It felt like there should have been a hush, after the gunshot. A moment of silence, if not for the fallen monster then for the sheer shock of seeing Weiss' sister kill someone. Or maybe to mourn his grandfather's shield, which had been rent right down the middle. He hadn't even known that was possible—it had stood up to Ursai, King Taijitu, Yang. But now it was broken, and he had only a long scratch across his arm instead of, well... him being in two pieces instead of his shield. It had saved him, and he thought that should earn it a nice sendoff.
There wasn't a moment of silence, though. Their breathing was harsh and ragged, Cardin was muttering a constant stream of curses under his breath, and Sun flopped to the ground with a mighty splash. The rain poured down, more lightning forked across the sky, thunder rolled and the ground shook again.
Blake stumbled over to the body, falling into a kneeling position and putting a hand on his back. She didn't say anything. Just kind of... stared at him. Their blood was mixing in the puddle beneath them. Jaune would have tried to help—her, not the dead guy—but he was all out. Drained dry. He walked over to her anyway, sat in a pool of filthy, icy water about an inch deep, and tried not to look at the little hole in the back of Adam's head.
Weiss came over, too. She wasn't hurt, but she was swaying back and forth, holding her arms out to keep her balance. He could sympathize—it felt like someone had boiled every muscle in his body. Her approach was slower than his, like she wasn't sure it would be welcomed, but she knelt next to her partner and drew her into a hug.
Jaune coughed. "Uh... should we... say something?"
"Sure," Cardin said. "Fuck that guy."
"I mean like a eulogy or... something."
"He tried to kill us. Fuck that guy."
Sun scratched his head. "He's, uh... he's got a point. Wow, this is a weird day."
"I don't even know where I'd start." Blake looked down at him for a moment. "I guess... I'm sorry, too." Her finger traced the edge of the rose on his coat. Then she tried to stand up. Failed. Tried again, more carefully this time, letting Weiss help.
"Great." Cardin clapped his hands a few times. "Kumbaya. Feel the love. Let's get the hell out of here before something eats us."
"Cardin, I swear I'm going to—" Weiss started, but Blake nudged her arm and she cut off the threat with a sigh. "Fine."
"We're going to the safe zone." Winter didn't leave any room for debate. "All of you are injured and out of aura. You're in no condition to fight."
"But—" Blake started to say, then paused. Looked at Weiss, who was glaring pointedly at the twin gashes in her side. "...Okay."
Jaune sagged in relief. He was feeling mostly fine—as fine as you could be when you're drenched in freezing rain and have a cut on your arm that's longer than some knives, anyway—but Blake had just been not-quite-stabbed and she was definitely the kind of person who would try to sweep that under the rug.
Cardin turned out to have the most immediately problematic injury. Partly because it was his leg—Blake could walk, it just looked like it hurt—and partly because he, unlike Blake, was way too heavy for one person to support. Jaune and Sun each took one shoulder, and he whined incessantly about being carried.
They hadn't gone far before the rumbling started again—and didn't stop for several long seconds. Thunder rolled during the quake, the two sounds blending together, and the sky was going from black to something almost greenish. Then, finally, it ended. Jaune became acutely aware of all of their breathing as they slogged towards the airfield.
Trouble came up only once, when a Deathstalker skittered around a corner—and this time not one that Weiss had... pulled out of the ground? Since when can she do that, anyway? Winter took care of it by using a set of glyphs to flip it onto its back. Another barrier pinned it there while she shot it. When the gun went off, Weiss flinched a little and looked anywhere but at Winter.
As they approached the safe zone, they started seeing other people. One group—Jaune was pretty sure they were the ones RSPR had fought in the teams matches—surrounded them like a kind of honor guard. Then they were through, and the noise redoubled. There were injured people groaning, children crying, adults shouting for their friends and family. People everywhere. Even as they approached, an Atlesian airship took off from the field and circled up into the sky, followed seconds later by a civilian transport.
Both docked at the massive warship hovering over the city, which was holding up remarkably well, considering. Nevermores moved in to harass it, but they were shot down as soon as they got too close. Even the storm didn't seem to shake it much—he suspected they were using Dust to keep the lightning off of it. A nearby dropship was struck three times just while Jaune was watching, and the much bigger target right below it wasn't touched.
They all turned around and saw the General standing in an open plaza, surrounded by a group of nine armored soldiers. "Catch." He tossed something at her—her saber. She snagged it, then returned it to her hip.
"Thank you, sir."
He looked at each of them in turn and hummed. "There's first aid that way." He pointed with his gloved hand.
Winter nodded. "We had an encounter on the way here."
The General frowned. "Grimm?"
His eyebrows flared, showing something between shock and worry. "Is—"
"No longer a threat, sir."
Another little flinch from Weiss. Jaune cleared his throat. "Uh, maybe we should head to the medical... wait... who is that?" He pointed over the General's shoulder at a tall man who was approaching them with the kind of purpose that could only come from someone who had urgent business—or wanted to kill them. Judging by the look on his face, the red eyes, and the gigantic sword in his hand, the second one was way too likely for comfort.
But when the General saw him, he looked more annoyed than anything else. "Qrow."
Cardin made a little choking noise as he stifled a laugh. The General definitely noticed.
"Wait... who are you?" He seemed so familiar, but Jaune couldn't place him. Even his name seemed like something he'd heard before. The man squinted at him for a second. Then he cracked a smile.
"You've met my nieces."
There was a short pause, during which Jaune thought back to all the vague, terrifying references Ruby had made to her uncle. "...never hurts to shoot it again just to make sure it's dead ... juggled me and Yang when we were babies ... blood everywhere, and he never does his own laundry so Dad was ready to kill him..." Jaune gaped. Winter crossed her arms and scowled.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" she asked, in tones that suggested she wasn't asking an honest question so much as she was telling him to go away. He gave her a roguish grin—roguish seemed like his face's default setting.
Then he turned a little more serious. "I'm looking for Pyrrha Nikos."
Jaune blinked. "Uh... what? Why?"
Winter twitched. "And what imbecile let you in on classified information?"
"Ozpin," Qrow shot back, smirking cheekily. Jaune reeled for a second, because the resemblance to Yang was suddenly terrifying.
General Ironwood sighed. "We're overburdened enough as it is." Then he glanced behind him at a group of civilians who were giving him very unfriendly looks. "Can you at least tell them we're not trying to abduct them?"
"Qrow. This isn't an invasion and we aren't safe here. My ship is the only secure location we have that's big enough to fit a decent chunk of the refugees, and people are refusing to board. It's problematic."
"So? Wave some guns around, that always works."
"Now is not the time for this!"
Qrow rolled his eyes. "Look, Jimmy, nothing I say is going to convince a crowd that Atlas is on their side right now, and I don't have time. Send somebody to find me if you get wind of where Pyrrha is. I've gotta go."
"Wait!" Jaune burst out. "Um... have you seen Ruby? Are she and her team okay?"
"Most of them are with Ozpin, which is about as fine as anyone can get right now. We're one short—that's why I'm here."
He swallowed nervously. "Right. Okay."
Red eyes narrowed, giving him a calculating look. "Hey. If you see Pyrrha, tell her not to be an idiot and to go find Ozpin. She's in way over her head."
Jaune nodded. Trying to tell a friend she's in way over her head? While some unspecified danger looms over them, and he keeps running into people he's never met playing roles he doesn't understand in plots he's in the dark about? Story of my life.
Yang winced as a bead of sweat trailed down her cheek. Her nose itched, and her back was starting to ache. She was kneeling in the wreckage of one of the largest festival stalls, one that was more like a restaurant than a food cart, supporting a massive timber beam across her shoulders. It was that classic Atlas pose, which she'd always thought looked awesome but had now decided was horrible. It didn't help that she'd been holding it for the past ten minutes or so.
"How's it going, Pavo?" she asked.
"I can't do it," the little boy whimpered, his voice breathy from the strain of trying to free himself.
Russel forced a chuckle. "Hey, no sweat little dude. You got this. Just keep wigglin'."
There was a crack from somewhere above them, and all of a sudden the weight on her shoulders nearly doubled. Yang huffed out a breath, squeezing her eyes shut. The little boy squealed in fright. She craned her neck to the side, but all she could see was Russel's back. He'd lifted up a table that the kid had been trapped under and was trying to coax him out, but his foot was caught on something.
"Is the lady gonna drop the ceiling?"
Yang blew a strand of hair out of her face. "Pfft, nah. I could do this for hours." She sort of had been—that was the problem. A lot of people had been stuck in collapsed buildings when the coliseum and the CCT fell.
"Tell you what," Russel said, leaning forward and reaching one hand under the table. "I think you're loose enough for me to pull you out now."
"It's not gonna hurt. Promise."
"You said that last time!"
Yang drew in another breath. She tried to let it out slowly, but halfway through she cut off and started coughing. "How about this? You let Russel pull you out, and you get to be an honorary Huntsman."
"Yeah! I'll ask my sister to make you a badge and everything. She's a team leader, she can do stuff like that."
The little boy was silent for a moment.
"I bet you can do it," Russel coaxed. "You're a little superhero, right?"
"Heck yeah, you are! Hang on to me, okay? One... two... three!"
Pavo howled in pain as he was tugged through, then started to cry. "Hey now, it's okay, you're out, I gotcha..."
"It hurt! You said it wasn't gonna!"
"But it's better now, right? No more table." Pavo hiccupped and started to sniffle. "Okay. Let's get out from under this roof so that Yang can put it down."
"Thanks," she grunted. "'Preciate it."
"Hah." Russel moved past her, crouching so that Pavo could ride on his shoulders. Yang blinked—the kid had a feathery tail trailing behind him and a shock of iridescent blue hair. Way more distinctive-looking than she'd expected. As soon as they got to the doorway, she hefted the beam she was holding up and rolled out from under it, letting the building finish its collapse.
"Success!" Russel announced, giving Pavo a little bounce. He was clinging to the green mohawk like a set of reins, still crying, trying to wipe his nose on his sleeve. A young man dashed over. He, too, had a feathery tail—but on his, you could see the distinctive pattern of a peacock.
"This your dad?" Yang asked. Pavo nodded and held out his arms. Russel lifted him off his back and passed him over to the father, who wrapped him up in a hug just shy of bone-breaking.
"Careful of his ankle," Russel said. "It's, uh... it's scraped up pretty bad."
"Hurts," Pavo mumbled, resting his head on the man's shoulder and sniffling some more.
The father grabbed each of their hands in turn, shaking them hard enough that it might have hurt if they didn't have aura. "Thank you so much, I... I don't know what I would have... thank you."
Yang grinned and winked. "Just doing our jobs, sir."
"I want a badge. You said."
"Tell you what." Yang rummaged around in her pocket, finding a crumpled up candy wrapper. "Uh... anyone have anything to write with?" One of the other adults tossed her a pen.
Yang wrote IOU 1 honorary Huntsman badge in a messy scrawl and held it out to Pavo. The ink was already starting to blur from the heavy rain, and she had to hold on tight to keep the wind from snatching it away.
"You have to sign it. So it's oh-fish-ull."
She needed a second to reboot her brain after that—Ruby used to over-pronounce big words too and it was still the cutest thing ever. Then she signed with a flourish and handed back both wrapper and pen.
"Look for team Brine or team Raspberry once the dust settles," she said. "We'll hook you up."
That was the closest thing to a break they had for a while. Dove, Nora, and Penny, who had been keeping an eye out for Grimm and protecting the people outside, lead the group. Yang and Russel were the rear guard. The civilians they'd collected huddled together in the middle, letting out noises of terror and dismay every time they spotted one of the monsters. There were a couple close calls—a Beowolf that jumped from the roof of a nearby building took a bite out of Dove's sleeve at one point—but they all made it back to the airfield.
"We're going with them?" one of the civilians burst out, when they saw the armored soldiers waiting for them. "But—"
"It's not safe here, or in Vale." Dove pointed to the massive Atlesian warship hovering over the city. "That's the safest place to be right now. You'll all be ferried back down as soon the Grimm are gone." He glanced at Pavo. "Plus they have an actual clinic on board. We're doing our best down here, but we don't have that much in the way of supplies."
It was something like the twelfth time they'd had that exchange. Sometimes people went along without too much fuss afterwards. Sometimes they refused to board at all and joined the steadily growing crowd that was just hanging around, giving the soldiers mistrustful looks and drawing Grimm. Mercifully, almost all of this group fell into the former category and got on the line for the next airship.
Then, as BRYN were turning around to head back to the wreckage, the ground shook. People screamed. One of the soldiers held both their hands out. "Stay calm. This has been happening for a while, it's no—"
The rumbling got louder, and there was a sudden jolt that almost knocked Yang off her feet. She turned her head, brow furrowing. It felt like the tremors were coming from somewhere. A mountain in the distance stood out—she could see its peak trembling.
"The hell?" Russel muttered. "Don't tell me there's a fucking volcano. There's got to be a limit."
More rumbling, though it was starting to fade now. Then, a sound like the cracking of an egg writ large. Another quake, and a plume of dust rose from that same mountain. Rocks crumbled away, but where lava might have been in a volcano, there was only empty space.
"Oh." Russel laughed, more than a little hysterically. "Oh, sure. Why would it be a volcano? That's just stupid, I shouldn't be so optimistic—"
"Shut up, Russel," Dove hissed. "You'll scare the civilians."
Russsel gestured incredulously at the mountain, just as there was a mighty but distant crash and a sheet of rock fell away. The inside was so dark it was almost black. And... scaled?
"Aw, c'mon..." He let his hand drop. "That's... there's no way that's actually..."
Then, with a wrenching sound that was earsplitting even from miles away, a batlike wing burst from inside the hollow mountain. It looked perfectly normal sized to Yang, until she looked at the trees at the base of the peak and her brain managed to form some sense of scale.
The screaming started, but she hardly even heard it. She watched, transfixed, as the massive Grimm... hatched. There wasn't any other way to describe it, it was hatching from an egg the size of Beacon itself, stretching a great long neck and screeching in triumph. Its mouth went all the way down both sides of its throat, where the edges of the opening were webbed over with strands of flesh in a way that made her a little ill. It perched for a moment on the pile of rocks it had just escaped, its head turning slowly to look towards the school. Then those great black wings unfurled, and it launched itself into the sky.
Dove grabbed her shoulder. "The warship!"
Sure enough, when she tried to follow where the thing's head was pointed she could see that it was staring right at Atlas' pride and joy, and the place where all the refugees had been sent. It was well defended—so well that it was weathering both the raging storm and the occasional Nevermore, but not well enough to handle that thing.
"Damn it!" Dove hissed. "What are we supposed to—"
Penny stepped up, the swords over her head coalescing into a tight metal ring. A bright green glow started in the center, building until it was almost blinding. Then it blasted outwards, slamming into the Wyvern's chest and tearing a smoking chunk out of the armor plating there. Its head turned towards them, its six red eyes smoldering with hatred. Black ichor oozed from between its scales, and where the droplets hit the ground they hissed and steamed, and more Grimm pulled themselves up from the oily puddles. Great, because the big one wasn't enough.
"Um," Penny said, as the great wings flapped. "Considering the damage to my... um... torso, it will be quite some time before I have enough power to fire again."
"Throw me!" Russel said, jabbing Yang in the shoulder. "I'm our only other really long-distance weapon."
Yang wanted to refuse—throwing someone she actually liked at the biggest Grimm she'd ever seen was a horrible plan. But... he had a point. Nora's grenades couldn't reach that far. She crouched down, letting him put his feet on her hands, and hurled him as hard as she could as the monster swept past the shattered remains of the CCT. He soared upwards, feather-light, shrinking to a mere pinpoint in the sky.
The Wyvern lurched when he landed, letting out an ear-splitting shriek. It banked sideways and flicked its long neck, and a green speck went flying. Yang let out the breath she'd been holding—the fall wouldn't hurt him. Then she took off running, making for where she thought he might land. The monster was circling, shrieking in fury.
Dove grimaced. "We got its attention."
"Now we just gotta keep it!" Nora shouted cheerfully, vaulting over a broken column.
They met up with Russel again at the foot of the CCT. He was screaming curses, flapping his arms over his head, and when the Wyvern tried to swoop down on him he dove under a fallen tree. The monster lashed at it with its tail, sending the whole thing flying into the wall of a nearby building. Then it roared again.
"The heck did you do to it?!" Nora demanded as he sprinted past them, nearly colliding with Dove.
"How many options are there?! It's like a hundred times my size!"
Yang opened her mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean. Then the Wyvern turned its head and she realized that one of its eyes had been slashed open and was oozing black ichor. The remaining two burned with rage and pain.
"Hi Kevin..." Russel said, giving it a tiny wave and backing up a step.
Dove made a disgruntled noise. "Kevin?!"
"We share a special bond."
The next shriek bowled all four of them over, and they had to scramble to avoid the head as it snapped forward. Yang landed on her back, staring up at the side of its throat just a few feet away. She could see the puckered red edges of its maw, the thick ropes of flesh that held its jaw together. Her foot connected with one of the massive fangs, and it let out a sharp crack. Then the head whipped around and she was airborne.
A bone mask the size of her childhood bedroom loomed towards her, filling the whole left side of her vision. She was dizzy and disoriented, but she managed to fire off her gauntlets and propel herself out of the way of the massive jaws. For a brief instant, she was bracing herself to hit the ground. Then the tail whipped towards her, almost too fast to see, and her mind went blank.
It was like falling. She was moving upwards, but so blindingly fast that for a mad instant she was sure that gravity had been reversed, that she was about to plummet off the face of Remnant and into the storm above. Everything was spinning, her stomach felt like it was on fire, she couldn't breathe.
Darkness closed around her. She wondered if she was passing through a cloud, until she spun around again and glimpsed the fiery eyes, the gaping jaws. Then everything was black and she was seeing snatches of a boiling sky through white teeth and pink ropes of Grimm flesh.
And then, another Grimm mask. Small, segmented, four-eyed and alien and terrible. A shock of black hair, hints of red from within the mask, a yawning crimson hole in the world. Yang wondered for a mad instant if she was looking into some kind of warped mirror—there was something intimately familiar about the way the hair curled around that face. Then it was gone, and she was falling into that tear in space.
For a brief instant it was dark except for distant pulses of red, like slow-motion lightning. The air was unnaturally still—or maybe it wasn't really air at all. Cold pressed in on her. Her chest convulsed, her lungs burned.
Then, impact. She landed on her side, showered in shards of brick, coughing and spluttering and struggling to draw breath. The wind had been knocked out of her. She rested her forehead on the pavement, gasping, and realized with a dull, creeping dread that she hadn't seen a mirror image at all.
"Yang!" Hands on her shoulders, dragging her upright. She looked up and saw that the hands belonged to Russel. Nora was peering over his shoulder, wide-eyed.
"I'm okay," she managed, in between bouts of coughing. She struggled back to her feet, wiggling her fingers and toes. Nothing broken—her aura had held. Her next breath came out as steam. The fire was welling up inside, fueled by the lash of the tail and by the woman she was less certain with every passing second that she'd actually seen.
"It's coming back around," Dove warned. "You okay to walk?"
"Yep!" She bounced on her heels to prove it. "Get me close again and I think I might be able to crack that stupid mask." And if she hadn't quite been talking about the Wyvern, no one else had to know that.
"How'd you do that?" Russel asked. "With the portal thing?"
"No idea," she said honestly.
"Not now, Russ," Dove snapped. "We've got maybe ten—"
A slab of concrete the size of a bus hurtled out of nowhere and shattered against the side of the Grimm's head. It shrieked again, then veered to the side and clipped the edge of the dorm building with its tail. At least two or three rooms were obliterated in an instant, scattering debris across the courtyard. Yang thought she might have recognized one of her pajama tops in the rubble.
"Okay!" Russel waved his arms frantically. "Understand that I am not complaining, but what's with the spontaneous teleportation and telekinesis?!"
"Not sure about the teleporting," Nora said, "But..." She pointed to where the rubble from the dorm was starting to move, rising into the air and then drifting in a lazy orbit. They were all glowing a distinctive shade of purple—Professor Goodwitch had arrived.
At first, the disturbance in the clouds was subtle. Ren wouldn't have noticed, but Sky spotted it—maybe with his eyes and maybe with his semblance—pointing to a spot where the blackness of the afternoon sky was tinted green. Rain streaked down, then turned to hail, then thawed back into a downpour so thick that it was hard to breathe. For a while they walked towards the heart of the unnatural storm, having to squint to see it.
Then it wasn't subtle at all. Lightning flashed down once, twice, three times in the same few blocks. They all broke into a run, with Ruby only barely holding herself back from rushing on ahead. She would have done it, ignoring Ozpin's warning, except that sometimes the disturbance would fade and it was always Sky who found it again. So they stayed together, drawing closer, and soon they found other signs.
Well, the word signs was a bit misleading. It implied that they had been placed there intentionally, and that they were the sorts of things you might miss if you weren't paying attention. Some walls were covered over with hoarfrost, others charred black. In places the asphalt had melted into slag. Boiling water pooled on the surface of the street, bubbling and hissing and smelling like sulfur.
"This... this is Pyrrha, right?" Ruby said, picking her way carefully between the molten puddles—which where evenly spaced, following a pattern that looked disturbingly like footsteps.
Ozpin nodded. "I doubt any of this was done intentionally."
Ruby swallowed nervously. "I guess we're not gonna see the other one coming, if she has more control."
"I'll know," Sky said. Paused. "I mean, I think I will. Kinda hard to miss."
Ren opened his mouth to say something. Then he was on his back, staring up at the clouds, his ears ringing. He blinked, twice, wiggled his toes. That seemed to work fine, though there were pins and needles running up and down his legs. He sat up.
"What..." There, about thirty feet away, a shop front had disappeared. In its place was a burnt-out husk, bits of partially melted glass scattered all over the road, and the charred remains of a wooden door.
Ren snapped his fingers next to his ear. The ringing seemed to be going away. He got back to his feet at about the same time Ruby did. Ozpin was already up, while Sky was still staring at the destroyed shop front with wide eyes.
"Did we just... just..."
"Pyrrha must be close," Ruby said, and then scattered. The petals she left in her wake fell to the ground, going soggy and limp and, in a few cases, curling up and blackening when they touched the heated glass. Ren heaved a sigh and looked up. The disturbance seemed to be right over their heads.
"Pyrrha!" Ruby shouted, from somewhere to his left. "Hello? It's us!"
Ren exchanged a look with Sky—his partner was still bug-eyed and trembling—then cupped his hands to his mouth and copied her. "Pyrrha!"
Then, all of a sudden, Ruby stopped shouting. There was a muffled crack. Ren took off running, ducking down an alley and then coming out on the other side to find Pyrrha standing with her hands over her mouth. Ruby was fine. The wall behind her was not. Some of the brick had cracked, and judging by the way it was blackened there had been another—though thankfully much smaller—bolt of electricity.
"Miss Nikos—" Ozpin started.
Ruby cut him off. "I'm so glad you're okay! Or, um... the street is kinda melted, but the city's full of Grimm so it was bound to get a little dinged up anyway."
Pyrrha took a step back, putting both hands behind her back. Smoke curled up from her palms, and ice crept out around her feet.
"Don't come any closer," she warned, as the ice hit one of the patches of melted asphalt and erupted into a plume of steam. "I can't..."
"The power is tied to your emotional state," Ozpin told her. "Try to take deep breaths—"
"I am!" Another arc of electricity, a sharp crack. The smell of ozone filled the air. A dark mark was left on the ground near Ozpin's feet. Pyrrha squeezed her eyes shut. "It's not safe."
"I can help," Ren said softly, taking a small step towards her. "Is that okay?"
She hesitated. Her eyes opened again, roving over his face and taking in his outstretched hand. "I don't want to hurt you."
"You won't," he promised. "I still have plenty of aura. I'll back away if it isn't working."
Pyrrha swallowed, then leaned forward and brushed her hand against his. It was like touching a metal railing that had been in the sun all day. He let calmness drape over her, watched as her shoulders loosened. She slumped forward, then caught herself on his shoulder. The rain eased back a fraction, though it was still pouring so hard that they all might as well have been swimming.
Ruby jumped on both of them, landing with one arm draped over Pyrrha and the other grabbing a fistful of Ren's sleeve, her feet dangling a few inches off the ground. He chuckled a little—it didn't happen often, but sometimes she reminded him rather strongly of Nora.
"I don't wish to interrupt, but I'm afraid we don't have time to spare."
They stepped apart. Ren turned to look to Ozpin for direction, since he'd lost all sense of where they had been before Pyrrha ran off. A sudden gust of wind slapped him in the face, driving freezing rain into his eyes. He threw both arms over his head, hunching over as he waited for it to pass. There was a flash of light that he could see even with his field of vision mostly obscured, and then mere heartbeats later a great rumbling of thunder.
The wind slackened off, and he straightened up. "We'd best get to the boat," Ozpin decided.
"Um..." Ruby pointed at the sky. "Isn't that gonna be a problem?"
Ozpin thought about it for a moment. "I might be willing to risk it if your Uncle wasn't riding with us." His mouth quirked a little, almost like he was hiding a smile, though Ren had no idea why. "You are correct. We'll have to go by land until we can get out of this storm... perhaps we can commandeer a vehicle."
They all moved to go, until Ren realized that Sky had gone stock still and was staring fixedly towards the southeast. He gave his shoulder a small nudge.
"That lightning wasn't natural," Sky said quietly, tilting his head back to stare at the clouds. Water streamed down his face, dripping from his chin and from sodden locks of hair. It took Ren a second to get it, and when he did his chest tightened. He turned to stare in the same direction, but all he could see was the storm.
"Move!" Ozpin shouted. They bolted, floundering as they passed through a street that had flooded up to their ankles. Pyrrha floated above it, wind whipping through her hair and sending it swirling behind her like a flag. Ruby scattered, reforming on the other side and bouncing anxiously up and down. The rest of them had to plow through.
Lightning struck ground about sixty feet away, perilously close to the pool of water they were standing in. Ren felt his legs tingle. Then another bolt, to their left this time, farther away.
"It's her!" Sky shouted. He tripped over something, flailed in the shallow water. Ren hauled him back upright, lending him just the barest touch of calm. Yet another flash of brilliant white—in front of them, close enough that Ruby stumbled and clamped her hands over her ears.
She's playing with us. It was like a cat letting a mouse run a few feet away before batting it back with one paw, driving it mad with panic.
They crossed out of the flooded street and sprinted down an alleyway. Water poured from gutters high above and into grilles in the street. Then there was a roar, deep and all-consuming, and the other end of the alley burst into flames that rose fifteen feet into the air. A wave of heat rolled towards them. Pyrrha rushed forward, thrusting out her hand. Ice grew up from the walls of the alley, growing into the heart of the fire and extinguishing it.
"There's not much point."
Sky whimpered and threw his arms up over his head at the sound of the voice. It was low, silky, coming from somewhere above them. Ren craned his neck but saw nothing—just endless driving rain and livid black clouds. Ozpin led them to the left, this time down a wider street. Another turn, mostly at random, and Ruby skidded to a sudden halt. There was someone standing there, right in the middle of the road. Her dark hair flowed around her, caught in a localized gust of wind. She had turned her head so that they saw her in profile—a small, straight nose, a sharp chin, a mocking smile and one eye the color of a smoldering ember.
Ren had to grab Sky's shoulder to keep him from tripping over himself. He stopped, still trembling, and leveled his axe at her. She didn't seem to notice—she was staring directly at Pyrrha, now, her head turned to face them properly.
"You can't run away. Can't hide." Fire started in the palms of her hands, curling up over her forearms and crackling merrily despite the downpour.
Pyrrha stepped forward so that she was partially in front of Ruby. "I know. You're not going to give up."
The woman laughed. "True, but that hardly means you can't hide from me. I'll admit I'm not omniscient." She grinned, and now the flames were dancing in her eyes, forming twin wings. "You can hide from me—not from this. It wasn't meant to be split up."
Another flash of lightning knocked over a lamppost a few dozen yards away, sending up a shower of sparks. It was impossible to tell which of the two of them had caused it. Ren wasn't even sure if Pyrrha herself knew.
"You feel it, don't you?" She took a step forward, and the rain hissed as it struck her bare shoulders. "That hunger, twisting you up inside? It doesn't get any better."
Pyrrha stiffened, but said nothing.
"I'm never going to stop hunting you, and you're not going to run." She smiled. It was almost apologetic, but there was a gleam in her eyes that was somewhere between greed and desperation.
"I won't let you take it," Pyrrha said, her voice perfectly steady. Her hand rose up in front of her—an open palm was now a bigger threat than the barrel of a gun.
"Of course not." The smile turned razor sharp, and flames began to spread along either side of the road, licking up the faces of the buildings. She tossed her head, her black hair falling behind her in a languid wave. "You're about to lose another student, Ozpin. For shame."
Ren had been backing up steadily the whole time she was talking, bringing Ruby with him by gripping her hood in one fist. Sky hadn't needed any prompting. When the fight first broke out, he was glad he had—a wave of fire filled the entire street. He took one searing breath, and the next was so frigid that he gasped. The pavement and the walls of the buildings around them all cracked and splintered from the sudden change in temperature. A gust of wind lifted him off his feet. He hit the ground, rolled, got tangled up with Sky and Ruby and scrabbled for purchase on the icy asphalt.
When he managed to look up, both Pyrrha and the other Maiden were airborne. Ruby grabbed his arm and shook it. "Oh my god! I've seen her before!"
"What?!" Sky hissed, struggling to his feet. "How do you not notice that?"
"She wasn't levitating then!"
"Get out of here!" Ozpin snapped, deflecting a dozen shards of obsidian that had exploded out from the Maiden's palm. "You'll do more harm than—"
Pyrrha slashed her hand out. More fire bloomed into being, washing over the Headmaster. Ren was driven to his knees, coughing as his lungs began to burn. "Pyrrha, what—" Ruby croaked. A blast of wind knocked her into the side of a building. Pyrrha didn't even react when the other Maiden moved to drive a spike of obsidian into her chest. Ozpin did—he threw his cane, knocking it off-course at the last instant.
Pyrrha seemed to realize what was going on at the same time as the others did. She stiffened, her head whipping around. "Show yourself!"
Sky paled. "Where's the illusionist?"
"You guys find her!" Ruby shouted. "I'll stay with Pyrrha!"
"Miss Rose—" Ozpin started to say, but then there was a blast of wind filled with shards of ice. He was driven to his knees, his hands thrown over his head. Ruby shielded her face with one arm. Pyrrha was lashing out indiscriminately now, unable to see either friend or foe. Alternating fronts of heat and cold rolled off her. One instant, Ren could feel his hair freezing into clumps. The next, he'd been baked dry and was struggling to draw breath.
"There!" Sky pointed. Ren caught only a brief flash of green, but he charged anyway. She came out to meet them. A slash with what looked like some kind of sickle was aimed towards Sky's face, but he knocked it aside with his halberd. Then, without any other preamble, he leapt at her and drove her to the ground, wrapping both arms around her neck.
He grunted as a sickle scraped along his cheek. Then she managed to roll them over so that she was on top of him, choking him. Ren rushed at her, slashing at her back with his gun, but then it was Sky he was attacking and her on the ground.
"Again!" Ren couldn't be sure if that had been an actual suggestion or another trick. He obeyed anyway—standing idly by would have felt infinitely worse. It turned out to be Sky the second time, too—but in the instant that the illusion was directed at him, his partner shouted, "Pyrrha, go!"
A streak of flame passed across the sky, tinting the scene a ruddy red. Pyrrha was hovering above them, both arms spread wide, one leg straight and the other bent at the knee. The rain poured over her, and the clouds above had begun to form a sort of funnel pointing towards the two Maidens. She stared at them for a moment, her eyes wide and green and fearful. Then they hardened, and she reached out and pulled at the winds around her, driving herself up and out over the city of Vale. The other Maiden followed, with Ozpin and Ruby trailing after them along the ground.
Ren and Sky remained, wrestling with the illusionist. She actually had gotten on top, now—or he thought so, anyway. Sky kicked Ren in the shin. She pried one of his hands off her shoulder, and he flailed at her. They rolled again, kicking up a gout of frozen water, spattering mud over their hair and clothes and getting it in their eyes. Ren hovered for a moment, waiting for an opening, feeling wary. Then Sky shouted something incoherent and let go of her, his eyes rolling with terror.
That had to be the real Sky. Ren snagged the wrist of the illusionist and drove one of his guns into her stomach. She stumbled, and then his weight brought the both of them down. More water flew everywhere. He got some in his mouth, spat it out again. Then he was lying on top of Sky, who was shaking his head frantically.
"My best friend is...?"
He didn't answer, so Ren hit him in the face and the illusionist was back. She snarled at him, and then he was drifting in an empty void. He groped for handholds, his neck craning backwards. There was nothing—only darkness, and pinpricks like stars burning a poisonous green. He cried out, but there was no sound. Only a faint keening, like ringing in his ears, growing louder. A shadow passed across the stars, coiling serpentine across his field of vision.
And then he was on his back in a puddle, staring at the clouds, gasping for breath. He sat up, found that Sky had latched onto the girl's ankle. He was screaming in terror, thrashing his legs wildly, but he wouldn't let go no matter how much she kicked him. Ren rushed over to help, but he couldn't shoot until he was sure which was which.
"Ruby's sister is...?" Neither of them said anything—Sky couldn't hear him. His mind raced. It was possible that she was showing the two of them struggling with their positions reversed and was only pretending that Sky was trapped inside an illusion so as to explain why he wasn't answering the question—
He aimed for the illusionist and shot twice. She swore and lurched sideways, and Sky's screams cut off abruptly. Ren grabbed one of her wrists, twisting it until she dropped the sickle in that hand. She hit him with the other one, dragging it along his shoulder. His aura held, but he had the sense it wouldn't last much longer. Sky's was already gone, judging by his bloody lip.
"Stop it!" Sky shouted, reaching up so that he could aim a punch at her stomach. "Stop it!"
"I'm your conscience, you little murderer!" She grinned, red eyes flashing with malice, and he doubled up and started to scream again.
Ren felt her hand sliding out of his grip and tightened his hold. If I'm holding onto her, she can't fool me so easily.
The void returned. He couldn't feel her hand anymore, and when he tried to tighten his grip he found he couldn't feel his own hand, either. His whole body was numb, and the black shape was circling, drawing closer with every revolution. The humming was louder now, undulating from pitch to pitch, the yawning hole in the stars was surging towards him.
It's not real, he told himself, as the stars were blotted out. Only a dream, only a dream, only a dream—
And then it was gone, but he couldn't breathe. He jerked violently, lifting his head up and hacking and coughing and spitting out water. When he looked down, he saw that the puddle he was lying in had gone scarlet. Slowly, Ren sat up. He could still feel the illusionist's hand, but she'd stopped moving.
Another trick, he thought, keeping his hold tight. He tracked his gaze up her arm, over to her back. She was face-down in the water, like he had been, and she wasn't breathing.
"Sky?" he said, turning his head. "I don't think she can fool more than one person, do you see—"
Sky wasn't moving, either. He was on his back, chin tilted upwards, staring sightlessly at the storm. Ren lurched, landing painfully on one elbow, feeling more of the freezing water soak into his clothes. The water sloshed when he moved closer, dragging the illusionist behind him. He still couldn't let go of her—this was just the sort of thing she might show him to get him to release her. Just a trick.
Ren closed his eyes, shutting out the image of his partner sprawled on the ground, mouth slightly open, bleeding sluggishly from a gash just under his chin. He couldn't trust his senses anymore. He knew his left hand was wrapped around the illusionist's wrist, that was all. Everything else was suspect. He would hold onto her, wait for someone else to find him, and they would confirm that he was restraining the still-struggling illusionist, and Sky was helping him, and...
He tipped forward and landed with a splash, his head knocking painfully against the asphalt. Everything felt faded, and it was so cold he could hardly feel the illusionist's wrist in his hand. It didn't matter—he just had to keep holding on.