"... I understand. Just… keep her safe. I'll figure this out." Ruby spoke into her scroll. Pietro hung up a moment later. Ruby sighed as she pocketed the device.
Thick black-purple clouds covered the sky. The sky that held a flying stadium-turned-transmitter where one of her closest friends was currently in pain. Suffering due to a damned virus. But Ruby had no way to help. How could she?
All she could do was stare out the window.
Plan after plan flew through her mind but nothing crystallised. No answer came to her. How could they beat back Salem? How could they save both cities? How could she save Penny? Her mind lost traction and spun out, trapped in a loop with no way out.
It was then that Ilia arrived with May. The pair looked frustrated. Ruby held in a sigh and turned to them.
May immediately talked. "It's time to go."
Ruby blinked at her. "What?"
"Your friends haven't reported in for a while. Mantle's under siege too but they don't have a military. We need to go down and defend them." May said, folding her arms.
"... And what about Atlas? We can't all just leave it…" Ruby frowned.
"What about Atlas?" May scoffed. "They have the military. Ironwood. The Ace-Ops. They'll be fine. Mantle needs reinforcements. Now."
Ruby turned away. "... We can't trust Ironwood. Salem is up here too. The city in the most danger of falling is Atlas. And besides, moving Nora right now could be disastrous for her health."
She heard May huff in annoyance. "Who cares? Atlas isn't worth our effort. We need to secure Mantle. The people who matter."
Ruby clenched her fists. "The people who matter? Everyone matters! We left Ironwood because he wanted to play favourites, not because we were! Atlas? Mantle? It's all the damned same! People, struggling through life! And Salem will kill them all! I don't care where people are from or where they live! If you are so obsessed with Mantle, then go yourself! Me? I'm going to do my job and stop Salem." Ruby took a breath and turned to face May once more.
The young woman glared at Ruby for a moment. And then she sighed, turned, and walked to the door. "Atlas isn't worth our effort. But whatever. I'm going to help the people who need it… good luck." With that final word, she left.
Ruby sighed and fell against the window.
Ilia frowned. "I… I'm not really fond of Atlas. Are you… sure?"
"... We aren't Ironwood. We don't prioritise lives." Ruby slid down to the floor. "Doesn't make this any easier… I talked a big game… but I have nothing…"
"I… have nothing! Nothing! No plans! No ideas! No tricks! Nothing!" Ruby shouted. Her emotions were flying all over the place. Rage, anguish, desperation… "Every time I put my mind to getting out of this situation, it comes up blank! I come up with nothing! Nada! Zilch! For so long I've been able to come up with something, anything. But now? I… have nothing…"
Ilia knelt next to her and took one of Ruby's hands in hers. "I… I'm not a planner. But… it's okay not to have an answer, Ruby."
"It's not! She's here! If I don't come up with something, we all die! I have to do this! I have to come up with a plan! I have to! But I can't! I can't come up with anything!"
Her hands were shaking. She was shaking. The pressure was getting to her. Saving two cities, her friends, Penny, and defeating Salem were all… just too much. The poor girl didn't know what to do.
As tears threatened to fall, Ilia pulled her into a hug. It was… something. The girl was trying. Here I am, crying and breaking down while cities burn. Damn it! I'm… pathetic. I… I wish Yang was here. Her hugs were always comfortable… and mom's. I… could use their hugs right now…
But it wouldn't happen. They were gone. For good. The Gods made sure.
There was no chance of resurrection.
No turning back the clock.
All Ruby had were her choices.
And their consequences.
If only she had someone to turn to. Someone who could help her. Who could advise her…
Wait… Ruby sat upright. Her shaking had ceased. She did have people to advise her! Not here, no. Ozpin couldn't help her when he was in Oscar somewhere else. But she didn't need to rely on someone in Atlas.
After all, the CCT was back up.
Ruby pulled from Ilia's embrace and hurried to the couch. She pulled out her scroll once more and tapped away, pulling up old contacts. She scrolled and scrolled until she found the person she wanted. Ruby pushed the call button and placed the scroll on the counter, setting it to project a hologram of a screen.
A circle ticked by for several moments as the call went out. Ruby's foot began to anxiously tap against the floor. Ilia came up behind her, concerned. Finally, the call went through.
Glynda Goodwitch smiled tiredly on the other side of the screen. "Ms Rose… it has been a while. I am glad to see you."
"It's good to see you too, Professor. I… need help." Ruby went right for what she needed. She didn't have time for anything else. "I… can't come up with a way out of this… I'm… struggling."
Professor Goodwitch nodded and glanced away for a few moments. When she turned back, she wasn't smiling. "Well, as an educator it is my duty to try and help you. If you are struggling… then you should imagine your ideal result."
"My… ideal result?"
"What is the end goal you want? If everything went perfectly?"
"... Everyone alive and safe."
Goodwitch nodded. "A fair goal. But… it's too vague to help you."
Ruby frowned. "What do you mean?"
"The reason it is so hard for you to come up with a plan, Ms Rose, is that your goal is too vague. Any result where everyone lives would work, so you can't narrow it down enough. The more you narrow, the easier it will be to decide your course of action. Do you care if the cities remain?"
"Do you care if Mantle and Atlas remain? Or do you only care about saving the people?"
Ruby looked down at the floor. "I… just the people. If they were safe… anything else wouldn't… matter…"
Goodwitch smiled. "Then things are simpler. You don't have to force Salem back. You just need to save the people. Whether they are there or are moved…"
"I… could evacuate everyone…"
The professor nodded. "Precisely. Ms Rose… no, Ruby. If all that matters is the people, then you just need them safe. The cities don't matter. You can abandon them. Although the other kingdoms aren't in great spots either right now…"
"... I just need to get the people out of here…" Ruby took in a shuddering breath. It sounded so… so easy now. But she still needed the how…
"Ah… I'm sorry. I will be back in just a minute. The Council is calling for another arguing session…" the professor sighed and stood up. She left the screen.
"Ah but… damn it…" Ruby sighed. She was making progress, finally. Even with this though, I still need… a lot. Evacuating everyone… how could I do that?
As she wondered, the seat across the world was filled by a new figure. A white coat, an attitude, and a bowler hat. "Hey Red. Been a while."
Ruby froze. "Roman…"
The thief grinned. "That's me! I've been busy over here. But not as busy as you it sounds like. You really hit the rapier wasp nest didn't ya?" He tipped his hat, shook his head, and then pulled out a cigar. He fiddled a bit to light it then took a long puff. "So… I hear shits flying over there?"
"Mm… I killed Cinder." Ruby didn't know what to say, so she just blurted it out.
Roman nodded. "How'd that make you feel?"
Ruby furrowed her brow and glanced at him. "I… don't know. Just… something."
"Hmph. Not gotten a taste for it then?"
"Good." Roman leaned back in the chair and puffed out some smoke. "A girl like you? Shouldn't be killing anyone. Being forced to do it is one thing, but if you started enjoying it? I'd be afraid."
"Come on Red! You said you'd hunt me down! Once all this shit with Cinder and her boss was over. Course, her boss is immortal but hey ho what are you gonna do?" He chuckled and shook his head. "You are really in the deep end Red… look. You want my advice?"
"Stop being the goodie goodie." His eyes pierced through the screen and into her. "You won't get anywhere by playing by the rules. Nah. If you want to save two cities worth of people, you can't abide by the rules set by people like Ironwood. If you have to, then you gotta lie, cheat, and steal. Morality and the law don't give a shit about each other. You've already put one over the other. So stop going halfway. Go all in. Break the rules and save the world, Red. Neo and I believe in ya."
Ruby didn't get why, but tears threatened to fall. "I… Roman… you…"
"I've said my bit. Do whatever it takes, Red. You're the little blighter that ruined all my plans. So keep being you. Ruin everyone's plans! Break everything wide open! Show this world what you've got! Give 'em hell, Red."
With that, he got up and left as well. Ruby heaved a sigh and fell back on the seat. She stared at the ceiling as Ilia sat beside her. "I… think he had a point. Following the law doesn't… change things very fast. But you can't throw away morality. Otherwise, you end up like… Adam. So…"
"..." Ruby didn't say anything. My ideal result is as many living as possible. Lying, cheating, and stealing are all things I should keep as options… so what will save lives? I need to evacuate the people to safety. To do that, I need ships. Ships… the SDC might have some. But… I could make some too! If we had the Staff… Atlas would fall but if everyone lives? I'll deal with the consequences. A faint smile finally came to her lips. "I… have an idea."
Just as she mumbled that the lights in the room flickered and died. Ruby frowned and ended the call, sending a text explaining the situation. While she did that, Ilia had gotten up and checked the hallway, weapon drawn.
"Why did the lights go out?" The chameleon wondered aloud. Ruby soon joined her at the door. "We should make sure the others are okay…"
Ruby nodded. "Go grab Klein. He should be nearby. I'll check for Whitley and Willow."
Ilia nodded and slunk into the darkness. Ruby meanwhile confidently strode down the halls. A sense of progress had ignited a fire inside her. Finally, a plan was coming together. But before she could enact it, she would have to deal with what was in front of her.
As she entered the main hall, she found Whitley sitting on the stairs. She held back a sigh and walked down to him. "You should go to Weiss' room. With Grimm on Atlas, it's not safe."
"... Why would you care?" Whitley asked with a cold voice.
"... Because Weiss would," Ruby replied, sitting next to him.
"Weiss? She hated me!"
Ruby shrugged. "Maybe. But… that doesn't mean she didn't care. Family was important to her. The SDC was too. She was… excited to clear the family name and do good. But… she wouldn't ever forgive me if I didn't protect you and your mother. So I will."
Whitley bit his lower lip, tears filling his eyes. With an explosive sigh, he nodded and stood. "Fine… I'll go to her room."
Ruby was alone again once he left. She let out a sigh, stood, and started walking again. There was still Willow to find. The cold, silent halls felt like they were encroaching on her, compressing around her. It was… just her mind playing tricks. The darkness and pressure were getting to her.
Soon she arrived at the one other room with a sound coming from it, that of shattering glass. Ruby pushed open the door to find a shaking Willow looking at a broken glass on the floor, where red wine was seeping into the carpet. Her body was shaking ever so slightly.
Ruby smiled sadly and walked over to Willow. "Come on. We shouldn't be split up with the lights off."
"I… no I… I…" Willow started mumbling to herself.
"Come on. You can bring the bottle with you."
"R-right. I… can… I'm sorry. I…" Willow reached for the bottle with shaking hands. Ruby's own came up and helped guide her to take it safely. The older woman smiled slightly and took a large gulp of the wine. "I… thank you. The… there's a generator… in the shed…"
"Alright. After I get you to the others, I'll go turn it on." Ruby took Willow's hand and guided her out of the room. Much as I'd like her to stop drinking, her dependency seems… strong. Now isn't the time. Later, once we're safe.
The house eerily creaked as Grimm screeched in the distance. Ruby's free hand twitched slightly, itching to draw Ember Emortus or Crescent Rose. But she didn't, not yet. Something was off, and she hoped it was just the dark getting to her.
But when had her luck ever been good?
They reached Weiss' room without incident. Ilia, Klein, and Whitley were all waiting with the still-unconscious Nora. Ruby guided Willow to the coach and then turned to Ilia. "I'm going to turn on a generator for some power. Stay here. Now that Grimm are on Atlas we can't assume safety."
Ilia frowned. "But Ruby, you shouldn't go alone."
"It's just us here," Ruby said, shaking her head. "We have to split up for a bit. I'll be fine. Trust me. I need you to keep watch here."
"... Fine. Just stay safe."
Ruby smiled. "I will." With that, she left the room. She could be sure of their safety with Ilia there.
So she made her way out of the mansion and into a nearby shed, following directions from Willow and Klein. The dark clouds hid the sky, shrouding the world in darkness with only the lights of Atlas academy still shining. But as she watched, the odd light began to shine as generators were kicked into gear. The voice of Ironwood came over speakers, repeating a call for everyone to evacuate to the subway.
It all seemed so distant from the Schnee manor.
Ruby shook her head and entered the shed. Inside was a massive generator, as she expected. Thankfully there were instructions printed nearby for her to follow, allowing her to quickly get it up and running. The generator kicked into gear with a rumbling hum, shortly followed by the lights flickering on once more. She took a quick look around to make sure everything was working alright, then left the building.
The trip back through the deserted grounds was a little bit nicer now that she could easily see where she was going. She pushed open the doors to the manor and-
Was thrown inward as a heavy weight slammed into her back. The mass followed her, trying to smash her into the floor. Ruby threw up her Aura, crashed against the ground, and then exploded into petals. The whirlwind of red flew up into the air before reforming.
Ruby flipped and landed on the ground, drawing Crescent Rose as her boots hit the floor. In front of her was a large dog-like beast, but instead of fur, it had… black ooze? It turned to face her with a bone-plated snout and no eyes.
It opened its jaw and… "Draw out… the girl!" Spoke. It spoke.
And then it pounced. Ruby ducked to the side, swiping with her scythe as she did. She managed to cut out part of its oozing flesh, but it simply healed a second later. It would take a lot more to break through this monster, so she dashed back with her Semblance and took stock.
The hound-like Grimm had ambushed her in the main entrance hall. To her right was the open door to the outside, and to her left were the stairs up. She had to make sure it didn't go up there, or else the others would be in danger. Which meant taking this thing on by herself.
By now, the beast had tracked her new position and was charging, so she leapt up and opened fire. Her sniper rounds tore into its 'flesh' and sent brackish gunk spilling onto the floor. It roared and then its back burst open, revealing a pair of wings.
Momentarily shocked, Ruby failed to dodge its flying bite. Its jaws tried to clamp down on her arm, but she managed to hold it open. They wrestled in midair for a moment before it shook its head and threw her to the ground. Ruby rolled the moment she hit it, popping back onto her feet with a grimace.
The beast swooped down at her, so Ruby dissolved into petals and dodged around it. She reformed and unleashed a hail of bullets into her foe's back. It recoiled, twisted and tried to swipe at her, but all it hit was air as she ducked under it. Crescent Rose clicked as she loaded the blade with Dust and swung at its legs.
A wave of fire washed over the monster, causing it to reel back. She used that chance to zip backwards and switch to Frost Dust. When the burnt creature charged her again, she leapt over it and cut into its back. Icicles burst throughout its body as the Dust ran its course.
But the beast didn't fall. Its entire body shifted and the ice shattered. In moments it healed all the damage Ruby had done. Damn it! She dashed back away from it and observed for a second.
It was seemingly fully recovered.
Everything she'd done was gone.
Ruby grit her teeth. This was going to be a slog… but as she thought that, the monster began to change. Its hind legs grew longer and stronger while its front paws became clawed hands. Muscle pulled back, becoming leaner as it stood now on two legs, a massive hunched werewolf. Like a heavier, stronger Beowolf.
"Bring out… the giiiiirl!" It roared and charged. Ruby slipped around its side and cut into it, but found the flesh was harder, making her cut shallower. The ooze had turned into thick muscles with an oily texture. As she growled in frustration, one of its arms swung back and clipped her shoulder, sending her rolling.
It chased after her with a long stride. Ruby raised her scythe and slashed at it, but the beast slammed an arm into her shaft. The weapon was flung from her grasp, but Ruby simply ducked to avoid another strike and deployed her gauntlets.
With a loud bang, Ruby punched a chest. The shotgun tore into its body, but not deep enough. So she did it again. Remembering Yang's technique and her father's teachings, Ruby ducked under swipes, used her Semblance to dodge swings, and punched and punched the Grimm.
And then it's chest bulged. A second later arms burst forth, reaching for Ruby. She dashed back, almost tripping on the stairs. Now the monster had Imp's arms clawing for her from its stomach. It was disgusting to look at, even with the ooze replacing any bloody remains that might be there on a human.
It lunged for her again, but a whip wrapped around its neck from above and pulled. It lurched to the side and crashed through the bannisters just as the whip retracted. Ilia hopped down from above with Lightning Lash at the ready. Ruby used the chance to race for her scythe, picking it up as the Grimm crawled back onto the stairs, calling for some girl.
It looked between Ruby and Ilia, thinking. Ruby frowned and started to move for Ilia.
Just as it leapt for her.
Ilia raised her weapon in sword form…
The Grimm reached out with a clawed hand, wings flapping in the air…
Ruby swallowed. "No way am I letting you touch her!" She drew on the knowledge Maria had imparted to her and poured her energy into one chance to blast this monster away.
Hope. Fear. A desire for protection and safety. A desire not to watch another friend die. A desire to not be alone. It all mixed together.
And unleashed a blast of radiant light.
There was a sound of screeching and crashing… and then silence.
The light soon faded. Ruby stumbled a little, still not fully used to her silvery power. Ilia was there, safe. She'd covered her eyes from what was effectively a flashbang. Across from Ruby lay the Grimm.
Parts of it had turned to stone, but they were flaking off as it began to regenerate. It stumbled to its feet, missing great masses of its ooze. It turned…
Ruby lost her breath.
Inside the slippery, sliding ooze was a man. A Faunus. One silver eye peeked out from the mass of black that had consumed him. Terror filled Ruby as she came face to face with a monstrosity beyond her imagination. Crescent Rose clanged as it hit the floor with a bounce.
"Draw… out… the… girl…" the monster moaned as it stumbled towards her.
Ruby began to hyperventilate. Breath came in and out quicker and quicker. Mom. Mom. Mom mom mom mom mom! That! No! AAAAH! She fell to her knees, tears poured from her eyes, and sobs filled the air.
"Ruby!" Ilia cried out. She was fighting the monster as it regenerated. Her whip slashed into it, carving out more ooze which slapped against the floor.
"Like… me… the… giiiirl!"
She'll make me into that. It hit Ruby. Her body went cold. Her imagination played against her, filling her mind with images of herself and Summer, twisted and used as bodies like that… that poor man. I… can't! I can't!
Her body was moving. She watched as if looking through the eyes of someone else as she grabbed Crescent Rose, turned it into a war scythe, and charged the… thing. The monster.
Ilia noticed. She lashed out, cutting into an arm. With a grunt, she poured Shock Dust into the creature, stunning it as it cried in pain. Ruby's body, running on autopilot, did what she had done before.
It stabbed the foe in front of her.
Crescent Rose impaled the man, the beast, the monster, the hound. Black blood ran down the blade and dripped onto the floor. The beast fell back, Ruby let go of her weapon and stumbled away. It struck the floor and began to dissipate.
Leaving only burned, malformed bones.
Ruby fell to her knees.
Ilia ran to her and pulled the girl into a hug. But Ruby?
The horror she witnessed left her sobbing.
A/N: Poor Rubaby. The moment she starts getting somewhere, the world smacks her down once again. So technically this takes place like, before the previous chapter or so? But eh. Whatevs.
I hope you all enjoyed. I'll see you next time!