Shirou could tell that there was something that Qrow and Raven weren't telling him at some point in their journey. In fact, it wasn't that obvious when staring at Raven, but the odd way Qrow seemed to be putting himself between Ruby and Emerald out of some sort of concern wasn't missed, no matter how subtle the man was being.
The frown that occasionally made its way onto Qrow's face when he thought that no one would notice, was something that Shirou could relate with. He himself would rather shoulder everything on his own if it meant keeping others out of danger or harms way. Hence, if he felt that he could handle things on his own without endangering others, he too would likely keep his thoughts to himself. In this regard, Qrow's actions were easy to notice.
The subtler Qrow was, the more distinct his movements became in Shirou's eyes. After all, Shirou would probably act in a similar manner in Qrow's shoes.
Inwardly sighing, Shirou speculated that there were many supernatural undercurrents flowing through Remnant, excluding him, that he wasn't aware of. The story of the Four Maidens Raven had divulged was obviously one of them. Nonetheless, this didn't change the issue of whether or not he should pry.
He was already exasperated enough that he found himself helping settle issues with bandits, but there was a reason for this.
It wasn't explicitly stated, but the Branwen Tribe ruled a large area of Anima's lawless sectors. Their influence could easily trounce any upstart bandit tribes, and their reach insured a type of civility and order in the area's underground groups. If the Branwen Tribe were to suddenly disappear from the picture, then the ensuing power grab to fill in the spot would lead to further violence and bloodshed.
At least the Branwen Tribe never participated in abusing women and children during their raids, but the same couldn't be said for any future tribes. Of course, a solution was to eliminate all banditry, but this was entirely unlikely as Anima's lawless zones were both huge and many.
At least with Raven, her words were laws in the tribe, and it was simpler to ask her to control her tribemates than the latter options.
Still, it felt like he was walking on some sort of tight-rope.
Keeping his pace even, Shirou surveyed Raven and Qrow from atop the canopy he was using as a vantage point, before glancing at Ruby pestering Emerald by trying to make idle conversation. Ruby was never the most social of people, and her attempts at buttering Emerald up were tipping on the point of cringe-worthy. It was a miracle Emerald was able to endure her, but if Emerald had to choose between Ruby or Vernal slinking near the back, then Ruby was the obvious choice.
Already a group dynamic was forming.
If Yang were around, Shirou had a half-a-mind to believe that a squabble would have already started from behind Qrow and Raven's backs.
Qrow and Raven were just too absorbed in whatever talks that they had, that they weren't bothering with anything else.
Qrow appeared a tad subdued, while Raven had a perpetual crease in her brow. Both carried a heightened sense of resolution that ironically enough, revealed their uncanny disposition as siblings.
Up ahead, the magic tracker pointing everyone in the right direction was gradually vibrating stronger and stronger. It wouldn't be long now until the target of the tracking would be apprehended.
As the dense trees gave way to a veritable mass of foliage consisting of shrubs, bushes, and rooted plants, a stream that cut a distinct clearing in the forests of Anima came within view.
Smoke trails from a small fire wafted up into the air, the crackling of wood burning giving way to a small haphazard camp situated at the banks of the stream. Clothing, bent pots and pans, and various empty sacks of pilfered food were strewn around.
At the very center, and struggling to pry open what looked like a can of non-perishables, a figure was cursing under her breath before taking note of their arrival.
There was nothing truly worth noting from the person at first glance. A common face, common brown hair, common stature, and a common aversion to strangers in the forest. There was nothing really remarkable about her to take note off other than her dirt-stained clothing which Shirou wasn't one to pick on such details. Living in a forest was rough, more so when it was clear one was doing so alone.
For a second, pity flashed across Shirou's eyes at the shiver that travelled down the woman's back, then came surprise.
The way the woman's face contorted in equal parts loathing and apprehension tugged at heart strings, but the tendrils of electricity buzzing in her hair, and the tongues of fire that singed the ground made the sentiment moot.
This woman was dangerous.
He quickly recalled what Raven had described to him regarding this mission posting.
Was this the 'Maiden,' that Raven said possessed the ability to harness magic?
The way recognition flashed across the woman and Raven's eyes was telling.
For a moment, he considered the notion of questioning the Maiden about her magic applications but that better of it, when it was clear that she was in no mood for civility. She may even attack without warning, and Shirou had Ruby and Emerald's safety to consider. Moreover, as this was his first time encountering a Maiden, he had yet to get an understanding about the limits of their capability.
Her magic power may even be able to contend against the parameters of a Heroic Spirit. Worse, as the Maiden was already unhinged enough to target unrelated settlements as a way to get back at perceived injustices, there was no telling what she'd resort to in battle.
Letting out a breath, Shirou readied himself for combat. His feet fell into a loose stance, shoulder width apart, his knees buckling as he lowered his center of gravity.
As a Heroic Spirit, the distance of around twenty feet between him and the Maiden was negligible.
A single bound, and he'd be right on top of her.
Nevertheless, he wasn't going to act rashly against a potential enemy that could contend with him.
"H-How did you find me?" The Maiden staggered back, having not expected any sort of company.
"You ask that as if finding a coward like you would have been any hassle?" Vernal sneered while Raven merely drew her blade.
The provocation had the Maiden's features twisting angrily, but before any retort could be given, Raven moved.
In the blink of an eye, Raven burst into a forward sprint, hands held in a drawing position over the hilt of her sword.
The action seemed both planned and instant, and Raven wasn't the only one to move.
For a second, Shirou was stunned when he saw Qrow knock out an unsuspecting Ruby and Emerald. The precise blow to the back of the head was both controlled and well practiced, the strikes neither too strong or too weak, and entirely unexpected.
Ruby was never a very physical Huntress. She collapsed like a sack of potatoes.
"W-What the…" Emerald barely managed to retain consciousness before another lighter blow, put her lights out.
"Sorry," Shirou heard Qrow murmur, but this was the last of Shirou's concerns because Qrow didn't stop there.
Tucking an arm each under Ruby and Emerald, Qrow hoisted them up and began speeding past him and away.
"I'll explain later! These two need to get out of here!" Qrow yelled when he noticed Shirou tense in preparation to give chase.
Shirou frowned heavily. Shirou knew that it was impossible for Qrow to easily act in any shape or form that would endanger others, let alone Ruby. Therefore, there had to actually be some form of danger in keeping them around.
Could he trust Qrow?
Glancing at Raven and Vernal who were now squaring off against the Maiden, there was little doubt about who Shirou trusted more.
It would be the best if he followed after Qrow and ascertained Ruby and Emerald's safety, however, he could see Raven and Vernal suddenly lose ground.
"Fuck you! Get away from me!"
A pulse of magic energy ebbed into a tide that gave Shirou pause. It was his first time seeing an actual magic user in Remnant, and the movement of energy was intriguing.
As a third-rate magus, he knew that magecraft and incantations were meant to activate mysteries and hidden crafts. Od was imbued into distinct properties after being channeled through magic circuits, before being actualized into spells.
The way the flow of magic flowed around the Maiden was entirely different. Rather than have Magic Circuits to convert ambient mana, the magic of a Maiden willed the ambient mana to its directive.
A lot could be said for the efficiency of such a method, as the main toll of the magic would be placed on the body's limitations, but its ability to harness magic quickly wasn't a joke.
Fire, wind, water, and earth seemed to roar to life all at once in a bid to protect the user.
The control the Maiden had over the elements was making it increasingly difficult for Raven or Vernal to find steady ground. Worse, the Maiden absolutely refused to let Raven or Vernal anywhere near her, revealing an understanding that the Maiden knew the outcome of a close-quarters battle.
The ground beneath the Maiden had cracked and fissured, forming trenches that one would have to leap over to cross. However, buffeting winds spinning around the Maiden left the task ardours at the worst, and impossible at best. Nevertheless, the strained expression on the Maiden's face revealed a lack of precision and control, focusing more on burst potential. She'd never do well in a drawn-out fight, and this was precisely what Raven and Vernal seemed to understand. They were circling the Maiden, and waiting for a chance at an opening.
The way the Maiden was using her mana reserves would have had any modern magus scoff with how wasteful it all was.
Through analysis, it was clear who the inevitable victor would be, but in the same vein, Shirou understood that the greatest potential of anyone was squeezed out when cornered. The more Raven and Vernal pressured the Maiden, the more likely the Maiden would lose all reservations and snap.
Everything was going to come to a head, and by this point, Shirou had already subconsciously begun to ease the tension flowing through his body.
For all the danger he'd been told about Maidens and their magic, the power and output couldn't be compared to the lethality or destructive capability of Noble Phantasms that he'd seen throughout his life.
It may just be the immaturity and lack of experience of this particular Maiden, but she was more on the level of advanced magi able to harness their craft without the need for incantations. Perhaps stronger Maidens existed, but their lack of training and the relative lack of magic user in Remnant meant that they were all on their own to explore their power.
The fact that Huntsmen and Huntresses could contend against Maidens, further proved that the power of Maidens wasn't truly overwhelming.
Pillars of fire, and blades of wind unceremoniously thrown at Raven and Vernal left scars upon the earth that splattered dirt and debris all around, but Shirou remained comparatively still.
Raising an arm to bat aside a few trunks of uprooted trees, Shirou figured that he had enough of an impression of what Maidens were capable of, and decided it was time to act.
The battle had gone on for long enough, and there were still questions he wished to ask, the most pressing of which had to do with the maximum output of a Maiden.
The air stilled, magic conflations converging into interface patterns over his skin.
An unseen reverberation created a pressure that caused the hairs on the back of the neck to raise.
Shirou raised a hand, and hundreds of swords filled the area such that the blowing wind in the area produced eerie chimes.
The fighting came to a mutually abrupt silence.
How was this possible?
A speculation about the familiarity of swords suddenly appearing out of nowhere came to the front of everyone's minds, before being abruptly shoved to the back in light of mortal danger.
Vernal had been unable to stop her momentum in time, and ended up grazing the tip of a random red spear that her Aura did nothing to hinder.
All along Vernal had been following information about the existence of such wonderous tools, and now there were practically hundreds before her eyes. If all the weapons around carried the same magical properties that could bypass Aura, then- well shit.
A trickle of blood dripped down Vernal's arm from when she'd grazed the red spear's tip.
Vernal, Raven, and the Maiden stared at the droplet of blood, none missing the implications of the danger surrounding them.
"What the fuck?!" Vernal stumbled clear of the blade edges at the revelation, nearly falling on her butt, her knees wobbling from just how close some of the swords had appeared around her. Any careless move and her skin could be skewered, and this was a literal thing.
Raven's reaction was less exaggerated, but the hitching of her breath, and the way her eyes widened was telling. She resisted the urge to cut a portal to safety when she considered that she and Shirou were presently on the same side. Unfortunately, the Maiden didn't have that sort of insurance.
"W-What is this?" Panic bled from the Maiden's tone, such that gales of violent wind and fire she was releasing attempted to blast the floating steel away. It worked for a few mundane weapons, some even melting in the heat of the flames, but many of higher quality and mystic origin remained pristine.
"I recommend we talk this out civilly," Shirou's voice brooked no room for protest. "If any of you disagree, then perhaps you'd need a bit more convincing?"
Raven and Vernal glanced at each other, and slowly lowered their weapons, but the Maiden was far from trusting.
Having been kicked into the unforgiving lands of Anima on her own, she knew what it took to survive by now.
Like Raven had preached to her before, only the strong prosper here, and everyone else would be under their mercy. Raven and Vernal could claim some sort of association with Shirou, but the Maiden had no such relation.
Pale and flustered from all the unexpected developments, the Maiden made the mistake of taking her attention away from Raven to focus on who she perceived was the bigger threat.
Stream of water floating like feelers swirled primarily in Shirou's direction, the tips frosted with ice while a wall of rocks was quickly forming to block the swords around her.
The maiden turned, revealing her stretched shadow from the looking sun above.
Raven was never one to let go of an opportunity. It was rather bold of her, but assuming that she really was Shrou's ally right now, she made a gamble that Shirou wouldn't act against her.
Indeed. The moment Raven moved, Shirou clicked his tongue, but the blades around Raven made ample room.
With the Maiden's inattentiveness towards her, Raven hurled one of the Black Keys that Shirou had Traced for use directly at the Maiden's shadow, immediately stabbing into it.
"You missed?" At first, the Maiden was unperturbed, dumbfounded even that someone of Raven's capabilities could possibly miss with only a few feet separating them.
The moment Vernal started laughing snidely was when the Maiden's perception changed.
"I-I can't move?" A stammering voice escaped the Maiden's lips when she felt her body locked up.
The way the situation was handled was if an adult had stepped into mediate on a children's argument.
Considering the extent of damage and output some of the Noble Phantasms that Shirou had already Traced in Vermillion and Mt. Glenn were capable of, the accuracy of the comparison was improbable to discredit.
With a small gesture, the blades floating in the air vanished.
"This can end here," Shirou advised.
With the Maiden subdued, and the main perpetrator of the settlement attacker apprehended, the mission issued to the Rose Mercenaries was as good as completed.
Raven ignored Shirou's words, and began walking towards the rapidly paling Maiden. Her breaths were coming out short, and her swallowing was audible.
Shirou gave Raven a stern look, and she gave one right back while angling her sword.
"Someone as capable as you wouldn't understand the danger that she imposes," Raven spoke solemnly, no trace of doubt in her features, only resolution "Not only did she provoke the tribe, making this a personal affair as tribe leader, but it's imperative that the power that she wields as a Maiden be passed on."
"By killing her?" Shirou wasn't naïve enough not to notice the murderous intent in Raven's actions.
"Yes," was the blunt reply. "The power transfers to the last woman that the Maiden sees or thinks of before her death. Now, knowing the extent of your naivety and righteousness that's disgustingly similar to Summer, I know I won't be able to do anything if you try to stop me. However, keep in mind that this woman has likely seen both Ruby and that Emerald girl. What's to say she won't think of them if she somehow passes? Or what if some innocent woman would suddenly have their life tragically ruined? In that case, those brats or a random woman would possess a power that would draw danger to them like a beacon, and there's nothing you'd be able to do about it."
"Now here's my proposal, if I kill her here, she won't even be able to think about anyone else but the face of her killer, making it a certainty about where the Maiden's power will go."
For the first time in a while, Shirou found himself conflicted. Excluding the fact that he was still unaware of Remnant's bigger picture, in a way, Raven was being mechanically prudent, if not pragmatic.
Her method would ensure that no one else could get involved.
Suddenly, the condition that Raven imposed not to bring Yang made Shirou give the woman a slight re-evaluation. Some trace of kinship really did exist inside her, and this was made all the more apparent when the bushes suddenly began to rustle.
Heads turned simultaneously.
"Damn roots," Yang came bumbling out into the open, having tripped on a tree root and landed on her hands and knees. "I hate walking through the forest," she grumbled while pulling twigs out of her hair. "Now where did…they…g…o?"
Yang trailed off, having finally raised her head up to see the people staring at her. She wilted, flinching at the sheer awkwardness of it all, and Weiss was nowhere to be found.
Admittedly, Weiss was biased. She had no real good feelings about the Branwen's, or her would-be rescuers.
The moment that Yang and Weiss had teamed up to escape the Branwen Tribe by using glyphs as platforms, Weiss had made it abundantly clear that she would be going her separate ways. In her own uptight words, "she'd had enough of her stay in barbarian lands."
Fortunately, Ruby wasn't the best at covering her tracks. In fact, she probably wasn't even trying. However, there were times were she'd still lost her way, making it impossible for her not to stumble through the underbrush.
In the end, her path led her here at this very moment, and one woman couldn't be any more infuriated.
Yang flinched at the sheer indignance in Raven's eyes, unable to notice the way Raven had subtly tried to step in front of the Maiden's view. Regardless, the point was moot the moment Yang had stumbled in.
The resemblance between Raven and Yang was uncanny, and the Maiden was no fool.
"You have a daughter?" The Maiden blurted out.
"Daughter? What daughter? Her? She's nothing but a pest," Raven snapped back venomously. Yet, she couldn't hide how hasty her response had been, nor account for how untactful it was.
Yang's lips quivered as she swallowed down the lump in her throat. It was one thing to overhear what her mother had thought of her, and another for it to be said right to her face. She sniffled, her eyes misting over. "As if I'd want a mother like you anyway!"
"Get out of my sight."
Yang glared, building rage activating her Semblance, and making her resemblance to Raven even more uncanny as her pupils shifted red.
Raven was left dumbstruck at Yang's refusal to comply.
It was an expression that the Maiden would have never expected on Raven's face: Conflict and hesitation.
"So, the heartless bitch does care about something…"
The Maiden chuckled darkly, still lost at her inability to move, but suddenly overcome by an even greater feeling of persecution and vengeance.
The Maiden shut her eyes and came to a decision.
Immediately, several shards of ice formed in the air. The edges were jagged, and more than enough to cut through flesh and bone upon impact. Aura would be a problem to bypass, but in this case, it wasn't going to be an obstacle…
Shirou tensed, already on high alert the moment that Yang bumbled into everything.
"Yang, get over here," he called.
Unlike Raven, Yang actually listened to Shirou and didn't hesitate to run over despite wishing to confront her mother. The sudden reveal of what the Maiden was capable of made Yang enter a battle state.
Alas, no one could prepare for an attack that was never an attack to begin with.
A sick squelching noise echoed as Shirou mutedly shifted out of his ready stance.
The spears of conjured ice had never shot in their direction, but had pierced straight through the Maiden's heart instead. Gurling blood, the Maiden collapsed, the Black Key behind her having been dislodged in the impact.
"A gift," the Maiden sneered. "For someone equally undeserving. Will….y..ou…c..as.t….her…aside...t.o.o…?"
The maiden had long since made the connection about Raven and Yang, and had made sure to glare in Yang's direction out of spite before kicking the bucket.
How could Raven not have understood what had just happened?
"Y-You bitch!" Raven seethed, but there was nothing to be done.
It was unseen, but Shirou felt it when a wave of potent magic energy entered Yang's body at the Maiden's passing, guaranteeing the start of a road Yang could have never imagined.
[Remnant Calendar, Year XXXX: Yang had changed ever since the last time she left days before Beacon's entrance ceremony. She was never really the same. If I could, I wish she'd never have gone…]
Ruby woke up with a start, feeling as if she'd just come down from a sugar-high. She groaned as she stirred back to consciousness, only to see a scraggily beard and drunk face regarding her.
"Finally awake, beansprout?" Qrow muttered while leaning over Ruby who's back was propped against a tree.
Realizing what must have happened after Ruby's eyes drifted towards Emerald, who was similarly knocked out and leaning against anther tree, she felt stifled.
Qrow snorted, dismissively, tussling Ruby's hair with a hand.
"…Uncle Qrow, you bad cookie," she whined, trying to fix her hair while contemplating her odds at beating her uncle Qrow with her Crescent Rose. The odds were not in her favour. She wilted.
"Nice try, but what did I tell you about working on your insults?"
"That you don't know that it's mean to call others bad names!"
Ruby pouted, but more than anything, she was still indignant. "Uncle Qrow, why?"
The question she was asking was obvious. Who else but her uncle Qrow could take her and Emerald down so quickly? What made Ruby even more upset was that Shirou didn't deign to stop it.
No matter how she thought about it, he must have inwardly agreed with Qrow and assessed that it was better for Qrow to take her away from the danger.
B-But she could fight too!
She pursed her lips, looking particularly aggrieved like a child whose sweets were swiped from her hands.
"Look Ruby, it's complicated," Qrow mellowed out a little. "All this magic stuff that's been going on in the news as of late, and even the legend of the Four Maidens, you're too young to get involved."
"Are too, and you know it."
"No, I was in Mt. Glenn too! So there!"
Qrow grimaced, still hung about that particular instance. He'd grilled Summer about why Ruby was even there, but Summer had actually advised him not to be too hard on Ruby as if she would have been the safest person there. What? It wasn't as if some invisible guardian was by her side to protect her in times of danger, unless Summer had been referring to Archer. Thinking of it now, it was fortunate that the Huntsman of Red had showed up when he did. Brother Gods know that the conclusion of Mt. Glenn would have been tragic. Ruby might have even died there.
This was all the more reason why she should be kept away.
"Look Ruby, don't argue with me alright?" Qrow lowered the tone of his voice, such that he was serious.
It was the first time Ruby had ever seen her uncle neither sober or drunk, but attentive and trying to get a point across. She had protests, words that would surely make her seem childish, but none of them could escape her mouth.
"Please, just leave it be."
Qrow already knew the feeling of losing someone he cherished, he didn't wish to know the feeling of telling a parent that their child died before them. Fuck that.
Lowering her head, Ruby puffed her cheeks and fell quiet, leaving Qrow to sigh in relief and move to a spot where he could keep watch until Raven settled her business.
The silence that stretched there afterwards, caused Ruby to fidget.
She was never a person to just keep still to begin with, and more than anything, the silence gave her the opportunity to browse through the diary only she could see.
There were many regrets and mistakes listed within, and she felt a mounting pressure that if she didn't put in enough effort, then everything that she'd taken for granted would be ripped away from her.
The fact that she'd been helpless to prevent the primary warning of Archer going to the Grimmlands left her constantly anxious. With no one to share her troubles with, all she could do was hope and pray that she could have a greater impact in the future.
The problem was, there was a reason that there was a difference between a primary warning and other warnings.
The hands of fate recorded in a simple diary were surely turning.
With the knowledge in her hands, it was now up to her determine to what extent.
With the matter of the Rose Mercenaries concluded, all would begin in the prestigious halls of the Shining Beacon.
Archer shut his eyes in thought while on his way out of the Grimmlands. He was thinking back to snippets of a conversation that laid bare what Remnant was truly dealing with, and all those involved.
"I have lived for long and watched civilization rise and fall."
An innocent desire. A bitter curse. The Brother Gods.
Four Maidens. Four Relics.
"There is no salvation, nor solution."
A tragedy…and a promise of return.
"If that doesn't work, then let's make a story that does."
A Sword of Remnant- Severance of the Gods.
Thanks for reading, and with this, my foreshadowing's set. I can finally move things forward. Cheers! And thanks to my newest patrons: SonaShot and Beastank
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