A.N. (4/29/23) - Posted this a day later than I intended, and that was because there were some parts of this chapter that I struggled to write. Eventually, I got fed up with fixing it and decided to just go with what I already had.
Atlas (25) - Mud Dolls
Marrow expected something would go wrong on their mission. It wasn't exactly like he counted on it happening, but he knew that life liked to throw wrenches into people's plans every now and then. It was just easier to believe that the worst could happen and handle it accordingly instead of thinking that everything would go without a hitch.
Creepy girl attacking them?
Sure, that made sense. Having someone guard the drained victims seemed like a reasonable thing to expect. But a creepy girl attacking them that could spawn Grimm from the ground while using the same black mud that summoned them to attack him and Robyn?
Now that was something he was unprepared for.
"Don't let the black stuff touch you!" Robyn yelled. "A few drops landed on me just now, and the only thing stopping me from passing out is the fact that my Aura blocked it."
"Are you okay?"
"It feels like I'm going to throw up a thousand times over." The sound of her crossbow firing was followed up by one of the tendrils exploding. "But I can handle it until we're out of this situation."
He had no time to respond. Instead, he blocked the fangs of a large Grimm as it attempted to bite him. Did he mention earlier that the creepy girl was able to spawn Grimm? Because that was something that he really did not expect her to do. This wasn't like the Schnee Semblance where they were able to call forth defeated enemies. No, it was clear that these Grimm were created from scratch to follow the will of the girl that summoned them. The fact that they were only attacking the two of them instead of the other unconscious people proved that.
The girl, Isabella, frowned as they continued to resist.
"I was expecting someone else," Isabella said. "Someone from either side of the real powers behind the scenes. Instead, it appears that the two of you are merely extras in this grand play. You are interfering in the story being written, and yet, something tells me that it would be unwise to dismiss your worth before reaching a proper decision."
"What are you talkin–?"
Marrow blocked the sharp tip of a black spear that struck while he was talking.
"Hmm…" Isabella observed them. "I have to consult with the others on your current roles. If all goes well, you might be promoted from extras to a position with some importance to the story."
Something in the air changed.
"Of course, that only matters if you manage to survive this situation. We have already identified three to four potential candidates that deserve to act on stage. Consider this something like an audition as to whether you deserve the same attention."
The Grimm around them roared simultaneously before their bodies started to melt.
"What's she doing?"
"The heck should I know?" A thought crossed his mind, and Marrow cursed himself for not thinking of it sooner. "Stay!"
He felt it grab hold of her. The effects of his Semblance did not go unnoticed as the girl named Isabella visibly struggled against the constrictions. But that was already a sign that something was wrong. To his surprise, he watched in disbelief as her body pushed forward even though his Semblance was still active.
She was pushing through with only brute strength.
"So this is a Semblance," Isabella muttered. "A Mystery from another world. Unfortunately, this ability seems to fall within the domain of parapsychology. Studying it would be futile if this power is unique to a single user."
Mud began to gather around her feet before it slowly crept along her legs and covered her body. The Grimm surrounding her were secreting more of that black liquid that gathered at the center of the room where she was. With a loud cry, Isabella exploded with enough force to finally break through his Semblance. The backlash caused Marrow to stumble temporarily, causing him to miss her next move.
Robyn pushed him away at the last second, and Marrow could only watch as a black spear went through her shoulder, breaking through her already weak Aura and pinning her to the wall.
"That settles it. You're eliminated." Isabella pulled back the spear, ignoring Robyn's cry of pain. "Next is the guy with the tail. Let's see if you deserve a promotion to a better role."
His weapon shifted, and Marrow started firing his rifle at her, making sure that his stray shots wouldn't hit any of the victims. Isabella dashed to the side and dodged each attack until the distance between them closed.
Marrow gasped as something slammed into his throat, and he felt his legs lift off the ground. He continued to choke even as Isabella brought him closer with the arm she made out of black mud and stared him in the eye.
"It seems you failed as well."
He dropped to the ground a second later.
"Now what should I do?" Isabella was already ignoring them. "Since Gillian is unavailable, there's no point keeping you around to draw more Aura upon. And Jax is busy enacting his next plan, so that's also out of the question."
The sounds of growls and snarls echoed throughout the room.
"I suppose that answers the question. Let the Grimm feast on the interlopers."
They pounced, and Marrow thought they were finished.
An unknown voice suddenly shouted out, and Marrow felt his body being picked up and moved elsewhere. The girl carrying him was someone he did not recognize. Another girl also appeared out of nowhere and swung something at Isabella, sending a current of electricity through it and shocking the other girl.
"Blake, go! I'll grab the other woman!"
"Damn brat." Isabella's face twisted with rage. "You'll pay for that."
Black mud started to gather in a pool around her as she said that. The girl named Ilia took a step back to avoid touching it, and the one holding Marrow also stopped to watch her friend with worry in her eyes. There was no doubt in everyone's minds that Isabella was preparing for a big move, but something caused her to stop.
"Wha–?" Her expression changed. "No, that idiot!"
Without warning, the mud suddenly enveloped her and sank into the ground. And suddenly, she was gone. Even the Grimm melted into puddles of black mud before they also sank into the ground. A moment later, it was like there were no signs that they were even there.
Her abrupt disappearance caused everyone to blink in surprise.
"Is it over?" Ilia asked. She lowered her weapon. "Well, that was easier than I thought. Now what do we do, Blake?"
The girl carrying Marrow gave out a sigh. She lowered his body to the ground. "If she's gone, then we can continue with our original plan. Ilia, find some way to move all the faunus. I'll deal with these two."
"W-Wait, hold on!"
"Don't worry, I'm not going to kill you." Blake rolled her eyes. "Just stay out of our way while we do what we came here to do."
"There's no need for that," Robyn suddenly said. She clutched the spot where her shoulder was injured. "If you're here to help these people, then there's no need for us to stop you. Rather, how about we work together to escape with everyone instead?"
"Robyn, are you serious?"
"Marrow, these two helped us earlier. Not only that, but it appears that they're also here for the same reason that we are."
"We better hurry then." Blake interrupted. "If you're here to save these people, then I'm not against the idea of working with you. After all, who knows if that girl from before is going to come back with reinforcements or not."
Without even waiting for him to respond, Blake moved over to where Robyn was. Picking up a blanket from one of the empty beds, she tore it apart and started wrapping a strip around the older woman's shoulders.
Seeing that everyone else had already made a decision, he sighed and slowly lifted himself up until he was on his feet. Despite his thoughts on the matter, he agreed with what she said. That girl called Isabella was something out of their league, and her sudden withdrawal did not mean that she was gone for good.
"Still, where did she go?"
Qrow realized that something was up when he was sent to the middle of nowhere in search of the Maiden.
To be fair, it wasn't as if Ozpin was to blame here. The old man seemed to put enough faith in the information they received that Qrow doubted he noticed anything was wrong. Rumors of a supposedly unusual girl with abilities that did not fit the mold of a Semblance were things that they always looked into, and both of them thought that this situation in particular was promising.
That said, he could never have predicted that there would be someone anticipating his arrival. The moment he stepped foot in the village, his target had already realized he was there and tried to flee. And he meant that in the literal sense that someone bolted when his foot entered what he guessed was the exact perimeter of the village. Either there was some kind of warning system that activated without him realizing it, or there was some other special ability at fault.
Without any other option, he was forced to chase after the young girl fleeing the village. Anyone running away with that much desperation was someone he figured knew more than they should.
"Hey, wait up!"
His words fell on deaf ears as the girl ignored him. She seemed determined to get as far away from him as possible if the fact that she picked up the pace was any indication.
Why was that? Was she expecting someone bad to come after her? Did she believe that he was here with malicious intentions? If she was aware of her status as a maiden, then was she also aware of Salem and her forces? Has she already encountered them before, or was she simply paranoid about anyone who approached her?
Those thoughts were somewhat answered when the girl lifted her hands and summoned what appeared to be pools of black mud from out of nowhere. Gesturing in his direction, the viscous liquid morphed into tendrils with barbed spear tips aimed in his direction. Without even thinking about it, Qrow dodged each attack while making sure to avoid touching the unknown substance.
At the very least, she saw him as an enemy.
"I'm not going to hurt you," Qrow continued to yell. "Please, just give me a chance to talk with you."
She finally stopped and turned to face him. "Go away!"
That outburst was followed by an eruption of shadows as ghastly images formed from the shape of the black mud. It was like multiple serpents with skull heads were assaulting him at the same time. Yet for all that power she possessed, her application of it was almost clumsy in execution. Qrow easily weaved through the mass of attacks as he quickly approached her position.
"Look, I'm not going to hurt you." He followed up those words by putting his weapon away. "See this, no intention of attacking. Sorry if I spooked you, but it wasn't as if you gave me a chance to explain."
Right now, she was cautiously staring at him. At least she wasn't attacking him anymore. Black mud dissipated around them as she recalled her attack, seeing that he could easily dodge them again if she tried attacking once more.
Now that he got a chance to finally relax, he took in her appearance. The girl was around the same age as his nieces and dressed in a simple outfit covered mostly by a ragged brown cloak. With her hair reaching down to her waist, she appeared to be an ordinary girl at first glance. She didn't look like a huntress, nor did she move like someone with training. If she actually was a maiden and suddenly received powers one day without explanation, then maybe she deserved some form of pity. Having one's life thrown into chaos because of something beyond their control, who would want to be in a situation like that?
"You stink." The sudden insult made him blink in surprise. "That stench lingering around you is the same as her. Your body has been touched by magic."
She mentioned the m-word. "Ah, I think I understand what set you off." Somehow, she could tell that Ozpin's magic was connected to him. "How about we start over with introductions first? My name is Qrow, and I'm a huntsman. What's your name?"
The name meant nothing to him, but Qrow felt like something was off. "Well then Christina, it's nice to meet you. As I said before, I'm sorry for startling you when I arrived. I'm going to take a guess, but were you expecting someone to come after you? You seemed prepared to run even before I realized that you were already fleeing."
"I was told that people were looking for me."
That rang a few alarm bells in his head. "Told by who?" Qrow asked. "And if someone warned you, how come they aren't here with you?"
"My sisters told me," Christina replied. "She said that many people are after us, so we should be careful of who we interact with."
"Yes." She began rattling off names. "Isabella, Leona, Monica, Sylvie, Vanessa, Victoria, Julia, Vlastimila. Before, there used to be so many of us. But now, only a few of us are left. The ones that hunted us, all of them carried the scent of magic on them. Your scent is stronger than most, which is why I fled the moment you appeared in the village."
"Sheesh, I only had one sister growing up and that was hell. Having that many siblings would drive me crazy."
"We take care of each other as best as we can. Sometimes, we get separated from each other. But no matter what, all of us do whatever we can to protect our family."
For some reason, she gave him a weird look.
"It seems that you're not after me," she concluded. "The fact that you didn't react to the names I just said means that you do not know who we are. Our enemies already know our identities, so your unawareness wouldn't make sense if you were another hunter after us."
She placed a weird emphasis on the word 'hunter', although Qrow hesitated on whether or not it was safe to ask her if she could clarify that.
"Well, I'm not in the business of capturing people. My job is usually protecting them instead, and you seem like you need some help in that department."
"You are offering your aid?"
"I'm offering to take you somewhere where I believe you can be safe. I'll admit that I don't know much about your situation, but the fact that you know about magic means that it's something I doubt most people will be able to deal with. Lucky for you, I'm one of the few people who might be able to do something about it. This offer extends to your siblings too, by the way. If you think that you're all in danger, then they deserve protection too."
Christina continued to give him the silent treatment. It was obvious that she was judging whether or not he was telling the truth. She was taking this matter seriously, and justifiably too. Qrow was wondering whether he convinced her or not when she finally spoke.
"How did you know where to find me?"
"Hm?" He blinked. "I was looking for someone when I heard a few rumors about this place. My boss sent me on an investigation to look into the matter, and that's how I ran into you."
"Ozpin," Qrow said. "You heard of him? He's the headmaster of Beacon Academy."
Her body stilled, and Qrow realized that he made a mistake.
"Ozpin?" Her voice was barely a whisper. "You work for Ozpin?"
"Yes." He watched her warily. "Is that bad?"
It happened too fast for him to process it. The glint of a blade shone as she drew a knife from out of nowhere, and Qrow quickly reacted by bringing his arms up in a defensive stance.
That was a mistake.
Because her target was not him, but herself. Too late, he watched in horror as she slit her neck with the blade, black liquid dripping down her throat instead of blood. Her body collapsed on the spot, and Qrow hurried over to her in a vain attempt to save her life.
It was a quick death.
There was nothing he could do. Before long, her body began to break down into black particles in a similar manner to when Grimm died. He had no clue what went through her thoughts in her final moments, but there was no denying the absolute look of fear in her eyes as she resolved to take her own life.
To think that this happened just because he uttered a single name.
"Shit." That word pretty much summarized his current feelings. "What the hell did I get myself into this time?"
He had so many questions. But something told him that he wouldn't like the answers either. The fact that someone was willing to kill themselves simply at the mention of Ozpin's name told him that maybe it would be a bad idea to confront the old man about this matter.
"I need to talk to someone."
But who exactly? Ironwood wasn't an option. Neither was Glynda. Taiyang wasn't involved with this anymore, so going to him with an issue like this didn't feel right. Rin was a possibility, but she wasn't someone he trusted that much either. That left the only person he could go to with this…
"For fuck's sake!" Qrow groaned as the answer finally came to him. "She's going to be so smug once she hears about this."
At the very least, he knew that Raven would never pass up an opportunity to dig up dirt on Ozpin.
Now that we've already reached this point in the story, I can tell that some readers have already figured out the identity of the mud dolls. That said, I'm putting a spin on them since this is a crossover with RWBY, so expect a few more things to be revealed in the near future. As a hint, I can tell you now that some of it are related to the stuff introduced in Volume 9, although I already had a few rough ideas prior when planning this arc.
The next month, I'm going to be busy with a lot of things in real life, so my post-schedule might be a bit irregular for a while. I'm not sure yet if I'm going to change my release rate or not, but if that's the case, there's a chance that I might switch to only releasing a single chapter every week if things get busier. If that's the case, I'll still maintain the same word count of around 2k~3k words.