Winter Schnee soon found herself led through the Schnee Family mansion like a fly caught in a spider's web, feeling the all-too-familiar notion of being pulled along against her will and roped into one of Father's schemes. It had been for this very notion, originally, that Winter Schnee had forgone her title as Schnee Dust Company Heiress and decided to venture into the militaristic lifestyle. The Atlesian military were many things, especially during the time of her enrolment, but they had never been as corrupt and manipulative as Jacques Schnee had been.
"I have prepared a suitable gathering for Master Schnee and his honoured guests," Klein spoke with a polite tone, the enigmatic butler of the Schnee family having arrived sometime after Jacques's callous lambasting of the Atlesian military right in front of the Rozen Maiden.
Oum. The Rozen Maiden. What a mess.
Following the multiple descriptions that Kanaria had given of her many sisters, Winter Schnee could easily identify the four Rozen Maiden.
Suigintou. The Eldest Rozen Maiden. According to the long-winded rant Kanaria had delved into, the winged silver-haired doll was grossly temperamental and 'a huge meanie'. Which, in Kanaria-speak likely meant that the two had been under opposing sides of battles more often than not. So far, the Rozen Maiden had been able to correctly identify Winter's strength through a single glance, keeping her eyes firmly affixed on Winter's hands as if she was expecting her to lash out at a moment's notice.
Shinku was the Fifth Rozen Maiden, regarded under friendly terms by Kanaria. The red-clad twin-tailed blonde was something of a noble figure, acting more the type of a governor's child than any true fun-loving child of her apparent age. Albeit, Winter reminded herself that the Rozen Maiden were no true children despite their youthful appearance, with their true age a point of contention among those in Atlesian R&D. As it would appear, gathering relevant chronological data was somewhat difficult when their only source was a single Rozen Maiden from another reality, where her own understanding of the flow of time was somewhat lacking even in her own original world.
Suiseiseki and Souseiseki were also in attendance. The two were regarded as 'twin dolls', supposedly in that their rosa mysticae were either exact duplicates or immensely similar in the overall design. In person, however, Winter found the two dolls to act like nothing more than close sisters. Suiseiseki was noticeably more emotional, having been giving Winter the stink-eye ever since she had laid eyes on her, while Souseiseki was far more reserved and withdrawn. However, the tightness of the blue-clad younger twin's fists gave away her stress despite her seemingly well-reserved temperament.
And, finally, the sole remaining outsider was Sakurada Jun, a young boy with a sharp eye. Sakurada Jun was regarded as quite the rarity in the world of the Rozen Maiden. Masters that were capable of continuously supporting a single Rozen Maiden were uncommon, whereas Masters that could fuel multiple Rozen Maiden simultaneously were borderline unheard of. And, this Sakurada Jun had been connected to three dolls prior to arriving in Remnant. With four dolls now surrounding him, there was a good chance that Jun now held four whole contracts, putting him at a severe advantage over other Masters.
Barring Ruby Rose, of which even the tales of her exploits in Vale had been enough to disquiet little Kanaria. According to her own little doll, the sheer idea of a Rozen Maiden's Master being so very complacent with a personality like Kirakishou's could spell untold disaster for all those who came into contact with her. And the Atlesian Council was inclined to agree.
Inevitably, Winter Schnee would be forced into conflict with Ruby Rose, and Summer's lineage would fade.
Oum. She was a horrible person, wasn't she?
"Please, if you all would, just inside here."
Winter Schnee found herself led into the Schnee main dining room, consisting of an elongated table more than capable of hosting her entire accompaniment, the Rozen Maiden entourage, and Jacques Schnee himself.
Jacques Schnee opted to take the end of the table, while Sakurada Jun chose to sit on a side chair closest to the man, as the Rozen Maiden all filled out beside him. Winter Schnee was forced to the opposing side of the table facing Jacques, while her accompaniment of soldiers gathered on the side opposing the Rozen Maiden, with a select few remaining standing behind Winter Schnee.
"Thank you, Klein," Jacques Schnee nodded at the man, the gesture alone enough to momentarily surprise Winter. "If you would be so kind as to affix appropriate beverages for our guests, it would be appreciated. The usual choices for the Rozen Maiden and Sakurada Jun, of course, while you are free to choose for our remaining guests."
Klein leveled a look at the gathered soldiers and Winter herself, before reluctantly nodding and departing. She frowned at the exchange. It was all a game to Jacques Schnee. The false hospitality, the delusion of charity. By catering specifically to the Rozen Maiden and refusing to give the Atlesians a choice in drink, he was blatantly showing his favouritism towards the Rozen Maiden.
"Now that the necessary courtesies are out of the way, I feel that it is best to get to the heart of your unannounced arrival in my private dwelling," Winter's eyes narrowed at Jacques's tone. He was housing enemies of the state and dared to attempt negotiation. It was absurd. "No doubt, you would find yourself surprised to learn that the dust emission your associates no-doubt detected some time ago did not originate from the Rozen Maiden."
Winter stared at the Rozen Maiden, noting their lack of reaction to Jacques's story. "...Oh? Then what was the cause? Was it a routine training exercise? How is my baby sister, anyway?"
Perhaps she was still a little bitter over Weiss's brutal admission to Beacon Academy. The girl would forever hold a mark binding her to her past, all because Jacques had been unwilling to let his caged bird fly outside her prison.
Jacques frowned at the slight. "To answer your questions in reverse, to the best of my knowledge Weiss is recovering well from the injuries she sustained in Vale. Of course, you would know this already if you had visited any time in the past several months," he leaned forward even as Winter grit her teeth at the reminder. "One can only imagine what was going through her head each night. She idolised you, you know."
"...Were you to have attended a single council meeting following your ascension to councilman, you would know damn well why I cannot visit her."
"Because you were afraid she would get herself involved in the Alice Game?" Jacques Schnee scoffed, gesturing to the other Rozen Maiden. "A foolish decision. All you succeeded in doing, in the end, was driving Weiss further into the world of the Alice Game. With the loss of her dear Team Leader Ruby Rose, is it any surprise that Weiss would choose to associate herself with the Rozen Maiden, with those connected to all she had lost?"
Winter Schnee frowned.
There was a loose chuckle on the side. Her eyes snapped over to Suigintou, who was shaking her head.
"It's honestly rather fascinating how you ningen-" humans, "-operate. You say that you are the elder sister of Weiss Schnee, and yet you choose not to support her following a grave injury. What a sister you are in the end! You're more cutthroat than we are, and there's no Alice Game on your side of the field. It's actually quite pathetic."
She frowned, ignoring the bait for what it was. It would seem that Kanaria's assessment of Suigintou was spot on. The doll truly was something of a pain to be around.
"Jacques. You know full well why it was deemed necessary for Weiss to stay out of the Alice Game," Winter pleaded. "Weiss was close to Ruby Rose, even prior to Ruby meeting with Kirakishou. Considering the nature of Kirakishou's powers, there existed the possibility that Kirakishou could have used this connection to influence Weiss."
Winter blinked, eyes snapping over to Suiseiseki. The green-clad gardener doll was frowning, barely paying attention to the world even as Klein arrived and delivered the beverages for everyone.
"Weiss Schnee is connected to Blake Belladonna through Kirakishou's own action," Suiseiseki spoke up. "From what we are able to gather, Kirakishou created this connection to resolve an emotional dispute between the two that was ailing her Master."
Winter Schnee frowned. Blake Belladonna. The daughter of the Belladonna family based in Menagerie. So early on in Weiss's career as a huntress in Vale, Winter could easily assume the dispute was in regards to Blake's faunus heritage. Having suffered a great many personal losses to the White Fang over the years, Weiss had grown to display an unhealthy distrust over outsiders, especially towards faunus outsiders. Winter had done her best to limit her negativity towards the faunus, but it was clear that she had not completely succeeded in removing the bitterness Weiss felt over the loss of her close friends at the hands of a faunus-led organisation.
"From what we have been able to gather," Shinku deigned herself to respond following a curt sip of her tea, "the connection is benign. There have been no traces of Kirakishou's influence outside the connection between Blake Belladonna and Weiss Schnee. For now."
Jacques frowned. It was the first honest expression that Winter had seen on the man all night besides hiding his smug-as-shit attitude beneath a faux-outraged veneer.
"Ignore them. You came here to discover the reason behind the weapons fire, yes? You needn't-"
"Oh no, I beg to disagree," Winter interrupted with a simple shake of her head, the soldiers beside her grimacing as the tension mounted in the room. "Ignoring the fact that you failed to report signs of Rozen Maiden to the Atlesian military as was your right as both a citizen of Atlas and a Councilman, this tangent must still be investigated. Now," she turned back to the Rozen Maiden, "if you all would be so kind as to explain why you implied that the connection between Weiss and Blake Belladonna is being threatened by Kirakishou?"
The gathered Rozen Maiden all glanced at each other, uncertainty blatantly apparent for all to see. Sakurada Jun appeared the most troubled of the group, seeming more akin to an injured gazelle than any kind of significant piece for the Alice Game.
"Oh, for Oum's sake," Jacques sighed. "Very well, then. We are facing something of a critical issue, which pertains to both the bond between my daughter and the Belladonna girl, along with the Rozen Maiden."
Winter raised a brow, intrigued that Jacques of all people would be the first to fold and divulge information. "Well? Feel free to explain."
A scowl was the immediate answer thrown at her, deflected with little more than a harsh frown of her own, to which Jacques eventually responded.
"Considering your appearance in Vale during the time of Kirakishou's machinations and the ruined Vytal Festival Tournament, I take it that your predecessor informed you of the third accomplice alongside Ruby Rose and Kirakishou, yes?"
Ice flooded her veins. How in the world could Jacques have-
Of course. The council had suspected that Jacques had learned of the Alice Game through outside sources. It stood to reason that the CEO of the Schnee Dust Company was also therefore capable of learning of the classified portions of the Vytal Festival Tournament, whether it be through the Rozen Maiden themselves, his own daughter, or some other nebulous connection.
"...Summer Rose," and the name alone was enough to bring a chill to the room that had nothing to do with the temperature. "You know about Summer Rose."
"I do indeed," Jacques furrows his brow, leaning back in his chair. "Why, just a little white ago Summer Rose made an appearance in this very mansion. Damn-near slaughtered us all, and would have likely done the same to the good people of Atlas were it not for the heroic actions of the Rozen Maiden you see before you."
Glances were exchanged between the gathered soldiers silently attending the meeting. No doubt, many had heard quite a few sordid tales of Summer Rose's exploits over the years, with many of her busts having led to the capture of a great many influential underworld figures. Not to mention the countless grimm she had slaughtered neigh-effortlessly, with tales of the once-great Team STRQ being renowned for effortlessly holding the line against many goliath-class grimm on their own, saving the lives of those villages unfortunate enough to have inadvertently created the necessary negativity to trigger such a tide.
When the news of Summer Rose's disappearance led to the huntress being pronounced dead, the criminal underworld had practically been revitalised overnight. The world had grown just that little bit smaller with the loss of such a figure, and the remaining members of Team STRQ faded into obscurity. Raven Branwen had left long before Summer's death, while Qrow Branwen and Taiyang Xiao-Long had been there until the very end. The loss of Summer Rose, unfortunately, was just as much a tipping point for the two as it was for the rest of the world, with Taiyang and Qrow departing from the spotlight and carving out their own destinies. While Winter had seen Qrow Branwen once or twice over the years during his occasional visits to Atlesian territory, Taiyang had reportedly chosen to retire into a cushy job in Patch and had stayed there up until his own disappearance, where he had joined his late wife in being pronounced deceased.
Survivors of the tragedy in Vale during the Vytal Festival Tournament had placed Taiyang in Vale at the time of Kirakishou's creation, being spotted protecting a bullhead full of civilians from a crazed saboteur. The saboteur, lacking proper identification from the few survivors that had escaped Vale, likely had taken Taiyang Xiao-Long down alongside them, for the two were never seen again after the event.
To think that the legend of Summer Rose would return once again in the midst of the Alice Game…
It was not something that Winter Schnee had planned for, and the shock on her face must have been quite apparent for all to see.
"...Clearly you knew this woman," Shinku inferred. "Summer Rose was something of a historical figure for the people of Remnant, was she not?"
Winter Schnee took a brief moment to inspect the expressions of the Rozen Maiden, of Sakurada Jun, Jacques Schnee, and those of her gathered soldiers. All were expectant, waiting to hear what she had to say.
"Summer Rose was far more than a mere historical figure. She was a legend. One of the greatest huntresses to rise up in recent history, and her passing took the world by storm. Even to this day, there are stories told of her exploits over the years, many of which have shaped the world into what it is today. Suffice it to say, there are a great many people that owe their lives to Summer Rose and her team, Team STRQ."
Jacques Schnee coughed, interrupting her musings with an uncomfortable look. "Well, then, you would likely be interested to see this image," the Schnee Patriarch accessed his scroll, connecting to the projection system in the desk and displaying-
It was her.
Winter could see the woman plain as day, a hate-filled scowl on her face as she worked to tear through an emergency force field generated by hard-light dust. Her semblance was clearly in effect as always, and history told Winter that a simple force field would never hold Summer Rose for long. She could recognise the room as one in the Schnee Mansion, corroborating Jacques Schnee's story that Summer Rose had indeed attacked the Schnee mansion. However, what interested Winter the most was not the sight of the legendary member of Team STRQ, but the condition that she had been in at the time that the image was taken.
"...She's a doll…"
"Indeed," Jacques grunted, expression torn between some veiled twist of displeasure and bemusement. "Now, Winter, you see why this is no mere black-and-white scenario. Summer Rose was indeed present at this mansion not too long ago, but it was not the Summer Rose that you are familiar with."
Suigintou cut off Winter's immediate follow-up question with an amused chuckle of derision. "Summer Rose? Her? A Rozen Maiden? No. She was nothing like us. The Summer Rose you see before you was nothing more than a collection of memories imposed upon a body crafted in Summer Rose's likeness. Whether she was, or was not, Summer Rose, is a matter of conjecture."
Winter raised a brow at the tangent at the end. Judging by the frowns present on a majority of the dolls, the topic of Summer Rose was something of a point of contention for the Rozen Maiden.
However, as she stared at the holographic display of Summer Rose, ball joints and broken artificial skin blatantly visible amongst simple nightwear and a thunderous expression, Winter focused on the evidence that had been presented before her. Were she to take the identity of Summer Rose out of the question, and view the image from an outside perspective, several inconsistencies arose.
First and foremost was the state of the doll. She was clearly injured, severely, as basic combat tests against Winter's own Rozen Maiden had blatantly shown their immense resistance to all but the strongest of blunt-force trauma, while shrugging off a majority of edged weapons. Furthermore, the doll's apparel did not appear to be that of one prepped for assaulting the Schnee manor.
"Clearly, there is more to this picture than the scene would suggest," Winter stated flatly, watching as Jacques frowned at her words. "Even disregarding how you all display some familiarity towards not just Summer Rose but to the appearance of Summer Rose as a false Rozen Maiden, the question remains as to why Summer Rose was even in Atlas in the first place, let alone assaulting the Schnee Family manor."
Glances were exchanged around the table, as the various Rozen Maiden seemed unwilling to answer her request. Jacques Schnee was out of the question, as the Councilman was as slippery as they came and clearly had some as-of-yet unforeseen agenda considering his relatively docile behaviour. The man could be a hard-to-crack as the best of them, yet for some reason Jacques had cooperated with little resistance to an Atlesian intrusion. The only real time that Jacques had grown indignant was in regard to their treatment of Sakurada Jun in the hallway.
...Sakurada Jun. He was the outlier in all of this.
"Jun," Winter purposefully addressed the boy using his personal name, something of a breach of etiquette based on what she had learned from Kanaria. "I do not ask as a protector of the people, but as a Master to a Rozen Maiden. Summer Rose is a dangerous piece to be played, and if she is in any way connected to Kirakishou then I must know, so as to properly take action and protect my doll."
The boy looked down at her words, visibly moved, as he took the time to process what Winter had said. She did not attempt to push him further, knowing from her experiences with a younger Weiss what the result would be. Socially-flighty souls like Sakurada Jun could only be nudged so many times before they crammed up and refused to answer. Weiss had been much the same, once upon a time.
"Tch. And why in the world should the ningen answer anything you have to say?" Suigintou questioned from her side of the table, fierce red eyes glaring at her. The other Rozen Maiden, alongside Jun himself, appeared notably surprised by Suigintou's outburst. Shinku in particular held a complex expression on her face, almost as if she couldn't believe what she was seeing.
Winter, meanwhile, was quick in attempting to placate the irate Rozen Maiden in a way that reports indicated would be statistically likely of succeeding.
"Considering your appearances, especially your own, Suigintou," she gestured to the ruffled feathers and messy hair that blatantly stood out compared to the other dolls, "not to mention Shinku's own damaged apparel, it is clear that some manner of combat has occurred here in the Schnee Family manor. And, with Summer Rose reportedly making a visit mere moments prior to the damage coinciding with the firing of her own signature weapon being seen across Atlas, it is my job to uncover the truth."
"...Is that really all you care about?" Suiseiseki spoke up for the first time in a while, the green-clad heterochromic-eyed Rozen Maiden shaking her head in a movement accompanied by her twin sister Souseiseki. "Uncovering the truth? You'll go so far as to demand answers like this? Barging into a private residence mere moments after Summer Rose appears and intimidating the chibi like that? You're just a bully pushing your power around."
Winter frowned. This was childish. Borderline outlandish.
"How I feel about the matter is irrelevant. As I said to Jacques, the Rozen Maiden must be reported and surveilled. As a Rozen Maiden yourself, you must be aware of the danger that the Alice Game represents for all those caught in its crossfire."
Suiseiseki grimaced angrily, harrumphing and looking away from the group as a whole, save for the young so-called 'chibi'.
"...You shouldn't say anything to her, Jun. She doesn't care about us. She's just doing her job."
Winter didn't particularly care how the Rozen Maiden felt about her. She was here to protect the people of Atlas, not make friends with a bunch of dolls. Kanaria was more than enough for her.
"And what does she care about, I wonder?" Suigintou's voice caused Winter to narrow her eyes, as the doll eyed her speculatively. "Unlike my younger sisters, I can detect a certain level of emotion behind your actions. Bitterness, definitely, considering how you act around your own Father," Suigintou gestured towards Jacques Schnee. The man harrumphed at the look that Winter gave him, as she scowled back at him. "A person like you would never come to a place like this, to a man you so despised. Even if it were out of a sense of military loyalty or what have you, a woman in your position could have easily sent an underling to come here. But, instead, you did. Because you were worried about your little sister, and you came to protect her from the big bad Rozen Maiden. How hilarious."
"...How or why I came to arrive here is not the point, stop attempting to change the subject. Continue resisting and I will not hesitate to bring the full force of the Atlesian military down to investigate the matter themselves and, I assure you, they will not be as gentle as I am being. Now, I will ask one more time; why was Summer Rose here?"
"Tch. Here's another question instead," Suigintou spoke up before Jun could respond to her question. "Which Rozen Maiden are you contracted to? Which Rozen Maiden has pushed you to go this far as to threaten us, despite having clearly seen what Rozen Maiden can do if you piss us off?"
"...I do not need to answer your questions," Winter flatly denied the doll and refused to rise to her petty attempt of intimidation. "Simply put, you five are enemies of the state, Sakurada Jun included. You will comply with my request or be detained under the full force of the law."
Suigintou's eyes narrowed, as her wings extended. Winter's hand moved to her sheathed dual-blade, as the soldiers standing beside her tensed in preparation.
Shinku sighed from her seating position, the sigh so blatant and heavy that it momentarily drew Winter's attention as the red-clad doll stood up and joined her silver-haired sister.
"I do not often agree with Suigintou, but it would appear that today has been full of surprises all around," Shinku shook her head. "Despite our attempts at civility and Suigintou's poor attempt to rile you up, we really must know exactly which doll that you are contracted to, General Schnee. As for both to satisfy the Alice Game and so as to soothe our concerns."
"There are seven Rozen Maiden," Winter began tensely, reciting the knowledge that she had learned from Kanaria. "Four of which are gathered here, leaving three remaining possibilities. One, Kirakishou, is notably contracted to Ruby Rose. The others…"
Shinku's posture stiffened, as she knew it would. "...Hinaichigo, you're contracted to Hinaichigo?"
"No…" Suiseiseki interrupted her younger sister's murmuring, the green-clad gardener moving to stand in front of Shinku as she glared at Winter. "Don't attempt to deceive us. Hinaichigo would never contract with you. Which leaves…"
Winter sighed. It would seem that there was no escaping the question lest she wished for her own to remain unanswered or for a fight to break out in the middle of Atlas. "Very well. Yes, I am indeed contracted to Kanaria. Now, will you answer my questions or will you continue to refuse to submit to authority?"
"Kanaria?!" Suigintou chortled, before erupting in giggles. "That's who you're contracted to? Oh, Father! That's hilarious! To think that we were all worried that you were contracted to Kirakishou somehow, only to find out that you're connected to Kanaria of all dolls! We don't even need to worry, now! She'll probably just end the Alice Game on her own accord somehow after tripping on her own feet! Bahaha!"
Her blade was inches between Suigintou's throat before the Rozen Maiden could so much as notice that Winter had moved from her position on the table. There was a startle of alarm from her gathered soldiers as they shot to their feet, as the gathered Rozen Maiden all tensed at the development, glowing with the telltale crimson hues of their aura-empowered rosa mysticae.
Winter did not hesitate in the slightest, choosing instead to remain focused on the struggling doll beneath her.
"I will not tolerate insubordination against Kanaria. You will answer my questions in a concise and respectful manner, or hold your tongue entirely."
"Winter! What in the world are you doing? Get back here, girl! This isn't some tavern!" Jacques barked, while Winter merely held her gaze on Suigintou, as the Rozen Maiden's eyes trailed along the length of her blades. Suigintou's errant struggling ceased entirely, as a smirk grew across her lips.
"...How very intriguing," Suigintou mused aloud. "Perhaps I was wrong in discounting Kanaria as a threat if her Master is this quick to uphold her beliefs. She may be a worthwhile adversary after all. However," Suigintou's wings extended suddenly and the Rozen Maiden was propelled upwards, reflexively twisting around Winter's blade and pushing the General out of the way, "I will not be intimidated by a mere ningen."
"Stop this! Everybody!" Jacques Schnee demanded order. "There is no reason to fight. Need I remind you all that there is a far greater threat outside Atlas that demands our attention? The one truly responsible for Summer Rose's arrival in Atlas."
Winter narrowed her eyes, sheathing her blades as a part of her original question was finally answered. "...Kirakishou. Summer Rose was working alongside Kirakishou and Ruby Rose."
Suigintou gave a low tsk of annoyance, as her wings retracted back down to a smaller size. "It certainly seemed that way, yes. Which makes it all the more confusing as to why Kirakishou hasn't acted yet."
All too late did Winter realise what had transpired. After all, what else outside Kirakishou's machinations would prompt an immediate and vicious response from Summer Rose? A response that both took into consideration Summer's lack of combat apparel and her frenzied assault of a fortified compound.
"...Ruby Rose. You all went after Ruby Rose, didn't you? And Summer Rose went after you all in retaliation."
The immediate frown from Jacques Schnee gave Winter the answer that she was looking for, much to her displeasure. Ruby Rose, the missing Team Leader of Team RWBY and Master to Kirakishou. She should have known that the moment Weiss got involved with the Rozen Maiden, she would likely involve herself in some hair-brained scheme to rescue her wayward Team Leader. Weiss, despite all her eccentricities that Jacques had ground down over the years, still trusted a little too easily for Winter's liking. Once she latched on to someone, it was hard to pry her off, even if it was for her own good.
However, Kirakishou was far too dangerous an adversary for the likes of her baby sister to go against and have any chance of escaping unscathed. Actions taken against a Rozen Maiden's Master were treated as an attack on the Rozen Maiden themself, with Kirakishou, in particular, proving herself to be one of the volatile Rozen Maiden once her Master was threatened.
If it was true that Ruby and Kirakishou had been working alongside Summer Rose, it was a miracle that the two dolls hadn't already torn their way through the entirety of Atlas in retribution for Team RWBY's plan to rescue their Team Leader.
"And how exactly did this plan of yours pan out?" Winter didn't wait for the Rozen Maiden to confirm the existence of their plan, moving to sick back down now that the tension had passed. The other individuals left standing reluctantly copied her movements returning to their original seats.
This time, it was Jacques Schnee who responded as everyone sat back down, choosing to fill the silence much to her surprise. The Schnee Family Patriarch and her own Father gave little more than a heavy sigh, running a hand through his hair.
"Terribly, as you would expect," Jacques answered, as Jun frowned beside him and the other Rozen Maiden shared various looks amongst themselves. "Summer Rose was as dangerous an opponent as the stories would suggest. Her semblance made even the strongest of defences that anyone could muster a borderline non-issue. Simply put, it's a miracle she didn't kill us all."
"And why is that?" Winter immediately questioned. "Why did Summer Rose invade? Why did she fail?"
"It's no use trying to hide it from you, is there?" Jun asked aloud, sounding as uncomfortable and annoyed to be the sudden centre of attention as any socially-conscious young boy would likely feel. "We succeeded in rescuing Ruby Rose from Kirakishou. When we were transporting Ruby back here, Summer Rose followed the connection back here and attacked us."
"And I take it that my younger sister was involved, yes?"
"If you're referring to Weiss Schnee, then yes," Jun nodded, making a shaky breath as he sipped from his drink. It was clear that the young teen was mustering up his strength to speak with her, as he was obviously out of his comfort zone. Coupled with the stress of being attacked by a living legend, she was actually quite impressed with the kid's tenacity.
"And," she pointedly directed the question to Jacques to allow Jun the chance to recover, "am I to assume that Blake Belladonna was also participating in this rescue?"
Jacques gave her a low frown, seemingly annoyed at having to divulge such information. Clearly, choosing to interrogate the child and the other Rozen Maiden instead of directing her questions entirely toward Jacques had been the right decision.
"If you must know, then all of Team RWBY was present for the rescue of Ruby Rose, alongside the Rozen Maiden you see before you, and yes," Jacques held up a hand before Winter could retort, "that does mean that Yang Xiao-Long was also in attendance as the missing member of Team RWBY, which leads us to our current predicament."
Yang Xiao-Long had not been admitted entry into Atlas, nor had she been sighted by any of the many security devices dotting either Atlas or Mantle. It was a significant breach of security that Winter would no doubt need to investigate, which Jacques clearly knew considering his knowledge of Atlesian military procedure. So why had he freely divulged the information in the first place? Even if he knew that Winter would continue digging until she learned of what had transpired, giving any kind of information without expecting some form of payment in return was vastly outside of Jacques Schnee's typical behaviour.
"And what exactly has occurred that has led to you divulging such information?" Winter opted for the direct approach. "And where exactly is Team RWBY? If what you imply is true and Ruby Rose was indeed rescued by her teammates, then they will need to submit to Atlesian authority."
"And that is the predicament in which we find ourselves in. Team RWBY is no longer in Atlas."
Winter stood up immediately, slamming her hands down on the desk as she did. "What in the world are you talking about?!"
If Jacques was intimidated by her sudden display it did not show on his face, as the man calmly sipped his tea even as Winter minted her frosty glare directly on his seemingly-placid form. The other Rozen Maiden and even Sakurada Jun appeared notably tense, barring Suigintou who appeared almost vaguely amused by Jacques's words.
"Tell me, Winter, considering your familiarity with Summer Rose and Team STRQ, you simply must be familiar with Team STRQ's other members, yes?"
Winter frowned, slowly sitting back down on the chair as she listened to what Jacques was saying, intrigued by the seemingly random tangent. "Of course I'm aware. What are you saying?"
"Which surviving member of Team STRQ is the most connected to Team RWBY outside of Summer Rose herself, and is capable of wide-range transportation of multiple individuals at once?"
The answer came immediately. With Summer dead and her husband Taiyang missing and presumed dead, there left only two remaining members of the once-great Team STRQ. Winter wasn't some fool girl, nor was she blind to what Jacques Schnee was audaciously suggesting.
"You're saying that Raven Branwen infiltrated both Atlas as a whole and the Schnee Family Mansion, before successfully capturing and transporting Team RWBY in the brief amount of time between Summer's defeat and my own arrival? That's absurd."
With an amused half-smirk on his face, Jacques Schnee simply activated the holographic interface on his desk once again, projecting an image that Winter found herself having trouble believing.
Rozen Maiden, Huntresses, Raven Branwen herself, neck-deep in combat against a frenzied and broken Summer Rose. Collapsed on the floor and seemingly forgotten in the midst of battle was Ruby Rose, seemingly unconscious and oblivious to the battle raging on around her.
In clear view was Raven's weapon, Omen, as she defended Yang Xiao-Long from one of Summer's strikes with Null Value. An impressive block that highlighted the fact that Yang Xiao-Long was very much the daughter of Raven Branwen. When standing next to each other, the resemblance was uncanny. And, Winter Schnee had read enough of Raven's profile to know that the woman would only stick her neck out for those she considered kin.
So, it was true. Raven Branwen, Team RWBY, and the Rozen Maiden had all fought in the Schnee Family Mansion against Summer Rose for the possession of Ruby Rose. When Winter had arrived, one of the group had no doubt requested that Raven use her semblance to transport them away from Atlas. Considering that a majority of the Rozen Maiden was in attendance, it was likely that the request had been a split-second decision, with Winter's prompt arrival preventing all of the Rozen Maiden from fleeing with their allies.
Taking into account Yang Xiao-Long's uncanny resemblance to Raven Branwen and the rumours that had surrounded Team STRQ for years, it was more than likely that Yang had been the one to request aid, taking her half-sister Ruby Rose alongside her, along with Blake Belladonna and Winter's younger sister Weiss Schnee.
Jacques had been aware of this the entire time and had willingly let one of the greatest threats Remnant had ever known escape persecution.
She slammed her fist down on the table, glaring angrily at her Father. "Do you have any idea what you've done?" Winter growled out. "They could be halfway across Remnant by now! With everything that's happened, you allowed the one connection we have to Kirakishou, the single piece of leverage Remnant has in controlling that monster, to disappear with a bunch of bandits! And you let Weiss go with them!"
Jacques stared coldly back at her, neither intimidated nor surprised by her outburst. "Of course, I am aware of the consequences of my actions. Do not mistake me for a fool, oh daughter of mine. Handing over Ruby Rose to the Atlesian military would never have worked out in the way you seem to so fervently imagine. Whether it be alive or dead, Atlas would have been targeted by the very doll you fear. Even with a single Rozen Maiden on your side, you would have been hopelessly outmatched. Professor Ozpin, for all his gathered strength, learned the consequences of housing Kirakishou's Master. Now, so too shall Raven Branwen."
Winter glared venomously at the man who had so callously disregarded the very thing that Winter had been working to avoid ever since she had gained the title of General. And he had known about it, too. Bastard.
"...And what about Weiss? She is still the heiress of the Schnee Dust Company. Certainly, you wouldn't endanger your precious heiress."
"Weiss Schnee is more than capable of defending herself against Ruby Rose, and her experiences during the destruction of Beacon will prove a significant deterrent against the idea of combating Kirakishou. You give your sister too little credit."
Winter Schnee gave a frustrated sigh of annoyance, having been forced into a corner by her own Father once again. She had hoped that by joining the Atlesian military would have seen the end of such days, but it would appear that fate had a certain sense of vicious amusement when it came to her life.
Unfortunately, she was very well aware that Jacques was indeed quite the man who would be comfortable using his own youngest daughter as a figurehead, as the Vale Commemorative Gala could attribute towards. Throwing Weiss Schnee and Blake Belladonna together had created a new public perception for Jacques Schnee that had sent his popularity skyrocketing, which soon landed the Schnee Family patriarch a seat in the Atlesian Council. Now that Jacques had achieved his goal and learned the majority of Atlesian secrets he could get his grubby little hands on with his newfound power as Councilman, Weiss had been used as little more than a diversionary piece to send Kirakishou's sights away from Atlas.
Even prior to that, Jacques Schnee had used Weiss as a figurehead to sign a deal between the Atlesian Military and the Schnee Dust Company that had, months down the line, paved the way for securing Jacques a position among the Atlesian Council. The only threat to his position now had been total and utter annihilation, and Ruby Rose had been a threat that Jacques Schnee could not ignore.
With Ruby Rose away from Atlas, the Alice Game would likely find itself forced away from their great nation, and towards wherever Raven Branwen had taken the girl. No doubt to one of her many encampments dotting the continent of Anima. The political wheels of Atlas would continue to spin and Jacques would continue to guide them, free from the Alice Game.
Which would have been a surefire, albeit needlessly immoral, method of ensuring the Alice Game never found itself in Atlas were it not for the sudden appearance of Kanaria and her subsequent contract to Winter Schnee herself. As the General of the Atlesian Military, Winter's first and foremost priority would be Atlas itself. Thus, it was only a matter of time until the Alice Game found itself forced back into Atlas, with Kirakishou no-doubt following in the not-too-distant future.
And the ONE SINGLE THING that could have been used as proper leverage against Kirakishou and the bane of the Alice Game had been stolen away from her grasp mere hours before Winter had become aware of it. All because Jacques Schnee hadn't been told that little Kanaria had found herself contracted to Winter Schnee.
"...Am I to take it that Weiss is contracted to one of the dolls in this very room, then?"
Her eyes narrowed at the dolls as she felt her aura roar into manifestation, a fierce blue sheen that coated her body as the temperature of the room notably dropped.
"No. None of them are," Sakurada Jun was the first to respond, sending the Rozen Maiden a silent look as the group shifted in response to Winter's movements. "Shinku, Suiseiseki, and Souseiseki are contracted to me. Meanwhile… Suigintou…"
"As if I'd allow that girl to become my Medium," Suigintou interrupted with a cross of her arms and a dismissive jut of her chin. "My Medium is Yang Xiao-Long. Provided that you give us a wide berth to deal with Kirakishou when she inevitably leaves her N-Field to capture Ruby Rose, I won't bother dealing with Kanaria for the time being," Suigintou offered in a sudden display of diplomacy. One that, considering the borderline bewildered looks on the other doll's faces, was something of a surprise to hear from Suigintou of all dolls.
Considering Winter's only recent interaction with the doll was moving to cut her down after one of her infuriating quips, Winter could understand that Suigintou was something of a fierce character that forged her own path in the world. Which meant that her offering a ceasefire, albeit a temporary one at best, was something of a miracle.
"It would seem that I have no choice. With the recent loss of Vale and the acquisition of Ruby Rose, you all have painted quite the target on your backs. As I see now, attempting to capture the lot of you will only cause both unnecessary conflicts on my part, alongside potentially resulting in bringing Kirakishou here," she levelled a look, long and scathing, towards Jacques Schnee, who was smirking quite blatantly. "As you said, this is no black-and-white operation."
"I told you," Jacques needlessly added.
"...That you did," Winter conceded with a sigh, standing up. A gesture had the rest of her men following her movements and marching toward the door. "Very well. You all are free to depart from Atlas as soon as feasible. If necessary, transportation to Anima can be provided, though I doubt it will be required."
After all, Raven Branwen could easily send them to Anima with little more than a flare of her aura. And with Raven somewhat leashed for the time being, there was little that Winter could do to hamper the Rozen Maiden's movements.
"Thank you," Jun spoke up. The boy fidgeted at her look, the crease of her brow no doubt visible. "For not arresting us. It, er, I don't think it would have ended well for either of us. Especially with Kanaria thrown in the mix. For your sake and for ours, please take care of her. She's… always been something of a wild card, even by Rozen Maiden standards."
"And what's that supposed to mean, chibi?" Suiseiseki glowered from her position at the table, causing the boy to chuckle awkwardly and glance away. The green-clad gardener doll was frowning something fierce, yet Winter was not blind to the chaste smile forming on her blue-dressed twin's face at their antics.
"You needn't worry about Kanaria. We have developed something of a robust protocol for dealing with her," Winter allowed a small smile to grace her face. That good-natured little schemer of a doll always brought out the best in her. "If that will be all, I shall depart. Goodbye."
...She, perhaps, was just about as terrible at departures as the late General Ironwood had been.
"Before you go," Shinku spoke up. The blonde doll was shooting her an indecipherable expression, one that had Suigintou scoffing and tensing up. "Previously, you mentioned the recent loss of Vale, which I have been told is where Kirakishou set her Palace of Beginnings. However, her Palace has been standing for quite some time, now. Why did you phrase it that way?"
Winter shot a look at Jacques.
So. That was it.
They didn't even know the repercussions of their actions, did they?
She sighed. "...It would appear that your retrieval of Ruby Rose caused Kirakishou to destabilise. Kanaria suggested that, without her Master, Kirakishou was unable to keep her Palace of Beginnings standing in the Material world. As a result, Kirakishou, her Palace of Beginnings, and the entirety of the land under her control, have all vanished from the face of Remnant."
Ruby Rose sat in her private tent, silently working on the plans for her new replacement for Crescent Rose. It had been all that she had been doing with her time ever since Yang had informed her about the loss of Crescent Rose.
They had been inside the caves of the Auroral Mountains for eight straight days.
Eight days. Surrounded by bandits. Murderers and pillagers, those that knocked over towns for their own benefit and preyed on the weak. And there was nothing that Ruby could do about it.
She despised them. She well and truly despised them all. The Branwen Clan were scum. Scum that masqueraded as friendly innocents stuck in a bad place when around Team RWBY, but quickly dropped the illusion whenever they believed that they were alone.
Working on her new replacement was all that she could do in order to occupy her mind, to push her thoughts away from her ever-mounting desire to…
Ruby didn't know exactly what she wanted to do about the bandits if she were to have had a say in the matter. But she knew that it certainly wouldn't be good if she followed her feelings, regardless of how strong they were.
So, instead, she continued to work.
Gathering the required materials was a borderline non-issue, thankfully. Ruby Rose had always prided herself something as an intuitive mind, having been forced into the position from a very young age ever since the idea for Crescent Rose first crossed her mind. The parts for her baby were beyond plentiful, with many pieces requiring precision dust-casting and high-temperature welding in order to properly set the pieces in the appropriate positions. Designing serviceable battle-ready mechashift weaponry had always been a somewhat arduous process requiring complex design work, and in order to fulfill the idea of Crescent Rose Ruby had pushed herself further than most.
Once upon a time, her teachers in Patch had praised her as a once-in-a-generation genius. But, really, Ruby felt like she had merely been hyper-focused on a single idea that the teachers just so happened to like. If she was pushed outside of her comfort zone, she tended to falter.
With the resources available to her in the Auroral Mountains, provided to her by the Branwen Clan under their ill-conceived ideas of befriending her, Ruby Rose was once again pushed outside of her comfort zone in order to achieve the design that she desired. It was a vastly different style to Crescent Rose that would necessitate a fair bit of training before she could achieve anything close to her proficiency with the sniper-scythe, but it was a weapon far simpler to construct with the rudimentary smelting implements offered by the Branwen Clan and one that Ruby Rose found she quite enjoyed designing.
Anything to get her mind off the current situation was greatly appreciated, after all.
Ruby had taken inspiration from the late Grimm Reaper of legend. If only slightly. The gravity dust recall system that the Reaper had used to recall her scythes was something that Ruby Rose had always dreamed of implementing into Crescent Rose, but the mechashift components of her sniper-scythe had taken up the necessary space required for housing gravity dust and promptly ruined the chance of ever implementing gravity dust into her weapon. Were she have attempted to incorporate the recall design into Crescent Rose, there was a chance that it would catch during the transformative state and effectively bend the blade in on itself whenever Ruby activated the mechashift component.
In other words, gravity dust recall devices and long-shift mechashift components did not mesh well together. Not in the slightest. And Ruby was nowhere near crazy enough to attempt to incorporate the designs together in spite of their incompatibility.
Thankfully, Uncle Qrow had taught her about the incompatibility before she had tried to incorporate the two devices into Crescent Rose when she was younger, or else Ruby Rose would likely be sporting quite a few scars from the blade of Crescent Rose snapping during one of her many bouts with the grimm.
Now that Ruby had been forced to coexist beside bandits and murderers along with the rest of her team as she fled from Atlas for a crime that nobody would directly talk to her about, one of the tasks that all Branwen Clan members had to do was to periodically cleanse the surrounding area of grimm. And with the loss of Crescent Rose, Ruby had been forced to consist on… ugh… stock weapons. The likes of which were mass produced by the higher powers as a last-resort measure against the forces of the grimm. The complete bare-bones essentials, forged with subpar materials and handed out to every person that half the Oum-given sense to try and protect the world. In other words, they were absolute garbage.
Furthermore, Ruby wasn't blind to the fact that a majority of the weapons had likely been stolen from those who had actually needed them in the first place. The world of Remnant was filled with far too many grimm and far too few aura-enhanced defenders to ever effectively counter the creatures of dark. All that a majority of the people of Remnant could do was throw able-bodied defenders against the grimm and hope for the best, and without a decent supply of weapons, they stood little to no chance of successfully countering even the most basic of grimm.
All thanks to the likes of the Branwen Clan that preyed on the weak. Bandits are little more than grimm, really. A stain on society that festered like a wound and weakened the world through their sheer presence alone. They were deserving of nothing more than a quick death, in her eyes.
Not that she could ever hope to say anything about it to her team. While Blake and Weiss were sympathetic to her feelings, the two were a little too busy with each other to ever truly care about the outside world. Even Blake, the newly-revealed faunus with fluffy kitty ears, was borderline apathetic to the Branwen menace despite her surprisingly violent history with the White Fang.
...Neither Blake nor the rest of her team had told Ruby about Blake's past. Instead, she had been forced to overhear the information from the other filthy bandits, of all people. Many of them were quite amused with the idea of the daughter of the former high leader of the White Fang sucking face with the current Schnee heiress.
While she was happy to hear that the two members of Team RWBY had settled their differences during her prolonged amnesia, she was surprised that their conflict had blossomed into a deep relationship of all things. Weiss, especially, hadn't really seemed like a girl that would take much notice to the world of romance, considering her dedication towards the huntress career. While she was aware that huntsmen relationships tended to be explosive, considering her own Mother's unique relationship in Team STRQ, Weiss just didn't seem to be the type. At all.
Yang, meanwhile, had thankfully remained about the same as what Ruby could last remember before the amnesia had taken place and her memories were removed. Clearly, a lot had happened between Yang and Ruby herself, as she needed to be practically blind to see the way Yang looked at her whenever her sister came in to see what Ruby was doing. However, despite how hard she prodded, Yang wouldn't exactly talk about what had happened between them. All she would ever say is that their history is in the past and that Ruby wasn't exactly acting herself at the time.
It was still strange to think that a good chunk of her memories as a Beacon Academy student had been erased. Months, even. And, from the brief moment where she had been able to overpower Yang at a time of distress and gather information from her team, it had all been due to a girl that had manipulated Ruby into falling in love with her.
It… it was strange, how she felt. She should have been angry. Annoyed, perhaps. But… she wasn't. She didn't feel that way in the slightest. When Ruby thought of the girl that had stolen her away, all she felt was sorrow. And when she had been told that the girl had never truly loved her, it had hurt more than any pain that Ruby Rose had felt in her life, besides maybe the day that she realised that her Mother was never coming back.
It was, indeed, quite strange to feel the way she did.
What in the world had she done with this girl that had made Atlas officials put out a warrant for her capture?
...No. Ruby didn't need to ask herself that. She already knew the answer, after all. Even if Yang and the others were reluctant to tell her, the paltry denizens of the Branwen Clan were far more loose-lipped. And with nothing more to do other than to tinker with her weapon schematic, Ruby has been given more than enough free time to stalk about the camp and overhear a great many details. Namely, concerning one of the greatest atrocities in recent history.
...Vale was gone.
As in… the landmass of Vale. It was gone. A solid chunk of the continent of Sanus had been completely wiped off the board, and it wasn't even the worst thing that had occurred. Oh no, that was just the most recent development in that particular area.
Supposedly, the true atrocity had occurred during the end of the Vytal Festival, during the tournament, where supposedly a crystalline semblance had gone awry and claimed the lives of just shy of a million people. And Ruby Rose was being blamed for it, alongside the mystery girl that she couldn't remember. Atlas didn't just want her captured for the crime, they wanted her dead, and were willing to pay a hefty sum of lien to any cutthroat that could accomplish the quest of killing a fifteen-year-old girl.
...Or, was she sixteen, now? Hm. Ruby could only wonder if the extra year would suffice for a higher bounty. She was certain that people would certainly argue for such an increase. After all, she had heard more than a few bandits discussing the matter already over the course of a few small days. How pathetic.
Besides. Why did Atlas even really want to get rid of her so badly? Her semblance, despite all of its recent eccentricities, certainly didn't involve crystals of all things. Surely the target should have been painted on the other girl's back, instead of her own. It wasn't fair! Why did she have to run? She hadn't done anything wrong!
...Or, had she?
How far had Ruby actually gone for this girl, this girl that had twisted her and torn her away from her team? Would she have done something bad… something that would have resulted in Atlas trying to kill her?
How far would she truly go for love?
...Ruby knew the answer to that question. She knew the answer and it scared her. But how far had she truly gone in just a few months?
Oum. It hurt to think about.
All that Ruby Rose could hope to do in the end was to continue tinkering in her little private abode, slowly learning about the events that had befallen her through the mouths of killers and betrayers. It was the only activity that gave her any peace of mind and belayed that horrible feeling in her chest that told her she was missing something important. Her life had been torn apart in what felt like a fleeting instant to her perspective.
One moment Ruby had been preparing to venture down to the docks with the rest of the members of Team RWBY, and the next moment she was waking up in the middle of Atlas and being told that several months had passed by and she was now wanted by the very government presiding over the place she had just woken up! It didn't make any sense!
She had been loved! She had been horrible… bad… and nobody was telling her what had happened! Nobody was telling her what she had done! How could she hope to avoid it if nobody TOLD HER?!
WHY WOULDN'T ANYBODY TELL HER?!
WHY WOULDN'T THEY LISTEN TO HER?!
THEY NEEDED TO LISTEN TO HER.
THEY HAD TO LISTEN.
THEY ALL HAD TO LISTEN.
SHE WAS THE ONE. THE ONLY ONE THAT COULD END THE THREAT OF THE GRIMM ONCE AND FOR ALL.
WHY COULDN'T THEY UNDERSTAND THAT?!
Her semblance lashed out. Bitter and angry and so very different.
Ah yes. Her semblance. Something was wrong with it. Her petals…
They were silver.
More than that. When she had participated in that grimm culling, using that horrid amalgamation of stolen generic weaponry, a new part of her semblance had activated.
She had frozen a grimm. Petrified it. Turned it to stone. With just a single slash! Her power has spread over the creature, turning flesh into stone.
It didn't make any sense! She hadn't even used dust! Which, by its very definition, was the basis for dust casting! And Ruby didn't even know what combination of dust crystals could even pull off such a stunt, and the Branwen clan certainly didn't possess enough to mix and match them like that. The weapon had been bog-standard, as well. She had taken it apart and inspected the pieces like twenty damn times already.
Something else had turned the grimm to stone, and Ruby didn't think that it had been the weapon she used or some esoteric miracle of dust casting. So, it had to be her semblance. If only by a matter of elimination. There was nothing else that could have caused it.
Her semblance, those silver petals, the petrification of grimm. Something about it was all connected. And Ruby needed to figure out what the connection was, because it was starting to get really difficult to control her semblance now that she wasn't able to use it all the time.
She… she needed to keep tinkering. Yes. That's what she needed to do.
She pushed down the blueprints, stacking several translucent pieces over each other to show off the full design of her new weapon. She had seen the multi-blueprint schematic thing in a movie once, used for security, and figured it was a good idea to protect her stuff when surrounded by filthy bandits.
The design of a beautiful gleaming greatsword lay embedded in the papers, with a length not too dissimilar to Crescent Rose.
It was beautiful. But it needed work. Lots of work. A precision application of fire dust to harden the blade…
...she would need to concoct a rudimentary temperature gauge that was compatible with fire-natured dust in non-opportune conditions…
...training the grip would be difficult…
But… she would manage. Because she had to. It was all that she could do, after all. Designing the weapon was always going to be a challenge.
It was pretty interesting just how the idea had come to her, however.
Just like for Crescent Rose, the idea had come to her in a dream.