Finals are... trying. Very, very trying.
Time restraints left no time for xenosaiyan to beta this one. Any mistakes are mine.
As Jinn's smoke faded, Ruby found herself and her friends back in her living room, the broken light from the shattered moon glimmering through the windows.
The moon that she had just seen shattered. Along with so, so much else.
"The Umbral Spirit King…" Ruby muttered, her silver eyes finding Ozpin (Ozma?) as he set the Lamp of Knowledge back on the coffee table. "He's coming. Isn't he?"
Her old headmaster scoffed, leaning far more of his weight on The Long Memory. "He's 'been coming' since before I was first reincarnated. His threat is real, but he's been trying to get through to our world for millennia without success. We have time to prepare for him."
"Excuse me if I'm not reassured," Weiss scowled, folding her arms over her chest. "All this time, since we first came to Beacon, you knew who we were."
Ozpin barked out a dry laugh, tears pricking at his borrowed eyes. "In fact, I did not, Ms. Schnee. My wife… Salem never told me your last names. And… you're hardly the first Team RWBY I've formed over the ages."
Blake reeled back as if she'd been slapped. "Wha… what?"
"I thought if anyone could talk her down, could talk some sense into her, it'd be you four," the time wizard elaborated. "When people started calling the world 'Remnant', I started seeking out all the Rubys, Weisses, Blakes, and Yangs I could find. I named… scores of them, over thousands of years. I'd long given up by the time you four came along. When you ended up on the same team naturally, I tried not to think about it. Tried… not to get my hopes up."
"But you did know by the Vytal Festival."
Ruby's gaze flickered to Qrow, her uncle's gaze downcast and his hands clenching at his side. "You knew after their first match, when you saw their guildmarks. You told me and Winter to talk to them."
Ozpin gulped. "I… I had to be sure."
"Why?" Nora muttered, the normally upbeat girl shivering on the couch with a face pale from dread. "I mean… if you knew that they were the Team RWBY, the ones you were waiting for, why didn't you tell them all this? Why did you wait so long to tell us—"
"Because he didn't know if they'd side with him," Qrow snarled, his head rising as tears streamed down his cheeks.
All eyes in the room whipped towards the huntsman, shocked at his tone. All except Raven, whose head had fallen into her hands.
Ozpin's face rose towards his old friend, his lips quivering. "Qrow… I…"
"That's why! Because you knew they were her friends, and you didn't know who they'd pick if they found out who she really was! So you lied! Just like you've lied about everything!" Qrow shouted. "After all, if they knew who she was, they'd know she was immortal. They'd know that there was more to the story than just some ancient Grimm monster wanting to wipe out humanity—"
"She will," Ozpin weakly protested. "If she summons back the Gods, they will wipe out everyone—"
"And what is the Umbral Spirit King gonna do when he gets here while you two are having your little marital spat?!" Qrow demanded. "When you've been having us fight the wrong fucking war!?"
"Qrow…" Taiyang spoke softly. Ruby's father inched his hand onto his partner's shoulder only for the scythe-wielder to throw him off, his crimson eyes locked onto the headmaster.
"What's the plan, Oz?! What's the actual plan!?" Qrow yelled. "What's the point?! Tell me! How is this going to stop us all from getting slaughtered!?"
"Qrow," Erza said, shuffling forward. "That's enough—"
"Tell me!" Qrow screamed. "Tell me!"
"I…" Ozpin stuttered, only for his face to fall as his hands shook atop his cane. "I don't have one."
Ruby's heart shattered, the breath hissing from her mouth. For so long, she'd thought of Headmaster Ozpin in the same vein as Master Makarov. Not all-powerful, but grandfatherly, knowledgeable, always with a twinkle in his eye that seemed to suggest that he knew more than he was letting on. That as long as he was there, he had everything under control. He had something in mind to fix things or at least help.
But he didn't. The twinkle in his eye was just a trick of the light. He had secrets, but no answers.
There were no answers.
Qrow exploded forward, his arm pulled back and his fist streaking for Ozpin's face.
Loke and Erza rushed into action. The lion spirit grabbed his old friend and yanked him out of the way of Qrow's fist while the Queen of the Fairies leapt into that same path. She raised her palm and caught the huntsman's punch head-on.
"Let go! Let go!" Qrow screeched, his face flooded with tears.
"No," Erza proclaimed, her voice as iron as her resolve, her brown eyes glaring the stricken man down. "I understand what you are feeling but this will not help. And that body is not just his."
Taiyang stepped forward and gently snatched Qrow's arm back from Erza's grip, his weathered face forcibly set in stone.
The scythe-wielder wrenched his arm free, glaring at Ozpin's body poking out from behind Loke's armored back as his body trembled with impotent fury.
"No one wanted me. I was cursed," he cried, bitterly, brokenly. "I gave my life to you because you gave me a place in this world. I thought I was finally doing some good."
Ozpin's eyes welled with new tears. "But… you are."
Qrow turned away. "Meeting you was the worst luck of my life."
His body shrank into his bird form and he flew out the window into the dark night.
"Uncle Qrow!" Ruby called.
"No, leave it," her father ordered. He let out an exhausted sigh as his hand palmed down his face. "You've all just come back from fighting for your lives. It's late, and all this… I'll go get him. The rest of you get some sleep. We're not going to do anything intelligent about all this if we're all exhausted."
Raven rose to her feet. "I'll come with you."
Taiyang glared at her. "I can handle this fine on my own."
"If he's flown out of the village, you'll never catch him," Raven argued. "Wherever he stops, I can portal us to him."
"I can find him just fine on my own. This isn't the first time I've had to track him down—"
"Dad!" Ruby spoke up, her father and her sister's mother whirling towards her. "Take her, please. It's late, the Relic's drawn in a ton of Grimm. You're tired too."
"Ruby," her dad murmured. "I can handle a few Grimm—"
"Having a maiden along can't hurt," Ruby insisted, trying to keep tears from her eyes. "Dad, please."
Taiyang's eyes widened. He strode forward and wrapped her in a firm hug, one Ruby returned like drowning person who'd been thrown a life preserver.
"Get some rest," he comforted. "We'll have him back by the time you wake up."
"Promise?" Ruby piqued, trying to keep her voice steady.
"Promise," he assured her.
Father and daughter broke the hug. Taiyang turned and nodded at Raven, the Team STRQ members swiftly marching out the door.
Ruby wished she could stop shaking, but her body wouldn't listen to her. After Yang and Jaune being taken and then seeing everything that Sitara had gone through, how her words had inspired Salem… seeing her beloved uncle breakdown felt like a stab in the gut, one that stirred the darkest thoughts and fears to the surface of her mind. Her father was one of the best huntsmen in the world, but he was tired and was surely dealing with similar issues as Qrow even if he was hiding it better. If he was off his game, and a Grimm got lucky… she couldn't lose anyone else.
She couldn't lose…
She glanced around the room, trying to get a gauge on how everyone else was feeling, how they were handling the world-shattering revelation they'd all just be handed. As expected, the general mood was 'not well'.
Nora and Ren clutched to each other on the couch, each of them staring blankly into the empty air. Pyrrha had dropped her head into her hands, her champion's face bone white with terror. Even Penny, normally so unflappable and cheery, had her brow furrowed in thought.
Lucy sagged against the wall of the living room, sliding down to her knees as a river of tears streamed down her cheeks. Gray stared down at his own hand, his fingers twitching.
"He's him," he muttered. "This End… he is who he says he is. He's alive. But then…"
"Where's Natsu?" Blake finished, her amber eyes dull and staring off into the distance. "How do we get him back?"
"We will get him back," Weiss growled, even as she worked to hide her shivering body. "We'll get him, and Yang, and Jaune, and Happy, and Win—… we…"
"We… we will, Weiss," Ruby insisted. "I'm sure once we go to Sitara and talk to her—"
"Talk to her?" Weiss interrupted, aghast. "She's Rosenflos's master! She… she… she was supposed to be our friend…"
"She is. You saw it," Ruby assured her partner. "What happened in Atlas—"
"What happened in Atlas was my mother and Klein's murders!" Weiss shrieked. "Good intentions or not, Umbral Spirit King or not, if you think there's any talking to her after that—"
"Enough!" Erza roared, her thunderous voice carrying through the house and obliterating all other conversation. Everyone, no matter how tired or shocked or broken, turned their gazes to the Queen of the Fairies. "Like Taiyang said, we're all exhausted. Nothing productive is going to happen until we get some sleep. We can discuss what we're going to do about Sitara and Salem and the Umbral Spirit King once we're not liable to bite each other's heads off."
One by one, everyone nodded. Whatever chaos was running through their heads, no matter that the world had practically been torn right out from under them, if the Titania stayed strong, if she was still leading them forward into battle, then they could handle it. They had no clue how they would handle it, but a small piece of their hearts, the piece that allowed them to keep moving forward even in the bleakest of the storms, could take comfort in their leader's resolve. Every wizard in the room had their eyes locked on the Queen of the Fairies.
Wendy shuffled across the living room, arriving before Loke and Ozpin, her soft gaze latched onto the ancient wizard.
The lion spirit moved to stand between the two but Ozpin placed a hand on his side. He hobbled out from his protector's gait, his hand trembling on the Long Memory as Oscar's shivering emerald orbs met Wendy's unflinching gaze.
"All these years… all alone… in an impossible situation…"
The Sky Dragon Slayer surged forward. Ozpin flinched for a moment before he realized that he'd been engulfed in a gentle hug. His eyes widened in shock, his head turning to the back of Wendy's dark blue hair.
"You poor man," she whispered, a quiet strength bleeding through her voice.
That strength seemed to be all that was needed to shatter Ozpin. The desperate façade he'd tried to keep over his farmboy's face crumbled away, tears erupting from his eyes. He latched onto Wendy tight and pressed himself into her shoulder, breaking down into sobs.
"I didn't want them to die," he swore. "I didn't want them to die. I didn't want them to die. I didn't want them to die…"
He collapsed to the ground, Wendy clutching him tight, her embrace never ceasing to comfort his grief.
Ruby didn't know what to think of the scene. Heck, she didn't even know who was the 'them' her headmaster was talking about?
All the people he'd inspired into being huntsmen? The ones he'd lied to that Salem could be defeated in order to keep at least false hope burning within them? The population of the world, who he so desperately wished to protect by keeping Salem from calling back the gods? Or perhaps fearing that he was making the wrong move, and was just serving them up for the Umbral Spirit King? That he was rendering the Zodiac Spirits' choice pointless?
Or maybe it was simpler than all that? After what Jinn had just shown them… maybe it was just a father grieving for his children… blaming himself for a mistake made with the best intentions.
Ruby sighed, running her hands down her face. Her dad and Erza were right. They needed to sleep. The issue before them was enormous, but exploding at each other like Uncle Qrow wouldn't help.
The question was, what could help? And what even counted as helping in this scenario?
How could she fix this?
Emerald had never wanted power.
She wanted safety, security, affection, but power? In her experience, that just painted a bigger target on your back. Gang leaders had to get killed for new gang leaders to take their place after all. She wanted however much strength was needed to make sure she didn't end up dead in a back alley and no more. Though, if someone with more power wanted to care for her, she would be immensely grateful for the patronage.
Thus, when she'd felt the rush of the Fall Maiden powers surging through her veins, she hadn't rejoiced as many might have. She was honored that Cinder recognized her loyalty enough to know she'd gladly return the mantle as soon as the other Gate was ready to take it, but she wasn't celebrating the idea. Power just meant pain, and she remembered Amber's screams from the Scarab transfer. It wasn't an experience she was looking forward to.
Granted, given Mercury's current state, it was at least preferable to the other transfer method.
"There were some irregularities in your aura. Missing pieces of sorts," Hazel noted, supporting the silver-haired boy as he shuffled across the lab. "The Core's regeneration process seems to have stimulated something in the afflicted areas. You should stay here for observation—"
"Shove off!" Mercury snarled, pulling himself off the other Gate. Of course, the moment he lost Hazel's support, he proceeded to trip over himself and tumble to the ground.
Emerald sighed, unable to find any joy in her partner's floundering. After she'd left Yang and Jaune with Salem and End, she'd come down to Neo Hell's Core to check on Cinder and ended up watching Hazel repair the Gate of the Paired Fish.
Watching him floating in that tube, his eyes glossed over and haunted when they should have been filled cocky, aggravating arrogance… what happened to him when he'd died?
Surprising herself, Emerald now found herself walking over to him, cutting off Hazel and gripping the silver-haired boy's arm. Mercury glanced up and glared at her, but when she just rolled her eyes at his petulance, he didn't object when she hefted him back to his feet. She helped him limp over to the wall, at which point he granted her a nod once she released him. Not a thank you, but she had hardly expected one.
Besides, Mercury seemed to have other things occupying his attention. As soon as he was balanced, the silver-haired boy's gaze flittered down to his feet. His pale flesh feet.
Slowly, he lifted his new leg, only to set it back down on the obsidian floor, a shaky shudder of air slipping out of his lips.
"I… feel," he whispered, tears pricking out of the corners of his eyes. "I feel… cold."
Emerald couldn't help the small smile that tinged her lips. It seemed there was at least one positive consequence to his defeat at Haven. Whatever he'd suffered after he'd died, at least now he could walk on his own two feet again.
Hazel shot him a compassionate look. "It's understandable to be unsettled. The first death can be… tiring. The void is not an enjoyable experience. But it does get easier with time."
"Yes, if one can prove competent enough not to get killed again."
Mercury scowled as Hazel sighed. Both men, along with Emerald, whirled around to the new, elegant voice.
Floating within a core tube, her eyes flickering silver until a new Scarab Grimm squeezed into her body and turned them a single unbroken gold, Cinder gazed down on Mercury.
Sienna, currently working the controls to repair the Gate of the Archer's body, scoffed at her. "Perhaps such a statement would be more effective if you weren't currently being brought back as well."
"Watch how you speak," Cinder threatened. "You may be an Eclipse Etherious, but a few weeks isn't enough time to gain the strength of a true Gate."
"Really? Well, I'll be sure to ask my vaunted elder for advice. You know, if you're not dead again," Sienna snipped back. "Or going on another grandiose ego trip like at Beacon."
"I brought Remnant to its knees!"
"And completely failed in your primary objective. Or did the Relic of Choice suddenly appear in our possession?"
"I killed Ozpin! I crippled the kingdoms' communication!"
Sienna rolled her eyes. "Ozpin is already back, and Ironwood was only a few months away from restoring global communications with Amity Tower. You've accomplished nothing. All those innocent people dead, and you even lost your little maiden powers."
Hazel cringed. "Sienna, this isn't helping—"
"I don't need to be lectured by the woman who gave Adam Taurus a blank check!" Cinder barked. "And I have not lost the Fall Maiden powers! I have ensured that they went to Emerald so I can reclaim them—"
"You will not."
"Who are you to deny me—"
Cinder's voice choked in her throat as she realized that the one who'd spoken had not been Sienna.
Emerald shuddered as Salem glided into the laboratory, the air growing frigid at her entrance. The green-haired girl shuffled back towards Mercury, who himself hugged the wall even tighter. Even Hazel and Sienna stood at attention as their mistress strode up to Cinder's tube.
"Your grace," the Gate of the Archer groveled. "I'm sorry, I didn't know it was you—"
"You will not be reclaiming the mantle of the Fall Maiden," Salem repeated. "You have lost those powers to Emerald, and with her, they shall remain."
"I…" Emerald flinched as she found herself under both women's gazes. "I don't mind. I don't mind giving the powers back."
Cinder smirked and turned back to her mistress. "See? She knows where the magic truly belongs."
"Emerald's generosity is not a matter of question here," Salem pronounced. "Your worthiness is."
"My worthiness?" Cinder stammered. "My lady, you trained me yourself in the powers' use! You know what I can do with them!"
The Queen was not amused, her mouth set in a thin ashen frown. "I know what you can do. Unfortunately, you have proven quite incompetent in its use."
Cinder gulped. "You can't possibly agree with her about Beacon—"
"I most assuredly do. Though, that at least was my own fault. I should have educated you when you returned from that debacle, but I was so excited about your success getting the book to Team RWBY..." Salem mused. "Maybe then your recklessness wouldn't have spread to the Haven operation."
"I don't know what End has told you, but I did everything I could—"
"Except follow orders," Salem noted. "You were ordered to remain in the Vault before the operation began. Instead, you visited your father's grave and revealed yourself and Mercury to Ozpin's forces. You were ordered to prove cover fire to box our opponents' close together and ensure End could deal with them in a single blast. Instead, you charged in after a few volleys and put yourself in the line of fire, preventing him from defeating them all at once and giving them an opening to isolate him and drag the battle out."
"The battle was shifting! Branwen might have fled at any moment! I had to act—"
"And you nearly killed the daughter of Erza Scarlet."
Emerald's eyes widened, Cinder's face paling behind the glass.
"I… didn't know who she was—"
"Yes, you didn't know. Do you think such a fact is new information to me?" Salem mocked. "I didn't know who she was."
Cinder's eyes widened. "But then how can you blame me?"
"Because it has brought your recklessness fully into focus," the Queen declared. "What reason did you have to kill Pyrrha Nikos? Both at Beacon and at Haven?"
"She attacked me!"
"Really? I was unaware that the Fall Maiden who killed Headmaster Ozpin in single combat was incapable of dealing with a magicless first-year without having to resort to lethal force," Salem taunted, her crimson eyes aglow with livid fury. "We kill when we must. No more. I should have recognized your bloodlust after Beacon and clipped it in the bud."
"Nikos was not powerless at Haven!" Cinder shouted. "Or alone!"
"You don't need to remind me of that," Salem dismissed. "If Erza had not arrived when she had and put a stop to your stupidity before you'd done some permanent damage, I can assure you we'd be having a very different conversation."
"I died!" Cinder roared. "Don't trivialize it! I died and she killed me! Is that not a matter of concern for you—"
"Choose your next words very carefully, little Ella," Salem advised, her voice not raising a decibel yet still obliterating any protest in her path.
Cinder's resistance crumbled away in an instant. The Gate of the Archer glanced downward, shivering in her tank.
"You want to be strong. You want to be feared. You want to be powerful," Salem said. "But what you want means nothing if the world burns to the Umbral Spirit King. I am at current, the only player on the board standing in the path of him and his masters. Everything I command you to do, I do so because it is necessary."
"I…" Cinder muttered. "I understand."
"Good. The forces against us are not weak nor stupid. If we are not precise, we will not win. And if we do not win, then no one will be strong, feared, or powerful," Salem declared.
The Queen whirled around and made her way to the door. "Emerald, come with me. You'll need training with your new abilities. Mercury, you as well."
Mercury nodded and fell in line behind the original Eclipse Etherious. Emerald paused and glanced back at Cinder, hoping to give her friend some sort of reassurance.
But the only thing she was greeted with was a furious golden glare.
Emerald's eyes widened and she scampered after Salem and Mercury, the doors to the lab slamming shut behind her.
"Do not be afraid, young one," the Queen comforted her. "She will not take your power from you."
"I… I know," Emerald replied. "Your grace, why did you call her 'Ella'?"
"Because that's her name," Mercury revealed.
Emerald's eyes widened. "What?"
"Her name," Mercury repeated, though his voice was far more haunted than she'd ever heard from him. "Her real name is Ella."
Salem cocked an eyebrow. "Indeed. I'm surprised she told you that. She must trust you more than I had thought." A small smile ghosted across her face. "There may be hope for her yet. Hopefully, Summer will be able to make sure this lesson sticks."
Emerald gulped. She didn't know who this Summer was, but she knew Cinder. She knew what she wanted, what she deserved, and the Fall Maiden's power fell squarely into both categories. She'd stop at nothing to get both.
And Emerald would gladly give it to her, through the Scarab process as soon as Salem could be convinced to approve the idea. Although… she supposed… if Cinder got impatient for that… Neo-Hell's Core could bring her right back.
But, looking at Mercury, how… off he'd been since his return, and Cinder having gone through the same even if she was hiding it better… no, surely she wouldn't inflict that same torture on Emerald. She cared about her. She was her friend.
But then… why did she tell Mercury her real name and not Emerald? He was a disrespectful asshole while Emerald was loyal. Why had she decided that he was deserving to be entrusted with that information instead of The Gate of the Twins?
No, no, that was ridiculous. Emerald knew Cinder. She knew she cared about her. Mercury probably found it out without her telling him. It wasn't like it was impossible to figure out from context clues.
Cinder cared about her. She was the only one who cared about her.
She cared about her…
Ruby sighed as the sun's first rays tingled over her skin. The burnt orange circle rose over the horizon, its radiant shine banishing the vestiges of the shattered moon's night and bathing the treetops of Patch in the golden glow. Further into the town, she could still hear the hustle and bustle of the militia, either still battling the Grimm or shoring up the settlement's defenses after doing so all night.
Maybe she should have gone to help. She may have needed rest, but she'd woken up just before dawn. She didn't have a huntress license, but she could more than handle herself, and if her showing up saved someone else, any legal headache would be well worth it. After all, her dad and Uncle Qrow hadn't come back last night, so something was obviously wrong and she needed to—
The bark stirred Ruby out of her spiraling thoughts, turning towards the sound from where she sat on the roof of her house. She was met by a fluffy ball of adorableness leaping into her arms and slathering her face in licks.
"Heheheh, Zwei," Ruby chuckled. "What are you doing up so early, boy?"
"I think he was worried about his family. You included."
Ruby managed to push down her corgi's loving licks long enough to see Erza stride across the rooftop. The Titania and her student shared a smile as the red-haired woman hopped down to join her on the edge.
"He shouldn't be. Dad and Uncle Qrow are the ones out there. And Yang…" Ruby said, scratching her adorable pooch behind his ears. But as a frown marred her face, Zwei whined and rubbed his fur into her chest. "Maybe he should be worried."
Erza sighed. "There is a complex problem ahead of us."
"But how do we solve it?" Ruby inquired. "I tried to sleep on it, but… Ozpin's strategy of hiding the truth isn't going to work."
"Not likely, no," Erza concurred. "Even if Salem wasn't around, hiding the truth of the Umbral Spirit King is a double-edged sword we can't afford. It may keep panic down, but it also prevents anyone from knowing about the danger and working to adequately solve it. Even if he has been unsuccessful in entering our world so far, it is unlikely he's stopped trying."
"So Sitara… Salem is right?" Ruby queried. "We need to go after the gods and destroy the Grimm before they kill us?"
"Fairy Tail philosophy does not look kindly on waiting around to die," Erza conceded. "But that does not mean charging off into a fight you more than likely won't win."
Erza winced, a trickle of youthful embarrassment flickering over her face. "Admittedly, we weren't always the best at putting that into action. But Master Makarov was. He knew a war with the Alvarez Empire was one we would more than likely lose, and so he attempted to stave it off with negotiation as long as possible."
"Well, yeah, but it's not like we can negotiate with the Umbral Spirit King," Ruby pointed out. "And didn't you guys end up winning that war anyway?"
Erza sighed. "We did. A battle we had to fight against impossible odds, against an immortal and a dragon that could devour magic itself, and we won anyway. I imagine that's how Salem sees this. If we wait, we'll die, so we must fight. And because of our past miracles, she has faith that we can win despite the power of our foes."
"If she sets the stage," Ruby muttered, her hands instinctively clutching Zwei tighter for comfort. "What she's done… what she's willing to do… it's evil."
"To protect our family, we would gladly become villains," Erza murmured, no longer pleased with the declaration.
"I know we've said that!" Ruby cried. "But what happened at Beacon and in Atlas—she killed Weiss's mom! She killed General Ironwood! We would never do those kinds of things! Right?"
Erza didn't answer immediately, her burrowed as her eyes gazed out over Patch. The Titania in thought was almost as frightening as when she simmered with rage.
"Right?" Ruby repeated. "Erza?"
"I don't know," the redhead eventually stated, morosely shaking her head. "I don't know, Ruby. I wish I had a better answer, but I don't. I once thought that I'd never desire to kill another person, but after I saw Cinder over Pyrrha in the Vault? I'm not sure… we've never been this desperate. Outnumbered, outgunned, limited magic, the entire world on the line… and our only hope of reinforcements is a faction that's nearly killed my daughter twice."
Ruby gulped. Erza was always so strong, so certain. Even when she was wavering over regaining her memories, she'd still been committed to helping them fight Salem. To see her having to deliberate so much about her next course of action… it was sobering.
And to know the part she herself played in causing such a dire situation…
"Whatever we decide to do, our first move remains the same," The Queen of the Fairies said. "We need to go to the Grimmlands. We need to make sure Yang and Jaune are safe. Once we're there we can talk or fight with Salem as needed—"
"Do you hate me?"
Erza's head whipped towards Ruby, her eyes wide. "What?!"
Zwei whimpered in Ruby's arms, tears pricking down the silver-eyed girl's cheeks.
"Do you hate me? It's my fault," the huntress muttered. "I… I convinced her to give up on her original plan. I convinced her to fight, to not take things lying down. Everything she is now, everything she's done, everyone she's killed, it all started because I told her about Fairy Tail. Because of me… Earthland is gone. And you guys will never see the rest of the guild again."
Ruby lifted Zwei out of her arms and set him to the side, ignoring the corgi's pleading whines. "I promised Wendy that I'd find some way to fix everything. That I'd make sure you'd be able to see the guild again, just like you all got us home. But I'm the one who set all this in motion."
She tried to do the right thing. And instead, she'd started the dominos falling to mankind's extinction, sentencing her friends to a broken world where they'd never see the rest of the guild again. Mira, Laxus, Levy, Gajeel, they'd lived their lives. Jinn had shown them their lives from their meeting with Sitara on.
And they never saw the Strongest Team again.
How could she let that stand? How could she allow such a horrid timeline, a timeline she caused to remain? She knew the risks of time travel, how it could wipe away everything she'd ever known, but if everyone was going to die to the Grimm anyway—
Erza reached over and pulled Ruby into a warm hug, the girl's internal rambling silenced as her dark hair was pressed into her mentor's cushiony chest.
"I could never hate you," Erza assured her. "Nor could Wendy, or Carla, or Lucy, or the boys."
"But… but I—"
"You told a friend who was trying to commit suicide that there was still more to live for. That does not make you evil, Ruby," her teacher reminded her. "Perhaps you played a part in Salem's decisions and Earthland's ultimate fate, but many others did so to a far greater degree. And in the end, what's done is done. Assigning blame or seeking retribution for matters long past won't help us deal with the problem at hand."
Ruby couldn't stop sobs from racking her lithe body. "But you guys… you'll never see the guild, or Magnolia, or the others… Pyrrha will never know her father—"
Erza answered with a familiar hand sign, her finger setting right in front of Ruby's face, pointed towards the sky. "Even if I can't see you, no matter how far away you may be, I will always be watching you. A thousand miles or a thousand years, they're still with us."
She gently grabbed Ruby's hand and raised it to her bicep. Their guildmarks, crimson and sapphire, glimmered side-by-side.
"And the guild is not gone. You are just as much Fairy Tail, just as much our family, as anyone from Magnolia," Erza proclaimed. "I've lived on Remnant for nearly two decades now. I have a daughter and a sister that I love. This world is just as much mine as yours. And I will fight to protect it."
Ruby turned just in time for Zwei to leap back into her lap, nuzzling against both her and Erza while his stubby tail wagged. Both women managed to smile as they scratched the cheerful corgi's back.
"Something tells me he would as well," Erza quipped.
"He would. Zwei can take down any measly Grimm," Ruby chuckled. She wiped the tears from her face and took on a more pensive frown. "But it's not measly Grimm coming us, it's their king."
Erza nodded. "Yes."
"So, what do we do? Ozpin's plan won't work, but Salem's… it's killed innocent people," Ruby said. "Do we just… let it go?"
"I don't know. Fairy Tail isn't normally forgiving about attacks on our family," Erza noted, shaking her head. "Like I said, we should wait until we meet with Salem until we make a decision. There are details we're missing."
"Like how she's planning to get the entire world to agree to become Eclipse Etherious?" Ruby asked. "She was pretty vague on the details of that."
"That," Erza nodded. "And something else. Something… off about Mira."
Ruby cocked an eyebrow. "Mira?"
"In the vision, when she was talking with Sitara after we were sealed in the Spheres, she almost seemed afraid of her," Erza explained. "I think there might be a bit more to what's going on, something that the question didn't cover."
"Do we use the last one to find out then?"
Erza shook her head. "No, not yet. The Lamp is a powerful tool. We should see if we can find out another way before we use up its last question."
Ruby furrowed her brow, thoughts flying through her head. If there was something else at play that they didn't know about, some factor that had affected the past… then maybe… maybe there was a way to set things right. She knew time travel was dangerous but if everyone was going to be slaughtered by the Umbral Spirit King anyway-
No. No, that was stupid. It was reckless and desperate. One wrong move and she could erase herself and everything she'd ever known from existence. And as much trouble as they were in, Erza was right. They still had so much.
Yang, Weiss, Blake, Wendy, Jaune, her team and the rest of her friends were still there. She couldn't reset the world where they'd lived all their lives. She just needed to save it. Somehow.
Which meant confronting her old friend, and everything she'd wrought with the philosophy she'd given her.
But at least she wouldn't have to do it alone.
Cinder was glad Sienna and Hazel had been intimidated off by her screams of fury. Since her body had been regenerated, she wanted to be alone.
She raged throughout Neo-Hell's Core, ramming her fists into the black walls as the obsidian cracked beneath her knuckles. She knew better than to damage the delicate machinery and risk a chain reaction, or exacerbating Salem's anger, but as her own rage mounted, she feared her fraying self-control would soon lead her to do something foolish. Especially when she caught her reflection in the regeneration tubes and saw no orange glow around her eyes.
She couldn't feel it anymore. She'd gotten used to it, those months after Beacon and all those years in the Vault of the Spring Maiden, she'd gotten used to the warmth of the Fall Maiden's power within her. Now, it was gone, with Emerald. And she was powerless once more.
Her anger breaking at last, Cinder peeled back her arm and swung her fist for the offending tube.
Only for a pale hand to catch her knuckles just before she could smash her own reflection.
Cinder whirled on the new arrival, only for her fury to evaporate when she was met with a pair of warm golden eyes. Only this set was not her own mirrored.
"Hello, my little princess," Teacher greeted, her white cloak pristine even among the depths of Salem's castle.
"Teacher!" Cinder cheered, leaping forward and engulfing her mentor in a hug. "You're here!"
"I'm here," Summer replied, pulling the other woman in tighter. "It's so good to see you face-to-face again, Cinder. Though, I will admit I am disappointed that you've chosen to take your anger out on the core."
Cinder winced, suddenly feeling so very childish as she glanced over the rubble she'd broken off the walls. Salem was already displeased with her. What would have happened if Teacher had arrived a moment later and she'd shattered a regeneration tube? Sure there were more, but the core's systems were linked together from regeneration tubes, to Scarab and Seer Grimm incubators, to even the Ascension Chamber. If she was unlucky, she might have even ruined the entire laboratory. And she had been infuriatingly unlucky as of late.
But all that was about to change. Teacher was here, the Winter Maiden's power flowing off her in waves as it accentuated her already magnificent aura. She could help her, just like she always had.
"Teacher, I need your help," Cinder pleaded, pulling out of the hug. "The Queen has unfairly blamed me for the loss and Haven—"
"And decreed that Emerald will be the Fall Maiden from now on," Summer answered. "She and End informed me of the situation when I arrived last night."
Cinder scowled. She had specifically thought of Emerald in her final moments to ensure that she would easily be able to retrieve the maiden power. But now that Salem had made her thoughts on the matter known, there was no way Emerald would willingly return it. She was too smart to risk the Queen's ire for no benefit to herself. If she could get Teacher to convince their mistress to rescind her decision though, the green-haired girl would fall in line.
And if not, accidents could happen in the midst of battle. Fortunately, Emerald would just resurrect, so there would be no trouble.
"I was the only one who was taking action. It's not my fault—"
"Huh?" Cinder squawked.
Summer sighed, shaking her head. "What happened after the battle?"
"I… I lost," Cinder confessed, looking away in shame. "But I was so close! One more moment and I would have crushed Erza Scarlet—"
"After the battle, Cinder. Salem informed me that it took you hours to reform in Hell's Core," Summer clarified, a look of concern taking over her face as she gently took her student's hand. "Are you alright? Being in the void, I know from experience that it is horrible, but if something trapped you there for hours than we need to know—"
"I wasn't in the void. Not for hours, at least," Cinder revealed. She hoped to leave the matter at that, but Teacher's gaze did not leave her, nor she speak herself.
It was always like this. Salem and End could make her afraid, but only Teacher could make her feel like a child. One who'd disappointed her. And she desperately didn't want to disappoint Teacher.
"I… I was in the Vault," she confessed, shivering as she remembered the torturous heat crawling over her flesh. "Raven Branwen trapped me in the Vault of the Spring Maiden. I don't know how long I was there, but it felt like… like… I don't know."
"Years. In a place like that, years," Summer mused. She came forward and clasped a soft hand on Cinder's shoulder, while her other caressed her chin until their golden gazes connected together. "My poor girl. You need to make sure something like never happens again."
"Exactly!" Cinder grinned. "Which means I need to get the maiden powers—"
"—back from…" Cinder's face twisted in befuddlement. "What?"
Summer smoothed out her student's new gown. "You don't need the Fall Maiden's power."
"Wha—of course, I do! It's what I've been training for since you brought me here! I chose my name from it!" Cinder protested, pleaded with her beloved mentor. "I need that power or I'll never be strong enough to protect myself—"
"Did it save you from Raven and Erza?"
"Well…" Cinder winced. "… no."
"Did it save you from Wendy at Beacon?"
Summer smirked. "And who did get you out of Beacon alive again?"
Cinder grumbled, suddenly realizing exactly where this was going. "… Emerald."
"Precisely," Summer nodded. "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Hoarding magic will only get you so far. Whereas an alternative source of power may yield more preferable results."
It was only her limitless respect for Teacher that kept her from rolling her eyes. "The power of friendship? It didn't help me the last time."
"Jack and the others couldn't have stopped Ana and Drizzella. Nor could you have stopped what happened to them," Summer consoled her. "If you let Godmother's Haven define you, then you will be forever crippled, no matter how much strength you gather."
"So you've told me," Cinder murmured, having heard this many times before in training. "But what does it matter? If Emerald and Mercury already work with me, what is compassion but a weakness?"
"Can you really pretend the teamwork you try to enforce through intimidation is the same as the bonds of genuine care that have defeated you twice now?" Summer asked. "It's not a matter of picking and choosing, princess. You can't have the power if the friendship isn't genuine."
Cinder sneered. "I raised them up from nothing. And in return, I have lost the power I spent years working towards to Emerald, and Mercury dares to compare my father to—"
"Your father?" Summer said, raising an eyebrow while a playful smirk pricked over her face. "You told him about your past—"
"No! Gods, no!" Cinder snarled, shaking off her mentor's hands and stomping over to the other end of the aisle. "He… discerned some of the details when we were in the Memorial Gardens."
Summer paused. "I see. Then he is intelligent. You were wise to recommend him to the Gates. And you have both gone through the experience of the void."
Cinder snorted. "You're suggesting I use our mutual deaths to manipulate him?"
"No, not manipulate," Summer sighed. "Talk to him. Help him through whatever he is feeling about the experience and maybe it will help you understand your own trauma on the matter. You two may be able to bond by helping each other."
Cinder turned away. "I don't have any trauma from Haven."
Summer stared at her for a long moment and the Gate of the Archer began to feel foolish. Teacher had spent time in the void during her unique ascension. She knew how… trying, it could be. Added to what Cinder had admitted about the Vault? It was… perhaps illogical to try to claim to her that she was fully recovered from her latest experience.
Teacher strode forward and gently nudged her student around to face her. "Where has closing yourself off gotten you, princess? The world is a cruel place. Going through it alone just makes it harder."
"I'm not alone," Cinder mewled. "I have you."
Summer flashed her a loving smile. "You do. But if you don't want to stop gathering power, why stop gathering loved ones?"
"I… um…" Cinder tried to find a response before finally sighing. "I will… try to speak with Mercury and Emerald."
Summer grinned, taking the other Gate into her arms. "You won't regret this, little princess. The more you take, the less you have, but if you share? You'll find yourself richer than you could have ever imagined."
"Which is why the Queen's plan depends on elevating the rest of the world," Cinder grumbled. "Better than the alternative I suppose."
Summer tilted her head in curiosity. "Alternative?"
"Oh, um…" Cinder stammered. "During my battle with the Titania, I… lost control of my eyes."
For the first time in the conversation, Summer was taken aback. "Oh. That is… unexpected."
"I was… afraid," Cinder whispered, her body trembling as the image of Erza Scarlet filled her mind. A crimson monster, unstoppable and implacable. Her hands fluttered to her stomach, pinching the area where the Titania had sunk her swords into her previous body. "My curse… it should have stripped her of her senses, but she just… she just… how did friendship let her do that?"
"The will to protect someone you care about can drive a person to do the impossible. But you have to care," Summer explained, taking her hands. "How do you feel? About your eyes? All these years, you've—"
"It was a mistake," Cinder growled. "A mistake I will never make again. That cursed power has brought me nothing but pain. And I have no desire to let it hurt me again."
Father. Her old friends.
Summer sighed. "If that is your choice, then so be it. But Cinder, it's your power. I've taught you to control it. What happened before was not your fault. You don't need to be afraid of it."
"I'm not afraid!" Cinder vehemently declared. "I'm just… just…"
Her teacher patted her on the shoulder and stepped away. "If you want to be strong, you must acknowledge all parts of yourself. Accept all your actions, all your choices, and be prepared to accept their consequences, while doing everything you can to improve the situation."
Cinder's lips pursed as she mulled over the advice. She'd heard it before, been practically raised on it, but her own experiences with the Tremaines had led her to limit the philosophy in her mind. And yet, having been failed by her own ideals, by her lust for power, twice now, she couldn't help but wonder if there really was some strategy she was overlooking. By all logic, she should have been able to win the battle in the Vault, and the fight on Beacon Tower before it. And yet she hadn't.
Was there really some secret strength in 'friendship' of all things? Some power that Fairy Tail knew that she could not muster?
Perhaps, perhaps not. But she refused to be beaten again. She would not be weak.
"Do what you need to do before you do what you want to do," she murmured, quoting another of her mentor's favorite lines.
Summer chuckled. "Go to Emerald and Mercury. You'll love them."
"Perhaps," Cinder confessed. "Thank you, Teacher."
"You're welcome, my little princess. If you ever need anyone to talk to, just come to me."
"Always," Cinder managed a small smile. "I suppose with your mission over we'll be able to spend more time face-to-face. Did you have a pleasant flight over?"
Summer shrugged. "I've had worse. Though I wish I'd been able to arrive before Yang went to sleep. That is not a talk I should put off any longer."
Cinder cocked an eyebrow. "Yang? Why in the world would you have any business with her?"
"Huh? You mean you don't know?"
Summer sighed. "Cinder, look at my face, right now. I'm not using any magic. Who do I look like?"
Cinder tilted her head to the side, confused. Teacher looked as she always did. Strong, bold, striking, the pinnacle of a warrior. She'd tried to emulate the majesty she held herself with for years. And since she doubted that the correct answer was Salem…
That perked a wry smile from the woman. "Cinder, I believe it is time you learned my last name."
"Your—"The Gate of the Archer's eyes widened as the younger woman bowed her head. "Teacher, I'm honored."
Due to the high-risk nature of Teacher's deep-cover assignment in Atlas, it was deemed necessary for the details of her identity to be kept in as small a circle as possible. Ozpin was no stranger to torture after all, and with the old man's research having crossed into transferring the maiden powers vis soul extraction, the idea of him having crafted mystical measures to forcefully extract the knowledge from any captured agent was not out of the question. Thus, only the Queen, The Ophiuchus, Happy, and Hazel had been aware of her full name, and the latter two only because they'd been there for the Ascension process. Even being told her first name had led to Cinder being confined to the castle until Salem had been absolutely sure she could keep the secret.
Of course, given Weiss and Gray's escape from Atlas meant that information would soon be out in the open, she supposed there wasn't much reason to keep the matter hidden anymore.
And Teacher had decided to share it with her first of course! After all, she knew there was no one in the world who believed in her more—
Teacher shot her a wane smile. "My full name is Summer Rose. Ruby and Yang are my daughters just as you are."
"But… but… but…"
Cinder's mind, normally so sharp, found itself struggling to comprehend what she'd just been told. Her golden eyes blinked madly as they ran over her beloved mentor trying to find some reasoning behind this dreadful joke. Yes, she understood that Summer having spirit slayer magic meant that she must have had silver eyes originally and she could spy some surface-level facial similarities between her and Ruby. But that was they were! Surface-level! Nothing more! Ruby Rose was a wretched, simpering weakling, while Teacher was… Teacher!
And yet, from a certain point of view, with a vast degree of suspension of disbelief, she could… understand the idea. Teacher had mentioned looking forward to seeing two members of Team RWBY even more than Salem, and a… familial connection would explain that. And she had expressed that she had once clung to similar naivety as Ruby before the truth of the world had made clear that such ideals were not practical. Besides, it wasn't like Summer to lie to her about something this important.
But that would mean that Ruby Rose and Yang Xiao-Long were her… her stepsisters. She didn't exactly have the best experience with those.
And all these years, Summer's mission had kept her from seeing them. The same mission that had brought her and Cinder together. Now that it was over, and she would soon have them back… where did that leave Cinder? She wasn't stupid enough to think Teacher was any fonder of her recent actions than Salem even if she was kinder about it. And since she had her original daughters back…
"I understand," Cinder said, trying to keep her voice steady. "It's dawn, or what amounts to it here. Yang will probably be up. You should go to her. I'll speak with Mercury and Emerald."
"That's the spirit," Summer grinned. "By the time I'm done talking with Yang, you three will have your own secret handshake."
"Of course," Cinder nodded. "I won't be beaten. I'll make friends."
Like them. However weak Ruby and Yang were, they were both well-practiced in Fairy Tail's power of friendship or whatever it was, that made Salem and Summer so enamored with them. And if they could do it, Cinder could do it. And Teacher would see that she was just as good as them. Better even.
Summer wouldn't have any reason to cast her aside. She would not lose.
She would not lose another family.
"So, what do you think?" Yang inquired.
On the bed across from her, Jaune scoffed. "About?"
Yang shot him an exasperated look. He knew what she was talking about.
As promised, the two of them had been led to a comfortable guest chamber where they'd spent the night, resting from both the battles they'd fought and the revelations they'd been told. You'd think with a horde of titanic Grimm prowling outside the castle it'd be hard to get some shut-eye, but the room must have some kind of noise cancelation in either its design or its magic because Yang had been out like a light. Or maybe that just spoke to how insane the mess they'd wandered into was.
Or really, the mess they had been born into.
Jaune sighed. "I don't know, Yang. Her story makes sense based on what we've seen and what Wendy told us about Fairy Tail's time. It certainly fills in a bunch of the holes Ozpin's left. But taking on gods? Who only one of which wiped the human race? It sounds like we're hopelessly… hilariously outgunned."
"No arguments there," Yang replied. "But with the Relics, they're the only ones we can hit. If we don't use that plan, then we're just waiting around for the Umbral Spirit King to figure out a way through and hit us on his terms. With an army that outnumbers us by billions that only Spirit Slayers can permanently kill."
"Not exactly ideal," Jaune admitted. "Damned if we do, damned if we don't. Unless you think Salem's thought this thing out more than she's let on. I mean, that was her sales pitch, but the actual specifics of killing the gods have to be more complicated than just making an army of End-powered Eclipse Etherious, summoning the gods back, and hoping it's enough. I mean, End's fire can burn away the gods' curses and magic, but what if they get hit by them? It won't save them."
"She's definitely still keeping something from us," Yang frowned. "She said someone was coming to explain something that I wouldn't believe from her."
Jaune cocked an eyebrow. "She just told us that this is humanity's second go-around, everything Ozpin told us was a lie, and that the Grimm have a king who's trying to come to our world and kill us all. What could she possibly think we wouldn't believe at this point?"
"Hell if I know," Yang exclaimed, rising to her feet and pacing around the room. "I mean, maybe she has to eat a dozen virgins a week, so she doesn't shrivel up and lose her power. Or maybe End runs on orphan tears and keeps a couple around to beat up whenever he needs a hit."
"Those… seem unlikely."
"Maybe. But would they do it?" Yang queried. "I thought I knew who Sitara was. And I get what she's been through. I get that she thinks this is the only way to save the world. But sponsoring Cinder, the Fall of Beacon, whatever Lionheart was doing at Haven… I never thought a person I called friend would be involved in things like that." She held up her twin stumps of arms. "I mean, I was one of the lucky ones. How many people died in The Fall?"
Yang whirled around to face the door, Jaune shooting to his feet. Standing in the entranceway was End, a more solemn look on his face than usual.
"But, less than will if we do nothing," The Ophiuchus said.
"Assuming you can win against the Gods," Yang retorted.
"Care to shed some more light on the 'how'?" Jaune challenged.
The fire demon stood back and gestured with his arm. "Right this way, Mr. Arc. Now that you're rested, I will gladly give you a more thorough tour of our operations."
"And me?" Yang sarcastically pouted. "I thought we had something, big boy."
End chuckled. "I know you're trying to get a rise out of me, but honestly, I'm happy for you right now, Yang. You're about to receive a miracle you never thought possible."
"Ugh. Do you have to make it sound so ominous?"
Yang raised an eyebrow at the new voice, recognizing it from the radio-call at Haven. She knew she'd heard it from before then too, but she just couldn't connect the dots in her head. She knew the memory was there, but she just couldn't drag it up.
Then End stepped aside and a woman in a white cloak strode into the room.
Yang's eyes widened, her breath catching in her throat.
"Hello, firecracker," the woman greeted, her face trembling like vibrating glass.
Jaune blinked at the sight of her, his eyes narrowing at her familiar face. "You… you look like…" he turned to Yang. "Yang, who is this?"
"Her mother," End supplied. "Come on, Mr. Arc. Let's give them some time alone."
"Her—no!" Jaune protested. "You can't really expect me to leave her alone with—"
"Go, Jaune," Yang muttered, her eyes never leaving the phantom in front of her, that save for its golden eyes looked exactly like her dead mother. Her gaze narrowed as her Purple Flare arms ignited. "Find out everything you can."
Jaune glanced between her and the white-cloaked woman. "Are you sure?"
Yang nodded. "One way or another, I'll deal with this."
Jaune swallowed, still not fully convinced, but he nodded. "Be careful."
Slowly, Jaune walked out of the room, End flashing him a reassuring smile as they went into the hall and he shut the door behind him.
Leaving only Yang and the woman who looked like a golden-eyed Summer Rose.
And we're back. This chapter deals with some of the initial reactions to the various big changes with special parallel attention paid to Ruby and Cinder and their respective mentors. Next Chapter will delve into Team STRQ angst and Summer's past, as well as her interaction with Yang.
Also, Volume 8 is occurring! As of this writing, I have seen the first six episodes. I'm not enjoying it as much as I did Volume 7's first half, but I don't think I'm supposed to given the far heavier material. It's not the bombastic breezy fun of the first half of Volume 7. And given that most of it is setup, it just gets me more and more excited for when the payoff hits in the midseason finale and the second half of the season.
Thank you for Reading! I hope you enjoy what comes next!
Go Forth and Conquer!