder at the old woman who had now put her seeds away and instead turned her focus to crocheting.
"Give me a second," he told Neo. "I need to know some things."
He walked to the old woman, who looked up at him with a start and then a cautious gaze. She set her needles down, hands going over for her purse where she probably kept a taser or pepper spray or both.
Jaune stopped a safe distance away and spoke up, "What happened to that town a bit south?"
She didn't let her guard down, keeping one hand in her purse. "You mean South Rest?"
"If that's what it was called, then yes." The Lone Wanderer shrugged. "The town that's just ash now." Just like Megaton. Just like so many others.
"Some group of raiders showed up overnight," she said. "Got in, forced everybody out, torched all the houses and took some people away. Nasty business." She shook her head. "My nurse was down there when it happened. Haven't seen her since."
Jaune's hands clenched into fists. "When did this happen?"
"A couple of months back… but stranger, I don't really like to ruminate on nasty old things. It's not good for my heart." She pointed a crocheting needle to the bar. "Most of the people who lived there have all gone and packed up now. Got right out of dodge, feeling that frontier life ain't all it's cracked up to be. But one nice man who was there still works at the bar. He was my nurse's husband…"
She clicked her teeth and returned to crocheting. "Hasn't been the same since, poor guy."
"Thank you." Jaune stepped toward the bar, stopped. "Actually, do you know if a train is going to be heading out North soon?"
The old woman bore her little teeth as she chuckled. "You really are new here, huh? The Branwen Tribe blew the rail lines a couple months back, too."
The Lone Wanderer tensed. He didn't think the name was coincidence.
"Mistral government used to pay them bunches to leave some of the major cities alone, at least the ones that were best at paying their taxes on time. So goes the rumors. But now the city's been going broke for years… they sent some troops out to take on the Tribe but those fellas just got beat bad. Then the Branwens started ripping up all the tracks just to be spiteful and derailing trains left and right, so no rail is going around these parts anymore."
"Damn indeed!" The old woman huffed with anger accumulated over years. "Bastards in the big city never cared about us but this is just bad. I get that there's all the stuff with Atlas right now but can't they send that good General Tarquin over here? Heard he really sorted stuff out East and South." She waved a hand around, pointing at the rundown and abandoned buildings. "This place has been going down into the dumps for years, ever since the copper mines closed with that blasted Vacuo trade deal." She grumbled something quiet but foul, unwilling to say entirely out loud whatever swear or curse she had packed up. "Most of the people left here now are stubborn and old, like me, and people who don't have much else place to go. Also like me." She huffed and returned to her crocheting. "All I do now is feed ungrateful birds and make scarfs, unwind them and make them again."
A chilly breeze swept through, sending a shiver through her old frame.
"Speaking of, I'm making one of those right now, so go on over to that bar if you want to know more." She hunched over her yarn and needles.
The bar looked just as he remembered. The last time he was there, Qrow had been leading a merry band of huntsmen and huntresses in outfits that reminded him of Halloween, and that had inspired his name.
Years of cigarette smoke stained the walls yellow, and a film of something sticky clung to the floor and protested every time he took another step.
He eyed the booth that he and Qrow had sat in. He had chosen one in the back corner of the room, near the rear exit. Back to the wall, eyes on the entrance, close to escape. All those things he had considered
"This is a bar," said the pot-bellied, grey-haired guy behind the counter. He chewed on a cigar butt, biting it after every sentence. "No kids allowed in here." He pointed at Neo.
The little assassin bristled.
"She's twenty-something," Jaune said, "if you want to take a second look, even though she's short."
The bartender snorted. "Well I ain't serving her all the same, and not serving you too, til you take that weird mask off—"
"Got questions about the town nearby that burned down," Jaune said. "Somebody here knows more about that?"
The bartender squeezed the cigar with his lips. A couple other patrons huddled deeper into their booths, or looked nervously at the exits.
The Lone Wanderer didn't bother reacting as the bartender moved his hands below the bar, undoubtedly to some firearm stashed there.
"And who's asking about that place?" the bartender asked.
"A guy who makes it his business to kill scumbags that burn down towns."
Neo kicked his leg. When he looked down at her, she gave him a face that said: What the hell are you talking about?
The bartender scratched the stubble on his neck. One hand stayed under the counter. His eyes flicked back and forth between Neo and the Wanderer. "Do you now?"
"Not much else I live for."
"I don't know much," the man said. He was busy cleaning dishes; sleeves rolled up past his elbows and hands pink from the heat, he focused much more on the bubbly water in the big industrial sink than the Wanderer. "It just happened."
"Walk me through it."
"I already walked through it when I sent the police report," the man said. "Why'd you even let this guy back here?" he said to the bartender, who filled up the doorframe.
"Because the guy said—"
"Don't care what he said." The dishwasher squirted out some more soap. "If the Mistral military couldn't handle it, then why can he?"
"I'm not the Mistral military," the Lone Wanderer said.
"Heard some huntsmen just got themselves killed—"
"Not a huntsman, either. If you want a chance at those people getting what they deserve, then walk me through it." The words ground out through his mask. "Or I can find some other way."
The dishwasher stared down into the water. "I just…" The words were quiet. "I just don't want to talk about it."
"I can end things," the Wanderer said. "You can help."
"End things? Huh, they already feel pretty much over." He sighed, slowly got to working his sponge on a greasy pan. "But if you… if you gotta know.
"It happened real quick. I was just there with my wife, hanging out with some friends on a weekend off. Real sleepy little town. Lot of people left after some bandit tore through a bit before, but Mistral sent some guardsman down so it felt alright.
"Then I wake up in the middle of the night to gunfire. They blew the guards' brains out in seconds. All these guys, they shouted like soldiers. It was too dark for me to get a good look at them." The man put down his sponge and pan; his hands were shaking.
"They rounded everybody up. A couple people tried to get away and just got shot in the back. They ransacked the place and…
"They took my wife. I mean, they took all the faunus. Told everyone who was faunus to line up against a house, I thought they were just going to shoot them dead right there. I shouted but…"
He rubbed a spot on the back of his head. "I got knocked out cold. I tried, you know? I tried to do something. I really did…"
"I believe you," Jaune said.
"Yeah… well, no good it did. I woke up and they had taken all the faunus. Just a few people but still. Took 'em and everybody's cash. Set everything on fire. Old man Rupert was even screaming that they took his Atlas stuff."
"This fisherman said he found what looked like Atlas tech out on the beach, like some robot thing. He was telling everybody about it and putting in calls to the city and government, but people weren't really believing him. Didn't help that he wouldn't let anybody even see it. He was getting old, so figure it was just some chunk of a boat that his mind was messing with him about."
"Where is he now?"
"Heart attack a couple days after the attack, must've taken a lot out of him. Dead."
"And that's all that happened," the dishwasher said. "We were lucky we could run back here in time before Grimm came. Feels like it all went down in five minutes… or five hours. Same thing, I dunno." He sighed and stepped away, sat down on a creaky stool by the wall.
"My wife was a nurse, you know? She didn't deserve any of"– he swallowed –"whatever happened to her." His eyes were red. "And the fucking Mistral guard still haven't done fuck all about finding those guys…"
"Are there any leads on where they went?"
"Not a word."
"Yeah," the dishwasher said sarcastically, "damn."
"And to think it happened just a couple months after the last attack," the bartender said. "If those couple of huntsmen who had been there last time woulda shown up again, then—"
"They woulda died too, cus these new guys were way outta anybody's league. Looked more like military. Hell, maybe it was Atlas trying to get their stuff back. Or the Branwen Tribe fucking around and getting slaves for the SDC. It's anybody's guess." The dishwasher rubbed his eyes with the backs of his wrists. "And last time one of those 'hunstman' was just a kid. And a kid that nearly got his guts ripped out, from what I hear."
"Yeah," the Lone Wanderer said, "that kid would've died. Would've gotten all of you killed. And whatever work he did saving you the first time around was worthless, since all of this happened anyway."
"Oh no, no, no, that's a bucket of bullshit if I ever smelled one." The bartender bit his cigar so hard it threatened to explode. "Don't you badmouth that kid. He took on beowolves and bandits without a second thought, no aura at all. Damn near nobody else would be willing to do that
"And I was there for that time around," he added, "took my granddaughter to meet her little cousins there. And I saw myself how she was this close"– he held his fingers a quarter of an inch apart –"to getting ripped apart by a beowolf when the kid dove and got her out of the way. Did it faster than I could blink.
"A hero, a damn hero, and I bet he would've given this second round of scumbags what they deserved."
Neo stood by the bar door as Jaune marched back out from the kitchen, bartender in tow.
"Don't suppose I can give you a beer for the road?" asked the man.
"Hmph." He plodded on after the Wanderer outside the bar.
"I'll be leaving now," the Wanderer said.
"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself."
That gave Jaune pause.
"I meant what I said," the bartender continued, quietly. "My granddaughter would be gone without you. Now she got to move up to Lake Matsu with her parents. And yeah shit went south later, but you saved people that time, and that's worth a lot."
The Lone Wanderer stood still. He slowly twisted his head, watching the bartender from the side of his gas-mask's dark lens.
"I don't know why you're going all incognito here"– he spat out the cigar –"but I won't be spilling it to anyone."
The Wanderer cursed himself when he realized that his silence was all the answer that the bartender needed.
"I had a hunch about who you were when you said why you were here," the man said. "Who else would it be? You were dressed up funny in a gas mask back when you first came around here, too, right?"
Jaune said nothing.
Neo snapped her fingers; he ignored her.
"But once you got all mad like that, I knew it had to be you. Thanks for coming round again, watching out for us." He dipped his head, somewhat in shame or somewhat in deference. "Truth is, we need people like you right now. It feels like the world has just started to break down around us, and we're powerless.
"If you're really serious, though, then I can lead you to someone who might help out."
Neo typed furiously into her scroll and threw it at him. He caught it.
Jaune stepped around her and kept walking, following the bartender down the dirt path as he read her message. It was the same as the previous few she had given him.
Why are we wasting our time?
We have more important things to do than go after random bandits!
I'm just going to go by myself if you're gonna waste time like this!
Jaune passed it back to her and didn't mind her scowl.
"I have to at least try," he told her. He signed a sentence she had taught him: It must be done.
It was supposed to be for when she needed a quick explanation during a fight about what action she was taking, essentially saying, 'trust me, I have a plan and can do this.' In reality, Neo had only used it thus far when she told him to take first watch or throw her a snack from the pack.
The term's use now infuriated her even more. She scowled and fell back, slowing down and quickly putting distance between them both.
Fine by him.
They came to a clearing shortly, a dingy wooden cabin with a soot-stained, skinny chimney poking out the top. It squatted amidst overgrown grass like some old man that had lost his way.
"Huntsman used to live out here," the bartender said under his breath. "Used to. Been left to just sort of rot for a while but now… just stay back a second."
Jaune stopped as the man continued up to the house. And then he realized that following a stranger away from the public place and into the forest was perhaps not a great idea. The Wanderer rested his hands behind his back, close to the pistol tucked in his pants.
Breathe deep. Hold. Release.
He sharpened his senses, snatching every single sound and movement at the edge of his vision even as he attentively watched the man knock on the cabin door.
A second passed, with Jaune staying tense.
Then an old woman opened the door. Elderly even compared to the bartender—compared even to the bird-feeder Jaune had met earlier—she looked the man up and down, smiled with her yellowed dentures. That smile turned to a frown as a few words were said and she eyed the Wanderer suspiciously.
"You're really here to help?" she asked him, her voice frayed but energetic in that way exclusive to elderly folks. "Got something up your sleeve?"
"A lot of experience dealing with bad people," Jaune said, walking up to the porch.
"What do you mean, 'dealing with bad people?'"
"I mean," Jaune worded things politely for the old woman, "that I try to take care of people who start trouble."
The granny grunted. "You make a habit of fucking up shitheads?"
Silence for a moment.
"Yes, that's right."
"Huh." She looked unimpressed, her narrow old eyes scouring him for anything respectable. "You don't look like a huntsman or a soldier."
"I'm not either."
"Then what are you?"
"You put it best, just someone who fucks ups shitheads." He nodded to the bartender. "And maybe he let you know, but this isn't my first rodeo. And I'm not alone."
"What, you talking about that mopey little girl back up there?"
"More someone else." Jaune put his hands on his hips. "But I take it you know more about the bastards who wiped that town off the map."
"You'd take it wrong," she said, then spat a wad of dark saliva onto the porch. "I don't know nothing about shit."
"Listen," the bartender said, "just fill him in and—"
"Don't rush me!" The old woman took her time waddling to the side of the porch and grabbing the rail. She looked the Wanderer up and down one last time.
"Well if you're gonna go in and talk to him, then you gotta take that stupid mask off first—"
She must have sensed Jaune was about to protest
"—cus you'll scare the kid wearing something like that."
"Yeah, dipshit, the kid." She shook her head. "Can't see the stupid on your face but I can feel it."
"What kid?" She beat him to the punch again. "The kid who survived getting taken from South Rest. The kid who showed up weeks later starved and dehydrated in the woods and sobbed until we promised not to call nobody. Crying over and over about how we would all die if we tried to tell anybody cus the people who took him have eyes and ears everywhere. Including the police and the guard.
"So here I am looking after the poor soul while a couple of us go out to try and get hunters all careful like to come back and solve some shit the way huntsmen and huntresses are supposed to.
"But then all we wind up with is you. Some guy who can't breathe wearing a hoodie and jeans like some high-schooler."
The Lone Wanderer crossed his arms. If anyone other than an old lady was talking to him like this, then he might have gotten mad. As it were, he was honestly a little impressed.
"Can you go over that again?" Jaune asked. "A kid who survived getting taken from the village? Where to?"
"We don't know!" She spat again. "Isaiah's his name. Nice little fox boy, nicest you ever seen. He and a couple other Faunus families lived out in South Rest. But he managed to make it back when they were looking away…
"So if you try to walk in with a spooky mask like that you'll just scare him, and I'll be damned if anything makes his little heart pound any harder than it already is, you hear me?"
Jaune envisioned a grimy, malnourished little face. He had seen several such back on Earth.
"Alright," he said, taking off his mask.
The sweat that clung to his cheeks and hair immediately chilled in the cold air, and his breath—instead of being hot and stifling—mutated into a fog before his face. The old woman narrowed her face like a hawk. He matched her scrutinizing gaze with his own.
She didn't recognize him, but maybe she recognized the look in his eyes.
"Okay," she said quietly. "Go in and talk to him, but be gentle."
Another couple doors opened and Jaune was inside. He jammed the gas mask into a side pocket of his duffel bag. When he found the boy, he was sitting alone at a small table, drawing something with crayons. He was skinny, too skinny.
"Hey there buddy," the old lady said.
The kid looked over, froze solid the moment he noticed Jaune. His fox ears went flat against his head.
"This guy here is going to help deal with the nasties that took you," she said. "And then you can walk out the cabin again."
The thought of that seemed to both scare and excite the boy. He glanced to a boarded-up window that allowed barely a crack of light into the musty, choked room. Strands of sunlight illuminated the dust in the air.
"Get your parents back," the old woman continued.
The kid swallowed.
"Hey there." Jaune kept his voice soft. "I'd really love if you told me some things about the bad men."
The kid looked between him and the old lady. Speaking to the old lady, he said that anyone could be working with them. They always shouted about how there was no hope to run, because they had friends in the police.
"But I'm different," Jaune said. "I'm independent. I'm not working for them, or for Mistral. I'm not going to tell anyone else. I'm going to take care of this myself. And I've done this exact sort of thing a bunch of times before."
The Lone Wanderer remembered the blood-splattered huts and bunkers that he had left behind in the wasteland, impromptu tombs for drugged-out low-lives.
"So you can tell me."
The kid told him that he didn't want to tell anyone.
"Then how are your friends going to get out? Your parents?"
The kid was silent. He looked at the floor.
"You're from South Rest, right? Do you recognize me? A little while back, I stopped some bandits there. And some beowolves."
The little boy finally looked at him directly now. He focused on his face, and his eyes widened.
"Yeah, I got messed up there, but I've got aura now. And I'm still up to it. If you'll help me."
The kid hesitated. He said he didn't feel safe.
Jaune scratched his chin. A change of strategy was needed.
"Alright," he said. "You don't have to say anything."
The kid asked if he meant that.
"Yeah, I do. I'm not going to make you say anything… what are you drawing?"
The kid said nothing for a moment, then told him he was drawing trees.
"Can I see?"
The kid hesitated. He looked to the old woman, who gave a little nod. He showed his crude drawing of brown columns for trunks crisscrossed with green lines for leaves; a blue line across the paper's top edge was the sky.
"It's good," Jaune said with a smile. "Very cute."
The boy looked a little embarrassed.
"You know, I actually like drawing with crayons, too."
The boy asked if that was true.
"I do, though it's been a little bit. This friend of mine made me take some crayons and just… draw my feelings." He saw Peach's little office again, the metal band posters on the wall behind her; heard the tink of her nails against her chains; smelled the tart wildflower candles that she would light as he started to leave each session. "It's nice."
Jaune crouched by a little stool beside the table. "Can I draw a bit, too?"
The kid nodded.
So Jaune awkwardly got on the tiny seat and grabbed a few crayons. He got to work silently. First brown, then pink, then teal; then blue..
"It's a cherry blossom," Jaune said, showing off his creation. He had painted his little masterpiece in the same way that the kid had painted his. A brown column for the trunk, with janky lines jutting out for branches; pink scribbles forming the petals; teal for the pool at its base; a blue line at the top. "I really liked this tree."
He remembered it blackened by smoke and shuddering in pain as flames ripped apart the branches and devoured the trunk. It was there that he had slain Arthur. There that he had mortally wounded Bishop. And there that Ruby…
Had stopped him from leaving.
Bad thought, he told himself, all bad thoughts to be thinking.
The second time around, Ruby hadn't stopped him.
He cleared his throat and sort of managed to clear his head. He asked the boy again, "I just want to help you, you know?"
The boy looked bashful, said that he knew.
"If you do tell me, then I'll make sure no one knows it was you, so you'll still be safe."
The kid said that the bad people would make him say.
"No," Jaune said, "not me."
The kid seemed conflicted.
"Take a chance on me," Jaune said. "Take a chance on me, and I'll get your parents and everyone else back."
"You promise?" the kid asked, voice very quiet; he mumbled the words down into the floor.
"I do. Actually"– Jaune held out his pinky –"I pinky promise. For real."
Isaiah looked at his hand hesitantly. Slowly, then, he stuck out his own pinky, and they shook on it.
"They were… let me draw it." Isaiah pulled out some fresh sheets of paper and started scribbling. Big blots of green for the forests, x's for landmarks he remembered, a squiggly blue line for a river he crossed. A couple of squat black triangles for hills. And an arrow pointing at one of them.
"We were in caves. Or… mines. There was wood 'n stuff like that holding it all up. My dad told me he used to work at places like it." He sniffled. "When I got away I just guessed. My dad taught me how to tell which way is what from the sun and… I just guessed south."
"Good guess," Jaune said with a smile. "Alright, let me just see here." He pulled out one of his own maps of the area and started lining it up to Isaiah's squiggles.
"I think I got it," he said. There was a belt of hills to the north, past a river. The distance was enough that he could imagine a kid making it without dying—barely.
"Those are the old abandoned mines," said the old woman, peering over his shoulder. "The Western Mining Company… went defunct years ago."
"Abandoned," he said, "until now."
"Thank you," Jaune said to Isaiah. He patted him on the shoulder. "Thank you a lot. I'll be back as soon as I can with your parents and friends."
The kid nodded, and he even smiled.
Jaune returned it in kind. Then got up and turned around, pulling out his gas mask as he did so—
"Ah!" Isaiah squawked in fear and surprise, falling back out of his seat and slamming onto the floor. He dug his nails into the floorboards and scrambled away.
"Huh? What's wrong?" Jaune looked over his shoulder, immediately checking the door and windows for intruders.
Isaiah sprinted for the corner of the room, as far away as he could get; the old woman waddled over and bent down to try and console the child.
Jaune felt a punch to the gut when he saw wild fear in the kid's eyes.
And that turned into a sledgehammer to the gut when he realized that Isaiah's fear was directed at him.
"Y-you!" Isaiah shouted. He pointed at the gas mask in Jaune's hand. "One of them!"
The Lone Wanderer threw the cabin's front door open, marched out. His boots thumped against each step, making the whole porch shudder. The bartender, nervous like a spooked coyote, asked "Did you learn anything?" He jogged up beside the Wanderer, who didn't bother to pause or spare so much as a glance. "Did he—"
"Yes, I know where they are. And I know who has them."
"Alright then… we can probably organize a militia or something, a posse or—"
"No", the Lone Wanderer said. He slipped the gas mask back on over his face, yanked the straps tight and pulled his hood up. "You'll all die." His voice sounding inhuman once more.
With that, he picked up pace, marching down the road and leaving the bartender behind him in the dust. He passed by Neo, who snapped her fingers, a vicious scowl carved on her face. She hopped in front of him and waved up her scroll, a full wall of text plastered on it.
"It's the Enclave," Jaune said, not sparing her rant a glance. "It's them. We need to move."
Neo was still scowling, to be sure; however, the anger and frustration lost its intensity, like the screech of a razor blade being scratched across glass going dead when the blade stops, the sharp edge remaining.
"Come on," he said. "We find Orion. We set out. Now."
Neo scoffed, but she felt a sudden itch in her hands to feel some Enclave bastard's blood on the skin of her fingers and palms. So she pushed herself and her much shorter legs to keep pace with his stride.
Jaune didn't look over his shoulder; if he had, then he might have seen the frightened little boy, comforted in the old woman's arms, peek out after him. He might have seen the bartender's lips move, although he certainly would not have heard the quiet prayer wishing him luck.
The bandit—insofar as an untrained thug can be generously described—crawled down the dirt road. Perhaps thirty seconds had passed since their fight with the old man began.
She had known he was old by the way he walked all sad and stooped over, and his haggard voice served as confirmation. It should have been easy. Like the only other person she had killed, some old guy who didn't want them to butcher his cows for a night of good eating.
She heard her companion's scream abruptly twist into silence. She did not look behind her. She drove her nails into the dirt and dragged herself forward.
A gaping wound on her thigh made every inch agony—the sword had slashed through her thigh like and carved her bone straight down to the marrow. Effortlessly.
She had turned and stumbled, not daring to look back as every desperate nerve in her bones and flesh screamed for her to escape. She tried in vain to drag herself away, but the blood spewing her leg weakened her with every passing second. She heard thumping steps behind her. Heavy. Slow.
"I warned you," said the old man. "I tried to play along, and then I tried to warn you."
"Leave me alone!" the little raider screeched. "Raven will kill you! I'm part of her tribe—"
"Probably nothing more than an initiate." The steps got closer. "Cannon fodder that would have been wasted away in the next raid to some suicidal charge, little more than a convenient distraction for Raven Branwen. I should know, her brother told us all about that kind of tactic."
"Just leave me alone! I don't—"
A shadow descended on her. She didn't even have time to scream as a piercing pain plunged into her back, drove between her shoulder blades, tore through her heart and embedded into the ground below.
Ozymandias stood still. His free hand hovered over his sheath.
He watched Raven Branwen, her sword skewered through the thug's body. She did not wear her mask, for she only wore that in battle. This wasn't even a hunt, let alone a fight.
"What a weakling," she said, and spat on the corpse. She grabbed a rag from her pocket and ripped the sword out with a fresh splurt of blood.
A couple of her goons—these brandishing shift-weapons, the gleam of aura around their skin and scars along their arms and across their faces—emerged from the forest.
"We were just about to butcher this crew," Raven said. She ran the rag down the length of her sword, wiping off the blood. "We picked them up at the last town over. You were right that they were bound for cannon fodder. But then we realized our stocks were lower than expected and"– she cleaned a drop of blood off her chin with the rag as if it were a bit of pan sauce from her steak dinner –"we didn't want to risk having to ration."
"And you thought it would be fun?" Ozymandias asked.
Her lips formed the barest smile.
"Thank you for the explanation," Ozymandias said. "I'm glad I could be of assistance, then."
One of her guards leveled a rifle at his skull.
"No, actually," she said. "This one is interesting. Potentially useful." Her red eyes burrowed into him like parasites.
"I am just moving through," Ozymandias said. "For personal reasons. No grander mission than wishing to meet someone."
"A paladin like yourself wouldn't cross continents if the Brotherhood's work was not involved."
A couple of her guards looked at one another, each non-verbally asking the other if they knew what she was talking about.
"It's true," Ozymandias said. "I Just want to meet a new student."
"Must be someone important."
"He is to me."
"And you had to come through my territory to get to him?"
"I was not aware it was your territory."
"Wherever I am, it is mine."
"My apologies for trespassing."
Raven's smile widened. "You know, if it came down to a fight right now, you would die."
"Very likely, which is why I do not want to fight you."
She looked him up and down, appraising him with as much cockiness and disdain as the poor raider at her feet had mere minutes earlier.
"How far the mighty have fallen. Look at you. Ancient, filthy and… injured?"
"I killed Tyrian Callows a few days ago"– he coughed like a smoker –"and it left me… unwell."
"Yes. I tricked him, and he made the poor decision to follow me off a cliff."
"He always struck me as more of a fool than a madman." Raven shook her head, sheathed her sword.
Ozymandias sheathed his as well.
"It's been such a long time," Raven said. "Close to two decades."
"When your team came to Vacuo for studies," Ozymandias said. "I remember."
"Surprising, figured your brain would have deteriorated as much as your body." She stalked toward him. "You must be a century old at this point." She stopped an arm's reach before him.
"Around that," he said. "I can't be sure."
"And you remember how our last interaction went?"
"I apologize," he said. "You must have needed to see a dentist."
Raven scowled. Unconsciously, she moved her tongue over her front teeth. "Yes. Repeatedly bashing the hilt of that sword into my mouth during a sparring match would have that effect, with my aura low."
"I apologized then, also."
"Without actually feeling regret, just as you did now." She scoffed, her cockiness warping into hate as quick as mercury flows.
"Everyone can benefit from humility," Ozymandias said, "especially you, after going too far in a couple training sessions and leaving my students with more bruises than necessary."
"It's hardly my fault that you raised weaklings."
"And these thugs were not weak?"
"Not serious students, and now the only weak thing left standing is you."
"I won't argue that you can kill me."
Raven smirked. Power over others tasted like wine to her.
"Well, seeing as you are in my territory, Executioner of Vacuo, and all within here belongs to me…"
She pushed her thumb against the sword's hilt, exposing an inch of a gleaming edge.
"Now I own you, as well."